jack_of_none: ([FF4] Spoony Bard)
Jack of None ([personal profile] jack_of_none) wrote in [community profile] hardmode2011-08-01 03:37 am

Fic - Melody for Monsters - Final Fantasy 4

Title: Melody For Monsters
Author: [personal profile] jack_of_none
Media Creator: [personal profile] suzume
Word Count: 14962
Fandom: Final Fantasy 4
Characters/Pairing(s): Edward, Rydia, Cecil, Rosa, Golbez, Kain, the Dark Elf, Leviathan, Ifrit, the Mist Dragon, various others.
Rating: PG
Warnings: Some violence
Summary: AU. Leviathan takes Edward to the Feymarch along with Rydia. Alone in a strange world, Edward tries to come to grips with himself and maybe -- just maybe -- prove his presence there is more than just a terrible mistake.
Author's Note: Sorry this is a couple of hours late D: A million thanks to Suzume, who really went above and beyond!

Edward hit the water hard, and it knocked the breath from his lungs as though it were solid rock. He choked, panic welling in his throat, and managed to swallow a lungful of air before the surging of the ocean dragged him down. He was sinking, but he had the presence of mind to tear his waterlogged cloak from his shoulders and flail upwards. His hands splashed through the surface of the water, and struck something cold and slick — something wooden, wrapped with rope. He grabbed the rope with all his strength and hauled upwards until his head was above water and he could gasp for air, leaning heavily on the piece of wreckage. The piece of wood was solid and rounded — Edward realized, with hopelessness starting to tear at the edges of his mind, that it must have once been part of the mast. The ship was only so much flotsam now. Edward strained to hear if there were voices — anything to indicate that he wasn’t the last one left alive — but everything was drowned out in the all-consuming noise of the sea.

So this was how it ended. He was going to drown, or die of the sun and thirst, clinging to a shattered piece of mast in the middle of the ocean. It would be easier to let go, sink into the ocean, and become another nameless corpse at the bottom of the sea. So much for Damcyan, so much for Lady Rosa’s rescue, so much for the world.

The wet rope cut into his palm like a handful of nettles, and his grip was starting to slacken. Edward reached out, groping for better purchase, and his hand brushed something that yielded. He drew in a shocked breath and forced his eyes open. Through the tangled curtain of his hair and the blurry swell of his own tears, he saw her clinging there — eyes screwed shut and face pale, but very much alive.

Carefully, Edward closed the fingers of one hand around Rydia’s tiny, white-knuckled fist. She was trembling with the effort of holding on to the mast; he shifted his weight and tightened his grip around her wrist, and he felt Rydia’s fingers slacken a bit, the tension relieved slightly by his assistance.

She opened her eyes. Letting go, giving up and drowning, was no longer an option. Even if they both died out here, the poor girl didn’t deserve to die alone.

“Edward…” she croaked, and he realized he could hear her perfectly well. The roaring of the sea had settled into a sudden, eerie calm — a threatening quiet, like the silence of an owl’s wings.

A shadow came between them and the sun. Spray fell on Edward’s face, and he looked up to see a wall of shimmering scales, and the silhouette of a monumental head, its mouth open in a deep and wordless cry.

“Oh, god,” Edward half-sobbed. “Oh god.” Rydia’s hand moved under his.

“It’s only a monster,” he heard her say. “Don’t be afraid.” The shadow turned, dived, and there was water and blackness and, between them, teeth as tall as a man.

* * *

Edward drifted in and out of consciousness, never knowing if the blackness around him was part of his waking or his dreaming. When he thought he was awake, he felt Rydia’s arms wrapped around him as tight as they could go, and heard the roar of something around him taking slow, rumbling breaths. Whatever he lay on was rough and wet and yielded like flesh. The shattered bit of mast that lay between them had been torn away and Rydia had curled up against him. He made a half-hearted attempt to be comforting — reaching up once to stroke her hair as though soothing a crying child — but terror and exhaustion and pain made his efforts less than successful. Besides, her breathing was steadier than his. She might as well have been asleep in bed.

He couldn’t tell how long they lay like that until the light burst into his eyes and whatever carried them spilled them out unceremoniously onto a floor that felt like the tangled roots of a great tree. Edward tumbled head over heels, lost his grip on Rydia, and landed heavily on the ground. The strain on his injured leg sent a lance of fiery-white pain arcing up his side, but his throat was too raw to even scream. He heard Rydia — at least he thought it must be her — struggle to her feet beside him as he lay there, panting helplessly.

He always thought it would get easier — that some day, he would run out of fear to feel, or perhaps he would simply move beyond the need for it. In the month since Anna’s death — since everything he knew had been destroyed — he had never once stopped feeling that fear, but he had learned to choke it back and soldier on, to move forward despite the trembling in his heart.

Still, it took all of his courage to simply pry open his eyes and look.

The light in the chamber was an unearthly blue that came from no lamp Edward could see. Rydia, sitting up, was haloed by the unnatural light. They both lay before a man in green-blue robes with a long grey beard and flashing eyes. The man’s beard and hair was as wet as Rydia’s, but his clothes were dry.

“Rise before the Lord of All Waters, mortal.” The voice that rang out was echoing and as vast as the sea, and Edward could hardly believe it came from the wizened figure in front of him.

“I can’t,” Edward managed. His leg wouldn’t hold his weight, he knew. Something — he had the vague notion, again, that it was the man in the robe with the waterlogged beard — rumbled angrily.

“Your Highness,” Rydia began, but she was interrupted.

“Stand down, caller. No mortal man not of the lineage has ever set foot in the Feymarch until now. If you hadn’t been so closely entangled I would have left him in the sea, but regardless, he is here now. That must be remedied.”

“Master Leviathan, please —“ Rydia, with obvious difficulty, hauled herself to her feet and tilted her head up to look the kingly old man straight in the eye.

“Move aside, child of Mist. His presence disgraces this land.”

“What will you do if I move?” Panic welled in Edward’s throat — he knew how this ended. It hadn’t been so long ago when someone else he cared about had stood between him and danger. That time, he’d been allowed to live. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that he would be so lucky a second time, and the thought of Rydia meeting that same end…He couldn’t face it. He’d rather die himself.

“Rydia, don’t,” he begged, but she didn’t seem to hear him, or else she was deliberately ignoring his words. The old man loomed over her, and Rydia seemed so very small in comparison.

“I will return him to the ocean,” the old man said.

“He’ll die if you do that.”

“That is not my concern.” The old man shrugged, a languorous movement like the waves on the sea. “The ocean takes who it will. Stand aside.”

“And if I don’t?” The old man fell silent.

“Rydia,” Edward hissed. The words tore a painful passage along his salt-raw throat, but he forced them out regardless. “Don’t protect me. Just…let it go, please. I’m begging you.“

“I know why you brought me here,” Rydia said, putting her hands on her hips and raising her voice to drown out Edward’s protests. “Edward’s my friend. If you send him back out there to die, I refuse to train.”

“You cannot refuse,” the old man said. His robes lashed around his feet like a serpent’s coils and his eyes were alight with anger. “You bear the blood of Mist in your veins. It’s your destiny, caller.”

“I’m the last summoner in the world! What are you going to do without me?” Rydia snapped, then seemed to remember who she was talking to. Edward saw her hands clench into tiny fists to keep them from trembling as she bowed her head, suddenly conscious of where she was. “With all due respect, Master Leviathan, Lord of All Waters.”

“So you say,” Leviathan rumbled. “And yet you still do not stand down.”

“That’s my bargain, Master Leviathan,” she said. “Take it or leave it.” Rydia was clearly trying to sound brave, but Edward could hear her voice falter. He closed his eyes again, and waited for Leviathan to push Rydia aside — or worse — and kill him.

So this is how it ends, Edward thought miserably. Here, as far from Damcyan as I can possibly get, with a little girl prepared to suffer on my behalf.

He waited for death, but it never came. Instead, he heard Leviathan sigh.

“You leave me with no choice, summoner.” Someone kneeled next to him, and Leviathan’s voice was suddenly much closer. “Know this, mortal man — I care for the duty of the last summoner of Mist, not your insignificant life. Get him out of my sight, caller.”

Rydia’s small hands wrapped around his damp forehead. “I’m sorry about this,” he heard her whisper. “I’m sorry for everything.” She spoke a word in the strange tongue of magic; Edward felt the tingling, static-spark feeling of power playing across his nerves before the sleep spell took hold and he knew no more.

* * *

Edward awoke in a bed, which was a genuine relief. He hadn’t been expecting a bed after lying on the unfamiliar, root-like floor of Leviathan’s chamber, but he was happy to be pleasantly surprised. The blanket wasn’t of any fabric he recognized — it was something like silk, but not quite — but it was comfortable enough, and when he opened his eyes he could see the darkened outlines of familiar objects — tables, chairs, shelves of books and long, thin candles. The scent in the air was heavy and acrid; it reminded him strongly of a time in his childhood when he’d been part of a diplomatic envoy to rainier climes. A thunderstorm had crashed down upon the castle, and when Edward climbed to the ramparts to see the unfamiliar weather up close, a lightning bolt had struck the flagpole close to where he stood and sent him scurrying back to his quarters. It was the same smell — like the wind itself had caught fire.

