THE CRAVE GAMING CHANNEL
V'lanna
 

Catspaw

By Amanda Swiftgold
swiftgold@aol.com (summer)
brat4711@unco.edu (school year)

 

Chapter One - And the Stage is Set
In which they all get drunk

The sun rose red that morning, staining the sky the color of blood, turning the broken ground of the ruined world into a strange landscape of lava. It was, perhaps, the most beautiful sunrise there had ever been. But only the cat was awake to see it.

The humans slept while they could, tortured by dreams, still crying, still calling out for their lost loved ones. They couldn't escape from the horror of what had happened, months before, when the earth was torn asunder, when the world changed. No, there was no escape. Not even in sleep.

They would rebuild, live, move on in time. But for now, the memory of before still burned. The cat felt it from every person in the town as she walked toward her destination. The inn, a building that had somehow managed to survive the earthquakes. In her mind she heard the sobs of one woman far away, mourning the loss of her child. But, unlike the dwellers of the town, her child could be returned to her. And that was the cat's mission: to find the one who could accomplish that.

It was easy to gain access to the building, and the cat walked unnoticed into the kitchen. A man there, preparing a morning meal for the dwellers in the inn. But the cat's target was up the crumbling stairs, sleeping in a room. His dreams were quieter than the othersā. He had nothing left to lose, nothing left but his life. He would do.

She padded up the stairs, his thoughts and memories becoming clearer as she neared. Her lady didn't like her to pry, but the cat enjoyed stealing thoughts when she could. She searched deeper into his sleeping mind, creeping down the hall. He had knowledge of magic, Espers, skill with fighting, was willing to take risks. He could fly...!

The cat frowned. There was loss there too, hidden deep but remembered, loss relating to the flying. And even deeper there was more, pain and loss and guilt, hidden so far down that it would not affect him at all, unless he was forced to remember, hold it in front of him. He was not unstable. And that was good.

She stared at the door, a temporary barrier. A crooked, warped thing, she was easily past it and into the room. On the best bed in the inn, a cot, slept a man. His face was young, but his hair was white, long, strands falling across his face. He had a shallow scar across his left eye, but the eye itself seemed unharmed. She wondered what had caused it.

He lay fully clothed, a long black coat draped across him. The cat felt her mistress take notice, look through her eyes at him. It was always a strange feeling, having someone else's awareness inside you. Shall he do, Lady Katara? she asked.

She could feel the interest radiating from her. Her lady was rather young, wise in the ways of magic but a girl in another sense. She hoped that she wasn't going to start getting silly. The cat personally thought he would be much improved with whiskers and a tail, but who knew what humans liked? Still, she hid her thoughts away, ready to warn her mistress later if things got too embarrassing.

I think so, Nautilus, Katara replied. You know his thoughts?

Yes. He would not harm your daughter. I will persuade him to help. And yet... he was one of the ones present when the statues were misaligned. He is a Returner, one foreseen.

Go on. He will suit. I trust in your choice, and I need my daughter back. They will harm her greatly in time. Please, begin now. I will not interfere.

As you will, Lady. Nautilus felt her mistressās mind withdraw from hers, and licked her white-furred paws quickly before leaping gracefully up onto his chest. She waited, but he did not stir. The cat leaned forward and batted his cheek with a paw, claws retracted. His head turned slightly, and he mumbled something, still asleep. Nautilus sighed. Humans always slept like the dead. She was going to have to take drastic measures.

*****

Sharp pain in his hand. The words, Wake up! in his head. A heavy weight on his chest. Setzer Gabbiani opened his eyes wide. "What the hell is going on?"

He sat bolt upright, the weight falling from his chest to his lap. He looked blankly at it, recognized it as a cat. There was a cat in his lap. And there were claw marks in his hand. He stared at it, letting the fact sink in. It was too early, and his head still hurt. He remembered vaguely the beer from last night, salvaged from some wreck of a store, a little dusty-tasting but still good, and his head pounded with the memory. I've got a hangover, he decided fleetingly. Thatās nice. Why is this cat here?

"Hello," said the cat. "You have to come with me." He blinked at it. And reality hit him like a thunderbolt.

"Hey," Setzer shouted, jumping up and sending the cat flying, "you talk!" I think I need to go dunk my head!

"Brilliant," she replied, leaping back onto the cot. "I do talk, and I'll explain why in a moment. First, sit down." He did so slowly, staring at her. "All right. I am called Nautilus Cleo. I am a familiar, and I was sent here by my mistress to find you. And you are?" she asked, business-like, knowing quite well what his name was. Perhaps some trivial conversation would sober him up a little. She had the distinct feeling he was not usually quite so nervous.

"Setzer Gabbiani. And tell me one thing, cat, familiar, whatever you are... all right, two things. One, why do I have to come with you, and two, how can you be someone's familiar? Someone taught you how to talk with magic, right? Your... mistress." His head was beginning to clear, but he still wasn't sure he knew what was going on.

"That is correct. She knows magic because she is descended from the Mage Warriors of old. She comes from Thamasa, is much like the ones known as Strago and Relm."

"You know them?"

"No, but you do," she responded. "And I have no time to explain everything right now. My mistress, Katara Godive, needs your help. Her daughter was kidnapped by the Empireās slavers before the statues were moved, and she needs your help to rescue her. She was taken to a base, that now unfortunately has become an island, and even stronger. And now that you know what the problem is, we need to leave." Nautilus pushed at him with her head.

"Hold on a minute," Setzer said, picking the cat up and depositing her on the floor. "Just why should I do this? I don't know this Katara or her daughter. I've never seen you before in my life. I need to go find my companions, build another airship."

"Well, you'll be rewarded, of course. How do you expect to build another ship without money, gambler? The materials will be hard to come by, with the world the way it is now!"

Resolutely she jumped up into his lap, standing on her hind legs, a paw on his shoulder. He looked into intelligent gold animal eyes. A cat that talked... and somehow knew who he was and what he had done. "You are the only one who can infiltrate the base and get her out. You can understand."

He was torn with indecision, but Nautilus had made a point. Heād need a new airship to help the others fight Kefka, and for that heād need funds. How hard could it be to get the child and get out?

"All right," he said reluctantly. "I'll do it." It's just for the money! he thought to justify it. I might find one of the others. And, frankly, I'm bored just sitting here.

"Excellent! You won't be bored for long, Gabbiani!" she chirped, hopping up onto his shoulder. "You're dressed and ready, so shall we?" Setzer gave her a suspicious look, which she ignored, and left the room, going downstairs.

There were a few people up in the main room. He shelled out a coin for breakfast and sat at a rickety table to eat the chunky meat-and-broth stuff they served. He received only a few strange glances from people who had noticed Nautilus on his shoulder, but luckily no one contested her presence.

The cat tried to steal bites from his fork as he raised them to his mouth, and he batted the paw away, although it was doing little to discourage her. "So, how am I supposed to get to this base?" he asked in a low tone.

And he heard her voice in his head. Itās easy. You have to become a slave yourself.

So you can talk in my mind too? Very nice. Setzer smiled briefly. This could be very convenient.

Yep, it is, isn't it? So, to get to the base, go annoy some slavers, pick a fight, and you're there.

How will becoming a slave help save... whatās her name? The girl.

Elya, Nautilus replied, successfully getting her claws into a chunk of meat, eating it with a few snaps of her jaw.

He finished the breakfast and settled back. Right. How will that help?

Well, you'll be there, won't you? Getting out is the easy part. It's getting in that's hard.

Isn't that supposed to be the other way around?

Not this time, Frosty. She thought-laughed, batting at a strand of his hair with a paw.

Hey now, none of that. You might as well be speaking for yourself, Snowball.

The name is Nautilus! And shouldnāt we be going? A nip to his ear his time. He stood up, frowning, and paid the innkeeper for his room. She preened, having won the argument, and curled her tail around his neck.

Fine. You know where I can find some of the slavers, I presume? Setzer left the inn, moving down the road. He wished he had his airship. Or a chocobo, or anything... walking was just so slow!

Of course I do. Leave it to me. Just do what I say and everything will work out absolutely super.

"Just keep your fur out of my face, all right?" he mumbled, wondering just how he had gotten into this. It was too blurry, had gone by too fast.

Nautilus made no reply.

 

Chapter Two - The Duck Flies at Midnight
In which there are a great number of very nasty people

 

They walked down the streets, no one taking notice of the cat on his shoulder. "So, tell me, where are these slavers and what do you expect me to do with them when I've found them?" Setzer said, playing with a few coins. They made a chink-chink noise as he slid one in front of the other in his hand.

"They've set up camp right outside of town." Nautilus said cheerfully. "Insult them. Start a fight or something."

"Then what?" He pushed her tail out of his face as she turned around to look behind them.

"They'll either capture you or kill you. Most likely you'll be captured. Then they'll take us to the island when they've found enough poor travelers to take back with them. You'll have the honor of saying you're a slave to the Empire!"

He shook his head. "This is sheer lunacy."

Nautilus shrugged. He'd never seen a cat shrug before, but it involved a lot of flying hair and a few back shivers. "What isn't? This whole world is tailor-made for lunatics. Now, hurry up, gambler man! The longer Elya's trapped on that island, the less I like it."

Setzer grumbled a few choice curses under his breath and hurried. A short distance out of the town, he could spy the camp ahead, just as the cat said. It was small and makeshift, but even from his distance away he could see a number of chained slaves and close to the same number of guards. One man strutting around was definitely the head slaver.

But what I am I going to do about it? Charging in there like a one-man liberation force is only going to get me killed. He fell to the ground suddenly as a scout turned his eyes in their direction. He felt a small wave of satisfaction as the motion sent Nautilus flying. She landed on her feet and shook herself, trotting toward him with an air of dignity.

"Stupid," she announced, yawning in his face.

He shook his head, hissing, "Don't want them to see us, furbag! Keep down!"

She shot a look of condescension at him. "Setzer, you idiot, you want them to see you! You want them to capture you!"

"On my terms," he protested stubbornly. "If I have to do this, I want to have at least a small chance of getting out of it. There isn't any point in playing a no-win game."

"If you say so," she muttered. "Get on with it, then!"

Always such a rush, he thought, standing slowly and moving toward the camp even more slowly. I still don't know why I'm doing this... well, at least it breaks the monotony. Setzer felt in his pocket for his cards and dice. Reassured they were still there, he picked up the pace, ignoring the white cat that, for once, trailed behind him and had no smart remarks to give him.

*****

Nautilus? Is everything working? Katara sent to her familiar. Her thought-voice sounded apprehensive to the cat.

Everything's fine, Lady, she thought soothingly. The man, Setzer Gabbiani, has agreed to help us. We will be on our way to the island shortly.

The mage sighed in relief. Thank the gods! Take care of him, Naut. I feel that he will succeed, and I shall see my daughter again. Setzer Gabbiani... Katara repeated to herself, as if committing the name to memory. But there was a strange, breathless tone in her thought-voice as well. Nautilus shook her head at the recurring silliness. He will be greatly rewarded for this. Remind him if he begins to falter.

It shall be done, my lady, the cat replied, and then the link was broken.

*****

Vege stood in the middle of his camp, looking very pleased with himself. Only a few more, and they'd be ready to take this last load of slaves over to the island. He smiled. It was so easy to find reasons to arrest these people. Some of them even got turned in by their neighbors for stealing bread to feed their families. Well, there'd be one less mouth for them to feed now, and they'd be doing something useful instead.

He looked at the dirty, ragged people chained together under the torn awning and swung his whip. It cracked down very close to a skinny young woman crouched on the ground. She jumped back slightly, surprised, and her head jerked up. He could see the tear marks on her face. Pretty little thing. Perhaps the general will let me have her as a reward for good behavior, he thought.

"Bitch!" he shouted, cracking the whip again. "You should be grateful. You have food. You have clothes. You have a roof over your head." He waved the whip in the direction of the awning. "And when we get to the island you'll have work to do. We're actually doing you poor pitiful people a favor!"

She glared at him. "We're slaves! You want to do us a favor, let us go!"

Vege grabbed handfuls of her dark hair and hauled her up, raising the whip as the others shied away. "Yes, you're slaves. You deserve nothing. Nothing!" He flicked the whip forward as the woman cringed. But it never hit her.

He looked in surprise at his weapon. Half of it was missing, lying on the ground at his feet, sliced off cleanly. He looked toward the post holding up the awning, and there he saw a playing card stuck by a corner into the wood. Dropping the woman, he turned around. A white-haired man in a long black coat stood at the edge of the camp, two guards lying on the ground behind him.

Setzer grinned and waggled his fingers at the slavedriver. "Why, hello, you big lug," he crooned. "Why don't you come over here and play with someone more your own size?"

Vege recovered quickly, glancing around. "Who? I don't see anyone."

"Ah! Touché!" Setzer laughed, drawing out another card. "Well, are you just going to stand there?"

Vege roared and lunged over towards him, drawing his sword. Setzer dodged out of the way and spun around as he lumbered past. "Just a little fast. Try again."

"Gladly!" He came back and swung the sword, aiming for Setzer's neck. He stepped away, barely getting nicked, and sliced forward with the card, taking off a bit of Vege's earlobe.

Remember, you have to lose! Nautilus called from her hiding place by the guard station.

I know, I know! He darted back and picked up a sword from one of the fallen guards. Against this opponent, he'd probably lose in simple physical combat. The slavedriver just had the advantage. But Setzer intended to lose. He didn't intend to die.

The impact of Vege's sword hitting against his own jarred through his arms, and he had to adjust his grip. His own thrust was easily pushed away, and after a few more hits the sword was knocked from his tingling fingers. Setzer held his hands up in front of him. "I surrender," he said hastily, before Vege could drive the blade right through him.

He laughed triumphantly. "I don't know what you think you were doing, little man, but you've lost!"

I see that.

"I charge you with attacking the person of an Imperial slaver and killing two Imperial soldiers."

"They arenāt dead," Setzer put in.

"Severely wounding two Imperial soldiers to the point of near-death," he amended smoothly. "I find you guilty. As punishment you belong to the Empire." With a smirk Vege grabbed the collar of his coat and hauled him none too gently over to the rest of the slaves, dumping him on the ground.

He locked chains onto Setzer's wrists and ankles, making sure they were too tight to be comfortable. He protested as Vege emptied his pockets, watching vainly as his cards and dice were dropped in a small bag and put in a larger sack. His money the slavedriver tucked into his own pocket. He delivered a few kicks to his side, grinning as Setzer fumed and visibly suppressed his anger. "Enjoy your stay," he laughed, leaving to bandage his earlobe.

You did it! Very good! Now manage to stay alive and we'll be in and out in no time. Be a good slave and don't draw attention to yourself. The cat was chuckling in his mind.

I suppose you think this is all too hilarious.

Well, it is! I'll be hiding on the boat. It's docked a few miles from here. It won't be long now.

Setzer sighed, struggling up to his knees, futilely trying to adjust his chains. I had better be well rewarded for this!

Nautilus only laughed again and left his mind. With a silent groan, he looked around at the faces of his fellow slaves and spotted the woman that the slavedriver had been bothering near him. "Are you all right?" he asked her.

"I've been better," she said slowly. "What were you trying to do? Rescue us?" The other slaves were listening intently to their conversation, but he just tried to ignore them.

"Well, kind of," he said. How was he supposed to explain it to them? Say that he wasn't trying to help them at all, but just a girl on the island because he was being paid to?

A man snorted. "Kind of? How can you Īkind ofā rescue someone?"

"I need to rescue someone on the island," he sighed. Invariably, the rest of them looked hurt. Well, I don't know you! he thought at them, feeling a little... ashamed? No, that couldn't be it. "I'm not some great liberator," he said, feeling his face flush. "I... oh, hell." He looked pointedly at the ground, and gradually they all turned around and ignored him. All except the dark-haired woman.

"Thank you for... distracting him," she said. "I'm Thury."

"Setzer," he replied, bowing slightly. "No problem. Why are you here, if I may ask?"

"Wrong place at the wrong time," she sighed. "Man stole some kind of strange potion from an Imperial guard. He escaped, but I was nearby, so they arrested me instead. And now... I'm here."

That better not have been Locke. "I wish there was something I could do."

"Me too." She suddenly raised her voice and called out to one of the guards. "Please, kind sir, may I have that jar behind you?" She bowed low as if she was begging for her life.

He paused for a moment but was swayed by her prostration. "Here." He tossed the jar deliberately off, though, and snickered as she had to scramble for it. When she'd retrieved it, Thury opened the lid and scooped out a gob of pale blue goop.

"Hold still," she commanded, smearing the stuff on his cuts. He had more of them than he realized.

There was one of those awkward silences where no one can think of anything interesting or useful to say, and it was in that time Setzer felt someone staring at him. He lifted his head and turned his gray-green eyes directly to the source. A pasty-faced, balding man was looking at him from the other side of the enclosure. The man looked away quickly.

Thury followed Setzer's gaze to the man and suddenly edged a bit closer to whisper in his ear. "That's Kurstil. Don't say anything around him that you wouldn't want repeated to Vege."

"Vege?" he whispered back.

"The slaver, the one you were fighting. Kurstil's planted in here to find out secrets." Finished with his wounds, she dabbed a little on her own healing welts, put the lid back on the jar and passed the salve on to another person.

He paused as a guard walked by. "How do you know all this?"

She looked a little embarrassed. "I've been a slave before, been taken to the island. Before it was an island, though. I escaped."

"How?" he asked furtively.

She glanced around at the rest of them, especially noting where Kurstil was, before turning back to him. "Iāll show you when we get there."

He smiled at her. "I promise Iāll repay you for this."

She didnāt get the chance to reply. There was a small commotion outside as Vege and his assistant returned to the camp at the same time. The assistant was dragging behind him three children chained together. They looked distinctly unhappy.

Vege rubbed his hands together. He had a new whip, and swung it through the air so they could all hear it whistle. "Get up!" he bellowed. "Move out!"

The guards sprung into action, prodding people into place here and there and chaining them together two by two. Setzer remained near Thury and was pleased when they were chained together. The column of slaves started marching slowly, the silence broken by the shouts of the guards and the weeping of many of the slaves.

Thury made them hang back until most of the column had passed, stepping in behind the three children, who had been kept together. Vege noticed and flicked his whip at them, cackling as Setzer moved forward to take most of the blow. "Ooh, so gallant," he whined, smacking the whip against Thury's legs. "Faster!"

She winced but said nothing, murmuring to the children, urging them forward gently. Setzer glared at Vege as he moved down the line. Fire2, or even just one Fire spell, and he'd be gone for good... He clenched his fists. He couldn't risk it. But oh, how he'd like to see that man burn...

They marched under the hot afternoon sun, pushed forward by whips and swords, and it was nearing dusk when they finally reached the ship. One of the children had fainted from the heat, and Thury had insisted on carrying him in her arms for almost half of the trip. Setzer frowned at the sight of the boat. It did not look very safe, or big, for that matter.

They were all marched on board and crammed into a belowdecks hold. The air was musty and wet, but it was cool and they all sank to the deck gratefully. There was only enough room for everyone to sit, but no one could turn around. The hatch slammed closed, and they were plunged into darkness. The ship shuddered as the anchor was raised, and they moved off.

One of the children next to him began to scream, along with some of the other people. He could identify Thury's voice among the rush of noise, comforting them, and between her and the people nearest to them they soon had the children quieted down. Setzer felt for Nautilus's presence but could find no hint of the cat. I hope she made it on board, he thought worriedly.

As soon as all was silent, a woman screamed, "We need air! There's no air! I can't see!" Immediately everyone else began to yell and howl for air.

Something needed to be done, and soon. He had to admit, the darkness and bad air were grating on his nerves as well, but there was no need for all the screaming! Setzer got to his feet as quickly as he could with his wrist still chained to Thury's. "Shut up!" he bellowed, but few heard him, and those who had didn't listen.

Smacking his forehead in frustration, he turned to the boards of the boat's side. If he was careful, and lucky, perhaps he could burn a hole in its side to give them air. But it would take a lot of concentration to get it right. He began to call on the magic of the Espers, preparing the Fire spell, holding the Ice one ready right after it.

When his power levels had risen enough, he said "Fire!" softly and touched the side of the boat. There was more screaming as it flared up, spreading an orange glow throughout the hold, and Setzer hovered anxiously near it, waiting for his magic to return. As soon as it did he murmured "Ice!" and sent it out towards the blaze. It died quickly, returning the slaves to darkness again.

There were many cries of "What was that?", but he didn't answer. He didn't want that Kurstil character to report anything about him, hoping that no one had identified him in the commotion. He sank back to the ground again, satisfied. He'd always had a lot of luck.

Thury had noticed, she had to have, but she kept silent. He could see her face, highlighted with the faint light that came through the opening. She looked scared, but also angry. She wouldn't talk to him, simply staring off into nowhere, and he was at a loss to explain it.

None of the guards came down to the hold on the trip, and fresh air and eventually daylight streamed in through the hole. They arrived on the island sometime a little after dawn.

*****

"Move it! Come on, let's go!" someone bellowed, banging open the hatch. No one moved for a moment from fear and exhaustion, but mainly from cramped muscles. Soon, one by one, they stood and were ushered up onto the deck and off the ship, unprotesting. Right now, even slavery was better than one more minute on that ship.

Setzer and Thury walked docilely onto dry land. She was holding the hands of two of the children and the other was clinging to Setzer's coat. Thury didn't look at him, not saying a word as they were lined up again and given a cursory inspection to make sure they were still alive. Then with whips and shouts they were marched down yet another road.

Large trees lined the paths on the island, and he looked around carefully. He'd have to remember this once he'd found Elya. The little boy next to him stumbled, and Setzer quickly swept him up and carried him so they wouldn't stop and attract the attention of the guards. The movement jarred Thury's arm, but still she said nothing.

"Thury," he said, turning to her as they walked, "what's wrong?"

She didn't meet his eyes. "Nothing."

"Bullshit. Tell me what's wrong. It's obvious that something is."

She rounded on him angrily, eyes flashing. "You used magic!" she hissed in a low tone. "Magic killed my mother! How... how could you-- do that?"

He was stunned, confused. "Thury, I'm sorry," he said immediately. "But I wasn't the one who killed her. Not everyone who uses magic would do that. We aren't all like that, you know."

She looked at the ground, ruffling the hair of the little girl she held by the hand. Tears ran down her cheeks unchecked. He moved his free hand and patted hers comfortingly. "I know," she said softly. "But that doesn't make it any better."

Setzer nodded. "I understand." They walked in silence the rest of the way.

*****

The base was located under the ground, and Setzer shivered just looking at it. The large guarded cave was the entrance to a network of stone tunnels and rooms, and the river that bisected the island came out of the ground at the other end of the base and ran south to the edge of the land, where there was a small yet thriving town.

They were taken underground, and yet it was not dark. Torches and alarm lights speckled the walls at regular intervals, flickering as they passed. All the slaves were brought into a large cave, and on a raised dais at one end stood a large, muscular woman with a shock of frizzy red hair pushed back by a headband.

The woman came toward Vege, leading the group in. "General Ethar," he greeted her, "we have an especially good crop for you this time. Not one died on the trip over."

