Sowing the SeeDs : Part 21

a fanfic by Greenbeans gbeans@tyrlen.org

edited by Helen Fong iriachan@yahoo.com

based on the world of Final Fantasy 8

created by Square Enix www.square-enix.co.jp

"I apologize, elders, but I fail to see the wisdom of this."

Few villagers would politely refuse to do as the elders asked, Tsuyo

observed. Only someone who was supremely confident of their standing within

the clan would dare stick his neck out like this. Great Uncle, the clan's

eldest storyteller, was such a man.

After the elders themselves he was the most respected man in the village.

His opinion on matters was often sought because of the insight his words

carried. He had mediated countless disputes throughout the years and oversaw

scores of marriage arrangements. His pilgrimages to the Centra Ruins to

consult with the King of the Tonberries had returned many forgotten stories to

the Anshin people.

Both Great Uncle's son and his grandson were well regarded because of

their even temperament and ironclad adherence to tradition. They dedicated

themselves towards carrying on the family's proud tradition of storytelling.

Under their watchful eyes the village would not forget the lessons passed along

from generation to generation.

But there was one story they wished to forget. It was the story of Great

Uncle's older brother; a crazed man who insisted that the Anshin's ultimate

survival depended upon co-operation with the outside world. When matters got

out of hand the elders exiled him and turned to Great Uncle to fill the vital

role as one of the clan's historians. It was a responsibility he took

seriously, far more seriously than his free-thinking brother.

It was a consequence of his brother's exile that brought Great Uncle

before the elders today. The meeting started out as a casual affair that had

since turned uncomfortably serious.

The elders had taken notice of how much time Sierra devoted towards

teaching Mikel about the outside world, but that wasn't the only topic she

tutored him in. Her vast knowledge of Anshin stories was impressive for

someone who lived away from the clan all of her life. It was entirely possible

that Kei or Xu taught her so many stories, but that idea seemed off when Xu's

father overheard her reciting a rare tale that he didn't recognize. He asked

Great Uncle about the roots of the story. That prompted Great Uncle to

approach the elders to ask them to speak with Sierra about not teaching stories

to the children when she wasn't a storyteller. (A completely reasonable

request since the storytellers were charged with passing the tales along).

The elders had an entirely different opinion of Sierra's performance as a

storyteller. Unknown to Great Uncle, Xu had written a letter to the elder over

half a year ago that called into question their decision to exclude Sierra from

the clan when she wasn't the one who had caused the breech between them. Xu's

intention at the time had been to facilitate bridging the gap between the two

sides. The elders took her words to heart. Sierra obviously had her

grandfather's repertoire of stories to draw from, and his talent for capturing

an audience's attention, so why not encourage her to follow in her

grandfather's footsteps before his exile?

The storytellers -- Sierra's family -- wanted nothing to do with her. As

far as they were concerned, that branch of the family died when her grandfather

left in shame. They should be proud that their niece was a Messenger for the

Spirits, in Tsuyo's opinion, but not even that was enough to overcome the

decades of bitterness.

It saddened Tsuyo to see her blood relatives pushing for her leave as soon

as the village's safety was assured. He wondered if Sierra even know that she

had blood relatives here? He didn't think anyone had gone out of their way to

introduce them to her, nor, from the sounds of it, did they make themselves

known to her. The point was driven home as Great Uncle and the elders

discussed Sierra's current living arrangements. There was enough room for her

to remain with the elder's family, but by all rights Sierra's own family should

be hosting her. They knew that and refused to extend the invitation to her.

The entire situation was childish. Tsuyo privately wondered if the true

reason they didn't want to welcome her in was because it would take away from

their prestige and give it to her. Spirits forbid someone seeking out Sierra's

opinion on a matter instead of going to Great Uncle!

"Wisdom has very little to do with it," Kei's father admitted with his

usual somber tone. "It is about doing what is right."

"Right by who?" Great Uncle challenged peevishly.

There was another measured silence -- a favored tool of the elders for

controlling difficult meetings -- before the head of the elders spoke. "The

Spirits of the Path have blessed us with their presence and offer us their

protection. They have also challenged us to re-evaluate our relations with the

outside world."

Great Uncle clinched his jaw as he considered the arguments available to

him. He could point out the corruption that the outside world has introduced

to the clan; how children nowadays are more rebellious and increasingly

striking out to forge their own paths. But if Kei and Xu hadn't left they

wouldn't be in a position to protect the clan. He could argue that they are

the exception to the rule, that mere Travelers shouldn't follow their example.

But if they weren't to follow the Spirits' example, who were the children to

emulate? It was a crisis of faith for those who were unwilling to be flexible

in their beliefs.

"We have survived for generations without interference," his voice took on

the lecturing tone that he used when reciting stories. "The stories teach us

that-"

The head elder held up his hand to silence Great Uncle. "We are all aware

of the lessons the stories teach thanks to your diligence," he said by way of

polite dismissal. "However, while the future is guided by history, it cannot

be ruled by it.

"Times change. The generation following us is waiting in the wings," he

startled Tsuyo by motioning towards him, "and the generation following them is

already being born. To make the transition to their guidance from ours as

smooth as possible we must endeavor to understand the thinking of their future

leaders. We have had our opportunity to change the world, let us not spoil

theirs."

"I don't agree with your line of thinking," the storyteller said.

"You do not have to agree with us, only honor the directives of this

council," Kei's father explained.

"As you have with other matters on which we did not agree," Tsuyo's father

reminded.

Great Uncle shook his head. "I cannot this time, you ask too much of me.

I will not welcome that foreigner into my home as a member of my family."

There was another lengthy silence as each side tested to see which would

give in first.

Finally the head elder broke the silence. "I see..." he said with a tone

that spoke volumes of the disapproval and disappointment he felt.

Tsuyo was glad when the audience with Great Uncle ended and he was free to

leave. The internal struggles that kept the peace within the clan were a

trying burden that Tsuyo hoped would never fall upon his shoulder. Having two

older and more competent brothers kept him out of the running unless his father

lost his mind and chose Tsuyo as his successor.

May the Spirits have mercy on them all if that should ever happen.

But the head elder had brought up a point he'd never considered before:

they were getting older and couldn't lead forever. It was plain that they

considered Kei and Xu to be among those who would shape the clan's future and

he was intrigued by what directions they may take. He also had concerns on a

more personal level that Kei might be able to put at ease.

Since Sierra had been here Tsuyo had grown more comfortable with

approaching Kei. Perhaps it was Sierra's refusal to defer to Kei simply

because of who she was and that was rubbing off on him. Or, he suspected,

because she peeled away the reverence he felt so that he now saw Kei as she

was; a determined woman who had a low tolerance for nonsense.

It was because of his bias towards Kei that she was biased towards him.

He discovered, upon reflection, that the situation was entirely of his own

creation. When they were children, Kei and her twin siblings were often

playmates, especially when his brothers were away in the afternoons learning

their acolyte duties. And though he and Kei had started with similar lots in

life, the passage of time and the paths they took resulted in them being two

people with very different perspectives regarding their homeland.

In a way, he envied her. While he held no regrets about the path he

chose, the desire burned deep within him to explore the world Out There. It

was a desire that was rekindled when Sierra came. She was on a pilgrimage

herself and this was but a way stop during her journey.

Try as he might, he couldn't think of a reason to justify leaving to his

father. Were Tsuyo a commoner -- like Xu, his mind offered as an example,

though the comparison wasn't fair -- he could leave with no regrets. That

wasn't the role life cast him in. He played an important part in maintaining

the integrity of the clan's monster control methods. Countless times his mind

argued that they could get along without him, he was replaceable, but the

responsible part of him was quick to silence such rebellious and selfish

arguments. It would be wrong for him to turn his back on his calling.

It was all so reasonable, yet...

Tsuyo was surprised to discover that he was standing outside the classroom

with the sole HD terminal the clan possessed. In the afternoons Sierra and

Mikel studied here, sometimes making use of the exotic tool. He didn't know

why he thought to look for Kei here first since she often had other things to

do besides participate in something Sierra had well in hand, but there she was

watching as Mikel worked.

"Hey Tsuyo, what's up?" Sierra asked when she noticed him standing in the

doorway.

"I apologize for interrupting," he replied by reflex. She gave him a sour

look and he smiled sheepishly in response. It annoyed her how he always

phrased things in a manner to provide the least offense. "I was wondering if I

could have a few minutes of Kei's time?"

Kei shrugged and stood up. "Sure, let's go for a walk."

They were well down the path from the school house heading towards the

Chocobo stables by the time he found a neutral topic to begin their discussion

with. He'd spent far too much time as they walked worried that she was

impatient with him wanting to speak with her and then not saying anything. She

seemed to understand that he needed to work his way up to saying what was on

his mind and was willing to give him the time to do it.

"Mikel is blessed to have you two as his tutors," he said finally.

Kei snorted lightly. "Blessings have nothing to do with it." Tsuyo

smiled to himself as she used the same turn of phrase her father had earlier

this afternoon. "Mikel is a smart boy and I want to see him grow up right.

Sierra is glad to work with him because it's a worthwhile endeavor."

