8. A Chance Encounter

The group stood in the cockpit of the Dreadnaught once more, staring once again at the golden armored figure that was Judge Ghis. He tapped his helmet, almost in impatience, before he turned to the group. Only the Lucian men were shackled, with no cause of explanation.

"Such a tremendous honor to again be graced with your presence, Majesty." Ghis smiled snidely. "You left us with such great dispatch upon our last encounter that I must confess that I had begun to worry that we may have given some cause for offense."

"Such a heart-felt display of remorse…" Ashe growled. "Why have you bound the Lucians? Release them! They've no cause in this!"

"I am afraid Her Majesty is mistaken." Ghis shook his head. "Master Ignis was instructed under my care by Lord Larsa's command. The other three are now considered accomplises of your capture, therefoure, all four must be brought to the seat of the Empire for questioning."

"Say what?" Glaido blinked.

"Well…this sucks." Prompto sighed.

Ignis stepped forward. "If I was instructed to be under your watch by this 'Larsa,' then certainly my words carry enough weight for your heed?" Ignis glared at the judge as he spoke.

"I'm afraid not, Master Ignis." Ghis shook his head. "You see, although I am heartened to see you well, you are also under consideration for Her Majesty's kidnapping. Your diplomatic immunity is but a fleeting wish at this current state. Such a shame." Ignis grit his teeth at the sudden twist of how these events were being played by this empire. Their cheeky ways of arresting and obtaining who they wished seemed very much like the Nifilheim Empire on Eos.

"Then, what is it you want?" Ashe hissed.

"I want you to give me the Nethicite." Ghis stepped closer to the group.

"The nethicite?" Penelo hid the stone that Larsa had given her behind her back.

"That is a base imitation!" Ghis scoffed. "We seek Raithwall's Legacy! The ancient relics of the Dynast King: Deifacted Nethicite!" Ghis's angery expression turned to one of slyness and cuning as he turned to Vossler. "Did you not tell them, Captain Azales?"

A gasp was heard from Ashe, Basch, and the Lucains as they all turned to Vossler. He walked up to Ashe with a stern expression on his beared face. "Majesty, he speaks of the Dawn Shard. That is the nethicite."

"Are you mad, Vossler?!" Basch exclaimed.

"You son of a bitch!" Enraged, Noctis tried to charge forward but the soldiers around them held him back.

"If we are to save Dalmasca we must accept the truth!" Vossler spoke to Basch. "I will fight this profitless battle no more!"

"Captain Azales has struck a wise bargin." Ghis chimed in. "In return for the Dawn Shard and the four strangers, the Empire will permit Lady Ashe to reclaim her throne, and the Kingdom of Dalmasca will be restored." He staired at the group, while the Lucians looked back in anger. "Think on it: an Entire Kingdom for a stone and four lesser men. You must admit, 'tis more than a fair exchange."

"And when all is said and done, your Master will have another pet." Balthier spoke slyly, having no fear of the judge's threats. The Judge, however, did not seem amused, nor impressed, by the pirate's outburst.

"Lady Ashe, let us take him for the people of Dalmasca. You Majesty wallows in indecisioun on peril of their heads!" Ghis drew his sword and swung it toward the pirate but stopped his swing just enough to lightly touch the pirate's neck. "And his shall be the first to fall."

"Well, at least your sword is to the point!" Balthier spat, again showing no fear.

Ashe stepped forward and relinquished the stone. As she did so, she turned to Noctis and his friends. "I am sorry…"

Noctis shook his head. "You do what you must for your people…" Ignis smiled at Noctis's words of kingship. He nodded to Ashe as did Gladio and Prompto, though the blonde was hesitant.

"To think, the relics of the Dynast King were Deifacted Nethicite!" Ghis exclaimed. "Dr. Cid will be beside himself when he learns of their connection."

"What did you say?!" Balthier hissed.

"Captain Azelas, take them to Shiva." Ghis ordered, ignoring the pirate as he examined the stone. "They should have leave to return to Rabenastre soon."

"And the Lucains?" asked Vossler.

"Take them as well." He ordered. "Return Lady Ashe then depart for Archades. Dr. Cid will be expecting them."

The soldiers pushed the prisoners through the Leviathan until they came to another Atamos model ship. The smaller ship took them to a giant cruiser Noctis assumed was Shiva, finding the names of these ships quite the coincidence being named after the Astral Gods of Eos.

"I wonder if there is a connection." Ignis whispered.

"What?" Noctis looked to his advisor.

"Ghis mentioned a connection with the Deifacted Nethicite." Ignis answered. "If we are to be taken to this Dr. Cid, perhaps he knows of a connection between us and these stones."

"Meaning?" asked Gladio.

"The Nethicite may, indeed, be our ticket home." Ignis said plainly.

"Well, that's great!" huffed Prompto. "The only problem is, there were three of them and the Empire has all three of them!"

