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Tregarde

A Tale of Tregardes

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It was a slow week at the inn in our little hamlet, maybe that’s why those ladies left such an impression. It’s not like we don’t get travelers passing through on a regular basis, though they never stay long - we are only a rest stop for merchants going to where the real money is, and adventurers need something more exciting than this languid town.

The day was sunny and pleasant, and the door was open to air the place out. I was wiping down the counter when a pair of shadows stepped through the door. Once they were in enough for me to get a good look I saw they were both young Miqo’te ladies.

One was of average height and lithe of figure. She sported somewhat short hair, black with dull orange streaks, braids on the sides. Her eyes were a shade between yellow and green. On her back was a short bow. Her clothes were mostly of rich blues, and those of someone who favored freedom of movement.

The other one was, in many ways, the opposite. Tall and a little more stocky of build than a typical Miqo’te - but it was clear that she just had a larger frame, and a lot of lean muscle to go with it. The light armor provided decent protection, with a sword on her hip and small shield on her back. Her hair was cropped along her jawline, a pale off-white with dull orange streaks. Her eyes shown a bright blue. Her attire favored rich reds and dark golds.

Both were tanned, as people who spend much time in the sun. The two went to a table, the dark haired one smiled and waved at me, while the tall one gave a friendly nod. I stepped around the counter as they took their packs off their backs. They saw me approach then sat down with a look of relief, I’m sure in part because neither had to approach me to make an order.

I’ve always been good with faces, and what struck me about the two as I got closer was the similarities rather than the differences. That shade of orange that streaked the hair on both was the same. The shape of their ears, the eyes, nose, curve of their lips... not perfect matches, but very close. There was no doubt these two were related, probably sisters.

I greeted them and asked what I could do for them. The dark haired one chimed, “Hi! Hey, how long have you worked here?” I told her, with a little pride, that the place had been with our family for five generations. “Oh good. Say, in the past few summers, you wouldn’t happen to have had a Hyur pass through, about so high,” she raised a hand up, “late forties, salt and pepper hair...” She continued to describe a charming sounding gent, painting a vivid picture of him with her words. “Goes by the name Nicolae Tregarde.”

“He would have been asking about us,” the light haired one said.

The dark haired one glanced around, “oh, where’d Lu go?”

“Where else?” the light haired one said with a shrug. “To the market to haggle for baubles we can ill afford.”

“Hope she finds something nice,” the dark haired one replied without an ounce of sarcasm, then turned back to me. “So, did he happen to come by that you recall?”

I told them that I certainly would have recalled such a person, especially after she had described him so well, but that no, I had not seen him.

“Well... damn,” the dark haired one said as her ears drooped, disappointment in her voice and on her face.

“That’s another one off the list,” the light haired one sighed and leaned her elbow on the table, head tilted in the palm of her hand. “Running out of places.”

Now I was curious. I asked, if they didn’t mind, what this man was to them.

“He’s our papa,” the dark haired one said.

“Adopted,” the light haired one added, anticipating my question. Clearly they had been through this before.

I said I’d love to hear the story of how they came to be adopted by a Hyur, to which the dark haired one perked up and said in a sing-song, “story time! Story time!” This one didn’t seem to stay down for long, and I even noticed a hint of a resigned smile on the other.

But first I took their orders. I fetched a couple meads, apparently they were going to let this Lu fend for herself when she got here, then introduced myself.

The dark haired one said cheerfully, “I’m Moire, and this is Katarina.” She waved a hand to her sister, “a cat named Kat.”

“Mo...” Katarina scrunched her face at her sister. Like some Miqo’te she found the comparison to domesticated pets annoying. She then looked to me, “Trina, please. Anyroad, I was named after our papa’s mother.”

“And I was named after ma’s ma,” Moire said with a little pride. “Uh, adopted ma’s ma, not our mama’s ma. Obviously.”

Katarina made a motion to a chair, she could tell this might take a while. I glanced around to make sure the other customers were fine. Just two others, locals, they would get my attention if they needed anything. I could tell that they were as curious to hear the story of these travelers, but were discrete enough to not barge in. I sat and asked the two, please, to continue.

Edited by Tregarde

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Katarina began, “When she was young, our mother joined up with a troupe of traveling entertainers.”

“She ran away to join the circus,” Moire joked.

“They were not a circus!”

“They should have been.”

“You belong in a circus, then we could put you in a cage.” Katarina then raised her voice like a ring-master introducing an act, “Come, see the annoying cat-girl! Be amazed at how easily she purrs,” she said as she raised her hand to scratch Moire around her ear. Moire ducked and swatted the hand away with a giggle. “Watch how she chases rats for her daily meals, eating them raw!”

“Eww!” Moire made a disgusted face. I couldn’t help but smirk at their antics, and caught the other patrons stifling snickers of their own. They way they could go from sullen to mirthful so quickly bespoke of a closeness.

“As I was saying,” Katarina continued, “entertainers - singers, dancers, performers. It was a small troupe, but they were good at what they did. From what we’ve heard, our mother fit right in.”

It confirmed what I had suspected. The unusual names, the accent in their voice, the bits of jewelry they sported and colorful trims on what they wore, all pointed to them coming from the people who never settle. Among some settled people they have a reputation as thieves and swindlers, but I’ve always found those types were uncommon. Most were decent folk just trying to make a living.

“Apparently she could dance with the best of them,” Moire said, while raising her arms up as if she was about to start a dance herself, were she not still seated. From somewhere she had produced a pair of finger cymbals for each hand and tapped them together. “She could mesmerize an audience, leave them enraptured and awestruck, tossing all their valuables at her feet.”

“Katarina shot her sister a look. “Do you have to exaggerate everything?”

“I prefer the term ‘embellishing.’ And yes, I do, it makes stories more fun.” Katarina rolled her eyes and Moire picked up the tale, “One day the troupe came to a town from one direction, and from the other came a solitary Miqo’te traveler. He was charming and handsome, a vagabond with a roguish smile.”

“He was a scoundrel,” Katarina interjected, a hint of contempt for her sire clear in her tone.

“From across the town square their eyes met, and in that moment their destinies were bound to each other,” Moire continued with dramatic flair. “It was market day, and the square was crowded with people and caravans hustling to and fro. They approached, two souls reaching for each other, nearly loosing sight of the other more than once. But fate would not let them be parted before they even met. They came together and-”

“She got knocked up,” Katarina said matter-of-factly.

Moire humphed with a frown. “I like to call it a passionate romance.”

Katarina shrugged. “Doesn’t change the end result.” She then looked at me, “he was a burglar-”

“A cat burglar,” Moire said in a goofy voice.

Katarina shot her sister an annoyed look before turning back to me. “He was a thief with a silver tongue, with a habit of breezing through a town, pockets heavier with gold than when he came in, and leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him. We know of one half-brother for certain, could easily be more half-siblings out there.”

“I bet mama would have gotten him to change his ways,” Moire said in a dejected tone.

“We’ll never know. Of all the places he could have robbed, he chose the manor that actually had competent guards. He was caught, convicted, and executed.”

“That’s the boring version,” Moire said, then started her tale, putting some drama into her telling. “He was so enamored with our mama he wanted to give her a ring worthy of her. But the only place to find such a ring was the nobles’ manor, and they were not the sort to part with their treasures. So he snuck in, found the most beautiful ring he had ever seen, and was about to make his escape when the trap was sprung! Oh, if only he had listened in the markets, he would have known the lord was a cruel, vicious man, who purposely let would-be thieves enter his palace. Once captured, he would offer them a deal - if they could make their way across the grounds they could get away with anything they carried.

“With no other options, our sire tied the ring to a thong around his neck so it would be close to his heart. When he was released he ran like the wind! Leaping over hedges, dodging around trees and fountains, he quickly closed the distance to freedom. By the time he was half way across the lord had loosed a dozen arrows his way, only one had nicked him. The lord was impressed, but he wasn’t about to let anyone actually escape, and gave the command to release the hounds.”

By then, everyone’s eyes were on Moire as she spun her story. “Hearing the beasts, our sire redoubled his efforts. Heart pounding, lungs and legs burning, he sprinted faster than he had ever ran before. But the hounds had caught the scent of blood and soon caught up. Fighting would be futile against such monsters, he tried to dodge and evade. But it was to no avail, these were the hound’s grounds and they were trained hunters who knew all directions their prey could go. One hamstring was cut, then the other. In a frenzy they set upon the crippled Miqo’te and savagely rendered him, only mere yalms from the gate.”

Katarina stared at her sister, ears back, brow furrowed and eyes wide in horror. “Twelve, Mo, that was morbid!”

