The Esper Saga

The Death of Baron Savage
In which the adventure begins

DISC ONE

Here follows an account of the overthrow and death of Baron von Savage, penned by Issig Sabrigen, most excellent scholar and historian, who acquired the information herein from reliable sources.

Who has not heard of Baron von Savage, the tyrant? For those readers who do not know of his various crimes and transgressions, I refer to other documents by less prolific historians; but for purpose of these documents, one must know that beside his other crimes, he also sponsored experiments in magitech. He hired many professors and savants to harness the power of Magi in great laboratories, and his greatest such laboratory was hidden somewhere in his realm, privy only to the Baron and his closest confidantes.

It was this laboratory that would become his downfall. Into his realm came two individuals, each intent on destroying this laboratory. The first was Gwendolen, a woman who had been exposed to the horrors of being a subject in such a laboratory, and sought to end the practice. The second was Gehenna, the son of Ifrith, a man possessing natural affinity for the Magi of fire and flame, who saw such laboratories as an abomination against the natural order.

Now, as is often the case with tyrants, there was a group of people opposed to him, a resistance movement. Hearing of Gwendolen and Gehenna, they arranged to contact them both, summoning them to the village of Coral. So it was that the two heroes came before Maria, a housewife who led the local resistance cell.

Maria informed them, that there was a chance the two could find the hidden laboratory, and with their powers, perhaps destroy it. The vice-sheriff of Coral, a man named Michael, had once been in the Barons’ employ, but he had displeased the Baron and been demoted. Michael, they were told, held little love for his liege, and might be persuaded to tell them.

By the aid of a guard named Jason, as well as Maria’s daughter Leesa, the two found the vice-sheriff as he was breaking up a fight. They accompanied him to his office, and learned the situation. Michael claimed not to know the whereabouts of the laboratory, but he knew a man who might: Earhart Ringholme, the man in charge of the nearby Camp Iseth. They were also told that they must approach the Baron’s heartlands carefully, for the commander of his armies was a warrior of incredible power, a legendary swordsman called Keith. Keith and Michael had once been friends, but the vice-sheriff did not speak to wish further of this matter: He mentioned him only to warn the heroes never to attempt to fight him.

Michael advised them to travel by stealth to Camp Iseth, to avoid drawing attention. Since Gwendolen was at home in the forest, they decided to make their way through the woods. Leesa wished to accompany them, but as she was only a thirteen-year old girl, they told her it was too dangerous.

They ventured through the forest for a full day, speaking as they walked. By nightfall, they made camp at an area clear of trees, and slept. They were woken by the screams of a girl: The teenager had followed them by stealth, and had now come upon a patrol of the Baron consisting of two soldiers, Biggs and Wedge.

Gwendolen approached them by stealth and snatched the girl away to safety, while Gehenna frightened them with fire. A short battle ensued, in which both Gehenna and Gwendolen were lightly injured but the two soldiers driven off, bruised and blistered.

They spoke to Leesa. She had a good reason to hate the Baron, it seemed: Maria was not her real mother, but had merely adopted her after the Baron slew her parents. The two agreed to bring Leesa to Camp Iseth, but could not promise to bring her any further. She showed skill with a knife, however, and at least Gwendolen was inclined to let her come along. Furthermore, she was familiar with the forests, and could guide them along a quicker, safer path. They stopped briefly to eat grilled salmon by the river, and arrived at Camp Iseth shortly after noon.

The first thing that met their gaze was Earhart Ringholme, a great big man, bald and bearded, holding a speech to the locals about the evils of the Baron, who had just cut off the trade routes to the Camp. Gehenna and Gwendolen wanted to speak with him, but he was obviously busy, so they spoke instead with a friend of Leesa’s – Alicia, who turned out to be Michael’s daughter. Alicia often took care of Leesa, and knew that the Baron was looking for her, because she had some special talent. This greatly worried the both of them.

The two went to speak with Ringholme. He told them that he had learned the location of the laboratory from Michael, and he guessed that Michael had only sent them to him so that they could resupply and prepare. He was glad to give them provisions, and told them he knew approximately where the laboratory was, but not exactly. Gwendolen, however, who had been inside a lab, and who had a superhuman sense of smell, thought that if she just could get near it, she would be able to smell the chemicals. Before they could leave, however, dire news arrived: Keith was marching an army on Camp Iseth!

Gehenna and Gwendolen guessed that Keith was coming for Leesa, or at least that if she stayed there, she would surely be captured. Although they were reluctant to bring her any closer to the Baron’s lab for fear she might become a test subject, Ringholme argued that the girl would be safer with them than if she stayed at the camp.

So it was that Gehenna and Gwendolen were joined by Alicia and Leesa, trekking eastwards through the wilderness towards the hidden laboratory. They traveled quickly but carefully, with Gwendolen scouting ahead while Gehenna spoke with Leesa, trying to learn more about her secret talent. He sensed that she was strong with Magi, and her magical signature reminded him of an old man he had met as a child, but he could figure out little more. The girl herself did not know. Gehenna tried to teach her, and told her to envision diving into a black circle before she went to sleep.

Apart from finding Biggs and Wedge once more – asleep in the forest – they encountered no danger that day. The two soldiers were easily circumvented, and the four travelers made their own camp under a great tree. They kept watch in shifts, for fear that one of the Barons’ agents might find them. Nothing such happened. Shortly before dawn, however, it seemed Leesa was having a nightmare, and perhaps due to Gehennas’ teachings, her powers were made manifest: Great wings of light appeared on her back, and electricity arced across her body. Gwendolen was keeping watch at the time, but she didn’t dare wake the girl, so she played a lullaby on her flute to keep her pacified.

When Gehenna woke up, and saw this, he deduced the spectacular truth of the matter: She was a half-esper like himself, and her father was likely the esper Alexander, wielding the power of light. Like himself, though, she had a secondary power. As Gehenna wielded darkness beside his fathers’ power of fire, so did she wield lightning beside her fathers’ power of light. When Leesa woke up, she was told some of this.

The four had little time to marvel at her power, however. She was told just enough so that she might be able to wield it consciously, if she would have to. Then, they set off to find the lab. It didn’t take long until the found a secret door, hidden in the ground. Gehenna heated it up with his powers, making it malleable, and Gwendolen then bent it open without a sound. They entered quietly.

They made it almost all the way down to the main laboratory before they were interrupted. The doors closed abruptly around them, and a tall, dark man appeared blocking the path. He introduced himself as Keith. For a moment it seemed as though they would have to fight him, but then another man appeared. Michael stepped into the room.

Facing his old friend, Keith stepped aside. Gwendolen, Alicia and Leesa stepped past, and Gehenna – who was cloaked in shadow – slipped past like a shadow, unnoticed by even Keith. Beyond the door he was blocking was the laboratory itself, a great chamber full of strange contraptions, with a glass cylinder dominating the room. Four people were inside. Ryana, the knife-fighter, Fredrik, the lancer, and the Baron himself, a great fat man with a moustache. The fourth person, Gwendolen recognized as Professeur Siegg – a scientist who had initiated the experiments on her.

She leaped into the room, punching open the great glass cylinder. From inside fell a blue-skinned woman that Gehenna recognized as the Esper Shiva, and seeing this, the half-esper was furious. Still hidden in shadows, he let a rain of fire fall upon the Professor, but the man seemed hardly shaken by it. Horrified, Gehenna realized that he had drained the Esper Shiva of her powers, and now commanded ice and frost. A second later, Gwendolen got to experience this first-hand as she tried to punch him and was frozen into a block of ice.

A furious fight ensued. Gehenna continued to rain fire upon the Professor, while Gwendolen – freed from her icy prison by Gehenna’s flames – saw to the blue-skinned woman, whom she thought a mortal experiment subject. She spoke to her, trying to encourage her to fight, and she woke up.

With the Esper awake, Gehenna managed to spur her into action. She attacked the lancer, and kept the Professor distracted. While this happened, Alicia and Leesa defeated Ryana with lightning and fire – her swift knives proving quite ineffective against them. Soon, the fight had ended: The Professor was trapped in flaming hands, then sent into the air by an uppercut from Gwendolen, and finally bound with flames of darkness so that Shiva could take her stolen powers back. Fredrik had been neutralized by a kick to the face, and Ryana by lightning to the backside.

Just then, Keith and Michaels’ fight burst into the room. Keith stepped into see Gwendolen lifting the fat Baron above her head, and he tried to strike her – but Michael blocked his blow just barely. She had the time she needed, and snapped Baron von Savage’s neck. With his death, Keith’s loyalty ended. He sheathed his sword, and explained what had been happening.

Keith and Michael were two of the five heroes who had originally united the world under the Emperor, over a century ago. Keith owed the Baron a debt, and had served him because of this. As a result, their friendship had been irreparably damaged. Michael had thereafter saved Alexanders’ daughter when the Esper himself had been attacked, and had placed her in the care of Maria. Now that her powers had awakened, however, the place would no longer be safe for her. Shiva instructed Gehenna to take care of her.

Gwendolen now broke open all the containers of chemicals, and Gehenna set them aflame, guaranteeing that the laboratory would never be used again. The Professeur, however, was nowhere in sight: He had disappeared after the Espers’ powers had been returned.

Together with Michael, they walked away from the burning lab. They made their way back to Coral to speak with Maria, who understood that this day would eventually come. Michael promised to stay and protect Coral, instating Ringholme as new leader of the land, and Gehenna left the village together with Leesa, to teach her about her heritage and powers. Gwendolen came with them, having destroyed the Barons’ laboratory and his reign, for their goal was the same: To make sure nobody ever abused Magi in such a horrible fashion again.

View
Siegg Returns
In which the heroes go to Trakonia

You will remember, gentle reader, that Gehenna and Gwendolen left the village of Coral to bring the young half-esper Leesa with them on their journeys. They traveled first around in the Land of Savage, somewhat aimlessly, until they picked up on a rumor: A man matching the description of Professor Siegg had been seen somewhere around the border of Trakonia. Since all three of them wanted to stop the Professors from conducting further experiments, they joined a caravan headed for this northern country.

On the caravan, they learned from a trader named Velar about the country: It was a prospering society with a stable economy and well-preserved Magitech from the age of the Emperor. The very land itself was infused with natural Magi, so that springs of fresh water fed the crops, and scientists throughout the land were studying these natural forces, seeking to understand them and live in harmony with them. As a contrast to this naturally occurring Magi, the land had very few natural magic-wielders – they relied more on their land and their technology than on talented individuals. Perhaps this was the reason for their egalitarian society and their good and just King.

