JOURNEY

By Al Kristopher

Adhvanit21@aol.com

Part One: Dilemma

Sighing, Beatrix regarded her fallen opponent with pity and irritation. Both were, of course, understated emotions: she found it quite impossible to believe that one such as this had so many "abilities"--well, they were supposed to be abilities, but Beatrix really had to wonder whether he was as great as he boasted. After only three friendly sparring matches, she concluded that he was NOT.

Still, she helped him up.

"Another try, sir?" she asked. The young man groaned, shook his head, and salvaged his ego.

"Ha! You know it!" he cried. Beatrix gazed at him wryly, a smug look plain on her face. She raised Save the Queen, and held it in a defensive position.

"Then whenever you are ready to test your fate, sir," she dared. The boy grinned happily, and dashed forward with his primitive dagger. He sliced at her in vain, and she sidestepped the cut as always. Using the flat of her blade, she smacked him on the face, leaving a welt that would disappear with the proper amount of care and kisses from a certain girl.

"Ha!" laughed Beatrix. "It's that same trick again! You will never defeat me if you keep using old tricks!" The young man groaned, nursing the sore on his cheek. A long, thin, red mark had been impressed on his face, and it stung like nobody's business.

"Just tryin' to go easy on you," grunted the young man. In a flash, he was up on his feet again, ready for another shot. Beatrix sighed and shook her head.

"I don't understand you at all," she moaned. "You have heart; this is undeniable. I cannot defeat that part of you. Physically, though, I must say that you stink."

"Hey! I'm not that bad, am I?" Beatrix snorted happily, and allowed a smile.

"No, you're terrible. I don't know why I had such a hard time fighting against you. I honestly cannot believe how much of a fight you put up then--but then again, you had your reasons." The young man shrugged, and as Beatrix reminisced on the past, he dashed forward and sliced at her with his daggers. Coolly, and still halfway stuck in dream world, Beatrix easily blocked the blow and tripped the young man. He fell with a WHUMP, comically doing a backflip in midair as he flew. Sighing, Beatrix walked over and gently laid her sword on the man's shoulder.

"You're beaten, again," she stated. The young man moaned and pounded his fist on the ground, and in his usual carefree style, he rested his hands beneath his head. Beatrix smiled, sheathed her sword, and joined him on the cobblestone floor.

The time--one year, four months, and three days after the Great Restoration and death of Kuja.

The place--an empty square in Alexandria Kingdom, perfect for two friends to test each other's skills.

The players--Beatrix, Captain of the Alexandrian Knights; Zidane, a mischievous young thief and object of Queen Garnet's affections.

The status--peace.

"What's on your mind, Bea?" asked Zidane. Beatrix hugged her knees to her chest and leaned her head back. Wood-colored hair fell backwards as she stared at the sky.

"How much of a wimp you are," she noted. Zidane stuttered and wiggled in misery.

"Ouch," he snorted. Beatrix smiled. "What else?"

"That's all," she shrugged. Zidane smiled that same carefree and slightly stupid smile of his.

"Aww, you really do care about me," he sang. Beatrix faced him and aimed Save the Queen at his arm.

"Only as far as my sword can reach," she said. Zidane grinned and winked at her, and Beatrix rewarded his efforts with a friendly poke to the ribs with her sword.

"Ow, hey, sorry. I forgot you already have someone." Zidane smiled as always, but Beatrix regarded the boy with bridled irritation. He did not have to say any names in order for her to understand what he was talking about: Adelbert Steiner, that loveable goof who took charge over the Knights of Pluto. Strong of heart and body, but somewhat lacking in brains, the noble captain had formed something of a bond with Beatrix since their time spent together during Garnet's coronation.

To her chagrin, though, Adelbert was a loser when it came to love. His sword had more romance in it than he did. Beatrix admired Steiner greatly, even though they had been at odds before, and really and truly did like him, but the big lug was usually oblivious to such admiration. For sure, she knew that he felt similarly, but Sir Rust Bucket (as Zidane affectionately referred to him as) was just not a Don Juan. He had an easier time fighting behemoths and monsters than he did expressing his feelings.

But that was all right. Beatrix was a patient woman. Oh, was she ever patient…

"Hey, you there?" said a voice. Beatrix snapped out of her trance, and looked up to see the sunny face of a golden-haired boy staring down at her. She rubbed her good eye and shook her head.

"I'm fine," she said, anticipating his question. She stood up, retrieved Save the Queen, and dusted herself off. "Another try?" she asked. Zidane shrugged.

"Yeah, sure, why not. You know that I won't hold anything back!!" As she saw him get into his attack stance, Beatrix sighed the sigh of one who knew the outcome of such a fight. Oh, well, she thought. If at first you don't succeed…

"Captain!" Knight of Pluto VIII ran towards Steiner, an urgent look on his face.

"Haagen! What manner of business is this?" demanded the Captain. Haagen skidded in front of Steiner and almost collapsed from exhaustion.

"(gasp pant) L-lady B-Bea (wheeze puff) Lady Beatrix requests your (huff puff) your audience, sir!" Haagen then collapsed on the cobblestone street, puffing and wheezing his lungs out. Steiner regarded the out-of-shape knight with irritation.

"Stand up, man!" he demanded. "That is no way for a Knight of Pluto to act!" Haagen did not respond, though; he merely stayed pinned to the floor, wheezing. Steiner sighed, grasping his forehead in annoyance.

"You say that Lady Beatrix is asking for me?" Haagen paused, and looked up at his captain.

"Yeah, she asked me to get you," he managed. Steiner nodded thoughtfully, applying his hand to his chin in thought.

"Hm, hm, yes, I see," he coughed. "Must be something important! Well, thank you, Haagen!" With a bold salute, Steiner began trotting along the path and towards the castle. Usually, if Beatrix had asked for someone of high importance like himself to pay her audience, it meant there was either some type of crisis, or else the Queen needed something. Steiner, ever obedient and loyal, would then devote himself to whichever predicament had been thrown at him.

Beatrix smiled as the familiar clank-clank sound of Steiner's armor echoed across the courtyard. Even in broad daylight, she could see the silvery armor he wore, and the fairly humorous way it squeaked. Steiner was a big guy, but even in a thick crowd he always managed to find some way to be conspicuous. Beatrix couldn't help but love the guy, though: his heart was in the right place, even though the rest of him usually was not.

"Steiner," addressed Beatrix, holding her fist over her heart as she greeted him. Steiner came to a halt and performed his finest salute.

"Beatrix," he replied. "I heard that you have asked for me! What is it that you need? Is there some crisis? Does the Queen request something?"

"No, none of that," said Beatrix blankly. Mentally, she sighed. Why did I expect him to ask that? she said. Every time he's called up by me or the queen, he always thinks it's some kind of dilemma. Poor guy, all he really knows how to do is fight and take orders.

"Eh, what do you mean?" asked Steiner, pulling Beatrix away from her thoughts.

"Well," she began, "I, uh… just wanted to talk with you, that's all." A pause. Steiner lowered his head and rubbed his chin carefully.

"Oh."

"Care to walk with me?" asked the lady, giving him a pretty smile. Steiner mirrored it only halfway and nodded his head.

"I, I suppose," he managed. Beatrix smiled, knowing full well that Adelbert would have asked her first if he had the guts to do so. So with a clank-clank and a light stomp-stomp, Beatrix and Steiner began their walk.

"Ssh, don't move so much!"

"C-captain…"

"He… he's doing it!"

"All right, Captain!"

"Ssh!! I told you guys not to move!"

