Disclaimer: Final Fantasy XII does not belong to me and I am making zero profit on this little endeavor.

If e'er you become entangled in the dark gloom of Golmore, seek the Wood Guide. Past demons and devils and slumbering guardians will she lead, to the foot of the Holy Mount. For this great service she demands naught but a single tome.

-Ipsen the Wanderer, The Adventurer's Guide, Tome II: Ivalice

In retrospect, Ipsen decided, Golmore Jungle had been a poor decision. Though it would have been nigh impossible to reach any other conclusion at this point; what with a nasty puncture wound courtesy of one of the Hellhounds who prowled nearby, sniffing eagerly at small puddles of blood. He gripped his crossbow as best he could in his non-dominant hand and waited for the inevitable onslaught of the miserable creatures. The humidity, the cloying odor of old rot and poisonous blooms made it difficult to regain his breath. He feared that the sound of any gasp for air would bring his attackers down on him that much faster.

The explorer remembered calling Collin a stick-in-the-mud for vying to take an airship to Mt. Bur-Omisace, to which his friend replied that at least he would be a whole and alive stick.

With a sardonic grin, he wondered if Collin would ever realize the full extent of his prudence on this subject. He wouldn't put it past the man to gloat over his mutilated corpse, after a proper period of mourning, of course.

The sound of heavy breathing and impossibly loud sniffing brought him back to the painful realities of the present. A sickly blue glow reached around the trunk of the tree behind which he hid, crouched low on the rickety boardwalk that connected the monstrous vegetation of this jungle. The light grew brighter, bringing with it the horrendous stench of a Hellhound.

Ipsen pushed his glasses closer to his face, using the lathe of his weapon, his right arm hanging uselessly at his side. He heard the cursed animal growl, picking up on his scent. The explorer tensed, waiting to spring.

He swung himself around to the side of the trunk and pointed the recurve crossbow at the monster. His finger pressed against the trigger, waiting for a clean shot at the creature. The Hellhound snarled at the audacious Hume, and pounced, howling to its brethren as it did so.

It never reached its prey; a descending arrow pierced its head and extinguished its foul existence. Ipsen blinked, momentarily dumbfounded and checked his bow to verify whether or not it was his own bolt that had struck on its own accord.

He had no time to further ponder the situation as the rest of the deceased's pack came barreling down the path towards him, howling for blood.

Before he had even raised his bow again, five more arrows embedded themselves, swift and deadly, into the heads and chests of the advancing beasts. All fell dead, save but one, before they had even reached the first's corpse. The one unlucky survivor laid foaming and snarling in pain.

A soft swish of cloth, a click of high shoes on the wood of the path, and suddenly his view was obscured by a very tall, feminine form. He drew in a sharp breath of surprise and one of her long, rabbit ears twitched disinterestedly in his direction. She paid him no heed and approached the Hellhound that had managed to evade death. It snapped at the advancing Viera, who drew a sword from the sheath at her side. Ipsen winced as the blade descended into the animal's heart, effectively ending its struggle.

She turned to him and the Hume straightened. Her face was obscured by a blank metal mask, with only two slits to accommodate vision. It had a rather unpleasant effect on him.

Viera and Hume stood, watching each other for a few moments, wariness and uncertainty inherent in their postures.

Finally, his savior pulled her mask up, so that it hung like a visor over her features.

"You," She began hesitantly, "Are unharmed?"

Her voice held the same mysterious, soothing accent that he had heard in the few wayward Viera with whom he had come into contact. Yet, hers was stronger, unmarked by years spent wandering the outside world. It held some mysterious quality that spoke of ancient secrets and mysteries hidden by the heavy boughs of the Golmore king banyans. Though quiet, it cut cleanly through the background cacophony of birds and beasts.

What caught his attention, however, was the youthfulness of her features. Her eyes were too large and curious, her face too round and her nose a touch too snub to mark her as full-grown. Even her ears, he noted, were a touch shorter and blunter than those of an adult Viera.

With a jolt, he realized he had been staring and stuttered out an affirmative. He looked beyond her to where the Hellhounds were rapidly decaying, their own dark magic eating away at their mortal forms. In a matter of minutes, it would be as if they had never existed. He glanced to the longbow slung across her slender shoulders.

