Spectres Of The Past - Chapter IV: Retribution

[01.09.02] » by Jason Connor

Chapter IV: Retribution

          "Gentlemen: welcome to Figaro Castle," Edgar greeted the Imperial delegation. He pushed the folds of his cape to either side as he met them halfway across the courtyard, revealing the ceremonial sabre hanging unsheathed at his waist, similar to those worn by the Figaro guards escorting the six members of the delegation. Overhead, the sun was warm and bright; a good sign, in his opinion, albeit the same as every other day in the desert.
          "I am King Edgar Roni Figaro," he introduced himself, holding his hand out.
          "Commander Grodin Markiss of the Imperial Navy, Your Highness," Markiss greeted him in turn, clasping his hand firmly. "I met your father once, long ago. He would have been proud of you, I believe. He was the kind of man who always made certain he put first what he believed best for the people."
          "A philosophy I think we both can appreciate," Edgar agreed, nodding inwardly. He wanted to embrace Markiss and the people of the Empire with open arms, but at the same time he felt and understood the need to remind all involved that Figaro was not the party in a position likened to pleading for mercy. These feelings were reflected in his choice to hold the peace talks here at the castle, as opposed to the capital of Albrook or even a neutral commonwealth.
          Judging by the accepting look in his face, Markiss appeared to have received the message.
          Edgar gestured to his right, to a stately, silver-haired man dressed in an ankle-length burgundy-and-green robe. "My aide, Chancellor Erid Valorum."
          "Chancellor," Markiss said, returning the other's acknowledging nod, then held a palm up towards the person on his left, who was dressed in somber, dark blue leather armor and sported a black mustache and ponytail. "An associate of mine from Maranda: Lord Cyan Garamonde. He's here to aid me on some of the finer points we'll be discussing; specifically, to help me address the lower and middle class concerns involved."
          "Tis good to see thee again, Edgar," the Doman knight said in his typical archaic way, smiling and extending a hand.
          ...On a day of peace, a winged chimera will betray a white dragon...
          For a moment, Edgar hesitated, a sense of doubt flickering uneasily through him. Maybe he was going about this all wrong. Perhaps the prophecy was mistaken, or had already come to pass. For all he knew, it had been speaking of an actual dragon and chimera, rather than symbolic ones.
          The expression on Cyan's face faltered slightly, not having anticipated the king's unusual reaction. Edgar quickly recovered and grasped the other's hand, smiling and greeting him in return with politically practiced ease, feeling a twinge of embarassment at the distinct lack of emotion in his words.
          Markiss continued on to introduce two of the four guards he'd brought with him. Edgar nodded mechanically at each but didn't really see them, his thoughts still occupied with the prophecy.
          No, he decided at last. Despite all of his misgivings, as he had pointed out to Gogo less than an hour ago his betrayal was a possibility he could ill afford to ignore, much as it might pain him to not do so. He would just have to pray for the best and prepare for the worst. The worst, of course, being that Cyan would betray him.
          The question was, how exactly would Cyan betray him?
          And when that time came, what would he himself do about it?

*   *   *

          Unbelievable, Locke Cole thought to himself as he watched the courtyard from above. He leaned against the north tower's parapet and shook his head. First the Imps want peace with us, and now Cyan's apparently turned soft and joined them. What's next, the Fanatics coming over for milk and cookies?
          He grimaced as another thought occurred to him, concerning a bet he'd made over whether the girl from Maranda would change Cyan or not; apparently, she'd been more of an influence than he'd counted on.
          Well, maybe Sabin doesn't really need to know he won...
          Below, Edgar and the others were beginning to head back into the castle. Locke frowned and leaned forward as a glitter of blonde caught his eye: a woman, one of the Commander's guards, dressed in an olive-gray lieutenant's uniform. It was hard to tell from this angle, but just at a glance he could have sworn it was Celes.
          The woman abruptly turned her head upward, apparently noticing the scrutiny, and as she continued to walk gazed up at him with an emotionless expression--
          And a shiver suddenly rippled down Locke's spine.
          He knew her. At least, he thought he did, or that he'd seen her somewhere before. He couldn't place her name or where or when he might have seen her, but the feeling was undeniable.
