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


All the world seemed to stop at the moment the bullet discharged from Barley's rifle. Ewen didn't move, the commander didn't move. Not even the commander himself, whose eyelids had clenched together just before his fingers tugged on the trigger, made any motion at all. Only the rapid emission of fire and smoke from the outlet moved at its normal pace, along with the hollow echo of the shot bouncing down the hallway, most likely alerting any other operatives in the area of an enemy presence.

For the longest time, the three just stood there in their reverie, the candlelight dancing off their stone cold faces. Minutes seemed to evolve into hours, when in actuality it had only been a few seconds. For just that period, their minds had been involuntarily closed off to everything else. Only that bullet mattered now, and more importantly, in whose form it had found sanctuary.

Unlike the other two, Ewen hadn't flinched as the shot rang out, and it was this factor that allowed him to quietly, hastily ascertain the situation. His eyes shifted down in the silence, scanning over his body for any place the bullet may have penetrated him. He found nothing, not even the slightest sensation of pain on him, and was confused for the smallest fraction of a moment before the slimmest smirk parted his mouth beneath his mask.

Behind him, he could hear the staggering steps of the commander trying to find his balance, chest heaving and losing control of himself. The Hume leaned his body weight against the nearest wall for ballast and bore a hole into Barley with his eyes. The Moogle dared not open his own to meet his stare. Instead, he silently mouthed, body so visibly terrified that he looked to be convulsing more than simply shaking.

"I'm sorry."

"Barley…Barley, you…"

The Fusilier's gun went off again, and a sharp pain exploded in the commander's leg, causing his unbalanced weight to collapse onto the floor below. His body temperature began to climb instantly, and he found himself slipping out of consciousness. Eventually, his flailing around ceased, and a period of stillness entered once more. Then slowly, he gathered himself and stood to his feet.

Barley's barrel kept lock on him, not sure what to expect. Ewen watched him as well, indifferent on whether the charm shot had an effect on him or not. If not, the dirty blonde could easily dispose of him. At length, the Moogle eventually relaxed after noticing the familiar glassiness in the man's eyes, but that moment of relief was short lived after he'd fully realized what he'd just done. He sunk to his back side, curled up as much as his miniature body would allow, and shook his head violently while muttering something inaudible from even Ewen's close proximity.

"A wise decision." The ninja remarked callously, seemingly not even fazed by the entire ordeal. "Now stand to your feet. There is still time to salvage this situation."

Barley paused at the man's command, knowing exactly what to do but unwilling to do it. He glanced down over at his rifle beside him, just for a second. He knew there was still a few bullets left in there. Perhaps, he could catch him off…

He ended his thoughts right there, and disregarded any such notions they had brought as he slung the rifle over his shoulder by its strap. He nodded to Ewen, who returned the gesture and began walking down the hallway past him. He stared at the charmed form of the commander as it stood up, ambled towards him, and stopped a few feet away. His face was completely stoic, devoid of any personality or life, and a pinkish tinge had surrounded his pupils.

The Moogle sighed and didn't say a word, then turned around to pursue Ewen down the corridor, in turn followed by his once comrade.

A desperate situation!


Sir Loin

Like the crimson sunset

Live like you're on fire

Chapter Fifty Seven: Flicker Flames


"Finish him off."

The glowing yellow eyes of Crow's magical shroud stared blankly at Raven for a few moments, seemingly dumbstruck by his command, then slowly angled downward to the Paladin's sword before returning back to the man. His gaze continued to alternate between the two menacing figures over the next thirty seconds, Raven in his own right and the sword as the tool he'd been asked to use to slay his defeated opponent, until the man had his fill of the mage's indecisiveness.

"I do not understand." The spellcaster's eyes flew back to Raven's face, surprised at the unexpected change in the man's tone. It was now completely calm, devoid of the previous jeering mirth and sadistic glee, replaced by simple observation. It was almost…innocent, at least if the man's onyx-hued sclera, demonic-looking golden eyes, and strange voice all went unaccounted for. Crow gulped once, then decided to press for an answer.

"What?"

"Why do you hesitate?" Raven paused to let the question sink in, but not enough to allow him time to respond. "In all the time you've worked under me, you have never hesitated to carry out my orders. Not one single time." Crow's gloved hand clamped down hard on the ice covered rod he still held on to, and his head angled downward to avoid looking into the man's eyes. "Your loyalty was considered almost second to none, but here you are plotting against us and saving the lives of your enemies." Raven's eyes narrowed, and his voice took on an ounce of spite. "Barley is a fool for believing this one small clan could take on an outpost as large as this. He's thrown his life away for nothing. Do you wish to follow in those footsteps?"

The mage's head remained down. Raven watched him for a few moments; face still stoic but betraying the subtlest of discomfort and exasperation. Breathing out, he continued in a small but powerful whisper. "Your ambition. That man that you've been chasing your entire life. Would you also throw him away for this insignificant boy…?"

Again, there was no immediate answer and the man half-wondered if the mage was even listening to him. His suspicions were cleared as the Black Mage returned to look him in the eye again. Crow made no move for a few moments, then carefully moved his hand forwards towards the handle of the SavetheQueen. Raven eyed him suspiciously and every so slyly moved his feet apart in preparation to dodge whatever the mage had in store.

Suddenly, Crow's arm burst into movement, and upon seeing his Knightsword lob into the air a few feet above him, it took all his willpower to kill off his initial reflexes. The sword began to arc downwards, and the Paladin reached up to pick it out of the air. He grabbed the handle with ease and spun it around dexterously for a second, before finishing with a sheathing flourish.

As he finished, he turned to look at Crow, who had turned around and was now facing Luso. His arm was cocked to the side, and a small fiery ember floated above his open palm.

"He fought well, and deserves an honorable end. Let me burn the body, at least."

Raven could still sense a faint irresoluteness buried within his tone, but nevertheless gave verbal confirmation at the mage's request. Crow nodded in thanks and with a calming breath began his trek towards Luso. It was strange to him, to say the least, that the boy hadn't said anything since Raven had appeared, and the mage began to wonder if he had already died from his wound.

As he came upon the body, he realized the error of his suspicions. The boy's eyes were open, and the normal rise and fall of his chest was apparent, as normal as it could be what with the stab wound he'd received. Luso rolled his head to stare at the spellcaster standing over him, soulless yellow eyes he'd become so accustomed to seeing, and that would probably be the last thing he remembered.

Crow looked back down at him and paused. There was a smirk spread across the boy's mouth, and the mage's mind began to run through countless ideas at the action. Did he have some sort of plan? It was highly illogical, surely, but then again Luso had surprised him many times before. He continued to study the brunette's face for anything he could discern, anything he could pick out, but finally came to the realization that his smirk wasn't one of someone with a plan. It was one of someone who had accepted his fate, one who was ready to meet death and all her mysteries.

