Spectres Of The Past - Prologue

[12.12.01] » by Jason Connor


First and foremost to God, for giving me the inspiration and
strength necessary to write this story and to see it through to the end.
To Timothy Zahn, for giving me a level of excellence to aspire to.
And to Sarah, for all her support, and for not giving up on me ;)


          "Sir? We just received word."
          Grodin Markiss, Commander of the Imperial Navy and leader of the Empire--or what was left of it, anyway--nodded silently. He remained where he stood, hands clasped behind his back, looking out the picture window at the bustling streets of Albrook. "And?" he replied after a moment, though he already knew what the aide would say.
          "Governor Disra of Tzen has conceded to your request. He is making preparations as we speak for the convoy to embark from the port. Everything will be ready on schedule."
          Markiss turned from the window, his shoulders dropping slightly, as though finally relieved of a great burden. "Thank you, Major. That will be all."
          The aide nodded crisply, turned and left the room.
          "That's the last one," Markiss said into the silence. "Now it is only a matter of time."
          "For the record, sir," said the room's other occupant, "I'd like to restate that I strongly object to this course of action."
          "Your objection has been duly noted, Governor," Markiss replied, an edge now in his voice. He moved to the governor's yakra-wood desk, sat down in its ornate chair. "Although I am still open to suggestions," he added amicably.
          Cain Tierce, governor of the now-capital of Albrook, gritted his teeth. "We've already been over this," he answered, forcing his voice to remain civilized as he set his glass down and turned away from the brandy cabinet, a vice of his lately. "I've suggested storming Figaro with Magitek Armored Tanks. I've suggested hiring assassins and bounty hunters. You've heard all my suggestions, and you've turned them all down."
          He crossed his arms and walked over to the window, became a silhouette against the office's lone source of light. "I don't think you fully understand the political situation Figaro finds itself in these days. With all the out-lying city-states waiting to join the coalition, clamoring for equal attention, demanding the settling of old grievances, Figaro's resources are being taxed more now than ever. All that's needed is a little nudge in the right place, and things will boil over in an instant."
          "The political situation in Figaro is not the issue here," Markiss countered as he swiveled the chair around, his expression growing hard at the other's obstinance. "It is the state of the Empire you don't seem to understand. Or have you forgotten about the Fanatics?"
          Tierce forced himself to reign in his anger at Markiss' condescension, knowing it was the other's subtle way of reminding him who was in charge here. "No," he managed to bite out. "I haven't forgotten about them." How could he? Ever since the founding of the Cult of Kefka almost two years ago, soon after the Emperor's death--at the very hands of their avatar, the Emperor's own illegitimate son, Kefka, no less--the Fanatics had been harassing both Figaro and the Imperial Remnant almost non-stop.
          Markiss clasped his hands before him, his expression weary, once again feeling the weight of years of conflict. "We can ill afford to fight a two-front war, Tierce. Our military might is dwindling daily--the MATs' breaking down more and more frequently is evidence enough of that--while Figaro's just keeps growing. And to add injury to insult, there's those festering banshees of Kefka's. Besides, the arrangement in Maranda has proven that Figaro and the Empire can work side by side. And with a negotiated treaty, we at least will be able to hold onto our territories; without one, against the Fanatics by ourselves, we are as good as finished. This is still our best chance, Governor."
          And you're still a cowardly fool, Markiss, if you believe Figaro will tolerate us a moment longer than he has to, Tierce thought coldly, though he held his tongue.
          As Markiss rose and headed to the door, Tierce reclaimed his chair and said, reluctantly, "Very well, Commander. I'll concede to your request as well. But what good will a peace treaty be if and when King Edgar decides to renege his word? What guarantee do we have that he'll uphold his end?"
          Markiss turned, his lips pulled in a grimace, his grey eyes sad. "The best kind of all, Cain. He is the 'good guy,' remember? And the good guy always keeps his word."
          The moment the door shut behind Markiss, a throaty voice from behind Tierce muttered, "In that, he is correct."
          In less than a second, Tierce was on his feet, years of military training reflexively falling him into a combat stance. A quick twist of his wrist, and the twin-edged dirk he kept concealed in his sleeve fell into his hand. His eyes darted around the room, but he saw no one.
