The Union of the Clans

Vanille awakened to stout banging on her door. Quickly, she threw on some clothes and hurried to answer it.

"Fujin?" She yawned and rubbed at her eyes. The sun had only just risen, so she should have had another hour of rest. Had the silver haired woman come up with yet another hellish addition to her training regime?

But Fujin's expression was even graver than normal. Her single eye narrowed ominously, and she jerked her head toward the village square. "COME. IMPORTANT."

"Oh." Vanille grabbed her cloak and boots and hurried after the other woman. Fujin was taciturn at the best of times, but there was something different about her now, something that scared Vanille in a way she hadn't been scared since the day they'd first met.

The village square was already almost full by the time they arrived. Men and women gazed expectantly at a raised platform at the far end of the square, and all around her, the warriors wore looks of grim determination. As for Bhakti, the dragon trailed in her wake, his tail flicking restlessly through the air.

The Old One is going to say something. Bhakti plodded after Vanille and Fujin as they made their way to the front of the crowd. Something big. Everyone is nervous. It bothers me.

Vanille winced. It was easy to forget sometimes that Bhakti could, in the peculiar way of dragons, pick up some of the emotions of the people around him. Being in a large crowd of agitated people must be quite uncomfortable.

"What do you think it could be?" Vanille whispered to Fujin. "Have you heard anything?"

"WAR." Fujin's gaze darkened. "ONLY WAR."

A shudder ran through Vanille. Fujin was right. Only war could stir the Yun up like this. But that shouldn't be possible. The elder had said they had another month or two before they had to worry.

When they reached the front of the crowd, the elder was already up on the platform. The old woman that Vanille had gotten used to was gone. Instead, a warrior stood in her place. The elder's back was straight, and her eyes flashed in the morning sun. Her thin body stood firm against the wind, and she held a spear in one hand, the weapon handled with an ease that could only have come from decades of practice. For a moment their eyes met, and Vanille scrambled to join the elder up on the platform.

"What's happening?" Vanille murmured. From up on the platform, she could see the whole village spread out before her. There were hundreds of people, and every single on of them was staring at her.

"It is war." The elder's voice was soft, and for a moment, her eyes were very sad. "I am sorry, young Dia." Then once again, her voice grew firm, and her eyes took on the hardness of finely forged steel. When she spoke next, it was to the crowd, and her voice rang out clearly over the biting wind.

"Brother and sisters," the elder began. "Today, the Yun go to war." Immediately, the crowd burst into frantic whispers whilst the bolder members of the crowd shouted question at the elder. But the old woman would have none of it. With a single stout rap of her spear against the stage, she silenced the crowd. "Riders have come from Oerba. An army from Cocoon has been sighted. In two weeks perhaps, they shall reach the walls of Oerba."

Beside the elder, Vanille gasped and would have sunk to her knees were it not for the firm hand the old woman laid upon her shoulder. Her fists clenched. Even if they set out today, it would take at least two and a half weeks, perhaps even three weeks for them to reach Oerba. That would give the Cocoon army anything from a few days to an entire week to destroy the city. Sucking in a deep breath, she forced herself to calm. The elder would have a plan; she had to have a plan.

"I have already sent our swiftest riders to all the villages and towns of our people." The elder brought her spear down on the platform again, and a single pure note rang out as the polished tip of the weapon struck the hard stone of the platform. "We will gather with our allies on the plains, and then we shall march to Oerba to face our enemy."

"What are the numbers?" The question came from one of the warriors, a middle-aged woman with a scar across her brow. "Honoured Elder, how many soldiers do the vipers have?"

The elder smiled thinly. "They say a hundred thousand now march upon Oerba, with a hundred thousand more soon to follow."

This answer was met with a rumble of amusement from the assembled warriors. The same warrior that had asked the question now threw her head back and laughed.

"Only two hundred thousand, Honoured Elder? Perhaps Cocoon should have spent less time plotting and more time gathering soldiers."

Vanille trembled. How could they stand there and joke? Two hundred thousand soldiers – she couldn't even begin to imagine what such an army would look like. The earth would shake beneath their feet, and they would turn the plains about Oerba into a forest of steel. But as Vanille opened her mouth to speak, the elder gave the smallest shake of her head.

"Remember the past, young Dia," the elder whispered. "We are used to fighting such numbers."

A hiss left Vanille's lips. It was hard to think when she was so worried, but the elder was right. Many times the Yun had fought against superior numbers, and many times they had emerged victorious. Legend said that a single Yun warrior was worth at least three from any other clan. And the elder had mentioned that they would not be going to Oerba's aid alone. Perhaps things were not quite so bad as they seemed.

The elder chuckled quietly and though her next words were directed at the crowd again, Vanille could tell they were meant for her as well. In public, the elder could not coddle her, but she wasn't so heartless as to brush aside Vanille's concerns.

"I remember well the walls of great Oerba." The elder's voice was steel, and the spear in her hands beat an almost hypnotic rhythm against the platform. "They stood unbroken in the days of my mother and her mother before her, all the way back to the beginning. It was only through treachery that the vipers seized control of one of the gates and stole into the city." She growled. "Those walls will hold until we arrive, and when we do, we shall give the Dia a fine lesson in how we Yun handle our enemies." The crowd roared. "Not for us stout walls and barred gates. No, let Cocoon taste the steel of our sword and spears, let Cocoon cower at the sight of our banners unfurled in the wind, and let Cocoon rue the day they ever crossed the river and marched across the plains to lay siege to great Oerba."

The crowd began to stomp the ground, and those with weapons brandished them in the air.

"As I have said, we have already dispatched riders to gather the rest of our clan. All of the Yun will come to Oerba's defence, and I am certain the other clans shall heed the call as well." The elder smiled toothily. "So polish your weapons well and ready your armour and supplies – we leave tomorrow at dawn." Then, the elder's voice grew soft, and warmth filled her gaze. "Remember, war should be fought without regrets. So before tomorrow, make sure you hold your children tightly, and those of you with lovers…" she trailed off and laughter rippled through the crowd. "As for everyone else, eat well and drink your fill. We have battle ahead of us, and when we Yun go to fight, we go to win!"

One last cheer rang out, and then the crowd scattered as the warriors and villagers hastened to prepare.

"Honoured Elder," Vanille cried, once she and the old woman had stepped off the stage. "Please, tell me everything!"

The elder gave a quiet chuckle. "And a fine morning to you too, young Dia." Vanille flushed and the elder chortled. "Why don't we speak of this over breakfast?"

"But –"

The elder held up one hand. "I understand your worry, young Dia. Oerba is your home, and the Dia are your people. But there is no problem so large that a good breakfast does not make it seem smaller." She nodded at Fujin and Bhakti who were waiting patiently a few steps away. "Besides, they look hungry too, and reckless action is wasted action."

Vanille took a deep breath. The elder was right – as she always seemed to be. But it was so difficult. In all the texts she'd read, war was a matter of great seriousness, something to be planned and prepared for in grim councils between hardened veterans. The elder acted as though it were something pedestrian, although perhaps it was to the old woman. Certainly, she'd fought more wars than anyone Vanille had ever met.

In the elder's house, Vanille practically inhaled her breakfast while the elder and Fujin set a more sedate pace. Bhakti made short work of his morning meal as well, and the dragon poked his head through the window to try and make his presence known as he sensed Vanille's growing unease. The elder tolerated the dragon's antics with a thin smile, although if Bhakti pressed against the house any harder, there was a good chance he would knock it down.

"So," the elder said, taking a sip of tea. "What do you wish to know first? As you might have guessed, I did not reveal everything to the others."

"Then tell me everything!" Vanille winced. It was time to gather her thoughts. The elder had always praised her wits. Perhaps it was time to start using them. "I thought we had another month or two before any attack."

The elder sighed. "Ah." She inclined her head. "It would seem I was mistaken." Vanille gaped, and the elder gave a gentle laugh. "Understand, young Dia, Cocoon is not an easy place for our people to enter. Its borders are closely watched, and the customs of our people set us apart. They must have gathered their forces in secret, well within their borders. They are led, I imagine, by a general of great skill."

Vanille's hands shook. "Are you sure that Oerba will be safe until we arrive?" She laid her hands flat against the table and forced them to be still. "If we hurry, we can probably get there in two and a half to three weeks. But that would still give Cocoon at least a few days to breach the wall. What if… what if…" She couldn't bring herself to speak the words. If the walls fell, then Oerba would be exposed and all of her friends and the matron would…

"Peace, young Dia." The elder reached out and patted Vanille's hand. "I meant what I said. The walls of Oerba are tall and thick. Not without reason has your city stood on the plains for so many years." She nodded reassuringly. "They say the gods helped build those walls, that they carry not only the blessings of our goddess, but the blessings of countless others, given in the Old Days when the gods walked amongst men." Her lips twitched. "I do not know if those stories are true, but Oerba is the greatest fortress of our people. Barring treachery, it will hold until we arrive."

"And the other clans? Do you really think they will come?" As the chosen of the goddess, Vanille was now the heir to the Yun, but she had never dealt with the other clans except in passing. Books and scrolls could only teach her so much, but the few encounters she did have with the other clans had led her to believe that many did not think highly of the Dia. The Dia were healers and tinkerers – not warriors. "Not all think well of my people."

The elder smiled wryly. "And by that you mean that most of the warriors clans think you cowards for living behind your walls?" She shook her head slowly. "Perhaps some think of you that way, but not all do. I do not. After all, we Yun have walls of our own." She glanced out the window to the towering mountains that rose up on all sides of the village. "The Dia have simply built their own, that is all. But regardless of what the other clans think of your people, they will come. To lose Oerba would be an incredible blow, for it would give Cocoon a fortress deep in our lands. And there are some who would come anyway, simply because the Dia are one of the clans."

Vanille nodded slowly and took a deep breath. It was at times like this, she wished she had more experience. The elder had served as leader of the Yun for decades. Doubtless, she had met all of the other clan leaders before and knew all their habits. But Vanille had only just begun to learn, and there were some lessons that only experience, not book learning, could teach.

"Who will come?" Vanille asked. "Who can we say for certain will heed the call?"

"Wutai will come," the elder said. "For the Dia and the Yun once aided them in battle against Shinra, a kingdom allied to Cocoon. Likewise, the Al Bhed, for it is said the Al Bhed and the Dia have much in common and are bound by blood many times over." She pursed her lips. "And Balamb will surely come." The elder grinned. "They are a mercenary people, but their love for battle is great and they will not miss this chance to prove themselves."

A wave of relief swept through Vanille. The elder only seemed certain of three clans, but those three were quite formidable in their own right. "And others might come also, right?" The elder nodded and Vanille forced a tentative smile onto her face. "So, we leave tomorrow morning?"

"We do." The elder chuckled. "A day is all it takes for us to prepare. It will take another week to clear the mountains and another few days to reach the meeting place."

