Hey guys, sorry that this took longer! Everything is starting to heat up now...

Thornmage: Umm...why would it be replica!Riku? Though it would be interesting to include him, I don't see that working...


Baralai sighed as he sifted through the ever-growing pile of paperwork on his desk. Life is never simple, he thought sullenly. He looked critically around the room that he now lived and worked in. Clutter was everywhere: many important documents; treaties, records, spheres of the past, and shopping lists had been tangled and confused with various articles of clothing (with a frown, he noticed his bathrobe was still missing. Rikku!), plates of half-eaten food, his toothbrush, and Gippal.

He blinked. What was Gippal doing there? Had the stress of being a politician finally cracked the Praetor's mind?

"Hey Barry," said Gippal with a slight slur to his words. "What you up to?" Ok, that was definitely Gippal. Annoying nicknames, one-eyed, and tipsy.

"Paperwork," muttered Baralai. "I tell you, you're lucky, only having to tinker with a few machina for a living." He sighed, and glared venomously at the files strewn over his desk. "Politics…so much for the Eternal Calm. I haven't had a split-second of Calm the last two years, what with Vegnagun, and now this." He snorted and plonked himself down on his chair.

"Plus all your guards are dead," offered Gippal helpfully. Baralai went rigid in his chair.

"W-what?" he stammered, shocked.

Gippal just shrugged. "How else do you think I got in here? Apparently, according to one of your monks, some crazy lady in a cape came in and butchered them all, then waltzed down to Vegnagun's chamber and into the Farplane." He had to suppress a smirk as he saw the growing expression of horror on Baralai's face. "Oh, and on the way down she nicked Bahamut's Fayth statue."

"You sound awfully cheerful about it." Said Baralai with a sigh.

"Me? I don't let get stuff get me down. It'll work out." Said the Al Bhed with an air of dismissal. Baralai frowned.

"That's taking optimism to the extreme, Gippal. All the guards dead, someone's broken into the Farplane- which, I remind you, is exactly what Yuna was warning us about in the first place-, and no Fayth statue to boot!"

Just then, there came a whirring buzz from the commsphere that had somehow wound up in the trashcan. Gingerly, Baralai leaned over to grab it, and placed it on his desk, knocking a pile of filthy…something…onto the floor as he did so. He switched it on, and a hologram of Nooj was projected over the top.

"Eww!" Said Gippal in a deliberately high girly voice. Both of the other Faction leaders ignored him.

"Baralai, said Nooj, sounding distressed. "I…I'm afraid I've got bad news."

"You failed your suicide attempt again?" asked Gippal sympathetically. Nooj just scowled and refocused on Baralai.

"My Youth League members in Kilika have told me that someone broke into the temple and stole the Fayth statue there." Gippal didn't have a response to that.

"Another one?" asked Baralai hoarsely. "The one in Bevelle has been stolen, too." He frowned. "Why didn't my own men in Kilika tell me this?"

"They're all dead. He killed them."

"He?" asked Gippal, genuinely curious, ignoring the look of horror spreading over Baralai's face yet again. "That's odd. It was a She over here."

"They must be working as a group," confirmed Nooj. "This man was wearing a black trench coat with a hood. Was she?" Gippal nodded slowly.

"We need to alert the other temples, fast!" said Baralai in a panic. "There can't be that many of them, we-"

"It doesn't matter how many there are," said Gippal with a frown. "If one of them can take out the whole of New Yevon's guards, do you really think we'd be helping by putting more of our men to get butchered out there?"

"But…we can't just not tell them!"

"The thieves are probably already at the other temples." Said Nooj quietly. Baralai laughed derisively.

"No one can travel that fast, Nooj."

"They can when they can teleport." Gippal just nodded, but Baralai looked confused.

"I studied magic for three years, Nooj." He said firmly. "And I'm telling you now that teleportation is not possible."

"And I'm and telling you that the man teleported away." Baralai groaned and held his head in his hands, thunking it on the desk. Could this day get any worse?

