Categories > Games > Final Fantasy 9 > Prince of Thieves

9. Desert Rain

by Myshu 0 reviews

Desert Rain

Category: Final Fantasy 9 - Rating: R - Genres: Drama,Fantasy - Characters: Freya Crescent - Warnings: [V] - Published: 2007-10-11 - Updated: 2007-11-02 - 6673 words - Complete

9. Desert Rain

They took the next available company flight: a small cargo ship carrying personal packages. Luth caught a nap below deck while he still could; he was sure he'd need the rest for the immediate future. He was almost too anxious over his premature homecoming to sleep, but some accumulated exhaustion from the previous day took care of him.

He didn't know how the others bid their time, but when he stepped out to the deck to search for his comrades, a chilly blue dusk was closing over the swarming red clouds below. He found Boss sitting on a bench looking off the stern, where the ship's cabin broke the wind and let him smoke a cigarette in peace--an ash tray was balanced on the thin armrest.

Boss acknowledged him with a small nod, and Luth took a seat next to him. He said nothing for a while, watching Boss unfurl and readjust the white bandages on his wrists and elbows.

"Why do you wear those all the time, sir?"

"What, these?" he replied around his cigarette, using his free hands to close the straps in a tight knot. "I need a reason? Fashion rarely makes sense, Lu."

"I suppose that's true." Steering towards the matter at hand, Luth pried, "So, sir, how did you acquire the Memory Earring? Was it an heirloom?"

"Uh... yeah, sort of. I don't really talk about that kinda stuff."

"Oh. Okay, sir." Luth knew how to steer around Boss's walls by now. "You don't think Griffin or Arpy will try to take it once you find it again, do you?"

Boss gave a cynical snicker. "You're suspicious of 'em, eh?"

"Well, Griffin was hired to kill you, sir," he reminded matter-of-factly.

"Ah, I wouldn't worry about that. Him and Arpy, they've got their own motives--weird, but harmless. That's just the kind of people they are. I don't think they'll pull any fast ones on us."

"Hmm," Luth conceded, "We should worry more about the Red Angels, right, sir?"

"That's right, Lu." He drummed his feet restively on the deck and reached for another cigarette. "That's absolutely right."

Luth checked both ways for privacy before phrasing his next query. "Um, about Griffin, can I ask how you know him? I remember you fighting him in The Pen that time we went to Gatortown. Does he carry some kind of grudge against you? Who exactly is this man?"

Boss shrugged indifferently. "Griffin? He's a Coral, a regular drifter."

"Coral?" Luth raised a suspecting brow. "As in--"

"Yeah, the same," Boss took the reins. "Hangs around the underground, takes odd jobs for the highest bidder--doesn't really pay allegiance to any of the bosses. I figure the only reason he's lived so long is because he does a real good job looking out for himself. In a funny way, he and I go back a ways--that's how I knew he really wasn't going to kill me back there."

"Oh." Luth sat back and scratched his left ear contemplatively. "I see, sir. I think."

"It's okay," Boss relieved him, "I never really got it, either."

They sat for a quiet spell, watching the sun dissolve into mountains and clouds. Luth knew if he looked around to the bow of the ship, he'd see the thunderheads over the Daines-horse Basin. A homecoming... He never expected it to be under circumstances like these.

He tried not to think of his family, especially their reaction to his... situation, but his mind wouldn't stray to any more pleasant matters. "I can't believe Don Gator is dead," he murmured.

"Why? It's not gettin' to you, is it?" Boss drilled him. "You barely knew the man."

"Well no, sir, but it's still a shock. And he seemed like a nice man. I mean, despite the... you know."

"Yeah, I know. Despite all the bullshit, he was a good man."

"He wasn't as bad as I thought he would be--for the Don, I mean. He seemed like just a regular, nice man." Luth rubbed the back of his neck, fidgeting through his lame lament. "...Called me 'kiddo,' though."

"Heheh, what, you don't like that?"

"A bit of a pet peeve, sir."

Boss slung him a quizzical look. "I call you 'kid' all the time. Why haven't you said anything?"

Luth, sincerely stumped, mutely worked his jaw around a solution. At length, he concluded, "I guess I don't mind it so much coming from you, sir."

"Huh." An odd grin sprouted around Boss's leer, making Luth incredibly self-conscious in a short minute.

He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "...What?"

Boss shook his gaze off, the smile still lingering. "Nothing, nothing..."

Luth returned a small, taut frown. He liked Boss, but sometimes his cryptic manners were annoying. He got around them by changing the subject again. "Who would do such a thing, though? To Don's family, I mean."

