Dark Empress Chapter 6


The ocean below was calm, mirroring the starry sweep of the night sky. Not a single cloud obscured the expanse of the heavens where stars shined like thousands of glowworms suspended on invisible threads. The glowworms were arranged in familar patterns. That, at least, was a comforting constant in a world that had grown so different and suffered so much.

Even the War of the Magi could not unseat the stars. Maduin thought, then tried to concentrate on staying aloft. It took so much of his energy, and he was so very weak.

The wind whipped past his face as he flew, and despite the recent events, despite his exhaustion and confusion, he could not help but feel an odd sort of joy, almost tragic in its simplicity.

The wind.... it's been so long... since I've felt... the wind....

Ramuh was ahead, his long beard streaming out behind him in the wind, his bent frame wobbling slightly in his flight. He shone with a vague lumenescience as he made his way through the night. Last in line, behind Maduin, flew the billowy, almost insubstantial Phantom.

They were, as far as Maduin knew, the only espers to have survived the carnage back at the Research Facility. He hadn't wanted to flee, but there had been no other choice. Terra.... his daughter, had not recognized him. She had killed other espers, a crime so heinous that it could barely be contemplated. Not since the War of the Magi had one esper taken the life of another.

He had hated to leave her. If not for Ramuh, he wouldn't have, but his old friend had grabbed him and pulled him out of the room, screaming that he could do his daughter no good if he allowed her to kill him.

He had thought that greater hate for the Empire was impossible, but he was wrong. They could drain him, test him, kill him, and it was nothing compared to what they had done to his daughter. She was like a machine bred for destruction. But no, even that was not the full measure of the dark truth. Machines did not enjoy killing.

He still could not make himself fully believe it, his mind unwilling to accept the impossibility before him. He tried to reconcile his two images of his daughter, and failed. Nostalgia mixed with horror in ways unstable and twisted, producing contradictions in his mind. Terra gazed wide-eyed and clapped at the fantastic espers, she killed them with impunity. She wore tiny swaddling clothes, she wore the ghastly black death-suit. She laughed at her mother's antics, she laughed at the screams of her victims.

Oh, Terra.... what have they done to you?  He had dreamt of a reunion with her for so long and had been given one of destruction. It seemed the goddesses were not without a certain black sense of humor.

Altering his manipulation of the wind slightly, he increased his speed, pulling even with Ramuh. The older esper was perhaps the most knowledgeable of all those held captive in the research center and the escapees were relying heavily on him to direct them in this time of crisis. They were lost in a world that they no longer knew, filled with hostile natives. Only Ramuh could show them the way, guide them to safety.

"Where are we heading?" Maduin asked, almost shouting over the whistle of the wind.

"I... sense a source of power to the northeast," Ramuh answered, looking over at the younger esper. His eyes were carved marble, ancient yet still strong. "I think it best that we go there... to absorb as much as we can. We are weak." As if to emphasize the point, he wobbled for a moment before resuming a more stable course. "If we do not get there soon, I fear it might be too late for some of us."

Maduin nodded once before slowing slightly and allowing the other to pass him once more. At this point, none of them was strong enough to even attempt opening a breach to the Esper World, not that he was sure they would be welcomed back. He had allowed a human, the enemy, in, and though it was not Madonna's fault that the others had followed, he would still draw blame. That thought streamed into another, and another, and again the vision of his daughter spreading destruction stabbed into his mind like a knife. He wondered if he would ever stop seeing that image of horror.

Madonna... I never thought I would be thankful you were gone... but I am thankful that you cannot see what they have done to her.

Once more, he promised himself that he would do something, anything, to make her remember. To turn her back into the Terra that he knew and loved. Even if it cost him his life, for she was the only reason he had to continue living. But sacrificing himself back there would have done no good, as Ramuh said. He had to rest, recover his strength, first.

There was a sudden burst of light below as they passed over a ship. Maduin didn't know for sure, but looking at its pointed prow, harsh lines, and fearsome guns, he assumed it was Imperial in design. It was heading south, cutting a wake as it moved back towards Vector.

