WARNING: This chapter contains scenes of a violent/unsettling nature. You have been warned.
The rains had come again early that morning, as if the skies themselves were weeping for the great loss of life that had occurred on the plains of Doma the night before. Spotters on the walls of Doma Castle estimated some two hundred Imperials were still moving within the camp. Two hundred out of an army of over three thousand. Even though they were the enemy, the loss of life was still sobering and stunning. A cache of detonated bio-bombs had done in minutes what the Doman Samurai had not been able to do in weeks. If not for the direction of the wind, Doma Castle would almost certainly have perished in the noxious cloud as well.
It did not matter.
What mattered was the way she had said his name the night they were married... the first time he saw her let her hair down, and it fell in a golden wave like sun on wheat and he had never loved anyone more...
The figure made his way across the plains of Doma on the back of a chocobo, riding hard. The sun had come out from its hiding place shortly after dawn, and her warm rays of light bathed the wet, springy grass, making it seem to shimmer. The glittering carpet spread out for miles in all directions, the simple beauty of nature masking the horrors that had taken place here. The soft fragrance that is only found after the rain welled up, brushing aside the acrid stink of smoke from the devastated camp.
Behind the figure, the form of Doma Castle receded in the distance, growing ever smaller. The Imperial Camp was even farther away, and if he chose to look back he would see what few Imperials remained packing up, preparing to depart Doma and return in defeat to the Southern Continent. The samurai had won, after a fashion.
It did not matter.
What mattered was the way his day-old child had felt in his arms, so small that it seemed like it shouldn't be alive, but it was, and he thought I helped make this.
The figure looked only at the ground, his face expressionless, the reins leaden in his hands. He did not celebrate the victory. He did not look at the world around him. Everything important had been torn from him in one smooth motion, and his soul was still bleeding from a number of gaping wounds. Overnight, the world had ceased to have any sense of meaning. He walked, thought, and breathed in a universe of empty gray shades. He lived in nothingness, was nothingness, would always be nothingness.
It did not matter.
What mattered was the blood. Was there really that much, or did it just seem that way because it belonged to her? Broken necks mattered too. Did they all really look that way, or was the boy's head twisted at just the perfect angle to bring the screams of hatred and sorrow?
Pain ripped through him, harsh razor slivers widening the lacerations in his soul. Tearing apart his strength, his convictions, his will.
King's man, his conscience taunted, King's man! How well you served your lord. A pity your family did not receive the same consideration. You are not fit to wear your sword! Failure. Your ancestors weep for the weakening of their line. For the death of their line.
Gritting his teeth, he forced the pain into a deep pocket of his being and sealed it away as best as he could. It was not the time for recrimination. He would have the rest of his life to berate himself for his failure. Right now, he had to focus.
What mattered now was killing the assassin. He could not save his family, he would forever hate himself for that. But he could avenge them. The assassin was fast, but rage and desperation fueled the man, causing him to urge the chocobo to greater and greater speeds. He would catch him before he reached the coast.
And if he did not...
His fingers clenched around the scrap of parchment in his hand, crinkling it into a tiny ball.
If he did not, he knew where the assassin was going.
Elayne.... Owain... I... I will avenge you. I swear it!
They got in the way.
That was the simple fact of the matter. No hatred, no malice. No regret.
No emotion. It, too, got in the way.
The dark-clad figure made his way rapidly west and south through the plains of Doma, heading directly for the coast and the small Imperial ship that awaited him there. He was not quite walking, not quite running, his finely honed body moving for optimum speed and endurance. The dog ran beside him easily, both of them making fantastic time. His pursuers, whoever they might be, would be hard-pressed to catch him at this pace. The old man had probably had a heart attack by now.
Shadow supposed that the man's distress at the situation was understandable; some people simply could not escape the shackles of emotion. Still, his anger was misplaced. It wasn't as if Shadow had set out to kill them. If anyone was to blame, it was that screeching brat or the Returner attackers that had shaken him out of slumber.
The ninja was just doing his job. That was what they hired him for. That was what he lived for.
