Burning Sky Prelude – Chapter 7
After Ike’s previous failure, will he be able to bounce back? He’d better hope he can. Before circumstances force him to.
Once again Ike finds himself standing in the main hall of Castle Verity, early in the morning, a disbelieving stare fixed on the duty roster. He’s completely alone. Just him and his thoughts. Patrol Duty. The paper on the wall definitely says Patrol Duty. A fact that makes Ike’s brow twitch. It doesn’t go away, no matter how long he sits there and stares at it. Eventually, he’s left with nothing to do but slump over and heave out a great sigh. “Man, I really did mess up…”
On his way out, he pauses by the Wall of Champions. Something about the black marble wall and its silver engraving calls to him, pulling him back. Back to the wall. Back to the first time he’d ever laid eyes on it. His mind fills in the blanks of that day perfectly. And suddenly he’s a kid again, revisiting a memory that almost seemed a second home to him.
A younger Ike, standing at the front of a crowd of school children, bouncing in place with immeasurable glee. His eyes shimmering with a familiar gleam as a knight guided them on a tour through the halls of Castle Verity, stopping at the famous wall “And this,” the knight said, gesturing for the kids to all pay attention, “Is where we record the names of our most celebrated warriors.” Ike’s mouth hung open at that. After all the stories, finally, he had the chance to stand before the legendary wall. And he was barely able to contain himself. “Heroes like Baldrik Jaeger, who-”
“He defeated a whole Akuma horde, all by himself!” Ike exploded. Geez. Where had all that energy gone?
Thrown off, the knight blinked, then smiled and… tried, at least, to get back on track. “Er… y-yes. And there’s also Ramos Westcott, who-”
No sell. Ike swiveled around to his class with the largest possible grin across his face. “He also saved a ton of knights on a ship from Ipal by holding the mast in place after it got struck by lightning until they got to shore!” Suddenly the boy had thrust a wooden sword high over his head, pointing it to the ceiling. “And he once put out a forest fire, all by himself, just blowing it out! Like a birthday candle!”
As Ike carried on, a handful of other kids watched with the same awed expressions, leaning forward to hear more. Though they were matched by those sneering or rolling their eyes. The knight clears their throat. “Ah… yes, young man. Baldrik is really quite amazing, isn’t he? But, even so-”
The next thing… the next thing Ike vividly remembers. A complete and total no-sell. That poor knight didn’t get the chance to say a thing. Little Ike immediately pivoted back around, beaming up at Baldrik’s name with an invigorated nod. “Yeah! He’s the best!” Then a declaration that runs back through his mind, even today. “When I’m big, I’m gonna help everyone. I’m gonna be just like him!” The first time he’d ever said those words aloud.
But the jubilant tone of Ike’s excitement was soon cut short by a much harsher tone. One that the boy’s ears knew, all too well. Mocking laughter from the jeering gaggle of meanspirited and unenthusiastic kids among the group. All fully intent on dashing the boy’s dreams. “Yeah right,” one of them snickered. “A useless little runt like you can’t help anyone.”
“Y-yes I can!”
“As if! All you do now is mess stuff up and get in the way! Face it, pipsqueak! There’s only one Baldrik.”
Then the memory of that cruel boy morphs before little Ike’s eyes, taking on the image of Ramos as Ike, himself, suddenly reassumes his adult form. The world around the pair is slowly consumed by a lonely black nothing. Then those heavy words drop from Ramos’s memory like boulders onto the young knight’s back. “And you won’t be the second one,” he says, his voice echoing through the endless space around them, each time making the words that much heavier. Under their crushing pressure, Ike’s eyes lose their sheen. And suddenly he’s back in that empty hall. Just him and those thoughts of his.
He begins to turn around, putting on an empty smile. “Oh. I should get my head out of the clouds, right? Right. It’s just not realistic at all, having my name up there…” But he stops himself. Just before he takes a full step away, an invisible force grabs him. “But…”
Then another voice enters those memories. A soft, warm voice that wraps around Ike like a comforting embrace. “I don’t think it sounds unrealistic.” Right. Yesterday in the Chapel. That girl. Then that gloomy place in his mind – the great black nothing in which he’s forced to bear that load – falls away as her image takes the place of Ramos’s and she reaches up, touching a hand to the words Ike holds up. Then she flashes a smile at him and her lips part to say the words he’d most needed to hear. “So don’t give up. Okay?”
Then the weight seems to vanish, the cumbersome words crumbling to gravel and rolling from Ike’s shoulders. Ike’s head still hangs, now more in shame than defeat, and he heaves out another great sigh. Like he’s trying to push out all of the bad air, following that up with a chuckle to himself. “Ah… all right, Faye. You win.” Finally breaking his stillness, he raises both hands up and lightly smacks his hands around his cheeks. “Come on, Ike. Quit moping around. You’ve got work to do if you’re gonna get up on that wall, someday.” Then he races off through the doors, the spark returned to his eyes.
Out in the city, the streets are still very much alive with the warm colors and sweet aromas of the festival. All around Ike are flower stands, dye vendors, dessert stalls. People pass him by with their hair dyed all manner of soothing, springtime colors. Some wear floral accessories. Others munch on fluffy pastries. Parents grip their children’s hands to keep them from rushing off at the first sight of something sweet. And Ike can only smile at their wide eyes and gaping mouths, waving back to some of the smaller ones who recognize him as a knight and eagerly wave upon his passing.
