The Man in the Veil
Although the sun had just risen, the light hitting the dry, dusty trail on the
northern bank of the Moonflow stopped short of reaching Guadosalam, the
underground city of the Guado.
A lone riser was making his way to the entrance, whistling his favourite melody. He was dressed in a heavy navy cloak and matching bottoms that were fast becoming sticky. The most unique feature of the short and stocky man was the light veil he wore; though he could see through it without fault, he remained anonymous to those wishing to inspect his face. He moved with a slow spring in his step, and the small brown satchel around his shoulder bounced with him.
An awful lot to get through still. Seven days I had, and I squandered away the time enjoying the views while I could. Today and tomorrow to deliver eighteen more…I have no chance! Most of the hard ones are still out there.
The man readjusted the oversized hood covering his head, and the odd, decorative feature on the front fell into view. As he entered the swamp-like city, the air grew musty. He glanced around at the familiar surroundings. Overarching trees composed the roof of Guadosalam, and their twisted roots were utilised to sustain most of the ornate dwellings and other edifices, as well as provide interesting walkways.
Venturing across the lumpy floor of the ground level, he arrived at the largest dwelling. Magnificent stained-glass windows dotted the fine mansion. At the doorway, the tree’s roots had spun to form a porchway that one would swear was intended by the trees themselves. He gave the opulent door three resounding knocks.
Oh, yes, I remember this house. I’m surprised he never tried to reclaim it. Whatever he’s up to these days, I’d rather not know…but I must.
Although he had to knock again after two full minutes passed, he knew it was safe to assume the occupants were at home, even without the regular goons standing guard at the doorway.
‘Three in one sitting. If I just get to Bevelle by noon, I can catch the cheaper airship to Midgar, and then—’
A furious opening of the door interrupted his considerations. At the entrance stood a woman whose unnaturally flat blonde hair and fluffy nightdress suggested she was interrupted from the comforts of a cosy sleep. However, the mysterious man had seen a lot of strong character in the last few days, and he bore little reaction to her round, tired face that at once appeared taken aback by his strange fashion.
Leblanc was still adjusting her eyes, her brow furrowing. Looking past his unusual clothing, she turned to the bigger issue at hand.
‘Yes, that’s right,’ she barked, the unwelcome circumstance bringing out the worst in her, ‘and I’ll thank you very much for getting me up. Who do you think you are, at this time of the—?’
‘You have an invitation.’
Around other parts of the world, some were more than happy to have gotten up so early. For Cid Highwind, it was a chance to continue working on his Tiny Bronco, the small dual-propeller airplane he managed to salvage and restore after he, Cloud Strife, and the rest of the gang used it as a paddling boat two years ago.
It was another sunny day in Rocket Town, and early though it was, Cid set no limit on his ambitions and continued to labour over the plane in his garden until the crack in his back demanded him to take a break.
As he threw down the raggedy cloth used to polish the propellers, a woman with glasses and an auburn ponytail came out of the house carrying a tray of fresh tea. Attired in a yellow dress and white coat, the over-caring lady bore a striking resemblance to a typical scientist.
‘Shera! Wow, that timing,’ Cid yelled over, running a hand through his blond hair. ‘Hot day like this takes it out of ya! How can you wear a coat in this weather?’
‘It’s cold this time of year,’ she replied, smiling. ‘It’s hot when you bend over backwards polishing a plane for two hours straight.’
Cid drifted over to Shera, enticed by the waft of the steaming mug. He repositioned the cigarette tucked behind his ear, the goggles against his forehead ensuring it was held in place. He thanked her before gulping down half his cup, the heat caressing his throat.
‘Are you sure the Tiny Bronco is capable of flying?’ asked Shera.
Cid raised a sceptical brow at her. ‘Of course it is,’ he responded. ‘Because I fixed it!’
‘But what if the pilot flies away on me again, Captain?’
‘Ain’t nothin’ interesting happening around these parts no more,’ he said, oblivious to her teasing. ‘Nothing’s a patch on what happened two years ago—not even that Vegnagun thing last year. Humph…fired up the latest Shera model and all to make my way over to help, and that Squall boy and his motley crew have the job almost done.’
Shera’s face never failed to glow every time she heard Cid mention his newest airship. He had named it after her as a celebration of their recent engagement.
‘Yeah,’ said Shera, leaning her head on his arm, ignoring whatever her future husband was continuing to rant about. ‘Still, you made even more friends.’
Cid spluttered on his remaining tea. ‘Goddamn, Shera! What am I? Five?’
Shera chuckled to herself and went back inside, leaving Cid to shake his head.
He gazed at the Tiny Bronco and recalled the moment Cloud so casually asked him to use it as a paddling boat after Shinra troops shot it down.
‘Damn kid,’ he muttered. ‘Heh. Those were the times. Wonder if he’s still searching. Probably a right pain in the ass for Tifa.’
By mid-afternoon, Cid had finished polishing his entire airplane, as well as having given it what he called a “fine and tasteful” coat of paint. Since then, many airships had roared across the skies above him. The coming together of the planets meant the geographical landscape broadened considerably, and it wasn’t long before numerous airship airlines came into operation. The most prominent of these was the ‘Prima Gaea’. It covered the majority of Gaea, including many of the floating cities situated at the Continent of Ivalice.
One such airship, a bulky passenger carrier with the name “Atomos” engraved on its side, touched down on the peripheries of Edge, a city built on the outskirts of Midgar after the catastrophic events of Meteorfall two years ago. Among the many passengers disembarking, the man in the veil was one of them. His veil was uplifted, owing to the fact he ought not to be recognised by those he plans on delivering to. Other trips were not so lax.
The journey to Bevelle, prior to arriving at Edge, required extra concern for his concealment. His arrival was bittersweet. In his eyes, the grand city of Bevelle, the former powerhouse of the fallen Yevon religion, had not changed one bit. It still stood with unrivalled glory, every feature pristine—an exemplar for all great cities to pursue. Within minutes, home sickness gripped him; no longer were his regular comforts afforded to him. At least, he thought, there was no problem finding whom he was looking for.
Baralai, the praetor of the New Yevon order, was at the entrance of the city. He was engaged in conversation with a sturdy knight in shining armour, whose carrying voice and formal deportment suggested he was relishing every minute of his trip to Bevelle. The man ensured his veil was held on tightly, all the while making a feeble attempt to deepen his voice as he spoke to Baralai.
Upon recognising the other person as Lord Adelbert Steiner, the knighted royal guardian to the young and fair Queen Garnet of Alexandria, the man masterminded what he considered a genius move. To avoid another time-consuming trip, he gave all the invitations he could to Steiner to distribute them to those based in Alexandria. He knew the trouble he risked if he, his “boss”, found out he did not make direct contact with all the recipients, but he also knew the greater trouble if he didn’t make the deliveries on time.
Relinquishing his moment of recollection, he murmured, ‘That boy sure has made something of himself. New Yevon…what’s the point of it in this new planet?’ He sighed and cleared fond memories of Bevelle from his mind.
Making his way into the airstation, he queued with the other passengers to collect his luggage. Much to his annoyance, he had to wait for everyone else’s excessive baggage to pass through security before he could leave. Not even his little and all-important satchel was allowed on the flight, which was all he carried.
While awaiting security checks to clear, he examined the unfamiliar airstation. Although small in comparison to other recently built stations, its modern design eclipsed the actual town of Edge in terms of technological advancement. Because of its size, it appeared to be void of any walking space. Yet, the reason for the need to drive through swarms of people—and why there was a deafening buzz of chatter and announcements—was hinted by the oversized posters masking many of the usual security regulations and warnings on the walls. It was only three days before the second “Feast of the Merging”, the yearly celebration of the Merging of the Planets. It honoured the cultural impact of different races coming together; the unity and bond of world leaders working to ensure universal integration on both a functional and social level; and, most of all, the appreciation of life.
The renowned heroes, those who fought and won the decisive battle, were celebrated for restoring peace and balance. This battle, hailed as the “Great Battle”, occurred two years ago when the threats facing each planet peaked simultaneously; the ensuing clashes were a joint effort.
