The Hand of the Reaperby manapriestess
Entire Fiction (2005)
Sabin rose to a sitting position, feeling vaguely distressed about something. He scratched his head, then remembered why. It dawned upon him that he was thoroughly wet.
"Wonder where I am," he murmured, rising to his feet and shaking himself. He felt a little dejected at losing contact with Edgar, and wondered how he and old man Banon were doing, along with that angel-faced kid who had the ability to fry people to a crisp in a second.
"I meet my only brother after ten years, then I lose him again because of a stupid leap of fate into the river," he muttered. "Well, then, if I hit on a streak of bad luck I better lose it by the time I return to Narshe. Looks like I have plenty of time to go about doing it too, because it doesn't seem like I'll be able to leave THIS land for a while."
The land in question was a shore opening into a prairie, with the sea bordering it on the west. "Yes indeed," Sabin continued ruefully. "It looks like I drifted a long, LONG way from Narshe." He proceeded to scout the area, looking above the sea of wild grass. Then something in the distance caught his eye — and it looked almost like a roof. "Hey-ho!" he said, startled. "An actual house in the middle of this place! Well, it's a good spot to start."
* - * - *
"I wouldn't REALLY call it a house," Sabin muttered as he approached the shadowy-looking cabin obscured by the prairie grass. "More like a hovel." He scouted around, pushing his way through rough stalks almost three feet high, and barely making out the form of a wall hidden behind a dense curtain of wild creepers.
"Hey, you!" a voice screamed suddenly. "Come here, you!"
Sabin started, looking around; but he could not detect the source of the strange voice. "Is someone there?" he asked, raising his voice.
"Are you the clockmaker?" the voice asked.
Sabin felt a little confused. The question was an incongruent one, but the voice sounded real enough. It was an old man's voice, and it seemed to be coming from inside the house. He tried again.
"You in there?" he shouted. "If you tell me where the entrance is I'd be grateful." He wondered to himself what kind of an old man could be living in this haunted-looking place.
"I've been waitin' for ages for you!" the old man's voice replied. "That clock ain't worked for, I say, five, six, even ten years! Say, you the lawnmower man maybe?"
Sabin got his answer: a crazy old man. "Where the hell's your door?"
Something moved to Sabin's right. Sure enough, the old man's head popped from behind the creepers. "Come here, repairman! My stove needs fixing as well!"
Sabin pushed his way through the grass, finally reaching the door. He stepped into the cabin.
The windows of the shack were small, and it was rather dark inside. It took Sabin some minutes to adjust to the darkness after the brightness of the open prairie. "A shoddy, rundown old place!" he could not help commenting. The sink was full of dishes, the furniture were old and partially broken, and the walls were peelings.
"Darn right, repairman!" said the old man, scowling at him. "Your people do such lousy job around here! Can't expect me to keep it up myself!" He walked to a chair and dropped into it, staring at Sabin darkly.
"You know, old fellow, I can't help you right now," Sabin said, amused by the old man's belligerence. "Maybe later. I'm in a hurry."
"Hurry? And where've you been these last ten years? Can't get good service around here these days. Everyone are always in a hurry when I talk to 'em!"
"I bet," Sabin murmured, grinning a little. He felt like he was trapped into some sort of a joke, so he decided to ditch it at once. "Sorry," he said, turning towards the door. "I actually came here because I need YOUR help. Do you know the shortest way to Narshe?"
"Narshe? Narshe? Ain't no place 'round here called Narshe." The old man stared at Sabin suspiciously. "You all right in the head, young man?"
"I'm not sure of that anymore," Sabin muttered. He turned around and walked out.
* - * - *
If Sabin was surprised to meet one man around that run-down wilderness, he was astonished to see yet another when he returned outside. This man stood near a ruined old well, silently leaning against its half-broken edge. Sabin was fairly certain that the man hadn't been there just a few minutes before, when he walked into the crazy old man's cabin.
A black suit on the man outlined a wiry body and tightly-knit muscles, and a mask covered his head save for the eyes, in the fashion of ninjas. Not a man to be trifled with, Sabin reflected, especially not with that savage-looking black dog at his side.
If the ninja was aware Sabin's presence he gave no indication of it. He was staring into the pale distances of the prairie with fixed stillness, as if they contained something elusive that he could see and others could not. Sabin instinctively glanced in the same direction, then resumed his study of the black figure before him, trying to decide how to start a conversation.
He was spared the decision when a voice said: "I am not on display. Quit staring."
"You talked?" Sabin inquired, feeling encouraged.
"No," the man replied, his eyes fixed on the white horizon. "It was my dog who talked."
"You've got some sense of humor, ha?" Sabin muttered.
The ninja was silent.
"Listen here, ninja," Sabin said, edging closer to the man. "I need to reach the city of Narshe. Know the way by any chance?"