          What was unsettling about her, though, was how familiar she seemed. Not because he might have seen her before, but because of the uncanny resemblance she bore to Celes: long golden hair, an exquisitely beautiful face, subtle yet sensual body language, all of it combining in an irresistable, attention-grabbing way that, aside from Celes, only Rachel had possessed.
          The woman frowned at the look on his face; at her side, her hand gestured just noticeably--
          And a cloud of apathy settled over Locke's mind.
          It's just a coincidence, Locke thought idly, not questioning the words as they seemed to come unbidden. He felt the tension drain from his muscles, felt his expression relax into one of no concern. She's no one important. I'll just forget I ever saw her and go back to what I was doing...
          The woman's eyes narrowed in concealed amusement as Edgar led the Imperial delegation into the castle, leaving Locke to stare dumbly out into space.
          He was still standing like that when Celes came up behind him.
          "Locke?" she asked cautiously, noticing his odd stance.
          He jerked reflexively at her voice, snapping out of the stupor he'd been in. He turned to see who it was, did a double take as he felt an odd sense of deja vu for some strange reason.
          He blinked in confusion, then shook his head in dismissal and turned back to the wall. "I guess you came up here to say good-bye?"
          Celes paused halfway to him, taken aback. "Huh?"
          Locke turned his head to one side, giving her a profile view. "I was there. In the Phantom Forest."
          Celes opened her mouth in surprise, feeling not a little anger at finding out he'd secretly followed her. Then she looked away in shame, realizing she had only herself to blame for this. She should have known Locke would wonder.
          "Then you saw me--" she began.
          "I saw enough," Locke cut her off, turning away again and crossing his arms. "I guess I should have seen this coming. I should have known better than to think we had a future together."
          Celes swallowed, distinctly feeling the lump in her throat. "How long have you known?"
          He shook his head. "Not long. I suspected something for awhile, when you started avoiding me. Now I know." He finally turned to her, a hurt look in his eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?"
          "I wanted to, Locke," Celes replied, dropping her shoulders. "I just... I didn't know how you would react, and--"
          "Didn't know how I would react, or didn't want to face that reaction?" he cut her off again, his face narrowing with resentment. "How many ways could I take this, Celes? Is it because of who I am? Are you just too good to be seen with a thief?"
          It was Celes's turn to frown. "Locke, that's not funny. This is something beyond my control."
          Locke snorted. "That's certainly one way to put it. Well, I hope you're happy. You're getting what you wanted. You won't have to put up with this thief anymore."
          Celes's mouth dropped. "Happy?! How could this make me happy? I didn't know this was going to happen, and I never wanted it to! How can you even talk like that?"
          "What is it, Celes?" Locke held his palms open to her. "Is he forcing you to leave me? Is that it?"
          Celes paused in bewilderment. "Locke, what the devil are you talking about? Nobody's forcing me to do anything."
          "Then who was it you went to see in the Forest, huh?"
          "I went there to talk to Leo."
          Locke shook his head in confusion. "Wait a minute. Leo's dead--"
          And abruptly, they each realized they had no idea what the other was talking about.
          "Ok, I'm lost here," Locke said after an awkward moment. "You're not seeing someone else?"
          Celes rolled her eyes and exhaled in relief, not knowing whether to slap him for being jealous over someone that didn't exist, or to kiss him for caring enough in the first place to be jealous.
          "No, you silly thief," she smiled, deciding on the latter as she leaned in and kissed him gently on the lips, to which Locke responded automatically. "I would never do that to you."
          Locke's brow furrowed. "Then, what did you need to talk to Leo about that you couldn't come to me with?"
          Celes felt her eyes turn away from his gaze. "I haven't been completely honest with you, Locke. I've kept some things from you, but I should have told you sooner."
          "Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to like this?"
          "Locke, I'm dying..."
          "Ok, now it's my turn: that's not funny."
          "I'm not joking."
          Locke frowned, held his hands out to his side. "How can you be dying? Last I checked you were perfectly healthy."
          "This goes beyond simple health. It started back when Kefka's Tower was destroyed. I didn't notice it at first, but after awhile I realized something wasn't right. I started having the same symptoms Terra did--only I managed to hide them. That's why I've been avoiding you, Locke."
