Light the Way Home

A Final Fantasy Tactics Fanfic

by Eric Bakutis

0) Forward (0

I don't usually do these, but I felt inclined to explain myself because I'm sure someone is going to write in and rag on me for writing a crossover. First, about Cloud... it is well-documented in gaming circles that there is a side-quest in Final Fantasy Tactics that allows you to find and add Cloud (and his Materia Blade) to your party... if you haven't seen that part of the game, you'll understand why he's in this fic. I thought it was very cool that Square added Cloud's character to Tactics (although he starts out Level 1 in what is usually a Level 20 party) but I was a bit disturbed that they took the time to incorporate a whole sidequest into Final Fantasy Tactics for Cloud, but said nothing about how he gets home.

What happens to Cloud, after all? There's no mention of him in the end of the game, and Orlan [sic], the narrator, says nothing about whether Cloud was still in Ivalice or left after Saint Ajora was defeated. So, this fic was really written as a way to tell the story of just how Cloud 'got home' and returned to his comrades in Final Fantasy VII, a niggling little detail that Square left out of Final Fantasy Tactics. So, even though some might term it a 'cross-over' fic, when one considers the fact that it was Square, not I, that did the crossing-over (and we aren't talking John Edward here) I think putting Cloud in a Tactics fic is justified.

And as for Ash... yes, I did encounter a Lancer named Ash in one of my random battles in the world of Ivalice. Accept it and move on, people. ;0

I started this fic almost two years ago but didn't get around to finishing it until recently. It was first posted on but I thought some of the readers of RPGamer's fanfic section might like it as well. Thanks for reading, and enjoy!

1) Descent (1

        "That's odd," Ramza Beoulve commented, staring up with a mixture of confusion and amusement at the low ceiling of the darkened cave through which his party was traveling. "How do you suppose he got up there?"

        A soldier stepped up beside him, a lithe, wirey man with spiky blond hair that seemed to consciously fight any efforts to control it. The soldier followed Ramza's gaze, took one look at the strange object stuck into the ceiling of the cave, and shrugged.

        "Think something threw him into the ceiling?" the foreigner known as Cloud asked, sounding as if he cared little for how the silent armored warrior had been embedded in the ceiling and even less for the question asked. It was not rudeness on his part, or even sarcasm--it was preoccupation. Ramza understood, as best he could, as best as anyone could understand such a strange situation. Cloud was a man without a past, a man without a memory, a man without a world to call his own. Hence why Ramza's party was working their way deeper and deeper into this hateful mess of caves, fighting off loads of Goblins and darker things, all on what could be at best considered little more than a rumor left in the Warjilis bar by a patron who had likely had one too many drinks.

        "He's not moving." Agrias Oaks walked up to stand between the two men, holding a smoldering torch aloft and brushing back a few strands of long blond hair with her other hand as she peered at the strangeness above. "You think he's still alive?"

        Ramza heard the sound of thick boots crunching loose rock, and knew that the last of the party was finally catching up. In the narrow confines of the cave network it was hard to keep track of everyone, but he had no doubt that the rear guard would keep things well in hand. In all his battles alongside the man, Ramza had never encountered a single warrior, monster or man, that Cidolfus 'Thunder God Cid' Orlandu could not best in single combat. The former leader of the Nanten Knights was a legend in his own time. Ramza knew that no matter how much battle experience he accumulated, he would never equal that great warrior. It simply wasn't possible.

        "Well, we can't just leave him up there," Ramza said finally, as Beowulf walked out of the dark to give him a quizzical glance, obviously wondering why they'd stopped, and then took his own look at the armored figure stuck to the ceiling. Strangely, there was no sign of Orlandu. "We have to, at the least, give him a proper burial."

        "And how to you propose to do that?" Agrias asked, lowering her torch and giving him a mildly curious glance. "Sabrina is with the other party, and she's the only person I know who's capable of jumping high enough to get him down. It may seem callous to just leave him there, but if we can't get to him, there's really no point in standing around here waiting for the monsters to find us."

        Ramza glanced up at the armored warrior once more, idly scratching his head, turning the problem over and over in his mind but finding no usable solution. Cloud was staring off into the darkness, his eyes distant and lost.

        "Perhaps if we threw something at him," Beowulf suggested. Ramza glanced at the Lionel Knight in surprise, expecting the suggestion to be some sort of joke. Beowulf never joked.

        "A shuriken or rock," Beowulf clarified, his tone all business.

        Ramza raised an eyebrow. The man was serious. He was not sure if that should disturb or relieve him.

        "If he is dead, I doubt that we'll be doing him any great disservice. And if it hits in the right place, it just might knock him out of there. It looks like the spikes on his armor are what have lodged in the rock, not the armor itself. We should be able to knock him loose by knocking off the spikes."

        "Hmmph." Ramza pondered, noncommittal. "Well, Agrias does have a point. We can't just stand around here forever. Does anybody have any other ideas for getting that man down off the ceiling?"

        Agrias shook her head, and Cloud was still staring off into the darkness. Ramza momentarily considered getting his attention, but decided against it. For the moment, Cloud was lost in his own little world, and there was no harm in letting him stay there.

        "All right, then." Ramza could see no help for it. "Agrias, your torch please."

        The blond-haired Knight lowered her torch closer to the ground, illuminating the area as best she could, and Ramza quickly discovered a rock of suitable size and picked it up, tossing it into the air and catching it, once, to test its weight. It seemed usable.

        "All right." His eyes rose to the ceiling and the armored figure stuck in it. "Here goes nothing, I guess."

        He brought his arm back, gauging the distance between his position and the unknown warrior with his eyes, as best he could in the dim light provided by Agrias' torch. Rock throwing was not exactly his forte, but he was competent at it. He took another second to check his aim, silently chiding himself as he unconsciously began to take into account the nonexistent wind, and let fly.

        His aim was off by a few inches. The rock, which he had aimed for the uppermost spike on the warrior's shoulder guard, smacked instead into the rounded metal of the fore of the guard, skittering off to strike the silent warrior directly in the left cheek.

        "Ow!" the man yelped, startling all in the cave, as his eyes flew open and the rock fell back to the floor with a satisfied clatter. For a moment, he merely twisted his head around in confusion, his eyes wide, obviously very confused. Then the gyrating stopped, his eyes seemed to focus, and he looked down at the small group clustered below his resting place.

        "Hey!" he yelled angrily, attempting to twist one of his arms up to the ceiling to get some leverage, and failing due to the lack of joints in his armor. "What the hell do you think you're doing?!"

        For a moment, no one said anything, struck mute by the warrior's unsuspected resurrection. Finally, Ramza found his voice.

        "Sorry." He felt warm blood rushing to his face. "I thought... you know, since you were stuck in the ceiling and all... I figured you were..."

        "What are you, stupid?" the unknown warrior interrupted, his voice a low, guttural whine. "Dammit, man, you don't just go throwing rocks at people just because they're..." He paused in midsentence, his head twisting about again and craning to see his surroundings. "How the hell did I get stuck in the ceiling?!"

        Agrias gave Ramza a warning glance, obviously growing annoyed with their newest acquaintance. Ramza didn't acknowledge her.

        "Look, um, I'm sorry I threw that rock at you." Ramza had to admit the words sounded lame, even to himself. "If it comforts you any, I was trying to knock you down."

        "With a rock?" The befuddled warrior shook his head in sincere disbelief. "What kind of herbs have you been smoking, kid?"

        Ramza narrowed his eyes, annoyed at the response. "Anyway, I'm sorry to have bothered you. I guess I'll leave you to it."

        He turned away and motioned to Agrias. She gladly began to lead the way forward again, her torch held out to push away the darkness. Beowulf started forward as well, and Ramza idly tapped Cloud on the shoulder, catching his attention, as they began to move out of the chamber.

        "Hey, now, now wait a minute!" The warrior's voice had gone from arrogant to undeniably whiney. "Where are you going? You can't just leave me up here!"

        Ramza continued to walk as Agrias marched purposely for the small tunnel leading out of the chamber.

        "Now hold on just a second here! Hold on! Look, you've got to get me down from here! I can make it worth your while! Really!"

        Ramza paused, obviously appearing to think the matter over. He really had no intention of leaving the man stuck in the ceiling, but the longer the unknown warrior was under that impression, the better.

        "Uh huh." His gaze revealed nothing as he turned and glanced up, expressionless. "I'm listening."

        "Okay, look." The man gestured futilely with the one arm that he had some control over. "I know you're not down here wandering these caves for your health. No one sane would, right? You're looking for something. Something valuable. Right?"

        Ramza shrugged. "Maybe. What's your point?"

        Agrias was standing at the entrance to the tunnel, holding the torch and tapping one armored foot impatiently. Cloud took a few steps toward the tunnel, staring into it with that distant look still in his eyes.

        "Well, I bet you I know what you're looking for." The man smiled, a rough, greasy smile that caused simultaneous urges to kill him and shake his hand. "You're looking for something magical. Something big. Something like a 'Gate'. Am I right?"

        Ramza kept shock from his features only through careful practice, amazed that the man knew enough to say even that much. Perhaps there was some benefit in freeing him from the ceiling after all. The rumor floating around the Warjilis bar had mentioned some sort of treasure buried deep beneath even the Deep Dungeon, but its actual identity was known to very few, only two of which were still living. One of those was the demon possessed Temple Knight who had once been Vormav Tingel. And the other was himself, the current holder of the 'Germinok Scriptures', the only remaining reference to the 'Gate'.

        There had been little in the scriptures about it, hardly anything at all that Ramza could read, as he only had a small portion of the book to work from, that which Simon Pen Rakshu had translated before his death at the hands of the Temple Knights. According to the scriptures, at least if the vague scrawlings that Ramza had managed to decipher were correct, there were not just one, but two 'Gates' hidden somewhere in the land of Ivalice.

        Unfortunately, Simon had been unable to translate any location information for either of the gates before his death. This lead they were following in the Deep Dungeon was unsubstantiated rumor at best, but it was the only lead they had. He only prayed that his dear sister was still safe. Vormav and his Temple Knights could not open the 'Gate' until they got their hands on the 'Germonik Scriptures', and he knew that they would almost certainly hold his sister hostage, alive and safe, until they received them. That did nothing to ease his worry. But he had responsibilities to fulfill before he left on a journey from which he might never return, and the first of those was to the man who called himself Cloud.

        It was largely through Ramza's actions that the foreign warrior had been called into their world (although Mustadio and Besrodio could at least bear some of the blame), and before he could finish with Vormav and save his sister, he had to make some attempt, at the very least, to send Cloud back to his own dimension. The machine that had brought him here had shattered shortly after its maiden activation, and this second 'Gate', which for all Ramza knew didn't even exist, was the only thing that he could think of which might offer the strange warrior a chance to get back 'home'. Wherever his 'home' was in the grand scheme of things. If it even existed.

        "Yeah, you know what I'm talking about, don't you." The warrior appeared pleased with himself, obviously reading Ramza's surprise despite his attempt to hide it. "You're looking for the 'Gate'. But I bet you're just wandering, searching these caves randomly. That could take hours, days. Weeks."

        Ramza said nothing.

        "Or," the man said airily, glancing innocently up at the ceiling in which he was trapped, "you could get me down from here. And I could lead you straight to that precious 'Gate' that you're looking for."

        "Oh, please." Agrias blew out a long breath from the tunnel, taking a step toward Ramza and the warrior stuck in the ceiling. "Do you really expect us to believe a buffoon like yourself knows where something as powerful as the 'Gate' is located?"

        Cloud walked slowly into position behind her, still staring into the tunnel.

        "Buffoon?" The man swiped his arm around in mocking outrage. "Please, lady, try not to hurt my innocent ears!"

        "You know where the 'Gate' is?" Ramza asked calmly, ignoring another warning look from Agrias.

        "You bet." The man nodded eagerly. Perhaps a bit too eagerly, in Ramza's opinion. "But, as you can obviously understand, I'm not just gonna' tell it to you. You have to get me down first."

        It was then that the sound of crunching gravel became audible from the far tunnel, and Ramza stiffened, quickly drawing his sword as Beowulf spun around and did the same.

        "Hey, what the...," the man on the ceiling protested, but then Ramza relaxed as Orlandu stepped into view.

        "Hey, glad to see you made it." Ramza narrowed his gaze slightly. "What kept you?"

        "Ramza," a calm voice said from behind him. It was Cloud. What did he want? Ramza turned, as Orlandu opened his mouth to explain himself. Orlandu didn't get the chance.

        Everything happened in a blur. Cloud stumbled back, shoving Agrias forcefully to the side as something quick and dark flew from the tunnel ahead and smacked into his armor, driving him back even as his Materia Blade flashed angrily and bit into its flesh.

        Instantly Ramza was running for it, Beowulf slightly ahead of him. The thing, which Ramza now recognized as a Cuar, roared angrily and attempted to close its massive jaws around Cloud's head, but the foreign warrior was too quick, rolling just enough to the side to deflect its attack by shoving his sword into its mouth. It roared in anger and pain, drawing back and allowing Cloud to roll free, at last giving Ramza and the others an opening for attack.

        Their efforts were not needed. Even as Agrias pushed herself to her feet and raised her sword, and Ramza and Beowulf came within striking distance of the creature, a massive shard of glowing purple energy erupted from the floor like a living knife, slicing directly through the center of the Cuar's torso and splattering its guts across the wall behind it.

        The magic faded, as various bits from the unfortunate beast fell to the ground around the epicenter of the explosion. Orlandu evaluated his handiwork without reaction, and then sheathed his mighty sword once more.

        "Sorry for being late." He idly brushed a few bits of gathered dirt from his cloak. "I got held up by a pair of Behemoths."

        The man stuck to the ceiling was gazing at the shattered beast in slack-jawed amazement.

        "What the... who the hell are you people?" His question was tainted with just as much anger as disbelief.

        Orlandu glanced up at the armored warrior, a hint of amusement momentarily visible on his normally taciturn features. "Well, hello. What have we here?"

        "What have we here?!" the man asked in genuine amazement. "What the hell do I look like, you dumb old goat? A goddamn stalactite?!"

        Orlandu evaluated that comment for a moment, his eyes curious, and the warrior began to turn pale.

        "Um, now wait a minute," he began as Ramza helped Cloud back to his feet, relieved to see that the other had suffered little more than bumps and bruises from his encounter with the Cuar. The blond-haired warrior nodded quickly to show that he was all right.

        Without another word, Orlandu slowly drew his sword, staring up at the man in the ceiling with that hint of amusement back in his face.

        "Woah, woah..." The warrior raised his free arm. "Hold on just a sec now, pal, I didn't mean nothin' by that. Let's just all simmer down here and talk this out logically--"

        Orlandu closed his eyes, smashing his sword into the ground even as Ramza yelled out a warning, wondering what in the world 'Thunder God Cid' thought he was doing.

        As before, unreal energy flared from the floor of the cavern, this time in the form of a massive spectral scythe which sliced up and crashed into the unknown man with shocking force. There was the sound of tearing metal, and then the warrior was falling.

        "Orlandu!" Ramza called out in protest, but the unconscious warrior had already crashed to the ground in a crumbled heap, his spiked armor shattered.

        "He's down off the ceiling." Orlandu gave him a barely recognizable shrug as his mouth quirked. "That's what you wanted, isn't it?"

        Ramza stared at him for a second. Orlandu merely stared back, that odd quirk tugging at the edge of his mouth.

        "Well, don't just stand there like idiots!" Agrias rushed forward, stopping to kneel by the unconscious man and quickly drawing from her stash of X-Potions, opening the first and pouring its holy liquid over the unconscious man's head and chest. "He's still breathing! Help me cure him!"

        "You really shouldn't bother," Orlandu commented as he knelt at the warrior's side. "He's just out for a bit. All I did was shatter his armor, not touch his skin. What a Lancer like him was thinking wearing spiked armor I'll never be able to understand, but I didn't do any permanent damage. Give him a few moments."

        Taking Orlandu at his word, Agrias rose to her feet and put away her X-Potions. Cloud and Beowulf watched the exit to the chamber for more Cuars, and Ramza kept one eye on the entrance. Just as Orlandu had promised, in a few moments the warrior stirred, idly bringing one hand to his forehead and groaning pitifully.

        "Get up," Agrias ordered. "You're not hurt, and we've dawdled here enough already."

        The warrior managed to open his eyes, still a bit disoriented. "Huh?" he managed intelligently. After a second, he added to that statement. "What?"

        Taking pity on the man, Ramza leaned over and locked his fingers around one of the man's limp wrists, taking a firm grip before pulling him to his feet. The bare-chested lancer stumbled uncertainly for a second, but seemed to regain his clarity rather quickly. Ramza noticed what looked to be a strange fighting stick, half wood and half metal, held in a long holster attached to the side of his leg.

        "Hey...," the man said accusingly, glancing down at his chest and then around at the rest of them. "What happened to my armor?"

        Orlandu pointed to the nearest fragment of metal within sight, his face now expressionless.

        "Sorry." The word sounded less than sincere. "It was the only way to get you down."

        After staring at Orlandu for a few moments with disbelieving eyes, the unknown warrior smiled uncertainly. "Uh, thanks, I guess."

