Chapter VII; "Strangers When We Meet"

\\\ Burmecia - Realm Of Eternal Rain ///

By the time they reached Burmecia, the rain had become a downpour, washing over everything, saturating the war-torn streets and houses with it's constant unyielding torrent. In the skies, a storm a was rumbling. Thunder cracked the skies so loudly it looked like the few flashes of lightning were running timid of it's fury.

Shivering and soaking, they arrived at the main archway, the entrance to the rain-slicked city. Blank chanced looking ahead, into the biting wind.

"It's really coming down…" he muttered.

"On average, it rains about three fifths out of every month in Burmecia." said Fratley, absently. "In our languange, we over thirty words for 'wet'."

"And none for 'crispy', I'll bet."

Kuja wiped his hair from his forehead and out of his eyes, standing by Beatrix. "There's nothing pleasant about this rain…" said Kuja, darkly. "It feels as though the raindrops are cursing our mission."

Beatrix nodded and stood just inside the arch. "It's strange, I can't see any Alexandrian soldiers."

"They'll probably be laying seige to the palace." Fratley announced, striding forward. Blank listened, remembering Gizmaluke's Grotto. "Is there a way they could have got the King out?" he asked.

"Possibly." Fratley replied, then pointed his spear towards the dome of the palace, off in the distance. "But the ansewers lie there, not here."

They ran into the city, sticking to single file with their weapons drawn. They moved stealthily, fearing Black Mage patrols around the ruined city. More than once they heard the cty of "KILL!" coming from off in the distance. Kuja led them, Fratley hot on his heels, with Beatrix covering them and Blank bringing up the rear.

Upon reachng a deserted market, Kuja stopped and silently signalled for them to hide. Kuja and Fratley ducked into a drained fountain, while Beatrix and Blank hid behind an overturned apple cart.

Beatrix looked over to Fratley, trying to read from his face what the situation was. Fratley only shrugged,. Beatrix turned back to Blank, and was mortified to discover he had relaxed his sword and was picking through the red apples for an edible one, which he soon found and took a hefty bite out of. Beatrix slapped him softly, giving him a look that said she was wondering what the hell he was doing.

Blank offered her a bite and she looked away, rolling her eye. Blank shrugged and took another bite.

Finally, the reason for their concealment became clear as a group of Black Mages sauntered through the market, looking for enemies. There was far too many to take on, and blowing their cover so soon after getting here would be a pretty stupid thing to do.

Nevertheless, their nerves were strained as the killing machines passed within bare inches of the cart Blank and Beatrix were hiding behind. All it had to do was glance down with those pupil-less yellow glowing eyes and it would see them. Beatrix silently positioned her Save The Queen so that the blade was pointed right through a weak point in the cart's wood. The instant the Black Mage saw them she would drive the sowrd right through the cart and into it. Kuja tensed, readying a trio of throwing blades to back her up.

But the moment never came. By sheer chance, the Mage didn't see them, and the patrol passed on, looking for Burmecian soldiers. The group emerged from their hiding places. Blank was still chewing on an apple. Beatrix slapped him yet again.

"What was that?" she demanded.

Blank shrugged. "Lunch." he said, by way of reply.

"How can you think of eating at a time like this?"

"I can stop thinking of eating at a time like this if I can finish this thing so I won't be hungry." Blank replied. Both of them stared at each other, with the kind of look you only give someone when you're pretty sure they come from Mars.

"Unbelievable." Beatrix sighed.

Kuja noticed Fratley staring at the city streched out before him. "Something on your mind, or one of those memories come rushing back?" he asked.

"Just I've been away for a long time." Fratley replied. "I can remember this place, though. Been a long time since I had a place I called home. I thought I promised myself never to return here until I found Freya…"

"Mitigating circumstances." said Kuja.


With that, they moved on, deeper into the ruined city. They only found a surprisingly few amount of dead Burmecian soldiers. But there were plenty of signs of battles, not the least of which were several scorch marks on the houses and buildings. Soon, they came to a house near the palace walls. They had to cross inside the shattered abode to make it to the roof. No easy task, considering the floor gave way beneath them in several spots. In the bedroom of one house, they found a dead Burmecian soldier.

