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Fragments of Time

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The blanket swallowed G’raha as he wrapped it around his shoulders, corners dragging the floor even when he doubled up the fabric.  It was soft, and the weight comforting as he settled down into a much abused, overstuffed chair behind Biggs’ desk. Times being what they were the office wasn’t much, but it reminded him of the shabby, absent-minded style of some of the professors in Sharlayan.  He wondered briefly how they’d fared, if they’d finally been a target after…

It didn’t seem real yet, what they’d told him on waking.  He pulled the blanket a little tighter against the chill he couldn’t seem to get out of his bones, like the cold crystal of the Tower had seeped into him while he slept.  One of the Ironworks members--he didn’t know their names yet--came in with a roegadyn-sized mug of something hot, which he took gratefully, using both hands to hold it. For the moment he huddled over it, just basking in the warmth.  He had a hundred people to ask after, a thousand things to ask about, but none of them wanted to slot into place in his mind. When he closed his eyes he remembered what scraps of the dream remained to him: the strong, clean lines of the inlay on the desk; the dual sensations of fearful anticipation and loving peace; the soft thrum of power through his hands as he assembled the night-dark mask from its broken shards, each piece welding together in lines of gold with no metalworking tools or materials in sight.  Try as he might he couldn’t recall the words, only that they’d been spoken in a language he understood without knowing, that one of them had been a name he must remember, and that it was desperately important he carry out the task he’d been given.

The workers began hauling in boxes and lining them up near the door.  G’raha watched, eyes following their movement keenly while tip of his tail twitched like a cat watching a bird, but his mind remained fixed on the dream.  He knew that he should not have dreamed while in stasis within the Tower, but it could have been anything .  A malfunction, an imprint of the previous occupants, interference perhaps from the calamity--

Biggs himself brought in the last box, setting it down with a huff, and straightened, putting a hand to his back.  “That’s the last of ‘em. Old Cid went a bit off his rocker collecting these--tried to get hands on everything he could, it seems.  Not everything survived the moves… but the important things are still there. The private things. Did you need anything else?”

You will be the part of me honed to a blade's edge on the whetstone of his wit and folly.  But I cannot write his name on you,... that I must do to another.

“Yes, actually.”  He cleared his throat, voice still weak and rough from two centuries of disuse.  “Did I… say anything when I woke?” Now he remembered dimly the sensation of his lips moving, and the feeling of the name in his mind.

“Yeah.”  Biggs paused in the doorway, voice softening.  “His name.” 

“That’s… that’s all, thank you.”  Biggs shrugged and closed the door behind him.

G’raha sat alone, curled over the warm mug and mind spiraling around this mystery.  He strained to remember anything else.  If the dream had been caused by the calamity, something from a soul from distant shores--had it been a memory of that unfortunate individual?  If he could remember any of the words it might offer something to start with, to unravel this secret.  If so how had he received this message, why and what did it mean?

And why did the unknowable name come out as the name of the last man he’d seen before sealing the Tower?  He had… regrets regarding their time together, and their parting, but not so severe as to justify… that. Those days weren’t even distant enough in his memory for melancholic nostalgia to set in  He’d scarcely been awake three days, and as such it seemed only four since he’d seen the rest of NOAH.

He eyed the boxes warily from across the desk.  Cold truth resided within, the most important parts of Cid’s notes to what the Ironworks had asked of him, and all the information the Ironworks possessed about the Scions of the Seventh Dawn.  They’d begun work on the necessary devices to outfit the Tower the moment they’d obtained his cooperation, and while he’d need to do a small amount of experimentation to assist them in connecting the systems, the far more difficult task lay twofold before him: determine when to summon the Warrior of Light from, and how to do it.  He was the best suited person alive for the former, and would be the only one capable of the latter.

It was a truly outlandish plan, and he’d told them so, but all the same he’d agreed.  Biggs seemed supremely confident of Cid’s research, that it was not merely possible to traverse both the rift and time, but that the Ironworks had discovered how to do so and meant to implement it.  Cid was--...had been… the most brilliant mind of their time.

He finally sipped from his mug, finding the liquid pleasantly warm and both creamy and spiced.  A variant on chai, perhaps? The flavor and the heat soothed his aching throat and poured a little warmth into his bones, and he decided he’d stalled enough.  G’raha carefully wrapped the blanket over his arms and lifted his tail to keep the back of it off the ground, then stood and stepped around the desk, still holding the mug in both hands.  He settled on the floor next to the boxes, putting his mug aside, and began inspecting their labels. On finding the right one he thumbed through the files, looking for specific words or a certain date.  He’d known everyone would be long gone by the time he woke, but it still seemed so unbelievable. He’d seen all of them four days ago .

Finally he found it and pulled out the file, a thick envelope.  Black Rose Release Incident, Alliance Intelligence Report.  It contained three loosely bound folios.  He flipped through the first, finding general details like medical reports, casualty numbers, lists of names, detailed descriptions of the safety equipment necessary to enter the ravaged areas and the threshold of low aether that signaled suit failure imminent….  The statistics were alarming, but they were just that, statistics. His mind processed numbers and facts with the impartiality of a scholar. The second folio, however, seemed to be a direct report from an individual team scouting the release site. The soldiers hadn’t attempted to remain professional, describing with plain but immense detail the horror of the scene.  It contained crystallographs, too, images projected by miniaturized glamour prisms embedded into the paper, and they depicted something far beyond a massacre. The number of bodies was simply overwhelming. He struggled to comprehend it; there were as many dead in this one location as one would expect to see live and going about their business in any of the major cities.  The report came to the section describing finding the Scions and their relative positions, speculating on what they’d been doing when the weapon struck, and it became clear the report had been compiled from several different observers. Some, it seemed, could not handle the sight of certain people, so another took over.

Their observations of the site of Aden’s death were curt, as obviously none of the scouts had the presence of mind by that point to commit to memory the details of the death of the Warrior of Light.  But they scarcely needed to: there he lay on the page, sprawled on his back with his spear an ilm from his grasping fingers. He’d dug furrows in the dirt with that hand, the other clutched at his chest.  G’raha expected his face to be locked into a defiant snarl, or perhaps a look of pain, but instead it was distressingly slack, dead eyes staring up at nothing. He didn’t look as if he’d died fighting, or struggling, he just… looked dead.  Several images depicted different angles of the scene as words had failed the scouts, and in some he saw the Leveilleur twins curled above Aden’s shoulders, as if they’d been trying to aid him after he fell and then simply laid down themselves, bodies betraying them under the insidious weapon.

For a long time G’raha stared numbly at the images, unable to process them.  He’d seen Aden not four days ago-- four days! --his heart screamed at him, but in his mind he began to grasp the passage of time.  Everyone who had known Aden was dead and gone. And everyone who had known those scant survivors who had known him were also dead and gone.  He touched the first image with trembling fingers.  He had known this would happen, that everyone would be lost to him, but it had seemed right at the time.  The Tower was a danger beyond reckoning, the power to transform the world, and they had neither the knowledge nor the manpower to protect it any other way.  But no matter how much he told himself that now he finally understood how impulsive what he’d done was, to go forward without consulting everyone, how foolish to leave them all behind.  Had they missed him? Had they felt what he was feeling now, the horrible knowledge in the very center of his heart that he would never see any of them again, or hear of their deeds?  Had they needed the Tower?  Could he have helped them? 

He didn’t think himself so important as to turn the tides of war, but his studies had taught him the smallest of things could change the course of history.  If he had stayed--stayed with all the knowledge of his forebears and the power of the Crystal Tower-- could he have saved them ?  Would any of this have happened ?  He caressed that horrible, dead image on the page because it was all he had left in the midst of his grief and overflowing regret.  G’raha had been prepared to wake up in a future made all the brighter by them, content to make their legacies flourish, but now all he had was a broken world and a heart full of all the things he hadn’t said .  That tender little spark he’d nursed during their adventure flared now, his admiration, camaraderie, and-- yes , if he was honest with himself-- love for the man who lay dead in those images.  They’d only known each other a few short moons, and Aden had never once mentioned matters of the heart, so G’raha didn’t dare risk their friendship or his respect for something he’d thought a passing fancy and hero worship at the time.  But Aden embodied everything G’raha had fervently desired since his childhood, and rather than dismissing his thirst for adventure as immature encouraged him. With the terrible gift of hindsight he knew now what he’d felt--what he still felt, it’d only been four days --had been more.  If only he’d said something, would--

Tears finally struck the page, one sending up sparks from the delicate, tiny glamour prisms and the image flickered.  G’raha yelled out his sorrow and frustration, throwing the folio back at the box before he could damage it further. Then he drew his legs up under the blanket, rested his arms on his knees, buried his head and sobbed brokenly.

