Categories > Games > Final Fantasy 4

Under Fire

by Stealth_Noodle 0 reviews

With the aid of her Eidolons, Rydia makes a perilous journey across the Underworld to reunite with her friends.

Category: Final Fantasy 4 - Rating: PG - Genres: Fantasy - Characters: Rydia - Warnings: [!!] - Published: 2009-12-21 - Updated: 2009-12-22 - 7011 words - Complete

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy belongs to Square-Enix. I just write stories about it and then take months and months to crosspost them to my own writing journal.
Author's Note: Written for sister_coyote on livejournal for ff_exchange. Thanks go out to ovo_lexa for helping me clean this thing up.

Time slowed unobtrusively to a crawl. Rydia had expected to feel something―her heart buzzing like a mouse's, perhaps, until the rhythm adjusted, or maybe the sense that the world was swimming through honey―and the ease of the transition jarred her. Even now, back in the Feymarch, Queen Asura was probably already having her supper, rotating her neck between every dish so that each of her mouths tasted only the flavor it preferred. And a breath later it would be time for bed, and if Rydia took a nap, weeks would roll by without her, and she couldn't let herself think about all this.

She had too much to think about now. Her body made sense of itself again as the tingle of teleportation faded.

A red glare forced her eyes into a squint; her vision filtered through a mesh of tears and lashes. Heat dried her throat and swelled inside her lungs. She had tumbled once before out of soothing mists and shadows into blinding-bright misery, exchanging her mother's hands for a metal grip that grew scalding in the sun. If she closed her eyes now, she would be seven years old again.

So she kept them open.

Rydia set her hand on the warm rock wall to steady herself, breathed deep until breathing no longer hurt, and waited for her vision to adjust. She had conquered fire, she reminded herself. She had taken it inside herself and turned fear to fuel. It was fire that ought to worry about her.

The floor of the passage came into focus as an intricate white cat's cradle, too dense to let her fall but too loose to be mistaken for solid. The eye-watering illumination came from the pools of magma undulating along the woven shores.

Arms spread for balance, Rydia stepped forward and felt the webbing give slightly, like the tip of a nose. Another step and the heel of her boot caught in a gap; she freed it by feel, keeping her eyes raised to spot any feral monsters. Beyond the borders of the Feymarch, the favor of the king and queen held no meaning.

All was still and silent save for the churning of the magma. She walked slowly, trying to ignore the sick feeling when the floor sank under her feet, and had almost begun to feel confident when Whyt chittered frantically in her ear.

Rydia grabbed the handle of her whip as she spun to face whatever had sneaked up behind her. But there was nothing behind her―nothing in front, nothing to either side―and every twist threatened to tangle her heels in the floor. "Whyt, where―"

Understanding dawned mid-syllable. The whip lashed upward faster than her neck could bend, so Rydia heard the shriek of pain before she saw the wild green flutter of wings and the yellow gleam of an enormous eye. The monster struck the edge of the ground and bounced, sending ripples through the entire landmass, and was still shrieking and hissing through its fangs as it tumbled helplessly into the lava.

She would have felt sorry for it, a bit, if it hadn't just tried to bite her head off.

"Thanks," she said once she had her breath back. The answering coos made her smile, and she sent little bursts of lighting into the dark recesses of the ceiling before continuing down the path.

The world had changed yesterday morning.

As was her custom, Queen Asura spoke through the face fixed in an expression of elegant serenity, a pair of hands folded together in her lap. Only rarely did the scowl or smile accompany her voice; for Asura, emotion was all well and good when it involved silent flicks of her chins, but it had no business entangling her words. Rydia had tried to emulate this when she was younger, but she had quickly discovered that she had too few faces and too much of a temper.

There was no temper at all in Asura's voice, which discussed the wheels of fate with the same dispassion that might have suited a discussion of cheese wheels. She saw more than other people did, gazing with absolute clarity through distance and with variously compromised focus through time, and Rydia suspected that she had more eyes than the six that were visible. While Asura took time every year to convey to Rydia how her former companions now fared, this was the first time she had spoken in any detail of her myopic view of their future.

