Halcyon Days (The Perks Of Being A Paragon)
Freesia of The Shining Sun raced through the streets of Median, hoping to catch a glimpse of her favorite celebrity. Luckily, this Homecoming Festival’s audience was more orderly and accommodating than last cycle’s. Noticing her youth – and lack of height – the crowd parted slightly to allow her through. “Thank you!” Freesia smiled sheepishly and made her way to the front. There, in a single glorious moment, Freesia gazed upon her idol: Fifth Sword of The High Tide; celebrated hero of Median. Paintings of his likeness decorated the walls of her room, but seeing him in person was an entirely different experience.
He stood tall at the fore of the pageant wagon; flanked by the other Trailblazers. Tenth Hammer of The Stone Sea, an imposing woman who was Fifth Sword’s closest friend and bodyguard. Golden Gun of The Dread Wastes, his comrade of ill repute. Shadow Alpha of The Hidden World, the group’s enigmatic scout. Finally, Thousandth Falling Star of The Hollow Realm, the party’s mentor and strategist. The crowd let out a deafening cheer, and Freesia added her own voice to the revelry. Welcome home, Travelers!
“How was Homecoming, Free?” Freesia’s brother, Seventh Spear of The Shining Sun, called out as she appeared on their home’s Jumpstage. She stumbled slightly, nearly tripping off the stage itself. She was still unaccustomed to Jumping and its complexities; even a short distance Jump often resulted in mild nausea. Seventh Spear Jumped to her side and gently held her, keeping her from falling. “Take it easy, Free. It takes getting used to, but soon you’ll be Jumping between Worlds like Mom and Dad.” She leaned into him until her headache subsided, then steadied herself. “Thanks, Seventh! You’re the best brother ever!” Seventh Spear smiled. “Back to my original question, Free: ‘How was the Homecoming Festival?’ Did you get to see The Trailblazers?” “You bet I saw them, big brother! I’ll tell you all about it, whether you like it or not!” Freesia exclaimed mischievously.
All her enthusiasm came rushing back to her as she described the events of the Festival; a rapid-fire recounting that only an energetic young girl from Median could deliver. “It was so great! These Trailblazers are the best! Travail herself would be proud of how amazing they are! Fifth Sword is even more handsome and wonderful in person! Most of the girls and some of the boys swooned over him! And Tenth Hammer is so tough and strong! Some of the girls and most of the boys swooned over her! Oh, Golden Gun looks mean but you can tell he’s secretly nice! Shadow Alpha is super beautiful even though they’re so mysterious! Thousandth Falling Star always looks so sad, but everyone depends on his magic! They are so incredible and awesome! And! And! And!” Freesia’s story was interrupted by the sound of two more Jumps onto their home’s stage.
She twirled around, grinning. Sure enough, her mother and father stood together on the Jumpstage. “Mama! Papa!” She and her brother ran to them, tears in their eyes, all joining in a warm embrace. “Traveler, why do you Jump between Worlds, ever further from home?” Freesia asked; a phrase she repeated every cycle since she learned how to talk. Her mother repeated the answering phrase, known to all Travelers of Median: “To make every World a home, and every Jump, a Homecoming.”
“Military or Clergy? If Military, Jump Force or Home Guard? If Clergy, Herald or Preacher?” Freesia paced around her room, trying in vain to decide her future career path. Mama, Papa, and Seventh are all Military. If I want to be a Trailblazer someday, I have to join Jump Force. But they spend so much time away from Median. I always miss Mama and Papa when they’re deployed. It also means I could end up making a War Jump, if things get bad. She considered asking her brother for his perspective as a Home Guard, but he always gave her the same response: “Stop worrying about it! You’re just a kid!” He has no sense of urgency! He’s right about one thing though: I’ve got to master Jumping first, regardless. She took a few deep breaths, gathering her courage. Finally, she concentrated on her Jump Beacon, willing it to contact Seventh. He answered quickly, as he always did whenever it was her calling. “Yes? Do you need something, Free?” It’s now or never! “Seventh, I’m going to practice Jumping more. Local only, of course.” She heard him chuckle over the call. “So, you have that Traveler spirit after all, Free! I’m proud of you. Local Jumps only for now, and keep your Tracker on at all times. At least calibrated to me, Mom, and Dad. Once you get the hang of it, you can go World Jumping. I repeat: Never, ever turn off your Tracker.”
