Final Fantasy: Oblivion
[Full many a gem of purest ray serene; The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear; Full many a flower is born to blush unseen; And waste its sweetness on the desert air. --Grey, 'Elegy . . .']
* * *
"What will happen to us?"
Despite herself, Celes inched herself closer to the treasure hunter. The day had been cool and serene over the township of Albrook. The others were probably training hard for the task that awaited them at dawn. The Magitek Knight, however, wasn't without her doubts.
"If we're not ready, I mean?"
"Kefka will get his comeuppance in the end." A chill cut through him as a frigid breeze coursed up over the landing before them. "After all, we have the entire world behind us in our interest. We'll pull it off, you'll see!"
She smiled and allowed for the prospect of victory to sink in. It would be nice to be seen as a hero again. For too long she had been the traitor, the outcast. Only when this whole thing ended could she truly put the erstwhile Empire behind her.
"But . . . what will we do then?"
Locke wasn't sure he understood. "What do you mean?"
"You and me," she replied, then quickly put in, "and all the others? Will we ever see each other again? Or will we just . . . disappear?"
Feeling somewhat braver, Locke reached out to place a comforting arm around her. She let him. "We mustn't think about that. What matters is that, we're together now. We'll have all the time in the world to decide what to do when this whole thing is over."
She nuzzled into Locke's side, his words having provided genuine solace for her troubled mind. In the cloudless sky above, a brass sun hung low and bright in the distance, and Celes smiled in retrospect. He was a Draco to her Maria, she thought, and knew that as long as they were together there would be no adversary they couldn't overcome.
"There's something I'd like for you to have." Locke reached into a jacket pocket and produced a bandana, one he had fashioned from the fabled Ribbon uncovered during their trek through the Phoenix Cave. "It'll protect you for when we reach the tower. Promise."
"It's beautiful," she said, handling the emerald fabric gingerly between her fingers, "and thoughtful. Thank-you."
"Celes . . ." The relic hunter made certain to keep his emotions in check, for he knew how much of a general was still left within her. "We shall make this a day to remember."
* * *
"Is it all fresh in your mind yet?"
Terra paused only for a second, reflecting on the many systems of the Falcon which Setzer had already explained to her. The process was fraught with impatience, a human trait that the esper girl had yet to come to terms with.
"It's getting clearer, but . . ." She looked down over the platform, where she saw dozens of gears and gyros spinning in an endless labyrinth. "Maybe if you walked me through it just one more time, it'll stick."
"Terra," he said, drawing a sincere smile, "you've went over the ship's schematics at least ten times. And we've been down here in the engine room for almost three hours now. You probably know the ship better than I do."
"But . . . I still don't know if I'm ready."
The gambler tucked a wisp of his silver hair behind an ear, a mannerism Terra recognized as a sign of Setzer's own dwindling patience. "This was only intended to be a crash course in ship operations, Terra. Besides, I still have at least half a dozen other colleagues to bring up to speed before we make our departure."
The young esper woman decided to leave it at that. He was right after all; there were others who needed their turn at airship mechanics. So she headed back up to the living deck, intent on finding something else to do with her time. At the very least, it was liberating to be out of the gambler's more than cluttered engine room. Exhaust fumes and oily manifolds had succeeded in soiling her cape and tunic, as well as streak her emerald-blond hair black.
"You appear troubled, my child," Strago remarked as Terra's feet once more found the timbers of the living deck. "Might I ask what nettles you?"
"I'm not sure." She walked beside the elderly blue mage as the two abandoned the chambers for the bridge. "Everyone's just so busy. I know they're supposed to be, given the situation. But . . ."
The narrow gangway dropped expectedly away from them, replaced with the crisp, cold winds of Albrook Bay. In the distance, the sun had already set, painting the cloudless skies orange and turquoise. Terra knew well that Kefka's tower wasn't far beyond.
"You fear that our training will not be sufficient?" Strago concluded.
Terra turned away. "I fear it will."
The mage nodded, pursing his lips in retrospect. He was somewhat tempted to relate Terra's anxiety to a parable he had once heard in his youth, then allowed for the moment to pass in silence. He knew better than to try and console one who had once been used by the Empire.
"Perhaps, it would be better for us not to dwell on things yet to come." Terra put a hand over her eyes as several of her companions sparred in a clearing down below. "We can't afford to lose focus at this juncture."
"A sound suggestion," Strago replied, and paused to reflect on beauty that might never be seen again. "Let us seize the day, then."
No sooner had the words escaped his mouth did a stray ball of elemental fire leap up over the ship's guardrail, missing Terra and Strago's heads by inches. The esper woman took only a moment to make sure her companion was unharmed before searching for its source.
"I'm fine!" he growled, reminding Terra how much he despised being treated as an invalid. "But who-"
"Hey! Down here!"
They both gazed back down into the clearing, where Edgar and Cyan had been dueling only moments earlier. Strago grunted irately, but Terra could only smile.
"I might have known," she replied, her grin taking on a false scowl. "My Ifrit magicite has been missing since this morning."
"It was the Doman's fault, my lady," the king hastily supplied. "He's the one with the Reflect Ring on his person."
"Hold thy forked tongue!" Cyan shot back. "You wished to test its puissance, did you not? Why, then, did you not simply wear it yourself? Dost thou kingdom know it holds a milksop for a monarch?"
Hearing this, Terra burst out laughing. Strago, though still a bit agitated, had trouble enough to hold back his own humor. From their vantage point on the ground, however, it appeared to the two erstwhile duelists that they had become the subject of ridicule. Thus, they began to ready themselves for another harmless tussle, with Edgar drawing on the essence of Ifrit from his esper shard and Cyan sketching a hasty kata, the calling card for one of his dreaded sword techniques!
"What are they doing?" Terra asked, sounding worried that her friends had taken their laughter seriously.
"I believe they're challenging us, dear Terra." Whether his suspicions were justified or not was irrelevant to Strago, as he had already begun to trace the triangular glyph of Lore in the air before him. "Shall we acknowledge the fray?"
"We shall," Terra returned, beginning to understand the idea behind sarcasm.
And in a heartbeat, Terra's lost Empire training guided her over the guardrail as she made her transformation from human to esper. In the same instant, Strago chanted a string of arcane words as his azure glyph spun wildly in midair. The men of royal blood below never wavered. Falling from the sky and crashing like a comet into the forest floor, the horned fire demon Ifrit let out a warcry that made the whole valley tremble. Edgar leered.
But Strago remained steadfast. "Sahana hyeu-nyasis!"
In the ancient language of the Magi, it meant 'Aqua Rake'. For Edgar and Cyan, however, it meant trying to draw air from a forest that was suddenly suffused with bubbles of magically generated water. The monarch choked straightaway from the onslaught and collapsed in the clearing. The Doman, on the other hand, had anticipated the spell.
