I’ve written more than enough for a Chapter 2, so here you are.
I’ve been taking an extended break from this game because it is pretty much literally drugs to me, but I’m getting back into it cautiously, mostly with a project to record MSQ for my friend who can’t currently play the game but who I know would love it. I’m playing through as a Xaela she designed, over on Coeurl. It’s pretty quiet, there don’t seem to be any gold-sellers! : )
4.2 drops at some point next week, and literally the only question I have is “DOES NASTROND STILL SUCK”? For an ultimate attack, 330 potency is pretty lame. Of course I’m happy to hear about the new glamour wardrobe (it sounds like it might be a bit like SWTOR’s cosmetic outfits, and I’d be okay with that), and the Fractal Continuum HM, and BRD can play piano now, and you can sort food by ilvl, and new minis and emotes and haircuts. BUT DID THEY FIX NASTROND
New characters! I haven’t played either of these guys in the actual game yet because I’m still playing with my first 5 characters lol.
Kekeniro Liliniro is a Lalafell Ceniro expy, a SMN (who’s dating an ARC Lala named Lilidi). Multiclassed to CRP and CUL. Favourite summon: Garuda.
R’nyath Tia is a BRD/RDM who can also play AST and ALC if prodded. May have a crush on Y’shtola, Rinala, and Lord Hien.
Chapter 2: Primal Dreams
“There you are, my friends!” Thancred greeted them from the shade of a tree. “So good of you to come.”
“Did you hear about Sister Ourcen?” Achiyo asked, her concern for the woman still colouring her tone.
“Indeed, I did,” Thancred said. “Isembard said her wounds were serious. It would seem my suspicions about the poor rose were misplaced.”
They certainly were! Rinala thought in a huff. Really, sometimes Thancred could be such a jerk. And he didn’t even apologize about it.
“But false though they were, perhaps my suspicions were not entirely without merit. Whilst following Sister Ourcen near the Golden Bazaar, a band of Amalj’aa caught my eye. I tracked them as far as this encampment, but… Well, let us say that I would much prefer to keep my distance and remain here. This, of course, brings me to why I requested you, my friends. Would you be so kind as to take a look inside?”
He wasn’t even going with them? Was he lazy? Was he testing them?
But Achiyo nodded, and Chuchupa clapped her hands roughly in anticipation.
When they returned, leaving a trail of mayhem and Amalj’aa blood behind them, it seemed like he hadn’t even moved. But when Tam presented him with a piece of paper that looked like it had not been written by the Amalj’aa, Thancred produced an entire sheaf of similar papers. Understanding blossomed in Rinala’s mind. He’d used their head-on attack as a distraction, so that he could search the camp himself, unnoticed! Clever!
Then, back at Camp Drybone, came the next part of the plan. “Our suspect has been posing as a priest, using leaflets bearing false promises to lure the poor. Let us all serve like with like by posing as impoverished souls in need of succour. We shall need to disguise ourselves in old worn garments…”
“Er…” Achiyo said. “I’m not sure that will work. I’m quite recognizable, and the villagers have surely seen me running about in full armour for this investigation the last few days.”
Thancred looked at her, then frowned suddenly. “I suppose you are right. The single Au Ra presently in Eorzea, a blue-haired Miqo’te, and a pink-haired Lalafell… You don’t quite look like Ala Mhigan refugees. It will fall to Tam and me to do this, then. I shall inform the Waking Sands. A moment, my friends.”
He stepped aside, his hand to his ear, and a few minutes later, returned, smiling. “Good news! We have sufficiently nondescript reinforcements. We have but to wait a bell for them to return to Horizon, as they will be Teleporting.”
At the appointed time, there were two flashes of light near the aetheryte, and a male Lalafell and male Miqo’te appeared, already dressed in appropriately shabby clothing. They approached Rinala’s group and the Miqo’te bowed, and the Lalafell waved. “Greetings!” said the Miqo’te. “I’m R’nyath Tia, and this is Kekeniro. We just joined the Scions yesterday, at the behest of Yda and Papalymo.”
“My apologies for my absence, and welcome to our order,” Thancred said. “My name is Thancred, and this is Rinala, Achiyo, Tam, and Chuchupa.”
“We only joined last week ourselves,” Achiyo said. “Pleased to meet you.” The Miqo’te winked at her and she blinked back with a confused look.
“I understand that we’re to present ourselves as newcomers looking for work, and follow up on anything that might lead to a kidnapping?” the Lalafell said softly, sweetly. He didn’t seem to be acting, but those big grey eyes looked so earnest and trusting, she already believed he was a refugee. Either he really was good at acting, or he was a natural.
“Aye,” Thancred said. “Tam and I will be joining you, as you can see.” He nodded to the three women who were staying behind. “We’ll meet at the inn when we’ve discovered something, or at sundown.”
“Don’t go getting in fights without me,” Chuchupa warned them.
It was a clear night by the lake; Chuchupa had pitched a rough shelter but none of the group was using it. Rinala was sitting on the edge of the ledge above the water, dangling her feet in the air. Tam was leaning against a tree, and Chuchupa was sprawled on the flattest bit she could find, arms and legs outstretched. Kekeniro, the Lalafell, was talking quietly to Tam about the investigation. R’nyath had climbed the tree. Rinala and Chuchupa had wrapped their brightly coloured hair in turbans, but it was harder to recognize them anyway in the dim light.
