When the Bough Breaks
When the goddesses forged the universe, calling up stars and planets and moons from the veil of utmost nothingness, Norahc was already ancient. He was older than creation, older than even the goddesses themselves, those strange beings of deliberately-formed will and intent that arose in the very act of imagining their existence.
Of will Norahc knew little; he was a creature of instinct. He was a thing of the Before, a shard of black nothingness, a hunter, a monstrosity. His form was of shadow and frigid ice that had never known a sun's warmth, his pelt a shaggy nest of inky impossibilities. He walked on a thousand legs and none. His breath was as cold as the void between the stars, though he breathed not. The teeth he did not possess were long and razor sharp, serrated obsidian spearheads that numbered in the tens of thousands, and his million-and-none eyes were darker and sharper still.
Norahc's lust was singular, but powerful. Having no will, he had no ambitions. Having no flesh, he had no craving for pleasure. Possessing a uniquely singular and solitary nature, he had neither the wish to reproduce, nor any partner with whom he might attempt the act. Norahc knew only one desire and it was his only purpose.
In his ravenous frenzy Norahc had devoured the Before, growing vast and bloated, his midnight-body expanding to fill the corners of the universe. Norahc had eaten all that ever existed, and his hunger was mighty enough to consume anything that yet might.
When the goddesses had come, they had broken him. They had shattered the darkness, calling forth flaming stars that seared and scorched his body, burning it away, bringing painful, throbbing life where before cool nothingness had reigned. He had known only one way to respond. The darkness howled, and Norahc bubbled forth from the rim of the new universe, extending tendrils light-years across, consuming the goddesses' new creation with voracious intent. A million elegantly-crafted worlds were smashed asunder, and many of the goddesses themselves were devoured.
There had been hundreds of them, once.
The war waxed and waned for millennia, when the universe was yet white-hot from the forges of its creation, and there were no men to see the horror and the glory of the struggle. At its end, there were but three goddesses left, but Norahc had been utterly defeated, reduced to a cringing, aching scrap of his former glory.
The goddesses spared him. Not out of mercy, for they knew the word not. Nor out of maliciousness, though Norahc's reduced existence was truly a torture for him.
Norahc was spared to serve.
- - -
The dreams were bad, sometimes.
They came to her in a jumbled mess, a heap of shattered images that were so hopelessly broken that she couldn't hope to shape them into anything coherent. She had learned, slowly and painfully, that it was better not to try; anything she managed to construct only terrified her with its jagged, unyielding horror. Better to leave them alone.
And so, perhaps one night out of twenty, she tossed and turned in her bed and whimpered like an animal, and she remembered the glinting of the scanners' amber lights as they traveled up and down her body, and she remembered the way the dogs had howled and screamed, surging against their chains, eyes flowing down their muzzles like slow-melting tallow as their fur crackled and burned, and she remembered the coldness of the knife, the weeping red line it had traced between her breasts, and the wet red tongue that had followed it.
Terra Branford didn't remember which of the memories were true, and which she had hallucinated or imagined. On the good days, she managed to convince herself that most of them were false, though even she knew that to be the worst kind of self-deception. The only one she could not somehow deny was the worst one of them all, and it returned to her now as she stood on the threshold of Katarin's room, tray in hand, and the worst part of all was that she was grateful.
"Katarin," Terra called softly, stepping into the room. The other woman did not answer.
The room was one of the nicest in Mobliz: small and cozy, lit warmly by a pair of dangling lanterns and a large fireplace. An overstuffed chair sat in one corner, and the bed that filled the far wall was broad and very soft, piled high with a snarl of colorful quilts scavenged from all over. The window normally looked out over the brook, but it was shuttered and closed tightly, as it had been for the last month. The room smelled of stale sweat, overlaid with the faint and somehow desperate fragrance of cinnamon.
Katarin had been a beautiful girl, with hair the color of wheat, deep green eyes, and a wide mouth that always seemed to be curled up in a smile. Now, her hair hung lank and greasy about her face, and bruise-black circles rimmed her eyes, and she never smiled. She wore only an ill-fitting nightgown - at a glance, Terra could tell the buttons were poorly fastened, and Katarin's breasts, still swollen with milk, deformed the garment further. Looking at them still hurt, even now.
"Katarin," Terra repeated, moving closer to the woman, speaking as she would to one of the shy children. "I made soup. Are you hungry?"
The other woman did not look up, staring with dull detachment at the checkered pattern on the top quilt. Her breath came in wet, rasping gasps, and her cheeks were wet. Like always.
"Katarin," Terra said, reaching a hand out to touch her shoulder. It was still so hard, even now, but she was learning. She had no choice but to learn, if she wanted to help. "You should eat. You need to eat."
"No I don't," Katarin said quickly, and for a moment it sounded like the sort of petulant remark any teenager would make. But Terra could feel the girl shudder right down to the core under her palm, and her voice was thick with unreleased sobs when she asked, "Did Duane come back?"
Terra's heart contracted painfully. She had tried so hard to get him to stay. She had begged him to do it for Katarin's sake, for her own. But he had jerked his hand from hers and said, I can't do it any more, Terra. It's more than any man should be expected to face. I can't look at her. I can't look at it. Leave me alone! And she, who had felled the ancient goddesses and the new mad god, who could have crippled him in a heartbeat, had watched him walk away from Mobliz, shrinking to nothingness in the distance.
"Not yet," Terra forced herself to say at last. She tried to add, I'm sure he'll be back soon, and found that she could not. It wasn't fair, what had happened, but it wasn't fair what he had done to Katarin, either. She needed him.
"It's my fault," Katarin said numbly. Her hands rested in front of her, palms pressed together, fingers linked and clenching with white-knuckle intensity. When she spoke again, she sounded ten years younger, nothing but a child. "Mama said I should never let a boy touch me like that unless we were married. Sh-she said something bad would happen, and she- she was right." She shuddered again. A fat moth bumped against the side of the lantern, sending crazed shadows gamboling through the room.
Terra took her by the wrists, gently trying to pry her hands apart. "That's not true-"
"DON'T CALL HER A LIAR!" Katarin shouted, jerking away. "She tried to tell me, and I didn't listen. She was a good mother-"
"You could be a good mother, too," Terra said, and when she saw the spasm of pain that contorted Katarin's features, she knew it had been the wrong thing to say. The worst thing to say. Would she never learn?
"She doesn't need me," Katarin blurted, shoving her head forward defiantly. "She doesn't even know I'm there. Don't be so stupid, Terra."
"You don't know that." Terra countered weakly, wondering what they had saved the world for, if she couldn't do any better than this.
She had wondered the same thing when she had first returned to Mobliz after the victory over Kefka. Instead of the celebration she had expected, she had arrived to find the village dark, shrouded under a pall of silence so thick it was palpable. The playground had loomed empty and desolate but for one figure. Duane, sitting in one of the makeshift swings like someone half his age, legs kicking back and forth, hands digging into rough ropes. She would never forget the haunted look in his eyes, the sound of raw, blunt horror in his voice when he said, Something's wrong. Something's really wrong.
"She doesn't need me," Katarin repeated, and the only comfort Terra could find was that she still referred to the child as she instead of it. "She doesn't need anything. She's not even- she sh-she- she-uuuuuuuuuuhh"
A fresh round of sobs tore through Katarin and she lunged forward as if she were going to attack Terra. In a way, she did, fastening arms tightly around the slim woman's waist, burying her face between Terra's small breasts as if she were trying to burrow through the flesh and bone.
Terra's pulse throbbed in her throat. She would hug the children sometimes, but she was not comfortable being this close to them. And Katarin was no child - she was nearly as tall as Terra, and much stouter. Her crushing grip reminded Terra of restraining bands and pale clutching fingers and laughter in the dark, and she fought to batter down her panic, fought to push away the memories of useless struggle that bobbed to the surface of her mind like long-sunken corpses breaching a lake.
Katarin sobbed violently, unformed, clumsy animal sounds like the honking of a goose tearing their way free from her frame, scarcely muffled by Terra's dress. Terra was suddenly acutely aware that Katarin's face was wet with tears and snot, staining the front of her dress. She could smell her, too, the odor of an unwashed body mingled with the faded fragrance of flowery perfume, sweat, panic. She was too loud, and she was too close, and Terra felt her hands twitch and she knew she was only seconds from hurling the other woman away and racing out of the room.
Then, amidst Katarin's wordless cries, she heard it: Mama, Mama, Mama.
And suddenly none of those things mattered. Nor did the fact that she was barely five years Katarin's senior. Katarin was as afraid as any of the other children, and she needed someone to tell her things would be all right, and it didn't matter at all that Terra didn't believe that herself.
So she held Katarin as she cried herself out, shaking in Terra's arms with the force of her grief. Terra held on tightly, rocking Katarin back and forth, making soothing sounds as she stroked the back of her head, the nape of her feverish neck.
"Shhh... shh.. I already sent to my friends. They'll come and help. They'll bring the best doctors, and everything will be fine."
It wasn't entirely a lie - she had sent for them. Whether anything could help, she didn't know, but she supposed all parents must lie, sometime.
At last, Katarin's sobs tapered off to sniffles, then silence. She sagged against Terra, allowing the other woman to slip free of her loosening grip, easing her back in the bed. By the time Terra had pulled the blankets up to her chin, Katarin was asleep, her eyes screwed up fiercely with the effort.
Terra gazed ruefully at the uneaten tray of soup and decided to cut her losses. She'd feed Katarin later; it was best to let her sleep right now. Terra rose quietly from the bed so as not to wake her, blowing out the hanging lanterns and pausing in the darkened doorway to gaze back. Her eyes bruised and dark in a pale face, Katarin looked as much a child as Duane had that day, twisting his hands on the ropes of the swing.
Well, Terra told herself firmly, there was nothing wrong with that. She's my child too, if she needs to be. Just like all the rest of them.
They were the only ones she would ever have.
The memory that had struck her as she had entered the room returned, and she remembered the straps biting into her arms and chest, the muted voice of Cid lamenting the dangers of the cloning program, the pale thumb sliding down her cheek, the sharp giggle. The words, meaningless to her then, that had returned with such force one day at the orphanage, when the children had found her crying with all the force of a broken heart and she had not known what to tell them.
"I'm afraid it's necessary, Cid. The poor thing's more of a mule than she looks."
She had never told anyone. But looking at Katarin's exhausted, battered face, realizing what she had to face next, Terra was once again glad that she could never have children of her own. Somehow, selfishly, that was the worst part of everything, the discovery that circumstances could transform her greatest sorrow into clumsy, shameful gratitude.
"I'm sorry, Katarin," she whispered, closing the door behind her. She leaned against it for a moment, breathing deeply, fighting to hold back the tears that swelled beneath her eyelids, to still the trembling of her hands.
It was time to feed the baby.
- - -
The goddesses had arisen from Outside. It was a place beyond even their ken, a place where they could not tread for fear of being destroyed. A vast, black gulf of oblivion separated it from the universe they had created, yet on the other side of that gulf glimmered the greatest treasure of all, the very substance of life, the essence of consciousness.
It was the same mass from which they were made, the hot burning core that every thinking being required, and it was utterly beyond their reach, across a void that even their will and thought could breach but once. But they coveted it with a hunger that nearly matched Norahc's, and assuaging the creature's ravenous appetite would be the key to fulfilling their own.
Norahc did not fear the void, for he was of it. His was a deeper emptiness, and his keening cries bespoke a darkness beyond darkness, an absence beyond absence. He had suckled oblivion at the edges of the Before and grown fat with it. He had stalked the abyss when it was all-encompassing, much vaster than the small divide that stymied the goddesses, the gulf between life and death, being and unbeing.
The goddesses proceeded with caution. After Norahc had been broken and humbled, they had constructed a shimmering prison for him, so that they might look upon the conquest that had destroyed so many of their number and rejoice in their victory. They were, even so early in their existence, beings as cruel as they were inventive. And so, for millennia it was enough for them to lurk outside the defeated creature's cage, poking and prodding him for their amusement. They fashioned the stars and the world, and upon its surface water pooled and plants stretched toward the heavens and beasts arose to feast upon each other.
Yet the goddesses were not satisfied. They coveted with an intent that Norahc had never possessed. And so, after countless years, they sought to offer him a bargain...
- - -
It had been Terra's idea make the nursery, but in the end she had hardly done any of the work at all. Duane had been a carpenter's apprentice, and he threw himself into the task of building the crib with almost frightening intensity, not seeming to care that he had only broken timber and discarded furniture from Mobliz's devastated houses to work with. Katarin had watched with pride, stroking her growing belly with an expression of intermingled wonder and terror.
In a wet basement that had reeked of dead things, Terra had found several buckets of bright paint. She had allowed the littlest to decorate the nursery to their heart's content, hoisting Cynthia up by the waist so she could press her bright palms against the ceiling, helping Darren finish the red sail boat in the corner, adding whiskers to Megan's cat. At the end of the day they had collapsed in a pile, laughing, and she had held them to her until she thought her heart would burst from loving them, and it didn't matter that the world was in ruins and her friends were dead and she had no idea what her or the children would eat when the week was out, it was enough to be together.
Her heart lurched within her breast as she stepped into the room now, lighting the lantern with shaky fingers. She had expected the room to be filled with moments as joyful as the one that went into its creation, but she was the only one who bothered to enter it now. In the wan light of the lantern, it seemed a ghost of its former self, the bright drawings on its walls pale and insubstantial. Dust coated the less-used surfaces despite how often she tried to wipe it away.
And then, of course, there was the baby.
They had decided to name her Tara before Katarin had ever given birth, Duane had told her that day as he sat on the swing and she wondered what could possibly be wrong. "Taran if it was a boy," he had added, and she had wanted to hug him for the gesture. But she had not, for there was something in the awkward slant of his shoulders, the stiff way he had looked at the ground, the way he had mumbled, "It's not right." It. It.
