Chapter Six - Curtain Call

Here it is, the last chapter. It's long. It's also chock-full of violence, angst and death. You can tell it's more like my current stuff because of those two things ~^ But it's still an ol' sucker. Anyway, I hope that you liked it! Please let me know what you think!

"Catspaw"
By Amanda Swiftgold

Chapter Six - Curtain Call
In which the past is revealed, and it is not pretty

His heart seemed to stop beating for a moment as Setzer realized that they were surrounded, caught in a trap. There was no way of escape, no matter where he looked. Not time to panic, he told himself sternly. It's time to think!
That's right, think! Tell me what to do, Setzer! I need help here!
Talk to Elya,
he directed. Tell her if I need her to do something.
The cat bristled slightly at the general and troops, her ears pressed back against her head. But I'm not supp- all right. I'll do it... just don't let them take her!
Elya pressed against his chest, trying to somehow slip out of sight. Almost kneeling on the ground, he wanted to stand up and lose some of the vulnerability he felt. But he didn't dare with half a dozen crossbows trained on him.
"You have surrendered," Risa told him. "Hand over the girl, now, with no trouble. If you do not, we will have no choice but to kill her, and then you, after you have a chance to see it."
Setzer did nothing except hold Elya tighter, as if his arms could protect her from the piercing bolts. He didn't meet Risa's gaze, planning, hoping wildly.
Elya clenched the folds of his shirt in a death-grip. "Nautilus is in my head!" she whispered.
"Shh!" he said quickly into her ear, the strands of her hair hiding his movement from view. Tell her to slowly take cards from my pocket. When I let her go, she has to throw them! he directed finally, and Nautilus began to relay the information.
Risa tapped her foot. "Enough with the goodbyes!" she called. "Give me the girl!" Setzer looked up slowly and gazed balefully into her black eyes over Elya's head. The girl's hand inched little by little into his pocket. The general looked away suddenly and over at Kurstil. "I tire of this. Make him give her over, now!" Elya almost had them
"As you please," he replied deferentially, moving forward.
Setzer felt a slight weight slip from his pocket. There! "No," Setzer shouted suddenly. "I will. Just don't come near me!" The mage paused, and he stood up. With only a slight hesitation, the half-Esper girl whirled around and flung the razor-edged cards.
Her aim was off, and the cards missed Kurstil completely. One of them embedded itself into a soldier's face, however, and the resulting commotion was enough. Sweeping Elya into his arms, Setzer ran back, bowling over a surprised crossbowman. He didn't dare leave his back to them too long, but when he'd stopped they were no longer surrounded. The odds were a little better.
"Kill him!" the red-headed general bellowed, swinging her sword into the air. "Kill him!" Bolts shot through the air, and he had to duck very quickly to miss them. He began preparing a spell, feeling as well as hearing Elya's high voice invoke the Esper magic.
Nautilus was behind him, silent and still. Communicating, he thought distractedly. I hope it helps, whatever she's doing. He cast the fire at the crossbowmen first, while Elya's ice was directed at the general. Kurstil, smirking at them, returned her spell to all of them, stinging with the freezing shards.
The girl shrieked and fell to her knees with a gasp. Setzer yanked out more cards and prepared to defend her. But suddenly the bowmen stopped shooting, and General Ethar stopped shouting. Even Kurstil broke off a spell in mid-cast. Everyone had paused to stare at the strange gathering of mist that was coalescing behind Setzer and to his left.
"Finally," Nautilus muttered. The smoky mist formed a human-like shape and then dissipated. A beautiful young woman with long brown curls spun into being, the ether that was left of the Warp spell clinging to her skirt.
She stopped moving, dark eyes taking in the situation. He was confused, but as soon as she opened her mouth, however, he knew who she was. "To me!" she shouted, in the same voice he recognized, turning to Setzer and the others. "Elya, Nautilus, to me!"
"Katara," Kurstil breathed, barely audible. "It can't be!"
"Stop them!" Risa yelled, snapping everyone into action. Bolts began to rain down again, one nearly piercing Setzer's unprotected hand.
"Mother!" the girl gasped, running to her. She, too was nearly hit by the bolts, but she ignored it, intent on reaching Katara. Nautilus followed, her small form lost among the grasses. Setzer backed up slowly, flinging cards at their attackers. He breathed a sigh of relief when the girl reached her young mother. "Setzer!" Elya screamed at him, clinging to Katara's dark pink skirts. "Run!"
He tried to move faster, and then Katara's voice urged him on as well. "Hurry!" she called as he glanced at the soldiers. They were advancing, and he couldn't hold them off forever.
Setzer ran, hearing Katara begin her Warp spell. They were gaining on him now, one bolt coming close enough to scrape his cheek. It made him flinch, and he turned around to see where they were. He stumbled on a rock and nearly fell, all the while trying to get to Katara. Her arms were outstretched, reaching for him, and he was nearly there
A sharp thunk and a deep throbbing pain jolted him, and he fell forward, hitting the ground, unable to catch himself. His left arm had gone useless, and it was with horror that he realized he had been shot. Sounds rushed around him, but he couldn't distinguish what they were. All he could hear was the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears.
"Setzer!" he finally heard, a terrified scream from just above him. Elya was trying to come to him, but Katara was holding her back. "Setzer! Get up! Come on! Get up!" she wailed over and over.
Come on, gambler! We have to leave! Get up! Nautilus's thought-voice hammered uselessly against his mind. He felt heat, the warmth of his own blood trickling down his back, and took a deep, ragged breath, trying to get to his hands and knees. He looked up, and over the grass he could see the forms of the mage, her daughter, and her familiar fading and spinning out of view.
He couldn't make it, couldn't reach them, couldn't move, simply staring up as they disappeared. They had left him. He was alone. And Risa was behind him, the soldiers catching up to him. He was finished. The end. Better just let it go now before they get to me... Setzer collapsed onto the dirt. I'm going to die. They're going to kill me. Gods... this way?
He heard footsteps around him, knew the soldiers were training their weapons on him, and he tensed, feeling his wound throb more blood and wondering when they'd put the next bolt between his shoulderblades. A shadow fell across his face, but he didn't look up. Oh, joy.. So... now that Katara's got her kid back, she's gonna leave me here? Figures... well, at least I'm not going to have a chance to be used again...
"It's not going to be that easy, Setzer," General Ethar said to him. "After all the trouble you've caused me? No, I'm going to do this myself nice and slow. But not here. Somewhere else." She laughed ominously. "And on the way I'm going to tell you exactly what will happen to you."
"Torture?" he gritted painfully, trying to push himself up and meet her eyes. "It won't work nothing you can do to me will mean anything"
She put her foot on the back of his neck, forcing his head back to the ground. "No?" she purred. "We're not going to simply ruin you physically, white-hair. Your own soul and memories will come back to haunt you as well."
Risa's weight shifted as she leaned down and tore the arrow out of his shoulder. Muscle and skin ripped free, and an arc of blood flew through the air. Setzer cried out, wanting desperately to flinch away from the pain. But the general's foot pinned him down. The pressure on his neck was becoming nearly unbearable.
When she stepped away, his shoulders shook with pain and relief. Risa and Kurstil stood in his line of vision, conferring.
"Will this do?" General Ethar asked, offering the bloody arrow to Kurstil.
The mage held it gingerly across his palms. "Quite. I suppose you want to share in the procedure?" She nodded. "Very well, but you must promise to observe only and not interfere or attempt to change anything."
"Fine, all right, just get on with it!" she snapped, and he began to mutter spells on the arrow. Setzer's vision grew hazy as he watched, but he knew what happened next was no product of his imagination. Kurstil raised the bolt up and solemnly licked his blood off one half of the arrowhead. He felt a strange twisting feeling inside, whether a product of the bloodloss or Kurstil's spells, he was unsure.
The mage then handed the bolt back to General Ethar, who made a face and slowly licked the rest of the arrow clean. As she did so, her features relaxed into a feral grin, and she licked her fingers as well. Setzer shuddered.
The knot inside grew tighter. He could feel something in his mind, something disgusting and impure. He could almost see as well as feel it twining around his soul like a snake around its prey, the bearer of disease.
And he couldn't fight it. It knew him. It was him What the hell is going on...? But Setzer fell into unconsciousness before he could find out what they were going to do.

