A cold wind whistled steadily across the snow-covered cliff, chilling Setzer Gabbiani to the bone as he gazed out over the ice fields north of Narshe. A barren, inhospitable existence blanketed with snow and dotted with the withered husks of plants and the bones of long-dead animals, they stretched outward from the snow-capped mountains surrounding the abandoned mining town, even as far as the North Pole. Home to the remaining scattered clans of moogles and a few unique creatures like the yeti Umaro, the area had been pronounced useless by the Empire back during its reign; even Narshe's ambitious miners had stayed away from the supposedly cursed plains, preferring instead to mine out the mountains nearest the town.
But Setzer disagreed. To him it was a land of wonder and beauty, the blue-tinted snow sparkling underneath a darkening star-lit sky, as well as an open invitation, an opportunity to rekindle the livelihood Narshe had once known. The existing mines were beginning to run dry, but out here there had to be innumerable resources just waiting to be taken.
Setzer wondered, not for the first time, what Daryl would have thought, of not only Narshe and this foolhardy--as a certain king had so eloquently described it--mining scheme of his, but of Setzer himself, and how he'd changed in the almost three and a half years since she'd last seen him.
Daryl... Despite the years, despite what he would have others think, the lump still rose in his throat, the ache still flared up in his heart, every time he thought of her. A gambler for life, he'd never once believed in bad luck, but he was beginning to wonder if he was indeed cursed. From the moment they'd fallen in love, it seemed as though the fates had conspired to take her away from him. He could still remember their last flight together, her promise to return to him; his bewilderment and sadness when she did not return, his grief when he found the wreck that had been the Falcon. A year later, he had discovered her alive and well in Jidoor, only to be kept from her by her own choice. And most recently, only a month after the defeat of Kefka, Setzer had at last worked up the courage to go to her, only to find that she had disappeared once more without a trace.
A squeaky cough from behind broke him out of his reverie, and for once he was grateful for the moogle's lack of subtlety. He turned around slowly, feeling uncomfortable and burdened under the weight of his heavy clothing; a necessity, of course, but he couldn't help missing his more stylish attire.
"What is it, Mog? Are the scouts back already?" After the war against Kefka, Setzer had called in a few debts and used his considerable reward from Figaro to invest in the abandoned mining town. And although he didn't know the details of their reappearance, the moogles had been a goddess-send: strong, quick, efficient workers, they were well suited to the hostile climate; best of all, they worked cheap.
The moogle spoke quickly, obviously excited, most of the words of his unintelligible language lost on Setzer, but he was able to pick up the gist of it, and when the moogle was through speaking, Setzer didn't know whether to be intrigued or concerned.
Before venturing out into the ice fields, he'd had some of the moogles scour throughout all of the existing mines in Narshe, on the off chance that some mineral veins had been overlooked. According to Mog, Kupan's team had been exploring a particularly deep tunnel, one that had been discovered just before the Esper Tritoch had been found, over two years ago, but it had never been explored until now. The moogles, fearless to a fault, had immediately followed the tunnel to its end.
And they had found something.
As Mog led him through the mines, Setzer realized the tunnel was longer than he'd thought. It was also much smaller than the other mines, he noted, as he had to duck to keep from bumping the ceiling. That, coupled with the number of twists and turns they'd taken before even finding the tunnel, certainly explained why no one had been down here before.
It didn't explain, however, the nearly identical, obviously unnatural crevices that ran the length of the tunnel walls, relatively parallel to the ground, nor the similar crevice than ran along the unusually smooth ceiling, perpendicular to the other two crevices. Setzer had measured them when he'd first noticed them; the ceiling crevice was almost four feet in length, while the crevice in either wall was at least seven. He'd also wondered why the crevices hadn't simply disappeared over time, until he'd realized he was looking at rock rather than ice.
That raised the question, though, of just what was strong enough to slice seven-foot-long gashes through solid granite...
Ahead of him, Mog turned a corner, and abruptly Setzer found himself at the end of the tunnel.
And there it was. Whatever it was...
It looked like the rear of some sort of machine--although Setzer was hesitant to assume even that much--the rest of which was apparently still embedded in the rock wall before them. Three exhaust turbines protruded from the lower half--the chassis, Setzer thought--with the middle turbine twice as large as the one on either side of it. Above the dark, golden-colored engine, the silver-white steel of the main body arced smoothly over and around it. To either side and the top were the gashes in the rock that he'd noticed earlier; at least now he knew what had made them, if not how.
"What do you think, Mog?" Setzer asked at last, snow and gravel crunching beneath his feet as he moved to look at it from different angles.