Katarin's child laid silently in the crib, a lifeless lump in the dull light. It- she never cried, never screamed or fussed. Never moved. Terra gazed down, and a pair of dark brown eyes gazed back, unblinking, above a slack, toothless mouth. Only the rise and fall of the infant's small chest gave an indication that it was alive at all.
"Tara," she whispered, as she had so many times before. The child did not move, staring up blankly at her with the eyes of a doll.
Useless to bother with this, something nasty in Terra whispered, something that she wanted to hate. If she could do anything but breathe... if she'd just stop doing that...
Terra shuddered and forced herself to reach down, taking the baby's small arm in her hand and lifting it. Given Tara's doll-like appearance, the fact that her flesh was actually warm and soft still surprised Terra after all this time. But there was something repulsive in it, something about the way the loose skin slid over underdeveloped muscle, that made goose bumps rise along Terra's spine. Gently, she released her grip, and Tara's arm flopped lifelessly to the mattress. Nothing.
The child blinked once, slowly.
Once - just once, Terra had lit a match and held it very near the baby's hand, hoping beyond hope that she would move. She had only kept it there for a moment, but the small red spot had reproached her for days. She had bit her knuckles then, to keep from screaming.
Terra forced herself to pick Tara up, shuddering again at her dead weight, at the way her arms and legs flopped and dangled. It was like handling a fresh, still-warm corpse.
With shaking hands, Terra forced the nipple of the bottle between the baby's lips, hurriedly tilting Tara's head up so she would not choke. Wide, staring eyes, their pupils almost completely dilated, bored into Terra's face. She fought to calm herself, and after a moment the baby began to suck, a deep, reflexive, mechanical motion. Milk slopped over the rim of the baby's slack mouth and a sound like the phlegmy breathing of an old man sent an icy finger down the back of Terra's neck as the child fed.
Katarin had wept and screamed and nearly lost her mind when they had tried to get her to nurse, thrashing so violently that Terra had had to lunge to catch the falling infant before she struck the floor. Terra understood.
She had sent word to Edgar and the others, and if anyone in this world could help, surely it was the sovereign of the world's most populous country. She had no doubt he would send the best doctors, that Sabin would have his own ideas for remedies, that Locke and Celes would come to check on her if nothing else... but something told her that what afflicted little Tara was nothing that a doctor could solve. It was deeper, more horrifying than any malady of the body, and she was dreading the moment that her friends' arrival killed her last hope.
The sucking continued, but the bottle was empty. Terra looked down and started, nearly dropping the baby when she saw the fly crawling leisurely across the wet expanse of her staring eye, suckling at the moisture there. She felt her gorge begin to rise and hurriedly shooed the thing away, dropping the bottle in her haste to put the infant down.
Terra quickly changed her, loathing the way she had to shift her loose limbs, trying to stave off the creeping feeling all throughout her body, the horrible knowledge that in only hours, she'd have to do it all over again.
By the time she was finished, her cheeks were wet with tears and she was trembling from head to toe. She blew the light out, hastening from the room and fighting the urge to lock the door behind her, to keep whatever terrible thing was wrong with the baby sealed up where it couldn't spread.
Terra sagged heavily in the hallway, knowing for once it was all right, that Katarin and none of the children could see her, and put her face in her hands, fighting back the urge to scream with frustration and horror. She rocked back and forth, her heart hammering so loudly against her breastbone that she could hear it.
It was not until she saw the dust beginning to stir outside the window at the end of the hall that she realized the rhythmic thudding she heard was not the sound of her own heart, but the approaching Falcon.
- - -
"Go to the place beyond the night, the place Outside," whispered the youngest.
"Bring us the light that resides there, the light of wisdom," commanded the fiercest.
"Receive our command, receive our reward," promised the wisest.
Norahc threw himself against the bars of his prison, slavering, hungering.
"Your hunger is madness," whispered the youngest.
"Your hunger must be controlled," demanded the fiercest.
"Your hunger shall be assuaged," promised the wisest.
And perhaps he was not entirely mad, perhaps his millennia of captivity and starvation had sharpened his gluttonous wits, for he stopped his endless struggles to listen.
"We shall give you sustenance," whispered the youngest.
"You shall give us obedience," commanded the fiercest.
"You shall be freed, you shall be in chains," promised the wisest.
And so Norahc ventured to the void for them, forging a path through darkness that feared his darkness until he reached Outside, the place of the light, so bright it burned, so fierce it threatened to consume even him, and he opened his great and nonexistent maw, filling it with countless burning motes. Pained with every step, he brought that light back into the universe, and though he wanted to devour it, he did not. That light was the souls of men, and their creation was the greatest work of the goddesses. Norahc had kept his bargain, and the goddesses used their magic to feed Norahc's never-abating hunger.
For a time, it was good.
- - -
Terra had not been so naive as to believe that the arrival of the Falcon would solve everything, but she had not expected to have it increase her horror tenfold. She had not expected to be taken aboard as a passenger. She had not expected the looks of bleak despair that covered the face of everyone aboard.
Setzer had retreated to the top deck to steer the airship, though the calm weather hardly required his hand at the wheel. The rest of the group huddled around the wooden table in the airship's small parlor, their shadows leaping up and down the walls in jerky fits as the hanging lantern in the center of the room swayed.
Terra perched on the corner of a velvet cushioned sofa, struggling to meet the gazes of the others. It had only been weeks since they had parted company, and all of them looked the worse for wear. Sabin had weathered the best, his normally good-humored face frozen into a stony mask. Celes and Locke sat next to each other, brushing together at the shoulder and hip as if their closeness could comfort them, and Terra saw an expression of creeping dread on Celes's face unlike any she had encountered before. Cyan seemed older than ever, worn and fading, the colors of his face washed out to pale, lined nothingness, and Edgar looked the worst of all of them. The dark circles under his eyes suggested the kind of sleepless nights that Katarin knew so well.
"We should be in Thamasa soon," Locke said to no one in particular, as if they didn't know how fast the Falcon was. "Hopefully, Strago will still be-"
"Of course he will," Celes said in a tone that brooked no argument. If Terra didn't see how hard she squeezed Locke's hand under the table, she might have believed her. For a moment, she felt a vague, oblique kind of jealousy for anyone who could depend that much on another person, but it was quickly dispersed as Cyan spoke.
"I must beg thy pardon, Sir Edgar, but are circumstances truly so dire? Admittedly, I am somewhat removed from matters at the moment-"
"Worse than you could imagine," Edgar said, his fingers drumming a nervous tattoo on the table. He looked and sounded more exhausted than Terra could ever remember seeing him, even on the last leg of their journey to defeat Kefka. This latest problem hit him harder, Terra thought, because unlike so many other things that had burdened his people, it gave him nothing tangible to fight against. Perhaps that was why he had leapt at Strago's message.
"There's rioting in the streets," Edgar continued, "Infanticide. Religious hysteria. It was all I could do to maintain control even before this happened, and now..."
"They're all like Tara?" Terra said before she could stop herself. She still couldn't believe it, couldn't believe that the living doll sleeping in the captain's cabin had been reproduced a thousand fold in Figaro.
"Every one," Edgar said dully. He stared not at her, but at the cabin over her head, as if he were seeing something very far away. "For weeks. At first I hardly credited it, but I've seen too much. Every child that is born..."
"Not just in Figaro," Setzer added from the doorway, where he stood shrouded in shadow, his cigar tip a glowing ember. Curiousity had drawn him at last. "Not even just on the Figarian continent. I've seen it everywhere. Panic. Madness. Terra, you surely would've noticed it too, were Mobliz not so isolated."
"How long has it been happening?" Cyan asked.
"No one knows," Sabin said, saving Edgar the trouble of replying. He glanced back at his brother, a look of concern flitting across his face like the shadow of a fish darting beneath the surface of a pond. "Weeks, at least. We've tried to find the earliest, but we have no idea. The only thing we can tell you is that none we've seen were born before... well... you know."
"Before we defeated Kefka," Locke added, an expression of helpless anger pulling down the corners of his mouth. "Even in the World of Ruin, I saw children born alive. This... this has to be some sort of curse, something that he put out as revenge against us..."
"Life... dreams... hope..." Celes said hollowly. She gazed down at her lap, agitated. "These things... I am going to destroy. I didn't think he meant it - well, I did, but I thought... I thought we stopped it."
"We did," Edgar said, turning to face her. "Magic's gone. No curse he could've put into place should still be working... right, Terra?" His question had an ugly touch of desperation to it.
"Ah..." She looked quickly around the room, her eyes darting from person to person. All of them looked to her for the answers, but she seldom had them. She wasn't their leader - if anyone, Celes was - and she had no expertise in dealing with the wider world. Only in the realm of magic did she have some innate knowledge, and now... now, it was hard to feel like anything but a freak, a relic of a lost age, a
strange kind of oracle whose time had gone by. "I don't feel anything. I think I would know if the magic was still working. I think."
"Well," Locke said, putting a look of resolution on that even Terra found rather transparent, "We'll just have to stop it, then. If we don't, every child born will be like that. We'll all die out. We-"
Celes jerked her hand from his and blurted something inaudible, hastening from the room in a whirlwind of blond hair. Setzer had to lunge out of the way to clear a path, hot ashes skittering from the tip of his cigar in a red plume.
Locke gave a confused shrug, already moving to stir himself, but somehow Terra felt herself rising, her hand falling on his shoulder to stop him, her feet propelling her down the hall. She felt something then, some vague, unformed sense of urgency, and it pulled her violently after Celes.
The blond woman braced herself against the lavatory's tiny sink with arms widely spaced, the wide mirror above it reflecting her anguished form - shoulders hunched low, her hair veiling her white face. Sharp, labored breaths like sobs tore from her lungs, and her hands gripped the rim of the sink so tightly that they were scarcely darker than the porcelain.
"Celes..." Terra began uncertainly. They were close in many ways, having both been tortured by the Empire's war machine, but it took more than common suffering to form a bond. There were still so many things she didn't know about the woman, so many boundaries she was afraid to cross. "...what's wrong?"
As if she didn't know - as if the entire conversation they had just had wasn't enough-
For a long moment, there was silence save for Celes's heavy, strained breathing, and Terra had already turned to go when Celes said, in a voice like the scream of a wounded animal,
"I'm late, Terra."
There was a second of silence. Before she could think, Terra blurted, "Late for what?" Maybe Strago was worse than he was letting on. Maybe-
Celes made a strange, strangled sound, and whirled on her, face contorted in anger. But her fierce expression collapsed as soon as she saw the look of confusion on Terra's face. She chuckled once, a pained noise that didn't sound joyful at all.
"No, Terra. I mean..." and her fingers brushed her flat belly softly. "I think I'm going to have a baby."
And the first thought that came to Terra's mind was simple, childish, streaked with jealousy. Oh. I want that. I WANT that.
She opened her mouth to tell Celes how lucky she was, and then her surprise gave way to horror as the reality of the world came rushing back in.
"Oh, Celes..." Terra said, reaching out a hand unsteadily to place it on Celes's shoulder. The other woman didn't shake it off, and for a moment Terra wanted to hold her, comfort her. But Celes wasn't like Katarin - Terra had seen her fight, seen her kill - and she couldn't for a moment pretend that the other was her child. She was too afraid to embrace anyone else.
"Locke doesn't know," Celes said quietly, looking at the floor. "I didn't have a chance to tell him before- before we found out about this." When she looked up, her eyes were bright with unshed tears. "Please, don't-"
"We don't need to yet," Terra said, squeezing her shoulder softly. "Strago wouldn't have called us if he didn't know what was wrong. I'm sure we can do something," she finished with a certainty she didn't feel.
"Maybe it's already too late," Celes said. "Maybe Kefka cursed us all the moment he died. Maybe my baby is already-"
"You can't know that. Not yet. Strago will know something. He'll be able to fix things-"
"He better," Celes said quietly, eyes closed, her fingers clenching unconsciously over her stomach.
"Or I'll have to."
- - -
Relm met them downstairs with cheerfulness so intense that Terra knew instantly that something was very wrong. The child puttered around the cottage's cramped but cozy kitchen, cutting carrots and onions with considerable relish and dropping them into a slowly simmering pot. She spoke as quickly as ever, but beneath the friendly tone in her voice something else lurched, unsteady and unformed, and Terra could tell she was afraid.
"-bably half-faking anyway," Relm said, standing on tiptoes in front of the stove and stirring the pot with a wooden spoon as long as her arm. "You know how he gets, all hungry for attention just like with the Hidon thing. Anyway he's been in bed for a couple of weeks nursing along and getting all the service he can of me when I tell him about the babies, and wouldn't you know it, he insists upon sending a message to Figaro first thing by heliograph and he won't tell me what it's about and he asks for all these bloody old books about mythology when he can hardly sit up straight in bed and he keeps c-coughing and wheezing and it's about to drive me crazy. It IS."
"Sorry to hear that," Edgar said, trying to sound jolly. He failed even more noticeably than Relm did, and Terra thought: If I can tell, what must they sound like to the others? "You're crazy enough as it is. But maybe we can clear things up for you now that we've arrived."
"I hope so," Relm said, rolling her eyes. "I'm about ready to strangle him. No one would convict me."
But the annoyed tone in her demeanor faded when she ushered them up the stairs to Strago's room, eased the door open, and slipped in. Beyond the closed door, Terra heard her whisper softly, "Grandpa. Wake up. They're here."
"Show them in," Strago's voice sounded as if it came from the bottom of a very deep well. As the door opened and they all crowded in, Terra had to bite back a gasp of dismay.
Strago's room was much nicer than Katarin's, not to mention better-smelling, but the same sense of quiet desperation pervaded it. The old man was sitting up when they arrived, propped up on a conglomeration of pillows and quilts that Relm fussed with to no apparent effect. The table to the bed's left groaned under a stack of thick books nearly as tall as it was.
