Grazhir :: Crossover :: Persequor :: 04 :: Inquino

04 • Inquino

Arrival back at Bur-Omisace was disheartening; the imperials had obviously attacked, injuring and killing refugees, priests, and acolytes alike, and shattering parts of the area. “What could possibly be the cause for this?” Ashe wondered. “This is a holy place.”

They hastened back to the temple and entered, only to see that even that had not escaped damage, decorative railings having been shattered and great scorch marks and gouges like wounds in the floor. Up ahead was a judge, standing over a body. The judge turned at the sound of their footsteps and said, “Ah, our vagrant princess. Swift has your lust for revenge led you to the Sword of Kings.” His confident movement forward revealed the corpse to be that of the Gran Kiltias. “You will surrender it to me. Too late, and to their sorrow do those who misplace their trust in gods learn their fate.” From him briefly appeared another of those ghostly beings.

“There it is again,” Vaan said quietly as Penelo’s hands flew to her mouth.

The judge’s body became enveloped in a foul dark cloud striated with dulled blues, greens, and yellows, prompting Balthier to say, “Fran, I don’t like the look of that.”

“This Mist—he holds a stone! It controls him as it did Mjrn!”

The judge laughed. “No. No, the power of manufacted nethicite is the power of man! A weapon forged by his wisdom, who would challenge the gods themselves! A fitting blade for a true Dynast-King. Raithwall did but pretend the title, a cur begging nethicite scraps from his master’s table. Hark! Ivalice hails her true Dynast-King, Vayne Solidor! He shall defy the will of the gods, and see the reins of history back in the hands of man! His time is nigh! The new Ivalice holds no place for the name Dalmasca. The stain of Raithwall’s blood shall be washed clean from history’s weave!” He readied his weapons and began to advance.

Three other judges burst in through the doors behind them and began attacking, and were immediately set upon as the judge up front was taking his own sweet time in advancing down the walkway. They were duly defeated, allowing them to turn to meet the remaining judge, and giving Harry the opportunity to scan him and immediately fling Dispel his way. Sadly, this judge, though coming across to Harry as some sort of zealot high on faith for Vayne, seemed to have more brains than the others, and targeted Harry specifically, probably because he was healing his allies like a speed demon.

“Penelo,” he shouted as he dodged yet another swipe from one of the judge’s nasty weapons, “I gave you that pendant—hit the bastard with Stop!”

The judge laughed heartily at that and took another swipe, which Harry deflected with his staff before skipping backward hastily. At least with the judge so focused on him, the others were able to attack him from all other sides with only collateral damage.

Penelo landed her spell, causing the judge to freeze in place; she whooped in excitement as Harry took a moment to catch his breath and aim a tired smile her way. The others practically dogpiled on the judge in his weakness and battered him down fiercely with weapons and magic, bringing about his defeat.

They all stepped back as the man seemed to go berserk, jerking around as though harried by some unseen foe. Again the dark cloud emerged, and a bright blue light erupted from the judge’s chestplate, sending off sparks and then exploding outward as the man collapsed backward to lie unmoving.

Balthier moved forward to crouch down and check the judge over as Ashe, Vaan, Basch, and Penelo raced for Anastasis. He looked away in disgust after a moment and stood up, then walked toward the others, Fran and Harry trailing along. “He set his very bones about with manufacted nethicite. The Gran Kiltias?”

Penelo shook her head, then gasped and looked up at him. “Wait—what about Larsa?”

“Gone,” came the voice of Al-Cid. He was being helped up the walkway by his aide. “Spirited away by Judge Gabranth.”

“You okay?” Vaan asked as the aide helped Al-Cid to take a seat on the floor against one of the squat supports.

Harry immediately dashed over to start healing the man, then frowned slightly as he realized it was not so bad. A twinkle in Al-Cid’s eyes made him roll his eyes eloquently, but he healed his lord of the wounds he did have without verbal comment. His condition could be passed off as exhaustion, he supposed.

“So he was here,” Basch mused.

“Ah, as for our young lordling, he went along—to avoid trouble, you see. But Judge Bergan had other ideas. He flew into a rage, and I was left to fend for myself.”

It was only then that anyone took notice of the numerous corpses of imperial soldiers marring the temple interior. Harry flashed Al-Cid a wry smile.

“Please, princess. You must permit me to take you back with me to Rozarria.”

She came to crouch nearby, a faintly concerned scowl on her face. “So that you can protect me?”

“I would lay down my life at a single word to be sure, but I harbor no maundering delusions of valiant grandeur. Vayne has our war pavilion jumping at shadows. They favor a preemptive strike. But you—you will convince them otherwise. You will see that they do not start this war.”

Ashe’s response was without hesitation. “This I cannot do. Forgive me. But my errand here is not yet done,” she said as she stood back up. “I must wield the Sword of Kings, and with it bring an end to the Dusk Shard.”

“Ah, this stone. Do you even know where it is?”

“I can venture a guess,” Balthier said confidently as he approached them. “The Draklor Laboratory. In Archades. The empire’s weapons research begins and ends there.” To Ashe he said, “How soon do we leave?”

“At once,” she said with a nod, then looked to Al-Cid. “As for matters in Rozarria, I bid you luck.”

The female aide helped Al-Cid up, causing Harry to discreetly roll his eyes again. “So you would leave each to fend for his own,” Al-Cid said. “Let us hope that you are not disappointed. Ah, that’s right. Larsa left a message. ‘The differences between our two lands will fade before the shared dreams of men.’” He deftly plucked his sunglasses away from the aide and put them on with a flourish, said, “My leave I take, my best with you,” then let her ‘help’ him off down the walkway.

“Bloody drama queen,” Harry whispered to Balthier.

“Should we, maybe, help clean up around here first?” Penelo asked hesitantly.

Ashe nodded, surprisingly, so they spent quite a while dragging imperial corpses outside and pitching them over the far edge, leaving the priests to see to the body of the Gran Kiltias as was proper.

“How do you propose we reach Archades?” Ashe asked as the last soldier was cast away. “Archadia’s borders will be well guarded for fear of Rozarrian invasion. We dare not approach by air.”

“And their navy will see that the coast is watched as well,” Balthier said, then turned to eye Harry speculatively. “We could go afoot, through the Salikawood north of Nalbina, and then east.”

Harry cleared his throat uncomfortably at the scrutiny, but anted up his knowledge. “There’s a much faster way.”

Ashe whipped around to face him. “What?”

“I’m a merchant. I worked very hard to gain access to certain gate crystals within Archadian territory, though I admit, I usually take an airship from Balfonheim Port to the imperial city. We’re going to have to walk a distance no matter what, at least to Golmore Jungle. But from there, it’s a fairly simple thing.”

Ashe eyed him strangely, but nodded slowly. “We’ll spend the night back down the mountain,” she declared, then walked away. Basch followed her, but not without a vaguely suspicious look cast over his shoulder at Harry.

