The Battle for the Old Guard Ranch

As watchful as we were, I still felt we might be missing something. Gangsters would not give up so easily.

We crested the highest mountain and looked over the lovely fallish landscape. The river flowed nearly at our feet, and the wooded hills loomed ahead. I had an idea: it couldn't hurt to collect more intelligence before pressing directly into possible battle.

"Vincent, why don't we check with the sleeping hermit? He may have been visited himself by the rustlers." Vincent first shook his head, then sighed
and smiled.

"If we don't, you will blame an ambush on me."

I smiled back and nodded enthusiastically. "Of course! And if we learn nothing, you can blame the delay on me. Anyway, it won't take more than a minute."

"Your breeziness is beginning to rub off, Josephine. It's sounds like a perfectly reasonable proposition to me."

He directed the massive black bird down toward the hidden cave. We had hardly dismounted when we could h
ear the sound of a person deeply and noisily asleep. The loud snoring always struck me as ludicrous. How could anyone sleep so much? More precisely, how could anyone possibly sleep while making all that racket? He was surely just putting on a show to lure in anyone who happened upon him.

Vincent touched him gently. The sleeper came instantly alert, automatically intoning one of his stock responses.

"C'mon. You just ran away from that last battle. Otherwise, you fought one
battle recently and won it."

I nudged him again, but he merely repeated himself. Somewhat miffed, my partner spoke in a tight, controlled tone.

"No. We didn't run; we just didn't fight. The gentleman left on his own accord."

The hermit cocked an eye at Vincent, and surprised us with a direct answer. "Escaped. Whatev
er. Call it what you like. Now leave me alone; I need to sleep." Well, that was the deal: one visit, one assertion. The sleeper returned to sawing wood and we wandered out of the cave. Didn't take more than a minute.

Visits with that guy were almost always rather unsatisfactory, although, very occasionally he would produce some little item of value for either healing or battling. Not that trip. I looked sheepishly at my partner.

"Okay. Nothing of use or interest here. Let's go to the Old Guard Corral."

Vincent nodded and helped me mount. This time he jumped up in front of me and we were off to the foothills outside of Junon. While it had been less than two days since our stay at the ranch, the woods were noticeably cooler. Soon t
he trees would go completely brown and the area would lose all its prettiness, at least for me. Don't exactly hate winter, just the bitter cold and apparent lack of life and color. I thought about the ocean beyond Junon. After all, the perennially sunny and warm beaches of Gold Coast waited on the other shore.

"Hey, Vincent, how do you want to cross the ocean?" He grunted; I already knew his answer, and he knew it.

phine, let's just use the ocean ferry. There is no real rush, and I see no reason to spend extra for an air ship or taxi." I smiled at his back; he might be trying to buy some extra time with me, away from the base. On the other hand, even a few days away from Aerith G felt like way too many.

"Don't be so cheap. I really want to be with the baby, the sooner the better. And I miss my dragons." I really did, too, even though the dragons were nearly forgotten until we rode through the woods. Esmerelda would have simply flown over the treetops and wouldn't have given the ocean a second thought. How would the Great Northern Blue handle all that
greenery, so foreign to his previous existence on the frozen continent?

Without the Gold chocobo, we would have to pay for passage, no matter how we traveled, even for the bird. A different tack was in order.

"Do you really want to subject this Black to a long voyage over the ocean? I w
ant him fresh for mating, or racing, or whatever."

"Josephine, you don't even know what you want to do yet. All in good time. Let's just take things as they come. After all, there are seaplanes and helicopters in Junon. We can decide later, or even call Cid for a lift."

"Right. First we check on the Cyans. C'mon, whatever-your-name-is! To the river and the wooded hills." Vincent began to chuckle, and I could feel the laughter rumbling through his chest.

"You see, little one? Has it never occurred to you to even ask? This is Bill's prize jewel, Onyx. He only reluctantly let me borrow him, and only be
cause his grandson Billy insisted. Glitter was stubbornly refusing to entertain his "blind date," and they wanted more time to let him settle down with her. You may have been correct about his brief romance with Jet. He may need to recharge his interest in the opposite sex. Ah, there's the river."