With all the imperilled planets saved, a new world harmony was established. From this, prosperous powers began linking in to work together, with no area of the world excused from oppressive leadership and conditions of extreme poverty and hardship. As of present, very few political authorities continue to latch onto their solitary history—mostly stemming from Ivalice, they take little part in the collective neo-politics.
Although the Greater Gaea is far from perfect, areas of prosperity remain steadfast in worth, and regions less than fitting are improving. And yet, there are those who resent the coming together of the planets. They are termed ‘Instigators’—a name that has come under fire for its unsuitability. Many such factions articulate threatening words and terroristic speeches, but with little action and effect. Beyond the racial prejudice subsisting among many Instigator groups, or the detested change in the overall geography of their lands, some simply hate the fact they are no longer a unique planet.
But with the Feast an ideality for Instigators to make their presence known, it thus came as no surprise that security across all lines of transport and major cities were at the height of vigilance, especially with last year’s Vegnagun Crisis—the period when the colossal destructive machina (a term for machines), Vegnagun, came close to destroying Gaea. It soon dawned on the delivery man that this upcoming celebration was at fault for his adjournment.
Turning to his right, he spotted an oversized poster with an inflated picture of Nooj, leader of the progressive Youth League faction and vice-mayor of Luca on the Continent of Spira. His piercing, hawk-like eyes behind his glasses gave the impression of a determined and effectual leader.
Squinting at the text, the man read that on November 28 Nooj is expected to deliver a talk commemorating the success of the Vegnagun Crisis, which peaked at the same time of the first anniversary of the Merging. Yuna, the strong-willed High Summoner who ultimately defeated Sin, is scheduled to talk about it too. Having taken a major role in preventing the Vegnagun Crisis from intensifying, she was held in just as high regard, if not higher.
The man sighed to himself. Reflecting on the period of the Vegnagun Crisis, he realised how obvious it was that those with a bitter streak in their persona would choose such dates to wreak havoc. Gazing upwards, he began thinking about his own past. There was nothing too serious he was ashamed of, he felt. Well, maybe one thing…
An eruption of relieved cheers from the restless passengers of the Atomos snapped the man in the veil out of his sombre nostalgia: It was finally permissible to leave. Their quick movements shifted the man from his spot.
Continuing onwards, he saw specialised coach services for passengers travelling to Kalm town. It inspired him to visit the quiet community; the rumour that Rufus Shinra was spotted there last week played on his mind. But, terrified by the prospect of not finishing his job on time for tomorrow, he attempted to formulate a different plan. Amid the bustling crowds, it was far from an easy task.
His satchel was being tossed about at every hardnosed movement of the endless shifting to vacate the crammed airstation, and it was pushing his irritation levels beyond reasonable capacity. After a collision with a heavy passenger knocked him over, eliciting at least three expletives, he found himself facing another direction.
As fortune would have it, his new point of view identified a lady with short blonde hair—an invaluable lady. As she made her way towards the transfer services to Kalm, her pace hurried, he sprang up. Parting all who stood in front of him, he fought through the jostling crowds, much to their disproval, as their scorning looks revealed.
The man’s heart was racing; this opportunity was his greatest bout of luck yet. He began running as fast as his burly legs could take him, relishing his days as a warrior monk.
The lady spent a few seconds at the coach patting the two very appreciative yellow chocobos, a popular species of avian bred across the Greater Gaea. Their strength and agility, as derived from healthy Sylkis Greens and proper training, were more than sufficient to pull the weight of heavy occupants.
When the coachman appeared, he opened the door for the lady in the black uniform, and she settled herself inside. Before he could close it, the man in the veil threw his hand into the gap and began pleading his excuse.
‘I apologise, my dear lady,’ he said between breaths, ‘but may we share this ride?’
On closer inspection, he noticed dark bags under her eyes, a sleepless expression worn upon her face. She took little heed of his unusual appearance, and was about to open her mouth until the man spoke over her attempt to respond.
‘I just haven’t got the money to get to Kalm on my own, and I urgently need to get there. Sick relatives, you know. We could benefit! We can split the fare.’ His dwindling funds were enough to make him sound convincing.
The man knew Gil was of no issue to this woman, but he hoped his case would be enough to overcome her authoritative façade and persuade her to let him join. She didn’t look as if she wanted to be alone, but rather that she needed to be alone; nonetheless, her concerned eyes and short bite of the lip were followed with the deflated response, ‘Yes, yes…of course.’
The coachman closed the door on the odd pairing, scrambled into his seat, and set off with great haste, astounded by this charitable act from someone like her. The man in the veil wasn’t surprised; he knew she had more heart than the others.
He had indeed struck gold: five invitations at once—an unrivalled opportunity. In the silence of the trip, the man counted his remaining funds, dividing his Gil between travel expenses and the potential to spoil himself afterwards with a substantial meal for his successful day. Every few seconds, the jaded woman glanced at the man, who, immersed in his accountancy, never returned the looks. Deciding not to ask anything, she faced her window for most of the journey.
After some time, when the skies began to darken and the man spotted Kalm coming into view, he turned to his fellow commuter. She continued to stare out the window, watching the overcast, her mind swarming with many thoughts. And then she jumped. With her eyes aghast, she turned to the man who had just called her by name.
‘H-how?’ she began. ‘Who—?’ Before she could finish, the man reassured her in a calm voice.
‘Do not worry, my dear. I just wish to depart some well-wishes, Elena.’
He pulled out five letters, four of them labelled with each of the Turks names: Reno, Rude, Elena and Tseng, with the other for Rufus.
‘What are these?’ she probed. ‘And who are you?’
As the coach crept to a steadier pace, the man left his share of the charge on the seat between himself and Elena, thanked her for splitting the fare, and informed her that all the answers to her questions were to be found in the invitations.
‘Nothing to worry about,’ he said. He signalled to the driver to allow him to depart the coach prematurely. ‘It’s almost the Feast of the Merging, after all, and heroes need to be recognised, don’t they?’
The subtle hints may have
been enough to calm Elena’s initial worry that a stranger seemed to have known
the current location of her cohorts, but being referred to in a heroic sense
was what truly lightened her expression.
On the opposite side of the planet, nightfall had already blanketed the Balamb region, and the scenic sky was portraying a masterpiece of shimmering stars and wispy trails of cloud set amid a cool winter’s aura.
Most of the junior cadets of Balamb Garden had settled for a well-earned rest after an unexpected day of physical training, where chief instructor Quistis Trepe put them through their paces as a lesson that the role of SeeD often leads one down unforeseen journeys. With great enthusiasm, she frequently lectures her own story two years ago as a prime example.
Garden’s founders, Edea and Cid Kramer, designed the educational institutions with the aim of training an elite class of mercenary entitled SeeD. Unbeknown to many who assumed SeeDs were merely mercenary forces hired by governments and private civilians, the true purpose of SeeD was once to defeat the destructive power ofthe sorceress scourging the world at the time.
Two years ago since the arrival of what was termed the ‘Eternal Calm’, the peaceful era following the Great Battle, demand for SeeDs dropped. As a result, the opportunities for trained SeeDs to stay on—whether to aid in teaching exercises, facilitate the running of Garden, and provide other support—increased far beyond the usual quota.
Now, the purpose of Garden and its SeeDs is to ensure peace and harmony among neighbouring towns and cities in their respective countries: Trabia, Galbadia and Balamb. Far-off areas also hire them from time to time; last month, another large group was dispatched to help facilitate the running of Midgar’s restoration procedures after the first batch last year proved beneficial to the cause.
This was far from the only peaceful change to take place in the world now free from the sorceress’s reign. Rinoa Heartilly’s father, the General Fury Caraway, won leadership of Galbadia after an overwhelming support for democracy in the region resulted in the demand to hold the first general election; it was a landslide victory. (Of course, it was Rinoa’s encouragement that pushed him to run for president most. Following the Great Battle, making amends for his discouraging treatment of her, and voicing his recognition of her growth, was his first and foremost priority).