"There's no signs of battle here." said Fratley. "He must have his himself in here, then died from his wounds before help could come."

"Hey, what's that in his hand?" Blank pointed out. The soldier was clutching a large bell in his hand. It looked similar to the ones Fratley had used to get them through Gizmaluke's Grotto, only larger in size and looking more ornate.

"The key to a Harmony Lock." said Kuja, picking it up.

"It looks different to the other ones…" said Beatrix.

Fratley took it from Kuja. He looked at it, then pocketed it. "It must only open a specific door."

True enough, it did. After going around to the back of the house, they came to a large rain-slicked balcony. There was a big Harmony Locked door resting there, looking pretty ominous.

"Burmecia's royal palace will be beyond here." said Fratley, already ringing the bell, which shattered as soon as the door opened. "It must be in ruins, just like everything else."

They all readied their weapons as the doors swung open. There was a grand dimly-lit stone staircase in there, reaching into the distance. "I take it we're going through there?" Blank asked nobody in particular.

"The palace will be where the attackers were headed for." Kuja replied.

"Let's not walk on eggshells." Beatrix spat. "It's Steiner, it has to be. I need to see him. I need to know why he's done this."

"Steiner was the one who taught you, wasn't he?" Fratley asked her.

"Yes, he was, partly. Why?"

"Just wondering that if the worst happens, will you be able to raise your sword against him?"

Beatrix said nothing, and stepped forth onto the stairs. As they followed her, they had barely gone a few steps when a trio of Burmecian soldiers came running down the steps towards them.

"Identify yourselves!" the leader shouted as they drew their weapons.

"They don't have to!" snapped another. "They're Alexandrian! That's General Beatrix!"

"I'm not a part of the invading force!" she yelled back.


"It's true!" snapped Fratley, pointing his pike at his fellow Burmecians.

The soldiers regarded him for a moment, then lowered their weapons. "Sir Fratley?" they gasped.

"Do I know you?" he asked.

"My name is Dan." said the leader of the soldiers. "We've heard many tales about you, Sir Fratley. We heard you were dead. Wow, you really are him. …I thought you'd be taller."

Kuja stepped forward. "What's going on here? Who are the invaders?"

"They're being led by Burmecian troops." said Dan. "I don't know what they are exactly, but they look like living scarecrows. They have pointy hats, and just darkness where their faces should be."

"Black Mages." said Blank. "They're all over the place."

"Yes, I'm afriad Burmecia seems to have fallen to them." Dan said sadly. "They have a power we simply cannot fight…"

"The king!" Fratley said suddenly. "Is he safe?"

"We're evacuating to Cleyra now." Dan explained. "The king has already been extracted and is safely there already, thanks to a secret tunnel."

"…The king has a secret tunnel to Cleyra?" Blank asked, surprised. "I thought nobody could get into that place. They got a big-ass sandstorm constantly blowing around it!"

"The king has been using the tunnels to travel back and forth to Cleyra for some time." said Dan. "Anyways, we must make haste. We have been given the order to retreat and evacuate as many civilians and wounded to Cleyra or Lindblum. And you?"

"We're investigating this attack." Beatrix explained. "We're trying find out who the invaders are, or why they have done this."

"A man in armour interrogated some of our troops." said Dan. "He wanted to know where we were keeping Queen Garnet."

"Garnet is not here!" Beatrix snapped.

"I know that, and you know that." said Dan. ""But Alexandria seems to think Burmecia was responsible for her kidnapping."

It was awful news, but there was a small ray of hope embedded in it, Beatrix decided. If Steiner thought Garnet was here and that's why he had started this invasion, then Beatrix could explain the truth to him, and get him to call it off. The damage to the relationship between Alexandria and Burmecia would still be done, but at least no more would have to die.

"The palace is right back down the way we came from." said Dan. "We wish you good luck."

With that, the soldiers were already gone. Fratley now led the way, bounding up the steps two at a time. After travelling through the tunnel, they came back outside again, and back into the familiar but unwelcome rain. "As soon as this is over, I'm going someplace very dry!" Blank growled.

"Well, look at it like this." Beatrix hissed. "If you keep shouting, maybe a Black Mage will discover you and cast a few Fire spells on you. Then you'll be warm for the rest of your life."

