Grazhir :: Crossover :: Persequor :: 05 :: Divinitus

05 • Divinitus

Inside the lighthouse, Harry took one look around and muttered, “And we get to climb all the way up, right?”

“Battling monsters, solving ancient puzzles, defeating guardians of old,” Balthier stage-whispered.

They were in a vaguely octagonal area, like a hollow spine of the Pharos, with a walkway circling what looked like an open shaft in the center with an upward-swirling vortex of water. There were doors to either side of them, and squinting, Harry could see two more on the opposite side of the room. Nearby was a non-functional ancient device, and up ahead something that looked vaguely like a lift, also non-functional.

Exploration revealed an altar with an engraving above it, saying something about needing black orbs for the Altar of Night. In fact, there were three of the altars, though they had to navigate the labyrinth of rooms around the core to reach the other sections of the walkway, parts of it being blocked by debris or fractured off that they could not possibly jump across. Occasionally, one of the monsters they fought would leave behind what looked like a small black pearl—the orbs, they assumed.

Also found was an emblem-emblazoned door that resisted being opened, so they collected orbs and placed them on the altars, then returned to find that the door had unlocked. Within seemed to be another place entirely, a light-dim craggy desert. It was not large so they reached the terminus fairly quickly, and there was a tall pillar with a glowing orb atop it, and before them a huge rock that rather resembled a hedgehog to Harry—a rock that began shuddering and lifted, revealing itself as some variant of a rocktoise.

“One of your aforementioned guardians?” Harry murmured.

After its defeat the area changed to that of a simple rectangular stone room, and there was no place to go but back out.

“We should try the device,” Fran suggested, so they did, and it was now active, transporting them to an area which contained numerous square landings connected by staircases, and false walls and monsters much like ones found back at Raithwall’s Tomb. Killing enough of those caused pathways to appear over thin air, which allowed them to progress. The emblazoned door there had a green emblem and opened into another illusionary room, roughly circular and bounded by rock, a marshy area filled inch-deep with murky water and patches of sodden turf, and with a depressingly brown sky.

The guardian rather resembled a gargantuan yensa, and it took less damage while over water, though it could be lured onto one of the drier areas. After its defeat they backtracked again to activate a now-working ancient device, ending up much higher in the Pharos if the view down the shaft was anything to go by. Eventually they fought another guardian—something that resembled an anthropomorphic, behemoth, horned snow tiger—and defeated it. However, there was no ancient device to activate; instead the lift was seen to be glowing invitingly when they backtracked to the core, so they rode that up.

A lot of running around later, an Esper battle, and more teleporting and lift-taking, they were walking upward along yet another set of stairs and landings when Fran decided to speak. “The din of Mist grows nearer.”

“The Sun-Cryst must be near,” Basch opined.

“I wonder if she’ll really do it, take revenge against the empire,” Penelo said, glancing at Ashe up ahead. “I mean, I know how she must feel. It’s hard losing someone you care about.”

Vaan sighed. “Something we all got in common.”

“But, you know, no matter how hard we try, we can’t change the past. There’s nothing that can bring them back. Still, sometimes, when I close my eyes . . . I can see them so clearly.”

“Illusions of the past,” Reddas said in his rich voice. “You think to have cast them off, only find them years later, unwearying, unrelenting. The past can bind a man as surely as irons.” Reddas also glanced at Ashe. “Cut the truth path. But will she?”

At the top was another ancient device, but this one seemed to lead to their actual destination, a large, circular room bearing a stone glowing like a miniature Mist sun. The walls were broken frequently by wide arches open to the outside and the floor was elaborately patterned with numerous varieties of coloured stone.

“So this is the Sun-Cryst,” Reddas said.

Ashe slowly approached the stone, Treaty-Sword and Sword of Kings in hand. “King Raithwall stood here. With this sword he cut the Sun-Cryst, and took its power in his hand.”

Vaan stepped up. “But you’re going to use the sword to destroy the Sun-Cryst. Aren’t you, Ashe.”

She huffed. “Don’t interrupt me, Vaan,” she said, but quietly, not snappishly like before.

Harry thought she sounded like someone who was weary of having her ‘moments’ deflated.

She took a deep breath, the Treaty-Blade in her hand glowing sudden blue. She took a step forward, thrusting the sword toward the sky, spirals of Mist—or something like it—shooting upward. Through the arches could be seen more Mist, pinkish-red, converging on their location, as though the Jagd that protected the Ridorana Cataract was being absorbed, then blasted out. They sky turned dark and threatening, lightning flashing and Mist-clouds sweeping around the Pharos peak as Ashe walked even closer to the stone. A ghostly form had appeared for all to see.

Basch gasped. “Lord Rasler!?”

“You want revenge,” Ashe said, faintly incredulous. “You would have me use the stone?”

The figure stretched out a hand toward her.

“You would have me destroy the empire?” she asked, voice rising. “Is this my duty? Is this what you want? I cannot!”

“Why do you hesitate?” asked a hollow voice, causing everyone to swiftly turn. “The Cryst is a blade. It was meant for you.” A judge wielding twin weapons stepped into view, cape snapping in the wind. “Wield it! Avenge your father!”

The judge began to approach, taunting her. “Yes, it was I who wore Basch’s face—who cut down the Life of Dalmasca. Lady Ashe! Your father’s murderer is here!”

“You!” she snarled.

“And Reks!” Vaan said angrily.

“I slew your king. I slew your country,” the judge said, fitting the butt ends of his weapons together to form a duel-bladed pole. “Do these deeds not demand vengeance?”

Ashe let the Sword of Kings drop to the floor with a clank and struggled to bring the Treaty-Blade before her.

“Yes. Good!” the judge said as he kept walking closer. “Find your wrath! Take up your sword! Fight, and serve those who died before you!” he shouted, just as he lunged to take off Vaan’s head.

Reddas was there in a heartbeat to push Vaan away and block the attack with his own weapons. “A judge magister there was. . . . Two years past, he took the Midlight Shard, stolen from Nabradia, and used it not knowing what he did . . . and Nabudis was blown away. Cid ordered this of him to learn the nethicite’s true power. That man swore never to let such terrible power be used again. He forsook his judicer’s plate, and his name.” Reddas bunched up and pushed, forcing the judge back.

“Judge Zecht!”

Reddas readied his blades, not denying it. “It’s been too long, Gabranth. Reach out your hand, Lady Ashe. But remember, that which you must grasp is something beyond revenge, something greater than despair. Something beyond our reach. Try as we might, Gabranth, history’s chains bind us too tightly.” They clashed again, taking several measuring blows before separating, Reddas knocked on his ass by the force of Gabranth’s parry.

