Vector smoldered in the darkness.
The rain pattered down from a clouded sky onto the ruins of the Imperial Capital, striking shattered buildings and running down their facades in thin streamers, filling the streets with brackish pools, snuffing the flames that still burned throughout the wreckage.
The city was quiet, the violence that had infested the streets earlier in the day gone, the soldiers and citizens fled or silently rotting in the gutters. It was a place of death now, home only to a host of the dead and the creatures that fed upon them. Indeed the city itself resembled a vast corpse; machine-breath stilled, facade-skin cracked, iron girder-bones showing through. This was Vector, and it was all hers.
Her Empire. It was so very beautiful.
Terra dozed at her perch on the balcony atop the Magitek Research Center, viewing the city through heavy-lidded eyes. Even those with great power had to sleep sometime, she supposed, and she was very weary. It had been a long day; following the capturing of the Center, she had spread out into the rest of the city, crushing those foolish enough to fight and driving off the rest.
Now the city and all its treasures were hers. It would be her home, the seat of power from whence she would expand to cover this entire world in flames, drown everyone who dared to question her in a sea of blood. It would be a daunting task to undertake herself, but with the magic she had claimed here and her esper instincts, she would be more than capable.
But first, she needed to rest, she needed to-
The tone sounded suddenly, loud and filling, surging through her with astonishing force and snapping her eyes wide open. For a moment, she experienced mental whiteout as every emotion was replaced with intermingled joy, lust, and.... and....
More power than was contained in the entire Research Center.... much more. Power enough to split mountains or raise them, to throw down an entire world in flames. Power that she needed. Power that, once she had felt its touch, she knew she could no longer live without.
The power faded away to a dim echo, and she could think again. Reaching out with her mind, she felt tentatively at the traces of magic remaining from the powerful surge. It had come from the north, far across the Aryth Ocean.
Terra stood up, her weariness forgotten in her sudden excitement. Reaching deep within, she brushed against her stronger self and willed it to come forth. It surfaced slowly, an ungainly beast of instincts rising from the inky depths of her mind. Then, it broke water, surging into her consciousness and triggering her transformation.
It began as a luminescent mist that appeared on the floor about her feet. The mist climbed her form in wreathing tendrils, cocooning her in a rosy glow. Then there was a bright flash of light, and when it faded, her esper nature was fully in control.
She rose into the air above the dark city like a glowworm on an invisible thread, hovering motionless in the dark air for a moment. Then, she gathered her power about her and blasted away in a streak of light that vanished into the northern sky.
The resulting sonic boom rocked the city, shaking buildings and breaking the few windows still intact in a shower of glass. For a moment, the rats fled as the sound echoed and reverberated in the empty metal canyons, bouncing throughout the ruined city. Then the sound faded, the rain of glass stopped, and the rodents resumed their feast.
The spark of life had fled. Its glowing heart gone north, Vector was left dead and empty once more.
The door of the quaint little cottage splintered on the third kick and broke inward on the fourth, striking the wall with such force that it was nearly torn from its hinges.
Harsh white light stabbed into the darkness behind the door, revealing a flight of stone steps leading down. The young Imperial in the doorway took a few hesitant steps into the room, panning his flashlight back and forth across a stone floor, workbenches, machinery, welding torches. Some sort of manufacturing center, then.
"In the name of Emperor Gestahl," the soldier began, launching into a well-rehearsed speech. "Drop your weapons and come out with your hands up! The Emperor extends his mercy to all who-"
His speech was interrupted by the clatter of firing autocrossbows. Their counter argument, while a bit lacking in eloquence, proved to be effective; the Imperial had no choice but to fall silent as a half-dozen crossbow bolts buried themselves in his torso. He stumbled back a few steps and then fell from the stairs, his part in the debate over.
"Returners!" The panicked shout rose amongst the Imperials clustered about the door, and they began to draw back just as another salvo tore forth from the darkness below. Pandemonium broke out as the door exploded in a shower of splinters and two more Imperials went down in sprays of their own blood.