Blank went quiet, thought about saying something, then shut up.

"Which way?" Kuja asked Fratley, who was looking around. There were stables to their right, and a chapel to the left. "That way." Fratley replied, pointing to the chapel. It proved to be good shelter from the rain, and a short-cut to the palace. The chapel was deserted and ransacked. Black Mages had been through here, there was no doubt about that.

"This is not a pretty sight." Fratley muttered, staring at the fallen statue of the mighty Burmecian reptile god. A supporting pillar had been deliberately destroyed to bring the massive staute crashing down. "They attack our homes and our king, but our faith too? Is nothing sacred?"

"Someone doesn't want this war to stop…" Beatrix said with a hint of dread. "Attacking over land and politics is one thing, but religion is another. Someone's trying to really ensure that bitter feelings will remain after the war ends."

"I've noticed the Black Mages tend to just go after life forms." said Blank. "Kind of odd that they would attack a religious symbol, huh?"

"Then Black Mages didn't do this." Fratley deduced. "It's too precise, too deliberate. This was the work of a calculated mind, and someone with an incredible array of power at their disposal."

"Who would have the power to do something like this?" Beatrix asked.

"Me, for one." said Kuja, speaking up for the first time. "The palace is right behind here. Let's move on."

With the quick change in subject, they emerged on the other side of the chapel.

It lay in ruins. The palace had been almost completely decimated in the attack, with just the outer shell and strong walls surviving. Great statues of long-passed warriors lined the interior and exterior, silent and uncaring that their kingdom lay defeated. There did not seem to be a way in.

"It's worse than I thought." Fratley groaned at the sight of it.

"Ummm, hey man, try not to let it get to ya?" Blank suggested, patting Fratley on the shoulder. "At least they got the king out, right?"

"…at the cost of a nation…" Fratley replied bitterly.

Blank sighed and shrugged. So much for the glass being half-full.

"Should we go in?" Beatrix ventured.

"I don't believe the front door is an option." said Kuja, flatly, looking upwards into the rain. A massive statue of a great warrior Fratley probably knew the name of stood there, clutching an immense sword. The statue did offer plenty of grips and footholds…

"Maybe we should…"

He was cut off by the sound of angered yelling from within the palace. There was a lot of thrashing about, like the furniture was being destroyed. Fratley braced himself and vaulted, using his powerful hind legs to leap up and into the palace before anyone could stop him.

"Dammit." Kuja muttered, and started to climb up the statue. Blank and Beatrix followed suit, and the three of them scaled the statue, pounding rain lashing at them harder the higher up they went, before finally pulling themselves over the side, through a glassless windowframe and into the palace. This seemed to be some sort of forgotten walkway. Man-sized statues kept them from anyone seeing them from inside the bowl-shaped main area of the palace. The roof lay completely torn open like a gaping wound, and the sky continued to pour in rain. Kuja spotted Fratley crouching behind one of the many statues and urged Beatrix and Blank to follow him towards the Burmecian mercenary.

"What's-" Blank began but Fratley quickly shushed him, and gestured for silence, then pointed down into the open area. Keeping themselves concealed by the statues, they kept quiet and looking at what Fratley had been observing. There were three people there, talking amongst themselves.

"Zidane…" muttered Kuja.

"Zidane's here?" Beatrix wondered aloud. "So they really do believe Garnet is here… But why?"

"Sssh!" Blank hissed. "I can't hear what they're saying!"


"Where is it?!" Zidane hissed under his breath, looking around the open area at all the furniture, antiques and royal furnishings he'd destroyed in his search. "Where is it?!?"

"Where is what, my Lord?" Steiner asked.

Zidane frowned. "I'm a Duke, not a Lord." he muttered to himself and turned back to face Steiner. "I said, 'where is she?' You must have heard me wrong."

"Yes my Lord." said Steiner, then saluted. "My Lord! My knights will be returningat any moment! With luck, they'll know where these vermin are keeping our beloved Queen."

Not bloody likely, Zidane thought.