"Excellent," the general replied, turning to the slaves. Her hard black eyes raked over them, and the boy in Setzer's arms shuddered as her gaze hit him. "Hear me now, slaves. I am General Risa Ethar, and I am your master. Until you are sold or die, you will obey me at all times, and obey my servants as if I were giving the orders. Understood?"

They all nodded, unable to do anything else, and Risa, accompanied by Vege, began to walk forward among the slaves. She separated them into groups, pointing her sword this way and that to direct them where to go. Vege unlocked their chains and sent them to their groups.

Thury tensed as they approached them, her face pale. Risa motioned for the children to go into a group of their own, and reluctantly Thury let them go. Setzer could sense she was worried, but was unable to do anything to comfort her, instead pretending he didn't know her. He figured the odds were better that they would stay together if he acted like he didn't care.

General Ethar looked at him closely, and he felt like an animal being sold. He half expected her to look at his teeth to see how old he was. She reached out and took hold of his chin, turning his head from side to side as he forced himself to stand still and be a good slave.

Vege chuckled. "That one's a handful, General. He came rushing into camp, threatening me with a pack of cards. He's a bit looney, if you ask me."

She grunted and looked thoughtful. "That's all right, Vege. Send him over with the others. It'll make it interesting." Risa laughed shortly and turned to Thury.

"Uh, General?" Vege cut in, pausing in unlocking the chains. "I was wondering..." Setzer saw the look in the slaver's eyes as he gazed at Thury, and barely stopped himself from attacking him. Thury saw it too, but stayed calm. But her lip was trembling very slightly as she held herself back.

"I don't think so," Risa said shortly, peering at Thury. "I get first choice, and this one looks fit enough to replace my maid. She's getting too lazy."

Vege looked disappointed, and Thury was sent over to stand with one other woman, glancing despairingly at Setzer on the way. He joined a gathering of three other young men in the corner, looking at her across the room. Where are they going to put me? And where in the seven hells is Nautilus?

You'd have to comb through a lot of hell, Setzer, and you'd still never find me there. I'm right here in this cave.

Damn it, don't scare me like that! Now what am I supposed to do?

Be a slave, she laughed. I'm going to find where Elya is and find a way out. It'll help that the woman Thury's staying with you. She knows a way out.

You did that?

Sure. It was a breeze, flyboy. Just plant a thought here, and there you go! It's not too hard when they're distracted like that.

If you say so. Setzer thought dubiously, focusing on an intriguing wall across the room.

And I do! Stay in one piece, and I'll see you tonight.

Ha. Donāt expect me to wait up for you.

The cat's quiet laugh ran through his head as it faded, and he returned his attention to the scene around him. The slaves had been separated into groups and were being taken to wherever they were going to go, which was most likely the mines or Maintenance or something. General Ethar led Thury and a few other people over to where Setzer and his party was standing.

"Follow," she ordered preemptorily, and they did. Thury fell into step next to him as they continued down the halls. He wished he could talk to her mind like Nautilus could. She knew the way out. At least, he hoped she did.

Risa opened a door set in the wall of the passage, revealing another, smaller cave interlinking with a few more. "These are my personal quarters," she announced, "and you all are my personal staff. You will obey my every command whenever I choose to give it to you, and when I am not present you will follow the orders of Prytra here."

An older, ragged-looking woman came forward and bowed to the general. "This way," she said, gesturing down a short corridor as Risa went into another room.

"Here is where the women will sleep." She pointed at a small alcove. "I will acquaint you with your duties shortly," she told them. "They include mainly keeping things clean. The men stay here. The room at the end of the hall is for the general's favorite only. Don't go in there."

All six of them nodded as Prytra looked them over. "Your duties are only to attend to the generalās every need," she announced, a small smile playing across her lined face. Setzer frowned and bit his lip, watching as the other men glanced at eachother nervously. He had a feeling that meant what he thought it did.

She repressed the smile. "The bathing caves are to the south. I suggest you get yourself cleaned up." Prytra then turned and left them without further ado.

"How disgusting," Thury murmured. Setzer looked down at her with a wry smile.

"I am not looking forward to this."

*****

Setzer was the last to be called in to Īattendā the general. He didnāt know what that meant, but he was rather glad it had happened that way. He'd listened with a kind of horrible fascination to the othersā stories and planned desperately for a way out. But Nautilus said that it wasn't time yet, and so he'd had to wait. And now it had caught up to him.

The cat had been strangely concerned when heād explained his situation to her. She started working harder in finding Elya, in finding the way out, and in finding a way of keeping Risa uninterested in him. But now all Nautilusās efforts had failed.

Thury, who was sweeping the corridors, gave him a Ībe braveā look as he passed, escorted by Prytra. She locked the door behind him after he was through it, and he was left to face his fate. The fate being General Ethar in a nightgown. He swallowed and took a step forward. Best to get it over with quickly and get the hell out of there.

"So it is your turn now, Setzer," she breathed, batting her eyes and leaning back against her pillows. It was a rather comical scene, and if he had been watching instead of stuck in the middle of it he might have laughed.

"Nice place you got here," he said, glancing around. The room was lavishly decorated with tapestries and silk, and the belongings of all the slaves were piled in one corner. He noted the sack containing his cards, dice and other possessions and remembered where it was for future reference. He wanted to cast a spell on her, Sleep maybe, but she'd remember, and he had no way out. Too bad I just can't kill her.

She sat up a bit, leaning forward, and her eyes gleamed. "I am one of Kefka's most important generals," she told him, her voice fluttering worshipfully as she spoke of Kefka. "All of this comes through his will."

"Oh, yes," he agreed, "Kefkaās great. Had the pleasure of meeting him myself."

"Truly?" Risa asked. "Then you know how it is." She patted the bed. "Come here." Reluctantly he came and sat down. "Tell me what you thought of him."

What I think of him? He's crazy, homicidal, and he has an annoying laugh! "Oh, well, he's very interesting," Setzer said weakly, trying very hard to ignore the fact that the general had slid around behind him and was rubbing his shoulders, starting to ease his coat off. Maybe if I get her into a political discussion... he thought unhappily. "But I don't know if I agree with everything he says."

She leaned her chin on his shoulder. "Why not? Destruction is a wonderful thing. And besides, he has the most adorable laugh!" She giggled and sighed, looking a lot like an overgrown schoolgirl. The illusion vanished quickly. "Turn around," she commanded abruptly, and taking a deep breath, he did.

Risa fell asleep. She toppled over heavily onto the large bed, almost rolling off it, and lay there, snoring.

Setzer blinked in confusion and then let out a long sigh of relief. A slender white cat leapt up beside him on the bed, and he beamed at her in gratitude. "You did that, didn't you?" he sighed, patting her briefly. "Thank you, Nautilus."

"No, Nautilus did not," the cat said, and he looked at her. As the feline-shape turned her head up to meet his gaze, he gasped in shock. The eyes that locked on his were human eyes, colored a deep brown. The voice that issued from her throat was different as well, a rich young woman's voice.

"Ka-katara?" he said in a strangled voice.

"Yes," she replied softly. "You are helping me, so I shall help you avoid this disgrace. She will remember only vaguely that you pleased her, but nothing more. I have also planted a thought in her mind... you will not be called back for a while."

He bowed his head slightly. "I don't know how to thank you for doing this, Katara."

The cat-form bowed its head as well. "Return my daughter to me, and that shall be payment enough, dear one." Katara jumped up onto his shoulder and wound herself around his neck a moment. "You make me proud," she whispered in his ear. "I trust you."

The cat licked his ear, tickling it, and then jumped down and disappeared somehow. He looked at the place she had been silently for a moment and then back at Risa's prone form, shuddering. Katara had saved him the hard part, at least, but now he had to make it look as if they'd had a good time.

*****

When he'd been released, Setzer conferred with Nautilus, who had returned to her old self, and decided that it was time to leave. She had finally located Elya, although she hadn't been able to get in to see her. He told Thury everything, and she agreed to help them escape.

"Besides, I'm worried about the children," she told him, untying her bandanna and uncovering her hair. She sent it flying across the alcove. "They can't work very well, and there's no other use for them here. I'm afraid they'll kill them."

"We'll rescue the children too," he promised.

She smiled at him. 'There's a river that flows through this island," she told him softly. "It comes up right out of these caves. We just need to ride down that for a while, then get onto land. That's how I managed before."

Setzer grinned back at her, patting the pouch in his pocket that held his things. Risa had never even noticed it was missing. "We leave tonight," he replied.

Arranged with Nautilus's help, it would be easy. That afternoon it was time for inspection, where all of the slaves in the place were lined up in a great corral of sorts and inspected for excessive wear by Risa. By the time she was finished it was invariably dark, and then they might be able to slip away unnoticed. Nautilus would start a fire, and they would run in the confusion.

As they were herded in, Thury located the children, and they pushed their way over to them, as close as possible. They waited nervously, and, about the time the inspection was half over, Nautilus gave the signal. The fire shot up almost immediately.

Complete panic and confusion reigned. People ran here and there, knocking down others in their haste to get away. And, in the mess, Setzer and Thury lost sight of the children.

Setzer, come on! We don't have a lot of time! Nautilus said, almost screaming to be heard over the din.

"Thury!" he cried, grabbing her arm. "We have to get out of here, now!"She yanked it away, plowing forward through the people. "No! I have to find the children, Setzer!" He followed as best he could, and finally they found them huddled together by a wall. One of the boys had nearly been trampled to death, and Setzer picked him up carefully as Thury took the hands of the other two.

The fire was almost put out, and so they ran while they still had time, out into an adjacent corridor. They dashed, ducking through tunnels here and there, meeting up with Nautilus on the way. The cat led them to a small niche off a side tunnel.

"Heal him quickly, gambler," she told him, moving out into the hallway to watch for guards, and he bent forward, preparing. Thury looked at the cat in amazement, then turned to Setzer and watched breathlessly as the bruises and cuts on the boy's body faded and disappeared.

His hair had fallen forward as he bowed his head, and he glanced up at the woman through it, grinning. "You see, not all magic is bad." He helped the boy sit up.

She beamed, throwing her arms around him and hugging him fiercely. "How can I thank you for doing this?"

He stared at her through half-closed eyes, placing a finger under her chin and tilting her head back. "I'm sure I can think of something," he murmured, leaning down and kissing her. Thury made a wordless noise of assent and held him tighter, kissing him back.

Someone applauded, and they broke apart quickly, turning to look. The slavedriver, Vege, stood there, a twisting sack hanging from an arm. "Oh, bravo," he said. "It's just like a play! General Ethar will be very pleased to know we have another magic-user in our midst!"

"Let me out of here, you bastard!" Nautilus spat from inside the burlap bag. Setzer leapt to his feet, Thury rising behind him and standing in front of the children.

He reached into his pocket, but before he could do anything more guards appeared, coming forward and shackling them again, twisting his arms up against his chest. As Vege was overlooking them, however, Nautilus clawed her way free of the bag and tore off past their feet and down the corridor. Vege cursed but didn't go after her. I'll come back for you later, Setzer! she mindspoke as she ran. Don't worry!

But I am worrying! he protested as she ran out of range. Vege and his guard friends dragged them back they way they'd come, back to Risa Ethar. She sat on her throne in the main cavern, looking at them darkly. All five of them were dumped at her feet, the children too scared to cry. Vege walked up and told her his version of what had happened.

"Running away," Risa said, "is a crime punishable by death." Thury paled, whispering to the children comfortingly, and Setzer tried to struggle to his feet, receiving a fist in his stomach for his efforts. When he straightened again, blinking the tears from his eyes, the children and Thury were being dragged away.

"No, stop!" he yelled, twisting around desperately. More guards beat at him, pinning him to the ground.

"They die at dawn." Risa announced, rising from her seat.

"Setzer!" Thury screamed as she was pulled away. "No!"

"You, however, shall have a different fate. You know magic... you will put it to use working for the Empire."

He tried to yank himself up. "No, I won't work for you, you fat bitch!" he shouted, incredibly angry. He began a spell as her expression grew black. She knelt down, curling her fingers around his neck and squeezing hard. He closed his eyes tight, breaking off the spell, unable to breathe. There was a roaring sound in his ears as his consciousness began to fade.

Suddenly she let go and air returned to his lungs abruptly. He gasped violently, opening his eyes, vision blurred. "I have many magic-users of my own," she said, "all ready to do my will. I don't need you, white-hair. But you will not have the easy out of death." General Ethar turned to look at Vege. "Call for Kurstil."

Kurstil? Isn't he that snitch from the slave camp? Setzer wondered, having given up on struggling for the moment. When the man arrived, Setzer saw that it was, indeed. He was dressed in fine clothes, however, and wore a sneer on his face.

"You called for me, my general?" he asked, casting a glance down at Setzer on the floor.

"This man is a magic-user," she told him. "He needs to be punished-- severely."

"Of course," Kurstil said, smiling in a distinctly nasty way. "I know just how it is to be done. If I may?"

She nodded, and the man came over and crouched next to him. Vege ambled up and unlocked the chains binding his arms, patting his head patronizingly. Setzer tried to pull away from the guards holding him down once more, but to no avail.

"So youāre the one who burnt the ship," Kurstil murmured, acquiring a look of concentration. The mage reached out and grabbed Setzer's wrist, muttering things.

A sudden, brutal pain rushed through his hand. He tried to pull it away, writhing on the cave floor. He became aware he was screaming, and still the pain in his hand did not stop. He felt pieces of his fingers being torn apart, his hand broken, the agony from the nerves racing through him.

It overwhelmed him, sending him into blackness, and yet even in unconsciousness the pain still did not subside. He felt Nautilus's presence in his mind, heard her voice although he could not make out what she was saying. The sound of his own screams blocked out anything she said, and then finally there was silence.

When he awoke he was still in the main chamber, Risa on her throne above him. He was no longer held down, however, and slowly he turned his head and looked at his hand. At the end of his wrist he could make out a bloody pulp, the white of bone showing through. He gazed back at Risa, who gestured.

Two guards approached and dragged him upright to his knees and backwards. He ended up next to the throne, leaving a trail of blood behind, without even the strength to raise his head. He knelt, slumped, next to the chair, unable to do or feel anything. Risa grinned at him.

"Sleepy?" she said brightly. "Itās dawn, Setzer. Time for an execution."

He raised his good hand to cover his face. "No more," he whispered.

Setzer! Setzer, please. Listen to me! I can save you but I can't help them! I know it's a lot to ask, but we have to rescue Elya and get out of here! You'll have to forget--

No! he interrupted. I will not, can not, and don't you dare ask me to!

You must forget your pain until we are finished! I'm not asking-- Her voice left without warning, and a familiar clank of metal chains from the other end of the cave caused him to slowly drag his head upward. Thury was marched in, her expression one of defiance although her face was streaked with tears. She was the only one.

The children are dead, Setzer realized, meeting her eyes. She stared at him and then looked down, a fall of dark hair covering her face.

"So, tell me, Setzer, how should she die? Should she be burned? Staked out for the wolves? Drowned?" Risa looked down at him, but he did not answer, still staring at Thury. "No preference? Hmm..." She thought a moment and then decided. "Beheading. The woman Thury will be beheaded for attempting to run away from her rightful place as a slave. Vege, begin."

A block was brought forward and set in front of her as a guard forced her to her knees. "Pity such a pretty little thing has to die," he sighed. Making sure Setzer was watching, he bent down and kissed her sloppily. She struggled away, spitting, and Setzer almost managed to get to his feet before collapsing, nearly landing on his face.

"Stop it!" he yelled ineffectively. "Don't do this! It was my idea! I made her come with me!" I have to do something! he thought desperately. His things were still in his pockets but he couldn't reach them, couldn't do it quickly enough with his head spinning like it was.

The guard looked up at Risa, who nodded for him to get on with it, and then pushed her down, her head hanging over the block, her hair perhaps fortunately blocking his view of her face. But not before he met her pain-filled, frightened eyes. I'm sorry, she mouthed before giving in and falling forward against the block, resigned to her fate.

He couldn't watch, pressing his face onto the stone of the cave floor. There was the whistle of the axe through the air, and a sharp thunk, and he squeezed his good hand into a fist, gritting his teeth against the tears and recurring pain.

"What, you didn't see it? What a pity... you really should have." He heard someone approach him, and before they could make him look at what was left of her he ground his wounded fist against the ground, gasping as the force of the pain knocked him out cold.

*****

Setzer was dumped in a cell deep under the ground. The white cat had walked like a ghost on glass through the corridors after the men who had carried him there, keeping to the shadows. She was angry at what they had done to him, and Katara was horrified. Nautilus had lost track of them when her mistress spoke to her, but a trail of blood soon led her back.

I know where we are, the cat thought. This isn't too far from where Elya is. The cell Setzer was put in was dark, dirty, and windowless. The door was sturdy, made of iron bars. Nautilus just slipped between them without any thought at all.

She strolled directly up to the man laying on the floor, sitting behind his head. The cat gave a small lick to his hair before placing her front paws on his forehead. What they had done to him and the woman Thury had hurt his stability, could even have driven him insane. She did not know him well enough to determine of it was so, but she had to make sure. She could not heal his body, but she could help to heal his mind.

Katara's presence entered her mind, helping her. Together they lessened the pain, temporarily dulling the memories. He would remember fully later, but he should be able to deal with it then. When they had finished Nautilus curled next to his neck to wait for him to wake up.

Nautilus, how is he? Katara asked worriedly.

The cat glanced up. The man's skin was as white as his hair. Not very well, Lady. He's lost a lot of blood. What they did to his hand... it has magic in it.

Find bandages, and then get him out of there! It is time to bring Elya home. Oh, Nautilus, I feel awful about this. He doesn't even know me, and yet he would give up his life to do this...

Don't worry about it, mistress. He will be all right, I'll make sure of it.

Katara sighed wearily and left her mind. Nautilus stood and trotted over to the door again. That stupid guard outside would not only be a great source for bandages, he'd probably have the key, too.

*****

The room was too dark. Setzer hated being underground, always remembering the feel of the wind on his face as he flew across the world in his airship. When he'd opened his eyes he'd seen nothing but dark, a torch flickering somewhere out of his direct line of vision.

The dim white shape of Nautilus stood on his chest, holding something in her mouth. She dropped it as she spoke, and it landed on him, hard and metal. "I brought bandages, Gabbiani. Better wrap up that hand. Oh, and here's the key to your cell, too."

He reached for it, suddenly noticing the shape of his hand. "By all the gods and goddesses," he said. "Where are those bandages?" He sat up, head swimming only a little. And then he remembered, faintly, how and why his hand had gotten like that. But why don't I remember so well what happened? It's all a blur to me... I only know that they killed Thury, but I don't know how...!

He snatched up the pile of cloth. "What did you do? What did you do to me, cat? I can't remember Thury dying... I need to remember! I don't want to forget÷"

"You'll remember," she said, "in time. You must mourn later, when Elya is safe. Don't forget your purpose in being here."

"My purpose," he grumbled, awkwardly wrapping his hand. And yet, maybe it was better this way. He'd done enough mourning over Daryl to know that it wasn't the most pleasant of pastimes. He decided it was time to forget and time to get out of here. Setzer stood, palming the key, and noted with satisfaction that he wasn't very dizzy, that the pain had subsided somewhat.

Outside his cell door the guard lay on the ground, unconscious, his uniform tattered. He glanced at his bandages and shrugged, reaching through the bars and unlocking the door. It swung open slowly, and he stepped out, followed by the cat.

"Now what?" he asked in a low tone.

Nautilus's gold eyes glowed iridescent in the darkness as she turned her head up to look at him. "Now," she said, "we run."

 

Chapter Three - Row, Row, Row your Boat
In which they all work very hard

 

He ran through the jagged stone corridors, following the quick figure of the white cat in front of him. She bolted down the hall, and as fast as he could he went after her. The alarm hadn't sounded yet, telling everyone a slave had escaped, but that was only a matter of time. His head swam and his mangled hand throbbed painfully under the dirty bandages. And still Setzer ran on, to rescue a girl he didn't even know.

In here! Nautilus called in his mind. There's a guard-- Without pausing she leapt at his face, hissing, claws extended. Setzer, not far behind, followed up with a kick in the gut, bashing him over the head. "Good job!" the cat cheered. She stood on her hind legs, clawing at the door.

He took the key off the fallen guard, even managing to grab his money, and unlocked the door. Inside was a dark room. He was able to make out a pale figure crouched in a corner. Nautilus ran up to it and began to purr, nudging the form with her head. It straightened into the form of a child with strange pale purple hair, so light colored it approached white. Her ragged clothes were white as well. Her face was streaked with tear-marks, but her eyes were dry. So this is Elya Godive...

The cat climbed into Elya's lap as she pet her. "You're not supposed to be here, Nautilus," the child commented, her voice high-pitched. Then she looked up at him with wide violet eyes. "Who are you?" she asked, staring. He looked back at her, trying to figure out how to explain it. She had to trust him or they'd never get out of here alive.

"I'm going to bring you back home," he said softly, holding out his good hand. "We have to hurry, before they know we're gone." Elya nodded and stood up, taking his hand. "We have to run," he began, and they raced out of the room, Nautilus leading the way.

They made it almost to the end of the first long corridor before Elya tripped and fell to her knees. To Setzer's surprise, she didn't cry, like most children would. "My ankle hurts," she complained, trying to stand. "It's twisted up." Great, just what we need!

And then the alarm burst into being, as if in mockery of them, coating the stone walls with a red glow. He knelt down on one knee. "Let me carry you," he said quickly, urgently. "We don't have much time."

"Okay." She climbed onto his back, wrapping her arms around his neck. Nautilus jumped up as well, balancing precariously with her claws in his shoulder. He levered himself to his feet and tore off. It was a good thing Elya was so light, but already his legs were beginning to tire.

"Left here!" Nautilus called, and he turned the corner, hardly slowing down. They passed other doors and corridors, following the cat's directions though the maze. They turned a final corner, Setzer breathing heavily, and entered a large cavern÷ the way out. And then he skidded to a stop, surprised.

Inside the cavern was a huge chasm, and across it two identical bridges. But that wasn't what had startled him. For standing in front of the bridges were a bunch of soldiers, and at their head was General Risa Ethar.

"Well, well, well," she said, looking coldly at them. Nautilus hissed at her. "I appreciate the sentiment, cat," the general told her before turning her attention back to Setzer. "You're a fool for thinking you can escape. You belong to me, and the girl to my master. But you'll regret it. Were you wondering why I didn't kill you as soon as you set foot in this cave?" she asked silkily, coming a step closer. He stood his ground, aware of Elya trembling in fear.

"It's okay," he said to her quietly, racking his brain for some reply. He needed time. And yet, it was hard for him to even look at her without wanting to maul her. Damn, he noticed suddenly, she looks just like Sabin with red hair! "Uh," he answered the general, "because you find me incredibly sexy?" She laughed at him, and even Nautilus had to suppress a loud mental snicker.

Good one.

I try.

"Wrong answer. You must have a high opinion of yourself, little boy. No, it's because I want you to suffer. Your hand was just the beginning. You are going to lose parts you didn't even know existed."

"I'm thrilled," he muttered, looking around at the cavern for some possible way out. But the only exit was the way they came, and he had the feeling they wouldn't get too far. It was the bridges or nothing.