"Keep it down, Prompto!" Vossler ordered. "I will not hesitate to silence you should you have another outburst!"

"Bastard." Prompto muttered under his breath. "What could he be thinking siding with the Empire like that?"

"When one feels cornered…" Ignis began. "One's own actions become unpradicatble, even to himself."

"Don't know what all this has to do with us." Gladio shrugged.

"I guess we'll find out." Noctis sighed. "Sounds like they're taking us straight into the Empire." He turned to Ashe as their ship docked within Shiva. Her face was solumn for one who was promised the return of her Royal liniage. As they all filed out of the ship, Noctis could not help but overhear a conversation between Vossler and the Queen of Dalmasca.

"When we return to Dalmasca," Vossler began. "We can announce that you are alive and well. I will, then, continue our negotiations with the Empire. I believe Larsa is the key. He will listen to us. We should trust him."

Ashe turned sharply to the traitor at these words, villed with venom they were to her ears. "Who are you, Vossler, to talk of trust?!" She turned her had sharply back to the front and continued onward.

Vossler could only sigh at the situation. "…A son of Dalmasca…"

As they continued on toward the door, there was a gasp from behind Ashe. She turned to find both Fran and Ignis stricken with a sense of dread.

"What's up, Iggy?" asked Gladio.

"I-I do not know…" Ignis looked up in the same direction as Fran. "I feel…heat."

"Fran?" Penelo asked as Fran's breathing became more and more exhasperated.

"Such heat!" she cried. "The Mist…it's burning!"

Both she and Ignis crumbled to the iron clad floor, writhing in this burning sensation. Noct and the others could also feel the heat rising within them but Ignis seemed far more suseptable to this exposure. A soldier shoved Noctis and Prompto aside to grab Ignis by his back collar in order to lift him to his feet. With much reluctance, Ignis gave in, however, the soldier attempting to hold Fran suffered a worse fate.

"You! Stand!" He ordered. He reached for her silvery-white hair but was suddenly thrown back toward Vossler.

"Hold her down!" Vossler cried.

Her breathing was now slowed but more violent. Balthier stared at his partner with curiosity, but hid his greater worry for her. She suddenly broke out of her iron bonds with a mighty bellow and proceeded a ferocious attack on the guards around them.

"What's wrong with her?!" Penelo asked Balthier after he freed himself from picking the lock.

"I always knew Fran didn't take well to being tied up." Balther stepped aside casually as the body of a soldier was thrown in his direction. "I just never knew how much." He turned to the Queen. "How about you?"

"I like Fran's idea." Ashe relinquished her wrists so that Balthier could free her. Penelo and Vaan raced to free the Lucians after Fran freed Ignis from his guard. He collapsed to the floor, his wrists still bound.

"Specs!" Noctis tried to lift him up but the Mist surrounding his advisor was thick and warm. Was this what Fran was experiencing? If it was, then, why was he not flying into a fit of rage? Apparently, he was biding his time. Vossler raced over to grab Noctis in order to flee with him, but Ignis readied a fire spell that blasted the captain far from the King. With an expression of anger that none of his friends had ever seen before, Ignis slowly arose to his feet.

"You'll lay naught a hand on my King!" Ignis hissed through gritted teeth.

"Specs!" Noctis slapped both of his hands on either of Ignis's shoulders. "Snap out of it! This isn't like you!"

"Get away, Noct!" Gladio pulled him away. "We don't know what's happening!"

These words suddenly seemed to snap Ignis back to reality as he shook his head and collapsed to one knee. "What was…" He looked to Vossler who slowly stood back up, the armor plating still glowing red from the heat of Ignis's fireball.

"You okay, Ignis?" asked Prompto. "You looked incredibly pissed all of a sudden."

"Did I?" Ignis thought back. "All I could see was red…and Mist…the stone. They're running tests on the Dawn Shard!"

"Is that all?" Gladio huffed. "That's not so bad."

"Wrong!" Ignis stood. "Lady Ashe! We must leave this place now!"

"Agreed!" Ashe turned to see Balthier grab a calmed and weary Fran. With a nod from him, the group made back for their ship but Vossler blocked their path.

"Stop. Sky Pirates!" Vossler growled. "Dalmasca's future will not be stolen!"

"Open your eyes, Vossler!" Prompto begged. "You're on the wrong side! Just give Ashe a chance to-"

"Enough!" Vossler charged at the blonde but Basch was quick to deflect his attack.

"Why do this, Basch?" Vossler growled. "The struggle is futile! You must know where it leads!"

"I do know…" Basch smiled. "All too well."

Vossler began the engagement with another mighty swing of his giant sword, but Basch quickly dodged out of the way. He retaliated with a swing of his Order blade but Vossler used a similar tactic. Noctis, noticing Basch's plight, handed Ignis over to Prompto and charged in to help Vossler. Reaching deep within himself, Noctis successfully summoned his Engine blade and joined the fray. Together, Noctis and Basch were able to bring down Vossler while Ashe, Gladio, and Vaan managed to disbatch the backup soldiers that had rushed in from the commotion. Vossler, at last, knelt before Basch as the rest of the group raced past them to the airship. Balthier turned to Ashe who also looked upon Vossler.