"And you must now stand with them against it, my dear Rydia," she finished, without urgency, "lest we all fall."

Rydia was silent for a long moment, as her uneventful breakfast had not prepared her for the return of the life she left behind when she went screaming overboard into Leviathan's jaws. The Feymarch pulsed out of sync with the human world; trying to recall the desperation that spurred her childhood journey across the continent required almost as much imagination as memory. A few impressions stood out like seashells in a fistful of damp sand: her mother's hand falling limp, her stomach turning somersaults as she fell in a torrent of water that never seemed to end, Rosa's gentle encouragement as she pulled heat through her palms...

And it was hard to remember their voices, sometimes. The Tellah in her head sounded exactly like Ramuh.

"It still hasn't been very long for them, has it?" she asked at length.

Asura's head turned slowly from side to side, exposing glimpses of her other faces. "All that has befallen them has befallen them in a matter of weeks."

Weeks. Rydia had spent weeks just preparing to challenge Titan. Even more weeks had been spent coming to terms with her own body, which had spontaneously decided that it wanted to look more like Shiva's. The Feymarch was home, and had been for much longer than Mist; the Eidolons had become all that she knew or needed of family. Beyond its borders she would be an orphan in a world where time flowed like pitch and change struck like a hammer.

Rydia swallowed and held her chin high. "Well, won't they be surprised?"

The gray face spun to the front to smile before Asura said, "You must leave soon, then, and move swiftly once you are subject to the flow of their time." Her visible eyes glazed, which didn't matter; their view was a distraction now. "Only the blur of motion reveals itself to me. The wheels themselves spin in shadows, and I can tell you only when and where to disrupt them, not what you must do."

What was the point of delaying, of fretting away what might be prove to be precious seconds? "Tomorrow," Rydia decided. She fought down the childish complaint that this was happening too fast, that it wasn't fair to change her world again without warning, that she just wanted a life without good-byes.

She wondered if she'd be able to sleep.

A thick, lazy river of magma separated Rydia from the rest of the path. Leviathan hadn't mentioned this, but he had little cause to venture through this passage; perhaps the magma had been no more than a puddle oozing up from below when last he saw it. In a few more of the slow centuries that passed beyond the borders of the Feymarch, there might be no path left at all.

Rydia conjured cold between her hands until her palms numbed, then cast it into the lava. A jagged circle dimmed to brown. Rubbing feeling back into her fingers, she counted the seconds as the ice sizzled away and the darkened area melted back into the rest of the magma. She couldn't cross on that, not unless she carried Feymarch-time inside her.

After a cautious check for monsters, she folded her hands together and envisioned the magic inside her pouring into the shapes of a spade and a bell. The latter rang inside her ribcage; she closed her eyes and swept her hands to make the former scoop a vacuum out of the air. As she opened her eyes again, the dazzle of sculpted ice filled her vision, and an arctic gust blew her hair back.

Rydia hadn't realized just how much she was sweating until the perspiration froze against her skin.

With a graceful toss of her frost-pale hair, Shiva rose from her throne, which melted away behind her. Her eyelids slid slowly apart as she looked down at Rydia with a hint of a smile. "It's an inhospitable passage, isn't it?" she said, idly conjuring an intricate snowflake in her palm. "It's a pity you can't simply slip between."

Even after growing up among the Eidolons, Rydia didn't understand how they traveled between worlds. Asking about it was no help; it was as if she were asking them how to breathe, or how to wake up again after falling asleep. One of the Whytkin had thought very hard before explaining that you became too small to stay in one place, which was when Rydia had decided to stop asking altogether.

So she only shrugged; it made no more sense for her to envy the ability than it would for Ifrit to envy Ramuh's beard. "There's no passage at all," she pointed out, gesturing at the river of lava. "I was hoping you could freeze it long enough for me get across."

"That's my clever girl," said Shiva fondly. She sauntered to the edge of the landmass, leaving short-lived footprints of frost behind her, and knelt to exhale and extend her arms. The magma in front of her cracked, steamed, and solidified in a narrow line to the next island.

Rydia didn't wait to watch the Eidolon vanish. Her boots clacked against the glassy stone as she hurried across, spurred by the heat seeping ever deeper into her soles. Only when she stood safely on the shore did she turn to watch the last quarter of her bridge melt back into the magma.

