Welcome back, everyone! If you missed the first part of this post, you’ll want to take a gander at that before jumping in. Otherwise, I’m going to get out of my own way and back to the story in progress! As a heads up, this post has once again gone long, and so there will be a Part 3.2 coming soon to wrap things up. That one should be less storytelling and more plans for the future.
The ancient stranger’s carefully nurtured plan ended in the span of a breath, with a single gunshot fired by the true villain; the secret architect of all that had come before, and all that would soon follow. The stranger’s sacrifice would have undone his plans, if left unchecked, and it had taken him too long to recognize the threat in his midst. The hero, helpless in the throes of his best friend’s spell, could only look on as the red-haired boy-turned-old-man collapsed to the ground in agony.
Seizing his opportunity, the villain taunted the hero with the knowledge that soon, he would become nothing more than the final source of his friends’ suffering. He invited the hero to his own realm, in order to complete his vile transformation into a monstrous, slavering fiend. And then he left, carrying what had once been a red-haired boy with him, determined to steal the secrets that the stranger had kept hidden for generations — meant for the friend he’d always cherished.
The hero, still burdened by the threat of transformation, grieved a second time — for many things. The loss of a second chance to speak his mind and share his adventures with the closest thing he’d ever known to a best friend. The betrayal by that best friend — orchestrated in part specifically to prevent him from stopping what amounted to a heroic suicide. The knowledge of what could have been, if they’d only had time to talk man-to-man, without secrets or lies or mysteries; without worlds to save or fates to obey. The inevitable march toward yet another unbearable farewell.
More secrets and lies emerged in the days to come. Seeking answers in the red-haired boy-turned-old-man’s private sanctum, the hero discovered what amounted to his final farewell: nothing but an endless assortment of books. Between their covers lay the entirety of the hero’s journey since the very beginning. Half of them contained detailed events that were yet to occur.
The truth defied his best attempt at words.
The red-haired boy — back when he was still a boy — had indeed slept for generations as he’d planned. Eager to greet a world prepared to use the secrets locked inside his tower for the good of mankind, he opened his eyes at last. However, the world outside his tower was not as he had dreamed. Violence and despair had claimed all, leaving ash in its wake. The hero that had once guided his steps and stood at his side had perished in pursuit of the future he — they — had wanted. His emergence from sleep was an accident, brought about by desperate survivors seeking a way to prevent the end of days.
His tower was meant to be a beacon of hope — but all hope had been utterly, irretrievably lost.
And so it was that the red-haired boy — ever reckless, ever brave — channeled his grief into making the impossible possible, in order to turn back the hand of fate. With the combined might of his tower’s many secrets, and the advanced technology of the future in which he’d woken, he and the last survivors of that shattered future forged a path that dared to lead backward through the fabric of space and time. It would send both him and his tower to a different place and time — well before the fatal blow that had ended the life of the hero that once stood alone against disaster.
From there, it would be up to him to navigate his way to the still-living form of the hero he had known and prevent his death at all costs. Then, and only then, would the peaceful future he’d longed for be a possibility. Only then would he, too, be worthy of standing by his beloved hero’s side. And as the caretaker of the tower and its secrets, only he had the power to do what needed to be done.
The future he left behind would perish for want of a miracle. And yet, the battle-scarred survivors of that future, the distant progeny of the hero’s friends back in his own place and time, threw in their lot with his. To bring back the one man who could make a difference was an honor too great to refuse. Their sacrifice left its own scars on the red-haired boy. It was only natural, then, that he would put his own life on the line again, for the sake of their memory. For the sake of the hero they all loved.
And so he gave something more of himself, too: his own body, linking himself permanently with the fabric of his own tower. The change would keep him alive for the duration of the journey.
But even with all the arcane knowledge available to him, the crossing of space and time could not be accurately predicted, The course he’d set missed its mark — by approximately one hundred years.
But like the hero in whose footsteps he followed, he was never one to be thwarted by circumstance. And so he devoted the next hundred years of his borrowed, temporary, impossible existence to aiding the strange new world he’d come to with a smile. At the end of those one hundred years, he would finally see the face of his beloved hero once more.
By then, he would need a plan; a way to ensure success at any cost — even at the cost of their very friendship itself if it came to that. Anything else… was unthinkable.