Chapter Text

The ruins of Idyllshire were surprisingly unchanged from Edmont’s description of them in Heavensward .  More vines, perhaps, slowly eating away at the structures, but the Black Rose hadn’t made it this far, and the goblins’ system of governance and collective ideals made for a strikingly resilient society.  Between that and their high adventurer population, they hadn’t exactly flourished--but compared to everywhere else they’d been, it was bustling .  G’raha craned his neck in every direction to catch glimpses of the familiar architecture style.  Thus distracted he didn’t notice the small group of children running through the streets until they were upon him, and he had to shift onto one leg to avoid a collision with one of them.  The last in the pack grabbed at the hem of his poncho and gave it a sharp tug, laughing as she nearly unbalanced him and ran off into the ruins. He had to wrench his tail around to right himself, and watched them go with a smile.  After how few children he’d seen since waking, he couldn’t be mad at them. He’d often wished he could recapture that carefree ignorance of just how terrible the world was.

No, not that.  His smile turned bitterwseet.  He pursued his heart’s true desire; unmaking all this.  Those children wouldn’t understand, though--and did he have any right to do it?  They might grow to find a short, brutal life full of horror and sorrow, but did he have the right to take the opportunity to exist from them?  From their mothers and fathers, from their grandparents--to wipe out their entire line by unmaking the tragedy that had brought them to where they were?

He would tell you no .  He’d read enough of Aden’s correspondence with Edmont to know how much he valued the right to chart one’s own course.  But this was not solely G’raha’s decision--if anything, he was merely a willing tool, the instrument of the will of hundreds if not thousands of people spread across the land.

He came to a standstill in the street, gaze cast down.  Don’t think like that , he chided himself.  Take responsibility for what you are doing.  You are unmaking this world to save one not yet known.  To restore the dim possibility of happiness and peace. By your hand, and the hands of the Ironworks.  A roll of the dice with this timeline as ante.  A gamble, that he could save the Warrior of Light, and in doing so save their future.

G’raha looked back up, rubbing at the corner of his eye with his wrist.  He had to try not to think about the fact that everyone he met today would never exist if everything went to plan.

“Let’s be about it,” he heard from behind, softly, and turned to find Biggs.  “I’ve found the place.”

G’raha nodded and fell into step behind the roegadyn, glad for the moment to be led about and left with his thoughts.  The peaceful places were so much harder, the ones he could see getting on with their lives in spite of everything. I’m charting my own course , as if he had to excuse his actions to his long-dead friend, by your star.  You would make the hard choice, and it would kill you inside to do it, but you would pick yourself up and soldier on.

I’m charting my own course… to you.   He winced, trying to squash that selfish, ugly thought, but if he was honest with himself, he wanted nothing more than to return to those days in the Tower, or sitting outside Saint Coinach’s Find watching the stars or the moonlight refract through crystals, wondering what they’d find on the morrow.  He’d done far, far more talking than Aden, but he’d grown to know when the man’s silence was companionable rather than stoic. The memories were a comfort, but if he dwelt on them too long he’d begin to number his regrets.

Fortunately Biggs pushed open the door to one of the buildings and they stepped into a cramped space barely wide enough for the large man’s shoulders--comfortably close for G’raha.  He crossed the threshold and looked up, eyes bright, breathed deeply.

He hadn’t seen so many books in years .  They packed all manner of scavenged and purpose built shelves, stacked to the ceiling with ladders braced precariously against them.  A chime sounded as the door closed, but he scarcely noticed it. Instead he crossed to the nearest shelf, running his fingers along the spines of the books like he might an old, familiar lover.

He’d be happy here.

“Good morning, sers--oh my, travelers?”  He hadn’t heard the lalafellin man approach, but looked down to see him just beyond Biggs, wiping at his spectacles with his shirt tail before putting them back on.  “From the dust on your boots you’ve come a long way.”

“It took a very long time to get here.”  G’raha grinned at his joke, and wider at Bigg’s expected sigh.  “Would that we had the leisure to peruse to our heart’s content, but I fear we’ve taken too long getting here.  Do you have anything on the last Warrior of Light, praytell?  Ser Aden Dellebecque of Ishgard?”

“Fairy stories, is it?”  The man smiled wryly. “I’ve a few, yes.”

“I’m more interested in histories,” G’raha corrected him.  “Most particularly after the liberation of Ala Mhigo, but I’ll take anything you have, fairy stories or no.”

“Histories, is it?  Few and far between those are--most of the primary sources passed with him, you know….”  The man adjusted his glasses before turning to make his way through the stacks, and he beckoned G’raha to follow.  “There’s Heavensward , of course, though I’m afraid I sold my last copy a moon ago.  That would be the best and most accurate record available…” He paused in front of a shelf and pulled off a book from the greatest height he could reach and handed it to G’raha, then pointed at another further up.  “That one, if you will. Anything, you said?”

“Anything.”  It might be a charming distraction to read a childrens’ story about his old friend, and he was curious as to how they’d temper his rough personality for such an audience.  They only found a couple more books on their way through the stacks, one of which particularly caught his eye.  The proprietor tossed it up to him, a smartly jacketed book of moderate size, printed in an inexpensive fashion but coated in an older style of alchemical preservative that’d turned the pages slightly off-pink.  Shifting the books to one arm, he flipped it over with his other hand, and found the cover a rather scandalous illustration of a miqo’te man--who didn’t quite look like Aden, just enough different that the author might get away with it--half out of a more traditional drachenmail than what Aden had worn. Steppe Outrider , the title read, with a note beneath indicating it to be the first translation from the original Hingan. G’raha snorted, lips curling up in mirth, and flipped it open one-handed to a random page.

“...I’ve never met a beast I couldn’t master.”

“Oh,” she said, pressing her heaving bosom to his sculpted chest, leaning her horns gently against his shoulder, “but what if you’re the one to be ridden?”

G’raha all but shouted a laugh, startling the proprietor and Biggs alike.  He quickly flipped to the front, looking for a publication date, and found it.  Another laugh tore itself out of him, bright and joyful, and he had to shove the books off on Biggs to avoid dropping them, keeping just the one.  It took a while to get himself under control, and by the time he calmed he was wiping way tears, cheeks burning from the breadth of his smile. “Twelve above, I bet he hated this.  What I wouldn’t give to have seen his face…”  He flipped it open to another page, caught something about the Buduga tribe and some more dialogue promising licentious acts on further pages.  He cracked up again, doubling over this time with the book held against his knee, thumb marking his spot.

“So… we’re taking it, then?”  Biggs asked.

G’raha waved an affirmative at him, unable to speak through laughter and tears. He probably looked and sounded like a madman to the proprietor, but it was a romance novel --and a rather risque one at that--that seemed to incorporate Aden’s rather famous skill for riding anything as a repeated reference.  It’d been published in his lifetime, too, and while he’d been in the East, no less.  By the dates it seemed the book had somehow beaten him back to Eorzea, and oh no one could put a price on what he’d give to have some inkling of Aden’s reaction.  Fury, no doubt, disguising his utter mortification.

Eventually G’raha got himself under control and straightened up, a little light-headed from all the laughter and the position he’d been in.  He dabbed his eyes with sleeve, and exclaimed again, “Gods! This alone was worth the trip.”

With any luck, he’d one day be able to ask what Aden thought of it in person.

Chapter Text

G'raha closed the door behind him, eyeing the dim interior of the office.  He felt guilty at having more or less commandeered the place from Biggs, but the man spent more time in the Tower retrofitting systems than anywhere else, and G'raha had need of the space.  He could easily find somewhere inside the Tower, but… He trailed one hand over the worn wood of the desk idly. The Tower only reminded him of his folly, and he would spend enough time in those cold halls soon.  These small creature comforts he would take while he could get them.

With a sigh he rounded the desk and got to the task he’d spent the last quarter bell avoiding.  It’d taken much toil and coin to acquire their latest find, and G’raha dreaded it as much as he desired it: recordings smuggled out of the ruins of old Sharlayan, made compatible with their equipment after a few modifications.  He loaded the first one into the player, set a brief delay, and dropped into that comfortable, much-abused chair behind Biggs’ desk, throwing his legs over one arm of it and settling a battered notebook in his lap. A full minute of silence played, leading him to wonder at the contents--he knew only that they were incomplete sections of a series of interviews conducted days before the fighting grew pitched and the Black Rose was deployed.

“...There.  We’re recording again.”   An unfamiliar female voice with a very familiar accent rattled off a series of numbers, a date, and gave Aden’s full name and title--he’d not seen or heard the whole thing all together in one place, and smiled at the pretension of it.  It was quite a mouthful considering he hadn’t reverted his adoptive name to that of his birth, and yet the house of his birth was the one uplifted to noble status subject to House Fortemps. They included the title inherited from his late fiance, and G’raha thought he heard the softest exasperated noise from Aden as she said it.  It jarred him, such a familiar thing, near to his memory but distant in time. His title as a dragoon followed, and his status as a member of the House of Lords, and this time G’raha definitely heard a quiet, annoyed sound in the background.  It brought a smile to his face; he could all but see the man in his mind’s eye, probably seated across from his interviewer, one elbow against the arm of his chair and cheek against his palm, staring at her as if he could will her to get on with it.

“You’re better at that than I am .”   G’raha startled at the familiar/unfamiliar sound.  When last he’d heard Aden’s voice it carried the soft twang of the far reaches of the Shroud, but now it seemed devoid of all accent but a hint of his native Ishgardian.  He sounded downright cosmopolitan , as if he’d deliberately wiped his voice clean of those little tells to the best of his ability.