"What should I do then?" Vanille flushed. "I've never gone to war before, at least, not with the Yun."

The elder tossed an amused glance at Bhakti. The dragon had managed to squeeze his head through the window. "Prepare clothing and supplies and make sure that a second saddle is prepared for Bhakit in case the first is broken. You will also need proper weapons and armour, not the practice weapons you have now."

"You mean I'll have to use that spear you gave me?" Vanille blanched. The ceremonial spear was a thing of beauty, fit for the very finest of warriors; she was a long way from being one of them.

The elder laughed. "Young Dia, such spears are made for use. Whether you use it well or poorly, it is yours and yours alone."

Vanille bit her lip. She would have to practice extra hard during the march to be worthy of the weapon. Her chair scraped against the floor as she pushed to her feet. "I should go get ready then. I don't want to slow anyone down."

From there, Vanille's day descended into a chaotic blur of activity. There was so much to do. She had to make sure she had fresh supplies and clothing, and at the armourers, she was made abundantly aware of her shortcomings in terms of clothing. No, leather armour would not be adequate armour on its own. Perhaps if she was some stout, battle-hardened warrior, but with her small frame and lack of experience, she would need something sterner.

Thankfully, the elder had gone behind her back and ordered a set of armour prepared for her. And what armour it was. The Yun style of combat demanded not only strength, but also speed and agility, so their armour was cunningly fashioned to be both sturdy and relatively light. The most solid pieces were the bracers and greaves that all Yun wore. These were single pieces of steel, fashioned to sit flush against the body. However, the Yun also wore armour over their torso. This was made of strips of steel, arranged almost like the scales of a dragon, and joined in a way that did not hinder the wearer's movement.

The Yun armour was a stark contrast to some of the others she had seen. As a child, she'd once seen a contingent of Chocobo Knights from Mi'ihen riding through the gates of Oerba. Their armour had been far thicker and heavier, made up of solid plates of steel that covered the wearer from head to toe.

Once she had finished with her other preparations, she returned to her house only to stop and stare at the sight that awaited her. Bhakti had disappeared during the day, and she'd assumed that he'd simply gone to hunt something to eat. Clearly, he'd been up to more than hunting. He must have visited the armourers as well, for his harness had been reinforced to better withstand the rigours of battle, and additions had been made to hold weapons like spears and arrows.

As she drew near, Bhakti gave her a leisurely wave of his tail. Look! Now I can help you fight properly.

Vanille tilted her head to one side. "I can throw a spear, I guess. But I can't say I'm very good with a bow yet."

"That would be Fujin's job." The elder ambled over and pointed at Fujin.

Vanille's eyes widened. The silver haired woman was dressed in full armour and armed to the teeth. She carried a spear in one hand, a shield in the other, and there was a sword buckled to her waist. If that wasn't enough, a bow hung upon her back. But what truly stood out most was the colour of her armour. All of the armour that Vanille had seen so far was steel grey with perhaps a few symbols or runes etched or painted on. Fujin's armour was matte black with a host of blood red symbols drawn across it. Combined with her silver hair, pale skin and single crimson eye, Fujin looked like a cross between a ghost and a demon.

"SHADOW." Fujin growled as she rapped the shaft of her spear against her chest. "PROMISE."

The elder caught Vanille's puzzled look. "What Fujin means, is that she has been assigned as your personal bodyguard for this campaign. From this moment on, she is your shadow. Where you go, she goes. Where you fight, she fights. The symbols on her armour are promises, vows that she will never let any harm come to you while she still draws breath."

"Oh." Vanille rushed forward and threw her arms around Fujin. The other woman stiffened for a moment and then relaxed. Somehow, the elder had thought of everything. With Fujin there beside her, things wouldn't be so bad. "But wait… we haven't tried riding on Bhakti together."

I can carry you. Bhakti shrugged. You're both very small compared to me.

An amused smile crossed the elder's lips. "As the dragon says. Besides, there is no time like the present."

Vanille grinned and tugged Fujin toward Bhakti. "Come on! Let's try it!"

The silver haired woman glared as she scrambled on top of Bhakti. "IF DIE BLAME YOU."

And with that, Bhakti gave a great roar and heaved himself up into the sky.

An hour later, they finally returned the ground in front of her house. Behind Vanille, Fujin was even paler than normal, and despite the gravity of the situation, Vanille had to laugh. For someone so brave, Fujin really didn't like being off the ground much. However, by the end of the hour, the silver haired woman had relaxed enough to take a few shots with her bow while they were in the air. She'd missed a few, but once she found her range, she was as accurate as ever.

However, the moment they landed, they found themselves in the midst of more trouble. The elder was in front of her house, and for the first time in a long time, she looked truly angry. A crowd of warriors had gathered, amongst them the oldest and most experienced in the village. From what Vanille could hear as she hopped off Bhakti, they were pleading with the elder to stay in the village.

"Please, see reason, Honoured Elder!"

Vanille gasped as the elder snarled and raised one hand to strike the warrior who had spoken. The old woman's eyes flashed fire, and her hand stopped a hair's breadth from the warrior's cheek.

"Reason? What is this reason you speak of?"

The warrior pressed on, and Vanille felt a surge of admiration for how she stood firm in the full face of the elder's fury. "Honoured Elder, you have served the Yun well for many years. We have prospered under your reign. You are a mother to us all, but if something were to happen to you… with the Dia still so young and with so much to learn…" The warrior hesitated. "And you are…"

"I am what?" The words cracked out like a whip. "Speak, girl!"

The warrior swallowed thickly. "You are old, Honoured Elder. It may no longer be safe for you on the battlefield."

"Old?" The elder spat the word. "Yes, I am old. But I am wise. Who amongst our people has fought as many battles as I have? Who amongst us knows the ways of our enemy as I do?" She spat on the ground and snarled. "And if you think I can no longer defend myself on the field of battle then you are a fool! If it should come to pass that I must take up my spear and my shield and fight alongside all of you against Cocoon, then I shall do so proudly, and even if I am slain, it will not be before I kill ten of them in return!" She shoved the warrior aside. "Go back to your house and trouble me no longer. I will fight and die as I see fit. If you have any love for me at all, then you will allow me that much. I will not pass from this world old and useless in my bed."

As the warriors fled in the face of the elder's rather, the old woman seized firm hold of her temper and favoured Vanille with a gentle smile. "These children forget themselves."

The red head nodded slowly. If they trusted her to go into battle, they could do far worse than permit the old woman the same honour. "But perhaps they are simply afraid of losing you. The warrior was right – you are a mother to them all."

"There is that." The elder scowled. "And I did help bring many of them into this world. But they are foolish to think I need protecting, and they forget that it is the old dragon that is the most cunning." Her lips curled. "Besides, if I am acting as general, something would have to go very wrong for me to take the field." She sagged and for once looked very much age. "I have only a few more winters left, young Dia, I can feel it in my bones. I would spend them as I wish, not chained by the fears of those with many more years ahead of them."

Sleep did not come easily that night for Vanille. Instead, her dreams were haunted by thoughts of her homeland. What if they were too late? What if Oerba fell? Such thoughts plagued her late into the night until at last, unable to sleep, she went outside to take in the chilly night air.

Can't sleep?

Vanille squinted at Bhakti. The dragon was half-hidden in the shadow cast by the house, but his eyes gleamed. Of course, he could see her well enough – dragons could see as easily in the dark as in the light of day. Nor did the cold seem to bother him. "Not really."

The dragon patted his side with his tail. Then sleep here.

No one was there, so what did it matter if she spent a night outside with dragon? Gingerly, she stepped over, and she gave a quiet cry of surprise as his tail wrapped around her middle and eased her into position against his side. She was cradled against his body, the warmth rolling off him more than enough to keep away the chill. To keep the wind at bay, he folded a wing over her. She smiled. For a dragon, he was surprisingly comfortable to sleep against.

Sleep. Bhakti patted her with the edge of his tail. And dream as I do.

This time, when Vanille closed her eyes, she dreamt not of Oerba, but of open skies and the endless mountains of the Yun. The dreams of a dragon, she decided, were much simpler.

X X X

Morning came, and with it, the time to depart. Vanille gathered her supplies and prepared to climb onto Bhakti with Fujin, but the elder stopped her.

"It is customary for all warriors to leave the village together through the gates," the elder said. "It is a way to honour all those who go to fight."

And there were a great many to honour. From the village, came several hundred warriors, all of them dress in full armour and armed with sword, spear and shield. Supply wagons had also been prepared, and there were dozens of warriors on chocobos as well. Once all the warriors had gathered, the elder spoke again, reminding them of the traditions of their ancestors.

"Remember the way of the Yun." The elder spoke calmly but firmly. "We are the chosen of the goddess, a spear forged in her image. Let no enemy escape us, and let no ally be left in need. We march to war, brothers and sistesr, and we march to victory!"

A cheer went up, and the warriors began their march out of the village. As they passed, the other villagers lined the roads, their heads bowed in respect. Slowly, starting from a whisper, the villagers began to sing, their voices growing louder and stronger until the air shook. The song was sung in the language of the Yun, one that Vanille was still working hard to grasp, but it's meaning was clear even to her limited understanding. It was the story of the first Yun, a ballad sung to commemorate her deeds, and after it came the songs of the other great heroes, all of them reminders of what the Yun had done, so that those who went forth to do battle would have good examples to follow.

It was only when they were out of the village that the elder nodded at Vanille. "To the skies then, young Dia. Look about us. Learn how to scout now while we are in friendly lands."

And so Vanille took to the skies. Bhakti rose, soaring easily over the mountains, his pale red scales gleaming in the sun. It would have been easy to lose herself in the remote beauty of the mountains, but Fujin was not one to forget their duty.

"LOOK. WATCH." Fujin pointed below them. "SEE."

The Yun had no cities, for the mountains did not permit such things, but they had many tows and villages scattered here and there. As they flew, Vanille made sure to look at each of them and take note of how many warriors there were. It helped that Bhakti's eyes were far keener than any human's.

"How many warriors there, Bhakti?" Vanille asked, pointing at the village below them. At their height, she could only make out the glint of steel.

One hundred on foot. Fifteen on chocobos. Tasty looking chocobos.

Vanille giggled. "No, Bhakti, we can't swoop down and eat any of the chocobos." The dragon growled. "How about we check on the other villages? What do you think, Fujin?"

The crimson-eyed woman nodded. "FOLLOW. STAY HIDDEN."

Oh. It wouldn't be much good if they were spotted while scouting the enemy. The enemy would have plenty of time to prepare.

"How do you stay hidden, Bhakti?" In truth, Vanille had never given the idea much thought. Very little was known about dragons, and Bhakti had seemed much more interested in learning her customs than explaining his. At his request, she'd even brought a few 'toys' for him to play with. His favourite was the wooden ball the children had given him.