“No, we cannot escape the past,” Gabranth said. “This man is living proof. What is your past, daughter of Dalmasca? Did you not swear revenge? Do the dead not demand it?”

Ashe looked down, then gasped, her gaze going back to the ghostly form of her husband. The sound of metal scraping stone made her look over her shoulder to see Vaan with one of Reddas’s blades facing Gabranth with an angry and determined look. They held a bit of a staring contest when Vaan looked at her, with Ashe indecisive and Vaan with an almost pleading expression on his face.

Ashe turned back to Rasler, who opened his arms, either in supplication or as to invite her embrace. “Rasler. My prince. Our time was short. Yet I know this”—her voice raised to a shout—“you were not the kind to take base revenge!” She lifted her sword and slashed through his form. “The Rasler I knew is gone.”

Rasler stepped back a pace, a line of sparkling blue tracing the path of the sword across his midsection, then began speaking with the voice of the Occuria. “You are our saint, Ashelia B’nargin. You must use the nethicite. You must be the one to straighten hist’ry’s weave!”

Ashe took another swing at him, and that time he vanished into motes of blue light. “I am no false saint for you to use!”

Vaan dropped the blade he was holding. “Ashe. . . .”

“In all Dalmasca’s long history, not once did we rely on the Dusk Shard. Our people resolved never to use it, though their need might be dire.” She sighed before saying, “That . . . was the Dalmasca I wanted back.” The Treaty-Blade dropped with a clank to the stone. “To use the stone now would be to betray that.”

She turned to face them. “I will destroy the Sun-Cryst! I will discard the stone!”

Gabranth obviously wasn’t satisfied with that. “You claim no need of power? What of your broken kingdom’s shame? The dead demand justice!”

Harry was forced to wonder exactly which dead, and just how guilt-riddled the judge was over his own betrayals.

“You’re wrong,” Vaan objected rather patiently, almost like he was explaining something to a child. “What would change? I can’t help my brother now. My brother’s gone. He’s dead!”

“Even with power we cannot change what is passed,” Ashe said, walking slowly toward them, inert Dawn Shard in her hand. “What is done is done.” She let the stone roll off her fingers to hit the floor; it came to a stop at Gabranth’s metal-shod feet.

“Yet without power,” the judge persisted, “what future can you claim? What good a kingdom you cannot defend?”

“Then I will defend queen and kingdom both!” Basch asserted loyally, facing his brother.

Gabranth made an inarticulate sound of disbelief. “Hah! Defend? You? You who failed Landis, and Dalmasca? What can shame hope to keep safe?” He split his weapon back into two and brandished the blades. “Your shield is shattered! Your oaths poison those you would protect!” He attacked, causing the whole group to hastily start moving to defeat his zealous self.

They came to a brief standstill where Gabranth taunted, “Hear me, Basch! Do not think killing the king-slayer will win you back your honor! When you abandoned home and kin, your name was forever stained with blood!”

The two brothers went at it alone, Basch deftly parrying and attacking as he responded, “Aye, this stain is mine to bear. But I will bear it willingly, knowing that I did all that I could . . . for hope!”

“Preen and strut as you like!” Gabranth shot back. “In the end, we are the same. Blood-thirsting carrion birds, hell-bent on revenge!” He parried Basch with enough force to knock him away, then went for the others, causing them to rejoin the effort. Eventually he was brought low, hunched over and breathing heavily. “So you, too, would leave your debts unpaid?”

“Enough of this!” came a familiar, unctuous voice. “I can bear no more!” Cid had arrived, nethicite in his hand. “You disappoint me, Gabranth,” he scolded, walking up to the judge to place his free hand on the man’s forearm and push him roughly aside. “He trusted you. When you bared steel against the princess, you foreswore your obligations to your emperor. You shame yourself and make mockery of Lord Larsa’s trust. You are unfit to serve him as sword or shield. And so I release you from that service. Your presence is neither required nor welcome.”

Gabranth growled and charged as Cid walked away, bringing down a swift blade to meet only Mist-warped air. A second later he noticed Cid standing just off to the side, a funny smile on his face, and then Gabranth was flying through the air to slam into one of the supports, then drop down to the floor in a heap.

“You were only a tool of this Venat,” Balthier accused.

“How quaint. We are allies!” Cid corrected. “The Occuria give men power as a master feeds his dog: it is meant to tame us.” He turned his gaze on Ashe. “How well have you resisted their wile. By turning your back on their stones, you give us free hand to write out our own history.”

“And at what price?” she asked angrily. “Dalmasca’s freedom for your nethicite? I shall not suffer you to have it. The Sun-Cryst be damned!” She whipped around as Cid warped over to stand near that same stone.

He laughed. “Be sure that it is! For what other purpose do you think you’ve brought us here? But, m’lady, I would have you stay your Occurian sword! The Sun-Cryst is glutted with Mist, and so precious a thing must not be squandered. Let us use the stone!” He held his nethicite, it glowing for a heartbeat, then tossed it straight up into the air. “Finish this, Venat!”

The Dusk Shard appeared to be calling forth all Mist from the Sun-Cryst, causing them to stagger with the force of it swirling around.

Cid was staring upward with a crazed look on his face, laughing maniacally. “Shards of nethicite! Cocoon of the Sun-Cryst! Spill forth your Mist upon this Ivalice! Let sea and sky be awash by it, that Bahamut may come and drink his fill!”

Three distinct orbs of light stood out from the general Mist, of blue, green, and red. One by one they swooped away from the convergence point, and causing the group to brace themselves against another wave of force.

Cid, unaffected but for the fact that he was slowly rising into the air, cried in that same fervent voice, “And lo! How brightly burned their lanthorn. Casts it back the shadow of Occurian design! Testament that man’s history shall be his alone!”

“You made your nethicite for this,” Balthier said bitterly as he helped shield Fran. “You mimic your Occuria’s stone for what? To become a god yourself?” he shouted.

“On whose shoulders better to stand than those of the would-be gods?” Cid replied. “Ah! Such high hopes I once had, but you ran, and they with you! Alas, the hour of your return is late. Come, Ffamran! Revel in the glory of my triumph!” He lunged, like diving from a height into deep water, to attack.

They had barely weakened the man when he whipped a glowing red stone from his pocket and shook it at them. “Behold the manufacted nethicite, the fruit of our power and knowledge! See what the stone of man is capable of! Witness its power with your own eyes! Famfrit! To me!” Cid half turned and cast the stone behind him.

From it came something alarmingly like an Esper, which made Harry wonder just exactly who Cid thought he was kidding. However, they couldn’t even touch Cid while that thing was hanging about, so it had to go first, and then they concentrated on the man. Cid was reduced to being no longer able even to bear the weight of his guns to fire, and collapsed face first to the floor. And shockingly—not—they received the power of another Esper to their command.