We could hear the rush of the wat
er. Summer had been very dry on the Eastern Continent, and rocks and driftwood were exposed and nearly impeded the flow. One didn't even need a Blue, or water-friendly, chocobo to cross.

took no notice at all of the water, not once stooping to take refreshment. He was still jazzed by our quick trip up and down the larger peaks, and was eager for more. There could be no doubt that he was the prize racer Billy was so proud of. I was touched to the heart that he would proffer his treasure, and made a mental note to call him with thanks as soon as was practical.

We crossed the river as if it were not even there, skimming it and barely rippling its surface. Onyx aimed for the trees.

s soon as we began to close in on the wooded hills, we could feel a change in the atmosphere. Even the bird tossed his beak in the air, sniffing and snorting.

"Vincent, can you get a whiff of that? Sort of an electric or ozone smell? Not a cloud in the sky! It's giving me a bad feeling." I hugged him even tighter and he spurred the bird to higher speeds.

"Me, too, my lady. Have your weapons ready. We are going straight to the corral."

ng birds have a way of streamlining their body for maximum speed, lowering the head and snugging in the wings. A rider will usually flatten against the bird, to also become more aerodynamic. On the other hand, a battle bird is trained to move about more erect, on the alert for enemies and danger. Vincent pulled the reins upward, causing the chocobo to crane its neck, even while racing towards the forest. It would be necessary to ditch Onyx before we joined battle; he was not hardened to the sound of gunshots.

The electric smell intensified, along with a feeling of dread, surely the scent of arriving too late. We began to hear screams and curses.

The rustlers had indeed struck again.

The Thick of Battle

Frankly, I couldn’t imagine that any of our friends from the Old Guard Corral would have such a filthy mouth. Whoever it was, however, sounded as if she were in the worst agony of her life. I poked Vincent in the back.

“Sounds like Aika is learning to use her new electric prod.”

“Woman, don’t jab me like that while riding. Onyx isn’t familiar with either of us and could misinterpret my reaction.

"And we can only hope you are right, and that the woman we hear is not our ally.”

"Don't worry. Aika would never use such language."

With an uncommittal grunt, he spurred the bird onward all the harder, just as we entered the edge of the woodland. We climbed the hillside, pushing past the smaller trees and underlying brush at the base of the Foothills. Then it was jostle left, scramble right, over and over, as our steed found his way through the thicket of the slope. When we crested the first hilltop, the sound of battle increased. At that point we heard a volley of gunshots, followed by the cries of panicky chocobos. Our own bird responded with a anxious barrage of rapid-fire warks. With that, I wondered if Onyx would allow us into the fighting arena. A high-strung racer could balk at the last minute, sending a rider over its head.

Vincent pushed even more, so the bird lowered his neck nearly to the ground, and we plowed into the clearing, right through the middle of the firefight.

I say “firefight” only because we passed through the very center of an acrid cloud of gunpowder smoke. Alarmed by the alien odor and noise, Onyx screamed and reared, dropping me to the ground, and leaving Vincent in sole control. He in turn pulled the bird back to earth and rode him screaming right into the stables. Two men immediately exited in a big enough hurry to run right into me, firing all the while, while I was still struggling to find some footing.

Unfortunately for all of us, the Glow had already ignited when I fell from Onyx. The two bad guys ricocheted off me like pinballs hitting a rubber bumper. Meanwhile, the cloud of smoke dissipated, and I could see that
other people were rushing me from different directions.

There was no time or room to notch an arrow, so I simply swung Yoichi as hard as I could around me, aiming for some of the un-friendliest mugs I’ve ever seen in my time on the road.

It almost shames me to admit that I love the thwack of a well placed hit, especially in the enemy's face. My opponents were surprised by the desperate measure, and screamed in
vective every time I connected. The air was turning blue with their profanity.

Don’t low-lifes know any other epithets for women besides the C-word? It disgusts me, and seems a little tiresome when used over and over, same as the F-bomb. Why turn something natural and pleasure-giving into a scatological swear?

“Time to come up with something new,” I thought wryly; we could have benefited from Desiree’s skillful oath building around there. Then I tossed out a taunt to anyone who could hear me.

“Hey, watch your mouth! There’s a lady present, I think.” I looked around for Aika, and found her on the decidedly safer outer side of a Pyramid Attack.
Her opponent was looking stupid, momentarily stopped by the electric field, and Duane was moving in for the kill with his shotgun. I wanted to shout some encouragement, but my own enemy attachment was pressing in. It was simply a matter of time or effort before they would break through the barrier of the Glow. I reached into my pocket for Quicksilver, the small handgun given me by Vincent.