It was not so much that such a look had come from one so young, not that the mage had room to talk, but that it had come from Luso Clemens. This boy who he'd only encountered sparingly over the span of a couple months; even from these limited interactions he'd garnered the general aspects of his personality: courage, selflessness, a hint of deep sorrow at times. A willingness to give up on anything, though, especially life, was completely foreign to his perception of him.

The boy's blue eyes regarded the mage, the deep pools of cerulean whose betrayed mirth haunted his dreams from time to time in the early hours of the morning until it was all he could do to stare into the moon and let fatigue overtake his fear of the nightmares. A flood of memories assaulted at that moment, capsizing the mental safeguards he had erected to keep the guilt at bay.

"Perhaps…in another life…we could have been the greatest of friends, Luso Clemens."

"You can't beat him with speed alone. I'll help you out. We'll win together."

"You and I were on opposite sides from the beginning, two soldiers in someone else's war. It was always going to come down to this."

"For just one moment, was I not allowed to pretend like we were still friends…?"

Crow stood there for some time, then after a few more seconds or so shook his head, simultaneously expelling the thoughts from his mind. The blank yellow eyes of his shroud disappeared from top to bottom, as if eyelids closed over them, until his face was nothing but black. A wavering hand came up slowly, carefully, and within it a single spark of fire magic burst into life. Luso continued to watch him through all of this, then against all expectations, formed a soft smile.

That gesture gave the mage pause again, just one final time, before he steeled himself. He aimed his arm low, cocked his palm back, and after one last deep breath, a crimson mass of fire magic blasted forth. It ate up the short distance in less than a second and ignited the moment it touched Luso's supine form, not even giving the boy a chance to let out a scream. If he had the chance, it could not be heard over the sound of the resulting flames, crackling and filling the air with heavy smoke.

Raven viewed the scene from afar without a sound, his face lacking any emotion. Then his boots shifted into movement and he began his slow trek towards his once wayward underling. As he approached, Crow bowed his head in reverence, and whatever he had planned to say was caught in his throat. At length, he reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder, more to get his attention than any sort of comfort.

"That'll have to wait. We still have a job to do."

The mage's eyes opened once again and he stared into the Paladin's before finally conceding a nod. He gave the still burning body one last glance, so wreathed in fire that it was impossible to see from even their close proximity, then soon moved ahead of Raven as he began to walk towards the lower floor entrance on the other side of the floor.

Neither said a word as they walked, a routine event between the two of them but at that particular instance very unnerving for the Paladin. In a way, he had expected his partner's unwillingness to speak about the issue, but there hadn't even been any recognition on what just happened. The mage didn't look back at the body, show any signs of discomfort. What was once a mess of nerves and hesitation before had morphed an unnatural calmness. Raven's eyes narrowed a bit at the mage's back.

Then, all of a sudden after breathing through his nose, he sniffed at the air, and realization rushed in at once.

Fire, smoke, but the scent of burning flesh was completely absent.

His head whipped around, and his sword arm with it, drawing the Knightsword in a flash. His instincts had been sufficient to give him enough time to catch the majestic form of Luso Clemens, wreathed from head to toe in pockets and patches of fire, Atmos Blade unsheathed and in both hands jutting out from the sleeves of his Flame Robe. Raven had just enough time to see the Flame Robe and lament his inattentiveness, right as the boy swung down. A large crescent shaped swathe of air and aura burst from the tip, lancing forward.

Raven, for his part in an otherwise unexpected situation, managed to throw his sword arm up just as the attack reached him. The weapon collided with the mass of aura, and the Paladin let out an unearthly roar as he pushed back against it. However, immediately as the first render had parted, Luso was already rearing back for a second, knowing Raven was not the kind of opponent to go down so easily. He quickly reached deep inside himself, grabbing at whatever energy and willpower he could to form the second. Then he slashed horizontally, letting out a yell to match Raven's. The second sliced through the air with more ease than the first, and reached the Paladin just a second after its predecessor.

The resulting explosion of aura, dust, and air virtually threw Raven's body back and into the corresponding wall behind him, its concrete reminiscent of a spider web around the impact site. The dust soon caught up with collision, obscuring vision around the Paladin.

Luso breathed heavily, dropping to one knee in his complete and utter exhaustion. He had gone well past his safe limit on Air Render's tonight, and the consequences were beginning to catch up with him. More than a few times, as Crow jogged over to him, he had to keep himself from passing out.

"You idiot! Why did you do that!" The mage's irate tone at first surprised the boy, and when he opened his mouth to answer, he was cut off. "I was letting you get away. All you had to do was play de—"

"Really?"

Luso and Crow's bodies both froze up at once and their heads turned around in a mixture of shock and horror. There, Raven peeled himself from the wall like it was nothing, a deep, tilted X shaped scar molded onto the front of his chest reaching out to even his shoulders. Most of his skin around the injury was scarred and bleeding fresh, and his Paladin garments were of no better shape, tattered and ragged until around the low torso area.

Against all of this, though, he seemed largely unaffected by it. Most noticeably was that he had survived such a damaging attack, but more so that he could walk and talk as normal, despite how deep it was. The blast had forced its way past the muscles on his pectorals, revealing part of the remaining muscle layers above still beating organs, all of which rested beneath and around the ribcage. A majority of his face's skin had been cleaved off by the attacks angle as well, save for his left eye which still held onto golden hue of its iris and the opaque darkness of its sclera.

"You really thought that would be enough, didn't you?" His voice began to grow more gravely with each word he spoke. He stepped forward, one foot at a time, idly twirling his SavetheQueen in his hand, completely forgoing any of the pain or physical impossibility of his current situation. "I had high hopes for you, Crow. But you've made your choice. A choice you'll soon learn to regret."

As he moved, the two boys couldn't believe their eyes. A faint white glow surrounded his form, and within a few seconds, his flesh actually began to regenerate. The skin all around the wound began to restore itself, increasing in area until they joined with adjacent patches to seal up the once exposed flesh. It wasn't a fast process by any means, but the two were more concerned that it was simply happening, and moreover what it would mean for them.

Luso didn't want to wait to find out. He stood straight up and gathered his Atmos Blade as the Paladin neared them, staggering a little from the throbbing pain of his stab wound. He looked unsteady, almost as if he was going to kill over any second, but the quality of his tone held anything but such notions as he careened his head to Crow. "Back me up. We're taking him down."

"Luso, there's no way we can win!" Despite his words, the mage took a defensive stance as well. "Raven is a division commander. He's not the kind of guy we can take on."

"Shut up! Just back me—"

Luso paused, voice cut off, and a spurt of blood came out with a rough cough. Simultaneously, a gush of blood, much larger in scale, erupted from the wide slash across his abdomen. Everything went hazy for a moment, his mind, vision, and when was alert again, he was already on the floor, warm fluid only partially held back by his hands.