Her breath came so heavy as she caught it that she nearly missed the telltale skittering of an arachne on the wall behind her. With neither time nor energy for anything more powerful, she gathered a little tuft of flame just above her thumb, then flung it at the webbing beneath the creature's stiletto feet. It reared up and hissed before scuttling backward.

At the shore of the next river she rested, back to the wall and ears straining, until she had the strength to support Shiva's presence for another minute.

When she wished to, Asura wore a human form well, as long as she didn't attempt facial expressions. Leviathan had never quite got the hang of it; he drew his arms in tight against his body, walked as if he distrusted his legs, and curved his spine at angles that beggared belief. He was fond of announcing, "I need to stop stretching my legs for a bit," which was generally all the warning he gave before he twisted at an angle perpendicular to reality and straightened himself out somewhere on the ocean floor, to return in several weeks.

He had smelled of fish yesterday, and his hair floated in ways that gravity forbade, but Rydia appreciated that he was making an effort.

"They all survived," he said, in a voice that reverberated with breaking waves. He had difficultly remembering to move his lips. "This was my first boon to you, daughter of Mist. Now shall I grant you a second, but the third must be earned, if ever you return to us."

There was no need to ask for clarification, or even to nod in acknowledgement; the Code was reassuringly absolute. A very small part of Rydia suspected that her human friends might have been unnerved to watch her share a meal with an Eidolon the evening before they battled in earnest, weapons and spells wild, and then returned to friendly banter as she soaked feeling back into her skin in a hot bath or rubbed salve into her weeping wounds. Since Asura had spoken, it had not once occurred to Rydia to ask for any companion on her journey beyond Whyt's flickering presence. Half the point of standing together was walking there on her own, to prove that her knees would not buckle.

Awkwardly, uncertain of his thumbs, Leviathan unfurled a vellum map, which Rydia found damp when she held it flat for him. He traced paths with his voice, embellishing them with the dire poetry of admonition. His were worlds of ineffably brutal wonder.

His voice fumbled gradually into the realm of the inaudible, leaving her with deep echoes inside her head. She felt as if she were holding a conch shell to her ear as he finished, "And this remember above all else: These seas are not my seas."

This sea was not a sea at all; it was the sun melted and poured from the sky. Above was only darkness, bleaker than a starless night, and the magma gave the barren world below an orange campfire sheen. In the distance it scarcely illuminated the dark mountains of the mainland against the deeper darkness of the sky.

It made sense, Rydia supposed―this was the Underworld, so it probably ought to look like the world above flipped over, with the sun oozing over the earth like a broken yolk―but she didn't much care for it.

The last time she'd left home for a hostile wilderness, Cecil had carried her. Rydia had been sick and exhausted with grief, her insides hollow after the explosion of rage that drew Titan to her side with no regard for the Code. And even then, in her muddled moments of consciousness, she hadn't been ready to give up; she had no family or home or beautiful green valley, but she had her Eidolons and her magic, and she could run away and live among the chocobos just as soon as her brain worked again.

That night she'd discovered that Cecil wasn't the bad sort of monster, after all, and as she healed his bruises the next day, she told him sternly that he was lucky she wasn't going to be Queen of the Chocobos yet.

When she summoned Titan now, they both acted within the Code. Rather than split a mountain range in sympathetic fury, he regarded her with attentive concern as he knelt to listen. Had Titan been inclined to clothing with sleeves, he would have worn his heart on them; at his invitation, Rydia had spent much of her early adolescence venting her emotions at him, knowing that he ached with her. This was perhaps, she thought, what having a father was like.

"I have to get across here," she said, pointing. "Somehow."

He followed the line of her finger over the sea to the distant darkness of the mainland, then turned ponderously to the tall cliffs above the entrance to the passage. Rydia fought a flicker of dizziness; maintaining such a massive presence as Titan's quickly became tiring.

"I will make you a bridge," he rumbled, his voice a gentle avalanche. "But remember, child, that this world is not like yours above. The blue oceans reshape my work only after millennia have passed; these lakes of fire are not so patient. If you will do this, you must make great haste."