- I have never been as much of a wreck during any form of entertainment as I was for these scenes. G’raha’s sacrifice to become the Crystal Exarch is moving, even if your character doesn’t return his affections. And the game walks you through it in searing detail, making it very clear what has been done in your name and why. You aren’t just some no-name hero anymore. You’re someone that once died in defense of the people you loved… people you inspired. And because of that inspiration, they loved you enough to save you when you couldn’t save anyone anymore.
- G’raha’s own path is an example of this. It is his experience with your character during the events of the raids he’s part of that leave him aching to be his own hero. Only your faith in him gives him the chance to become what he most wants to be. When he wakes in the future to find his friend and hero dead, there is nothing in any world that will prevent him from doing what he must — because he learned that from you. His strength is equivalent to yours.
- Raphail took all of this… very, very badly. He’s always struggled with feelings of inadequacy and a pathological fear of failure. He’s never thought of himself as a hero, even if he always dreamed about someday growing up to be like the heroes in the stories he read as a kid. Not only did he clearly fail when it mattered most (in the future the Crystal Exarch came back in time to prevent) but countless people perished to save him. He was nowhere near ready to accept that he was worthy of such sacrifice; that he meant so very much to the people he’d come to love.
Lost in his grief and terrified at the prospect of becoming a threat to his friends and both realms at once, the hero nearly gave in to madness — but he was not truly alone. The fear that his friends might turn on him in a preemptive bid for safety was unfounded; they never thought twice before offering their trust and companionship every time he faltered. By their side, he made his way to the enemy’s stronghold with a steely resolve in his eyes. If the red-haired boy he loved yet lived, there would be words between them both! — but only after the true villain was defeated. Only if he survived.
He would have to do his best to contain the twisted suffering inside himself until then. There was no other choice. That meant relying on those around him for the first time in history, instead of being the protector he’d been for all of his life. It did not come easily.
In the end, though, he contained it as long as he needed to. As the true villain rallied to make his final stand, the hero’s friends stood at his side, prepared. The wounded red-haired boy-turned-old-man staggered into the room, still too stubborn and brave to give his friend and hero the final moment of victory despite his grievous injuries. United in their purpose, the villain could be no match for their might… or so it should have been. The toll taken on the hero’s body by the desperate battle proved to be too much. He faltered at the last moment, one false step away from transformation.
It was then that he remembered that this realm was never his to save. Once upon a time, there had been a hero just like him in the ancient stranger’s world. That hero had friends of his own, all of whom had perished in defense of their realm. Only the ghost of his counterpart remained to walk by his side, offering advice and friendship over the course of his long, painful journey. Though he was broken and disillusioned from his own defeat in ages past at first, his unlikely friendship with the hero gave the ghost the strength he needed to fight once more for the sake of his own realm.
The ghost poured what remained of his matching soul into the hero’s trembling body, bringing him to his feet for one last strike at the heart of the villain. It was a sacrifice, but also a homecoming; the reforging of a sword that had once been broken. The threat of transformation, of inevitability, took flight. Together, the heroes of both realms slew the villain and emerged victorious, bringing what they hoped would be a lasting peace to each world, once and for all.
After the battle, amidst the confused companions he’d had by his side, the red-haired boy-turned-old-man came to him — somehow bearing his wounds like a well-earned prize. Bowing his head, he begged forgiveness for everything he’d done; for the secrets and lies, for the betrayal he shouldn’t have lived to see. Though he would have done all of it and more a thousand times if it meant ensuring his hero’s survival into a brighter future, none of it had been what he’d wanted.
The hero, for his part, considered punching his lights out. It would have been fair. But in the end, he uttered his friend’s old name once more instead. Then he tried not to break down in tears of his own as the old man wearing the red-haired boy’s face started to sob in relief.
- The detail of the previous hero’s ghost is not nearly the deus ex machina it appears in my condensed version of this story. He’s a big part of the plot that runs almost as far back as G’raha does, and he deserves his own love. His sacrifice is also beautiful and meaningful in context. He’s just not involved in the romance here so I’ve given him short shrift. Sorry, Ardbert!
