The first thing Terra became aware of as she regained consciousness was the feel of cool metal pressing against her cheek. A moment later her senses told her she was lying on the floor, arms and legs curled up into a fetal position. Breathing deeply, she blinked her eyes open, squinted as light suddenly poured in from above.
She pushed herself up into a sitting position, opened her eyes wide, forcing her pupils to adjust to the harsh light as she looked around--
And suddenly had to fight off a rising surge of panic as she realized where she was: a small, windowless room with thick iron walls, a single door in front of her leading out; behind her a chair, straps dangling from where chest and ankles and wrists would be, positioned directly in the middle of the floor beneath a glaring spotlight.
This was the interrogation chamber deep within the Imperial Palace, where Kefka had brought her when she'd finally rebelled against the Emperor.
Where she had been turned into a mindless, helpless slave.
Easy, easy, she told herself as she labored to get her racing heartbeat and breathing under control. This couldn't be real; the Imperial Palace, not to mention this room, was now--had long been--a pile of rubble beneath the even larger wreck that was once Kefka's tower. This had to be some kind of recreation, or illusion; a very good one, the purpose of which--to frighten her, throw her off kilter, whatever--had obviously been served well, but an illusion nonetheless.
And with that realization, the psychological tactic began to lose its effect on her. She could resist the panic that threatened to overwhelm her, the impulse to try and escape as quickly as possible. And although she realized that there probably wasn't anywhere for her to go, were she to attempt to leave, she was no longer quite so helpless against who- or whatever was doing this.
Fortunately, she didn't have to wait very long to find out.
"I knew you'd be able to appreciate the decor."
Terra eased herself up onto her feet and turned, her brow furrowing. The voice was feminine, the tone faintly mocking, coming from behind the chair, from the shadows cast by the spotlight overhead. And it sounded oddly familiar, like a voice she hadn't heard for a long time but whose face and name escaped her.
"Who's there?" Terra replied, cursing herself for the just-detectable tremble in her voice and hoping the other wouldn't hear it.
"Aw, now that wouldn't be any fun," the voice purred teasingly. "C'mon, take a guess. It's not like you have much to lose."
Abruptly a young woman stepped from the darkness, her golden blonde ponytail dangling down one shoulder and over an olive-gray Imperial lieutenant's uniform, her hand brushing affectionately over the chair's headrest, and for the first time in her life Terra found herself completely and utterly dumbfounded, because this was the absolute last person she would have expected to see.
The woman's liquid blue eyes met hers, the other's mouth curling into an insane smile.
And Terra felt her stomach twist in on itself as she realized she was very wrong. This wasn't who she'd thought it was. It was someone else entirely, someone much worse.
Someone who was supposed to be dead.
"Oh, goddesses..." Terra murmured quietly, feeling as if she were going to be sick. She felt herself unconsciously backing away, unable to tear her gaze from the woman's eyes, from the sudden bonfire-like brilliance in them.
The eyes of Kefka.
"Very good," s/he applauded Terra, hir eyes narrowing approvingly as s/he clapped lightly. "That wasn't so hard, now was it?"
Terra tried to swallow the lump in her throat. "But you're dead..."
"I won't die," the other snapped abruptly, leaning forward, hir eyes glaring, hir tone turning ice cold and taking on a strange duality to it; almost like Kefka's voice overlaid on Daryl's. "Not as long as you still live."
"How--?" Terra managed to get out mechanically.
"Oh, it was quite simple, actually," the other replied, hir voice suddenly calm, that of Daryl's once more. "Boringly simple, in fact. Once my Followers found and captured sister dear, it was a trivial matter to then acquire the Renaissance spell from the Empire and resurrect me into her body."
Terra inhaled in comprehension. "Les Enfants Terrible."
Daryl/Kefka nodded and smiled tightly. "Father's little pet project; his misguided plan to bring the goddesses back to life." Hir expression turned sour. "Unfortunately for me, there weren't a whole lot of choices. Considering the condition you and Celes are in at the moment, Daryl was all that was left."
Terra swallowed, shook her head. "You're a monster."
The other sighed dramatically and rolled hir eyes. "I'm quite aware of your personal opinion of me, thank you. I didn't bring you here so you could call me names."
Terra felt the skin under her eyes tighten. So she wasn't at the castle any longer. Which meant the guards Edgar had posted outside her room were, in all likelihood, now dead. And if Edgar had been there while she was being kidnapped...
"So what did you bring me here for?" she replied bitterly, forcing the horrible thought away. "To kill me? Don't bother, I'm already dying."
"Yes, I know," the other replied softly. S/he stepped around the chair and came towards Terra. "You do realize that it's your own fault, don't you?"
Terra frowned as she felt herself unconsciously pulling back as the other came close. "What are you talking about?"