The interviewer laughed nervously.  “Yes, well, I have it written down.”

“Maybe I should do that.  Get it tattooed on the inside of my arm so I remember the whole thing next time I need to browbeat someone with it.”

G’raha chuckled to himself, and began idly doodling in the margins of his notebook.  He relaxed into the pleasant rumble of his old friend’s voice, heart warm even as tears pricked the corners of his eyes.  For a few moments here he could reach through time and be with the man he missed so much, if he closed his eyes and listened.

They sat by a warm hearth in the plush environs of an Ishgardian manor, some small private parlor, sized and set for intimate conversation.  The recording device stood between them and to one side, opposite the fireplace. The mystery interviewer he filled in with an old colleague from the Students of Baldesion, someone Aden would never have met but who had been a kind soul.  Himself he placed curled on a divan to one side of the hearth, cast in shadow and listening quietly, out of sight, out of scene.

“Let us get to today’s topic, shall we?”  His old colleague straightened the sheaf of papers she held in her lap and barreled straight on.  “Owing to your unique gifts, your training as a dragoon, and your experiences in ending the Dragonsong War, my superiors have concluded that you must have not only heard dragonsong, but truly understood it.  Is that correct?”

His mind’s eye couldn’t paint surprise on Aden’s face until after his silent pause.  “Yes?” Aden hesitated, making a soft, uncertain sound in his throat. “But all dragoons understand it, to a degree.  If you traffic in their powers you feel the pull of it, no matter how small your own skill. The Azure Dragoon especially, I suppose, before Nidhogg’s demise.”

“That is not quite what I mean,” she said, leaning forward slightly.  “Do you understand it?  Not in the way one understands dragon speech if the speaker wishes it.  Owing to the gift of the Echo.”

“Yes,” he said at last.  “Perfectly.”

“Do you think that you could translate what you’ve heard, if you recall it well enough?”

“It’s not….”  He trailed off, looking to the fire as if his answer lie there.  “The language translates poorly, and the songs themselves carry multi-layered meanings encoded in the specific pitches.  There is an emotional component as well, transmitted aetherically. I couldn’t translate it into any tongue of man given a hundred years.”

“Would you translate what components can be translated?  While we have many descriptions of what dragoons experience of the song and what it sounds like to the average individual, no record so specific exists.  You may be the only spoken individual in recorded history with the unique combination of skills and abilities necessary to fully understand it.”

“I’ll try.  Give me a moment.”  Aden leaned back in his chair, pressing his head against the plush back of it, closed his eyes and took a heavy breath, forcing himself to relax.  He stayed like that for a long time, silent, contemplative. When he opened his eyes his mismatched gaze remained fixed on the ceiling. “Nidhogg’s song has never left me.  None of the songs I’ve heard have, but his is fixed in my heart. No matter how long dead he lies, it will always echo at the core of me. It might be… easiest. I understand it best, save for a song I will not share here.”

He took another deep breath, and then he began to sing.  It startled G’raha out of his reverie, eyes snapping open as he stared at the recorder in shock.  A heart-rending dirge in a strong, rich baritone rang out of the machine. He scrambled to sit upright, ears fixed upon the sound and eyes wide, heart hammering in his chest.  When he’d known Aden the man could barely carry a tune in a bucket, and he’d had little art in his voice on the few occasions G’raha had rather teasingly tried to teach him a song.  To hear this coming out of him was unthinkable.

And yet there it was, the evidence of his own ears.  It wasn’t professional by any means, and he himself could likely still sing circles around Aden.  But he could no longer envision the shy, awkward young man he’d relied upon during their explorations, not with this rich, mature, confident voice singing this deeply sorrowful song.  No, Aden had grown beyond his knowing, changed by a hundred marks on his soul.  And dragonsong in his heart, apparently, had righted his awful pitch.

The more he learned the more complete his mental image became, not of the adventurer barely into adulthood that he’d known, but the man that adventurer had grown into.  And G’raha’s heart ached, that he had recklessly thrown away the chance to know that man or the hundred marks on his soul, could only let the shattered pieces of his own heart settle into comfortable, dark places with the scattered fragments left behind by his great legacy.

Somehow, even if everything worked out, he knew he would never sing with the man, and that burned more than anything yet.

Chapter Text

The Moogle seated on a fluffy throne that absolutely swallowed her squinted imperiously at G’raha when he glanced up out of his courtly bow before her.  “While your words are lovely, we know the sons of man who dwell below care only for spoils and war, kupo!  Say your piece and leave in peace.” A trio of moogles to the side rested their tiny paws on weapons ranging from the size of kitchen knives to shortswords, and G’raha struggled against the urge to laugh.  So he straightened, and told the Good Queen about his errand and his purpose.

“The who?  The what?”  She started up out of her throne, waving her scepter about.  “No! By every nut on our trees, no! Why would you endeavor to return us to the Toiling Times, and why would we help you?”

“I beg your pardon?”  His ears shifted forward under the hood of his cloak.  “Toiling Times?”

“Oh, the Toiling Times!  No one survived !”  She flopped dramatically back onto her throne.  “That it was so long ago it’s beyond a moogle’s natural lifespan is besides the point!  The Toiling Times !  The darkest time in the history of our great kingdom, kupo!”

“The terrible man you labor to return to life enslaved our people to restore Bahrr Lehs!” her steward chimed in, before he fluttered over to her to take up her hand and pat it as if she’d fallen into a faint--which she hadn’t.

Enslaved?”  G’raha turned to look over his shoulder at Biggs, who merely shrugged, before turning back.  “My sincerest apologies,” he said, haltingly, “but I fear I do not know this tale. Would you be so kind as to enlighten me?”

“Enslaved!” the queen repeated, rolling her head side to side in her puffball throne.  “He came with armed soldiers from Ishgard, and craftsmen with their terrible hammers, and he--he--”

Another moogle across the room cleared his throat, and the queen and her steward looked up sharply.  G’raha followed their gazes to find a moogle wearing what appeared to be a pair of spectacles shoved up onto their head, but how they stayed up other than tension he couldn’t tell.  “Reminded us of our sacred pact with the kingdom of dragons and men that once existed here and our duty to keep their memory?” they said in a dull, flat tone.

Yes!”  She shouted, falling back into her mock-swoon.

“Along with a master craftsman taught us the skills and work ethic necessary to maintain our own structures and those of our ancestors?”

Yes!

“Put us to this work of our own free will and set up a system by which we would be duly compensated for our efforts?”

Yes!  Enslaved, you see.  He made us work!”  She leaned forward again, waving her scepter.  “So we won’t help you, kupo!  Who knows, if he’d never died maybe we’d all be--be--”

“Productive?”  The other moogle adjusted their glasses, even though they were nowhere in the vicinity of their eyes.

This time she did swoon, and the guards saw G’raha and Biggs out at steakknifepoint.

 



G'raha sat at the edge of the island upon which Moghome resided, legs crossed and chin in his hands, staring out at Zenith in the distance. Even if they'd brought a flying conveyance, they'd be unable to reach their destination.  Biggs paced restlessly some fulms behind him, and a pair of moogles argued over something trivial near the aetheryte--one of the few he'd seen still lit up. Black Rose hadn't touched this high country, it seemed. Most curious, since Azys Lla had fallen from the sky after some few years, baring its deadly secrets to one and all with the wit and will to possess them. As such, the moogles didn't really give a damn about the Calamity or restoring the Warrior of Light to life. In fact, quite the opposite--it seemed the moogles here feared him.  But G'raha needed them.

Rather, he needed the people they could put him in contact with, who otherwise might welcome him with wing and claw.

Biggs stopped pacing right behind him, and said, voice tense, "Let's be off, aye.  The furry little buggers aren't going to be any use."

G’raha’s ears drooped, and he started rearranging the pack sitting on the ground next to him in preparation for the long trek back down.  But then he paused, hand on one of the books he’d brought with him--a battered, barely legible journal pulled from the rubble of the Congregation of Her Knights Most Heavenly.  It’d survived a long time only to be nearly destroyed in the siege they’d weathered inside the remains of Fortemps Manor, and he’d snatched it from the ruins because of the date on the first page.

He pulled it out and carefully thumbed through to one of the places he’d marked.  There a pale watercolor spread across both pages: the ethereal vista from nearly this very spot.  G’raha turned the book so it oriented to match the landscape and held it up. “Come here,” he said, looking between the book and the view, and Biggs crouched down behind him, leaning over his shoulder.  “Do you see something missing?”

“This big island, shrouded in clouds.”  Biggs reached past him to indicate it in the painting.  “D’you think it fell like Azys Lla?”

“It was much higher up than everything else here,” G’raha said, and he slowly began to pan the vista in the book around, trying to compare it to everything.  Here an island had listed slightly, there two had crashed into one another. But sure enough, everything over a certain height had disappeared. “By the twelve,” he whispered.  “I believe we’ve found the reason Azys Lla fell when the attacks came nowhere near….Some upper level wind must have caught the Black Rose and dispersed it over a certain height.”

“Would have to be a strong wind to keep blowing with that on its wings, but aye, I wager that’s exactly what happened..”  Biggs lowered his hand, settling it on G’raha’s shoulder. “Come on. We’ve work to do elsewhere, if they won’t cooperate.”