At the campsite Harry was pleased enough to immerse himself in the usual tasks, happy to be warm again after the ‘bracing’ walk through the Paramina Rift’s northern reaches.

“So, where will we end up?” Balthier murmured as he helped to set up their tent.

“The upper end of the Sochen Cave Palace system,” he muttered. “Merchants have long used that as one way to enter Archades, at least until they happen upon that gate crystal up there. That I know of, nobody else seems to bother with it, and the imperials don’t have it guarded.”

Balthier was silent for a time, then nodded. “Old Archades, then?” When Harry nodded he continued, “And we’re both nobles, which means we can ascend into Archades with little trouble.”

“Exactly.”

Balthier did not go on to state the obvious about Harry’s other reasons for favoring that crystal, thankfully. They were just finishing up when Ashe wandered over, looking vaguely curious.

Balthier preempted whatever she might have said. “So, you intend to destroy the nethicite.”

“I must destroy it,” she said firmly.

“Are you sure?” Balthier asked. “You don’t want it for yourself?”

She gasped.

“Use its power to restore Dalmasca—something like that? The best intentions invite the worst kind of trouble.”

“Lusting for ever greater power, blinded by nethicite. Is that how you see me?”

“That does sound like someone I know. He was obsessed with nethicite. It was all he cared about. He’d babble nonsense, blind to aught but the stone’s power. He’d talk about some ‘Eynah’, or was it ‘Venat’? No matter. Everything he did, he did to get closer to the nethicite, to understand it. He made airships, weapons. . . . He even made me a judge.”

She gasped again. “You were a . . . a judge!?”

“Part of a past I’d rather forget,” Balthier said with a nod. “It didn’t last long. I ran. I left the judges, and him. Cidolfus Demen Bunansa. Draklor Laboratory’s very own Dr Cid. He lost his heart to nethicite, lost himself. And I suppose that’s when I lost my father.”

He stood when she said nothing, extending a hand to assist Harry up. “Don’t follow in his footsteps,” he advised. “I ran away. I couldn’t stand seeing him like that, a slave to the stone. So I ran. Free at last. . . . Funny I went for the Dusk Shard. How could I have known that it was nethicite? And then, of course, I met you. All that running, and I got nowhere. It’s time to end this—cut my ties to the past.”

At that she nodded, absently thumbing the ring she wore. “It’s hard to leave the past behind. I know.”

“The choice is yours to make. But don’t give your heart to a stone.”

She nodded again and wandered off toward the fire that had been built, leaving Harry to wonder why she had come over in the first place. Then again, the revelations that Balthier laid on her might have temporarily addled her brains.

“Of course,” Balthier said, causing Harry to look at him, “you’re a part of my past I’d rather not be parted from. Shall we eat?”

The next morning they packed up and proceeded into Golmore Jungle, back to the gate crystal revealed by the passing of the wyrm. “Okay, I can only take two at a time,” Harry said.

Ashe and Basch promptly stepped forward.

“Each of you, hold an arm,” he instructed, then gated them away.

“Where are we?” Ashe asked, gazing around the circular room.

“This is the upper end of the Sochen Cave Palace, princess. This end leads to Old Archades, and the lower entrance to the Tchita Uplands. Please wait while I bring the others?”

He quickly transported Vaan and Penelo, then made the final trip with Balthier and Fran.

“Hey, you sure this is really the way into Archades?” Vaan asked, wrinkling his nose.

Harry nodded, but it was Balthier who said, “If you’d prefer to go knocking on the front gates of the city, be my guest.”

“But what about once we’re inside?” Penelo said. “Won’t the city watch find us?”

“We’ll do what we can to blend into the crowd,” Ashe said, clearly having no idea how inappropriate their Dalmascan garb was in Archades. “Our names may be notorious, but our faces are not far-known.”

“True, true,” Vaan said. “You’re our princess, and we didn’t even recognize you.”

“I noticed,” she replied edgily.

Harry clapped his hands. “Right. Please, follow me.” He pulled out his sandalwood chop and affixed it to his tunic, noticing that Balthier did the same, then led them down the corridor and triggered the door. A minute later they had emerged into bright sunlight. The place didn’t look any nicer than it had before; downtrodden people still drifted about aimlessly and the stench was an affront to any unused to it.

Vaan immediately wrinkled his nose again. “Smells less like a capital, and more like a sewer.”

“Even empires have need of sewers,” Balthier said. “The runoff from Archades proper pools here: those who lack papers to live in the city itself. The mighty who have fallen, and the fallen who would be mighty. Their eyes never leave Archades.”

“I guess it must be a lot nicer than this place,” Vaan replied.

“Oh, to be sure. Archades reeks of a different filth. Let’s be off! We can follow our noses to Draklor.”

Harry took the lead through the warrens, but drifted to a stop at the sound of a man’s voice.

“Well, well, well. There’s a sight for sore eyes. Didn’t think I’d be seeing you again. Not here.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Balthier said dryly. “Enter the streetear.”

The man, dark-haired and very confident in posture, said, “A pirate would do well to smile. Wouldn’t want to sour his reputation.”

“You know this guy?” Vaan asked.

“An old . . . friend. He’s a streetear—a peddler of rumor and hearsay, by the name of Jules. He’d bite a gil given him by his own mother, and shave it by half to pay for her funeral.”

Jules smirked. “Sometimes an ear with tight purse string’s the order of the day. Like when a pirate decides he fancies going up in the world.”

“Oh? Unless you’ve something of interest to sell, I’m afraid we’re not about to dally,” Balthier said, then motioned to Harry, who promptly led them away.

Eventually they arrived at the entrance to Archades and were stopped by two guards. “Entering the capital? You have credentials?”

Harry and Balthier both indicated their chops.

“Hm? All right. But what about this lot?” the guard said, gesturing at the others.

Harry imagined himself as a Malfoy for a moment and sneered. “Our retainers, you fool! Now let us pass, or I’m sure your commanding officer would love to hear how you’ve been harassing nobles for a bit of idle sport!”

He must have done it right for the guards stepped aside with alacrity, so the party proceeded up the stairs without further ado. At the top Harry paused to murmur, “Sorry,” mostly to Ashe.

Vaan certainly did not seem to care; in fact, he raced forward to gape at the city like a proverbial country bumpkin. They followed at a decorous pace, catching up to him a minute later, at which point Penelo began another round of teasing.

“I’m just checking out the city,” Vaan replied defensively. “Even if it is the empire. Hey, Larsa’s here somewhere, isn’t he? I wonder how he’s doing.”

“We go our separate ways here,” Balthier interrupted. “I’ve some business to attend to. We’ll meet again later.” Then he pulled Harry aside to say, “I know you will anyway, but keep an eye on them? I need to see the best way for us to get to Draklor.”

He nodded, and watched as his lover strode away quickly, then turned back to the others. “There’s plenty to see here. If he takes too long we can wait at my home.”

