A/N: This will be short, because you want to get to the chapter. I understand. You've waited a long time for this. Go ahead and enjoy (I hope.) Just don't forget to review, please.

Oh, and I don't own FFTA. I hope you know that.

Twelve: Rifts

It took a full day of dusty travel to reach the land-side of Baguba Port from Sprohm. By that time, the eve of Bardmoon was nigh. Marche decided it would be best to rest another night before beginning their search for Llednar's base. The clan agreed heartily and sought shelter at the Inn of the Wandering Jester, on the western edge of the city, for the night. They fell asleep in peaceful silence.

The next morning, Marche was abruptly roused by a constant, rhythmic thudding that pounded against the walls of his room and reverberated through his head. He swatted errantly at the air above his head, mistakenly thinking someone was playing a trick on him. The thudding continued. With an irate groan, he rolled over and sat up on the edge of his pallet, clutching his head. It was an even worse feeling than having a hangover, and more persistent yet. He didn't like it very much at all.

Blinking the drowsy feeling away from his eyes, he looked around. In the dim light afforded by the lone, grimy window above his head, he saw the chamber pot in the corner rattling in time with the pounding. Thankfully, it was empty, or the sloshing sound and the thudding in combination might have been enough to make him sick.

He stood and grabbed the nearby chair to steady himself against the disorienting effect of a headache. The wood shivered beneath his fingers as he held it tighter. The pounding continued to come, as if in a wave, hitting Marche's chest with almost absurd power. He clutched his chest, sure that his heartbeat would be thrown out of sync. He was relieved to feel it functioning normally.

Hastily donning his Paladin's robes but ignoring the unwrapped turban draped over the table, Marche opened the door of his room and looked out into the hallway.

The world seemed to be shaking right in time with the pulsing force. Timber beams that held up the roof of the hall shivered hazily, leaving an unfavorable impression on the Moogle architects who had designed the inn. Stray stones, brought in on the sandals and robes of Marche's clansmen, skittered helter-skelter over the earthen floor. It was here that Marche's eyes met a pair of Viera and NuMou feet. Tosca and David, themselves haphazardly dressed, stood along the edge of the hallway. Tosca, in a fit of seemingly irrational logic, clutched her bow in her hand, but had no quiver or arrows on her person, or in sight. Seeing Marche peeking out of his doorway, she asked, "D'you know what this racket is?"

Marche shook his head. "Not a clue."

"It started at sunrise this morning," she said matter-of-factly. "I'm shocked you didn't wake up until now. David was out here not a few moments after me."

"I am a light sleeper, Tosca," David whispered sheepishly, cringing as another thud caused the very inn to shudder. Tiny chunks of plaster fell in front of his face and landed in some semblance of a pile at his feet. He sighed and yawned. "Though I can't imagine everyone else being asleep for much longer."

"They probably won't be." Nume and Sharu walked out of a room further down the hall and came to meet the rest of their awakened clan members. The thief's nimble hands were in his pockets, nervously clutching at the fabric of his breeches. It was as sure a sign as any that he was unnerved. Sharu, ever clutching his smooth staff, stood behind him in the shadows of a closed door. He had somehow managed to remember to wear his enormous hat in the midst of everything else.

Nume's next question was heralded by another shake. "Is it some kind of earthquake, or something?"

David shook his head. "It's too rhythmic for that. There's a pattern to the shakes, very specific, not random, as in a natural occurrence."

"It's almost like a drumbeat," Sharu's quiet voice interrupted.

David nodded. "That was my guess, as well."

Tosca's mouth set into a familiar frown. "I'm going to personally kill whoever's playing the infernal thing, if that's the case."

"But what drum could make that big a noise?" Nume asked as another tremor shook the hallway.

David shrugged and looked at Sharu. He, too, shook his head.

"I say we talk to the innkeeper," Tosca said. "Maybe we can get our money back. He promised us a great night's sleep, after all." She snorted indignantly. "Some guarantee that was."

Having thought of no better idea himself, Marche led the clan down the hallway, carefully ducking under the trembling support beams, and into the common room of the inn.

The common room was deserted. The steadily brightening light that filtered into the room through the windows was interrupted by indiscriminate shadows outside, whom Marche glared at sullenly. Oddly, they all looked rather small...