Dimly, Edward could hear something. A buzzing that he had initially taken for his own ears ringing suddenly redoubled in volume, as though something were approaching him. Edward hauled himself bolt upright in bed, his whole body tensing up, but the figure that hovered through the room’s only door was small and delicate. The creature crossed into the candle light and he could see a body human-shaped but scarcely larger than a cat, with insect’s wings that vibrated almost faster than he could see. The creature wore no clothing, but its flesh was smooth and featureless. It had a face that was something like a human child and something like a furless fox, with sharp black eyes and a wild nest of white hair. It caught sight of him, cocked its head with a jerky motion like a bird, and flittered over to his bedside.

“No, no, no, no,” the creature said, in a voice like a songbird forced to speak. “No, no, you must rest. You mustn’t get up yet.”

“I wasn’t planning on—“ Edward began, but the creature put a doll-like finger to his lips and shushed him. Its skin was cool and dry, like paper.

“Rest,” the creature repeated. Edward blinked, and then moved his damaged leg experimentally. It was stiff and sore, but the searing agony was gone. Clearly he’d been healed while he was asleep.

“I want to go out.” The creature looked at him like she didn’t understand what he was saying. “I think I can walk. I’d very much like to try.”

The creature flew up to over over him, looking directly into his face. The monster’s were solid black and glassy, and Edward could see himself reflected in them, distorted by the curve.

“You mustn’t,” the creature said. Its head began to dart to and fro. “Really, you mustn’t. You’re unwell.”

“I think I’m—“ Edward was interrupted by the creature spinning suddenly in the air and producing a lilting chirp. The air ignited in a cascade of harmless sparks, and a warm breeze washed over him, taking away the last vestiges of a headache. It was so very unlike the white magic he had seen before that it took him a moment to recognize the process as a healing spell.

“Thank you,” he said, rubbing his temple where the throbbing in his skull used to be. The creature looked bewildered by the gesture.

“Rest,” the creature repeated, in a firmer voice this time. Edward sighed, laid back onto the bed, and resigned himself to the monster’s attentions. At the end of the day, perhaps it wasn’t much different from an overbearing court physician.

Whether by exhaustion or the creature’s magic, he drifted back into sleep again quickly, and dreamed of drowning, black armor, and arrows that struck true.

* * *
Edward drifted in and out of dreams that were half nightmares for a long while, until he was jolted awake by the sound of footsteps. Footsteps weren’t something he’d heard in a little while, so he risked the tiny, childlike creature’s smothering attention to sit up. His head swam — he’d clearly been sleeping a long time. He felt as though he were still underwater.

“You’re awake?” Rydia said, peering around the door. She looked tired, but unhurt, and Edward felt flooded with relief from a worry he had only dimly realized he was carrying. She trotted to his bedside and Edward nearly threw himself out of the bed in his haste to gather the girl into an embrace. “Hullo,” she said, not bothering to disentangle herself.

“I just…I’m glad you’re alive,” Edward murmured, before finally releasing his grip on Rydia’s shoulders. She perched herself on the edge of the bed, letting her feet dangle.

“Did you think I wouldn’t be?” Rydia said, furrowing her brow. Edward closed his eyes.

“You really thought Leviathan was going to kill me for bringing you here,” she replied. It wasn’t a question.

“It didn’t seem like an unreasonable assumption.”

Rydia smoothed the blanket next to her. “They wouldn’t.” She sounded so certain; Edward envied that certainty. “At any rate I’m glad the sylphs have taken good care of you.”

“I’ve heard of sylphs.” Edward shook his head. “I never knew that fairies were quite so…fussy.”

Rydia chuckled at this. “That’s sylphs, all right. Normally they don’t like humans, but once they latch onto someone, they’ll act like he’s the most important thing in the world.”

Edward thought about the songs he’d sung during his days in the desert — ballads about handsome young men or pretty maidens stolen away to the spirit world, kept for a year and a day, and returned with diamonds tumbling from their eyes when they wept or stripped of their ability to tell lies. He bit his lip. “When are they going to allow me out of my bed?” he asked. Rydia shrugged, as though it were an inconsequential question.

“When I tell them to let you go. They’ll listen to me.”

“I thought you said they don’t like humans.”

“They like summoners,” she said. “Oh, I came down here to bring you this.” Rydia held out a small cup of something warm that smelled like flowers. “It’s a kind of tea,” she explained. Edward hesitantly lifted the cup to his lips and took a sip. It didn’t taste a bit like tea, but it was warm, and pleasant enough.

“They’re alive, you know. All of them. The queen showed me,” Rydia said, when he had finished with the draught.

“Alive?” Edward repeated. Rydia nodded earnestly.

“Cecil and Yang, at least. They’re still floating.”

“Still? It’s been days!” Rydia shook her head.

“For us. For them, hours. Maybe less.”

Edward was silent a long while as he attempted to piece together what Rydia was saying. This, too, he’d heard of in stories — sorcerers who had gone to commune with monsters and returned a century hence, only to crumble into dust when their task was finished and their age caught up to them. “So time is different here.”

“Yes. The Queen can see them, though it’s hard. We’ll know how they are, at least. How they’re doing.”

“And can we help them? Can we go back?”

“Not until I’ve learned how to be a true caller.” Rydia’s face was alight with a combination of eagerness and nervousness, the anxious anticipation of a child first learning her father’s trade.

“How long will that be?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Years, maybe.”

“Years,” Edward repeated numbly.

“For the others it will only seem a little while,” Rydia said, swinging her feet. “Not a great deal will happen.”

“And you might be grown by the time you see them again.” Edward laughed bitterly. “It’ll be years before we see another human being that isn’t each other, you know.” Rydia shrugged, as though the matter were inconsequential.

Edward wondered what sort of songs Rydia had heard about fairies in Mist, and whether they involved strange bargains, gilded cages, and abduction in the night.

* * *

The next morning, Edward awoke with the sylphs nowhere to be found. Cautiously, he slipped from between his blankets, swung his legs over the side of the bed, and slipped to the floor. He was so unused to walking that he wavered for a moment, slipped, and was forced to steady himself on the bedpost, but after a moment of trying he was able to ease the stiffness from his legs and press forward. The healing, at any rate, had gone smoothly — he was certain his leg had been shattered when he arrived, but now there wasn’t the slightest twinge of pain. He found his clothes folded on a table across the room, cleaned and mended; he gratefully slipped out of the soft robe the sylphs had apparently put him in and dressed again in his bright minstrel’s finery, though minus the hat and his customary coat. There was a cloak of ragged grey hanging over one post of his bed, and he wrapped it around his shoulders without a second thought. It was clearly made for someone — or perhaps something — much larger than himself, but with the hood drawn up it hid his features well enough.

Edward’s fingers twitched as he reflexively reached for the harp case at his side — a harp case that was no longer there. With a growing desperation gnawing at his heart, he cast about the room. There was no sign of it. Surely that would be the first thing Rydia brought to him if it had been recovered, wouldn’t it?

He hadn’t seriously been expecting that his harp had survived the wreck of the Fabul ship when he had only barely done so himself. A harp was a fragile thing, far more so than a human being, and deep in his heart he’d known it was doomed the instant he’d slid from the deck and tumbled overboard into the churning salt water below. Still, in the hazy days he had spent in the sylphs’ cottage, he had found himself longing to make his harp sing again, to feel the smooth lacquer and taut strings resonate with music. He’d prayed, beyond hope, that Rydia’s king of monsters would have found it and spared the instrument, even if he had seemed unwilling to spare Edward himself. There were, after all, much finer men in the world than himself, but there was hardly a finer harp.

Edward bit his lip, pulled the oversized hood far down over his face, and pushed into the street before he could dwell on it further.

In all his days of singing ballads about fell beasts and fairy maidens and tricky djinn kept in bottles by clever summoners, it had never occurred to Edward to wonder what the strange netherworld of spirits actually looked like. There was much about this place — the Feymarch, Rydia had called it — that reminded him of a human city. There were houses carved apparently from solid masses of soft-colored rock. There were wide pathways that served as streets, all suspended like catwalks over a vast, inky blackness in which Edward sometimes imagined he could see points of light, like stars. Above him was a dome of rock, like the interior of a cave, and from his vantage point at the door to the Sylphs’ home Edward could see where the catwalks twisted into the sides of the cavern and merged into odd grottoes, limpid pools of still water, and alcoves of sharp volcanic glass.

Everything was upside down — the sky was beneath his feet, and the earth was above him. Edward’s head swam, and he had to close his eyes to keep the dizziness from overwhelming him. He wondered how long it had taken Rydia to get used to it. Slowly, he picked his way down the winding stairs that jutted out over nothing, keeping his eyes on the road and his hand on the wooden rail that was built along the edge of the catwalk. It was a while before he encountered another living creature, and even then he was concentrating so hard on ignoring the vertigo-inducing chasm and monumental wall of rock above him that he nearly collided with it. Edward pulled himself up short, looked up, and found himself gazing at a great, horse-sized head, long and reptilian, with a pearly-white serpent’s body coiled behind it. Its eyes were sky blue and expressionless.

A dragon.

Edward kneeled. He didn’t know what else to do. The creature shook its crest and regarded him with one unblinking eye, its head turned to the side.

“I had not thought it possible,” the creature said. It drew back — recoiled, almost. “Leviathan allowed a mortal to walk in the Feymarch.”

