The aftermath of the mysterious airship's attack on Alexandria was tough on everyone. Steiner and Beatrix were wracked by guilt over their failure to protect their homeland (though Zack and I insisted -vehemently- that it wasn't a failure, that they weren't at fault for not stopping something with that kind of power). Dagger had gone mute from grief, causing Zidane to worry himself sick. Eiko was staying close to a thoroughly shocked Vivi, while Freya, expression unreadable, kept watch. Amarant, for his part, was worried about the display of power; he couldn't care less about the others. (Or so he said. For myself, I had my suspicions, which were later born out.)

As for us, we Dragoons took it better (though that wasn't saying much) primarily because we were from another world entirely; it's easier to watch a city's destruction if it isn't your city. Even so, it was hard. I stayed close to Dari, who was even paler than usual. Zack and Laura spent most of their time in the library, the latter speaking very little. Chris and Indora sparred for hours on end; Seria seemed to have lost her perpetual cheerfulness.

Two days after Alexandria's destruction, Regent Cid called us all in for a meeting…

"This is becoming stranger every day, ribbit ."

Cid, with the aid of Zidane and Dr. Tot, had attempted to regain his human form. The method Tot suggested was rather hairbrained, at least for someone like him: mix three potions together and have Cid drink them. Oh, it worked, but not as intended; instead of going from oglop to human, Cid went from oglop to frog.

Note to self, I thought, unable despite the circumstances to suppress a grin, keep him away from Quina. Aloud, I said, "What do you mean by that?"

"Kuja had somehow obtained the airship that Hilda ran off in," Cid replied. "On top of that, there were black mages with him, and they were definitely conscious."

Vivi instantly erupted. "No! Why would they go with Kuja?"

"Why don't you ask them?" Indora muttered sarcastically.

Zack tossed his green cape over his shoulder. "I think that the black mages are a minor issue," he said. "Not that I don't feel for you, Vivi," he added, "but our primary concern is Kuja."

Steiner, not surprisingly, agreed. "The prince is right. If we are able to defeat Kuja, then everything else should fall into place."

Amarant snorted derisively. "It's easier said than done. Kuja's powers are far beyond ours." He looked pointedly at our resident thief. "How are we supposed to take him on?"

His powers aren't that far beyond us, Amarant, I thought. If they are at all, which I am not at all convinced of. Dari shared that sentiment, judging by how she glared at the flame-haired bandit. Beatrix, from her expression, also agreed; she had felt the power of the Dragoon, even if she was still new to it.

Predictably, Zidane glared at Amarant. "We're stronger than you think, Amarant," he said. "Dragoons can take anything Gaia can throw at us."

"Zidane's right," Beatrix said. "I've felt the power of the Dragon, and I can tell you that it far surpasses even most eidolons."

I spoke before Amarant could explode. "That is at this point irrelevant," I said. "Kuja has no eidolons, at least none that we know of, so how about we concentrate on finding him." I looked at Cid. "If he has black mages with him, then we should probably head for Black Mage Village on the Outer Continent."

"I agree, ribbit . We can take the Blue Narciss." He frowned. "That reminds me. Who was that young hooligan Steiner mentioned?"

I snorted. "Ben Sands, the younger brother of the late unlamented Derrick." I waved a hand dismissively. "I'll deal with him when the time comes." Little did I know that dealing with him would be very difficult indeed.

Our group boarded the Blue Narciss at Lindblum's Serpent's Gate. We had a couple of additions for the trip: Cid, since we were going in part to find his wife, and thus return him to human form; and Zidane's friend Blank, who took the helm at Baku's insistence.

I stood near a rail, one arm around Dari's shoulders. Despite the urgency of our mission, the sea had a calming effect, making it easier to think. Will we find a clue at Black Mage Village? Or will it prove o be a dead end?

Dari rested her head against my shoulder. "You know, from here you'd never know we're on a mission to save an entire world. It's almost like there's nothing wrong."

I snorted gently. "Except for the fact that we have a talking frog on board, yeah."

She managed a chuckle. "There is that."

We were both silent for a while. "I think this is the first time I've traveled on anything that can legitimately be called a ship."

Dari looked up at me in surprise. "What about the Queen Fury?"

I rolled my eyes. "The Queen Fury is the ugliest pile of junk I have ever seen. Whoever designed that thing has no sense of aesthetics."