Vivi stayed quiet, as he had been throughout the entire invasion. It was nagging at him, why all this had happened. Zidane had claimed to have evidence that the Burmecians were behind the kidnapping of Queen Garnet, but how had he known that? Why had the Burmecians done this out of the blue, and no warnings or diplomacy had been attempted on either side. Zidane had simply shown his evidence to Steiner, and the next thing he knew, Vivi was being brought from tranquil Alexandria into the middle of a war zone.

…And all his brothers had been doing the fighting. Vivi didn't know why they couldn't seem to talk or think like him, and yet they were fighting this war. Zidane said that it was alright. The Black Mages didn't feel pain, so they couldn't get hurt, and besides, they were fighting for world peace, which was a noble cause. When he asked why he was the only one who could think and talk, Zidane simply told Vivi that he was… 'special'.

The clanking of armor startled him, then Vivi saw that it was two of Steiner's knights returning.

"Knights Blutzen and Kohel, reporting sir!" announced one with a salute.

"Only two of you?" Steiner observed.

"The others are still searching, sir." said Kohel. "We regret to report we still can't find a single lead or clue to the Queen's location."

"She must be here!" Steiner yelled. "Keep searching!"

"Wait!" said Zidane, suddenly. A new plan was forming. So the object of his searches was not here after all. Most likely the King had it on him. And the most likely place he would head for would be… Oh, how clever of them. And also, how utterly stupid. This would be his chance to take two birds with one stone.

"If they have all evacuated, then they would most likely have taken the Queen with them, no?" Zidane suggested. "Perhaps they still want to use her to hold your fair kingdom to ransom, eh Steiner?"

Steiner frowned, angered by the Burmecian's guile and also ashamed that he had let them get away with the Queen. "Where would they go, my Lord?" he asked. "The last I heard, this incredible Mage Soldiers of yours had blocked their escape route through Gizmaluke's Grotto."

"Precisely." Zidane said with a grin. His tactics weren't what amused him, though. He was remembering the special nasty little surprise he had left lying in wait for the Burmecians in the form of their precious Master Gizmaluke. He secretly wondered if anyone had been foolish enough to attempt to fight the sage-turned-psychopath. "So, that leaves them with one place to head to."

"Cleyra…" Fratley whispered at the same time as Zidane spoke it.

"If they escaped to Cleyra, then our task will get more difficult." said Steiner. "That sandstorm protects them."

"If the power of my Mage Soldiers has not impressed you here, I have something else that is sure to amaze you in Cleyra." Zidane hinted with a brief chuckle. "Okay," he said, his mood suddenly changing. "Order your troops to withdraw and converge on Cleyra, and…"

"Yes, my Lord?" Steiner asked.

"Garnet's airship, formerly her late mother's." said Zidane. "I hate to do this, but for what I have in mind, we really are going to require an airship."

Steiner looked grim for a moment, then saluted nobly. "A minor expense to the royal family, is a far more desirable one, than to the expense of a Queen's entire nation, her only life."

"I could'nt agree more." said Zidane, secretly wondering what the hell Steiner had just said.

"I will send word to Alexandria to have the ship sent to us." stated Steiner.

"No need for that." said Zidane. "I will return to Alexandria myself and bring it with me back here, then we'll rendevous with the armed forces in Cleyra."

Steiner mulled it over, then remembered it wasn't his place in lifeto question his betters. He merely saluted, then turned back to his knights. "Tell the other knights to regroup, then gather up all the soldiers and Mages. We're pulling out and heading for Cleyra."

"Yes sir!" the knights chimed in unison, saluted and ran off.


Kuja and Blank watched the knights go.

"So they're going to invade Cleyra next." Fratley growled.

"Cleyra?" Blank echoed. "Never been there before. I've always wondered why people call it the 'City of Illusion'."

"Cleyra has remained in isolation for a hundred years." Fratley explained. "If my people escaped to there, they'll be safe, at least for a while. The people of Cleyra are originally from Burmecia. Long ago, they severed ties with Burmecia over a trivial conflict. Now the kingdom is at peace, shielded by a large sandstorm."

"This madness has to end!" hissed Beatrix drawing her sword. "Many more are going to die because of their mis-understanding!" As she spoke, she began to sheath her sword and stand up.

"No!" gasped Kuja, but before they could stop her, Beatrix had already jumped down.

"What the-?" Zidane muttered in surprise. Vivi yelled out, then recognised the woman in front of them.