- Watching G’raha fall apart at the sound of his own name here is a testament to allowing male characters to have emotions. This is a guy that has literally turned back time to save your life and then spent the next hundred years coming up with a crazy plan to save the world while keeping everyone’s good intentions — including yours — from interfering. The fact that he’s unexpectedly alive after all of it, you don’t hate him, and you still remember his name after all these years, means the world to him after all he’s been through. Let the man have his moment.
- My sole regret is that they did not allow a hug or a kiss here. I guarantee you that any heterosexual movie or game featuring such a scene would have gone for it. To be fair, FFXIV has player marriage; there’s no such thing as “making it official” with anyone except in your own head. But if they’re going to show our characters suffering this much over the people they obviously love, then I want to see that rewarded with a chance to honor it. The story still isn’t over yet…)
Though the threat to both worlds was lifted with the villain’s defeat, and the hero’s grasp on his body and soul remained, one source of difficulty remained for the victorious hero and his friends.
Over the years since his arrival, the old man had spent every waking moment preparing for the day when he would summon his hero to his realm, setting his plan into motion. However, the methods were difficult to master; the execution, even more so. He had never meant to summon the hero’s friends in the first place while reaching for the hero himself. Now, because of his many false starts and mistakes, they were trapped in his realm with no way to return home. And because he’d summoned only their spirits instead of their bodies, they were at risk of permanent separation the longer they stayed.
It was a problem, like so many, that he had intended to solve with his death. As the person responsible for their predicament, the end of his life would have undone the arcane spells he’d cast. And though he would gladly have paid that price still… the look in the eyes of the people that had become his friends too would not allow it — to say nothing of his hero’s.
And so, only one option remained — the hero, as the sole person able to walk between worlds without magical intervention beyond mortal knowledge, would return home, to send word of everything that had happened to those they’d left behind. Danger had been afoot there before their departure, too, and a status report would be urgently needed. The stranger would once again devote every waking moment of his life to research, this time to find a new way of sending them home.
Despite his countless misgivings, the hero watched as his friends left the room, each seeking out their own ways of aiding the research effort. For the first time since the lies and secrets had disappeared, he was alone with the best friend he hadn’t seen in years — the man who could and would have sacrificed everything to save him without a backward glance. The man who had used his wish to save others as a tool to manipulate his actions into allowing something unforgivable.
The red-haired boy-turned-old-man was much better at hiding his emotions. He’d been doing it for well over one hundred years. And he’d never expected the blessing of having one more chance to see his hero off into the sunset. Bolstered by his fond memories and the presence of the hero he’d given so much to see again, he wasted no time in powering the magical portal that allowed the hero to walk freely between worlds. It was not a true farewell — only a pause.
It took everything the hero had to force himself through the portal, the silence between them deafening — but when he reached the other side, his knees locked, and his feet refused to take another step. What should have been a second chance that he would have given anything for, once upon a time, had turned into yet another duty in defense of the world.
It was too much to bear, after all he’d seen. After all that was done in his name.
He turned around and went back through the portal, desperately seeking words that he didn’t have.
- Following your departure, the game encourages you to keep moving forward by returning to old areas where your friends back home have been waiting for news of you. However, for those that are stubborn enough to sequence break, it is very possible to turn around and go back through the portal instead of doing as you are told. There’s even custom text for doing so, as G’raha wasn’t quite expecting you to try that! I didn’t think to capture that scene in the moment, unfortunately, which is a shame — I don’t think most people ever see it and going back later is difficult.
- The conversation between Raphail and the Crystal Exarch after he returns through the portal is the subject of the first non-practice fanfiction piece I wrote for them, called Once Upon A Time. If you’re not invested enough to read that by this point, I’ll summarize:
- Raphail has a massive mental and emotional breakdown while coming to grips with his feelings for G’raha. By the time he shows back up in the Exarch’s world, he’s mad as hell and ends up starting a fight instead of the beautiful reunion that he wants. In the end, he figures out how to speak his true mind and his feelings in a way that goes all the way back to their shared friendship and the stories that they both cherished as kids. Love is clearly professed, but the future is uncertain and there are miles to go before anything “official” happens.
- This scene — largely the parting shot for the establishing patch of Shadowbringers — was somehow worse emotionally than the previous near-death scene. It is nothing if not a chance to see your hero through the eyes of his dearest friend and would-be lover, and damn does he own it for five minutes. Hell, I’d fall for him myself. Poor G’raha.