"Ignorant to the last." The other shook hir head in irony as s/he paced to Terra's left. "Don't you get it, Branford? Granted, I had no great desire to take a flying leap into death's open arms, but by defeating me, you proved me right."
S/he raised a finger to point at her, the corner of hir mouth curling in an evil smile. "And that was the worst possible thing you could have done. You did my job for me. By killing me, you unleashed the magic that stripped you of your powers and sentenced you and Celes and Daryl to a premature death."
"That's not true..." Terra heard herself whisper, but the damage was done; the seed of doubt had been planted, and despite herself she felt it growing, pushing at her, and with a horrible feeling she began to wonder if the other truly was correct.
"I wonder how Locke and Setzer will feel," Daryl/Kefka purred tauntingly, "when they find out you're the reason the loves of their miserable little lives are going to die."
It was too much.
Of its own accord, Terra's fist flew up from her side, arrowing straight for the other's smug expression, the fact that it was Daryl's body forgotten for the moment--
Only to slam painfully into the wall as the other vanished into thin air.
Terra grimaced, holding the hand close to her and biting off the curse that was trying to make its way out. She forced herself to breath slowly, to bury the anger, and as the pain subsided to a mere throbbing, the thoughts that had been floating in the back of her mind abruptly clicked, and she realized where they were.
The astral plane. A landscape of the mind, a phantom world, created from shared memories, perceptions, and impressions. A place where the laws of physics had no authority, where power came from the mind and through sheer force of will. A place where anything and everything could happen.
A place in which death meant more than simply physical pain and a cessation of physical existence.
"That's how you're doing this," Terra said aloud. "You're using Daryl's powers, aren't you? Then that means the loss of magic was only around your tower after all." Something she'd wondered about for some time, given that all of the world's remaining mage warriors--the citizens of Thamasa not withstanding--had been aboard the Falcon. A small victory she knew, if true, but a victory nonetheless.
"Not quite," the other replied, a hint of amusement in hir tone, as s/he reappeared behind the chair. "The field effect was worldwide; its intensity, however, diminished over distance. That's why Commander Markiss's precious MATs are breaking down, why Daryl's still alive, and why Celes is only now beginning to exhibit the same symptoms as you. Eventually the Tanks will simply fall apart altogether, while Celes will die and Daryl will be right behind her. In a world without magic, people like us cannot survive."
"Then maybe we don't need to survive..." Terra suggested darkly.
Daryl/Kefka snorted lightly as s/he came around the chair again, this time remaining standing next to it. "You've forgotten your history. A thousand years ago, during the War of the Magi, the world needed people like us. We were valued then; we were desired."
"Things are different now, Kefka," Terra countered. "The War is over. We're not needed anymore. We no longer have a place in this world."
The other looked off to one side and snorted derisively. "Yes, in this oh-so-grateful world that now spurns our very existence. Something I know you know as well as I do."
S/he looked back up at Terra. "But that's going to change. Very soon."
Terra's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?"
"Believe it or not, you made me realize that total annihilation isn't the answer. So instead, I've decided I'm going to recreate this world," the other smiled, almost proudly. "I'm going to change this into a world where our kind can live and thrive; a world where people like us are honored as we once were. As we should be."
"I don't want that kind of world," Terra growled.
"Really," the other replied, hir tone thoughtful. "Tell me, Branford, you always wanted to be like those around you. To be normal, be human. So how does it feel? Is it what you thought it would be?"
Terra simply glared at hir.
Daryl/Kefka smiled knowingly. "Don't like it, do you? Not being able to sense those around you in the same way, no longer able to fly, to use the very abilities that made you so special and unique in the first place. You miss that feeling, don't you?"
"Of course I do," Terra admitted grudgingly. "How could I not?"
"Then you'll be able to appreciate this." S/he closed hir eyes, held a hand palm up to Terra, and she felt a warm glow briefly encompass her body.
"There," the other said, looking up at her again. "You have your powers back. You're no longer dying."
Terra drew back in surprise. "What?" she said in disbelief. "I don't believe you."
The other raised one elegant eyebrow, gestured with a nod. "See for yourself."
Still not believing hir, Terra raised her palm up, focused on it, sent a thought towards it--
And inhaled in surprise as a flame leapt into being, hovering just above her upheld hand. At her unspoken command, the flame writhed and flickered, dancing briefly before winking out, all in a way that left no possibility that the other was doing this instead.
It wasn't a trick; s/he really had given her her powers back.
But that didn't explain hir reason for doing so. "I don't understand. Why should you do something like this for me?" Terra asked, her tone suspicious.
"Don't get too excited. It's only temporary. Daryl doesn't have the power to fully restore you. All I did was prove to you that your powers weren't lost forever. Rather, they've merely been locked away."
Terra glowered at hir. "But I suppose you also know how they can be unlocked. Right? And let me guess: I have to cooperate with you, or do something for you."