And Thancred also decided to sit by the edge of the lake. How happy she was! “You seem much more confident now than you did when we first met.”
“Mayhap,” she answered, her happiness slightly dimmed. “I’m still adjusting, but I’ve… gotten better.” No, that was a lie, but she had to pretend. The Amalj’aa had attacked as soon as they saw the group, but her new friends had torn through the Amalj’aa defenses, killing many and wounding more. As a citizen of Ul’dah, she’d been taught the Amalj’aa, as beastmen, were little better than beasts themselves, but they still talked, didn’t they? It wasn’t the same as killing a ravening animal, even if they looked like it. She’d wanted to run, to stop the fighting somehow, but that would be cowardly, to leave her friends to get hurt without her, wouldn’t it? So she’d stayed, and tried not to be disgusted at the slaughter. It wasn’t a luxury she could afford. She wondered if the others were bothered too. She thought Achiyo might be.
She would hardly describe it as confident, but it was necessary if she wanted to remain with the Scions, maybe even save the world as Hydaelyn had charged her.
Now, why was she being introspective while Thancred was sitting by her and talking to her!? “You said you were from the Silver Bazaar, did you not? I have been curious, what drew you to Gridania?”
“For conjury’s sake,” she said, glad to be on safer ground. “I always wanted to heal, but I couldn’t learn that in Ul’dah. My parents saved and sacrificed a great deal to be able to send me to learn how to fulfill my dream.”
“And a worthy dream it is. The Scions are grateful to have you. Y’shtola is also a white mage, but the more, the merrier!”
“Y’shtola is very kind,” she said. No-nonsense, slightly impatient, but always happy to share her knowledge with Rinala. “All the Scions are so very kind.” Especially you…
He smiled as if he knew what she was thinking. “You’re watching the stars, are you not?”
Rinala returned the smile brightly, she couldn’t help it, then returned her gaze towards the celestial dome. “I love how brightly they shine here. In Gridania, there are too many trees, too many clouds. I’ve always loved them, but I appreciate them more now.”
“Tis your Moon Keeper aspect, no doubt,” Thancred said. “The stars shine in those blue eyes of yours like few others.”
Rinala blushed brightly and hid her face. “Er… ahn…”
“Well, now, the stars don’t shine in your ears quite the same way…”
Her tail stood up straight and she pouted at him, still blushing horribly. “Th-Thancred no baka…!” He chuckled.
The Lalafell, Kekeniro, coughed, and they all scrambled up to see a man in somewhat dirty priest’s robes approaching them.
The four of them had been captured by the Amalj’aa, overwhelmed with numbers, inundated with sleep spells, and now they’d been brought – unbound and still armed, as if the Amalj’aa feared nothing from them – to a wide canyon before a lizardman leader with ornate headdress. But if they were still armed, there was at least a chance they could fight, right? They wouldn’t be slaughtered defencelessly, sacrificed to the Amalj’aa’s god. The leader offered up prayers to Ifrit, to an orb above them that looked like the sun eclipsed.
The orb erupted into flame, and from that flame burst out a terrifying demon, horns and hide glowing like the cracked skin of a volcano’s mouth. Flames flickered in its jaws, and its eyes were almost too bright to look at; so descended Ifrit, Lord of the Inferno. “Pitiful children of man! By my breath I claim thee! Arise once more as my loyal minions! Feed my flames with thy faith, and all who stand against us shall burn!” Achiyo stepped in front of Rinala, her shield at the ready, though what could it do against a primal? The demon-god roared, blue flames blossoming in its jaws, before lunging forward, and a wave of blue fire swept over them all.
Rinala screamed and flung up her hands to guard her face, before she noticed that although warm, the flames did not burn her. In fact, they didn’t seem to do much, dripping from her arms and pooling around her feet. It was the same with Tam, Achiyo, and Chuchupa, and they exchanged confused looks.
But the Flame soldiers were not so unaffected, stumbling forward towards Ifrit as in a dream, mumbling platitudes of worship. Rinala looked at them with concern, but found she had enough to be concerned for herself, as Ifrit ignored his new followers and turned his baleful gaze upon they who resisted. “Thy frail mortal frame can serve as vessel to the blessing of but One. Yet I smell not the taint of another on thee… The truth of thine allegiance waxeth clear – thou art of the godless blessed’s number.” What did that mean? She believed in the gods, same as everyone else… “The Paragons warned of thine abhorrent kind. Thine existence is not to be suffered.”
“I could say the same of ye!” Chuchupa yelled, brandishing her axe. The demon roared, and a ring of fire sprang up around them, trapping the four of them in with it.
“On your guard!” Achiyo cried. “Chuchupa, Tam, we must fight! Rinala, stay back and heal us!”
“R-right!” Rinala said, seizing her cane and casting Protect upon them. How were the others so fearless in the face of certain death? Could she be the same?
Her eyes hardened. She had to be. The others were counting on her. Her job was easy in comparison. Achiyo was standing firm with raised shield as fire-breath rained down on her; Tam and Chuchupa attacked Ifrit’s flanks. The primal’s hide was thick and armoured, and their weapons nigh bounced off without inflicting injury. Rinala kept her staff high, channeling her aether, keeping Achiyo free from burning.