Crow flinched as Luso fell, eyes shooting around his perimeter for any sight of Raven. Before he could make any significant scan, though, a similar slash ripped its way across his chest. The Black Mage cried out with a loud voice, gathering whatever focus that wasn't being drawn away by the sudden pain, and began forming a cryonic ball of magic in his palm.

"Easy."

Before Crow could follow up with that magic, Raven was already behind him, his sword finishing its swing. The subsequent wound appeared across both the mage's forearm and left shoulder a millisecond after, and his yell completely eclipsed his previous one. "All." Fresh blood soaked into his garments, and he dropped to his knees as the Paladin delivered yet another series of cuts across the back of his calves. "Too." He could not even follow the swordplay, and it was the first time since he'd been placed under Raven that he realized he was seeing his full power. "Easy. It's too easy, Crow!"

"H-How." The mage managed to eek out in-between the man's words. "How are you—is it the…powder?"

The Paladin didn't bother answering, or even didn't hear him, and his voice devolved from the calm disposition it had strangely displayed back into the sadistic glee Crow and Luso was more familiar with. His manic, haunting laughs filled the room. "This? This is all that you could muster up, Crow? Even knowing about my power, you still had nothing to use against me." He spit down at his body. "Pathetic trash. That's all you and this kid are."

"Says…" Crow coughed, trying his best to hang onto his scathing tone. "Says the man who kills innocents without even blinking."

"Big words from the one who stood by and watched me do it. And besides…" The man's voice trailed, and he winced as a series of static noises rang in his ear. His hand reached up to touch the strand of Whisperweed around the auricle. The words were hazy at first, coming in sporadically from beneath a storm of hiss, but eventually the messenger managed to piece together a coherent request.

"Anybody, any…..body at all. Please…..respond. Three of the…..intru—ders have freed the Revgaji and are pushing towards the…main hangar. Requesting….backup….. immediately."

"Hmm…" Crow stared up at Raven, watching as his vicious grin split his face, which had almost fully finished regenerating. "Seems our little intruders are looking to escape. I might as well go get rid of them too." The mage struggled and thrashed, doing his best to move, just to do something. Raven laughed even more at the sight. He placed his boot onto Hume's head, and callously nudged so that it rolled to face Luso's body. The boy didn't look to be moving at all, not even breathing. "Look at him. Watch the boy you just threw your life away to save. Watch him bleed out right before your eyes. Let it be the last thing you witness in this life."

Then, with a quick turn and a flare of his cape, he set out towards the lower entrances, retaining his smirk as Crow squirmed about, yelling and screaming at his retreating form, yelling and screaming for the brown haired boy to get up and show that he was alright. Yelling and screaming at his failure, and at his own weakness.

….

"Matter of fact, neither will you."

The moment the last word rolled off Vaan's tongue, he was gone, a sharp whistling sound left ringing through the air in his wake. All five of his opponents, the Viera Assassin and her four Hume ninja-esque underlings, flinched at the sudden surprising motion, but quickly gathered their demeanor, bringing their respective edged weapons up to bear.

The sound continued, but in short bursts as opposed to a continuous noise. Every time it occurred, there would be a rustling of grass preceding a quick flicker of yellow-hued light before the sound itself receded into nothingness. At first, the noises and light bursts happened a few feet away from the Khamja members' positions, but slowly, ever so slowly, they would inch closer with each consecutive incident.

The cloaked Hume's were so distracted by the noise, in fact, that they failed to notice as Penelo and Hurdy broke out of their wide entrapment and into a run at the perimeter wall on the far side. As she picked up the sound of their moving feet, the Viera's head angled up to see them and she threw out a finger while calling out.

"Don't let them escape!"

One of the Hume ninja yelled out over his shoulder for confirmation that he'd take the task, and he himself dove into a high speed run at the two fleeing companions. With his speed, he easily cut across the grass at nearly double their speed. By the time Penelo heard the man giving chase and turned around, he had already leaped into the air to pounce onto Hurdy's inevitable position, deciding him as the quickest, easiest kill. Penelo shifted herself in an attempt to intercept the attack, but she had already known at this point that she wouldn't make it in time. The Hume's momentum began to spiral back downward, cloak flapping in the passing wind behind him, and knives bore in his hands lanced out to greet the retreating Moogle.

Suddenly, there was a brief rustling of grass just ahead of his landing point, and the flash of light followed suit without hesitation. Before he completely understood what was going on, both of his knives were knocked away in a spray of sparks, and subsequently his hands. The blunt trauma had been so forceful that it'd actually caused his body to turn in the air, essentially killing any hope of a graceful landing.

That hope was further dashed in the following moment, as from nowhere another light appeared then disappeared before he felt a foot collide with his exposed torso. His body collided with the ground instantaneously, the impact so forceful that his scream could only devolve into an escape of all air from his lungs while his eyes rolled back in his head. Then, in an instant, his attacker was gone, a small gust of displaced wind left in his absence.

Penelo and Hurdy didn't stop moving, quickly picking back up to their normal speed, and the four enemies still in the fight no longer gave thought to pursue them. Instead, on the Viera's orders they turtled into a defensive shell with each of their fronts facing a cardinal direction. The previous flashes had stopped, but the rustling grass increased in its stead. He was moving. Continuously.

And then, he wasn't. The ninja directly behind the Assassin took just half a second to notice the figure standing in front of him, his fear so great as to actually hinder his reaction time. He had enough time to look over Vaan's form right before the blonde's saber came crashing down on the crook of his neck. His body crumpled under the decisive blow, a squirt of blood squirting forward to spray onto the Sky Pirate's clothes.

But he was already gone by then, and moving again, impossible to see in all but the sparsest details and afterimages, not helped by the lateness of the hour. The Viera barked out for them to close the circle again, making up for the downed member. Then, she closed her eyes and began to focus, keeping all her attention on her hearing.

As she continued to listen, she noticed something very peculiar about his movements. The rustling grass beneath was a clear indicator that he was moving, but as time dragged on, little by little, it began to recede, as if he was slowing down ever so slowly. She had been too surprised by the initial attacks to have taken note of it before, but now it was clear that it hadn't been nearly as powerful as when he'd first started.

She tore herself from her thoughts as the sound of clashing metal filled her ears. She spun around to see the Sky Pirate's saber coming off a collision with one of the Hume's battle knives. Then it hit her. Her underlings had managed to block an attack this time.

Vaan, who had now found himself off guard from that block, dodged and twirled between the flashing knives of the two remaining Hume Ninja, unable to find a good chance to retreat. Whenever one had finished a stab or swipe, the other would hit from another direction, keeping him on the defensive. He found himself giving ground just to keep himself intact. The Viera watched this from her position, not feeling the need to join the fray just yet. The crackling yellow aura that covered his shins and feet had now dimmed compared to its activation. That turned out to be the spark that gave her full realization.