She tested the Tracker function of her Beacon. As per her family’s instructions, it was set to only broadcast to her immediate family, trusted relatives, and emergency services. “All clear, brother. Jumping now!” She gathered her energy and focused, seeing the entire world of Median laid bare. A local Jump; merely the other side of the planet. She made a note of the nearest Home Guard stations around the area. Nutrient replication in working order; breathable atmosphere confirmed; Beacon up, Tracker on! Now! She felt her body transform into… light? No, something better. Something faster. Something more. Travail’s Blessing, the gift bestowed upon all Travelers of Median. Her people. Her pride. She soared through The Skyway in an instant; immediately reforming at her destination. This time, she didn’t feel any symptoms of nausea. Instead of feeling lightheaded, her senses were sharp; even heightened. It was pure exhilaration. Pure freedom.
Her brother’s voice filtered in through her Jump Beacon, loud and clear: “Free? You all right?” She giggled, her voice full of joy. “Seventh! I did it! My first real Jump! I can’t believe it! This is the best day of my life!” She could tell Seventh was waiting patiently for her to settle down. When he spoke again, she could sense the pride in his voice. “Traveler, when did you take your first step?” She had rehearsed the answer, but never before did she have cause to recite it. “When I found the first road worth walking.”
After her First Jump, Freesia grew more and more adventurous. Still, she remembered to temper her excitement with caution. Before every Jump, she checked her Vitals, her Destination, her Beacon, and her Tracker. She never Jumped without sending a Notification to Seventh and marking Last Known Location. Each time, the preparation and caution was worth the wait. She Jumped between Worlds, starting with Core Jump locations, then branching out to Random Jumps. Despite her young age, this was not particularly rare: Travelers of Median are meant to explore at a young age, especially children from families with extensive Jump experience. Even Random Jumps were approved for children, once a pattern of responsibility and good behavior was established through Core Jumps. Of course, there were harsh or even deadly worlds. But apart from War Worlds, Travelers considered it an infinitesimal chance for the conditions to align where they could not just immediately Jump out or get help. Certainly, good odds for any civilian; there were ‘better’ odds of being killed in an industrial accident. Armed with this knowledge, Freesia Jumped between Random Worlds, noting every miracle she witnessed.
JUMP! (A world made entirely of crystal; smooth to the touch and beautiful to behold)
JUMP! (A lush forest world with exotic plants and animals, orbiting twin red suns)
JUMP! (A desert world filled with shifting blue sand that whispers during the day and sings at night)
JUMP! (A world of splendid moonlight, inhabited by beings locked in seemingly eternal meditation)
One day, with her head full of hope and her heart full of wonder, Freesia set out on another Random Jump. “I love you, Free. Take care!” Seventh said over the Beacon. “See you soon, Brother! Mama and Papa too! It’s almost Homecoming again!” She replied. As always, Freesia set her Last Known Location, checked her Vitals, Beacon, and Tracker. All clear! Jump!
She landed at her Random Destination with a bright smile, ready to greet this new world. When she saw the horror that awaited her, her smile immediately faded. “What… what is this place!” She was standing on what appeared to be a lake of black glass. Peering through, she saw figures under the glass, motionless and miserable. All around her were grotesque masses of bloody flesh, moaning and screaming. In the distance, she saw a jagged black tower, impaled corpses still writhing on its many edges. She barely noticed her stomach churning before she vomited, staining the black glass at her feet. She gathered her energy for a Jump, and waited for that telltale transformation into Travail’s Light. Nothing. Jump! Jump! “Seventh! Brother!” No reply. She checked her Beacon. She had never seen it without its ‘On’ Notification. Until now. Somehow, both her Beacon and Tracker were off.