          "The good guy does keep his word," the gravelly, disembodied voice went on unwaveringly, as though Tierce hadn't moved at all. "No matter how foolish he may be for it, nor how much it may cost him later."
          "Emperor's black bones..." Tierce cursed as he brandished the blade, his eyes narrowing in surprise and suspicion as he tried to zero in on the voice's origin. "Who the devil are you, and how did you get in here?" he called out. Imperial security was supposed to be second to none; someone was going to answer for this.
          "Hmph," the voice grunted, sounding both amused and insulted; Tierce still couldn't tell where it was coming from. " 'The devil' indeed. How I got in here is unimportant; all that matters is that I am here. As for who I am..."
          And from a shadowy corner of the room that, five minutes ago, Tierce could have sworn was empty, a man stepped. He was shrouded in a concealing zeyd-cloth robe, its hood hiding his face for the moment. His hands were held before him, equally hidden by their sleeves.
          He stepped forward, raised his head to regard Tierce, and as the light from the window fell across the man's prematurely wizened features--pale lips curled in a cruel sneer, sharp nose leading up to cold, pupil-less eyes as dark as twin black holes, a face framed by a curtain of equally dark brown hair streaked with strands of gray--it was all Tierce could do not to inhale sharply and reveal his shock as he recognized the person standing before him.
          "I am Teroenza Rozhenko," the man introduced himself, "the Magi Master, high priest and leader of the Followers of Kefka." Then, as if Tierce's body language had betrayed his thoughts, the Magi Master raised a bony hand dismissively and said, "Oh, don't bother, Governor. Your guards wouldn't get here in time. Besides, what would you tell them? That you'd seen...a ghost?"
          And with that, he disappeared, faded away as though he'd never been there.
          Tierce stepped back in alarm, eyes wide, dirk held before him. "What witchcraft is this?"
          "No witchcraft, Governor," the Magi Master replied, his once more disembodied voice echoing eerily throughout the room, sending a chill down Tierce's spine. To his relief, his uninvited guest chose to reappear, although to his right, silhouetted in front of the window. "Magic..."
          Tierce exhaled slowly as he put away his dirk, despite his better judgment. Clearly this person had some kind of powers, but the fact that he'd done nothing more hostile than prove their existence indicated he had a different purpose in mind for approaching Tierce. "What do you want?" Tierce growled in reply.
          The hint of a smile appeared on the Magi Master's face. "I have a...proposal, if you will. Just as the Commander seeks to form an alliance with Figaro, I seek an alliance with yourself."
          Despite himself, Tierce snorted disdainfully. "An alliance? With you? You must be joking."
          His amusement died abruptly as the Magi Master's infinitely black eyes regarded him coldly. "Do I sound like I'm joking, Governor?"
          Tierce swallowed, then frowned. "You say you're the leader of the Fanatics, eh?" He thought the other's eye twitched just noticeably at his use of the Followers' more popular moniker, but he wasn't sure. "Well, your bloody people haven't exactly acted in the Empire's best interests. Why should I ally myself with you? I ought to cut you down where you stand."
          The Magi Master either was unafraid of the threat, or chose to ignore it; Tierce had the nagging suspicion that it was both. "The Empire you once knew and loved is no more. She has become a whore, ravaged by the very dogs she once commanded." At Tierce's silence, he added, "Has she not?"
          Tierce glowered but said nothing.
          Once again, the hint of a smile ghosted across the Magi Master's lips. "But you would have it otherwise. You would have her rebuilt, have her retake her rightful place as queen of the world, regain the glory that was once hers before Markiss took control. Correct?"
          "That's hardly a secret," Tierce replied. If the Magi Master was attempting to get Tierce to admit his lack of faith in Markiss as leader of the Empire, he was definitely going about it the hard way.
          The Magi Master stepped towards him, leaning in as though divulging some forbidden secret. "I can make it happen..." he whispered inticingly.
          Tierce was not impressed. "And just how would you accomplish that? With your 'magic'? Why don't you and your acolytes just go ahead and finish off the Empire and Figaro? What do you need me for?"
          The Magi Master exhaled softly, then turned back to the window. "We live in a new age, Governor. An age where information is power and words are weapons. Markiss knows this but refuses to accept it. Figaro has yet to even know that much."
          He turned back to face Tierce, and the governor couldn't help shivering at the conviction in the other's eyes. "Make no mistake, Governor: the Followers of Kefka will acquire what we are after. It is only a matter of time. The results of the past few weeks should be more than enough evidence to convince you. So then, as you put it so succinctly, why do I need you? As I said, we live in a world where information is power. You have information that I require, Governor."
