Yes, I am still alive. Yes, I am still writing. And yes, to everyone who's waited over a year for an update… I am sorry.
I could name any number of excuses; wife, kids, new job, social life, horrible things called MMORPG's (I never imagined how much of your life they suck up until I started playing). But I guess I was just being lazy. It wasn't until I got a message from Brendan Aurabolt a few weeks ago that I realized just how bad I'd been. So Brendan… thanks. I'm going to do my best not to let the story go as long as I have been. Hopefully I haven't lost too many fans.
As to a couple of reviewers who had not liked my use of "burn" and "flame" and so forth for curses, I will admit to taking inspiration from the Wheel of Time. As adults, I figured the characters would be more willing to curse at bad situations, and I didn't want to use our curses. I think you can easily interpret their meanings based on what the character is saying, but I apologize if you think it detracts from the story.
I will try and update again this month (Sept 2012) with the first chapter of the World of Ruin. For now, thank you and enjoy.
She gently came back to consciousness to someone calling her name and shaking her shoulder. Terra tried to blink. Her eyes felt so heavy… so very heavy. It would be only too easy to slip back to sleep. But she tried to concentrate on the voice calling her name, tried to blink her eyes to focus.
She was able to focus enough to see blue and gold, and the voice became more urgent.
"Come on, Terra," said the voice. A man's voice. "Let's go sweetheart, can't have you sleeping in all day."
Slowly, the world began to sort itself out. Finally, the person before her resolved into a single, definite face.
"Edgar?" she said weakly.
The Figaran king blew out a breath, closing his eyes and nodding slightly. He reopened his eyes and looked at her.
"Thank the Ancients," he said softly, "how are you, sweetheart? You have enough strength to sit up?"
Terra nodded weakly and gently held out a hand. Edgar knelt down next to her and helped pull her upright. Terra shook her head as a wave of dizziness overwhelmed her, then a white form appeared before her. It took another minute for the form to focus into Mog.
"Kupo!" cried the Moogle, "Thought you dead, kupo! Praise Ancients!"
Terra allowed herself to look around. Cyan was patting Locke on the back, the young rogue's chest was still heaving, bent over on his hands and knees. Setzer had helped Celes into a sitting position as well, and to the other side Terra could see Gau gently shaking Strago and Relm back into consciousness.
But where was…
Sabin knelt a little distance away, closer to the wrecked remnants of Thamasa. He was kneeling over a body, but he was too far away for Terra to see his face. She turned back to Edgar, looking into his face as she tried to gather her strength.
"What happened, Edgar?" she asked, fearful of the answer, "What is going on?"
Edgar's handsome face was sad and depressed. "We've been betrayed. All of us have been tricked. Come on. Do you think you can stand?"
"How long have we been out?" she asked, pressing her hands against the ground, trying to gather the strength to lurch to her feet.
"Not sure, probably not more than two or three hours, it's almost noon," replied Edgar.
Terra pressed her feet against the ground. Her knees shook, but not as badly as she had feared. Looking over, she could see Locke and Celes getting to their feet. Strago and Relm were sitting up now, at least. Looking back at Edgar, she nodded, and pushed with her feet as he pulled Terra to her feet. She wobbled for a moment, but her legs steadied beneath her.
She looked back over to Sabin, and saw who it was he knelt beside.
"No!" she heard herself cry, then Terra wrenched herself out of Edgar's grip and raced over. She dropped back to her knees next to Leo's body, tears springing to her eyes.
He couldn't be dead, couldn't be gone. He had promised. Promised to continue their conversation from the ship. She thought about what he'd said of love, tried to bring the words to mind… but she wasn't able to. Terra could only remember that they were going to continue to talk.
"The paths of life and death are a cycle," she heard a voice say reverently, "as one path ends, so does the other begin. Make your journey with heart light and soul free. Journey to the lifestream in peace, my friend."
Terra brought her tear-filled eyes to look at Sabin. He looked up from Leo to meet her gaze steadily.
"No," said Terra firmly. "No. There has to be something we can do. We have this magic, we can heal him!"
"No, we can't Terra," replied Sabin softly, "he's dead."
"It doesn't matter!" she yelled, not noticing or caring that the others were coming up behind her. "It doesn't matter! We have magic! We can cure him! We can bring him back!"
Sabin took one of her hands in his own, gently but firmly. "Terra, do not do this to yourself. We cannot help him. Death cannot be healed."
She wrenched her hand from his grip, snarling angrily. "We can! Celes! Help me! Help me heal him!"
Without waiting for a response, Terra brought her hands against Leo's chest, channeling healing energies into his body. The ghastly wounds in his throat and chest slowly closed up, leaving his clothes to bear the only evidence of the injuries he'd taken.
"Come on, Leo!" she raged, when she saw that he still wasn't breathing. "You can breathe! You have to live! Help me, Celes!"
Celes just looked at Terra with a sad face, and shook her head slowly. Terra screamed in anger.
"Curse you all to the three hells!" she screamed. "Someone help me! Breathe, Leo! Just breathe! You can't die! You made a promise!"
Casting her magic into his body, Terra began to force the heart to beat, tried to force the blood to flow.
"Terra!" yelled Sabin, "Do not do this!"
She ignored him, and yelped in surprise when she found his massive arms around her, pulling her away from Leo's body. Terra screamed in frustration, arms and legs flailing, trying to escape Sabin's grip. She tried to rake him with her fingernails, tried to drive her boots into his knees or his groin. Sabin knelt to the ground, stymieing her attempts to kick him, then just continued to hold her.
Terra continued to try and fight, not listening to Sabin's whispered words of comfort. She could do this! She could bring Leo back! They had to let her try!
Terra hardly appreciated that despite her struggles, Sabin's arms rarely budged more than a hairsbreadth.
"You can't help him, Terra," Sabin said softly, as Terra's struggles began to weaken and she started crying. "Death can not be healed. That power has never been meant for mortal hands. Even if your magic managed to work, it would not be Leo, but merely an empty, soulless shell. He is gone, Terra. Let him go on his journey."
Terra was sobbing by now, and she buried her face into his arm as she cried. "I couldn't help him," she said through her tears.
"You gave him the strength," countered Sabin. "Strength to do what was needed in his darkest moments. You gave him the strength to do the right thing. You gave him the strength to make a choice. He fought Kefka, and perhaps with that decision, he may have saved all of your lives. It is our turn, to make sure that his choice was not one made carelessly. It is our turn to honor his life, and his death. He gave us the chance to stop Kefka."
Terra started to control her tears, and began to rein in her sobs. After a minute, the tears halted in their flow, and the only remaining evidence of her grief was her red-rimmed eyes. She nodded shakily, and allowed Sabin to help her to her feet.
Celes watched her two companions carefully. It amazed her how quickly Terra had taken Leo into her heart, treating him as closely as she did Locke or Edgar or Sabin, whom she had known for months now. Celes remained silent, but she agreed with what Sabin had said; Leo would have been proud of his final actions and would not have wanted them to mourn his death. All of his life had been in service to the same purpose that theirs was. It was only circumstance that had put him in service to Gestahl.
Terra gazed at Leo's body for several long moments. She had learned, in a roundabout way, of Locke's project to revive his old fiancé Rachel, and right now Terra understood completely why he wanted to. Why he needed to. Hoping that Leo would get up and walk again was so much easier than acknowledging his death.
