Any beliefs expressed throughout my story are not my own. They are simply unique to the characters and their personalities. Just wish to clarify that.

Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy or anything related to it. If I did, FF12 would already be getting a direct PS2 or PS3 sequel. I also don't own any other anime, manga, or game that I take elements or characters from.

"Blah" = talking

"Blah" = thoughts, writing, sound effects, or flashbacks

"BLAH"= Yelling

(Blah)= scene change


Water and stray fish parted alike as the galleon cut its swathe through the murky depths of Sea of Ewohl, waves noiselessly receding nearly as soon as they originated. The moon shone down as best it could through the lingering cumulus in the sky and cast a pale glow here and there throughout an otherwise dark sea.

Other than the water, little noise could be heard from the ship, except for the controlled footsteps of a Hume upon the main deck. Dancing fire in lanterns nearby brought illumination to his shrouded features from time to time, specifically the messy strands of silver hair peeking out from underneath his olive-hued hat and the matching shinobi garbs shrouded by a dusty ragged cloak that fell from his shoulders.

As quiet as he was, the Viera staring out over the bow could sense his presence, and she gradually turned to face him. Summoner's garments, the green cape flowing down her back and beaded trinkets woven with the finest craftsmanship of her kin, all shifted with the rocking of the boat. One of the nearby slivers of moonlight cast enough of a glow to de-shadow the solid white of her irises and hewn tusk of a headpiece jutting from her forehead.

Their eyes met, and he stopped, a twinge of empathy hidden under his impassive tone. "You've been out here for a while." His voice was a bit muffled by the mask covering his mouth, but his words rang no less clear under her sharp hearing. He waited for a response, then spoke again. "What are you thinking about?"

"Which do you think is greater, the sun or the moon?" She asked solemnly, leaning against the railing and turning back to face the latter celestial body.

"I don't follow what you're saying." He admitted after some time. "Logically, the sun would be greater, since the moon shines under its light."

She continued in an attempt to explain. "Peace can be likened unto the sun and the moon. The peace of war, achieved only after ravaging everything in its path. So is the sun, which chars the sky black to bring about night." Her gaze would not tear from the sky. "Then, the peace of benevolence which heals both wounds and former bonds alike, so scarce that it shines like a lantern in the darkness. So is the moon, the luminous beacon that guides man and heals the sky to bring about the morn."

"Interesting." He remarked, pondering the observation while leaning himself against a nearby mast. When it felt like she had finished the conversation, he decided to return to her previous question. "When you put it that way, I believe the moon to be greater."

A hidden smile came to her face, one that he didn't see. "I, too, think so."

At length, after simply enjoying a comfortable silence in each other's presence, he gave her a nod, stood from his lean, and headed back across the deck, speaking out as he did so. "Make sure to get some sleep. We will arrive in a few more days, and rest is a necessity."

"Maquis." The Ninja inclined his head at the mention of his name, and he noticed her still staring out onto the open sea.

"Yes, Alys?"

"Under which do we dwell, the sun or the moon?"

At that, the Hume watched her back for a few seconds, the answer clear in his head but refusing to exit his mouth. Finally, he continued walking, speaking over his shoulder just before he closed the door to the lower quarters behind him, tenderness in his voice lost in the depths of some deep regret.

"The sun."

His answer, one that she already knew in her heart to be true, failed to alter the look on her face. Streams of moonlight cascading down grew thicker as their source moved out from behind clouds, and she could not help but stare longingly at its form while the shrill cries of seagulls echoed in the distance.

A foreboding discussion…


Cheney

The king gallops, the hunter draws

The king smashes the bones underneath, the hunter aims clearly

The king's prideful howl resounds, the arrow blasts forth

Chapter Fifty Three: Hunter and Hunted 2


An hour before Barley's signal…

The crashing sea water against the dock's wooden support beams and the warm gust that blew about were two of the few sounds that permeated the Grazton docks. Amongst their billows, the winds carried the voices of workers, heavyset Bangaa eager to finish up the night's haul or dedicated captains double-checking inventory, across the expanse of the waterfront, climbing up to and settling on the roofs of warehouses and their ilk.