One of those bridges leads to freedom, the cat said. The other one death. It's a gamble, and the stakes are high. Can you do it?

It's what I do best, he replied indignantly. How could you even begin to doubt me? The soldiers were standing between the bridges, in almost the exact enter, but... was it his imagination, or were they closer to the left hand one? Perhaps they wanted him to go the other way...

Risa came even closer. "Hand over the girl, and I'll make it easier for you. You won't be ruined, killed, and you can return to me. You'd enjoy it..." She let the statement trail off, reaching out to trace the scar over his eye. He flinched back and spat at her feet.

"I'd rather sleep with a dog!" Setzer exclaimed, nearly gagging. The general motioned for some of the soldiers to come forward.

"Have it your way," she said, glaring at him. "Take them!" she ordered the men. "Make sure the girl is not harmed, or it'll be your heads! Do what you like with the cat. He... is mine."

Setzer tensed up, preparing the Fire2 spell. He might have a chance, if he cast it quickly and then ran... but his power was coming so slowly, and the pain in his hand pulsed more and more sharply with every level of magic he gained. It was almost there, and the ragged nerves of his wounded hand screamed in protest. Setzer let the spell go, and the pain receded. He cursed silently.

Somehow some of the soldiers knew spells, casting strange icy flares at them. One hit him, and he flinched back reflexively, nearly losing the girl and Nautilus in the process. He could use his Slot... but what if he lost? He couldn't risk it, not now! Damn, damn, damn!

"No! No! NO!" Elya screamed. "Leave us alone! Go away!"

"Fat chance, girlie," General Ethar replied, chuckling.

He felt Elya straighten on his back, one arm leaving his neck. "FIRE!" Elya shrieked. "Fire!" A large wave of flames shot toward the general and her troops. Several of them were killed instantly, and the others struggled to their feet, blackened and singed from the heat. Setzer stood there, shocked. How does she know the Fire spell? What's up with this kid? Wha--

Run! Run, fool, run! Nautilus mind-shouted helpfully. He realized what was going on and darted forward, toward the left bridge. But there were some soldiers in his way, and, lacking any other weapon within easy reach, he hit them, aiming for their jaws with his wounded hand. The impact sent waves of vertigo through him, and he almost fell along with them.

The girl twisted around to look behind them. "Bolt!" she cried this time. There were more yells, and a voice distinctly recognizable as Risa's rose above the rest. I hope she's fried, he thought, gasping.

Regaining his footing, Setzer took advantage of the confusion Elya's spell had caused and charged across the bridge. The boards were springy and cracked under their combined weights, a few breaking behind him and falling into the chasm. The soldiers who followed inadvertently made sure that the rest of the boards broke, and he heard a few screams trailing off into the blackness below. He didn't care.

He'd won that gamble. The other bridge was a decoy, a fake, would break completely as soon as anyone put any weight on it. The one they'd crossed was obviously not made for much weight, either, but he was stumped as to its purpose. And he had no time to ponder the question as they raced for freedom.

"Right! Go right!" Nautilus shouted, and he ran that way, his side aching, the back of his throat burning from the slice of the chilly air.

"We did it!" Elya cheered. "And look! There's water!" It was true. The load roar and damp feel of the stone and the air was hard to mistake. In this low cavern was the place where a large underground river flowed out of the ground to cross the island.

The cat jumped off his shoulder and went over to stand on a large wooden raft. She said something, but he couldn't hear her over the rush of the river, couldn't breathe enough to say anything. He followed her and realized what she meant. Letting Elya down onto the raft, he pushed it off, where it was taken by the current swiftly downstream. He barely managed to climb on in time, and as it was the bottom of his long coat was wet and his pants were soaked past the knee.

When they were safely on their way he collapsed on the logs in exhaustion, cradling his hand against his chest, gasping. Elya crawled up to him, unsteady. "Are you okay?" she queried, concern on her delicate features.

He nodded, unable to force the words past his aching throat. She sat near him, patting his shoulder until he sat up again. "What's your name, mister? I'm Elya."

"Setzer," he replied, coughing.

"Are you sure you're okay?" she asked.

He nodded to reassure her. No need to scare the kid. She's been through enough already, stuck under the ground with that fat bitch general... when my heart stops suddenly the cat can explain... "I'm fine," he said. "The river's moving us along fast. We'll have you home in no time." He smiled at her.

"Why'd you come get me, Mister Setzer?" Elya stared at him with big eyes. He felt a little fuzzy... hadn't she done something he was surprised about? He shrugged it off.

"Your cat told me to," he answered, nodding at the sleeping ball of fur. She'd curled up and dropped off almost as soon as they had started.

"Nautās Motherās cat," she corrected. "Mother must have sent her to find you."

"Sure," Setzer said, reaching into the dark water of the river to wet his hand, and running it over his forehead. It felt good, nice and cold, not even tasting too bad. "Why don't you get some sleep or something? Your cat's asleep already."

"Am not," Nautilus mumbled, and with a strange look at him Elya went back over to curl next to the cat. He turned away to face the shore going by. I must be really out of shape! You'd think that after all that fighting with Kefka and Ultros and that stupid Chupon and everything else I'd be able to run a little, but no! Why am I so dizzy all of a sudden?

A fresh well of blood from his hand gave him the answer. He unwrapped the bandage, biting his lip. It was hard to believe that the twisted thing on the end of his wrist had actually had a shape. It was more like a slab of meat. "Should've stopped bleeding by now," he muttered, poking it gingerly. But it was caused by magical means. There are things that can cause wounds that never heal. You bleed to death... and not to mention that it won't let me cast spells.

Setzer grimaced, brushing his right forefinger against one of his other fingers, which was laying grotesquely on the back of his hand. He hardly felt a thing, but he was dizzy from the blood loss, and hot, and tired, and he had the sudden sickening thought that he would die and leave the girl and the cat to float to the sea and be recaptured again. You didn't sacrifice your hand for that! he reprimanded himself, struggling to stay conscious. Even though you have no reason to be doing this, you should at least try to see it through, Gabbiani!

Cure... I've gotta try to Cure this... but I tried casting before, I can't harness enough power... well, I'll just have to try again. He began to concentrate on the magic of the Espers, on getting power to Cure his hand. But the wound itself prevented him from doing it, and it frustrated him. He successfully suppressed a wave of nausea and the want to just lie down and forget about everything.

But he was unable to stop himself from pitching forward, almost into the water. He felt Elya tugging at the back of his coat, pulling him back so violently she fell. "You are not okay," she scolded, standing back up. "Tell me what's wrong."

He laughed weakly at her tone, hiding his hand from view. "There's nothing you can do, little one, so just try to sleep, okay? We have to travel all day tomorrow and most of the next, I think."

"How do you know what I can do?" she countered, kneeling. "I can do lots of stuff. And I know that it's your hand that's hurt Īcause you won't let me look at it. So c'mon, let me see it."

"No," he protested, twisting around. He wanted to protect her from the sight somehow, but insistently the girl reached out and pulled at his other hand. He tugged back but finally gave up, letting her look.

"Eww," she said, wrinkling her nose. "Don't you know magic? Can't you Cure it?"

"How do you know about magic?" Setzer said, frowning.

She was truly puzzled. "Didn't you see me do that magic on the soldiers? I know lots about magic. Mother taught me, and she's the best in the whole world. That's why they wanted me to be there in that cave, because I'm special. She said so."

He looked at her blankly. "Oh." It was a moment before he realized there was more to the thought. "Cure. I tried, but I couldn't do it," he said abruptly.

Elya sighed, but she was concerned. "You, lie down, and I'll fix you up. But you can't be afraid. I hate it when people are afraid."

He obeyed, letting the girl push him down on the raft. "Afraid, why? What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to Cure you up, Mister Setzer. But I have to change, and that scares people. I don't want to scare you. You're nice. So just... close your eyes, okay?"

He didn't understand any of it, but the thought of closing his eyes felt good. But he didn't know if he could ever open them again afterwards, so he didn't. "I won't be afraid."

"Well, okay." She stood up and moved back to another part of the raft. He looked at her curiously. She closed her eyes, her cheeks puffing out. It was rather funny, but then she started to glow. It was bright, almost painful, and then with a flash it was gone, and Elya had Changed. The little girl had become a Esper.

He sat up, staring. What's going on? She÷ she morphed! I thought only Terra could do that! She hovered above the raft, moving with it as they floated downstream, regarding him sadly with gigantic eyes that looked as if they had been made out of glass, swirling purple and green.

Elya was covered with what looked like pale violet feathers, and with a sigh she flew over to him and sat on the raft. Her shape had changed more drastically as well. As an Esper, she had the form of a teenager.

"You're scared," she said mournfully, her voice somehow deeper and more adult. "I told you not to watch!"

"No, I'm not scared," he stammered, "it's just that I didn't think anyone else could do that!"

She frowned quizzically. "Anyone else? What do you mean, Īanyone elseā?" But his reply to that was interrupted.

"Elya!" Nautilus screeched from the other side of the raft. "What did you do that for?!"

The Esper girl turned her gaze to the cat briefly. "The magic works better now, Naut. You know that. I need to Cure." She looked back at Setzer. "I won't stay this way long. I have to hurry." Elya took his hand, pushing him back down with the other. He watched in curiosity and even a little awe as she put what was left of his fingers back into place, rearranging the lumps of flesh into something resembling the shape of a hand.

And the strange thing was that it didn't even hurt past a light tingling. She began to glow again, softly. "Cure," she whispered. "Cure. Cure." The glow spread to his hand, and the tingling grew more intense. And then there was a sharp burst of pain, and Setzer squeezed his eyes closed. When he opened them again, he saw that the bones of his fingers were knitting themselves together, that missing parts were reforming, and then suddenly it was whole again.

He leaned up on an elbow and gazed at it in amazement. It was as if nothing had happened to it at all. He turned to Elya to thank her, and saw that she had changed back into human form. No longer an Esper, a being of magic, she was now just a little girl, tired, hurt, and suddenly very afraid. She huddled up and began to cry softly.

"Elya," he began, sitting up, but didn't have the heart to say anything else. He felt a little uncomfortable, unsure. He wasn't very good with children, didn't know how to comfort her, or even what was wrong.

Help her, idiot! Nautilus said. The white cat ran over to her, purring. Hesitantly, he reached out to touch Elya's shoulder. She turned to him and buried her face against him, sobbing. He held her close, and the cat gave her approval.

Setzer rocked her gently, patting her hair and murmuring comforting nonsense as he had seen Thury do, letting her cry until she fell asleep. He eased her down on to the raft to rest, and then watched as the cat padded over to sit next to him.

Well, now do you see why they kidnapped her? And why she needs to be protected? Nautilus began, mind-speaking so as not to disturb her.

Yes, but why didn't you tell me before? Elya's half-Esper, isn't she? He looked over at the sleeping child, saw her swollen, twisted ankle, and knew how to repay her. He began concentrating on the magic, no longer dizzy. Like Terra.

You got it, sweetcheeks. We didn't know if you'd help if we told you. Most people hear ĪEsperā and get scared or think it's just a story or something. She's afraid of being shunned for what she is, but she wanted to help you. If you had half a brain you'd be honored. Nautilus gave her paw a few cursory licks.

I am. And if you'd actually taken the time to find out who you were drafting to rescue her, you'd know that I'm quite familiar with Espers.

Stop insulting me like that. I know all about you, Setzer Gabbiani. Every dark secret of yours I know! The cat's thought-laugh was mocking, and yet still playful. She loved to tease him, and he hated it. Katara and I decided not to tell you until we knew you could be trusted, even then maybe not at all. Elya knows to keep it a secret. But she trusted you.

But I thought Terra was the only half-Esper. Are there others besides Elya and Terra? Nautilus shrugged, stopping her bath and folding her paws underneath her. Setzer frowned thoughtfully, thinking a long while before mind-speaking again. This is confusing. What's going to stop them from finding her once she's back?

There was no answer, and glancing back he saw that the cat was either being mysterious and ignoring him or was actually asleep. He sighed in irritation and held his hand over Elya's ankle. "Cure," he murmured, feeling great satisfaction as the spell worked and her ankle slowly returned to normal. He smiled to himself and turned to observe the shores again. Someone had to keep watch.

*****

When he awoke, it was light, the sun slowly rising towards midday. He sat up with a curse.

"Watch your mouth!" Nautilus snapped, and looking around Setzer realized where he was. On a raft, floating down a brown river, with a girl and a cat. He shook his head, and Elya glanced up at him.

"Why is the water brown? Why is everything so dead? What happened to the world? Itās ruined." She was kneeling near the edge of the raft, peering into the water.

"You don't know?"

She shook her head. "It wasn't like this when they took me to the cave."

He cleared his throat, kneeling next to her. "Ahem. Uh, you see, there's a bad man named Kefka, and these three statues, and, well..."

"Stupid," Nautilus broke in, ignoring the glare he gave her. She nestled in Elya's lap. "It's like this. There's three statues of the goddesses of magic, and they have to be in exactly the right positions to keep the world balanced. Well, this Kefka caused them get out of order. Pokerface here and his friends went to go stop him, but they couldnāt do it in time. And because the statues weren't aligned, the world broke up into pieces."

And so did my airship, Setzer added silently.

"It wasn't that long ago... do you remember the earthquakes in the cave, and when the rocks fell?"

How did you know all this, cat? he tried to ask, but Nautilus wasn't listening. Only the familiar could initiate the mind-speaking, which made it very frustrating when had a message for her that couldn't be spoken out loud. That idiot cat probably read my mind... damn, if she could only stay out of my head...!

Elya nodded slowly. "I remember that. And that big lady liked to talk about that Kefka person, too. She liked him a lot." He inwardly smiled at her description of General Ethar. It was very true, and her liking Kefka... Well. It was disgusting to think about. "Can the world get fixed, Mister Setzer?"

"Please, it's just Setzer. And I don't know," he answered. "But I think we're going to try to do it."

"Of course you are," the cat said sternly. "You'll find your friends."

"But my airship's gone," he said, turning to her. "I'm of no use to them anymore. And thatās assuming theyāre even alive. We fell such a long way... I wasnāt even sure I was going to make it afterwards."

"Airship?" Elya exclaimed. "What's that? It flies in the sky, right?" She looked excited. "You've got one? Tell me about it! You can really fly up there?" She pointed, and he smiled at her.

"Not anymore. It's broken."

"Can't you fix it? Or get a new one?" He shook his head. She sounded a little disappointed. "Well, can you tell me what it was like anyway?"

Nautilus nodded. "Sure he can. Go on, tell us a story, gambler. Tell us about your airship."

He looked down at the logs of the raft. "All right. Once, a few years ago, I won a lot of money. And so I decided that I wanted to build something, have something no one else had. I wanted to fly..."

*****

It was much later in the day, almost nighttime. They had floated down the river, the current slower now than before. He had told stories to Nautilus and her charge, and the cat in turn had told stories to them. It was nearly all they had done all day, and it had worked to keep the girl from getting too bored. But it was going to get old tomorrow, fast. It was a good thing they would reach the end of the river soon, and the town there.

They had found a few good fish in the river, and a carefully-watched Fire spell cooked them well enough. They were attacked a few times by strange deformed blowfish and other water creatures, but these were easily disposed of by Setzer's dice and a gleeful Elya's spells. He had never seen a little girl so excited about killing anything, and Nautilus's scolding afterward was funny, to say the least.

Now it was almost time to sleep again. The cat was going to stay awake to keep watch. So gratefully Setzer covered Elya with his coat and patted Nautilus, grinning as she made a face at him. He lay down on the raft, head pillowed on his arm, and almost immediately slept, lulled by the sound of water and the gentle motion of the raft.

"Setzer? Oh, Setzer?" a familiar voice called from around the corner. He smiled and turned to it as she came into view.

"Daryl," he responded, reaching out to take her hand. "What is it?"

"I have something to show you," she answered, pulling him down the road. And then, suddenly they were in a dark field, shadows all around, and an airship loomed ahead. He realized it was a dream, but the atmosphere of it was distinctly foreboding.

"What's going on?" he asked, glancing around at the area and then back down at her. Daryl smiled sweetly and somehow knocked him to the ground.

"You killed me, Setzer! It's all your fault! I wanted the stars and you gave me the ground!" Her face became twisted and hideous, not the Daryl he remembered at all. He tried to roll away, tried to remind himself it was just a dream, but failed as she pulled a huge long knife from nowhere and slashed it down through his chest, viciously cutting him open. "Six feet under, Setzer! You put me in a tomb to rot! You put me under the dirt!"

He screamed and jumped away as she brought the blade down again. But he wasn't dead, wasn't waking up, couldn't go anywhere! Daryl crashed after him, shouting. "I'm coming for you! I'm coming, Setzer! Wait for me, come back to the ground with me! I won't let you fly when you've taken it away from me!"

The huge gash didn't hurt, she couldn't really wound him, but the whole image sent waves of pain through him. ::No! She wouldn't blame me for it, it wasn't my fault, was it? I didn't want her to die!:: He ran toward the airship-shape, but couldn't get to it, and then Daryl was there in front of him, ready for him. The blade came down again...

"Gambler!" Nautilus hissed close to his ear. "Gabbiani, wake up, or you'll hurt yourself." He came awake quickly, heart pounding, and stared at her, taking deep breaths. "Your mind was screaming," she informed him, washing behind her ears as if it were a trivial matter.

"A nightmare," he spat, shaking his head. He hadn't had one of those in a long time, hated the cold feeling it gave him on the small of his back. He looked at the sky, saw that it was nearing dawn. "Just a stupid nightmare."

There was a silence as Nautilus finished cleaning. "You didn't kill her, you know," she finally remarked. Setzer glared at her so fiercely she actually flinched.

"Stop stealing my thoughts!" he snapped, reaching out and knocking her hard onto her side. She calmly dug her claws into his hand, and he pulled it back. "Leave my memories alone!"

"Shut up. You'll wake Elya. And I didn't steal them. You were actually sending them out! You're lucky I'm the only true mental receiver around, because it would be impossible not to see what happened."

He blinked. "Was it really that bad?"

"Sure was. Wonder what brought it on?"

He shrugged, looking back upstream. No one following, yet, but he had a feeling they'd be coming along soon. Hopefully they'd be to the town, safe, by then. And then a sudden thought froze his heart. What if there were slavers, soldiers÷ Imperials in the town? There had to be! They were sailing right into a trap! Why hadn't he seen it before?

"Oh, gods!" he breathed, leaping to his feet. "We have to stop the raft!"

 

Chapter Four - Have a Nice Trip, See You Next Fall!
In which most everyone gets wet and does not have a good time

 

Nautilus let loose a long peal of laughter. "You... youāve gone batty!" she choked, rolling about as if her sides hurt. "Stop the raft? Please! You're killing me!"

He scooped the cat up and held her around her middle, facing downstream. "You think you're so smart, cat? Look at that!" He jabbed a finger in the general direction of the town. "Odds are there are Imperials in that town, and they will come upstream and catch us! I would bet you anything! Anything! So we have to stop the raft!"

"No need to get testy," Nautilus said carelessly. "Just do it."

He dropped her like a hot coal. She landed perfectly and turned away from him, tail in the air. "Oh, damn you!" he snarled, stomping over to the opposite side of the raft. He fell to his knees and began fishing in the river for tree limbs. It was lucky that all the earthquakes and rearranging of the world had knocked so many trees into the river. The water was full of branches.

"What's going on?" Elya asked sleepily, sitting up and peering out from under the black leather of Setzer's coat. She took one look at him up to his elbows in water and came over to help. "What're you doing?"

He found a good one and began hauling it up. She grabbed onto a stick and yanked as well. "Need three branches," he grunted, stepping back and laying his prize on the logs. "Gotta stop the raft." Immediately he turned back and reached for another.

"Why?" When he didn't answer Elya turned to Nautilus. "Why does he need branches? Why do we have to stop the raft?"

"Beats me," the cat replied, apparently sunning herself even though it wasn't light yet. "He's just being a fool, if you ask me."

"No one did." Setzer laid the second branch next to the first and once more looked into the river.

Elya sat down hard, twirling a strand of hair around her fingers. "I'm hungry," she complained.

"Dried meat in the pocket," he told her, retrieving the last branch. Grabbing all three, he jumped to his feet and ran to the downstream end of the raft. As hard as he could, he rammed a branch down into the riverbed.

The raft hit against it, but the current began to push it past the branch and down the river. He went to the other corner and did the same with another branch, putting the last one in the middle for good measure. The raft pushed against the branches, but stayed put.

He sighed in relief and flopped down on the logs. Elya clapped politely, her mouth full of dried meat, and Nautilus pointedly ignored him. "Thank you, thank you," he said grandly, bowing as well as he could from his sprawled position.

When he'd caught his breath, Setzer retrieved his coat and shrugged into it, biting his lip as he looked at the banks. How are we going to get over there? They were floating in the middle of the river, and the water was too deep for him to cross by himself, let alone trying to carry passengers. And they'd have to hide their tracks until they got out into the forest.

You swim, britelight. Of course.

Be quiet. I'm not speaking to you at the moment. he thought, annoyed.

She snorted. But you're going to do it anyway, right?

No kidding. He turned to the girl. "Elya, can you swim?" He was not exactly looking forward to getting wet, but there was no way around it.

"Yes, she can," Nautilus answered for her. "Katara taught her. I was there."

Elya stared at the cat, and then crossed the logs and climbed into his lap. "I'm scared," she whispered in his ear, the light violet of her hair orange with the sunrise. "I don't want Naut to know. The water's too fast." She hugged him suddenly.

"Don't worry," he whispered back, smiling. "I won't let you go. I promise."

Nautilus shook herself and darted over. "What are you talking about?" she demanded crossly.

"The fact that you need a nap," Setzer said seriously, sharing a confidential look with Elya.

She giggled. "You're really cranky, Naut."

The cat harumphed. "Well, you would be too if you had to stay up all night listening to Setzer's bad dreams."

Elya looked confused but he didn't explain, looking upstream. Was it his imagination or did he hear voices? The white cat froze, looking as well.

I hear them, she thought urgently. They're coming, gambler!

Quickly he set Elya on the raft and untucked his shirt, tearing two long strips off of it. She simply stared, wide-eyed, as he looped one around the vines holding two logs together and tied it tightly. The other one he used to fasten one of Elya's wrists to his so he couldn't lose her. "Nothing like a nice swim to wake you up in the morning," Setzer said cheerfully.

"What are you doing?" she asked in a small voice as he tucked his shirttails back in, glancing at Nautilus. The cat knew what she was supposed to do but still looked away huffily.

He picked Elya up, moving to the edge of the raft. "We have to get off now," he said carefully, "and we can't let anyone see us. We're going to hide under the raft."

She nodded, pale. "What about Naut?"

The cat ran up, leaping to Setzer's shoulder. "I'll be okay, Elly," she said, quickly burrowing down into his shirt. "Believe me, I'm not doing this because I like you," she told him in a disgusted voice.

Ignoring her remarks, he sat on the edge of the raft, holding the ends of the cloth tied to the logs in a hand. He hoped it would hold; the shirt had been expensive enough, at any rate. Elya grasped his coat tightly, her knuckles white, squeezing her eyes closed and pressing her face into his shoulder. He held on to her with one arm, the cat digging her claws into his chest. He could hear the soldiersā voices getting closer. Soon they would come around the bend...