"Ashe!" he cried out with Fran hanging from him. "Let's go!"

Gladio carried Ignis away in a similar fashion as the four hobbled to the airship.

"All I have done…" Vossler squinted his eyes from the pain. "I've ever thought of…Dalmasca first."

"I know you do." Basch answered. "I would ne'er gainsay your loyalty."

"Look on what my haste has wrought." Vossler shook his head as he doubled over. "Did I act too quick? Or, was your return too late?" Basch looked upon his old friend, no answer coming to his tongue. "I can serve her no more…" Vossler finaly stated, stinging Basch with sympathy. "You must take up my charge…" With no more words to exchange with his friend, Basch quickly turned back and raced to the airship.

Balthier did his best to pilate the ship and dodge the fire from the other fighters. Many of them doubled back to trail them but as soon as they did, Ignis's eyes opened wide. "It is done." He muttered.

An explosion of unknown comparisoun began from the center of the Leviathan. It seemed to pull the ship into its core, piece by piece. When almost a third of the ship was absorbed, there was a violent burst of Mist that created a giant destructive wave. Shiva was disintegrated as were the smaller ships all around the fleet. As Balthier fought the turbulence, Ashe could not help but feel a presence calling out to her.

"This might get a little dicey!" Balthier warned as he fought the Mist surrounding them.

"The Mist…" Fran huffed behind his seat. "It manifests, now."

"Is that what you call this?!" Vaan exclaimed as he fought to keep himself steady. Prompto and Ignis were seated as he slowly came back to normal. Noctis noticed Ashe looking out the window along with Penelo.

"What's that?" Penelo asked. All three could see a glowing ball falling to the swampy land below.

"I think it's the Dawn Shard!" Ashe exclaimed.

"Then, what are we waiting for?" Balthier steered the ship out of harms way and followed the stone to the swamp below. The group slowly filed out and began their search for where the Dawn Shard had landed. Ignis and Gladio stayed behind with Fran and Basch as the search continued. After many hours of searching, Ashe finally reclaimed the now dulled Dawn Shard. They clambered onto the airship and made for the Royal City of Rabinastre for a long rest and to plan their next move; whose goal Ashe determined to keep secret until the time was right.

That first night back in Rabenastre, Vaan and Penelo had told the group of an old house that Magello used to store extra wears and sundries. Most of the group stayed there, avoiding the public eye and definatly hiding Ashe's identity. To unveil her now would destroy any Resistance efforts built by Ondore and those who allied with him.

Due to the lack of room, Ignis and Gladio stayed in the extra warehouse while Noct and Prompto stayed with Vaan, Penelo, and the other orphaned children under Magello's loving care. While they stayed, Penelo had approached Prompto and Noctis with a thought.

"Do you remember what Ignis's shirt used to look like?" she asked as she poured over different fabrics that she had acquired over the years to repair the other children's cloaths.

"I think it was silk or satin." Prompto looked up to the ceiling to recal. "With some kind of Courel print."

"And the Crownsguard insignia." Noctis added. "Why? What are you doing?"

"I owe him a lot." Penelo jumped up with a smile, gripping tightly the roll of purple silk she seemed to treasure. "If it wasn't for him helping me in the mines…I don't know what would have happened. When we met in the mines, he was in bad shape: cuts, bruises, drugged. I wanted to do what I could to help him…even mend his clothes so he wasn't so cold."

"You've got the heart of a good wife." Prompto smiled. "You'll make a man very happy one day."

"You think so?" Penelo blushed. "I hope I can make him happy…"

"Who?" asked Noctis, he knew her answer, but wished to gage how she would react.

"Va—ah never mind!" Penelo blushed. "Anyhow, while everyone is resting, I'm going to make Ignis a new shirt! I'll need your help so I can get it exactly right!"

"We'll be here." Nocits nodded. He stood and adjusted his black jacket. "I'm going to go see if the others have settled in."

"I'll go with you!" Prompto smiled. "We'll be right back, Penelo!"

"Hurry!" she smiled. She gave the two men a satchel of Sandries and food stuffs for the team in the warehouse before the men left. Things were beginning to feel a bit…normal. The faces of the Seeq, Moogles, and Bangaa no longer frightened or shocked them. Prompto had even begun flirting with the Vierra who wandered the city, but were immune to his advances. He would come back sulking.

"How did Balthier do it?!" he gripped.

"Why don't you ask him?" Noctis laughed.

"No way!" Prompto crossed his arms. "He's way too smug to unveil his secrets." A silence suddenly draped over them. Prompto opened his eyes and both he and Noctis noticed that time seemed to have stopped.

"W-what's happening?!" Prompto looked around. "Everyone's frozen!"