        It was an obvious and poor attempt at diplomacy. Ramza acknowledged the fact that, though he was rather short on manners, this man was quite good as figuring out who it was best not to annoy.

        "Ramza," Cloud said softly, pointing at the exit to the tunnel. This time, he had no trouble figuring out why Cloud had called his attention.

        The fight was upon them before they were even fully prepared. In all, more than eight Cuars poured out of the exit to the chamber, their massive fur covered forms darting like wraiths through the darkness that surrounded the party and then leaping in to finish their prey.

        "Stay behind me," Ramza warned the man they'd dislodged from the ceiling, as without armor, he was going to be little more than a liability in this fight. "Don't do anything stupid."

        The form of a Cuar leapt at him from the shadows. Ramza twisted to the side to force its claws into the protective casing of his armor and brought the twin fury of a Rune Blade and Excalibur down into its flesh. The enhanced speed offered by the mythic sword made the entire conflict seem to pass in slow- motion, giving him more than enough time to aim his slices for the place where they would cause the most damage. The Cuar went down with a horrible screeching cry and did not get up.

        Ramza heard the sound of flaring energy and more angry shrieks, and knew that Agrias and Orlandu were likely dispatching more than their fair share. A Cuar leapt at Beowulf, tearing a pair of gaping scratches in his shield, and then froze in midstride as the Lionel Knight's sword smashed into the ground. The eyes of the Cuar seemed to widen in disbelief as its flesh was quickly covered in stone.

        Cloud sliced a leg out from under one of the Cuars that had chosen to attack him, silencing the thing's enraged cries a second later as he activated his Limit attack and sliced it apart with a Braver. Another Cuar leapt for Ramza, and he braced himself to meet its charge. Strangely, it never landed from its leap. There was a deafening sound from almost directly next to his ear, and he stumbled to the side clutching at the sensitive organ. The Cuar was nowhere to be seen.

        One more flare of Holy Magic from Orlandu and Agrias finished what little of the small pride remained to attack them, and the chamber fell again into deafening silence. Wincing at the loud ringing in his ear, Ramza turned to check on the unknown warrior. The man was standing, legs slightly apart, looking quite pleased with himself and holding his long, wood and metal fighting staff straight out in his hand. Only now did Ramza notice that one end of the staff, the metal end, was hollow. The Lancer flashed them all an arrogant smile as he spun the long device in his hand, lengthwise, several more times, and then with a practiced flick of his wrist the warrior stopped the spin of the weapon and slammed it into a long holster attached to the top half of his leather pants leg.

        "Interesting trick," Orlandu commented as he approached the lancer, who was smirking with satisfaction. The smirk quickly began to fade as he noticed it was Orlandu who had given the statement.

        "I've rarely seen a Cuar disintegrated so completely. How'd you manage it?"

        At that, the warrior broke into a genuine grin, drawing the long staff from its holster once more and flipping it up to point the hollow end straight at Orlandu. He spun the object and then flipped it sideways, taking the stock in his hand and holding it up proudly.

        "This," he began with obviously practiced flare, his eyes lighting up, "is my boomstick!"

        Agrias rolled her eyes and stepped carelessly over the bloody carcass of a Cuar. "And?" she prompted.

        The warrior gave her an annoyed glance, seeming almost hurt that she didn't seem impressed with his grand assertion. "Listen up, lady. This is a vintage Remington twelve-gauge. Es-Mart's top of the line." He raised a hand, gesturing grandly around the chamber. "Remember!" he warned. "Shop smart! Shop Es-Mart!"

        "He's from Goug Machine City," Orlandu remarked disinterestedly. "Es-Mart is an Item Distributor that competes with Besrodio's company, one of many that mine the ruins of that ancient civilization for working artifacts. He must have found a working gun down there."

        "Hey," the warrior agreed eagerly. "You're pretty sharp, old man. So you've heard of me, eh?"

        "Can't say that I have." Orlandu shrugged disinterestedly. "Those who mine those ruins are little more than grave robbers, regardless."

        The warrior's expression darkened at that, but he was obviously too smart to say anything.

        "So who are you, then?" Agrias was obviously anxious to get on with the journey.

        "Name's Ash," the warrior commented, his cocky grin returning. "Housewares."

        "You work in Housewares?" Beowulf asked, sounding a bit confused. "Seems an odd occupation for an adventurer."

        "It's my last name!" Ash clarified with a shake of his head. "No big, though. Everybody makes that mistake when I tell them my name."

        "So what exactly are you doing here?" Agrias pressed, her tone still more than a bit annoyed. "You said you know where the 'Gate' is located. How did someone like you come by that information?"

        "Someone like me?" Ash had obviously taken offense at the stigma that Agrias' title applied. "Hey, lady, I hate to break this to you, but you ain't no big prize yourself."

        Agrias gritted her teeth, but Ramza quickly stepped between them, putting on a conciliatory face. "She didn't mean anything by that, I'm sure, Ash. Now, you said you know something about the 'Gate'. You said you'd tell us if we got you down. We got you down. So tell us."

        "Speaking of which, how'd you get stuck up in the ceiling anyway?" The question came from Cloud, which struck Ramza as a bit irregular. Even in the short time that Ramza had known the foreign warrior, he'd never been what one would consider vocal.

        Surprisingly, Ash colored a bit at the question. "Well...," he began hedgingly. "You see..."

        Suddenly Agrias snickered, and Ramza glanced at her. "Oh my god." She put a hand to her forehead as if suddenly discovering a great truth. "You're a Lancer, aren't you? And you were wearing that spiked armor, and... oh... oh my god..." She sunk to one knee, shaking with laughter, as Ash stared at her angrily, fuming.

        "So that's it." Just like that Ramza understood as well, putting two and two together at last. "You're a Lancer. And here, in the tiny space of this low ceiling cave--"

        "It was an honest mistake!" Ash protested angrily. "It surprised me!"

        "What surprised you?" Orlandu asked, obviously amused by Ash's reddening face.

        "A goddamn Behemoth!" Ash gesturing angrily and spread his arms out to give them an idea of the monster's bulk. "The thing popped up out a nowhere and came running at me! It was just instinct! You know, battle instinct! I did what was natural!"

        "You jumped," Beowulf clarified in all seriousness, a far cry from Agrias, who was still shaking with laughter, slapping her armored knee in mirth. "You jumped, hit the ceiling, and knocked yourself out. And the spikes on your armor got stuck in the rock."

        "Hey, it worked, didn't it?" Ash gestured angrily around the small interior of the cave. "What would you have done if a Behemoth came charging at you from out of nowhere? The damn thing would have flattened me in this cramped environment! At least I escaped!"

        "By getting yourself... stuck... in the ceiling," Agrias managed from her post on the floor. "Oh my god... I can't imagine..."

        "Yeah, laugh it up, sister," Ash commented angrily. "You can laugh all you want. But the fact is that Behemoth would have flattened you if you were in my place. Give that a little thought before you start judging my tactics!"

        "Probably wandered away laughing its ass off," Orlandu muttered almost inaudibly.

        "Why were you wearing spiked armor in the first place?" Beowulf asked in genuine confusion. "What if you fell? Wouldn't that be more dangerous to you than your opponent?"

        Ash looked even more annoyed at that question, if such was possible considering his current state. "You ever been picked up by a dragon?"

        Beowulf considered that for a second, and then shook his head. "No."

        "Well, I have." Ash made a squeezing motion with his right hand. "Fact is that spiked armor saved my life, buddy. Sliced that dragon's claw nearly in half. Then it dropped me, and I split its skull open with my pike."

        "Fascinating." Agrias seemed to sober up quickly, soon becoming all business, a state that she seemed much more comfortable with. "So what do you know about the 'Gate'? You'll be sorry if you lied to us. Spit it out."

        Ash grimaced, took another look at Orlandu, and nodded quickly. "All right, then, no time for small talk." He took a quick swallow. "Fact is the 'Gate' is about a mile below where we are now. You gotta' head down the tunnel till it splits into thirds, then take the far right passage. Then there's a narrow rock chimney you gotta' inch your way down for about two hundred feet or so, and at the end of that is another tunnel leading further down. You gotta' make several turns, but I got 'em memorized. At the bottom of that tunnel is the large underground cave with the 'Gate'. That's where you're headed."

        "Thank you," Agrias said curtly. "Ramza, let's go." She turned away and headed for the exit to the tunnel.

        "Hey!" Ash called after her. "You aren't thinking of just walking in there, are you?"

        She turned and gave him a cold glance. "Is there some reason I shouldn't?"

        "Is there some reason I shouldn't?" Ash mimicked her question almost precisely, with just an added amount of derision. Agrias glared at him.

        "Charming," Ramza commented, growing bored with the conversation and increasingly tired of this small cavern. Cloud was still without a home, and Alma was still in Vormav's evil clutches. At least this Ash person had given them the location of the 'Gate'. How he'd come by it Ramza could only guess, and it was quite likely that he was simply lying through his teeth, but regardless, it was a lead, and it was the only one they had. They'd have to check it out.

        "No, you go on ahead and walk right in," Ash offered with a dismissive wave. "If you enjoy getting your brain fried, that is."

        "And what do you mean by that?" Agrias demanded.

        Ash was smiling like the proverbial cat that had just eaten the equally proverbial canary. "Ask me nice, and maybe I'll tell you."

        "Ash, we don't have much time." Ramza again cut into the conversation, making a vague gesture to Agrias to cut off her acid response. "We're here for one reason. To find this 'Gate' and see if it can get our friend back to his world. We've got other things to do and other places we need to be. So, please. If you have any information for us, share it. Otherwise, we need to be on our way."

        "So that's why you're so interested in the 'Gate'." Ash stroked the small goatee on his chin, obviously pleased to have gotten that bit of information. "Than you must be Ramza Beoulve. The 'heretic'."

        Ramza's expression darkened at that. "If you've come from the Church, I'd advise you to leave us. Now. The last few people who've attempted to 'absolve me of my sins' have not fared very well."

        "Woah, don't get your panties in a bunch." Ash put up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I'm just tellin' you what I hear on the streets, Ramza. Fact is I don't give a damn what the Church, or any of those high and mighty royal types, think about anyone. I work for one person. Me."

        "What an tragically sad life you must lead," Agrias commented dryly. Ash didn't even bother replying, obviously deciding it best to simply ignore her.

        "Look, you want to find this 'Gate'." He nodded his head, although Ramza was not quite sure what he was agreeing to. "Well, I'm looking for it as well. And the fact is, I know something about it that you don't. The protection spell that's been placed over it, and how to get rid of it."

        "Protection spell?" Ramza asked. "And what exactly is that?"

        Ash shrugged. "I don't know, really. Some kind of powerful magic which is supposed to melt the brains of anyone who tries to enter the chamber with the 'Gate', that is, if they don't disarm it first."

        "And you know how to disarm it." Agrias did not sound like she believed it for a second.

        "That's right, lady." Ash nodded in satisfaction, obviously feeling that he had one-upped her. "So if you want to get in, you gotta' take me with you. I figure we'd work good together, you know? With my brains and your brawn, we'll mop up anything that gets in our way and get through to the 'Gate' quicker than you can shine up that cute little sword of yours."

        "Cute?" Agrias demanded, glancing down at her Rune Blade and then up in obvious anger. "You think my sword is cute?"

        "I'm sure he didn't mean anything by that, Agrias." Ramza heaved a deep, long sigh and wrote the both of them off for good. "Look, Ash, if you want to tag along with us, that's fine. You're welcome to join us. Just don't get in the way, and don't try to stop us."

        He glanced momentarily at Orlandu, then at Beowulf. "And don't even think of double-crossing us," he warned quietly, turning back to Ash. "Or you will regret it."

        "Hey, no problem here," Ash replied quickly. "You want gates, we'll go find gates. Don't get so defensive. Lighten up."

        Ramza stared at him for a moment and then turned away, leading the way into the chamber exit. "I'll take point. Agrias, you're behind me with the torch. Orlandu, you're rear guard. Everyone else, file up between us." With that, he marched for the exit, Agrias quickly falling into step behind him, followed by a still thoughtful Cloud and ever calm Beowulf.

        "Hey, wait up!" Ash jogged in behind Cloud and quickly merged with their ranks. Ramza did not even glance back, trusting Orlandu to know his business. They moved single file into the dark, low tunnel and began to descend.

*    *    *    *    *

        Agrias Oaks let out a low, angry hiss as a bit of tar from the burning tip of the almost exhausted torch touched her hand. It had crept its way stealthily down the length of the wood while she stood holding the burning stick above the thick metal door that had barred their progress for the duration of the flame. As the tar continued to sear the flesh of her hand, she forced her fingers to remain clenched around the length of the torch long enough to pull another from the pack she carried on her back, and light it. Finally, certain the second torch was burning steady, she cast the hateful thing away into the darkness and idly shook her hand, sucking air in through her teeth and ignoring the pain of burnt flesh as best she could.

        "Agrias, are you all right?" Ramza looked up from his study of the ancient writing around the sealed door and noticed her pained expression. "What's wrong?"

        "Nothing," she said quickly. "Some tar just burned my hand, that's all. Nothing a quick potion won't cure." As she spoke she reached back with her free hand and pulled the required item from her pack, still careful to hold the newest torch out at a safe distance. She popped the stopper free with one finger and paused for a moment, trying to figure out the best way to apply the liquid to her burned hand while simultaneously holding the torch, bottle and cap.

        "Agrias, let me." Ramza reached for the potion, but she snatched it away and shook her head.

        "I don't need any help," she warned him coolly. Not from anyone, not even you. "What I need is for you to figure out what those symbols mean, so we can open this door and get out of here."

        Ramza stared at her for a moment, his face oddly pensive, and then raised an eyebrow slowly.

        "Can I at least hold the torch?" he asked softly.

        Agrias merely stared at him for a moment as he took a step closer and held out his hand invitingly. Finally, she gave in, handing him the burning stick of oil soaked wood. Although she refused to acknowledge the fact that she was now able to fix her hand with little trouble, she was privately touched by Ramza's concern for her. He really was far more 'noble' than either of his elder brothers.

        "I'm not having any luck with these blasted glyphs anyway, if you can call them that," Ramza said into the darkness as Agrias silently treated the burn on her hand. "Finding something in the 'Germonik Scriptures' that matches the writing around this door is almost impossible. There's just so much text!"

        "We need a man like Simon." Agrias finished with her hand and put the stopper back in the half empty bottle of X-Potion, placing it back in her pack. "That's kind of ironic, in a way. He goes his whole life with people telling him he's not needed and by the time he finally is, he's dead."

        She glanced away in the darkness, pushing away a momentary image of Simon lying dead in a puddle of pooling blood and water. It was still so fresh. Massive swarms of raindrops were pouring down from the Heavens, as if in an attempt to somehow wash away the tremendous amount of blood that had been spilled in and around the Monastery on that horrible day. "I still find it hard to believe that he's actually gone."

        Ramza evaluated her for a moment, and then handed the torch back to her waiting hand. "I didn't know him very well," he admitted. "But from what I did see of him I know he was a good man, both to Ovelia and yourself. His death was a tragedy."

        Agrias said nothing, merely nodding her head and motioning to Ramza to go back to his work with the scriptures. The mention of Ovelia reminded her again of her failure to protect her young charge. After a second's reflection, Ramza turned back to his work, seeing that further discussion of the topic would only be painful. He had barely immersed himself in his attempts to read the symbols around the door before they were joined by two more of their party.

        Ash came first, walking with a confident swagger than annoyed Agrias for reasons she couldn't be completely sure of. To be quite honest with herself, everything about the man annoyed her. There was just something in his flippant, devil may care manner that irritated her, and not solely because of his seeming indifference to the world around him.

        She had seen plenty of men like him in her life, men who wandered the world seeking only their own petty gains, fighting for no cause and answering to no master but their own greedy hearts. Men like Gafgarion. She had sometimes been forced to fight men like that, even kill them, but she had never felt for them what she felt for Ash. She had been angry, disgusted by those other men, even pitied them. But she had never been annoyed by them. And Ash annoyed her. And she didn't know why.

        There was something else beneath that flippant, cocky exterior, something that she didn't want to acknowledge if she was given any choice. Strangely, she had the vaguest feeling that his indifference, his attitude, was little more than a carefully orchestrated act, a ruse so he could avoid getting involved with anyone or anything. Somewhere underneath his rough exterior, she thought she could see the makings of a hero. Perhaps that was the reason he annoyed her so. There was nothing that got under her skin more than a man afraid of his potential.

        "Area's clear," Ash commented as he walked closer to the torchlight, holding a flame of his own. Cloud walked a few steps behind him, as silent and distant as ever. "Monsters must have heard I was down here and run with their tails between their legs. Can't blame 'em, I guess."

        Agrias shook her head slowly and turned away from him, saying nothing. "Let's hope the others bring back as encouraging results."

        Ash walked up beside her, and she sensed his eyes upon her, searching. She stared at the door and did not look at him, hating the feel of those eyes. She almost stared back, almost dared him to continue to stare at her, knowing that the moment her eyes confronted his, they would dart away and he would find something else to focus on.