"Return fire!" the squad leader commanded. He tried his best to sound confident, like they had taught him at the Imperial Academy. But no school could prepare one for the horrors of combat, no classes could teach the hellish art of spilling blood. Here, it was raw and red and real, and everything at the Academy seemed like something out of a dream.
The troops on the stairs opened up, firing blindly down the steps into the vast stone room. The Returners answered, and the battle was joined. As the autocrossbows spoke, bolts lodged in benches, caromed off stone and machinery in showers of sparks, and ripped flesh. Imperials were still falling, but now the Returners were dying too, their screams audible even above the sound of firing as they billowed up out of the darkness.
Three points of flame sailed through the air towards the Imperials, looking like will o' wisps floating tranquilly through the darkness. And then the homemade firebombs broke against the front ranks of the men on the stairs, glass shattering, oil splattering, flame spreading, and the illusion of tranquility burned away. The fire jumped and danced, leaping gleefully from one man to the next, surging up the stairs in a blistering rush to claim more victims. The Imperials screamed, first as they were consumed by the flames and then as the Returners opened fire against their now brilliantly outlined forms.
Men died, pierced by bolts, burned to cinders, trampled by their comrades. The attack fell apart in five chaotic seconds, and the squad leader suddenly found himself screaming for the retreat and crawling frantically up the stairs on all fours.
He thought for a moment that he wasn't going to make it, that they'd cut him down in the doorway and he'd fall back into the flames, and all Asha would have left of him was a little box of ashes. And then he was out in the street, his men rushing up behind him and forcing him forward like an ocean wave. They only stopped running when they had crossed the street and set up a crude defensive position amongst some barrels and crates. Leveling weapons at the cottage across the street, they prepared to shoot the first thing that came out the door.
Around them, South Figaro was alive with motion. Brown-clad Imperials rushed through the narrow streets, herding panicked civilians like cattle through canyons of tall, thatched houses. Overhead, IAF interceptors roared through the air, seeking out possible targets, and - because General Celes had banned air strikes - relaying their location to the forces on the ground. Magitek titans thundered through the mayhem carefully, spotlights sweeping over the crowd, loudspeakers blaring:
"Return to your homes. Give up any Returners and you will not be harmed."
The takeover was, by all accounts, going splendidly. There had been almost no warning for the troops garrisoned in South Figaro, thanks to the deaths of several of their watchmen. Once the Figarian soldiers realized an attack was under way, the Imperials were already battering down the gates of the city. Faced with an opponent that both outnumbered and outgunned them and backed into a corner, the troops had little choice but to surrender immediately or be destroyed.
After that, the invasion had progressed smoothly. The civilians of the town followed Imperial commands quickly enough once they saw the first dozen or so houses burned to the ground. While they were currently stampeding through the streets, their actions were only a result of fear, not any desire to resist. They were already broken. The only ones standing in the way of complete control now were these resistance fighters, these Returners. Those bastards must have a hundred different safehouses in this town, and uncovering and flushing out every one was proving to be costly for the Imperials.
The squad leader touched his green uniform, absently fingering the lieutenant's bars there. Command wasn't what it was cracked up to be, wasn't the glorious job it had seemed when he left Tzen for the Imperial Academy. Half of his men were dead, and he might soon be joining them.
Thoughts of death and mortality were swept aside temporarily as he spotted the man standing at the end of the street, surrounded by his own personal guard. Even at this distance, even with the other's face lit only by the intermittent flashes of Magitek weaponry firing a few streets over, the young Imperial still recognized him.
Boaz Almeda was something of an Imperial success story. He had come from the gutters of Vector itself and had enlisted in the army at an early age. Valiant service in the Tzen and Maranda campaigns had elevated him to his current position of commander, and the buzz about him was that it would not be long before he reached the top. He exemplified all the traits desired in an Imperial soldier; ambition, skill, leadership ability, and a certain cold, informal cruelty.
Now, Almeda was stalking down the street towards him with his bodyguards, the Red Falcons, in tow. He appeared none too pleased, if the grimace on his face or the look in his eyes was any indication. In contrast, the men around him were blank-faced and grim in red and black, their eyes constantly darting back and forth for any sign of danger to their commander.