"You got me, kupo..." the moogle replied in Basic, his expression unreadable. "Kupan tried breaking off part of it with a pick-axe--"
"Why am I not surprised..." Setzer muttered to himself, eyes rolling.
"--but as you can see, he didn't even scratch it." Mog was silent for a moment; then, "He also said...that he couldn't touch it."
"What do you mean, he couldn't touch it?" Setzer asked, bewildered. To that, Mog shrugged helplessly. Frowning, Setzer walked up to the machine, tugging at his fingers until his glove came off. "All he had to do was put his little paw up to it like this." He reached up to the machine, pressed his fingers to the silver-white metal--
And froze, blinking in confusion, wondering if his fingers had gone numb without his knowing. Setzer pressed his whole palm against the steel, slid his hand around, tried touching other places, but each time he got the same, stupefying results.
He couldn't touch it.
"What the bloody devil is going on here...?" he muttered as he withdrew his hand, covering it with his other. Reassured that he hadn't lost the feeling in his hand, he tentatively placed it back on the metal.
And once again he couldn't touch it. He could slide his hand over it, could push against it, but he felt no texture, no temperature, nothing. It was the oddest sensation he'd ever known, akin to trying to touch something with a hand that had gone to sleep, but more; almost as if there were an invisible barrier between his hand and the metal. Were he going only by what his hand was telling him, he could have sworn the machine wasn't even there.
Suppressing a shiver that had nothing to do with temperature, Setzer stepped back again and replaced his glove. He stared at the machine for a full minute, his brain churning through all the possibilities, but he was unable to come up with even a halfway plausible explanation. That, coupled with the fact that he'd never been one to back down from a mystery, left him with one choice.
"Call the others back in," he said at last to Mog. "Tell them to expose the rest of it. I want to see just what this thing is..."
Several hours later, they were finished. But while several of Setzer's questions were finally answered, just that many more new ones were raised.
It was some kind of vehicle, of that he was fairly certain; at least on the technological level of the Empire's MATs, if he had to guess, but most likely even higher. Roughly the size of an automobile, it resembled a cross between a flying saucer and a submarine, although it was too small to be either. A brown metal wing, trimmed in gold, jutted out from either side of the machine, making Setzer wonder if it had been designed for flight, although something told him its original purpose was entirely different.
And finally, situated on top and just forward of the middle, was an oval dome, covered with frost, topped with a fin similar to the wings. Setzer realized now that the three fins had caused the crevices in the rock, although he couldn't see how they'd survived intact; perhaps his inability to touch the machine had something to do with it.
That still left the question, though, of just where the anachronism had come from. As far as Setzer knew, these mountains had remained untouched up until the last century, and even then, nothing more extensive than Narshe's operations had taken place. Which meant that this thing had been here for a very long time...
Which implied...what? That someone had hidden it here? Possible, but not very likely. Setzer could understand if it were of some value, but he couldn't see this thing being worth more than scrap. Something inside, maybe?
Only one way to find out... he thought to himself as he stepped up next to the machine and tried to peer into the dome. He wiped away some of the frost that had gathered on the surface, cupped his hands around his face and leaned forward--
And reared back with a gasp, his foot slipping on the rock he'd been standing on and sending him tumbling to the ground. He backpedaled away from it on sheer reflex, his heart seizing up in his chest.
There was someone inside.
*   *   *
The door opened with only a slight creak, and Edgar Roni Figaro leaned his head in. Seeing that the room's lone occupant was sound asleep, he stepped in all the way and shut the door quietly. Turning back, he pulled his robe tighter around him, grateful to be free of the slight chill in the hall. To his left, a crackling fireplace cast flickering shadows across the well-appointed quarters. Pale moonlight poured in through the window on the other side of the room, illuminating a prone form nestled snugly in the luxurious bed to Edgar's right, directly opposite the fireplace.
Edgar walked over to the bed and smiled. She looks so peaceful... he thought as he gazed down at Terra Branford, blankets tucked beneath her chin, ringleted hair cascading over a satin pillow, a serene smile on her lips, her features angelic in the moonlight. As if she doesn't have a care in the world....
Which, he imagined ruefully, she hadn't, at least until recently. It simply wasn't fair, after all she'd been through and fought for and sacrificed, to have survived despite the loss of magic, only to be affected and weakened by it now, six months later, just when everything was returning to a modicum of normalcy. Then again, Edgar reminded himself bitterly, no one had ever promised that life was fair.