Three figures sat atop one such roof, each shadowed form as different as the last. Anrias stepped in front of the other two, armed with an extendable spyglass. The lavender scholar robe with which he'd become identified by was switched in favor of a midnight-hued smock complete with hood, with his colorful tail sticking out from beneath and his familiar satchel strap crossing his torso at a diagonal. Behind him, Cheney and Vili sat in a ready crouch, the former dressed in a solid black pullover and pants, the latter's Assassin garb already a well enough blend of the night to warrant its stay. The usual huntsman's hat customary of his job was all but gone, revealing his chocolate-colored locks. A full leather-coated quiver hung over his back, fletches of neutral toned feathers standing erect like potted flowers.

The dock, considering the proximity to midnight, was strangely lively in Cheney and Vili's opinion from what they had heard on the way to their current position, and both grew fearful that the operation was too large for a three man team to handle. To Grazton native Anrias, though, the liveliness of the city harbor was but a staple of the town's tourism and fishing industry. Supplying forty five percent of Jylland's overall fish consumption took near around the clock work, and he made sure to relegate to the Gully members that the influx of workers would cause no hamper to their plans.

Said Nu Mou brought the spyglass to his right eye and peered through. Just as the boisterous shouts and guffaws hinted, he could clearly make out the leathery scales of the bipedal lizards as they passed by hung lanterns. The conical device's eyepiece never stayed on one spot for more than a few seconds, turning with Anrias's head as he scanned the long row of galleons, clippers, and frigates, lined end to end parallel to the dock with thin strips of walkway separating each.

After some length of time, just as Cheney opened his mouth to speak, a grin parted on the journalist's mouth. "Here we are." He handed the spyglass to Cheney, then directed his sight towards one of the more dimly lit ships near the end. Two words lay etched on the side, which the Nu Mou read aloud as he continued. "The Mercantile 05. That's the ship in the information we received from Lady Francesca."

The Hunter observed the ship for himself. From what visibility there was, he could make out the two masts like tree trunks rising form the deck, each sprouting a column of ivory sails that shrunk in tandem with height. The easily recognizable cobalt 'JM' emblem lay on the middle sail. Below that, deck hands scurried about; some carrying small boxes while others joined forces to haul massive crates.

"That's it for sure." Cheney confirmed, handing the collapsed telescope back to Anrias before shifting around so that he faced both of them. "Everyone ready?"

"What exactly are we expecting here?" Anrias queried.

"Who knows…" The Hume's face made clear his disdain for his lack of an answer. "We're not sure how many people on that boat work for Khamja. Either way, if the others want a shot at getting Beltorey and Cid back, we can't be too covert. We're the distraction."

"Quite the conundrum. Do either of you have a plan?"

Cheney and Vili blinked in unison, then glanced at each other.

"Sneak on then raise hell?"

"Fine with me."

Anrias could only stare it them in silence, then shrugged, sigh escaping his mouth.

"That will have to suffice, I suppose."

The two clan mates shrugged, and all three set a course down the rust endowed fire escape that had granted them rooftop access before. On their ascent and prerequisite path towards the lowtown, Anrias had discovered how little shape his desk job had brought upon his body through the shallow breaths that would leave his throat from time to time, and as they reached the alleyway ground, he resolved to return to an active lifestyle once work shared some of its time.

On Cheney's orders, the three exited the building-fashioned corridor at different outlets and regrouped on the main boardwalk, keeping a few dozen feet between them. The Hunter wasn't willing to draw any more attention than need be, specifically as they drew upon the ship.

Despite his precautions, Vili reasoned that those wandering the pathway would doubtless even pay them mind. Those that weren't hefting goods or tools seemed to be, as Ensei had once put it during happy hour at a Vieg Town pub, 'wasted out of their mind'. Most held their wits about them enough to walk in a straight line, though a growing number had to be carried by more sober compatriots. Her professional lineage had kept the Viera from ever considering partaking of any substance that could dull senses to such an extent. She had to admit, though; the exaggerated attempts at singing and hoisting of half-empty liquor bottles by those she passed had made the subsequent stumbling seem worth it.

The rubble-rousers seemed to thin out as The Mercantile 05 came within sight, replaced by much quieter workers curling ropes or performing other menial tasks. Anrias didn't seem to notice, but their drilling stares set off Cheney and Vili's sense of caution, and both made sure to reaffirm the position of their respective short-edged weapons. They had since shortly condensed the distance between them, close enough to support each other in the case of a confrontation.

