The sequel to The Illusion of Freedom. I'm not sure you actually need to read that before this, but some things might not make sense otherwise. I'll leave that up to your judgment though.

Summary: It was meant to be a harmless trip to the country of Rozarria simply to see what the cause is to Marskot's nightmares. But as the two venture further, Balthier begins to suspect that a scheme far more intricate than he anticipated is afoot. The pieces are set and the price is nothing more than the freedom of the world, and everyone Balthier holds dear.

You might call this BalthierxAshe as it does include bits of their relationship in here, but it's not the focus of this story like it was in TIoF. The story is, however, Balthier-centric.

Disclaimer: Let me get this out of the way: I do not own Final Fantasy XII and I am not making any money off of this.

I also would like to say that this sequel is inspired by a slew of different games and books and movies: Final Fantasy XII(of course), Final Fantasy X, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Metal Gear Solid, Gladiator, Silent Hill and Hidalgo. I realize that we all garner inspiration from a myriad of things, but I felt these were worth mentioning as the main sources of the idea for this.

Author's Note: Before we go any further, I ask that you have faith in me as a writer. This fic is probably going to be very dark, but I humbly ask that you stick it out with me. Thank you. Now, finally, on with the show!

Chapter 1

His eyes slid uneasily around the dark passage as Marskot led the way through, never stopping for anything. The abandoned palace at the southern edge of Rozarria unsettled Balthier more than even Giruvegan, and that had been a place he dreaded once Dr. Cid came back without his mind. They had come here because of Marskot's dreams, which is likely why this place unsettled him so. The entire mission seemed bogus; he was the only one Marskot would take to this far end of the world, and he had willingly gone at first.

Balthier trusted his friend, and was sure he would be following him to the very depths of hell for this. Now that he thought about it Marskot had never really been quite the same since the battle for Dalmasca. Balthier was still not sure his complete psyche was intact, but then again he wasn't sure if it ever had been.

"I remember this place. In my dreams," Marskot murmured, shining his light up into the great space, where rotting tapestry and cobwebs hung from the vaulted ceilings like grisly banners. They both turned when they heard rubble stir behind them, but they could not see anything. "Sard." Marskot took out his knife and kept looking.

"He would have attacked us by now. Now, tell me, is this the place? Where you must fight your demons?" Balthier asked, his voice almost pleading. Fran was right, I have changed a lot, he thought, sighing inwardly.

Marskot hesitated a moment as his eyes continued to rove around the once magnificent great hall. Finally he shook his head and said, "No, we must go on. It's close though. I can feel it."

"Like you said it was close the last time? And the time before that, too, at Sard's mansion? We have been traveling for a month with only the guidance your dreams may offer. Are you sure we are close?"

Marskot had turned back around, but he did not continue forward. Instead he said, "I am married as well. Do not think I push forward to satisfy any wanderlust. I must keep going. I must face this, with or without you by my side."

Balthier gave an angry growl and looked back the way they came, and then looked ahead to where they were going. There was nothing but dark and emptiness down that hall, with no end in sight. The darkness had never sat well with Balthier and they had been in the palace for almost two days. Who could say where they would be after that? He was anxious for another reason, one he had been keeping at bay so as not to dwell on it or his resolve would shatter. It was bad enough he felt guilty for leaving Ashe to deal with those politicians alone everyday, and he was forbidden to send word since they left. He looked to Marskot's back again, as though he might find the answer he was looking for there, but all was an opaque haze.

"You can leave." The Dorstonian raised the flashlight to start forward once more.

He was halted though by a hand on his shoulder. "I think you should come with me. We are not getting anywhere with this. It might be wise to withdraw for now and come back later when we have a clearer idea of what we are dealing with."

Marskot violently brushed his hand off, glaring at him. "You can leave! I will not! You are not tormented by these dreams! It's not enough that I dream them every night, but now I can hardly see anything else with my waking eyes! I must go on! They are pulling me!"

"Who is pulling you?" Balthier asked, narrowing his eyes suspiciously. Marskot had never been completely sane, but it appeared his control was slowly waning and he was slipping further and further from normality.

"I don't know who they are! But I can feel them pulling me as though I am on a leash. As much as I would like to resist, I cannot. They are pulling me! So go, if you must, but I cannot go with you." He pulled away and continued walking.

Could it be? The Occurria? But they should no longer have any will on this world. Ashe, the others, and I helped sever them three years ago in the Bahamut. But what else could it be? Balthier watched him go, utterly torn. He really wanted to get back to Ashe, and lie with her again after so long, but he could not simply abandon Marskot to whatever fate he was pressing himself to. He had never been this indecisive before. Hell, life was simpler before my marriage, he thought, even though he would not change a thing otherwise. Actually, no, he might have married Ashe after this quest if he had known they would embark on it.

He picked up his pace to catch up with Marskot. He had every intention of suggesting that they stop for a break, some food perhaps, and he laid his hand on Marskot's shoulder again. "Marskot—"

Balthier jumped when Marskot suddenly spun around and pulled him close. "I'm sorry, Balthier, truly I am." The former sky pirate's eyes widened when he felt something in his side. "I love you so much. You are like a brother to me, but you are holding me back. I must keep going. I must keep going."

"Marskot." The name was hardly more than a whisper, and Balthier felt his knees giving out, but his friend held him close. So close that they were cheek to cheek, and he could feel the tears running down Marskot's face.

"I am sorry. But I cannot have you with me anymore." Marskot gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and let him go.

Balthier fell to his knees and felt for the hilt of the knife driven into his side. He looked up, tears now clouding his own vision, the words he wanted to speak stuck in his throat. "Goodbye, brother. I will see you in the next life." He only delayed his departure further, by cutting the pack from Balthier's back, and then he continued onward not even glancing back.

Balthier could not even attempt to look anymore. Even now his vision was fading, and he could feel the breath run shallow in his lungs. He touched his side again and put the hand close to his face to see it absolutely covered in blood. Thoughts were becoming disjointed as he stared unbelievingly at his own hand, and then slowly, very slowly, he began tracing letters on the stone floor. The sound of footsteps dashing across the floor reached his ears, but it was vague and distant, hardly noticeable; he continued writing. Before the message was done, he sank to the floor, but barely able to see he continued the tracing. He let out a long breath when it was done and laid his head down to rest.

Oh gods no, oh gods no, not again! Basch had long been suspicious of Marskot since they had started out. Ashe had asked him if he could follow them, and make sure they both came home alive, but his concern always rested with Balthier. He had not entirely approved of the sky pirate—he may say former but he was still a sky pirate!—actually marrying the Queen, but he promised himself he would not fail him like he did Rasler! Only too little too late.

Oh gods, I should have grabbed Balthier and dragged him back to Rabanastre when their quest started to turn dangerous. I should have used my better judgment. He could see Balthier had collapsed completely to the floor, but he was still doing something with his hand. And then he stopped moving.

Basch nearly skidded to a halt among the rubble and grabbed his jacket to turn him over. "Balthier!" One look drained the blood completely from Basch's face. The normally vibrant amber eyes that sparkled with mirth were now blank and glazed in death. "No, Balthier. Oh gods no." He had now failed two friends, he had now failed twice. Tears began sliding down his face as he continued staring at Balthier's pale visage, until his eyes were drawn to the last words he had written before he died, written in his own blood.

Trust no Friend

He had smeared the last letter when his hand had gone slack, but all the other letters were perfectly legible. They shook the weathered knight to his very core, and he drew Balthier closer as though he were a father holding his son.