By Nicola Ward
Part 1: Changes
Death. Letís just think for a moment about what death is. Some of us think of it as a process in which the spirit leaves the body and travels to another dimension. A place of warmth, a haven for the soul after its tiring escapade though life. Or it can be the opposite; a place of pain, of cold, a prison for the soul because of the actions taken during its journey through life. To put these two places in a context that even you can understand, these are what you would call your ĎHeavení and your ĎHellí. ĎHeavení, where God reigns supreme, caring for his children, his souls, giving them unquestioned love. ĎHellí, where the merciless tormentor, most commonly known as Lucifer or the Devil, also cares for his souls, giving them unquestioned pain, torture beyond anything the human mind could imagine.
But thatís not all there is to this little journey of our soul. It must first stand trial before God, where the rights and wrongs are weighed against each other. If the rights outweigh the wrongs the soul will go to Heaven. If itís the other way around the soul will go to Hell.
The idea of Heaven and Hell is just one of the many theories about our death. We, as humans, have no idea what lies ahead once the darkness envelops us. So, with our very inventive imaginations, we came up with Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil and the judgement of our soul. Yet these are only beliefs till we find out what really happens to us after our death. A percentage of the human race believes that there is nothing after we die. That we just cease to be.
But what has this to do with the tale I have to tell? Iíll get right down to the point. Religion as a whole doesnít play any particular part in this tale. Itís the belief thatís important. Humans have to believe in something in order to achieve sanity. If we donít believe in anything we have degraded ourselves to that of what we once were; cavemen and women scavenging the grasslands and forests for food, not thinking about anything really important other than eating, drinking, sleeping and mating. (It was only when we came up with language that we started to think about a higher being, believing that this higher being created us because of what we had achieved). The power to believe is what brings us above that of the other species of the world.
It all comes down to one thing. This tale is my life story. To believe or not to believe it is up to you. Belief has played a strong part in my life. Without it I wouldnít have gotten very far. If I didnít assure myself that I could pull through and make it out unscathed through many situations than I doubt that I would be around today to tell the tale.
And here it is.
It all started on Saturday 4th of August 2090. That day happened so long ago that I sometimes wonder if it was only a dream - I was very drunk that night after all.
My friends and I decided to journey from the Academy of Orion, the training school for mercenaries, that night to go into Orion village for a bit of fun. I had no intentions that night of getting drunk. But Ian White and Reo Thorn, two of my five friends, werenít going to allow me to get away with not having any drink. Now the age limit for drink is sixteen and seeing that Ian, Reo and myself are all seventeen, it wasnít very difficult for them to get hold of any alcoholic drink.
But they had to choose the worse drink that had ever been made. Coming from a secluded island on the other side of the world of Valquern, which is the planet we live on, it has some rather nasty concoctions within it that make it very easy for a person to become drunk very quickly. Its alcoholic volume is unknown seeing that it is a drink that is illegal in the surrounding area of Orion village and in various other places all over the world. Only a few places allow you to drink it and even than it is in small quantities. And the worst thing about it is that you canít taste it, thus turning my orange juice into a one-way ticket to a hangover.
The heat wave that had hit the continent of Stavlioc hadnít helped either, which started that night and ended Sunday evening. It was so hot in my dormitory that I was forced to lock my dorm door and strip to literally nothing, all the air-fans in my dorm turned on to their fullest. But the heat was relentless. It didnít matter how many cold showers I had that night.
That Sunday morning, which was the 5th August, I went to bed at 5:00 a.m. and didnít wake up for a full twelve hours, partly because I had drugged myself up with painkillers to ease my throbbing headache and they happened to have the side effect of drowsiness. At around quarter past five in the afternoon I stirred and put a hand to my forehead.
Bloody useless painkillers I thought - my head still throbbed. I dropped back on my bed and closed my eyes but the pressure behind my eyes seemed to build and the pain worsened. Muttering angrily, I got up and had a shower, trying to rid myself of the old stench of alcohol and vomit that came from the previous night. At least I smelt better after that. I wandered into my small kitchen and drank water from a glass filled from the chilled water in a bottle, filling up a flask afterwards, before replacing the bottle in the fridge to cool. Planning on going out to the park that was beside the Academy, I changed into shorts and T-shirt and put my old clothes in the washing machine, setting it to last for an hour, to change automatically to spin dry afterwards. I yawned and grabbed my flask; taking a slow walk to the main exit and turning left to enter the park.
