Grazhir :: Crossover :: Persequor :: 03 :: Enitor

03 • Enitor

Giza Plains during the rains was a lovely place if you did not mind feeling like a drowned rat. Or you were an amphibian. Harry was incredibly grateful his packs were waterproof. And speaking of amphibians, they could barely go ten feet without a gigantoad popping up from a wadi to attack them. At least they could cross south to Ozmone Plain without wasting an entire day. Through rain, hyenas, tortoises, flying fish. . . . Oh, and pesky elementals. It was great fun, and Harry bitched under his breath the entire way, much to Balthier’s amusement.

The Ozmone Plain was a nice place to visit, actually. Green grass, nice trees, strange wreckage sticking up out of the ground, vipers slithering out of the grass at a moment’s notice. . . . Harry rather liked the place, even if it did rain intermittently, and he got his fair share of gems that were wrested from creatures along the way.

They continued south, eventually running across a Garif Warrior out for a bit of hunting, or perhaps exercise. Harry buffed him as they went by, more out of habit than anything, and they eventually found their way to Jahara, a village on the bank of a river, access via a wooden bridge that was guarded by two Garif. They seemed to be inordinately fond of tents, he noticed. And masks. With huge horns that must weigh a ton. However, they did have the luxury of a chocobo stable, something that Harry promptly ignored in favor of watching Vaan approach the bridge.

One of the Garif asked, “Who are you? This is Garif land. No place for Hume children to play at games.”

A voice came from behind them, commanding in tone. “They are wayfarers. They bring no harm.” A look back revealed that it was the warrior they had passed just a short time ago, and the Garif came close enough to be heard comfortably. “I saw them cross the Ozmone Plain. They are warriors of great distinction. The fiends of the plains troubled them not at all.”

The first Garif said, “You ventured upon the plains alone, War-Chief? Again?”

The War-Chief said nothing for a moment, then looked at the group. “What business have you with the Garif?”

Ashe stepped up to briefly explain, and the War-Chief nodded and turned back to the guards. “Let them pass. The responsibility will be mine.”

“If this is your wish, War-Chief,” responded the second Garif as the War-Chief passed by and onto the bridge and beyond.

“Then, you may pass,” said the first. “These days see many Humes wandering through our lands.”

Harry wondered about that as they crossed the river. The War-Chief was waiting at the other end to say, “Ah, I have not made introductions. I am Supinelu, War-Chief of this village. We Garif have been friends to all since long ago, however, lately the Hume world is in much turmoil. We must protect our village, and our people. As War-Chief, and protector of our village, I ask you: why have you come to this land?”

‘Didn’t we just do that. . . ?’

Ashe stepped forward again, this time to explain in greater detail.

“Hmm. . . . I see. So you too have come to ask about the nethicite. You must speak with the elders. Though our masks may make it difficult for you to tell us apart, walk through the village and look with your eyes, listen with your ears.” Supinelu turned and walked onward.

The group entered the village and walked up a slight rise, passing two sparring Garif with another watching, and his eyes were drawn almost magnetically to a merchant not far away. Balthier cuffed him gently, causing him to mutter, “It’s not like I’ve been here before.”

“Time enough,” his lover responded. “Let the princess ask her questions, and then you can talk shop, all right? I wonder who else has been here asking about nethicite.”

After a bit of wandering they found High-Chief Zayalu, one of the elder Garif, which Ashe approached. He, however, said, “What is this? More Humes come to visit us? A little bigger this time, but no matter.”

Balthier exchanged a look with Harry and mouthed, “Larsa?”

“You need not tell me anything. I know you have come to our village to learn of the stones, the nethicite. We Garif have knowledge of this, passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Some of it remains, some has been lost in history’s sands. I . . . know nothing of the stones. You must speak to the Great-Chief. He alone holds the deep knowledge of these things. He alone remembers all the tellings. Cross the bridge to the north, and there you will find him. There are watchers at the bridge, so I think it best to speak with War-Chief Supinelu. May you find all the answers you seek.”

Ashe thanked him graciously and led them off toward the now-familiar form of Supinelu, who asked, “Did you learn what you wished? No, do not tell me. It is written clear upon your face. So, even the High-Chief could not help. Then, you must meet with the Great-Chief, who may know something that would aid you. Yet, arranging an audience may be quite difficult. . . .”

“I must learn more about the nethicite,” Ashe pressed. “I cannot turn back now. Please, tell your Great-Chief that I am of the royal line of Dalmasca, a direct descendant of Dynast-King Raithwall. If the Garif have passed down knowledge of the stones, they must know of the nethicite that the Dynast-King once held.”

“Do you have proof of your heritage?” Supinelu asked.

“I—I do not,” she said and sighed.

“Hrm. . . . I have looked into your eyes and seen that you speak the truth, Hume child. I give you my trust. The Great-Chief is ahead, across this bridge.”

Harry could only assume she spoke not of the Dawn Shard because it no longer reacted in her presence. And also, that the War-Chief might be possessed of the same ability as Al-Cid.

Ashe thanked him and they proceeded across the bridge, the path ahead leading to a large circular palisade back-braced by massive, inward-curving monoliths at regular intervals, and fronted by a wide, thin arch two stories high. At the center was a fire, and against the back wall was a set of square, narrow columns, a carving of some sort between them, and poles perpendicular to either side from which hangings were displayed.

Inside, just behind the fire sat another Garif, his mask adorned with massive branching horns, the presumable Great-Chief. Ashe walked to him, the Dawn Shard in her hand. “We come to seek your wisdom, the knowledge passed down of nethicite by your people.”

The Great-Chief extended his arm, and Ashe deposited the Dawn Shard in his palm. He examined it, then said, “This nethicite—you have used it.”

“It was not I who used it,” she said with a shake of her head. “Indeed I had hoped you could show me how. Thus I’ve come.”

“You do not know the workings of the stone. Then we are no different.”

Ashe jerked forward. “What!?”

“In ages past, the gods made a gift of nethicite to my people. But the manner of its use eluded us. Displeased by our failure, the gods took back their stones. They chose instead to give them to a Hume king. Called the Dynast-King, he used the nethicite’s power to bring peace to a troubled time. It is a curious thing. Though the blood of Raithwall flow through your veins, you cannot wield nethicite.”

“Cannot wield it?” she said incredulously. “So then, am I to understand you can’t tell me how to use the stone?”

‘That is what he just said.’

“Though it shame me so to admit,” the Great-Chief affirmed. “Here before me stands a descendant of the Dynast-King himself . . . and I can accord her no help at all. Still, even if you knew how to use the nethicite, you would find it of small avail.” He handed her back the Dawn Shard, then continued, “The Mist collected in the stone over ages past is lost, and with it the stone’s power. It will be your posterity who wield the stone in ages yet to come.”