Balthier ran forward ahead of the others, but was stopped by the appearance of Venat.

“Let him by, Venat,” Cid gasped. “It is done.”

The Occurian began to drift to the side to show Cid crouched on all fours and slowly getting to his feet. “Ah, how I have enjoyed these six years.”

“The pleasure was all mine,” Venat stated, and drifted yet further so that Balthier could approach his father.

Cid’s body was beginning to dissolve, his hands more like Mist than flesh, the effect slowly rising up his arms.

Balthier bowed his head briefly, then asked, “Was there no other way?”

“Heh. Spend your pity elsewhere,” Cid replied, more and more of his body transforming. “If you are so set on running, hadn’t you best be off? Fool of a pirate.” His body vanished at that, the Mist remaining swirling up toward the stone still hovering above the Sun-Cryst, which blazed with renewed light.

A thud caught their attention; Fran had collapsed. Penelo raced over to crouch by her side, calling her name. Fran opened her eyes to say, “The Mist burns. To bursting it beats. The cocoon!”

Balthier backtracked hastily to converge on Fran along with Harry. Penelo quickly moved to give them room, and Balthier reached down to cradle his partner, who said, “The Sun-Cryst burns. You must run. As far as you can.”

“Easy, Fran,” Balthier said softly, then hefted her up. “You’ll be no martyr on my watch, so I suppose you’d better hang on, then.”

And indeed, the Sun-Cryst was pulsing with light and more Mist flowed from its seemingly endless depths. “Ashe, the sword!” Vaan shouted. “We have to stop it!” Vaan and Ashe attempted to hold up the Sword of Kings before the thing and approach, the force of Mist like great winds against them.

Reddas dashed forward, his greater weight giving him easier passage, to place a quelling hand on theirs. “You must quit this place. It’s reacting. I have not seen its like before! Nay, never this large. Never such threat impendent.” He took the Sword of Kings from them and raised it, then forced his way forward, blade like a shield for his face. “For Nabudis.”

“Reddas!?” shouted Vaan.

Reddas launched himself against the flow of Mist, shouting, “I, judge magister, condemn you to oblivion!” He brought down the blade at the heart of the Sun-Cryst, and for a moment, everything went utterly silent, the Mist vanished. Then it exploded, taking the pirate with it.

And by then they were sensibly racing for the ancient device to get them the hell out of the way. Thankfully, it took them back to the base of the Pharos, and the group ran like blazes for the Strahl’s anchoring point and boarded, knowing there was nothing else that could be done. Once they were a decent distance away they could look back at it. The peak had been blown apart, and there was no longer any glow of nethicite.

Back in Balfonheim they were a rather slow procession to the manse, unhindered by any of Reddas’s people for entrance, though they did confirm that Reddas was no more. On arriving in the room Reddas had held his meetings in, Harry was surprised to see Al-Cid sitting in Reddas’s chair, feet up on the desk, his aide standing nearby.

“We let ourselves inside,” Al-Cid said insouciantly. “The situation is one demanding some haste, you understand.”

“How did you know where we were?” Vaan asked.

Al-Cid swung his feet down with a short laugh and stood up, rounding the desk. “My little birds, they tell me many, many things.” To Ashe he said, “My lady, the war begins now.”

She furrowed her brow and said, “Then you were unsuccessful in stopping the Rozarrian fleet?”

“I used a variety of methods. All went according to plan until it came time to request withdrawal of our most devoted generals,” Al-Cid informed her. “In their enthusiasm for war, our great military leaders went behind my back, straight to Marquis Ondore’s resistance.”

“The resistance!?”

“During training, a division of the resistance ignored their orders and disappeared. They were next found exchanging broadsides with the imperials over Old Nabradia.”

“Why would they go there?” Basch asked, moving closer. “They were asking to be found!”

“You misunderstand,” Al-Cid said with a shake of his head. “Those ships most surely belonged to a Rozarrian division. They may have joined Ondore’s resistance forces as patriots, or even mercenaries. . . . But in reality they are regulars of the Rozarrian army under direct command of our war pavilion. This fifth column has invaded imperial airspace and provoked a response. Unable to abandon them, his excellency the marquis was obliged to give his main fleet the order to attack. And the battleground . . . is Dalmasca.”

Ashe gasped, and Balthier logically stated, “Should this fight drag on, Rozarria will enter the fray, the defense of Dalmasca as their excuse . . . and we will have a war between empires.”

“Correct. They will bide their time—waiting to strike until the empire has spent itself against the marquis. But Vayne—he will crush them and the marquis both between his hands.”

Basch brightened slightly. “Vayne holds the Dusk Shard no longer. His advantage is lost.”

Al-Cid shook his head slowly. “Vayne has advantages enough. He stands in higher ground, and my birds tell me he has awoken something quite large.” He dropped his chin to peer over his sunglasses a moment, then continued, “Bahamut, Lord of the Sky. There was a stirring in the Mist, in the direction of Ridorana, I am told. Bahamut awoke soon after this.”

Which was, as Harry recalled, what Dr Cid had been blathering about earlier, though he had not specified what exactly it was.

“It is the Mist that came before the Cryst was undone,” Fran said. “All went according to Dr Cid’s designs. It breathed life into this Bahamut. If Reddas had not stopped it when he did, how much more Mist might it have drunk?”

“Yes, the man’s last ‘great’ accomplishment, I fear. And so it falls to me to put an end to the thing,” Balthier said.

Harry glanced at his lover, thinking he was far too prone to bearing a burden better shared. And even after mentally rolling his eyes at such a sentiment coming from himself, he still thought that Balthier should not feel so responsible for the actions of his father.

“Vayne commands Bahamut himself?” Ashe asked of Al-Cid.

“He comes to Rabanastre.”

Her face transformed with determination writ clear. “Then I will defend Dalmasca and stop this Bahamut. This is my charge—”

“That’s our charge, actually,” corrected Vaan as he stepped to her side.

Penelo dashed up as well and turned to face her. “It’s our home. It belongs to us all.”

Ashe seemed slightly taken aback, and slowly turned around to assess the others, then nodded and released a faint sigh—of relief? Harry was pleased that she was finally approaching understanding on certain things. There was a parallel there he did not wish to examine so closely, however.

“And my charge,” said Al-Cid as he made for the door, his aide at his side, “is to hinder and delay this Rozarrian invasion for as long as possible. I will do what I can.” He paused suddenly and looked over his shoulder. “Ah, yes. . . .”

Al-Cid removed his sunglasses with a flourish and faced Ashe, taking her hand in his. “When this unpleasantness is done, you must come to Rozarria. I will take you to Ambervale, of Clan Margrace. Such things I will show you! Until then, I will be waiting.” The sunglasses went back on with another flourish as he released her, then he continued on out through the doors.