How interesting that both father and daughter wish to do what they

perceive to be the 'right thing'. And that the 'right thing' were investments

in the clan's future. Kei's father wanted to make amends and rebuild burned

bridges. And Kei...

"What role do you see Mikel playing when he gets older?"

"I want him to have the freedom to do whatever he would like to do with

his life," and she paused to give Tsuyo a meaningful glance. "Would you have

chosen to be an acolyte if your father hadn't pressured you into it?"

He flushed at have the conversation unexpectedly turn towards him. Rarely

did anyone ask him what his desires or opinions were. "I must admit that I am

not certain that I would, but I am happy with the life I lead."

Kei shook her head in disagreement. "Your father rules your life. I

thought my father was bad, but since I've been here I've noticed how yours

behaves. Does he ever thank you for the services you perform?"

"Thanks are not required for me to perform my duties," Tsuyo replied

softly.

That answer only frustrated Kei more. "What's wrong with you? You're not

the Tsuyo I remember. He was someone who went on adventures and wasn't afraid

to stand up for himself. They broke his spirit and replaced him with a

submissive yes-man. You should go to your father and demand to be recognized

for what you do and who you are!"

"What you say is tempting like the Siren's song, but I can only see grief

resulting from it."

"Tsuyo!" Kei grabbed him by the upper arms and gave him a small shake.

"Dammit! How can you be content with letting them waste your life? Don't you

have any dreams?!"

"I do," he said stiffly after politely disengaging himself from her grasp.

They were at the Chocobo stables now and he took comfort in the soft buzzing of

the bird's chatter.

"What is it?" Kei asked after taking control of her anger. He didn't

blame her for her outburst. It wouldn't have happened if she didn't care about

what he was doing with his life.

"You may mock me, but I want to get married," he admitted.

She shook her head with a wry expression on her face before leaning up

against the fence. "That's an easy thing to do around these parts. Ask your

father to arrange something."

"NO!" He snapped and then looked away, ashamed.

"Ah, so you have your eye on someone specific."

"Yes," and his face grew flush again. Kei was the first person he ever

admitted that to.

"May I ask who..?"

His cheeks were on fire. Maybe Kei was right. Maybe he did need to

re-grow his spine. If he couldn't even admit it to Kei how would he approach

*her*? He took a deep breath to calm his fluttering nerves. "I- I love Xu,"

he whispered softly.

Kei's playful expression instantly turned glacially cold. That look

silenced his anxious nerves and instead caused his heart to race for another

reason: fear. "I mean no disrespect. I realize it may be blasphemous to long

for someone such as her but I-"

She cut off his explanation with a chop of her hand.

"You're in love with a memory, Tsuyo. Xu isn't the same person that she

was when we were children. The elders changed us. The Guardian Forces changed

us. SeeD changed us. We're not who we used to be. If you want a wife, ask

your father to find you one. You'll be happier in the long run."

Tsuyo gritted his teeth as Kei shot down his dream. How could she

disregard it out of hand? She who was Xu's cousin but not Xu! It was too

much! "I hold no illusions about who we were and who we are now. I understand

what has changed you better than you do," he jabbed a light fingertip into her

tunic. "It has been my life study to know these things!"

She grabbed his hand and held it tight within her own. "Then know this,

Tsuyo who understands things, Xu already found the love of her life and he died

protecting someone they both cared for. No man can fill the void in her heart

that his death created. I love her as a sister and I will be most displeased

if she suffers unnecessary grief."

They stood there like that; searching each other's eyes for any hint of

what the other may be feeling. In Kei's eyes he saw her desire to protect the

one who meant more to her than anyone else. And in his eyes... In his eyes

were tears, unabashed, unashamed as they traced lines down his face.

"I'm sorry," Kei whispered and squeezed his hand, knowing that she had

hurt him very deeply.

He brushed his free hand across his eyes to clear away the tears. "You

*are* right. Your love for her is different. *Every* love is different. I

cannot replace that which she has lost, but can I not offer her something that

would be just as fulfilling?"

Kei frowned sadly. "Even if we disregard everything and assume she loves

you from the bottom of her heart, she is still a SeeD. She loves her work as

well. Can you share her with it? She won't come back here to be a typical

Anshin wife. She'll continue to perform her duties as a SeeD. This is, of

course, assuming that she would even consider marriage. It's something SeeDs

tend to avoid."

"Afraid of commitment?" He asked, his spirits lifting enough to jest.

"We favor short term contracts," she replied.

He nodded and let the hand he clung to go. "I still want to try. 'Tis

better to try and fail than to never have tried at all, right?"

"I'm not sure that applies when you ask for the impossible..."

"This is the second time today that I have heard the impossible being

asked," he smirked. "It is too soon to give up."

"Regardless of what else happens we need to get you out from your father's

shadow," Kei concluded.

"That would be greatly appreciated," Tsuyo agreed with a heavy sigh.

He hated the visions that foretold the future. Never did they show him

joyous times like his marriage to Aiterra, the births of his children, or the

day he became an elder. Instead the visions were always of ominous events that

scarred the fabric of time.

It took him years to figure out why he saw the deaths of his twin

children. Erroneously he believed that the power of his gift revolved around

his own life. It wasn't until he considered the impact on Kei that he

understood. Their deaths were the catalyst for her later rebellion. The rift

between father and daughter would grow and she would leave the secluded Anshin

to learn fighting skills from the SeeDs. All these events tied into each other

and led up to their current situation.

At this age, he was no longer vain enough to believe that Kei's destiny

led her to guard his life. He was nothing more than a pawn in a minor conflict

in the greater war she would wage against the forces rallying to destroy this

world.

And so, when he saw the next link in the chain of events he felt both

relief and dread. Relief that the war had yet to be concluded, thus there

would be another day to fight and win. The dread was because the upcoming

battle included his oldest daughter. That was the father in him. No parent

wished their children to go to war for fear that they may not return.

Kei would be warned so that she may prepare.

Word spread quickly of the Sorceress's impending attack. The acolytes,

leaving only a handful of stubborn men and the elders behind evacuated most of

the villagers to the coast. The elders had to stay. They were the bait that

would lure the Sorceress. At first Kei wanted to take the battle to the coast

and leave the villagers here, but there was no guarantee that the Sorceress

wouldn't come after the village any way. The land the Anshin compound was

built on pulsed with magic and would undoubtedly attract a woman bent on

collecting all the power that she could.

Kei and Sierra wore outfits that were prepared especially for this day.

In Sierra's opinion, anything short of naked would be an improvement over the

Anshin robes she was obligated to wear half the time. The robes were

comfortable, but decreased maneuverability during a fight considerably. That's

why the uncharacteristically practical clothes she wore now were a surprise.

The most vital part of the outfit was the vest had a tight woven lining

that she was assured would prevent the Sorceress's ice lances from piercing

through. Padding of the same material was sewn into other strategic regions of

the clothing without being restrictive of movement. Sierra's outfit differed

from Kei's in that it had more pouches and pockets than she could ever find the

items and beads to fill. But just because *she* didn't have the materials to

fill them didn't mean that others didn't. The Anshin people proved to be

embarrassingly generous with their supplies. She could open a small shop with

everything that she carried now.

She didn't have much faith in the elders' claims that the embroidered

designs on the back of the vest would increase her magical resistance. She

doubted the designs would do anything besides look pretty, but she long ago

learned that if it made them feel better she shouldn't burst their bubble with

such devastating consideration as reality. The only magic related 'equipment'

that Sierra believed in was the Cerberus stone that Kei lent her.

The only GF Kei would be taking into the battle was Alexander. Sierra was

under the impression that the Mage Slasher locked off all of Kei's magic

skills, but Kei assured her that her bond with Alexander was strong enough that

she could overcome the lock if she had to.

Everyone at the compound was on edge as they waited. There was nothing

left that they could do to prepare. Kei was of the opinion that worrying

wasted energy. That outlook was well and good, but how could she maintain it

when so much was on the line? Sierra hoped that the Sorceress *did* attack

today. That way there wouldn't have to psych up for the fight again.

"Mikel! You need to remain with your mother," Tsuyo scolded after

catching the boy running around the temporary camp. "Now is not the time to

play," he continued as he led Mikel back to where his mother was. The boy was

fast approaching the age to be named. If the situation weren't so grave he

would have let Mikel explore the coast some on his own as practice for the

upcoming trial.

Mikel was the least of Tsuyo's worries. The elders had left the care of

the villagers to their acolytes. It was a challenging task they felt

themselves prepared for, but there were always snags when it came to executing

the best-laid plans. The Chocobos sensed their fear and were unruly until

Tsuyo spoke with each and every one of them. He wasn't the only animal trainer

amongst the acolytes, but he was the one the birds trusted the most. Because

he was calming the birds his duties were shifted to others who were already

burdened with their own responsibilities.

Despite this complication they got everyone to the coast with enough

provisions to survive for a few days at least. They weren't to return to the

village until they were sent for. The elders were very clear on that.

It was a lot of work for the eleven acolytes and at times like this Tsuyo

was glad for his fellow Anshin. While he had no personal experience otherwise,

he got the impression that the general population of the world wasn't as...

dutiful... as the Anshin were. If an acolyte gave an instruction that was in

line with the authority the elders had granted him, then it would be followed.