*****

"So, tell me, Setzer, how should she die? Should she be burned? Staked out for the wolves? Drowned?" Risa looked down at him, but he did not answer, still staring at Thury. "No preference? Hmm" She thought a moment and then decided. "Beheading. The woman Thury will be beheaded for attempting to run away from her rightful place as a slave. Vege, begin."
A block was brought forward and set in front of her as a guard forced her to her knees. "Pity such a pretty little thing has to die," he sighed. Making sure Setzer was watching, he bent down and kissed her sloppily. She struggled away, spitting, and Setzer almost managed to get to his feet before collapsing, nearly landing on his face.
"Stop it!" he yelled ineffectively. "Don't do this! It was my idea! I made her come with me!" I have to do something! he thought desperately. His things were still in his pockets but he couldn't reach them, couldn't do it quickly enough with his head spinning like it was. There was something wrong about this, something strange and fuzzy. Why did this place smell like magic?
The guard looked up at Risa, who nodded for him to get on with it, and then pushed her down, her head hanging over the block, her hair perhaps fortunately blocking his view of her face. But not before he met her pain-filled, frightened eyes. I'm sorry, she mouthed before giving in and falling forward against the block, resigned to her fate.
Setzer stared horrified, transfixed, as the axe was raised and swiftly brought down with a heart-rending thunk. Blood ran from Thury's severed neck as her head hit the tile of the floor. Her twisted expression, the bulging eyes, were only partially hidden by the tangle of brown hair. This is not happening, he said mindlessly. Why... I never saw this! I never saw... never, never, never...!
The executioner swiftly bent and picked up the head. It swung back and forth in midair, twisting as the dark strands spun around each other. He choked down a mouthful of bile, burning his throat. Her face watched him, accusing him in death. The pain of his wounded hand echoed the agony he felt inside. It's all your fault, she seemed to say. You killed me. I trusted you!
"Such a pity," Vege remarked again in a blasé fashion.
"No!" Setzer screamed, trying to shove away the feelings of horror and pain. "This isn't happening! This isn't real!" He turned to face Kurstil, raked his eyes across Risa's emotionless face. "You can't trick me! You can't really take my memories! I never saw Thury die!"
Kurstil blinked slowly, exchanging a glance with Risa. The world faded to black. Nothing remained but the sound of his heart beating wildly. He had beaten them this time.
Setzer panted, trying desperately to breathe through the darkness. He had never seen Thury die, but the pain of the occurrence still remained. It had been blocked, but that had been removed. Pure fear gripped him if Kurstil could remove Nautilus and Katara's mental block, and even add to his memories, what more could he do?
Reality returned in the form of a chocobo stall. Setzer lay on the hay inside, pinned spread-eagle to the ground. He couldn't move, the hay irritating his shoulder wound through the fabric of his tattered shirt until it drove him to the point of near-madness.
There was no one around, the barn incredibly silent. Setzer closed his eyes, immediately opening them when a parade of grisly images began to dance before his mind's eye. Tears trickled down his face, drying stickily as he mourned anew for the death of Thury. I carry so much loss within... betrayed, abandoned, alone... and... and Risa was right... this is so much worse than any torture they can give me...
He shook away the pain as the two hated faces of Kurstil and General Ethar came into his view. "Did you enjoy that?" she asked sweetly. "There's more to come Kurstil, dig deeper. I want him to relive the absolute worst moments of his life."
"As you wish, lady it appears I have a lot to choose from." He closed his eyes, slipping into a trance. Moments later, Risa did the same, a grin still plastered across her face.
His brain was not his own. Setzer could feel it, could feel the disease of Kurstil's mind inside him, pulling tighter, delving deeper. He screamed, writhing madly against his bonds, the ropes cutting into his skin as everything swirled away into the windswept landscape of the past