"I wouldn't have brought the subject up otherwise," the other replied, a hint of a smile playing on hir lips. "Look at it this way, Branford: you have the chance to undo what was done. You can turn back the clock. You can give back the life that you and Celes and Daryl had taken away. You can set things right."
For one very long moment, Terra found herself considering the other's words, wondering if it would be worth whatever it was s/he would ask for. It would certainly make Locke and Setzer happy, not to mention Edgar especially. She would have the chance to explore their budding relationship, to possibly build a life with him. She could return to Mobliz, take care of the children she'd come to think of, care for, and love as her own.
And then she remembered what it was like to be part Esper. She remembered being used as a weapon by the Empire, who only wanted her for the magic she was born with; distrusted by the Returners, even among whom she was an outcast; rejected and hated by everyday people, who were too scared or prejudiced or simply didn't care to look deeper and see that she wasn't truly the killing machine that had been commanded by the Empire, or the mindless demon she had appeared to be later.
She remembered what it felt like to turn to people for help, only to be turned away. She remembered taking chances to help those very same people, only to be scorned for interfering. And that wasn't something she wanted to ever experience again, nor was it something that she was willing to force upon Celes and Daryl, that either of them would really want, even if it meant another chance at life.
For Terra, there had really only been one choice all along; this merely served to confirm it.
"No," she said simply. "Whatever it is, I won't help you. I made the choice to fight you and what you stand for long ago. I was willing to accept whatever consequences there were, and that hasn't changed."
"Oh, spare me. Not this nonsense again," Daryl/Kefka hissed angrily, breathing heavily in frustration. "Fine. We'll do this the hard way then."
S/he raised her hands, and Terra tensed for the attack, knowing she wasn't ready for it--
Only to blink and step back in surprise as the room seemed to shift around her. Vertigo swept over her, and her vision swam, threatening to send her to her knees, but she remained standing.
And when she looked back up, it was all she could do not to gasp out loud.
There, sitting in the chair beneath the spotlight, dressed in her old battle armor and restrained by the straps, was herself.
"Recognize her, Terra?" Daryl/Kefka taunted. "She's the you that could--that should--have been. Unlike you, she doesn't deny her heritage. She is proud of the blood that runs through her veins." The other turned to her, a wicked look on hir face. "She's your shadow..."
It was all Terra could do to remain standing, staring numbly at her doppelganger, at this nightmarish reminder of her past: the unnaturally impassive expression, the clothes that had served as her uniform, the wild streak of her hair as it hung loosely over her shoulders; the almost tangible shadow that seemed to embrace her, the hidden glint of a thirst for evil and death in her eyes.
And for the first time, she truly realized what her children had seen, that day that she'd fought Phunbaba.
They had seen a monster. And it was her.
"This isn't real," she choked out, unable to take her eyes off the doppelganger, her voice nearly cracking. "This isn't how it was."
"On that, dear Terra, you are very wrong," Daryl/Kefka stated matter-of-factly. "As you are about to find out."
And with those words, the other faded away once more, and before Terra could react, the other Terra was leaping from the chair, snapping the restraints that had held her there, her face coming to life with a scream of rage. Terra raised her arms, but the other slammed into her, knocking her into the door behind, which open without argument, spilling them out of the room and onto the ground outside.
Immediately the area shifted around them, no longer the Imperial Palace, but the training ground that had been used by the MATs, its perimeter ablaze with impossibly tall flames, turning it into an impromptu arena. The air shimmered with the heat, filled with the sharp odor of smoke and the tart smell of blood, just as it had been long ago.
Terra cried out as they grappled in the dirt, reflexively grabbing her doppelganger and using her feet to flip the other over her head. She rolled over, pushed herself to her feet, only to throw herself to the side as the other Terra fired off a bolt of lightning in her direction, sizzling the air around her.
In that moment, Terra saw with despair what she had to do. In her state, in pure hand-to-hand combat, she knew she wouldn't last long against the other; against magic, even less. But more importantly, Kefka was alive, and if she was to escape, to get back to Edgar and the others and warn them, then she had to do whatever was necessary. That left her exactly one choice, one which she'd wanted to never have to make again but which Kefka had conveniently made possible.
Fight fire with fire.
Just as General Leo had fought and destroyed Kefka's shadow in Thamasa so long ago, Terra now fought her own shadow, grudgingly aware of the symbolic irony at play. In retrospect, the doppelganger never stood a chance; the shadows were never meant for sustained conflict against a physical. And although the battle was short-lived, it was fierce, nothing held back by either of them, because neither had anything to lose.
But as they fought, as Terra finally dealt the killing blow, her bolt of magic tearing into the other's body and sending the charred remains to the ground, she could feel the tears flowing down her face, the quiet sobs escaping her lips, because for the first time, she realized that Kefka was right.
