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The Brothers' War

We all know their tale.

Their tale is, after all, that of many heroes and heroines that have come and gone throughout the ages. Men and women whom Kismet chooses to smile upon in the wake of some new crisis or unconquerable enemy. People as diverse as the day is long, a body of unwavering souls which overcome adversity, incalculable odds, and even themselves. Yes. Their tale is nothing new to the annals of time.

This, however, is not their tale.

The story which follows concerns what came before. For every tale that is told, pieces will often be missing, just as the odd voice is left silent or the scattered question will linger like a splinter in the skin. Reasons for such omissions as these warrant their own little story, thus giving a better understanding of the larger picture in the process. The curious need only exercise discretion when finding the closure they have so tirelessly sought, for the answered riddle can mean many things.

This tale of a tale precedes the adventures of the historically significant Returners and the flight of their Falcon. It precedes the Light of Judgment as well. It predates the World of Ruin and even the Empire which brought about its genesis, for some nine and a half centuries after the War of the Magi ended, all of these happenings found root in the most unlikeliest of places.

It all began in a field . . .

* * *

It was a very hot and lazy midsummer day. A white sun burned high and bright in the clear blue sky while the occasional ocean breeze whipped across the open meadows below. A lone oak tree, standing silent in the shadow of some nearby foothills, gave a gentle sway in the wind, rustling its leaves until the calm settled back down around it.

For the ones that either worked or traveled, it was the type of afternoon that deserved either half a day of hard labor or a nice downpour to take the edge off. Banon, however, didn't seem to think so. It was the first sunny day any of them had received since the storm had let up just the other day, and the young boy couldn't sit still no matter how hot the sun was.

He sprung up from out of the meadow, hoping to get the jump on his brother.

"Marco--"

"Polo."

Banon spun around in his place, grinning as he saw an indistinct form tunneling through the long ferns and bee-lining for the oak tree in the distance. He gave an excited holler of victory as he ran to catch up with him.

"I gotcha now! There's no getting away from me this time!"

He huffed and puffed his way through the tall grass, half-jumping and half-sprinting into the foliage so as to stay on top of his sibling. Wheezing to a stop after five minutes of pursuit, Banon found that he had lost the chase yet again when a gale wind blew over the trail his brother left behind in the meadow.

But Banon never erred. "Marco--"

"POLO!"

Then he jerked as his brother sprung up from right behind him. He gave his older, longer-haired sibling as defiant a stare as any playful child could manage.

"Gestahl!"

And with a crafty-looking sneer wrapped around his face, he turned tail and continued on closing the gap between himself and the oak tree. Banon quickly fell in step behind him, shouting for Gestahl to stop or even just to slow down a bit. He did neither, and by the time Banon made it to the foot of the tree, his brother was already scuttling his way up through a maze of oak branches. He scratched at his short, blond hair in frustration.

"No fair, brother. You know I'm afraid of heights."

Gestahl's grin had lost none of its integrity, and he kept peering down at him from where he sat upon one of the topmost branches. He let both of his feet swing to and fro, causing some of the nearby limbs to rustle audibly alongside his own.

"Then I guess my plan worked perfectly, didn't it?" He straightened out one of his brown pantlegs. "I suppose this means I win, huh?"

Banon crossed his arms irately, the defiance in his eyes intense enough to completely burn the tree out from under him.

"I swear that if I only just thought of bringing a chocobo out with us, I could just fly on up there to get you down."

Gestahl scoffed. "Chocobos can't fly, dummy."

"They can to." Banon scaled his way up some of the lower hanging branches, paying close attention to how far away the ground was. "Dad even said they can, so there."

His brother reached up and pulled himself on top of the branch directly above him, aware that his brother couldn't possibly get to him but not taking any chances. "You don't really listen to everything dad says, do you?"

Banon stopped trying to pull himself up any further, his determination giving way to disbelief. "He's the king of Vector," he replied, as though that fact alone answered everything.

"That doesn't mean he's always right." He broke eye contact with his brother down below, deciding that there had to have been something more exciting to see from such a high altitude. "Kings can make mistakes too, you know."

"Not dad," Banon insisted, sounding discontent. "Never . . ."

"Yes, dad too." Gestahl reached up for yet another branch. "And I'd really like to know where he got the idea that chocobos could fl--aiiiiiii!"

The branch above him gave way, and Gestahl was taken with it on the trip down. Banon heard it, along with his brother's frantic screaming, but could do nothing other than watch helplessly. Both of Gestahl's outflung arms corkscrewed endlessly as he descended, struggling for something to grab ahold of but falling too quickly to secure any kind of grip. Off on the opposite side of the oak he landed at last, spread-eagled on the ground and yelping in pain.

"Gestahl!"

The older brother grunted in irritation as Banon spun around the base of the tree, pushing through the tall grass to get to his prone sibling.

"Are you okay?!" he cried, kneeling down beside him. "Did you break your back?!"

"It's alright, I'm fine." He sneered away from the help Banon offered and brought himself up on one knee, his face contorting in anguish from the effort. "I just . . . got the wind knocked out of me, that's all."

Banon stayed beside him, studying Gestahl's movements in case he learned abruptly of something that was fractured or broken.

"Now you know why I'm so afraid of heights. Can you stand up?"

"Of course I can," he growled through clenched teeth, then staggered back to his feet just to prove that he could. "Ow! No, it's fine."

"Come on, brother. We need to get you home and looked at by a doctor."

Gestahl sighed defeatedly. "Dad's just going to love that. I know exactly what he's going to say too. 'You were playing around that oak tree again, weren't you'? He'd ground us for a month."

"Brother, you're smoking."

He squinted."I'm what?"

Banon motioned behind him, stuttering. "Y-your clothes, they're smoking."

He jerked and started slapping at his shoulder, as though trying to bat aside some unseen demon. Seething hot pinpricks of fire stabbed at his arms and legs too, and both the brothers realized rather suddenly that the entire north side of the tree was burning! The ground beneath their feet even smoldered black, its ashes swirling and dancing in the afternoon wind.

"What happened here?" Banon put out the last of the flames on his brother's back. "Where did all of this fire come from?"

"Hey Banon, look at that."

He pointed up towards the foothills, where a blackened trail zigzagged up across the rockface. At its end, Gestahl could barely make out the pale white form that was ambling its way along before disappearing inside of a shallow cave.

"What is it?" he asked.

"I don't know, but it might hurt us. We should probably go back home."

"Hold on." Banon seized Gestahl by one of his coat sleeves. "You were the one that found the thing. And besides, it could be the one that's hurt. It might need our help."

"But it's almost lunchtime. Mom'll get angry if we miss lunch twice in a row."

"Lunch?!" Banon let go of his brother's sleeve and started tramping up the hillside. "Alright, fine. You go home and eat. I'll go by myself."

"Banon . . ."

"No, it's fine. Just go."

"Banon, don't--"

But his brother was already halfway up the foothill. Gestahl sighed and went to catch up, wincing and arching his back in pain with every step he took. Nestled in the cool shade of the mountainside, the two of them met up again outside the mouth of the cave. Their hearts raced, neither one being entirely sure of what lay in store for them.

"I'll go in first," Banon said. "After I'm in, count to twenty Kohlingen's and come in after me."

"Hey, why do you always get to do things first?"

"Okay, okay, you can go in first."

"That's more like it," Gestahl replied, his head already too far into the cave opening to see his brother's triumphant grin. "Hey, wait a second . . ."

"Too late, now," Banon told him, pushing Gestahl the rest of the way in. He landed on the dark cavern floor with a thud. He waited for a moment, then another moment. A minute passed. "Hey Gestahl, are you alright down there?"

The dark silence lingered.

"Ges--"

"BOO!"

Banon jumped and hit his head on the roof of the cave, almost tumbling back down the foothill in the process.

"Ow! Gestahl, that really hurt!"

"So now, we're even."

"Well, is there anything down there or not? It only just got down here, so it couldn't have gotten too far."

"Haven't found anything yet. This place is pretty cool though. I bet it'd make a great fort for the summer. Come on down and take a look."

His own childish imagination getting in the way of his better judgment, Banon couldn't scurry down inside the cave entrance fast enough. The dank cavern air felt good against his sunburnt skin, and the rocky stratum below their feet seemed more than solid enough to support the both of them. Beyond the ridge it appeared as though everything curved down into a giant, black abyss, but when Gestahl stepped beyond to test his footing the splash of water welcomed him.

"It's an underground river," he said, awestruck. "Wow. I wonder what else is down--"

A set of sharp claws grabbed him from behind without warning, and the burning sensation he had felt down by the oak tree increased tenfold. Both brothers screamed, one out of sheer agony, the other out of uncomprehending terror. The creature seemed to have all the contours of a thinly shaped male except that it seemed composed entirely out of hellfire. With almost no time to think, Banon stripped off his tunic, dipped it into the groundwater, and lunged for the creature.

Gestahl's arms pinwheeled uselessly as he struggled to disentangle himself from the blazing hellion. Bearing down hard on him, and with its flaming touch searing past his clothes and into his flesh, the eldest of the two brothers strained to push the both of them off balance and into the nearby body of water. Just when it seemed as though his brother's strength was about to fail completely, Banon threw his waterlogged tunic down over the creature's body. Immediately, it went limp and fell to the ground in a naked heap.

"Brother?"

It took Gestahl longer to muster up a reply this time than after falling out of the tree, as most of his back was now covered with ugly, black/red scar tissue. Nonetheless, he grit his teeth.

"We should go home now, Banon."

"But we can't just leave--" They both turned to regard the creature before them, gasping as they realized that anatomically it seemed the same as a human male. They each clamped a hand across their eyes. "But we can't just leave it lying around here for someone else to find. The same thing could happen to a townsman passing by or worse."

Gestahl lingered down near the foot of the river, splashing several handfuls of water across his ravaged back. "What do you suggest we do then?"

Banon bit his lip in thought.

"Let's take it back to the castle."

* * *

"Ba-non! Ges-tahl!" Maria called out in her usual, singsong voice. "Lunch is ready! Boys?"

Since having children, it had become something of a time-honored tradition to have lunch in the arboretum with her sons whenever the weather would permit it. There was nothing she enjoyed more than eating with her family out in the garden, as she felt that it gave life a certain feeling of completion. So, conversely, there was nothing more she couldn't stand than to have such plans unavoidably interrupted.

"Draco, sweetie . . ." She sat down outside at the table, fiddling with her long blond curls in a disappointed fashion. "What's keeping the kids so late?"

Her husband gave their delegate from Albrook a hasty handshake in his study, effectively sealing their trade agreement before joining his wife outside.

"Now then, what were you saying?"

She looked annoyed at having to repeat herself. "The kids, Draco. It's half past noon and they still haven't returned. I'm getting worried."

"I'm sure they're both fine. Thick as thieves, those two are. They've been cooped up inside this castle for three straight days because of that storm, so you can't really blame them for taking advantage of the good weather." He reached across the table for her hand. She took it. "And besides, this could be the first time we've had lunch by ourselves in quite a while."

For a moment, Maria smiled at the prospect. His dark, green eyes and long, chestnut locks made him as every bit captivating as the day he had wrested her from Ralse's grasp on the east side of town. She couldn't ignore the appeal which one more day with him had on her, but then there was no ignoring the motherly intuition that weighed heavily on her mind either.

"No," she said, shaking her head, "No, we can't. If they can't join us for lunch, then I at least have to know where they are. I feel so helpless whenever I don't know."

He grinned and sat back in his chair, not at all upset that she had turned down his invitation. "Well, if I were a young and impressionable child, I'd more than likely go some place which my parents had told me a million times to stay away from."

"Like . . . the oak tree?"

He leaned across the table and kissed her lips. "I tell you what, I'll have one of my squires prepare a chocobo and go out there to pick them up. With any luck, we'll be back to grab a quick bite as a family before the chancellor has some other concern that he wants to address."

She stood as he started to leave, putting her hands around his neck. "Just promise me that you won't be gone too long."

He kissed her again, more deeply this time. "My word is my bond, Maria."

Even as the king retreated through his wife's plantations toward the stable, Gestahl and Banon were already maneuvering their way through their mother's intricately shaped hedges. They plodded along more than they sprinted, straining from the insufferable weight of the man-thing in their grasp. They tied Banon's tunic around its waist, more for the sake of protecting its pride than providing an easier handhold. At last, Gestahl could manage no more and fell back on his haunches. The pain in his shoulders and back had absolutely overwhelmed him.

"Brother?"

He dropped the creature's legs and helped Gestahl sit up against a hedge, careful not to touch his scars. But even his brother's gentle hands did little to end the agony which sought to explode from out his skin.

"Banon, it hurts!" He twitched and kept reaching behind him, as though it were all just a simple matter of tearing something away from his spine. "I can't . . . the pain . . . it's killing me!"

"Help!" Banon clutched at his screaming brother, suddenly forgetting about the creature that was lying unconscious on the grass beside them. "Somebody help us!"

Almost immediately, they heard a set of iron greaves trudging along the sods toward them while their mother gave a scream as though instantly understanding the plight of her two sons. Seconds later, their father appeared down at the edge of the path, both eyebrows arched in horror at the scene unfolding before him.

"Banon!" he cried out, throwing aside the leather saddle he had been carrying. "Look out behind you!"

Before he could even react to his father's warning, a set of razor-sharp teeth tore into his right arm. Banon screamed as his father kept racing towards them, gesturing and yelling out wildly until the thing's attention was finally diverted. It had only enough time to rear its ugly head and snarl before the king of Vector skidded along the grass and threw out one of his silver gauntlets. The creature reeled from the impact, cartwheeling in midair before crumpling on the ground.

"Banon, are you alright?"

He grunted, clutching at the bloody mess on his arm. "It's just a bite," he assured him, motioning to his brother. "Gestahl could use you more than I could."

"You okay, buddy?"

Gestahl's head lolled on his shoulders. "Back . . . hurts."

Maria soon caught up with them, carrying the hem of her chartreuse dress in her hands as she ran. Her own worst fears appeared justified.

"My Goddess," she cried, taking Gestahl into her arms.

"This thing--" Draco kicked at the unconscious half-man. "--attacked them. Where did it come from anyway?"

Gestahl squirmed in his mother's embrace. "Mmm . . . Banon . . ."

"What?"

Tears welled up and poured out of Banon's eyes. "Gestahl and I found it out in the foothills. We though it was lost or injured, so we . . . so I . . . decided to bring it back to the castle."

"But son, this thing is dangerous. You don't even know what it is or where it came from. What possible reason could you have for wanting to bring it here?"

Banon's voice became liquid and he had to struggle to get his words out. "Because I didn't want the same thing happening to someone else. I'm sorry dad, I didn't mean for Gestahl to get hurt."

Draco was taken aback by his son's reply, and Maria reached out to touch his arm. He smiled and threw his arms around him.

"It's okay, son," he replied, even as Banon apologized profusely into his father's shoulder. "It's okay, you did well. I'm so proud of you."

Gestahl turned to look at his father and Banon, the agony in his vertebrae suddenly gone. Unbelievable, he thought bitterly to himself, I almost get paralyzed and burnt to a crisp, and dad is proud of him? He continued to stare a set of acidic daggers towards his brother even after his father started talking again.

"Maria, take the kids inside. I'll send for a doctor just as soon as I'm done taking care of . . . whatever this is."

"You're not going to kill it, are you dad?"

He eyed his youngest son as only a benevolent king and father could have.

"No Banon," he said, shaking his head. "I'm not going to kill it."

Draco waited until he was alone with the quivering pile of near-human muscle before grabbing it by both its arms.

"Not yet, anyway."

* * *

Daylight crept back behind the mountains to the west, its recline beneath a wisp of cumulus staining the dusky sky pink and turquoise. The many cobbled avenues of Vector, which had been teeming with street vendors and their patrons less than an hour earlier, had since grown dark and quiet. Like a recently dammed-up river, only the scattered trickle of activity continued on into the night. It was the idea of their city being overrun by late-night drunkards and streetwalkers that made Maria finally close the shutters for the evening.

"Novel?" she asked her husband, sitting alongside him near the mantelpiece.

"Novella," he corrected, "By a lad named Yohalem. Figured I'd do a little reading for a change, to try and get my mind off of what happened today."

She leaned her head on his shoulder while brushing a hand across his chest. "Is it doing the trick?"

"Not really." She picked her head up momentarily as he clamped the book shut and slid it back into place on one of the shelves. "Bit of a grim tale, to be honest. Does little to soothe the soul."

"Well, if it helps to ease your mind any, the little ones are doing much better now than they had been this morning. Banon's injury wasn't all that serious to begin with, and it doesn't look like Gestahl broke anything in that fall he took."

Draco moved to place an arm around her, which she nestled into soundlessly.

"Still, I'll feel a lot better after that doctor from town shows up and gives them each a clean bill of health. I look forward to putting this day behind us."

They both sat silently for several moments, basking in the glow of their candlelight as well as each other. After some time, Draco felt her sink deeper into his arms and he began to think she was starting to doze off. He, then, saw that her eyes were wide open, apparently staring at the long, dark shadows which their candelabras wrought upon the stone walls.

"Penny for your thoughts?" he asked.

She gave a shake with her head that sent her golden hair dancing. "You'll think that I'm foolish."

"Never."

So, she turned and looked at him. "I think this city has begun to make me a bit paranoid. It's not the innocent little hamlet it was when we first became king and queen. These people are changing. Everything's changing."

"That is the way the world works, Maria."

"But does it really have to? You . . ." She broke eye contact with him, struggling against mincing words with her husband of all people. "I'm not blind to what it is you're trying to do for them. You lay down a network of trade routes, you keep peace treaties with the hinterlands. You like keeping everybody connected, but control can unite in ways diplomacy can't."

Her last statement in particular seemed to strike a nerve with him. "Are you implying that Vector is a kingdom of undisciplined ruffians?"

"What I'm saying is that fear is as every bit the tool of a kingdom's success as peace. If a nation isn't feared by its enemies, what will stop our enemies from plowing right over us?"

"I think I hear the doctor knocking," he said, more for the sake of ending their conversation than pursuing it any further.

It was unbeknownst to either of them that the entire time his two parents had been talking, Gestahl was resting in a tub of shallow water in the room next door - hanging intently on their every word.

* * *

"Somebody call for a doctor?"

The two silver-clad guards posted at the castle entrance regarded the spectacled little man before them with suspicion. While their king had given them no real detail as to the one that was expected to arrive, the man which entreated entrance before them now looked more the part of a doctor's apprentice than an actual doctor.

"Are you sure you're the one His Majesty sent for?" uttered the leftmost guard in a monotone voice. "We were informed that the one stopping by this evening was closer to middle-aged."

"Yes," said the man before them, pushing the horn-rimmed specs up along the bridge of his nose. "Well, the town physician has requested that I see his patients this evening. I completed my apprenticeship beneath his tutelage just last week."

The second guard stepped forward, more for the purpose of putting his own two cents in than to be thorough with their visitor. "Gonna have to see your stamp collection first, son."

"Ah, yes. Well, I have a better idea." Very discreetly, the man reached into his robe pockets. "How about you take two of these--"

Two tiny vials of glimmering red dust were suddenly airborne, shattering upside each guard's visor. Before either of them could draw a sword, they both went down in discordant heaps - snoring soundly.

"--and call me in the morning?"

He hastily flung aside the phony robe and glasses, reminding himself not to get overconfident while there was still a short-tempered esper running amok. With a quick brushdown of his white-and-scarlet cape, he took in a tired breath and allowed himself in.

* * *

Banon tossed in his sleep, unable to keep visions of their fiery attacker from his mind for more than a few seconds at a time. In the dark, his bed sheets rustled and his voice called out against something that wasn't there - at least, not there in the room with him. From climbing trees to scaling foothills, he thought for sure that all the day's activity would have tired him out too much to take notice of a passing nightmare. But that simply wasn't the case and he finally bolted upright in his bed, sweat clinging to his brow like a shiny cloth.

"Mom, dad . . . ow!" He grimaced as the bandage around his arm twisted against his skin. "I had a bad dream and I can't get back to sleep."