"Nethicite, maybe?" Noctis looked around.

"Oh, you are so close…" A strangely familiar voice came from behind them. They turned but saw no one.

"Who…?" Noctis peered through the crowd, the oily voice nagging at at his brain. Where did he hear this voice before.

"Up here, Majesty!" Noctis looked up at the wall ahead of them where the bridge connecting the eastern and western sides of the city looked over the main roadway to the Royal Palace. There, dressed in black robes adorned with grey and silver accents and deep red hair flowing down to his jaw line from under his brimmed hat…Ardyn Izunia; Channcelor of the Nifilheim Empire.

"You?!" Noctis hissed.

"You sound surprised to see me!" Ardyn smiled. "My good Prince, it is so wonderful to see that you are well. I had begun to worry about you and your friends!"

"What the hell are you doing here?!" Noctis growled. Prompto stepped back, unsure of what to make of this situation.

"I could very well ask you the same question." Arden jumped down from the wall and landed safely in front of the stairway before them. "Though, I'm sure our answers are the same." He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fragment of manufacted nethicite. "Does this trinket look familiar?"

"Where did you get that?!" Prompto blurted out.

"I found it." Ardyn sneered. "Near the crater of the Archean, much like yourselves. How is poor Ignis, by the way?"

"What do you know?!" Noctis was now on the immense defensive. It was strange enough that this man seemed to know his every move, but even outside of Eos?

"I know enough..." Ardyn began to pace back and forth as he tossed the gem and caught it in his hand. "The Queen who lost her throne…her father…her country…" He gave Noctis a clear expression of condisention. "Such a tragic tale…Then, there's her oh so loyal knight! My, I wounder if her heart would shatter ever more at losing him." Noctis clenched his fists. Was Ardyn threatening his new companions? "Ah!" Ardyn snapped his fingers. "And lest we forget the insurmountable Pirating duo: quite the character, that one. Men like him are so much fun to break."

"Leave them alone…" Noctis growled. He always knew something was not right about this guy, but he could never put his finger on it. He was slowly becoming more than the "creepy old guy" from Lestallum.

"Oh, but I'm just getting to the best part, Noct." Ardyn strode passed them and stopped next to a frozen Vaan who was carrying a bag of sundries back to Magello's shop. "To bring children into the fray…what could these 'friends' of yours possibly be thinking!"

"Get away from him, Ardyn!" Noctis summoned his blade, but, as soon as he did so, time flowed again and the citizens around him cowered in fright at the drawn weapon. Vaan seemed to notice the commotion and ran to investigate, with Ardyn no where to be seen. Vaan pushed through the crowd to find Noctis and Prompto staring into nothingness.

"Hey guys!" Vaan greeted. "What's up? See a ghost or something?"

"What?" Noctis snapped out of his angered trance and noticed his blade. He dismissed it and grabbed the bag from Vaan. "You okay, Vaan?"

"Yeah." Vaan looked at the king perplexed. "What's going on?"

"Nothing." He answered before Prompto could. "These go to Magello, right? It's been a long day for all of us. Why don't you get some rest and we'll take care of these for you."

"You sure?" Vaan asked.

"Yeah, go on!" Prompto smiled. "Penelo's probably waitin' for ya!"

"Okay, see ya!" Vaan waved and raced off to join his good friend.

"What was that about?" Prompto asked in regards to Ardyn.

"I don't know." Noctis shook his head. "But we have to tell Gladio and Specs. You go on ahead. I'll catch up to you."

"Hurry up." Prompto cautioned. "I don't like the idea of you being by yourself now that he's here."

"Neither do I…But the others need the medicine." Noctis concluded. He waved to Prompto and the two took off running in their separate directions. Noctis quickly delivered the goods to Magello who laughed haughtly and thanked Noctis after the king had told him he had taken the delivery from Vaan as a courtesy.

"Thank you, my boy." Magello nodded. "Do come back if you need any more assistance. I'll be happy to help you."

"Thanks, Magello." Noctis smiled. "Take care!"

Noctis walked out into the streets as they began to grow darker and darker. Worried about running into Ardyn alone, Noctis hurried as fast as he could back to the warhouse where Prompto was just finishing up his tale of their encounter. Balthier, Fran, Basch, and Ashe were no where to be seen.

"Are you alright, Noct?" asked Ignis as he rose from his bed.

"Fine, I guess." Noctis answered as he took a seat in front of his adviser.

"So, Ardyn's here too, huh?" Gladio growled. "What the hell is up with this guy?"

"I've no idea…" Ignis raised a knuckle to his chin in thought. "But it certainly complicates matters all the same."

"This is getting bad." Prompto crossed his arms. "Sounds like Ashe and the others have become likely targets."

"We better keep close watch on all of them." Gladio suggested. "Especially Ashe."

"What do you mean?" asked Prompto.