They finally came upon the ship in question within the minute, Cheney giving it a once over and noticing it was even larger than he had assumed. A steady stream of workers moved over the boarding plank, most carrying the crates he had seen from the spyglass, while the presumed captain, a rough Hume, kept check of what exited the ship on a makeshift clipboard.

"And just who are you?" That same captain barked out as the trio approached.

"An inspector." Cheney lied firmly. At his statement, the Hume quirked an eyebrow, prompting him to continue. "We're here to perform a search of the ship. Are you the captain?"

The man's eyes continued to shift suspiciously between the three. "First mate. We didn't have any warning for any inspection tonight. Let me see some proof.

The Hunter turned his head back towards Anrias and mouthed a few silent words. A glint sparked in the journalist's eye as understanding came and he quickly reached inside his messenger bag, retrieving the small stack of records they had pilfered from the Jytras Mercantile office. Upon receiving them, Cheney held them up in the man's face. "We received word of suspicious activity on this ship's last docking, so orders came to inspect it tonight."

The first mate poured over the lead paper, its authenticity slowly dawning on his skeptical demeanor. At some length, he leaned back to an erect standing position, then shrugged.

"Fine. I'll let the captain deal with this."

He motioned for them to follow, and they moved without hesitation. Workers from upon the ship peered down over the railing to gain a look at the sudden commotion, watching as the group ascended the boarding ramp onto the ship proper. There were not as many as he thought, Cheney noted; a motley crew of only fifteen or so Bangaa and Humes, including the first mate, who seemed too tired to pay them any more mind. Though there was a chance more resided in the vessel's deeper reaches.

What caught his interest immediately after was what seemed to be numerous cages lining the side of the ship, sizes varying and each one covered rust-colored canvas. The fact that rumbling seemed to emanate from some while others jerked occasionally only served to top off his suspicions.

"Before we see the captain, let me take a look at that cage."

Pausing on the request, the first mate eyed it. It was easily the largest of the lot, the outline of thick metal bars clearly visible from underneath its cover. As Cheney drew closer to it, he could feel a chilling sensation even from under his clothes, and a low growl grew more pronounced with each step. With one heave, he threw the canvas from the cage, eyes widened in full.

Cobalt scales as hard as steel covered the beast' reptilian form, departing only to give way to an equally hard, red-tinged underbelly. Both, however, were equally covered with numerous scabs and gashes, at first assumed to be signs of age and battle prowess but on further inspection revealed to be much more recent than that. Redder than its underside were its eyes, full of some mixture of defiance and bestial pride, locked solely on the Hunter's form in front of him. Its scaled wings were bunched in close to its body to conserve the limited space it had, and with every rise and fall of its chest, a plume of frosted air wafted from its fanged maw. The beast continued to tug on the adamantine collar surrounding the base of its neck which the Hunter assumed held its frigid breath in check, unable to move its chain-bound arms and legs.

Cheney regarded the Icedrake with an unusual combination of respect and sympathy. Not many Hunters or Blue Mages had the chance to stand this close to one, for by no means were dragons tolerant of sentient creatures in their proximity. If Lezaford's Thundrake was any indication, though, such a notion was not impossible to alter. Even so, the icy dragon crouched calmly, its growling slowly decreasing as the two stared each other down until finally it fell completely silent.

"Did you know…" The Hunter did not look away from the dragon as his subdued voice reached the crew's ears. "Icedrakes have the second lowest procreation rate among dragon kind. The JDP extensively regulates and limits their capture. There isn't a company that could legally obtain one." His head craned around gradually, and his almost-bestial stare unnerved the first mate. "So tell me…where did this one come from?"

"That'd be my capture there, kid."

The sound of a creaking door opening accompanied the deep, bewitching voice, and every head spun around to its origin. An emerald-hued, overlapping scaled helmet sat on a Bangaa's broad shoulders, curving upward to encase the entirety of his long snout. His chest was less well protected; a simple leathery breastplate that ran down into an above-ankle length kilt of a similar, darker material. A thick, solid white lance rested in his grip, no doubt at least seven feet tall standing upright, if not more. Its leading end held its only flaw, numerous dark red stains that lightened as they drew away from the tip. Vili recognized this as dried blood instantly, and could not help but wonder at the Dragoon's imposing form as he sauntered toward Cheney, wood creaking beneath with each hefty step.

