Categories > Games > Final Fantasy 9 > Prince of Thieves

16. The Rapture

by Myshu 0 reviews

The Rapture

Category: Final Fantasy 9 - Rating: R - Genres: Drama,Fantasy - Characters: Freya Crescent - Warnings: [!!!] [V] - Published: 2007-11-03 - Updated: 2007-11-04 - 10805 words - Complete

16. The Rapture

Sirens from fire trucks and police airboats were already resonating throughout the city, layered over the keens of fleeing citizens, honking car horns and the occasional volcanic blast.

"What's our plan, sir?" Luth asked, surprising himself with a level voice, even after having to raise it over the ambient wind and noise pollution.

"Milda," Boss got straight to that, "Can you find where Bahamut was summoned?"

'I can find the source stone, yes.'

"Great, take us to it."

Kill the summon at the source--that made enough sense to Luth. But where, and what, and who? Eidolons were extinct in this modern age--until now, he supposed. There was still the legend that someone possessing all the Jewels... "The Red Angels are behind this, aren't they, sir?"

Boss didn't respond. Milda's wings turned rigid beneath the wind, taking the party on a centrifugal course around Bahamut's field of mayhem. If Luth weren't so horrified by the carnage off the port side, he'd be marveling at the weightless rush of riding a real dragon over the city.

Bahamut was blazing his own trail across the urban landscape, paving the thoroughfares in sulfuric vomit and latching like a giant demon mantis onto hovercabs that buzzed too close. The dragon sank his heinous talons into the roof of a flying taxi, hoisted it off its axis and swung it bodily at a circling police car. The vehicles smashed together in a fit of grinding engines and crumpling metal, and dropped like a bombshell across a Kaliroth Home & Garden storefront, everything going up in an oily puff of flame.

Two more squad cars responded, careening around the dragon's back and loosing gunshot off the stalky turrets mounted on their tops. Bullets stuck pinholes through the wings and sparked off the calloused ridges along the dragon's backside, and with a clipped cry Bahamut cringed and whirled towards the assault, one firm stroke of his wings tossing the assailants on a tidal gust. The eidolon surfed up to one of the rolling cars, caught it by the heavy coil of his tail, crushed it like a soda can and then whipped it aside, not even pausing to watch it collide with an airbulance, and then a church spire. There was a gong-like warble accompanying the screeching aluminum as it all crashed together, smoke and dust jetting into the thickening sky.

"We have to hurry!" Luth stressed, though needlessly. Before his thought was finished Milda blandly announced, 'It is here.'

The two passengers stuck out their necks to espy Milda's target, sinking ever-nearer: a boxy high-rise atop one of the Residential District's hills. Artania Park and the brand new Genesis Crater were easily in its sights. It was twenty floors of rotten red bricks and ugly, broken little windows, and its rooftop was much like the one they just departed, though the cement was tarnished a more dismal grey and the cabinet to the stairwell was sheared away, leaving a grave-esque pit.

No matter how much he expected it, Luth was still disarmed by the scene they encountered once Milda touched down on the building's summit. The flat, open lot was barren save the opposite corner, where a pair of Genomes awaited. They followed the arrivals with smug leers, unfazed by their zuu-winged, behemoth-sized carrier. Luth didn't especially recognize the one on the left--he was short, golden-blonde and box-cheeked, and over his black jumpsuit he wore a brazen scarlet sash--but in his ice-blue eyes he saw a stark version of Boss, and Luth had to flinch away.

He knew Maroon when he saw him, though. Also clad in emblematic black and red, the leader of the Red Angels was welcoming the band with a quiet, insidious front, strangely patient. He didn't budge to greet them, poised like a statue in the center of an elaborate glyph drawn in some kind of red ink on the ground (Luth wasn't going to imagine anything more depraved than paint, for his own sake.) His presence, however, was diminished in light of the four diamond-cut artifacts placed evenly around the rune-circle. Luminous spectrums throbbed across their facets, ages of pent-up energy shining in all hues.

"The Jewels!" Boss exclaimed, springing off Milda's back and squaring himself across from their foes. Maroon didn't yet make a move; he just appraised the invaders while his accessory stood at panther-like attention, ready to pounce. His eyes locked with Boss's, and Luth felt even the wind freeze.

It was strange to see them standing at odds like that, now that Luth knew who they really were. It wasn't like Burmecia, where there was the group of heroes against the rain-cloaked gang of shadows and their mysterious leader. Now everything was laid true and wrong in the glaring daylight, and there wasn't a good guy verses a bad guy--just father and son and a bleak showdown. Boss, bouncing bright and forever sixteen, looked more like he could be Althier's offspring than the other way around, and the maroon-steeped man held himself with all the distinguished weight of the world that his father should have.

Luth, ready to break the tension and join his companion, had one foot over Milda's shoulder when Boss held him off with an open hand. "Stay back. I'll handle this."


"Don't start, Lu," Boss brusquely put him down, no games in his tone. "I want to take care of this little family matter myself."

Luth gulped, his nervous gaze not straying far from Maroon--though the man merely surveyed their exchange with a grim smirk. "Are you sure?" he asked in a low key, tying in with Milda's sentiment, 'Are you sure you wish to do this alone?'

Boss faced the enemy with a stout sigh. "Oh yeah... I'm sure."

"But," Luth floundered, "What am I supposed to do?"

He swept a tentative glance over the horizon, watching it rapidly dissolve into black clouds. "Look, I know this is a lot to ask, but you and Milda have to stop Bahamut."

Luth focused on the cinder-demon breaching layers of city traffic, playing through bobbing and swerving cars--both the ground-rolling and airborne kinds, turning one into the other at his twisted caprices. When another cruiser tailed him too closely, Bahamut batted it out of the park and then sneezed a pellet of lightning, blowing the craft out of the sky like a clay pigeon.

"Stop the King of Dragons," Luth rephrased, his voice wavering incredulously. "Right."

Boss, however, was direly serious. "Stop it, get it out of here, get everyone out of here--do something before any more people get hurt!"


His boss vehemently turned on him. "Hey, you're a Dragon Knight, right?"

"Not quite, but--"

There were a thousand "but"s, all too late. Boss pointed at the eidolon with one hand and slapped Milda's flank with the other, spurring the latter into a shaky leap. "Well there's a dragon! Handle it!"

"Easy for you to say," Luth muttered, not for the first time, as his silver mount carried him into oblivion.


Maroon's insolent smirk only broadened as Milda flapped away, taking the Burmecian and leaving Boss behind. Genomes ruled the roof now, and in light of the situation Maroon glanced sidelong at his comrade and jeered, "Here comes my father, the noble traitor."