"She's been staring at the Dawn Shard ever since we got back." Gladio answered. "Like something was calling to her. But, because of her position, Ardyn may have his sights set on her."

"We've yet some while to fully recover from our injuries." Ignis sighed. "I suppose we take things by ear until news of the Dreadnaught's sinking falls. We may, then, be able to make our next move without much notiriaty."

"If you say so, Specs." Noctis shifted.

"Have I ever steered you wrong?" Ignis gave a cocky smile. "Come, let us get some rest."

Four days have passed since the Leviathan's sinking. The group was now well rested, well recovered, and well unnoticed. There have been no new sightings of Ardyn and had Prompto not seen him as well, Noctis would have thought it was all a dream. However, they did not divulge this information to Ashe and her companions, for she had far worse things on her mind. During this time, however, Gladio's suspicians seemed correct, in that Ashe would stare at the stone in her possession quite often. She seemed intent on something and only she and Basch knew of it. That morning of the fifth day, they had all gathered at the warehouse by Basch's beckoning in order to discuss their next move.

"So, it was the Dawn Shard that brought down the Imperial Fleet." Basch concluded at last after the weeks of investigations.

"You know your stuff…" Balthier had been pacing the room back and forth, impatient. Fran stood against the wall as the rest sat either on the surrounding crates or on chairs around the one table.

"Destructive power of such force…I've seen it once before." Basch continued. "Lady Ashe, you know of what I speak."

"Nabudis…" she answered solemnly.

"Nabudis?" Prompto inquired.

"The Capital of Old Nabradia." Basch answered. "Lord Rassler, Lady Ashe's Betrothed; it was his fatherland."

"Just before the Empire invaded Nalbina," Ashe began. "They had attacked our Allied kingdom of Nabudis. There was a great explosion, one by the likes none have seen within this age."

"It is believed that the Midlight Shard, one of the fragments of Raithwall's Legacy, was used on Nabudis." Basch clenched his fists. "And raised it to the ground."

"More Nethicite.." Balthier leaned up against the western wall. "Well, no wonder they invaded."

"How awful…" Prompto sighed.

"A heavy loss indeed." Ignis hung his head as his arm was drapped over his bent knee. "With the Dusk Shard in their possession, let us hope the Empire does not use it."

"A fool's hope, there." Balthier scoffed. "The Empire will utilize whatever means they can to achieve their desires. You saw that yourself."

"What do you mean?" asked Noctis.

"It wasn't obvious?" Balthier shook his head. "When we were first brought onto the Leviathan, why did they not take you straight to Ignis's cell?"

"Weren't they going to question us?" asked Gladio.

"To be sure, but only after the business with our Queen-To-Be had concluded." Balthier crossed his arms.

"They were to use him as bait." Ashe sighed. "I overheard Ghis when Ignis was brought onboard. They knew of your hidden power, though I know not how. They mused to use Ignis as a trump card in order to obtain Noctis's cooperation."

"You serious?!" Gladio growled.

"Those bastards!" Prompto cursed. Ignis merely sat in silence, feeling a bit of guilt for causing so much trouble for Noctis and the others.

"There is no more need for worry." Ignis looked up to find Fran smiling at him, as if she knew exactly what she was thinking. "Their plans were thwarted, and your reunion a success." Ignis nodded in gratitude toward the Viera pirate.

"So, how do we get the Dusk Shard back?" asked Vaan.

"It is most likely within the inner depths of Archadies by now." Basch sighed. "Obtaining it proves little hope for us. Recent events have provided us few options."

"That ridiculous war," Ashe held the Dawn Shard in her hand. "The trap at the treaty signing…all this because Vayne wanted power. He must not be allowed claim the Nethicite. The Empire must never hold it."

"Oh?" Balthier scoffed. "They already do. The Dusk Shard, and, more than likely, the Midlight Shard too. Besides, can't they manufact Nethicite now?"

"Then, the path before us is clear!" Ashe stood in anger. "We'll use the Dawn Shard to fight them!" Noctis and his friends seemed shocked to hear her say such things, to use a weapon so dangerous and powerful that it can lay to wasit large cities in a single blow? Ashe held the stone close to her breast. "Dalmasca does not forget kindness, nor ill deed done. With sword in hand, she aids her allies! Sword in hand, she lays to rest her foes! This Nethicite I hold must be my sword…I will avenge those who have died. And the Empire will know remorse!"

"Do you even know how to use it?" Vaan chimmed in. Ashe quickly turned to him but found herself at a loss for words.

"The Garif may know." Fran pushed herself from the wall. "The Garif people live by the old ways. Magecite lore is a part of their culture. They may hear it. The cry of the stone's power…whisper's of the stone's menace."

"Dangerous, though it may be, what we need now is power!" Ashe argued. "Should we declare Dalmasca free without means to defend our claim, the Empire would crush us! You must take me to meet with the Garif."

"They live beyond Ozmone Plain." Fran answered.

"Not exacly close." Balthier walked up to the two women.

