It starts, as most good mysteries do, with a note.
Small children are not an uncommon sight around the Sandsea. There are always a few hanging around, hoping to earn a bit of gil running messages and errands, and the patrons are usually happy to provide.
So when the small boy appears in the doorway, Fran tracks his movements more out of habit than any real curiosity. It is only when he catches sight of her and begins making a direct line for her table that she sits up and takes particular notice.
When he arrives, he doffs his cap respectfully. "I'm looking for the Viera, Fran, who partners with the hume, Balthier. Might you be her, ma'am?"
"I am, child."
"I was told to give you this, ma'am." He hands out a neatly folded note, which Fran takes and places on the table without a second glance.
"Were you told to wait for a response?"
"Be off with you then. You did well, child," she says, and hands him a few small coins.
He nods again and scampers off. Only after he is out of sight does Fran turn her attention to the note.
Even before she picks it up, she knows it is from someone who knows her better than passingly well. Most humes assume she can neither read nor write.
She can. In several languages.
The note is sealed with wax, but is unstamped, giving no clue as to the creator's identity.
She breaks the seal and quickly skims the contents. When she finishes, she places it back on the table and indulges in a rare, heartfelt sigh.
This will certainly complicate things.
"Your apprentice has been kidnapped," she says to Balthier when he returns to the table, and she slides the note towards him.
"I don't have an apprentice," he replies automatically, even as he reaches for the parchment.
She watches his face as he reads the note, once, twice, three times, as if to convince himself that the contents say what he thinks they do.
"They can't be serious!" he says eventually and pushes the note away in disgust.
"Perhaps. But that the missive was delivered to me, and not to you, suggests they wish it to be taken seriously," Fran points out. "They likely knew you would dismiss them outright."
Balthier swears under his breath. "I suppose we ought to find out if the boy really has been taken."
Fran stands without a word and follows her partner out of the Sandsea. She is unsurprised when he takes a direct route to Migelo's. Finding Vaan himself in the city would a near impossible task - even if he were around. Much better, then, to go directly to the person who should know where he is.
"Vaan?" Penelo says in surprise. Her nose scrunches up, and Fran knows it's a sign that she is worried. "I haven't seen him in a couple of days. Which is funny, because he was supposed to bring a crate of scarves from Archades yesterday. I assumed it was just Vaan being Vaan."
"Oh blast. I was hoping they were having me on. I suppose we'd best figure out what to do," Balthier says to Fran.
Penelo narrows her eyes and glares at Balthier. "What's going on?"
"Nothing you need to worry your pretty little head about, love."
"Balthier." Penelo's voice has an edge to it, and Fran is entertained to see her partner squirm under the girl's steady gaze.
While Balthier dissembles, Fran merely hands the note over to Penelo, who reads it quickly.
"They can't be serious!"
"Precisely what I said."
"They've probably got him stuffed in the deepest corner of the Henne Mines, as well." Penelo stretches a little. "Good thing I've stayed in shape. We're going to have to - "
"What is this 'we'?"
"I'm going with you, of course."
Balthier opens his mouth to object, but shuts it again when he sees Fran's glare.
"I suppose we best get to it, then. Meet us at the Strahl."
As they take off from the Rabanastre Aerodrome, Penelo stares out the window. There's a sandstorm brewing in the Westersand, a rare occurrence since they defeated the Earth Tyrant. They circle around Rabanastre airspace, gaining altitude, and her view shifts to the south. Dark clouds billow over Giza, and she knows the rains will soon start.
"It is the rainy season now," Fran says, having noticed the same thing.
"Wonderful. At least we can fly over it, rather than slog through it."
Unfortunately, no sooner than Balthier finishes speaking, the airship gives a sharp jolt and begins to shake.
"The Gods are toying with us."
"Again," Balthier agrees, fighting to maintain control and altitude.
The Strahl shakes again and he swears as he tries to make sense of the information appearing on his console.
"Damn, it looks like the power coupling has got out of alignment somehow," he says eventually.