"Such a nice couple… Too bad my love live stinks."

"That's not all that stinks around here…"

"Hey, I shower!"

"Ssh!!! You guys are hopeless!!"

"I can see you there!!" shouted a voice. Steiner angrily pointed at the bushes, glaring at the knights who were spying on him.

"Ack, busted!!" hissed Weimar.

"Run away!" shouted Kohel.

"Idiots," mumbled Breireicht. The three Pluto knights scattered as their captain approached the bush, and they made sure to never show their faces to him until at least the next week. Spying was a vice unsuitable for the Knights of Pluto, and the punishments for such a deed were especially wicked. Thankfully, Steiner had been in a reasonably good mood when he discovered his men.

"Halt!" he shouted. "Come back, you cowards! Running away will only worsen your punishment! For shame! Spying on your own captain!!" With a huff and a puff, Steiner gave chase to his delinquent soldiers, leaving Beatrix by herself in the courtyard. She had not spoken one single word to him yet.

"…What a revolting development," she grunted, sighing in defeat. With a shake of her head, Beatrix departed for the interior of the castle, knowing full well that once Steiner set his mind onto something (like chasing down his immature knights), there was absolutely no stopping him. So, giving up on that prospect for the time being, Beatrix decided to retire into a nice hot tub, and would excuse herself from all duties for the rest of the day.

********************

"Announcing Queen Garnet of Alexandria and Mayor Huffle of Dali!"

"After you, my lady!"

"Why thank you!" Queen Garnet smiled happily as Zidane held the door open for her; the mayor more or less had to pull the portal open himself. Making sure that her train didn't become too dirty from scuffing against the floor, the elegant and regal Queen Garnet of Alexandria entered the Grand Conference Room of Lindblum. It was that time again.

Zidane wisely sidestepped Minister Artania as he entered the room, and an announcer gave the call for the next guests.

"High Regent of Lindblum, Cid Falbool, and his Lady Hilda Falbool!" Cid and Hilda, arms linked, entered the room looking as regal and fancy as ever. Zidane, never one for great manners, addressed them as he normally would.

"Hey Cid, what's up? Wow, Hilda, you're looking nice!" The sophisticated couple smiled politely at his comment, and Garnet let the harmless flirt slide by. After all, how shallow would she be if she became jealous every time Zidane flirted with a girl? Considering him, she'd have to be an ocean.

"Representative Quale of the Qu marshes!" Struggling to get his bloated self through the door, Quale of the Qu clan waddled into the room with his tongue properly tucked inside his mouth. His student, Quina, had personally prepared the dish that would be served to the councilors that day.

"Queen Stella of Treno!" A groan escaped the mouth of a certain rude boy as the bizarre duck-lady from Treno entered the room. Quacking softly to herself, Stella was flanked by her servant and a coin bearer that had taken the liberty of bringing her Stellazzo coins with her. Garnet sighed at Zidane's rude outburst, but almost blanched when she saw her uncle Cid groaning as well.

"Chief Ghiot of Conde Petie!" Everybody in the room, even Garnet, could not help but groan (or smile, in some cases) as the inevitable "Rally-ho!" echoed throughout the conference room. A short man with a strong arm and a thick beard marched into the room, two other dwarves with him. Like everybody else that had came before them, they squatted down in their respective seats.

"Mr. Number 266 and Person of Chairs Mikoto!" Zidane, sweet loveable Zidane, couldn't help but wave as his sister entered the room with the black mage leader. Unlike the last few times he had seen her, she was wearing a smile on her face--she even greeted him back.

Birds of a feather, said Garnet to herself. Birds of a feather…

"Lady Eiko Carol of Madain Sari!"

"ZIDANE, HI!!!!!" The bright young lad groaned in misery as the rambunctious young summoner bounced into the room, a tiny assortment of moogles tailing her. Some of the royal guards tried hard to hold back a laugh as the creatures cavorted with guests; others were clearly holding back their tempers. Eiko calmed down just long enough to be seated, though, and the conference's opening minutes could continue.

"High Bishop Benedic of Esto Gaza!" With a silence that was usually the norm for holy men, the Bishop of Esto Gaza walked quietly into the room, two attendants tailing him. One audibly muttered how scorching the temperature was inside the room.

"And finally," said the announcer, "Elder Vanderhaum of Daguerro!" An old man, sparkling with the mischief of youth and vision, waddled into the room with only his cane by his side. He joined his comrades at the table, and glanced around him to see who had attended.

"Oh, excuse me," said Queen Garnet, "but where is the King of Burmecia? Is he no longer a part of this council?"

"I know not, highness," replied a guard. "We sent word to him as per schedule. Burmecia may be in the middle of a rebuilding effort, but Mognet should have managed to get in somehow." Garnet paused, pursing her lips in thought.

"Maybe they're late?" suggested Eiko. Garnet regarded her distant relative with disbelief.

"The King of Burmecia, late? That sounds very out of place. We would have received some kind of report if this were the case."

"Let's concern ourselves with that later," suggested Cid. "I should call this meeting to order." He paused, just long enough to realize that he should follow his own advice. "Whoops," he shrugged, "uh, this meeting has now come to order. All members of the Council of Gaia are present and accounted for, save the King of Burmecia."

"Excuse me, Regent?" piped the mayor of Dali. He stood to make himself known. "May I make a suggestion to speculate on why the king is not here?"

"No, that would be a waste of time," pointed Cid. "Speculate on other matters. We do not need everyone here, just a noticeable majority. I am sure the king will be glad of your concern, though." The mayor nodded his head and sighed, muttering something about "how rank has its privileges and regents will always ignore a mayor".

"Now, first order of business," began Cid, organizing a few pieces of paper he had with him. "Your eminence, can you give us a status report on the Shimmering Islands?"

"I can give you nothing," replied the Bishop tactfully. Cid grumbled.

"I see. Do you mean to tell us that there is nothing going on out there?"

"No, not a thing, unless you consider the wind and the waves." Cid grunted, and a light babbling overtook the councilors.

"That is good news," said the Regent. "I am glad to hear that all alien activity in that area has ceased. That is the way things should be. Now, I would like to have your all's individual Mist reports and the Reconstruction conditions." He paused, and one by one, the committee members began listing off their country's efforts of rebuilding and clearing out Mist.

"Alexandria is almost completely restored to its former glory," began Queen Garnet. "With the gracious cooperation of friends old and new, we have all but made the country shimmer with brilliance. As for the Mist and the monsters it produced, I must extend my heartfelt appreciation to Captains Steiner and Beatrix, who are absent from this meeting, as well as sir Tribal. Without their constant efforts, Alexandria might not have the peace it so desperately needs." With that, Garnet smiled politely and returned to her seat, giving Zidane a brief smile. He winked at her and held onto her hand.

"Those responsible for manufacturing the black mages are being dealt with accordingly," said Mayor Huffle of Dali. "As for the machines themselves, we are still debating whether or not to keep them up and running. If Mist can be recycled into a black mage, then we may still have a use for it."

"I'm not so sure that's such a good idea," spoke Number 266. "I mean, I'm grateful for the new black mages we've been receiving, but what if they become mavericks like the original models? Or worse, what if there appears more Black Waltzes?" Number 266 paused, and gazed at Huffle with empty yellow eyes.

"Then again," replied Huffle, "there might be another Vivi in the mix. Even victims of black mage attacks admired master Vivi. He was, after all, a hero of the war."

"Agreed," replied Number 266. He paused, and turned to Regent Cid. "I apologize for interrupting, sir." Cid grunted and waved it off.

