Dead Man's Tale
Joseph Matusiak

I remember the day of my death. I remember the burning sands of the desert, the burning pain from the flames. I remember my comrade's cries of pain, and my own. This train has given me much time to remember, and I remember my executioner. Her image burns in my mind, like a beacon. Her inferno may have destroyed my body, but my soul will not be sated until I have seen to it that the witch rides this train of the damned with me. I will play the events of my death over in my tortured mind. It is so easy to forget... but I will not. I must not, for my purpose in this unlife to be realized. I must remember...

* * * *

Dolan studied his cards. The gambler across the table built up quite a reputation in the town of Maranda. He was an odd looking man, very pale with long flowing white hair. He always dressed in expensive, ornate clothes. People flocked to the caf‚ everyday just to see if he was playing there, and today was no different. Dolan disliked people watching him like this; it made him nervous. If the gambler was affected by it in any way, he wasn't showing it. The crowd hung around the table like vultures, watching with intense interest. They were all there to support his opponent, but Dolan had a straight, a respectable hand in this gambler's game of choice. He had a lot of money riding on this game. How long could this pale-skinned man court Lady Luck, anyway? He laid the cards down on the table.

"Not a bad hand, my friend. But I believe a flush beats a straight," the gambler softly said, a slight smile tugging at his mouth. He displayed his cards for all to see, and he indeed had a three, five, eight, nine, and queen of diamonds. The crowd gave appreciative applause for their hero.

"Damn it!" Dolan yelled, slamming his fist down on the table. "No man is so lucky! You cheated!"

The crowd around the table murmured in anticipation of a fight. Many men had accused the pale man of cheating. Not many walked away by their own power afterwards. The man stood, his gray eyes piercing into Dolan. Just as the man was reaching into his pocket and Dolan's hand dropped to his sword, an Imperial soldier in uniform stepped forward and put his hands on Dolan's shoulder.

"Come on Dolan. The man won fairly, and you know it. Let's get out of here."

Dolan snarled at the gambler. He needed this money. But he knew his friend was right, and killing his opponent would only give him trouble. There was no love for the Empire here, and the death of such a hero to the people would probably start a small riot. He reached into his pouch and tossed the gold onto the table.

"Until next time, friend," the gambler laughed as he gathered up his winnings.

"Next time your luck will run out, gambler," Dolan replied, still quite unhappy with having to part with such a hefty amount of gold. He turned and walked out the door with the soldier trailing behind him.

"Dolan! Wait!" he called out to him.

"What is it? I'm not really in the mood to talk right now, Kayle," he said as he spun around to face his friend.

"Well first, you really gotta drop your gambling habit. The infamous gambler is going to own you before long." Dolan gave Kayle a look of pure poison, but he continued. "Second, we've been reassigned to the assault force preparing to take Doma."

Dolan's face brightened with the news. "No kidding? This could finally be our big chance, Kayle! I've had enough of hanging around these occupied towns, losing all my money to a certain freakishly lucky gambler. Finally we get to do what we've been trained to do: wage war!"

"Don't get too excited, Doma's going to be a tough nut to crack. But anyway, starch up your uniform and gather your equipment. We're leaving tomorrow."

The next day they met at the docks, both not regretting leaving the mind-numbing duty of keeping peace in the occupied town. Their ship was waiting for them, loaded with other soldiers and a few suits of the famed Imperial Magitek armor. Masterfully designed by the Empire's top engineers, the armor was comparable to the Empire itself, invulnerable, deadly, unfeeling, unstoppable. Dolan and Kayle were lucky in that they were both Magitek pilots; it was considered a great honor to be trusted with such an expensive and powerful machine. It took great skill to effectively pilot the armor; one could be sure they were dealing with one of the Empire's finest in the cockpit of the dread suits.

