Bringer of Shadow, Bringer of Light

North of the central mountain range lay the seat of the Garlean Empire, where the snow lay thick upon the earth, hiding its features beneath a nondescript veil of white. A tense silence pervaded the region, as if the land itself knew that its suffering had not ended with the Final Days. Even in this modest city, more than four hundred malms west of the ruined capital, the people shuffled about with sullen expressions. What brief snatches of conversation could be heard on the streets were hushed and hurried, serving only to punctuate the oppressive quiet.

A man walked down the main avenue, clad in the standard-issue overcoat and cap of the imperial army. He cast his gaze about with the same hard look worn by the other patrolling soldiers, none questioning his purpose. After a quick glance over his shoulder, he slipped around a corner, proceeding down a succession of narrow, shadow-filled alleyways until he reached the city's outskirts. When the paved path gave way to a field of snow, the man's gait became more languid─whereupon he stopped dead, as if struck by a sudden thought.

A solitary creak of leather served as a prelude to the attack. In one fluid motion, he turned and drew his sword, deflecting the slash which would otherwise have opened him from stem to stern, and dove forward into his opponent, jerking his elbow sharply upwards as he did so. The sound of crunching teeth was his reward. His assailant staggered backwards, dropped his scythe, and fell mutely into the waiting snow.

"Let's call this one a draw and go our separate ways, shall we?" Thancred had come only to observe.

Although the Scions of the Seventh Dawn had officially disbanded, he maintained a lone vigil. It was all he could do to honor the memory of the woman he had loved like a sister─the woman who had given her life to save what she held dear. For the time being, a tentative peace had settled upon the world, it was true, but whispers of unrest within Garlemald had lured him from his leisure. Thancred regarded the motionless form of his would-be assassin. Clothed entirely in black, only his eyes were exposed to the elements. The deep creases in their corners marked the man as a seasoned veteran─doubtless he belonged to the Reapers, agents of the empire who culled its enemies before the advent of magitek. Clinging to the tattered glory of his nation, this lone survivor had likely identified him as an outsider, and thus a target for elimination. Bad luck.

Even as his gaze drifted back to the blanket of white stretching off before him, Thancred found his mind's eye turning to the past. The sight of the old soldier and his scythe lying in the snow had stirred memories of another. One who had dwelled in a world filled with light as blinding as this frigid waste. Within that brilliance the man fought, and within that brilliance he died.

General Ran'jit had been an implacable foe.

Thancred had made it a priority to delve into the general's past as he prepared to rescue Minfilia from her prison in Eulmore. His search had led him to records which mentioned a group of assassins that operated within the shadows of the First before the Flood of Light. The contracts they accepted were few, but they had never known failure. What scant details Thancred could uncover of their inner workings beggared belief. Purportedly a brotherhood bound by blood, they obscured their origins by rearing offspring of every conceivable race and instructing them in the ways of their bloody art. Even the forbidden magicks of foreign lands were at their beck and call, but such mastery came at great cost: the training they endured was said to be tantamount to torture. The wellspring of their devotion and the beliefs which drove them had been lost to history, but what stories remained indicated a zeal that bordered on obsession.

A century before, Zal'bard, leader of this secretive group, had visited Eulmore for an audience with its mayor. It required little imagination to deduce the purpose of their meeting, but even Thancred had been taken aback by the twist of fate which was to follow. For the Flood of Light had poured over the First even as the mayor and Zal'bard parleyed. Consequently, Zal'bard and his followers had little choice but to remain in Eulmore as the mayor's guests. Whether out of gratitude for the hospitality they duly received or simple necessity in the face of the world's seemingly imminent destruction, the assassins drilled Eulmore's unblooded soldiers in the art of warfare. And thus did Zal'bard come to lead the defense against the sin eaters surging forth from the Empty, driving them back and buying a precious reprieve for the beleaguered city...

After twelve years in Eulmore, Zal'bard sired a son. Considering the dearth of information pertaining to the child's mother, it was plain that his main concern had been to procure an heir to whom he might pass down his skills. Records told that the boy began training in earnest before he could form a sentence, and that his father named him Ran'jit.

The world had been driven to desperation by the relentless onslaught of the sin eaters. Voeburt teetered on the brink of collapse, and would surely have tumbled over the precipice had it not been for a miraculous occurrence. Among the populace, a girl was discovered who could not be turned by the sin eaters' corrupting influence. Two years later, she came to be sheltered in Eulmore and was given the name Minfilia, after a figure of legend said to have stemmed the Flood of Light.

Knowing that Minfilia's unique talents would prove invaluable on the front line, Zal'bard resolved to train her himself, though she was then a girl of but twelve summers. Young, perhaps, yet older than Ran'jit who had only recently turned five. Together the two children studied under Zal'bard, one the world's would-be beacon of hope and the other the heir to its darkest arts. The path each followed would ultimately lead them to different destinations, but for now they walked side by side. Whether they viewed each other as friend or rival, comrade or competitor, was never recorded. Yet one account from the period described Minfilia during her days in Eulmore as "a bright and cheerful girl who has taken to life in the city as if she were Eulmoran born and bred. Despite her singular gifts, she remains humble and devoted to her mission, displaying an appetite for training equal to that of her master's firstborn son."

