A waving pillar of black and gray smoke trailed across the blue sky as a locomotive powered its’ way across the lush landscape of southern Fiore, cutting through a sea of trees and past a chain of mountains. Trailing at is back like a tail was a long row of train cars taking in the nature all around.
The Fiore South Central 14 was crossing miles and miles of rail to terminal one of the aged, decrepit Hyde Train Station, a destination that usually served merely as a connecting point and nothing more. But, today was not a day for the usual, as one of the passengers had other plans. Sanjo’s pale blue eyes studied the landscape haphazardly as his plans to take a nap had failed. Nothing had changed around these parts; the countryside was as he remembered. An hour north of Sole City was once the site of Sanjo’s second home, where he discovered his passion for magic and adventure. Hyde Park, the town of his old, childhood guild, awaited him, it had been so long.
Eight years ago, he figured that was the last time he had been anywhere near there. The wizard saint hadn't heard the best about the town in its’ post-guild era, hearing it had gone bankrupt and many residents had fled for Sole and other major cities. He shook his head at the thought, for such a bustling town to have become but a backwater slum, time is cruel.
“Five minutes from destination, prepare to disembark if this is your stop.”
Sanjo noticed not a move from the rest of the train car after the announcement over the loudspeaker, the attendant hadn't been joking when she said no one goes to The Park anymore. He smirked at that name, it had been the nickname for the town back in the old days—fond memories rushed through his mind thinking on that old nickname, better times, no doubt.
Five minutes passed by in what felt like a few moments. The train came to a complete stop and the doors opened for passengers to disembark. Sanjo found himself alone in that category as he walked down the aisle and took a right turn off the train and onto the terminal platform passing by sleepy-eyed fellow passengers. Though, some that were wide awake and enjoying some refreshments gave the young mage strange looks as he left the train car to find his way to Hyde Park.
As Sanjo continued to see more and more of his old guild town, the more he saw the truth of the saying that time is cruel master. What was once a pristine and bustling town was a half step above a slum. It had gotten worse than he expected. After the old guild had been dissolved, things had begun to go downhill with more and more residents leaving to major cities, Sole to the south was just one of them.
Trinity Dragon had been cornerstone of this town with a tradition of supporting the local economy whenever hard times would come, but without that economic linchpin, The Park was left to fend for itself—and as he could see, it didn't go well.
“Not even the smells are the same,” Sanjo pondered to himself with a glum look on his face. Where the scent of grilled meats, pastries, and sweets once filled the air of every major roadway was a less palpable scent, a less than pleasurable stench.
He passed by rundown buildings covered in colorful graffiti with their windows boarded up with wooden planks. The grass was brown and mostly dead, and the streets were littered with more trash than people. The young mage had found himself on the far side of the city; walking to a place he should have visited more often, a place where old friends were.
As he passed by the townspeople, his friendly smile was met with frowns or even looks of suspicion; it didn't look like politeness would be rewarded today. Sanjo had been in towns and villages like this over the years on jobs, while there were friendly people here and there, people mostly kept to themselves when away from their neighborhood block for fear of “misunderstanding.” In an atmosphere that breeds gangs and street crime, he couldn't blame them. He would have to look into trying to help the town however he could, that would definitely make for an interesting conversation with his father, he thought.
As the afternoon breeze swept across the dirt road, Sanjo stepped passed a large gateway. The sign on top simply read in large, faded letters: Hyde Park Community Cemetery. He walked past a host of tombstones, all different sizes to the very end of the cemetery until he came face to face with two large, stone gray tombstones side by side in a pair. A soft silence fell upon Sanjo’s mind as the breeze whistled in his ears, his eyes were set on both, he had no need to read the names to call them out in their proper order.
“Robb and Cleapatra—great mages, great friends, and simply great people, here rests young explorers whose adventure ended too soon. Rest in peace with magic.”
His mind went back to the first time he had been face with the graves of his best friends. It was much like this, a windy day with his hands in his pockets. But, back then, he had been crying. “I cried for a few days then,” Sanjo smiled solemnly, “Life just isn’t fair. You two could have accomplished so much, hell, we could have started our own guild.”
The last time he had even been in this town was some eight years ago. As he thought on that, a rush of guilt filled his mind. The sole soul in the graveyard, Sanjo was alone with his thoughts, and not one thing occurred to him that could justify his long absence from this place. How could he not visit, not even once in nearly a decade? Sole was but an hour away, distance was not question. He could have taken the train, he could have flown here, hell, any of his siblings or friends would have agreed to join him.