His train of thought was interrupted by a deep chuckle that came from far behind him. He turned and saw the portly innkeeper standing behind the bar, scrubbing glass mugs with a stained rag. The innkeeper glanced up at Marche and his clan with bloodshot eyes before going back to work. "Aren't you kids goin' 'ta join the party?"

"Party?" Tosca blurted incredulously. "What party?"

The innkeeper began to idly arrange some mugs on a shelf. "You don't know?"

"We wouldn't be asking you if we did!" she spat back.

"No need to be testy," David whispered gently. Tosca glared at him in reply.

Sighing brokenly, the inkeeper walked out from behind the counter, revealing the girth of his body, barely covered by a stained apron. "The first day of Bardmoon is festival of celebration in Baguba," he explained. "Even though port business has attracted residents from other places, the majority of folk here are Moogles." He shuddered as the sentence ended, but whether it was because of his feelings about Moogles or another tremor-inducing drumbeat was unclear. "Anyway, Bard's Eve they call it, and it's a Moogle national holiday. A tribute to Famfrit, it is."

"So this...festival...involves a giant drum?" Marche said. "Is that about right?"

The innkeeper chuckled again, much to Marche's annoyance, and leaned against the counter, his pickled fingers staining its polished surface with oil. "Boy, you have no idea, do you?" He stroked his chin for a split second, then went over to a door in the back of the room. Taking a key from a ring that was belted to his waist, he took a padlock off the door and removed the locking bar. "Here," he said. "Go up to the roof and have a look-see for yourself."

Marche looked uneasily to the rest of his clan. Their bewildered but eager looks convinced him to take the innkeeper up on his offer. With unnecessarily cautious steps, he navigated the maze of tables until they reached the door. Grimacing in preparation for what lay beyond, he pulled the door open by the handle.

He was immediately assaulted by an unimaginable tumult of music, noise, and the cacophony of many voices talking over each other. The smell of smoked meat and fresh fruit hung thickly in the air, an appetizing smog that set the mouth watering. As Marche, Tosca, David, Sharu, and Nume ascended the thin stair, the sounds and smells grew ever stronger, until the group reached the last step and set foot on the roof of the inn. Quicker than even he anticipated, Marche was leaning over the parapet, gazing wondrously at the scene.

Though he could not have seen it by night, the Inn of the Wandering Jester was actually perched on a rise, as were all the buildings of the outer rings of Baguba. The city's epicenter, the Mar Ivalissa, sparkled like a jewel in an ivory stone. Around its keyhole-shaped shore, the ancient Moogles had begun to build their city. The buildings nearest to the water were arranged in a tight semi-circle, bounding the Mar Ivalissa until it joined with Oceana Ivalissa. From there, the buildings spread outward in rings of ever-increasing size. Between each ring, and between each building in the ring, streets shot outward like the spokes of a carriage-wheel. And so, from Marche's vantage, it appeared like a half-circle of blindingly white, marble squares arrayed in shockingly neat formation, which extended all the way from the water's edge to the boundary of Materiwood in the north, the Jeraw Sands in the west, and the marshlands surrounding the Ulei River to the south. Strangely, there was no retaining wall surrounding the city; rather, a huge wall rose out of the middle of the arc, at least three stories taller than the tallest building on either side of the wall. Its shadow in the early-morning sun stretched five blocks west at its smallest point, and nearly ten at its widest.

This orderly scene seemed incongruous in light of the chaos that was erupting in the streets. There was a circular space set back from the wall about ten blocks–only four blocks from the edge of the city, and a measly two from the Inn on whose roof Marche stood–which seemed to be a public square. Here, it was easy to identify the source of the constant thudding. A drum, it was plain to see, had been situated in the center of the square. It was massive, at least as big as the houses surrounding it, and it was being struck in time by a great contraption which stood next to the drum. It was a sight to behold, especially to a world-weary traveler like Marche.

Around this drum, a multitude of figures danced, shouted, and sung, creating the unrelenting din that had attacked Marche's ears as soon as he had exited the inn. Vendors had set up shop in the shadowy corners of the area, and smoke perfumed with the smell of roasted panther and salted marlboro twisted lazily away from tent-tops and into the blue sky above.

"It's...marvelous," David breathed, sounding inebriated on the wine of sweet discovery.

