While this is meant as one continuous piece, it's a bit long for a oneshot, so I've broken it up into three parts for posting.


Official records state that fifty Imperial Guard soldiers fell at the battle of Tzen, burned to death by the fire witch. The number alone doesn't really tell the whole story. All were officers from the Magitek Armored Corps. Not grunts; mech pilots, all of them. An entire military organ ripped away.

The records list each of the victims by name and rank. They're missing a few.

I know this because a friend of mine died at Tzen, and he isn't in the records. Because he wasn't there to fight. He was there on furlough; his mother had died the week before. I spoke to some of the other survivors a few days later. They told me a local with the bearing of a soldier and an Imperial helmet appeared to assist when the shit started flying, and got incinerated towards the end of the battle. None of them recognized him. He was from a different division. My division. The recovery team that combed the battlefield a day later never identified him, so he never made it into the record.

I last saw him two weeks before that day. We were having a drink to celebrate my promotion to major, and with it the privilege of piloting a Guardian-class magitek suit. His name was Alexi Baker. The records list him as AWOL after furlough was up. I'd insist on having them corrected, but I'm not supposed to have access to those records in the first place. Clearance is for colonels and above. I was just darkly curious.

We weren't even there for a combat mission. It was a demonstration of force to the locals, nothing more. Magitek suits have a…pacifying effect on people. We should never have had to fire a shot.

Some demonstration.

Later, the fire witch showed up at an army briefing, wearing a Slave Crown, silent and pliable. We were given explicit orders not to take revenge. Very explicit. I guess even the top brass could see how we felt. When you're in the Imperial Forces, you grow accustomed to thinking you're invincible. After all, we conquered an entire continent, and our magitek suits are feared the world over. Even the grunts take one measure of pride and two measures of confidence, just fighting beside the mechs. An entire troop of them, vaporized in minutes, simply doesn't happen.

Tzen showed us how fragile even the best can be. It was a hard lesson, and I cried in bed at night sometimes afterward. Humiliating. Unlike most of the soldiers here, I'm married, which entitles me to go home some nights instead of having to sleep in the barracks. Her name is Laurel, and I hate for her to see me cry. But it helped to know I wasn't alone. You'd think when you're in the Forces, you'd get used to the idea that the people around you are quite likely to die. But we'd won too many battles and lost too few men, for a long time. Somewhere along the line we forgot that we were mortal.

I told myself at that briefing that if she ever broke loose of that crown, I'd be the first on the scene with my Guardian. It's one of the latest magitek models. Some of the older suits are quicker, and there are newer ones that can fly, but the Guardian was designed above all else to be impervious. It would be able to withstand her fires. And it was a suitable vehicle for revenge. I had lost a friend, and I knew at least a half-dozen others among the fallen. But more than that, I had lost that sense of imperial inevitability. I wept from broken confidence, and I never forgave her for that. Even years later, after her deeds that day had long been reduced to insignificance, I carried the wound.

Eventually the fire witch disappeared on a mission to Narshe. Six months later, after killing more of our troops during a battle in the hills just north of that town, she showed up in Vector again. This time without her crown. But also without her fire. It was in the aftermath of the Esper attack, with the outer city in ruins and morale at an all-time low. The Returners showed up a couple days later. We think they intended to attack, but there wasn't anything left worth fighting when they got here. Even my Guardian took its fair share of punishment.

It was like Tzen, but worse.

Rumor defined the next several days. The first one I heard was that Emperor Gestahl intended to surrender, but it only lasted a day. It was supplanted by rumors that Gestahl would step down and one of his generals ascend the throne. Exactly which general varied with the telling; I heard Celes, and Kefka, and Leo. More than a few looked favorably on that last. Leo was always well liked by the troops. He may have been a better rally point than Gestahl himself, though saying so was unwise.

Whether the newly ascendant general would make peace with the Returners or marshal the army to throw them out depended on who the speaker was and how many drinks he'd had. I met one man so drunk that he thought Kefka would ascend, marry Celes, and then surrender. Specifically in that order, for some reason.

Word was eventually passed down the chain of command that there would be peace talks between the Empire and the Returners, with the common goal of preventing further war with the Espers. Command never mentioned the fire witch, but the rumor mill did its thing there, too. Those rumors were more consistent, and more accurate; they told me that her name was Terra, and nowadays she was with the Returners. That was the first time I heard a name put to her. Rumor also said she wasn't killing anybody. I wasn't sure what to think of that. I was a beaten man at the time, and the passage of a year or two had dulled the memory of Tzen. Hate was low on my list of priorities.

