Categories > Games > Final Fantasy 9 > Prince of Thieves

17. Exeunt

by Myshu 0 reviews


Category: Final Fantasy 9 - Rating: R - Genres: Drama,Fantasy - Characters: Freya Crescent - Warnings: [!!!] [V] - Published: 2007-11-07 - Updated: 2008-07-17 - 11011 words - Complete

17. Exeunt

Hey, Lu.

"Ow! Geez, watch it, that kinda stings."

"Oh, sorry! I didn't see you there. Those burns look bad. You should get them looked at."

I'm sorry it had to end like this.

"Nah, I'm fine, don't worry about it. Say, Julia, thanks for all your help."

"It's no problem. I just wish there was more I could do, you know? I can't even get to work; the streets are swamped, and the police shut down all air traffic."

"Yeah, I know. Hey, speaking of, I need to head out, but can you do me one more big favor?"

But it's for the best, you know? You'll be better off. You'll see.

"Sure. Where are you going?"

"Nosy, aren't we?"

"What can I say? It's my job."

"Heh. Yeah, you're... Listen, take care of Lu. I think he'll be fine; he's just exhausted, but..."

"Of course. Like I said, it's no problem. When will you be back?"

I never know how to say this, but...


Thanks, and...

"What? ...Hey!"

See you when I see you.


He slept lifelessly, the singing downpour not even evoking homesick dreams. The skies still wept over Lindblum a day later, when he woke to the staccato of raindrops on the glass doors of his balcony.

The bed was foamy-soft. The starched pillow was cool to his ears. Luth recognized his ceiling first, with its off-white tiles dyed grey in the hourless daylight. He studied the swirling grain of the stucco for a minute, his eyes making trick sparrows and gargants out of nothing. Current events occurred to him gradually, the whole week rewinding and then mapping out again: they went to Gatortown, they "talked" to Pevy, they made a series of illicit phone calls, they ate pizza on a deathwatch, they got drunk in Treno, they worked in the office, they were going to the Festival...

He started in a broken spasm, remembering hard, but his body refused the knee-jerk. Luth fell back to his pillow with a rough groan, railing against the onslaught of humming, sticky pain. His stomach seethed, his right shoulder was stiff and his calves and arms were riddled with lacerations he couldn't even guess--at the time, he was too busy trying to keep his tail out of the frying pan to notice a few scratches, and Milda took the brunt of the attack, besides.

He recalled the last of her with a compassionate pang. 'Oh, Milda... I'm sorry.'

Passing over the bad memory, he sat up, mindful of the sore spots. While waiting for the vertigo to fade (he felt drunk with too much sleep), a curious glance roved his body, discovering tracks of bandages around a simple white shirt and canvas shorts. Someone had tied him up pretty comfortably, and taken care to clean him, too; the garments were fresh, and he could smell minty soap on his fur.

It didn't feel like the day after a disaster. His room was still there. Yesterday's dirty clothes were lobbed into a neat mess in the corner, half a glass of juice was left atop the minibar and his clock read a sane number; the lights hadn't even gone out. The Dragon's Hair stood in the corner behind the armchair, its fanned blades interlaced with the wings of his old halberd.

Trophy wounds aside, the only souvenirs from the ill-fated festival rested in a modest stack on the nightstand: a dusty book, a large garnet, a shard of lime quartz and a folded piece of paper. Luth couldn't believe it. He lurched towards the table, ignoring the stitching pain, and took up the leather-bound keepsake. Anxious fingers scrambled across the pages, dabbling in the old, delicate handwriting. It was all the same--it was all back, just when he was sure he'd lost it forever. Luth closed the diary to his chest and puffed gratefully at the ceiling. "Thank the gods..."

Tap-tap. Luth spun a baffled glance to the door. Who was knocking? Boss never knocked--not anymore, anyway. Before he could ask, the door cracked open and a delicate, mousy nose peered inside.


Luth recognized the voice instantly, and his tongue uncoiled with a squeak. "M-Miss Knickoff?"

Julia entered and flashed an encouraged smile. "You're finally up! You've been asleep all day. I was starting to really worry."

"I, you, uh," Luth babbled, at a loss. "What are you doing here?"

She self-consciously brushed some glossy strands of silver behind her ear. "Oh, my apologies. Of course you don't remember; you've been unconscious since the attack. My van was stranded when I found you and Boss. He let me stay the night here. Before he left, he asked me to take care of you."

Luth relaxed a notch at the mention of Boss. "He did?"

Julia nodded and sat across from Luth on the bed. His gaze jerked away from hers as he felt the blood rise to his cheeks. She smelled like powdered buttercups, and even in the cloudy gloom her eyes glowed like candles, just like that first night...

"Hey, Luth," her soothing tone cut into his shy reminiscing, "I saw what you did out there. You were really brave."

Was he? He honestly couldn't remember much of what happened after Milda fell. His voice teetered over the throbbing in his ears as he tried to account for himself. "Ah, no, I--it wasn't anything. I was roped into it, really..."

"Hehe. Give yourself some credit! You looked like a real Dragon Knight." Her hand reached to the middle of the bed, culling his attention, and Luth swallowed dryly and chanced another look. Her expression was soft, smiling, and intent with... admiration? For him? "It was incredible."

His heart stopped--he couldn't hear himself anymore. The way she was staring--was he imagining it or was she...? "I..."

A harsh electronic jingle jarred the moment, and reality took over. Luth waited on the interruption while Julia reached to the pocket phone on her blue sequin belt and flipped it over one knee. The device emitted a coarse South Gate accent.

"Julia! Cripes, you okay, lass?"

"Ruben!" she exclaimed, practically shouting into the phone's tiny camera panel. "I'm so glad to hear from you! Where is everyone? Are you okay?"

"Oh yeah, everyone's at the station. We'll live another day, looks like. You won't believe what it's been like up here. The city's a bloody mess. I'm up to my arse in calls. Everybody's got a piece of the story. Hey, where are Chuck and Randy?"

"They're with me. The van's okay, but all the streets are blocked; we had to stay with a friend last night."

"Tch, well, glad you're in one piece. You won't believe what Howie scooped up from HQ, though. Says the police got a hold'a that Red Angel guy, the leader."

Julia's outburst was fringed with joy, while Luth blanched behind her. "You're kidding! So they took him in?"

"Oh yeah, in a body bag. Decapitated. Craziest thing, his body turned up right at their front door, plain as day in the middle of everythin'. Checked his bag and there they were: the three Jewels. And what else? His bloomin' head. Grisly, eh?"

"That's awful. Do you think he was responsible for the attack?"

"I'd put all my money on it. And it keeps gettin' better. He's a Genome, of all the bloody things. Like those monkeys don't have a bad enough rap already. Them Nativist pricks are gonna blow their stacks over this one, I guarantee it. But I gotta wonder who did 'im in--I mean, you don't put your own bloody head in a duffel bag. Oh, and they got an ID on 'im, too: Maroon Tribal. Ever heard of 'im?"