"No, that's okay. Feel free to speak your mind. After all, we're all friends here, right?"

"Ah sure do hope so!" barked Chief Ghiot of the dwarves. "Dunno if'n ah kin trust alf' the people ootside'a this buildin'."

"Trusting each other will become the key to cooperation," noted Bishop Benedic. The dwarf Chief growled happily and gave a "Rally-ho!"

"Ah dunna disagree with ya there, yir eminence," he said. "An' never was a wiser word spaken! But, ah'm jus' warnin' ye. Some people canna be trusted."

"In any case," coughed Regent Cid, trying to change the subject, "I'd like to hear everyone else's reports, please." The councilors apologized, and one by one, they began reading off the conditions of their individual towns.

Hilda Falbool, elegant and regal and perhaps a little more mature than her husband, represented her country that day. She stated that all of Lindblum had been recovering nicely since the terrible attack from Atomos. In fact, she noted, almost all repairs were already done. The theater district was up and running again, and even the Festival of the Hunt was taking place.

Quale of the Qu marshes, as always, had nothing but peace and prosperity to give. Even though his people's lands had declared neutrality in all political arenas, his voice was still valuable to the other councilors. With Qu marshes stationed around the world, it was important to know exactly what was going on and where, and Quale's eyes and ears proved invaluable. Needless to say, Mist monsters were at their usual consistency around the marshes.

Queen Stella of Treno, midway between her speech on Stellazzo artifacts and comments on the weather, had little to say for her Treno. Another city that had declared neutrality, Treno had been virtually unaffected by the battle against Kuja and Terra. But being the center for commerce and arts, Treno was still an important pillar in the Parthenon that was the Council of Gaia. Mist monsters around Treno were becoming rare, thankfully.

Chief Ghiot of Conde Petie, in his usual bullish fashion, declared that the area surrounding his domain was completely freed from Mist. With the aid of the black mages and the Genomes, Ghiot's dwarves had made a sport of exterminating Mist monsters. Their handicraft had became invaluable once rebuilding efforts went underway, and many dwarves now frequented Lindblum, Alexandria, and even Burmecia.

Eiko Carol and her moogle entourage also declared safety from Mist and the monsters it spawned. Since their village was so close to the Iifa Tree, it was a surprise to discover how lax the monsters were, but Eiko assured the council that all evil and/or foreign matters were dealt with by the spirits of summoners long gone.

As his eminence stated before, there was literally no activity surrounding the Shimmering Isles. Formerly the nexus between Terra and Gaia, the Shimmering Isles had once been the central coordinate for all Mist-related activity. To say that the area was now completely safe and pure was a very good sign of progress.

Finally, Elder Vanderhaum of Daguerro also reported good news. Mist had all but vanished from the shores of the small city, and other than local gossip and the occasional explorer or scholar visiting, there was absolutely no news to present from his area.

Satisfied by the results, Regent Cid thus called the meeting to an early end, and expected all participants to meet again in two month's time, unless otherwise notified. The assembly then left the council room and Lindblum Grand Castle itself, and each returned to their own lodge to rest for the day. Zidane, naturally, had had enough rest in the meeting.

"Sorry, Dagge--ehh, Garnet," he shrugged. Garnet placed her hands on her hips and glared at the young man, though she could not hide the love she bore him.

"Honestly Zidane, you could at least pretend to stay awake. I know that hearing about how every city and town in the world is getting to be tiresome, but it is important that we keep track of our world. Why, who knows what could crop up in the next two months?"

"Probably the Elder of Daguerro buying a new pair of shoes," he sighed. Garnet clicked hr tongue, and shook her head. Gorgeous black hair flowed like wheat as it waved.

"I'm serious," she said softly. "You know that we have to keep on our toes. This world council idea was an incredible one, and I owe you and Steiner and everyone else so much for it. So please, Zidane… Please try to at least feign interest. I mean, I have to have somebody attend as part of my entourage, and Steiner and Beatrix would usually come, but today they had other matters."

"Yeah, like that date that 'somebody' set them up on," replied the boy, never missing a beat. Garnet's face soon turned to the color of another jewel, but she had to admit that she was part of the "problem".

"Okay, so I was partially to blame. But, well… I wanted you by my side…" Zidane smiled warmly and approached his princess, eyes twinkling with love.

"Aww, you're so sweet…" Garnet chuckled, and her face kept its ruby hue as he leaned closer… Closer… closer still……

"Excellency! All perimeters have been checked!!" Garnet nearly leaped out of her skin as she heard the bellow of the Captain of the Pluto knights. Still flushed slightly, she turned around and awkwardly thanked him.

"Ah, um…"

"Oh, pardon me," muttered Steiner humbly, kneeling to the ground. "I, ah, did not mean to intrude…"

"Adelbert Steiner! How many times do you have to be told?! Always knock when you enter a lady's room!" Steiner flinched and turned an ashy color as the sound of Beatrix's pretty voice bellowed across the hall. The aforementioned knight broke into the room, an enraged look on her face. She suddenly jumped as she realized just what Steiner had interrupted.

"Ah, oh, your majesty!" Beatrix kneeled, and pulled the loveable Steiner down to the floor with her.

"Uh, hey guys," said Zidane. "So, uh, how was the date?"

The looks that Zidane received that day would have melted the frozen wastelands that Bishop Benedic called home.

********************

One week passed since the Council of Gaia disbanded. With an optimistic disposition and good things to report, things looked like they were picking up once again. The damage caused by Kuja and Garland had all but been erased, and only a few minor details were left to clean up.

Still, even after a week passed, Garnet could not help but think of Burmecia's absence in the meeting. To be sure, her uncle Cid was correct when he said that not all members needed to be there, and perhaps there was nothing to worry about. After all, Chief Ghiott had been late to meetings before, and then there was the trouble caused by Number 288's "stopping".

But Garnet still had a look of concern as she went about her daily routines. Burmecia and Cleyra had been hit awfully hard during the struggles, and though Cleyra was a lost cause, Burmecia had been slowly healing its wounds over the months. Given time, it would probably resurface into the mighty and proud nation that it used to be. Perhaps Cid was right, after all. Maybe it was nothing.

Besides, Garnet had other things to worry about. Keeping Zidane in line was her biggest concern; keeping him from flirting around was even more troublesome. Garnet knew full well that the boy loved her, but he could be so impossible sometimes. On the other hand, she had been receiving lots of marriage proposals within the previous year, none of which were too unappetizing. She even considered a few--just to spite Zidane, of course.

One of Garnet's more immediate concerns was what to have for lunch. Her friend and personal chef, Quina Quan, had returned to the position as head cook of Alexandria after the fight with Kuja, and the meals that s/he made were becoming famous. Quina, somebody from the same clan as Quale, was a renowned chef of the kingdom whose specialty was frog soup and oglop pie (which was actually quite delicious if one ignored the occasional shell).

Garnet felt like not eating anything exotic that day--something simpler was her desire. Having a personal chef on call had many advantages, and having a chef that loved to cook was even better. Quina was never bothered by harsh criticism--if somebody didn't like the food, Quina would just smile and slurp it up for them.

Steiner's Gysahl pickle diet was becoming a thorn in Garnet's side, even though she had to admit that they were good. Beatrix, in an even more unusual twist, had become addicted to the strange new food that one of the Vivis had "invented" one day. While chasing a pigeon, one of the Vivis accidentally knocked a canister of tomato paste and some grated cheese onto a piece of dough that was supposed to be flatbread. What came out was a combination that nobody seemed to get enough of, least of all Beatrix.