Khamja Poaching Operations Leader: Kain Kimahri

"Quite the fight, that one was." The Bangaa continued, a serpentine hiss echoing within his helmet depths. "Those nighttime blizzards in the Aldanna Range are pretty rough. Had to fight the beast blind. Almost killed me twice." His callous hand subtly went to his opposite side, as if caressing some hidden wound.

"Am I correct to assume you're the captain?" Cheney barely managed to hold his temper in check.

"Aye, Kain Kimahri. Who wants to know?" The Hume watched the Bangaa for a few moments. Then, as he opened his mouth to respond, realization came upon the Dragoon. "Wait…wait a second. I've seen your face before. Don't tell me...Cheney Galliformes…"

A shiver of fear ran up the huntsman's spine as the reptilian warrior recited his name. His hand, subtly and subconsciously, inched closer to the dagger at his side, and his other palm strengthened its grip on the bow slung over his shoulder. "How do you know who I am?"

Vili could almost feel the malicious grin under the Dragoon's helmet. "Oh I know you quite well, Galliformes. Been hearing many a complaint about you recently. Your snooping around in Targ Wood ended up costing us two hundred thousand gil in merchandise, and ever since Ewen's been on my tail about getting rid of you."

Cheney was too wrapped up in the conversation to notice, but the ship crew had gradually begun to form a circle around him, Vili, and Anrias, something that the latter two had silently picked up on. Amidst this, the Viera allowed herself a moment to spot her Hume clansmen reaching for his dagger, and was keenly aware the situation was about to dissolve into a fight. Her mind immediately began running through possible plans and tactics as the Bangaa kept on.

"Look I'm a fair sport, and I'm not a fan of preying on the weak." Kain chuckled, this time more neutrally, while using his lance as a walking stick. "If you stay out of our business, I can get you a pardon with the higher-ups. What do you say?"

"I cannot…" Cheney whispered out at length, voice gradually growing. "Knowing what you people do, I cannot simply sit back and pretend it doesn't exist."

The Dragoon studied the Hunter's eyes, mixture of ferocity and steel the likes he hadn't seen in quite a while in a Hume. A heavy sigh resounded through his helmet, and he managed one last glance at him. "Well, that's unfortunate, kid."

Suddenly, Kain's foot moved backwards, kicking the bottom of his lance up so that he caught its grip as it reached a parallel to the wooden boards below. Without missing a beat, he lunged its sharpened end forward, dried blood-covered tip a darkened blur. Cheney's hand went up on instinct alone, and the dagger he'd been fingering with it. The two weapons collided with a ring, but the combined weight of the lance and power behind the Dragoon's attack effectively knocked the Hume's arm away. The exchange sent a strain rippling through Cheney's arm, but force of will had allowed him to retain the dagger and hope came back in stride upon successfully deflecting the weapon to the side, leaving the Bangaa's midsection wide open.

That hope was short lived. Even as his lance was knocked away, Kain's free hand was already shooting forward, something that the Hume had neither the time nor momentum to counter. The leathery underside of his gloves wrapped around Cheney's neck. Then, he hoisted him up gradually as his opponent struggled for air and freedom, the former more so than the ladder. Kain spoke hushed and low.

"Suppose we'll get you that pardon the hard wa—"

The metallic sound of rasping steel interrupted the Bangaa, and his head instinctively whipped around. Just as he did, the Viera Cheney had brought with him was slashing across the midsection of one of his men, blood spurting from narrow, shallow gash she had created. In the same movement, she twirled her body around and descended into a tight crouch before her leg came out. The low sweep did enough to fox the man's balance, and he hit the deck with a thud, rolling over and presumably out of the fight.

The Bangaa's eyes locked onto the first mate, who stood shocked from the Assassin's sudden attack. "Prepare the boat! We're shipping out. The rest of you are to detain them." The remaining crew moved on the orders immediately, the first mate and a helper bolting towards the anchor station while the rest charged Vili and Anrias, who had since huddled in back to back. Seeing the situation turn in his favor, he looked back to the Hume in his grip. "Last chance, Galliformes. Stay out of Khamja business."

