Can Your Hear the Call of the Wind?
General Leo coursed a hand through his thick Mohawk of hair as he strolled towards the Emperors chamber. His heavy boots sent a resounding beat along the metal gantry as he walked. He was far later than he had anticipated and couldnt help but feel his liege would be rightly displeased with him. It was the best he could manage though, at such short notice. As he came to the end of the corridor he found his way barred by too most officious sentries.
Im here to speak with the Emperor. See that we are not disturbed, he said standing patiently before them.
As you command General Leo, One of the crimson robed Imperial Guards bowed his head in assent. Together they set their hands to and pushed open the double iron doors to admit him to the throne room.
The Emperor was usually to be found alone, save for the usual compliment of Imperial Bodyguards stationed at every corner of the room. And so it was that General Leo, most loyal servant of the Empire, found himself pausing momentarily as he was given access to Vectors seat of power. The Emperor had no bodyguards with him today, but he was not entirely alone either.
Gestahl was seated upon his steel throne, clad in armour of crimson hue and gold trim. A black cloak was draped across his shoulders. The Emperor was no longer a young man, the strength had long since gone out of his body, but his eyes betrayed an a keen and calculating mind. Sometimes, Leo thought he saw hunger in those eyes, but he never marked it.
The Emperors visitor was a girl, but she seemed less a guest and more a sentry on patrol. The girl stood to attention with her hands clasped firmly by her sides. Her was a most captivating shade of green and was tied back behind her head, underneath a simple band of silver. The Emperor seemed barely even aware of her presence, his eyes fixed steadily on Leo as he entered. Leo realised he was staring longer than necessary and looked away berating himself for his rudeness. Whoever the girl was she deserved better than to have an unfamiliar face gawking at her. He approached the Emperor and went to one knee before his liege. Gestahl looked pleased as he lounged back in his throne, gesturing with his left hand for Leo to rise.
Ah, Leo. I trust your journey back from the East was a pleasant one? he inquired in a genuinely interested tone.
Yes my Emperor and I can faithfully report to you that the construction of the Military base to the east is proceeding well ahead of schedule. I left command of the operation in the hands of Captain Ordis; a competent man who Im certain will not fail you, however
However, you are wondering why I asked you to return before the base was completed? Indeed, Leo had been wondering that very thing ever since he had been recalled. He was certain he had nothing to displease his master; however there were those who among the hierarchy of the Empire who loved him not. It proved wise to be wary of hidden knives behind their smiles.
The Emperor smiled indulgently at Leos polite silence. I have a more pressing concern for you to take care of Leo. It is something I am most anxious to uncover. Something that I believe will lend us the key to unlocking the secrets of the Magi.
The ill fated Magi. Ashes in the wind of time. Only a fool would seek to possess that deadly power and yet the Emperors wisdom was boundless.
I take it then, that Professor Cids advances in the manufacture of Magitek weapons are still encountering problems? Leos grasp of science was confined to the use of weapons and their strategic consequences. Still, Vectors emergence as the ultimate super power was of great concern to him.
The Emperor shifted uncomfortably in his chair and spared a minimal glance to the silent, but comely girl to his right. Leo was certain he had seen her before somewhere, but the memory evaded him. She seemed as lifeless as a doll.
Administration of that project has been handed over to General Kefka. Ive decided that Cid is too restrained in his methods. We are in a war against time and I have no time for sermonising scientists. Besides hes much better served studying the Gate specimens.
Kefka? That took Leo back a pace. Giving command of a legion to that former guinea pig had been one thing, but allowing him to take over the Magitek facility? Professor Cid was a legend in the field of ancient studies. To be usurped in such a way must have been truly gruelling. Still, it was the will of the Emperor and the will of the Emperor worth more than an old mans pride.
Leo chose his words carefully. So, we are still a long way from achieving your dream my Emperor.
A strange look passed over the Emperors face. Oh? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The weapons of the Magi were many and numerous. Our history is steeped in mythology and legends echoing back to that dark period. It was one such legend that led me to the east all those years ago where I first beheld the magnificent potency of magic. Where I had but a brief taste of that forbidden ambrosia. But I was denied and left with Again his eyes strayed to the girl, but in an instant they were fixed square on Leo again. Since that day I have had my agents going over every folk tale, every ancient legend leading all the way back to before the fall of ancient Figaro.
Leo was surprised to hear this from his Emperors own mouth. Widely it was whispered that the Emperor spent many a sleepless night poring over ancient texts and chasing after fairy tales in his dreams. Since his boyhood, the Magi had been his obsession, now he was on the verge of succeeding them.
And now you believe you have found something?
Yes! Just days ago, we received word via carrier pigeon that a merchant prince by the name of Rostov Carlusso was holding court in Jidoor. The prince has fallen on hard times of late and yet he claims to have discovered several artefacts of historical importance. Now, these facts alone were of no real interest to me, but I was informed that in order to save his fortune the prince decided to auction most of these artefacts off to the highest bidder. Most of it was reportedly junk, though there was one item that attracted the attention of my spies. A scroll. The auctioneer claimed it was hand written in blood. To be more specific it was the blood of a creature that has not walked this world in many a century.
An Esper. Can Espers bleed and die like men?
Then I take it your men tried to purchase this scroll?
The Emperors mood darkened. They did, but the fools stepped in with an offer so ridiculously high that the prince immediately became suspicious. He cancelled the auction and made to leave. Probably he had no idea of what he had until that very moment.
Leo was well aware of the edict Gesthal gave his agents. They were his eyes and ears, but when it became necessary, they were his knives as well.
They tried to take the scroll from the prince. Leo could already guess at what had transpired.
Yes, but he was amazingly well skilled with a blade and took flight before my men could lay a finger on him. They did manage to lay hands upon the scroll however, before the prince laid his blade across them. One was able to tear an unmarked corner of the scroll from the princes grasp. Finding no trace of the escaped Prince they bore it back to me.
I had Cid analyse its composition. The parchment is over 1000 years old, the Emperor smiled, barely able to contain his excitement.
One thousand years. The war of the Magi.
Yes Leo, this is a text that predates the ancient war, it is written in the blood of an Esper. Do you have any idea how many writings we have from before the great cataclysm?
He did. None.
Then you see how important this scroll could be to me. To the Empire. Leo, I want you to find this Prince Rostov, retrieve that scroll and find out whatever secrets it holds.
You wish me to take a legion of troops and scour the lands surrounding Jidoor?
No, he said abruptly, I do not wish that at all. If I wanted to attract such attention then the city of Jidoor would be burning as we speak. We are at a critical stage in our build up for the war Leo. Kefka believes he is only months away from perfecting a fully stable Magitek engine. Once we begin mass production, not a nation on this planet can stand against us. This pretty young thing here is another even more powerful weapon, that I cannot wait to see the potential of.
Leos eyes flicked back to the girl in bewilderment. She was a weapon? But, she was just a girl, a human being. How could the Emperor believe that a living person was just a tool? Leo did not even view his soldiers with such impassionate ideas. His Emperors words drew him back.
However if our enemies should gain the same advantage we have, if they should learn just what we uncovered in the east all those years ago, they might unite against us and all of Vector would be laid waste. We can not allow that to happen Leo.
No my liege, Leo saw now his Emperors purpose in summoning him here, I understand. You wish me to go alone. The hand of the Empire must not seen in this.
Yes Leo, you are correct. These spies have failed me for the last time. I need a man of unbridled worth, one who will not flinch in his duty. Leo, you are my greatest warrior. You are the only one I can trust. Go and bring me back this tribute. Serve you Empire with pride, the authority in the Emperors voice was absolute.
As you command Emperor, but Leo had a nagging concern he needed to raise, However, I may well need to employ others in this endeavour. I have no skill in understanding ancient texts and finding one man alone may prove difficult.
Make use of whatever resources you believe necessary. Just remember, there must be no trace leading back the Empire.
I swear by my sword it shall be done. Farewell my lord. He rose to leave and strode back towards the entrance. Without knowing why, he spared one final glance for the Emperors weapon. She returned his stare as coldly as a corpse. The sadness of her existence would hang on his heart for some time.
Thats him over there, A harsh voice muttered, You a friend a his? Cause let me tell ya hes got one hell of a bar tab to pay off!
Locke groped blindly at the tables edge in an effort to give his head the balance he needed to lift it off the table, but failed miserably. He knew they were talking about him, since everyone else had left the pub hours ago and he kind of recognised the rank distaste in the barkeeps voice whenever he spoke to or about him.
Must be those museum guys. I knew they wouldnt sit quiet for long. They want to know what happened to their investments. He felt his forehead crease in puzzlement, Hey, am I in a pub?
Lockes recollections of the previous night came in fits and starts. So far he was able to satisfy himself with the excess and stupidity of his drinking without having to come to terms with the fact that he had been miserable enough to do so. The anvil tap dancing inside his skull was a very useful aid in this.
My thanks. I will see that your expenses are covered.
Whatever guy, hes all yours.
Gee, what a nice guy. Now maybe I can get back to sleep and deal with all this in the morning. Hey wait, did I sleep on a table last night?
The barely audible groan of despair was the best Locke could manage as any form of assent at that time. Really this was a little more excitement than he was used to at this hour of the day which ever hour that was exactly.
Mr Cole? Are you well? there was real concern in the voice.
Focusing on the voices was too much of an effort. He found himself drifting back, away from the searing agony of being awake. The voices became muffled noises once more. Somewhere the two men were speaking again. He didnt care. He was comfortable here with his dreams. His dreams.
Something wet and colder than death drenched his face, seeping awareness in to his every beer soaked pore. The wave of shock jolted him awake in splutter of indignation and bewilderment. Someone had sat him upright in his chair and he found himself looking down at a man shaped imprint in the stale residue of what ever he had been pouring down his throat for the past three days. The barkeep was stood over him with an empty jug in his hands and look on his face that was just too satisfied for his own good. Someone else had seated himself in the chair across him. He couldnt have been much older than Locke, dressed in a plain leather jerkin and with a thick red woollen cloak over his shoulders. An iron helm covered the top of his head and ran a shadow over his green eyes. Whoever he was he was nobody that Locke had ever seen before, but he had a quiet air about him that Locke could always associate with consummate fighting men. This guy had probably been hired by the museum guys to come and kick his butt. He was a big guy too, which didnt really help the situation any.
Well, at any rate, at least he cant make me feel any worse than I do now.
Good morning. Said the man politely, though Locke couldnt quite shake the feeling that he had already displeased him in some way.
Is it? His voice was little more than a croak. He might as well have been pouring sand down his gullet last night. He swallowed heavily and attempted to dismiss the sudden need to retch.
Well, I suppose that depends on your point of view. Ive come here with a proposition for you Mr Cole, I had hoped to find you in a more conscious state, but I suppose this will have to do. You are a hard man to find.
But Im easy to lose. Sorry it took you so long, but I didnt exactly plan on having anyone come look for me. So, we gonna get this over with or what?
What exactly are we supposed to be getting over with? Mr Cole, I came here to hire you for a job. In fact I was hoping to recruit you.
Well, that was a bit unexpected.
You look, Im sorry, I thought you were it doesnt matter. Lets just start over.
The man rubbed a hand along his roughly shaven chin and shrugged. Why dont we start with you saying whether or not youre interested in my hiring you?
You say you want to hire me? Look pal, Im sorry if whoever youve been speaking to has wasted your time, but I think you have the wrong guy. What ever it is you think I do, I dont do it any more. Period.
You are Locke Cole of Kohlingen?
Locke looked away from the stranger and suddenly found that he wanted nothing more than to retch his living guts out in the street. The mans considering gaze drew him back. I havent been to Kohlingen in almost three years.
I know. That was my first port of call as it happens.
Then you know that I dont Im not in that business anymore.
I have no interest in your personal details. All I know is that where Treasure Hunting is concerned, youre one of the best. Id like to put that to the test.
Treasure hunter? Lockes voice rose in disbelief, Dont make me laugh. Im nothing more than a worthless thief. Worthless.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. I need to find something Mr Cole. Something of great worth. An artefact that has survived through the ages, dating back to before the Great War.
Something pulled inside Locke at that. He wasnt sure if it was pain or hope. Artefact? What kind of artefact?
The man shrugged. Is that so important?
It might be, he considered for a second, No, I guess not. You gonna pay me for this?
The man smiled to himself. Most certainly, if money is all that you wish. Like I said earlier though, I also wanted to recruit you. I was hoping that when you hear the specifics, youd agree to join us full time.
And save yourself a few extra pennies? Whatever. So who are you guys anyway?
The man in the red cloak looked suitably abashed Of course, I havent introduced myself yet. My apologies. My names Alton Marche. I work for the Returners.
Returners? What did a resistance group want with him? You want me to help you fight the Empire?
Yes, Mr Cole, wed like that very much indeed. So what do you say? Do we have a deal? Alton extended his hand across the table towards Locke. It was tough looking hand, the skin worn by a life of constant toil. It was the kind of hand you could trust.
Locke met Altons eyes. Despite his hatred of the Empire he had never really given any thought to joining the revolution. For the past three years he had devoted himself to searching for the only thing that mattered to him anymore. But he had failed, just as he had failed her so many times before. What did he really have anymore?
Okay, yeah, Ill do it. But not for free mind you. We can work out the details later. First, I got to find me a bath somewhere. He shook Altons hand who smiled with sincere humour.
That, I think, we can both agree upon right now.
Locke couldnt help but laugh, despite the spasm of pain it sent through his guts. This Alton Marche was alright, but he wasnt about to talk Locke in to jumping on the band wagon. Hed do this job and take the money and be happy. It was easier to feel that way than thinking about his real reasons for shaking Mr radicals hand.
So, when do we leave?
As soon as possible. We need to get to Jidoor, Alton pushed his chair back from the table and got up, Another man I wish to hire is there and possibly our quarry as well if the fates are with us.
Quarry? I thought you wanted me to help you find an relic of some kind?
I do. But first we must find the man who holds it.
It was necessary to book passage on a ferry out of Nikeah, once Locke was ready to leave. It would not be cheap, especially as the Captain would doubtlessly ask for a higher feet to drop them of the coast of Jidoor.
Leo was somewhat unsure of his newly acquired companion. True, he had little to go on so far other than that the man poured his need for solace in to keg of wine each night. He was uncomfortable with the pretence he had constructed to pass himself of as a Returner to Locke, but considering the situation it made perfect sense. From what he had heard in Kohlingen, the man had little reason to love the Empire. From the sound of things Locke Cole was the man to turn to when in the business of acquiring rare antiquities and for that reason Leo was determined to have him. Introducing himself as member to a party opposed to the consolidation of power in Vector seemed like the reasonable thing to do and layering it under the façade that this was all part of a move to recruit only served to sweeten the lie.
When Locke finally came to meet him on the docks, Leo found himself rather shocked that there had been an eager and energetic young man hiding behind the self piteous drunk he had met that morning. Locke had taken the trouble of shaving the morning shadow from the lower half of his face and dressed in far more practical attire for a long journey. He wore an eight inch blade in black leather sheath at his belt and had a travellers pack slung over one shoulder.
We all set to go? he asked adjusting a tight fitting bandana around his head.
Pretty much, he looked Locke up and down considering, You cleaned yourself up pretty quickly.
Hey, I when I travel, I like to be in firm frame of mind and have everything I need to hand. Since youve told me next to nothing about this whole deal I had to assume every last possibility. Including the eventuality that you might require me to cross reference some charming and sweet ladies along the way. You cant go in to these kinds of thing unprepared.
Quite. Shall we get on board? Weve got a good weeks journey ahead of us.
Lead the way.
And so he did and the journey had begun at last.
Jidoor was cold and wet this time of year. It was still pretty lively, but it was cold.
Its getting late. You sure this is where we were supposed to meet this guy? asked Locke an edge of irritation working its way in to his voice. Their long week at sea had been queasy at best. A ponderous storm had followed them all the way from Nikeah.
Leo took a deep breath of the chilled night air. The moon had long since risen and his legs felt sore from the hours of waiting. It had been a long journey beforehand, but he would not go seeking the luxury of an inn until his business in Jidoor was completed. Time was already against him on this.
Leo sighed. About that. When I said we were here to meet a man, I did not intend for you to think that I had actually arranged a meeting. From what I was lead to believe, this is the sort of man who will find us, once he learns of our interest.
Locked let out a short exclamation of breath in disbelief and shook his head Youre kidding me right? Weve been standing here for the past four hours in the cold dampness of sunny Jidoor and now you tell me theres no actual guarantee this guy may be coming? Brilliant! Thats just the most fantastic thing Ive ever heard, he paused to kick an offending pebble in to the gutter. This guy better be worth it.
He is, a dry voice, jagged and cold like the edge of ice rang out from the darkness behind them.
Leos hand was on his sword hilt as he spun in alarm, while Locke mouthed a curse under his breath that anyone had been able to sneak up on them so easily. Leo had to admit, that he had been none the wiser either. This man was everything they had said he would be, a shadow.
Youve come a long way, Shadow said matter-of-factly. How much this Shadow knew of their mission or even their identities, Leo was not willing to gamble on. Caution made him keep his hand clamped firmly a top his sword. With a determined grace that was as much refined as it was intimidating, Shadow emerged from his cranny in the gloom. He was wrapped head to toe, in a tar coloured ninja garb, an antiquated golden helm resting just above his eyes.
Yes, said Leo guardedly with good reason I hope. You must be Shadow. My name is Alton Marche and this is Locke Cole. Margrill of Tzen spoke very highly of you.
You have further yet to go, before you can claim the rest you hanker after. The man you want is no longer in Jidoor. As Shadow spoke a fierce brown hound stalked from the alley behind him. Lithe, yet powerful looking it stared at them with open animal aggression. From the way Shadow barely acknowledged it, Leo surmised it belonged to him. They seemed to share a common disposition.
Youve seen this guy Rostov then? asked Locke.
Shadow inclined his head to stare at Locke as if he had only just deigned to admit he was there. No, he said simply, Had I seen him, he would still be here. Theres a lot of interest floating about for one fat prince. He turned his gaze back towards Leo. Even before you arrived, there was talk of a reward.
That was of a surprise to Leo. Indeed? By whom exactly?
I dont know. And that it seemed was that. If nothing else this assassin was abrupt.
So what? You said the Empire was after Rostov too, right Alton? Seems to me that if they want this scroll of his is so important to them, theyd be putting the feelers out for him.
Yes, indeed. That would be us then. It must be someone else. But then who else could have an interest in this artefact? Imperial security must truly be in disarray for such a leak to occur.
Shadow, you said we still had a way to go. I assume that means that you already know where, Rostov is headed? he queried.
Where do all men go, when they wish to be forgotten? Well find Rostov hiding amongst the human sewage of Zozo. I imagine want time to stop and rest, but Im afraid theres no option of that. If we wish to catch him we must leave now. Shadow regarded him intently, awaiting his response.
You dont think hes looking to stay in Zozo full time? asked Locke.
No. Hes frightened, weak. He lacks direction and resolve. However he is bound by purpose. If we wait too long, then Rostov will be gone and his trail with him.
Leo certainly couldnt allow for that. Very well. Weary as I am, I see no choice, but to follow your wisdom. Even so, it may benefit us to
Alton! Get off the street, theres Imperials coming this way! Yelled Locke as he backed away in to a side street.
Imperial troops? What are they even doing on this continent? I had no Leos mind was a spiralling hex of confusions.
Hey Alton, whispered Locke hotly from his hiding place, last time I checked, the Empire doesnt take to kindly to Returner spies. Do you want to arouse suspicion?
Leo threw a startled look in Lockes direction, only then realising how foolish he had almost been. Shadow had already blended out of plain sight, his uncourteous dog in tow. The general backed under a stone archway, just as an Imperial strike battalion marched by. The ground trembled under the heavy steps of a Heavy Magitek suit bringing up the rear, its lumbering metal frame gushing steam as it rumbled by. The ruckus they caused on their way sent many townspeople fleeing in sudden terror. Probably most of them had never even seen Magitek armour before. Leo had, only
Only it was still only in the design stages. Those divisions that are up and running are reserved for priority missions only. That they were here for precisely the same reasons as Leo he was certain. Only the Emperor could order such a thing, but this is precisely what he wished to avoid. Something is not right here perhaps Kefka.
Leo had never had cause to like or trust the Mage-Knight Kefka, but surely even he would not stoop to treason. There was no other that Leo could even think was capable of such foolishness however. This would bear considerable scrutiny when he returned to Vector. Until then
We should get moving. Leo spoke in to the darkness, knowing his two companions would hear. If those forces learn the whereabouts of the Prince as we have, then we will have even less time to spare. We have to reach Zozo now. He watched as the battalion rounded a corner in the street up ahead and disappeared from sight.
Alton what was that thing? asked Locke in a low voice.
Some new weapon of the Empires perhaps. Whatever they are theyre dangerous, we should avoid them, Leo said trying not to sound too dismissive.
If we face them, we will have to kill them. Said Shadow, re-emerging. He spoke with a chilling certainty and the way he regarded Leo then unsettled him.
I will not kill those whose only edict is to serve the Emperor, he told himself. And yet if they are here against the Emperors behest, if their actions prevent me from completing my mission, I will have no choice.