Yet, here he was, the lost dragon eight years gone from his old home. It seemed the old wounds hadn't closed entirely just yet. It was undeniable that the wizard saint felt uncomfortable the moment he saw the tombstones, knowing just how long it had been. Sanjo had mostly come to terms with their deaths, but it was still to look at their graves even now.
“I suppose there are no excuses I can give for not visiting,” Sanjo said through a weak smile, “A special kind of procrastination, I guess. Or what was it you called it, Robb, the art of wasting time?”
“For what it’s worth, I've been a bit busy. The last year has been eventful; even now there still people trying to fuck everything up. People fucking things up for everyone else are one of the few constants in life, eh?” Sanjo laughed, “But it’s been a learning experience, I've tightened bonds with new friends I made some years back. You’d like them, they’re nice, a bit out there, but nice. I've even got myself a girl now.”
The mage’s words were met with obvious silence as his pale blues eyes remained on the pair of tombstones before him.
“I became a Wizard Saint, Clea,” he said proudly, “Yea, me of all people. The old chairman was feeling generous, I’m sure, but I've carved out a nice reputation. People call me the Golden Lion, it’s pretty great, I won’t even lie. Though I never got a hang of that illusionary bullshit, I’m just hopeless at it. Well, it hasn't gotten me killed, almost killed, but not killed.”
Sanjo could hear the sound of squirrels scurrying about behind him. Enhancing their auditory senses was one of the first things that the three of them learned back in the day.
“Lloyd-sensei is doing pretty well, he running a small mage-supply shop over in Falcana, all the sorts of trinkets you two would love,” Sanjo said, “Though, officially, it’s just a neighborhood thrift shop. Our teacher has done an impressive job in disappearing into anonymity. He said he was done with wizardry for the rest of his life, so he settles for selling low-grade mage supplies. It’s a funny sight; somehow folks fell for that bullshit.”
The wizard saint sighed, “Look, I’m sorry, I should have—”
“It takes some nerve to call my life’s work bullshit!”
Sanjo turned to see a very familiar face; a small smile crossed his face as he took in the person’s visage. Blonde hair swaying in the breeze the same as his, well a bit paler in hue, with deep blue eyes that could tell a thousand tales, fitted in his usual, former attire. They locked gazes in silence for a few moments.
“Lloyd, the hell are you doing here?” Sanjo asked quickly.
“Oh, I didn’t know I needed a reason to visit the graves of two of my former students,” Lloyd said walking past Sanjo. He laid two colorful bouquets flowers before each tombstone. “If you must know, I was simply passing through to pay my respects. What a surprise it was to sense your presence at this place on my way here.”
“I know it’s been a long time,” Sanjo said, “But you know how work is—”
“Eight years is a long time,” Lloyd cut in, “No one is that busy. I know their death really hit you hard, but you need to understand that it doesn’t end at coming to terms with the deaths of friends and loved ones. It’s about learning to commemorate their memory, to remember the good times. It’s only way the pain won’t come back every time you see their graves before you.”
Sanjo sighed, “Noted.”
“I see you’re still hard headed,” Lloyd said with a smirk.
“No, I've outgrown that,” Sanjo replied.
“Not just yet, and that’s fine, you’re still young,” the older man said. “Most can’t see it, but I can. I know you well, kid, I trained you. You still have a lot to learn, but luckily you were always a good learner, a quick one too, but this will be a bit harder to finally resolve. Give it time, you have plenty.”
Sanjo grinned, he needed this. “I was just thinking earlier about how much they could have accomplished, what we could have done together,” he said.
Lloyd nodded, “You three were the finest talents in the entire guild, and the old man saw a lot in you. But, sometimes life doesn't go your way. Trust me; I've dreamed about the heights y’all could have taken the guild to. The old man used to tell me, that with a trio like you guys, the dragon would have reigned supreme for decades to come.”
“I can imagine, now look at the old guild, forgotten to time in only a decade,” Sanjo said through a frown. “There aren't many that remember what it was like when we reigned, there was order then.”
“It’s not like you to dwell on the past, kid,” Lloyd said with an arched eyebrow.
Sanjo crossed his arms across his chest, “It’s just that this place has my mind running, you know?”