In time, Minfilia grew into her role, and after years of secrecy her existence was revealed to the world. She would, it was announced, take her place in a newly formed elite battalion known as the Sinbound, commanded by Zal'bard himself, and they would lead Eulmore's counter-offensive.

Every drop of blood shed in battle afforded the Sinbound a deeper understanding of their foe, and it was thanks to this hard-earned knowledge that they finally succeeded in tracking down a most elusive quarry─the region's Lightwarden, hidden in the Duergar Mountains. Could they but defeat it, the theory went, all of Kholusia might be liberated. Though the battle that followed was long and brutal, victory came at last when Zal'bard landed the killing blow. Yet the Sinbound's joy was to prove short-lived─their cheers replaced all too soon by cries of horror─for even as the Lightwarden perished, the corrupting radiance stored within its body poured forth, engulfing its vanquisher body and soul. The great general let out an inhuman howl before transforming into that which he most despised. It was then that a terrible truth was laid bare─those who slayed a Lightwarden were doomed to become one.

The Sinbound had no choice but to retreat. Upon their return to Eulmore, they declared that Zal'bard had given his life to put down the Lightwarden, his heroic sacrifice paving the way to ultimate salvation. A half-truth at best, but one the people could tolerate better than the bitter reality. And so the First grieved the death of a leader, while celebrating a historic victory, and Minfilia dutifully smiled and waved. Later, far from the public eye, it fell to her to disabuse the realm's leaders of their false hope, and to propose a solution. If she were the one to slay the Lightwarden, then perhaps her natural immunity to the enemy's baleful influence might prevent victory from spelling defeat.

And so, the Sinbound continued their hunt, with Ran'jit, still scarcely more than a boy, assuming his father's command. While it was unclear how far his training as an assassin had progressed, he was every bit as ferocious as his forebear on the light-drowned battlefields. The loss of father and teacher did not deter him; rather, it seemed to lend the youth an as-yet unseen steel.

While Ran'jit's prowess was beyond doubt, military records showed that Minfilia was in fact the mastermind behind the Sinbound's stratagems, and the general's equal on the field of battle. For every sin eater slain by Ran'jit, Minfilia would slay another, and he would answer in turn. On and on this cycle continued, until the land was littered with their foes.

But all good things must come to an end. Ten years after the Sinbound's founding, Minfilia was dealt a grievous wound. Though immune to the sin eaters' influence, she bled like any other, and this time no chirurgeon could save her. Fading fast, she summoned her comrades to her side and delivered a prophecy: that Minfilia would come again. The Oracle of Light spoke through her, she assured them, and they saw from her undimmed smile that she told the truth. Her duty thus fulfilled, she requested a final moment alone with Ran'jit.

What words were then exchanged only two would ever know─a bringer of shadow and bringer of light. Did the dying Minfilia falter at the last? Or did she depart this world with her familiar smile, undaunted? Ran'jit never told.

State records spoke of a grand funeral, where all whose lives were uplifted by Minfilia's presence mourned her passing. She was interred in Eulmore's crypts, her mortal remains carried there by Ran'jit himself.

It took nigh on three years of searching to find Minfilia's prophesied reincarnation. The girl delivered to Eulmore had the same flaxen hair, the same bright eyes, and─it was duly confirmed─the same resistance to the sway of the enemy. But that was where the similarity ended. She was young and almost painfully shy, greeting the approach of a stranger as most would greet a sin eater. Regardless, she was destined to bear the people's hope, and just as Zal'bard had taken the previous Minfilia as a pupil, Ran'jit resolved to do the same with her successor.

In the end, she lasted but a dozen summers, and did not live to see her tenth battle. While the world awaited her rebirth, scholars worked feverishly to discern the true nature of the sin eaters, hoping to discover some hitherto unnoticed weakness─one which even a child might exploit. Yet their findings dashed any such hopes. Though the sin eaters looked like living beings, the truth was quite otherwise. There were no vital organs to pierce, no arteries to open. Like dolls, the loss of a part served only to diminish the whole, and not destroy it. Only brute force could stop their advance.

Ran'jit continued to train Minfilia after Minfilia, as she was born and reborn, some taking to his methods while others did not. A few begged him to end their lives, that they might make way for a more suitable student. One way or another, to save all that was left, they gave all they had.

Who would break this merciless wheel? Eighty years after the Flood of Light, Eulmore came under the rule of Vauthry, a man who could bend the sin eaters to his will. And thus were the Sinbound rendered surplus to requirements and disbanded. Yet Minfilias were still born into the world, and after having a dream that he would someday meet his end at one's hands, Vauthry ordered that the Oracle's current incarnation be put to death. From that day forth, Ran'jit was tasked with a new mission: to seek out the next Minfilia and confine her, that she might never rise against Vauthry or the sin eaters under his thrall.

None can say for sure what the aging general thought of this sad duty, but his words to the Warrior of Darkness and their companions, who aided in Minfilia's rescue, were recorded for posterity:

"Defiance only begets more suffering. It is through acceptance alone that one may find solace in this godsforsaken world."

"Man is an inherently flawed creature. In his vain pursuit of righteousness, he but sows the seeds of future conflict. Thus have I chosen to place my hopes upon he who has transcended men. Upon he who is unbound by the vagaries of conscience."

Ran'jit died in battle at the age of eighty-eight. His body was found lying before the graves of his former pupils, all taken before their time.