The sun was just rising over the horizon when I came to the bridge and the stream sparkled beneath my feet as the light shimmered off of the ripples to be processed by my eyes in the form of a picture. It wasnít as hot as it was yesterday morning so that was a good sign that the heat wave had passed and moved elsewhere. A gust breezed past me and sent my short brown-blonde hair flying in all directions, goose bumps appeared on my arms at a ferocious rate. I shivered and had a slurp from my flask, sitting on a bench to watch the sun set. I decided that evening to go to the Medical Centre and buy some stronger painkillers, the ones owned by myself being absolutely useless.
That was when I met our new doctor Lor Angreal.
I learned from a fellow student that our old doctor, Miss Berther, had retired that morning and that last night had been held in her honour. I cursed myself for not being there. Miss Berther and I were good friends and I promised to visit her sometime to make up for not being at her retirement party. She was in her seventies after all.
Our new doctor didnít look much older than the rest of the students at the Academy. With short brown hair and fair of face, the girls couldnít get enough of him. Lucky for him nobody had plotted against him because of the attention he was attracting. He hadnít done anything wrong for anybody to do so. It was a while before I could get to the counter to buy some more medicine because the crowd was huge, mostly consisting of girls and curious students. I didnít pay it any heed and, once the painkillers were secure in my pocket, went back to my dorm.
"Chris!" I turned and saw Thea Fordine, another of my five friends, rushing towards me from the crowd. "How you been?"
"Fine," I replied. "How have you been?"
She shrugged. "Okay. Did you get a look at our new doctor? He ainít half a looker. He could play doctors and nurses with me any day."
I smiled. "Iíll pretend I didnít hear that."
She laughed. "Come on, Iím only teasing. He may be good looking but he might just be another womaniser. Well, you never know."
"And the fact that youíre still single doesnít bother you?"
"Nope. More freedom that way. All the boyfriends Iíve had seem to want to keep me all to themselves all the time. Itís like being put in prison and they have the key. I donít want another boyfriend whoís going to be like that." She flicked a black hair strand out of her auburn eyes before shaking the rest of the head so her hair flicked over her shoulders. You would never have guessed Theaís seventeen. She looks much younger than that.
I looked back at Lor and the crowd. "Seems a bit much for a new doctor doesnít it?"
"Yeah, I sípose so. But this crowd normally go overboard on everything so it wouldnít be them if they didnít, would it."
"Not really, no." I winced. "Sorry, Thea. Iíve gotta go back to my dorm. Iíve gotta terrible headache from last night and I got these painkillers to take for it. I didnít do anything stupid last night did I?"
"Well, not really." She looked at me from a sideways glance. "Besides the fact that you threw up everywhere and collapsed in the menís toilets."
"No way! I didnít did I?"
"Yeah, totally. Ian and Reo had to carry you out and chucked you in the back seat of the van. You stank last night, did you know that?"
I smiled again. "I kinda realised that when I had a shower this morning. Not very pleasant at all."
"Donít worry about last night, Chris. You acted a lot better than other people in the bar last night who were under the influence. Most of the men in there kept on bribing me for sex. I ainít no hooker so I decently refused."
I laughed, knowing what she meant by decent. "Sorry, but I donít remember anything last night. Iíll see you later."
"Yeah. See ya," she said while smiling back. The crowd had mostly dispersed by now, leaving Lor to try and find his way through the tangle of women left behind, and I felt kinda sorry for him. Waving to Thea, I walked on over and pushed my way through the girls to come face to face with him. "Having a bit of trouble?" I asked.
"You know it," he replied. "I just got here and I canít get away. Itís only seven oíclock in the evening too!" He shook his head. "Oh well, I should be used to it by now. Itís always the same wherever I go."
"This always happens?" I frowned. "Donít you get in trouble for it?"
"Yeah, I almost got beaten up the other week because some girls wouldnít leave me alone and their boyfriends came after me."
"Yes shit. I tell ya I was outta that town like wildfire. So, you one of the students here?"
I remembered that Iíd left my tag on the dresser next to my bed and cursed myself again. "Yeah but I kinda forgot to put my tag on. Nameís Chris Leo," and put my hand out.
He took it, giving it a hearty shake. "Lor Angreal, although you probably know by now who I am and why Iím here." He looked at the girls crowding around and sighed. "Iíve got to go now. Got some unpacking to do and then Iíve got to find my way around this place along with all the other one thousand and one things Iíve gotta do. Iíll see ya later."
"Hey, wait a minute. You wanna guide right? I can show you around. Iíve been here since I was nine so it wonít be too much of a problem and I can show you all the places that you as a doctor need to go to. Most of the idiots around here would show you all the places you donít need to go and then youíd be hopelessly lost. We canít have that on a first day can we."
"No, I donít think we can. You sure about that though? Iím not the only one with a hectic schedule around here."
I shrugged. "Works been slack lately. Not many jobs are out there that really need the help of mercenaries. But at least the jobs we take earn good pay so Iíve got enough to last me through till the next job arrives. Iíll meet you by the main entrance. What time do you wanna meet?"