Easier said than done, said Locke, Personally, Im not so eager to get myself killed. Now, whats the fastest way to Zozo?
By Chocobo, its a long way around the mountains on foot.
Very well. The ranch stood still be open at this hour, said Leo. Warily he left the safety of the archway and went in search of the ranch.
2: Zozo by morning, mountains by afternoon.
It took up the rest of the evening and the early hours of next morning to reach Zozo. Chocobos were as fast as any land based creature at a full run, but they didnt cope so well in the dark. Their mounts were skittish the whole way and the onset of the mountains on either side seemed to make them even more nervous. They didnt fill Locke with too much elation either.
It must have been about seven or eight in the morning by the time they reached the outskirts of Zozo. That was Lockes best guess, given that Zozo seemed to sit underneath an almost preternatural murk. Grim clouds obscured the early glow of the sun, dropping the rain in fine blustering sheets. Locke's jacket and the seat of his pants were soaked through as he dismounted. Grimacing in disgust he pulled the bandana from his head at wrung it dry. It annoyed him that so far he knew very little about what exactly this scroll was or did. What little Alton had told him had barely been enough to peak his interest. He was interested to see though. Interested and more than a little expectant.
Heck, probably even he doesnt know and were just off on some wild chocobo chase.
He sure had been spooked on seeing those Imperial troops though. If this scroll was as important as he said it was, then Alton seemed determined to keep it out of the Empires hands. That hulking war machine had been something else though. How did the Empire even know how to build such things? It was a question that made him realize just how little he truly knew about the Empire.
Shadow hadnt said more than two words since their departure from Jidoor. Locke had heard the stories of course, the rumours and the dark evil myths. None of that had really quite prepared him for the reality behind the myth though. He had just appeared out of nowhere like some sort of mummified scarecrow, wrapped in black silk, with eyes that burned in to you with their coldness. Even when the ninjas attention was elsewhere, Locke felt like he was being watched. All men who had heard of him knew Shadow as a murderer, a man who was good at one thing alone and got paid very well for it. His morals and methods were the stuff of living nightmares. What the Returners were thinking hiring such a man, Locke had no idea.
This is not right. Theres more to this than Altons telling me. Alton. Heh, thats probably not even his real name.
The Returners were a secretive bunch alright. Even amongst the lowly underworld they were only whispered about. Their leader went by the name Baron or Gannon or something like that. A pretty shrewd guy by the sound of it. The Empire had offered a rather sizeable reward for any information leading to the discovery and capture of any Returners. They were undoubtedly a massive deal to Gestahl and his cronies.
Thief, try not to make so much noise. I dont wish to attract undue attention. Hissed Shadow as they gingerly approached the cobbled streets of the crippled city.
Locke wasnt aware that he was making any noise at all as they crept towards the squat outer buildings of Zozo. Thief? he spat indignantly, Watch it smartass, Im no thief okay! Locke whispered back harshly.
Shadow snorted indifferently Oh? Perhaps I was mistaken. If you arent a thief then what are you exactly?
So, thats how its gonna be huh?
Ill have you know, Im a
Enough, both of you. Alton spoke with a quiet authority that seemed insensible to disobedience. Locke shook his head in frustration, but he kept quiet. He wasnt sure that he wanted to see what happened when Alton didnt get his own way.
Bathed in the sombre morning light that tenderly reached its way through the clouds, Zozo began to take shape. In bolder times, Zozo had been something of a resort town, its hotels and casinos attracting the richest clientele from as far as Vector. The looming old monolithic shells that now sketched out a rugged outline against the mountainside were all that remained of its former glory. Zozo was no longer what you would call a city in the strictest sense. It was a dark hole for the slime of humanity to pour down and disappear. There was no law in Zozo, no society. No respect for human life. It was probably as close to hell on earth as you could get.
Every building they passed was either burnt out or getting ready to fall. There were signs of habitation in some of them. Assorted pieces of rubbish here, the long perished remains of a fire there, the scattered remnants of gnarled bones. Something lived within this sorry town.
They didnt see too many people in the open air. There were bodies of people, left to rot where they fell. The three men kept their distance from those. They heard voices, from within some of the larger buildings, raised in anger and wicked mirth. Locke thought the wind almost sounded like a long continuous scream. It was a disturbing thought he tried with great effort to wrench from his mind.
Over there, said Shadow, indicating a building at the end of the main street. It was a good three stories high and was half sunken in to the ground on one side, giving it an uneven slant. A doorless entrance led in to the smoky dimness within.
How can you be so sure? Asked Leo.
Interceptor knows. Something about that building is not right. Shadow replied simply. Shadows dog emitted a small whine as it passed close by his leg and then suddenly it darted off down an alley as if on a whim.
Were taking directions from your dumb dog now? What, do you two have some kind of secret language or something? Do you enjoy talking to your dog, assassin man?
Better than I do some dumb humans, Id say. If were going in there, I go first, Alton second and the thief can bring up the rear.
You are expecting resistance? Alton seemed vaguely unsettled by that. Fine, try to keep the casualties to a minimum and dont harm Rostov. We may need him.
Fine by me. Youre the one paying the bill, Shadow turned away and walked furtively towards the entranceway.
Hey, wait a second! Locke wasnt sure he liked where this was leading.
Are you coming? Or do you wish to remain outside and guard the buildings?
Shadow was already making his way inside by the time Locke had come up with something to yell at his back, but by then he realised how ridiculous he seemed.
Wonderful. Just peachy.
They always said Zozo wasnt a pretty town. They said it tended to bring out the worst in people. Locke was pretty damn sure he agreed with that statement.
Someone was having a party. That much was obvious to Leo as he made his way down the dimly lit passage with only the hazy outline of Shadow as a guide. The ribald shouts coupled with the ponderous din that probably passed for music in Zozo were factors in realizing that insight. What the people of Zozo would have to celebrate was entirely beyond him however. This was a forsaken place, crying out for the Empires iron salvation. When the war was done he would see that places like Zozo received the scrutiny they deserved.
He watched Shadow enter the room first, passing through a grimy cloth that hung to cover the entrance. The shouts, music and indeed any other sound that had been coming from the room came to a very abrupt end. Leo waited instinctively, listening to the silence, trying to gauge what sort of reaction Shadow had provoked. Seconds passed like hours and then finally the void was filled by the familiar voice of Shadow, unphased and precise.
Where is Rostov?
Who the hell dya think you are? Demanded a surly growl. You think you can walk in here uninvited? Men die real quick where theyre not welcome.
Leo held his breath. This was not what he wanted to have to deal with now.
Where is Rostov? Shadow asked again.
Skinny runt! Better run home while you still have toes, another voice chipped in.
Were gonna have some fun with you now, oh yes my boys like the look of you. The first voice said again his every word promising hurt.
Thats a fancy knife you got there boy. Think youre gonna enjoy it when I poke it up your URK!
Leos sword was drawn even as he entered the room, pulling aside the rotten cloth and brandishing the blade before him. He had expected to find Shadow surrounded by foes, but instead the men he found inside were backed against the walls, their faces a mixture of outrage and terminal distress. Shadow stood calmly in the centre of the room, astride an overturned table. At the end of his outstretched arm a man stood ridged, Shadows fingers placed about his neck in a contorted grip. Shadows other hand was positioned with a sleek blade at about the level of the ruffians crotch. Shadow speared Leo a curious half glance and then proceeded to scan the rest of the rooms occupants. Eventually his eyes came back to rest on the gradually whitening face of the man he held.
Where is Rostov? He asked again and this time there was something about his tone that suggested he wasnt going to ask again.
He was a big, well built man, his broad shoulders nearly matching Leos. Spittle ran down his thick black beard as he coughed out each word. B-ba-ACK back room hes in the back room!
Is he alone?
I I dont
Shadow pulled the man closer and for a second Leo thought he was about to run him through, but instead the assassin drew his blade aside and delivered a sharp downward kick on the mans leg. Leo heard the bone crack and watched as the leg took on an entirely new and sickening angle. Shadows hostage screamed in agony, but the assassin held him tightly by the throat and would not let him fall.
Is he alone?
No. He he was talkin to someone I heard his voice the man was practically in tears.
At last Shadow let his would be attacker drop in to a crumpled mewling heap. He flipped the knife in his hand and carefully replaced it in a sheath under his belt. He stepped over and crossed to the door at the far side of the room. Leo followed, making sure to keep his sword up at all times and pointed at the brigands friends. They glowered back at him, common thugs dressed in tattered rags. Locke made his way tentatively though the broken archway, his own knife drawn. He didnt seem to surprised at what he found there, but he was just as curious as Leo as he surveyed the rest of the scurvy band that glared back at them.
I suggest you gentlemen leave here now. Were not here to make a social call.
You guys are gonna pay for this! a scrawny rat of a man with a pox ridden neck spat at them.
Hey! said Locke tapping the brutes head with the flat of his knife. Play nice. We dont give a half gil what you fellas do. We just came for Rostov.
Take him then! And get out! the man demanded, even as the rest of the crew slowly backed away towards the entrance.
A single lamp set on an oaken table illuminated Rostovs room. It had at some point been an old store house. Broken crates and barrels were piled in to a dingy corner, possibly to make way for a couple of ancient bookshelves and a makeshift bed. The stench of sour wine permeated the air. There was another smell in the room, it smelt like dead flesh.
The table more or less dominated the centre of the weakly lit room. The single source of light, a gas lamp, left to burn low until the fuel was all but gone. It was difficult for one to make out the full dimensions of the room in such gloom, but Shadow did not need to see to know that he was not alone.
The others moved in to the room to stand behind him. He gave them credit for their caution. Not everything was as it appeared.
Who iiiiiissss iiiiiiitttt? The voice was wavery and thin. Shadow tried to pinpoint its source, but was unsuccessful. Every instinct he had told him to leave at once. There was a charged aspect to the air that he did not trust to.
Prince Carlusso? Alton inquired of the empty room.
Hehehe. Final thoughts. They are of me. How touching touch I touch and
Prince Rostov Carlusso? We have no wish to harm you. If you comply with our wishes, Im certain we can reach an agreement. We are no thieves.
Aint that the truth, muttered Locke under his breath.
Thieves? I know no thieves. The was something indistinct about the princes voice. He seemed unable to maintain any semblance of pattern in his speech. Oh no. Only one. Singular. Only the great thief. The taker of all. COME NO CLOSER!
None of them had even moved. Shadow eased his curved blade back in to his palm. If Alton wanted the prince alive that was all well and good, but he would not let that come before his own self preservation. That waste of air in the other room had said Rostov was not alone, but if there were others here they had yet to reveal themselves.
Careful, this man is dangerous, Alton whispered at his side.
If he is still a man as you say.
Your disturbance is most unappreciated. One does not usually accept guests at this hour. I do not crave company, not air or the comfort of flesh. Who are you to come here and take my privacy so rudely?
Enough, Shadows patience had expired itself. Show yourself. You can give me the scroll or I can take it from you. Shadow stepped forward in to the light.
There. Just in the corner. I can just make out a man shape.
Scroll? You mean this!? He dropped from above, landing catlike on the oak table and knocking the lamp in to the far corner. It shattered on impact and spilled liquid flame on to the surrounding wood, paper and discarded wine. The fire was raging in less than an instant, its flickering glare revealing Rostov in all his glory.
Rostov was dressed much like the general nobility of Jidoor. He wore a black and tattered waistcoat over a white shirt with a simple red cravat tucked underneath. His brown hair was tied back from his head in a tail and his face Perhaps it was the dancing and inconsistent shadows, but his face was like a mask of skin laid over his skull, as if the flesh and muscle had just dissolved. Tears of blood rained down from where his eyes had been torn form their sockets to reveal twin pools of darkness beyond. In one thickly veined hand he clasped the scroll, crushing it tightly within his fist. His mouth opened in a rictus of a grin.
You want this? he hissed. You think that by looking upon its majesty you can become pure dont you? Youre too late. The old power has chosen me as its salvation. Its going to be glorious Youre all invited of course!
By all the gods, whispered Leo. Is this the legacy of the Magi?
Magi? Locke whispered in awe, not daring tear his eyes away from Rostovs grisly appearance. What are you talking about?
That scroll I was told it held a secret nothing more than that. What in gods name has it done to him?
Its made him a dead man. Shadow rolled to one side and swept his arm forward sending the knife in his hand on a direct course with Rostovs heart. Moving faster than Shadow would have believed a man capable, the prince slapped the blade form the air and sent it spinning end over end in to the growing flames.
You want this meaningless scrap of nothing? Rostov tittered like a malevolent child. It will not speak to you. Such a fascination of mine it became, when I saw the devils come to claim it. I looked upon those words. The stain of unnatural life, soaked in to ancient parchment. There is a great power in words. It can open your eyes. When it opened mine, I couldnt close them again, so I ate them instead. That didnt work either.
Alton, we have to get out or well be crispy critters along with psycho jockey here, Locke backed steadily away from the approaching flames.
Demon! You will give that scroll! Alton flashed his sword before like he knew how to use it and advanced on Rostov. I promise you your death will be swift and your passing a relief.
I spit on your death. Feel mine! Rostov kicked the sword from Altons grip and flew down from the table in a rage. With a single blow he sent the Returner flying backwards across the room to smashing in to Locke as he did so. Locke fell back against the wall and cried out in pain while Alton fell senseless to the floor. Rostov snarled like a savage beast as he stalked forward to finish his prey.
Shadow moved to block his way and suddenly the demonic prince had a silver dirk jutting from chest. He did not seem to even notice and swung his fist with brutish vigour to try and stave the ninjas head in. It was all Shadow could do to avoid the princes wild blows, weaving in and out of the mad mans reach he snatched back his knife from where it stood and drew it across the princes throat. Rostov gave a gargling laugh as blood filled his mouth and caught Shadow by the arm. Before he could even think to try and free himself the prince struck him hard with an up hand blow that sent him reeling back over the table. He sprawled backwards and felt his back grow hot as the table began to burn as well.
Black smoke stung his eyes, but he couldnt afford to hesitate. Rolling off the tables edge he was just in time to watch it splinter in two under the force of Rostovs descending fist.
Hes strong. Stronger than a man should be.
He felt under his belt for one his more decisive instruments. A brace of shurikens dipped in harpy poison would do the deed. More than enough to bring down anything that lived. If Rostov could still be considered living that was. The prince cast aside the pitiful remains of the table and closed in on where Shadow knelt, reaching to his sword belt as he did so. Rostov still had his sword it seemed and Shadow doubted he had forgotten how to use it.
Sweeping it free of his scabbard he lunged at Shadow who danced away two steps and balanced back on the balls of his feet. The stars were already there in his hands. All he needed do was lie wait for an opening and then hurl them straight.
Get down you fool! Was all the warning he had as Locke barrelled in to him and threw the both of them to the floor.
Thats it, Shadow thought, Im going to die and its because some idiot thief thought he was saving my life. If I could remember how Id be pretty enraged by now.
Leo staggered to his feet, his every sense still ringing from the force with which he had been thrown across the room. Cursing under his breath he laid a hand upon his head and winced with feeling. He was not one to brag too highly of his skills, but it was a plain simple fact that he was not a weak man. However, Rostov had knocked him away like a rag doll.
Is this the power of magic? No. Even Mage-Knights are still bound by the realities of flesh and bone.
He tried to search for the mad prince through the flames, but could make out only shapes billowing against the smoke. Two of the shapes were fighting; another was edging around to the other side of the room. Leo reasserted his priorities and searched vainly for what had become of his sword. It was a simple travellers blade, nothing more, but it would be enough to do in Rostov.
With bare seconds to spare he gave up on the sword entirely and reached for the next closest thing likely to inflict maximum violence. A big flaming stick that was as yet only half on fire. Grasping it tightly in both hands by the unburnt but still relatively scorching end he whirled it back behind his head and attempted to pick out Rostov amidst the chaos.
The two who were fighting, broke apart suddenly and Leo saw one of the two draw a sword. As if on cue the smoke parted to reveal his intended target about to move in and run Shadow through with his fine Doman sword. Locke he saw was pressed with back against the wall and was keeping himself low while looking for a chance to make a move on Rostov, but on seeing Leo he changed his tack entirely and dived towards Shadow instead. Seeing the two of them go down, Leo clenched his teeth and heaved the stick with all his strength at Rostovs hunched shoulders.
It exploded pretty much on impact, earning an enraged cry from Rostov as well as serving to jar the possessed nobleman off his feet. He stumbled drunkenly sideways and then toppled with a cry in the flames. He took light almost immediately his frenzied screams coming out in an abhorrent mixture of horror and anger. He writhed about like many limbed insect as the blaze ate away at his unclean flesh. Leo cut a path through the smoke and made his way over to his companions who still sprawled in a most uncomfortable looking position on the floor.
Are you okay? he asked with genuine alarm.
I am always okay, grumbled Shadow as he dragged himself out from under Locke. I could have squashed that fleas with ease. That was unnecessary.
Saving your life is unnecessary? Locke laughed bitterly. You know something Shadow? I think we may have found something we agree upon here, he said as he got to his feet.
You misunderstand. If you had allowed me to kill Rostov he would not now be burning. Along with the scroll he still has in his hand. Shadow wiped a pall of dust from his shirt derisively and gestured towards the princes bonfire.
Leo felt his heart sink along with the contents of his stomach and whatever elation he had felt in the heat of battle.
The scroll! Damn, how could I let it burn!
Heheheheck, I told you. The scroll is useless to you now! The flaming wreck of a man that had once been Prince Rostov arose like a harbinger of the underworld, the black of his bones visible through the cloak of red and orange. In his hand he yet held the scroll, but it was indeed alight and rapidly transforming in to cinders.
What is burned is dust and dust serves no purpose other than to feed the wind. You will never know the bliss that I have known, never feel the caress of the master!
Rostov, Leo didnt know what else could surprise him about this day, this is your last chance! Give us the scroll!
Or youll what? Wouldnt you have thought trying to burn me alive was a bit excessive in the first place. No fool, I wasted enough time with you all. I will lead and you will follow!
He held the blackening parchment up before him in a stance of over dramatic triumph, his fist shaking as he spoke.
Youll always remember this as the day! The day you almost thwarted the ascension! The day you almost saved the world! The day you almost-
Rostovs denouement was cut rather short, along with most of his arm as a growling fur covered blur leaped through the air in front of him and tore the crispy appendage clean off. Interceptor bounded across the earthen floor and came full circle. He looked up at Shadow and spat the offensive item from his jaws.
Put it out! Quickly! Yelled Leo, forgetting Rostov momentarily as he cried out in even more pain.
Damn, theres not much left, said Locke stamping down hard on it.
Something is better than nothing, said Shadow. Come. The fire will take us all.
What about Rostov? asked Locke.
The prince was nowhere to be seen. No other entrances lead from the room, but it was safe to say he was no longer among them. They didnt see much in sense in searching after him.
Outside, the cold morning air was a fond relief after the inferno they left behind them. Of the buildings other occupants there had been no sign. Doubtlessly they had fled to the safety of other locales within the city. Thick smoke churned out of the doorway after them as they made their exit. The building groaned from within as if in profound pain. Sooner or later its supports would give and the entire place would collapse in on itself. If Rostov was indeed still in there, he would not be walking out again.
Wonderful. Just wonderful. Id like to remind you, you said nothing about guys who burn and dont die when you gave me the job description, Locke berated him.
Leo sighed and brushed a hand through his sweat clad hair. Do you truly think I would not have told you had I known? Whatever it was we saw in that room, it was no man. At least not the man we tracked out of Jidoor. Something changed him.
He said something about the scroll, Shadow said thoughtfully. Reading it purified him he said. One should steer clear of forbidden powers.
As for this scroll of yours, Said Locke holding up the tattered and charred remains of the parchment. Theres not much left. There was a clear sense of disappointment in his voice. Leo wondered absently what it was the young thief had been hoping to find. A few words perhaps, some arcane symbols.
I have failed my country and my Emperor. How can I face them with nothing in my hands save ashes?
None of this made any sense to him. The Emperor had sent him to retrieve information. Was that not what the scroll contained? Ancient writings of the ways and lore of the Magi? It was a relic true, but the Emperor had said nothing to him of any dark will living within the scroll.
Words have power, said Shadow echoing Rostov.
So, I guess thats it then. Were done, said Locke looking questioningly at Leo.
No. I will not return empty handed.
Afraid the Returners will turf you out? Listen, how important can one piece of paper be.
It was important, Leo insisted. The secrets that scroll held could very well swing the balance in the coming war.
War? What are you talking about? Locke was truly oblivious.
I war has been on the horizon for years. Do you not sense it? The entire world is restless as if tormented by some hidden disease. He gazed skywards at the coming rain as it touched lightly upon his forehead. There will come a war, he said with iron certainty. When that happens, do you not think it should end as swiftly as possible?
I do. I would devote my life to such a cause. The secrets of the scroll are all but lost. One man alone in the entire world knows what they are.
They were all thinking the same thing. They had all seen it with their own eyes. Rostovs life had become unnatural.
Leo didnt know what to believe. He shook his head and wandered slightly down the empty street.
You said it yourself, answered Shadow. He burned and did not die. I am sure he lives and goes to find whatever it is that lies within his heart.
What are you saying? asked Leo.