Wrong direction... He thought. By the looks of the Imperial Capitol when he and the others had escaped, there was a large-scale conflict going on. He could not help but wonder if his daughter was the cause of that, as well. Perhaps the Empire had paid a deserving price for its meddling. He just wished that Terra had not had to serve as the instrument of its destruction.

The ship dwindled and vanished as they moved north, growing ever closer to the power source that they hoped would save their lives. Maduin drew on inner reserves that he didn't even know he had, his anger and desperation summoning strength in this time of need. He did not know what would happen tomorrow, or the next day, or the next, but he knew that he could not die here. He would not go to the grave without trying to redeem his daugher. He would not face her mother in the afterlife and tell her that he failed.

This I swear...

The espers flew on through the night, shining like errant fireflies against the black velvet sky.


Make a wish, Leo.

The Imperial General stood in the bow of the ship, leaning heavily against the railing as the craft made its way through the ocean. He braced himself against the side for both mental and physical support, his leg still aching from standing upright. As the wind played about him, stirring the high collar of his uniform, he kept his eyes focused on the heavens above. He took in the full expanse of the sky as he tried to find some comfort, any comfort, in the orderly arrangement of the constellations.

The shooting stars had passed over only seconds ago, three of them. He had never seen so many at once, or so close together. Perhaps it was an omen of some sort. Still, wishes were wasted. Let the heavens spew fire and brimstone, let the stars fall from the sky, and it would change nothing.

He would still be a failure.

A failure who was responsible for the deaths of his men, of the Domans, of Marandans, of countless others. Nothing but a butcher in a fancy uniform.

Death was a reality of war. He had learned that fact, accepted it, long ago, as all fighting men must, or go mad. There was no way to avoid casualties. And yet, it seemed that in every case, he was causing them in record numbers.

This ship was the last of those that had carried his troops north and currently held every survivor from the devastated attack force. The rest of the ships had been scuttled just off the Doman coast to keep the enemy from using them. It was hard to destroy the ships in that way, but the cost in material was nothing compared to the lives lost.

He had not wanted to use the bio-bombs on the Domans. Repeatedly, he had told himself that they could win the day without resorting to such barbarous tactics as gassing a civilian population. He had thought of Maranda then. Maranda, where his beliefs about the Emperor's commands had first started to waver. He did not want to repeat such a catastrophe, so he had not used the bombs.

He had taken mercy again during the attack, not wishing to risk causing Doma Castle to collapse. That delay had nearly cost him his life, and had stalled the advance. And then, that night, the Returners had bombed the camp, setting off the bombs he had stored and killing over 90% of his command. How he had survived, he did not know. He had not regained consciousness until the next day after the whole mess was over and he was left with scarcely two hundred men under his command.

The reality of the situation was harsh and indisputable. He had traded the lives of his own men for the lives of the Domans. It had not been his intent, but intent changed nothing; whether he had wished it or not, his men were now dead because of his actions. He wondered how he would ever bring himself to look at their mothers if they passed him in the street. What was he supposed to say?

"I'm sorry that my gross incompetance, stupidity, and regard for the enemy caused your son's death."

Leo turned away from the stars and hobbled back to his cabin, setting his teeth every time his injured leg touched the deck. The pain was a mere pittance, considering that most of his men had paid the ultimate price. He only wished he could change places with them. They had all been so young and full of life. Now, they were dead, while he lived on as a shell of a man, a pitiful remnant more suited to pushing papers around a desk than leading troops in combat. Death in his case almost seemed preferable to going back to Vector with the stench of failure about him and Imperial blood on his hands. It would almost certainly be a deserving punishment.

There seemed to be only one answer to the problem, and it was one that shook him to the core. As he entered his cabin, lit only by a single swaying lantern, he once again considered the real meaning of the papers that lay on the desk in the corner.


Once, the very thought would have appalled him. He had served the Emperor for nearly his entire life, after all, and had expected to serve him or his successor until his death.