“Oh wait, wait, you didn’t let me get to the best part.” Katarina looked at Moire with an expression of dread. Then Moire continued in a tone of pure tragedy. “But when the lord examined the carcass, the ring could not be found. The hounds caught a scent of something beyond the gate and started barking. When the lord looked, there was nothing, but a shrub swaying slightly, and yet there was no breeze that night. Had someone been hiding? In a last, desperate move had the ring been thrown? He ordered a search, but nothing was found.”

Moire took a deep breath, then let out a mournful sigh. “Sometime the next day the ring was found, by the keeper of the hounds, peeking out from a pile of shite. In their frenzy, one of the beasts had eaten it. The ring was cleaned, but some small bit must have stuck in a crevice, because whenever the lady wore the ring and someone would kiss her hand, they could never figure out just where that smell was coming from. The end.”

There was just something about the ridiculousness of the ending, and the earnestness in Moire’s delivery, that we all could not help but to start laughing. I could even see Katarina smirking behind a hand covering her face.

After a few moments to let the laughter die down, Katarina spoke up. “Well, despite Moire’s rather colorful interpretation of events,” Moire smiled proudly, “our sire had always managed to stay one step ahead of authorities. But this time all those steps caught up while he was in prison, which is why we know about his past. Including a dozen aliases, so we can’t even be sure what his real name or tribe was. With all those charges against him he was deemed ‘beyond hope of redemption’ and,” Katarina made a motion with her thumb across her neck.

“So sad,” Moire said, “he didn’t even know about us. Actually, even mama didn’t know about us yet when he died.”

What happened afterwards, I asked.

Katarina shrugged. “Life went on. Then our mother realized she was pregnant. Several months later she had a troubled birthing and didn’t make it.” Katarina then glared at Moire, “she most certainly did not die of a broken heart.”

“Sheesh,” Moire rolled her eyes, “even I wouldn’t go there.” She continued to fall under her sister’s glare. “Probably. Highly unlikely. Okay, we can move on now.”

Katarina gave a nod. “Anyroad, the Tregardes were close to our mother and had no children of their own, so they took us in and raised us. Well, you could say the whole troupe raised us, but it was Nicolae and Florica who became our papa and mama.”

From the look on their faces, it was clear the two were remembering good times. I asked them what happened.

Edited by Tregarde

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The faint smile faded from Katarina’s face. “Same thing that happened to everyone: the Calamity. The troupe was wiped out. As far as we could tell, ours was the last wagon. Mama fell trying to help another aboard, she slipped from my grip and...” The sisters reached for the other’s hand while Katarina took a deep breath to steady herself. “Well, one moment papa is driving the wagon as hard as he could, looking for a place we could hopefully wait it out. Next moment we’re waking up, nearly a hundred malms from where we remember. The wagon gone, and only a scattering of our supplies around. To this day, we have no idea what happened.”

It was indeed a most vexing puzzle that everyone has had to endure - what happened? For those of us who survived, most were able to pick things up and move on. But for others, it is a question that haunts them still. For these two, who had lost everyone they cared for, and yet still be able to laugh and joke, showed a resilience that few possessed.

Moire picked up the story, but without any added drama or embellishments. This time she wasn’t performing, she was telling her experience. “We gathered up what we could, and after a some debate, and maybe an argument or two, determined we would search for papa. If we survived, he may have survived. And that’s how we’ve spent the past few summers, traveling from town to town, taking odd jobs to buy supplies or passage to the next stop. Not all that different from life before.”

“Just with a little less song and dance.”

“That’s what you got me here for,” Moire said adorably while leaning to tap the side of her head to Katarina’s shoulder.

“Did have one bit of good luck, though. Found our cousin Ludja earlier this season, so it’s possible others from the troupe survived. A bit of bad luck, she agreed to travel with us for a time.”

“Is someone talking about me?” a smoky voice said sweetly from the doorway. In walked a Hyur, tall as a Highlander but slender like a Midlander. Skin so tanned some would call it brown. A strikingly beautiful face was framed by raven black hair. Piercing, violet eyes swept across the room and she flashed a quick smile at the other patrons. She came to the table with just a hint of a sway in her walk. Her clothes consisted of rich colors, sashes on her hips accentuated her movements. If it was humanly possible, I’m certain I would have heard jaws dropping and hitting tables.

I immediately determined to keep an eye on this one. Someone like this could easily stir trouble, even if unintentionally. And if she stirred trouble intentionally... well, I hoped for her sake, she wasn’t about to do so.

“And how are my two most favorite cousins?” Ludja gave the sisters a kiss each on the top of their heads before dropping her pack and taking the one free seat. She noted how there were only two drinks on the table, “aw, nothing for me?”

“Didn’t know how long you’d be,” Katarina said.

“Wha’d ya get? Wha’d ya get?” Moire asked like an excited child.

“Oh, I found this,” Ludja set down a silver necklace with a few pieces of lapis attached.

Katarina rubbed a hand across her face. “Hells, Lu... how much did this set us back?”

“Hey, I got a good deal,” Ludja said with a sly smirk. “Practically a steal.”

“That’s what I’m worried about,” Katarina said dryly.

“Now, now, I paid for it, in front of witnesses even. Not my fault if I just happened to get it well below market value.”

I heard one of the patrons let out a quiet whistle of astonishment. Admittedly, I was rather impressed myself. We knew the only place that would have a piece of jewelry like that, and the proprietor was known for driving a hard bargain. If Ludja had indeed made such a deal, it was nigh a miracle.

Katarina let out a nearly inaudible grumble then looked to me. “You have beds available?”

I nodded and guaranteed all were clean and free of vermin, even in the common room, or their stay and all meals were free. It wasn’t always easy to keep to that guarantee, with some of the folks who passed through, but we have our ways.

“Got one large enough for a Roegadyn?” I noted she asked for a bed, singular. It was practical, the three of them could fit in reasonable comfort and keep each other warm. Again I nodded to the query and told her we have a couple, one in it’s own room even and told her how much it was.

Katarina shook her head, “the common room will do.”

I heard small sounds of disappointment from the other two. “Come on, Kat,” Ludja said plaintively and gave her cousin a nudge, “it’s not thaaat much.”

“Pleeeaaaaase,” Moire pleaded while nudging from the other side.

“You paying for it? You?” Katarina glanced at the the two.

“I’ll pay you back,” Ludja said with a firm nod.

“When have you ever done that?”

“There was that time, back in that village with that Lalafell with the funny tattoo.”

Katarina blinked at Ludja, “that was nearly a full moon ago!

“Still proves I’m good for my word.”

I couldn’t help but wonder how many times a scene like this had played out between them. Katarina buried her face in her hands. “You two aren’t going to let up, are you?”

“Nope!” they both chimed with determination.

“Trust me,” Ludja said in a comforting tone while placing a hand on Katarina’s shoulder.

Katarina mumbled a curse under her breath then relented. “Fine, fine. But when we’re starving you get to decide which of your limbs we cut off to eat.”

“Yay!” Moire clapped her hands together.

“Marvelous,” Ludja beamed, then looked to me. “Now, what fine drinks does your establishment have? Oh, and I think we’ll be needing some bowls of that delicious stew I smell.”

Katarina mumbled something about it being their last hot meal.

Edited by Tregarde

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But it was not their last meal with us, hot or otherwise. While Ludja had been perusing the markets she heard how a noble’s caravan was coming through and would arrive early evening. But she waited till they had secured their room to mention this. A shrewd mind lurked in there, for I surely would have rented the room to the noble or retainers otherwise.

They retired to the room, only to emerge a bell later when the caravan arrived. All had changed, the sisters dressed in a way that matched Ludja from earlier, and the Hyur even more colorful than before. Then the magic started.

It was quickly apparent they had indeed grown up with an entertaining troupe. Ludja danced with a sensuous grace; sashes, veils, and beaded trim accentuating her every move. The silver and lapis necklace glittered around her neck. Moire had a mandolin and a melodious voice to go with it. Katarina provided a steady beat on an improvised drum. Not quite the musician of her sister, nor the dancer of her cousin, but still quite competent, and when she wasn’t busy being ‘the responsible one’ of the trio she could sport a wicked sense of humor. My suspicion of Katarina’s other role in the group was proven correct when she handily subdued a retainer who had a couple drinks too many and wanted to get a little too touchy with Ludja.

When things started to wind down Moire switched from song to telling an epic tale of heroes in ages past. It was a fine way to end the evening, and by the time the trio went to their bed they had amassed a fair stash of coins. They also left a few disappointed faces that none of the ladies had invited anyone to join them. Ludja’s insistence for a room made a lot more sense then, not just for privacy, but also because they could bar the door to prevent anyone from trying to get a little extra ‘entertainment.’

The trio stayed to rest and plan their next move. The money they made was enough so they would be quite comfortable. A trade caravan was scheduled to go by in a couple days, with bandit and beast tribe activity of late there was a good chance they could get hired as freelance guards. The next couple nights weren’t as lively as that first, but there also weren’t any passing nobles to entertain.