Dolan grinned as he stepped onto the ferry. He felt like he was finally going to do something worthwhile. He walked towards the glorious Magitek armor and placed his hand affectionately on the cold metal. It had been a while since he had been in a battle and had almost forgot that feeling, the feeling of being all-powerful. Nothing could stand in your way with this armor, and he missed being on the battlefield incredibly. Being with this armor was like greeting an old friend, reminiscing about adventures had and grand victories won. Dolan loved the Magitek, and he was assured it would bring him fame, fortune, and a high place in the Empire. He could be a general, fighting along the legendary General Leo against all odds and a ruthless enemy only to emerge victorious. Why, he could even be the next Emperor himself! He promised himself never to leave his armor for such a long period of time ever again. He gave the suit one last look before descending into the boat and preparing for the voyage to Doma.

Their uneventful voyage ended at the Imperial camp set up to prepare for the attack. Dolan breathed deep as he stepped off the ferry. The climate was different here, drier and hotter. It was a welcome change. The crowd of soldiers marched into the camp.

There was much activity at the Imperial camp, despite the fact that the attack on Doma still wouldn't be for a few weeks. The renowned knights of Doma and the Returners were perhaps the last true areas of resistance for the Empire. Dolan hated the Returners. It was foolish and a waste of men to resist the Empire. But Doma was the target at the moment. Doma's accomplished cavaliers had throughout history always defended against all threats and would-be conquerors, and the Empire knew better than to underestimate them. General Leo himself was orchestrating the attack and the best troops and weapons had been sent straight from Vector in hopes of destroying the near-mythical castle. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. The soldiers were trying only to think about the esteem and promotions to be won here, not the fact that most of them would probably fall under the great swords of the knights. They drilled with more vigor until they executed their orders flawlessly.

Leo himself led many of the training exercises. The General's was the finest blade in the Empire, always decimating his enemies and defending his allies. He was perhaps the most skilled warrior in the world, yet he felt he should always train with his own men. It was often said among the men that Leo alone would bring them victory over Doma. Yet he never overly exulted his victories. He respected his opponent, no matter who it might be. After every successful battle he could be seen offering a small prayer to whatever god there could possibly be. Whether this was for mercy upon the fallen, glory for the Empire, or forgiveness for himself was indeterminate.

It was during one of these training sessions that a young man approached Dolan and asked for him to follow him. Dolan did so and found Kayle already waiting.

"I have a message for the both of you," the man spoke. "The great Emperor Gestahl commands that you leave here immediately. You are to join up with General Kefka in Nikeah and from there head north to Narshe." He handed them a paper with the message written down.

"What?!" Dolan shouted at the messenger. He could see the look of astonishment on Kayle's face, also. "This is insane! We are about to take Doma! We can't just pack up and leave!"

"I'm sorry, sir, but I'm just the messenger," he said. It didn't sound like he really cared very much. "This order is directly from the Emperor himself. Disobeying would of course be considered treason. And of course the penalty for that would be-"

Dolan could take no more of this. He turned his back on the man and headed for the General.

"This has to be some sort of mistake! The Emperor wouldn't take away Magitek pilots from an assault on such an important target. There's got to be a mistake..." Dolan thought as he entered the General's tent. Leo would set things straight. He knew the importance of the Magitek pilots.

"General! Have you been notified of this order?" Dolan blurted out, forgetting to show the proper respect to the man. Leo didn't seem to care. He slammed the paper down on his desk. Leo looked at it for a moment, then looked back up at Dolan.

"Calm down, pilot. Yes, I was notified of the order, and I can't say I know what the Emperor's reasoning behind this is. But nevertheless, it is an order, and you will carry it out. And don't worry, when you return we will celebrate in Doma's great hall. Dismissed." Leo said. Dolan suddenly remembered to whom he was speaking with, and stood to attention.

"Yes, sir!" he said with a salute. He could hardly contain his anger as he exited the room. He knew Leo's last statement was meant to soothe him, but it only aggravated him more. He was going to miss out on the battle, the best battle that would ever be seen in his lifetime. He had missed his chance. He met up with Kayle right outside the tent. Kayle could tell the news was not good.

"Well?" he said, although he could already guess the answer.

"Pack your gear. We're going to Nikeah," Dolan answered, swallowing a curse.