          Locke felt his chest tighten. "But, I thought you weren't affected. I thought your Magitek infusion was the same as the rest of us carrying Magicite: there while we had it, gone when the Statues were destroyed."
          Celes raised her eyebrows. "It might have been the same; I don't know. To tell the truth, there never was an infusion process. At least, not as far as the Empire was concerned; Cid didn't get to solve that particular puzzle before the Espers trashed the Facility."
          She moved next to the parapet, stared out into the desert. "Gestahl's talk of Magitek was nothing but a ruse, a psychological tactic he used to help keep other countries under control. All of the Magitek weaponry he had was left over from the first War, found buried in the ruins of old cities; none of it was created in Vector. Between the MATs and Kefka and myself, he managed to pull off a deception that fooled the entire world."
          Celes turned back to him. "The Magitek Research Facility was merely a part of that deception, created in preparation for when Cid did rediscover the infusion process. But if there ever was an infusion process, it was back during the first War. I was never infused with Magitek."
          Locke frowned. "So, what, you were carrying around Magicite the whole time? I don't get it."
          Celes looked sadly at him, gazing into his eyes in a way that threatened to break his heart.
          And then the truth hit him, with all the power of a force of nature, and it was all he could do to keep his legs from crumbling beneath him.
          "You're the offspring of an Esper...." he croaked, his voice barely above a whisper.
          "Yes," Celes confirmed, closing her eyes.
          Locke was flabbergasted. "I...I honestly don't know what to say..."
          Celes half-smiled. "You don't have to say anything. There's no way you could have known." She looked away for a moment. "I'm sorry I deceived you and the others like this, but I had to."
          She looked back up at him plaintively. "It was hard enough for me to gain everyone's trust as it was, defecting from the Empire the way I did, with only you to support me. Perpetuating Gestahl's lie was the only way I could do that. What do you think their reactions would have been if they'd known I was part Esper?"
          "You would have been treated the same way Terra was," Locke answered quietly, now understanding her reasons. "With fear, and distrust. I guess I can't blame you for not wanting that."
          "That was one of the things Leo made me realize, though," Celes said. "That it was time to let go of my fear. And he was right. All this time, I've kept this bottled up, and for no reason other than out of sheer habit."
          Locke nodded in understanding. "Who were your parents?"
          "I never knew my mother," Celes said, crossing her arms and holding herself. "She died giving birth to us. My father, though, was...Emperor Gestahl."
          Locke blinked. "Gestahl..." he repeated to himself, knowing it was true yet somehow unable to quite believe it. Then he looked back up at her, one eyebrow raised. "Wait--'us'?"
          Celes nodded solemnly. "Triplets: Daryl, myself, and....Kefka."
          It was several moments before Locke could speak again. "And I thought my family had issues," he murmured, shaking his head. "Now I know why you never talked about yours."
          There was more. Their mother was carrying an old book with her when they captured her, something she claimed to have been sent to retrieve and protect. The book was a diary, written in a dead language, but in time Gestahl's scholars were able to translate the contents: poems, stories, daily musings of the book's owner, even so-called prophecies. When their mother had refused to tell him where she'd come from, the diary was what led him to Espera, and to the acquisition of Terra.
          It also contained some magic spells--including a particular one called 'Renaissance'.
          A spell that would bring the dead back to life.
          It was only a matter of time before Gestahl discovered the woman's true nature. He realized that if the two of them were to have offspring, the children would be half human and half Esper, able to contain a tremendous amount of power yet still be controlled. They would have the potential to be the greatest soldiers of all time.
          Thus was born the Emperor's grandest project: Les Enfants Terrible. The Terrible Children.
          A plan to resurrect the goddesses.
          Locke inhaled slowly. "Three goddesses; three children."
          The plan was to allow the children to grow, to develop their inherited powers; when the time was right, he would use the Renaissance spell to resurrect the goddesses into their bodies.
          "And with the powers of goddesses at his control," Locke realized, "no one would have been able to stand up to him."
          Fortunately, two things had gotten in his way.