*****

The deck of the airship shifted slightly as he crossed it to stand at the helm. Chilly air whipped past his face, stinging him with its speed. Setzer adjusted the wheel just a little, stabilizing the airship. The deck no longer moved, and he looked out and to the right.
Another airship flew majestically beside his, keeping up with hardly any effort at all. Setzer smiled at the pilot of this ship, even though he knew she couldn't see the expression past his flying hair. Daryl was watching him, her own reddish-gold hair torn loose from the braids that kept it out of her way.
"I'll meet you back at our hill," she called, and, without waiting for his response, pulled on the acceleration lever. The Falcon rose higher into the sky, kicking forward with a great burst of speed. Setzer shielded his face from the gust of wind with an arm, reaching out with the other. He wanted to call out to her, but by the time he could look up, she was gone.
He stabilized the Blackjack, which had been pushed back slightly by the other airship's wake, and looked at the space of sky where she had been. She had told him to wait for her, and he would. He would go back to the hill, and wait.
Setzer turned the wheel, began to turn the ship around, and then paused. He felt a sudden disquiet, a tingling sick feeling of dread. She'll be mad, he thought, but still felt no hesitation. He yanked back sharply on the accelerator, rising to a higher altitude, and followed.
He had to give it full throttle if he wanted to catch up to her. The Falcon was so fast, the fastest airship in the world, and now she was trying to reach the stars. Setzer's feeling of foreboding grew stronger. He flew on, but there was still no sign. Daryl, where are you? he thought unhappily, scouting forward, his knuckles white on the rail of the ship. He wished that she could answer somehow, reassure him that he was worrying for nothing and to just go away and wait
He saw still nothing, and rolled his eyes. Daryl always had to be the best at everything. He'd have to make some improvements to the Blackjack if he was to keep up with her next time. This was ridiculous. He should at least be able to see her by now. He pushed the engine to its limits, frowning with worry and anger.
Suddenly there was a flash of light from above, and Setzer looked up, surprise tearing a cry from his throat. Daryl was above him, the airship almost just a speck in the sky. He shaded his eyes and peered upward, trying to see. The airbag of the Falcon had begun to deflate, somehow, and the propellers were not going to be able to keep the ship up. The Falcon was going to plummet like a stone.
He tried to rise high enough to reach her before it began to fall, tried to think of some way to rescue her in the few seconds he had to do it in. The wind kicked the airship back harder at this higher altitude, and he couldn't see through the tears the air caused in his eyes. Setzer was forced to take the ship down a bit just as he heard a muted explosion.
Daryl's airship tore down past him like a fireball, knocking his ship further away. He thought he saw her clinging to the wheel, grim determination on her face as she tried to remain in control. "Daryl!" he screamed, trying to do the same, righting the ship and immediately diving after her. The ocean was below maybe she would land in it, maybe it would cushion the fall
He dipped down just as the Falcon hit the water with a splash which drenched his airship and sent him flying head over heels across the deck. He managed to pull himself up just as Daryl's ship crunched into an island's shore, carving out a furrow in which to bury itself. Sprays of sand almost obscured the small human figure which was tossed up into the air and back down onto the deck, looking almost like a discarded rag doll.
"Gods, no! No! No!" he cried, slipping and skidding his way across the wet deck. He was unable to land the Blackjack on the island anywhere near the wreck, and so he brought it up to hover over the smoking mess, fastening a rope to the railing and sliding down to the shattered remains of the Falcon's upper decks.
Setzer tore away debris from his path, ignoring the cuts it inflicted on him, clawing a path to the helm. At the sight of it a long wordless moan came from his throat and his feet slipped out from under him, sending him to his knees.
He hid his face in his hands, trying to steady himself, trying to calm his breathing enough to be able to look, although he didn't really want to. His anguished, wracking sobs filled the silent air, punctuated only by the cracks of cooling metal and splintering wood. He cried until he couldn't breathe anymore, until he had to curl up on the deck and gasp until finally he could feel the ocean air in his lungs again. It tasted like smoke, and blood.
Only then was he able to go over to her, all the emotion drained out of him. Daryl's body lay sprawled near the wheel, her life pouring out onto the deck, a long shaft of metal embedded in her stomach. But most likely, most hopefully, Setzer prayed, she hadn't felt it. Her neck had been broken when she had fallen, her head resting back at an impossible angle.
He knelt next to her, her blood soaking through his pants, still warm on his legs. Setzer reached out and touched her, his fingers tangling in the scarlet mess of her hair, trying insanely to straighten out her twisted body. Tears blinded him, his mind insisting on superimposing the image he had of Daryl, laughing and boasting, over the horrible reality.
Whatever strength he'd had deserted him, and he slowly slumped down to rest his head on the deck in her cooling blood. He would never have the chance to tell her anything, never get to do anything that he'd wanted for them. She'd never know that he'd loved her, never tell him if she did, too. The blood tasted metallic in his mouth, his vision red. And then he focused, saw Daryl's hand resting in front of his face. A glint of gold sparkled on her clammy finger, and slowly he reached out and pulled the ring from it.
Setzer sat up and clenched his hand around the metal, feeling it bite into his palm, so hard and real. It was her mother's ring, the one she always wore for luck. It didn't help her, he thought, an irresistible urge coming over him to throw it far, far away.
As he moved to do so something caught his eye. Two figures stood in the midst of the wreckage, watching him impassively. A balding man in robes, and a huge red-headed woman. He stared back at them, recognizing them but not knowing exactly from where he knew them. And then he knew. He saw.
"Damn you!" he called, stumbling to his feet. "Kurstil! Risa! This is another one of your tricks! You're twisting my memories, changing my thoughts. You can't make me hurt myself the way you wish I would." Setzer waved his hand, and the wreckage cooled, time passing. The corpse behind him shriveled with age and the weather, only bones left upon the deck. "This is the truth. This is the way I found Daryl, one year later. You can't make me lie to myself and have it hurt."
"But you imagined it," the man told him, anger beginning to flush his cheeks. "You're not as strong as you think, Setzer Gabbiani. You remember imagining how she died, in the dark of night when you couldn't sleep and drink couldn't wash away the pain? What could have happened tormented you more than the fact."
The white-haired gambler looked away, wanting to leave. He knew that if maybe he could resist this mind-tampering, then he could break their hold on him. But his will felt drained by the magic as he looked down at the sun-bleached skeleton at his feet. He saw again the blood and remembered finding her twisted body No! Not finding! I never saw it happen... But his shoulders still slumped in defeat.
Risa walked up behind him and pressed up close, one arm across his chest as she stroked his face. "Give in," she whispered in his ear, "give in and I will let you have peace. I was quite fond of you once, Setzer. Perhaps you have suffered enough."
He couldn't even argue. Whatever Risa would do to him didn't matter. He didn't care anymore. The pain had opened up a deep pit inside him, the pit where he had hidden the hurt of loss so he could get on with his life. Nothing mattered. He only wished that she would kill him soon.
Her fingers brushed back the strands of his hair, and she leaned over his shoulder and kissed his neck softly. He tensed involuntarily at the unexpected contact, and the edge of the ring in his hand cut into his palm. The pain jolted him out of his descent into sleep, and he whirled away, jerking out of Risa's grasp. "No!" he shouted, edging back and preparing to run. "You can't control me!"
The fury on the general's face could have frightened a demon. "No one defies me!" she bellowed, advancing forward like a bull. Setzer's foot caught in the tangle of Daryl's bones as he tried to escape. With a terrified cry, he tripped and fell into the thick inky darkness of reality, of consciousness

*****

His hand was clasped around the ring. He held it like a life preserver, a beacon in the darkness. At first it confused him. Awake, he was tied down like an animal to be slaughtered. How could he have gotten it from his pocket? But when he opened his eyes he saw indeed that he was holding it. The pin holding his right arm down had been pulled from the packed dirt of the barn, the rope trailing from it.
His captors knelt next to him now, one on each side. It would almost seem like they were attending him like faithful companions, tending to his wounds as his real friends would have. Except that Risa's face held an ugly scowl of hatred, and the spell Kurstil was preparing was not a healing one.
"This isn't working," Risa complained, drawing her sword out awkwardly. She set to work sharpening it on a whetstone from her belt pouch. "I should just kill him now."
"Wait, my general," the mage said, raising a slim, pasty hand. "I have been searching his mind for anything we can use, unaltered, that would cause him true pain, and I believe I have found something."
Risa didn't look too interested. "You said that before, but he didn't believe it."
"I have found, deep in his mind, a mental block. This was not magically imposed, like the first, however. It was self-imposed, a reaction to great pain or tragedy experienced. I will be able to break it, with some effort."
Setzer's heart froze. He had always believed that he had blocked out his first seven years of life for a damn good reason, and, although he was slightly curious as to what exactly he didn't want to remember, he figured it was best he didn't. "Stop," he managed to sob, utterly ineffectually.
The general's eyes flicked across his face. "Awake, are we?" she asked pointlessly. "All right, mage," she said. "You have one last try. If this fails to hurt him then I will kill him right away."
"Understood, General," he replied, starting his spell.
Setzer clenched his hand reflexively even tighter around Daryl's ring, trying to steel himself. Risa noticed and calmly reached out and clenched his wrist, nearly hard enough to break it, until his fingers relaxed and the golden band slipped free. "Please," he whispered.
"Pleasant dreams," she responded as her black eyes slowly closed in the spell's trance. "I hope to enjoy this immensely."
Kurstil leaned forward, his face close to Setzer's, the mage's fingers threaded obscenely into his white hair. "Ready?" he said softly. "No more shields, little magic-user, no more protection"
There was a sharp pain in his head, and a flood of images rushed through his mind. His entire body flinched, and he attempted to pull his arm out of Risa's grip, tried to push Kurstil's dead weight off him, but the pain weakened his resistance. Bright daylight flooded his eyes, framed by thick drapes. A fresh floral scent wafted through the air, and he heard a soft, lilting voice speak his name