Nikeah was always busy, full of life and merchants trying to make a sale. It was a port town, and from there one could catch a ferry to most any town they needed to go. Dolan had fond memories of this town, but today the liveliness disgusted him. It had grown bigger than when he was last there, but that was no surprise. He looked around for General Kefka.

"It shouldn't be hard to find him," Dolan thought. "The man looks downright disturbing. He has no right to call himself a General of the Empire. I doubt he's even ever seen a real battle. A General fights wars. A General is Leo or Celes, not some painted, feathery, pompous-"

"There he is," Kayle sighed, looking through the window to the inn. He was sitting at a table drinking a glass of wine. "Let's go."

They walked through the door and gave a nod to the innkeeper. Dolan knew him from years ago, and the kindly old man always greeted him with a smile and fine hospitality.

"Sorry, but we're here on business," Dolan said as he gave the innkeeper a hearty handshake.

"Hey, what are you doing, idiots?" Kefka called out to them as if on cue. "We don't have time to be fooling around in this dump. Get over here."

Dolan shrugged his shoulders and gave the innkeeper one last handshake before moving to join Kefka. He was in no hurry to please this man.

Kefka sipped at his wine before addressing the soldiers. Apparently he did not look forward to being with them, either. "Alright, here's the deal," he said slowly and deliberately, as if anticipating that they would not understand. "We're going to Narshe to recover an item that was stolen from the Emperor."

"Damn it, what could be so important that you had to pull soldiers away from Doma?!" Dolan couldn't help but think. He always tried to not think like that whenever he was near Kefka. He knew it was ridiculous to think that Kefka could actually hear his thoughts, but better to be safe.

"What might this item be?" Dolan managed to get the question out sounding like he didn't hate the whole idea.

"Ever heard of a girl named Terra?" Kefka said with a smirk. "I'm sure you have. Anyway, she's been... captured by the Returners and we're to get her back. We leave on the boat in an hour." He finished his wine then walked away. Dolan and Kayle stared at each other.

"Terra! The sorceress?" Kayle stuttered.

"Incredible... the sorceress." Dolan answered.

Not many details were known about Terra, only that she commanded the most destructive power the world had ever known: magic. Gestahl had supposedly raised her from birth to be the Empire's ultimate weapon. A weapon... the idea disturbed Dolan. A weapon was something you used, a tool, to kill an enemy. Something you controlled, like your sword. Weapons should not live. You can't control a living weapon, for it is alive. But the Emperor knew what he was doing, and magic would certainly give them an edge over any enemy. But still...

The weapon called Terra had many names besides Terra. She was called a sorceress, an esper, a witch, a freak, the next human evolution, a demon, and a savior. No matter what she was called, all feared her. There were more rumors about her than she had names; one of the popular ones among the troops was that she managed to incinerate over fifty suits of Magitek armor in under a minute. But Dolan knew that was impossible. Magitek was unstoppable.

Another boat ride awaited them the next morning. Dolan was getting tired of them. There's nowhere to go on a boat. Only water wherever you looked. The blue of the water and sky made his mind wander to the blue eyes of his love in Jidoor. She was wealthy, and her parents had disapproved of him. They said he was just a common soldier. Dolan was planning on going back to her as soon as possibly could, no matter what her parents thought.

Kefka thankfully stayed in his room during the voyage to South Figaro, emerging only once to stare at the sky for a moment before going back. Dolan was now thoroughly convinced that there was something not right about him. There was nothing he could do about, however, so he just avoided him as much as possible.

Dolan stared out at the water. They weren't expected to land for another week. Just as he was contemplating leaping overboard to end his boredom, Kayle walked up behind him. He was just as bored as Dolan.

"How's it going?" Kayle asked casually. Dolan snorted.

"If we don't get finished with this asinine mission soon I swear I'm going to kill myself, right after I kill Kefka..." Dolan said. He spit over the edge of the boat.

"I know what you mean," Kayle said, still in a casual tone. "This boat ride is pretty mind-numbing, eh?"

"Definitely. Absolutely nothing to do on this damned boat."

"C'mon then," Kayle said smiling. He drew his sword. "Draw."