His bare feet made soft patting sounds against cold flagstone as he made his way to the door. He started to reach out for the knob when he heard a loud clatter from somewhere down on the first level. It sounded akin to pots and pans crashing onto the floor and for a moment, Banon got the idea that his mother was making him something in the kitchen. Just as he finally found the doorknob, however, a peek out through the frame told him a much different story.

The large double doors in their foyer hung open, both guards posted at the bridge were now unconscious, and a strange man whom Banon had never laid eyes on before was saundering about as though he owned the place.

Could he be their doctor? Banon wondered silently. And if he was, what reason could he possibly have for knocking out their night watchmen?

Deciding to go with his gut instinct, he huddled down near the door and ever so carefully pried it open. Down below, the stranger lingered near the bannister of their grand staircase. His eyes cased over each of the castle's rooms that were within eyeshot and detected movement. Upstairs, Banon scrambled around a corner and down a hallway before the red-caped man could find him. Heavy boots galloped up the stairway, and Banon disappeared behind the first door his hands found the knob to. Gestahl's door.

"Gestahl? Gestahl, wake up!" He shook at the bed sheets vehemently, waiting for a reaction but not immediately receiving one. "Gestahl!"

His brother finally gave a grunt as Banon's hands found a sore spot along his back. Gestahl turned over, saw that it was his brother, then turned over again. "What do 'you' want?" he murmured, half asleep.

Banon was too panic-stricken to notice the suddenly surly tone to Gestahl's voice. "It's a robber or something. He's going to find us, I think he's already found me! We have to get to mom and dad and get out of here!"

"Relax, would ya? The castle guards will take care of him."

"No!" Banon swung around to the other side of his brother's bed. "He's already knocked them out. He's coming up the stairs right now and he's gonna get us too. Come on, come on!"

"Fine," he growled, very carefully tossing the covers off of him before going to the door. "We'll get mom and dad. That way, they can ground you for spreading around these ridiculous stories and I can finally get some sle--"

The caped stranger stood out in the hallway, apparently waiting for the two boys to show themselves. Banon and Gestahl opened their mouths to scream but no sound came out. The man before them looked amused by their expressions, keeping a finger over his lips as though silencing them of his own free will.

"It's alright," he said to them, with a voice that was as every bit subtle as his Mute spell. "I'm not going to hurt you. All I want is the esper."

"A . . . an . . . an esper . . ." Banon stammered, intrigued at being able to speak again. "What . . . what's an esper?"

He smiled and stooped down. "It's a monster that can make itself a man. They live in a very far-off place."

Banon began to feel more relaxed. "Far off, like . . . Mobliz?"

The caped man chuckled. "Far off, like another world."

Banon's eyes shone with bewilderment.

"Who . . . who are you, mister?" Gestahl demanded, trying to sound brave but totally blowing it.

"Ah yes, my apologies. My name is Strago, and I've been chasing after this creature for five days now. I was able to track it as far as Albrook, but then got sidetracked when a storm slammed the continent."

"The storm!" Banon exclaimed. "Right. We found it in the foothills the day after it ended."

"Where is it now, do you know?"

Gestahl answered before Banon had a chance to. "Dad said he was going to take care of it, but that could mean anything."

"Alright then, I'll take it from here." He took out a small bronze rod from beneath his cape. Its glimmering crystal head earned another gasp of wonder from the younger sibling. "You two go and find your folks, then get to safety."

He began to go back the way he had come when Gestahl snatched up a handful of his cape. "Get to safety? But this is our home! What do you plan to do with our home?"

"Your home is about to become a battleground, son. Leave with your family while you still have the chance."

"But you can't--"

Strago heard no more of it and leapt down over the second-floor railing in pursuit of his prey.

"Banon, what are we going to do? We can't just let that guy do what he wants in our castle."

"Let's at least get mom and dad and tell them what we know."

Gestahl didn't seem satisfied with Banon's reply but realized there was nothing else he could do. Still in their bed clothes, the two of them ran down towards the end of the hallway where the master bedroom was. When they got there, they found their mother sitting next to the mantelpiece. Her face seemed preoccupied as her old-style music box tried in vain to comfort her with the tunes of "Troian Beauty".

"Mom," Banon called out in the doorway. "Put your robe on! We're leaving!"

"We're not going anywhere." Gestahl shoved his way past his brother, concerned for his mother's aloofness. "Mom, what's the matter? Where's dad?"

Maria tilted her head towards her eldest son, giving him a sad-looking smile. "Your father . . . went downstairs. He said he heard the doctor coming."

"But that's just it, he's not a doctor. He's just some whacko who's out to hunt the creature that attacked us."

"Strago's no whacko!" Banon protested. "He's only trying to protect us from the esper!"

"Oh really, the same way your bringing it here was supposed to protect others?" Gestahl gave him an absolutely unreadable look then, unreadable because he had never shown this much hatred towards his brother before. "It obviously didn't do much to protect those two guards that got knocked out."

"He didn't kill--"

"That's enough!" Maria shouted, finding her feet. "Save your bickering for another time, you two. Right now, we have to find your father."

"Sorry, mom," they both said.

She sighed and disappeared into her closet, apparently heedless of the music that continued to play its Troian ballad. As his mother threw on her robe, Banon twiddled his fingers in apprehension. He couldn't help but ask the question which kept gnawing on his mind.

"Mom, what did dad do with the esper?"

Maria tied the loose sash of her robe tight around her waist. "He didn't kill it, if that's what you're asking. He locked it up down in the cellar."

Banon nodded, then exchanged a nervous glance with Gestahl. It had suddenly occurred to the both of them that they had failed to inform either of their parents of the esper's ability to conjure up flames at will.

"What else do we have in the cellar?" Gestahl asked.

"Nothing much. Some family heirlooms, an old carriage, a wine cellar . . ."

The two brother's looked at each other.

"Why?"

An explosion suddenly rocked Vector castle down to its very foundations. Several smaller ones following as bottles from the old vineyard detonated several stories below. All three of them had their feet taken out from under them, but Maria was back up in a heartbeat - running out the door and screaming her husband's name.

"Mom, wait!"

Banon helped Gestahl find his bearings again, though he was too concerned with his mother to mutter so much as a simple thank-you in response. Without another word, the two brothers chased her back out into the corrider, trying their best to ignore the flames lashing up at the latticed windows from outside.

* * *

Several minutes before the first explosion went off, Strago's rod was already prompting him halfway down the spiral stairway into the Vector castle sublevel. His instrument was infallible, being perfectly synchronized with the life energies of any esper within a five-mile radius. Only the quick and the dead stood any chance of falling below the Magi warrior's range, and he used this knowledge to spearhead his search. As he tread deeper and deeper into the musky cellar, the telltale creak from the old wooden steps prompted someone to call out in the darkness.

To Strago's dismay, the voice was human.

"Who goes there?" the voice asked. "Is that you, Maria?"

"Your Majesty, I presume?" Circling around a large motorized carriage to where the voice emanated from, he decided to go ahead and continue where he left off on his role as doctor. "I'm the physician you sent for. For your two children?"

"Ah yes . . ."

On the opposite side of the cellar, Strago could barely make out what appeared to be a large steel cage with its door hanging open. The esper couldn't have been more than a few meters away now, so if the king really was nearby he was taking an awfully big chance by lingering there.

"Neither of your boys have suffered any life-threatening injuries, however I'd like for you and your family to come with me into town. The young ones may still need some antibiotics."

Something around the corner flared into life then, and the voice that had once belonged to Draco suddenly took on a savage overtone.

"The boys, yes. I shall be moving on to them . . . in a moment . . ."

Strago started to question such an unusual statement, when he rounded the last bend and gasped. It was the same emblazoned esper with cherub wings he had been pursuing for the past week, yet it spoke with King Draco's voice - while King Draco's intestines hung down from its mouth.

" . . . right after I'm through with you!"

He sighed and started twirling his rod about in a wide arch, preparing himself for the onslaught he knew was inevitable. As it cascaded through empty space, the rod began to carve a triangular glyph into the air before him. The esper reacted, roaring as though he had fought this battle before. Fire and lightning erupted from its physique, engulfing the cellar with blinding radiance. Something exploded a split second after the glyph started to spin, sheltering the mage from the blast but giving his hunt ample opportunity to escape.

"Those boys . . . their mother . . ." The mage gave a grunt as he heaved a smoldering rafter up off of him. "This hunt cannot continue now. I must help them to escape, while it can still do them any good."

Coughing and burying his nose in his cape, Strago darted for the spiral stairwell while uttering a hasty spell for breathable air in the process. The amber haze of heat and light caused him to stumble more than once on his way up but finally the creaky wooden causeway came to be replaced with a flagstone floor and walls. The pitter-patter of children's footsteps chased after him and before he could call out, Banon, Gestahl, and Maria rounded a corner to his position. The three of them had some very concerned looks on their faces.

"Did you find the esper?" Banon asked him.

"Where's dad?" Gestahl followed up by saying.

"Who are you?" was all Maria said.

Strago pushed his way passed them, heading for the door. "There's no time to explain right now. We have to get out of here before this castle eats itself out from the ground up."

He felt a pair of hands suddenly seize the middle of his cape and learned that it was Draco's eldest son.

"Where's our father? What did you do with him?" Gestahl shook the mage with each question asked of him. "If you don't tell me right now I'll--"

"The esper got to him before I could." Strago took hold of the boy's suddenly still hands. "There was nothing I could do for him. I'm sorry."

The two brothers simply stared, unable to comprehend the loss. Their mother stood a little ways behind them, a hand held up to her quivering lips.

"Oh my hero, no . . ."

The flagstone foyer at the foot of the entrance unexpectedly crumbled in on itself and below, through the dust and rubble, a set of piercing yellow eyes glared up at them. His arms spread-eagled, Strago backed the family away from the opening in the floor. His eyes strained to stare the creature down.

"Is there another way out of here?" The shellshocked brothers and their mother couldn't bring themselves to answer at first. "Stay with me back there! Is there another door out of this place? Come on, think!"

Banon, breaking from his reverie from the force of the mage's question, finally answered. "The back door," he said, unaware that he was sobbing, "Dad's study has a way out to the gazebo."

"Then go." His crystal-tipped rod was back into Strago's hands in a heartbeat. "I'll hold it back for as long as I can."

Gestahl started to protest. "But this is our--"

"Go!"

His voice seemed magically amplified and the family began to obey when a tide of fire erupted from the hole in the floor, turning flagstone into brimstone. The young mage tried to throw up a Shield spell as quick as he could, but he simply couldn't get the cantrip out fast enough. The four of them were thrown back from the force of the killing tide, with the remnants of Strago's protective aura able to slow down some of the stone fragments but not all of them. As the mage struggled to regain his vertical base, his eyes widened on an esper that was now floating above the rift - and drifting towards them!

"You just don't learn, do you?"

But Banon and Gestahl were no longer paying the two foes any mind. The hellish blast of stone and shrapnel had their mother lying prone on the floor - a large wedge of cornerstone embedded into her chest.

"Mom?"

"Don't move, okay? You're going to be fine."

But Maria was barely able to hear them, her conscious thought holding on only by a thread. The lithe and beautiful woman sputtered blood as she reached out a hand to one of her two sons. The one she found was Gestahl.

"Mom, don't go. There'll be no one left to look after us. Mom, please . . ."

Her delicate hand caressed his face as only a loving mother's could. "Take care . . ." she wheezed, ". . . of Vector . . . of yourselves. Be good . . ."

She exhaled one last ragged breath, and the two brothers waited for her to draw in another one. But it never came. Her head lolled, her eyes fluttered, and then the heavy sleep of eternity descended upon her.

All of reality seemed to slow down around them. Neither Gestahl nor Banon heard the fire break its way up from out of the cellar, or even Strago loosing a bolt of elemental magic that brought the ceiling down on top of the war-crazed esper. The next thing they felt was a hand grabbing hold of their shirt collars and shoving them out along the back way. Even that didn't seem quick enough to spare them the horror of it all. The moment stayed with them long after the two brothers fled to the safety of the starry night.

Meanwhile, the esper - buried beneath the burning rubble of Vector castle - smiled.

* * *

The funeral was a simple affair, reserved only for family members, the royal guard, and a handful of foreign dignitaries. Both brothers stood silent throughout the service, paying little or no attention to the condolence speeches given by a Doman sentry or even the chancellor of Figaro. It all passed them by in an instant, until both brothers were alone with their parents' monument on the hillside. The dismal gray overcast only seemed to amplify the sorrow which Banon felt.

Gestahl, on the other hand, was feeling something else entirely.

"I can't believe they're gone." Banon struggled to keep the tears from his eyes, but the obsidian stone in front of them wouldn't let him. "What's going to happen to us without them? Are things ever going to get better for us?"

Gestahl, however, couldn't keep his eyes away from the monument that had been Vector castle - a monument that was now as black as their mother and father's grave marker. "I can't really speak for us," he told him, "I can only speak for myself, and the township of Vector."

Banon sniffled and looked at him. "What are you talking about?"

"Hasn't the chancellor told you?" When it seemed that his only answer would be his brother's dumbfounded face, Gestahl continued. "With both of our parents dead, the throne passes over to the eldest son - me."

"Oh," Banon said, only partially understanding. "But what about me? What do I get?"

Sparks of contempt flashed in Gestahl's eyes, making Banon feel uneasy. It was the same look he had been given the day the two of them brought the esper home.

"The chancellor and I spoke about that, and we both think it would be best if you didn't stay here anymore."

"What? But you can't! We're--"

"We're brothers?" Gestahl finished for him. "No. That excuse won't work anymore, not since you allowed for one of those esper creatures into our home and tear it apart from the inside out."

"But I . . . I put the needs of the many before the needs of the few. Mom and dad understood that. Why can't you?"

"Because it's an attitude that will mark the end of Vector!" Gestahl's voice took on a harsh and explosive life. "Fifty years from now, no one will remember this place, these people, not even mom and dad! I'm pulling out the stops here and now, and the stops start with you!"

Banon staggered a little ways down the grassy slope, feeling smaller and more vulnerable than he actually was. Could the chancellor really be condoning all of this? Where was he supposed to go?

"I can't believe you're doing this to me . . . to us." He turned back to their mother and father's obelisk, wanting to take back so many things he had done that fated day in the meadow but unable to do so. "Just . . . why?"

Gestahl remained indifferent as he spoke. "To watch over the legacy our parents left behind. Mom and dad understood that. Why can't you?"

"Brother . . ."

But Gestahl was through listening to him. With a rose in one hand and a makeshift crutch in the other, the Vector prince lingered a moment longer to pay his last respects and then hobbled his way back into town. Banon stayed, not knowing what to do, where to go, or even what to feel. A stiff breeze finally rustled the grass at his feet, and he realized with no small degree of anguish that his own rose lay ruined in his clenched fist. The crushed pedals tumbled from his tiny fingers, fingers that had gone numb since the esper had attacked him. That was when it hit him.

The wound on his arm had vanished . . .

* * *

Time passed.

Minutes on the hillside in Vector turned to hours, and then into days. The world passed into transition, changing vibrant greenery into an inferno of autumnal colors before the cruel hand of Winter wrung it all from their branches. And so it was that after an entire decade had went by, Father Time held his ragged breath for the two brothers. It was up to them now whether or not they chose to let old rivalries be born anew . . .

"That should just about do it."

Muscles twitching and rippling beneath his faded brown tunic, Banon blew loose wisps of hair from his eyes as he fought with the number-nine pressure valve in the Figaro control room. There was no give to it, moving only a few millimeters in the desired direction. It didn't matter. Banon just needed for it to be enough if the experiment was to be a success. He kicked at a nearby clamp, locking the valve in place before scrambling up a scaffolding to check the pressure gauge. He tapped on the glass casing but the needle remained fixed to its spot.

"More torque," he heard himself say, and then leaned out over the edge of the platform. "Renzo, it needs more torque!"

"It's already at its limit," a gravelly voice called back from down in the corridor.

"Then get your bearded butt up here and help me with this valve!" Banon worked his way back down to the lower landing while Renzo worked his way up. "If there's not enough steam to turn those drills this time, then we've pretty much wasted an entire weekend rebuilding them."

"You don't have to go tellin' me stuff I already - ugh, know!" His last word fractured beneath the strain he put into the valve, bracing it from moving in one direction while Banon kept jerking it the opposite way. "I've pretty much been, uh, working with the king on this for as long as, oof, you've been."

Banon never answered, only grinned as he locked the clamp back into place. Banon had been here since Gestahl (only on the very rarest of occasions did he call him 'brother' anymore) had exiled him a decade earlier. The chancellor of Figaro was the first to hear of the young boy's dilemma, and thus was the first to extend to him the hand of good fellowship as a friend of his late father. Renzo found his way to the kingdom two years after Banon did, not because he particularly enjoyed the company of royalty but because he needed the work. The two of them had been friends ever since.

"Okay. Let's see if we got it this time." Again, Banon scaled the scaffolding, as quickly and gracefully as the last hundred times he had done so, and checked the gauge. This time, he wouldn't be disappointed. "Success! We got it!"

"We do? Hot dog!" Renzo clapped his two hands together, genuinely proud of himself. "I told ya. Didn't I tell ya? All it needed was a bit of elbow grease."

Banon beamed, slapping him on the back. "You did indeed, old friend. So, what do we do now?"

"What the king had been asking us to do all along." He ascended to the upper level of the platform and pulled the clear casing away from a bright red buttom. "Do you want to do the honors or should I?"

"Well, call me a stick-in-the-mud, but don't you think the king would find something amiss when he returns from his hunting trip and discovers the castle missing?"

"Probably, but at least then he'd know we got his Submerge Mode up and running."

"One step at a time, Renzo." Banon stooped down to gather up his tools. "Why don't you go and inform the chancellor of our progress first? If anyone needs to find me, just tell them I'll be in the library - researching something."

Renzo conceded, still unaccustomed to the ways a kingdom worked but glad to have a little assistance. Banon retired to the library then, not wishing to linger within Figaro's many carpeted halls and chambers any longer than he needed to. Their elegance and grace was a painful reminder as to the home he had been banished from - before it had went up in flames.

Everything was as he had left it, and with so many of the kingdom's staff preoccupied with other affairs he was often free to conduct his studies undisturbed. He gave the card catalogue a quick perusing through before finding the book he was looking for, then took his usual spot at the table nearest the back. The book was called "Espers and Outcasts", written by the very same man who had hunted an esper in his home some ten years earlier.

". . . since the War of the Magi, primary source material has become a testament to the chaotic psychology of the esper race. Though not evil by nature, first-hand accounts from Magi Warriors prove conclusively that the atrocities of war have made berserkers out of many a calm and collected esper . . ."

"Shhhh," said a young woman across the way.

"Sorry," he whispered, unaware he had been reading aloud. He gave a quick scan of the open book to find where he had left off.

". . . calm and collected esper. Some Thamasian scholars even hold to the belief that espers were once like us, and that one violent confrontation made them into the creatures they are today. In this light, it has always been assumed that espers in their human form are only capable of curative magic . . ." v "Excuse me, could you please--"

Banon lowered the book this time, and he and the young woman made eye contact. For a moment, they were both at a loss for words. Her beauty struck him dumb, from her lightly tanned skin to her dark sweeping hair, every square millimeter of her fascinated him. Banon fumbled over his words, unsure of whether or not she was hesitating for the same reason he was.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"No, I'm sorry."

"No, I am." She went over to his table. "I had no idea you were the one helping His Majesty with his experiment."

"How did you know that?" he asked, not thinking before speaking.

She touched her forehead. "Well, you have a little bit of . . ."

"Oh," he said, wiping the grease from his brow. "Yes. I'm a mess, aren't I?"

"No." She gave him what Banon thought was the sweetest smile he had ever seen. His heart fluttered in his chest. "I don't suppose you could tell me anything about the experiment, could you? It's been all the buzz since His Majesty started working on it."

"Sorry, it's classified." With a rag in hand, he cleaned away whatever grease was left clinging to his hands and face. "The king wishes for the project to be tested first before anyone else is informed about it."