One small child runs up to him with a tiny vial of dye, presenting it to him with a proud grin. “Oh, is this for me?” Ike says, kneeling down to the tyke and ruffling his hair. The boy’s mother smiles from behind a dye cart on the corner. Ike glances back to her, holding up the vial but she shakes her head.
“Consider it a free sample. Thank you for your service,” she says with a wave. “Please! Enjoy the festival!”
Ike nods and pockets the dye, giving the vendor’s kid a fist bump. “Thanks, buddy. I’ll make sure to use this, first chance I get.”
Later on his patrol, Ike makes a turn onto one of the backstreets, where the sun’s light can barely reach. There aren’t any flower stands here. No carts for food, no families enjoying the festival. No, most of the people here linger under the shadow cast by the tall buildings of the city sector around them. They have shifty eyes and most of them disperse the instant Ike passes by. One woman with a broom kicks a ragged-looking man from her doorstep and directly into Ike’s path. The large brute gives Ike a once-over upon collecting himself, then grunts and leaves without so much as a word.
Before returning to the main streets, Ike stops by what looks to be an exchange between two men. One hands a few paper notes over to the other. The recipient then reaches into his jacket pocket, pulling out a small vial with luminescent blue liquid sloshing about inside. But just as he’s about to drop it into his client’s hand, Ike’s hand gets under it and he catches the vial, holding it up in front of his own face. “And what might this be?” he says, causing the dealer to nearly jump a foot in the air and the buyer to run off as quickly as his frumpy legs would allow.
“What the-?! Aw, bollocks, a platehead,” the dealer sneers.
Ike shakes the vial in front of him. “I take it this isn’t a festival delicacy. Luminite Potion, am I right? You do know this stuff is regulated? You need a license to use it, let alone sell it. Do you have the proper documentation, sir?”
The dealer sucks his teeth, then clears his throat. “Yeah, I got it… right here!” He spins and takes a swing at Ike’s unhelmeted face. But the swift young Templar ducks the hooligan and grabs him under the arm, flipping him as easily as he would a coin. The wind knocked out of him, the dealer writhes and shouts expletives before stumbling back to his feet.
“And that would be one count of assaulting a Templar. Aren’t you the overachiever. Stand down, sir. It’ll make this a lot easier.”
“Tch. Bugger off!” the dealer shouts, tearing off down the backstreets.
“And now this is happening…” Ike sighs, taking off after him.
As the pair round the corner, the dealer calls out to the alley. “Oi! Free blue-juice! On the platehead!” he yells.
All around that alley, bodies begin to shift and shamble. Ragged beggars roll out of their blankets on the street and uncurl from their crevices in the buildings. They emerge from every angle, rising from the woodwork like roaches. Many of them have wild, sunken eyes and dirty faces to match their tattered clothing. Ike pauses as, little-by-little, the addicts surround him, blocking his path of pursuit. “Fantastic…” he grumbles as the crook gets away.
Ike pockets the Luminite Potion but freezes when his hand grazes something else in doing so. Then, with a deep breath, he lets loose a shout into the alley for all the beggars to hear. “All right! You want it so bad? You can have it!” Then he pulls a vial from his pocket and lobs it into the air, sending the entire mob scrambling to catch it and letting him through.
Once he’s out of the backstreets and around the corner, he reaches back into his pocket and pulls out the potion, safe in his care. “They can fight over some hair dye while I get this back to evidence, at the castle. The channelers can tell us about that guy.”
“Sir Ike?” That voice… Ike turns to find Faye approaching from just up the street, waving with that angelic smile of hers. Without even thinking, he pockets the potion again and waves back as she catches up to him and gives him a light bow of the head. “I see you’re feeling better. At least… I hope you are.”
Ike laughs, rubbing the back of his neck and averting his eyes. “Y-yeah, I was… pretty pathetic yesterday, huh?” But then he stops, remembering this morning. Turning back to her, he gives her a thumbs up. “No worries, though! I’m back on my feet and feeling ready to take on anything that comes my way!”
Faye giggles. “Glad to hear it!”
“So… what brings you all the way to this end of town? Still just enjoying as much of the festival as you can?”
“I am!” Faye looks down the street at everything going on around them. “Ordinarily, I’m pretty bad with directions.” Then she cranes her neck to gaze upon the highest point of the Cathedral, over the skyline. “But Paragon’s layout makes it easy to get back to the inn, at least, since the Cathedral is the crown of the city and you can see it from almost anywhere. I’m staying near it, so it’s very helpful.”
Ike nods along with her logic. Paragon is built into a mountain, after all. The Cathedral is in Uptown, at the highest point, along with Castle Verity and the dwellings of the upper-class, all overlooking Midtown and, where they are now, Lowtown. “The Shallows,” as people call it. This place sits at the bottom, so it’s naturally the largest of the city’s districts. And with that comes a lot more people. “Yeah, I can see what you mean. It would be pretty easy for someone unfamiliar to get lost, down here especially.” …Wait a minute. “Uh, Faye? If you’re no good with directions, do you know where you are… right now?”