Balthier heaved an irritated sigh, causing Harry to look at him closely and sidle over to whisper, “What?”

“You’re right. He’s a bloody drama queen, a ham extraordinaire.”

Harry smirked as the others began to file out. “And you’re not, Mr Leading Man?”

Fran, close enough to overhear, made a sound suspiciously like an amused snort and hastily strolled off before Balthier could call her on it. Outside they were accosted by some of Reddas’s people.

“Lo, Vaan! Word from the resistance! The imperial sky fortress Bahamut is on the attack! This . . . could be bad. We have no chance of fighting it from the ground. No, the only way to fight the Bahamut is to go to it, by airship!”

‘And kudos to you for being Captain Obvious,’ Harry thought snidely. “Well, we can hope to get there in time to be of help, if not be a solution.”

“Thanks, Rikken,” Vaan said absently.

“Right, let’s get prepared and we’ll head out directly,” Balthier said.

Sadly, Harry had no opportunity to track down Al-Cid; the man had vanished into the crowds, and was probably already halfway across the Cerobi Steppe. Well, unless Reddas had been hiding a gate crystal in his home that Al-Cid had ferreted out. On the Strahl again, Fran was content to take the helm, and Vaan sat in Balthier’s seat to further educate himself, so Harry retired with Balthier to their cabin.

“And then there were two,” he murmured.

Balthier slammed a fist against the wall. “You never do stop hoping, do you, right up until the very end.”

“No. But you need to remember that you’re not responsible for him. He was his own person. His sins are not yours. And if you could have made him stop, forced him, he’d be naught but a pale shadow of your will.”

His lover dropped down to sit on the bed and heaved a sigh. “Too much to hope for that he could have seen reason?”

Harry shrugged. “Some just can’t. And consider, plenty of people would see you as a crazed fool, lusting after things not yours by right, as he lusted after the power of gods.”

“Yes, so spare me any lectures on perspective,” Balthier said with a wry smile. “Do you even think they are gods?”

He pulled down a fold-out and had a seat. “I don’t know, but I tend to think they are, and with influence more widespread than any imagine. It concerns me, actually.”

Balthier shot him an odd look. “What do you mean?”

“If they’re gods, or certainly god-like, what is to say they cannot create another Sun-Cryst, and at some time distant ahead, find another ‘saint’ to do their bidding? We sit here, thinking we go to fight Vayne and his new toy, and if we accomplish our goal, everything will be sunshine and flowers. But is that truly so?”

“That’s a depressing thought. Does this have something to do with your madman from a distant land?”

He stirred uncomfortably. “Obliquely, I suppose. Perhaps we needn’t concern ourselves. Surely should it be so they would wait a time, for memory to fade.”

“I sense a mystery,” Balthier drawled. “I’m beginning to think you’ve been taking all this so well because you know exactly what it’s like to be in the middle of a war.”

“I’m a bit more detached, is all. The only people I hold deep feelings for are you and Al-Cid, so I can afford to stand back a pace.” When his lover arched a dangerous brow he added, “Not like that, you ass! Honestly, was it not you who spoke of jealousy? Dear to me he is, yes, but not anything like you are to me.”

“Touché.” There was a pause, then, “Influence widespread?”

Harry shook his head. “When you look up at the sky at night. . . . We surely do not abide alone.”

Balthier slipped off the bed to step close and pull him up. “What are you on about?”

He sidestepped that with, “All I’m trying to say is that these gods, Occuria or not, exist, even if we don’t know the extent of their power. And if Venat, one of them, is helping Vayne. . . .”

Balthier dropped his gaze. “The undying.”

“So they say.”

“All right. I’ll give you those words on my ‘lamented’ father. But that doesn’t mean I won’t still help,” Balthier said, raising his eyes.

Harry half smiled. “Never said you shouldn’t. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s entirely your problem. Or, did you miss the memo on that when Vaan and Penelo stepped up to correct Ashe?”

Balthier snorted and leaned in to kiss him. “And you’ll be there to cover my backside?”

“Someone has to,” he answered with a smirk. “Fran seems to be an eminently sensible person, but even she must need help with you to deal with.”

*

When they did arrive it was to a dizzying array of craft zipping through the sky like swarms of insects, darting around much larger ships, and all around were bursts of energy and projectiles like a deadly light show. It was a wonder anyone could move two inches without being shot out of the air. And most prominent was the presumed sky fortress Bahamut, a tall structure circled at intervals with glossair rings and bristling with weaponry, especially a rather large cannon aimed straight at the bulk of the resistance forces.

They swooped in straight toward the monstrosity, right after Bahamut unleashed a blast from its cannon, one that shaved the side of the resistance flagship and blew a smaller vessel apart. Ashe had the communicator in hand when she said, “Uncle, it is I! I’m crossing to the Bahamut to stop Vayne!”

Ondore instantly responded, his voice clearly heard through the speakers. “What are you saying? You are too rash! Your duties come after the battle is over!”

“If we allow them to destroy us here, there will be no after. You must assist our charge.”

“Stop. You must pull back!” His voice became slightly muffled. “Stop the Strahl!”

Vaan grabbed Ashe’s wrist and pulled the communicator closer, a device in his other hand. “Hold it! I mean, w-wait! This is Larsa Solidor! I’m going in with her! So, we’re fine! I got the princess covered!”

Harry blinked slowly at the blond, then grinned.

“Larsa Solidor? So you hold him as a hostage?”

Ashe pulled her hand back and replied, “No, uncle. He will fight with us against Vayne!”

Vaan grabbed her wrist yet again to add, “Leave it to us!”

“Understood. Our fate is in your hands.”

Vaan slipped into a seat and crowed a quiet, “Yes!”

“I got the princess covered?” Penelo said incredulously.

Vaan shrugged and shot her a look. “Larsa’d say that.”

Balthier reached over to take the communicator and said, “We’re relying on you for fire support. Give them something to think about. We’ll pick our moment and make our move!” He hooked it into its holder and urged the Strahl faster, weaving through the myriad craft littering the field ahead, even going so far as to drop altitude sharply at one point to shake off a pursuer, then spiraled up the height of the Bahamut in search of a likely dock. “There one is!” Balthier eased them into position and flipped a few switches, then jumped up and ran out the back.

Inside was a proliferation of symbols everywhere, red against dark copper and bronze. “Vayne will be in the fortress’s command tower. I saw something of the like on our way in here,” Balthier said, looking up. “Right above our heads.”

“We need not fight all the empire to win. If we can get to Vayne, we can put an end to this war,” Ashe stated.

“Let’s get going, then. Find Vayne, wherever he’s perched, and knock him off,” Vaan enthused, then jogged forward to descend a wide flight of stairs.