"Good to see you," Strago said as they entered.
Terra nodded, wishing she could say the same. But in the few weeks since they had last spoken, Strago seemed to have aged ten years. His eyes were as sharp as ever, and his tufts of white hair still as bold, but he seemed to have shrunken somehow, his already frail chest growing thinner still, his flesh drooping on his neck but drawing tightly around his skull, revealing the markings of death that would soon claim him.
"You sent for us," Setzer said, as if Strago might have forgotten. "I hope you know what's going on. What we're going to do about it."
Strago nodded, raising a bony hand to prod Relm's shoulder. "Downstairs, child, I don't want my stew burning."
Relm retreated automatically toward the stairs for a handful of heartbeats before coming to her senses. "Hey!" She shouted, turning round. She drew herself up on her tiptoes, blond curls bouncing defiantly. "I want to hear what you're going to say!"
"And I'm an old, sick man who wants to eat," Strago countered, cocking his head like some kind of strange bird, smiling. "Now get me my dinner."
Relm's eyebrows tried to scale her forehead. "That's- you- it's not fair-"
"Please, Relm," and there was no more levity in his voice, just weariness. "I'll tell you everything later. For now, please do as I ask."
"Fine, Grandpa," she said, affecting irritation. Terra wished she had not seen the tears on her cheeks as she brushed by on her way downstairs.
Strago waited until Relm's footfalls - tiny, sharp, brief sounds like the galloping of a pony- had faded before gesturing for Cyan to shut the door. When he spoke again, his voice was still utterly humorless:
"I don't have the heart to tell the child this, but she knows it. It's best for me to be direct with you. I'm dying."
There were no exclamations of incredulity, not even the faintest attempt at denial. They could all see that. Relm must, too.
"Of what?" Locke asked, after a long moment of silence.
Now, Strago did laugh, although the sound was a mere ghost of what it had been only weeks ago.
"Life. Old age. I'm nearly twice as old as the oldest of you, and more than four times as old as some. I exerted myself a lot in the last few weeks of our journey. I expected to come back here and unwind, but.." and he shrugged, the slightest movement of his shoulders barely stirring the heavy quilts piled on them. "Once I started, I couldn't stop. I realized it was more unraveling than unwinding. I'm too old. I pushed myself too hard, and now I'm paying for it."
Before any of them could protest, he pressed on.
"I'm not telling you this to get sympathy, or a promise from one of you to take care of Relm, though I hope one of you will. Even with the dog, and her own intelligence, she's far too young to be left to her own devices. I'm telling you this because time is of the essence. I've looked at the oldest books of lore in the Thamasan libraries to find out why the infants are being born this way, and I think I have found the answer... but that won't help anyone unless I tell it quickly."
He grimaced. "It probably won't help anyway, but at least I will have done something."
"Well, then," Setzer said, voice tinged with impatience, "I guess you had best tell us this thing and be done with it." Terra felt a thrill of shock at his callousness, before something still shy and young within her whispered in her ear: He's just covering up what he feels. That's all.
Strago sighed, holding up his hands palms outward to forestall more questions. "Fine. But it won't go quickly. It's a very old story, older than the War of the Magi, older even than the goddesses themselves. It's a story many have forgotten, and that more never knew, the story of something that has existed for far longer than humanity.
It is the story of Norahc, and though you may not have heard his name, I assure you that you know him."
- - -
Yet all was not right. Men were as frail as ever, then, and when they died, the light that the goddesses had put into their bodies fled, gathering in a pale, wasted scree at the edge of the universe, clamoring piteously at the void. The goddesses looked upon the display and were repulsed, and so they allowed Norahc to gather the wisps of life and take them across to Outside, and to bring more back.
To ease his journey, they reached down into the center of the world and drove a deep, unerring path towards that void. A forest sprouted there, and the light beneath its trees was a poisonous, muted green, and the blackness between the trunks grew ever deeper and broader until it consumed the world. Norahc forded this river of oblivion as he had so many times before, and with him came the souls of the dead, and when the veil next parted he returned laden with the souls of the unborn.
A thing of the darkness, Norahc had never before been illuminated by light. He took no notice of himself, and the goddesses do not see as men do. Yet in his forest he found himself framed by light, regarded by the faded remnants that came seeking passage, immortalized by the living who feared his final journey. When eyes at last fell upon him, he was compelled to take form.
He was the subject of a thousand thousand stories, and he changed and grew in the telling. As men thought of him, feared him, glimpsed him, he changed to meet their expectations, their deepest and most troubling fears.
Men moved upon darkened plains, worshipping the moon and sun, fearing the night, clustering together and rutting like animals in cramped, reeking caves, and they knew that he stalked the night. They whispered of his hunger as the icy winds screamed past the entrance to their meager shelter, and when the frozen morning dawned, they tossed the bodies of the weakest into his embrace, and everyone knew that-
He was a massive beast, fifty feet tall, legs the size of tree trunks, covered with a snarl of dark wiry fur, and the ghosts of the fallen came and climbed his great limbs, clung to his pelt tightly as he bore them through the darkness and-
Fire kindled on the plains, holding back the darkness with effort as feeble as it was brave. Huts sprouted across the countryside, then houses, then great fortresses of mortar and stone. Animals were bent, broken to man's will. But there was always the inevitability of Norahc's coming, the unstoppable passage beyond, and though nature had been tamed it was still vicious, and everyone knew that-
He was a herd of midnight mustangs, tossing proud heads and inky manes, racing through the tight confines of the forest with impossible grace, racing on thousands if thundering hooves that feared no tangle of roots, a whinnying scream echoing from his thousands of throats and-
The cities grew, and the men who spoke different languages traded and made war with each other, and more died than ever, and as they mourned lost husbands and comrades, the people reflected upon Norahc's coming, and everyone knew that-
He was a barge, funeral-black, wide-bottomed, his railing crowded with pale, spectral figures, his hold echoing with phantom laughter, ghostly sighs, banks of black oars rising and falling, scarcely disturbing the surface of the broad, sluggish river that had formed to mark the way and -
The War of the Magi came upon the land, and espers and men killed each other in untold of numbers. Magic rent the world, and Norahc feasted upon its excess, and the grass of the world was watered with blood, and men died and died. And in scattered trenches and devastated fortresses, the soldiers huddled close and whispered of the last journey, and in their minds and hearts-
He was a long, black carriage, windows shrouded with scarlet drapes, upholstery the color of blood, interior crowded with jostling souls and gilded snuffboxes, wheels thundering down a rough road of jagged obsidian cobblestones towards a destination inarguably final and-
The earth stirred from its long war, and man climbed from the ruins that were war's foul offspring, and began to live anew. The goddesses retreated, magic being forever lost to man, but the well they had provided for Norahc continued to grow and replenish itself, and men died even as they mastered the world around them as never before. Mine shafts collapsed, poison filled the waters of the rivers and wells, steam engines exploded with hot, fatal screams, autocrossbows chattered in dark alleys. Whispers sprouted and multiplied, and everyone knew that-
A pair of rails as cold as death cut through the forest, sinuous steel lines twisting impossibly down a hundred switchback trails, and the sound of Norahc's passage along them was the silvery sobbing of children, and the rhythm of his wheels was the thundering roar of cannon, and his steam-choked voice was the scream of a new widow and the howl of a work whistle intermingled. Ghosts waited on a mist-shrouded platform with tickets the color of their own blood, crowded cheek-by-jowl into his cars, rocking with his furious, ceaseless motion.
For in violent times such as ours, the Phantom Train was always underway.
- - -
"Was," Strago finished. As he had spoken, the silence in the room had seemed to expand, pressing the listeners uncomfortably against the walls, filling the air with a sense of unhealthy foreboding. "Was."
No one said anything, casting furtive glances between each other. Doubtless, Terra thought, many of the more cynical ones were debating whether the old man had lost his mind.
Sabin was the first to speak, and he looked more confused than disbelieving. "Then, you're telling us that... the Phantom Train stopped? That that's what's causing this?"
"Yes." The covers rose and fell as Strago gave a laborious sigh.
"But the Phantom Train just carries away the souls of the dead, and people are dying right on schedule." An expression of discomfort marred his features for a moment as he belatedly considered how Strago might take that statement, but he pressed on, hastening to cover it. "In any case, it shouldn't affect the newly born-"
Strago's strained smile both showed that he appreciated the nature of Sabin's comment and took the sting from his words. "Weren't you listening, Sabin? When it departs, the train takes the souls of the dead with it, to beyond. When it returns, it brings souls back into this world, where they can inhabit new bodies, give thought and life to flesh. Without it, we are left with merely..." He coughed, the smile dissolving into a pained grimace. "Vessels."
"I did this," Sabin said, his voice bleak with horror. When the others only looked at him, uncomprehending, he added: "When Cyan, Shadow, and I wound up in that forest, we battled the train, and won. I never thought..."
Strago chuckled, a dry, deathly-sounding rattle. "Sabin, do not imagine you are the only mortal to dare the edges of the Phantom Forest and return, or even the first to behold the train. The thing you defeated was only a physical manifestation, not the real core of the thing. You couldn't have harmed it seriously. Still..."
He looked more heartsick than Terra had seen him since the house Relm had been spending the night in had gone up in flames. "It is, after a fashion, your fault. All of our fault."
"Magic," Terra said, a sick, churning feeling like a clutching fist in her gut. "When we destroyed the statues... Norahc.. the Phantom Train... couldn't get nourishment any longer."
Edgar, bleak, horrified: "We've killed him, then."
Strago raised a hand. "No, he cannot die, but he has forgotten how to forage for himself. He is a tamed creature now, fearful though he is, and he can no longer sustain himself without magic. He's lost... trapped between worlds, stalled on his journey somewhere, perhaps-"
"Then we'll have to go find him," Locke said, slamming a fist on the table and beginning to rise as if the proposal was anything but completely mad, as if he might throw open the bedroom door and find the train in the hallway. "Sabin and the others did it before, right?"
Strago closed his eyes, struggling for breath. Even telling the story had winded him.
"That was when the entrance to the Phantom Forest still existed in this world. I believe it was destroyed by Kefka's conflagration. It cannot be found now in the world of the living."
"Come on!" Setzer spoke loudly, flamboyantly, the way he always did when he was terrified. "There's tons of places in this new world we haven't mapped yet. The Phantom Forest has to be in one of them. If it could survive the War of the Magi, it must still be around. We just have to look."
But Strago was shaking his head, slowly, as if even that exertion pained him.
"I don't think so. Even should that forest still physically exist, the destruction of magic should have rendered it inert."
Celes trembled, and Terra was grateful that Locke did not notice the way her hand stole to her belly. Tears glimmered unshed in her eyes. "Then... there's no hope... there's nothing... we've... we've killed the world. There's no way to even find the Phantom Train, now."
Oh, Celes. I'm sorry.
"Well," Strago said haltingly, in the pained silence that followed, "As Sabin pointed out, there is still one path that leads to the Phantom Forest."
His smile was hideous, humorless, the skin pulled tight so that he looked less like warm old familiar Strago, more like a living, grinning skeleton.
"I suspect I'll walk it before the rest of you."
Relm's rather hasty return with Strago's dinner put an end to the discussion, and they dispersed, grateful to escape their crushing sense of shared responsibility.
The night breeze was cool and light, a blessed relief after being crowded into the stifling confines of Strago's sickroom. As the others filed off to sleep or drink or talk their problems away, Terra let the wind move her along like an errant leaf, down the winding garden path, through the center of the darkened town. Thamasa lay silent around her, thatch-roofed houses crowded close together like a herd of sleeping cattle.
Kefka's reign had struck the quaint town relatively lightly, and now that the world had been restored, it bloomed with life. New houses sprouted at the periphery of the town, and for the first time the insular Mage Knights had begun to welcome outsiders. Perhaps the loss of their magical heritage had made them more willing to accept that they were part of the world, and had in turn made the world more willing to return the favor. One more good thing that the destruction of magic had produced. One more way that the world had changed for the better.
It wasn't enough. It wasn't even close.
We did this, Terra thought, numb with horror, her feet carrying her down a winding path out of the town. Around her honeysuckle climbed shadowed trellises, filling the air with a fragrance so sweet that it was hard to believe that the world was irrevocably broken, that humanity was utterly doomed.
Not even Kefka managed that, came the thought, hot and bitter. Tears blurred her vision, coursed down her cheeks. We didn't know. We didn't mean to. Did that matter?
Some distance outside Thamasa, a shattered cliff face spewed water, forming a narrow, deep river that knifed its way down rocky hillsides. Terra remembered fording it on their journey to Ebot's Rock. Then the water had been the color of bile, and had smelled of pus and rot. When she had crossed it, it had lapped greasily around her thighs in a way that made her draw in a sharp, shattered breath driven by memories best forgotten. Her legs had been covered with leeches when she emerged, and the bruise-colored welts they left behind had only recently begun to fade.
Now the river ran swift and clear, and fresh reeds sprouted along its banks. It was as clear an image of the world's health as one could hope for - and as deceptive as the Empire had once been. Perhaps the world had been made more beautiful, but somewhere beyond its borders a terrible monster lay dying, thrashing in agony and hunger. They had needed that monster. They had needed the terror he bore with him and the misery he left behind, for without them there could be neither joy nor life. They had needed him, and they had not known. They had all feared him so, deep inside, that they had not even considered that their actions might harm him. And now...
Terra knelt beside the river, letting its cool waters sluice through her fingers. The stones of its rocky bank stabbed into her knees through the thin material of her dress, and as she reached down to adjust the stones there, the idea came to her.