"I wanted to explore the beach," Mikel protested meekly, hoping that Tsuyo

would to let him go if the acolyte believed his intentions were innocent

enough.

"I know, but I need you to stay with your mother. Sierra and your sister

are doing something very important right now and trust me to keep you safe.

Maybe after this business is finished we can ask your sister about going on a

camping trip..."

Tsuyo's voice trailed off as he strained to hear a sound off in the

distance. It was a battle cry, but it came from no human's throat. He nudged

Mikel to continue back to his family before Tsuyo jogged to the perimeter of

the temporary camp. The monsters had honored their request to be left in peace

if they remained within the agreed upon area. He found his feet carrying him

outside of that safe zone to investigate. The cries hadn't ceased. In fact,

they were joined by more and more voices.

Mild alarm set in as his mind presented one gruesome scenario after

another. Had a child wandered off as Mikel had and crossed paths with a

monster? Were the monsters fighting amongst themselves (and would it spill

over into the camp if they were)? He crested a small ridge and felt the blood

in his veins freeze. She was here. The Sorceress was *here* and cutting a

swath through any Geezards that got in her way.

He turned around and sprinted back. He grabbed the first acolyte he found

and hastily explained the situation. The other man's face was a mirror of

Tsuyo's. What could they do? Tell her that Kei and Sierra were waiting for

her at the village? How did she even find this place? He doubted very much

that she was stopping by for tea.

"Go warn the others," Tsuyo glanced back at the ridge. She hadn't crested

it yet, there was still time. "My brothers will know what to do."

"Where are you going?"

"To find help," Tsuyo ran back towards the ridge and then took a sharp

left. It was a long shot, but the monster might be there. The local monsters

had warned him to stay clear of the Ruby Dragon that made its home nearby, but

he had no choice. A dragon was the only creature that might convince a

Sorceress to go somewhere else. He had never spoken with a dragon before,

never mind trying to convince it to chase off a Sorceress on his behalf. A

small voice in the back of his mind screamed out against the insanity of his

thinking, but what other choice did he have?

He called out for the greatest of the dragons, for that best described

what a Ruby Dragon was. It was the largest member of the dragon family and

could easily lay waste to any creature who opposed it. But its size was not

what made Ruby Dragons so dangerous, it was their intelligence. They had

access to many powerful magics (if their deadly breath didn't do the job) and

the skill to put them to good use. No one sought out a Ruby Dragon unless he

had a death wish or was as desperate for help as Tsuyo was.

"Cease your noisemaking, human," a gravelly voice growled from around a

rock ledge. The Ruby Dragon's head came from around the corner and already

Tsuyo's legs were paralyzed with fear. The dragon's scales shone like the

rubies it derived its name from and a few pairs of broad black horns spread out

like a wave from the back of its head. One yellow eye snapped onto Tsuyo

before the dragon swung its head around to address him. "Have you come to

offer yourself as a snack?"

"Greatest of the dragons," he said and bowed stiffly to the monster. "A

Sorceress is attacking our camp. I beg your assistance in driving her away."

The dragon snorted, its dangerous breath visible and thankfully not

directed towards him. "I care not if you humans slaughter each other, then

there will be fewer of you around."

Tsuyo sucked in his breath as he weighed his words carefully. Any

missteps in this negotiation and he would be a dead man along with everyone

else. "I can understand your reflexive disdain for humans, as a species we

have not been very kind to our monster neighbors. But not all humans hunt your

brothers. We, the Anshin, have always tried to live in peace with you and the

land."

"Such pretty words mean nothing to me, human. I know of your people. You

are the two-legged dogs who marked your lands with Holy magic and then stand

before me speaking of co-existence. You are the ones who have a Holy warrior

living among you. How arrogant are you to seek help from a creature you have

gone to such lengths to alienate?"

This wasn't going as well as Tsuyo could have hoped. Never before had he

met a monster capable of communicating even a fraction of what this Ruby

already had. And... The dragon had a point. Holy magic was purposefully

spread throughout the Anshin lands to discourage the monsters of Centra from

passing through. Jelleyes were the most common monster in the region, but Ruby

Dragons were just as vulnerable to the magic as their smaller brethren.

"Humans will do all they can to protect themselves from what they fear.

They will go to even greater lengths to protect themselves from what they

cannot control, for that is the source of their fear."

"Do you fear this magic-woman because you cannot control her?"

"I fear her because she cannot control herself," Tsuyo answered honestly.

"If she were in her right mind she would not be attacking my people."

"Do you fear me?" And now the dragon brought itself out into full view.

Its forearms were more powerful than Tsuyo imagined, its body was so large

Tsuyo wondered how he'd missed seeing it behind the ridge. The dragon stood up

on its hind legs and extended its leathery wings to their full width.

Tsuyo did not look away as the dragon challenged him. "I am afraid,

greatest of the dragons, but I will overcome my fear to protect the people I

care for."

He thought he heard the dragon laugh when it roared at his answer. "Very

well, human, I will chase your magic-woman away and then you can tell me more

about your fears." The strong muscles in the Ruby's hind legs tensed before it

sprang to the air in flight. The powerful down strokes of its large wings blew

Tsuyo off his feet and he landed awkwardly on the ground. Already the Ruby was

hundreds of meters away, heading towards the coastal camp. He scrambled to his

feet and ran that way, hoping that it was not too late.

By the time he arrived the battle between the dragon and the Sorceress was

already underway. He quickly appraised the ruined camp and regretted that his

negotiations with the Ruby had not gone faster. The scattered bodies he

spotted -- temporarily abandoned as the survivors fled for their own lives --

was evidence of his failure.

Why... Why did she come after the villagers? Was it not the elders she

was after? Could they have been wrong in predicting her dark intentions? All

these questions demanded to be answered and he couldn't.

His gaze returned to the battle. The Sorceress just cast Firaga on the

Ruby, but the dragon had already protected itself with a Reflect spell, turning

the magic back on the caster. The dragon opened its maw and let loose with one

of its horrible Breath attacks. Tsuyo had never seen it before and instantly

felt sympathy for anyone or thing caught on the receiving end. The Sorceress

fell back, dazed by the powerful blast of non-elemental, non-magical energy.

Sensing her imminent defeat the dragon lunged forward to capture the woman

within its jaws. She dove to the side and opened a portal to escape from the

battle. She slipped into the tear in space before the monster could come after

her again.

Satisfied that the Sorceress was thoroughly routed the dragon lumbered

back to the camp where Tsuyo stood and watched him.

"I have done as you have asked," the Ruby announced, understandably

pleased with itself.

"You have my unending thanks," Tsuyo bowed deeply to the monster.

The cowering villagers slowly came out of their recesses in which they had

taken refuge. Reluctantly at first, and then with growing confidence they

approached the dragon and added their thanks to Tsuyo's.

"They are not afraid of you," Tsuyo said.

"Because they believe that you control me?" The Ruby challenged.

He shook his head. "Because they recognize a friend when they see one."

The dragon said nothing as it soaked in the gratitude the villagers

lavished upon it. Tsuyo had never been one to try to dismiss a monster as

though it were a mere servant. He figured that when the Ruby was grew bored

with the humans who admired it, it would leave. Instead the monster surprised

Tsuyo by asking him why they were away from their home. He explained how the

Sorceress was going to attack and their plans to defeat her.

"Your Holy warrior will be fighting this magic-woman?" Tsuyo confirmed

that what it said was true and the dragon waved its head slowly from side to

side. "I must witness this battle. You will guide me to the battleground so

that I may watch."

Tsuyo wanted to protest, but there was no way he could without offending

the monster. He couldn't say that it would be too dangerous to go there after

the Ruby had just chased the Sorceress off. Maybe what the dragon really

wanted was an opportunity to finish what it had started... The thought crossed

his mind, but that didn't seem in character for the Ruby. The monster wished

to see Kei in battle; the opponent didn't matter as long as Kei wasn't after

the dragon itself.

The Ruby lowered its large head to ground level. "You may sit behind my

crown and hold on tight. I won't be responsible if you fall." Tsuyo's heart

was beating in his throat while he did as the dragon instructed. He sat

himself behind the ridge of horns that splashed up from the back of the Ruby's

head and prepared himself for a wild ride. An excited thought shot through his

mind: How many other animal trainers could say that they were offered a ride on

a Ruby Dragon? None, he was willing to wager. He really shouldn't be thinking

of such things when there were so many other problems to be worried about, but

he will never forget this flight.

"There she is," Kei murmured when she spotted the Sorceress off in the

distance. Sierra had told her that the Sorceress could teleport anywhere she

wanted, but if it were truly that easy wouldn't she have teleported in, stabbed

her victim, and teleported out with none the wiser? Kei wasn't about to

discounting the idea out-of-hand, but there had to be a limit to any

Sorceress's power and the compound was pretty remote. She very much doubted

that the Sorceress could make a jump from Lake Obel (her last known location

according to Xu) to the Anshin compound.

"Is it just me or does it look like she's limping?" Sierra adjusted her

binoculars, trying to get a better look at the approaching woman.

"She isn't limping anymore. Did you see the green shimmer from that

Curaga spell?"