That the scroll was a marker, Shadow sounded duly confident of this hypothesis. A map to some ancient power perhaps? Locked away in far away places. Left behind as a guide, a warning, a trap, who knows for certain? Follow the man and you will find something worth its weight in honour or battles or whatever it is you wish to conquer.
Conquer? Are all men who desire power deemed conquerors?
Leo brooded on the wisdom of Shadows words. If he returned to his Emperor now, empty handed, his disgrace would be beyond redemption. He had no audacious fantasies about the loftiness of his position. However his departure from the Emperors circle would leave him solely in the counsel of jackals like Kefka. It was the thought of that which ironed Leos resolve.
He may be right, offered Locke reluctantly. A lot of ancient cultures left the keys to their deepest secrets in pieces of arcane literature. Id say Rostov happened upon something similar and a lot more besides.
Very well. We will do what we can to pick up Rostovs scent. Whatever it is hes after well let him lead us right to it, then take it for ourselves.
Where do we start? asked Shadow.
Can you track him?
If the scent is even half a day old, Interceptor can track it.
Good. Locke, keep hold of what we have left of the scroll. See what you can find out If we can second guess Rostov, itll make this all the much easier.
Shadow surveyed the rocky horizon over Zozo. His eyes were fixed on the guttering house they had escaped from. Our path will take us over the mountains. It would be astute to take a few hours rest before we start out.
Taking a rest was a task easier said than done. Alton took a spot underneath an old aqueduct and dozed himself off to sleep. Shadow on the other had taken it upon himself to vanish in to the centre of Zozo, but his dog remained behind, so Locke supposed he hadnt just taken off. As exhausted as Locke was he felt an unmistakable urge to get up and go after Rostov. It was clear to him now that Alton had been hiding a lot of things from him. The Returner really had no idea what it was he was chasing after. He just wanted to get a hold of it because the Empire desired it. He didnt actually comprehend the sort of power he was dealing with. Locke couldnt very well claim to be much better, but he at least he had an idea.
There were a lot of strange and weird artefacts in the world. Some could have been weapons left over from before the great catastrophe tore the world apart. Icons carved in the likeness of the ancient Esper beings. There still stood in some regions forsaken tombs said to be the haven of elder demons. Locke was no historian, but he knew his stuff and ever since that day three years ago he had been putting that knowledge to good use.
His search had led him after a hope spawned from a legend older than memory itself. Was there a chance that Rostov had happened upon the same power? How else could he sustain such terrible wounds and not die? Could the dead come back to life?
He unfolded the leftover remains of the scroll and flicked his eyes across what he could still make out. The words were in an ancient dialect, possibly of an old Figaro origin. Whoever had written it had gone to town in terms of majestic style. If he had to guess he would have said it was part of a religious incantation or a litany. He paused to trace a finger over the ink. It wasnt quite ink exactly and it felt odd. Holding it up to the light he saw it had an almost purplish hue to it. He must have been staring at for an unbelievably long time, because he was still sitting there holding it up to catch the glare of the sun, when Shadow was suddenly crouched next to him and inquiring if hed Found anything?
Uh no not much.
We leave as soon as Alton awakens.
The hours waned by, though it was tough to judge the proper passage of time. Locke really hadnt made any progress at all, though he was certain he could decipher at least part of the text, given the right amount of time. He said as much to Alton as they were packing up to go.
Let us hope then that we have that much, he had said in fair enough humour, but Locke could tell that something was pressing on his mind. Ensuring the defeat of the Empire probably really meant a lot to him, though Locke still was far from convinced this was the way to go about it.
Seeing the Empire pay for all theyd done though? If it could be done hed like to see it. He just had a lot of trouble believing in it otherwise. Locke had a lot of respect for guys like Alton. They stood up against the odds and gave their all for the good of something else, a higher ideal or a vision. He had been that way once. But he wasnt so sure what it was he lived for now.
Shadow had managed to scrounge together some supplies. Locke wasnt too interested in knowing how he got them or how many people were now clogging the gutters because they had crossed the shrouded one the wrong way. Shadow was a presence as certain as death itself, but he handled himself with a confidence that was just shy of being arrogant. Locke didnt think he had respect for anything that lived, perhaps not even himself. Such a man was dangerous and not in the way that Shadow was so renowned for.
The mountain range cutting off Figaro desert from the west was not exactly the most traversable in the world. Truth be told, they were damn as hell steep as mountains went. Riding the Chocobo's up them was out of the question in this case and even then finding a decent path was unlikely.
Shadow had been grumbling half the day about having to cross in to the mountains. Locke suspected that part of the reason he had been so interested in Lockes progress in interpreting the scroll was because he wanted to know where Rostov was going and get there before him. He seemed almost upset about leaving the open road.
The first day was easy enough. Interceptor led them around a moderate cluster of foothills that bypassed a few solid hours of climbing. Alton commented that it was unlikely Rostov had taken such a path, but Shadow was adamant that his hound could track the scent no matter how far off course they got. Locke suspected he had a little too much faith in that dog of his.
After that it became decidedly more strenuous. It rained consistently for the next three days and all prospect of a clear and open road through the mountains vanished. Progress was uphill, slow and above all extremely perilous. The climb was far from steep, but the unevenness of the ground coupled with its never abating dampness made it difficult to traverse safely.
When shelter became necessary they had set up their tents and made do. It was a welcome luxury at the end of each day. Mostly as it provided a brief respite from the unrelenting rain. Food in the mountains was scarce and they had to hand only what they were able to carry with them. The various beasts that roamed the mountains were pretty much inedible and they in turn had probably eaten or scared off the proper game. The passed the odd mountain spring, but rarely found any resident fish. But they made do.
On the evening of the fourth day the clouds parted and the rain came to a stop however on the morning of the fifth day a cloying white mist clung to the hills. Locke had been banking mainly upon his fair sense of direction up till that point to ensure they never came in danger of getting lost. With the onset of such a thick front of mist however, his hopes were dashed. His almost instantaneous advice was to head back the way theyd come which at least they knew better than where they were going. Shadow however, who had been somewhat recalcitrant about crossing the mountains in the first place would have none of it.
Interceptor still has the scent. Go back if you wish, but I wouldnt envision myself getting paid if I were you.
Shadow didnt say much else after that. In all fairness he had kept to himself most of the journey. Often he would slip out of plain sight while they were ascending only to reappear just ahead of them with his damn mutt at his heels. Sometimes when they set up camp for the night he would take his leave as well, disappearing in to the night without so much as a sound. It was a personality trait Locke found all the more unnerving with every passing day.
That evening they came upon an abandoned hovel. It looked as if it had been deserted months ago, but it had a roof and was sturdy enough to withstand the high wind. It was a welcome change of pace and they elected to make their camp there.
While Alton busied himself with the fire and Shadow stepped outside, Locke sat himself down against one of the firm earthen walls and pulled out the scroll fragment. Alton didnt seem to mind him hanging on to it. The man seemed to of given up all interest in it for the time being, whereas before it had been all he went on about. There was more to Alton than met the eye though. He did care bout something very greatly, but he kept such things to himself.
Little by little Locke was getting close to figuring out the nature of the lettering. He was not so certain about where the dialect originated from, but he did recall a few of the bordering symbols from memory. They were a form of hieroglyph common in the ancient architecture of Doma, though he had encountered them in other places as well.
One he was sure was the symbol for spirit or soul, fairly androgynous terms. If it was part of a religious iconography it might have been referring to a celestial being like an angel. The other main symbol that caught his attention was one normally found in burial chambers. It was a sanctifying mark, conferred upon the dead to ensure that corruption was kept at bay. The curious thing however was that in this instance, the symbol was inverted, suggesting a reversal of such a blessing.
Locke wasnt sure what to think about any of this, but he kept at it. If this did turn out to be what he hoped it was there was no way he could let Rostov get his hands on it. Rostov or anyone else for that matter.
It was fortuitous, Leo mused, that he still remembered his basic survival training. It had been years since he had needed to produce a fire from scratch. The Imperial academy had been a rigorous experience, designed to shape its cadets in to hardened warriors. He was almost afraid that his years as an officer would have whiled away his most rudimentary skills, things he had long taken for granted.
For one thing it would have been most difficult to maintain his pretence as a revolutionary, someone forced to always rely upon whatever they could find to survive. For another it was a good thing to remain warm. They had not climbed so high that they had touched snow yet and Leo was determined to keep it that way.
Locke was embroiled once again in reading over their only real lead on where Rostov was leading them. If he had discovered anything so far, he hadnt revealed that fact to either Shadow or himself. Indeed Shadow questioned Locke every evening as to whether he had found out anything. Leo reflected that his interest was probably borne out of a desire to end this affair as soon as possible.
He decided that Locke was best left to his own devices for now. Leos own desire to see this ended was just as tantamount as anyone elses. He got to his feet and muttered something about getting a breath fresh air. A pitiful excuse really, but after such a long sojourn in the presence of others it was refreshing to have some time to oneself. He was more used to that. A life in solitude was what he craved and so often indulged. He had no family, save the Imperial army, no love save for the Empire. His life was the Emperors and by default it belonged to the people of the Empire as well. A world order that was exactly that. No chaos, no suffering, just the will of the just and the joy of the plenty.
It was an ideal worth dying for and die he would if the need arose.
A fluttering movement caught his eye against the deep blue of the night. A tiny shape beat its way up form the safety of the mountains edge and disappeared form view.
A bird? Could it have been a carrier pigeon all the way out here?
What are you looking for? Shadow asked materialising beside him.
Leo had long since given up being surprised at the ninjas ability to approach unheard. What am I looking for? he repeated the question to Shadow.
Tonight, Shadow came to stand at his shoulder and gazed out over the land below. Your heart leads you on a path you do not understand. A mind clouded by doubt is a thing beyond pity.
Something about Shadows words sparked anger in Leos mood. He rounded on the assassin and spoke as plainly as he would to a ill-mannered trooper. You were not hired in this enterprise to question my feelings. Do not plague me with your morose philosophy. Mercenary, he emphasized the last word, hoping to put Shadow back in his place.
Such unkind words, he muttered, though if he was truly hurt he did not sound it. I was only making conversation. Perhaps the thief will interest me more with his tales of impotent bravado.
Wait. What is it you think I doubt? Leo was considering despite himself.
Yourself perhaps. Your reasons for being here. A soldier should be fighting in the frontlines. What compels you to go against your nature? It was the kind of question he had not expected from Shadow, he faltered a little.
I dont know what youre talking about. Im here for the sake of the Returners, he said a little too quickly. If what Rostov is after is a weapon, theres no telling what devilry he could unleash. More than defeating our enemies we have an obligation to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
How very noble of you.
The strong should defend the weak. Its that simple, the certainty in his voice was adamant.
I guess it depends on you see as the weak or the strong for that matter.
Leo shrugged. We should get back. Perhaps Locke has deciphered the manuscript.
Are you sure its wise to trust him?
Thats funny, said Leo, though he sounded far from amused. I can imagine him asking me the same question of you.
That isnt what I meant, he said twisting his head to look at Leo directly. Dont you think its dangerous to leave him in possession of that thing?
What are you saying?
Rostov probably went mad from reading that scroll. It turned him in to some kind of demon. Words have power, remember. How do we know that the same thing wont happen again?
Leo hadnt truly thought about that. Its only a scrap of what there was, he defended. Besides, it seemed more to me like some kind of malefic spirit had consumed his mind. It had to have been trapped in that scroll until it was set free.
Admit it, Shadow pressed, You dont understand these ancient energies any more than I do. Dont you think theres a risk in meddling with them?
Youre right; we dont have the knowledge to understand them fully. Thats why we need Locke. I dont want to walk any further down this path in total blindness.
Shadow made an impassive snort and looked away again. Tell me truly. Was what we saw back in Zozo an Esper?
I cannot say I have never seen one. No one living has.
But I have. They are not the same as that thing. They cant be.
Of course not. Well, perhaps you are right. We shall see what Locke can tell us.
Locke, unfortunately, was rather unforthcoming in his studies. For five days now he had been studying the scroll and all he had come up with was a few sparse comments about the age and origin of the scroll. They sat for a while and talked, trying to piece together what they knew of the history of the Magi. Shadow once again brought the up the question of Espers, but Locke was just as sceptical as Leo had been. In his eyes the Espers were still an extinct species. Leo was certain this had nothing to do with them and was more comfortable pressing on with other alternatives.
What strikes me the most is that who ever wrote this did it long before the war of the Magi broke out.
Before the war? Are you saying it has nothing whatsoever to do with the magi?
Maybe, maybe not. Judging by the language Id say it was written back during separation of ancient Figaro and Doma in to two separate kingdoms. What we know about that period is sketchy at best. Legend tells of how the two continents were once linked only to be sundered by the wrath of those who reign above.
Those who reign above? Are you talking about some kind of ancient gods?
No one knows for sure. Theyve never been described in too much detail, at least in no story I ever heard. Anyway theres a lot of speculation was a sign of the coming of magic. A kind of portent of what was to come, some say it was even caused by the evil of men too obsessed with enslaving the Esper race.
So, this scroll could have come from either Doma or Figaro?
Well, Im almost certain it echoes back to time when both cultures were one and the same. If it does refer to the Magi then its possible were very close to our destination already.
Back in ages past, Figaro desert covered only half the area it does now. It used to be an entire kingdom, till it got wiped off the map that is. There were a lot of Magi living in Figaro at the time so naturally everyone blamed them for what was happening. A lot of historians cite those events as one of the main precursors for the war.
Yes. I have heard that tale too, but how does that tell us where Rostov might be going?
That maybe where were headed is somewhere out in the desert. Maybe the scroll told Rostov the location of one of the old cities or perhaps a tomb? Its not much but its a start.
The desert is vast beyond your wildest fantasies. Cant you be anymore specific? demanded Shadow.
Hey, Im trying my best here! I dont see you offering much in the way of insight, deflected Locke.
Calm down both of you. All of this is still just supposition. We dont know anything for certain and wont until we catch up to Rostov.
I suppose it is better than nothing, Shadow acquiesced. How much more do you know about this ancient kingdom?
Not much. There might be someone who does though. It might be worth swinging by his place when we get to the other side of the mountains. That is, if you think we can spare the time.
Who is this person? asked Leo intrigued, Do they live close by?
Yeah actually. Some old guy I heard lives in South Figaro. Hes pretty ancient, comes from some town to the far east. Kind of a Wiseman around these parts. It might be worth having him look at what we have here.
Ill consider it as a last minute option. For now well just stick to the trail.
3: Hes playing your song.
Sticking to the trail over the next few days proved to be a less than cordial scheme. The further they travelled in to the mountains the more treacherous their journey became. The way forward became so unassailable that they were forced to try and navigate a section of caves. Leo was unhappy about stepping blindly in to the darkness, but Locke assured him the fresh air within was a clear indication that they led through to the other side. In some cases they were lucky to come upon bridges, constructed by the nomad peoples to move their herds to safer pastures. It was just a question of whether or not they had faith in the rickety appearance of rope and wood so old it looked rotten through.
Gradually, they became of aware in a decline in the fastness of the mountains. The desert of Figaro, an angry golden blur on the horizon for so much of their passage was now visible in plain sight. Majestic in its open purity, the desert stretched in all directions they could see. Shadow had been right, hoping to find one man amongst the sand was an impossible hope. Their only advantage was the highly lauded tracking ability of one dog.
On their afternoon of the seventh day it was safe to say they were pretty much free of the mountains. Green pastures lay ahead and they desert reared away to their left. They duly hoped not to find their course leading in to it.
As they were cresting a hill under the glare of a retreating sun, Shadow came to sudden halt and gazed off distractedly in to the distance. He cursed under his breath. Following his stare, Locke and Leo saw the object of his ire. Interceptor had come to a dead stop as well and was darting his head around in an almost comic display of canine confusion. He barked a few times, then turned and wondered over back to his masters side. He whined and lowered his head in supplication.
Let me take a wild guess began Locke.
Interceptor has lost the scent. Even the wind moves against us. I do not believe such a thing is possible.
Well, believe it. What the do you reckon we do now? Locke directed his question to Alton.
How far is South Figaro? Altons gaze was locked downwards in his own thoughts. His mood was dark.
Its lights burn there on the far horizon, Shadow confirmed. We will need to pass through the caves, but can be there before tomorrow evening.
As things stand, we have little choice. Locke, you are certain this old man can help us?
Certain? Locke shrugged. No, not really. Like I said I know next to nothing about him. Apart from the fact that hes a real lover of old time music and knows far more about ancient text than I do. But its either that or we pack up and go home.
We make for South Figaro then, the determination in Altons voice was almost frightening.
The old man who loved music lived alone in a cosy villa on the outskirts of East Figaro. He did not want for anything, supported by a sizeable acumen he acquired in his youth. Around town he was well thought of, with many of the townspeople regarding him as a Wiseman and a scholar. Others whispered that he was a lunatic who worshipped dark gods in exchange for his inexhaustible wealth, but these were generally quashed as vile rumours. None could really say when exactly he had come to settle in East Figaro or for that matter where exactly he had come from. His knowledge of the local areas history was commendable however.
It was approaching late evening as the three of them came to call at his door. A pale light at the window light was an ample enough indication that he was within. The villa was fairly modest by most standards, built from reliable stone and surrounded by a flourishing garden. A hanging basket was hooked just above the door, its contents a peculiar foreign flower with orange petals.
Shadow paused to regard the flower momentarily, something in his quiet manner prompting caution. He took a step backwards and turned to survey the rest of the garden. Locke exchanged a bemused look with Alton, but knew better than to question the ninjas uncanny behaviour. It was a few minutes before Shadow spoke and when he did there was an odd aspect to his voice that Locke had never heard before. It almost sounded like pain.
This old man. You say he is from the east?
Yeah. No idea where exactly, Locke scratching the back of his head. Some kind of backwater island perhaps.
Shadow didnt wait for him to continue. He stalked off in to the night with his dog, not even bothering to give them an explanation. But then when had he ever?
Whats his problem? asked Locke.
What man can say? Come, we will see what this sage can tell us.
The old man was not in much of a mood to tell them anything, save for some very damning words about their respective mothers. Still, after some beratement on Altons part and a closer look at the sword at his side the old man relented and let them in. He was particularly ancient and was dressed in a preposterous robe of vermilion and orange. Otherwise he seemed to take little pride in his appearance. His hair was wild and unkempt, his fingernails encrusted with dried ink.
I hope you realise Im not truly accustomed to working at this hour. You will have to pay for my expertise as well.
Of course, assured Alton, We have the utmost respect for your privacy sir. Well take as little of your time as necessary. If our errand were not urgent we would not have called on you at all.
Wouldnt you now? Well that is a comfort to my old and foolish ears. My name is Tesso, not sir. And I would be better disposed to receive you if your friend there would stop eyeing up my fine Albrook porcelain.
Huh, what? Me? Locke had been gazing idly about the room, he looked up in surprise at the old mans accusation.
Dont play dumb with me boy. I know a thief when I see one and you sir are a thief.
This is unbelievable, Locke laughed shakily. Im sorry I even mentioned this old coot. Forget this Alton, lets just grab Shadow and get going.
Sir, if you please? We have questions.
The old man grumbled under his breath and shuffled over to a gramophone that looked fairly capable of being even older than he was. He shifted the needle to the far side of the record he had already on there and waited patiently for the melody to begin.
Do you know what this piece of music is called? he asked softly.
No, replied Alton in all honesty.
What about you young man? he asked Locke.
Cant say I do.
This is the last movement of the Baractiov, sometimes called the Homeless Heart. I listen to it every day. It never fails to remind me that no matter how far you go or how lost you get theres always a place for you to return to. At least thats how the music makes me fell. The reality however is far different. He turned to face them a different man than the one who had admitted them at the door. His appearance had not changed, nor his voice. But there was knowingness to him. It was unsettling.
Ive been expecting you, you know, he said.
You have? Alton seemed at a loss to know how.
Indeed I have. Two days past an Imperial Army passed through here. They questioned some the townsfolk and not gently. They were looking for
Rostov! Alton jumped ahead in his conclusion. Locke saw some small shadow of fear register across Altons look as he asked his next question. Could they be after him as well?
A name I do not know. No, they were looking for three men, not one. I can only assume they were looking for you.
How can you be so sure of that? asked Locke a little too complacently. For one thing there are only two of us here.
Im well aware of your shady friend, wherever he snuck off to. Besides, you two have the stench of the old power hanging over you. The only question that I have is this, His old eyes narrowed in suspicion, Why would the Empire be so troubled over such a rag tag group of ruffians?
Because were working for the Returners, thought Locke, although suddenly he wasnt so sure. What were they themselves really after here and why did the Empire want it so badly?
The Imperial force, where did it go after it was done gathering information, asked Alton, What course did they set?
In to the desert. I know no more than that. They seemed anxious to be on their way. However, this was not the reason you came calling on me today I suspect. You have brought me something. The old mans gaze was altogether knowing. Locke felt almost compelled to reach inside his pocket and bring out the parchment. He did so any way, but told himself it was of his own volition.
The old mans eyes alighted on the blackened scrap of paper and then went suddenly wide with unmasked fear. He took a step backwards and nearly stumbled. Behind him, the music of the Baractiov soared in to a crescendo of strings and drums.