"No," Julia admitted, not registering the throttled sound from Luth's direction. "But I'm so relieved to hear that--I mean, it's terrible, but I hope it means this is all over."

"Ah, hell, me too. I mean, bad news is good news for our business, but y'can have too much of a good thing, y'know?"

"Ruben..." she chided the insensitive remark.

"Ahaha, I'm just kiddin'! Gotta keep your sense o'humor at times like these, eh? Hey, speakin' of work, did you get any good footage?"

"Absolutely," she replied, assuming some professional pride as she stood and began to walk around the room. "I followed it all the way to the end--lost some in the middle, but there's still plenty for the floor to work with."

Luth donned a sour smirk, noting her disregard for his order to get out of harm's way. She kept pacing, oblivious.

"Excellent, beautiful, love. I knew you'd come through for us. Get it down to the station as soon as you can, eh?"

"Of course. I'm a little tied up here, but I'll head over as soon as the coast is clear. Take care over there, okay?"

"Oh yeah, you know me. Gotta go, good luck, lass."

"Good luck, Ruben." She clapped the phone off and turned back to Luth, somewhat meliorated. "Can you believe it? They think they caught the Red Angels! Well, the leader. But that's such good news."

"I heard..." Luth said weakly, finding it hard to share her exuberance. Suddenly Boss's absence worried him more. "Did you say Boss left? Did he say where he was going?"

She gave a stymied frown. "No, I didn't manage to squeeze it out of him." She then snapped her fingers towards the bundle on the nightstand. "Oh, but he did want me to make sure you read that note."

"Note?" Luth found the card, which had fallen aside when he picked up the diary. Its message was penciled in Boss's slanted handwriting on a torn square of lined paper, like some grade-schooler's dog-smitten homework. The first word had been crudely erased, but then written over so diligently that Luth couldn't make out what it once was--just the tail of a 'y'.

Good luck, Lu. You've been a real pal. I never knew how to thank you for everything you've done for me. Believe me, true friends are the rarest, greatest treasure of all. Money won't buy you an ounce of happiness. It's something you have to find in others.

I leave everything to you, now. I trust you to do what's best--and I mean for YOU, not for me or Ultima Express or your family honor or whatever. A friend once showed me that being true to yourself is the most important thing you can learn.

As for me? It's time to disappear again. This time for good. I've cast out my father, my brother, and now my son. I've spent too long watching everyone I ever cared about pass on without me. It's about time I caught up with them.

I have a date with the god of death where the dead tree grows. (But life is never that simple, or easy.)

Live long (haha) and be happy, Lu. Freya would've been proud of you.

P.S: I know how these things tend to look, so don't worry. Tell them Bahamut ate me--nobody can spit at that. And don't worry about Milda, she's fine, right where I left her. As for the company, if any bastards try to take advantage of you, go ask Sheryl to open File B. She'll know what you're talking about.

He was on his feet before he'd even finished. "Oh gods."

"What?" Julia pried, alight with renewed concern.

Luth was rushing out the door, book and note still caught up in his arms, not sparing his good sense and recovery another second. "I have to go--I have to find him!"

Julia chased him down the hall and into the elevator, where she finally got a grip on his panic. He was excessively jamming the down button, as if that would hasten their descent, when Julia grabbed his shoulder and yanked him away. "Luth, calm down! What does it say?"

Luth sagged against the wall with a despairing sigh. "I have to find him, before it's too late. I think he's going to... oh, gods." He smothered his face with a heavy hand, unable to cope with the thought, much less utter it.

Julia picked the note out of his shaky grip and skimmed over it. She puckered her brow, nonplussed. "A goodbye letter? What is he talking about? This barely makes sense. It almost sounds like..." Disbelief rippled over her features. "Oh my God, he wouldn't. Would he?"

Luth returned a hollow, guilty look. "...He's mentioned it."

"What?" That admission raised the woman's umbrage. "You mean you saw this coming? And you didn't do anything?"

Cornered, Luth gulped, straining to defend himself. "It-it wasn't that simple!"

"If you see someone--your friend! If my friend was talking about doing something like that, I'd seek help!"

"How're you supposed to help a suicidal immortal?!" he blurted, and at Julia's aghast, "What?" he instantly regretted it. He beat his knuckles against his head and grumbled, "Oh gods, I've said too much."

The elevator luckily opened just then. As Luth dove into the shipping bedlam, more for a way out than a way in, Julia hollered after him, "Hey, wait! Do you even know where you're going?"

The Burmecian spun in circles and then stopped, confounded. "No!" he wailed.

Julia took his side again, her temper graciously subsiding. "Then let's try asking around. Maybe someone saw him leave."

They scoured the central corridor for a helpful face, but no one could pinpoint the elusive Genome. The halls were rife with frustrated pilots, crewmen and security personnel. The café was full of loungers with nowhere else to go. Sheryl's desk was abandoned. Finally, a familiar face emerged, and Luth could've exulted until he recognized Berto's sloping mug. He cursed his luck while trying it, anyway. "Berto! Listen, I need some help."

The tapir was picking his nose with a lemon lollipop, but he paused to greet the Burmecian pair with a dopey wave, leaving the sucker lodged in his left nostril. Julia supplied a bemused look, yet refrained from comment.

"Um, have you seen Boss? Like, recently?"

Berto swayed in place, as if hypnotized by the question, but then his eyes rolled forward and found Luth again. "Yeah, I saws Boss."

"You did? When?"


"Did you see where he went?"

"'m left," he murmured.

Luth grimaced. Getting information from Berto was an intuitive exercise. "Gone? Like, on an airship?"

"No, walked."

"Into town?"

He nodded, the lollipop bobbing in his snout like a buoy.

"Did he say where he was going?"

"No... he was actin' funny."

"Funny? Like, what, joking?"

"No... quiet. Sad."

The Burmecians exchanged foreboding glances. At Luth's distant, distraught look, Julia spoke for him. "Thank you, Berto." She led him away, and Berto shrugged, plucked the sucker free, sniffed it and stuck it in his mouth.

Julia sat him (and the diary) down at a little table beside the café. "Oh gods, we're going to lose him..." he lowed miserably, collapsing over the book like a house of cards.

"No we're not," Julia reproached him with confidence. "Just relax! Think. Did he ever mention going some place?"

"No! He never said anything! He just..." Luth lifted his head with a belated memory. "I overheard him talking to Miss Sheryl, just the other day. He said he was planning to leave the company. But he didn't tell me. He didn't say anything. And now this!" He clawed pathetically at his unkempt bangs, trying to repress the biggest migraine ever. "Oh..."

Julia laid the rogue paper flush on the countertop. "Com'on, let's look at the evidence together. He must've left a clue in this note." A pearly pink claw picked out the line, "'I have a date with the god of death where the dead tree grows.' What do you think he means?"