“I…I don’t — ,” Edward stammered, his mind racing to think of something to say.

The creature’s forked tongue flickered out, and it made a noise that Edward imagined was disdain. Its form shimmered, evaporated into white vapor, and sank through the gaps in the thoroughfare, leaving Edward alone.

He wandered among the quiet houses for a while after that, winding his way downward to a grotto covered with fine green moss. There were monsters there too — things that wore human shapes but slipped them off like coats when they went swim in the grey, glassy water. He pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders, hid himself behind a stalagmite, and watched the creatures play for a while, slipping in and out of the pond and making a high-pitched keening noise that Edward eventually realized was laughter.

Edward sat there for quite a long time. He practiced his fingering without a harp on his knee, as he’d done when he was young and still learning his music, trying to remember what the clear tones had sounded like. It was a simple song he pretended to play, and half-finished — something he’d been writing for Anna to sing at their wedding, an unadorned melody to suit her beautiful but untutored voice.

He’d promised Anna that he’d live. “Love the world as you loved me,” she’d said, and whether it was a dream or a true vision didn’t matter. He wouldn’t dare give up again…but stranded here, mortal among immortals, without even a harp to keep him company and existing on the whim of a king who seemed to find his very presence a gross violation of natural law…

No, he couldn’t think like that. There was Rydia to consider. The monsters might defer to her, but she didn’t deserve to be stranded here all alone, trudging through her years of training without ever seeing another human face. Edward wished, bitterly, that Anna had met Rydia. He thought she would have liked the little girl. Growing up a wizard’s daughter had given her a healthy appreciation for such things.

Almost unconsciously, Edward started to hum the song he was picking out in the air. The creatures — human and serpent form alike — turned towards him, and hissed.

Edward turned and ran as fast as he could and did not stop until he found himself back at the door to the sylphs’ house, still half convinced that the water creatures were after him, with their too-wide mouths and their forked tongues lapping at the air.

* * *

“How long has it been?”

It wasn’t the first time Edward had asked the question. It had been a little over a month since his arrival, by Rydia’s estimate, and he asked how much time she thought had passed every several days. He had to trust Rydia in this regard, since without day or night the passage of time had quickly become a meaningless parade of sleeping and waking.

Rydia had a haunted look to her, with dark circles under her eyes as though she had been sleeping poorly. Edward spent most of his time in the house of the sylphs — if there was one thing that Edward knew, it was how to read a crowd, and even though the eidolons might not have eyes and mouths or even faces, there was still a palpable air of menace about them — menace, or disgust, or confusion. This was not his world. From the exhausted way Rydia carried herself, and the way she lit up at the sight of him, Edward was starting to suspect it was not truly Rydia’s world either.

“Three months, more or less.” Rydia said. Edward wanted to ask How much longer?, but feared she would push herself too much on his account. Besides, the answer was always the same — they’d return when they were needed. She always said ‘we’, but Edward knew she really meant herself — ultimately, the world needed its last summoner much more than it needed a dispossessed prince who still woke in the middle of the night reaching for a woman who wasn’t there. No, better to stay silent and wait.

Surely there was something better to do than that.

Edward pushed back his chair abruptly. “I think I’m going out,” he said. He gathered his oversized grey cloak and threw it over his shoulders. “Thank you, as always. For coming by.”

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. But I think that if I stay in this house any longer, I’m going to go mad. I’ve done little more than sleep when you aren’t around, these past few weeks.” He turned around and forced out a sheepish smile. “You can stay here if you like.” Rydia nodded, and laid her head on the table, closing her eyes.

“I might sleep,” she said wistfully, as though she hadn’t thought about the topic in a while.

He headed out into the half-lit streets without a glance back.

* * *

When Edward first met the Ifrit, he caught the smell of burning — a temple scent of smoke and incense and red-hot metal — before he saw the creature himself.

He’d hidden himself in the deepest corner of the Eidolon’s library. He’d only gotten in by keeping his head down and his mouth shut — most of the smaller eidolons, the little featureless white creatures that Rydia had termed ‘whyt’, avoided him as though he was carrying some kind of fatal disease, ducking out of his way as soon as they saw him. If he avoided the eyes of anything greater, Edward found he could move about the Feymarch capitol relatively unmolested, though his passing was certainly noted. That was how he’d managed to get inside the library — ordinarily there would be threats directed at him if he attempted to set foot inside a building that wasn’t the Sylphs’ quaintly human cottage, but he’d waited quietly in a back alley until there library’s foyer was haunted only by a pack of tiny, wide-eyed whyt-sprites that scattered when they caught sight of him. And there were eyes on him at all times — he could feel it. They were always unseen, but sometimes they let a footstep fall too heavily on the rooftops, or let their claws scratch on the rock. Their way of saying we are watching you.

He had no idea what about him terrified the whyts so much. He figured if he was going to find out, the library was going to be the place.

It took him upwards of an hour to find a book that was even written in something he recognized as a language, and even longer than that to find something written in a language he could read. Bright red, bound in snakeskin leather and set with some sort of dark metal inlay that was warm to the touch, the volume was easily the most beautiful manuscript Edward had ever seen. The language was old Damcyani, which by Edward’s time was only used for patriotic epics and proverbs quoted by old women, but he knew enough to pick slowly through the document. After a few pages, he realized he was holding a very finely bound old court record from his home country, speaking at length about the treaties between Damcyan and the summoners of Mist. He stopped reading for a moment, running his fingers over the page to feel the weight of the parchment. A relic of Damcyan — his home, his kingdom, the people he’d been expected to lead.

Edward bit his lip, biting back tears, before the scent in the air alerted him to the presence of a fully-formed eidolon.

The creature rounded the corner on all fours, then stood up to full height. Taller than a man and twice as broad, his bestial head was crowned with a pair of horns that scraped the library’s ceiling. White-hot flames licked his clawed feet and left scorch marks on the stone floor, threatening to reach up and ignite the rows of scrolls and volumes on the shelves.

Edward froze, feeling the heat on his face. He stared up at the creature, transfixed, nursemaid’s warnings from his childhood stampeding through his head. It’s midday, child. That’s the hour of the desert demon, the Ifrit. Stay out of the sun or he’ll burn you to ash and you’ll blow away on the evening wind.

“Mortal,” the Ifrit rumbled, in old Damcyani. Edward shut the book and fell to his knees, clutching it to his chest.

“Prince of Hellfire,” he said. It was an old title, from old stories mostly forgotten. The Ifrit licked his lips, smoke curling from between his teeth.

“The ways between your world and mine are muddied now,” the Ifrit went on. “It’s been so very long since I’ve seen a human who was out of his proper place.” Edward looked up, uncomprehending.

“Levia— the Lord of All Waters granted me pardon,” Edward stammered, forcing the words out. “The summoner Rydia — “

“Until she tests herself against me,” the Ifrit said, leaning down on all fours again, “I care not for the feelings of the summoner.” He shook his mane, scattering ashes. “I’ll give you the count of three to run,” the Ifrit went on. “It’s customary.”

Edward didn’t wait. He ran, with the Damcyani court record in his arms.

* * *

The edges of the Feymarch, where the roads bled into the caverns, became slowly more impassible the further one got from the center of the city. Edward picked his way between sharp stalagmites of dull green crystal, his way lit by phosphorescent fungi and the dim, humming glow of the floor ahead, where the stalagmites gave way to an uneven floor that shed bluish light.

Finally, Edward stood at the edge of the glowing floor. It was an unhealthy glow, making his flesh look corpselike. Cautiously, he lifted his foot and held it over the edge of the depression in the rock that contained the light like water in cupped hands. He felt something spark at the sole of his boot, and when he lowered it closer, a jolt of pain shot through his foot, startling enough to send him hurtling backwards. The pain vanished the instant he jerked back. He glanced around, but short of flying he could see no way around the glowing rock.

Very well. He’d find another way — there were more tunnels. Edward got to his feet — which, despite the sudden, jarring shock of agony, were perfectly uninjured — pushed a stray lock of hair out of his face, and looked around.

“You can’t go past it,” said a voice behind him. Edward whirled around; Rydia was leaning against a stalagmite, looking at him with her brow furrowed. “At least, not by walking.”

“You followed me?” Edward said, suddenly self-conscious. “I— I just wanted to see…”

“Why do you want to go out there, anyway? There are monsters out there.” Rydia cocked her head. “Did you think you could face them all alone?”

‘Rydia, there are monsters in here!” Edward snapped. She winced, and Edward instantly regretted his words. “I mean…” he began, but Rydia shook her head.

“No,” she said. “Go on.”

Even so, Edward hesitated a moment before continuing. “There’s a story in Damcyan…the tale of the oil-seller’s daughter. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it.” He looked to Rydia, who shook her head again. “Anna, she…she was fond of it. I used to sing it in the taverns at Kaipo when she came around, just to get her to look up from her books.” Edward smiled sheepishly, in spite of himself. “It’s about a beautiful young girl, the daughter of a rich merchant, who’s separated from her father’s caravan by a sandstorm. Trying to find her way back, she eventually reaches a palace that belongs to the three queens of the fey. She ducks inside to seek shelter from the storm, but once she’s set foot on fairy ground, the three queens refuse to let her leave until she has served as a handmaiden for a century.”

“What happened to her?” Rydia asked.