“Just a moment.”  G’raha lowered the book, spreading it in his lap and hunching forward as he flipped ahead a few pages.  “I didn’t have time to finish this, perhaps it says something useful.”

Biggs sighed and gave his shoulder a squeeze before standing and wandering off.  Any other time he might’ve welcome the attempt at comfort, but right now he was frustrated.  The moogles had worried him for a moment with their confidence when they first used the word enslaved.  He was equal parts annoyed and thankful it turned out they were just lazy sots, and he hadn’t turned over some unexpected dark chapter in Aden’s life.  Merely the normal sort of unexpected.

G’raha looked up at the view again, staring out at the towering structure of Zenith.  He knew from piecing together accounts that Aden had spent a great deal of time here, but they made little mention of what aside from a scattering of entries in a botanical almanac credited to him.  If he’d been here with a team of crafters who were restoring ruins, had he been helping survey those ruins?  Had he been working with them?  He’d been a dabbler in a couple of needful disciplines when they knew each other, things that helped maintain armor, but nothing more.  G’raha wondered if he’d sought solace in the work of his hands, if he’d put the energy of his grief into making things here.  As G’raha did now on a truly terrifying scale.

He turned his attention back to the journal and flipped to the next entry, scanning it for any mention of--

Ser Dellebecque stopped by our encampment to query us on our work.  Unofficial visit, he insisted, but no one of that rank does anything unofficial.  Caught Aldenet carrying water in his helm, the sot, but didn’t chastise him. Ten gil says he’ll get writ up when we get home!  Gave us some advice on dealing with the fuzzy little bastards whats been stealing out survey equipment. Show of dominance, he said, but force as a last resort.  Looked right tired when he said that, bet he’s popped a moogle’s pom off. Apparently their society’s based around who can bully who about--familiar, eh?--and who plays the best pranks.  Gave us a few tips on putting the fear of Halone into them. Can’t wait to see the little bastards nic another survey log and come off sodden in ink! I’ll show ‘em who’s the biggest prick on this flying rock!

Pranks?” G’raha read the text over again incredulously.  And then again, running the tips of his fingers over Aden’s name.  “Thank you,” he murmured. It seemed even in death, two hundred years gone and through the pen of a stranger, Aden still forged a path for him.

“Biggs!”  He gently place the book back in his pack, rising to his feet.  “I’m going to need a hand!” G’raha smiled, mind reeling with a hundred possibilities already.  He was a bit rusty, but no one in the Students of Baldesion had ever matched him for mischief, and he wasn’t about to let a bunch of moogles get the better of him.

 


 

In performance magic, timing and misdirection were everything, and setting up a good prank was no different.  G’raha managed to engineer a mishap involving some of the moogles’ tools used for cracking open kupo nuts, which kept them busy for a few bells.  Then the local wildlife just happened to smell something utterly delicious about the settlement, tying up the guard for a while--nothing dangerous wandered in, mind, merely obnoxious and large enough for the potential of property damage.  It bought time to set up the stage for the real trick, and for them to be seen leaving dejectedly around mid-day.

G’raha checked his glamour as best he could in the reflection of a knife by moonlight.  He didn’t have the physical objects to project an appearance from, but he did have a few prints from newspapers clipped and used as bookmarks, and the image of a dead man seared into his memory.  So perhaps the armor wouldn’t quite be period-accurate, and his skin tone was far off, but with the other trick he meant to employ it wouldn’t matter.  The important parts were there: what looked like heavy plate, red hair, miqo’te.  In the darkness they wouldn’t look past that, and hopefully they wouldn’t recall enough details of him to reach the obvious conclusion.

Fear of Halone, the journal had said.  G’raha smirked; well, he’d be putting the fear of a fury into them.  He couldn’t help but think this trick was just mean enough that Aden would find it funny as all hells.

The moogles of Moghome settled down for their evening meal, quite late as they’d had to argue about who would do the cooking, and find out who had been responsible for cleaning up the cookware from breakfast, then berate them for not doing their job, then argue about the fact that it turned out whoever was supposed to clean up from the night before hadn’t and they’d just used everything anyroad.  Not that preparation was all that difficult, or their diet particularly varied, but they had standards, kupo.  Standards that someone else should see to.  They were still mincing about the day around a cheery fire when someone pointed out the shape in the shadows.  And that was his cue.

The undead spectre of one Aden Dellebecque--as portrayed with few supplies to hand by G’raha Tia--stepped from the shadows in a blaze of light that danced around his armor and obscured his features.  “Harken unto me, children of Moogle Mog: once you slaved under my adamant fist, and in the peaceful slumber of death have I turned a blind eye to your negligence.” A moogle screamed, and he wondered if the luminescent aetheroreactive paste giving him a more ghostly appearance he’d whipped up based on Aden’s botany notes wasn’t a bit much.  “So I have spared your insignificant settlement from the fate of the world below.  No longer! You have spurned my mortal agents, and for your impudence I shall rip the land from your skies as I did Nidhogg’s lair!”  He raised one hand into the air, feeding the luminescent paste a smidge more aether. The moogle who’d screamed dropped out of the air in a faint--oh, yes, the paste was a bit much.

With perfect timing one of the guardsmoogles rushed in shouting, “Uh, somekupo, anykupo, the next island over is--is--”

IT WASN’T OUR FAULT!” the Queen shouted, hovering low in the air before him in supplication.  “WE RAN OUT OF KUPO NUTS!  THE FOUNTAIN BURNED DOWN! BANDITS STOLE EVERYTHING!  THERE WAS AN EARTHQUAKE! A TIDAL WAVE! A CALAMITY! SEND THEM BACK JUST GIVE US ANOTHER CHANCE, KUPO!”

He paused a moment, looking out across the gathering before he gravely intoned, “I hear truth in your words.  Let it be known that further indolence shall be met with swift reprisal--and I shall be none too pleased to be roused from my rest by the likes of you rather than my chosen agents!”  And now for the hard part--the fire around which the moogles had gathered flared dangerously, drawing their attention with a dozen tinny shouts.  When they looked back, he was gone.

 


 

G’raha didn’t take the time to dismiss the glamour, ducking into the cavern of Sohm Al as quickly as possible and just shucking out of his clothes.  Biggs was already waiting for him, and stood from the small encampment they’d set up earlier, to make it look like they’d stopped for the night outside of moogle territory but still close enough to avoid the dangers of the old dragon burial ground.  “Did it work?”

“Perhaps a bit too well,” G’raha said, grinning.  “Did you disable the projectors?”

“Aye, quick bit of work it was, throwing those together with regular old glamour prisms, but in the dead of night it ain’t so hard to make open air I suppose.”

“Excellent.  Now help me, I think I’m having an allergic reaction to this stuff.”

If G’raha’s skin looked a bit pink and raw and he seemed to have very hurriedly covered up in his cloak, the guardsmoogle who drifted in a short time later didn’t seem to notice.  “Uh, so, we’ve, um--we’d like to welcome you back to Moghome, kupo! As our esteemed guests! And we’ll take you to Zenith and help you call the dragons!”

“Oh,” G’raha said cheerfully, permitting himself just the slightest edge of a wicked smile, “we had hoped you might see reason.”

Chapter Text

Zenith's aetheryte seemed functional as well, and G'raha caught himself attuning to it out of habit.  Not that he'd risk using one in anything but an absolute emergency, with the world as it was.

"Alright, listen up, kupo!"  The lead guardsmoogle who'd accompanied them stiffened his posture into something resembling attention, and produced a battered horn from the bag he wore.  "This is supposed to get Hraesvelgr's attention! You go up top," he pointed, and G'raha craned his neck to look up at the enormous structure, "give it a toot, and he'll swoop down!  But he hasn't seen any land dweller in years, not since right after the Taskmaster fell."

G'raha reached out to take the horn.  "Have people come to see him, then?"

"A few, so the stories say!  He spoke to them at first, but now… well, I hope you catch a glimpse of him and don't get eaten! Good luck, kupo!"

"That's not very reassuring," Biggs said.  He held out a hand. "Give it to me, lad, and I'll call the wyrm.  We can't risk you."

G'raha's grip on the horn tightened reflexively.  "He won't harm us," he said.

"How do you know that?  The world's changed. Perhaps the dragons have, too."

He merely scowled at Biggs, holding the battered horn a bit tighter.  Because Hrasevelgr knows my loss was a corny answer.  The dragon wouldn’t know him from a hole in the ground.  He might not even have time to say his piece. He settled for, “I must do this,” and made his way toward the stairs.

Fortunately exploring the Tower had prepared him for this monumental challenge.  Regardless, they paused a moment at the top to catch their breath and compose themselves before calling the great wyrm, first impressions being everything.  Finally G’raha straightened, took a deep breath, and called the wyrm.

After a long moment a mighty roar shook the platform, but no great dragon swooped from the skies.  They waited, looking up, looking out, and eventually two shadows dotted the horizon. “Does that seem a bit small to you?” Biggs asked.

“It does,” G’raha said, putting the horn down.  “Be ready for anything.”