*****

"Setzer? Setzer, darling, it's time to wake up!" Lady Cira Malyste chirped, flinging aside the dark blue material covering the window. The boy mumbled something, opening his eyes. "Good morning!" she said cheerfully, sitting on the edge of her son's bed.
He rubbed his eyes a little before looking up at her. "Good morning, Mama," he said as she pulled him into her arms, ruffling his dark auburn hair. "Ouch, leggo" he complained briefly.
"Time for you to get a haircut," she told him, releasing him and standing as he got out of bed.
Setzer ran over to the window and looked out. The glare from the glass was too much, and he pushed it open, hanging out. "Don't want a haircut," he said, watching as a stableboy led his father's chocobo out into the courtyard and began to saddle it.
"Your hair's too long," Cira told him, joining him at the window.
"Lydia doesn't get a haircut."
His mother smiled. "She's a girl. It's proper." Gently she put her hands on his shoulders and turned him away from the window, pulling it closed. "Time you got dressed, now. Today's an important day."
Setzer's eyes got wide. "That's right! Father said he'd teach me to play blackjack today!"
The red-haired woman regarded him fondly. "Perhaps later, Setzer, but today we have some important visitors. You'll have to stay in the nursery with Nana this morning."
"That's not fair!" he pouted. "He promised!"
"You'll learn your blackjack," Cira said. "I promise. But for now, get dressed."
Setzer grumbled, pulling on and reluctantly buttoning the white shirt she handed him. "Why can't I get to see the visitors?"
The Lady Malyste handed her son his shoes. "No more questions, Setzer. Breakfast is waiting for you in the nursery." After he'd put them on his feet she herded him through a door into an adjoining room. "Don't worry, it won't be so bad," she told him, kissing his cheek before closing the door.
He wiped it away, scowling, and stomped over to the table near the middle of the large playroom. His younger sister, Lydia, sat there already, doing her best to eat an apple and keep her twin braids from trailing into her milk at the same time. "What'sa matter, Setzer?" she asked, wiping her mouth with her hand.
"I don't want to stay in here like a baby," he responded, tearing a piece of bread in half and cramming part into his mouth. After he swallowed, he added, "We can't even see the guests today."
"Mama said," she replied simply, and shrugged. "You can play with me."
Setzer grimaced. Who wants to play with a girl? "No thanks," he said, pushing away from the small table. "I'm gonna play cards."
"Boring," Lydia announced, standing up and following him nonetheless.
He went over to the windowsill to pick up his deck, but something else caught his attention. "Look," he breathed, climbing onto the sill to get a better view. His sister shoved her way in beside him, holding up her ruffly skirts, and gazed out, too. "They're soldiers! Wow"
"There's Daddy going to talk to them," she pointed out.
He stared down at them in wonder. One man, in front of about twenty soldiers, was seated on a huge chocobo with many of its feathers painted red. Lord Dorian, the children's father, had come down from the manor on his own mount, an equal force behind him.
Setzer had to focus hard on the two men to be able to hear what they were saying. The sound of the nearby ocean crashing against the cliffs was threatening to drown them out.
"Lord Malyste," the head soldier said with a slight bow, "I am Lieutenant Rio of the Third Imperial Command. I thank you for allowing these talks today to occur."
"I welcome you to my home, Lieutenant," the handsome dark-haired man said, his face stern despite the affability in his voice. "I hope that we will be able to work something out. Do you give your word that no weapons will be used inside the manor?"
"Of course, Lord," Rio responded. He selected two soldiers as a personal guard to follow him and Lord Dorian up to the gate of the oceanside manor.
Setzer stared at the flag attached to a soldier's lance. I know that flag, but what is it? Suddenly he shouted, "Lyddie, look! They're from the Empire!"
She gasped and pressed closer to him, her blue eyes transfixed. Rio had looked up at his shout and was now staring at him. The boy gulped, feeling suddenly sick. Something in the man's eyes seemed to hurt him deep inside. "Cold as ice!" he gasped, pulling back from the window. He yanked lightly on one of Lydia's red braids to get her down from the window, too.
"That's a bad man," she told him seriously. "Why does he have to be here? I want him to go away."
Setzer began to speak, but the door banged open, startling him. He shrieked and spun around. "What's the matter?" a plump woman asked, trying to pat the wisps of her hair into place. She yawned, looking incredibly tired. "You two just see a ghost?"
He sighed. "It's just Nana," he said, slumping into a chair.
Lydia ran over to hug her. "Nana!" she cried joyfully. "Guess what! There's a bad man outside! Daddy's talking with him."
"Oh yes, the soldiers," she said, sitting in a rocking chair and tipping it back and forth. "Not so loud, children, my head aches."
"I wanna go see," Setzer said sullenly.
"Certainly not!" his nurse said with a frown. "You are to get nowhere near those filthy things."
He sighed and glanced toward the door, then looking back at the woman in the chair. He had an idea, but he'd have to get Lydia to agree to it. "Read us a book?" he asked hopefully. She nodded, and he grabbed his sister's hand. "Let's go pick it out." He dragged her over to the bookcase in the corner of the room.
"I want this one," she said, picking up a small volume.
"No," he said in a whisper, "I'm gonna go see the soldiers. Let me pick and you can come too."
"Nana won't let you," she told him softly.
Setzer grabbed a thick book from one of the higher shelves. "She will too. Just don't talk." They went back over to the nurse, who was dozing as she rocked. Her eyes opened immediately as he dropped the book in her lap.
"Advanced Algebraic Study? You don't want this one, Setzer. Get a nice story instead."
"No, I want that one," he insisted, sitting at her feet. "Read it to us, Nana."
"You are a strange one," she said, eyeing him for a moment. Then she tipped open the leather cover and began.
I hope she's as sleepy as she looks, he thought, pretending to pay attention. I don't like that man. Father might need my help.
The nurse slowly turned the parchment. "and the degree of monomial adds the exponents of all variables, for example, two variable a squared variable b cubed has a value of five degrees" She looked away from the book and down at the children at her feet. "Setzer, you're not paying attention. You don't really want me to read this."
"I do!" he said emphatically. "Degree of monomial, Nana. Go on, please."
She sighed and continued, continually fighting to keep her eyes open. Her monotone voice was nearly putting Lydia to sleep, which was just as well. He didn't really want to take her along, too. Setzer focused on his nurse's expressive face, looking attentive.
Finally her eyes closed completely. "and the linear graph of absolute value" Her head hung low, her breathing regulated as she began to sleep.
Yes, it worked! Setzer thought happily, proud of himself. He waited a few minutes to make sure and then stood. As he walked by Lydia, her hand shot out and grabbed his leg. He clapped a hand over her mouth as she started to open it. Signaling for silence, he dragged her to her feet and cautiously tiptoed towards the large door.
The five-year-old squeezed his hand nervously as he pushed open the door and stepped out into the hall. His parents always entertained guests in the Main Hall, and the corridor they were in crossed over that room, forming a kind of balcony. It was the perfect place to see what was going on when he wasn't allowed to be there.