Ifrit gave a swipe of his tail, knocking Chuchupa from her feet. Rinala turned to heal her, when she noticed the ground beneath her growing fiercely hot. Tam had seen and even as her eyes grew wide, he ran to her, scooping her up with one arm and depositing her upon ‘safe’ ground even as the patch of earth where she had been standing erupted like a volcano. Panicking slightly, she stumbled to her feet and cast Medica – there were too many things going on to keep up with just Cure! Chuchupa dashed past her, yowling in pain and anger, apparently trying to hack off Ifrit’s tail, ducking under its swings. Ifrit had swung a mighty claw at Achiyo, who was holding her ground with sword and shield, but only just.
The flames were growing hotter, and Achiyo was beginning to look very grim. If this continued, they’ll all burn to death without even the monster’s intervention. As if to prove her point, the ground around the edge of the ring burst into flame, shooting up pillars of fire. She could hardly see anything through the bright clouds of flame. But Ifrit wasn’t finished, turning away from Achiyo and suddenly bursting into a lightning-fast dash across the ring, and again, and again. Rinala screamed as it turned to her, and she ran with all her strength to the side. She wasn’t run down by a giant flaming god, but the searing wind of its passage knocked her onto her face.
“Here!” Achiyo shouted, throwing her shield in a last-ditch attempt to turn its attention away from Rinala. It worked, striking the demon in the horn, and Ifrit stomped towards her, spraying fire as it came – fire which she didn’t have a shield to guard herself from anymore. Rinala cast healing spell after healing spell, hoping to spare Achiyo at least some pain.
Chuchupa scooped up the shield and tossed it back, and Tam came charging through, his white lance poised to strike. Recklessly, all three warriors pressed forward, and Tam’s lance pierced the demon’s eye.
Ifrit bellowed in fury and pain, collapsing chin-first before them with a mighty thud, and exploded into a cloud of rapidly dissipating aether. After a moment to check that it really was gone, Rinala fell to her knees in weary, joyful relief, as Achiyo sheathed her sword, Tam gave a low chuckle and a twirl of his lance, and Chuchupa pumped a fist in the air.
She’d braced herself for the idea of battle with Ifrit as she could, but she hadn’t truly been prepared for it. Even now, that it was over, her heart was pounding a million malms a minute, and she could feel her knees and her hands and her tail shaking. They were all drenched in sweat, and Rinala felt like she was going to faint just from the residual heat and the cessation of alarm. They’d survived. They’d survived, and they’d won-!
Tam was just picking up something from the ground – another crystal? – when: “Pray forgive my lateness!” came a welcome cry from behind them, and the four of them turned to see Thancred sprinting through the canyon towards them with Kekeniro, R’nyath, and a number of Flames in tow, who spread out to deal with the stunned Amalj’aa and their prisoners. “I was delayed by a congregation of Amalj’aa zealots. I swear, each seemed more evangelical than the last.” His warm smile, as he jogged the last distance up to them, did much to dispel Rinala’s remaining nerves, and she began picking herself off the ground.
Then alarm washed over his face, just as Rinala heard a deep guttural growl from behind her, and Thancred moved. Leaping over her and the Amalj’aa behind her both, twisting in the air, he seemed to float above her; she heard the knives bury themselves in the Amalj’aa’s chest but she hadn’t actually seen anything. It was too fast, though all her attention was on the soaring white-haired man.
Thancred nailed the landing, a compact collection of wiry muscle and pure masculine beauty, turning to face her as the beast collapsed to one side. “Hmph! Persistent lot! I apologize, Rinala, I should have seen him sooner.”
“I apologize as well, Rinala,” Achiyo said, eyes wide. “I let my guard down too soon.”
“N-no apology necessary,” she answered breathlessly, staring at him in awe. By the Twelve, she was about to swoon; he had stolen all her breath away. Let the others laugh, she loved him madly. And this was the third or fourth time he’d saved her, too! She would have to get stronger if she was ever going to repay him.
“I see the Bloodsworn wasted no time in extracting the captives,” Thancred was saying, to the four of them at large now. “No less than I’d expect from the Flame General’s handpicked men. But I owe all of you an apology. If I had but known this mission would prove so dangerous, I should never have left you to face it without me. You have been given a veritable baptism of fire.”
“N-no, it’s fine,” Rinala assured him. Gods, would but that her voice was stronger.
“You had your own enemies to fight,” Achiyo said. “Rinala’s right. We all took our risks. What if your end had proved the more dangerous?”
He nodded. “Fair point. What say we continue this discussion in more agreeable surrounds. Camp Drybone?”
“Aye,” Tam said. “After you, then.”
As they approached Minfilia’s office, Rinala’s ears pricked up – she could hear Thancred speaking through the slightly opened door. “My late arrival nearly cost Rinala and the others their lives. I wasn’t there when the Amalj’aa took them prisoner… And I wasn’t there when they served them to Ifrit… Yes, by some miracle, she- they survived, but that does not excuse the fact that they should never have had to face such dangers alone. I could have brought them reinforcements, I could have stopped it. I failed them utterly. …Just as I’m failing you all…”
He sounded so upset, so despondent, and it wasn’t true, any of it! Just because she was inexperienced… Just because he had been delayed, through no fault of his own… Why did he think he was failing? He was marvellous!