"Take a deep breath and hold it," he said tersely, waiting until the child had done so before inching forward. "Here we go÷" He inhaled and slid off into the chilly dark water.

They hit with hardly a splash, but the cold was enough to jar a gasp from him before they went under, the current pulling them beneath the raft. It would have taken them down the river as well, if not for the cloth he had wrapped around his hand.

It was just in time, for the boat carrying the soldiers had appeared. Setzer could hear muffled shouts, felt the raft jar slightly as booted feet tramped onto it. Very slightly, he shifted Elya up so she could breathe through the gaps in the logs. She wasn't resisting, no longer holding on very well. And there was nothing he could do for the cat besides praying she could take care of herself. And it was so cold!

Come on, let them decide we went onto the island! he thought. And there were more shouted orders from above. Some of the troops were going to land, and the others... they were tying a rope to the raft and preparing to haul it ashore and carry it back to the base. Oh, now what do we do? If I let go they'll see us! But if I don't...

The current pushed at them as the raft was dragged across the river to the shore. Taking a deep breath, Setzer let go. They were immediately swept downstream, the water seeming to move faster and faster. Not caring anymore if they saw them, he tried to keep his head above water, pulling Elya up so she could breathe. If it wasn't for the cloth he would have let go of her. She was unconscious but still breathing, the cat like a rock in his shirt.

They were moving too quickly for the soldiers to follow, tossed by the rapids, and Setzer, after being dashed against a rock for the hundredth time, was no longer able to stay awake. The man, the girl, and the cat went under, the churning water of the river hiding them from their pursuers even as it kept from them the air...

*****

÷cold wet tired so cold can't breathe can't breathe coughing hurts blood where are they so tired so cold it hurts÷

Setzer coughed violently, hacking up water and silt from the river, and even a little blood, raised up on all fours and coughed again, his throat hurting. And yet the ground beneath him was solid enough, his hands curling into the mud. He coughed until all the water was out, groaning and collapsing onto the wet ground.

A moment later he raised his head and turned to the little girl whose wrist was still tied to his, to the wet whiteness of the cat laying limply beside her. He worked loose the cloth and reached out to touch Elya. She was cold even to his numbed fingers. Frowning, he watched for breathing. There was none.

"No!" He pulled himself up, kneeling over her. ÷breathe she must breathe no have to help÷ his mind told him, his thoughts still fractured and unclear. Setzer bent down, breathing his own life into her. Spells. Life, Cure. I have to save her!

Her chest rose with the air he gave her, and taking another breath he continued until she began to cough up water. He helped her roll to her side, gasping with relief, and as she began to breathe on her own he muttered the Cure2 spell, casting it on all three of them. As the familiar feel of magic coursed through him, he sat back into the mud, his head clearing.

"Setzer!" Elya said hoarsely, bursting into tears, and in relief he hugged her close.

"I told you I wouldn't let you go," he murmured, closing his eyes, stroking the muddy hair of the half-Esper girl. Suddenly the fact that she was alive meant more than all the money or airships in the world. "I promised."

She sniffled, trembling, weak. Her breaths were audible as her lungs got reaccustomed to holding air. "Naut?" she questioned softly, looking down at the cat. "She's okay, isn't she?"

Setzer glanced at Nautilus. She did not look good at all. He couldn't see her breathing, either, her eyes shut, laying near the river's edge where she'd fallen from his shirt. "Oh, Elya," he whispered. "I'm sorry, but she was underwater the whole time... I don't think... I'm so sorry." He couldn't say any more as the girl sobbed against him, and he did his best to comfort her.

Damn it, and he'd miss that back-talking cat, too. He hugged Elya tightly, bowing his head. If he'd only seen what was happening sooner, she'd still be alive. It's all my fault. I may yet bring Elya home, but I've still failed.

"If you'd failed, Setzer, we'd all be at the bottom of the river by now," came a raspy voice from near him. His head snapped up, the girl turning slightly in his arms.

"You damned by all the gods cat!" he breathed, staring at Nautilus.

She managed a low laugh. "Aw, now, that's no way to greet me! I thought you said you'd miss me."

"Naut!" Elya cried, scrambling over to the cat and picking her up, then making her way back to Setzer and collapsing next to him. "You're okay!"

She licked her hand, rubbing her head against the child. "Yes, and I'm glad to see you are, too! Looks like the gambler here is useful for more than causing trouble."

He made a miffed noise. "So, how did you survive, cat? Just dumb luck?"

"The name is Nautilus!" she said, tossing her head. "I'll tell you once we're away from the river. Don't want them to just find us here. We're lucky they haven't already."

"Probably thought we drowned," Setzer responded, looking around at their surroundings. They apparently had washed up on the riverbank, near a place where the water pooled in a curve. The forest loomed around them, waiting.

The cat shrugged. "Cast your Cure on us one more time, Gabbiani, and then we'll get under the trees where we won't be so easy to find. Cover our tracks until we get in there enough."

He scowled but began preparing the spell anyway. "Yes, mother," he muttered, smiling at Elya when she giggled. "I'm really not that funny, you know."

"Yes, you are," she laughed, and he was glad to see she was regaining some of her usual child's vigor.

Setzer raised his hands, saying, "Cure. Cure!" with more enthusiasm than he'd felt in a long time, watching as the green energy flew around them and soaked into their skins, through their wet clothes. Immediately he felt better, and from the looks on the others' faces they did too.

He stood, pulling Elya to her feet, the girl holding Nautilus against her shoulder with one arm. She squeezed his hand, looking up at him, and he smiled and led them into the woods. As soon as the cat told them to stop, he grabbed a leafy branch from the ground and went back to where they'd been, smoothing out the mud as well as he could to hide their tracks. Setzer dropped it and they continued on, to get as far away from the river as they could before night fell.

When they reached a nice stopping place, with a convenient fallen log to sit on, he stopped and sat down. He still felt a bit tired, and with dark coming on the air was chilling his damp clothes. As far as he knew everything he was wearing was ruined, anyway. "Now you can tell us how you survived, Nautilus. As far as I know, you were under the whole time. Even you can't hold your breath that long."

The white cat sat next to his feet. "I kind of put myself in a trance. I didn't have to breathe or anything like that. If I could have done it some other way, I would have," Nautilus replied. "Sometimes I really hate being a cat," she said in a dark voice. Shrugging it off, she glanced up at Setzer. "We can stay here tonight. Why don't you build us a fire? Make sure it doesn't smoke."

"Why don't you build it yourself?"

She laughed. "I'm a cat, remember?"

"You can do it, and you know it," he grumbled, kneeling down and heaping together a few sticks. Elya gathered a few more and brought them over, wanting to help. He let her cast Fire on them, settling back against the log with a sigh.

Nautilus ambled over to stretch out in front of the blaze, complimenting the girl on how nice a fire it was.

She beamed and then, yawning, made her way back over to them. "Now I'm really hungry," she said, rubbing her stomach. "My tummy's grumbling."

"I'm sorry, Elly. I don't have anything with me, and it's too dark to hunt now. We'll find something in the morning, all right?" he told her.

She frowned and sighed. "Oh, okay. Can I go get a drink of water?"

The cat stood. "I'll go with you. Remember, don't go anywhere without one of us, Elya. You might get lost or hurt."

She nodded, looking tired and uncomfortable. The two figures disappeared into the darkness, and Setzer stirred the fire with a stick. He was getting a bit hungry as well, but was better at ignoring it than the girl was. Well, okay, more than a bit hungry. Now that the others were gone he grimaced at the hollow feeling in his gut. I'll have to have something if I plan on going much farther.

When the girl and familiar returned, Elya curled up next to his side to rest where it was warm. He was surprised, pausing a moment before putting his arm protectively around her shoulders. "G'night, Setzer. G'night, Naut," she mumbled sleepily, her eyes closed.

"Goodnight," he said with a faint smile, meeting the cat's eyes. We need to talk, he mouthed at her.

Nautilus nodded. "Sleep tight," she added, crouching down and folding her paws underneath her.

She looks like a loaf of bread, he thought with amusement, smirking and waiting for the familiar's thought-voice. A loaf of bread with the head of a cat and a tail on it.

Oh, funny. Funny funny hah hah.

Believe me, if you were a loaf of bread you wouldn't be here now. Elya and I would have eaten you a long time ago. Damn it, when was the last time I ate? Three days ago?

The cat shifted in annoyance. Is this what you wanted to talk to me about? I can't create food, you dolt. There's nothing I can do about it.

No, I'm just complaining, he sighed. What I wanted to ask is about Elya. Why does she do... this? Setzer gestured with his spare hand at the girl next to him.

She likes you. She trusts you. You make her feel safe. Nautilus shrugged. Is it really so bad? She curls up with her mother like that.

No, it's not that it's bad, it's just that I'm not used to it. I've never been good with children, and... well, it's bothering me! I can't take risks, or, or anything when I know I have to watch her!

She seemed to roll her eyes. That's what being a parent is all about, Setzer.

I'm not her parent! he protested. I'm definitely not made to be a father. He narrowed his eyes. I hope you and your mistress aren't planning something, cat.

Planning something? Where would you get that idea, Gabbiani? That stuff is too silly for me to get my paws on. I'll have nothing to do with those stupid prolonged human mating rituals. Now, please, get some sleep. You and Elya have had a hard day. I was in a trance, so I'm wide awake now. I'll watch.

All right, Setzer sighed, a bit suspiciously, settling back and closing his eyes. His mind, however, was not quite so relaxed. He shuddered, remembering the events of the past week or so. We are so lucky to have gotten out alive. And this morning, when I thought Elya had drowned... I don't think I've ever been afraid like that before, worried that she'd die. Even through all the battles I've fought with the Returners, I've never felt that way. Not even Relm, even though she's just a kid too.

It's called love, Setzer.

I know what love is! he thought angrily, Daryl's face flashing before his mind's eye. He had never told her how he'd felt, afraid she didn't feel the same way, and then it was too late, and his chance was gone. He'd never know if she had loved him... Believe me, I know! You never know just what you have until you've lost it forever. Elya's a nice kid, but I don't love her.

She sighed. You are hopeless, Gabbiani. Life goes on. You must, too.

Just leave me alone. Stop trying to change me. I'm only doing this because I'm going to get paid so I can build another airship and fly again. I'm just a gambler, cat, and nothing more. He turned away from her, trying to block out her mental voice and get some rest. It seemed that he succeeded, although he thought he heard one last stray thought from the familiar before she gave up.

Nothing more? Perhaps you're right. But maybe, Setzer, maybe it's not me who's trying to change you. Maybe you are trying to change yourself.

 

The next morning found Elya eating grass and Nautilus nowhere in sight. "Elly," Setzer groaned, sitting up, futilely trying to blink away a headache, "why is there grass hanging out of your mouth?"

She grinned at him, flashing green-stained teeth, and then clapped both her hands over her mouth. "I'm hungry!" she said around her fingers. "It's kinda like salad."

"I know you're hungry," he responded. "We'll get food right away. Where's the cat?"

Elya dropped her handful of green foliage. "She's out looking for food, too. Setzer, what's that rock in your pocket for?"

He immediately reached into his pocket. "How do you know what's in there?"

She cocked her head slightly to one side. "You let me get some meat and I saw it then."

"Oh." His hand closed around the shard of Magicite, and he pulled it out. It shone dully in his palm as he showed it to the girl. He'd already learned all the spells from it since the world had been destroyed. Usually the companions had traded Magicite when they'd learned all the spells they could, but since no one else had any he'd just carried it. The slavers had just mistaken it for a plain rock. "This is the Shiva Magicite. It teaches me spells. Well, it used to, anyway..."

"Magicite?" She repeated the unfamiliar word so as to remember it. "What's that?"

"It comes from an Esper. The Esper Shiva, in this case."

Her mouth became round with surprise. "Wow! Can... can I hold it? For a little while?"

"Sure." He dropped it into her outstretched hands. As Elya began to examine it, he dug around in his pockets some more. Might as well see what I still have while I wait for the cat to come back. I can't take Elya hunting with me. He laid each of the items out in front of him as he pulled them out. He still had his razor-edged cards and dice, thankfully, as well as a small sack of gold pieces he'd gotten from the guard. They'd be enough to pay someone to take them off the island.

His regular cards had been soaked, the paper wavy and water-spotted. He frowned at that. It wasn't as if he couldn't afford a new deck, but it was just the principle of it all. His clothes were ruined, his things hardly in better shape. He wondered ÷ just how much was Katara going to pay him when it was over?

Setzer rubbed his chin as he sorted through the odds and ends and suddenly noticed that he really needed to shave. He hated wearing a beard; because of the color, it made him look much older than he really was. Hell, people thought he was older anyway when he really wasn't even thirty yet.

He picked up one of the sharp fighting cards. It would work to shave with. In fact, it would work beautifully. Why not? Something about the entire thing made him want to laugh, and so he did, chuckling loudly. When in doubt, improvise!

Elya had been absorbed in the Magicite, but she looked up at him, her violet eyes strangely intense. "I don't know all of these spells," she told him, seemingly unaware that he was thinking about something else altogether. "Could I learn them? Is it all right?"

He nodded, trying to remember which ones the shard held. "I suppose," he said finally. "Please don't lose it. Technically, it's not mine."

"I'll be careful," she promised excitedly, turning as Nautilus bounded through the brush, dragging a dead bird in her mouth. She dropped it and greeted him.

"I've got more where this came from," she told Setzer. "I can't carry it all."

He nodded and scooped his things back up and shoved them into his pockets. He got up and followed the cat a little ways, Elya tagging along and telling Naut breathlessly about the Esper and the spells she was going to learn.

Was that really wise? she asked him as he knelt and, making a face, picked up little rodent corpses.

It's not like they're going to hurt her, and I wasn't using it, he replied as they returned to their campsite, immediately starting a fire and sending Elya for more sticks. If we get attacked she might even need them.

The cat tore into a bird with a vengeance. As long as you're sure.

He nodded and began preparing the meal, letting Elya help whenever she could. It seemed like forever before the meat was cooked, and then they stuffed themselves, starving after days without anything.

When it all was gone, they cleaned up the campsite and hid all traces of their passing. Setzer looked through the trees as far as he could. All they needed to do was travel parallel to the river for a day or two more and they would reach the coast. And then, all that was left was getting the hell off this island.

Chapter Five - Blondes Do Not Have More Fun
In which a yard is as good as a mile

 

They were hiking through the forest, heading south, following animal

trails and trying to avoid making new ones. Setzer kept glancing back to make

sure they weren't leaving a path a blind man could follow. If we get caught now

it will all have been for nothing. It was at times like this he wished he knew the

Warp spell, or at least had a stone.

Elya was in a bad mood, and Nautilus was hardly any better. They had

been attacked several times by huge multicolored birds and other creatures, and

although they had been defeated or chased away, the three of them had been

wounded slightly, not enough to waste a Cure spell on, but enough to bother

them as they traveled. Setzer was worrying about his magic levels. Without a

Tincture or a good place to rest he might run out of power.

And then the dream came to him suddenly, without warning. It was a

waking dream, more of a memory, actually, and it stopped him in his tracks,

sending him to his knees with its force.

The opera was boring that night, eight years ago, all talk and no action, and

the Opera House itself stuffy and hot. Setzer left the theater, wandering outside

onto a terrace for a breath of fresh air.

As he stood there he suddenly realized he was not alone out here under the

stars. A young woman, even younger than him, also stood at the banister, casually

leaning out, her gaze focused out in the distance. Her gold-red hair was long,

hiding her face from view, and the dress she wore was simple but flattering, a deep

turquoise color.

She spun around at nearly the same time as he did, and they apologized

profusely for startling one another. "Forgive me," Setzer said, turning to leave. She

looked like she didn't want to be bothered.

"No, you can stay," she said, smiling at him. "Boring opera, right?"

He nodded and moved back over, intrigued. She held out her hand to shake,

which he did, and then, smiling impishly, kissed. She blushed a bit and drew it

back. "My name is Setzer Gabbiani," he said, bowing slightly.

"Daryl," she responded, nodding in acquiescence. "Daryl Chayton. Nice to

meet you, Setzer. I hope you don't mind if I call you that. I hate formality."

"I don't mind," he replied, watching her. Her head was turned up, looking at

the stars. "You like watching the stars?" he asked, fascinated by her for some

reason.

"Mmm," she sighed. "Yes, I do. I wonder what it would be like to be up

there among them, so close. Can one actually reach the stars? I'd like to be the one

that does it, someday." She turned to smile at him. "Does this surprise you? That

I'd want more than just a husband, a house to clean, and children?"

He shook his head solemnly. "No, it doesn't surprise me at all. I knew as

soon as I saw you that you were an adventurous type."

She chuckled. "Does it really show that much? I thought that since I gave up

looking for trouble that aura would go away, but I suppose not." He blinked at her

in confusion as she looked at him closely. "You have it, too, Setzer. It's a kind of

feeling, the mark of someone who isn't satisfied with things as they are."

"So you aren't really... happy?"

She shook her head. "No, not really. I'm always wanting something more

than what I can see..." Daryl paused a moment, laughing self-consciously. "But

why am I telling you all this? We just met, and it isn't as if you could change me..."

She trailed off and looked away.

He pondered a moment, thinking about his new toy, his airship. The

Blackjack. How fun it would be to share it with someone, with this beautiful

woman who didn't hang on his every word in the hopes of getting some of his

money. "Perhaps I don't need to change you," he announced, grinning as she

glanced over at him suspiciously. "Perhaps it's just your surroundings that need to

be changed. So, tell me, Daryl. I don't suppose you've ever wanted to fly...?"

He felt Nautilus's teeth sink into his hand, snapping him out of it. He

gasped and grabbed the back of her neck, squeezing until she had to let go.

The teeth had sunk in deep, and a few drops of his blood speckled the fur

around her mouth.

"Oh, come on!" she exclaimed, shaking herself. "I was led to believe you

weren't prone to these kind of things, Setzer! It was one of the reasons I chose

you in the first place. By all the spirits, why can't you just forget the past?"

He crouched down, clutching at his head. It pounded so hard... "I have!

I mean, I thought I have! I don't know why I should be remembering this now!

It hasn't bothered me before!" Gods, she looked so beautiful that night. Why did

she have to die?

The cat sighed and turned away from him, looking with concern at Elya.

The girl was kneeling next to Setzer, her eyes wide and blank. He followed

Nautilus's gaze and noticed Elya's expression. He shook her slightly, getting no

response.

"Uh-oh, this is bad," the familiar said, moving forward. Carefully, she

bent down and bit her hand as well.

Elya finally blinked and then suddenly jerked back, shocked. "Ouch!" she

shrieked. "Nautilus!"

She sighed in satisfaction. "Good to have you back, Elly. Now, would

you two mind telling me what's going on?"

The pounding in his head was fading, leaving him with a headache that

would likely last for hours. "I just remembered something, suddenly, for no

reason. It just hit me so quickly... it was like I was there again."

"But is that any reason to collapse? It's just a memory, Gabbiani. It can't

hurt you. Couldn't you just have ignored it or something?"

"Bad!" Elya said before he could reply, earning concerned glances from

the others. "Hurts! Remembers hurt, so bad, hate! Hate..." Her teeth were

clenched as she glared at the cat. "Can't ignore! I know what remem--

memories do. They hurt, remembering..." It seemed that Elya had forgotten

how to speak, but she was slowly regaining her control of the language.

Something's wrong with Elya...

I noticed, he said, watching her. She seems to be angry about

something. "Can you tell me about it?" Setzer said out loud.

The cat cocked her head to the side. Maybe she was hit with the same

thing you were.

It's possible, isn't it?

Elya took a deep breath. "I remembered something too. When I was a

little kid we live in town, lots of kids there. I play with them, but one day boy is

mean and hits me. Kids won't help me and I get so mad. I Change and there is

fire and I hurt them, I hurt the kids and they're hurt so bad and I can't stop they

all scream and I can't stop!"

"Elya, I remember that. It wasn't your fault," Nautilus said. Elya turned

her tear-stained face to her and growled suddenly, whacking her hard. "Elya!"

she said in a surprised voice, getting to her four feet. "Setzer, something's

happening!"

"You don't know, you can't see! Remembers hurt and you can't ignore,

you can't! You're mean, you're hateful! Hate! Hate! Hate!" Elya screamed,

leaping up out of her crouch and attacking the cat.

Setzer jumped up and tried to stop her, but the girl was too quick.

"Damn! Cat, she's berserked or something!" he called, catching up to her just as

she called a spell at Nautilus.

It was an Ice spell, one she'd learned from the Magicite he'd given her, he

remembered with dismay, and when it hit Setzer was surprised to discover part

of it had been aimed at him. It knocked him back a few steps, leaving his skin

tingling, but he had been hit with worse before and charged forward, tackling

Elya to the ground.

An animal howl of rage escaped from her throat as she tried to break free,

thrashing and kicking and biting and then muttering the words to a spell. The

Bolt spell hurt more at close range, and he was forced to let go, laying there on

the ground as she wrestled free and desperately tried to get at Nautilus.

"We gotta hit her to bring her out of it!" the cat called, evading the girl's

stumbling physical attacks. She didn't look too healthy, herself. He got to his

feet, head spinning.

"I know!" he answered, still reluctant to do it. For all that she was

berserked, he found it hard to bring himself to hit her. Another Bolt spell and

Nautilus cried out and went down, crashing against a tree. Elya screamed and

started to shimmer. She's morphing! he realized, and then she Changed and

darted into the air. No, I can't let her fly away!

He made a frantic lunge and caught hold of her ankle, dragging her

down and pinning her to the ground. He still didn't want to hit her, but when

the glowing, struggling creature in his arms bit him and tore into him with long

claw-like nails, purple-and-green eyes crackling with energy, he finally slapped

her.

She whimpered and went limp but did not change back into human form,

her violet feathers glowing palely. He sighed deeply in relief, trying to get his

breath back, and then something slashed him from behind, throwing him

forward over her.

Setzer twisted around to see an iridescent blue thing hovering above him.

He barely had time to think before it hit him again, apparently drawn by the

commotion. He'd fought these things before, albeit with Nautilus's help, and so

he knew what hurt them. Struggling to his knees, he held up his hands and

shouted "Fire Two!"

The flames hit it, and it struck back, knocking him to the ground. He

rolled to the side and up and cast it again. This time it shuddered and

disappeared, its molecules spread throughout the air.

"Finally!" he exclaimed, staggering up to his feet, clutching a tree branch

for support. Setzer surveyed the scene in front of him, Nautilus laying next the

tree trunk, Elya sprawled on the ground near his feet.

She looked up at him and moaned, closing her eyes. "I killed her, I went

and killed Nautilus! I killed her!"

He sunk to his knees slowly, head aching. This time I'm not going to get

up again, he told himself. Setzer reached out for the cat, touching her side. She

was still alive, barely. He held out his hands and began casting.

"Ohhh..." Elya groaned, twisting on the ground. She didn't respond when

he said her name, and with a worried frown he prepared to cast.

"Hold it right there," Nautilus commanded, although her voice was

thready and weak, and he paused. "You will not waste your magic on me,

gambler. You'll need it to protect Elya. You'll have to leave me here."