"Apparently people who want me out of the way as well," Boss answered soberly.

"Do you really think Don's survivors and the other bosses are going to go after you?"

"You heard what Griffin and Arpy said. If they really think I killed Don, I'm sure they will."

"I don't know, sir. They don't have a lot of evidence. That Genome could have been anyone."

"Lu," Boss lectured, "This is an upheaval of everything that's made Gatortown tick for the past five generations. You remember that news babe talking about Don's 'survivors'? There are no survivors. There's Don's, like, two withered old aunts, his dead wife, his dead kids, Leo, Armond, Pevy, me and Arpy. That's it. There's going to be a power struggle like you wouldn't believe, and the sooner the bosses take care of old business--i.e, avenging the late Don's untimely death--the better. They're not going to give two flying shits about evidence. You don't fuck with the Don--or even look like you're fucking with the Don--and live. I'm just a big goddamn target now."

"Oh." It wasn't something Luth wanted to believe; it all seemed too sudden, too... rash. "That's just so terrible, though--I mean, it's not even giving you a chance."

Boss snorted. "Welcome to Gatortown. That's just the way it is."

"What's the world coming to, sir?" Luth tried to sound sympathetic, but only sounded like his parents. He shuddered, repulsed. He didn't want to sound like that. It wasn't him.

"Nothing, Lu," Boss replied too fast, too harsh. "Not a goddamn thing. Nothing ever changes," he railed, his tone impossibly bitter, impossibly... old. "...Hrmn." He closed his eyes, tilted his head back and gave a smoldering sigh, sagging into the bench. "Too long, too long... Today's not a good day to die."

"Sir?" Luth tested, feeling like an outsider again.

He sat up, met Luth's look and spoke frankly, "I said I'm not gonna lie to you, Lu. Things are gonna get a lot more dangerous from here on out. It's not gonna be safe to hang around me much anymore. I'd really rather not get you caught up in all this crap. If you want to bail out, now's the best time. I don't want to have to give your mother any bad news, you understand?"

Luth wanted to understand, but all he could think of were someone else's memories, carefully etched into a missing book.

"I'm coming with you," he said without a second thought--he never thought anything through, the fool.
"No. This doesn't concern you," I tried to stop him. Burmecia was going to be a war zone, and I couldn't drag anyone else into it in good conscience.
"What's this, I'm a stranger all of a sudden!? I'm not gonna sit back and watch your home get destroyed, alright?"
Then again, he was always a very persuasive fool. "...Thank you..."

"Yes, sir," Luth remembered himself, "But I won't leave you, especially not now. I want to help. I'm with you."

Boss softened with a grateful smile. "Aww, Lu..." He started to reach towards Luth, but his hand lost its resolve half way, settling into the bench-space between him. "...Thanks. This means a lot to me."

"I just wish I knew how to help, sir. Isn't there anything we can do about Gatortown?"

"I don't know," Boss admitted, smashing his cigarette and standing up. "But I'm gonna worry about first thing's first: I'm going to get my shit back."

Luth followed Boss around the deck and helped him sniff out Griffin ("You'd think a guy that big wouldn't be hard to find," Boss remarked after circling the cabin twice.)

They eventually found him below deck, leaning against the door of a broom closet and indolently waving Arpy's cigar smoke out of his face. When Luth pointed out the "No Smoking" sign on the opposite wall, he only got a humored smirk from Boss and cold stares from the rest.

"Hey dickwads," Arpy greeted. "We were just rappin' it up about these Red Wings. Y'know, strategizin'."

"Red Angels," Griffin grumbled.

"Whatever, you goth faggot," Arpy spat, and then turned to Boss. "You losers cooked up any ideas yet?"

Boss merely shrugged as Luth chipped in, "The Red Angels must have incredible skills. They infiltrated Lindblum Grand Castle, Alexandria Castle, Don Gator's house, and then our central branch."

Boss nodded. "Yeah, and that's another thing that's really bothering me. That guy we saw on the camera, he's someone who, A: knew I had the Memory Earring--and I can count the number of people who knew I had that Jewel on one hand--and B: knew I wasn't in last night, because I would've kicked his tail clean off his ass if I was."

Speaking of tails, Luth couldn't help but cite, "And he's a Genome."

"Yeah..." Boss crossed his arms pensively. "...and that."