Ashe was silent.

“This stone is devoid of power. Empty, yet full of thirst. A terrible longing to drink the world dry. The power of men, and of magic. Of good, and of evil. It is often those who desire nethicite whom the nethicite itself desires.”

The moment was shattered by soft footsteps, then Penelo saying, “Larsa?” Everyone filed out, leaving the Great-Chief without so much as a word.

Larsa smiled. “I was going to wait for my escort, but meeting you presents a great opportunity,” he said, then approached Ashe specifically. “This terrible war can be stopped, but I will need your help to do so.”

“A war?”

“You know Marquis Ondore leads a group of insurgents—your pardon, he leads a large resistance force against the empire. Lady Ashe, neither of our countries can afford this right now. The Rozarrian empire would stir. They would aid the resistance and use this aid as a pretext to declare war on Archadia. And, Archadia would have no choice but to answer.”

He paused, and when she remained silent, continued, “Lady Ashe, let us go to Mt Bur-Omisace. With the blessing of Gran Kiltias Anastasis you may rightly wear your crown, and declare the restoration of the Kingdom of Dalmasca. As queen, you can call for peace between the empire and Dalmasca, and stop Marquis Ondore.”

Ashe took a step back in anger. “For peace? How dare you say that! The empire attacked us, stole all we hold dear—and you would have me save them from war?”

Larsa took a step forward. “Dalmasca would be the battlefield! What if nethicite were used on Rabanastre? You know my brother would do this!”

She looked almost thoughtful at that, dropping her gaze to the stone in her hands.

Larsa sighed slightly and said, “Forgive me, I presumed overmuch. I could think of no other way to avoid bloodshed. If you cannot trust me, then please, take me as your hostage. We could leave tomorrow.”

Ashe opted to slowly walk away, Basch choosing to follow, and Penelo surged forward to take up Larsa’s attention.

Harry considered the situation, biting his lower lip, and allowed himself to be led away by Balthier, who then murmured, “I’d say this presents an opportunity.”

“Hm?” He realized they were slowly circling around behind the palisade. “Oh, yes. The question is how.”

“What exactly does Rozarria want?”

“Ah, the military or the emperor?” he countered.

“Either.”

Harry chuckled. “In layman’s terms? The military is still sharpening weapons in a brightly hopeful manner. House Margrace wants Archadia to back the hell off and stick to their damn own country, and stop invading others.”

“House Margrace?”

Harry nearly jumped out of his skin. Turning he saw Larsa, head tilted curiously. “Don’t do that,” Harry growled. “I’m too bloody young to die of heart failure.”

Larsa gestured, to continue the stroll, and kept with them as they did. “I received a letter from what I presume is a friend of yours—a certain member of House Margrace.”

“Was it interesting?” he asked innocently.

“Very, especially as it seemed no secret to him that I prefer peace over the increasingly despotic behavior of my brother. It’s funny about the name, though.”

Harry glanced over, brow arched inquiringly.

“Similarities of a sort,” Larsa said vaguely. “One to you, I presume, and obliquely”—he looked at Balthier—“one to you . . . Ffamran.”

It was Balthier’s turn to have a moment, making Harry feel that much better. “I didn’t think one so young would recognize me.”

“Young in age,” Larsa said, “but not so much otherwise. After all, I joined you in the mines for a specific purpose.”

“Yes, nethicite. We did wonder if it was you the Garif kept mentioning. So, what shall we talk about?”

Larsa stopped, then faced Harry. “I’d like to speak to your friend directly, if possible.”

“I could—” He blinked slowly, wondering if he was hallucinating. “Oh my stars and whiskers,” he breathed.

“Hallam? Where do you come up with these phrases?” Balthier was giving him one of those looks.

Harry flapped a hand negligently. “Cultural thing. Look,” he said and pointed. “Hiding oh so innocently away from prying eyes.” A gate crystal was there, only visible from specific angles due to its location.

“Now that’s opportunity knocking,” Balthier drawled.

“But not now,” Harry murmured. “In fact, let’s walk back a ways, hm?” A minute later he said, “You wish to meet him?”

“Is that not the proper way to attempt negotiation?” Larsa countered.

Harry eyed the boy speculatively as he wiped his brow, then gazed off toward the horizon. “Well, there’s no sense in playing coy, is there. Lord Larsa, I would have to take you to him. To Rozarria.”

Larsa nodded. “I have already offered myself as hostage to Lady Ashe. And I am willing to take the risk for a short trip to Rozarria. I understand that you would need to obtain authorization first.”

He purposely did not look at his lover. Even if Balthier was all for the idea, it was truly up to Al-Cid, and frankly, he could not suddenly start looking to his lover for answers to things he had no part of. Eventually he nodded. “I’m going to need cover at some point, to do so. If we do this, it’ll have to be at night, when the others are sleeping.”

“I could do something wicked,” Balthier murmured.

Harry turned his head sharply, eyeing his lover suspiciously.

“You’ll play along, won’t you?” Balthier asked of Larsa, who nodded, then gazed around to see who, if anyone, was nearby. Balthier smirked and pulled Harry to him for a kiss, then dragged him back to the crystal. Though, it was another minute at least before he actually released Harry, leaving him thoroughly breathless.

“Bloody hell.”

“Go on. Hurry,” Balthier urged.

He rolled his eyes and reached out to the crystal, and gated to Schpariel. Once there he took off at a dead run so as not to waste a minute, and arrived at Al-Cid’s usual haunt nearly out of breath.

“Hallam! I did not expect to see you, hey? Has something gone terribly wrong?”

“Lord Larsa wishes to meet with you here,” he gasped. “He was with the Garif, and brought up the letter you decided to send him.”

Al-Cid’s face blossomed with a smile. “Such a daring child. He will make a good ruler someday, I think.”

“Yes, well, he’s very concerned that the Rozarrian empire will back Ondore’s resistance, only to use Dalmasca as the battlefield in a war against Archadia. He’d rather see Lady Ashe reclaim her throne and sue for peace with Archadia, stopping the incipient war in its tracks. I don’t know how damn naïve that is, but. . . .”

Al-Cid nodded. “You have permission, my friend. However, I shall go to Ambervale and await you in your cottage, hey? Bring him there.”

“Not until after dark,” Harry said. “I can’t risk it until the others are sleeping. And, I should like to bring Balthier with me as well.”

“Balthier—Ffamran?” When Harry nodded he said, “That is fine. I will await you there, and assure the young lordling for me that he will be safe.”

Harry rolled his eyes. “I’d never have even come here to ask if I thought otherwise.”

Al-Cid laughed gaily and shooed him off, so Harry took off at a run again and gated back, only to be pulled into another kiss the second he materialized. ‘Oh merciful heaven.’ Damn the man knew how to kiss.