As Garnet asked for her daily lunch, the General herself could be seen strolling around, stuffing a slice of the tomato-bread-cheese mixture in her mouth. Steiner, ever bubbling with the occasional idea, had topped pickles onto his pie. The idea was a flop, but soon people began copying him and slamming all kinds of weird foodstuffs on the edible invention. Zidane revolutionized the exploding franchise by adding slices of sausage and pepperoni onto the pies.

"Oh, Beatrix!" The General turned her head to the Queen, and rushed forward as fast as she could. Garnet snickered politely and made a wiping motion with her hand. Beatrix's face turned as red as the sauce that had spilled on her cheeks, and in a flash the paste was gone.

"Yes, highness!" she saluted. Garnet still had that smile by the time she addressed her bodyguard.

"At ease, Beatrix. I'm just wondering if you'd like to join me for lunch."

"Ah, highness, I would be honored to…" managed the knight. "But regretfully, I have already eaten, as you see." Garnet resumed snickering.

"Yes, I did see." Beatrix smiled meekly, and tried turning her reddened face away from her liege. Queen Garnet is so kind, she thought to herself. Brahne would have my head if she saw me make a mess like this!

"Well," continued the Queen, "thank you anyway. Enjoy your last piece of… whatever that is."

"It's a 'piece'a', as sir Zidane calls it."

"A piece of what?"

"No, no… a piece'a. Leave it to Zidane to come up with an annoying name like that. Keeps you wondering what in Hades it is."

"Hm, a… piece'a, eh?" mused Garnet. She smiled, and nodded her head. "I like it. All right, I'll name it a 'piecea'." The two ladies smiled, and Beatrix excused herself just long enough to retrieve a napkin.

The alleys echoed with the unmistakable sound of approaching footsteps. Slower and closer came the stomping sound of boots, slowly, closer, like a metronome. Jacques B. Nymbull (Master Thief Extraordinaire) stood behind a wall, clutching his knife in glee as he heard the sound of feet clapping against cobblestone. They were getting closer, very close, and soon the hapless victim would be penniless.

As the sound came within close quarters, Jacques screamed and leaped out of his hiding place, aiming the knife at the intended victim. With a demand of "Your money or your life!", Jacques was sure that his quota would be met.

Unfortunately, for him that is, the man did not move an inch. He merely crossed his arms, staring down at the thief before him. Jacques stuttered as he saw the man, and his mouth hung open like a cave. Indecipherable words choked out of his mouth, and a squeal of helplessness came from his voice.

"Yuh… yuh… yuh…" he pointed, stuttering wildly. "Yuh… you're… you're… the… the… the…"

"Yep," replied the man. Jacques practically swallowed his Adam's Apple in fear.

"You're the… the… the… Flaming… the… the Flaming…"

"Yup," said the man. Jacques squealed in agony, and dropped the knife as he looked into the shaggy red hair of the Flaming Amarant. The great monk took one single threatening step, grabbed Jacques by the head, turned him upside down, and shook him until all his treasures spilled out. With a toss, the Flaming Amarant heaved the thief away, leaving him alive though thoroughly bruised from the collision on the road. Jacques finally screamed, and ran away as fast as he could, swearing to amend his ways if he lived to tell the tale.

"Fool," said Amarant blankly, bending down to pick up the coins. He didn't even bother noticing the local police approaching him.

"What's the deal?" asked an officer, spying a tall red-headed man gather coins from the street. If anything was more suspicious, he hadn't seen it yet.

"Robber," said Amarant, pointing his thumb to his back. The police gave him a suspicious look, and the Flaming one sighed in annoyance. "I mugged the mugger," he elaborated, but this did little to please the authorities.

"You look suspicious," said an officer, slowly approaching the man. Amarant shook his head in disbelief. All of this was just a waste of his time.

"Looks can be very deceiving," he said, "but they can also be very true."

"Now just what does that mean?" demanded the officer, twirling his Billy club in the air. Amarant groaned, and began walking away as if he saw this sort of trouble every day. Needless to say, somebody tried to stop him.

"Hold it! You're a suspect!" cried the officer. Amarant sighed, wishing very much to shred at them with his claws, but continued walking as if he had all day.

"STOP!! ROBBER!!!" cried the police. Amarant let out a chuckle as they accused him, and made it a note to make them swallow their words later on. Since time immemorial, everyone had accused him of everything, from burglary to assassination and from theft to arson--but then again, most of those accusations were dead on, so to speak.

A familiar face stopped the police, but no mortal being could stop Amarant's walk.

"Three minutes in here and you're already in trouble!" shouted the person. He smiled, and shooed the guards away. The young man gave Amarant a smile and a wave, but the older one merely crossed his arms.

"Got held up," he said coolly. Zidane smiled and mimed Amarant's posture.

"Sure." The Flaming one snorted, and quietly walked towards the boat docks. Zidane called for him, and gave chase. "Now hold on!" he said. "Where do you think you're going?"

"There," said Amarant, pointing to the castle. Zidane scratched his head, but had to run in order to catch up to the taller man. Leaping onto the boat, the sunny boy with a tail joined his one-time comrade.

"So what's up?" asked Zidane, surprised that Amarant hadn't pushed him in the water yet. The Flaming one snorted and crossed his arms.

"I need to deliver a message," he replied.

"Oh." A pause. "What kind of message?"

"For her majesty's ears only," he informed. Zidane let out a weak curse and kicked the boat.

"Come on," he whined, "you can tell me! We're old chums!"

"Garnet only," repeated Amarant, his voice no higher or lower than usual. Zidane growled softly, but decided to sit on the boat instead of argue.

"What if I told you that I married Garnet and became king?" he asked. Amarant snorted lightly.

"Don't make me laugh."

"Trust me, I wouldn't," mumbled Zidane, and for the rest of the trip to the castle, neither man spoke a word.

Amarant left as silently as he came, but Zidane would have none of it. The sprightly young Genome followed the fiery man up until they arrived at the castle gates, wherein the guards promptly stopped them. Without a word, Amarant showed them a piece of cloth parchment, and was let by without any hassle. Zidane was not so lucky, and was forced to sit outside in wait.

Amarant made his way up to the royal balcony once inside. He had been there before, with Lani, so he knew the layout well. While he walked up the stairs that led from the grand chamber to the upper rooms, he was stopped by two persistent bodyguards.

"The Queen is having her lunch!" barked Steiner, barring the door with his arm. Beatrix was somewhat less pushy.

"What do you need?" she asked, and Amarant showed the guards the parchment he was carrying. Even block-headed Steiner recognized the marking, and he let the Flaming one through without hesitation. True, Steiner trusted Amarant like he trusted Quina with a disabled frog, but the seal on the parchment he had carried was more than enough to convince him.

"Garnet," said Amarant, startling the Queen. She nearly choked on her soup, and had to pound on her chest to stop coughing.

"What the? Who dares?" she demanded. Amarant shook his head and showed her the parchment he had carried. The Queen's anger faded like ice in the desert, and a solemn look overcame her.

"I apologize," she said, noticing the seal of Cid Falbool. "And I welcome you back to Alexandria, Salamander." Amarant shrugged as she mentioned his real name, and crossed his arms as usual.

"Got a message for you," he said. Garnet nodded her head, immediately sensing the urgency of the situation. If her uncle Cid had sent Amarant, of all people, to Alexandria with his own personal seal, then there must've been something amiss.