He would not be receiving payment for this mission, both because it was a spectacular failure and because anyone who might have paid him had probably been gassed in the Returner attack. The first reason was a direct result of the latter. He had carefully infiltrated the castle, working with utmost stealth. He had made no extraneous movement or sound, been noticed by no one. A perfect mission had been in the making, the kind of mission he was known for.
Then the Returners had started bombing the Imperial Camp, and his plan had gone up in smoke as fast as the canvas tents outside.
As he moved, his mind returned to the events of the previous night, replaying each step over and over. There had to have been some way to continue the mission, something he had missed. He simply had to find out what it was.
Shadow's thoughts drifted back, following arcane mental paths and delving into the dark pool of memory. Yet he did not relax his guard; even as his mind immersed itself, his senses stayed above the surface, scanning his surroundings with all the clarity and wariness of a nesting choco.
Distraction had almost resulted in his death last time. It would not now.
Shadow leaned carefully around the corner of the hallway, keeping his back pressed firmly to the cool stone. His body crept out by small degrees, virtually inch by inch. He had plenty of time before the sentry walking this hall passed by again. Time enough to be as careful as possible.
Infiltrating the castle had proved no real difficulty. An approach through the forest, a sturdy grapple line, and a bit of dodging from one patch of darkness to the next had gotten him inside the outer wall easily. A scullery window had provided access to the inner building, and the rest was simply picking a few locks and avoiding the plentiful guards.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity but was probably no more than a minute or two, the corner slid past his peripheral vision and his head extended narrowly into the dim, torch-lit corridor. Almost immediately he snapped back into the shadows, his mind calculating what his split second of study had revealed.
Four guards around the main door to the king's apartments, certainly more within. The ones outside were no problem, but taking them out would waste time and probably make at least a little noise. If the guards inside the chamber heard, then rushed to bar the door and raise the alarm, enough samurai to kill even Shadow would soon be swarming.
No, seeking entry here would not be a good idea. It was going to be hard enough to kill the king and escape alive even if he made no mistakes. With the entire castle alerted beforehand, it would be utterly impossible.
Perhaps there was another way...
Shadow darted down the hall and around a corner just as a sentry stepped out into the corridor he had been occupying moments before. Whatever he was going to do, he had better do it quickly. He had tried his best to memorize the movements of the guards that walked the halls, but for all he knew they could alter them at any time. Though he was confident of his chances against any of them, he simply couldn't afford to sacrifice stealth for combat.
The door before him was less ornate than the one directly before the king's apartments, but it provided the second best way to reaching his target. He had studied existing Imperial sketches of Doma Castle extensively, and if his memory was correct, this door led to the private chambers of the king's retainer. It should have some sort of interconnecting passage with the king's apartments, a passage under much lighter guard.
Predictably, the door was locked. There was the brief whisper of sliding cloth, and a lockpick slid smoothly from a concealed wrist holder and into the palm of Shadow's hand. It was but the work of a moment to slip the hooked tool into the keyhole, and a single snap to the side tripped the lock. Giving the door a push, the wraithlike figure slipped within. Thankfully, the well-oiled hinges didn't creak.
The room, lit by weak moonlight from one tall, narrow window, was filled with an amiable gloom that reduced furniture and hanging tapestries to nothing but vague shapes. From a pair of beds pushed up against the far wall came the deep, even sound of two people breathing. They were asleep, then. Just as well, less chance that he would have to risk noise by killing them. Shadow took two steps into the room, easing the door shut behind him, then stopped. There was something... something about this place...
The heady fragrance of perfume and powder hung heavy in the air, and for a moment the image of a woman brushing her hair in front of a chipped dresser trickled through the back of Shadow's mind. It took him a second to reconcile the wild variety of scents that filled the room, and then it suddenly hit him. Home. The smell of home. It had been a long time...
Hesitation. It was one of the most insidious enemies faced by an assassin. Along with its comrades-in-arms, Mercy and Weakness, it could prove fatal to the execution of a job.
And in this case, it did.
Boom Boom Ba-Boom!
The explosions pealed out rapidly and furiously, harsh percussion from the War Goddess' drum. They tore through the quiet night like steel through tender flesh, violently rending silence and letting raucous blood flow.