“I do,” Lloyd nodded. “Still, this can’t be the only reason you came here, to see Robb and Clea's grave and take in what a dump The Park has become. Care to share?”
“Always one step ahead even now, eh?” Sanjo smiled at the question.
“You haven’t changed much in that regard, you've never been one to have a sole motive and that alone,” Lloyd said, “It’s always more complicated with you.”
“I've heard some interesting things that sparked my interests,” Sanjo added.
Lloyd shook his head with a smirk, “And I'll ask again, care to share?”
“While I was getting my train ticket, I heard stories of a white ghost,” Sanjo said, “It was described as something a guardian angel against gangsters and other such street thugs. It ran them out of town, which is why this place is relatively peaceful for what’s basically becoming a shithole.”
“I love the elegance in the way you speak,” Lloyd cut in with his grin widening.
“Very funny, anyway, as I was saying, I was planning to look into this white ghost,” Sanjo said.
Lloyd arched an eyebrow, “Glad you’re honing your detective skills, but do you have any idea of what you’re even looking for? Could be some middle aged guy with a penchant for heroism.”
Sanjo shook his head, “I have a pretty good idea of what I’ll find, and this isn't the place for that.”
“This isn't the place for what?” Lloyd asked.
The young wizard saint gave his teacher an honest grin, “For a vigilante, for someone trying to be a hero.”
Sanjo cracked his knuckles and looked towards the town. “I’ll be going now, Lloyd-sensei. Don’t worry, I’ll drop by the shop when I have some time, if I can, I will bring Lana along. She got on quite well with you guys.”
The two shook hands, a firm shake between the two.
“Remember, you need to celebrate what we remember of Robb and Clea, the good, and move on from the pain of their death, the bad, move on entirely. It’s the only way, trust me, I've been through all this as well—with them and before them,” Lloyd said sternly. “Take care of yourself, kid.”
“Always,” Sanjo said with a smile.
Trying to Be a Hero
"What's your fucking problem, man?!"
A boy no older than fifteen wiped blood from the side of his mouth as he struggled to get on his feet behind him, behind him were half a dozen kids of similar age with similar injuries to match. Before the host of teenagers stood a lone figure, smaller than the rest, with white hair flowing in the afternoon breeze and a rusted lead pipe in hand. More tender in the face, the white-haired boy's glare was beyond his years.
"I gave you one warning, now get out of this town, last warning," the boy said sternly.
The teenagers exchanges frightened looks with one another before turning to run off in the direction of the town's train station. They had, had enough of this. The boy smirked as they scurried away like rats. That's what they were to him, rats. City rats that thought they could come a vandalize a dying town.
Even from his position, he could hear their hooting and hollering, calling him a white-haired freak as if he couldn't hear. A guardian apparition, a phantom, a white ghost, he had heard it all before. And then the boy felt it....
"So, you're the one."
Shivers ran down his spine in that moment as the boy turned to see a man before him. He looked quite young, but had a seasoned look to him. The man's pale blue eyes locked onto the boy, bringing back the sensation. This man had to be, there was no doubt, he was a mage.
"A white ghost, hmm, you don't see so scary to me," Sanjo said with a quizzical look.
The boy frowned, "Don't call me that. The name's Enzo, who the heck are y—"
Sanjo turned away and began to walk in the opposite direction. As he turned, the emblem of the Ten Wizard Saints emblazoned on his back caught this boy named Enzo off guard.
"Oi, what the hell!" Enzo shouted, running after Sanjo. "What's wrong with you?!"
The two walked in step down the littered street. There was a short silence between them as they walked aimlessly. A smile crossed Sanjo's face as Enzo's scowl only grew more intense.
"You shouldn't glare at people that have done you no wrong, kid," he said, keeping his eyes in front of him.
"You don't just say something to someone and then just walk away," Enzo said. "Now, I said my part, now it's your turn. Who are you? You're definitely not from around here, there's no mages around here anymore."
"Well, Enzo, the name's Sanjo," Sanjo said, out stretching a hand for a quick shake—the boy reciprocated. "Thing is, you said there's mages around here and yet here you are."
Enzo laughed, "I'm no mage. I don't know any spells, man."
"You've got time, you're only what, like twelve?" Sanjo asked as the pair came to a stop at a street corner.
"I'm thirteen, thank you very much," the pre-teen said with a grumble.