But now....

After the hamlet of Maranda had burned, after he had seen just what bio-bombs and Magitek had done to the enemy, after his actions, he was not sure that he could continue to serve unwaveringly. Something had happened to him, something deep and mysterious and fatal to his career. He desperately wanted to be loyal, and he feared that the longer he continued to lead men into battle, the more likely he was to break his loyalty and besmirch his honor. He could not allow that, any more than he could allow more young Imperials to die because he was no longer capable of leadership.

Leo eased himself down onto his bunk with difficulty, the pain in his leg spiking sharply as it was bent. Though the sensation was most certainly not pleasant, he had been spared. If the shard of metal from his smashed suit had been only a little higher, it would have buried itself in his vitals instead of his thigh. If his subordinates had been a little slower in pulling him from the ruins of his armor, he would have burned to death. If the medics had been a little less efficient in moving his unconscious form, he would have met a messy end in the expanding cloud of bio-bomb poison. Luck seemed to be with him.

Perhaps Lady Luck wants you to live longer so you can kill more people, Leo. She could be betting on your final tally.

He pondered that thought as he lay looking at the pitted wooden ceiling above him. The hanging lantern that illuminated the room swung slightly with the motion of the ship, casting shadows that seemed to slither back and forth. It reminded him of the shadows and the dancing flames in Maranda, and of the things had learned there.

Human beings liked to fight. They quibbled over things both large and small, hurt feelings and spilled blood. There were few things more brutal than a pair of humans that were in disagreement. They could go to appalling lengths in their struggle to force their opinions on each other. But there was one thing that they could agree on, one great equalizer, one solution that made all their problems go away.


He came to this realization outside the burning town of Maranda, as he was walking through a field under the moonlight. A field full of corpses, both Imperial troops and Marandan resistance fighters. They lay in various positions, sprawled everywhere in the wan light. Some appeared to be in each other's arms, embracing both oblivion and each other. There was no arguing, no fighting. There was nothing but Death. Suddenly, their differences, their disputes, every intricacy of their idealogies, religions, personalities, meant nothing. They were all the same. They were all so young, and all so very, very dead.

It was not that he had never seen death before, it was that he had never allowed himself to see it completely. He loved his men and tried to keep them safe, he tried to be as honorable as possible when facing his opponents, but he had never stopped to question the meaning of the fighting itself. It was then, in the field outside Maranda, that he had first began to ponder the morality of Emperor Gestahl's decisions. What made the people of Maranda 'bad' and 'disloyal'? Why were they in the wrong for wanting autonomy from the Empire? The thought had terrified him, relying on honor and loyalty as he did, and he had buried his objections beneath the weight of duty.

They were the same. When they died, they were the same. They all had mothers.... they were all human beings.

His objections did not want to stay buried, and the Battle of Doma had brought them to the surface again. He had always known that Kefka was not to be trusted, with his manical laugh, strange wardrobe, and his treatment of the girl. But the idea that Emperor Gestahl, the man that he had trusted with his service for so many years, could be similarly twisted and immoral was both difficult and painful to grasp. The idea that he might be fighting for the wrong side had threatened to destroy everything he thought stable in life.

Leo wondered what he had really been fighting for for so long. He wondered if those samurai in Doma, if those resistance fighters in Maranda, could tell him. He wondered if the dead knew.

He closed his eyes, and the rocking of the boat sent him into an uneasy slumber full of shadows and condemnations, the pale face of the girl foremost among them.


He tossed and turned in a grotesque parody of sleep. He knew he was dreaming, that it was The Dream, the one that he had experienced so many times before, but knowing changed nothing. He could not end The Dream, and there was a part of him that did not want to. He always hoped, somewhere in the back of his mind, that The Dream would end differently and would not be The Dream at all, but reality, the waking world nothing but a nightmare.


She liked flowers.