She shrugged. "I've never seen it, so I wouldn't know."

The other Dragoons joined us a few minutes later, along with -inevitably- Steiner and Dagger. I wasn't sure what to make of the knight's mood, but at least whatever anger he might feel was directed at someone other than Zidane and me for once.

Dagger, predictably, stuck to Zidane like a shadow. I had to conceal a smile at that; she might not have admitted it, but it was obvious, at least to me, that she was head-over-heels for the thief-cum-Dragoon. Her reaction to his appearance at Alexandria Castle was clearly more than simple gratitude for being rescued, although that was certainly part of it.

I looked at Steiner and Beatrix. "Okay, before we discuss anything else, I have one question: where did this 'Sir Jason" thing come from?"

Steiner looked confused. "Prince Zachary told me about it. I would have thought you'd know."

I shot a glare at the prince, who just gave me an innocent look. "It was Dad's idea. Since you're a Dragoon -Dragon Knight- and you're loyal to Serdio, he figured you should have the title that goes with it."

"Oh really?" I didn't for an instant believe that that was all there was to it. "And you had nothing to do with it?"

Zack feigned thoughtfulness. "Well…maybe a little," he conceded.

"Ugh." I shook my head. "Beware of prince with low sense of humor." I sighed. "Anyway, I presume there is something you guys want to discuss?"

"We still don't know what Kuja is after," Beatrix said. "He has used Queen Brahne as a pawn, and brought ruin to an entire continent."

Zack frowned, all traces of mischief gone from his face. "I remember my father telling me stories of the Serdian civil war." He met the general's gaze. "Lloyd is our ally now, but back during the Second Dragon Campaign he was working for -he thought- Emperor Diaz, a hero from the time of the Wingly empire."

"He was manipulating the war for his own ends," I said. "Though he thought he was doing what was right."

"For his own ends?" Steiner repeated. "What do you mean?"

I turned my gaze out to sea. "Long ago, the ancient Winglies sealed up an evil known as the Virage Embryo, the so-called God of Destruction, by separating its flesh and soul. The flesh was placed in the sky, as the Moon That Never Sets. The soul was sealed in a crystal sphere, so that the evil dictator Melbu Frahma could draw almost infinite magical power from it."

"His sister, Charle, wanted him to stop, so she created five signets to keep the sphere sealed," Dari said, taking up the story. "They were in the royal capital Kadessa, the Birth City Crystal Palace (now Deningrad, the capital of Mille Seseau, and my hometown), the Magical City Aglis, the Law City Zenebatos, and the Death City Mayfil."

I nodded. "Melbu found out, however, and created three Divine Moon Objects to break the signets if he wanted to. At the end of the Dragon Campaign, they were sent to the three new nations as proof of the peace. The Moon Gem went to Serdio, the Moon Dagger to Tiberoa, and the Moon Mirror to Mille Seseau."

"The Moon Gem was sealed inside the body of each crown heir," Zack said. "Lloyd manipulated the war so that he could get to it. He thought he was going to rejuvenate the world, not destroy it."

Laura spoke next. "In Tiberoa, the Moon Dagger was passed to the heir to the throne at age twenty as part of the Coming of Age ceremony. Lloyd had an accomplice, a Wingly named Lenus, impersonate Zack's mother Emille in order to steal it. Dart and his friends killed her a few days later, but they were unable to retrieve the Moon Dagger."

"The Moon Mirror was kept in the ancient Wingly fortress of Flanvel Tower," Dari said. "The tower was once the domain of Melbu's right-hand man, Magician Faust (though Dart and company killed him, too). Since the ruling monarch was the only person who could open the tower, Lloyd kidnapped Queen Theresa and forced her to help him."

"What this rather convoluted story boils down to," I said, "is that Kuja is probably in a similar situation, except that I highly doubt he is unaware of what will happen."

"So you're saying Kuja started a war to get something else?" Zidane asked.

I nodded. "Exactly. And I would be willing to bet it has something to do with eidolons."

Steiner winced and looked to the front of the boat, where Eiko was talking with Vivi. "Then Miss Eiko is also in danger."

I grimaced. "You're right. I hadn't thought of that, and I should have." Blast it.

Beatrix raised an eyebrow. "Speaking of Lloyd, where is he?"

Zack shrugged. "He said he had to return to Endiness for something-or-other. You can never really tell with that guy."