"Compensation, is that what you want?" Ashe growled.

"Straight and to the point, aren't we? I like that." Balthier sneered. "Compensation? How about the ring?"

Ashe stared down at the golden band that once was her wedding ring. A symbol of the union between Nabradia and Dalmasca…but most important to her, a symbol of her love for Rassler and her determination to stay by his side and aid him through his rein. He was no longer with her now. She was alone, no father, no prince, and no means to protect Dalmasca from the wrath of the Empire's fist. With great reluctance, she slowly slid the band from her finger and placed it in the pirate's hand. He made his hand into a fist around the trinket and looked to the Queen.

"I'll give it back to you." He assured. "As soon as I find something more valuable."

"Sky Pirates." Ignis sighed.

The group made ready to leave and file out of the warehouse when Noctis caught Vaan asking Balthier, "'Something more valuable?' What's that mean?"

"Hard to say…" the seasoned Pirate answered. "I'll know when I find it. What is it you want, Vaan? What are you looking for?" Vaan just stared after the pirate as he and his parter walked out of the building, leaving Vaan and Penelo with the thought. Noctis, Gladio, Ignis, and Prompto all prepared themselves to leave when Penelo suddenly remembered something and stopped them.

"Wait!" She held her arms wide to stop them. "Don't go yet!" She quicky ran and clambered over one of the crates to pull out a package wrapped in parchment.

"Oh, that!" smiled Vaan.

Penelo raced over to Ignis and presented the gift. Noctis, Prompto, and Gladio stared at it, all with a smile, knowing full well what it was.

"For me?" Ignis took the gift with a smile and began to unwrap the bundle. He gasped when he looked upon his purple silk Crownsguard shirt that was once destroyed during his time in captivity. "Penelo…"

"Try it on, Specs!" Noctis slapped his adviser's shoulder.

"Yeah! Make sure it fits!" Prompto smiled.

"Do I want to know just how you managed to get my measurements?" Ignis glared.

"Nah!" Prompto waved his hand. "Don't sweat the small stuff!"

Ignis sighed and began to unbutton his shirt, feeling a tad violated, when he noticed that Penelo was still watching.

"Oh! Sorry!" Penelo blushed. "Make sure you walk out immideatly so I can see it, okay?" She quickly turned and raced out to join the others.

Ignis removed his white shirt and slipped on his Crownsguard shirt. It fit just as it always had, causing Ignis to greatly admire Penelo's sewing ability. He tucked the shirt into his jeans before grabbing his leather jacket.

"There's our Iggy." Gladio smiled.

"Indeed." Ignis smiled back. "Thank you, all."

"Just pay us back with a good meal." Noctis laughed. "Come on, let's go."

The group reunited with Ashe and the others outside in the market place. They all gathered around Basch, looking at a map of Ivalice that he had managed to acquire during their four day break. He pointed to a greener part of the map south of Rabanastre.

"The Garif are said to dwell in Kerwon." Basch stated.

"So they do." Balthier placed a hand to his chin in thought. "We'll need to head South, past the Giza Plains."

"It is the Rains, now in Giza." Basch cautioned. "The wadis will be swollen with the deluge."

"Which will make passage difficult." Ignis chimed in, examining the map. "No doubt the monsters adapt to the dry seasons will be swapped out with beast more inclined to the wetter weather."

"Indeed." Basch nodded.

"But, those same waters may lay open new routes to us." Balthier pointed out.

"Regardless, we must go South, yes?" asked Ashe.

"First things first." Balthier cautioned the Queen. "You're eager to be on your way, I know…but we should see that we're prepared before setting out."

"Agreed." Basch looked to Ashe. "Noctis and his kin may have their abilities returned, but that does not guarantee our safe passage."

"Understood." Ashe sighed. "Let us ensure we have what we need before leaving. It will be quite the trek."

"I shall see to Magello for curatives." Ignis suggested.

"A moment…" Ignis turned to Fran who looked upon him with her ruby gaze. "Perhaps you shall accompany me on acquiring magicks?" During the four days, Fran had noticed Ignis's keen ability to conjure the magicks of Ivalice. He seemed to catch on faster than Noctis and the others, so Fran took it upon herself to teach Ignis the basics while he rested. Ignis thought for a moment and thought it better to see what helpful spells they could acquire. Fran seemed to know the requirements of the area, so he thought better to go along with her.

"I'll check out Magello." Noctis suggested. "You guys check for what spells we can nab."

"Basch and I will check out weapons and armor we may need." Gladio smirked. "Feel like joining us, Vaan?"

"Yeah!" Vaan smiled, admiring the man's strength made him want to train to not only be a Sky Pirate, but a much stronger one.

"Penelo and I shall shop for nutritional goods." Ashe sighed. "Prompto, do you wish to join us?"

"Yeah!" Prompto blushed.

"We'll all meet back here in 2 hours." Balthier ordered. "Once we're ready, we'll head for Ozmone Plain."