The mountains in the distance were little splotches of ink on a black velvet canvas. "How much haste?"

He made a noise as if great stone gears were grinding together inside him, and Rydia's pulse fluttered in her temples. "You must run as if you would escape your shadow, and you must not glance behind."

Her feet ached in preemptive protest. Biting her lip, Rydia squinted at the mountains again, felt magical exhaustion tweak her brain like a set of talons, and made her decision. She looked up at Titan and nodded.

After steering her gently aside, he rose to his full height and flexed his muscles as if he were hefting the moons on his shoulders. The cliffs above the passage cracked. Rydia winced and covered her ears as the rock surged forward and paved the magma, sloughing off thick layers of itself until only a low plateau remained above the cavern's entrance. Titan nodded once, satisfied, before vanishing.

Rydia ran without looking back.

She had been determined not to say good-bye, because she didn't want anyone to think that she wasn't going to return as soon as she could. She would stand together, yes, and reunite and reminisce, and then she would come home once she'd set the wheels of fate spinning properly again. And if years passed in the Feymarch, well, at least the Feymarch was the sort of place where centuries could flow by without great consequence.

So Rydia hadn't said good-bye to anyone yesterday, only remarked that she was leaving on a journey in the morning and hoped that she would find interesting places to summon everyone. This had worked well enough; it was a rare Eidolon who didn't crave visits to the world beyond the Feymarch, and most of her dearest friends, those whom she had earned the right to summon under the Code, kept their fretfulness in check by building lists of places they wished to see again. She became Rydia of the Feymarch, née Mist, full-time summoner and part-time travel agent.

It was those rare Eidolons, those who had dwelt extensively in the human world and no longer saw any glamour in it, who fretted. By the time they let her go, her clothing jangled with charms and her ears rang with warnings.

She allowed everything except farewells.

The stitch in her side felt as if it had been made by a needle the size of her forearm. Panting and grimacing, Rydia pressed her hand against the spot and stumbled onward. Running was no longer an option.

Heat swelled slowly in her feet, either from the constant friction of walking or from the lava soaking up the rock beneath her. If she turned now, she thought, she might see the thinner end of her bridge already melted away. She managed a few more seconds of sprinting before the pain bit too deep into her ribs.

Rydia halted to catch her breath, then squeezed her eyes shut and transformed the sharp pain into the clanging of a bell. There came a quiet pop as the air she scooped aside rushed back into the gaps between feathers.

The chocobo let out a low whistle as she opened her eyes, and it had already knelt to help her get atop its back before she began to greet it. "Titan said you might call," it interrupted. Its wings ruffled against her legs as she settled hastily in. "Kweh, but you certainly do get yourself into situations."

Compared to Titan or Shiva, a chocobo was an easy thing to make space for in the world beyond the Feymarch; Rydia felt her energy draining away into it, but only at a trickle. She clung to its neck and buried her face in its feathers, inhaling the comforting stench of soil and gysahl greens. "It's not like I ask for trouble," she said, then let out a startled squeak as her mount broke into a run.

"Right off his nut, that one, thinking you'd make it across on human legs," the chocobo muttered. "Off your nut, too, for trying it. None of you have the right feet for balancing on nuts." It spat out another kweh, then tilted its neck forward as it accelerated.

Rydia clutched tight for dear life. Don't look behind, she reminded herself, though she could scarcely bear to look ahead and see the distant shore approaching too slowly. The chocobo's feet clacked against the makeshift bridge, which her peripheral vision warned her was growing steadily narrower. When Titan shaped the cliffs, the far end of the bridge had been so wide that it might have served as the floor for a spacious house. Now Rydia doubted that two people could have walked abreast without someone's shoe catching fire.

She shook her head, rattling the ornaments in her hair, and breathed in the earthiness of the chocobo again. Think, she told herself. Her mount had reached its top speed, so swift that the wind burned her ears and her sleeves slapped at her arms, but the rock beneath them was melting away even more swiftly. The shore was so close now; at this rate, she would be able to count the black pebbles when the magma swallowed her up. And the chocobo would be swallowed up as well, because it was loyal and stubborn and would not leave her to die alone.