"I don't know... um, well..." He strung up a lackluster history lecture. "The dwarves used to call the Iifa Tree the 'Tree of Life,' but it actually harvested the souls of the dead through its roots. It's also where the Necromancer was defeated, sorta."

Julia nodded brightly. "See? You're thinking! And that makes perfect sense." She rose and hitched his arm, about to take off. "Let's try--"

Luth anchored her by the wrist. "No, wait. The Iifa Tree is gone. I mean, it's not the same--not undead, like it was."

She shrugged at his objection and stressed, "It's pretty close, isn't it? More importantly, it's a lead, and the only one we have. Isn't it worth following?"

"Yes, but..." He looked into a private horizon, where his thoughts mingled in the sunset of someone else's memories. "...Life is never that simple. It's just bothering me. He's been trying to do this for... for forever! But it's never worked. What makes him so sure he'll be successful this time? What does he know now that he didn't before?"

She tried to break his distracted rambling, unease gaining over impatience. "Trying to do what? What are you talking about? Luth, this is getting really weird."

He snapped back with a tired, cynical laugh. "Haha! You have no idea." He traced the bindings of the neglected book with his fingers, wondering... "It's crazy, but I feel like the answer has been right in front of me this whole time."

"I just wonder sometimes: which god did I piss off to deserve this?"
"Apparently the god of death, sir."
"What did you just say?"
"I only meant the Great Necromancer, the one you beat--no disrespect, sir."
"...Huh. Heh. Heheh. Hahaha. Ha!"
"What's funny, sir?"
"Ah, Lu. You're a genius."

Luth hadn't given it much thought at the time, but... "The god of death...?" Where had he heard something like that before?

Once again, the answer was waiting at his fingertips, and as the pages fell open it all came together like a train wreck.

"Check it out, rookie. It's Dark Matter."

With Kuja's help and the power of the Desert Star, Brahne summoned Odin, the great eidolon of death, to wreak doom on the surviving Cleyrans.

"Dark Matter? What's it do?"
"Oh, it's somethin'."

Dagger held it to her bosom and prayed, just like she did to all the other eidolon stones, and it throbbed in her hands like a second heart, black and sinister. She awoke from her commune, eyes full of pain and sorrow more poignant than before, and declared, "Odin. It's Odin, the Death God."

"...This'll do."

The diary shut with a conclusive whomp as Luth shot out of his seat. "The god of death!"

Julia blinked. "What?"

"I think..." He kept Julia's hand and took the lead, hope revitalizing him. "I want to check somewhere else first. We definitely need a ship. Com'on!"

They tried the indoor docks, though their progress was stunted at every move towards an airship. The Regent's agents had seized the airways, and not even the second hand of the man who owned the port of entry could get clearance. Julia was helping Luth brood over their lack of options when a gruff, shrill honk accosted them.

"Hey, rat-boy!"

They turned together, Luth perking up curiously at the familiar moogle. "Mister Arpy?"

Arpy bumbled through the air on frenetic little wings, his puffy body being tugged in too many directions. Gravity more than anything managed an upright landing at their feet. "What the shit, there's two of you," he acknowledged the other Burmecian before turning on Luth. "Hey! Where's your significant other?"

Luth gave a mortified squawk while Julia explained, "Boss Ultima left a while ago. We were just looking for him."

"Fuck!" flew out of Arpy's chipmunk mouth, and bystanders tilted their brows and shuffled away. "I was gonna ask him for a smoke. I need one like my last three girls have needed to douche. None of you can spot me a stick, can ya?"

Luth blinked, Julia gaped breathlessly and Arpy waved the two down after a half-second's hesitation. "Ah, get bent. Have you seen what's going on downstairs? It's a total fuckfest--and not the fun kind. No bitches, no hos, no nuthin'! Just a bunch of pigeons runnin' around trying to tear up the joint. Worst looting I've seen since that drunk trucker parked on a conductor and knocked out the power to Smithy Street--Lee Jackets and Arrow Coats raining from the sky like the fuckin' designer clothes lottery. And where the fuck is Theresa?! I don't even like that bitch, but she owes me big." He granted Julia a second look. "Say, don't I know you from somewhere, sweetcheeks?"

She caught her composure and introduced herself, one hand to her breast. "Julia. Maybe you've seen me on Channel 8?"

"Channel 8? Oh hell, you're that Knickoff broad--I saw you on the tube yesterday. Fuck! I've been running my fat gob in front of a reporter. You didn't hear nuthin', you hear me?" Tuning her out, he continued, "Anyway rat-boy, it's all gone to balls. I need Ultima to come down and punch Armond's fucking nose in. I can't find Griffin--big blue lout's skipped town--and I can't do it." He held up his paws, a pair of infantile nubs on tapering stumps. "Do you see these things? I couldn't out-box a squirrel fetus. Now Ultima's got those huge clown mitts, like a gorilla--hey!" He stopped short as Luth abruptly marched off. "Where are you going?"

"I'm going to find him!" Luth asserted, heading straight for the stairs that dropped to the docking floor and the officer stationed at the top with a barring strand of rope.

"But they won't let us through!" Julia tried to catch him, though he wouldn't even look back. "I don't care!"

Luth honed in on the blockade agent, prepared to hear the same speech again. He'd tried this route just a minute ago. If persistence was worth anything, though... "I have to get down there! I need an airship!"

The agent lowered the brim of his hat over darkening eyes. "Sir, I've said already, no one is allowed--"

Luth stepped in close, about to bluster the cap clean off his head. "You're not listening to me! Someone's life is in danger!"

A strict hand pushed him back. "You can go and call the authorities--"

"No! There's no time!" Luth shook his head and arms fiercely, carelessly flicking the hat off its perch. It tumbled to the floor, and while the agent looked fazed and balding, Luth stamped and growled at thin air, "Ugh, he's right, the police are useless."

The agent laid a hand on his sidearm, becoming the sort to use force. "Am I going to have to have you restrained, sir?"

Arpy squeezed into the fold before Luth could make real trouble. "What the fuzzy nuts are you peons doing? Outta my way, I'll fix this!" He settled between the opposing men and stuck a puny, commanding claw up at the agent. "Hey! You remember me?"

He ignored Arpy, addressing Luth over the interruption, "Your and your moogle please step back, before I have to remove you from the premises."

"His moogle?!" Arpy flared with such force that everyone in the bay held their breath to listen. "You don't know who I am, do you? Well, what about Heidi?"

The agent blinked in recoil, noticeably struck by the name. Arpy proceeded to unload on him, "Oh yeah, that's the look. You remember now, don't you, motherfucker? Well remember this, too: I know where you work, and I know where you play, and when you're playing with her, you're fucking with me. So unless you want everyone else in this damn flying monkey cage to remember it, too, you'll get your shit together and give this rat a V.I.P pass, if you know what I mean. He's a made man, and if you don't remember what that means, you're gonna be a dead man."