"Those are your arrows?"

She nodded.

"Then you saved my life, madam. I am greatly indebted."

Ipsen executed what he hoped was a gallant bow. When he righted himself, he saw that she had assumed a defensive posture. He fought the amused grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth.

Cultural differences, he reminded himself. The girl had probably never seen a male, let alone a Hume male, and thus was more than a tad circumspect.

"It was nothing beyond my duty as a Wood-Warder," She replied brusquely. Pulling down her visor, she turned her back and crouched low to leap to a nearby tree.

"Wait!" She started at his cry, whirling to look at him.

"I, ah…Don't know the way out of the jungle," He admitted, more than a little embarrassed. She may very well be older than him, but it felt absolutely mortifying to admit his predicament to someone who looked half his age.

"This concerns me?" She queried, seemingly unmoved by his plight.

"Ah, well, yes. You are a wood, ah…"

"Warder."

"Yes, yes. A Wood-Warder. Surely that entails leading a lost traveler to safety," He hinted hopefully.

"Our mission is to cull the evil things that lurk in the shadows of the jungle, and nothing to do with wanderers, as most have the sense to stay away."

Though he could not see her face, he had the distinct feeling he was being mocked. A bought of inspiration hit him.

"I could pay you!"

A delicate sniff came from behind the mask, "Things of the Hume world hold no value for…"

She stopped short as she realized he had ceased listening to her, as he sat and began to dig frantically through a dilapidated haversack with his good arm. Empty potion bottles and used motes spilled out onto the walkway, pushed out of the way in his search for something he owned that held any value whatsoever.

With a cry of triumph, he produced a heavy book bound in red leather and much abused.

Atlas of Ivalice and its Peoples she read on the cover as he thrust it towards her. As if being handed a particularly temperamental bomb, she tentatively took hold of the tome.

With clawed fingers, she pushed it open to a map of the Phon Coast and its outlying areas. Her eyes scanned the sketch of blue waters and pale sand, the descriptions of its magnificent flora and fauna. The tip of her tongue darted out and moistened her bottom lip, and she glanced nervously behind herself. Ipsen was vaguely reminded of a child about to steal a cookie.

Her attention returned to the book and she turned the page to the section on Archadia, lifting her mask once again to see the words more clearly. The curiosity he had observed lurking in her eyes earlier now burned fiercely.

He took advantage of her distraction and nabbed the atlas from her relaxed grip.

"If you help me to the Paramina Rift, it will be yours. I promise you."

Burgundy eyes searched his face, before falling to the book in his grasp. Indecision marked her features, and her ears twitched rapidly back and forth, as if hearing some far-off noise that he could not. Finally, she spoke.

"I will help you," She stated firmly, "But make haste, we must, before I am missed."

The explorer released a breath he had not known he was holding.

"Thank you." He was sure he had never meant those two words as much as he did now.

She did not reply, but covered her features and turned to walk down the walkway. With a motion of her hand, she bid him follow. Taking up his bag once more, he slung it over his injured right shoulder with a hiss of pain and began to follow.

"My name is Ipsen, by the way. And whose company do I have the pleasure of keeping?"

The steady pace slowed for a moment, and the Viera's head turned slightly towards him.

"Fran."

She resumed her brisk steps, walking deeper into the unrelenting murkiness of the jungle.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

They traveled for what seemed like hours, though Ipsen could not tell how much time had passed. Golmore always seemed to maintain the same level of dim light, night or day.

Fran, as the Viera called herself, had neatly sidestepped most of the beasts they had encountered. Those she could not avoid had met their swift death, courtesy of her precise aim.

He had tried to initiate some conversation, but his guide had not responded to any of his probing questions beyond monosyllabic replies.

Something began to nudge at the edges of his perception, as the path ended in a small clearing. Light, he realized, there was more light here! His gait quickened in excitement, nearly keeping pace with his silent companion.

They passed into a small clearing, covered with abundant grasses and flowers. A large mound, covered with thin layer of vegetation, the only one in the otherwise flat area piqued his curiosity. He edged closer to it, peering at the strange shape of it.