"Go ahead, I'm listening," she said. Amarant, never one to beat around the bush, laid it out for her cold turkey.

"Monsters are attacking Mognet Central," he said blankly. His reaction might not have been noticeable, but Garnet's sharp gasp and mask of concern certainly was. Never once did she doubt the Flaming one. He may have been a high-class criminal, but Amarant was never a liar. Still…

"Are you sure?" she asked. Amarant nodded his head.

"I saw them myself. I would have fought them, but that's not what I was paid for."

"Oh." A pause. Garnet swallowed, her young mind racing for ideas. If Mognet Central was under attack, then communication between nations would be completely cut off. There would be no letters of request from any nation, no notes indicating an invasion, no word from foreign dignitaries, and certainly no civilian communication. Whoever was behind this was a clever creature.

"I guess that explains why we have heard nothing from Burmecia," she surmised. The excuse was sound and quite logical; of course, it made sense now. The Burmecian King must've hit some trouble on the way to Alexandria, and Mognet Central was under attack during that time, so of course there was no word from him.

"That's all," said Amarant, stepping towards the balcony. He almost leaped off.

"Wait!"

"I suggest you send some troops over," said Amarant before he jumped. Garnet sighed, and knew that the mercenary was right. Finishing her meal, Garnet put her bowl away and knocked on the wooden doors.

"Beatrix? Steiner? I need to have a word with you."

********************

Alone save for Erin and a few other nameless pilots, Beatrix and Steiner stood aboard the Hilda Guarde 3, the wind flapping against their bodies softly. They watched as the landscape transformed from the kingdom of Alexandria into the wilderness beyond it, and finally, the great wide ocean. One hectic day had passed.

----------

"What do you request of us, highness?" Garnet sighed, and closed her eyes in concentration. Just take it one step at a time, she told herself.

"Captain Steiner, General Beatrix, I have some bad news to tell you."

"Peace is never permanent," noted the General. "But our swords are yours." Garnet nodded her head, and prepared to give the dreaded info away.

"I have just received word from a reliable source that Mognet Central is under attack," she said. Steiner grunted, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

"How horrible!" he stated. "But, that means that all communication between the nations would be cut off! All sorts of havoc could be wreaked!"

"Yes, I know," said Garnet softly. "Whatever is responsible for this attack is a very crafty adversary. I want somebody I trust to investigate, but I don't want to send an all-out army. I mean, it could just be a couple of Malboros…" Mentally, Garnet kicked herself for the foolish thought. Yeah, right. Uncle Cid would never send Amarant here if that were the case. He must have been……desperate…

----------

"Whew, finally out of Alexandria!" whistled Erin. Saluting boldly, she turned to Steiner and gave him a smile. "Captain! We'll be approaching the Forgotten Continent in about two hours! Mognet Central is only a stone's throw away from there!"

"Thank you, commander," nodded the knight. Erin smiled and placed her hands behind her back.

"Call me Erin, Adelbert! We're old friends, right?" The knight paused, and coughed just enough times to hide a flushed face.

"Hrum, yes. I, uh, apologize, Erin." She smiled, and continued to monitor the airship like a good commander should. Beatrix, who was trying to get some rest in the cabins, couldn't help but feel a little woozy.

"That Cid…" she groaned, feeling the bump of turbulence shake her out of the bed. "The Regent may be the Queen's adopted uncle and the Regent of Lindblum, but still…" She suddenly hiccupped, and held her mouth desperately as the vessel lurched. Her deceptively-pretty face began to turn colors that were foreign to her as the airship rocked, but all Beatrix could do was sit in her bed and try to rest. Steiner, she assumed, was used to riding in the Hilda Guarde, and would be unaffected (of course, anyone who could stand the smell of Gysahl pickles had to have an iron stomach).

----------

"I asked of your help because you two are the finest knights in all of Alexandria," continued the Queen. Steiner and Beatrix smiled shyly, and managed to hide a blush. "Besides, I would trust each of you with my soul. I know that this matter will be taken care of if I ask the two of you to attend."

"Your excellency, waste not such kind words on us!" boomed Steiner, kneeling on the floor. Beatrix took the compliments a little more conservatively.

"I am happy of your confidence with us," she stated, covering her heart with her fist. "If it pleases you, we should like to depart as soon as possible."

"Of course!" exclaimed the Queen. "The sooner the better! I would like this matter solved by next week, if possible!"

"It shall be done, majesty!" boomed Steiner, giving his most impressive salute. Garnet mimed their smiles, bowed her head, and wished them good luck.

----------

"Miss Erin, I will be going to the mess hall for a brief supper!" announced Steiner. Erin giggled softly, and told the big guy that he didn't need to tell her of every little thing he was doing. Adamant Steiner insisted that, should he be needed, his locality would have to be known at all times. Erin let him go, assuring him that she could find him easily. Of course, Steiner didn't grasp what she meant (a blind man with no legs could find Steiner in a wide open meadow without much effort), but saluted as always and left her.

Steiner was alone in the mess hall, which meant of course that he needed to make his own meals. The noble knight knew how to eat well enough, but on matters of cooking, he was a flop. Previously, Quina had supplied Adelbert with the necessary meals, but the gluttonous Qu was miles away, probably chasing one of the multiple Vivis around with a gigantic ladle.

Humming a stirring marching tune, Steiner managed to find an unopened can of chicken noodle soup. Figuring that there was no way that he could mess this simple feast up, Steiner opened the can and poured the soup into a bowl. One eager spoon traveled between the food and Steiner's mouth like a bee to a flower.

"Grrr… I… have… had… worse," managed the knight. Steiner grimaced and managed to swallow the food. It tasted… well, it was safe to say that Steiner had never tasted anything like it, nor would he ever forget it either. As he forced a second spoonful down, one of the navigators entered the room and joined him.

"Oh, hey Captain," he saluted. "Just looking for some flour. Whatcha eatin', soup?"

"Yes, though it's a strange taste," mumbled Steiner, wincing slightly. The navigator tried a spoonful, and nearly spat the stuff out in disgust.

"Uh, you must have a mighty constitution," he grunted. Steiner gazed at the navigator questionably.

"Why?"

"Uh, maybe you don't know this," said the man weakly, "but soup usually needs to be heated before being served."

----------

"…So will you help us?" Hilda Falbool smiled, and nodded her head without hesitation.

"Anything for dear darling Garnet," she said. "You need an airship, right?"

"That is correct, Madame," saluted Steiner. Hilda smiled again.

"I suppose you can use his Number Three," she said, pointing to a mighty vessel parked somewhere inside the Grand Castle docks. "Sugar cup isn't using it anyway."

"Is it really okay if we use the Hilda Guarde?" asked Beatrix. "I mean, shouldn't we alert Cid first?"

"(Frankly dear,)" whispered Hilda, "(the poor dope wouldn't miss it a bit. In fact, you could keep it to yourselves and he'd never notice. You know Cid; as soon as he makes the ultimate toy, he's got to make a bigger and better version. I mean, why else do you think he made three Hilda Guardes?)"

"I… see," chuckled Beatrix. "Well then, if we have your permission, then I suppose that it's okay."

"Certainly! Oh, and I know you won't need it, but good luck!"

"Thank you, Madame!" saluted Steiner. The two knights bowed, then rushed off to board the Hilda Guarde 3. Hilda herself waved them good-bye.

"Darling?" came a familiar voice from behind. Hilda turned and greeted her husband.

"Yes, dear?"

"Who was that?"

"Just Lady Beatrix and Sir Steiner." A pause.