"Yeah, how many more of those do you think she has?"

"At least 99," Kei drawled. "And a hundred elixirs to match it."

"Optimistic, aren't you?"

"Realistic," she corrected. "It's time."

The preparations for the battle were carefully planned out. Sierra cast

every beneficial spell that knew on herself; Shell to lessen the magical

damage, Protect to lessen physical, Triple to increase her spell casting

ability, Haste to make her the fastest person on the field. She didn't cast

Reflect on herself. That was a tricky spell to work with. She would only cast

it if she thought it would actually help. She also refrained from using the

Aura beads that Arjun gave her. The magic would have no effect on Kei and on

Sierra they would turn her into a berserker. She needed to remain in control

of herself and back up Kei's during the fight.

"Sorceress! I've come for your head!" Kei called to Edea, striding

purposefully out to meet the approaching Sorceress.

"Do you really think it's a good idea to egg her on..?" Sierra muttered

from several paces behind Kei.

They met outside the gates of the Anshin compound. Edea towered over

Kei's small stature, but was shorter than Sierra, who was the largest person on

the field. Despite that fact, she was forgotten as Kei and Edea battled each

other with their eyes. The air nearly crackled with the energy they held in

reserve to use against the other once the fighting began.

"You forget your place, Spirit. It is the Sorceresses that the Great Hyne

entrusted his power to. The Guardians were too immature to swallow their petty

jealousies and work together to protect this world. Now stand aside so that I

may retrieve what is rightfully mine!"

Kei drew the Mage Slasher from its scabbard and relaxed into a ready

stance. "The only way you'll get past me is by stepping over my dead body."

A sinister smile curved Edea's purple lips. "That's all for the better,

but first..." Her eyes flicked over to where Sierra was standing behind Kei.

"First I must educate this brat who did not learn the first time."

Kei slid into a position to cover Sierra if Edea chose to attack her.

Edea brought her hand up and then down again in a fluid motion. All at once

every spell Sierra had cast on herself to aid her during the fight was

neutralized by Edea casting Dispel. A casting of Demi quickly followed up the

Dispel.

The force of the spell's effects brought Sierra to her knees. Demi,

dammit dammit dammit, how she hated Demi! It sucked a victim's energy out of

them by halves. She fought off a bout spell-induced weakness, and was hit with

Demi again before she could get up from her knees. A third casting had her

folded over retching with what little strength she had left. It was hard to

imagine a more terrible spell to endure.

Kei quickly closed the gap between her and Edea and was attacking the

dodging Sorceresses as aggressively as possible. Why hadn't Kei cut her down

already?! Haste, the Sorceress had to be hastened, just as Sierra once was.

Kei struck Edea's wrist with the flat of her blade, which was enough of a break

to give Sierra a chance to act.

Sierra performed a casting of Curaga to restore some of her health.

Slowly she returned to her feet while preparing to cast the same spell on

herself again, but Kei was in need of it more from how ferociously she and Edea

fought. Sierra broke off casting the Curaga and instead pulled out a powerful

healing potion to use on Kei.

Edea was healing herself whenever Kei wasn't actively swinging at her.

The Sorceress saw that Sierra was on her feet and tossed another Demi her way.

The spell knocked her down again and Sierra cursed her own foolishness for not

casting a spell to reflect magic on herself before Edea remembered that she was

a threat.

Sierra healed herself enough to get back to her feet and was about to cast

Reflect on herself, then stopped. If she cast Reflect then if she used Curaga

it would bounce off of her and hit Edea instead. The same would be true if

Sierra wanted to Haste herself so that she could keep up with the Sorceress.

Dammit, Reflect was such a fucking stupid spell.

Sierra set her frustration aside and focused on backing up Kei. Another

healing potion was brought out of her pouch and used on the SeeD that made up

their offensive. It was so frustrating to watch the two of them duke it out.

The Sorceress quickly recovered from everything Kei did to her!

The Sorceress took a blow from Kei instead of dodging it. This time two

Demi spells hit Sierra in rapid succession. Demi can't kill, Sierra kept

reminding herself, though she felt like she'd rather die than get hit with it

again. She returned to her feet just in time to receive the ice lances that

Kei couldn't stop in the chest.

Sierra fell backwards and rolled before landing in a crumpled heap. Kei

couldn't spare her more than a quick glance as Edea now focused all her efforts

on destroying Kei. The magically summoned flames or ice Edea would have

normally used to harm Kei had no effect, but if Edea picked up a large rock,

lifted it above Kei's head, and let gravity do the rest...

Pain didn't even begin to describe the throbbing in Sierra's chest. She

could hear the sounds of smashing stones and Kei's grunts as she was chased

around the clearing. Slowly she opened her eyes and saw that the Sorceress had

backed Kei up to the gates of the compound. The gates began to creek and sway

as Edea tried to pull them apart with her magic.

Sierra squeezed her eyes shut as a stab of pain shot through her. There

was pain, and something else, a burning... Her Limit. Hyne no, not that

horrible Limit! Tears came to her eyes as she realized that she had to give

herself over to it if she wanted to help Kei. Sierra's heart was consumed with

berserker's rage and she was no longer in control of herself.

She got her feet and stomped to the outskirts of the battle. Blood from

where the ice lances had pierced the woven vest blotted the cloth, giving her

the appearance of a hell-bent zombie. Strong gusts of wind buffed against Kei

and Edea. Sierra balled both hands before bringing them up as though she were

upending a table. The ground beneath Kei and Edea's feet moaned in protest as

Sierra ripped it apart. Kei ran away while Edea remained there and cast a

Float spell on herself.

"How foolish of you to create an earthquake when it can so easily be

countered!" Edea mocked the crazed geomancer. "Is that the best you can do?"

Sierra's fists continued to rise above her head. Shards of rocks shot up

into the air around Edea. A moment later Sierra brought her hands down in a

savage swipe. The rock shards shot down at the Sorceress, lashing at her

through the Protect and Shell spells she had cast to dampen battle damage.

Edea prepared to cast a spell, but Sierra interrupted her by summoning the wood

within the village gates towards her, thus bringing them down on top of the

Sorceress.

A moment later the wooden gates exploded and debris flew in all directions

away from the enraged Sorceress. She wouldn't be interrupted again from

casting her spell on Sierra. With a flick of her wrist the wild Trabian was

turned into solid stone. Instantly the rumbling grounds were calmed and the

winds that kicked the wooden debris around stopped.

Kei took advantage of the momentary calm and charged at the Sorceress to

prevent her from healing herself after Sierra had caused so much damage. Edea

teleported away from the advancing SeeD, but was still within sight of the

village. Kei would have to run at least a hundred meters to catch up with her,

giving Edea ample opportunity to heal herself before Kei could arrive and

continue the battle.

As it turned out she didn't have to rush. Kei slowed down her mad dash

when she spotted a Ruby Dragon landing practically on top of the Sorceress.

The two immediately began fighting. The dragon unleashed its Breath attack.

Kei didn't know what Edea had done to anger the dragon, but the distraction was

welcome. While the dragon kept the Sorceress occupied Kei took a moment to

completely heal herself with the potions she had on hand. Sierra had carried a

majority of their potions, but only a fool wouldn't keep a few with herself

just in case.

By the time Kei arrived the battle between the Sorceress and Ruby Dragon

had nearly drawn to a conclusion. Both sides were battered and panting from

the tolls their fighting had taken. Edea gathered her strength and threw a

barrage of ice lances into the dragon's side. The Ruby Dragon roared and

collapsed to the ground.

Once again Kei charged towards the Sorceress before she had the chance to

recover. Edea opened another portal so that she could slip away from Kei, but

the SeeD grabbed her by the arm and yanked her out from the portal.

"Your murderous ways end here," Kei growled, swinging her katana at Edea,

but missed.

"Who are you to call me a murder, SeeD?!" The Sorceress spat angrily.

"You killed my children! You Black SeeDs left the White SeeDs for dead on the

beach!" Her shrill screams belied the cool collected exterior her previous

crimes had been committed with.

"What are you talking about?" Kei retorted. "The SeeDs I found on the

beach had passed away long before I discovered them!"

The Sorceress clung to her head and stumbled around like a drunken woman.

Kei was puzzled by her actions, but refused to let her guard down to offer any

sort of assistance. Edea opened another portal to attempt escape. Kei was too

far away to catch her arm again with her right hand and so she swung for the

Sorceress's head with the katana in her left.

The Sorceress had managed to slip away, but not without leaving a souvenir

of her visit. Kei knelt down and picked up a corkscrewed horn that was a part

of her headgear before Kei's sword removed it.

Edea was gone. Kei couldn't explain how she knew that, but the elders and

Anshin were safe for now. The Sorceress had been driven away and all Kei had

to show for it was the trophy in her hand.

She considered the horn thoughtfully as she walked back towards the

village. Her route took her past the body of the defeated dragon. She didn't

know what prompted it to challenge the Sorceress, but the delay it created made

a difference in the battle. Kei walked over to the carcass so that she could

pay the fallen monster proper respect for its deeds. Slowly she paced around

the monster, appreciating just how large of creature it was, when she spotted

Tsuyo crushed beneath the dragon's body.