It finally occurred to Luth that, if these Red Angels were really Genomes, Boss would be going against his own kind. Luth tried to imagine himself in the same position, and couldn't untangle the knot in his stomach. "Are you going to be okay with this, sir? I mean, if the Red Angels are Genomes..."

His tail thumped once against the wall, his expression inscrutable. "...Won't make a difference," he decided quietly.

"Better not," Griffin piped up, "I'm not going home without some blood."

While Luth tried to figure how to safely criticize Griffin's lack of tact, Boss sighed gustily and ran a hand through his hair. "Geez... This is all fuckin' great. Now these bastards have three of 'em."

"You mean the Jewels, sir?"

"No, Griffin's circus-freak balls. Yes the Jewels, ratshit," Arpy scathed. Luth redirected his glower towards the moogle. Griffin flashed a switchblade and proceeded to sharpen it off a throwing knife he had sheathed at his belt.

"Yeah," Boss confirmed, ignoring them, "I don't wanna think about what'll happen if they get all four."

"Why? What will happen, sir?"

Boss briskly smacked his arm. "Damn, Lu, I thought you've been doing your homework. Letting all the Jewels fall into the hands of some crazy murderers? It'll be the Mist War all over again, is what."

The fur along Luth's spine roiled as he realized that Boss was right. Queen Brahne's struggle to obtain the Jewels was precisely what initiated the Mist War, and the tragedies of Burmecia, Cleyra, Lindblum...

Boss proffered a wan smile. "But let's not worry about it. We're not going to let that happen."

It was weak consolation, but it strengthened Luth's morale nonetheless. Despite the nagging stagnancy of peace and hunger for battle's glory that drove his knightly training and haunted his Crescent blood, Luth didn't want another Mist War. He wasn't like Griffin--he didn't want "blood." He was going to protect people--and Boss...

"Right, sir. We won't."

Arpy and Griffin harrumphed in unison, and the former took a thick drag off his cigar.

"Say, Griffin," Boss accosted him, "You said you got your scoop on Don's murder from the underground. Can you tell me everything you heard? We need some clues, here."

The brute shrugged. "Not much to tell. Don's watchman saw you--"

"A Genome," Luth touchily corrected.

"Guard saw /someone/," Griffin resumed with a petulant curl to his lip, "Walk in the front gate last night, and that was it. When Gator's ride showed up the next morning, he found everyone inside dead. Called the cops, whole big deal."

"Wait," Luth puzzled, "Someone walked in, but never walked out?"

"Seems so. Cops'll never know, though. Bosses have the watchman's security tape. The crime scene is the craziest part--looks like some kind of fucked-up ritual sacrifice. The two kids out in the hall on their knees, bullets through the backs of their heads. Gator and the missus done just the same, laid out next to the kids to make a big cross shape. Then somebody took the time to draw some big-ass circles and symbols around the bodies in their blood, and then wrote out 'INFIDEL' on the wall above Don's bed."

"Infidel?" Boss rubbed his chin and dropped his gaze to the floor, a disquieted streak possessing him.

"That's like what we saw in your room, sir," Luth noted.

"Saw what in his room?" Arpy asked.

"It was in red paint--at least, I hope to gods it was red paint," Luth backtracked, his expression contorting with belated horror. He then shook his head, realigned his ears and moved on. "The word 'TRAITOR' had been written on Sir's furniture."

"Traitor?" The moogle's pom-pom twirled. "Against /what/?"

Boss looked vacant--he didn't say a thing.

"The same thing you can be an infidel against," the contumelious Griffin supplied.

Luth was flustered by the evidence--and lack thereof. "This doesn't help us. All this is telling us is that the people we're dealing with are... they're some kind of..." he floundered around the right word.

"Sickos," Arpy quipped. "Some real crazy bastards." He directed his cigar at Boss. "No offense, monkey boy, but I wouldn't expect anything less from a bunch of Genomes. Fuckin' loony crackpots, the lot of 'em."

"We're not yet certain that the Red Angels are Genomes--"

"It was your theory, rat."

"I know, but I'm just saying we don't know--"

"Fuck us with an ant-covered stick, we don't know our dicks from our asses here."

"If the rat would pull his head out of the monkey's, it would be a good start."

"What?! How dare you--"

"Lu is right; this isn't getting us anywhere," Boss intervened, his voice subdued, and the squabble settled to listen. "We're already within Burmecia's borders--we're going to arrive in the capital soon. We should get ready." He rubbed his nose, a smirk lighting his features. "I have a plan to help us get inside the palace."


Luth had a few reservations about their mission. Boss wasn't a very... clandestine character, Arpy was as a subtle as a foghorn, and Griffin was a stalking, brooding wild card.