"Oh ramm." Said Rikku nervously. "This is not good."

The good news? There was only one Heartless left.

The bad news? It was the size of a giant, and it refused to go down. On the way down to the Chamber of the Fayth, the party had encountered Heartless that were roughly human shaped, about two-thirds the size, completely black with long antenna. Riku had called them 'NeoShadows'. But this one was a lot larger than a NeoShadow; where they had been swift and evasive, this one was brutal and unrelenting. Instead of antenna, it had black tendrils that seeped off from its head like some kind of crazy hairstyle.

"So," asked Paine, itching for a fight with this new challenge. "What's this one called?"

"Darkside," said Riku with a smirk. "I took on one of these before. They're all show."

"All by yourself?" said Tidus incredulously.

"I did a lot of stuff on my own, for a long time." Rikku looked at him curiously. Of course- his world had been destroyed. Did that mean all the people he had known there were obliterated, too? She was starting to see him in a different light now: she could feel another Paine case coming on. Doesn't talk much, mysterious past, hardship, etc.Typical emo, she fought dryly, then laughed. She realised she had just done that out loud.

Considering the comment preceding her outburst, that wasn't going to go down well.

"What?" asked Riku, irritated.

"Oh, err…nothing."

"Minus five respect points, Rikku." Said Paine nonchalantly. The blond girl sat down on the stone, annoyed now.

"Oh, poopie," she muttered. "Can't we just fight the bad guy and go home?"

"Come on!" shouted Yuna, and pulled out her guns for a round of trigger-happy. She hit the ugly beast right in the face, and it roared in pain. Rikku sat up and whipped out her twin daggers.

"Lets see what Heartless have to steal!" she whispered to herself with a grin. She sprinted up to Darkside, exchanging both daggers to one hand as she went. She trailed her fingers alongside the Heartless' flank, shivering at the cold touch. There was a small glow, and suddenly she was holding a small metal object in her hand. Without pausing to see what it was, she thrust it into her belt and doubled back on herself to attack the creature. It grunted at the sharp slash on its leg, but that was the least of its worries. Already it had suffered several sword gashes from Riku, Tidus and Paine, bullet-wounds in the face from Yuna, along with some potent black magic, also from Riku.

Snarling, it launched an all-out offensive. It lifted its clawed hand into the air, and it began to pulse and glow with dark energy. When the sphere had been fully charged, it released itself up to the ceiling of the dome, then split into many shards and came raining down upon the party.

"Watch out!" someone cried, but Rikku couldn't discern who. The Heartless had used the last of its power in a kamikaze attack, and she was thrown to the floor as the first bubble of darkness impacted, sending shockwaves through the stone.

She saw a shard fall toward her, and she stood rooted to the spot, staring at it open-mouthed. Her mind screamed at her to move, but her body wasn't listening. Closer, closer…

Rikku felt something tackle her, and she was pinned to the ground. The shard shattered on the space where she had just been standing. Soon the last of them had fallen, and she realised her nose was itching. Something was tickling it- a strand of silver hair.

"Riku!" she laughed, and pushed him off her, trying to hide her blush. "You pervie!"

"On the contrary, my friend." He said with a smile. "I had no such intention, you only interpreted it that way." He pointed a finger at her accusingly. "You are the pervert, not me!"

The blonde Al Bhed just pouted and turned her head away from him, again, trying to hide her blush, but failing. Tidus, Yuna and Paine looked at each other knowingly, amused by the flirting.

"You looked quite comfy there, Rikku." Said Tidus with a smirk.

"Hey!" said the blonde girl, thoroughly ticked off now.

"Perhaps you should almost get yourself killed more often, there might be a nice reward…"

"Stop picking on me!" She whined, holding her head in hands. Perhaps, if she had looked up, she would have seen Riku was blushing, too. Perhaps.

"Alright, lets get back to the airship. We're done here." Said Yuna, smiling at the reluctant chemistry between the two.