Realising the solidarity of the new worlds, Caraway sought aid from Cid Kramer and Laguna Loire, President of Esthar, in naming their once solitary planet. As the other former planets’ became labelled as continents, their world was christened the Continent of Angelo, Rinoa’s inspiration once again influencing political affairs.
With such widespread peace across Angelo, what better time was there for Balamb Garden to prioritise its annual festival? This was the exact line of reasoning held by the spunky head of the Garden Festival Committee, Selphie Tilmitt.
Last year, Selphie picked up her oversized nunchaku and piloted the Ragnarok airship to help tackle the Vegnagun Crisis. The trip was exhilarating, with flashes of the past enhancing the experience. The battle, however, was longer than anticipated. The Garden Festival went off without a hitch, save for the endless length of uncertainty during the peak event when none of the heroes of Balamb Garden were present—and in particular, the MC, Selphie. Although she never expressed it enough, she carried undying gratitude for her fellow SeeDs and Garden co-ordinators, Xu and Nida, who salvaged the unbelievable train wreck when they realised those aboard the Ragnarok were not about to surprise Garden with a grand return.
In order to outdo herself this year, and compensate for her previous absence, Selphie opened the invite to both Trabia and Galbadia Garden too. Festival Committees from the respective Gardens responded positively to the event, promising a favourable turnout. While this ought to have been a cause for celebration, the pressure had already begun to escalate after both replies.
The overseas committee members’ constant excuses, ranging from “travel budgets” and “emergency repairs to the Horizon Bridge”, meant Selphie faced planning a Garden Festival intended to hold three times its regular attendance—but with only a fraction of the help required to instigate it.
Selphie threw her small polka-dotted notepad of ideas onto the desk. Next to it were a pile of other belongings, including a mysterious invitation she received from an even more mysterious-looking figure days ago.
She had skimmed through her invitation once, where only one detail managed to catch her attention: The purported event was taking place on November 28, the day of the opening celebrations of the Feast of the Merging—the same day she proposed to hold the Garden Festival. She was ready to decline by ignoring the invite, but later she heard from many of her closest and new friends that they, too, received invitations; and, supposedly, everyone else was going.
Resigning herself to that fact, she changed the Garden Festival date from the twenty-eight of November to the first of December. She wanted the Festival to last a whole week long this time. At least, she considered, she had bought herself three extra days to allow her collaborators prepare in her absence, yet deep inside she knew she had lost the momentum by missing such an appropriate date. After all, November 28 was the day the planets came together.
‘I don’t know what to do!’ she wailed, slumping onto the ground before quickly scanning the Quad to ensure no one else was present.
Balamb Garden’s Quad section, the outdoor area where every other Garden Festival had been hosted, was a complete mess. No more than a fortnight ago, it was used for the travelling Tantalus Theatre Troupe, a seemingly innocuous band of renowned performers. They put on an awe-inspiring show that left Selphie speechless yet incapable of keeping her mouth shut about her new dream of being swept away like a princess by her secret crush.
Since the Troupe’s departure, the Quad was never cleaned; the faculty in charge for such duties were too preoccupied with the inexplicable vanishing of a number of valuable books and weapons. Stage lights lay scattered on the dusty floor, two of them beyond repair; tangled wires for audio equipment resembled distorted ribbon loops; and the lack of general hardware tools, which liked to play hide-and-seek with Selphie, meant the reconstruction process was a long way from completion.
Reminding herself it was deep into the night, Selphie decided a good night’s rest would pave the way for fresh, insightful ideas. Rising to her feet, she wiped the dust from her black SeeD blouse, which was concealing her usual yellow mini-dress (her favourite), and leapt from the stage. After dragging herself up the many different sets of stairs, she looked back. She could no longer see the stage floor, but it was quite the relief to escape the madness.
Before she could make it through the doors, she froze. She spun on her heel and ran back to the stage, realising she had left her precious notepad behind. After collecting it (and scolding herself for letting her frustration get the better of her throughout the day), she paused and took a moment to breathe deeply. But the moment of serenity was very short-lived, and she couldn’t resist letting out an exasperated yelp when she saw the gates of the Quad swing open, its subtle creakiness eerie in the night-time.
A figure was letting itself in. Even in the low light of the Quad, Selphie had no trouble recognising the striking countenance, especially with the black tribal tattoo running down the side of his youthful face.
‘Zell!’ she bellowed, under the impression he was supposed to be staying at his adoptive mother’s house in the port town of Balamb. ‘What are you doing here this time of night? And since when were you given a key to the Quad gates?’ she asked, feigning the disgusted awe in her voice.
Zell flashed a confident smile. His energetic aura drifted towards Selphie as he tiptoed around the debris of equipment.
‘Yo, Selphie! Just the back entrance if I ever wanted to get in!’ he explained while patting down his baggy shorts and adjusting the red-and-black vest draping over his black beater. ‘Ciddy gave it to me a month ago when I began staying over at Balamb more often.’
‘Ciddy…?’ Selphie began, resisting the urge to grin. ‘No, forget it! What are you doing here anyway?’
Zell’s eyes shifted to Selphie’s notepad. ‘Quistis was telling me you were way stressed out about this Garden Fest,’ he said, picking up her notepad. ‘She said you won’t accept her help.’
‘God, no, don’t get the wrong idea,’ Selphie spluttered. ‘She has so much to do. I couldn’t possibly ask her! She’s always so busy. I mean, look at what she did today. No one else could have pulled that off.’
‘Yeah, don’t remind me,’ Zell replied, recalling his role in today’s punishing morning exercises regarding “counter-attacks”. ‘Anyway, I wanted to surprise ya. I was gonna go clean up a lot of this place, so when you come here in the morning—’
Selphie pulled him into a tight hug, leaving him winded, the notepad falling out of his hand.
Wasn’t ready to counter there.
Zell’s gaze fell on the table filled with Selphie’s belongings; they were beginning to pile up to the point of no stability. Buried under a mountain of what appeared to be layout sketches for concert lights and screens, he spotted a creamy-coloured envelope not unlike the one he received a few days ago.
‘Hey, is that the same? Yeah, it is! That’s the invitation we received off that dude in blue last Friday. Did you even open it?’
‘I did,’ Selphie answered, letting go of him. ‘I was annoyed at first, but now I’m kind of relieved. I mean, these two extra days may be all I need, or at least all I need to get others to sort out this mess.’
Selphie turned around and began mapping out her plans, pointing at every possible space available. ‘The stage will be there. Catering-related stuff right next to us here. The lights and audio will hang there, there…and over there. The equipment available is what I want. A schedule of events is complete.
We’re so lucky to have dedicated committee members and societies willing to put on such great displays and events. At least, from Balamb Garden,’ she added, a touch of contempt creeping into her voice. ‘But, but, but, the practice field exams are this week! The entire committee is out of action! The plans are in place; I just need the manpower to make up the Quad before tomorrow night as there’s a lot to review on Thursday. And you know what? A reeeeeeeeally cool video would be great! I’m almost certain the Vegnagun Crisis has recordings. That would be so cool if I could get something awe-inspiring for all the SeeDs and—’
‘Whoa, Selphie! Calm down! That doesn’t sound bad at all. I could have helped with this ages ago if I’d have known—’
‘No’—Selphie shook her head, her face resolute—‘you need to spend more time at home. Ma Dincht hasn’t been well.’
Despite embracing the harsh fact, Zell managed to continue smiling. ‘She’s not too bad now—really! You know where I went two weeks ago?’
‘Oh, yeah! Where?’ While she was aware she was meant to ask Zell, she was even more mindful of the fact he went away somewhere after doctors told him his mother needed the supervision.
‘I went to the garif in Jahara. You know, in Ivalice?’
Selphie’s mouth hung open. She loved exploring new places, but the Ragnarok had difficulty piloting through most of Ivalice for reasons that eluded her. She meant to ask that guy she first met after the Great Battle, Cid Highwind, about upgrading the airship in that respect, especially as most other airships seemed capable. For Selphie, the idea of waltzing on a floating island in Ivalice was a dream come to life.
‘Wow, Zell! I’m impressed!’