But Boss had a /plan/, and that was supposed to make it all better.

Apparently the entire plan hinged on Luth being able to distract the guard at the southeast gate of Burmecia Palace so the others could climb one of the giant valkyrie statues and sneak into the upper bailey. Luth wasn't keen on deceiving one of his brothers-in-arms, but at Boss's insistence he couldn't say no.

As far as that part of the plan went, he was lucky.

"Luth? Is that you??"

The night watchman was Petrov, an old classmate of Luth's, and it only took moments to lose him in nostalgic conversation. It took all of Luth's willpower to not look in his comrades' direction and give them away while egging Petrov on with monosyllabic comments.

"Haha, do you still have that rag-doll my sister gave you? The one we let Bruiser chew on? Man, we put that dog down last year, did you know? Heartworms."

Boss was first to the top, scaling the intricate stone goliath like a squirrel up a tree, his tail a fluttering wisp in his wake.

"Um, yeah, that's..."

"Heh, look at us shootin' the breeze like this. I'm supposed to be on duty, eheh. Hell, though, I've still got four hours left on this shift. I'm gonna go crazy. So what brings you back to Burmecia, anyway? I heard you took off on some crazy old quest. Did you hear about what happened to the Jewels?"

"Well, I--"

"That's some crazy stuff. Now we've gotta double our patrols to keep an eye on the Desert Star. I swear, it's so ridiculous, we've turned 24/7 watches into 48/7, y'know what I mean? Hahaha. Even 'uper thinks we should just lock the damn thing up, but the King won't hear it. Keeps saying, 'Burmecia won't flinch in the face of terrorism,' or some high and mighty bullshit like that. His royal dumb ass wants to leave it on a silver platter in the middle of the great outdoors for the Red Angels to snatch up like candy. Stupid, stupid. Heh, of course don't tell 'uper I said any of that. That'll be a week in the ice box, hoo boy."

"So it's still in the upper bailey?"

"The Jewel? Yeah, on display like a baboon's ass. Stupid, I'm tellin' ya."

Griffin skulked after him, more like a sloth, opting to be careful over quick. He'd occasionally swat at the moogle trying to hitch a ride on his shoulder with a huge hand, their antics caught in flickers of pale blue and cursing white.

"Hey, what's wrong?" Petrov waved a hand in front of Luth's nose. "You look spaced out."

Luth snapped back to his task with a guilty grimace, his ears pressed low. "Nothing! I'm..."

At last, Griffin and Arpy cleared the curtain wall. Petrov threw a glance around the statue Luth was fixated on and, seeing nothing of interest, shrugged at him. "You tired? I guess it's pretty late, especially if you just got back. We've got some bunks open in the barracks if you want to crash for the night. I promise I won't tell 'uper."

Luth deflated with relief. He didn't even have to ask. "Yes, that would be great, thank you."


The clock was pushing midnight by the time Luth worked up the nerve to roll out of his bunk and slink out the narrow casement windows. The coast was clear--the barracks were largely empty, its scanty occupants snoring into pillows and helmets. He squeaked through the glass panes, flinching when his halberd clumsily scraped the glass, but fortunately nobody sounded the alarm.

He scurried up a drainpipe and hoisted himself onto the roof, where the rest of the palace unfolded before him. It was a gothic playground of listing grey spires, creeping ivy and looping wall walks. He remembered his early days of training, scampering across the shingles and rafters with other daredevil students, never afraid of heights and always being told to, "Get down from there before you break your neck. If you like jumping so much, you'll hit the floor and do me fifty skipping-jacks right now."

Those were the days, ones bathed in cloudy sunlight and rose-tinted invincibility. It was all safe and natural. Now it was night, heavy and dripping and creaking with too many unseen things his memories couldn't touch, and he didn't want to play anymore.

The rain was the best part, always a mixed blessing. Burmecia was called the "Realm of Eternal Rain," which was a slight misnomer. It did rain every day, but not perpetually, and fits of sun and moonlight would occasionally grace the puddled city. Luth wished for such a reprieve as he scrambled over the slick rooftops, nonetheless grateful for the way the rain's pattering static drowned his tracks.

The dark and the downpour disoriented him, but he eventually reached the upper bailey. He perched behind the outstretched wing of a gargoyle and surveyed the open courtyard below.