A curious side-effect of the natural wellsprings in the nation, was that it almost never rained in Trakonia. Some attributed this to a curse upon the land, but Gehenna scoffed at such notions: It was a blessing, granted by the Esper Leviathan. He had made it so that any Trakonian in need of water need merely strike the earth, and a well of crystal-clear water would spring up.

These things, and many other tales, were told to Gwendolen and Leesa on the caravan, as a means of passing the time. Presently, however, something strange occurred: Just on the border to Trakonia, it began to rain. This puzzled Gehenna, as he very well knew rain occurred so rarely in the area – and it came as no surprise that he could sense that the rain had a magical origin. Soon, the weather became so bad that it brought the caravan to a halt.

The strange weather prompted Gwendolen to investigate. If it had magical origin, it must mean someone had put it here for a reason. She left the safety of the covered wagon, to discover something surprising: The driving rain made her feel cold, a sensation she hadn’t experienced from any kind of inclement weather since she was a child. Evidently the falling water was cold far below the freezing point.

She stole around the caravan, and heard someone chanting at a distance. Returning to Gehenna and Leesa, she informed them of this but told them that they had best protect themselves against the freezing rainfall. Gehenna shielded himself in flames, and Leesa revealed another of her fathers’ fabled powers: The Shield of Alexander, a thin, almost impenetrable aura surrounding her skin. It could not protect her clothes, but it did protect her from immediate harm.

Thus protected they set out, leaving the traders behind in the cover of their caravans, hoping to stop the rain before anyone froze to death. They soon found two wizards in long cloaks, chanting to drive down the rain. They stopped when they saw people approaching, and were willing to explain their actions: Professor Siegg had duped them, telling them the story about Trakonia’s “curse” and saying that a magical rainstorm would be able to cure it. The two wizards, named Laurence and Jenkins, had been paid handsomely to break the curse, and they had heard Siegg muttering something about a brooch.

Now sounds of fighting came from the caravan – the rain had only been a distraction! Gwendolen and Leesa hurried back to the caravan, just in time to spot the Baron’s old cronies, Biggs and Wedge! With them was a blond woman, but before Gwendolen could catch them, the three mysteriously disappeared into thin air – Leesa had time to zap one of them slightly with her lightning, but then they were gone. The traders of the caravan revealed, that they had smashed up the wagons looking for jewelry of various kinds; they had stolen some of it, but it didn’t seem like they had found what they were looking for.

Gehenna and Gwendolen could only conclude that they must have been searching for the mysterious brooch, on behalf of Professor Siegg. They debated amongst themselves, why the Professor might need a brooch – and with their combined knowledge of Magi, they concluded that the brooch must contain a thaumarecorder, a magical gemstone capable of storing powerful weapons, enchantments, or other magical tools. Whatever might be inside the brooch, it must be something powerful for Siegg to go to this length to try and find it.

They hastily repaired the caravan, arranged new clothes for Gwendolen and Leesa – who had been covered with mud in the fight – and continued on to Trakonia, arriving in a small town named Trakor. They barely had time to step off the caravan before they were apprehended by the guards. Caught off-guard, they were introduced to some of Trakonia’s famous magitech – magical collars disabling the Magi flow of a person. Thus disabled, they were thrown in prison under dubious circumstances, not knowing what crime they stood accused of. Leesa remained safely with Sergeant Draga, and his kindness to the girl would later save his life from Gehenna’s wrath.

In the prison cells underneath Trakor, Gwendolen slowly began to feel very bad: The modifications to her body had made her dependent on a steady Magi-flow. With it disrupted, she was feeling very sick. It only injured Gehennas’ pride, but to him, that was most certainly worse. Fortunately, they were not alone in the cell.

An athletic girl in black armor, with long blond hair, stepped up from the bunk where she was lying. She introduced herself as Jessica, and it was shortly discovered, that she was the daughter of Keith. Her father had left her in Trakonia some time ago, and she had been trying to find him – in the process she had been apprehended by the guards, resisted, and been arrested. Fortunately, the guards had not bothered to seal her magical abilities: She had a natural ability to cancel out Magi. With this, she could free Gwendolen and Gehenna of the magical collars.

Thus released, they sneaked out of their cell, Jessica disabling the magical force-fields around them. They made their way up to the Sergeants’ room, only to discover that they had been pardoned: The Sergeant had received a letter from Keith. An astonishing coincidence, since it did not seem like the man knew his own daughter was imprisoned alongside them. Keith, it appeared, was in high favor with the King of Trakonia, and his letter provided an invitation to the Royal Castle.

So it was that they left the Sergeant, taking Leesa and Jessica with them. They made their way for the tram bound for Trakonia’s capitol, hoping that the letter could provide them an audience with the King himself – for his resources would surely be useful in tracking down Siegg. Said and done – they boarded the tram, using what little money they had between them.

They did not travel far before their journey was interrupted, however. As they had come about halfway, a strange surge of random violence broke out on the train. People were fighting each other madly, clearly under the effect of some terrible spell. Gehenna snapped some out of it by singing the hair off their bodies using his fire, causing them such intense pain that they awoke: Gwendolen tossed Jessica at another group, so that she could suppress the magic affecting those passengers. Thereafter, the both of them – and Leesa – made their way to the engine of the train, because it had come to a stop.

In the engine-room, they found none other than Biggs and Wedge, and their female companion Elena! Gwendolen reached them first, tearing a hole in the roof to rain death from above – or at least that was the plan. Instead she was surprised by the increase in the bumbling guardsmens’ skill, and was quite badly injured. Gehenna stormed in to help her, but his fire-powers went out of control, setting the entire room aflame. He managed to injure both Wedge and Elena, but the woman had hold of a strange magical harp, that she used to escape – all three of them escaped the train, despite the doors and windows being sealed!

Now the pressure in the engine was rising. Gwendolen punched a hole in it, narrowly preventing the entire cabin from exploding. Then, despite having a punctured lung and several smaller wounds, she began pulling the train, to vent her rage and frustration. Before long, Gehenna’s could stabilize his fire-magic, and get the train running by itself.

Gehenna now explained, that he recognized the harp Elena had been using. It belonged to an Esper named Siren, and possessed many strange powers – only a handful could be accessed by a mortal, but these few were dangerous enough: Instant transportation and the ability to inflict madness were two such powers that Elena had evidently mastered. Whatever Professor Siegg was up to, it could not be denied that he had plenty of resources… and that he in all likelihood had already captured at least one Esper already. They must hurry.

Reaching the capitol of Trakonia, they wasted no time. Despite both Gwendolen and Leesa being covered in soot, the four hurried to the King’s throne room. He accepted them graciously. King Raknor was a reasonable, generous man who understood that the two were both willing and able to hunt down Siegg, who had been a menace to his kingdom for some time. He informed them, that he had a half-esper in his service who might be able to provide Gehenna with more information. Thus, Gehenna and Leesa were led to a small Haven, a pocket dimension especially suited for those with Esper blood.

It was here that they met Odine, a childhood friend of Gehenna. The son of the Esper Odin, he specialized in knowledge and secrets, and so had uncovered a great deal about Siegg’s research – he used thaumarecorders to store pure Magi, stolen from different Espers – he possessed both the Magi of Siren and Alexander, and Odine had reason to believe he had also robbed Diablos and possibly still possessed a small fraction of Shiva’s powers. Some of these thaumarecorders were now in Odine’s laboratory, but Siegg in all likelihood possessed more.

Out in the throne room, meanwhile, Gwendolen had been given a large stack of reports from various laboratories throughout Trakonia. She flipped through them, reading them carefully to try to find any anomalies, and soon discovered one particular lab that seemed an ideal place for Siegg to carry out his research – located in the far north, rarely scrutinized by the authorities, and with a record of having ordered just such equipment, as had been used to experiment on Gwendolen herself, and on the Esper Shiva. It was likely, she said, that Siegg or at least some accomplice was working in this laboratory.

King Raknor said, that he knew of a guide that could take them there. Into the room stepped – Ryana! She had been infiltrating Baron Savage’s lands as a spy, and had been protecting him in the fight in Siegg’s old lab. Gwendolen and Gehenna did not trust her, but King Raknor ensured, that she was trustworthy. Nonetheless, both swore to keep a close eye on her, and warned her not to try anything funny.

It was decided that they would set out on the next northbound train: Gehenna, Gwendolen, Jessica, Leesa, and Ryana. Until then, though, they had some time to kill – so Gwendolen reluctantly agreed to have her wounds tended by a doctor. While she was in the hospital, Jessica and Gehenna exchanged words with one of the Kings’ generals, a one-eyed, white-haired woman named Amanda Beatrice.

Now, finally, there was time for something that Gehenna had been looking forward to since he came to Trakonia – a visit to their famous hot springs. There would be time before the next train left, and they could all use some relaxation; besides, both Leesa and Gwendolen would need their clothes cleaned and repaired. So it was that they sank down in the hot springs of the Royal Palace.

They talked for a long time. Odine and Gehenna, in the men’s side, spoke silently of the fate of Leesa’s father, now that the girl was not near: Gehenna learned that Alexander was still alive, but that he was kept in the Haven of Pandemonium – Gehenna’s home – and that he was dying, little by little. On the women’s side, meanwhile, Gwendolen and Jessica spoke quietly of their own matters: Jessica spotted Gwen’s serial number, tattooed in the back of her neck, and it was revealed that Gwendolen was weapon number thirteen in a long row of products. Jessica and Keith had already defeated two other such weapons, little more than mindless slaves, and ended their misery. Jessica, for her own part, told of the Kathric clan to which both she and her father belonged – all members of this clan had a birthmark on their waist, depicting a black dragon.

Besides these private conversations, there was much other discussion. Words were shouted back and forth across the barrier that divided the men from the women, and a pleasant time was had. They spoke more of the Kathric clan, learning that it was Kathric code of honor that had forced Keith to obey the Baron von Savage after he saved Keith’s life. They learned more still about Jessica – she could not remember her childhood, and had spent all she knew of her life traveling with her father, seeking out Siegg. They spoke of Ryana, who stood stoically on duty outside the baths, and of Jessica’s travels, of wolf-men and goblins, and of the strange Havens of the Espers, where any of Esper blood felt like he was in paradise. It wasn’t until a short while before the train would leave, that they got up.

Getting dressed, they all headed for the trains.

View
Journey to the North
In which the Esper Diablos intervenes

Right before the five reached the train, Odine caught up with them. He gave a device to Gehenna, a small stone which allowed remote communication with his Haven. In this fashion, they would be able to contact Odine for information and aid. With this stone safely stowed in the folds of Gehenna’s robes, they boarded the train and began their journey.