- There is an anime series near and dear to my heart called Revolutionary Girl Utena, and it explores many similar themes regarding heroism, sacrifice, and personal agency from the perspective of a lady who grows up to become a prince. (Too long for a detailed explanation here.) The unexpected parallel between some of the poignant moments from that series, and this scene, broke me harder than intended. I’m OK with Raph being her male equivalent.
The hero spent many weeks and months walking back and forth between realms. The research was long and arduous, and countless people in both realms yet had need of his help. And yet, each time he returned to his beloved’s fair city, the voices of his people spoke loud and true of the change in their ruler’s demeanor. Once reserved and haunted, as if waiting a lifetime for something he’d lost, the old man had traded in his secrets for a new sense of childlike joy. They approved — and they approved of the cause of it, too, which could only be the man who’d saved their world.
Bets were made, and lost, and won, over whether they’d kissed yet. Or more.
Still, the red-haired boy-turned-old-man worked too hard between smiles, just as he always had since the hero first met him; back when he was still a boy in truth. The weight and urgency of his friends’ plight lit a fire beneath him as he tried desperately for the first time to solve the problem in a way that didn’t rely on his own sacrifice. He was no longer free to do as he pleased with his life, not anymore; the hero had made that very clear at top volume, and his memory was not yet that faulty.
With no solution in sight, his mind strayed back to a particular reclusive magician gifted in the subject of soul transportation; a being that had slammed the door in his face the last time he’d tried to ask similar questions. During the course of his journey, the hero had made friends with the being’s kin; surely that would earn some trust. Surely that would buy a question or two. And so he proposed a journey to the being’s ancient palace full of traps and tricks — a grand adventure of sorts.
It was clear to everyone that he meant it to be, in particular, one more grand adventure by the side of his beloved hero — his own age and physical health be damned. He was not prepared, however, for the knowing smirks and sly grins on the faces of his so-called friends! The journey nearly ended him from sheer embarrassment, but the smile on his hero’s face managed to soften the blow.
Together, the hero, the red-haired boy-turned-old-man, and their friends prevailed. The magical being agreed to lend their aid, though it had been many years since their kind had seen fit to trust humans. But it would not be a simple solution, even with their help. The research, the study, and the experimentation continued apace, for weeks and months beyond.
- I kid you not, most of the events I’ve outlined here are actual in-game text. I only made up the bit about bets. So I’d say that this particular ship is comfortably canon. It’s not just wishful thinking.
- If that sentence did not make sense: a “ship” in this context indicates a particular romantic pairing that people like. If a ship is canon, that means it’s officially supported by the plot of the movie/game/book. Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley are canon. If a ship is not canon, that means that people can wish for it to be true and write stories in which it is true, but the author/creator never said it was. Harry Potter and Hermione Granger are not canon — Rowling’s later thoughts very much aside.
- I didn’t make a mistake when I used “their” as a pronoun. Similar to the way this homosexual romance is simply presented as a thing you can reciprocate (or not) as you will, the magical beings known as pixies in this game do not have a gender or care about your ideas of gender. “Their” is the appropriate term, and it’s used without fail in the game, even if players still frequently make mistakes. I am so happy about this since it gives people practice hearing and using it! I don’t have anyone in my life that uses “they,” so it threw me a little for maybe the first five uses — and now I’m perfectly comfortable with it. What did I say about exposure being good for all of us?
Eventually, concern began to spread among the city’s people. Their ruler had not been seen about the city as often as he used to, leading some to speculate about his health. Touched by their kindness, the hero dedicated his free hours to becoming a shadow on the wall of his overworking beloved’s sanctum, making it his sworn duty to ensure that the old man devoted at least some of each precious workday to rest — by force, if necessary. Anyone else might have perished from the power of the old man’s glare, but the hero had faced far worse in his time, and simply smiled amidst the storm.
- This is where my next major fanfiction piece takes place. Some of you may have heard me mention that I’m pushing my own boundaries and comfort level in order to write some legitimate sex scenes for this one. I am not the type to go full PornHub as a writer, nor would that feel right for this couple — but it is definitely hotter than most of the work y’all have seen from me in the past. It may raise eyebrows. I’m hoping it won’t cost me friends or loved ones.