        Yet she didn't. After another moment, Ash moved on and knelt by Ramza, carefully holding his torch away from the 'Germonik Scriptures'. Agrias had a momentary image of the idiot holding the torch up to read the scriptures and letting a piece of flaming tar drop onto their pages, causing them to burst into flames. She swore to herself that if he turned out to be that stupid she would kill him on the spot.

        "Hey, and I found something that could help you with this door too." Ash gave Ramza a ready half-grin as he reached into the pack that Beowulf had given him and pulled out a thick, metal object. Staring at it in the flickering torchlight, Agrias abruptly recognized it as a key.

        "Where did you get that?" she demanded, taking a step forward.

        "Hey, trade secret, baby." Ash flashed her a cocky smile. "Sometimes you just get the job done right."

        "Where did you get it?" Agrias continued forward until she was glowering down upon him, her hands curled into fists at her sides.

        "That is a good question, Ash." Ramza's eyes were fast growing suspicious, the eyes of a man who had been betrayed before and knew he could be betrayed again. Ash glanced back and forth between the two of them, evaluating their unflinching glares, and then threw his hands up in exasperation.

        "See if I ever help you people again." He sounded genuinely hurt. "I took this off a Hydra that we ran into on patrol. After I blew a couple of its heads off, it turned tail and tried to run."

        "I thought you said that you encountered no monsters on your patrol," Ramza stated evenly.

        "I said there were no monsters left on my patrol, Mister Heretic." Ash grimaced and pointed out, into the darkness. "After I knocked the last head off, the thing stopped moving. When I checked out the corpse, I found this clasped in the jaws of one of its heads. I pried it open and brought it out here."

        He pointed down at the massive key and traced his finger over its surface eagerly. "You see? Look! It's got the same type of writing as this door! It has to be the key!"

        "Is that true, Cloud?" Agrias turned to the silent foreigner and tried to press down her annoyance at his distance from their plight. "Is that how it happened?"

        Cloud stared at her and thought, his eyes still distant. Agrias had to suppress a shudder at the emptiness in his eyes, which sent chills running up and down her spine. It felt like he was staring straight through her.

        "I don't really know," he said at last. "I really wasn't paying attention."

        "You weren't paying attention?" Ash blinked in disbelief. "A Hydra pops up in front of us, I start blasting at it, and you weren't even paying attention?!"

        Cloud shrugged. "I wasn't paying attention. He did kill the monster, though. At least if blasting off all of its heads qualifies as killing it. I know about as much about this world as I remember about my past, but yeah, that's basically what happened."

        "See!" Ash rose to his feet, vindicated. "When are you people going to get it through your thick skulls that I'm on your side? Why would I want to double-cross you? I need you as much as you need me!"

        "Who told you we needed you?" Agrias growled. She shoved the hilt of the torch at Cloud. He took it from her without even rousing from his walking dead act.

        Ash seemed taken aback at that, but he quickly found his tongue. "Like it or not, lady, you need me to get you into that 'Gate'. And I need you guys to get me there. So we're partners."

        "My name," Agrias said crossly, "is not Lady."

        "Oh, excuuuuuse me!" Ash performed a graceful mock bow, a bit of tar from his torch splattering on the ground in time with the motion. "Lady Agrias! I didn't mean to be rude!"

        Ramza shook his head almost imperceptibly, and Agrias could see that he had made the firm decision to stay the hell out of this. Fine. She would settle with this arrogant man once and for all.

        "First of all, what you meant is irrelevant." Agrias took another step forward, facing him down with less than an inch separating their bodies. She could feel the heat rising from his skin. He didn't seem afraid of her, but then she doubted that he would be. He was a foolish man.

        "You are with us because you might serve a useful purpose down the road, and because you decided to tag along. That's it. We don't owe you anything, and you don't owe us anything. If you don't like our company, the door is back the way you came."

        Ash merely glared at her, searching for something, but whatever it was he seemed unable to find it. Agrias found herself wishing that he would leave, that he would walk right out of this chamber and never come back. It would be one less annoyance to deal with, one less worry to weigh down her already troubled mind. Why was it that the man vexed her so?

        "You want me out of here, huh?"

        Ash was obviously angry, but Agrias was amazed to detect a hint of hurt in his voice as well, genuine hurt. It both surprised her and annoyed her at the same time. Men like him weren't supposed to care about or for the opinions of anyone. Yet he did, and at the same time, didn't give a damn what other people thought. There again was the contradiction, and it was bugging the hell out of her.

        "You want to just walk right into that 'Gate' with no idea of what's inside it or what might be waiting for you. Is that it?"

        "Yes," Cloud murmured almost imperceptibly from behind them. As one, Agrias and Ash turned to look at him, both surprised by his unexpected admission, their own debate momentarily forgotten.

        "I need to see what's beyond that gate." Cloud's eyes were lost in the distance, staring at something very far away. The torch he held momentarily burned brighter, as if the very strength of his convictions was somehow adding to its light.

        "I need to see what's behind it. I can't stay here, can't wait much longer. I have to get back... to the Planet. To the Lifestream. I have to find her."

        "To the what? Find who?" Ash sounded far from a mood to listen to Cloud's babbling. "I mean, what's wrong with him, anyway? Why's he looking for this 'Gate' and talking about his 'world'? Who's this woman he's looking for?"

        "I can't explain it." Cloud turned away from them, back to the darkness, and shrugged again. "I just know I have to go there."

        "Uh huh." Ash brought a finger up to the side of his head and twirled it in a narrow circle. "Well, when you get there, be sure and look me up."

        He brought his attention back to Ramza, holding up the thick metal key. "So, what are we waiting for? Let's try the key!"

        He turned and shoved its thick metal length into the dark hole in the door before anyone could stop him. Ramza jumped to his feet, and Agrias rushed forward.

        "Ash!" Ramza protested angrily as the other turned the key in the lock, but it was already too late.

        A deafening click sounded from somewhere inside the doorway. All three of them stopped dead in their tracks, and Ash's hands leapt from the key as if it had burned him. The click echoed over and over around the close walls of the cavern and tunnels, and not a one of them moved until it had fading away.

        "There, see!" Ash grinned, that damned confidence of his slowly returning. "It unlocked the door! Now all we have to do is push it open!"

        As he said this he leaned over and extended one hand to meet the door, straining his arm, even though he was obviously trying to look as if he was merely leaning on it. With an anguished moan of rusted joints, the right side moved inward almost a half inch.

        Agrias slowly moved up to stand next to him, racking her brain for something, anything to criticize about his rash action, but, sadly enough, he had opened the door. There was nothing she could say.

        "Sometimes you just have to trust me to know what I'm doing." Ash smiled as Ramza shook his head, took one last look at the 'Germonik Scriptures', and then slammed the book closed with an air of finality. Ash reached down to take hold of the metal key, still in the lock, and attempted to turn it back around and pull it free from the mechanism.

        "Hmmph." He grunted, the muscles in his arms and chest straining. "Damn thing is stuck."

        "Oh, please." Agrias reached down in exasperation to grasp the free portion of the key and started helping Ash twist it out. "You can't even get a key out of a--"

        Her words were sucked away by the air which came ripping past them barely an instant later, as the key slid from the lock and the floor fell out from under them. All she knew was that it was now completely dark, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, beneath her feet. Something slammed into her, a body, arms wrapping around her torso, and as she struggled angrily to free herself, something sharp smashed into the back of her head.

        Betrayed! she thought as her consciousness faded, swallowed by the darkness. We've been betrayed...

2) Revealing the Path (2

        Thunder God Cid crouched at the edge of the seemingly bottomless hole that had opened up in the center of the archway, staring down with his keen eyes as if he could make out the floor, even though it was obviously levels distant. After a second's more observation, he rose and shook his head, regret in his features.

        "No way they could have survived." He spoke matter-of- factly as he turned back to face an anxious Ramza, a stern Beowulf, and a clueless Cloud.

        "No way in hell. However deep that pitfall goes, it's far further than any of us could have lived through."

        "Ash was a Lancer," Ramza protested, the cast of his features showing that he still refused to accept Orlandu's assertion. "Surely a Lancer could have survived that fall."

        "Maybe." Orlandu's tone of voice cast obvious doubt on that single word. "If he was more skilled than any Lancer I've ever known. If he could somehow manage to avoid being smashed apart by the rocky edges of the walls. If whoever made this pit didn't put a bed of spikes at the bottom. Then, yeah, maybe he survived. But Agrias..."

        He trailed off, realizing how cold he sounded.

        Is that the sign that you've fought too many wars, old man? He thought momentarily of Olan, back at Zeltennia Castle watching over Ovelia. With the monarchy in flux and men like Delita Hyral running around, Orlandu could only hope that Olan would be all right. Such an environment was treacherous, even for the son of a great General.

        Agrias was a good woman, and a skilled warrior, but she's dead. Can you really write her off as nothing more than another statistic?

        Ramza was staring at the floor, an old anger and hurt that seemed to grow with each new betrayal burning hot in his eyes. "Ash," he said, the name sounding truly wretched in his tone. "If he's alive... if he managed to survive..."

        Ramza looked up, his eyes still angry. "He won't betray us again."

        Beowulf gave him a doubtful glance. "There's no real evidence that he meant to betray us." He still spoke hesitantly, wary of Ramza's dark mood. "Maybe he just didn't realize what trying to pull the key out would do."

        "Then he is foolish and stupid," Ramza said coldly. "Either way, he got one of my people killed. That I will not forgive."

        Orlandu merely nodded. "You will do what you must should we encounter him again. We will support you."

        Orlandu held Ramza's eyes for a moment, saw a bit of normal calm forcefully thrown over the anger and the hurt, and was relieved to see that Ramza was regaining his cool. Like his father before him, Ramza cared dearly for those who fought under his lead, but also like his father, he knew enough of the art of war not to jeopardize the lives of the rest of his men by acting hastily. A foolhardy attempt to avenge one of their lost number that risked everyone still alive was the last mistake of a doomed leader.

        Ramza must learn to save his worry for the living. Orlandu had learned that long ago, on the battlefields of the Fifty Year war, but Ramza was still learning, though he was learning well, and quickly. That was the only reason 'Thunder God Cid' was willing to follow the younger man's lead, at least for the moment.

        "We'd best see what's beyond the door, then." Ramza sighed and motioned Cloud and Beowulf to follow, cautiously starting his way around the narrow perimeter of floor that surrounded the gaping hole, a hole that had swallowed Agrias and Ash.

        "I'd like to wait here, to see if Sabrina and the others can link up with us, but we really can't wait. They can take care of themselves, and they know the way home."

        "A suitable course," Orlandu agreed, easily negotiating his own way across the opposite side of the pit perimeter. "Ash said that this tunnel should lead to a narrow rock chimney. Assuming that he was correct on at least that account, we should reach it in a bit."

        "What about the spell he mentioned?" Beowulf asked. "The protection spell?"

        "I don't even know if he had any idea what he was talking about," Ramza commented irritably. "Besides, whatever it is, I'm sure we've faced worse in the past. I can't think of much that could be more dangerous than a Lucavi, and we've killed those before, even the one we fought in the Deep Dungeon, which was likely the most powerful of them all, after Vormav. Whatever is in our way, I'm sure we can handle it."

        "Reckless?" Orlandu questioned lightly as they proceeded down the dark tunnel, Ramza holding the torch that he had taken from Cloud to light the way.

        "Realistic," Ramza replied without batting an eyelash. "I think we've already faced the worst of what was waiting for us in this Dungeon, and we've bested it. The simple fact is that we have the advantage in both numbers and strength. The Lucavi we've encountered have been powerful, yes, fearless--but for the most part, not very smart. We have the tactical advantage, and the advantage of human intelligence. Therefore, it is likely we will prevail."

        Orlandu felt his mouth quirking. "You're willing to wager your life and the lives of your men on that assumption?"

        Ramza glanced at him and nodded, once. "I have few other options. We don't know what's waiting for us down there at that 'Gate', if anything at all. But we do have to go down there. If we keep our guard up, we can give a good fight to anything that tries to stop us. That's all we can know at this point, and that's all I have to base my decision on. Hence my decision to move on."

        Orlandu considered his words, revealing nothing in his features, and silently acknowledged Ramza's rationale. He had hoped that the youngest Beoulve would not disappoint him, and at least for the moment, he hadn't. He was a good leader, if a green one. That, for now, was enough.

        They found the three way split Ash had described soon enough, and despite his obvious reservations, Ramza led the party to the right. The tunnel curved sharply before they came to its end, and the flickering light of the torch revealing a narrow, dark hole which looked as if it had been drilled into the floor by some frightening natural cataclysm. It seemed Ash had at least been telling the truth about this part.

        "Is this the rock chimney?" Beowulf walked forward to kneel at the edge of the dark hole and peered down. "There don't seem to be any more doors."

        Cloud stepped past Orlandu, and the Thunder God watched in dispassionate evaluation as the foreigner walked up to stand in front of the hole and slowly tilted his head forward, sighing as if in a trance.

        "It is down there," he said slowly. "I can feel it... calling."

        "Cloud?" Ramza sounded more than a bit unsure of himself. "What do you mean? You can feel it calling?"

        "It is calling me." Cloud turned back to face them, his eyes curiously blank. "Calling my name. It's her. Her voice." He smiled. "She's calling me. Calling my name."

        Orlandu exchanged a concerned glance with Ramza, but it was obvious that the other had no better idea of how to evaluate Cloud's mystical ramblings than he did.

        "The 'Gate' is waiting." Cloud closed his eyes. "It is waiting for me. But you do not have to come. You have brought me this far, but there is no reason for you to go further. Your... lives. They may be at risk."

        "What about your own life?" Ramza was not having any luck hiding the concern in his voice, but Orlandu supposed there was no harm in that.

        "My own life..." Cloud trailed off, shrugging, his characteristic answer to just about everything. "That's funny to say. I don't even have one."

        "Cloud?" Ramza moved forward as if to physically restrain the man.

        "I'm going down there." Cloud opened his eyes and seemed to focus on them for the first time in a long time. "I must go. I can feel her calling me. You... should not come."

        "No way," Ramza said forcefully as he grabbed Cloud's shoulder. "We've come this far together, and I'll be damned if I'll abandon you now. If that 'Gate' is down there, we'll find it. Together. Okay?"

        Cloud smiled, just a hint of an expression, barely readable against his distant eyes. "Thank you, Ramza."

        Ramza removed his hand, a touch of humor breaking over his features. "Don't thank me yet. We still don't know what's waiting for us down there."

        "The 'Lifestream'," Cloud offered softly.

        "The what?" Ramza exchanged another glance with Orlandu, and the General had no choice but to shrug.

        "It is nothing." Cloud walked to the edge of the narrow pit, kneeling at the edge and then bracing his legs against the far wall.

        "It is the right width for safe climbing." He began to lower himself into the pit, his feet moving slowly lower as he slid his back down the shaft. "Keep your back firmly against the wall, and keep the pressure on your feet. Don't go too fast, and you'll be fine."

         Orlandu tapped Beowulf on the shoulder. "How many fresh torches have we got left? I know Ash had more than a few of them."

        Beowulf grimaced. "We've got twelve left, enough to get us down that chimney, and back out, perhaps. If we only spend a few minutes down there. If we don't run into any monsters on the way. As it is, we're cutting it closer than I like, but we really can't turn back now."

        "You're right," Ramza cut in sternly. "We've come too far to turn back, and besides, Cloud seems intent on finishing this. If worst comes to worst, we can use spell flares to guide us out. So let's get moving."

        Seeing that Cloud had worked his way down the rock chimney a sufficient distance, Ramza settled himself on the edge of the pit and set his legs against the wall, still holding the lit torch in one hand.

        "Cloud!" he called down. "Wait just a minute. You should hold this. Otherwise, it might drip on you." Ramza began a quick but cautious descent into the chimney, and Beowulf moved to follow.

        "Have you ever done this before?" the Lionel Knight asked as he sat at the edge of the pit and braced his legs, more than a bit hesitantly, against the wall. "How difficult is it?"

        "Last time I did this, I had to scramble back up the hole with a horde of ghouls snapping at my ass." Orlandu felt his mouth twisting slightly again and wondered how long it had been since that gesture had become his only visible expression. "That was a long time ago, though, and I was much younger. I wouldn't worry. You'll manage."

        "That's supposed to reassure me?" Beowulf shook his head as he began to lower himself into the pit. "For a General who fought in the Fifty Year War, I'm not too impressed with your ability to rally your men."

        "Chalk it up to old age." Orlandu chuckled as he crouched at the pit and waited for Beowulf to work his way down. "I've been alive a long time, my friend, and I don't think Mother Fate is finished with me yet. I'm sure she's got much more in store for the both of us."

        "That she does," Beowulf agreed solemnly. "Reis is waiting for me back at the camp. She would be angry if I didn't come back to her."

        Thinking on that simple assertion, Orlandu momentarily saw Agrias' stern face flashing before his eyes. He pushed away the momentary pang of sadness at her loss. Now was not the time. He would mourn for her later, when they were no longer in a hostile environment. For now, his only concern was to make sure that no one else in their party joined her.