"Stay away," said the ninja, neither his voice nor his gaze wavering as he spoke, "and you will not get hurt."
Sabin fell back, sensing that this was not an idle threat; but he repeated his question doggedly. "Well, what then? Do you know how to get to Narshe?"
The time that elapsed until the next reply began to test Sabin's patience. "Perhaps. Perhaps not."
"Let's settle on perhaps," said Sabin, feeling more optimistic again. At least this one knew something. "If you PERHAPS know the way, can you show it to me?"
"Depends," the man replied curtly.
"Depends on what?"
"Depends if I feel like it."
"Well, do you?" Sabin asked. Forgetting the warning, he edged closer to the man again.
"Interceptor," the ninja said in a low voice, glancing at the brute, "get ready for Take Down." The huge dog instantly fixed its eyes on Sabin and a growl started deep in its chest.
"Hey, hey!" Sabin protested, falling back. "Keep that beast on a short leash, all right? Don't need no bloody murder around here, especially with that old lunatic inside his run-down shack. Might scare him to death."
"Death is my Familiar," the ninja murmured, but he raised his hand and the dog fell silent. It nevertheless kept its eyes warily fixed on Sabin.
Sabin grinned, undaunted. "We all have our little oddities, I suppose," he concurred, scratching the back of his neck. "Well, whad'ya say? Coming or not, Evil One?"
The man was silent for a few moments. Then he said: "If I do, you have engaged my services. Everything we earn on the way is seventy percent mine, and you can keep the rest."
Sabin stared at him with sincere amazement. "Cold-blooded, aren't you?" he gasped. "That price is sheer murder!"
The ninja smiled beneath his mask. He finally turned his head towards Sabin. "I'm on the job, Mr. —"
"Just call me Sabin."
"Mr. —" the ninja repeated, in a cold, patient tone.
"Uh, Mr. Figaro, I suppose," said Sabin sheepishly. "Never thought of it that way," he muttered. "Mr. Figaro... ha ha..."
The man ignored him, turning around. "Let's go," he said. "Just know that I may take off whenever I feel like it."
"Hey!" Sabin protested. "At least tell me YOUR name, if I pay you that much!"
The man paused, without looking back. "Call me Shadow."
"Shadow," Sabin repeated, his brow contracting. The name was familiar, but it evoked no connection to the Empire in his memory. He shrugged, dismissing the momentary suspicion; he wasn't about to keep track of all the oddballs he met on his journey. He reflected that he was developing a knack for running into them.
He looked at the ninja, who stood with his face raised into the chill northern skies. Shadow murmured, "The Reaper is always just a step behind me..."
"What's that?" Sabin inquired. He received no reply. Without looking back, Shadow began his march into the high swaying grasses, and Sabin hurried to follow. The old man who sat at his window saw them leaving.
"Hey, repairman!" he screamed after the retreating figures, his cries echoing into the pale, empty skies. "Come back here, repairman! You haven't fixed my darned clock yet! You come back here, repairman! Come back here! COME BACK...!"
* - * - *
They took a southern trail through the prairie, the mountains rising in the east, the sea a blue glitter in the west. Shadow's company was as Sabin expected: not much of it. If he had to describe it, he would have used the same terms which defined the man: silent and dangerous. Shadow's dog was nowhere to be seen, and Sabin didn't ask questions. He just supposed that the dog performed the master's vanishing act and had little doubt that it lurked close on their trail, ready to attack at its master's bidding.
"Say, what's the next, uh, civilized place we should reach?" Sabin inquired, deciding that two hours of silence were a long enough stretch, and that he wanted to know where they were heading.
Shadow glanced at him. "Depends what you mean by civilized," he replied. "All men are 'civilized' savages."
Sabin grinned, not minding the sneer in Shadow's voice. "A young lady who's just on the other side of this sea once told me that I am like a big bear," he said. "Guess you're right, then. I'm not very 'civilized' myself."
"Young lady," Shadow repeated. His tone was neither interested nor querying, but Sabin decided that by Shadow's standards it could be considered as both. "Yeah. Something of an oddity herself, she was, with that green hair - uh..." He bit on his tongue too late. "I mean, she was a very nice young lady, really, only a bit, uh, odd.." he continued, attempting to cover his slip.
"The Imperial witch," said Shadow impassively. "Heard of her. Saw her in South Figaro, not long ago."
"Witch — well..." Sabin echoed, in vague protestation at what he felt was a blemish on Terra's character. "She was a really nice kid, Terra was."
Shadow glanced at him, and Sabin knew that he would have done better to stop his tongue - AGAIN. He seemed to be talking too much lately.
"Nice kid, ha?" was Shadow's only remark. He then gazed into the prairie before them, which ended with a forest. "To answer your question, the next place we'll arrive at is Doma Castle and its domain. It's just beyond this forest."
"Doma Castle," Sabin murmured. He did not ask any more questions.