His accomplice sniggered, but the obscure barb glanced off Boss, who was lost on Maroon's appearance. He could see the resemblance now--not to any child he used to know, but to him... if he had managed to last another twenty years. His slender, alabaster countenance crinkled around the edges, though the fine slope to his eyebrows, nose and chin made an unmistakable vision, especially when his hair fell in spiny auburn petals around his shoulders.

When he finally addressed his elder, his voice was strung cold, each word an icicle tinkling to the ground. "So, you're alive. It's true, then: you really are the immortal King of Thieves."

Boss shook his thoughts into focus, the moniker stirring up some sensitive bile--it helped him work up the gall to start on a scathing note. "'Maroon,' huh? That hair color looks shitty on you."

He chuckled and affectedly flicked a tuft of fading purple-red away from his high-boned cheeks. "Flattery will win you no mercy, I'm afraid. And it served its purpose; you didn't even recognize me."

"Well, you can't blame me. I've never had a son run off and join the circus before."

Maroon twitched resentfully, but his haughty smile quickly smoothed over it. "You're not talking like someone who wants to survive this nice little reunion."

"I don't want to kill you," Boss said, even as his right hand betrayed him, curling around the grip of a dagger.

Maroon laughed outright. "It's not going to be a very fair fight then, because I want to kill you."

It was Boss's turn to twitch. "You've changed," he remarked, his tone a cocktail of disappointment and dismay. "You're not the Alfy I remember."

"And you've never changed," Maroon spat, suddenly vitriolic. "You're still the same selfish, arrogant fool you always were. You think I don't know your name, Zidane Tribal?"

That gave Boss pause. From his silence Maroon assumed initiative, stepping out of his magic circle to launch a narrative.

"I'll admit I was confused, at first. I heard someone had taken over Ultima Express in my name, but that was impossible. I wasn't going to care, until I saw that it was you. I had to know how you did it--how you were still alive, well and so... so young after all this time. Never mind that; you were supposed to be dead. The truth was beyond me, until I found this..."

He reached into a black satchel at his side and threw out a familiar book. The old leather scuffed across the gritty cement, and its withered pages quivered in the breeze. "Then it all became clear."

Boss gaped at the volume, recognizing the keepsake right away. "Hey, that belongs to Lu!"

"I'm afraid your pet rat is going to have much, much bigger problems than his granny's missing diary in the immediate future--that is, if he's unlucky enough to survive the wrath of the King of Dragons."

His knuckles turned white with a sick shudder as he realized what he'd done; he'd recklessly thrown his righty to the big, bad wolf. Even with Milda at his side, Luth barely stood a chance. Boss was flushed with horror and guilt before deep, miserable revulsion set in--for himself as well as this doppelganger daring to call him Father. "You, you... What's your game?!"

Maroon's mien turned dark as he raved, "You are the game! King of Thieves... King of Lies! You're nothing more than an idle, mangy dog before our great plan. You represent everything vile Gaians have to offer. You embrace their sins; you pander to their criminals; you waste away in debauchery and deceit. You are a loathsome creature, unworthy of us--unworthy even of the dogs you're going to die with!"

Boss couldn't stand how ridiculous that sounded. "Oh, will you get off of yourself? You and your grunts are nothing but common terrorists!"

"And you are a traitor!!"

"You're not making any sense! Are you insane?"

Maroon began to shriek, all his zeal channeled through a teenager's frivolous tantrum, until Boss was looking at a middle-aged man shaking his fists and crying, "You were the chosen one! You were going to save Terra from its cycle of death! You wanted to help people? You turned your back on an entire planet! Our planet! And for what? For your precious mortal friends, now rotting in their graves? For your Gaian women? For your brothers, living in exile, scorned and pushed aside by the Gaian dogs? For the brother you killed in the Tree of Life?"

Boss's heart cringed in his chest, stunting any response.

"Answer me, mongrel! Everything precious to you is dead and worthless! The people of Terra could have lived forever!"

"Shut the fuck up!" Boss exploded, that dagger he was trying to keep subdued suddenly in his outstretched hand. "The only son-of-a-bitch around here is you!"

Maroon mellowed with a hollow laugh, reveling in spite. "Hahaha, an ironic outburst." Ignoring the fresh blade, he strolled to the ledge and mused over the shambles beyond, "Do you know the real tragedy of the Mist War? So much lost potential. The Gaians already had all the magic they needed. If only they had embraced the gifts Kuja practically laid in their laps, today we'd be living in the land Garland promised--a land where magic and machine and life and death are one. It would be the real Utopia, our true destiny. But no. Today we have this... monstrosity of civilization instead."

Boss growled, fighting to keep his feet grounded and his temper even. "The hell're you talking about?"

He indicated the wailing castle-city with a flourish. "Look at your bold, brave new world, Father. Look at the children of steam, running around like stupid, panicked chocobos, ignorant of what they lost. It's as if everything that gave humanity the chance to excel evaporated with the Mist. Instead of trying to enhance their magic with the technology the Mist gifted them, people tried to replace it, bit by bit. Suddenly magic wasn't 'popular' anymore; it was something to be avoided--people were scared of it. They saw what it did to their cities and they cowered before powers they refused to comprehend. It's the same old story that broke the Jewel into four pieces to begin with.

"Just look at this sham of a festival--a bunch of hacks pretending at strength and valor, fighting over squirrels. There are no more grand dragons; no more real monsters to test man's mettle. There are no more true warriors. Dragon Knights are a joke. The castle of the Ipsen has sank into dust. The Summoner bloodline has dwindled into a bunch of feckless heirs who couldn't conjure a potato. Those things still calling themselves Black Mages are just powerless, simple-minded husks of what used to be--just too... too human. Today's humans are pathetic. Their idea of a magician is someone who does parlor tricks for children's birthday parties. Their religions are empty and fake. Even the eidolons have abandoned them!

"You know as well as I, Father, that it wasn't that long ago when people knew how to build ships that soared on the wings of souls, and could teleport from here to there with a clay pot and an enchantment. Now nobody knows how to get anything done without their precious 'science' and 'computers.' It's only in the past twenty years that they've finally phased out their primitive fossil fuels. They've shut their minds to magic. The old Terra was ten times what the Gaians will ever achieve."

Boss could hear him, but he couldn't believe it. "Who gives a shit?" he crudely riposted. "What the hell are you driving at? Yeah, magic has faded away, but we never needed it to start with! We're strong enough without it!"

Maroon brashly turned to him. "Is that what you believe? Or is that just an excuse? Do you just not want to admit that without the magic that let you and your friends subdue the Necromancer, your strength means nothing?"

His other dagger jumped to the fore. "I'll admit that you're full of crap! You don't know anything about being strong."

Enticed by that outburst, Maroon pulled a scimitar out of its hidden sheath and over his shoulder. His cool sneer was reflected over the foreign runes (Terran, maybe--they were too far away for Boss to read) meticulously etched in the steel.