Balthier released him, looked him over, then frowned slightly and reached up to muss his hair a little. Harry slapped his hand away irritably and said, “We’re good.”

“Fantastic. Now, let’s stroll back around and play nice with the other children.”

Harry snorted and allowed his lover to walk him back into the populated sections of the village. Larsa was innocently hanging about not far away, chatting with Penelo and Vaan, and smiled when he saw them, that smile brightening a touch when Harry nodded.

Having had enough of being dragged around, he dragged Balthier along to that merchant he had spied earlier, and was soon engaging in conversation with the Garif about how well his business did. Predictably, Balthier became bored and quickly wandered off to speak with some of the others. Harry tore himself away after a while and rejoined Balthier right about the time they were invited to partake of dinner. And afterward, they would be shown to accommodations for their rest that evening.

He wasn’t sure what the main course actually was, but it tasted like chicken. Much later Harry and Balthier retired to one of the tents, coincidentally, right next to the one Larsa had been staying in. They passed the time with quiet talk, and after two hours slipped from the tent and fetched Larsa, then proceeded to the gate crystal.

In front of it Harry waited for them to grab his forearms (as they could not possibly go unaided to where they had never been), and gated them to Ambervale. “We’re going to my house,” he murmured, then guided them through a darkness pierced only every so often by lanterns hung from poles. He went first through the door (unlocked as always) and closed it behind them, then led them to the main room.

Al-Cid, who was sitting in an armchair with a book in his hand, looked up and smiled. “You come sooner than I expect, hey?” he said, then practically singsonged, “I made sure to bring some fresh fruit for you, Hallam.”

Harry grinned when he noticed the bowl on the coffee table. “Thank you. My lord, allow me to introduce Lord Larsa Solidor, and Balthier. Lord Larsa, Balthier, this is Lord Al-Cid Margrace, son and trusted adviser to the emperor. Please, be welcome in my home.”

He waited until they had seated themselves to do so himself, then greedily pulled the bowl closer and took a mango to eat, ignoring the sounds of mirth coming from Al-Cid.

Larsa got straight to the point. “I am honored to meet you, Lord Al-Cid.”

“Nay, nay, call me Al-Cid.”

“And you may certainly call me Larsa.”

Harry sort of tuned out at that point, never having been a politician. He did, however, snap back to complete attention when Al-Cid said, “Hallam. I would have your opinion of this princess, hey?”

“Polite or brutal?” he inquired.

“Brutal, my friend.”

Harry nodded. “She’s extremely determined, but despite the prior two years in hiding she seems to be rather naïve, forgetting several things in her quest to free Dalmasca from Archadian control. She doesn’t seem to quite live in the same world as the rest of us—but I don’t find that so surprising—and is more focused on black and white issues, unwilling to see where it would not necessarily be untrue to her kingdom to compromise somewhat or make allies in unlikely places.

“Two of the people with her right now are common folk of Dalmasca, her subjects. And, while I understand she feels she must be in control, she does them and herself a disservice in treating them with what amounts to disdain. Vaan and Penelo represent her kingdom, her people, and if to no one else, a ruler should answer to those people. I can’t tell if her attitude there is mellowing yet, not really. I also think that Captain Azelas fostered her behavior, so with him gone that might change.

“Two of her present allies are sky pirates, and we all know what their reputation is like. They present a vexing situation for her, rather like a slap in the face, because they don’t fight for loyalty to monarch and country or duty. They’d like some compensation, thank you very much, for their time and effort. The princess doesn’t want to deal with someone she has to appease in order to have them keep helping her, despite the fact that she needs them.

“At our earlier talk with the Great-Chief at Jahara, she heard what she wanted to hear, and had to be told again that they could not help her. Lord Larsa also appealed to her, and she reacted with as much anger as I would have expected, and as much unwillingness to deviate from whatever plan she has in mind. She’s a little too focused on the damn nethicite, as though it alone holds all the answers.

“I understand the concept of meeting power with power, but those relics are a menace. She did not want to hear Lord Larsa rightly point out that Dalmasca could become a Nabudis. However, she did look very thoughtful after that conversation. Honestly, she should remember that Raithwall forged the Galtean Alliance, something perhaps she also should work to bring back into being.

“I am concerned that in her quest to regain her throne, with her anger at Archadia, that she will forget that the people are mainly innocent. It is the senate and the upper echelons of the military she must deal with. She also seems to forget that Nabradia had a treaty with Rozarria, even if that was prompted somewhat by fear, though fear of Archadia was much stronger. At the same time she vows that kindness to Dalmasca will not go unforgotten.

“All in all, I find her to be a very frustrating and confusing person who spews denial of reality unthinkingly, and frankly, if Vaan and Penelo got pissed off at her attitude and left, and then Balthier and Fran became fed up. . . . Well, she would have her loyal Basch.”

Al-Cid nodded thoughtfully, then said, “I will do as you request, Larsa. I would see with my own eyes this princess, so I shall journey shortly, after I speak with the emperor.”

“I am grateful.”

“And now, I think we have places to be, hey? Hallam, I did not bring the fruit for you to pine over it at just one piece,” Al-Cid said teasingly as he stood. “Take it with you.”

“You didn’t really think I’d leave without it?” Harry already had a cloth container open so he could transfer them over.

“Balthier, it has been a pleasure to meet you. Take care of Hallam, hey?”

Harry snorted softly and stood up as Balthier chuckled and said, “I am more than happy to.”

On the walk back to the crystal Larsa murmured, “He seems a nice man, without affectation.”

“Yes. And he sees the truth in things, which makes it near impossible to be blind to the world and the people in it. His excellency is a lucky man with Al-Cid for a son.”

Back in Jahara they stealthily slipped off to their tents and finally got some rest, and the next morning the group reassembled, Larsa included. And Ashe still seemed to be thoughtful.

“I will accompany you to Mt Bur-Omisace,” she said to Larsa.

“I had hoped you’d say yes,” Larsa replied with a smile. “I am glad.”

“My heart is not set,” Ashe cautioned. “I still have questions. I hope to find answers along the way.”

Larsa nodded and replied, “I had other reason to invite you. There is someone I’d like you to meet waiting on Bur-Omisace.”

“Who is that?”

“An enemy, and an ally also. You will just have to wait and see for yourself,” he said, then made for the bridge across the river.

“That Larsa likes his secrets,” Vaan commented.

Ashe huffed slightly and strangely, defended Larsa. “He does not mean ill by it.”

“He’s not bad. At least for an imperial.” Vaan rubbed his nose, then followed the boy.

As Ashe and Penelo also traversed the bridge, Basch said, “Holy Mt Bur-Omisace stands at the northern end of the Jagd Ramooda. Once we’re in Jagd, we need not fear pursuit by their airships.”