"I'm so sorry," she breathed, her eyes watering again. "You didn't deserve this. I should have… I should…"
She didn't know what to say anymore. She didn't know what she even could say.
"Terra," said Sabin softly.
She looked at him, and followed his gaze to the side, where several of Thamasa's inhabitants, including the mayor were approaching them.
"Lady Terra," said the mayor, "we saw what happened between you and this… Kefka monster. We also witnessed this man trying to stop Kefka. If you would permit it, it would be our honor to bury this man among our own people. He died trying to help us, and we can think of nothing greater that we can do than to welcome his spirit among our own."
Terra nodded jerkily, but turned to look away as several people of the village lifted Leo's body and carried him back towards the remnants of Thamasa.
"Be at peace, noble warrior," muttered Sabin.
"Go to Ancients, kupo," agreed Mog.
Terra took a deep breath and turned to face the downcast faces of the others.
"We can't stay here," she said firmly. When the others turned to regard her, she continued. "We have to hurry, before Kefka and Gestahl can do any more harm. They're probably going to try and find a way to access the Sanctuary World. If they can do that, and Kefka can continue to kill Espers with the ease he's shown, then it will be a slaughter of the Espers."
"Sabin spotted the Imperial Air Force heading back towards the main continent," commented Edgar, "though whether back to Vector or to the Sealed Gate we're not sure. Setzer has the Blackjack fully repaired and ready to fly."
"Then we have no time to waste," she replied, "let's get moving."
Strago stepped forward, his white brows drawn close together. "I would like to accompany you. I wish to help bring justice to those who did this to my home."
"Wait a minute, what's going on here?" asked Edgar, "Who's this?"
"My name is Strago Magus," said the older man.
"He's one of the town council for Thamasa, a descendant of the Knights Arcane of the Magi," explained Terra. "He helped us find the Espers, and he's well-versed in ancient lore. I think his help will be invaluable to us."
"You will need all the help you can get, young man," commented Strago. "We must expect the Empire to flex its new-found arcane muscle soon. From what I understand, Gestahl has never been one to shy away from displaying his power."
Edgar nodded as Relm hopped forward.
"I'm going too!" she declared.
Strago whirled on her. "Not in my lifetime, young lady!" he growled, "You will head straight to the mayor's home and stay with him until this has been taken care of."
"Like hell I will!" she yelled.
Sabin chuckled quietly, and Edgar turned to look at him.
"Kid's got quite a lip on her," murmured Sabin with a wry grin.
Edgar well remembered Matron's punishments whenever she learned one of them had used, in her words, "improper terminology." He wasn't sure how their father tolerated what she did to them; somewhere it had to be considered child abuse.
Edgar turned his eye to the young girl, his grin matching that of his younger brother.
"Yes she does, shrimp," he agreed.
Relm split her glare between Strago and the Figaro brothers. Slowly, she reached into her backpack and pulled out a brush, her face twisting into an evil grin.
"Would you like me to paint your portrait?" she asked in a wickedly sweet tone.
"NO!" croaked Locke.
Terra stepped forward and took Relm's smaller hand in her own. They looked at each other and Terra very slowly shook her head. Relm pouted for a moment, but relaxed her hold on the brush and put it away.
Strago sighed. "I can't be there to protect you, Relm."
"I know, Grandpa," she replied, "I'll have to protect myself."
He nodded, his mouth firming into a thin line. "Then if it is all right with the rest of them, then I will not object to your joining along."
Relm's face broke into a huge smile and she lunged forward, wrapping Strago in a hug. Then she pulled back.
"Much better," she said, "and now we're off!"
She started strutting away.
Sabin laughed. "Onward! Follow the brat!"
They hustled north out of the town limits, to a grove where Setzer had hidden the Blackjack.
"Good to see you again, Miss Terra," Janson greeted upon their arrival. "Miss Celes, glad to see that you're alive and well. The cap'n was very much concerned about you."
"Thank you," replied Celes quietly. Janson gave her a quick salute, then turned to the crew and began bellowing orders to take off for the Southern Continent. The crew leapt to their duties as Setzer led the others down to the dining chamber.
"We'll be hot on the Empire's heels soon," Setzer reported, "so now is probably a good time to catch each other up on what's been happening."
Locke launched into the events that had occurred since the Returners had separated in Vector. Their arrival in Albrook and meeting with Leo, Celes and Shadow. Their arrival in Thamasa and how the fire at the manor had led them to go with Strago into the mountains, and how Shadow had gone off on his own. Sabin chuckled at that.
Then he got into the part about fighting off Ultros at the statues, representations of the final three Magi who had sacrificed themselves to contain all the magic of the world. Locke continued to speak about encountering the Espers, and their agreement to come and negotiate, how Leo and Celes had met them in Thamasa, and how Kefka and Gestahl had betrayed them all.
"It is shameful what befell Sir Leo," commented Cyan, "He doth be their finest and most noble of warriors."
"How did the rest of you learn about the Empire's betrayal?" asked Terra.
"After the Blackjack's repairs were almost finished, I went back to Vector," explained Edgar. "There was a feeling in the air, and so I worked my charms on a young, attractive Imperial officer. After a while, she told me the whole crooked plan. Maybe she thought I'd stick around and support Gestahl."
"Sir Sabin and I were visiting the memorial for King Randal," continued Cyan, "and we both doth heard something and went to investigate."
"The Empire was using the tunnels beneath the region to move men and equipment," explained Sabin, "and we saw vehicles of some type. It turned out the Empire had been taking its stored Magitek power and creating flying machines. Large troop transports and smaller fighting vehicles. Several thousand troops were boarding when Cyan and I spotted them; it must have been almost all of the forces that had survived the Espers' attack on Vector."
Edgar continued with his thread of the tale. "Apparently, Gestahl was indeed amazed and shocked by the sheer power of the Espers. But instead of humbling him, he became even more obsessed with gaining their power. The whole peace treaty was a trick to lure us into aiding him. He knew that only Terra could pull the Espers out of hiding and seclusion. He used us to track down the Espers, and from what I heard, Kefka was going to be his secret weapon against them."
"That painted madman was able to kill Espers with a single spell," put in Strago, "some sort of black magic the likes of which I have never heard of. Stars of black light, some sort of foul spell that must have been suppressed by the Magi. It is likely that magic of that sort has never been seen since the time of the Ancients."
"The question is, what exactly is Gestahl after?" wondered Locke, "Is it more Espers? With Kefka able to kill Espers, he would be able to get a treasure trove of magicite."
"No, it would be bigger than that," commented Sabin. The others looked at him. "Gestahl is always after whatever is bigger, whatever is more powerful. The Espers were powerful yesterday, the magicite was powerful yesterday. Today he's after something more. I know him."
"The girl I wrangled the plot out of mentioned something about some statues…" began Edgar.
"Statues?!" gasped Strago, "Did she say where?"
Edgar shrugged and shook his head.
Strago grimaced. "When the War of the Magi had ended, the Espers had already retreated to the Sanctuary World, the Knights Arcane had been devastated, and the world was in ruins. There were three Magi that were left, the last survivors. These three women realized the danger of their power, the danger of their magic. They performed a ritual unlike any that had been performed before; they drew the magic of the world into themselves, making themselves almost as powerful as gods. Then they turned themselves into stone. Petrified forever, they would never be able to unleash their magic upon the world."