The two knelt, leaning against the bars holding up the railing, and watched what was going on. Lieutenant Rio sat in a chair across from his parents, the soldiers who guarded him standing on either side with crossbows on their backs. His parents' guards stood near them as well. There was a sense of hostility in the air.
"and so we have remained tolerant of your neutrality for a while now, Lord Malyste," the Imperial lieutenant spoke, "but Emperor Gestahl wishes the southern continent to be as one, unified under the Empire."
Lady Cira shifted slightly in her seat. "But why is this important? We do not hinder you, we do not oppose you. All we ask is to rule our small land in peace."
He explained, "We must show a front of unity. We must be united and strong, so as not to provide an opening for any who would oppose us."
"For an image," she responded. "Tell me again, Lieutenant, for I am just a simple woman and it seems to have slipped my mind. What exactly is it you want of us?"
"All we want of you, Lady, is your oath of allegiance to the Empire."
The lord thought for a moment, his expression pensive, and then he stood slowly. "No, Lieutenant Rio. I have thought over all you have told me during this meeting, and I have decided that we will remain neutral. The young men of my realm will not be drafted into your army, and I will not pay taxes to Vector. I will not oppose your emperor, Lieutenant, but I will not help him."
The sandy-haired man's eyes narrowed as he too stood. "I see, Lord. You will not reconsider?"
"I will not," Lord Dorian replied, meeting Rio's icy glare.
He nodded. "Very well. I will convey your words to the Emperor." The lieutenant gestured for his guards and turned as if to leave. Halfway to the door, he stopped and turned.
The Lord Malyste stroked his closely-trimmed beard. "Yes, Lieutenant?"
Rio smiled and made a negligible gesture. The guards whipped their crossbows from their backs and fired, hitting each of the Malyste guards. Lady Cira shrieked in horror, stumbling backwards in shock as the gate burst open and the rest of the Imperial troops poured in.
Setzer clenched Lydia's hand, pressing back against the wall. His sister was trembling, her face pale, and she looked as if she wanted to scream but couldn't get the noise out. His heart pounded in his ears like a drum.
"Cira!" Dorian cried, trying to pull his sword from his belt. "Run! Get reinforcements! I'll-" He didn't have a chance to finish as the lieutenant made another gesture, standing calmly in front of his chair. A soldier fired a crossbow at Lord Malyste, the bolt embedding itself deep into his chest with an audible thunk. He stared in amazement at the blood streaming down his chest before keeling over to land in a broken heap on the flagstones.
His mother's scream nearly blocked out Setzer's own. "Father! Father!" he cried, pressing desperately against the bars as if he could go through them and help somehow. A door banged open somewhere as the manor's troops came to action.
Rio's head whipped up at the sound of his voice. "Get the children!" he ordered.
Setzer ducked as a bolt whizzed past him, not knowing what to do. Where can I go? He just killed Father! He yanked his sister to the ground, a bolt hitting the wall behind the place she had been. She appeared almost comatose with shock.
Lady Cira yelled out to them, struggling futilely as a soldier started to wrestle her to the ground, tearing at her skirts. "Run!" she yelled, and her voice got through to Setzer's frozen mind. The screams echoing through his head, he yanked Lydia to her feet, dragging her along as they raced across the balcony to the other hall.
"Up the stairs!" Lieutenant Rio bellowed at a handful of troops, and they pounded up, trying to catch the two children. A stone staircase spiraled up the tower, and Setzer ran up as fast as possible with his sister behind him. She continued to trip and fall the more she ran, and it slowed them down. The soldiers drew nearer and nearer.
Suddenly they were directly behind, and one, with a burst of speed, managed to catch hold of Lydia's ankle. She screamed as she fell to her knees on the stone. "Lydia!" he gasped, pulling on her hands.
"Let her go!" someone bellowed, crashing into the midst of the soldiers. The children's nurse fought like a wild thing, scratching faces and kicking with all her might. It was obvious she would not be able to hold out forever, though.
The soldier holding onto Lydia was forced to let go. Setzer dragged her up a few steps, but her clammy hands slid from his and she fell backwards, tumbling down the stairs to land at the bottom, alongside the body of the nurse.
"No," Setzer whimpered, terrified. He was relieved somewhat when she stirred, but the girl was immediately grabbed by a soldier and muffled before she could say anything. He turned and bolted before the rest of them could recover. He had to escape, had to.
The small window set into the wall of the tower was open, and he hauled himself into the niche it made, pressing through and onto the roof. Angry voices followed as the soldiers discovered they couldn't follow.
He went down, clutching onto shingles for support and getting a lot of splinters for his efforts. The men, in the meantime, had gone to the top of the tower and come out onto the balcony there. He could see them not far away, one holding a shaking Lydia. Setzer pressed back against a chimney so they couldn't shoot him, trembling in fear. He watched as Lieutenant Rio came out onto the balcony as well and took Lydia from the soldier.
"Little boy," he called. "Come back to us, and we won't hurt you. I promise you will be safe."
Setzer didn't believe it, leaning his face against the cold stone of the chimney. He panted to catch his breath, the wind buffeting him from behind and pushing him closer against the column. Make them go away, he thought, biting his lip so hard it bled. Make this be a bad dream so I can wake up...
Rio tried another tactic. "If you don't come out, we will have to hurt your sister."
He clenched his hands into fists, wanting to hurt them so bad, wanting to make them let Lydia go. But he could only peer around the safe haven of the chimney, watching as the man set his sister up to stand on the balcony railing. He could see her face well enough, see how pale and scared she was. "Don't hurt her," he whispered, his throat constricted.
Rio waited for a few minutes, placing a hand on Lydia's head. "Setzer!" she screamed, tears streaming down her face to match his. "Please! Please!" But he couldn't make himself move, his breath coming in tortured gasps.
Rio, gently, almost lovingly, it seemed, ran his hand across the girl's red hair, and then pushed, sending her toppling off the balcony and onto the rocks below, into the arms of the ocean. Setzer sobbed, hiding his face in his hands, falling weakly onto the shingles. His mother had to be dead by now, his father's life bled out on the stone of the Great Hall, and now his sister was gone as well. He was the only one left, and he would die, too.
The man impassively gestured at one of his soldiers, who cautiously dropped to the roof below and to the side of the balcony. Setzer looked up, gray-green eyes fixed on the bringer of his death. He couldn't let them kill him. Terror reflexes took over, and the boy bolted out of his hiding place. The soldiers watched, unsure of what he would do.
Gods help me! Setzer prayed, staring at the ocean below. It was insane, but if he could just get to the water I'll hit the rocks! one part of him said, but the other argued, If you don't, you'll die anyway! Taking a deep breath, he began to run, and when he reached the edge, he closed his eyes.
And he leaped.
And, for just a moment, it seemed that he flew

