The Fall

Pfeil stands in a starfield, surrounded by afterimage lights that shimmer like broken glass. He feels a crystal pendulum in his head swing back and forth, rainbow flecks refracting on the inner walls of his skull; dizziness, bright confusion. There are rainbows in the shards of glass hanging around him in the black sky, the inside of his own skull, maybe. Why is he here, again? Why does he feel as though he is toppling over?

In the space of a moment the feeling of toppling over is toppling over in truth, and then it is plummeting. Wind whips at his hair, he is feet-over-head, glittering vertigo drags him down. Speech echoes around him, or memories do; they shimmer, and cut, like broken glass would. "Oh, do not look at me so" — it hurts, it hurts —

"We did everything right, everything that was asked of us, and still — still, it came to this!"

He reaches out for the agonized voice, the glimpse of pain on the man's face, that Warrior of Darkness with a long-forgotten name. The stranger slips by Pfeil's fingers, proof of another failure, another someone he squandered his chance to save. Pfeil feels his descent grow faster. His head throbs, and his brain rises to the level of his stomach like oil on water.

Bright light. Desert heat. A tidal wave that reflects the sun like twelve thousand mirrors and burns out his eyes; a woman holding it back, long blonde hair against a white dress, a familiar voice.

"Your time has not yet come."

He wants to call Minfilia's name, but darkness closes around him and she is gone.

What he feels next is the sureness of grass and hard-packed dirt beneath him, and the aching of every bone and muscle in his body. His spine is wedged into the flat of the ground and buried as thoroughly as an ancient potsherd from a long-forgotten kingdom; he has landed hard. Broken branches poke at him beneath the weight of his back like injured wings. His heartbeat is inside his brain, his brain is lodged in his chest, and his stomach is in his mouth. Brightness insinuates itself into the ache behind his temples. Cautiously, he raises an impact-drunk arm to shield his eyes from the brunt of the sun, and then he opens them.

Above him wheel no birds. He is greeted by purple foliage weakly swaying against a jaundiced sky, and there is nothing in his ears but the sound of the wind, emptiness on emptiness. There is a moment, or maybe a stretch of them, where he thinks the world is dead; certainly it would explain the sound of nothing and the corpse-colors taken on by the sky and flora, all bruise and decay and silence. It is just as likely he is dead, or in a dream, or something else. He sits up slowly, working against the maddened alcohol-pitching of his brain, and thinks it is unfair that he should have to go through this sober , too.

He tries to piece together the memory of how he has arrived here. He thinks hard on Mor Dhona. Tataru — that's right — had directed him to the Syrcus Trench to search for a beacon from which to call the missing Scions home. He had found a fragment of metal in the rubble at the foot of the Crystal Tower, some unfamiliar remnant of machinery stamped with the far more familiar orange of the Ironworks, and then he had been called to once again by that voice from somewhere far beyond. The memory is hazy like a hangover now. The venture was a success, at least, but he cannot help but think he mislikes the screaming headache that is his reward.

He pulls himself up on unsteady legs and begins to stumble forward blindly, driven by directionless instinct, something deep and animal. He clutches his head as he goes along, and hopes the world will not continue to pitch so much around him; the vertigo that seizes him now is relentless, an old friend of his gone thoroughly unloved over their long history. Only a few moments' wading through thick dizziness reveals to him a break in the bruise-colored trees and the vague shape of smoke over a pale fire, backed by the motion of warmth-lit feathers.

"Hello," he tries to call, although the greeting leaves his lips as little more than a groan. He pulls himself closer.

The man that turns around is a peddler of some sort, Pfeil guesses; the chocobo at his campsite is laden with bulging saddlebags and a heavy canvas pack, and the man's clothes are simple travelers' fare. His eyes crinkle pleasantly at the corners with age, and the grey-white of his chinstrap whiskers is stark against his skin; there is a familiarity in it and in the rest of the man's features, although surely to Pfeil he is a stranger. The strange peddler takes a drag from his pipe rather than preparing a quick answer; Pfeil's arm shoots out to hold him steady against a nearby tree.