An aevis and a true dragon landed, the latter perhaps the size of a large chocobo, the aevis moving awkwardly in the transition from flight to walking.  Sons of man, you would have words with Hrasevelgr?

“Yes,” G’raha said, ears perking and hand leaving his bow.  “We’ve come quite a long way to ask him--”

He speaks not to land dwellers, he assumed to be the true dragon, from the way their head moved at they spoke, almost gesturing.  But we will hear your plea and should we deem your words significant, we shall speak on your behalf.

It was better than nothing, at least. G'raha explained his errand once more, and Biggs the work they'd already completed. Though it was difficult to read their features G'raha got a distinct impression of shock from the two dragons.  When he finished the true dragon took off, and the aevis-- changed.   In a moment an elezen woman stood before him, clad in bronzed drachenmaille, and he sputtered in surprise--records made mention of the former second in command of the Knights Dragoon disappearing mysteriously, and that Aden had pursued her, but never what became of her.  "Ser Truethrust, I presume?"

"Yes," she said, a little frown furrowing her brow.  "Orn Khai is going to relay your message, but I would not hold out hope for Hraesvelgr to appear.  He deigned to permit some few refuge here just after the Calamity, but since Vidofnir's death…" She shook her head, long hair falling around her shoulders.  "I am truly sorry, but your trip here may have been for naught." Before his dejection had a chance to reach his expression she continued, "But there is something… someone else who may be able to assist you.  One of Ser Dellebecque's allies from the war in Gyr Abania came to us with a group of those seeking refuge, and…. Well, now his message makes sense, I suppose. He knew you would come, one day."

"Who? And what do you mean by that?"

"Lord Stormcaller," she said.  G'raha's ears canted forward, head tilting slightly.  The name rang a bell, but he'd been hyuran, and it seemed impossible he might yet live--nor had their association been particularly close insofar as he could tell.  "He told us that one day a man would come to us for your very purpose, and that we should tell him to 'seek me out at Final Peace'."

"Final Peace?"

"Aye, it’s a place up in the mountains closer to Gyr Abania,” Biggs explained.  “High enough it was out of the way of the worst of things, and supposed to be a right pain to reach.  But you hear tell of men trying all the time; they say it’s a garden of paradise. I’d say I don’t believe, but, well,” and he gestured at G’raha with an open hand.

G’raha smiled warmly at him, “You do have a bit of a thing for faerie stories.  Rescuing princes from eternal slumber in towers and all that.”

“Well, I--”  Biggs stammered a bit, face flushing, and turned away.

Heustienne regarded the two of them with a raised brow when G’raha looked back to her, but she didn’t say anything, thankfully.  “Did he say why I’m to look for him?”

“That he will have three needful things for you,” she said.  “Though I am still at a loss as to how he could know you were coming nearly two hundred years ago.”

Needful things could be left with a descendant, or hidden.  “I can only assume he had knowledge of the Ironworks’ plan.  Perhaps this is even part of it, though….” He looked over his shoulder at Biggs, who had composed himself in short order.

“Bloody mystery to me.  Cid’s notes make no mention of him.”  Biggs shrugged. “Perhaps it’s something meant only for you, and this was their way of keeping it secret.”

“It would stand to reason that I would need to research the correct moment to summon the Warrior of Light from, and that in doing so I would contact as many of his allies and visit as many of the places he had been as possible…  The logic is sound, but it seems like a great risk on their part.”

The beating of wings signaled Orn Khai’s return, and he landed just a short distance behind Heustienne, politely angling his descent so as not to buffet the group.  I am sorry, weary travelers.  He will speak with you not; but do not despair.  I will see who I may recruit to argue your case.

“If you require aught of us,” Heustienne said, “please, do not hesitate to return.  I think I speak for much of Hraesvelgr’s brood when I say that it would gladden our hearts to know that Aden had never fallen.  Many of those they’ve lost might find themselves in different circumstances.”

And he was as one of our own, Orn Khai added.  Otherwise we would not have tried to answer his call.

“His call?” G’raha asked, shifting to look up at the true dragon.

Orn Khai made a low rumbling sound, almost a grumble, closing his eyes briefly.  It reminded G’raha vaguely of the sort of disconcerted noise he’d heard Aden make a few times during their explorations, and he wondered if perhaps the dragon had some connection to him other than the obvious via association with Heustienne.  Have you told them?   Heustienne nodded, and Orn Khai continued.  Have you time for a tale, sons of man?

“I believe we have all the time that you require,” G’raha said, looking to Biggs for confirmation.  The man nodded.

“Aye, it’s what we’re here for, is it not?  Information.”

Then a tale I shall tell you, one pieced together by Vidofnir and the Stormcaller on their meeting here, of the final moments of the Warrior of Light.

Chapter Text

To call Gyr Abania a blighted wasteland might be too generous .  The first time G’raha crossed the crumbling remnants of the wall was by airship, and he leaned over the railing watching the patches of verdance scattered across the shriveled scrub of the Black Shroud like mange give way to dried, cracked earth, then fine sand growing paler and paler, and finally scoured stone and heavy wind as aether naturally flowed towards the lower concentration. 

They turned back before the turbulence grew too terrible, angling in towards the mountains and gaining altitude.  He moved to the other side of the deck, staring out into carved cliffs and spires of stone leeched of all color. Somewhere out there past the horizon, past the remains of the city, just beyond what had been the border with Garlemald, lay the final resting place of the Warrior of Light.  Supposedly even today it remained dangerous to venture into, rapidly sickening any foolhardy enough to do so. Supposedly Aden's body still lay there, as did those of the Scions and every soldier slain on the field of battle, unable to decompose for lack of any natural force that might aid the process.  Perhaps one day, when the land was no longer utterly bereft of life and aether no longer stagnant like a fetid pool.

G'raha's hand tightened around the railing. That day might never come.

They scoured the mountains as long as they dared, searching for anything that might indicate the existence of this mysterious valley, but to no avail before they turned back towards the remnants of Gridania to refuel.

 


 

They put it off in favor of other projects.  The installation in the Tower was nearing completion, and they needed him to help with some systems calibration since no one else could control the megastructure.  There were more files to go through, old things about the Scions, one of the secretary’s ledgers--they told him new things, about places Aden had been, but not what he’d done there.  A sudden influx of gil recorded in the ledger sourced only by the name Genbu caught his interest, but nothing so much as this promise of needful things from a man long-dead who by all accounts should not have known about Cid’s plan.

The man had been there when Aden died, though.  And he had no reason to doubt the story the dragons had told him, which meant this Stormcaller had been the only survivor of the initial blast area .  He couldn’t imagine what it might have done to him, what quality of life he would’ve had afterwards, if it’d slowly poisoned him…. G’raha shuddered to imagine it.  He’d wish such a fate on no one.

Finally he could stand it no longer.  As soon as they’d completed this phase of retrofitting the Tower and no longer had immediate need of him, he snuck away leaving only a note on Biggs’ desk.  They wouldn’t let him go otherwise, and couldn’t spare the personnel after recent losses.

The less said of his journey alone through the remnants of the Black Shroud and into Gyr Abania the better. In blood and tears he learned the true nature of life in this time and place, things he had known and seen at a distance, read in the dwindling number of Ironworks members, things he now understood. G'raha learned why even those who seemed to have some semblance of peace made the choices they made, why they would throw away their future for the past of a hero.

In chains in the camp of a keeper clan he asked himself what would Aden do and strangled his guards in the middle of the night. He played the lute he'd stealthily liberated from the Tower for refugees before passing from their company, bringing them the tiniest spark of light in their bleak existence of foraging and slowly dying from the lingering poison in the land of the Black Rose.  He stood on a lonely cliff at the base of the mountains, looking out over the blighted waste he’d seen from the airship, and thought about how few children he’d met in his journey, while a peddler bent-backed before her time adjusted the weight on her chocobo, and the weight of her own pack, before beckoning him to follow her.

She led him on the long, precipitous path to a high pass over a number of days.  At the top they scrambled over a rockfall on the path. Several times he thought she or her bird might turn an ankle or worse, but they made it to the other side, and crossed the ridgeline.  G’raha stopped there as if he’d hit a wall, utterly transfixed by the impossible scene before him.

The bowl of the valley below exploded in greenery.  Lush forests covered the near end, and beyond them swathes of what appeared to be farmland cut across what should have been cold, barren rock.  A few buildings dotted the landscape, and to the south at the base of a cliff stood a gathering of them that almost resembled a small town.  He took a step and the biting wind died, turned sweet and laden with the delightful scents of a wood in full blush of summer.  A weak, needy sound escaped him before he realized it.

“Never gets old,” the peddler said, grinning, and she began the descent.

 


 

"--here to see Lord Stormcaller.”  The peddler’s voice snapped his attention away from the swaying boughs and dappled sunlight, from thoughts of a time long-lost.  Perhaps if he could find a book…. But no, it would only remind him of the last time he’d snatched a few hours on a lazy afternoon with a book under a tree, and on whose shoulder he’d fallen asleep.  “Not to petition for sanctuary.”

G’raha cleared his throat softly, a bit parched after the long walk through high desert.  “I should be expected.”