Cheney, still struggling for breath, raised his hand and directed a finger towards the encaged dragon, a grave look in his eye. "Not until you stay out of mine."

"Got some backbone, do you?" Contradictory to what Cheney had assumed, the Bangaa's voice danced with some elated mirth. "That's good. It'll make it that much more satisfying to crush it under my boots."

"Sorry, but that's not in the plan."

As his last word exited his mouth, the Hunter's lips remained parted, stretching out until his maw was completely agape. It took Kain a few seconds to understand what was happening. The Hume's eyes rolled back into his head, but it was not until a soft azure glow shone in the back of his throat that the lance-wielder arched his weapon of choice back, preparing to pierce his opponent's rib cage before he could use his blue magic.

His efforts proved a second too late. The glow cut off at the peak of his rearing back, immediately replaced by the bursting roar of what could only be described as the fury of mother nature herself. The sound actually made shockwaves in the air, and the ship shook with the recoil. At the forefront of it all, Kain could only release a strained grunt of his own, dropping Cheney from his scaly grasp to protect what was left of his hearing.

As his feet touched the deck, Cheney stumbled and fought through the pain the Dragoon's grip had brought to his neck to quickly retrieve his bow from his shoulder after pocketing the dagger in its sheath. Years of practice had brought swiftness to his arrow placement; the motion of drawing the fletched shaft and pulling on the taut string nearly a single fluid motion, one that Kain hoped to prevent as he regained his disturbed senses. The missile shot forward simultaneously with the lance, however the former did so unexpectedly. It lacked the speed to do so, but the wind in the arrow's wake sang with a rumble akin to the trampling of a hundred chocobo and as it collided with the Bangaa's plated shoulder, a sound much greater than the Hunter's roar preceded a condensed explosion of wind and noise.

The resulting blast was not a direct hit, but was enough to blow the heavy Dragoon back, his covered spine slamming against the closest ship mast while the lance clattered to the deck. Cheney allowed himself a moment to breathe deeply, watching, waiting for him to move. Five seconds passed, and none came. His lifeless form remained static, and with that the huntsman took advantage of the lull to glance around the deck.

Vili and Anrias, surprisingly, looked to be holding their own against the deck hands. The former found it an easy task dodging, weaving around, and parrying the strikes from inexperienced hands wielding whatever blunt object they could use for a weapon; even easier slashing at an exposed leg or side. Anrias himself had told his cohorts before his lack of professional magical training, but witnessing the miniscule jolts of some presumed lightning spell and how he cringed every time one would down an enemy proved to perform effectively enough.

The creaking of armor caused Cheney's attention to refocus on the Dragoon, a fresh arrow trained on the Bangaa's gradually standing form. Both stood silent, but there was now a certain heaviness about them. A grave aura now comprised Kain's demeanor and stance, a far cry from his original playful haughtiness. The crank's noise alone signaled the ascent of the anchor, and the heavy spinning of the wheel could barely be heard over electric jolts and sword strikes.

Kain bee lined towards Cheney with warning, lance leading the charge. To his credit, the Hunter didn't seem at all surprised by his headlong rush and, when he was sure, let his arrow fly. Anticipating this, the Dragoon sidestepped without losing stride, then thrust forward as the arrow whizzed by. The Hunter managed to backpedal at that moment, the tip's sharp end failing to impale his gut but the displaced wind picking up where it fell short.

The force collided with the Hume's gut, and he wouldn't have time to contemplate the force necessary for such a feat; the Bangaa's lance had already spun upwards and was now plummeting in a vertical sweep. Shrugging off the lingering soreness, Cheney threw his bow up in a horizontal block, both hands firmly gripped on the bow. The crack of steel and wood was like a thunderbolt, and the Hunter's resolve kept his legs from buckling.

The lance slid off the hewn bark with a muffled rasp as Cheney decided to lean into his opponent's strength. His choice left the Bangaa's left side open and the lance on the opposite end, but just as he brought his bow around in a swing, that same lance came around in a strike at his own side. Both weapons traveled at the same speed despite their obvious weight difference, but Cheney instinctively knew he'd be hard pressed to take another hit by that spear. It was with that thought in mind that he abandoned his attack in favor of ducking, the lance's sweep ruffling the top of his head.