There, a seeming core, with a shaft rising up the center picked out with glowing orange spots. Around it was a catwalk of metal grating, and they were barely halfway down when everyone staggered, the entire structure shaking like the Bahamut had been hit with something powerful, or had suffered a collision.

“The resistance fights their battle well,” Fran said. “We dare not fail them. We dare not falter.”

“Stop worrying. We just have to clean up here, and then Ashe’ll be the queen,” Vaan said with all the naïvety of youth.

“It’s kind of hard to believe,” Penelo said as she righted herself. “I can’t imagine trying to rule a whole kingdom.”

“A queen might always ‘run away’ with the help of a sky pirate looking to raise his bounty a peg,” Basch said.

Balthier snorted. “Didn’t we already do that? Besides, I doubt the queen would need the help of any sky pirates.”

Ashe walked down a few steps and said, “Do you really think me as strong as all that?”

“Who said anything about strong?” Vaan said. “You’ll make it. You got good friends.”

Ashe hesitated, then nodded, and proceeded down the stairs to the catwalk. On the opposite side of the central shaft was a lift, and as they were examining the controls they heard the sound of someone approaching, the ring of metal on metal.

Basch turned and said, “So you have lived.”

Gabranth approached, weapons in hand, but staggering. “I am a judge magister. Even in disgrace. My just reward for aiding the empire that destroyed my homeland.”

“Gabranth. Do not blame yourself anymore.”

“You confound me, brother!” Gabranth raged. “You failed Landis, you failed Dalmasca, all you were to protect. Yet you still hold on to your honor. How?”

“I had someone important to defend,” Basch replied calmly. “And defend her I have. How is it that you have survived? Is it not because you defend Lord Larsa?”

“Silence! All was stripped from me! Only hatred for the brother who fled our homeland remains mine.” Gabranth twisted the shaft of his pole, splitting it to dual blades. “Tell me: why do you forsake that which you must hold most precious?”

“I do as I must, brother. Or is that not answer enough?”

Gabranth howled and charged, forcing them to battle, and taunting them during with the fate of the resistance fighters outside. But rage was not enough, and Gabranth was reduced to panting impotence, one blade dropping to the floor. He pointed the other at his brother. “Have you your fill of this?”

Basch tilted his head. “I would ask you the same. Let this end, Noah.”

Gabranth dropped to one knee on the catwalk, his remaining blade a steadying force against the grating. “I’ve no right to be called by that name.”

“Then live. And reclaim it.” Basch turned and walked away, leaving his brother behind, to again examine the control panel for the lift. Within a minute they were rising up, to exit onto a higher catwalk, and to ascend another wide flight of steps.

There, in a room circular, stood Vayne and Larsa facing each other. Vayne turned to them as Larsa gasped, and extended an arm sideways briefly, like he was showing the place off. “I bid you welcome to my sky fortress, the Bahamut. I must apologize for my delay in welcoming you aboard my ship.” He bowed to them, a mockery. “Permit me to ask: who are you? An angel of vengeance? Or perchance a saint of salvation?”

Ashe stared at him before saying evenly, “I am simply myself. No more and no less. And I want . . . only to be free.”

Vayne extended his arm forward, his hand fisted. “Such a woman is not fit to bear the burden of rule. Weep for Dalmasca, for she is lost. Observe well, Larsa. Watch and mark you the suffering of one who must rule, yet lacks the power.”

“No.” Larsa slowly raised his sword and pointed it at his brother, the blade wavering. “No, brother, I will not. Though I lack your power, I will still persist.” He brought his other hand up to steady his trembling grip.

“Bold words, child,” Vayne said with a snort, then advanced on the group. “Your lives are forfeit, and your insurgence with them. Dalmasca will again know order. For good and all, I shall bring your futile attempts at rebellion to an end.”

Except that he did not. After a seeming endless fight Vayne staggered back, gasping, then pitched forward to hit the floor with a thud.

“Lord Brother!” Larsa shouted and raced forward, Vaan futile in his attempt to stop him. When he was a few feet distant Larsa was engulfed in what looked like lightning, and he, too, fell forward, unconscious, his outstretched hand a mere foot from his brother’s.

Penelo gasped as a sullen red light enveloped both Larsa and Vayne, like a demonic presence, and Vayne began slowly levering himself up. However, he kept jerking, and Harry was not sure he was seeing things correctly when it appeared the man’s skin began to darken to an unholy grey and his body began to bulge with suddenly developing muscle.

There was an explosion of sorts, a beam of light issuing straight up as Vayne let out an agonized yell, and they were forced to protect their faces against an onslaught of that red Mist as it burst outward. When Harry could see again a hunched over Vayne was hovering above the floor, a red aura surrounding him. And, all around the room, red Mist lurked.

“Manufacted nethicite!” Ashe cried.

Vayne began to float toward them, head still bowed, and another beam of light issued forth, this time from above. A pentad of swords appeared and started a swift revolution around Vayne as the light dimmed and disappeared. Vayne suddenly straightened and threw back his head, arms raised, as though in exaltation. The pentad spiraled upward in a line, then back down, and came to a rest, arching over Vayne’s head and shoulders like a forward tilting fan of death. Harry was disgusted to note that the man had gone rather veinous.

“Behold the power left me by our fallen friend,” Vayne intoned, and shifted his attention off to the side, where Gabranth was dragging himself into view. “Gabranth, you will defend my brother. He will have much need in the hell to follow.”

The disgraced judge pulled himself up and drew his sword, pointing it at Vayne, to that man’s surprise. “Yes, I will defend Lord Larsa!”

“The hound strays. Treason bears a price,” Vayne responded.

“One I gladly pay!” Gabranth shouted, then joined them in the renewed fight.

“Ivalice will know a new Dynast-King, and man will keep his own history!” Vayne declared triumphantly. “The tyranny of the gods is ended! We are their puppets no more! The freedom for which we have longed is at hand!”

That might be so, but once again Vayne was diminished, despite his transformation. He clapped a hand to his upper chest and grunted, staggering back once more. Gabranth took that opportunity to rush him, a blade ready, inarticulate battle cry on his lips. Vayne raised an arm to block, but was too ineffective, and Gabranth’s blade, then a brightly-glowing yellow, impaled him right through the stomach. Vayne reached up and gestured; a sword of light appeared and slammed into Gabranth’s helmet, cracking part of it off to expose the man’s left eye.

“Even a stray has pride,” Gabranth rasped.

Vayne growled and began to glow orange-red, and gestured again, that time his attack sending Gabranth flying away to land on his ass and bounce before sliding to a stop. Basch ran to him, crouching down to lift his brother’s head, the helmet having been destroyed to clearly reveal they were twins.