Her favorites were the posies that grew in the tiny valley north of town, and they had gone there to pick them almost every spring since she was able to walk. They played a game sometimes, where he would act like he did not want to go and she would act like she would cry if he did not, and then they would laugh and go anyway, and it was all right because it was just make-believe, and she knew that he would go with her always and be with her always.

Sometimes they would take the big dog with them, and he would roll in the fresh grass as they picked the flowers. He would pick some specially to give to his wife when they returned but there were plenty to have fun with. The girl would laugh and stick flowers in her hair and his hair and even the dog's hair and he would laugh too, not the old laugh but a brand-new laugh that sounded low and pleasant and happy. Not like the other, harsh and cruel. Sometimes after she got older the girl would take her paints and make his picture with them, the colors vibrant and real. Her talent was exceptional, and he wondered that something like her that could create could come from him who always destroyed.

Sometimes they lay there for hours in the field of flowers, looking up at the sky and telling stories, and he tried not to think of the bad stories but good ones, happy ones. There were not many, so he made them up. If she knew he was lying, she did not seem to care.

At the end of the day he always found a dandelion for her and held it to her lips, and said,

"Make a wish, Relm."

And she always smiled at him with her bright eyes and her hair just like her mother's, and said,

"I wish it never changes."

Then she would blow and the billowy seeds of the dandelion would separate from the stalk and fan out over the field, over the petals of the blood red posies, over the grass outside Thamasa. And life would be happy and good and he would lift her in his arms and twirl her around and around as she laughed and they would go home with the dog at their side and she would have made a good wish, because it was all good and he hoped it would always be that way and never change.

But it did.

That day when they got back the house was quiet and he felt something was wrong but he did not say anything because he hoped that his feeling was a lie and he had never felt it in Thamasa before. Interceptor knew something was wrong too and he growled as they moved to the swinging door of the kitchen. And first he saw the blood across the walls and then he saw his wife on the ground in a pool of it. He bent down to his wife and felt for a pulse but her throat had been slit wide open and there was blood everywhere so much blood. He wanted to scream but he could not because he could not breathe. He looked at her throat opened wide like a second red mouth and he could feel his mind beginning to snap and he knew he would never forget it never not ever. He dropped the flowers and they landed on her chest like a funeral bouquet and they were red too.

Relm screamed behind him as if she were dying and clung to his back but he did not turn around because his eyes were focused on the wall and he saw the mark there in Phoebe's blood, the mark of the Hydras. And then everything frag


and after that there

were only bits and pieces.


"Will mommy come back?"


"-take care of her."

"You can't-"

"Won't be coming back after this."


"Please, goddesses, it hurts!"

"Not enough."



Dead inside like they are dead outside.

Told you to stay, Interceptor. Should have listened.

Now you're like me.


Shadow snapped awake at the sound of Interceptor's soft bark, his body reflexively tensing to strike as his eyes darted around the darkened cabin. He did not so much stand as unfold, going from a sitting position against the wall of the cabin to a combat stance in a split second like a dagger pulled smoothly from a sheath. His precautions turned out to be unneccessary; when the door opened, it revealed only a rather nervous-looking young crewman, dry washing his hands and jumping from foot to foot as he stammered out his message.

"W-we've arrived, sir."

Shadow nodded once and brushed past the frightened crewman without a second glance, Interceptor following at his heel. It was only a short walk up to the deck. The ship was moving through Figaro Bay, gliding across water that shimmered in the light from South Figaro's waterfront. The deck bustled with activity as men rushed back and forth, preparing the ship for docking.

Shadow stepped up to the bow as the ship drew close to the docks. According to his instructions, the Imperial attack was going to begin in a few hours. When it did, it would not do for the Imperials to be faced with a battalion of Figarian Troops. His task was to rendezvous with Imperial sympathizers in Figaro and carry out a preliminary strike on the garrison. By eliminating key sentries, he could keep the defenders in the dark about the Imperial assault until it was upon them. It did not seem like a particularly hard task, but after the failure at Doma, he was wary.