This time, the train was not made for civilians but rather transported a military division, and so the cabins were somewhat cramped and the food of military grade. Still, it was comfortable enough compared to having to walk through the snow and cold. It would take them two days to reach the village of Drantak, during which they could rest aboard the train – which was good, as Gwendolen was still severely injured.

On the morning of the second day, however, the train came to a halt. Gehenna and Gwendolen sprang to their feet, worried that the train was once more about to be ambushed – but the problem turned out to be that a massive barrier of force had formed around the train itself. They discovered that it was Leesa’s power, having gone rogue after she had suffered nightmares: The Barrier of Alexander, that normally served as a shield around her body, had somehow expanded to encompass the entire train. Gehenna tried to force her to control it, but scared her and caused the barrier to shrink – risking to damage the train.

As Gwendolen held back the shrinking barrier, Gehenna talked to her. She was afraid of the laboratory, but more dangerously, she was also afraid of her own power. This is what had caused the barrier to expand. Her two caretakers, though, explained that with power as great as hers, being afraid was only natural. With great power comes great responsibility, and great responsibility is scary.

Eventually, as Gehenna explained this to her, the barrier faded. They got back inside the train, and it could once more start up, heading for Drantak.

As everyone familiar with the geography of Trakonia knows, Drantak is a small village in its norther parts, shielded by magitech against all the snow and located in a deep forest. The architecture of the town is fairly old-fashioned, and its sturdily built to protect against the Trakonian weather. Though there is little rain in Trakonia, the northern parts see frequent snow-fall.

Here, the travelers were greeted by Captain Steinar. He explained the situation: The enemy had fortified themselves in the laboratory, surrounding it with strong defenses. They had been sent orders by the King to investigate it with scouts, but found that it was too well-defended to enter via the normal passageways. Besides the extra fortification, strange mythological creatures called Wraiths had taken to dwelling in the surrounding forests – they were thought extinct, but the species had perhaps been revived by some strange magitech-procedure. So, approaching through the woods would likely be too dangerous. Fortunately, there existed a secret tunnel, which hitherto only Steinar himself had known of.

Alongside Steinar, the heroes were also introduced to the local Duke, and to the previous chief of the laboratory, professor Ogawa Beatrice. She told them to be careful with the equipment, because it should be possible to retake the laboratory and use it for good, rather than destroy it. They were also instructed that many of the scientists there were kept against their will, and that it would be best to avoid harming them.

Having been briefed on the condition of the laboratory, the heroes went to sleep in some nearby barracks. They were awoken in the morning and told to hurry: It seemed the laboratory wasn’t just being fortified, it was also being equipped with long-range siege artillery, pointed at Drantak!

Thus alarmed, the five people plunged into the tunnel underneath Steinar’s office. It was a long, and rather narrow tunnel, winding and meandering to avoid unstable areas in the ground, but quite empty. After having gone about half the distance, Gwendolen heard sounds – they were not alone. She scouted forwards to investigate, and found strange creatures stationed in a small break-room: Pale, naked men with sharp teeth and wicked claws, numbering four total. They were led by a similar creature, but clothed, seemingly more intelligent.

Seeing that sneaking past them would be impossible, Gwendolen killed the closest one to the door and positioned herself there, ensuring that none could get past her. Holding off their attacks, she let Leesa and Gehenna’s magic deal with the naked creatures, while she and Jessica killed the leader – Jessica cleaving his skull and Gwendolen kicking him so hard, that his brains flew out.

The fight was over very quickly, the foul creatures destroyed and cremated by Gehenna’s fire. The leader had a serial number on the back of his neck, similar to Gwendolen’s but starting with a W instead of an R. They could only be wraiths, produced in a laboratory for some foul purpose.

It puzzled the heroes, how the wraiths could be in a corridor that was supposedly secret. Nonetheless, while they monsters had fought fiercely, nobody had been hurt. They could continue their trek unhindered, eventually emerging into the laboratory itself via a trap-door.

Unfortunately, they soon discovered that there were more to the laboratory’s defenses than just guards and monsters. A strange aura of anti-Magi surrounded it, similar to that contained within the restraining collars. Ryana guessed it must be some manner of generators creating a field, probably more than one: For this reason, the group split up to hunt down and disable these machines, so that they would be able to fight at full power. Gehenna, Leesa, and Ryana went towards the laboratory heart, while Gwendolen and Jessica explored a side-chamber.

Gehenna, Leesa and Ryana sneaked into a large warehouse, and found it guarded by a few soldiers, and a man that they both distinctly recognized: Fredrik, who had once served the Baron von Savage. Ryana distracted him by speaking to him, while Gehenna and Leesa sneaked past – they found the generator in a room behind the warehouse. Alas, with all the generators still running, Gehenna did not have the power to destroy it.

Fortunately, at the same time Jessica and Gwendolen stumbled upon the other machine. It was guarded by the two men who had continuously harassed them: Biggs and Wedge. Gwendolen, too weak to fight without the Magi flow she needed to live, could not confront them, but it seemed impossible to sneak past them, so they must chance it. She stepped out to face them, drawing their attention while Jessica moved past.

She kept them distracted by talking to them, insulting them and turning them against each other while Jessica disabled the generator. Soon, a large explosion was heard, and in separate locations, Gwendolen and Gehenna both sprang into action. Gehenna used his powers of fire and darkness to soundlessly destroy the other generator; Gwendolen used her fierce strength to throw heavy crates full of metal pipes at Biggs, while Jessica dueled with Wedge.

Soon, Biggs and Wedge were defeated – Wedge, in panic, cast an ice-spell which froze his companion in a block of ice, and while he managed to capture Jessica as well, she broke free. Together, the two women defeated the ice-mage, and hurried to the aid of Gehenna and Ryana.

They did not need it. Ryana had stabbed Fredrik in the back so that he was almost bleeding to death: Gehenna captured the explosion from the generator and threw it at him, and he was shortly defeated. Now only one generator remained, but it was too weak to impair anyone in the group – they left it alone for now, heading down into the depths of the laboratory in an elevator.

As soon as they stepped out of it, they came face to face with the third bandit, Elena. She had left Biggs and Wedge behind, for now she was capable enough to face them on her own: She had stolen the powers of the Esper Siren, possessing her wings, her harp, and her alluring song. She wove a powerful illusion which only Jessica could resist, rendering the heroes blind to reality. They saw only a white, sandy beach with a great behemoth upon it.

Gwendolen, though, was overcome with anger, and taunted the bandit into attacking her. She was struck with a bolt of lightning, which gave away Elena’s position – blindly, she barreled into her and broke free of the illusion. Gehenna, Ryana and Leesa still labored under it, and were now in trouble: Siren’s power of illusion were so great, that even though it was mere fantasy, the massive monster could still hurt them. Gehenna burned away its eyes to enrage it, and sent flame after flame to injure the great beast.

Jessica and Gwendolen, meanwhile, struggled with Elena. Just as Gehenna destroyed the great behemoth, Gwendolen punched the singing woman in the solar plexus, disrupting her song and making her a plainly-visible target for Gehenna. Tendrils of flame and darkness caught her, disrupting her ability to fly away from attacks: As all three of the warrior-women fell upon her, she was shortly defeated when Gehenna reached into her and pulled out Siren’s power, knocking her unconscious. The crystal holding the power dissipated, trailing back towards its source – which Gehenna hurried to follow.

They came into a great laboratory-chamber. A great glass cylinder held Siren captive, but this time Gwendolen could not simply smash it – for the room was protected by a nigh-impenetrable barrier, caused by Alexander’s power. Behind it stood… Ogawa Beatrice! She had betrayed King Raknor to join forces with Professor Siegg, and had secretly been running the laboratory all along. She had sent the wraiths into the tunnel, she had equipped Elena, and now she planned to absorb Siren’s power for herself.

Gehenna turned to Leesa, and told her to use her fear. As the daughter of Alexander, she could absorb his power – touching the barrier, she forced it to dissipate. Gwendolen threw the child towards Professor Beatrice, who was slammed into the control panel, accidentally releasing Siren’s powers. Gehenna was poised to punish her, catching her in chains of darkness and lifting her up before the escaping Esper – but something very unexpected happened. The darkness turned against him, and around Professor Beatrice manifested the dark form of the Esper Diablos. Alive and well, Diablos smiled a grim smile and teleported away, snatching Ogawa Beatrice from the jaws of certain death.

Before Siren was on her feet, they were already gone.

Gehenna could first not believe what had happened – but the truth was unavoidable. An Esper had betrayed his kind, and was willingly helping Professor Siegg. This realization caused him to reel and stagger in shock, and it was only because of Leesa that he could compose himself. The five heroes quickly destroyed the final generator, smashed up most of the lab, and briefly questioned Elena, concluding that she had been mind-controlled by Siegg and might have more information. It was decided to bring her – but now Odine contacted Gehenna, and heard of what had happened.

A crisis such as this went above the head of mortal authorities. The prisoner must be brought straight before the Espers, as must those who had witnessed Diablos’ betrayal. Odine told Gehenna to make for Shiva’s sanctum, the nearest place where the Espers might congregate.

Carrying Elena back to Steinar’s office, they instructed him that all was clear inside the laboratory and that the army could move in to reclaim it. They also told him of Professor Beatrices’ betrayal – and then, the five of them made for the sanctum, hidden far away in the northern wilderness. Fortunately, Gwen’s instincts and knowledge of the wilderness helped guide them, and they faced little trouble save that Ryana went tired, and had to be carried.

Soon they arrived at a strange, icy cave with impenetrable darkness inside. The Esper Shiva waited outside, inviting them into her sanctum until they came before an assembled council of Espers. For the first time, Gehenna’s companions saw his father, the leonine Ifrith, in all his glory. They also laid eyes on Odin, Odine, Shiva, Siren, Titan and many other Espers, but two people in particular stood out: Keith, who had arrived here to hold counsel, and Alexander, greatly weakened so that Titan must carry him.

It was a powerful reunion. As Leesa embraced her father, some of his power returned, and wings once more manifested on his back. Jessica, too, met her father, but she did not embrace him – for he told her strange news, which shook her to the core. Jessica, like Gehenna and Leesa, was a half-Esper, but her powers had been stolen by Professor Siegg, and her strange ability to cancel out Magi seemed to be a result of the process – or at least, so Gwendolen and Odine guessed.

These were minor news, however, compared to the information that Diablos had betrayed the Espers. As soon as Gehenna mentioned this before the assembled Espers, a great confusion broke out between them – such betrayal was unheard of. They bickered loudly amongst each other, until Ifrith silenced them with a shout. Whether he had betrayed them or not, Diablos must be found, and none of the Espers – not even Odin or Siren – could sense him. It was decided, that they would search the World for the Esper of Darkness, until he was found. In the meantime, Gehenna, Gwendolen and their companions would have to search for Professor Siegg, who was a lesser threat compared to a rogue Esper. They gladly accepted this mission.