The shocked expression tapered into an indignant one. "Are you threatening--"

Arpy heedlessly jumped onto the guard rail overlooking the pit of the hangar and started broadcasting across the bay, as loud and clear as possible to the two dozen people on standby crews, "Agent Curtis Vladance pulls up to the corner of 12th and Appens every Friday night in a red 2022 Jargo and asks her to call him Harry H. Balls before giving it up the--"

He didn't have to finish the sentence. Five minutes later, Luth was leading their party--now a stray pilot richer--up the ladder to the boarding deck of the Good Graces. He was lucky to find the small outland craft in the jammed hangar, and then room to maneuver it out of the docks. He only hoped his good fortune would hold.

"I can't believe that worked," Julia could only remark on Arpy's unique negotiating skills. "Who exactly is that moogle?"

Luth helped her clear the top rung with one hand and scratched his nose with the other. "You might say he's a... friend of the company," he hedged.

The pilot, a meek young man named Tim who didn't have a clue why he was so rudely singled out, much less for what, gave a trepid salute. "Where are we headed, sir?"

"Lake Cleyra," Luth affirmed.

Julia cocked her head at him, puzzled. "Lake Cleyra? Why?"

Luth passed her an earnest, bolstering glance. "Just trust me." Faced with his conviction she nodded, ready to follow.

Arpy, just catching up after lifting a pack of cigarettes from Agent Vladance's back pocket, flitted over their heads and into the ship's cabin, grumbling, "Fuck yes, whatever, who cares let's go. Move it, chimps!"


It didn't really hit him until he looked at the skyline: the city was hurt. Badly.

Luth gazed upon at the metropolis now alien to him, trying in vain to trace the original structures out of the crumbs of bricks and steel. It looked like the playground of a capricious tornado, whole city blocks wiped out while neighboring ones were left alone. The rain fell in listless waves over sporadic fires, and some corners were left to smolder while shorthanded fire brigades pumped their sweat and tears into whatever stood a chance. Black and white smoke entwined to fill the scorched spaces, lest it all appear just... empty, instead of ravaged. Everything burned slowly. Bahamut wanted his handiwork to last.

How many homes were ruined? How many people died? The Good Graces was virtually the only ship in the sky (Agent Vladance gave them a special beacon that registered their craft to the police as an "emergency vehicle"), and the lack of usual traffic made it all the more unsettling. It was almost impossible to comprehend that he was still in Lindblum, yet a look at Grand Castle assured everything: it was still there. The city would stand. Luth would feel better for that, except he was still missing something--that someone to say it for him--that everything would be okay.

"Hey, are you okay?" Julia appeared, leaving the dry cabin to join him outside. Luth had opted to watch their takeoff from the ship's bow, even as the weather whipped him soggy. She leaned on the rail next to him, her free hand clenching a scarf over her head. "You look really stressed-out. Maybe you should come inside and sit down."

"Oh..." Luth responded distantly. "I'll be okay, I just... I feel so lost without him."

She nudged his shoulder affably. "Hehe, don't worry, we'll find your boyfriend."

He nearly slipped on the waxed planks of the deck, whirling defensively. "Bo--I, what?? No, no no no, we're not, I didn't, I mean that one time wasn't--"

She laid a hand on his shoulder. "Ahaha, Luth, relax. I was kidding! Although," she added flippantly, "I am not responsible for anything that gets published in the Lindblum Star."

"Oh." He settled on the rail again, allayed until he thought too hard on the joke. "W-Why, what have they been saying?"

She smiled in wonder and patted his arm. "You are so... innocent," she put it kindly. "I really wonder what he sees in you."

Luth grimaced and turned his glance down at the rapidly shrinking city, trying to save face. "Um, Miss Knickoff..."

"I thought I told you to call me Julia." She narrowed an inquisitive look at him. "Say, why didn't you ever call me? I thought we had a nice time that night, at the Laughy Shacky, remember?"

Call her? Luth thought back. He didn't forget getting her number, or even the sunny yellow paper it written on, but it took a moment to recall its resting place. The answer pushed in like a swift tide, just as the East River panned into view below. It was in his other bag, the one Griffin had chucked to a watery end right behind their Red Angel prisoner, without his consent. Of course, Maroon had bugged it, so it was the prudent thing to do, but on the other hand Griffin could have dumped Luth's things out of it first--or at least warned him.

If Griffin truly bore a resemblance to the Flaming Amarant, Luth would never know what his ancestor saw in him. But the lost note didn't matter; that wasn't the predominant reason he never called her back, anyway. "It's been a bad time..." he started the excuse, but his true feelings butted in, acrid and accusing. "You know, you could have told me you're a reporter."

"What?" She reared back as if slapped, more hurt from the surprise than anything. "That's it? That's why you're acting so cold to me?"

Luth dipped his shoulders with a frustrated retch. The scene felt too familiar, like standing on a swampy trail in the middle of the night, a Genome's easygoing shrug telling him, 'So what?' as if his trust was a simple matter of accepting a lie. "Yes, that's the big deal! I was... trusting you, and you deceived me. You made a fool out of me, and I don't appreciate that. I'm tired of everyone treating me like a child. I don't need to be protected from the truth," he explained sulkily.

Julia set her hands on her hips with a sardonic whoop. "Oho! Listen to you. You never asked, you know. I would have gladly told you where I work. But if I told you from the start that I work for Channel 8, would you have taken me seriously? Or let me ask: would you have been as relaxed and willing to speak with me as you were when you didn't know?"

"So, what, that was part of your plan to lure me in?" he snipped, the words so bitter he nearly gagged on them.

She threw out her arms, exasperated. "Lure you into what? You're being ridiculous, Luthane Crescent. I was just trying to get to know you, nothing more. I thought you were cute, and sweet. I guess I was wrong." She tossed the tail of her scarf over her shoulder and stormed off.

The parting tugged brutally on his conscience, and before he knew better he was sprinting to catch up. "Wait! Wait, please."

She paused and dealt him a warning glare, waiting on his move. A gust picked the scarf off her ears, and loose threads of hair flirted with her leering brow and slender jaw. Luth could've kicked himself if he weren't awestruck by how tall and, and beautiful she looked when angry.

"L-Look," his voice cracked, embarrassing him further, and he tried not to wring his hands and look completely cowed as he appealed, "Listen, I'm not... I'm sorry. This isn't me. I mean, I'm not like that--it's just, I'm really high-strung right now, about Boss and--I mean, you're right, I'm making a big deal out of nothing because it's--women like you never talk to me, you know--I mean, um, you're a... you're great," he gave up. "You're really great, and I'm screwing this up, huh?"

Julia stepped in, closing the windy gap between them, and suddenly her visage was kind and forgiving again, and her fingers smooth on his collar. "Luth, stop. I have an idea. Let's start over. What do you say?"

Luth swallowed. Up close, he could see the flecks of ruby and silver set in her keen amber eyes. "I... like that idea."