Ashe’s brow went up at that. “Then you are an Archadian?”

Harry shook his head. “No, actually. But I have small homes in more than one place. It’s not much, but Balthier knows where it is.”

“Can we go shopping?” Penelo asked excitedly, practically bouncing on the spot.

“Er, I guess so.” A couple of hours later he was feeling exhausted by Penelo’s unflagging energy, and Balthier had still not come back. “I think we should move along,” he said.

“I agree,” said Ashe.

Harry paused at a vendor to purchase some fresh food and led them toward the nearest aircab station, where the attendant tried to bilk Vaan out of an outrageous amount of money for a ride. Before he could point out that he had free passage, he was stopped by the voice of Jules, so he turned around and approached the man, the others following.

“I’ve a message from Master Balthier,” Jules said. “He’s waiting in Central. He says to come quickly.”

“On that?” Vaan asked, pointing at the aircab. “But he wants chops? What’s a chop, anyway?”

Jules smirked. “When a boy wants information, a boy pays. 2500 gil sounds about right.”

Harry’s hand shot out to grab Vaan’s arm. “Don’t,” he muttered, then let go. “You seem to be very unobservant,” he told Jules. “A marked failing in a streetear, I’d say.”

The man finally recognized that Harry bore one of the aforementioned chops and chuckled lightly, then strode away lazily.

Harry turned to Vaan and quickly explained that pine chops were used as a type of currency, and were often traded for favors rendered. And, if one should be so lucky as to gain enough of them, they could be traded at any shop for one of sandalwood, such as the one he wore, serving as a mark of nobility and free passage on the aircabs.

“Sounds kind of stupid.”

Harry shrugged. “These are a peculiar people, Vaan. You could be the richest man in the world, but they’d consider you a peasant if you didn’t have one of those sandalwood chops. Most of them spend their lives in useless gossip. And anyone that rich can afford to simply purchase one. Anyway, let’s go.”

He made sure to be at the front this time and the attendant was instantly more obsequious. “Tsenoble, sir?”

“Yes.”

The attendant opened the hatch so Harry waved everyone on ahead, then boarded as well. A short ride later they exited into an even ritzier section of the city. They didn’t make it very far before Balthier appeared. “Ah, so pleased you could join me. Jules had a morsel for us: a light airship used by Draklor researchers is just up ahead. We’ll take that and go in through the service entrance. Let’s make haste, shall we?”

Balthier took the lead, but they all ducked off to the side as a group of imperial soldiers clinked by at a run, directly toward where they were headed.

“The complices of the senate have been quelled, your honor,” said one of the soldiers to the judge standing there. “Our forces sustained but light casualties.”

“You have leave to withdraw,” the judge responded. “One detachment will remain here to guard Draklor.”

“My lord.” The soldiers all saluted in their peculiar fashion, which seemed to involve pushing one hand into the other at chest height, then clinked back off at a run.

“Do you think they’re on to us?” Vaan asked as Basch crossed his arms.

“It would seem not,” Basch said, “though this will make our task more difficult still.”

Balthier shook his head and led them off again, but the judge up ahead said, “No entry to Central at this time. And refrain from suspicious behavior until things settle down. You know what I mean.”

They backtracked, and Balthier said, “That judge wasn’t there a short while ago. What took you so long in getting here? Off seeing the sights, perhaps?”

Harry stared at him, brow furrowed. “We got your message only minutes ago.”

“What’s that? But I told Jules an hour ago. . . .”

“Jules!” Vaan growled.

“Tsk, tsk,” came that voice again. “A squad of judges has been sent to Draklor. You’ll find the service entrance rather a difficult proposition, I’m afraid.”

Balthier frowned. “Your doing, no doubt. You knew how the Ministry of Law would move, so you delayed until the judges could reinforce Draklor.” He sucked in a sharp breath. “Of course. . . . Tell me, how much did the ministry pay for word of the prodigal son?”

“The Ministry? Oh, judges make poor customers, my friend. Too many rules, too many laws. Perhaps you didn’t know, Master Balthier, that Draklor is a toy box these days, filled with your lord father’s conceits—all developed without the senate’s knowledge, of course. Why, not even the emperor knew the full extent of Dr Cid’s operations. Now, here’s the catch: since Vayne had himself declared dictator, nary a peep has come out of that laboratory. I know people who would sell their own mum for the merest scrap of information about the goings-on inside Draklor.”

Balthier arched a brow. “People like . . . Rozarrian sympathizers worried about the empire’s weapons programs, and anyone else who might be opposed to House Solidor hegemony. So, we create a disturbance, and you get your windfall of dirt on Draklor.”

Jules smirked. “And in exchange for your service, I’ve spoken to a cabbie. When he asks where you want to go, tell him: ‘You know where to go.’ Simple, no?”

Balthier sighed and shook his head. “Ah, a deal, brokered in true Archades fashion. Why, it’s just like old times, Jules. Brings a tear to my eye.”

“Good to be back, eh?” Jules said insolently. “My regards to your lord father, Master Ffamran—er, rather, Master ‘Balthier’. Anon, anon.” He loped off quickly, losing himself in the crowd.

Balthier growled and headed for the cabbie, who seemed to be entirely too chipper as he asked, “Anyone for Nilbasse?”

“You know where to go,” Balthier said irritably.

“You want to go there, eh? You sure?” On getting a nod he opened the hatch and said, “All right. All aboard.”

“So,” said Vaan hesitantly to Balthier once inside, “this Jules, he’s a . . . friend . . . of yours?”

Balthier frowned and addressed the cabbie. “Driver! Faster, if you please. I would be loathe to expend any of the violence of my present mood on my companions.”

“S-sir? Yes, sir!”

They were let off near the top of a very tall building. The moment they were out Balthier said, “Come, this way.” He led them through a conveniently close door, whereupon Harry groaned softly.

It was like one huge lock system, hallways and small rooms separated by circular bulkheads which glowed blue and red; he was reminded of Henne Mines. The walls and floors were fashioned from various types of marble, with grandiose embellishments in dark wood and cream plaster, not to mention, for some inexplicable reason, murals.

“It’s too quiet,” Basch observed.

“Passing strange,” Balthier said, confusion evident in his tone. “There are supposed to be guards here.”

“Maybe we’re just lucky, huh?” Vaan said.

“Maybe you’re just optimistic,” Balthier shot back.

“Something may be afoot,” Basch said. “We proceed with caution.”

Balthier shook his head. “No time for caution. Step to it! Cid’s chambers are on the top level.” He took off at a jog, leading the way to a lift. After a short ride (the lift only allowing them to go so high up) he led them on another confusing jaunt to one of the more normal doorways, passing by more than one downed imperial soldier, then entered. It was an office of sorts, but it looked as though someone had searched it roughly.

“What happened here?” Vaan asked, gazing around.

“He’s had visitors,” Fran said. “Ones lacking manners, by the look of it.”

“Someone after nethicite?”