"Oh. Well, can I ask what your name is? Or is that classified too?"

He laughed. "It's Banon."

They shook each other's hand.

"I'm Gayle."

"Nice to meet you."

"Likewise." She pulled up a chair alongside him. "So, what is it that you're reading anyway? It's something about espers, isn't it?"

"Yeah, there's something I've been trying to understand."

"About magic?"

"In a manner of speaking." He flipped through a few of the pages idly for good measure. "I know I only just met you, but would you be able to keep a secret if I showed you something?"

"Sure, I guess."

He reached down into his toolbox and pulled out one of his utility knives. Before Gayle had a chance to react to the gesture, he drew a slit down slantways across his forearm. Blood ran unchecked from the wound along either side of the tabletop.

"Banon, my Goddess! What are you--"

"Keep watching."

The wound began to sparkle blue, clotting over and then turning to scar tissue. Seconds after the sliver of metal passed through his flesh, the cut disappeared.

"Oh wow," she stammered, "That was just . . . oh wow."

"And this is where the secret comes in." He flipped back to the page he had been reading before Gayle came along. "My brother and I were both attacked by an esper once, and from what I gather from all these texts I've been studying, it's done something to us."

"What--you mean it's given you the ability to heal yourself?"

"Well, apparently. But I can heal other people as well. Here, give me your arm."

She pulled back from him. "Uh, no. That's fine, I'll take your word for it."

"Right, sorry. Well anyway, I think it happened to me because the esper was in its human form when it attacked us. Look at this . . ." He read back the proper passage in verbatim. "'It has always been assumed that espers in their human form are only capable of curative magic'. That would explain it, wouldn't it?"

"Whoa, slow down for a second. Let's just say that what you're saying is true, that somehow this esper gave you the ability to heal. What do you suppose an esper would do to someone if it attacked while it was still in its pure form?"

Almost the second Gayle started to ask the question, Banon's thoughts returned to Gestahl. He had been attacked in a cave, while the creature bled hellfire. Could that have been its true form? What ghastly effect did it now have on the current ruler of Vector? Banon felt his throat lock up.

"I don't know," he finally answered. "I must admit though, I'm suddenly curious."

Gayle was about to say something in response when Renzo burst into the room, waving around a yellow slip of parchment over his head.

"Renzo?" Banon squinted at his bearded comrade. "What's up? Did you tell the chancellor about our progress today?"

"I did," he said, "and he gave me this telegram to give to you. He said it was urgent."

Perplexed as to who could possibly know as to his whereabouts, he snatched the message out of Renzo's callused palm and broke its seal open. Banon glanced at the parchment for only a second before realizing who it was from.

"Banon," Gayle asked. "Who sent it?"

He didn't immediately answer, but instead gave the enclosed oak branch an idle spin between his thumb and forefinger. All too quickly, he was beginning to understand the changes which the esper attack was having on his older sibling.

"It's from Gestahl," he told them. "He's just dissolved the monarchy of Vector."

* * *

Through the blackened vestiges of his former home, Gestahl scavenged for sustenance. The castle had been beyond hope since it had burned down ten years ago, and he never even bothered trying to rebuild it (for fear of reviving some very painful memories). The chancellor would have been the first to step in and insist he make the attempt, and he was no longer part of the picture. He had died of exposure while en route to Maranda on a mission of goodwill - or so Gestahl had told his subordinates.

"Who's there?"

Gestahl jerked upright, reacting to what he believed to be a body going through their burnt-out stairwell. He picked himself up from the soot and went out into the main chamber, finding that their chandelier had finally given way from the ceiling. He sighed and resumed his frantic search.

Dissolving the monarchy had been an understandably moot choice for the entire township. With a center of power no longer in effect, Vector suffered significantly. The five or so years he had spent as king was marked with some bad decision-making that had completely emptied the kingdom's coffers. No wealth meant a decline in trade relations, and Albrook and Nikeah each fell back on their agreements as a result. Suddenly, silks and spices, pelts and perishables, supplies of any kind stopped arriving. Vendors and their patrons became more and more scarce in the streets, and it took everything Gestahl and his men could muster to keep the town from collapsing under the weight of the chaos its king had made for it. On the other hand . . .

Gestahl coughed as a cabinet door came apart in his hand. What other hand was there? he heard himself ask. He did what he did in response to his father's way of doing things, but what did that ultimately get him? A blackened castle? A handful of subjects? A town that could self-destruct at any minute? What did it get him?

"Mother . . ."

His hands kept probing the interior of the cabinet blindly, hoping to happen across some gin or perhaps a flask of whiskey to both fill his stomach and deaden the pain all at once. Instead, his wandering fingers closed around a simple wooden box with no lock on it. Gestahl turned it over in his hand once, and then twice. It had apparently suffered no damage from the fire, and in breaking its simple iron clasp a sea of letters tumbled out. He gave them closer inspection, cycling through each one at a turm. Poems, messages from carrier pigeons, love letters . . .

He knew immediately that they belonged to his parents.

"Oh my hero, so far away now, will I ever see your smile? Love goes away like night into day. It's just a fading dream . . ."

He threw the page to one side and picked up another one, this time a letter:

To My Dearest Draco - through whom all pains are eased.

This is truly a joyous occasion, for both us and our people. I knew you would come and take me away from Ralse, for the spirit of the East holds no sway over the love which you and I both share. Your duel's end has not only brought an end to his reign, but has also united the Vec and Tor kingdoms as one. I have every confidence that through you, our kingdom shall grow to become the strongest and most feared in all of Balance. There is still much to do, but we will prevail. Of this, I am sure. I can hardly wait to know the shelter of your loving arms again. Until then, I will be with you always.

~ Maria

Gestahl read the letter over several more times, his hatred kept fed with each word spoken. The scars on his back twitched and the blood in his veins boiled. How could one stand that man and his blind pursuit of peace? If it weren't for his father's doing, his mother may still be alive with this Ralse person. Vector had lost everything because of--

The letter burst into flames, throwing Gestahl onto his back from the sound alone.

"I hate it . . . when that happens . . ."

He gave a grunt of discomfort as he brought himself up into a sitting position. His back creaked and complained from the effort, and that was when it hit him. That was when he knew what it was he still had in the wake of mounting tension, when he knew precisely what it would take to make Vector powerful again. It was the gift his resident esper had already given unto him, an ability no other human among him had.

The gift of Magic.

* * *

A crack of thunder tore across the sky, leaving a deafening boom hanging in the rainy night air. Gestahl's men had pushed for them to be allowed to accompany him as he ventured over into what was formerly the Tor district of town. But he refused, telling them that they were needed elsewhere. No longer were there any knights in Vector, no retainers to the throne or guardians to the watch towers. They were only men now, consigned to watching after the many town guilds and make sure their numbers didn't dwindle any further.

The former monarch had only to cross a single avenue on the far side of town to understand how bad things had degenerated. What had been a mere eyesore during the reign of his two parents was now the underbelly of society torn wide open. Trash fires were everywhere, smoking and stinking up one street after the next. At the end of the block, a savage dog fight attracted the attention of anyone within earshot. Gestahl began to approach it himself, until a heartrending cry of a canine in anguish split the air. The owner of the winning dog trotted off with his winnings while the loser was cut down by a starving vagrant, who then proceeded to tear the helpless animal apart with his bare hands.

"Hold up, you bastard!"

"Grab 'em! Get 'em! The fuck!"

Backpedaling, Gestahl took cover around a street corner as several of the spectators overtook the winner. Two of them took the man's legs out from under him with cudgels and steel chains, making sure he was beaten into unconsciousness or worse before robbing him blind.

"Hey, get his watch!"

"Hands off his boots! They're mine!"

Push turned to shove, until the assailants were mugging each other for the stolen goods. Gestahl fell back into the shelter of a nearby alley before it got too out of hand. Pivoting on the balls of his feet, he found two others sharing the alleyway with him.

"Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh . . ."

"Yeah, yeah. Ya like that, don't ya?"

He took a step back towards the way he had come, where some harlot was busy offering her services to whatever nobody it was that could still afford her fee. He hastily abandoned his would-be refuge, almost certain that the man in the alley had once been a peddler of fine fabrics before all of this got started.

Things seemed to get foggier and more metaphysical with each unsteady step he took, and he began to yearn for a home that he knew no longer existed. He tried to find some balance by bracing himself against a lamppost, but it only served to increase the nausea he had been feeling since first coming to this place. The bile finally rose up into his throat, and he hadn't the strength left to force it back down again. He leaned over and heaved out whatever was still in his stomach while Vector continued to unravel around him. Despair started to sink in.

Then his thoughts returned to his mother.

I have every confidence that through you, our kingdom shall grow to become the strongest and most feared in all of Balance . . .

He brushed a hand across his stubble-length goatee, and kept walking.

The rain continued to come down in a torrent, starting to build up in the cracks between the cobblestones and course down the roads in rivulets. Gestahl walked with his head bowed low, hidden beneath his deep brown hood so as to ward off any unwanted attention. He had to have been getting closer. This was the heart of Tor territory after all, the heart of the kingdom which had come before his father's. He was here somewhere. He wasn't about to buy into the rumors of him skipping town, even if it was the most viable option for a person at this point.

He soldiered along the verminous paths until a blue-haired woman with a scar on her cheek jumped out in front of him.

"For two hundred gil," she entreated, holding her coat open for him. "How 'bout it, handsome?"

Gestahl kept his eyes averted. "No thanks."

"C'mon, man!" She held her coat open even as he brushed his way past her. "Alright, for one hundred gil. But that's as low as I can go. If he doesn't get his fifty percent before the night's out--"

Gestahl spun around. "He? Who's he?"

"Uh, no one. Nevermind." The streetwalker started to tie up the sash around her waistcoat. "I'm sorry."

"Hey!"

She turned and started to run but slipped in the middle of the street. Grabbing a handful of her hair, Gestahl pulled her back to her feet with a dagger nipped against her abdomen.

"Talk," he warned her, "now."

"If I tell you, he'll kill me!"

"If you don't tell me, I'll kill you!"

She wriggled around in his grasp, trying to break the hold he had on her. Gestahl drew a weak gash with the blade across her belly, not enough to critically wound her but enough to let her know his intentions were sincere. The woman screamed but he held her fast.

"Last chance! Speak!"

"Ralse! His name is Ralse!"

The game was afoot, he thought, and finally let her go.

"Take me to him."

* * *

There was not all that much more remaining of Ralse's castle than there was of Draco's. It didn't appear any taller than the average townhouse, with half of the outer walls and pillars now existing as a patchwork of crumbling stone and mortar. Ragged banners of the old family line hung flaccid in the midnight rain, while wooden ladders and shallow stepping stones took the place of a bridge that had collapsed long ago. Near the entrance, a fat, bearded man in worn leather sat sipping at his ale and looked almost to be enjoying the weather they were having.

"Halt," he called out to the two visitors, belching before saying anything else. "Who goes there at this hour?"

"It's me again," said Gestahl's escort, seeing little point in introducing herself again. "There's one here who wishes to speak with Ralse."

The guard gave the woman a knowing grin, revealing half a dozen black teeth in the process. Her eyes held an indignant look with him for only a few seconds before looking away.

"And who are you, then?" he asked, turning to Gestahl.

"Your former king."

The man's eyebrows arched, genuinely surprised as he looked the youth over to be sure he coincided with whatever information he had relating to the king of Vector. Gestahl nodded, somewhat amused from the reaction he was receiving.

"Well, well, good news for us." He downed what was left of his ale before giving the goblet a pitch into the moat. "You have no idea how much we've been looking forward to meeting you."

The woman with the scar on her cheek wasted no time, scrambling back up across the stones and up over the embankment before disappearing from sight.

"Hmph," said the guard, pulling aside the tapestry hanging down from the entrance. "Don't pay any mind to her. She broke the code for revealing this lair, so her life's forfeit. But who cares, right? I mean, she's just a whore."

Gestahl said nothing, already halfway inside the main foyer. The lair looked like something out of a pirate's tale, with half-full chests, armor, and weapons all casually strewn about within the many chambers surrounding him. He only received fleeting glimpses of the other rooms, obscured as they were by faint lamplight and dozens of overhanging fabrics kept up for the sole purpose of confusing outsiders. The same scheme continued on into the throne room, just on a much larger scale.

And in the very center of the room, perched upon a pewter throne and idly fondling a slave girl, was Ralse himself. He was as every bit clean-shaven as when he was still king of the realm of Tor, and as every bit regal looking as well. A crown of filigree and precious stones still sat atop his now-bald head, as though he knew he were on the cusp of resurrecting his kingdom.

"Sir," said the portly guard, lingering in the door way, "It is him."

"Excellent." He tossed a garment to his slave, then gestured towards both her and his guard. "Leave us. I wish to speak with him in private."

Gestahl started to speak even before Ralse's underlings had completely left the room. "I was right. I knew you'd still be prowling around the slums of town. Eager to take back what was once yours, hmmm?"

Ralse cracked his neck from side to side. It was clear he had waited long for this. "It appears that I, too, was correct. I knew it would only be a matter of time before your duties as king forced you into hiding with the rest of us."

"You would be wrong, then." Gestahl took a few steps towards him, suddenly catching several of the wall hangings twitching out of the corner of his eye. "And that being the case, I've come here tonight to make you a proposition - a proposition for an alliance."

"Oh please, stop pretending to be something that you're not. Do you truly believe you're in control of things around here? What do you think it is that keeps Vector from getting fed to the worms, do you really think your little group of yesmen have anything to do with it? If it weren't for our incentives to the guilds or the raids we had launched against trading ships, this city would have burned itself out years ago."

A moment of silence passed between them, as Gestahl took a few seconds to digest what it was Ralse had to say. Then, as calm and collected as ever, Gestahl repeated, "I propose an alliance."

Ralse sighed. "Go on, then."

"We share a kinship, you and I, and that kinship is hatred towards the same man. To me, the man was so blinded by his own idealism that he failed to realize the fantastic possibilities that could come from Vector. To you, he swept away your one true love and reduced the realm of Tor to a puppet state. You know of whom I speak."

"Draco." Ralse spoke the name allowed as his two hands throttled the arms of his throne. "Indeed. I haven't spoken that name aloud in a very long time. You have your father's eyes, you know. Did he ever tell you that?"

Rage flared inside of Gestahl's eyes, and for half an instant, Ralse thought he could see smoke spewing out from the sleeves of his robe.

"Let us be united in our common interest, then. Let us both work side by side to create the township which Draco could never hope to imagine, much less make a reality. What say you?"

Ralse pursed his lips in thought, then took a swig of his whiskey from a nearby pitcher to help spur along his decision-making process. He pursed his lips again, then straightened in his cushioned seat.

"It's a fine proposal," he said at last, "with considerable merit. It's too bad you didn't decide to become an orator in your early years. You'd have been a shoe-in."

Gestahl smiled, looking pleased with the outcome.

"But you know, on the other hand . . ." Ralse clapped his palms together, and the tapestries fell away to reveal seven heavily armed mercenaries. ". . . the only thing standing between me and a second term as king is you. I think it would be just as easy to remove one obstacle now as opposed to creating several others in the future, don't you think?"

A simple glance around him told Gestahl that these were among Ralse's biggest and strongest foot soldiers, with each one standing close to seven feet tall and employing every manner of weapon from sword to crossbow. He should have run, except that he found the same fat guard standing at the exit, an ear-to-ear smile wrapped around his face as he brought a double-handed battleaxe up to bear.

"Nothing I can do to change your mind?" he asked Ralse.

"I'm rather set in my ways, I'm afraid."

Gestahl grinned, his thoughts turning to anger and then his anger becoming manifest throughout every single pore in his body.

"So am I."

All air in the chamber began to ripple and tremble with intense heat. The smug look upon Ralse's face faded as he began to feel his crown burn through what hair still remained on his head. Violently, he batted the diadem to one side and started swatting wildly at his scalp, his crown of jewels now replaced with a crown of flames!

"Gyah!" The heat around him continued to intensify, bringing the pitcher of whiskey next to him close to boiling. "Get him, stop . . . Ah! AH!"

An explosion of alcohol turned the former king into a human torch, and he began running around his chamber in a futile attempt to put out an inferno that was magically generated. Ralse's mercenaries were equally powerless to do anything about it. They all seemed to cry out at once as the heatwave smelted metallic weapons into the flesh of their hands. Wooden weapons became all the more useless, reduced to kindling before a single one could be made use of.

And all the while, Gestahl merely stood there with his eyes closed, his arms folded, and his unconquerable anger burning everything he projected it towards. But now, he realized, the upper hand was his. And he would be damned if he was going to waste it.

Taking his faithful hunting knife back out of concealment, he pitched it towards the guard in the doorway. It penetrated his skull with a sickening thud, and he moved in quickly to claim the slain man's battleaxe. The weapon came away with a hand and several digits smelted into its hilt, but Gestahl didn't relent. Its double-edged blade danced more than it swung, parting superheated flesh as though passing through water. He impaled one, decapitated another, neatly cleaved a third straight down the middle, and so forth until the slowly smoldering body of Ralse was all that remained.

"Wha . . . what are . . . wha . . ."

He continued to burn as Gestahl approached him, the once and future ruler of Vector seemingly immune to the effects of the unholy fire he had created. He touched the axe upon the scorched forehead of his rival, but did not yet swing it.

"I had a feeling you weren't going to take me up on my offer," he told him. "I just figured I'd give my father's way a try first. Now I realize just how much of a fool the man was for placing his trust into peaceful solutions. Only seems fitting that I now send you to join him."

What remained of Ralse coughed and spluttered, utterly beyond protecting himself. Fortunately for him, there was no seeing Draco's eldest son raising his weapon for the final blow, nor was he able to feel it finally when it cleaved his skull in half.

"Lord Ralse! Lord Ralse!" an attendant cried from out in the corridor. "I heard a ruckus! Are you alright? Lord Ral--"

He stopped a foot short of the doorway and gasped. The throne room was in ruins, with half a dozen corpses lying amidst either pools of blood, severed limbs, or still-squirming entrails.

"Ralse is unavailable at the moment," Gestahl replied, spinning the crown around on his index finger. "Can I help you?"

* * *

For several days, Banon wouldn't leave his room. Any thought, feeling, or responsibility he had to the throne of Figaro was forgotten in the wake of his brother's message, and the chancellor seemed at a loss to help him. On several occasions, Gayle brought him his meals but they would go untouched at the foot of his door. Finally, four days after receiving Gestahl's decree, he decided to rejoin the others. He found them all waiting for him in the king's briefing room. Every one of them found their feet upon laying eyes on his haggard, unshaven face.

Gayle was the first to stand, though not quite quick enough to beat the bearded Renzo into speaking first. "Well bless me, laddie! You're starting to look like me with all that stubble of yers. How could things get so bad for you to tolerate looking like me over here?"

The others in the stone-block room couldn't help but give an appreciative laugh to the engineer's comment. The resemblance which a nearly bearded Banon had to his good friend was uncanny after all. But for all of Renzo's good-natured cheer, it simply wasn't enough to diffuse the tension which the last son of Vector brought with him in his presence. His face gave a grimace, drawing his face tight from the many sleepless nights he had endured.

"I'm sorry, you're right." he took a step back towards the door. "It's inappropriate. I'll go and shave, then."

"Banon?" His and Gayle's eyes met as he started to turn around, and she entwined her arm around his. "Sit and talk to us. What is it the king of Vector can say to you that would make you out to be this way?"

The chancellor, already sitting at the head of the king's table, raised his eyes to Banon. But Banon couldn't keep it a secret anymore. Something terrible was about to happen to the world, and he had the nagging suspicion that his brother was going to be responsible for it.

"Gestahl is my blood brother," he said, loud enough so that everyone could hear him. The chancellor threw his head back and sighed, but Banon kept talking. "I never came to the kingdom of Figaro because I was invited, I came because my brother had me banished. He blames me for the deaths of our mother and father, and I feel that he's going to do something terrible to make sure I regret it for the rest of my life. I'm sorry, I've been wanting to tell you all for such a long time. But the chancellor forbid me from doing so, afraid that it would jeopardize the security of the kingdom."