However, it was at that instant that the two Hume Ninja made their first and greatest mistake. Instead of continuing with their alternating attacks, they both went for a simultaneous double stab. Vaan, seeing his chance, took a backstep in time to clear the attack, edges missing by a hair's breadth, but missing nonetheless. Then he spread his legs into a stance, and pushed off, disappearing in a flicker.

The Ninja immediately returned to a defensive position, backs together, eyes scanning around for him. Their second mistake. They should have returned to the Viera, since the current position left Vaan with a number of blind spots to take advantage of.

Which he and his saber did. He re-entered on their side, making one cleaving swipe wide enough to hit both of their midsections, crimson liquid spurting forth. Whether by nervousness or fatigue, their block had been too late, and it cost them both the encounter, and their consciousness, if not greater. Both fell to the ground, clutching at their open wounds, out of the fight.

Vaan made sure to watch them for a few seconds, wanting to be sure they wouldn't pose any further problems. He noticed soon after that there was still one other enemy he had forgotten, and he quickly spun around, hastily searching for the Viera. His breath was heavy, and beads of sweat had begun to grow on his skin as the crackling energy around his legs dissipated more with each second. He could feel already that his technique's lifespan had just about reached its end, and it couldn't have been at a worse time.

"That's a very interesting skill." The suddenness of her voice caused him to flinch, but he otherwise stood his ground. He couldn't tell exactly where the voice had come from; it seemed to echo off from a variety of angles, and she herself was nowhere to be found. It dawned on him soon after that he was fighting an Assassin. Their Vanish skill was quite the ability to fear. "To be able to move at a speed that surpasses the eye. I've never seen something like that before."

"A little ingenuity goes a long way." He joked, trying to keep her talking. Hopefully he could either pinpoint her location or buy time to figure out a better plan. Both were faulty, but the second seemed slightly more plausible.

"So you created it yourself? It is quite impressive." She complimented dryly. Vaan thought he heard a noise other than her voice, and spun around quickly to meet it, but nothing was there. "Though unfortunately, it has its flaws." Calming himself, he widened his stance, bracing himself both mentally and physically. "Your speed is great, but let us see if you can maintain that speed." He could almost feel a sinister grin. "Your two partners will make ample tests."

His eyes shot wide, and shifted over to Penelo and Hurdy, who had taken refuge under the tree which the group had entered from, both their own eyes watching Vaan's battle unfold from afar but well out of earshot. Vaan cursed under his breath, bunched his legs, then shot forward towards them without nearly the same speed as before, screaming through labored breaths for them to flee.

When he had passed about three meters, though, his felt one of his shins hit something hard, foxing his balance and sending him skidding a fourth meter across the grass. Then before he could even begin to recover from his fall, a foot slammed down onto his spine and pinned him down. His head turned to the side, and he could make out the lithe form of his Assassin opponent, her Vanish skill fading inch by inch to reveal the dark blue dyes of her garment.

"It seems your ability neglects your reaction time as well." She idly twirled a knife in her hand, looking down on him, ready to let it loose onto his body at a moment's notice. Penelo and Hurdy moved in hopes of saving the situation, but a sharp glare and brandishing of a second knife gave them stern pause. Knowing they would try anything, she returned her attention to Vaan, raising a knife high. "A pity, but this is the end for y—"

Suddenly, a gunshot echoed across the empty space, and as initial surprise took hold of the Viera's attention, an incredibly sharp pain erupted at the side of her head. The bullet's force, while not enough to penetrate through her skull, did manage to shove her over onto the ground, rolling across the grass for a few meters before coming to a halt.

Vaan took advantage of the situation, jumping back up to his feet. The Assassin was no slouch either, though, and she was already to her knees by the time the Sky Pirate had stood. She drew her knife back to throw in hopes of at least taking out the blonde before another attack came her way, but a second shot rang out. This time it hit her square in the forehead, strong enough to send the back of her head back onto the ground. Vaan closed the distance shortly, knocking her knives away and pressing the blade of his saber against her neck, eyes daring her to try anything else.

Penelo and Hurdy, seeing Vaan successfully wrench control of the situation, looked around for the origin of the bullets. Eventually, the Moogle's eyes came to rest on top of one of the closest buildings to the warehouse courtyard. Squinting from his position, he could just make out two figures: the first, a slender woman with raven black locks slowly lowering what looked to be a spyglass from her eye, and the second, a man with hair of a similar hue, a trail of smoke still wafting from the end of his long-barreled pistol.

"Forgive the lateness of my arrival, my friends." Vaan didn't turn around at the projected voice, but a knowing smirk etched onto his face. "Barley had me cleaning up patrols for our eventual escape."

"Thought you'd be against hurting females, Al-Cid." Penelo mocked lightheartedly.

He twirled the pistol around on his finger by the trigger before dexterously sheathing it in its holster. "Normally, yes. Though tonight, we have not the circumstances to afford such pleasantries. Come, we make haste."

"Hit them hard, Adelle!"

Adelle's arms flung out in blurred, horizontal sweeps as she stepped out from behind a wall. A plethora of polished, scarlet marbles, eight in all, quickly eat up the distance between them and the five man team of guards blocking their path a few meters down the hallway. For the quintet, it was difficult to keep track of all of them, bouncing off walls and floors in patterns that could almost be misconstrued as synchronized. Most of them paid them no mind, stepping out of the way or knocking them down as they came with their respective weapons.

Eventually, the marbles came to a stop, scattered all around their narrow position. A Moogle, the front most guard, found something different about the marble that had run into his chest, just as the rest of his peers relaxed and began forward. It was black, solid black, but over the second that it captured his attention, it lightened into red, then pink, before becoming a glaringly hot white.

Then, it exploded, taking the remainder of the marbles along with it. Adelle ducked back behind the safety of her corner as screams rent the air along with flames. Finally, after a good ten seconds, the pleas for help ceased, and the fire died down enough that Cid could step out into the hallway proper. He cocked his arm back and with a little focus, thrust is fist forward. The resulting Air Render was not as forceful as previous ones, but it was enough to blow out the lingering patches of fire, revealing charred, lifeless bodies underneath.

On Cid's signal, the remaining three stepped out with him and continued their trek down the seemingly endless, mazelike interior of the floors. Nobody, not Kanin, Ensei, or Cid, mentioned anything about Adele's choice of dispatching the men. The Rev had asked, and she delivered. It left a bad taste in all of their mouths, particularly Kanin, but Ensei and Cid both instinctually knew that this was the safest course of action at the moment.

"Not much hallway left." Cid stated, voice now distant for some reason. "The main hangar should be just ahead." The other three nodded in near cohesion, all taking for fact that he remembered the layout of the base well enough to get them through. It had come as quite the shock to Adelle and Kanin that Cid used to belong to Khamja; the former particularly for reasons that amounted to her father's death at the organization's hands. Still, what proved to be a stain on relatively unknown past had resulted in their benefit, and the trio's once blind roaming had evolved into the quartet's purposeful steps in the right direction.