Balthier approached the desk and began perusing the documents on its surface. After a time he murmured, “The Jagd Difohr was it? Six years, and ever since you got back, this. . . . What madness found you there? Mm?”

They whipped around an urgent voice sounded outside the door. “Up! Above us! Drop bulkheads five and eight! Be to it!”

“They found us!” Vaan hissed.

“His earlier visitors, more like,” said Fran. “We should lie low for now.”

Balthier snatched something up off the desk. “No, we’ll use their confusion. We need to find Cid. Now. And this card key will help us to do that.” After a very confusing trip (which involved much tinkering with the bulkheads), they emerged from the lift onto the 70th floor.

They had barely stepped out when Basch was attacked by a strange man with dual blades. Basch dodged the first swipe, and blocked the second, his forearm engaged in a contest of wills with that of the other man. He was bald, with a peculiar set of wide white sideburns combined with a beard narrow at the jawline, and was dressed in what Harry thought was a fruity combination of lime green, red, and pink leather leggings topped by a white and brown canvas shirt that exposed the man’s shoulders.

“Ah, my apologies,” the man said. “You bear not the stench of Cid’s lackies.”

“And you are . . . our earlier visitor,” said Basch, stepping back as the man eased off.

“Yes, a valuable man,” came an unctuous voice, “one I’d sooner not lose. Yet he knows too much.”

The man growled and charged up the nearby stairway, so they followed, to arrive in a large room open to the air at the back, and where Harry’s eyes were immediately drawn to five huge, green-glowing, inverted pyramids. And, Harry assumed, to Dr Cid, who was up on a platform with the strange man standing on the floor before him.

“Cid! You know the deifacted nethicite brought down the Leviathan! How can you persist in this folly?”

Cid chuckled creepily. “And you’ve come here to stop me? I’d fain see you try.”

“Consider your bones, old man,” Balthier called out. “You’re outmatched.”

Cid’s brows flirted up briefly. “Pirate scum of the skies. What brings you here?”

“Treasure. What else would a pirate want? We’ll take the Dusk Shard.”

Cid laughed. “You’ve come all this way for that trinket?” he said disdainfully. “I thought you above this.” He looked to the side suddenly, saying, “Hm? What’s that?” After a short pause his head swiveled around toward Ashe. “Ah. The princess of Dalmasca, come to visit? Mm. She’s not entirely without merit. A test of sorts for our princess?” He angled his head to the side for a moment. “Ah!”

“You’re a babbling fool,” Ashe replied.

“Ah!” Cid cried, raising his arms up. “A trial for Ashelia B’nargin Dalmasca!” He abandoned his pose and exultant tone, and leaned forward. “You lust for the stone’s power, do you not?” he asked, a sly grin on his face.

“Lend him not your ears, m’lady,” said the stranger as he stepped to block her from Cid’s sight. “He means to use you.”

A growl from the platform caught their attention; Cid’s body was glowing, rich yellows and oranges surrounding him rather like the oddities of Mjrn and Bergan, and also snatches of blue and red. Cid jumped down and began laughing wildly as four strange devices flew in to surround and circle him, and he produced a set of guns, one for each hand.

“Manufacted nethicite! Like Bergan,” Fran said, pulling her bow off her back and nocking an arrow.

“How could you do this? How could you fall this far?” Balthier asked, clearly disappointed, then readied his gun.

Cid just laughed. They quickly realized that they had to destroy those flying devices to get anywhere with the man, so those were taken down with alacrity. Harry came to find out that those peculiar pyramids served an actual purpose besides being light sources when Cid hauled back and shot at them. They soaked up the energy discharge and sent it back more strongly at the group. Even so, Cid was eventually defeated, his devices gone and the guns slipping from his faltering grasp as he dropped to his knees.

The stranger took that as reason to charge, launching himself into the air to strike a finishing blow, but was blasted back by a blue-white sphere that burst into being as Cid slowly got to his feet and adjusted his gloves.

“Venat, you shouldn’t have.”

A ghostly shape emerged from Cid, settling behind him and slightly to the side.

“This creature,” Balthier said. “So this is your Venat?”

The thing devolved into gaseous red and vanished as Cid shook his head slightly. “Ashelia B’nargin Dalmasca! Just how far will you go for power?” He extended both arms, a stone in each, one dark and one glowing pale red. “Does your lust for nethicite consume you?”

Ashe’s only response was an inarticulate sound.

Cid lowered his arms and adopted a confiding tone. “Am I right? I am, aren’t I. A worthy daughter of the Dynast-King. You would do well to go to Giruvegan. Who knows? You may receive a new stone for your trouble.” He turned and stepped off to the side as an air cutter swooped in.

“Your words mean nothing to me!” Ashe shouted angrily.

Cid paused at the cutter, one hand on its exterior. “The reins of history back in the hands of man.” He glanced over at her. “I, too, make for Giruvegan,” he said, making it sound like some grand adventure. “Give chase, if you dare it!” he taunted, then boarded the cutter and escaped.

Balthier scowled. “Hate it when he does that,” he muttered.

“Mayhaps you think me remiss!” said the stranger. “The Lady Ashe of Dalmasca?” he inquired as he approached, sheathing his twin blades across his back. “The sky pirate Reddas, at your employ.”

“Let’s go,” Balthier said with a sigh. “There’s nothing more we can do here.”

“To Balfonheim, then,” Reddas suggested. “We can there, in my manse, discuss the situation.”

*

They were arrayed in a room at Reddas’s manse, though one entire wall was missing, the roof supported by wide columns, and wooden deck beyond. Harry wondered if there was an elemental paling in place like at Al-Cid’s gazebo.

Ashe, who was staring out at the sea, angled her head slightly to the side and said, “They choose to supply the resistance, yet raise not a sword in aid. What city could do this?”

“A city of men without countries. Pirates of the sea and of the sky. Few are they who would fain lay down their lives for a friend, let alone a king,” Reddas replied.

“The marquis—he is set on war?” she asked.

“The time approaches when he must make his position vis-à-vis the empire clear. When he helped you off the Leviathan, he spited the judges full sore. He cannot sit in idleness and expect to avoid a reckoning. The marquis shares my distaste for war. Yet if it comes to it, he will show no quarter.”

“It’s just what Vayne wants,” Basch said, entering the conversation. “He lures the Rozarrians and the resistance to the field, then crushes them both with the nethicite!”

“I think not,” Balthier said. “Cid has the stone. We grab it and smash it to pieces with the Sword of Kings. Vayne will be left holding nary a thing.” He sounded so confident. “We follow Cid. He’s heading toward Giruvegan.”

“It is told of in a song of my people,” Fran offered. “On the farthest shores of the river of time, shrouded in the roiling Mist, the holy land sleeps: Giruvegan. Who knows the paths? The way to its doors?”

Reddas straightened up from slouching against a column. “Then you seek the Jagd Difohr. Deep within the jungle of Golmore, in a corner of the Feywood, a Mist-storm surges and seethes.”