Faye stands there for a moment without answering, then blinks and cocks her head with something of an absentminded look about her. She swivels around, looking in every which direction for a few seconds before her attention returns to Ike and her innocent smile comes back. “Not really, no,” she says in a worryingly unconcerned tone.
Ike puts on a pitying grin. That’s what I thought… “Well, if you want, I can show you around Lowtown for a bit.”
“Hm? Are you sure? You aren’t busy or anything?”
“Actually, I’m on patrol duty anyway. So it’d be like two birds with one stone.” Ike gives a dismissive wave to Faye’s concern. “And besides. I still need to repay you for that pick-me-up you gave me, the other day.”
At hearing this, Faye’s cheerful demeanor returns in full force and she bounces in place. “Okay! Then please lead the way, Sir Ike.”
“You… can drop the ‘sir,’ you know…”
As Ike and Faye roam the streets of Lowtown, the young lady beams at everything with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm as the children they come across. They pass by several festival carts, getting food samples and admiring flowers. But they also pass by a handful of landmarks. After a while, they come to a little green spot among the otherwise rather developed cityscape. “And this would be Lowtown Park,” Ike says, gesturing to their surroundings as they enter.
Faye marvels at the lush, emerald green trees, neatly managed hedges, and vivid flowerbeds. “I’d been meaning to come here!” Then she walks ahead into the wide open space before them, under the warm light of the springtime sun. Those long, pink twin-tails of hers lightly dancing in the gentle spring breeze that carries, with it, the sweet smell of the park’s flowers. As if nature, itself, saw fit to assemble the perfect symphony of sensations to match to the girl. “I heard a lot about it when I first arrived. Even in Uptown, they called it the prettiest spot in all the city. And so peaceful. I tried finding it, but…”
“You got lost?”
Without skipping a beat, Faye nods, leading Ike to sigh. But then a sharp “Ah!” leaves her lips and she brushes by him upon catching a glimpse of something in the distance. At the heart of the small park stands an outdoor theater. What’s more, people are there, in the middle of putting on some manner of show. For the festival, perhaps? Celebrating bits of Templar history? Whatever the case, Faye plops herself down on an empty park bench, turning her head to Ike with stars in her eyes.
Ike takes a second, not really getting it until she reaches over and pats the empty space on the bench beside her with that same eager smile. The sight of it makes Ike laugh to himself and he eventually takes a seat. The show carries on and Faye gets more and more engrossed as the story carries on. “You’re having a lot of fun, huh?”
An exuberant smile meets him, spread wide across the girl’s face. “I am! I love traveling, learning more about the places I go to. The history of the Templars is really interesting. And it’s a festival, right? Everyone’s been so nice and you can see all the hard work they all put into making it a success. The city looks beautiful and the food’s really good!” Ike nods along and… wait. When and where had she gotten the plume of cotton candy in her hand? Nevertheless, she continues on, at first bringing a finger to her chin as if to ponder something. “Different from a lof of what we have, back in Eurale, even though it’s not that far. It’d be kind of disrespectful not to have fun, I think.” Ending on that note with a smile, she extends her cotton candy to Ike.
The young knight tears off a piece of the spun sugar treat and pops it into his mouth. “So you’re from Eurale, then? All the way up north?”
“Eh?” Faye says, taken aback.
“I didn’t even notice. But I guess the accents aren’t really all that different.”
“Ah… I’m… originally from there, yes.” In saying so, Faye averts her eyes. Ike arches and eyebrow at her sudden shift in behavior.
Not long after the show ends and the pair leave the park, the heavy gong of the nearby clock tower rings over Lowtown. Ike glances up to the clock, itself. “Well, that’s the end of my shift,” he says. “I have to head back to Uptown.”
“Oh, I’ll go with you. I needed to stop by the inn soon, anyway.”
On their way back through Lowtown, Ike can’t help but notice Faye’s usual curiosity seems replaced with puzzlement as her head constantly swivels about. “Something wrong?”
“Not really. I just noticed that there aren’t as many other Templars around in Lowtown today as there were yesterday.”
“Oh. Yeah, it’s lighter today because there were reports of suspicious activity in the forest not far from here. Smoke and a lot of movement. So they sent a bunch of knights to investigate.”
Faye smiles at Ike. “So they’re counting on you as a last line of defense, then?”
Encouraging though that sentiment would perhaps he, otherwise, something about it makes Ike’s face fall, forcing him to fake a smile. “I’m… pretty sure that’s not it.”
“Sir Ike!” a small voice shouts from a ways off.
Ike and Faye both turn to see a little girl running towards them. One that Ike recognizes right away. “Ellie? Oh, that’s right. School’s out for the festival. What brings you-?”
Ellie catches up to the pair, completely winded and panting between every word. “You gotta come quick!” she says, grabbing onto the young knight’s hand and tugging on him to follow her. Meanwhile, Faye cocks her head to one side, watching as Ike allows himself to be dragged off by a grade-schooler.
The child brings Ike to a spot around the corner, Faye trailing quietly behind. There, sitting under the shade of a tree, is a small boy, a large scrape across his knee. Ike looks him over and his eyes stop, latching into the tiny pair of horn stubs, poking out from beneath the kid’s bangs. “Some bigger kids were messing with him and he fell on some glass! No one else’ll help him!” Ellie says.