Terra stirred in her sleep, pulling the covers further up as she turned onto her side. A strand of wintergreen hair curled down over her forehead, and Edgar reached out to brush it back into place. He let his hand linger on her skin, tracing down along the line of her jaw, thinking to himself how beautiful she was and wondering why he'd never said anything to her.
There'd been times, of course, during the rebellion, when he'd considered acting on his feelings. But each time he'd held back, either by circumstance or by choice. Half the time it had simply not felt like the right time to bring the matter up; the rest of the time he'd, quite frankly, been too afraid to.
And whose fault is that, do you suppose? he groused silently at himself. Always flirting with girls, tossing around compliments and flattery like candy, never committing himself to one woman or another. Now, when he'd at last found someone to love, to share his life with, he considered it the height of irony that when--if--he confessed his feelings to her, in all likelihood she would not take him seriously.
His fingers were still on her cheek when, with a start, he realized Terra's eyes were open and looking directly at him. Cursing his carelessness, he belatedly withdrew his hand, hoping that she wouldn't notice.
"Edgar...?" she muttered sleepily. He sighed with relief, realizing she'd just woken.
"Shh, it's all right," he whispered gently, reaching down to pat her hand. "Sorry I woke you up."
She yawned, then smiled as she squeezed his hand. "S'okay," she mumbled as she turned over onto her back to face him.
"How's my favorite green-haired witch feeling?" Edgar asked with a grin as he sat down on the edge of the bed.
Her lips quirked. "Wow, yet another flattering compliment from His Royal Highness, especially considering I'm the only green-haired witch you know. Seriously, though, about the same." A thought struck her. "How are the children?"
"They're fine," Edgar reassured her. "They were concerned when you collapsed, but Duane and Katarin have things under control."
That seemed to calm her a bit. "Good. I know I must have worried them. But I know they'll be taken good care of. I...don't get much in the way of news out there. What's everyone up to these days?"
"Well, let's see..." Edgar said, inhaling as he sat back. "Setzer's up in Narshe with Mog and Umaro, trying to strike it rich with some foolhardy scheme of his." He rolled his eyes at Setzer's idea, at which Terra chuckled.
"He's coming in later this evening, if he's still on schedule. I'm sure he'll stop by to see how you're doing," he continued. "Relm and her dad are living back in Thamasa with Strago; I still can't believe she found the old geezer just wandering around in a daze out in that canyon. It's a miracle he's still alive."
"I still can't believe that our cutthroat ninja is a family man," Terra put in wryly, at which Edgar just laughed and nodded.
"Locke's been popping in from Kohlingen every now and then," he went on. "He said to tell you hi, by the way. He would have come by, but Celes kind of cut out of here soon after you arrived, without telling anyone where she was going. I figured you'd want to see her some, so I sent Locke out to find her the other day."
His brow furrowed momentarily. "I'm still not sure why he didn't know where she was either. Although I think they haven't been much on speaking terms lately for some reason. Anyway... Chancellor Valorum's been helping Cyan organize the relief aid in Maranda, trying to rebuild after the latest Fanatic attack. From what I've heard, Gau's also been a big help; apparently Cyan's straightened him out somewhat."
Terra looked thoughtful for a moment; Edgar caught himself staring at her. "Valorum's originally from Doma, isn't he?" Terra asked.
"Yes, he is," Edgar confirmed. "He and Cyan have gotten along quite well. I think they both see Maranda as a kind of absolution, a chance to make up for Doma's loss. And it's been good for Cyan and Gau, as well. The adoption's been a good thing for Cyan, keeping his mind off the past, and I know Gau's ecstatic to have a father again."
Terra smiled. "That's so sweet. They did seem to hit it off, from what Sabin told us."
Edgar nodded. "Speaking of whom, last I knew, the old 'bear' was up in the mountains helping Duncan train more Blitz students. They've got some very promising candidates this year. Gogo's been overseeing the excavation of Vector's ruins near what's left of Kefka's tower. He's here right now, but he's already planning on heading back out tomorrow morning; I think he's as eager as I am to see what we can find. And...that's pretty much everyone, I think."
Terra nodded, sighed contentedly. "I'm glad things are getting back to normal."
"Yeah, me too," Edgar agreed mechanically. Normal....right... Terra's brow furrowed slightly, and he could feel the warmth in his cheeks as he realized she'd deduced his train of thought.
"Edgar...." She was silent for a moment, as though considering her next words; then, "I'm dying....aren't I?"
Edgar could have sworn he felt a spike of ice pierce his heart. "Terra--I..."
"It's okay," she said reassuringly, although it didn't help him feel any better. "Really. I knew what the risks were, and I'm not sorry for what we did. I almost didn't think we were going to win, but we did. I don't regret that at all. I'm just grateful that I've been given even this much time."