So I thought, at least. She came to the barracks shortly before the peace talks officially began, with some of the other Returners. Seeing her face to face again, unchained, was a shock of the worst sort, and revenge welled up in me again. They talked with the soldiers in small groups, quietly. I wondered what they were up to, and my heart burned.

When they came to talk to me, I lunged for her throat.

I'm not sure what I was thinking, and it seemed like they were ready for me anyway. One of her companions, a big blond guy who looked like he could out-muscle a magitek suit, caught me by the arms and held me fast. I pulled away and grunted with the strain; it was like trying to pull down a brick wall.

"Relax," the wall said, "We're only here to talk. Emperor's request." Some of the other soldiers looked our way, eyes twitching back and forth between me and the fire witch, hearts weighing loyalty and camaraderie against fear; and I realized that no one there wanted to die that day.

I didn't either. I relaxed, and he let me go.

There were four of them: the fire witch, the wall, a Doman warrior, and a nobleman of some sort. "I have nothing to say to you," I said, stiffly. Emperor's request or not, just because they were there to talk didn't mean I had to listen.

The Doman gave me a tense look that said I-really-want-to-hurt-you, and I got a good look in his eyes. The rage I saw there gave me nightmares that night, but at the time it made me feel calmer. When they turned away and found someone else to speak to, I thought about it for a while. I'd seen eyes like that before: in the mirror, after Tzen.

I wasn't there for what happened at Doma, but of course I'd heard of it. Kefka poisoned the Doma Castle water supply. The hate in that Doman's eyes made the story more real to me, and I started to think that maybe, maybe, what we'd done at Doma was right up there with what the fire witch did to us at Tzen. Even if Kefka had acted alone, he was one of ours. It was a sour, unpleasant thought.

I stamped it out.

o o o

A few days later I found myself in the extraordinarily odd position of sharing drinks with a Returner. The Emperor, as a gesture of good faith, had allowed some few hundred of their people to stay in the capital and Imperial Citadel. As a return gesture, the Returners promised not to stage an attack or commit acts of sabotage within the city. Spying wasn't mentioned, since everyone assumed that would be going on between both sides anyway. Of course, cessation of hostilities on a global scale would be dependent on the outcome of the talks.

Put a few soldiers in a bar together, and there's two things that can happen. Either a fight breaks out, or sooner or later they'll be swapping war stories. My drinking partner said his name was Martin, but I never did find out if that was true or not. We both fought at the battle of Maranda — myself under general Celes Chere, he under this mysterious Arvis fellow that we've never been able to catch. We didn't even know they were there at the time. We'd been sent to engage Maranda's militia, not to crush a Returner division. It turned out a lot messier than that. We were repeatedly attacked from buildings supposedly owned by civilians; after the fifth incident Celes ordered part of the southern end of the city torched. It was one of the more brutal moments in what Command later referred to as the Vector Continental Campaign.

It was certainly interesting to hear what it had been like for the other side; apparently, the Returners were there on a recruitment and diplomatic mission, trying to bring Maranda over to their side. When our forces were scouted several miles out from the city, they assumed we were there for them, and responded accordingly by fighting for their lives, wherever and whenever they had the opportunity.

In short, the battle of Maranda appeared to be a series of colossal errors: ourselves not knowing the Returners were there, the Returners mistaking our intentions, and then general Chere responding to isolated resistance as if it were a general civilian insurrection.

So it goes in war.

Some of what I heard from Martin was actually amusing, now that the passage of years had taken the sting off the battle. There were more incidents of friendly fire between magitek units at the battle of Maranda than any engagement before or since. From Martin, I learned why.

"Arvis was leading a group of us through the southern quarter — this was sometime before it got burned down. We got turned around, and ran into some kind of munitions dump or supply camp…I don't know exactly, it looked like your people had it set up as a repair spot for damaged mechs."

"Ah, yeah," I murmured. "Standard practice for field ops. I don't know how you got in though, they're always guarded. And kept well back from the frontline."

Martin shrugged. "I wouldn't know about that. This one was guarded, but only by a half dozen or so soldiers. Anyway, short version is, we stole a couple of mostly working magitek suits, and two of our guys volunteered to run cover with them while we got as many people out as possible. We knew we were losing anyway. Never did see those guys again."

"I'm surprised you didn't just keep the mechs," I said.