"Those gold statues you showed us, right?" asked Locke, "Right before we were attacked by Ultros?"
"No, boy," replied Strago with a shake of his head, "those golden statues were merely representations. They'd been forged with magic, but they had no magic of their own."
"Then what you're saying is that Gestahl is searching for the source of magic in the world?" clarified Celes.
"That's exactly right," agreed Strago.
Everyone was silent for several moments, absorbed in their own thoughts and contemplating the havoc that Gestahl and Kefka could wreak with all the power of the world's magic at their disposal.
Their musings were interrupted by one of the crew coming into the room.
"Cap'n?" said the man, "Janson says you better get topside. There's something all of you need to see."
They were rather ordinary, to all appearances. Marble, granite and obsidian, half again as tall as a man. The features were crisp and clear and smooth, more realistic than any sculptor could achieve. Three women; one elderly, one in the prime of her life, and the third barely more than a girl. The faces of all three conveyed a sense of sadness and regret. None of the three statues bore a single scratch; none were marred by the passage of a thousand years or more.
Kefka was giggling madly.
Gestahl put the madman out of his mind. He would deal with Kefka when the time came. For now, the attack dog still had his uses. Gestahl gazed upon the statues with awe… and greed. Finally, the power was his. The power to fulfill his dream of a world entirely under his rule.
"This is the power," he murmured, "the power to rule all. Now, nothing can stop me."
Gestahl stepped forward, centering himself between the three statues. The aura of pure magical energy washed over him and through him like a great wave. Gestahl took the magic… and pulled.
The world trembled. It groaned and creaked with strain. The island that had held the Sealed Gate shuddered and heaved. The tremors grew until the island was ripped from its foundations beneath the waves, and began to rise into the air. The ground's weight, once supported by the water and the stone foundations beneath it, couldn't hold together entirely, and chunks of rock began to fall from outer edges, crashing into the water.
The power of the magic drew the life from everything on the island. The part of the forests that had survived the cataclysmic battle between the Espers and the Imperial soldiers withered and died within moments, the leaves turning black and the trunks of the trees crumbling into dust.
The craggy peak that had lain above the Sealed Gate shattered, hurling stone in every direction. It revealed a platform, in the center of the remnants of the island. Standing on that platform were two men, and three glowing statues.
The Returners and the crew of the Blackjack stared, speechless, at the sight of the island now hovering hundreds of feet above the waves. In the heart of the island, there was a glimmer of power, almost as bright as a second sun.
Locke tried to speak, tried to say…something. But no words came out.
"Is that…" began Terra, trailing off, unable to find the words.
"The statues," agreed Strago sadly, "the remainder of all of the power of the Magi. It is said they balance each other's power, but should that balance ever be disturbed, it could unleash a cataclysm that could rearrange the face of our world forever."
"Then we don't have any time to waste," said Sabin, "we have get there and stop Gestahl and Kefka before they can do any more harm to this world."
"Waroo! Waroo! Bug ships flying!" cried Gau.
The others turned to look, and saw light glinting off several small vehicles heading towards the Blackjack.
"That must be the remainder of the Imperial Air Force," commented Edgar, hefting his autocrossbow. "Setzer! Make for the island, full speed! We'll hold off these flying trash cans!"
"Sir Gau! Sir Mog!" cried Cyan, "We three shalt guard against any boarders. Lady Terra, Sir Sabin and Sir Strago take the left, Lady Celes, Miss Relm, King Edgar and Sir Locke, take the right! Keep those monstrosities at bay!"
"Janson, full speed!" ordered Sezter, taking over at the wheel.
"Aye, skipper!" replied the first mate.
Everyone lurched and was forced to brace themselves as the Blackjack suddenly accelerated and hurtled forward. After less than a minute, however, it was clear that despite the technological advancement of the Blackjack, that the Imperial fighters, powered with the remnants of the Espers' strength, were too fast, and would catch up quickly.
"Get ready! Here they come!" yelled Sabin.
The Imperial fighters came in, their Magitek engines emitting a whine, almost a scream, as though the power of the Espers that had infused them had left a portion of their pain. Their weapons spat gouts of fire at the Blackjack, but with Setzer at its helm, the airship danced like an expert ballerina, evading much of the attack fire.
The Returners struck back; blasts of fire and ice from Terra and Celes, flashes that blinded the pilots and spikes of metal from Edgar's tools, wires and hoses cut with Locke's bladed crescent, blasts of lightning and other energy from Strago, duplicate images of the fighters came to life from Relm's brush and fired energy at their originals, and beams of white spiritual energy from Sabin.
From the center of the Blackjack, Cyan and Mog and Gau summoned the power of the Espers; ancient Ramuh who hurled blasts of lightning at all the fighters around the airship, and Maduin who fired at them with blasts of violet energy. Mog summoned Stray, who appeared to be a gigantic white cat. The spirit of the Esper flashed with energy, and suddenly three of the fighters went haywire, flying in all sorts of directions, their pilots confused and unable to think coherently. Two of them rammed into other fighters, eliminating both in giant fireballs.
Though dangerous, the fighters of the Imperial Air Force could not match the technological, magical and spiritual power of the Returners, and before long the fighters had been destroyed, and the two or three survivors flew off towards Vector.
"Cap'n!" cried Janson, "The Blackjack took some heavy hits from those fighters! We're still in the air, but I don't know how long she'll be able to keep the altitude!"
"She'll hold long enough!" replied Setzer, "Take over, we're heading onto that floating rock!"
"Aye, skipper. Mate's ship!"
"Mate's ship!" acknowledged Setzer, who immediately moved to the main deck to join the other Returners.
Janson maneuvered the Blackjack as delicately as he could, hovering over the ruined isle's western edge. It had the largest open space that he could see, but it was still too small for the Blackjack to land. The rest of the island was filled with craters and hills far too dense for the airship to rest.
Ropes were dropped, and Terra and Celes were the first two over the side of the airship, sliding down the ropes to the ground. Edgar and Cyan and Setzer came right after, followed by the rest. Sabin and Gau leapt from the Blackjack, ignoring the ropes entirely, landing crouched and ready for combat.
As soon as they were all down, Setzer waved a hand to Janson, who nodded and pulled the Blackjack away from the floating island. Everyone drew their weapons and gathered closer together, keeping an eye in all directions.
The landscape was barren and alien; bare rock jutted up at unnatural angles, and dropped away without warning. Areas almost big enough to hold the Blackjack narrowed to the point that the party could pass through only single file lay right next to each other, with no gradual change. All plant life had withered and died already, as well as any animals that had lived here that had not escaped when the island took to the sky. There was no sound except for the howling of wind.
"This place hath been stained by evil," commented Cyan in a low voice.
Sabin nodded in agreement. "The lifestream has been twisted here. There is pain here… so much pain."
"Well," said Locke, "we're not going to accomplish anything waiting around here, so let's get mov…"
He stopped abruptly as a black shadow of death materialized in front of him, the figure putting a blade to Locke's throat in the blink of an eye. Locke gulped instinctively as he looked into a pair of cold, steel gray eyes.
Several others lurched forward reflexively.
"Kojiro," greeted Sabin.