"Like hell I will!" he snapped, dropping the spell nonetheless. "You're the

guide, cat. I'll have no clue where to go once we get to the mainland. And I

can't carry you and her at the same÷"

She shifted slightly, trying in vain to lick at a bloody wound near her

shoulder. "That's the point, you dork! You have to leave one of us, and I'd

prefer it was me, obviously."

"I'm not going to leave you here," he stated flatly, taking off his overcoat

and dropping it to the ground. He would have used it, except the leather was

too hard to rip apart without a knife. "And I'm not going to even try following

your directions." Here goes the rest of my shirt, Setzer thought, ripping off a

sleeve and tearing some more from the ends. She sighed and laid still,

managing to look curious. He bandaged Nautilus's wounds as well as he could,

then splitting the sleeve down the seam and spreading it flat.

Very gently he moved the cat onto it and picked up the ends, trying to

ignore her hiss of pain. She barely fit inside, but it worked well enough. "It's a

sling, see," he told her. "No one gets left behind, even you, big mouth."

"You always seem to surprise me, Gabbiani," she said woozily. "Now go

help the girl."

Setzer nodded and put back on his coat, hanging the sling around his

neck and crawling over to Elya. Still in Esper form, she lay curled up into a

ball, shuddering. She lashed out at him when he tried to touch her. "Elya, let

me help you," he said. "We're almost there. We can't give up now. Please," he

begged, holding out his hand. Her luminous eyes were filled with pain.

"I killed her!" she moaned, hiding her face. "I always hurt people! I

always hurt them!"

"No, Nautilus is all right," he said, catching hold of the Esper girl's hands

and slowly pulling them down, away from her face. She tried to yank them

away briefly, tears spilling from her eyes. "See, she's alive. I have her right

here." He moved one of her hands to touch the unconscious cat's bloody white

fur, and slowly Elya straightened out, sitting up.

"Not... dead?" she said with a small smile. The girl leaned forward to rest

her cheek lightly against the cat, stroking her whiskered face. "Not dead?" She

seemed ready to grasp on to anything to help her let go of the guilt.

He smiled and put an arm around her shoulders. He had never been this

close to Terra when she was in Esper form, and he had to admit that he'd

always wanted to touch her spiky, feathery hair. The feel of magic radiated

from the girl, the downy violet feathers glowing dimly. "No, not dead. Just

asleep."

Elya sighed shakily, starting to sob again. "Mama... I want to go home

now! I want my mother now! I don't want to fight and hurt, I want to go

home!"

Setzer wiped the tears from her face with a finger, standing up. "I know

you do," he said. "We're going to go home now." He picked her up and held

her against his shoulder, finding his bearings again. She was even lighter now

than she had been when they'd escaped. He continued down the trail, Elya's

hair tickling his cheek. She was asleep soon after they were on their way.

Why hasn't she changed out of her Esper form yet? he asked himself, not

expecting an answer since the cat was unconscious. I don't think it's supposed to

last this long...

He walked slowly, tired and wounded, lost deep in thought. It was

nearing late afternoon when he realized that the trees were thinning out. He

walked a bit quicker and soon reached the edge of the forest. Down the hill

and to the east he could make out the ocean, breathing in wet air. He peered

toward the horizon. "Looks like there's some kind of hut over there," Setzer

muttered.

He placed Elya on the ground, careful not to disturb her, and walked out

to the edge of the hill. He squinted, shading his eyes with one hand and

supporting the cat's body with the other. Yes, that was most definitely a hut.

He caught a sudden glimpse of a flash of light out of the corner of his eye

and turned. Almost reluctantly, the girl was shimmering, flashing back into

human form again. She shrieked and sat up, looking around. "Setzer," Elya

said, "where are we? Are we almost home? Is Naut okay? I÷ I hurt her pretty

bad."

"She's still all right," he replied. "Are you okay?" She seemed back to

normal, at any rate.

She nodded, standing up. "I feel good now. Are we there yet?"

Setzer pointed toward the beach. "We have to go that way, to that hut.

Even if we can't find a boat, we can rest there."

Elya scrambled down the grassy hill, skidding and sliding her way to the

bottom. Setzer followed slowly, trying his best not to fall. He used plants as

handholds, finally making it to where the girl waited impatiently at the bottom.

She took his hand and nearly dragged him across the sandy plains to the beach.

She stopped running as abruptly as she had started, darting around

behind him and clinging to his coat. A scruffy bearded man sat outside the hut

on an overturned rowboat, mending his nets. Setzer took the sling with the cat

and hung it around Elya's neck so he'd have his hands free, just in case. She

cradled Nautilus with one arm, still holding on to his coat.

"Stay here," he whispered, but she shook her head stubbornly and

wouldn't let go. Finally he just sighed and approached the fisherman. "Hello

there!" he greeted brightly, not getting too close.

The man looked up, dark eyes piercing, as if he was assessing how much

they were worth. "Lemme guess. Escaped slaves, wanna ride off the island. It'll

cost ya."

Setzer frowned. "How much?" He had some hope; the two of them

looked so bad, dirty, ragged, that maybe he'd figure they couldn't pay a lot and

lower the price. Then again, he might just ask too much and then go report us.

"Fifty GP apiece, and I don't go to the authorities. No money, no boat."

That's most of my money. But if I don't pay, I know he'll go to the slavers

and tell them we were here. He's probably counting on it, to get a reward. "How

about thirty?"

The man shook his head. "No bargains. Pay or leave."

"All right. I'll pay half now and half when we get there. Agreed?"

"Agreed," the fisherman grunted. Setzer reached into his pocket and

pulled out the purse that he'd gotten off the guard in the caves. Adding the

money he'd gotten from creatures he'd killed, he had about two hundred or so

gold. He tossed fifty to the man, who got a greedy look in his eyes at the sight

of the purse.

Silently the man turned over the boat and dragged it down to the shore,

holding it steady as Setzer set Elya in and climbed in himself. They sat on one

end of the boat, the girl pressed against his side and looking fearfully at the

fisherman. He shoved off and then jumped in and took up the oars. A few

strokes later they were out to sea.

The time passed slowly as they floated across the dark water. It was

silent, Setzer, Elya and the cat on one side of the boat and the fisherman on the

other. The gambler leaned against the side, his head propped up against his

hand, and tapped the wood. He was bored. Incredibly bored.

Elya trailed her fingers into the water, staring out to sea. "I'm thirsty,"

she mumbled to him suddenly. "I wanna get a drink..."

He reached over and pulled her hands out of the water. "You can't drink

that, Elly. It's salt. It'll make you sick." She pouted at him and looked

completely miserable.

The fisherman's face was impassive as he rowed. All was silent once

more.

And then Nautilus began to wake up.

She made faint mumbling noises that clearly pierced the soundlessness

around them. Setzer sat up straight, looking about before he realized who it

was. Aw, damn it, shut up, you stupid cat! The fisherman said nothing, but his

eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"Elya," he murmured to the girl, trying for a cover-up, "please don't talk to

yourself anymore. It's a bit strange, and we wouldn't want to bother this nice

man, now would we?" Please let her realize what I'm talking about!

She frowned, her face suddenly relaxing into realization. "Setzer, I'm...

oh... okay, I won't." She giggled softly, surreptitiously patting the cat.

Quiet again. Setzer had just settled back, Elya leaning against his arm,

when the fisherman lunged. He dropped the oars into the bottom of the boat

and snatched the cat from the sling before Setzer could stop him. Elya shrieked

and reeled back away from him, tipping the boat slightly to the side. It righted

itself immediately.

"What's this?" he growled, holding her by the back of her neck. Nautilus's

eyes opened wide, and she tried vainly to struggle. "Stowaway? A cat?

Whaddaya think ye're doin'?"

Nautilus's pain exploded into his mind. Setzer, he's choking me!

Stay still! He got to his knees.

The fisherman shook the limp white body. "One move and the cat goes

overboard."

Setzer glared at him with as much force as he could, gray-green eyes

flashing. He leveled a finger at the man, holding Elya back with the other arm.

"Let her go."

The man paused and then let go of the cat, swinging his arm over the

side at the last minute. Nautilus fell into the water with a splash and a cry,

going under and bobbing back up briefly. Setzer had been ready for the

possibility and lurched forward, grabbing for her. His hands caught onto slick

wet fur, and he hauled her up, aware that he was very vulnerable at the

moment.

Hands grabbed on to the back of his coat, digging in his pocket for his

money as he hung over the edge, unbalanced, and he tried desperately to shove

himself back up into the boat. "No! I won't let you hurt my friends!" Elya cried

out in anger, and he saw her flying pale hair as she leapt onto the fisherman's

back and bit his uncovered neck as hard as she could.

The hands let up for a moment and he heard a loud smack, and a splash,

and a scream from the girl. Oh, damn, oh gods oh... Violently he pushed

backwards and felt his body collide with that of the bearded man, rocking the

boat with the force as well. He dropped Nautilus onto the deck and clenched

his hands together, spinning around and driving all his weight into the punch.

The fisherman's head snapped back and he fell, landing half over the side.

Gasping, Setzer darted to the other side of the rowboat and leaned over,

searching the dark choppy waters desperately. Elya broke the surface right in

front of him, gulping in deep breaths of air and trying to tread water. He

grabbed her arm and pulled her up, both of them collapsing down into the boat.

"Everyone okay?" he asked in a ragged voice. Tears spilled from Elya's

eyes but she nodded, wiping her face against his shirt and getting him even

more wet, although it couldn't have mattered less.

Nautilus shook herself, shivering, and collapsed back down to the deck.

"All present and accounted for, Chief," she rasped.

He gently pried Elya away from him and frowned, his jaw set. "Well, that

tears it. I'm going to Cure us, and that is that." He untied the wet bandages

from the cat, Elya helping him when she saw what he was doing.

"No arguments here," Nautilus groaned, stretching out to let the sun dry

her. "We seem to be almost there, anyway..."

Setzer was nearly done casting before the cat even finished speaking. The

rejuvenation helped, bringing new life into their battered bodies, but not doing

much for their spirits, or wet clothes.

"And we just got dry. Oh, for an inn... a nice soft bed... a tent..." Setzer

muttered, crawling over to the fisherman and taking the money off him before

shoving him over. The body slid into the water, disappearing into the darkness.

He took the man's former place in the boat, picking up the oars. "Well, let's go.

We may get there tonight!" he said with false cheerfulness.

Been a long while since I did this. After a few mistakes, he got the hang of

rowing, counting to himself in his mind. Girl and cat sprawled out over the

deck, exhausted. He wished he could join them. But not yet. Not just yet.

 

The stars shone as brightly as they did that night before at the Opera

House so many years ago. The pitted hull of the rowboat scraped onto dry,

rocky shore. Setzer gasped, his arms aching, and climbed out, helping Elya and

Nautilus onto land. He didn't have the strength or the heart so say anything so

obvious as 'We're here', and it didn't look as if it would register to the girl

anyway.

Need to rest... somewhere... He looked along the darkened beach. Not

even the faint flickering lights of a distant town could be seen. "We stay here

tonight." He forced the words to come out, grabbing a tree limb at the same

time. Wedging it under the boat, he flipped it over and propped it, upside

down, against a boulder.

Setzer gestured at it, and Elya crawled under wordlessly, the cat at her

heels. Exhaustedly, he dropped to his knees and dragged himself under. Sleep

hit him like the crashing of waves against the endless, dark rocky shore.

 

Rain pattered against the overturned rowboat, the noise creeping into

Setzer's mind and bringing him back to consciousness. Elya slept plastered

against his side in the rather cramped space, and Nautilus lay curled in a ball

on his chest, making a sound that resembled the noise of Edgar's machines.

He poked her, saying softly, "What do you have to purr about, cat? It's

raining out there. Pouring, actually." A gust of wind accentuated his

statement, briefly blowing rain into his face.

"Ah, but we're nearly there," she replied, standing and arching her back

before sitting back down and licking at some dried blood on her fur. "We might

get wet, but if we keep going we'll reach a place to rest by nightfall."

Setzer sat up as well as he could, shaking Elya awake. "A town?" he

asked hopefully.

Nautilus sighed, licking Elya's cheek in greeting. "Something like that.

Well, let's get going."

"It's wet," the girl complained, but she crawled out anyway. Setzer

followed her, Nautilus running ahead of both of them and seeming to look

rather cheerful.

The rain came and went all day, mostly pouring while they were walking

and slowing to a drizzle when they had found some dry place to rest for a little

while. Well, of course that's what's going to happen when all you want to do is

find a gods-damned inn! And then, of course, you get attacked by idiot creatures every two steps you take, Setzer thought angrily, swiftly scooping up Elya before she had a chance to get stuck in the mud again.

Hush, Nautilus soothed, leaping up onto a rotting fallen log. Calm

down. Try not to think about it so much. You've been through worse.

Umm... no. I don't think I have. He shifted Elya slightly, who was

leaning her head against his shoulder and threatening to fall asleep. Setzer

shook his head, trying vainly to shake the dripping white strands of hair out of

his face.

Nautilus continued on down the trail, her tail waving gaily, fur spiky

from the rain. Then, you will. This is nothing. Now take this fork.

"Nothing!" he spat out loud.

The cat turned to gaze at him for a moment. "Yes. Nothing." Her golden

eyes pierced his, and then she turned and moved on. Setzer fell silent and

followed.

 

"I... don't believe it! This is impossible! I'm seeing things, right? This is

only a mirage..."

Nautilus laughed. "Nope! I told you! I told you so, gambler! And I was

right! Right! Right!"

The three stood at the top of a low hill, looking down. A small town

stood before them, so small, in fact, that it couldn't even be called a town.

Several houses stood clustered around a soggy commons.

Setzer peered down at the buildings. "Don't see an inn, but there's a

tavern down there. I'm sure we can find somewhere to stay."

Nautilus tore off down the hill, and he ran after her, relief washing

through him. Elya mumbled and straightened as the movement jostled her, looking around. "Where are we?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.

"Found a town!" he said with a grin. "We can have dinner and a warm

bed tonight."

Her violet eyes lit up, and it pleased him to see her so happy. "Really!

Oh, wow! That means we're almost there, right?" She hugged his neck.

"Yep." He slowed down as they entered the commons, finding Nautilus

sitting on one of the wet benches. She joined them, walking behind.

The cat made a noise to get their attention just as they were about to

enter the tavern. "Remember, you two, that I can't talk!" she said emphatically.

Setzer nodded and turned the knob. The warmth hit him like a wave,

and he blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. He shut the door after

Nautilus, who immediately ran to hide under a chair. Don't want them to

throw me out, she explained, shaking the water out of her fur.

The sound of talking reached his ears, and he looked around to find a

few men seated at the bar and some others playing cards around a table near

the fire. Then the smells hit him, causing his stomach to rumble. "I'm hungry!"

Elya whispered in his ear.

"Right," he replied, turning as the tavernkeeper, a frizzy-haired woman,

made her way up to him.

"Welcome, sir! Oh, look, you're sopping wet! Come and sit down by the

fire!" she exclaimed, taking Setzer's arm and leading him over to the blaze. "Oh,

and the poor girl, too. Come, come, get warmed up."

Setzer set Elya down near the fire on a bear-skin rug. She shook her

head, imitating Nautilus, and giggled as water flew everywhere. He smiled

wryly at her and looked at the tavernkeeper. "What do you have to eat?"

"Stew today," she replied, pulling down blankets from a shelf. The

woman wrapped one around Elya's shoulders.

He glanced over at the price list and frowned. "Give the girl a bowl," he

said. The woman looked at him and nodded, moving behind the bar and

shouting some orders into a back room.

He was about to take off his overcoat when he realized the state of his

shirt. Can't go making a bad impression, now, he thought mirthlessly. The stew

was brought over to Elya, who looked as if she had just been given the Empire's

crown jewels. It smelled wonderful, and he sighed internally.

Setzer stopped the servant boy as he was about to go back to the kitchen.

"Can you find someone who will lend me a shirt?" he asked in a low tone.

The boy shrugged. "Lend? Dunno about that. I'll see." Setzer nodded as

he ran off, and turned to eye the card game in progress, waiting.

Elya patted the fur rug next to her and Nautilus cautiously crawled in

next to her, sliding under the corner of her blanket. Elya fed her meat from the

stew, and then looked up at Setzer. "Here," she offered, lifting up the bowl.

"You can have some, too."

He shook his head, pushing it back at her. "No, it's for you. You need to

keep up your strength."

Elya frowned but continued to eat, sharing with the cat. Setzer turned

his attention back to the game, watching the men make their plays. He needed

money, and he knew of a way to get it, if only he had an opportunity...

"Sir?" the boy said. "The cook'll give you his shirt if you give him your

coat."

"My coat?" Setzer repeated. "It's a little ruined..."

The servant shrugged. "That's what he wants."

Setzer nodded. "All right." He took everything out of the pockets and left them in a pile on the rug. He stood to follow the boy into the kitchen.

"Stay here," he told Elya, and went back to meet the cook. The man was portly,

obviously loving to 'taste' his creations, and he took Setzer's old coat, handing

him a large white linen shirt.

He thanked him, still wondering what the man could possibly want with

ruined leather, and changed out of his old ripped shirt. The new one hung on

him loosely, but it was better than nothing. Hmm... wonder if this is the cat's

doing, too? he thought, and then shrugged. It didn't mean anything. That it

had worked out was all that mattered.

Setzer returned to the main room and looked toward the fire. Elya, he

saw, was playing with Nautilus, who was acting like a kitten and chasing a piece of string to amuse her. He snickered at the sight, wrapping his things in the remains of his old shirt until he could get a pouch or something to put it all in.

Don't laugh! I'm keeping Elya occupied. So go do your thing and get us some money, dorkface, so we have a room tonight!

"I'm out," one of the men sighed, laying his cards on the table. He stood

and tipped his hat to the others, saying "Tomorrow, gentlemen," and went out

the door. Great! Setzer thought. Just what I've been waiting for. Thank you, Nautilus.

He walked up to the table and stood there as they all noticed him in turn.

"Good evening," he said amiably. "Mind if I join in?"

 

The fire had dwindled, the main room of the tavern emptying as the men filed out. Night was drawing on, and it was time for them to get home to their families. Setzer stood, watching them leave, and hefted his purse in a hand with a grin. It was now considerably heavier than it had been before. Looks like my luck is finally starting to turn. Elya, who stood next to him, yawned, reminding him that they still needed a room.

He turned to the tavernkeeper, who was sweeping the planks of the floor with a twig broom. "Is there somewhere we can stay tonight?" he asked. She frowned, considering.

"No inn in this village," she said finally. "But there's a couple extra beds here I can rent out to you."

Setzer nodded and paid her from his recent winnings. "Would you mind watching Elya?" he asked. "I'd like to get some nicer clothes before we get... home."

"Of course," she nodded. "There's a place what sells clothes and the like down the road. They'd still be open now. Why, I'm not surprised your things are ruined," she remarked conversationally. "The state of things nowadays... I shouldn't pry, of course, sir, but you shouldn't be traveling with a child, considering all the nasty things that have popped up recently."

He smiled gravely. "I know. I wish I didn't have to. Thank you again." Setzer looked down at the girl, who was rubbing her eyes, and knelt down to her eye level. "I'll be right back," he told her, ruffling her pale hair. "Stay here, all right?"

"Don't go," she said, grabbing on to his shirtsleeve. "I don't want to be alone again." She looked about to burst into tears, and Nautilus ran up, winding around her legs and purring.

Setzer disengaged her hand gently. "Nautilus is here, Elly. I'll be right back. I promise."

Her violet eyes met his, and then she nodded. "That means you will. All right." He smiled at her and stood up, walking toward the door. He glanced back just before he left, long enough to see that Elya was still standing there, looking as if he was abandoning her.

It'll do her a lot of good when she gets home, he thought, strangely troubled. I don't want her to get so attached. It's not as if I'm going to be there forever...

He shook his head, locating the torch-lit entrance of the shop in the twilight. A rusty copper bell above the door dinged as he opened it, and a bored-looking man glanced up. "May I help you?" he asked, obviously eager for a customer.

Setzer bought a white dress for Elya, which would even give her a little protection from any enemies they might encounter, and clothes for himself that fit a little better. He didn't have any hope, really, of finding a coat like his old one, but when he saw the shopkeeper's own coat lying over a chair, he offered to buy it, if only because it felt so strange not to wear one.

After a little haggling, Setzer returned to the tavern, satisfied and with even a little money left over. The main room was dark, dim embers in the fireplace affording the only light. "Hello?" he called.

"In here, sir!" the tavernkeeper's voice called from up some stairs located behind a door in a corner of the room. He went up them to find the frizzy-haired woman's living quarters. In one of the rooms Elya sat on a bed, the cat curled in her lap, as the woman combed out her damp hair. "Washed her up a little," she explained, standing. "There's a bath house out back if you'd like it."

"Yes," he grinned, "that would be great." It sounded wonderful. Hot water... when was the last time he'd had any of that?

"I'll heat some water for you," she said, placing the comb on a table near the door. The woman paused next to him. "Your daughter?" Instead of waiting for his reply, she continued, "Lovely girl. And such unusual hair. It must run in the family. I used to have two daughters, but I lost them when..." she trailed off and shook her head. "This is their room... I'm sorry, sir. Talking your ear off like that..."

Setzer smiled charmingly at her and bowed graciously. "Not after all you've done for us, dear lady. You can talk as long as you like."

The woman blushed. "Oh... thank you, sir. I'll start that water for you now." She hurried off.

That was nice of you, Nautilus remarked, licking her fur thoroughly.

Whoever said I was mean? If it wasn't for her we'd be under a rock, like usual.

The cat snorted, moving off of the girl's lap to sit on the bed. Elya looked up at him, smiling. "That lady was nice," she said. "She let me borrow her daughter's nightgown, and she combed my hair. But she was kind of sad, too. She misses her kids."

"Yeah," he said, putting the new clothes on the table. "I wish we could have stopped it before it happened. But÷"

"But there's no use dwelling on it, gambler," the cat told him sternly. "Now it's time to go to sleep and get healed up. We're almost there, now! It wasn't so bad, was it?"

Setzer groaned and reached for a pillow to smack her with. Elya giggled as Nautilus jumped out of the way. "You put that clean pillow down! You're filthy! You stink, you human idiot! Get out of here, and don't come back until you're clean!"

"I hear and obey, oh exalted one," he said dramatically, turning toward the door. "I tremble before you."

"You should," the cat said, her nose in the air.

Nautilus never saw the pillow coming.

 

He returned to the room feeling cleaner than he had in months. Finally, he was starting to feel like the same carefree, rich gambler who had jumped down onto the stage in the middle of the opera. He chuckled at the memory. And if that hadn't been Celes, where would I be now? It was almost too unfathomable to think about, and certainly nothing to ponder when he needed a good night's sleep.

The lamp had been dimmed, and Elya lay in one of the beds with her eyes closed, the cat sleeping on her stomach. She opened them as he came in, however, and beckoned him over. "Setzer," she asked softly, "will you tell me a story before I go to sleep?"

"I thought you'd heard enough of my stories," he said, sitting on the edge of the mattress and tucking the blanket more securely around her.