Dolan saw the gleam in Kayle's eye. Although they were friends, they were also rivals. Dolan smiled. A duel just might alleviate some of the monotony of the voyage. He drew his sword to meet Kayle's. Ever since they got promoted to Magitek pilots they rarely got the chance to use their swords anymore, but they still dueled every once in a while just for the hell of it.

"I accept your challenge," Dolan said, reciting old tradition.

They both fell back into fighting stances, staring at each other, waiting for a chance to strike. Dolan jumped forward and brought his sword down hard, but Kayle's blade was there to deflect it. Dolan kept on the offensive, attacking with quick, short, strokes. Kayle was always there to block it, though, and of course Dolan would never have actually injured his friend. They fought back and forth across the deck of the ship. Kayle was still on the defensive, blocking strike after strike. He knew he couldn't keep it up much longer. He ducked just as Dolan tried to deliver a forceful horizontal slash. Dolan was off-balance, and Kayle quickly moved behind him and grabbed Dolan's arm, knocking the sword away and sending it across the floor. Kayle grabbed Dolan and held his sword across his neck.

"Do you accept your defeat?" Kayle asked cheerfully.

Just as Dolan was going to respond he heard a familiar voice yell at them. He matched the voice with a face immediately. It was Kefka.

"Hold, fools!" he called. Dolan and Kayle turned to face Kefka and saluted as quickly as possible. They were both sweating. The Captain of the ship stood off to the side. Apparently he had seen the fight and assumed it real. Startled, he had fetched the General. Kefka was obviously not pleased at having to deal with such a trivial matter.

"Sir!" they said in unison. Kefka slowly walked forward.

"Who started this?" He looked back and forth between the two soldiers.

"I initiated the duel, sir!" Kayle volunteered. Kefka turned and smiled at him. Dolan swallowed. He didn't know what Kefka might do.

"Fool," Kefka sneered. He backhanded Kayle in the face, hard. Kayle staggered back. A trickle of blood ran down his mouth. He dared not wipe it off right now.

"If you don't take the mission more seriously, I will kill you both."

A smile no longer stood on Kefka's face. He turned and walked back to his quarters. The Captain stood frozen until Dolan took a threatening step forward. They never saw any sign of the Captain again until they left the boat.

They arrived in South Figaro several days later. After unloading three suits of Magitek armor, Kefka informed the soldiers that they were to spend the night here and leave tomorrow for Narshe. Dolan was afraid Kefka was going to move out immediately, leaving no chance to see the town. Dolan was grateful to stay, even if it was only for a night. Kayle and Dolan headed for the local tavern for an evening of drinks and checking out the women. The next morning they all met in the lobby of the inn.

"There's been a change of plans," Kefka said. He looked agitated. "Our target has moved from Narshe to Figaro Castle. We are to recover the sorceress at any cost."

"Isn't Figaro our ally?" Dolan questioned. "How are we going to get the sorceress out of the castle without causing a stir?"

"As I said before," Kefka answered irritably, "we are going to recover Terra no matter what the consequences, and to hell with Figaro and King Edgar. Now let's go. We need to get to Figaro before the target moves again. We leave in an hour."

"Yes, sir!"

Dolan had known from the beginning that this was no ordinary mission, but it wasn't until now that he truly realized how much was at stake here. The fact that he had been handpicked by the Emperor himself for such a significant task took away some of the sting of being pulled away from Doma. The attack still wasn't for about a week. He began to wonder how it would turn out, but quickly refocused himself on the duty at hand. He could still gain some glory yet.

The journey to Figaro was made easier by the automated marching of the armor. They made good time, reaching the outskirts of the great desert that the castle resided in a day's travel. Kefka pushed forward determined not to let his prey escape him. King Edgar... Kefka saw through his guise. He had no love for the Empire, and Kefka privately suspected him of collaborating with the Returners. If he handed Terra over to the rebels they would have a real problem on their hands. This mission could be a chance to put him back in his place.