“Then that’s it. Let’s go!” Vaan said, then grabbed Penelo’s hand and dragged her out of the room. The others but Balthier, Harry, and Ashe followed.

Balthier asked, “Not coming, Reddas? Forget your precious nethicite already?”

“Cid’s words rang hollow to me,” Reddas pronounced. “I will follow another course.”

“Ah, another lead, then, is it? You’re well informed.”

“I could well say the same to you, pirate.”

Balthier narrowed his eyes slightly, then turned as the doors swung back open to reveal an impatient Vaan. “Hurry it up, or we’ll leave without you.”

“Ah, Vaan!” Reddas said. “Check with my men outside. Best ask what they know of the Feywood.”

“Okay. Thanks for the help, Reddas,” Vaan said before disappearing again.

Reddas laughed. “Fly first, ask questions later. Your apprentice is more pirate than you.”

“I don’t have an apprentice,” Balthier said testily over his shoulder as he headed for the door, grabbing Harry’s hand on the way.

Outside Harry murmured, “I don’t know if you picked this up, but word on the streets says that the senate has been dissolved, many of them killed.”

“Leaving Vayne the sole power and voice of law. How utterly thrilling. Still, if he’s taken out of the picture, the only person left with any solid right to rule is Larsa. House Solidor has had a stranglehold on the Ministry of Law for ages.”

“Then we can hope that judges exist who would protect him,” Harry said. “He may no longer need be concerned with the senate, but Vayne did ferret out enough dirt on their two elder brothers to see them dead. We can only hope the same won’t somehow happen to Larsa, child though he is.”

“Shockingly, there are some judges who truly uphold honor. I remember one that—”

“Hey, hey!” Vaan interrupted, they having finally caught up. “What took you guys so long? And where’s—oh.”

Ashe came up beside them. “What have you learned?”

“There’s some hidden trial of the Feywood we have to pass to open the gate to Giruvegan. And the place is said to be really dense with Mist.”

“It’s been a tiring day already, but there’s plenty of it left to get a head start,” Balthier said.

Harry cleared his throat. “We just need to get to a spot I know of in the Tchita Uplands. I suggest we ride chocobos to save time.”

“Another gate crystal?” Ashe asked.

“Mm-hm. We can use that to return to Golmore Jungle.”

An hour or so later they were back in the green-filtered light of the wood. Fran took the lead, taking them west, then south along the curving walkways, to eventually arrive at a section that was a sudden contrast. The trees were just as massive and mighty, but they walked then at ground level, and a dense Mist that coiled through the area brought visibility down sharply. After one mistaken turn down a path that threatened to return them to the Paramina Rift, and avoiding one that looked to go into a mountain, they ended up balked at further passage south by a barrier of roiling Mist.

Ashe suddenly looked up and walked forward; the Mist whooshed toward them like a visible wind, the barrier disappearing. Ashe stepped forward again, quite possibly seeing something they could not, then walked straight ahead, into the previously barred area.

There, unfortunately, was a massive plant-beast that dropped from overhead who was not happy to be disturbed. It was defeated in due time, so they carried on, emerging into an area with Mist so dense it was difficult to see more than a few feet ahead. They wandered around for quite some time, dispatching monsters that appeared without warning from the Mist, and finally became frustrated enough at finding no exit other than the one they came from to stop in one of the strange gazebo-like structures for a break.

“Maybe it’s that trial?” Penelo said. “There’s more than one of these things. Maybe one of them has some kind of clue?”

Fran turned in a slow circle, then froze. “Yes. Join me and look.”

Harry was amazed to realize that the view was not of the area itself, but rather a beautiful green wood—perhaps what the place might look like not steeped in Mist?

“We go this way,” Fran declared, and started walking.

They were led to another gazebo, where Fran stood at the center and slowly turned again, then set off through one of the arches. The third one led them to an exit not before there, gaining them access to a new section of the Feywood. And, a new set of gazebos. The first of them provided no clue, so they searched until they found one that did, and followed the trail until they almost literally bumped into a massive gate.

There was writing on it, which Fran examined, then turned to say, “Gigas Gate, this is.”

Ashe brought her hand up to her chest, a thoughtful look on her face, then summoned the treasure of Raithwall, that Esper being a gigas. It, somehow, was able to command the gate to open, allowing them passage, which they quickly took.

It was breathtaking. A long walkway stretched out before them over water, of some curious blue substance braced by grey, and arches of different shapes every so often, using those same materials, and frequently half-covered in vines and mossy growth. Floating alongside at intervals were stone objects tipped with glowing amber pyramids. The sky was blue but for a band of strange pink-red clouds that hovered almost like a circular shield, and Mist was thick enough to reflect their images like funhouse mirrors. Far off in the distance appeared to be a city.

“On the farthest shores of the river of time, shrouded deep in the roiling Mist,” Ashe breathed.

“Fran?” Harry asked.

“This Mist runs thick here. But do not worry, I will behave myself. The Mist here is cooled.” She paused a moment, then added, “I sense something like the shadow here.”

“Venat,” Balthier stated. “It appears Cid has yet to arrive. We’ll lie in wait for him here.”

Penelo shot him a puzzled look. “So we’re not going inside?”

“Not unless you want to end up twisted. Like the old man.”

Harry frowned, wondering how on earth Cid could have made it even this far if he had not a gigas to command as Ashe did. Was it possible that this Venat had sensed his presence and investigated?

Balthier shifted as Ashe started walking forward anyway. “Something there?”

She kept walking, ignoring him.

“What is it?” Penelo asked.

“She can see him,” Vaan said. “Prince Rasler. Let’s follow her.”

They made use of an ancient device at the terminus, it being their only option, and were transported to a new platform, much closer to the city, but still not actually there. A massive arch bisected the space, and at the other end was a statue, which, in a burst of Mist, went from stone to living and made to attack. Naturally, they defeated it was quickly as possible; it dropped to a kneeling position and returned to stone as a new ancient device sprung into existence.

That took them inside the city itself, or so they assumed, a confusing place like switchbacks on a mountainside around a central core of nothingness, though they could see more of the like around the perimeter, and faint lights making feeble attempts to pierce the dark. There were seals blocking some of the paths they could take, necessitating them finding the controls, and they ended up at the lower end of the tiers at a dead end, where they were forced to fight two guardians before looking around for some sort of clue.

Harry stepped up to the end to peer over and nearly fell on his ass when a bright green platform of light appeared in front of him and Penelo shrieked in startlement. More appeared, forming a path, and while Harry was hardly the sort to be afraid of heights, even he was leery of walking on the damn thing. Balthier stepped forward as though he had not a care in the world, proving it was safe enough, so the group followed it to . . . another set of tiered paths.

“I don’t think I like this city,” Harry muttered. “No wonder it’s deserted. They all flung themselves into the abyss out of sheer frustration after murdering the architects.”

Balthier snickered and squeezed his hand.