So she made her choice. "Thank you," she murmured into the feathers, and the chocobo had time only for a sharp "Kweh!" before she severed their connection. Rydia hissed as she hit the now-scalding rock with her knees.

What had been a bridge was fast becoming an archipelago as the magma cut through it in glowing veins. Flames lapped at every boundary, drinking the rock. She leapt up because she had to stand before she could think; then her arms flew out and overhead as she shaped her magic feverishly, balancing on one foot because the other might have melted, and she threw the fate of the entire world into a net that she wasn't sure she had the time or strength to knot together―

The ground bucked beneath her. Rydia yelped and let both feet hit the rock to keep her balance.

Ifrit's burly arms rose on either side of what was left of the bridge, parting the sea with the force of gesture. Liquid fire arched away from his palms like a wall of affronted cats.

She didn't have long―was already so tired, and supporting Ifrit's presence made her hands shake and littered the edges of her vision with black starbursts―so she sprinted forward over the hovering remnants of her cracked bridge. Worrying that she couldn't cover the remaining distance in time required more energy than she had to spare. Then her left foot caught on a gap, and her arms whirled―

"If you fall, child," growled the searing wind that whipped down the passage, "you will not rise again."

So she didn't fall.

The tattered bridge ended in obsidian sand, which slid dangerously beneath her feet. Rydia kept running, not daring to trust that she was clear of the molten tide, and didn't stop until her magic ran dry and she felt Ifrit slip away. She was alive; she was safe; she was half-blind and couldn't make sense of her own limbs. Past the point of thought, she staggered a few steps more to the shadowy hollow of a rock, where she collapsed like a broken tent.

She couldn't sleep―not now, not when Cecil and the others needed her―but she couldn't walk, either, and her eyelids trembled almost as badly as her legs. Just a little rest, she decided, tucking her face against the relative cool of the stone. When she felt a hand gently stroking her hair, her nose wrinkled in annoyance.

"I can't sleep now," she told the dreamworld. "I have to―"

A woman's voice hushed her, unaccompanied by chill air or extra hands. Rydia looked up, irritated but not surprised to find that she was in Kaipo's inn, and blinked at Rosa. She was suddenly too self-conscious to complain; once she had desperately wanted to grow up to be like Rosa, courtly and courageous and unfailingly kind, and now she couldn't remember how to talk to humans, not even hallucinatory ones. Rydia's tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth and refused to be coaxed down.

Then music drifted from her scalp, and Edward was playing her hair like harp strings.

She still knew exactly how to talk to him. "Quit that. I have to wake up now."

"We can't mourn first?" He smiled sadly and tapped her circlet, which chimed. "Even grown-ups have to cry."

"Not when we're in a hurry." She shook the songs out of her hair and moved to stand, but the world had become water, and she couldn't find her way to the surface. Kicking frantically, she reached out with both arms and felt them caught up together in a callused hand.

Yang set her on solid ground and offered her a sopping wet handkerchief. "Forgive me," he said, with heavy overtones of Titan. "I lacked the strength to overcome the current."

She shook her head. "No, I'm the one who should be sorry. Leviathan attacked the ship because of me, and no one can swim against the Lord of All Waters."

As Rydia uselessly mopped her face with the handkerchief, a voice that was not Yang's replied, "No one yet, you mean. The impossible is merely the next great challenge."

Ramuh's voice, she realized, and she was so startled that both her handkerchief and her dampness vanished, forgotten. Her breath hitched at the sight of Tellah peering at her over his dark spectacles.

"You're dead," she told him, the second syllable catching on a sniffle. Impatient with herself, she blinked her tears back as she spoke. "Queen Asura told me. You've been dead for years."

"Has it been so long already?" he replied with a twinkle in his eye. "But no matter. I don't regret it, after all."

Rydia scowled and wiped her face with her sleeve. "Well, you should! You left people behind, and it hurts."

"I wasn't long for this world, regardless; if I could no longer live for Anna, I could live only to avenge her. But I do regret leaving Golbez behind." His beard shifted around a wry smile, then burst into mist.