* - * - *
The forest was a pleasant green place, full of the sharp smell of young pines. Sabin was almost sorry to leave it, and stepped with regret into the open prairie beyond. He stood squinting into the pale sun, then glanced at Shadow. The ninja suddenly shot out his hand. "Silence," he said.
"What —" Sabin began, but he held his tongue at Shadow's familiar, focused poise. Something was up.
Shadow moved some way between the woods, and was gone. Then there was a disturbance, and shouting. The ninja presently emerged, dragging a protesting figure after him.
"Let me go! Let me go!" the figure cried. "I'm just a merchant, man! Darn it, let me loose! I've done nothing to you!"
Without responding, Shadow approached Sabin and dumped a young man on the ground before them. The young man grunted, and started to collect his wares. "My stuff's all in a mess now," he complained. "You might have broken something, you know." He looked up sourly. "Tell your friend that he shouldn't be attacking innocent people like that," he told Sabin peevishly. "I thought that he wanted to kill me."
"Why'd you bring that clown here?" Sabin demanded of Shadow with a grin. The young man scowled at his tone. Shadow replied, his voice cold: "He was dealing with soldiers. IMPERIAL soldiers."
"IMPERIALS!" Sabin growled. He advanced on the merchant. "What's that about Imperials?" he demanded.
"The Empire's got a camp by Doma," the young man answered sullenly. "I'm a merchant that trades with 'em." He rose to his feet, grimacing. "Now leave me alone, you hear?"
"Not before you tell me what the Imperials are doing around here and what they're after!" Sabin said grimly, picking him up by his collar.
"What d'you want from me?" the young man whined, struggling to break free. "It's none of my business! I'm just a —"
Sabin shook him. "We know that already. Now tell us!"
"The Empire's at war with Doma for giving aid to the Returners," the young man began hurriedly. "Let me down! Ah... the Imperial army here is led by General Leo. It's been like this for a while now. Come on, man, let me loose! I'm just trading with them, I've got nothing to do with all that!"
Sabin dumped the young man on the ground unceremoniously. "So much for your plan to go through Doma," he said grimly, glancing at Shadow.
"This merchant could help us," Shadow said coldly.
"Not me, man!" the young man protested. "Not me! Ain't got nothing to do with it! I've already told you! Oh, DRAT..."
* - * - *
Doma Castle rose into view after some time of marching, and Sabin could glimpse the tents of the military base spreading at its feet. He paused, raising his hand to his brow and squinting into the northern sun, low in the afternoon skies. The young man, the merchant, eyed him as he stood, a sly look rising into his eyes. He then edged towards the ninja who was standing passively on the side, waiting for his employer to make a decision to proceed.
"Listen here," he whispered. "I've got something capital for you." He stole his hand into his pocket and took out a short, thin blade. It appeared ordinary except for a strange glimmer across the shining edges. "This," he continued, "is the Invisible Edge. This knife's special. It'll make you invisible when you throw it. It's priceless, ninja. If you help me hand that man over to the Imperials, it's yours. What do you say?"
Shadow looked at him silently. The merchant waited for his reply, darting uneasy glances towards Sabin. Finally, Shadow said: "An interesting offer, all things considered."
The young man grinned cunningly, the mask of the fool dropped. "You won't regret it, ninja."
"I'm sure that I won't," Shadow said neutrally. He then caught the young man in his iron grip, and wrenched the blade from his fingers.
"One consideration at a time," he said calmly. "First, consider yourself grateful that I spared your life back there. Second, consider that you owe me something for it. Third, consider this blade a proper payment." The knife vanished easily into his belt and the young man struggled, shocked. His face very pale, he hissed, "You won't get away with this, ninja!"
"If you are quiet," Shadow said, "I won't tell this man what you wanted to do."
The young man eyed him venomously. "Why are you on his side anyway? You're a bounty-hunter, Shadow. I heard of you. The Imperials could pay you ten times better than him."
Shadow smiled under his mask. "Yes, but you would have handed me over to the Imperials as easily as you would have handed him, 'merchant'. And one more point — he employed me first." He took a rope from his belt and easily, disregarding the young man's struggles, he wrapped him tightly and gagged him. Then, he moved towards Sabin.
"Looks like we're on our own after all," he said calmly. "Let's go."
Sabin turned around, and gaped at the tied merchant. "What the hell?" he said. "I thought that you wanted to —"
"I changed my mind," Shadow answered. "Come on." Without waiting for Sabin's reply, he began to move onwards. Sabin stared at the merchant, then shrugged and followed Shadow.
"Oddballs," he muttered gloomily. "They seem to stick to me like flies to a flypaper."
* - * - *
"Here we are," Sabin whispered. "The Imperial base." He peeped from behind a ruined wall, scanning the drab tents scattered forlornly over the camp grounds under the cold glare of the sun. Imperial soldiers in brown uniform wandered around, talking in low voices or simply standing on watch. The place possessed a peculiar atmosphere of listlessness. Probably a moment of calm before or after a battle.