Up. No one ever looks up.

The dragon's mirth was almost tangible. Of course, in lands where there weren't dragons, no one had any reason to look up, and it was bothersome to keep one eye on the sky.

Also, fly in the sun or the clouds. I can see through them anyway.

Well, that would definitely work. People couldn't look into the sun directly, and people definitely couldn't see through clouds. No wonder dragons were such fearsome predators – that and their size and fire.

And so, for the rest of the day, they trailed the other columns of the Yun. She was surprised by how many of them there were. The Yuns were thought to be a relatively small clan, albeit one that produced incredibly skilled warriors. Yet already, they had counted at least three thousand warriors on foot with another seven hundred on chocobos. There were, she noted, few archers amongst them.

As dusk fell, she guided Bhakti back toward the warriors from their village. It was astonishing to see how much ground they had covered, and she landed as they finished setting up camp for the night.

Night is the best time to spy. Bhakti grinned toothily. Dragons can see in the dark. You can't.

"We'll have to try that next time." She rubbed her bottom. "I'm sore from all that flying."

The elder waved her over, a grin on her lips. Clearly, she'd heard Vanille's remark. "Come, it is time to eat the evening meal. There are things you need to learn, and you can tell us what you have learned."

Vanille and Fujin explained their observations to the elder and the other warriors, and it wasn't long before they were inundated with questions. The potential of a flying scout was not lost on the warriors, and for once, the other warriors seemed content to hear Fujin out. As the silver haired woman explained things in her usual stern, clipped manner, Vanille felt a smile slip across her lips. More than anything else, she wanted Fujin to find acceptance with the others. After everything she'd done for her, it was the least she deserved.

After the meal, the elder gave Vanille a few more lessons and then it was time for stories to be told and prayers to be given.

"It is a way for us to remain in harmony with each other," the elder explained. "In war, the army that eats together and lives together is the army that fights together." She chuckled. "And it never hurts to send a prayer to the gods, especially since our goddess has been known to listen." Her voice grew serious. "But never forget, young Dia, no matter how skilled you become in the arts of war and strategy, wars are not fought with pieces on a game board; they are fought by people. Keep your people well fed, well trained and well motived, and you will win. Keep them poorly fed, poorly trained and poorly motivated, and no amount of tactical skill will save you. Now, let us listen. There is one more story to tell tonight, and it is custom that the last story told each night be a story from the Old Days, the days before Cocoon fell, the days when gods walked amongst us, and our goddess did not sit alone upon her mountain."

What unfolded was a tale quite unlike anything Vanille had ever heard. Many of the stories from the Old Days had been lost during the Fall of Cocoon when the gods had gone to war. The skies had been torn asunder, entire cities laid waste in the blink of an eye. Some said that the Thunder Plains had been created during that war while others said that it had come before, in either case, Vanille could not even imagine the kind of power it would taken. Even now, centuries later, the storm upon the Thunder Plains remained as furious as ever.

But the story was also a sad one. It spoke of a goddess, though her name was not given, who had been cursed to forever lose the one she loved the most. Each time she died, the goddess would find her, and each time she would lose her again. That was to the goddess's sorrow, a burden carried until the end of time. The story concerned one lifetime of the goddess's beloved – some said it was her sister – when she had been reborn in the lands to the east.

The goddess had found the girl and raised her, and taught her the ways of the sword and the bow. The girl had grown greater in skill than any mortal, but desperate to prove herself, she had challenged a hydra. A shudder ran through Vanille at the mere mention of the beast. She had never seen one, but the stories of them were the stuff of nightmares. Hydras were abominations born from the blood of the land itself. Their blood was said to be foul poison, and they were supposed to grow to the size of dragons. It was said that in ages past, the gods had hunted most of them down, but today, a few still remained, brooding in the dark places of the world, emerging now and then to wreak havoc and ruin. No mortal had ever killed a hydra – or so Vanille believed.

But this girl… this, Averia, had slain a hydra in single combat at the cost of her own life. And the goddess had arrived to late to save her. Vanille felt tears gather in the corners of her eyes. Was that what it meant to be a god? A thought occurred to her, and she blanched. How many people had Fang chosen over the years? Always before one of the Chosen died, another was selected so that the Yun would always have someone to lead them. Fang had not come to her again since that day up in the mountains, but the elder had told her that Fang watched over and cared for them. Vanille believed her – why else would Fang have sent Bhakti? But what would it be like to care about so many people for so many years only to lose them over and over again? It would have driven her mad.

When the tale was done, and the camp had settled down to sleep, and sentries had been posted, Vanille went to her tent. But once again, dark dreams found her, and soon her feet carried her outside to Bhakti. The dragon had soothed her once before, perhaps he could do so again. Yet as she left her tent, a chill wind sprang up. She shut her eyes as it rustled past her, and when she opened them, she was no longer alone. Someone else stood beside Bhakti, and the dragon gave a pleased purr as the shadowy figure ran one hand along his flanks. Where was Fujin? The other woman had accompanied Vanille to her tent, yet now there was no sign of her. Slowly, she reached for the dagger at her side, only to stop as the cloud that had covered the moon moved aside.

Now she recognised the figure beside Bhakti.

Fang.

The goddess's blue clothing fluttered in the breeze, and she reached down to give Bhakti a rub behind the ears. In the moonlight, her eyes gleamed an unearthly green. Vanille stopped and look about. No one else seemed to have noticed the goddess. In fact, now that she looked, there didn't seem to be anyone else around.

"Relax." Fang smiled. "They will not notice. In fact, I am not even really here."

"I'm dreaming?" Vanille pinched her cheek and winced. That had definitely hurt.

The goddess laughed, a sound like the wind rushing through a sunlit valley. "Yes, you are dreaming."

Suddenly, Vanille was beside Fang, and Bhakti curled his tail around the two of them and sighed contentedly. Apparently, this was his version of a good dream.

"Gods can come to mortals in many ways." Fang's lips curled into a grin. "Some of us come from the sky wreathed in thunder and lightning, the whole world trembling in our wake. If you like I could come to you as a storm, my winds tearing the trees from the mountainside and sweeping away the villages."

"No, I think this is fine." Vanille nodded quickly. "Dreams are much tidier."

"They are indeed." Fang chuckled. "Besides, it is easier this way. Gods are more than mortals, Vanille, so much more, at least, in some ways. In dreams, it is easier for us to hide more of what we are. That part of us that drives mortals to their knees in supplication, that part that fills your soul with love and terror in equal measure – it is easier to diminish in dreams." She smirked. "And it is easier than putting everyone else to sleep so that we can talk uninterrupted."

"What about Bhakti?" Vanille patted the dragon's side. His scales were warm. Solid. Real.

"He is one of mine." Fang smiled. "And since he has chosen you and you have chosen him, your dreams are linked from time to time. If he knows what is best for him, he will stay here, where your dreams are shallow. Any deeper, and he might run across those things that you hold dearest and most private – those things that he should not see until you share them with him." The goddess gave the dragon a stern look, but Bhakti simply grinned and tugged Vanille closer. "I thought it would be best to keep him here while we spoke. He comforts you."

Well, she did feel much safer with Bhakti around. Even heavily dimmed, the aura about the goddess made her want to fall to he knees in worship. The dragon, however, had the opposite effect, his tail a welcome weight in her lap as he tried to wheedle another scratch behind the ears. "What did you want to talk about?"

"Perhaps we should start with what you wanted to talk about." Fang put one hand on Vanille's shoulder. "You are my Chosen, and your prayers come to me loudest of all." Vanille trembled as the full weight of Fang's divine presence bore down on her. When the goddess spoke, there was a command buried beneath the words. "Tell me, Vanille, what do you want to know?"

Mouth suddenly dry, Vanille took a few moments to gather herself. There was no malice in Fang's voice. If anything, she seemed genuinely curious. But all the same, it was impossible to ignore the difference between them. Fang had seen centuries, countless centuries, while Vanille had known only a few meagres years. Still, there was one question that had hung heavily in her mind since the previous morning.

"Why won't you do something?" Vanille asked.

"About what?"

"Oerba!" Vanille cried. "Why won't you do something to help them?" She clapped one hand over her mouth when she realised she was shouting.

Bhakti stared. You just shouted at a goddess.

Oh, she knew that. Quickly, she tried to bow, but Fang laughed and tugged Vanille into her arms. The goddess was warm and soft, and she smelled somehow of the wild, untamed winds that ruled the most desolate peaks of the Yun mountains. She smelled like freedom.

"And what would you have me do, my Chosen?" Fang's voice was a whisper, gentle but firm. "Would you have me descend upon the armies of Cocoon in a blaze of divine glory? I could do it, for what are a hundred thousand soldiers before the might of a god?"

Vanille trembled.

"But that would not be the end of it." Fang shook her head. "They would hate me and hate your people all the more, and for a while perhaps, their fear might be stronger than their hate, but still the day would come when that would no longer be true. They would gather again in great numbers and setting their fear aside, they would march once more upon Oerba, and I would have to strike them down again."

"But –"

"Or perhaps I could kill all of them." Fang's voice grew stern, insistent. "Every man, every woman and every child. The gods have done so before, and if I did, no child of Cocoon would ever rise to threaten your home again. What do you think of that, Vanille?"

Vanille gagged and tasted bile at the back of her throat. She wanted – needed – to save Oerba, but she couldn't and wouldn't accept that wiping out an entire people was the only way. But Fang was right. Cocoon would come again and again and again until either none of them were left or Oerba fell.

"Then what do we do?" Vanille begged. "Tell me, Fang, what do we do?"

"The gods are mighty, Vanille." Fang ruffled the red head's hair. "Before our might, even the seas must part and the skies clear. Compared to us, mortals are nothing, less than nothing, but in some things they are our equal." She smiled and it was a heartbreaking smile. "Free will, Vanille. I learned a long time ago that gods and mortals both have the right to choose, even if some of those choices do not seem like the right choices. The gods can inspire you and we can guide you, but your choices are ultimately your own. For better or for worse."

"But you could tell us what to do," Vanille said. "You've seen so much and lived so long."

"Did you know that the first Yun came from a village on the plains." Fang smirked. "In time that village would grow great beyond all others."

"Oerba…" Vanille breathed. "The first Yun was a Dia?"

"In a manner of speaking perhaps, but not really. It would be many years before the Dia became their own people, and by then the Yun were already a clan. But when she left that village and chose to climb my mountain, I watched her. Part of me thought her very foolish, for I was young then, and I did not think that any mortal would ever reach the top of my mountain. But she did. She strove for greatness, and she attained it. What would that have been worth if I told her how to get to the top, if I carried her there myself?"

"Nothing," Vanille whispered.