Kain lost no time, shooting his leg forward right into the now crouched Hume's sternum. The Hunter nearly regretted his decision to dodge as pain neurons fired and his body skidded to a halt a good ten feet away. Even during his skid, his hand was already grabbing hold of a fletch, then drawing back on the bowstring. While not infused with the power of a Sonic Boom, the resulting shot still managed to pierce into the Dragoon's upper torso armor.

Kain seemed less than phased by the attack, not even bothering to inspect the lodged arrow much less remove it. It didn't take Cheney long to realize he was fighting a losing battle, but something had triggered inside him during this fight, and he wasn't sure what. As he stood to his feet, back a yard away from the Icedrake's cage, he jokingly entertained the thought that these poached animals were giving him the strength to stand up to the beast before him.

The Dragoon sauntered forward, swinging the lance over his shoulder; all the while, the Hume took slow steps backwards until his back pressed against the cage bars. He could feel the frigid snorts of the drake on his clothes. "You can't take me in close combat, Galliformes."

"Any chance we can bring that pardon back to the table?"

"Afraid not." As Kain began to speak, he slowly withdrew his dagger, making sure of his subtlety. The Bangaa readied his weapon, tip trained on the spot over his left lung. His tone gave away the smirk hidden under his helmet. "A shame to kill a fellow huntsman, but necessity's quite the nagging harlot."

The Hunter didn't blink as the lance shot forward, his dagger freeing itself of the sheath on instinct more than reason. However, before either could comprehend the Hume's move, a horrendous screech sounded and Kain leaped back as he felt his spear being knocked away. His and Cheney's eyes adjusted to rest the weathered form of Vili, nodachi still vibrating from its contact with the spear.

"We took care of the crew, and Anrias went to secure an escape boat." She whispered to him, keeping eyes trained on the enemy. True to her words, a number of Bangaa and Hume bodies laid strewn about the floor, most still retaining the steady rise and fall of their chest. "We need to leave."

"Not before I free these creatures. Can you hold him off?"

"I won't make any promises."

With that, she burst forth in a low run, sending out another slash to intercept Kain's piercing lance. Keeping pace, she then arched forward into a half somersault before twisting her body mid-motion to deliver a sweeping kick to the Dragoon's chin. The blow connected with ease, but other than the momentum carrying the Bangaa's snout with the kick's flow, he again seemed undeterred by the attack. Rather, he brought his lance back around in his own sweep. Acting quickly, Vili pushed up with all her strength, sending her airborne and into a flip which eventually placed her on her feet a yard away.

While the two continued to exchange blows, Cheney scanned the surroundings. He could clearly see Anrias's form fiddling with a rowboat hung from the ship's side. The Nu Mou had warned them earlier of the failings of their coated shoes: like ice, the resin quickly dissolves in high concentrations of salt, essentially making them useless outside of freshwater. Even more, he hadn't noticed how much the ship had drifted, late evening winds doing more than their fair share of work to put them a good hundred yards from the shore, though still well within the harbor.

Deciding to get to work before that distance increased, the Hunter spun around to the caged Icedrake, the scaled beast eyeing him carefully. The chains themselves were nothing elaborate, their number and manner of constriction the only thing hindering the beast from ripping them like yarn. Swords ringing off one another a few yards behind him necessitated his haste, and his dagger went to work on some of the more noticeable weak links in the chains.

Gradually after painstaking minutes, each string of metal relaxed one at a time under the filing of the Hunter's edge, the drake's eyes locked on the constantly moving Dragoon as it tugged for its freedom. Dragon kind weren't known for their friendliness, and Cheney was grateful that he wasn't the target of its attention. He didn't know what to expect once the beast was freed, revenge or senseless rampage, but if the sound of Vili's form colliding with a mast was any reassurance, he hadn't the time to ponder.

"You're even better than the Hunter, girl." The Hume watched out of his periphery as the Dragoon spoke. A few more gashes had been carved across the pieces of his armor, but it didn't seem like she had landed any significant blow. "It really is a shame I have to kill you all. It's rare to find even a minimal challenge these days."