At the end was another walkway of glowing green platforms of light, except . . . this one had rather a different view. To their right was a prodigious stone hanging in midair, points of white light coming from it and smaller shards in stationary orbit.

“I can’t shake the feeling we’re somewhere we’re not meant to be,” Penelo mused.

“Yeah, it’s exciting,” Vaan said.

“Exciting?” she said, casting him an odd look.

“You are not troubled by the unknown?” Basch inquired of Vaan. “Who can say what lies ahead. We may encounter the very creators of nethicite.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what we’ll find,” Vaan agreed. “I like it better that way.”

Basch snorted very softly. “You’re sounding more the sky pirate every day,” he said, then continued on.

They had to pause to open a bulwark, and then a second, and then they were forced to navigate a slightly different version of the tiers, but did find another of those spots to trigger a pathway, which led them to a dead end, where they were immediately attacked. The two mages started flinging Blizzaga as the others attacked normally, and Harry was kept busy healing, though he did briefly considering using Reflect, but discarded the idea when it was seen to use a mixture of magic and physical attacks, one of which would heal it. Maybe if he had a pack mule carrying a stock of x-potions. . . . But he didn’t.

Afterward the creature fell backward off the final circular platform into the abyss and an ancient device appeared, which they activated, ending up inside (Harry assumed) that huge stone. They were standing on a circular platform enringed by wide arches, broken in three places, a hint that they could trigger more paths, and other platforms could be seen some distance away. All around them was brightly glowing crystal and thick Mist.

Penelo turned to Fran and said, “Are you all right?”

“I am fine. Thank you.”

“Is that nethicite?” Penelo asked, pointing at a spot up high that scintillated like a small sun.

“I wonder.”

“With that much nethicite in one’s grasp—” Ashe said, cut off by Fran.

“You could destroy all of Ivalice. If you wished it.”

Thus began a monumentally confusing journey from platform to platform, triggering paths, using ancient devices, fighting hordes of monsters, and in some cases, turning off barriers. And getting very, very lost. By then several of them had headaches from the obnoxiously bright, unceasing light, and Harry wished for nothing more than a sleeping mask and a nice nap, but he would settle for Al-Cid’s sunglasses and a headache potion. However, they were lucky enough to stumble over something different finally—a blessedly dim room with a bulwark ahead.

They all paused to rest briefly, and to let their eyes adjust from being suddenly half blind, then moved forward to open the bulwark. It revealed a circular (what else?) room with a patterned floor of stone and a curious substance that glowed muted red, and at the other end was another bulwark.

They were just taking that in when something dropped from overhead and ‘stood up’, some twisted amalgamation of woman and horse. And she was very nasty as they quickly found out, as she had the ability to heal herself with magic attacks on a rotating basis, making the two female mages next to useless. Harry, on the other hand, could fight fire with fire, as the saying went.

So he divided his attention between tossing Scathe at her and healing the others, while Ashe and Penelo divided their time between attacking with their weapons and correcting any unfortunate status effects. The horse-lady went down after quite a while, seeming almost surprised at her defeat, and a lozenge-shaped crystal appeared in her wake, then shattered, revealing an Esper glyph.

Ashe sat down right where she stood and said wryly, “All right, Balthier. Resolve only carries a person so far. We need to rest a bit.”

Balthier chuckled wearily and nodded, sitting down as well.

Harry broke out the remainder of the fresh food he had purchased and shared it around, then sat at Balthier’s back so they could use each other as a prop; he had almost fallen asleep when his lover nudged him back to full wakefulness with a sigh.

They opened the bulwark and heaved a collective sigh on seeing another ancient device, but surrounded and triggered it, which was when everything went white. When Harry could see again he was standing at the edge of yet another platform, though this one was hovering in midair and was ringed by stone statues that rose up higher than their heads. The sky around them was pleasantly blue with wispy clouds—though, there seemed to be twin suns. Everywhere were signs of some civilization. Below were much larger platforms, almost like islands, connected by curving bridges, and floating here and there in the air were more platforms like the one they were on. Above was another series of masses. It really was quite beautiful, and eerily, deathly silent.

Ashe was standing in the center, and suddenly asked, “Where is every—one?”

That made no sense, as Harry could clearly see all of them.

“Fear not, princess of Dalmasca,” said a curiously choral voice. “We Occuria have chosen you, and you alone.”

The statues abruptly bled blue-green light, or Mist, it swirling around each, and then across the platform to converge before the statue Ashe was facing, a wavering, writhing mass of Mist. It was about then that Harry realized he could not move, nor speak.

“Ashelia B’nargin Dalmasca,” said that same voice. “We see your heart desires power, and power most holy shall we grant. Seek you the Sun-Cryst, slumb’ring star. In tower on distant shore it dreams. The mother of all nethicite, the source of its unending power. The Dynast-King, his fallow shards, coarse trinkets cut from Sun-Cryst’s light.”

“Such power exists?”

“In times that are long passed away, we thought to save this Ivalice, and chose Raithwall. He took the sword, and cut the Cryst. Three shards he took from its gilt grasp, and so became the Dynast-King. His words and deeds run through your veins.”

Ashe tilted her head down for a moment, hand coming up to her chest. “That’s why I was given it—the Sword of Kings,” she said, as though finally understanding.

“The treaty held with kings of old is but a mem’ry, cold and still. With you we now shall treat anew”—an ornate sword appeared before Ashe—“to cut a run for hist’ry’s flow. Now take this sword, this Treaty-Blade. Occurian seal, mark of your worth.” The sword began to slowly descend. “Cut deep the Cryst, and seize your shards. Wield Dynast-King’s power! Destroy Venat!

Ashe made no move to touch the blade, instead saying, “But Venat—Venat’s an Occurian. A being like you.”

Venat is a heretic!” the Occuria thundered, a sudden force of wind blowing toward Ashe, causing her to raise her hands to protect her face. “The nethicite is ours to give, to chosen bearer or to none. The heretic trespassed, and set the rose of knowledge in man’s hand. With imitations they profane, it is anathema to us. We give you now the stone and task. Administer judgment: destroy them all!”

“Judgment?” Ashe gasped softly a moment later. “Destroy them all? The empire?”

“The Humes ever skew hist’ry’s weave. With haste they move through too-short lives. Driven to err by base desires, t’ward waste and wasting on they run. Undying, we Occuria light the path for wayward sons of man. Oft did we pass judgment on them so that Ivalice might endure. Eternal, we are hist’ry’s stewards, to set the course and keep it true. The chosen is our hand, our fist, to let live some and crush the rest. Princess, you have been chosen. Take revenge against those who stole your kingdom. Fulfill your role as savior.”

Ashe lifted a hand, and hesitated, then wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the blade, lifting the other hand as well.

“Attain to your birthright!”

As both hands took the hilt a flash of white obscured everything. A split second later Harry’s vision returned to normal, the sound of the blade hitting the platform accompanying it.