"I'm on it," Penelo says and hops up from her seat, to make her way down to the engine room. She is glad of something to do. It is hard to sit passively and watch her friends struggle with the ship.
Balthier glances at his partner, expecting her to object, but Fran remains quiet.
"It seems our little Penelo has turned into quite the airship mechanic."
"She is an apt pupil," Fran says.
"You've been teaching her?"
"Just because you refuse to take on an apprentice does not mean all of us are so stubborn. She has nimble fingers and she listens well," Fran replies, and then shuts her mouth and that's all Balthier can get out of her.
Soon, the shaking stops, although they continue to slowly lose altitude, and Penelo reappears, wiping her hands on a rag.
"I've realigned the coupling, but there's something about the storm that's interfering with the hover. I've never seen anything like it before. We'll have to put down until it passes, and go the rest of the way on foot. She's going to need some serious time in the docks with Nono before she'll fly properly again."
"Damn." Balthier sighs heavily and begins to maneuver the airship downwards. He lands in the driest place he can find (which isn't very) and opens the hatch.
"Ah, Giza in the rains. Elementals and turtles larger than an imperial runner. My favorite things in the world." He jumps lightly down the steps and stomps on the ground around the ship. "Well, I don't think she'll sink into the mud, at least. Would be a shame to lose her like that. Something terribly undignified about such an end to a nobel airship."
"Worry about dignity later," Fran says from the weapons locker. She's strung her bow and tosses Balthier the katana he's been favoring lately. Penelo grabs her pole and straps a crossbow to her back, and they set out into the wet.
The creatures who roam the plains in the rain are mostly content to stay out of their way, although they are forced to deal with a few crocs and the aforementioned turtles. They are nearly to the edge where Giza turns into Ozmone, and the rain is lightening, when a loud squawk causes all three of them to turn.
A giant ball of feathers is charging at them, and several higher pitched squeaks indicate that there are chicks not far behind.
"I was rather fancying a drumstick for dinner," Balthier says as he hacks at the bird.
"I think the meat might be a little gamey," Penelo replies, circling around behind to give it a few good whacks.
"I have faith in your cooking abilities."
Penelo grunts and attacks again. "Does this remind anyone else of those stupid Cluckatrices we fought right after we met you?" she asks, dodging a kick from the bird. "Only a lot soggier."
Her observation actually makes Balthier stop cold for a moment, but Fran calmly picks off the chick that charges at him. "You know, it rather does. Frightening thought, that. I wonder. . . "
"Perhaps it would be prudent to finish this fight and then think about the ramifications of someone recreating Marks," Fran admonishes, and picks off another sodden ball of feathers.
When the birds are dead, Balthier stares at them until Penelo tugs on his arm and they set off again. He remains preoccupied as they move across Ozmone, dodging snakes and Wus.
It is not until they arrive in Jahara, to pick up chocobos, that he seems to come back to the here-and-now.
Penelo is well-liked by most who have met her, and the Garif are no exception. Within minutes of their arrival, she has charmed the warriors who are standing guard at the bridge, and is chatting with them casually.
"Please be careful," the warrior says to her. "I know you are a powerful warrior, despite your small size, but we have been hearing disturbing tales of a creature wandering the plains. A creature killed once before, and now returned."
Balthier gives him a sharp look. "The Enkelados, perhaps?"
The Garif shrugs. "Perhaps. I have not seen this creature myself, but those who have said it resembles a slaven."
"Well now. Isn't that interesting?"
"A coincidence?" Fran asks.
"I don't believe in coincidences. Not ones like this, anyhow."
"Nor I. Come. Our chocobos will travel too swiftly for any such creature to bother us."
They set off again across Ozmone plain, and they do catch a glimpse of a giant, shambling creature in the distance. Balthier and Fran exchange worried looks.
"Why would these creatures be showing up again? I thought we defeated most of them before." Penelo asks as they dismount at the entrance to the Henne Mines.
"We did. Someone is twisting creatures into these abominations. The land is crying out against it."
"We'll proceed with caution," Balthier says, peering into the dark of the mine. "Someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to get us here. It wouldn't surprise me at all if they've left a welcoming committee for us as well."