The heat was unbearable. Kayle couldn't imagine how they could have marched the whole day without the Magitek. It gave him the same feeling of isolation as the boat ride. Nothing but sand and sky wherever he looked. He was beginning to wonder if they were lost. However it wasn't long before he first saw the mighty Figaro Castle in the distance. Kefka smiled.

They continued forward until they were about a mile away from the castle. Kefka called a halt. He explained that they didn't want to come across as hostile when they reached their destination. They left their Magitek armor in a small cave and went the rest of the way on foot.

Even though it was only a mile away Kefka complained and cursed the castle for being in the middle of the desert. He even had the nerve to order Dolan and Kayle to wipe the sand off of his finely made boots. Dolan swore to himself that he would never work directly under this man again.

They reached the door to the castle. Kefka strode in as if he owned the whole damn place and demanded to see Edgar. He came out to greet the Imperials. Dolan knew the young king by reputation. He was a ladies' man, a master of engineering, and a well-loved and just ruler, despite his young age. He had a charming smile.

Edgar assured Kefka that he didn't know where the girl was. Dolan knew Edgar had made a mistake. You didn't lie to the Empire and live long enough to boast about it. Kefka threatened him one last time before turning in disgust and storming out of the castle, leaving the soldiers to run after him. Dolan took one last look at the castle. By tomorrow it wouldn't be standing.

They followed Kefka back to the cave. The sun was beginning to sag into the horizon, cooling the burning desert considerably. The soldiers faced their general.

"Sir?" Dolan asked. "What shall we do?" He had a feeling he already knew the answer.

"As soon as the sun rises we take her by force," he said, a hint of a grin spreading on his face. "Get ready to burn that castle to the ground."

The night passed quickly. An hour before dawn Dolan and Kayle readied their armor. As the sun rose they grimly started toward the fortress of Figaro.

Once in range Kefka began the attack.

"Use the flame Magitek," he ordered. "Don't completely destroy the castle yet. Kill anybody so long as it's not Terra. If she dies the whole mission is a failure."

He raised his arm in the air. Dolan and Kayle targeted their weapons. Kefka's arm dropped.

"Fire at will."

Two crimson beams cut through the air, slamming into the castle walls in a magnificent blaze. Shouts rose from within, calling for a defense, but they had no hope. Magitek was unstoppable. Two more beams streaked into Figaro. Dolan and Kayle continued with merciless accuracy, striking down soldiers and civilians alike. The whole castle was ablaze. The flames reflected in Dolan's eyes.

"Enough!" Kefka yelled over the noise. "Dismount! We are going to get the sorceress!"

Dolan and Kayle jumped down and drew their swords. There was no time to think now, only to carry out orders. Two Figaro soldiers stood against them at the door. The Imperial blades mercilessly cut them down. The castle was flaming, but it would not fall. The soldiers had been careful. The king of a burning castle stood before them inside. He stared at Kefka with a look of pure hatred in his eyes. However, Dolan noticed the smallest smile on the king's features. Dolan would be on guard; there was no telling what he had in mind.

Kefka wasted no words, repeating his demand for the sorceress. Dolan was amazed when the Edgar denied them again. The young king actually turned his back on them and walked back toward the throne room. Dolan raised his sword, but Kefka held his arm in front of him.

"No," he said. "You two go get the Magitek armor. I'll convince the senseless king to hand her over. Hurry."

The soldiers saluted and ran out of the castle. The armor was still waiting for them outside. Just as they were getting inside a low rumble caused them to look toward the castle. It was sinking! This was impossible. They piloted the armor back to the where the castle once stood at full speed. As they got there Kefka lifted himself off the ground. His face was red with crazed anger. He yelled out to them and pointed. Dolan could see a dust cloud rising in the near distance. They were trying to escape on chocobos.