He no longer trusted himself. Things that he had long thought dead had surfaced during the Doma mission and had resulted in his failure. He could not afford to continue in the same vein. There could be no weakness this time. No hesitation. No mistakes. He could not allow the past to hold him back any longer. The past was dead. He had done the deed himself, murdered it with his mind as he murdered others with his hands. However, it seemed that the past did not wish to rest quietly in the grave.

That life is over now. It is dead.

There was no past. There was only the mission. That was the truth, that was his reality. If he believed anything else, he was only lying to himself, jepordizing the only goal that truly mattered. Chasing an impossible dream was pointless. The only certainty was death, and it was his job to deal it.

As the ship drew close to the dock, Shadow broke out into a run and launched himself over the railing, Interceptor with him every step of the way. He knifed through the air and landed smoothly on the docks with barely a sound. Almost before he had landed, he was moving, his body bent low as he raced through the shadowy streets of the town toward his destination. Intercepter followed after him, a dark being in a darker night.

Welcoming light spilled into the dark alleys from dozens of windows, illuminating spots of the ground. From within, his sensitive hearing picked up muted laughter, strains of errant music, discordant shouts. The sounds of home, an empty, deceptive siren's song He tried to clear his head by thinking back, running over the instructions he had received word by word.

Your mission is to report to the (home)mansion of the Gilan (family)clan. Further instructions will be provided to (father)you there. Once (husband)you (content)satisfy the objectives of the (life)mission, (friend)you are free to collect your (happiness)reward.

Yes, it was working. There was nothing wrong with him at all.


Something was wrong.

She knew it the moment she snapped awake. She could feel it, hovering just beyond the reach of her perception like a misty form on the horizon or a thin whine just too high to hear. The mood on the ship had seemed odd for days, tense, and now it felt as if everyone aboard was stretched to the breaking point, ready to snap at any second. Surely part of it was just tension over the upcoming battle, but there was more lurking beneath the surface.

Ouch... The pain came to her gradually, as if from a great distance. She was biting at the skin around her nails again. Pulling pale fingers from her mouth, she wiped away thin streams of blood as best she could with the blanket. She then held her ragged digits before her face, frowning slightly at their appearance.

Blood on your hands Celes blood blood blood on your hands.

It was hard to say what was worse, the habit itself or the fact that she now did it in her sleep. Damn dreams.

Dreams of burning houses, burning people, lives and hopes and dreams turned into ashes and cooking fat. Orders given, orders carried out, a mad dance of destruction with homicide as an encore.

Things hadn't been the same since Maranda, not for her. And, she thought, not for General Leo, either. It had been her orders to torch the town, and she had followed them without question; at the time, it truly seemed to be the most practical move. Afterwards, turning what was left of an ashen teddy bear in over in her hands, practicality didn't seem all that important.

Celes shrugged off the blanket and stood up, stretching her arms and working out the kinks. There was no need to check the clock on the wall opposite her bunk to know the hour; her own internal timepiece told her that she had not overslept. It might not have been the best idea to nap before the attack on South Figaro anyway, but she had been burning the midnight oil for several nights in a row and sleep was a much needed commodity. She had to be fully alert during this attack, fully aware of what was happening and how she should deal with it. She could not afford to allow a repeat of the events in Maranda. She wasn't sure her loyalty could take it.

For that matter, she wasn't sure her soul could take it.

Celes had draped her cape over the back of her chair before she slept. She lifted the snow-white garment now and placed it on her shoulders before sitting down to pull on her boots. She had better hurry. Almeda and the rest would be expecting her topside in a few minutes, and she didn't want to give them any reason to enter her cabin. It was bad enough that they had noticed her bloodshot eyes and ragged fingertips. She didn't want them to see the state of her room and start reading things into that, too.

The room was in a terrible condition. A small table was buried under a snarl of papers and vivid blue stains. The floor was splattered even more, and a number of empty potion bottles rolled along with the movements of the ship. The drawers of the bolted-down bureau across the cabin were half open, filled with still more bottles and tangled masses of clothing. Even the pillow and blankets seemed to radiate with the terror-sweat of a dozen nightmares.