"We better stay low and watch what happens," Sabin whispered to Shadow.
The ninja didn't respond but simply crouched at Sabin's side, his eyes encompassing the grounds with a cool, calculating gaze. But then he made a barely perceptible gesture with his hand. "Look," he said quietly.
He was indicating a man who presently walked out of a tent with a brisk step. Sabin stared at the man, a little startled at his peculiar appearance. He understood why Shadow signaled him out. The man was dressed in a heavy green cape, and his face was unusually pale, almost as if there was no blood in him to speak of. The eyes, too, oddly lacked color, but seemed a little too bright for comfort. And Sabin thought that something about that man was familiar...
Shadow's voice supplied him with the name he sought. "Kefka of the Empire."
"You know a lot," muttered Sabin, shooting a glance at Shadow.
Shadow was silent. Kefka approached two soldiers who stood guard near the ruined wall. "You two!" he barked. "Don't slack on the watch! Keep a sharp lookout!"
The soldiers jumped to a hasty salute. "Yes, Sir! How are you, Kefka, Sir?"
"Please!" Kefka sneered. "Spare me your petty small talk! Just do your job!" He passed them and continued to cross a slender bridge that united the two sections of the camp. The soldiers relaxed after he vanished. One of them edged closer to Sabin's wall, signaling the other to follow him. As they stood huddled together Sabin could distinctly hear every word that they spoke.
"Do you know?" the first soldier said, "I heard — but don't tell anyone that I told you! — that Kefka might become the next general to overseer the base, instead of Leo."
"Don't make me laugh!" the other soldier hissed. "If HE becomes general, I'm quitting this place."
The first soldier nodded. "Me too," he said. "That man's a creep. He's no Leo."
"No general's like Leo, and besides, Kefka's plain nuts," the second muttered. "Somebody ought to put him away."
The first soldier gazed around furtively, appearing worried. "Just keep your voice down," he warned. "If anyone hears us..."
A man wearing the dark suit of a commander now approached the two soldiers. "You two, get ready," he ordered. "The assault on the castle is about to begin shortly."
"Yes, Sir," said the two soldiers. They saluted him, then hurried to join the ranks of soldiers exiting the western side of the base.
"I wonder if Doma will manage," Sabin commented. "Those Imperials sure came well-armed."
Shadow seemed to shrug. "Let's just watch," he said quietly.
"A non-intrusion policy, ha?" Sabin muttered. "Let's see how long we can keep it up."
* - * - *
Dome Castle stood staunchly under the waning sunlight, its towers solid and impenetrable, giving an appearance of an unassailable stronghold. A young sentry who stood on one of the towers watched the progress of the Imperial assault with some apprehension. He was presently accosted by a man who came to stand besides him; a grave-looking knight of about fifty, clad in an armor tinged a gray-blue.
"Sir Cyan!" the sentry exclaimed, turning to the knight with agitation. "The Imperials seem to be prevailing!"
The knight sized up the situation for a moment, then nodded. "'Tis certain that they are strong," he said. "Yet I know what we can do. Do not lose heart," he said, smiling at the youth reassuringly. "We shall overcome them. I have a plan."
The sentry smiled back, nodding. Cyan Garamonde, Retainer to the King of Doma, was one of the best swordsmen living. He was a man of deep loyalties and a strict sense of honor; and despite his stern appearance, his black hair and dark eyes within a battle-scarred, bronzed face, he was in truth a kind man.
"Sir," the young sentry asked, "what do you mean to do?"
Cyan looked thoughtful. "If I fell their commander," he said at last, "they'll give up. They charge forward aggressively, yet they seem to have no real organization without their top men. They fight unwisely, because they don't trouble themselves to invest trust and training in each of their soldiers to the utmost, as we do. Now, I must hurry. Keep the lookout." And upon these words he left. The young sentry kept his watch, his eyes following the figure of the knight as it emerged from the gates a short while later. "It takes such courage," he murmured, "to charge alone into this army."
Cyan walked out calmly, paying no heed to the awful sound of the heavy gates slamming shut behind him. He could identify the commander by his dark clothes, and he cut his way towards him. The other soldiers attacked him but he warded them off with his sword with almost contemptuous gestures. Those Imperials make a poor show, he thought; they rely on their numbers for strength.
He finally came face-to-face with the commander. "Who are you?" the man asked, steadying his sword. "Prepare to die, Doman." But he had seen Cyan's sure progress through the soldiers and his voice betrayed his fear.
"I am Cyan Garamonde, Retainer to the King of Doma," Cyan replied quietly. "I am your worst nightmare."