Penelo wouldn't really call it a 'welcoming' committee, but there is certainly a committee of reconstructed Marks waiting for them. Fortunately, the native creatures have shown remarkable good sense, and have buggered off to parts unknown, so at least they don't have to fight through them as well.
"Do we know where in Henne they're keeping Vaan?" she asks as they pause for a brief moment.
Their last fight against a Marlith-type creature was their most taxing yet. Penelo breaths a sigh of relief as Fran's healing spell washes over her. She can feel the muscle in her leg knitting itself back together.
They'd found the door to the Ore Separation area, where they'd rescued Mjrn, locked and sealed with magic, forcing them to go the long way around.
Balthier shrugs. "You know as much as we do. If we're lucky, he'll be in the Ore Separation area, and we can high-tail it out of here."
"Incoming," Fran warns, her bow pointed down the shaft.
"Which means he's more likely to be in that section where the esper was, right?" Penelo says with a muffled sigh as Balthier helps her to her feet.
"Of course," Balthier agrees, and they turn to face the next creature.
As it turns out, Vaan is being held in the Ore Separation area - along with a very large dragon.
They find him, bound and unconscious, tucked in one of the doorways, out of reach of the dragon. Penelo isn't sure if that's a good sign or not and there is no trace of his captors.
"Took you guys long enough," Vaan complains when he awakes.
"Oh yeah? What's a mighty sky pirate like yourself doing getting kidnapped in the first place? And how would you know how long it's been? You were knocked out," Penelo retorts.
"Argue later, children," Balthier scolds. "Right now, we have a very angry dragon to attend to."
Penelo hands over her pole to Vaan, and loads her crossbow. She and Fran take up positions at the edge of the room, while Vaan and Balthier move in to occupy the dragon's attention.
"I really hope this one isn't as big as Yizmat," Vaan says, trying to circle around behind the creature.
"I certainly hope not. I haven't the supplies for a three-day fight."
"It's times like these when I really miss Basch and his great big sword," Penelo says, casting yet another healing spell on Vaan.
"Oh do you, now?" Balthier asks.
"Almost as much as I'm sure you miss Ashe's," she replies sweetly.
Fran makes a choking sound, like she's trying not to laugh, and Penelo grins.
"Why. Won't. This. Thing. Just. Die?" Vaan complains, punctuating each word with a good solid whack on the dragon's neck.
"To annoy you."
Eventually, it does, though, and everyone slumps wearily against the walls.
"So we can go now, right?" Penelo says, eyeing the locked door with longing. "I mean, the dragon was what was sustaining the magic on that lock, right?"
Fran wanders over and touches the lock with her finger. "The mist is no longer clinging to it. It is a simple mechanical lock once more. A work of mere moments."
"Great, let's go."
"Um." Vaan stops them all with a syllable, and they turn to him.
"Don't you want to find out who did this?"
"Not particularly, no. There are far better things I could be doing with my time."
"I was also told to give you this, Balthier."
Vaan holds out out a small object. Balthier snatches it quickly, and stares at it. Peering over his arm, Penelo can see that it is a small carved figure, like the ones she has seen Archadian children playing with.
"The man who gave this to you. Describe him."
Vaan shrugs. "Short, stocky, light colored hair. But I don't think he was the one in charge. I think he was just a flunky."
"There are but few who could get hold of that toy, and fewer still who would know to give it to you," Fran points out gently. "Do you wish to leave such a mystery behind you?"
"Blast," he says again. "Further into Henne, then?"
"I guess so," Vaan agrees. "While they were dragging me in here, one of them mentioned going back to their base afterwards. It didn't sound like they needed to go very far."
They make their way through the Phase 2 Dig, heading directly for the Special Charter Dig, where the esper Zodiark had once resided.
The corridors are strangely un-populated, and their footsteps are oddly loud on the packed dirt.
"If whoever is making these creatures is working out of here," Balthier says when Penelo comments on the quiet, "it makes sense that there wouldn't be anything here. They've probably captured the local population to do experiments on, and don't want to release any of their creations too close to home. It's a good indication that we're headed in the right direction."