"Oh. Were they headed towards Mognet Central, by any chance?"

"Why yes, they were! How did you know?" Cid grinned, and performed a victory dance.

"Ha! It's my business to know these things! So I assume that you loaned them one of my finest vessels?!"

"Of course, dear," she replied. "I let them have your #3 and all crew and personnel aboard." At this revelation, Cid moaned out painfully, and hung his head at the loss of his prized vessel. Hilda sighed, and hugged him close as she comforted him.

"Cheer up now," she said. "There'll always be #4."

"Ack, you're right," grumbled Cid. He regained his poise and raised his fist in the air. "The Hilda Guarde 4 will be the mightiest vessel in the world!!

Here we go again, sighed Lady Hilda to herself.

----------

Beatrix couldn't help but smile as she heard the familiar clank-clank sound of Steiner's armor. The loveable old goof was heading towards his own rest quarters, looking tired and somewhat sick. Beatrix half-smiled as she saw him, and hoped that whatever was afflicting him, it would vanish quickly. Besides, he needed to be in top condition for whatever awaited them at Mognet Central…

"My lady!" came a voice. Beatrix, who was already sitting up, turned her head to see who had called. It was Commander Erin, the pilot of the ship.

"Enter," beckoned the General. Erin scurried in as ordered, and hastily shut the door. Beatrix, who could practically smell the other woman's zesty enthusiasm, groaned softly and laid back in her bed.

"I know something," boasted the commander. Beatrix frowned, not feeling too excited over the prospect. Even so, she decided to humor Erin. She was as bored as all get-out, and was completely unable to sleep.

"Like?" she said. Erin's smile increased a centimeter in length as her feet rocked.

"Why you and Captain Steiner were really asked to go on this mission!" Beatrix sighed at how easily her predictions came true sometimes. This was, of course, not the time for girlish games. But Beatrix was so restless she could have died.

"Really?" she mumbled, sounding as interested as a fickle child. "Do tell."

"Well, since you two make such a good couple--"

Oh, God, please say it's not what I think it is…

"--I think the Queen put you on this mission so you could, you know, come together."

I will kill her, thought the General bitterly. As God as my witness, I will literally kill her as she stands. Where's Save the Queen?

"Is that a fact?" muttered Beatrix, feigning interest. Erin, poor dear sweet loveable Erin, did not hear the exasperation seeping in the General's voice.

"Just a thought, of course," continued Erin. "Just a thought, between us girls."

Now I really will kill her. Shoot, I can't believe I put Save the Queen somewhere else…

"Well, thanks for the, uh, thought," said Beatrix dryly. Erin smiled and saluted, then suddenly, her disposition did a 180.

"You worried? About this new attack? I mean, Mognet Central being hit is big news…"

Urge to kill… fading…

"I'm more worried about who's piloting the Hilda," said Beatrix emptily. Erin literally giggled and tried to hide a crimson face.

"Boyd's taking care of it," she managed. Beatrix, though she was in somewhat of a bad mood, couldn't help but smile as she heard the squeal. Good old Boyd and Erin were quickly becoming an item--apparently, that other guy (What's his name? thought the General) was no longer in the picture. Beatrix couldn't remember the guy's name for the life of her.

"All right. Uh, Erin, if you don't mind, I'd like to have a little privacy."

"Oh, of course!" gasped Erin. She bowed as low as she could, and scampered outside of the room. Dear sweet Beatrix was questioning the point of the visit, and why Erin seemed bubblier than usual. Oh well, she thought. Sometimes, people just do things.

----------

"Ready for liftoff whenever you are, Captain!" Steiner smiled, placing his hands on his hips in approval.

"Thank God!" he beamed. "Beatrix, it seems as if a twist of fortune has placed us in the capable hands of Sailor Erin! I know we can rely on her. She is quite possibly one of the best pilots I know of!"

"Aw, shucks," chuckled Erin, "I'm nothing special. Oh, and uh, I moved up in rank. I'm a 'commander' now, but please just call me Erin!" Beatrix smiled, or at least she looked like she did, and stepped up to salute the commander.

"Have you been informed of our mission?" she asked. Erin gave a crisp military salute.

"Of course!" she squealed. "I mean, it's not like there's anybody that doesn't know what's going on."

"I see…" Beatrix paused, just long enough to spy Steiner giving orders to some low-ranking navigators. She smiled as she watched him, even though his voice was loud and somewhat obnoxious. Nobody's perfect, she reasoned, so why should I expect him to be so?

"Oh, General?" piped Erin. "We're ready to leave for Mognet Central whenever you are!"

"Ah, good!" smiled Beatrix, and the grin was a genuine one this time. "The sooner we get there, the faster we can solve this little crisis!" Erin smiled and nodded, and Beatrix boarded the ship along with Steiner and the navigators. A foreign face which she didn't recognize was at the copilot's wheel.

"Sup, Lady B?" he hooted. Beatrix froze, gaping at the sudden rudeness in shock.

"Excuse me?"

"Oh, you'll have to forgive Boyd!" gushed Erin. "He's as impolite as a bear during dinnertime, but you'll grow to love him!" No thanks, muttered the General. She kept her serious face and nodded at the copilot. Erin, on the other hand, snuck a kiss (or at least she thought it had been snuck).

----------

"Estimated time before arrival?" asked Steiner. Boyd saluted boldly.

"Just a few more minutes, Cap'n A.S."

"Wh-what?! Captain what?!?"

"Erm…" Boyd stuttered, seeing the angry look on Steiner's fuming face. He quickly apologized as he saw the knight graze his finger against the hilt of his blade. Steiner frowned and nodded triumphantly; Beatrix, who had seen the whole spectacle, couldn't help but grin.

********************

Erin let out a gusty sigh of relief as the Hilda Guarde 3 landed on the tiny island that contained Mognet Central. Smiling like an idiot, she turned around and saluted her passengers.

"Captain Steiner, General Beatrix, we have arrived at Mognet Central!"

"Excellent!" beamed Steiner. "And in record time! Thank you, commander!" Erin managed to keep half her smile as he saluted her; the other half had been lost when he refused to address her informally. Some people just never change, thought the pilot.

"Yes, thank you, Erin," said Beatrix. "Now if you'll excuse us, we have some work to do. Please find somewhere safe to hide, and make sure that nothing comes and destroys the Hilda."

"Roger!" saluted Erin. She immediately scampered back inside the Hilda, and posted several navigators and maintenance workers as lookouts. Steiner and Beatrix gave each other a glance, nodded, and turned towards the cave that held the communications capitol of the world.

Somewhat warm for a land so far up north, Mognet Central was home to at least a dozen of the short, furry, adorable creatures. Its main purpose was receiving and delivering mail via the moogles, but it also had a newspaper in print and even a magazine. If something could survive the swim across the icy oceans, or the flight through biting winds, and if this something could pull off an invasion in such harsh climates, then the matter had to be taken seriously.

A terrifying monster was guarding the front entrance, something that resembled a scorpion--only about four meters larger. The immense creature looked as mean as it was big, and equally dangerous. Two shredding claws snapped as the knights approached it, and a venomous tail swung back and forth like a giant's mace. Both Steiner and Beatrix had fought many similar monsters during Kuja's raid on Alexandria, so they were old pros by now.

Without wasting any time, Beatrix swung Save the Queen at the monster and nearly cut its face in half. The creature was quick, but then again, it was a scorpion. Unfortunately, it was fighting up against two of the finest knights in the kingdom, so it would have to be a lot quicker if it desired life.