She'd tried to hide from the others a part of her that was undeniable, a part that she had tried to deny anyway. She had felt the anger throbbing in her mind during the battle, and she had enjoyed it, reveled in the pleasure of hurting her doppelganger, thrilled madly at taking another person's life, just as she had during the war with every battle she'd fought. It had always been there, she knew, hovering at the edge of her awareness, and yet she'd futilely tried to ignore it, to pretend it hadn't existed.
And now she was paying the price.
The Espers had been killing machines, nothing more, nothing less, created solely for war, for death and destruction. And she was no different.
It was only as she knelt in remorse, her legs weakly crumbling beneath her, that she noticed that the fight had been easy, far too easy, even for a shadow, and with the horrible clarity of hindsight, she realized she'd done exactly what Kefka had wanted her to do.
Even as she started to move, she felt the other's presence behind her, placing the slave crown on her head. She could feel the cool metal, tight against her skin, as cruel and mocking as a crown of thorns, draining her will and once more rendering her a mindless servant.
Her last fleeting thought before her consciousness faded to darkness was the hope that Edgar would be able to forgive her.
*   *   *
The thick blanket of low-lying clouds parted at last, and the Falcon was once more flying through open skies, dark water rushing past beneath as the airship soared high over the ocean away from Figaro Castle--an ocean that had once been directly east of Figaro, until Kefka's Light of Judgment had rearranged the face of the earth. Down below, their rippling shadows more visible now in the early evening sun to the west, were the blue chocobos, still swimming impressively fast across the water's relatively calm surface, the figures riding them all but ignoring the airship holding position above and behind them.
Which, Edgar thought sourly, was about all they could do, given the situation. The Falcon had had no problem catching up to the two Fanatics, but there they'd hit a stalemate: the Fanatics couldn't get away now, but while they still had Terra, there was nothing that could be done to stop them. All they could do was wait and see what the Fanatics would do, and that, to Edgar, was the most frustrating aspect.
At any rate, the airship's role had been relegated to playing follow-the-leader, and so they had remained for the past seven hours since spotting them, doing nothing but watching and waiting as the chocobos had led them further and further out towards the center of the ocean.
Edgar could tell it was getting to him, despite the rest he'd had earlier or the all-too-brief distraction of relieving Setzer at the helm. But they were still in the dark here, still with no idea where the Fanatics were going or what they wanted Terra for, only that they hadn't gotten there yet and they needed her alive.
"Talk to me, Setzer," he called over his shoulder, feeling restless and trying not to focus on how helpless he felt at the moment. "What's our status?"
"Roughly a thousand klicks out from Figaro Desert, still bearing due northeast," the other reported from the helm, his hair and coat flapping in the breeze; Edgar could hear his own weariness reflected in the other's voice. "Altitude currently at four hundred and fifty meters."
"Keep it under half a kilometer," Gogo suggested, turning from where he and Edgar stood on the port side of the ship, trying to occupy themselves by watching for the Fanatics' destination--whatever it was. "We don't want to lose track of them now."
Setzer nodded in reply, turned his attention back to flying the airship, his earlier argument with the mimic already forgotten, focusing instead on Daryl's safety and trying to ignore the guilt he was feeling.
On the starboard side, Lucca gripped the wooden railing and breathed in deeply, reveling in the awe she felt at the moment. Riding on the airship--being exposed to the elements like this, feeling the wind rushing over her, the speed of soaring over the ocean making her feel alive--was so different from flying in the Epoch, with its cramped, self-contained environment.
Lucca glanced to her left, where Schala stood at the bow, her flowing blue hair and purple robes a striking contrast to the earthen tones of the airship. Lucca wondered if she should say something to the princess, decided against it as she realized there was nothing to say at this point. Schala couldn't even give them a clue as to what had happened; she hadn't regained consciousness until almost right before the Epoch had been frozen.
But she did remember, in those brief seconds before she was frozen, that the Epoch had been over an ocean; in all likelihood, this ocean. Which meant that somewhere out here was the Fanatics' destination--along with the answers to all their questions.
Next to Lucca, Crono breathed out heavily, his expression tight with concern.
"What's wrong?" she asked, turning back to him. "Besides the obvious?"
He shook his head in dismissal. "It's nothing. Nothing we can do anything about, anyway. It just bothers me that Schala and the Epoch returned but Janus hasn't come back yet."
Lucca nodded, understanding his concern; it was a question that had occurred to her as well. Unfortunately, she had yet to come up with an optimistic answer. And the alternatives weren't very encouraging.
"I'm worried about him too," she admitted, surprising herself with the truth. "Despite how he acts at times, he's still one of us, isn't he?"