"An ancient wyrm," Fran's voice startled him out of his observation, "A guardian long dead."

Nervously, the Hume edged away from the great beast. It may be dead, but Ipsen had a personal policy of not dealing with wyrms and dragons, dead or alive. He hastened over to where Fran stood waiting for him.

She pushed away heavy, hanging vines and bright light spilled through the dimness of the jungle.

The man helped her clear away the branches, and found himself face to face with the glowing whiteness of snow. The contrast to the gloom nearly blinded him. His eyes adjusted and he saw an acolyte of Mt. Bur-Omisace waiting to greet and aid travelers.

He breathed a sigh of relief, and turned to his reluctant savior. She had pushed away her face protector once more, wincing as she stared into the whiteness beyond the veil of green vines.

In the clear light of day, he saw that her skin was not as flawless as it appeared in the dimness.

Dark little freckles played across her nose and cheeks, further impressing upon her observer a sense of youthfulness.

He removed the book from his pack and presented it to the young Viera, who tore her gaze away from the world beyond the woods. She glanced at the book and then at his face.

Ipsen smile reassuringly, "You deserve so much more than this, Fran. You've saved my life."

Fran didn't respond, but gently took the offered prize.

A howling noise, like a violent wind whipping through trees sounded from behind them and the Wood-Warder drew in a sharp breath.

"You must go," She told him, "At once."

She paused before bowing, an almost exact imitation of the one he had given her earlier. He smiled, and felt oddly touched. Returning the bow quickly, he made his way through the vines to the cold, harsh winds of the Rift.

When he turned to look behind him, the vines had fallen into place once more, obscuring his view of the jungle beyond.

For a moment, the green tendrils appeared to shudder and writhe with a life of their own, then still.

Ipsen turned quickly, walking towards the bemused acolyte. He wanted nothing more to do with Golmore and its secrets.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Jote watched as her younger sister approached her and bowed respectfully. Devoid of her Warder's armor, she looked like the Fran of their younger days.

Mjrn, who had been squirming eagerly at Jote's side, now ran excitedly up to Fran and tugged at her leg. With an indulgent smile, the older Viera swung the little one into her arms before assuming a business-like demeanor for the leader of their village.

"You summoned me, Jote?"

"Hala told me you were late in returning from patrol."

Fran absently smoothed Mjrn's silky hair as the child lay her head down on her sister's shoulder.

"I idled and was late in giving Hala my report. That is all."

Jote observed her sibling's face carefully, but Fran revealed nothing to her piercing stare.

"You will be more prompt from this point forward." It was not a suggestion.

"Of course," The Wood-Warder murmured in assent and turned towards their rooms, Mjrn still snuggled into her shoulder.

The eldest of the three sisters sighed. The Wood had told her exactly what Fran had done today, and she had hoped for an honest answer or an ounce of repentance.

The ancient voice of the Wood whispered through her thoughts, speaking more in feelings and impressions that somehow spoke more than mere words to her children.

She has lied to you, child.

I know, but she meant no harm.

She has aided a Hume and ignored my warnings!

Fran has a kind heart, defended her sister resolutely, she meant only to aid a fellow creature and did not realize the danger.

Too kind a heart. I fear for my beloved child and the poison that creature gave to her.

Jote queried after the nature of this poison, so she might purge it from her system.

The Wood gave no reply.

A/N: Wow, that ended up being a lot longer than I thought it was going to. Ah, well. I should explain a few things, I suppose. Because of the similarities in the storylines of FFIX and FFXII, I always picture them as existing in the same world. In my mind, Ivalice and the Mist Continent are both on Gaia, they're just separated by wide oceans. Ipsen is a great explorer in FFIX-verse, though he's only mentioned. I stuck him in here because I needed an intrepid adventurer to do my bidding and get lost in Golmore for me. Also, Mjrn seems a great deal younger than Jote and Fran in the game, so I made her a child to Fran's adolescent and Jote's young adult. Also, I may have fudged the boundaries between Paramina and the jungle and how far the Viera can go. I brandish my artistic license to cover my ignorance. If anyone has a better idea of it, I would be grateful if you could tell me!

Please review. Constructive criticism is especially appreciated!