"And so it has!" The chancellor stood, his regal garments spinning as he did so. "You understand that this breach of oath must be reported to His Majesty immediately. I have no doubt he will react harshly. You may even find yourself banished from this kingdom as well."

"I know," Banon said, giving a brief nod.

The chancellor matched the gesture, his eyes full of disgust but also with a hint of sorrow. He had been such a well behaved and intelligent young man up until this point, he thought. How could he go and do this to himself? His heavy breath and anxious footsteps chased him on his way out of the conference room.

"Everything's going to be okay, friend." Renzo gripped his shirt sleeve and started to jitter, the same way he jittered when he and Banon got to drinking caffeinated ale at the pubs in Narshe. It was a quirk that had never ceased to put Banon into stitches. "O-o-o-o-o-o-kay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay?"

Banon only smiled this time, just enough to not hurt his friend's feelings. "Thanks, Renzo."

"He speaks the truth, you know," Gayle said, when the two of them were finally alone. "We'll request an audience before the king or something and petition on your behalf. His Majesty can't just let you go after doing so much for his kingdom. We'll think of something. Renzotoo. He's your best friend, after all."

"Thank-you," said Banon, unable to look at her. "That won't be necessary, though. I don't plan on sticking around here much longer."

* * *

"My Lord . . ."

The chancellor removed his hood and bowed in the presence of his monarch. King Roni VII kept his back turned to him, his regal form and posture almost scintillating in the afternoon rays. He was still quite young, only a year older than Banon was, yet he took all of his official duties as every bit serious as his father had. And right now, his official duties could mean exile for one of his closest friends.

"Chancellor. To what do I owe the pleasure?"

The king's right-hand swallowed hard. "It's over, my lord. Banon has broken his oath and now several of your staff know his secret."

"I sensed as much."

The chancellor took a step closer. "These walls are thin and our subjects are many. In no time, this secret will have gotten out. Before we know it, people will be panicking about esper attacks on their hometowns. It poses too much of a risk for your kingdom, sire."

"Perhaps not."

"Sir?"

"It's come to my attention that Banon and Renzo have succeeded in making the castle's Submerge Mode operational. That would help in stemming the flow of sensitive information, would it not?"

"Except that the operation itself is still in its experimental phase," the chancellor replied, sounding unnerved. "And even if it does work, the people of Figaro cannot stay holed up underground forever. As soon as we resurface, trouble may park itself on our doorstep in some other form."

The king sighed, feeling as though he had exhausted every option that was available to them. "I am merely looking for a solution that would benefit all parties."

The chancellor bowed again reverently. "But of course, Your Majesty. It is one of your finest qualities. It's just, well, such a solution never seems forthcoming when it comes to the Vector brothers. Young Banon tried the very same tactic when it came to stemming an esper outbreak. Both of his parents died as a result."

"I see where you're coming from, friend." The king started to clench and unclench his hands behind his back, a mannerism which many understood to be related to his agonizing over a difficult decision. "I just hope that my children will forgive me for what it is I'm about to do."

* * *

"So you're a maid around here, are you?"

Banon and Gayle were back in his quarters, where he finally got around to trying some of her cuisine. Each night that passed when she brought him an uneaten dish, she always knocked briefly on his door and told him not to let his food get cold. He could have been wrong about her of course, that maybe she was just worried about a friend. Gayle, on the other hand, wasn't about to lie to him just when it seemed as though Figaro was about to let him go.

"Well, the king doesn't usually use titles like maid or servant, as he likes to think that we're all equal. But yes, I suppose I am."

"I see," he said, sticking another forkful of chicken salad into his mouth. "Well, it's delicious. Do you outdo yourself like this for everyone you serve?"

She laughed. "You're too kind."

"Oh, not at all." He straightened on his bed, putting the tray to one side. "You have a real gift. I'm just wondering what it was that drew you to Figaro rather than going into business for yourself."

Her smile started to fade, and she broke their gaze. "It's complicated."

"Try me."

She stood and dusted off her apron. "Maybe it would be better if I showed you. Come with me down to the kitchen for a second?"

Taking up his empty tray, Gayle walked alongside Banon down to the lower level of the castle. Other maids and man-servants whom she worked beside on a regular basis nodded and smiled to her as they passed by. They did the same for Banon, though he noticed that it seemed more of a programmed gesture to someone who was not among their ranks. He couldn't help but wonder whether or not people like the chancellor or even the king were given the same type of synthetic pleasantries.

The aromas of freshly prepared food, coupled with the haze of hot dishwater, struck Banon like a wreaking ball when they finally arrived. Gayle, however, was more than used to the various smells and sensations that were commonplace in these parts, moving right through them and making straight for the reception hall. A young boy sat at one of the chairs, looking depressed as he went about playing with his lunch. But when he saw Gayle enter the room, the child seemed to explode with life again.

"You came! You came!"

"Hi, sweetie!" She laughed as the boy sprang into her arms, grunting from the sudden weight in her lap. "Oh my, you're getting so heavy. I can barely pick you up anymore."

Banon stared, transfixed. "And . . . who's this little guy? Your brother?"

Gayle stared back, trying to keep a smile on her face. "Actually, this is my son. Duncan, say hello to Banon."

"Hi," Banon heard himself say.

Duncan, however, only stared icily back at Banon. "Don't even think about putting your hands on my mommy, mister."

Banon reacted as though he had just been slapped. "What?"

Gayle turned him around in her arms. "Duncan, what did I say about talking to mommy's friends like that?" She kissed him on his blond head and put him back down. "Go and finish your potatoes, okay? Banon and I need to talk."

He did what his mother asked while she and Banon stepped back out into the kitchen.

"So, now you know why I didn't go into business for myself."

Banon appeared to nod, only half comprehending. "And what about his father? Is he nearby, around the castle somewhere?"

"No father," she said, closing the door on the subject before it opened. "No husband. Nothing like that."

He shook his head, a head which was still trying to process all of this new information. "He's gotta be only four or five years old. You must have had him when you were--"

"Young, yes." Her eyelids fluttered in an irritated fashion. "And stupid. It was a mistake, but he's also the light in my life now. I'd do anything for him, because I'm all that he has and he's all that I have."

Banon peered through the crack in the doorframe. Duncan kept eating his foot obediently, though with no small degree of resignation.

"So, what are your plans for him?"

"I'm actually looking for--"

The doors leading out into the kitchen hallway flew open as King Roni himself came through in all of his royal splendor. The curly-haired chancellor trailed just a little ways behind him. Neither of them looked to be in a particularly good mood, but Gayle and Banon bowed their heads reverently all the same.

"It's alright, Banon," said the king. "You no longer need to lower your head to me like that."

"What do you mean?" Gayle asked, though Banon already knew what was to come from their being here.

"Banon, son of Draco, it is with great sadness that I do hereby discharge you of all services rendered to, and from refuge presented by, the kingdom to Figaro. Effective immediately."

* * *

A pall seemed to settle over the denizens of Figaro when Banon's discharge became public. No one could truly put their finger on it, but the lost son of Vector had brought something to their kingdom which simply was not there before, and probably never would be there again. Perhaps it was his sense of ingenuity and pragmatism, or the way he was always able to crack the proper joke whenever a situation called for it. Others believed it to be the ordeal he had suffered as a child that made him so endearing. No one in the castle was able to take the news without feeling some degree of regret. Even the chancellor and King Roni felt a pang of sorrow for the choice they had made.

Banon had to have been the only one amongst them with no regrets at all.

He spent most of the afternoon thereafter packing what effects had become his since arriving ten years ago, for when he had first arrived he had precious little save the clothes on his back. A faithful friend before a monarch any day, the king offered to take care of any provisions that Banon might need on his journey: gold; rations; a chocobo; anything he would require. Banon assured him that so long as he still had the king's friendship when this was all over, that would be more than enough.

The king had nothing to say to that.

"I'm sorry things never worked out differently," he said, meeting up with him in the main foyer.

"You carry the weight of an entire nation on your shoulders, Your Majesty." Over his own shoulder was a duffle given to him from one of the stable boys, and Banon wore it as though he had been a wanderer all his life. "Don't let the weight of one more commoner bog you down even further."

"Roni," said the king.

"What?"

"Banon, Roni. Remember how things were before I became king? Try it on for size."

"A commoner calling a king by his rightful name?" Banon pushed the strap of his duffle higher up his shoulder as he moved for the door. "The world would have to be in an awful lot of trouble for that to start happening."

"There's just one other matter I must speak to you about. If we are to be thorough in covering your tracks, and that Banon of Vector never really set so much as a foot in Figaro sands, who is it to take credit for that submerge contraption you helped build?"

"I'm sure you'll think of someone more deserving of that honor, whether it be yourself or another in your family line. Just make sure you're concise, that's all."

The king--Roni--smiled in earnest. "Indeed."

"Well, I shall be taking my leave of you then." Banon took hold of the latch and pulled the large double doors open. "Fare thee well, Your Majesty."

"Take care, old friend."

The dawn's early light still hid itself behind the mountains in the east as Banon made his exit. He had decided yesterday that he would not bother with any goodbyes as far as Gayle and Renzo were concerned, assuming they would understand that it was for the best. So, needless to say, it shocked him to learn that the two of them were already out front waiting for him.

"No farewells for your best friends?" Gayle inquired, pulling up her hood to stave off the bitter cold of twilight.

"You got some nerve leaving us in the dark, boy!" Renzo growled. "Where do you get off doing something like that?"

Banon seemed stuck for an answer. "I wasn't . . . I was trying to make it as painless an affair as possible." Renzo snorted in contempt but Banon ignored him. "So, how did you two find out about this anyway?"

"News travels quickly in a castle as small as this one." Renzo cast one last, long look at the castle's heavy battlements and high towers. "Doesn't mean I'm not gonna miss this place, though."

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

"What do you think it means?" Gayle said. "We're going with you."

"Gayle, no." Banon switched his duffle over to his other shoulder, its contents already starting to fatigue him. "I can't ask you to do that. You have a life here, not to mention security for Duncan. What's he supposed to do when you leave?"

"You mean, what's 'this' little guy over here supposed to do?" She gestured towards one of the three nearby chocobos, where a small hooded form lay snoring on the saddle. "Relax. Where he goes, I go."

"He can't come with us. It could be dangerous."

"It would only be as far as South Figaro. King Roni interrupted me the other day when I said that I was looking for any excuse I could get to leave the castle. There's a martial arts dojo due north of Figaro Town that I was going to introduce my son to, to help him get the most out of life."

"What about the things he could learn here, under the tutelage of the chancellor?"

"That's a mediocre life you're talking about, one of servitude." She cast a sidelong towards her sleeping son. "He's capable of so much more than that."

Banon gave a sigh, deciding that it was an uphill battle when trying to win an argument with a woman.

"What about you?" he said, turning to Renzo. "What's your excuse?"

Renzo let out a breath through his nose, which sounded more like a whistle going through his beard. "Our job is done here, after putting together that little submergy doodad. I've more than earned my fee here, so it's time to mosey along somewhere's else."

Banon began to respond, knowing that he at least had a chance at winning an argument with one of his oldest friends. But then Renzo started to speak again.

"You might as well face it, laddie. We're coming with you, whether you like it or not."

Banon gave up after that, having too much on his mind with his brother to try and change their minds. The three of them mounted their chocobos then, taking their reins from the stable hands and drawing tight their traveler's cloaks before starting off towards the eastern mountain range. A minute had not even gone by before the trio picked up on a large mechanical churning sound, and in spurring their mounts to halt they learned that it was coming from their castle home. Sand bubbled and then a cyclone started to suck the desert palace down into the subterranean depths of the earth. Moments later, it was as though there had never been a castle there to begin with.

Renzo twisted his stirrups into the feathery underbelly of his steed. "Well, I'd call that a pretty successful test, wouldn't you?"

Without another word, Banon continued on towards the mountains with Renzo and Gayle trailing close behind him.

* * *

Gestahl shook himself awake.

That dream again. It was the same one that had plagued his sleep since disposing of Ralse and his men a week ago. The one where he was forced to watch his mother die all over again while the world burned in every direction around him. It seemed to get more vivid with each passing night, to the point where the bloodstain on his tunic started to sear at his mind and became as plain as the darkness that veiled his eyes upon waking.

The sheets started to fume up underneath him.

That would do it for rest this unfair night, he thought, lifting himself from the cushion and pushing himself wearily through the empty chasm of his castle home. With a snap of his fingers, every brazier in his palace exploded to life. He was getting better at controlling it, though it drained him each time he used it. He knew that if he was going to replenish the skill, he would have to keep turning to the creature for a recharge. It was a clockwork routine, one he had tired from since the very beginning.

For the esper, however, it was life.

"It's me again . . ."

The cage in the cellar rattled and whined at the sound of his voice, though it couldn't so much as faze Gestahl anymore. He entered with a mace in hand, stripping the shirt away from his wrestler compact body. His hairless torso was a labyrinth of still-healing flesh, the scars winding like a vine around either of his biceps, pouring out onto his contorted back and now starting to creep out along his waist. The sight of it repulsed him, though he knew it was nowhere near how repulsive his mother's town had become.

"So," he said offhandedly when the creature calmed down long enough to listen. "Are you going to break down and tell me your name yet? We've known each other a very long time. I figure you at least owed me that much."

The winged esper flattened against the bars, clawing and hissing at the ruler of Vector. So thin had its patience grown that its assault this time threatened to dislodge several large stones from out of the foundation. Gestahl staggered back, almost tripping over the half-eaten remains of a chocobo in the process.

"I see," he said. "That's alright. I'd've reacted the same way if I were in your position. But you know, we're not all that different you and I. You're a monster that can make itself into a man--" He glanced at the scar tissue around his right arm. "--and I am a man who is very slowly turning into a monster. One way or another, the two of us will know a middle ground before this is over."

The esper never relented to his soft and lilting voice, continuing its vicious volley upon its prison. Cracking his knuckles along the shaft of his mace, Gestahl finally unlocked the door to its cell and let the creature come at him. He was bowled over in a second, its two limbs beating and clawing at his face and hair. He roared in agony as the esper bit down and ripped a small chunk out of his waist. Then, and only then, did Gestahl fight back, smashing his weapon across the right side of the esper's skull and then beating its handle down along the back of its head.

"Thanks for the recharge," he uttered through the pain in his side. Tying his shirt across the free-flowing wound, he picked up the piece of his disembodied flesh and flung it into the cell. "Keep the change. Please."

Pitching the limp esper back into its cage and securing the lock, Gestahl made his weary way back upstairs to rally his men. Feeling both stronger and weaker at the same, he couldn't help but wonder whether or not there was an easier way to carry out this little regimen of his - of theirs.

* * *

His devotees were ready by dawn, a reality which greatly appeased Gestahl. Their task from here was to purge Vector's many dwellings and byways of anything that would bring further unrest and disintegration among the masses. When word spread of Gestahl's single-handedly disposing of Ralse and his minions, the sodomy and crime that ran unchecked in the streets suddenly crashed to a standstill. Their turning from vice alone, however, would not be enough. Gestahl wanted for his people to fear and obey him, so that trust need never be an issue again.

And so it was that by midafternoon on the first day of the proscription, forty of Vector's most wanted stood bound and gagged in the town square. Prostitutes and bootleggers, merchants and cutthroats, any whose name had a checkmark on Gestahl's list were there, waiting in cold dread for whatever end it was they would meet. The clarion call of a trumpet followed when the last wrongdoer had been tied to her stake, and the ruler of Vector noted with no small degree of satisfaction that it was the same blue-haired woman he had met some time earlier.

"My people," Gestahl called out to the growing tide of spectators. "A dark chapter in our city's history is about to draw to a close, and another soon to open. You have doubted your kingdom and your king up until this point. I know it, for that doubt has been at our throats and littered our streets for a very long time. But it will be tolerated no longer. The sacrifices you will witness this afternoon will be a testament to that. It is your duty as future vassals and rulers of this great empire to behold their deaths here today, however those of you with younger children may be excused."

Gestahl had not meant for his last comment to be in jest, for he knew well the kind of a scar a traumatic experience could leave on a young mind. As he addressed the growing masses, his men grudgingly went about dousing the wrongdoers with oil. His audience felt divided as to what they were seeing. Some felt as though Gestahl's approach was a tragic (even barbaric) breach of tradition, even with the monarchy abolished. Others, however, had grown tired of having to hide their families from the squalor and danger that was rampant in the streets.

Regardless of what side a person stood on, everyone in eyeshot had the same problem of not being able to turn from the spectacle.

The listed ones squirmed in their restraints, their expressions a medley of fear, regret, and anger. For some inexplicable reason, Gestahl locked eyes with the blue-haired woman that had exposed herself to him several days back. She looked as though she were trying to keep his stare for as long as possible, somehow hopeful it would be enough for her to be released. She would be disappointed.

"By your deaths," said Gestahl with a ball of flames spinning around in his right fist, "Vector is healed."

The next thing any of the people of Vector knew, all of the town square was consumed in an unholy fire. Even with gags in their mouths, their sounds of anguish cut through the air. The stench of smoldering hair and flesh alone turned many of the citizens of Vector away. Other's simply couldn't, whether it was out of some foolish patriotic pride to their city or just morbid curiosity, nobody could say. After almost a minute of their burning an ethegy, one young woman's gag burned away into nothing.

"HELP ME!" she screamed at the top of her lungs, her face boiling and popping in the magical fire. "PLEASE!"

Faces in the crowd began to betray pity and disgust for the listed ones. Gestahl's own men even had difficulty holding back tears or swallowing the lumps in their throats.

Gestahl's own face betrayed nothing. It was necessary.

* * *

"Of the guilds that remain," said Gestahl, walking with his men through one of the last surviving hallways in his castle, "I'm going to have to decide which ones stay and which ones go. What do we have left?"

Galawain, one his late father's department heads, flipped through a ledger in response. "The Fisherman's guild is among Vector's oldest . . ."

"Abolish it. Next?"

"The Merchant's guild."

"Abolish."

"Bards, Scribes, and Storyweavers?"

"Abolish all of those. There's no room for them in the empire."

"And what of the Alchemist's guild. Abolish that as well?"

"Yes. No, wait."

Gestahl stopped in his place, and the men who marched behind nearly crashed into him. Alchemy, he thought, might be able to open a previously unexplored avenue in terms of assisting him with his 'regimen'. If it were possible to get a recharge down to potion form . . .

"No, keep the Alchemy guild. I may have some use for that one myself."

Galawain scribbled in the necessary adjustment on the paper. "That only leaves Mining, Blacksmithing, and Engineering."

"Well then, those will be our bread and butter. Recruit as many as you can with the qualifications for the job. I'd like to have an update by this evening."

"Concerning Engineering, sir." Galawain momentarily stopped his superior in his tracks. "The qualifications for that guild are rather high. With the Vector population being what it is right now, there's only one whose IQ comes even close. And he's just eight years old."

"What! You mean to say a toddler has been able to succeed with an entrance exam where the older and more experienced have failed?"

"Uh, yes sir."

"What this boy's name?"

Galawain flipped to one page over and indicated the child's name with his stylus.

"Take me to him."

* * *

"There, there. It's okay, I'm not going to hurt you."

While he had been the philanthropist and animal lover for all of his eight and a half years alive, Cid knew that it wasn't as much a matter of him hurting the antelope as it was the antelope hurting him. Before losing his life after a savage dog fight, his father was perhaps one of the most well-known geomancers the continent over. Cid had even picked up a thing or two from him about traps and misdirection. It had never been a problem to catch a fox or gazelle while he and his father were away on a hunt.

Of course, trapping a single animal couldn't stop the rest of its kingdom from being erratic and even violent towards other people. Cid knew this all too well, as it was the first (and last) lesson his father had been forced to learn the hard way. Was there a way to make them nicer to everyone? It was through technology that he looked to find an answer to that very question.

"Just . . . keep . . . still . . ." The antelope threw its antlered head about, fighting to loosen itself from its snare as Cid slipped a small, elastic crown around its head. "A little longer and . . . there."