"That's how I feel," Crono replied, turning to face her, his eyes searching hers. She met his gaze, and his expression seemed to falter, grow uncertain--
And abruptly, Lucca somehow knew what he was thinking about.
"Crono... It wasn't your fault," she said quietly.
Crono frowned slightly, focusing on her, feeling the nagging suspicion that she'd once again somehow read his mind. "What isn't my fault?"
Lucca looked back down at the railing, interlacing her fingers and sucking on her teeth briefly as she considered how to broach the subject. "Remember the campfire we had near Fiona's villa?" she said after a moment, her gaze sweeping aimlessly over the ocean below. "That night when we discussed the Entity?"
"Sure, I remember," Crono replied.
Lucca absently brushed a strand of hair back over her ear. "Well, I couldn't sleep that night. So, after everyone else was asleep, I got up and went for a walk around the forest. And I found a red Gate."
Crono looked surprised. "A red Gate?"
"It took me back...to that day," Lucca went on, her voice softer now, her eyes continuing to stare off into space as the memories came to her. "I was there, Crono," she continued after a moment, the tone of her voice oddly intense. "I watched my mother's accident happen."
Crono inhaled, blinking in shock, but he said nothing.
"I saw myself, playing with my toys," Lucca said. "I saw my mother, innocently cleaning Father's inventions." She choked up for a moment, swallowed and forced herself to go on. "And I saw the press come to life as Mother stepped near it, and the edge of her dress caught..."
She turned to Crono, the glint of a tear in her eye. "The press that I accidentally turned on when I was playing near it."
Crono was silent, the surprise evident in his expression.
"It wasn't your fault, Crono," Lucca finished quietly. "It never was. It was mine."
Not my fault, the words echoed through Crono's thoughts, a sense of relief flooding him at the knowledge that he hadn't been responsible for the accident after all; sadness at the realization at how much his life had been affected, how the past several years might have been different otherwise, but had instead been wasted, all because of a single mistaken assumption; guilt at his selfish thoughts as he wondered just how much worse it had to have been for Lucca, how painful it must have been to find out she caused her mother's accident.
"I never even thought..." Crono trailed off, wanting to comfort her but not knowing what to say, wishing he knew how to express his thoughts better--something he'd never been terribly good at.
"No one did," Lucca said. "I don't even remember doing it, it was so long ago. But I never meant for you to take the blame, Crono." She reached over, took his hand in hers. "I'm sorry for what that put you through. If I could go back again, and change what happened--"
"I know," Crono reassured her, squeezing her hand. "It's okay. I'm not angry or anything. It's just...surprising, is all, I guess."
Lucca smiled, blinking back a tear and sniffling lightly. "So we're still friends? This won't affect our friendship?"
Crono started to reply, then stopped, her words suddenly taking on a different meaning to him. His impulse had been the obvious, to tell her nothing had changed, that they were the same good friends they'd always been.
But was that really the truth? Had this indeed changed nothing? Or had it suddenly thrown open the door to a possibility that Crono had believed would never happen? Because now every reason he'd had for not trying to turn their friendship into something more was no longer valid.
He'd believed that, given the opportunity, he wouldn't even want the change anymore, after having been nothing but friends for so long. But now....now he wasn't so sure. Old feelings he'd thought long-buried were suddenly making themselves known again, and Crono was surprised to find that he honestly couldn't decide. Was this really something he wanted? For that matter, would Lucca want it? And if this desire was something they shared, what would that mean for his relationship with Marle?
Or did the princess even factor into this? He'd only known her for just over a month, but the signs had been there from the moment he'd literally bumped into her at the Millenial Fair. They'd grown close during their quest to defeat Lavos, but so many things had happened lately, so many things changing, and with Marle having to return to her life as Princess Nadia, he wasn't even sure what kind of relationship they had anymore, or could have at this point.
Crono opened his mouth, truly knowing for the first time what a stomach full of butterflies felt like, and wondering what he was going to say.
He didn't get to find out. Movement beyond Lucca caught his eye as Schala turned from the bow, a significant look on her face.
"They've stopped," she announced.
The other opened hir eyes slowly, taking a deep breath as Kefka's mind returned to Daryl's body from the astral plane. They had finally reached the very center of the ocean, the chocobos bobbing slowly up and down in the mild waves while the young man waited patiently.
A wait that had just come to an end--in more ways than one. "Is she--?"
The other smiled at him. "She'll do exactly as she's told." S/he turned to Terra's limp form, nestled before hir on the saddle, and touched her on the arm. "Time to wake up. You know what to do."
Like a puppet whose strings had suddenly been pulled on, Terra sat up straight, her face void of any expression, the look in her eyes unfocused and distant. The Master turned the chocobo to the side, and Terra swung her leg over the bird's head, pushed off and slide down its feathered side--
Only to stop above the ocean's surface and remain standing as her feet hit an unnaturally still section of water that was as solid as if it were frozen.