She rose a few moments later clutching a handful of stones, trying to catch her breath. Her heart lurched in her chest, and she trembled so fiercely that a few of the rocks slipped from her fingers, bouncing down the bank to tumble into the water with soft splashes. She stuffed them in the pocket of her dress jerkily, taking a few steps, gasping shallowly.
No. You can't.
She had clenched the stones too tightly; her palm burned from a dozen shallow, painful cuts. She tried to concentrate on that pain as she walked, tried as hard as she could to push the thought away. If only she hadn't thought about that old story, that stupid old story that Cynthia always wanted Terra to read to her, that horrible song-
(By the banks of bubbling stream, a maiden went a-walking)
Norahc was out there somewhere, lost, hurting, but perhaps yet alive. If only they knew where the Phantom Forest was. If only Kefka's mad ambition hadn't taken it from the world of the living, as it had taken so many other, more pleasant things.
(The tears were running down her face, she had heard the lads a-talking)
Don't think about it. Don't. But she already had. She could not let the thought alone. She knelt again, digging her hands through the heap of rocks, trying to distract herself with the pain. It didn't work, and as she rose with more stones in her hands, as she piled them on top of the ones already in her pockets, she wondered if she had really been trying to distract herself at all.
(Her love had gone away to war)
(Never to return)
The children. It wouldn't be fair to the children. They wouldn't understand. They were all she had ever wanted, and she loved them desperately. She could almost forget the curse of her body when she was with them, for she knew that no child of her own womb could be any closer to her than they. They had already lost so much. It wasn't fair to demand this of them.
But there are other children, Terra. So many others.
(Her love had left the mortal world)
(And how her tears did burn)
Someone else, Terra. One of your friends. Anyone else. Not you. Not again.
But last time they could not trust others to do their job for them, and this time she could think of no other more suited than herself. Locke and Celes had their own life together, not to mention the child, Setzer and Cyan had just begun to recover, the brothers Figaro needed each other, Strago was too tired, too old, and Relm and Gau were too young. Shadow might have embraced the task before her, but she had the feeling he had already done so.
Another handful of stones. The dress sagged now, heavy and misshapen, the weight of the rocks making it difficult to walk. Terra tried desperately to still her trembling. She was not going to do this. She had to do this.
(I'll be with you again she said, the maid who went a-walking)
(Your hand will be in mine my love, before the day is dawning)
Terra had long feared that her esper nature might mean she was something of a monster. It was hard to say that feeling was entirely wrong; she remembered the screams of the soldiers as she set them aflame, the secret delight that had kindled in her heart. She was magical no more, but some part of that identity remained within her. She wondered often if others thought as she did, or if she were somehow broken. Somehow mad. The conclusion she had reached tonight, so suddenly, so certainly, made her wonder again. Made her hesitate.
She didn't bother to take off her fine leather boots as she stepped into the shallows, the water splashing around her calves.
She thought of Tara's blankly staring eyes. Thought of Celes's fingers resting on a flat stomach. Thought of all the children waiting to be born, of all the old people, one of them a dear friend, waiting to die. She thought of the wounded monster, sick, dying, a creature of horrible necessity. They would help it if they could, but they could not find the way.
Not in this world.
The water was up to her waist now, drenching the dress, plastering wet cotton against her skin. She shivered, but not from the cold.
Not in this world.
She turned to face distant Thamasa, where a single light still burned in Strago's room. Her friends would be there. She hoped they would understand. She hoped they would forgive her.
It was the easiest thing to fall backwards into the rushing river, letting it bear her down and under.
(The water's arms they grasped her close, and pulled her down to meet him)
(They'd be together once again, 'ere the light grew dim)
The current buffeted Terra almost playfully, spinning her one way and then the other as it bore her away. The weight of the stones pulled her down even more quickly than she had believed. Her hair rose around her face in emerald strands as she sank, hiding the brilliance of the moon from her view. She blinked and tossed her head, scattering the veil of her hair into a thousand separate strands, and realized that the world looked too bright, all bubbling froth and glistening-pale lake reeds and silvery bubbles of air streaming from her mouth as she screamed and screamed and screamed and she was going to die, she was going to die-
Terra's limbs strained and thrashed of their own volition as she struggled to reach the surface. But she had done her job too well - she was too heavy, too tired, and too disoriented by the brush of the current and the rapidly spinning world. She was lost. She was never coming back. She was a fool, such a fool-
Water so cold it burned slipped languidly down her throat, filling her lungs. Black spots danced before her eyes. War drums pounded in her temples, and behind and above it all were the words to that stupid old song, and as she spiraled down into the depths there was a growing sense of warmth, and then
(Now the maid has gone away)
(Never to return)
(For love she left this mortal world)
(And how my tears do burn)
- - -
Terra awoke with a start on a rough, rocky slope, soil only inches from her face. She lay amid the river grasses and reeds in the weak twilight world between night and dawn, and as she gave a grunt of effort and pushed herself up on her hands and knees, she realized she was completely naked. The air around her seemed strangely and uniquely still.
Idiot. She berated herself. She must have shed the dress, and the stones with it, during her last mad rush for the surface. In the end, she couldn't even kill herself properly.
She felt a chill, probably from the water, but the wind was mercifully still as she raised herself and turned to sit with her back against a large rock, trying to decide how she was going to explain this to the others. She hoped they would put two and two together, and she wondered if they would think her heroic or mad. Past experiences suggested the two qualities were rather close, anyway.
In distant Thamasa, a few more lights burned, and she could see the row of lanterns that marked the Falcon's position. Baby Tara would be there, and she would need to be fed, and Terra held on to the distant, pathetic comfort that at least the baby wouldn't know what Terra had tried, and failed, to do for her sake.
"Terra." The voice came from behind her soft and insistent, and she whirled, not bothering to cover herself. She knew the voice, but it seemed impossible-
"Strago?" She asked uncertainly. Her own voice sounded strange to her, deeper and distant. That he should be out here, in his condition, in this weather, was inexcusable. That thought registered before she saw that he was dressed for traveling. The long, glorious, and moth-eaten cape he had worn on all their travels curled around him, and in his withered hands he clutched an ironwood staff.
But something was different. Always, when they had set out, the old man had been in great spirits, whistling off-tune until Shadow threatened halfheartedly to cut his throat before he could give away their position, juggling small trinkets, keeping Relm entertained and shrieking with laughter. Now, his features were drawn, morose.
"You shouldn't have done it, Terra," he said, twisting the staff in his hands. "You're so young. You had so much... It was my burden to bear. There was no need for you to take your life."
Terra took a step backwards and started to protest that she hadn't when she realized that she had not breathed at all since she had awoken, that her heart was not beating, that her blood lay as still and sluggish as the water filling her lungs. Her slightly blue skin felt cold and clammy, and her wet hair hung limply. Not that this was her real body, of course - and she had a sickening vision of it being borne downstream, smashed with bone-snapping cracks against the rocks amidst the rapids.
Even though she knew she no longer had flesh or muscles, she felt her knees weaken, felt goose bumps break out across her spectral skin. She sank to all fours, trembling, wanting to be sick but knowing that there was nothing inside her to vomit up. That knowledge was infinitely worse than the physical sensation could ever be. Yet when she spoke, through a parody of lips that mocked her dead flesh, she sounded defiant, determined,
"I didn't know you were going, Strago. Even if I had, I couldn't let you go alone. I couldn't stand to let this happen to... to the babies. You don't have to understand, but..." She fumbled for words, wondering if at least the tears that brimmed in her eyes were real. "Done is done. There's no going back."
"No..." He shook his head heavily, looking through her body, which she realized now was slightly transparent, to the distant lights of Thamasa. "Relm will be alone without me. I had hoped you might care for her."
"I would have," she blurted before she could stop herself, trying to quash the guilt that rose in her breast. "You know I would have. But we can't only think of Relm now... there are other children. We have to stop this, if we can."
"Yes," he said, sighing. After a moment, the faintest ghost of a grin creased his face. "But first, I think you had better get dressed."
She had forgotten she was naked. Even with all the things she suspected Kefka had done, she could not really seem to associate the lack of clothing with what people did when they were together in bed. She had little opportunity and less interest in the act itself, and it was so easy to forget that others did not feel the same way. Perhaps some things never changed, even in the lands of the dead.
She rose and turned, hoping to find her dress somewhere in the shallows, but in the moment she wished for clothing, it was simply there, fitting her as snugly as ever. A pair of boots, her armored top and skirt, her sword belt and the hilt of her most favored weapon, Atma. As her hand fell upon its pommel, her eyes opened wide in astonishment, and Strago managed a bitter chuckle.
"Our forms seem to be locked at the moment of our deaths. I tried to make myself younger, believe me. But it seems we can at least exercise some control over the trappings that surround us."
He was right; for all her clothing had changed, her hair was still dripping wet, her skin still frigid, her chest still filled with uncomfortable pressure.
Terra drew the Atma weapon with practiced ease. As always, it slid from the sheath with a steel hiss that spoke of hunger and wrath. The blade, nearly four feet long, shone with an eerie blue light. She tested the weight for a moment, relaxing her wrist, making a few experimental, looping slashes. It felt perfect, but she knew the real Atma weapon was dark and silent, covered with a thick patina of rust, buried deep in her travel chest back in Mobliz.
"Is this real?" She asked. "I mean, will it work?" They had come to rescue, not to kill, but things were seldom that easy.
Strago nodded. "If you believe it will."
She sheathed the sword. She had seen it kill too many times to believe anything else.
Strago took a few halting steps toward her, and they stood together for a long time, silent, gazing at the village where their friends still drew breath. Terra felt something thrash in her chest like a trapped bird, and she thought of the children's' tiny arms around her, and bright handprints on a ceiling, and Katarin's laughter when she saw the booties Terra had tried to knit for her, and the first time she had seen Celes smile, the looping elegance of Cyan's calligraphy, Sabin galloping around the campfire with Relm laughing atop his shoulders and it was all over, all over forever and she wanted so desperately in that moment to live that she thought her dead heart would burst in her breast from the longing. She wanted to cry, but was no longer sure how.
Beside her, Strago shuffled, and she wondered if he were thinking of the girl he would never see grow up.
She could not say how long they waited there, for the sun did not rise or set, the wind did not bend the grasses around them, the river did not move. They stood now in a place beyond the boundaries of the world, timeless and lifeless, watching something forever lost, and wonder of wonders, she was the first to speak.
"How will we find the forest?"
A terrible panic rose in her. Perhaps the dead were as doomed as the recently born, cursed to roam the pale, lifeless world alone for an eternity...
"We start walking," Strago said, turning from Thamasa and taking a laborious step out onto the still plains. In the vast, gray sky above, clouds hung suspended like fast-frozen vapor. "And it will find us."
- - -
They started walking.
They moved silently, steadily, neither giving voice to doubt or fear. Terra had never travelled with Strago alone, and for a moment she wished for a different traveling companion -- Locke, always so kind to her, or Gau, who made her feel less strange, or Edgar, all flattery and concern -- before she remembered the nature of their journey. Somewhere, her friends would all be rising for the day, eating, searching for her.
She wondered which of them would find her body.
Theirs was a bleak funeral march, and with each step they seemed to slough off more of the living world. Green, still grass began to fade, color seeping away until they moved through knee-high shoots the color of milk. The sky darkened to a black, starless void, and the sound of distant whispers, a faint funeral dirge, carried through the breathless air.
Weird things capered at the edges of their vision. Lumps of glowing protoplasm, trailing dozens of glowing, phlegmy tendrils, dipped low in above the grasses, rising with squealing chunks of red flesh. Humanoid figures, their limbs bent and shattered and bound behind their backs, staggered through the pale weeds, blood trickling in crimson streams from their eyes down their pale cheeks. Once, Terra stepped over half a hart, dragging its organs like a strange tail, leaving a snail-trail of blood through the weeds behind it.
"Plasmics," Strago explained when Terra looked to him. "Remnants of dead things. Memories and nightmares."
"I've fought some of them before," she said, keeping her weapon drawn and tightly gripped. Around them, a cloud of severed hands, fingers linked, flapped through the air like a flock of pale gulls.
"Yes. They used to slip beyond the veil into our world. Now, with magic gone, the way is closed to them." He stepped without concern over a squealing thing that looked like a crocodile trying to vomit up a skinless man.
Terra shied away from it, fighting the urge to lash out. "Why aren't they attacking us?"
Strago stumped through the growth ahead, leaning heavily on his staff and leaving an odd trail of three-legged tracks in the loose soil.
"Why should they?" he tossed back after a moment, voice bitter. "Even the most bestial of them can recognize their fellows."
She could not say how long they walked. They moved through the low, rolling hills of the dead, and after a time Terra realized they were no longer alone, that spectral figures as transparent as she and Strago walked to either side of them, some clinging together, some horribly alone. Some seemed to have died quietly, while others bore the marks of their deaths: bloody wounds, bruises, glazed, vacant eyes.
She saw the crowns of the trees first, rising high above the rolling hills before her. The white-trunked pines stabbed into the drab sky, mist lying between and upon them in a fine spiderweb tracery. For a moment, she found it strangely beautiful, and something deep within her seemed to thrum in resonance, and then they topped the last low rise and saw the entirety of the forest sweeping out below them.
"Oh." She no longer had any need to breathe, but gasped nevertheless, a reflex not even death could erase. Water bubbled in her lungs.
"Goddesses..." Strago hissed beside her, and she hated them for making such a sight possible.
In better times, the pines of the forest would have swallowed them, shrouded them decently. Now they were hideously visible, teeming around the edges of the forest, pressing their luminous bodies against the trunks and each other, constantly sliding and shifting, weeping and tearing at themselves and each other, or else lying inert, motionless. They were a staggering multitude, their individuality transformed by conglomeration into one repulsive, twitching whole.
"So many..." Terra heard herself say, as if from very far away. "How can there be so many?"