The tight, metallic clamp on the apparatus began to whir until its strap became taut around the animal's head. The antelope stopped trying to free itself and regarded its captor with dark, unblinking eyes, almost as though he were waiting to be told something.

"Okay," Cid said, scuttling back from with his short legs after releasing the snare. "Do a back flip."

"The animal tilted its head to one side, uncomprehending.

"Don't know what a back flip is, huh? Okay, can you sit down?"

It looked down at the mossy floor, as though discovering it for the first time, and then lowered its rump down as Cid had asked of him.

"Good boy!" Cid clapped his hands with delight and reached into his pouch for a piece of gingerbread to give to it. "You get a treat!"

He held the small morsel out for the antelope to take, but it wouldn't take it. It wouldn't sniff at the food or even turn its head away when Cid insisted it upon him. It just sat there unmoving, waiting for Cid to tell him to do something else.

"What's the matter? You like gingerbread. You were eating it out of that snare just five minutes ago. Come on, eat the gingerbread."

And then it did, though the problem was not lost on Cid. The animal only took its treat when it was ordered to do so. This was not what he had set out to do at all. What he had wanted was to make them nicer to other people, not rob them of their free will . . .

"Whatcha got there, soldier?"

Cid spun in his place, taken off guard from the two men that stood beneath the underbrush. One, he observed, was middle-aged in a suit of armor. The other, however, was only a young man in dark clothing. He felt himself go numb upon seeing the flicker of fire in his brown eyes.

"N-n-nothing, sir," Cid stuttered, "J-j-just a project I've b-b-been working on."

The two of them stepped out of the shade, where Cid could make out the outline of a short, dark goatee on the younger man's face. The boy instantly panicked and fell to his knees.

"Your Majesty!" he cried. "F-f-f-forgive me! I didn't know it was you!"

Gestahl gave an amused grin. He instantly like this boy. "You needn't be so formal, son. I'm somewhat between titles of authority at the moment."

Cid replied with his head still turned to the ground. "My father always told me to respect those who hold positions of power over you."

"Your father is a wise man."

He looked up from where he had prostrated himself. "He was a wise man."

The ruler of Vector sighed, his heart immediately going out to him. Gestahl had not been much older than this child was now when his own parents had passed away. Cid began to say something else when he felt himself getting pulled back up to his feet.

"Get back, boy," said Gestahl as he regarded the catatonic animal behind him. "That beast looks like it's fixed to strike."

"What? Oh no, it's okay." Cid help up his two hands, waving both Gestahl and Galawain back from the antelope. "He's not going to move unless one of us tells it to."

Gestahl stayed his sword hand, appearing both confused and amazed all at once. "Unless we tell it to? You mean, that contraption on its head . . ."

Cid nodded excitedly. "Yes, it's controlling him. It'll make it do whatever we want it to do."

Galawain himself almost couldn't wrap his mind around it, having not been privy to the true extent of the boy's intellect until now.

"Go ahead," he added, "Ask it to do anything."

Gestahl decided to humor him. "Do a back flip."

"Er, no," Cid said upon seeing the animal puzzle over the command given to it. "It has to be something it's familiar with."

"Oh. Well, stand on your hind legs."

The antelope lifted itself from a sitting position and reared up on its back limbs, its two fore legs held perfectly upright in the air above it.

"Astounding." For the first time which Gestahl could recall, he actually felt himself become vulnerable in the wake of another's power. "But how, how can one so young build this . . . this . . ."

When it seemed clear that the former king was going to trail off indefinitely, Cid chose to just reply. "It's all in the mind," he said, "Understanding how it works, what sets it off, how certain impulses become triggered. When you've worked the equation out, the engine for control builds itself."

An idea suddenly sparked in the back of Gestahl's mind, one which made him dizzy with possibilities it meant.

"And this equation," he asked, "Is it the same for every animal?"

Cid gestured for the animal to sit back down again. "More or less."

"Even humans?"

The boy started to stare at him. "I guess. Why?"

"Leave us, Galawain. I must speak with the boy in private."

Questioning his superior's intentions was not even an issue. He simply turned back on and returned to the castle, as though he, too, wore one of the boy's crowns. When he was certain the soldier was gone, Gestahl knelt down in the mossy earth before him. Cid started from the gesture, but Gestahl silenced him before he even spoke.

"What are your intentions with this gift of yours?"

"Oh." Cid considered the question carefully, struggling to see beyond his father's smiling face. "Well, I don't know. I kinda wanted to use it to make animals nicer to us."

"You mean, you want to domesticate them."

"Is that the word for it?"

Gestahl nodded and smiled.

"I see. Well yes, I suppose that is what I want to do. I've even considered moving to the Veldt and turn it into a paradi--"

"Don't."

"What?"

"Stay with me, here in Vector. There's at least one other creature nearby that's in need of domestication, not to mention thousands of others that would seek to have me dead otherwise. I need you, Cid. I need you to help me build a future for the Empire. I can't do it without you."

Gestahl brushed a hand through Cid's short, brown hair, looking as benevolent as he could manage while waiting for the million dollar question to be asked.

"The . . . Empire? What's that?"

"A place where no harm will ever come to you, Cid. You'll have your own workshop with your own staff. Resources for your every invention will be ever at your fingertips. You will never hunger, nor thirst, nor be weary again. But more importantly, son, you will never be alone."

Cid felt himself brim over with purpose.

"What must I do?"

"Just tell me that you will pledge yourself to the Empire. There's nothing more to it than that."

Feeling the need to weigh what options were open to him, Cid realized rather suddenly that he had none. He had no immediate family, no relatives from afar, there was nobody. Only the man that knelt before him now, the only one who had ever really appreciated his talent.

"I . . . I pledge myself to the Empire."

"Forever?"

He looked askance at the antelope still sitting motionless behind them.

"Forever."

* * *

Banon's party traveled restlessly for three straight days through the mountains on their way to the dojo. Renzo and Duncan did most of the complaining while en route through the mountain paths, figuring that if they did their whining as one it could bring a few more hours of sleep to them the following night. All it took was a sharp reprimand from Gayle to silence the both of them completely. If Banon was bothered at all from his companions' bellyaching, no one was able to tell. They were still nowhere near his hometown, and yet the closer they were to reaching it the more reticent he became.

"Hey," Gayle said to him one night while they made came in the mountains one cool, cloudless night. "How've you been holding up?"

"Alright," Banon said to her. "He sat close by their fire with his bedroll thrown over his shoulders. "How's the little one?"

"Duncan's fine. He drifted off a few minutes ago."

He smiled. "I was talking about Renzo."

She gave a sweet-sounding laugh. "He's asleep, too."

"Good. It feels as though I've been pushing them too hard."

"You're looking to make peace with your brother." She sat down alongside him, warming her hands near the flame. "From one family person to another, I understand. I'm sure the other two rascals do too."

The two of them looked across the fire to see both Duncan and Renzo all tucked away in their sleeping bags, their heads leaning on each other's shoulders as they slept soundlessly. It was then that Banon realized that Gayle and he were alone, and a strange kind of warmth washed over him - a warmth he knew was not coming from the nearby flames.

"Well, it's late," he told her, abruptly turning over on his side. "We still have a ways to go come tomorrow."

Gayle sat in her place for a moment longer, perplexed as to his suddenly cold shoulder. "She leaned over to touch him, then drew back.

"Banon?"

He shifted underneath his bedroll. "Hmmm?"

"Nothing."

* * *

The way ahead of them became easier to bear when their animals touched down at the base of the Figaro ridge. Practical though chocobos were for traveling across great distances, their one major handicap were traversing the higher, more uneven footings of the world. When that leg of the journey drew to a halt, however, the three of them bolted across the savanna with renewed energy. Their riders were scarcely able to hold onto their saddles tight enough for the ride.

"We really should have taken the caverns back there." said Renzo matter-of-factly, not out of any immediate pain or exhaustion but because he felt somewhat out of place when he had nothing to complain about. "That at least would have been easier on the feet."

Banon, jostling heavily in his saddle, spurred his animal in close to his friends. "Are you kidding? After the fuss you made about all the nasty creatures roaming around down there? Come on, you got a good exercise out of it at any rate."

"Hmph," said the bearded man, trotting on ahead.

As the hours dragged on, and morning passed into afternoon, it occurred to Banon that Gayle had become even more taciturn that he was. Most of their traveling across the vast flatlands of Figaro had been spent with her and Duncan at a distance from them. Each time he tried to swing in close to break the silence, all she'd do is tell him she was fine or comment on the fine weather they were having. He couldn't help but think that it had something to do with the previous night they had 'almost' spent together.

By the time the sun swung directly over their heads, the northern crest of the Figaro range started to rise up over the horizon - and with it came the sounds of young pupils engaging in their various exercises. It began to get louder and more plentiful, until Banon and his company were just a stone's throw away from them. The young men and women of the dojo started to cease their activities and regard the travelers as though they were insects. Upon laying eyes on Gayle, however, smiles of recognition formed on each of their faces.

"My, my," said Banon, dismounting from his animal. "Quite the operation, this dojo."

"To what end does it serve, though?" Renzo, too, stepped down from his chocobo, though having some difficulty disentangling his feet from the stirrups. "Is some enemy afoot that our eyes can't see? Are they going to war?"

"Thin One Self," quoted one of the girls from memory, her training boken held over one shoulder. "The way of the Blitz begins with defeating the enemy on the inside first."

Another of the students stepped forward, continuing where it was she left off. "Knowing that enemy is the first step in taking control of it. After that, physical training becomes secondary."

As they spoke, Banon's eyes wandered over Gayle, noticing that she was whispering their words from heart as they recited them.

"But . . . to what end?" he repeated.

"So as to help the aggressor determine their own enemy."

Stepping out from the large shrine in the center of his pupils, their Blitzmaster was indeed a sight to behold. He seemed almost twice the size of Banon, with muscles rippling beneath his dark, blue gear. A light brown sash hung across his chest, an obvious symbol of the power he held over those beneath him. His dark, sweeping hair swayed to and fro like a silken tapestry as he came down to regard their visitors more closely. He gave Gayle a knowing smile, which she returned, before welcoming the others to his dojo.

"You people have come a long way," he said, "And you have longer yet to go. Is this right?"

Banon was instantly interested in, and suspicious of, this new person. The martial arts master could tell Banon felt this way just from looking into his eyes, though he was wise enough not to speak and give reason to mounting distrust.

"Righteo," Renzo replied, apparently oblivious as to the unspoken hostilities which floated around him. "Sharper than ice water, friend. What's your name?"

The muscled man tilted his head upwards, as though it might be in danger of falling off his neck. "My name isn't important." Banon crossed his arms. Now he really didn't trust him, and the Blitzmaster knew this as well. "Very well, my name is . . . Butz."

Banon and Renzo had to have been the only ones in eyeshot that found this amusing. Butz?

The lost Vector child smiled politely. "Butz, is it?"

"That it is," he said, "Master of the Bum Rush, I am."

Renzo strained against sniggering. "So, it's not just a clever name then."

Both friends turned around and started to titter while the master's students began to worry over what might ensue. The Blitzmaster rolled up his sleeves, about to demonstrate just how unfunny the Bum Rush was, when Gayle took his arm to stop him.

"I'm sorry," she told him. "Don't bother trying to teach them a lesson. They both still have a lot of growing up to do, after all."

He nodded, his sinewy body slackening. "Of course. Ah, and who might this little Onion Kid be?"

So at ease to be back in a place that had been just like a home to her, Gayle forgot all about the child that was clutching at her leg. "Duncan, it's okay. This man's not going to hurt you. He's a friend of your mother's."

"H-hi, mister."

"Hoy there, little man." He knelt down to take a better look at him. "Well, I'll be a moogle's uncle. You look like someone who's just about ready to join our dojo. Does that sound like fun?"

Duncan's eyes brightened, but Gayle pushed him back into the side of her leg. "Oh no you don't. He's not old enough for that yet."

The Blitzmaster threw back his head and laughed. "Ho, ho! You're too much!" He then swept his arm out to address his aides. "That will conclude today's lesson. And everyone is to be on their best behavior while our guests make their stay with us. So long as they are friends belonging to Gayle, they are friends of ours."

As the young men and women nodded their acquiescence and filed into the shrine, Banon went to Gayle's side and took her by the arm.

"You've been here before, haven't you? Why didn't you say anything?"

"Go inside with Renzo and take Duncan with you." Her head and eyes remained fixed in the direction of the Blitzmaster while she spoke. "He and I have things to discuss."

Banon would leave it at that, for now at least.

"Sensei," she said to him when they were both alone. Her hands fidgeted and her lips fumbled for the right words. Words that would set everything right again. Words that just wouldn't come to her. "I've . . . come back for my lesson."

A pained expression took hold of the large man's face before he scooped her up into his arms. "Welcome home, child," he whispered to the sobbing woman, "It's been a long time."

* * *

By dusk, a great feast had been prepared for Banon's company by the Blitzmaster's students, one which they accepted quite eagerly. Gayle observed more than she feasted, reminded of their menial tasks for tending to guests. She had her hands in those duties herself once, for they were also part of the training in the ways of the Blitz. Servitude grounded the pupil to the status they held below their master, while effort and discipline aided them in the transcending of that status. Connecting the two was patience, truly the most important quality when it came to progress.

A quality Gayle knew she lacked in.

"Mmmm," muttered Butz, tearing a portion of meat away from a drumstick. "Right, so your brother . . . Gestahl, was it?"

"That's right," Banon said, taking a sip from his goblet.

" . . . has torn down the foundation of the former kingdom and is building up a new one. Only thing is, you've yet to determine how far he's gotten with it or even if he's really succeeding at all."

"Well . . ." he started to say.

Renzo stuck his head in, grape juice drippling down through his beard. "We get scattered reports here and there as to what's really going on over in Vector. None of it has much to say in terms of how far he's gotten . . . hey!"

Banon pushed his friend back down in his seat. "The bottom line is, I don't think there's much to worry about from down in the south. I've heard how he handled himself as king for the handful of years he held the title. He made a lot of careless mistakes that put Vector in over its head."

"I see." A brief silence followed, marred only from the rattling of pottery as cups of tea were getting poured. The entropy in the room started to take on a heavy weight to it, until the Blitzmaster felt obliged to break it. "So, what are your plans from here, with Gestahl I mean?"

Banon sniffed at the tea in his cup, then set it back down on its saucer. "I'm not sure. I at least have to try and talk with him, catch up with everything that's been going on these past ten years. If for no other reason, than to try and salvage some kind of reputation for Vector."

Butz nodded, looking pensive. Behind him, Gayle scratched at her head and drank her tea. Being here, she thought, seemed to put everyone at a crossroads. No one knew of which path was the right to chose, if indeed there had every been any right path to begin with. Gayle's only peace of mind came from watching her son laughing and playing with some of the older boys and girls as they tried teaching him some sparring drills. He was safe here. Through it all, Renzo only continued to eat and listen, remaining by his friends' side no matter what was decided.

"I don't suppose either you or any of your students have heard word from Vector in these parts, have they?"

The Blitzmaster shook his huge head almost before the question had entirely rolled off of Banon's tongue. "Unfortunately not. This dojo is removed from the rest of the world, so as to help maximize concentration for their training. I would, however, suggest making your way to Figaro Town if it's information you're after. Word of what transpires in the hinterlands reaches their citizens before anywhere else's."

Banon nodded, mulling it over.

"Ya, ya, ya! Thou art so dead! Ya, ya, ya!"

Everyone's head swiveled as they heard another of Butz's own issue a challenge to a terrified Duncan. Gayle shot to her feet, starting to protest, when her sensei pulled her back down.

"Cyan!" he growled. "I've told you a thousand times, you never take up a challenge unless the challenge is first reciprocated. Now, go and sit down!"

The thin, dark-haired boy shied away from his mentor's intensity and removed himself from the shrine.

"Sorry about him. He's the son of a retainer from out of the Doman province. But of a hothead, and the only pupil I've ever had under my tutelage that's been able to stab a decoy with a wooden boken. He won't bother Duncan, I promise."

Gayle nodded, hastily finishing her tea before anxiety could stir her into taking her son back to Figaro castle.

The commotion had apparently went completely over Banon's head. Perhaps Gestahl really was just roughing it out there among the vestiges of Old Vector and there was nothing for the world to be worried about. But then his thoughts returned to what he had learned about espers up until this point. What if the esper attack had done more than just give him some taste of a lost art? What if it had twisted his mind somehow? What if Gestahl wasn't even Gestahl anymore?"

From across the table, Gayle saw the agonized look become born anew on his face. It was the same look she had seen when he first received word from his brother about the end of the old kingdom.

* * *

Night came, as cold and sharp as the training the dojo gave to its students. Renzo was still smiling as he turned in for the evening, from both the meal which filled his belly and the cruel joke which his punchline had facilitated earlier. Butz. He said the name once to himself. Who, in their right mind, would have such low expectations for their child that they would give them such a name as Butz? The former engineer of Vector chuckled quietly, silently wondering as to whether or not his first name was 'Seymour'.

The shrine started to grow dim and still, with its occupants already nestled into their cots. Those who had already given into sleep from the day's activities dreamt of great achievements to come, and even the day when they would assume their master's position. The Blitzmaster himself twitched and whined in his Lethe, dreaming of yet another fair meal accompanied with fine pipeweed to enjoy it with. Both Gayle and Banon, though with some very ponderous thoughts on their minds, also slept. The distraction of either a pleasant dream or even an absolute nightmare might help to allay some of the concerns they were having.

So welcome was the gift of sleep that night, no one was even on their guard for the shadow that slipped unnoticed through their futons. As it slunk through the dojo, sparkling white dust slipped from its hands, further deepending each of their slumber.

"That's right," said the shapeless mass, "Sleep your sleeps and dream your dreams."

When it came across the one it had sought out, the shadow stopped in its silent tracks and bent down beside him. Banon tossed over, stirring from visions of a sultry tryst with Gayle, when it saw the form hover over him.

"Stop," said the shadow.

Eyes wide, Banon moved to jump up and face the assailant. Only he couldn't. Neither his arms nor legs would budge from his cushion. He couldn't even call out for help. Paralysis left him completely at the shade's mercy.

"At first light, meet me at the plantations north of Figaro Town. Come alone."

Banon tried squinting at the sound of the shadow's voice, but even that was beyond his power now. It was familiar somehow, deeper and more gruff than what he remembered, but definitely familiar. The form didn't stay to confirm his suspicions, only lingered in the doorway for a moment longer.

"At first light," he repeated before stealing into the darkness. "Don't keep me waiting."

* * *

Banon did as his visitor commanded, immediately untethering his chocobo from the stable and venturing out into the sleepy night for the Figaro plantations. He had only passed by the way of Figaro Town once in the past and that was back when he first put Vector behind him as a child. He was amazed at how much it unsettled him that now, more than a decade later, he was back along the same route that would take him back to his brother's domain.

The Fates worked in mysterious ways.

"I'm here," he called out when he figured he was somewhere in the middle of the orchards. The pre-dawn air was cold and foggy, making it difficult to navigate through the tall trees that surrounded him. He shivered in his woolen cloak as he drew his animal to a standstill. "Where are you?"

"Here."

Banon's eyes strained to see through the mist as a dark penumbra emerged from the murky depths. Even in the failing light, the form appeared as though it were cut from the night itself.

"Long time, no see."

Banon knew the voice sounded familiar, and his hunch was confirmed as the obscure recesses to the man began to fade in. A dark-haired man in a red cape replaced the empty shadow.

"Strago! What are you doing here?"

The two of them clasped each other's hand, as though they had been colleagues their entire lives.

"What anyone does when in the neighborhood of Figaro Town. Monitoring the flow of information, exchanging the odd word with a contact, grabbing a mug of my favorite, stuff of that nature."

"Why the deception, then?"

"Oh, you mean the shadow game? It was for concealment purposes, plus it makes you a popular conversation piece at cocktail parties."

Banon smiled and nudged his chocobo closer to the mage. "I'll bet. Well, ten years have been good to you at any rate. You look rested."