The group soon climbed a few isolated staircases, and within a short time found themselves in the main hangar. Immediately, dust assaulted their senses, causing Adelle and Kanin to sneeze in tandem. Being an abandoned warehouse, they'd assumed rooms wouldn't be in the most immaculate of conditions, but the layers upon layers of dust and cobwebs covering the heavy machinery, the massive grounded airships, the cracked concrete floor, and the large light fixtures dangling from the metal framework of the arched canvas dome was a little unbecoming.

"Alright, we're here." Cid said, keeping everyone's focus on the task at hand. "Question is, what do we do now?"

"What do you mean?" Kanin asked.

"I'm sure more than just you three came to save us." He answered with a small chuckle. "We could escape right now while we have the chance, but I'd hate to leave any of the others in here." He looked at Ensei. "Is there any way you guys have to communicate? At least to be sure."

The Parivir shook his head. "I thought about bringing Whisperweed, but Barley axed the idea. Said they set up plenty Eaves Blossoms in their communications room and around the warehouse to spy on anyone using the Whispers. They'd probably be listening in on our every word if we used them."

Cid nodded in agreement, but suddenly his eyes widened. "Wait…Barley? Do you mean a Moogle?"

"Yeah we captured him during Khamja's raid on the Baron's estate, and he volunteered to help us get you back. You know him?"

"He…did?" The Rev paused, the shook his head. He wasn't quite sure about the raid his partner mentioned, but he figured there was a more pressing matter. "Yeah, I know him. He's the reason I was locked up here in the first place." Immediately, the other three's eyes went wide too. At first, it was mostly in confusion, but then a spark of realization lit up in their eyes. Cid, seeing this, decided to elaborate, keeping his voice quiet. "He didn't tell you guys? The night at the pier, when I went to get the Whitesilver Magicite appraised, he sold me out to Khamja."

Ensei didn't say a word, face making sure not to betray the disbelief swimming about his thoughts. Kanin covered her mouth, taken aback and not quite sure what to say at the revelation. Adelle, though, clenched her fists, voice so livid that it was near calm at first, but word by word revealed its anger. "You mean to tell me that this entire ordeal was his fault? Everything tonight was because of him!"

"Yes, and me."

The quartet turned, some faster than others, to see a figure hidden within the doorway's shadow. Adelle's hand instinctively flew to her knives as everyone else prepared themselves. His footsteps echoed out hollowly in rhythm with the passing seconds, and eventually he stepped out. His white and purple Paladin garments were tattered, mostly around the chest area where the faint traces of an 'X' shaped scar lingered just above nonexistent. His SavetheQueen Knightsword bore naked in his hand, and the gold of his irises was not too far from Adelle's own, their only dissimilarity the pool of solid black around them.

The silver haired girl could only breath out in concentrated malice. "You…"

"…and all of you. Good to see you're all in decent shape." Adelle's eyes narrowed, and Kanin shook, near feeling the rage emanating from her female clansmen. The Paladin's grin stretched from ear to ear. "Especially you, silver one. Didn't I kill you already though?"

"Shut up…" She whispered aloud, as if cursing under her breath. Ensei decided to watch her carefully, and subtly scooted closer.

"Wait, no. That's not right…" The Hume's free hand went to his chin, and his eyes looked up and around as he pondered. "I thought for sure it was you…maybe it was someone else?"

"Shut up." Adelle's voice came out in a growl, and her eyes seemed to form cat-like slits. Ensei placed a hand on her shoulder, hoping to calm her amidst the man's jeering, but she quickly shrugged him off. Then, her body froze for an instant, and a feeling of pure killing intent washed over her as Raven quit thinking, shrugged his shoulders, spoke, and adopted the most sinister smirk she had seen.

"Oh well. Must not be important then."

She roared, a noise so powerful that it caused even the near unshakeable Ensei to flinch, but not after he desperately attempted to get her to calm down. Completely ignoring that effort, she bolted into motion and upon reaching him swung her knives. The Paladin's Knightsword came to life, and a metallic clang rang across the room.

Everything was strange as Luso slowly drifted back into consciousness, primarily because he could not even remember if and when he had passed out. He couldn't feel anything, no pain, no touch. Just the temperature, an unforgiving cold, and a general feeling of hopelessness.

His eyes gradually cracked open, though remained lidded, and his pupils shifted from direction to direction every few moments. Directly ahead lay the dusty, web-covered rafters of the warehouse ceiling, but periodically they would shift downward from his point of view. He finally ascertained that he was moving, but not of his own accord. His periphery eyesight revealed many things. Legs, burnt in places from where the flame robe's influence had given through in his battle with Crow, skidded across the ground beneath him. His hands were above his head, and through his near loss of tactile sensation, he could just make out the faintest impression of hand clenching onto his, dragging him away to one of the secluded warehouse corners, but he couldn't imagine who—or what—was the culprit.

Hearing, however, was still above marginally functional. Grunts and heavy panting accompanied the arrhythmic tugs on his body. Crumbling ice and flickering flames, two opposing forces, sounded out in the background, providing a subtle hum against the shuffling of feet and cloth from both he and his mysterious 'kidnapper'.

This same captor soon lost his anonymity, though, when the dragging ceased, both having ended up behind a stack of metal boxes and wooden crates in a dark corner of the large floor. Luso's back dropped to the ground, and suddenly—unfortunately—tangible feeling rushed back in, concentrated solely around the multiple stab and slash wounds he acquired in the recent future. Amidst the pain, he could see another man moving boxes and stacking obstacles to hinder vision from the outside of their makeshift barricade.

He held too much agony and fatigue to exclaim, and instead managed a strained whisper. "Crow…"

"Don't talk." The mage ordered back. He paused to position the last box of his blockade, then knelt down to his knees, shuffling over to the boy. For how long Luso had watched him, he seemed to be moving rather awkwardly, as if pain was holding back normal motion, but he said nothing about it. "There could be reinforcements at any time, and I won't be able to see them from here on out."

"What are you doing?" The brunette took his advice, and spoke in the lowest audible way he could. Crow didn't pause to answer him at first, choosing rather to scoot one of the smaller crates over to him. From the open top, he retrieved numerous items: a small cutting knife, a few hand towels, some strange elixirs that Luso couldn't quite read the labels of, and a large roll of bandages among other things.

The mage didn't begin explaining until he was unfastening Luso's overalls and uncorking one of the bottles, a clear fluid held within. "Treating your major wounds. Warehouses like this always keep first aid kits available for injured workers. This will sting a bit." True to his words, a paroxysm of pain swept over Luso as it seeped into the first, largest gash, eventually coming to a frothy bubble which was soon wiped away. He was now beginning to regret that the sensation had returned to him, but the mage did his best to be gentle with it.