Even before Ike does anything, Faye kneels down beside the boy, much to the knight’s surprise, observing the wound, herself. “His skin’s still soft because he’s too young to have built up his natural resistance yet.”
Ike joins Faye at the boy’s side. The child squirms at the sight of a Templar getting so close to him. He flinches when Ike reaches towards him, as if bracing himself to be hit. But he opens his eyes upon the realization that no pain’s befallen him. Instead, Ike remembers something he’d done earlier, ruffling the boy’s hair with a smile. “Hey there, buddy.” The child stares at him, now completely confused. “Looks like you took a pretty bad spill, huh? Does it hurt much?” The child shakes his head as Ike reaches into the pouch on his belt, grabbing a roll of bandages and a small bottle of antiseptic. “Well, that’s good.” Still though… Ike finds himself eyeing the scrape, doing his best not to look as lost as he is. All I ever learned how to do was wrap these sorts of bruises up. And even that I wasn’t especially good at. So how…
Reaching into her own pocket, Faye pulls out a stick of rock candy, wrapped in plastic, handing it to the boy. “Ike… would it be all right if I took care of it?”
Ike sits there for a second, dumbstruck. When he finally snaps out of it, he hands Faye the bandages and bottle. “Uh… yeah! Sure!”
“Thank you. Oh. You may want to hold him down. Ellie, was it? Could you take your friend’s hand?” Ike and Ellie glance to one another, then nod and do as Faye instructs. Meanwhile, the boy bites down on the candy and it’s like he’s overcome by an all-consuming euphoria. Cute. But o’ how Ike wished it’d last. Faye daps a cotton swab in antiseptic. “It’s not very deep, but we’ll have to clean it. Um… okay. Sorry. This is going to sting a bit.”
With the sensitivity of a feather, Faye goes about tending to the wound. The instant that cotton swab touches to the boy’s knee, his entire body jolts and he chomps down on that rock candy. So much for euphoria. Young though he may be, and soft though his skin is, a Djinn is a Djinn. Even Ike, a full grown man, struggles to keep the child’s legs pinned and Ellie gribs his hand as tightly as she can. When it’s over, Faye wraps the wound, even tying the bandages off with a cute little knot. “Tah-dah! All better!”
To either side, though, Ellie and Ike both look like they may very well be the next ones in need of medical attention. The boy stands with Ellie’s help, dusting himself off and continuing to gnaw on the candy stick. He seems perfectly content. Happy, even. But that comes crashing down when a deep voice strikes him like a blunt stone to the back of the head. “Oi.” At the sound of it, the boy lets go of Ellie, hiding behind Ike and Faye. A tall, rough-looking knight approaches the lot of them. “Is this where you’ve been, ya little blighter? You, there. This’un hasn’t caused any trouble, has it?”
Ike feels his heart slowly getting itself ready for a marathon in his chest. This sense of deja vu is absolutely uncanny. Hesitantly, shakily, he stands there with a stammering “Uh… n-no,” wobbling out of his mouth. “There… was an incident with some other kids picking on him and he scraped his knee. So… we decided to patch him up.”
“Hm. That way he can get back to work faster. Right, then. Knowin’ this little imp, he probably deserved what he got.”
What? Ike grimaces at this. And he isn’t the only one. He senses a vibration. But it isn’t coming from him. Looking down, he finds the source. The knocking knees of not only the boy, himself, but also Ellie, the latter clearly incensed by that remark, though thinking better of saying anything. A couple of frightened children. Such a familiar sight…
The handler approaches the lot of them, then kneels down and grabs his charge by the cheeks, looking him square in the face. “And what’s this, then? You steal that candy, imp? That what happened here?”
Having had enough of this, Faye moves to speak, only to be cut off when Ike steps forward, putting a hand on the handler’s shoulder and forcibly turning him around to look him in the eye. “I gave that to him,” he says, meeting the older, larger knight with an adamant gaze. “He didn’t do anything. So don’t you think it’d be best to let him get back to work now… sir?”
The handler stares back. “Tch.” He stands and walks off. “Fine. You heard him, imp. Back to work with ya.”
With him gone, Ike sighs, both Ellie and the boy beaming up at him like some kind of hero, making him bashfully turn away, scratching at his cheek. “Well… that guy was kinda getting on my nerves, ya know? So…” But even as Ike goes about explaining himself to the children, Faye quietly observes with a smile.
Later, Ike and Faye both wave goodbye to Ellie in Lowtown’s mainstreet area near the gate, where throngs of people gather on either side and rope barriers keep them back. The girl sits upon a man’s shoulders, vigorously waving back, such that Ike fears her arm may well fly off. “Good thing we were able to find her parents in this mess,” Ike says, looking to the chaos all around them. All the while, things get tighter and tighter around Faye behind him, with people really start to flood in, all while she sports the look of someone utterly confused. “Any longer and it might’ve gotten dicey.” But when he turns back around, Faye’s… gone. “Huh? Faye? Faye, where’d you go?” Ah… did she get lost again? She almost got lost a bunch when I was showing her around, but I didn’t think it was so bad she could get lost, standing still. Of course, then something catches his eye. “…Eh?”