“What’s done is done, Thancred. You can ill blame yourself for every-” Minfilia sounded troubled in turn, but Achiyo chose that moment to push open the door, and the young Antecedent turned to them with an instant bright smile. “Achiyo, Rinala, Tam, Chuchupa! It is so good to see you again!”
Thancred, too, smiled warmly at them, sincere enough that she almost ceased to worry. “Impeccable timing, my friends. I had just finished regaling Minfilia with your heroic exploits.”
Minfilia nodded. “Thancred has told me everything. You have done well to return to us.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like an explanation of the primals and how they work,” Tam said. “I was promised ‘later’, and this seems a good time.”
Minfilia nodded. “Very well.”
Rinala listened attentively as well, though she couldn’t help but watch Thancred’s expressive face as he aided Minfilia in her explanation. Her ears perked up as Minfilia explained that the reason the four of them had remained untempered was thanks to the Echo – thanks to Hydaelyn’s crystal that she carried on the behalf of the four of them, perhaps? She felt for it in her pouch and was reassured that it was still there, along with the scarlet one Ifrit had left behind.
“We know not the why of it, but those blessed with the Echo are immune to primal influence,” Minfilia said. “It is as though a greater power protects us… When you first came to us, I told you that the Echo would be instrumental in dealing with the primal threat. I trust you now begin to see why.”
“The recent incidents all share a common trait: meticulous planning,” Thancred said. “Such elaborate designs are a new development, and one which fills me with an unshakable sense of foreboding.”
“While I share your concern, my presiding feeling is one of relief at your safe return.” Why did Rinala get the feeling that Minfilia had very deliberately chosen to turn the subject there, breezy smile and all? “Ah, the Immortal Flames assured me that they will deal with the aftermath, so you need not concern yourself with that. We may rest easy for a time. I suggest you all take full advantage of the respite.”
“Ye don’t need to tell me twice,” Chuchupa said, grinning.
“You may be sure it won’t last long. Once the people learn the identity of the heroes who felled Ifrit, I fear you will have nary a moment to yourself!” Minfilia beamed conspiratorially at them, and Achiyo laughed, while Rinala blushed.
As Minfilia stepped away towards her desk, Thancred walked slowly towards the door, but paused near Achiyo and spoke to them in a low voice. “Whether she intended to or no, Minfilia neglected to tell you something – something I think it would be best you heard from one of us. It concerns the tempered abductees that were rescued… I am sorry to report that all are to be put to death, the Flames with whom you were imprisoned included. Needless to say, this information must not be made known to the public.
“Oh no!” Rinala exclaimed softly. “Is there no other solution?” The captain who had fought beside them, the plucky thaumaturge, the young soldier who’d tried to warn them of the Amalj’aa shaman casting sleep – they were all to die for something not their fault?
Thancred shook his head regretfully. “I swear to you that we would not do this if there were any other recourse – but once a man is tempered, he is tempered for life. His very existence lends strength to the primal whom he cannot choose but worship.”
“How awful,” Achiyo said. “They were good men, and now they are not themselves…”
“And so we Scions continue our fight, that no more innocents need be sacrificed. I hope that you will continue to stand with us, all of you. And now I must away. I must offer my apologies to the Flame General for the losses his people suffered. Till next time!” He waved smartly and headed out the door, but paused in the doorway. Rinala was about to turn back to Minfilia when she heard something that made her prick up her ears again.
“Gods forgive me…” Thancred whispered to himself. “How many more lives…? Louisoix would never have allowed this to happen. I have to do better… I have to be stronger…”
She had turned to look at him, and so had Tam, but Achiyo and Chuchupa had not noticed, it seemed. Thancred finally left, and though Rinala moved with the others to speak with Minfilia, she felt her heartstrings tug her away, in his direction.
She waited for several bells at the Waking Sands, until Thancred had returned. Tam and Chuchupa had gone off somewhere, hunting perhaps, and Achiyo was talking with Urianger, but Rinala was waiting for Thancred on the front steps, where Tataru couldn’t quite see her.
He looked weary, and dusty in a way that only came from riding a chocobo across Western Thanalan. But he smiled to see her. “Good evening, my lady. Enjoying the evening sea breeze?”
“Yes, but I was also waiting for you,” she said, hoping that didn’t sound very embarrassing. “I wanted to talk to you about something?”
He blinked at her, still smiling politely, and her heart was still beating a little too hard. “How can I be of service to you?”
She looked down and away, hoping this wasn’t too incredibly forward. “I… forgive me, please forgive me, but I heard you say something before you left that… I don’t believe you meant for anyone to hear, but-”
He smiled – cautiously, but gently. “Would you walk with me a moment?” He gestured invitingly, and she followed him quickly. “I’m afraid I hardly remember what I said as I left. My mind quickly turned to the task ahead of me, and I forgot it.”
“You said Louisoix wouldn’t have let this happen, that you needed to be stronger.”