"Who is in command here?" Almeda demanded as he walked up, his red cloak billowing about him. He stood in the open, apparently unconcerned about the Returners lurking across the street.
"I- I am, sir," the squad leader said, saluting shakily.
"I just wanted to know who was responsible for this debacle. I notice half your unit is gone."
"Yes, sir... the Returners set up an ambush-"
Almeda sighed, put his hand to his face, and shook his head from side to side. "I try," he said, "I really do. General Celes and I formulate an attack plan, my agents spread chaos in the garrison and open the town gates, I force the town army to surrender, I lead you in against virtually no resistance.... and you...." He pointed a finger at the squad leader's breastplate. "You can't even deal with one paltry group of Returners?"
"I'm sorry, sir, but they were concealed, it - it was dark, sir."
"Oh, I see. It was dark. Tell me, lieutenant, do you still sleep with a stuffed moogle? If the answer is no, then the dark should hold no fear for you. Ultimately, I guess it's a toss-up as to whether you're gutless, simply incompetent, or both. But that hardly matters. Let me show you how it's done."
With that, Almeda pulled two grenades from the belt he had looped about his waist. Calmly, he walked halfway across the street, depressed the firing triggers, and lobbed them through the yawning doorway. Then, he turned back to the gathered Imperials.
"You have bio-bombs. I suggest you start using them." From the doorway there came a long, low hiss, followed by a series of screams. "See? They work."
"But sir..." the lieutenant protested. "General Celes said not to use them. We might gas civilians, even women and children."
"And where is General Celes now?" Almeda said, sweeping his arms out. "Hitting the bottle, I expect, since I certainly don't see her here. You can follow her orders and die if you wish. I, however, value your lives more than those of my enemies. Perhaps you and she should start doing the same."
"You... you bastards..." the voice came from the doorway, and they all turned to see a wounded Returner standing there, leaning heavily against the wall for support. Every orifice in his face was leaking blood and he looked, at best, minutes from death's door, but the heavy autocrossbow in his hands seemed none the worse for wear. A well-aimed burst or two could tear the gathered Imperials to pieces.
Almeda stepped towards the man calmly, his hands dropping to his side. The Returner tried to lift his weapon to fire, but his shaking hands did not seem to want to obey him, and the barrel remained pointed at the ground. Then, in one lightning-fast motion, the commander drew his sword and buried it halfway to the hilt in the man's chest.
The stricken resistance fighter gave one short groan as the autocrossbow dropped from nerveless fingers and clattered against the cobblestones. With a smile of contempt, Almeda brought one foot up and kicked the Returner in the midsection, sending his corpse sliding off the blade and toppling back down the stairs.
"Honestly," the red-haired man said as he turned around and began to fastidiously clean the blood from his sword with a rag, "Do I have to do everything myself?"
Near the center of the Northern Continent, the Koltz Mountains split the earth like great stone teeth, rearing out of the land around them almost defiantly. Bordered by the nation of Figaro to the west and south, the city of Narshe to the northwest, Nikeah to the northeast, and the great expanse of the Aryth Ocean to the east, the mountain range enjoyed a great variety of scenery and touched a great many lives.
But it was most influential upon the lives of the men and women that called it home. Hidden deep within a mountain valley and carved into the very stone of the mountains themselves was the stronghold of the resistance, Returner HQ, the cradle of freedom. The place, Banon said, from which the Returners would arise to overthrow the Empire and spread liberty to the Southern Continent.
They were nice sentiments, and Alice wanted very badly to believe them. Still, sometimes it was hard to believe in a glamorous cause when everyone associated it seemed so very unglamourous. It was difficult to imagine overthrowing the Empire when you could scarcely track down any soap or time to take a bath.
Of course, King Edgar had certainly been very glamorous. And he had talked to her, kissed her hand! Though she was almost twenty, she felt herself wanting to lapse into the titters of a schoolgirl at the very thought. The phrase "I'll never wash this hand again!" swept through her mind, and honestly, considering the sudden, panicked rationing at Returner HQ since news of the invasion, she might wait a long time before she had to make that decision.