Vaan dashed forward, making Harry realize he could move again. “Ashe! What’s with these Occuria? What gives them the right to tell you what to do?”

Fran strolled to her, asking, “Will you take revenge, as they ask?”

“Huh?” Ashe seemed to be confused by their appearance.

“We could not see them,” Basch explained, “but we heard the Occuria speak. They may be gods, but we are the arbiters of our destiny.”

Harry nearly snorted at that, distinctly remembering his unscheduled trip and the ‘arbiter’ of his ‘fate’.

Basch continued, “Your highness, I am against this. The empire must pay, but destruction?”

His estimation of the man went back up again.

Penelo sidled up to ask haltingly, “Um . . . does anyone know what happened to Dr Cid? Wasn’t he saying he’d be here?”

“He should’ve arrived by now,” Basch noted.

“And I should have realized by now,” Balthier said, chagrined. “He’s not coming. He laid out the bait, and we bit. Remember what he said? He wanted Ashe to get the stone. He wanted that all along. That’s why he flaunted his nethicite, and reeled us in with his story about Giruvegan. All to bring Ashe to the Occuria.”

“But wait,” Penelo protested. “If we got ahold of the nethicite, wouldn’t that be bad for the empire?”

Balthier shrugged. “Maybe he wants to see what happens when foes with nethicite collide? That’d be just like Dr Cid.”

Ashe gazed at the blade, then lifted her chin. “I will search out the Sun-Cryst.”

“‘History is built by our hands.’ That’s his favorite line,” Balthier said. “He’d never stand by and watch the Occuria stones shape things. . . . So, he was talking to Venat all along. He wasn’t mad at all, then, was he.”

They moved to the ancient device that had appeared and used it, returning to their previous location. In the center of the room where the Esper had been was now another, which they took, and were relieved when it sent them to the start of their journey at Giruvegan, all the way back near the Gigas Gate.

“In tower on distant shore dreams the Sun-Cryst,” Basch said and turned to Fran. “Do those words mean aught to you?”

She shook her head.

“Didn’t Reddas say he was going to follow some ‘other course’?” Vaan reminded them. “Maybe he found out something that can help.”

“I’d rather stay out of that sky pirate’s debt, thank you,” Balthier said cryptically.

“What’s wrong with Reddas?” Vaan inquired. “I mean, if you can’t trust your own kind, who can you trust?”

“You’re an expert on pirating now, are you?”

Nevertheless they made the trek back through the Feywood and to the gate crystal in Golmore Jungle, then lured wild yellow chocobos into serving as mounts to take them to Balfonheim from the Tchita Uplands. There, however, they headed for the inn, not the sky pirate’s manse, and settled in for the night with a decent meal, baths, and real beds.

They were lying there, hunger sated and bodies bathed, when Harry sighed gustily. “So, the good news is that your father isn’t suffering from a mental disorder. The bad news is that it’s worse. He’s a mad scientist with a rogue god on his side.”

“It makes you wonder: why would a god rebel? Does it truly think the others are wrong? Or does it want all that power to itself?”

“It makes me wonder if it’s got something to do with Vayne’s behavior, too, and not just your father’s.”

Balthier rolled onto his side and propped his head against one hand. “What about your father?”

Harry blinked slowly. “Huh?”

“You’ve never said much of anything about your family.”

Harry frowned before saying, “I’m an orphan. But I know they loved me. They died a long time ago, far away. It’s one of the reasons—besides you, that is—that I’ve stuck with this, I guess. They were killed by someone trying to stir up fires of war and killing nearly indiscriminately. Anyone who didn’t fit his vision of what things should be like.”

Balthier reached out to play with Harry’s hair. “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

“I’m not from Ivalice,” he said repressively.

“Mm. Then let’s talk of other things, as surely it cannot be groundbreaking news that people are actually born on continents other than these three.”

Harry snorted and rolled his head to the side, the better to see his lover’s face. “What of the Strahl?”

“Oh, I sent a message to Nono when we were here in Balfonheim before, asking him to bring the ship along. He mainly acts as one of the mechanics, but he is able to fly her. He just doesn’t like to unless it’s necessary.”

“Well, if a moogle can fly an airship, surely Vaan can be taught.”

Balthier chuckled. “One assumes so. I don’t want to talk about him, though. I’d rather talk about us.”

“Oh?”

“Definitely. So, once this is all said and done, just how charming will I have to be to convince you to take up the life of a sky pirate with me and Fran, hm?”

Harry eyed his lover thoughtfully. “What’s the lure? Really?”

“Everything, I suppose. Flying itself, for one. Finding long forgotten places, for another. And, the thrill of being able to sneak into places others have tried and failed to.”

“And treasure?”

“A bonus, really. Besides, stuff like that pays for upkeep on the Strahl, food, and other such things.”

“Oh, I see. So you’re telling me you don’t have a cache of glittery things somewhere you play in from time to time whilst cackling madly,” he said teasingly.

“I might have stored a few odds and ends under a deck plate here and there,” Balthier admitted. “At any rate, if we all come out of this well and a sudden rash of peace breaks out. . . .”

“I’m still a merchant,” Harry said firmly.

“I would never dream of trying to stop you doing what makes you happy,” Balthier assured him. “Just think of all the interesting new things you could find to transform into salable items.”

He grinned and reached up to pull his lover’s head down for a brief kiss. “I could probably be convinced.”

“For more than just that, I hope,” Balthier said huskily.

“Mm. Try me,” Harry invited, and was promptly drawn into a hungry kiss, his lover moving to half cover his body with his own. Harry welcomed the warm weight, reaching around with his unimpeded hand to slide down Balthier’s back and tease the man’s backside with his fingers. He groaned when Balthier shifted again, that time to press a leg between Harry’s own and grind his hip against Harry’s quickly aroused interest.

*

The next morning they walked about Balfonheim rather aimlessly, having learned that Reddas had not yet returned, though when Nono scampered up to them Balthier decided to give Vaan an impromptu flying lesson since the Strahl had arrived, with Penelo tagging along. Harry, not actually interested, retrieved a selection of his wares from the ship and set about his work in their inn room, humming to himself all the while.

Though, he supposed, he really ought to record a report and send it off. On that thought he made the report, then found Fran to let her know he would be going on a ride. He was back several hours later, duty out of the way. He only hoped that Al-Cid wasn’t on a damn airship somewhere out of reach.

It was sunset when Balthier returned, and they all gathered for dinner at the inn. Vaan was very excited and babbled ceaselessly to Penelo about their day while she listened indulgently as she ate, even commenting from time to time. Vaan’s meal grew steadily more cold, but he didn’t seem to care and ate it anyway.

Harry and Balthier spent another night in self-indulgent hedonism, and arrived at breakfast to hear that Reddas had returned from his ‘other course’. So they ate quickly and hastened off to the manse, in time to hear the man shouting.