His forehead wrinkled before she could continue. “It’s true, however. I don’t suppose you ever met my old teacher? He was the greatest teacher anyone could ever have. I owe him everything…”
“I never met him, but I know of him, and I respect him greatly. He saved us all, and the world is poorer for his loss… But, but, Thancred-” She stopped on the dock and turned to him, hands clenched. “You are strong.”
He shook his fluffy white head. “Not strong enough. If you had died… I’d never forgive myself. It was at my suggestion that you all ended up in that situation.”
“Bak- You already rescued me four times! I must get stronger, not you. You’re so brave, and skilled, and clever, and you never hesitate to do what must be done, no matter what foes you face.” She had to drop her gaze again. “I’m none of those things. But I worry for you – doubt is a deadly enemy, and that you doubt yourself… I hate it.”
She wasn’t expecting him to pat her on the head, and started in surprise. His hand was gentle, and she leaned into it as he stroked the top of her head. His fingertips were slightly rough with callouses, but they and the smooth leather of his gloves still glided over her straight blue tresses. “My dear Rinala, I appreciate your sweet concern, very much. But please, don’t worry so for me. I must work harder… but I’m up to the challenge, believe me. Though you sell yourself short, you are no less brave and skilled… I’m quite looking forward to seeing how strong you are when you believe you are strong.”
She didn’t quite believe him, but then he began to scratch gently at the base of her ears and she forgot whatever she was going to say, closing her eyes and curling her tail in pleasure. It felt incredible; no one had ever done that before, and she could feel a great tension draining out of her. She couldn’t help a tiny moan, and heard him chuckle. “Does that feel nice?”
“Very,” she managed to say. “Well. I shall try to do as you say… but if I can help with anything… I’m a Scion, too…” It wasn’t very convincing when her eyes were crossed under her closed lids, but she did mean it, and she hoped he knew it.
“I will let you know,” he promised, and ended his ear scratches, to her slight disappointment. “What say you we find something to eat? I’m rather famished.”
The group was at Min Khetto’s Ampitheatre in Gridania, attending to Kan-E-Senna’s speech on unity, when Tam glanced down and saw the silver-haired twins standing beside them. The one with the blue hair-tie exchanged a glance with him, a cool measuring glance that sparked Tam’s interest immediately.
After the speech, the young… androgynous person turned to him. “If you’ll permit me. Alphinaud.” A young man, then, from the voice. The other one looked away and pretended not to hear. “…And my sister, Alisaie, at your service.”
“Tam, at yours,” Tam said, raising one eyebrow. “I recall you from my first coming to Gridania.”
The boy nodded. “You might call us students of history, sampling the realm’s remembrances in pursuit of… enlightenment.” The girl snorted but made no word.
“And what enlightenment have you found?” Tam inquired.
The boy took a rather deep breath and launched into a detailed analysis of the woes of Gridania and its conflict with the beast tribes that dwelt within its borders. “Whether the Gridanians like it or not, sooner or later it will come to all-out war. And when it does, the Order of the Twin Adder will need all the help it can muster. How valuable might the aid of a capable adventurer prove to them then?” He gave Tam an arch look.
“How valuable indeed,” Tam murmured, amused by Alphinaud’s subtle unsubtleties. The socio-political run-down was exceedingly useful, however. He would have to keep an eye on this one.
In the crowd assembled on the steps of the Royal Promenade, Rinala waited with bated breath and glowing face for Raubahn and Sultana Nanamo to appear. When they did, the crowd cheered them, and Rinala with the crowd.
Raubahn nodded to the Sultana, then turned to the crowd and flung his arms wide. “Hark you, souls of flame, drawn to the bosom of the desert, where the fire burns brightest and shall rage forevermore! Where since antiquity, under the sage and judicious rule of the Ul Dynasty, we have wrought sand into gold! Where by the Grace and Glory of Nald’thal have our brave sons and daughter flourished and prospered – I speak of Ul’dah!”
Rinala squealed, overcome with patriotic pride and joy. She listened to the rest of Raubahn’s speech, of those lost at Carteneau, of the people’s duty to the future, with brimming eyes and a full heart. At length, the General turned and knelt to the Sultana. “Your Grace.”
“Raubahn,” returned Nanamo, and he bore her up on his arm until all could behold her. “People of Ul’dah! I, Nanamo, seventeenth in the line of Ul, address you. Much has been made of the wealth of Ul’dah. Yet those who measure that wealth in coins and carats are gravely deceived. For the true wealth of Ul’dah lies in the health, happiness, and hopes of her people. Beloved subjects, I bid you raise aloft the torch of Ul’dah, that her Flames might serve as a beacon for all Eorzea to see!”
Yes, yes! Rinala cried in her heart. It was all true, all of it! It was what she fought for, what had inspired her down her current path.
“For Victory and Fortune, stride fearless into the inferno, for we are by fire reborn!” Raubahn cried, and as the crowd cheered again, turned and walked back into the Royal Palace with Nanamo still on his arm.
“Fancy meeting you again,” said a young, haughty, smug voice, and Rinala immediately began edging away through the crowd, her tail lashing. She wouldn’t let the teenage Elezen ruin this moment for her, she couldn’t! She’d let Tam deal with it, he didn’t seem to mind, but oh! She already disliked the youth, so very much. And it seemed entirely possible she’d have to see him at the Limsa Lominsa ceremony as well. Why was he so interested in them?