The girl shook her head. "Uh-uh. Tell me how you got those scars on your face." She reached up to touch one or two, her pale hand then falling back on top of the covers.

He looked at the wall, into nowhere for a few moments. "I don't remember," he said finally. "My parents said it happened before they found me. They figured it was some kind of accident."

"They found you?" Nautilus spoke without opening her golden eyes.

He nodded. "Yeah. Should have said Īadoptive parentsā, I guess. Look, it's not really the best bedtime story..."

"No, tell me," Elya prodded. "I wanna hear."

"All right," Setzer said after a moment. "There isn't really much to tell, though. My... adoptive father found me on the beach, unconscious. I was about seven or eight, I think. Nearly dead, but they nursed me back to health. Never did remember where I came from before. I remembered my first name, but not my last. So we looked around for anyone who might know where I came from. No one did... So they adopted me, and gave me their last name, Gabbiani. Really they're like my real parents..."

"Wow," Elya said. "I wonder why you can't remember?"

Setzer shrugged. "A doctor who looked at me said it was because I didn't want to remember. I guess I blocked it out."

"Then maybe it's best you've forgotten. Wonderful, Setzer. I thought when I picked you that you were stable. I wasn't looking for the emotional baggage, you know."

He sighed. "Shut up," he said pleasantly, going over to the other bed. "Let's sleep, now. We'll have to get going again in the morning."

Elya yawned. "Mother says that my real daddy is a big white unicorn..." she mumbled, half to herself.

Her father is the Esper Unicorn? Setzer thought with some surprise. How did that happen? Outwardly, he smiled at her and brushed her hair back off her forehead. "Goodnight, Elly."

"Goodnight," she replied, turning onto her side. The cat said nothing, a huffy expression on her face.

Setzer blew out the lamp and settled in. It was almost too strange to be in a real bed, almost strange enough to keep him from getting to sleep. Almost.

 

It was the tail in the face that woke him up. Being woken from the first good rest he'd had in days by being whipped in the face did not put him in a good mood. He felt Nautilus sitting on his chest, and opened his eyes to see that it was still dark outside. Moonlight streamed in through the window, bathing them in its pale glow. Setzer shaded his eyes and grumbled, "Gods-damned cat! Whadd'ya think you're doing?"

"Ssh!" she hissed softly, turning to look at him.

He stifled an exclamation at the sight of her brown, human eyes. "Katara," he said quietly, "what are you doing here?"

She stepped gracefully off him and sat near his pillow. "I merely wished to see Elya," she said, "nothing more. I did not mean to disturb you, Setzer, but sometimes in this form I forget I have a tail." She lashed it back and forth as if to remind herself.

He leaned up on an elbow, facing her. "Well, why don't you talk to her? I'm sure she misses you."

Katara sighed. "I would like to, but if I do she may become more trouble for you. She may become difficult, irrational, wanting to be home faster than you can get her there. It's... best that I do not."

"I see." He turned to look at the girl, who was mumbling in her sleep and sucking her thumb. "Well, she does need the rest. After what happened earlier... that morphing probably took a lot out of her, not to mention going berserk..."

The cat looked up sharply. "She Changed? Nautilus did not tell me that!"

Setzer sat up, trying to keep his voice low. "Now, don't go getting mad at her," he said. "She was unconscious at the time."

"Ah. I understand." She sighed, her eyes focused on her daughter. "It's just too many..."

"I beg your pardon?"

Katara turned to face him, her rich voice choked with emotion. "Elya's two halves, the human and the Esper, are poorly fused together. Every time she morphs, she wants to... needs to remain in that form, more and more. Eventually... eventually she will become an Esper entirely... and she will not be able to live in this world anymore."

That's awful, he thought, patting her comfortingly. Tears trickled from her eyes to catch in the fur, and Setzer stared at her, alarmed. Cats are not supposed to be able to cry! It was disturbing him. "Katara, come on. Stop that. Don't cry. Cats can't cry... what will Nautilus say when she finds out you've been getting her wet?"

She shook her head, not saying anything, but the tears stopped. He laid back down with a yawn and closed his eyes. He felt the cat climb back up to sit on his chest. "I will see you soon," she said suddenly. "You will reach my house by tomorrow afternoon."

"And I will see you," he replied. "Katara. How did you... meet Elya's father? Why÷"

"I think it is time for you to rest now," she interjected smoothly. "You can't rest so much tomorrow, since you're so close. Rest now."

Unconsciousness hit like a wave. Katara had put him to sleep... but why? "Katara..." he mumbled, unable to fight it, unable to think clearly. "Why... why was Elya born...?"

The last thing he heard outside of his dreams was the sound of her sobs.

 

Morning came through the window, brilliant and yellow. It was a pleasant awakening, compared to the one he'd had last night. Last bits of dreams clung to his mind, and he had to think hard to be certain that he'd actually talked to Katara the night before.

He stretched, still not feeling the need to open his eyes, and felt his foot hit the cat at the end of the bed. Setzer sighed and rubbed his eyes. Shoulda shut the curtains, he thought, turning to see if Elya was awake yet.

She wasn't there. The bed had been made, if a little sloppily, and the nightgown folded on the pillow. He sat up, blinking to make sure he wasn't seeing things. He wasn't. "Damn! Damn it, wake up, cat!" He shoved his foot under her sleeping carcass and flipped her off the bed.

"You... you... ass! What was that for?" she snapped, leaping back up as he shoved aside the blankets and stood. "Katara came last night, and that doesn't exactly refresh me, you dolt!"

He feverishly began to pull on his boots. "Look, you stupid thing! Elya's gone!" Nautilus looked, and then suddenly slumped in on herself, her ears back.

"Oh..." she said in a small voice. "Why didn't I know? Why did she leave?"

Setzer pulled off the shirt and grabbed for his new one. Elya... or someone... had taken her new stuff as well. "How do we know she left? Maybe someone took her..."

"And made the bed? Think, gambler." Nautilus sat up, shaking her head. "Well, we'll find out after we get her back. Come on!" She dashed for the door, and he followed, grabbing the coat on the way out.

He clattered down the wooden stairs, skidding to a stop in front of the bar where the tavernkeeper stood. "Elya," he gasped, "is she down here?"

"Why, no," she replied, flustered. "Is she gone, sir? I÷"

He turned and ran out the door, the cat at his heels. Outside, he looked at the ground and immediately spotted small footprints in the mud. Nautilus ran and jumped up to his shoulder. Raising a hand to steady her, Setzer followed the trail, which led away from the village and into a field.

Why would she do this? the cat asked. I don't get it... she was afraid for you to leave her last night. She wouldn't... doesn't do this kind of thing!

How would I know? Look, I don't care why she did it. I just want to find her before she runs into monsters, or bandits, or Kefka's little friends, he replied, trying to run as well as he could in the mud.

They followed the trail of footprints for a while, until the ground grew less wet, and the trail grew fainter. "I don't see them... anymore," he gasped finally, dropping to his knees on the ground. "Gotta.. catch my... breath..."

"Right," Nautilus said. "Breathe a moment, Setzer. I'll find the trail." She began to sniff around on the ground.

He mopped his forehead with a sleeve. "I can't believe she got this far... she's just a kid, she can't walk that fast..." He began to cough, doubling over. When it was over he sat back and attempted to breathe.

Nautilus looked at him with genuine concern, which surprised him. "Look, she can't have gone much farther. We don't need to go so fast. Just follow me, all right?"

He nodded and stood, walking after the cat, her nose to the ground. They finally climbed to the top of a small but torturously steep hill, and Setzer peered out over the grassland. "There!" he exclaimed suddenly, pointing. "It's her, straight ahead!"

"Right!" They tore off down the hill. Setzer half-slid over the crumbly dirt, landing ungracefully at the bottom, arms flailing, but when he'd gotten to his feet he still made it to Elya before Nautilus did.

The girl stood, looking silently out over the landscape, pale hair fluttering in the breeze. She turned slowly to look at him as he knelt down in front of her. "What are you doing?" he asked, grabbing hold of her arms as the cat bounded up. "Why did you leave?"

She looked up at the sky, over his shoulder. "Setzer," she said softly, "my mother is calling. She wants me to come home..."

He shook her slightly as the cat climbed onto his shoulder so she could look the girl in the eyes. "Katara wouldn't do that," she said. "Your mother wouldn't tell you to leave us and go off by yourself!" Golden eyes pierced violet ones, and then Nautilus hissed. "Someone's been tampering with her! Katara, I need help!"

He looked on, puzzled, as Nautilus closed her eyes for a moment. Then suddenly, she snapped, "Bring her closer!" Setzer pulled the girl into his arms, her body as stiff and resisting as if she had been turned to stone. He frowned, wondering just who had the power to do this.

The cat opened her eyes and looked into Elya's wide-open ones, placing her paws on the child's head. Katara and Nautilus worked on her, silently, invisibly, and then suddenly she went limp, her eyes slowly closing.

Nautilus jumped down. "Someone was controlling her," she stated. "Katara thought the magic felt familiar..." The cat shook herself.

Elya whimpered softly, and Setzer brushed back her hair. "It's all right," he told her softly. "I'm here, and no one's going to hurt you..."

She clenched the folds of his shirt tightly in her hands, gazing up at him. "It's evil here," she whispered. "I don't like it! I want to leave now!"

"You're right," he said, helping her to her feet but staying crouched down. "We're leaving."

Setzer! came Nautilus's voice. At the same time another voice rang out, and his head snapped up. They were surrounded by soldiers, and facing him were General Ethar and Kurstil.

Oh gods, he thought. They can't have found us. They can't! Risa leered at him, tapping the broad side of her sword against the palm of her hand.

"Oh, I don't think so," she said darkly. "You are going nowhere."

 

Chapter Six - Curtain Call
In which the past is revealed, and it is not pretty

 

His heart seemed to stop beating for a moment as Setzer realized that they were surrounded, caught in a trap. There was no way of escape, no matter where he looked. Not time to panic, he told himself sternly. It's time to think!

That's right, think! Tell me what to do, Setzer! I need help here!

Talk to Elya, he directed. Tell her if I need her to do something.

The cat bristled slightly at the general and troops, her ears pressed back against her head. But I'm not supp-- all right. I'll do it... just don't let them take her!

Elya pressed against his chest, trying to somehow slip out of sight. Almost kneeling on the ground, he wanted to stand up and lose some of the vulnerability he felt. But he didn't dare with half a dozen crossbows trained on him.

"You have surrendered," Risa told him. "Hand over the girl, now, with no trouble. If you do not, we will have no choice but to kill her, and then you, after you have a chance to see it."

Setzer did nothing except hold Elya tighter, as if his arms could protect her from the piercing bolts. He didn't meet Risa's gaze, planning, hoping wildly.

Elya clenched the folds of his shirt in a death-grip. "Nautilus is in my head!" she whispered.

"Shh!" he said quickly into her ear, the strands of her hair hiding his movement from view. Tell her to slowly take cards from my pocket. When I let her go, she has to throw them! he directed finally, and Nautilus began to relay the information.

Risa tapped her foot. "Enough with the goodbyes!" she called. "Give me the girl!" Setzer looked up slowly and gazed balefully into her black eyes over Elya's head. The girl's hand inched little by little into his pocket.

The general looked away suddenly and over at Kurstil. "I tire of this. Make him give her over, now!" Elya almost had them...

"As you please," he replied deferentially, moving forward. Setzer felt a slight weight slip from his pocket. There!

"No," Setzer shouted suddenly. "I will. Just don't come near me!" The mage paused, and he stood up. With only a slight hesitation, the half-Esper girl whirled around and flung the razor-edged cards.

Her aim was off, and the cards missed Kurstil completely. One of them embedded itself into a soldier's face, however, and the resulting commotion was enough. Sweeping Elya into his arms, Setzer ran back, bowling over a surprised crossbowman. He didn't dare leave his back to them too long, but when he'd stopped they were no longer surrounded. The odds were a little better.

"Kill him!" the red-headed general bellowed, swinging her sword into the air. "Kill him!" Bolts shot through the air, and he had to duck very quickly to miss them. He began preparing a spell, feeling as well as hearing Elya's high voice invoke the Esper magic.

Nautilus was behind him, silent and still. Communicating, he thought distractedly. I hope it helps, whatever she's doing. He cast the fire at the crossbowmen first, while Elya's ice was directed at the general. Kurstil, smirking at them, returned her spell to all of them, stinging with the freezing shards.

The girl shrieked and fell to her knees with a gasp. Setzer yanked out more cards and prepared to defend her. But suddenly the bowmen stopped shooting, and General Ethar stopped shouting. Even Kurstil broke off a spell in mid-cast. Everyone had paused to stare at the strange gathering of mist that was coalescing behind Setzer and to his left.

"Finally," Nautilus muttered. The smoky mist formed a human-like shape and then dissipated. A beautiful young woman with long brown curls spun into being, the ether that was left of the Warp spell clinging to her skirt.

She stopped moving, dark eyes taking in the situation. He was confused, but as soon as she opened her mouth, however, he knew who she was. "To me!" she shouted, in the same voice he recognized, turning to Setzer and the others. "Elya, Nautilus, to me!"

"Katara," Kurstil breathed, barely audible. "It can't be!"

"Stop them!" Risa yelled, snapping everyone into action. Bolts began to rain down again, one nearly piercing Setzer's unprotected hand.

"Mother!" the girl gasped, running to her. She, too was nearly hit by the bolts, but she ignored it, intent on reaching Katara. Nautilus followed, her small form lost among the grasses. Setzer backed up slowly, flinging cards at their attackers. He breathed a sigh of relief when the girl reached her young mother. "Setzer!" Elya screamed at him, clinging to Katara's dark pink skirts. "Run!"

He tried to move faster, and then Katara's voice urged him on as well. "Hurry!" she called as he glanced at the soldiers. They were advancing, and he couldn't hold them off forever.

Setzer ran, hearing Katara begin her Warp spell. They were gaining on him now, one bolt coming close enough to scrape his cheek. It made him flinch, and he turned around to see where they were. He stumbled on a rock and nearly fell, all the while trying to get to Katara. Her arms were outstretched, reaching for him, and he was nearly there...

A sharp thunk and a deep throbbing pain jolted him, and he fell forward, hitting the ground, unable to catch himself. His left arm had gone useless, and it was with horror that he realized he had been shot. Sounds rushed around him, but he couldn't distinguish what they were. All he could hear was the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears.

"Setzer!" he finally heard, a terrified scream from just above him. Elya was trying to come to him, but Katara was holding her back. "Setzer! Get up! Come on! Get up!" she wailed over and over.

Come on, gambler! We have to leave! Get up! Nautilus's thought-voice hammered uselessly against his mind. He felt heat, the warmth of his own blood trickling down his back, and took a deep, ragged breath, trying to get to his hands and knees. He looked up, and over the grass he could see the forms of the mage, her daughter, and her familiar fading and spinning out of view.

He couldn't make it, couldn't reach them, couldn't move, simply staring up as they disappeared. They had left him. He was alone. And Risa was behind him, the soldiers catching up to him. He was finished. The end. Better just let it go now before they get to me... Setzer collapsed onto the dirt. I'm going to die. They're going to kill me. Gods... this way?

He heard footsteps around him, knew the soldiers were training their weapons on him, and he tensed, feeling his wound throb more blood and wondering when they'd put the next bolt between his shoulderblades. A shadow fell across his face, but he didn't look up. Oh, joy... So... now that Katara's got her kid back, she's gonna leave me here? Figures... well, at least I'm not going to have a chance to be used again...

"It's not going to be that easy, Setzer," General Ethar said to him. "After all the trouble you've caused me? No, I'm going to do this myself... nice and slow. But not here. Somewhere else." She laughed ominously. "And on the way I'm going to tell you exactly what will happen to you."

"Torture?" he gritted painfully, trying to push himself up and meet her eyes. "It won't work... nothing you can do to me will mean anything..."

She put her foot on the back of his neck, forcing his head back to the ground. "No?" she purred. "We're not going to simply ruin you physically, white-hair. Your own soul and memories will come back to haunt you as well."

Risa's weight shifted as she leaned down and tore the arrow out of his shoulder. Muscle and skin ripped free, and an arc of blood flew through the air. Setzer cried out, wanting desperately to flinch away from the pain. But the general's foot pinned him down. The pressure on his neck was becoming nearly unbearable.

When she stepped away, his shoulders shook with pain and relief. Risa and Kurstil stood in his line of vision, conferring.

"Will this do?" General Ethar asked, offering the bloody arrow to Kurstil.

The mage held it gingerly across his palms. "Quite. I suppose you want to share in the procedure?" She nodded. "Very well, but you must promise to observe only and not interfere or attempt to change anything."

"Fine, all right, just get on with it!" she snapped, and he began to mutter spells on the arrow. Setzer's vision grew hazy as he watched, but he knew what happened next was no product of his imagination. Kurstil raised the bolt up and solemnly licked his blood off one half of the arrowhead. He felt a strange twisting feeling inside, whether a product of the bloodloss or Kurstil's spells, he was unsure.

The mage then handed the bolt back to General Ethar, who made a face and slowly licked the rest of the arrow clean. As she did so, her features relaxed into a feral grin, and she licked her fingers as well. Setzer shuddered.

The knot inside grew tighter. He could feel something in his mind, something disgusting and impure. He could almost see as well as feel it twining around his soul like a snake around its prey, the bearer of disease.

And he couldn't fight it. It knew him. It was him... What the hell is going on...? But Setzer fell into unconsciousness before he could find out what they were going to do.

*****

"So, tell me, Setzer, how should she die? Should she be burned? Staked out for the wolves? Drowned?" Risa looked down at him, but he did not answer, still staring at Thury. "No preference? Hmm..." She thought a moment and then decided. "Beheading. The woman Thury will be beheaded for attempting to run away from her rightful place as a slave. Vege, begin."

A block was brought forward and set in front of her as a guard forced her to her knees. "Pity such a pretty little thing has to die," he sighed. Making sure Setzer was watching, he bent down and kissed her sloppily. She struggled away, spitting, and Setzer almost managed to get to his feet before collapsing, nearly landing on his face.

"Stop it!" he yelled ineffectively. "Don't do this! It was my idea! I made her come with me!" I have to do something! he thought desperately. His things were still in his pockets but he couldn't reach them, couldn't do it quickly enough with his head spinning like it was. There was something wrong about this, something strange and fuzzy. Why did this place smell like magic?

The guard looked up at Risa, who nodded for him to get on with it, and then pushed her down, her head hanging over the block, her hair perhaps fortunately blocking his view of her face. But not before he met her pain-filled, frightened eyes. I'm sorry, she mouthed before giving in and falling forward against the block, resigned to her fate.

Setzer stared horrified, transfixed, as the axe was raised and swiftly brought down with a heart-rending thunk. Blood ran from Thury's severed neck as her head hit the tile of the floor. Her twisted expression, the bulging eyes, were only partially hidden by the tangle of brown hair. This is not happening, he said mindlessly. Why... I never saw this! I never saw... never, never, never...!

The executioner swiftly bent and picked up the head. It swung back and forth in midair, twisting as the dark strands spun around each other. He choked down a mouthful of bile, burning his throat. Her face watched him, accusing him in death. The pain of his wounded hand echoed the agony he felt inside. It's all your fault, she seemed to say. You killed me. I trusted you!

"Such a pity," Vege remarked again in a blase fashion.

"No!" Setzer screamed, trying to shove away the feelings of horror and pain. "This isn't happening! This isn't real!" He turned to face Kurstil, raked his eyes across Risa's emotionless face. "You can't trick me! You can't really take my memories! I never saw Thury die!"

Kurstil blinked slowly, exchanging a glance with Risa. The world faded to black. Nothing remained but the sound of his heart beating wildly. He had beaten them... this time.

Setzer panted, trying desperately to breathe through the darkness. He had never seen Thury die, but the pain of the occurrence still remained. It had been blocked, but that had been removed. Pure fear gripped him... if Kurstil could remove Nautilus and Katara's mental block, and even add to his memories, what more could he do?

Reality returned in the form of a chocobo stall. Setzer lay on the hay inside, pinned spread-eagle to the ground. He couldn't move, the hay irritating his shoulder wound through the fabric of his tattered shirt until it drove him to the point of near-madness.

There was no one around, the barn incredibly silent. Setzer closed his eyes, immediately opening them when a parade of grisly images began to dance before his mind's eye. Tears trickled down his face, drying stickily as he mourned anew for the death of Thury. I carry so much loss within... betrayed, abandoned, alone... and... and Risa was right... this is so much worse than any torture they can give me...

He shook away the pain as the two hated faces of Kurstil and General Ethar came into his view. "Did you enjoy that?" she asked sweetly. "There's more to come... Kurstil, dig deeper. I want him to relive the absolute worst moments of his life."

"As you wish, lady... it appears I have a lot to choose from." He closed his eyes, slipping into a trance. Moments later, Risa did the same, a grin still plastered across her face.

His brain was not his own. Setzer could feel it, could feel the disease of Kurstil's mind inside him, pulling tighter, delving deeper. He screamed, writhing madly against his bonds, the ropes cutting into his skin as everything swirled away into the windswept landscape of the past...

*****

The deck of the airship shifted slightly as he crossed it to stand at the helm. Chilly air whipped past his face, stinging him with its speed. Setzer adjusted the wheel just a little, stabilizing the airship. The deck no longer moved, and he looked out and to the right.

Another airship flew majestically beside his, keeping up with hardly any effort at all. Setzer smiled at the pilot of this ship, even though he knew she couldn't see the expression past his flying hair. Daryl was watching him, her own reddish-gold hair torn loose from the braids that kept it out of her way.

"I'll meet you back at our hill," she called, and, without waiting for his response, pulled on the acceleration lever. The Falcon rose higher into the sky, kicking forward with a great burst of speed. Setzer shielded his face from the gust of wind with an arm, reaching out with the other. He wanted to call out to her, but by the time he could look up, she was gone.

He stabilized the Blackjack, which had been pushed back slightly by the other airship's wake, and looked at the space of sky where she had been. She had told him to wait for her, and he would. He would go back to the hill, and wait.

Setzer turned the wheel, began to turn the ship around, and then paused. He felt a sudden disquiet, a tingling sick feeling of dread. She'll be mad, he thought, but still felt no hesitation. He yanked back sharply on the accelerator, rising to a higher altitude, and followed.

He had to give it full throttle if he wanted to catch up to her. The Falcon was so fast, the fastest airship in the world, and now she was trying to reach the stars. Setzer's feeling of foreboding grew stronger. He flew on, but there was still no sign. Daryl, where are you? he thought unhappily, scouting forward, his knuckles white on the rail of the ship. He wished that she could answer somehow, reassure him that he was worrying for nothing and to just go away and wait...

He saw still nothing and rolled his eyes. Daryl always had to be the best at everything. He'd have to make some improvements to the Blackjack if he was to keep up with her next time. This was ridiculous. He should at least be able to see her by now. He pushed the engine to its limits, frowning with worry and anger.

Suddenly there was a flash of light from above, and Setzer looked up, surprise tearing a cry from his throat. Daryl was above him, the airship almost just a speck in the sky. He shaded his eyes and peered upward, trying to see. The airbag of the Falcon had begun to deflate, somehow, and the propellers were not going to be able to keep the ship up. The Falcon was going to plummet like a stone.