He continued with the admittedly rushed care, finishing the disinfectant and moving on to a thicker substance which the boy assumed was clotting the wound? He couldn't really tell, but Crow moved like he was sure enough. Once that was done, he hastily wiped off the remains and began wrapping bandages around what he could, Luso sitting up to grant access to his bare back.

"Why are you doing this?" Again, no answer; something the mage seemed to have a penchant for. He only continued to wrap the bandages around his torso. Luso allowed it to grow quiet again, then spoke a little more clearly. "Why didn't you kill me back there?"

He stopped wrapping, stopped everything, just for a moment. Then he continued, finishing his last loop around the boy's torso. As he tied it tight, he didn't breathe or prepare himself. He just spoke. "There's a certain man in this organization that I've been searching my whole life for." The tone of his voice was detached, but the emotion hidden beneath was apparent to Luso. "I've destroyed, I've stolen…I've killed. I have done everything they've asked of me, without a single moment of hesitation, all for the sake of one day finally finding that man."

He paused again, and Luso's eyes went wide at his response. "It wasn't until today, as I stabbed you through the chest, that I began to question how much more of my humanity will be required of me…"

They sat like that for a second, Crow taking in the full depth and consideration of his own words, while Luso thought through an adequate response. Eventually, he spoke again, tone somewhere between even and serious, pausing for effect at times but not enough to allow the mage to respond. "You've given up a lot of it, I'm sure." The boy stood to his feet, slowly, wincing, and fixing back his overalls and Flame robe. "As for me, I'm heading out to go stop that madman of a former boss you have before he kills any more of my family. You can escape with the humanity you have now…" He placed a hand on his Atmos Blade's handle, still not facing the mage. "…or you can take some of it back, come with me, and clean up the mess you made in St. Galleria and everywhere else. Your choice, Nero."

Crow knew exactly what the boy was referring to without him having to say it. He kept his eyes on the ground, and they both stood there for a good thirty seconds. Finally, when Luso decided he could wait no longer on the Hume to choose, he began to walk towards one of the gaps near the edges of the box stack. As he reached it though, he heard a shuffling of clothes behind him and, more mysteriously, the sound of something light touching down on the ground.

"Nero was an alias for the race." As he turned around, his eyes widened to their full extent as he stared into the face of Crow for the second time. His real face, the Black Mage's standard hat tossed to the floor and the magical face shroud dissolving into the air. Solid black eyes stared into his own blue ones, and a mop of white hair sat on his head, black roots only somewhat visible from his position. "Aleister. That is my true name, though from here on out, Crow will suffice."

As soon as the initial contact had been made, Adelle jumped back a bit, putting a few feet between her and her quarry. Then, she jumped right back into the fray, still high off of the hatred coursing through her mind. Raven's weapon just finished recovering from the first strike and was already coming around to meet her in a horizontal arc. She lowered her torso, managing to come in just under the swing, and sliced at his left thigh with her right hand knife.

At that, she expected him to buckle, flinch…show something, anything at all. But he didn't and brought the same leg up to knee her right in the face. She reared back from the blow, and he was already on the offensive, leg extending and taking advantage of her lack of balance to slam her down onto the floor. She didn't stay there long, though, quickly rolling to the side as his sword came around to plant its blade in the ground she had just occupied.

She kept rolling, soon scrambling to her feet, then twirled her body around and let loose one of the knives. It cut its path through the air, implanting just above his hip bone on the closest side, but again the Paladin ignored the action and retrieved his sword. He pulled out the dagger with his free hand and absentmindedly tossed it to the ground, but as the clank sounded out, Ensei Rou sped across the floor with every ounce of instantaneous speed he could muster to slam into his side.

The force of the charge knocked him off his feet, and the momentum carried the both of them into a haphazard roll for at least eight meters. Within the confusing time, the two managed to throw each other off, and quickly rose into a stance. Ensei's katana came out, faint white glow surrounded Raven's form, and the two men charged.

Adelle jumped up as well as the two men began their combat. Once on her feet, she leapt into the air towards Raven, coming down in a lob to strike with her remaining knife. Raven noticed her presence between his flurry of strikes and parries with the Parivir, and after back stepping from a particularly deadly slash, he brought his Knightsword up in an arc above his head. The weapons met in another spew of sparks, the force of the blow enough to redirect the girl's course to just behind him. Her hands reached out and she tucked her body to land in an easy roll, then she was up again, slashing with Ensei.

Knightsword clashed with katana and dagger numerous times, both Ensei and Adelle managing to score shallow cuts here and there, occasionally drawing blood. Raven, for his part, did well to hold up against their never ending onslaught. He moved as necessary, rarely if ever trying to dodge a strike that wouldn't completely bisect whatever area it aimed for. Anything that seemed to be a shallow cut, graze, or even something quite deep was overlooked and allowed to connect.

It was quite odd to Ensei, Adelle focusing so much just to keep up with the two adult males' movements that she didn't take the time to notice. He didn't flinch or show any sign of discomfort at these points, just like with the dagger earlier. What was even stranger was that during the few moments where he could get a good glance at the man's whole form, there was a significant lack of damage on him. The cuts on his clothes were still there, but anything breaking the skin mysteriously vanished upon a later glance.

Suddenly, Raven made a rather violent twirl with his sword extended, and both Ensei and Adelle's weapons came up to block the rapid strike. The attack forced both of them back a few feet, but they quickly recovered, bounding in again at opposite sides. However, the moment their momentum shifted forward, Raven's Knightsword rose straight in the air and a thin, glowing white line encircled his position about twelve feet out. The circle's area filled with the same glowing lines, forming a number of intricate patterns that eventually converged into an elaborate cross. Raven plunged the sword into the ground with all his might.

A wave of ivory-hued magical energy rose up from the ground just around his feet, quickly spreading outward in a powerful wave. Ensei had already killed his forward movement, recognizing what was coming, but it was too late for both of them. The wave crashed into their bodies, sending them tumbling through the air at least a good thirty feet. The force was so powerful that Adelle hadn't even managed to right herself in the air and land on her toes, instead hitting the ground with a thud before skidding to a dusty halt.

As soon as Raven retrieved his sword, a potent, concentrated force of air rammed him from the front, sending him skating across the ground only to smack into the side of the closest airship, denting the metal framework with the impact. Ensei, who had just recovered from the earlier Saint's Cross, looked over to see Cid's arm extended and feet apart, the dust behind him, billowing slightly from the recoil of his Air Render.

"Did I get him?" The Rev mused, careful not to be too over joyous. Ensei peered through the cloud of dust that had formed from the impact. He could just barely see the man's outline lodged into the dented carapace. As more dust cleared, he began to notice little movements at varying intervals: a hand here, a twitch of the head there, eventually increasing until the man stepped out, slashing at the dust around him to clear his line of sight.