Where where did you get that? He stuttered, a gnarled hand clawing up towards his chest as if he was short on air.
It was an heirloom, belonging to a merchant family by the name of Carlusso. All we know for sure is that it is a map of some kind. That and that it harbours some ancient power. From what weve read of it
You have read it? The old man seemed incredulous. I could not have dreamed that even the young could be so very foolish. A map you say? Perhaps in some terms that is correct, but in truth it is a trap, forged by bitter men on the verge of annihilation. You have truly read it?
Only this piece. The rest was destroyed in a fire. The man who owned it, he read it and we think it drove him mad.
By all the gods and elder powers. To think that such a thing could still exist in these times, Tesso placed a weary hand upon his head and sighed heavily. I see now what has been at work. I had felt the sadness on the wind, seen the shifting of the sands, but I paid it no mind. I came here so long ago to escape such dreadful powers, but they are part of the very earth itself. Now something has been awakened and it calls out so that all may answer.
You know what it is then that Rostov seeks? asked Leo. He is the man who read the scroll. He said something about serving the old powers.
How much do you know about ancient history? Specifically, about the history of the kingdom that once stood upon this very desert? It was not always a desert you know. Once, long ago, it was a prosperous land, green and fertile. That was before the war of the Magi. Before those half mad sorcerers tried to break the world in two. In that time there were cities as far as the eye could see, temples built to honour the ancient beasts known as Espers.
The Magi worshipped Espers? asked Locke.
At first yes, when they were still men. Soon however their passions turned from love to desire and then ultimately in to obsession. There were a scant few, the first to go against the ancient teachings and attempted to take the Espers divinity for themselves. They were cursed. Punished as heretics. The faithful bound them up within the deep of the earth to suffer for all time. That was the fate of those who attempted such an act. For those who were successful the fate was far worse.
What does this have to do with the scroll?
When the war came everything changed. The kingdoms of man were torn apart in a frenzied desire to possess all things. Some blamed the heretics, some blamed the Espers and all fell upon each other in a sea of blood and flame. At the last, before the Kingdom that once stood upon these lands was destroyed forever, a few men who still held true to the old ways foresaw that this was an evil that would never end. They were deranged in their zealousness, consumed by guilt for not protecting their gods. If ever the greed of man lead him down the same dark path they would see to it that man would know untold desolation. Scrolls like these, were imbued with the spirits of heretics, written in the blood of Espers they had slain in their lust for power. They call to those whose hearts beat as theirs once did.
You know this to be true? Alton seemed uneasy with excepting this tale.
I too hear the call. I am attuned to such things. It is a terrible thing, wracked by torment and longing, the pain in his voice was evident and borne of just more than old age. Its source is nearby, in one of the old temples perhaps. Buried deep. He peered closely at the both of them. It calls to you too.
You make no sense old one, Alton told him loftily, I hear no call.
Do not think of it in terms of sound or knowledge. The Call is a power wrought in seduction and beguilement. The caller wants to be found. It needs to be heard. If it detects even a trace of desire of grief within you, it will draw upon that. It will draw upon you.
Alton seemed to chew on that for a moment. You said you knew where this thing may be?
I suspect as much. Nothing more, Tesso replied.
Look, anything you tell us could be of help, beseeched Locke.
What do you think will happen boy? he answered Locke, but his eyes were fixed on Alton. If you find this thing? If you answer its call? Why do seek such a dreadful thing.
I dont know anymore, said Alton. Locke looked threw him a perplexed stare. Perhaps I wish to see it same from those who would fall prey to it.
And you? he turned his full attention back on Locke.
Me? Listen Im just in this for the money. Ive got no interest in whatever it is you guys are talking about.
I see. The old man did not sound convinced. He paced a little, inclining his head to catch the final movement of his beloved music. You know the desert well?
No, they replied together.
You will need to. Find someone who does. Travel due west from the caves for about a day. Eventually you will come to an oasis. Dont worry, its quite large, if you have help youll find it. There is a rock formation there, too strangely formed to be of natural design. Somewhere nearby you may find something of what youre looking for.
Old man, what is out there really? Alton asked, his voice tinged with wonder.
Dont you know already? It is the HRAH!
The old man had left his window open. It was understandable given the humid weather. There was no warning made by shattering glass, the knife was thrown with expert ease and caught the old man high in the back. He lurched forward with a sudden spasm and then fell forwards heavily.
Locke gaped at the still corpse and the rapidly expanding pool of blood that spilled out of him. Alton was already at the window with his sword drawn trying to pick out the assassin in the dark.
Someone must have overheard our talking, he spoke in a hurried tone.
Who? asked Locke in alarm. He could take his eyes off the body. Who knows about any of this?
I cannot be sure, we must find them before they get away.
There! I see them, quickly Locke!
Alton was already halfway out the window before Locke could even think of a reply.
The air was thick and clammy outside, even despite the late hour. Lockes shirt clung to his back like a soaked flannel as he ran. He wasnt entirely sure where he was going. It was all he could do to focus on Altons back as it surged rapidly ahead of him in to the darkness. They must have run in to the town proper at some point as Locke suddenly became aware of the close knit buildings on either side of them. Alton dived around a corner in pursuit of the killer and it was all Locke could do keep up with him in time to make sure he didnt lose sight of him altogether. South Figaro was not well lit considering, it was supposed to be a kingdom of industrial advances. Still compared to Vector it didnt really have a leg to stand. Locke would have taken simple living over that smoke filled nightmare any day, but right now he begrudged them their high powered lights.
Alton was leading them down an alley now. The cramped sides of the two town houses flashing by as Locke sped down in chase of Alton and the killer. On the ground vague shapes that could have been boxes or rubbish or bodies for all he knew swam out of the darkness with an alarming persistence. And each time he was forced to leap and throw himself clear of these hindrances he was certain he would end up impaling an eye or an even more vital organ on something sharp and invisible.
Physically, Alton was a powerhouse. He cut a blinding pace through the cramped confines of the town without any signs of slowing. He displayed no caution whatsoever in his course, blindly taking turns and vaulting over low walls that obstructed him with seemingly no thought for what lay beyond.
Eventually they broke out in to one of the main roads and Locke saw Alton come to an abrupt stop. It was a wide street, mainly dominated by taverns and less legitimate locales. Many people were in the street, all quite happily going about their merry making business and not paying the two of them much attention at all. Another alleyway led off directly opposite them. To Locke it seemed obvious which way the killer had gone, but Alton clearly was not so certain.
Lost em? Locke asked panting hard for air.
No. He knows hes being followed, he craned his head purposefully from side to side. Hes tired perhaps. Or he wishes to take care of us as well. He's not running anymore.
Did you get a good look at him?
No, he was dressed in black.
Oh? that was interesting. Sounds a little like someone I know.
Dont jump to conclusions before you know the facts. Black garb is well favoured by assassins.
Locke took a closer look at some of the townsfolk milling about the street. A few of them were kind of wearing black, but it was hard to tell for sure.
It could be anyone of these people. But I still think the MO is a little too much like our old friend Shadows.
This is exactly why we should question it, then. If this person has been following us, they may have a darker motive than killing a defenceless old man. No, I dont believe its any of these people either. The killer is not that ambitious or stupid. They are hiding.
You sound pretty sure.
It is what I would do, he implied with certainty. You should go check the alley, Ill go this way.
Fine by me.
Locke loosened the dagger from his belt and held it cautiously to one side so as not to alarm any of the townsfolk. The alley was even more cramped and dingier than the last one had been. It took Locke a total of about five seconds to surmise that the Killer hadnt come this way at all. The alley wasnt so much an alley in that it ended about ten paces in a brick wall. There was nowhere for anybody to go, but back out. Locke was about to do precisely that, but as he turned to go a dark shape reared up and crashed in to him, pushing bodily to the ground he landed in an untidy heap amongst the rubbish. Dashing over him, the black clad assassin ran straight in the direction of the wall and began to scale it with a speed that seemed more akin to an insect than a man.
Locke cursed and pushed himself to his feet with all haste as the killer disappeared up the side of the wall. Seeing that his target was well beyond his reach already, Locke stuffed the dagger inside his belt and did his best to follow suit.
Climbing the wall was for Locke, something that had appeared much easier in his head than it actually was in practice. He was nowhere near as graceful about it, but hand over hand scrabbling for whatever grip he could get and gritting his teeth at the bare exertion of it all he pulled himself up there. His chest burned angrily as he levered an arm on to the ledge and used it to drag himself off the wall. He was on a roof, not that high, but still overlooking a good portion of the town. A blue sea of empty slated rooftops and here and there the odd chimney gushing out silky white smoke. Of the killer there was next to no sign at all.
Just like that. Gone like a ghost.
It annoyed him that he had bothered to come all the way up here without alerting Alton. He had no idea how dangerous this killer was. He was more than capable than looking after himself, but he liked to have a good idea of what he was up against.
He took a few hesitant steps along the roof, not quite trusting that he was on safe ground. Even despite his caution, his heart jumped in to his mouth the second he felt a tile slip beneath his foot. He went rigid, ever muscle frozen as he took a deep breath and lifted his foot gently away. Standing there on the roof with one foot in the air and the other planted squarely where it was he allowed the relief to flood through him for just a moment.
Only to have it cruelly ripped away from him by the airborne slate, spinning end over end on a direct course with his head.
Locke did have time to be afraid anymore. He didnt even have time to think. The knife was already back in his hand and slicing upwards to catch the projectile. It shattered, just inches from his face, covering him in a fine blue dust. He already knew another was on its way. Thats why he leapt backwards, higher up the roof, hoping to find a safer footing. Another did come, but what he had not been expecting was an extremely sharp and far-more-deadly-than-a-slate knife. He fell backwards against the roof, just in time to watch as the knife embedded itself next to his right thigh.
He looked up and caught a flittering glimpse of a shadow against the night. The killer, his would-be killer was running again. He had no intention of seeing them succeed this time. He didnt wait to stop and see if the roof began to give way underneath his every step. If he came to a gap between houses he jumped it. It wasnt that far, he would tell himself, after he was safe and across.
The killer was nearing the edge of town. Just a few healthy running strides and he would be in to the trees. Locke had no intention of following him in there. Flipping the knife in his hand as he ran, Locke caught the blade in his fingers and drew it back over his shoulder. The killer took one final leap towards the edge of the roof it was on and stopped to turn and look. Locke rolled forward in to crouch and hurled the knife in a curving arc at the waiting shape that stood blacker than the night sky.
It reached out and caught it.
Locke felt his jaw lower a few inches than he thought possible as he stared blankly after his tossed weapon. The dark figure seemed to weigh the knife in its hand and then raised it in mock salute to him. It was sending him a message. Thank you, it was saying.
Smug bastard he thought, as he watched the killer hop backwards and fall beyond his sight. He was free now to be swallowed by the night and go as he pleased. Locke sighed to himself as he got his feet as brushed the dust from his jacket.
Had he really agreed to go through all of this for just money? Not for the first time he questioned his purpose in being there. Besides money the Returners really had nothing to offer him. No, the only reason he was till here was because he had no other course in life, nothing more than a dim hope of admonishing his guilt.
Finding a low enough ledge, he leapt down from the roof top and made his way back towards the town centre. Alton found him soon enough, his face a mixture of anxiety and concern.
There you are? Did you have any luck?
I had nothing. The killer got away. Whoever they were they were, they were extremely well trained. A professional assassin maybe.
I know, he relented, It wasnt Shadow. I saw that much. One thing for sure however, were not alone in this.
Then we should not tarry here. Let us see if we can find Shadow.
They found him in a tavern. He was sat alone in corner, far from the light with an untouched mug of ale in front of him and his dog dozing lightly beneath the table. He didnt bother to acknowledge them as they came in. He just sat there; his eyes locked on some far away place that only he could see. He still did not deign to look up, even as he spoke.
You did not take long, he stated categorically.
Our audience was short lived, replied Leo.
But did you learn anything? asked Shadow? Any interest he had was to deeply veiled in his malaise.
Barely. The old man is dead, said Leo trying not to sound too imposing.
Oh? Thats unfortunate. He said flatly.
You dont sound very surprised, there was accusation in Lockes voice, despite his earlier admonition.
He looked up on that. His deep brown eyes glinting with what might have been amusement.
Old men have a tendency to die more often than young men. I should be surprised by this?
He was murdered Shadow, Leo said. He did not find the situation funny at all.
Not by me.
I never said
But the challenge is there all the same, Shadow pointed out. You both think it. I take it the killer waited until at least the old man divulged some form of useful information.
He had, but that was hardly the point. Leo didnt know how to convince Shadow of his trust.
The Empire was were here you know, said Shadow.
And they headed out in to the desert. They dont know about this mission, Im sure about it. They had nothing to do with this. If they did, there was no way they couldnt know about his own involvement. What sort of individual would take such a titanic risk in trying to usurp his mission and by default Emperor Gestahls will?
Oh come on, said Locke breaking in to his thoughts. The old guy said they were asking about us. Theyve been on to us since the very beginning.
This is not good, Shadow conceded, there were Imperial forces in Jidoor. They must be the same ones. But how could they know so much about our mission? Asked Shadow.
No, thats impossible, insisted Leo. They would never have been able to get here so fast from Jidoor. They were here in South Figaro before us. Theres no way they could know of what were searching for.
Well, they do now in any case, stated the assassin. They know exactly what we know which is? he prompted.
Locke related to him all that Tesso had told them about the history of ancient Figaro and the directions he had given them to the temple. Leo was still pondering what they would do about a guide when Shadow piped up.
The desert? We neednt waste our time with a guide. I can take us there.
You know this land well? asked Leo.
I travel far and wide. I know all places well.
Fine, he had made his decision. Well leave at first light.
And hope the Empire still knows less than we do.
Yes, he said with feeling. I hope that very much.
The sun was all that mattered in the desert. Blinding globe of undying light and impossible heat, it permeated the senses with its presence. It was the master of life and death out there among the sands. Locke pulled his bandana free of his head and ran a hand across his sweat caked brow. He had been expecting the heat, he been awaiting the dryness of throat and the scorching touch of the wind, but he had somehow glossed over the fact that it was all going to sear in to his very bones without mercy.
They had purchased enough supplies in town to last them a whole week if need be. They had also needed to drop by the armourers to in order for Alton and Locke to replace their lost weapons respectively.
The sand was so hot it burned his feet through the soles of his boots. He had tried to talk Alton and Shadow in to hiring Chocobos to get them to the oasis. Hed been through the desert before, but always on the back of a swiftly moving giant bird. Chocobos however, seemed to have a strong aversion to going underground and they would have had to bring them through the caves in order to take them across the desert.
He uncorked a bottle of water and filled his throat with soothing cool liquid in a series of heavy gulps. The horizon revealed nothing but a fine film of haze that blurred the northern mountains. Figaro castle was out there somewhere. Or at least it might have been. The Castle had a frequent tendency to move.
He was about stick the bottle back in his pack and follow on after the others, when he caught sight of something in the corner of his vision. Far to the North West, it had been a flash of something. A light perhaps? He thought about saying something to the others but decided against it. The desert had a way of playing tricks on you.
They continued on throughout the day. Making frequent stops for water and food. Locke was beginning to feel increasingly light headed with each passing hour. Sometimes when he looked out over the hills he almost thought he saw sand clouds in the distance, but he wasnt sure. As he walked he found himself looking out for them more and more.
The dunes seemed to roll on forever before them, each no more or less striking than the last. Each one they crossed revealed only a thousand more.
When evening came they still hadnt found the oasis and decided to make camp amongst some rocks. Locke found some old dry wood scattered amongst them and sorted them out a fire. Alton surprised him by producing a bottle of wine form his sack and popping it open. In all this time Locke had never once seen him touch anything vaguely alcoholic. He just didnt seem the type.
A drink? he offered, bringing forth a few pewter mugs as well.
I wont say no. Lockes surprise must have been pretty plain as Alton smiled across at him.
Wine is a vice I find little time to enjoy these days. Sometimes when the weight of the world is upon you, you have to put aside such luxuries. Still, I expect the world will become all the heavier in the coming months. Here, take a cup.
You make working for the Returners sound like a real chore.
War is an unflinching foe. You would do well to remember that, if you intend to take part in it, he looked up at Shadow who had seated himself on a nearby boulder. Shadow, will you take a glass of wine?
So when this job is done, do you think you will choose to fight for the Returners? He asked turning back to look at Locke, there was a seriousness to his manner that seemed odd to the treasure hunter.
Thats part of why you recruited me isnt it? he asked uncertainly. Still, Im not sure. What can a few men hope to accomplish against the Empire?
Hmph. Sometimes, men will fight when they feel they have no other choice. It is the way of the world. I wish it were otherwise.
So, you dont have a choice in all of this either? he posed.
Huh? Somehow, Lockes question had surprised Alton. He seemed to gather himself slightly as he sipped at his drink. A man always has a choice. It just depends whether or not he is willing to forsake that choice for the sake of what he believes in. Im sure that even the soldiers of the Empire feel that way.
Somehow, I doubt that.
Altons eyes flicked to his, then away again to drink in the night sky. You really hate the Empire dont you?
Hate them? Yeah I guess I do hate them. The Empire doesnt care about your choices or your beliefs. All they do is take, whatever they want they take. Anyone who gets in their way dies really fast. Ive seen it for myself. The Empire is no better than a pack of wild dogs.
They have caused you harm? You have suffered at hands of the Empire? Alton was no longer looking at the sky. He was staring in to the depths of the fire. Locke wondered who he saw burning there.
Someone I knew they...The Empire took them from me, it was hard to get the words out, even after all this time.
Truly? You amaze me. With all that rage pent up inside of you I would have thought youd have joined the Returners long ago.
And do what? Would steeping myself in revenge undo what happened? Can death make life anew? Besides, as much as I hate the Empire I I he didnt know where to go from there.
You hate yourself. Shadow finished for him.
Locke glared up at the ninja. He was sat almost casually with his chin rested upon one knee.
You feel that you are to blame for the actions of others, he went on. How ultimately foolish.
You dont know me, Locke voice barely concealed his growing temper. You dont know the first god damn thing about my life.
I know about life, Shadow assured him. Ive seen it end a thousand times over. Its the one constant in this world. Do you think you can control such a thing?
Locke had no answer for that. He could not say what lay so very deeply within his heart. He took a long swig of his wine, wanting for the rich sweetness to drown his inner pain.
Perhaps I was wrong about you, admitted Leo after a long silence. A man will not fight unless he has something worth protecting.
I had someone worth protecting, Locke asserted. But I couldnt protect her. I failed. I lost everything at the expense of my own foolish dreams. Ever since then Ive been looking for a way to set things right.
What were you searching for?
It doesnt matter anymore. Locke looked distastefully in to remaining contents of his mug and then threw them in the sand. So do you have something thats worth protecting?
Youre a Returner. There must be a reason why you choose to fight the Empire.
Alton seemed to lose himself in thought again. Yes. I have something. Something I have sworn to protect.
So thats why you want to find this thing? asked Locke.
And what about you Shadow? You got anything youd like to die for? Any great cause?
I have nothing.
Locke wasnt sure if wanted to laugh or cry. Youre a strange guy Shadow, he rose his empty mug in mock salute, A strange, strange guy.
4: Going down
The next day they travelled together in a brooding silence. Leo wasnt sure if it had been the talk last night or perhaps the looming sense of dread that had been hanging over him since South Figaro, but something troubled each of them. At his point, he wasnt certain how valid his mission was anymore.
The Emperor had despatched a Imperial force to find the scroll. Was there any other explanation? He had wanted to believe it was a bizarre coincidence in Jidoor, but he could not deny the talk nor the plain evidence in Figaro. The Imperial Soldiers had been suited in Magitek armour. It was a heavy strike force, employed only for missions that required maximum devastation. Only the Emperor could have ordered their deployment.
No. If he had done so, he would have told Leo of his plans. His Emperor would not have lied to him. He would not have sent him here on a fruitless mission while he was needed so much more dearly elsewhere. There had to be another explanation.
There was. It was not wholly inconceivable that treason was at work here. A high ranking officer could have ordered the deployment without the Emperor knowing in the hopes of betraying the Empire. If so they were using the troops for their own selfish means. Leo did not like to think about it, but Kefka was more than capable of such an act. If the Emperor knew of his treachery he would surely have the insane clown executed, but only if he found out.
Once Kefka had what he wanted, he would make sure that Leo never returned to Vector alive. Unless of course, doing away with Leo was his entire objective and he did not care about this heretics tomb at all.
Locke looked severely tired. He probably hadnt slept at all. When Leo had retired for the night, the young thief had been awake still, pouring over the scroll fragment. Leo didnt know what help that would be to them now. Shadow in stark contrast seemed especially determined today.
By mid afternoon they came upon the Oasis. At least, it seemed like it had been an oasis, before someone came along and razed it down in to still smoking embers. Ashen stumps stood forlornly in the burnt sand. The oasis itself was as dry and empty as the sand. Leo searched the sand for signs of Imperial tracks but found none. Whoever had done this had done it recently and they done it without the use of magitek.
Holy began Locke.
This is bad, stated Shadow.
The Empire? questioned Locke.
No. They havent been here. It can have been
He was interrupted by a low growl from Interceptor. The hound sat up on his haunches and sniffed the scorched air.