“By being very clever and very brave, she escaped the palace and returned to her father with an egg that hatched into a peacock that grew tail feathers of pure gold.” Edward sat down, pulled his knees to his chest, and set his head on them. “I suppose you don’t have that story in Mist.”

Rydia was silent for a long time, peering at him searchingly. “You think you’re like the girl in the story,” Rydia finally said. Perceptive, as always.

“And I’m neither particularly clever nor particularly brave,” Edward said, quietly.

Rydia bit her lip, and kneeled down in front of him until they were almost eye-to-eye.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“It’s not your fault,” Edward said. “Besides, I think you’re the only reason I’m alive, and all things considered…” He thought of Damcyan waiting in ruins, the survivors of the palace surely still looking for him; Tellah, searching for the man in black armor; Cecil and Rosa, cruelly separated; Yang, whose kingdom still reeled from the Air Crystal’s loss; and Anna, whom he did not want to disappoint. “I think I’d much rather be imprisoned and alive than another corpse at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Imprisoned?” Rydia said quietly. “Is that really what you think?”

“We weren’t exactly asked if we wanted to come here, and…” Edward looked around. “I can’t leave, and Leviathan has someone spying on me every time I leave the Sylph’s house. Spies that didn’t intervene when I…when I was chased by the Ifrit, so they’re clearly not for my protection.”

“Ifrit chased you?”

“Halfway across the city. Tore my cloak from my back and burnt it to a cinder.”

Rydia frowned, stood up, and held out her hand. Edward took it, and she pulled him to his feet as best she could. “Let’s go back,” she said. “I know the way.”

“What about the Ifrit?”

“He won’t hurt you. Not here. He only wants to scare you.”

“I could do with less of that.”

Rydia pulled him gently back along the path. “It’s how he is. Eidolons aren’t like humans, you see. It’s hard for them to change what they’re like.”

Maybe it was for the best, Edward thought, looking down at the little girl beside him. If Leviathan hadn’t taken him too, she’d be here all alone, stranded without another human face until the eidolons saw fit to set her free.

If they were to be imprisoned, better that they were imprisoned together.

* * *

Rydia was eight before Cecil was back in civilization, and it was around that time when she battled her first eidolon.

Though they talked nearly every day, Rydia did not see fit to keep Edward appraised of what, precisely, she did when she was training. He sometimes saw her reading from scrolls written in tongues incomprehensible to him, or watched her from a deserted rooftop as she called the elements one by one in front of a white-armed woman with a veiled head and a crown of gold on her brow. The woman, he learned from Rydia, was called Asura, the Queen of the Eidolons, and in her natural form she had four arms and three faces. He wondered, vaguely, if he had heard the song wrong, and the oil-seller’s daughter hadn’t met three queens but one single queen with three terrible heads.

It was nearly a year since their arrival, and little had changed. Edward had found a place he could practice his singing without being interrupted — a long-abandoned alcove of white marble on the outskirts of the Feymarch city. The little structure shielded his sight from the bottomless sky below his feet and the eidolons held what seemed to be a superstitious horror for the place, so he was able to hide there unmolested as long as he wanted. Besides, he liked the quality of the place’s sound. Rydia had also secured the Queen’s word that Edward could enter the library without fear, and though he was avoided and hissed at, he spent a great deal of time reading what books he could. How the little girl had talked the Queen into allowing such a thing, Edward had no idea, but he didn’t like to pry into Rydia’s business with the Eidolons. He had tried questions before and received very few answers that he had understood, let alone ones that explained things to his satisfaction. Besides, prying too much into Rydia’s training felt a bit like coming too close to an ancient and awful secret.

Once in the library, he’d read the Roll of Eidolon Lords enough times to have committed it to memory, and he knew all about the hallowed few summoners who had walked in the Feymarch before Rydia. Most of the books, however, were written in odd languages, and Edward was starting to worry about what he would do when he inevitably ran out of books in human tongues.

Between the reading and the singing, he wrote. Music, mostly — sometimes with lyrics. He had never been as confident with words as he was with the pure notes of his harp, but with no instruments to speak of, he needed something new to sing. His tiny room in the sylphs’ home was covered with sheets of parchment bearing precisely-arranged couplets and scribbled chords — lonely dirges, songs about love and heroes going off to war, something light and cheerful to make Rydia smile again. He’d re-written “The Oil-Maker’s Daughter” three times already, and the results were tacked above his bed. So far, he had not sung any of them where anyone could hear.

Beyond that, he slept — often he spent what felt like days in bed. Sometimes he even had pleasant dreams.

He wasn’t told that Rydia was going to be fighting. He only realized it when he wandered outside and found the whole of the city practically emptied, with only one or two stray whyts wandering about their daily business. Edward pulled one aside — something he hated doing, for he’d found they genuinely feared his mortality would be infectious and he didn’t seem to be able to convince them otherwise — and received the hurried explanation that the Honored Caller was to face the Lady of Winter today, in the center of the Feymarch city. Edward could not get more of an explanation than that, and he left exasperated.

There was a crowd of monsters there already, half wearing human forms and the rest shaped into all manner of beast and bird and creature unknown in the upper world. A solemn hush lay over the spectators, and Edward could hear the crackle of flame and the hiss of icy wind. In the center of the crowd, Rydia stood. She was armed with a whip — something that Edward had never seen her wield — and was panting with the efforts of keeping her magical flames alight. The creature before her was sleek and feminine — human-like, but pale blue and statuesque as though she was carved from a block of solid ice. They darted in at each other, exchanging volleys of magic. Above the melee, an old man with a great metal staff watched with impassive eyes. He knew both of these eidolons, from the books in the library. They were lesser elemental lords — Shiva the queen of ice, cold and fierce; and Ramuh the lord of lightning, impartial as the fury of a storm. The battlefield was a flat expanse of wood that served as a town square, broken only by several long pillars that tethered the square to the story above.

He pressed his way through the crowd, heedless of the stares and rough shoves. He watched, transfixed, as Rydia fought with every ounce of her strength to keep her feet against Shiva’s biting wind. She gritted her teeth against the cold; with one hand she cracked the whip inexpertly at Shiva’s feet, and with the other she worked the air into pale red fire. The eidolon ignored the whip but shrank back from the flame.

Rydia pressed forward, her hand still aflame. Shiva leapt into the air, much higher than her human-like legs should be able to carry her, and drifted nimbly behind Rydia. The little girl had only enough time to whirl around before the eidolon struck her full in the face with a blast of icy wind that knocked her clear off her feet and sent her hurtling backwards, where she collided roughly with one of the pillars.

At that moment Edward did something he hadn’t in months — he acted without thinking first.

He had shoved his way to the front of the crowd, and when Rydia struck the pillar, he leapt forward — past the clawing hands of the creatures beside him, onto the flat expanse of the makeshift battlefield. There was a murmur in the crowd, and then an uproar. Dimly, he was aware that this was probably a terrible mistake, but that was drowned out by a more urgent impulse.

He landed ungracefully on the flat surface of the arena and scrabbled to his feet, stumbling into a second leap to clear the intervening distance between himself and Rydia. In the same instant, Shiva lifted her wand and directed a horizontal blast of hail like a conductor with an orchestra. The hail battered Edward to his knees in front of Rydia, who glared at him in disbelief as he fell. What few hailstones had flown over Edward’s shoulders cracked harmlessly on the pillar and dusted Rydia’s hair with frost.

“Edward…” Rydia said, with a warning tone in her voice. Her eyes held a strange mix of pity and anger, a strangely complex expression for someone so young. At the moment Edward couldn’t remember a time in the last year where Rydia hadn’t seemed far older than she was.

Ramuh struck his staff against the floor with a resounding ring, like a temple gong with thunder in its wake. A bolt of blue cracked the air, struck Edward from above, and the world went white.

* * *

Edward’s eyes fluttered open at the feeling of white magic coursing through his veins. His vision was filled with Rydia standing over him, the frost swiftly melting off her hair. She was scratched and bruised — she clearly had the beginnings of a black eye — and she was scowling at him angrily.

“Why? Why did you do that” Rydia snapped, narrowing her eyes.

“I didn’t…” he began, then shook his head. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I just thought…it didn’t seem fair, that’s all. I wanted to help.”

“Didn’t seem fair” Rydia practically hissed, standing up and putting her hands on her hips. “You mean you thought I couldn’t do it!”

“That’s not what I meant!” Edward said, pulling himself upright. Whatever damage the bolt had done seemed to have been healed away. “I only—“

“Oh, shut up. You wanted to protect me. That’s all you ever want to do.”

“Rydia —“ Edward said, then trailed off when he caught Rydia’s eye. At eight years old, she already had a furious glare that could make giants quiver.

“This is my training,” she said. “You can follow me around all you like, you can watch and fret about it if you want, but this is my fight! I don’t care if you think I’m too young, or if—“ Rydia broke off, peering at Edward searchingly. “Or if you think maybe she’ll forgive you if you save me instead.” Edward bit his lip, having run short of arguments. “I’m right, aren’t I?” Rydia prompted, and Edward closed his eyes.

“You’ve grown up so quickly,” Edward said quietly, by way of an answer. “It’s only been a year.”

“Maybe you should grow up too,” Rydia said, sitting back down heavily and busying herself with closing her own wounds.