Just a cursory scan of his surroundings is enough to spot where the poor thing had gone, swallowed whole and overwhelmed by the bustling crowd, reaching an arm out from her peoply grave as the only thing left visible while she gurgles like someone drowning. “FAYE!” In a panic, Ike rushes forward to rescue the girl.
A short while later, Faye sits on a bench by a storefront, towards the back of the festival throng, dizzied from the experience with her eyes aswirl as Ike hunches over, panting with his hands on his knees. “Thank you, Ike…”
Without lifting his head, Ike gives Faye a thumbs-up, heaving out an exhausted “You’re… welcome,” between breaths.
Finally shaking it all off, Faye looks out to the crowd. “There sure are a lot of people around here. The festival must be really busy.”
Ike collects himself, straightening out and shaking his head. “It’s actually like this for the parade,” he explains. The second he explains this, he feels it. The gaze. The shimmering gaze of an eager young lady. Now it’s just a question of whether or not he dares look at her. For now, it’s best to just finish explaining. “One passes through here on the second day. It starts all the way in Uptown and comes down to the gate, here.”
Ike makes the mistake of glancing down and, yup. There it is. The same starry eyes as before. “A parade?!” At this point, there’s only one way things are going to go. “I’ve never seen one! Could we watch it before we go?!”
Truly, Ike must be a fortune teller to have foreseen this. But one more look at that beaming face and he simply laughs to himself. “Well, technically my shift’s over, so… sure.”
As the pair finds a place to observe, Ike catches something… odd from the corner of his eye. Atop the city walls several of the knights are scrambling. “Hm?” Faye doesn’t notice. She’s busy going on about the parade and the flowers and floats they’ll soon see. Ike absentmindedly acknowledges what she’s saying, but it’s really just background noise to him. He’s tuned into whatever is happening atop the walls. The knights up there panic, running to and fro like pendulums, many of them reaching for their weapons. What’s going on?
“Ike?” Ah. That’s right. Ike is here with someone. Someone who, at present, is staring at him with rather concerned eyes.
He snaps out of it and back to Faye. “H-huh?” Suddenly, a blaring tone rings over the area. All around them, the people break into a rumble of murmurs. They grumble and fuss at the interruption before any signs of alarm show at all, speculating the meaning of the sound that nearly deafens them all.
“Ike,” Faye shouts, covering her ears and trying her best to beat out the cocktail of noise in the background. “What is that? What’s happening?”
“It’s an alarm bell. It’s to rally the Templars and alert the people in case of possible assaults on the walls so they have time to get to shelter.”
Ike continues to look around. People don’t seem particularly keen on the idea of evacuating the area. Many of them keep up their complaining, wholly confident that the walls will hold and the Templars will deal with the issue. Certainly a sign of peacetime in effect. Still, his ear catches a particularly loud group nearby. “It must be them bloody imps,” one man says.
“Aye. Them damnable ramheads would go startin’ up trouble today, of all days,” another woman answers.
Ike glowers at the exchange, but his attention drifts back over to the walls. They’re certainly sturdy enough to dissuade any Djinn that dared attack the city. They’d take so long to get through that, by the time it happened, there’d already be a squadron of Templars assembled to deal with the threat. Yet… the guards up top are frantic. One of them turns to the crowd, shouting at the top of his lungs from afar. But at this distance, with the alarm bell blaring and this many people speaking over him in an uproar, his voice is completely muffled. Ike can’t make out a word of it. Though he didn’t need to. Seeing those knights on the wall, so visibly shaken, gives him enough of a hint. If only it’d come sooner.
Ike turns back to the crowd, taking in all the air his lungs can hold and forcing it out at his highest volume. “GET TO MIDTOWN! MOVE!”
The instant the boy completes that sentence, though, a loud bang crashes over the square from the other side of the wall, shaking the ground. Yet it’s the next sound that truly changes the tone in that crowd. A terrible shriek echoes over Lowtown’s mainstreet area. A soul-chilling combination of a ghastly wail and a maddening roar, capped off with the hellish grumble of a deep growl. The entire throng falls silent. Dead silent. Faces turn pale as snow and gaunt as corpses. Eyes glaze over with sheer terror. In that seemingly eternal moment of quiet, it sinks in for all present. This is not the Djinn. And now they can all hear that knight’s desperate warning from above. “GET DOWN!”
The shriek pierces the air once more and time resumes. A thunderous boom erupts from the wall, sending knights flying from their posts and others falling to the streets below, some of them no doubt crushed under the falling debris. Billows of thick, black smoke rise to weigh down the light, spring air and blot out the sun over Lowtown from the gaping hole left by the impact. And inside of that smoke, some make out a pair of glowing red dots, hanging in the air well over their heads.
“AKUMA!” someone shouts. The crowd enters a mass panic, dispersing amidst screams and pleas for help from the goddess, stampeding to escape the area as the monster’s heinous wail once more ripples through the air. Two of the knights left by the wall attempt to hold their ground. But a hulking black arm of metal and brimstone reaches out from the smoke, grabbing one of them whole with one hand and dragging him into the dark cloud. What follows are agonized screams, matched with guttural crackling and the sound of something… wet. The other knight drops his spear and tries to run, but finds himself immediately skewered on the molten point of a long, spiny, metallic tail, only to be flung back over the wall.