They extended out from the forest for miles, and she could see by the vaguely glowing forms between the trees that they also filled much of its outskirts. As she and Strago topped the rise, the sound the horde made, the sound they had been hearing distantly all during their journey, washed over them with the strength of a physical blow. A withering dirge, woven of countless screams, moans, and sobs, ever-shifting, never-ending. Terra fought the urge to clap her hands over her ears, knowing it wouldn't help at all.
"The Empire killed many," Strago said, leaning close so that he might be heard over the cacophony of howls and screams, "Kefka and the World of Ruin far more. It is said that the train's outward journey is much longer than its return trip. They... they must have been amassing here for a long time."
Even as they watched, more figures crept down from the ridge on which they stood, joining the fringes of the multitude. A few ghosts, attired in the frayed remnants of conductor's uniforms, moved about the periphery of the crowd, pressing a blood-red ticket into each newcomer's hand.
Strago had taken a single step down the slope before Terra's hand grasped his shoulder. She had not realized how hard she was gripping him until he winced, but she could not summon sympathy in her sudden rush of fear.
"Strago... do you think that Kefka is down there?" She had conquered him, in memory and in fact, but the thought of meeting him once more on this plain of dead petitioners filled her with dread, woke memories of frozen limbs and whooping laughter.
He paused for a moment, and she saw that he had not considered the possibility. But then, blessedly, he shook his head.
"No, Terra. By the end, he sought to make himself something more than a man, and altered his soul accordingly. This is no longer his path. Besides," and he grinned, almost a blasphemy in this place. "If he was down there, I think we'd know it on sight."
That was true enough. Even in this place of death, it seemed unlikely that Kefka would be one to accept the status quo. Still, the realization provided only a small balm to her anxiety as she followed Strago down towards the screaming mass below.
Now that the moment had arrived, Terra felt aimless, lost. There were so many people here, a staggering, unending multitude in numbers she had never seen before, not even standing on the terraces of Vector. She and Strago had been special once, heroes, but now she felt like just one more dead thing. If none of the others could find the train, what hope did she have?
Worse than that, the thought of walking among them, of them pressing upon her from every side, bearing her down, possessing her...
There were so many.
They found an open space that looked as likely as any other, at the edges of a knot of ghosts on the massive formation's broadest edge. Almost unconsciously, Terra guided them toward the most harmless ghosts she could find, a tall, willowy woman and a short girl that looked like her recreated in miniature. With the mother's back turned,Terra could hardly see the bloody hole in her chest, and the way the child smiled and waved shyly at them almost made up for the long, thin bruises on either side of her throat. Terra waved back, a genuine smile creeping across her face for the first time in an eternity.
"My daddy's back there!" The girl said, pointing with one chubby finger. Terra turned and saw a young male ghost, his neck slit from ear to ear in a violent red crescent. When he caught her gaze, he hurriedly turned away.
"Mommy's still mad," the girl offered from behind Terra, "But I forgive him. He's sorry. He really is."
"I..." Terra could not tear her eyes away from the seeping wound in his neck, the way it clashed so strongly with his reserved, embarrassed expression.
"He is," the girl insisted, tugging on Terra's clammy hand. "He really is, that's why he decided to come with us."
"I'm... sure he is..." Terra mumbled, patting the girl's head softly. Her skull felt soft, unformed, and Terra wondered if it had broken before she was strangled, or after.
"Lucy," the female ghost said. She still did not turn, and Terra realized that she was determinedly facing away from her husband. "Leave the woman alone."
"S-sorry," Terra said, moving away.
"Bitch..." another ghost hissed from his position on the ground nearby. He was short, and skinny, dressed in ragged clothing that bore Zozo gang symbols. His abdomen had been sliced open, spilling his guts onto his lap. He looked down into them like a drunk gazing into his beer.
"Cut me, didn't you, you bitch," he slurred. Blood caked his chin, reminding her sharply of the mess the little ones at the orphanage made of themselves when they ate. "Didn't you?"
He made no move to rise, didn't even bother to look up. Terra wasn't even sure if he was speaking to her, but she supposed it was possible. She had passed through Zozo before, and killed there, like so many before her.
Dozens of ghosts were arriving at once now, dressed in a variety of Jidoorian finery, all of it charred and smudged. As Terra recoiled, a teenage girl in a scorched evening dress staggered to the forefront. Her hair had been crisped to pale red wisps and her skin was charred tar-black, cracked and split where boiling fat had seeped free. Opera gloves covered her hands, wet with blood, and when she put them to her face to wail, they sloughed off great trenches of burned flesh.
"We couldn't get out!" She howled, tearing off pieces of herself. "We couldn't get out! It was supposed to be a party! It was supposed to be fun!"
Trembling, Terra turned away, groping for Strago as the horde of burned, moaning newcomers jostled into place.
She wanted to leave. She didn't want to stand among these lost souls, in this place of the dead, of forgotten dreams and eternal regrets.
Among them? You are one.
"Strago," she said, finding his hand with her own, squeezing firmly. "Let's go."
"In due time," a phantom conductor announced in a brisk voice, pressing a red ticket into her hand. "The train shall be here any moment."
"You can't possibly believe that!" Strago said in protest, crumpling his ticket, but the ghost, a chubby little man in a shabby velvet uniform, was already moving amongst the burned Jidoorian partygoers.
"He does believe it," a familiar voice said behind them. "He doesn't know any better. Spend enough time here.. and it's easy to forget who you were."
Terra whirled in astonishment, and the sight of the man that stood there raised a number of queasy, conflicting emotions in her.
He had been a staunch ally, in the end, but she remembered all too well the tests, the straps, the dispassionate way he poked and prodded at her, at her father and the other espers. He was a monster, wasn't he? Did it matter that he had repented?
Yet she found that she could not hate him, only pity him. The old man was worn, faded, his bright lemon jacket faded to a pale urine color. His mustache drooped heavily, and he looked unwell: thin, sallow-skinned. Dead. As Strago did. As she must.
"I saw you coming down the hill. I apologize for taking so long to reach you, but I must know - is Celes alive?" He asked, before either of them could respond. "We've heard only rumors of Kefka's defeat here, and I must know. When she was left alone, I feared-"
"She's fine," Terra said, wanting to cut him off, wondering distantly if a man like him could ever be truly worried about anyone. "She's going to have a baby," she added, because it didn't matter what the dead knew.
"That's..." Cid said, overcome with emotion. "That's wonderful. I'm happy for her."
"Maybe you shouldn't be," Strago said, a frown pulling down the corners of his wizened face. The news of Celes's impending motherhood thrilled him even less than it had Terra. Before the other man could wax poetic about Celes's birth, Strago began talking. As quickly as possible, he explained the situation to Cid, ending with the desperate and pointed question: "How do we find the train?"
Cid shrugged, looking lost. Apparently this talk of magic and legend had not moved him, and Terra recalled bitterly that the last time he had dealt with magic, he had been extracting it from living, thinking beings. From her father.
"The train must be in the forest somewhere. You could follow the tracks. The conductors won't even try to stop you."
"If that's the case," Strago demanded, "Why haven't all the others done it?"
"Many have," Cid said. "But none have returned. The tracks are said to twist treacherously... it is easy to lose the way. And the conductors tell us that once we leave the safety of the platform for the forest, we run the risk of forgetting what we are, becoming spectres. Feral ghosts. Most are not eager to take the risk, not when waiting is an easy thing."
"We can't wait," Terra said, tightening her grip on Atma weapon's hilt, trying to draw strength from it. It almost worked until she remembered she had literally dreamed the weapon up out of nothing. "We have to go now."
She took Strago's elbow to begin moving them towards the woods, away from the scientist. The more she looked at Cid, the more she found herself remembering what he had done, what she had done under the control of the slave crown he had helped create. She couldn't forgive that, alive or dead. Strago seemed to understand, for he followed without protest.
"Wait!" Cid cried after them, his voice nearly lost in the torrent of other shouts and screams. "I... couldn't give Celes the kind of life she deserved. Not when she was a child, not in the World of Ruin. Let me help her now. I..." he wrung his hands on the front of his jacket. "I can't go with you, but I know someone who will. You'll need all the help you can get."
"We probably have more experience than they do," Strago tossed back, none too gently. Maybe he sensed Terra's distaste, or remembered all too well the Magitek machines that had torn through Thamasa. "It's not safe. I don't know who you think could help us here."
And then Cid said the name, and Terra felt the heart she did not have lurch as her eyes grew wet with phantom tears that could not be shed.
- - -
The young soldier glared down at the dice in the dirt before him, scratching at his head in confusion. He wore a Returner uniform, impeccable save for the fact that the left sleeve, and the arm within, was missing. Blood coursed down his side and made dark wine-marks in the soil, but he seemed not to notice.
"My game," the soldier sitting across from him announced proudly. His thin chest barely filled out his brown Imperial uniform, and he used the ungainly helmet as a seat. Perhaps that had been a habit of his in life as well; if he had been wearing his helmet, it might have stopped the autocrossbow quarrel that had penetrated his left eye. "Like always. Imat- you in next round?"
"Hurts..." a Narshe guard lying nearby whispered. His chest was one jagged crater, his limbs splayed out crazily. Dried blood caked the insides of his goggles, shrouding his eyes. "Hurtssss..."
"Yeah, that's what you always say. I've told you a thousand times it doesn't, you idiot."
The reclined ghost moaned again, shuddering. "Hurrrrrrrtssss "
"Guess he's out."
The pair looked up from their dice game as Cid and the others drew near. The Returner tossed off a casual salute with his remaining arm.
"Doc." He looked past him, eyes widening as he spotted Terra. "Hey, aren't you-"
"She is," Cid said in a passable imitation of his old bureaucratic snippishness, "But that doesn't matter. Right now, we need to speak with your leader, quickly."
The soldier shrugged, the gesture mangled and strange. The way the knob of exposed bone near his collar shifted against shredded muscle was morbidly mesmerizing. "Go on ahead, then. Just don't try anything."
Cid gave him a brief nod, ushering Terra and Strago past the game and its players.
The camp had been, by all appearances, tossed up over the course of one frantic afternoon. Concentric circles of tents in all shapes and sizes sprouted in the midst of the ghostly horde, and only the presence of a ring of guards and some hastily-arranged stakes kept the milling dead from violating the camp's boundaries. Within, it was like every military camp she had seen and none of them. Its proliferation of battle dress and visible war wounds made it seem as if the residents of a mass battlefield grave had clawed their way from the ground to bivouac on the plains.
"A bit lacking in discipline," Strago remarked, the slightest hint of wry humor in his voice. "They don't even have the same uniforms."
Around them, a multitude of soldiers from a multitude of nations went through the motions of life. A group of Imperials, clad in the red uniforms of the IAF, clustered around a pale blue fire, feeding it kindling harvested from the forest. All of them bore the terrible injuries of crash trauma - shattered limbs and scorched flesh - and Terra wondered if any of them had been brought down in the Blackjack's assault of the Floating Continent. Beyond them, Narshe guards, Figarian autocrossbowmen, and Jidoorian Lancers gathered in a crowd around a young boy wearing Imperial livery. The sound of the ocarina he played muffled the wailing screams of the crowd around them, and the blood that bubbled unchecked from his eyes, nostrils, and mouth in no way obscured his music.
They passed a single soldier in ragged bandages and Imperial brown, sitting alone on the earth. He rocked back and forth, face cradled in lacerated hands, moaning, "Lola. Lola. Lola."
They passed a tent that rocked and jerked violently on its moorings, the sound of intermingled laughter and sobbing emerging from within.
They passed a row of quietly dozing Returners, their skin shriveled to their faces and turned a deep green by the poison of Imperial bio bombs.
They passed a field brothel, where dead whores from a dozen countries stood outside a leaning, ramshackle tent, their bodies as pale as their makeup-caked faces, rouged lips and cheeks faded to a faint pink. A woman with long, raven-dark hair fluttered her lashes, pressing her hands to her belly to hold in the ropes of her entrails. Beside her, a girl with a pixie's halo of blond hair and a brutal necklace of bruises licked her lips before bending over convulsively to cough blood into a heavily speckled handkerchief. More clustered behind them, victims of brutal street violence, of tuberculosis, of blackspot fever and cholera. There was no money here and nothing to buy; Terra presumed the women went on out of nothing more than habit.
Is that what we're doing too?
A line of soldiers snaked into the tent though many of its members could barely stand on their own two feet. Cid forged a path through, face drawn in an expression of faint distaste.
"Excuse me," Terra breathed, slipping past a Jidoorian nobleman whose face had been smashed into a pulp. Clumps of his skull still clung to his officer's coat.
And then the command tent loomed before them, and Cid was moving the tent flap aside, making excuses to the guards, and they were within.
The chamber's interiors were spartan; a rack for weapons and armor, a single desk and chair, and a thin bedroll. A tall, slender, gray-haired ghost in an Imperial advisor's uniform bent over the front of the desk, obscuring the figure behind it from view. Save for a bruise at his temple, he was unmarked.
"I've redeployed the men as best I can, General, but we're running out. More leaving to look for their families or dare the forest. And," he shrugged. "Fewer coming in these days. The war really must be over; we're getting no new soldiers."
"We'll manage," the heartbreakingly familiar voice replied. The obscured figure stirred behind the desk, rising to greet the newcomers. "Yes, how can I help- Terra?"
"Leo," she gasped, and this time she could not help bringing her hands to her mouth, shuddering with horror.
Kefka had mutilated his body, of course. She should have known when Locke had refused to let her see it, but some combination of wishful thinking and naiveté had kept her shielded from the truth. Leo still stood as tall and straight as he had in life, but his uniform was no longer pristine. Blood blossoms covered the breast of his jacket; she supposed any one of the wounds could have killed him. His left hand was gone, completely severed a few inches below the elbow. The crotch and legs of his uniform were black with dried blood, and his face-
-his face, it had always been a handsome face, and noble, and she had felt safe when she looked at it-
-was a red mass of crisscrossing cuts and ridges of torn flesh. His mouth and nose were nothing but black caverns. His left ear was gone. Only his eyes, still a piercing steel gray, gave any indication that he had once been a handsome man.