He tried to rise high enough to reach her before it began to fall, tried to think of some way to rescue her in the few seconds he had to do it in. The wind kicked the airship back harder at this higher altitude, and he couldn't see through the tears the air caused in his eyes. Setzer was forced to take the ship down a bit just as he heard a muted explosion.

Daryl's airship tore down past him like a fireball, knocking his ship further away. He thought he saw her clinging to the wheel, grim determination on her face as she tried to remain in control. "Daryl!" he screamed, trying to do the same, righting the ship and immediately diving after her. The ocean was below... maybe she would land in it, maybe it would cushion the fall...

He dipped down just as the Falcon hit the water with a splash which drenched his airship and sent him flying head-over-heels across the deck. He managed to pull himself up just as Daryl's ship crunched into an island's shore, carving out a furrow in which to bury itself. Sprays of sand almost obscured the small human figure which was tossed up into the air and back down onto the deck, looking almost like a discarded rag doll.

"Gods, no! No! No!" he cried, slipping and skidding his way across the wet deck. He was unable to land the Blackjack on the island anywhere near the wreck, and so he brought it up to hover over the smoking mess, fastening a rope to the railing and sliding down to the shattered remains of the Falcon's upper decks.

Setzer tore away debris from his path, ignoring the cuts it inflicted on him, clawing a path to the helm. At the sight of it a long wordless moan came from his throat and his feet slipped out from under him, sending him to his knees.

He hid his face in his hands, trying to steady himself, trying to calm his breathing enough to be able to look, although he didn't really want to. His anguished, wracking sobs filled the silent air, punctuated only by the cracks of cooling metal and splintering wood. He cried until he couldn't breathe anymore, until he had to curl up on the deck and gasp until finally he could feel the ocean air in his lungs again. It tasted like smoke, and blood.

Only then was he able to go over to her, all the emotion drained out of him. Daryl's body lay sprawled near the wheel, her life pouring out onto the deck, a long shaft of metal embedded in her stomach. But most likely, most hopefully, Setzer prayed, she hadn't felt it. Her neck had been broken when she had fallen, her head resting back at an impossible angle.

He knelt next to her, her blood soaking through his pants, still warm on his legs. Setzer reached out and touched her, his fingers tangling in the scarlet mess of her hair, trying insanely to straighten out her twisted body. Tears blinded him, his mind insisting on superimposing the image he had of Daryl, laughing and boasting, over the horrible reality.

Whatever strength he'd had deserted him, and he slowly slumped down to rest his head on the deck in her cooling blood. He would never have the chance to tell her anything, never get to do anything that he'd wanted for them. She'd never know that he'd loved her, never tell him if she did, too. The blood tasted metallic in his mouth, his vision red. And then he focused, saw Daryl's hand resting in front of his face. A glint of gold sparkled on her clammy finger, and slowly he reached out and pulled the ring from it.

Setzer sat up and clenched his hand around the metal, feeling it bite into his palm, so hard and real. It was her mother's ring, the one she always wore for luck. It didn't help her, he thought, an irresistible urge coming over him to throw it far, far away.

As he moved to do so something caught his eye. Two figures stood in the midst of the wreckage, watching him impassively. A balding man in robes, and a huge red-headed woman. He stared back at them, recognizing them but not knowing exactly from where he knew them. And then he knew. He saw.

"Damn you!" he called, stumbling to his feet. "Kurstil! Risa! This is another one of your tricks! You're twisting my memories, changing my thoughts. You can't make me hurt myself the way you wish I would." Setzer waved his hand, and the wreckage cooled, time passing. The corpse behind him shriveled with age and the weather, only bones left upon the deck. "This is the truth. This is the way I found Daryl, one year later. You can't make me lie to myself and have it hurt."

"But you imagined it," the man told him, anger beginning to flush his cheeks. "You're not as strong as you think, Setzer Gabbiani. You remember imagining how she died, in the dark of night when you couldn't sleep and drink couldn't wash away the pain? What could have happened tormented you more than the fact."

The white-haired gambler looked away, wanting to leave. He knew that if maybe he could resist this mind-tampering, then he could break their hold on him. But his will felt drained by the magic as he looked down at the sun-bleached skeleton at his feet. He saw again the blood and remembered finding her twisted body... No! Not finding! I never saw it happen... But his shoulders still slumped in defeat.

Risa walked up behind him and pressed up close, one arm across his chest as she stroked his face. "Give in," she whispered in his ear, "give in and I will let you have peace. I was quite fond of you once, Setzer. Perhaps you have suffered enough."

He couldn't even argue. Whatever Risa would do to him didn't matter. He didn't care anymore. The pain had opened up a deep pit inside him, the pit where he had hidden the hurt of loss so he could get on with his life. Nothing mattered. He only wished that she would kill him soon.

Her fingers brushed back the strands of his hair, and she leaned over his shoulder and kissed his neck softly. He tensed involuntarily at the unexpected contact, and the edge of the ring in his hand cut into his palm. The pain jolted him out of his descent into sleep, and he whirled away, jerking out of Risa's grasp. "No!" he shouted, edging back and preparing to run. "You can't control me!"

The fury on the general's face could have frightened a demon. "No one defies me!" she bellowed, advancing forward like a bull. Setzer's foot caught in the tangle of Daryl's bones as he tried to escape. With a terrified cry, he tripped and fell into the thick inky darkness of reality, of consciousness...

*****

His hand was clasped around the ring. He held it like a life preserver, a beacon in the darkness. At first it confused him. Awake, he was tied down like an animal to be slaughtered. How could he have gotten it from his pocket? But when he opened his eyes he saw indeed that he was holding it. The pin holding his right arm down had been pulled from the packed dirt of the barn, the rope trailing from it.

His captors knelt next to him now, one on each side. It would almost seem like they were attending him like faithful companions, tending to his wounds as his real friends would have. Except that Risa's face held an ugly scowl of hatred, and the spell Kurstil was preparing was not a healing one.

"This isn't working," Risa complained, drawing her sword out awkwardly. She set to work sharpening it on a whetstone from her belt pouch. "I should just kill him now."

"Wait, my General," the mage said, raising a slim, pasty hand. "I have been searching his mind for anything we can use, unaltered, that would cause him true pain, and I believe I have found something."

Risa didn't look too interested. "You said that before, but he didn't believe it."

"I have found, deep in his mind, a mental block. This was not magically imposed, like the first, however. It was self-imposed, a reaction to great pain or tragedy experienced. I will be able to break it, with some effort."

Setzer's heart froze. He had always believed that he had blocked out his first seven years of life for a damn good reason, and, although he was slightly curious as to what exactly he didn't want to remember, he figured it was best he didn't. "Stop," he managed to sob, utterly ineffectually.

The general's eyes flicked across his face. "Awake, are we?" she asked pointlessly. "All right, mage," she said. "You have one last try. If this fails to hurt him then I will kill him right away."

"Understood, General," he replied, starting his spell.

Setzer clenched his hand reflexively even tighter around Daryl's ring, trying to steel himself. Risa noticed and calmly reached out and clenched his wrist, nearly hard enough to break it, until his fingers relaxed and the golden band slipped free. "Please," he whispered.

"Pleasant dreams," she responded as her black eyes slowly closed in the spell's trance. "I hope to enjoy this immensely."

Kurstil leaned forward, his face close to Setzer's, the mage's fingers threaded obscenely into his white hair. "Ready?" he said softly. "No more shields, little magic-user, no more protection..."

There was a sharp pain in his head, and a flood of images rushed through his mind. His entire body flinched, and he attempted to pull his arm out of Risa's grip, tried to push Kurstil's dead weight off him, but the pain weakened his resistance. Bright daylight flooded his eyes, framed by thick drapes. A fresh floral scent wafted through the air, and he heard a soft, lilting voice speak his name...

*****

"Setzer? Setzer, darling, it's time to wake up!" Lady Cira Malyste chirped, flinging aside the dark blue material covering the window. The boy mumbled something, opening his eyes. "Good morning!" she said cheerfully, sitting on the edge of her son's bed.

He rubbed his eyes a little before looking up at her. "Good morning, Mama," he said as she pulled him into her arms, ruffling his dark auburn hair. "Ouch, leggo..." he complained briefly.

"Time for you to get a haircut," she told him, releasing him and standing as he got out of bed.

Setzer ran over to the window and looked out. The glare from the glass was too much, and he pushed it open, hanging out. "Don't want a haircut," he said, watching as a stableboy led his father's chocobo out into the courtyard and began to saddle it.

"Your hair's too long," Cira told him, joining him at the window.

"Lydia doesn't get a haircut."

His mother smiled. "She's a girl. It's proper." Gently she put her hands on his shoulders and turned him away from the window, pulling it closed. "Time you got dressed, now. Today's an important day."

Setzer's eyes got wide. "That's right! Father said he'd teach me to play blackjack today!"

The red-haired woman regarded him fondly. "Perhaps later, Setzer, but today we have some important visitors. You'll have to stay in the nursery with Nana this morning."

"That's not fair!" he pouted. "He promised!"

"You'll learn your blackjack," Cira said. "I promise. But for now, get dressed."

Setzer grumbled, pulling on and reluctantly buttoning the white shirt she handed him. "Why can't I get to see the visitors?"

The Lady Malyste handed her son his shoes. "No more questions, Setzer. Breakfast is waiting for you in the nursery." After he'd put them on his feet she herded him through a door into an adjoining room. "Don't worry, it won't be so bad," she told him, kissing his cheek before closing the door.

He wiped it away, scowling, and stomped over to the table near the middle of the large playroom. His younger sister, Lydia, sat there already, doing her best to eat an apple and keep her twin braids from trailing into her milk at the same time. "What'sa matter, Setzer?" she asked, wiping her mouth with her hand.

"I don't want to stay in here like a baby," he responded, tearing a piece of bread in half and cramming part into his mouth. After he swallowed, he added, "We can't even see the guests today."

"Mama said," she replied simply, and shrugged. "You can play with me."

Setzer grimaced. Who wants to play with a girl? "No thanks," he said, pushing away from the small table. "I'm gonna play cards."

"Boring," Lydia announced, standing up and following him nonetheless. He went over to the windowsill to pick up his deck, but something else caught his attention. "Look," he breathed, climbing onto the sill to get a better view. His sister shoved her way in beside him, holding up her ruffly skirts, and gazed out, too. "They're soldiers! Wow..."

"There's Daddy going to talk to them," she pointed out.

He stared down at them in wonder. One man, in front of about twenty soldiers, was seated on a huge chocobo with many of its feathers painted red. Lord Dorian, the children's father, had come down from the manor on his own mount, an equal force behind him.

Setzer had to focus hard on the two men to be able to hear what they were saying. The sound of the nearby ocean crashing against the cliffs was threatening to drown them out.

"Lord Malyste," the head soldier said with a slight bow, "I am Lieutenant Rio of the Third Imperial Command. I thank you for allowing these talks today to occur."

"I welcome you to my home, Lieutenant," the handsome dark-haired man said, his face stern despite the affability in his voice. "I hope that we will be able to work something out. Do you give your word that no weapons will be used inside the manor?"

"Of course, Lord," Rio responded. He selected two soldiers as a personal guard to follow him and Lord Dorian up to the gate of the oceanside manor.

Setzer stared at the flag attached to a soldier's lance. I know that flag, but what is it? Suddenly he shouted, "Lyddie, look! They're from the Empire!"

She gasped and pressed closer to him, her blue eyes transfixed. Rio had looked up at his shout and was now staring at him. The boy gulped, feeling suddenly sick. Something in the man's eyes seemed to hurt him deep inside. "Cold as ice!" he gasped, pulling back from the window. He yanked lightly on one of Lydia's red braids to get her down from the window, too.

"That's a bad man," she told him seriously. "Why does he have to be here? I want him to go away."

Setzer began to speak, but the door banged open, startling him. He shrieked and spun around. "What's the matter?" a plump woman asked, trying to pat the wisps of her hair into place. She yawned, looking incredibly tired. "You two just see a ghost?"

He sighed. "It's just Nana," he said, slumping into a chair.

Lydia ran over to hug her. "Nana!" she cried joyfully. "Guess what! There's a bad man outside! Daddy's talking with him."

"Oh yes, the soldiers," she said, sitting in a rocking chair and tipping it back and forth. "Not so loud, children, my head aches."

"I wanna go see," Setzer said sullenly.

"Certainly not!" his nurse said with a frown. "You are to get nowhere near those filthy things."

He sighed and glanced toward the door, then looking back at the woman in the chair. He had an idea, but he'd have to get Lydia to agree to it. "Read us a book?" he asked hopefully. She nodded, and he grabbed his sister's hand. "Let's go pick it out." He dragged her over to the bookcase in the corner of the room.

"I want this one," she said, picking up a small volume.

"No," he said in a whisper, "I'm gonna go see the soldiers. Let me pick and you can come too."

"Nana won't let you," she told him softly.

Setzer grabbed a thick book from one of the higher shelves. "She will too. Just don't talk." They went back over to the nurse, who was dozing as she rocked. Her eyes opened immediately as he dropped the book in her lap.

"Advanced Algebraic Study? You don't want this one, Setzer. Get a nice story instead."

"No, I want that one," he insisted, sitting at her feet. "Read it to us, Nana."

"You are a strange one," she said, eyeing him for a moment. Then she tipped open the leather cover and began.

I hope she's as sleepy as she looks, he thought, pretending to pay attention. I don't like that man. Father might need my help.

The nurse slowly turned the parchment. "...and the degree of monomial adds the exponents of all variables, for example, two variable a squared variable b cubed has a value of five degrees..." She looked away from the book and down at the children at her feet. "Setzer, you're not paying attention. You don't really want me to read this."

"I do!" he said emphatically. "Degree of monomial, Nana. Go on, please."

She sighed and continued, continually fighting to keep her eyes open. Her monotone voice was nearly putting Lydia to sleep, which was just as well. He didn't really want to take her along, too. Setzer focused on his nurse's expressive face, looking attentive.

Finally her eyes closed completely. "...and the linear graph of absolute value..." Her head hung low, her breathing regulated as she began to sleep.

Yes, it worked! Setzer thought happily, proud of himself. He waited a few minutes to make sure and then stood. As he walked by Lydia, her hand shot out and grabbed his leg. He clapped a hand over her mouth as she started to open it. Signaling for silence, he dragged her to her feet and cautiously tiptoed towards the large door.

The five-year-old squeezed his hand nervously as he pushed open the door and stepped out into the hall. His parents always entertained guests in the Main Hall, and the corridor they were in crossed over that room, forming a kind of balcony. It was the perfect place to see what was going on when he wasn't allowed to be there.

The two knelt, leaning against the bars holding up the railing, and watched what was going on. Lieutenant Rio sat in a chair across from his parents, the soldiers who guarded him standing on either side with crossbows on their backs. His parents' guards stood near them as well. There was a sense of hostility in the air.

"...and so we have remained tolerant of your neutrality for a while now, Lord Malyste," the Imperial lieutenant spoke, "but Emperor Gestahl wishes the southern continent to be as one, unified under the Empire."

Lady Cira shifted slightly in her seat. "But why is this important? We do not hinder you, we do not oppose you. All we ask is to rule our small land in peace."

He explained, "We must show a front of unity. We must be united and strong, so as not to provide an opening for any who would oppose us."

"For an image," she responded. "Tell me again, Lieutenant, for I am just a simple woman and it seems to have slipped my mind. What exactly is it you want of us?"

"All we want of you, Lady, is your oath of allegiance to the Empire."

The lord thought for a moment, his expression pensive, and then he stood slowly. "No, Lieutenant Rio. I have thought over all you have told me during this meeting, and I have decided that we will remain neutral. The young men of my realm will not be drafted into your army, and I will not pay taxes to Vector. I will not oppose your emperor, Lieutenant, but I will not help him."

The sandy-haired man's eyes narrowed as he too stood. "I see, Lord. You will not reconsider?"

"I will not," Lord Dorian replied, meeting Rio's icy glare.

He nodded. "Very well. I will convey your words to the Emperor." The lieutenant gestured for his guards and turned as if to leave. Halfway to the door, he stopped and turned.

The Lord Malyste stroked his closely-trimmed beard. "Yes, Lieutenant?"

Rio smiled and made a negligible gesture. The guards whipped their crossbows from their backs and fired, hitting each of the Malyste guards. Lady Cira shrieked in horror, stumbling backwards in shock as the gate burst open and the rest of the Imperial troops poured in.

Setzer clenched Lydia's hand, pressing back against the wall. His sister was trembling, her face pale, and she looked as if she wanted to scream but couldn't get the noise out. His heart pounded in his ears like a drum.

"Cira!" Dorian cried, trying to pull his sword from his belt. "Run! Get reinforcements! I'll÷" He didn't have a chance to finish as the lieutenant made another gesture, standing calmly in front of his chair. A soldier fired a crossbow at Lord Malyste, the bolt embedding itself deep into his chest with an audible thunk. He stared in amazement at the blood streaming down his chest before keeling over to land in a broken heap on the flagstones.

His mother's scream nearly blocked out Setzer's own. "Father! Father!" he cried, pressing desperately against the bars as if he could go through them and help somehow. A door banged open somewhere as the manor's troops came to action.

Rio's head whipped up at the sound of his voice. "Get the children!" he ordered. Setzer ducked as a bolt whizzed past him, not knowing what to do. Where can I go? He just killed Father! He yanked his sister to the ground, a bolt hitting the wall behind the place she had been. She appeared almost comatose with shock.

Lady Cira yelled out to them, struggling futilely as a soldier started to wrestle her to the ground, tearing at her skirts. "Run!" she yelled, and her voice got through to Setzer's frozen mind. The screams echoing through his head, he yanked Lydia to her feet, dragging her along as they raced across the balcony to the other hall.

"Up the stairs!" Lieutenant Rio bellowed at a handful of troops, and they pounded up, trying to catch the two children. A stone staircase spiralled up the tower, and Setzer ran up as fast as possible with his sister behind him. She continued to trip and fall the more she ran, and it slowed them down. The soldiers drew nearer and nearer.

Suddenly they were directly behind, and one, with a burst of speed, managed to catch hold of Lydia's ankle. She screamed as she fell to her knees on the stone. "Lydia!" he gasped, pulling on her hands.

"Let her go!" someone bellowed, crashing into the midst of the soldiers. The children's nurse fought like a wild thing, scratching faces and kicking with all her might. It was obvious she would not be able to hold out forever, though.

The soldier holding onto Lydia was forced to let go. Setzer dragged her up a few steps, but her clammy hands slid from his and she fell backwards, tumbling down the stairs to land at the bottom, alongside the body of the nurse.

"No," Setzer whimpered, terrified. He was relieved somewhat when she stirred, but the girl was immediately grabbed by a soldier and muffled before she could say anything. He turned and bolted before the rest of them could recover. He had to escape, had to.

The small window set into the wall of the tower was open, and he hauled himself into the niche it made, pressing through and onto the roof. Angry voices followed as the soldiers discovered they couldn't follow.

He went down, clutching onto shingles for support and getting a lot of splinters for his efforts. The men, in the meantime, had gone to the top of the tower and come out onto the balcony there. He could see them not far away, one holding a shaking Lydia. Setzer pressed back against a chimney so they couldn't shoot him, trembling in fear. He watched as Lieutenant Rio came out onto the balcony as well and took Lydia from the soldier.

"Little boy," he called. "Come back to us, and we won't hurt you. I promise you will be safe."

Setzer didn't believe it, leaning his face against the cold stone of the chimney. He panted to catch his breath, the wind buffeting him from behind and pushing him closer against the column. Make them go away, he thought, biting his lip so hard it bled. Make this be a bad dream so I can wake up...

Rio tried another tactic. "If you don't come out, we will have to hurt your sister."

He clenched his hands into fists, wanting to hurt them so bad, wanting to make them let Lydia go. But he could only peer around the safe haven of the chimney, watching as the man set his sister up to stand on the balcony railing. He could see her face well enough, see how pale and scared she was. "Don't hurt her," he whispered, his throat constricted.

Rio waited for a few minutes, placing a hand on Lydia's head. "Setzer!" she screamed, tears streaming down her face to match his. "Please! Please!" But he couldn't make himself move, his breath coming in tortured gasps.

Rio, gently, almost lovingly, it seemed, ran his hand across the girl's red hair, and then pushed, sending her toppling off the balcony and onto the rocks below, into the arms of the ocean. Setzer sobbed, hiding his face in his hands, falling weakly onto the shingles. His mother had to be dead by now, his father's life bled out on the stone of the Great Hall, and now his sister was gone as well. He was the only one left, and he would die, too.

The man impassively gestured at one of his soldiers, who cautiously dropped to the roof below and to the side of the balcony. Setzer looked up, gray-green eyes fixed on the bringer of his death. He couldn't let them kill him. Terror reflexes took over, and the boy bolted out of his hiding place. The soldiers watched, unsure of what he would do.

Gods help me! Setzer prayed, staring at the ocean below. It was insane, but if he could just get to the water... I'll hit the rocks! one part of him said, but the other argued, If you don't, you'll die anyway! Taking a deep breath, he began to run, and when he reached the edge, he closed his eyes.

And he leaped.

And, for just a moment, it seemed that he flew...

*****

The hands were soft and gentle, but they still awakened blazes of pain wherever they touched him. He wanted to tell them to stop, to leave him alone, but he couldn't make his mouth work right. All that came out was a low whimper.

"You're awake," the voice said, soft to match her hands. "No, don't try to move. You'll be all right." Setzer was able to open one of his eyes, almost able to focus on the woman who sat next to him on the bed. Her hair was shiny and brown, fastened behind her neck. The room was dim, and he couldn't see much of it from his vantage point.

The woman placed a damp cloth against the side of his face, patting gently. It felt cold against the burning he was experiencing all over. She hummed to herself, unwrapping and replacing the absorbent fur under a bandage on his forehead. He got a glimpse of how blood-soaked it was, but it didn't really register to him that it was his.

Setzer tried to turn his head and get a better look at his surroundings, but the woman held him still. "No, don't move," she said firmly. "I'm not going to risk having you open up any of those wounds." His eyes met hers, and he pleaded silently with her, confused and in pain. The dark eyes smiled back at him, understanding and sympathizing.

A door opened in another room of the house. He was surprised that he had heard it past the sound of his own pulse in his ears. Footsteps pounded in the other room, and then the door to this one opened. A man with a salt-and-pepper beard came in, smelling of the sea. "Jae," he said quietly, "I bought two Potions. Will it be enough? It's all I could afford."

"It'll have to do," she replied, taking the sack from his hand. "Look, he's already awake."

The man came over to stand by the bed and look at him curiously. Setzer followed him with his eyes, staring back. The woman, Jae, opened one of the bottles and, placing a cloth over the opening, tipped it over. "Tarin," she asked, "uncover the bandage over that eye. Maybe we can save it."

He nodded, sitting on the edge of the bed. "Hello, son," he said. "That must have been quite a shipwreck you were in. Damn nobles in rickety pleasure boats who don't know what they're doing..." he muttered, shaking his head and then looking back up. "I found you washed up on the beach about a week ago. Do you have a name?"