Shadow's body snapped towards the source of the noise, his entire body tightening as if internal screws were being twisted.
Damn it! The sleepers were waking up, and the entire populace of the castle was probably following suit. He had to act quickly and flawlessly if he wanted to carry out the mission. There was no room for mistakes any more.
One of the figures sat up in bed, small fists digging at its eyes. A child. Even as Shadow began to move, the small shape turned to face him. A tiny mouth opened in a shrill scream at the sight of the dark monster racing across the room.
Couldn't afford the noise. No time to think. Just act.
Shadow lashed out with the knife edge of his hand, catching the child on the side of the neck. There was the loud crack of snapping vertebrae and the body tumbled from the bed, dragging the sheets with it. The entire mass landed on the floor in a pitiful heap, but Shadow was already moving to deal with the other person, who was rising unsteadily from the bed.
It was a woman, the mother, and her awakening mind was obviously having trouble grasping the situation. Still, some primal instinct of motherhood must have penetrated the layers of confusion and shock; she was opening her mouth to scream when the tip of Shadow's dagger swept across her throat, slicing it open from end to end. She fell backwards onto the bed as the arterial spray burst forth, splattering Shadow with droplets of warm crimson. The woman thrashed for a few moments, her mouth opening and closing in soundless screams, then tumbled over and lay still, sightless blue eyes staring blankly upwards.
just like Phoebe bleeding just like Phoebe on the floor do you remember Clyde do you
They got in the way. They would have made noise and revealed his position to the others. He could not allow that. If he had known his own strength, he might have at least pulled the punch to keep from killing the child, but he could not feel regret. He could not feel anything but the necessity to complete the mission. It was who he was. It was what he lived for.
"Elayne! Owain! Are you all r-" the voice cut off suddenly, and Shadow whirled once again to face the door. His lack of attention had cost him dearly. If the aging samurai in the doorway had not been so noisy, he could very well be dead now.
The man seemed to be in shock, his jaw dropping at the carnage within. His family, then. Very well, he would soon join them. Shadow tensed himself for the killing blow, bloodstained dagger held at the ready. But a quick kill was not to be.
The man's gaze fell upon him, and his lined, mustached face broke out in an expression of pure, unfiltered rage. A katana whispered out of its sheath almost quicker than the eye could follow, its thin, deadly edge gleaming in the weak light.
Then, with a roar like a dying Gigas, the samurai charged.
Hesitation. It had been his downfall.
He had hesitated when he entered the room. He had hesitated after he had killed the woman and the boy. The first had cost him the mission, the second had nearly cost him his life. If the old man had been a little faster, he would be dead now.
Shadow flexed his hastily bandaged right hand carefully, sending spiderwebs of pain across his palm. He had suffered far worse in his lifetime, but he would have to watch carefully for signs of infection. An untreated injury could very well cripple his fighting ability.
Hesitation, born of distraction. Distraction, born of memory. Memory of something that could no longer be. Of a life that was as dead as his emotions.
He saw it in the distance, a small, unremarkable freighter with Nikeah Cobbler's Guild markings. It was pulled up in a small cove, and its deck swarmed with what appeared to be nothing but ordinary merchants. He knew better; they were Imperial "sympathizers." Meaning, of course, that they sympathized with their own empty money chests and sought ways to fill them up. Still, the draw of coin was a powerful one. Shadow perhaps knew that best of all.
There was no reason to tell them what had transpired here. It was not something they needed to know. They lived in a small sphere, obeying directly the commands that they received with no regard for the big picture. Their work would go on regardless of whether Doma fell.
By the same token, his own failure meant nothing to his next operation in South Figaro. The seal had been lost, but he had only been carrying it as proof. If it was necessary, he could prove his identity in other, harsher ways. If the Domans or their Returner allies actually managed to puzzle out what that seal meant, it would be far too late for them to do anything about it. By tomorrow night, the mission would be complete.
And this time, no mistakes.
Cyan wished he could forget.