As they approach the large room, Fran suddenly motions for everyone to stop. Her long ears twitch, picking up sounds that the humes cannot.
"There are men up ahead," she says quietly. "They are waiting for us, but they do not expect us yet. They think the creatures will slow us down more."
"Then let's go disabuse them of that notion, shall we?"
Balthier and Vaan rush into the room, with Fran and Penelo close behind.
Balthier catches sight of the man in the middle of the room and comes as close to looking unruffled as Penelo has ever seen him.
Vann stops and stares at Balthier. "'You'? Is that all you have to say? I thought the 'leading man' was always supposed to be ready with a witty comment."
Balthier ignores him, and keeps his focus on the man in front of them. "I should have known it was you. Who else besides the twisted minds of Draklor would try to recreate the most dangerous Marks in Ivalice."
The man gives a mocking bow. "And the prodigal son finds his way back to the nest yet again. You just can't seem to stay away from us, can you, Ffamran - or should I call you Balthier?"
"It doesn't much matter what you call me, Randas," Balthier says and then turns slightly to the rest of the group. "Randas was Dr. Cid's assistant at Draklor, he's probably off his rocker by now. To be honest, I had completely forgotten about him."
"Forgotten - forgotten! They all forgot me!" Randas begins to pace back and forth, waving his arms wildly. "It was always about Cid. Their precious Cid, their clever Cid. He gets all credit, even now. Never mind that I did more than half the work. Never mind that I was the one who first figured out the secrets of the magicite. It was all Cid, always Cid. But no more! My creatures will ravage this world, and I will walk behind them, and everyone will bow before me. Never again will I be forg - "
The rest of his rant is cut off when Vaan, who has snuck up behind him, gives him a sharp crack on the head with his pole.
"Sorry," Vaan says, somewhat sheepishly. "I just couldn't take it anymore. Is he for real?"
"Well that does make things easier," Balthier says dryly. He turns to the other men in the room. "Alright, you lot, here's the deal. We don't want any trouble. Frankly, we're sick of fighting. So you all can just run off and we won't mention this again. Got it?"
Randas's hired flunkies all nod happily, and scramble out of the room.
"So what do we do with him?" Penelo asks, nudging the still-unconscious Randas with her foot.
"I suppose just slitting his throat is out of the question?"
"It would cause us more trouble than he is worth," Fran says, ever the voice of reason.
"I bet Larsa could do something with him," Vaan says. "He worked in Draklor, right? That kind of makes him Archades's problem, doesn't it?"
"You might just be onto something, there. Now we just have to worry about how to get him there."
"Yeah, I don't think he'll come with us quietly if we woke him up." Vaan hops up onto one of the tables and starts to leaf through a stack of papers he had been about to shove aside. "Hey what are these?"
"Blueprints," Fran says, glancing over his shoulder. "Plans for the creatures he created. Bring those too. Larsa will need to see them."
"But how are we getting him all the way to Archades? I'm not carrying him."
"Let's worry about getting him out of here first."
"I've got that covered," Penelo says. She clears off one of the tables and flips it over. Pulling a small hand axe out of her bag, she quickly removes the legs.
"Bind him to the table top," she says. "I don't want him falling off."
Balthier and Vaan look at each other and shrug, but do as she asks. They've both learned not to argue with Penelo when she starts giving orders.
When Randas has been secured, Penelo casts float on the table top and ties a leather strap to it. She takes a few experimental steps and it follows along behind her easily.
"There, that should get him out of these mines, anyway. We can strap him to a chocobo, and figure things out when we get back to Jahara."
"Impressive," Balthier says. "Well, then, let's be off. I think we've about out-stayed our welcome here."
Fran and Penelo lead them out of the mines, deep in a low voiced discussion about the Strahl. Randas's body floats along behind them, and Balthier and Vaan bring up the rear of their little parade.
"So, apprentice, huh?" Vaan says.
"Don't even think about it."
"Awww. But - "
"But - "
"But - "
"I said no."
"I could - "
"Not helping. . ."