The solid, towering wall of a highlander looked down at G’raha, one hand on the sword at his hip, scrutinizing him.  Rather than be intimidated G’raha met his gaze neutrally, unimpressed, despite his anxiety. He’d traveled long and suffered much, and nothing would keep him from his goal now--but if they turned him away now he didn’t know what to do next.  “I doubt it,” the man said.

“Tell him G’raha Tia is here,” he responded, “for three needful things.”

The man grunted, rolled his eyes, and looked back to the peddler.  “You can set up in the usual place.” He left with no further trouble, and the peddler gestured for G’raha to follow her once more.

“He won’t see you,” she said over her shoulder as the cart path opened up.  “He doesn’t deal with outsiders. Were you Mhigan, perhaps.” She shrugged. “But Tessa might.”

“Tessa?” he asked, hurrying his pace to keep up with her lanky highlander stride.

“His voice.  Tessa speaks for him.”  A representative of sorts--he filed that away for later use.  “Dwell here for a time and perhaps he will see you, but less than that--no.  He is secretive, and the villagers are protective of him. You will see why.”

“I believe I already see why.”

She nodded, grinning again.  “Perhaps! They say the green and growing things are his doing.”  The cart path widened as they passed out from under the trees and into the village.  Every building seemed a humble size, the exterior covered in some pale substance like stucco, but he noticed the deep imprint of different kinds of leaves and smiled at the artful touch.  They turned a corner onto what seemed to be the main thoroughfare out to the fields, and the peddler gently knocked at his shoulder with her hand. G’raha turned and looked in the direction she pointed, ears going lax and eyes widening in wonder.

Sunk into the cliff face stood what seemed to be the facade of a manor house, with a broad porch and many windows,  “That must have taken quite some time to carve out,” he murmured.

“They say he shaped it from the living stone.  You should have a closer look later--there is not a single chisel mark on the whole of it.”  She sounded proud, but G’raha’s mind reeled with the implication. After receiving Salina’s knowledge he knew precisely how difficult such a feat was, and he doubted the truth of it but kept that to himself.

But perhaps he could turn that information for more.  “He must be quite powerful, for a mage to accomplish such a feat in this day and age.”  It would only benefit him to know more of the heir of Lord Stormcaller, especially should his entreaty fall on ears unfamiliar with the wording.

She laughed  as G’raha followed her to a small square around a space of greenery and a sprawling old tree.  “Oh, no, he did that long ago--before I was born.”  G’raha missed a step at the implication but recovered before he tripped.  Perhaps the heirs all looked similar enough to perpetuate a fiction of being the same man, or perhaps….   He turned towards the stone facade at the end of the village, staring as if it might reveal its secrets to him if he only looked hard enough.

“It may be a while before Gilford returns with a response, if he returns at all.  Help me, would you?”

Around a bell later G’raha took off the lute case, his bow and quiver, and dropped them in the grass under the tree in the square.  He shook out his cloak and settled down leaning against the tree, and took the lute out of the case. Fingers traced the curve of it, the inlay, gently ran down the neck as always--and as always he remembered the first time he’d seen it, the private concert he’d played for a man who had merely been his friend.  Then the second time he’d seen it, nestled up against that same man, fingers over his as he taught him a very simple tune. G’raha’s hands fell into it, and he curled over the lute possessively, as always. Oh, if only he had seen as clearly then as he did now. If he had known his own heart.

Would the world be a different place if he had possessed the wisdom and strength to reach out his hand?

He tuned the lute and let the soft sounds drown out his anxieties and his heartache.  A pair of birds lighted in the tree and chirped curiously at him. People came and went looking at the peddler’s wares, and he realized the large building immediately behind her was a temple of Rhalgr based on the conversation the man who came out had with her.  Several stopped and listened, but G’raha did little more than look up and give them soft, neutral smiles. He needed a distraction, but he didn’t feel terrible much like talking.

“Pardon stranger,” one finally said as the idle fancy under his fingers faded out.  “Could I trouble you to--ah, well.” The midlander tucked a lock of brown hair behind her ear, and G’raha noted she seemed to be showing the very first swell of a babe.  “My sister’s to be bonded tonight, might you be willing to play at the feast after?  I can pay you, if you’re passing through.”

G’raha’s ears perked, and he smiled in spite of his melancholy mood.  “I’ve seen little enough cause for celebration of late, so I should be glad to do so.  I fear my repertoire lacks breadth, though.”

“I’m afraid we’ve very few musicians or instrument makers, so I’ll be happy with whatever you’re willing to play.”  She gave him directions, and then left after thanking him profusely once more. G’raha watched her go, bemused by the whole interaction.

 


 

G’raha arrived early because he had little else to do, having walked the length and breadth of town and wandered out into the fields some.  Strangely the village had a book shop, small, quaint, and with nothing of particular note but their own typesetting machine. He spent a while talking with the owner about how much and what sort of business they saw--little and less, mostly religious tracts, because literacy was dying out outside the protective ring of their mountains but men could yet spell the name of Rhalgr, and the odd grimoire.  He received a little booklet of folk songs for his conversation, and carefully placed the fragile thing in his pack. But now he found himself at the house, and the sister showed him around to the back where they’d set up tables and chairs and strings of tiny crystals among the trees. As the sun set and the guests gathered it became an enchanted sylvan glade, the sweet, restful energy he’d felt under the tree in the square transformed by the party’s atmosphere.  Not only was the land replete with aether here, it felt good , like a home long cultivated in cherished love.

He played for them, the few reels he knew and the few love songs, and improvised otherwise.  He didn’t sing--that instrument wasn’t for hire--but they laughed and they danced and they cheered all the same, and it did his heart good to see people happy.

It hurt to think what he’d do to them, this newlywed couple, the babe in the sister’s belly, if he succeeded--but now he wondered what they’d say if they knew.  What terrible things might have driven them here, and if they’d give it all up like the others he’d asked outside this untouched place.

The night drew on and the guests bade him take a break and plied him with food and drink--which G’raha gladly accepted.  Feast was perhaps a generous term to use, but they had more food than he’d seen anywhere else.  Someone stood to make room at the end of a table, and he took the place with a murmur of thanks.

The lady who’d vacated it leaned against the edge of the table and crossed her arms, peering down at him.  “You’re that bard traveling about gathering stories about the Warrior of Light, aren’t you?”

Bard seemed rather generous, but he supposed be looked the part.  G’raha looked up at her and smiled in reply. “I am. Have you a tale of note?”

She smirked, gaze flicking past him for just a split second.  “A tale and more. Three needful things.” G’raha sat bolt upright in his chair, ears all but pointed forward and tail fluffed out behind him.  He quickly took in the details of her he’d glossed over before, a midlander of middling height and a middling Mhigan complexion, the furs and leathers she wore, the messy sweep of black hair, her angular features and piercing green eyes.  She matched no description he knew, but he wagered a guess based on the peddler’s earlier words. “Enjoy your meal, my honored ancestor will speak with you when we depart.”

“Is he here?”

She smiled enigmatically, and stepped away to make rounds of greeting people at the feast.  G’raha watched her, tail twitching with the intensity of his attention, until someone rapped softly on the table.  He turned his attention to the seat next to him, still a bit shaken—

“Merrick Stormcaller, I presume?”  G’raha felt rather proud of how steady he kept his voice.  Because surely this was no one but the man himself, pulled from the prints on those old newspaper clippings.  He wore furs and leathers as the woman did, the cut strangely refined, his complexion much the same, and in the dim mixed-color light of the crystal strings his mid-length hair looked bloody--G’raha had a strange though, suddenly, but it fled as he noticed the man’s eyes.  Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but the deep emerald seemed devoid of all pupils, looking instead like cut gems. His features were angular like the woman’s, but somehow fey, otherworldly. To live so long and look so startlingly unchanged he could not be human, and up close he looked it.

Merrick inclined his head and laid one gloved hand against his chest in a shallow mock-bow.  “It really is you, then, not a descendant.” Merrick nodded, settling his hands on the table.  G’raha noted nothing sat on his plate, but a glass of some dark liquor stood at hand. “How?”

After a second’s hesitation Merrick lifted his hands from the table and made a series of short, fluid gestures which G’raha recognized as sign language, but did not understand.  G’raha’s ears shifted forward, then to the side and down slightly. “You’re mute.”

Merrick made a gesture he did understand, lifting one hand to bump the heel of his palm off his own head.  “My apologies,” G’raha quickly added. “I meant no offense. I merely did not expect--I did not expect you to be you , let alone… like this.”

The midlander nodded his understanding, and gestured dismissively with one hand before pointing at G’raha’s plate.  Then he stood, taking the glass of liquor with him, and went off presumably after the young woman. G’raha resisted the urge to bang his head against the table, but he did mutter, “ Idiot ,” under his breath.

Chapter Text

They made their way through the village quite late at night, G'raha weary in body but wide awake, staring in contemplation at the back of Stormcaller's head. On the way the young woman introduced herself as, "Testaria Stormcaller, but you may call me Tessa," with a charming bow, and he noted that her poise and posture indicated martial training. "I speak for my honored ancestor that all may know his words."

"'Tis a pleasure," G'raha replied. "But I must ask--I knew you expected me, but… how?"