"It's something," Tosca agreed. As she spoke, the contraption pounded the drum again, and the beat clattered chips of marble on the roof. Tosca rubbed her temples with gloved hands. "I just wish it could be a quieter something."

"No, it seems to fit," David muttered, enraptured. Marche could almost see the cogs of the NuMou Sage's mind turning at a frenetic pace. "Moogles are energetic and joyous by nature. A festival like this makes perfect sense in their culture."

"I don't care if it's energetic or not," Nume interrupted, "but does it have to be so infernally loud?" He spat the last word with particular distaste, of which Tosca heartily nodded her approval. Sharu was noncommittal.

While the conversations of his clan-mates had interested him greatly, Marche's eyes were soon drawn to the multitude gathered in the streets. For it was not just the square that was filled with a mass of people; the revelry had spilt into the surrounding streets, and veins of activity took root for several blocks. He watched it all with a contented smile on his face, until, in dismay, he realized how unfamiliar to him the expression had become. How long had it been since he had really enjoyed himself? ...The days were incalculable. Had his vendetta with Llednar really taken him this far from himself?

Out of the mists of his thoughts came first his eyes, then his ears, and then the rest of his senses. His desire to observe renewed, he leaned over the parapet and looked at the street below. As he had earlier observed, there were Moogles dancing and singing right outside the door to the inn. He watched them for a time, until from the top of his vision, two figures entered the scene. They were Moogles, but they appeared far less interested in partying than they were with reaching the door to the inn. Finding this odd, Marche squinted at the two. To his surprise, the two suddenly looked up at him and waved. It was Montblanc and Gustav! As they rapped on the door, Marche turned from the parapet and took the stairs two steps at a time.

David, who had been in the midst of an elaboration on his understanding of Moogle culture from an obscure, ancient text, looked up with a start as Marche brushed past him, and watched bemusedly from behind his half-moon spectacles as Marche disappeared down the stairwell.

"Well, I have never thought of myself as a prodigious lecturer, but I never thought someone would walk out on me."

Tosca got up and went to the stairwell. "I just didn't want to be the first."

Marche found the two Moogles sitting together at a table in the center of the great room, clutching cups of cold tea and munching on biscuits that were huddled together on a tray in the center of the table. He belatedly realized he hadn't had breakfast yet.

"Marche, kupo!" Montblanc chirped. He looked chipper, and his red antenna bobbed enthusiastically as he stood on his chair and waved. "We have exciting news to tell you!"

"Kupo exciting news," Gustav agreed, swallowing a last bit of biscuit. "Would you like to hear it?"

"Of course." Marche pulled up a nearby chair, collapsed into it, and downed a biscuit. A cup of cool tea was delivered promptly by the innkeeper, who soon returned with several more cups for David, Tosca, Nume, and Sharu, who sat at a nearby table, facing the Moogles. A plate of biscuits was soon delivered to them as well. The clan settled into breakfast and listened as the two Moogles told the story of their morning adventures.

"We knew beforehand that the festival was going to be happening this morning," Montblanc began. "It's a national holiday, after all, kupo! Anyway, we left really early this morning, before the sun was even up over the wall. The crowds had already started to gather in Square Celebrado."

"That's where they put the kupopo big drum!" Gustav interjected.

"Yes, it is, kupo. In any case, the streets were packed with people headed to the square. It was kupo early, but they found their way by torchlight and staff-light. Most of them were already drunk, so it was harder than it should have been to work our way through the main thoroughfares and into the side streets, kupo.

"Once we did that, kupo, it was fairly easy going. Security in the residential part of the city is notoriously lax, and we didn't even meet a single patrol on our way to the South Gate."

"Why is that?" David inquired. "In a city this size, and with a population so..." he paused to find the right word "...so rowdy, wouldn't it make sense to have a bigger police force?"

"We're not rowdy all the time, kupo!" Gustav returned, mildly incensed. "Only on special occasions. The city is normally quiet, peaceful, and clean. Not at all like that dreadful Bangaa city, Sprohm–" Gustav looked up with a start as Lidenbok staggered into the great room. "No offense, kupo."

"None taken, Gussstav," Lidenbok responded gruffly. He grabbed a mug of tea and leaned against the wall, listening with only mild interest as Montblanc continued his story.