"Arvis considered it, but they were in pretty bad condition already. He didn't think we could get them out before they broke down."

"Ah."

"I think they were old anyway. The placards read Proto-2, if that means anything to you."

I whistled. "That is old. I trained on those things back when I first joined the Forces. I didn't realize they'd ever seen combat."

"Maybe that's why they weren't heavily guarded?"

"I dunno. Maybe." I stared down into my drink. "Mind if I change the subject?"

"Shoot."

"What can you tell me about the fire witch?"

"You mean Terra?" Martin looked surprised. "I'd think you'd know more about her than I would. She was one of your people, after all."

I grunted. "Tell that to our men at Tzen."

"Point, I guess." He shrugged. "Well, yeah. We heard about Tzen but don't really know anything except the fifty-man body count."

"Fifty-one," I muttered under my breath. I was still annoyed about that.

"What?"

"Nothing. Go on."

"Well, I hear she's half Esper, and that's where her power comes from. She faced down Kefka personally when he showed up in Narshe. I saw that myself, it was pretty impressive."

"Good," I grunted.

Martin gave me a speculative look. "Um?"

"Nobody likes Kefka, even us Imperials. We could make a year's worth of spare parts from all the screws he's got loose."

Martin laughed at that. "He did seem a bit strange in the head. Maybe it's the magic. But lady Celes isn't like that, and she went through the same procedure, I think."

I gaped.

He noticed. "What did I say?"

"Celes…" I said, grasping for something familiar. "You mean general Chere?"

"Yeah. What's the problem?"

I shook my head. "I'd heard she had magic. Something about applying Magitek techniques to living people instead of machines. I didn't know about Kefka, though. Shit. Shit." I rarely lapse into expletives. "That is the most fucked up thing I've heard all year."

"Well, you better believe it. Terra would've fried him at Narshe otherwise. I hear he's the one that put that crown on her head."

"Shit," I said again, and took a long swallow. "I think I need to get drunk now."

Martin looked at me speculatively. "Yeah," he said, "Sure seems like it."

o o o

I know a guy in Records by the name of Trinn. He's a little susceptible to bribery; that's how I found out about Alexi's AWOL status, so long ago. I looked him up again that night. He's short, stocky, and he's got one of those earnest, honest faces that a cynic would distrust on sight and no one else would ever doubt.

He grinned when he saw me, anticipating the request. "Hey. Whatcha' looking for this time?"

"I need to get into Records again." I hesitated. Still time to back off.

"Sure," he said. "What section?"

"I don't know," I answered. "I don't even know what the project is named. I hear Celes and Kefka have magic. I want to look into that. And the fire witch, come to think of it."

The grin slid off Trinn's face. He was silent for a moment. Then: "You sure about that? That's real heavy. Top Secret section. Over by the magitek compound. Last time might've gotten you in trouble, but if you get caught over in Top Secret, you'll be lucky not to get hung."

"I know. I'll take my chances."

"I think you're crazy, then," Trinn said. "But it's your life. I have a copy of the keys hanging around I can sell you. I'm sure as hell not going in there with you."

"That'll do. What's the price?"

Trinn thought about it for a moment. "Say eight in silver. No, make that ten." The price was high enough that I knew he was trying to discourage me. I fished around in my coin-bag and handed over an alloy half-crown and three silver marks. I winced when he took them. It was about two months' pay.

If anything he looked more nervous. "Okay," he said. "Come on."

Imperial Records was just next door to the Magitek Facility. It was one of the older buildings in the compound, and made of brick instead of concrete and metal. The building itself was some five stories high, with a raised bridge extending to the facility from the third floor. Inside, the lobby was cold and dark at night. Electric lighting was expensive, and flame of any kind was naturally forbidden. There was an imposing ironwood desk that the receptionist would use during the day. To the sides were doors to the offices of various functionaries; in the back was another door leading to the real meat of the place. Trinn unlocked that one and led me through.

We didn't go far together. His office was near the back of the first floor, where the people who do the real work of organizing and filing make their nests, so to speak. He unlocked it with a different key and we entered.

"All right," he said in a low voice. "You know where the bridge is that goes to Magfac? Ah…the Magitek Facility, I mean. Pardon, Records slang."

"I've only seen it from the outside," I said.

"Right," he said. "That bridge goes to Top Secret. Probably because just about everything from Magfac gets filed there. That's where you're headed. There's only one door, and it's on the second floor. You go up the stairs, come out on the second floor, bear right. It's on the far side in the corner. It's supposed to look like the other office doors, but that doesn't actually fool anybody, because it's the only one with a combination lock."