"Ironhand," was Shadow's reply with a nod.
Celes turned her head at the sound of a low growl, to see Intercepter standing behind the party, stance wide and solid, teeth bared. She swallowed hard.
"You mind removing your blade from Locke's throat?" said Sabin.
Shadow's eyes narrowed at Locke, and he gently slid his blade back and forth across the rogue's throat, though not enough to draw blood.
"You have all involved me in something world-shattering, and I do not like being swept up in events beyond my control," said the ninja in a low voice. "It makes me very unhappy. Killing someone sounds like a good idea right now."
"Then turn that anger on the ones who deserve it," replied Sabin, "Gestahl and Kefka have manipulated all of us, including you, to serve their own ends. Don't do their work for them by killing us. You're a better man than that."
Shadow's gaze snapped to Sabin and his cold glare intensified. "You have no idea what kind of man I am."
"Yes, he does," said Terra, "because he's right. You showed that to me on the Forerunner. You try to hide it, but I think beneath that mask is a good man."
Shadow split his glare between the two of them, still absently sliding his blade along Locke's throat. After several moments, Shadow lowered his weapon.
"Interceptor, peace," he ordered. The massive animal instantly relaxed his aggressive pose, but remained wary.
"Hi, Inty!" said Relm, going up to wrap her small arms around the dog's neck. Interceptor didn't nudge her away, but neither did he relax his vigilance of their surroundings.
"You should have stayed home in safety, little girl," said Shadow, "this is no place for you."
Relm shot to her feet and fearlessly glared at the deadly ninja. "I was a big help against Ultros and I helped find the Espers! I'm good enough to help save the world, too!"
Shadow nodded once.
Sabin came up to him and spoke quietly. "How did you manage to get here?"
"Killed a crewmember of Gestahl's aircraft," came the casual answer, "then I took his place and flew here with the rest of the forces. They battled the Espers, and it was horrific on both sides. There wasn't much left on this island before Gestahl ripped it into the air. Those three statues that he's standing with are odd, and he's acting like they're more precious than gold."
"They're the source of the Magi's magic in this world," said Strago, "and what's giving him the power to do this."
"And if Gestahl ever moves them out of their appropriate position…" began Locke.
Shadow waved a hand. "You act as though I am concerned about this. This is none of my business. I have no right to fight at your side."
"You have every right," commented Sabin quietly, "all you have to do is choose."
"Please, Shadow!" pleaded Terra, "We need your help. We need every advantage we can get against Gestahl and Kefka. You told me not to become like you. You seem to have given up on yourself. Well I won't give up on you!"
Shadow was silent for a moment.
"I won't give on you, my friend," agreed Sabin.
Celes and Cyan stepped forward, and the former Imperial general spoke. "We won't give up on you either."
The rest of the Returners nodded in support. Shadow looked around, seeing the confident gazes, seeing, for the first time, a measure of trust from more than just Sabin. He took a deep breath and nodded sharply.
"Gestahl and Kefka are clustered around the statues at the heart of the island," he explained, "the way is difficult and treacherous, especially for those of you ill-suited for scrambling over the rocks. However, I will do my best to guide you there. Follow me."
The ninja took off at once, followed by Terra and Sabin. The others followed, while Cyan and Edgar took the rear, keeping an eye out for anything behind them. The going was difficult, the paths leading to dead ends, with sharp rises in the rock too high or too dangerous for most of the Returners to climb. In some parts, the rocks seemed to have been ground to razor-sharp edges, forcing the party to move slowly and carefully, lest they deal serious damage to their feet.
Twice they had to stop to rest tired feet and aching muscles. Shadow, Sabin and Gau would take the opportunity to scout ahead, trying to find the quickest paths to the statues. The afternoon had passed, and evening was beginning to settle in. The sun began its slow fall towards the horizon, casting a red glow on the world, and shadows started to lengthen.
As they continued towards the statues, the shadows grew longer and they came upon another dead end.
"Bloody Ancients!" cursed Edgar, "How are we going to stop Gestahl and Kefka if we can't even reach them?!"
"We'll get there," insisted Celes. "We have to."
"Heads up! We've got company!" called Sabin, dropping into a predatory crouch.
Weapons were brought up and around, but mouths dropped open at the sight of the creature before them. A creature unlike the world had seen in a thousand years, and something no book of the War of the Magi had ever described.
The beast was easily fifteen feet high at its shoulder, four thick limbs bulged with densely-packed muscle beneath its armored hide. Its head was a mass of growths and horns, glowing blue eyes were narrowed into slits as it stared at the Returners. Its massive spiked tail, easily another twenty feet long, twitched in anticipation, the spike leaving deep gouges in the stone behind it.
Here me, mortals, came a voice inside their heads, I am Atma, forged of the energy of magic, my energy as ancient as the cosmos. Brought together by the power of the last of the Magi to guard them. You are feeble. Choose to live and turn back. Here you will find only death!
The force inside their minds grew dark and angry, filled with hate and evil. The unaligned energy that had created Atma had clearly been twisted by Gestahl and Kefka.
Your death shall be beyond the three hells, beyond the heavens. It shall only remain in the chaos that I am! Your pain shall be terrible, and death will not end it! Your weak spirits will never escape the pain! I shall hold your souls until the end of time itself, and torment your souls for eternity!
The creature's blue eyes flashed, and the area around the Returners was suddenly cloaked in shadow.
Celes glanced up, and her eyes widened in shock.
"SCATTER!" she screamed.
The warning came too late, as a massive meteor crashed into the ground between them, blasting all of them away with the force and fire. More meteors, smaller and faster hurtled through the air, turning into streaks of fiery destruction.
Gau pulled Relm and Mog under the cover of some rocks, while Cyan tried to cover himself with his shield. Celes, Terra and Strago raised their hands, trying to form shields of magic against the barrage, protecting themselves, Locke and Edgar from the fiery rain. Sabin and Shadow dodged around, keeping in constant motion.
Finally, the rain of fire from the sky ended, leaving small craters of burning rock scattered about. The Returners groaned in pain, gasping for breath.
They gathered around together, holding weapons and eying the creature Atma. The creature stamped its feet into the ground, crushing rock beneath its claws.
"So… uh," breathed Locke, "I guess running away isn't an option, is it?"
"Nay," growled Cyan, whose eyes suddenly gleamed. "Charge!"
Sabin and Cyan leapt forward, charging Atma, Gau loping forward on all fours just behind them. Celes stretched out a hand with a scream, and frost coated Atma's face. Terra let out a cry of her own, and her form shifted, clothes and features melting away into a glowing pink hue, hair waving against the wind as she flew forward.
A barrage of lightning erupted from Strago's hands and Locke hurled his crescent blade through the air.
Atma's tail hurtled through the air, careening into Cyan's shield, knocking the Doman knight into Sabin and sending both men to the ground. Gau breathed a roar of flames as he leapt into the air, landing on Atma's back. The boy screamed as razor-sharp spines shot up through the creature's armored hide, spearing his body in several locations.
Atma's eyes glowed, and bolts of lightning shot through the air towards Terra, who flew forward in her Esper form. The lightning twisted in the air and burned themselves into Celes blade, violet runes glowing along the sword's length.
Two shuriken flew through the air, embedding themselves in Atma's left eye. The creature roared in pain.