Black Mage Village was the same as I remembered it, with one exception: it was almost completely deserted. As far as we could tell, there were three mages in the area, one at the graveyard and two more in the locked chocobo shack.

The shack is locked, and the guy in the graveyard won't say where the others went, so how in blazes are we supposed to find that maniac? I knew that whatever Kuja had said to persuade the Black Mages to join him, it had to have been a lie. The mage in the graveyard apparently thought the same thing, or else he wouldn't have stayed.

I turned at the sound of heavy footsteps. "Indora. Any luck?"

The Giganto shook his head. "The mages didn't leave any real clues, and the other guy still won't tell us anything useful. He says he can't betray them."

"Figures. Guess I can't blame him for being loyal-" I broke off, feeling my eyes narrow.

"What's wrong, Jason?" Dari asked, coming up behind me.

I didn't answer right away. "I sense something odd," I said at last. "Something just doesn't feel right."

"Human scum!"

We spun at the voice. Hovering about ten feet away was a platinum-haired man of indeterminate age. Definitely a Wingly; the hair, plus the glowing wings on his back, made that brutally clear. What puzzled us was the attitude; Winglies had for the most part lost the towering sense of superiority they once had in dealing with other races.

"Who's that guy?" Zidane's voice asked.

It hit me then. "His name's Bardel," I said. "Dart told me about the Bardel brothers. Their younger sister was killed by a human a long time ago. Dart faced the elder in the Forest of Winglies. The guy tried to hit him with a fireball, but he transformed and deflected it. Lloyd killed the younger just after the Divine Dragon was destroyed." I drew my sword. "And since the elder changed his mind about humans, we seem to be dealing with an undead."

"I've come back from the infernal world to take revenge for my sister!" Bardel snarled.

"Hey, I'm a Wingly, and we had nothing to do with it!" Seria protested.

"And I have Wingly blood myself," I added.

Bardel looked merely scornful at Seria's statement, but his expression turned to horror when I spoke. "How dare you! Diluting the sublime soul of the Wingly!"

I shook my head. This guy has completely lost it. "You utter imbecile. Human, Wingly, Mininto, Giganto, what does it matter? We're all people." My gaze sharpened. "And all of Endiness owes its very existence to Dragoons, those you call the destroyers of old. Without them, our world would have been destroyed long ago."

Bardel ignored this, choosing instead to launch a fireball at me. I responded by transforming, just as Dart had in the Forest. The attack was harmlessly deflected. Grinning at his astounded look, I flapped for altitude, then dove with my sword outstretched.

Bardel dodged, laughing scornfully. "You think it will be that easy? Think again!" He traced a strange pattern in the air, one that I nonetheless recognized. "Frozen Jet!"

"Ugh!" I had unfortunately forgotten what it was like to be hammered with a water spell. "You'll pay for that," I growled. "Final Burst!"

"Freezing Ring!" Seria shouted. "Take that!"


"Meteor Strike!"

The undead Wingly reeled under the barrage of magic. "I'm not finished yet!" Bardel concentrated, and our surroundings abruptly darkened. Then the stars came out, and I finally realized just what he was doing: Universe magic, one of Melbu Frahma's favorite tricks.

Except he didn't have a chance to finish. Beatrix came at him from above, Save the Queen held at the ready. "Not so fast! Shock!"

There was a flash of blinding light, and Bardel was gone.

I reverted to human form, gasping for breath. "Thanks, Beatrix. That was a little too close."

"No problem." She landed and sheathed her sword. "Shock doesn't normally have quite that effect," she said, looking appraisingly at the spot where Bardel had stood. "I suppose the Dragoon Spirit enhances my Seiken techniques."

"Wouldn't surprise me," Dari said.

Zack came running up. "Guys, we finally have a lead. That mage says Kuja has a palace in a desert to the east." He grimaced. "Won't be fun, but we can make it."

"I hope so," I said grimly."

Author's Note: I deeply apologize for the long delay; I haven't had much chance to work on this of late. This one probably isn't as good as earlier chapters, but I guess it will serve. The fight with Bardel was added mainly to spice up an otherwise dull area.

Next up, Kuja's Desert Palace and Oeilvert. (Does anyone know how to pronounce that, by the way? I sure don't.)

Please don't mind the lack of section dividers; the stupid edit function keeps deleting every type I try.