"I have one question for you, kid," the wizard saint said. "I need you be honest and straight forward with your answer."
Enzo smirked, "That won't be a problem, my grandma always said I had a big mouth."
"What the hell are you doing here?"
Enzo almost found himself without words in that moment, " It's...pretty obvious. Protecting my city, it's my duty."
"Hyde Park doesn't need you and you don't belong here," Sanjo said quickly, "I'll say it again, why are you here?"
"Look, man, it was cool talking to you, but I need to go," Enzo said, turning away.
"I could teach you," Sanjo blurted out, "I could teach you how to use magic properly." Sanjo took a few steps forward in pursuit of the boy. "I know you know that I'm right. And I'm sure that late grandmother of yours didn't wish for her grandson to live the rest of his life in this dump. The Park is done, its' time is over and people will continue to move away. It's time you did the same."
Enzo arched an eyebrow, "Is it normal for mages to go around asking kids to leave their hometowns with them. Sounds creepy and weird to me."
"Don't be so dramatic," Sanjo said, shaking his head. "You know well what I mean. I had heard rumors about you, a white ghost that protects what's left of this old town. I had mainly been here to pay respects to some old friends, but I couldn't pass up this opportunity."
"Opportunity for what?" Enzo asked with a look of suspicion.
"These are strange and dangerous times we are living in," Sanjo said looking up to the afternoon sky, "I figured the magic world could use all the help it could get. You may not have heard about it, but it's been incident after incident out there, you know, outside of your little bubble."
The boy laid his lead pipe on the ground and exhaled slowly. "Are you one of those guild recruiters? I know a bit about guilds, and they aren't my style," he said. "Though you guys do have a pretty sweet symbol."
Sanjo arched an eyebrow, "Oh, you mean the crest on my bad. Yea, that's not for a guild and just to clear things up, I am not apart of any guild, I'm my own boss."
"Wait, really, then what's it for?" Enzo walked around Sanjo to look at the emblem once more as he awaited an answer."
"It's for a group I was inducted into some years ago, the Ten Wizard Saints," Sanjo said, turning around.
"So, you're like an important person then," Enzo said, stroking his chin, "You're not very threatening though. No offense, by the way."
"Ha, you could say that and none taken," Sanjo replied. "The point is I can train you and help you see the world. It won't be easy, but it will be worth it. I won't sit here trying ton convince you, so I'll give you a simple ultimatum."
Enzo smiled, "I'm all ears."
"If you think you were meant for something greater, born for something bigger, I'll be at the train station at dawn tomorrow, terminal one," Sanjo said, "There's a big world out there, whether you decide to see it is up to you."
With that, Sanjo turned and left in silence, hoping this kid would take him up on his offer. Enzo watched as the wizard saint disappeared with the wind. He had a big decision to make and he could already hear Elaine now, urging him on, pushing him to finally leave into the world and not look back.
The sun had not yet risen over Hyde Park as Enzo shuttled past the rundown buildings of the town square. If he really gunned for it, he could make it in time to the train station. A few dimming street lights led his way through the morning darkness.
It was still on his mind what that man Sanjo had asked him and the lack of a response that Enzo had. He sounded just like Elaine, too much like Grandma Elaine. She always told him that he didn't belong here, that he wasn't meant to die here, and she didn't say that to spark his ego, no, it was a true belief of hers, a conviction.
Enzo turned a corner and kept up the pace, this was it. A goodbye to all he's ever known to follow some guy he's never met. The boy had done some asking around last night after their encounter, turned out he was quite famous and respected. Enzo wouldn't let this door close on him, even if he had nothing but apprehension at times, he kept in mind what she would always tell him.
This could be the biggest mistake of his life though, being a mage could be a dangerous job and could even get him killed. What if something went wrong, what if he failed to meet Sanjo's expectations, what if he failed to make anything of himself? He came to a stop and took a deep breath, feeling a tingling down his spine.
"No," Enzo smacked his face and shook his head, "It will be fine, the town will be fine, I will be fine, everything will be fine. It's time to move on."
Exhaling once more, Enzo got back to running and was really booking it now. He could see the glowing sign of the train station up ahead. He patted his pocket, in there was all the money he had. This was all he needed, his savings, the clothes on his back, and himself.
As he darted past the front gate, past the front desk, and came onto the railway platform, he could see Sanjo's shaggy head of blonde hair directly ahead. Enzo sighed, "Made it in time, thank god."