"Terra..." Edgar murmured as he hung his head, unable to look at her. "I wish...I wish there was something that could be done, that I could do, for you..." He trailed off, knowing that if the best doctors in Thamasa had been unable to do anything for her, then neither could a normal, magic-less man like himself.
"But you already have," she contradicted him, smiling as her finger tilted his chin back up. "You've done so much for me, Edgar. You helped me escape from the Empire, you helped me find who I truly was. You helped put an end to Kefka's tyranny, and give this world a second chance. You risked so much, with so little to gain from it... I'll never be able to repay you for everything you've done."
Edgar tried to speak, but the knot in his throat refused to budge, so instead he squeezed her hand.
"There is one thing you can do, though," she added. "Be happy, for me. I don't want you to be sad. I want to see you smile. I want to know that you believe that we accomplished something, and that you're proud of it."
Edgar blinked away a tear and smiled despite himself. "Well, apparently all you had to do was ask. See? It's working already."
Terra grinned, and Edgar could almost feel the ice in his heart melting away. "Good. And it better stay that way, you hear me?"
"I understand, my lady," Edgar replied mock-formally, head bowing with a flourish. "And since you're smiling as well, I believe my job here is done. Good night, Terra."
He leaned forward, placed a kiss gently on her forehead, then looked down, his eyes finding and linking with hers, his forehead resting slightly against her own.
Terra smiled back at him, gazing into his blue eyes. Then a look came over her own, and as though of its own accord, Edgar's head began to sink, and a moment later he found his lips pressed against hers.
For a moment they stayed like that, their faces together, their eyes closed, each relishing the taste of the other's lips, their smell, until finally Terra pulled him further down, pressing her mouth harder against his, and without thinking Edgar responded, returning the kiss with equal passion, his hands moving to cradle and caress her face--
And with the sharp inhale of one breaking free of a deep sleep, Edgar pulled away, breaking the kiss. He turned away from Terra, his hand covering half of his face as he took a deep breath, his body trembling with conflicting emotions, with the thought of what he was doing.
"Edgar?" Terra asked softly when she realized something was wrong. "What is it?"
He didn't answer, merely shook his head and stood up. "I--I'm sorry, I need to go now," he mumbled as he moved to leave.
"Edgar, wait, please," Terra pleaded, and unconsciously he stopped where he was. "You don't have to go. I--I don't want to be alone."
Edgar smiled ruefully, shook his head mentally; he'd so wanted to hear those words, yet now he found he could not answer them in any way. He couldn't--wouldn't do this to her. It would be far too cruel.
Still facing away from her, Edgar shut his eyes and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Terra. I....I can't do this..."
Terra pushed herself into a sitting position, a frown creasing her forehead. "Edgar.... I..don't understand."
His shoulders sagging in resignation, Edgar turned back to her, a sad look in his eyes. "It's not you, Terra. It's me... I'd be taking advantage of you." At the look on Terra's face, he hastily added, "No! No, I don't mean like that. Contrary to what Locke might think, I am not a lecherous king. No, what I mean is..."
He licked his lips, searching for the right words to say, to explain what he was feeling. "Every relationship I've had with a woman has been...frivolous. Not serious, just to have a good time."
He walked back over to her, took her hand in his. "But you're not like other women. You're different, and it's made me realize that I want something that is serious, that's more than just a good time. I want to be with you, to share my life with you, more than anything. I've seen the kind of person you are, how kind and gentle you can be. But I'm afraid I'll be taken as just flirting or not being serious again. Or worse, that you'll accept this because...you're dying."
Terra was silent for a moment as she turned his words over; then she smiled, at something he'd apparently missed. "Edgar...how is it taking advantage of me if it's what I've wanted too?"
The look of surprise on his face was priceless. "You mean that?" he replied, disbelief in his voice. "You want this too? Even if..." He trailed off, not wanting to voice his concern.
Terra nodded. "Even if I'm dying. You don't have to prove to me that you love me; I've already seen that for myself. And what better way to spend my last days than with someone I care for, and who cares for me in return?"
"I can't think of one," he murmured as she reached up to him, took his hands in hers, and pulled him to her. She wrapped her arms around his chest, nestled her head in the folds of his robe, and Edgar closed his eyes, relieved that his concerns had been for nothing.
"And besides," Terra said, a wry tone in her voice, as she pulled back enough to look at him, "even if you ever had tried to pull something, I would have gotten Sabin to kick your butt."