          The first was Kefka, the fact that he was male instead of female; three goddesses didn't equal two sisters and a brother, or so the Emperor believed. But logical or not, Gestahl refused to accept and use him in the resurrection; however, he couldn't bring himself to justify getting rid of Kefka, or rather, someone with Kefka's powers, not when he could potentially be useful someday. So he kept Kefka around for humiliation; placing him in charge of the debacle at Doma was one of the lesser embarassments he received.
          At first Kefka had endured the ridicule stoically, treating it as a test of strength and character, but in the end he broke down, and the only thing that ever came of it was an intense hatred for Gestahl, for the man who was his father but would care for a complete stranger more than for his own son; this was just one of the reasons he'd killed Gestahl on the floating island.
          As if that weren't enough, though, Gestahl eventually realized that Terra could take Kefka's place in the resurrection, especially with her powers, which were greater than any of the others; Gestahl and Cid both attributed this to the fact that Terra's father was an Esper, rather than her mother, although their suspicions were never proven.
          So Kefka not only found himself trying to please a father that would never love him, but now he found himself competing with someone for what little attention he did receive, someone who didn't want it in the first place but could do nothing to stop it.
          Kefka grew to hate Terra as well, growing more and more frustrated as every attempt of his to get rid of her--including sending her to Narshe with Biggs and Wedge--ended in failure. Eventually the anger became too much to bear: Kefka's mind snapped, and he found solace in the welcoming arms of insanity, changing the course of his future forever.
          The second thing that stood in Gestahl's way was much simpler: Daryl ran away. Or to be precise, flew away. After Gestahl met Setzer and began using his merchant services, he had Professor Cid begin construction on a prototype Imperial airship based on Setzer's own ship, dreaming of an Imperial Air Force that would rule the skies.
          Unfortunately for him, an incident occurred at the Magitek Research Facility, the events of which still weren't entirely known, but it somehow resulted in the Esper Ramuh escaping with Daryl aboard the prototype--the Falcon. Ramuh ended up in Zozo, and Daryl eventually crashed the Falcon near Kohlingen to fake her death, after which she took up residence in Jidoor, going under the nom de guerre Maria and working at the opera house for a living.
          "The rest, as they say, is history," Celes concluded. "With Daryl out of Father's reach and Kefka unacceptable, the Les Enfants Terrible project began to fall apart. Soon after that, Father started searching for Espers again, the Returners began harassing the Empire, and you know the rest."
          Locke whistled softly. "Well, that certainly explains a lot. General Leo 'refused' an infusion simply because none existed. Gestahl's comment on the floating island about your birthright makes sense now. And now I understand why you just happened to look 'exactly' like the mysterious Maria."
          Celes nodded. "That's the reason I gave in so quickly to your suggestion to replace her. I went to speak to her by myself because you might have discovered our connection, or at least suspected. I couldn't afford to let that happen. But she wasn't ready to face Setzer yet, and it was safer for her that way, so she agreed to let me take her place."
          "Does Setzer know? About you two, and Kefka, I mean?"
          "Yes," she confirmed. "He's known almost as long as Cid. That was why he agreed to help us infiltrate the Empire."
          Locke closed his eyes and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Cel. I feel like such a selfish jerk. Here I was worried about whether or not you're cheating on me, and all this time you've had problems I didn't even imagine." He looked back up at her. "Can you forgive me?"
          "There's nothing to forgive you of. It's not your fault," she reminded him gently, reaching up to stroke the back of her hand across his cheek. "I'm the one who should be sorry, not you. I kept all of this from you for so long, when I should have been honest with you from the start." She raised her eyebrows. "Can you forgive me?"
          An infectious grin broke out reflexively on Locke's face. "Love, forgiving you would be easier than picking pockets and breaking into the Empire. And I would know."
          "I'll take that as a 'yes' then," Celes replied wryly. She pulled him close to her, wrapped her arms around his neck. "You know, you're awfully cute when you're jealous."
          "Yeah, just keep that in mind next time, my ice queen, okay?" Locke replied. He leaned forward, wrapping his own arms around her waist as their lips met in a kiss--
          And pulled back abruptly, his head turning at an angle as a memory suddenly resurfaced.
          Celes's brow furrowed. "Daryl? What about her?"
          "She's here," Locke answered, his arms falling away from her.
          "What?!" Celes asked incredulously.