"So we came to the South Gate. We could have passed through the gate kupo easy anyway, cause we're Moogles, but we preferred not to be seen, in case the guards were on Llednar's payroll.

"But we needn't have worried. The guard was passed out, probably kupo drunk. We slipped right by him and through the gate." Montblanc took a liberal sip of tea before continuing. "There's a much larger military presence in the industrial part of the city, what with foreigners coming and going all the time, kupo. Fortunately they make fairly regular rounds, so Gustav and I managed to avoid them by taking a roundabout route, kupo."

"We couldn't risk asking someone for directions, kupo," Gustav chimed in. "They might have been Llednar's spies."

"Sure," Nume agreed. "That'd be the smart thing to do." Sharu nodded his agreement.

"So how'd you find the warehouse?" Tosca asked.

"Well, it had to be big, kupo big. And it had to have close access to the water, kupo, since that's where all the airships land. We found it kupo quick. It's right off the main path from the east gate."

Marche considered this quickly. They needed to get to the warehouse fast, but just how fast did they need to be? It seemed unlikely that Llednar was in the city. Marche wasn't sure why he thought this, except that he was almost certain that it was so. He attributed it to his disturbing new powers and took a perturbed bite of biscuit. It suddenly tasted dry, and he set it on the table in disgust. He suddenly had the urge to leave.

"We should get going," he murmured decisively. Raising his eyes, he looked to Montblanc and Gustav. "You know the way back?"

They nodded in unison. "We know it kupo well!" Gustav squeaked.

Marche turned to David. "Pay the innkeeper, and thank him for breakfast." David nodded as Marche turned to Tosca. "Wake up the others and tell them to grab breakfast on the way out. We leave ten drumbeats from now." A wry smile flickered across his face before he turned and walked down the hall to his room.

Eight drumbeats after the meeting in the common room of the inn, Clan Ragnarok, led by the small, furry forms of Montblanc and Gustav, were winding their way through the grid-like streets of Baguba. The butt of Montblanc's Outsider protruded casually from under his belt, but Gustav flexed his iron-spiked knuckles anxiously as they peered around a corner. Montblanc waved his arm and the clan surged forward, disappearing as quickly as possible down another side street.

Behind Montblanc and Gustav, Marche walked, seemingly unhurried, with his twin Excaliburs belted idly to his side, the train of his turban flowing out from his head like a ghost. Behind him, Tosca gripped her bow readily, not trusting in the surreal quiet and cleanliness of the streets, underscored by the faint staccato of the distant drum. David, beside her, leaned heavily on his Zeus Mace with each step, his breathing heavy.

Azimov was paying little attention to the progress of the journey, instead studying the stones with which the buildings of Baguba were erected. He collected a few hurried samples in one of the pouches that hung from his Alchemist's robes before being brutishly hurried on by Lidenbok's lizardly hiss, made scarier than necessary by emanating from beneath a dragon-like helm. The twins, David and Henri, brought up the rear guard, their blades naked and ready, keeping one eye always on Matilda, who walked just ahead of them with a nervous quiver in her step.

Gustav and Montblanc rounded yet another corner, and suddenly Marche found himself standing next to the immense wall he had viewed from the roof of the inn. He looked up and marveled at its enormity. It seemed to bite the sky with pearly white parapets for teeth. All the way up, it was smooth as marble, without so much as a single stone out of line.

"All this without magic," David whispered. There was more than a hint of awe in his voice. Not even the outer wall of Cadoan, gleaming with magical ivy, could surpass the awesomeness of this, the crowning achievement of Moogle engineers.

Abruptly the group halted. They had been walking in the shadow of the mighty wall for quite some time, so long, in fact, that the sight of sunlight streaming through the half-opened doorway to Baguba Port was a shock to their eyes.

The sunlight revealed the tiny body of a Mog Knight, asleep at his post, his limbs flailed out unconsciously in all directions. It was an amusing sight, but no one laughed.

"Come on, kupo," said Montblanc. "It's not too much further now." And with that he disappeared behind the doorway, his shadow visible for a fleeting instant in the threshold.

Gustav, Marche and the rest followed without hesitation.

The Port was blindingly bright and utterly un-busy. Buildings and streets and yards stood silent and unoccupied. The underlying thump of the drum was thankfully replaced by the calming hiss of the Mar Ivalissa lapping up against the paved shoreline in the distance.