"Then teach me."


Milda was on top of things. 'What is our plan?'

"Uh..." They were soaring high and idle, the wind coursing through one ear and out the other. Luth couldn't think to save his own life, much less those of the entire city. Then he spotted the Channel 8 van far below, its tiny camera crew fanned over the street corner next to a smoldering blob of parade balloons. "Oh gods, wait a minute, let me down there!"

Milda complied, slipping into a tight spiral that lowered them through the jutting architecture and onto the opposite side of Tanner Street. This part of the district was lucky; aside from one meteor-smashed decoration, Bahamut hadn't yet touched it. Julia was conferring with a standing camera and two crewmates as they monitored the Dragon King, now six blocks away and meandering closer--the vicinity was otherwise abandoned. Luth dismounted and crossed the field of empty cars, bounding up to the rogue news team in a flurry.

"Julia--I mean, Miss Knickoff!"

"Who--Luth? Is that you?" She seemed genuinely surprised. She probably never expected to see him again, much less see him barging into her airtime with an ancient flying beast in tow. "What are you doing here?"

"What, I..." Luth stammered, abashed by her forwardness. He shook his head and snapped back, "What are you doing here?"

Around a far corner, another pool of cars splattered with a violent, firy pop, one craft clipping the corner of a bank and shattering a limestone column. A gargoyle toppled off the ruined support and smashed the car's windshield as dust and rock washed the intersection.

"The city is under attack! I'm covering the story!" she eagerly explained over the calamity.

"Tha--that's not wise! The city is under attack!" Luth sputtered obviously.

"Yes, I know! This could be the story of my career!"

Luth couldn't believe her audacity. "It'll be your last story if you don't seek cover!"

She shook her head, an insistent line drawn on her brow. "I can't go! Everyone needs to see this! Don't you understand?"

Resorting to second opinions, Luth turned to the pair of addled men attending the camera--which was active, he then noticed. He didn't have the time or patience to care how he looked on the news, though. He put one stern foot forward and bellowed with a vigor he'd never heard off his own tongue before, "Get out of here, now!"

Luth wasn't sure if it was the hulking weapon strapped to his back, the dragon parked across the street, or they were just looking for any excuse to run for their lives, but the crewmen didn't have to be told twice. They hitched up their equipment and scrambled into the van. Julia was flabbergasted in their wake, and she threw Luth a look of shocked betrayal.

"I'll explain later, just go," Luth tried to apologize, but he didn't hear Julia's response. Milda loomed up to his side, ready to go, and before Luth could take anything back he was up and away again.


Maroon made the first move, leaping into a charge, sword swinging down and springing off the daggers that rose to throw it off. The Red Angel bent back on his knees and held his weapon at half-tilt, anticipating a strike, but when Boss didn't step in to counter Maroon slid forward, scimitar eagerly chipping at the shorter Genome's defenses.

Boss wasn't fighting back. He couldn't; his normally loose nerves were too tense to give his muscles the leeway to lash out. His daggers caught each swipe of Maroon's scimitar with wobbling, uncertain jerks, and each step was made in retreat. It was almost as if he couldn't control his own body, and that distressing idea only exacerbated the matter.

Fighting was supposed to be the easy part. He always felt more comfortable negotiating with his daggers than his words--well, not always. It was a mindset he developed over a long time, first out of impatience, then apathy, and then a hybrid of both--too many long years of dealing with people like Pevy, when in the end all they listened to was bloodshed.

The gods knew he could smooth-talk a behemoth down from a heap of gold if he was so inclined, and he wasn't a violent person--really, all his friends said so--but if it came down to it, he would spare no modesty to admit: he was damn good at it. He could carve out a zaghnol's spine in less than fifty paces and neuter a fully-grown grand dragon in what remained, but putting that kind of force to another human being made him shaky, even years after growing jaded with the value of a soul (particularly his own, stagnant and rankling in his ageless body.)

There were times that, maybe, he should've gone for the throat--the world might know more Cleyrans today, at the expense of some Alexandrian soldiers and Black Mages, but who was to say which lives were worth more? He didn't want to judge; he just wanted to help everyone. However, when Maroon told him mercy was for the weak, just one rainfall ago, it was a haunting echo of a certain flaming bounty hunter, preaching the same across centuries.

"You're wasting your time. You can't save everyone. If you try, you'll only lose them all. You have to suck it up and make a choice."

No matter how many times he was faced with it, the choice was never easy. It would've been simpler if it were just Bahamut, or some nameless summoner bent on senseless destruction. He could handle those things; he'd met and conquered stranger, and stronger. However, this was his son, the only one he ever had (that he knew of), and now, the only thing that could make Boss even defend himself was the realization that the other man was deadly serious--not only about taking Boss's life, but all of Lindblum with it.

"Fight back, you cur!" His faltering was frustrating Maroon, at least, and the scimitar strokes grew more reckless, eventually driving Boss into a corner. At the end of the road and disgusted with the cowardly shuffling, the dominant fighter planted his feet and drew up a potent blow, and Boss saw the opportunity he had been waiting for. His right blade swept by Maroon's ribs, and as he doubled over the feint, the hilt of the left dagger cracked against his wristbone. Maroon cawed painfully as his sword got punched out of his hand, clanged off the cropped wall skirting the roof and plunged to the parking lot, twirling like an autumn leaf the whole way.

Maroon staggered back and clutched his disarmed wrist, snarling. Boss calmly stood over him, one blade still extended. "Give it up," he simply demanded.

Maroon's murderous glare shifted into yet another serpent-grin, and Boss saw some trickery in the tail unfurling behind his legs. He didn't think to jump away until the smoke bomb ignited at his feet, blowing a stinging plume of mist into his face.

Boss coughed and tried shake the tears out of his eyes, waving his daggers blindly through the haze. By the time his vision resurfaced there appeared the second Genome, swooping in like a bird of prey, throwing knives cinched between his knuckles for faux talons. With no more room to retreat, Boss fell down instead, his shoulders hitting the pavement and his feet flying up to catch the assailant mid-pounce. His heels buried in a set of kidneys and Boss kept rolling back, taking the attacker's own momentum and boosting him wholesale over the edge.

Maroon's aide didn't even scream as he was pitched twenty stories to his demise. Boss climbed upright in time to watch him clatter wetly against the sidewalk, every bone splintering limply like a wooden doll. Eerily, Boss noticed, the angel didn't bleed--he just lay like a black fly squashed against a windshield, his leader's lost sword in the gutter beside him.

A patter of feet on slick cement snagged his attention, and Boss spied Maroon's tail ducking down the stairs. He sprang after him, leaving everything--the Jewels, Freya's diary and a dead body--for later.