*    *    *    *    *

        It took a second to wake up. The pain of waking up put her immediately back to sleep. There was darkness, and dreams. She did not like the dreams.

        She was running, her sword heavy in her hand, a painful gash carved into her left shoulder. A gash where an enemy sword had hit bone. She was following a narrow creek, splashing in and out of the water, praying that the dogs would lose her scent in its flow. She ran on despite the pain, despite the forest crushing in around her, knowing that she must keep running. She must keep running until the men behind her were either exhausted... or dead.

        She could hear the dogs baying loudly, could hear the crunch of undergrowth beneath armored feet and the shouts of men. Betrayers, all of them. Knights of the Church. Knights of Cardinal Draclau. Knights that wanted her head on a platter.

        They were many, but she had the advantage. They were chasing, following orders, but their souls weren't as pure as hers, and they were not as willing to die for their cause. She would find the others, find Ramza and his soldiers. They would help her. She had abandoned Ovelia to find them, knowing that it was the only way she could save the life of the young Princess. That was why she was better than them. That was why she would outrun them. That was why...

        There was a momentary break in the woods, a rocky hill which she began to climb, hoping to find some place to hide until her pursuers passed. She had only gotten a few steps before another form burst from the trees.

        "There she is!" a familiar voice cried.

        She heard the angry wark of a Chocobo and the charge of three-toed feet. A second later the rider and steed were almost on top of her. She turned and brought up her sword in one last act of angry defiance. This one would not take her. She focused her Holy Power, casting a prayer to all that was above and willing the light to flow into her body, into the blade of her magnificent sword where it would smite all those who opposed her.

        She prayed. She prayed. But the light would not come.

        The Knight brought his weapon around in a sweeping arc as she stared down at her sword in disbelief, unable to imagine where the light could have gone. She saw the confusion in her face and eyes reflected in its glistening blade, saw the wind tugging at her tattered blond hair, but no Holy magic came. Even her God had betrayed her?

        The sword came in for her neck, slicing her blade in half as it went. She felt cold steel bite into her throat. She felt a warm rush of blood. Her head flew into the air as the world spiraled about her in a crazy mess of colors, her lifeblood spouting from her open neck in a brilliant shower. She watched her body fall as her head landed roughly in the dirt. Her eyes stared up at the rider as he reined his steed around and trotted back to stare down at his handiwork. He stopped, looking down and chuckling.

        The impossibility of her plight was almost painful. She was dead, beheaded! How could she still see?

        The soldier reached up and flipped up his metal visor, revealing the top of a face that she instantly knew, set with arrogant eyes.

        "Face it, lady." The barely perceptible wrinkles around Ash's eyes crinkled, and she could imagine the white-toothed smile hidden behind his mouthguard. "Sometimes you just have to trust me to know what I'm doing."

        He dismounted quickly, moving over to stand above her, and then knelt by her severed head. Then, his hand reached down and gently stroked her cheek.

        She backhanded him.

        There was a white flash of pain, and everything went dark. She heard a body crashing into the loose gravel, and an aborted, angry shout. She thrashed about in the rocks, realizing that she was whole again, not knowing where she was and knowing even less of how she'd gotten there. It took a second for it all to come back.

        Ash had the key. He'd tricked her into turning it. The floor had fallen open, and Ash had wrapped his arms around her as they fell, smashing his gauntlet into her head, knocking her out. So why was she still alive? And, most importantly, where was Ash?

        "Sweet Saint Ajora, Agrias, what the hell are you doing?"

        The Lancer's voice came to her angrily from the darkness, and she heard the sound of his feet scrambling on the rock. She fumbled about for her sword, her hands desperate in the darkness, but she came up with little but gravel.

        "Stay back, Ash!" She hid a burst of primal fear, crushing it by being angry with herself for even feeling it in the first place. Even in the dark, even unarmed, he would not take her easily. "Just stay back!"

        There was silence, and she didn't hear any more movement. She slowly rose to her feet and then crouched again, knocking her head on a ceiling that was very low. Her head felt wet, and as her hand reached up to touch the base of her neck, she felt warmth there, liquid warmth. She knew it was blood. She heard another shuffle of rock, and the sound of metal hitting metal. There was a barely recognizable flash, a tiny spark, and then Agrias remembered Ash's massive gun, and what it had done to the Cuar. She scrambled back a step, feeling its empty barrel leering at her from the darkness, waiting to blow her apart with one massive shot.

        Metal hit metal again, producing yet another spark. Then another. Finally, a dim smoldering, a bit of light, and then the light was lifted into the air, slowly catching. She recognized it, finally. A torch, one of theirs. As it flickered into existence, she could finally make out the form of a crouching Ash, holding the torch out before him protectively.

        "Agrias, are you insane?" Ash blinked against the light. "Why the hell did you hit me?"

        "You..." Agrias stared at him hatefully. "You won't get away with this."

        He merely stared at her for a second in confusion. "Get away with what? Sweet Saint Ajora, Agrias, I know that rock hit you pretty hard, but this is unreal! Wake up!"

        "Who do you think you are?" she demanded, touching the warmth at the base of her skull. She looked at her hand, in the dim light of the torch, and could see that it was covered in red.

        "Hello!" Ash waved the torch angrily. "I just saved your life here, woman!"

        He tapped his left cheek, and she saw the angry bruise that was already forming. The length of it matched her gauntlet almost perfectly.

        "And do I get ever a scrap of gratitude for my trouble? No! I get a slap in the face!"

        "You didn't..." Agrias began angrily, but then it began to sink in. They had been falling, and she had known that they were falling to their death. She glanced up, discovering the long pit that reached into the ceiling for the first time, the light from the torch illuminating its rough sides in flickering relief. She could not see where it began.

        "How did we..." she asked in painful confusion. "Are we dead?"

        Ash tilted his head to the side. "Dead? Oh, well, let me think." He flicked a loose pebble and sent it skittering across the floor. "I'm still breathing, you're still breathing. I'm not splattered all over the floor, you're not splattered all over the floor. Gee. I guess we're not dead!"

        Agrias considered that for a second, staring blankly at Ash in the dim light of the torch. It barely put out enough light to illuminate the two of them, let alone the dark nothingness into which they'd fallen.

        "How far..."

        "At least a mile, maybe more." Ash had somehow anticipated her question and cut it off before she could complete it. "I barely managed to slow us on the way down as it was, bouncing off the goddamn walls, and having your dead weight dragging me down didn't help."

        Again she stared at him with blank eyes. At last she understood, and she felt like the worst sinner alive.


        He grimaced. "There's no way we're getting back up without climbing gear. On the bright side, we're a helluva lot closer to that damned 'Gate'."


        "What?" he asked irritably.

        "You saved my life."

        He blinked in the torchlight, obviously caught off guard by the abrupt absence of malice in her voice, fearing some trick.

        "Well, yeah..." he agreed hesitantly.

        "I'm... sorry for hitting you." Agrias collected her thoughts, knowing that if they wanted to get out of this alive, she would have to keep her wits about her. "I was dreaming... fever dreams I guess, something to do with being knocked out by the... rock. It was an accident."

        Ash rubbed his bruised cheek with the flat of his hand and sniffed. "Well, it's no big deal," he amended with somewhat inadequate grace. "Anyways, we got worse things to worry about. Like how we're gonna' get out of this dank hell hole and get back to civilization."

        "Yes," Agrias agreed quickly. "Where's my sword? Did you see it when we fell?"

        Ash shook his head. "Sorry. I dropped the bag with the torches to grab you. I don't know what happened to your sword, I'm just glad it didn't stab me on the way down. I think the bag got hung up on one of the spikes in those walls."

        "Spikes?" Agrias was having trouble understanding again.

        "Yeah, nasty bastards." Ash spread his hands apart, obviously attempting to represent something quite long. "Probably about five or six feet long, set into the walls almost all the way down. Serrated edge and everything. Avoiding those things was a pain in the ass. Whoever made this trap was damn thorough."

        Agrias shook her head, amazed anew that they had managed to survive the fall. It was all due to Ash, she realized. His skills and quick thinking had been the only thing that had saved them both from a very quick and messy death.

        One thing was certain. She would never again think of him as a buffoon.

        "We have to get out of here," she said to silence her regrets, glancing around at the darkness in a vain search for some sort of recognizable landmark, any trace that someone might have come through this network of caves ahead of them. They had to get out of here, link up with Ramza and the others, before it was too late.

        "That I already figured out," Ash remarked with a half smirk. "The major question I'm dealing with now is how."

        Agrias glanced around in the darkness again, keeping her thoughts calm, controlled, purposeful. They would find a way out of here, just as long as they kept their heads. Just as long as they did not panic.

        "If someone went to this much trouble to create this trap, they had to know where it went," she reasoned aloud. "Also, those metal spikes can't be natural. The engineers who made this trap would have had to plant them. They wouldn't want to leave any traces on the surface, anything that might give away their trap, so they probably worked from the bottom up. That means that they had to have a way into here, to set those spikes. And that..."

        "Means there has to be a way out," Ash agreed with a grimace. "I hate to admit it, Agrias, but sometimes you're pretty smart. Okay. So how do we find it?"

        "We start searching," Agrias explained simply. "First thing we need to do is find a wall, find something to follow to keep our bearings."

        Ash glanced around, and then shrugged. "Well, you're the intelligent one. Lead the way. I'll be torch boy."

        Agrias wasted no time, deciding to head off to the right of the hole from which they'd fallen. She kept her eyes on the uneven rocky ground of the floor, not only to keep from tripping, but also to make certain they were traveling in a relatively straight line. She was weaponless, unable to summon her Holy Magic without a sword through which to channel it. She felt naked.

        As they picked their way through the darkness, she tried not to think that they only had one torch to give them light, already half-burned and fading fast. She tried not to think that even if they found the way out of this dank hole, the path back to the surface might takes hours, even days to traverse. She tried not to think that they didn't have the time, supplies, or weapons to protect them on such a long journey, and if they were to encounter monsters...

        The solution to these problems was simple enough. She tried not to think. When they came upon a wall less than a minute later, Agrias let out a breath she didn't realize she'd been holding.

        "Well I'll be a Malboro's sofa cushion," Ash remarked in his typical dry style. "Lancers and ladies, we have wall. So now what?"

        "Now, we follow it and see where it leads." Agrias calmly explained the process to him as she began to do just that. "The door out must be somewhere around here. We just have to follow the wall all the way around the chamber, until we find it."

        "Brilliant," Ash exclaimed, and Agrias could sense that he actually meant what he said. "You come in pretty handy in a cave, toots."

        Agrias scowled. "Just because you saved my life doesn't mean you can call me toots. Understood?" She gave him a warning glance and was annoyed to find a lopsided grin on his face.

        "Just keepin' you on your toes, baby," he explained with an innocent shrug.

        Agrias' scowl deepened as she turned back to the wall, refusing to give him the satisfaction of a response. 'Baby' was little better than 'toots', and if was attempting to flirt with her, it was the worst attempt that she had ever encountered. Then again, he was probably one of the only men who'd ever had the desire to flirt with her in the first place, and that was something in and of itself. Committing herself to God and Country had not left much time for the lesser things in life. Disturbed by her inability to define her feelings about his attentions, Agrias continued her exploration of the cave as best she could, Ash right with her to give them light.

        They found the tunnel quickly enough, though the rapidly burning torch was more than a bit shorter when they did so. Agrias smiled, pleased to know that she'd guessed right. The passage was small, barely wide enough for the two of them to crawl through single file, but it had obviously been dug by human hands. They had found their way out. She started crawling in, but she felt Ash's hand grab her shoulder, and had to fight the urge to shrug him off.

        "You better let me go first."

        "I can handle myself," she warned him crossly.

        "Not without a weapon, you can't." He patted the large gun in the holster on his leg. "Facts are facts, Agrias. I got a weapon, and you don't. So I lead. You hold the torch."

        She blinked quickly. "You fire that thing in that small tunnel, and it's likely to collapse on the both of us!"

        He shrugged. "Quicker than getting your brain sucked out by a gut sucking monster." He was already pushing past her and crawling into the tunnel, pressing the torch into her hand as he drew his long gun from its holster. "And at least we get to take the bastard with us."

        "Ash, I'm warning you," Agrias said as she crawled in after him. She grimaced as the torch flame came uncomfortably close to the damp ceiling, fizzling angrily. "Don't you dare fire that weapon. The tunnel won't handle the strain."

        "Fine," he snapped. "If I see a big monster ahead of us, I'll just, like, ask it to go away." Ash was muttering from ahead of her, his words barely audible. "Sweet Saint Ajora, woman."

        "What was that?" Agrias called sharply from behind him.

        "Um," Ash covered quickly, "I said, swimmin'."

        He had likely remembered that she was directly behind him, with a flaming stick clasped in her right hand.

        "There's a lot of moisture in these tunnels, lot more than there was upstairs. There must be an underground stream nearby. We may end up going swimmin'."

        "I see," Agrias agreed humorlessly, reminding herself once again that he had saved her life. It would be downright antisocial to kill him. "Just keep your eyes on the tunnel, Ash."

        "Yes ma'am!" he called back as they advanced.

        The close, damp tunnel continued for an indeterminate time, twisting a bit from side to side, but coming no closer to an end. At the very least, it was tight, and she knew that they could navigate it without sight.

        "Ash, I'm putting out the torch," she called ahead.

        "You're doing what?" he asked in disbelief. "Agrias, we need the light..."

        "Not is this tight tunnel, we don't," she countered as she pressed the torch into the ceiling and rolled it quickly across the damp. The already sputtering flame did little to resist. "We can feel our way through this tunnel, and we're going to need the light from this torch when we get out of it. We have to conserve our resources."

        At that the torch was out, and they were buried in darkness. Agrias forced herself to keep her breaths calm and measured, pushing off the disturbing feeling that she would suffocate in the dark. Thank God she wasn't claustrophobic.

        "You're the boss." Ash didn't sound convinced, but it was obvious there was little he could do to change matters. She heard the sound of a shuffle from ahead. "Grab my hand."

        Agrias reached out into the darkness, careful to make certain it was indeed his hand she grabbed, and felt him press a small metal plate and rock into her open palm. "Flint and steel," he said as he jerked his hand away. "Just in case you have to light it back up real quick."

        "I know what flint and steel are," Agrias said crossly as she took the offered items and, after a second's consideration, tucked them into the collar of her armor, unable to think of anywhere else to put them. Unlike Ash's leather pants, her armor did not have pockets. "Just keep moving. Let me know when the tunnel widens out."

        The slight sound of moving gravel told her that he was on the move again, and so she began to move as well. They continued in this manner for an indeterminate time, which Agrias had no way of judging in the darkness, with no end to the tunnel in sight. Just when she was beginning to feel that the damp climb would never end, she suddenly bumped head first into Ash's posterior.

        "Ash, you idiot!" she protested angrily as she drew back her head in disgust, but a quick hiss from ahead silenced any further protest. For a second, there was only silence.

        "What?" she whispered finally, wondering if her whisper would even carry to him.

        "Agrias," Ash said, his voice frightened. "Light the torch."

        "Why?" she asked, still whispering. "Ash, what are you..."

        "Light the goddamn torch, woman!" he hissed violently, and she gritted her teeth and pulled the flint and steel from its place in the collar of her armor.

        "Oh god," Ash muttered. "Ohhhh god..." He quickly backed into her, and she let out an angry grunt as she simultaneously slid backward on her stomach and tried to light the torch.

        "Ash, quit moving!" she hissed angrily as she skidded to a stop and finally managed a spark. It brought a bit of life into the cloth-wrapped stick, and the spark soon burst into a flicker. She held the torch as close to Ash as she dared, trying to see into the darkness ahead.

        "Agrias," Ash warned her softly as she sucked in her breath in unwilling disbelief. "You better cover your ears."

        He leveled his shotgun at what lie ahead. Staring down at them from the darkness, glittering evilly in the slight illumination from the torch, eight pairs of narrow eyes were blinking at the unexpected light.

*    *    *    *    *

        Ramza dropped the short distance to the ground from the rock chimney to find himself standing on hard, white tile, covered in dust. Tiny bits of rock had fallen from the ceiling over many years and coated the floor in a fine, mostly transparent sheen. The prints that his boots had carved into the thin layer of dust were likely the first that this small underground room had seen in several millenia.

        He adjusted that thought a second later, as the light ahead of him moved and Cloud pressed his torch to another he'd found set into a bracket on the wall. So his footprints were the second this small underground room had seen in several millenia. It was still rather awe-inspiring.

        There was a grunt from behind him, and then a ragged looking Beowulf dropped from the rock chimney and landed heavily on the floor, barely keeping his balance.

        "I do not like rock chimneys," he declared with an air of finality that easily excluded further discussion on the subject.

        "It is near," Cloud murmured as he lit another torch set into the brackets along the wall, and then pulled it out to replace the already dwindling stick he held in his hand.

        Beowulf moved a bit forward, and Orlandu dropped from the rock chimney, looking none the worse for wear for the journey, as Ramza had expected. The only time Ramza had seen even a hair out of place on the General's head was after he had nearly been killed by the massive Zodiac summon spell that the Lucavi they'd fought in the Deep Dungeon had cast upon them before its death.