This was when she ought to wake up, she knew. She shivered in the gray fog that crept around and inside her, dampening her lungs with every breath that her dream remembered she had to take, and waited to drift awake again. This was when her mother used to wake her, once upon a time, when her dreams clung like cobwebs even as the morning sun warmed her face.

A familiar voice echoed in the gray expanse: "You'll have to burn it away."

Rydia spat out the fog in order to reply. "You already did. And I forgave you, remember?"

"I do."

The fog dissolved in blinding light, as if her pocket of mist had been swallowed by a star. She couldn't pry her eyelids open to watch Cecil approach, but she didn't need to; she knew his voice, and one of the earliest lessons she'd learned as a child was that appearances didn't mean anything at all.

"I've missed you," she said, with the force of realization. Her dream-voice cracked. "I'm just so afraid I've forgotten you."

Cecil paused; he might have been nodding, somewhere in the overwhelming light. "I'll be so glad to see you alive. I still think you must have perished, and the guilt weighs upon me. And you know how I like to brood."

Rydia's brain twisted slowly, like a reluctant pretzel. "This is a very strange conversation."

"That's what happens when you talk to yourself," said an overlap of voices she couldn't identify. They echoed away into chittering, which she recognized as Whyt's. Rydia catapulted back to consciousness with her hand already grasping at her whip, and the movement was enough to frighten away the goblin that had crept within a few feet of her. It dived into a crevice before she could send a spell after it.

At least she was well awake now. Keeping a wary eye out for other goblins, she stretched the stiffness out of her joints and rubbed the tingling out of her left arm, which had been pinned beneath her. There were miles still to go, and walking would have to do; when she tried to summon the chocobo again, her spade wobbled around the edges, and she couldn't craft a clapper into her bell. The basin in the back of her mind needed time to fill again.

She hadn't cried when she fought the Mist Dragon, though she had awoken every morning for a week beforehand with damp cheeks and a dull headache. She had cried afterward as well, not because she was upset but because something that had been dammed up inside her needed to be flushed out. The barrier held just long enough for her to draw a bath, where her tears dissolved and contributed in some small way to soaking the chill out of her bones.

It was still hard to see the dragon without seeing her mother's hand on its back or scenting ghosts of her perfume in the mist, but Rydia could smile now when she greeted it. She had long since grown accustomed to its distaste for gender; only rarely now did she have to apologize for letting a feminine pronoun slip out. And it was, once she got to know it, not like her mother at all.

When she set out that morning, the Mist Dragon had been the last to wish her well. Rydia hadn't seen it yesterday and had wondered if it was avoiding her, either because she'd unintentionally offended it or because it was a creature of bewildering moods. As she approached the exit from the Feymarch, fog rolled over her shoulders like a shawl, and she realized how upset she would have been if it hadn't.

"For luck, child." The dragon's voice was lower than a whisper, even with its jaw so close she could feel its cool breath on her ear. Another piece of it solidified, and a shiver passed through her scalp as its talons placed something around her forehead.

There was nothing like a mirror nearby. After a moment's consideration, Rydia reached up and removed the circlet, gathering from the dragon's sigh that she was indeed ruining the moment, and turned it over in her palm to examine. The band was slender and silver, intricate without overwhelming detail, with a nacreous stone set in bronze just left of center. Briefly she wondered if the dragon itself would be so iridescent if it didn't mute the light.

"It's beautiful," she said, setting the circlet back in place. "Thank you."

The Mist Dragon had already drifted away.

There were no stars to follow in the Underworld. Rydia had landmarks instead, or at least descriptions of them; she puzzled them out as she walked, and when she couldn't map a poetic flourish to reality, she settled for keeping the burning coast on her right. The only trick would be finding the passage in the stone that led into the castle, without which she would be forced to cross a mountain range that lay too close to civilization to risk Titan's handiwork.

The dwarves respected Eidolons, she had been told, so she needed not fear being turned away. She needed only find the proper door at which to knock, and if she hurried, she might beat Cecil and the rest to the castle. For all she knew, she needed to arrive first; Asura's vision hadn't been precise enough to discern the point at which the balance of fate depended on her hopping from one wheel to another.