The commander lunged forward; but the knight dodged him skillfully, and readied his sword. As the commander turned to face him again he leapt towards the man with a dizzying speed. His movements were so swift that they appeared to trail ghostly images behind him, as he darted towards the man and dispatched him with his sword.
The commander gagged, choking from a slash which cut through the armor and punctured his neck deeply. Blood flowed down the breastplate, and the man keeled forward, dead. The soldiers raised a shout and began to scatter. Cyan gazed at the body of the dead man at his feet, his smile almost sad.
"Sword techniques of my ancestors," he said. "Would it be that this castle will keep as long as you had."
* - * - *
"Something's up," Sabin whispered. "Seems like the Imperials have been defeated." He grinned in satisfaction, trying to imagine the humiliation they suffered. Shadow nodded, and Sabin shifted his seat, groaning a little at his aching muscles. He wanted to maintain watch on what was happening, but he was also beginning to lose the feel in his legs. "Come on," he whispered. "Let's get out of here for a while. We'll try to sneak through later, maybe at night."
But at that moment something caught his attention again. A man clad in armor with a green cloak draped over it was coming out of one of the tents. He stood at the tent's door for a moment, his face on the castle. The sun, hanging low in the skies, started painting them orange.
This man was clearly not an ordinary soldier. "Shadow," Sabin whispered. "Who's that?"
"General Leo," Shadow replied.
Sabin grinned again. "I pay you a lot, but it seems worth the money," he remarked.
Shadow was silent, not looking at him. Sabin scanned Leo attentively. The General was a man of about thirty-five of medium height, stocky and powerfully built, with a sunburnt face and cropped red hair. He was far from handsome, but something about his expression was impressive; the calm, intelligent countenance harbored a certain positive stamp. Despite his dislike of the Imperials, Sabin couldn't help being favorably impressed.
The General was presently approached by a soldier, a messenger from the battle grounds. "General," he said. "Doma seems to be playing a waiting game with us. Their defense is strong, and they'll hold."
"As I thought," Leo remarked. "So that's their strategy. An effective one, but just for a while."
"Sir," said the soldier, "we're fully ready for further orders. We can re-arrange the troops and attack again. Maybe the surprise element will add to the effectiveness of the assault this time."
The General scanned the soldier's face. He saw a young man with an eager countenance and fervent air, and he smiled a little ruefully. "Patience," he said. "I want our strategy to be wise and effective, to spare as many lives as possible. Our goal is siege and capture, not a thoughtless carnage."
"General," the young man said loyally, "I am willing to lay my life for the Imperial cause, if necessary."
Leo shook his head. "Thoughts of glory may seem appealing in retrospect, but think of the grief it brings to the living. If you fall in battle, it is I who will have to deliver the news to your family. Do you know what a feeling it gives me, to see the expression on their faces — to hear their cry of sorrow, when they hear the tidings of death? Don't throw your life away recklessly. It is the greatest crime. And it is not what your Emperor would want."
"Damn!" Sabin, whispered, awed, "the man's a philosopher! Shadow, if I can get used to YOU, I believe I could have put up with him." He shook his head. "If he wasn't an Imperial general." Shadow maintained his silence, not responding. Sabin glanced at him, but he couldn't tell if Shadow was affected or not. "Nothing EVER gets to you, eh, Evil One?" he muttered, half-amused, half-frustrated.
At that moment, another soldier approached. "General," he said. "A carrier pigeon arrived with a message from Emperor Gestahl." He handed the letter to the Leo, who nodded and opened it. He ran his eyes over it briefly and then folded it, looking thoughtful. "It's a summon for me to return to the Empire."
The soldiers started, exchanging glances. "Sir!" one of them ventured. "Who will supplement you? Could it be —"
Leo smiled at them. "Yes," he replied. "Sir Kefka will be taking over. But I leave the fate of this battle in your hands — all of you. The ultimate victory depends on the collective effort. Remember that."
"Yes, Sir!" they said, saluting. But by their faces, Sabin could tell that they were uncomfortable at the news. He could understand why, and he was morbidly amused. Kefka the commander — no, worse! Kefka the GENERAL —
"Just take care and don't rush into death," Leo said quietly. At that moment, Kefka approached from the other side of the camp.
"Leo," he said with his twisted smile. "I heard the news."
The soldiers saluted once again and left, with wary glances at Kefka. Leo turned to face him. "Listen, Kefka," he said, "I don't want any trouble here when I'm gone. Promise me that."
Kefka's smile turned sneering. "Ha, don't you worry!" he replied. "I'll take care of this situation faster than you can imagine."
Leo regarded him steadily. "Just remember," he said, a quality of sternness creeping into his voice, "that you are dealing with human life here, Kefka. They are PEOPLE, just like you and me."
"Ha!" Kefka muttered as Leo turned to go, and a glitter rose into his eyes. "Why should we spare these lands, that gave rise to those accursed Returners?" He sneered again as he looked after the General's retreating form. "Don't you worry," he muttered. "You just go — and be a good little boy — and leave this business to me!"