Desperately, she pressed to reset it, turn it back on, something! Anything! “Seventh!” In the commotion, she saw one of the figures under the glass look up, directly at her. She could see its hollow, empty eyes; the only clear features in its form. The other figures all turned to follow its gaze. Then, as one, they began to pound on the glass. She cried out in panic; her mind wracked with fear. “Seventh! Please! Anyone! JUMP! JUMP!” Then, she heard a woman’s voice; sweet yet sinister. “You can’t escape me, my dear child.” Hesitantly, Freesia turned towards the voice. She saw a voluptuous woman with blood red skin and bat-like wings; seductive, otherworldly, and beautiful. Freesia felt a crushing sense of dread. Yes, the woman was beautiful. Beautiful skin, beautiful hair, beautiful eyes. But something about her was sick, evil, and wrong. “P… please let me go! I just want to go home!” Freesia backed away from her, knees shaking. Each step she took backwards was met by an identical step forward from the woman, as if mocking her. “No, no. The other souls you see before you are here for a reason. They deserve their fate. Now, where’s the pleasure in breaking a wicked soul? One such as you, however… one so pure. Shall I feed you to The Writhing Flesh? Shall I lock you in The Tower of Blades?” The pounding on the glass grew even louder and more powerful now, but there was no sign of it giving way. “Excellent suggestion. Yes, I think I shall have you take a swim in my lake.”
The woman motioned with her hand, and a wicked, gleaming dagger appeared in it. Freesia closed her eyes and screamed, willing herself to Jump back home. “MAMA! PAPA! SEVENTH! JUMP! JUMP! JUMP! JU-GLK!” She felt a brief sensation on her throat, and her screams were suddenly cut off by a tortured gurgling noise. Any further attempt at words seemed to come out as air, wheezing out of her neck before they even reached her lips. She felt a cloying liquid flow down from under her chin, soaking through her clothes and pooling down her stomach before spilling onto the floor. Then there was the smell; a sick metallic smell that she couldn’t quite place. It made her nauseous. Still, she kept her eyes closed. She knew she had to, to stay sane. Her knees buckled, then gave out; a crimson puppet with its strings cut. Terror gripped her heart as she felt herself slipping, slipping away. Going, going… gone.
Freesia awoke to the sound of fists hammering on glass. She opened her eyes to see herself inside a shadowy lake, surrounded by translucent figures. So, it wasn’t just a nightmare. Before, the inhabitants of the lake had a vague, incomprehensible form. Now, though, she could see discernible features. They looked just like other people. Time flowed slowly; she didn’t even know how long it took for her to simply wake up. To simply open her eyes. To finally see them, recognize them, and then… “Please, do not fear us little one.” A strong, masculine voice rang out. It reminded her of her father. She opened her mouth to speak, but soon realized the voice was inside her head. “Child, I am Balfour, first among equals. Think of what you wish to say, and project it throughout the lake. You will learn how to speak again, in time.” She focused, focused. Slowly learning, once again, how to speak. How long did the process take? Weeks? Months? Years? Centuries? Her first words echoed in her mind, spreading through the collective consciousness of the lake. “I am Freesia, and I am scared.”
Once she spoke those words, she felt a deep sadness. It was not her own. Her soul merged, ’connected’ to every other soul in the lightless void. In an instant, she saw each of their lives simultaneously. Hundreds. Thousands. Guilt, pain, regret, violence. A vision of a soldier betraying his own city; slaughtering fellow guards before opening the city gates to the marauders outside. A vision of a crazed woman standing over a prone figure; bloodstained rock in hand. “You… you were all evil! All of you! Thieves! Traitors! Murderers!” She struggled and cried once again; all hope in her heart fading away. An unbearable sense of remorse flowed into her, radiating outwards from the other souls. They wailed in despair; their shame exposed. It was Balfour that answered. “Yes, we were thieves, traitors, and murderers. All that and more. We are The Damned. The weak and the wretched. If we must drown for all eternity as punishment, so be it. But you do not belong here. For you, and only you, we shall break this glass.” They continued their assault on the black glass above them. Slowly, she stopped sobbing. Slowly, she reached out again, connecting to their consciousness. She saw their pitiable lives. Their pitiable deaths. Their eternal torment. She wanted to hate them, but she could only bring herself to hate their crimes. This lake, this torture, was not justice. In this twilight world, they were her only companions.