"Take this, ugly!" yelled Relm, her brush just finishing its last stroke on a piece of parchment.
An ethereal copy of Atma appeared in front of the original and slammed its own tail into Atma's face before fading away. Strago yelled out a word in an indecipherable tongue, and Atma was surrounded by a white glow. The glow condensed into three balls of glowing white and silver light, then all three shot into Atma.
The creature howled in pain.
At that moment, Cyan rolled to his feet almost underneath the creature's throat, slicing a deep gash into Atma's neck. A heartbeat later and Edgar was next to him, driving his chainsaw deep into the creature's chest.
Terra cast a spell, and a black cloud flew from Atma into her hands as she drained the creature of its own magical power.
Sabin drove his fists in a rapid barrage into Atma's side as Gau snapped off one of the spines and shoved it deep into the creature's back.
Mortals! Fools! screamed Atma in their minds, You shall find your own destruction here!
Atma drew in on itself for a moment, then a massive pulse of energy erupted from the creature. Gau was flung from its back, landing hard in a patch of rock. Sabin, Cyan and Edgar were driven hard into the ground, their bodies leaving slight cracks and indentations in the hard stone. Terra was knocked backwards through the air and crashed into the ground, rolling backwards until she was stopped by a large rock. She screamed in pain as her ribs were driven into the stone.
The others were knocked backwards, flung to the ground by the creature's power.
I am eternal! The end of your forever is now!
Terra weakly grasped the shard of magicite hanging from her neck.
"Father," she whispered, "please help us."
The shard glowed with energy, and the figure of Maduin suddenly stood before Atma. The Esper's brown skin was like dark oak and he stood unflinching before the guardian creature.
The Esper's hands came together, then separated slightly, revealing a glowing orb of violet light. Beams of light flashed from the orb, then the energy seemed to swell and a ray of energy blasted towards Atma. The creature screamed as a hole was burned through its armored hide.
Locke grabbed a hold of his magicite as well, and a creature like a horse, but with a single horn in its head and covered in silver scales appeared. Kirin looked at the mortals with sad, pitying eyes, then soft blue light flew from the tip of its horn, gently touching each of them, slowly closing their wounds and washing away their pain.
Shadow forced himself to one knee, drawing a dagger with a pitch-black blade. The weapon flew through the air, burying itself into Atma's remaining eye.
Fool mortal! You think I need my eyes to destroy you?!
"One could hope," muttered the ninja.
A shower of icicles flew through the air, tearing into Shadow's arms as he leapt to the side.
A beam of healthy white light lanced through the air, Sabin's aurabolt striking the side of Atma's face. Edgar and Cyan both drove their swords into the base of Atma's throat, and then Strago conjured a spike of flame that erupted from the ground, driving into the creature's chest.
Atma gave a strange howl.
My bonds! Mortal fools! I am forever! You cannot hope…
Atma's threats faded away as the creature began to dissipate, unable to continue holding its energy together as it faded into the energy of magic.
"All right," said Edgar, "who's not dead?"
"Is it all right to wish that we were?" asked Locke, resting on both knees.
"Are you breathing?" retorted the Figaran king.
"Then you go into the 'not dead' category," finished Edgar. "Little brother?"
He glanced over at Sabin, kneeling meditatively, eyes closed, murmuring under his breath. Suddenly, Edgar felt as though a cool, refreshing breeze swept through him. He felt better… not great, but better. And revitalized, ready to take on anything.
The others felt it too; Shadow sprang to his feet and Locke straightened his back. Terra stood quickly.
They all looked to Sabin. He smiled.
"A mantra of healing," Sabin told them in answer to their unspoken question. He moved gingerly. "A pity that it doesn't work on me."
Celes stepped up to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. She murmured something quietly, and a soft green light glowed from beneath her hand. A large bruise on Sabin's arm began to fade.
"Save your energy," said Shadow. He tossed a vial to Sabin. "Your mantra did well for us. Did it cost you energy?"
Sabin shook his head. "I draw on the power of life itself, not my own energy. I could do it all day if needed."
"Take the healing potion," said the ninja after a thoughtful moment, "Terra, Celes and Strago will need all the energy they can muster to face Kefka and Gestahl."
They all nodded at Shadow's reasoning, and they took a few moments to gather their strength.
"How much further?" asked Terra.
Shadow nodded his head past where Atma had stood. A narrow crevasse led deeper into the floating island.
"Just through there, perhaps another five minutes beyond. I wish you the best of luck."
He turned and leapt onto a boulder.
"What are you doing?!" demanded Celes.
Shadow hunched his shoulders for a moment. "Of everyone here, I am the only one who gave their skill to the Empire of their own free will. You have the strength of your convictions, and I do not have that advantage."
"Shadow…" began Sabin.
"No, Ironhand," interrupted Shadow, "I am not like the rest of you. You all fight for life. I am already dead."
He leapt away before anyone could say anything else, vanishing into the rocks in moments.
They all stared after him.
"Go in peace, my friend," muttered Sabin, "I hope you find whatever you're looking for."
"Well, sirs and ladies," said Cyan, "we doth be no worse off than whence we started. Gestahl and Kefka lay just beyond, and we shalt face them bravely and cast them down to the three hells, and they shalt feel the punishment for their wickedness for all eternity."
"Sounds like a plan to me," said Locke.
They hurried forward, forced into a single file through the crevasse, then had to scramble up the rocks when it ended abruptly, but it led to a wider area of ground, mostly level, though it began to rise in an incline towards the center of the floating island. After another minute, the party of Returners caught a glimpse of the glowing aura of the statues.
The ten of then raced forward, intent on stopping Gestahl and Kefka before they could do any more harm. The two Imperial leaders quickly came into view. Kefka was dancing around the statues, cavorting and laughing without reason. Gestahl stood in between the trio of statues. The look on his face was one of pure ecstasy; mouth slightly open as he smiled, eyes half closed, breathing heavier than normal.
Gestahl's eyes opened as the Returners approached, and Kefka stood nearby, giggling and yet glaring at the party at the same time.
"Goodness, goodness. Look who's come," said Kefka in an almost sing-song voice. "Come to fight, come to die."
"By the Ancients you are all tenacious," announced Gestahl. He stood tall and proud surrounded by the ancient statues. "I must give you all that much. If you could all only see that I want the best for the world… then you would know that fighting alongside me is best. Then I'd never have any worry about the future. If you served me, I'd have complete confidence that the whole world would be united in no time. General Celes…"
"Don't even start, Gestahl!" spat Celes, stepping forward, "This is wrong! All of it! Every life lost resisting you was life stolen! You had no right! No right to use Terra like you did! No right to use me!"
She paused for a moment, trembling with rage.
"We are here to stop you once and for all," she continued in a growl.
"Stop me?" echoed Gestahl. He laughed heartily.
Sabin and Cyan shared a look, nodding, then began to circle around in opposite directions. Edgar and Gau followed a few steps behind them. Gestahl followed them with his eyes for a moment, and Kefka split his glare among them all. But Gestahl turned his attention back to Celes and Terra.
"Stop me?" he repeated. "You are far too late to stop me. You have only arrived in time for you to perish! Behold the statues of legend!"