Sabin watched him warily. "I have a nasty feeling about this," he muttered to Shadow. As he looked on, the grin returned to Kefka's face. "There's more than ONE way to make a conquest," he muttered to himself. "With Leo gone, I will turn these waters of Doma's into a flowing river of poison!"
"The hell!" Sabin swore, rising to his feet. He darted from behind the wall. "Kefka!" he shouted. "That's inhuman!"
Shadow shook his head but rose and followed him. Kefka turned sharply towards them. "Ha? Who the hell do you think YOU are?"
Sabin advanced on him, his expression furious. "The question is, what the hell do YOU think you are doing!"
Kefka retreated, regarding him with narrowed eyes. Then he shouted: "Magitek! Your general is being attacked!" He turned and ran.
Sabin began to pursue him. "Wait!" he shouted. "Kefka, wait!"
Kefka passed a squad of soldiers. "You!" he ordered. "That man over there — take care of him!" Then, grinning, he turned around and continued to walk towards the river. "Wait, he says..." he muttered to himself. "Ha ha... do I look like a WAITER?"
* - * - *
"Oh, hell!" Sabin swore. "We're surrounded." He glanced at Shadow grimly. "Too bad for them, eh?"
"Until the Magitek arrives," Shadow replied calmly. Then he readied himself as the soldiers clustered around them. Sabin brought his hands together and murmured; he was reciting his blitz technique, the aurabolt. Shadow produced his ninja shurikens. With an almost imperceptible movement of his hand he threw several with deadly precision. They hacked at the soldiers, slicing through arms, legs and throats. The soldiers keeled, two of them dead. The other soldiers gaped at this, but then continued their attack.
Sabin finished the recital; he sprang towards the soldiers, and a white beam of light expanded from his hands, hitting them with such force that they were swept backwards, half-blinded. "Damn!" there was a shout. "Call the Magitek, quickly!"
"Curses!" Sabin muttered. "There are too many of them!" Shadow didn't reply. He emitted a loud whistle.
The black figure of a dog sprang from seemingly nowhere some moments later, and leapt towards the soldiers. He attacked one of the men, ripping his throat. The man screamed, trying to hack at the dog with his sword, but he was helpless against the sheer strength of the brute. The dog immediately turned and leapt at another soldier. "Come on," Shadow said calmly to the gaping Sabin. "Can't let Interceptor do all the work, can we?"
But then, the remaining soldiers scattered, and a great creaking, metallic noise sounded. "Damn it all!" Sabin cursed, perceiving the huge machine lumbering towards them. "They've brought the Magitek on us."
Shadow turned towards Sabin, grabbing his arm. "This will seem strange," he said. "Don't be startled." He produced a knife from his belt.
"Are you kidding?" Sabin said, staring. "How are you planning to defeat this machine with —"
Shadow ignored him, and threw the blade. Sabin's eyes followed it as it flew and then he gaped again. The blade, instead of hitting the Magitek, passed through it as if it wasn't there. After a moment, there was a strange noise. Shadow's fingers tightened around Sabin's arm. "Just wait," he said.
The Magitek paused. Then it stopped completely and became silent. A cursing voice was heard as the pilots attempted to understand the source of the malfunction. Sabin grinned.
"Good job," he said, glancing at Shadow; but Shadow's form looked odd — it seemed to fading and disappearing slowly —
"What the hell!" he gasped.
"The Invisible Blade," said Shadow's calm voice. "Don't worry. We'll be invisible for a while. We can make our getaway to the other side of the camp, if you're silent."
Sabin looked at himself and saw absolutely nothing. He was invisible. He groaned silently.
"This is getting weirder and weirder," he muttered.
* - * - *
Kefka knelt by the river of Doma under the burning twilight skies. The mad grin rose to his face as he watched the soldiers pouring the white liquid into the clear river waters, tainting the pure flow. His eyes glittering, he muttered:
beat the music...
of hundreds of voices...
screaming in unison!"
* - * - *
Cyan stood by the window of his room at Doma Castle, staring out into the afternoon skies. He had been standing like this for a long while now, his face grim, his eyes thoughtful. Elayne's voice interrupted his thoughts.
"My love, Please sit down," she said quietly, keeping her eyes on the dress she was sewing. "I know that you are concerned, but believe me, if there will be a necessity they will call you out to guard."
"I cannot," Cyan murmured. He remained standing by the window, the grim lines in his face deepening. "I have this feeling that something might happen, if I am not there at their side."
"I know," said Elayne gently. "You were always like that."
Cyan glanced at his wife. She sat with her head lowered over her work, and he glimpsed her pure profile in the dim light, the fair hair pulled back, sliding down the pale gown she wore. Elayne had never been beautiful, despite a slimness of figure and a grace of movement that pleased. But her wisdom and strength, beyond many Cyan had known, made her to him most cherished and most loved. No, she was not beautiful — she was special.