Rinala caught up with Thancred in the front hall after the mission debriefing, after Tam and R’nyath had returned with a Roegadyn named Biggs and a Lalafell named Wedge. “Hello!”
“Hello,” he said, absently, but smiling at her.
She tilted her head curiously. “Thinking about something?”
“Hmm? Oh, pay me no mind… Something’s come up in my investigation, and I’m wondering how to proceed…”
She nodded sagely. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Mayhap Y’shtola can help. Is that a new necklace? I hadn’t seen it before.”
He blinked and hesitated, just the tiniest bit. “Yes, yes, it’s quite new.”
“Can I see it-?” She leaned over, one hand raised to her collarbone shyly; she might touch it if he let her, it would be the closest she’d ever been to him-
“No.” He reached up to cover it protectively, something wary and almost hostile in his face. Rinala drew back as if he’d slapped her, and they stared at each other for an instant. Then he seemed to recover himself and offered her a little smile. “No, I’d rather you didn’t. But thank you for noticing.”
She managed a confused smile in return. “Okay. You’re welcome. I was going to get food, but if you’re thinking about things, would you like me to bring you something? Then you don’t have to go anywhere…”
“Thank you, but I’m quite all right. You go on, my dear. I’ll eat when I’m hungry.”
“Okay,” she said, and left, a little more quickly than normal. Something in his smile hadn’t seemed quite sincere…
They all met outside of Gridania, ready to ride to Little Solace, each mounted on their new, Grand Company-issued chocobos. Except Tam. “Finally, you can all keep up with me,” Tam mock-grumbled. “What took you so long?”
“Chocobos are expensive! My family couldn’t afford one!” Rinala protested.
“I like my own feet on the ground,” Chuchupa grumbled. “Rather have ’em on solid earth, or a swaying deck, not hanging off an overgrown bird.”
“I’m new to Eorzea,” Achiyo said. “Horse-bir- chocobos weren’t a priority.”
“So where’s yer chocobo?” Chuchupa demanded.
Tam shrugged, with a strange sigh. “I didn’t get a chocobo. It’s just my luck, I suppose. Or fate. The creatures just seem to follow me wherever I go…”
“I don’t understand…” Achiyo began, then stopped as Tam whistled and out of the woods stepped a beautiful ice-coloured equine with a single horn on its head. “A unicorn? That’s what they’re called, yes? How lovely!” Rinala, too, exclaimed in delight.
“Of course the Elezen gets a unicorn,” Chuchupa said.
Tam shook his head. “I tell you, they can’t leave me alone. But enough of that. She loves me, so I’d better treat her well. Little Solace, was it? That’s a few hour- bells ride, so we’d best be off.”
“I’ve never been there,” Achiyo said. “I look forward to it!”
“Wait,” Chuchupa said. “We have to… dance…? Like, actually? I thought that guy was kiddin’!”
“Leave it to me!” Rinala sang, twirling elegantly. “I can do it!”
“All walking ones have to dance if walking ones want to talk,” the little sylph said firmly, but it seemed to be holding back giggles.
Chuchupa groaned long and loud. “I hate ye all.”
“I’m totally ready!” Yda proclaimed. “Papalymo, you better be ready, too!”
“Oh dear,” Achiyo said. “I’m afraid I’ll trip over my own feet… Rinala, please help me!” She’d rarely had time for dancing in her past, and the dances in her… homeland were very different from dances here, anyway…
Tam snickered. “Just move your feet rhythmically. There’s nothing to it.”
“Says the preternaturally graceful Elezen,” Achiyo retorted.
“You’re graceful too,” Rinala assured her earnestly. “And you have rhythm. Don’t doubt yourself so! And don’t think too hard about it.”
“Ain’t ye gonna praise my rhythm, too, dance queen?” Chuchupa said, fluttering her eyelashes at Rinala.
“Ah, er, yes, but you didn’t seem interested-”
“Doesn’t the word ‘assume’ make an ass out of ye and me?”
“Hush,” Achiyo said, concentrating. Her dance was slow, but she could sort of imitate Rinala’s steps. Yda was somehow artlessly graceful, twirling and skipping happily, and even Papalymo was doggedly going through the motions. Rinala was lovely to watch, and she had no idea how Tam even did it.
“I hate ye all,” Chuchupa muttered, shuffling with the rest of them in front of the sylphs.
The sylphs beamed and giggled at them.
“I’m glad that’s over,” Chuchupa said, in their bunks at the Hawthorne Hut. “My hair still feels sticky from that green goo!” While running about the catacombs of Toto-rak, Chuchupa had slipped from a sudden blast of wind and landed on her back in a puddle of the stuff that coated the lower labyrinth of the tunnels. She’d washed everything thoroughly, but apparently to no avail. “All that running about for no good purpose, and even that fighting was so boring. Except for the big bug at the end, the one the Ascian pulled out of his arse. I hope Minfilia has a more interesting mission when we get back.”
“I’m sure she will,” Achiyo said. “But we succeeded, that’s important. If we had not… it doesn’t bear thinking about. I’m concerned about what Lahabrea said… What have we gotten into?”