As they had planned, when the trade caravan stopped to rest, they got hired on. The caravan was going to push on to the next town, thus they were only staying a bell, which was enough time for a good meal. As I brought the ladies their lunches I overheard Ludja asking the others, “and if he’s not there, then what?”

“Then we continue on. You know that,” Katarina said, then gave a thanks when I set down their meal.

Ludja shook her head. “You’ve already covered half of Eorzea.”

“We found you,” Moire replied.

“Yeah, and I only made it because my parents tossed me on that chocobo and made it run, no one else was as lucky. You have to start facing that we’re it, we’re the last.”

“I’m not ready to give up yet,” Moire said with determination.

“Nor I,” said Katarina. “Maybe we’re the last, maybe not. We know the chances of finding any others are slim. But what else are we going to do?”

Ludja muttered a curse under her breath before she replied. “Settle. Start anew. It won’t be the same, but we’ve done pretty good so far. Even before we found each other. But together...” Ludja trailed off with a wistful smile.

“Together, what, we’ll just keep running away again?” Ludja frowned, but Katarina continued before she could reply. “You’ve seen what’s going on. Beast tribes are rising, if rumors are true they’re even summoning Primals again. Garleans are being spotted everywhere. About the only thing missing is a moon about to drop on us.”

“And what did you expect us to do? We were singers and dancers, not fighters.”

“That’s a load of dung. We were both. We had to fight off bandits and the occasional beast tribe somehow.”

“Kat...” Ludja pleaded.

“We had to protect ourselves. Sure, the three of us were kids at the time,” I’d learned earlier the sisters were 13 and Ludja 14 when the Calamity happened, “we’re not kids anymore, and since that day we’ve all done what we had to, to survive.”

Ludja humphed and rested her chin in her hand. “You can be really bloody annoying when you make sense.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Moire said while rolling her eyes in an exaggerated manner, trying to lighten the mood. It worked, I saw Katarina’s expression grow a little less stern. “But she’s right. I was already pretty decent with a bow, you could make with some basic finger wiggles,” Moire did a comical imitation of someone casting a spell, “and Kat here, well, breaking things was about the only thing she’s good at so I guess she had to do something with it.”

Katarina elbowed her sister, “brat.”

“I guess the point is, we weren’t exactly helpless then, and we sure as hell are a lot less helpless now.”

Ludja ran her hand across her face. “Alright, fine, so we aren’t helpless. But that doesn’t mean we have to run off and join a Grand Company.” She paused a moment while she looked at Katarina’s expression. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding...”

Katarina shrugged. “It’s not out of the question.”

“Grand Companies get people killed! Hells, even free companies do. Do you have any idea how many never made it back from Cartenau? For that matter, how many never got that far?”

“Yeah, I do,” Katarina nodded once, then leaned back and crossed her arms with a resigned expression. “But I don’t think I can sit this out. Not this time.”

Ludja muttered a curse while looking towards the heavens, then looked to Moire, “and what do you think?”

“Where Kat goes, I go.”

“That’s not much of an answer,” Ludja replied sardonically.

“Maybe not to you, but it’s my answer.” Moire leaned forward towards Ludja, “Truth is, I’ve been thinking pretty much the same for a while. Besides, just think about it, all our lives we’ve sang and told stories of heroes and the deeds they performed - now we have a chance to live it!” She finished with some enthusiasm in her voice.

Ludja replied in a much less enthused tone, “you want to be a hero?”

“Hey, it would be something new, fun, exciting! And better than shoveling chocodung, which I have done so I know what I’m talking about.”

“I’ll reserve judgment on the ‘fun’ part if you don’t mind.” Ludja shook her head while sighing, “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”

Katarina leaned forward. “Why not? It’s really not all that different from what we’re doing now. We just need to find a company that suits us. Truth be told, I kinda missing having people around.” Her tone spoke volumes. They all grew up in a small, tight-knit group, it had to be lonely since the Calamity without them around.

Ludja thew her hands up in resignation. “So much for The Traveling Tregardes.”

“Oooo, I like that!” Moire chirped then looked to Katarina, “why didn’t I think of that?”

“Because it’s actually a good name,” Katarina said in a deadpan, to which Moire replied by sticking her tongue out at her sister. Katarina then turned to Ludja, “I’m not saying we won’t ever settle and try to restart the troupe, just... not yet. There’s things we got to do first.”

Ludja asked in a hushed voice, “when, then?”

“I don’t know,” Katarina shrugged. “When this crisis is over.”

“That could be a while.”

“Then it takes a while.”

Moire reached forth and placed a hand over Ludja’s. “Lu, we’re family, and nothing can change that. But by blood you may be the last Tregarde. We won’t hold it against you if you want to find somewhere relatively safe and start replenishing our numbers.”

“Oh hells,” Ludja rolled her eyes, “do you really see me with a pack of brats hanging on my skirts?”

“No,” Moire chuckled, “but now that you put that imagine in my head...”

By some unseen signal both Miqo’te sisters glanced at each other with a mischievous glint in their eyes, then dropped to their knees by Ludja, clutched to her skirt, and began chanting, “mommy, mommy, mommy.”

“Nooooooooo!” Ludja flailed her arms ineffectually.

In a childlike voice Katarina asked, “mommy, are you going to leave us?” She may not have been quite the actor of her sister, but in that moment her tone was gut-wrenching.

Moire waved a hand at Katarina, “how can you walk away from this?”

“Quite easily,” Ludja said while swatting at the sisters. “Twelve help me, I’m actually starting to think about it.”

“Yay!” Moire clapped her hands and both sisters went back to their seats.

“I said I’ll think about it. No promises.”

“That’s really all we can ask,” Katarina said with a touch of relief.

Ludja put an elbow on the table and pulled her meal close. “Assuming I go along with this madness, what’s the plan?”

Their dynamic was an odd one. In some matters Katarina took charge, in others it was Ludja. Moire had initiative, but rarely lead anything outside of a song or story. Sometimes they would talk things over first. Katarina scratched an ear in thought before replying, “we’re getting kind of close to Ul’dah. I figure we make our way to the city and see if we can find papa, or any others who may have survived. After that I think I’m ready to stop searching. While there we begin looking into companies and see if any suit us.”

“Big city, not going to be easy to find anyone. Lots of competition for our regular business,” Ludja said, referring to song, dance and stories. These three were good, real good, but even they could have a hard time in Ul’dah.

“Yeah, not getting my hopes up. But I figure if we don’t find anything we like there we should be able to make enough to get passage to Gridania.”

“Oooo, I like Gridania,” Moire said excitedly. “All those trees and forests and animals and stuff!”

“Also closer to the Garleans,” Ludja said matter of factly. “What about Limsa?”

“Grriiidaaaniiaa,” Moire said while tilting her head sideways.

“Nut,” Katarina poked Moire, then looked to Ludja. “If Gridania doesn’t work out. But I’m kinda with Mo, the forests always felt more like home than the seas.”

Ludja rubbed her chin. “Lot of traveling. We’ll need to make money. I dunno, could work. Maybe once we pick a spot I’ll hold the fort while two do the adventuring stuff.”

“Heh. You can be our housewife,” Moire said jokingly.

Ludja said sarcastically, “oh, that’s just what we need, rumors of the three of us in some torrid love affair.”

“Who said they had to be mere rumors?” Moire said with a sly grin. The other two looked at Moire with shock, which caused her to wiggle her eyebrows suggestively. The other two turned away and made exasperated sounds.

“Oh, gods no!”
“Ew, ew, ew!”
“That’s just wrong!”
“You’re sleeping on the floor!”

Moire broke out in laughter. “You should have seen the looks on your faces!”

Time was running short so they concentrated on their food. I went back to the other patrons. When it was getting close to time for them to leave I went back to their table to pick up their dishes. The trio thanked me for making them feel welcome and the excellent food. As they shouldered their packs Ludja reached into a pouch, then set a stack of coins on the table by Katarina. She divided the stack and put half back in the pouch.

Katarina blinked. “What’s this for?”

“Said I’d pay you back.” Ludja winked as she walked to the door. I noticed she was no longer wearing the silver and lapis necklace.

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Katarina muttered.

“Stop gawking and hurry up, slowpoke,” Moire teased and poked her sister while heading to the door.

Katarina smirked and shook her head, then grabbed the coins, waved at me, and made her way out. “Would be nice to get repaid more than once a moon,” she called out as she exited.

I had a feeling the next chapter in their lives was just beginning.