"So, ah, where do you think the new guy is from, hey Lu?" asked Wakka to his wife. The two were sitting on the grassy bank over Besaid River, Lulu cradling a sleeping Vidina in her lap. This was their favourite spot for relaxing.

"I'm not sure," she said quietly, stroking Vidina's hair. "He seems friendly enough…but his power is shocking. To teleport is incredible on its own, but he teleported while he was unconscious."

Wakka frowned. "That wasn't what I asked, ya?" Lulu was quiet for a moment, and then continued.

"He did not recognise Besaid when he saw it. Perhaps he is not of Spiran origin."

"What if he's from Zanarkand, like Tidus, ya?" speculated the red haired blitzer. Lulu frowned.

"Perhaps…though Tidus' Zanarkand was a dream, and has been destroyed. Perhaps he time-travelled from our Zanarkand."

"No, no, that wouldn't work." Said Wakka. "If he was, he'd still know about other places in Spira."

"Not from Zanarkand, then." Agreed Lulu. "But…where?"

"Ah, the mysteries of the worlds." Came a voice from behind them. The two lovers jumped in surprise and stood up hastily to face the newcomer. Lulu held Vidina close to her chest.

He was wearing the same black trench coat that Riku had, but he was more heavily built. He was older, in his thirties. He had short blond hair, and bristly stubble of the same colour. His blue eyes regarded them with light amusement, and he bore a cruel smile. On his left ear hung a small, silver earring of a strange, spiky symbol. In his left hand he held a deck of cards.

"Who are you, eh?" said Wakka defensively.

"I am Luxord," said the man smoothly. "Not that you'll live long enough for it to matter!"

"Lu!" cried Wakka, taking his Blitzball from where it had been resting on the grass. "Take Vidina and run!"

"I'm not letting you fight alone!" she retorted hotly. She lowered Vidina onto the ground behind her gently, and then grabbed her moogle doll that had been discarded earlier. It was covered in bite marks and saliva by Vidina, but it would do.

Luxord just smiled. "I'm afraid you've made a big mistake, lady." He lifted up his cards and flicked them between his hands expertly. "If you're going to gamble, you should first know that this is my game." Without warning, the cards grew to a massive size, floating around him like a shield. He grabbed two and held them like swords, their edges shining in the sunlight, for they had been lined with sharp steel. "Do you know the rules?"

Wakka bellowed and threw his Blitzball at him, but one of the cards blocked it, shattering into shards of a strange, silvery substance, which faded slowly. Lulu saw her opening and aimed a Firaga spell through the gap, but by the time it got there another card had filled in.

"I believe it's my turn." Said the cloaked man, clearly amused. "Hastaja!" he yelled, and the cards spun faster around him, moving in a blur to quick to see.

Wakka felt something smash into his stomach, winding him, and he began to topple off the edge. Then, Luxord appeared in front of him with a grin, twirling his weapons around in a deadly circle. He had moved so fast, Wakka felt the hit before he saw it.

Lulu saw Wakka splash into the river below, and with a jolt of fear realised they could not win. With a cry she grabbed Vidina, and jumped into the water after her husband.

She forgot she couldn't swim, and neither could Vidina.

She panicked under the water, and precious air bubbles escaped her through her mouth. Vidina tried to bawl, but only got a lungful of water. Then, strong arms gripped her around the waist. The surface rushed nearer…

Air. She breathed it in anxiously, and lifted Vidina high up, keeping him as far from the deadly liquid as possible. She felt reassured in Wakka's firm hold as he carried them further downstream. She noticed the current had taken them far already; and she could no longer see the mysterious man who had bested them so easily.

Luxord chuckled as he watched them float away. Two still alive wouldn't matter. The games were just beginning, and victory was guaranteed.

Proof-read this after my friend commented on falling levels of SGP. Hopefully some of it will be a bit easier on the eyes now. Next chapter coming soon, along with proof-reads of the others.