He smells him, said Shadow with an air of approval. The corruption is too close to hide itself any longer. He must still be near.
Interceptor dashed off towards the west, leading them away from the burnt out oasis. Leo cast a wary eye over the horizon and followed. He held his sword firmly in his hand as he crested the next dune.
Interceptor had come to a stop in the middle of a vast flat plain of sand. He was digging. Scrabbling away at the sand.
Coming to stand around the dog, they became aware of a faint outline in the sand. It was rectangular in shape and about two metres square across. Kneeling down, Locke brushed away at the outline and uncovered rough stone underneath. Archaic symbols were etched in to the surface of the stone. Leo recognised some of them from what had been on the scroll. If Locke saw this also he made no mention of it. He looked up at the both of them.
This is it Id say. I dont think its an entrance of any kind. Its more of a cover stone.
Here. Said Leo, going to one knee beside him. Let us get the sand off it and get a closer look.
Shadow did not move to join them. Instead he walked steadily around the perimeter of the plain, his eyes fixed on the ground. Gradually, the stone came in to the light. It was a ruddy orange colour and sank in to the sand only a few inches. It was certainly not an entrance.
What do you think it is? asked Leo. Is there something underneath?
Maybe. It says here that the path of justified? No, righteous, it says righteous. The path of the righteous man begins here.
What does that mean exactly?
Well, this is just a wild guess, but Id say that what weve got here is a
Its a switch, said Shadow from across the way.
A what? asked Leo.
A switch. Look, there is another outline here in the sand. He was right. You could just make it out. It was far larger than the stone they had just uncovered, almost twenty feet in width alone.
A switch? I see, but then how does it work?
What? Dont you know anything? Locke got to his feet and planted a foot firmly in the middle of the stone. It accepted his weight for a second, but then it began to retreat back in to the sand with a deep rumble. That rumble was echoed seconds later by a cavernous roar. A tremor shook the earth beneath their feet as a hole suddenly appeared in the middle of the sand where Shadow had shown them the outline. The hole grew out wards at an alarming rate as sand poured in to it from all sides.
Leo could just make out steps within the chasm. They seemed to have been made for beings with the feet of giants to enter. They lead down. In to the eternal darkness of the earth. This was the entrance to the temple of the Espers, forgotten here for over a thousand years. Hidden deep within its bowels something was waiting for them. He did not intend to disappoint it.
There was a very real feeling of stepping down in to the gullet of some great sea leviathan as they descended those steps. The light of day only reached so far inside and so the were forced to fashion torches. The steps themselves were truly monstrous. It was hard to believe they had been fashioned to allow access to ordinarily sized people.
He had ordered Interceptor to stay at the entrance, the blindly faithful creature had not understood at first. It had always been that way, following him about wherever he went, no matter what horrors he faced. He did not want the hound to go down to the earth with him this time however. It felt wrong somehow.
Interceptor. Guard, he had said sharply and the dog had understood. He would follow orders. He would follow them till death.
Shadow held his torch up to the wall as he walked, casting flickering torchlight on to the arcane carvings that had been left there by the Magi. He had never been a great admirer of art, but even he had to admit the workmanship had been styled by a skilled hand.
We must be the first humans to walk here in over a millennium. He heard Alton whisper.
You are probably correct. Is that not something that concerns you however?
What do you mean?
We must be the first ones here. The entrance way could not have been opened beforehand or we would have found it straight away. Do you see a problem with the picture I am painting for you?
Rostov? If Rostov hasnt already entered, then where the hell is he? Locke gave voice to what they were all wondering.
We can worry about that later. We are just fortunate to be a head of him, said Alton.
But he is nearby. It was he Interceptor sensed, Im sure of it. We must remain cautious.
The darkness yawned before them like an eternal void, empty, hollow. They walked for what seemed like hours, each step bringing them deeper in to the fastness of the earth. The air was grim and stuffy the further down they went. It reminded Shadow of a charnel house, stacked with bones and dried skin. It was not a remembrance he relished dearly. The soft sound of their footfalls upon the cold stone rang out in to the cavern. It was the only sound that accompanied their ascent, though occasionally the ninja thought he heard more than the echo of their own feet. From time to time he cast he gaze back up towards the dwindling light. He wondered how long it would be before he saw it again and how much he would care if he did not.
Locke faltered at one point, tripping over himself in sudden shock. He stared aghast in to the gloom below.
What is it? Shadow asked. If the there was even a hint of danger ahead he wanted to be ready.
Didnt you see it? there was a fervour to the thiefs voice he had not noticed before. He stammered in confusion as he tried collect himself. Up ahead I-I thought I saw didnt you see it?
Locke, Alton uttered softly, we saw nothing. Right Shadow?
But Im sure I saw it. It looked like a girl. I thought it looked like
A girl? What foolishness is this?
There was nothing Locke, assured Leo. Im sure your mind is just playing tricks on you.
I guess youre right, he agreed. Theres no one down here but us.
The steps wound downwards in a straight course; as far as they could judge they were travelling down in to part of the temple catacombs. There were no intersecting corridors, no shafts providing air or light to the lower levels. It was like a vast funnel down in to the desert. It was not however, entirely without end. Eventually they passed under a sinewy arch, fashioned in the form of a serpent. The ground began to level out and the roof disappeared above their heads and in to the unseen reaches of the gloom above. They found themselves in a vast hall. Towering pillars shot upwards to the invisible ceiling, they were monolithic in stature like the legs of giants.
Look at the size of those things, Locke whispered in admiration, think theyre holding up the whole roof?
I wouldnt think otherwise, replied Shadow dryly.
The floor was covered in a thin layer of white dust, totally undisturbed. Truly no living creature had stepped here before them in the past one thousand years.
Is this it?
I dont know?
This way. I see something ahead.
Bringing their torches deeper in to the great chamber, they began to get a clearer definition of the proportions of the hall. The outer walls had been decorated with a sweeping series of murals and carvings. Locked whistled in appreciation and moved closer for a better look.
This looks like it might be recording of their history. The old dynasty of Kings that used to rule here that is. See these murals here? Theyre like a story book. Just pictures and here and over there just simple words. He moved up against the wall and traced his hand across the graven symbols. A fine layer of dust fell as he touched them.
You can read them?
Locke was staring up at a cracked wall painting of a robed man. He held a long staff in one hand and the other was raised in friendship. To either side of him, men were bowed in worship. Yeah, I think I can, he tapped a finger against the robed mans image. See this here? This guy is like the High Priest over all the other priests. He was probably the main guy when it came to their religion.
Alton nodded in agreement. Shadow found little sense in this searching for clues in the dust. He scanned the confines of their tiny circle of light warily. He did not like this place.
Locke had already moved on further down the wall. His gaze was fixed on the unfolding drama of the mural. The High Priest cropped up again, he was knelt, his hands outstretched at the feet of Shadow couldnt tell if they were animals or men.
Is he offering the Espers something? asked Alton. Shadow shot a look at him in astonishment. He seemed rather certain of what the strange creatures were.
Hes entreating them. Offering his faith or something like that. Locke frowned slightly. Only the creatures here seem reluctant, almost as if they wanted to reject his admiration.
Shadow was already beyond bored he laughed humourlessly and walked over to lean against one of the pillars. His torch threw light against the far wall, revealing a carved image of a imposing figure attired in splendid armour. Like the priest, he too had people worshipping at his feet, but they didnt look half as joyous about it.
Whose that? he asked, just shy of being interested.
Locke turned away from what he had been trying to make out and came over to stand at before the wall. Him? From the looks of things Id say he was a leader of some sorts.
Yes, agreed Alton, Perhaps a great warrior or a King.
Hey, whats that hes holding? It was true, the king held two halves of a broken stick in both hands.
Its the priests rod, said Shadow without a doubt. I guess he wasnt much of a believer.
Yeah Locke was staring off to one side. For a minute Shadow thought the thief had actually drifted off, but he shook his head suddenly as if jolted from an uneasy dream. He moved further along the wall, revealing the rest of the mural.
The focus of the chronicle turned from theology to pure mythology. The king stood upon a barren plain, his shield held aloft to ward of a terrible storm. In his other hand he held a lance in the shape of a striking serpent. The expression on his face was grim, but assured. Shadows felt his eyes drawn back to the image of the storm. The artist had attempted to lend an almost demonic quality to it, as if it were alive. Shadow came to his own deduction.
He fought an Esper.
Fought and killed it, from the sound of thing, a bead of sweat rolled down Lockes neck. This next bit is a little hard to follow. It doesnt translate very well at all,
It says something like when he killed the Esper, he took its soul? Source? Im not sure. He took something from the Esper. And then he used it to
Gods uttered Alton staring upwards. They had come to the far end of the hall.
On the opposite end of the chamber a great effigy had been carved in the living rock. Talons bared against the sky and wings cast back in a majestic pose, a three headed dragon was shown with furious lightning bolts pouring from its six eyes. At the centre of the carving, at a level with where the dragons heart would have been a man was shown, his palms open and held outward and his head thrown back in ecstasy. The illustration on his face was one of maniacal joy.
What do you suppose it is? asked Alton in a strained voice.
Well, first and foremost its a doorway, answered Locke. His attention wasnt on the doorway however. It seemed distant, almost as if he wasnt there with them any more. See that indentation running down the middle and around the edges? There must be a way to open it somehow.
But what does it mean? That creature is like no monster Ive ever seen. Could it have been an Esper? And who is the man?
The King perhaps? offered Shadow. We shall find out on the other side. Thief, do you have any
Yes, I understand, said Locke detachedly. He was staring off to one side of the gateway. Shadow wasnt sure if he was answering him or talking to himself. He began to approach the carving.
Locke? Are you alright? asked Alton with genuine concern. He looked uncommonly tired. The air was pretty thin down here; Shadow was feeling the effects himself.
Yeah. Yeah. Just give me a minute.
Locke climbed the small set of steps leading up to the gateway and laid his hands upon the stone. He appeared to be whispering to himself.
Is he talking to it? What does he hope to accomplish with such foolishness? Or is there something hes not telling us?
Locke? queried Alton. His eyes flicked back across the room with uncertainty.
I said give me a minute! Locke shouted, his voice resounding across the room. Alton seemed taken aback; Shadow narrowed his eyes in suspicion.
Something is wrong with him. Has he read something upon that altar that scares him perhaps? Or is it
Locke smiled as if he had just remembered something amusing and then slapped his hands hard against the stone. There was a long silence. Then Locke leaned forward and breathed lightly upon the monument. The great dragon groaned and shook a huge plume of dust from its foundations as it began to part. Locke stepped back, his face a mixture of triumph and resolve. There was something else sparkling in his eye that put Shadow on edge. It looked rather like hope.
Leo stood back from the sea of ancient grime and dust that fell from the dragons body as it parted. Sliding backwards the two halves retreated in to the wall. He felt strangely tense at being in this forgotten place. A doubt had been rising in his heart just as surely as they been descending in to the abyss. He felt unsure of himself, his abilities, unspoken fears strained at the confines of his thoughts and it was all he could to keep the under raps. Something was not right here, about this place, about the people around him.
He eyed them warily. At the end of the day they were mercenaries, hired help. For enough money they would sell him and the Emperors prize to whoever offered. He had attempted to sway Locke with his belief that he was working for the Returners but at the end of the day he was still an Imperial officer. As a general of the Empire, it was his duty to ensure that justice was done. As soon as he had the Emperors prize in his grasp he would find the rogue Imperial army out in the desert and commandeer them, holding them to their oaths. These criminals would suffer Imperial justice and he would return to Vector in triumph. He was the Emperors finest knight. His liege would see that in the end.
Be on guard. Something veils the thiefs mind.
The black hearted assassin was stood right next to him, watching as Locke stepped forward in to the next room. Shadow held a slim dagger tightly in his hand. He could have stabbed Leo in the back if he had wanted. He probably had some other fate planned for the both of them.
Callous murderer! His sick mind thinks only of letting my sweet blood and seeing it drain in to the dust he he
Pain coursed hotly through Leos temples. He winced in agony and clenched a hand there to try and ease the pounding. The ferocity of his dark thoughts shocked him. He wondered if perhaps he was going mad. To so fully believe his own fears seemed a lot like madness to him.
Trying to wade through the burning suggestions in his head to run and flee for his life, Leo became dimly aware of Shadows hand on his shoulder. It was not an act of comfort, but of restraint. What had the assassin seen in his face to put him so on awares?
Did you hear me? Shadow persisted. Are you well?
Yes something is not right with this place. I think Im not sure what I think. There is a veil on my eyes too, but I can see through it. For now I think.
You will have too. The thief is where is he?
While they had been talking Locke had clearly gone on ahead and alone. The gateway stood empty and open, leading deeper in to who knows what. The thiefs torch lay guttering on the floor.
We should follow him. It is not safe for any of us to be alone here.
Ah. But we are all alone are we not? Asked a familiar voice, hollow and enthralling. Now and forever. In this place. Leo turned to seek out the source of the voice.
Rostov stood at the foot of the grand stairwell, his face a mockery of charred bone and twisted flesh, his body enshrouded in a dark brown cloak. Even despite his horribly disfigured face, Leo could tell he was smiling. His left hand rested on the pommel of his sword sheathed at his side, his other hand was missing of course as his right arm now ended in a jagged stump.
Welcome. To the awakening. The call has been answered.
What are we off to find today?
Youre not going to believe what awaits us up here. It was all Locke could do to keep from running up the dim passage, his torch guttering in his hand. If he went too fast though, he would leave her behind and he could not do that.
What are we off to find today?
Youll see. Youll see. He turned to look at her, but she was just outside his vision as always. A lock of honey brown hair trailing in the wind, the sound of her step beside his, the warmth of her breath on the back of his neck. That was all he needed, he told himself.
Is it close? Are you near?
Yes. Youre always near me.
No. Are you close now? Will you find it soon?
The way forward twisted and turned as he walked, curving down deeper in to the tomb. He passed several tunnels, but simply ignored them; his love knew which way they had to go. She whispered the way to him as they walked. Shadows cloaked the wall of the passage; it was hard to tell where he was exactly anymore. Passage? What was he thinking? This was a cave. They had come to a cave together to find the treasure. Shed always begged him to take her along on one of his adventures. She wanted to share in his life; she wanted to be a part of his experiences. He could not deny her that. He would never deny her anything again. He would not fail her again.
Again? When did I ever fail her?
What are we off to find today?
Come on. Its worth a fortune!
Rostov, Leo affirmed. So you survived.
Rostov? Was that my name perhaps? I remember so little from before. But I remember you. He inclined his head, thick saliva dripping from his ruined cheek as he did so. Both of you. I am that material being no longer.
So youve come to answer the call of whatever evil power sleeps within this sacred place? Do you wish to return it to life? Is that it? Leo gripped his sword by the hilt with both hands as he held it before him like a ward. Youll die before I let you take another step!
Answer the call? Heheheecek. Poor simple bag of blood. I am the Call! And you have been summoned by my voice!
Ignore his lies, Shadow warned. He wants something from us.
Yes. Yes I do want something from you very much. Did you truly think that I am the one who will bring about the awakening? That is not the way it was foreseen. One is chosen. He is the Call. Those who hear his cry and feel a yearning for power they are the Wakers. Three are they. You are one. His eyeless gaze seemed fixed on Leo. The other whose heart is steeped in grief is another. Already the Call has reached inside his soul and claimed it. You His head turned in the direction of Shadow. Are not one. You should not be here, you were not called.
I wont argue with you there. Seems Ive thrown a spanner in your works. How dreadful for you, he replied sardonically.
Dont praise yourself maggot. The call reaches only those with a desire for power no matter what the reason behind their intentions. You have no such ambitions. You desire neither power, nor dominance, nor love. Your soul is an empty slate. Rostov almost sounded disgusted.
A man who desires nothing is above harm, Shadow replied. I guess that makes me invincible. Shall we see if you are too?
Shadow strode forward, blades at the ready, but Leo held him back with a firm arm. No. Leave him to me.
You wont kill him alone. Are you so willing to throw your life away?
If need be yes. You have to reach Locke. Whatever hes about to do stop him, but do not harm him, Leo stressed. He is not himself.
He said he needs three to awaken the beast. What can one thief do?
What indeed? asked Rostov haughtily. Each of the three is chosen to release the seal of the Magi. For each of you who touches the seal, the greater the masters power becomes until he is ready to be released. Then the skies themselves will bleed!
Go! Go now! insisted Leo. I will try to hold him here.
Dont die, Shadow told him as he backed away. You still havent paid me.
This way. That way. This way. You know where to go. Your heart cannot lie to you.
Can we always be together like this?
I said yes didnt I? Just a little bit further. Then youll never be alone again.
Again? I dont understand.
Locke stumbled as his foot caught a loose stone and fell hard on to his knees. He felt the light touch of warmth retreat away from him slightly. It filled him with emptiness. He didnt know where he was. Hadnt been in that cave? He had been walking with no. It couldnt be her. It was impossible.
Locke! Help me!
Rachel! He stormed his feet and flew in to a desperate sprint. The bridge was up ahead. It was unsafe. If she wasnt careful she would fall. He couldnt let her fall. If she fell she wouldnt love him anymore.
This isnt right Said someone in a soft voice. He didnt have time to listen to them now. Rachel was in danger.
Locke, Ill fall!
A single tear streamed down his face. Nooooo!
Leo flexed his sword arm and shouldered his red cloak on to the floor beside him. On the opposite side of the room, Rostov gripped the hilt of his rapier and pulled it free in one firm stroke. Tossing the blade up in the air he caught squarely in an upright position. Clearly his injuries had had no impact on his martial skills. Whatever dark energy had corrupted his soul lent him strength as well.
Why do wish to fight me? asked Rostov.
You are an abomination. I will not allow you or your master to walk free upon this earth.
Abomination? Am I not the epitome of what your Emperor wishes to recreate? Do you so hate the blessing of magic?
Whatever power you posses it is not magic, Leo said with certainty. I have seen magic.
You have seen nothing! Rostovs voice was thick with scorn. You imbue steel and fragile flesh with drained essence. Have you ever seen the wrath of an enraged Esper? Witnessed the powers of a true Magi? You meddle with forces you barely comprehend. Centuries ago the Magi learned the only true way to absorb an Espers power! Would you like to know what it is?
You can tell me. After I kill you.
You will not kill me. I must say I am impressed at your strength of will. You deny the Call. But only for so long. Once I have shown you the way of pain and suffering you will better understand.
Then show me! roared Leo hurtling forwards.
Rostov recoiled backwards, his knees bending underneath him and then he leapt suddenly forward with an ungodly speed. The sheer vitality of his lunge carried him high in to the air. Leo had little or no time to react as the madman descended upon him roaring. He threw himself to one side and whipped his blade up in a brutal riposte to meet Rostov as he landed. The princes sword came down first however and it easily swept Leos blow aside. With all the grace of a crushing boulder he landed next to Leo and tried to separate neck from head with a swift down cut.
Their swords met again, this time glancing off each other in a cacophonous ringing of steel. Leo gripped the hilt of his sword in both hands and tried to pour every ounce of strength in to his blows, hoping to somehow unbalance his opponent. Rostov still proved the stronger however. Casually deflecting his strikes and raining down his own with savage abandon. Before long his arms ached with a passion and he felt himself weaken with every blow he cushioned. Rostovs sword seemed to be coming from all directions; it was only a matter of time before it found an easy route to his heart.
No. I need more time.
Surging forward he drove his own sword hard against Rostovs put all his weight behind the blow. He succeeded in forcing him back a step and in the space he bought himself; Leo whirled away and fell back towards the doorway that both Locke and Shadow had disappeared in to.
Youre forgetting one thing. Your grand design is incomplete. You only have two out of your precious three. Where is the third eh? Where is the hope for your awakening?
Arrogant whelp! The third is here too. They heard the call long before you did. They have searching for you even as you have sought out me. They are coming. They are close now.
Who does he mean? Who else would be searching for this place?
And then he knew. The Imperial army that had been combing the country for them. Perhaps whoever lead that force was the one Rostov spoke of. Did that mean that Kefka himself had come then? If he had, Leo would make sure that his treachery did not go unanswered.
You still cant win. I will never lay my hand upon the seal.
You will. If I take your hand form you!
And so he fell on him once again.
Rachel! He called.
No she isnt. Theres nothing there.
Shut your face!
The bridge was up ahead. Rachel was teetering on the brink. He could only see her from behind, her dress flapping against the wind. It threatened to pull her in to the shadows. Locke lunged forward. He could still get there in time.
Locke! Help me!
This is wrong.
Her feet shook as they struggled to grip the edge. She wrenched back her arms in an effort to stay balanced, but it was not enough and she tipped forward.
I have to hurry I have to save her!
But, I thought it was she who saved you.
He paused. His legs became as ice, freezing him in place as the clarity of truth flooded in to him. The bridge melted away before his very eyes like mud beneath the rain. He saw it now only in his minds eye, as it was. Or as it had been to be more precise. As he saw it, it was him on the bridge, boldly unaware of how idiotic he was. Striding purposefully across without a care in the world. That was, until he heard the cry.
Locke! Look out!