"Beatrix?!" Steiner gasped in surprise.

"Steiner!" she snapped. "What the hell are you doing?! End this madness! Your reason for this war is fraudulent! The Queen is not here, and she never was!"

"What?" Steiner gasped.

Zidane considered drawing his dagger on Beatrix. From what he knew of her, she was possible the greatest soldier in the world, but if he could take her by surprise… Then again, it might be better to just stand there and watch the scene play out. After all, he remembered Beatrix had followed Kuja and Garnet onto the Prima Vista. Perhaps she may come in useful. Besides, if Garnet and Kuja didn't know about his little deception, why should Beatrix?

"The Queen is not here!" Beatrix repeated. "I should know! I've been escorting her since we left Alexandria. The Burmecians had nothing to do with it! The kidnapping was done by an independent group!"

Before Steiner could reply, Zidane butt in. "Really?" he asked, running a hand through his hair. "Is that them now?"

Beatrix turned, and saw Kuja, Blank and Fratley leap down and rush to her side. Zidane and Kuja stared at each other.

"General?" said Steiner, looking for an explanation.

"Quite the motley crew, wouldn't you say?" said Zidane, smirking. "Tell me, aside from Beatrix, do any look familiar?"

Steiner squinted, staring at Beatrix's group. "…You." he said, recognising Kuja. "You were the one who kidnapped the Queen! I saw you swing onto the airship with her!"

"Right before Beatrix followed, I might add." Zidane pointed out.

"No!" said Beatrix. "I was in persuit!"

"Or is that just what she wanted us to think, Steiner?" goaded Zidane. "Didn't the fact that the Queen was able to be abducted so easily and the aggresors to beat our security not clue you in on what I suspected - that it must have been an inside job! A traitor in our midst! Working with the Burmecian terrorists!"

"How dare you…" Beatrix growled, resting a hand on her sword. Vivi stepped back from Zidane, nervous.

Steiner continued to look at Beatrix's group. There was the criminal Kuja, Zidane had told him about. There was another man, short and elfin-looking with red hair, clutching a sword. Steiner didn't know his name, but recognised his face from wanted posters. And finally, the icing on the cake, in the back, sporting a large spear was what looked like a Burmecian mercenary. Steiner's heart fell. Beatrix… no…

"Tell us!" Zidane snapped. "You kidnapped the Queen, you traitor! Where are you hiding her, Cleyra?"

"That's a lie and you know it!" Beatrix roared. "Steiner, please, believe me! I know where the Queen is, yes, but I played no part in her kidnapping!"

"So what are you doing in Burmecia?" Zidane asked with spite in his voice. Beatrix froze, realising the circumstantial evidence was mounting up against her.

"I…" she tried. "…I…" Instead, she looked imploringly at Steiner, her old teacher, begging him to believe her with just her honest face.

"Sir Steiner, you either believe me, or you believe her." Zidane judged. Steiner looked between them, torn. His lifelong friendship with his prize student, now implicated as a traitor, was going up against his fierce loyalty to both his Queen and his superior. In a situation like this, torn between personal feelings and duty, he let his nature make the decision. Never question orders from a superior. Nobles are born into power, appointed by the gods into a higher station in life. They are your betters, and it is not the place of a humble knight to question them.

"I am sorry, Beatrix." he sighed, meaning every word. "Though I want to, even my own eyes cannot allow me to believe you…"

"Yes." said Zidane, drawing his daggers.

"…No." Beatrix gasped softly. Kuja and the others softly drew their weapons.

"Traitors to the crown must die!" Zidane yelled.

"Crown?!" Beatrix snapped, realising what was going on. Steiner wasn't in charge of this, and never had been! Zidane was leading him on. Zidane was leading the entire nation of Alexandria on! Gods, Steiner, what have you done? "That crown belongs to Queen Garnet! You control our nation falsely!"

"Let's take him down!" Blank yelled, and the battle commenced. Vivi ran, back into the shadows. Beatrix charged on Zidane, but Steiner intercepted her, and they clashed. Neither of them believed they would ever be drawing swords on each other like this, and could hardly even believe they were fighting.Blank backed her up, but Steiner was surprisngly proving capable of handling both of them, since Beatrix was not giving her all.