"What's the code?"

"Don't interrupt." Trinn was talking rapidly, his anxiety plain as day. "The code this week is fourteen, thirty, twenty-two." He unlocked a drawer in his desk and pulled out a ring with two keys on it. "There's also a regular lock and a deadbolt. Use these. The section is cordoned off from the rest of the building, and it has its own stairwell. It goes all the way up to the fifth floor. The Esper project stuff is on three. I don't know about the fire witch. Lock up before you come out, or there could be some serious trouble."

"All right. Thanks, Trinn."

"Don't thank me. Just don't get caught. And don't mention my name if you do."

"I won't."

Trinn left with a bit more speed than necessary, and I headed up. There was one guy on second, up late poring over something or other. I sat down at a desk on the far side of the room, near the door I wanted, and watched him while trying to look like I was deeply reading myself. After watching for an hour without him so much as glancing up, I concluded it was relatively safe and stood up. He didn't twitch.

The door to Top Secret was not marked in any way, and only the extra locks set it apart from the offices on the floor. I dealt with the lock and bolt, then the combination, and tried to look like I was supposed to be there.

It opened smoothly and — thankfully — without a sound. I glanced over at the late worker when I turned to close the door. Still no twitch. I closed it as silently as I'd opened it. The only light in the room came from the window, which meant I was alone. I noticed I was holding my breath and made myself exhale.

Top Secret looked more or less identical to Records proper. That shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. There was a filing index booth near the stairs. I opened the drawer and looked through the cards. They were alphabetical by project name, and only seemed to include stuff on this floor. The last card read Project Ephemeral (counter-espionage). Trinn had told me I'd have to go up to the third floor, but it was nice to have confirmation.

Project Esper was the first card in the third floor index booth. The papers themselves took up most of two large oak bookshelves. I pulled out a few and got to work.

o o o

PROJECT ESPER MEMO #39.1 FLAG IMPORTANT - PLEASE RETAIN
12/19/17

Your Imperial Majesty:

Kefka has shown increasing hostility and instability over the course of the last several weeks and has on three occasions caused serious harm to personnel with his new magic. There does not appear to be any change in his mental faculties directly, but his emotional state has become extremely erratic, especially when impatient with our observers.

I am forced to revise my opinion expressed on 12/1/17. While the first month after infusion went smoothly and Kefka himself has displayed no physical problems in the aftermath, this delayed reaction to the operation could be extremely dangerous to those around him.

I strongly recommend delaying General Chere's infusion until we can examine this issue further. There can be no benefit to this process if the results cannot be controlled.

Cid, E.P. Supervisor

PROJECT ESPER MEMO #39.2 FLAG IMPORTANT - PLEASE RETAIN.
12/20/17

Cid:

Regarding your request to delay General Chere's Esper infusion: do so if you must, but go no further than two months. I need her to take part in the Albrook campaign, and the infusion must be complete by then. This is a military decision. If manpower is an issue, it can be supplied.

Emperor Gestahl
First Commander
Lord of Vector
Pillar of the Empire

PROJECT ESPER MEMO #42.1 FLAG IMPORTANT - PLEASE RETAIN.
1/3/18

Cid:

I see no need to inform General Chere of the mechanism of her augmentation. While I understand your concern as her caretaker, I should point out that undermining her confidence would be detrimental to her performance and might prove dangerous in the field. I'm sure you don't want her getting hurt. Moreover, secrecy is essential until the technology has been refined to the point where it can be widely deployed. I don't want rumors circulating through the Forces.

Remember that I speak for the Emperor in this matter.

Prime Minister Koreli

PROJECT ESPER INTERNAL CORRESPONDENCE #183.1
2/10/18

Cid:

We need more time to ensure that Celes's augmentation goes smoothly. I'm convinced at this point that Kefka's mind-warping (such a pleasant term for insanity, isn't it?) is a result of the injection location and the abruptness of the procedure. Making several smaller infusions over the course of several days should help, as should going through the chest instead of the rear base of the skull. Manifestation will of course be slower, but a slow reaction is better than making another Kefka. I can't be certain of the procedure without more testing, though. You've got to talk to high command about this.

On a related note, I'm becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the nature of our investigations. I had an extended conversation with the Esper Stray earlier today, and it's quite clear that these creatures are both sentient and emotional. We're effectively killing them to enhance our own soldiers with additional — and in my opinion superfluous — capabilities. There is nothing magic-augmented humans can do that our existing m-tek suits can't.