Elayne, feeling her eyes on her, looked up and smiled. "Just stop worrying," she said. "We'll hold out."
"I do know it, and still..." Cyan murmured, "I feel I must go. At least to aid the Watch." He shook his head, staring outside morbidly. "It is a feeling in my bones... some kind of poison in the air... which I cannot shake." He sighed. "It must be the Empire's vicinity, that makes everything seem so... wrong."
"I could come with you, father," Owain said.
Cyan smiled at his twelve-years old son who was sitting on his bed, bent over his studies. "I am afraid that it will not be possible, Owain. 'Tis war out there."
"All right," Owain replied calmly. The blond boy felt his father's eyes on him but ignored them pragmatically, and kept his head lowered. His mother's personality, Cyan thought, smiling inwardly. He knew that the boy didn't make a casual request; if Owain said he wished to come, he DID wish it. Owain was young but he had a streak of decisiveness about him that was already apparent. He will make a fine knight one day, Cyan reflected. Maybe better than I am; I never had this knack for decision that he shows.
He felt Elayne's hand on his shoulder. "If it matters so much to you," she said softly, "then go."
Cyan turned around. "Yes. I will go. Just for these few hours."
Elayne smiled up at him. "But first, make me some tea, all right?"
Cyan nodded. "At once." He heated up the water at the hearth and made a cup for Elayne.
"You drink some too," she said, offering it to him. "Before you go for the Watch."
Cyan shook his head in negation. "I am not thirsty," he said.
"Give me some, mother," said Owain. He smiled at his father over the cup. "Tell me what happened if anything will, Sir."
Cyan nodded. "I will." He embraced Elayne and walked out of the room, making his way towards the battlements where the Watch was held.
* - * - *
The Castle above was fairly quiet, and Cyan stood on the battlement, gazing into the evening; then, after some time, the young sentry's voice interrupted his vigil.
"Sir Cyan," he said, staring down with attention at the moat. "I've just noticed something." He frowned, his eyes clouding a little. "Look down there, at the water. Doesn't the color look rather odd?"
Cyan, his attention caught, came close. His eyes followed the sentry's finger. He scanned the flowing currents through the darkness of the early evening. "You are in the right!" he murmured. "It has an opaque color. It couldn't be — it's —"
"Sir," the young man exclaimed, suddenly becoming as pale as death, "this is — I know what it is! It's poison!" He turned his eyes to Cyan, and started to shake. "And everyone's had their meal just now -"
Without answering him, Cyan turned around and ran inside. The young sentry followed him. "Sir," he panted. "Sir, the king -"
His face grim, Cyan rushed down the corridor and pulled the throne room doors open. The king was sitting at a side table, a goblet in front of him, his head laid low across the table. Cyan came quickly to his side and lay his hand on the king's shoulder. "Your Highness!" he said.
The king could not raise his head, and Cyan knelt at his side. "Who's there?" the king murmured after a moment. "My sight's going fast... it was... poison..."
"Excellency," Cyan said shakily, "Hang on! We might —" he found that he couldn't talk. The king seemed to recognize him. His voice very weak, he said: "Cyan, it's you. Save - save whoever you still can. They've poisoned us... Doma is — through." He suddenly coughed, then whispered, "my chest — is — on — f-fire —"
"Your Highness!" Cyan cried. He received no answer. He swerved his head and saw the young sentry entering the room. The youth looked sick. "Sir," he muttered, then suddenly he put his face in his hands, "Everyone's — DEAD!"
Something suddenly seemed to hit Cyan with renewed force. "Elayne! Owain!" he rose and ran out of the hall, leaving the young sentry standing by the dead king.
* - * - *
Cyan burst into the room, then paused, his breath coming in short gasps. The fire in the hearth had died out, and the room was dark and silent.
Elayne was sitting by the window, her pale form outlined by the faint light of the rising moon. Her arm was lying across the window sill, her head propped against it, as if she had fallen asleep waiting for him to come back.
"Elayne!" Cyan walked quickly to her. He knelt at her side reached out with shaking fingers, turning her head towards him. Her profile was white, her eyes closed. She looked asleep. But she was cold. So cold. "Wake up, Elayne. Wake up! Don't leave me..."
He grabbed her shoulders and shook her, and had to catch her body as it slid to the floor. "No, no..." he whispered, burying his face in her hair. Suddenly, with a quick spring, he darted towards Owain's bed. The boy was curled up between the covers, the blond shock of hair falling over his eyes. Cyan swept his hair aside, touched the cold face. "Not you too, Owain... not... dead..."
Cyan raised his head. His eye alighted on something that rested on the sill of the window. The tea-cup he had made for Elayne and Owain before he left — now cold.