“Burn in hell, Gabranth!” Vayne thundered and summoned a triad of swords, sending them on a deadly swift arc at the judge.

However, they did not meet their mark. Larsa stood there in defiance, blue-glowing manufacted nethicite held high in one hand. The swords stopped in an instant, then were, one by one, absorbed into the stone. Had the situation been different Harry might have laughed at the absolutely gobsmacked look on Vayne’s face. A moment later Larsa’s stone shattered and dissipated.

As Vayne stood there gaping in incomprehension, Vaan swept up one of Gabranth’s blades and charged—which Harry thought was a completely insane thing to do—and managed to impale the man a second time, though his effort saw Vayne launched through the air to land on the walkway below a stair opposite the one they had arrived by. Vaan dashed over, dropping the blade, then vaulted the retaining wall.

Intent on giving chase, they followed, forgetting for the moment Gabranth and Larsa. At the other end, through a door, was another flight of steps, where Vaan was waiting for them, unwilling to make another potentially suicidal run at the enemy. It was only then that they realized Basch and Penelo were not with them, and they waited impatiently as Vayne staggered along before them, arm across his midsection.

Basch and Penelo caught up, and as a group they hastened forward, as Vayne looked up to the sky and bellowed, “Venat!”

Venat wavered into view facing Vayne, drifting backward at Vayne’s forward pace, then slid off to the side after a few moments and around him. “Won’t Cid be eager to learn what has happened here,” Vayne said as Venat began . . . dissolving . . . motes of light flowing toward Vayne. “History begins anew.”

“Are they . . . fusing?” Harry mused as they jerked to a halt, unsure if whatever was happening would adversely affect them.

“If so, might it be that Venat becomes mortal?” Balthier said.

Vayne straightened up, as though Venat’s being was infusing him with further strength, and exuded even more red Mist as points of yellow light impacted and caused his earlier aura to flare up and swirl around him. Tendrils of it shot off in all directions, some to pierce ships overhead and destroy them, others to crash into the Bahamut itself.

Another transformation began, Vayne throwing his head back with a yell, streams of light lashing out to secure bits and pieces of metal from any source and bring them back to attach to Vayne like armor, as weapons, and even as wings, attached to protrusions that had developed to either side of his spine. When formed enough Vayne let out a roar and launched upward to hover midair, where yet more metal was drawn to him, red light weaving around him in a gaudy display, and his wings were trebled, his arms no longer ending in hands but in blade and cannon. He was, in a word, a monstrosity.

And then he turned, spotting them, and roared a challenge.

“This better be it,” Balthier muttered, then lifted his gun and aimed.

The battle seemed to do as much damage to the Bahamut as anything, with Vayne’s restless aura of Mist frequently reaching out to steal and adhere more metal to the man, but it was not enough in the end. A god he might become, but only with enough time, and that was a luxury he did not have, not with seven very determined people trying to prevent his ascension.

A bright red light burst outward from Vayne after a torturously hard struggle, metal flaking off his body and his wings disintegrating just as quickly as they had been formed. It was just as painful in reverse it seemed, given Vayne’s agonized and tortured yelling, and then . . . an explosion. Moments later what remained of Vayne hit the walkway with a clank, then vanished.

The sky was peaceful blue with wispy clouds to adorn it; everyone was smiling in relief and joy, clapping each other on the backs and making other gestures of happiness over a job well done. Harry idly wondered if Vayne would surface again some day in the form of an Esper, torture and penance for his presumption. And then reality set in as a small craft buzzed by overhead, copious clouds of smoke billowing from it. There was still a battle being fought.

As one they turned and raced back inside, pausing long enough for Basch to heft his brother into his arms and Penelo and Harry to hustle a dazed Larsa along with them to the Strahl. Fran and Balthier slung themselves into the pilot seats and started fiddling with the controls.

“Well? Can we fly?” Balthier asked Fran.

“No fuel goes to the glossair engines,” she replied.

“Damn!” Balthier said, rising from his seat. “Vaan, you’re in charge. I’m checking the engine room.”

“Right.”

“Fran, with me!”

She got up as well, and just then an explosion caught everyone’s attention.

“Look! Bahamut’s glossair rings are stopping!” Ashe cried.

“Vaan! As soon as the Strahl’s rings move, you take off. Understood?”

The blond slipped into Balthier’s seat with a nod.

“You can fly her, Vaan. Just do it like I told you.”

“Don’t worry.”

Fran reached out and pulled Penelo closer by the shoulder and pushed her at her own seat. “Watch for interference from Bahamut’s skystone. The Strahl’s a fickle girl. You keep her working for us.”

Penelo nodded and sat down. “I’ll see what I can do.”

Harry took one of the passenger seats as his lover disappeared, not wanting to be in the way, and knowing he could do nothing to help Balthier or Fran, or anyone else for that matter. A hasty check on the way to the ship had revealed that Gabranth’s wounds were fatal, the trauma too much even for him to fix, and Basch had taken his brother off toward the cabins, with Larsa following. That didn’t prevent Harry from fidgeting, wishing they were away, and Ashe seemed similarly restive.

“Vaan, the power’s back! We can go!” Penelo said.

“Right! Let’s go! Grab onto something!”

And they were off, Vaan piloting the ship without any sign of uncertainty in the way the Strahl handled, and Basch and Larsa arrived within minutes. Basch hastened forward and snatched up the communicator, gesturing impatiently at Vaan, who gasped and offered up Balthier’s device. Several moments of fiddling with it produced the right results, so Basch turned on the communicator and said, “This is Judge Magister Gabranth! All quarters cease fire! I repeat: all units of the Archadian army, hold your fire!”

Vaan brought the Strahl to a hover as Basch continued, “The battle is over! As of this moment, we have signed a cease-fire with Her Royal Majesty Ashelia B’nargin Dalmasca.”

Larsa took the communicator to say, “Attention. This is Larsa Ferrinas Solidor. My brother Vayne has died with honor in battle. The imperial fleet is now under my command!”

“Sir! Your orders, sir?”

Ashe was next. “This is Ashelia Dalmasca.”

“Lady Ashe!” It was Ondore. “Thank the gods you live!”

“I confirm what Judge Magister Gabranth and Larsa Solidor have said here. Please. Stand down your attack. The war is over. Ivalice look to the horizon. A new day has dawned. We are free!”

As the fighting around them ceased and vessels drifted to hover in waiting, Ashe lowered the communicator and let out a choked sob. Basch reached forth to lay a hand on her shoulder and squeeze.

Right about then Harry realized that Balthier and Fran had not yet returned, but was distracted when Penelo cried, “Look, Vaan, the Bahamut!”