Steiner dashed in from the side as Beatrix swiped at the creature, and rammed his blade into the monster's abdomen. The mighty blade, won from a battle with the devil himself, was so sharp it cleaved through the scorpion's exoskeleton like it was made out of butter. The creature gave a groan and quickly turned around, its claws snapping. Steiner was knocked a good distance away by the pincer, but bounced back a minute later.

Beatrix, meanwhile, waited for the creature to turn around before jamming her own weapon into its side. The scorpion howled as a second sword kissed its innards, but Beatrix was lighter than Steiner and thus avoided the claw it swung at her. The poison-tipped tail then decided to go for it, and with a lurch, the scorpion poked at the knights with the venom. It bumped up against Beatrix, just barely causing a slight cut in her hand. The General moaned out in agony as the poison slowly seeped into her blood, but vowed retribution for the strike. Summoning her energy, Beatrix dashed forward and performed a Climhazzard on the beast. The mighty monster groaned in misery, and died on the spot as its life faded.

"Wretched creature," snorted Steiner, dusting himself off. He noticed Beatrix's weakness, and dashed forward with an antidote. Before spewing out what little lunch she had eaten, the knight drank the liquid and was healed before she could blink.

"Thanks," she managed. Steiner beamed proudly and placed his hands on his hips.

"A petty guardian!" he stated. "Come! There are worthier foes within!" With a nod, Beatrix joined her comrade in storming into Mognet. Two well-timed tackles jarred the door loose, and a few kicks broke it open.

Both knights let out the same curse word at the same time as the saw what horrors had befallen the postal service. All around the room, there were hundreds of demonic creatures, some of which even Steiner could not identify. Bats, goblins, Marlboros, chimeras, kraken, and hydra were strewn about like so much confetti, and an enormous fiend that appeared to be the leader sat in the center of it all.

This monster who was organizing the others was a being long-thought a myth in Gaia. It was enormous in stature, larger than Amarant and Steiner combined. It had muscles the size of Quina's body, and a great massive horn protruding out from its head. It almost looked human, and save for the single eye centering its head, it might have been one.

"A Cyclops!" hissed Beatrix. She growled fiercely, though anyone who knew her well enough could tell that there was fear in her glare. "It seems as if they are not a myth!"

"They soon will be!" cried Steiner, pointing Excalibur II at the monster. A multitude of moogles, who were being tortured by the Cyclops and his cronies, squeaked out in terror as the saw the knights. A few of the more fortunate ones scampered towards the duo in fear.

"Kupo! Kupo!! Kupo!" squealed a moogle. Steiner, who was somewhat fluent in the moogle's language, rubbed his chin in thought.

"Egad!" he exclaimed. "They've really been here that long?"

"Kupo! Kupo kupo!! Kupoppoppo!"

"Yes, we are here to help!" he stated, waving his sword bravely. "But I suggest you round everybody up and leave! We shall take care of everything else, so go find a place of safety!" The moogle nodded his head, and squeaked out a long string of frantic "Kupo!" phrased to his friends. The other moogles nodded their heads, and scurried away into the cold but safe regions of the outer world.

"I didn't know that you spoke Moogle!" said Beatrix. Steiner coughed and tried to keep his humility.

"Yes, well, being in the company of so many leaves an impression on you!" She smiled, just faintly, but remembered why they were there in the first place. With a cry, the two Alexandrians rushed forth into the mess of beasts, cutting and hacking away at anything that moved.

Erin moaned out a horribly long and somewhat painful yawn as she stretched. Smacking her lips, she scratched a random body part and tried to stay awake. With the exception of a few birds pecking around, there was nothing of interest on the island. Erin was quickly becoming restless, and was so bored that she was becoming numb. She realized that Beatrix had trusted her with watching over the Hilda, but from what? The pilot sighed, wondering what in Gaia would be stupid enough to travel all this way just to attack the airship.

With a sharp choking sound, Erin nearly fell out of her seat as a swarm of moogles poured out of the cave. She let out a cry, and dashed down to the surface as quickly as possible. Amidst the echoing chorus of "Kupo, kupo!", her voice was lost.

"Calm down, now!" she said. "Don't talk so much! I can't understand you!"

"Kupo kupo!" wheezed a moogle, pointing to the airship. Erin frowned and tried to interpret its charades.

"You want to hide on the airship?" she guessed. The moogles, who for some reason could understand human speech, nodded their white heads in unison. Erin let out a sigh, and allowed the creatures to board. If anything, she noted, they would have been a relief from the boredom she had been subjected to.

"Hey! Hey-hey-hey!!" A snazzy voice erupted out of the group, and Erin turned around to see a rare purple moogle flap over to her direction. Racking her brain, she tried in vain to remember its name.

"Artemis, right?" she guessed.

"No, no, Artemecion!" it replied. Erin sighed, finally glad to encounter a moogle she could understand.

"I'm so relieved!" she exclaimed. "I can't understand a single word those others were saying!"

"They were just looking for shelter, kupo," replied the violet moogle. "Those two Alexandrian knights have already made it inside. Kupo, that place isn't safe for moogles anymore."

"I guess it wouldn't be," shrugged Erin. "So do you have any orders from the General?"

"No," replied Artemecion, "but I'm pretty sure that they won't be able to handle all those monsters themselves. You should help them, kupo."

"They'll get mad if I do," insisted Erin sadly. "They told me to stand guard here."

"Aw, don't worry," sniffed the moogle. "We can handle that. Just bring your finest fighters, kupo, and be careful." Erin nodded and gave her most impressive salute, and rushed back to the ship to gather some help. Pilots and fighters were usually not made from the same mold, but there were exceptions, and a few of those exceptions had been accompanying Erin as she guided the knights to their destination.

Rushing back to the ship, she caught Boyd and a few others in a game of poker. With a shout, their commander snapped them out of their game and explained the situation. Eager to stay on Erin's good side, the crew gave a salute and quickly gathered together some weapons and armor. Boyd, as always, stayed by Erin's side.

"So, like, is it really dangerous in there?" he said. Erin shrugged.

"I dunno. I guess so. If Beatrix and Steiner are in there, then we shouldn't worry too much. But Artemecion's right--they won't last long if it's just them."

"Huh? Who's Artemecion?"

"Some moogle," shrugged Erin. She smiled, and tapped her boyfriend on his shoulder. "Come on! I'm gonna need your help too, Boyd!"

"Yes, ma'am!"

Only slightly out of breath, Steiner yanked his blade out of the hydra's body. Normal weapons wouldn't have been able to pierce its skin, and specially-designed tools would have been eaten away by its acidic blood. But Excalibur II was a sacred weapon; not even an Ultima spell would have broken its invincible blade.

But Steiner did not gloat for long, for his beloved weapon was already slashing at a bat that had flown towards him. The creature, both halves of it, fell to the ground as it rushed towards him. Adelbert did not even get a chance to smile as he dashed himself against his next opponent, a Marlboro…

The enemies inside Mognet Central were easily taken care of, but there were so many of them that it felt like running a marathon. Both knights had become accustomed to fighting multiple battles, so they easily cleaved through the first few waves of attackers. Moogles became liberated from their prison as the knights fought onward, and the ground became painted with blood and intestines.

But the legion of demonic creatures were wearing them down slowly. Already, Steiner had a few bruises on his body despite the armor he wore, and Beatrix had been cut on several spots. These wounds seemed insignificant, however, when compared to the dozens of carcasses who were strewn around the cave.