The upper bailey was a simple oval room, smaller than the lower bailey, which housed most palace traffic, and larger than the king's bailey, where official business took place. It was ornamental grounds, more for tourists these days than anyone else. A long ago struggle sheered away the roof, and gutters had since been trenched along the sidewalk to keep the bailey from turning into a pool. On the ground, in watered-down tile mosaic, were the crests of the three founding tribes of Burmecia, stationed between massive stone likenesses of their chieftains: the sitting Gaul, the kneeling Clayan, and the standing Burma.

A hallway intersected the south end, and two guards idly marched between its exits. Their long-nosed helmets fended off the rain and any glimpse of Luth, high overhead. Hot white lamps beamed criss-crosses through the draping rain, down from the broken rafters and onto the floor. In the center, within a small, simple shrine, dwelled the Desert Star.

Luth was familiar with this Jewel piece's history. Centuries ago, the Cleyrans took the Desert Star when they separated from Burmecia, using its magic to build their isolated kingdom. The Jewel was lost when the Alexandrians sacked and razed Cleyra under Queen Brahne, but then it was returned to the Burmecians under Queen Garnet. It remained in Burmecia Palace ever since, on display in the upper bailey for the people to admire and reflect on their sacred heritage.

Considering his vantage point, far too close far too easily, he was beginning to agree with Petrov: leaving the Jewel there was /stupid, stupid/.

He tried to peer into the lofty gallery circling the bailey, but it was too hard to see through the rain, spotlights and shadows. With any luck, Boss and the others would be hiding there as planned, and not caught and locked up in the dungeon. Luth threw his feet over the side of the roof, shuffled down a gutter and blindly swung through a pair of life-size monk statues, praying not to crash into anything or anyone unexpected.

A rat squealed when he landed on its tail, and Luth rolled aside, letting it flee into the cracks in the leaky masonry. The gallery was otherwise narrow and vacant. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim, quiet alcove and then moved in a lap around the bailey, finally encountering his friends on the opposite end.

"Hey Lu, you made it," the Boss-shaped shadow welcomed him.

Griffin sounded low and distant, like thunder. "I thought I smelled wet rat."

Luth hummed a growling note, wrung some water out of the skirt of his tunic and stared at the shrine on the ground. "So nothing's happened so far?"

Arpy swayed on his moogle pin-feet and reported, "Nothin'. Damp, quiet and stinky as a tomb in a sewer."


They waited through two more hours of nothing.

Boss was sitting against the far wall and eating from a miniature can of fruit cocktail, something picked up at a truck stop--the others forbid him to smoke, lest even a burning ember give them away. He grumbled, "Bullshit," but relented. Griffin was back to sharpening his blades, their subtle shing-shing noises blending in with the drum of rain. Arpy was making tiny meep-meep chirps as he snored.

Luth sat tightly on his haunches and looked out into the courtyard, too intent at his watch for hunger or fatigue to distract him. He fought to suppress a yawn as he started to question their agenda, however. "I'm not sure how necessary this is, sir. These parts of the palace are always well guarded. My friend Petrov was just telling me how they've doubled the night watch."

Even as he said those words, he didn't trust them. He didn't forget himself calling the palace guard "decorations," nor how easy it was for the Red Angels to compromise the security of Lindblum Grand Castle, a veritable fortress of the ages. That wasn't even to mention how easy it was for them to--

"And look how we walked right in," Boss validated his thoughts around a mouthful of diced fruit. He then griped into the bottom of the can, "These things are always ninety percent pears and ten percent all the good stuff. I think I saw one cherry. What a rip-off."

He slurped the last of the cocktail syrup and then chucked the can aside. Luth sighed, scooted away from the edge, plopped down and flexed his sore calves.

"You seem to know the palace pretty well, sir," he remarked, "You knew exactly how to get up here. Have you been here before?"

He shrugged. "Eh, it's been a while."

"Oh. Uh, sir, I've been thinking..."

Boss lamely saluted. "Keep on truckin', Lu."

Luth finished, undaunted, "If the Red Angels do show up, how are we going to go about stopping them?"

"Any way possible," he simply replied.

Arpy snorted, apparently not as asleep as Luth thought. "Way to think this plan through, dillhole."

"Even if we have to kill them?" Luth pursued.

"That is a distinct possibility, Lu. I'd rather not, though. Hard to get information off a dead body, if you know what I mean."

Arpy shot a squished glare at the slouching thug in the background. "You heard him, Griffin."


Boss stretched and yawned like a boar. "Sooonuvabiiiiiitch. I'm so bored I could shoot myself. Hey Griffin, you packin' heat?"