He continued to chase after the assassin, the chocobo below him still racing along with no signs of fatigue. A good beast. He looked around him, trying to take comfort from his surroundings or at the very least find distraction in them, but he could not stop the flashes of recollection that invaded his head, the images of carnage. Of familiar forms broken and bleeding. Of his wife and son reduced from living, breathing humans to nothing more than meat. Of the butcher standing over them, covered with her blood.
I should have stopped him then. I... Elayne... son.. forgive me. My best was not enough...
It had been late, and he had been standing his watch at the entrance to the king's chambers, tired, but willing to carry out his duty without complaint. After his shift was over, he had headed back towards his own small apartment, thoughts of sleep next to his wife foremost in his mind.
And then.... and then...
Against his will, the memory came rushing back, and he remembered walking into the room, seeing them lying dead on the floor, seeing the assassin standing over them. And then, before his mind could make any sense of what had happened, his instincts pushed him to attack.
He advanced with a roar, sweeping his katana upwards in a glittering arc that terminated at neck level. The blow was meant to decapitate his opponent, but the assassin ducked low under the swing and leapt toward Cyan at the same time. The razor edge of his dagger caught the light and glinted as he moved forward.
As he darted past, the ninja rapidly slammed the point of his blade into Cyan's back three times, the impacts rocking the older man and sending him stumbling forward a few steps. Fortunately, his armor turned the blows, and it took him only a second to recover, pivot, and slash at the assassin.
But as fast as he was, his opponent appeared to be faster; the blade met only air as the ninja did a backwards somersault that carried him out of harm's way. Not giving him time to recover, Cyan pressed the attack, his sword flashing in brief, bright crescents as he advanced. The assassin rolled to his feet and brought his dagger into a guard position all in one smooth, seamless motion.
There was the harsh sound of metal on metal as the two blades met in a shower of sparks. The samurai struck again, and again, and again, and each time the ninja intercepted his blows. Cyan gritted his teeth as he attacked with ever more speed and frenzy, struggling to break past his enemy's guard, to get revenge for the horrible act that he could not yet fully comprehend. Sparks continued to fly like fireflies gone mad as the weapons grated out a sharp duet.
He was not thinking; if he had been thinking, he would be sobbing over his family right now. Instead, he was operating on a volatile mixture of rage and instinct, his body primed to kill, his movements all perfection, all deadly.
It was not enough.
The ninja blocked his strike once more, catching the flat of the blade on the edge of his dagger. Then, he applied a sudden burst of force, pushing Cyan's weapon down and sideways as his foot snapped up in an axe kick and nailed the samurai squarely in the chin.
Pain exploded in Cyan's face as he reeled backwards, but he kept his grip on the hilt of his katana. As enraged as he was, the fundamental combat instinct that was rooted in his consciousness allowed him to consider the battle in pragmatic terms; in a situation such as this, against an opponent such as this, losing his weapon would be tantamount to losing his life.
Before he could recover from the first kick, another followed, a roundhouse that caught his temple with such force that he saw stars and nearly blacked out. Somehow, he managed to stay on his feet, but then a third kick struck him in the gut and sent him to his knees.
Elayne... Owain... I am sorry.
He could only hope they would forgive his feeble attempt at vengeance. It seemed he would be joining them soon.
The haze of rage that had fueled Cyan was rapidly being dissipated by the rapid onslaught of blows. His breath grated harsh in his lungs. Flowers of pain were blossoming all over his body and his mind felt as if it were wrapped in layers of cotton. He couldn't think, couldn't move. He was finished, the emotional shock, the day's battle, and the lopsided fight having sapped him utterly. Still, he had to try. A samurai never yielded, even when soul was scarred beyond repair, even when body was pushed past its limits. If he could not avenge his family, he would do the next best thing and die trying.
Cyan raised his katana with shaky hands as he struggled to clear his addled mind. His vision was blurring, but he could see his opponent rushing forward, the dagger ready to strike.
Very likely that would have been his end if Fate, or his Ancestors, or the Goddesses had not been watching over him. But just before the deathblow could land the assassin slipped in the ever-expanding pool of Elayne's blood, his stab going wild, his body tumbling backwards. He landed on the stone floor on his back with a loud </i>thud<i>, the impact jarring the dagger loose and sending it tumbling.