‘Ahhh, it wasn’t too far. Lucky to be in the position. Not the kind of guy—or hume, as they called me—they expected to see on their land, but one of them knew who I was. Weird, right? Anyway, I explained my situation, and they were really sympathetic. And, you know, they’re experts in poison and other stuff like that. Not as if Ma Dincht was poisoned, but they still knew what was going on, and they have all the means to make great medicine. It took a day or two to make it, but, man, was the wait worth it! Staying with the garif, training in the Ozmone Plain…’
Selphie was looking gloomier and gloomier as Zell continued. Catching her look through his high-kick demonstration, he thought about how he would often demand her presence with him when it came to exploring.
‘Sorry, Selphie. I wasn’t sure what luck I would—’
‘No, it’s fine, Zell. I know I couldn’t anyway. Sounds great, but I’m just glad to hear Ma Dincht is doing well.’ Selphie smiled again, beginning to realise his newfound maturity was coming from both his recent trip and the responsibility of caring for his mother.
‘Hell yeah!’ resumed Zell, as enthusiastic as ever, bouncing on his fighting stance. ‘She was so much better the next day—the next day! She’ll make a recovery, but I’m always on hand in case of a relapse. There’s also enough medicine—’
Zell paused as his foot knocked over a stack of rolled up posters designed to highlight the upcoming Festival. Scanning the room from one end to the other, he whistled in amusement at the tarnished sight of the Quad.
‘Anyway, as I said before, it looks like you could do with some extra help. You go to sleep. Ma Dincht is well rested for the night. I know a few guys from Balamb who’ve agreed to help out over here. I promised them entry, but—hey, we’re over capacity this year anyway. I’m telling you, Selphie, by tomorrow afternoon the Quad will be better than before! I’ll leave the event management to you. You’ll have no trouble there.’
Selphie grabbed Zell’s face and kissed him on the lips, the noise echoing.
‘I leave it to you, and you leave it to me! Thank you so much, Zell! You’re the best,’ she sang before collapsing to the ground for the fourth time tonight. ‘I need some sleep right now.’
‘Yeah, right now.’
Zell wiped his mouth with his sleeve before attempting to roll Selphie out of the Quad. She begged him to stop, but her pleas fell flat, unable to rise above her own overwhelming laughter.
‘I’m up! Zell, I’m getting up!’
Zell laughed to himself, glad to have come to his friend’s aid. He was about to wish her goodnight, until a brilliant idea came to him.
‘Selphie, did you even read that invitation?’ he asked.
Selphie paused for a moment before answering. ‘Erm, not really. I mean, I sort of, you know…’
‘Well, d’ya remember the bit about the fighting display?’
‘Oh, yeah! Now that you mention it, I do.’
‘Well, why don’t you record some of the action? I mean, could you imagine if you could convince Squall and that Cloud guy to have a mock duel? Two major swords peeps going at it. Imagine!’
Selphie lit up even more than her tired face previously allowed.
‘Zell, that is amazing! I can totally do that. And you with your martial arts; maybe you could go up against someone else too.’
‘Ha-ha, well, you know I won’t hold back. But, I don’t get what this is all about. It’s supposed to be like a display, so guess we’re not only showing what we can do but actually going against each other—you know, for fun? Nothing serious, just sparring.’
Zell placed a hand against his chin. ‘Did anyone have a similar style to you, Selphie?’
Selphie’s face dropped. She had no intention of displaying anything. Everyone else, she considered, was so much more skilled and powerful than she, this Garden Festival organiser, could ever be.
‘Ah, that’s okay. I’ll record everything on a Sphere Cam. I’m good with those. They’re durable…’ she mumbled. Zell chuckled.
‘Selphie, you were with all of us when we beat serious ass two years ago. You have so much talent! When did this come about all of a sudden? You’re SeeD! I reckon you’re just being humble, but don’t let Squall hear you say that. You don’t want lecturing, do ya?’
One smile from Selphie was enough to see her typical buoyancy radiate greater than before. She thought of a sombre-looking Squall frowning, not one bit impressed by her insecure remarks, but even more so at Zell’s portrayal of him.
With whatever sparse energy remaining, she ran up the stairs to a warm awaiting bed. She was very grateful to Zell, but not just for his assistance with the Garden Festival. Her renewed confidence ahead of the event, as he inspired, was priceless.
As the day progressed, and Zell was to be found conked out amid a wreckage of unused posters and shattered lights, the night-time was only beginning at other parts of the planet. For the refurbished 7th Heaven bar in the city of Edge, Tuesday nights were always popular—the only weekday where Tifa single-handedly ran the show once the main orders of food were complete (and when Marlene had retired to bed).
Her caring yet tough attitude attracted the locals who adored her service as well as her security. Prosperity in the business allowed her to extend the size of the premise to include additional tables and a karaoke section, which was in high demand among her adoring patrons.
Johnny, an old friend of Tifa’s who visited Edge every couple of weeks, was no stranger to the karaoke section—as well as a few too many glasses of Tifa’s finest cocktail, ‘Premium Kick’. Tifa found his addition to the night further highlighted the contentedness of her new life, no matter how many times he belted out the same incomprehensible folk tale about some ancient “fair lady” of Spira.
The bar itself was always a pleasant place to work. There was the din of chatter and laughter; the food was always well-received; and even though the occasional scuffle broke out now and again, spectators revelled at the sight of Tifa firing up to sort it all out. Adding to the scent of fine cocktails, fresh spirits, and spilled booze, it created an inviting atmosphere unrivalled by any other bar in Edge.
In particular, the last few weeks saw an even greater increase in support for Tifa after her cute, jaunty friend and madcap ally, Cait Sith, decided to show up out of the blue one night, much to the bemusement of the customers who found the sight of the unusual cat guzzling down alcoholic beverages most amusing. Tifa thought it strange that he would turn up like this, and even more so to see him capable of not only drinking, but becoming more intoxicated as the night carried on. Towards the end of the humorous session, after knocking out as many puns as he could regarding his own name (and losing his little golden crown numerous times), Cait stood on the bar counter. In all of his glory, he called on people to join him in celebrating Tifa’s drinks and the bar.
Without fail, albeit a little earlier than usual, a regular piped up the usual sermon that Cait spieled out weeks ago.
‘To Tifa’s finest drinks,’ he hollered, raising his glass in salute.
‘Hoorah!’ the crowd responded.
Tifa put her hand on her hip, chewing her lip to conceal the grin behind her disapproving gaze.
‘To Tifa’s Bar!’ cheered another reveller.
‘To…this, th-this WOMAN! Sh’ put the glass in me haaaaaaaand,’ reported Johnny with a dopey smile, struggling to enunciate his important speech before crashing onto the ground as the hero of the bar.
Before Tifa could place a hand to her head in disbelief at yet another repeat of Johnny’s displays, a gruff voice roared out, ‘And to Tifa!’
Everyone shifted in their seat to face the great muscly build of the dark-skinned man who had just walked through the door. This particular shout-out broke away from the usual routine. It was a new addition, but they loved it.
‘To Tifa!’ they bellowed in triumph, toasting their glasses with shrill clangs.
As they settled back into their usual discussions about the price of airship travel, chocobo sweepstakes, and the latest cast of the LOVELESS play, the bulky figure in the green trousers made his way across the bar, his boots stomping across the ceramic tile floor. Upon placing himself on a padded stool right up against the counter, he was met with a gentle thump to the side of his head.
‘Ow, Tif’! The hell was that for?’ he complained, tending to his “wallop”.
‘Hee-hee. I’m sure you could barely feel it through that big head of yours. I’m glad to see you again, Barret. Though I will say you’re looking kind of rough.’
‘Yeah, well, survey was long today. I sure could do with one on the house.’
‘Oh, strapped for cash now, Mr. “Entrepreneur”?’ she joked, making him his favourite brew regardless.
‘Tifa, I just found the biggest damn oil field you ever seen,’ he said, his voice tired. Unlike the last time Tifa recalled such a claim, Barret’s boasting was more subdued here, and she reckoned even he himself knew he was relaying the same story.