Or rather, frozen in time.
Terra stepped out of the way, and the Master joined her, followed a moment later by the young man, who sent the chocobos swimming back the way they'd come; where they were going, they wouldn't need the birds. Together, the three of them started north at a brisk pace, literally walking across the glassy water, an area of the ocean circular in shape and roughly four kilometers in diameter, all of it standing perfectly still, exactly as Rozhenko had said they would find it.
Two kilometers and a little more than half an hour later, they stopped, directly in the middle of the circle.
Without a word, the young man moved off to one side, while Terra and the Master took up positions facing each, the center of the circle between them. Save for the airship still annoyingly hovering some distance away, the air was calm and still, sending a pleasant chill through the young man at its similarity to the night of the Master's resurrection.
As one, Terra and the Master stretched their palms out to one another, and a bright light appeared in their midst, swallowed up a moment later by a sphere of pitch darkness, as Terra cast Ultima and the Master cast the lore of Grand Train, duplicating the same conditions Crono and Janus had with this world's versions of Luminaire and Dark Matter, only on a much grander scale.
The two of them spread their arms wide, the two spells mixing and growing obediently, churning and rumbling, and the young man felt the air became electric around them as their magic protected them from the mixed spell as it grew, pushing past them and continuing in an ever-expanding sphere. The spell eventually reached the edges of the circle of frozen water, held for a moment, then evaporated without warning, and the scenery around them returned to normal.
The hardened water beneath them shook abruptly, like an earthquake, and while the tiny spot they now stood together on in the center remained hard and frozen, the water all around, stretching out to the edges of the circle, abruptly came to life, the ocean surface suddenly moving and rippling as it was brought back into the timestream.
Of its own accord, the water around them began to swirl counter-clockwise, slowly at first, then faster, ignoring the motion of the surrounding ocean water, rushing faster and faster around the three of them, as if they were at the center of some uncontrollable vortex, a sound filling the air like a hundred waterfalls surrounding them.
And then the vortex dropped, the calm center they stood at leading the way, the water surrounding them quickly following suit and turning into slanting walls as they fell beneath the ocean's surface, leaving a funnel-shaped column of air in their wake; like a gigantic, invisible drill, boring its way down through the ocean.
They fell faster, the vortex still rushing madly around them, as if they were in the center of a waterspout, the light slowly growing dimmer as they approached the ocean floor. Behind them, water exploded into the air as the turnip-shaped top of a tower emerged, thrusting upward from below. The water continued to drop, the tower rising high above them, a smaller, similar tower now rising up to the right of it.
At last they hit solid ground, the vortex spiraling away from them as it continued to sink and merge back into the surrounding water. They stood on an island that had once been covered with lush, green plantlife, the remains of which were scattered across the island, destroyed long ago. The island was roughly a kilometer across, not quite buried in the ocean floor; they could hear the sounds of miniature waterfalls as seawater continued to pool and drain off the sides of the island, some distance above the mud and sand below. The ocean around them was a wall of glass, a column of water stretching all the way back up to the ocean's surface, twisting and writhing with the currents but held back as though it were the Dead Sea, and just as awesome a sight to behold.
Together they turned to regard the building resting majestically before them, its once marble-white walls now a dirty grey, glistening with light reflected from drops of water. Within the perimeter marked off by a ring of low broken walls that surrounded the building, the smaller tower nestled snugly against the layered central structure, the top of which the main tower sprouted from, the two of them looking for all the world like prongs on Poseidon's trident. But despite the damage that had been done to the building--the shattered tiles, the broken doors and windows, the gaping hole in the roof of the main tower--it was still awe-inspiring, like something out of myth and legend, just as it had been long ago, when it had called the skies its home.
It was the Sun Keep of Zeal.
*   *   *
For Schala, as the six of them disembarked from the Falcon and followed the broken cobblestone path to the palace, it was almost like coming home.
Aside from the damage falling into the ocean had dealt it, the Sun Keep was just as she remembered it from the earliest years of her life, but with the nostalgia came a sense of sadness and bitterness. Sadness at the thought of how life had been here in the old palace, at the end of the ice age, in the days before her father had died. Bitterness at how the palace had once foreshadowed and now embodied the kingdom's ultimate fate.
Zeal had been a different realm, in the days when it was still earthbound, before it had risen to the heavens. Granted, its share of faults and problems were certainly existent, but the kingdom had flourished like none other, becoming a land where all could live in safety and harmony, and bringing with it a higher standard of civilization than had ever existed before.
The day that Dalton Malenfant arrived was the beginning of the end for Zeal.