        "Can you tell where the 'Gate' is, Cloud?" Ramza asked as he and his men moved forward to stand next to the foreign soldier.

        Cloud nodded slowly. "It is this way," he said, beginning to walk slowly toward the topmost door of the chamber. In all there were three doors leading out of this tiled chamber, one leading to the right and one to the left, but Cloud seemed confident. Ramza wished that he could tell which way they were going, but he'd long ago lost any sort of direction sense, and telling north from south was impossible. For now, he'd reset his internal compass with this hallway being 'north' and base the rest of his directions on that. The last thing they needed was to encounter overwhelming resistance in this underground complex and be unable to find their way out.

        They walked slowly into the hallway, Cloud stopping momentarily to light an occasional torch on the wall. Ramza was glad to see that they could easily grab some extra torches on their way out, assuring that they'd have enough light for the return journey.

        He almost turned back to tell Agrias to grab a few of the torches that Cloud didn't light and put them in her travel bag, but he didn't. It had been less than an hour since her death, and he knew with grim certainty that he would still be turning back to talk to her for many days to come. He would miss her.

        The hallway made a right angle turn to the left, and Cloud followed it, leading them on without slowing. Despite the foreign soldier's seemingly psychic sense of direction, Ramza hoped that Cloud wasn't merely leading them around in some sort of mindless stupor. They had not yet encountered any monsters, but he knew it was only a matter of time...

        Cloud stopped, and Ramza immediately berated himself for having such a thought. The tunnel had just turned back to the right, and Cloud was merely staring ahead. Ramza jogged a few feet to see around the corner, Excalibur held ready in one hand, a well-used Rune Blade in the other.

        Once he saw what Cloud was staring at, he dropped the Rune Blade in order to grab Cloud's shoulder and jerk the motionless soldier back the way they'd come.

        "Orlandu!" he called out as he backpedaled, the foreign warrior stumbling in his grip. The search for balance seeming to jerk Cloud out of his shocked state. "We've got company!"

        Like something from a nightmare, a massive, fur-covered body came rocketing around the corner, four pairs of beady yellow eyes set one on top of the other, supported by eight massive furred legs which beat the ground in an almost hypnotic rhythm as it advanced. The thing skidded to a stop, evaluating the four people now staring at it, weapons drawn, from the end of the tunnel. Then it raised its forward pair of legs to the air in a gesture of unmistakable aggression, making a slew of angry clicks with its drool covered, razor sharp mandibles. It charged.

        Giant spiders. Ramza threw himself to the edge of the tunnel, as Cloud simultaneously did the same on the other edge, and together their swords sliced for the spider's most vulnerable parts, its second pair of legs. I hate giant spiders.

        The creature swiveled to bring its legs and teeth to bear on Ramza even as his sword sliced through its nearest leg. There was no metal that the great Excalibur could not cleave, and even this thing's fearsome armor was no match for the legendary sword. For its part, the spider barely seemed to notice the loss of the limb. After all, it still had seven more. Ramza tried to duck as the first of its massive forelegs came for his chest, but the spider moved with wicked speed to counter his dodge and jammed the sharpened end of its leg into his chest, lifting him off his feet and swatting him painfully against the wall of the tunnel. His thick Crystal Armor only barely stopped the attack from tearing into his chest.

        "Omnislash!" Cloud yelled angrily, and then the tunnel was alive with light as the foreign warrior's Materia Blade began to slice throughout the hallway with speed that put even the giant spider to shame. The spider's second pair of legs was the first to go. Then another leg after that, followed by several grievous wounds to its abdomen. The thing clicked in horrible pain and jerked away from the blond-haired warrior who was slicing it to pieces, allowing Ramza to drop heavily to the ground, still trying to catch his breath.

        The spider hissed as it skittered back the way it had come, somehow moving effortlessly despite the fact that it only had two of its initial sets of legs to support itself.

        "Ramza, get clear," Orlandu ordered calmly, and Ramza did not need a second warning. He cautiously moved back as Orlandu stepped past him and stared at the bloodied beast, which was crouched back in the corner of the hallway, clicking at them angrily. Beowulf was waiting patiently, sword drawn, but thus far his efforts had not been needed. The conflict had been engaged and over so fast that barely three seconds had passed in the time it had taken the spider to pin Ramza, and then get ripped up by Cloud's Limit attack.

        "Goodbye," Orlandu said softly as he slammed his sword into the ground. A massive streak of purple lightning crackled down the hallway with murderous intent and slammed directly into the face of the bloodied spider, which went completely tense as the lightning rippled over its furred body and tore into its flesh.

        "That should do it," Orlandu said with a smirk as the smoking corpse collapsed to the ground. He turned back to look at the rest of the party, even as one of the legs of the thing twitched involuntarily.

        "Let's hope there aren't any more of them..." he began, before Ramza shouted a warning and the spider jumped to its feet, its missing legs spouting back out onto the floor from the gaping stumps that he and Cloud had left. The wounds which covered its furred body slid shut as new fur grew out to cover that which had been burned off. This thing was not going to die so easily.

        It rushed forward with insane speed before Orlandu could do more than turn around, smashing its forelegs into the surprised General and throwing him several feet down the hallway, where he slammed into the floor with the loud sound of horribly amused armor. He rolled back to his feet upon landing and was charging back toward the spider scarcely a second after Ramza and Cloud again went after it with their swords.

        This time the spider was quicker, swiveling and twisting to keep its walking legs out of harm's way as its forelegs and teeth jabbed angrily at its attackers. Cloud cried out in sudden pain, and Ramza glanced at him even as he fended off an attack from the spider's drool covered jaws to find one of the monster's forelegs impaled in his chest. Through visibly gritted teeth, Cloud brought up his Materia blade and hit it with a Climhazzard. The spider shrieked as the pain in Cloud's body bolstered the attack and sliced its foreleg clean in half. Ramza angrily attacked its other foreleg as Cloud stumbled back and fell to the ground, the severed end of the spider's leg still impaled in his chest.

        There was a sound like snapping rope from behind them, and Ramza heard a shout from Beowulf. A thin, sticky twine wrapped around a small spool came out of nowhere, slamming into the creature's face and blasting apart, wrapping up the spider's remaining foreleg and mandibles in the space of a second. The thing stumbled back, clawing angrily at the twine. For a few seconds, it would be unable to act. That would be enough time for Ramza and Orlandu to finish it off.

        They leapt on the anguished monster as one, Excalibur and Ragnarok working in concert to slice the thing limb from limb as it futilely tried to free its mandibles and leg. It was messy work, but it was over quickly. Its head severed, parts of its legs and body strewn about the floor in a nightmarish maze of gore, the thing finally collapsed to the ground, its teeth still bound in Beowulf's sticky netting.

        "Check on Cloud," Ramza ordered Beowulf as he and Orlandu waited patiently, swords drawn, for the creature to spring back to life. The decapitated corpse did not move.

        "Oh dear," Beowulf muttered, and Ramza heard a low moan from Cloud. "This looks bad, Ramza. Some kind of poison. I can smell it seeping into the wound."

        "Orlandu, keep an eye on it," Ramza ordered, and the Thunder God nodded grimly, not needing to be told twice. Orlandu actually looked a bit miffed at being caught so completely off- guard by their opponent. Ramza walked over to kneel beside Cloud, sucking in his breath involuntarily as he evaluated the wound.

        Cloud's chest was covered in blood, and his eyes seemed even blanker than normal. The fur-covered leg of the spider was jutting out of his chest and the cratered armor through which it had punched, leaking rivulets of warm green ichor down through the fur. It was this that had mixed with the blood in Cloud's chest.

        "P... poison," Cloud sputtered, his eyes blinking quickly. "Just... my luck..."

        "Don't try to talk," Ramza ordered quickly. "We'll heal you. But we have to get this leg out of you first. Understand? We have to pull the leg out."

        Cloud nodded, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down once as he forced himself to swallow. "Do it," he ordered faintly.

        Ramza nodded to Beowulf, taking a firm grip on the lower half of the spider's severed leg as Beowulf did the same above, ignoring the prickly fur and slimy green blood.

        "Ready?" he asked, glancing at Cloud and Beowulf. Beowulf was ready. Cloud wasn't even looking at him. They had to act quickly if they wanted to save the foreigner's life.

        "On three. One. Two. Three!"

        He and Beowulf jerked angrily on the spider's severed leg, and it came free of Cloud's chest with a sickly sucking sound, pulling thick dripping trails of green and red gore in its wake. Cloud gurgled in horrible pain and writhed on the floor as Ramza quickly tossed the severed leg aside and tore into his pack for his X-Potions.

        "Hang in there, Cloud!" he ordered as he ripped the first bottle from the pack and uncapped it. "Just hang in there!" He poured the entire bottle quickly onto the other warrior's chest, and the liquid fizzled angrily, holy light rippling from the wound as the blessed liquid worked against the horribly traumatized skin and did its best to heal.

        "Ramza... ," Cloud managed, his chin covered in the blood which was dribbling from his mouth.

        "Don't talk!" Ramza ordered, quickly pressing an Antidote to the other's mouth and tilting his head back to force his mouth open. "Drink this!"

        Beowulf poured another X-Potion over Cloud's still bloody chest, and it fizzled and glowed as Ramza slowly forced the healing liquid past the constriction in Cloud's throat. He seemed to relax a bit as the Antidote was absorbed by the skin of his esophagus and began to flow into his system, but his eyes were still eerily blank.

        "It's not getting back up," Orlandu declared, as he backed toward the three of them, still keeping his eyes on the dead spider. "How is he?"

        Ramza breathed a sigh of relief as Cloud's blank eyes finally closed, and his shuddering body settled back against the tile floor. A third X-Potion seemed to close up his chest wound completely, though there was still his cratered armor to deal with. Cloud's breathing was irregular, if constant, and he seemed to be sleeping.

        "I think he'll pull through," Ramza said with relief. "That was close, though. Too damn close. What the hell was that thing?" He glanced at the still motionless monster, the light from the wall torches causing its green soaked fur to glimmer wetly.

        "I don't know," Orlandu admitted. "I've never seen its like, and I've seen my share of monsters. It evidently has an innate ability to Reraise."

        "Are you sure?" Ramza motioned to Beowulf to keep an eye on Cloud as the Antidote worked its way through his body. He rose and walked a few steps closer to the corpse. "It seemed to heal completely after you hit it with that Lightning Stab. A raise would have done little more than enabled it to crawl again."

        "It may regenerate as well," Orlandu said with a shrug. "Nasty combination either way. I think it would have been a great deal more trouble to take it if we didn't have Beowulf around."

        "Yeah," Ramza muttered, kicking a bloody chunk of the thing up against the wall. "Well, it's dead, and we're not. We'll just have to keep our guard up for any more of them." He walked back over to Beowulf. "He awake yet?"

        Beowulf shook his head. "No. And look at his chest."

        Alarmed, Ramza did as instructed. His eyes widened as he took in the space around the wound that the spider had inflicted. Already the healing skin was darkening, a ring of decay spreading slowly outward from the epicenter of the wound.

        "What the hell?" He fumbled in his pack for another Antidote. "What kind of poison was that thing packing?"

        "More than a simple Antidote can counteract, I fear." Beowulf did not look happy.

        "We'll give him another one," Ramza said stubbornly. "The first must have been defective. Cloud, wake up!"

        The warrior stirred at the sound of his name, and Ramza quickly squeezed his hand to try to bring him further awake. "Cloud? Can you hear me?"

        The foreign warrior groaned and nodded slightly.

        "Listen, the first Antidote I gave you didn't take hold. You're going to have to take another."

        "Won't work," Cloud whispered.

        "What?" Ramza paused in the process of uncapping the second antidote. "Cloud?"

        "It won't work," the other said, pushing himself into a rough sitting position, shaking his head grimly. "She told me. It's Slow Rot. Unholy magic, far more powerful than poison."

        "She told you?" Ramza asked, not understanding. "Who told you?"

        "She did," Cloud explained, as if that could easily put an end to the subject. "We have to go. There will be more on the way."

        "More?" Beowulf asked with a raised eyebrow.

        "More Pit Spiders," Cloud said, grunting as he tried to get to his feet.

        "You shouldn't move," Ramza cautioned, grabbing the other warrior's shoulder, but Cloud shrugged him off.

        "I'm dead, Ramza," he said through blank eyes. "There's nothing that can stop this poison. Nothing."

        Ramza blinked. "How can you know that?"

        "I know," Cloud said, shrugging simply. "Help me to my feet."

        Ramza exchanged a helpless glance with Beowulf, but neither could see a way to resolve the situation. Reluctantly, he recapped the Antidote and stuck it into his pack, reaching under Cloud's right arm to pull him up, as Beowulf did the same to his left.

        "It will work slowly," Cloud told them, taking a deep breath and trying to steady himself. "Since I took the wound in the chest, it will start by working on my lungs and heart, and then move outward to my arms and legs. The good news is that it won't ever impair my mobility due to its starting point. It'll simply kill me first by burning up my lungs."

        Ramza shook his head angrily. "Cloud, how can you know..."

        "I know." The finality in the other's voice left no room for argument. Never mind the fact that there was no way to explain that knowledge. Cloud knew what was happening. Something deep in his missing memories must be resurfacing.

        "How long have we got?" Ramza asked.

        Cloud looked down at the floor. "I think I can last maybe thirty minutes. At the most. I think."

        "Then we'll find that 'Gate' and get you home before that," Ramza answered stubbornly. "Can they heal this poison in the land you come from?" Already he was moving forward, pulling Cloud and Beowulf with him as they helped the injured warrior down the hall.

        "No need." Cloud was again staring ahead blankly. "This body's usefulness will soon be at an end."

        Ramza let that comment slide, as he had no chance of understanding it. What he did understand was that they had thirty minutes to find this 'Gate' and get Cloud through it. The foreign warrior seemed confident that it could get him home, and for the moment, that was all Ramza could do. He prayed it would be enough.

        "Move out," he ordered, quickening his pace as best he could while still supporting Cloud. "We've got thirty minutes, people. Let's make it count."

3) Barbarians at the Gate (3

        "Ash, don't do anything stupid!"

        Ash Housewares ignored the words from the woman behind him, not caring in the least what she thought of his actions. He kept his shotgun leveled at the beast which crouched ahead of them, its legs pressed close against its body. Its mandibles clicked in hungry anticipation as it began to slither forward, sliding its furry legs back and forth in the close interior of the tunnel.

        "Agrias, back up!" he ordered, already crawling backward the way they'd come, as the monster continued to slither down the tunnel. Ash had never known that spiders could slither. You learn something new every day, he reflected angrily.

        He heard Agrias scrambling behind him, the light from her torch dangerously hot, but he was less worried about the heat than he was about the creature clicking angrily toward him.

        "We're running out of options here, woman!" he yelled. "This thing isn't gonna' stop!"

        "You can't shoot it!" Agrias yelled angrily. "Dammit Ash, listen to me! You'll collapse the tunnel!"

        Ash gritted his teeth, hating her words, but he knew that she was probably right. For once, he actually regretted carting around enough firepower to knock a hole in a castle wall.

        "So what the hell do you want me to do?" he called back, still crawling quickly into the tunnel. On the bright side, the spider seemed to be having as much trouble navigating the tunnel as they were, and at least it wasn't gaining on them.

        "Don't you have any other weapons?" she yelled desperately. "Surely you know how to use something other than that boomstick..."

        "Yeah, but I ain't got none of those weapons on me right now, sweetheart!" Ash cursed himself for leaving his trusty chainsaw behind to save on weight. "Beside, I know what this thing is! Pit Spider! It's like twenty times more poisonous than a Molbol, and makes Moss Fungus look like an appetizer. No way I'm letting this bastard bite me!"

        He was glad to know that much. It was the only thing that had saved him from blundering blindly into the monster. The moment his hand had pressed down on the puddle of warm, gooey gunk, Ash had recognized what it was. Spider drool. If he hadn't found that, thanks to Agrias' cursed decision to extinguish the torch, he would have wandered head first into the thing's waiting jaws. These spiders were blindingly fast, poisonous, and absorbed magic to regenerate themselves. They were not your run-of-the-mill monster.

        That's the thanks I get for saving someone's life...

        "Agrias, I don't care what you think might happen, I'm not letting this thing bite my head off," Ash roared down the tunnel. "And after it rips me apart, you're going next!"

        "Ash, if you shoot that thing, I'm going to ram this torch right up your..." she began, but he didn't hear the rest of her warning. Just like that, he had an idea.

        "Hold on!" he yelled, ceasing his retreat at the spider continued to slither forward hungrily. "I've got an idea!"

        "What are you doing?" Agrias called. "Ash? What are you doing?!"

        Dammit woman, quit bitching! I know what I'm doing! The spider hissed hungrily as it continued to slither toward him in a massive teeth and fur covered wave. At least, I hope I know what I'm doing...

        "Just trust me!" he yelled, holding his shotgun straight out to the approaching spider. He would just have to hope it was as stupid as he thought. "I've got an idea!"

        "Ash!" Agrias yelled, but the spider was already opening its mandibles. The thing threw itself forward, and Ash flinched, barely managing to squeeze the trigger on his shotgun before its drooling maw had covered the weapon all the way up to the stock.