She stepped back and offered a cordial hand and smile. "Hi, I'm Julia Knickoff. I work for Channel 8; I'm a reporter. You can call me Julia."

Playing along, he stood at attention and accepted the handshake. "Hi, I'm Luthane Crescent. I'm not quite a Dragon Knight," he attempted, but abashed chuckles broke his flair. With a lopsided smile, he then decided, "You can call me Lu."


Luth bided the rest of the flight under the cozy wooden roof of the pilot house, perusing the last of his great-grandmother's notes while the clouds outside the bridge's wide glass panes vacillated between rainfall and nightfall. Homely electric boxes hanging from the ceiling resembled old oil lanterns, casting gilded light over the creaking floor. Luth reclined across a cushiony bench near the back door, the book propped between his knees. Tim stuck to the helm, striving to avoid Arpy's casual vitriol on the starboard side.

The moogle eventually tired of telling him to, "quit holding the wheel like you're waltzing with a big queer guy," bobbed to the cedar balustrade marking off the captain's tier and lit a cigarette (he procured a nut-shaped lighter from the ruff of his fur coat), flicking the ashes at Luth's feet. "That's Freya Crescent's diary, huh? What's she like? Does she talk about all that crazy Mist War stuff?"

Luth nodded, buried in the nostalgia. "Yeah, and the seven other heroes, too. She was amazing. They were all amazing." He sighed. "It makes me wonder if there's something about that time period that we've lost--something really valuable that they had and we just... don't appreciate anymore."

The moogle sniffed disdainfully. "You sound like my grandfather, kid. 'Course, he talked a lot of smack on the 'good old days' too, hypocritical old coot. You know what he used to tell me when I was growin' up? Said the Mist War was just the eidolons curb-stomping everyone 'til Queen Garnet stepped in and told everyone to shut the fuck up. All that stuff with aliens and the Wizard and the Necromancer is the legend--just crazy shit those war heroes made up afterwards."

Luth bent forward, grievously ruffled. If he'd thought to bring his halberd, it would sit up with him. "That's not true!"

"Hey, don't pull my wings out for it; just what he said! I don't give a big steamin' crap, either way," Arpy muttered around a long drag on his cigarette.

"Er, there's no smoking in the cabin," Tim erringly spoke up. The moogle blew white vapors over his shoulder like a surly mistodon. "Shut your fuck up, Captain Queer."

Tim nervously complied while Julia emerged from the washroom below deck, her sandals plunking up the narrow metal steps. She swept a look around the bridge, as if to make sure it was still in one piece, and strolled to one of the windows. "I still can't believe everything that's happened," she murmured towards the red-rimmed mountains, and then started. "Oh no, I haven't called my mother! She must be worried sick. Excuse me."

Luth watched her bustle down the stairs with tiny phone in hand, and sighed again. It was easier not to think about what has happened, even though thinking about the future wasn't uplifting, either. He returned to the diary, hoping something in her past could possibly shed more light on /him/--anything that could help at all. Sporadic pecking through the entries finally unearthed a clue, far towards the end of the book, too fitting and too late.

After dinner we sat in the library and had one of our little "talks." He likes to confide funny little things to me every time I visit the castle. I don't know why I'm always chosen to listen to stories about putting oglops in Steiner's pillowcase and impersonating a castle guard (not even a Pluto Knight, but rather one of General Beatrix's subordinates. He said the uniform was "fairly comfortable, though not very forgiving in the crotch area," and I was appropriately disgusted.) Apparently I'm "easier to talk to than Dagger about some things." Perhaps it's a compliment--it's hard to tell with him. I can relate to the sentiment, though; there are things I tell Zidane that would never cross my mind around Fratley.

Tonight was different, though. Once he was sure the others weren't around to overhear, he started to tell me, "I've been having a weird dream."

I asked him to elaborate, of course, and of course he began to digress--it's so frustrating to get a straight answer out of him, I swear. It didn't seem like he was playing around this time, though. There was an anxious tick in his eye that put me out of ease. "I mean, you know how it's been a long time, y'know? Since the war and... Iifa and all that, right? We're all getting old--I'd say you were getting grey hairs if they weren't already white!"

I won't lie: I'm in my fifties now, my knees creak terribly and it's not so easy to be a soldier mother anymore--why, I'll be a grandmother soon, perish the thought. But I won't be hearing any of that from him--I thumped him upside the head, the cheeky monkey. But then he said, "It's just, isn't it kinda funny that you guys are getting old and rickety and I'm, um... not?"

It wasn't that I hadn't noticed. I think we all have. It was that pink zaghnol in the room we just didn't talk about. Dagger managed to wear crow's feet and grey streaks with as much poise and dignity as ever--perhaps even more, but he's still... sixteen. Never looked (or acted) a day older. We don't know if it's something Garland or the Iifa Tree did, or something else entirely. His sister once said his soul is "special," and we're all starting to see how, but no one knows why. All the other Genomes I've met have aged well enough--why doesn't Zidane show the slightest sign?

Then he finally told me about his dream, and how it's been recurring for years and years, ever since that final battle. The Necromancer would appear to him, which would automatically make a nightmare in my books, but then it's what the monster says that rattles one to the bone. He said he's had the dream so often now, he knows the words by heart:

"There is no tall mountain, no deep ocean, no lethal venom, no noble sacrifice and no hope that will redeem you to me. You will never cross the river Styx. You will never pass the gates of Hades. You will never see the light of Heaven. You will never feel the embrace of the earth. Nothing will claim your mortal shell--not even the wild beasts shall see you fit to devour. You will be as the rocks that turn to dust, to wander the hills until they are laid flat, and come the end of time you will sit on my doorstep and wait for an invitation that will never come. You will always hunger, always thirst, always lust and always bleed, but you will never, never rest.

"And then you will finally wish the Zero World had come to be, as if you never were."

Then I knew what that strange look in his eye meant: he was terrified. He was afraid he couldn't die. "It's ironic, right?" he said and laughed, though it looked as though he were crying. "I get to have what Kuja wanted, except I don't want it any more than he didn't want to die."

I couldn't say it at the time, but I'm afraid for him, too.

It was an aching while before Luth could pull his eyes off that page. He numbly closed the diary and stared at the floor, instead. "...It's a curse."

Arpy barely overheard. "What?"

Luth shook his head, still talking at the scratched backside of the book. "He was right. If I had only finished this sooner, I would have figured it out for myself."

"What?" Arpy repeated, in lieu of a string of expletives on how he was riding with some "crazy crackas with all screws loose."

Luth set his frown and looked the moogle dead-on. "He's scared."


The skies had cleared the way for a purple sunset, sunflower-yellow withering into violet petals over a bed of looming black hills. The desert rippled grey and blue in the rising shadows like a frozen sea, and the Good Graces picked a landing on a clean patch of sand. Before the engines even stopped turning, Luth was making for the ladder, ready to take off on his own.