With a grunt, Beatrix dug her blade into the leg of the Cyclops, becoming only slightly disgusted as she ripped through muscle and flesh. The one-eyed brute groaned out in pain, and smashed its mammoth fists at the General. Far smaller and nimbler, the lady avoided the raining fists like a mouse avoids the paw of a cat. When she could, Beatrix would sneak in a little slice here and there, but the Cyclops would never give her a good opening.

Steiner, noble Steiner, was performing well by keeping the monsters off of his comrade's back. Beatrix had already been attacked by a harpy while she fought the Cyclops, and Steiner swore then that he would let no other creature interfere. Beatrix smiled warmly as he vowed to protect her, but the big lug never saw it, as he was too busy killing things.

Suddenly, there came a shout from the door. Both knights foolishly broke their concentrations to see what the commotion was, and each got a pummeling from the Cyclops in return. Oblivious to the pain that they had already caused, Erin and her crew rushed into the cave, wielding weapons of crude nature.

Still, the distraction proved successful. With a fresh batch of new "fighters", the enemies were now faced with many more opponents to shred. Boyd was perhaps the only foe among them who genuinely posed a threat; his skills with Tonfa were exceptional. Erin wielded a pair of sais as she stormed into the cave; everyone else carried makeshift swords and clubs.

Groaning from the hurt she had received, Beatrix growled in fury as she saw the tiny army wipe out the monsters. For sure, she was relieved that there were a few less foes to fight now, but Erin had been given explicit orders to stand by and guard the airship. Why she felt the need to breach an order was unknown.

Roaring a little, Beatrix limped off towards the army, the glare in her eye quite visible. She grabbed Erin by the shoulder, which might not have been a good idea at the time since the other woman was in the middle of a fight.

"G'haaaah!!!" screamed the pilot. She screamed even louder as she saw the infuriated look on the General's face. "Look, I can explain!" she offered.

"We'll talk about this later!" spat Beatrix, sensing that there were more important things at hand. "Right now we have work to do! Since you're here, you might as well hold off the monsters while Steiner and I concentrate our attacks on that Cyclops."

"Uh, what Cyclops?" said Erin. Beatrix groaned in misery, holding her forehead in hands that dearly wished to throttle the pilot.

"The one over there!" she barked, pointing an enraged finger in the direction of the beast. Beatrix nearly choked as she saw the emptiness that was once occupied by the Cyclops. Only a decapitated body was left to fill the void.

"What in Hades…" she muttered. Suddenly, a terrifying imp latched onto the General, clawing and hissing as it hugged her fiercely. Erin screamed, and tried pounding on the monster with her fists. The imp only cackled more, and with arms of steel, it began to squeeze Beatrix's neck.

"I…" was all the General could say before the world became black.

With a gasp, Steiner nearly screamed as he saw the Cyclops suddenly lose its head. For a very brief moment, the creature was left standing, perhaps unaware that it no longer had a neck. The behemoth eventually collapsed on the floor, sending a cloud of dust into the air. Steiner, amazed at what had just happened, could not find the words to express himself. He found his voice with surprising speed as he discovered who his savior was.

"YOU!!!!" He pointed at the other person fiercely, practically growling as he saw who had saved him. The figure merely laughed and sucked on her finger a little.

"Humph, you're welcome!" she said. Steiner finally blew his top, and began leaping up in the air with the furor of a mad cricket.

"What in blazes are you doing here?!" he demanded. "How did you… why are you… Ack, I am so… urgh!!!" The woman before him merely cackled softly, looking somewhat innocent as she smiled.

"Now now," she sang, "is that any way to greet an old friend?"

"You are hardly a friend!" pointed the Captain of the Pluto Knights. The woman's smiling face turned sour, and she crossed her arms in defiance.

"Humph, and this is what I get for saving your skin!" Steiner nearly choked on his own rage, but was rudely interrupted by the woman. "Hold on, rusty--I gotta save your friend up there." With a leap that would've made a flea jealous, the woman flew towards the imp that had grabbed hold of Beatrix. A single deft swipe robbed it of its life.

When Beatrix could see again, the horrible sound of monsters running amok had faded into an uncomfortable silence. She moaned as she woke, thanking her lucky stars that she was not outside in the cold. Her happy mood soon turned into confusion as she saw her savior standing before her. With a grunt, Beatrix rubbed the haze out of her eyes and addressed the other woman.

"Lani?"

"The one and only!" Beatrix groaned again, shaking her head for good measure. She was able to breathe again, which must've been a good sign. Unable to stand just yet, all the General could do was look at the dark-skinned woman before her.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. Lani sighed and lost a little of her smile.

"That old tin can asked me the same thing," she noted. Beatrix swallowed something down, and craned her head to look for the aforementioned knight.

"Where is Steiner? Is he all right?"

"All right would be an understatement," replied Lani, kneeling down to examine the other woman. Beatrix absently let the bounty hunter check her vitals while she busied herself looking for her partner.

"That Steiner's about as uppity as a raging bronco, and twice as ornery," reported Lani, sounding like it was all part of Beatrix's physical condition. The knight smiled faintly.

"Yes, it sounds like he's all right," she sighed. "But what are you doing here, anyway?" Lani continued treating Beatrix for a few seconds more, and stood to stretch herself out before answering.

"Well--"

"Yes, I would like to know that as well!" boomed a voice, and the familiar clank-clank sound of Steiner's armor echoed across the cave. With a demanding voice and an accusing finger, he requested in no polite terms that Lani explain herself.

"Settle down, rust bucket," she muttered. "I'll tell you when I'm good and ready." Steiner growled, but could do nothing to change Lani's mind. The bounty hunter grinned, and craned her head over to look at him. "Don't worry!" she assured him. "I'm your ally today." That last word, noted Beatrix, had been somewhat emphasized.

"What do you mean?" she asked. Lani sighed, taking one final examination of Beatrix. Unbeknownst to most people, Lani was not only a great bounty hunter, but she also had some medical training under her belt. This came in handy whenever a bounty became… violent, or when a fellow partner… failed to perform with excellence.

"Well," sighed the hunter, "my new boss asked me to do this job. Said it was some kind of initiation fee, or whatever. Basically, I was supposed to bring him the head of a very exotic monster."

"A new boss?" said Steiner.

"Yeah, that's what I said," replied Lani sharply. "What, did the monsters make you go deaf or something?"

"Why you--!!!"

"Steiner, please," sighed Beatrix. Slowly, with the help of Erin and Lani, the General was able to stand. She felt a little better, although not quite in peak condition. Smiling just barely, she thanked both women for their assistance.

"Go on, Miss Lani," said Erin. "You said that your boss asked you to help us?"

"Sort of," she replied. "I didn't expect anybody else to be here, and although I didn't need it, I am grateful for the help." She puffed her chest out proudly, and laughed in triumph over her victories. Steiner, as always, was steaming.

"Bahh!!" he snorted, and left it at that. The man in metal then departed from Mognet Central, and the girls could just barely hear him yell to the other moogles that all was clear.

"So Lani, who is this new boss of yours?" asked Beatrix. Lani smiled mischievously.

"He made me promise not to tell anyone," she replied. "But let's just say that you know him."

"Oh."

The minutes passed, and soon Erin and her cohorts were bidding a fond farewell to the moogles. The adorable creatures squeaked out their own good-bye as the Hilda Guarde 3 lifted off. On board, a new addition to the crew was finding it very difficult to keep her food down, and to the secret amusement of the crew, both Lani and Beatrix were often paying homage to gods porcelain.

To be continued…