Drawing on his waning reserves, Cyan dove towards his fallen opponent, blade flashing downward at the ninja's throat. This could be his only chance. Once again, he had to make it count.
The blade stopped less than half an inch from the assassin's throat. At the last second, the dark-clad man's hand had snaked up with almost inhuman speed to wrap around the blade of the sword and hold it at bay. His grip only tightened as Cyan applied more pressure, and blood began to leak out of his clenched fist and stain the bright surface of the blade. A second hand joined it, and with a casual expression the ninja began to force the sword farther and farther back. Despite what had to be horrible pain, he did not make a sound.
"Why?" A deep, growling question. It took Cyan a moment to realize that he was the one speaking. "Why?"
"They got in the way," the other replied, his voice like bloodstained snow, somehow both threatening and coldly expressionless at the same time. "Things happened."
"Damn you! You will die for what you did to them, you bastard!" Throwing all his considerable muscle against the hilt of the sword, Cyan struggled to land the lethal stab, to silence this monster forever.
"How eloquent." The tip of the blade, despite Cyan's efforts, continued to move farther away from the assassin's throat. "Many have declared that they would slay me. They are all dead now. When you join them, I hope that you shall find yourselves with something to discuss. Perhaps you can talk about how none of you could ever hope to match up to Shadow."
Shadow, then. His mortal enemy now had a name.
Suddenly he found himself flying backwards, victim of a rapid leg sweep. He'd been a fool, distracted by his opponent's bragging as the man had no doubt intended. In an ironic twist, he found himself crashing against the stone floor in the same manner Shadow had only moments before. He lay there on his back, stunned.
"You are too slow, old man," Shadow said flatly. "It is time to end this."
A trio of samurai stood at the doorway, looking into the room with alarm. Shadow growled a curse, then leapt towards them, bowling one over as he darted out of the room. As the rest of the samurai stood there dumbstruck, Cyan staggered to his feet, raising a katana that now seemed to weigh a ton.
"Do not let him escape! He has murdered... he has..." He couldn't finish the sentence. He started to run, racing as fast as he could through the halls after the dark shape. The others followed.
Their boots pounded against the stone floors of the castle as they pursued the fleeing Shadow. He was moving so fast, it was a miracle that they managed to keep him in sight. If this turned into a contest of endurance, they would have no chance of catching him.
The chase went on, down torch-lit hallways, up and down staircases, and finally out of the castle and onto the battlements. More samurai joined them as they went, and by the time the ninja burst into the night at least two dozen were on his tail.
Cyan led the pack out into the darkness, where explosions from the Imperial camp lit the night with sporadic, hellish flashes. Detonations continued to sound out like thunder, shaking the ground itself.
Ahead, the form of the assassin was sprinting quickly along the scarred battlements of the castle. Not stopping once, he made a half turn and hurled a handful of dark orbs from a pouch at his waist. They struck the ground in front of the advancing samurai and burst into clouds of inky smoke.
Coughing and wiping his stinging eyes, Cyan forged on, the smoke barely slowing him. Shadow had stopped a short distance ahead and was rapidly securing a hook and line to the battlements.
No! There was no way he could reach the ninja in time to stop his escape. There was only one thing to do.
Cyan leaned back, muscles tensing, the last of his ebbing strength going into the effort. Then, he cocked his shoulder, stepped forward, and hurled his katana with all his might.
Shadow had already begun his front flip off the battlements when the sword whizzed by his side, missing him by bare inches but catching his belt pouch and tearing it free. The weapon flew on with the leather bag attached, the force of the throw causing it to lodge nearly a foot deep in the stone of the battlements.
Cyan raced to the edge, but by the time he got there, the assassin was gone, having vanished into the night that spawned him.
It was only then that Cyan allowed himself to pause, to sink to his knees, to shake with utter despair and rage at what had happened. Things went dark for a time as he knelt on the parapet, his eyes closing in utter exhaustion. He buried his sorrow and loss, buried them as deep as he could and sealed them away. Crying would come later. Later, when he returned to the room despite the advice of friends. Later, when the handiwork of the one called Shadow was revealed in its entirety. For now, though, there was simple exhaustion.
