Would-be Heroes

Pfeil, when he returns to the plaza, supposes it must be near to noon or early evening by now, although the sky looks rather the same as ever. The Exarch is waiting with his hands folded into a polite knot in front of him, looking as fetchingly demure as can be. He tilts his head with a touch of befuddlement as Pfeil approaches, still coming on fast and undoubtedly a little pink after his embarrassment in the Cabinet of Curiosity.

"Is everything quite alright, my friend?"

"It's fine," says Pfeil.

When he declines to elaborate, the Exarch nods. "I do hope your time with Moren was illuminating, in any case."


"Come, then, and we shall have our meeting presently."

He walks ahead of Pfeil in no particular rush, and there is little for Pfeil to do save follow. Together they enter a wide white-stone courtyard, yet again too bright for Pfeil's tender eyes and aching head, and approach the stairway to the Crystal Tower, a shock of impossible blue in a swimming world of parchment sky and violet foliage and red-and-white brick. Just as before, just as in his memories, the doors are solid as a gravestone.

"You may have noticed in the course of our discussions that there were scarce few details on the origin of the Crystal Tower," says the Exarch. "The structure is, in fact, the selfsame one you know from the Source, transported to the First in its entirety."

"You know, now that you mention it, I thought something was a little off."

This earns a huff of amusement from the Exarch. "Yes, well, you are certainly nothing if not astute." He clears his throat in a quick nervous spasm. "It was my first attempt at breaching the boundaries between worlds," he says, "something of a trial run for your eventual crossing. And although I do not know which era I tore it from, I do know that its arrival served to set the wheels of fate in motion."

"How do you know all this?" Pfeil frowns. "All this — this stuff about other worlds — how did you know what and who to summon to begin with?"

"That, I am afraid, is too long a tale to relay here and now." The Exarch's mouth has resolved into a taut line. "Perhaps another time."

Pfeil cannot stop his ears from twitching in suspicion and irritation — he's even worse than Urianger, Pfeil thinks, too obvious about keeping his secrets — but nonetheless he decides, charitably, to let the matter drop. "Fine, then."

"Your patience is dearly appreciated," says the Exarch. "There is, at least, the matter of your friends — that I can explicate with little trouble, preferably in the privacy of my quarters here in the tower."

"You can open the door?"

"Well, yes, of course. It can be opened and closed just like any other. Does that seem strange to you?"

"Well - what about Raha, then?" Pfeil hardly expected to find himself so anxious, but his stomach does cold-water flips in the pit of his belly, and his palms sweat. "Is he — did something happen to him? Did you see him?"

The Exarch takes quite a while to answer, bathing himself in a heavy and somber silence. "The Tower's doors opened to me without any trouble on its arrival," he says, slow and deliberate, "and I certainly did not encounter anyone by that name residing within when the tower passed into my care."

Pfeil thinks it is stupid and embarrassing to cry over something that happened five years hence, and he chews his lip until he tastes copper to preserve his dignity, stilling as best he can his ragged breaths.

"Is there something I should know?" The Exarch's voice is cautious.

"If you're going to keep your counsel, I'll keep mine."

"I see."

There is no reply for Pfeil to give. They stay like this for a moment, the pair, without anything left to say, and Pfeil does not know why he feels so injured when the Exarch does not press him, as if he is a bruise that only aches untouched. Whatever matter served to bring him here is lost, for the moment, in this injury, and in salt waves of roiling fear, thoughts of Raha's safe slumber cut cruelly short and his hopes for the Tower all scattered to the tide. Such a thing, Pfeil thinks, is not fair, and somehow perhaps it is his fault for letting him go.

In the end, it is the Exarch's voice that shakes him from this reverie, and for only a heartbeat it is a strange comfort. "I shall go on ahead if you like."

"No, it's fine." Pfeil flexes his shoulders a little, as if it will break up the ache inside his chest. "I'll come with you."

He nods, the Exarch, and turns to gesture to a guard stationed at the door, just as impassive as the edifice of its thick metal. Pressing on some unseen mechanism, the guard coaxes open doors that in Pfeil's memory have remained firmly shut for half a decade. If it is momentous to him — and it is, although a miserable sort of momentous — it is nothing to the Exarch, who strolls up the white stairway and into the Tower with all the casual ease afforded a king.