Before I could even unlock the safety, I felt a smacking at the back
of my head and neck. It certainly wasn’t a mortal blow, but the wallop found its way through the field enough to knock me forward a bit.

Again? Was I always going to be so vulnerable from behind? What’s the use of a force-field that couldn’t protect my backside? With a growl of disgust, I swung around once more, this time pistol-whipping my attacker's jaw with the bottom of Quicksilver’s grip. He, too, screamed, gurgling through the gore collecting in his mouth, and lunged back at me, coming suddenly against the Glow.

There was such wide-eyed amazement on the bloodied face squashing itself against the field; I had to laugh: bitter, loud and unlady-like.

When I finished braying, I simply unlocked the safety and shot him in the heart, point blank. Easy pickings, and good th
ing, too. My protective field was being peppered by shots incoming from all directions, each one batting me backward, forward, or whatever, slapping me around and making it impossible to effectively react one way or another.

It seemed like no time had transpired before they had me at their mercy, using only sheer numbers, and rendering me completely impotent.

At that point, I could see no one, and concluded that they were shooting from cover. How many rustlers, of both sexes, were involved in that fight, we may never know. After the fact, we were able to recover enough intelligence to suggest more than one gang was involved, even in the initial attack. When Vincent and I arrived there seemed to be people everywhere, all bearing down on our three friends.

Aika and Duane later said they were ambushed as they brought out the birds for their late-morning exercises before lunch. If they had been attacked at the front of the house, they would have perished immediately, with their backs to their freshly-latched front door, execution-style. As it was, they merely ducked into the barn and retrieved their weapons from the armory behind the stalls. Two high level Yellow racing chocobos died in that first barrage, while Rocky Brantford frantically applied himself to securing the rest of the birds out back, before he re-emerged outside the entrance to the barn. He never stood a chance against the hidden snipers.

So, on our arrival the ground was littered with casualties. Rocky lay under the length of fencing closest to the house. There was no time for me to raise him before the attackers struck, but Vincent tossed a Phoenix Down over him as he re-oriented himself to battle.

He shouted hoarsely at the Cyans. “Ring your son. It's not too late. Call Sebastian!” Aika shouted back that she had summoned him as soon as the attack began.

Any time we compare our experiences of the fight for the Old Guard Ranch, Vincent always mentions that the Cyans were very much in control of their respective skirmishes. Apparently, we were the primary targets of the rustlers, who knew we would return to the ranch. No doubt our
adversary from El Francisco was responsible for that piece of information. Even during the worst moments of that fight, I kept that fellow in the back of my mind, hoping to repay the favor by personally handling his demise myself.

In no time, all firepower was directed at us, and the Cyans were able to see to their fallen comrade and birds. Then they both returned to the battle,
fully restocked and ready to finish the job.

By then, though, things were not looking too good. Vincent was picking off anyone foolish enough to expose him- or herself, but there were still many o
thers who were smart enough to remain hidden. We were just so badly outnumbered, and they were slowly closing in, leaving us just four able-bodied fighters with our backs to an open stable. One after the other, the Cyans fell, and even Vincent was taking hit after hit. I wondered if he could enter his limit break before it was too late, but it was not to be.

And me? I was protected by the Glow, and relatively unharmed. But I was addled by so many shots battering so constantly at me. The men were armed only with handguns and rifles, while one solid little woman was using a sort of launcher, but they soon guessed that I was not immortal.

Even as my partner was falling forward, the enemy began to show th
emselves. There were no fewer than a dozen of them, both men and women, all armed to the teeth and visibly carrying plenty of ammunition. By sheer force of numbers they could easily overpower me, now that Vincent was down.

My first instinct was to protect my friend and lover, and I moved over to him, engulfing him in the Glow. Then I faced the closest woman, drew my bow and spat out a challenge.

“Come along, then. See what you get.” She smiled and raised her weapon to fire at my fallen knight, not at me. It infuriated me that she would shoot him while
he was out, even though I knew he would likely not be harmed. I aimed for her trigger hand. Just then a new sound was coming to us from the trees.

Involuntarily, I paused to look back over my left shoulder. It was really just reflex: our assailants did the same. An unearthly shrieking and whistling was pouring in from over the woods, just beyond the roof of the chalet.