‘And where have I heard that one?’ she enquired, feigning the gravity in her voice. ‘Was it when you told Cloud a few weeks ago? Or was it over the phone when—?’
‘A’right, I get it! But this one,’ he explained, raising a finger, his tone more convincing, ‘is going to put Corel right up there with all the big shots. Everybody’s gonna want a piece of Wallace’s finest oil. Mist’s becoming redundant on Terra; ‘s too unstable up there. Not much left either since they killed that Kuja guy two years ago.’
‘Terra? Wait, isn’t that where they used to call Gaia? Is the change of name finally being formalised?’
‘Yeah,’ answered Barret, chuckling, ‘only ‘cause we got to call ours “Gaia” first. Better than “Planet”, I figure—but it made sense, so I’ve been told. They wanted to change it to Terra; don’t know why though. The hell if I care.’
‘So the difference between the planet being called Gaea and our continent being called Gaia…is in spelling? Is that what it’s boiled down to?’
‘Ye just gotta refer to one as the “continent of” Gaia,’ Barret responded, the thought bugging him as if he was expected to sort out the entire mess himself, ‘then call the planet whatever the hell you want. O’ course, now we’re tryna get our continent changed to Cetra, and then they’d end up renaming Gaea with the ‘i’ instead of the ‘e’. The whole thing’s stupid! That formal crap’s been going on fer weeks, Tif’! A drink is all I need right now.’
‘Has Barret not been bitten by the travel bug?’
‘Barret’s been too damn busy! Marlene’s been off flying with Cid and the others.’ He took a quick swig from the glass Tifa put down for him. ‘At least someone is.’
‘I know. She tells me where she’s been. Said she loved Alexandria and Lindblum when she visited last month. She told me how she was treated like a little princess over there. Heh-heh, she’s adopted Nanaki as her “outdoor guardian”, and it’s his job to ensure Cid doesn’t let slip too much naughty language while she’s around.’
Barret laughed—Cid’s utilisation of the finer “expressive jargons” often rivalled his own, if not more. ‘Yeah, she used to stick it to me too. Sure she hears it a lot here as well…’
‘Barret.’ Tifa placed a hand on his, noticing his visible disappointment over not spending as much as time with Marlene as he wanted to. ‘I understand. You told me many times before: You’re doing it for her future. That’s why I’m here. Cloud helps me run the orphanage. You know, the one that Reeve established after Meteorfall? I’m set to co-manage it soon with a member from the WRO. One day, when the future is even more secure, we can afford to see the world together again.’
‘But Tif’, what if she grows up too fast? What—?’
‘Stop it, Barret! Marlene dotes on you, and you know that! You spend more time with her than you realise.’ Tifa adopted a tone of blatancy, one she hoped Barret would pick up on. ‘She tells me how good the clothes are that daddy buys her; and how good her school is; and how her bag and supplies are the prettiest in the class. You’ve done everything but take her on a holiday yourself. That’s why the travel bug is asleep.’
Barret pondered for a moment before nodding to himself in agreement.
‘So, come on. Work out something back at Corel where you can take time off and go out with Marlene. I know lots of places she wants to go to still. Take her there. Just you and Marlene.’
‘Heh-heh, you’re right again, Tifa. Damn it, girl, when are you going to take time off too?’
Tifa winked at Barret, and whispered into his ear, ‘When Cloud realises he has to take over everything for the week.’
Barret guffawed at the thought of Cloud’s panic-stricken attempts to pull drinks that could only fail to reach the barmaid’s legendary standards. Tifa turned to clean some glasses with the raggedy pale-blue cloth Marlene bought for her when the bar first opened—even now she cannot bring herself to dispose of it.
‘Oh, and Barret,’ Tifa added, turning to face him again, ‘maybe it’s best to bring Nanaki. Just in case.’
‘Come on, Tif’, I know better!’ he said, his back hunching as he chuckled.
Tifa smiled warmly and went back to wiping the glasses. It wasn’t long before Barret spoke up again with more objections to add.
‘Damn, Tifa! These stools are too small,’ he said, attempting to readjust himself.
Tifa exhaled with mock frustration. ‘You were fine a minute ago! You’re too big, Mr. Muscle Man. I mean, look at the ridiculous size of that coat you’re wearing. You’re like an oversized detective.’
Barret was none too fond of his long creamy coat either—and it was only being worn for today—but it was a necessary disguise.
‘It, you know, conceals the—you know.’ He glanced back and forth between Tifa and his left arm.
Tifa rolled her eyes. ‘Oh right, that little gun on your arm practically everyone here around Edge knows about anyway?’
‘Security’s tight around town with all this festival crap coming up. The amount of people arriving in Edge today is crazy, Tif’. I didn’t want the hassle. I mean, it’s the…the big one.’
Tifa’s face dropped. ‘Oh, Barret! Not the one you’ve been working on. It’s not ready to transform yet’—Barret was endeavouring to show her the masterpiece from under his coat, wanting nothing more than to brag about how stunning it looks blossomed—‘You know how sensitive—’
No sooner had Tifa tried to reach out and stop him from exposing the dangerous weapon, Barret almost fell backwards when his gun-arm transformed to display a much larger contraption of solid steel and multiple gun barrels, all accompanied by a faint smell of inexplicable burning chemicals. He attempted to cover his coat over the gun, smashing different buttons and switches in a clumsy fashion. The sight of an infrequent visitor, however, brandishing what they could only describe as some technologically advanced “gun-arm”, was a cause for panic. Although there were a few present who recognised Barret for who he was, the ruckus caused at the front of the bar, coupled with the impressive yet startling machine, was enough to send them packing as well.
Within seconds, the bar was clear. The only exception was Johnny, whose presence was indicated by his heavy snoring. His drool trickled down each step of the karaoke section, narrowly avoiding his finest leather jacket.
With bewilderment in his eyes, Barret looked around, taking in the static scene. He apologised to Tifa, unable to meet her eyes, muttering about how his latest modification was still new to him. To his surprise, she laughed.
‘Well, that’s got to be record time for clearing out on a Tuesday night,’ she said, Barret relived she wasn’t about to deliver a deadlier blow to his head. ‘We rarely get the peace and quiet to talk like this, do we?’
‘Yeah, well, I should call over more often,’ agreed Barret, gulping down the remainder of his drink. ‘At least when I get that metallic hand constructed, it’ll be all good. Guess some new places got somethin’ going for them, huh?’
Barret took off his coat, revealing his puffer white vest and fishnet shirt. It was a great liberation for him, as if his muscles were allowed to breathe again.
‘Oh, you should probably…’ Tifa began, pointing to Barret’s arm.
‘What? Oh, yeah.’ Barret’s voice trailed off as he attempted to retract it. ‘I didn’t have it…’
The two smiled, enjoying each other’s presence in the serenity of the bar. As Tifa began pouring another drink, Barret asked her about “Spiky”.
‘Cloud? He’s okay. But some nights he doesn’t stay here. He made a spot for himself up at the church where she used to, you know…’
‘So, he’s still not over looking for her, huh?’
‘Are you?’ Tifa’s reply was quick.
Barret paused for a moment to take a mouthful from the new glass of thick black liquid Tifa poured for him. Wiping his lips and sighing, he replied, ‘No. But that don’t mean I’m wallowing over all that. It’s been two years. Nobody we know knows where this “Farplane” place is. Most I understand, it’d be like chatting without her leaving, but she’s probably not gonna talk back.’
‘Everywhere supposedly had a Farplane,’ informed Tifa, ignoring Barret’s difficult description of the complex matter, ‘but it’s really called the afterlife now, isn’t it? We never knew any opening to ours in the way Spira did, and maybe the Lifestream was just the way it was. Imagine all the people we could speak to’—Tifa glanced at a small photo underneath the counter—‘I heard you could venture into the Spiran one, almost like it was for both the living and the dead, but the dead existed in some other way. A beauty, so Vincent told me, that we could never comprehend in this life.’
‘Pah! When has Mr. Bright ever spoken of beauty?’