Balthier shook his head. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he warned. “You remember the Leviathan and Shiva sailed straight over the Jagd Yensa, right up to Raithwall’s Tomb. Skystone that works even in Jagd. You know nethicite’s behind it. Little wonder they’re so keen on the stuff.”

Basch turned. “And what is it you’re after, Balthier? You’re a welcome hand, and a great aid, but why?”

Balthier gazed off toward the village’s exit as he said, “Worried that I’m out to steal the nethicite, eh? Can’t say I’m unaccustomed to people doubting my intentions. Nothing could be further from my mind.” He shook his head lightly. “Shall I swear by your sword or some such?”

After a short silence Basch said, “Apologies. But I needed to know where you stand. Her majesty depends on you. And you seemed to have an interest in the stone.”

Balthier gazed over with a faint smile. “I’m only here to see how the story unfolds. Any self-respecting leading man would do the same,” he said, then made for the bridge.

Harry, of course, had to wonder how it was that Basch was satisfied with such an answer. He knew Balthier spoke truth in this matter, but there were far too many people who lied without remorse, and with Vossler barely out of the picture, he thought it strange for Basch to be so accepting. Perhaps he really did see the truth there.

After they caught up Basch lagged back to walk with the princess as the others paced along farther ahead. The three youngest were leading, bantering back and forth, there seeming to be no friction between Dalmascan and Archadian. Harry was able to overhear snatches of their conversation, much of which focused on Penelo teasing Vaan. Behind Ashe and Basch were discussing an alliance, and the consequences to be expected, like potential shame. However, Basch seemed to see hope due to the three youngest, which raised Harry’s opinion of the man.

They made their way roughly east through the Ozmone Plain, Larsa lending his sword, eventually coming to a forest of extreme old growth, Golmore Jungle. The trees were massive, blocking much light, and flowering vines stretched everywhere. Walkways of wood provided means of travel, as the ground was far below, and mysterious tiny pinpoints of light flitted about.

Fran took the lead, walking unerringly along the paths, and generally slamming half a dozen arrows into malicious beasts before the others could even haul their weapons up. She was, as they say, in her element. However, as they approached one of the junctions a magical barrier blossomed into view, eliciting a gasp from the Viera.

“What is it?” Vaan inquired.

“The jungle denies us our passage.” She sounded almost irritated.

“What have we done?” Ashe asked.

“We? No,” Fran said, turning around. “I.” She proceeded to backtrack a ways, the others lagging behind in confusion, toward a short flight of steps that led to a dead-end landing.

“Making an appearance?” Balthier quietly asked her.

“I am,” she confirmed.

“I thought you’d left for good.”

“Our choices are few,” she replied, stepping down the flight. “This is as much for you as it is me.”

“Oh?” Balthier inquired, brow arched.

“You are ill at ease. The nethicite troubles you? You’ve let your eyes betray your heart,” she murmured, then began tracing patterns in the air with a finger, trails of light following her movements.

Vaan stepped closer. “What are you doing?”

“Soon you will learn.” And indeed, moments later, the patterns—symbols—exploded backward and caused a grassy pathway to appear, curving off into darkness.

As Vaan expressed his shock Fran said, “We go to seek the aid of the Viera who dwell ahead.”

“I bet they’ll be glad to see you after so long,” Penelo offered.

Even Harry knew better than that, though stranger he was to Kerwon.

“I am unwelcome,” Fran replied after a pause. “An unsought guest in their wood.” She headed forward, along the path, which brought them to a village full of sunlight, wooden walkways circling more of those monstrous trees, and teeming with Viera, many of whom glided around with slow, seeming indifference.

Fran stepped off to the side slightly and said, “Eruyt Village. Ahead you will find her: Mjrn. Bring her to me. She will know why you call her.”

Balthier nodded and took the lead, even though he was as unlikely as any to know his way around; what place had Humes there? Toward the back, up several curving staircases and past many Viera who acted as though they did not exist, they came upon one of the few ‘buildings’ they had any access to, at which point those dwellers nearby surrounded them loosely, causing Penelo to cling lightly to Vaan in trepidation.

“Hey, Mjrn lives here, doesn’t she?” Vaan asked. “We’re here to see her.”

The Viera stared at him blankly, not deigning to answer. That is, until from the building a Viera dressed unlike the others emerged and approached.

“It is not allowed for Humes to walk on these grounds,” she informed them.

Vaan stepped forward and said, rather belligerently, “We’ll go as soon as we’ve seen Mjrn.”

The Viera crossed her arms. “If you can find her.”

“We’re not leaving until you let us see her,” Vaan persisted.

The Viera huffed and looked away in denial.

“Fine, then. We’ll look for her ourselves,” Vaan said, then turned to step back toward the others.

Just then the Viera said, “Ah!”

Fran was approaching, the Viera behind them not hindering her passage, and came to a stop at the back of the group. “I’ve heard the voice of the wood. She says Mjrn is not in the village.” She walked to the front of the party, saying, “Jote. Where has she gone?”

“Why do you ask? The wood tells us where she has gone. Or . . . can you not hear her?” When Fran did not respond, and in fact bowed her head slightly, Jote continued, “You cannot. Your ears are dull from hearing their harsh speech, I think. Viera who have abandoned the wood are Viera no longer. Mjrn, too, has left her embrace.”

“And you forsake them in return?” Balthier inquired, rather solemnly curious.

“It is the will of the village. Viera must live always with the wood. So is the Green Word, and so is our law.”

Vaan reacted rather snottily. “We’ll let you worry about keeping your laws. Just do us a favor and stay out of our way. We’ll find her ourselves.”

Harry, of course, wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about any of it, the situation hitting a little too close to home in some ways. He, however, had enough tact to stay quiet.

And it seemed that Jote did feel compassion, even for those who had gone against the law—to some extent, anyway. She raised her arms and face up in a posture of supplication, a mild whirlwind of light and leaves surrounding her. After a short time she relaxed. “Our sister has left the wood and gone west. She wanders warrens among men who hide themselves in clothes of cold iron. Thus to me has the wood spoken.”

As Jote walked away Fran said, “The Viera may begin as part of the wood, but it is not the only end that we may choose.”

Jote replied without stopping, “The same words I heard fifty years ago.”

Fran turned and headed back toward the village entrance. They followed, pausing for a few moments before exiting back to the jungle.

“So then, what was she saying about men in a warren?” Balthier mused.

“The Henne Magicite Mines—maybe that’s what she meant,” said Larsa. “They lie in Bancour, south of the Ozmone Plain. The entire region is a colony of the Archadian empire. There would be soldiers.”

“Is that a problem?” Balthier said with a shrug. “Let’s move.”

Along the hidden path Vaan managed to make an absolute ass of himself inquiring about Fran’s age, causing pretty much everyone to scoff at his rudeness. Seeing that the young man had no clue what he’d done, Harry sidled up and murmured, “For your own sake, don’t ever do that again. Most women find it incredibly offensive if you ask about their age. And they will look upon you as being nothing more than a tactless, immature brat.”