"Blast!" growled the blue mage, who recognized the strategy. "Retort!"
In an eye's blink, Strago produced a stave with which to meet the blade of Cyan. The fire demon, of course, was but a summon spell and thus rendered impervious to the Thamasian's meddling. Terra found no backing as she locked horns with a creature that was easily twice her size and strength. Nevertheless, the half-esper rebounded, punishing Ifrit with projectiles of solid ice, a feat no other could hope to mimic without proper magicite - or Gogo - on hand.
"Lower thine guard to the physical, Sir Strago?" His agility unmatched, Cyan leapt up on deck of the Falcon with a single bound, his samurai at the ready. "We mustn't rely wholly on magic alone in our contest with Kefka."
"You underestimate me," the blue mage replied, allowing for his rod to be split at the first swipe of Cyan's blade.
"Do I?" The Retainer sheathed his cutlass. "Thou hast already lost his implement of battle, has he not?"
"A shame." Strago handed the pieces over to his adversary. "T'was a Pearl Rod, too."
"A wha-?!" Cyan began.
The tide of holy light blinded even Strago, yet the effect was enough to throw the Doman clear of the ship's deck and back to the clearing, where he fell less than gracefully.
Nor did the battle fare any better for the one dueling on Edgar's behalf. Lashing to and fro with magic ballistae, Ifrit and Terra danced a lethal waltz in the evening sky. Truly a sight to be seen, Strago couldn't help but be entranced at the melee unfolding before him. Memories stood out in the veteran's mind of all the readings he had heard as a child. In particular, there was the War of the Magi, the legendary conflict of esper and man that had come dangerously close to undoing the world thousands of years earlier.
"Begone!" Terra bellowed.
But as malicious as the summoned creature was, there was little to be done against the force of Terra's own grimoire, one whose influence was governed by a multitude of espers. Spreading her arms wide, she chanted and tossed a ball of dark matter at her adversary, a motion her three comrades recognized as the calling card for 'X-Zone'. The others scurried frantically away as Ifrit became caught in the gravity of a mighty vortex torn from reality. With a roar and a whimper, the tear clamped shut over the demon, sending it back to its native realm.
Dazed and confused, Edgar shambled along through the grassy glen, wondering what had become of his lance.
"What's this?" And suddenly, a very human Terra was touching Edgar's face with the flat of her sword. "A monarch with his nose in the dirt? That will not bode well with the chancellor of Figaro."
Edgar chuckled as she handed him his weapon back. "If your human side has developed as much as your magical prowess, you'll become an interesting person to know once we're over and done with this task of ours."
Terra smiled and helped the young monarch back to his feet. At about the same time, a furry white ball with wings, the moogle they had come to know as Mog, approached the four duelists. With him was a young girl in tunic and breeches that were spattered with paint. They each appeared to be wondering what it was that had transpired.
"Grandpa!" the latter called out. "What happened?"
"Relm, bless your heart!" Strago walked with one arm around the Doman and the other around his granddaughter. "You needn't worry, now. My comrades and I were simply brushing up on a few techniques we had devised. Nothing more."
"Worry?!" The young artisan fixed her beret in an irate fashion. "You old coot! You could have ruptured yourself breaking that Pearl Rod! What were you thinking?!"
"It was Kefka, Relm." Tired from the duel, Terra lagged behind the others while Edgar served as her walking staff. "One can never be too prepared, right?"
"Let us think no more of Kefka tonight, kupo," the moogle chirped in. "The sun is about to set, kupo."
They all seemed to nod at once, knowing well that relaxation was as every part important for the quest as their long hours of rigorous training. Daylight had all but extinguished by the time they caught up with the others, who were nestled close to a campfire for warmth. The first that had caught Terra's eye was the ninja in black, who remained eerily passive off to the side of the glen. Also within eyeshot was the king's younger brother Sabin, the rustic Veldt child Gau, and Gogo, as bizarre as ever in his multicolored garments and bangles.
"Has anyone seen Locke or Celes?" she asked, the first among her friends whom she realized were not present.
Sabin shifted from where he sat cross-legged on the ground. "Last I saw of them," he replied, "they were still in Albrook. They said they'd be by momentarily, though."
"Figures. So, where do we sit?"
The roar of a sasquatch startled Terra as Umaro made himself known, uprooting several large trees from elsewhere in the dark wood and setting them down lengthwise around the fire. The esper woman hesitated only for a second before seating herself next to Mog.
"Um, thank-you, Umaro."
"Uhhhhh," muttered the yeti, as if to apologize.
Before long, the circle of friends became one with the arrival of the celluloid gambler, who had apparently been spending several hours prepping Celes and Locke for the journey ahead.
"Ah ha," laughed Edgar, "so that's where you three disappeared to."
"We were getting a little rusty," said Locke in all honesty. "Can you blame us?"
"Not at all," the king replied, winking to Celes.
She stared daggers back at the monarch.
"The battle is joined, then," the ninja muttered offhandedly. "There is little for us to do now but wait."
As the one who had been responsible for their all being there in the first place, Terra couldn't help but feel obliged to say something. "We'll be okay," she assured them, "so long as we hold true to one another."
To that, none of the others could argue. They had been through so much, had even traveled the world together. Fate, it seemed, had made them a family, but only through their own conscious efforts would they succeed in saving a dying world. Terra should only consider herself so lucky to have such a noble group of friends. It almost brought tears to her eyes. Such wonderful people, she thought.
In less than a week, every one of them would be dead.
* * *
"You let your elbow fall when you throw with the right."
They had been airborne for close to three hours on that fated morning when Sabin became restless from the voyage. Now, he and Shadow practiced their unarmed combat in the reclusive cargo hold of the gambler's airship, where there was little to bother them save for the occasional turbulence.
"What's your point?" the Blitz Master growled.
"It leaves you open, and predictable." Again, he lured Sabin into the same series of drills, intent on demonstrating his point. When he unwittingly dropped his guard yet a second time, the ninja capitalized, moving like human lightning to throw an armored elbow into Sabin's kidneys. The king's brother grunted, recoiling instantly from the pain. "Do not expect for our enemy to point that out to you when the time comes."
With a grimace, Sabin cradled his left side with a muscled forearm. "Thanks. I'll keep that in mind."
Regaining his stance, Sabin bowed and came at the assassin with his arms pinwheeling. Again, Shadow firmly believed that control was his, with each blow becoming either deflected or striking nothing but air. It was only when the dark ninja found nerve enough to take the offensive that Sabin hastily changed styles from Blitz to Imperial, the likes of which were taught to him by Celes herself. In no time, Shadow found himself overwhelmed by a siege of chopping and kicking that ended with him being pitched into a barrel roll and crashing into a crate of Setzer's foodstuffs.