Vili had only a few scrapes and torn fabric to show for the exchange, but she looked completely exhausted, a layer of sweat soaking her fur. Regardless, she readied herself as he sauntered closer.

"Vili! Jump now!"

Everything happened in the very instant after Cheney had roared. The Viera and Kain, the latter more on instinct than the Hunter's order, bunched their legs and leaped high into the air. Their choice had been right on time, for just a moment later, the once caged drake ripped free of all its bindings, stretching its arms and wings wide in beastly pride before slamming into the cage bars. The same bars did nothing to curtail its reckless charge, and it exploded through the open space where Kain had just occupied.

Throughout this, Vili landed on a thick branch of the mast, kneeling down and watching the quick succession of events unfold. The drake threw its gaze above after killing its momentum, spying the still airborne Dragoon. Its wings branched out with a flourish, and a flap so powerful that it shook the wooden deck beneath sent it tearing upward.

Kain's initial descent began, and his spear lanced downward. As the two hurtled towards each other, a sharp flap maneuvered the dragon out of the spear's range. It was already turning in the same motion, tail muscles stiffening to slam into the Bangaa as they crossed paths. For the first time since the battle had begun, Kain released a cry of pain and his body rolled countless times in the air before careening off the side of the ship.

The dragon found its perch amongst the higher reaches of the mast, then looked out into the sea next to the boat. From her own elevated vantage point, Vili could see the Dragoon climbing out of the water to stand on the sea. The Icedrake wasted no time upon sighting him, pushing off the mast like a bullet towards Kain's location, wings spread to adjust direction.

"First beating wasn't enough for you, huh?" The Bangaa's voice took a bestial eagerness, and he held his spear at the ready, bracing himself for the impact. "Come and get it then!"

The collision, while not anywhere near it, managed to shake the entirety of the boat, and a bursting spire of water climbed nearly as high as the mast Vili took refuge in. As much as she would have liked to witness the outcome, a call from Cheney below drew her attention, and she landed in an easy crouch beside him and Anrias.

"Every other creature must have been left at the dock." The Hume reasoned, taking a subsequent glance of the ship, more specifically the unconscious bodies of the crew. "It should be a while before any of the crew awakens and signals for help. If we leave now, maybe we can get to them before that happens."

"I just finished preparing our boat. All that's left is to lower it." Anrias chimed in, spinning around to face it. The clashes and watery explosions of the dragon and Dragoon's fight sounded out in the background, only serving to further unnerve the journalist. "Quickly now. Who knows if that Icedrake will turn on us after it defeats the Bangaa."

The two nodded in agreement, then Vili set to work with Anrias on lowering the craft down to the water. Cheney stood and faced the direction where the fierce battle took place. Metal rang off claw periodically, sometimes disrupted by the crackling of ice or searing fire. The Hume found himself subconsciously drawing his bow and an arrow after a full minute of this behavior, waiting, watching for the first thing to come back up over the railing.

Everything fell silent, and Cheney's muscles and instincts tensed. A small clanking noise resounded every second, seeming to confirm his greater fear. Then, a figure leaped upwards, silhouette as lifeless as a ragdoll, then arched in the air before colliding with the deck, a splintered crater twice its width left in its wake. The Hunter could only stare at the bloodied form of the Icedrake, bow ready and eyes wide.

Seconds later, Kain himself leaped up, just as Vili and Anrias had reached the halfway point of their descent, landing next to the downed dragon. A toothy smirk showed from beneath the open scars in his helmet, from which billowing strands of smoke poured. Red blood battled the other colors of his outfit for dominance, having already conquered the majority of space on his white lance, and a layer frost sat atop that, concentration anything but uniform.

"I may have been wounded from our first battle, dragon, but this is summer in Grazton. You're out of your element here." He stated proudly, never loosing that grin as he turned to Cheney, who himself couldn't believe the man had been overpowering them all with injuries from a previous fight. "You really have exceeded my expectations, Galliformes. It'll be boring once you and your group are gone."