          "I saw her, with the Imperial delegation when they arrived." Locke frowned in thought, wondering why he hadn't remembered this until now. "She was dressed in a...lieutenant's uniform, I think."
          Celes shook her head. "But Daryl disappeared just--"
          And with a click that was nearly audible, all the disparate pieces--the Fanatics' recent obsession with the Empire, Daryl's latest disappearance, Leo's last words--it all fell into place with a sudden, horrible clarity.
          Celes inhaled sharply. "Oh goddesses... Leo tried to warn me, before he disappeared, but I didn't understand until now. Come on, Locke, we have to stop him."
          Locke jerked into motion as she grabbed his hand and started pulling him towards the stairwell. "Stop who?" he managed to get out.
          "It was Daryl's body you saw," Celes explained over her shoulder, her expression tight. "But it wasn't Daryl."
          Locke frowned in bewilderment. "Then who--?"
          "It was Kefka..."

*   *   *

          "Let's be honest here, Your Highness," Commander Markiss said as he leaned forward, clasping his hands and setting them on the round table. A subtle symbolic touch on Edgar's part, perhaps? That all were equal, all part of a bigger whole? Markiss felt his opinion of the young king rise a notch.
          Across the table from him, Edgar inclined his head in attention, his right fist clasped in his left hand. To Edgar's left sat the Chancellor, his expression calm and impassive in the light from the chandelier overhead. Behind Markiss, he could sense the comforting if somewhat decorative presence of his two guards; to his left, Lord Garamonde, quiet but with a noticeable sense of anticipation about him; and beyond Cyan, the twin doors leading into the banquet hall, flanked outside in the hall by the Figaro guards who had escorted them here.
          The air in here was noticeably cooler as well, Markiss noted, no doubt due to the castle's advanced ventilation system. A vision of his own office being this comfortable danced temptingly before his mind's eye. Perhaps I'll reverse my stance on technological exchanges after all.
          Markiss continued: "I believe us both to be intelligent men, and as such I think we're mature enough to admit that your kingdom is as much an empire as mine was, if only in spirit and not in name. But both of our nations serve a similar purpose, have a similar goal in mind: to unite our disparate peoples, to better protect and provide for them, and for the future. That is the Empire I desire, not the dictatorship that Gestahl dreamed of and commanded."
          He sat back, again feeling the relief of the weight of years being lifted from his shoulders. "To that end, I wish to formally and officially call for a cessation of hostilities between our two nations."
          To his left, Cyan held out a sheet of stationery, which Markiss accepted. "I have here a list of all the regional governors, with their signatures and signets as proof of their unanimous support of my actions here today." He handed the paper to Edgar. "In the name of peace, the Empire at last stands united."
          Edgar accepted the sheet, looked it over cursorily and nodded. "I must admit, Commander, that I was hesitant to grant you an audience. I believe you can understand a certain amount of skepticism on my part."
          "Of course, Your Highness," Markiss replied. "To be perfectly honest, I'm tired of the fighting," he explained, adopting a world-weary tone of voice. "I'm tired of the struggle the Empire has put itself through, only to gain so little. In war, there are no winners; only losers. And only someone who is too proud to admit his mistakes will keep fighting."
          "My sentiments as well, Commander," Edgar agreed. He thought he heard a faint commotion out in the hall as he reached for a folder lying on the table. "I've taken the liberty of drawing up some preliminary agreements for discussion--"
          And realized that his plan had just been shot straight to hades as the doors to his right burst open, the abrupt breeze scattering the papers into the air.
          Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Locke and Celes came charging in, the surprised guards right behind, all of them with mouths open in various shouts that he couldn't seem to hear over the sudden pounding of his heart.
          He stood, looked to his left, saw Commander Markiss rising, his expression one of confusion at the interruption. Next to him, equally bewildered, was Cyan, his attention fully on Locke and Celes.
          And with the horrible, sickening clarity of hindsight, Edgar realized who the traitor was.
          Knowing it was already too late, knowing he was about to pay for his mistaken assumption, he swept his left arm back, brushing aside his cape and holding it there. Simultaneously his right hand came up, gripped the sabre and held it perpendicular to his body, and Edgar stepped back hard--
          And plunged the blade straight into Chancellor Valorum's chest.