"Are still thinking about him?" the voice came from behind her, heavy and mocking.
She turned around and shot a glare at the young man leaning in the entryway of the Returner hideout. In response, he only smiled and ran a hand through his short brown hair. "I wouldn't get too excited if I were you," he continued. "They say he does hit on anything that moves."
"You're just jealous." She said, lifting her nose into the air.
"Not because of you. Now, that Maria I hear he was romancing..."
Alice sighed and turned away from him, looking up at the night sky. It was bad enough she had to stand watch tonight, and Portose's presence always aggravated any situation. At least the stars were pretty, especially up here in the clear air of the mountains. Still, the tradeoff was less than fair, given that Portose wouldn't just let her stand here and enjoy the scenery. He had to be constantly running his mouth.
Your parents told you it wouldn't be glamorous.
Her father had strictly forbidden her to join the Returners, but she had wanted it so very badly, her heart full of romantic dreams and fueled by a thousand fairy tales. It had all seemed so fantastic then, and nothing could kill her desire. And so, when he departed on another of his trading trips, her own departure was not long in following.
Her mother had cried, begged, pleaded for her to stay, and that was even worse. But something pushed her to close the door and leave her home in South Figaro, and after that there could be no going back. She had heard from a friend of a friend of a friend of the family that her parents had sold the house and moved to a bigger one in Nikeah. She wondered if the move represented the permanent severing of ties that she feared it did.
Well, at least that meant that she didn't have to worry about them now that South Figaro had been invaded. Many of the other Returners had family in the town, and the whole base seemed to be on pins and needles.
One of the stars above seemed to detach itself from the sky and move, looping slowly against the dark backdrop and growing ever larger and larger. Alice blinked, then rubbed her eyes and looked again. It was still there.
"What's that?" she asked. Her hands began to fold themselves into fists almost of their own accord, the metal cufflinks biting into her palm.
"What's what?" Portose said as he moved from his position in the doorway to stand beside her.
"That." She pointed, and his eyes followed her finger to the star, which was now twice as large as it had been and still moving. It had begun to take on a halo like an oil lamp on a foggy night, but this halo was not a dull yellow, but a soft rose.
"I don't know, but it seems to be getting closer." For once, he sounded serious, and his autocrossbow was already out of its holster. "Might be some sort of new Imperial aircraft. We'd better report it before..... b-before....."
But Alice never heard what he was going to say, for at that moment she turned away from him and back towards the object in the sky, and she saw that it was growing brighter...
She felt it first as a simple stirring of the air, an almost pleasant breath of warmth. Then the heat grew stronger and she realized that she was burning, her clothes bursting into flame, her hair smoking with the stench of sulfur and gunpowder mixed together. Portose was burning too, screaming like a dying goose as he tried in vain to beat out the orange flame-serpents that writhed across his body. She opened her mouth join him, and strangely, the words that tore forth hurt more than the searing fire.
Screaming for her mother. What an unheroic thing to do.
Her blood began to boil and she fell to the burning grass, the cufflinks tumbling from her fist and bouncing away to melt into an amorphous lump. Briefly, the thought of firing back occurred to her, but it was too late for that. She could only lie there and burn like the ugly, useless piece of coal she was. That all the Returners were. One last, fleeting thought raced across her sizzling brain.
What an unglamourous way to die.
Terra gave a short, reluctant sigh as the small amount of magic she had summoned fled from her. Below, the two humans still struggled feebly in their burning death throes, but she scarcely noticed them. In the wake of releasing her magic, she felt, as she always did, as if someone had torn a hole in her soul, leaving only emptiness in its place. She consoled herself, however, with the fact that she would soon be reunited with the power.
It seemed that some humans had occupied this mountain. It was of no import. They would die, as all humans would. They would simply have the honor of being among the first to fall to her magic.
She would use it to smash apart the vile anthill before her and seize the glimmering prize that lay inside. The prize that had called out to her over vast miles and summoned her into its presence so that she might partake of what it had to offer, make its power hers. Now that it had brushed her mind, touched her esper core, she knew she would die before she lived without it another day.