        There was a muffled rumble. The spider gurgled angrily and collapsed like a deflated balloon.

        "Ash?" Agrias called fearfully from behind him. "Ash? Are you all right?!"

        What do you care, you nagging bitch? Ash thought back, but he kept his thoughts to himself. Grimacing, he slowly pulled his gore covered shotgun out of the motionless creature's mouth, grimacing at the green blood splattered across his hand and lower arm. He had just better pray that he didn't get any paper cuts.

        "I got it," he said triumphantly, backing a bit further down the tunnel.

        "How?" Agrias asked in disbelief. "Ash, what did you do?"

        He smirked into the darkness ahead, wishing that he could see her so she could see the satisfied expression on his face. "You said that firing my shotgun in this tunnel could collapse it. So I had to find a silencer."

        "A what?" Agrias asked, not understanding.

        Sweet St. Ajora, this woman is dense.

        "I rammed my shotgun down it's throat!" Ash was still coming down from the rush of adrenaline. "Its internal organs cushioned the force of the blast, so it wouldn't damage the tunnel. The inside of its body absorbed the force of the blast."

        There was silence from behind him, as Agrias obviously considered that.

        "You took a great risk."

        Ash rolled his eyes. "Yeah, well, I saved your cute little butt, and I've done crazier things in the past. It worked. We killed it. So quit complainin', kay?"

        There was no reply for a second. "Well, it did work," Agrias finally admitted, grudgingly. "So can we get past it? How big is that thing, anyway?"

        Ash glanced again at what he could see of its shattered corpse in the small amount of light which managed to make it past the bulk of his body, and into the tunnel ahead.

        "You don't wanna' know," he said, suppressing a shudder. "'Sides, its blood is poisonous too. I think we can get past it, but you gotta' be real careful not to get any cuts on you from the rocks. The moment that stuff gets inside your system, you're a goner."

        He suddenly became aware of a dull throbbing from his chest, and reached down involuntarily to touch it, remembering only at the last second to do so with his clean hand. He was immeasurably glad he did so. He only now realized that the slide down the tunnel had badly cut up his chest.

        "Perfect," he muttered, cursing his poor luck.

        "What?" Agrias asked.

        "I cut up my chest pretty good on the rocks," Ash grumbled. "You got anything to bandage it with?"

        No reply for a second. "How bad is it?"

        Ash shook his head angrily. "Bad enough that if I even get a few drops of that thing's blood on my chest, I'm gonna' be decaying faster than a zombified ghoul hit with Haste and a Petrify spell."

        "Can't have that," Agrias said dryly. "Well, let me try a Cure spell."

        "Are you crazy?" Ash began to inch away from the Pit Spider instinctively, fearing that Agrias would activate her magic without properly considering the consequences. "Didn't you hear what I said, Agrias? These things absorb magic! You cast any kind of spell anywhere in its vicinity, and it'll start to regenerate faster than you can say 'I'm a really stupid Holy Knight who likes to use Cure spells'."

        Agrias pondered that. "Fine. How far do we have to retreat from the body before I can use the spell safely?"

        Ash shrugged in the close confines of the tunnel. "You think I know? Could be five feet, could be forty. Either way, I don't want that thing coming after us again. This time it might be smart enough not to deep throat my shotgun."

        "I can't even begin to imagine the dark hole from which you draw your metaphors, Ash." Agrias clicked her tongue distastefully. "Look, let's just back up about fifty feet or so and try the spell. I doubt that something as small as a Cure spell is going to carry that great a distance, if what you say is true and these monsters can absorb magic."

        "Hey, I know what I'm talking about." Ash heard her begin to start back down the tunnel, and reluctantly followed her, if for no other purpose than to stay within the radius of the lit torch and get a safe distance from the Pit Spider should her spell somehow bring it back to life. "I got a buddy in Goug who knows all about this place. He's a trapper, monster junkie extraordinaire, and police officer in his spare time."

        "In his spare time?" They continued to scoot further down the tunnel.

        "Well, maybe not in that order," Ash conceded. "Regardless, he knows what he's talking about. His name's Kennedy. He's the one who told me about these Spiders and everything else in this dungeon. He's never been wrong before."

        "But this friend of yours did not, of course, tell you from how far away a downed Pit Spider can absorb magical energy."

        "Well, of course not. I didn't ask." Ash had no idea how far they'd moved, as he was letting Agrias keep track of that detail, but he would continue to move until she forcibly stopped him.

        "So this friend of yours is a trapper, eh?" Agrias seemed to be keeping up the conversation for no other reason than to ease both of their boredom, to keep their heightened nerves from becoming overwhelming in the close confines of the tunnel. "I take it he's a pretty skilled fighter, then."

        "Damn straight," Ash agreed. "I'm better, of course, but Kennedy is a crack shot with a gun. He has to be to take down monsters the way he does."

        "One of the members of our company does trapping as well," Agrias offered. "A Monk named Zelig. Biggest thing he ever poached was a Behemoth in the Deep Dungeon."

        "Kennedy's done that," Ash said defensively, feeling an irrational desire to protect his friend's reputation, if for no other reason than to upstage Agrias. "Got three of them, actually. But that's not where the real trouble is. You know what he told me was the hardest monster he ever poached?"

        "No. Tell me."

        "Raccoons." Ash heard her scoff from behind him, and quickly added a few supporting arguments. "You wouldn't think it to look at 'em, but those things can fight. It's not so much that they're powerful, but that they attack in huge packs and come at you all at once. Kennedy ran into a nest of those things one time when he was out hunting, a virtual raccoon city. He barely made it out alive."

        "Hmmph," Agrias commented, as if she didn't quite believe him but wasn't going to contradict him outright. "So if this friend of yours is so smart, why'd he tell you to come down here by yourself? If he knows this dungeon as well as you claim, he surely must know that one Lancer doesn't stand much of a chance of surviving for long."

        "Hey, I was doing fine 'till you people showed up!" Ash said defensively.

        "You count being stuck in the ceiling as 'doing well'?" Agrias asked, a touch of humor on her tone. Surprisingly, the statement did not sound as if it were meant to injure him. It was almost on the scale of playful banter than might be exchanged between to comrades- in-arms. Ash pondered the change, finding it not altogether unpleasant.

        "Well, I woulda' got down with or without you guys." Ash grimaced. "Eventually. Anyways, Kennedy did warn me not to run off by myself. Repeatedly, actually."

        "And I take it you didn't listen to his advice?"

        "Naw," Ash said dismissively. "Nobody ever listens to Kennedy."

        "Stop," Agrias ordered, and Ash reluctantly did so. "All right, we've moved far enough away. Ready?"

        "Ready as I'll ever be." I just hope, for once, that you're right and I'm wrong.

        "Here goes." He heard Agrias suck in her breath from behind him. "Life's refreshing breeze, blow in energy! Cure!"

        There was a flare of expanding magic and for a moment the tunnel became a bit brighter. Ash felt something tug at his chest, recognizing the feel of healing magic, and then cautiously reached down to investigate. His wounds seemed to have closed.

        "Did it work?"

        Ash nodded, then remembered that she couldn't see the motion due to the confines of the tunnel. "Yeah, it worked. Nice job."

        "Good, then let's get moving," Agrias ordered. "We've wasted enough time as it is, and this torch is not going to last much longer. Maybe fifteen minutes at the most."

        "That's all we've got?" Ash asked in dismay, as he started to crawl forward at a respectable pace, careful not to reverse the effect of Agrias' spell on any of the sharp rocks in the tunnel.

        "Unfortunately, yes." She did not sound discouraged. "If all else fails, I can use spell flares to guide us for a short distance, until I exhaust myself. Let's hope that we're near the end of this tunnel and it doesn't come to that."

        "Let's hope," Ash agreed, attempting to crawl even faster.

        It was less than a minute before they reached the spot where Ash had killed the Pit Spider, and as they neared its resting place, Ash searched the darkness ahead for its bulk. Surely they must be nearly upon it by now. He continued forward, more cautious now, and then stopped, his eyes suddenly widening.

        "Ah, holy Hell." He began to inch back down the tunnel. "Agrias, it's gone."

        "What?" She did not sound as if she believed him. "What do you mean, it's gone? Did the body melt away?"

        "No, I mean it's gone," Ash clarified angrily. "Vamoosed. Skedaddled. As in it must have absorbed some of the power from your Cure spell, started to regenerate, and then slithered on out of here. That means it is somewhere up the tunnel, waiting for us. And it's pissed."

        "You must be mistaken!" Agrias protested. "Are you sure this is where you killed it? There's no way it could have absorbed a spell cast that far away..."

        "This is the place," Ash declared grimly. "There's enough spider blood here to bottle the stuff. But no corpse. Damn thing must have crawled off to regenerate itself. Your spell wasn't very powerful, so it probably only got enough juice to start moving again, but it'll only take it a few minutes to regenerate to full strength. Then, my dear Holy Knight, we're spider food."

        "Perfect," Agrias cursed. "There was no other way, unfortunately. You could not proceed past the spider with the cuts on your chest, and if I hadn't used that spell, we would have been stuck in here for good. We'll have to deal with it. With luck, it has retreated from the tunnel entirely, and if we can get out of this blasted hole, we will be better able to fight it. And I'd rather deal with it while we still have a lit torch. So get moving, Ash."

        Ash considered that, and realized that, as much as he hated to admit it, she was making sense. He resumed their climb, wrinkling his nose distastefully as he began to crawl through the slimy green ooze left by the Pit Spider, keeping his shotgun ready.

*    *    *    *    *

        Ramza shouted a wild battle cry as he rushed forward next to Orlandu, and the slavering Pit Spider ahead rushed just as fast to meet them. Even with the Haste spell offered by Excalibur, the Spider was moving far too fast for Ramza’s liking.

        The Spider shrieked as it advanced. At the last second, he and Orlandu split apart to reveal Beowulf directly behind them. The Spider started to skid, momentarily unsure of its target, and then Beowulf’s patented sticky twine smashed into its face. It shrieked again and backpedaled, trying to get the stuff off, but Ramza and Orlandu did not give it the chance. Spider parts were catapulted this way and that as their swords made short work of monster, but both were careful not to use magic.

        When the Pit Spider had been reduced to enough little bits to allow them to move freely, Ramza doubled back to Beowulf and picked up Cloud, who had fallen into a crawling position on the floor when they left him. Orlandu kept watch on the tunnel ahead, Ragnarok held ready. Cloud’s breaths were wheezing loudly in his throat, and drool was dripping from his lips. His blue eyes seemed lost, but when he looked up, Ramza was startled to see a visible blue glow flaring from inside the pupils. It could not be the torchlight. It was something else, something frightening.

        “Cloud?” Ramza asked as they started forward once more, as fast as they were able.

        “Not... far now.” Cloud coughed as Ramza and Beowulf dragged him to his feet. “She’s waiting... waiting for me...” Cloud’s head tossed back and forth on his shoulders. “Ramza. Hurry. I don’t know how long...”

        “We’ll get there,” Ramza declared firmly. “We will get there, Cloud, I promise. I swear. We will get you home.”

        Beowulf glanced at him from his post at Cloud’s other shoulder, his eyes worried. Ramza just shook his head, knowing that Cloud was too far gone to notice the gesture. Already twenty minutes had passed with no sign of the ‘Gate’. Cloud was growing less and less lucid, and Ramza was becoming increasingly convinced that they were wandering in circles.

        Ramza gritted his teeth inside his lips, suppressing a powerful urge to scream. How could this get worse? Lost inside this dungeon, wandering aimlessly, besieged by monsters on all sides, with one of his men, his men, dying right before his eyes. And there was nothing he could do to stop it. Nothing. Cloud would die, or Cloud would live, but either way, Ramza would have nothing to do with the outcome. It was maddening. It was frightening.

        The walls passed in a blur as they wandered around several more turns and came to a fork. Cloud raised his head just enough to see, his eyes glowing fiercely, drool running down his chin.

        “Left.” He coughed angrily, shaking in Ramza’s grip. “Left, go left.”

        Ramza bit his lip and did as ordered, Orlandu stalking ahead to blaze a trail. There was a screech Ramza knew all too well. Several screeches. Ramza lowered Cloud to the floor as Beowulf did the same. A chorus of heavy footfalls sounded from behind him as a Pit Spider rounded the corner. Another leapt from a dark hallway to their left, and a third charged from the pathway ahead. Ramza felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

        The simple fact is that we have the advantage in both numbers and strength. The Lucavi we've encountered have been powerful, yes, fearless--but for the most part, not very smart. We have the tactical advantage, and the advantage of human intelligence. Therefore, it is likely we will prevail.

        So confident. So arrogant. So foolish. Those words would be his last. He had doomed himself, but that was not important. He had doomed his men. They had followed him, followed him even into Hell, and now they would die for it. It was every nightmare he had ever had, come to fruition.

        They’re dead, all dead! All because of me!

        Orlandu set himself as what sounded like loud whoops sounded from down the hall. Ramza spun to face the spider behind them, screaming with rage, screaming like a madman. It did not matter anymore. Cloud might die here, they might all die, but these things would die with them. Ramza was tired of being helpless, tired of being a leader who could not lead. He was tired of not having anything to fight. He tore into the Spider as it reached them with the full fury of Excalibur’s Hasted power, and blood and spider bits showered in his wake.

*    *    *    *    *

        “Sweet St. Ajora,” Ash whispered from ahead of her, and Agrias paused, wondering what had set him off now. She braced herself to retreat. If Ash had seen the Pit Spider... if it was charging for their heads...

        “We’re out!” Ash leapt forward, disappearing from the tunnel, and she heard him whooping like a madman, his voice echoing inside the massive chamber ahead. Muttering curses that would have gotten her thrown out of the Convent in her younger days, Agrias slithered forward and tumbled out of the tunnel, nearly losing her sputtering torch as she fell into the large exit room. She rolled, holding the torch close to her body, and pushed herself to her feet just in time to take a hawklike grip on Ash’s shoulder.

        “Quiet, you moron!” she whispered in a rage. “Do you want to draw them all down on top of us?”

        “Screw it, we’re safe!” Ash lifted his boomstick into the air and whooped again. “Let ‘em come! I’ll take ‘em all on! I’ll send ‘em straight back to H...”

        Agrias tightened her hand, turning him around and then throwing him to the ground with force that was sufficient to daze him for several seconds. It was enough time for her to set the torch against a shallow rock step and kneel at his side. She pressed one gauntlet down against his lips and pushed the other against his chest, holding him down. When at last his eyes drew focus again, she stared at him with her hand crushing his mouth until some of the craziness faded from his eyes.

        “Be quiet,” Agrias warned before rising to her feet. “We’re not out of here yet. We’re almost out of torch, and there’s no telling how far we are underground. If you continue to whoop like that, I am going to knock you unconscious and carry you out of here!”

        He just watched her, hurt and betrayed, before shaking his head and reaching up to rub his libs. “Dammit, woman, I’m just happy to be alive...”

        “Then be happy quietly,” Agrias hissed again. “Now, on your feet. We have to move. We’ve got maybe five minutes of torchlight left.”

        A tortured, angry scream roared down the hallway to echo through the room, and Agrias spun to face it.

        “See!” Ash shouted from behind her. “I’m not the only one who’s happy to be alive!”

        Ramza. It had to be him. It was his voice, or what was left of it. The sound of a soldier who was still becoming a soldier. The sound of someone in great pain. Agrias felt icy fingers of fear tighten around her throat.

        “Move, Ash!” she shouted before leaping forward, whipping up the torch from its place by the rocks and sprinting into the darkness. “For the love of God, move!”

*    *    *    *    *

        One furry leg smashed against the wall in a shower of green blood. Its blood coated everything, his beard, his face, his armor, and the floor. It was like oil, slippery, and it was all he could do to keep his feet. He kept his lips tightly sealed, breathing through his nose as each breath burned inside his chest. The closer Spider, the one with five legs, screeched and rushed him. Two sword strikes met flesh, and the creature stumbled past with only three legs remaining, further into the hall, toward a waiting Beowulf.

        Orlandu did not have time to watch the conflict. The Spider’s partner charged, clear to move now that the other’s bulk was out of its way. Orlandu watched it come, sliding his feet forward on the blood, testing the floor. It would do well enough. He threw himself forward, smashing his shoulder against the ground and flipping onto his back as the creature rushed over him. He slid on the blood like a fish sliding across the deck of a wet boat, shooting between the spider’s legs and onward, past its underbelly, before its forelegs could pin him. When he had reached the lower side of its abdomen Orlandu thrust upward, lightning quick, and carved his way from the bottom half of its body to the top. Green blood splashed everywhere, and for a moment he was completely immersed in gore, blood and gunk. Then, he was free.

        The devastated Spider slumped forward and screeched, stubbornly trying to turn, refusing to die. Orlandu pulled himself up on top of what was left of its spinning bulk, balancing precariously for a moment as the thing bucked and almost threw him. He inched forward, still holding tight as its forelegs twitched helplessly, trying to knock them off. They simply didn’t have the necessary range. He lifted Ragnarok to the sky, and then stabbed down through its head.