"Rare to meet someone out here who's not a peddler himself," says the peddler, the dry smoke of his pipe curling from dry lips. "What brings you out into the wilds this time o' night?"

Pfeil's eyes flick up briefly to the sun-bright sky before settling on the peddler again. "Night?"

"Well, if it ain't the oldest joke in the book!" The peddler laughs at him, though not unkindly. "Me granddad — gods rest his soul — used to tell that one to the barman at kickin'-out time."

Pfeil cannot think of a good response. He lurches a little closer and takes a seat near the peddler's campfire, if only to remedy the wild spinning of his head, and tries not to groan. The peddler doesn't seem to care much that Pfeil has invited himself to stay and only takes another drag from the pipe. Pfeil suspects that, in the way of most old men, he is privately glad for the company, and gladder yet that the company is a son-aged lad ripe for the lecturing. At twenty-three summers, at least, he has grown old enough to appreciate this habit of old men rather than resent it.

"'And when, pray tell, did we last have a dark night? Ye rotten old drunk ye!' he'd reply. 'Over a hundred bleedin' years ago! That's when!'" The peddler laughs and takes a seat beside Pfeil, settling on the trunk of a felled sapling with an old man's weary-boned groan.

"What happened?"

"What happened?" The peddler knits his leathery brows together. "What d'you mean what happened?"

"To the sky."

"You feelin' all right, lad?" A rough hand reaches out to check the temperature of Pfeil's skin. Pfeil does not jerk his head away, if only because he knows the man means him no harm, and because such a quick movement will set him to swimming again and deprive him of what steadiness he has recovered.

Though he is not sure what signs the peddler is searching for, Pfeil can tell he isn't finding them to his liking. For many moments the scratchy back of the old man's hand presses against the flesh of Pfeil's forehead and the dark softness of his hair, and then he frowns.

"Ah…got to you, did they? Poor beggar. That explains it, then."

"It's just a headache," says Pfeil. He doesn't know who 'they' are, but thinks it will hardly prove his case to ask.

"'Course, lad." The peddler's tone is much less on the level now — he speaks as though humoring a child. He plants his hand at the top of Pfeil's head and ruffles the hair there, brushing the backs of Pfeil's ears. "Have a drink, why don't you?"

He picks up a heavy-looking bottle of wine by the neck and extends it to Pfeil, who refuses with a raised hand. As the peddler draws his hand away to drink, Pfeil catches the gleam of a large ring on his forefinger, set with a blue-green stone.

They sit in silence for some time, and the vertigo begins to withdraw. Pfeil probes his limits, turning his head slowly back and forth and side to side, before deciding he is well enough to stand. He gets to his feet cautiously, although the caution thankfully proves rather unwarranted.

"You'd best hurry along to the town nearby," says the peddler. "Just head east through the trees, and aim for the shining tower." Helpfully, he points eastward.

"What about you?" Pfeil watches the peddler stand and kick dirt over the campfire at their feet; the chocobo, well-trained, sees that its master is preparing to journey forth and approaches to be led by the bit. "It's not safe for you to travel alone, is it?"

The peddler laughs one more time, distinctly lacking in mirth. "You'd be better off worryin' for yourself."

Pfeil turns to look east. There is little to indicate a settlement on the horizon, but he is still enclosed by enough trees to obscure the view. It is too quiet here — the lack of wildlife-sound is graveyard eerie, and Pfeil is forced to admit he does not want to be parted from the peddler just yet.

"Go on, lad," says the peddler, with the child-humoring tone again. "They'll take good care of you at the Crystarium."

Pfeil, left with no other path to take, begins to walk east.

It is not long before the trees thin and a well-trod dirt path begins to resolve itself beneath his feet. Then he sees it on the horizon, unmistakable in its grandeur: the Crystal Tower, shining bright and aether-blue as the day is long, towering over the trees and hills like a watchful sovereign. Pfeil does not know where this place is, but it is decidedly not Mor Dhona, and thus the Crystal Tower has no business showing its face here.