Strago tried to smile back but found that he couldn't.

"I'm afraid we must come to the point of our meeting here now, friend. Time is becoming scarce." He took a conspiratorial glance around him. "It concerns your brother."

"My brother? What of him?"

The mage took in a haggard breath, as though he had suddenly aged forty years. "A grave error in judgment has been committed on my part. It was back when I had first tracked that esper into your castle home. Do you know of what I speak?"

"All I remember about that day are the things I've been struggling to forget."

"I sensed as much. Let me ask you this, then. Do you recall me having a certain something on hand that is currently not in my possession?"

Banon reached back into his memories of yesterday, keeping his distance from the moments of his parents' deaths and trying to recall the instant where he and Strago first met.

"Your staff."

"Precisely. It was the instrument I had used to first find our fiery little friend, and the very tool which can help to locate any esper within range of its bearer. If Gestahl were to get his hands on it, he could--"

Banon cut him off. "Hold on a second. What possible reason could my brother have to find this 'Esper Rod'? It makes no sense to me?"

"It makes perfect sense if the creature's attack on your brother has done what I think it's done. Do not let yourself be swayed because a brief power vacuum has removed Gestahl from having any immediate authority. Rumor grows daily of what it is he stirs in Vector, and the seed he has planted demonstrates conclusively what can happen when human and esper come into conflict."

It suddenly occurred to Banon what it was Strago spoke of.

"The War of the Magi?"

The mage beamed with recognition. "You read my book."

Banon nodded. "So, what do we do now?"

"The only thing we can do, we go to Vector and find the rod before he does. If he loses the ability to find more espers, his magic will become finite. But we're going to need help if we are to succeed. Do you know of anyone who is willing to join us?"

"I believe so."

* * *

The light of dawn started to creep back across the western world. Refreshed by what she felt had been the best sleep she had taken in ages, Gayle dressed and then stole away out into the training grounds. Her master had been known to launch sneak attacks upon a pupil of his when he felt they were ready for their final test. Noticing that only the Blitzmaster's cot was empty at such an early hour, she therefore assumed (rather haughtily) that it was her time to prove the mettle of her worth.

Her bare feet felt the pinpricks of wet coldness tickle her from the grass between the training mats. Eyeing the empty spaces as carefully and quietly as she could manage, she started to feel the air get disturbed as a bulky form pushed through it. Without turning to face the disruption, Gayle shifted her weight to one side, sending her berserker of a Blitzmaster cartwheeling over her back. his failed first strike did nothing to throw him off balance, finding his feet in the forward momentum and assuming a battle stance almost immediately afterwards.

"You've been gone a long while," he said, slow-dancing from one kata to the next. "Thus, it will be a harder test for you than it has been for any pupil before you. Do you feel ready?"

"Yes."

"Then let us begin."

Gayle moved first, fading back and then leaping impossibly high with fists held out in a killing strike. But then Butz was up alongside her, as though for one tense moment gravity had lost its grip on the both of them. It was enough time for a savage exchange of punches and kicks, faltering only when Gayle let her guard drop. The master spun in a cyclone of activity, intent on capitalizing in a moment of weakness. Putting his pupil into a headlock, he drove a series of brutal heel kicks into her cranium and then fell back into a suplex that drove them both into the ground like railroad spikes.

She recovered her feet first, though staggering somewhat from the pain that wracked her spine. Their impact had been great enough to send a shockwave rippling out along the ground. The dojo's timbered rattled. Birds took flight. Seconds later, mentor and apprentice were back with their fists flying, oblivious as to the students that had since come out from the shrine to take in the spectacle.

"What goes on here? Are we having an earthquake?" Renzo rubbed the grit from his eyes, then saw the duel unfold for himself. "Holy . . ."

Butz kept the punishment on her, becoming only more and more erratic with his styles of fighting. From free form to Mantra, from the fists of the Monk to the rough-and-tumble strategies of the wrestler, Gayle was barely able to keep up. She felt her legs start to cramp from endless kicking, while her arms only got heavier from dodging his blows as well as trying to land one of her own. Dropping to one knee, she flipped back to avoid one of her master's patented leg sweeps. She felt herself grow dizzy. She wanted to rest, wanted to fail.

It was in her moment of weakness that out of the corner of her eye, she found Duncan looking at her from the step of the shrine. He shrank back within the masses of students, beside himself with worry. What would happen to him if she failed now?

Gayle forced herself back to her feet, gesturing for her opponent to continue. Butz did so, never erring from his relentless assault. As he did so, she began to run circles around him. Her own attempt to find an opening in his defenses continued, but her inability to be lynched by her master kept him trapped using just the one style. Her pace quickened. More of her guided strikes started to break through, punching and bruising at his defenses. In no time, the Blitzmaster had become overwhelmed in a vortex of pummeling fists from every direction.

The Bum Rush, unleashed.

Butz fell in a heap on the ground, with Gayle following close behind him when her knees finally gave out beneath her. Hovering just above the beaten face of her sensei, she found that he was smiling. She smiled back.

"I'm so proud of you," he said.

"You'll take care of him while I'm away, won't you?"

He strained to swivel his beaten neck towards a suddenly jumping and clapping Duncan.

"If he's anything like his mother, he won't even need for me to take care of him."

She swallowed hard, brushing away the blood that streamed from her nose.

"So you've decided to go with Banon then, have you?"

"I have to." Pushing her matted, chestnut hair from out of her face, she strained to help her master find his feet. "It's the only way to make the world a better place for him, for all of them."

"My position will be waiting for you when you return."

By afternoon, Banon and Strago returned from down south. All that the mage had told Banon was told to his troupe in secret, out of fear of leaking any vital information that would only endanger the dojo. Strago stressed punctuality, making goodbyes short and bittersweet. Gayle stood with Duncan in her arms for many long minutes before finally putting him down. While that was going on, handshakes were exchanged between Banon, Renzo, and their burly host. Even with one arm in a sling, he faired better with the gesture than most would have.

As Banon saddled back up on his chocobo, he found Gayle plodding towards him, her eyes red with tears.

"It's difficult, isn't it?" he said to her. "Parting from family, I mean."

She nodded, her lips twisting up with sadness. How would she fair tomorrow morning when she woke up and found that Duncan wouldn't be by her side?

"I know. I know the feeling all too well."

Shoving the last of his clothes into his duffle, Gayle reached up and touched his arm.

"Mind if I share a saddle with you?" she asked him.

He smiled, while Renzo and Strago exchanged knowing glances.

"Sure."

* * *

Fear. Control.

Control and fear.

Both were Gestahl's, now. He had no idea just how much easier things could become until one held it all beneath an iron fist. Since proscription several weeks ago, manpower and productivity had more than tripled in Vector. Under the auspices of his father's men, thousands had been recruited in a matter of days. The same number trained in the art of warfare daily, with only the scattered handful unable to keep to the rigorous routine that was expected of them. Motivation was never a problem when his soldiers realized that failing boot camp could kill them.

Even the landscape of Vector had begun to change so as to correspond with Gestahl's mounting power. The castles of the kingdom's of old, both Draco's and Ralse's, had been ripped down, as had the now-defunct guilds from yesterday's order. With each day that now passed a massive wall of steel, the color of gunmetal, started to rise from the center of town. The strongest beneath Gestahl's hand worked night and day to construct his new palace, a palace that would officially mark the birth of his Empire.

He chose to wait for the cover of nightfall before transporting the esper from its cellar to his containment facility. It was neither a question of security nor arousing suspicion among his subjects. Such were matters no longer an issue when one ruled by fear. Rather, he was more preoccupied with having the proper number of men available to contain the creature when and if it was able to break free of its restraints.

"Keep the tethers tight and its cage well anchored," Gestahl called to his men as they hoisted the creature's cage onto the wagon. "Show it no mercy, for it will give you none."

As per his request, his men were ordered to wear iron gauntlets when handling the cage. Gestahl didn't care much for coping with any more unexpected surprises, such as one hapless soldier gaining the ability to shoot projectiles of fire from his fingertips. It had occurred to him on many occasions to try and attach Cid's slave crown to its forehead to make it more agreeable, maybe even figure out a bit more about the creature itself. The fresh bit marks on both his hands told him that he would have to find another way to go about doing it.

"My lord! Sir!"

Gestahl's coal-burning eyes never even needed to squint as one of his new recruits bumbled along an avenue that had recently been uprooted of its cobblestones. The soldier could scarcely bring himself to stare his lord in the face, so terrified was he of the man's netherworldly gaze.

"What is it?"

"It's from the quarries, my lord. The miners have just unearthed something they believed would be of interest to you."

Gestahl took a step towards the recruit, reveling in his discomfort over him.

"Do I frighten you, soldier?"

He shook his head. "What? N-no, my lord."

The fire in his eyes intensified, until they emulated windows gazeding into an inferno.

"How about now?"

The recruit had to tear away from the sight. Gestahl laughed and gestured for the others to continue on to his containment facility with the esper in tow. The quarries were off on the northern lip of town, dug from the very same mountains that he and Banon had scaled a very long time ago. When he got there, he found almost seventy of his men laboring over ropes and pulleys to dislodge a mammoth-sized hunk of metal from the mouth of the mine.

Gestahl's jaw slackened.

It looked as though it were a machine that had been struggling for eons to make itself into a flesh-and-blood creature. Its chassis was completely rusted out, with dozens of microfractures criss-crossing all over what remained of its hull. When his men were finally able to loose it from the earth, one of its two heavily armored mandibles whined and tore free from its socket. The recruit who had escorted him began to speak, but Gestahl had already broken into a run to join his men in the crater below.

His soldiers parted before him like ferns in windswept meadow, closing up the gap afterwards to study the machine with their lord in greater detail. On closer inspection, they found a string of arcane runes etched into its body. Through the endless symbols and obscure metalwork, Gestahl and his men could decipher but one word . . .

* * *

"WarMech!"

Gestahl straightened in his seat, dumbfounded. He had called a council of the guildmasters and their workers shortly after unearthing the device, intent upon authenticating its identity before putting any plan in motion for it. The one he had found for the job was a far cry from any scribe or historian, as such professions had long since been prohibited in Vector. The seasoned metallurgist, on the other hand, had more than a beginner's knowledge of the myth behind such a feat of engineering. To reproduce such a piece of technology in this day and age was an artificer's greatest dream.

"You're certain of this," Gestahl said, a statement more than a question.

"Without any doubt." The metallurgist, who had introduced himself as Esthar, picked up a piece of the machine's outer casing. "I've had this alloy carbon dated for aging. The material is over five thousand years old! Not only that, sir, but I've run countless other tests on these symbols as well. They're actually not runes, as we were originally led to believe, but a language. A very ancient language . . ."

Gestahl craned his head. "Let me guess. It's Lufenian, isn't it?"

Esthar nodded, looking pleased. "Yes, sir."

Heads turned. Guildmaster and apprentice alike started to speak amongst themselves, eager for the opportunity to map out the components of this WarMech machine and attempt to build it for themselves. Cid sat alongside Gestahl, tinkering with his latest creation and paying little attention to what it was they were talking about.

"I know what you're all thinking," Gestahl finally said to his workers, "And you'll all get the chance to work on this project in time. But we must exercise extreme caution first. This machine was one of the most destructive forces the world has ever known. The legend even states that the Lufenians ultimately lost control of WarMech in the end."

"We could take extra precautions to make sure we're able to control it once it's operational," Esthar replied, feeling the lure to make a breakthrough along with the rest of them.

"I like the way you think." Gestahl told him. "But really, I was thinking more along the lines of assigning an operator to it. Once it's been conditioned and successfully tested, we could put them into mass production. With an entire arsenal of this kind of armor at our disposal, no force on earth would dare stand against us."

The others started to nod and smile, the feeling of invincibility boding well with them.

"What about fuel?" one of the apprentices said out of turn. "WarMech was powered by magic, wasn't it? How are we supposed to provide a power source for that?"

"One step at a time, friend." Gestahl stepped out to take Esthar's place. "Our first prerogative is control and conditioning, the same as it's always been. Have the machine taken to the factory for blueprinting. Let me take care of the power issue."

"And what about the control issue?" Esthar asked.

Gestahl looked over to where Cid wrestled with his invention, smiling at his frustration.

"I have a feeling one of our own has already taken care of that problem."

* * *

Banon was well aware of the fact that ships no longer traveled to the Vector continent unless ordered to do so by Gestahl. He was not privy to this knowledge on his brother's count, but because the entire world had been talking down on the ruler of Vector after how much he had messed up the trading routes of the world. Still, the affairs of the southern continent were nowhere near so perilous that it would daunt Banon and his friends.

"A bonnie lass, that Simmonete de Jager." Renzo straightened as he walked off the gangplank of the Jade Menace, his trademark pipewrench still in hand. "Not only does she run a tight ship, but she was also nice enough to lend us some half-decent cots for the voyage."

Strago smiled as he embraced the sultry, onyx-haired woman on deck. "Much obliged for the lift again, Sim. Sorry we couldn't have spared more for the fee. It's just . . ."

"Think nothing of it, chere." Her emerald-green shift scintillated in the morning sun, making her seem obscenely misplaced aboard a frigate filled with roughneck brigands. "I'm just sorry I wasn't able to take you the whole way to Albrook. Of course, with things being what they are over in Vector . . ."

The mage shook his head. "You'd have only been endangering the lives of yourself and your crew. It's really no trouble."

While he and Simmonete spoke, Banon was helping Gayle out along the gangplank as though she might teeter off of it. Hardened a warrior though she might have been on land, at sea she was completely bereft of a stomach. Banon hadn't left her side since the two of them had shared a saddle several weeks ago.

"I've never had much of a stomach for boats either," he said, mentally kicking himself for what obviously sounded like smalltalk. "Can you--"

"I'm fine," she said, though continuing to hang on to him for support. Gayle fought daily to keep thoughts of Duncan from affecting the way she functioned with her friends. Everyone around her, however, saw more agonizing over the decision to leave her son behind than the feint of a sunny disposition. "What about you? This has got to be the first you've set foot in your homeland for more than a decade."

Indeed, he thought. They were both in the same proverbial boat now.

"Feel free to entangle yourself in my mainbraces anytime, Mr. Magus." Strago puzzled over the sexual connotations attached to her comment as he kissed her one last time. "I hope that you find what it is that you're looking for. All of you."

She exchanged one last glance with the rest of Strago's friends before setting off to raise anchor. The other's nodded politely, both intrigued and perplexed at this woman whom they had known for such a short time.

"Adieu," said the mage from over his shoulder, finally stepping down from the plank to join the party.

"Old flame?" Banon asked as they started out along the peninsula.

"Of sorts," he replied, "She and I go way back."

* * *

Strago's lay of the land was far better than Banon's, on account that his time spent tracking a renegade esper had allowed for him to more thoroughly map the surrounding territory. Still, it didn't take either of them long to realize just how much things had changed since last they had tread this path. As far as their eyes could see across the hilly landscape, groups of travelers were making their way out along both mountain and grassland. All of them were apparently bound for the same destination. Renzo was the first to notice that they all appeared to have been born and bred from the lower rungs of society. Banon visibly labored to make sense of what it was they were seeing.

"Hoy, there!" he called out to a passing caravan. "Where are all of these people going?"

A squat, hairless man momentarily turned from the trek with a confused look in his eyes. "You born on a farm son? Lord Gestahl seeks men for the success of his army, and will be providing security for all our families in exchange for servitude."

Gayle, who had been too preoccupied with her queasiness up until now, straightened at the traveler's reply. "Army? But . . . who are we supposed to be fighting?"

"Espers, my lady. Who else would it be?"

Banon and Strago exchanged a nervous glance while the traveler, assuming that they had gotten the information they were after, ran to catch up with his caravan.

"Espers are not the aggressors here," the mage said, trying to answer Banon's question before he could ask it. "If anyone's the enemy here, it's Gestahl and his men."

"I'm starting to wonder." Banon had a very far away look in his eyes, thinking back on so many things that had happened between him and his sibling in the past. "Since he and I found that thing on a mountainside, life's been nothing but a living hell."

"The esper you and your brother found was a rare exception to the rule. It did not escape from it's own kind. It was banished."

Gayle and Renzo stiffened at Strago's sudden revelation. Banished, just as Gestahl had banished Banon. Something very peculiar was going on between this esper and Gestahl, but no one could put their finger on it, least of all Banon.

"What say we find some hamlet nearby and gather our bearings for a bit?"

Gayle seconded Renzo's suggestion, patting Banon's back to gain his favor. "Come on," she said to him, "It's all we can do at the moment. Is there a town close by that we could go to?"

"If memory serves," he finally answered, "Tzen ought to be lying somewhere southwest of here, unless that bastard esper has since stirred Gestahl into burning that down as well."

* * *

Gestahl desperately needed to kill something.

The dream just wouldn't go away. It had come to him every night this week, so vivid now that he could almost see it unfold through the eyes of the very creature that had burned down his entire world. Same inferno, same mother, same bloodstain on his tunic. In such a storm did he leave his private chamber, the guards who stood watch at either corner of his door were thrown back several yards in a static blast of lightning magic.

The sounds of productivity continued around him: smithies kept smithing; his engineers kept building; the army kept growing. But Gestahl noticed none of it now, so intent was he on a spree of total havoc. The brass causeways melted away in the wake of his footsteps, while whatever magic he had left made his entire being luminesce. Any subordinate who was foolish enough to bow before their smoldering ruler would find themselves blown from his palace's half-finished corridors and tumbling to their end.

He'd have let it burn all down a second time if he had any guarantee that it would take these insufferable dreams away.

Through no fault of his own, Gestahl burst into his private archives and started to let fly one savage folly of fire after the next. Bookshelves disintegrated, throwing a torrent of burning pages and their fuming covers into the air. His rage only intensified when the last of his sorcery fizzled upon his fingers, as he set about knocking over shelves and ripping apart manuscripts with his bare hands. And then, just when he least expected it, a beacon of awareness shone out through the the fog of his anger. Plucking a still-burning folio out of the air, a solution suddenly became as plain as day. Plain as ten simple words even:

Take the magic from the esper . . . take away the esper.

Gestahl picked himself up from the ruination around him and started out for his containment area on the lower level. Soldiers threw themselves out of his way as he came by this time, chosing to incur the wrath of their drill sergeants over certain death from Gestahl himself. The esper had fought against its chains day in and day out, in mad need of release. When its captor entered the room this time, however, it stopped. For the first time ever, it actually stopped! There was no trying to attack him this time as Gestahl loosened the chains which bound it tight. It didn't even try to escape. All it did was stare at him, the glimmer of what looked to be recognition in its burning eyes.

Gestahl stared back, breathing heavily.

Then sank his fingers into its chest.

"Drain . . ."

It yelped right enough, bawling and mewling and trying to twist itself away from the tyrant. Gestahl's expression didn't change, nor did his onslaught relent even for a second. After some time had passed, the esper started to shrivel and lose its magical glow. The room finally grew dark and cold as the shell of an esper collapsed on the brass floor, comatose. Gestahl, too, collapsed, swaying precariously on the edges of consciousness. There was simply too much magic in his body now for him to bear. The marrow in his bones turned to granite. The veins in his face and hands stood out in grotesque relief on the top of his skin. His sausage-sized fingers fumbled for the slave crown tucked into his belt, but he simply couldn't get it out.

Devoid of sense and wracked by unending pain, he crawled away on his hands and knees. He had to get back to the factory before this overload killed him.

He had to get back to Cid.

* * *

Cid had stood on one of the platforms overlooking WarMech when he first heard the sounds of his ruler going haywire with rage. For most of the day, he had watched Esthar and his many workers map out the different parts of the machine and then replace them with glimmering chrome-and-brass substitutes. Newly retrofitted and with dozens of intravenous cables snaking out of its sides, the machine could only be described as a nightmare feat of engineering. More times than once, Cid wondered about a better name for the machine. Dreadnought? Death Machine? Or would it just be called Magic Armor?