          The other exhaled in shock, and as Edgar withdrew the sabre and stepped away, Valorum dropped the dagger he'd been holding poised above Edgar. He clutched at the spreading bloodstain on his robes as his legs crumbled beneath him, the dagger clattering to the floor next to him, landing where Edgar could clearly see the emblem embedded into its hilt.
          An emblem depicting a winged chimera.
          Valorum's rasping breath was eerily deafening in the silence that had fallen, as Edgar knelt next to him, his face tight, reflecting Valorum's expression of grief and anger. "Why, Erid?"
          The Chancellor drew a ragged breath through his teeth, glared at him through slitted eyes. "Because of you and your grozzing half-breed Esper, my homeland is dead," Valorum rasped. "If you had never encouraged the king to support the rebellion, Doma would never have felt the Empire's wrath. If you'd simply handed Terra over to Kefka, that would have been the end of it as well.
          "But you couldn't leave well enough alone," Valorum continued after a moment's trembling breath, his voice noticeably weaker now, "and Doma paid the price for your obstinance. Now she's nothing more than a fading memory."
          Edgar inhaled, feeling the tightness in his chest as several things finally began to make sense. "You told Kefka that we had Terra," he realized, remembering back to during the rebellion. "You told him where we were taking her. And you told him we were going to infiltrate the Empire."
          "For all the good it did my home," Valorum grunted. "But I don't expect someone like you to care. You're just as arrogant and self-righteous as your father was."
          "You couldn't be more wrong, Chancellor," Commander Markiss spoke up softly as he came up next to Edgar. "Edgar is a good man, as was his father before him. What we're doing here today should have convinced you of that. And you're wrong about the Empire. Emperor Gestahl dreamed of conquering the world, including Doma. The rebellion made no difference in that respect; Doma would have fallen, sooner or later, one way or another. Blaming Edgar won't change history."
          "Small consolation," Valorum muttered bitterly, his chest barely rising and falling now. He closed his eyes, his expression and body relaxing as he seemed to realize his time was up. "Tell Tierce...I'll see him in hades..."
          When the other's body was still, Edgar breathed out slowly in remorse, then looked up at Markiss, frowning. "Tierce?"
          The look on Markiss's face could have frozen Figaro Desert. "Governor Cain Tierce." He drew himself up unconsciously. "Your Highness, I believe a postponement of the remainder of this conference is in order; we can reconvene at your convenience. In the meantime, I will return to Albrook...and take care of the Governor personally."
          Edgar stood, opened his mouth to respond, stopped as Celes came up, an anxious look on her face. "Celes--what is it?"
          "Commander,"she started, turning to the other, her voice tense, "where are the other two guards that came with you?"
          Markiss glanced behind him where his two guards stood next to Cyan, turned back to her and frowned. "That's a very good question, General Chere. Considering I was only supposed to have two in the first place."
          "They must have used an apathy spell, to come here with you and keep anyone from discovering their presence," Celes murmured, throwing a significant look at Locke, who had come up next to her.
          "Edgar," Locke spoke up, "one of them was a woman. She"--Celes elbowed him gently--"...is a spy--one of the Fanatics."
          The king's eyes narrowed in alarm. "Are you sure?"
          "We'll explain later," Celes put in. "We thought she was here to sabotage the conference, but apparently someone beat her to it." Her eyes glanced briefly at the Chancellor's prone form. "But now there's no telling what she's here for. We need to find her, and fast."
          ...and that which the dragon cherishes most shall be taken away...
          Edgar suddenly felt sick, his stomach twisting in on itself as he realized just how horribly mistaken he'd been.
          The woman wasn't here to disrupt the peace talks.
          She was here for Terra.

*   *   *

          There used to be an old saying: 'The sins of the father are visited upon the children.'
          Or in this case, child, Emit thought to himself as he wandered aimlessly down the halls of the castle, all too aware of the dull ache in his heart. His footfalls seemed to echo deafeningly in the abnormal silence, the bright lamps lining the stone corridors a stark contrast to the dark mood he was in.
          Crono's parting words had cut deep, far deeper than he'd been prepared for. He'd known the boy would be upset, but not to this degree. And now he refused to talk, to listen to anything Emit had to say, to even see him, and that hurt worst of all. Didn't the boy realize that this had affected him as well? That it had torn him apart inside to willingly choose to leave his beloved wife and son and come to a strange world, to fight for people he didn't know, knowing that he might not come back?