Thought became action, and the seemingly inexhaustible fount of magic within her core tightened and spewed forth power. It began as a flame low in her chest and then flared out, traveling to the extremities of her body in a million bright, probing tendrils that infused every pore and nerve ending with their splendor.
Ah, the sweet feel of destruction held at bay.
But not for long.
The two fireballs leapt forth with scarcely any preamble; one moment, they were not there, the next, one was flying from the delicate fingertips of each hand. They tumbled almost lazily through the air, a pair of tiny orbs no bigger than pearls. Yet as they drew further away from her, they gained speed and expanded in flowers of fire like explosions barely held in check. When at last the magic projectiles struck home against the mountainside above the entrance to Returner HQ, each was easily twenty feet in diameter.
The entire mountain shuddered as it was enveloped in a cloud of fire. The magic tore at its ancient form brutally and unmercifully, blowing away in seconds what nature had spent millennia shaping. Shards of stone tore through the air and whole sections of the rock face broke free and crashed to earth in ragged chunks as the mountain trembled beneath the assault.
From the ruin below her she heard screams of all varieties; pain, outrage, terror. It seemed she had angered the ants. Perhaps at least they could provide her with some minor entertainment.
She was totally unprepared for the blast that hit her from behind and sent her spiraling forward. Fortunately, it was a weak push, nothing more than a stinging slap. A full-force attack against her back could very well have destroyed her.
Terra righted herself in midair, seething with anger. Her attacker had made a fatal mistake in not finishing her off. She would make them suffer dearly for that error.
"Terra! What are you doing?" It was the esper that had confronted her at the Research Center, the one with the vaguely familiar look about him. She hadn't even been aware he'd escaped the other espers' destruction. At least that was a mistake she could correct very quickly.
"What have they done to you?" he asked, his emerald hair whipping about him in the wind as he hovered in the air before her. That color... "Why are you doing these things?"
"They have made me stronger," she answered, clenching her right hand and letting sparks dance on her fingertips. "And I am doing these things because I am an esper. Not all of us have forgotten our glorious purpose."
Her arm flew out suddenly, and a tongue of flame stabbed out at him. He swerved to one side, narrowly avoiding its touch. Still, he struck back only with words. What a peculiar fool this one was.
"You've forgotten plenty, Terra!" he shouted. "Don't you remember your own father?"
"Espers have no fathers!" she screamed back defiantly. Something tickled the back of her mind, an image of his face before her and a chubby hand reaching towards it...
No! It was a deception of some kind, a feeble attempt to attack on a mental front since he realized a physical attack would prove useless.
"You're only half-esper," he continued, stretching his arms out toward her. "I'm your father."
"LIAR!" she shrieked. How dare he? How dare he? She was the ultimate esper, willing to indulge in every action her instincts demanded. How dare this failure, this weakling, question her power and her background?
Terra's teeth ground together and her lungs seemed to catch on fire as she was swallowed by overwhelming rage. Her mind swam in a blood-red lake and the world seemed to fracture before her eyes.
"Your mother was hum-ugh!"
She screamed again and threw herself upon him, all thoughts of strategy and magical combat gone now. She wrapped her hands around his throat and began to move them inexorably to one side, seeking to snap his neck and silence his blasphemous tongue forever.
He began to fight back now, but she ignored the blows that suddenly rained upon her, her entire being focused into the task of killing her opponent. Gradually, she became aware that tears were running from her eyes and she was screaming the same thing over and over, screeching a proclamation to the heavens and to herself as she slew this liar that dared defile her heritage.
"I AM AN ESPER!"
"I AM AN ESPER!"
"I AM AN ESPER!"
Ramuh had been right.
When they had felt the stab of power, it had nearly toppled them from their flight, but they had managed to remain aloft. He had wanted to seek out the source, but Ramuh had said that it would be safer to continue on towards the weaker source that he had sensed. For once, Maduin had disagreed and raced off with all the power he could muster, telling the others that he would meet them later. Apparently too weak or too apathetic to give chase, they had let him go.