"Tsuyo!" She checked for a pulse. Nothing. There were no signs of life

in his glossed over eyes. Kei shoved her shoulder into the dragon while trying

to dislodge Tsuyo's body from beneath the monster. She should be able to pull

him out...

Tch! The idiot must have convinced the Ruby Dragon to assist her and

Sierra in battling the Sorceress and then been crushed when the dragon was

defeated.

"You're such a fool, Tsuyo! I'm going to bring you back just so I can

kill you!" She gave his limp shoulders another shake. "How dare you die before

you get a chance to ask Xu to marry you?!" she accused the corpse.

She searched her pockets for the Phoenix Down she thought she had. It

wasn't there; she must have lost it during the fight. She felt herself getting

angrier as desperation set in.

'I can bring him back,' Alexander whispered in her mind. 'Together we can

revive the dead.'

"Then let's do it already!" Kei yelled at the voice in her head. She

could feel Alexander shifting around inside of her. It felt a lot like he was

adjusting her junctions except that she didn't have any magic currently stored

within her because of the Mage Slasher. Once he was finished preparing he told

her what to do to bring Tsuyo back to life.

His body didn't look to be in too bad of condition, certainly not to the

point where he couldn't be restored and then healed. Upon completing

Alexander's instructions Tsuyo's eyes blinked, though he didn't move right

away. Blinking was a good sign, blinking meant that he was alive. Next she

used the last few potions she had to recover his health as much as possible.

He was sitting now and looking around confused.

"Wha- What happened?"

"You had a Ruby Dragon take on a Sorceress!" Kei accused with angered

relief.

"I- No, that is not how it was. The Ruby wanted to witness your fight

against the Sorceress. I could not deny its request after it saved us. I... I

cannot hear it..." Tsuyo got his feet and ran over to the dragon's still head.

He wrapped his arms around the dragon's neck and hugged it. "Come on, wake up!

You cannot be dead! She could not have killed you, not after you ran her off!"

"Tsuyo, the dragon's dead."

The animal trainer refused to believe it. He continued to hug the dragon

and sob into the folds of its leathery skin. "It saved us. It cannot be dead.

Can you bring it back?" He begged.

"Listen to yourself. You're asking for the life of a monster!" There was

a heartbroken expression on his face. Even before he asked Kei about his own

life he was begging her to restore a monster's. It was easy to consider him

some sort of monster loving crackpot, but it was true compassion motivating

him. Kei acknowledged that they owed this monster a debt of gratitude, but

there was little they could do to repay it at this point.

"I'm sorry, Tsuyo. I can't bring back a monster. Their souls don't go to

the Path like human ones do; those are the souls I can ask to return." She

knew that she couldn't restore a monster, not because she didn't want to but

because she *couldn't*. Alexander was in agreement that even in this case

there was nothing they could do. She didn't know if what she told Tsuyo was

completely accurate as for why a monster couldn't be returned, but he seemed to

accept the answer.

"I apologize. This brave dragon answered my plea for help when the

Sorceress attacked the camp. It deserved better than to die at her hands."

"I know," Kei said softly. "But..." she stood there thoughtfully as she

ran through some options in her mind. Regardless of Tsuyo's good intentions

there was no doubt that his father would be furious about him coaxing a Ruby

Dragon into a fight. The Anshin didn't practice the use of Life magic, so his

father would expect even *more* from Tsuyo because Kei brought him back.

Hmm...

"The dragon has done more for us than you might think," Kei said slyly.

"I'll tell your father that you were killed by the Ruby Dragon and conveniently

forget to mention that you were resurrected. If he thinks you're dead then he

won't hound you anymore."

"I am not following you..." he admitted hesitantly.

Kei glared at him with impatience. She was going to have to translate her

intentions into Anshin terms or this nitwit wasn't going to understand. "I

brought you back from your journey to the Path because I wanted you to have a

chance to pursue your own dreams. You have spent entirely too much time living

the life your father has given you. As a Spirit of the Path it is my right to

claim your life as my own. And in return for resurrecting you I want you go on

a journey -- a pilgrimage, if you will -- to explore this vast world. I want

you to visit every corner of the planet if you must until you find the person

who makes you happy."

Tsuyo stared at her blankly. Maybe the Revive had some sort of stupefying

side effect that the Guardian Force hadn't warned her about.

"You have never addressed me as a Spirit before," he said finally. "I

will follow your command as I am obligated to do... But as your friend... I

thank you."

Kei shook off his thanks. "Things aren't easy Out There. You're going to

encounter people who hate you simply because of who and what you are, but I

have faith that you'll also discover happiness. Just promise me that you won't

squander the opportunity by getting crushed again, okay?"

"I will refrain from prematurely returning to the Path," he agreed.

[Epilogue]

- Biggs & Wedge -

"Congratulations, kid, you've made it to the big time!" Biggs gave Wedge a

hardy pat on the back as they sidled up to the bar.

"Oh ho! Do we have ourselves a new Lieutenant?" The bartender asked,

making a show of examining Wedge's recently received rank insignia. The

bartender was a nice enough fellow who went to great lengths to accommodate his

military patrons. The fact that there wasn't a single civilian in the bar

demonstrated the success of his efforts.

"Yep, straight from the President himself, in fact!" Biggs bragged.

"I see that you've done well for yourself too, Captain," the bartender

complimented, sliding a beer to each of them.

Biggs and the bartender chatted while Wedge slouched over the bar and

looked into the amber liquid in his mug. He didn't like beer. It never

offered him the solace that the drunks claimed it could. No amount of brew

could wash away the nagging guilt he felt for what happened in Lake Obel.

It was a bad situation all around, that's what it was. Biggs had pulled

rank on him and forced their search to become a confrontation. It wasn't until

after they returned to Deling City that Wedge learned that meeting the

Sorceress had been the plan all along. Before that man showed up and attacked

the Sorceress, Biggs had delivered a letter to her from President Deling.

Wedge didn't know what the letter said, but Biggs hinted in his heavy handed

manner that it was important business.

Ungrateful Biggs! The *Captain* had yet to thank Wedge for pulling him

out of that house before the Sorceress blew it sky-high. When Biggs gave his

report to the President he had been careful to play down that little detail,

not that it really mattered to Wedge. Any commendations he might have received

for saving a fellow soldier's life were cheapened by the lives he let be taken

to accomplish Galbadia's ends.

When Quistis first told him that he was assigned to this mission he was

excited. He looked forward to some field experience before he graduated from

the academy. And because of his actions he will never be able to return to

Galbadia Garden, not while SeeDs were there, at least. That hurt him the most,

the guilt grating against his heart for betraying Quistis' trust.

He was a Lieutenant today because President Deling promoted him to that

rank as a 'reward' for his good service. He wished that he were still a Cadet

studying under the guidance of Instructor Trepe, that way he could earn the

rank on his own without it being given to him.

Instead he sat here in a bar next to the braggart Biggs. They had just

come from a meeting with the President in which he promoted them both and

welcomed Wedge into the ranks of elite troops who performed special duties on

his behalf. Under other circumstances he would have felt honored, but not if

these were the sort of special jobs the President required of them.

"Hey, kid, drink up!" Biggs noticed that Wedge had yet to take a sip of

his beer. "It's not every day you feel like this!"

Wedge lifted his mug and took a swig. 'I hope you're right,' he answered

silently.

- Sierra -

Sierra slowly stretched her arms above her head and winced as stiff

muscles protested the action. The Anshin medic (or what they claimed passed

for one, he was certainly no Kadowaki) promised that she would be released

today after a final examination. There wasn't much more for them to look at.

All of her wounds were healed and most of her strength had returned after a

couple days of solid rest.

She couldn't get out of here soon enough. Villagers who were injured

during the Sorceress attack on the temporary camp occupied every bed in the

small infirmary. Kei went through and cast Curaga on those Anshin who would

accept her use of magic, but others were adamant on letting nature take its

course. Fools. Sierra would have left the minute she was restored from

petrifaction except that her weakened legs betrayed her and she was unable to

stand without assistance. The only way to completely regain her strength after

the Demi-beating she took was to rest.

The medic came by right after breakfast to examine her. Sierra wanted to

laugh at him and his naive questions. Every time he saw her he asked if her

joints were feeling stiff or if she had noticed any patches of hardened skin.

Petrifaction was a completely reversible spell with no after effects once it

was cured.

Mikel was waiting for her when she exited the infirmary. He was more

somber than usual, without the usual bounce to his step. "Sister asked me to

take you to the elders when you got out," he said. "I'm really glad that you

and Sister are okay, but Tsuyo..."

An uncomfortable silence settled between them as they walked slowly to the

council chamber.

Kei had asked Sierra to meet her within the Puzzle Stone yesterday. Once

there, Kei manipulated the environments of the Stone to recreate the battle for

Sierra from the SeeD's perspective. It came as a small comfort to Sierra to

know that she was completely railroaded by the Sorceress (again), but managed

to get her licks in before being turned to stone. Kei led her through the

entire engagement and its aftermath, including reviving Tsuyo and sending him

on his way. Kei didn't go into why Tsuyo wanted to leave or where he would go,

and Sierra didn't ask. As she saw it any sane person would want to escape this

desert prison.