It was only a matter of time before Bahamut grew bored with small game and started raining his affections on bigger, grander things--and nothing was grander than the castle at the hub of the city. With his rocketing breath he began whittling off whole chunks of the keep at a time, house-sized patches of the outer brick wall being reduced to pulp and sand. One of the protruding airship docks was virtually melted off its hinges, and as it wilted towards the ground a succession of tankers and boats listed out of their shackles and tumbled into the city proper, like oil from a spout. The castle's foundations rumbled odiously with every heavy, metallic plunk.

'Evacuation is impractical. To minimize casualties, I believe we should attempt to lure Bahamut out of the city,' Milda proposed.

Luth glimpsed the shrinking ground below and clutched the dragon's corded neck, trying not to estimate how many feet he would drop before turning into a strawberry-blonde puddle on the sidewalk. He wasn't even afraid of heights, normally, but the circumstances were far from normal, and he had less control over his flight than he would've liked. "You're right, that's the best way. But how?"

'Let me try something. Hold on tight, child.'

That statement was a far call from allaying his fears, but Luth didn't dare shut his eyes when Milda slicked her wings back and dove into a sweeping charge, arrowing for the besieged keep. Bahamut was busy pock-marking its every corner--it would take even the world's greatest dragon some time to demolish the mountain-castle. In seconds they were close enough to count the ridges of his wings and the imbricated spines on the eidolon's back, and that was when Luth noticed the florescent flicker between Milda's widening jaws.

"Whoa, what are you--ahh!"

Luth was knocked back, scratching to keep saddled as Milda arced to a halt and belched a streak of liquid-hot silver at her target. Bahamut took the plasma blast to the shoulder and pedaled backwards a few strokes, startled more than anything. Luth couldn't even see a scorch-mark on his slate-armored hide. The eidolon hovered for a moment on lazily beating wings, regarding its assailant with a quizzical hiss, and then with an inflated, nasty one.

Milda spun on her tail and darted away, and Bahamut took to the chase. Luth couldn't say he liked this plan very much. As bold and swift as the silver dragon was, the eidolon was thrice the size and even faster. Luth watched over his shoulder in horror as the streamlined monster encroached, as unstoppable as a guided missile, even when Milda swung low, trying to use the metropolis itself to stall him. The buildings and spires that she wove around posed no obstacle at all--flagpoles, traffic signals and light poles alike bent to Bahamut's passage like reeds.

"He's gaining on us!" Luth realized, panic seeping in and petrifying his clutch on Milda's nape.

'He is too fast for us,' she admitted, gliding beneath another overpass. Bahamut zipped over it and bore down on them in the next heartbeat. There wasn't any room to breathe--Luth could've spit on him, if that would've been worth anything, but he was positive that not a sliver of him or Milda was going to escape those shredding claws.

Milda flew directly for the broad side of a building and pulled some desperate brakes, throwing her feet forward in time to catch its vertical face. The bricks crackled under the stopping force, but Milda stayed composed, and thanks to the insane inertia Luth was pinned to her back for a lucky second instead of dropping fourteen stories. Bahamut less gracefully followed suit, his face plunging through a sixteenth-story window and his whole body whipping to the side, brutally smashing the wall.

In one quick breath Milda recovered her pace, bounced back into the air and ducked through a back alley. Precious seconds were afforded while Bahamut extricated his horns from the window and its flowerbox, eventually ripping it all asunder.

"You think we lost him?" Luth wondered once the monster was out of sight, but before Milda could assure either way, Bahamut vaulted over the nearest billboard and fired at them vengefully, the neighborhood igniting in blazing gusts. With a high somersault Milda pulled out of the brimstone and fell behind the eidolon, armed with another energy bolt. Before it could tear from her teeth Bahamut spun about, his tail connecting with the silver dragon's gut and sending her reeling.

Milda's winded cry eclipsed Luth's as they teetered through the air and landed oafishly on a net of iron crossbars. The Burmecian finally lost his grip, the impact tossing him several yards to the other side of what gradually came into focus as a skeletal, sky-scraping construction. There was a patchwork steel floor, some empty pipes and ducts, a neglected crescent wrench and a lot of invisible walls, the entire level devoid of anything else. Luth clumsily crawled to his hands and knees and peered over the side, where a muddy lot dotted with heavy machinery and portable sheds panned out far, far below.

He blinked and found his footing, and then Milda, who was struggling at the same. "Are you okay?" he shouted, that question first to mind--he'd wonder where Bahamut went once his vision quit spinning.

'I am fine,' she plainly said, and then an ominous, flapping shadow descended into Luth's narrow line of sight, answering his other question.

Milda picked herself up and about, meeting Bahamut face-to-face. Before Luth or even the eidolon could be surprised, she lunged at the Dragon King, teeth and claws anchoring in neck and chest. Bahamut was dragged down and crammed against the overhang of a building across the street, and there was a sound Luth never thought he'd hear in his life and never wanted to hear again, lest he go deaf: Bahamut screaming, a choleric, godless shriek that would've made Ramuh's thunder shrink back.

When the eidolon finally pried off Milda's killer vise, blood fizzed from the crook of his throat, staining the silver dragon's resplendent feathers. The blood was soon her own; Bahamut repaid the wound with a vicious uppercut. Milda sailed down the street like a shot put, a cloud of crimson-silver pillow-down in her wake. Luth bolted to the ledge she abandoned, striving for a better look, though he had no idea what to do--he never felt more helpless in his life, and he couldn't stand it.

A parked taxi broke Milda's fall, and while she shook off the cab's jagged pieces and sought her bearings Bahamut returned her favor, throwing himself full-throttle onto her vulnerable form. They wrestled over the street like mad dogs, leather folds and feather webs tearing and bleeding, until the chaos-wrecked street seemed to arrive at a standstill.

Luth let out a sigh for the respite, but once he had a clear view of Bahamut on top, he took his breath back--and then he saw Bahamut's drooling clamp on the base of her skull, his arms staked over her wrists and his bladed hips rocking into hers, the smaller dragon writhing fruitlessly under the king's unyielding, virile girth. The grisly scene took Luth a moment to comprehend, and once he did, he wasn't sure if he was going to pass out or throw up.

That, of all things, was too much. He hadn't even known Milda five minutes, but that wasn't the point. She was a friend of Boss's, and was only trying to help; that meant something. It meant a lot more than a rutting tyrant-dragon could take away, even one that was wrecking his adopted city and everything he'd come to love and hate about it. Indignant rage bloomed up Luth's spine and riled his hackles, and the Dragon's Hair appeared in his hand without asking.

Bahamut was too preoccupied to notice him, so when the aspiring Dragon Knight touched the street in three steep, bounding strides, rushed up in a supernatural, arcane tempest and scratched the Dragon King with his lance, it was an unwelcome surprise, at the least. At the most--more than any Dragon Knight in the last century could claim--Luth had rented a savage gash in Bahamut's ribs, contributing to the swell of angry humors that now bathed Milda. The belligerent dragon broke his hold to flail and snap at the interloper, and in that merciful moment Milda scraped away, rising on her tatters of wings.