          Tierce crossed his arms, wondering just what information he required. "What would be in it for me?"
          The Magi Master cocked his head at an angle, as if the answer to his question were obvious. "Why, the reinstallation of the Empire as the official ruler of this world, of course. The Followers do not truly desire world conquest. Once we have what it is we are after, though, there will be no reason for the Empire's continued harassment." Then he inclined his head, and the temperature in the room seemed to drop abruptly. "However, until then..."
          Tierce closed his eyes and thought, but in the end, the choice was unavoidable. If Figaro didn't finish the Empire off, the Fanatics surely would. Either way, the Empire would lose.
          There was really only one answer, and they both knew it. "Very well. What do you require of me?"
          "Two things," the other answered. "First, a certain document from the Emperor's personal files."
          "How do you know about those?" Tierce asked, surprised, as he moved to the brandy cabinet. He reached over to an adjacent bookshelf, tipped a particular book halfway off the shelf, then stepped back as the floor beneath the cabinet swiveled. The cabinet disappeared into a hidden space within the wall, replaced with a locked filing cabinet.
          The Magi Master raised an eyebrow. "Do you really want to know?"
          Tierce looked at him, then thought better of it and turned back to the cabinet. He pulled a key from his pocket, unlocked the cabinet, and pulled out the drawers.
          Before Tierce could ask, the Magi Master said, "Find the file under the heading 'Les Enfants Terrible', subheading 'Renaissance'."
          "What do you want from that old project? Gestahl shut it down almost two decades ago. He never spoke of it, but I assume it was a failure." Tierce quickly found the file and locked the cabinet back up. He pulled once more on the book, and the brandy cabinet swiveled back out, as though the other one had never been there.
          "Oh, it wasn't a failure at all," the Magi Master explained. "In fact, it succeeded. All too well... Now, the second thing," the Magi Master went on as Tierce walked back to his desk, "is to send a message to a friend of yours. You are to give him two orders, to be carried out as he sees fit. The peace treaty negotiations are less than a week from now. Inform him that when Commander Markiss' entourage arrives on the morning of the conference, some members of the delegation will be...unexpected. His first order is to make certain they are admitted, with no questions asked."
          Tierce gritted his teeth as he handed the file over. Feeling like a puppet had never suited him well; the fact that the Magi Master apparently knew of every secret of his--including his spy in Figaro--did nothing to dispel that feeling. "And the second order?"
          Tierce watched as the file disappeared within the folds of the other's robes, then flinched slightly as the Magi Master's eyes bored unnervingly into his own. "When the time comes--and he will know it when it does--he is to create a diversion: he is to assassinate Edgar Roni Figaro."
          "Are you insane?!" Tierce hissed, feeling the skin under his eyes tighten reflexively. "That's exactly the sort of thing we don't want to happen. Despite what I might prefer, the people of the Empire look up to Markiss for leadership and guidance. Do you have any idea what would happen if Figaro were killed while Markiss was there under a flag of peace? We'd be cutting our own throats."
          The Magi Master grunted inwardly. Tierce was smarter than he'd given him credit for. Perhaps it was time to try a different tactic. "On the contrary, Governor. Without Figaro's leadership, the kingdom would crumble in a matter of months, perhaps even weeks. The people would have only the Empire to turn to. Along with the timely revelation of information pertaining to a dissident faction within Figaro's ranks, they would never suspect that the Empire had been involved."
          Tierce was silent for a moment. Redirect the blame. A tried and true tactic, if a bit risky, but proven enough in the past that Tierce could find no argument against it. "Very well. Anything else?"
          "No. I will take care of everything else. Continue with your schedule as usual, and allow Commander Markiss to proceed with his plans."
          Tierce glowered as the Magi Master walked back to the corner from which he'd first appeared, then turned around and smiled, almost as an afterthought. "And cheer up, Governor. You've just ensured the future of the Empire."
          As the other faded once more into thin air, though, Tierce couldn't help thinking about the ambiguous meaning of the other's words, and wondered if he had just made a deal with the devil.

To be continued...

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