If we can't sort out some of these ethical problems, I'm going to have to request a transfer. I'm sorry, but I didn't sign up for this job to be a monster.

Cheston, E.P. Researcher

PROJECT ESPER INTERNAL CORRESPONDENCE #183.2
2/11/18

Cheston:

I understand your concerns about the nature of our work, but I have no answers for you. I'm sorry. If you truly can't continue, I'll arrange a transfer as soon as Celes's augmentation is done. The rest of us can monitor her afterwards on our own.

I cannot get us any more time to prepare. The Emperor has personally insisted that we get on with it. We are, I'm afraid, just going to have to do what we can and hope for the best, because that's all we have the opportunity for.

Regarding your comment about magic vs. magitek, you're incorrect. Magitek suits were designed on a similar theory to what we're doing here, but they're limited by their mechanical nature. Magic can adapt as the caster requires. Magitek suits are restricted by their initial design. Moreover, the Emperor would rather put power in the hands of trusted officers than machines, as the latter can be stolen and put to use against us. It's happened before, though the military tries to keep it hushed up. These Returners are causing them more trouble than they let on.

Cid, E.P. Supervisor

PROJECT ESPER INTERNAL CORRESPONDENCE #191.1
2/30/18

To all staff:

General Chere appears to be recovering fine. You have all worked hard these last few months, and I congratulate all of you on a job well done.

That said, it's not quite over yet. We'll be keeping her under close observation for the next six or seven weeks to ensure that there are no delayed effects, and in particular that she doesn't exhibit the mental instabilities seen in Kefka.

The Emperor has overruled me on her convalescence period, so for the latter part of it she'll be on active duty. Any of you that don't mind a military excursion, please volunteer to observe. Remaining required personnel will be selected by lot. You'll receive double pay for the work.

On a lighter note, you can all take the weekend off, except a skeleton crew of observers for general Chere. I think we've all earned a break.

Cid, E.P. Supervisor

o o o

I sat back a couple hours later, nervous, just a little bit awed, and trying to piece together what I was reading.

It was strangely comforting to know that Kefka's legendary screwiness was a result of his magic. I'd assumed, when Martin told me about it, that they'd augmented him knowing of his mental state. For that matter, I'd assumed he'd always been that way. Certainly he had been for the duration of his public life.

I checked the date on the earlier memos again. It was about right. He'd been used experimentally, and then promoted as a result of the successful experiment. The insanity came later. That was nice to know. I'd hate to think Command knowingly placed a psychopath in the upper ranks.

Come to think of it, I wasn't sure Kefka was technically military. I know he went to Figaro some time back on a diplomatic mission that had somehow turned into a military mission along the way. Or at least the grapevine later said that King Edgar pulled a disappearing act when Kefka tried to burn the place.

I never did find anything about the fire witch. I did find out that Kefka technically was a military general, and that he'd been a member of Emperor Gestahl's personal staff before his augmentation. Also that Cid's team of scientists expected his insanity to get progressively worse. I wondered why Gestahl kept him on staff, knowing this. I wondered if Gestahl wanted it that way.

Kefka had been jailed once the incident at Doma came to light. I wondered, for a moment, if he really had been acting on his own.

If maybe Gestahl wanted to make use of his insanity.

I crushed the thought. Imperial troops do not question the Emperor, even in the privacy of their own heads. I remember one time back when I was a private. My sergeant had been overheard cursing about Gestahl, in his sleep. He'd been hung for it.

I gave up hunting eventually. It was well past midnight. I replaced everything where I'd found it and went back down to the second floor. The other late reader was gone when I left Top Secret and locked up. I hoped it really was just someone working late, and not someone from Records security.

I couldn't remember if the entrance to the main stacks had been locked, so I locked it anyway. If I was wrong and it was supposed to be left open, well, hopefully they'd just assume someone made a mistake. It occurred to me that with Returners in the Imperial Citadel, counting on any kind of assumptions from Security was probably a bad idea. But there was nothing I could do about that.

It was too late to go home to Laurel, so I ghosted across the compound to the barracks. Captains and above get their own quarters, thankfully. I slipped in, undressed quickly, and tried to go to sleep. It took a long time. Just as I was drifting off, a thought struck me: If Kefka has magic, how are they keeping him in that jail cell?

I slipped into restless dreams.