The sound steadily crescendoed, until the trees nearest us abruptly bent double with an oncoming shock wave. The woman looked up, her face
panic-stricken, gave out a long, high-pitched wail of a curse, then burst into super-hot flames, along with her nearby comrades. Who was using high level Fire magic?

Two seconds later, she was completely consumed, leaving only a spot of sm
oking dust. Even that was soon gone, blown across the ranch and into the surrounding woods by the next shock wave, and the arrival of our winged allies and a friendly voice.

“Esmerelda, drop me with Fini and Vincent!” Sebastian was soon standing next to us, passively taking hit after hit from the rustlers. He convulsed time after time, with no apparent ability to resist or escape. All I could think was, oh great, he’s going to die right in front of his mother. It would be necessary to leave Vincent in order to protect the young soldier.

Yet soon it was clear Sebastian was in full control.
He stood with his arms crossed, sporting a deliciously evil grin, welcoming the shots, and gloating at the enemy's effort to destroy him. For their part, the closest criminals were moving in, reloading and hee-hawing at his foolhardiness. However, it wasn't Sebastian's voice that boomed out from the glowing/dissolving soldier. Except for language itself, there was no humanity left.

“Come on, boys and girls! I’m just about ready for you.” One last thunderous rumble of laughter, and our friend had begun to glow
, first the spear he called Moonshard, then his entire body. Unlike that first time in the basement of the Shinra Mansion, this metamorphosis was almost immediate, as if through their cognizant cooperation, the Spirit of the spear and the human Sebastian were able to speed the transformation. In just a few seconds, they were a brightly-burning, super-heated blue spirit, almost too bright to see. My Glow was of much lower wattage by comparison, and I felt sort of jealous of the battle god.

At the same time, Esmerelda had shot straight up over the corral and then slowly lowered herself just behind the split-rail fencing. All the men on that side of the ranch began to fire on her, and she shreiked, spewing flames at them in her fury, wh
ile Kulloden, her rider, dismounted and immediately ducked with her shotgun into the stables, exposing herself only to check on the Cyans.

At every dragon scream, another rustler glowed and burned away in short order. Our glittering green ally was increasingly agitated and looking all around. Then she craned her neck up and over, looking back our way.

Or rather, over our heads at the trees above.
Before us, in the very middle of the ranch, Burning Blue was preparing to attack, gathering energy from all around, and forming fireballs. All the while, he laughed maniacally, reveling in the freedom allotted him. Then he pointed to the small crowd attacking Esmerelda and they were instantly consumed in a blinding sphere of blue light.

Even in the rain of bullets and larger projectiles, my green girlfriend still ignored her surrounding enemies. Restlessly swinging her neck to and fro, she watched the trees, where now another unbearably high-pitched sound was working its way through the woods. Beyond the chalet, the forest was slowly disgorging humans, as they came running to escape the painful sound. Overhead, a new shock wave was bending the treetops, this time covering them in a frosty rime that spilled over into the clearing. The men who had not yet exited were frozen in the border thicket, immobile ice sculptures, hands clutching their heads.

Even within the Glow I could feel the instant chill caused by very high level Ice magic, brought in on a frigid hurricane, a veritable blizzard. Then the enormous Great Blue Lindworm came to rest atop the canopy of the nearby woods, bellowing from the very depth of his being.

Buddy did not choose to descend from the newly-silvered canopy. Instead, two of his riders dropped into the treetops and through the branches onto the forest floor. First the time mage Adrianna lit gracefully, her military cape flowing gently around her, alert dignity personified; then a fully armored Ken Woods was at her side in an instant, dropping heavily with his huge sword in hand, allowing it to plant itself in the earth. He turned to the mage and signed that she should take cover in the trees, and so she remained directly under Buddy, surveying the battle conditions, all the while aiming her staff and chanting spells. Soon the majority of the nearby rustlers were moving perceptively slower, making for easy targets unable to cope with Ken’s rapidly slashing broadsword.

And still the ear-stabbing whistle continued, rising and falling like the skirl of a bagpipe, at once both mournful and appallingly shrill. By then, everyone, even those engaged in hand-to-hand melees, cast at least an occasional glance towards the trees southeast of the chalet. Some thing was surely coming, getting excruciatingly louder as it approached the ranch. The sound was maddening even to me, painful and oppressive, an exaggerated confusion of high-pitched tones that I not only heard, but felt, deep inside my skull, rattling my teeth. I felt sick to my stomach, and my battle dragon, too, was reacting with obvious distress.