Some unseen force threw him to the ground. It was not Rachel as he recalled so often in his dreams. Something else had knocked the wind out of him that he could not see. What he did see was a circular room, littered with smooth jagged stones. Stood at the rooms centre was Rachel. The Rachel he had been running towards and who still had her back to him. Except it wasnt Rachel. That was impossible. She was far from here and more than that she was
Rachel? he asked against all the protests screaming logic to his tattered mind.
I dont know who you are.
Rachel, its me.
I cant remember you.
Are you Rachel?
That isnt her.
Rachel, look at me! he screamed.
She turned where she stood and Locke gasped in horror. Her eyeless sockets poured blood down her face in red streaks as they bore in to him accusingly.
You couldnt save me. You failed. Youre not even worth remembering. Leave, now. Dont you dare to touch me!
His face collapsed in sorrow. Despite her words he could not help reaching out his trembling hand towards her. He had let her fall. He had let her fall and forget him. Then he had given up and left her to die. She would never forgive him, but he had to touch her, just once.
He stopped himself. She said no more, but did not recoil from his reaching hand. Her bloodstained face was twisted in disgust, but still she did not attempt to move away from him.
This isnt my fault.
She fell she fell saving me. If it hadnt been for me she would never have fallen, but there was nothing I could do to save her.
Very slowly he drew back his hand and pulled himself to his feet. Rachel was like a living statue.
I should never have left you. Even though you told me to. I let my guilt lead me astray that time
You failed me-
I will not let it do so again! Get out of my sight you demon! he roared in to her face.
She bared her teeth and snarled at him like a monster, her entire body trembling with rage. He thought she was going to lunge forward and attack him, but she could not move. Her image rippled in the air and then dissolved just as the bridge had. In her place was a stone coffin.
Locke felt a terrible weight lifting from all around him as if the air itself had been crushing in to him. He fell to his knees and swallowed a deep sob. He was alone again.
Rostov froze in mid strike, his sword held high above his head. Leo watched him guardedly, keeping his own sword held low to defend against any sudden trickery. Twisting his head around in to a position Leo would not have deemed possible of a normal man, the crippled prince turned his attention in the direction of the gateway. The stringy brown flesh that surrounded his bare teeth pulled back in a demonic sneer as he emitted a low hiss.
What is this? Who interferes in the work of prophecy unshakeable? Who would dare?! He recoiled as if struck, his skull snapping back violently. No! You would not dare! Your acquiescence is irrevocable! You serve us vermin!
Perhaps you master is not as powerful as you have been lead to believe? Leo teased.
Graaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh! Rostov threw his weapon aside like a useless stick and exploded. At least that was Leos initial thought at seeing his enemy transform before his very eyes. It would have been more correct to say he evaporated. If flesh could evaporate and do so at such an incredible speed. His body reformed itself in to a dark brown mist, reeking of filth and rotten flesh. Like a torrent of furious wind it surged past him and in to the gateway, a scream of endless rage trailing behind it.
There was little doubt Rostov was going after them. Leo had no idea what either of them had done to so anger the demon, but he was gunning after them with a terrible vengeance. He knew he had little hope of catching such a force of unbridled power, but he was left with hardly any choice in the matter. Pausing only to retrieve Lockes torch, he sprinted up the steps and ran headlong in to the darkness.
Locke let out a long breath and raised his head to look upon the tomb of the heretic king. It was a rough rectangle hewn form old stone unlike any he had ever seen. It had a dark grey tint to it that almost shimmered in the light.
Light? Where is the light coming from?
He realised then he had rather foolishly left his torch behind in the hall. How he had ever made his way here in the dark he would never know. Looking up he a saw a disc of cloudy glass dominating the apex of the ceiling. It was probably at the end of a long shaft that reached up to the surface.
He struggled back to his feet, gradually feeling his strength returning. The coffins cover stone he saw had been removed. It lay to one side, broken it in two. Seeing as how he had no memory of doing it himself, he could only assume it had been that way when he got there.
Peering inside he frowned in disbelief.. He had been expecting to find a pile of bones and that he did, but that was not all. The skeleton of the heretic seemed to be half embedded in the same strange rock its tomb was made out of. It was like someone had waited for him to rot and then poured cement all over him. The leering skull was visible along with its arms and most of the rib cage though they were all partly set in the stone.
Someone had taken the liberty of placing the dead mans arms so that his hands rested together on his chest. Here the alien rock engulfed his person entirely, but Locke could just make out the edges of something. Something clutched tightly against the corpses bones. It was made of an entirely different stone than that which bound it, a dull grey that was deeply veined with cracks. Not quite realising why, he reached out a finger to trace along one of them.
Thief? What are you doing?
Shadow stood at the entrance to the burial chamber. The ninja had a torch in one hand and one of his wicked blades in the other. He looked as if he had been expecting a fight.
Yeah I think so, Locke breathed a relieved sigh, Im not entirely sure what happened, but
You were enchanted. Rostov is here. He says this whole thing has been a trap. He lured us here and then set these dark magics upon our minds. He wanted you to-
You got nothing to worry about Locke smiled. I saw right through that illusion, Though his voice sounded entirely more confident than he felt, Locke knew this was true. That spirit had wrung him so hard hed felt like dying. What ever it had wanted though, it would never get now.
Thats him then? asked Shadow, stepping forward. The King? The one form the carving?
I guess. Hes still pretty much dead though. Wheres Alton?
Fighting with Rostov, Shadow replied hurriedly, We should not stay here. Once weve dealt with Rostov we can decide what to do about these remains. I need you to tell me though, have you-
Wait, Rostovs here? His head was still ringing it and was hard for him to juggle and absorb all the details at once. Wed better get packing then. Hey, just take a look at this. He reached out and laid a hand upon the curious stone encrusted object.
Locke, no! Shadow yelled, lunging forward to try and stop him, but it was already too late.
Whats with you? he asked annoyed. He did not have to wait long to find out. The ground beneath his feet shuddered violently and threw the both of them to their knees. Dust arose in a smoky mist from the scattered pebbles on the floor. On closer inspection, Locke saw they were broken pieces of bone.
Youve undone part of the seal! Shadow had to shout in order to be heard of the cavernous rumble that boomed from within the earth. Dont you see? This is why you were lured here! Your touch can break the ancient holds placed upon his spirit!
Youre telling me this now!? You had to wait!? Locke couldnt believe he was getting the blame for this.
I tried to tell you!
Shadow steadied and managed to right himself. He looked as if he were just about to continue his stinging disparagement of Lockes character when he was lifted fully in to the air by a freakish gust of screaming air. It carried him easily and threw him hard against the wall. He grunted in pain and slumped to the ground heavily where he lay motionless.
The tumultuous foul wind seemed to flow angrily around the confines of the room before whistling down to a low whine. A cloudy form emerged from the dimness beyond his vision, moulding itself in to the body of a man. A very unfortunate man by the looks of things. He was terribly scarred and only had one arm.
How utterly glorious! the scarred mans voice was heavy with triumph. Even despite the interference of that long dead worm, you still fulfilled your purpose. I didnt think it possible, that a being as inferior as yourself could see past the masters fantasies, but you exceeded all expectations. What a gall it must be to fail so miserably!
I think Ill be cheering up pretty soon, said Locke placing a hand of the handle of his knife. Soon as a I slice that preening grin off your face.
You wont do anything! Youve weakened the hold over the master. His power grows with each step and as it does so does my own. His will is my hammer. Do you think I can be felled so easily boy?! Rostov threw back his head and laughed. Wahahhahahaha! Your end is now child! Face oblivion with-
The cackling freak stiffened suddenly as Locke caught sight of a flash of steel in the corridor behind Rostov. A sound like meat being sliced on a butchers block accompanied the brief appearance of a red streak that flashed in a straight line from Rostovs scalp to his crotch. He gurgled once, and then half his face fell away, along with half his body. The other half seemed to hang there for an obscene second and then it followed suit. In the space behind stood a most satisfied looking Alton with his sword gripped deftly in both hands.
Apparently, supreme power is not all its made out to be. He seemed pretty amused with himself. Locke couldnt quite see the humour in the situation.
I knew he wasnt immortal, muttered Shadow as he cradled his heaving chest.
You sure took your fine time in getting here, accused Locke as he got to his feet. I was beginning to hey Im over here! But Alton wasnt looking at him. He wasnt looking at Shadow either. He was staring at the tomb.
Dont mention it. I was just glad I could get here on time.
Alton. Who are you talking to? demanded Shadow.
Very well. You have been a stalwart comrade. He held out his arm in a gesture of friendship and marched over towards the tomb.
Alton! They both yelled in unison.
Rostov parted before him like sliced cheese. He pointed his blade towards the ground and smiled at his companions. Apparently, supreme power is not all its made out to be.
Locke stood laughing at the centre of the room, his face a picture of pure joy. Even Shadow seemed in genuine high spirits as he walked toward Locke and clapped him on the back.
Amazing Locke, you vanquished the power of that evil spirit through sheer strength! exclaimed Shadow.
Hey, it was nothing, said Locke modestly. Im just glad Alton showed up. Rostov looked seriously pissed.
Dont mention it. I was just glad I could get here on time, he said feeling his own modesty coming in to play.
I just know we wouldnt have made it through this without your leadership. Id like to thank you sir. Locke extended his hand to accept Altons his eyes beaming with respect.
Leo grinned. Very well. You have been a stalwart comrade. He walked forwards to clasp Lockes hand. I must thank you.
No, said Locke matching Leos grip firmly. Thank you. He smiled broadly and then his face melted away.
Arrgh! Gasped Leo, as he suddenly found himself standing in the middle of the room with a mineral encrusted collection of bones in his arms and a grinning skull looking up at him. All about him the room was in motion. It was shaking with tremendous force and it was all he could do to keep his balance. He could hear Lockes voice somewhere behind him.
What did I do he wondered briefly and then there was a shattering noise and it rained glass.
Locke had watched in dumbstruck horror as Alton walked gaily over to the heretics tomb and pulled the entirety of its remains out in to the light. Then the room began shaking in the bad way again.
He staggered like a blind man as he tried to cross the room in any direction that lead outside. His only hope was to head for the exit before the whole place collapsed in upon itself. His shouts to Alton went unheard as the Returner stared blankly at grotesque thing he held aloft in his arms. He wasnt sure if he wanted Alton to drop the bones or run or do anything but stand there, as he tried to catch his attention. All he knew was that he wanted the earthquake to stop before he became a permanent addition to this mausoleum. At some point he had lost all sight of Shadow. The big coward had probably made for daylight at the first tremor.
Alton seemed to regain some part of himself and he turned to face Locke sharply. I took it. I took it from its burial place. Sweet Empire what is this thing?
The ground took a vigorous pitch and abruptly Alton fell forwards. The remains in his hands flew from his grasp and bowled in to Locke. He struggled under the sudden weight and found himself reeling backwards towards the entranceway.
He had a glimpse of Leo trying his best to orient himself amidst the chaos and then the ceiling came dashing down about them. Great heaving chunks of masonry hit the ground around him followed by flowing sheets of fine dark sand. He did what he could to find his balance and ran as far as his legs would take him.
He must have got about ten feet before he tripped in the gloom and sprawled, still with the bones in his arms on to the juddering ground. He lay there still as the dead, not daring to move even an inch further.
After a time, he felt the tremors begin to subside. The distant thunder of the earth quietened and lost its edge. The spasms beneath him grew less and less in intensity until all was at stillness again. He let go his relief in a shaky breath. It was over at last.
Still trembling, he laid a hand on the nearby wall and hauled himself to his feet. The dead mans bones he cradled heavily in his free arm as he tried to get some sense of his surroundings. The burial chamber had vanished without a trace. In its place was a brand new wall of solid rock. It was impossible to tell if the quake had clammed up the passage or filled the room in entire. From what his eyes could make out in the blackness, the way out was relatively unharmed. It was just a case of finding his way without a light. Not a prospect he relished, but hed gotten out of worse scrapes.
..ne alright ? inquired a muffled voice. Locke looked up sharply. It sounded a lot like Alton, which was pretty hard to believe as he was most likely crushed.
..ke ca ou hear me?
Alton? He pressed his ear close fallen stone, reaching for any trace of sound.
The passage is blocked! he heard faintly, followed by Is Shadow alright?
I dont know! He took off! He could be any where.
Im right here, said Shadow.
Locke nearly jumped out of his skin as he turned to see the ninja standing bold as brass before him.
Alton is trapped on the other side? he asked.
Yeah, we got to get him out of there somehow. If another quake hits he wont last very long.
Do you think we can clear a path? asked Shadow pointedly.
Im not sure. I need a closer look here, he said indicating the rockslide.
Hand me the remains. Youll need to concentrate.
Whoa there. Wait just one minute. Are you sure its safe?
Rostov said that only you and Alton were capable of breaking the seal. I apparently am in no such danger. Here, hand it to me.
Locke shrugged and passed the grisly heirloom in to Shadows waiting hands. He rubbed the side of his head in consternation and turned back towards the wall. He began to feel his way long the cracks to see if there was any looseness in the stone.
I have to admit I thought youd made a run for it. What with the ceiling coming down on us.
I did. I came back for the Magis bones.
What? Locke furrowed his brow in disbelief as he twisted to look back at Shadow.
And flinched in panic as he felt a sharp sensation slip underneath his lowest rib. He dropped his gaze to get a look at what had stuck him there. Shadow was stood right up close to him with a red knife in his hand. In his chest, Locke felt a biting coldness spreading. He wasnt sure if it was because he was dieing or just afraid. His knees felt very weak indeed.
He knew with a very real certainty that this was not another illusion. Shadow had played them the whole time.
Shadow wiped the knife clean and set it back in its sheath. Then took his pack and emptied the contents on to the ground. About to become a very rich man. Not that I do this sort of thing for money alone, but it does help. Nothing personal.
He slipped the bones in to the sack and through it over one shoulder. All Locke could do was fall over. Fall over and hate him with a burning passion. As the dark washed in around him, he found himself wondering, just why, he had ever agreed to take this job.
Shadow was a man with loyalty to no one save himself and right now, he didnt have a single concern in the world. He didnt need to worry about the darkness as he made his way back along twisting passage. Besides the plain and simple fact that he could see just as well in the dark without the distraction of a light, he had committed the entire route to memory. He didnt even have to worry about Locke or Alton tracking him down. One was hopelessly trapped and the other was immobilised. His way was clear, the obstacles were all removed and finally he had what he had come for. All in all he would have had to agree this was very profitable day indeed.
As he stepped back out in to the hall, he was blinded momentarily by a sudden flare. High power spotlights hummed in to life as they drenched the entire wall in illumination. Shadow held a hand up to shield his face and squinted between the gap in his fingers.
Halt! commanded an Imperial trooper as he drew his blade threateningly from his scabbard and pointed it at Shadows chest. There were others with him, all drawing swords and ordering him to stand where he was. Shadow attempted to pick them out in a running head count, but his attention was immediately drawn to a far greater threat. Hammering their mammoth metal feet in to the stone floor as they tread forcefully across the hall, five hulking shadows detached themselves from the darkness. Chrome on forge burnt iron composed their heavy frames, while on either side their upper limbs ended in meter long claws. The Magitek suits towered above him. Each was piloted by an Imperial soldier who stared down at him dispassionately. With the very power of magic at their fingertips, they could incinerate him in a heartbeat, if they so wished..
He stared up at them with an equal measure of pleasantry and threw the sack down at his feet.
Took you long enough, he said.
Yes, Shadow didnt have a single concern. Not one.
Locke? Are you there?
Lying with his back flat against the collapsed tunnel and his legs splayed out in front of him, Locke could hear Alton pretty well now.
Yeah, he replied wincing, Dont worry. Im not going anywhere.
Ive been trying to find a movable path through this debris, but I fear I may just cause another rock fall. How do things look form that side?
Pretty bleak Id say, in other circumstances he might have found that funny. He didnt now though. Shadow knifed me. Hes gone. He took off with the bones.
What? There was a long silence. The Empire they must have hired him before I did. How very foolish of me. I should have known better than to pick up someone so well known to the Empire.
Heh, you think? I knew that guy was bad news the minute I saw him. Now were screwed. If he gets that thing outside, theres no telling what the Empirell do worth it. Or what it does with the Empire. Either way Im guessing itll be pretty bad.
Alton didnt seem to have a reply to that. Locke lay there for a while, feeling the numbness spread throughout his body. He supposed he should have been scared, but he wasnt. He didnt know why.
So do you think Rostovs really dead? You killed him right? It wasnt just another illusion.
I think so. I didnt expect him to fall so easily, but now, thinking about what happened perhaps his master sacrificed him. Perhaps he did so in order make my delusion so much more real to me. I should have seen through it though. I failed.
Locke whacked his head hard against the wall in frustration. They had both failed.
I failed you Rachel. I failed you by hating myself and now look where its got us. Is this what you would have wanted?
No, she wouldnt have wanted this at all. How much time had he spent searching for this miracle cure, to bring her back to him? Had he been doing it for her or for himself to ease his guilty conscience? He wasnt so sure anymore, but he knew now there were bigger things going on in the world than his trivial quest for redemption. The Empire had taken Rachel from him and the Empire had put him in this whole. They were probably about to unleash an all new apocalypse on the world. If he ever came through this, hed see them pay.
Hey Alton? Alton, you still with me?
Ive been thinking. If we survive this well, what you said about the Returners Im in. The Empires going too far in their search for supreme power. Ill fight alongside you, if youll have me. What do you say?
Yeah. You wait see. Ill think of a way to get us out of this and then well show the Empire something. Whatever army theyve got waiting out there, Shadow, the whole rotten bunch of em.
I have to tell you something
What the hell were you thinking hiring that guy anyway? I mean, you knew he was fast with the Imperials right? They must use him for a whole bunch of jobs. Dont you think asking him to help the Returners was a bit of hefty risk? Locke was truly puzzled by that.
Locke. The reason I hired Shadow was because he came highly recommended. Our intelligence informed me he was a most skilled individual, I never thought about whether he held any reservations about the Returners. If I had I might have told him the truth.
Yes. Locke, Im not with the Returners. That was just a ruse I thought up. Not something I can say Im proud of, but I needed your help and I knew you wouldnt agree unless unless you thought you could trust me.
What are you saying? If youre not a Returner who are you?
An Imperial officer. A General actually. My name is Leo.
You didnt exactly make yourself easy to find, said a clear feminine voice from beyond the half circle on angry metal behemoths.
It is not a habit I wish to take up full time. You are here are you not?
Precisely, confirmed the voice. When you stopped signalling us by carrier pigeon I became worried. I wondered just how badly you wanted your reward. Still, youve just laid those fears to rest. Is that it?
Shadow looked down at the bag at his feet. Your precious weapon? Come and see for yourself.
I will. A silhouette detached itself from the darkness beyond the war machines and stepped boldly in to the light. She was tall for a girl, and moved with the kind of unwavering confidence one only ever found in the highest levels of authority. She was just a girl though, by Shadows standards. To think she could have been one of the Empires Generals was hard to believe. She wore a billowing white cape over a an emerald green leotard and blue leather boots that came up to her knees. Her blue eyes met his without even a trace of apprehension, she had nothing to fear from him. A contingent of soldiers moved forward to flank her.
She nudged the bag distractedly with her with her boot and then motioned for one of the troopers to retrieve it. Where are the others who were with you? she asked firmly.
Dead. Or as near to death as it matters.
Good, she nodded, though some small glimmer of uncertainty showed in her voice. With passing interest she asked, You knew who they were?
Shadow shrugged. A treasure hunter from Kohlingen, he was just here for the money. The other was an Imperial officer, claiming to be a Returner.
General Celes regarded him speculatively. You knew he was an Imperial soldier?
I surmised as much. The way he moved, spoke. Certain things he said. He said his name was Alton. Shadow left that hanging for a second, hoping the General would fill in the blanks for him. She didnt and he continued. I take it he is a renegade?
Yes. A most dangerous traitor. His true identity is not a concern of yours. Suffice to say I have reason to believe he was in league with a certain parties to unsettle the balance of power within the Empire, she paused briefly before going on. You did well to kill him.
Quite. There is one more thing?
Oh? inquired Celes archly.
I take it you experienced the earthquakes on your way down here? Whatever this thing is it seems to have caused them. I dont know the full scale of its power, but you should refrain from touching it. It has a devious nature.
Celes seemed unimpressed. Its a bag of old bones. I have no idea of its true importance, but I believe it may be the key to understanding magic. I think that a friend of mine will find them very useful indeed.
Youre not taking it to the Emperor? Shadow was surprised by this, but tried to keep his tone conversational.
Like I said, it is not your concern, something in her mood had darkened and Shadow knew he had stepped too far. He could help but feel unhinged by this though.
Of course. You should heed my words however. Something rests within the ruin of that dead thing. It should not be disturbed lightly.
I am not a fool, Celes replied haughtily. I know more about the nature of magic than you realise. Celes waved a single hand in the air to signal the troops and then turned to follow her men.
You kept many secrets form me, Shadow called after her. That could have been costly.
It wasnt. The Empire is very grateful to you for your service.
Why did you kill the old man? He wasnt sure why he cared really, but it was important to him.
Celes stopped and looked at him curiously. He was a complication. It was necessary.