Again, the Parivir and the Rev himself marveled at their opponent's hardiness. A blow like that, enough to dent the airship, should have at least knocked him unconscious, and that was being extremely generous. Here he was though, encased in the thin white aura once more and shrugging the blow off. Ensei noticed that nearly all the slashes he and Adelle had made before were gone, nothing but traces of scars underneath tattered clothing.

Raven caught their looks, and leveled a triumphant smirk. "You're confused, huh? How can he survive all of this? Well I'll tell you, as a parting gift before I send each of you to the next world." He set his gaze on Cid, who only stared back. "It was back around just before you left. Khamja began looking for ways to increase the hardiness of its more dedicated followers. We eventually made contact with a reclusive Viera in the Tradmine Fens…"

"Wait…don't tell me." Cid's eyelids flared wide. "Zombie powder."

"That's right." The Paladin's mouth split with sadistic glee. "Zombie powder. Continued exposure from the drug produces a zombified state within the user until eventually they become full undead. Immortal soldiers, as the upper echelons like to call it. Of course, the experiment proved disastrous, as their everlasting hunger had overridden their reason. They began to feast on comrade and foe alike, unable to distinguish them…or perhaps not even caring."

"So they tossed away their mortality for power…" Ensei spat out, faintly remembering the neck wound he'd given the man back at the St. Galleria Cathedral, and how he'd been so unaffected by it. "So what about you? You seem in control."

"By the time the project was cancelled a few years later, I was only halfway through the process. Now, I'm trapped somewhere between life and undeath. A half-zombie, if you will. The true pinnacle of what the Zombie powder can do." He lifted his sword and free arm, and with a swipe, slashed across his forearm near his wrist, blood leaking out. The Gully members watched as he lowered his arm. The white aura surrounding his body began to glow especially bright around the wound's position, and the cut completely sealed up within half a minute. "Unable to be killed by normal means because of my undeath and able to restore my body with White Magic because of my humanity." He looked up, eyes fiercer than before. "A living contradiction, but the perfect, immortal warrior."

Then, he charged straight for Ensei, who he deemed the more immediate threat. The Parivir was already up by this time, and their weapons rang off each other as the two collided. Ensei managed to force the swing off, but Raven was already following up with another one, a low swipe aimed at his legs. Ensei managed a forward leap into a somersault from his off-kilter position, landing behind the man and thrusting his katana backward so that it stabbed Raven right in the back where his abdomen would be. Then, shifting his grip, he tore the steel from him, dragging it horizontally to explode from the side of his torso right below the rib cage.

Again, Raven ignored what for anyone else would be a crippling blow. The Parivir in truth had expected as much, but there was really nothing else he could do, other than pray one of his attacks would just magically earn him a victory. A hopeless sentiment, as the man spun around clockwise to deliver a sweeping strike at the man's own midsection. Ensei roared out in pain as the elaborate steel of the Knightsword dug into his side, and he quickly moved forward to escape any more damage, falling to the ground and katana clattering to the floor.

His swordsmanship was a step above Raven's, for sure, but no matter how good he was, he knew he couldn't counter every hit from someone who just ate up any damage without hesitation. The Paladin wasted no time following up, twirling his sword into a downward grip and thrusting it into Ensei's hamstring, eliciting another groan of pain. Kanin shook in fear as she watched the scene, calling out for the man to stop while doing her best to get past Cid's arms holding her back from going.

"Take the girls and get out of he—" Raven smashed his boot into the abdomen wound, cutting off the man's order. He raised his boot for another slam, when suddenly, a knife embedded itself into the side of his neck. He flinched slightly, out of surprise rather than actual pain, and when he turned, he saw Adelle standing with an outstretched hand in the place he had knocked her before.

"I refuse to leave." She remarked as evenly as she could, grabbing her third and last edged weapon, a small jackknife, from a small bag on her belt. Raven smirked, amused by the show of defiance, and left Ensei on the ground to stalk towards his newest chosen prey.

"Adelle do as he says!" Cid exclaimed, finally managing to corral Kanin against her objections and tears. "This isn't a suggestion. You two are getting out of here. Now!"

"I said I refuse!" The intensity of her voice effectively silenced the Rev, and the echo resounded throughout the hangar. "How many people have to die in front of me because of my own weakness? I refuse to sit here or run away while this man kills my family again." Raven slowly drew his sword high, so that when he reached her, he could strike her down with one blow. "No more! I won't let him take any of you!" She deepened her stance. "Nobody touches my family and gets away with it!"

"That a girl, Adelle."

Everyone stopped as those four words resounded through the chamber, all eyes focusing on the origin of the voice. There, just outside the doorway, stood two adolescent boys, using each other's weight as ballast to support themselves up. The first, a fiery red robe draped over his yellow overalls and the one that had spoken, stared down the Paladin without blinking. The second, a white haired Black Mage, held out his right palm, crimson magic already building up in the empty palm. Both looked wounded, ready to pass out at any moment, but the determination to stand and fight shone through their respective blue and black eyes.

As Raven turned around to recognize the forms of Luso and Crow, the fire magic leapt from the latter's hand, exploding in a violent burst of smoke and fire. His chest first detonated, along with the rest of his body, and flesh roasted in an instant, providing the beginnings of the terrible smell the Paladin had missed earlier. Adelle had to shield her eyes from the initial light of the spell, and she eventually began to back away from the man, moving to cover behind a cubed piece of machinery a little ways behind her lest she get roasted herself.

"In battle, when one is able to subdue his enemy, he should make sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is unable to continue fighting." Crow watched him as he talked in an even voice, palm still outstretched. Raven's legs did not buckle like he had originally thought they would. The man's burning body just stood upright without movement, but he instinctively knew it wasn't over just yet and he began gathering a second fire spell. "Otherwise, he will return to end your life. That's what you taught me, Commander Raven."

The man's head craned to the side, making sickening noises as it turned to look at Crow. Most of his exposed skin had been burned off in the attack, revealing reddened and blackened third degree burns. His Paladin garments were of no better shape, the torso half practically welded into his flesh if not all but blown off altogether in the explosions force, leaving behind the burnt sinew they had once hidden. Throughout this, though, he managed to speak normally.

"Crow, you bas—"

The fire magic shot out again, colliding with Raven's body and sending him into a burning torrent of flames that forced him down to his knees, screaming and roaring until his voice could no longer take the strain. As the initial explosion gave way to the more silent scorching of earth and billowing smoke, Crow continued talking. "Like you said earlier, I knew about your power. Your immortality. But being with you so long has allowed me to research and speculate quite an amount, and I've discovered a glaring crack."

Raven strained to stand, and just as he managed to get on a foot, the mage let loose yet another spell, throwing him once more into the surge of fire. The blast had forced its way past the muscles on his pectorals, revealing still beating organs beneath his charred ribcage. A majority of his face's skin had been cleaved off by the fire as well, save for his left eye which still held onto golden hue of its iris and the opaque darkness of its sclera. Luso, Kanin, and Adelle all had to compose themselves, lest they release the contents of their stomachs right then.