Luth frowned in poor humor. "Please don't, sir. I'd rather the guards not overhear."

"Bitch, please," Boss refuted, "You can't hear your own piss for all this rain. I bet I could pull my pants down and wave my dick at them and they wouldn't even look up. Here, I'll show you."

To Luth's chagrin, Boss got up, stepped to the rim of the gallery, unzipped and proceed to relieve himself off the edge. "Heeeeey, get a load of this, you lazy rat bastards!" he broadcasted over the lot, his voice bouncing off the wet bricks and fizzling out in the rain.

"Sir!! What are you doing?!" Luth and Arpy sprang at him at once, yanking him off the edge and back into the seclusion.

"Hey hey hey, I hadn't finished," Boss whined as he readjusted his pants and his bearings.

"Are you terminally retarded??" the moogle scolded him.

As if in response, Boss belched. The others stared hard as he grimaced at himself. "...What the hell was that? Definitely not peaches."


It was almost three in the morning.

"My house is a few blocks from here," Luth sullenly noted, breaking the wicked monotony.

"Really?" Boss spoke up. "Is that where your folks live? What're they like? I don't think I ever met your mother. Celia, right?"

"Yes, sir. My mother, she's... she's been good to me. She's always been very proper. A little impatient, though. I'm an only child, so she put a lot of expectations on me."

"So you ran away."

"...Actually, that was my father, but... it wouldn't be kind to speak of him," he prudently stopped.

"Haha," Boss chuckled softly, "Ah, Lu. You're all right. You're all right."

Luth tipped a puzzled glance at him, wondering what he meant. After a moment he gave up and asked, "What about your mother, sir? Don said she was a very nice lady. Wasn't her name Meridia?" He checked himself two sentences too late, an apologetic hand flying up to his face. "Oh... I'm sorry to hear she died. Forgive my thoughtlessness, sir."

"...Yeah." Boss bowed his head, and that was that.


Arpy announced a quarter 'til four (Luth was surprised to learn he was wearing a microwatch under all that fur). Luth could swear he heard Griffin snoring.

Boss, at the end of his rope, found his empty can of fruit cocktail and plunked it down into the courtyard to, "see if they're still awake down there." Luth was about to chastise him again when the can's bouncing clatter was snuffed out with a wisp. He jerked forward and leaned over the edge to hunt down its resting place.

"What the hell?" Boss squinted at the can, which had been nailed to the bricks with a...

"Is that a /shuriken/?" Luth couldn't believe his eyes.

As Boss intended, the two guards were roused. "What was tha--"

thunk, thunk.

Two black blurs arrowed through the night. "Grrgh!" One toppled to the ground after the other, clutching their throats.

Arpy rolled to his feet, suddenly wide awake. "Holy shit!"

Luth could feel the weight of Griffin's shadow creeping over him. "They're here," he deadpanned.

The Burmecian gaped at the swift demise of his countrymen. "No!!" He was flying before anyone could stop him, halberd cutting a swath through the rain before he even touched ground, two stories below.

Boss hollered after him, "Lu! Don't just jump down--" Realizing it was a futile gesture, he rallied the others with a wave. "Com'on, let's move!"

Luth held low to the ground, his eyes everywhere, wide like a doe and keen like a cat. His heart was racing, his muscles were frozen and his breath was whispering a riot, assailed from all sides, the rain steaming away and it's a clear day, bright and ready--/where are you come out now I'll show you/--

He caught a flitting wrist--there, up high, /plain like the sun I see you/--and darted out of the way of another flurry, one, two, three, four, five shots, the little ninja stars sticking in the floor in a skeletal Luth after-image. He flipped back, another coming from another way, and then he saw the second, and then another wisp and he saw the third, the fourth--one more time--a /fifth/, and they stopped when Luth did, perhaps out of things to throw, or simply amused by his dexterity.

The rest of the party clambered down Clayan's broad armor and rushed across the floor, quickly catching up to Luth.

Arpy stumbled over the garden of pointy things in the ground, cursing, "Holy shitole on crackers, this is a goddamn death pit!"

Boss spun in circles, one of his daggers bared. "Where are they??"

Luth pointed into the soaked, jagged rafters. "Up there, sir. Five of them."

"They're coming down," Griffin observed.

Just as said, five ink-clad figures tossed down ropes and rappelled to solid ground, surrounding the group in a perfect pentagon.

"Get around the shrine," Luth ordered, not even thinking twice about it. "Don't let them get to it."

"Good thinkin', Lu," Boss discreetly agreed, and altogether the four circled the Desert Star's booth with wary paces.