Keith would also search for the Professor, but he would do so on his own. For his own hidden reasons, he bade Jessica go with Gwendolen and Gehenna, rather than come along with him as it had been when she was growing up. Perhaps he feared for her; whatever his reasoning, he left without another word. The five lingered for some time in Shiva’s sanctum, Gehenna and Leesa feeling settled and calm in the serene cave of the Esper of Ice. Gwendolen took a chance to take a bath in Shiva’s cold-springs, while Gehenna tried to see if his powers had grown enough to counter Shiva’s cold. They had not.

On the way back, they spoke among each other. It was not until now, that they discovered from where Ryana’s speed and skill stemmed: She, like Gwendolen, was a weapon, although of a much earlier model. She had been rescued by King Raknor from a laboratory, and had once lost her mind to the brainwashing of Professor Siegg’s minions. They talked also of Gehenna’s father, and he told them that his mother had been the only mortal who hadn’t feared Ifriths’ power and fierce demeanor. They had fallen in love, but she had died in childbirth; thus it was that Ifrith only had one child.

If Espers can love, perhaps they can hate. Perhaps it was hatred that drove Diablos’ actions: In ages past, he had been imprisoned for a hundred years by the other Espers, after he killed two of their children. Now, he had somehow learned to capture and imprison Espers, something that Odine informed them of once they arrived at the King’s castle. He had researched the means by which Siren had been caught, and concluded the machinery was fueled by Diablos’ powers.

Now, the Espers had questioned Elena, and Odine relayed what she had said: She came from a village in the west, north of the lands of the wolf-men. It had been taken over by Siegg, and he had enslaved the populace – as far as she knew, they were still under his thrall. It seemed like this village in the west would be the likely place to search for Siegg, as he had seemingly vanished from Trakonia – whether he had ever been in the country, or if it was just Beatrice who had done his bidding, was impossible to tell.

Gwendolen gave King Raknor heartfelt thanks for having rescued Ryana from the Professor, and it was decided they would stay some time as the King’s guests before they began the long journey to the west. Gehenna, Gwendolen and Leesa would bring with them Jessica – and, to their surprise, Ryana volunteered to follow them. It was her mission to aid them in finding Professor Siegg, and they still hadn’t found him. So it was that their group now numbered five, and shortly, they would head westwards.

View
The Land of the Turks
In which an old man joins the party

In the western parts of Trakonia lies a small village called Dali. Of this village is told, that it is rather insignificant, lying nearby the plains that stretch out before the Devil Mountains. It was here that Gwendolen, Gehenna and their companions prepared for their journey westwards, into the Land of the Turks. King Raknor had told them, that one of Professor Siegg’s oldest laboratories was located in these lands, and that the Professor himself might have taken refuge there.

Of the Land of the Turks is told, that during these times it was divided into three parts. In the middle lived the actual people known as the Turks – an enigmatic people, to whom it is custom to always wear black. They are a mercantile sort of folk, and conduct much trade. To the east of the Turks, at the foot of the Devil Mountains, lived mostly bandits and free men, gathered together in small holds. These lands were called the Borderlands. To the west of the Turks lay the would-be Empire of Fuka, a nascent kingdom ruled by the Emperor Nagi, an ally of King Raknor. Our heroes did not know much about these lands, but the King had promised them a guide, who had traveled the area many times before.

This guide turned out to be an old man named Palom. Though the heroes did not yet know it, he had once been Tella, a companion of Keith and Michael, and a member of the Kardus – an ancient group with ten members, sworn to protect the world from Magi – to preserve that which was good, and destroy that which was harmful. It was from this order that the Emperor had arisen, and it was when he betrayed the Kardus that his path towards wickedness begun. Of this, however, Gehenna and Gwendolen knew very little.

My readers, of course, are well aware that this was the time when the Emperor returned from his long sleep under Phoenix Mountains. Today, every child knows the tale of the Emperor’s return, and the darkness he brought in his wake – but indeed, Gwendolen was the first mortal in the world to hear the news. Odine, the half-Esper, journeyed to Phoenix Mountains and sent word to his friend Gehenna that the Emperor was no longer there. He had arisen from his long sleep, and once more presented great peril to the world of mortals – possibly even to the world of Espers. Of this, Gehenna told his companions.

What role the Emperor would play in all that transpired, they did not know. Nonetheless, with Palom as a guide, they traveled westwards. For a day they walked across the great plains, until they reached the forest on the eastern side of the Devil Mountains. Here, they were stopped by a great gate. To travel further west would be impossible, they were told, due to a gathering of Wraiths on the other side. Gwendolen picked up a cart and threw it over the gate to make a point, and they all passed by the gate, fighting the wraiths and easily defeating them.

Shortly thereafter they stopped by a small lake, where Gehenna had a long bath together with Palom, learning of his prodigious Magi-powers. Gehenna recognized, that if Palom was indeed a mere mortal, he must be among the greatest mages ever known. Alas, the old man spoke little of himself, and all Gehenna learned was legends of the Kardus.

Soon, the group reached the Devil’s Pass. There, they saw a haunting apparition – a shadowy figure that greatly resembled the old Emperor. It gave them a warning not to continue, which they ignored. In spite of a small rockslide, they were easily able to scale the mountains and cross them, continuing down into the Borderlands on the other side. Here grew peculiar trees – coconut trees, as are still common to the area. Gwendolen harvested a few of these, theorizing that they could be used as weapons.

Soon they came into the Borderlands. Here, they began a more thorough search for the Professor by asking some of the locals for information. After betting money and information on an armwrestling match with a few local thugs – which Gwendolen easily won – they were led to a local boss named Baku. This man informed them that a dark, shadowy man had attacked the wolf-man village of Cicaro, and destroyed it, leaving only a ghost town in his wake. He also told them that someone had been buying a lot of thaumarecorders throughout the Land of the Turks for years – probably someone working for Siegg. Gwendolen thought that perhaps, if they acted the part of merchants, they might get in touch with Siegg’s underlings, provided they had interesting enough wares to sell. To this end, they purchased a great lot of thaumarecorders from Baku, one of which contained more of Alexanders’ powers. These were promptly returned to Leesa.

Before going to meet with the mercantile Turks, though, the group resolved to travel to Cicaro, to perhaps gain more information about the Emperor. Gehenna strongly suspected, that the shadowy man might have been him in person, and that something of great importance had been in Cicaro – perhaps there were still clues to its nature. So it was that they traveled from the Borderlands into the mysterious Lifa Forest.

The Lifa Forest is, even to this day, largely unexplored and quite enigmatic. It is said, that the trees there move under the influence of the Lifa Tree, and that the forest is protected against unwanted intruders. This, and more, did Gehenna and Gwendolen learn during their travels there. It did not take them long to discover that the trees could move of their own accord. At first, they were simply bemused at this – but then, roots sprang from the ground to attack Jessica!

Quickly, the daughter of Keith was being dragged into the ground. Gwendolen and Ryana did their best to free her, but a mysterious spore was released that rendered everyone except Gwen unconscious. She could not pull Jessica out of the ground without risking killing her, and so she was soon swallowed up by the earth, despite their best efforts to burn and uproot the nearby trees. A pair of strangers appeared while Gwendolen was digging for her companion, and informed them that Jessica had been taken to the Heart of the Forest. Gehenna made an educated guess, that this Heart must be the strange concentration of Magi he had been feeling since he entered the forest. They hurried towards it, not knowing who the strangers had been: Sarasvati, the daughter of Shiva, and Sabin, one of Professor Siegg’s monstrous weapons.

Soon they found themselves at a huge cave, filled with roots. In this cave was some kind of magical elevator – locked with a series of cryptic chevrons. Gehenna, thanks to his training in ancient languages, could read them, but did not understand the locking mechanism. Gwendolen suggested that perhaps spelling the name of an Esper might help – and as Gehenna wrote Leviathan’s name, the elevator unlocked, sending them all into the pitch darkness deep beneath the forest. Gehenna claimed that the blackness was full of undead creatures, but none among his companions could confirm it. Soon, they emerged from the darkness into a lit cave, deep underground, full of roots and vines.

They moved along this cavern towards a strange light up ahead. Gwendolen, despite being nervous, climbed ahead in the ceiling, intending to surprise whoever had taken their friend. What she was surprised them all – a shadow of the Emperor, a piece of his soul broken off by use of tenebromancy. He had taken Jessica and kept her bound at a side in the chamber – and informed them that his only grudge was with her and Palom. He said he would spare the rest of them. They attacked him in response.

Though much weaker than the true Emperor, the shadow turned out to be a formidable foe, and it had bound the Lifa Tree Guardian into its service by use of foul necromancy. Fortunately, Leesa could heal the tree by use of Alexander’s powers, and between Gehenna’s flames and Gwendolen’s fists, the shadow-emperor was soon defeated. They freed Jessica, and the guardian – released from the Emperor’s power – thanked them. It said that in ages past, it had been appointed to guard the jewel known as the Heart of the Woods, but that it was no longer powerful enough to keep it. The creature asked Gehenna – as an Esper-born – to take care of the gem until it could be brought to relative safety in the Esper world. He accepted this task, and they made their way back to the surface, to continue towards Cicaro village. After resting outside it for one night, they finally entered the ruined ghost town.

It was a desolate place, lying in ruins after the Emperor’s attack. They made their way through the village, finding only bones and ruins, and Gwendolen was very uncomfortable, feeling the smell of death everywhere. Soon, however, Gehenna spotted a house which seemed to be untouched – a mansion shrouded by an illusion, that seemed to have kept it safe. Only Gehenna’s gaze was able to pierce the illusion, until Jessica touched it and canceled it. They went inside, finding an underground chamber protected by the Lifa tree.

In this chamber were the survivors of the attack – a few score wolfmen, including their chieftain Tendaro, and – much to their surprise – Keith and Michael, as well as Michael’s daughter. The two heroes had fought the Emperor – the real one, not his shadow – when he came to Cicaro, and lost. Both of them were dying. Leesa used her healing power, restoring them to a semblance of life, and then Gwendolen bound their wounds, preventing them from bleeding out. They gradually awoke, and the heroes learned a great many things.

They learned that Michael, Keith, and Palom had all been part of the Kardus, alongside the Emperor and six others. They learned that the Emperor had slain five of the original ten, and that Michael, Keith, Palom and the last member – a woman called Angela – had avenged them, defeating the Emperor in turn. They learned his original name – Alexius – and that the strange shadow-power he now possessed was identical to Angela’s – the Dark Knights – power, which had originally allowed them to defeat him. His powers had since grown, and it was quite likely that he was cooperating with Diablos and the Professor Siegg.