Edgar laughed, caressed her cheek. "Something else to look for in a girl: a great sense of humor."
"I'm glad you approve," she replied sardonically, smiling as she pulled him down to her. Her arms wrapped themselves around his neck, pulling him into a passionate kiss.
It was a few moments before they realized someone was standing at the door, coughing discreetly. "I'm sorry for the intrusion, Your Highness," Gogo apologized, "but Chancellor Valorum told me you'd be in here, and I thought you should be informed immediately."
"It's all right," Edgar reassured him, letting only a trace of his annoyance at the other's timing seep into his voice. He reluctantly turned away from Terra, wondering what new 'crisis' was upon them now. "What is it?"
Apparently not something expectable, judging from the guarded look in Gogo's eyes. "Setzer's just arrived from Narshe," the mimic answered, an odd tone in his voice, "and he's brought something with him I think you're going to want to see..."
*   *   *
"Come on, Cole, you big baby," Celes Chere growled. "There's nothing out here to be afraid of, I promise."
Sighing heavily, she tried coaxing him forward, she tried pulling and pushing him, she even tried threatening him, but no matter what Celes did, Cole simply refused to go any further into the forest.
And if I had any sense left in me, I wouldn't want to be here either, she thought grimly. Unfortunately, she added mentally, reminding herself why she'd come here in the first place, there's only one person who can guide me now...
It was true enough, at least. Her father was no longer alive, although she wouldn't have gone to him even if he were alive. Cid would have been her first choice, but Solitaire Island had long since claimed him. Terra had enough worries of her own without Celes adding to them. And Daryl...had, well, disappeared again, which in itself was disturbing enough. But just as before, the situation--whatever it was--was out of her hands.
With those people ruled out, that left exactly one person Celes could go to.
Blowing an errant strand of blonde hair away, she crossed her arms and glared at Cole. "You're as stubborn as your namesake, you know that?"
The gold chocobo just kwehhed sourly at her.
Celes shook her head in defeat. "Fine. Have it your way," she said as she tied his reins to the closest tree. Turning back to the path before them, she took a deep breath and continued onward.
Five minutes later, after making her way through a dense, shadowy cluster of trees, she found it.
She stood on an old duracrete platform that was chipped and cracked in dozens of places and stretched off to her left. Old-fashioned clocklamps stood at regular intervals atop ornate posts all along the length of the platform, the clock faces broken and twisted, the lamps above them extinguished.
And less than a meter from the far edge of the platform, resting on tracks that stretched off into the distance in either direction, illuminated by a scant few dust-filled rays of sunlight, was a train.
The Phantom Train.
She'd been here once before, not long after Kefka's defeat, with a similar purpose in mind, and yet, despite that, this place still wasn't what she expected. Rather than a forboding place of evil, it felt to her more a place of sadness, loneliness, regret for things left undone. Instead of panic or fear, she felt sorrow, pity for the lives that had been trapped here.
Especially for one in particular.
For a moment she simply stood there, the deathly silence of the place filling her ears, doubt creeping back into her mind despite her earlier feelings, and wondered if perhaps the chocobo had had the right idea after all. But she had come too far to turn back now. She hadn't, after all, traveled here just to see the scenery.
She'd come to speak with a dead man.
Taking a deep breath and summoning a resolve she didn't particularly feel, Celes moved forward, passed through one of the ticket gates, and stepped onto the train of the dead.
Inside, the car she'd boarded was exactly as she remembered it: oaken wall panels chipped and peeling, faded curtains hanging limp and tattered over dirty windows, unlit chandeliers dangling haphazardly over the aisleway, dim rays of light slanting through holes in the ceiling and throwing most of the car's worn-out seats into shadow.
Behind her, just as it had the first time she'd been here, the door locked itself. A high-pitched whistle blew, accompanied by a sudden jolt in the floor, and the train began to move. For better or worse, Celes thought to herself, she was committed now. Turning away from the door, she headed towards the train engine.
She found him, as she might have guessed, waiting for her.
He stood before a window at the far end of the car, hands clasped behind his back, gazing out at the blur of trees as the train chugged along. Were it not for the hazy blue aura surrounding him, noticeable in the relative darkness, he would have looked just as she remembered him: light blond crewcut, dark chocolate skin, green general's armor, all of it tinted light blue from the aura. And were it not for the gaping sword wound in his abdomen, she would have found it hard to believe she was looking at a ghost.
Taking a deep breath, she said, "Hello, Leo."
The man turned away from the window, his face lighting up when he saw her. "Celes," he greeted her with a smile; even his deep voice was spectral, echoing slightly in her ears. His feet glided across the floor as he walked over to her; one of the advantages of being a ghost. "It's good to see you again."