          Emit considered it a gift from God that he'd gotten to see his son again, after so long and after believing he would never do so again. But to be reunited with Crono, to have the chance to be a father again, only to be kept from his son by his son was maddeningly frustrating.
          Emit turned abruptly, slammed his palm angrily into a wall, immediately wished he hadn't. He turned at the sound of a startled gasp behind him, only to grimace to himself in embarassment. "Sorry," he apologized sheepishly to the maid standing there, who quickly nodded and hurried on down a cross-corridor.
          Good thing Tiem's not here to see you like this, Emit rebuked himself, crossing his arms and staring at the floor as he continued on, remembering with not a little embarassment the numerous times his wife had gotten onto him about his temper.
          Something that Crono apparently had inherited from him. Despite that, though, despite the fact Crono might be more like his father than was good for him, he wasn't a selfish person, or someone who wouldn't think twice about others. The fact that he hadn't simply given up and gone home after discovering the creature Lavos, but had instead pursued that menace to its ultimate demise, was proof enough of that.
          Yet more knowledge he owed to the prophecies and stories of the diary, ones which he hadn't revealed to Edgar because of their irrelevance here but which clearly identified Crono as one of the Children of Fate; Emit strongly suspected Lucca and Janus were as well, considering the circumstances. He was proud to no end to know that his own son had played a role in saving the planet, not to mention the future.
          He wanted to tell his son as much, but that would have to wait for the time being. Much as he hated the current situation, he had to bear it out. Emit knew Crono was simply releasing the pent-up frustration of the past two years, the misdirected anger at a world that had taken his father from him, and he honestly couldn't blame the boy. He knew Crono didn't hate him, didn't really mean what he'd said, and he felt ashamed for having let the idea cross his mind.
          And yet...he couldn't help wondering if he'd handled the situation correctly. Crono deserved to know the truth about what happened; that was undeniable, as far as Emit was concerned. Emit wished he could have waited until later to reveal the truth, when he could talk to his son in private, after things had settled down, but life rarely conformed itself to his desires.
          Maybe Crono was right, Emit thought miserably. Maybe he no longer has a father after all. I've been away for only two years, yet we've both changed so much. I'm not sure I know how to be his father anymore.
          He stopped as the corridor came to a T, a side corridor off to the right while ahead of him a stairwell that led upward to the airship docking platform. Emit took the branch, realized with a start that it was the same section of living quarters where he'd found Edgar last night--
          And came to an abrupt halt, a chill shivering down his spine as he spotted the two guards, unconscious or worse, lying outside the open door to one of the guest suites.
          Emit muttered a silent curse as he drew his staff and pressed up next to the wall, all other thoughts forgotten as he quickly but quietly made his way towards the door, hoping but not trusting that nothing was wrong and wishing that the quarters were in a more populated section of the castle. Naturally, with the conference going on right now, most of the staff were tied up elsewhere, leaving only the two guards Edgar had apparently posted to keep an eye on the room's occupant.
          And they're no longer in a position to do so, Emit thought grimly as he knelt next to the closest one, felt for a pulse and didn't find one. Haven't been dead long. Whoever did this might still be here...
          As if on cue, they suddenly came out of the room, catching him off-guard: a dark-haired man and blonde woman, both young and in Imperial uniform, their expressions cold and dark, headed down the hall away from him.
          And draped over the man's shoulders was Terra Branford's unconscious form.
          "Hold it!" Emit barked as he rose to his feet, brandishing his staff and starting towards them.
          The woman's head whipped around, glared daggers at him. "Take her," she snapped at her companion, who nodded and broke into a run down the hall, then she unsheathed her sword and came at Emit, swinging it in a deceptively lazy circle by her right side before quickly bringing it up in a slash at his chest.
          He stepped back out of range of the blade, held his staff in upper right guard as it came back in an overhead backswing. The woman immediately twisted to her left, her left boot coming up in a roundhouse kick that missed Emit's face by centimeters.