He raised his arms, and the air around him warped and twisted with the magical energy surrounding Gestahl and flowing through him. Bolts of energy flew between the three statues, back and forth at each other. Fire and lightning, wind and water and deathly black clouds. The energy would wind its way around Gestahl, as though caressing him with power.
Streaks of orange lightning blasted down from the cloud-laden sky, striking each of the Returners, surrounding each of them in a web of glowing energy.
"What fell magic is this?!" roared Strago, struggling against the web of energy. The web quickly covered his mouth, gagging him and the other Returners.
Setzer tried to reach for one of his razor-edged cards, thinking that he might be able to throw it and distract Gestahl enough to lose his concentration, thus freeing them. But he couldn't flex his arm enough to let one of them slide down his sleeve. He tried to reposition himself, but to no avail.
Bloody Ancients! he cursed, I really don't like these odds.
"Ah, Celes," said Gestahl, in a fond voice. "You are the closest thing I have ever had to a daughter. You should be at my side. Let's get rid of those bonds so you may join me at my side."
He waved a hand, and the imprisoning web of energy dissipated around her, unwrapping her mouth, arms, legs and hands.
"Please, Emperor!" pleaded Celes the instant she could speak, "Please stop this madness! You were a good man once, one respected as a hero! Do not let yourself fall to this disgrace!"
Geshahl laughed. "You don't understand, Celes! None of you do! The power of the statues, the power that is mine now to command… it is limitless! With the power that I wield, there will be no resistance to my rule! Come with me, my beautiful Celes! You and Kefka were destined to stand at my side. You were both given life and power to serve me in my grand pursuit! Accept your birthright and take your rightful place at my side!"
Celes swallowed hard, she knew that in some respects, Gestahl was right. She had been given her life and power to help Gestahl pursue his goal of world conquest. But that was not the life that she wanted for herself. Sabin was right. Every person had the right to make choices in their life. Right or wrong, it was her choice to make.
"Pretty Celes, sister Celes," sing-songed Kefka. He just about danced over her, giggling uncontrollably, but he smoothly drew his sword from its sheath. "Kill the fools, the brave fools, the dead fools! We will forget treachery, forget betrayal, forget you fought for them. They'll be dead, and you alive. We'll fight and kill and make the world scream!"
Celes looked back and forth between the sword held before her and the madman who offered it to her. Deep in her heart, Celes wondered what made her different from Kefka. Neither one of them knew where they came from, who their family had been. All the two of them had ever known was Gestahl. Both of them had been infused with Magitek power and trained from childhood to become Gestahl's generals. Neither had been born to have friends, to find someone to love and grow old with. They were the same, she and Kefka. They had been created to destroy all opposition to Gestahl's will. It would be only so easy to give in, to give up, to choose the easy way.
You have to make a decision between what is easy… and what is right.
"Take it!" roared Kefka, thrusting the sword towards her. "Take it and end their miserable existence! Let them cry and moan and beg and plead if you want, but end them!"
Gestahl watched with a smirk on his face. This was going even better than he'd planned. Celes had no hope with the failed Returners. She could now see his inevitable triumph. She would break, and kill them, and then she would know that she certainly had nothing left in the world except for her loyalty to him. She would be useful, especially when it would become time to remove the unstable Kefka from the scene.
Celes took the sword from Kefka, tears streaming down her face. Kefka laughed and began dancing about again as Celes turned towards the others.
She looked over at Terra. "Absolute power breeds only corruption."
Celes turned to look at Sabin. "Peace without justice is only tyranny."
Celes stared down at the sword in her hand, her thumb absently rubbing circles against the guard. The blade she held could be used to destroy… but it could also be used to defend the innocent against another person who wanted to use their own sword.
"I've made my choice," she said firmly, "and I wish that I had never been born!"
Celes spun and slashed blindly with the sword at Kefka, knowing only that he was somewhere behind her. She felt the blade bite into flesh and heard the madman's yelp of pain. As she spun around she could see that the blade had only opened a large cut against Kefka's shoulder, but even that little bit was worth it.
"Blood?" said Kefka wonderingly, his eyes widening as he looked at his hand. It was covered in blood, having instinctively risen to cover the bleeding gash.
Blood. My blood. Human blood. False blood. Gods don't bleed. Trick! It is all a trick! Fake blood… they seek to trick me! I will show them! Power of gods! No blood stops a god! A god I am! They will whimper and fear me! No blood, not now, not ever!
"You… BITCH!" roared Kefka. "You will suffer! Torture! Agony the likes of which are known only the three hells! You will beg to suffer only what the damned suffer by the time I finish with you. Your friends will suffer! Anyone you care for will suffer a lifetime! It shall start now!"
Kefka raced over to where Gestahl stood, throwing the older man from where he stood in between the statues. Surprised by the suddenness of the madman's actions, Gestahl could do nothing to resist and landed in a heap more than ten feet away. Kefka stood amidst the statues, arms raised to the heavens.
"Goddesses of magic!" screamed Kefka, "You were born for war! Born to fight! Born to kill! Show me your power! Give me your power! The power should be mine! The power must be mine! The power deserves to be mine!"
The energy swirling from the statues grew, and intensified. Bolts of energy blasted around, larger and more frequent than before. Small cracks of lightning and power separated from the larger bolts and caressed Kefka's arms, gently snaking down to his chest and vanishing, as though the energy was nurturing him.
"I command you! Give me your power!" Kefka roared at the top of his lungs.
"No!" screamed Celes. She hurled the sword at the madman, but a blast of energy incinerated the blade before it could reach him. Celes stepped back, closer to the rest of the Returners.
"Kefka!" yelled Gestahl, "Stop this! You are drawing too much energy from the statues. If you draw any more, you'll flood the world with more magic than it can handle at once! You will destroy the very world we have tried so hard to conquer! You would be mad to ruin everything we've worked for!"
"Mad? Mad?!" echoed Kefka, his violet eyes wild and flashing with hate. "Is it mad to have power? Mad to want power? I have power! Power is mine! I will show them power!"
Gestahl shook his head, his face set in an angry scowl. "I don't think so. You've been more of a problem than a solution, and it is finally time that you've outlived your usefulness to me. Goodbye Kefka, perhaps my next project will show more sense and loyalty than you!"
Kefka squealed in delight and laughed hysterically.
Run, Gestahl, thought Celes, you don't realize how dangerous he is. Stop and get away while you have a chance!
Gestahl channeled the power of magic through himself, calling upon the power the statues had granted him. Kefka's mind was his weakness, a simple spell to put him to sleep should be enough to let Gestahl kill him quickly and then get back on task. Gestahl thrust the magic towards Kefka…
Gestahl hesitated for a moment, the shock showing clearly on his face. He licked his lips nervously and tried again, casting a spell to blind Kefka with a flash of light.
Again, nothing happened.
"No, impossible," muttered Gestahl. He looked down at his hands, as though they had been what had failed him. He looked at them as though he'd failed to craft something with those hands, when the project should have been simple. "What is happening? Why isn't the magic working? Kefka… how…?"
Kefka cackled in his high-pitched squeak. "Funny Gestahl, foolish Gestahl, stupid Gestahl. You made me! Gave me power, gave me strength. Just like Celes, but greater than Celes, mightier than Celes! And now I stand within the field of the power of the Goddesses. No magic less than theirs will enter the field. And their magic is mighty indeed. Not weak, not puny… not like you! And now, Goddesses!" he screamed, looking up into the cloud-shrouded heavens. "Give me a sign, show your power to all who gaze upon you!"