"Exactly." Fang stared at Vanille and her eyes seemed to see right into the heart of the young woman. "Gods can die, Vanille, though it is no easy thing. I remember when Cocoon fell and the skies were split with storms. Gods fell, so many fell. If the only peace this world knew was a peace forged by the gods, what would happen if we perished?"

"War." Vanille sighed. "There can't be peace can there, not until we make that peace ourselves."

Fang smiled. "And so you understand." Her eyes narrowed. "But you should know that two gods march with Cocoon, and that is not something I can allow. If Cocoon is to assault the walls of Oerba, they will do so without divine aid, I can promise that much." She looked away. "Something is coming, Vanille, something that has waited centuries to be settled. I do not know if I will survive it – I do not know if I can – so there is something I must ask of you. Unite the clans. Draw them to you. I know that you can do it, and you must. For in the battle that is to come, even I will not be able to stand alone. You mortals might make all the difference."

For a while after that, they sat in silence as Vanille weighed the goddess's words in her mind. They were heavy indeed, heavy enough to crush a mountain, never mind her slender shoulders. Still, she would do her best to bear that weight and justify Fang's faith in her. Finally, she spoke.

"Do you know the story of Averia?" Vanille murmured.

Fang turned very slowly. "Who told you that story?"

"They told it around the fire tonight."

"A fitting tale." Fang's gaze was unreadable. "Tell me, do you think that Averia was a fool for challenging the hydra?"

Vanille paused. "No. She just wanted the goddess to be proud of her." She looked down at her hands and at the calluses she had. "When I was young, I learned how to sew and mend things because I wanted the matron to be proud of me. I wanted her to say kind words and love me. It was only when I was older that I realised how foolish I was – she loved me anyway, but then, love makes fools of us all."

"Even the gods." For a moment, it looked as though Fang might weep.

"And she won." Vanille shook her head in wonder. "She won."

"Yes, and even now they tell the greatness of her deeds." Fang gazed up at the moon. "A fitting tribute to one so deserving."

"You knew her," Vanille whispered. "Didn't you?"

"I did." Fang smiled softly. "And I loved her."

"Were you the goddess?" Vanille asked.

"No." Fang shook her head. "As much as I loved her, there was another who loved her even more, one who would have moved the heavens and the earth to spare her even a moment's pain." Fang closed her eyes. "The goddess Lightning, she was the one who loved Averia best of all."

"Lightning?" Vanille whispered the name. "Did she ever regret it?"

"Regret what?"

"Finding Averia?" Vanille wrapped her arms around herself. "To love someone only to lose them again and again. How could she bear it?" She gazed at Fang. "How can you bear it?"

"I have loved many over the years," Fang said softly. "Some were mortal and others were gods. Some I loved as brothers and sisters, and some I loved as daughters and sons. And there were others… others whom I loved even more than that, and others whom I might have loved if only they would have let me." She reached out and cupped Vanille's cheeks in her hands. "And I have grieved, Vanille, grieved as only a god can at the loss of each of them. Yet I would not trade even one moment I have spent with them to lessen that grief. Better to grieve for days long lost and loves left far behind than to never have those days and never have those loves. It is enough that I should have known them at all, and the grief in my heart is a sign that my love was true."

Tears rolled down Vanille's cheeks. "You lost Averia for she was mortal. What about Lightning? She was a goddess, wasn't she? Did you lose her too?"

Fang stepped away, vanishing on the wind. "There are some questions that do not have answers yet. Perhaps one day, I shall be able to give you one."

X X X

The next morning came, and Vanille woke, resolved to her course of action. Oerba was the greatest city of the clans, yet the infighting between them meant that all too often it was forced to stand alone. Not anymore. She would win the support of the other clans and their favour also, just as she had done with the Yun. United, the clans would be strong, and Cocoon would never again have the strength to lay siege to her home. But more than that, only once the clans were united could they even begin to consider some kind of peace with Cocoon. If Fang was right – and she had no reason to doubt the goddess – something was coming, and the clans would need all their strength to face it.

In a bid to learn as much as possible before they met with the other clans, she asked Fujin to go up with Bhakti while she remained with the elder. There was much grumbling on the part of the silver haired woman, but Bhakti was only too happy to whisk Fujin into the air, the warrior cursing under her breath the whole way. And if he did a few lazy rolls that almost knocked Fujin out of the saddle, well, that was merely a coincidence.

Throughout the day, Vanille questioned the elder about the other clans. If she could not develop the strength of a Yun, she could at least develop a mind fit to match wits with anyone. Naturally, the elder was very curious about Vanille's sudden burst of motivation, and when Vanille told her about the dream she'd had, the old woman merely nodded.

"Ah, that would explain the shiver in my bones." The elder cackled. "It is said that every warriors knows when their time has come." She rapped her shield with her spear and the chocobo beneath her bristled at the sound. "Perhaps I will get my wish and die in battle."

"You can't die," Vanille said firmly. "Not until you've taught me everything."

The elder laughed. "Cunning Dia, you know that it will take me years to teach you everything."

"Then you will simply have to live for years." They'd only known each other for a few months, but already Vanille saw the elder as someone very important in her life. Not as important as the matron – the woman who'd raised her – but definitely someone whose company she treasured. "You were telling me about one of the smaller clans, I think they were called the Zangan?"

"Technically, Zangan is the name given to their leader. They are a clan of great warriors, versed in all manner of combat, but they are especially famous for fighting barehanded. They live a life of calm and serenity on Mount Nibel. Some think they are monks, but actually, their code requires that they take up other positions while still adhering to their principles…"

And so the week passed. On most days, Vanille spent her time with the elder, learning as much as she could. As dusk fell, she would go up with Bhakti to grow accustomed to flying during the night. It was an eerie experience, watching the sun fade behind the mountains to leave the world in shadow. But for Bhakti it was easy enough, for his eyes could see in the deepest darkness. More than once, she was startled to realise that he was weaving through canyons and crags – obstacles she hadn't even noticed, but which his dragon eyes had seen as clear as day.

As they went, they met up with other columns of Yun, and at the base of the mountains, they came to a great clearing with large stones set on one side. The elder waited until all of the Yun had arrived, and then she led Vanille up onto the stones. There before her stood the full might of the Yun. Endless ranks of warriors, men and women forged in the crucible of fire and ice that was the Yun mountains. All of them resplendent in their armour, their cloaks aflutter in the breeze, their spears held at their sides. And all of them watching her and the elder.

"Look," the elder said. "These are your people, young Dia. These are the Yun."

Vanille swallowed thickly and fought to keep still. Ten thousand – the scouts said that ten thousand warriors had come on foot and another two thousand on chocobos. She had never seen an army this large, and every single one of them was a Yun warrior, born and bred in the mountain fastness. As the elder straightened and prepared to speak, the warriors began to bang their spears against their shields, a cacophony that only fell silent as the elder raised her voice.

"It has been thirty years since all the Yun went to war." The elder gazed out across the ranks of her people, and once more, pride swelled in her chest. "I led you then, as I lead you now. You know what is needed, so I will give no great speeches. I will simply say this: we will go to war and we will win."

The answering roar shook the mountains and the elder stepped aside. "Many of you have not yet met the Chosen of the Goddess. Yet I can think of no better time to let her speak." She pushed Vanille forward. "Her name is Oerba Dia Vanille, yet I think perhaps a new name is needed." Vanille froze, shocked. They hadn't discussed this. "She is one of us now. Let us call her Oerba Dia Yun Vanille, for she is Yun as much as she is Dia."

Another roar, and this time the cries of the warriors were joined by those of Bhakti as he bellowed his approval.

Slowly, Vanille stepped forward. The elder had told her how important it was that she make a good impression on the warriors. If something happened to the elder, Vanille would need the warrior's respect to rule.

"I was born in Oerba," Vanille said, and she had to fight to keep her voice even. "And I was raised there. My life was a healer's life, not a warrior's." She paused, aware of twelve thousand eyes upon her. "But I learned. On the mountain of the goddess, I learned what it meant to fight." Her voice grew sharp. "I learned that a warrior is not simply the sum of their skill with a blade or with a spear. A warrior is forged of steel with fire and ice. A warrior must be wise, and a warrior must be cunning." She thought of what Fang had said to her. "But most of all, a warrior must not go into battle needlessly. A warrior must put the clan first and strive with all their strength to keep it safe."

There was silence, only the wind whispering gently through the clearing.

"And the Yun are my clan." She threw the words out. "And the Dia are my clan, and the Al Bhed, and all the others. All of the clans are my clan." Her eyes swept over the army. "The goddess chose me, but it is only because you have accepted me and taught me that I have grown stronger. I have learned from the Honoured Elder and from all of you as well. We are all part of a clan, a clan that goes beyond the Yun, a clan that includes all the people of Gran Pulse." She took hold of the ceremonial spear the elder held and thrust it into the air. "For the clans!"

For a long moment there was silence, and then came the sound of their approval, not in shouts or yells, but the drum beat of spears on shields. Slowly, Vanille let the elder lead her away.

"You have a way with words, young Dia." The elder grinned.

Vanille handed the spear back to the elder. "I hope so – I haven't much of a way with spears."

"Perhaps, but you will learn in time." The elder pointed at the crowd of warriors eager to speak with Vanille. "Go, speak with them. Let them come to know you as I know you."

And that was exactly what Vanille did. Of course, the Yun had a very different way of getting to know each other than the Dia – it involved spears and how best to use them. Vanille did her best, and while it was clear that she was still no match for a veteran Yun warrior, she acquitted herself well, and even managed to win a few bouts against the younger warriors. They were tough, but Fujin was another matter entirely, and weeks of the crimson-eyed woman's merciless training had finally begun to pay off.

Despite her losses, she won their admiration, for no matter how badly she was knocked down, she always rose, and for a Dia, she was actually rather skilled. In fact, once they found out that she had only been training for a few months, they were quite impressed. More than one warrior immediately challenged Fujin, keen to test her mettle once they learned that she was not only Vanille's instructor, but also her bodyguard. Fujin won every bout.

They were also won over by her seemingly vast knowledge of Yun history and tactics. Those who doubted her abilities as a warrior at least acknowledge her potential as a general, and she took a certain delight in besting them in the games of strategy the Yun were fond of. The elder was kind enough to stay silent about the fact that Vanille had yet to beat her.

A few days later, the Yun army reached the plain where they were to meet the other clans. They arrived there first and set up camp near the top of a hill. The elder did not suspect any treachery, but she explained to Vanille that it was always better to be safe than sorry. A few hours after dawn, the first of the other clans arrived, and to Vanille who had rarely been beyond the walls of Oerba, the arrival of the Chocobo Knights was something to behold.