They were both silent for a long time, Rydia concentrating on her magic and Edward struggling to find a way to put his thoughts into words. He noted it was taking her quite a long time to fix her relatively superficial injuries.

“Rydia…” he finally murmured, rubbing his temples more to hide his face than to assuage a headache. “What can I do? I’m only human.”

“So am I,” Rydia said, not looking up.

“You’re more than that — you’re a summoner. I’m nothing here.”

Rydia waved her hand to dismiss her spell, then turned towards him. She didn’t look angry any longer — just exhausted and a little bit sad. “You could sing me a song,” she said, quietly.

Edward blinked. “What…what sort?” Rydia shrugged.

“One of your favorites.”

Edward hesitated for a moment. He hadn’t performed for an audience in nearly a year’s time, and it had been almost as long since he’d heard music at all that wasn’t from his own lips. Thinking about how long it had been made his stomach turn. He almost didn’t trust his own ears anymore.

But Rydia was waiting patiently for him to begin, her face turned up as expectantly as any tavern-goer back in Kaipo. Edward silently chose a melody, centered his breath, and sang.

Rydia’s smile was enough to tell him that some things were impossible to lose.

* * *

When Rydia was ten, the Shadow of Earth fell.

They were both sitting on the edge of the abyss together, stargazing into the darkness below, when Rydia gasped out loud and leapt to her feet.

“Did you feel that?” Rydia said.

“What? What is it?” Edward looked around, but could see nothing — not that this was out of the ordinary. Edward had come to understand that Rydia understood this world and its ways on a level deeper than perhaps he could ever access, and he trusted her instincts enough not to doubt. Rydia seized Edward’s hands and hauled him to his feet.

“Like…like a tremor in the earth, as though all the rocks above us were singing…” she explained, pulling him away from the edge insistently. “Something’s happened.”

“Do you know what?”

“No idea,” she said. “Come on — I’ll find Titan.”

Rydia had not yet faced and defeated Titan, but the two seemed to have become friends nonetheless. He had answered Rydia’s call once before, and though Edward supposed he would eventually face her in battle, it would merely a formality to seal their contract. Titan seemed to hold Rydia in a certain amount of regard — a gentleness Edward had not seen from any of the other eidolons.

The Earthrager was not hard to find. His voice was louder than a battlefield trumpet.

“I care not!” he boomed, loud enough that he could be heard halfway across the city. “He was a force of earth! My element! We mourn!”

“Scarmiglione was a traitor,” roared a voice that Edward dimly recognized as Leviathan. “He deserves no funeral!”

“If an eidolon dies I don’t care what he did while he lived!” Titan said. Edward and Rydia pulled up short, and gazed upwards — the giant was face-to-face with Leviathan in his vast sea serpent form, his finned head tossing proudly.

“Speak that way to me again, Earthrager,” Leviathan said, “And perhaps you will join him. Scarmiglione will not be mourned. The moon has named a paladin, and you talk of funerals for traitors!” Leviathan lashed his tail, shaking the foundations of the Feymarch city. “Get out of my sight!”

“Paladin?” Rydia mouthed at Edward.

“I’ve only heard stories. They say that if a man climbs to the highest point in the world and faces the darkness in his heart, he’ll be blessed.”

“Do—do you think it’s Cecil?”

Edward smiled ruefully. “Who else could it be?”

“So much is changing, on both sides.”

“For Cecil I think it’s more a matter of removing the mask.” Edward watched the two enormous eidolons gazing at each other. “Are they going to hurt each other?”

“Titan will stand down,” Rydia said. “Leviathan is our king, after all.”

“Was there a king before him? I’ve read the history of the eidolons, or what parts of it I could read—“

“No, of course not. Leviathan is the king. You don’t become king. You are a king.”

“That’s not really how it works.”

The earth shook as Titan bowed. Rydia looked up and sighed. “You have a funny view of things sometimes.”

* * *

It was a long time before Edward was able to attend Rydia’s trials. The battle, he knew, was a part of her training as surely as the scrolls of esoteric knowledge and the long weeks she spent running through the underground with only monsters for company. He even understood the reasons for it now, if not why the summoner always had to prove her worth through fighting, but it still made his skin crawl to watch. Though he had seen some scattered battles on the surface world, he had never completely erased his aversion to violence. Here, surrounded on all sides by caves and monsters, it had been years since he had been forced to fight anything at all — unless one counted the maddening delight the Ifrit continually took in surprising him and chasing him throughout the city. Edward had long ago decided Ifrit couldn’t possibly mean him any actual harm — the creature had had ample time to do so if that was his intent — but the Ifrit’s tormenting evoked a visceral terror that no amount of time could erase. He was twenty-three at his last count, but being chased by a literal nightmare of his childhood was no less affecting.

It was especially ironic, then, that the first trial he attended was one where the eidolon refused Rydia’s challenge.

The two combatants stood on one plane of a smooth crystal formation that jutted out over the abyss, where the cave wall met the Feymarch city. Only a few eidolons had come to see this arc of the summoner’s trials, and they crowded on the catwalks above the rock, giving Edward a wide berth. He leaned over the railing, humming a snatch of music to himself — something he had overheard one of the sylphs singing to itself one day, while tending the pale violet flowers in its garden. It was a strange, haunting song, with a melody that was filled with baffling leaps and trills. In fact, it was so unlike any song he had heard in his time as a minstrel that he couldn’t even quite ascribe an emotion to it — sometimes the same stretch of notes would sound mournful, or happy, or even fierce and martial. It had been quite a while since he’d been so baffled and amazed by a simple string of notes, and the song had wedged itself into his mind and refused to let go.

Leviathan and his queen had come to oversee the proceedings. They stood in human form at the furthest end of the smooth rock, Asura with her veils and scepter and Leviathan with his long beard and a pool of seawater forming at his feet. Rydia herself stood with her long green hair pulled back from her face and her whip coiled around her waist. She looked very small compared to the coiled serpent in front of her — a gangly girl with one foot still in childhood, steeled and ready to fight a monster three times her size and with twice the amount of fangs and claws.

Rydia curtsied, and the Mist Dragon did not move. They were far enough away that Edward could not hear Rydia’s challenge, but he heard the dragon respond in a resounding voice.

“I refuse.”

A murmur went through the crowd. Even Leviathan started forward, and Asura cocked her head. Rydia narrowed her eyes and repeated herself, loud enough for Edward to hear.

“Mist Dragon, will you face me?” She looked thrown off guard by the refusal.

The white serpent shook her head, and her sinuous body slid in tightening circles on the rock.

“No,” she said, and melted into air. In the blink of an eye, Rydia was alone on the outcropping, her whip dangling idly in her hand.

* * *

“She refused!” Rydia said. She stalked around the room, her bare feet thumping heavily on the ground in an angry rhythm. “She won’t challenge me!”

Edward had retreated into his room in the sylphs’ house shortly after the Mist Dragon had abandoned the arena, sensing a brewing commotion that he was better off not being a part of. He had busied himself with trying to write down the odd chords of the sylph’s melody for a few minutes before Rydia had pushed her way in without even bothering to knock, a veritable thunderstorm of anger. Rydia was usually quite even-tempered, especially for a girl of her age — Edward couldn’t remember ever seeing her quite so furious. “Can you speak with her?” he ventured, when it seemed that she had no more to say on the subject. Edward had long since learned that what Rydia wanted wasn’t comforting words but a sympathetic ear and the occasional well-chosen question.

“I can’t find her,” Rydia said. “She’s avoiding me! And when a dragon doesn’t want to be found…” Rydia trailed off and shook her head.

“What about Leviathan? Asura?”

“There are rules, you know,” Rydia said. “And even kings can’t go around breaking them. Maybe if the Hallowed Father himself showed up.”

“There are other eidolons,” Edward said. “I’ve overheard Titan, he’s likely to come and challenge you before —“

“But the Mist Dragon,” Rydia said quietly, sitting heavily onto a chair, “was my mother’s eidolon.”

Of course. Rydia had spoken of her mother only briefly, but Edward could tell that Rydia had always looked on her with the combined awe of a child for its parent and a beginner for a master in the art. Being rejected by her mother’s favorite had cut Rydia deeper than she was willing to admit out loud.

Rydia would say no more on the topic — she abruptly latched onto the subject of what Titan was saying about her, and they spoke of the Earthrager until it was time for them both to sleep.

* * *

“What song is that?” Hearing another voice in what had — until now — been his private music sanctum startled Edward so badly that he nearly fell from his perch. He steadied himself and whirled around to see a woman with skin and hair so pale that she appeared almost colorless, like a piece of dyed linen that had lain too long in the desert sun. She shrank back from his gaze, but stood her ground. It was the first time in years that any monster besides the sylphs had made so much as a cursory attempt at conversation, so he spoke as gently as he could.

“A love song from my homeland,” he said. The woman shifted her weight, and Edward caught the tip of a smooth-scaled serpentine tail, tufted with sea-green, flicking around her ankles. He was speaking with the Mist Dragon, wearing a human shape.

“I heard…I heard your singing, and I came to see,” she said quietly. Edward bit his lip, and chose his words carefully.

“I can finish the song if you like,” he said. “We can leave this place, if you—“

“I am not of any element,” the Mist Dragon said, “so I do not fear this place.” She looked at the ground, as though meeting his eyes for that brief second was taking dangerous license. “I would like to hear the end of it.”