"Leo," she repeated, forcing herself to meet that gaze and the butchery below it, wanting to weep, wanting to say more, wishing she did not look so disgusted.
"Terra... I am... sorry that you have to see this. I am sorry..." He paused for a moment, eyes boring into hers.
"I was deceived by Emperor Gestahl. I allowed Kefka to use you... torture you... and to escape. In the end, I could not stop him." He shook his head, dripping thick gobbets of blood from several orifices. "I was a fool. I failed to save the ones who deserved it most. My men, you... and now..." The skin around his eyes crinkled, and it seemed as if he was in great pain.
"And now, you are here."
Some part of her wanted to embrace him, even though he was a large, imposing man, even though his face was in ruins. She wondered, idly and academically, what it might feel like if he took her in his arms. Almost, she wanted it. Almost, and that was wonder enough to her.
"That's not your fault," she said, instead. Cid and Strago remained silent, sensing something that even she wasn't completely aware of. "Kefka is gone. This was... it was my choice."
"Then you're a fool, too," he said sharply, eyes blazing with sudden anger. The muscles of his face shifted and twitched against each other in wet red folds as he tried to frown. "I thought I had given you hope. I thought I had helped you. That was all I had to hold on to, when the weight of my sins grew too great..."
"You did help me," Terra said softly, thinking of what he had told her on the ship to Thamasa, how his unhesitating belief that she could love someone had strengthened her when she first came to Mobliz. In many ways, the children had been his gift to her, and she loved him for it, if not quite the way she wished she could. "That's why I knew I had to do this, for the children."
"The children?" He asked, and she opened her mouth to tell him about Mobliz, about what he had given to her, about Tara, but Strago was already talking, quickly relaying the tale of the Phantom Train and its affliction. She fought not to grow too angry at him.
"Yes..." Leo said when he had finished. "Cid is right. I do want to help you. Because it is the right thing to do... because I need a change. I've been... trying to occupy myself here, with the soldiers."
He threw out his one remaining hand, and from the tone of his voice Terra thought he might have looked sheepish if his face were more than a mass of shredded meat.
"Most of their families had already moved on, or are still alive somewhere. They had no one. They had died as soldiers, with the memory of painful battle chasing them into this netherworld. I thought, perhaps, if we camped here, they might remember the better parts of their careers. They will manage that without me, now. They need no leader."
"We do, sir," the aide piped up. In her rush of surprised horror, Terra had forgotten he was there. "We're soldiers. We know what it means to fight, and we chose to follow you. Let us go with you into the forest."
Leo's eyes burned cold, emotionless. He did not turn.
"No. In life, I was foolish enough to lead men to their deaths. No longer. Should you lose your way in the forest, your fate would be even worse than death. An eternity of mad wandering... No," He said again, shaking his head firmly. "No, Jareth. It will not be on my head. Remain here. Be merry. Forget about battle and what it did to you, if you can."
"Do not question my orders!" Leo roared, causing the other ghost to jerk back in alarm. Then, in a much softer voice, he said to Terra: "I am armed and ready. Let us be off immediately."
It did not take long to prepare for a journey, Terra realized, when all you had to carry with you were your memories, your regrets.
On their way out of camp, they passed a filthy old man, crawling on all fours, his limbs shattered and twisted. Dirt and blood matted his long, white beard, but Terra might have recognized him, if she had allowed herself to.
One more dead thing, she told herself, remembering the sound of a fist cracking against her mother's jaw. Gone. Forgotten.
"Leo!" The figure shrieked, clawing at the earth with his broken stick-fingers. "Cid! Come back here! Come back now! That's an order! An order!"
Leo did not turn around. Cid cast one forlorn look back and then scuttled on, even faster.
"I only swore to serve him for life," Leo said, bitter.
- - -
Terra had wished to speak to Leo again for so long that the opportunity had left her dumbstruck and silent. She had expected it to be different. She had selfishly wanted to ask him what he thought about her capacity for love, if men would find her beautiful, perhaps if he did. She had never thought she would meet him like this, one more amongst a legion of the dead, on a quest to save a dying monster.
In such a setting, her problems seemed insignificant, the answers even less important. She was dead, and would now only be loved in memory. It was too painful to speak.
There was little time for conversation, a circumstance for which she found herself extremely grateful. True to Cid's word, they faced no problem once they had forced their way through the teeming multitudes to the ivory train platform. Slipping over the side had taken only a moment, and none of the conductors even bothered to call them back as they set off down the curving silver tracks, into the poisonous green depths of the forest.
They had to watch the trail carefully, for it looped and plunged suddenly, taking improbable twists down broken screes of rock, over babbling brooks the color of milk, and back on itself in broad, meandering switchbacks. These were the most treacherous, for they had to navigate between a tangled web of tracks, knowing that the wrong choice would lead them off into a vile thicket from which they would never return. But their eyes were good, and their instincts better. They chose well, moving deeper into the forest. Around them, the green light grew deep and murky. Tendrils of fog reached down from the treetops, almost seeming to flex and move like living things. Will o'Wisps, tiny motes of spectral light, danced and bobbed in the growing gloom.
Feral ghosts attacked them at every turn, starting when they were but a few minutes' journey from the train station. The creatures howled mournfully, their luminescent forms streaking through the trees, multiple limbs flailing as they charged. Their time in the forest had scoured them, shaving away their identity and purpose. Their faces were nothing but black skulls, their reaching arms skeletal and dark against the glowworm-white luminescence of their cloaked forms. They came on without thought or strategy, seeking only to tear and rend.
To her dismay, Terra found that her knowledge of magic was useless in this realm. Perhaps that was because it no longer existed in the world of the living, or perhaps it had always been denied to ghosts. There was no one to ask, and either way the answer meant the same thing: physical force would be the deciding factor here.
The spectral Atma weapon, glowing blue and fierce, artfully danced in her hands, severing limbs, lopping off head, splitting spectres down the middle. Strago fought at her side, his ghostly form more spry than the limitations of his old flesh had ever allowed. He whirled his staff expertly, blocking and diverting strikes, shattering arms and skulls. Leo's missing arm didn't seem to hamper him at all, and of all of them he was unquestionably the most skilled with the blade. He wielded his massive great sword one-handed with ease, whipping it about as if it were as light as a willow switch. His powerful, smooth cuts sliced his opponents in half, sent them falling back in shrieking ruin.
Defeated, the feral ghosts collapsed, dissolving into clouds of luminous mist that quickly joined that shrouding the forest. Their souls destroyed, they would never board the Phantom Train, never be cleansed in the place beyond, never inhabit flesh again. Terra tried her hardest to think of what she and the others had done to them as a favor, or at least a necessary evil.
After the first few fights, her guilt ebbed away. After a few more, as the ghosts grew more numerous, more vicious, she could think only of her own survival.
They walked for what felt like days, though the faint light that filtered through the leaves above never changed. There never seemed to be time to rest. The constant twisting of the path and the repeated attacks sapped energy and intent, and worst of all, something seemed to be stalking them. They could see it distantly when they stopped, a slightly deeper shadow that flitted across the gloom of the forest but never drew near enough to see. Perhaps it was there to drive them mad, to lure them off the path. In any case, it was one more thing to share guarded looks - but never words - about.
After a time, Terra began to fear that they had taken one of the wrong paths, that they would wander these dark woods until the feral ghosts brought them down, or worse, until they decided to join them of their own free will. After what seemed an eternity of tedium, the prospect was almost attractive, and she forced herself to think of Tara's staring eyes, Celes's tears, and all the children she would never have but must save.
They heard the sound before they reached it, a cantata of shrieking, agonized voices that made the clamor of the ghosts at the forest's edge seem genteel. Gradually the trees began to thin, and then they stood at the fringes of the forest, at the top of a long, sloping hill covered with more of the white grass they had seen on their journey to the forest.
The rails, gleaming the deadly silver of a knife's edge, arrowed down the hill and across the plains, moving in a straight, unbroken line for the first time since they had left the station. Strangely, the open land was even darker than that under the trees, illuminated with a weak gray twilight. A few miles distant, the plains swept up in another hill and then ended abruptly, dropping off into a chasm like none Terra had seen before, not even in the deepest regions of the poisoned World of Ruin. The darkness about and within that chasm was not merely void, but the antithesis of being, a black finality that would devour anything that touched it. It seethed and snapped, blurring and shifting in her vision like an oceanscape. It whispered, strange voices in the back of her mind
so that she knew
why the feral ghosts who heard it
had gone mad.
The tracks swept defiantly over the gap, becoming the silver lattice of a railway bridge and arching away into the darkness. And there, between the chasm and the forest, laid out in dark, stark line against the ivory plains, was the Phantom Train, and seeing it killed her swiftly kindling hope.
Feral ghosts swarmed over every part of the train's structure, screaming and battering at it with their fists. They were tireless, ceaseless, and the fury of their passage created a mottled, ever-shifting mosaic of light and dark. Terra caught glimpses of ornate railings, dark windows, scalloped roofs, and the smokestack for only moments before the ghosts blotted them out. More boiled around the perimeter of the track, crowding and jostling for a place at the great train. Watching their frantic motion, Terra thought of maggots trying to burrow away from the light. But in this place, the maggots were the light, and their gathered luminescence shimmered across the dead plains with weird, disturbing regularity.
"That's it," Strago said, hanging his head. "We'll never get through all of them... and I don't even know what we'd do if we did."
"We have to try," Terra said. There was no alternative - even if she wanted to stop now, she knew she would not be able to weather the return journey through the forest, not with failure hounding her at every step.
"Yes," Leo agreed, stepping in front of her, moving to the very edge of the screening trees. The weird, ghostly illumination welling up from the assembled creatures below silhouetted him imperfectly, slipping through the wounds in his chest to dapple spots of light across Terra's face. "We might be able to slip around, come at it from another direction. One of us could stay here, make some kind of distraction."
Terra felt her brows knit together, recognizing the sound of martyrdom in his voice. "General Leo... it doesn't have to be you. Not... not this time." When he didn't turn around, she reached out to grasp his arm, not even caring that it was the one with the missing hand. "Please."
He said nothing. She could feel his blood pooling in her palm, cool and sticky.
"Please," she repeated. "Not yet. Let's have a look around first. Please."
She couldn't bring herself to look at Strago, and fought not to let the hope show in her face.
"Fine," he said at last, gently shaking free of her grip. "We'll check first, but I don't expect to find anything."
They slipped along the tree line perpendicular to the besieged train, looking vainly for some avenue of approach. The screaming horde took no notice of them, occupied as it was with the assault on Norahc's stalled form, but it revealed no weakness. They worked their way perhaps half a mile along the tree line, finding nothing. Each step seemed only to be prolonging the inevitable, and Terra's heart grew leaden with despair.
Just then, something moved at the edges of her vision, the same furtive, shadowed form that had been following them since they left the station. She welcomed it, grasping desperately for something to focus on besides Leo's impending sacrifice.
"There!" she hissed, whirling just as it darted back into the trees. "That thing that's been following us the whole time!"
"As long as it doesn't give away our position," Leo said, waving away the distraction. The skin around his eyes softened, and he spoke with a kindness that tore at her heart. "Listen, Terra, this is pointless. We don't have any choice. I'll double back and-"
A wave of sound unlike anything Terra had ever heard exploded from the forest, tearing leaves from the trees with its force. First there came the long, bellowing notes of Jidoorian oboes, quickly overlaid by the bright shouts of Imperial trumpets playing a charge, and behind them the trilling flutes of the Figarian Infantry, the loud bird calls that were Returner signals, the droning brass moans of Kohlingen trombones, the thundering of Narshe war drums, and a chorus of intermingled screams of pain, rage, determination.
And Leo's last army, at once his most pathetic and his most glorious, burst from the trees, charging in a ragged spearhead down the center of the silver tracks towards the phantom host before them.
- - -
Terra could imagine how it must have been for them, and though the patchwork army that launched itself at the ghosts still seemed large enough to her, she knew it must certainly have been depleted along the way.
They would have set out as quickly as they could marshal themselves, in complete violation of Leo's orders, marching single file down the tracks so they would not lose the way. When the path branched, they would have sent scouts, and followed the ones that returned, cursing the delays the entire time. They would have faced attack, lost scores or hundreds to darting forms in the darkness that struck and withdrew. They would have lost their way by the dozen, never to be seen again. They would have drawn up at the edge of the forest, finding no sign of their leader, and debated fiercely before attacking in an attempt to avenge him, to fulfill their duty on a last mission few of them even understood.
They would have acted like soldiers again.
Leo jerked as if he had been stabbed when they raced down the slope, and Terra knew he must be seeing all the things she had, feeling the sacrifice they had made for him like a physical blow. She lunged forward to grab the elbow of his good arm before he could race to join them.
"Let me go, Terra!" he shouted, lurching forward. With her applying her weight to his overbalanced side, he staggered, nearly sending both of them to the ground. As they crashed loudly against the trunk of a tree, he protested further. "They're my men, my place is with them."
"They're doing this for you!" She gasped, when all she wanted to say was, Don't. Don't leave. Not again. "They would want you to go on. I... I... need your help. At the train, please." Reckless, she pressed herself against him, trying to pin him down until he saw reason.
He shoved her off with the slightest amount of effort, dropping his sword for a moment so he could grab her wrist and keep her from falling. His eyebrows drew downward, distorting his butchered face.