Edited by Tregarde

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OPERATION ARCHON

Prelude

 

    “You remember what I said about Grand Companies?” asked Ludja to Katarina.
    “Yeah?”
    “Don’t make me say ‘I told you so’ when this is over.”
    “I’ll keep it in mind.”
    The forces from Gridania were staging their assault on the Garlean Empire railways for Operation Archon. The Tregardes had barely settled in the city when the call went out - every available hand was needed. They signed up and were assigned to an irregular company with the Yellow Serpents. This particular company was comprised mostly of mercenaries, freelancers and volunteers who had little or no experience working with the Twin Adders. Most had already forgotten the official name of the troop, instead latching onto the nickname of ‘Hatchlings.’
    As Katarina scanned the scene around her, she could not help but think that they are hatchlings indeed. While most had combat experience, few had worked together, and even fewer had ever been part of a large organization. This wasn’t just a company, this was an army, and they were going to war. And in war, coordination and organization are key.
    What she had seen so far was, at best, controlled chaos.
    Though it was somewhat understandable. It had been mere days since the call went out, and much of the organization happened while they were on the move. Training and lessons in tactics were fit in when it could be managed. Katarina had thrown herself into learning all she could, and one thing she quickly realized was how little the past few years of fighting bandits and beastmen had prepared them for something of this scale. The formations and tactics used while protecting a caravan barely formed a starting point for what was needed here.
    The Hatchlings were assigned to the rear guard, to intercept any Imperial reinforcements, and provide back up to the main force which had moved ahead to ambush the train. They had set up camp in the trees, just behind a ridge to keep out of sight of the rails. Conjurers had performed a ritual to produce a haze to further obstruct them. Excitement, tension, and fear filled the air as reports were spread - the fighting had begun to the west, with Limsa and Ul’dahn forces engaging their targets. Far to the east scouts had spotted a large train on the way. Before the next bell rang the Gridanian side would be engaged in battle.
    The Tregardes sat at a fire, finishing up their breakfast stew. They looked around and marveled at how differently so many of those around them were acting - some were sitting quietly, some practically bouncing with unspent energy, some were clearly nervous, some boasting and showing off, some few were even napping. The Yellow Serpent officers and support were busy, making sure supplies and personnel were ready and accounted for.
    Controlled chaos.
    But not all were content to be assigned to the rear guard, feeling they deserved to be in the front lines where the heavy action would be. Among those, one in particular, was quite vocal in his disapproval. He was called Buffalo, for both his size, large and stocky even for a Roe, and the greyish color of his skin, hair and beard which resembled the beasts’ hide. He carried a giant maul to crush his enemies. And he complained in an even larger voice for the umpteenth time how he was being wasted by being stuck with the Hatchlings.
    Moire’s ears flattened against her head in a vain attempt to quell the noise. “Makehimstop!Makehimstop!Makehimstop!”
    “My dear, if it were so easy, I’d have done it a long time ago,” said the lalafell across from her. He called himself only Seseparu, never giving a full name. In the short time they knew him he said he was a scout, but divulged little else about his past. It was clear from training sessions that he was quick and skilled with short blades.
    Moire turned to her sister, “Kaaaaat, do something!”
    “Like what? I can’t order him to shut up.”
    “What do you make of our overly vociferous friend?” Seseparu asked Kat. One other thing that was obvious about him was that he had military service experience, and liked quizzing folks to test what they knew and make them think. In his own way, he was preparing them for the trials ahead.
    Kat glanced at Buffalo through narrowed eyes. “More muscle and arrogance than brains and sense. The kind who thinks might makes right. Fights to ‘prove’ he’s better than anyone. Can’t stand being bossed around, he’d rather do the bossing. Sooner or later he’s going to get himself killed.”
    Seseparu nodded with approval, “a fair assessment if I do say so.”
    Moire rolled her eyes, this wasn’t making the Roe shut up. She then pleaded to her cousin, “Luuuuuu, do something.”
    Ludja leveled an even stare at her. “And what would you have me do?”
    “Uh... I dunno,” Moire shrugged. “You’re the one with all the people skills.”
    “Riiiight. I’ll just walk up and say, ‘excuse me, but your volume and stupidity is rather annoying, would you mind shoving that maul down your mouth?’” By ill timing she spoke during a pause in Buffalo’s tirade, and he heard every word. “Shite,” she muttered as she realized what just happened.
    A hush fell over the immediate area as Buffalo turned to look at Ludja with a frown. People cleared a path as he stomped to the campfire, stopping to glare down at the hyur. For her part Ludja simply looked up, showing no signs of being intimidated. He paused for a moment, this wasn’t the reaction he was used to. He then spat to the side before rumbling, “You got somethin’ t’ say?”
    “Oh, I got plenty of things to say,” Ludja said in a conversational tone. She raised a finger and waved it around her temple. “You know, brain working all the time, contemplating aetherological flow and how to best manipulate it so that esoteric energies will produce a desired outcome, and it would be truly marvelous to have someone to discuss such theories with - and I can tell from the blank expression on your face that you have no idea what I just said.”
    Hushed snickers were heard from all around. Kat, Moire and Seseparu cracked grins themselves, even as they had readied themselves to jump if anything besides words were exchanged.
    Buffalo glowered, he knew that he had just lost this round. “Think you’re smart, do ya?”
    “Hrm, I don’t think I’m smart,” Ludja said, strongly emphasizing the word. She continued before the Roe could puzzle out her meaning. “Not that it matters, really. After all, in a battle of wits there is hardly any challenge in confronting an unarmed opponent.”
    The reactions from those in earshot ranged from chuckles to hushed sounds of astonishment. Already some were taking bets how far the lady could push Buffualo before he snapped, or if she would back down. The Roe himself was getting flustered, he had lost another round and she showed absolutely no fear, if anything she was amused. “That’s quite the mouth ya got there. I could give ya somethin’ better to do with it,” he growled with a lecherous sneer.
    “Really? That would be lovely,” Ludja clapped her hands. “But I’m afraid I already had breakfast. Sorry.”
    Buffalo narrowed his eyes as he took good look at Ludja. “Yeah, I know how to fix that mouth. Ya’ve just never been with a real man before.”
    Ludja glanced at her cousins for just a moment, they were all thinking that he was making this way too easy. “You know what, you’re right. And I’ll tell you what, as soon as I find a real man I’ll send him your way so he can teach you how to be one too.” She finished with a firm nod at the Roe.
    The audience around them grew louder with their varied sounds. They knew this could not go much longer. Some were surprised Ludja wasn’t paste already. But     Buffalo’s mind had found a track it wasn’t about to leave, “Yeah, I think once this over I’m gonna find you. Would’n want to waste someone oh, so pretty.”
    In an instant Ludja’s eyes almost shone with pure hatred. A moment later a blast of arcane force hit Buffalo, sending him flying back several yalms, knocking down people along his path. Bedlam erupted as people made room and shouted. Katarina and Moire bolted up and planted themselves in front of Ludja. Kat brought her shield up to ward off the reprisal that would be coming, “Lu! What the hells?”
    “Oh, I’m not pretty,” Ludja sneered at Buffalo as he struggled to disentangle himself from people he had fallen upon. “I’m ugly! You want t’ see how ugly I can be?”
    “ENOUGH! EVERYONE STAND DOWN!” While the voice could not match Buffalo in sheer volume, it carried with the sound of authority. The crowd died down as the Master Sergeant strode into the empty space. “We came here to fight a war, not ourselves!”
    “Get outta th’ way, Sarge,” Buffalo growled.
    The Sergeant turned a withering look upon the Roe. Though the elezen had only a fraction of the mass, the Sergeant was one of the few around who could match Buffalo blow for blow, and win. “You will go and haul logs and forget about this,” he commanded.
    “Ain’t gonna happen.”
    “Now!” The tone of the Sergeant’s voice left no question this was an order. The two stared at each other for several seconds. Eventually Buffalo turned his head, spat at the ground, then pushed his way through the crowd. The Sergeant turned to the Tregardes, “You three, go help with clean up,” the Sergeant pointed towards the tents where food was prepared, “and forget about this.”
    “Not bloody likely,” said Ludja with a sneer.
    Kat grabbed Ludja’s shoulders and turned her away from the Sergeant, “what she meant was-”
    Moire stood ramrod straight and saluted, “Yes, sir, Master Sergeant sir! We’re beginning the cleaning up, sir!”
    The Sergeant grumbled something under his breath then turned in a slow circle. “Show’s over! We’re mustering up in half a bell, so get to it! Go!”
    The crowd dispersed while the Tregardes began collecting dishes and utensils. Seseparu stepped up to help. “Sarge saw the whole thing, but he’s got his hands full. You’ll have to be careful, that brute isn’t going to forget.”
    “He’d better if he doesn’t want a bolt to the back.” The implication was clear, Ludja was there as a healer, but in the heat of battle a different kind of spell could be cast and not noticed.
    Kat turned to her cousin. “Alright, Lu, the guy’s an ass, but did you have to-”
    “Don’t want to talk about it.”
    “But...?”
    “Not. Now. Trina.”
    Kat sighed and rolled her eyes, then lead the way to the kitchen tent, while Moire looked on with concern.
    The group had just set down the dishes and utensils they collected when a yelp came from the other side of the cleaning area. They all came around to find a cook scrambling back, pointing at a half uncovered supply wagon. Being the first to arrive, Moire asked what was going on. “There’s something in there!” the cook yelled.
    They all looked at the cart, just as something shifted. “That cabbage is moving,” remarked Kat.
    A moment later the green, leafy thing lifted from the cart. “That cabbage is flying,” said Ludja.
    “That’s not a cabbage, that’s a sylph!” exclaimed Moire with excitement.
    Seseparu looked at the creature as it rose. “What in blazes is a sylph doing out here?”
    The sylph’s gaze darted around. It was clearly frightened and disorientated. “Oh wait, I know what to do,” said Moire, then took a few quick steps towards the sylph. Moire then immediately raised a hand, and began to perform a rather comical dance. After several seconds the sylph’s shivering lessened. Moire smiled and said in a friendly tone, “Hi hi. Feel better?”
    “A-a little,” said the sylph in a high pitched voice.
    “That’s good. I’m Moire. Who are you?”
    “J-Jalaxio. You’re very silly,” the sylph said while Moire looked at it with her head tilted almost sideways.
    “That cabbage is very observant,” said Katarina.
    Moire turned and stuck her tongue out at her sister, which elicited a short giggle from the sylph. She then turned back to ask, “How did you get here?”
    Jalaxio looked around, “Th- this one is not even sure where here is.”
    “You’re on the north-western edge of the Twelveswood,” the Sergeant said as he approached, then turned to the gathering crowd. “Alright, how many times do I need to tell the lot of you? Get! We have a battle to prepare for!”
    “North west?” the sylph exclaimed in shock.
    Moire raised her hands and adopted a soothing tone, “Easy now. Take a deep breath. In... out. Now, tell us how you got in the cart.”
    Jalaxio did as she asked. While his breathing slowed, he told his story at a rapid pace. “This one was so excited to hear we’d finally be fighting back against the mean ones I followed some big ones back the really really big city because now we’re friends and there were so many big ones and one of them saw me and took me to where a lot of big ones were getting ready with their spears and bows and stuff and this one thought this one could guide them back but they weren’t ready yet and this one was hungry so this one went to find food and found a bunch of green leafy things and then this one was full so this one took a nap then it was really dark when this one woke so this one went back to sleep then it got bright and this one woke and this one here.”
    “Seven Hells, did it ever stop to breath during that?” said Seseparu, his eyes wide with awe.
    Katarina shook her head, “I don’t think so. I think I only made out about half of that.”
    Moire turned her head around “Jalaxio is a he. And I understood every word.”
    “Mo and cabbages speak the same language. Who knew?” teased Ludja.
    Moire made a dismissive gesture at Ludja and turned back to Jalaxio. “Okay, so, you followed someone back to Gridania, got hungry, found the cabbages, then took a nap... among the cabbages? Then you must have been asleep when the cart was covered, so you thought it was night when you woke up, so you went back to sleep, and just now you woke when the cart was uncovered.”
    The sylph nodded the whole time. “Can you help this one get back home so this one can fight the big mean ones?”
    The sergeant stepped closer. “Too late for that. The fighting at Castrum Oriens will be starting any minute. It’ll be over long before you could get there.”
    “What?” Jalaxio was on the verger of panic. “Oh no! What is this one going to do?”
    Moire’s ears and tail perked up, “You could stay here and fight with us! There’s going to be lots of big mean ones soon, aaaaand you’ll have an exciting story to tell everyone when you get home!”
    “R-really?” Jalaxio sniffled.
    The sergeant turned to Moire, “you seem to have a away with our friend here. You willing to take charge of him?” His tone made it clear this was closer to an order than a request.
    Moire gave her exaggerated salute to the sergeant, “Yes sir, mister sergeant sir!”
    The sergeant glowered at Moire for a moment then shook his head. “Good, I don’t have time to deal with a new recruit. Well, this just wasted a few precious minutes, dishes will have to wait. Get to your assignments.”
    “On our way, sergeant!” Seseparu give a quick, proper salute, then turned to his friends, “ladies, and gentleman, shall we?”
    Moire gave a beckoning wave to Jalaxio “Ooo, follow me and I’ll explain what’s going on!”
    “O-okay,” the sylph floated behind the miqo’te as they started towards their tent to get the last of their equipment.
    Luludja took a deep breath and looked at Katarian, “the moment of truth arrives.”
    Katarina nodded, “So it does.”
    “Just remember the most important rule out there,” Seseparu paused a moment, “don’t die. No heroics, no unnecessary risks. Our primary objective is to delay, not destroy.”
    Around them, as people made their final preparations, it was controlled chaos.