"Impressive . . ." The assassin shambled unsteadily to his feet. "Wild fits of agility, brutish ingenuity. Quite similar to the way of the Empire, is it not?"
Sabin said nothing, his eyes suddenly rooted to the spot where his opponent had landed. Shadow looked for himself, and wished he hadn't . . .
The floor looked to be in a state of flux. The planks beneath them rippled and twisted in a dreamlike slowness, with several of the Falcon's containers beginning to slip through an almost incorporeal deck. The ninja looked back to Sabin, as if expecting him to hazzard a guess. Instead, he knelt down with a piece of magicite in his hands. He chanted a short incantation to the shard, and then started for the main deck.
"We may have a problem on our hands."
* * *
Kefka's tower was still half a day due north when Setzer gathered everyone in his stateroom for a briefing on the situation. Word of Sabin and Shadow's findings spread by way of proxy throughout the ship, prompting all who were aboard to show up merely to separate fact from rumor.
Setzer began by showing everybody a blueprint of the Falcon's lower decks. "The structure of the ship is breaking down at the molecular level," he told them. "For the time being, it seems to be most concentrated in the cargo hold, although a quick Scan spell over the rest of the ship has shown that all surrounding sections have been affected as well."
The news appeared somewhat vexing to Terra, as it seemed to be far too coincidental that they should be so close to victory, yet suddenly be stopped dead in their tracks. "Probably Kefka," she thought aloud. "It could be some kind of spell of his, maybe even a summoned creature we've never encountered before."
"The Scan spells would have picked it up," Sabin added, having been among the first to find the problem. "The only theory that seems to hold up is that, something within the ship itself is causing this breakdown."
As the briefing unfolded, a dark cloud seemed to pass over Gogo, who stood listening to the others from somewhere in the back of the room. The mimic felt more on edge than s/he could ever remember feeling before. Though there was no putting a finger on it, Gogo began to recall something about the mimcry of Triangle Island. S/he reached into a vast library of memory and happened across a lake. A 'silver' lake . . .
"In light of this new development," the gambler continued, "it will be necessary for us to correct the ship's problem before continuing onward to Kefka's tower."
Just as he predicted, Terra became the first to contest the gambler's decision. "Setzer, you can't be serious! The time we spend trying to solve this problem will be time lost in getting to Kefka and putting an end to all of this."
"Terra, if we don't proceed with caution, then we might not come out of this with an airship to even get to Kefka."
She sighed audibly.
"How should we . . . proceed?" Celes asked.
The gambler made certain to chose his words and tone carefully, so there would be no panic. "All will be subject to a Scan from Sabin, just to make sure that this breakdown isn't harmful to the rest of us. In the meanwhile, I'll go and check the ship's logs for something we may have overlooked.
"That'll be all."
And so, the group disbanded for the night, with Terra being the only one who took any notice of Gogo's sudden absence . . .
* * *
Celes found that she was as much against the gambler's way of doing things as Terra was, yet she similarly realized that without an airship there would be precious little hope of them ever reaching Kefka's tower at all. At any rate, she knew that the matter was no longer her concern and thus refused to lose any sleep over the issue.
The Magitek Knight chose to return to her quarters immediately following their briefing that night. Despite the sensitivity of their situation, she noticed that the routine of Setzer's crew remained more or less unchanged. Colleagues still walked about the Falcon's many corridors, their spirits high as they ruminated over system reports or of their plans for the future when their mission came to an end. It was just as well, Celes thought to herself, as there seemed no better way to dismiss this odd predicament of theirs.
With muscles still complaining from long weeks of perfecting her runic skills, the knight retired to her room, hastily pulling the boots from her callused feet before flopping onto her mattress. The better part of her wanted nothing more than to curl under the covers and sleep but something kept her from doing so, something about Setzer's meeting.
"I keep thinking there was something I was supposed to do tonight," she said quietly to herself. "Was it . . . oh!"
Now she remembered. Sabin had been the one assigned to scan the crew for anything unusual and she, perhaps, was the only one that neglected to linger after the briefing. It was just as well, she surmised. She had, after all, taken great pains to avoid becoming a recipient to the Scan spell, a spell that was somewhat infamous for its invasive tendencies. Not only could it glimpse a person's physiology, but was also capable of reading a person's mind.
Tomorrow, she thought with a smile, I can make it until then.
With that, she stood wearily from the futon, pulling the ivory cape from her shoulders and stepped over to the vanity in her room to look herself over. Only then did she notice Locke's bandana still tied around her hair, chuckling as she moved to untie it.
Then she stopped.
Something about her reflection was suddenly different and she inched closer for a better look. Fear crept across her expression as she witnessed part of her cheek ripple and change color, as though her flesh was threatening to unravel. Unsettled, her first thought was to find Sabin and get her scan done, regardless of whatever feelings she harbored toward the spell. This is nothing, she kept telling herself, just a bad dream.
But the dream only got worse. She was scarcely able to take two steps toward the door when a nausea passed over her. It suddenly became difficult to stand, to think, to do anything other than fall in a heap on her room floor. Would anyone come to her aid? Would anyone even think to come in and check on her? As it was, any answer to her myriad questions would be for naught, as she could already feel the world close in around her.
"Locke . . ."
* * *
"Does something trouble you, Gogo?" It required much searching on Terra's part to finally track the mimic down following the briefing. Her question seemed unnecessary, as she had never once found this unusual ally staring up at the night sky when something felt amiss or out of place.
"Bats with wings wear human faces . . ."
Terra frowned. "Uh, you left somewhat abruptly back at the briefing, Gogo. Is there anything you'd like to talk about?"
The colorfully cloaked mimic turned back to face her. "Not until our gambler friend has finished checking his log, dear Terra. It's . . . it's my aura. I believe it's . . . broken."
The half-esper smiled as though the mimic meant for the comment to be in jest. "Well, maybe we can fix it for you."
Gogo, on the other hand, was none the brighter having heard her reply. "No," s/he said simply. "No, I don't believe we can do that."
With nothing else to say, the mimic once more became scarce, leaving a thoroughly confused Terra scratching her head on the airship bridge. A broken aura, she thought to herself. What could that mean?
* * *
Day 97 of the Ruination - My wings have gone yet still I wander, searching in vain for some place to be. There is little to be salvaged from this cold and barren world, less so now that my friends have gone. Do they live still? Have they passed on? I have many years ahead for which to find these answers. I'd best get started . . .