“Eh, shite would have gone down, we’d have saved everyone’s chestnuts in a different way, whatever. More importantly, Rin’s going back to her beloved Than-Than.”
“Oh, hush! Hush!” Rinala protested, blushing horribly and hiding her face in her blanket. The others laughed, though it was not unkind.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Achiyo assured her. “Love is wonderful, though I’ve never truly felt it myself. Not romantic love, at least.”
“Nor I,” Chuchupa said. “Hope I don’t. Turns folk into fools.”
“It looks more frustrating than fulfilling,” Tam said. “Though those are the words of an eternal bachelor. You seem the type to fall in love easily, though.”
“Nnnnnn!” Rinala wailed, tail thrashing, and they laughed at her again.
“I still haven’t seen much of him besides that time we worked with him in Thanalan,” Achiyo said. “Would you tell me more of him?”
“Oh gods, don’t get her started,” Chuchupa said.
“Well,” Rinala said shyly. “He’s – you’ve seen how beautiful he is, and how strong and quick in battle. He’s so terribly kind, but he can also be an awful awful tease – sometimes I almost hate him, he’s so frustrating! He seems nice, and then he seems mean, and the Echo told me he flirts with many girls, not just me… I get so confused… But he’s good at heart! He’s fighting so hard to protect everyone, and he doesn’t think he’s strong enough, and he just wants everyone to be happy!”
“You’ve got it bad,” Tam commented.
“I do!” Rinala wailed, and then sighed dreamily. “I want to go dancing with him. I imagine he’d be a good dancer. And to ride across Thanalan on chocobos together, the wind in our hair, and I want to feel him scratch my ears more, and just… nyahhhhh…”
“And mayhap do some horizontal dancing too, no?” Chuchupa couldn’t help calling out
Rinala looked at her, confused. “What does that mean? Dancing is-” And suddenly she figured out why Chuchupa was leering at her, and she squeaked and hid under her blankets; she was never coming out, no, no, never, mayhap she’d imagined how kissing him would feel, but she hadn’t gotten to- to that, but now that Chu mentioned it, wouldn’t it be amazing? She’d never experienced that before, but with Thancred- His finely muscled Hyuran body- Oh gods, now her body was on fire, she was never coming out from under her blanket or they’d see how badly she was blushing forever.
“Chuchupa,” Achiyo scolded. “Those are lovely, harmless little dreams, Rinala, and I hope he fulfills them all and more. You are a kind, brave, lovely woman, and any man would be glad to have your esteem.”
“Th-thanks,” Rinala mumbled. “I hope you’re right.”
“Now let’s sleep,” Tam said, “so we can actually arrive in Thanalan in one piece tomorrow.”
Back at the Waking Sands, they had given their report and received a new assignment, that of investigating the Ascian, Lahabrea, whom they had met in Toto-rak. Minfilia had given them all of Thancred’s reports on Ascians in general, as he was attempting to track down the group as a whole, but since Lahabrea had shown such interest in the Crystal-bearers, the Crystal-bearers were going to show an interest in him.
Except Chuchupa, who had been summoned by the Maelstrom to the frontlines at Carteneau for a few days. She grumbled half-heartedly, eager to fight but reluctant to leave, but Minfilia bade them all not to worry, as she would send R’nyath with their group. Apparently he had the Echo as well.
In the evening, they met at the Pissed Peiste, the tiny tavern in Vesper Bay, for a time to relax and celebrate the conclusion of their mission. “Ahhh, the elixer of joy!” R’nyath exclaimed, settling into his chair at their table. “Good work, good drink, and beautiful people to share both with, life is grand.”
Kekeniro chuckled. “I’m afraid that while my lass fits the latter description to a T, her absence means I cannot wholly commiserate with you, my friend.”
“Oh, do tell us about her!” R’nyath said, as the serving maid brought them a round of drinks to begin. “I did not even know there was a woman in your life.”
“Oh gods,” Chuchupa muttered, and buried her face in her drink and immediately ordered another with a wave of her hand.
“I don’t talk much, that could be why,” the Lalafell said, looking into his drink solemnly. “But as you will… Her name’s Lilidi, and she’s a hunter; right now she’s gone to the Sagolii in search of challenging prey.”
“Perhaps we will meet her in Little Ala Mhigo,” Rinala said, trying to remember her geography. “It’s not that far away, is it?”
Kekeniro shrugged. “With all of Zanr’ak in between, perhaps farther than it looks on a map.”
“She must be very brave, going on her own,” Achiyo said.
“Yes, she’s very brave,” Kekeniro said, smiling involuntarily. “And sweet, but with a spirit of flame and a temper to match.”
“Ah, that I could love a woman with a spirit of flame!” R’nyath sighed, raising his mug in an impromptu toast. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a spirit of flame, and be available, would you?” he asked Achiyo with a teasing glance.
“I’m afraid my aspect runs more towards water,” Achiyo answered. “I only know a little of your Eorzean gods, but I’ve been told my patron would be Nymeia, the Spinner.”
“I can adapt,” R’nyath said instantly. “Mine own patron is Nophica! Do you like art? I know several painters in Gridania who would be honoured to capture your ethereal beauty.”
Achiyo laughed and waved him away.