Inside is an only half-familiar sight; the Exarch has made the place feel less like a prison for Allag's sleepless ghosts in the time he has controlled it, although Pfeil has little time to examine what, precisely, he has changed. They take the stairway up together, a dizzying spiral marriage of blue and gold, until they arrive at the door to his study and enter, single file, one by one. Pfeil thinks the study is hardly any such thing; it is a bare round room with aether-blue walls, all faintly pulsing crystal that seems to live, although with bated breath. Beneath their feet, the floor is marked with a great gold-ringed darkness, patterned with gentle golden arcs and shining spots of blue like constellations, a night sky underfoot.

Directly across the room, embedded in the wall and accessible by a few short steps up, looms something strange; it is like a mirror, almost, although it only reflects a formlessly shimmering blue. There is a quiet power about it, and the force it projects makes Pfeil a touch uneasy.

"Welcome to the Ocular, my private study," says the Exarch, with a sweeping sort of gesture. "We can speak here without fear of being overheard."

"Thancred is here," Pfeil replies. "And the others — they must be here too, right? You told me the answer would be complicated, but —"

"Patience, please." The Exarch sighs. "Simply put, you are correct — indeed, your companions are here on the First, albeit with a…slight caveat. My intention had been to summon only you, but the art of reaching across worlds has proven exceedingly difficult to master. Thus it was that my fumbling hand closed upon those to whom your fate is most closely bound as well. As they were not the object of my summons, their transference was, well...incomplete." Another sigh. "Though they may appear to possess corporeal bodies, they are, in truth, merely spirits that one can see and touch."

"You dickhead! How'd you manage to fuck it up this badly?! I thought — everyone kept dropping into comas, one by one, and I — you — you fucking reckless asshole! What if they'd gotten hurt?! You'd better have a way to send them home!"

"I'm afraid not," says the Exarch, with no small amount of shame. "We spent every waking hour searching for a way to reverse the summoning, but our efforts met with scarce success. Although it is possible, albeit difficult, to arrange for your safe return, they, much as it grieves me, are stranded."

Pressure builds in Pfeil's chest again, and he holds back more tears, this time of frustration. "Where are they, then, if they're stuck here? Why can't I see them?"

"Again, I can only apologize. I am quite sure your companions would have appreciated a reunion, but circumstances as they are…well…suffice it to say, for the moment, that while they are here in the First, they are not here in the Crystarium. Nor in Lakeland, I should think."

Yet again Pfeil finds himself at a loss for words, and sure that if he speaks any more he will humiliate himself with tears anyway. He crosses his arms, mostly for something to do with himself, and wishes he'd simply disappear. His eyes fix on the floor, and the false stars stare back.

"When Urianger arrived, he shared with us a vision he had witnessed during his journey through the rift — a vision of the future, that which would one day come to pass." The Exarch's tone is somber again, quiet and severe. "In his vision of tomorrow, the First was rejoined with the Source. This collision of worlds brought about the Eighth Umbral Calamity, and the deaths of countless multitudes. Amongst those who perished, Urianger clearly saw the fall of the Scions' mightiest champion."

He cannot see the Exarch's eyes, when he looks up, nor read the expression on his face — for the second time, he is pinned beneath a weighty and inscrutable gaze.

"He watched you die."

Pfeil lets his arms fall to his sides, although he wishes he hadn't. There is some emotion the words provoke in him, but he cannot hope to name it, only to push it away — whatever it is, he mislikes it, something uncomfortable and inconvenient and grey. He wants to speak, but there is nothing to say.

"But hope is hardly lost. Armed with such knowledge did the Scions embrace their exile, and began searching this world for a means to forestall the coming catastrophe in yours," the Exarch continues. "Nor have their efforts been in vain, for it was they who finally established that the elimination of the sin eaters will indeed serve to prevent the Calamity."

"I'm sorry I shouted at you," Pfeil mumbles, because it is all he can manage.

"I can hardly blame you, under such circumstances as these," the Exarch replies. "All is more than forgiven. I can only hope I have proven worthy of your trust, even if only for the moment."

"I trust you." Pfeil takes a deep breath, hoping it will even him. "You've been nothing but kind. I have no reason not to."

"You will not come to regret that trust — this I promise you." The Exarch smiles. "But I'm sure you're weary. Come — I have taken the liberty of arranging for a room where you might find some comfort. Tomorrow, then, we shall see about preparing you for the road, that you might hear the tale from your comrades' lips."