The monster steps out from its plume of ash and Ike can’t think to do anything but gawk up at it, completely paralyzed. It must be three stories tall. Its claws and tail burn like magma and its eyes glow red like hellfire. “T-that’s…”
“Ike! IKE!” Faye shouts, yanking his arm to get his attention.
But that’s when his eye catches something. In the distance, a familiar little girl desperately shakes her mother and father, passed out in the street, possibly struck by rogue debris. Ellie? The demon slowly approaches, looming over them with an eerie red glow building up in its throat. The girl freezes in place and looks up at the beast as it stares down at her, its gaping maw of swordlike teeth opening over her head.
Before a gruesome nightmare can be made real, a shield flies through the air, striking the Akuma in the face. Though it bounces off, it gets the demon’s attention. Ike stands there, his body trembling from head to toe. Gods, I never got to step two! But he does his best to put on a brave face. “Faye! Get Ellie and her parents to Midtown!”
“GO!” Then, the beast still focused on him, he takes off in another direction, it chasing after him as he’d anticipated.
As Ike runs for his life, he glances over his shoulder. And not a moment too soon. He’s just in time to dive out of the path of a swing from the demon’s molten fist, coming down over his head. Still, the backburst, alone, sends him flying several extra meters, rolling to a stop in the street. As he picks himself up, he sees something rolling from his pocket and in front of his face – the vial of Luminite Potion he’d confiscated earlier. He grabs it just in time to jump up and avoid a swipe of the demon’s tail, the wind nearly knocking him right back down.
Ike ducks around a corner, narrowly avoiding the monster’s hellfire breath and bracing himself against a wall. The park’s probably evacuated by now. If I can lure it there, I can stall it until reinforcements show up. But I’ll never outrun this thing for that long unless… Then he opens his hand and stares at the potion, resting in his palm.
The Akuma rounds the corner and a barrel flies through the air, nailing it in the face but splintering into pieces. Ike stands there, veins glowing blue beneath his skin, as well as his eyes. The metal demon growls at him as he turns, shoving the empty vial into his pocket, a prayer of “Please let this work,” on his breath. With his next move, he takes a step and the cobblestone cracks beneath his foot. Before he’s even really moved, a powerful tailwind kicks up unbolted objects around him. Just as the Akuma takes a swipe at him with one of its claws, Ike launches himself forward, splitting the cobblestone streets in his wake. But as he speeds away, the Akuma shrieks once again and charges after him.
Ike tears down the streets, making sure to warn any straggling evacuees out of the way as the mammoth demon barrels after him. It feels as if his body might actually takeoff at any time. He crashes into a storefront on the first turn he’s forced to make, unable to slow down in time. But he rolls back into the flow immediately. There’s no time for anything less, afterall. Meanwhile, the Akuma continues its chase, slamming into buildings along the way, crushing festival carts, and burning flowers and plants with its mere passing. Their chase leaves a trail of destruction wherever they go.
Eventually, Ike arrives at the park and, as he’d hoped, no one’s present. He turns around and leaps high into the air by pure instinct as hellfire breath scorches the earth where he’d been standing. But before he can land, the Akuma swats at him with its open hand like a bug, sending him careening, back-first, into a tree and causing him to cough up a bit, knocking the air from his lungs. Nevermind the tree. The initial hit, alone, made every bone in his body scream, riddled him with bruises, and made the entire world seem to spin. His vision now blurry, Ike sits there. Even with the potion, if this thing hits me for real, I’m dead.
Ike regains his senses and ducks just as the Akuma swings at him with its tail, the molten tip cleaving the tree behind him in two. Though a bit dazed at having nearly lost his head to the beast, he jumps back and unsheathes his sword, assuming a defensive posture. His body still trembles. But his thoughts go back to Huck, Amelie, Ellie, Faye, and everyone. Then he takes a breath and glares at his enemy, as if in sheer defiance. The Akuma roars again, even louder at having not yet killed this pest. It lunges.
Ike leaps back to avoid the blow. When the Akuma tries to punish that movement with another tail swing, he kicks off of another tree, just behind him, splintering the bark and flinging himself horizontally through the air. Based on that one action, a spark of inspiration strikes him. He does it again when the Akuma tries to claw him down, the raw heat from its claws reaching beyond their actual tips and leaving a scratch-like burn mark on Ike’s cheek as it grazes by. He winces, but carries on. And as the Akuma unleashes another stream of hellfire breath, Ike kicks off from one more tree, the force so overwhelming that he splits it down the middle. This time he launches himself vertically, nearly overshooting it and losing control of his flight path on the way up. Having gone high, the demon can’t react in time. Ike comes down on it with his sword like a bolt of lightning, jamming the blade into its eye socket. But…
To Ike’s dismay, the demon doesn’t screech in pain. In fact, it doesn’t even react, at first. When Ike pulls his sword out, the eye is still intact and the blade has melted. The Akuma shakes him off and he falls on his back, forced to roll out of the way as the demon tries to stomp him flat. As he gets to his feet, he reaches up just as the demon brings its forearm down on him like a hammer, catching it with both his arms. But he can barely hold it as it forces its arm down on him, the ground buckling beneath his feet as the demon slowly drives him into the earth like a nail. And that’s when he sees it. Building up in its throat is that eerie red glow. “Not… yet,” he growls through the strain.