Vaan gave him a look of confusion. “But what’s the big deal?”

He shook his head. “It’s a female thing. Don’t even try to understand. You’ll only end up with a headache. Another word of advice: if a female ever asks you about her weight, find a way to disappear. No good ever comes of that query.” Harry grinned at the even more confused Vaan and quickened his pace to catch up with Balthier.

They returned to Ozmone Plain only to stumble over two wounded imperial soldiers. The conscious one implored, “T-traveler. Have you a potion on you? My friend is badly wounded. I fear that, untreated, he’ll die. Please, just one potion. . . .”

Harry had a spell prepping before the man was halfway through his speech, and quickly healed them both, not caring one whit for what the others might think.

The man was embarrassingly grateful. “Thank you, thank you! I’m in your debt. Thanks to you my friend’s life is saved. We are in your debt, sir.”

Harry wanted to hide at that point, but Balthier was holding his arm by then, probably terribly amused by it all. The man did have some useful information for them, though.

“We fled here from Henne Mines. We were attacked, you see. It was all we could do to make it this far. We’ll rest here until my friend is able again. If you like, we could lend you the use of our chocobos until then.”

Two chocobos, eight people. Hm. Ashe looked at them all, lingering for a few extra seconds on Larsa and Fran, then nodded. “They can ride two each, yes?”

“So it’ll just be several trips,” Balthier murmured.

Ashe approached the soldiers. “We would like to, yes. Which way should we be wary of?”

The soldier promptly informed her of exactly where to go. “You do know that some paths are only accessible by chocobo, right? A sure sign that such a path is nearby is the presence of chocobo tracks. Keep that in mind and you won’t go wrong. You want to avoid the Henne Mines, so be careful not to veer off to the left as you head into the plain proper, okay?”

Ashe smiled her best smile as Balthier and Basch gathered up the reins of the two mounts, and they moved along, finding that exact spot. Several trips later they were all assembled in front of a tunnel into a mountain, gazing at five corpses sprawled on the grass. Two were clearly soldiers, but the other three were dressed in the same uniforms as some of the people on the Leviathan.

Larsa let out a gasp at the sight. “Researchers from the Draklor Laboratory. What were they doing here?”

“Nothing good, I imagine,” Balthier said grimly.

Within was a place that brought to mind the Lhusu Mines again, which was not a happy thing in Harry’s opinion. They were forced to deal with the locking system installed by the imperials to progress farther within, there being two sets of gates. If one set was open, the other was closed, which meant a lot of useless extra walking in order to circumvent tunnels barred to them.

Eventually they emerged into a tunnel not much different from some of the others, except for that no monsters lurked around to attack them, and Larsa found the spot interesting. “Look at the magicite. These mines much resemble the ones at Lhusu. Of course. . . . Draklor must be searching for new sources of ore. Should the resistance forces move, the rich veins of magicite in Bhujerba will be forever beyond their grasp.”

Larsa gasped suddenly, having spotted another corpse, and ran toward it, but Fran gave one of her own, bringing a hand to her chest. “Is it her? What is . . . this Mist? Mjrn!”

A Viera walked into view, her gait like that of a marionette in the hands of an inexperienced puppeteer. “The stench of Humes. The stench of power.”

Ashe stepped aside Fran and said, “What’s wrong with her?”

Mjrn whipped her head around toward the sound and pointed, then spoke, her voice like that of two people at once. “Stay away! Power-needy Hume!” She left, a staggering, lurching run, and they followed her, down a short tunnel and into a large circular room with many barred exits.

They were just processing that the room was far from unoccupied when Mjrn stumbled off behind the huge dragon that was just then awakening, disturbed and ready to deal with whatever had encroached on its sleeping space. Harry snapped out of his somewhat dazed state and started casting. Much later, a more or less exhausted group watched as the dragon crashed to the ground and dissolved into motes that vanished, leaving behind no sign.

Sounds, however, reminded them of the missing Mjrn. Fran sucked in a breath and reversed herself, then dashed forward toward a staggering Mjrn, who was holding something in her hand that looked suspiciously like manufacted nethicite. It fell from her grasp and bounced a few times before rolling to a stop, then shattered into fine dust.

Behind Mjrn, as though rising from her, a ghostly shape appeared, not human, but it had eyes of a sort. Fran jerked to a stop at the sight, then dashed forward again as the thing faded out and Mjrn collapsed to the ground.

“Thing thing inside her. What was it?” Vaan mused.

Fran had dropped to the ground in order that she might cradle Mjrn and lift her upper body.

“Is it you?”

Fran nodded, and a moment later Mjrn passed out with a sigh.

After she awoke Mjrn explained. “When the Hume soldiers came to the wood, the village took small heed of them. So long as the wood herself is safe from harm, the Viera give little care to goings on beyond her. But in me, an uneasiness stirred. I had to discover why they had come.”

“So you came here hoping to find something out, and got yourself caught,” Balthier said. When she nodded he smiled faintly. “You’re as foolhardy as your sister.”

Mjrn got up from the crate she’d been sitting on and walked a few steps. “They took me then, and set close beside me a stone. They said its Mist would be drawn into me, that the Viera well suited this end.” She looked back at Fran. “I saw the light coming from the stone, and then—”

“We have seen this,” said Fran. “From Leviathan, the Mist released from the Dawn Shard drove me, too, into such a rage. She was taken not by the Dawn Shard.”

“Manufacted nethicite,” Larsa stated. “Then that means—Penelo, the stone I gave you, do you still carry it with you?”

“Sure, it’s right here,” she said, and fetched it out.

Larsa snatched it from her hand almost rudely and turned away. “This is a thing more dangerous again than I had imagined. I should never have given it to you. Forgive me, I—I didn’t know.”

Penelo gave a little shrug. “I’d always thought of it as a sort of good luck charm. And even if it is dangerous, on Leviathan it kept us safe.”

“There is a place for all things,” said Ashe quietly, “even danger such as this.”

Vaan, from his vantage on a crate, said, “I hope you’re right about that.”

“We should return,” Fran stated. “This place is not for us.”

On that note, they retreated from the mines, to Ozmone Plain to spend time ferrying people via chocobo, and then returned the birds to the soldiers. From there they made their way to Eruyt Village and back to the building where Jote had spoken with them.

And Jote was waiting, two Viera to either side behind her. “I heard the wood’s whispers,” she said as one of the Viera began walking forward, something cradled in her hand. “Take it.”

The Viera handed something like a pendant to Vaan, who happened to be standing closest. Strung on a long cord, it was fairly small, an elongated object of faintly-glowing blue.

“Lente’s Tear is a permission,” Jote said. “Pass through the wood and leave. To other places go.”