After about an hour, Ashe, Penelo, and Prompto had managed to find great deals in the market place. They found Balthier who had also been shopping around and managed to find himself a quick breakfast found in a bright green apple. As he munched on it, he noticed the group coming toward him. He gulped his final bite before throwing it into a disposal vat next to a produce stand.

"Did you find everything?" he asked.

"And then some!" Penelo smiled. "I wonder what kind of meals Ignis can make from this?"

"The man's a genius!" Prompto smiled. "He'll come up with something amazing!"

"I've no doubt." Prompto spun around hearing the familiar voice. It was him! Ardyn Izunia stared back at the young gunman with his amber eyes, but time was not frozen.

"YOU!" Prompto jumped back.

"Friend of yours?" Balthier asked.

"No way!" Prompto answered.

"Oh, Prompto!" Ardyn placed a hand over his heart. "After all we've been through together, why in Ivalice would you say something so hurtful?"

"Because you're always following us around like some stalker!" Prompto pointed an accusing finger at the Chanceller. Balthier immediately stepped in between Prompto and Ardyn in a protective stance. He readied himself to grab his weapon in case this man tried to pull any dangerous moves on the women and Prompto, whose current characteristics proved to him that this man was more of an enemy to him and Noctis.

"Oh my!" Ardyn raied his palms up. "My apologies, Prompto! I had no idea you were traveling with such a well reknown Pirate."

"My reputation proceeds me, it seems." Balthier glared. "What business do you have with us? We haven't the time for idle chit-chat."

"Forgive me." Ardyn removed his hat and bowed low. "I merely wished to give my blessing of safe travels to the Lady Ashe." Ashe gasped that this man knew exactly who she was. "I hope you find the answeres you seek…Highness." Balthier drew his rifle but Ardyn suddenly disappeared in the blink of an eye.

"Who was that?" Penelo gripped her bag tightly.

"Bad news." Prompto shuddered. "That guy seems to follow us everywhere!"

"So, he's from your world, then?" Balthier shouldered his weapon. "He seems like the lot to cause trouble."

"You have no idea…" Prompto sighed. "I hope we don't run into him again."

"H-how did he know me?" Ashe removed her hand from her mouth in shock.

"The guy seems to have a lot of connections." Prompto answered. "If he's sided with the Empire, then our jouney got a lot more dangerous."

"We still have Balias, right?" asked Penelo. "We'll be okay as long as we have that."

"That also perplexes me." Ashe admitted. "Never did the legends say the Esper was bound to a stone." Balthier pulled the crystal orb from his pouch and examined it.

"Come to think on it, the Mist gathered around Noctis before materializing into this." Balthier rotated the stone in the sunlight.

As he did so, the others all began running up to them with their respective goods in hand. Ignis was now wielding a staff that weaved like an ancient tree trunk but the tendrils seemed to unravel at the top to have a magical crystal shine bright.

"Going the Black Mage route, ain't ya?" Prompto laughed.

"We'll see who has the last laugh when you need my magicks." Ignis placed the weapon onto a holder on his back, unable to dematerialize it like his spear and daggers. "What has happened?"

"I was about to ask the same." Basch walked up to Ashe. "What ills you, Majesty?"

"Ardyn was here." Prompto answered. Gladio, Noctis, and Ignis turned to their friend in shock.

"Chanceller Izunia was here?!" Ignis growled. "What business did he have here?"

"He gave me his blessing…" Ashe stared off into the distance. "…for our journey."

"That's no blessing." Gladio growled. "The man is playing with all of us, now. We've become his damn pawns!"

"Is he dangerous?" asked Penelo.

"I have no idea." Noctis answered. "So far, he's just been creepy and annoying. Don't know what the hell he's doing here, though."

"In any case," Balthier walked toward Noctis with the crystal of Balias in his hand. "He came and went without incident, however, we've something to discuss with you, King."

"What is it?" Noctis asked, wondering where this hostility was coming from.

"Noctis…" Ashe began. "Our legends state that Espers were never housed in Crystal form, but forever walked the Mist until their sworn summoned them in need. When we defeated Balias, this should have been so. However, the Mist of the Gigas formed into this crystal from you. Do you know why?"

"None." Noctis shook his head. Ashe sighed and looked to Balthier.

"A mild curiosity." Balthier shrugged as he placed the crystal back into its pocket. "In any case, we are wasting time. If you're all ready, let us make haste to Ozmone Plaine.

Papers were stacked neatly on Vayne's desk as he looked out the window of his Rabanastre residence. The night was quiet, yet, there was an awareness about it, as if this were the calm before a great storm. News had already reached Vayne of the Dreadnaught's sinking along with its fleet. Many of the reports upon his desk said as much. The cause was addressed as well and Vayne could not help himself but laugh at Judge Ghis's stupidity. He knew exactly why Ghis had tested the Nethicite onboard the ship: to hold a sword against Vayne and his line to the throne. Vayne chuckled at the judge's idiocy and yet, the amount of men and women lost at the sinking proved troublesome against their war with Rozzaria. Vayne thought hard on how to recoup this loss at such a strenuous time. His father only thought of peace through negotiations and chose to avoide needless bloodshed. Vayne, on the otherhand, found bloodshed to be the swiftest and more accurate way of winning over politics. War was no different.