They came in a single long column, ten thousand strong. They wore thick plate armour from head to toe, as did their chocobos, and in the morning sun, their armour gleamed pale silver and blue. The chocobos that the knights rode were the largest Vanille had ever seen, and despite the weight they carried, they maintained a swift, easy pace. Instead of the spears favoured by the Yun riders, the knights carried shields and long, thick lances. Vanille had heard stories of those lances, of how they could skewer three or four men in a single strike when used at a full gallop.

"Come," the elder said. "It is our duty to greet their leaders."

Vanille was glad for Bhakti's presence beneath her as the dragon padded after the elder's chocobo to greet the knights. As they drew near, the Chocobo Knight split seamlessly into formation and parted to make way for their leaders.

"There are no finer riders in Pulse," the elder said. "The plains of Mi'ihen are even vaster than those about Oerba, and they have spent centuries perfecting their skills. In the charge, there are none deadlier." She grinned. "But do not forget your place, young Dia – you belong here."

The two leaders of the Chocobo Knights came forward and as custom dictated, they pulled off the helmets that covered their heads. The first had fiery hair, much like Vanille's own, though longer, and a bluish purple crest across her breastplate. The second had darker hair and a red crest. Both sat easily in the saddle, their chocobos seemingly calm despite Bhakti's presence. However, the red head's expression was quite stern, whereas her companion flashed Vanille a friendly smile.

"Hail and well met, Honoured Elder." The red head inclined her head. "The Chocobo Knights of Mi'ihen have come to answer Oerba's call to arms."

"And we are glad to have you." The elder smiled. "Lucil, is it?" The knight nodded. "Ah, I knew your father, and his father before him. Both were fine men and worthy warriors."

"Then I hope I can be the same." Lucil inclined her head at Vanille. "And you must be the Chosen of the Goddess." She frowned. "I thought you would be taller."

Vanille chuckled. "I get that a lot." Beneath her Bhakti gave an angry hiss, and she put one hand on his neck to calm him. "I am Oerba Dia Yun Vanille, and I am glad to have you here."

Lucil eyed Bhakti, her expression inscrutable. Most likely, she was wondering exactly how much control Vanille had over the dragon. "I see we are the first to arrive."

"You are." The elder grinned. "We weren't sure you would come."

Lucil pursed her lips. "We would not turn down a chance to fight upon the plains." She nodded at the woman beside her. "This is Elma, my second."

"Good morning." The brunette smiled cheerfully. "I hope this campaign will be a successful one." She waved at Bhakti. "Your dragon seems very nice."

"Oh, he is." Vanille laughed. "As long as you don't make him mad."

With that, Lucil and Elma turned and rode back to supervise their knights as they set up camp. There were still more clans to come, and it would be at least another day before they moved. Besides, they could hardly devise their battle plan until they knew exactly who would be there.

As the day went on, more of the clans arrived, and Vanille went with the elder to greet each of them. The next to arrive were the warriors of Balamb. Their leader was a serious, gruff young man named Squall, but his second-in-command was a much more approachable young woman named Rinoa. Whilst the elder and Squall exchanged thoughts on the coming battle, Rinoa was only too happy to explain her people's customs to Vanille. Apparently, many warriors from Balamb made a living as mercenaries, protecting trading caravans and hunting bandits. But the battle for Oerba was an opportunity they could not afford to miss. Not only would participating in it garner Balamb considerable prestige, there would undoubtedly be spoils to take from the Cocoon army.

A little after noon, a rider came, his chocobo panting with exhaustion. From his unusual spiral eyes, it was clear that he was one of the Al Bhed. He identified himself as a messenger and explained that the rest of the Al Bhed army was still several days away. Sandstorms in the desert had delayed their passage, and if they marched any faster, they would be exhausted by the time they arrived.

"That is unfortunate," the elder said. "But we cannot afford to wait several days. That would give Cocoon the better part of a week to break Oerba's walls, and while I am confident the walls will hold, the people within them will suffer greatly if we do not make haste."

In the late afternoon, two groups arrived that Vanille had not expected. The first were the Zangan. Though they were few in number – perhaps only two thousand – the respect the other clans afforded them was obvious. Even the Yun regarded the Zangan warily, and as their leader, a young woman with flowing black hair and burgundy eyes stepped forward, Vanille felt Fujin tense beside her.

"Do not judge them by appearances," the elder cautioned. "I have seen a Zangan disciple break ten men with his bare hands in the time it would have taken a skilled swordsman to gut four." She smiled. "Look at the way she moves and the way she holds herself. She is good, very good."

"I am Tifa of the Zangan." The young woman brought one fist and palm together then bowed. "I bring greetings from the mountain."

Vanille studied Tifa closely. The other woman wasn't especially tall – though her chest had Vanille feeling just a little bit envious – but she moved with a smooth, measured elegance that hinted at a skill only a few could ever hope to attain. More than that, however, there was an air of warmth and serenity about her that somehow put Vanille instantly at ease. This must be the fabled warrior's calm possessed by adepts in the Zangan martial arts.

"Tifa?" The elder's lips twitched. "I remember visiting Mount Nibel some time ago. Zangan had a pupil then, a little girl that he thought very highly of. Are you that Tifa?"

Tifa nodded. "I am." She smiled. "I'm honoured that you remember me."

The elder laughed. "I'm not senile yet." She grinned. "So, where is your master? I hope he isn't dead. I quite liked him."

Vanille's eyes widened, but Tifa merely chuckled. The elder and the Zangan must know each other quite well for such words to inspire only mirth.

"He is still alive," Tifa said. "Though he complains incessantly about his age and the cold on the mountain. He sends his regrets that he cannot come himself – he believes it is time to let the younger generation do more of the work." She paused, and her lips quirked upward at the edges. "He also said that you should consider doing likewise."

The elder rolled her eyes. "That old codger. He is probably lazing about as usual." She nodded at Tifa. "There is still space near our camp. If you wish, you can set up there."

It was a generous offer, Vanille knew, and a sign of the elder's esteem as well. Before she left, Tifa turned and studied Vanille closely.

"You are the Chosen of the Goddess?"

"Yes."

Tifa smiled gently. "She chose well." And then she was off, leading her people to settle in beside the Yun.

"What did she mean by that?" Vanille asked.

The elder was quiet for a moment. "The Zangan are good at reading people. It's one of the reasons they are so skilled in martial arts." Her gaze flicked past the Zangan to the next group, which was the smallest by far. "Now, this is interesting."

Vanille followed her gaze. The group in question was made up of only a few hundred warriors, but even so, they drew the eye of almost everyone there. Part of it had to be the weapons they carried – each man or woman carried a single massive sword upon their back. Just looking at the weapons made Vanille's arms hurt. She doubted three of her could have lifted a sword that size, never mind actually used it in combat.

At the head of these warriors was a tall man with spiky black hair, but it was only when he lifted his face to stare openly at Vanille and the elder that she understood why everyone was staring. His eyes were a brilliant, glittering blue, far brighter than was natural. The eyes of all of the warriors behind him were likewise unnaturally bright, and she realised at once who these people were. They were the cousins of the Cetra, the hardy folk who lived in the desolate wastes of the North Crater.

"I cannot say that I have met many of your kind, but you, I do remember, Zack Fair." The elder's lips curled. "You haven't aged a day since the last time I saw you."

Zack picked at one of the bangs that framed his face and showed the elder a few strands of grey amongst all the black. "I wouldn't say that, Honoured Elder. But, of course, my people don't age the same way yours do."

"No, they do not." The elder smiled. "Still, I am grateful that you have come and brought so many with you. But how did you know to come? No man or woman has set foot into the North Crater for decades and lived. The power that lingers there is still too much for mortals to bear."

Zack grinned and then looked at Vanille. "I will tell you in a moment, but who is this?" He reached forward to take Vanille's hand only to pause as Fujin let out a hiss and put one hand on the hilt of her sword. "Ah, a bodyguard. You must be the Chosen of the goddess."

"Yes.' Vanille nodded. "I am Oerba Dia Yun Vanille."

"A lovely name for a lovely lady." Zack grinned.

"Ignore him." The elder rolled her eyes, a reaction that was mimicked by the blonde swordsman who stood a few steps behind Zack. "He has always been like this, and will ever be so. Tell me, Zack, how did you know?"

Zack sighed dramatically. "So cold, Honoured Elder. The years have made you cranky." He dodged a lazy swipe of the elder's spear. "I remember when I first visited the Yun. You were such a beauty then, and your temper was far milder. Truly the years can be unkind." The elder rapped him over the shoulder with the shaft of her spear. "Anyway… perhaps it would be best if I explained a few things for the benefit of your Chosen here. After all, she does not know my people nearly as well as you."

"Thank you." Vanille listened eagerly. Very little was written about the people of the North Crater, and Zack was the first one she'd ever talked to. They seldom ventured from their home, and even then, they often went about in disguise, their faces hidden.

"My pleasure." Zack grinned again. "I take it you have heard of the Cetra?" Vanille nodded. "Long ago, when the battle for Cocoon was fought, the great goddess Aerith, creator of the Cetra and mother to the Forest of Ancients, went north to face the greatest of her enemies – the traitor goddess Jenova. But Jenova was not alone, and so Aerith brought many of the Cetra with her. In the battle that followed, Aerith and Jenova devastated the lands of the north and carved out the North Crater. Aerith was able to drive Jenova into hiding, but the Cetra who had gone with her were caught in the maelstrom of the two goddesses' power. They were changed, made different from their kin who had remained behind to guard the forest."

"And that's where you come from," Vanille murmured. "That's why your eyes…"

"Yes, that's why our eyes are so unusual." Zack shrugged. "A gift and a curse, like our longevity and strength. Like the Cetra, we are more than men but less than gods, but unlike our brethren in the forest, we are tainted by Jenova's power. It is something we must always fight, and it is why we chose to remain in the north rather than return to the forest."

"That seems very sad," Vanille said.

"Perhaps, but you forget, it's been a very long time. There are none amongst us now who can remember the days when we lived in the forest. The North Crater is our home now, and we are happy there." Zack smiled faintly. "And as for how we knew to come, well, we may no longer live in the forest, but Aerith is still our goddess, and she remains a friend to your goddess. Our priests and priestesses received signs from our goddess that we should venture south, and here we are."

"And glad we are to have you." The elder sighed. "Now, go set up camp, and try not to make trouble."

Zack chuckled. "I will do my best." He waved lazily at the blonde behind him who wore a dour expression. "This is Cloud, he is my second-in-command. Try not to let his grouchiness bother you for he was born that way."

The blonde made a disgusted sound, which drew a giggle from Vanille. "Zack, stop being a fool." He grabbed the taller man by the collar of his tunic. "Stop dawdling, we were told to set up camp."

As Cloud dragged Zack away, Vanille giggled again. It was striking how different all of the clans and their people were. Some were serious and some were light hearted. Some were proud and some were humble. But all had come to fight.