Sierra wanted to tell Mikel the truth -- that Tsuyo was alive and well --

but Kei made her promise to not comment on the acolyte's fate. The only thing

Kei told Tsuyo's father was that she had sent Tsuyo on a journey. By Anshin

reasoning this could be either a physical journey or a metaphysical one to the

Path. Sierra knew which one Tsuyo's father would assume. Fucking Anshin, shit

like that made her want to hate them all the more.

They arrived at the elders' chamber and Sierra entered while Mikel did

not. The elders better not be trying to train him up as an acolyte to replace

Tsuyo or she'll be pissed. Kei was already seated on her cushion, her sword

lay out before her. It brought a small smirk to Sierra's face when she saw

that her shotaxe was set out before the cushion next to Kei's. Sierra settled

down after giving those gathered already a small bow.

"We are relieved to see that you have recovered so quickly," the head

elder said by way of greeting.

"I don't want to overstay my welcome," Sierra said without her usual bite

of sarcasm.

"And that is why we have asked you here-"

Knowing where this was going Sierra began shaking her head. "I'm not

staying."

"We understand your reluctance, but-"

"I'm *not* stay-"

"Shut up and listen to him, Sierra," Kei said sharply.

Stunned by Kei's rebuke, Sierra snapped her mouth shut and nodded.

The head elder began again. "We realize that there is a breach between us

that you have overlooked in order to assist the Spirit. From all of us, I

thank you for your indulgence. We have been struggling to find a way to repay

your kindness. It was not until after your valiant efforts to stop the

Sorceress that we learned of your geomancy skills."

Sierra's expression told him that she was quickly losing patience and so

he cut to the chase.

"You cannot control your earth magic," he said, not as an accusation, but

as a statement of fact. "Kei has told us of your efforts to tame the

berserker's rage that overtakes you during battle. We feel obligated -- not

only as a repayment of our debt to you, but as people who value the sanctity of

the earth -- to teach you how to control your gift. We would be remittent in

our duties to protect this land if we let you leave without first taming the

power within you."

This wasn't what she was expecting them to say. Tsuyo had discretely

warned her and Kei of the negotiations the Anshin elders were performing with

her family on Sierra's behalf. At the time she had scoffed and told him that

they shouldn't bother. *Nothing* that they had to offer would convince her to

stay here a day longer than she had to. But now they offered something that

piqued her interest despite herself; control over her Hyne-forsaken Limit.

She glanced over at Kei. "What do you think?" Kei was one of those

people who had always played Sierra straight, even when it telling her what she

didn't want to hear. In fact, Tsuyo's disappearance was the only act of

deception she recalled Kei ever performing.

"I think that I've failed you," she admitted softly. "Xu trusted me to

train you to use your Limit because you two couldn't get along. I tried and

failed. Whenever you use your geomancy its in a destructive manner. You know

what the grounds outside of the gates looked like when you were finished;

impassable.

"I thought the elders were lying to me when they suggested that they might

be able to help, but then I saw some of the clan's geomancers repairing the

damage you caused. They closed the cracks your earthquakes created and

encouraged the plants that were destroyed by the windstorms to grow. I was a

fool for thinking that carving such productive crops out of this desert could

be done with hard work and limited technology alone. It takes a geomancer's

special touch to bring enough food to this part of the world. Wouldn't you

like to try creating life instead of destroying it?"

"But... Geomancy is my Limit. I can only use it as a desperation move,"

she pointed out.

"How do you know that?" Kei quirked her head slightly and shrugged. "I

wouldn't say that you couldn't before you give it a try. You might just

surprise yourself."

Sierra turned her attention back towards the waiting elders. "How long

would it take?"

"How long depends on how quickly you learn. You will be given guidance by

geomancers who have worked for decades and you will have ample opportunity to

practice your skills," Kei's father answered for them.

Sierra nodded and stood up, taking her shotaxe with her. "I'll have to

think on it," she slung the shotaxe harness over her shoulders as she left the

chamber. No one stopped her when she left the stuffy room. It was a nice day,

one of those mornings that make you feel like all is well with the world.

Perhaps in the Anshin version it was.

She settled into her preferred reading spot next to the house so that she

could think.

What was it with Anshin and their stick and carrot approach on life? Xu

did the same thing to her, made her hop through all these hoops if she wanted

to graduate. Now the elders promised her the training neither Xu nor Kei could

give her if she remained.

The question that needed to be answered was 'Did she *really* hate it

here?' There were plenty of things wrong with this place, like its lack of

snow. There was also no meat. She missed meat. Her fluency in Anshin had

grown in leaps and bounds during her time here, and there were countless Anshin

books she wouldn't be able to read anywhere else if she left.

Kei already told her that she would be leaving on the next transport.

Would the Anshin become unbearable without Kei around to kick some sense into

them, or would that become Sierra's job? There weren't many people left that

she could spend time with. Once Kei was gone only Mikel came to mind. She

chided herself for even worrying about that. Since when did she *need* other

people to make her life comfortable? Wasn't she an independent woman who could

go for months without human contact? Yes, that was the explorer in her. And

speaking of exploring, she *still* hadn't climbed the mountain range east of

here. Wasn't doing that part of the bait she was offered for coming down here

in the first place?

"Come to a decision?" Kei knelt down next to her on the grass. They were

both dressed in Anshin robes with their weapons equipped. If anyone were to

take their picture and post it on the newslinks people would claim that it was

doctored. The clash of cultures made Sierra smile and that told her what she

needed to do.

"I think I'll stay for a while."

"What made up your mind?"

Sierra's grin turned devilish. "Learning to control my Limit is

important, but they've invited a fox into the hen house. My grandfather wanted

to turn them onto their ear for their own good; something we've already

started," she motioned at their weapons. "If they banish me, it's no skin off

my nose. So I might as well rock the boat as hard as I can while I can."

Kei's laugh startled a villager who was walking by. The grin on her face

was one to match Sierra's. "It'll be good for them to have someone like you on

the loose! Promise me that you'll keep an eye on Mikel. Teach him to see the

broad perspective on things and to think for himself, not parrot what's been

taught to him."

"Of course! And I'll work with him until he no longer has that damn

accent when speaking standard."

That earned her another chuckle. "And I'm sure my uncle will be happy to

work with you until you no longer have an accent when speaking Anshin."

She snorted. "I don't plan on being here *that* long. Just long enough

to learn geomancy and cause some much needed discontent among the younger

generation."

- Edea -

The Sorceress who feared by people the world over looked nothing like the

monster rumors made her out to be. Dark, gray streaked hair cascaded down her

back and shoulders. The usually pronounced veins around her ears and face had

receded to near nothingness. She sat on a rock outcropping overlooking the

beach clothed in a simple summer dress.

It was peaceful here; a facade that she wished from the bottom of her

heart she could make real. The winds were calm, but they wouldn't remain that

way. Her eyes fell upon the sword that was plunged into the ground at the foot

of the rock she was perched on. Madness clawed at the back of her mind, but

she held it at bay. She was strong enough to do that right now.

The sword marked the graves of two of her children. Kei had put them in

those graves -- and the madness clawed at her again. NO! It. was. not.

SeeD's. fault. She bit off each word in her mind, solidifying the truth behind

it.

But it was that same SeeD who nearly removed her head from her shoulders.

The madness didn't like being reminded of her near defeat. Kei was too

powerful to challenge after the geomancer and the dragon, she reasoned with the

madness. Plus she has that sword...

And Kei was but one SeeD. Cid has *hundreds* of them at his disposal.

The next time she crossed paths with a SeeD, any SeeD, she may not be so lucky.

What she needed was a way to distract the SeeDs.

Between her elongated fingers was the letter addressed to her from

President Vinzer Deling. The man was a snake in the grass. Only someone like

that would have his mindless minions sacrifice -- Edea winced. Yes, it had

been a sacrifice -- an innocent woman to her.

She was both repulsed and intrigued by what he proposed. She wouldn't

play him for the fool, Vinzer Deling was just as dangerous as the SeeDs, but

she could use this to further her own ends. SeeD needed to be nipped in the

bud before it could cause her any more grief.

- Kei -

"Will you lend me a sword when I get back?" Kei asked the small image of

Xu on the HD. After all the other weighty matters they had discussed the use

of a sword was but a minor detail.

"The Garden doesn't have anything in stores that I can lend you. I just

started a new group of cadets on bladework," Xu's crackled over the connection.

The distance and terrain between them made it difficult to maintain a clear HD

line. Kei couldn't complain, at least the HD was *working*.

"I'll commission a katana from the Balamb junk shop for you if you want?"

Xu offered instead.

"That works, thanks," Kei nodded, trusting Xu to know what she'd want. "I

can't use the Mage Slasher for everyday battles..."

Xu's tiny face gave her a curious look. "Have you been using it that much

down there?"

Kei frowned, considering the best way to answer the question. "I haven't

been using it in battle except against the Sorceress, but I have been

practicing *enduring* it..."