It was the room of a woman losing her motivation, her bearings, her convictions. Perhaps her mind.

Calm down.... calm down... just need to settle your nerves...

Shaky hands fastened around a still-stoppered bottle as it rolled across the floor, fingers tracing over fine Jidoorian crystal. Celes pulled out the stopper, put the bottle to her mouth, drank deeply. The minty blue liquid flowed down her throat, cool and smooth, and her shaking seemed to stop almost immediately. She no longer knew whether it was the potions themselves or her belief in their soothing power that calmed her nerves, but it didn't matter. All that mattered was that she did not show what was going on inside.

The flow of liquid stopped, and she let the bottle fall to the floor. It was now nothing but another worthless vessel, perfect on the outside but empty on the inside.

Like me.

She stood up and walked out into the hallway, closing and locking the door behind her. Just in time, it seemed, for no sooner had she tucked the key into her pocket than a voice from down the hall called out.

"General Celes! We've been waiting for you."

Celes turned towards the sound and found herself almost face to face with a man she despised. After Gestahl, Kefka, and herself, she hated Boaz Almeda more than any other human on the face of the earth. She had never liked him, with his loud voice and constant smirking expression, but of late she had begun to loathe him utterly and completely. He always seemed to be watching her, weighing her strengths and weaknesses as a Veldt cat would look for the vulnerable member of a choco herd.

"Did you sleep well, General?" His mouth curled up in a lopsided grin that only reached halfway up his face. Blue eyes stared out at her from under red bangs, piercing her to the core.


"Yes, Commander Almeda." It was a struggle to keep her voice even, and she almost unconsciously slid her hands behind her back. "I trust that all preparations are going along as expected?"

They began to walk towards the stairwell that led up to the deck.

"I wish the other Commanders and I could persuade you to reconsider, ma'am," Almeda said. "Airstrikes are vital for softening up resistance. You know the orders that Emperor Gestahl stipulated."

Yes, she did. All too well. The opening move was to be a series of airstrikes delivered from IAF bases on islands off the Northern Continent. The strikes would be leveled against civilian portions of South Figaro as a terror tactic to shake up the defenders.

She wanted to obey orders, but in this case she found that she could not. The move was stupid, unneccessary. It would only be killing for the sake of killing, and after following similar orders at Maranda, she swore she never would again.

"I know, Commander, that he stipulated that <i>I</i> was the one in charge of this operation. I am free to deploy the Imperial forces under my command as I wish. You don't have to like my orders, Commander. You do have to follow them."

They were climbing the stairs now, ascending towards the deck, and Almeda lowered his voice. Even he was not foolish enough to denounce her at full volume in front of the troops.

"With all due respect, General," he said in a voice which indicated anything but, "this is a tactical folly. Those aren't Imperial citizens you're protecting, they are the enemy. It is essential that we spread confusion before the ground attack begins so they won't know where to expect us next." He paused, then smiled another of those annoying half-smiles. "I'm sorry if Maranda made you a bit squeamish, but I don't see why you should make our troops suffer for that. If you refuse to order an airstrike, I will."

Celes clenched her teeth, biting back a scream of pure frustration and rage. How dare he speak to her so? How dare he equate being compassionate with being weak?

"You will do nothing of the sort, Commander Almeda. I am in command of this operation and I make the decisions. A Magitek attack from the east will be sufficient to take the garrison. There is no need for us to employ an air attack. And if I even hear you suggest otherwise to anyone under our command, I will have you tried for insubordination in the Imperial Court."

"Very well," Almeda replied. "But perhaps you won't have to worry about me, anyway. How long do you think your troops will continue to serve a traitor?"

He turned and began to walk away as she stood there, dumbstruck. A traitor? Could that be the source of the mood she felt across the ship? Her men, did they think...

Were they right?