A young man with trimmed brown hair, a handsome face, dressed in modest white apparel that was a striking contrast to the vibrant, multi-colored robes of Zeal, he never spoke of where he came from. He simply appeared over the kingdom one day, flying through the skies in the great airship called the Blackbird; moments after he was first spotted, the ship abruptly fell, and he crashed into the lake in front of the palace, exhaustion having taken its toll on him.
The king seized the vehicle before anyone else could get to it, realizing an opportunity when he saw one. When the commoners expressed concern over the incident, he conjured up the deception that it had been a test of an experimental prototype flying machine, designed by the Guru of Reason, Belthasar--which, ironically enough, wasn't that far from the truth.
After the crash, Dalton was taken in secret into the palace. When he awoke, it was to the horrible realization that he'd lost an eye in the crash, and to the even worse revelation that, wherever it was he had come from, he could never return: he was now a prisoner in Zeal.
The Blackbird had suffered some damage during the crash, but Dalton was able to repair it later. However, the ship's fuel reserves were more than half empty, and with no way for Dalton to acquire more fuel, he was effectively stranded.
But even if he'd been able to leave, Schala's father, Tiberius Zeal, wouldn't have let him. Despite Dalton's claims of being nothing more than a scientist, the king believed otherwise: that Dalton was the fulfillment of a prophecy, of one who would come down from the skies on the wings of a metal bird, bearing a gift from the gods, which would save the kingdom from disaster, lifting the lands up into the skies where they would be safe forever.
Like a man possessed, the king didn't stop searching the Blackbird until he found what he was looking for: a stone-like object the size of a man's head, fiery red but streaked with mottled orange and yellow, similar to the Dreamstone which had blessed them with magic, but with an incredible aura of power surrounding it: the Sun Stone.
The very next day, the prophecy was proven true: a gigantic tidal wave, a force of nature such as had not been seen for millions of years, was on a collision course with Zeal. The Gurus' predictions were grim: unless a miracle occurred, the tidal wave would utterly destroy the kingdom.
Just before the tidal wave hit, that miracle happened, fulfilling the rest of the prophecy: the kingdom shook as though in the throws of an earthquake, and the entire continent of Zeal, along with half a dozen surrounding islands, was literally lifted up from the earth and into the sky, inverted mountains of dirt and stone hanging like roots from what would soon become grassy hills and plains, leaving huge depressions in the earth's surface for the tidal wave to fill in.
It wasn't until Zeal had stabilized and things had settled down, when the guards were forced to break through the doors of the palace's uppermost chamber, that they found the king's body. Unbeknownst to anyone, he'd locked himself inside, apparently with the intention of ensuring that the prophecy was fulfilled, that the Sun Stone would save the kingdom.
Equally obvious, but that much more disturbing, was the fact that, whatever it was he'd done, it had worked--but it had taken his life in return.
Grieved over the loss of her husband, Queen Elena Zeal had a new palace built, and transformed the old palace into a memorial for the king. The very chamber where he was found was modified, turned into a shrine of sorts, within which would rest the Sun Stone. When everything was complete, Elena used her daughter's pendant to seal the chamber forever, and the old palace--the Sun Keep--was separated from the rest of the floating kingdom, set adrift on its own little island.
Not long after that, the Gurus discovered the presence of Lavos, an enormous creature slumbering deep beneath the earth's surface. Something inside Elena snapped at this revelation; irrationally, she decided that the creature was responsible for the tidal wave, and that she would make it pay.
When the Gurus determined that Lavos wielded an incredible amount of power, Elena saw her chance for revenge: she would take the creature's power for herself, put it under her control, no matter what the cost. To that end, she realized she would need technology, and for that she turned to Dalton.
At first he refused, for some reason he wouldn't reveal. But it was a trivial matter to Elena to seduce him, and he eventually gave in, providing her access to the computer databanks in the Blackbird, from which she acquired knowledge the likes of which would otherwise have taken tens of millenia to accumulate.
It started with the Mammon Machine: a simple enough device, constructed almost entirely of forged Dreamstone, designed to home in on Lavos's energies and absorb them; the commoners were kept ignorant of this last, however, told instead the lie that this would now be their power source rather than the Sun Stone. Schala's pendant was used to control the machine, and through it Elena enjoyed an increase in power unimaginable by Dreamstone alone. Day by day the queen grew more powerful, and day by day a little more of the kind, decent woman she'd once been was eroded away.
Dalton underwent a similar change of character, albeit along a tangent. He became fascinated with the creature Lavos, studying it with a passion, intrigued by the mysteries and questions its presence raised, admiring it for its apparent indifference to the trivialities that the people around him were so obsessed with. His earlier reluctance melted, and he began to support the queen in earnest, eventually hitting upon the idea of building a new palace, one that would reside underwater and house the Mammon Machine, bringing the device closer to Lavos and allowing for an even greater absorption of power.