When Cyan opened his eyes, the torn pouch was dangling right in front of his face. Though he did not know it yet, within lay the key to catching his family's killer.
It was a simple thing, really; a torn piece of parchment marked with the seal of what one of the Returners stationed in the castle recognized as that of a noble family living in South Figaro. The implications of the tiny piece of paper were serious.
Shadow was working for the Empire. Where he went, they usually followed, and by all appearances he was heading for South Figaro.
There had been rumors of Imperial eyes settling on Figaro's southern province, but they were taken only half-seriously; the Empire seemed to be everywhere lately, but Figaro, the mechanized Imperial ally, was safer than most. Still, the evidence was right in front of their faces. Unless they had the goddesses' own luck, something bad was likely to happen in the town.
Pigeons with messages of warning were sent out immediately to all Returner cells and to South Figaro. There was no way of knowing if there would be an attack or not, or even if the messages would reach them in time, but the attempt had to be made.
Cyan, meanwhile, had a more personal stake in the matter. He had requested permission from King Orinas to seek out the assassin. The king had granted his request, though the pained look in his eyes and the strain in his voice told Cyan that he did not think it wise. Cyan had served him faithfully for most of his life, however, and that had to count for something. He had flatly rejected all offers of escort. This was personal.
He had taken a chocobo and ridden out shortly after sunrise, not even taking the time to see his wife and child buried. He hoped they would forgive him that disgrace, but catching their killer required the utmost speed. Fortunately, it seemed he was going to make it up to them. This was a tracker chocobo, after all, and all it had taken was the scent of the parchment to set it off. It had moved at a brisk pace in an unerring straight line ever since.
Cyan topped a long, low rise and brought the chocobo to a stop. A short distance ahead, the plains terminated in a line of small cliffs, below which there was sand, shining brightly in the sun and being lapped with intermittent waves. Beyond, he could see a stubby, inelegant freighter moving away from the shore, its steam engines churning the already choppy waters violently. Figures were moving on deck, one of them clad entirely in black.
No! NO! He could not allow Shadow to escape a second time. Digging his heels into the chocobo, he urged it forward, barely managing to hold on as the bird pounded down the rise and crossed the distance to shore at an astounding pace.
He was nearly hurled from the saddle when the chocobo stopped sharply at the edge of the cliff. It was only ten feet down, but the bird refused to risk injury to either of them; when he tried to coax it forward, it only dug in its heels and warked in indignation.
Cyan repressed the urge to strike the creature in sheer frustration. It wasn't the chocobo's fault. It was only an animal, and a very loyal one to lead him this far. Besides, there was no way he could catch the ship now. It had dwindled to nothing more than a dot on the horizon.
You failed again. Cyan released the reins as utter despair overtook him. He tumbled from the back of the chocobo, landing on his knees. Bracing his hands against the ground to keep from falling over completely, he began to shake, slipping into the black mire of self-hatred and despair.
They trusted you to keep them safe. And when they needed you, you were not there.
The sound of the safety coming off an autocrossbow came from behind him. He placed a hand on the hilt of his blade and started to turn, wondering if Imperials were there, wondering if it wouldn't be better to simply die.
"Don't move," said a shaky voice with a curious, twanging accent. "Turn around and I'll sh-shoot."
"Duane!" a second voice, this one more confident, less afraid. "Be careful with that thing. When's the last time you saw an Imperial wearing armor like that?"
Cyan turned cautiously, not making any sudden movements. Despite the second man's statements, he didn't want to give this Duane reason to fire. Once he had completed the turn, he saw that two men stood behind him on chocobos, one wearing the red and green uniform of the Returners and another in a suit that looked Imperial in design and clashed heavily with the multicolored bandanna on his head.
"See? The armor, the pony tail, the sword. Yep, this guy's Doman, all right," the man wearing the armor said. He dismounted and stepped forward, extending a hand toward Cyan. "Nice to meet you. Name's Locke Cole, Returner and Treasure Hunter."
"The pleasure is mine, Sir Locke. I am Cyan Garamonde." He took the man's hand, shaking it briefly and releasing it.