Bahamut didn't let her departure go unchecked. He lost interest in Luth and hunted her down, climbing high and fast despite his own wings looking the losing part of a battle with a paper-shredder. There was a wicked glare on the tip of his fangs, and Luth wished with everything he had that he could block the charged shot, or simply warn her, but the silver dragon was too far and too slow. Even when she curled to avoid it, the King of Dragon's aim was true, piercing and rupturing with a spear of wraith-fire too hot to look at. A gruesome vestige of a dragon emerged from the flare, its wings a crumbling torrent of cinders and its belly like a burst watermelon.

"Milda!!" Luth wailed as Boss's summoned beast flopped to the roadside like a fowl struck out of the sky. A lambent emerald pyre enveloped her falling form, and on impact she broke into a swarm of silver sparkles that dispersed in the wind, like dropping a jar of fireflies. He numbly watched his only remaining help dissipate into the aether whence she came, and a menacing eidolon rise in her place.


Some graffiti was tattooed throughout the peeling blue paint of the fire escape--uninspired, scrawling nonsense such as hearts and gang slogans, all drawn with keys, pens and other mundane sharp objects. It was nothing compared to the bombastic spray-painted murals on the outside walls, but the closest to interior decorating the dingy shaft was going to see. It was dank and dark, old rainwater pooled into cockroach baths over the stripped cement, and all the light was borrowed from outside.

He galloped after Maroon, too leery of the rusted handrail to try any stunts. "Believe me," Boss griped to no one in particular (though he perversely hoped Althier could hear) on the way down yet another flight of stairs, "I've never said this before in my life, but now it's official: I am too old for this!"

His target veered through a portal three more floors down. It was far from the ground, but nonetheless an annoying position; by the time Boss got there, Maroon would either be completely out of sight or lying in wait, ready with an advantage--or both. If Boss was lucky, he could just push him into a dead-end and finish everything handily, but luck was never straight with him.

It wasn't anything he was expecting. The level was laid open, stubs of walls and doorframes cut along the floor like a half-planned maze. The outer walls were a wood-mottled, rat-nibbled cake, nests of cottony insulation piled throughout the exposed framework. Dusty windows squatted near the ceiling, spreading pallid daylight across the room like a disease. The only things standing in the shallow arena were a sparse forest of concrete supports and Maroon.

His back to Boss, he waited in an oblivious, indolent stance. From the way his shoulders gently heaved and his tail lazily dusted his heels, he looked winded but unperturbed--not in a hurry at all. He held his piece while Boss took stock of the austere room. It wasn't made for living; it wasn't made for anything. The whole project must've been abandoned years ago. It all seemed really... anticlimactic.

He wasn't thirty paces away; he had to have heard Boss stomping in. Was he ignoring him? It was a weird tactic, at best. Boss approached with all caution; his daggers hadn't left his hands the whole time. "Let's talk."

Maroon responded with a dry, tilted snort. "Ahahah. Why not? I'm all in favor of an alternative to senseless violence. Besides, the longer we talk, the more time Bahamut has to tear your city apart."

"Why are you doing this? What is it you want?"

Maroon finally confronted him, turning a lofty mask forward. "We are the Red Angels. We want nothing less than Gaia itself--to overthrow its governments, dominate its people, level their cities. We will inherit this planet and forge our new empire in Terra's name, just as our creator intended. Only then will Assimilation truly be fulfilled!"

The term grated against his psyche like a Qu's tongue. "Are you crazy?! Do you know what Assimilation meant? Everything was going to be destroyed!"

"No!" he barked in high obstinacy. "Gaia would be destroyed. Gaians would be destroyed."

"You're going to kill all those innocent people--"

"Like those mob boss friends of yours? The ones that just slaughtered each other with guns, over drugs? No one is innocent! There's no such thing. Gaians, Terrans--it's only a matter of winners and losers. No valiant struggle of good against evil. No heroes, no villains. I am merely here to bring it all back--the way it used to be, the way it was supposed to be, before you and your band of misfits threw everything off track. I'm going to raze this world to its foundations and rebuild it with fire and magic."

When the only comeback he received was contorted gawking, Maroon chortled self-righteously, "Ahaha, what's wrong? Speechless in the face of my magnificent goal?"

Boss lowered his brow and reasserted his grip on his daggers, keeping them close to his sides. "No, just horrified. So that's all you are now? A terrorist?"

Maroon seemed to have contumelies prepared. "You must like that word, or you can't think of a better one. I must ask, how did it feel when you executed your last grandson? Or were you even man enough to do it yourself?"

Refusing to give in to taunts, he tucked down the knot in his chest and growled, "If you think a guilt trip is going to get me down, you've got your work cut out for you."

"Haha, so cold. I'm sorry to hear that. Mother knew, didn't she? About you."

"...Yeah," he answered, flat and candid. "She was the only one."

Maroon gave a clipped, exasperated laugh. "And you weren't ever going to tell me, were you?"

"I was until you took off!" Boss said hotly in defense.

"You abandoned us first!"

"And you abandoned your mother! Is this how she brought you up? Is this what she wanted to see you become? A genocidal maniac?"

A nerve finally plucked, his face turned as ruddy as his hair as he thrashed the air and blustered, "Don't you dare speak for her! You don't know her! You don't know what she wanted!"

"The hell I didn't!" Realizing that a shouting match wasn't going to help, he tested a softer voice, entreating, "Listen, Alfy--"

"You can't call me that!"

Boss bit his tongue, stymied, as Maroon's tirade tapered into a dull, cynical roar.

"You weren't there! You were never there." He threw up a panting shrug, his dignified countenance besmirched with long-lost bitterness that cracked his voice and wetly teemed in the nooks of his eyes. "Where were you, Father? Where were you when she was running flight schedules, and signing inventory, and staying up after hours at the office trying to run your stupid company and raise a teenage son by herself? Where were you when I was buying groceries, and cleaning the house, and doing the laundry after class every day so she wouldn't come home to more work? Where were you the day I graduated fifth in my class? She was there! And where were you when she was lying in a hospital bed, dying from pneumonia?"

"Hey, where was I? Where were you?!" Boss returned, desperate to blame someone else for the trembling in his hands, even as that heavy-sick feeling seeped into his gut and filled his shoes with lead.

"I was there!" Maroon inveighed, faultlessly proud. "I came back to tell her goodbye. Even you could have done that."

Boss was rendered silent, his shamed gaze struck to the floor. The rusty man stewed in his accomplishment without pleasure, for a change. He only said, thickly, bluntly, "But you didn't."