‘I know. I’m sorry. He’s a good guy and all. Still can’t get him to budge sometimes. It’s the trickiest labour of sunshine and smiles between him and Spiky.’
‘BARRET!’ Tifa threw the rag onto the counter and looked into his eyes with persuasive severity.
‘Jes a joke, Tifa! Cloud’s fine! Both of ‘em are.’
Tifa composed herself. ‘Ever since the planets merged,’ she continued, picking up the rag again, her tone solemn, ‘the Farplane portal ceased to be; that’s what those from Spira told me. With the planets united, there’s only one main portal now, so rumours say. Then that Vegnagun incident happened, and portals to the Farplane began opening up in many places. Pseudo-portals they called them.
I don’t know how all that would have worked for us before the Merging; like how we could have met the spirits of the dead, seeing how it was Lifestream that coursed through the planet. I don’t quite get it, and nor do I try to anymore.’ Tifa sighed and looked away. ‘All I remember, from last year, was Cloud wanting to gather us all to help out. Really, I think he just wanted to dive right into the Farplane somehow.’
‘Yeah, well, we know how that all turned out,’ uttered Barret, recalling how the action was as good as all over by the time they got there. ‘Has Cloud been able to speak to Cid ever since?’
‘He has. Not that Cid ever tried to apologise, but it’s not like he should. We were all too late to respond anyway. But…the whole incident still left Cloud even more hopeful of finding a way.’
‘So, he is still lookin’, huh?’
‘Yes, he must be. But he’s not letting on,’ she said, her voice feeble. Regardless of his decision to spend many nights in solitude, Cloud hadn’t quite reached the level of ignoring his phone or denying the opportunity to help out, but his persistent talk about the Farplane was borderline obsessive. It was a growing concern for Tifa, who believed he was unable to let go of the past.
‘Barret! I’ve just realised, have you got a place to stay tonight?’
‘What? No, but I imagine my services are gonna get me a free room ‘round here.’
‘Oh, really?’ Tifa questioned with a smirk. ‘Like you planned that little mishap of yours earlier?’ She pointed over her shoulder to the door leading upstairs to the living space. ‘The sofa is all free tonight, Barret. I’ll even let you put on the television if you want.’
‘Spiky not staying over at Sector 5 tonight?’
‘I’m not taking that risk, Barret. Cloud knows how busy Tuesday nights are. He’s always been around to help me close up,’ informed Tifa, her voice confident.
‘So, his bed is free right now?’ Barret asked again, rising from his seat.
‘Cloud is not going to be impressed to find a particular Barret in his bed when he comes home tonight.’
‘Cloud’s bed sounds just fine.’
Tifa shook her head and laughed to herself as Barret made his way towards the living quarters. Satisfied that his visit was justification enough to close up for the night, she grabbed the sign no local ever wished to witness before time at the 7th Heaven: “Closed”.
‘Oh, Barret, do you mind?’ She pointed at the snoozing red-headed mess mumbling indecipherable confessions.
Barret looked over in confusion, but his surprise withered away when his eyes met the corporeal lump moulding itself into the carpet at the karaoke space.
‘Thanks, Barret!’ chirped Tifa, assured that her friend’s brute strength would have no trouble hoisting Johnny’s dead weight. She grabbed the sign she was not expecting to use so early into the night, but she did so with a smile.
Outside, she looked up to marvel at the twinkling stars dotted across the clear night sky, savouring the cool, crisp wind as it stroked her face. Save for a few lone stragglers in the distance, the area was almost void of people. But one man stood only a few feet away from her.
Tifa looked over at him, ready to disappoint him in regard to the closure, and was startled to find he was staring right back at her. Dressed all over in navy blue and carrying a short brown satchel, the man with the unusual dress code made his way over to introduce himself.
Although the repeated sight of ten o’clock suggested time was standing still, the man in the veil was in fact readjusting his watch again after boarding the last (and most affordable) airship of the night from Edge to the popular resort town of Costa Del Sol. Travelling westwards always seemed like a clever move; it wasn’t the first occasion it bought him the false sense of security of having more time. Fatigue, however, was catching up rapidly.
He sat down on a straw bench outside the airstation and read through his list once more. Four names remained.
He let out a sigh of considerable relief, particularly in light of his delay at Kalm not upsetting his schedule too much. But with only one day to go, it added greater difficulty to the last few: Vincent Valentine, Lani, Seymour Guado and Shuyin. It troubled him to see even those of a non-Spiran descent appeared to have no surnames, further challenging his search.
He cursed at himself for failing to notice Vincent’s name earlier. The opportunity to hand over his invitation to Tifa was lost, but he decided that revisiting any of Vincent’s closer comrades tomorrow would suffice—whoever ended up being closest, no matter how far that meant.
Moving on to the next name, the man stared for a few seconds. This one was the most puzzling overall: Lani. She was hard to track down—no one knew where she was. In fact, he discovered, very little recognised the name at all. It was this kind of deficient information that defined the worldwide chase as nothing short of bloody ridiculous, but he wouldn’t dare complain.
It was only when he visited Terra was her name familiar. A bounty hunter who changed her once menacing ways, her story—as told to him—was one of ups and downs. As the planets drew closer to the time of the Merging, she was one of the few who had the guts to leave the comfort of her sanctuary and abandon fear for the battlefield. She threw her weight into the Great Battle—an act that none expected—but vanished soon afterwards. According to the large scarlet-haired man who told him this story, Lani and Zidane Tribal, another of the delivery man’s recipients, had some kind of demanding confrontation around that time.
‘Was her presence there enough for the boss to consider her?’ he wondered. ‘Hmm. Must be her who’s here. The boss’s round man hasn’t been wrong so far.’
He furrowed his brow. But he should be out doing all this; he seems to know where everyone is. That last phone call took way too long; all he had to say was that someone was here, and he still didn’t tell me who! Battery’s dead already…
Blowing the veil away from his face, he tucked it under his hood, ignoring the potential to encounter the likes of Seymour or Shuyin here. He shuddered at the thought of having to talk to either of them.
Making his way towards the local inn, he was able to take in the colourful sights and sounds of Costa del Sol in all its glory. Even in the night the beaches looked far superior to any island he had ever visited in Spira. The town was alive with carefree buskers beginning to impart their rhythm; stringed lights spread across building to building; and the warm and scented haze of the outdoor barbecues alerted many a hungry tourist and local to the nearest street vendor of the resort’s finer takeaways. While this time of year often saw a drop in late-night outdoor activities, the approach of the Feast of the Merging ensured extra tourists were flocking to embrace the infectious spirit and warm up for the week ahead.
The man took note of the different fashion senses passing the main street. The regulars were donning as little clothing as pragmatically possible, verifying their immunity to all degrees of coldness. He spotted the hulking statures of two blue feline humanoids holding hands—Ronso who were relieved the sun could no longer stir up a sweat. There were other nonhuman species, ones he couldn’t recognise; perhaps they were from the Continent of Terra, he supposed. Even what looked like a group of Al Bhed (a race of technological masterminds hailing from Spira) were lying down on the cold sand, a refreshing adjustment from their arid homeland of Bikanel.
How the world has changed, thought the man. Such diverse cultures and architectures. I’ll hardly stick out much here.
Turning his back on the beach, he proceeded to navigate through the uncanny amount of merry-spirited people; contrary to his belief he would maintain a low profile, he turned many heads, the sound of stifled laughter surrounding him.
A couple seemed to have decided the entrance of the inn was the perfect spot to sway to the buskers’ laidback funk. Shoving the pair away without so much as a glance, the man stepped foot inside the inn—only to find himself jumping straight back out.
Knocking over the dancers as he scurried backwards was the least of his concerns, and nor did he register their objections. Scrambling back onto his feet, his heart racing, he untucked the veil from under his hood and stuffed as much of it as he could down his top.
It’s him! Of all places!
Taking a deep breath—and having his hand ready in his satchel—the man in the veil marched right back in, determined to push his bravery forward. It was definitely him. How could he not recognise this vindictive monster of a man? He had the same youthful face and unkempt blond hair that bore a stark likeness to young Tidus. He was handsome in appearance, but underneath lay an ugly soul, as the man in the veil wholly believed.