* - * - *
Sabin and Shadow stalked the other side of the base, when Sabin paused. "Look at this!" he whispered. He pointed at the Imperial troops surrounding the castle. "How could it be? They seemed to suddenly break through the castle's defense, when they couldn't an hour ago! Do you think it could be — that Kefka did poison —" He began to move in the direction of the castle. "I have to see!"
"I must warn you," Shadow said, "that the invisibility will wear off very soon."
"I don't care," Sabin said grimly. "I want to know what's going on. Besides, it's dark now, so that'll help." Without waiting for Shadow's reply he moved off.
As he approached the castle grounds, something caught his eyes at once — a man in blue armor who looked like a knight, surrounded by Imperial soldiers. He was fighting them with an almost mad energy, and he was deathly pale. "Who did this?" he cried, his face twisting in agony. "Who released this poison?"
"It's true, then!" Sabin muttered. "Hell! Well, this one's in trouble, looks like it." He moved towards him. The soldiers didn't see him, as he was still half-invisible, and he approached the man. "Need some help?" he asked.
The knight looked around, retreating. "What is this?" he said, staring blankly. "Voices in the air!"
He slashed with his sword towards Sabin, who had to duck. "Do you MIND?" Sabin growled. "I'm trying to help you here!"
"Ghosts!" the man cried, shuddering, his expression turning almost wild. "I must be going mad! They're all — they're all — DEAD!"
Sabin looked down at himself. He could perceive that the invisibility was wearing off quickly. He retreated discreetly away, then, when the unfading effect was completed, he approached the knight once more.
"Hi," he said, "it's me again." He paused, ducking under the sword of an Imperial soldier, and turning around to land a punch that sent him flying backwards. Then he turned towards the knight again. "Listen here," he said. "I'm here to help you."
"Who are you?" the knight asked suspiciously.
Sabin grinned a little, but his expression was grim. "Oh, someone who's here to help. But enough talk. If you want to escape I think I know the route. Follow me!"
The knight seemed bewildered by this sudden offer, but after staring at Sabin for one moment he decided to trust him. He followed him, both cutting a path through the attacking soldiers. Sabin ran up to a platform at whose side three Magitek armor units stood. "In here," he said.
The knight turned to him with ceremonious gravity. "Sir," he said, "I don't know thy name."
Sabin shrugged. "Call me Sabin. Sabin Figaro — Sabin of Figaro — but PLEASE don't call me Mr. Figaro." He gestured at Shadow, who now approached. "This man's my hired assassin," he said, grinning towards him. As usual, Shadow made no visible response.
The knight seemed perplexed again, and his brow furrowed as he glanced from Sabin to Shadow. "Sir Sabin," he said, at last, "I am Cyan of Doma. I owe you my life, and I thank thee."
"Save it," Sabin said, turning around. "Here's our key to escape." He gestured towards the Magitek armors.
Cyan looked at them, then behind him. "I see," he murmured. "But... my castle — my friends — my — my family —"
"Look," Sabin interrupted him. "If we stay here, we'll have regiments of troops down our throats in no time. Here they come!" He surveyed the approaching squad of soldiers and shook his head. "Come on." Turning around, he jumped into the Magitek. Shadow followed without comment, going into the second Magitek.
"Sir Sabin," Cyan said, his expression was slightly disgusted. "I do not know how to operate these - these THINGS."
"Just climb in!" Sabin ordered. "Do it!"
Cyan obeyed, and he sat in the Magitek, for a moment seeming rather helpless. "Sir," he said, disgruntled, "how might these — these ABOMINATIONS — be manipulated?"
Sabin growled. "Good God, I'm getting sick of this!" he swore humorously. "Thou art such a pain — confound it all! I'm starting to speak like you!"
Cyan looked at him. "Not very well, might I add," he remarked dryly.
"Thank you," Sabin said. "Now, let's get outta here, on the double!" He activated his Magitek and Shadow did likewise. Cyan followed them, his Magitek moving rather erratically. "Hoo boy," Sabin groaned. "There's no stopping us now..."
* - * - *
They crashed through the ranks of astounded soldiers, that scattered before the machines. Outside the camp, when they were far enough from the castle, Sabin stopped the Magitek and sprang out. "We made it!" he said, grinning at his companions. "Say," he asked Cyan, "I'm looking for a way to Narshe. Know how?"
Cyan shook his head. "Through the forest to the south is the correct route, I believe." But his mind was on something else. He climbed down from the Magitek, and stood looking towards the castle, that rose like a shadow in the faint light of the moon.
"I know what they did," Sabin said, his voice very quiet now. "With the poison. Damn them." Cyan turned around and looked at him.
"I will find out the one responsible for these atrocities!" he said; his teeth were clenched and his face was livid. "And I will exact the dues! Who was it? Who could have done it? WHOSE hand could it have been?"
Shadow said, his voice frozen: "The hand of the Reaper."