His investigation stretching into the small hours of twilight, Setzer knew the only end to his tempestuous hunt would be the one with no absolution. Yet, on he searched, sifting through one voluminous journal after the next. Did he really have this many? If so, why then could he not remember writing them?
Day 388 of the Ruination - Has it been an entire year already? To think that I had been searching in all the wrong corners of this dark and dreary earth for so long suddenly doesn't feel that bad. For you see, I happened across them when I least expected it, in the most unlikely of places. It was a tavern in the heart of Kohilegen, where to great lengths I considered settling. The Goddesses work in mysterious ways . . .
Indeed, thought the gambler happily. The merry triad of their resident runic knight and the two Figaro brothers had indeed brought hope where none existed for over a year.
"Burning the midnight oil?"
"Oh, Sabin," replied the gambler, turning to face the Blitz Master. "You startled me."
"Nothing so far." He flipped casually through his present journal for good measure. "I do, however, seem to be recalling how skillful I was with my wordplay when composing these accounts. I forgot, for a moment, how good a journalist I was."
Sabin smirked. "Care to indulge me?"
"I'd be happy to," he said, and flipped to one of his shorter passages:
Day 423 of the Ruination - The nature of this place has been toiling for days to unravel my sanity. That boy from the Veldt called it Triangle Island, a title that bears truth but knows no substance. For this island is no island; it has no pattern, it obeys no logic. We've been mired for days in a lagoon of silver, wading waist-deep in its midst looking for a way to wrench the ship free of its grasp. Does it feel our presence? Has it a mind of its own? I'll never be sure, but reflections from its surface did not always translate to the actions given to it. Sometimes, when Terra stood idle at the bow, her reflection would smile and wave. What strange form of divination works the place called Triangle Island? None of us may ever know for sure . . .
The gambler clamped the journal shut and grinned. "Not bad, huh?"
But there wasn't the slightest sign of recognition in Sabin's face, lost as he was after hearing Setzer's passage. Instead, a dark and unyielding shadow seemed fastened to an expression that only a moment ago looked to be one of jest and carelessness.
"The Triangle Island," he said inwardly, "the silver lagoon . . ."
The gambler's own good nature seemed to wane. "Sabin, what is it?"
"I can't put my finger on it," he replied, "but the scan spell I cast on the ship and crew this evening picked up something a bit unusual. Everything about their makeup seems riddled with some sort of metallic compound, a substance that is part of their makeup and, at the same time, a foreign agent."
"Metallic," said Setzer. "You're thinking that we all picked up something from the Triangle Island?"
Both men looked up to find the mimic Gogo standing in the doorway of Setzer's stateroom. Though neither of them could find an expression beneath the polychromatic hood, Gogo's tone alone was enough to hint at the severity of their situation.
"Gogo," said the gambler, "what is it? What's going on here?"
"Come with me," the mimic told them, "I'll explain on the way."
* * *
"Locke . . ."
"It's okay. I'm here."
His grasp on the general's hand seemed to tighten with every passing hour. Little to his own knowledge, the treasure hunter was fortunate enough to find her less than fifteen minutes following her lapse into unconsciousness. Since then, he and Edgar had thrown together a triage medical facility on the living deck to compensate for the emergencies they would no doubt be inundated with.
"I found you unconscious in your room." Now, just as it was in Albrook, it was difficult for Locke to keep the emotion from his voice. But there was no helping it at this point. "How do you feel?"
Eyes half-closed, Celes only shook her head weakly. "I don't . . . can't explain it to you. I felt fine a little while ago but now I . . ." Her eyes narrowed abruptly upon his brow. "What's wrong with your face?"
He brought a hand to his forehead, reminded anew of the sickly yellow scar that wrapped like a withered vine around his skull. "Oh. Well, we still don't know what it is for sure but from what we can tell, it's the same kind of decay that's affecting the ship."
Her questioning eyes wandered around the room. A little ways from her own position Edgar, who bore similar zigzag scars along his neck and hands, was leaning over another table. Given its own complaining joints and the enormous white appendages hanging inert over the sides, Celes concluded that it could have been only one companion.
"That can't be!" Her wondering eyes were at once filled with terror. "It isn't . . . Umaro?!"
Locke worked with much difficulty to keep her from leaving the table. It was everything he could do not to bring his attention to her own scars. "You mustn't exert yourself. It'll only make it worse."
"Make what worse?! Locke!" Despite her own waning strength, Celes brought the treasure hunter close, as though another were trying to keep her from him. "Don't let it take me!"
His own resolve unwavering, Locke put his arms around her. "You have nothing to worry about. I gave you a Regen spell."
"Then . . . why isn't it working, Locke? I . . . feel so weak."
"Celes . . ." He placed a hand to her cheek and rubbed it softly. "You can't leave yet. There's still so much I want to tell you."
A tear streamed down along her temple.
"Locke . . ."
With that, she closed her weary eyes to the world, never to open them again. Panic swept over the treasure hunter like a tidal wave.
In an instant, as though he knew it would come to this, the monarch swallowed the gap between the two tables and took the general's pulse. His expression turned grim.
"The Phoenix esper!" he cried. "Quick, Locke! It may be the only hope she has left!"
It was out of his jacket pocket before Edgar could finish his sentence. Fumbling with the shard in trembling hands, Locke was scarcely able to concentrate long enough to get the incantation off his tongue and through his lips, so distraught was he over the dying form of his beloved. An aura eventually took to her still body, giving her a wave of energy that should have healed. Instead . . .
"Again!" Edgar yelled. "Summon it if you have to!"
And it was done. So destroyed had he been over losing the one named Rachel that he wasn't about to take any chances with Celes. With a voice now fueled with determination, the summoning incantation came swifter. All the living deck became engulfed with the life-giving flame of the winged Phoenix, tinting the surrounding timbers orange and amber. The renewing tide of sorcery doubled and then redoubled its efforts, as though the Phoenix itself were trying to discern why its magic would not take effect.
And once more, the Figaro brother checked his friend for any sign of life.
"We've . . . lost her."
Pain and disbelief wrestled for space across Locke's forehead. He leaned over, as if by instinct, and tried to breathe life back into her. Desperately, painfully, his breaths came to strangled cries. He brought both hands down hard in an axehandle on her chest, trying to move her heart into beating again.
"Locke, there's nothing more we can do."
By this time, Locke's rescue attempt was coming close to stirring both men to tears. 'Come back to me, Cel' the treasure hunter would cry between breaths and each time his only reply was silence. Finally, Edgar thought it inappropriate to let Locke continue in his efforts and moved to stop him.
Tortured, defeated, he tried to maintain some degree of dignity as he faced the monarch. But instead, he turned soundlessly in his place and abandoned the living deck completely.