Lor looked at his watch. "Well seeing as itís gone seven oíclock, how about ten? Would that be okay?"
"Sure, Iíll see ya than. Are you sure you donít need an escort back to your dorm as well?" I grinned.
"Iím sure," he answered. "Thanks a lot."
"No problem." When I got back to my dorm I popped open my tablets and took a couple with a swig of water before plopping down on the settee for a kip, thinking that that day had gone rather well.
Like we had agreed, Lor met me by the main entrance at ten oíclock for his guided tour. I showed him the Training Area where he would be most of the time, caring for injured students unable to reach the Medical Centre. I also showed him the gardens where he would collect most of his herbs for medicinal use and showed him the lab where the medicines were created and sold. "Is that all there is to see?" he asked. "I thought there wouldíve been more."
"No, not really. I was a friend of Miss Berther when she was here and she showed me where she had to go for medicine and everything. I think thatís all you need to see but I might be wrong. They may have changed the schedule or something." I stifled a yawn. "But theyíre always changing stuff around here anyway. Besides you got the easy job. Itís tough being a mercenary. You donít know what nut-bag youíll be working for next when youíve got the job description I have."
"I envy you people sometimes," Lor said. "You get to go out and see the world, even though some of the time it must be fraught with danger. But nevertheless you still travel a lot. Doctorís donít travel very often because we never seem to get a break." We wandered into one of the gardens of the Academy, sitting down on the grass as the moon rose above us.
"I wouldnít dwell on it, Lor. Not everyone is for mercenary work and a lot of people are against it. There was a riot a few years back and our Headmaster, Jackson, had to waste a whole month trying to calm the mob down. It wasnít the students that did it, it was the locals."
"Theyíre still debating whether to shut this place down or not," Lor explained. "The Leader of this continent believes that you mercenaries are too young for the work that you do and that you could prove a danger to the leaders of the world."
I laughed. "Well, he would say something like that wouldnít he. Michaelís never been keen on the idea of training young children for mercenaries, but he doesnít seem to complain when a percentage of the Academyís payment is inside his pocket."
"You get part of your pay deducted?" Lor shook his head. "Thatís bad."
"The mercenaries donít get their pay deducted, Lor. The money we get we keep; everyone knows that we earn the money we get paid because our jobs are so dangerous. The guy who led the continent before Michael was the one who sponsored the Academy. Dear old Gramps, as we knew him, commended us because of the influence we were having on people across the world. We were having a positive impact. Itís only now that Michaelís on the throne that mercenaries arenít in the limelight anymore."
"Everything changes eventually," Lor agreed. "My dad beat that into me when I was little. He always used to say that without change man was nothing more than an animal. Which is what we are even though most people donít think that nowadays." He paused. "Whatís the most difficult job youíve ever taken on, Chris?"
I thought for a moment. "It had to be the time when I had to break into a museum and steal the largest ruby in the world."
"You did that!" Lor looked like heíd been smacked in the face. "They never caught the burglar. Are you sure that was you?"
"Yeah, that was me. To tell you the truth I couldnít have asked for a better job. I got paid so much money that half of itís still in my bank account. I didnít find out what they wanted it for until later on when they were caught trying to melt it down. But they made it clear beforehand that I was there just to steal the jewel. They werenít gonna drop me in the deep end if they got caught. And they were true to their word, bless Ďem. So in order to make it up to Ďem I got them out on bail for a few weeks."
Lor smiled. "Lots of people were wondering why you did that. Then you came up with the thing about them being distant relations of yours and that the debt you owed them had been repaid. You said you didnít care what happened to them after that."
"Hey, I had to make sure I didnít get caught didnít I? They knew what I was trying to do for them and later on, while they were still out on bail, they sent me a letter saying thanks for the bail. I burnt the letter afterwards of course."
"Of course," Lor repeated. He glanced at his watch and his mouth dropped open. "Eleven oíclock. Shit! Sorry, Chris, but I really gotta go." He stood up and straightened the collar on his leather jacket. "Gotta catch up on my beauty sleep you know." I stood up beside him.
"I guess Iíll be seeing you in a few years than," I joked and laughed when he scowled and said, "Very funny. Iíll be seeing you. Cheers, mate."
I waved and went through a different route back to my dorm, whistling softly. Lor isnít a bad guy I thought to myself. Heís cool
Sunday passed into Monday 6th August and it was about six oíclock in the morning that I was given a job unlike any other Iíd ever had. I had been asked to break into the capital city of Metra on the continent of Aeglioc where I was to assassinate the leader of the city, Mr Lucifer Cattral.
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