“Really, you’re going to flirt with the leader of our group?” Kekeniro said disapprovingly. “Do recall that we must all work and fight together, and without distraction.”
“I’m the leader?” Achiyo murmured in confusion.
“Ah, so you suggest I should rather set my gaze upon our darling conjurer?” R’nyath answered, winking now at Rinala.
“B-baka!” Rinala squeaked, trying to hide behind Achiyo’s chair. “Y-you’re worse than Thancred!”
“I thought that was your type,” Tam drawled, and Rinala really turned crimson and hid under the table with her tail lashing.
“Now, stop that,” said a firm, no-nonsense tone, and they all looked up to see Y’shtola standing with crossed arms and a slight frown. “Let us all enjoy ourselves, shall we?”
“Yes, ma’am,” R’nyath said, with an innocent look. “As penance, I’ll buy us all round two.”
“Round five for me, ha,” Chuchupa said. “All this talk o’ lovers and sweethearts makes me want to be sick more’n the ale.”
Y’shtola snorted, but sat down on Rinala’s other side, between her and Tam, and gave Rinala a kind look.
Rinala hadn’t drunk much in the way of strong spirits before, as most Gridanians drank beer, and she stared as Tam made his way through what seemed to her an extremely large tumbler of whiskey.
He grinned at her. “Kitten wants a shot?”
“What? No! I was just-”
“What are you suggesting?” Achiyo scolded Tam.
Tam shrugged and sipped some more. “New experiences, my young friends.”
Achiyo ignored the Elezen and turned to Rinala. “Actually, there was something I was wondering about – why, or how, do you know the word ‘baka’? I haven’t heard anyone else say that since I left Doma.”
“Doma? I thought ye were from Hingashi?” Chuchupa asked.
“Yes, but I was in Doma most recently.”
“Well, that’s easy,” Rinala said. “There were two siblings at Conjurer’s Fane whose parents were from Doma, and they called each other that all the time.”
“Ah, I see,” Achiyo said, laughing.
“And I was wondering… am I the youngest one in the group?” Rinala asked. “I know I’m really young – I’m nineteen – and I don’t want to be a burden.”
“I’m twenty-seven,” Achiyo said. “You’re no burden. We couldn’t do this without you! What about you others?”
“Twenty-nine,” Chuchupa said, belching.
“Twenty-four,” Kekeniro said.
“Twenty-eight,” Y’shtola said.
“Twenty-fiiiive!” R’nyath sang out.
Everyone looked at Tam, who was faintly but unmistakably smirking. “Taaaaam,” Rinala said. “I know you’re older, but you’re Elezen! They’re longer-lived anyway.”
Tam snorted. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“Come now,” R’nyath said. “Forties? Fifties? Your ungreyed hair suggests not sixty.”
The smirk grew into an evil grin. “I think that’ll be my secret for now. Just enjoy your youth, I’m told you only get one.”
Everyone looked at him in confusion, until Kekeniro turned quite deliberately to Achiyo. “If you don’t mind, I’m curious about your homeland. Would you tell us what it’s like?”
“I suppose I could… Hingashi is a very green land, home to many ancient traditions…”
Achiyo and Tam met with the sun-haired youth near the cliff, and he gave them grim looks, though his words were courteous. “Thanks for coming, friends. ‘Tis no ordinary outsider who can gain the trust of the old bear. That’s why I wanted to meet you, to discuss something in private.”
“Well, here we are,” Achiyo said, attempting to be pleasant. Rinala and R’nyath had stayed behind at Little Ala Mhigo, hoping to hear more from others who lived there.
Wilred’s gaze sharpened to a glower. “Tell me… why are you snooping about? Did the Empire send you? Or someone else?”
Tam snorted, and Achiyo stared at Wilred, open-mouthed. Did he not know what the Empire had done to Doma? What they threatened to do to Hingashi?
But those burning brown eyes… so much defiance there, so much passion… she could respect the young man, even if he was completely wrong about her.
His lip curled. “Coeurl got your tongue? Hmph, no matter. Whoever it is you work for, your meddling ends here. Get them!” Half a dozen other Ala Mhigan men jumped from behind a rock and attacked them, with old swords, lances, brassknuckles. “I won’t let you foil our plan!”
Achiyo had her shield out, but Tam had skipped the defensive and was already moving to attack, smacking the boys in vulnerable spots until they dropped their weapons and fell back.
Wilred’s expression had turned to apprehension. “Y-you’re stronger than you look…” Then the fire reignited. “This changes nothing! Threaten us, beat us bloody all you like… but nothing short of death can make us give up our fight! We’re going to obtain the power to bring down the Empire, and with it we’ll reclaim our homeland!” He waved to his followers and fled, not back to the settlement, but further into the waste.
Achiyo watched him go. “He does not seem wicked… I hope for his sake that death does not come as quickly as his oaths fall from his lips.”
“Aye,” Tam said. “He could be a fine leader, once he grows up a… decade or so.”
“A decade? Is that how slow Elezen perceive time?” Achiyo asked, amused. There had been few Elezen in Hingashi, and she knew as little of them as Eorzeans knew of Au Ra.
“To be honest, I don’t know,” Tam said.
Achiyo gave him a confused look, but filed away that thought for later. “Let us return to speak with Gundobald.”