Xu nodded sympathetically, understanding what Kei couldn't put into

words. Items made or plated with Odine material were terrible things for

people with any inherent magical ability. Someone like Zell could unjunction

all his magics and then pick up the item without any adverse effects. But for

Kei and Xu, even with their magics unjunctioned, it was like the thickening of

joints that happens to older people--only spread throughout their entire

bodies. The ache wasn't painful; more like being hit with a Drain spell or

having a lingering illness that couldn't be shaken.

Right after receiving the weapons they had discussed ways to overcome or

become used to the sensation. Kei's idea was to wrap the Mage Slasher in a

cloth to protect her from the blade and then sleep with it at night. Xu wasn't

fond of the idea of waking up in the morning feeling horrible, so she didn't

try it herself, but Kei must have.

Cid once confided in Xu that Edea wore a ring made of Odine material. It

was one of the safeguards put in place to protect her sanity. After

experiencing the sickening effect first hand, Xu didn't want to imagine what

Edea must endure.

"I'll commission a good blade for you," Xu promised.

- Martine -

"We had a deal, Martine!" Headmaster Cid's face, flush with anger, was

closer to the HD pick-up than necessary. Eileen wasn't sure if Cid was

crowding the visual pick-up in an effort to intimidate Martine or if was due to

his infamous technical ineptitude.

"Yes, we did. You would send me a SeeD who had the aptitude to be an

Instructor and I would train her!"

Cid's face turned a deeper shade of red. "Are you implying that she's not

*capable* of being an Instructor?"

"Well, if she is she has yet to demonstrate the ability," Martine sneered.

"Look at these test results! We can't graduate cadets who score like this," he

tossed aside the printout he'd been waving at the screen. Out of the pick-up's

range Eileen sighed and refused to gather up the papers from the office floor.

Martine could be as flamboyant as he wanted when making his point, but she

wasn't his maid.

"You haven't given her a chance!"

"A chance? How many of my cadets do you expect me to let fail before I

step in? Besides that, her last mission blew up in her face."

"Ah, so *that's* what this is about," Cid said knowingly. "You're

punishing her for failing."

"I'm certainly not rewarding her!" Martine sputtered. "You are far too

forgiving, Cid. She has demonstrated time and again that she IS NOT READY for

the responsibilities you place on her shoulders. Age is no excuse! If she

wants to perform at this level she will have to accept the consequences for her

failures!"

Martine looked down at the papers on his desk before addressing Cid again.

"She will be arriving here within the hour. As soon as she arrives Eileen will

help her pack her things and send her on her way. I'm returning Quistis Trepe

to Balamb Garden and washing my hands of her. If you want her to be an

Instructor so bad, YOU train her!" And with that Martine cut the HD link.

Cid's knuckles were white with barely contained fury. Damn that Martine!

It was like he went out of his way to ruin everything Cid expected of Quistis.

The Balamb Headmaster took a deep breath and then punched in the connect code

for the training room. His fingers rapped along the surface of his desk as he

waited for someone to pick up. When no one answered (not even one of the Shumi

assistants) he called one of his own aides.

"I don't care what she's doing; I want Xu in my office now!"

Never had his Shumi assistant seen him so angry. It scurried off to

locate the SeeD before Cid's anger grew even more frightening.

- Quistis -

She was glad that no other SeeDs occupied the private train car that was

reserved for their use. That meant that none of her peers would see her crying

as she watched the Galbadia landscape flowing by through the windows. Quistis

wanted to be angry, to complain that what Martine had done was terribly unfair,

but she wasn't sure that it was. Anna was dead because of her failure. Wedge

was gone, she didn't know where. Four cadets who hadn't been able to graduate

under her tutelage had done so under Jen's while she was away. No, Martine

wasn't being unfair. The lion's share of the blame rested on her own

shoulders.

Eileen tried to cheer her up as they packed Quistis' things. Martine's

assistant insisted that this decision wasn't personal, and that Quistis

shouldn't give up because of what's happened in Galbadia. Her words were like

a bitter pill to Quistis. How could she *not* give up after being told that

she wasn't good enough to fulfill her dreams? Martine knew what it took to be

a SeeD Instructor, didn't he? He was the one who trained them after all. If

he didn't think that she was cut out for the job then she probably wasn't.

More tears streaked down her cheeks as she recalled Alis' efforts to coax

Quistis into remaining in Cottage Grove, even after she failed to protect Anna.

Quistis humbly declined the Mayor's offer because she had students waiting for

her in Galbadia.

Hyne, how that memory now stung!

Quistis buried her face into her hands, wondering how she was going to

face Xu when she arrived at Balamb. She was so tempted to get off the train at

Timber and run away to Cottage Grove. As tempting as that was, she couldn't do

it. SeeD was the life she chose and she didn't want to give it up even if it

was being taken from her.

How was she going to face Headmaster Cid? He was the one who put so much

faith in her abilities. All the SeeDs would know that she failed, as would the

student body...

She shoved aside all of her professional worries to make way for another

set that hadn't ran through her brain in a few hours: whatever happened to

Enju? The villagers found one of his kote and some remains in the ruins of

Anna's cabin, but nothing else. She didn't want to believe that he could have

died and those few remains were all that was left...

There were no signs of Master Talasu; either by way of his death or

indications of where he might have gone. Quistis didn't even know what had

become of the Sorceress. All these unknowns were so vexing!

She would worry herself sick if she continued as she was. There was

nothing else for her to do but worry. There were no students for her to teach,

no classes for her to prep for, no papers to grade. She had no assignment

waiting for her when she returned to Balamb. She could only sit here and dread

what the next few hours might hold for her.

She was of no use to SeeD. When she returned to Balamb she would offer

her resignation to Cid and go to Cottage Grove where she couldn't cause any

more harm.

- Xu -

Xu sat on the floor in her Puzzle Stone and slowly stroked the green tuffs

of Carbuncle's fur. The setting was deceptively peaceful, especially with the

Guardian Force sitting in her lap enjoying the attention she lavished on it.

In truth, she didn't have much time to set into motion Cid's plan. She

had even less time to consider the morality of it.

Xu was outraged when she learned of what Martine had said and done. Cid

stopped her from putting a call in to Eileen for an explanation. Instead, Cid

wanted to continue Quistis' Instructor training here at Balamb. Xu was all for

that idea, but they needed to make the arrangements quickly. What would be a

suitable test of Quistis' skills? Where could they put her to the most use?

Cid had an answer for that; one that could heartened Quistis if Xu was

willing to let him cast her in a more human light. Quistis' challenge would be

to graduate Balamb Garden's two gunblade specialist. As much as it irked Xu to

dump such a poor excuse for a student as Seifer off on Quistis, she had to

admit that he probably had a better chance graduating with Quistis than with

her. That was the leverage that Cid was going to use to encourage Quistis to

try again: graduate the student that Xu could not!

Xu was more than willing to take the hit to her pride for Quistis' sake,

but that wasn't all that Cid asked of her... He wanted her to steal Quistis'

memories as well.

On the surface the idea would seem preposterous to someone who was from

the north, but the Anshin believed (correctly, in Xu's opinion) that Guardian

Forces could seal away the memories of those who summoned them. This was a

beneficial and merciful trait because a person's ultimate position along the

Path could be influenced by the amount of emotional baggage they carried with

them when they died. The elders sometimes gave dying men a GF to help them

forget their sorrows. They also used the GFs if someone has suffered a great

tragedy and counseling and time were unable to ebb away the pain.

It was this latter aspect that Cid wanted Xu to do for Quistis; not to

remove the memories but to dull the sharpness of their edges. By the mores of

her homeland what he wanted was completely reasonable, but Xu was unconvinced.

For one thing, she wasn't an elder and she didn't know how to single out

specific memories for sealing. Besides that, Xu wasn't comfortable with the

idea of messing with Quistis' memories like that. As Kei would eloquently (if

not bluntly) put it: if the Anshin wanted to let the elders screw with their

heads that was their decision. Cid didn't propose giving Quistis a choice in

the matter.

The way in which Cid knew exactly what he wanted done told Xu that this

wasn't the first time he's had someone's memories sealed. When she asked him

he admitted the Edea would do it for him before she went insane. Why couldn't

he do it himself? It required someone who possessed a Sorceress's powers or

who had an exceptionally strong link with a GF. And that was why he asked

(ordered?) Xu to do it. Carbuncle would do as she directed if she was careful

in how she explained her intentions.

That didn't make Xu feel any better. Was it fair to Quistis to take away

something that was uniquely hers? Weren't mistakes meant to be learned from?

Was it doing Quistis a disservice to relieve her of the grief she would

undoubtedly be feeling instead of working her way through it and growing?

Carbuncle sensed all the questions tumbling around in Xu's mind and looked

up at her curiously.

"Shuu protek?" It squeaked with great effort since it wasn't in its

humanoid form.

"Do you think doing this will be protecting Quistis?" She asked the

emerald green Guardian Force.

Carbuncle's ears flipped as it considered her question. "Protek," it

squeaked again.

"Very well, my little thief," she pulled it into her arms and hugged it

tight. "Please steal the memories that bring Quistis the most sorrow. I don't

want her to forget everything, but she needs to be able to move beyond this..."

When Xu returned from her meditations she held within her hand two stones.

