Hello. I am DarthRevan, a newbie here. I’d been working on a SD3 fanfiction for some time and I needed to find someplace where I could get some feedback. I heard I could post here. So… criticisms, concerns, praises, objections, violent denunciations… feel free to make them.
Chapter One. Here goes.
One. The Dark Circle
The fishing village Palo was visible in the distance, a few white buildings against the huge dark mountain behind them, the home of the Wind Kingdom of Rolante. Mataro recognised the sight – he had seen it three years before, before escaping the explosion of Bucca. He gazed fondly into the dawn light, smiling bleakly over the city before him. This time, his purpose was far less frivolous, now he was pursuing no ghosts, no spooks, no monsters, though the feeling of excitement that tingled at the nape of his neck was the same as they had once brought him. He had a cause, and he had a goal – he would pursue it to the end, even to his death. Fate would be waiting for him, though what she had in store for him he knew not. Mataro had looked around the small circle in the basement of the merchants’ guild in Byzel just as he was looking out at Palo now, the light of the candle at the centre of the table lighting up the grim, determined countenances of the Abolitionist Society of Byzel, including his own fair-haired round face. They had to be both: between them, they were fighting an uphill battle in Byzel – most of the merchants in the port city either benefited strongly from the slave trade or didn’t have the fortitude to oppose it. These men around him were mostly former slaves and disgruntled underlings of slave traders, but every now and again a merchant affiliated with the black market would develop a conscience and work for freedom in Byzel. The most trusted among them and the leader of the Byzel abolitionists, a grizzled and seasoned-looking former merchant named Billie, removed a sheet of crumpled, yellow paper from his vest. ‘Fate has written to us again,’ Billie announced, his voice a low growl. ‘I just got this off the port – we have a lot of sympathisers in Palo, it would seem, as I got this from the captain himself.’ ‘What bad news has Fate for us this month?’ asked a rather wry, skinny former slave named Peter. ‘Sometimes I wonder whether or not she’s even on our side.’ ‘Rest assured, Peter, I know where her loyalties lie. Apparently, once, the slavers captured someone very close to her. As to the letter, well… we’ll see what news she brings,’ the merchant extracted a small pair of glasses and held the letter up to the light. The writing was light and broad, but firm, a young woman’s hand. But Mataro got no more a glimpse of it than that before Billie glanced over it and started to read. ‘My friends in Byzel, I am afraid I can no longer stop the course of events which Navarre’s thieves guild has unwittingly set in motion, but must ask you to stand strong with me a little while longer. The Dark Circle is soon to act against us, the defenders of freedom; I must ask aid from a trustworthy member of our Society, who knows Byzel and knows the sea routes. Tell him to come to Palo, alone. When he gets to Palo, he must find thanks and simply say good-bye. You will know us when you see us. We await your arrival. – Fate.’ ‘What does that mean, “find thanks and say good-bye”?’ asked Mataro. ‘One of her codes,’ Peter scoffed. ‘A trustworthy member who knows Byzel and knows the sea routes…’ Billie read. ‘I could go to Palo to meet Fate…’ ‘Absolutely not,’ Auram, a tall, rather imposing black-browed man, rumbled to Billie. ‘We need you here. More, it sounded like we needed a Byzel native, and you are from Maia.’ ‘True enough. Mataro,’ Billie spoke up. ‘Yes,’ Mataro looked up. ‘Will you go to Palo, and assure Fate of our aid?’ ‘Are you sure I would be the most useful choice?’ Mataro asked uncertainly. ‘I may be a Byzel native, but…’ ‘Don’t be so modest,’ Peter smiled lazily. ‘You’re the resident paranormal expert, are you not? Didn’t you once boast that you knew the route the Ghost Ship took, three years back?’ ‘Yes,’ Mataro lowered his head, ‘and I found it. I even saw the Booskaboo after I escaped it. But I didn’t have the wisdom to avoid the eruption of Bucca Island.’ ‘You still had enough wits about you to survive it,’ Billie nodded approvingly. ‘I think of the few of us here, you probably have the greatest use to our mistress Fate. And certainly you have proven your devotion to our cause.’ ‘I will not rest until every slave in Byzel can walk free,’ Mataro confirmed. ‘When do I leave?’ ‘As soon as you may,’ Billie told him. ‘May the Goddess speed you on your journey.’ And so it was that he came to be perched on the prow of this fishing vessel, en route to his meeting with Fate. The wind roared and whipped about him, ensuring a speedy landing for the ship. The sun rose and Mataro found himself jostled about by the fishermen and the tradesmen of the fishing village, which had grown prosperous over the past three years before Mataro had set sail from here on the Ghost Ship. He pushed his sandy hair away from his eyes as the light poured into them. He didn’t want to admit it to himself, but he was lost – what did it mean, to ‘find thanks and simply say good-bye’, in order to meet with this woman, Fate, whom no-one seemed to have met or even know? ‘One of her codes’, Peter had said. Indeed, she liked to use them – Fate was not her real name, that much he could be sure. And what was this ‘Dark Circle’ that she had mentioned? Perhaps some danger to the abolitionist movement, some other secret society? Suddenly Mataro felt vulnerable and alone. Perhaps he was not as well-equipped to take on this mission as his fellow society-members had thought him to be. Mataro found himself once again dependent on the hospitality of Palo, the one commodity which seemed to be in short supply. It was understandable that the residents of the village might grow resentful of outsiders, particularly after their occupation by the thieves and assassins of Navarre. But it still annoyed Mataro to no end that he, as an outsider, could not get even one civil word out of these citizens of Palo, much less a word of thanks. Even when he stopped to help a little boy find his pet chicken, the boy simply took the chicken and went running without so much as looking back. He was beginning to find it hopeless, spending much of his time staring at the dilapidated ceiling in the inn, whispering the words to himself: ‘find thanks and simply say good-bye,’ over and over again. And he saw a young woman enter the door to the inn. She was dressed in the garb and armour of one of the Amazons of Rolante – he recognised the uniform from a girl he’d met three years before: Riesz, the famous Heroine of the Mana Sword. The image of the Heroine rose to his mind, an image powerful and at the same time tantalising – seventeen years old she had been then, as beautiful a creature as ever walked upon this world, said to be an avatar of the goddess of love and war. How well had she deserved that honour, and not just for her appearance! Mataro distinctly remembered her tough self-sufficiency, as distinctly as he remembered her mild, courteous voice. He saw, or perhaps he fancied, a trace of Riesz in this girl now – tall, blonde, self-assured and proper even as she did the mundane business of asking the innkeeper for a bed for the night. ‘Very good, miss. And your name?’ ‘Merci, sir,’ the Amazon replied. Mataro mouthed silently to himself the name ‘Merci’ – in one of the tongues used by the merchants of Byzel, ‘merci’ was the trade word for ‘thank you’. A wild hope sprang into Mataro’s chest, and his heart began beating as she took the bed beside him. ‘Good-bye,’ Mataro murmured to her. Merci started, and then hesitated just slightly as she turned toward him. A flower came out of her hair and she took it in hand, holding it to his face. ‘And good-bye to you… for now,’ she returned gently. Mataro had little time to wonder what she meant, but even as he realised what was happening to him, the scent from the flower was making him feel heavy, as though his every limb had turned to lead. He struggled against himself as he felt himself lie back, his vision swimming, clouding over in a burst of stars, and then… blissful nothingness took him. Mataro became aware of his surroundings slowly as he emerged from his deep, drugged sleep. The soft, heavy bulk of a feather mattress lay beneath him, and though he was covered by a warm blanket, he found himself surprised by the chill of the air. A light, thin breeze whispered about Mataro’s ears, carrying the fragrance of fresh, alpine air. Mataro, with some difficulty, forced open bleary, drugged eyes which were stunned into closing themselves again by the unbearable light and dark of the world around them. As he made another attempt, he could see vague shapes in stone – he was in a bed inside a fortress! His limbs still felt as though they belonged to someone else, he moved them around like deadweight, even as the intolerable light softened as his eyes adjusted. He looked out the window at blue skies and awe-inspiring mountain peaks. What had happened to him? And then the rush of memory that comes after a deep sleep, in flashes of images