Kuja and Fratley clashed with Zidane, who was proving to be an unbelievably tough opponent. For one, he was incredibly past, dodging their attacks with lightning speed and delivering his own before they could stop him. Also, he seemed to have similar abilities as Kuja, only more intense and yet controllable. Before long, he had both Kuja and Fratley on their knees, exhausted and hurting. Steiner quickly retreated to Zidane's side, allowing Beatrix, Blank, Fratley and Kuja time to regroup.

They stood as one, and readied themselves to take down Steiner and Zidane in an all-out assault.

"Vivi, Thundara." Zidane requested. There was no reply. He looked to his side to find the little mage gone. Damn! "Vivi! Where are you? I need your help!"

Vivi nervously looked out from his hiding place. Reluctantly, he nervously walked over to Zidane.

"Thundara!" Zidane requested again.


"But what?" Zidane asked.

"She claims she knows where the princess is!" Vivi blurted out. "Maybe she's telling the truth? We should listen to her, if finding the Queen is what we want."

"They're attacking us, trying to delay us so their collaborators can get away." Zidane explained in soothing towns. "Please, Vivi, I can't fight them for much longer. Help me with your magic."

Vivi hung his head, then turned towards Kuja's group. They stopped in their tracks.

"Whoa." said Blank. "Hey, nobody said anything about fighting kids! Nuh-uh, not me…"

Before he could continue, Vivi raised his head, streched out his arms and blasted the four of them with an incredibly powerful Thunder spell. Bolts shot between them, puddles in the ground and what was left of the roof. By the time the magic attack dissapated, they were all already on the ground, injured and unmoving.

Nobody heard Vivi whisper "Sorry…" to himself.

"Incredible…" Steiner gasped, then remembered his sadness at discovering Beatrix was a traitor. He looked at her, lying with her head in a puddle, and felt sorry, both for her and for himself. "What should we do with them?"

"Don't worry." said Zidane. "I'll take care of them myself. I'll take them back to Alexandria with me, where they can stand trial. In the meantime, go gather your troops. We leave for Cleyra as soon as possible."

Steiner saluted and ran off. Zidane waited until he couldn't hear the sound of clanking armor any more and turned to Vivi. "You should go with him." Zidane suggested. "Then, when I return, I'll give you that ride on an airship I promised you about."

Vivi nodded and slowly walked away. In truth, he didn't care any more about airships. Now he was really starting to worry about what he had done to those people. He knew it was wrong to suspect his only friend of lying, but there was something in Beatrix's voice Vivi could detect - an honest truth from the heart. And although he had only attacked them to help his friend, he realised then that he had been closer in that moment to the voiceless soulless Black Mages that had taken the city. That saddened him greater than anything else…


Fratley's body ached all over, but he was gradually able to open one eye and peer at the diminutive Black Mage, vanishing off in the distance. Then he saw Zidane's foot briefly step in and out of his field of vision.

"Well well." Zidane muttered. "Truth? I'm not taking you back to Alexandria. I still might have a use for you all, just yet. If I were you, I'd use as many Heal spells as you can, and start running to Cleyra."

He stepped over Blank, who was unconscious with few mild burns, but otherwise fine. Zidane rolled Beatrix over, to check that she was still breathing. Of course she was. She had learned some incredibly powerful Seiken spells. Surely her body was capable of resisting much stronger attacks. So, that just left Kuja…

"It's been a while." Zidane muttered, kneeling down in front of the albino assassin. "Do you remember me?"

Kuja stared at him, trying, but unable to speak. "You don't, do you?" Zidane chuckled. "Then you don't even remember who and what you really are? That's so funny. I'd pity you, if I didn't know how much you deserved it. But still, thanks for taking care of Garnet." He patted Kuja's cheek in a mock display of falsetto friendship. "I'll see you around, 'Angel of Death'."

With that, Zidane stood up, ignoring the raindrops bombarding them all. He gave them all one last look, then walked away, vanishing into the shadows. Eventually, his footsteps vanished from hearing, and he was gone. They lay there, cold, hurting and bathing in the rain. Immobile, but alive. Kuja tried to get back on his feet, but instead collapsed, and lay there, unconscious.

As ever, the rain continued to fall.