Furthermore, Michael presented them with a thaumarecorder containing what he suspected to be Jessica’s original powers, that she had inherited from her mysterious mother, the Esper. Jessica absorbed them, but her powers of nullification kept them suppressed, so that they could not yet tell their nature.

Because the Emperor could not possibly know that Gehenna and Gwendolen had met with Keith and Michael in this location, they asked them to transport the great prize of Cicaro – the Eye of Ra, a magical jewel that the Emperor had been likely seeking – to a Sanctum alongside the Heart of the Woods. This way, the gem could be more clandestinely transported. They agreed to this task, and Leesa hid the Eye of Ra inside her clothes. With Palom yet as their guide, they continued westwards – and learned that Palom had sworn an oath to never do battle again, though the circumstances of this oath were quite mysterious.

They traveled through the Land of the Turks without incident save that Gwendolen bought a new pair of pants, as her old ones had caught fire. Close to the border to the Land of Fuka, though, they ran into two familiar faces – Biggs and Wedge. They were accompanied by a man named Tobias, and also by the two strange figures from the forest: Sarasvati and Sabin. At first, Gwendolen intended to simply let them leave, but they spoke too kindly of the professor – and Sarasvati too openly of having betrayed the Espers – that they could not be forgiven. A destructive battle ensued, in which Gehenna blew up a coconut and Gwendolen collapsed a building on top of Sabin. Their enemies were strong, but as Gehenna fell, Leesa panicked, and could not control her powers – she lashed out in a great lightning storm, defeating Sarasvati and Tobias but nearly killing Gehenna. Alas, the enemy was defeated – but they were rescued by three shadowy figures, stolen away into thin air as they fell.

Leesa healed Gehenna, but both he and Gwendolen were grievously injured, and would need to rest and recover their strength. But they would not be welcome in the Land of the Turks for long…

View
Nightmares and Nocturnes
In which a half-Esper is captured

After the battle, the heroes made to leave the Land of the Turks as swiftly as they could – but before they could leave the village, they were apprehended by a red-haired man named Reno. He offered them recovery in a hospital, and they accepted, mostly due to how Gwendolen was in need of medical equipment to treat Jessica and Ryana. They were taken inside and interrogated by Reno, who wanted to know more about Professor Siegg – they readily shared most of what they knew with him, and learned that Reno was no friend of the Professor, though some of his people made trade with them.

Odine contacted them here, and told them to hurry up towards the Esper sanctum, as well as that it would be necessary to revive Palom’s fighting spirit, as he would be needed to assist Keith and Michael in their further crusades against the Emperor.

They were allowed to utilize the resources of the hospital of Reno, and after Gwendolen resuscitated her friend, they left for the borderlands to the Land of Fuuka, carrying both the Eye of Ra and the Heart of the Woods. Before they left the Land of the Turks, though, Gwendolen made some purchases on the black market.

After a days’ travel, they arrived at a small borderlands inn, where they were to rest; here Gwen put her plan into action, and dressed Ryana up in a specially-purchased costume, intended to awaken Palom’s sleeping fighting spirit by appealing to his manly nature. The plan did not work.

Gwendolen – for entirely unrelated reasons – left the inn to seek out a waterfall to cool off. Shortly thereafter, the people back at the inn fell asleep. Their sleep was not restful, however – a malevolent curse targeted Jessica, and ricocheted off her latent Esper powers, drawing everyone except Gehenna into a deep, nightmarish sleep designed to cause insanity.

Gehenna woke up in response to this curse, and managed to wake Leesa and, eventually, Ryana. Gwen and Jessica remained stuck in the nightmare, however, in a haunted version of the small city populated only by dark shadows and insubstantial mist. Jessica could not be awoken due to her Esper powers forming a shield around her, deflecting the curse; only Gwendolen’s brutal strength could, perhaps, penetrate the shield – but she was missing. Ryana was sent to find her, and wake her.

She had nearly drowned, falling asleep in the waters beneath the waterfall. Gehenna descended into the shared nightmare to help her wake up, telling her that it was all a dream. As soon as she woke up, safe from drowning only due to being in a deep state of Damage Conversion, she shook Jessica awake, breaking her shield and snapping her out of the curse. They were together once more, awake in the deep woods, with no sign of who might have sent the curse to strike at them.

Gehenna made some tries to track the source of the curse, but it failed. Grimly, they determined to set out right away for the sanctum, for fear of whatever Magi-user had sent the curse might try the same tactic again. They soon came to the city of Coliseum on the borderlands of Fuuka, where a great tournament was being held. Having no more money, they decided to participate in this battle, so that they might pay for an inn.

To their surprise, they faced Sarasvati and Sabin, alongside Biggs and Wedge! These, too, were participating in the tournament because of reasons, alongside a mind-controlled woman called Serenity. It was a dangerous battle in the tournament grounds, but it eventually ended with Sarasvati’s utter defeat, being struck down and imprisoned in Leesa’s force field. Sabin and Serenity were likewise defeated, but before they could be captured, the Shadow of the Emperor made another appearance. He took his fallen soldiers with him – except the captive – and declared that the heroes were all doomed. In response, Gwendolen and Gehenna declared war on him. Seeing this, the Esper Phoenix revealed himself to them, wearing the guise of a little boy. He congratulated them on their victory, and said he might need escort to a sanctum.

They left immediately afterwards, hurrying for the sanctum, carrying Sarasvati with them wrapped in chains. When they reached the Sanctum, they met with Alexander, who was repaired by his daughter, and Shiva, who captured her daughter in a block of ice. Thereafter, they rested at the sanctum for some time.

View
Turks and Dragons
In which a Dragon awakens

Now, after they had cleaned their wounds and rested at the sanctum for some time, our heroes began putting their plan into action. They were intending to sell all the thaumarecorders and other materials they had bought from Baku, to perhaps draw the attention of Siegg and his minions. To this end, and to conceal their identities, Gwendolen had purchased outfits, such as are worn by men and women alike in the Land of the Turks: Dark, silky clothes accompanied by dark glasses.

Changing into these clothes, and leaving their old outfits behind at the Sanctum, they set out towards a nearby village, wisely choosing to avoid the city of Coliseum. They instead set their course towards Fukirawa, a small settlement known for its celebrated carnivals – one of which was in full swing during their arrival. Despite their unusual attire, among the many strange carnival-goers they could blend in, and made their way to a small tavern to set up shop. Here, Leesa, Jessica, Gehenna and Gwendolen went inside wearing the outfits of the Turks, while Ryana stood outside in her special, gothic-lolita themed costume to attract customers.

Jessica scared off most casual customers, but eventually a short, fat man approached with two henchmen in tow. Gwendolen conducted trade with him, and as he left, she shadowed him alongside Ryana, to figure out whether or not he had any connection with Siegg. Meanwhile, Gehenna stayed behind to watch for more potential customers, and soon met with a mysterious man whose “mistress” wanted to conduct more covert trade. Gehenna agreed to meet with her in two hours’ time behind the inn.

Gwendolen and Ryana tailed their customer back to a factory in the outskirts of town, which they infiltrated. Inside, they discovered that the short, fat man was conducting business with none other than – Biggs and Wedge! Gwendolen confronted them, threatening them with a clever bluff leading them to believe the thaumarecorders they were holding were, in fact, dangerous bombs. They fell for it, and tried to escape – but Ryana cut off their path before they could leave. At this point, a bodyguard stormed in; his name was Brutus. Gwen, thinking fast, bribed his superior with the money he had just given her, and Brutus turned upon Biggs and Wedge, capturing them. She intended to take them back to Gehenna, so that he might interrogate them.

Gehenna, however, had run into trouble. He had hidden himself in the alley behind the tavern to learn more about the mysterious “mistress”, and in the process, he had come to spot two people whose faces he well knew: Reno and Elena, who were having a conversation with some mysterious woman he did not recognize. They were talking about some sort of trade agreement, and as the two Turks left, Gehenna intended to follow the strange woman. Just then, though, something happened: A strange anti-magical field blossomed out from within a nearby building, concealing Jessica and Leesa’s presence from Gehennas’ magical senses. When the field dissolved, his two half-Esper protégées were both missing! Gehenna remembered that both had been stung by insects some time prior – perhaps some manner of poison had rendered their bodies weak, so that they were vulnerable prey for a kidnapper.

Suspecting the strange woman of being involved, Gehenna grasped her with tendrils of darkness and threatened her with fire. He learned that she was an unwitting scientist named Amanda, who worked for Ogawa Beatrice, but that she knew nothing of the kidnapping. Furious, Gehenna branded her with the mark of Ifrith, and threw her aside to scour the town with his magical senses, looking for the culprit.

He sensed one source of Magi he could recognize, and thinking this to be the culprit, pursued him. This turned out to be the man who had cast the dream-curse upon them a few nights prior – alas, he was a mere mercenary, with no connection to their enemies other than a one-time job. Presently Gwendolen caught up with him, and with Brutus’ help the two interrogated Biggs and Wedge – but these two henchmen also knew nothing of the kidnapping, so after extracting a promise from Brutus that his employers’ factory would have nothing more to do with Biggs, Wedge, or any other employee of Siegg, Gwendolen left the two henchmen in his care, to do with as he pleased.

They were pressed into service as clowns for the remainder of the carnival.

Now out of leads, Gehenna suggested that perhaps Gwendolen might catch Elena’s scent in the air. She knew her well, for she had dragged the former prisoner to Shiva’s sanctum, and indeed could pick up the trail of where the two Turks had gone. Gehenna, Gwendolen, and Ryana hurried after them, out of the village and into the woods.

Here, they were easy to follow – they had taken no pains to conceal their tracks. The heroes hurried to pursue them, full of worry and rage. Now, as any scholar of the Espers know, sometimes an Esper or a child thereof emanates power when their emotions are in turmoil, and this power may cause ancient creations of the Espers to respond.

In the forests around Fukirawa, there was at this time a Dragon sleeping – and when it sensed Gehenna pass above, it felt his powerful presence, and awoke. The great green serpent burst from a cave, driven furious by Gehennas emotions!

Gwendolen tried to fight this beast, but even to a great hero, such an undertaking is a foolish endeavour. It was not until Gehenna calmed his feelings, that he could master the monster: He burnt the symbol of Bahamut, ancient Esper and creator of the Dragons, into the creatures’ hide. At this, the monster stopped to hear his plea. The Son of Ifrith bade the Dragon, that it would carry them to find the two Turks. He learned, that it had been robbed of its purpose in life and would gladly serve an Esper-born.