I see. In that moment he reached a decision. He had to test them. He would never know otherwise. You made things very difficult for me. I think I would like a raise.
She turned away from him and walked back beyond the light. By all means, she replied detachedly.
Im in trouble. That was too easy.
He heard heavy movement in the tunnel beyond, large machinery and the tramp of many feet. The Imperials were moving out. The Magitek armour stayed exactly where it was.
Shadow looked up at each in turn. They were silent, unmoving. They were going to kill him. He sighed deeply and looked impassively at the ground.
And to think...I should have stopped running after all this time.
He felt rather than saw the Magi-engines roar in to life. Heard the flare of building energy, the rush of pressured steam. He looked up and almost smiled. Life was never exciting without some concerns to ruin your day. The Magitek suits sang in to a fiery chorus, but he had always preferred to sing his own song. He sang it now.
Youre General Leo!? I cant believe this? What the hell is going on here? Some kind of bad practical joke you like to play at home in Vector? If youre the Empire and then theres those other guys out there, then who the hell is Shadow working for?
I dont know, General Leo confessed. My mission was meant to be a well kept secret. Not even the highest ranking officials of the Empire were meant to be aware of it. Something must have leaked out. They cant know all the details. Or perhaps they do and
They plan to overthrow the Emperor. I cannot allow that to happen. Locke, we must get out of here!
Oh really? And even if we did get out, what then? You really think Id help you? After what you put me through down here? And for what? To give the Empire an evil more powerful weapon! You got some nerve pal. The Empire can burn for all I care! Locke was fuming, if he wasnt bleeding to death he would have clawed his way through the rock and throttled Leo.
I dont expect you to understand me, persisted Leo. I am a soldier, all I know is how to fight and serve my Emperor. Nothing else matters to me. I know you hate the Empire, but one day one day there will be a time without war and betrayal. I want to see that time. I dont want this world to burn.
Whatever, Locke grumbled, Do it your goddamned self.
Im sorry Locke. Im sorry we have to die this way.
Im sorry too, though he really wasnt. For me that is. You, Im not so worried about.
Why are you sorry? asked Shadow, walking out of the darkness.
Locke tried to rise in a rage and immediately feel backwards as a rush of agony blazed through his chest. He wheezed and hacked as he stared up at Shadow with unforgiving eyes.
You?! Came back to finish me off have you? Better make it quick cause Im sure as hell going to try and kill you first.
Shadow looked down at him curiously. He seemed to actually be regarding Locke as someone capable of murder for the first time.
Im not here to finish you off, he said simply. He fished inside his shirt and groped around for something. I was betrayed.
Yeah? Join the club pal.
The exit is closed off. The Empire brought it down. They mean to bury us. Locke suddenly noticed the assassin was holding his left arm. It looked burnt, a strip of black cloth and been torn from his garb to use as a bandage.
Youre wounded, he observed.
Imperial courtesy. I asked for too much money. Though I have to wonder if they would have paid me at all.
So, they really did stick it you. Good for them, Locke smiled indignantly. Now we can all die here in peace.
Were not going to die. Ill need both your help to get out of here.
Our help? Our help?! Youre even worse than General trapped-guy over there. Did you forget about the part where you stabbed me? With a knife?
I did not pierce any of your vital organs. I gave you a flesh wound nothing more.
The blade was poisoned. Here. Shadow dropped a tied leather bag on to his lap and moved past him to the wall. Those herbs should clear up most of the poison. The bleeding you will just have to deal with. General Leo, are you there?
You know who I am?
I always suspected as much. The thiefs over righteous cries confirmed those suspicions.
Locke pulled upon the tiny string that sealed the bag with his teeth and tipped the herbs on to his tongue. They were dry and tasted of mint. He couldnt really be sure if it was an antidote or if Shadow was giving him an even faster poison, but he supposed he had little else to do.
What are you doing back here? Leo asked Shadow. The caution in his voice revealed his own suspicions. Where did you take the bones?
I handed them over to an Imperial General. She took them and left. Her army obliterated most of the hall. We cant get out.
She? So it wasnt Kefka it was her all this time. What interest does she have in this? Leo seemed to be talking almost to himself. Locke hoped he hadnt gone loco again.
No idea. Shes not taking them to the Emperor though. When I heard that I realised I had been mistaken.
Gradually, Locke became aware of the feeling seeping back in to his limbs. Pins and needles flared across his extremities and he nearly cried out at the sensation.
Yes. You see when you introduced yourself to me as a Returner I came to believe you were a renegade. You were clearly an Imperial, but Imperial soldiers do not skulk about in the dark as we do. They come with flame and the sword and they take what they want. So it was with this Imperial General. We have all been deceived here. I thought I was working for the Empire. The thief thought he was working for the Returners.
So it seems we are all a fine pack of fools, Leo sounded like he actually believed the turncoats story.
Yeah, said Locke as he gone assuredly to his feet. But that doesnt mean He lunged for the assassins throat, his fingers wrapping tightly around the slender neck. Im not going to tear your freaking head off! Shadow tried to slide free, but he was unprepared for the sudden fury of Lockes attack.
The two of them stumbled back against the wall. Locke freed one of his hands to drive his palm hard in to Shadows head and slam it back against the wall. The ninja buckled slightly, then delivered a sharp punch in to Lockes chest. His still open wound stung like a vengeful bitch and he fell backwards hollering.
Locke, we do not have time for this the Empire began Shadow, but he was cut off.
Abruptly the ground started to judder again, and the two of them were knocked from their feet. This time however the quake seemed more centralized, as if it was all coming down upon them alone. The rising grumble of rock against rock was deafening.
Damn fool, look what youve done! accused Shadow.
Me, you started all this when you tried to kill me, Locke spat back.
What did the two of you do! bellowed Leo from behind the wall.
Actually this is me, a voice said inside Lockes head.
Im doing this. I have to free you. Youre my only hope.
Who is that? Whose speaking inside my head? asked Shadow. It must have been speaking to all three of them.
Who are you?
Theres no time for that now. You have to get back inside the chamber, here, Ill open the way for you.
And just like that, the fallen debris that blocked the passage fell away. In all certainty what ever insecure weight it had been supporting should have collapsed down after it, but it didnt. Something held it in place.
Hurry. I cant hold it for long.
They didnt need to be told twice. Shadow and Locke rushed through the man sized opening, just as the roof came crashing down behind them. Leo stood looking at them wide eyed.
Something speaks to me, He said.
We know, said Locke out of breath. It spoke to us as well and I think it helped me earlier.
Look. Look up. There is a way.
As one they all raised their eyes to the roof. The lens that had provided the burial chamber with its source of light was gone and in its place was a gaping hole in the ceiling.
The shaft leads to the surface? Leo asked. We can climb it?
Yes. It travels at an incline. It is not too steep. With the three of you, you should be able to reach it.
It took some doing. And more cooperation than the three of them were willing engage themselves in at the current state things were in. There were bigger issues at stake here though and they didnt see the sense in dying over the sake of pride.
You have to get out, the voice impressed upon them as they crawled along the tight confines of the shaft. You cant allow them to take his body away from here. You cant let her touch them.
The Empires General, said Shadow.
She must be the third that Rostov spoke of, Leo deducted with a snap of his finger.
Huh? Locke wasnt really sure what was going on anymore.
Never mind. But if what the voice says is true we cant let her touch the seal. It would be disastrous.
Yes. He must be stopped before he grows too strong. I can only help you for so long. Theyre taking me further away from you. I cant hear you so well.
What are you?
I am part of him. Forever joined. I am the source of his power and the cause of all this sorrow. Long ago he killed me and took my soul for his own keeping. Now my power, the power of magic is all that keeps him alive. You must stop him. Destroy what remains of my soul before he uses me for evil once again.
You could you be Leo seemed afraid of the finishing that sentence.
What? What is it? pressured Locke.
Perhaps the answer to the very riddle the Empire has been searching for, suggested Shadow.
No wonder she wants it. We have to stop her though. Theres no way she can understand what that thing really is.
And for the sake of us not steeped in your boundless wisdom? inquired Shadow. Would you care to elaborate on that?
A long dead Magi. Probably from the very start of the war. Even though he was a king the others killed him for his crimes against the Espers and they buried him here under a dreadful curse. However they did not bury him alone.
Locke was thoughtful for a moment. There were other bones in the chamber. Could they have been the Espers?
Perhaps, but I think the truth could lie in whatever that talisman was he had clasped in his skeletal fingers.
And thats whats keeping him alive? asked Locke.
Yes. We have to destroy it. If it breaks free
Locke snorted. Itll kill all the soldiers. So what. I say it can do whatever it wants.
Locke, you have seen first hand the dark soul of this creature. You saw the mural on the wall. If it breaks free it will bring suffering to not just the Empire, but all lands. I will not allow it to take a single life.
Locke found he couldnt deny the generals words. He shook his head in bemusement. Funny, you dont sound like any Imperial soldier Ive ever known.
I should hope youve not met many. We are men, much like yourself. Do you think we worship evil?
As a matter of fact I do. It came out harder than he had meant it to, but he didnt see the need to apologise.
We seem to be nearing the light, observed Shadow.
Faster. They move quickly but they are close still. If you hurry you can still catch them.
Fast they were, but scaling the length of a steep stone shaft that twisted its way back up to the surface was nowhere near simple. Struggling back out in to the light of day, Leo realised he didnt know where he was. They could have been miles, from where they had originally gone underground. They had come out on top of a rough boulder formation in the middle of a sea of sand. There was no guarantee whatsoever that Celes and her battalion were anywhere nearby. Still, the Esper said they were close. They had to be somewhere in his field of vision.
There, said Shadow pointing. You see them?
He did, couldnt have been more than a click away from them. Still, they had no chance of reaching them on foot, not at the speed they were probably going. He made out six suits of Heavy Armour, at least two Beast Riders one suit of Mega Armour on the fore, a troop transport and at the centre of the formation a Haul Armour dragging a cargo sled behind.
Theyre too far. Well never catch them.
No, you must.
But how? We cannot move as fast as the do. We need transport.
You there freeze!
They whirled as one to see an approaching Heavy Suit, its Magic generators powering up to fire.
A scout! She must have wanted to ensure we didnt come out of there alive. We must be closer to the original entrance than I thought.
Stand down trooper. In the Emperors name I command you. It was strange to use his officers voice again after such a long time. He straightened his posture in an attempt to strengthen his conviction.
Freeze I said! demanded the trooper. You, drop your weapon.
He isnt going to listen to you, said Shadow casting his knife down in the sand.
The Magitek pilot peered closer through the visor of his helmet. Its you! But we buried you! How did you get out of there!
Stand down trooper! I am General Leo. Dont you recognise me? I order you to
General Leo? Dont make me laugh! Ive met General Leo, hes twice as tall as you are and he certainly no traitor! Get down from there. Im taking you in to custody rebel scum.
No. Youre not, replied Leo firmly.
And why is that? asked the trooper.
Because you arent in control of this situation, said Shadow. In a single fluid movement he leapt from the top of the boulder on to the hood of the armour. The driver panicked and grabbed for his controls, but never reached them. Shadow snapped a swift kick to the mans jaw and sent him tumbling unconscious to the sand below.
Well? Are we going? he asked.
In that thing? Do you even know how to drive it? Locke was incredulous.
Not entirely, but he does, Shadow said indicating Leo.
Yes. I can pilot it, the two of you will have to do your best to hold on. We can still catch them.
Those are Imperial soldiers. What will you do? asked Shadow. Leo grimaced, he knew what was being asked of him.
They dont know what theyre doing. If we can avoid Id like to spare as many as possible.
And then what? challenged Locke. Do you really want to destroy that thing? Your Emperor sent you to retrieve it didnt he.
I will do what I think is best. I hope you will do the same.
Celes couldnt help but feel relieved. After all this time she could finally visualise hope in the days ahead. There had a point when she had thought it was all going to end in ruin. Had Leo retrieved the Magis remains, he would have taken them back to Vector and handed them over to Kefka without a word of question. His loyalty to the Empire was so absolute, he would march directly in the flames of hell at his Emperors behest. And so he very well had.
The canter of her Magitek suit jolted her uncomfortably as he pelted across the desert. At their current speed they could be back in South Figaro before the onset of evening. An air transport would be a waiting them there. After that they were home free to the capital. Celes couldnt wait to see the expression on Kefkas face when he realised what had happened.
There was no denying it. Kefka was a psychopath. Making him a knight of the Empire was one thing, but allowing him to take over Professor Cids research? That was inexcusable. She had even heard that the Emperor had turned over his most prized and secret weapon to Kefkas vile schemes. To put him in possession of so much power was pure folly. To ignore the brilliance of a man like Cid was sheer lunacy.
The swift progress of their powerful engines across the dunes created a streaming funnel of sand around their convoy. Celes sighed. She trusted Cid, more than she had anyone else in her life. She had no family or friends to speak of. Cid was the only person she had ever had to depend upon. He was always there with stern counsel and a warm cheeriness that she found comforting. She respected the Emperor. He was her liege, her benefactor and the one responsible for all she had, but she did not care for him.
When she had heard that Cid had been demoted under Kefka at the Magitek research facility she had been horrified. Her protests to the Emperor fell on deaf ears and everyone else had been too afraid of Kefka to support her. For the first time in her life she had realised how alone she was. But she would not let that become her weakness.
If she knew of any way to help Cid she would act upon it. Only he truly understood the nature of magic and matched it with the responsibility to govern that power with wisdom. The Emperor would see that, when Cid revealed that he had discovered the root of the Espers power.
Cid, of course, knew nothing of this whole affair. A source within the Empires intelligence network had revealed to her that General Leo had been dispatched in secret to retrieve a weapon of magical origin. One that could in theory revolutionise the state of magic in their society. She knew then that the Emperor intended for Kefka to study that power, she knew she could not allow that to happen.
Securing herself a battalion had been easy. All she had needed to do was convince the Emperor that she had received word of a Returner cell operating near Figaro, but she had neglected to inform the troops of such a mission. As far as they were concerned, they were carrying out the same mission given to Leo by the Emperor. Cid would be the one to uncover the mystery of those bones and Kefkas schemes would be undone. The deserts edge reared on the horizon.
Nothing could stop her now.
The eight man squad Celes had ordered to guard the remains rode uneasily in the back of the Haul Armour. Haul Armour had a specific purpose within the operations of the Empire. It carried supplies and cumbersome weaponry from A to B with all the speed and directness of a steam train. It was a scurrying, crab-like machine with an elongated body in three segments. The Pilot rode in the front segment, the middle housed the Armours power source and the last was a transport section. Usually that was where the supplies were stored, but Celes had chosen to place men inside and tow the remains behind on a sled. The men were not at all happy with the situation. Ever since they had entered that unholy place they had been jumping at shadows and looking at each other feverishly. Something just hadnt right about that temple and now they had to travel with that. It was just a hideous collection of bones.
Trooper Zane removed his chrome helmet and rubbed the strain from his temples. He was prone to migraines while travelling. Some kind of travel sickness his physician said. He wasnt so used to the flashing lights at the corner of his eyes though. He felt afraid for no real reason and that made him feel mad. He looked up to read the faces of his fellow troopers. Speaking wasnt an option in the back of the Hauler, the clank and whir of the machine was so damn noisy it was impossible. They all seemed pretty down for some reason. He guessed it was the whole deal with the Temple. They were all spooked. Still, no one really seemed to connect with each other, they were all off in their own little worlds.
THEY FEAR YOU.
What? He looked around in alarm. The voice was strange and unfamiliar to him. And yet he found totally captivating.
DRENCHED IN BLOOD INSIDE YOUR OWN DREAMS. YOU ARE THE RAINMAKER, THE RAIN OF RED.
NO DEAR BOY, YOURE VERY MUCH AWAKE. HOW I ENVY YOU.
Where are you? he asked allowed.
Zane looked out towards the trailer and saw then that the lights werent just flashing in the corners of his eyes, they were coming from something on the sled. Like the Hauler, the sled ran on a smaller set of ambulatory legs. The open canopy of the sled was glowing too many colours. It was beautiful.
I wish everyone else could see this.
THEY CAN. LOOK. LOOK AT YOUR BROTHERS.
He turned to look back at the rest of his squad and saw that they were all staring at him. There eyes were dead, devoid of life and humanity, but there mouths were all smiling. They were smiling at him.
He smiled back. They had work to do.
The convoy left behind a sandstorm in their wake, the brunt of it barrelled in to them as they steamed across the desert after them. Magitek armour was capable of travelling at about 80 mph at full pelt across open land. It loped across the rolling banks like a hunched gorilla, each powerful stride carrying it several feet. It was hard to make out how far behind they were with the sand buffeting them every second and their ride juddering up and down with every step. Locke could feel his teeth jarring inside his skull as he clenched his mouth shut against the sand cloud.
Shadow, clutching the opposite side of the exhaust system seemed unaffected by the sand or the discomfort of their journey. He held his left arm tight against his chest though and it was clear it still pained him.
Their pilot was focused only on the road ahead. If his eyes stung he made no mention of it, for they remained fixed on the trail. His hair was blown flat across his head in a billowing line.
It did not take long for them to go completely unnoticed. The first they knew of this was a lance sailing through the air to sink its steel teeth in the Armours hood. The prime suspect was a charging beast rider from the left who came surging out of the dust storm on the back of his vigorous behemoth. The snarling red skinned beast ran up alongside their suit as it continued its unabated pursuit of the cargo. Leo must have tried to drive it off using the suits left claw, but it swerved just out of his reach, while the rider plucked another lance from his saddle.
Shadow dropped his grip on the suits exhaust and took hold of a lower rung, allowing himself to lean outwards further. Grunting in pain he plucked his blade from his belt with his free arm. The behemoth came in close again, its rider levelling the spear to ram through Leos skull. He never even saw Shadow, reaching down and slashing his blade briskly across the monsters exposed fore limb. It reared up in a cry of animal pain and toppled backwards in to the storm, incapable of controlling its momentum. The rider disappeared beneath it.
They came in view of the full convoy now, there was some kind of commotion on the Hauler, but it was to hard to make out through the haze. There were shouts coming from the troop transport and several Magitek suits seemed to be firing at something as they ran. Whatever it was, it was not them. Apart from that one rider they had gone completely unnoticed. Well, not completely.
Locke nearly lost his hold on the suit entirely when another came steaming out of nowhere to ram in to their side. The screech of metal on metal filled his ears as the Heavy suit smashed in to them. Shadow was thrown back in to the cockpit to land behind Leo, while the General himself worked tirelessly at the controls to keep them steady. Just as the rider had done, the Heavy suit did its best to run along side them. Heaving and pushing them with every step. Its claw came lashing in and ran deep divots down the armours flank. Leo responded by using his own claw to punch the other suit to one side. It faltered for a minute, but then came in again, its steel incisors biting deep in to the exhaust pipes.
Damn were locked together.
Not to mention out of control. It was hard enough to direct a speeding machine while someone was ramming in to you, when you find yourself welded to another speeding vehicle that wants to travel in a completely different direction to you, you were really in trouble.
Celes was candidly unaware that anything was wrong until the inbuilt intercom of her Mega Armour blurted in to buzzing life.
General! Armour approaching! Its one of the scouts!
She switched control over to auto-pilot and craned her head back to get a better look at the approaching suit. He was moving towards them at an incredible speed, it seemed wildly excessive to her and that was what put her on edge to begin with.
Is he running from something? Or perhaps he has something vital to report. But if thats the case why didnt he just use the intercom?
The hairs rose on the back of her neck and she tried to focus more clearly on the rapidly advancing dot. The pilots control over his suit was inexpert at best, it looked as if he had barely passed the basic training modules. There was a curious tipping to each side as it ran also, almost as if it were carrying extra weight. Then it dawned on her.
Its him. I dont know how but he escaped, but its him. He wants revenge.
Her hand flew to the falchion at her side. Leo was a warrior. He craved a life of bloodshed and an honourable death in battle. She would see that he was not disappointed.
All units converge on approaching suit, she commanded over the intercom. It is under the control of rebels. Destroy it. I repeat. All units-
A chilling scream broke the air, drowning out even the heavy motor sound of the Magitek engines. Celes snapped her head around in time to see The Haul Armour come charging forward to careen in one of the Heavy suits. The sheer size and mass of the Hauler tore through the smaller suit like a knife through warm butter. Its pilot was brutally crushed beneath the Haulers crablike legs as he fell screaming from his cockpit. The first thought to fly through her head had something to do with thinking that Leo was responsible, despite the fact that he was still a good half click away. Her eyes flicked to the Haul Armours cockpit and widened in shock when she saw its pilot sitting there motionless. He appeared to have lost his head somewhere along the way.
That was when she saw their were creatures standing atop the Armours roof. They were gaunt with deeply veined skin and cold inhuman eyes. For an instant she assumed they were common desert beasts, attracted by the commotion of their convey, but then she got a closer look. They were all clad in the same bulky armour. Rounded helmets casting dim shadows over their haunted faces. It was Imperial armour. They were her soldiers. Her hands tightened about the controls.