Do I have a name? I think so. I think my name is... my name is Setzer. "My name is Setzer," he wanted to say, but only a muffled noise came out. Frustratedly, he tried again, but to no avail.

"I told you not to talk," the woman said, lightly brushing white strands of hair off his cheek. "I am Jae Gabbiani, and this is my husband Tarin." She looked pointedly at him, and he had the grace to look abashed. "You can tell us your name when you are healed."

As the two tended him, he thought, Tarin. Jae. These are my... parents? That feels right... The cool liquid on his eye felt soothing. He closed his other eye and drifted off, and away...

*****

"Enough!" he heard Risa snap as he came out of the trance along with Kurstil. It wouldn't have mattered at this point whether or not he was tied down; the raw emotion of what he had just experienced held him just as paralyzed. Setzer tried to sort through the images, tried to come to terms with his new memories as the two above him conferred.

"You should have stopped it sooner," she was berating the mage. "None of that healing stuff."

He shook his head, sighing heavily. "I believe that it had the desired effect, General. So this is the last survivor of the Malyste family, as well as a Returner. Perhaps if you mention that you killed him to Kefka when you report back, he'll reward you even more, although I doubt he remembers anything of the unionizing. It was about twenty years ago, as I recall."

"You think so?" she smiled at him, stuck on Kurstil's mention of Kefka 'rewarding' her.

And to think there was a time I thought that the Empire wasn't evil, Setzer said to himself, mentally shaking away the mists. Kurstil's mind was still a part of his, although it didn't sicken him so much now. And it will always be a part of mine, until I die, which won't be long now. But that doesn't mean I'm going to let them kill me like a mindless animal...

"No," he gritted, forcing his jaw to work, his lips to form words, "it didn't work, Risa." She turned to glare at him, eyes like pits. "All this torture has shown me one thing, and that's that I was right to fight the Empire all along. I was right to help the Returners and they will destroy your precious Kefka and your Empire. You can take away my friends and family and loved ones over and over again, and all it will do is show that I am right!"

She picked up her sword from where it had fallen during the trance and placed the tip slowly against his stomach. Reflexively he raised his free hand to grab at the blade, to try to stop it, and she grabbed his wrist again, holding it away.

"Maybe it will happen as you say," she told him, her voice grating against his ears. "Maybe your little friends will manage to defeat the Empire, to defeat Kefka. Maybe they'll be victorious. But that won't bring the world back to the way it was before, and in any case, I can guarantee that you, my dear Setzer, won't be around to see it."

The very tip of the sword slid under his skin, and he gasped with the pain, gritting his teeth and closing his eyes. The heat of his blood trickled down his side. And then suddenly all warmth disappeared in a loud, piercing cry.

"Ice Three!"

Setzer's eyes flew open in time to see a gigantic column of ice form around the general, waves of freezing air hitting him. Her face wore an extreme expression of shock, frozen inside the frosty crystals. And then it disappeared, sending her reeling backwards, the sword pulling away from him and going with her. She landed with a thud, skidding backwards slightly to rest at Kurstil's feet, unconscious.

Sure that the mage wasn't concerned with him right now, he grabbed Daryl's ring and slid it onto his finger. Setzer struggled up to his elbows, pressing his free hand over his stomach to try and stop the blood, finally getting to his knees and yanking away the other rope holding down his wrist. It was from here, preparing the Cure Two spell, that he watched the scene unfolding before him.

"Katara!" Kurstil's surprised voice rang through the stable. He stepped back slightly, calling his magic to him.

The young woman came further into the area. "Hello, brother. It's been a while, hasn't it? I'm not surprised you've taken up with the Empire, considering how you left me to them seven years ago."

He sneered back at her. "I'm surprised you haven't taken up with the Empire, little sister, considering what you did to Cleo."

"I've not come here to rehash the past," she informed him coldly, her delicate features snarling at the man. With her long curls and dress, she looked like a simple country milkmaid, but the hate in her eyes and power swirling at her fingertips belied that. "I've come to take care of you, for once and for all."

He began the spell he had been preparing, looking amused. "The same way you took care of me before?" He raised his arms. "Flare!"

The spell hit Katara, sending her staggering backwards, but it didn't look as if it had hit her with its full power. I have to help her, Setzer thought, but how the hell can I help her against a mage who can cast Flare?

The answer was that he didn't really have to, for Katara recovered quickly, looking very annoyed, and stood forward, magic sparkling up as she gestured. "Ultima!"

Setzer was forced to close his eyes as the bright light illuminated the area. When he opened them, he saw that Kurstil had been knocked to his knees. "Very good, Katara, but I know you can't do another of those."

"Maybe I can by now."

Kurstil snickered, and, without bothering to get up, he cast Bolt Three at his sister. She was sent into a crouch, balancing on her hands. "I doubt it. Big, nasty spells always took a lot out of you. I doubt you can cast Ice now."

She managed to smile, staring straight at him. "Oh, I can, but you know, I don't have to. You've really underestimated me, Kurstil. Isn't it funny how revenge can make you work harder than you ever had before for you goal?" Her spell was ready, and she stood shakily. "X-Zone!"

"Katara!" he screamed as a huge tear rent the fabric of reality around him and then closed, pulling him into some other place. He felt the influence of the mage's mind pull away from his as the spell was broken.

She smiled a bit sadly, looking at the place where he had been with what looked like a tinge of regret. "Goodbye, brother." Then she turned to Setzer. "Are you all right?"

"I've been better... Kurstil was your brother?" he questioned as she untied the ropes attached to his legs.

"Unfortunately, yes. Can you walk? There's a chocobo outside. We should get away from here quickly..."

Katara reached to help him up, but he shook his head. "You've been hurt enough," he told her, reaching with his good arm for the top of the stall to pull himself up. The Cure spell had taken care of most of his shoulder wound, but it still ached and made it hard to move his arm. "I'll take care of myself."

"Setzer, we need to go..." Suddenly she spun around, only to be knocked aside, hitting the wall and falling down to lay on the packed dirt. Setzer glanced at her in worry before tearing his eyes back to the cause. Risa had woken up and was now coming toward him, sword in hand.

Her grin was feral, inhuman. "No more protection!" she cried. "Your mage killed mine, but now I will make an end of this!" He tried to step back, tried to reach for his cards, but she lunged at him before she was even finished speaking. The sword drove through his stomach, and involuntarily his body arched toward her as he fell to the ground, trying very hard to breathe. I should be dead, why am I not dead?

Setzer! came a familiar voice.

Oh, gods, he thought painfully, Nautilus! I can't take much more of this! Damn it, you had better not have brought Elya with you!

Listen to me, she told him sternly, You just concentrate on staying alive, and we'll take care of the big red bitch. You're strong. You can handle it. After all, I picked you.

Risa walked over and placed a casual hand on the hilt. "Have fun for the next two days. It should take you that long to die from a gut wound, provided you survive the fire when I burn this stable. I'll just cut your tongue out, so you can't use magic to heal yourself." She drew a knife from her boot, bending forward.

"No! No!" came a new voice. Risa turned to look at the little girl standing in the doorway, white cat next to her. "I'm not going to let you hurt my mother and Setzer anymore!"

Her eyes took on a hungry look. "It's you, the Esper girl, come right into my hands! Oh, how rich!" she chortled.

"Elya," Nautilus said, "you know what you have to do."

The girl nodded seriously, closing her eyes. The white glow spread throughout her entire body, and when it had flashed and disappeared, she had morphed into her Esper form. Risa stared at her, doing nothing, clearly envisioning the reward she'd get for bringing Elya back.

The purple-green eyes regarded the general for a moment, and then she raised a crystalline shard into the air. It was Magicite, Setzer realized, the one he's given her. "Shiva! I summon you!"

The stable was bathed in a blue light as a form appeared, coming from the Magicite shard. The Esper was a beautiful woman, blue-colored, who buried the pieces of ice into the general's body, driving her down onto a knee, before shimmering and disappearing.

"You'll have to do better than that!" she growled, smearing the blood on her face as she attempted to wipe it out of her eyes.

Setzer, Nautilus sent in the instant that Risa tried to recover, how are you doing? C'mon, talk to me, now!

He laughed weakly, hearing her voice in his head once again, dragging him back from the abyss. You must have picked wrong, cat, because I'm so tired... it's been fun and all, but, you know, I don't think all the money in the world could cover the hazard pay that I should be getting... He bit his lip, hard, and reached for the sword hilt. The strength was leaving his arms, but maybe, if he could just get this stupid sword out of him, he could heal himself enough to go help...

Damn you, she swore, returning to what was going on just as Risa barreled straight for the Esper and the cat. Nautilus leaped for the woman's face, scratching with her sharp claws. She roared and shove the white cat away, throwing her off.

She landed on her feet, shaking herself. But two of her legs gave out under, and she collapsed down, shaking her head again. Damn it! Katara! Wake up, or we're going to lose! she yelled, trying to get a response from her mistress's mind.

Elya attacked with her own claws as Risa attempted to grab her and knock her out. Katara blinked, rubbing her head and sitting up. She looked up and yelled, "Elya! No! Let her go! It's me you want!" The young mage tried to scramble to her feet but failed miserably and fell. She started a simple Cure spell, all she had the energy left for, and began to pray.

The sword slid cleanly out, clattering dully to the dirt. His vision swimming, Setzer got up into a crouch, blood leaving a huge red stain on his shirt. Should I heal myself now? Can I heal myself now, or will I be wasting time? What's more important, me or Elya?

That one was easy, and summoning the rest of his energy, he snatched up Risa's sword and charged. The general was still struggling with the girl, but at his cry of pain and rage she turned, for just a moment, to see what he was doing. That was her last mistake. Setzer held the sword like a spear and drove it through her throat with one swift, hard motion. Then he fell like a rock.

She made gurgling noises, spinning away and clawing at her bloody throat before tripping over Setzer and landing in a heap next to the cat. Nautilus sighed and stumbled her way over to Elya, who sat stunned where she had fallen. Katara, too, crawled over to them, ignoring Risa's dead bulk, and cast her spell on the girl. "Elya," she whispered, running her fingers through her daughter's feathers.

"Mother," Elya said suddenly, coming out of her shock, "Setzer's hurt!" She pulled away from Katara and moved over to the gambler. She tugged at his coat until he rolled over onto his back. His face was a pale gray color. "Help me!"

"I have no more magic left, Elya," she said, her eyes mirrors of worry. "Oh, gods, Elya, there's nothing I can do..."

Nautilus came up to the girl. "I can help. Start your cure spell, Elya." The white cat began to mutter, putting her paws on Setzer's wound. The Esper took a deep breath and pushed aside the shreds of his shirt, sliding her claw-like fingers inside the cut so the magic would get to his damaged organs. Slowly, but surely, he began to heal, and the trickles of blood slowed.

Katara hid her face in her hands, feeling helpless, as her daughter and familiar worked on Setzer. It was I who got him into this, and now I can't do anything to save him, she thought. Powerful mage, indeed... I'm nothing but a scared girl. Even Elya is stronger than I.

Setzer opened his eyes briefly, vision fading in and out. Elya's face appeared in his view, tears sparkling like diamonds among the pale violet feathers. "You're not supposed to Change," he mumbled at her before relaxing into the magical sleep Nautilus had cast on him.

"I know," the Esper girl told his sleeping form, wiping her tears away. "I know."

Katara looked at her, eyes wide. "Elya! You... you must change back! You must! You should have done it already!"

The girl stood up. "I can't, Mother. I can't change back. I hear them calling me, and I want to go to them."

"Who's 'them'?" the cat asked, sharing Katara's worry.

"The other Espers," she answered. "They're talking to me."

Katara couldn't say anything, consumed by the fear that she was going to lose her daughter. Not after all I've gone through to get you back, she vowed.

Nautilus rubbed her head under Elya's hand, purring softly. "What are they saying?" she asked. The girl cocked her head, listening.

"I understand," she whispered to the air. Then she looked at her mother. "I know how I was born, Mother. I know what happened. But it's all right. I don't want to be an Esper. Everyone wants to hurt them so they can take their magic." She picked up the Magicite she had let fall and looked at its dull brilliance. "Like Shiva. I don't want to be a Magicite." She smiled slightly and shimmered one last time, returning to human form.

Katara looked at her in wonder before pulling her into her arms. Elya stayed there momentarily before breaking away. "I'm tired now," she said, curling up next to Setzer like a cat. "I want to sleep."

"Sleep, Elya," Katara whispered, kissing her cheek and then reaching out to tousle Setzer's hair as well. "You too, gambler. Sleep, and heal. You've earned it."

*****

Sunlight and a soft bed, Setzer thought fuzzily, stretching, yawning and loving every minute of it. I must have died, because this can't be real. And, best of all, he decided, smiling, it doesn't smell like scared chocobo.

In fact, it smelled like flowers, and powder, and other things he hadn't smelled together in the same room in a very long time. Since I was a child, he thought, and then smiled at that memory. He may have had to go through hell to get his childhood back, but it was worth it. All of it.

"Those must be very nice thoughts you're having," Katara's melodious voice said, and he opened his gray-green eyes to meet hers.

"They are, and now even more so, now that I can see you," he said with a trace of the old charm.

She blushed, sitting on the edge of the bed and flipping back the covers to inspect his wound. "All healed," she announced. "Isn't it wonderful what magic can do?"

"Indeed," Setzer agreed, sitting up to look at it himself. Not even a scar was left to add to his collection. "How long have I been sleeping?"

"Only about a day or so," Katara smiled.

"Where's Elya and the cat?"

"She's taking a nap," the mage replied, "and Naut is with her." She gestured toward a bundle of clothes laying folded on a table. "I washed and repaired your clothes," Katara told him. "Get dressed and I'll have some food for you in the kitchen."

He gave her a look that said, 'So you undressed me, hmm?' and she blushed even brighter before escaping into the other room. Setzer chuckled before hauling himself regretfully out of bed to get dressed.

The food smelled good, although he couldn't for the life of him tell what it was, even after he came out to the kitchen and saw it. Rather than ask, however, he sat down and ate what she set before him, just in case the answer would make him lose what little appetite he had at the moment. There were creatures aplenty outside, but most of them didn't look too appetizing.

Katara arranged juicy slices of meat on her own plate, taking it over to sit across him. They ate in silence for a few minutes until Setzer put down his fork. "Katara," he said, "I want you to tell me something, and I think you owe it to me after everything that's happened."

She looked down at the table, color flushing her cheeks. "What... do you want to know?" she said reluctantly.

"Tell me about Elya. How did she get to be a half-Esper? That's not something that happens every day."

"No, it's not," she agreed. "All... all right. I'll tell you what happened... six years ago."

Setzer smiled encouragingly as she fought down her nervousness.

I can't tell him all of it... but the parts I can will be the truth. "Six years ago, I was twelve. My brother, you know, was Kurstil, but he was much older than me. I thought he would protect me. But I was wrong. Instead he had taken up with the Empire, and told them about me, told them that I was a mage and control magic, like he could. So they came after me, and took me to Vector..."

"Thamasa, right?" Setzer interjected. "Nautilus said you were from Thamasa."

She played with the food on her plate, pushing it around randomly. "The town of the descendants of the Mage Warriors... yes... we had been taught many things, all of my family. We, the Godives, know more of the powers than almost everyone else. It's always been that way."

"Go on," he urged.

"A dying human woman had given Gestahl her half-Esper baby when they took that world many years ago. The Empire controlled her with a Slave Crown, made her use her powers to kill and destroy."

Setzer couldn't resist the urge to interrupt again. "Terra... that was Terra."

"You know of her story?"

"I know her. She's one of my friends... but, please. What does Terra have to do with Elya?" Besides the obvious, of course.

She continued, "Gestahl wanted more warriors with Terra's power, but even if he found any, there was only one Slave Crown. So he decided he needed to make some of his own, raise them to be loyal to him, and that... that was where I came in. I could already control the magic, and a child with mine and an Esper's power would be a great soldier, indeed. So they decided to... breed me with an Esper."

"That's awful," he said, reaching out to pat her hand. Katara looked absolutely miserable. "But it doesn't surprise me, knowing about the other things the Empire has done with people and Espers." Like Celes, and even Kefka...

She nodded, his touch seeming to reassure her somewhat. "It wasn't that horrible," she said. "The Esper they chose, Unicorn, was just as against the whole thing as I. We tried to resist them a couple times, but eventually gave in. They promised me they would let me go afterwards. They promised me everything, and, although I'm ashamed to admit it, I believed them. I believed that I could give away my child and leave. We finally decided to... get it over with. I was worried about having a child, because I was so young, but it's different for Espers than humans."

She blushed a bright red, absently twisting her brown curls around her fingers. "Afterwards Elya came floating down to me, screaming and crying. Such a strange, beautiful baby." She smiled at the memory. "I wrapped her in my robe, and she started to quiet down. Unicorn and I just looked at her for a moment. Just one moment, and then the Emperor burst in to take her away."

Katara's face was full of rage, a face that he had seen before on her, but one that still surprised him, anyway. "I couldn't let him take her away from me. I'd only had her for a minute, and I'd never see her again... I cast a spell at Gestahl. Just Fire; it was all I had the strength for, and it didn't really hurt him, but it caused so much confusion. I ran for the door, and then Unicorn was there, helping me. I don't remember everything that happened, but when I came back to my senses Elya and I were safe, away from Vector. I don't know what happened to Unicorn."

"I do," he said, mulling over her story. He remembered when he had first met the Returners, first taken them to Vector. They'd gone in to the Magitek Factory, and when they'd come out... Edgar, with sparkling shards of Magicite in his hands... "He must have been recaptured, Katara. My friends found him in the factory... they said it was in one of the tubes... he sacrificed his Magicite to them."

Her eyes clouded for a moment. "Yes. I know that place. Somehow, I'd always thought that he'd escaped... But at least he's helping to defeat Kefka. I think he's enjoying that."

"I think so, too," Setzer replied. "And thank you, Katara, for telling me about Elya."

The mage looked at him. "Elya knows about it. You know that she morphed, but after you fell unconscious... she couldn't morph back. She was supposed to have become an Esper forever, according to everything I've ever known about them. But... she made a choice to stay human forever."

He thought for a moment. "In my opinion, it was the right choice. But Terra's never had to make it..."

"Unicorn and I did not love eachother. Our energies didn't mix properly in creating her. She can't exist as a half-being, none of us can. But I still feel as if I've deprived her of a part of herself that should be there." Katara looked at her folded hands in her lap morosely.

Setzer got up and walked over to her, kneeling on one knee next to her chair. "Why do you blame yourself? You had no control over it. You proved that you loved Elya the moment you ran from the Empire. There's no need to feel guilty, Katara."

Slowly she reached out to brush away a piece of hair that had trailed down between his eyebrows. "Thank you, Setzer. That means a lot to me, because I know it isn't just empty comfort." He smiled back at her.

Are you quite finished yet? Elya's awake and wants to see you.

He tore his gaze away from her dark brown eyes. "Cat!" he exclaimed, turning to look at the door to the girl's room. Katara flinched back in surprise as the door banged open.

"Setzer!" Elya cried, running out and flinging her arms around his neck. He picked her up in a hug, spinning her around a bit. "You're awake!"

He laughed at her excitement, easily supporting her light weight in his arms since she wouldn't let him put her down. "And so are you."

"Well, it looks like you got out of this alive, Gabbiani. I'm proud of you, I suppose, even though you're a poor excuse for a stable person."

"Ah, Nautilus. What would I have done without you? I mean, besides having peace and quiet?"

"I'm not going to dignify that with a response."

He chuckled before looking back at Elya. "I'm glad I got to see you again before I leave, Elly. Even you, cat."

"You're leaving?" the girl cried in dismay.

Don't tell me you're letting this one get away, Lady," Nautilus sent to the mage.

If he has to leave, I can't stop him, but... I thought you weren't going to get involved in matchmaking, she returned. There was silence from the cat.

Katara stood up and came over to Setzer, adjusting her skirts. "You know that you are very welcome to stay here if you have no other place to go," she told him. "Elya would love it... and so would I."

"Your ship is broken," Elya told him. "You can't go away! I want you to stay here!"

Setzer looked at the young woman standing before him, and the girl in his arms. The offer was very tempting but... "I'm sorry, Elya. But, Katara, you reminded me with your story that my friends need me. We have to get rid of Kefka, or more people will be killed, or hurt the way you were. There are stories of a light descending to destroy entire towns... I can't just stay here and ignore what's going on."

She looked down and then back to him. "I understand. There is more going on here than we know. Do you have to leave right away?"

"Yes, I do," he answered, trying to ignore Elya's protests. "I need to find my friends."

"Thank you, Setzer, for bringing my daughter back to me. You will always be welcome here... will you come back and visit after you've taken care of Kefka?" Katara asked.

He knelt, placing Elya's feet on the floor and prying her arms away from his neck. "Of course I will."

"You can't go!" Elya said emphatically.

The gambler ran his hand over the girl's light hair. "You know that I do," he said, reaching into his pocket. The golden ring in the palm of his hand sparkled in the sun streaming in through the kitchen window. "This ring belonged to someone very special to me," he said. "I want you to keep it safe for me, all right?"

"Okay," she sniffled, wiping at her eyes. He took her small hand in his own and curled her fingers around the ring before standing. She looked at it before suddenly bolting off to her room.

Setzer sighed, standing and looking to the white cat who sat next to him. "Take care of them, huh?" he told her, ruffling the fur on her head.

She shook herself and stared him straight in the eyes. "I'll see you around then. Don't let me hear that you've died, or I'll be severely disappointed."

"So will I. Katara," he said softly, "thank you for your help."

"It is I who should thank you. Setzer, about your reward..."

He shook his head. "Keep it. I'll find some other way to get a new airship. I'm a gambler, remember? Making money is what I do." He took her hand and raised it to his lips with a small smile.

Shyly, she returned his smile and reached up to kiss his cheek. "Be safe," she told him. "Kohlingen is to the north. Perhaps that would be a good place to start your search."

It's probably one of the only places I haven't checked... I'm beginning to wonder if they're anywhere, but still... "You're right. I'll start there." He began to walk to the door.

"You won't need anything for your trip?" Nautilus asked him, her tone clearly implying he was an idiot.

"I'll manage," he grinned back. "Maybe I'll roast a few birds..."

She snorted. "As if you could catch any without me."

He gave a short wave and turned the knob, walking out onto the path leading away from the cottage. Katara stood in the doorway, Nautilus at her feet, watching him go. Suddenly, a pale blur tore past her and down the road.

"Wait! Setzer! Don't go yet!" Elya ran up to him, clutching something in her hand. "You forgot your Magicite!"

He took Shiva's crystal shard, tucking it into his pocket. "Thanks, Elya. Locke would have killed me if I came back without it."

"Let me fly on your ship sometime," she asked as he tried once more to turn away.

"It's a deal." Setzer smiled down at her and gave her a little push back towards the cottage.

The girl waved, not moving from where she stood. "Goodbye!" Her mother walked up behind her, placing a hand on her shoulder, and they watched as he walked away until he was out of view.

The gambler started his journey toward Kohlingen, trying to keep up hope. After all, I survived this one, didn't I? Finding a dozen or so people shouldn't be too hard. Kohlingen would be a start. And besides, he'd heard the café there was worth giving a try...

Finis.

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