Without warning, Esmerelda lifted from the middle of the corral, fluidly spiraling into her now-familiar barrel-roll, and pierced the trees and brush right next to Adrianna. The time mage was holding her hands over her ears, but was otherwise unperturbed by the sound or the action of our Lesser Green. As soon as the dragon was out of sight, swallowed by the trees and brush, the piercing sirens stopped, and the entire area went silent. Then the cursing started again, only this time in almost reverent, low tones.

Adrianna continued to look into the forest, peering between the trees, with her back to the ranch. From where I stood with Vincent, I could not make out anything, but here and there, another badly wounded man or woman rushed from the woods, with their hands covering their heads. Their comrades left us to join them.

“Adrianna, get back behind the trees!” Ken roared as soon as he saw what was happening, but his warning came too late. The time mage dropped into the deep grass and was out of sight, shot at close range. The soldier let out an anguished howl and charged the nearest gangster, running her right through, on his way to save our friend. He then ran over to where Adrianna had fallen and covered her with his body.
Oblivious to all else around him, he peeled away his kabuto, his bulky samurai helmet, and began tending her wound. At the same time, the rustlers concentrated their efforts on eliminating him while he worked to heal her.

One final dragon rider dropped through the canopy overhead. An electrified whip struck and wrapped around the bole of the tree closest to where Ken tended our time mage, showering sparks over the two. Then Desiree Sunset swung down through the branches, cleanly missing the forest floor, while barely skimming the grass. She plowed directly into the criminals as they bore down on our allies. Shreiking like a wounded lynx, she lit into anyone within reach, starting with a haymaker to the sternum and finishing by slashing the throat of the unfortunate before he or she could recover from the first.

In quick succession, she took out three then and there, leaving them to bleed to death in her wake, their necks mangled by her razored claw. The remaining two fell back to aim their weapons, but Desiree, too, backed up just far enough to collect her treasured Kitty. In one flip of her wrist, she raised the sparking weapon over her head and snapped it onto the closest attacker, catching his rifle and effectively electrocuting him. He dropped to his knees, but his hands were too burnt to break his fall, and he finished flat out on his face.

The fallen man's companion, in turn, backed away to draw a bead with a small launcher, but not quick enough to stop the Kitty Whip. This instance, however, Desiree simply snapped the woman towards her and tore at her neck in one vicious swipe. The victim dropped to the earth in a fog of blood droplets.

In the meantime, it seemed to me that the Burning Blue god was keeping the center ring of that circus all to himself. He was the hub around which short bursts of bluish-white removed our adversaries one by one, highlighting them like the flash of a camera in dim light. His taste for killing, coupled with his obvious glee, ensured that anyone unlucky enough to become his target was quickly eliminated.

Since the Cyans rejoined the fight, they had simply used the same tactics as the rustlers, hiding and sniping with Kulloden watching their backs. By then, there were so few left of the enemy, I felt I could take the time to check again on Vincent. A quick rummage through his pockets did not produce the necessary Phoenix Down, so I cuddled against his side and proceeded to heal him myself.

Once again I became a target for the remaining crooks, but my main concern was to stabilize my baby’s father. He should have been protected by the Glow, but so late in the battle, I wasn’t sure just how safe I myself was, let alone my patient. I looked up just in time to see a woman rushing us with a matched pair of nasty looking daggers, followed by our old acquaintance from El Francisco. At that point I was spent, too tired to multitask. I flattened myself on top of Vincent, and simply stared at the woman, willing her to die, if only that were possible.

For a second time that afternoon, an assailant simply burst into a blinding crimson, self-consuming fireball. This one never lost her look of murderous purpose, and never uttered a sound. The man from the café stared a moment at the greasy powdery residue that remained, and then looked beyond me into the trees, his jaw slack. With my hand still touching Vincent's
cheek, I followed the enemy's astounded gaze. There, beyond Ken, Adrianna and Desiree, was a very small, sparkly green dragon, reined in and ridden by a sourly disapproving Sheol. She rolled her eyes at me and seemed to be scolding the little lizard, leaning on his neck, and whispering at the area where, I suppose, dragons hide their ears.