Julia followed close behind. "You're going out there by yourself? It could be dangerous. Let me go with you."

One foot over the side, Luth hesitated and then passed her a resolved glance. "No, I... I have to take care of this myself." Julia threw down her arms and inflated with an objection, but before it could spill out Luth leaned close. "Listen, please do me a favor while I'm gone." He pressed Freya's diary against her, forcing her to catch it. "Hold on to this. I'm coming back for it."

Taken aback by the book dropped in her arms, Julia resigned to his instincts and stood aside, holding the keepsake over her heart. "You'd better. Be careful."


Long ago, the desert beyond Burmecia's borders was vast and harsh, beating back intruders with gritty gales and monsters that shot out of the dunes. The people of the Mist declared it a veritable "No Man's Land" on every map and chart, and the only ones brave enough to trespass it were the ones who eventually settled its giant mystic tree, Cleyra.

The whole landscape changed once Cleyra was demolished. The winds grew placid, the beasts turned to dust, and inch by inch the desert shrank, encroached on all sides by wild brambles and dewy weeds. There was nothing left to Luth's generation but a small, quiet, featureless country with a water-filled crater in its center. Evidently, the legendary tree grew upon a deep spring that welled into an oasis once the roots were burned out.

A skeleton of its predecessor sprung in Cleyra's place, a giant tent of branches woven from the smattering of trees on the fringes of the lake. Luth galloped towards the sanctuary, the only landmark for miles. He knew why Julia thought it might be dangerous; he'd heard more than a history book's worth about Lake Cleyra. There were tales of poltergeists, the bitter, moping spirits of settlers wiped out by Odin's burning pike. Adventurous teens liked to camp on the shore and pretend to be spooked--and worse, there lurked people who liked to prey on adventurous teens, but there was no one in sight tonight--no cars, trailers or parked aircraft besides his own. The attack on Lindblum might have discouraged sight-seeing.

The only thing that jumped out at Luth was a large, flailing bird bursting from the brush and trotting off into the desert--a chocobo, he recognized, white as snow. It was gone before he could remark on it, and Luth shook off the apparition, found a break in the copse and ducked inside the reticulated tree.

It was much more... grand than it appeared from outside. The Good Graces and many more could be docked beneath the natural dome. In the moonlight, the moss on the welded timbers shimmered like red stars in a milky blue sky, granting the lake an otherworldly mirror image. Soft sand diffused into pearly silt that sloped gracefully into the untouched water.

And there he was, crouched on the rim of the glassy abyss, tail waving languidly through the crisscrossed shadows. Luth swallowed the soupy throbbing in his gullet and padded closer, his toes molding to the cool sand like quiet little cat paws. He stopped just short of his reflection, the other man small and still to his right. There was something in his hands that Luth couldn't see without kneeling, but he wasn't so bold--it didn't feel right. The balmy air reeked of strange familiarity--calm, almost... content, like another day at the office.

Luth didn't want to startle him, though that felt impossible; he knew that Boss knew he was there, too quiet and not ready.

He just rolled with it. "You should have gone to the Iifa Tree, sir. It would have been more fitting."

Boss barely turned, acknowledging him with a veiled glance. His hair was burnt shaggy in spots, interrupting the soft blonde and vanilla streaks--Luth thought he saw more white than usual, though it could've been a trick of the moons. "Yeah, I know. But I couldn't make up my mind if I really wanted you to find me or not."

"Oh. What about now?"

"...Still undecided." He leaned forward and dipped his hands in the water, setting loose his captured token: a lotus blossom. It drifted delicately away.

"I don't like getting flowers," he didn't lament it. "For gifts or whatever, I mean. It's like getting something beautiful and precious that's going to wither and die slowly in your hands no matter what you do. I always feel sorry for them. They didn't deserve to be plucked out of the ground where they belong and stuck in a jar next to some apology card, waiting to die. They didn't do... anything."

His small, mellow tone was immediately broken with a snort. "Heh. I never used to think like that. Maybe I was less crazy then. But I wanted to look at something beautiful one more time before... heh. You know, no matter how many times you try it, it's still hard to work up the nerve to take your own life."

"Sir, no..." Luth begged, the breath scratching his throat.

Boss sat back on his hands, shrugging blithely. "Nah, I'm not going back to Iifa. Been there, done that, got too many scars."


He twisted an eyebrow Luth's way. "What did you think I really did all those years when I wasn't with the company, before I met Mery? Retired to a little island, grew turnips? Herded yans? I went to sleep."


"Yeah. Iifa's always taken me in. I just crawled in so deep no one would find me and... and nothing. I did absolutely nothing."

"You just lied there?"

"Just lied there."

"For years?"

Boss nodded, staring complacently over the lake.

"How could you possibly? I thought you said you don't like sitting in one place for too long."

"It's easier than you think, when you have nothing better to do."

Luth couldn't speak on that. He just couldn't picture it. Instead, he compliantly took a seat when Boss patted the sand next to him and said, "Hell, I'm not in a hurry. Sit with me for a bit, Lu."

Once Luth got comfortable, the Genome folded his arms behind his head and reclined on the bank, looking up into Cleyra's patchwork canopy. He was oddly underdressed; Luth was used to seeing him without shoes, but his wrists weren't wrapped either, and he wore a baggy, open shirt that bared his marred front--whole strips of skin looked scorched.

Luth flinched for staring, though Boss didn't seem to notice. "You don't happen to have a bite to eat with you, do ya? Like a bagel or somethin'?"

"Um, you're hungry, sir?"

"Starvin'. I thought ahead about everything except that, heh."

Luth smirked at the ridiculous request. "Sorry, I didn't pack a picnic basket."

Boss cracked a grin. "Haha, was that sarcastic?"

"Um, sorry sir," Luth bashfully retracted the remark.

"Hey, wha'd I tell you? Don't ever apologize. That was a good one--that was cute. You hold on to that. Don't be afraid of hurting someone's feelings--just speak your mind. A sense of humor is one of the best things to have in this world."

"Oh." Luth kept reaching for something to say, but he was ever at a loss. He realized he was staring again, and the first crazy thing tumbled out of his mouth, barely an excuse. "If it makes you feel better, sir, I don't think you look pudgy at all."

"Huh?" Boss looked suitably baffled, even after he recalled Sheryl's little dig. "Oh, uh, that's... thanks, I guess." He lit up with a stray thought. "Say, you ever made sand angels?"

"'Sand angels'?" Luth echoed, perplexed.

"Yeah, it's like snow angels, only with sand." He demonstrated, sweeping his arms and legs through the grit until a crude imprint was left on the beach. "Com'on, try it."

Luth blinked, failed at a rebuff and gave in, spreading himself on the beach and flapping his limbs just like a floundering--well, angel. "...This feels really silly."

"Heh, it's supposed to." He carefully sat up and inspected the artwork. "Hey, not bad! Though yours kinda has claws."