Vaan let out a sigh and retreated, and Mjrn rushed forward. “That cannot be all!” she cried. “I saw it when I left the village! Ivalice is changing! How can the Viera stand and do nothing at all?”

“Ivalice is for the Humes. The wood alone is for us.”

Harry thought that was rather outrageous given that ‘the wood’ was a part of Ivalice. He might understand their reluctance to have much of anything to do with other races, but there were many, many Viera who had forsaken the wood to live in the wider world. There were even rumors of Viera who had been driven from the wood. For those truly content, however. . . .

“But that is wrong! How can we just hide here in the trees, when all the world outside is on the move! I, too, wish to live freely—to leave this wood!”

“Do not do this,” Fran said, and Mjrn turned to face her. “You must remain away from the Humes. Stay with the wood. Live together with the wood. This is your way.”

“But, Fran—my sister!”

“I am no longer of you. I have discarded wood and village. I won my freedom. Yet my past had been cut away forever. No longer can my ears hear the Green Word. This solitude, you want, Mjrn?”

“Sister—”

“No, Mjrn,” Fran said with a shake of her head. “Only one sister remains to you now. You must forget my existence.”

Mjrn let out a choked sob and ran off; Jote’s gaze followed. “I am sorry to make you do this.”

“She goes against the laws of the wood. I threw down those laws. It is better that I do this. Better I than one who must uphold these laws herself.”

Jote glanced over her shoulder and nodded at a Viera; moments later they all walked away.

“I have a request: listen to the wood’s voice for me,” Fran said. “I fear—I fear she hates.”

Jote opened herself to the wood again, then said, “The wood longs for you. For the child born from under her boughs.”

Fran seemed to consider that. “A pleasant lie, that,” she said, and turned away.

“Be cautious,” Jote warned. “The wood is jealous of the Humes who have taken you.”

Fran angled her head back. “I am as them, now. Am I not? Goodbye . . . sister.” And then she walked away, prompting the others to follow.

They were almost through Golmore Jungle, according to Fran, when they happened upon a sort of clearing featuring a massive mound covered in grass and moss and flowers—a mound that came to life, actually. However, they defeated the wyrm after a long, nasty fight and Harry was surprised and delighted when the destruction of its body revealed a gate crystal, which he promptly keyed himself into. They continued on, eventually emerging from the jungle into the start of a mountain pass.

Ashe, surprisingly, called for a halt. The area appeared to be completely free of monsters, and they had been going strong for quite some time. Or as she put it, “We should be well rested before we brave the Paramina Rift.”

Tents were broken out and set up, water provided for washing up, and food handed out to everyone. Harry found a reasonably comfortable rock to lean against and was pleased when Balthier and Fran came to sit with him. “You have any idea why the princess suddenly changed her mind about Larsa’s suggestion?” he murmured, then wolfed down half a bread roll.

Fran discreetly pointed at the three youngest, and Balthier replied, “We overheard Vaan telling Penelo about a little chat he had with the princess that night. I guess Vaan explained to her why he was on this little jaunt, what was motivating him. I suppose it didn’t hurt that he apparently told her he was going to face reality, to stop running away and making excuses.”

“Wise words, from him,” Fran added.

“Sometimes, the wisest words of all are from the young.”

Balthier shot him a dark look. “Please tell me you aren’t going to add something sappy about the innocence of children?”

“Heavens no. What do you take me for? A bleeding-heart, starry-eyed romantic who wallows in bad poetry? Children might be innocent, but in my experience, too many of them never get that chance. They aren’t exempt from pain and suffering and truly heinous conditions. But they often haven’t yet become so hardened to life that their minds are closed to the possibilities.”

“You mean cynical and jaded,” Balthier drawled.

Harry grinned. “Those, too. As utterly aggravating as naïvety can be, it can also be refreshing. In small doses.”

Balthier smirked. “Now that’s the Hallam I know and love.”

Harry froze with his bread halfway to his mouth, but recovered a split second later and wolfed it down. “Even without a favored customer discount?” he quipped.

“If you two are going to descend into mating displays. . . .”

Balthier chuckled. “Sorry, Fran. I wonder where we’ll end up next? After Bur-Omisace, I mean.”

“You ever been there?”

“No reason to, really, but I hear the view is spectacular. You’ll like it, I’m sure.”

It would be a while before he found out. Their tent had been set up a bit extra away from the others, which afforded slightly more privacy for nighttime frolics. Harry did become a bit starry-eyed when Balthier repeated his earlier sentiment, and this time not in the context of affectionate joking.

“So that’s what this is?” he whispered.

“Isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he breathed. “Huh.”

“Three of the most difficult words to say?”

He smiled even though it was almost completely dark, and said, “Yeah. I love you, Ffamran—Balthier. That feels good to finally say.”

“Is this the part where I take advantage of you?”

“I certainly hope so,” he said breathily, then leaned in to kiss his lover.

In the morning they packed up and set off, eating on the way. As they walked the terrain rose while the temperature steadily dropped, prompting Harry to break out a cloak and internally whine that he could not manage something like a warming charm for himself and the others.

In the rift itself they began to see people limping along, most of them wearing ragged clothing and helping each other to keep moving. Balthier was moved to say, “Empires parade down city streets, while refugees walk barefoot through the snow.”

Larsa’s head dropped, then he turned. “And so I sue for peace to stop short war and ease their suffering. My father will choose peace.”

“Will he now? You sound so sure of yourself. You can never know another,” Balthier said with faint bitterness as he started walking again, “even your father.”

Larsa just stood there, and Vaan said, “Don’t take it the wrong way, okay?” When the boy grunted softly he moved away.

Harry stepped up beside Larsa. “Some have due cause to be cynics. Do not let that destroy your trust,” he murmured. “Come?”

Larsa nodded and turned around.

They continued to see refugees, and Harry cast the odd healing spell as they trudged through the snow at a faster pace. Thankfully they needed only to hug the northern reach of the rift, and were soon enough above the snowline and into clear weather and rock and packed earth beneath their feet. Mt Bur-Omisace was collection of spires and upwellings of grey rock, rising even above the clouds. Here and there were floating masses, some bare, some sporting greenery and even buildings. The temple itself was carved into the very face of the largest peak, a multilevel structure that dwarfed its surroundings, with a sheer drop from the platforms and walkways to the Naldoan Sea below, crossing which was a common means of access for pilgrims and refugees.

And there were many. The priests of Kiltia provided, the numerous refugees all having at least a place to sleep and food to eat, as was evident by the sights along the approach to the temple. Harry was absolutely beside himself at the view and had to be dragged away from soaking up the wondrous experience by an openly amused Balthier. “We can return, you know, at some other time. You can gaze to your heart’s content then.”