Standing up he could see the fortress descending toward Rabanastre, causing the city’s paling to flare up.

“This is Judge Zargabaath, captain of the Alexander, flagship of the 12th Dalmascan Fleet of the Archadian army. I address all ships in Rabanastre’s airspace. The Bahamut must not be allowed to fall on the city of Rabanastre! We are preparing to ram her! Do not interfere!”

“Madness!” cried Ondore.

Larsa sat down heavily in the seat across from Harry, head bowed—grief, Harry assumed.

“Should she fall, the paling will not hold, and all Rabanastre will be obliterated! All ships, concentrate your fire on the Alexander’s remains once Bahamut is clear of the city.”

“Hasty, aren’t they.” It was Balthier’s voice, his transmission laden with static. “I think it’s a little early to be throwing away our lives just yet.”

“Balthier?” Vaan said as Ashe jumped back to her feet.

Harry reached forward to steady himself, feeling rather dizzy, finding it altogether difficult to breath properly.

“Wait, Balthier, where are you!?” Vaan demanded.

“Ah, Vaan! Sounds like you made it out okay! The Strahl’s a fine airship, eh?”

“What does he think he’s doing?” Ondore asked. “Balthier!”

“Marquis! Stop that fool judge on the Alexander for me, would you? Just getting somewhere with these glossair rings. Almost done! Don’t want him ramming me before I fix them, do we?”

Harry’s head jerked up at a touch to his arm; Larsa was staring at him solemnly, a hint of sympathy in his gaze. “That wasn’t just a diversion at Jahara, was it.”

He shook his head, sitting back down into the seat’s embrace, then startled as a burst of static came through the speakers along with a grunt.

Ashe snatched up the communicator. “Balthier! Do you understand exactly what it is you’re doing?”

“Princess! No need to worry. I hope you haven’t forgotten my role in this little story. I’m the leading man. You know what they say about the leading man? He never dies.”

Harry snorted quietly, his hands curling into fists.

“Let’s fly! Fran! Power to the glossair rings. Fran?” After a short pause came, “Do I have to do everything around here?”

“Listen to me, Balthier! Get out of Bahamut immediately! Please, Balthier! You mustn’t die! Please, Balthier. Come back.”

Harry suffered a moment of blinding, irrational jealousy at her words before he got ahold of himself. Ashe sounded like she was the one who would be bereft should he die. And what about Fran?

“Vaan, the Strahl’s in your hands! You’d better take care of her, you hear? If there’s one scratch on her when I get back—”

“Roger that. We’ll be waiting for you.”

“Balthier,” Ashe said again, making Harry want to bitch slap her. Instead he stood up swiftly and marched off down the corridor to vent his anger and upset in private. Balthier had better come back, for Harry had every intention of strangling him, and that wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying if he was already dead! He was kicking a wall when he felt a hand on his shoulder and nearly had a heart attack. Slowly turning around, Larsa came into view.

“You all right?”

Harry ran a hand through his hair. “I should be asking you that. I’m acting the fool, I know.”

Larsa shrugged a shoulder, his expression rather wooden. “I knew the path my brother was taking.”

“That doesn’t mean you stop caring. Balthier . . . is the same about his father. You don’t just turn off love. And I’ve known a few people in my time that I cared deeply for, yet still managed regularly to make me want to commit violence.”

“I think . . . that the princess is simply overwrought.”

“I know. This is a very emotional time for all of us. So, what—”

“Hey, you two! We’re here!” Vaan was headed toward them, the others not far behind.

“We will go to the palace,” Ashe said, seeming to have regained her usual demeanor, which could only mean that while Balthier’s and Fran’s fates might not be known, the city was out of danger.

And so they did, Harry being able to see that the Bahamut had come to a stop outside the city. And while he could not see it in its entirety, he had the feeling it had lodged itself deeply into the sands, to be able to stand upright with only a slight tilt to it.

Others had been invited it seemed, for not only did Ondore show up, but also Al-Cid, and the remainder of the day was spent in peace talks. Harry just sat there listlessly, only half listening, and trying to decide what to do. Evening fell and dinner was brought out for everyone, he barely tasting his food, until finally he unleashed a bracing mental pep talk on himself. Sitting around having an internal pity party was accomplishing nothing, and it could be so that Balthier and Fran were alive but hurt, so perhaps he would be better off attempting to find out?

That idea was thwarted when an attempt to exit the palace was prevented by the guards, who insisted that no one be allowed to leave until daybreak. And Harry did not have the details which would allow him to sneak out via the waterway Balthier had spoken of, assuming he could even get past the guards sure to be near that little security breach without raising an alarm and causing a serious amount of upset.

Resigned, he turned in for the night, but not before recording a message on a memstone. He was up at first light and on his way, notes slipped under the doors of Vaan and Al-Cid, intending to initially stop at the Strahl, Balthier having given him the means to access the ship earlier, to leave the memstone prominently on the bed in their cabin.

What he wasn’t expecting was to see Balthier and Fran slowly walking up the approach to the west gate, looking each like death warmed over. He raced toward them after a startled gasp, prepping a curative spell as he ran, then unleashing it as he drew close enough. To his credit, he did not say something stupid about them being all right.

“I should not like to do that again soon,” Balthier quipped quietly.

“You—” He shut up when his lover raised a quick hand.

“Let’s save that for later? What I really want . . . is a nice place to lie down. Fran, too. Someplace that isn’t this blasted desert.”

Harry frowned. “Come with me, then. Unless, you’d prefer to just take back the Strahl. She’s right there in the aerodrome.”

Balthier shook his head. “Let Vaan work on her for a while. She sustained damage enough during all that, so the experience will be good for him, and for when he gets his own airship. We’ll take her back when we’ve had a rest.”

“All right,” he said, and moved to support Fran’s other side, she looking a bit woozy still. “But we’re going to have to make a side trip to Bhujerba, unless you’re hiding a gate crystal somewhere.”

Balthier just smiled and jerked his head, so to the aerodrome they went to book passage. Harry occupied himself with work as they rested, but not until after he had checked them over carefully and healed any additional injuries he was able for. Of course, it was late when they arrived, but he woke them up and got them headed in the right direction, then gated them to Ambervale so he could bring them to his home. And by then, both Balthier and Fran seemed to be doing much better.

Inside he rummaged up something to drink and sat there sort of sullenly, knowing he was being an ass, but unable to shake the mood. “I’m afraid there’s nothing here to eat, but I’ll see what I can scrounge up in the marketplace. With the time difference, it shouldn’t be an issue.”

“I’ll go with you,” Balthier informed him.

“Fran, my spare bedroom is down the hall, first door on the right, and the facilities are the last door on the right. You’re welcome to anything, but I don’t know if my taste in books coincides with yours.”