Kefka brought his wild gaze down from the sky above, staring at Gestahl with a wild look and a mad grin.
"No!" Gestahl cried, backing away, "Kefka! You don't know what you're doing! The statues, you must not disturb their balance."
Kefka yanked one of his arms down to point at Gestahl, as if pulling something from over his head. A bolt of blue-white lightning blasted down from the dark clouds above them. The ground a few steps away from Gestahl exploded in a spray of earth and stone. Kefka then yanked his other arm down. A second bolt hurtled down, striking the ground next to the Emperor, sending him sprawling on the ground.
Kefka screamed in frustration, raising both arms and pulling hem back down again. Two bolts of lightning hit the ground on either side of Gestahl, who screamed and covered himself protectively.
"You'll leave no one left for us to rule, you maniac!" roared Gestahl. The old man lurched to his feet and ran towards the Returners.
Kefka laughed and pulled his arm down to his side, and then thrust it forward towards Gestahl. Another bolt of lightning came down from the sky, then curved close to the ground and hurtled towards Gestahl, striking him in the back. Gestahl screamed as the bolt detonated in his back, hurling the old man several feet further forward.
The Emperor's body was thrown to the ground and skidded forward coming to a halt in front of Celes. His back was smoking and his face and chest were covered in scrapes and stone burns. He didn't move.
Celes gasped and bent down, fingers reaching for the side of his neck. She found no pulse.
"You…" she gasped, looking at Kefka, "you murderer!"
Kefka laughed and shrugged. "Oh well. The dead emperor was a useless emperor anyway. Now no one can stop me. The world will burn, the world will perish! I will kill the world!"
Kefka grabbed the nearest statue and began to pull it out of alignment. The roar of energy grew louder, and unstable. The bolts of lightning no longer remained contained in the web around the statues and Kefka, but instead began to fire in random directions.
"No Kefka!" yelled Celes. She ran up Kefka, grabbing his arm to try and stop him. "If you disturb their balance, the statues' power will be erratic and uncontrolled. The whole world could be destroyed!"
Kefka snarled, wrenching his arm away and backhanding Celes. She lurched backwards, falling to the ground and tumbling towards the others. She came to a rest, laying on her stomach, and painfully pushed herself back up to watch with horror.
"Kefka," she said weakly, pleadingly, "please stop…"
Two dark shapes leapt through the air. One spun and kicked Kefka in the face, while the other barreled headlong into the madman. Caught by surprise, Kefka stumbled backwards, out of the field of the statues' energy until his back hit the stone. The black-clad figure then spun, hurling two sharp spikes at Kefka, driving themselves through Kefka's sleeves and into the stone, pinning the madman in place.
"Shadow!" cried Celes triumphantly.
The ninja, standing on the edge of the statues' field, waved a hand at the rest of the Returners, dispelling their magical bonds.
"I'll destroy you, traitor!" screamed Kefka.
"Impossible," replied Shadow calmly. "I can't be a traitor to someone I've never been loyal to."
He and Interceptor hurried down to where the Returners were picking themselves up off the ground. Terra raced up to Shadow and wrapped him in a tight embrace.
"You came back," she breathed, pulling away and smiling brightly, "I knew you'd come back."
Shadow shrugged. "Interceptor decided to come back and help you."
"Let me guess, Kojiro," said Sabin with a grin. "It was one of his less intelligent decisions?"
"I'm afraid so," replied Shadow blandly.
"Well that's enough back-slapping for me!" declared Relm, "How about we put that maniac into the history books where he belongs?"
Suddenly the rock at Kefka's wrist exploded in a shower of stone shards, and his right arm was free.
"Go now!" cried Shadow, "I can hold Kefka and do what I can to prevent him from further upsetting the statues' balance! But the rest of the world is counting on you to make it a better place. You have to go!"
Sabin stepped forward. "I'll stand with you!"
"Go, Ironhand!" yelled Shadow, "Keep them safe."
Sabin grimaced but nodded.
"Shadow, we can all go now!" cried Terra.
Just as she spoke the words, the ground beneath their feet rumbled and shook, forcing them all to stumble for a moment to regain their balance. Dull roars and sharp cracks sounded from every direction, accompanied by more tremors. A section of the outer edge of the floating island, visible to the Returners snapped like a stale cracker and fell towards the ground.
"This place is coming apart!" cried Locke.
"The magic of the statues has been distorted," Strago cried over the dull roar of the tremors, "there's nothing that can be done to save this place now! It's only a matter of scale now! If the statues are moved even further from their balance points, the world itself could be destroyed!"
"We have to kill Kefka now!" yelled Edgar.
"No!" roared Shadow, "All we need to do is stop him until the island falls apart. I will stay and make sure of it. You just make it off this death trap!"
"Get yourself to the Blackjack as soon as you can!" said Terra.
"We'll be waiting for you," agreed Sabin.
"Interceptor, go with them," ordered Shadow, "protect Relm."
The massive canine howled in protest but dutifully took up a position next to the young girl.
"Sabin, in the front!" ordered Edgar, "Terra, Celes and I behind and the rest of you follow. Cyan, watch our backs! Take out any ranged weapons you might have. Don't get up into combat, we need to move fast. If you see something, shoot it and move on! Sabin! Find us the fastest way out of here!
The younger Figaro nodded and took off without a word, Terra and Celes following behind him, with Edgar on their heels and the others following.
Sabin raced forward with Gau staying close. The tremors began to grow worse as they hurried on, the island shaking and heaving. The roar of tumbling rocks and boulders filled the air, and the island quivered each time a piece broke off and fell to the water, hundreds and hundreds of feet below them.
Suddenly, a grotesque parody of Kefka appeared in their path, apparently blocking the way.
"You can't run from a god!" screeched the creature.
Edgar fired a volley from his autocrossbow without breaking his stride. The bolts imbedded themselves in the creature's chest and it screamed, fading away.
Two more apparitions suddenly appeared. Locke hurled his crescent blade at the one to the far side, and Gau simply trampled the one in front of him. Both creatures hissed and vanished. They were gone even before the crescent blade returned to Locke's hand.
More began to appear, leaping over the rocks like mountain goats, or scuttling like crabs. A dozen, a hundred, more… The tide seemed endless.
"There's too many!" screamed Relm.
"Don't stop moving!" ordered Cyan.
The Returners crashed into the wave of creatures. Sabin hurled two aside, their bodies crashing into the rocks and dissipating. Gau ran headlong into another, and suddenly they were overwhelmed by the chaotic mob of grotesque Kefka creatures.
Cyan spun and twirled, his blade cutting in all directions. Several tried to leap onto him, but he held them at bay with his shield. Mog stood at his back, dancing about and calling upon boulders to fall just as he wanted them to, rolling over the creatures. Those that came too close met the Moogle's massive spear. Setzer stood with them, hurling his razor-edged cards in an attempt to keep as many of the creatures at bay as possible, but they acted without thought of their own survival. They were like maddened beasts, seeking only to rip the Returners apart.