Inside the temple they slowly approached down a walkway of light stone. To either side were shallow pools of water with lily pads and flowers as adornments, and beyond soothing mosaic walls. They came to a stop several lengths away from the Gran Kiltias, Ashe and Larsa fronting the group a foot ahead. The white-haired elderly male (Harry thought he must be a Helgas) stood there, eyes closed and hands folded at the waist, with no visible reaction to their presence, at which point Vaan blundered into the realm of rudeness again by whispering a little too loudly to Penelo, “Is he sleeping?”

“No, my child,” said an aged, slightly hollow male voice. “I do not sleep. I dream. For reality and illusion are a duality, two parts of a whole. Only the mirror of dreams reflects what is true.”

Ashe took one step forward. “Anastasis, your grace, I am Ashelia—”

“Lay down your words,” he said. “Ashelia, daughter of Raminas, I have dreamt your dream. Who better to carry on the Dalmascan line than she who bears the Dawn Shard? Your dream of a kingdom restored is known to me.”

Larsa took his own step forward. “Gran Kiltias, then give us your blessing. Grant the Lady Ashe her accession—”

“I do not suppose”—they all looked back to see the speaker—“this is something you might . . . reconsider?” Al-Cid confidently walked forward, his sunglasses proud on his face, saying, “My little emperor-in-waiting. You called and I have come.”

Larsa moved forward quickly, extending a hand, which Al-Cid disdained to reach out and pat the boy on the head. Larsa brushed him off with a faint scowl and turned back to the princess with a sigh. “This is the man I wanted you to meet. Believe it or not, he is a member of the noble House Margrace, rulers of the Rozarrian empire.”

Al-Cid approached Ashe, saying deprecatingly, “I am but one of very, very many. Try as I might, I could not stop this war alone . . . thus I came seeking Larsa’s assistance.” He reached up and removed his sunglasses with a flourish (something that made Harry roll his eyes discreetly) and handed them off to the dark-haired woman accompanying him.

“Al-Cid Margrace, at your service. To think I stand before the Lady Ashe. It is truly an honor.” He dropped to one knee and took her hand to kiss it (something that made Penelo clap both hands to her mouth). “I see it is true after all,” he said, then lowered his voice a touch. “Ah, stunning is Dalmasca’s desert bloom.”

Larsa made a sound of acute frustration at the grandstanding as Al-Cid released Ashe and stood back up.

“In Archadia, Larsa,” spoke Anastasis. “In Rozarria, Al-Cid. They dream not of war. Should empire join with empire, the way will open for a new Ivalice in our time.”

Al-Cid brought his arms up with a short bark of laughter. “Gran Kiltias! You speak much of dreams. But in the real world, war is upon us.”

“Gran Kiltias,” said Ashe, “I was told my coming here would prevent this war. I was to assume my father’s throne and announce the restoration of Dalmasca, treat with the empire for peace, and persuade the resistance to stay their hand. I have not come all this way to be asked to reconsider!”

Al-Cid gestured again. “A word from you and the resistance would stop cold, and Rozarria’s pretext for joining the war . . . scattered, off to the four winds. This was what we had hoped. Alas, circumstances change. A full two years have passed since your reported death. Were it to become known you were still alive, I fear it could only worsen our situation.”

“Because I am powerless to help,” she said resentfully.

“Ehh! Nay, in fact it has little to do with you,” Al-Cid replied.

“Then what?” Larsa asked. “If Lady Ashe were to extend her hand in friendship, perhaps then I could persuade the emperor. His excellency will solve things peacefully—”

“Emperor Gramis is no more,” Al-Cid bluntly informed the boy. “His life was taken.”

Larsa’s face drained of all colour, his eyes widening. “Father!” he gasped.

As if to make up for his unkindness in even the smallest of ways, Al-Cid squeezed Larsa’s shoulder before releasing him. “Let us suppose you approach the empire with a peaceful resolution,” he said to Ashe. “The late Emperor Gramis would have lent you his ear, that much is certain. But we are dealing with Vayne Solidor. Should the princess return, he would claim her an impostor—all to tempt the resistance into battle. Vayne wants this war, that much is also certain. As our ill luck would have it, the man is a military genius.”

Larsa’s face was a study in heartbreak, his eyes glossy with unshed tears, something Harry couldn’t bear to see, but knew must be endured. He stepped up quietly to place a hand of his own on the boy’s shoulder for that cold comfort.

“The dreams have told me thus,” Anastasis spoke. “To reveal yourself would imperil us all. I see war, and Vayne’s name writ bold on history’s page.”

“Archadia’s banners fly high. They are making ready for the coming war.” Al-Cid reached back without looking, his companion placing a piece of parchment in his hand. “According to our latest reports. . . .” He scanned it and continued, “The Western Armada prepares for war—under Vayne’s command no less. The newly formed 12th Fleet has already been deployed. Oh, yes! The imperial 1st Fleet stands ready. They’ll be underway as the Odin’s refit is complete. And there is more: the 2nd Kerwon Expeditionary Force is being called in to replace the missing 8th, so there will be no gaps. The largest force ever seen!”

“And then,” said Ashe breathily, “the nethicite is the coup de grâce.” Al-Cid nodded as she turned to face Anastasis. “Gran Kiltias, your grace. I spoke to you of my succession—let us put that aside. Should I become Queen of Dalmasca now—powerless as I am—I can protect nothing. With a greater power at my disposal, perhaps then.”

“Is it the nethicite of which you dream?”

“I require something far greater,” she replied.

The Gran Kiltias opened his eyes, a shock, and when he spoke his voice was normal, lacking that hollow quality. “To wield power against power. Truly the words of a Hume child.”

“I am descended from the Dynast-King himself,” she reminded him unnecessarily.

“Indeed. Then you have but one choice. Seek you the other power Raithwall left.”

“Does such a thing exist?” she asked incredulously.

“Journey across the Paramina Rift to the Stilshrine of Miriam,” he said, arms coming up to each side, palms upward. “There rests the gift he entrusted to the Gran Kiltias of his time. Seek it out. The Sword of Kings can cut through nethicite.”

Ashe started to leave, but was stopped before she could even turn around by the Gran Kiltias speaking further. “Why he would entrust the power to destroy nethicite, the instrument of his greatness, to another and not his own progeny, I cannot say. Awaken Ashelia B’nargin and take up your sword, or your dream will remain but a dream.”

Ashe turned away again to leave, but paused aside a pale Larsa. She inclined her head, then continued on. Harry squeezed Larsa’s shoulder and let go. As he walked away, the Gran Kiltias said, back to that hollow voice, “My dream, too, fades into day.”

That cast a pall of foreboding over things, as much as the incipient war, though Harry was not sure if anyone but himself, Larsa, and Al-Cid had heard it. Even so, he hoped that Al-Cid could do something, anything, to soften the blow that he had been forced to deal Larsa.