To the deliverer’s luck (as unwelcome as it was), the malevolent man was still at the service desk; he turned on his heel and made for the doorway, his face filled with a vehement annoyance.
The man in the veil froze. He took a deep breath, the tightness of the veil unable to allow much air in, ready to speak to the angry figure before he could storm out.
‘M-Mister Shuyin, sir?’ he called, his deepened voice a pathetic disguise.
At once, Shuyin’s cold blue eyes flared. His face transformed to that of sheer ferocity. He rounded on the stubby man, who let out a pitiful gasp as Shuyin dragged him from the inn, his feet floundering as they scraped across the parched ground.
Shuyin pinned the man against the wall next to the inn’s door, bouncing his visitor’s head off the concrete, breaking the paint job. The Ronso couple looked on in contempt at “the state of drunken humans”, while locals knew to let these things play out. Frequenting tourists, who often attempted to lend a compassionate hand in conflicts like these, strayed far from the fiery aura the blond-headed man was exuding.
The man in the veil was lost for words; not even the throb in his head was distracting him from the brutal man in front. He attempted to produce some form of vocal clarity, but his voice quivered. Without regard for the passing onlookers, Shuyin tore off the man’s veil; more clearly now could the man without his veil see the wicked, satisfied smile Shuyin wore.
‘Well, well, well. Looks like I wasn’t the only one to come back from the Farplane,’ Shuyin said, scoffing at the notion. ‘Am I?’
The ill-fated delivery man had a sudden vivid flashback to his moment of return from the Farplane. What a way to start a fresh lease on life, he thought. Once a maester, adorned in the finest of life after accomplishing so much, now at the mercy of his fearful boss and dragging himself around Gaea as a delivery boy. But at present—right now—in the clutches of one of his worst nightmares. With the realisation that it couldn’t get any worse from here, he found his voice.
‘S-Shuyin. It must be tha—’
‘Do you know who didn’t?’ Shuyin asked, his eyes threatening.
The man gulped before opening his mouth in an attempt to utter any kind of answer, but Shuyin responded for him.
Of course, the man realised. He knew the background (thanks to his boss). How could he not? She was a renowned songstress and summoner of Zanarkand a millennium ago, and the object of Shuyin’s affection. Shuyin failed to save his true love from the greed of death, and faced the same cruel fate as her, thus beginning the swift growth of his violent despair beyond his passing.
Shuyin gripped his throat, stretching his chin upwards. ‘Of all the people to run into today—and in all the places—I find someone who returned from the Farplane too,’ he said, flashing a quick toothy grin, his brow lowered all the while.
The real Shuyin died years ago: a millennium, no less. And he should have been done away with for good last year! How could he be here in the flesh, no different than I who once died? What was I expecting to find anyway…? But not like this!
‘So, why were you given another chance?’ probed Shuyin, letting his grip loosen. The man took heavy breaths, trying in vain to return to a calmer state.
‘I was no different than anyone else,’ he said between drawn-out gasps. ‘We saw the door open. All that stuff, like a thick, blanketing wall, engulfed our very being. It was being reborn, Shuyin. The Mist at the end; you must have—’
Shuyin retightened his grip.
‘You missed my question. Oh, I know something of it, though not in your time. Many undeserving lives saw it. They ran through to gag the world of their greedy ventures and exploit the petty gains. I wanted to live again too—this time, doing it right. Doing it right by Lenne. I called her, but I could not hear her.’
The man noticed Shuyin’s grip was weakening as he rambled on. The only way to get out of this mess and convince Shuyin of the importance of his invitation was to show no fear; otherwise, he would fail to manipulate him.
‘She’s here!’ he claimed. ‘I know what happened!’
Shuyin froze but didn’t look the man in the eye; his hasty declaration bore obvious signs of deceit.
‘Am I to trust the words of a washed-up maester of the disgraced Yevon? Am I, Kinoc?’
‘Now, now, Shuyin’—Wen Kinoc swallowed hard—‘how would Lenne react if she saw you this way? Pitiful revenge; ticked off that you never returned to the Farplane out of your own spite; threatening everything to get your way. How do you think she—?’
The pain around Kinoc’s neck intensified as nails dug in and the grip tightened once more until all that could be heard from the former maester was pathetic gasps of breath. But Shuyin restrained himself from placing both hands on him: In front of him was a man who had experienced the Farplane before he did, one who may have held clues to help him understand his own current fate.
‘I waited for so long,’ explained Shuyin, his voice low. ‘Incomplete…alone…a shadow in a solitary cavern with nothing to let the light in—’
‘And so bitter you became, you couldn’t find your way back to the Farplane, and the pyreflies played with your memories so much that you couldn’t even—’
Kinoc stopped himself from rattling off the rest of his bold opinion. Shuyin’s face came within inches of his.
How loathsome, thought Shuyin, that this pathetic creature, who was completely terrified by the sheer sight of him mere moments ago, who had to hide his face and disguise his voice, was now re-enacting the cockiness that accompanied the power he once held as a maester.
‘You sent those men to their deaths,’ Shuyin whispered, savouring the chance to remind him. ‘Yeah…I know. And I didn’t have to do anything.’
All colour drained from Kinoc’s face. He dreaded this topic of conversation coming up. The Crimson Squad, an elite group of soldiers formed by Kinoc himself, was sent to investigate the mysterious cavern known as the Den of Woe—all under his command. Shuyin’s emotional turbulence, gathered over the years and replayed by the pyreflies, fashioned a brew of insanity that drove nearly the entire squad to kill one another—four survived, all of whom received invitations.
‘Didn’t…do anything,’ mumbled Kinoc, shifting his sight away from Shuyin, whose narrow-eyed smile revealed his satisfaction.
As Shuyin continued to await further confessions, Kinoc was instead formulating his own ideas on Shuyin’s confusing story.
‘You were unlike any other unsent, Shuyin. You missed your chance to reunite with Lenne when you witnessed the Merging of the Planets through the meyvn Nooj’s eyes, so you carried on in your quest for cold vengeance, deciding to strike when the chance was right. And then you woke up Vegnagun. You failed and returned to the Farplane to be reunited with Lenne.’
Shuyin’s eyes turned dreamlike, attempting to penetrate Kinoc’s very soul. ‘I faded. But, I didn’t fade into the Farplane.’ His murmuring was grave.
Kinoc found himself staring back in astonishment. ‘You mean you were…r-reborn instead?’
Eavesdropping on a mesmerising conversation his boss was holding with his chief subordinate, Kinoc learned that in some cases with this new planet order, a handful of beings are reborn onto the planet beyond their will. It was similar to what happened when the planets first merged and many had the chance to live again, appearing as they did around the time of their death. It was termed ‘Original Reincarnation’—and, of course, such beings had a choice—but he had only once heard about the fascinating alternative conception, which Shuyin appeared to have experienced. As Kinoc heard, it is almost like the planet’s way of telling the individual to compensate before returning to the Farplane. The metaphysics were too complicated for him to grasp, but he had no doubt, as his boss so eagerly acclaimed, that wise men at Cosmo Canyon understood this best.
It made sense to him now. Shuyin was reborn sometime after the Vegnagun Crisis when he attempted to return to the Farplane with Lenne. He must have found himself caught up in the same process as those did two years ago. Perhaps he appreciated the idea of starting a fresh life in the new planet with his beloved, or maybe the planet compelled him. It was no wonder Shuyin was holding onto his trauma; here he was once again separated from his love, even after their brief reunion last year.
Shuyin had remained silent throughout Kinoc’s contemplations. His unforgiving stare was still locked onto the former maester, who realised his aggressor believed Lenne was still in the Farplane and that he was seeking it.
‘Shuyin…forgive me,’ Kinoc apologised, his expression conveying an attempt at being earnest. ‘I was a foolish man; I was a deceitful man. But you know how it is to be reborn: You change your ways.’
‘Did I?’ spat Shuyin, recognising his own display of anger, but also aware of Kinoc’s feeble attempt earlier to lie about Lenne.