The blue glow in his own veins pulses again as he pushes back against the monster. Nearly every muscle in his body tenses. But he gains enough headway that he’s able to get out from under the beast’s arm just before it can torch him alive, leaping back and sliding on his feet, only to wind up smacked by its tail, plowing through a tree like an axe. He continues rolling like a stone until coming to a stop.
The Akuma lurches toward Ike, bearing its claws. But as the young knight lies there, he recalls a certain thing that’d been said to him, recently. “I think… you can definitely be a Great Knight. So don’t give up. Okay?” That voice echoes in the back of his mind and he forces himself up, the glow in his veins truly coming alive. His ears ring and his vision’s stained red. But he still manages to ball his fist and hunker down. Who says…
“Who says I’m giving up?” Then, from that very position, Ike catapults himself forward, drawing his fist back. The electric blue light in his eyes shines and he unleashes a massive punch on the Akuma’s metal, skull-like head, sending a roar like thunder throughout the park. The Akuma stumbles back, the impact denting and cracking its metallic cranium. But Ike grits his teeth, the light in his eyes now bursting to life as he transitions his body into a round kick to the side of the Akuma’s face, forcing it to stagger back and drop to its knee. But still… the demon doesn’t fall. Not yet.
Ike hops back, breathing heavily with traces of blood dripping from his brow, the result of the thrashing he’d already taken. He can feel his arms and knuckles bleeding in places beneath his armor, his muscles taxed to their limit, even with the potion, and tearing the skin in places. Bouts of dizziness nearly force him back to the ground. But still he stands, assuming a fighting posture as the Akuma gathers its bearings. Just… a little… longer…
Then, just as the two go at one another again, something streaks past Ike from behind, moving so quickly that he couldn’t keep up. And it was so smooth, he barely even felt it pass by. But a lull in its movement reveals the exact source – Knight Commander Ramos. The Great Old Knight jumps in on the demon and, with a fist drawn back, throws a devastating punch at its chest. At no point does he even touch it. And yet the sheer force rends a hole through the demon’s chest cavity, the resulting shockwave so powerful that the winds tear the leaves from every tree in the immediate area.
The Akuma screeches as it claws at the hole in its chest, its hellish flame pouring out and streaming into the sky, eventually draining all the light from its body and leaving only a large, metal husk in its place. A bit stunned, Ike stares at the body. That is until a stern voice snaps him out of it. “Ike,” Ramos says, turning to his subordinate. “We’ve got to stop meeting like this.”
Ike grimaces at the implication.
Passing through Midtown on the way to Castle Verity, Ike trails behind Ramos without a peep. The potion hasn’t yet worn off, but something tells Ike that if his body aches this much now, he’d better pray it doesn’t wear off anytime soon. “Are you all right, Ike?” Ramos doesn’t look back at all. He marches forward, his stern voice projecting even behind him in full force.
During the fight, it felt as Ike’s veins were on fire and every muscle in his body was… exploding. Now? Now he’s just sore. All over. “I think so, sir.”
While following Ramos, a relieved little voice calls out to the young knight. “Sir Ike!” Ellie scuttles up as the boy turns himself around, flanked by her parents, as well as Faye, Amelie, and even Huck. Ellie runs, full-speed, into Ike and wraps her little arms around him. The instant she touches him, soreness becomes seering pain and he doubles over, forcing her to back off with an apologetic little whimper of “Ah! S-sorry!”
“I-it’s okay. I’m glad you and your folks are okay. You gave us a scare, for a minute.”
On that note, Ellie’s mother approaches him, picking up her daughter. “Thank you, so much, for saving us, Sir Knight. Especially our little girl.”
Ramos pauses and looks over his shoulder, eventually breaking away for a spell to allow Ike this time to catch up with those close to him. Amelie, for example, who marches up and smacks Ike clean across the face. Even through the potion… and the excruciating pain, Ike can tell she’d pulled that hit. When he turns his head back to face her, tears roll down her face like a fountain. “You dummy! What were you thinking, taking on an Akuma, all by yourself?!”
Ike rubs his cheek and gives his cousin a disarming smile. “Ah, you know me. Gotta dream big!” But that flippant tone of his dies down in an instant when he sees the girl about to boil over. “Honestly, I can’t say I was thinking anything, in particular. Just about you guys.” Her fury dissipating like mist, Amelie’s scowl softens to a pout and she folds her arms. She huffs and steps away, allowing Huck to take her place. But something’s clearly off with him. He doesn’t seem to be in his usual, nonchalant way. If anything, there’s a rather solemn vibe coming off of him. “You’re not gonna fall to pieces over me too, are you?”
Huck doesn’t say anything, at first. Not even one of his typical little quips. Then, in an unusually quiet tone, the question leaves his mouth. “Is it true about the guys they sent to the forest? And the ones by the wall?” Ike feels his jaw tensing up. As if to stop him answering. And he eventually opts not to. Though his gaze dropping to the ground is enough of a response. Huck watches his face and nods, then turns around and takes a deep breath. “Thought so. Right. Uh… glad ya didn’t get dead, buddy.”