"I'm sorry, Locke."
* * *
A moment of abject silence followed for Edgar, who was now alone save for the two colleagues whom he was unable to help. The savage but friendly mannerisms of their resident yeti, not to mention the camaraderie and leadership of a former imperial, were now nothing but memories. It didn't make sense to the monarch that they could go through so much together only to have it all taken away from them by this one anomalous incident.
"How . . ." He ran a hand across the dead general's arm. "How could this have happened? How could you have left us?"
"The answer's quite simple."
Looking up, Edgar suddenly found their mimic Gogo standing at the amidships threshold. Flanking him were the ship's rightful captain, one Setzer Gabianni, and Edgar's Blitz Master brother, Sabin. They all wore grim expressions.
"Umaro and Celes have left us," the mimic continued, "because, by right, they were never Umaro and Celes to begin with."
Edgar only squinted. "I don't understand."
Gogo handed to Edgar a shard of magicite. Recognizing the glyph scrawled into its gem-like center, the king of Figaro knew it to be Palidor.
"Hasten their decay rate," Setzer added in a tone no less forthcoming than Gogo's.
Sabin, though taken aback in looking upon his two lifeless comrades, replied, "We can't afford to be wrong."
As repulsive as the idea sounded to him, not having an explanation for their condition was far worse. Grasping the magicite tightly, Edgar reached deep into his library of memory and gave voice to the proper incantation. As a series of swift time streams passed over the bodies of his two friends, he kept expecting to see their forms reduced to putrid flesh and bleached bone. But instead, he found himself looking down upon two tables of . . . liquified silver.
"But . . . how-"
"Those weren't our companions," said Gogo ominously. "They were duplicates, bio-mimetic copies."
Edgar's mind struggled to digest the information. "Copies?"
"We're all duplicates," Setzer replied with finality. "None of us are real. . ."
* * *
No expense was spared, following the mimic's findings, when it came to rounding up the ship's crew in order to deliver the grim nature of their situation. Returners and senior officers alike could not afford to neglect the gambler's panicked address to all decks, an address he designated as 'Priority: Red', the most critical of all his protocols. Half those aboard had begun to believe that the airship was about to be swarmed by an esper attack.
"I'll say this about the mimicry of Triangle Island," said a weakened Edgar as he looked about the hasty gathering of men and women, "their attention to detail is overwhelming."
Setzer looked over to the pseudo-monarch from where he sat at his desk in the stateroom. "How do you mean?"
"I thought I knew everything there was to know about my own life, where I was born, what I had accomplished. Now, it all turns out that they're just the memories of someone else, someone I don't deserve to be known as."
The gambler reflected inwardly on his friend's words but only for a moment. Clone or not, Setzer was still the optimist of the group; it was all he knew how to be. "That attitude will do nothing to improve our situation."
"Grandpa, what is it?! What's happening?!"
Edgar and Setzer both looked askance as Relm, Strago, and Terra made their entrance into the crowded stateroom. They each exchanged painful glances as the young artisan looked about for an absolution where none would be found. How was she to understand?
"Hey, now." The first to offer comfort, for Strago still appeared half asleep on his walking stick, Terra smiled and took her hand. "It'll be alright. Whatever it is, we'll be fine so long as we . . . Edgar!"
A hush fell over the crowd as the esper woman ran to the side of one of her dearest friends. Scars and fibrous growths of sickly yellow had begun to spread across his face and hands and, in taking a quick look at the others in her presence, Terra realized that others had begun to show similar symptoms.
All of a sudden, Terra's own fear and concern were even greater than Relm's.
"Celes is dead." It was neither Edgar nor Setzer that had answered, but Locke. He sat resigned and unnoticed on the floor with his back against the stateroom wall. His voice and visage were both bereft of emotion as he handled the ribbon that he had once given Celes as a gift. "Umaro, too."
Terra, as well as all the others who were previously unaware, was taken aback in hearing of their sudden passing. With her own fears now justified, young Relm whimpered only once before bursting into tears.
"How . . ." Terra had trouble enough holding back her own tears to offer any comforting words to the others. "How did she-"
It's a fate that will befall us all," Locke continued as if she hadn't spoken. "It isn't a question of 'if', only 'when'."
Immediately taking the fore, Gogo stood and tried explaining as opposed to making an already bad situation worse. "We have reason to believe that it was the Falcon's passing through the silver lake on Triangle Island three months ago that caused this. What we didn't realize at the time was that the lake had mimetic properties and could copy whatever it came into contact with."
Terra's was the voice that brought to light the questions that all others seem to have. "What are you saying? That somewhere out there is another Falcon?"
Gogo's gaze fell.
"Are you all ready for the disturbing part?" The mimic could already sense their hesitation and fear. But whether they were ready or not, Gogo had little choice but to give them the facts. "Not only is there another Falcon out there, it's the 'real' Falcon!"
Terra blinked. "Come again?"
"It's like this. When Terra and the others left the island, their trip through the silver lake must have left duplicates behind, duplicates that gradually forgot what they were and assumed the lives and goals of their counterparts. Everything we see around us is literally a duplication from the silver lake: the ship; cargo; magicite; even us."
"But . . ." The young woman gave a fearful sigh and rubbed the back of her neck, finding scars where there were none before. "So now, the magicite is breaking down our genetic structure. We didn't think using them would hurt us because it isn't harmful to humanoids."
"As grim as it sounds," Gogo continued, "Locke is right. Each one of you is going to disappear just as the duplicates of Celes and Umaro did. I'm not immune either. Gogo was with the party at the time your creation, which would make me a duplicate along with the rest of you."
Paranoia swept like a gale wind through the already anxious crew. Terra's first impulse was to suggest finding their counterparts, wherever they were, so that the battle against Kefka would be at better odds. But at the same moment, she realized how futile the attempt in itself would be; even if the other Falcon was still out there, many of them would surely die in the time it took to track them down.
"What do we do?"
Sabin, having been preoccupied with his own disbelief of the situation, spoke up at last. "Go back," he replied, "to the Triangle Island."
Terra frowned. "What would that accomplish?"
"It's our native environment," Gogo supplied for Sabin. "We were created to live there. Going back may be our best bet for survival."
"No," she said, more out of instinct than opinion. "We can't, not when we're this close to completing our mission, not after everything we've accomplished."
"And just what exactly have we accomplished?" Locke's voice had once more found the circle of conversation, though he deliberately (almost spitefully) chose not to address his target by name; it was clear to him, now, that she wasn't Terra. "It was Locke Cole that uncovered the Phoenix magicite in that cave, not me! It was Terra Branford that saved the children of Mobliz from Phunbaba, not you! We shouldn't even be out here!"