So it was, that Gehenna, Gwendolen and Ryana stepped up on the monsters’ back. Ryana was very fearful of heights, and so Gwendolen must hold her tight throughout the journey, which was swift, and dangerous, and impressive. Within moments, they were hovering above strange old ruins, far out in the forest, where the two Turks were resting.

Gwendolen fell upon them like a meteor from the sky, and the dragon breathed fire to threaten them – despite this, the one called Reno seemed completely unafraid. He told them, that all they were carrying from Fukirawa was pickled vegetables, and as Gwendolen opened their bags, she found that they were telling the truth. Their negotiations with Amanda had been quite mundane, and were not related to sinister matters of any sorts.

Presently, however, something quite sinister approached. Within the forest was hidden a Shadow of the Emperor, who had intended to meet with Biggs and Wedge at this location. Noticing that his two operatives were missing, the shadow shortly dissolved into nothingness, after mocking the heroes – and even managing to scare the fearless Reno. He gave the heroes no clue, where their kidnapped friends might be.

Now, the three were growing desperate. In an effort to perhaps find the laboratory where the scientist Amanda had been working, Gehenna used his Magi-senses to try to feel the presence of the brand he had placed upon her. He was successful, sensing that she was – to his surprise – in the city of Coliseum!

They set up on the back of the Dragon, and it flew them there. On the way, Gwendolen gave the creature a name in the tongue of Men, and from that day it would be known among mortals as Momo, though the Espers would continue to call it by its true name. As all Dragons, Momo longed to have something to guard, but for the moment it was both homeless and without a purpose.

The trip was short. Soon, they set down in Coliseum, landing in the great Arena – and scaring the audience half witless. Gwendolen found a great stone, and rolled it aside: Beneath was hidden a staircase, leading down into the depths of a great cave system. Coliseum had once been built upon these old caves, when they had contained rich veins of gold and silver, in a distant past.

Into the darkness they descended: Gehenna, Gwendolen, and Ryana. There, in the depths of the cave, they once more found Amanda – and Jessica! It became evident that their companion had tried to escape, for she was bound and gagged – but at present, she was unconscious. They very nearly slew Amanda for her cooperation in the kidnapping, but it was decided that she should be spared – in part because she knew nothing of Ogawa’s vile experiments, but also in part because Jessica was in need of medical attention. They made sure she could not leave the cavern, and told her to treat Jessicas’ wounds while they searched the rest of the cavern.

Soon, they found Professor Beatrice’s laboratory. It was hidden deep beneath the earth, secretly concealed here in the Land of Fuuka. They did not use stealth in their approach – they broke inside, breaking the equipment and scaring away the scientists, and in Gehennas’ case, killing those who were not fast enough. Several anti-magic generators were destroyed, and finally Gwendolen hacked her way into the central chamber, using a battle-axe that she had brought from the Arena.

Inside, they faced Ogawa Beatrice once more. She was manipulating some kind of massive Magi-container, filled to the brim with the radiant glow of Alexanders’ power. Leesa was nowhere in sight, and Ogawa told them, that they had come too late – she had been taken outside their reach. Gwendolen threw her axe at the woman, but it was deflected – two shadow-demons, weak Shadows of the Emperor, were surrounding her.

They hurled themselves into the battle. Almost instantly, Gwendolen was severely injured by a shadow-sword, and only moments thereafter, Ryana. Seeing her close friend so injured, Gwendolen threw herself into the Magi-container, smashing through it with ease, hoping to release Alexanders’ power. Something else happened – something quite unexpected. Instead of flowing outward from the broken container, the power flowed into Gwendolen! In an instant, she was transformed into a radiant, angelic being not unlike Leesa at the height of her power. For some reason the energy harmonized with her body, and caused no injury.

Now everything happened very quickly. Gwendolen leaped upon one of the shadow-demons and destroyed it, while the other grievously injured Gehenna. Then, she turned against Ogawa Beatrice, and seized the woman by the neck, penetrating the shadow-barrier established by the demons. Facing a being of light and sacred fury, Ogawa Beatrice stood not a chance, and fell unconscious.

Shortly, the battle was over. The last remaining shadow-demon melted away in the aura of fire surrounding Gehenna, though not before it could hurt Ryana further. With no more enemies to fight, Gwendolen let go of Alexanders’ power, and was a goddess no more.

They took Ogawa Beatrice prisoner, binding her in thick chains, and Gwendolen took her lab coat to dress herself – for the violent metamorphosis had destroyed everything she was wearing. Furthermore they collected the Espers’ power in a large thaumarecorder, so that they might present him with it at their next meeting. Then, they made their way to find Jessica – still having no trace of Leesa.

On their way out of the laboratory, though, they were unpleasantly surprised. The doctor, Amanda, had been attacked – by none other than the Emperor! Gehenna could confirm that this was no mere shadow – this was the Emperor himself, and he was intent on taking Jessica as he had taken Leesa. Fortunately, the old guide Palom had come to her aid, and was now fighting the Emperor with all the power that remained within him. Palom knew, that if he used too much Magi he would die – but nonetheless, the old man fought to protect Jessica, as he had once fought to protect his own children from the Emperor.

Gwendolen and Gehenna were in no shape to fight, and Ryana was unconscious. It looked as if they would stand no chance – so Gehenna stepped forth, proposing a trade with the dark Emperor Alexius. He offered his own life, and his own powers, in exchange for Jessica’s life. The Emperor declined his offer, declaring that if Gehenna had been his target, he would have already taken him.

Just as they were about to attack him, seeing no other choice but to fight to the death, the Dragon Momo came to their aid – and on his back, Michael and Keith! Finding himself surrounded by his old enemies, the Emperor reluctantly disappeared – too cunning to take any risks, because Palom had already managed to wound him.

Keith rushed to the aid of his injured daughter, and Michael spoke with Palom. There was much to discuss, but first they must make their way out of the caves, for they were crumbling. It was a good thing that Momo’s presence had scared the spectators away from the Arena, for moments later it collapsed into the old caverns, the heroes making their way out just in the nick of time. Amanda died in the caves from her injuries, but not before she could give Gwendolen the antidote to the poison in Jessica’s veins.

They flew, heading once more for the woodland Sanctum in which they had last met Alexander. Upon the back of the dragon they spoke, and much was spoken of: Palom’s battle with the Emperor had drained too much of his strength, and without his Magi he would soon die. They learned, that Palom had done what Gwendolen unwittingly had done: Absorb the power of an Esper to fight the Emperor. In the first battle at Phoenix Mountains, he had filled himself with the power of Phoenix, and it had broken his body. Now, only Magi sustained him, and for each spell he cast he would grow a little weaker.

Shortly, they arrived in the Sanctum. There, they met Alexander – and to their surprise, Leesa was by his side! Palom had sent word to Alexander of what had happened, and as the Emperor was distracted by bantering with Gwendolen and Gehenna in the caves, Alexander had hurried to steal the girl out of his minions’ claws. Both were overjoyed to see her, though Gehenna’s happiness was mixed with bitter shame, that he had not protected her better. For this, he apologized profusely, and Alexander forgave him – though he never quite forgave himself.

Now Gwendolen presented Alexander with the thaumarecorder, and told him what had happened. She wondered, whether she might have been designed as an artificial Esper: Absorbing Alexanders’ power had been so easy, that she had accomplished it without trying. Michael, Palom and Alexander all agreed, that it might be so – and said it was a good thing she had let the power go, lest she might end up dependent upon Magi, like Palom. But in her heart, she doubted this warning.

As it were, Alexander must now leave. His last action at the Sanctum, was to appoint Momo as its guardian, that he might watch over Phoenix, who had made this Sanctum his home. Thus giving the Dragon purpose in life once more, Alexander left. Gehenna spoke to Jessica, but did not tell her of the sacrifice he had almost made for her sake. Gwendolen spoke to Ryana, but did not manage to say anything sensible, for she was overwhelmed with emotions.

Thus re-united with the kidnapped Esper-children, they took it upon themselves to rest. Shortly, they would interrogate Ogawa – but first, there would be time to eat, sleep, and tend to their wounds.

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Dark Knights and Diplomacy
In which the Dark Knight returns

The next day, they took it upon themselves to interrogate Ogawa. They carried her outside the Sanctum, and tied her down to the ground in the forest with metal chains. Gehenna did most of the interrogation, using his fire to threaten and burn her. She told them little, for she knew little, but she could confirm that Siegg was hiding in the Land of the Turks, and that his plans were great and terrible. Much more she did not have time to tell, before the shadowy form of Diablos began to manifest. Gwendolen, who would not let the enemy slip away so easily, killed Ogawa Beatrice with one savage blow before she could be taken by the shadowy Esper.

Diablos spoke with them only briefly, but told them that Tzeng and Siegg had once been friends, and gave them an enigmatic warning. Immediately after the vague, shadowy aura of the Esper disappeared, they made contact with Odine and told him what had happened. Odine, worried, told them it seemed likely the Emperor planned to storm the very gates of the Esper world themselves, which might destroy the entire world in the process – for to open the gate between Heaven and Earth would unleash the awesome power of the higher spheres upon the unsuspecting mortal world. By doing so, the Emperor believed he could gain the full powers of a true Esper.

The heroes considered their options. The best shot they had, was to try and sniff out Siegg and perhaps stop him – for the Emperor was well out of their reach. They resolved to do so, and for this reason traveled eastwards once more, to reach the Land of the Turks and confer with their leader, Tzeng. Tzeng had a vast network of spies, and if Siegg was hiding in his lands there was a good chance he would know of it. Gwendolen, however, suspected treachery; Tzeng might very well still be in league with Siegg, and so she suggested she and Ryana would enter by stealth, so that if Tzeng prepared a trap they would not all be caught in it.

So it was that Gehenna, Leesa, Jessica and Palom entered the magnificent halls of Tzeng on official business, sporting fine clothes and splendor, while Gwendolen and Ryana stole over the palace walls, stealing the outfits of a pair of guards to better blend in. They left their victims behind in a shrubbery, and entered through the window – blending in flawlessly among the rather eccentric Turks, who were used to their people climbing the walls. They did not know where to search for signs of treachery, but Gwendolen suggested making their way to the archives.

To find them, she produced her list of people to punch and gave it to a Turk, asking him to file it in the archives. Then they both shadowed him to the archive, but found it guarded; while Gwendolen distracted the guard, Ryana slipped inside and looked for any signs that the Turks might be dealing with Siegg. She returned with evidence that someone was covertly building a laboratory – and Gwen suspected that it might be Reno.