It was at this point that the inhabitants of Zeal became divided. At least half of the commoners had begun to question the wisdom in continuing to use magic, after rumors had begun to circulate concerning the circumstances of the king's demise; now that the queen appeared to be hell-bent on acquiring unlimited power, their concerns were more than validated, and they rejected both magic and the queen.
Unfortunately for them, the queen had no intentions of going back. This was the beginning of a new age, of incredible enlightenment and the setting free from the bonds of ignorance, of advances in knowledge and power, and at the center of it all was the queen's darkest ambition yet: immortality.
With the help of those who still supported her, the queen banished those who opposed her to the barren, lifeless, ice-covered earth below, scorning them for rejecting this glorious new age that was upon them, where they would remain for the rest of their lives, left to fend for themselves, treated no better than livestock or forced to work as slaves during the construction of the Undersea Palace.
Seven years later, one day before the palace would finally be complete, the Prophet came, and with him the sequence of events that would ultimately result in the complete destruction of Zeal.
Not for the first time, Schala couldn't refrain from asking herself why she hadn't stood up to her mother's insanity, why she hadn't done anything to stop her before it was too late. Was it because she'd held her peace out of a lingering hope for her mother, that it wasn't too late to save her?
Or was the truth darker than that? Was she instead simply a coward? Too afraid to face her mother's wrath, too afraid to risk her life? She wanted to think the answer was no, that it hadn't been that way at all. Besides, she'd risked her mother's anger before, as she had when she freed the children from the chamber of the Mammon Machine.
But was it the same this time? In retrospect, it had been a futile gesture to hold out hope. Could she really have been that blind, that naive? Had it been wrong of her to do nothing because she loved her mother and didn't want to give up on her completely?
Schala honestly didn't know; there didn't seem to be a clear answer either way as to what she should have done--and at the moment, she couldn't give voice to the reasons behind her actions. She could only hope that, when Janus finally thought to ask her about it himself, she would be able to give him the truth.
Resolutely, Schala pushed away the morbid thoughts and forced herself to focus on the present as they entered the palace.
The entrance hall, a large, dome-shaped room that jutted out igloo-like from the rest of the palace, was still intact for the most part. This had been the first area of the palace to be plunged beneath the sea, the doors and windows blown from their frames by the underwater pressure.
The entire place would have screamed wealth were it not in such a state of ruin. The tiled stone floor was laid out in a light and dark grey chessboard pattern, with different areas of varying height connected by short flights of steps, glistening in places where pools of water reflected the sunlight that managed to filter its way down to the ocean floor. A gold-trimmed burgundy carpet spread out before them from the entrance, squishing softly as they walked across it; to either side were potted plants and sagging bookcases, overturned, their contents now littering the floor. Throughout the room, fluted columns rose up to support the arched ceiling, where broken chandeliers now hung limply. Jutting out from sandstone walls were dozens of unlit candle sconces; higher up dangled half-soaked and dripping tapestries, their blue and gold fabrics still proudly bearing the eternal crest of Zeal--a symbol that looked exactly like the Mammon Machine.
At the far end of the hall was a grand staircase, leading up two stories to a narrow hall that led further into the palace. The staircase was at least ten meters wide, its marble steps draped with a thick forest green carpet, flanked on either side by ornately carved bannisters topped with miniature statues.
And resting at the top of the staircase, near a smaller flight of steps to the entrance to the next hall, almost as though it were waiting for them, was the Epoch.
Lucca gasped involuntarily, her breath shuddering in horror, as they quickly made their way around fallen piles of debris towards the ship. "Oh my word... This is where Janus went..."
"What happened to it?" Crono murmured, his face drawn up in disbelief.
The ship was a wreck. It was canted at an angle, its rear half resting atop broken chunks of masonry, water steadily dripping from the ship. The raised canopy was scarred and pitted, just as theirs had been from the sandstorm. The dorsal hull's metal skin was punctured in several places, as though spikes had been forcefully driven through, the metal curving inward into the cockpit. The canopy fin was crushed nearly beyond recognition, while the ship's wings looked as though they'd been caught between pairs of irregular cylinders, their once graceful forms now marred by crescent-shaped indentations in both the fore and aft edges.
Crono forced himself to breathe deeply, trying not to focus on the horrible thoughts running through his head. "Is it the Magus's?" he asked, his words more hopeful than his tone of voice.
"No," Schala answered quietly, making him jump as she and the others came up next to him, an odd look on her face. "It can't be his. Remember?"
"Then," Crono swallowed, his stomach knotting up as he voiced the obvious question, "what happened to Janus?"
"If Schala escaped in the Magus's Epoch," Lucca said, unable to tear her gaze away from the time machine, "and this one here is ours..."
She trailed off, silent for a moment, before looking up at Crono, her throat tight, feeling a tear come to her eye.
"Crono...whatever happened here...Janus didn't leave..."
To be continued...
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