"The fuck am I doin' here? I'm a goddamn moogle. What am I gonna do, tap-dance these motherfuckers away? I shoulda stayed home," Arpy complained in vain hindsight as he stood his post.

"Suck it up," Griffin snubbed him. He turned towards the nearest ninja with feet braced wide, one hand around his throwing knife and the other tucked into a back pocket.

They were all black--black cargo pants, sleeved shirts, boots, ski masks. The lethal clicks of switchblades were heard through the dying drizzle as they encroached in slow, deliberate steps.

"You'll never have the Desert Star!" Boss hollered defiantly, his focus ticking between his multiple foes, his outnumbered friends at the precious Jewel at his back. His tail corkscrewed nervously around his ankles.

"I can smell your fear, you Gaian dogs," one of them spoke. On cue the advancers halted, except the one, who tread brazenly ahead.

"What did you say?!" Boss fired back, trying to glimpse the speaker without taking both eyes off the ninja in front of him.

He was dead ahead of Luth. The Burmecian squeezed the shaft of his halberd and growled menacingly, "Not one step closer."

The leader paused, chortled and concentrated an icy gaze on Boss. "Well, if it isn't the traitor and his pack of lowly mutts."

"I'm nobody's dog," issued Griffin's feral retort.

"Speak for yourself, you cracked egg crazy bitch ninja muthafucker!" Arpy barked. "Why don't you call off the smoke and mirrors and face us like a man?"

"Yeah," Boss backed them up, "I don't know what you're on, but you're all just a bunch of common thieves--and believe me, I don't say that lightly."

"With pleasure," the leader sang, his voice like something on a phonograph, golden old, rich and heady, clever and dangerous like a dragon. He peeled off his mask, revealing a mop of stringy-damp, muddy rud hair and crystal-sharp eyes. His build was tall and lean, and his face the same, with craggy ruts around his eyes and jaw where his age nibbled at his visage--a man with an impeccably strong aura of anger, madness and... something Luth couldn't look at straight. Something wrong.

"I remember you!" Luth exclaimed, surprised. "You're Maroon. I saw you at Don's party."

"Hey, that's right," Arpy chimed in, "You're Pevy's new right-hand bitch."

"So that means Pevy is behind all this?" Luth speculated aloud.

"I'm gonna kill 'im!" Boss fumed.

Maroon threw his head back in a short burst of laughter. "Hah! Pevy, that sniveling tool? Don't give him so much credit. He's just another stepping-stone for us--one that has tragically outlasted its use. We don't need Gatortown or its cockroaches anymore."

"What is it you people want?" Boss interrogated. "Why are you after the Jewels?"

Maroon reached behind his head and unsheathed a scimitar. "You're hardly in a position to ask questions. And how do you plan to stop me, anyway? Are you going to kill us? It's hard to get information off a dead body, isn't it, /Althier/?" he spat the name like venom.

"What?!" Boss's eyes widened, his hackles raised with a flash of wild indignation. "How do you--"

Maroon gave a disgusted snarl. "You ugly imposter. Traitor. You don't deserve that name." He pointed his blade at Luth's side, where the Burmecian's travel pack rested off his shoulder. "By the way, I have to thank your little pet for showing us the way. It would have been so much more difficult to find our way around this rat-hole without him. In fact, I dare say this wonderful reunion wouldn't have been possible without his help."

"What?!" Luth yelped, taken aback. "There's no way I'd help you!"

"Goddamnit," Griffin uttered, getting to the point before the others, "You've been bugged, you idiot."

"Bugged?!" Luth echoed, a free hand jumping to his pack. How in the world would he--

I remember you from Don's party.
"I believe you dropped this."
"Huh? Oh! So I did. Thank you."

Luth stammered, the horrible truth confounding him, "That--that was two weeks ago, and you--it was--/all that time/?"

Maroon regarded his consternation with mirth. "Haha, oh, you poor, dumb little rat. Don't feel too bad. None of you infidels are going to last long enough to feel remorse."

"We'll see about that, you bastard!" Boss snapped, lunging at the leader with twin daggers spinning.

Everything moved at once. The four ninja standing by sprung to action, pouncing on the shrine like tigers. Griffin clotheslined one mid-flight, throwing him mightily to the ground and then falling after him, his hefty elbow crushing a windpipe. Arpy dove under the shrine's canopy, trying to evade the storm, but then became inspired. He pawed at the Desert Star's glass case, striving to open it. After an unsuccessful moment, a knife plunged through the clay shingles, nearly cutting off his pom-pom. Arpy squealed and stumbled back, hitting the tiles with a winded, "Oaf!"