Just before dusk, the last of the clans arrived. From the graceful script on their banners and the flowing garments some of them wore, Vanille guessed they were from Wutai. They had perhaps the single largest contingent with thousands of archers, cavalry, infantry and others who were dressed quite casually yet moved with the ease of highly trained warriors. At the head of the army, riding a golden chocobo was a girl even younger than Vanille.

The girl was dressed almost entirely in black save for a white headband. Her eyes were dark brown, and her shoulder length hair was the same black colour common to the people of Wutai. Her expression as she gracefully dismounted her chocobo was one of august calm and serenity. Yet it was ruined only moments later, when she swayed and put one hand up to her mouth.

For a second, all Vanille could do was stare. Did this girl get motion sick riding a chocobo? Surely not, otherwise they were in a lot of trouble. Beside her, the elder shared a sceptical look with the other clan leaders that had gathered to meet the army from Wutai. Well aware of the stares she was receiving, the girl all but bounced back to her feet.

"I am Yuffie Kisaragi, the White Rose of Wutai." She inclined her head. "And I come to answer the call to arms."

"You must be Godo's daughter then." The elder's brows furrowed. "Where is your father?"

The girl shifted nervously from one foot to the other and behind her, two of her warriors covered their faces with their hands.

"Chekov, Staniv, stop doing that!" Yuffie cleared her throat. "My father suggested that it might be beneficial for me to study the arts of war under an accomplished general, like yourself, Honoured Elder." Then she added, in a conspiratorial whisper, "It was either that or get married to some stuffy noble."

"I see." The elder rubbed her forehead. "Well, we are glad to have you and your warriors with us. There is space a little further to the south that you can use to set up camp."

Yuffie nodded quickly. "Great. I'll go do that then." As she walked off, she spotted Tifa, and to Vanille's absolute surprise, the princess grabbed the other woman by the arm. "Tifa! I didn't expect to see you here! You were supposed to visit last summer to help me with my training and…"

Once Yuffie and the other clan leaders were out of earshot, the elder turned to Vanille. "Good grief, I'm going to strangle Godo the next time I see him."

Vanille winced. She could certainly understand the elder's frustration. All of the other clan leaders were seasoned warriors. Yuffie seemed well… not.

"Make no mistake, young Dia, Yuffie is well trained. In single combat, I have no doubt that she can hold her own – custom demands that Wutai royalty become quite accomplished in combat – but there is a difference between being a good fighter and being a good general." The elder sighed. "It has been a long, long day, young Dia. Get some rest. In an hour, I will call the clan leaders together to discuss our course of action."

X X X

The meeting between the clan leaders went about as well as Vanille had expected. It started cordially enough with introductions and meaningless small talk, but once the time came to discuss their battle plans, the divides between the clans quickly became obvious. Each clan had its own specialties and each clan was determined to have these brought to the fore.

"We must ride out and meet them!" Lucil banged one hand down on the table at the centre of the tent where the clan leaders were meeting. "We will break them in the charge and scatter their bones across the plains."

"Yes," Squall drawled. "And they won't see you coming from miles away? Oerba is a plain, if they've any eyes in their head, they'll form up long before you get there. Even the finest cavalry is useless against good infantry that holds its ground and is properly supported. Besides, it's Cocoon, they will almost certainly have pikemen."

"And what would you suggest?" Lucil countered. "Your people are mercenaries. When was the last time you fought a proper war?"

Squall's eyes narrowed, but he refused to rise to the insult. For her part, Vanille agreed with him. There were countless examples of fine infantry armed with pikes or spears holding firm against even heavy cavalry like the Chocobo Knights, and whatever its failings, Cocoon had long produced good infantry and archers.

"Cavalry has a place, I agree, but it must be used wisely." Squall frowned. "And I'm assuming you were listening when Vanille told us of her dream. They have gods on their side."

"And our goddess has promised to hold them off." Lucil scowled. "And she is mighty."

Zack winced. "And you are forgetting that even if your goddess is mighty, battles between gods rarely leave the landscape untouched." He glanced at Vanille. "Has your goddess said which gods are on Cocoon's side?"

"No." Vanille shook her head. "She didn't tell me that. But she seemed worried."

Zack pursed her lips. "Then I am worried too. Any gods strong enough to worry your goddess and mine are not the kind we should ignore."

"We could always take their army by subterfuge," Yuffie suggested. "Wutai has the finest ninjas in the world, and amongst them I am the best. Give me one night and a few hours, and I'll have Cocoon running for the hills."

"And how will your ninjas infiltrate their camp?" Squall countered. "The open plains are no place for ninjas, and they will have had days to fortify their position."

"Well, at least I'm suggesting something." Yuffie scowled. "All you've done is criticise."

From there, the discussion quickly devolved into a shouting match as Lucil and Yuffie rounded on Squall, who for his part continued to fire back in the same stoic manner as before. Zack tried to calm things down, but his attempts were thwarted as the representatives of the other smaller clans turned on each other as well.

The sound of it was enough to make Vanille's ears ring, and the sight of it was beyond disheartening. Fang had asked her to unite the clans, but how was she supposed to do that when they couldn't even have a civil conversation with one another?

"Don't worry," the elder advised with a chuckle. "This always happens. Usually, it is best to let them yell themselves hoarse. Then you can speak, and they have no choice but to listen." She studied Vanille keenly. "But you have a plan don't you?" She pointed at the map on the table that Vanille had been examining closely for some time now. "Is that right, young Dia?"

Vanille nodded. She did have a plan, though she did not know how well it would be received. She'd put it together over the course of the day, her mind updating it each time another clan had arrived. Still, she needed to try. Gingerly, she cleared her throat. Nothing. She tried shouting, but her voice was lost in the din. As she was about to resign herself to following the elder's advice – and sitting through even more yelling – a single word cut through the air.

"Enough!"

It could hardly have been called a shout, but it was still the first word that Tifa had spoken for the better part of an hour. That combined with the Zangan adept rising to her feet was enough to silence the others. It could also have had something to do with the fist she'd brought down on the table with enough force to crack the thick wood.

"We are allies, are we not?" Tifa smiled to take the edge off her words. "Allies should be friends, and friends need not yell for hours on end to make their points to each other." She nodded at Vanille. "All of you are here out of either duty or love of glory, and that is well enough, but there is one here who is concerned only with the survival of Oerba. Let her speak."

Grudgingly, the others fell silent and Vanille gave Tifa a heartfelt smile of gratitude. Later, she would have to find some way to make it up to the other woman.

"I was born and raised in Oerba," Vanille said. "And I know the land around it better than any of you." Someone made to interrupt, but she silenced the interloper with a glare. She might not know as much about weapons as the others here, but she knew a lot about Oerba. "The land around is Oerba is mostly flat, especially beside the city. However, there are hills and dips that can be used for cover." She pointed to the map. "This map is not entirely accurate." She ran one finger along the map just south of the city. "There is a rise here that can be used to hide some of our warriors, and every time Cocoon has attacked Oerba, it has concentrated its fire on where the walls are thinnest – the southeast corner of the city."

"So what would you suggest?" Squall asked. His eyes had narrowed in contemplation.

"All of our clans are different." She nodded firmly. "The Yun are mostly heavy infantry, others like the Chocobo Knights are almost entirely cavalry, and Balamb and Wutai offer a mix of warriors. If we want to win, we needed to put all of our strengths to work." She pointed once again at the southeast corner of the city. "I can scout ahead to make sure they're where I think they'll be, but I believe it would best for the Yun to attack there."

"Oh?" Squall gazed at her intently. She had his full attention now. "Explain."

"The Yun fight in a phalanx, a solid mass of spears and shields, at least that's how they fight on the plains. That kind of formation is very good at keeping an opponent in one place because it can very easily break through a poorly defended centre." Vanille glanced quickly at the elder. The old woman gave a nod of approval, and Vanille nearly sagged in relief. Clearly, she'd learned something from all of the texts she'd read and the lessons the old woman had given her. "But the phalanx does have weaknesses."

"It is slow to turn and vulnerable on the sides." Squall smiled thinly. "Yes, I know. The Balamb and Yun have not always been on friendly terms, and we keep very good records." He folded his hands on the table. "You intend to put some of us on the sides."

"On the left side only." The elder's eyes widened and then she started to chuckle. Vanille hoped that was a good sign. "The weakest side of the phalanx is its right side because the Yun carry their shields on their left. What that means is that each warrior protects the person on their left. I plan to leave that side of the phalanx with as little support as possible."

"And if they break?" Zack asked. "I mean no offence, but if they run, we're all dead."

"They will not run." The elder grinned. "Our finest warriors go on the right side precisely because of that." She looked carefully at Vanille. "I think I know what you are planning, but it might be prudent to have some of our warriors further back to offer support in case it is needed."

"If you know," Lucil said. "Then share it with the rest of us."

Vanille nodded quickly. "It's a trap. When Cocoon sees our exposed right side, they will, hopefully, go after it. And when they do." She pointed at the hills to the south of the where the battle would be fought. "That's when you and your Chocobo Knights come out of hiding."

Lucil's lips curled, and the knight began to laugh. "I see it. They will rush to attack our right flank thinking to break us, but in doing so, they will leave themselves even more vulnerable to the charge."

"Exactly!" Vanille grinned. "And once you break that attack, you can charge their left flank as well while the Yun push down the middle." She patted the map. "They'll be trapped between us and the walls."

"I like it." Zack chuckled. "Not bad for someone so young." Vanille grinned.

"What about the city?" Yuffie asked. The younger woman had gone very quiet during the discussion, but now her eyes were flicking over the map. "If they've breached the walls by the time we get there things are going to get complicated."

Vanille smiled. "That's where your ninjas, the Zangan and Zack's people come in."

It took another two hours for Vanille to explain the rest of her plan in detail, and there was a lot of discussion and tweaking to be done in the days to come, but in the end, the others agreed that it seemed sound. The only thing better than having everyone actually discussing things rather than yelling was the gentle smile of approval the elder gave her. If the old woman thought it was a good plan, then it had to be okay.

By the time they were finished for the night, Vanille was exhausted. As the others returned to their tents, she was sorely tempted to ask Fujin to carry her. Not only did she doubt the other woman would agree – Fujin was convinced that she needed a lot more toughening up – but it would look quite pathetic to have to be carried back.

As she and Fujin headed for their tent, she caught sight of Tifa.

"Tifa!" Vanille shouted. "Could I talk to you for a second?" Beside her, Fujin's eyes narrowed.

The Zangan adept nodded, and the three of them went up to a rocky outcrop that overlooked the camp. It was quiet up there and private, and the view was very nice with the army spread out below them and the stars above.

"I wanted to thank you for helping me back there." Vanille bowed her head. "We weren't really doing anything except arguing, but at least now we've got a plan."

Tifa waved one hand. "It was nothing, and it was good to see that the goddess chose wisely."