"It is somewhat difficult to give his words voice while walking and in the dark." He saw her smile in the warm light spilling from a window as they passed a cheery little home.  "I expect you are exhausted after you trip here and the long day. Speaking tomorrow would be best."

"It was indeed a long and exhausting trip, but I should rest easier knowing my goal has been accomplished."

“Driven, of course.  He said to expect as much.  Allow me to put it another way.”  He caught her expression and motions in snatches of window and lantern light.  She laid a hand to her breast, and inclined her upper body slightly in his direction.  “ I am exhausted after three bells of dancing and socializing.  I am led to believe this will be a very lengthy conversation, and if I am to be my honored ancestor’s voice, ‘twould be best I not doze off in the middle.”

G’raha scowled, not quite his pout of old, and he managed, “I understand.  I suppose one more day will matter very little.”

“I appreciate your patience.”  Something in her tone irked him vaguely, an edge that could be sarcasm, but sounded little like the sarcasm he was used to, rather something he only ever heard out of Ala Mhigans who had grown up in the culture.

The doors carved into the cliff face led into an interior that might as well be a spacious manor home. Carpets and wall hangings softened hard stone, old but immaculately cared for.  Many of the furnishings seemed so as well, lacking the rustic, unrefined quality of those constructed in modernity--things built with an eye to the fact that they need not last long. He felt for a moment as if he’d stepped back in time, and he supposed that made a strange sort of sense.

Tessa showed him to a private room, more spacious and richly appointed than anything he’d seen in his entire time in this dreadful tomorrow.  “The rest of the family is away at the moment, so you have run of the house if you like.” She provided directions to other rooms of interest, and let him be.

It felt surpassing strange to dwell alone in comfort, even for a single night--all his life G’raha possessed no space to himself, crammed into dormitories with other students or sharing tents at research sites.  Even as a babe, though the less he recalled of that time the happier he’d be. Regardless he wondered what had become of his tribe, of the father who had wanted more for his son marked by legacy than a life of fighting and rutting and living only to pass on the eye.  Surely by now G’raha had surpassed his father’s wildest imaginings.

A mix of exhaustion and anticipation produced an unwholesome buzzing sensation inside his skull, and he remained restless into early hours.  G'raha woke multiple times the next day, knowing with each that he should rise but blinking back to sleep before he managed it. He finally woke at what must be some dreadfully late hour, muzzy headed and dull, aching everywhere. He growled in frustration, slowly realizing he was in no state to interrogate Stormcaller until his head cleared.  Regardless, he needed to make some sort of appearance to his host and perhaps explain himself, so he dragged himself out of bed and gathered himself into a degree of presentability.

The washroom contained a full mirror, and the dark smudges between his markings and his eyes gave him pause.  He barely recognized the man there: haggard, a little leaner, a little harder. His hair had grown back out some, and he slowly swept it into a tuck bun, more than usual dangling out.  Over the past… however long it had been he rarely stopped long enough to pay any mind, but seeing himself now he wondered if there would be enough left of him to see this mad plan through.

In the hall outside he nearly ran straight into Tessa.  “My apologies!” She put a hand out, but didn’t quite touch him.  G’raha didn’t apologize, just looked up at her a bit blankly.  “Ah,” she smiled down at him. “Your trip through Gyr Abania finally catching up to you?  You’re made of sterner stuff than you look, for it to wait until you’re safe here. But don’t worry; it passes.  Usually.” She took a step back from him and gestured down the hall. “Lunch should be laid out, if you like.”

“Thank you.”  G’raha took his leave of her and made his way in the direction she’d gestured with little mind for his rich surroundings.  Instead he turned inward, musing on her words. It stood to reason the aether-poor environment of Gyr Abania might tax a body, and explained the high rate of sickness he’d seen along the way.  Never had he considered himself made of sterner stuff but... willful, perhaps.

Was there any difference?

He wandered his way to a warmly appointed dining room, though by size he hesitated to call it cozy--informal, certainly, with the distinct air of a place in which a family often gathered.  Lord Stormcaller himself finished up laying out the meal, wearing an alarmingly frilly lilac-colored apron over his clothes.  A laugh exploded out of G’raha before his mind caught up to him. He sagged against the door frame, shaking with mirth, head swimming.  Something about the sight struck him as immensely incongruous, held against all of the information he’d managed to gather about Stormcaller--and yet here he was.  “Forgive me,” he choked out, forcing himself into some semblance of calm. G’raha wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand, and found Merrick standing in the same spot, watching him keenly with the smallest hint of a smile.  The man began to gesture then caught himself and waved dismissively. Instead he lifted one hand to his temple, then pointed at G’raha.

He caught the meaning well enough.  “Yes, but it will pass. I would ask if I truly look that awful but I’ve seen myself this morning.”  Merrick beckoned him over. G’raha hesitated, but pulled away from the doorframe and rounded the table to join him.  Meanwhile Merrick pulled out the chair on that side of the table and gestured for G’raha to sit. He expected some retribution for his laughter, but complied with his host’s wishes.  When Merrick’s fingertips settled over his temples he stiffened in his seat, then a gentle wash of healing magic that chased away the throb between his eyes relaxed him back into the chair.  Though he possessed little skill with magic he knew the way the various manifestations felt , recognized this was not conjury or astromancy.  It felt almost as if some great presence reached into him and smoothed over the raw edges of his aether, poured a little strength back into him, and then withdrew leaving him with the vague impressions of a summer rain shower and a whiff of ozone.

“Thank you.”  Merrick rounded the table to settle into the chair at the head, merely nodding in reply.  He gestured at the spread on the table, indicating G’raha should feel free to begin eating.  

While he served himself Tessa arrived, and stopped in the doorway as he had, staring at Merrick.  The man looked up at her, made a short series of gestures, and she responded in kind. Then Merrick pushed back from the table, leaving through the opposite door.  Tessa sat opposite G’raha, grinning, and began serving herself. “He wore that thing on purpose to get a rise out of you,” she said, voice full of mirth. “My sister made that for him when we were children.”

To get a rise out of him--but why?  “You mentioned last night the family is away?”  

“Our clan has made our purpose keeping the memory of Ala Mhigo alive, wherever our people roam.”  Her eyes flashed fierce and proud before her expression softened. “But my sister is a tailor in Ul’dah.”

G’raha tried very hard to conceal his surprise, and his distress.  A tailor in Ul’dah--it sounded so normal.  Here again those making the best of their lives in this bleak future confronted him, and he faltered at the thought of what he meant to do to them.  “Do you know why I am here?” he asked quietly.

“No,” she said.  “Only that our honored ancestor has been waiting for you for a long time.”

His grip around his fork tightened painfully, the smooth metal digging into his flesh and he struggled to breathe calmly.  “I’m--”

The pointedly loud scrape of Stormcaller’s chair interrupted him, and he gestured for Tessa’s attention as he sat down.  Absent the filly apron and grim faced he made a series of gestures at her, then Tessa turned back to G’raha. “We’re not to discuss your purpose here until after we’ve eaten,” she translated.  “It will be a difficult conversation.”

A bitter laugh escaped him before he thought to contain it, and G’raha shook his head, but he did as his host bade.  Reluctantly he tucked into lunch--his breakfast--full of nerves and dark melancholy. Aden had made hard choices, surely, but he didn’t sacrifice one person for another, let alone a whole world for one person.  This time when he asked himself, what would Aden do? He knew the answer.  And yet he could not abide this world without him.

Did he and the Ironworks have the right to do this?

After a few bites the food proved an incredible distraction.  The ingredients were fresh and simple as they’d been the night before at the wedding reception, but prepared in a delectable manner.  He hadn’t had anything this good since… 

Since....

Ever , to be quite honest.  He’d been sent away young, and raised in close quarters in Sharlayan on the nation’s infamously bland cuisine.  Then his time in Eorzea had been dreadfully short, and now at the end of all things there was little to spare. G’raha found himself ravenous , and knew in part his body sought to replenish itself after his long trek through aether-poor lands.  But something else in him hungered, too, for the comfort of a pleasant taste and a full belly.  He took seconds, and a little bit of thirds, greedily heedless of Stormcaller and Tessa’s silent conversation over dinner.  But he caught from the corner of his eye her alarmed gaze darting to him at one point, and his own slid towards Merrick. The man--was he yet a man?--looked serene.  He could only hope Stormcaller explained his purpose to Tessa, that he need not break the terrible news that he meant to wipe her world from existence.

They both finished before him, but G’raha found he didn’t care.  If they offered him this hospitality and insisted he bide his time, he meant to seize the former so thoroughly they regretted the latter.  Petty, perhaps, but he was nothing if not occasionally petty.  At length he finished, pushing his plate away.

Testaria stood and crossed to a liquor cabinet against one wall, where she retrieved a truly ancient bottle of Limsan rum and two glasses.  She poured for each of them, and G’raha realized once again despite a place set before him Stormcaller had eaten nothing, merely kept a glass of liquor at hand.  Once Tessa resumed her seat Merrick made a series of gestures to her, then turned and raised his glass to G’raha.

“To your success,” Testaria said, “and that we will both get off this wretched ride one way or another.”