Duly tired of hanging on for his dear life, Locke swung himself up on to the suits hood and then proceeded to leap on the attacking suit. The driver was still struggling to free his wayward arm and had his attention fixed firmly on his control panel. Utilising strength he didnt know he had, Locke forced his hands underneath the pilots arms and tossed him forward out of the cockpit. He fell screaming in to the rising sand below and vanished, his cries drifting off far behind them. This still left them in no state of control whatsoever and even worse off now that there was no one to drive the second suit. They ambled furiously onward, knocking another charging suit harmlessly aside to topple in the desert.
Leo! shouted Locke Get us alongside the hauler!
Im trying! It wont respond anymore! Were going to crash!
Locke didnt need an invitation to stick around for that. The Hauler loomed up in front of them. It was not so far away. He could make the jump. It was moving strangely though, swerving from side to side. It swerved a foot closer to the right. It was just close enough, all he had to do was time it right.
A sudden and drastic impact threw him backwards. A brief glimpse of blackness flowed passed the scope of his vision and he found himself lying back on their own suit. The suit he had been stood upon came to a jarring halt as it fell free from them and collapsed. Locke scrabbled backwards desperately in order to keep from falling off, his hand catching a sturdy pipe in the process.
The suit dipped and powered forward again as Leo regained a small ounce of influence over its momentum. Locke hauled himself up in to a safer position and then realized to his astonishment that all was not as it should be.
Leo looked up at him in alarm. Did he fall?
Lockes head darted around in search of the ninja. There was no sign of him. He had to have slipped and fell. He turned back to say so to Leo and in doing so caught sight again of the Hauler. There he found Shadow.
I dont believe it! He jumped!
He jumped! The son of a bitch jumped!
Hes going after the remains. Hes determined to make his cut when all this said and done. He doesnt give a shit what happens to anyone else.
Its been fun Alton! Or Leo, or whatever your name is! Catch you later! If we meet again youd better hope this war of yours is over, or you and me are going to have to settle things!
Locke?! What are you doing?! Locke?!
It was nowhere near as close. Somehow the hauler had picked up speed and was rocketing forward with all the fury of an enraged dragon. They were keeping pace with it for now, but sooner or later they were going to crash. He didnt have much choice in the matter. He moved in to a crouch, tensed his thighs and leaned back on to his haunches. Then he jumped.
At a wrench of her controls, Celess Mega Armour circled about in a blaring protest of gears and pistons. It came a full 180 degrees and reeled forward at top speed. She wasnt about to permit what ever insane force had overtaken her men to make away with her prize. Leo and his band could go to hell. This was her command. She was general here. The Mega Armour was built of sterner stuff than the regular suits and had upgraded weapon systems, however it stood little chance of surviving a direct impact in to the rampaging Haul Armour. It was good thing Celes did not require it in that case, she just needed a route on board the Armour.
Mere seconds before her suit tore itself to pieces under the assault of the steel juggernaut, she jumped clear and soared clear over the suits cockpit. She landed deftly on all fours and was immediately forced to roll to one side as one her possessed troopers came howling towards her with his sword held crookedly in one hand. She came to rest on one knee and in a single movement slid her falchion from its scabbard across his waist. The trooper died with blood gargling in his throat as he clutched his leaking stomach.
She was on her feet again in no time and whirling to face the others who moved to surround her on the violently jolting mage-machine. Their dead faces did not know her, except perhaps as a victim. She bore them no greater courtesy, as they closed about her she darted forward, sword in hand. Two died with gaping red wounds in their chests, another was thrown clean off the juggernaut, his flesh flooded by the cold seeping force of magic.
Just past the heads of those to the rear of the Armour Celes saw that there were people on the sled. Flailing about as it bucked and shook under the fierce energy with which it was pulled. It didnt look like they were her troopers, but she had little time to worry about them now. Another maniac soldier came at her, blood running down his chin from where he had torn at his lip. She stepped casually aside and ran him through, but in her carelessness she lost her grip on her blade. The mans blood slicked down on to her hand and the weight of his body pulled the sword with him. In her effort to keep a hold of it, she felt her self keeling over. A second brutal collision rocked the Hauler that sent Celes tumbling to one side. Seeing their chance, the last two marauders steamed in to stab at her with their blades. She reached toward her own sword, still stuck halfway in the guts of the last she had killed, but there was no time. She tensed herself to summon her magic in the instant before the blades fell But they never did.
The two former troopers were cut down where they stood under an elegant series of sword strokes. Celes looked up, her eyes full of gratitude for whoever had saved her, but instantly lost any such sense when she saw who it was.
Celes, said Leo simply. There was no accusation in his voice, no rage, just a simple acknowledgement of her. The brown woollens he had dressed himself in were stained with blood. He was bearded and his hair had been dyed to make it browner, but she knew straight away it was him.
Leo. Youre too late. I wont allow you to complete your mission.
Why? Leos face was a mixture of questions but this was all he managed.
Youre a loyal man Leo, anyone can see that, but your loyalty is so immense it blinds you. This artefact will never belong to Kefka.
So you think it will find better use in Cids hands? You have a warped sense of logic Celes. We both serve the Empire.
Unfortunately not everyone shares your piety. Making a lunge, Celes grasped the hilt of her sword and swept it clear.
Shadow landed catlike on the aft of the cargo sled. It was a good twelve feet in length, wrapped in thick metallic cables to secure its freight under a red tarpaulin. Staying aloft and on balance was a matter of some complexity he discovered as whoever was driving the Hauler had decided to crank it up a notch. He set his feet firmly apart from on another as he steadied himself against the wind and started to make his way towards the end of the sled.
In hindsight this entire ordeal had been a most costly experience. If nothing else his opinions about Imperial reliability had been vastly challenged. Next time he picked up an assignment from them, he would be certain to ascertain he was working under proper Imperial authority. In this case however he had decided to cut and run. The Empire could have their prized weapon if they wanted, but they would have to pay him through the nose to get it. He wasnt going to let Leo destroy it and he certainly wasnt going to let Celes steal it from under him. There was a certain honour among thieves that military types just didnt understand. That would cost them and dearly.
He was aware of the slight buck the sled made as another sizeable weight dropped on to it. His entire demeanour suggested he was completely un-aware of it as he struggled forwards across the sled. Reaching round to the front of his belt to ensure the movement went unnoticed, his fingers slid the handle of his knife in to his right hand. He listened intently for the light ragged footfalls behind his, trying hide their sound my matching his own. Waiting until he caught the slight sensation of breath upon the air, he whipped around knife outstretched to slash directly across the throat.
But he found himself only slicing air. There was no one in sight.
A blow thundered in to his exposed left arm and Shadow yelled out in pain as Locke drove his other fist in to his face. The thief had been far quicker on his feet than Shadow would have given him credit for. He had slipped around on Shadows left while he had been turning right. The element of surprise was short lived however as Shadow caught the third incoming punch by the wrist and twisted hard. It was Lockes turn to cry out twice in succession as the ninja pulled him in and slammed his elbow in to his wounded sided.
He slashed downward with his knife and drew a short spray of blood from Lockes arm. The thief stepped back apace and flicked out his own dagger. For a second they stared across from each other as the sled bucked underneath them. Towards the end of the sled, the tarpaulin seemed to be on fire, a spectral light seething form underneath. Shadow stared coldly in to Lockes eyes and got grim determination in return.
Celes sliced upward, hoping to catch Leo in the thigh, but she found his blade instead, deflecting hers.
Celes, we can stop this. I dont want the artefact anymore. Ill destroy it.
In that case, I really cant let you have it. The Emperor will have his weapon, hell just have someone other than Kefka to thank for it!
She shoved his blade away and leaped to her feet. Before he could speak again she was on him, her blade darting high and low for a chink in his defence. Leo was most capable swordsman. Probably the best the world, to hear some laud his abilities. He was tired though and weak. The days of endless journeying in the wilderness and near burial beneath the sand had taken their toll. He moved sluggishly, relying more on instinct than martial cunning. She could take him, she was sure of it.
A jolt beneath the legs of the Hauler sent him careening forward towards her with no control over his own motion. She ducked beneath the fall of his blade rammed the cross of her hilt in to the bridge of his nose. He grunted and stumbled allowing Celes to close on him with her sword bared for a killing cut. She realised too later her folly though, when Leo suddenly righted himself and caught her hand tightly in his trapping her sword downwards. He could have brought his blade down on her then, but he didnt. He pulled hard on her arm and slammed the tip of her sword against the Haulers roof, trying to pry it from her grip. He wanted to try and disarm her. That was his mistake.
Pulling him in to her she lashed her boot sideways hitting him squarely in the pelvis. He grimaced in exertion and fell to one knee, his grip on her loosening. She kicked him again in the left shoulder and he tumbled backward along the roof. Flipping her sword to her free hand she followed after him. It was time to finish this.
As one they moved, almost it seemed as each were a mirror of the other. Lockes strikes came in low and fast. Shadow met them at his own pace making as little of his own movements as possible. The thiefs knife work was impressive. He fought with a collected presence and dexterity that reminded Shadow of someone he had once known long ago. He seemed to remember killing them.
The ninja was not prone to engaging in drawn out battles. He absorbed the brunt of Lockes efforts and observed that the thief was tiring quickly. Shadow seized the initiative, his own assault exploding forth with terrifying speed. Locke took another stab in the arm and dropped back an inch towards the edge. It was all the opportunity he needed.
His blade came surging forward on a course with Lockes right eye. He would have pierced him right through to the brain. He would have killed him instantly. At least he would have if Locke hadnt weaved softly forward and stabbed him first. He stiffened faintly and looked unhurriedly down to where Locke held the blade just under his right arm. A thin stream of blood trickled down the inside of his shirt.
I guess youd call that touché.
Yeah, agreed Locke, I might.
Locke pulled the knife out and Shadow felt himself slump backwards as the darkness caved in.
Leo was past trying to put an end to this peacefully. Celes was impervious to reason. Whatever had driven her down this course may not have been treason, but he could not allow her to free the Magi.
Vaulting towards her he caught her off guard with a furious chain of sword swipes. Her confidence shaken she began to circle him more warily, her parrying thrusts meeting his with less fervour.
Sensing victory, Leo powered forward, only to stop in horror. The Hauler had been out of control and off course the whole time they had been fighting. It was a wonder it hadnt collided with any obstacle large enough to stop it dead and them as well. That was about to change.
The desert dipped away before them in a sheer bank. The foot of the depression had to be at least seventy feet down. They were going to crash and very likely burn.
Celes! Look out-
She wasnt listening to him. He sword dived forward towards his heart and he swept it away. Her attention was fragmented between him and the sled over his shoulder. It was as if she cared less about him and more about getting past him to reach the contents of the sled.
Does she hear its blasted call now? Does she yearn to place her hands upon the seal?
Leo didnt want to face up to it, but unless he acted soon they would both die. He would have to kill Celes.
Lockes breath wheezed out in ragged gasps as he walked away from Shadow. Exhaustion was threatening to overwhelm his every sense of consciousness, but he couldnt falter now. The tarpaulin really was on fire, blazing away to reveal the lustrous red bones beneath. They had been secured tight with chains, but even those were glowing a molten orange as the power of the Magi surged forth. It was starting to awaken. All it needed was the touch of the Imperial general, the one who had come to take it from Leo. Locked tightly in its stone grasp, the strange stone artefact was the only thing not emanating with sheer energy. It remained as always the simple dull stone.
Set me free. I have lived too long.
FREE YOURSELF. YOU WILL DIE HERE. YOU WILL DIE SCREAMING.
Your time is up. I cannot help you now.
FORGET ME CHILD. FORSAKE YOUR MEMORY. JOIN YOUR PITIFUL LOVER IN HER OBLIVION. DO NOT TARRY IN THE RPESCENCE OF GODS.
Dont worry. Ill go, but I wont be alone.
He took a step forward, his knife held high and still wet with Shadows blood. The sled rocked as another person leapt on to it from the Hauler. Locke turned just in time to see a raving trooper stampeding towards him across the sled. The lunatic crashed in to him and they both fell towards the back of the sled. Locke smacked the trooper hard in his foam soaked mouth but only succeeded in making his assailant angrier. A crushingly tight hand gripped his knife arm while the other seized his jaw. Coarse fingers coated in filth dug in to his mouth and pulled downwards. The freak was trying to tear his face half. He bit down hard and tasted the swell of blood which made him gag. Air became sparse in his lungs and tiny lights started to eclipse his vision.
The distance between the edge of the bank and the Hauler decreased dramatically by the second. Behind him, Leo could hear the roar of flames. It was now or never.
He cast his sword aside and barrelled in to Celes, wrapping his arms tightly around her. Supporting her struggling weight against his shoulder he ran to the Haulers edge and propelled the both of them clear in to the air. The Hauler was moving at an incredible speed and it was a long way to the ground, but there was simply no where else to go. They landed heavily upon the sand and Leo bellowed in pain as he felt his shoulder crack on impact. Celes landed on top of him and was otherwise cushioned as they landed.
The Haul armour shot past them in its haste to meet its maker. Leo caught a brief glimpse of the sled as it passed and he started to black out. What he saw there made him smile.
Without warning his would be face breaker was yanked away from him by strong hands and dragged backwards towards the front of the sled. He had only a moment to register Shadow with his arm wrapped tightly round the troopers neck and trying deliberately to twist the head off. He was weak, Locke could tell, but the message in his eyes was plain. Locke nodded and spun forcing all of weight on his dagger as he lunged for the bones.
YOU CANT GO AGAINST PROPHECY BOY. YOU CANT-
Gripping the blades hilt downwards in one hand and slamming his palm on the pommel with the other Locke sent his dagger sliding firmly between a crack in the stone. His dagger piercing where the Magis hands clutched their keepsake. Whatever it was beneath the holding stone shattered like glass and the flames eating away at the sled flared brutally out of control. Spitting angrily they coursed hotly over the bones and engulfed them. A sorrowful wail echoed wildly through Lockes head as he staggered backwards and fell against Shadow still struggling with the trooper.
Time froze, just for an instant and Locke felt with great certainty that he was about to die. Then the back of the sled exploded in a shower of orange flame and golden sparks flipping the whole platform in the air. Something under the sled went snap and suddenly Locke felt himself flying. He caught glimpses of the sled, spinning away below him and Shadow leaping to one side. Then all he saw was the sand rushing towards him and it muffled him with darkness.
When he came to he was sitting with his back to rock, with the heat of the sun gently roasting him. Since he couldnt remember hoisting himself away from the crash he surmised someone else must have moved him. Of the sled, the Hauler or the Imperials he saw no sign whatsoever. He was alive. He smiled at that.
It was good to be alive.
What are you so happy about? asked a familiar voice. He inclined his head to see Shadow crouched nearby and watching him intently.
It doesnt matter. Im not sure youd appreciate it any way, he regarded the ninja suspiciously. I thought I killed you.
You have a quick eye, but poor judgement, he padded his right breast. Just an inch to the left and you would have had me in the lung.
Ill do better next time. I promise. He winced with pain as he shifted his side. He hand flew down to feel if it had gushed open again but instead he found rough stitches. Shadow had taken the time to patch him up.
There wont be a next time I trust, he said getting to his feet. This should settle the matter. I wouldve gladly walked away from this with some kind of bonus, but instead all I picked up were a few more scars.
Locke thought back to the sled, he remembered Shadow pulling the fanatic from his body. You helped me. You chose to destroy it after all didnt you.
Some things are better left buried. For a minute there all I wanted was the money, but I had a change of heart.
Maybe that thing really did affect you after all. Made you want it like the rest of us did.
No. I wanted the money plain and simple. Then I changed my mind. Magic had nothing to do with it.
Youre a strange guy Shadow.
Im just a man. A man makes his own fate. Ill be leaving now. My dog will be waiting for me.
So thats it then? Youre just going to leave me here.
I left you some food. It should be enough to get you to South Figaro or the castle. As for us this is it indeed. I dont know you and as far as youre concerned you dont know me either. Dont seek me out, dont speak of me to anyone and dont even entertain any foolish notions of a vendetta. This matter is closed. He turned away and made to go. You should get going. The Imperials may come back this way if they wish to tie up any loose ends.
Hey Shadow good luck.
The assassin made a short contemptuous sound and left. He didnt even bother to say goodbye. Locke gazed up at the sun above and smiled again. It was good to be alive, but was even better to know you had a purpose again. He knew his purpose. He wanted to be a Returner.
Leo looked forlornly over the wreckage of the burning Hauler. A lot of men had gone down with that beast. He had known some of them.
This is a grand old mess were in, he muttered.
The power of the Magi who would have thought their malice could reach so far beyond the grave, Celes had been quiet since shed come to. The realization that anything could have been toying with her emotions had been demeaning to her. Leo had an idea of what that was like.
It must have pained that tortured soul to know the world survived so untouched by the wounds it left behind, he postulated. It wanted to tear them open anew I think.
It neednt have bothered. Well make our own fresh wounds before the end, she said rather morosely as she came to stand beside him.
What do you mean?
Its only a matter of time. Weve rediscovered the ancient power of magic. It flows within my veins as we speak. There are legions of Mage-Knights like myself and Kefka. Our Magitek Armour is more terrifying than any weapon the other kingdoms have the skill or knowledge to forge. In time well come to know the true nature of magic ourselves. And when that day comes we wont even remember the Magi anymore.
I hope youre wrong. I truly do.
The remaining Heavy suits and the transports were nearly upon them. It had taken a while for them to catch up.
Well, it wont be today at least or the next day. Youve seen to that yourself. I take it youll be submitting a formal report to the Emperor? I hear the stockade is a most unpleasant residence. Still I suppose I will prefer it to execution.
Leo looked at her inquisitively. Report to the Emperor? Yes I suppose I must. He will want an explanation. It wont be fully accurate though.
You would lie to the Emperor? You?
I do not intend to lie exactly. I just have a strong suspicion that I will have forgotten several vital details about this entire affair by the time reach Vector. The Emperor will have to accept that his prize is lost and we must find another way to win the coming war.
Celes was looking at him in a way that espoused scepticism.
And if I tell him what truly happened? he continued, We would both be thrown in the stockade to mope over our collective failures. With the two of us out the way, what would stop Kefka then? Would you prefer that?
You think I need your help to deal with Kefka? she asked glaring at him hotly.
No, I think we both need to keep our wits about us. With the two of us around to step on his coattails that shouldnt be too difficult.
Celes considered for a moment. You have a most concise way with words. Fine. Lets go. I wish to put this behind me as soon as possible.
Indeed, though we must not forget the tragedy we witnessed here as a result of our failure. A lot of good men fell prey to that demon.
And what of your companions? If they survived they might prove dangerous. No one outside the Empire should know what happened here today.
They did survive, I am sure of it. And I say good luck to them whatever they choose to do with their lives. Its no longer any concern of ours. He looked of in to the western horizon and sighed. He truly hoped they all found what they were really looking for.
It was hot in the desert. It was hot and the sun was king of all that lay beneath it. Locke was pretty sure he never wanted to see a single grain of sand in his life again. Ever. Of course, he would have to start by leaving the desert first, but that was far from easy.
He had no idea where he was going.
Hed had this whole list set down in his head about how and where he was going to start following tabs on the Returners. Find out where they set their plans in motion, who their leaders were. If he was going to get them to accept him as their first rate and one and only treasure hunter he wanted the low-down on them.
He was going to have to find his way out of the desert first.
You know, Im pretty tired. Think Ill take a rest for now
It must have been midday, but he had been walking for hours and he was exhausted. So he fell to his knees and slumped face forward in to the sand. It was a great place for a nap he thought. All he had to do was closed his eyes and drift off to sleep.
There was no way to tell how long he lay, with his face half buried in the sand and his but burning in the sun. He was in way comfortable, but he didnt want to move either. All he wasted was to stay right here.
Your Majesty! Over here!
Oh great, more interruptions. Cant you guys just leave me alone for five minutes?
Who do you think he is? asked a rich upper class voice. Some bum from out west looking for gold in the sand? the voice seemed rather amused at his own jest.
Hands gripped him and he felt himself being turned over.
He looks exhausted. Marwell, bring water.
Well, said the civilized man, This kind of throws a damper on our experiment. And I had so wanted to see if this engine worked. Locke heard footsteps approaching and the man came to kneel beside him.
Whore you? he asked in a dry voice, his tongue gone thick for lack of water.
Dont be afraid, the mad said gently. He was dressed rather finely. His noble features almost befitted someone of a royal disposition. Locke was pretty sure he disliked him already. Youre safe with us my friend. I am King Edgar. You could say own this desert. Though since I signed the treaty it really does belong to the Empire. Am I talking too much? Do stop me if Im boring you.
I dont like you, Locke said drearily, his chest heaving with fatigue.
The King laughed. Yes, I think youll be just fine. Mr
Locke Locke Cole.
Mr Locke Cole, Edgar looked him up and down as his man passed a flagon of water to him. Locke grasped it and pressed it to his lips. Edgars eyes must have happened upon his dagger. Nice blade. You are he seemed to toss a few alternatives around his head and then, a thief?
Locke tossed the flagon aside with great force and grabbed Edgar roughly by his fine shirt. Edgar looked down at him in bewilderment as Locke pulled him close and hissed in to his face. Thats Treasure Hunter!
Locke didnt know if he would ever find the Returners but he was sure as hell going to get things straight. And that would start with everyone knowing him as he really was.
All That Glitters Is Cold Fanfic Competition
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