before they took the forms of conscious thought. The ceiling of the inn… the beauty in the doorway… the flower in her hair being held above his face… He had been knocked unconscious by the flower! But, that had been the ‘thanks’ he had been searching for. So what was this place? Had Fate betrayed them all, or was this some kind of Abolitionist redoubt? His question was answered when an Amazon walked in, fully armoured, with a feather in her helmet and the determined look of someone who had been given an irritating duty on her face. ‘Ah,’ she said, matter-of-factly. ‘You’re awake. If you’re feeling enough recovered from the effects of the flowers to move, her Divine Majesty the Queen requires you in the throne room.’ The Queen? Of course – these were the Amazons; this must be the Kingdom of Rolante, at the foot of the Stairway to the Heavens, the highest point in the world. Mataro had noticed that the air was rather thin, though it was sweet all the same – Byzel always smelled of interesting flavours, fish and exotic spices and the salt of the sea. Up here the fragrance was milder, cleaner. Mataro found that his body was lightening nicely, and he let out a yawn and stretched widely. ‘Indeed?’ he asked, though the grogginess of his voice surprised him. ‘I’ll be there shortly, then, if you’ll kindly point me the way.’ The Amazon looked slightly annoyed as Mataro rose, but nevertheless straightforwardly told him the way to get into the throne room from there. Mataro thanked the Amazon, brushing out his longish flaxen hair and dusting off his robe to appear slightly more respectable before appearing before the Queen, though it seemed a lost cause. The Amazon led the way out into the sunlight. Mataro couldn’t help but gape. A tremendous skyline appeared out before him, the fishing village of Palo and all the human activity that took place regularly therein seemed tiny, insignificant against the sheer elemental power of the mountain that engulfed it. All Mataro could feel was awe at the landscape, beyond the mountains the open sea stretched out into the misty horizon. But it was a moment Mataro couldn’t let linger – the Amazon laid a rough hand on his shoulder to guide him withindoors. The fortress itself was impressive, too, and seeming ancient. Threads of female voices filled the halls in song, producing an eerie, unearthly sound that echoed all around him. The walls held ancient tapestries, mostly in blue and green and gold, commemorating the brave deeds of a dozen generations of the warrior-women of Rolante against various foes. As they approached the throne room at the very centre, Mataro noticed a marvellous tapestry, depicting a scene in which three steadfast heroes, guided by the hand of the Goddess, slew the Archdaemon, the grim malice of the Underworld, expressed in red and grey and black. These heroes Mataro knew for Riesz and her companions, Kevin of the Beast Kingdom and Carlie of the Holy City Wendel. The Amazon stopped him just under this magnificent work, and spoke to him. ‘You will conduct yourself with politeness and respect to her Divine Majesty. She wished to see you; her purposes remain unknown to us, but we know that whatever they are, they are bound to be important. Deserve the attention she gives you, man of Byzel.’ Mataro gave a deferential nod, and the Amazon stood guard outside as the doors were flung open. He strode forward with some trepidation into the hall. Now he was likely to get some answers – whether he had been betrayed or whether he was indeed destined to meet with Fate. He kneeled before the throne, not daring to look up at the woman seated upon it. The Queen spoke. It was a voice suited to courtesy and diplomatic deference, hardly an imperious one, but one which was at the moment quite solemn. ‘You seem familiar,’ she pondered after a few moments. ‘Look at me; show me your face.’ Mataro looked up at her, and his heart began beating wildly in his ears. ‘Divine Majesty’ had been an apt description for her: she was exquisite in her regal attire – the ceremonial armour that sat upon her comely, young-womanly frame gleamed like burnished gold (which indeed it may have been), as did the winged helmet perched upon her fair head. Her smaragdine eyes peered benevolently over him, trying to match him to memory just as he was trying to match her to his. Her heart-shaped, rosy face was framed with strawberry-blonde hair, which she let hang in a long braid over her shoulder. And he knew her, even if she did not know him. ‘Riesz!’ Mataro blurted before he could help himself, forgetting for a moment all etiquette as he recognised the young slip of an Amazon he had met three years ago. ‘I didn’t recognise you, not at first… you’re changed! You probably don’t remember me… I’m Mataro, of Byzel!’ ‘Mataro…?’ Riesz tried the name on her tongue. Mataro could not remember a time when his name sounded so pleasing, especially when it was followed by a peal of delighted laughter. ‘No… it can’t be! Not the expert on paranormal phenomena!’ ‘The very same, your Highness,’ Mataro spoke. ‘Though I haven’t pursued that particular obsession since the last voyage of the Ghost Ship. I never got a chance to say it after, but… your Highness, I’m really sorry I got you into that mess…’ ‘Don’t mention it,’ Riesz waved off the entire affair with a forgiving gesture and an angelic smile. ‘You led us to Shade and to the Booskaboo, so it all turned out well for us in the end, and I can see you made it out alright! But, we have other business to discuss. Eliza,’ she motioned to the Amazon nearest her. ‘Yes, your Highness?’ ‘I wish to speak to this person alone.’ ‘As you wish, your Highness.’ With a signal, Eliza motioned every Amazon in the hall to depart, leaving only Riesz and the young man in the hall, to speak as freely as either wished. Mataro waited for Riesz to begin. He felt that from her, answers would be forthcoming, and he was not disappointed. ‘So,’ Riesz said. ‘The Abolitionist Society of Byzel sent you.’ If she knew as much there was little point in denying it. ‘Yes,’ Mataro said. ‘Found this more worthwhile than chasing after ghosts and ghouls?’ Riesz smiled ironically. Mataro merely nodded. ‘I’m glad,’ murmured she, ‘that our cause is not entirely friendless. You see, Mataro, it was I who sent you the letter, and signed it as Fate.’ The self-proclaimed expert of unexplained phenomena would reflect later that he was perhaps not as surprised at this revelation as he ought to have been. It did, however, make a certain kind of sense. Even though Mataro had a rather obsessive nature, his intellect gracefully accepted the revelation as logical: it had been a soldier at her command that had brought him here, and the letters she had kept sending the Abolitionist Society of Byzel had betrayed an uncanny knowledge of politics and diplomacy, such as a responsible monarch might be expected to have. ‘I imagine,’ Riesz spoke, ‘you are wondering why, if I felt so strongly about slavery, I didn’t openly bring all the might of Rolante down upon the slavers and wipe it from the face of the world on the tips of our spears?’ ‘The thought had crossed my mind,’ Mataro answered her frankly. Riesz gave him a shy, rueful sort of grin. ‘I’ll be frank with you, Mataro, since you have done me the courtesy of being frank. Rolante is not the power it used to be. Even three years after we defeated the Archdaemon, Bigieu still managed to fell some of our best Amazons and burn much of the valley we inhabit. So my first duty has always been to my people, helping them to rebuild and recover. I made a promise to the spirits of my father and my mother that I would not let this kingdom fall to ruin, and I intend not to. ‘You have to realise that it is a fine line I have to walk as Queen,’ she murmured softly. ‘It is still my wish to rid the world of slavery; has been even before my dear brother was kidnapped and enslaved by the Thieves’ Guild of Navarre. But if I took any action too overt, too heavy-handed, it would place Rolante in opposition to both Byzel and Sultan. At best, there would be trade sanctions; at worst, war. Neither option holds much appeal for me.’ Mataro couldn’t believe what he was hearing. She was defending her own from harm and taking comfortable shelter in the mountains while innocents were being taken by force and sold as chattel in the black market at Byzel! He had not expected this kind of self-serving behaviour from the Heroine of the Mana Sword. This ungracious attitude was quickly followed by a more sober reflection: hadn’t she steered the Aboltionist Society from its inception, helped it to grow, taught it to thrive and stand firm in the political winds, even though she remained anonymous and tethered to her kingdom? After another moment’s consideration, the young man replied, something along the lines of ‘of course’ or ‘I understand’. Riesz gave a shy smile; some detached part of Mataro observed that the effect she was having on him was dire, and that perhaps he was in grave peril. Did she do this to every man who was given an audience? Mataro couldn’t help but wonder. ‘I’m glad,’ she replied. Mataro’s attention had been fixed on her, but he wondered all the same what she was glad about for a moment, before he realised she was replying to his ‘I understand’ a couple moments before. ‘I’ve always tried to live up to the name the Amazons have given me – I still hope I don’t disappoint them.’ ‘What name is that?’ asked Mataro. Riesz hesitated, then laid a hand on her ample breast and lifted from it a necklace that sat upon it. Its fiery golden filigree glittered with a ferocity that could blind, or so it seemed to the man of Byzel. Its gold and precious stones would have made it a sybaritic article, if it didn’t bear all the marks of antiquity. ‘Do you know what this is?’ she asked. As Mataro shook his head, a flicker of a smile came to her face. ‘Really? Not even the paranormal expert of Byzel has heard of this before? This is the necklace Brísingamen, the last artefact of Freyja, the goddess of love and war. After I obtained it in my journey to rescue my brother and to avenge my father’s death, the Goddess of Mana released its power… into me. You said I’d changed; you see the reason here before you. It lent me Freyja’s strength. It wasn’t long after I returned home before the Amazons were calling me Vanadís, “Lady Fate of the Vanir”, and the Avatar of Freyja. Though I’m rather proud of the fact that I haven’t inherited the goddess’ reputation for promiscuity along with her name and her powers.’ It was said in a tone which led Mataro to imagine Riesz was teasing him. But when he looked back at her, he saw in her eyes a vulnerability which she undoubtedly tried to hide from the Amazons she ruled. He realised that she was afraid, afraid of letting them down. Undoubtedly she had a kingdom to protect, and secrets, and she had also mentioned a little brother – Eliott. From the sound of it, he’d already had a run-in with slavers, and Riesz blamed herself for it. All this she said in little more than a glance. ‘But enough of that,’ she said, replacing the necklace and leaning over to look Mataro directly in the face. ‘I suppose you have questions.’ ‘Yes…’ Mataro spoke. ‘You mentioned something called the Dark Circle?’ ‘Not exactly what it calls itself,’ Riesz shook her head, ‘if indeed it is something as organised and methodical as I fear. It isn’t as though I wanted to disband the Abolitionist Society on some half-baked, paranoid delusion, but my evidence, as you’re likely to find, is rather scanty. Some of it I want to see for myself, some of it I just wanted to have make sense. That is why I need help from someone loyal and trustworthy, who knew Byzel and who knew the sea routes. Just trust me on this,’ Riesz asked him, ‘I wouldn’t have robbed Byzel’s abolitionists of you if I didn’t think this was important.’ ‘I understand,’ Mataro said. ‘Good,’ Riesz lightened up considerably. No longer did it seem the golden armour weighed down upon her, crushing her with the burden of the rule of a kingdom. Instead, she seemed almost heady, and the armour made Mataro shudder for anyone who dared get in her way. ‘In that case, before we leave for Jad, there’s someone I would like you to meet. Come with me.’ She brushed Mataro’s hand, and stood, striding quickly out of the room. Mataro half-ran to catch up with her as she flung open the doors and hurried past a surprised Amazon guard down the stone stairs. A light at the end of the long stairwell told him that he and the Queen of Rolante were headed outside, into the cool mountain air. The alpine meadow of the valley outside and the peak beyond and the slope leading down to Palo were all visible from this doorway, and Riesz before him seemed to stop and breathe in the air – for a moment, Mataro thought she was in the midst of the same reverie that possessed him when he had first seen it. But she turned aside suddenly to face a teenage boy who might have been her twin if he didn’t look considerably younger. He had the same fair hair, the same eyes, the same heart-shaped face, though he sat in the sun with a cat’s blasé grace, not with Riesz’s more regal bearing. His appearance might have been perfect if it hadn’t been for the three large, circular scars on his forehead, and still more, longer ones along his arms. ‘Hi, Sis,’ the boy said. ‘What are you doing out-of-doors? I thought you were waiting for that man Merci brought up from Palo to wake up.’ ‘He did,’ Riesz replied, gesturing toward Mataro. ‘El, I’d like you to meet Mataro, one of the members of the Abolitionist Society of Byzel. Mataro, this is my younger brother, Eliott. He has been of great help to me in restoring our kingdom, these past three years. Not a military mind, but he’s a brilliant steward.’ Eliott grinned as he shook Mataro’s hand. ‘Lowlander, huh? I was in Byzel once – very nice city, but I’m afraid my lodgings weren’t anything to write home about.’ Mataro lowered his head. ‘I’m sorry you had to visit it in such circumstances.’ ‘And that’s why you’re fighting the good fight?’ Eliott’s voice turned grave. ‘Well, I wish you the best of luck. I wouldn’t want any other poor soul to go through what I did. But with Fate on your side, how can you fail?’ Mataro was taken aback. ‘H-how did…’ Riesz’s tone was amused as she spoke again. ‘Restoring the Kingdom of Rolante isn’t the only thing he’s helped me with, you see.’ Mataro laughed. ‘It seems I ought to be thanking you, then.’ ‘Sis is the brains behind it,’ Eliott said. ‘Though I can’t deny that I feel rather strongly about the problem. I assume Sis has brought you here because she wants me to cover for her again.’ ‘Now, El…’ Riesz’s voice was pleading. ‘Don’t worry about it,’ Eliott told her brusquely. ‘Eliza can sit on the throne for a few weeks while you’re gone, it’ll be good for her.’ ‘If anyone asks…’ Riesz told him. ‘I know, no one has before,’ Eliott waved her off impatiently. ‘She’s you.’ Riesz gave her younger brother a hug while he made an indignant squeal of protest. ‘I couldn’t ask for a better brother, thanks!’ ‘Off with you, then,’ Eliott pushed her away, but he was grinning. ‘You – Mataro! Take care of my sister out there; if you can bring her back in one piece I’d be much obliged.’ ‘I’ll do my best,’ Mataro waved back as Riesz led him back into the castle. Mataro was still not sure what was going on, even as he was hurrying through corridors with Riesz leading him along, teasing him forward with that long, red-blonde braid. She led him straight to her rooms. As Mataro entered behind her, he noted Riesz’s modesty extended even to her personal space, which for a monarch’s was rather small and Spartan. Obviously, she still considered herself first and foremost a Captain of the Amazons, and wanted to set an example for her warriors. Against the frame of her bunk stood a spear, and a bag, as though she had intended to leave on short notice. Beside these was a statue of the Goddess, her familiar, calm eyes and serene smile beaming benevolently out upon the world, her robe flowing elegantly down to the pedestal on which she stood, a verdant branch of the Mana Tree held gently in one hand. Riesz kneeled before the Goddess statue and began the familiar prayer: ‘Goddess who stands in the Holy Land, whose name is blessed, may your branches cover the heavens and the earth. May we live in your balance. Nourish us with your unending compassion, and watch over us on the paths which you lay before us.’ Mataro kneeled beside her, and finished his own prayer in silence. After she was finished, she stood, and began taking off the golden armour that was the symbol of Freyja’s power. Mataro could feel a burning heat rise to his face as her frame, covered only by a thin bodice, came into sharp relief. Riesz turned to him and smiled nervously. ‘Am I making you uncomfortable?’ she asked. Mataro shook his head, and turned back to the spear and bag he saw at the foot of her bunk. If Riesz was aware of Mataro’s discomfort, she gave no indication of it. ‘Sorry if I’m going too fast for you; I’ve been planning all of this for some time. I haven’t really explained what we’re doing yet, have I?’ ‘Well, you did say that we were going to the castle city… and that you needed me because I knew the sea routes…’ Mataro stammered, still blushing furiously. ‘But I don’t see what use I can be – surely someone down at the docks at Palo can be of help?’ ‘Very astute of you,’ Riesz said, and once again Mataro might have gotten the impression she was taking the mickey out of him if her voice hadn’t been so quiet and solemn. ‘But not just anyone will do. I have a couple of suspicions, but I want someone to talk to about them, to see if I can’t make sense of them – if I’m right, it could mean that the abolitionists could be in very great danger, and Rolante would eventually become involved.’ ‘What suspicions are these?’ asked Mataro, making an effort not to look around at Riesz as he said it. ‘Well, that the Archdaemon may have returned,’ Riesz said. ‘And that someone in Byzel or Jad – maybe even both – may be responsible for it.’ ‘But… that’s not possible,’ Mataro said. ‘The stories have been that you – you, Kevin and Charlotte – killed him! You stopped his plan to take over the Holy Land, killed him after he cut down the Mana Tree and took the powers of the Goddess!’ ‘We should have,’ Riesz muttered darkly, buckling her Amazon armour on with a vicious snap. ‘Let me tell you what happened in the Holy Land…’