Celes walked to the railing of the ship and looked out over the water. She almost imagined that she could see the lights of South Figaro like bright pinpricks on the horizon, though it must at least be another hour before the town would be in sight. The sea below was surprisingly calm, stark contrast to her inner turmoil.

Celes had followed orders almost unquestioningly since she had begun to work her way through the ranks of the Imperial Army. She had never known anything else, never stopped to question the meaning or the purpose the commands. She had been made to fight for the Empire from her very first moments of birth, infused with the power of magic. Her playthings were weapons, first wooden replicas, but later, as she grew older, real. Her jewelry and adornments were medals, her only goal the praise of her superiors. She was a fighter for the Empire, a perfect weapon, born and bred.

Until Maranda. Maranda had torn away everything she believed, leaving her an empty husk that simply went through the motions. The cries of the citizens of Maranda still scalded her soul and invaded her dreams: child killer, oppressor, butcher. There was nothing inside her anymore that made her care if the Empire succeeded or not. She didn't know whether to be happy about that, or sad. Mostly, she just felt-



Duty and conscience, battle and mercy, obligation and desire. This was the tangled life of Celes Chere, and it was unravelling by the second. That was the one absolute fact she could hold onto.

That was the truth.


"Well, to be brutally honest," Edgar Figaro said, placing one hand on his chin in thought, "I don't know what the hell it is."

"That makes two of us," Banon replied. The Returner leader stroked the ends of his mustache absently from his position several yards behind Edgar. He was, as always, surrounded by a half dozen bodyguards.

"Definitely old, though. This might even be from the War of the Magi..."

As always, the passages of the Returner Hideout were dark and drafty, lit by flickering torches where flames struggled to maintain a hold. Similarly, the Returners gathered around looked no different than usual; tired men and women in red and green, all of them overworked, none of them terribly clean. What was different was the massive artifact before the gathered group. It looked wrong, out of place - a gemstone in a bin of coal.

The fantastic statue still rested in the place where it had been unearthed a few days ago, intertwined dragons and central column pulsing with an ethereal silvery light. Edgar walked around it once more, inspecting it from every angle as the Returners gathered nearby murmured with unease. The statue had stayed in the same place simply because everyone was too afraid to even touch the damn thing. Edgar had gotten closer to it than anyone else so far, and the spectators were all obviously expecting him to be incinerated at any second. Which, he had to admit, could very well happen.

Hmm... wonder what would happen...

Before he had time to think about that further, he reached forward and lightly tapped the gleaming statue with his fingertips.

And to think, I always called Sabin impulsive...

With a crackle, the glow intensified until it was blinding. Edgar stepped back, throwing an arm over his eyes and wondering if he had just killed the entire world. Then a harmonious tone sounded, echoing and reverberating in the narrow tunnels, so loud and yet so beautiful that for a moment it encompassed all of his senses, became his world, his goal, his reason for being alive.

The power was joyous, filling. Something told him that it contained everything he had ever looked for in his life, all the pleasure and fulfillment he had sought in women, wine, and the thrill of inventing. He wanted to be consumed and live in it forever.

Then, the sound and the glow faded as his hand dropped away and he realized that he was on his knees, tears streaming out of both eyes, his entire body shaking. The Returners gave shocked, shuddery outcries, and he knew he hadn't been the only one affected. He turned his head and saw all of them sprawled or sitting. Apparently setting that thing off had dropped the entire crowd.

"Shit," he breathed. He rarely swore, but in a case like this, there seemed no other word to describe the situation. "Shit..."

"I am guessing," Banon said in a wheezing tone as he got to his feet. "That the statue is, in fact, magic."

"Yes," Edgar said, holding his hand up to his face and checking for some sort of lethal aftereffect. "Yes, it does seem so."

"Are you all right, your highness?" one of the Returners asked, looking at Edgar with concern. Big brown doe eyes, a pair of full lips... why, that smudge of dirt across the bridge of her nose just made her look cuter...

Well, at least I know some parts of me are still okay.

"I'm fine, my dear," he said as he clambered back to a standing position. "The question is, what are we going to do with this statue?"