Luth skipped around Maroon's flank, trying to stick him with his halberd while Boss charged him head-on. Maroon deftly wove around the jabbing blade while swatting off Boss's daggers, though he was gradually being pressed towards a wall.

"Lu!" Boss panted between swipes, "The Jewel! Watch it!"

"Right, sir!" Luth heeded him, bouncing away to check the shrine.

"I'd worry more about yourself, traitor," Maroon sneered, turning his attention full-force to his opponent.

Griffin ripped another lackey off the shrine's top, grappling his leg and swinging in him broad circles before cracking his skull against one of the shrine's supports. Luth skidded onto the scene, driving the head of his halberd into the shrine and forcing one of the remaining ninjas to duck outside. Griffin rammed him like a bear, his switchblade sticking under black-clad ribs. Griffin then took the handle and heaved the ninja wholesale over his shoulder, the blade slicing loose with a spray of gore.

Luth started to maneuver his polearm for another pass into the shrine, where the final lackey had already pierced the glass and plucked free the Desert Star. His long blade rejected Griffin's throwing knife and he jumped out of range before Luth could skewer him. Griffin was like a train, barreling after him, but the ninja had a diversion out of his pocket before he could be touched. The smoke bomb sparked and ignited with an ashen tunnel-blast, stunting Luth and Griffin in their tracks.

Boss savagely pushed forward, fueled by righteous rage. His daggers merely snipped and singed the impossibly stoic Maroon, who would only smile odiously while his garb was slowly ripped to shreds and his ground quickly lost. He handled his scimitar expertly in one hand and a dagger of his own in the other, tucked back defensively.

By the time Maroon's back hit a niche in the wall, he hadn't burned up one bead of sweat, nothing but rain dousing his aplomb. Boss, on the other hand, was puffing and frazzled, an inch away from giving up his daggers and just scratching and biting like an animal.

Maroon raised his scimitar, almost not trying, and Boss bluntly knocked it away. One dagger closed in on Maroon's jugular and the other poked just beneath the cage of his heart.

"Alright, you bastard," Boss seethed once he held a comfortable checkmate, glaring daggers up at his taller adversary. "Now I'm in a position to ask questions."

Maroon stood tactfully still, his breathing calm and even, soaking in the gentle Burmecian rain and the sudden, grizzly quiet that had settled over the bailey. A cruel grin snaked across his lips, exposing a pointed canine.

He asked, smoothly, villainously, "You wouldn't kill your own son, would you, father?"

Boss blanched, instantly, completely numb. He stared dead into Maroon's eyes, a dawning horror melting his composure. "...Alfy?" he whimpered feebly.

Maroon only gloated. "Mercy..."

The dagger he was holding back slid across Boss's middle, opening a bloody gash.

"...Is your weakness."

Luth staggered out of the noxious haze, which thanks to the rain quickly dissipated. He coughed and shuddered, fighting to regain his sense of direction before it was too late.

"Son of a bitch, we lost them," Griffin discerned, clenching that sense of dread in Luth's stomach.

"No..." He shook his head and bounced around the floor, hunting for any vestige of the last ninja or the Desert Star.

Both were gone.

Arpy sat upright with a vulgar sneeze, a fine layer of soot exploding off him. "ASSHOLES!"

Griffin set to task on one of the ninja corpses, disarming and disrobing him. He yanked off the ski mask and snorted with no astonishment at the face that met him.

"A Genome. Of course."

"What? Really??" Luth knelt over another, stripping the body as far as he would dare. He found a little blonde man, round-faced and feline-tailed, just like the other--and just like the third casualty, as they discovered next.

"No shit! We knew it all along," Arpy affirmed. He began to pat himself down in search of a lighter. "Goddamn, I need a smoke. This is crazy shit. I almost got whacked."

"This is terrible..." Luth lamented, and then remembered Boss. He sprinted halfway across the courtyard to find him.

"Sir! Are you all right?"

Boss sluggishly turned toward the hail, meeting Luth with ghostly eyes. Maroon was gone, not even his weapon left behind.

"Sir..." Luth stopped short, hesitating upon sight of the ugly red slice across the Genome's belly. "Sir?! Are you hurt?"

He looked down at the wound, slowly, slowly, like time was grinding to death, and fingered the bloody, frayed edges of his clothes.

"Damn..." he muttered faintly, "I liked this shirt." And collapsed.

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