- I’ve read a lot of really beautiful scenes of this type in other fanfiction, and in other games and novels too. I just can’t subscribe to the idea that sex has to equal filth or shame anymore, least of all as a grown, consenting adult with a supportive spouse. I know that people overuse it, and I know that many people sensationalize it, but the scenes I’m working on have all been earned and all serve a purpose. I wouldn’t do this at all if it were otherwise.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the hero’s efforts, the day came when progress slowly reared its head at last. A vessel was crafted that promised to have the properties required to transport a soul… but there was a problem. Transferring a soul into the vessel would require yet more study. More experimentation. The only shortcut would have required bloodshed.
Time was not on their side. Wiser minds from the hero’s home realm reported that the sleeping bodies of his friends were starting to show signs of magical deterioration caused by the separation. To prevent the unthinkable, a solution would have to be found, and soon.
The old man listened to the reports, his burden growing ever heavier. And then, without word or warning, the towering door of his private sanctum closed once more. The joking, pleading, begging, cursing, and threats of violence to the building’s integrity that had always managed to work after a fashion to coax him out all fell on deaf ears. And though the magical being at his side promised to watch after his beloved in his stead, the hero could only recall the distant memory of waiting outside a similar door, grieving, while a red-haired boy slept for eternity.
The being’s words rang in his head as he forced himself to focus on the things he could yet change, instead of his loneliness. Instead of the fear that clouded the light at the center of his very soul.
Trust him. And be sure to visit from time to time. He is so very fond of all of you.
Trusting the old man with his own life was a battle the hero wasn’t sure that he could win. And with good reason. For behind that closed door, the red-haired boy-turned-old-man began to show quiet signs of a strain that his ancient body could not bear for much longer.
- And now we arrive at the ugly truth of the current in-game situation. From the very beginning, this plot and this guy have been screaming HEROIC SACRIFICIAL DEATH. Exactly nobody would have been surprised to see the Crystal Exarch die, though it would have destroyed us. That said… we’re pretty savvy folks. We know we’re dealing with a time travel plot. and an impossible, beautiful romance. These things never, ever end well in fiction. It’s basically a rule.
- The best outcome from a realistic perspective might be finding a way to preserve and wake up the original timeline’s G’raha Tia, either with or without the memories of the old man he became. Preserving the Crystal Exarch as himself into the future again is unimaginable.
- One thing seems pretty clear. A time-traveling old man, half made of crystal that is slowly starting to do… something unexpected and painful to his borrowed body, who refuses to stop working and rest is going to run out of luck someday. And someday is coming. Soon.
- Right now, he is vulnerable. The people of his fair city are currently being encouraged to abandon it and him for a new cause that promises to herald the final climactic battle of the expansion. All an enterprising enemy would need is a way into the empty city. There are thousands of those.
- Need I say more?! The proverbial Titanic has hit the proverbial iceberg. I have named it Chekhov’s railgun, because a regular handgun seems inappropriate for this level of inevitability.
- Raphail is no idiot, either. He is as flummoxed by the idea of time travel as most other people in his world, but the indications that it can’t be good for one’s longevity are clear. The fact that the Crystal Exarch is an old man is just one of the many things that could tear his second chance away for good. But for him, the idea of losing G’raha again without making the most of whatever time they have left is far worse than whatever lies in store. The threat of getting his heart broken has never been a factor in anything he’s done, and this sure as hell won’t be the first time.
- Final Fantasy games have a history of putting people into permanent stasis akin to death through crystals or crystallization. Have I mentioned that? Cool. Now you know.
- I am penciling in this summer for being an absolute emotional wreck, y’all. Sorry in advance.
All right, folks. This is still entirely too long. We’re almost done, I promise! The storytelling part is over, and you now know everything you need to know about what my creative and gaming sides have been up to since the fall of 2019. I’ve played, read, and enjoyed other things on occasion, but needless to say, my heart and mind have been following this thing since it first began.
I have to know how it ends, both for myself, and for Raphail’s sake.
The writing is on the walls for the final act, and I’ll wrap up my discussion in the next post by talking a little about where I’m expecting to go from here. I’ve mentioned before that I have a very short time to finish the fanfiction pieces that I’m working on, and I’ll explain that next time too.
Thanks for reading and watching along.