The lake became Freesia’s new home, and The Damned her new family. She came to know each of them, and, in time, forgive their sins. In truth, she knew it was not her place to do so, and yet… “Only your victims can truly decide to forgive you. Yet, they are not here. I am here, and I have seen everything you see. Felt everything you felt. For all that it’s worth, for all that I am, I offer you absolution.” With those words, brand new emotions resonated through the collective. Joy. Gratitude. Hope. A faint light within their eternal suffering. Freesia projected as much love as she could muster. If she could not free them, she at least wanted to comfort them. Whatever they were in life, they had the potential to be so much more. Only mercy can grant the opportunity to atone for one’s past. As time marched on, with renewed vigor, they continued throwing themselves against the ceiling. In the vain hope that, one day, they would see it shatter.
Freesia would always remember the moment The Damned were liberated. A glorious moment, which the future Glassbreakers would eventually refer to as ‘Daybreak.’ Freesia had subsisted for an unknown stretch of time; sending a message of love to The Damned. Her innocence, together with Balfour’s leadership, allowed the poor souls to find a small measure of peace. They could never have imagined that true freedom, the freedom of Daybreak, would soon find them. Eight Angels smashed through The Gates of Abaddon, the nightmare realm that had, for so long, kept them imprisoned. Eight Angels. Eight Legends. Eight Saviors. She committed their regal visages to memory; a record of the day Good triumphed over Evil.
Spinel The Strong, who was the first to challenge the wicked Desdemona. Powers, King of Thieves, who stole Desdemona’s protective magic. Tempest of The Razorwind, who sliced apart The Writhing Flesh. Dynamo The Enlightened, whose Meditation strengthened his allies. Chance The Opener, who was ever-ready to open a gate outside the realm. The Twin Masks, who swept The Damned up into their wings and carried them to Nirvana. Those seven were Heroes, pure and true. But the most celebrated Hero of all was Doxx of Daybreak. With one mighty blow, she smashed the glass of the lake, freeing every soul trapped inside. A single act of courage which echoed throughout The Skyway; a message to all who have ever lost their faith in existence: Within the vastness of time, the light of Hope shall find you.
“Angelica!” Freesia ran to her dear friend; hair wreathed in flowers. Angelica turned to face her, bleeding heavily from a wound on her stomach. “Yes, dear one?” If the wound bothered her at all, she certainly didn’t show it. “Is that from one of your Champions?” Freesia asked, a look of concern on her face. No matter how many times I see it, it still bothers me. “Indeed. Fear not, he has already triumphed over his foe.” Slowly, the wound began to close. “Only because of your Blessing, Angelica.” ‘Blood of the Martyr.’ One of Angelica’s powers as a literal Angel and Exemplar of Good in Nirvana. She transfers lethal wounds from her Champions to herself. An extremely fitting ability for someone of her boundless virtue. Freesia strived to become as selfless as Angelica.
“Was there anything else you needed, child?” Angelica smiled; a beautiful sight that always brightened Freesia’s day. She reminded Freesia so much of her mother. “Balfour said that training is going well. The Glassbreakers should be ready to mobilize soon. I know it’s too soon for me to join them, but…” Angelica nodded, catching on to her meaning. “Because you passed on so young, you must still mature in Nirvana before you’re ready for an excursion. Do not rush matters, Freesia. There are so many experiences that were stolen from you in life. I want you to have a second chance before you march off to war. You will know when you reach your Ideal Form.” Angelica embraced Freesia; folding her wings inward as if to shelter the girl. “Doxx may visit soon as well. You will be the first to know.” Freesia leaned against her; feeling so peaceful and loved that she could drift off to sleep. Yes, just like when her mother used to hold her. Despite herself, she felt tears flowing from her eyes, and she hugged Angelica even tighter. Mama… I miss you so much. Freesia let herself cry; she had stayed so strong in the lake. She had stayed so strong ever since The Angels brought her to Nirvana. For now, she just wanted to cry. She was so caught up in her emotions, she didn’t notice Angelica was crying too.