"I'll go now, if I have to," Pfeil says. "If a Calamity is coming, we don't have time to waste."

"It will not come in your sleep, I assure you," says the Exarch. "Please, I insist. You need not make any decisions regarding your involvement until you are well-rested and certain of where you stand."

"I'm here to stop things like this. I don't need to think about it. It's what I'm for — I'll do whatever you say."

The Exarch frowns. "Then rest, Pfeil. Please. This is what I am telling you."

Of course, Pfeil is helpless to do anything but obey. He gives a mechanical nod, automatic, and the Exarch leads him from the Ocular silently, back down the spiral staircase and out through the courtyard, back through the aetheryte plaza and the markets. The journey is an indistinct mess of color and sound; Pfeil is not paying attention anymore. He is taken to a residential district of some kind, hidden behind a white bricked edifice — a seemingly endless series of adjoined apartments in red brick that stretch on far as he can see. A system of stairways connect the levels, difficult to map from where Pfeil stands. He is still feeling morose when the Exarch deigns to smile at him.

"Welcome to the Pendants," says the Exarch. "The Crystarium boasts a number of residential districts, of course, but I believe you will like it here. Should you have any concerns, you may refer them to the Manager of Suites." He nods toward a little kiosk, with a dark-haired Elezen — Elven, Pfeil reminds himself — man standing patiently behind.

"A pleasure to meet you, sir." The Manager inclines his head a touch in greeting.

Pfeil nods back, and hopes the Exarch will not have him make chit-chat; in his somewhat sour mood he is sure he will make a mess of it. Luckily the Exarch only lingers here a moment, and then he takes Pfeil up far too many flights of stairs. After only a day in the Crystarium, Pfeil is beginning to hate stairs; it seems a funny sort of punishment indeed to be put up on the top floor.

"I hope the location is not a problem," says the Exarch. "I thought perhaps a room without any neighbors above would provide you some better measure of peace."

"Thank you. It's not a problem at all." Quieter is certainly better, he must admit. In inn rooms he has inhabited before, the sounds of other guests on floors above have too often made him jump.

Seeming twice as hesitant as in the markets, the Exarch reaches out haltingly to touch Pfeil's shoulder. "Take all the time you need, and sleep well, my friend. I hope that peaceful dreams might attend your slumber."

There is a tender concern in the gesture that makes Pfeil nervous — guilty, perhaps, is the better word — and it is all he can do not to cringe away. He gives a weak nod and slips into the room.

It is too well appointed, Pfeil thinks, with its pretty red brick walls and warm light. There sits, when he enters, a dining table to his left with room enough for four, with a fully-stocked kitchenette nestled against the wall. To his right is a slightly raised bedroom area, with the bed tucked safely into the corner and obscured from his vision by a privacy screen. Little else in the area is obstructed; he can see a chest of drawers and a vanity, and a doorway he supposes must lead to a bathroom. Before him is a little sitting alcove with thick grape-velvet curtains drawn back to reveal a window. Knowing the Light will bring his migraine screeching back, he does not bother to open it.

As it turns out, he does not need to do so himself — something hits the window with a loud rap from outdoors, and a bright light rockets in and clatters to the floor without dignity. It resolves, gradually, into the shape of Feo Ul, clutching in their arms a journal twice their weight.

"There you are," says Feo Ul, as if they meant to crash-land at his feet. "What a funny mortal you are, keeping this tatty old thing!"

Pfeil kneels to take the journal and tuck it beneath his arm, and he takes Feo Ul with him, scooping them up in his palms soft as he can before depositing them on the dining table. "Thank you," he says. "Are you sure you're all right?"

Feo Ul only beams at him. "You've got quite a lot of apples in that bowl, haven't you," they say, and he is compelled to look — he hadn't noticed the bowl at first, nor the apples.

He takes one with the blushing pinkish hue of an early sunset and cuts away a slice with his hunting knife. He feels the jerky give of it under his thumb and a light spray of juice, hears the hiss of his knife against appleflesh, smells the sharp honey scent. "This one seems good," he tells Feo Ul, and gives them the slice.

"Such a dear and sweet little sapling!" The apple slice is comical in their hands, too cumbersome and heavy for its size. They take a bite, and he sees the stickiness cling to their cheek. Without another word, but with a hearty giggle, they take their reward and flit out from whence they came.