"Llednar's warehouse is at the end of this street, kupo," Montblanc said. His voice was noticeably quieter. "We need to be careful. Gustav and I saw a military patrol earlier. I'm praying to Famfrit that we don't get surprised by one here."

And so, cautiously, Clan Ragnarok proceeded down the street, stopping at each crossing to make sure no patrols were present. In this way they made it all the way to the shore, where the constant lapping of waves washed over the clan, its serenity competing with the disquiet in their hearts and minds.

The warehouse was larger than any they had seen, in the city or in the Port so far. It rose up three stories over a large area at the back, and the rest was two stories. It continued lengthwise for three blocks and, from what Marche could see, it also encompassed the two blocks leading to the sheer drop-off where stone met ocean. It was oddly unmarked, with not a single sign over a door like so many others they had seen on their trek.

It was plain, white, inconspicuous. And yet there was something about it that caused a terrible foreboding in Marche's very bones. He felt his blood rise, but he brought it down again, controlled. He would not allow his powers to take him over. Not yet.

"Quickly." Gustav muttered. "This way, kupo." The clan followed him around the left side of the warehouse until they reached a wooden door bolted with steel rivets and an iron padlock.

"This is as far as we got before," Montblanc whispered. "I tried picking the lock, but my lockpicks burnt to a kupo crisp." He pouted.

'There's a protection spell around the lock, and another on the door," Matilda whispered. "That's why your lockpicks didn't work." She paused before looking pointedly at Azimov. "Magic should do the trick."

Azimov nodded. "At your service." The clan parted and Azimov stood at the doorway. After a silent moment, his thoughts accompanied by the waves, he took a piece of chalk from his pouches and drew a complex pentacle on the doorway. Then he drew a smaller one on the back of the lock. As he finished the inscriptions, he murmured a spell under his breath before hurriedly backing away.

Crackling punctuated the stillness, seeming so loud as to surely alert any nearby patrols. The crackling gave way to a billowing, acrid smoke that stung the throat and lungs if breathed in. Then, with a shudder, the door, the padlock, and the iron rivets crumbled into dust at the Alchemist's feet.

"Bravo, Azimov," David whispered.

The Alchemist nodded and stepped back, clearing the path for Marche, who stepped forward. The threshold loomed before him, an elongated triangle of sunlight cutting into pitch blackness. Trepidation crept into his fingers, and he started to reach for his swords. But he did not. Instead, his crackling whisper of a voice said "Light."

Sharu came forward, muttered a few words, and the crystal atop his staff sparkled to life, emitting a fiery red aura. Marche nodded to him and stepped inside the warehouse, walked through the triangle of light, and into darkness.

The flickering red glow from Sharu's staff was an ill comfort in the stifling, dank dampness of the interior of Llednar's warehouse. Cracked pillars rose up without warning; hallways ended in twilit surprise. Time was in flux as Marche led the clan through the twisted passages of the warehouse. A right turn, and then a left, and soon all the walls began to look the same, each pillar like the one they had passed a few minutes ago. Or was it an hour?

Tedium set in quickly and refused to let go. Marche's resolve cracked under the pressure of his aching feet and his tired eyes, and soon it crumbled entirely. He had nothing left to go on–the warehouse was like a maze for which there was no map, nor a visible exit.

The parade of Clan Ragnarok came to a sudden halt as Marche leaned up against an illuminated wall.

"I'm sorry," he whispered to the still air.

There was no reply. Marche closed his eyes and took a breath, exhaled. As the sound of his will escaping him echoed through the warehouse, he felt a prick on his wrist.

His eyes fell to his arm. He raised his wrist and examined it in the light. There was nothing unusual in its appearance. But there, again, came the prick. It was stronger now, almost a pull. Marche felt the power leak into his veins in answer to the pull. Impulsively, he grabbed the staff from Sharu's hand and turned left, following the tugging in his writs. Heeding the call of some unknown power.

No, it was not unknown. For Marche had a nagging suspicion that he knew exactly what awaited him in this warehouse.

The twists and turns came easier and more frequently as the power's pull on him became stronger. A right turn, and now a left. Past a crumbled pillar and ducking into a low hallway. He was unaware of all that was around him, save for whatever lay ahead.