Vayne suddenly sensed that he was no longer alone, yet, the doors had not opened.

"How long do you desire to remain in the shadows?" Vayne asked. A man with ruby hair and strange clothes walked from the shadows cast in the room and stood in front of Vayne's desk. He removed his hat and gestured a bow.

"Good evening, Councul!" Ardyn sneerd. "I am quite impressed that you were made aware."

"One in my stead would do well to be aware of his surroundings." Vayne slowly turned to meet the man's amber eyes. "What reason have you to appear before me, stranger? It is not often here in Ivalice that men are conceived from shadow."

"So it would seem, Lord Vayne." Ardyn smiled. "I am called Ardyn Izunia in my realm. I am the Chancellor of a mighty Empire under the banner of Nifilheim."

"And, I assume these four strangers of late are from your realm as well?" Vayne slowly blinked. "How very intriguing. Doctor Cid will be pleased to hear of this."

"Ah, I have already spoken with the good doctor." Ardyn waved as he placed his hat back on to his head. "It is the very reason why I present myself before you this very night, for I have a proposition."

"And what need have I for this deal?" Vayne seemed amused at the man's boldness.

"The loss of the Dreadnaught Leviathan and her fleet is truly unbecoming for such a troubled time, is it not?" Ardyn smiled. Vayne was impressed that this other worldly stranger new of the current events so suddenly. "I have discovered an interesting 'talent' of sorts that I have found to carry in this world." Ardyn tossed an emerald orb at Vayne who caught it and examined it closely. "Behold, the Esper, Adramalech the Wroth is imprisoned within that very jewel you hold." Ardyn continued. "It appears as though my magic allows me to crystalize the Mist surrounding such beings. I presented a similar jewel to Doctor Cid and he, so lovingly, named the jewel 'Auracite' as they trap the very spirit of the Esper upon defeat. To call upon it would be transforming oneself into the very beast for as long as their strength allows."

"Remarkable indeed." Vayne tossed the stone back to Ardyn. "And this 'Auracite' would help us win this war?"

"I've no doubt!" Ardyn teased. "However, I am afraid there is one other hidden within your world that holds this same power. He happens to be traveling with this Lady Ashe whom you seem not so taken with, am I correct?"

"She searches for a means to reclaim her throne." Vayne smiled. "The Dawn Shard remains hers for the time being, however, it is devoid of Mist, with thanks to the sinking of Leviathan." Vayne sighed as he walked around his desk to look closer upon Ardyn. "However, this ability belonging in her grasp will, indeed, complicate things." Vayne looked to the ceiling. "And what's more, my father will halt any advances upon her travels in order to obtain a peace with Dalmasca and those aligned with her."

"You are in quite the predicament, Your Eminance." Ardyn cocked his head and scratched his chin. "Perhaps, the Emperor needs removed from his seat as well?" Vayne turned to Ardyn with a sparkle in his eye. He remained silent to learn more. "Lord Gramise seems ill and continues to worsen, if I am not mistaken." Ardyn continued. "It will not be long until he, too, joins his forebearers. Since you have already taken the lives of all but one of brothers, what is one more member of House Solidor? One that blocks your rightful place?"

Vayne thought deeply. Ardyn had a very good point. Vayne knew exactly what actions would need to be taken in order to win this war but his father was the only wall that blocked the path to victory over Ivalice. As he thought, Ardyn spoke once more, "I will leave you to think on it. As we wait for your answer, Lady Ashe has more time to acquire more Auracite. I shall make them pawns in this game while you play 'war' with Rozzaria."

"Hold." Vayne ordered. "These strangers traveling with Lady Ashe…how much Auracite have they acquired?"

"Only the one." Ardyn raised a finger. "However, Ashe may prove thirsty for this power as well with her lust for the Nethicite. Who knows how many Noctis and his friends could acquire for her?" Ardyn sneered, his line had been cast.

"Ardyn…" Vayne spoke after a short while. "I would have you acquire these strangers. If their powers are as formitable as you say, I wish to persuade them to our own cause."

"The one called Noctis can be easlily persuaded, Lord Vayne." Ardyn smiled. "His heart bleeds too heavily for his dear friends."

"Very well." Vayne nodded. "Find them and bring them to Archades. They shall be the bait to catch this Noctis of yours. Doing so will also bring Lady Ashe to me and I can eliminate them all with one blow."

"As you command, Lord Vayne." Ardyn bowed low and, almost with a kick in his step, walked out of the room to begin his assult on Noctis.