One was the familiar Puzzle Stone that she has possessed since childhood. The

other was an emerald stone that could be used to summon Carbuncle. Xu stood up

and pocketed the second stone.

She was going to be the only one to pick up Quistis from the train

station. She would offer Quistis some carefully chosen words of encouragement

and then give her the Carbuncle stone as a gift. Carbuncle was the best of the

Guardian Forces, in Xu's highly biased opinion, and would protect Quistis from

those who would do her harm.

Giving Quistis Carbuncle's stone wasn't the only way Xu hoped to comfort

her. Quistis was also likely to be concerned about Enju. The after mission

report she had filed made very little mention of him, but he played a

significant part in the battle and Quistis had no way of knowing how it all

turned out.

Master Talasu had contacted Xu two days ago and she was able to flesh out

Quistis' report with information he provided, including Enju's status. Talasu

asked her to not tell Quistis the full extent of Enju's injuries. Enju just

wanted her to know that he was alive and that he would contact her when he had

the chance. That wouldn't be enough to satisfy Quistis, Xu told him, but

Talasu was adamant.

Would it be so bad if Xu told Quistis the truth of what she was doing?

Cid had told Xu not to, and in a way his logic made sense. The Garden

officially denied that GFs could *erase* memories (technically correct since

the memories were sealed. They could, in theory, be retrieved if the block on

them was broken). And every term Xu fielded at least a handful of questions

from concerned students who didn't want to forget anything.

Xu could understand their position; she used to be that way herself. Then

she came to the same conclusion that Kei had years ago: there were some things

she simply didn't want to remember. There was enough grief and sorrow in this

world that she didn't need to cling to her share of it.

- Talasu & Enju -

The capital city of Esthar was straight out of a science fiction novel.

It was Enju's first time here and he was trying not to gawk like a tourist; a

difficult feat considering the amazing things he was witnessing. Covered

walkways made of a translucent material criss-crossed the city above roads

occupied by futuristic vehicles. Enju wasn't even sure that he should call the

path he and Talasu traveled a walkway. A hovering platform within the tubes

carried them from place to place until Talasu indicated that this was their

stop.

Enju gave himself a mental shake. Just because Esthar had all these

technological gimmicks didn't mean that they were better than everyone else.

In fact, the general lack of natural landscaping was unsettling. At least the

Anshin had grass!

The walkway opened into the lobby of a large building. At one end of the

lobby were two sets of lifts. On this level was a promenade of shops with all

manner of wares. Talasu handed him a card key. "My apartment is on the

seventeenth floor. This is the key to get you in. Wait for me there when

you're done exploring the shops."

"And where are you going?" Enju demanded, not liking the idea of being

abandoned in a strange building.

"To make arrangements for you to see a doctor," Talasu replied. "I have a

meeting to go to before I do that, so I will be a few hours. Get something to

eat." The Master gave him a small bow and re-entered the walkway tube.

The man Talasu went to see was one of the most genuinely open people he

knew, perhaps too open. President Laguna Loire was well known for wearing his

heart on his sleeve. Though Talasu had to pass countless security measures to

get to the President's office none of those checkpoints were intrusive. He was

well known person to security and quickly cleared through to the President's

office.

Three men waited there for him. Laguna Loire sat behind his immaculate

desk. (It being cleared off was, no doubt, the result of someone else's

organizational skills. If Laguna was left to his own devices the desk would be

buried in stacks of papers before a week had passed.) He stuck his hand out

for Talasu to shake before motioning for him to have a seat with his ever

present advisors.

Kiros Seagill was a tall man with dark skin and long braids of beaded

black hair. It was his sharp wit and wry sense of humor that kept Laguna from

getting into too much trouble. Seated next to Kiros was Ward Zabac. The large

man was the personification of a gentle giant. He was also effectively mute.

Only Laguna and Kiros 'spoke' with him, and their way of knowing what he meant

was along the lines of uncanny.

"We're always glad to see you, Master Talasu, but I can't imagine good

news bringing you back here early," Kiros said.

Talasu shrugged slightly. "The situation is not as bad as it could be, in

fact, it's looking up. Before arriving I spoke with the Balamb Assistant

Headmistress-"

"Xu?" Laguna asked. Talasu nodded, pleased that Laguna remembered her

name.

"Yes, Xu. She's confirmed that, with Cid's blessing, all SeeDs who were

deployed have been recalled. Xu also informed me that the Anshin Farseer says

the Sorceress has been routed for the time being."

"I'm not one to put my faith into mystics," Kiros admitted with a small

shrug, "but the SeeD recall makes me feel better. Cid wouldn't jump the gun on

something like this."

"So what's brought you back?" Laguna asked.

Talasu's soft green eyes darkened with unmasked concern. "Sarkis was

injured during our encounter with the Sorceress. I've brought him here for

medical treatment."

Three stunned expressions met his revelation of having battled the

Sorceress himself. He hadn't sent more than a brief message before he actually

arrived in Esthar, so everything he had to say was news to them. Kiros would

have questioned him in more detail about the encounter, but Laguna pre-empted

him.

"I'll make sure the best doctors in Esthar look after your son," Laguna

promised.

Talasu flushed slightly and nodded his thanks. In his heart he considered

Sarkis a son, though he never formally adopted him. And Laguna, with his huge

heart, wasn't one to let such technicalities prevent him from calling it as he

saw it.

"Thank you," Talasu answered with a small nod. "Which reminds me... Xu

gave me Squall's latest report card..."

A mixture of emotions crossed Laguna's mobile face. The first was piqued

interest to know how the lad was doing, next came surprise that Talasu had such

welcome information, and then guarded curiosity that Xu had thought to give it

to the Master. Talasu chuckled lightly as he placed the printout he made on

the President's desk. "Though she is young, Xu is one of Cid's closest

confidants. She knows what Cid knows. Your secrets -- and children -- are

safe with them."

"I can't say that I'm comfortable with Cid revealing our secrets..." Kiros

commented thoughtfully.

"Ah, but Master Kiros, keep in mind that the cast of characters is forever

growing, especially considering that we are building an army."

"Then you must tell us more about these people... After I see how Squall

is doing," Laguna gave him a sheepish smile and picked the report card off his

desk.

- Cid -

Cid looked up from his terminal when the door to his office open and Kei

entered. For having only returned a few hours ago she was looking remarkably

refreshed, like she had just woken up from a good night's rest and not from a

lengthy deployment. Cid invited her to give her oral report at her

convenience, but Kei wasn't one to relax when there was still work to be done.

The Headmaster could already envision how Kei's afternoon had gone. She

returned, was greeted by Xu, showered and got a haircut, polished the delivery

of her report, and then announced that she would be coming up to his office.

"You didn't have to come today," Cid said by way of welcome and motioned

for her to take a seat. Kei stepped up to his desk and saluted before sitting.

"I wouldn't have felt right if I didn't," Kei admitted.

Cid smiled at that. "Very well then, let's keep this brief. I've read

the written report you submitted. Is their anything you would like to add to

it?"

Kei nodded and placed the corkscrew horn she removed from the Sorceress's

headdress onto his desk. The Headmaster's fluid facial features visibly paled

at seeing just how close Kei had come to bringing an end to the Sorceress's

life.

"Why didn't you kill her?" Cid whispered while examining the grotesque

trophy.

"She slipped away from me. I swear that the next time we meet I won't

miss," Kei's eyes were hard with determination.

"I'm grateful that I can entrust the future of SeeD to people such as

yourself," Cid replied. "Thank you, Kei."

With his dismissal Kei left Cid's office to do some much needed relaxing.

Cid picked the horn up from his desk and turned it around in his hands to

examine it from all angles. He then sniffed it... It smelled vaguely of Edea.

"My beloved wife, our plan nearly worked..."

He pulled open a desk drawer and deposited the horn in it.

[The End]

*****

Sowing the SeeDs

part of the SeeDFic Project

October 1999 to July 2003

There are way too many people I need to thank for making this fanfic possible.

If I forget anyone, please forgive me.

Thanks go to Alessar for giving me the kick I needed to start this story and

offering many excellent suggestions that influenced how Xu turned out as a

character.

Thanks to Corvus, Nightbreak, His Lordship Chaos, Quandry, and Helen Fong for

allowing themselves to be pulled into my insanity. The story wouldn't be what

it is without their help.

Thanks to the members of #fanfics (for putting up with endless FFVIII chatter),

#ow and #afsm (for letting me poll the females on what their experiences were

when they were growing up), and #randominsanity (for just flat out putting up

with me).

Thanks for LeVar, Plasma, Nanki, Josh, Jeffy, Helen, and Sean for letting me

throw them into the story. Only one of you ended up dead. That's not so bad,

is it? Additional thanks go to LeVar for letting me steal his fanfic

characters Jen and Eileen.

Thanks to the people who have sent in emails or posted reviews. Your

encouragement is always appreciated!

Thanks go to Square-Enix and Sega for not suing me. I promise to continue to

buy your products (except for Unlimited Saga :P ) as I faithfully have for

years.

Where does the story go from here? I have more ideas, but it's going to take

time to develop them. I just hope they don't grow quite like Sowing the SeeDs

did...

-- Greenbeans 07.12.03