Though there was no disputing his logic, Terra never swayed. She went over to her disillusioned friend and stared him down hard. "I'm the same person I was yesterday, and so are you." She turned to address the others. "And so are each one of you. We can't let our understanding of events make this situation worse. We have to find some way to survive long enough to find the other Falcon. Duplicates or not, we've been modeled after a crew that's had its back against the wall more times than once. We'll find a solution."
The silence that followed was both harrowing and fleeting. Setzer, suddenly rediscovering his spirit, stood up from his desk and ordered his crew back to work, saying that they had their work cut out for them. After a moment's hesitation, they all complied.
"Are you okay?" asked Gogo to Edgar.
He looked wearily up at the mimic from where he sat beside the gambler's desk. "Fine," he said, "just . . . tired."
"Come on." Gogo stooped low and put an arm around his waist. "I'll help you back to your quarters."
"I may have an idea about finding the other Falcon." Terra only half-listened to Sabin's suggestion of contacting the ship via Morse code. Her thoughts, and eyes, wandered to Locke, who still sat resigned on the floor.
"What do you think?"
"Huh?" said Terra. "Oh, right, Morse code. It sounds great. Keep the rest of us apprized."
He nodded and made his way for the main deck with the gambler in tow. If Terra didn't know better, she could have easily mistaken them for the real Sabin and Setzer all over again.
"Locke . . ."
A sigh. "That's not my name and you know it."
"Just listen for a second. I mean, I know this must sound empty but . . . I'm sorry about Celes."
"Sorry? What for?"
"What are you talking about? She was your-"
"Don't say it," he interrupted. "She was a 'Celes Chere' knock-off. Just like you, 'Terra'."
Saddened by his words, Terra didn't bother trying to call him back when at last he stood up and left the stateroom. Many things were on all their minds and she knew that time would be the only cure for their concerns. But as she took in the sight of the stateroom walls collapsing in the glow of the kerosene light, Terra realized that time was the only luxury they didn't have. Slowly but surely, their Falcon was vanishing.
They would have to think of something fast . . .
* * *
Terra wanted everything perfect for her dinner with Edgar that evening; there had been more than enough gloom over the past few hours to last her the rest of her life, however long that might be. So, she tried slipping into something more appropriate for the occasion, namely the outfit Setzer kept that had once belonged to Maria. Though it suited her perfectly, it left the yellow scars on her arms and neck still visible.
At least my cooking doesn't need dressing, she thought. Most of her culinary skills, or at least those of her counterpart, had been picked up in Thamasa, while Strago was off tackling the fabled Hidon of Ebot Rock. It wasn't to say that breaded chicken breast and pasta in a white wine sauce was an easy thing to manage on a ship with limited perishables. Luckily for Terra, the ship's cook was more than willing to part with a few provisions in light of a special request.
She took only a moment to ground herself with the preparations: candles; flowers; a table set beside a porthole facing the sunset. Was this to be construed as friendly or . . . romantic?
"Come in," she said, somewhat downcast as a knock sounded at the door. Edgar let himself in, his attire for the occasion no different than what it had been for Setzer's last briefing. "Chicken Tetrazzini. A friend of mine taught me some cooking in Thamasa . . . well, maybe not my friend but it's still edible."
She had hoped that a little humor would make them forget about the situation beyond the door, but the remorse in Edgar's eyes was waxing. "Setzer's lost two more of his crewmen . . . and Mog's in a coma."
His remorse was suddenly hers.
"We've got to go back."
Terra shook her head. "We can't stop searching for them yet, Edgar. The real Falcon is still out there somewhere. We just have to keep looking."
"Let's assume, for a moment, that they are still alive." A ripple coursed across Edgar's face. "What are we supposed to do after we find them? There's no way we're going to survive long enough to help them fight Kefka. And even as we stand here debating this, 'our' Falcon is still degrading. If we lose our engines, what hope will there be of reaching Triangle Island in one piece?"
Terra's expression sagged from his words, and their evening together was suddenly forgotten. "If they're alive, and they are, they might be able to help us stabilize our condition."
"And if they're dead?"
She thought the answer was obvious. "Then, there's more reason to be out here now than ever, to continue where they left off. We owe that much to the Returners, don't we?"
Edgar gave a deep breath, a further sign of his own condition. "Ordinarily," he wheezed, "I'd be in agreement. But identity is the least of this crew's worries at this point. We're dying, Terra. Can't you understand that?"
There was no getting through to him, she thought. Sullen, and feeling somewhat tired herself, she turned in her place and sampled some of the food on their table. "Perhaps this dinner was a bad idea."
"My lady . . ."
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Terra turned back and, almost on impulse, found herself embracing him. So warm were his arms, she thought. So strong. How could he not be real?
"I . . ." she began, and then stopped herself. "That is, Terra had always wanted to visit the café in Jidoor. She often heard that, it's supposed to be among the
finest in the world."
He brushed a wisp of dying hair away from her face. "Edgar will join her," he replied, "for a glass of wine."
So tender a moment should never have ended. Terra drew herself away from the shelter of his arms and touched his lips in an almost loving fashion. And then, she drew them away . . .
The light in his eyes flickered. Parts of his arms and head drooped low. His face was locked in a perpetual fear of the inevitable while Terra could do nothing but look on, mortified. She tried thinking, her every thought bend on coming up with a way of saving him. But her despair was great, too great . . .
"Somebody help me!" she cried. "Please! Somebody help me!"
* * *
"Save him . . ."
It happened all over again. Gogo did all s/he could think of to help but was barely able to keep Edgar's degrading form in one piece, much less resuscitate him. Terra kept his hand into her own, praying that somehow their magicite still had a chance.
"He's not responding," said the mimic and collected another esper shard from the table.
"Don't go . . ." A whimper.
Gogo scanned Edgar's still form with a spell. "He's . . . Terra, we're losing him."
"Please." A whisper.
All thought and prayer Terra poured into Edgar's recovery. It wasn't over yet. It couldn't have been. There was still a chance. There had to be.
Alone she held his hand.
* * *
"We've lost Edgar . . ."
It seemed to take her forever to reach the main deck again, her delay more the result of sunken spirits than her own stagnating form. When at last she was there, Terra half-leaned on the railing to keep her balance, gauging the different reactions of those who were once full of the gambler's optimism.
"And . . ." she added, hard pressed for breath, "he was real, no matter what he was made of. And he was a fine engineer. And . . . he was a friend . . . who . . . wasn't afraid to let me know when I'm wrong."
Terra gave one last baleful stare at the dark tower that stood less than a kilometer from the ship. Whatever their destiny was, she thought, it wasn't to be found with Kefka.