Faye’s next, stepping up with a sigh. “Thank gods, you’re okay.”
“Well… ‘okay’ is a bit relative, but the healing boost this potion comes with seems pretty handy, so I’ll live. Long enough to reach the Knight Commander’s office, anyway,” Ike says, offering a bit of a laugh at the end. Though he stops when he gets a look at the girl’s face and she is… less than amused, pouting at him over his little joke. Ike leans back, raising his hands to stave off her irritation. But, in doing so, he glances over at Ramos, then back to Faye. “Guess I screwed up again, huh?”
Hearing this, Faye’s mind goes back to when she’d found him in that chapel. Despite the words, themselves, he seems content for the first time since she’d met him. And it brings that warm, serene smile back to her lips. “I’m glad.”
But that light atmosphere crashes to pieces with a sterm “Ike,” cutting in from nearby.
Ramos stands there with his arms crossed and a rather grim look about him that makes Ike’s heart sink. But before the Knight Commander can say anything, Faye steps between the two of them. “E-excuse me!” she interjects, a hand clutched over her heart, doing her best not to look sheepish. “Sir Ramos. Please don’t be too severe with Ike. I’m… I’m not from here. So I don’t really know much about the Templars or how you do things. But… if they’re really supposed to be the Shield of the People, like he says, then… then I don’t really think Ike did anything wrong! A-and even so, it was my fault he got involved to begin with! So… um…” Ramos raises an eyebrow at the girl’s claim, but says nothing, allowing her to go on. “So please don’t judge him too harshly!”
Then a new voice, somehow both refined and playful, cuts in. “Oh my. That was quite the speech.” Standing there, just within earshot of the conversation, is a tall woman with dark hair, not quite as old as Ramos, but close. She’s draped in elegant, white robes with gold trimming and accents. Atop her head of long, black hair is an ornate, yet simple headdress with a silver metal band that bears the symbol of Eleos – a thick cross, even in length at all ends. At the sight of her, everyone present bows, save for Ellie and Faye, the former of which is bowed by her parents and the latter bows upon seeing everyone else do it. “Ohoho! So formal! You kiddies don’t have to do such a thing! Stand tall!”
Ramos lifts himself. “Grand Cleric Clarice. Your Worship, I’m glad to see that you’re unharmed. I’d heard that you slipped away from your escort.”
“Of course I did,” Clarice says, hand on hip. “I’m a big girl, Ramos. Your little chaperone requires a form filled out in triplicate, just to let me sniff a flower. But this isn’t about me.” Her sharp, grey eyes snap over to Ike as she points him out. “It’s about that young man there, is it not? I’ve heard quite a lot about him.” She slides her way over to the young knight and pats him on the head, much to his agitation… and confusion… and pain. “Ike, isn’t it?”
Clarice throws her arm over Ike’s shoulder and turns to Ramos with a smug grin, though the Knight Commander seems rather put off by it. “I know you’re Mister Rulebook, but you should take it easy on this one, Ramos. I saw what happened and it isn’t like he had much choice in the matter. And wouldn’t you say that, given the circumstances, he did rather well?”
Ike’s heart is just about ready to leap out of his chest and sprint away. This woman, holy though she may be, is trying to get him killed. She’s absolutely trying to get him killed. At the very least, she certainly doesn’t appear to be making things any better. And the sigh Ramos gives her is proof enough of that. So when the senior knight looks his junior in the eye, and opens his mouth to speak, Ike braces himself. “Make me the villain all you like. He consumed an entire Luminite Potion with neither the training, nor clearance, which could have killed him on its own. He engaged an Akuma alone despite being specifically taught not to do exactly that in the Academy. And he very nearly made me walk into Midtown to tell his family that he died unnecessarily.” At that one, in particular, Ike winces and Amelie rubs her arm.
Ike hangs his head. “I understand, so…”
“No, Ike, I’m afraid you don’t…” Ramos continues. The following pause drags on for what seems like an eternity to Faye, Ellie, and the others. They all tense up, with only the rather flippant Grand Cleric seeming unbothered by the whole thing. But then Ramos breaks that silence. “Good job.”
Ike, completely stunned, lifts his head. “W-what?”
“Not only did your actions minimize damage to Lowtown, but you saved many lives in the process with your quick thinking to distract the Akuma. You’ve performed an invaluable service today.” With every word, Ike’s eyes grow larger, his body warmer. Meanwhile, Ramos stands across from him, the usually serious Knight Commander cracking a genuine smile, for a change. The first Ike can recall seeing. Then the Great Old Knight’s hand reaches out and finds its way atop the boy’s head. “You did well, Ike. I’m proud of you.”
Something about those words strikes Ike to his very center. All the pain in his bones and dissolves and the ache in his muscles evaporates. And he suddenly finds it impossible to keep himself from bearing an enormous grin, mirroring that of a certain eager little boy. The others all share in sighs of relief and delighted looks. Though none look quite as glad as Faye. Then, doing his best to contain himself, Ike snaps to attention, still grinning like an idiot, and salutes his commanding officer. “Thank you, sir!”