Luth made a sour noise and stopped thrashing, opting to simply soak in the scenery. "This sand is really soft. ...This place is beautiful," he reverently commented.

"It is. I hope they don't mow it all down and pave over it, like everything else."

"The Burmecian government protects it, I think. Parliament made it a landmark."

"Well. That's encouraging. There's hope for this planet, yet."

For an unspoken while they shared the view, watching moonspores sprinkle from the treetops like diamond dust. Everything looked like a dream. Luth could’ve fallen asleep, if he didn't keep in mind the reason he came to this deserted place, and the woman waiting for him back in civilization. His thoughts kept turning around ghosts and eidolons and angels until he remembered...

"You know something strange, sir? After fighting Bahamut, when I passed out, I had a dream about a white dragon."


"No, no, it was a different one. Pure white. I wonder what the priests back home would say about that."

"They say dreams are supposed to show your deepest fears and desires. ...I wonder what it's supposed to mean when you don't dream of anything."

"Everyone dreams," Luth answered, that one truth easy to him. He couldn't even remember where he picked it up. "It's what makes us human."

"I don't," Boss said surely, sullenly. "I used to. I don't have dreams anymore. Sometimes I wonder if I ever sleep, or if this is the dream."

Luth held his tongue, his childlike faith boggled by that abstraction. Boss scratched the back of his neck, fidgeting with something he'd been meaning to say. "Listen, um, about yesterday... You have no idea how sorry I am. I just threw you into the line of fire without even thinking. It's not like me and Milda, y'know? We'll be okay no matter what, but you're... We could've lost you. And it would've been my fault."

"Oh, sir..." He sat up, eager to assure him otherwise. "It's okay. I wanted to help."

Boss petted his shoulder with a wan smile. "I know you did, rookie. You're always such a good sport. And you did good! Julia told me you saved the whole town--she even got it on film, heh. I'm really proud of you. I just..." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, racked with guilt.

Luth shook his head and insisted, "Don't be sorry, sir. Never apologize, remember?"

He huffed at his knees, and then leaned back into chuckles. "Ah, hahah, that's right. You got me."

"Sir..." Luth knew he had to get to the point, before he lost it. "What's it going to take to get you to come back with me?"

Boss looked sincerely intrigued. "Did you really go to all this trouble to come to my rescue?"

"Of course. Wouldn't you do the same for me?"

"Heh, absolutely. That's... kinda why I have to leave you."

"What?" Luth didn't understand at all.

"Just saving you the trouble, Lu. Everyone leaves me sooner or later."

"I won't, sir. I won't. I swear it."

"You plan to live forever?"

Luth understood that, despite his best wishes. Boss shook his head, as reasonable as ever. "It's okay. I don't want to ruin the rest of your life, anyway. That's all that'll happen if you stick around me."

That statement sounded so wrong it hurt. "I beg to differ, sir. You've taught me so much..."

"Damnit Lu," he gently griped, "You're so disagreeable sometimes." He sniffed, his voice growing distant. "Heh, you remind me of... you remind me of him sometimes. He was such an honest little guy..."


Boss jumped tracks, a strange, ambitious tone taking over. "You're not going to try to stop me now, are you? Not now that I've finally figured it out."

"What do you mean?"

"You said it yourself: I pissed off a god of death. All I can do now is appeal to a different one." He hummed distractedly. "I wonder if Mr. Nothing would think this proves him right."

"But sir, how exactly do you plan to use the Dark Matter? You're not a summoner..."

Boss wagged a finger at him. "Ahah, figured out that much, did'ja? I knew I picked a sharp rookie. But hell, Lu, you should know what it takes to call an eidolon by now. All you need is a rock, a little magic and a prayer--and maybe, if they feel like it, they'll listen."

"Like Milda? And Bahamut?"

"Yep, just like that."

"If that's all it is, then what were the summoners?"

"They knew the eidolons better than anyone. They were the first to speak to them, but it's more than that. They could hear the planet itself--they had a connection to Gaia. It's hard to explain, but there's a big difference between calling an eidolon and being a summoner. Big difference."

"So then..." Luth put the pieces together, "If you really wanted to... you could summon Odin yourself?"

"That's the plan. Anyway, it's time to wake up." He swung to his feet. "Today--tonight is a good night."

Luth stood too, scrambling for purchase on thinning ground, desperately clinging to what he didn't understand.

Boss's gaze roamed the spectral lake while his musings stood back, detached from everything. "You know what the hardest word to say is? Goodbye. You're right about me, those things you said that night. I've been running from that word. You, Althier, everyone... everyone's right about me. I'm just a hack. I just... I've been afraid of getting close to anyone, because they'll eventually leave me, so I... leave them first." He gave a hollow laugh, noting how absurd he sounded. "It's stupid, isn't it? I haven't seen my son in thirty years. I finally do, and I kill him. Would you forgive yourself?"

Luth didn't know, and he dismayed to admit that he couldn't know--couldn't even imagine it. "Sir, I..." he trailed off, unable to think of what he was supposed to say.

"I can't even say it was self-defense; it's not like he could've done me in. Hell, it would've been a favor. I was just so angry, I didn't understand." He shut his eyes and clenched his fists, the memory rolling over him. "I can't... I can't take it anymore. I can't live with myself. I hate who I am. That's why I couldn't... I didn't even say goodbye to Mer. I couldn't go back and face her." He cast a loathing look at his feet. "I'm a coward."

Luth still couldn't find the words, so he just reached for them, taking Boss off guard and holding him, warm and trembling and too small to his chest. The Genome fell into it, too shocked to yelp or jerk away, and by the time he figured out he was in a hug it was too late.

"Um?" Boss said at length, bewildered.

"I hate to see you putting yourself down, sir," Luth explained in little shaking breaths over his ear. "It doesn't suit you."

Boss melted a little, returning the gesture. "Aw, rookie... You're makin' me tear up."

"I know you blame yourself for what happened to Althier, but this isn't the answer to your problem. It's just more running away. You have to try to forgive yourself, sir."

He steeled against Luth, ready to push away. "No, Lu, I get it. That's why this time is different. I know it's really selfish, but I gotta do this."

Luth only held on tighter, refusing to let go, even as his voice started cracking wetly. "You can't leave, sir. You're like a big brother to me."

Boss cringed miserably, fingers digging into Luth's shirt. "Oh, Lu, Louie. Don't say that. Why you gotta do this to me? Why you gotta be like that..."

"Please don't go," he tried again, not relenting, and his cheeks were damp and he felt impeccably stupid and he didn't care.

Boss finally got the upper hand, taking his arms and gingerly lifting them out of the way. He slipped free and wiped his nose, a suspicious sob breaking up his chuckles. "Ahahah, cut it out. Look at us. This isn't very manly. People see us in the middle of the woods like this, they'll think we're lovers or something. Not that I..." He sniffled and brushed his misty eyes. "Not that I ever gave a damn what people thought."