When she came to the foot of the little mountain range, she turned left and regarded the rocky plateau before her. Leviathan had told her to seek the entrance beside a rock the color of coral. At the time, Rydia had thought she knew what coral looked like. Now she supposed she didn't, since no rock remotely resembled the color in her imagination.

Or perhaps there had been a bright red rock centuries ago, sticking out like a glob of lipstick on the barren hillside, and Leviathan had simply failed to account for time again. She frowned and squinted hard at the cliff face.

Two things happened at once: Rydia noticed that a section of the rock didn't catch the lava-light properly, and a noise too explosive to be thunder resounded from the other side of the mountains.

Her gaze darted skyward and cost her the hint of the passage. More explosions followed, loud enough to rattle her teeth and no doubt tremendous enough to leave craters, and she nearly toppled over when a great red vessel came into sight above, reflecting the magma-light from its burnished underside. Bombs glinted as they rained down on the other side of the peaks.

This would not be Damcyan again. She wouldn't allow it.

She had too little energy left to fire blindly, so she bit her lower lip hard to keep herself in check as she squinted up at the airship. There were others, at least three. Artillery shells gleamed in the black sky again, but this time they were angled upward and were met by another round of falling bombs. Her lip twisted free in a relieved smile; if the dwarves were fighting back, she could assist, and it wouldn't matter that she couldn't dream of fighting off the Red Wings on her own.

Bones aching as she scraped every scrap of energy from them, she threw her head back and summoned Ramuh.

Something louder than a bomb crashed on the other side of the mountains, and the part of Rydia that wasn't busy unraveling wondered if the dwarves had shot down an airship. Lacking the energy to yell above the noise, she pointed up at the gleaming hulls, then brought her fist down on her open palm.

He understood. For an instant, white cracks shot through the sky as electricity arced between the airships, disrupting the engines. The lightning was scarcely noticeable amid the smoke and fire of the bombs, but its effect was sufficient; in such a heated firefight, even mild mechanical problems were enough to shift the advantage. Soon the only volleys came from below, and the red dots of the ships shrank into the distant darkness.

Only after they had passed entirely from sight did she notice the rain. The magic didn't care that there were no clouds to produce it.

"Thank you," she said, though Ramuh was long gone. She angled her neck to let the rain patter against her face and run in cool rivulets over her skin. Shivering, she parted her parched lips and caught droplets on her tongue.

The silhouette of the plateau burned itself into her eyes as lightning struck behind it, followed by a roll of thunder that sounded like Ramuh snoring his way into a deeper sleep. Her hair plastered itself to her nape, and her clothing clung like an ill-fitting second skin; if she had still been seven years old, she would have kicked off her shoes, peeled off her clothes, and run laughing through the puddles with Whyt at her heels.

But she wasn't seven, and she was needed. The rain boiled away in the black sky as reality reasserted itself.

Rydia cupped a tiny flame in her hand like a torch, watching the shadows on the cliff. She had seen something, subtle yet significant, though the arrival of the airships had spoiled any chance at recalling where. So she walked slowly, alertly, blinking only when her eyes watered. If she couldn't find a telltale lump of coral, she might at least find a suspicious stone.

Red flashed in the corner of her eye.

In her excitement she turned too quickly and lost sight of it. Annoyed with herself for wasting still more time, Rydia returned as best she could to her position and sidled slowly to her left. Red flickered in and out of her vision. Acting on a hunch, she raised her handful of fire and watched the color dance in sync with it.

And then she understood: just ahead was a circle of smooth obsidian, polished enough to reflect the red light of the fire. Coral, indeed. She rolled her eyes as she snuffed out the flame, then ran her hand around the edge of the mirrored patch. When she felt a rock shift under her fingers, she pressed and was rewarded by the grumble of shifting stone.

Her heels clacked against the stone floor as she followed the narrow passage inside, stooping to avoid scraping her forehead against the dwarf-sized ceiling. When the passage opened into a wider room, Rydia hesitated. This would be her first contact the dwarves―indeed, her first contact with anyone from the world beyond who wasn't feral―and she thought that an announcement was in order. But she was clumsy now with exhaustion, distracted by the worry that her friends might have already come to crisis while she was passing out in crevices, and unable to work out whether "emissary" was the word she wanted.