Celes couldn't help smiling back. "You too. How have you been?"
"The same, what else? Things are fairly dull here in the afterlife," he replied, smiling wryly.
Celes smiled softly at that. Typical of Leo to make light with her of an undesirable situation.
The smile on Leo's face faded away as he saw the look in her eyes. "What's wrong?"
Celes swallowed, feeling acutely the lump in her throat; no sense in putting this off... "Terra's been getting weak recently and...." Just spit it out. "Leo, she's dying..."
Leo closed his eyes. "Groz... I'm sorry, Celes. I know you two are friends. Do you know what the cause is?"
"I think so... After we defeated Kefka, and we were on the Falcon, trying to get away before the tower collapsed, something happened, something that took away magic. I assume that its effects were limited the further away things were, since the Empire's MATs are still functioning for now. But closer to the tower, I think the effects were much more severe..." She paused for a moment, the memory of that day still clear in her mind.
"Go on, I'm still here," Leo prompted her gently.
Celes sighed. "Terra's father appeared, just before the tower began to collapse. He said, to her, that magic would disappear, but that if her heart was strongly attached to someone or something, she might remain as a human. I thought that meant she would be okay, but it looks like the effect was merely delayed. Leo....when she was leading us away from the tower, she was further away from it than the rest of us. If she's being affected, then that means...."
Leo inclined his head slightly, his lips parting silently as he realized what she was getting at. "I think I'm beginning to understand your concern now. You're starting to get weak as well, aren't you?"
Celes pursed her lips, nodded. "Not as severely, not yet anyway, but it's starting out just as Terra described how she felt."
Leo moved his tongue over his teeth as he looked out a window, thinking, then looked back up at her, his brow furrowing in consternation. "But if she's only being affected now, and she was further away from the tower when it happened, then why haven't you been affected before now?"
"I'm not sure," Celes replied. "It may have something to do with the fact that her mother was human and her father was an Esper. Father had a theory about that, but he and Cid were never able to prove it. Based on what I know, though, it appears to be true. It would explain why Terra had much more magical prowess than I or Daryl or Kefka ever did, and why I'm being affected less."
"But that doesn't exactly help, does it?" Leo said softly.
"No...it doesn't," Celes replied, shaking her head. "And....the others don't know yet. I couldn't go to them, not about this. Not even to Locke. You're the only one I could turn to for advice."
Leo exhaled slowly, realizing now why she was here. "Because I already know."
Celes swallowed, nodded. "I don't know what to do, Leo. I don't know whether I should tell him, or someone else, or just not say anything at all...." She trailed off, knowing she sounded like she was whining, but she felt utterly helpless.
"In other words, you don't know how they're going to take it, and you're afraid they'll end up treating you the way some people treated Terra."
Celes reflexively opened her mouth to deny it, then shut it, embarassed as she realized he was telling the truth. She was used to being in control of every situation she confronted, used to being sure about what to do, and it was, she had to admit, unsettling and frustrating to be thrust into an uncontrollable situation, with no clue as to what to do. And she was afraid of the prejudice Terra had received, afraid of what people would think or do if they knew she was different. She'd seen all too often the fear and hatred in a person's eyes, directed towards Terra, regardless of whether it was deserving or not, and she had resolved long ago to do whatever was necessary to avoid it herself. She'd built up a wall of ice around her heart, created a barrier around herself, always afraid of letting someone get too close, always afraid someone would discover the truth. And she had avoided it, all this time....but at what cost?
"Celes," Leo said, pulling her out of her thoughts, "do you remember when we were stationed in Jidoor, and I took you to the opera house to see The Phantom of the Opera?"
"Of course," she replied, smiling despite herself. "That night was the first time I'd ever gotten to see it." It was also the night, she remembered, that she'd found out Daryl was alive and well...
Leo nodded. "Do you remember the song Masquerade?"
"Well, the song contains a message: we wear masks. We all do it, every day, in one way or another. We hide from the world, present others with a false image, in order to protect ourselves, and sometimes others. But what the song doesn't tell you is that not only do we hide from those around us, we also hide from ourselves. We bury our true selves, try to deny who we truly are inside. Sometimes we succeed--but not without risk. Every time we put that mask on, we take the chance of losing sight of who we are. If you wear the mask for too long, you forget who you once were and become a victim of your own deception. You become both prisoner and master of your own illusionary world, with little hope of escape."
Celes was silenced for a moment, eyes wide with astonishment. "Wow. I never knew you were so philosophical."