Pfeil takes a bite of the sticky-sweet apple himself, and feels a little pang of vindication when he tastes it, crisp and fresh. If he doesn't finish it, it will spoil and go to waste, but with the havoc his headache has played with his stomach he is not hungry; in the end, he only has the little nibble before setting down the apple and turning his attention to bed.

The Exarch has, it seems, left him a little gift. Folded up atop the duvet is a set of soft cotton sleep clothes, which Pfeil unfolds to inspect. The shirt is simple, short-sleeved and black, with a breast pocket embroidered with a sunny yellow chocobo; the pants are patterned with frolicking yellow chocobos to match. The feel of the cotton on his skin is excellent. Beside these sits a pair of plush black slippers, a stuffed chocobo, and a note.


Thank you very kindly for answering my summons. I hope the clothing I've chosen for you fits well and is to your liking; should you find it otherwise I am happy to replace whatever you need. There is a set of work clothes in the chest of drawers, some simple dailywear, and a few pairs of socks and smallclothes. You will also find there a set of leathers and armor, in the bottom drawer. I apologize that it is hardly much, but it is at least my hope it will be enough to see you through your travels.

Yours, the Crystal Exarch

The pit of guilt in his stomach only grows heavier — this is too much, too kind, more than he could possibly ask for or need, and in return he has been nothing but useless and combative and sullen. He bites the inside of his cheek, and he tries very intently not to cry, but without the fear of a bruised ego he cannot hold it back any longer — he falls to his knees and presses his face into the mattress and wails like a pathetic child.


The voice does not simply make Pfeil jump — he screams, turns around so fast he thinks he may be ill, fumbles at his hip for his hunting knife before realizing he's left it on the table.

The figure that spoke is little more than a roiling shadow, the vaguest impression of a person's form. It lifts its hands as if in apology, or surrender, and the clinging darkness fades to reveal a familiar countenance — fluffy, short brown hair, wide blue eyes, the scratchy suggestion of a beard, a face surprisingly soft of cheek even in all its masculinity.

"I know you," comes the voice, choked and shocked and overwhelmed. "You're the Warrior of Light from the Source. You can hear me?! Oh, gods, how long has it been?"

"I — I remember you," Pfeil replies. "I can hear you. I didn't forget you."

"All this time…"

"You're the Warrior of Darkness," says Pfeil. "What — what happened to you?"

"Ardbert," he says. "My real name is Ardbert. I used an alias on the Source — a daft one, looking back…" He shakes his head and runs a hand through his hair, all frenetic disbelief. "I'm sorry, it's been so long, I — the year! Tell me the year, if you can. How much time since we caused the Flood?"

"It's been a hundred years. I'm…sorry, for what it's worth."

"A hundred years...A hundred long years..." Again, Ardbert shakes his head. "The Flood was poised to swallow Norvrandt...Minfilia and my friends, they...they surrendered what little they had left to hold it back. Just faded away...leaving me to bear witness." His tone is low and desolate, and his hands, where he watches them, shake. "My hands find no purchase. My gestures catch no eye. And my pleas, be they whispered or screamed, reach not a single ear..."

"I can hear you," Pfeil repeats, trying to reassure, and he would stand and reach for Ardbert's hand if it were something he could touch any longer.

"No ear but yours, after all this time." Ardbert comes to sit beside him, and though he is no longer blood or flesh or bone, Pfeil hears the creak of his leathers and the clink of his plate. "I feel as if I've been walking forever... I hardly noticed when my mind and body began to fray at the edges. Then — bang! — my senses were sharp again. I felt like a fish being reeled in, and before I knew it, I found myself in this room. It's…strange."

"It is strange," Pfeil agrees.

"Why is it that you can see me? What are you even doing here, come to that?"

"The Exarch called me here to stop the next Calamity."

"Summoned to save the First?" He laughs, more than a little bitterly. "A waste of time. This world is beyond saving — like those who try to save it."

"I don't have a choice."

Ardbert exhales through his nose, long and quiet. Pfeil can't feel his breath, but he can imagine the heat of it, realer than real in his mind. "Well, I'll be watching, Warrior of Light." He gets to his feet again, standing with a bone-deep weariness. "But do me a favor: be careful out there. This world has had its fill of heroes."

With that, he is gone.

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