His thoughts strayed after hearing of Gestahl going on a vicious rampage through the palace. What would he do? Where would he go? What was he so angry about? The reality of juvenile indecisiveness kept him paralyzed on the platform for several minutes, and just when he opted for returning to his quarters he heard a body tumble down through the stairwell at the end of the factory.

"My lord!" he cried.

"Cid, my boy . . ."

His entire body swelled sickeningly, to the point where he could no longer move under his own power. Cid pulled him out onto the platform with him, his hair beginning to stand on end from the static electricity exuding out of Gestahl's every pore. Bolts started to leap out from underneath his robe and short out the lights which hung overhead.

"My lord . . . wh-what happened to you?"

"WarMech . . ." Gestahl had to strain to make every syllable as clear as possible. "Have . . . can you control it?"

"Y-yes, my lord."

"What . . . how long?"

Cid shook his head. "Long, my lord?"

"To control it!"

He jumped from the sudden harshness of his tone. "Flicking a switch is all it takes."

"Do it, then."

"I-I can't!"

Gestahl looked up at him. "But you just said . . ."

"I-I mean, I don't think I want to."

All the pain drained from his face, replaced by rage a thousand times stronger than any he had expressed thus far. "What?"

Gestahl's gaze came dangerously close to turning Cid into stone.

"The machine," he replied, "WarMech. What if it it really did have a mind of its own? I can't go meddling with the will of others anymore, my lord. It's wrong."

The energy within Gestahl started to carve seams through his tissue, as though he could completely erupt from the force at any second.

"My lord, what can I--"

But his lord's patience had finally run out. Grabbing the boy's leg, Gestahl ripped Cid's feet out from under him, using his last ounce of strength to pull out the crown from his belt and slide it down over his head.

"No!" Cid screamed, fighting for his freedom even though he knew it was useless. "No! My lord, please!"

But the contraption had already snapped taut against his skull, contorting and crushing the very mind that had created it. Slackening in his grip, Cid's own free will faded like foxfire in the moonlight.

"WarMech," a trembling Gestahl whispered into the boy's ears. "Control it for me. Now."

"Yes, my lord."

Removing himself from his guardian's grasp, Cid very calmly walked out across the threshold and hopped into the machine's newly crafted cockpit. Disconnecting several cables and then reconnecting them into different ports, he skulked back the way he had come for his next command. Gestahl shoved the stoic young boy to one side, dragging himself towards his prize even though he knew he could have asked Cid to assist him. Darkness curtained across his vision as he struggled to find a power conduit. His life hovered just a little ways above his head . . .

"Os . . . os . . . osmose."

And Cid never blinked as the light of a thousand stars engulfed the factory, the moment when WarMech had returned to life.

* * *

The more ground Banon and his friends covered on their way to Tzen, the more they wondered as to the large, hulking wall of steel rising up from the distant south. Banon realized it could have only belonged to Gestahl and his 'order', though he fought constantly to convince himself otherwise. How else had his mother and father's kingdom changed since last he had walked its cobbled streets? Were there still street vendors on every corner? What ever became of Steiner? Could he still be found peddling those fabrics he was so popular for?

He was relieved to learn that Tzen had more or less remained unchanged, even if it had begun to take on a slightly more militaristic feel since Gestahl's rise to power. He had only been there on the scattered occasion in the past, when his mother had wanted to get away from the castle to explore the countryside. It almost would have been nice to be back if it weren't for the brass-clad soldiers trying to rally support for Vector's cause.

"The time for change is now!" one of them shouted atop his plywood podium. "Thousands of years ago, the War of the Magi reduced our world to ashes. And now, thousands of years later, espers have made a memory of Lord Draco's legacy. Are we just going to stand and wait for these foul creatures to slaughter or young ones and burn our plantations? Then, join his Lordship! Join the Empire! Together, we can make a better future for our children! Today!"

Everyone in earshot cheered over the man's moving speech as hands started to go up for enlistment. Strago, Gayle, Banon, and Renzo observed the spectacle from afar, with heavy robes covering their heads in case the wrong sort of people had been expecting them.

"Man makes a pretty convincing argument," Renzo told the others. "Almost makes me want to enlist."

Banon slapped him upside his head.

"I've never seen such heavily armed soldiers," Gayle observed. "They must be highly trained."

"Whatever they're trained in, it sure as hell isn't history. The War of the Magi didn't unfold anything like that. Humans were as every bit responsible for the bloodshed as espers were."

"It's called propaganda, Strago," Banon replied with a smile. "Political maneuvering 101. Get the masses on your side first, ask questions later."

The mage paused a moment. "Yeah. I know."

"We ought to make for the pub," Renzo put in. "There's a contact there waiting for me."

His friends gave him a curious look.

"What?" he barked. "I can't have a contact?"

No one bothered to argue with him, glad to have something to do rather than sit and pretend to look inconspicious. Far more of the soldiers in town were concentrated in the cramped local tavern than there were out in the square rallying. The scent of cigar smoke and cheap liquor chased them all the way to the back as Renzo sought out his contact. The engineer's call to one of the patrons in front of them told Banon that he had found the one he was looking for.

"Gungho, you old son of a bitch you!" He pulled up a chair to sit next to his bearded friend. "Long time, no see. Who's turn is it to buy the first round? It's you, isn't it?"

Pushing their way through the throngs of armored reprobates, Banon, Gayle, and Strago took their seats next to Renzo as he tried speaking with the one that had awaited him. It didn't appear as though he was having much luck.

"Renzo?" Banon asked. "What's up with him?"

"I'm not sure. Hey Gungho!"

He tried snapping his fingers a few times to try and get his attention, though his gaze was in another place completely.

"His mind's gone, not to say that it ever really visited mind you. Still . . ."

Gayle leaned in for a closer look, pulling up the corner of Gungho's hood for better inspection. "What's this thing around his head?"

Strago looked immediately enraptured. "Not sure. But . . . maybe if we removed it . . ."

"Not here." Out of the corner of his eye, Banon could have sworn he saw one of the soldiers at the bar eye him suspiciously. "Let's take him out around back and have a look at him there."

Renzo took his friend by the shoulders and propped him up on his feet, ushering him out the back way while Banon and the others trailed close behind him. When they were back out in the cool night air and the bacchanalia had faded into a dull roar, Renzo slipped the crown-like apparatus up from around his head. Gungho wavered and then crashed into Gayle's chest.

"Whoa there, lovemuffin," she said, pulling his head from out of her bosom. "Not on the first date, okay?"

"Huh? Oh my goodness, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. Just a little, oh woooo . . ." He faded back the other way then, into Renzo's arms. "Renzo? Is that--Renzo!"

The two of them exchanged a hearty embrace.

"'Bout time you came out of it."

"And you are?"

"Uh, Strago," said the mage, shaking Gungho's hand. "Nice to meet you."

"How do you?" Gungho said, already recognizing Gayle and Banon from Renzo's exploits off at Figaro castle.

"What happened?" Renzo finally asked. "How'd it come to pass that you got this gadget wrapped around your skull to begin with?"

"Well, I sat and waited for you at the pub, like we had agreed on, when one of those tin-can petitioners came up asking if I wanted to join the Empire. I told them that I didn't, and then a few of his cronies came from out of left field and forced that crown thing down over my head. The next thing I know, I'm face down into this lovely lady's blouse."

"Psychogenic manipulation," Strago theorized. "They must have had complete control over you while you were wearing this crown."

Gayle turned the metallic device over a few times in her hands. "Makes sense, I guess. If you join willingly, you join willingly. If you don't, you wear one of these. Either way, you become the property of the Empire."

"Inexcusable, brother," Banon thought aloud. "There's no telling how great an army Gestahl has by this time. If we don't strike soon, this will have all been in vain."

Renzo nodded, repulsed at how close the Empire had come to enslaving one of his closest friends. "When do we leave then, first thing tomorrow morning?"

"Tonight."

* * * The four of them ventured south with no delay whatsoever. Gungho had asked to accompany them, but Renzo hastily put him in his place, saying that the bigger a party they had going into Vector the more attention they'd draw to themselves. They knew that the element of surprise still worked in their favor, and that they could masquerade as hopeful recruits upon reaching Vector territory. Banon's only hope was that no one from out of his distant past would be waiting there to blow their cover.

They stopped to rest only once in a wooded glade several miles outside the city. It was here that the first real tidal swell of anxiety came over Banon, for he had no clue as to what he was going to face when he finally got home. The shadow of that insidious palace had grown so long now that he didn't think he'd ever find his way out of the darkness again. His mind reeling from all that had transpired over the last few months, he didn't even notice Gayle sit down next to him until she was touching his arm.

"Oh," he said, breaking his stare over the burning embers. "Hey."

"How are you feeling?"

"Not all that good, actually." He looked around at the tents that stood pitched all around them. "I was hoping Renzo's famous beans and beef jerky would help to put me at ease a little. It's just . . ."

"Family," she said to him, nodding."

"Yeah, family."

Gayle picked up on the hurt which Banon strained to hide in those eyes of his, though realized that there was little she could do to assuage it other than change the subject.

"Are you ready for tonight? Physically, I mean?"

"Hmmm? Oh, sure. If and when push comes to shove, I still have some swordsmanship to fall back on. The king and I--" Banon stopped himself, smiling in retrospect. "--Roni and I fenced a lot in our youth. There won't be much of a problem there."

"And what if you get disarmed, for whatever reason?"

Banon hadn't thought about that. Part of him held half a hope that his brother and he wouldn't come to blows at all, that it would be just a matter of finding Strago's rod and then vamoosing out of Vector immediately after.

"I . . . I'm not sure."

"Come with me for a second. I'll show you a little technique you can use to disarm your opponent if you get disarmed yourself."

She pulled him to his feet and a little ways away from the site for more room to move around in. He took up the blade which had lay neglected in his sheath for most of the trip south, a simple short sword with a beveled hilt which the chancellor of Figaro had given him for good luck. The only weapon Gayle would wield was her Blitzmastery.

"A stance," she said, assuming a defensive position. Banon brought his sword to bear, waiting for her instructions. "Alright then. Come at me."

"What? But you don't have a--"

"Come at me," she said again.

He gave the blade a few expert spins as he moved forward, not wanting his approach to assume any kind of predictable pattern for her. The whole time he moved, Gayle swayed in concert with the oncoming weapon, as quick and fluid as water. Just as Banon's killing stroke fell, Gayle reached out and trapped the blade between her open palms. The sword embedded itself into the grassy ground, rendered useless to its bearer. In her follow through, she took out Banon's front leg with her left and heel-kicked him with her right. Banon spiraled onto the ground, their lesson ended almost as quickly as it had begun.

"Wow," he breathed as mogs and imps fluttered across his vision. "Not bad. I'm going to have to store that one away for future reference."

She was suddenly hovering directly over him, with his tunic being gripped in both of her hands.

"There's something else that I need to show you," she told him.

"A new technique?"

"Of a sort."

"Well, it's getting kinda late. Can it wait until later?"

"No," she replied, her face inching closer to his, "It can't."

And that was when she kissed him.

* * *

Banon turned over on his bedroll, sighing blissfully from the lesson they had shared just a few short hours ago. How amazing was that? She was so giving of herself as well, so tender. He wished the night had been longer, they both wished it in fact. They spoke at great lengths after the passion as to where they would go and what they would do when their business with Vector was over and done with. He reached over to one side, half-asleep as his naked arms sought out her sleeping form.

His arms closed around empty air, and cold sweat suddenly broke out across his skin.

"Gayle?" He sat up on his sleeping bag, head whipping back and forth. "Gayle, where are you?"

On the cushion, he found a simple leaf of foolscap with only two words written on it: Come alone.

They were in his brother's handwriting.

"Strago? Renzo!"

He hastily threw his clothes on and gave each of the other tents a savage jostle. It was still nightfall, so if Gestahl and his men really had been along this way they couldn't have been much more than a few hours ahead of them.

"It's Gayle," he said to them when they had finally roused from their slumber. "That bastard took her while we were asleep."

"Took her? How?" Strago searched around the campsite while Renzo disappeared into the Blitzwoman's tent. "How could he have just swooped in and taken her without us hearing anything?"

Renzo reappeared with a none too happy look on his face. "They took that crown of theirs too, I'm afraid. If they did with it what I think they did with it, Gestahl could have just as easily told her to go with him and she'd have done it without any resistance."

"I have to get her back." He buckled his sword and sheath around his waist. "Now."

"Right." Renzo pulled the giant pipewrench from out of his tent and gave it a few experimental swings. "We'll show that Empire who they're dealing with."

"I'm going alone," he told them. "It's personal, now."

"What?"

Strago stepped in. "Think about this carefully, Banon. It's you against an army. You're going to need all the help you can get in there. Besides, I still have to get that rod back."

"You'll get your rod back, Strago. I can promise you that much. But I have to get Gayle back myself." He handed the mage Gestahl's message. "If I don't, he's going to kill her. I know it."

Banon's two friends exchanged a quick look between them.

"You realize we can't promise you anything," Strago replied.

"For some reason, that's good to know."

Renzo winked at him. "Go get her, tiger."

* * *

The three hours Banon spent putting the glade behind him were not physically taxing by any means. His ability to heal almost instantly made the strain of running on his lungs almost nonexistent, enabling him to close off the distance between him and Vector in almost no time at all. The hard part was not knowing if he'd be up to the challenge of confronting whatever it was that awaited him. Only thoughts of Gayle were able to spearhead his quest now, as well as help him to find the strength he needed to carry it through to the end.

This couldn't have been Vector was the first thing that crossed his mind upon stepping into the northern district of town. The Vector he knew and cherished was a place of humble streets and faukwerk houses, of smiling faces and afternoon bazaars. What lay before him now was a monstrosity, an utterly deplorable mess of metal and cast-iron girders. The stench of industry made him nauseous, while the scrutiny of hundreds of soldiers nearby put him under the microscope.

Where demons feared to tread.

"Just breathe," he told himself.

Gestahl's army remained fixed in its spot, never moving unless it was the will of their lord. Instead, they merely gave Banon knowing smiles. Sadistic smiles. They were fully aware of the fate which lay in store for him, and so they never even bothered to detain him when he started to make his way into the square. Gestahl's vast, ominous fortress rose up from the earth like a bad dream, dark and endless. So in awe was he over its sheer size that he nearly bumped into one or two Imperials, who raised their pikes in response as though they meant to clobber him.

It was then, in looking across to the one bench which still remained in the square, that he saw her. With head hung down in her lap, and an entire latticework of chains holding her in place, Gayle sat absolutely still - oblivious of his presence.

"Gayle!" He ran to his friend's side, heedless of anything that one slipshod soldier could do to him. "Gayle, wake up! Come on, we're getting out of here! We can come back and find Strago's staff later. Hey, can you walk? Gayle?"

She raised her head of dark hair then, regarding him with eyes so black and empty that it made Banon wonder if this was indeed the woman he knew and cared for or just some corpse that had staggered back to life.

"Do you pledge your allegiance to the Empire?"

Banon frowned. "What?"

She repeated herself, again with the same monotone expression as before. He pulled back the hair which veiled her face, finding another one of those abominable crowns bolted to her skull.

"Oh, no!" Banon pulled and clawed at the device, though nothing short of ripping her skullcap off was going to remove it. "Oh please God, no!"

"Do you pledge your allegiance to the Empire?"

"Stop saying that!" In tears, Banon fought to do something else, anything else. He pulled and kicked at the chains which held her fast, even swiping at the links with his sword to no avail. "Finally, he took her face into his hands. "Gayle, it's me. Banon. You do remember me, don't you?"

"Banon?"

"Yes!" His heart fluttered. "Yes, that's right! We've been doing some traveling together for the past couple of weeks. You have a son named Duncan, who's waiting for your to return. A master who's trained you well. You left friends back in that glade the other night and dozens more back at the kingdom of Figaro. You have a whole other life beyond this place!"

"Do you love me?"

Though the question caught Banon somewhat unprepared, he wasn't about to lie to her at so crucial a moment as this.

"More than anything on this earth, Gayle."

"Then pledge your allegiance to the Empire."

Banon took his hands away from her face then. He had enough of this. He was tired of always having to cope with that which could not be coped with, tired of being thrown all of these scenarios which he couldn't handle. More than anything else though, he was tired of letting his brother -- letting Gestahl -- get away with everything he did. Alone amidst a sea of industrial fear and control, hopelessly outnumbered, he held his ground against Vector's enforcer.

"Never," he said. "Not in this world or the next. I shall never take a kneel in this cesspool . . . this Empire."

Gayle closed her soulless eyes. "Then, die."

Thousands of iron greaves snapped to attention, sounding like a dull thunderclap. The circle of men started to close in around him, tightening their noose while implements of destruction waited in their eager hands to do some damage. Banon wasn't sure why, but he nevertheless took out his glittering short sword as though it might earn him an extra moment to regret the decision. Just as the first Imperial brought up his sword to strike at the lost heir of Vector, Banon grit his teeth and took the lunge for his one and only kill.

"That's enough."

A spotlight suddenly exploded from up on the second-level dais of the palace, and the army froze only a foot or so away from their doomed target. Banon squinted at the figure which loomed over him, nothing but a silhouette in the wake of such blinding radiance. He couldn't identify the face nor the voice, but he knew already exactly who it was.

"This one belongs to me."

* * *

"So, be honest. What do you think of the place?"

Gestahl escorted his younger sibling into the great yawning void of his antechamber, still only half-finished as was made clear from the skeletal platforms and lifting cranes lining the palace's interior. Gestahl's voice bounced off each of the pyramid-like walls in a confused wave, seeking escape where none was to be found.

"I mean, sure it could still use a bit of finesse here and there. Still, isn't it a dream?"

"A dream, yes." Banon's eyes burrowed into the back of his head. "A true nightmare, even."

Gestahl's steps slowed for a moment as they began to ascend a grated stairwell. "Think what you will Banon, but this place was in far worse shape before I ever got to it. Harlotry, murder, debauchery of every kind was an epidemic around here. I've long since purged Vector of these vices, and now it stands as the most feared and powerful nation in all the three continents."

"You can't possibly believe that after everything you've taken from me, I'd be inclined to join these cronies of yours."

"Doesn't really matter what it is you're inclined to do." Gestahl threw open his chamber door, tossing his heavy cloak to one side with a casual flick of his wrist. "With an army in the thousands at my every beck and call, do you really think I give a damn as to the inclinations of a few harmless rebels?"

"Never underestimate the little guys," Banon replied.

Gestahl scoffed disdainfully as he poured himself and Banon a glass of wine, diluting his own with a flask of Tincture. "Hmph. Well so far, you've managed to get yourself swamped by my welcoming committee and lose your lady friend to my crown of suggestion. I'm waiting to be impressed over here."

The very mention of Gayle struck a fatally serious nerve with Banon.

"Leave her out of this. All she wanted to do was make the world a better place for her son."

"And so she shall," said Gestahl, "At my side, as the enforcer of the Empire."

"You know, I could understand you wanting to play this spoiled little game of wins with me, Gestahl. Sibling rivalry, sure. It's what we're both best at. But Gayle did nothing to you. Why did you do this to her, why take the only good thing that has ever happened to me?"

Gestahl didn't immediately respond to the question, instead chosing to swirl around the liquid in his wineglass to make sure it mixed properly.

"Is it your sick little crusade to wipe out esperkind? Does that have anything to do with it? It wasn't enough to make the innocent suffer by your hand, you had to steal them away from their lives as well? Force them into carrying your banner? Did that esper do all of this to you?"

His brother kept his back turned to him, still intent upon perfecting his drink.

"Answer me!"

The caterwaul made Gestahl flinch slightly, until he finally gave a half-turn towards his brother. The glint of jellied flame waltzed in his eyes.

"I do what I do," he said, "Because it is necessary. I do it because the weak never learn from the errors of their ways, always too caught up in their sick little pleasures and backward world views to see things as they really are."

"You do it because my saving an esper upset the balance in this kingdom."

Gestahl bristled. "I do it for justice."

"You do it for revenge."

"Because it destroyed our family."

"Because I destroyed our family."

Tensions flared.

"I hate their guts!"

"You hate my guts!"