They were followed by Esmerelda, who was nudging her son, herding him with her nose towards the clearing. As soon as she saw Vincent and me, she lifted off the ground and flew right over to us, settling herself face to face with the remaining rustler.

He was their last man standing. If any other gangsters had survived the battle, they had wisely chosen to leave with their lives. Aika and Duane were poking around, into any likely hiding place, while Sebastian had returned to his usual self, covering the gangster with Moon Shard. I immediately growled into his face.

“Don’t kill him. He’s mine." Yet, I wondered why Esmerelda had not wiped the scumsucker off the face of the clearing when she incinerated the other. The words of Lady Kameko sounded in my ears. A dragon doesn't read one's thoughts; it reads the person. That would be his or her very soul.

“Geez, Esmerelda, remind me not to get you angry at me!” I joked at my girlfriend. "What made you spare this bastard?" The answer was partly clear already; he stood unarmed, and I had not seen him lift a weapon during the entire engagement. If he had struck at the ranchers, he did not fire on me; nor did he make any movement to harm me or protect himself. Never mind, there would be plenty of time for his reckoning. He was well guarded. I turned away from him and tended my partner.

My sight was soon completely blurred with tears and I wiped them away surreptitiously, hoping no one would notice. Vincent was beginning to stir and I was feeling giddy from the almost overwhelming relief. As usual, he peevishly pushed me away as soon as he was physically able. He then slowly rose to his feet, and steadied himself against my shoulder, being careful not to touch my flesh with his.

We all looked around, taking stock of the well-being of our allies, and noting with grim approval the mess that used to be our assailants. Our losses, too, were just unfolding.

Rocky Brantford never recovered from the point-blank gunshot that had taken him out of the initial attack. Both Aika and Duane knelt on either side of him, cradling his head and smoothing his blond curls. They were sobbing openly; there could be no remedy for a direct hit to the heart and lungs. The multitude of entry marks left by steel shot riddled his chest and neck. We did what we could to make him comfortable, and ensured he would not die alone. I saluted the fallen wrangler, then left them to their goodbyes.

Vincent, Kulloden and Sebastian had already moved to the edge of the woods to check on the young soldiers. All of our Nibelheim allies were hidden behind the Lesser Green Dragon. Rather than push past her, I picked my way around, looking up into the treetops for Buddy. Like a huge dirigible or airship, he was slowly sinking to the forest floor next to Esmerelda, emitting an alien whine, sort of a low, melancholy dirge. My dragon, also gently keening, leaned into his snaky neck. He returned her caress, never ceasing his mourning-song.

A very subdued Sheol had dismounted and stood holding Spike by his collar, slowly petting his head. The baby was whinnying and squeaking like a hatchling: he, too, sorrowed. Expecting the worst, I began to push my way into the circle of young people.

Flanked by Vincent and Desiree, Adrianna sat in the dirt, rocking and moaning. She held Ken's head on her lap against her midsection, stroking his hair and murmuring all the while. She fairly bathed his face in kisses and tears, her words coming soft and slow.

"Ken, don't go. I'm sorry, Ken. Please don't leave us." Alarmed, I shoved past the others and dropped to the grass.

"Adrianna! What happened?" She turned her eyes, red and swollen, upwards to the dragons, then to me. She cried aloud once, then choked out something completely incoherent, stopped and composed herself with great difficulty, and tried again.

"I knew he was right, but I wouldn't listen. We can't allow both parents into any battle. He took all those bullets to protect us." She took Ken's lifeless hand and placed it gently against her abdomen.

"Us? Adrianna!" Nothing more would come out. I reached for the fallen man's pulse, but his neck was already cold, unresponsive to my touch. I could impart no cure; there was no life left to raise.

We can slow time. We can even stop immediate local time, but we cannot reverse it. We didn't need Adrianna to explain that to us. Our many restorative items are very limited, especially in dire situations. We need to be there immediately for them to be any use; they work through the natural processes of the afflicted. There must be some spark to target.

Even with my enhanced abilities, there are injuries I cannot heal, especially where the heart and brain are concerned. What's more, bullets, broadheads, and other projectiles must be dislodged in time to repair damaged flesh and organs. Most of all, none of us can replace lost blood and tissue without a waiting reserve. Finally, some battles are simply too long to allow us to intervene effectively. Ken was lost to us, especially to Adrianna and their baby; he had raised and cured her with the very items that might have helped him if used in time.