A long minute passed, more dust varnishing the condemned lot while the windows rattled with an exoteric conflict. Suddenly remembering his place, Boss lifted his chin and met Maroon with a hardened glare. He wasn't going to let this boil over some petty personal matter; the entire world was at stake.

"So what do you want? What's your point? I was a bad father. A lousy husband. Is that what you wanna hear? I'm a fuckin' deadbeat. You don't have to take it out on the whole damn planet!"

Maroon's mad smile was drearier for getting back to business, though his ardor wasn't slaked in the slightest. "No... I don't want you to do anything. I don't want you to do anything but die. I want you to die watching me succeed where you betrayed and failed us. Then I will live forever with the stars, shining down on the glory of our people."

It was then that Boss realized exactly what made talking to his son so nauseating: Althier was a lost world's fulfilled antithesis--the very person Boss would've become if he had said yes to Garland--the very person Boss hated inside himself.

He braced one foot forward and steadied his daggers, something resolved in their mutual anguish--in their same ruined family. "Geez. You know what? I am sorry. I'm sorry I wasn't there to beat this crap out of you before it got out of hand."

"Hrmph." Maroon raised a callous hand, tendrils of black fire wafting off his fingertips like ghastly claws. "You can no longer patronize me. Your time of playing Gaia's little hero is over."

"Yeah, well, I've heard all this crap before. I'm going to give the same answer I did the first time!"

Boss rushed in, ready to end it all.


Bahamut flexed his neck and frog-like limbs and stamped on Milda's ashes, crowing triumphantly. Luth was livid with terror and outrage at once, his ankles quaking and his eyes boring an almost tangible hate through the back of the dragon's skull.

Somehow sensing the latent ire aimed his way, Bahamut stopped and fixed his faceless stare on the Burmecian. It wasn't until fire licked across the eidolon's lips that Luth realized what he was asking for.

"Oh, shit." His heels squeaked against a manhole cover as Luth remembered his sanity, turned tail and fled the way he came, in frantic flea-jumps back up the scaffolds. He tried to cut across the breezy husk of the thirteenth floor, but there was no evading the tidal flame that engulfed the building next. Luth jumped out in time to escape the burn, but the shockwave knocked his heels over his head. The world twisted off its axis and then crunched flat, Luth waking up in a dazed heap of pain.

Jolting upright, he first noticed the sloped rooftop he nearly broke his back on, then the polearm that had rolled into the hanging gutter, then the dislodged knapsack that had dumped its load all over the shingles, and finally the seething, serrated maw of the Dragon King, coming down to meet him. Luth flung himself towards his pack, groping for something--/anything/ useful at all, and he almost couldn't believe it when a little black revolver manifested in his mitt. He didn't waste the second it took to remember how it came about; he rolled onto his back, pointed it dead ahead and pulled the trigger.

The shot was laughably perfect. Bahamut recoiled with a gargling gasp, a bloody, puslike bubble spewing from his left eye like the yolk of a stillborn egg. Luth recognized the chance he bought and scurried to reclaim his other weapon while the eidolon pawed at his wretched socket. The Dragon's Hair danced free with Luth across the roof and over another alley.

He skipped along a fretful mile, ramparts, bridges, balconies, flimsy shingles and chimneys mere hurdles to the training Dragon Knight. He made some deceptive headway, half-reaching city limits and escaping into the outbounds, though ultimately, Luth only succeeded in infuriating the beast, whose revenge was thorough and hellish. The last building Luth touched was incinerated first, the blast of heat and splinters throwing his tiptoed balance and kicking him into a leap.

He jumped higher than he ever remembered--or the ground fell farther away than he ever remembered. It was slow-motion, twisting blurs of fire and charcoal, a smoky demon god, the forever-grasping sky and unattainable earth, and he was falling upside-down into the heavens, gravity forsaking him. His chest was seized with an adrenaline-bite, the air curdled in his lungs and his mind lost clarity, everything fracturing into grains of thought and feeling and memory.

It was hard to keep in mind that these were still allies--that these newborn monsters were people on my side.

Bahamut was breathing down his neck and the city was burning to the ground and the great castle clock stopped ticking and Luth's heart stopped beating and he recalled feelings he never had--cozy passion in a luxurious studio apartment, a carnal flicker under moonlit watchtowers--and things he never saw, pages of expired, bittersweet lives unraveling behind his eyelids.

Vivi looked the part of a true demon, lightning and fire pouring from each hand like liquid death. He became a walking arsenal of magic that not even devils would dabble in, much less a small child.
Eiko looked like a cherub sent from Odin's court, her horn a hot white beacon and her tiny, sentimental wings suddenly lifelike.
Amarant turned a treacherous black, sucking the light out of the room--a nightmare spawned from the shadowy corners where day turned to night, except his claws were real and terrible.
Quina devoured senselessly, foaming at the mouth like some rabid beast whose bite nothing survived--nor remained.
Steiner glowed and howled like the mighty, righteous paladin crossing Valhalla's threshold, and Dagger was a fledgling valkyrie, clad in the ghostly armor of the eidolons.

The world wiped out. Luth was hanging by the clouds, waiting for the white everything to seep under his skin and dissolve him into nothing, just like the Genesis Building, and Milda, and all things the eidolons touched--just like in the stories.

Zidane was a comet streak, feral pink, shimmering blue, fur and claws, and his energy was so brilliant that "magic" could not describe it, much less contain it. The wrath he wove out of nothing was more than a match for Kuja's spells, and it was only then that there was no doubt; he was a being from Another World.

And when I Tranced...

Instead, she took his hand, keeping him whole with one simple, warm grasp. He tried to narrow down her features, but they were too dreamlike, hiding behind a ruby dragoon's helm--there was only a crystal-flash, an impression too fickle to capture with the eyes, though the image burned into his mind forever, like a photograph. Her face was drawn smooth and her hair was ivory-silk and her eyes were coy aquamarine and her voice was a little like Milda's and a little like Julia's and a little like his mother's, strong as a soldier and delicate as a lily.

"Looks like you could use some help."

He remembered accepting with no words, and as he drank the precious nectar his ancestor offered, his spirit grew inflamed with scales, claws and wings of his own. His core ached and burned and lusted for desperate serpent’s breath, and suddenly his heady roar was not his own. He realized, above and beyond himself, that he was no longer Luthane Crescent; he was the Knight of Dragons, the one to bear the banner of the old gods. His coat was transcendent mythril tempered with valiant souls, his crest was blazing amber, and his lances were as brilliant and numerous as the hairs on Reis's divine mane.