"Sorry about Duane," Locke said, waving a hand back at the youngest of the group. "He's a little new at all this. It's a good thing I came back to check on what was keeping him or you might be a pincushion by now." Duane gave a nervous smile but still gripped his weapon tightly as if he expected Cyan to try something at any moment.
"It took some time to scout the Imperial camp," Duane said defensively. "They still have a couple of suits around there, you know."
"Yes, yes, I know," Locke said in a conciliatory tone, trying to placate the younger man. Then, he studied Cyan for a second. "What brings you out here, Cyan? Anything we can help with?"
For a moment, Cyan wondered if he could trust these men. They seemed friendly enough, but appearances were often deceiving. Ultimately, however, he had nothing to lose. What could they possibly do, kill him? That would only be just. He did not deserve to live.
So, he told them, beginning with the events of the previous night, stumbling past the horrific reality of his family's death as best he could. He told them of the assassin's words, of his escape, of the piece of parchment he carried.
"Shit," Locke breathed after Cyan was finished. "That's some story." He turned the scrap with the seal on it over and over in his hands as if contemplating matters deep and arcane, then handed it back to Cyan. "Okay, change of plans. We're not sailing to Nikeah any more. We'd better head straight for South Figaro."
"But Locke," Duane protested, "what about the cargo? We're supposed to deliver it to the cell in-"
"The cargo won't matter if the Empire takes Figaro," Locke said. "South Figaro is our main weapons supply outlet and contains one of our largest cells. Losing it will cripple us. We have to get there to warn them as soon as we can. Besides, the ship can leave and head for the rendezvous immediately after it drops us off. It won't have to hang around."
"I still think the cargo's too much to risk." Duane insisted.
"And I think that all the Magitek Suits in the world won't help if we don't have troops to operate them." Locke turned to Cyan. "We're heading for South Figaro, Cyan. You're welcome to come along for the ride if you want, but we're leaving immediately."
"Thank you, Sir Locke."
It was only a short ride south to the small inlet where another innocently marked freighter waited, looking remarkably like the one that the Imperials had departed from. They released their chocobos before they boarded, removing their reins, saddles, and saddlebags and allowing the creatures to run free. Cyan gave his bird a sharp swat on the tailfeathers that sent it galloping away. Being a well-trained choco, it would return to Doma Castle in a matter of hours.
As they boarded the craft, Locke introduced Cyan to the crew and the small group of Returner sappers that had lived through the attack. The samurai greeted them as politely as he could, but he felt detached and vacant. He appreciated the help that these men were offering him, but he could think of nothing but killing the assassin. His only desire was to avenge his family.
He rested his hand on the hilt of his katana as the ship thundered to life, not even his loathing for machines able to shift his focus. As the ship made its way out of the inlet and into the sea, he turned to look back at the receding coast and the grasslands beyond. He felt like he was leaving more than the country of Doma behind. He was leaving his life behind, carrying nothing with him but the ghosts of memories.
Then again, he was left with the strange feeling that his life had ended last night with his family. Perhaps he was nothing but a phantom himself, moving through a world that meant nothing to him any more.
If he was a ghost, however, he was the worst kind. The kind the legends spoke of, the kind that rose shrieking from the grave to exact vengeance.
I will not fail this time. I will find you, Shadow, and you will pay.
Author's Note: Wow, took me a while to write this one. Sorry for the delay, but it's hard to find the time to write when you're a full-time college student with exams, no matter how much you might want to finish the next chapter.
Some of you were probably disturbed by the events in this chapter. That was my intention. Some of you probably consider Shadow's behavior a little extreme; I'm not so sure. He did work for the Empire on several occasions, after all. As to the whole Shadow flashback thing, you'll learn just why he's so messed up later on in the story.
Thanks for reading and I hope to have the next chapter out soon. One thing that I COULD use is a good beta reader or two to proofread /offer advice on these things before I post them (I try, but I'm horrible at proofreading my own work), so if you're interested drop me a line and we'll see if we can work something out.
Reviews/Opinions are, as always, welcome.
Next Chapter: Meanwhile.... back in Vector....