The Great Blue Dragon continued to howl at the side of his lost friend. In grim silence, we lashed the gangster from El Francisco to the fence, and proceeded to return our fallen heroes to the Planet.

We watched in hushed reverence as two humans and two chocobos were destructed to their original stardust. Vincent ceremoniously picked up Ken's huge broadsword and presented it to Adrianna. She accepted it with a brave smile, then closed her eyes and wailed to the skies, holding the heavy weapon with both arms against her belly. We could only lower our heads and wait out her mournful crying.

And then our loss compounded: Sebastian and Kulloden decided they would remain with the Cyans. His disheartened parents needed both the protection and the extra work hands on the Old Guard.

When Duty Hurts

Aika and Duane both needed to make preparations to travel southeast of Junon, where Rocky's people lived. He had been called away without warning, so his parents would know that there had been danger. Still, the Cyans dreaded telling them their son was gone. Furthermore, Rocky's lover, also a sometime wrangler, would also need to be notified. It had been years since Shinra terrorized the area, and most people would not be expecting such dire news.

That left Ken's parents, who at least knew their boy was a warrior.
Adrianna had already met his family via PHS. They, too, were woodland folk like the Cyans, living further out in the plains, nearer to Fort Condor in the southwest. It was important to her to deliver the tragic news by herself. Such cold resolve took my breath away, and I voiced my outrage.

"You are going nowhere alone!" It didn't seem too difficult to understand. We had already suffered a casualty. But the Time Mage was insistent.

"This is my duty; I owe it to Ken's family. And they need to know that I carry their grandchild." Her voice cracked as she said it,while her hand moved instinctively to cover the slight swelling at her waist. Desiree moved to her side, and took her hands into her own.

"Kid, the commander is right; you can't go by yourself. We can do this together. Buddy and I get along just fine now, and you have to slow down and do what you need to protect Ken's baby. Our baby. The child belongs to all of us now, right?" Adrianna nodded, dripping tears from her bright blue eyes, then smiled and thanked her childhood friend with a hug.

Vincent and I would return with Sheol and the two Green dragons to Nibelheim, where we knew we must report to Walter and Hildegarde. Procedure had not be properly followed: pregnant women had taken part in battle with their mates. Daiki Woods, our Ken, had died as a direct result.

A very untrained dragonlet and his rider did not belong in battle, either. The horrific, debilitating sounds we heard were Spike's caterwauling at being left behind. He was not disciplined enough to enter battle, preferring to shake off Sheol to follow his mother. For her part, she simply clasped her hands around his now properly snaky neck, and hung on for the ride. She reported that after a short while he began to create the field that adhered her to him. And, yes, the trip overseas had been his very first unassisted flight!

The thrill of the ride had been tempered by her frustration at him; he would not obey her commands, mindlessly crying for his mother, a sound that only increased when Esmerelda moved out of sight through the woods. Not daring to loose her grip on the baby lindworm, Sheol was left to listen to his awful sirens until Esmerelda rejoined them. Both mother and squire were greatly displeased with their little charge.

So we did not look forward to our arrival home. Everyone would have to answer to the inquiry into the Battle for the Old Guard Ranch. That would include two pregnant women in a firefight, although Sebastian and Kulloden were no longer a part of Nibelheim's militia, and were now immune to censure.

On the brighter side, we now had a dragon--no, two dragons--to take us over the ocean! Onyx could be left at the Old Guard, and would be returned to Billy in due time. They could begin to make preparations for shared services and other cooperative enterprises. The ranch was now richer by two seasoned breeders who were also fairly experienced soldiers. Our little world was that much closer to enjoying Chocobo Wrestling.

For my part, I had had enough of travel and battle. It was time to return to my baby and our little domestic haven in the Keep. Some wonderful food and wines could help ease the pain of our losses, although Adrianna would practice temperance to safeguard her unborn baby. Her pain would have to be healed by time. I wondered if there weren't some trick that could ease her suffering, once we were safely home.

Vincent assured me that autumn in Nibelheim was a time not to be missed. We could look forward to the winding down of the harvest and the colorful beauty of fall in the valley.

We agreed that we certainly could use some peace and quiet, in our sleepy little hamlet.

I can be such a gullible fool around Vincent.