As far as Bahamut witnessed, his flitting prey jumped straight into the sky and vanished. He jerked to a stop on his frayed sails and skimmed the smoking wreckage, basking in the gusty slag that peppered his form. Stumped but not daunted, the dragon turned his remaining eye heavenward, only in time to catch the hailstorm of spears. There was a hundred if there was one, and suddenly the eidolon's vicinity was a god-cursed pincushion, the air itself screaming with every searing streak.

Bahamut's railing shriek didn't stop the holy bolt that stapled the hinge of his right wing to the stony cathedral behind him, nor the spear that fastened his left shoulder to the same. His legs bucked and his tail flogged the bricks in conniptions, shaking the wall like a brittle stack of gelatin. As he worked his pierced joints free, he craned his neck to behold Lindblum's descending champion, a dragon-sent lancer haloed in ghost-glow. Imposing above all was his weapon, a giant golden rod barbed with furious flame, and when it came down the knight followed, swift and terrible.

The dragon couldn't even work up a spurt of counter-fire before the blade was jammed through the roof of his mouth like a can opener. It stopped for nothing, tearing through his gullet, cleaving his chest and erupting with a splash of cinder-gore through the base of his tail. Bahamut's revenge amounted to nothing more than a mortal howl as every tooth, horn, claw and scale disintegrated into wispy eidolon-lymph. Each particle of the failing summon was its own feather-garnet, lighter than dandelion seeds and darker than blood--and even these were swallowed in the very conflagration he started.

With one last, grievous cry, the King of Dragons rejoined the realm of specters, and the whole city sighed.


Maroon slung a Thunder off his sleeve, and Boss's blades bounced off the electric whiplash, tossing mercurial confetti across the room. The Red Angel followed with his other hand, and Boss cut through the attack just the same, shucking off arcs of star-glitter. Boss hopped off his other foot and charged in close, vying to choke off the magic attacks, but Maroon wasn't finished. He caught the blonde with a handful of fire that knocked him clean off his feet and back to where he started, tumbling and smoking.

He wiped his eyes, smoothed down the singed corners of his shirt, yelped and sprang out of the way of a bolt of foxfire. It chased Boss in jittery loops, hissing and coiling like a snake conjured from hell's cold blue flames. The blonde bobbed and skipped around it like jump rope, from tips of toes to hands and knees, every pliable limb wheeling out of its path.

Maroon stood back and watched with an entertained glint as his father skittered in circles like a cat with its tail on fire. Boss finally pinned the apparition with his heel, stifled it and faced the other man again, ruffled and supremely unamused. The blonde's glower melted into an apprehensive cringe when he realized that the diversion had a purpose, one that was charging up like a bonfire around Maroon's violet-licked form.

The Flare crashed over Boss like a tsunami, roaring and surging in a whirlpool of heat, sound and color that rocked off the red end of the spectrum and caved into itself like a dying sun. It consumed everything in its sphere of fire, sucking the air out of the room, turning the floor into jet glass and gutting the wood and foam rafters, leaving behind simmering pipe-stumps.

Maroon looked into the subsiding spell for a trace of his target, and held his breath when he found Boss crouched in the epicenter, arms folded protectively over his head and an iridescent, soft-white eggshell warding hazards off its caster. He wasn't any worse than his attire, frayed and burnt on the edges but generally in one piece.

The Red Angel clucked at the Shell, presuming to be impressed. "White magic? Interesting. Where did you learn that?"

Boss carefully drew himself back up, blinking hard as his eyes readjusted to the pale light. "A little bird taught me."

Maroon bared another will-o'-wisp fist. "Old dogs really can learn new tricks, then?"

Daggers spun forward, ready. "Oh, I still have plenty up my sleeve."

Thundara, Blizzara. They tore through the room, one hunting the other through sheets of ice and storm-fire. Fira. Maroon nimbly pranced ahead, weaving black magic behind him like a streamer. The wiry ceiling clattered and the walls corroded under the magic gales, plaster and plywood catching half-doused fire, breaking apart and decking the hall with wet cinders.

Boss plowed through the hurricane, every wave burning hot and cold through his skin and into his bones. He dodged what he could and gritted his teeth through the rest, keeping up a fighting sprint. Maroon was more athletic than he gave credit; the man was one step behind every pillar, just barely avoiding Boss's sight. More than once a dagger clashed futilely with concrete, and Boss cursed and doubled back, ducking under another lightning strike.

Persistence became his best weapon, and gradually the spells grew less furious and less frequent. Boss faked a step around another support, and Maroon fell gasping into his path. Nothing silenced a spell like a punch to the gut, and Boss shut that Aero up through Maroon's ribs, taking him on a trip to the floor.

The magician coughed vacuously and rolled onto his back, searching for wind, while Boss bent over him, one knee balanced on his sternum and both blades crossed like scissors over his throat.

"You want to live forever?" Boss lectured, now that he had his son in his place, "You don't know what you're talking about. You don't have a damn clue."

Maroon cracked a grin, breathless and sardonic. "Heh. So eager to kill your only son? Well, what should I expect from the man who murdered his own brother?"

Boss set his jaw and delicately pressed the daggers into the tender flesh, drawing two fine hairs of blood. Maroon sucked in a timorous breath and stilled his tongue. "You sure do take after him--but even he got the picture, in the end. Looks like you still have a lot to learn."

Maroon began to whisper, his will tireless and ever-defiant, "You can kill me, but you'll never win... our creator's plan will prevail, with or without me! Ah-a-ssimilation..."

The words were snuffed out as Boss lent the rest of his weight to his knee. The blonde was so angry he sputtering. "You--you--you know your creator is a pile of bones at the bottom of another really big fucking pile of bones, right? He doesn't give a shit about your cracked-out idea of Assimilation. I watched him die. I watched it all burn. And I even felt sorry for... Argh!"

He lifted Maroon by the collar, jumped off and rashly threw him aside in one fluid stroke. "I wanted to help you! I didn't want to believe you'd all lost your fucking minds! Go."

Maroon peeled himself up, fingering the quiet leak across his neck. He passed Boss a tentative look, his pride wounded and his features strangely blank as he lay half-prone on the slick, ashen cement. He didn't dare move until Boss broke the silence, his cry echoing harshly through the ruins. "Go! You're a fucking idiot. You, Pevy, all of you--you're all a bunch of stupid bastards." He then backed off, refusing to look at him, and finished glumly, "But I can't kill you. Just go home. Get out of here. You're no son of mine. I never want to see you on this continent again."

Beaten and drained, the magician shifted wearily, trying to stand. "Very well..." he imparted, his voice subdued. A furtive hand fumbled with his bag while he found his footing. "As you wish..." He narrowed a malignant glance over his shoulder, his voice turning to acid. "...Your Majesty!"

A dark blur flew from his hand and stung Boss in the shoulder. "Agh!" He stumbled, surprised, and plucked the projectile out. It was a dart, feather-tipped and plain, though as Boss examined it his vision started to warp and fade. "What...?"