          He backpedaled rapidly, his heart pounding as he realized he was out of his league here. His training in Guardia hadn't prepared him for a foe with the speed and ferocity this woman possessed, not to mention the fighting style; he knew he had to find help fast, or he wouldn't last very long.
          The other apparently recognized his predicament, her lips curling in a vicious grin as she pressed the attack, driving him further down the hallway until they had entered the T junction, Emit taking longer and longer to recover after each strike, unable to mount a counter-attack whatsoever.
          Abruptly he found himself pressing against the wall, and before he could react, the woman struck the staff from his grasp, sending it clattering to the floor. Her foot came up in a high sweep, catching him across the jaw and turning him; the subsequent kick to the back of his knees sent him to the floor, and she raised the sword over his head--
          Only to cry out in anger as three silverish objects flashed through the air, slicing the sword into four pieces before embedding themselves in the ceiling. The woman looked up at them, the lamplight reflecting enough for her to make out what they were.
          Razor-edged metal playing cards.
          With a vehement hiss, the woman tossed what was left of the sword to the floor and spun around. There, near the base of the stairwell, dressed in his usual debonnaire style and with another trio of cards held ready at his fingertips, was Setzer Gabbiani.
          "You just can't ever mind your own grozzing business, can you, gambler?" she snarled, glaring at him, her fists clenching in frustration.
          Setzer shook his head, his expression a mixture of shock and disbelief. "Daryl--what are you doing?!"
          Abruptly her lips curled in an insane grin. "Something I should have done a long time ago, loverboy." She looked down at Emit. "I'll take care of you later, mimic," she growled, then before either of them could react, she took off back down the cross-corridor, moving with a speed Emit wouldn't have thought possible.
          By the time Setzer recovered from his surprise and came over to Emit, she was gone.
          "You okay?" he asked as he helped the other stand up.
          "Yeah, I'm fine," Emit grumbled. "Nothing but a bruised ego here. Thanks for your help."
          Setzer nodded in reply, obviously distracted as he gazed down the hallway where the woman had disappeared.
          "Setzer," a voice called from the direction opposite the stairwell. Emit turned as Edgar, Celes, and Locke came up, their faces drawn with tension.
          "Gogo, what--" Edgar said without preamble as he glanced down the other hall, saw the guards' bodies, inhaled sharply as he turned to Emit. "Where's Terra?"
          "I'm sorry, Edgar. They took her," Emit answered, unable to ignore the guilt he was feeling at the moment. "There were two of them, a man and woman, both Imperial. I couldn't stop them."
          Edgar swallowed a curse, looked away instead and squeezed his eyes shut, realizing that they were too late, and that now Terra as well would pay for his mistake.
          "Wait a minute," Setzer put in. "Daryl's not one of them!"
          "So it was her..." Locke murmured to himself.
          Setzer focused on him. "What do you mean? Did you know she was here?"
          "We didn't know it was her, not until a few minutes ago," Celes answered for him.
          "Daryl?" Edgar spoke as he looked up at her. "You didn't tell me it was her."
          "It occurs to me," Emit interrupted with not a little impatience, "that we might not have time to stand around here discussing this. Whoever the woman is, she kidnapped Terra, for who knows what reason."
          Setzer pulled back visibly, angered at the other's words despite what he'd seen for himself. "I don't believe you. I don't know why she was attacking you, but she would never kidnap someone, let alone Terra."
          Emit opened his mouth to reply, waited as a guard suddenly came running up.
          "Your Highness--the two Imperial guards were just seen escaping off the east balcony. They were last seen fleeing on blue chocobos."
          Again Edgar had to choke off the word that threatened to come out. That was it, then. They had gotten away; and as if to add insult to injury, they'd even used his own trick against him.
          "That's it," Edgar said darkly, "we're going after them. Locke and Celes"--he looked pointedly at them--"can fill us all in later. Setzer, how soon can you have the Falcon ready to fly?"
          "She's ready to go anytime," the other replied instantly. "But where--"
          "Blue chocobos," Edgar responded. "They're headed for the ocean."
          "They're long gone by now," Celes pointed out. "It's too late to follow them, and we don't know where they're going."
          "I think we do..." came a voice from behind them.
          Emit turned, blinked in surprise at the sight of Crono and Lucca, their expressions grim.
          And standing behind them was Schala.

To be continued...

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