Vanille flushed. "I don't want to pry, but why did you help me?"

Tifa looked out across the camp. "What do you see?"

"Tents. Lots of tents." Beside Vanille, Fujin chuckled.

"That's right." Tifa settled down on the edge of the rock, her legs dangling over the side. "But look at how they are arranged. The Yun stay in one place, the Balamb in another, and the Wutai in still another." She looked down at her hands. "We have a saying amongst the Zangan: the right hand should never forget the left. The greatest strength of Cocoon is that its people are united. They are misguided, yes, but united. But look at the clans, Vanille. We are proud of our heritage and our past, but those things are also what keep us apart." She smiled faintly. "Did you know that amongst the Zangan, a person cannot become an adept without spending several years amongst the other clans?"

"No." The Zangan were a private people for the most part. "Where did you go?"

"I went to as many of the other clans as I could, and I learned what I could, and helped those I could." Tifa grinned. "I even snuck into Cocoon." She laughed at Vanille's startled expression. "It was not easy, and I had to be very careful, but I saw a lot. I saw towns filled with people, children playing in fields and metal smiths had at work. I saw that they were a people very much like our own." She paused. "I remember especially well the time I spent in a dusty, dirty, horrible town. I met a man and his daughter there; they were doing their very best to look after all the town's orphans."

"Why are you telling me all of this?" Vanille asked.

All of a sudden, the air grew heavy. The warrior that slumbered inside Tifa came to the fore, and the raven-haired woman's burgundy eyes flashed in the darkness. Next to Vanille, Fujin's hand tightened on her spear.

"What will you do if we win?" Tifa asked. Her gaze caught and held Vanille's. "Will you kill them without mercy, will you chase them back to their borders?"

"I will drive them from Oerba," Vanille replied.

"And then what? Will you pursue them? Will you lay waste their cities to teach them a lesson once their armies are broken?" Tifa spoke softly, but even so, the pressure in the air remained.

Vanille's eyes widened. So this was what Tifa wanted to know. She shook her head. "No. If they come to harm me or mine, then I will do whatever it takes to drive them away. But I don't want revenge. What I want…" Her voice grew soft. "What I want is peace, even if it seems impossible. Peace between the clans and Cocoon."

Tifa's smile was beautiful, and the pressure in the air vanished. "And now you understand why I helped you. The way of the Zangan is the way of serenity. We fight when it is needed, but never without cause. We kill when we must, but never more than we have to. Too often the other clans misunderstand our way of life. True, we learn to fight, but our way is about more than breaking the enemy – it is about making ourselves unbreakable. A Zangan adept has mastery over their heart and their body, and what greater strength is there than that? And once I have that strength, why should I seek combat except in the defence of others?"

For a long time, Vanille was silent. Tifa's words were strange, yet something about them rang true. The elder was the greatest warrior she'd ever met. Yet she could hardly imagine the old woman advocating war for the sake of it. Even Fujin whose temper was somewhat less than mild rarely took up arms outside of sparring unless there was a very good reason.

"What would you do to make the world a better place?" Vanille asked.

"We are not gods," Tifa replied. "We are mortals. I cannot change the whole world and neither can you." She patted the spot beside her. "But I can change what is around me. I offered your friendship today, but I could just as easily have offered you scorn. Likewise, you have shown only humility and a willingness to learn, but had you desired, you could have shown only arrogance and pride. Little things, Vanille, often add up to big things. I have learned that the best way to change the world is often to start out with the small things, the things you can change. In time, it will be possible to change bigger things. If you and I can be friends, then perhaps one day our clans can be friends. If you start by trying to change the whole world at once, you get nowhere, and there are some things that even the gods cannot change, never mind us mortals."

Vanille huffed good-naturedly. "How did you get so wise?"

"Practice." Tifa grinned and hopped back to her feet. "And alcohol. When I travelled amongst the other clans, I often found work in taverns – I'm actually quite good at making food and drink."

Vanille giggled. Somehow, it was hard to imagine the warm, serene Zangan adept making drinks and meals in a tavern. Then again, some of the wisest people she'd known in Oerba were the tavern owners who put up with all the rambling drunks.

"ENOUGH." Fujin jerked her head at the camp. "SLEEP."

"Is she your bodyguard?" Tifa asked.

Vanille nodded. "Yes, Fujin is my bodyguard. She's also my friend."

"I see." Tifa tilted her head to one side. "Then I hope you will forgive me."

"Forgive you?" Vanille's frowned. "For what?"

Tifa's answer came in a blur of movement. In one smooth lunge, she crossed the gap between her and Fujin. Her left hand whipped up, knocking the spear out of Fujin's hand, as her right hand caught the silver haired woman's shield and tossed it aside. Then Tifa lashed out with a kick aimed right at Fujin's head. Vanille had never seen anyone move that fast, and for a split-second, she was certain Fujin would be hit. But if the loss of her weaponry bothered her, Fujin gave no sign of it. Instead, she ducked beneath the kick, and replied with one of her own that Tifa dodged easily.

Then the two women met again in a terrifying dance of feet, fists, elbows and knees that had Vanille gaping in awe. As good as Fujin was – and she was very, very good – Tifa forced her back and back until finally, the dark haired woman grabbed hold of Fujin and tossed her over her shoulder. The crimson-eyed woman landed in a crouch, and then leapt back as Tifa surged forward and brought one foot down on the rock with enough force to actually crack it.

Fujin hissed and used the lull in the fight to draw her sword only for Tifa to relax and hold up both hands.

"You're very good. I can see why the Honoured Elder chose you to watch over Vanille."

Slowly, Fujin sheathed her sword. "HOLDING BACK."

"So were you." Tifa grinned. "Perhaps after the battle, we can have a proper sparring match." She bent down and picked up a rock. Mischief shimmered in her eyes as she tossed it up into the shadow above them.

"Ouch!" Yuffie tumbled out of the darkness and landed lightly on her feet. The young woman shot Tifa a nasty scowl. "What was that for?"

"Eavesdropping is not polite." Tifa smiled. "And if you'd actually been silly enough to sneak up on Fujin, she could easily have stabbed you."

"Hah!" Yuffie folded her arms over her chest. "I'm too good for that. Besides, I was kind of curious to know where the leader of the Zangan was going with the heir to the Yun. It wouldn't do for Wutai to miss out on any potential alliances."

Vanille giggled. She'd never met a princess before, but somehow, she doubted that sneaking around was something they were supposed to do. "If you heard everything, then you should know I want an alliance with everybody."

"Well, I can't speak for my father." Yuffie scoffed. "But it sounds like a good idea." She shrugged. "Vinne certainly seems to think so."

"Vinne?"

Yuffie winced. "Forget I said anything. He doesn't like it when I talk about him. Royal secret and all that."

"I see." Vanille fought to hold back a chuckle.

"Hey! Don't laugh."

"In any case, it is late." Tifa looked pointedly at Yuffie. "We have long days ahead of us, so we should all get some rest."

X X X

Fang floated in the night sky over Oerba. The Cocoon army had arrived the previous morning, and had quickly gone to work. A cordon had been put in place around the city, and siege weapons had already begun to bombard the walls. However, they hadn't had much success so far. The walls of Oerba were at least one hundred feet high and fifty feet thick – proof against even the mightiest of siege weapons. But even those walls would not stand against the fury of a god, and so she had come to learn the intentions of the gods that walked with Cocoon.

"Caius!" she shouted. "Show yourself!"

The air around her stirred, and for a moment, the clamour of battle beneath her faded. Every second became an hour, and each hour became a lifetime. Beside her, a flock of birds seemed frozen, their wings caught mid beat. Even the moon's light seemed to dull and fade as though a hundred thousand centuries had passed and all the world had fallen into ruin. And then the space in front of her rippled and parted, as though torn asunder by vast, divine hands. Her lips curled. In truth, that was exactly what had happened.

Then Caius was there in the sky, not thirty feet from her. He was exactly as she remembered, his purple hair left to flow almost freely, the glittering feathers of a phoenix woven into it. His sword was nowhere to be seen, though she knew that he could summon it with nothing more than a thought. His black armour gleamed in the moonlight, the violet runes that dotted its surface alight with power. But it was his eyes that worried her. He had always been calm, but now, his eyes were filled with cold fire – a cold fire she had seen once before many years ago, when she had faced Lightning in the skies above Cocoon. A quiver ran through the air, and time returned to normal as the din of battle rose up from the city beneath them.

"It has been a very long time, Fang." His lips curled every so slightly, but his voice was devoid of emotion. They might as well have been discussing the weather. "What brings you here, sister?"

Fang bristled. Like her and Lightning, Caius owed his existence to the High Mother, yet she could feel the High Father's taint all over him. Had he switched sides? Even if he had, it would not be wise to antagonise him. His grasp over his powers had always been good, and although she had grown stronger over the years, he had once been amongst the mightiest of the High Mother's servants – and one of the most faithful also. Just like Lightning.

"Yes, it has been quite some time." Fang's eyes narrowed. "You are wise, Caius, so I will not waste words with you. Why can I feel the High Father's power upon you? Are you with him?"

Caius was silent for a long moment as he took her measure. Around them, she could feel his power gathering; it made the very fabric of reality around them shake. "And if I am?"

"Then I would ask why." Fang's expression darkened, and all about them, the winds kicked up. "You know what he tried to do. You know why Lightning struck him down. You were once one of the High Mother's most beloved children, what has he promised you to buy your loyalty?"

Caius lifted one hand and Fang tensed. Over his hand, an image appeared of a young, blue haired woman dressed in a simple white dress with flowers tucked into her hair. Fang stiffened. She knew that woman, or at least, she'd known her.

"How many tears have you shed for Lightning and her sister?" Caius waved his hand and the image vanished. "Too many to count, I think. Yet have you spared even one for Yeul? You remember her, I hope, the mortal chosen by the High Mother to be her prophet and voice amongst the people." His brows furrowed. "Do you have any idea what it is like for a mortal to touch the mind of a god like the High Mother? I do. I watched as the Yeul suffered, her soul all but extinguished like a candle before the storm of the High Mother's power, and for what? So the High Mother could have yet another poor soul to spread her message?"

"Is that why you have betrayed us, Caius?" Fang murmured.

"I watched Lightning, Fang, for I understood her grief best of all. Three times, you could say she lost her sister: once when she became a mortal, once again when that mortal died, and a third time when Averia fell." Caius snarled. "She loved her sister. I love Yeul! But where Lightning lost her thrice, I have lost Yeul a dozen, no, more than a dozen times! And now, if that were not enough, Yeul no longer hears the voice of the High Mother. Now, all she hears are the echoes of the High Mother's last tormented cry. It is suffering without end, sorrow without cease, and I will not stand it any longer. I love her, but even if she were my worst enemy, I would not suffer her to live in such agony."