Edward began the song over, pouring every ounce of feeling that he could into the performance. This had been Anna’s favorite song, he mused, and he wondered how pleased she’d be if she had lived to see it performed for a dragon. He wished she was here to see it, and the thought colored his notes with a mournful tinge.

On the final verse, the Mist Dragon closed her eyes and spun delicately around, her tail sweeping the ground. She was dancing.

She looked at Edward expectantly after his song had finished.

“I’ve never heard a song like that,” she said.

“I come here almost every day,” Edward said, gesturing around at the tiny alcove. “Why is everyone else afraid of this place, anyway?” he asked.

“It was where the first of the traitor eidolons defied the will of the Father. The place is still tainted,” she said. Edward had no idea what all of that meant, but the fact that he had gotten an explanation at all was heartening. He nodded, and pressed on.

“If it doesn’t bother you,” Edward said, “then you can come by as often as you like. You’re the first eidolon who’s wanted to hear my singing. Or have anything to do with me, for that matter. Even the sylphs seem to have lost interest.”

“Of course,” the Mist Dragon said, shaking her head so that her white hair shimmered in the light. “You are mortal.” She said this as though it were absolutely obvious, but Edward had been forced to dig through five volumes of the records of the Summoners of Mist to find out this piece of information. The eidolons, being immortal themselves, regarded creatures that were capable of natural death much as humans might regard a person with a contagious disease — perhaps with pity, perhaps with contempt, but always with a certain amount of deep-seated fear. The Ifrit, who took a little more interest in him, was roundly regarded as reckless.

He wondered how long the Mist Dragon would converse with him. Well, his relationship with the eidolons could hardly get worse — he may as well use this opportunity to try and help Rydia.

“Is…is that why you refused the summoner’s challenge?” he asked, as gently as he could. The Mist Dragon bobbed her head like an agitated snake.

“My sister submitted to a summoner, long ago,” the Mist Dragon said. “The bond between them was deeper than was ordinary. My sister loved her caller, and it caused her to behave recklessly, staying in the mortal world to guard her. She behaved recklessly and she died for it.” She spoke that word — “died” — with a peculiar sort of horror.

“You fear you’ll meet the same fate as your sister,” Edward said. The Mist Dragon bit her lip, and Edward pressed on. “I know Rydia. She challenged you because she needs your help.”

“Why should I care that a human wants my help?”

“Because when Rydia goes back, she’s going to be fighting for the safety of the whole world, eidolons included. And besides, your sister wasn’t reckless. She risked her life for someone she loved. That wasn’t a mistake, it was a choice. I think you should honor it, rather than regret it.”

The Mist Dragon narrowed her eyes. “And what would a mortal know about that?” she asked.

“About death, and being afraid? More than I’d like.” The Mist Dragon studied Edward for a long moment, her too-wide, pale-grey eyes blinking for the first time since Edward had noticed her listening to him. “If you’d allow me, I’ll write a song about your sister and her sacrifice.”

“A song?”

“It’s one of the ways humans try to live forever, and it’s really the only one that works.”

“I…” the Mist Dragon appeared to consider this offer carefully. “I think…I would like that. And she would have, as well.”

“If you come by here tomorrow, we can talk it over.”

The Mist Dragon nodded, then dissolved her form into white fog that blew away on a breeze. Three days later, she accepted Rydia’s challenge with quiet resolve.

* * *

There was no defending with a bow. Cecil had learned how to use one in his days in Baron under Rosa’s gentle tutelage, and though he was no master archer, his arrows flew true enough to fend off the monsters of the Lodestone Cavern. But here in the bright and featureless relic chamber, where there was no terrain to use to his advantage, the Dark Elf had capered under his guard like a child playing tag, and without a sword Cecil could do nothing but struggle helplessly when the monster’s unnaturally strong claws found the gaps in his boiled leather armor, dug inwards, and ripped into the cloth and flesh beneath. He staggered, lost his footing on the blood-slick floor, and fell.

“Idiot! Mortal!” the Dark Elf cackled, hopping back and forth from one foot to another. The creature was looming over him now, rubbing his bloody hands together with glee. “Did you think you could kill me? No one can kill me!” Over the creature’s shoulder, through the smoke of the monster’s magic, Cecil saw Yang and Cid diving at the Dark Elf for a combined strike; the Dark Elf must have caught Cecil’s gaze, because he turned and batted them effortlessly away like dolls before turning his attention back to Cecil.

The Dark Elf set his taloned foot on Cecil’s chest and pressed down, crushing the breath out of him. Desperately, Cecil struck upwards with his fist, aiming for the creature’s gangly knee. The impact was hard enough to make the Dark Elf stumble momentarily, and Cecil took advantage of the opening to haul himself backwards, out of the Dark Elf’s reach, and hop to his feet, but the pain was quickly starting to overwhelm his practiced battle-focus. The creature had torn through the strap that kept Cecil’s currently-useless sword in its sheath across his back, and the blessed artifact lay on the ground between him and the monster, pinned by inexorable magnetic power of the cavern.

The Dark Elf recovered quickly from Cecil’s blow, and capered around more as Cecil felt his legs shaking under him. “Mortals are nothing without their tools,” the Dark Elf hissed. “You’ll die here. Die, die, die!” The Dark Elf crouched down and pounced like an animal while Cecil fumbled for another arrow. Cecil barely had the presence of mind to duck out of the way. Both Yang and Cid were nowhere to be found. For the moment, it was just him and the Dark Elf — and without his sword, Cecil realized he was going to lose.

If only Rosa were here. She’d know what to do.

An air-rending explosion knocked Cecil flat on his back and blew the Dark Elf backwards, tumbling head over heels. Cecil felt strong hands seize him — he knew it must be Cid by the thick leather gloves — and haul him backwards. Through the clearing smoke he could see Tellah raising his hands for another spell; the old man’s spectacles had been shattered and there was blood running down the side of his face and staining his white hair, but his eyes were as implacable as ever.

“We have to get out of here,” Cid hissed in his ear. Cecil shook his head.

“And leave the Crystal?” Cecil hissed back. “We swore—“

“Bring it back we will, lad,” Cid said. “But the beast’s nigh invincible.”

“Facing him head-on,” said Yang, somewhere behind him, “was a miscalculation.”

The Dark Elf sorted out his tangle of limbs, and Tellah raised his staff. The world shifted and warped; slick obsidian became soft grass, the cavernous darkness of the relic chamber became the welcoming shadow of a clear night in the wilderness, and the Dark Elf himself faded away mid-spring, to be replaced by a solid stand of trees.

Tellah kneeled by Cecil, inspecting his wound.

“You teleported us away,” Cecil said, almost accusatorially. Tellah nodded.

“Tactical retreat,” Tellah said, his hands glowing with power. A warm numbness washed over Cecil as the sage willed his wounds to heal. “The Dark Elf has a magical barrier, and without something made of metal to unweave the spell, we’d have kept smashing ourselves against his shield until we died. What good would that do?”

“Yang — Cid—“ Cecil began, starting to sit up, but Tellah pushed him back down to the ground.

“Both alive. Finding our chocobos right now, in fact.” Tellah’s manner was terse. “Sit still, boy, you’re making it harder for me to heal you.”

“My sword,” Cecil said.

“That’s not important right now.”

“Not important? It’s a sacred artifact, and now that monster has it—“

“He can’t even touch it. Hold still.” The sage finished his spell with a flourish and sat back, letting Cecil finally rise. There was nothing left of his wound but torn cloth.

There was a tromping noise, a clacking of beaks, and Yang emerged from the undergrowth, walking backwards and coaxing four skittish chocobos into the clearing. The beasts ruffled their black feathers and cawed. From the other side of the clearing, an enormous cacophony of tearing bushes and cracking twigs heralded the arrival of Cid.

“He’s better with animals than I am,” Cid said, jerking his thumb at Yang, who did not seem to hear him. He leaned forward and cooed at the lead animal, who bowed its head and chirped. Satisfied, Yang leapt gracefully astride the bird’s back, his legs setting behind the creature’s wings.

“What do we do now?” Cecil asked. Yang stroked the head of the chocobo beside him, and it trotted obediently over to the center of the clearing with its unridden companions in tow.

“Return to Troia, I should think,” Cid said. He was eying his chocobo dubiously, as though he didn’t quite trust it.

“Empty-handed?” Cecil said. “Your magic seemed to harm the Dark Elf — couldn’t we—“ Tellah shook his head.

“Perhaps with a genius plan and the element of surprise, or an army of wizards,” Tellah said. “None of which we have right now.”

“The chocobos will take us back to their forest. That’s a three day’s ride, and another three days to Troia, assuming our way through the forest meets with no obstacle,” Cecil said. A long silence descended upon the clearing as the others caught Cecil’s meaning.

“Look, lad,” Cid said gently, laying his hand on Cecil’s shoulder. “Getting yourself killed by some crazy invincible monster isn’t going to do a damn thing to save Rosa either. If Kain can keep finding us, then we can find them. Crystal or no.”

“It isn’t only for Rosa’s sake…” Cecil said, pushing himself reluctantly to his feet. “What about the people of Troia? This land will rot away beneath their feet if the Dark Elf holds the Crystal of Earth much longer.”