He knew what it was, too late. The dart slipped from his dull fingers as he recalled the mind-burning lull of sleep, and his legs buckled unbidden beneath him. The world turned green and grey and felt gross, and Boss could see Maroon stalking towards him through the paralyzing haze.

"Ah, hah ha... I see my chimera venom has run you through again. You keep falling for the same old tricks. You're as stupid as you are old and pitiful, like a dumb, senile dog."

"Enough with the goddamn dog metaphors..." Boss rasped, relying on wavering hands and knees for support. His head was too heavy--his fingers slackened around the numb grip of his daggers--sweat frosted his neck and brow--he was so tired...

"I can't; they're too fitting, especially when you just don't get it. This isn't about Garland and the old Terra. This is going to be a new world! This is the end of your story, and with you, Gaia's chapter will be over. It will be our turn. I will burn down the old, decrepit cities and build over them, with the power of the very monsters these Gaians owe their salvation to." Maroon stooped by his ear to boast, "Isn't it beautifully ironic? And your death will be the first of an avalanche--you should feel honored! You're going to be at the conception of a whole new world, and you can't even lift a finger to do anything about it."

Boss shuddered. He wasn't going to sit and listen to this. He drew a hefty breath and managed to lift one blade towards Maroon, but it was a pathetic feat. Maroon kicked it away, watching it skid into the nearest wall. He then took Boss's thick blonde mop in one hand and the remaining dagger in the other, requiting his injured wrist by twisting Boss's. The blonde gave a strangled croak as his weapon was wrenched loose, and then Maroon had it turned down on him.

"Seems that like true vermin, the only way to kill you is to cut off your head." He jerked Boss's head up, exposing his heat-blistered, venom-sapped neck, and raised a chopping blow, his eyes gleaming with malicious victory.

It was so dark now, Boss couldn't tell if his eyes were closed or not--it was just wheezing breath and the smell of smoke and a painful knot in his hair and Maroon's singing spite, and it was tied into his right sneaker, waiting for a good shot--waiting for a monkey's prehensile tail to yank it out and pass it to his limp hand.

"So, farewe--"

It was so sudden, the word stuck in his throat. All at once Boss moved, everything vital driving a metal spit through Maroon's belt, and the magician dropped him and turned into himself, staring at the butterfly knife in bug-eyed shock.

"And you said mercy was my weakness," Boss grumbled raggedly as he clambered to his feet. His sallow, sweat-laced complexion made him look the worse part of undead, but his eyes yet glistened with life, real and potent. "That venom's only gonna work once--I'm immune now."

He was more-or-less bluffing; the poison was just as cripplingly noxious as before, but Boss was too sick of being tired to let it keep him down. He was going to take care of business first, everything else be damned. He forcefully took Maroon by the shoulders and drove him against a column, his Cure threading around the blade left in his gut. "Don't you go dying on me!" he snarled, and Maroon ineptly gaped in return, a coppery, mortal frothing in the back of his throat. "I'm not finished yet."

There was a dissonant warble outside and hell burned dimly all around them and Maroon was going to vomit his own blood except Boss had him by the gullet, clamping it shut with one cold iron hand as he told him, hard and fast and full of tears, "I loved your mother! I loved her like you'll never know. And I'm a damn fool, but I still love you, too. I always did."

And as he spoke he changed, a strange luster possessing him, crawling up his legs and playing with his raiment, pink and threadbare blue and then fuzzy fur--his pupils became feral slits and his teeth beamed, white and sharp. "But I love Gaia more than anything. She was there for me first, and she'll be there for me last. And if you're going to make me choose between you and her, I'm sorry, but it's gonna be her. As long as she's here, so are my friends. Even when they die--even when I move on, they're with her. They live on in her memory, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you destroy everything they've worked so hard to protect!"

Maroon shrank in his hold, now purple-pale and too terrified to even shut his eyes, and how he wished he had run away while he had the chance.

"What do you think, Alfy? Where do eidolons come from? Where are they born? In secret gardens in the sky? In the rotting graveyards of dead planets? In a man's dreams? In the stars?"

The metamorphosis didn't stop, nor did Boss's grip relent, even when there wasn't a Genome anymore; there was a were-monster wreathed in white feathers, an angelic sasquatch with a demon's girth, a towering beast, a silver dragon cast in white gold. It had a terrible, husky growl, stinking of something more pure than hate, nothing like Boss or Maroon or anything /human/, but the words it uttered were clearly and definitely /him/, through and through.

"The answer is all of them--a little truth in every one. I'm going to show you the secret of eternal life. Pay close attention."

It pulled Maroon off the ground, leveling his nose with a great, pearl-toothed snout, and the creature grinned--wild, high and crazy, always and forever the King of Thieves.

"I don't know how else to say this... but this is gonna hurt me a lot more than it hurts you."


It was misting when Luth came around, as if the gentle downpour could atone for so many scorched homes and lives. He was spread on his back on an elevated crosswalk, his weapon inches too far from his torpid reach. He was woozy and numb--the power was fading, his strength like wings of wax and his thoughts mired in the lukewarm afterbirth of a trance.

The world was turning monotone-bleary, the sirens down the street drowning in the grey noise between his ears, when Luth had another vision, perhaps: a great white dragon, landing gingerly nearby. Its pearly glow and beastly shape waned in his half-lidded stupor--he turned his head to the side and it was gone. Through the damp corners of his eyes he watched the flashing red-yellow lights congregating in the distance, relief flooding him as emergency teams finally found their bearings.

Luth grinned like a dope, not caring one bit if he was left on the street in the rain forever. Everything felt... fine.

Pattering feet approached, and a murky-blonde shadow fell across him. "Lu!" the shade spoke like Boss, and when Luth mustered a blink, there he was. The familiar Genome leaned over him, frizzled with dew and matted with blood, but otherwise intact. Distress was etched around his eyes. "Lu! Are you okay? Geez, you look like hell. I can't believe I sent you out there like that; I'm such a jackass. Lu! Holy shit, look at me, tell me you're okay."

Did he look that bad? Luth could've returned the sentiment, but he didn't know how to say it. "I saw her, sir..." It was so hard to speak, it felt like he was drowning.

Boss screwed up his brow, nonplussed. "What?"

"She was beautiful, just like you said..."

Luth could faintly discern Boss's efforts to prop him up. "Uh, Lu? I think you got knocked on the head there."

Maybe. He didn't mind. He didn't mind enough to mind. He liked the cool mist settling on his whiskers, the scent of quenching fires and the feel of Boss's warm arms around his back. He followed the draining euphoria into peaceful darkness, murmuring as his eyes closed, "It wasn't a grand dragon, but I think it'll do."

"Lu?" was the last thing he heard--a little thread of panic. "Lu!"
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