Leo shrugged, smiled cryptically. "I'm a man of many talents. Besides, there's not much to do beyond pondering life's mysteries when you're dead."
Celes chuckled softly, then sighed in resignation. "So, I guess this means you think I should tell him, huh?"
Leo raised his eyebrows. "That's up to you to decide. I just wanted you to have an idea of what you're dealing with here."
"But I lied to him, Leo," Celes said, frowning. "To all of them. How are they going to react?"
"What you did at the time was what you believed to be necessary," Leo replied reassuringly. "I know that, and I understand it. If you're honest and open with Locke, with the others, after everything that you've been through together, I think they will understand too."
Celes opened her mouth to reply, stopped and frowned as Leo abruptly looked off into space, a strange look on his face. "Leo? What is it?"
The other shook his head slowly, eyes roving about the train car, mouth open in concern. "Something's...not right. The train--" He jerked suddenly, as if shocked, then looked towards the front of the train. "Someone's left the world of the undead...."
Celes blinked, taken aback by his statement. "What?"
Leo shook his head, silent for a moment, then his face fell slack, and in his eyes Celes could see the same astonishment and horror as he must have felt the day he had died. "Goddesses help us all..." Leo whispered, feeling as though his stomach were turning in on itself. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he moved closer to her, unintentionally making her flinch, his fists clenched before him, his voice laced with tension. "Celes, you've got to get back to Figaro as soon as the train stops." Even as he spoke, she could hear the train whistle blowing, could feel the car beginning to slow down. "You've got to--hrrnn..." He broke off, his face screwing up, his stomach visibly tensing, as though he were in pain.
"Leo?!" Celes said, brow furrowed, her arms raising reflexively to support him, stopping as she remembered she couldn't touch him. "What's wrong?"
He shook his head, as though trying to swallow but unable. Before her eyes, his ghostly image began to waver, to start fading. "No more time... I'm..being pulled back. Warn them, Celes. Still...time to prepare... Tell Edgar, the others..."
Celes' voice caught in her throat, her heart clenching as she watched, helpless, as Leo struggled with some unseen force. "Tell them what?" she whispered at last, almost too afraid to find out.
Leo forced his head up, his body visibly trembling with the effort. "Tell them...." he said, locking eyes with her. "Tell them....he's back...."
And with those final, chilling words, Leo disappeared completely.
Leaving her alone on the train of the dead.
*   *   *
All was quiet save for the snap and crackle of flickering torches, the rustling of clothing, the shuffling of feet as the Magi Master led the procession to the tower rooftop. The night was clear and cool, the full moon overhead shining down from a star-lit sky, brightly illuminating the rooftop; it was as if even the heavenly bodies above were eagerly awaiting what would soon take place.
A ring of torches lined the perimeter, smoke trailing upward. In the midst of the graveled roof was a low stone platform; on top of that, a ceremonial altar and a large torch at each corner of the platform. Teroenza alone stepped up to it, his dark zeyd-cloth robes clutched in his hands, his equally dark eyes narrowing approvingly of everything before him.
Silently, the rest of the Followers fanned out to form a human ring within the torches; the crimson, upside-down tear-shaped hoods of their milk-white robes veiled their faces in shadows, transforming them into inhuman phantoms.
"Bring her," Teroenza rasped. Immediately, the ring of Followers parted to allow two honor guards to pass and approach the altar, each one supporting an arm of a young woman, unconscious and clad in a non-descript robe. Without a word, the guards laid her on her back on the altar, her arms and legs close to her sides.
Teroenza returned the nods of the guards as they stepped down, then turned his attention to the prostrate figure before him. Long blonde hair framing an angelic face, she looked like a sleeping baby, but Teroenza knew how much spirit the young woman possessed. After the trouble they'd gone through just to find her, he was beginning to understand why the late Emperor had given up searching for her.
He turned to address the others, his hands clasped in front of him and hidden by their overlapping sleeves. He raised his eyes to the Followers, and began to speak.
"My brethren," he said, a knowing smile on his lips. "My fellow, loyal Followers. These past several months have been trying times indeed without the knowledge, power, and leadership of our dear departed master. I proudly applaud the perseverance and fidelity that each of you has shown in his absence. Fear not, though, for tonight our wait comes to an end. Tonight, our master....is reborn!"
The high priest spun to face the altar, throwing his arms wide to embrace the sky, and as if on cue, lightning flashed overhead and thunder rumbled in the near distance. The other Followers said nothing, but their body language betrayed their barely contained anticipation.