"FINE!" Gestahl roared, slamming his hands down onto the table which separated them. "I FUCKING DESPISE YOU! IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT TO HEAR? YOU'VE RUINED EVERYTHING GOOD IN MY LIFE, SO I RUIN EVERYTHING GOOD IN YOURS! BUT EVEN NOW, EVEN NOW WHEN I THINK BACK ON THE MERCY YOU DISPLAYED TOWARDS AN ESPER OF ALL CREATURES, I REALIZE THAT IT'LL NEVER BE ENOUGH. NOT UNTIL I'VE MADE YOU AND THEM PAY FOR WHAT YOU'VE DONE TO ME, WHAT YOU'VE TAKEN FROM ME, WHAT YOU CAN NEVER GIVE BACK!"

Banon fought visibly to keep his emotions in check.

"So when will it be enough, huh? When is this game we keep playing going to stop?"

Gestahl returned to the refuge of his liquor. "I'm done with you. My obsession begins and ends with espers now. The means to wipe them from existence is already within my grasp. I have the tools, I have the manpower . . ." He produced a crystal-tipped rod from beneath his cabinet. " . . . and very soon, I'll have peace of mind forever."

"You'll never be done with me." Banon's eyes switched from Gestahl, to Strago's rod, then back to Gestahl again. "Not so long as a heart still beats in this chest, you won't."

"Well then . . ." Gestahl handed his brother his wine, putting the bottle between them. "Drink up while it's cold, brother. Because before this night is out, the only blood that will be left between us will be the blood we're about to spill."

* * *

"Think they saw us?"

"Let's hope not."

Strago slung the last of the unconscious soldiers into a bush off the shoulder of the road, adjusting his own breastplate before assisting Renzo with his own.

"These are a bit big," said the grisle-faced engineer, his voice sounding deep and hollow inside of his helmet, "But they'll do."

"Relax, I've done this before. Just play it with a straight face and we'll make it past the gates before you know it."

The two of them trotted up the hillside path in perfect formation: their lefts lefting and the rights righting, just as they had seen their counterparts do. At the gates, the leader of their battalion had already begun to eye them suspiciously. Renzo fidgeted in his armor, though nowhere near so anxious that he forgot to salute in concert with the mage.

"Yes, sir," Strago exclaimed. "All clear, sir!"

The soldier returned the salute, though with an air of uncertainty about it.

"All clear, is it?"

"Yes, sir!" they both said.

"So the perimeter's secure."

"Yes, sir!"

"You've been gone for five minutes and the perimeter's already secure."

The two of them tried to exchange a split-second glance between them, though their visored helmets prevented it.

"Yes, sir!" they said again.

"What's the matter with your voices? You two sound kinda strange."

Strago started to answer, when the battalion leader pulled their visors from out of their eyes himself.

"Hold it! You're not Bugen! And you're not Hagen! What the hell are you--"

Out of nowhere, Renzo's wrench came out and crashed down onto the soldier's head. He clattered onto the ground, sounding like a heap of fallen cymbols.

"Plan B," Renzo said, tossing the stainless steel tool back and forth between his hands. "No problem."

"Smarter than I thought." Strago pulled the helmet off from around his head, scratching at his shaggy hair. "Either that, or my technique's getting a bit rusty."

Renzo started to say something when an alarm bell off on some distant watchtower started to toll. Someone had apparently saw the entire scene unfold, and soldiers ranging in the hundreds started to flood into the square to meet their conspirators head-on.

Renzo scratched nervously at his beard, as though lost in thought.

"Did we have a Plan C?" he asked.

"How about this?" Strago tossed his helmet to one side and started to juggle and twirl around his Magus Rod. "I set 'em up and you knock 'em down?"

Renzo brought his wrench back up to bear. "Sounds like a plan where there is one."

They both ran headlong into the melee, with Strago stopping short just long enough to utter a hasty cantrip to assist them. The soldiers began to slow and then gasp for breath as a viscous wave of water magic suffused the air. All who were caught in its wake were brought to their knees.

"Ah ha! Best kinds!" Renzo hit and run like a person possessed, beating down and knocking out anyone who was within proximity of either the spell or his wrench. "Boom! Three points!"

"You were born for this stuff!" Strago cheered after him, deflecting one soldier's sword swipe and rebounding with a thrust of his rod into the man's exposed throat. "I only hope Banon's having the same kind of luck we are!"

* * *

The quintessential difference between Gestahl and his men, however, was that they were trained to either maim or capture while Gestahl swiped to kill. He and his brother danced back and forth along the grated walkways endlessly, neither giving ground to the other nor relenting for the hit that would mean everything. So fast and frenzied were their exchanged parries and thrusts that Gestahl's architects soon dropped what they were doing and fled the scene. They knew precisely what such a confrontation as theirs would boil down to.

"What hope do you think you have?" Gestahl taunted while ducking Banon's sword, countering with a well-placed jab into his kidneys. "How much did you really train in the off-season for this moment?"

Off guard, Banon fell victim to a leg sweep as Gestahl brought back his blade, hoisting it aloft so as to capitalize on a moment of weakness. One of Banon's feet found vertical base first, kicking him back from certain death though not fast enough to steer completely out of harm's way. He yelped as the blad bit into his shin, drawing blood in a fine red mist.

"If I have to, I'll take you apart one piece at a time brother."

Gestahl chewed up and spit out the last word of his sentence at Banon. The gibe went ignored as the younger of the two embittered enemies split open his pantleg and gripped at the exposed flesh. Something started to happen, something which momentarily staved off Gestahl's endless assault. With a thought, an arcane blue light filled in the free-flowing wound, reknitting the torn tissue back together. In seconds, it was as though he had never been attacked at all.

"Well, well," Gestahl called after him. "Looks like we have something in common after all."

Banon never answered, dizzy from the blood loss as he ambled his way down the winding network of stairways. Like a bat out of hell, Gestahl swooped down upon the lower causeway, not about to tolerate a premature retreat on his brother's part.

Unbeknownst to the ruler of Vector, however, Banon's show of weakness was only a ruse to lure him down from above. The second his feet found the platform, Banon at last assumed the offense. Both blades continued their somersaulting back and forth upon one another, with Gestahl now parrying and feinting more out of reflex than out of the prospects of landing any critical hit. The blades came up and nicked Banon's face on several occasions, though the cuts themselves already healed before any blood could escape.

"You know as well as I do," said Banon as he kept his brother's blade pinned down upon the guardrail, "That the only thing we have in common is our hatred."

The juxtaposition of both blade and brother labored on, until Banon started to feel the air grow thick and stuffy around him. He was beginning to think it had something to do with the nuances of machinery nearby until he saw what it was doing to their swords.

"A burning hatred, you might say."

Gestahl's eyes flared back to life again, and the heat continued to rise to the point of where it became next to impossible for Banon to draw breath. The warlord's blade smoldered and then exploded in a blur of white flame. Banon was thrown back from the force, tumbling end over end down another flight of stairs and losing his sword in the process. Now with a flaming blade on hand, Gestahl leapt from the landing to put an end to their rivalries.

Banon didn't think anymore, allowing for strategies to come more quickly to him. As his brother descended, he vaulted over the guardrail and plucked one of the nearby loading cranes out of midair. Gestahl lost sight of his brother for a fraction of a second, which was all the time Banon needed to dropkick the juggernaut as the crane spun back around.

"It doesn't have to end this way," Banon told him, nudging his flaming sword over the edge of the landing with his foot. "It's not too late. Turn away from all of this. Things could be just as they used to be."

Gestahl stared up at him, spitting blood through a cracked tooth. "Those days are gone. Your 'brother' is gone."

The heat around them suddenly spiked, forcing the lights of the antechamber to flicker and die. With dark pervading all that was, Banon scrambled back up the stairwell and fumbled for his sword. It's nondescript hilt finally slivered back between his fingers, though he discovered at the same time that Gestahl's flaming eyes had since gone out in the blackness. Banon backed into a corner, trying to find a hold on himself.

"Marco--" he called out, not honestly expecting to receive any reply this time. He started out across one of the catwalks, fighting against the inky black depths that surrounded him. "Mar--"

Banon's voice suddenly crumbled away into a fit of choking and gagging as a callused hand picked him up by his neck.

"Polo."

The hand started to sear into his throat, until all of Banon's world was filled with fire and agony. Gestahl channeled every last iota of magic he had left, drawing upon reserves he didn't even know he had. Kicking and screaming, Banon's face kept melting away and then growing back, new tissue instantaneously replacing that which flaked and fell away dead around him.

"WHY CAN'T YOU JUST DIE?!"

He flung Banon back across the catwalk, claiming his brother's discarded blade as his own. The threat was going to end here and now, he told himself, moving to take care of the thorn that had been stuck in his side since he was a child.

But Banon had already recovered, fully healed and tracing the path of the oncoming blade through the light of his brother's rage. Following Gestahl's wrists, he snatched the blade out of midair, just as Gayle had shown him, and embedded it down through the grates of the platform. Backhanding him, he quickly retrieved the sword and smashed its hilt against Gestahl's temple. Then he did it a second time. A third. Banon found that he couldn't stop hitting him. Blood, sweat, and tears all mingled into a sinuous mask of hatred as he kept bringing the hilt down again and again. He turned the weapon over in his hand, desperately wanting to kill him for all he had done and all he had taken from him. But he could not. He was not his brother, after all.

Their similarities ended here.

"You're not worth it, brother," he said, sheathing the blade, "You were never worth it."

* * *

Renzo's muscles groaned as he cannonballed his way through another swarm of soldiers trying to overwhelm them. While they had fought the good fight up until now, he had become a fighter only through necessity. Now it was beginning to take its toll on him and, as he looked askance toward his elemental-throwing accomplice, he could tell that the same effect was starting to show on his ability to fight as well. Where he had been throwing out walls of moving fire ten minutes ago, now it was becoming a crucible of a task to let loose a simple ball of lightning.

"Where are they?" he yelled, twirling his rod to one side trying to fend off a scimitar. "Banon should have been here by now. Unless . . ."

"Don't say it!" The wrench-wielding rebel kicked up a halberd from the ground and pitched it into Strago's direction, where it neatly incapacitated yet another soldier. "He's just being fashionably late."

More and more of Gestahl's troops poured into the square, their numbers dauntless and seemingly inexhaustible. Spots began to dance across Strago's vision. Either Banon showed himself now or they would have to retreat. There was no other option. Renzo began to grasp this reality as well, and drew back his wrench arm to knock another soldier senseless when off on the distant tier of Gestahl's fortress, a very familiar blond, semi-bearded man made his way from out of the inner sanctum.

"Banon!"

Strago let loose another hailstorm of jagged ice before doubling over out of sheer exhaustion. The three regrouped, with Renzo so overjoyed that he locked Banon into a bearhug.

"You are the dumbest, most reckless, the most senseless . . ."

"Good to see you too, old friend." He turned toward the mage, breathing unsteadily from his sprint as he handed Strago's rod back to him. "I believe you were looking for this?"

The mage accepted the rod graciously, though his face still had a forlorn look about it. "What about Gayle?"

Before Banon could reply the ground started to tremble beneath them, this time sounding nowhere near as fortunate an omen as Imperials on the march. This time rather, it was the clanking, hydraulic crescendo of a vast machine on the move, a machine so huge that they had all mistaken it earlier for a horribly disfigured refinery. Riding shotgun on the great machine's shoulders was a child none of them had laid eyes on before, though seemed dead set on his intentions for Banon and his company. The contraption's great mandibles then yawned wide, with an intense globe of saffron magic beginning to gather energy from all around it.

"Scatter!" Banon shouted. "Move it! Now!"

But something came over Renzo as he stared up at the legendary piece of machinery, something which he felt was altogether wrong. Then he saw that the boy in the cockpit was not there of his own accord, made obvious by the glimmering silver crown that flared atop his head. What barbarism, he thought. First, it had been his good friend whose will had gotten robbed, then it was Gayle. Now it was a child, one who knew nothing but innocence.

This needed to stop now.

"Renzo, what are you doing?"

Banon and Strago had since separated, hoping to confuse the boy and its machination. Renzo, however, lingered before the threat to try and calculate the distance between him and its controller. Its eye continued to glow and get hotter, threatening to shake itself to pieces from the sheer power it contained. Only when he was certain of his aim did Renzo let his wrench fly towards the armor's pilot.

"Renzo, don't!"

The device went off just as the tool connected with its target. The wrench struck Cid head on, effectively shattering his crown as well as knocking him senseless. Renzo wasn't anywhere near so lucky, consumed completely by an unholy amber light.

"RENZO!"

But nothing remained to even acknowledge Banon's strangled cry, not even smoke. The young blood of Vector started to weep bitter tears for his friend, a friend who had been with him through thick and thin, who had never ceased to make him laugh. A friend he couldn't even thank or say goodbye to.

Strago took his arm. "We have to go."

Banon could hardly hear the mage as he dragged him away from the vestiges of his family's legacy. In the distant square, Gayle gave him nothing but a cold stare - an Imperial's stare - as Gestahl's men picked themselves up from around her and hurried after them. Things slowed down, just as they had after his mother and father had died.

And then, just as now, he saw Vector burn.

* * *

"Where is it?"

Gestahl stood somewhat shakily in his containment chamber, fresh welts and stitches zigzagging across his face after the beating he had suffered at the hands of Banon. The esper strained to raise its head to the warlord but couldn't. Thus, there was no resistance when Gestahl bent down and pulled the metallic band of a slave crown down over his head.

"Where's your power? Your free will?" He regarded his prisoner through the dark circles which eclipsed both his eyes. "I'll tell you where. They belong to me now. And in time, the same will happen to the rest of your kind. I'll not rest until your deaths have brought justice to the death of Maria. Do you understand?"

No growl of dissension this time, only the obedient nod of defeat.

"Good. Now then, I'll ask you one last time. What am I to call you? What is your name?"

It looked up at him, appearing more vulnerable than it actually was.

"Kef . . . ka."

Gestahl smiled, satisfied. "Well then, Kefka, welcome to the Empire. I'm sure you'll fit right in."

Happy to have this chapter of his life closed, he left his old friend to stew in its chamber while returning to his quarters for rest. When he got there, he found Esthar waiting for him. So fatigued was he from the failed confrontation with his brother, Gestahl never even thought of letting the metallurgist hang in the gallows for his unauthorized entry.

"What?" he said wearily.

Esthar fidgeted in his spot for a moment, trying his best not to stare at his superior's scars.

"Forgive my intrusion, my lord, but it is of the utmost importance. One of your possessions has turned up missing. The staff with the crystal sphere atop its head?"

"I sensed as much," Gestahl replied, wandering sleepily over to his canopy bed. "It matters not."

"But sir, without the rod . . ."

"It matters not," he repeated more firmly, regarding the faded yellow map which rested upon his table. His eyes passed lustily across the squiggles of mountains which lay just to the east of Vector. "The matter is well in hand, good Esthar."

"My lord knows something that I do not?"

"Many things, actually. Let's just say that a mariner doesn't bother with the compass when the new world is just beyond his doorstep."

Esthar titled his head to one side, puzzling over the cryptic remark. "Ah. I see. Well, I shall take my leave then, unless there is something else."

"There is." Gestahl reached into his bureau and pulled out a small box with a simple latch over its cover - the letters from his parents which had been used in many a desperate moment to keep his hatred fed. "Dispose of these in whatever fashion you deem most appropriate. I won't be needing them anymore."

* * *

The world became a very large and empty place for Banon after departing from Vector the second time. There was no returning to the places he had been before, as he had no spine to break the horrible news to all of the good people he had let down. Duncan would never forgive him, Butz would flatten him, and everyone else would just know another reason to keep him at arm's length. Not even the company of the cool-headed mage could bring any comfort to him, especially seeing as how he had swooped in to his rescue twice and twice his rescue resulted in a stalled retreat.

"There was little choice," he had said after fleeing the scene in Vector. "We were hopelessly outnumbered back there. What were we supposed to do, join the Empire?"

Banon scoffed. "As if Gestahl would accept a bunch of lowlifes that keep retreating from battle."

Strago recoiled from the reply, as though he had been stabbed. "I can't just let you set off into the great unknown by yourself. You could use a friend at this juncture."

"If anyone needs a friend right now, it's Gungho. Why don't you go off and speak with him?"

The two of them parted ways after that, probably never to see each other again.

Many times did Banon entertain the notion to go off to some exotic town and start over. Several years worth of trying told him that the attempt was futile. Every town he went to made him feel as though he had been there already. No place was far enough away from the Empire that he didn't hear the locals talk about enlisting. It didn't take long for him to realize that what it was he looked for could not be found within the walls of a township. Ultimately, he settled on a hermitic existence away in the Sabil mountaintops.

This, as we well know, is not the end of Banon's story.

For his being there in Vector that second time brought something to the masses which glory and military training could not provide. The very sentiment of the few standing against the many, the weak somehow toppling the strong, allowed for a romantic conviction to take root within the class consciousness. The many who had been spared through Banon's first real siege against the Empire spoke often of that fated night, allowing for rumors of an undeground resistance movement to flow unchecked through shady backalleys and as exciting little anecdotes told by barflies. Many wondered as to the one named Banon, and whether or not he could help them in separating fact from rumor.

Banon would let himself be found when the time was right.

As for now though, it was a time for him to heal. And it began with a letter:

Gestahl,

You have helped me in understanding a great deal about myself these past couple of years, mainly because it was gross naivete on my part that blinded me from the truth. We are not brothers, if ever we had been. I know this now. And while it is true that the same blood flows through our veins, it is apparent by this time that blood is nowhere near so thick as motive itself.

But mark these words well. The day will come when you will fall from the branch you have climbed upon, yet I shall not be there to catch you. A time when I shall take back that which you've taken from me, from everyone.

I shall return, and I shall not be returning alone.

~Banon

He tossed the quill to one side of the cave then, waiting for some ray of hope to save them.

* * *

Cid stirred at last from his coma.

All was a mishmash of shadow and colorlessness. He waited for something to return into focus, and clarity suddenly came to him with a vengeance. A blond, wild-eyed man in green garments hovered over him, looking amused and at the same time hopelessly deranged. Had he seen this individual before somewhere?

"Aren't you--"

"Kefka," he snapped, moving for the door. "Now get out here. You're missing the coronation."

Throwing open the two large double doors of the chamber, Cid jumped from the explosion of sound and activity coming in from outside. Thousands, tens of thousand even, had gathered in the square below, each one of them a soldier. Off in every corner, WarMech drones - Magitek armor, as it was now called - held vigil over the ceremonies. Other devices which Cid had never seen before coptered their way across the air nearby.

Gestahl was hunched down in front of him, his body turned to one side as a dark-haired woman wearing one of his crowns stood with a glimmering gold diadem held just a little ways above his head. The instant crown and forehead met, large red banners unfurled along either wall of his palace and throughout all of the surrounding edifices as well.

If Cid didn't know better, he could have sworn the symbols on those banners looked like bloodstains.

"All hail, Emperor Gestahl!"

After hearing her words, the masses echoed with a reply that shook the heavens.

"ALL HAIL, EMPEROR GESTAHL!"

The newly christened emperor rose to his feet then, regarding the throngs of his devotees with the very same adoration as they did him. They waited for him to address them, to speak the words which would keep them united in celebration for decades to come. So Gestahl raised a single arm before his masses, a gesture mirrored by all. Kefka nudged Cid, who grudgingly did the same.

"Long live the Empire!"

"LONG LIVE THE EMPIRE!"

A joy which Gestahl had never felt before washed over him. His mother's dream had finally been realized. All came to fruition, showing no signs of losing momentum now or ever. In just a few short months, the first expedition to the east to find this Sealed Gate would commence. It made Gestahl giddy with anticipation.

Later in the day, Gestahl retired to his study. Overwhelming though the allure of total domination was, he needed a little something to help him unwind. Esthar had brought to his attention, rather excitedly, some play that had begun to gain considerable favor away in Jidoor. Gestahl politely declined, never much one for theatre.

He decided to listen to a little Troian music instead.



Here ends the tale of the Brothers' War.


All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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