"Setzer . . ." A trickle of silver ran down her chin and onto the deck. "Turn the Falcon around. It's time we went back . . . to where we belong."
Locke, no longer the surly Returner he once was, went to her side for support. By now, they had all begun to show symptoms of decay, their telltale faces indisputable of their own grim birthright. He knew exactly what she planned to do.
"Where are we going?" the gambler asked.
"Set a course . . . for Triangle Island."
* * *
The journey to the island (none of the others could get used to calling it 'home') was less than two days old before hopelessness set in. Setzer, as well as half of his crew, were already dead, leaving his degrading ship in the hands of Terra and a smattering of others. Unfortunately for them, there was scarcely enough strength left to even walk between posts, let alone maintain a command structure. If this weren't bad enough, Triangle Island was still more than forty miles northeast and their systems continued to fail.
Some lights flickered, others died. More and more of the ship had begun to resemble an abstract oil painting, with hull plates and bulkheads wavering and vanishing into liquid oblivion. Theirs was once an airship of more than forty smiling faces. Less than twenty remained, and none of them bothered with such thoughts as raising families or writing history books. At this point, they could only be considered luxuries, stopgap measures to keep the ship afloat . . .
Time was becoming scarce.
"We've lost Gogo." Cyan, scarcely recognizable behind a mask of withered flesh and taut sinew, tried his best to stay steadfast in spite of his report. "The only magicite we have left is Palidor and, uh . . . our engines are on their last legs."
"Mmph . . ." Terra fared worst of all. Most of her face had already collapsed in a virulent mess of mimetic tissue. It was a battle for her to even compose a thought, much less continue to draw breath. Yet somehow she lingered. "Locke . . ."
"Unconscious." She recognized the voice, though not the face, of their resident assassin, who had long since shucked his black garb and hood. "There's little more we can do for him."
Terra's duplicate struggled to turn in her chair, a calamity that caused more of her face to ripple and sag. "You saying . . . situation's . . . grim?"
The ninja shrugged. "Grim would be putting it lightly."
Somehow, her response was delivered with a smile. "Well, it wouldn't be the first time that we've . . . we've been up, uhhh . . ."
There was no finishing her sentence, so tired was she from long hours of endless decay. More than anything else, she wanted to sleep . . .
Relm's panicked voice stirred her back to wakefulness. She didn't want to let her down, no matter how exhausted she felt. After already losing most of her friends and even Strago to the decay, Terra could very well be all she had left to look up to.
"S'alright, Relm . . . just tired . . . s'all."
She seemed relieved, for now at least.
"You need rest," Cyan told her. "Go and sleep. Shadow and I can handle ship operation for the next little while."
Terra blinked wearily. "I'll manage, Cyan."
"It wasn't a suggestion," he said, smiling.
"Your concerns," she rasped, "have been noted . . . sir."
She reached out to him and took his hand for reassurance. Cyan was only too happy to oblige. Her face twisted sullenly as she thought of the others: Celes; Edgar; Gau; faces she'd never see again. She leaned over the stateroom table for good measure, on the verge of tears.
"Now . . . there's one other thing." With a gnarled hand, she pushed a small brown book towards them. "I'd like for you all to . . . mmm, write some things down in my journal. A record of sorts. In case we don't make it to the island, something should be left behind of our experiences."
Shadow nodded. "A time capsule."
"Our time together . . . may have been short, but it was memorable. We mustn't . . . we can't let it all pass into nothing. You don't . . . deserve . . . to be forgotten."
A brief silence followed, rife with emotion. Even the soulless Shadow couldn't help but feel touched in hearing Terra's words.
"I . . ." he began, "that is, we'll use supplies from Albrook to build a buoy."
Suddenly, as if on cue, a shudder ran throughout the weakened ship, sending trillions of concentric ripples along its frail hull. If she had the strength, Terra would have already been out of her chair, wondering what had happened. As it was, she had precious little remaining.
"Go," she muttered to her friends, "I'll . . . be okay."
Too weak to hurry, Shadow, Cyan, and Relm could do little other than amble up the gangway at an almost elderly pace and pray that their Falcon didn't blow up on them. When at last they were above deck, they spotted one of Setzer's last surviving crewmen hunched uncomfortably over the helm. He was the only one who still had strength enough to endure such an arduous task.
Cyan's eyes wandered to port, then to starboard, then back to port again. "What is it? Where's it coming from?"
The helmsman, only barely able to hear them, pointed up at the balloon above their heads.
"What are you getting at, crewman? What's the prob-"
The aven scream of an Osprey cut Cyan off in midsentence. The trio took a weary step in the opposite direction. The feathered gigas, whose wing span was easily half as long as the Falcon, loomed just beyond the guardrail, its talons pinwheeling and its razored beak hungry for some easy prey.
Relm appeared inconsolable. "This is hardly the time for a random encounter."
And there was little to dispute the young artist's lament. Had this been three days ago, there would've still been weapons and magicite enough to easily topple this foul creature. All that was left of those days, however, was Palidor, the soul survivor.
"Cyan," said Shadow, struck with an idea, "hit it with a Slow spell."
"A Slow spell," wheezed Shadow, running on empty. "It'll give us time to get the Falcon out of here."
"But . . ."
They hesitated. The aven growled and lunged for the hapless crewman. Relm screamed as the Osprey ripped through the duplicate's midsection, causing him to
explode in a mist of liquid silver. No longer in need of further prompting, Cyan took what was left of their Palidor shard, whispered the proper incantation, and
let fly a time stream that seemed to freeze the aven aggressor in its tracks.
On impulse, Shadow seized the helm, intent on steering them as far from the creature as their engines would allow. When at last he gathered that the Falcon was beyond immediate danger, the three remaining Returners breathed a sigh of relief and made their way back to the stateroom.
"That was close," said a disheartened Cyan.
Shadow was of no higher spirits. "It'll only get closer."
"Don't ruin a good sign." Both men took heart as Relm shuffled her feet weakly along the last several steps before the stateroom door. "It's a cause for celebration. Isn't it, Terra?"
No reply came.
In the shadows of the chamber, barely recognizable, Terra's haggard form slumped lifelessly in her chair. Shadow and Cyan exchanged a nervous glance as Relm rushed to the esper girl's side, trying to salvage what little hope she had left.
"Can't . . . be . . ."
Terra was gone.
* * *
It would be, for good or ill, the last day of their trek.
All that remained of Setzer's crew were bedridden indefinitely. Cyan was similarly incapacitated and the Falcon pressed on with its hopeless journey by way of the east wind only. Though there were less than twenty miles left between them and the island, it was getting less and less likely that the few who remained would ever reach their destination . . .