Edited by Tregarde

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OPERATION ARCHON

Battle

 

    A bell later the Allied forces were in place. The majority of the army was situated just out of sight of the rails, only a scattering of scouts could see when the train thundered by. Even out of view, it was clear the train was hurrying to join the fighting to the west. Seseparu called up to Moire, “how does it look up there?”
    Moire was one of the scouts watching the rails. “Like a big, ugly metal sausage link going zoom!”
    “Sausage link? Don’t think I’ve heard that one before.”
    Luludja shrugged, “That’s Mo for ya.”
    “What’s a sausage?” asked Jalaxio, who was hovering next to Moire.
    Katarina let out a quick sigh, “I remember when there wasn’t a rail going across Eorzea. Hells, I remember when Coerthas was a nice place to visit.”
    “Maybe those days will return,” the lalafell said.
    “Maybe. But in our lifetime?”
    Ludja tilted her head. “Sounds like it passed.”
    Moire hopped down from her perch at the top of the ridge. “It’s clear. You shoulda seen Butt-alo. He would have charged at the train right now if they let him.”
Kat flashed a lopsided smirk at her sister’s nickname for the irksome Roegadyn. “Should have let him, I bet it would be amusing. Weren’t you supposed to be watching the train and not us?”
    Moire shrugged, “Meh. Big metal monstrosities can only amuse you for so long.”
    A corporal from the Yellow Serpents came within earshot, “Alright, listen up! We just got word, a smaller train has been spotted headed this way. Get ready ‘cause we’re gonna see action. Got a quarter bell to piss or puke if you need to!”
    “What a lovely way to phrase it,” said Ludja.
    “Join the Adders for real if you want to hear even more colorful phrases,” said Seseparu.
    “Heh. You didn’t hear the things my aunt and uncle used to say. They practically vomited rainbows.”
    Katarina dropped her head while Moire piped up, “I can verify this.”
    The sylph did a little pirouette in the air, “This one likes rainbows. This one wants to meet them!”
    A call went out for the conjurers to assemble. The mages gathered, then began the ritual to call upon the elementals. A rumble more felt than heard began, then rock cracked, then a section of the ridge to the west looked like it sagged before breaking into an avalanche of earth, rock, and tree trunks. A minute later the tracks were blocked sufficiently that a small train had no chance of breaking through. As the dust settled it also became clear that berms had been erected a couple dozen yalms to either side of the rails.
    The master sergeant yelled, “You know your assignments, move out!”
    The Hatchlings swarmed over the ridge. Half moved to station themselves behind the near berm, half behind the berm on the far side. It wasn’t the most orderly advance, and the master sergeant shook his head at what he saw, but in the end the troops managed to get reasonably organized with a couple minutes to spare before the Imperial reinforcements arrived.
    Nervousness and anticipation filled the air. Seseparu glanced up, “at least we won’t have to worry about the fliers, the trains go too fast for them to keep up, especially when in a hurry.”
    Kat looked at the Lalafell, “someday we’re going to have to get the story how you know so much about the Garleans.”
    “Someday I might feel like telling that story,” he replied with a far away look.
    She could tell it was better than to press the issue. Kat glanced around at the assembled forces. Warriors were making sure armor was secure, mages making sure their minds were ready to manipulate aether, archers counting arrows and making sure they had spare strings for their bows. For all her goofball antics, Moire was as professional as any when it came to maintaining her gear. Some were cracking jokes, others praying to the gods. For not the first time Kat wished she had heavier armor - the light stuff she had was fine when escorting caravans and fending off bandits or beast men, but in the close quarters that was undoubtedly coming, with people shoulder to shoulder and enemies close enough to feel their breath, she would have welcomed the extra protection.
    Moire could sense her sister’s nervousness and placed a hand on Kat’s shoulder, “we’re going to be okay. I’m not gonna let any of those bastards touch my little sis,” she said and patted her bow, “and any I miss Lu will zap.” Ludja responded with a nod.
    “Not going to let me have any fun, eh?”
    “Nope,” Ludja said. “No fun for you. Stop being a little shite and accept your fate.”
    “This one will zap them too,” said Jalaxio enthusiastically.
    Seseparu couldn’t help but smile slightly at their banter then took a serious tone, “time to place your bets, will they try to stop or break through the barrier?”
    At that moment the call went out to prepare. Soon the sound of the approaching train could be heard from the east, rapidly growing louder. Skin tingled as protective spells were cast. The metal hulk came into view, then an ear-splitting metallic screech filled the air as the breaks were applied. Nearly everyone covered their ears. several seconds later the front of the train collided with the barrier, sending up a cloud of debris as is sunk in a few yalms before stopping.
    “Move up! Archers and mages at the ready!” shouted the master sergeant. The forces surged over the berms, the ones with shields in front to form an uneven line. Archers and mages stood on top of the berms so they had a clear shot over their allies.
    “Aim-” The air thrummed as both archers and mages readied their most powerful attacks. The plan was to take out as many Imperials as possible the moment the hatches opened. Hopefully the attack would be shocking enough to break their morale.
    “Oh, Seven Hells...” the master sergeant muttered when he spotted several figures racing across the field. Buffalo and some of his comrades were charging, determined to gain the glory of being the first to cut a swath through the Garleans. Archers and mages began to falter, unsure what to do. “STAY ON TARGET!”
    Then in unison, the hatches opened. Even as a small train, there were a few on either side.
    “FIRE!”
    Behind the hatches were magitek armors - the kind called Reapers - their cannons primed. They fired the instant the hatches cleared their line of sight. Buffalo tumbled as a bolt of energy hit the ground behind him, scattering the small group. Other bolts hit the assembled allied forces, some hit the ground. A second later the Reapers took the brunt of the assault against the Imperials. The machines stumbled, but weathered the attack, then began to move forward. Behind the Reapers were Vanguard magitek armors, their heavy armor and drill arms making them formidable in close quarters. Behind them the troops were waiting.
    “FOR GRIDANIA AND EORZEA! ADVANCE!” the master sergeant called out. The authority in his voice restored some of the morale lost from finding the Imperials prepared. The front line charged. Kat found herself swept up in the moment - shield up and sword raised, she had every intention of making sure those behind her could reach the battle. The archers and mages continued to fire at the war machines, many adjusting their aim for the open cockpits of the Reapers.
    With the armors taking most of the fire, the Imperial troops surged out of the hatches and began to form lines. On the ground Buffalo tried to get up. He wasn’t about to miss out on his chance to bloody his maul. But getting up was proving difficult. He looked down to see... his legs, where were his legs? They should be right there! He couldn’t comprehend what was happening - he was the Mighty Buffalo, nothing ever stopped him, where were his legs?
    He hadn’t even realized he had been screaming when the magitek armor stepped on him.
    From the rear line, Jalaxio cried out, “there’s so many of them!” when the Gridanian troops came around the magitek armors.
    “Just pick a target and stay on it till it goes down,” replied Moire as she adjusted her aim, homing in on what she felt was a healer among the Imperials. Even if the mage didn’t go down, keeping healers worrying about themselves meant they couldn’t worry about others. She used her skills to enchant the missile with poison before letting it fly.
    “Fools,” Ludja muttered, the ones who had tried to keep Buffalo and those who charged with him alive had only wasted their energies. She then began to cast a spell that would provide continual healing for a short time. This was going to get taxing on her aether reserves. She rarely resorted to elixirs, but right then she was glad she had several at the ready.