Luth choked a little, bereft, though the only complaint he could make was, "I never know what to think around you, sir."

"Haha, am I that annoying?"

"No, no sir. You're... you're the most incredible person I've ever met."

Boss shuffled on his toes, squirming out of eye contact. "Oh com'on, you've got to have a more interesting life than that." He caught himself, paused and started fishing through his pockets. "Oh hey, hey, I've got something for you."

"Wha?" he tried to ask when Boss slid in close, threading his arms around Luth's shoulder and tugging on his ear. "Ah!"

"Shh, shh, hold still," he murmured intently, and Luth bit his lip and kept his ground. After a few awkward seconds Boss turned him loose. "Ta-dah! Like it?"

"What...?" Luth reached for the flap of his ear, feeling for his silver hoop, except it was gone--replaced with something a little more weighted and... faceted?

"It's for remembering. When Eiko gave it to me, she said a summoning stone is like a piece of an eidolon's heart. If you wear it, you can feel it beating next to your own."

"Oh..." He accepted what it was without even looking, though the more he realized what it meant, the harder it was to hold his mawkish thoughts at bay. "Sir, I..."

Boss didn't wait for his gratitude. He reeled Luth in with one firm, gentle tug and planted a kiss on his nose. Luth felt warm then cold all over, frozen in place and rapt with the moment he couldn't capture.

"Listen, ki--Lu. Luthane," Boss leveled with him. "You're a grown man. You know what you did back there with Bahamut? That was incredible. You saved the whole town--hell, you saved Gaia. You're a hero. I don't care what your old man says; you're the best damn Dragon Knight he'll ever see. I don't have anything left to teach you." He retreated with a feeble shrug. "I'm just... I'm just tired. I want to get out of all this before I lose my mind completely. Before I end up hurting someone... anyone else."


He was smiling, but it didn't look like all the fake ones meant to make Luth feel better; it looked like a fake one meant to make himself feel better--because if one of them didn't laugh, both were going to cry. "I know it hurts, Lu, but sometimes the best thing you can do for someone you care about is let go. But hey, don't worry, you can handle it on your own. You're a good guy, and smart--you found me here, right? And I... I need to stop talking, before I ruin it."

He spun on one heel and walked off, out onto the lake, and it took a heart-wrenched, delirious minute to realize that Boss was, impossibly, doing just that: walking on the lake, as if it were made of glass. Luth gawked at the feat, hardly believing his eyes, but just like Milda, the eidolons and white magic it was true, too.

The Genome paced the crystal waters with smooth, deliberate steps, pallid white plumes dusting off each step and filling the lake with faint, luminous ripples. He kept going, far over the pitch depths, looking up to the moons and rambling, "Do you believe in Heaven or Hell? I don't think they're gonna let me in up there." Once he was as far from the shores as he could get, he withdrew the dark artifact from his other pocket, grinning mischievously. "That's okay; the fiery place always looked more interesting, anyway."

Luth recognized Dark Matter's ultraviolet glimmer, especially the way it gnawed on all the light around it, like a blight on the fabric of existence--its inky aura looked like it was going to swallow Boss's hand. He rolled the anti-stone between his palms, considering it, and that was when that thick, stabbing dread pushed Luth forward, plunging after him.

The water wouldn't hold still for him. Luth staggered through splashes, soaked to his waist, and then hesitated on the deep's threshold. He really wasn't a good swimmer, he was ashamed to admit, and even if he was, it began to feel like it wouldn't make a difference. Boss was too far out to reach with anything but his voice, loud and desperate, "Sir... sir! ...Zidane!!"

He startled and looked back one more time, a flicker of something surprised and genuine crossing his roguish countenance. Luth's mind fluttered with insane propositions, most along the lines of rushing out, throwing Boss over his shoulder and spiriting him away--but something, somewhere inside knew he had already lost. All that came out was an inept, "I... I'm glad I met you, sir," and it would be a miracle if Boss even heard it.

Boss returned a glum smile, eyes as shallow-deep and black-blue as the waters he tread on, filled with every regret in the world and not taking back even one. He looked like a ghost already. "I'm glad I met you too, Lu."

Luth watched what unfolded next, a hapless spectator. It didn't start very differently from Milda's summoning. The stone was offered to heavy air, suspended on arcane whispers, and then a jet, ethereal wind swooped in like a hellbound hawk and buffeted the pristine mirror of the lake, shattering the twin visage of the moons. Murky eidolon blood bloomed along the surface, tainting the stars and flowers, as a grim twilight dawned on the sanctuary. Luth could smell the gnashing wails of the things just beneath, aching to breach the virgin night, and he scrambled backwards out of the suddenly foul bath.

His entrance was subtle, like old, patient drowning. One obsidian hoof after the other emerged from the bottom, until a six-legged steed festooned with steel plate ascended the invisible steps. Its eyes burned like coals, its mane and tail billowed like hot ash and its sinewy trunk was pieced together with macabre stitches. Its foreboding presence was only outmatched by its rider, morbid calamity personified. He wore an ugly bronze scowl beneath a bulky garland of thorns, and a jagged, snarling cape sprawled behind his heavy suit of armor. In his right hand he steadied a sword greater in length than them both, with a wicked curl to its tip. He was bigger and more menacing than any man Luth had ever seen, somehow more daunting than even the King of Dragons--this was an eidolon of another realm, and another power.

The oasis felt like a bubble in time, nature itself churning slowly outside, waiting to be let back in. Boss quietly bore the old god's tempest, until the waves grew silent around his feet and Cleyra's bane was standing square with him. And this was it, Luth knew--the seconds could stop altogether and he'd never forget the picture they made, the God of Death and the King of Thieves, staring up and down at each other and neither too daring or too afraid. In the eerie blend of reds, blues and pale gold Luth saw a shadow of Oeilvert, and a broken Genome kneeling at a ruined altar before a pool of dead water and living mist and praying to fractured masks for the mortal coil's release.

"When will I be done? When can I go home?"
Not yet.

Odin spoke, his voice as deep, stony and endless as a mineshaft. "Who calls me?"

And Boss flatly answered to, "No one."

If his impudence ruffled Odin, there was no indication. "What do you desire?"

Again, unyielding, "Nothing."

Finally, testing, "Are you afraid?"

He bowed his head, hiding under shifting locks a grin that knew the answer before the question was even asked.


It took merely one swing. The enormous blade didn't even have to reach. Luth thought he screamed, but he couldn't hear it--maybe he only felt it, swelling against his tongue but not escaping--or maybe it was all in his head, except all he could think was that for all the blood he'd seen in the past two weeks, sand angels didn't shed a drop. Not one. And he cried or didn't cry or thought he cried until the God of Death departed in a flurry of drumming ravens and the blushing sapphire color was restored to the lake, as if it had never felt a thing.

He cried until nothing was left but a tiny light, as blue and bright as the midday sky, which finally faded and winked out like an old neon bulb.

Not one drop.
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