Distant memories dig themselves up from the back of his skull and slowly distill themselves into clarity as he walks — bleeding knuckles against Allagan metal doors, the cold of impenetrable lonely steel. It had felt like a betrayal at the time, if not by G'raha Tia then by the world, and Pfeil regrets that it feels like nothing now, the memory long scabbed over by time. He does not think about it when he sees the tower in its proper place, but it does not insist upon itself there as it does here. Alone with his thoughts proves an unpleasant place to be in the face of such insistence. He is powerless to stop turning over the moment when the doors closed, and it frustrates him that he can remember the pain of loss far better than the sound of Raha's voice or the feel of their palms pressed together. All his memories are moth-eaten at the best of times, but his thoughts of Raha are so threadbare they are scarcely real to him anymore — even the love he felt is more fact recited from a history book than anything belonging to him now.

He is relieved to hear a woman's voice bid him halt; the world comes into focus again, and he finds that he has walked to a gated checkpoint near the town of which he was told. The woman stands in his way; she is a white-haired Viera, and naturally she towers in comparison to his meager height. She is flanked by others, and they share a uniform of chainmail and heavy red cloaks — city guard, he concludes, and raises his palms to show he means no harm.

The Viera woman steps closer. Pfeil thinks she is probably sizing him up and waiting for trouble — he would, too, if he were her; the black of his heavy clothes and the grit on his greatsword do not often make for the best of first impressions.

"Every face in this city I know," she tells him with a wary eye. "Yours, I do not."

"I wouldn't expect you to. I'm not from here."

She frowns at him — apparently this is not what he ought have said. "This is the threshold of the Crystarium, stranger, and I am its gatekeeper. If you would enter, you will answer my questions."

"Of course."

"From where do you hail?"


"Do you take me for a fool?" She crosses her arms. "No such place exists."

"But —"

"Had you given me an honest answer, I would not have barred your way — we care little here for a person's place of origin," she chides. "But instead, you chose concealment, and I will not suffer you to pass."

He opens his mouth to protest, but the guardswoman's hands snap to her tathlums before he can speak. His own hands rush to the hilt of his blade in kind, and he steels himself for the possibility of impact should he be too slow on the draw. She lunges forward, then past him, yalms back, and he turns to follow in confusion.

An animal is tracing the path he walked to the gate. He does not think it resembles any animal he has seen before — it looks to be made of something decidedly un-flesh, papier-maché or plaster, with skinny bird-limbs and an emaciated, concave chest; its gargoyle posture seems to stem from the weight of its eyeless horse-head. Its wings are an element so incongruous Pfeil struggles to connect them to the rest of the creature at first: pristine white feathers, well-formed and well-kept, perfect as an angel's. The guardswoman wastes no time in cutting it down, and it breaks into pieces under the blade of her tathlum, brittle and chalky. A blue-green ring stares at Pfeil from the pile of plaster dust.

"That one had eaten," remarks the guardswoman coolly. "It must have gulped down the whole hand, ring and all."

Pfeil shouldn't have let him go alone.

Footsteps from behind interrupt his train of thought. "Everything all right, Captain?"

The voice is so familiar that Pfeil whips around faster than is wise; his vertigo returns in force.

"Quite all right, my lord," the guard captain begins. "Just a sin eater —"


Pfeil has called out the word before he understands why — it leaps from his throat without his consent. He realizes once it is done that this stranger is the man who summoned him here; that voice could not have belonged to anyone else. His summoner is slight, clothed in softly-draped red-black-white robes with a heavy hood; much and more of his body seems to have been consumed by aether-blue crystal.

The hooded man stares at him silently for some time, crystalline jaw slightly agape. Pfeil cannot tell what he is thinking, and he struggles to read the expression, obscured as it is by cloth and shadow. His guesses leave him unhappy — heartbreak? Disappointment? Fear? It is an outsized emotion hardly befitting the situation, and Pfeil feels pinned underneath the weighty gaze.