A smirk more malicious than the preceding one was all it took for the twang of Cheney's bowstring to resonate and an arrow to slice through the air towards him. Before that, the Dragoon had already been spreading his stance and widening his maw. Molten flames spewed forth in a conical wave, completely incinerating the arrow before damage could be done and rushing towards Cheney with blazing speed. The Hunter leap backwards over the railing with all his might, but the fire caught him midair, encapsulating his form and spilling over the ship banister.

The flames quickly incinerated the rope and crank holding their boat up, causing Vili and Anrias to release surprised screams as their craft hit the water, buoyancy allowing them to return to the surface seconds later. Anrias's vision scanned all around before he finally spied the rapidly plummeting, fiery form of Cheney just before it crashed into the ocean. Without wasting a second, Vili dove in head first towards the ripples he had left and barreled towards him, burning up whatever energy reserves she could locate.

Finding him had been a relatively easy task, due in part to illumination of Kain's flames overhead and the strange, blue glow surrounding the Hunter. Its consistency was much more solid than any aura she had seen from Luso; she could actually feel it as she drew him over her back, and it held a strange coldness to it.

"Is he alright?" Anrias queried in alarm, examining the Hume as Vili rolled him into the boat before climbing in herself.

"Yes…he is." She admitted, quickly reaching for the paddle and beginning to row with what strength she had left, continuing between exerted heaves. "It's strange. I was sure he took the brunt of that attack, but he's only got a few first degree burns at worst."

Anrias kept his eyes focused on the glow. "I've…I've never seen anything like this before. What is it?"

"It's foreign to me as well." She stated evenly. "For now, let's get back to shore and find a safe place to recover for a bit. Then we'll decide where to go from there."

The Nu Mou nodded, taking one last glance at the ship. He could see the menacing form of Kain standing near the banister, framed and illuminated by some of the lingering fire from his skill. The Dragoon seemed to be staring out at them, and Anrias could only stare back in silence, fearful of turning his eyes away for even a second lest the Bangaa pounce and obliterate them.

…..

Kain looked out as the paddleboat drew ever closer back towards the docks. The radiance still emitting from Cheney still gave away their exact location amidst the murky water, but the Dragoon gave no thought for pursuit, instead turning away once he'd had his fill of the scene.

Looking down towards the deck, he spotted the once lifeless body of his Icedrake opponent, muscles twitching at random, burns covering various extremities, and blood pouring out from lacerations by his lance. Its eyes shifted upwards, and a low growl escaped as the Bangaa came to stand directly in front of its head, staring down at the beast with some sort of pity.

"Mighty guard, huh?" The creature made no move as he spoke softly. "You managed to save your friend there, but now it's the end of the line for you."

The motion was quick, no flourishes, no stances. His lance merely slipped into the dragon's rib cage, every muscle fiber tensing at once as it pierced its powerful heart, then slipped out as quietly as it had entered.

A smirk, disturbingly cheerful, crossed his snout.

"Thanks for the rush."

He allowed a few second of silence to pass, presumably in respect for the departed opponent. Then, he glanced around the ship. One or two of the men had begun to stir, but most remained unconscious. The fires on the banister from his breath attack would definitely need to be put out soon, though what with the ice from his and the Icedrake's short battle encasing a whole side of the ship, he didn't believe the vessel was going anywhere soon.

He grabbed the attention of the few stirrers, giving out orders to contain the fire, grab the signal flares, and perform any other necessary tasks. That done, he trekked over to the railing, closer to the bow then where Cheney leap off, and stared out as the Mighty Guard's blue shine became indiscernible from the canvas of lights across the Grazton Wharf.

"By no means does an Icedrake become attached to a sentient race like Humes." Kain leaned his lance against the banister beside him, then straightened his back out. "You've got some potential there."

His grin took on something distinctly draconic.

"Let's have an even better match next time, Cheney Galliformes."

A new foe leaves his mark…


(End Chapter Fifty Three)

(Author's Notes)

Alright I apologize for the wait on this one. I had to get it exactly how I wanted it, so it took a lot longer than expected. Sort of long compared to my other chapters, so hopefully it was an okay read. Also, I'm sure most were expecting the invasion, but truthfully this chapter was necessary for a number of future events, and I could only fit it here. Again, hoping it was enjoyable.

Well laptop is losing battery fast, and I have no way to charge it at the moment, so any mistakes will be fixed at a later date.

Until next time!