"Your ability to regenerate stems directly from White Magic practices. Basic White Magic, especially the Nurse skill that you use, heals by accentuating the body's natural processes, such as cell division and blood clotting." Crow continued, noticeably more fatigued after the onslaught. "If you are slashed, your magic causes the cells to multiply and seal your wounds, and your half-undeath ensures that you'll be able to withstand attacks long enough for the healing to come through."

The barrage of flames continued, one after the other as the mage talked, Raven no longer even able to get a word out, simply struggling to stand to his feet and screaming until his voice broke.

"But…cells can only divide if they are alive." Crow's let up on the rapid fire attacks just slightly, instead pausing to gather a significant amount of magic in his palm. "So if I burn all of them to a crisp, how long will your half-undeath be able to sustain you?"

In the lull, Raven returned to his knees and directed an almost demonic stare at the boy, accentuated by the damaging burns he'd suffered already. The sheer heat of the numerous flames around him made the air ripple and dance, and the smoke did no better to help his vision. However, amidst all that, as he stared across at the Black Mage and the brunette beside him, he could swear there was one more figure standing next to them. It wasn't Ensei, Cid, Kanin, or Adelle; this figure looked nothing like either of those four. Perhaps it was the heat, its effect on the air, his flame-destroyed state, the smoke, or some combination of the four, but for some reason…

He could see a blue Seeq standing next to the two boys, a reassuring hand on Crow's shoulder, leveling a victorious grin at him.

At that moment, hidden within his gaze and imperceptible to all but Raven himself, was something he hadn't felt in a very long time.

Fear.

And that fear was what allowed his scorched, battered body to heave itself up with all its strength, and charge at the mage's position with reckless abandon, howling like a hound out of hell. Seeing him coming, Luso immediately detached himself from Crow and rushed forward to meet him, brandishing his Flametongue in his hand. A small layer of fire, a controlled Backdraft, coated its crimson blade. Raven pounced and threw out both of his hands, having completely discarded his Knightsword in his desperation. Luso slashed from right to left, cutting and immediately burning a line across his opponent's torso.

Raven gritted his teeth, but did not let the attack stop him. His hands found their way onto Luso's body, gripping tight on his robe. He brought a hand back to crush the boy's skull, but as he did so, the ground beneath him exploded into a sea of flames, encapsulating both him and Luso with it.

"They're using the boy's flame immunity to hold me up and hit me with bigger attacks." Raven's hand released Luso, unable to keep hold with the fire evaporating the flesh on his hands. "I can't let them keep me on the defensive. I have to attack."

"Luso!" Crow's voice projected over the chamber, catching everyone's attention. "I don't have enough strength to finish him off. We're going with the plan."

The mage didn't wait for a response from the boy, instead holding his arms out and palms facing forward. Two magical glows, one red and the other blue, formed on the surface of his palms, and soon small gusts began to blow back and forth about him. Those gusts evolved over the seconds into a violent rotating wind with its base just in front of him, and he struggled to stay focus and keep it maintained.

The suction from the winds was not strong enough to pull any large piece of machinery or tools, but was more than adequate in sucking up all the layers of dust covering everything. It's once clear form darkened into a middle-light brown, and when he figured he'd gathered as much as would be needed, he forced his palms shut, cutting of the magic.

The winds died instantly, dissipating with only a hushed rushing sound. The dust left behind continued moving, though, still caught up with the momentum, until it eventually dropped back down onto the floor, covering their half of the hangar in an opaque dust screen. During this Raven looked around, then at himself, taking note of the building dust particles that were hovering above him, settling on his open flesh, and into the crevices of his wounds. Then, he returned to scanning his surroundings. He could only see a couple meters ahead of him, everything else was completely obscured, and he began running through possible attack angles.

"A dust screen…could they be trying to escape? But why would they? They've got the upper hand here." His eyes, what was left of their original form, widened. "Perhaps a sneak attack?"

Silence reigned, Raven's gaze darting around for any sign of life. Then, all of a sudden, he heard a footstep, and spun around behind him to meet it. As he turned, he managed to spy Luso charging straight at him with all the speed he could muster, Flametongue drawn back and wreathed in fire, Flame Robe billowing behind him. Having forgone his sword, Raven instead made an attempt to dodge, his entire body leaping high into the air to avoid the sweeping parallel slash. It passed by just under him, managing to clip off part of his foot, but by this point most of his remaining nerves had been deadened by the burns.

"You thought a sneak attack would work!" Again, his voice was on the fringes of mortality. "Too easy, boy!" His upward momentum continued, and the light of hope shone in his eyes again. If he could just catch this boy on the downfall, he could rip off his Flame Robe and take a hostage.

"Isn't over yet." Raven looked down at him as he spoke. If the boy wasn't so tired, he would've managed a small smirk, some victorious gesture, but as it was he just looked up at him, a pitying visage about him. Then, the Paladin caught view of the even more threatening sight developing just below him.

Sparks, hundreds and hundreds of sparks, crackled and popped , rising up at a faster rate than his leap, which had just reached the crown of his upward velocity. They continued rising, growing in number and gobbling up the oxygen in the dust raised and infused by Crow's wind synthesis spell. In that short span, that short one and a half second span, Raven's mind immediately understood what had happened, even as Luso spoke his final words to him.

"We made it pretty hot for you this time."

Everything made sense now. Gathering the dust into clouds around him, the boy's ignited blade…

A dust explosion.

His body was immediately enveloped in flames, but the explosion itself was more of a concussive blast than a rushing of fire. One moment the sparks cut off, just for a fraction of a second, then the blast was spreading at an incredible rate, what fire there was spreading in every conceivable direction above the heads of those watching. It was the largest explosion yet, so bright that everyone had to shield their eyes, regardless of their distance from it, and within the churning flames Raven's final scream echoed off every surface, just as his body was both incinerated and torn apart into pieces from the force.

The flames of retribution!


(Author's Note)

Wow, just under twelve thousand words. This is the longest chapter to date. I considered splitting this up into two, but I did promise last chapter that there would only be two more chapters in this arc (followed by some calm, after-climax chapters, and a few not so calm).

So yeah, hope this was enjoyable for you guys. Vaan's fight was actually mistakenly placed in this chapter when it should have been last chapter, and the fights themselves turned out to be so long that halfway through I began to question if I should follow the path I had set out for this chapter. Eventually though I just decided to see how it was received, so feedback is appreciated.

I may explain the zombie powder and what not in a more in-depth way on the next author's note, but at the moment I'm too wiped. It's hard to explain the more complicated processes within the actual story. Also, on a side note, I swear that that is the last thing I destroy by fire for a long time. Promise.

Alright that's it for now. Thanks for reading!

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