        The Spider’s body shuddered crazily before collapsing beneath him. Orlandu rose to his feet, careful to keep his feet from slipping on the blood, and walked over its shattered head to see how the others were doing.

        The other Spider he had attacked was down to two legs now, crouching in a corner, tugging futilely at sticky twine and screeching piteously. Orlandu heard another loud scream and quickened his pace. He rounded the corner just in time to see Ramza’s swords slice their way through a third spider, heedless of the legs or mandibles that struck at his head. Each blow was dodged or blocked, and bits of furry spider continued to fly everywhere. Just like in Orlandu’s tunnel, the floors, ceiling, and walls were drenched in spider blood. Ramza screamed again, the last Spider breaking in two around him. He charged forward, slipped on the blood, and slammed onto his back as it died. Excalibur twirled from his hand and buried itself to the hilt in the wall. Orlandu kept moving forward until he was close enough to bring the young Beoulve to his feet.

        A blood-coated Rune Blade slashed at his hand. He jerked back. Ramza twirled away, leaping to his feet. Orlandu shouted.

        “Ramza! It’s done!”

        Ramza started to charge and then checked himself, blinking crazily. He was covered in spider blood from his boots to his head, and it was dripping from his hair. Again he thrust with the sword, and Orlandu batted the strike away with a quick swipe of Ragnarok, lowering his tone.

        “Ramza Beoulve.” His tone was calm and controlled, the tone of a leader. “This fight is done. Stand down!”

        Ramza tensed his shoulders before sagging back against the wall. “Orlandu.” He blinked again, and then his features fell, his spirit crushed. He looked like a man who had lost everything. “I nearly got us all killed.”

        “It’s over now, Ramza.” Orlandu glanced back at Beowulf and was satisfied to see that the Lionel Knight had finished what was left of the last crippled Spider. Already Beowulf was gathering a prone Cloud in his arms and lifting the blond-haired warrior, ready to move. Beowulf did not worry him, but Ramza did. If the resolve of the youngest Beoulve shattered further in the wake of this frightening situation, there would be no way Orlandu could trust him to tackle Vormav in their final battle, and that was a frightening thought. Ramza, knowing what he did and fighting as he did, with the corpses of many Lucavi already notched on his sword, might be their only chance to win such an encounter.

        “Cloud won’t last much longer,” Beowulf told them, his face severe. “We must keep moving.”

        “Ramza.” Orlandu knew his face was turning severe and was glad of it. “Keep your wits about you. The Spiders are dead. We aren’t.”

        Ramza shook his head. “I can’t. I can’t lead. I’m not a leader. I’m not a...”

        “You will lead, Ramza, and you will lead well.” Orlandu reached out and ripped Excalibur from the wall. “Take it.”

        Ramza continued to shake his head, fiercely now. “No.”

        “Take it, Ramza!” Orlandu shouted. Cloud moaned from further down the hall, and then echoing footfalls sounded from the tunnel Orlandu had just left. Orlandu cursed.

        He spun, charging forward with Excalibur and Ragnarok. He took a half-second to adjust to the newfound speed bequeathed upon him by the holy sword, and rounded the corner just in time to draw himself up short. A blond-haired specter was running toward him, a ghost. A shadow of a woman long dead. For one frighteningly long moment, Orlandu was certain he must have died as he cut his way through that spider.

        “Orlandu!” Agrias shouted, raising her fists. “We’re here! We’re ready!”

        “Agrias?” Orlandu heard more pounding footsteps, and then Ramza rounded the corner behind him, screeching to a halt. “Agrias!”

        She pounded to a stop feet from Orlandu and glanced around, looking for something to kill even if she had to beat it to death with her fists. Orlandu took a deep breath and felt himself smiling for the first time in weeks.

        “Thank the Heavens.” He eased to the side to let an overjoyed Ramza squeeze past. “You’re alive.”

        “Agrias!” Ramza shouted like a boy whose father had just come home safely from a deadly war, a cry Orlandu was all too familiar with. For a moment, he had a vision of Olan, scarcely six years old, running from the castle gate and shouting just like that as he threw himself into Orlandu’s arms and clung for all he was worth. Ramza did not cling, thank goodness, but he did wrap his hands around Agrias’ shoulders and shake her mercilessly.

        “You’re alive! You’re alive!”

        “Of course I am!” Agrias shouted back, allowing him to shake her for almost two seconds before she lifted her arms between his and deftly broke his grip. “Calm down, Ramza! Have you lost your wits? Are you okay?”

        He paused for a second, taking quick, worried breaths, and then he smiled, a weight lifted from his shoulders. “I’m just glad you’re alive.”

        “Ramza!” Beowulf shouted from the entrance. “Cloud is fading!”

        Ramza’s smile faded quickly. He turned to Orlandu and nodded, grateful and relieved. “Thank you,” he said softly. It seemed that Agrias’ return had helped him to recover his calm. Ramza was a strong warrior, even a good leader, but he was still learning how to deal with a responsibility that could require you to send good men to certain death.

        Nodding in return, Orlandu handed Ramza Excalibur, careful to keep his features neutral. With Ramza in control of his emotions once more, and Agrias resurrected after Orlandu had all but convinced himself she was dead, he found that he was the one who was now having trouble with his emotions.

        You’re getting old, Thunder God. Far too old for any of this. He let Ramza and Agrias moved past him, and they followed as they walked toward Beowulf and Cloud. Before they could get there, however, one more pair of pounding feet echoed up the tunnel behind him.

        Orlandu spun at the same time Ramza and Agrias did. And then, sprinting for all he was worth, Ash came flying around the corner with his boomstick clasped inside his fist.

        “Ash!” Ramza yelled angrily.

        The Lancer looked up at the hail as he turned, hit the spider blood, and slid sideways into the wall. He spun like a top, spiraling toward them at high speed. Orlandu leapt over his hurtling body and then turned to watch it slam into Ramza and Agrias, knocking them over like bowling pins.

        “Ash!” Ramza rolled to his feet, Excalibur ready. “I’m going to kill you, you traitorous ba--”

        “Kill me later!” Ash pushed himself up on one elbow and raised his gun to point straight at Orlandu. “Move, old man!”

        Like a sound from a nightmare, Orlandu heard the dozens of furry feet pounding down the tunnel for what seemed like the hundredth time today. He moved, dashing forward, past Ash and out of harm’s way. The first Pit Spider rounded the corner and blew apart in a shower of blood as Ash’s boomstick rumbled down the hallway. Small chunks of tile tumbled from the ceiling.

        “They’re coming!” Ash yelled from his position on the slick floor. “We gotta’ go!”

        “Ramza!” Beowulf yelled from his position at the fork in the tunnel. “You must see this!”

        Orlandu pulled Agrias to her feet as Ramza grudgingly did the same with Ash. They backpedaled together as Ash cracked open his boomstick, reached into a pocket in his leather pants, and started jamming small red cylinders into a black hole inside the shaft.

        “Go go go!” Ash yelled as he snapped the weapon shut and raised it once more. Another Spider was almost on top of them. Thunder rumbled through the tunnel. A chunk of tile smacked into Orlandu’s forehead, and then they were at the fork.

        “He’s moving!” Beowulf shouted, pointing down the tunnel. Despite the dangers that were charging at them, Orlandu looked, and then blinked. Cloud was walking down the tunnel like a man in a trance, no trace of his earlier fatigue evident. As he walked, a featureless wall at the end of the tunnel crackled and hissed, burning away to reveal two closed stone doors. Cloud raised his hand. The doors rumbled open.

        “Ramza!” Orlandu pushed Beowulf toward the doors and started that way himself. “We’ve got a way out! We’ve got to fall back!”

        Thunder rumbled again, and then Ramza, Agrias and Ash came stampeding around the corner of the tunnel. Orlandu looked back to see Ash’s eyes going wide. The lancer stumbled to a stop just past the fork and raised his hand.

        “Stop him!” Ash shouted.

        Orlandu’s gaze spun forward. Cloud was walking into the open archway. Beowulf was right on his heels.

        "Protection spell?" Ramza asked. "And what exactly is that?"

        Ash shrugged. "I don't know, really. Some kind of powerful magic which is supposed to melt the brains of anyone who tries to enter the chamber with the 'Gate', that is, if they don't disarm it first."

        “Stop!” Orlandu demanded. Beowulf froze, but Cloud kept moving. “Grab him!”

        Beowulf reacted without thinking, his instincts hardened by years on the field, his mind trained to respond to the tone of command that Orlandu was using without question or hesitation. He snatched Cloud’s shoulder and wrenched the blond-haired warrior back. Red energy crackled threateningly from just ahead of Cloud’s last step.

        Pit Spiders shrieked as Ramza and Agrias stopped and turned, almost on top of them. Ramza tossed Agrias his Rune Blade. Orlandu cursed. They were clustered in the hall, unable to fight due to their close proximity to each other, like green troops routed by a far superior force. Another Pit Spider shattered as Ash’s boomstick cracked with another stinging retort.

        “The ‘Gate’!” Ash shouted as he backed into them. “The protection spell!”

        “Can you disarm it?” Ramza shouted back, motioning quickly for Agrias to move with him past Ash.

        “I think so, if you hold them off!” Ash darted forward and stopped just inside the arch. “Yes! Just like the wise man said!”

        “Orlandu!” Ramza braced himself at Agrias’ side as the first Spider charged forward. “I know magic heals these things, but we may not have a choice. If they’re gonna’ break past...”

        Orlandu stepped forward and readied himself, proud to see Ramza holding himself together so well. Maybe this tiny army did had a chance to beat Vormav, after all. “I’ll shout before I strike! You just get clear when I do!”

        From behind him, Ash slammed his boomstick into the sheath attached to his pants leg, threw his arms out to his side, and tilted back his head. “Clato!” the Lancer intoned solemnly.

        Shrieks sounded and metal clashed with armor as the foremost Pit Spider ran itself upon Ramza and Agrias’ swords.

        “Verata!” Ash continued into the dark.

        The foremost Spider fell back to reveal three more just behind it. Ramza was down on one knee, Excalibur raised purely for defensive purposes, and Agrias was breathing like a horse. They would not withstand another charge. Knowing he no longer had a choice, Orlandu smashed his sword in the ground.”

        “Clear!” he shouted. Understanding instantly, Ramza and Agrias threw themselves to the side, and Orlandu closed his eyes as the Spiders rushed into the breech.

        “Heaven’s wish to destroy all minds. Holy Explosion!”

        Light flooded everything. Thunderous energy split the tunnel in two. Fierce white light slid down the tunnel floor in spectral blades and sliced the retreating spider, and all three behind it, into so many bloody body parts. And then, for one precious second, the tunnel was silent.

        “Nih...” Ash shouted, before abruptly trailed off.

        Orlandu looked back, ready to move. “That do it?”

        Ash spun to look at him, his eyes going wide. He did not say another thing, his mouth working stupidly.

        “Ash.” Orlandu heard the sound of Spider bits sliding back together, and the sound of legs, fangs and fur sprouting anew. “Ash, is it safe?”

        “Necktie,” Ash muttered finally, shaking his head quickly. “Nectar. Nickel.” He paused. “N word.” He paused again. “It was definitely an N word!”

        “You forgot the $#^%ing words?” Agrias screamed shrilly. The first of the Spiders had already pulled itself together. The creature screeched in maddened rage as it rumbled to its feet.

        Ash spun once more to face the room, his eyes twitching crazily. “Clato! Verata!”

        Orlandu sighed, turning his attention back to the first of the reformed spiders. Ramza was on his feet. The young Beoulve leapt forward and sliced at the Spider’s head. It stumbled back into its fellows, which were also almost regenerated. Orlandu sank his sword into the ground and prepared to blast them again.

        “Nicto,” Cloud intoned solemnly, from where Beowulf still held him at the door.

        A deafening rumble swept out of the room and rocketed down the tunnel. The remaining Pit Spiders shrieked, raising their mandibles, clicking fiercely. Then, one by one, they skittered backward. Their furry bodies ruffled against the walls and each other as they stumbled back in all directions and disappeared into the darkness.

        “No more will come to us,” Cloud continued in that lost tone of his. “The ‘Gate’ is ours at last.” He glanced at the soldier who still held his shoulder tight, nodding his head. “Thank you, Beowulf.”

        The Lionel Knight watched him for a second, glanced at Orlandu, and then released his grip. Cloud started forward. He moved through the archway, past a still dumbfounded Ash, and the darkness beyond flared with light. Torches burst into flame all around the massive room beyond, lighting it up as bright as daylight. Countless precious gems sparkled among thick bands of gold and platinum, covering the room from floor to ceiling. Rubies and emeralds and diamonds were set among countless other gems of countless other colors. Ash fell to his knees and began to cry.

        “My God,” he sobbed as he stared around at the light. “It’s so beautiful...”

        Cloud continued walking, and Orlandu cautiously followed suit, Ramza, Agrias and Beowulf right behind him. They filed into the massive chamber to find it completely empty, with no other doors or halls to lead them out. There was no ‘Gate’ in evidence.

        “It’s time,” Cloud murmured, now standing in the center of the room.

        Cautious as ever, Orlandu’s gaze rose to the ceiling, and then fell to the floor. It was then that he saw it. The gold and platinum bands had not been placed at random. There were designed, everywhere, a tangled web that was spread out beautifully from floor to walls to ceiling. In the center of the floor, in the center of the web, was the largest pentagram that Orlandu had ever seen. And standing in its center was Cloud.

        “I’m rich,” Ash sobbed quietly as he sank to his knees and started kissing the floor, groping the gemstones and gold bands like a lecherous soldier surrounded by willing women, on his first day back from war in the seedier part of town. “I’m so stinking bloody rich I’m gonna’ cry!”

        So this was the reason Ash had wanted to find the ‘Gate’. Orlandu couldn’t say that it surprised him. He wondered if the Lancer had yet realized that the gold and platinum bands were welded into the floor just as tightly as the gemstones, an armor encrusted wall of solid, hardened wealth. It would probably take a team of miners nearly two hours to make even a dent in the mixture, and even then, whatever valuables they would manage to retrieve would be broken into pieces. Ash would leave this room as poor as when he had entered, and still the Lancer was crying like a fresh conscript that had taken his first arrow. Orlandu almost pitied him.

        The gold bands flared with greenish light, and Orlandu stepped back, out of the range of the pentagram. He pushed Ramza and Agrias back as well. Beowulf was still waiting at the door, alert for threats, as patient and talented a soldier as ever. Ash was slobbering all over a cluster of rubies that jutted from the floor. There was one such cluster at each tip of the star inside the massive pentagram, the rubies fused together in eerie mystic symbols.

        “Ash!” Agrias snapped, starting forward. “Get up! Get back here!”

        “I’m rich!” Ash shouted, grabbed for the first of the rubies and tugging for all he was worth. Orlandu frowned. The lancer would never get it loose.

        “I’m rich!” he shouted again, overjoyed, as Agrias stomped forward and reached out to grab his shoulder. Ash didn’t even seem to notice the greenish light that was seeping up around the edges of the circle, or the way Cloud’s blond hair was twisting crazily in the absence of all wind.

        Agrias grabbed Ash’s shoulder, and there was an awful tearing sound from somewhere deep inside the earth. One of the rubies in the cluster at the top of the star broke free. Ash tumbled back with the huge red gemstone clutched inside his hand, his teeth bared and white. Green light, until that moment content to seep around the edges of the circle, flooded into the break and washed out into the chamber. The hair on the back of Orlandu’s neck began to stand on end.

        “Out!” he shouted, spinning around and starting for the door. “Everyone out, now!”

        Green light was everywhere, spreading through all the bands of the web, and Cloud’s body was floating limply five feet above the ground, his hands out to his sides, his boottips pointing down, like a man afloat in the sea. Whatever Ash had broken loose, it had disturbed the balance of the chamber. The energy of the ‘Gate’ was no longer confined to the pentagram in which Cloud stood. If they didn’t get out of this chamber in the next few seconds, that energy would take them all.

        “What the hell?” Ash yelped, before Agrias smashed her gauntlet into his head and then threw him over her shoulder. The ruby dropped from Ash’s hand. She ran, and Orlandu did too. Ramza was just ahead of them. A deadly serious Beowulf ushered all three of them through the door before dashing through himself, just before a thread of green light raced up a platinum band and sparkled furiously in the spot he’d just been standing.

        The earth around them began to rumble like the inside of a huge, dying beast. Bits of tile broke from the crackling ceiling and showered them with white, choking dirt. Orlandu stumbled free of the doors just ahead of Agrias, then spun to make sure she had made it out. She slammed into him and they both lost their balance, crashing to the ground in tangled pile with Ash on top. Beowulf darted past then, then tried to abort his movement as he caught a glimpse of them through the falling white dust. He slipped on spider blood and went down, sliding into Ramza.

        A wicked, steaming crack burst out from the side of the tunnel to Orlandu’s left and crackled down into the floor. With the last of his strength, Orlandu tossed Agrias off him, out of harm’s way. It was only after he’d gotten his bearings a second later that he realized he’d tossed her closer to the door. Then the crack rippled by beneath his legs and the tunnel floor split apart to swallow him in its steaming fury.