They wasted no time, forcing the armor to full speed. Chocobos were fast, but so was the armor, and the soldiers were catching up with them. Dolan squinted through the dust, trying to make out the forms riding the great flightless birds. One he could tell was Edgar, one had to be Terra, but he didn't know the third. No matter. If he interfered he would be killed along with the king. Dolan reminded himself that the order to take Terra alive still stood, and aimed his first shot at the unknown rider. The blast hit just to the side, knocking him flying of his mount. The king and sorceress both leapt off their chocobos and helped him up. Edgar turned to face them, pointing at them with some piece of handheld machinery. Dolan was aiming another Magitek shot when a flurry of arrows assaulted the pilots, quivering as they slammed into the armor. Dolan was taken completely by surprise. It was as if a whole regiment of well-trained archers was firing upon them. He duck down inside the protection of his cockpit, but Kayle's reflexes weren't fast enough. Dolan heard a cry of pain and glanced over at his comrade. An arrow stuck in his shoulder. He was obviously hurt, but it was not a fatal wound. He recovered thanks to his experience and training, still targeting them through the haze of pain. Dolan concentrated on his chosen mark, the king. He fired. The beam struck in front of Edgar, knocking him backward onto the ground. Suddenly a brilliant red glow illuminated the area. Dolan tried to see what was happening, using his hand to block the light. The glow came from Terra.

Her eyes were closed. She was moving her hands in strange motions and chanting something silently. Her motions intrigued Dolan. The light continued to grow in intensity. Her eyes flew open; her hand pointed to the soldiers. The air around Dolan began to become hot, too hot even for the desert morning. He was incredibly afraid. Dolan could normally deal with fear, but this was different. This was not the fear one felt during a battle, when the fighting was at a fever pitch and you knew you would most likely die. This was something primeval. Dolan couldn't move, couldn't react. No training could prepare a soldier for this. No training could prepare for the fury of magic.

The armor grew red hot, then burst into flames. Dolan felt the magical fire burning him straight to the soul. The pain was enormous. He leapt out the armor and rolled on the ground, trying to end the torment, but the flames would not extinguish. His last view before the flames burned away his life force was the face of the sorceress. It was expressionless.

* * * *

Yes... that is how my life was ended. By the witch's spell. I must get off this train. I must kill her, for the Empire. But something has boarded the train... something different. Of course, they are alive, unlike the rest of the riders. One is a master of the martial arts, apparent by his garb and physique. The second is dressed in black. I cannot see his face, but I am positive the Empire has employed his service before. The third... no. That would be impossible. Doma should be destroyed by now, yet he is a knight. His breastplate bears the Doma crest... how could this be? Of course, how stupid of me not to realize. There is no way Doma could have defeated us, so this pitiful man must have surrendered and pledged allegiance to the Empire. This is wonderful. The Empire has sent an elite Imperial team to track down and kill the traitor Terra! It is my duty to assist them. By habit my hand reached down to where my sword used to be, but I'm only a spirit now, taking the form of a robed apparition. My hand-to-hand combat training will have to suffice. I approach the team. I talk to them, try to explain who I am. They can't understand me. I try using hand motions, anything to get them to take me!

Good, they seem to accept me. I will be avenged! We move forward through the train. Other spirits look in our direction, but most don't have any interest. Except one... it floats forward and bars our path. Oh, God... this can't be... It's my former friend, now no more than a spirit like myself. I must speak with him.

"Kayle!" I call out. "It's me!" The Imperial team stands to the side, not knowing what they should do. Kayle will join us, I am sure of it.

"Dolan! What are you doing with these Returners?"

"What? No, you don't understand. This is a Special Ops team sent to kill Terra!"

"You've gone insane, Dolan. Are you so blind not to recognize them? A knight, and King Edgar's brother! Step aside and I will deal with them."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Surely he was mistaken. I glanced at the team. They looked confused, not sure whether this was another friend or an enemy. No matter, I will deal with this myself. Kayle moved forward. I held up my hand.

"I can't let you kill them, Kayle. They will avenge us!"

"No, Dolan."

"The final duel then, Kayle."

"Yes. The final duel."

* * * *

It's dark here. Even my spiritual form is now destroyed, sacrificed along with my comrade's so that Terra might ride the dark train. Terra... the sorceress... she will meet her end, even if I am not to witness it. God help us, we are both damned.


Author's Notes: My first fanfic in a while. I always wondered what the story was behind the ghost that joins you in the Phantom Train. I hope you enjoyed it.