"And to think . . ." Shadow's words came out in a garbled whisper. Though there was scarcely anyone left to talk to, he felt the need to say it all the same. "If only that Fal . . . that, vah . . . ship hadn't come to the Tri, hmmm . . . to our isle, we probably wouldn't be in this mess."
He staggered like a drunkard about the engine room, making the most of his rudimentary knowledge to keep their dying ship airborne. The engines had long since fallen into disrepair, yet Shadow still held half a hope that heat from the turbines would be enough to maintain their altitude long enough to reach the island.
But even as he worked, large gaping holes had begun to rip the airship chambers asunder. Sunlight seethed into Shadow's vision, causing his hypersensitive body to recoil on instinct to the shadows.
One such hole had formed immediately above him where, he hoped, Relm was still piloting the ship along its course.
"I need another Slow spell down here! The bulkheads are coming apart!"
Relm, whose form was rapidly degrading into a confusing lump of silver, couldn't pull herself away from the helm if she wanted to. Even from Shadow's vantage point, it was difficult to tell where the wheel ended and she began.
"I, uh . . ." Somewhere in that mess of silver, a weak red glow could be seen. "I'll do . . . what I can."
She gave voice to the proper cantrip, as loud as her condition would permit. Though the wait was literally killing him, Shadow at last breathed easy in seeing
the hull very slowly solidifying.
"That's better," he rasped. "How's our zeppelin?"
"Degrading . . ." The red glow of Palidor flickered and went out. "Like everything else. We have less than an hour before we lose our wings."
Shadow's mind, whatever was left of it, digested her reply slowly. "Well," he said at last, "if it's any consolation, the buoy's ready for our time capsule."
"It isn't." All of existence warbled around her. "But it'll have to do."
He nodded, then turned to the contraption he had put together for the task. It was makeshift at best, vaguely resembling a miniature wooden raft held together with rope and axle grease. Their plan was to wrap Terra's journal in plastic and lash it to the buoy. If any luck still ran in their favor, it would last long enough for the next wayfarer to stumble across it.
This was the plan . . . but then, where was the journal?
"The journal!" Panic seized the ninja. Who was the last to have it? "Relm?!"
"Cyan," she uttered, barely audible. "I . . . think."
Nausea. Exhaustion. Despair. They all came at once as Shadow forced himself back into the gullet of the ship, concern for his safety utterly forgotten. Ignorant of ship operation, ignorant even of the downright horrific state of the lower decks, he eventually found his way back into the blasted bowels of the living chamber. All around him, the last of Setzer's crew continued along their spiral into oblivion. And, off in a distant corner, Shadow found what he was looking for.
Their journal - teetering precariously at the edge of a growing fissure in the deck . . .
"Steady, Relm." He inched ever closer. "Just keep her steady."
Unable to cope, he at last made a desperate dive across the deck for the book . . . in vain. If Shadow had never exhibited emotion before, he did so now. Their journal, the one and only testament of their existence, tumbled mere centimeters from his hands and down into an endless sea, where harsh ocean creatures and saline would devour it before dusk.
"Who now," he uttered, "will remember us . . . when we're gone?"
He at least had to tell Relm the truth, that he was not, in fact, a completely soulless man, but actually Clyde Arrowny. He at least had to try and explain things to her in the precious few moments they had left, so that maybe he might have peace of mind, maybe even know a reason to feel human again. Then, a sound reverberated through the skeletal ship, a sound that was far too familiar for his comfort . . .
Their friend, the Osprey.
"No . . ." he growled to no one at all. "Don't you . . . don't take her from me. I don't . . . I need more time."
Trying to get back was murder for him. Parts of his body had begun to destabilize from the stress. In returning to the engine room, pain and languor hit him like an Ultima blast as an arm came loose from its socket, exploding. But it was bliss compared to the sight he found back on the main deck above him.
The helm was gone - and Relm along with it.
Drained, what was left of Shadow slumped on the floor. All he cared most for was gone, all efforts to preserve their existence in vain. Truth be told, he had always intended for things to end this way, just not in the way that he would be utterly forgotten, that 'they' would be utterly forgotten. Only vaguely did he feel the ship take a nosedive, his consciousness holding on only by a thread. It seemed fitting that his short life close with something that he remembered Baram always used to say: 'Every cloud has a silver lining.'
Despite himself, and the situation, Clyde actually grinned.
'Well', he thought cynically, 'this sure has been a rotten day'.
And then, there was nothing - not even blackness.
* * *
With good cheer and smiles all throughout the café, twelve glasses were raised in victory that evening in the township of Jidoor. Their return from the dark tower in the east had captured the imagination of the entire world. Indeed, many had flocked from both near and far to get their own glimpses of the ones who had healed a world long broken.
"Pre-Imperial Thamasian Vintage," said Terra, reading aloud the Sans Script label on the wine bottle. "You know, the last time we made a toast to freedom, it was with the Empire."
"That was a long time ago," said the king of Figaro, smiling. "And in a different world, too. At least this time, it's genuine. People can finally live in comfort for the first time in over a thousand years, since the end of the War of the Magi."
There was no disputing the monarch's words. No matter where she looked, the signs were all around them: the veterans Strago and Cyan collaborating on a history book; Celes and Locke planning their first expedition together; Relm smiling and clapping with Mog as fireworks lit up the night air; Sabin challenging Umaro to an armwrestle; and Gau being his usual, untamed self.
"Everyone," Terra replied," except the souls of that unfortunate ship we came across."
Edgar's smile faded, as if out of solemn respect. "There was little we could do. They never even left a debris field for us to comb. It wasn't our fault."
"I know that," she said, though clearly not satisfied with the outcome. "I just keep thinking that maybe, if we hadn't have gone to Kefka's tower first . . ."
The king took her hand for support, and her pained expression waned. "It's a shame," he told her, "not being able to help them and all."
She nodded. "I wonder who they were."
* * *
Later that evening, when the festivities had ended, Setzer returned from Jidoor to the solitude of his stateroom aboard theFalcon. He took careful measure in composing the last of his thoughts regarding their victory; he did not want them to sound contrived. It was imperative that he record them with the utmost of sincerity:
Day 516, Last of the Ruination - It is finished. I can't tell you what it means to finally be relieved of this duty. At long last, the world is whole again, and filled with such joy, such hope, the likes of which I have never before seen. Relief, promise, exhilaration - all these things occur to you at once. There is just no preventing it. At last, there is cause for great optimism...
Notes: it is with great sorrow that I must make report of an SOS distress call from a vessel of unknown origin, last spotted fifteen miles southwest of Triangle
Island. The ship was destroyed, all hands were lost. Cause of destruction still remains a mystery. The Returners and I bide these tidings with great pain,
however, and their deaths are thus noted in this pilot's log...