“Come,” Yang said smoothly, gesturing towards the lead chocobo. “We’ll discuss this on the way.”

* * *

Edward stared up at the Ifrit, too terrified to move. The creature had finally cornered him, at the end of an alley that he hadn’t known was a dead end. Edward’s eyes darted too and fro, but no escape immediately presented itself.

He didn’t know what would happen if the Ifrit decided to kill him. Writing a song for the Mist Dragon had improved his station in the Feymarch noticably — he had left his practice alcove months ago and now sang outside the library, drawing a small audience every time. Now that he knew the reason behind the eidolon’s dislike of the place, he found himself avoiding it as well. If it had to do with those awful monsters that Cecil and his friends kept destroying, Edward wanted no part of it.

“I heard from Rydia that you wandered the world disguised as a commoner,” the Ifrit said. Edward nodded. The monster laughed heartily. “I met one like that, in the mortal world. It must have been, oh…a thousand years ago, as you reckon it. I think he was pretending to be a humble storyteller. I asked him to tell me his best tale, and I didn’t like it one bit.”

“What did you do?”

The Ifrit grinned, showing a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth. “I ate him.”

“Oh,” Edward said. There didn’t seem to be much else to say.

“And now I find myself with another prince of Damcyan,” the Ifrit said. He cocked his head. “Sing me a song, mortal princeling. I hope you’re better than your ancestor was.”

Edward steeled himself. It wouldn’t do to fail his performance because of nerves, but he could feel his hand trembling as he ran it through his hair. Know your audience, the traveling minstrels he ran into on his journeys had always told him. What sort of song would an Ifrit like?

Something rough. Something fierce. Something with spirit.

Edward closed his eyes and launched into a stirring rendition of the bawdiest song he’d ever learned — something he’d picked up in a disgusting resting-house clustered around an oasis frequented by men who must have been bandits. He had to improvise part of the melody because he’d never heard anyone sing the song sober enough to carry a tune.

The Ifrit loved it so much that he threw his head back and cackled with joy.

“You’re good!” the Ifrit said, clapping Edward on the shoulder with his enormous, clawed hand when the song was finished. “I’ll have to give you a gift.”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“No, no. It’s customary. Run along now.”

Edward did as he was told.

* * *

When Edward went to his bed in the sylphs’ house that night, he found a flute laying on his pillow. He picked up the instrument gingerly and examined it in the lamplight with growing wonder. It was carved of solid bone, polished to mirror-brightness, and every detail proclaimed the hand of a master artisan in its making.

“Do you like it?” Edward looked up from the flute, whirling around to find the Ifrit perched on a table in his bedroom, completely uninvited.

“I don’t know if I can do it justice,” Edward said. “I’ve always been better on the harp.”

“The summoner told me a bit about you. When was the last time you touched a harp?”

“Six years ago.” Edward winced inwardly when he said it out loud.

“Then try the damn flute.”

Edward put the flute to his lips, arranged his fingers, and blew a single note. It was clear and perfect, and it had been so long since he’d played an instrument that it nearly brought tears to his eyes. He played a trill and felt an irrational rush of joy and excitement, as though he was twenty years old again and looking out over the rapt faces of the first audience he’d ever had that wasn’t obligated to praise him because of his station.

“Told you you’d like it. Say what you will about me, but I know how to reward a mortal who pleases me.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“It should be. It used to belong to a siren.” The Ifrit reached out and tilted his head up by the chin, so that Edward was looking into Ifrit’s eyes. Edward felt the point of the eidolon’s claw pressing against his flesh, not quite hard enough to draw blood.

“You have some fire in you — I can smell it. You should show it more often.“

“I’ll do my best.”

“Not the right answer, princeling.”

“What do you mean, ‘not the right answer’?” Edward said without thinking, and then suddenly became very conscious of the claw at his throat. The Ifrit laughed.

“That’s more like it.” The claw withdrew, and the Ifrit bowed. “Maybe King Leviathan was right to let you stay.”

“Maybe,” Edward said, matching the Ifrit’s smile with a grin of his own.

* * *

“So they’ve retreated.” Golbez paced the metal floor of the tower’s main audience chamber, his cloak swirling around his ankles. He’d discarded his helmet and most of his armor, and Rosa was always shocked to see how much like Cecil he looked. Not so much in the particulars of his face, but something about his bearing and his stride never failed to remind her of Cecil, no matter how much she tried to put the thought from her mind.

Kain looked up at Golbez with something that Rosa recognized as apprehension. Golbez always met with Kain in this room, ignoring her presence entirely. She suspected that it was to remind Kain of his place, and to humiliate her — make her feel as though she were worth less consideration than a mindless monster or a piece of furniture. It was a calculated risk that Golbez was taking.

“It would seem so.” Kain kept glancing back and forth between Golbez’s face and hers, with the same revolting look of animal devotion. Rosa tried to catch Kain’s eye, but he seemed to be looking almost through her. “They’re heading back to Troia.”

“A week’s journey. And then what?” Goblez resumed his pacing. “We offered Cecil a deal, and he has not uphold his end of the bargain. I don’t see why we should uphold ours.” Golbez gestured towards Kain with one gloved hand. “Your spear.”

Rosa’s nails dug into her palms as she clenched her hands into fists, beneath the ropes around her wrist. She tried to keep her gaze steady — she wouldn’t let Golbez have the satisfaction of seeing her fear. Kain turned towards her with an unreadable expression.

“No,” he half-whispered. “You can’t—“

“Don’t make bargains you don’t intend to keep, Kain. We need to show them we’re not bluffing, and besides, the girl is doing us no good alive. Bring me your spear. I grow tired of this.”

Kain lurched to his feet with a jerky, ungraceful movement at Golbez’s gesture. A shiver ran down Rosa’s spine — the cold chill that heralded Golbez’s more forceful uses of magic. Golbez could pull Kain to and fro like a puppet if he chose, but he rarely did so. Golbez’s words alone were often enough — he had the kind of poison-honey tongue and cruel, unflinching insight that could cut a man to the bone properly wielded, and Golbez was clearly well-practiced with his weapon of choice.

Golbez seized the spear from Kain’s hands and turned towards her. Rosa stared back at him, defiant.

“Kain,” she said, softly, glancing over Golbez’s shoulder. “If you should see Cecil again…tell him that I love him.” Kain’s lips curled into an involuntary snarl at the name, and Rosa heard her voice waver. “Tell him I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”

“Lovely. Poetic, even,” Golbez said, raising the spear. “If you’re trying to stall for time, don’t bother.” Rosa closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and waited to die.

The point of the spear never struck home. There was a commotion in front of her, and something landed heavily at her feet. Cautiously, she opened her eyes. Kain was trembling with the effort of fighting Golbez’s hold on his body, and had fallen to his knees between her and Golbez. The point of Kain’s spear quivered at her throat, agonizingly close. Golbez had momentarily turned his attention towards Kain, and his face held an expression of such cruel contempt that Rosa wondered how she could have ever thought he looked even a bit like Cecil.

“Golbez,” Kain begged. “Please, no. Don’t do this.”

“Who are you to question me?” Golbez said. The point of the spear wavered.

“Not questioning. Begging.” Kain was on his knees and bowed so low that his forehead nearly touched the floor, seizing the hem of Golbez’s cloak. “Please, master.” Kain had never once called Golbez by that title, at least in Rosa’s presence. Kain had always been so fiercely proud, and seeing him reduced to grovelling helplessly before Golbez, flattering him with titles like an obsequious servant, made her feel ill. That Golbez was using her as the instrument of Kain’s humiliation was even more galling — for right now, she could see precisely what Golbez’s gambit was. This was a scene — a performance, carefully staged.

Golbez lowered the point of the spear under Kain’s chin and tilted his head up. The point wavered threateningly at Kain’s throat.

“What will you do if I spare this useless girl’s life?” Golbez said.

“Anything.” Golbez chuckled darkly.

“I trust you’ve learned your lesson about not making promises you can’t keep,” he said, withdrawing the lance, leaving a thin prick of blood on Kain’s neck. “Very well. I dislike being merciful, Kain. Make it worth my while.” He tossed the spear unceremoniously to the ground beside Kain, then turned and stalked out. In a moment, she and Kain were alone.

“Kain, listen to me—“ Rosa began. Kain pulled himself to his feet and collected his lance, handling it at arm’s length as though it disgusted him. “Golbez is only—“

“I called him master,” Kain interjected. “That’s something I swore I would do for no man on earth, not even the King of Baron.”

“Kain, you can’t let him do this to you. You can’t.”

He leaned over her and smoothed her hair with his free hand — a gesture that, in any other context, might have been comforting or even welcome. It made her shudder. “What does that matter, as long as you’re here?”

“Kain, please, you’re not listening—“

“Golbez will be expecting me.” He turned and left without another word, and Rosa was alone.

From the moment Golbez had walked in, it had never been his intention to kill her. He couldn't kill her, she realized — his carefully balanced hold on Kain would slip. Were it some straightforward sorcery, some simple enchantment, she could unweave it with barely an effort if her hands were free, but Golbez’s grip was far too insidious to be broken with a few simple spells — it was a tangled thing, wrapped like a choking vine around his heart. Whatever Golbez was, he was no fool. As long as she remained his prisoner, Golbez could toy with Kain at his leisure, preying on his emotions and keeping him unable to sort out his own will from Golbez’s.