Of course, his motivation to seek the power source was not sheer curiosity. A surge that powerful must have branched out across the world and shocked every magic-user still alive. Surely at least some of them would seek it out... and Terra might be one of those seekers. He could find his daughter, talk to her, convince her-
She's going to kill you, Maduin. Don't let this go on.
As he tried to wrench his daughter's fingers from around his throat and strained his neck muscles against her relentless twisting, Maduin came to the very harsh and saddening realization that he would probably have to kill her.
It was not a pleasant thought at all, and an hour ago, even after viewing her slaughter of the espers, he would never have considered it. To raise his hand against someone he loved so much and strike the killing blow was unthinkable.
But now that he had seen her madness at length, he realized that there was no hope for her. His daughter was gone, replaced by a walking mass of rudimentary esper instinct that sought only to destroy. He had never seen another esper so bloodthirsty, not even during the War of the Magi, not even when they had massed and swarmed Calmar, dying in great hordes against its snow-white walls in the dead of winter...
He pulled himself back to the present with difficulty, realizing his mind was wandering as he drifted farther and farther from consciousness. If this went on much longer, she was going to snap his neck like a twig.
Maduin thought then of her tiny form in the cradle, of Madonna rocking her to sleep. Of tender looks and things born of love.
The demon that was Not His Daughter looked at him with dark, malevolent eyes and a fanged grin as it strove to end his life. Deep within that creature, he imagined he saw Terra's tiny form, mortally wounded but still alive somehow. Her eyes focused on his face, begging, pleading for release.
At least if he killed the demon, Terra would have peace. He might never get his daughter back, but at least he could rescue her from this monstrosity. Later he could weep. Now... he had to kill. He had to be hard as forged mythril.
Of course, perhaps he was getting ahead of himself. As hard as it was to decide to kill the demon, carrying out that decision was likely to be even more difficult. Even at full strength, he wasn't sure he could stop it, and he was still horribly weak. Still, he had to try, for Terra's sake.
He fastened one hand over each of its shoulders and concentrated, willing the magic to come forth. He felt the power flare up, and despaired for a moment at its weakness. It seemed nothing but a spark when before it had been a roaring bonfire, a trickle where once it had been a river. It was next to nothing, but it would have to be enough. There was no other way.
Ter- the demon - gave a shriek as lightning emerged from Maduin's fingertips and wrapped its body in a brilliant electric spiderweb. It loosened its grip on his neck, probably more out of surprise than pain, and he took the opportunity to break free. Backpedaling in midair, he charged another spell and then released a cloud of ice fragments at his opponent. He'd been hoping for spikes, but shards seemed to work well enough; the demon recoiled and threw its arms over its face to protect its eyes as the spell enveloped it.
"So....." the monster said in a deeper version of his daughter's voice. "There is a failed esper who wants to live." It pulled a jagged hunk of ice from its forearm in a spray of indigo blood, then grinned in anticipation.
Maduin said nothing. He could not afford to waste any energy on speech, not if he had any hope of surviving.
The demon tried something new this time, conjuring a greenish cloud of mist that he barely managed to scatter with a quick wind spell. Poison. It had diversified its abilities, then.
As if to drive the point home, the creature released a scorching hail of tiny meteorites at him. He dove to get out of the way of the onslaught, but was not quite quick enough; stabbing pain shot through his leg as one of the white-hot projectiles buried itself in his thigh. He grabbed it and ripped it free, headless of the protest raised by torn and sizzling flesh. At least the wound had been cauterized.
He had to get back on the offensive. There was no way he could win a battle of attrition; his waning power could barely hold off his opponent's attacks as it was, and he was weakening by the second. His only hope was to strike a quick, fatal blow while he still had the chance.
Once more, a blast of electricity flew from his fingertips and struck the demon, wreathing it in electrical discharge. The creature took a few seconds to shake off the blow, but hardly seemed hurt. It threw out its arms and countered with a focused envelope of wind that pinned him in place.