    Along the front line, the two armies collided. Yelling mixed with the sound of metal clashing against metal. Organization gave way to chaos. The only saving grace as the two forces intermingled was that standardized Imperial uniforms made them easy to pick out. Of course, the reverse was true for the Imperials, who only had to look for anyone not dressed in black with red trimmings. Spells and arrows flew overhead, having the high ground giving the Gridanian forces a slight advantage.
    The fighting was fierce, something happening on all sides. While tall for a Miqo’te, being surrounded by hyur, elezen and roegedyn meant Katarina had very limited sight of her surroundings. At times bodies were pressed so close together she didn’t have room to properly swing her sword. She had no time to think, only to act on instinct. An Imperial appeared and rained a flurry of blows on Kat, forcing her back as she barely managed to block each strike. She saw an opening and went low then thrust upward, her sword slipped under the Imperial’s helmet, though the hollow of the jaw, to pierce the skull. She immediately pulled her sword straight out lest it got stuck.
    The Imperial fell, to reveal a Reaper right behind. The Magitek armor looked like an over-sized, comical chocobo chick made out of black metal. It’s ‘mouth’ was wide open, the canon primed to fire. Katarina had only a fraction of a second to decide - she could dodge and save herself, or - she raised her shield and called upon the strongest protection she knew. She couldn’t survive the blast, but more importantly she couldn’t allow those behind her to die. Sorry, Ludja, I guess you were right. . .
    From the rear line, Moire saw her sister in trouble. She shifted her aim and let an arrow fly. But at this distance, it wouldn’t get there on time. No...
    From seemingly out of nowhere Sesparu appeared behind the Reaper’s pilot. In one swift motion the lalafell stabbed the pilot in the base of the skull while simultaneously swinging around to kick the controls of the machine. The Reaper swerved to its left. The canon discharged, right into the shoulder of a Vanguard armor, just as Moire’s arrow flew past where the pilot’s head had been a moment ago. The Vanguard’s arm dropped away in a shower of flame and sparks, while the rest of the machine tumbled to it’s side, crushing a couple Imperials.
    Seseparu jammed a dagger into the controls of the Reaper, then kicked it so it couldn’t be dislodged. The magitek armor lurched forward, straight down the Imperial line, to leave chaos in its wake as Imperials were either trampled or rushed to get out of the way. As quickly as he appeared, Seseparu hopped off the Reaper and disappeared into the melee.
    “Whoah-ho, did you see that!?” Moire exclaimed excitedly.
    “You mean the little miracle that just saved Trina’s life?” remarked Ludja.
    “This one couldn’t tell what happened,” said Jalaxio as he glanced around the battlefield. “Why is the mean one’s giant bird thing going crazy?”
    “Seseparu, that’s why!” Moire smirked then readied her bow once more. “Back to work, it’s not over yet.”
    “This one is getting tired, this one has never had to fight like this before.”
    “Here,” Ludja pulled one of her elixirs free and tossed it up to the sylph. “Drink up, should keep you going for a bit.”
    “Thanks!” Jalaxio’s tiny arms fumbled with the vial, but he was ultimately able to enjoy the rejuvenation it provided.
    Down on the front line, Katarina was dumbfounded at the incredible display of skill and timing from the lalafell. It had taken only mere seconds, but not only was she alive, but one of the Imperial armors was downed, and the other was on its way to wreck havoc among its masters. Cheers from her allies snapped her out of the daze. A quick scan around showed the Imperial line was in disarray. His yellow coat spattered with crimson, the master sergeant lead a wave of Hatchlings into the break to divide the Imperial forces. Kat joined the rush, finding easy targets among an enemy starting to fall into panic.
    The fighting went on for several more minutes. The Imperials attempted to rally a couple times, but to no avail. Arms were getting tired, the ground slick with mud as blood mixed with dirt. A contingent of Hatchlings were able to break into the train and hit the Imperials on the other side from their rear. Then the order went out - retreat. The Imperials made their back into the train, Hatchlings pressing on them the whole time, only falling back themselves when the massive hatches began to close. With a screech of wheels grinding on the rails, the train  dislodged itself from the debris barrier and reversed back where it came from.
    Cheers erupted as years of pent up frustrations were released. Horns blared and banners were raised. After years of being on the defensive, loosing ground to the Empire, after the horror of the Calamity, Eorzea had finally taken the offensive, and won! If this unruly band could send them packing, then surely the days of the Empire were numbered! Katarina looked to the rear lines to find Moire and Jalaxio dancing in little circles. Ludja spotted Kat then directed the others to her. The group waved and cheered. In response Kat raised her sword and whooped back. For the Tregardes the victory was especially sweet because it was the first time they had been able to strike back at the ones who had destroyed their family.
    They had struck back, and won.
    As the euphoria wore off, they became aware of other things. Cheers were replaced with the cries of pain, pleading to to the gods, to mothers, calls for healers. The air was thick with the smell of blood and offal, and burnt flesh. The field of battle was scatted with the remains of bodies no longer whole, some little more than shredded meat. The Tregardes were no strangers to battle, but the scale was much, much larger than anything they had seen before. This wasn’t a mere battle, this was war. Kat dropped her shield, it was so beaten it wasn’t worth salvaging, then bent over and vomited.
    Luludja’s heart sank as she scanned the aftermath. She checked, only one elixir left. Not enough, not nearly enough. She let out a deep sigh, then placed a hand on Moire’s shoulder. “Looks like my day is only just beginning.”
    Moire nodded, “I’ll get the supplies.”
    Jalaxio asked around a lump in his throat, “c-can this one help?”
    Ludja looked, he still had a small amount of the elixir she gave him. “Can you heal?” The sylph nodded. “Good, follow me.”
    After relieving herself of her breakfast, Katarina took a moment to catch her breath. She was suddenly very, very tired. She straightened herself up, sheathed her sword, then began the trudge back towards camp. She raised her hand to signal to Ludja she was intact enough to move on her own. Ludja nodded then began to administer to nearby injuries. The ground was littered with discarded weapons, but after several paces Kat noticed something familiar looking. She glanced around nearby. Oh no...
    Katarina knelt beside a nearby body. It was misshapen, trampled upon, covered in bloody mud.  But the body was intact enough to confirm the dagger she saw was indeed Seseparu’s. Tired as she was, Kat found the strength to lift the body out of the dirt, he deserved better than to be left like this. It was almost funny, she had not noticed how much grey was in the lalafell’s hair before. She resumed the trek back, her footsteps feeling as heavy as her heart.
    Luludja noticed Kat as she drew near, and the body in her arms. She began to move towards Kat and stopped when the Miqo shook her head. Ludja squeezed her eyes shut, there would be time for tears later. After steeling herself she glanced over Kat, “get that cleaned and bandaged, I’ll get to you when I can.”
    Katarina nodded. She didn’t know what injury Ludja had seen, she hurt all over, but it couldn’t have looked too serious if she wasn’t being tended to immediately.
    Moire came over the berm at a jog with a bag of medical supplies. She saw the bundle in her sister’s arms and for a moment felt joy. But, why was Ludja turning away? Surely if he was being carried Seseparu needed healing. Why did Jalaxio look sad? Moire gasped as the realization struck her. Katarina raised her head, and the look in her sister’s eyes only confirmed it. Tears slid down Moire’s cheeks as she gazed at what remained of her friend.
    It was an inglorious end for someone whose actions determined the tide of battle.
    It was the price of war. The price of victory.