But that meant he had to keep her alive. And every day she lived was another day that she could bide her time and work silently closer to some hope of escape. Another day that Cecil could find his way to Golbez’s stronghold and deliver them both.

Yes, Golbez took a great many risks with her. Rosa prayed, silently, that he would live to regret all of them.

* * *

There was blood on the floor of the the Dark Elf’s relic chamber — old blood that had long since dried. Kain could almost trace the course of the fight by looking at the brownish-red marks on the floor — that splatter on the pillar showed that someone had been thrown against it, and this pool and smear marked the place where one of the combatants had lain for a moment, then pulled himself up again. In the center of the chamber, there lay a sword in an ornamented scabbard, its hilt chased with silver and gold. Near the dais where the Crystal of Earth rested, the mutilated corpse of the one-eyed, flying monsters that Golbez sometimes used as messengers and spies lay in gory pieces.

The Dark Elf was a pathetic, gangly creature who appeared to be almost all limbs. He crouched on the stairs up to the dais where the Earth Crystal bathed him in glimmering light, turning his pale skin a shade of fungal green. When Golbez and Kain approached, he jerked his head towards them like a bird and stared down at them with all the imperiousness of a petty monarch.

Kain tightened his grip on the haft of his spear. It was not the lance he was used to, and it felt oddly weighted in his hand. The point was obsidian glass, and though it was honed to a razor edge, Golbez had said that the Dark Elf was nigh-invulnerable to anything but metal. He didn’t trust that the spear was anything more than ceremonial.

“Your messenger said you had a proposal for me, before I killed him.” The Dark Elf leaned forward, sizing the both of them up. Golbez nodded slowly.

“We require the Crystal of Earth,” Golbez said, inclining his head towards the shining artifact. “And we are prepared to pay.”

“I will not!” the Dark Elf screeched. “It’s mine! Only mine!”

“Do not mistake me for an ignorant warmonger, eidolon,” Golbez said. “I know the value that item holds to you. And I can more than double it.”

“You know nothing, mortal. In the Crystal’s light I will live forever. What can you give me that is greater than that?”

“Yes, yes. You’re invincible as long as you stay within your enchanted lodestone cave, and as long as you never stray too far from the Crystal of Earth, you’ll never grow old and die on top of all that. I can only imagine what a fine eternity you’ll have down here at the bottom of a cave, never able to leave.”

The Dark Elf narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “What are you implying?”

“That right now, you are nothing, and you never will be. But I can make you a king.” Golbez gestured to Kain, and he obediently unwrapped a solid piece of unworked stone. The Dark Elf peered at it strangely. “This is a piece of the red moon — the abode of the Hallowed Father himself. With this artifact and my assistance, you could extend your magic all the way past Troia castle. Without metal weapons, you could slaughter their armies at your leisure and take your place on the throne, should you wish. No one will be able to stop you.”

“No use being invincible and a king,” the Dark Elf said, looking around wildly, “if I’ll simply die at the end of it, after a century’s time. Without the Crystal, I will still die.”

“Do you know the name Scarmiglione, the Blighted Despot?”

“Of course I know it,” the Dark Elf hissed. “Every eidolon knows the names of the traitors.”

“Then you’ll know they swore an oath that gave them back their immortality,” Golbez said, slyly. “And since you’ve been up here, you won’t know that the Blighted Despot was slain by the very man who failed to slay you.”

“I grow impatient of your insinuation. What are you offering?”

Golbez bowed his head slightly. “If you give me the Crystal of Earth, I will give you Troia as your kingdom, and I will crown you Archfiend of Earth.”

Kain shifted his weight into a fighting stance as the Dark Elf considered Golbez’s offer. After a long moment of silence, the creature threw back his head and laughed. “I accept your offer, mortal.”

“Then come and claim your first prize.”

The Dark Elf unfolded himself and practically sprang on the moon rock, wrapping his long claws around it greedily. The Lodestone Cavern shook, and the Dark Elf cackled.

* * *

“You can’t be serious, Master Leviathan!” Rydia cried. The both have them had been summoned before the King and Queen rather abruptly, with little fanfare. It was the first time since his arrival that Edward had been allowed in the eidolon’s throne room, which immediately made him suspect that something terrible was afoot. He had, unfortunately, been right in this instance. “My training isn’t complete! I haven’t even faced Ifrit yet.”

“As unfortunate as that might be,” Asura said, her head rotating like an owl’s to show a serene, monk-like countenance. This was the first time Edward had seen the queen of the eidolons in her monstrous form, and she towered over them — nearly twelve feet tall by his estimate, with three unchanging faces and six arms. “The last of the Crystals has been taken. We must move.”

“But—Cecil and the others—“ It had been months of their time since Cecil and his companions had failed against the exiled eidolon Dark Elf, and they had all been wounded then.

“The paladin lives,” Leviathan said. “And his companions.”

“Then if I may ask, Lord of All Waters,” Edward said, taking care to keep his eyes averted, “what has happened to the Crystal?”

“The traitor has released his hold on it somehow. All I know is that Golbez holds it. The element of earth screams it out.”

“How are we to get back?”

“Titan will open the way.”

“Master Leviathan—“

“No more words, summoner. Go to the surface and perform your duty.”

“And me, Lord of All Waters?” Edward asked.

“You are the summoner’s retainer,” Leviathan said. “Go with her.”

Edward and Rydia exchanged a smile. “I’ll get my flute,” he said, bowing slightly.

* * *

The wind howled around them as they gazed down into the blackness. Titan had rent open a seemingly bottomless fissure in one of the corridors that surrounded the eidolon city, and according to the giant all they had to do was leap into the chasm and they would fall to the surface. It was the kind of backwards, Feymarch logic that Edward was almost going to miss.

“What do you think we’ll find? When we go back, I mean,” Rydia said, over the screeching of the wind. Edward tightened the straps on his pack, which was full almost to bursting with the Feymarch’s uncommon music. He looked into the chasm dubiously.

“Nearly the same thing we left,” Edward said. “Cecil tearing himself apart. Yang taking everything in stride, as always. A world at war.” Edward sighed. “I’ll admit…I’m not sure if I relish seeing Tellah again. I still don’t know if he’s forgiven me, and…the one time I caught sight of him in Asura’s glass…” Edward trailed off and shook his head. “I’ve never seen a man so eaten up with hate.”

“I’m not ready,” Rydia said, so quietly that Edward almost missed it over the noise.

“Neither am I. None of us are, I think.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Most definitely. Are you?”

“Only a little.”

Edward reached out and took her hand, remembering how small and fragile she seemed when they had first tumbled out of Leviathan’s maw. She was almost grown now — dressed in green robes with her hair pulled back and monsters at her beck and call. A sorcerer returning from her sojourn in the spirit world, to finish the task set before her.

And maybe he hadn’t won a chest of gold or escaped the fairies with only his wits to guide him, but he’d sung for the lords of Feymarch and gotten a rather pretty flute for his troubles. It might even be magic.

Quite a bit had changed, but then again, so little had.

Edward looked back over his shoulder one last time. The blue-green lights of the Feymarch glittered in the distance.

He never thought he’d be thinking this, but he would miss Ifrit.

“On the count of three?” Rydia said, pulling Edward toward the edge. He clutched his flute with his free hand and looked out over the precipice with a sinking feeling of vertigo, and nodded.

She counted, and they leapt, hand-in-hand, into the rift in the world.
kunenk: ([for the] birds)

[personal profile] kunenk 2011-08-05 10:42 am (UTC)(link)
“It’s only a monster,” he heard her say. “Don’t be afraid.”

oh Rydia <3

I really like the appearance of the Sylphs! That's a lovely tie-in with canon events, and it adds some nice definition to them doing that.

I also like the relationship they build as the only humans there. And the reactions of the various eidolons to them, Edward and his mortality- really nice work. The Mist Dragon, too- that makes so much sense that she would have that reluctance.
lassarina: (Rydia)

[personal profile] lassarina 2011-09-10 04:03 am (UTC)(link)
(I am so many months late on this oh God.)

I love Rydia's simple acceptance, the different rules of the Feymarch, the Archfiends as fallen Eidolons (which is a bit of mental meta I have as well), basically all of this. I like how Edward earns his place, and how the absence of him completely changes the plotline with the Dark Elf (and how much do I love that he's a fallen Eidolon, too!). Mostly I am fascinated by where this could go next.

You did a wonderful job. ♥
stealth_noodle: Rydia from Final Fantasy 4, peering upward. (rydia)

[personal profile] stealth_noodle 2011-09-23 05:00 pm (UTC)(link)
I am so late getting to read this and comment on it, but I love this so hard. Edward finding a place for himself and discovering how brave he can be, Rydia taking so readily to the ways of the Feymarch, the impact of Edward's absence on the game's plot... And the Sylphs! And the Dark Elf as the new Archfiend of Earth! And Edward and Ifrit! I love this AU and am flinging hearts at it. ♥♥♥

Also, the art is adorable. I especially love Shiva and the Mist Dragon.
stealth_noodle: Ocarina of Time's Ruto lets out a little heart. (ruto <3)

[personal profile] stealth_noodle 2011-09-24 02:00 pm (UTC)(link)
I am working on the 'sequel'