Teroenza stepped up to the altar and knelt before it, his cloak pooling about his knees on the cold stone. His dark eyes glittered in the torchlight, and an equally dark smile played across his thin lips. His heart pounded fiercely within his chest as he pulled from within his robes a rolled parchment: the file he had obtained from Tierce, the last remaining valuable document from the Les Enfants Terrible project. The irony was not lost on him that the late Emperor would have eventually been able to use the ancient Zealan text had it not been for the very consequences of the project itself.
Teroenza heard nothing but the rasping of his own shallow breathing as he unrolled the scroll and clasped it in his left hand while he stretched his right hand out towards the woman.
"Veni, veni, venias..." he chanted, his voice barely audible. "Excitate vos e somno, unus fatali. Somnus non eat..."
Much louder, the other Followers repeated this first line of the incantation word for word, a second time when the high priest did so, having heard him clearly despite his volume.
A single, jagged bolt of yellow lightning stretched bony talons across the sky, followed a moment later by a resounding explosion of thunder.
The second stanza: "Status malus, factus de materia cinis elementi. Immanis et inanis, non tu tenent vincula. Estuans interius ira vehementi, non tu tenet clavis."
Like ripples in a pond, the chant spread outward, from Teroenza to the others, again twice as they repeated the words and melodic inflections.
Suddenly there was a chill in the night air. Overhead, there was more thunder and lightning as ominous black clouds suddenly blossomed into existence high above the altar, blotting out the moon and stars.
The third stanza: "Ardente veritate, sicut solis radii, incedite tenebras mundi. Ardente veritate, sicut splendor fulguris, urite mala mundi."
As the Followers repeated the words, their voices reminiscent of monastic chanting, the chilly air turned into a brisk breeze, flapping the edges of robes, threatening to extinguish the torches, seeming to shift, to come to life somehow. The roiling pool of clouds overhead expanded until it was wider than the rooftop. From everywhere and nowhere came a crackling of energy, a low rumbling sound, like the growl of some great demonic beast, felt more than heard.
The chanting and demonic growl quickly rose to a crescendo, mingling with the thunder and lightning and emotions of the Followers, whipping them into a heightened frenzy. The wind screamed about the rooftop like a hurricane come to life, threatening to send them spiraling away despite their now-linked arms. Most of the torches had already been put out by the maelstrom.
Teroenza rose to his feet, arms outstretched, head thrown back, eyes closed, lips still uttering the incantation, his hair whipping wildly about him, the thunder and chanting and growling all blending together into one mind-shattering cacophony, until at last he brought the spell to its rightful, glorious conclusion:
"Surgite, unus fatali! Diebus fatalibus!"
And with that, time seemed to screech to halt. All at once, the sounds that had been so pulse-pounding a moment before disappeared, leaving the rooftop eerily silent. Overhead the clouds continued to churn and roil silently, and for one eternal moment, all was peaceful.
Then a high-pitched whine filled the air, making them all flinch from its intensity. In the middle of the clouds, directly over the altar, a portal whirlpooled open and filled with a sparkling yellow light, looking like a doorway into another world.
Then the light exploded downward with a thunderous roar. The beam of light completely engulfed the altar, drilling down into the woman's body yet leaving it unmarked, yet knocking away Teroenza and the honor guards, who cried out in fear and surprise more than from pain.
The light built into a blinding intensity, its roar into a crescendo, and then just as suddenly as it appeared, it was sucked back up into the clouds without a trace. Soon after, the clouds were gone as well, leaving the rooftop bathed once more in moonlight.
When Teroenza finally dared look at the altar, all was as it had been before the ceremony had started. The sky was clear and full of stars, the air still and quiet, the woman and altar unmolested. Even the torches had somehow been magically rekindled.
Slowly, step by step, Teroenza crept back up to the altar, eyes narrowed, mouth agape. The others gathered themselves up, their confusion evident on their faces.
For one brief moment, it appeared as though they'd failed.
Then the young woman's eyes shot open, blinked once, twice. She sat up straight on the altar, her long blonde hair spilling down her back, her robe hanging loosely off one shoulder.
"My lord....?" Teroenza breathed, eyes tight with anticipation.
The young woman turned her head to look at him, the torchlight flickering eerily over her expressionless features, her eyes blank and devoid of life.
Then her face seemed to melt and soften, while her lips became taut, hardened. Her eyes filled with a familiar incandescent glow, a baleful stare so cold that it sent a gripping chill down Teroenza's spine, shivering him despite his cloak.
The spell had been successful. The master had returned.
And, Teroenza thought to himself, the renaissance had begun....
To be continued...
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