Light, cool and liquid smooth, danced with the shadows just ahead. A white-blue opening in the dark, so stunningly unexpected that he was momentarily blinded. Arm raised to block the light, he advanced with quickened steps and rounded the corner...

...And into a chamber of blazing, intense light. Almost as strong as the noonday sun, but clearer somehow. More pure. The arm fell from Marche's brow, and at last he could see.

The chamber seemed incongruous with the outside of the warehouse. The walls seemed hewn from ancient stone, with primitive hieroglyphs scrawled madly over their surface. The spidery drawings shimmered blue-green. The room was roughly circular, but huge and cavernous. The ceiling above was open to the sky.

But Marche saw none of these things. His blue eyes instead focused on the object hovering above a blazing magical design etched into the floor.

A crystal. The crystal of the Lost One, the Goddess whose existence was shattered long ago. The crystal of Omnira, the last Totema.

But it was not complete. Large sections of the crystal were empty space, with tiny fragments hovering with knife-sharp edges at the border. Tiny pieces, like particles of dust, swirled lazily over the cracked suface. Watery light emanated from the crystal's surface, illuminating the hovering particles like diamonds suspended from the ceiling.

"Exodus Almighty," breathed Tosca. The rest of the clan crept through the doorway to the chamber, awe visible on their faces. They were standing in the presence of a God.

Marche stepped forward. The near edge of the symbol on the ground flared up and sent a shower of sparks skittering across the floor, singing the hem of Marche's robes. He gasped.

David studied the crystal with dazzled fascination. But soon a frown scratched across his mouth.

"The center is missing," he said.

"The Heart," Marche murmured.


Marche turned back. "The Heart. Where Omnira's true power lies. The crystal is missing its most vital part."

The Sage was taken aback. "H-how did you...?" He did not need to finish his question. An unnatural, ethereal light shining through Marche's eyes told the story well enough.

The powers of time were taking effect.

Marche turned away from the clan and stepped closer still to the crystal. The edge of the magical barrier glowed like molten lava in the depths of Roda Volcano and gushed sparks and golden flames. But Marche stood transfixed as he gazed into the crystal's shattered mirror-like facets.

The tugging at his wrist grew violently persistent. Marche had not noticed before, but now, even in a half-trance, he winced in pain as he felt something bite his skin and warm blood trickle down his arm. He turned over his arm to look at his wrist.

The hole was ragged but small, nestled closely between the two veins that were clearly visible under Marche's pale skin. Dark blood welled up in the wound. Marche closed his eyes and concentrated on closing the wound, knitting the skin together and dispersing the blood.

He opened his eyes. A small pinprick-shaped scar was all that remained of the wound.

"Marche..." David whispered. Marche turned. The NuMou's face was almost frightened. "When did you..."

Marche glanced down at his wrist, still perplexed. "I don't...I don't know how I did that."

"What are you talking about?"



Marche turned slowly and beheld the crystal again. At first, nothing seemed to have changed.

Then he noticed it. A red stained piece the size of a small coin had found it's place on the crystal's surface, completing a near facet. The crystal shone with a renewed brilliance.

A ripping noise caused Marche to whirl, only to be confronted with a strange sight. One of David's pouches was ripped cleanly at the seam, and out of the tear zipped another crystal shard, the first one they had encountered. The entire clan watched in awe as the shard hovered over to the crystal and found its place in one of its many facets.

"You found it."

The clan looked around the chamber for the source of the voice. It had not come from any of them. They backed cautiously away from the entrance, drawing their weapons surreptitiously.

A harsh laugh emanated from the darkness. "Llednar was so worried that he was going to have to search far and wide for you, Marche Radiuju, traveler from the void. But you saved him the trouble. You came to us."

The darkness from the beyond the doorway slowly took shape, in the form of a tall Viera. She wore a dark suit with a midnight-black cape, clasped at the shoulders with a single silver buckle. Her cold gray eyes were the only thing visible from behind a black silk veil, but her silky white hair glistened in a cascading braid behind her head. A black katana threatened in her right hand.

"I am Yvonne," she said with a harsh, bitter voice like the root of the Gyshal Green. "I am Llednar's first lieutenant and a disciple of the Order of Omnus." She held out her left hand. A silver device of an all-seeing eye was emblazoned on her black gauntlet. "And you. You have no idea what you have gotten yourself into."