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OPERATION ARCHON

Celebration

 

    By the time they had returned to Gridania, the city was in full celebration. All across Eorzea Operation Archon had been a success. Incredibly, the Black Wolf, Gaius van Belsar had been killed! The most powerful person in the Empire next to the Emperor himself! This was a blow that would throw the Imperial forces in Eorzea into disarray. It was a boost the whole land had needed.
    There was music and dancing in the streets. People cheered and thanked those who gone off to fight. Drinks flowed freely. For a short time it was easy to join in the festivities and enjoy being treated like heroes.
    Though not everyone had been celebrating. Many had lost loved ones and found it difficult to feel any sort of elation. Even among those who were celebrating, there wakes and toasts to ones who had been lost. The Tregardes had been passing through MMM when they heard one such toast to The Mighty Buffalo.
    Moire let out a hmph. “It’s not fair. They celebrate a stupid jerk who got himself killed, and nobody acknowledges the hero who brought us victory.”
    Katarina looked at the group. “Nope, not fair at all. Hells, I don’t recognize a single one of them, I doubt any of them were there to see how his ‘glorious’ charge ended.”
    Luludja turned to the table and rose her voice harshly, “hey, dimwits, if you’re going to worship a ‘hero’, find one who wasn’t a total arse who threatens to ra-”
    Kat had grabbed Ludja by the shoulders and pulled her away. Moire flashed an innocent smile and waved at the people were staring at them as they exited MM’s. “Bloody hells, Lu,” Kat said, “what is this grudge you have against him?”
    Ludja pulled her shoulders free and glowered, “don’t want to talk about it now.”
    “If not now, when?”
    Ludja looked away.
    Moire placed her hand on Ludja’s shoulder, “something’s bothering you. Maybe we can help if-”
    Ludja rounded on Moire with hatred in her eyes, “You want to know? Because what he said was the same thing the man who-” Ludja stopped herself and shut her eyes tightly.
    The twins were at first taken aback by Ludja’s outburst, but the meaning behind her unfinished sentence hit them like a blow to the gut. “Twelve...” Kat muttered under her breath.
    Moire stammered, “Lu... I... we had no idea... is there anything we...”
    A pair of tears slid down Ludja’s face. She spun around, then walked off at a brisk pace towards the Badger Bridge.
    “Lu, wait,” Moire called out and started to chase after, but Kat held her back and shook her head when Mo looked at her. Moire relented and let out a deep sigh.
    After a minute they followed Ludja’s path and before long found her sitting on the edge of the lake. Kat indicated Mo should stay put then walked over and sat beside Ludja.
    “Trina, I’m really not up to talking right now.”
    “That’s fine. Didn’t come here to talk,” Kat said as she wrapped her arm around Ludja’s shoulder.
    “Trina...”
    “Shut up. No talking.”
    Ludja was unsure what to do. But Kat wasn’t demanding anything, just... holding her. She soon let out a deep sigh and allowed herself to slump into the embrace.
    Moire watched and quickly caught on to what was going on. It was sometimes hard for the bard to realize when silence was the best option. She moved over to the other side of Ludja and silently placed her arm around her cousin. The three sat there like that for several minutes while Ludja shed tears and let her emotions run their course. Eventually she raised her head up and wiped her face.
    “Feel better?” Moire asked.
    “Enough that I’m not going to bite someone’s head off.”
    “Want to tell us what this is all about?” Katarina asked. “It’s alright if you don’t.”
    “Want to? No,” Ludja shook her head. “But I think it’s about time I did.”
    Moire asked, “you sure?”
    Luludja nodded. “Yeah. I don’t think I can keep it pent up anymore.” Ludja had spent much of the past several minutes thinking about whether she wanted to say anything, and then what to say once she was sure she had to speak. She took a deep breath while the twins waited for her to start. After steadying herself, she began.
    “First, I’d like to say I do not hate either of you. Honestly, I’m glad you had each other to watch out for the other. But as you know, those first moons after the Calamity were rough, especially for someone who had no home, no money, nothing but the clothes she was wearing. I didn’t have someone to look after me. And when you’re just one more refugee, alone, tired, and hungry, and ‘oh so pretty’-”
    There was a slight pause, long enough for the twins to realize what they heard. Someone who didn’t know Ludja might have thought she had done a bad impression of Buffalo. But they knew Ludja, they knew she could have imitated him a lot better. No, this was someone else, someone whose voice was was seared into her memory. But there was just enough similarity to Buffalo that it must have brought back things she’d rather forget when he said it.
    “- well, you do what you must to survive.”
    Katarina shook her head, “no one should be forced to do that just to survive.”
    “How...” Moire was at a loss for words, “how long did it go on?”
    Ludja shrugged. “If you were to mark the days on a calendar, not long. But...”
    Kat muttered, “even one moment is one moment too many.”
    Ludja nodded and wiped under her eyes. Moire tilted her head to rest the side against Ludja’s shoulder, “then what happened?”
    “It didn’t take long to notice that he liked to drink himself senseless at night. A little encouragement and he would pass out before...” Ludja didn’t need to finish the sentence, the twins understood what she meant. “Actually, I was surprised none of the other girls had tried that. Oh yeah, there were three other girls. Anyroad, it wasn’t difficult to figure out his habits and to use them to my advantage. Before long I learned where he kept the money and valuables. All I had to do then was get the combination, which proved surprisingly easy. Once I had that I made sure that night to get him just drunk enough to tie him down without a struggle. Then I went to the kitchen and got the sharpest knife. Then I waited for the booze to wear off enough that he was aware what was happening, I wanted him to know. Then I slit his throat. It was almost funny watching him try to yell while his life bled out.”
    Moire and Katarina were no strangers to killing, defending one self or others in the heat of battle is one thing, but what Ludja described was cold blooded murder. They both felt a little shock that their cousin could be capable of such. But at the same time, were either of them in her position, would they have acted any different?
    “So after making sure I was the last thing he ever saw, I went to the safe and emptied it. Then I gave a share to each of the other girls. Of course they were shocked to learn what I had done, but they weren’t going to turn down a chance at freedom. Except one,” Ludja let out a heavy sigh and shook her head. “Stupid twit actually ran to his room and tried to save him. Why? He treated her the worst of all of us, and she tried to save him. I just don’t get it.”
    Moire said quietly, “some people are so afraid of loss they will latch on to any sense of stability, even if it’s a false one.”
    “It’s bloody stupid.” Ludja wiped at her eyes and composed herself before continuing. “Had to drag the idiot out before the flames took her with him. Gods, it felt good watching that place burn.”
    “I can only imagine,” Kat half whispered.
    “So, after that, I had enough to survive in comfort for a while. Traveled a bit, looking for a place to fit in, then lo and behold I did,” Ludja patted a knee of each sister. “You know the rest.”
    There was a moment of silence before Moire said quietly, “I knew there was something different about you, but I never guessed...”
    “You weren’t supposed to,” Ludja replied plainly.
    “That you actually kept your wits about you like that...” Kat shook her head, “that’s damn impressive. Don’t know if I could have.”
    Moire lifted her head. “You’d have broken the jaw of the jerk for just soliciting you then looked at a few nights in prison as worth it.”
    “Yeah, probably.”
    Luludja let out a faint chuckle. “I just hope neither of you are ever in a position of such desperation to test that.”
    Katarina give Ludja a quick hug then asked, “do you know what happened to any of the other girls?”
    “One found new employment doing, well, much the same. But under much better work conditions. She’s actually doing pretty good now. The others, no idea. I imagine the twit found some new arse to abuse her and confuse it for love.”
    Moire sighed. “It can be difficult to help someone who doesn’t even realize she needs help.”
    There was another moment of silence, then Ludja planted her feet and stood up. “Alright, enough moping. There’s a celebration over there,” she pointed at Gridania, “and we’re bloody war heroes! So lets get back in there and act like it!”
    The two were stunned by this sudden shift for a second, then Moire hopped up, “I like this plan!”
    Katarina stood up. “You sure you’re up to this?”
    Ludja planted her hands on her hips and glared at Kat, “you think I would have suggested it if I wasn’t?”
    “I think you might be trying to forget about it.”
    “Of course I am,” Ludja said bluntly. “But one night of fun isn’t going to make it go away. Nothing will. But right now I want to celebrate kicking the Empire’s ass. And if tomorrow I feel like crying my eyes out, then I’m not going to hold it in any longer.”
    Kat blinked a couple times, then nodded, “deal.”
    Moire pulled the other two into a group hug, “and if you need a shoulder, you got us.”
    “Counting on it,” Ludja said over Moire’s head.
    “Buuuut first, mind if we make a little detour first?”
    “You just said ‘first’ twice,” Kat pointed out.
    “Did I? Heh, I guess I did,” Moire chuckled.
    Ludja humphed. “Fine, detour first. But better be worth it.”