*****

The hands were soft and gentle, but they still awakened blazes of pain wherever they touched him. He wanted to tell them to stop, to leave him alone, but he couldn't make his mouth work right. All that came out was a low whimper.
"You're awake," the voice said, soft to match her hands. "No, don't try to move. You'll be all right." Setzer was able to open one of his eyes, almost able to focus on the woman who sat next to him on the bed. Her hair was shiny and brown, fastened behind her neck. The room was dim, and he couldn't see much of it from his vantage point.
The woman placed a damp cloth against the side of his face, patting gently. It felt cold against the burning he was experiencing all over. She hummed to herself, unwrapping and replacing the absorbent fur under a bandage on his forehead. He got a glimpse of how blood-soaked it was, but it didn't really register to him that it was his.
Setzer tried to turn his head and get a better look at his surroundings, but the woman held him still. "No, don't move," she said firmly. "I'm not going to risk having you open up any of those wounds." His eyes met hers, and he pleaded silently with her, confused and in pain. The dark eyes smiled back at him, understanding and sympathizing.
A door opened in another room of the house. He was surprised that he had heard it past the sound of his own pulse in his ears. Footsteps pounded in the other room, and then the door to this one opened. A man with a salt-and-pepper beard came in, smelling of the sea. "Jae," he said quietly, "I bought two Potions. Will it be enough? It's all I could afford."
"It'll have to do," she replied, taking the sack from his hand. "Look, he's already awake."
The man came over to stand by the bed and look at him curiously. Setzer followed him with his eyes, staring back. The woman, Jae, opened one of the bottles and, placing a cloth over the opening, tipped it over. "Tarin," she asked, "uncover the bandage over that eye. Maybe we can save it."
He nodded, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Hello, son," he said. "That must have been quite a shipwreck you were in. Damn nobles in rickety pleasure boats who don't know what they're doing" he muttered, shaking his head and then looking back up. "I found you washed up on the beach about a week ago. Do you have a name?"
Do I have a name? I think so. I think my name is... my name is Setzer. "My name is Setzer," he wanted to say, but only a muffled noise came out. Frustratedly, he tried again, but to no avail.
"I told you not to talk," the woman said, lightly brushing white strands of hair off his cheek. "I am Jae Gabbiani, and this is my husband Tarin." She looked pointedly at him, and he had the grace to look abashed. "You can tell us your name when you are healed."
As the two tended him, he thought, Tarin. Jae. These are my... parents? That feels right... The cool liquid on his eye felt soothing. He closed his other eye and drifted off, and away