Meanwhile, Gehenna was speaking with Tzeng in private – sending out Reno and the other bodyguards – and found him strange and elusive. He started to realize something was afoul, but could not quite yet accuse the mighty man of treachery – he spoke carefully, trying to divine the truth behind the man’s words. While Reno waited outside, Gwen and Ryana went to confront him; he denied any knowledge about a secret laboratory. He said someone in the basement might know, however, and led the two women there.

Now someone entered the room with Gehenna and Tzeng – the Ninth of Kardus, Elizabeth Weir! She had died a long time ago, and yet she was here – re-animated by some kind of shadowy magic that Gehenna could not quite understand. She told Gehenna that they had walked into a trap long ago – that Palom had been possessed by shadowy Magi when Alexander stabbed him so long ago. The old man was lost – a puppet to the Emperor. Horrified, Gehenna looked on as Palom turned against the children, driven by the blackest of magic. He tried to stop Elizabeth Weir from leaving, but she passed through fire unharmed.

Now a fight ensued. Gehenna tried to stop Palom, but it was quite fruitless – the old man retained much of his power, and the half-Esper dared not fight him with his full strength, having too much respect for the old hero. Yet, now the battlefield suddenly changed. The floor exploded, and through it came flying Gwendolen and the Sixth of Kardus, the Dark Knight, Angela Treagent!

A violent battle took place. Gwendolen, Ryana and Reno tried to defeat the Dark Knight, while Jessica, Leesa and Gehenna did their best to subdue Palom. It was a fight doomed to end in tragedy – when Palom was weakened by his friends’ attacks, Angela killed him and took his soul. After that, the Dark Knight hastily made her retreat, disappearing into thin air as the Emperor had, leaving the heroes behind with the corpse of their guide.

It was a loss, but not completely. In the chaos, Tzeng had been freed from some hypnosis and was able to see clearly; he understood now what Angela had duped him into doing. The Turks were enemies of Siegg, but had unwittingly been working with him when they allied themselves with Angela. Now the Dark Knight had been forced to tip her hand, and the Turks learned of her treasonous ways. They promised to root out and destroy everything they had helped her build – Angela had killed Palom, but she had lost her grip of an entire nation in the process.

The heroes once more returned to the Sanctum to bury Paloms’ body. They spoke once more with Keith and Michael, and told them of Palom’s death. Now, they learned, that to fulfill his plan the Emperor would need the souls of the Kardus, alongside some rare and precious stones bestowed upon the world by the Espers. Palom’s soul had been the first step: The second would be to obtain four mystic stones. One was the Heart of the Forest – the other, the Eye of Ra. One was hidden somewhere in the Land of Savage, and the fourth in the lands to the far south. It was resolved, that Keith and Michael would try to retrieve the stone to the East, while Gehenna, Gwendolen, and their companions should travel south to find the fourth stone. With all gems in their possession, at least they might keep them from falling into the Emperor’s hands.

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The Gargantuan Tunnels
In which an Esper is rescued from his own followers

After resting for one day, the heroes said their farewells to Phoenix and Momo, to set out in different directions. Keith approached Gehenna, and told him to teach and guide Jessica – her role in the future skirmish with the Emperor would be prominent, and she would need to learn to wield Magi from someone proficient in it. Keith himself could only teach her to use the blade.

Michael, meanwhile, instructed the women of the group that an old transportation network existed that could take them more swiftly to the South. Parts of this network were emulating Esper Magi, and would allow near-instant transportation between distant locations – but sadly, the Magi fueling this network would since long have dissipated. However, parts of the network were older, and more reliable – akin to the trains of Trakonia – and would perhaps still be functioning. A transportation node existed in the southern Land of Fuuka, and although it had fallen into ruin there was a chance it might provide a much-needed shortcut.

It was resolved to at least give this ruined node a chance. They traveled south under Gwendolen’s lead, moving through the forests and staying away from civilization so as to not draw attention. The next few days passed uneventfully, and they soon found the ruins – the remainder of a civilization preceding the Magi Wars. They uncovered a pair of statues depicting Ifrit and Shiva, tied to a pattern of chevrons akin to what they’d seen in Lifa Forest; this was the magical transport. Gehenna channeled Magi into his fathers’ statue, and this awoke the transportation node – or “Warp Zone” as it was once called – but all he learned was that not a single node elsewhere in the world had been activated, so it was impossible to use the network to travel anywhere but here.

Ryana, fortunately, discovered a flight of stairs leading down underneath the ruins. From the glyphs outside it, they could discern that this was the nonmagical part of the transportation network, and they investigated this more closely, hoping it would still function. As they descended into the darkness, they made two quite surprising discoveries!

The first was the nature of the ancient network: Underneath the city ran a network of strange tunnels, full of a peculiar kind of giant vines that thrived deep below the surface. These peculiar plants were home to strange creatures known as Gargantuans – enormous, insect-like creatures who lived out their lives here in the darkness, scurrying back and forth across the giant plants to feed on strange yellow shoots and flowers that thrived here in the lightless depths. The people of old had tamed these creatures, attaching great howdahs underneath their bodies to travel with them as they scurried across the vines in search of food.

The second discovery, however, was that this particular ruin was not the remains of just any city – it had once been a central place for worship of the Espers, and before they could board the Gargantuan-carriage, a peculiar black knight appeared, riding down a giant vine on a flaming horse.

This was a Guardian called Lura, brother to the Lifa Tree, and he was easily disarmed as Gwendolen ran his lance into the ground, knocking him off his horse, whereupon Gehenna tied him to the ground with tendrils of darkness. Lura had been tasked to protect the Heart of the Mountain, a bright green gem stored inside its chest; when it learned of Gehennas’ heritage, and the approaching threat of the Emperor, he willingly gave the precious stone to the Half-Esper, who promised to carry it to a Sanctum in the south. They boarded the Gargantuan-carriage, and left Lura behind in the mountain.

Unfortunately, the creature – while long-lived – had not aged well, and neither had the engineering of the ancient people. After only a few hours, the harness suspending the passenger seats from the Gargantuan began to give way, throwing the great creature off-balance. Gwendolen climbed atop the cabin and tried to hold it in place, but she could not hold it indefinitely; it wasn’t long before they crashed down to the floor of the tunnel. Fortunately, Leesa’s shield protected them.

Now a group of strange creatures approached them – pale humanoids not unlike the Wraith, natives to these underground tunnels. Gwendolen spoke with them, instructing them that Gehenna was a god, which they believed. They were taken back to the creatures’ cavern, which was lit by a great glowing crystal in the ceiling. There they met their chieftain, who could speak their language. The creatures kept an old man their prisoner, intending to sacrifice him to the Esper Ramuh; Gehenna and Gwendolen objected, rescuing the man from his cage.

This old man turned out to be none other than the Esper Ramuh himself, drained of his power. He had entered these caves intending to stop the Emperor, who had his sights set on stealing the Heart of the Mountain as well as the great light illuminating this cavern. With the Heart already in their possession, the heroes decided to further delay Alexius Bane, and therefore designed a booby-trap from salpeter and wonderflonium, which would detonate when a Half-Esper of great power came nearby. They planted this trap by the glowing crystal, so that the Emperor would be unable to approach without destroying the stone.

By controlling the glowing crystal, apparently, one could control the network of Gargantuans. The heroes set their trap, and then sought out another Gargantuan in which to continue their journey. The rest of the travel went quite smoothly – Jessica spoke to Ramuh, and finally learned the true nature of her mother: It was the Esper Carbuncle. This Ramuh knew because Jessica had once used the reflective shield, which only Carbuncle possessed; both Gehenna and Gwendolen confessed to having heard hints of this from Keith and Michael.

They also learned some of their destination, the land of Gulag. It had once been a tropical land, a great jungle encircling an enormous volcano bearing the same name; in the Magi Wars, however, a great cataclysm had befallen it. The volcano had nearly exploded in a tremendous outburst of fire-Magi; a daughter of Shiva had prevented this at the last moment by sacrificing her life, plunging the entire area into an ice age. Nowadays, only the volcano retained a warm climate – around it lay a thick band of snowy wasteland, isolating Gulag from the surrounding world.

They reached their destination, and could conclude that the climate of Gulag was still more inhospitable than that of Trakonia. A biting blizzard tore across the snowy landscape, and the volcano was nowhere in sight; due to the unstable magma in the area, the ancient people had been unable to dig their tunnels too close to it. Gehenna, Gwendolen, Leesa and Ramuh would be safe from the biting cold, but Ryana and Jessica would not. To this end, Gwendolen set out to hunt some wild animals, hoping to skin them and clothe her friends in their fur.

She found a massive polar bear, and after a fierce and brutal battle, defeated it – learning in the process that some residue of Alexander’s power apparently still coursed through her veins, for she managed to briefly form a shield like that of Leesas’. This concerned her, and confused her – so to the point that when she brought the slain bear back, she was lost. There, in the icy wasteland, she had a chance meeting with Angela – who told her, to her surprise, that Gwendolen would be crucial in serving the Dark Knights’ master. Meanwhile, Ramuh and Gehenna grew worried – sensing the presence of the Third of Kardus.

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The Lost Sanctum
In which the heroes find Ifrit's old home.

While Ryana and Jessica argued that the should search for Gwendolen, Ramuh insisted that they must push onwards to the Sanctum before the sun set. The white storms of Gulag were home to all manner of dangerous creatures, most of which were nocturnal – it would be unwise to waste daylight. So it was that they moved through the snow, Gehenna burning a swath through the icy ground where he walked, clearing space for those behind him. Jessica and Ryana were poorly protected against the cold, but pressed on nonetheless.

Gwendolen, meanwhile, climbed a mountain to get to a vantage point. She dressed herself in bear-skins and used her orange clothes as a flag to try and draw attention, and used her extensive knowledge of yodeling to make herself heard. Alas, she was found not by her allies, but by a strange pale woman who was camping in a cave. This woman was Juutila Dawnshire, the Eighth of Kardus. Perilously, Gwendolen climbed down to her, and they spoke. Juutila soon learned of Gwen’s identity, but Gwendolen did not know who the strange woman was – nonetheless, they made their way to the village of Taribia together. On the way, Gwendolen taught her new friend how to ride a sled downhill for fun.

When they arrived in the abandoned town, Gehenna and the others had already arrived, making themselves comfortable. As soon as Gwendolen entered and introduced her new friend, Gehenna rose from his seat, prepared to attack her – only Ramuh’s presence prevented any bloodshed. Under tense circumstances, they spoke, and learned that Juutila was loyal to the Espers, but also had an oath of loyalty to Alexius Bane, which she refused to break. So it was that she still served the Emperor, even after his utter corruption.