The Paramina Rift was just as cold and unpleasant, but it served to take his mind somewhat off what had just happened. According to the map purchased for the area, they were headed south, through snow light and heavy, frozen streams, and any number of creatures out for their blood. At least the fighting warmed their blood and kept them going until they had descended low enough for the air temperature to begin rising, signaling a sure change of circumstance.

Snow slowly gave way to bare rock, and then a gorge, beyond which was their destination. It was another tomb-like structure, cut into rock, though the approach to this one was not of death, but almost welcome. Cascades of water fed shallow features to either side of the main walkway, which was blue-green stone flanked by beige and rust stone, and pillars rose, some supporting arches. At the entrance to the shrine were several acolytes, who gave no trouble as they passed through the massive double doors.

Cavernous, the room, if one could even give it such a tepid name, with stairs descending at either side to doors. Directly before them was an open area, cut from the floor to reveal the level below and secured from casual misfortune by a low stone paling. Another was beyond, a walkway between bisecting the room and containing a small pedestal, and beyond that a raised area with an ancient device. And, where one could hardly miss it, prominent was a massive stone statue, a silent colossus. It held a sword before it, perpendicular to the floor, the oddly-curved tip blocking egress between the statue’s firmly planted legs below.

Investigation showed that the ancient device was inactive, and the doors were locked, so they went to the pedestal instead. Nothing seemed to have any effect, until, that is, Ashe fetched out the Dawn Shard and placed it atop. They were whisked away to a new place within the shrine. A second pedestal was found and activated, though that one did not teleport them. However, backtracking slightly they came to realize that they could descend either of a set of stairs now which had appeared, and they did, following the ‘corridor’ and exiting west.

After a short walk they came to a junction, north barred by a locked set of doors, so south they went, fighting temple guardians along the way, to come to a stop in front of the massive sword of the colossus. Ashe touched it, and a sound echoed through the area, originating from farther north, but the sword itself remained as is.

They found that their progress north was now possible, the doors unlocked, and inside a medium-sized square room was an ancient device, perhaps to match the earlier one? As there was no other way to go, they used the device, and indeed ended up at their starting point. That occasioned a trip down the western set of stairs and through the now unlocked set of doors. And, a dizzying journey through rooms packed with guardians eager to rip themselves free from their stone embraces to do battle.

A statue was found, it facing south, one that could rotate, as they found out when Vaan touched it curiously. When it came to face east its eyes glowed, making them stop to consider.

“If my bearings are correct, it’s now facing the center of this place,” Balthier mused. “That colossus out there?”

“Perhaps we’ll find more,” Basch said, and off they set again, south, and into a confusing array of walkways and pseudo-hallways. At the southern end they located another statue, this one facing east, so they rotated it to face north, toward the colossus, at which point its eyes also glowed.

“I think we’re on the right track, then,” Ashe observed. “One more to the east?”

“Maybe,” Harry said, “if there is that third to position, it will cause some reaction with the massive one?”

“You mean, like that bloody sword moving out of the way?” Balthier drawled.

“Can’t think of anything else. For all this place is huge, there doesn’t seem to be much to it.”

“Let’s continue,” Ashe said, then headed east, though they were quickly forced to turn north.

At the upper end of the area was egress to a new section of the shrine, a mirror to where they had ended up descending the western stairs. A promising sign, and it had both doors to the north, and a set to the east halfway up.

“I’ve got a feeling about this,” Balthier said. “Let’s be ready for anything, hm?”

Everyone readied their weapons and Harry began casting just in case, and when they were set the doors were opened and passed through. Sure enough, in a circular room that Harry would have called interestingly-designed had he the time to pay attention, a huge guardian emerged from one of the cutouts in the floor and attacked. After its defeat they moved through the doors it had guarded, to find a third statue. That one rotated to the east, they retreated and exited to the north, ascending stairs back up to the shrine’s main room.

There, the eyes of the colossus glowed purple, and it shuddered into motion, lifting the sword up until the hilt partially obstructed its face, and opening the way between its legs. They hastened to the ancient device and used it, then rushed down the length of the room to pass under the sword and climb a short flight of steps to the revealed set of doors.

The room within was enormous, and stalactites and stalagmites of ice decorated the space, an accompaniment to the huge creature resting at the center, which rose from its perch on the ground to meet them. An Esper, Harry thought. It, too, was soundly defeated after a long, hard battle, and he was proven right when a crystalline shaft appeared in victory and shattered, releasing the Esper’s glyph.

That collected, they proceeded through the unguarded doors to find themselves within a narrow room which sported two short flights of steps illuminated by pillars of glowing blue. But the wonder was ahead—a series of rotating gear-like objects limmed in that same blue, surrounding a central, likewise limmed plate which held a large, ornately-designed sword.

Ashe approached, holding the Dawn Shard. It began to glow, and one by one the lights dimmed, including the pillars, as though the nethicite was absorbing their power. As it did so the gears stopped one by one, and the central plate’s light moved inward, toward the sword, which then levitated from its cradle to be captured by the princess’s hand. And immediately she lurched forward, grunting, the spiked tip striking the floor with a resounding clank.

“You should try it on the Dawn Shard,” Vaan suggested. “See if it can destroy nethicite or not.”

“What?” Ashe replied incredulously.

“He may just be on to something,” Balthier said. “The Dawn Shard’s no use to us, after all, and this is presumably the Sword of Kings.”

Ashe stared at the stone for a while, then backed up and placed it on one of the steps and prepared to heft the sword. The Dawn Shard began to glow blue again. “The stone bleeds Mist,” she said.

“It has been roused,” Fran replied. “It fears the sword.”

As they watched a cloud formed, like smoke from a fire, in a mix of blue, yellow, and green. Ashe lifted her head, perhaps seeing something they could not, then hefted the sword over her head. After a pause, she slammed the sword down, hitting just to the side of the Dawn Shard, by design or bad aim. Seconds later the stone went inert.

“The stone is quiet,” Fran stated.

Ashe straightened. “This is the sword,” she said confidently. “The nethicite destroyer.”

“Should it find its mark,” Balthier drawled, then turned to head down the steps.

“Vaan!” Ashe cried.

Vaan moved closer to her, but Harry could not hear their quiet conversation as he followed his lover. They followed soon enough, anyway, Basch having strapped the sword to his back, and they exited, finally, to the outside, to fresh air and sunlight. Barely they had exited when shadows covered them, causing them to look skyward.

Overhead was an ominous sight; a fleet of airships, one quite intimidating in appearance, rather like a metal insectival dragon, headed north across the Paramina Rift. Fran gasped and pointed. “There!” Far north, framed within an arch of the shrine’s approach, could be seen smoke, as though from a massive bonfire.

“What could it mean?” breathed Ashe.