*****

"Enough!" he heard Risa snap as he came out of the trance along with Kurstil. It wouldn't have mattered at this point whether or not he was tied down; the raw emotion of what he had just experienced held him just as paralyzed. Setzer tried to sort through the images, tried to come to terms with his new memories as the two above him conferred.
"You should have stopped it sooner," she was berating the mage. "None of that healing stuff."
He shook his head, sighing heavily. "I believe that it had the desired effect, General. So this is the last survivor of the Malyste family, as well as a Returner. Perhaps if you mention that you killed him to Kefka when you report back, he'll reward you even more, although I doubt he remembers anything of the unionizing. It was about twenty years ago, as I recall."
"You think so?" she smiled at him, stuck on Kurstil's mention of Kefka 'rewarding' her.
And to think there was a time I thought that the Empire wasn't evil, Setzer said to himself, mentally shaking away the mists. Kurstil's mind was still a part of his, although it didn't sicken him so much now. And it will always be a part of mine, until I die, which won't be long now. But that doesn't mean I'm going to let them kill me like a mindless animal...
"No," he gritted, forcing his jaw to work, his lips to form words, "it didn't work, Risa." She turned to glare at him, eyes like pits. "All this torture has shown me one thing, and that's that I was right to fight the Empire all along. I was right to help the Returners, and they will destroy your precious Kefka and your Empire. You can take away my friends and family and loved ones over and over again, and all it will do is show that I am right!"
She picked up her sword from where it had fallen during the trance and placed the tip slowly against his stomach. Reflexively he raised his free hand to grab at the blade, to try to stop it, and she grabbed his wrist again, holding it away.
"Maybe it will happen as you say," she told him, her voice grating against his ears. "Maybe your little friends will manage to defeat the Empire, to defeat Kefka. Maybe they'll be victorious. But that won't bring the world back to the way it was before, and in any case, I can guarantee that you, my dear Setzer, won't be around to see it."
The very tip of the sword slid under his skin, and he gasped with the pain, gritting his teeth and closing his eyes. The heat of his blood trickled down his side. And then suddenly all warmth disappeared in a loud, piercing cry.
"Ice Three!"
Setzer's eyes flew open in time to see a gigantic column of ice form around the general, waves of freezing air hitting him. Her face wore an extreme expression of shock, frozen inside the frosty crystals. And then it disappeared, sending her reeling backwards, the sword pulling away from him and going with her. She landed with a thud, skidding backwards slightly to rest at Kurstil's feet, unconscious.
Sure that the mage wasn't concerned with him right now, he grabbed Daryl's ring and slid it onto his finger. Setzer struggled up to his elbows, pressing his free hand over his stomach to try and stop the blood, finally getting to his knees and yanking away the other rope holding down his wrist. It was from here, preparing the Cure Two spell, that he watched the scene unfolding before him.
"Katara!" Kurstil's surprised voice rang through the stable. He stepped back slightly, calling his magic to him.
The young woman came further into the area. "Hello, brother. It's been a while, hasn't it? I'm not surprised you've taken up with the Empire, considering how you left me to them seven years ago."
He sneered back at her. "I'm surprised you haven't taken up with the Empire, little sister, considering what you did to Cleo."
"I've not come here to rehash the past," she informed him coldly, her delicate features snarling at the man. With her long curls and dress, she looked like a simple country milkmaid, but the hate in her eyes and power swirling at her fingertips belied that. "I've come to take care of you, for once and for all."
He began the spell he had been preparing, looking amused. "The same way you took care of me before?" He raised his arms. "Flare!"
The spell hit Katara, sending her staggering backwards, but it didn't look as if it had hit her with its full power. I have to help her, Setzer thought, but how the hell can I help her against a mage who can cast Flare?
The answer was that he didn't really have to, for Katara recovered quickly, looking very annoyed, and stood forward, magic sparkling up as she gestured. "Ultima!"
Setzer was forced to close his eyes as the bright light illuminated the area. When he opened them, he saw that Kurstil had been knocked to his knees. "Very good, Katara, but I know you can't do another of those."
"Maybe I can by now."
Kurstil snickered, and, without bothering to get up, he cast Bolt Three at his sister. She was sent into a crouch, balancing on her hands. "I doubt it. Big, nasty spells always took a lot out of you. I doubt you can cast Ice now."
She managed to smile, staring straight at him. "Oh, I can, but you know, I don't have to. You've really underestimated me, Kurstil. Isn't it funny how revenge can make you work harder than you ever had before for you goal?" Her spell was ready, and she stood shakily. "X-Zone!"
"Katara!" he screamed as a huge tear rent the fabric of reality around him and then closed, pulling him into some other place. He felt the influence of the mage's mind pull away from his as the spell was broken.
She smiled a bit sadly, looking at the place where he had been with what looked like a tinge of regret. "Goodbye, brother." Then she turned to Setzer. "Are you all right?"
"I've been better Kurstil was your brother?" he questioned as she untied the ropes attached to his legs.
"Unfortunately, yes. Can you walk? There's a chocobo outside. We should get away from here quickly"
Katara reached to help him up, but he shook his head. "You've been hurt enough," he told her, reaching with his good arm for the top of the stall to pull himself up. The Cure spell had taken care of most of his shoulder wound, but it still ached and made it hard to move his arm. "I'll take care of myself."
"Setzer, we need to go" Suddenly she spun around, only to be knocked aside, hitting the wall and falling down to lay on the packed dirt. Setzer glanced at her in worry before tearing his eyes back to the cause. Risa had woken up and was now coming toward him, sword in hand.
Her grin was feral, inhuman. "No more protection!" she cried. "Your mage killed mine, but now I will make an end of this!"
He tried to step back, tried to reach for his cards, but she lunged at him before she was even finished speaking. The sword drove through his stomach, and involuntarily his body arched toward her as he fell to the ground, trying very hard to breathe. I should be dead, why am I not dead?
Setzer! came a familiar voice.
Oh, gods, he thought painfully, Nautilus! I can't take much more of this! Damn it, you had better not have brought Elya with you!
Listen to me, she told him sternly, you just concentrate on staying alive, and we'll take care of the big red bitch. You're strong. You can handle it. After all, I picked you.
Risa walked over and placed a casual hand on the hilt. "Have fun for the next two days. It should take you that long to die from a gut wound, provided you survive the fire when I burn this stable. I'll just cut your tongue out, so you can't use magic to heal yourself." She drew a knife from her boot, bending forward.
"No! No!" came a new voice. Risa turned to look at the little girl standing in the doorway, white cat next to her. "I'm not going to let you hurt my mother and Setzer anymore!"
Her eyes took on a hungry look. "It's you, the Esper girl, come right into my hands! Oh, how rich!" she chortled.
"Elya," Nautilus said, "you know what you have to do."
The girl nodded seriously, closing her eyes. The white glow spread throughout her entire body, and when it had flashed and disappeared, she had morphed into her Esper form. Risa stared at her, doing nothing, clearly envisioning the reward she'd get for bringing Elya back.
The purple-green eyes regarded the general for a moment, and then she raised a crystalline shard into the air. It was Magicite, Setzer realized, the one he'd given her. "Shiva! I summon you!"
The stable was bathed in a blue light as a form appeared, coming from the Magicite shard. The Esper was a beautiful woman, blue-colored, who buried the pieces of ice into the general's body, driving her down onto a knee, before shimmering and disappearing.
"You'll have to do better than that!" she growled, smearing the blood on her face as she attempted to wipe it out of her eyes.
Setzer, Nautilus sent in the instant that Risa tried to recover, how are you doing? C'mon, talk to me, now!
He laughed weakly, hearing her voice in his head once again, dragging him back from the abyss. You must have picked wrong, cat, because I'm so tired... it's been fun and all, but, you know, I don't think all the money in the world could cover the hazard pay that I should be getting... He bit his lip, hard, and reached for the sword hilt. The strength was leaving his arms, but maybe, if he could just get this stupid sword out of him, he could heal himself enough to go help
Damn you, she swore, returning to what was going on just as Risa barreled straight for the Esper and the cat. Nautilus leaped for the woman's face, scratching with her sharp claws. She roared and shove the white cat away, throwing her off.
She landed on her feet, shaking herself. But two of her legs gave out under her, and she collapsed down, shaking her head again. Damn it! Katara! Wake up, or we're going to lose! she yelled, trying to get a response from her mistress's mind.
Elya attacked with her own claws as Risa attempted to grab her and knock her out. Katara blinked, rubbing her head and sitting up. She looked up and yelled, "Elya! No! Let her go! It's me you want!" The young mage tried to scramble to her feet but failed miserably and fell. She started a simple Cure spell, all she had the energy left for, and began to pray.
The sword slid cleanly out, clattering dully to the dirt. His vision swimming, Setzer got up into a crouch, blood leaving a huge red stain on his shirt. Should I heal myself now? Can I heal myself now, or will I be wasting time? What's more important, me or Elya?
That one was easy, and summoning the rest of his energy, he snatched up Risa's sword and charged. The general was still struggling with the girl, but at his cry of pain and rage she turned, for just a moment, to see what he was doing. That was her last mistake. Setzer held the sword like a spear and drove it through her throat with one swift, hard motion. He stood, staring at her, for a long moment. Then he fell like a rock.
She made gurgling noises, spinning away and clawing at her bloody throat before tripping over Setzer and landing in a heap next to the cat. Nautilus sighed and stumbled her way over to Elya, who sat stunned where she had fallen. Katara, too, crawled over to them, ignoring Risa's dead bulk, and cast her spell on the girl. "Elya," she whispered, running her fingers through her daughter's feathers.
"Mother," Elya said suddenly, coming out of her shock, "Setzer's hurt!" She pulled away from Katara and moved over to the gambler. She tugged at his coat until he rolled over onto his back. His face was a pale gray color. "Help me!"
"I have no more magic left, Elya," she said, her eyes mirrors of worry. "Oh, gods, Elya, there's nothing I can do"
Nautilus came up to the girl. "I can help. Start your cure spell, Elya." The white cat began to mutter, putting her paws on Setzer's wound. The Esper took a deep breath and pushed aside the shreds of his shirt, sliding her claw-like fingers inside the cut so the magic would get to his damaged organs. Slowly, but surely, he began to heal, and the trickles of blood slowed.
Katara hid her face in her hands, feeling helpless, as her daughter and familiar worked on Setzer. It was I who got him into this, and now I can't do anything to save him, she thought. Powerful mage, indeed... I'm nothing but a scared girl. Even Elya is stronger than I.
Setzer opened his eyes briefly, vision fading in and out. Elya's face appeared in his view, tears sparkling like diamonds among the pale violet feathers. "You're not supposed to Change," he mumbled at her before relaxing into the magical sleep Nautilus had cast on him.
"I know," the Esper girl told his sleeping form, wiping her tears away. "I know."
Katara looked at her, eyes wide. "Elya! You you must change back! You must! You should have done it already!"
The girl stood up. "I can't, Mother. I can't change back. I hear them calling me, and I want to go to them."
"Who's 'them'?" the cat asked, sharing Katara's worry.
"The other Espers," she answered. "They're talking to me."
Katara couldn't say anything, consumed by the fear that she was going to lose her daughter. Not after all I've gone through to get you back, she vowed.
Nautilus rubbed her head under Elya's hand, purring softly. "What are they saying?" she asked. The girl cocked her head, listening.
"I understand," she whispered to the air. Then she looked at her mother. "I know how I was born, Mother. I know what happened. But it's all right. I don't want to be an Esper. Everyone wants to hurt them so they can take their magic." She picked up the Magicite she had let fall and looked at its dull brilliance. "Like Shiva. I don't want to be a Magicite." She smiled slightly and shimmered one last time, returning to human form.
Katara looked at her in wonder before pulling her into her arms. Elya stayed there momentarily before breaking away. "I'm tired now," she said, curling up next to Setzer like a cat. "I want to sleep."
"Sleep, Elya," Katara whispered, kissing her cheek and then reaching out to tousle Setzer's hair as well. "You too, gambler. Sleep, and heal. You've earned it."