Since she had helped Gwendolen find her companions, they let her go free – although it was understood they would meet again, and when they did it would likely end in battle. Gehenna was reluctant to let her leave, but Ramuh told him to stay his hand, and so it was that she disappeared into the bitter winter once more.

They rested in the town hall of Taribia for one night. The following day, they pressed on – Ryana and Jessica now swathed in polar bear furs to protect them from the biting cold. On the way, the storm thinned out somewhat, and they were contacted by Odine; he told them that the seven gems they were searching could be combined to form a weapon, mighty enough to slay an Esper. Long ago, the Eidolons had imbued their power in these stones, thinking they might serve as a last resort in a time of great crisis – the Ancients had designed the stones, but they were powered by the pure Magi of the Eidolon Espers. Odine also told them, that Sarasvati had definitely escaped her mother, and had grown in strength; in all likelihood, she had used Siegg’s devices to steal power from Shiva. This was greatly disheartening news.

Now, when they were quite close to the Lost Sanctum, which had once belonged to Ifrith but had been abandoned when the Great Winter fell upon Gulag, Ryana suddenly slipped and fell down a crevice in the ice. She landed in a great icy cavern, too slippery to climb into and too deep to safely jump; in addition, the floor was fragile and full of cracks after Ryana’s landing. The others gathered around the hole, debating how she might be rescued – unfortunately, Ryana was carrying their only rope.

A plan was devised – Ryana would take off some of her clothes and tie them together to form a balloon, which Gehenna could fill with hot air using his powers – in this fashion, she could send up one end of the rope, and her friends could tie it to something. The plan could perhaps have worked, but sadly Ryana – with her frozen fingers – fumbled with the rope, and it fell away from the balloon. Realizing that her need for help was dire, Gwendolen went down to aid her.

Just then, something burst from the walls! Three Frost Giants were sleeping in the cavern, held inside the vast expanse of ice. Two of them climbed up to the surface, whereas a third burst out inside the cave, attacking Ryana! A short and brutal battle ensued, in which Gehenna knocked one giant down into the cave, where Gwendolen tied it together with the other giant – leaving them neatly strung up so that Gehenna could burn them with his hellfire. All in all, it was a successful fight, in which only Gwendolen and Ramuh were injured.

Gwendolen rescued Ryana from the cave by jumping on a falling giant, and they hurried to the Lost Sanctum to warm her up – for her exposure to the elements was already placing her in danger. The inside of the sanctum resembled nothing so much as a dead, abandoned cave, but it was not as cold as outside; Gehenna provided a warm bath, and Ryana was warmed and placed in a bed of polar bear skins, where Gwendolen kept a close eye on her.

As this was done, they inspected the old Sanctum, and found that it could perhaps be restored to its former glory by melting an obsidian wall near Ifriths’ old hot springs – sadly, it was protected by powerful Magi, and even Gehennas prodigious fires could do little but make it slightly warm to the touch. They gave the Heart of the Mountain to Ramuh, that he might safekeep it, and spoke for some time to the powerful Esper.

It was only now, that they learned their true purpose – though they had suspected it for some time. Ramuh told them, that they had been chosen to replace the failing Kardus – but nobody had told them, for fear they might hesitate if they knew their true task. Now, they had already accepted the burden of defeating the Emperor – and after that, someone would have to take the place of the Kardus, or another Magi War would erupt. Furthermore, Leesa spoke with Gehenna, and he lectured her in strength – for in the fight against the Frost Giants, her shield had for the first time failed her, and the fire-Esper was worried for her safety.

After a few more conversations, including Jessica telling a story about the time she fell in love with a boy who turned into a demon, they went to sleep in the old Sanctum – preparing for a dangerous trek to the land of Gulag, where people dwelt in a strange jungle and worshiped a foreign moon-god.

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Lava Passion
In which Gehenna meets his brother

The heroes set out from the Lost Sanctum towards Mount Gulag early in the morning, Gwendolen carrying Ryana who was still suffering from injuries and hypothermia. It was believed that if they could just reach the warm jungles around Gulag, she would be safe. To this end, they trekked through the snow with Gehenna taking point, and soon they reached a pass which would be a shortcut into the magical jungles, kept warm by the mountains’ burning heart. Evidently the Emperor had predicted that they would find this shortcut, for one of his Shadows was waiting for them on the other side.

A brief battle in the outskirts of the jungle ensued, in which Lisa watched over Ryana while the other three assaulted the Emperor, uprooting trees and setting fire to vines. It seems he had not expected them so soon, for he was taken by surprise and they defeated him without so much as a scratch from his black sword.

Knowing now that the Emperor was aware of their presence, they hurried their pace towards the village at Gulag’s foot, where the strange natives dwelt. In this time, the blizzard of Shiva completely surrounded Gulag, and so its natives were completely cut off from the world – the traveling heroes had no idea what to expect. Thus it came as a relief to them, that the natives paid respect to only two entities: Konsu, the Moon – and Ifrith. When Gehenna presented himself as a child of the Infernal Lion, the village elder knelt before him. Gwendolen also fell to her knees, but that was unrelated – it stemmed from a combination of deadly jungle fever and having eaten poisonous juju beans, which cause fearsome hallucinations. The sickness is instantly fatal to most humans; Gwendolen shook it off in a night.

They rested at the village for one night, and received vaccines against the jungle fever. Gehenna also spoke with the village elder, Gary, about their faith. He learned that Ifrith had visited the people around Gulag every hundred years ever since the Espers first came to Terra. Even before that time, the village had received the Eye of Konsu in a flaming meteor from the sky, and hence they were doubly blessed by the Espers. Gehenna convinced them to give him the Eye, as it could no longer be safe in this village. Gary agreed that it was better for a son of Ifrith to protect this ancient gemstone, even though without it, the village would be without protection.

The following day, they set off towards Mount Gulag, accompanied by a native guide called Ma-Ha-Sutra. They traveled through the jungle, and entered through an old hollow that led deep into the mountain. Someone – Ifrit, perhaps – had carved out tunnels that were safe for them to travel. Now, as they came closer and closer to the heart of the mountain, Gehenna seemed uncharacteristically nervous, and it wasn’t long before he told them he must leave. He had made a promise to his father, and now was the time for him to fulfill it. Lisa begged to come with him, but this was something he must do alone.

He took of his clothes, and left them with Lisa – revealing a body covered in scars. A child of the Espers, he explained, must be tempered and tested in order to reach their full potential. Now was the time for him to face his true test: A trial of adulthood, which he had been preparing for all his life. Without this trial, his powers would never grow strong enough for him to face the Emperor – but there was a real risk he might fail the trials, and die. Such is the way of Ifrit.

They said their farewells, some with sorrow, others – such as Gwendolen – claiming that he would return in no time. As it would turn out, she was correct.

When Gehenna entered the chamber of the trial, he found a strange, bronze-skinned man with features not unlike those of his father. It was his brother, Zochaan. Zochaan explained that he would be conducting the trials, as he had done numerous times before – and pointed to a pile of ashes on the floor, the remains of a brother who hadn’t made it.

First was the trial of Wisdom. Gehenna found himself surrounded by a wall of dancing flames, slowly closing in on him, burning too hot even for him. Thinking quickly, he created fires of his own, burning up the oxygen supply and turning the air in the chamber into bitter poison – depleted of fuel, his brothers’ fire weakened, and he could step through it unharmed.

Second was the trial of Strength. Zochaan drew his flaming sword, and attacked Gehenna; a fierce battle ensured, which Gehenna could only win by exploiting his brothers’ arrogance. Feigning weakness and fear, he made his brother careless – until an opening in his defense allowed Gehenna to strike him with his flaming staff, searing his hand and leaving a wound that would not heal for days. Thus, he had proven his worth as a warrior.

Zochaan told him that now, only the final trial remained: The Trial of Endurance. He struck the ground with his palm, and it opened up beneath Gehenna – dropping him dozens of feet into the raw, molten heart of Mount Gulag, immersing him in magma. The Son of Ifrith gave a horrifying scream of utter agony before the liquid stone swallowed him, and he was gone.

Meanwhile, Gwendolen and the others had come face to face with the guardian of the Heart of Fire: Zjaar. Zjaar was a creature made entirely out of molten magma, and he had been ordered by Ifrit to fight anyone who came in his presence – even an Esper. The creature, a simple construct, must obey its orders and so attacked them. Gwendolen, thinking fast, tried to tear out its heart; unfortunately, this did not kill it – it merely morphed, from a humanoid form into one like a great dragon. A drawn-out, fierce battle ensued, for the girls could only fight this beast with great difficulty, surrounded as it was by searing heat and armed with deadly lava. It looked as if all was lost when Lisa lost her footing, and was thrown by a backfiring spell into the magma under their feet.

Just then, however, Gehenna rose from the magma under their feet. Refined and reforged by the pain he had endured, his mastery of fire and flame had grown tenfold – he rescued the badly seared Lisa, and proceeded to tear the Heart of Flame from the dragon’s chest. This killed it instantly, and it collapsed, solidifying in a pile of obsidian immediately. Gwendolen, covered in burn wounds, congratulated him on his return, but said little else – for now, saving Lisa’s life must be the first priority.

They made their way through the tunnels back to Zochaan, and he reluctantly allowed them to stay there. As Gwendolen – with the aid of Ma-Ha-Sutra – tended to Lisa’s wounds, Zochaan and Gehenna spoke. He learned, that his older brother had been confined to this mountain for attempting to wield the Heart of Flame against their father, trying to usurp him and take his place. Now, Gehenna faced a choice – carry the Heart himself, or bestow it upon his older brother, who swore he had changed his ways. He decided to trust Zochaan, and gave him the stone – much like Gehenna’s power had grown tenfold, so did Zochaan, and he grew horns and a mane like his father. He promised Gehenna would not regret this decision, and left – eager to use the Heart of Flame once more. Hopefully, this time, he would turn it against the enemies of Terra rather than use it selfishly.

A tunnel from Zochaan chamber would take them back to Taribia. Gwendolen did what she could to treat Lisa’s wounds using herbs and simple bandages, but she would need more advanced medical supplies. Thus it was resolved they would return to Taribia and search for medicine there. Before they left, Gehenna performed one last feat of Esper-Magi; retrieving his clothes from Lisa, he unwove the Magi inherent in them, and absorbed their power into himself; clothing himself now in a cloak made from pure darkness.

They barely had time to arrive in Taribia before they came face-to-face with no less than four people: Juutila Dawnshire, Angela Tragent, and two assassins from the R-series calling themselves the Shadow Stalkers. Angela ordered the others to leave, and then addressed the heroes. She had a secret to tell them, one that could only be told safely here in the blizzard: She wanted them to save Alexius Bane.

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