Marche felt the power rising, pulsing through his veins. He let it do so unchecked.

A strange expression crossed Yvonne's face, a mixture of confusion and uncertainty, until a hard smile showed behind her veil. "So. You have been blessed, as Llednar said you had."

Blessed? thought Marche. Tingling sensations grew in his hands as the very air around his body took on a fiery pallor. His knightswords drew in tandem, and the brilliant ring of steel and silver echoed through the chamber. Leather bit into his fingers as it crackled in the heat.

Yvonne took in Marche's glowing visage with a mildly impressed coldness. "You mean to fight me? You and your clan?" She laughed, and like a malevolent smoke, it twisted its way into the bewildered hearts of Clan Ragnarok, staining their courage with a shade of despair. She turned her stony eyes to the door. "That wouldn't be fair at all."

Realization dawned on David's face rapidly, and he turned to the doorway, screaming "To arms! To arms!" as an army began to pour out of the shadowy doorway, preceded by an enormous jet of red-gold fire. Matilda screeched a spell in the ancient tongue, and a radiant Shield spell spiraled out of her staff, just in time to block the brunt of the flames.

Marche glanced at them momentarily before turning his attention back to his adversary. But she had disappeared!

...No. She hadn't. In a blur of speed, Marche crouched and spun his right leg in vicious arc behind him, even as he brought both Excaliburs forward to meet the place the essence of Yvonne's body was meeting its consciousness.

The kick connected first, sending the barely-teleported assassin reeling before the blinding flash of the twin Excaliburs slashed at her back. Her black-wreathed body recoiled in pain, and Marche planted his left hand on the ground and brought his right leg up for another kick.

Black metal smacked the kick away, ringing off the steel of his boot. Yvonne grimaced and bounded effortlessly off the rocky cavern wall, streaking down the ground behind Marche's vision. He quickly stood and spun around, only to meet a black heel in midair. Cold fire lashed into his mind, and he screamed and reeled at the unexpected attack on his mind. Hot blood poured down over his nose and brow like a waterfall, distorting his vision. Icy shock vanished from his mind, and he again focused on the battle.

Yvonne floated in the air, wreathed in the sparkling mist surrounding the crystal. "You bleed yet like a mortal," she hissed harshly. And then she was gone, only to reappear a scant foot away from Marche, the point of her katana biting his cheek. Marche eyed the blade with a mixture of fear and loathing. Blue flames flickered menacingly along its edge. One reached up and kissed Marche's cheek. Blinding, white-hot pain shot through his entire body, and he was thrust backward like a child's rag doll, smashing his entire body against the rocky wall of the chamber with a sickening, resounding crack. Momentarily limp, his body collapsed to the cavern floor.

Someone screamed his name, and a light grew behind his closed eyelids. He felt the restorative magic seeping into his body, knitting together torn flesh and mending broken bones. Fiery Biskmatar magic rushed to the aid of the spell, twisting it and hastening its effects. There was a smell of singed flesh, but strength again coursed through his veins, and Marche was forced to his feet by the surge of power.

Yvonne's cocky smile had vanished, to be replaced by a patently vicious snarl. She glared coolly at Matilda, who had cast the Curaga spell on Marche. The Viera was fearfully clutching her tall staff, frightened by the pure terror that reigned in the face of the foe she faced.

"You, girl, should know better than to interfere in a duel," said Yvonne harshly. The wicked shape of her katana became visible as she threw it toward Matilda's trembling figure. Behind it, Yvonne's sleek shadow of a figure vanished, and Marche realized with a start the terrible thing that was about to happen.

Black fire tinged with gold appeared in his palm on command, and he threw the fireball with all the haste he could summon. It shot forward and expanded into a brilliant sphere of crackling doom. He ran behind it, praying silently that the collateral damage would not be too severe.

In his bizarrely slow vision, Marche watched with trepidation as Matilda's body went slack, faint with fright, just as the void-colored blade reached the place where her head had been. A brown-furred hand materialized around the katana's hilt.

The explosion rocked the entire cavern, resounding a thousandfold in the confines of the cavern. Stalactites clattered down from the ceiling and shattered on the ground, disappearing into nothingness if they came in contact with the incomplete crystal. Marche managed to stand upright, but as the ebony flames dissipated, he saw the his clan and their foes had been scattered throughout the chamber.