“It will be fine, I am sure,” she replied.

He nodded and stood back up, grabbed several net bags from a hook, then led Balthier back outside. “I am a bit put out with you right now,” he murmured.

“I know.”

“Sadly, that makes me a hypocrite, because I used to play hero,” he said when they were nearly out of the compound. “It drove others crazy, so I guess now I understand why. Bit of a nasty lesson, that.”

“Does that mean I’m off the hook this time?” his lover asked in a faintly teasing tone.

“Only if you keep in mind that I don’t seem to have quite the handle on things I thought I did,” he replied seriously.

Balthier laughed at that. “You’re one of the most collected people I know.”

He snorted, then pasted a smile on his face when he was hailed by Milardros.

“Hallam! What are the odds you’ll come out with us today?”

“Ah, I’m afraid not. I’m just in from Bhujerba and the time difference is messing with my head. That, and I have guests. Ffamran, this is Milardros, a member of my clan. Milardros, Ffamran is my dearest friend. We were just on our way to the marketplace to replenish my food stocks.”

Milardros eyed Balthier curiously and nodded. “I shall not keep you, then, and pretend I didn’t see you. That way, I won’t feel obliged to tell the clan leader you’re back.”

An involuntary grin escaped him. “Thank you.”

Milardros waved and loped off, so Harry resumed their walk. “It’s rather unsettling to realize I have a bit of a jealous streak. I always thought I was above that sort of irrationality.”

“You’re focusing too much on the wrong things, my dear Hallam. As you’ve noticed, I’m not without that tendency myself on occasion.”

“Mm. I’m sorry. It’s no excuse, but I’m very tired,” he said as they finally entered the marketplace, an area well populated at that hour. He made a beeline for the vendors with fresh produce and started picking over the offerings, Balthier taking one of the bags and making his own selections. It went almost without saying that Harry included plenty of fruit.

When they arrived back at the cottage Fran was nowhere to be seen, then Harry spotted her out back in his garden, a book in her hand. Balthier helped him to put things away, all but a selection of fruit, some of which his lover took to Fran as Harry slumped in a chair and ate.

His lover came back a couple of minutes later and said, “I’ve told Fran to raid the kitchen if she wants more. Now come on, show me your room.”

“Our room,” he said absently as he rose, then wandered off down the hall to enter the last room on the left. His bed sat centered against the wall opposite the door, directly beneath windows otherwise open to the breezes, though they were protected by screens and palings against insects and elements, with heavy curtains to either side for when he wanted to block out the light.

Balthier insistently pulled Harry to the bed and pushed him down. “You’re the one who needs looking after right now,” he said as he crouched to unlace Harry’s boots and pull them off. “And I did tell Al-Cid I would.”

Harry snorted in amusement and allowed himself to be pushed around, too tired to protest about being babied.

“You’ve my word, we won’t burn the house down while you’re resting, nor will we wander off and get lost. And to help you get readjusted, since we seem to be fine, I’ll even wake you in a few hours so you’ll be able to sleep tonight.” Balthier leaned over to place a lingering kiss on his lips.

He woke back up to the sensations of a warm body against him and fingers carding through his hair, and snuggled closer.

“You came after us, hm?”

“Mm. Had to wait,” he said sleepily. “Guards wouldn’t let me leave the palace.”

The fingers in his hair paused momentarily, then resumed their motion. “But, you set off to search us out by yourself. Like a hero?”

“You might have been h—” Harry blinked open his eyes and furrowed his brow, then closed them again. “Not fair to ask questions when I’m only half awake. Already admitted I’m a hypocrite.”

Balthier chuckled. “You feel better now, don’t you? Time to get up. I set out a cold meal.”

Harry dragged himself fully to wakefulness and sat up, rubbing his eyes, then frowned at his lover, getting a smirk in return. “Yes, I do, so let’s not talk about how we’re both just as bad, okay? Fran is better, right?”

Balthier nodded and slipped off the bed. “She’s fine. The effects of that knock to her head seem to have passed. Now come on. It’s not a fancy dinner, but I’m sure you’re hungry.”

He did inquire at the table and Fran assured him she was perfectly well, so Harry turned his thoughts to other pursuits. “After you’ve ‘rested’, what do you think comes next?”

“Well, this is only the second time I’ve been in Rozarria, I admit. It’s like a whole new world to explore.”

Fran paused in her eating, and Harry assumed that his lover had kept his silence, so he explained to her his other role in life, to which she nodded and continued to eat. Given that she had known Balthier had been a judge, he was not surprised by her reaction. To his lover he said, “You might want to at least mention that to Al-Cid.”

“Where would be the fun in that?” Balthier said roguishly.

“This is my turf now, hey? You’ve not even a mere skiff to flit about in right now, and I know where all the gate crystals are in this land. Give me that much and I’ll become a lot more cooperative,” he teased. Fran made a noise of agreement, backing him up, and Balthier crossed his arms and damn near pouted.

Two weeks later Balthier was incredibly restless, having gone through every book Harry had on geography and accompanied him on several trips to gather materials, so it was probably a good thing that a knock sounded at Harry’s front door just before it opened and Al-Cid strolled in. “Ah, Hallam. I had wondered if I would find you here. Your note was somewhat lacking, my friend. And I see you’ve guests. A pleasure to see you both again.”

Harry supposed it was a good thing it was not just himself and Balthier, lest they be caught breaking in the sofa. “I didn’t think you’d mind. How have things gone?”

“Fine, fine!” Al-Cid said as he took a seat. “It appears that the gaping wound of the Galtean Alliance is well on its way to being healed. We shall all be friends again, hey? Though, it appears that steadfast Basch is headed to Archades.”

Balthier arched a brow.

“Yes, he looks to guard Larsa, so that the new emperor has one loyal and trustworthy man at his back. A promise to his brother, it seems.” Al-Cid filled them in on the various details, but it all boiled down to a serious case of peace breaking out. “I would still like you to keep your ears open, Hallam, though.”

“Of course. I couldn’t not.”

“Ah. . . .”

Al-Cid looked to Balthier. “Hm?”

“We were wondering, you see, about the myriad ruins in this land.”

Al-Cid laughed. “Try not to cause too much trouble, hey? The emperor I am not, though I wield influence in his name. By the way, the bounty on your head, it is gone. Larsa has seen to this. And now, I shall take my leave.” He stood and started for the door.

Harry jumped up and followed him, catching him just outside. “You said nothing about Vaan and Penelo.”

“Ah, they work on the Strahl, and Vaan dreams of his own airship. It will take them a while to correct the damage, I think. I can give you the use of a skiff, Hallam, for you and your friends in the interim. After all, I assume you go with them.”

He nodded, a faint smile on his lips. “That I will.”

fin