"Fine. I'll take you to the train. We'll do what we have to do." If only he understood. If only their last words didn't have to be like this-
With a chorus of screams, the mad spectres clustered around the train whirled as one, surging towards Leo's forces. In that moment, they seemed to transform into one ravenous creature, a vile amoeba moving to engulf the challengers. The pale horde rolled up the hill in a tide of screaming bodies, their skeletal teeth clashing, scarecrow arms reaching. Against their staggering numbers, Leo's forces no longer seemed formidable. They would be surrounded, swarmed, torn apart. It was only a question of time.
The front two patchwork ranks dropped to one knee, unleashing a vicious fusillade from their mixed weapons. The chattering of Figarian heavy autocrossbows mingled with the sharper crack of Narshe black powder weapons and the whine of Imperial dart pistols. From deeper within the ranks, shredded Imperials hurled grenades that bounced down the slope before exploding in brief flowers of flame. Those spectres that lunged through their explosions ran directly into the withering hail of fire unleashed by the other troops, jerking backwards like broken puppets, howling and dissolving into nothing.
"We have to move," Strago said, pulling urgently at them to draw their attention from the battle. "If we hurry, we may make the train before they finish-" He stopped, looking at Leo. "Before they notice us."
Leo grunted, and Terra couldn't bring herself to look into his eyes, afraid of the resentment she might find there.
They ran down the slope, bent so low they were nearly crawling, racing recklessly through the low white grass as dead men battled above them. Leo took the lead, setting a brutal pace, his severed stump staining the grass behind him a bold red. Terra followed, gasping for breath although she knew it would do no good. With each jarring step, the water that filled her lungs splashed alarmingly in her chest. Strago stumped along behind her. As she ran, she turned around to watch the struggle raging behind them.
The first ranks stepped back, hurriedly reloading, and the next two moved forward, firing furiously. More spectres died a second death, but the sheer weight of numbers sent them forward long after ghostly weapons had gone dry. They smashed against the front ranks of Leo's force with an audible crunch, and the line staggered backward, buckling in several places.
Tongues of flame spewed from Imperial flamethrowers, black-crisped victims moving forward to mete out the same destruction that had ended their lives. There was the high, keening whine of a Figarian battle drill cycling up, and a moment later chunks of spectre flew high above the battlefield.
"Go," Strago urged behind her. "Whatever it is is still following us. Go!"
And somehow, they were alongside the train, running in its shadowed lee, racing past ornate railings and rust-clotted wheels nearly as tall as they were. The broad, velvet-draped windows glowed a sickly white as the ghosts within crowded to look at the commotion outside, pressing luminous faces and hands against the glass. Briefly, insanely, Terra hoped that they appreciated what she and her friends were doing.
The train shielded much of the battle from view, but Terra could see that the firing had declined to sporadic, isolated flashes. The troops fought hand to hand now, Jidoorian pikemen next to Zozo knifeboys next to Doman samurai, a screaming mosaic of all the best and worst soldiery in the world. They fought with maddened ferocity, tearing into the attacking ghosts with little regard for their own safety, and for a time their determined rage was enough. But the tide was already beginning to turn - the mishmash of weapons, battle protocols, and fighting styles was hurting Leo's forces badly. Terra saw the line crumple as a knot of feral ghosts tore into a Jidoorian pikeman who had only a bandy Zozo girl with a pair of knives guarding his flank, and then the formations were breaking apart, the battle becoming a series of vicious one-on-one fights.
The Phantom Train's engine loomed before them like some cylindrical tomb, dark and still. Terra was the first up the narrow flight of iron steps to its railed platform. Strago followed, cane ringing loudly against the metal as he ascended. Leo paused at the foot of the stairs, drawing his blade and placing his back to the train.
"Hurry," he said, voice still hot with anger and pain. "I'll keep anything from coming this way."
Terra opened her mouth to say something, anything, and then pressed her lips into a firm white line, moving forward. She expected the heavy iron door leading to the engine's cab to resist her as it had the feral ghosts, but the rusting iron handle turned under her hand with a grating scream and the door swung inward rapidly with its own immense weight.
Shrouded in shadow, the tiny, cramped room revealed itself only in the abstract. A low, dark shape against one wall had to be a bench. A row of levers, festooned with cobwebs, jutted out of the wall nearby. The front of the cab was a circular cylinder of iron marked by a single small iron trapdoor - the train's firebox, where it burned fuel.
Terra stood there in the darkness, trembling as she realized, now that the moment was here, that she had no idea what to do next. Part of her had hoped that even going near the creature would rouse him, give them some indication of what to do next, but Norahc slept deeply. Even within the cab, she could hear the distant sounds of battle, the chorus of screams and shouts. If they could not rouse the sleeping monster, she had died for nothing, and the soldiers had sacrificed their souls for less.
"Train?" She whispered, the urgency of the situation driving away the absurdity. "Norahc? Can you hear us?"
Motes of dust danced in the air, illuminated by her slightly glowing form. Nothing. She reached out, gave one of the levers an experimental tug. It didn't budge.
"He only understands hunger," Strago said. "Maybe he wants something to eat?" She wished he did not sound so doubtful.
They checked the tender, but it was empty; most likely it always had been. Norahc took the form of a locomotive because that was what men believed him to be, but most of his parts were likely redundant. He hardly needed a place to store wood and coal, for he did not run on steam, but on...
"Magic..." Terra whispered, and the idea struck her with such force that she knew it must work. If it didn't, there was nothing else.
She fumbled at her belt for a knife, trying to still her shaking fingers, and quickly ran the edge of the blade across her pale palm. Blood welled up around it, as weirdly transparent and luminescent as her skin. But it was of her, and she was of an esper, even if that part of her had died. Perhaps Norahc would at least recognize the taste.
Before she could think better of it, she opened the little trapdoor and shoved her arm inside the train's firebox as far as it would go, tilting her palm so that her blood could drip down into the bed. She grunted with the exertion, her entire left side from thigh to cheek pressing uncomfortably against the cold, slick metal of the train.
No sooner had the drops struck than she heard a sharp sizzle, smelled a strange coppery stink. The train was tasting her. An instant later, she felt a small vibration beneath her cheek, a puff of warmth on her hand. A voice thundered in the back of her mind, sluggish, brutal, like the sound of rusty hinges screaming, like the shriek of a burst steam pipe.
Hunger. So... much... hunger.
"Yes," she whispered against the metal, which was beginning to grow warmer. "I know. We will feed you. But you have to move." She closed her eyes, and imagined the feral ghosts swarming over the dregs of Leo's forces, turning to resume their assault on the train. "You have to move now."
The entire cab rumbled, and Strago started in alarm.
Need more. Hot steam bathed her left arm like saliva. She could feel his hunger in every tremor of the floor, in the pulsing heat beneath her cheek.
"Then take it," she whispered, and the pain was white hot and crippling,. When she yanked her arm free, it was nothing but a smoking stump below the wrist. She clamped down on the horror that tried to rise in her at the sight. "Just... let me... go get my friend."
Enough... for now. The voice slid across the surface of her mind like a fist full of rusty hooks, promising punishment if she didn't return. She tore herself free from the wall with an effort, staggering past the astonished Strago.
"He'll move," she threw back, moving for the stairs. "Stay on the train."
Leo waited still at the foot of the stairs, blade drawn. She could not see his tortured face, but she followed his gaze up to the battle still raging on the plains. Even at this distance, she could see that isolated clumps of his troops still fought on.
A handful of mauled pikemen had formed a box around a trio of Imperials with flame-guns, using their polearms to toss the spectres back while their fellows desperately reloaded. A Zozo street gang had joined with a unit of Returners, and they fought with their backs to each side of one of the forest's trees, stabbing out at everything that drew near. A Narshe guard, a sharpened shovel in each hand, tore through several ranks of feral ghosts on his own before being pulled down by sheer weight of numbers.
They were fighting, but they were dwindling, and the ghosts assailing them still seemed as numerous as the leaves on the trees. It was only a matter of time.
And Leo had watched all of it happen. The thought sent a stab of icy pain into her water-clogged chest. I'm sorry, Leo. I never meant to do this to you. I'm so sorry.
"Leo," she whispered. Beneath her feet, the train began to vibrate in earnest. "The train is about to move. Let's go."
"No," he said, his voice brittle with barely restrained pain. His shoulders were stiff, square, as if he were watching his troops march by in a review. In a way, perhaps, he was. "I'm staying, Terra."
The train bellowed, steam spraying from its tall, ornate smokestack. At the sound of the iron scream, the ghosts assailing Leo's troops stopped, whirled, and howled as one, gliding down the slope at the train. A violent tremor raced the length of the train, and Terra might have pitched over the side if she hadn't grabbed the railing with her remaining hand.
"Don't," she said, wanting it to be a shout, horrified when it emerged as a desperate moan. She had known that he did not love her the way she wished she loved him, but to lose him... "Please, not again. Not again."
He did not turn around.
"I have to. I'm sorry, Terra."
He did not turn around, not when she shouted his name, not when the train's wheels began to roll with loud, rhythmic sounds like the cracking of bones. Ahead, the train's lamp kindled, stabbing a shaft of light into the gloom. Steam wafted back from the smokestack, smelling of her blood, shrouding him from her view for a moment.
Terra leaned out perilously, reaching for him, and he did not turn around. The train began to move and he did not turn around. The monsters racing down the slope shrieked in intermingled rage and glee, and he did not turn around. She heard herself screaming, felt the water bubbling in her chest.
"Please! DON'T LEAVE ME AGAIN, PLEASE!"
He did not turn around.
Terra watched his outline shrink as the train picked up speed, sagging heavily against the railing, extending her arm as he slipped from her grasp. He had chosen destruction over her, and the bitter betrayal burned in her guts like acid. She fought the urge to scream, to tear her hair out. She wanted to weep, wanted to hate him, wanted to love him, and didn't know how to do any of them.
Then the tide of ghosts washed over him like a flood surging over a rock, bearing him down, and she did not see him again.
He shouldn't even have been here, she thought. Her palm was tacky with his dried blood.
The train gave a scream, shrill, wavering, almost feminine - it reminded her of her own cry. The silvery rails sighed and sobbed as the rusted wheels scraped along them, kicking up a rooster tail of sparks. The plains slipped away behind them as the train moved out onto the railroad bridge, and the blackness below was so total that Terra could not bring herself to look at it. The ghosts following made a last desperate dash, hurling themselves up and forward in an arch of luminescent bodies that looked strangely beautiful. They struck the train with a series of loud, brittle crunches, shattering, dissipating. Several impacted with such force that they rebounded entirely, whirling end over end as they struck the earth and rolled to their ruin. One lunged to grasp the speeding rail of the caboose and only succeeded in tearing its own arms off. They twitched and rattled, clattering loudly against the metal rim of the last car for a moment before vanishing.
Yet despite the destruction, some dozen spectres had gained the train, through skill or dumb luck. As Terra watched, they righted themselves and began to creep forward, their luminous forms easily visible against the dark iron backdrop of the train. They moved with the fluid, sickening grace of the silverfish that had lived in her old room in Vector, slipping along the edges of the carriages, skimming along their tops with jerky, undulating motions.
She forced herself to rise, hooking one foot around the railing so she wouldn't fall as she drew the Atma weapon. The blade grew and changed as she drew it, bursting into brilliant blue flame, vibrating so quickly that it made a noise like an eager mewl.
"They're coming," she hissed in warning as Strago exited the cab behind her.
There was a moment's silence, in which he did not ask about Leo. The sense of gratitude that washed over her was shameful.
"You should get back into the cab," he said, narrowing his eyes at the approaching ghosts. "I think the train is calling for you. I can handle-"
The spectre's limb darted up from beneath the train with hooked, insectile grace, skeletal fingers closing around the hem of Strago's cape. Strago had time for only one short cry of alarm before he was yanked beneath the train. There was a terrible crunch as he was pulled under the wheels, and before Terra could even register the loss, they were on her, boiling up from the undercarriage where they had crept along unseen like clinging leeches.
Even with their speed, the unbalancing loss of her hand, and the erratic motion of the train, she was more than a match for any one of them. As the first leapt at her, screeching, she ducked, sweeping the Atma weapon up in a vicious backhand cut. The ghost's own momentum drove the blade through its body - its thrashing, glowing form peeled away on either side like a split fruit, howling even more loudly before it fizzled into nothing. She took the second with a slash that lopped off the top three inches of its skull, the third with a vicious combination of blows that left it limbless and screeching, and the last with a thrust that spitted it through the eye socket.
But there were too many, and they were too fast. They swarmed her without regard for their own destruction, bearing her down with sheer weight of numbers. Even then, she tried to fight; as she rebounded painfully off the carriage, she found herself on her back, a feral ghost clawing at her legs as it crawled towards her throat. She hurriedly reversed the Atma weapon and stabbed downwards, severing the creature's spine.
Before she could regain her feet another pair of shrieking ghosts crashed into her with reckless force, sending Atma flying out of her hands and skidding across the platform. As it tumbled away into the endless abyss below, Terra knew she was done for. She lashed out with her fist at the first of the spectres that swarmed her, knocking the front teeth out of its leering skull and cutting her knuckles to ribbons, but the ghost barely seemed to feel it.
It squatted on her chest, a half dozen more crowding behind it. Panic overwhelmed her as bony fingers raked trails across her face. Dozens more clawed at her face, her arms, her breasts, her crotch, and she wanted to scream, but knew that would only make it easier for them to tear out her tongue. Desperately, she fastened her hands around a pair of bony wrists, forcing back clutching thumbs that tried to blind her. She wished vainly for the strength of her esper form, the half of herself she had given up, and prepared for the utter oblivion that was the second death.
Maybe we've done enough... maybe-
A sharp, keening screech cut through the air, and the ghost atop her chest staggered back, dissolving into mist. Borne forward by the momentum of their struggle, Terra jerked into a sitting position just in time to see three more ghosts vanish. The others, crouching low like jackals at her feet, hesitated for one fatal moment. The air split again, and shuriken sprouted from their bodies, the force of the impact throwing them violently against the engine's safety rail. The metal gave a screech of protest, deforming around their thrashing forms, and then they too faded into nothing.