*****

Sunlight and a soft bed, Setzer thought fuzzily, stretching, yawning and loving every minute of it. I must have died, because this can't be real. And, best of all, he decided, smiling, it doesn't smell like scared chocobo.
In fact, it smelled like flowers, and powder, and other things he hadn't smelled together in the same room in a very long time. Since I was a child, he thought, and then smiled at that memory. He may have had to go through hell to get his childhood back, but it was worth it. All of it.
"Those must be very nice thoughts you're having," Katara's melodious voice said, and he opened his gray-green eyes to meet hers.
"They are, and now even more so, now that I can see you," he said with a trace of the old charm.
She blushed, sitting on the edge of the bed and flipping back the covers to inspect his wound. "All healed," she announced. "Isn't it wonderful what magic can do?"
"Indeed," Setzer agreed, sitting up to look at it himself. Not even a scar was left to add to his collection. "How long have I been sleeping?"
"Only about a day or so," Katara smiled.
"Where's Elya and the cat?"
"She's taking a nap," the mage replied, "and Naut is with her." She gestured toward a bundle of clothes laying folded on a table. "I washed and repaired your clothes," Katara told him. "Get dressed and I'll have some food for you in the kitchen."
He gave her a look that said, 'So you undressed me, hmm?' and she blushed even brighter before escaping into the other room. Setzer chuckled before hauling himself regretfully out of bed to get dressed.
The food smelled good, although he couldn't for the life of him tell what it was, even after he came out to the kitchen and saw it. Rather than ask, however, he sat down and ate what she set before him, just in case the answer would make him lose what little appetite he had at the moment. There were creatures aplenty outside, but most of them didn't look too appetizing.
Katara arranged juicy slices of meat on her own plate, taking it over to sit across him. They ate in silence for a few minutes until Setzer put down his fork. "Katara," he said, "I want you to tell me something, and I think you owe it to me after everything that's happened."
She looked down at the table, color flushing her cheeks. "What do you want to know?" she said reluctantly.
"Tell me about Elya. How did she get to be a half-Esper? That's not something that happens every day."
"No, it's not," she agreed. "All all right. I'll tell you what happened six years ago."
Setzer smiled encouragingly as she fought down her nervousness. I can't tell him all of it... but the parts I can will be the truth. "Six years ago, I was twelve. My brother, you know, was Kurstil, but he was much older than me. I thought he would protect me. But I was wrong. Instead he had taken up with the Empire, and told them about me, told them that I was a mage and control magic, like he could. So they came after me, and took me to Vector"
"Thamasa, right?" Setzer interjected. "Nautilus said you were from Thamasa."
She played with the food on her plate, pushing it around randomly. "The town of the descendants of the Mage Warriors yes we had been taught many things, all of my family. We, the Godives, know more of the powers than almost everyone else. It's always been that way."
"Go on," he urged.
"A dying human woman had given Gestahl her half-Esper baby when they took that world many years ago. The Empire controlled her with a Slave Crown, made her use her powers to kill and destroy."
Setzer couldn't resist the urge to interrupt again. "Terra that was Terra."
"You know of her story?"
"I know her. She's one of my friends but, please. What does Terra have to do with Elya?" Besides the obvious, of course.
She continued, "Gestahl wanted more warriors with Terra's power, but even if he found any, there was only one Slave Crown. So he decided he needed to make some of his own, raise them to be loyal to him, and that that was where I came in. I could already control the magic, and a child with mine and an Esper's power would be a great soldier, indeed. So they decided to breed me with an Esper."
"That's awful," he said, reaching out to pat her hand. Katara looked absolutely miserable. "But it doesn't surprise me, knowing about the other things the Empire has done with people and Espers." Like Celes, and even Kefka...
She nodded, his touch seeming to reassure her somewhat. "It wasn't that horrible," she said. "The Esper they chose, Unicorn, was just as against the whole thing as I. We tried to resist them a couple times, but eventually gave in. They promised me they would let me go afterwards. They promised me everything, and, although I'm ashamed to admit it, I believed them. I believed that I could give away my child and leave. We finally decided to get it over with. I was worried about having a child, because I was so young, but it's different for Espers than humans."
She blushed a bright red, absently twisting her brown curls around her fingers. "Afterwards Elya came floating down to me, screaming and crying. Such a strange, beautiful baby." She smiled at the memory. "I wrapped her in my robe, and she started to quiet down. Unicorn and I just looked at her for a moment. Just one moment, and then the Emperor burst in to take her away."
Katara's face was full of rage, a face that he had seen before on her, but one that still surprised him, anyway. "I couldn't let him take her away from me. I'd only had her for a minute, and I'd never see her again I cast a spell at Gestahl. Just Fire; it was all I had the strength for, and it didn't really hurt him, but it caused so much confusion. I ran for the door, and then Unicorn was there, helping me. I don't remember everything that happened, but when I came back to my senses Elya and I were safe, away from Vector. I don't know what happened to Unicorn."
"I do," he said, mulling over her story. He remembered when he had first met the Returners, first taken them to Vector. They'd gone in to the Magitek Factory, and when they'd come out Edgar, with sparkling shards of Magicite in his hands "He must have been recaptured, Katara. My friends found him in the factory they said it was in one of the tubes he sacrificed his Magicite to them."
Her eyes clouded for a moment. "Yes. I know that place. Somehow, I'd always thought that he'd escaped But at least he's helping to defeat Kefka. I think he's enjoying that."
"I think so, too," Setzer replied. "And thank you, Katara, for telling me about Elya."
The mage looked at him. "Elya knows about it. You know that she morphed, but after you fell unconscious she couldn't morph back. She was supposed to have become an Esper forever, according to everything I've ever known about them. But she made a choice to stay human forever."
He thought for a moment. "In my opinion, it was the right choice. But Terra's never had to make it"
"Unicorn and I did not love each other. Our energies didn't mix properly in creating her. She can't exist as a half-being, none of us can. But I still feel as if I've deprived her of a part of herself that should be there." Katara looked at her folded hands in her lap morosely.
Setzer got up and walked over to her, kneeling on one knee next to her chair. "Why do you blame yourself? You had no control over it. You proved that you loved Elya the moment you ran from the Empire. There's no need to feel guilty, Katara."
Slowly she reached out to brush away a piece of hair that had trailed down between his eyebrows. "Thank you, Setzer. That means a lot to me, because I know it isn't just empty comfort." He smiled back at her.
Are you quite finished yet? Elya's awake and wants to see you.
He tore his gaze away from her dark brown eyes. "Cat!" he exclaimed, turning to look at the door to the girl's room. Katara flinched back in surprise as the door banged open.
"Setzer!" Elya cried, running out and flinging her arms around his neck. He picked her up in a hug, spinning her around a bit. "You're awake!"
He laughed at her excitement, easily supporting her light weight in his arms since she wouldn't let him put her down. "And so are you."
"Well, it looks like you got out of this alive, Gabbiani. I'm proud of you, I suppose, even though you're a poor excuse for a stable person."
"Ah, Nautilus. What would I have done without you? I mean, besides having peace and quiet?"
"I'm not going to dignify that with a response."
He chuckled before looking back at Elya. "I'm glad I got to see you again before I leave, Elly. Even you, cat."
"You're leaving?" the girl cried in dismay.
Don't tell me you're letting this one get away, Lady, Nautilus sent to the mage.
If he has to leave, I can't stop him, but... I thought you weren't going to get involved in matchmaking, she returned. There was silence from the cat.
Katara stood up and came over to Setzer, adjusting her skirts. "You know that you are very welcome to stay here if you have no other place to go," she told him. "Elya would love it and so would I."
"Your ship is broken," Elya told him. "You can't go away! I want you to stay here!"
Setzer looked at the young woman standing before him, and the girl in his arms. The offer was very tempting, but "I'm sorry, Elya. But, Katara, you reminded me with your story that my friends need me. We have to get rid of Kefka, or more people will be killed, or hurt the way you were. There are stories of a light descending to destroy entire towns I can't just stay here and ignore what's going on."
She looked down and then back to him. "I understand. There is more going on here than we know. Do you have to leave right away?"
"Yes, I do," he answered, trying to ignore Elya's protests. "I need to find my friends."
"Thank you, Setzer, for bringing my daughter back to me. You will always be welcome here will you come back and visit after you've taken care of Kefka?" Katara asked.
He knelt, placing Elya's feet on the floor and prying her arms away from his neck. "Of course I will."
"You can't go!" Elya said emphatically.
The gambler ran his hand over the girl's light hair. "You know that I have to," he said, reaching into his pocket. The golden ring in the palm of his hand sparkled in the sun streaming in through the kitchen window. "This ring belonged to someone very special to me," he said. "I want you to keep it safe for me, all right?"
"Okay," she sniffled, wiping at her eyes. He took her small hand in his own and curled her fingers around the ring before standing. She looked at it before suddenly bolting off to her room.
Setzer sighed, standing and looking to the white cat who sat next to him. "Take care of them, huh?" he told her, ruffling the fur on her head.
She shook herself and stared him straight in the eyes. "I'll see you around then. Don't let me hear that you've died, or I'll be severely disappointed."
"So will I. Katara," he said softly, "thank you for your help."
"It is I who should thank you. Setzer, about your reward"
He shook his head. "Keep it. I'll find some other way to get a new airship. I'm a gambler, remember? Making money is what I do." He took her hand and raised it to his lips with a small smile.
Shyly, she returned his smile and reached up to kiss his cheek. "Be safe," she told him. "Kohlingen is to the north. Perhaps that would be a good place to start your search."
It's probably one of the only places I haven't checked... I'm beginning to wonder if they're anywhere, but still... "You're right. I'll start there." He began to walk to the door.
"You won't need anything for your trip?" Nautilus asked him, her tone clearly implying he was an idiot.
"I'll manage," he grinned back. "Maybe I'll roast a few birds"
She snorted. "As if you could catch any without me."
He gave a short wave and turned the knob, walking out onto the path leading away from the cottage. Katara stood in the doorway, Nautilus at her feet, watching him go. Suddenly, a pale blur tore past her and down the road.
"Wait! Setzer! Don't go yet!" Elya ran up to him, clutching something in her hand. "You forgot your Magicite!"
He took Shiva's crystal shard, tucking it into his pocket. "Thanks, Elya. Locke would have killed me if I came back without it."
"Let me fly on your ship sometime," she asked as he tried once more to turn away.
"It's a deal." Setzer smiled down at her and gave her a little push back towards the cottage.
The girl waved, not moving from where she stood. "Goodbye!" Her mother walked up behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder, and they watched as he walked away until he was out of view.
The gambler started his journey toward Kohlingen, trying to keep up hope. After all, I survived this one, didn't I? Finding a dozen or so people shouldn't be too hard. Kohlingen would be a start. And besides, he'd heard the café there was worth giving a try

Finis.