“Ships in the water! Send fishing dories if need be, I care not. Glossair engines are as good to us as sky to a fish! Leave what boats have foundered. I want souls saved, not driftwood!”

His people came racing out the doors just before the group reached them, causing them to split in half to allow them passage, before entering. Reddas turned to face them as they walked closer. “Our armada ran afoul of bad water near the Ridorana Cataract. All engines stopped asudden, becalmed. Trouble with a Mist thick as death, it seems. Those seas are Jagd,” he said, rubbing his head. “I expected airship trouble. Not a fleet foundering midst the waves. Tell me of what happened in Giruvegan. From the lay of your eyes, I measure all did not go well. Cid—was he false as I feared?”

“Yes,” said Ashe. “But we may have caught a glimpse of his true intent. We may now know what it is that Cid searches for. When we arrived at the heart of Giruvegan I was spoken to by beings called Occuria. They charged me to use the blade they gifted me with attaining new stones, new nethicite, from something called the Sun-Cryst. And with passing judgment on the empire. These Occuria are those that initially treated with Dynast-King Raithwall, or so they say. They called themselves the undying, the stewards of history.”

“So the deifacted nethicite was only a fragment?” Reddas took a seat on the edge of his desk and shook his head. “And these Occuria—I know not, and care to know even less. Cid may seek to follow, then, now that you have this sword?”

“If we strike this Sun-Cryst with the Sword of Kings,” Fran said, “no new stone may be born. We say the Sun-Cryst is the source of all nethicite’s power. If we might break it, the Dusk Shard would be as a thing lifeless. As for the manufacted nethicite, who can say?”

“Or, we could use the Treaty-Blade to cut a new stone from the Cryst—use that to fight the Dusk Shard and the manufacted stones,” Balthier said.

“Would you like to know the best use of nethicite?” Reddas asked. “Will or nill, I’ll tell you. You pick it up, and throw it away.” He gestured with his hand as though doing just that.

“Either way,” Vaan said, “we gotta find this Sun-Cryst first, right? Don’t we? Across the sea, in a tower on a distance shore. Reddas?”

“Familiar words, Vaan. I saw something of the sort written in some documents I chanced upon during my visit to Draklor. The Naldoan Sea, the Ridorana Cataract, and the Pharos Lighthouse. I sent my fleet to fish out the truth behind those words . . . and caught trouble.”

“Then proof is ours,” Basch stated. “This lighthouse on the Naldoan Sea is the tower on distant shore. The strong Mist that becalmed your ships is a grim and yet clearer sign than any we might’ve hoped for. The Sun-Cryst is there.”

“All well and good, but how do we get there?” Balthier pointed out. “Those seas are in Jagd.”

Reddas rounded his desk, opening a drawer and retrieving something, which he tossed to Balthier. “Try putting this in your ship. ‘Tis a skystone made to resist Jagd.”

Balthier examined it, then looked to Reddas. “More spoils from the Draklor Labs, is it? Why not use it yourself?”

“That’s just the thing. My ship’s a Bhujerban model—it will not work. But, should it fit the Strahl, she’ll fly in Jagd.” Reddas faced the princess and said, “Lady Ashe. I would accompany your highness. If you do not object.”

She nodded. “I am in your care. But, tell me one thing: why do so much for us?”

“The Nabudis Deadlands,” he responded flatly.

“Nabudis . . . was your home?”

“Nay,” he said, looking away. “But a memory forever burned in my heart.”

“Well, I need to get this installed, then,” Balthier said. “We won’t be able to leave for a bit. Shall we shoot for just after lunch?” He turned and headed for the door, Fran following, and was gone moments later, leaving them to sort themselves out for a few hours.

Harry returned to the inn to wile away that time doing assembly work, and was quick to clean up when Balthier came in to tell him it was noon already. After gathering up their sparse belongings they joined the others for a meal, then headed for the aerodrome. They were admitted through the gate for private airships and were onboard shortly, Fran slipping into one of the pilot seats to begin the start-up sequence.

The Pharos was rather an impressive structure, the ‘lighthouse’ perched atop a spire of rock just at the edge of the equally impressive Ridorana Cataract. The Pharos seemed to play fountain, as well, given the many streams of water which emerged from somewhere within to spill over and add to the flow dashing downward into the seemingly endless depths, like a jaggedly-circular waterfall. It was like being at the end of the world, Harry thought. Balthier flew them around the structure once before finding a suitable spot to anchor the ship. Once down they could see the Pharos off in the distance, shorter structures nearby partially obscuring it.

“A tower on distant shore,” Fran said. “And about its peak, a piercing Mist.”

“And in that Mist, the Sun-Cryst awaits,” said Ashe, gazing up at the peak.

“My lady,” Reddas said, causing Ashe to look away. “Your words still sound of doubt. Pray you reach your answer, ere we the Sun-Cryst.”

“And?” she responded. “Should I choose revenge, what then?”

He began to walk. “Then your woe shall be your own.”

It was not a very long trip to that distance, though they were hindered by a host of monsters intent of having them for a meal. Off to their right stood what looked to be a colosseum, which they avoided in favor of bearing more to the left, as the lighthouse was over that way. Eventually they reached it, a flight of steps their last to ascend. But up there, before a set of tall golden doors, was the skeleton of some beast or other. A skeleton that started to move, standing up with a hollow roar, then began descend those steps, clearly some kind of undead dragon. A barrier sprang into existence behind them as well, cutting off any hope of escape.

Quite a long time later it collapsed with a final roar, then began to dissolve as though some wind blew across it, pieces flaking off to vanish into thin air. And after a short rest, for it had truly been a difficult battle, they ascended to stand before doors several stories high.

While Ashe was staring up at them in awe, Vaan walked over to a large reddish stone to the side, one that had words engraved upon it. “Hey, Fran? Can you read this?”

Fran approached, drifting to a stop at his side so she could study the inscription. “Hm. It’s quite old. Lo, seeker in days unborn, God-Blade bearer. Know you: this tower challenges the sky. Ware the watcher; the ward of the three waits, soul-hungry, unsated. He without power, want it not. He with power, trust it not. He with sight, heed it not. Rend illusion, cut the true path. In blood, Raithwall.”

Ashe gasped took a step forward. “The Dynast-King?”

Fran turned. “Does it startle you?” she asked, amusement clear in her voice for once for any to hear. “The Dynast-King took his sword from the Occuria. It was here he claimed the nethicite. He must have known he was not the last the Occuria would choose. He left this for you. Rend illusion, cut the true path. Words of such mystery. Yet his blood runs in your veins. Perhaps it whispers to you the truth?”

Ashe exhaled audibly and walked slowly to the doors, and without even touching them, a bright blue light came into being at the center of their joining, the light racing up and down along the seam. And then, all the symbols carved into the golden surfaces lit up, and what had seemed like a high relief carving began to rotate, revealing that the ‘doors’ were actually three layers. As the front rotated left, the one in back rotated opposite, opening the way and forming a path for them to cross inside by.