The white-haired boy came to halt directly behind Sanjo. He struggled to catch his breath as he continue to huff out of exhaustion. "I was wondering if you'd show up or not," Sanjo said, "I'm glad you made the hard choice and came."
The wizard saint turned to come face-to-face with Enzo. Sanjo arched an eyebrow, "But, we're going to have to work on your endurance some other time."
"So, where are we going now?" Enzo asked as he regained his composure. "To catch some bandits or what, slay a monster in the eastern nations? I'm willing to work hard, don't worry."
"Woah, relax, kid," Sanjo said with a smile, "That will come. Actually, you're strangely on target with your assumptions of my usual jobs. But, first I must return home to look over some job requests and paperwork from my clients, the boring stuff. I'm sure Elsa will get a kick out of you."
Enzo sighed, "Well, that sucks. Also, who's Elsa, your girlfriend, wife or whatever?"
"No, no," Sanjo said quickly, "Elsa's the chef at my place."
"This guy has a chef at his house, damn rich people," Enzo thought to himself. "Well," the boy said, "Long as the fun comes after, I'll live. I suppose I'm supposed to call you master or sensei or something like that, right?"
"Just Sanjo is fine if that's what you want," Sanjo said, rubbing the back of his neck. "To be honest, I'd rather you just call me by my actual name. All that title stuff is making me feel old already."
"Ha, youth is fleeting," Enzo said with a smile, "what are you, like twenty eight or something like that?"
"I'm twenty three, smartass," Sanjo said through a frown. "Also, youth is fleeting, where'd you learn to speak like that, kid?"
Enzo laughed, "Now you know how I felt when you thought I was twelve. I am a kid, even a year's difference can be insulting, that just how we are." He crossed his arms behind his head, eyeing the train conductor passing by them. "Anyway," Enzo said, "as for your question, we kids hear things. It had a nice ring to it, you know?"
"Touche," Sanjo said with a nod, "You're a little smartass, aren't you?"
"Wouldn't be the first time I've heard that," Enzo replied."
Sanjo smirked, "We're gonna get along just fine, kid."
The wizard saint outstretched his right hand, his eyes taking a stern tint, catching Enzo by surprise. "Sanjo Vista, I'm a self-employed mage, nice to meet you," he said.
Enzo's hand joined with Sanjo's in a firm handshake. "The name's Enzo Acratos, just a kid trying to make it in Fiore, the pleasure is all mine," Enzo said as they shook hands.
The train cars' doors opened just a few moments later. There were a but a few individuals on the railway platform to begin and they quickly filed into the train cars as the conductor bellowed for passengers to board immediately. The roar of the engine filled the air as Sanjo and Enzo followed suit, entering onto the train.
"You've been away from Hyde Park and surrounding forest before, have you?" Sanjo asked as they took their seats. Enzo took to the window seat while Sanjo settled for the aisle.
"How'd you know?" Enzo asked with an embarrassed expression.
"It was a hunch," Sanjo said, "Looks like I was right."
"Yea, this will be my first time away from home," Enzo said. "But, I have no intentions of looking or going back. I want better for myself, that's what my grandmother would have wanted. I want to see the world, I get nervous at the thought of everything to come, but I want to see it for my own eyes and learn all kinds of things."
"Attention passengers, the doors have closed, we are now leaving Terminal One of the Hyde Park Station en route for Sole City Central Station. Please enjoy your trip, thank you for riding with us."
Sanjo smiled, "I'm glad to hear it. And you will."
Enzo arched an eyebrow, "Huh?"
"You will see the world, kid," Sanjo said with a smile. "I hope you're prepared. It's a big world out there. So beautiful, yet also so dangerous. So full of life, but so full of death and suffering. Whether you choose to see the cup as half empty or half full is up to you. That will be your judgement to make. But, one thing is for certain, you will realize how big, how vast our world really is."
The train's engine roared as it left he station and began to speed down the tracks. In the far horizon, the sun began to rise into the morning sky as Enzo looked on from his window in awe. It was the most beautiful sunset he had ever seen. It felt like a weight had fallen off of Enzo, that he had been given wings to finally fly as he always wanted to. The future was now, his time was now. Enzo turned to Sanjo with a huge, happy grin on his face, the widest the boy could remember having in a long, long time.
"I'm looking forward to it."