"You are finished," the demon said, its eyes flashing at him. Perhaps it was right. It was charging its magic again, producing so much energy that he could feel the power spiking as if he were summoning it himself. This was it, then. The deathblow.
Closing his eyes, Maduin focused his own power, weaving it in a complex design, pouring every erg left into one last, desperate shield. He had just set it into place when the demon's blast burst forth in a column of blinding white light and slammed into him full force.
To his credit, the magical barrier held; anything else would have meant total annihilation. However, even though his shield blunted the deadly blast, it could do nothing about the sheer power of the blow. The awesome mass of magic struck him dead center and hurled him backward like a stuffed toy. The air split in a sonic boom as he javelined through the night sky, the world passing in a crazy blur.
The last thing he saw before he crashed into the side of a distant mountain was his daughter's face, still pleading for his help. Once more, he had failed her.
Terra.... I'm.... sor-
Terra screamed with savage satisfaction as she hurled the blasphemous esper that had dared question her through the air. He tore through the night sky as a luminous streak and crashed into a mountain several miles away with a thunderous detonation.
That should silence him.
His death was not enough. Her mind and spirit still recoiled at his horrible accusation, and she felt as if she might break down into tears at any moment. She was an esper. Of course she was. She was an esper, and espers were made to destroy. She would prove her identity by her actions.
She would tear them all to pieces, drink blood, slaughter the world, kill the universe kill them all and bathe in the ashes she would-
On the ground below, humans dressed in red and green were swarming about. A number of the ants had lined up in neat rows and were unleashing volley after volley of shots into the air in a vain attempt to hit something.
Their efforts were laughable; those few crossbow bolts that did not fall short of her were easily deflected by the rosy nimbus of her personal shield. Still, they were quite annoying. She'd have to do something about them.
Laughing, she brought her arms to her sides and dove towards her antagonists, the wind whipping her face in a harsh caress. Her entire body was still singing with magical power, and a mere thought was enough to send a fireball racing down ahead of her. The flaming orb struck the ground in the midst of the humans and exploded, showering fire in all directions.
She landed among them just as the first screams of pain started. It was always pleasant to kill with vocal accompaniment.
Stepping through their disintegrating ranks, Terra lashed out, something within her still sobbing desperately even as she laughed. She would show them an esper. She would show them all what it was like to die to her glorious race. She would show them elegance in Death.
She raked them with her magic, burning them to cinders, freezing their blood to ice, letting lightning dance across their jerking bodies. Some ran, some tried to return fire, some threw themselves on the ground and begged the goddesses for mercy. All died.
Dozens more boiled out at her from the entrance of the shattered mountain, and she met them gleefully. The first ranks died quickly to blasts of flame, but the ones behind pushed on, and soon she was swallowed by a tide of humanity, all of them hacking and slashing at her in a desperate attempt to bring her down. She fought on, totally absorbed in the killing now, not caring or knowing if her protective wards could stand up to so much abuse.
One particularly brave ant moved in behind her and slashed at her head with his broadsword. It was a simple matter to sidestep, pirouette, and slam her fist through his torso. As the blood sprayed liberally, she turned and lashed another across the face, breaking his neck with a wet snap. Grabbing another by the head, she channeled flames down into his writhing form and threw him to his friends, bowling a half dozen of them over. Then, reaching out to the fire, she pulled it in, spinning it around herself rapidly and igniting all who approached.
This is who I am, she thought warmly as she crushed a Returner's skull into messy fragments. This is what I am.
I am an esper.
The left engine sputtered and coughed fire, causing the bulky Imperial transport craft to lurch in midair.
Cid leaned hard against the control stick, sweat pouring down his face as he fought to keep the ship in the air. Cursed thing had been acting up almost ever since he left Vector. It would be his luck to pick an apparently defective model as his personal escape craft. That, or he had sucked a bird into one of the gyros. Of course, it didn't really matter why or how the engine had malfunctioned; he still had to deal the problem either way.
The box-shaped aircraft was currently limping through the air over what he guessed -and hoped- were the plains of Figaro. He had passed over a thin ribbon of coastline a few minutes before, and now a sea of grass stretched below in all directions, undulating in the night breeze.