Fang's mind went at once to the Old Days. Caius had never been social, even then, but always he had seemed on pleasant terms with the High Mother. How long had it taken for this madness to build? "And what can the High Father offer you?" Unbidden, her mind went once again, to the words she had exchanged with Lightning so many years ago. "You know his promises are lies."

"To Lightning perhaps, but not to me." Caius smiled thinly. "I will free Yeul from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, and I will quiet the voice of the High Mother. The High Father can do these things for me."

"He cannot!' Fang roared. "Have you forgotten what happened when we cast Cocoon to the ground? You were there, Caius! You know that he spoke falsely to Lightning. You know what it would cost to do what you want."

"And that is the difference between Lightning and me." Caius shrugged. "Lightning could never stand the thought of her sister despising her, and so she could never accept the High Father's terms. Trade the world for her sister? Serah would have hated her, and so Lightning turned away from the High Father. But I am different, Fang. I do not care if Yeul despises me. I do not care if she curses my name. So long as she is free, so long as the cycle of death and rebirth is broken and a new order is put in place, then I can bear her hatred, would bear it gladly. As the one ordered to stand watch over her for all eternity, that is the least I can do."

"You are mad." Fang shook her head. "You cannot weigh Yeul's life against the lives of all other mortals."

"I can, Fang, and I have." Caius folded his arms over his chest. "Leave. We were allies once, so I will permit you the chance to live. Trouble me and the High Father no more, and we shall spare you."

Power gathered around Fang, and suddenly the air beneath her turned a deep, bloody red. A shadow covered the moon, and darkness gathered in a vast, swirling maelstrom below her.

"Come forth," she murmured. "The spear that can pierce the heart of the world, the lance that no enemy can withstand. I call you, name you, and bind you to my will. Come forth, the God-Slaying –" Caius pulled something from the folds of his cloak, and she froze. "Impossible…"

The other god smiled and held up a vibrant, glowing crystal that shone like a small star. "You had best stop there, Fang. You know what this is."

"The Heart of Etro…" It was the very core of the High Mother's being. Only once before had she seen it, tumbling through the sky after the Fall of Cocoon when the High Mother herself been lost, her powers expended in a last, desperate bid to limit the damage the High Father had done. "Where did you get that?"

"She was the one who told me to take it." Caius smiled. "For I was her favoured son, and you had your Yun to watch. I was to tend it and gather enough power for her to be reborn. Of course, there are other things such power might be used for."

"I will kill you for this treachery." Fang gathered her power again. "I swear it, Caius."

"Perhaps you should worry more about Oerba."

"Their walls will never fall." Fang snarled. "No mortal power can destroy them, and you are a fool if you think I will let you bring them down."

"True, if we were to fight, I do not know which one of us would win. But even weakened, there is one far stronger than you." He closed his eyes. "High Father!"

Fang gasped. Above them, the sky tore. This was no mere side effect of the High Father's power, the way Caius's appearance had slowed down time. No, like the High Mother, the High Father was an impossibility given form, a being so incalculably powerful that the world itself bowed to the force of his will. And like the High Mother, the shape he wore – an old man's – was nothing more than a shell, a means of concealing a power so tremendous that to see it clearly would drive even a god to the brink of madness.

But there, in the sky above Oerba, she caught a glimpse of the swirling, seething chaos that was the High Father. The old man was cast aside, and in its place was a vast, limitless span of gleaming metal wrought in thousand different shades. Imbedded in it were countless faces, their mouths opened to give voice to endless hymns of praise to the High Father.

"It is said that no man can tear down the walls of Oerba." Caius allowed a small smile to cross his lips. "But a god is another matter entirely."

And from the maelstrom that was the High Father, there came a sound like a million peals of thunder all at once. It echoed not in her ears, but in her soul, and in that instant, she realised that she had been fooled. As she and Caius had talked, the Cocoon army had moved away from the city. Caius had planned this all along.

There was a flash from the maddening chaos of the High Father, and Fang felt a blast of raw, world-shattering power streak toward Oerba. It was a power she had not felt in centuries, a power that could boil oceans and crush mountains. It was the power of the High Father, and before it, nothing mortal could hope to endure. And if that was not bad enough, she could sense in the distance, but growing swiftly closer, a dragon with two riders on it. Vanille, her companion and Bhakti. The blast would destroy not only Oerba, but everything around it as well. A young dragon like Bhakti would have no chance, would be nothing more than a leaf in a storm, cast aside and broken upon the ground, if the blast did not simply consume him and those he carried in mid air.

"Caius!" she spat.

But the purple haired man merely glanced down at Oerba. His meaning was clear. She could strike at him and the High Father, but that would mean leaving the city to its fate. And he knew what she would choose. He had known since the moment they'd met. In a blaze of divine glory, she raced down and landed upon the walls of Oerba where the blast would land.

"Run!" she shouted to the mortals who had dropped to their knees in awe at her appearance. "Run far and run fast!"

And then she turned her eyes to the sky. A second sun was falling, a brilliant, blinding sphere of raw heat and power. It raced down toward Oerba, growing larger with each moment, until it was almost as large as the city itself. Gathering all of her power, Fang rose up to meet it.

The blast hit her head on, and she cast her power out in all directions to contain it. But it was like trying to catch the sun. It was too big, too strong, too much for her to overpower or throw back. All she could do was stand in its path and hope to weather its storm in place of the city. White-hot light enveloped her, and the whole world faded, replaced by a tempest of radiance and fury that dwarfed anything she'd ever endured. She had grown stronger over the years, but even weakened, the High Father was still beyond her.

On and on it went, an endless conflagration of might and thunder that tore at the air, the sky and even her soul. Step by step, it forced her back, and she felt it strain to reach the city behind her. It was growing, building, roaring and then it exploded, and all she could do was throw all the power she had left at it in a desperate bid to save as much of the city as she could.

The blast lit the sky, and for a moment, the night was as bright as day. She tumbled down, carried on the shockwave of the explosion, until she was thrown through the walls of the city with enough force to carve a trench more than a mile long. But even as the entire eastern wall of the city collapsed, she felt a stab of triumph. The wall had fallen, but the city still stood. Oerba yet remained.

And then the darkness closed in, and she knew no more.

X X X

Author's Notes

As always, I neither own Final Fantasy, nor am I making any money off of this.

First of all, my apologies for making you all wait so long. It wasn't quite as bad as the four month delay last year between two of the chapters, but I had hoped to get this out sooner. Second, congratulations for making it this far! This is the longest chapter to date (I think), and anyone who made it through (especially in one sitting) deserves a hug and a marshmallow.

So, where to start? This chapter is one that I've been hinting at for some time. At last, we have the conflict between Cocoon and the clans, and at last the High Father shows his hand. The choice of Caius as his helper was a very deliberate one. Caius's past in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is similar, in some respects, to what I've put Lightning through in this story, so I decided to play up on that angle and make his ordeal similar to Lightning's by having him love Yeul and constantly have to watch her die and be reborn as Lightning has watched Serah die and be reborn. The difference, of course, lies in something Caius hints at. There are some things Lightning will not do because she could not bear it if Serah hated her. Caius, however, is willing to do anything to 'save' Yeul.

I couldn't resist giving Caius the Heart of Etro here either. Honestly, giving Caius the Heart of Chaos in Final Fantasy XIII-2 must be one of the most questionable decisions I've ever seen a supposedly superior being make (what was Etro thinking?), but here I've given it an alternate purpose and a more plausible reason for being in his possession. Unlike Lightning who (it's already been implied) rebelled, Caius seemed faithful to the last. In many ways, he is everything Lightning could have been, and that's part of what shakes Fang so badly. She's had this conversation before and it did not end well.

And about this chapter's ending… yeah. Please, put away your stakes and pitchforks. If you kill me, I can't write the next chapter. And speaking of the next chapter… man, I have seven thousand words of material that got cut from this chapter, so hopefully that next chapter won't take as long.

As for Vanille… I wanted this chapter to showcase some of her growth. She's still unsure of herself, and she's still got a lot of room to grow, but there's nothing like a crisis to speed things along. And she gets it. Cocoon is unified, the clans are not, and as long as that remains true, Cocoon will always be a threat. That's why I like writing scenes with her and the elder. There is such a contrast there between them, yet at their core, they share many of the same beliefs.

With regards to the other clans, we really don't know too much about the other clans of Gran Pulse, so I decided to kind of borrow them from elsewhere. You'll probably recognise them, but in case you didn't, I'll go over each of them quickly.

The Wutai and Yuffie are taken from Final Fantasy VII, in which Yuffie really is the princess of Wutai, and Godo really is her father. She has the same mischievous sort of personality here as in that game, but instead of getting motion sick from travelling in vehicles, I thought I'd let her get motion sick on a chocobo. Tifa is likewise from Final Fantasy VII, and she comes from Nibelheim, which is near Mount Nibel. As for the Zangan – that was the name of her martial arts instructor, but here I've used it to describe a whole clan of people who practice a philosophy not dissimilar to that adopted by some of the older martial arts from eastern Asia.

Zack and Cloud are also from Final Fantasy VII, and I chose to make them 'tainted' Cetra based on the events in that game. In Final Fantasy VII, Jenova crashed on Gaia, creating what would come to be known as the North Crater (where Zack and his people come from in this story). Jenova was later mistakenly identified as being one of the Cetra, and Zack and the other SOLDIERS in Final Fantasy VII were injected with her cells. As the creator of the Cetra (in this story) and the last of the Cetra in Final Fantasy VII, I thought it was only fitting for Aerith to battle Jenova in the distant past of this story, resulting in the creation of Zack and his people.

Lucil and Elma are from the Chocobo Knights in Final Fantasy X and the plain of Mi'ihen is a reference to Operation Mi'ihen, the ill-fated attempt of several parties to destroy Sin, which resulted in most of the Chocobo Knights being wiped out. The Al Bhed are also from Final Fantasy X, and while I'd planned on including Rikku, the chapter was already enormously long, and I thought the universe might implode if Vanille, Rikku and Yuffie ever gathered in the same place at the same time.

Last, but not least, Squall and Rinoa are from Balamb Garden in Final Fantasy VIII. The description of their clan as being fairly mercenary is a reference to their occupation as SeeDs.

Whew.

Finally, you can find working links to my deviantART and blog in my profile, along with links to eBook versions of the first four chapters of Ordinary Heroes. I plan on doing the same with the other chapters, and I'm currently on the look out for cover art. Let me know if you're interested. I also plan to release an eBook of original short stories in the next few months (most likely on Amazon), and I want to practice getting all the formatting right. You'll find a few extras in the eBook version of Ordinary Heroes too (like a character bio for Diana and some notes about the story). Let me know what you think.

As always, I appreciate feedback. Reviews and comments are welcome.