At this point, Kinoc could only stutter and cough as he tried to find the right response. But, after a few seconds of wordless interaction, it was clear the conversation had cooled off; Shuyin’s grip was at its weakest, and the rhythmic sounds of the exotic buskers and the fluttering of flashing lights were beginning to bombard his senses once more.
‘Please, Shuyin. I have some information for you. Take this invitation. Perhaps it was not Lenne whom I saw. I was almost certain…but, my apologies nonetheless. You must meet the boss. He knows everything. He knows all about your state of being. He must know what it all means.’
‘And what, so suddenly, do you expect of me to place my trust in you?’
‘Shuyin, what else have you hope for? I find you in a little beach resort town like this. Come on,’ he added, his face relaxing, ‘this was hardly your first protocol.’
Shuyin took a step back from him. Placing his hands against his hips, he sighed in frustration. How could he pass up the vaguest of hopes when he would have leapt into the darkest pits of the unknown, without hesitation, had he thought Lenne whispered from its depths?
‘What is it?’ asked Shuyin, a rare tone of serenity in his voice.
‘Read it yourself. Make what you will of it. But if I were you’—Kinoc began to walk away, his pounding heart easing—‘I would consider it a priority to apologise to Yuna.’
Shuyin’s head jerked up. ‘She will be there?’
‘They all will.’
At that moment, a group of enthusiastic Spiran tourists, whose clothes suggested Kilikan descent, joined a group of sporting Costa del Sol locals in vain attempts to capture a Crown Lance fiend, who, clearly lost, was floating through the beach, up towards the main street. (Such a rarity frightened the younger children, but it was a fun display of team spirit for the older generations, who were neither fazed by the creature’s petrifying sting nor the growing presence of its kind in recent months).
The intoxicating glee drifting through the street was an opportunity for Kinoc to broaden the gap between Shuyin and him, and the crowd proved to be an effective means of separating them. Looking back, he was surprised to see Shuyin was engrossed in the letter, reading it as he strolled towards the beach. With one terrifying delivery over with, Kinoc made his way back to the airstation as quick as he could.
‘Just three to go,’ he murmured, rolling his eyes, ‘and if Shuyin could recognise me, Seymour will.’
Sighing at the thought of another frightening encounter in the near future, particularly with the man accountable for sending him to the Farplane in the first place, Kinoc booked the midnight flight to Deling City. He needed to get more information before tomorrow morning. Journeying eastwards would put him further ahead of time than desired, but it was a necessity for his remaining elusive recipients.
Only now at the airstation did Kinoc register the trails of sweat streaming from his cheeks. He tried to wipe it away from his neck, but it proved a challenge (and not because of Shuyin’s aggression). It was a relief as much as it was a miracle to know Shuyin failed to detect the oddity about his neck—Kinoc assumed he was too angry—but he was even more astounded he wasn’t questioned about his current occupation.
I still don’t know what the boss has planned. Can’t be good. He’s a devious character, for sure. Well, won’t be my problem anymore…
As he gazed at the advancing overcast ready to dampen the merriments of Costa del Sol, Kinoc could think only of his role in all this.
Shuyin settled himself onto the cool sand of Costa del Sol’s largest, most popular beachside (away from the main crowds), and began rereading his invitation.
To the Receiver,
It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge you have received this invitation. Allow me to extend my personal compliments on the most truly remarkable services you have administered to this great planet. I understand the unruly nature of this invite. Please forgive my anonymity. I, the organiser, am but a wealthy aristocrat from the Continent of Ivalice, yet a mere spectator in your shadow. Hence, I do not expect any recognition, for none of you reside in the slowly fading Ivalice.
Allow me to explain myself. Upon the Merging of the Planets, I was awakened. A new lease of life. Suddenly, the world in which I grew sorrowful with was eclipsed by this wonderful collaboration of new worlds. However, I do not wish to bore you with the details of my pathetic life and personal transformation. For now, I would simply like to thank you personally.
Therefore, I invite you to take part in a celebration of gargantuan proportions in honour of your esteemed services to the planet. In addition to a wonderful opportunity to reunite, I pray you will fulfil a humble man’s wishes and show me what you can do. Timber TV will be on hand to broadcast those who wish to display their legendary fighting skills. Pit your sparring talents against one another and, perhaps, among old rivals.
A wonderful select audience has also been invited: all who wish to hear and learn from the best. You may even be surprised to see some familiar faces who may have had to play to ignorance regarding this event.
Again, I must sincerely apologise for the level of secrecy imposed, but I can ill afford to give away too much. My assistants are working around the clock to ensure all goes as planned, as are the many crews and corporations involved; plenty are the great surprises designed for the occasion. I know some who seek answers to their questions regarding the Farplane; those who miss the thrill of the fight; and those who simply wish to reunite in remembrance of that day.
If you question yourself at this point, please withdraw your fear. Each and every one of you to receive this invite has been selected specially for unique and positive reasons. This is an opportunity to show the world the heroes’ solidarity, a universal salute to the Eternal Calm, and to prove the planet has moved on from its past towards a brighter future.
Please read the following carefully:
· A specialised transport link will bring you to our event location. Please arrive at Esthar City no later than 14:00, Friday, November 28.
Be wary of the extent of travelling required if you are situated in the Western Hemisphere: As you know, the International Date Line is established off the edge of Esthar City, afore the areas of Wutai and Bikanel — Travelling westwards without proper planning is unadvised.
My helpful assistants will wait for you outside the Pandora Airstation from the Loire exit, adjacent to the bus depot
· For identification, please bring along with you for the day:
1. This invitation
2. Your weapon of choice — This is primarily for those who wish to participate in the scheduled sparring, but for security reasons, particularly in light of Instigator activity during the Feast, it is for one’s own benefit. Rest assured, we will ensure they do not become a burden to you during your time here.
(Please bear in mind that the Pandora Airstation contains facilities to store your weapons — beneficial for those who wish to explore the great city beforehand)
· Provisions will be made available for the journey
Furthermore, personal travel expenses will be reimbursed
· Materia is permitted
For Gaea’s persevering future, let the planet know you care. Let its denizens know its’ heroes did it for them. Let them know its’ heroes are still strong at heart. Fear is becoming a thing of the past. Let us lead the example henceforth.
Yours in waiting
At the bottom of the light-brown invitation was the same curious symbol on the top of Kinoc’s hood. It was painted with delicate colours reminiscent of a sunset.
Shuyin stared at his invitation, wondering whether it was worth another reread. Whatever warranted his invite was undeserved, he reflected, even if it was for the “hope of a compassionate world moving on”. Maybe he was to be brought along for display purposes, a laughing stock in light of defeat. Perhaps it was no mere celebration. But what both confused and troubled him most of all was how somebody knew he had come back in full original incarnation.
It must mean someone knows something about all this mess with the planets. He might just know how to free me of this burdenous life, without resorting to recycling death.
With a strengthened resolve to set things right with Yuna and her friends, and in the hope of understanding this forced life of his, Shuyin tucked the invitation into his chest pocket, promising to arrive at Esthar City this coming Friday.
The following morning’s downpour came without mercy to the man without his veil. Rather than feeling deterred by the vast amount of rain soaking his skin and cultivating his impending chills, he was more dismayed over his loss of secrecy to Shuyin, a fact he chose not to reveal to his chief advisor while at Deling. Regardless, thought Kinoc, Shuyin was a lone individual, and there was minimal risk of him spreading the word about his unannounced return from the Farplane.
Looking forward to imminent discharge from his boss, Kinoc set off once more after acquiring fresh leads for his remaining recipients. With the deadline for his delivery days approaching its final twenty-four hours, it signified the event itself was but two days away.
Across the planet, talk of this secret event swiftly became the core point of conversation among its invitees. Some of the more ardent personalities were enthused by the prospect of a fighting display, whereas others embraced the idea of reunion. Among all, however, there were more questions than answers. Who was this organiser? How did he know about the Farplane and, stranger still, the interest many had in it?
Suspicions were beginning to grow, and that was all the more reason to attend.