*    *    *    *    *

        “No!” Ramza Beoulve screamed as he darted past Beowulf and threw out his hand, desperate to find purchase on anything, an arm, a snatch of beard, even a moustache. Hot, putrid air blew past his arm without a sound. His chest and face smashed into the ground and slid over the edge of the widening fissure.

        Just when he was certain everything was lost, he finally noticed Orlandu clutching the hilt of the sword that he’d thrust into the shuddering rockface, just out of reach of Ramza’s outstretched hand. Ramza struggled for the breath that had been knocked from his lungs by the fall.

        “Orlandu!” Ramza wheezed, at the same time Beowulf struggled to his feet behind him. The Lionel Knight took Ramza’s ankles in a firm grip and gritted his teeth.

        Orlandu looked up, nodding once. Ramza understood. He threw himself down at the same time Orlandu catapulted himself up. The Thunder God leapt up the rockface with the strength of his powerful legs, pivoting on his sword grip. Beowulf cried out something incoherent and tugged. Orlandu’s outstretched hand wrapped around his own, and then Ramza pulled with all his might. Searing steam washed over his face and burned his skin, but he put the pain to the back of his mind. He would... not... fail!

        At last Orlandu’s other gloved hand was wrapped around the edge of the rumbling fissure, his first still safe inside Ramza’s. Beowulf’s armored hands were clasped around Ramza’s ankles so tightly that they might shatter his bones if the Lionel Knight squeezed any harder.

        “Brace yourself,” Orlandu snapped. Not even sure why, Ramza did as he was told.

        Orlandu’s feet leapt from the rockface, and his ankles shot down to slam around the pommel of the still buried Ragnarok. “Pull!” he shouted. Ramza pulled, and Beowulf did too.

        Orlandu came flying up from the cliff face, and Ramza slid back into Beowulf’s arms. The three of them smashed into a nearby wall, sliding into each other on the spider blood. Ragnarok glistened crazily as it spiraled through the air with an audible whoosh-whoosh- whoosh.

        The spiraling tip froze just inches from Ramza’s squinted eyes. Orlandu’s hand, tight once more around the pommel of the sword, drew Ragnarok back until it was no longer a danger to any of them.

        “Agrias!” Beowulf shouted as he struggled to rise beneath both of their combined weight. Adrenaline burning through his limbs, Ramza raised his head and looked, past the fissure. Ash was standing, staring into the flaring green room like a man who had taken leave of his wits. A single finger of breakage had splintered off from the main crack. It was rippling in a direct T from the fissure, straight for Agrias’ prone body.

*    *    *    *    *

        A barely audible shout brought her to her senses. Agrias threw herself into a sitting position at the same moment a sharp pinch grabbed her posterior. She spun around to see the earth breaking apart on either side of her, and then she started sinking into the crack.

        “Ash!” she screamed.

        The lancer spun, his eyes gone wide. “Agrias!” He darted forward just as the last of the tile gave way beneath her, sucking her into the floor like quicksand. He slammed into her, his arms wrapped around her chest, and then his powerful legs sent them flying clear of the fissure just before it finished opening. They smashed into a nearby wall and clattered to a standstill.

        Eerie green light had grown into a flood around them, so thick it was almost like liquid, drowning their breaths.

        “I ruined it!” Ash yelled, shaking his head fiercely. “Dammit woman, I ruin everything!”

        “Forget it!” Agrias pulled them both to their feet, darting a glance down the tunnel, through the glow. She could just make out the deep pit that had broken the tunnel apart, and the three armored fingers standing just at its edge, shouting incoherently.

        “We’ve got to go, Ash!” She started for the fissure, but his strong grip stopped her. She spun to face him. “What are you doing?”

        “Look.” Ash’s face was haunted, his eyes lost. “Oh, God, look Agrias. Look at the little blond guy.”

        Even though she knew it was probably the stupidest thing in all the world that she could do in this situation, Agrias looked. Her heart leapt into her throat. Cloud was no longer floating five feet off the ground. He was crumpled into a ball at the base of the pentagram, struggling for breath and shuddering, and the green light that had once surrounded him was seeping out into the rest of the web.

        “It’s lost him!” Ash shouted, shaking his head. “Crap, I must have broken it off! The energy isn’t contained! It’s bleeding out everywhere!”

        “There’s no help for it!” Agrias screamed. Whatever your sins in this life, Ash Housewares, I’m going to see you pay from them alive, not buried in this godforsaken hole. She tugged again and was just as quickly rebuffed. She had never realized he could be so strong.

        “Agrias! Come on!” That was Ramza, shouting to her. She glanced back and immediately understood the scene. Beowulf must have pulled a length of rope from his pack, and Orlandu must have tied that rope around the pommel of Ragnarok. The sword itself was imbedded halfway to the hilt in the tile on the near side of the fissure, just waiting for her to take it. Another split crackled off the main fissure, shooting by inches from where Ragnarok was buried in the earth. If they did not move now, they might not move at all.

        “Agrias. I’m sorry.” Ash spun her to face him. “I can’t go. I’ve gotta’ help him! It’s my fault he can’t get home!”

        “Ash, no!” Agrias pulled at him again, glancing at Cloud. He still wasn’t moving, and the green was moving further and further away, spreading out into the rest of the web. Spreading out into the world. It was then, and only then, that she realized that Ash was right. Cloud would not make it home today if that energy dissipated. The way this tunnel was shaking, none of them were likely make it home.

        “I’m sorry.” He pushed her away, shaking his head. “I’ve got to go!”

        Agrias nodded, cursing herself for every unkind word she had ever said to him, no matter how deserved it might have been. She had been right about him, right about his demeanor, his flippancy, his devil-may-care sense of humor. It was all an act, when push came to shove. And his act had failed him at last.

        “Goodbye,” she whispered, before pulling back, biting her lip. “Be safe, Ash!”

        He stared at her for a long moment, not blinking, as what was left of the tunnel rumbled dangerously, and more shouts from her comrades tickled the edge of her ears. Then, without warning, he pulled her to him. They slammed together like oppositely charged magnets, and his body felt so warm and hard against hers that it was almost obscene. She saw the face of every nun she’d ever known glaring at her with disapproving eyes, and then, he reached up to brush her golden hair from in front of her face. And all those faces melted away. It was all she could do to breathe and stare.

        “Give me some sugar, baby.”

        Before she could even think of resisting, his dry, scratchy lips were pressed hard against hers, and her body was frozen as if it had been hit with a Stasis Sword. She felt warm, all over. It was only when the tunnel rumbled again, and she finally gathered enough energy to push him away, that she realized it was the first time she’d ever been kissed. And Ash hadn’t even been that good at it.

        “Run!” he shouted, before turning away and darting into the chamber. She watched him for another half second as he leapt over one spout of shimmering green after another, dodging fire with effortless grace until he finally reached the place where he’d dropped his ruby. He swept it up, rolled forward, and dashed for the place where he’d pulled it from the cluster.

        “Run, Agrias!” he shouted without looking back. Agrias found her legs. She turned, and ran. An explosion of green blasted from behind her, throwing her forward. She caught the hilt of Ragnarok just before everything went dark, taking a good grip with each hand on the thick hand guards that stretched out from either side of the massive pommel. As the earth fell away beneath her and air rushed past her face, she clung to the sword as she might cling to a lover, in the throes of a night of passion. As she might have clung to Ash, if they had been together for more than four hours, and he hadn’t been such an absolute ass for three and a half of those.

        Agrias smashed into hard, steaming rock and clutched the sword, praying that Ragnarok’s sharp blade wouldn’t cut through her armor. Rope creaked as many strong hands pulled her up to the edge of the fissure, and then she was falling into them. And then, she was safe.

        “Ash is gone. . .” she said in breathless exclamation as they pulled her to her feet and started her running for the rest of the tunnels, which didn’t seem quite as far gone as the entrance to the ‘Gate’. “He went to help Cloud!”

        “No time!” Ramza shouted, and then they were dashing through the dark halls, as the rumble of hundreds of tons of collapsing rock sounded from behind them, chasing their every step.

*    *    *    *    *

        The man who had once called himself Cloud Strife was floating, lost in green. He was floating, happy. He was floating, safe. He was vaguely aware of a person standing over him, a person he would know anywhere. A person whose flower-scented perfume he would have known in the highest reaches of Heaven or the deepest pits of Hell.

        “Cloud!” a distant voice called from the green. A deeper voice, deeper than hers, but still distinctly feminine. He felt her moving away. He struggled in the green to reach her.

        Sssh, it’s okay, Cloud. It’s okay.

        Not my mind, Cloud thought to himself groggily. Not my time.

        She’s waiting for you, Cloud. She’s waiting to bring you back. You can’t come with me. The Lifestream is not ready to take you, yet. But it is ready to bring you home.

        “Cloud!” the voice called again, a bit closer now.

        Tifa. For a moment, Cloud recognized it. Then the flash of memory faded into the green once more.

        She’s yours, Cloud. She’s waiting for you, waiting to help you. She needs you. They all do. He’s still out there, Cloud, and he’s waiting.

        Aeris. Cloud struggled for breath and then realized he wasn’t taking any. I said I’d protect you... you said I was your bodyguard... and then I let him kill you...

        Hush. The soothing, gentle voice flooded over him, washing away his worries and pain. I will see you again, when at last he is defeated. I will see you, and I will say goodbye. But now is not that time.

        Aeris... Already the flow of the Lifestream was pulling him away from her, pulling him into his dreams. Aeris!

        Be well, Cloud. The voice faded into the green. Be well.

        “Cloud!” Tifa called once more from the green. And then, in that moment, he was five years old once more. And he was standing in Nibleheim, wondering how he’d gotten there.

*    *    *    *    *

        Ash Housewares was drifting outside the world, at peace with everything. For the first time in his life, he felt free. It was a wonderful feeling, but one he was not at all used too.

        Damn, he thought to himself as he drifted onward through the green. He barely remembered anything after he had jammed the ruby back into place inside the cluster and a green explosion had come at him from behind, blowing him into the pentagram. Maybe I finally managed to do something right!

        After an immeasurable time he became aware of a spectral presence floating at his side. He opened his eyes, attempting to glance about, but everything was green and he quickly squeezed his eyes shut. There was no up, no down, no left and no right. There was nothing. Just green. And he was floating inside it.

        You do not belong here.

        Ash kept his eyes squeezed tightly shut. “And you do?” he shouted into the green. At least he could shout, even though he could not move. He could not tell if he was floating in liquid or gas. He did not seem to be floating in... anything.

        I am sorry, but you are not a part of this world. You are a part of another. You do not belong.

        “That’s nice!” Ash shouted as he spun, his feeling of peace fading away. “So why don’t you tell me just what exactly I’m supposed to do about it!”

        Ash was rapidly growing frightened, and he began cursing every handsome black hair on his head for being stupid enough to act like a hero when he should have just turned tail and fled. Agrias had been a looker, for a Holy Knight, and Cloud... even if it was Ash’s fault that Cloud was going to die...

        So that is what happened. The thought sounded softer this time, gentler. I see. I should thank you. You have restored a balance that has been offset for far too long.

        “Yay for me!” Ash shouted. “So what the heck is gonna’ happen to me now?”

        It is not your time, the voice told him. The Lifestream will not accept you.

        “That’s fine!” Ash shouted as he spun. “I’m not too crazy about it, either!”

        You must go. The thoughts were growing distant now. You must go back. Goodbye, Ash Housewares.

        “I would go if I could, crazy woman!” Ash yelled. There was nothing but silence from the green.

        “Hey! Crazy woman?” He was drifting, warm and lost. “Hey! Talk to me!”

        A loud sucking sound gathered around him, and then he felt himself accelerating, accelerating through the green. He started screaming. He continued to shoot through the green, spinning and out of control, until a single flash of white burst past his eyelids and he opened them to find his body spiraling through the air almost twenty feet above the tops of the thick trees of Tradefall Forest. Air rippled past his face as he saw Goug Machine City laid out in all its glory, off in the distance, beyond the swamp that abutted the forest, and then, he was hurtling into the trees.

        “Holy crap! She tricked me!”

        Ash yelled and screamed like a madman as he tumbled through breaking branches. Then he slammed into the earth, and his thoughts poured out over the hard earth like water from a broken jug.


        Agrias Oaks marched out of the last of the swamp and stopped, lifting one leg and shaking it quickly, sending swamp gunk flying from her boots. The gates of Goug Machine City were less than a mile down the road. She glanced behind her, looking wistfully back toward the trees, and then pulled the brown hood tighter around her head.

        Goug was mostly friendly territory, but Ramza had been all too firm about the need for them to remain hidden. Until they were certain the political upheaval that had come about after Delita Hyral had taken power was ended, it would not do to draw attention to themselves. Not everyone would understand what they had done, least of all those in power, and besides, Ramza was tired of fighting. He had his sister and his life, and that was enough for him. He wanted out of war and politics for good. And so the few followers who had followed him even into the world of the dead, Murond Death City, had spread out, hiding themselves from others, until no trace of Ramza or his fledgling army remained.

        Delita Hyral, and likely everyone else who could threaten or use them, was certain they were dead. The longer they kept thinking that way, the longer Ramza, Alma, and the soldiers who had fought with them would stay alive. Agrias shuddered as she walked. Delita thought they were dead, like Ash. They very well might have been, at least when she thought back on that last frightening battle in the Graveyard of Airships, fighting not just the demons. Fighting a God.

        Even now she was not sure how they had survived. The airship had blown itself apart around them as the death throes of Saint Ajora ripped the dimension in two, and Agrias remembered little until Ramza had lifted her limp body from the floor of the shattered library and carried her out. Still, her mood lightened a bit as she walked, thinking on the scope of what they had done. Simon would be proud, and he had not died for nothing. They had saved the world, and no one would ever know. They were alive, and like Ramza, she must be content with that.

        Only one responsibility still gnawed at her. Ramza had assured her that Delita would keep Ovelia safe, but Agrias was not entirely sure she believed him. Still, Ovelia would be Queen. There was no doubt about that, and a queen no longer needed a simple Knight like Agrias guarding her. Ovelia had a title, a husband, an army and a country to do that now. There was just one more thing Agrias had to do before she retired.

        The walk to the gates of the city seemed to take seconds. The guards stopped her briefly, but she assured them she had no weapons and after they’d searched her, she was allowed to go inside. She cut through the crowded streets without snagging her robe on anyone or anything, keeping the hood tight around her head, following the directions the trader had given her until she had stopped just outside a single, shoddy shop, squeezed between two others that were far larger and better kept.

        Ash Housewares, the sign above the flimsy door read. Agrias peeked in through the dirty window. Spoons and forks were laid out somewhat haphazardly in a display case, and a plethora of pots and pans hung from the walls. An iron spatula was prominently displayed in the middle of the room, evidently his centerpiece. Agrias chuckled to herself as she turned from the empty shop and looked into the street. Of course he would have lied about that. He would have died of embarrassment if she’d found out he sold spoons for a living.

        She stood in front of the shop for a very long time, wondering if she should go inside. She wondered if anyone had been inside since Ash had left. She wondered if anyone had noticed that he’d never come back. She wondered how she would finally say goodbye. She was still wondering when Ash strolled around a large inn at the end of the street and started toward her, belching a loud belly laugh, his arms wrapped around two half-dressed, giggling street women, a blonde and a brunette. They were clutching his sides and tickling his ribs.

        Agrias watched him, her hood about her face, until her jaw had practically settled against her chest.

        “And then,” Ash declared with entirely overdone bravado, his voice slurred with drink, “I sens my pike straight through that ugly critter. It rels back, howling!” He lifted his arms from their shoulders and howled to the sky in the middle of the street, nearly tipping himself over. The women caught him, giggled, and poked his ribs again.

        “It does not know what hit it!” Ash declared as he stumbled forward, and they moved quickly with him to keep him from falling. “And thens, I start on the next one, and it turns tail and runs. Runs!”

        He came to a unsteady halt just before the entrance to his shop, and the giggling women momentarily halted their laughs and stared at Agrias, cautiously evaluating this new factor in their night’s work. Their heavily shadowed eyes were guarded and hard, their easy, careful laughter nothing more than an act to keep their client happy.

        “So then I sent tha... woah.” Ash leaned forward, bleary-eyed, as if trying to discern the face inside the hood. “You wanna’ buy some housewares?”

        My God. I should have known. Agrias spun away and started down the street. How could I let myself be so stupid? Let him be a hero to these stupid whoring women. I’m sure he’s a hero to many people!

        “Hey!” Ash shouted after her. “It’s half price after six ya’ know! I can make ya’ a great deal!”

        Agrias quickened her pace, fuming and grinding her teeth. Oh, if I could wrap my hands around your scrawny little neck...

        “Ah, screw it!” Ash said loudly, and the ladies giggled again as he fumbled his keys in the lock. “Ladies, I present you to my humble abode.” There was more giggling as they helped him inside, and then the door closed with a sound that echoed down the street, far too loud for such a small piece of wood.

        The sounds of the city had shrunken into silence around her. Clenching her fists, Agrias pulled the hood tightly around her face and forced herself to walk even faster.

*   *   END   *   *

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