"We were hoping you could tell us," Banon pointed out. "We don't have the resources or the knowledge to even begin to study this thing, but it could be just the ace in the hole we need to tilt the war with the Empire to our advantage."

Edgar took a few steps back from the shimmering artifact, breathing heavily from the contact. The intermingled feeling of joy, power, and lust still had his mind buzzing. "I don't know if we should even try to use this. The last thing we want is another War of the Magi. But if push comes to shove, we may have no choice. I'll send for some loyal scholars from Figaro Castle and let them have a look at this. Maybe they can tell you something about it I can't. In the meantime, I wouldn't get near it if I were you."

The group began to disperse, and he walked up to the female Returner who had caught his attention earlier. There was still the long trip back to Figaro Castle, but that could wait for a lady. She was even cuter up close. As he came near, she smiled at him, showing a set of teeth that were, if slightly crooked, white. A faint cloud of perfume even hung around her slender form.

"And who might you be, my lady?" he said, bringing her gloved hand to his lips. She reddened and brushed a few strands of auburn hair back from her face.

"I'm A-alice, from-"

"South Figaro!"

The shout sounded from down the passage and both of them turned to see a courier racing towards them. He continued to shout at the top of his lungs.

"Banon! South Figaro is- ... King Edgar? What are you doing-"

"Nevermind." Edgar waved off the question. "What's the message? What about South Figaro?"

"Sir," the courier paused. "Word from Doma.. the Empire seems to be planning some sort of move on South Figaro. They could strike at any time."

"Doma, eh?" Hopefully Locke has things under control there....

"Yes... the Sappers managed to knock out the Imperial Camp entirely by setting off bio-bombs, but an assassination attempt on the King indicated that South Figaro could be next. All Returner cells in the area have supposedly been notified, but no one's sure how long it will take the messages to get to their destinations."

Bio-bombs? Assassination attempts? This was troubling news indeed, even if the Imperial threat in Doma seemed to have been eliminated. Edgar hoped silently once more that his friend was all right, but his mission was so top secret that it could not be mentioned even here in the presence of Banon's guards.

"We'd better send out scouts immediately," Banon remarked, stepping up to stand beside Edgar. "Even if this is just a false alarm, we can't take any chances. Losing South Figaro would be disastrous."

"You don't have to tell me that," Edgar said. "That's why I'm going."

"Edgar?" Banon was incredulous. "You can't go! The Imperials could already be there. If something were to happen to you, Figaro would collapse. And the rest of us wouldn't be long in following."

"I think you overestimate my importance, Banon. The chancellor does most of the running of the kingdom anyway. Those are my people. I have an obligation to them. I can't just leave them in Imperial hands. Someone has to see what's going on there and ensure that the warning gets out. No one knows the ins and outs of that town better than me except Locke. And since he's not here right now, I'm going to have to stand in."

"But er- won't they recognize you, your highness?" Alice said, her blush deepening. "I mean, I could never forget your face...." She really was quite lovely. A pity that duty called...

"I shall just have to go in disguise, then," Edgar said. He turned to Banon. "Send a message to Figaro Castle informing them of my intentions. I had better get going right now."

Almost as an afterthought, he reached into his pocket and pulled forth a pair of mythril cufflinks embossed with the seal of the Figaro clan. Taking Alice's hand, he pressed them into her palm and folded her fingers over them.

"Something to remember me by, until I get back."

She nearly swooned, and he once again lamented the call of duty.

So many beautiful women in this world, and so little time.

Author's Note: Yes, yes, after such a long absence, this is what you get. There is a lack of action and major plot development, but it was high time for a bit of catching up with Leo and the introduction of some more major characters. Although I hate to put an apology in every single chapter's author notes, I must apologize here in advance for my tardiness in putting out the next chapter. Pity DK, for he shall face papers, exams, and tomes of required reading in the next few weeks. Rest assured, though, sooner or later, the story must and will go on.

Chapter 7

DK's Fanfiction