    A short walk later the trio found themselves in a graveyard. The most notable feature was the number of freshly dug graves. The three were not the only ones there, but one visitor in particular stood out. “Jalaxio,” Moire chimed up cheerfully and sped up to greet the sylph.
    “You all came!” Jalaxio did a pirouette. “This one is so happy to see you all again.”
    “What in blazes are you doing here?” Kat asked as she approached. “I thought you went home because it was too noisy here.”
    “This one did go home. But this one came back to say goodbye,” the sylph looked down at a gravestone with the name Seseparu engraved on it. “And it’s not too too noisy here here, but a lot of people keep staring at this one.”
    “Well, sylphs are kinda rare near the city.”
    Luludja glanced sidelong at Moire, “you knew he’d be here, didn’t you?”
    Moire turned her eyes skyward, “I miiiight have sent word to Little Solace.”
    Ludja looked to Jalaxio, “Good to see you again, cabbage.”
    The group let out a quiet chuckle, then by some silent signal they gathered around Seseparu’s resting place. Katarina knelt down and placed her hand on the tombstone. “Well, friend, brief though we knew you, you made an impact on us all. Thanks to you many lives came back that would have been lost; not least of all, my own.”
    “If he’s watching, I know he’d be glad to know his friends made it back.” The group turned to see the Master Sergeant. He was dressed in regular clothes, an arm in a sling, but they had no trouble recognizing his presence.
    “Yay! More came,” exclaimed Jalaxio.
    Moire stood straight and saluted, “Good afternoon, Master Sergeant sir!”
    The Master Sergeant waved her down, “at ease, we’re not on duty.”
    “What brings you out this way? Besides the obvious,” Ludja waved a hand around the graveyard.
    “The same as you, to say goodbye to a friend.”
    Katarina stood up. “You seem to have known him for some time, what was his story?”
    The Sergeant paused for a moment. “How much did he tell you?”
    Moire shrugged, “nothing, really.”
    Ludja nodded, “the best we got when asked was he said he might feel like telling his story, someday. Got the feeling that ‘someday’ would be a long way off.”
    The Sergeant let out a sigh, “then it’s not my story to tell, sorry.”
    “Awww...” Jalaxio was saddened.
    Katarina crossed her arms. “We can make some educated guesses. First, there was the fact that he knew exactly how to sabotage a warmachina.”
    Moire nodded, “he knew a lot about Garlean tactics.”
    “And then there was his accent,” said Ludja. “It was faint, but you could hear it if you paid attention.”
    “He was a Garlean defector, wasn’t he,” Kat said, more as a statement than a question.
    Jalaxio did a double-take, “what? He was?”
    The Master Sergeant narrowed his eyes and looked at the Tregardes while he thought. In the end he relented, “fine, but I’m only saying this to stop you from digging for answers where you shouldn’t. It goes no further, understood?”
    The Sergeant waited for everyone to agree before continuing. “You are half right, he was an Imperial defector, not Garlean,” he stressed the words to make sure they understood the difference. “He originated from one of their outer provinces. He came here as a spy, but over time saw we weren’t the ‘savages’ the Empire likes to portray us as. He saw that we wanted to stop the Primals too, and that an alliance would have been more productive. When he learned about the Meteor Project and its goal of slamming a moon on Eorzea to wipe out the whole continent, he couldn’t abide such senseless destruction. So he came to our side to try and stop it. After Carteneau, there was no way he could return.”
    He gave a moment for what he said to sink in. “Of course ‘Seseparu’ wasn’t his real name, but it’s the only name you’ll get from me. Ask around and you may learn about a mercenary who specialized in covert operations.  If you’re smart, you won’t ask around.”
    “Understood loud and clear, Sarge,” Kat said with a nod.
    “Wow,” Moire half whispered with astonishment. “To give up his home, maybe even family, and fight against his former countrymen... and this is all he gets,” she looked down at the tombstone.
    Ludja sighed, “It’s more than some get.”
    “It’s sad,” said Jalaxio. “He saved so many, he deserves better.”
    Katarina thought of the moment when she was sure her life was over. ‘No unnecessary heroics,’ the lalafell had said, not long before she had raised her shield to protect others. She wasn’t trying to be heroic, the thought wasn’t anywhere near her mind, only the necessity of what she was doing. “He didn’t do it for recognition, he didn’t want fame or any of that; he did it because it had to be done. The ones who wanted to be heroes got themselves killed before the fighting even started.”
    “Still, maybe I’ll write a song,” Moire said, then looked to the Master Sergeant. “I’ll omit certain details! Maybe... just make him the ‘mysterious lalafell’ who saves the day.”
    Jalaxio brightened up, “I want to hear it!”
    “Give me time to write it first!”
    The Sergeant rubbed the bridge of his nose, “Gods give me strength.”
    “Welcome to life with Moire,” said Ludja.
    Katarina shook her head, then looked to elezen. “Come to think of it, I’m not sure if I’ve even heard your name. It’s always been ‘sergeant’ or ‘master sergeant.’”
    “It’s Vandemeulieubroucienne”
    “That’s a mouth full,” exclaimed Moire.
    “Vandoo... Vamda...” Jalaxio stammered, then lowered his head in defeat.
    Katarina chimed, “Sarge it is.”
    “Well,” Ludja said, “as enjoyable as these pleasantries are, I do believe we have a celebration to return to. Let us wish our friend here well as he returns to the Lifestream, as I am certain he wouldn’t want us mourning over him for long.”
    “Quite true,” the Sergeant agreed.

    After paying their respects, the group made their way to exit the graveyard. They said farewells to Jalaxio as he went east to return to his village, Moire promising to visit soon. Then the rest made their way to Gridania. The Sergeant asked, “any of you planning to joining the Adders formally?”
    The Tregardes glanced at each other before Katarina replied, “that’s... not an easy answer. It’s something each of us will have to think about.”
    “We have tasted victory, and it is both bitter and sweet,” said Moire poetically, “and it takes someone with a strong stomach to take a sip a second time.”
    It took a moment for the words to sink in, then Katarina elbowed her sister, “Hey! Was that a dig at me?”
    Moire snickered then rubbed her side, “ow.”
    Ludja glanced at the Sergeant, “you sure you want these two in the Adders?”
    “The Empire won’t stay away for long,” he said. “And when they come, we’ll need every hand we can get.”
    “Well, they are not coming tonight. So for now, we celebrate!” Katarina raised her voice, as if leading a charge.
    Moire cheered.
    “Come on,” Ludja waved at the Sergeant, “first round’s on us.”

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