G’raha almost choked on his first sip at that.  Merrick canted the glass in his hand, and regarded G’raha with a look equal parts assessment and leer.  After an uncomfortably long moment he gestured with one one hand, beckoning G’raha to ask questions.

“How did you know I would come?”  It bothered him most of all, even though the answer was obvious--but not once did a single Ironworks record make mention of the man.

Merrick’s lips drew into a thin line, and he inclined his head very slightly to one side.  He put down his glass and spoke with his hands, and Tessa translated. “In the early days I went to Cid nan Garlond, for I knew not where else to go with Aden and all his allies dead, and much of the command structure and populace of Ala Mhigo wiped from the face of hydaelyn.  Loathe as I was to make peace with Garleans, he and Nero were all that remained. They told me of the Crystal Tower expedition, shared with me all the details of their research. I assisted them with many of the more abstracted concepts, particularly those for transporting the Tower wholesale across the Rift, alongside Omega.”

“Cid’s notes make no mention of you whatsoever.”

A smirk stole across Merrick’s face.  “Of course not. My true contribution to the project was one you could never know of unless you sought me out.  It was essential.”

“That being?”  G’raha leaned forward in his seat, pressing his elbows against the table.

“Cid’s plan will require you to cross the Rift alone,” he leaned forward slightly as he spoke, hands moving faster, “and then to draw Aden across.  The ritual necessary to accomplish the latter will take lifetimes to conceive of and implement. I have begun the work for you. I have also determined the correct time from which to draw him for optimal chance of success.”

G’raha stammered, trying to formulate a response, some hot, ugly emotion rising in him as he rose to his feet, chair shoved roughly from the table.  “You--but then all this-- if you were doing this why have I been wasting time ?”

Merrick refilled his glass, taking his time, letting G’raha stew in his anger.  Testaria looked between them, fingers flexing as if she meant to reach for a weapon.  Only after he had drained his glass again did Merrick continue.

“I said I had begun the work, not completed it.  Much of it is beyond me; only you, with your connection to the Tower, and intimate knowledge of the location to which you mean to draw him, and the unique insights your journey will grant you, can finish this work.  As to the time,” he gestured for G’raha to sit, but he refused, hands balling into fists at his sides. Merrick looked him up and down and smiled smugly. “Very good. You may have a chance at this.”

He took G’raha’s glass and topped it off before scooting it back towards him.  “The time is by far the least challenging thing about all of this. ‘Twas easy enough for me to determine because I was present Time is not the only thing you have been researching though, is it?  Tell me, why did you agree to this and why are you so committed to it, knowing that it will snuff out the existence of everyone and everything that yet lives, and unmake you in the process?”

Merrick folded his hands, leaning forward expectantly.  G’raha examined him for any hint of the expected answer, lips twisting into a scowl as he did so.  “For the future we should have had,” he said, “for all the lives destroyed on that other star, and for the lives these people should be living.”

“That is why it should be done,” Merrick said, “the goal for which we all strive.  But it is not your truth.  It cannot be, if you are to succeed.  Your motivation is vital, especially to the success of this spell.  Why do you want to save the Warrior of Light?”

He looked away, “I cannot say this, not to you.”

“The reason Cid made no mention of my work is that I am to test you, G’raha.  Everything you have done has been for a purpose. But this will not succeed without one vital element over which we had no control, nor could we judge in formulae.  You must tell me, if I am to impart to you all that I have learned.”

G’raha clenched his jaw, closed his eyes, fighting back tears.  He had never said the words aloud, and so long as he kept this truth to himself he need not face the full weight of his grief.  The truth he had realized on seeing those cold, dead images. This quiet, soft flame he nurtured in the most sorrowful depths of his heart would rise to an inferno if he had to say it, one he could never quench, which would sear everything between him and Aden’s salvation.  Once these words passed his lips there would be no turning back, and he knew it.  He would be responsible for the utter annihilation of every individual living in this time--for snuffing them from existence ere they came into being.  Because he could not speak the truth in his heart and not then live it.

How alike they had been, and how different.  Aden would sacrifice himself for a world; G’raha would sacrifice a world for Aden.

“I love him.”  Whispered, sing-song, a roll of tears and a swell of passion beneath it.

“I’m sorry, what?  You’ll have to speak up.”  Tessa’s voice failed to convey the mocking look he knew Stormcaller wore.  G’raha seethed at that, that somehow this arse knew exactly what he was doing.  Well, he’d give them what they wanted--it was too late now anyroad.

“I love him!” G’raha shouted, opening his eyes and turning back to glower at the bastard of a man seated at the head of the table.  “He was the greatest friend I have ever had, knew all that I had been through in his own heart in effect if not in deed, and I admired and envied everything that he was, and he answered me not with the patronizing concern or dismissal others did.  He truly believed I could be both all that I was and all that I desired, and encouraged me to work for it, to be a hero as he was. I thought I was being a hero when I sealed the Tower but I was a bloody idiot!  Not a moment passes that I don’t regret sealing myself in the Tower and denying myself the chance to be by his side.  I love him , and I would do anything to… to…”  He sat back down, hard, and buried his face in his hands.  “I can’t let him go like that. Not like that. Not laying down like a babe going to sleep and staring sightlessly up into the firmament for eternity, unable to be buried or to rot or to simply cease.  Not like that.”

“Good,” came Testaria’s voice, soft.  “Nothing short of total devotion will do for your great work. From now on, everything you do you must do in love--whether it be compassion for those who rely on you, or love for him.  Permit yourself no selfish desires but this: that you will see him again one day.” They gave him a moment to wring out his sorrow, though when he looked up his face was still tear-streaked.  “But you must also know the shape of his soul so intimately that you can pluck it from the twisted skein of fate. When he died, he was not the man you knew, and you must love the man he became, not only the man he was.  You have journeyed far and wide to learn that shape, and we can only pray it is enough.”

“And what of those who have made lives for themselves?” G’raha asked bitterly.  “Those who have made the best of their circumstances?”

“What you glimpse is but a breath’s span of time.  I assure you, in a generation or two there will be no one making lives for themselves.  Only scavengers, hunters, and prey will remain.” Merrick’s expression softened, and the pace of his gestures slowed slightly.  “Would you agree that there is no more idyllic place left on the face of hydaelyn?”

“At first blush, yes.”  G’raha spared not the energy for a nod, newly wrung out by his admission, the fire in his breast too hot to acknowledge.

“And yet if you asked any one of them, they would leap at the chance to support your cause.  They know even this place is ephemeral. We are living on borrowed time, which only you may rectify.”

The weight of his own words bowed G’raha, and he braced his elbows against his thighs, staring down at the floor.  He hardly processed anything his eyes saw. “How did you survive.” Not a question, an accusation, blame ugly and dark within him now that he had unleashed the truth at the core of his passion.  ‘Why did you not save him.”

Tessa hesitated much longer than normal, more than merely waiting for Stormcaller to get slightly ahead of her.  “I tried, by the Twelve I tried. I would not have called him a friend at the time, because I was an angry fool, but he was.  If you have visited Zenith, as your words indicated earlier, then you have heard the story.” They paused again, and G’raha didn’t look up, barely acknowledging Merrick’s words.  “The magics for which I was famed and the name my family derives from them are rooted in a terrible source. At the end of the War of Magi my ancestors thought to bind a dying elemental in the manner the Mhachi used upon voidsent.  The particulars are unimportant, but the entity to which I am bound withdrew me physically, which I had not known it capable of. Ala Mhigo, where it lie, was not safe either. I took it into myself to save the both of us, though the Black Rose still stole my voice and my ability to fight with a sword.”  G’raha dragged his head up to stare blearily at Merrick, found his hands briefly folded on the table, a pinched look on his face. It was the most human his fey features had appeared since G’raha had met him. “I was the only survivor at ground zero. Though reports will make little mention of it.”

“And I am a tool,” G’raha’s voice rang strangely hollow in his own ears, “by which you mean to atone for the sin of living, though you will condemn me to a similar fate to achieve it.”

Merrick straightened in his chair, sitting back, and regarded G’raha appraisingly once more.  “Yes. But in the end you will be reunited with the man you love, if only just long enough to save him.  I cannot promise you that he will not hate you if he learns what it took to get you to him. That in his own deep despair he will not resent being saved, for there was much darkness in him in the end.  But he will live, and you will be there.”

G’raha turned away once more, and whispered, “And I will atone for my own folly in abandoning him.”

They sat in silence for a long moment, G’raha’s mind churning with all this information, the scholarly, detached part of his brain already formulating a new trajectory, a new purpose.  He did not know the full shape of who Aden had become, which meant he must continue his journey until he had.  Continue forcing himself through reams of mundane records and meticulously written mission reports and gut-wrenching personal accounts.  G’raha buried his face in his hands with a groan. At this rate he’d be old and gray before they ever sent the Tower across.  “And your three needful things?”

“My research,” Merrick answered.  “The test. And the third, I cannot give you until you are about to cross.  It is… too precious. And I fear as you are it might break you. As such, I will be returning with you to the Ironworks to aid in their work until such a time.”

G’raha responded with a noncommittal grunt, and sat up just enough to strain towards the table and snatch his still-full glass of rum.  He downed the whole thing in one go.