"Hello?" she called, then hesitated again. She hadn't expected such a dry rasp to come from her throat. "I am Rydia of the Feymarch and of Mist, sent by the King Leviathan and Queen Asura of the Eidolons, and I have come here to―"

She might have kept talking, but Rydia couldn't hear whether any other sounds were coming out of her mouth; she was too busy being swept up in a sudden wave of beards and helmets and lali-hos. Somehow she ended up mostly upright and riding piggyback on a dwarf who seemed dead-set on skipping. Her stomach lurched and complained loudly that it was empty.

The dwarf halted as someone raised a cup to her lips. Recognizing the aniseed tang of the restorative she'd found in Damcyan, Rydia drank as fast as she could without choking, her muscles trembling with the fires of renewal. Another hand scrubbed her face with a rag that came away damp and filthy.

"Thank you," she said, then cleared the croak from her throat before trying again. The other end of the cloth wrung out a section of her hair. "Thank you so much. Is Cecil here yet?"

They knew who Cecil was, which gave equal parts comfort and concern. They also volunteered that Cecil and his companions had gone to check something in the crystal room behind the throne, but there really wasn't a thing to worry about, they were sure. This was cause purely for alarm.

Their insistence that she rest ended when she wriggled free from the dwarf carrying her and shot off down the hall. Dwarves, it turned out, were not any fleeter of foot than they appeared.

Her heels skidded against the stone floor as she nearly passed the turn into the castle proper. Once inside she skidded again to avoid crashing into a little dwarf girl, who stared up at her with glowing eyes and candid curiosity. "Have you seen my dolls?" asked the girl. "Because no one else has."

Years of playing with the Whytkin scripted her response. "Sorry, I haven't," Rydia said, "and I've got something I really have to take care of right now, but I'll help you look later, okay?"

The girl nodded, bobbing her pigtails, and pointed to her left. "They're supposed to be in the throne room. I put them away last night before bed, honest!"

The last part Rydia scarcely heard in her haste to dash in the indicated direction. The hushed attention of every dwarf in the throne room riveted itself to her the moment she burst inside, and she couldn't fault them for staring; here she was wild with worry and electric with energy, hair tousled with rainwater, whip in hand, breathing hard, sleeves billowing behind her. Appearances may not have meant anything, but postures sometimes did.

"Where's Cecil?" she asked, in a tone she'd learned from Ifrit.

It was an effective tone. Half a dozen hands pointed automatically behind the throne before anyone started to question her, and she was already applying fire to whatever had jammed the entrance before any demands were made. Rydia borrowed inflections from Titan to allay their suspicions: "Don't worry. I'm here to save them."

This was a good mantra, so she let it loop through her head as the barrier burned away and allowed her passage to the crystal room. She needed something to drown out the dread that it had been years and she had changed while her friends hadn't, as well as the greater dread that she might see them now through such different eyes that they became strangers. If she let herself think that way, she would be paralyzed forever at the threshold. So she pressed on; she was here to save them.

Inside Rydia found herself back in Fabul. Everyone was present save Edward―even Golbez, whose presence alongside a black dragon might otherwise have shocked her. But Kain wasn't against them, Rosa wasn't being dragged away, the castle wasn't falling, and the crystal wasn't yet lost.

And she wasn't a child anymore. It was terribly important to remember that.

They lay unconscious―not dead, she wouldn't let herself even consider that―on the obsidian floor, all save Cecil, and they all looked subtly wrong, just enough to make her breath hitch at how muddled her memories were. Yang wasn't as massive as she remembered, Rosa's hair wasn't so red, Kain wasn't all jagged edges, and Cecil...

No, Cecil had changed.

She snapped out of her thoughts as black venom dripped in spheres from the dragon's mouth. This dragon was no Eidolon, and Golbez was no summoner; it was a dark thing bound in darker servitude, and this mockery of something so beautiful and sacred lit new fires in her blood. The cogs of fate linked their teeth.

Rydia rolled retribution and recognition and redemption all up into one as she strode forward and summoned the Mist Dragon.
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