Terra knew what she would see before she turned. He squatted in a patch of shadow behind the engine block, lean and long-limbed, his body shrouded in dark cloth save for his angry, blazing eyes.
"Shadow..." She stood up, flexing her arms and legs carefully to check for damage. A useless gesture - she had no bones to break.
"Yes." Flat, expressionless. She had never known him to speak otherwise. His demeanor and appearance had changed little; only a sunken-in spot at the rear of his skull let her know that he was dead.
"Then," she said, marshalling her strength. "You're..."
"Since Kefka's Tower."
She had suspected, but she had hoped he had at least found peace. The thought of him lost here, amongst all these desperate spirits, was not a pleasant one. For a moment, she wondered where he had come from, and then, seeing him crouched in the shadows, she knew.
"The the thing following us - it was you, wasn't it?"
"You followed us all the way from the station."
"You chose not to reveal yourself to us."
She had no muscles to feel weary, but Terra found herself trembling on the verge of spiritual exhaustion. It was too much, this journey beyond what any living person could expect, the loss of Leo and Strago, the latter so quickly that she still could not believe it was true. When she spoke again, her voice was heavy with rage.
"Is that all you're going to say for yourself?"
For a moment, there was only the thundering of the train's wheels, the moaning from the dark chasm beneath them, then Shadow stirred slightly, standing. In the darkness, she could only see the whites of his eyes. "You know me, Terra. Never been a man of many words."
He was not the one she would have chosen as a companion for this last run, but he had saved her. She would have to trust him.
"What now?" She asked, as if he knew.
"You should head back to the cab, keep the train running." He cocked his head towards the rear of the train, and she followed the gesture. At least a dozen of the spectres were still there, creeping up the length of the train. Most stayed low, but a few of the more reckless ones leapt from car to car in a series of flea-like hops, barely pausing on landing before launching themselves forward again. "I'll deal with these."
"Shadow..." He was good, but they were fast. They would attack from every direction at once, pull him down.
"Don't imagine this is just for your sake," he said, brushing by her.
He stood there for a moment, looking down the length of the train, and she groped uselessly for words. There were scarcely any two among her friends less alike, and at the end of it all, speaking to him for what she knew to be the last time, she did not know what to say.
"Fight well," she said at last, quietly. Simple advice from living weapon to living weapon. Perhaps that status was all they really had in common.
Shadow laughed, a low, rough chuckle, rusty from disuse. "Took a ride on a train like this a long time ago. Robbed it, ran off of it like hell itself was behind me. Just like I ran away from my own life in Kefka's Tower." He slid forward, stepping to the next car, a dirk sliding into his palm seemingly from nowhere. "Not this time. I'm through running. Man enough to stand and take what's coming to me."
He looked into the matte sky above them, giving one last defiant toss of his head.
"You hear that, Baram?"
It seemed a clear enough dismissal. Terra hastened within, slamming shut the heavy door and securing its crossbar. She wasn't sure how long Shadow could hold them.
The small room crackled with heat and energy, the frantic life force of the awakened beast. No sooner had she shut the door than the voice entered her mind, moaning through the flexing and vibrating of his metal flesh.
More. I hunger.
Reckless, she staggered over to the far wall, which glowed brightly with heat. Her fingers smoked and hissed like broiling meat as she threw open the tiny trapdoor. She took only a moment to brace herself before shoving her mutilated arm within once more.
The Phantom Train's whistle screamed again, spitting a vast plume of spectral smoke into the dark sky, and Terra felt something more drain from her as she sagged against the red hot wall before her. Her cheek sizzled as it touched the red hot metal, skin blackening away in an instant, the vision in her left eye going dark. She heard the hiss of her scorching flesh, the merest sop to Norahc's ravenous hunger.
You are but a morsel, Norahc warned, even as he ravenously devoured her arm up to the shoulder. The pain was brief but blinding. You will not sustain me long.
Horrible as it was, she knew he was right. She could get him rolling, but the diminished magic in her soul would never sustain him on a real journey, and there was no getting more. Magic was dead. Despair rose within her, but then she heard Strago's voice in her mind.
Strago. Twice-dead, now, lost to the void, eternally destroyed. The pain was sharper than the torment of Norahc's hunger. She forced it away, focused on the words of his story.
He had suckled oblivion at the edges of the Before and grown fat with it. He had stalked the abyss when it was all-encompassing, much vaster than the small divide that stymied the goddesses, the gulf between life and death, being and unbeing.
"The magic isn't the only way," she whispered through scorched lips. "Remember. You're... used to it, that's all. You were a hunter, once."
There were other ways, if he could only remember. There were other paths to take, other feasts to gorge himself upon, if he could only remember.
"You've... tasted me," she breathed, as intimately as if the horrible thing were the lover Leo never could be. "You know the nature of my world. Think. Feel. It's there. It's there." She hoped her reckless encouragement was correct, tried not to think of Norahc returned to his terrible, ancient glory, a devourer of life and hope more mindless and comprehensive than Kefka ever could have been.
But what choice did she have? It was the difference between the assurance of a slow death and the risk of a quick one.
Beneath her cheek, Norahc's flesh hummed while hers sizzled. He searched.
Across the planet the factories screamed, clawing their products from the earth, pressing them into shape with steel and steam and in that process was energy, heat, smoke, reverence that bordered on worship for the devices of wonder that tore and reshaped the earth. There was a pattern there, beneath the surface, something like magic: the hidden variety of interactions that woke spark from flint and steam from water, that moved the great belt-fed machinery and the planets in the heavens. If it was more bitter than magic, it was also more ubiquitous, and he could sense it in the exhaust of the furnaces and the smoky screams of the engines and the dark, chemical-rich runoff of the streams.
Industry, they called it, and he sampled its leavings, its workings on the metaphysical realm, and found them good. And if a few pipes broke mysteriously to spray their deadly breath, if a few cogs jammed with limb-ripping force, if a few boilers exploded, that was incidental, and hardly equal to the boon of his continued travel.
They spoke of him with reverence in this world that had been to the brink of ruin and back. That recovery might have bolstered them against him, but too many remembered teetering on that edge, looking over into an abyss blacker than night, more eternal than death. They knew that he lurked in every dark shadow, every pool of stagnant water, every rattling cough. They had seen him take so many that they could never doubt his reality. And in the night they hung charms from their windows and burned candles, or they drank their potions and their remedies, trusted their surgeons and charlatans and none of it could forestall the inevitability of his coming. And the more he took, the more they believed, the more they trembled.
Fear, they called it, and he found it sweet. And he knew that as long as he fed upon it, as long as humanity heard the cracking of its bones in his jaws, it would never go away. And if a few died of terror in the night, or took their own lives in fits of agony, that was incidental, and hardly equal to the boon of his continued travel.
Norahc feasted, and was content.
Norahc's passage became one unbroken howl, steam spraying in thick gouts from his smokestack as he moved faster, faster, faster. Golden light stabbed out in a lance from his lamp, errant tendrils of visible energy overflowing the shallow depression there and sweeping back over the engine in streaks of light. Wheels spun into a cacophony of steel shrieks, glowing cherry red from the friction, and as the train reached the apex of the arching bridge, they burst into blue ghostflame, a hissing, snapping conflagration that groped its way halfway up the train cars. Norahc plunged downward into a sudden, sharp silence, leaving a streak of blue fire in his wake.
A few seconds later, in the space the train had already vacated, a dull boom split the air, and there was the sound of a shrieking whistle, the grating scream of steel on steel, the thundering of massive pistons. The Phantom Train blazed on, outracing the herald of its coming.
Terra was lost, a carousel of images whirling in her mind, her face burning away to nothing against the beast's horrible flank. She felt alive with energy, her entire form thrumming with a vitality that was not her own. This, she realized, was the feeling of rampaging hunger at last assuaged, of the train's feeding frenzy, and it was all she could do to hold on, to keep her mind, to not be consumed herself.
And then she heard the pained groan from the railway bridge, the high-tension scream of steel melting and warping, and the eager, hungry shrieks of the darkness below them. Crossties broke noisily like brittle bones; one long, rolling wave went down the length of the track and Terra felt the train pitch up and down as if it were being shaken by the sea. There was a final, terrible tearing sound, the bridge collapsing beneath them like a Jidoorian card-house, and the train plunged into darkness.
Too fast, something in her mind whispered as they fell towards the most final oblivion in the universe. Too fast, too reckless. She screwed her eyes shut, pushed the awareness of the train from her. She hoped that it would at least be over quickly, that it would be painless. The frenzied hissing of the darkness below suggested other things.
The train trembled around her, the last, desperate throes of a dying creature. Having felt his rage, his coldness, his hunger, part of her could not help but be glad. If only there was something to replace him. If only he weren't a creature of such terrible necessity. If only-
She felt air stirring against her face. Below her, the void gave a cheated, vengeful scream. The floor pitched beneath her, and as she staggered for balance, she felt the red hot wall where her cheek was plastered cool and shrink away.
She staggered a few steps, groping blindly. Her fingers wrapped around a cool metal railing, and she found the courage to open her eye.
Golden streamers of light shot from Norahc's eye, writhing sinuously through the air around the train which was not a train, which had ceased to be a train, perhaps, in those moments when it first tasted the shape of the new world, first shifted itself to adapt to what men would expect of it now. The screaming whistle and the thundering of the wheels were gone, replaced by a rhythmic thrumming sound that was alien and yet somehow familiar. Around her, the walls of the cab were shifting, changing, and as she watched, the bank of switches sank into the floor and melted away. In the spot where they had vanished, an iron column was rising like an unfurling petal. The column twisted sinuously around itself, and on the back a huge, many-spoked wheel appeared, its crumpled, indistinct form expanding and stiffening like a new butterfly's wings.
As the walls melted and puddled into the floor, it rose with the gentle motion of someone shifting in sleep. Terra found herself rising above an ever-growing deck of black, beaten steel. Far above her, a vast, leathery ribbon made of dead, stitched flesh lashed against the sky with an audible crack before inflating like a puff fish, settling into the embrace of an iron latticework that crept around it from above and behind. On the deck, mooring cables sprang up with serpentine motion, curling around each other as they secured the conglomeration above to the rest of the structure.
Norahc's engine block, melting into the deck like wax, gave one last thundering rumble. It shivered and lunged forward like a living thing, all seeping motion, and then in the space between one eyeblink and the next, it crystallized into an upswept prow adored with two blazing eyes instead of one.
All around her, Norahc was shifting form, down to the smallest detail. The utilitarian railings shivered and trembled, fattened, sprouted decorative knobs and swirls. The steel deck shook itself like a wet dog, and where metal plates had been there was an expanse of onyx-colored timber. Train windows shrank into portholes, and Terra knew from the muffled clamor of the ghosts within that the interior of the vessel was changing, too.
I am changed. Norahc whispered in her mind, and his voice was the thundering of propellers and the howl of the wind.
Terra turned towards the stern of the massive craft, where Shadow stood impassive, unshakeable. He had made it, then. She hoped he had found what he was looking for. Tentatively, she raised her hand, and after a moment he waved back. She thought of going down to speak with him, but her energy seemed depleted. The lack of a body might spare her physical exhaustion, but the weariness that crept into her now was soul-deep, borne of seeing Strago and Leo's souls consumed, of the fury of battle, of her own sacrifice to Norahc.
She felt as if the journey was over, as if she should be returning home. She wanted nothing more than to collapse her hard, narrow bed in Mobliz. She craved the backbreaking chores and the whining of the children and the sun that always burned her fair skin when she had to work outside. She wanted all the petty annoyances of life with a hunger that resembled Norahc's, and yet she knew they were lost to her.
She would never return home. Instead, like so many others, she was bound to a destination she could not hope to understand. She was bound for-
The golden light broke across the ship's deck suddenly but gently, like dawn sneaking its way above a hilltop. Beyond the far edge of the chasm below the airship a light that was more grand than the purest gold blazed, filling the horizon in both directions with a band of glowing radiance. As they drew near, the rattling hiss of the abyss faded away, replaced by a soft, melodious chorus just beyond the edge of hearing.
As the airship flew closer, the light reached out to touch it, to change it. Terra felt it brush her, warm and tentative, and she stepped back, feeling her phantom body dissolve. The light kindled within, forming a warm, glowing core where her heart should have been, and she inhaled one last time, a long, shuddering breath that shook her apart.
Behind her, hatches opened with loud clatters, and ghosts emerged from them, their spectral bodies losing form, becoming twisting ribbons of light. They rose into the air, streaks of searing brightness that filled her with a strange thrill she did not understand. And then she was rising among them alongside Shadow, and she was scarcely anything that could be called Terra any more, possessing not even the parody of a physical body, possessed of only the most rudimentary thoughts.
As she and the others rose toward that gloriously burning horizon, leaving the sorrows of their old form behind, Terra saw them. They arose from the flaming field of golden light in sprays of sparks, dancing motes of purest unspent energy, of potential and joy, and as she approached the light, they emerged from it, capering around each other, sighing with a noise like the laughter of children.
They surged by her in their reckless, childish haste to board the Phantom Airship, and she exulted in their touch, thought of the painful process that had brought them forth - the bitter loss of her life and her friends, the gnawing pain as Norahc devoured her - and found it as arduous as she had always imagined birth would be. If she still had a mouth she would have smiled at the last thought that danced across her consciousness, as the souls of the unborn passed her in their multitudes.
They are all my children, she thought, and the wave of joy that rose in her bore her forward, past sorrow, past regret, into a world of blazing light, renewal, rest.
- - -
In the cramped cabin of the Falcon, a baby began to cry.
All That Glitters Is Cold 4 Fanfic Competition
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