Somewhere nearby was the city of South Figaro, where an Imperial attack should already be underway. Where, hopefully, he would find Celes. She was the only one he could trust, the only one who perhaps could stop the girl and put the shattered Empire back together again.
But would that be for the best? The Empire had, after all, fallen victim to its own creation. If not for Kefka and Gestahl's mad desire for power, Vector would still be in one piece. If not for his own experiments, the world wouldn't be hovering on the brink of another magical war. Should a nation like that really be rebuilt?
Cid realized that he no longer cared about patriotism, about knowledge, about learning. The past week full of running, dodging, and terror had worn his ideals to the nub, leaving him with only the most basic of desires. He only wanted to survive, to have someone else take charge, take care of things, tell him what to do. He was so used to following orders that he scarcely knew how to think for himself any more, and he wasn't sure he wanted to.
Celes will know what to do, he told himself over and over. Celes will fix this.
A high whine came from the console, and Cid looked down to see a dozen warning lights flashing. The whine spiked, and the ailing engine coughed one last time and then fell silent. The Magitek scientist cursed, more frustrated at the machine than afraid.
Then the transport began to fall from the sky, and fear returned very quickly.
The nose dipped, and the bulky aircraft turned belly-up almost lazily as the right engine, too, vomited sparks and then died. The ship hung still for a moment, then dropped into a dive and began to spiral faster and faster. Cid was pressed back in his seat by the sheer force of gravity, holding back his bile with some difficulty as the world turned into a jerking, spinning madhouse. Spots danced before his eyes and he was rather distantly aware that he was about to lose consciousness. That truly would be the end.
One last, desperate pull on the throttle brought the ship out of its spiral with a sickening lurch, but keeping it in the air was now out of the question. His only hope was to make a crash landing. Which would be easy enough; the difficulty would be surviving said landing.
Twin plumes of fire streamed from the blasted engines as the transport continued its steep angle descent towards the Figaro Plains. Relentlessly, it kept a straight course despite all his efforts, a determined osprey diving towards sweet carrion.
Screaming, Cid braced for impact, unable to tear his eyes away from the ground that rushed up at him. It seemed that he could see a Death's Head imprinted on the waving grass, grinning in welcome.
Not now! his mind railed. Not after everything else.... not this way!
Behind her stretched a trail of burned and broken corpses. Splattered about her was a fine red mist that spoke of spilled blood and shattered bone. Before her was what she had come all this way to find. It reached down the passageways of shattered rock and called to her in gentle, musical tones.
She approached it slowly, reverently, tears streaming down her face as she drew closer and closer. Around her, Returner HQ had fallen silent, and the only sounds were her soft footsteps and the mental chorus of the prize.
Terra stopped short as she entered the small, circular chamber where the thing that had called out to her rested. It was a statue, throbbing light, radiating so much power that it almost burst her mind with silvery trickles of energy. She thought she might collapse at any moment from sensory overload, but she still wanted to get closer to that power, had to. She only barely managed to repress the urge to throw herself around it and gorge herself on its magic.
Instead, she smiled and whispered, "I'm here. I came for you."
Then, she reached out and touched the statue with the tip of one bloodstained talon.
The effect was sudden and severe. The light blazed forth from the statue's surface, and suddenly she was filled with the power of the statue, pure bliss knifing through her body and her mind.
So..... much...... More than she had expected even after the first contact.
The tone expanded in her brain, filling her with the truth behind the magic, and she smiled even wider, her entire body shuddering. So that was the secret... that was what it was for.
It was the womb of destruction. It was the way she would fulfill her esper directive and turn all into a smoking plain of ash. But she would no longer be alone...
Her finger dropped away from the statue, and she fell to her knees with temporary weakness. Still shaking from the intensity of the contact, she managed to lift her head up to gaze up at the silvery form, her eyes full of affection.
"I want to know," she whispered, "What it feels like to murder an entire world."
The dragons pulsed with energy.
Next Chapter: Figaro, Figaro, FIIIIIIIIIIIGARRRROOOOOOOOOOOO!