"There you are." The stranger's voice is almost choked, but only for a moment — he schools it into glib ease so quickly it makes Pfeil's head spin. "I see you've met my guest. I will escort him to the Crystarium myself…if you've no objections?"

"Another of your mysterious friends, is it?" The guard captain shakes her head. "I should have known. Very well — I'll inform the others that your guest is to have the run of the city."

The guard captain leaves them, and the stranger steps closer to Pfeil. Somehow the gesture still seems restrained and distant. "Come with me. I will answer whatever questions you have when we are somewhere more private."

"Isn't this private enough?"

The stranger only shakes his head. He sets off toward the Crystarium, and Pfeil follows, tail lashing in irritation. He is cooking up a million questions in his head, and the pot is so crowded none of them are done inside; he cannot get anything out of his mouth until the stranger has stopped him just outside city limits and the point is moot anyway.

A warm smile graces the stranger's face. "Before we get into the wheres and wherefores, let me first thank you for answering my summons."

"I didn't have a choice." Pfeil doesn't mean for it to be cruel, only a statement of fact; it seems to hurt the stranger's feelings anyway.

"I — well, in any case, I thank you for your patience," the stranger stammers. "I had intended to bring you directly to my personal quarters, but I fear my aim —"

"Stop apologizing." Pfeil takes a deep breath. "I'm not — I'm not trying to be — just explain what's going on. Please."

"Right." The stranger sighs deeply in kind, as though it is hard information to deliver. "The realm in which you now find yourself belongs to one of the thirteen reflections, or shards — the First, to be precise — even if its inhabitants are largely oblivious to the fact. As to the wherefore…having been awarded the rather grandiose title of 'Crystal Exarch' —" he laughs here, with a certain self-deprecating humility — "I, in, ah, my capacity as caretaker of the Crystarium, thought to seek the aid of you and your companions."

"So the others are here?"

"Ah, that is…a question with no simple answer." The Exarch turns to look on the Crystarium, apparently too ashamed to look at Pfeil any longer. "All shall be revealed in due course, I promise you."

"I need to know what I'm getting into." Pfeil knows this is a lie. If the Scions are here, he only needs to do as he is bid — his purpose is to follow orders, not to think or decide. It is more that he wants to know; he does not like the feeling of being in the dark even if it changes nothing in the end.

"And you shall know, my friend — fear not." The Exarch gestures upward. "Let us begin with the glaring skies up above."

Pfeil places his hands on his hips and cranes his neck to look. The sky almost seems to look back. In its own way, it is almost beautiful, but it reeks of illness — distended clouds the color of old parchment roll in the distance as Pfeil takes in the sight, and as he looks the silence impresses itself upon him again — no birdsong, no animals, no life.

"Here in the First," says the Exarch," the world has been all but consumed by primordial Light."

"Gods," mutters Pfeil. "He said as much — the peddler. Not really. That something happened a hundred years ago, I mean, and then the sky was like this."

The Exarch nods. "He was correct. Someone you met in the wood, I take it."

"That's right." Pfeil looks back to the Exarch. "I tried to ask him more, but he thought I was delirious."

"It is the reaction I would expect," says the Exarch. "Most have never known a world without the Light. Fully nine tenths of this star was lost in the deluge — those few who survived are hounded by abominations born of that catastrophe even now."

"Sin eaters, the captain called them."

"Yes. It was to save the First from this menace — the one you have witnessed — that I learned to bridge the rift between worlds, that I might call upon the aid of the greatest of heroes."

Pfeil cannot help but give a little snort. "Well, then, I hope he's on his way."

Whatever wind had filled the Exarch's sails before seems to go horribly flat and stale. He is wearing the same look he wore at the gate, and Pfeil is no closer to understanding what it means.

"Of course I can fill in for him in the meantime," he says, as if another ill-conceived joke will remedy the damage he dealt with the first. "Let's…let's just get on with it."

The Exarch, apparently at a loss for any reply, simply nods and leads him to the city gates.


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