There was no blackened, charred corpse in Marche's vision.

The creeping feeling at the back of his neck was replaced by the scream of steel as it slashed down his back. The wound exploded in white-blue flame, and with a scream of agony, Marche fell to the floor.

"Fool." Yvonne's voice mocked him in his miserable pain. "Those tricks are not your own. They should not be used by one so unworthy."

Marche felt the blood. He felt the torn skin, the broken bones, and the muscles ripped asunder. His own strength was rapidly slipping away, like the current of the Ulei River.

"You dare to use the Totema's power so ungraciously in her own presence?" she continued. "Omnira, Goddess of Creation and the Queen of all the Totema?"

His life, his strength, slipping through his fingers, slippery as a blood-soaked hand...

Ezel. Sarai. Oh, gods...

"Do you know where you stand, Pretender to the Blessing? This cavern is the chamber in the void, beyond the Great Rift. The Crystal's true resting place. As lawless as a Jagd, more sacred than any Temple in all of Ivalice."

Desperate, Marche reached out for the echoes of his fleeing power.

Just a touch of fire, just a taste of life...

"Llednar designed it--the circle that created the portal into the Great Rift. I couldn't so much as come near it, but he...he stepped through it, and he returned with the entrance to the ceremonial chamber."

The power gripped back. Stronger, somehow. More endless, more wise.

Fiercer than anything his old power could have mustered.

Bony fingers gripped something like a sword, flashing so bright that Marche was blinded with his closed tightly shut. Yvonne's cruel voice wavered inconsequentially in the background, but he felt her presence there, strangely feeble, like an icicle in the winter of the real world...in St. Ivalice.

Was that truly the real world?

The answer would have to wait. This power demanded to be unleashed. It burned his fingers down to the bone in Marche's sightless vision.

He rolled with strength not felt, his arm outstretched with speed unseen, the power in his hand blazing with light so intense it threatened to blot out all else.

A line of fire hewed through a mass of shadow.

A single, consciousness-shattering scream sliced through the silent dark.

The dark presence behind him broke apart and blew away like dust in the desert. Her voice hung in the void like loose threads in a weaving left unfinished at the loom by a seamstress called away, never to return.

The power departed from his grasp. Searing light was replaced by cool, comforting dark, and Marche drifted into waiting sleep.

"He collapsed," David shouted. "Matilda, he collapsed. Quickly, try to revive him—mend his injuries at the very least—and get back here."

Matilda nodded wearily, her eyes dark like her sooty face, and ran over to Marche's side. David watched for a moment as Matilda tread lightly through the pool of blood that surrounded Marche.

The assassin was nowhere to be seen. David feared the worst, from that red streak down the back of his robes.

The ring of steel in his ears broke his gaze, and he whirled to find and enemy Gladiator advancing. His blade was flickering to life with a Fire Blade spell. David grimaced and raised his mace, intoning, "Ek cielo na shikai du verus qui deos!" Purple lightning crackled at the pyramid tip of the Zeus Mace, and David swung the mace downward in an arc of violet and gold.

Ultima Blow connected with the helmet of the oncoming Gladiator, shattering it instantly. Bolts of lightning wrapped the wild-eyed warrior in a vortex of violet light, now blue, now white, until it was so bright that David had to shut his eyes.

The flash ceased, and David opened his eyes. Stained pieces of armor lay scattered on the floor. The body of the warrior had been carried off into oblivion.

"That'sss the lassst of them." David turned and saw Lidenbok standing tiredly, the incomplete crystal hovering behind him. The armor on his shoulders raised and lowered quickly, in time with his breath, and blood dripped slowly from the lance held firmly in his hand.

"Indeed," David whispered.

"Well, we're no worse for wear," Tosca said, her voice hollow. She had seen Matilda, kneeling over Marche's body, shaking as she prayed.

"He'll be fine, Tosca," Azimov whispered.

David nodded in agreement, and slowly, the rest of the clan followed suit, stepping over dead and bloodied bodies and walking calmly over to Marche's side.

We always say he'll be fine…David thought. Finally, Matilda…I begin to understand. I…I'm not sure if he'll ever come back.

A/N: Wow. As long as that took you to read, it took me 15 times that long to write it. The next chapter is shorter. I hope, for my sake and yours, the next chapter is shorter.