“Freesia, dear, I want to show you something. I know you cannot Jump on your own anymore, so I will take you personally.” Angelica offered her hand to her young friend. Freesia linked hands with her. “Jump? Does that mean we’re leaving Nirvana?” In logical terms, Freesia knew that realms like Abaddon were relatively isolated cases. Still, she could not avoid a sense of apprehension at leaving the safety of Angelica’s Domain. “Yes. Fear not, I shall protect you and guide you the entire way. Balfour and The Glassbreakers shall guard my Domain while we’re gone. That said, I am not the only force for Good in Nirvana.” Freesia nodded. “All right, then. Lead the way, Angelica.” Freesia braced herself.
Angelica’s ‘Flight,’ as she called it, was very different from her own Jumps. Both were technically innate abilities, but Angelica’s was fueled by her own power; Freesia and all other Travelers of Median borrowed their powers from Travail. The Flight was bright, peaceful, and warm; a far cry from the intense, exhilarating, almost chaotic nature of a Jump. They were both wonderful experiences in their own ways, all told. The Flight brought them to a peaceful, rural area with branching roads. Oddly enough, Freesia didn’t see anyone around other than herself and Angelica. “Mee-oww. It is a pleasure to meet you, young Traveler. Angelica has told me so much about you.” The voice almost sounded like a cat, if a cat had a smooth, deep, baritone voice. Sure enough, Freesia turned to see what appeared to be a tall, bipedal cat. “Whaaa?” Angelica laughed. “Freesia, meet The Exemplar of Neutrality, Boots-On-Road Of The Everlasting Journey. He is the master of this realm, The Crossroads.”
Freesia was stunned. A humanoid cat is certainly not the most shocking thing she’s ever seen. And yet… “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Road.” The cat twisted his whiskers. “’Mr. Boots’ is fine.” “All right, Mr. Boots.” Boots-On-Road nodded. “’Mr. Road’ is also acceptable.” “Whaaa?” Freesia was intensely confused, but Angelica carried on. “Now, now, Boots. You mentioned to me that you ‘found them.’” Them? Boots-On-Road’s ears perked up. “Oh, forgive me Angelica! I was slightly distracted. Then, without further ado, I introduce Phantom Hearth of The Shining Sun, Sixth Spear of The Shining Sun, and Seventh Spear of The Shining Sun!” Could it be?
Appearing before her eyes were her mother, father, and brother; hale and hearty, as if they hadn’t aged at all. Just like that day, at that final Homecoming, she ran to them, and they embraced her. A family reunited in love; here on this distant world. Once again, Freesia couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. “Traveler, I have never seen you with a companion. Do you walk alone?” she asked between sobs. Her father answered. “No. My people walk beside me, whether in form, spirit, or memory. I am never alone.”
From a distance, Angelica and Boots-On-Road watched over the family of Travelers. “They never stopped searching for her, even until their last breath.” Angelica said sadly. Boots’ whiskers twitched. “Meow, their souls ended up here long ago. When you spoke of the girl, I knew exactly which family you were looking for.” Angelica hugged the cat. “Thank you, Boots. You are a Good and loyal cat. Travail would be proud.” “Meow, correction: I am a Neutral and loyal cat. And if Travail’s so proud of me, she should hurry back. Who leaves their cat alone for millennia? Not to mention her chosen people.” He batted at his ears. Angelica smiled at him, and recited one of his favorite passages. “Traveler, what will become of you, at the end of The Final Road?” Boots looked to the sky. “At the end of The Final Road, I shall await the next Traveler. The Journey is not the story of one, but of all. Thus, The Journey never ends.”