Interceptor stood guard over Relm and Strago, the massive dog's jaws ripping into the creatures, tearing out their throats and hurling them into each other. Blood dripped from wounds inflicted by the enemies, but Interceptor never relaxed and never faltered. Relm hurled bolts of fire at the creatures, occasionally taking a moment to sketch a quick image, but the tide was endless. Strago's hands and eyes burned with the power of the magic he was summoning; fire and ice and lightning, water and acid and wind and force; there was nothing that Strago did not use in his arsenal of spells to fight off the creatures.
Locke, Edgar, Celes and Terra had banded together, the two men trying to keep as many of the creatures away, while the two women met them with sword and spell. Locke would draw one's attention and lead it into Celes' sword strike, and stab any with his dagger that were approaching the women's backs.
Sabin and Gau each had been surrounded and cut off from the others, but neither paid it any mind. Gau was lost to his rage, hurling flame with every exhale, his fists like sledgehammers as he pounded away at the creatures like an enraged gorilla. Sabin's fists and feet lashed out in all directions, and when he cleared enough space to take a breath, he turned his focus inwards, drawing in the fires of his spirit and let it explode in all directions, searing the creatures nearby, incinerating them.
The creatures were gone.
Looking around, the Returners looked at each other. They couldn't tell how long they'd been fighting; seconds, minutes… hours? But they'd fought off the creatures and they were alive. Bruised and bloodied, but alive. All of them were breathing heavily, drinking in the sweet air, some wincing as the breaths stretched cuts or pressed bone upon bruises.
"We're alive," breathed Locke.
"Kupo!" cried Mog weakly. He was leaning heavily on his spear, but his eyes were looking out across the rocky expanse before them. "More come!"
The others turned to where the Moogle was looking, and saw another massive wave of the creatures approaching quickly.
Edgar shook his head. "We're out. We're tapped on strength. We can't fight another group like that again and win."
"We could try and run," suggested Celes, "see if we can make a break for it."
"And go where, Lady Celes?" asked Cyan, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
"We can't run," said Sabin quietly, "and we can't hide. I'll keep fighting until breath leaves my body."
Terra stepped up next to Sabin, watching the approaching horde of creatures, flexing her fingers around the hilt of her sword.
"I will never again submit to Kefka," she said firmly, "not now… not ever."
One by one, the other Returners stepped up alongside the two of them, adjusting grips on their weapons as the throng approached. To the right, a section of the section broke loose with the tremors, leaving the heroes less than a hundred feet from a dizzying drop. None of them paid attention; they were focused on the creatures, now only a few hundred feet away.
A shadow passed by overhead and a voice cried out, "FIRE!"
Dozens, hundreds of crossbow bolts flew through the air, mowing down the first dozen ranks of the approaching creatures. A moment later, a second volley followed, slaughtering several more ranks of the creatures.
The Returners looked up to see the hulk of the Blackjack hovering above them.
"Janson!" yelled Setzer triumphantly.
Several creatures had made it through the deadly volleys, but they were destroyed by fire, ice, lightning, aurabolt, crescent blade, autocrossbow and other methods. Deadly steel rain continued to pour from the Blackjack's main deck, the autocrossbows that Edgar had built for the crew now coming in handy. None of the creatures made it within a dozen paces of the Returners. After a minute, there was no sign that the creatures had ever existed.
"Yeah!" cheered Locke and the others. They turned to watch as the Blackjack maneuvered around and hovered just next to the outcropping to the group's side. Several members of the crew tossed down a gangplank.
Setzer was the first aboard, rushing to Janson and crushing the first mate in a tight embrace.
"Thank you," breathed Setzer as he released his friend.
Janson smirked. "Easy, cap'n. You'll besmirch my reputation."
Edgar and Locke and Celes followed, with Terra, Gau, Mog and Cyan on their heels. Strago and Relm hurried aboard after them, Interceptor staying close to their side. Sabin stood on the island, watching the path they'd come from.
"Sabin!" yelled Terra, drawing his attention. "Get aboard!"
"We wait for Shadow!" he replied, his entire posture one of solid determination.
"This place is gonna blow any minute!" cried Locke, "And you're just gonna stand there and wait for him?! Who knows when or if he's gonna make it?!"
Sabin didn't respond with words. He turned and with one hand flung the gangplank back onto the Blackjack. Sabin looked at Locke, as if daring the rogue to say something else. Locke kept his peace, and Sabin turned back to watching the path. The rock beneath him shuddered, and Sabin hurried back further onto the path as the ground beneath him gave way and fell towards the earth.
"Setzer," called Terra, "keep us as close to the island as you possibly can. I've seen both Sabin and Shadow leap, but we need to be close enough for them to make it to the Blackjack."
Setzer nodded and hurried to the wheel, taking over from the crewman. He maneuvered the Blackjack with an artist's delicacy, gently edging the airship closer to the remains of the island.
The Returners were silent for several precious minutes, watching as the island began to fall apart faster and faster. Light flashed from the center of the island, and waves of energy pulsed outward. Wind began to gather in strength, buffeting the Blackjack from every direction, forcing Setzer to constantly adjust and reposition the ship to keep it from being blown away from the island… or from being blown into the rocks.
"He's not gonna make it," muttered Locke.
Edgar nodded in agreement. "Sabin! We can't hold out any longer, we have to go! You have to leave him!"
Sabin turned to them. "Then go! I'm going to go look for him!"
"Fortunately you won't have to look very far," said Shadow, appearing from behind a rock. He hurried over to Sabin, and the two men shared a look.
"About time you showed up," teased Sabin.
"I'm used to Interceptor having the directions," replied Shadow.
Both men turned to look at the distance between them and the Blackjack, then they shared a glance at each other.
"Everyone aboard?" asked Shadow.
"Interceptor stuck to Relm like he was on a leash," replied Sabin.
Shadow sniffed. "Insufferable animal."
"Hurry!" Terra screamed at them.
Both men charged forward, racing towards the edge, and leapt into the empty air. Both men soared with nothing beneath them but a very long fall… and then they crashed into the net-like rigging hanging just below the main deck.
"Haul them aboard!" roared Setzer, who instantly turned the Blackjack away from the island and went to full speed.
Hands reached down, pulling Sabin and Shadow onto the deck. Terra wrapped an arm around the neck of both men and pulled them into a hug. Sabin smiled as she released them. Shadow was unreadable as always.
"I was unable to stop Kefka," explained the ninja, "he managed to cast a spell of protection against me before my knife pierced him. I was able to keep him off-balance for a while and away from the statues, but then he blasted me away with a wall of wind. By the time I regained my footing he was already within the statues' field again and moving them out of balance. There was nothing more I could have done."
"You did everything you could," said Terra, smiling bravely, "we can't ask for any more than that."
"But what happens when those statues stay out of alignment?" asked Edgar, looking at Strago.
"Chaos," answered the old man, "destruction. An end to everything."
Locke glanced at Celes, saw her worried look. He tried to smile bravely for her, but found himself unable to summon the strength to do even that. He looked away, back towards the floating island. His frown turned into a gasp.
"Um… people," he stammered.
The others turned to see what had drawn his attention. A wave of shimmering violet energy was rapidly expanding from the island in all directions, and was quickly racing towards them.
"Setzer!" yelled Celes.
The gambler didn't respond and didn't hesitate, but drove the Blackjack's engines to full and then some, pushing the airship harder than he ever had before. The ship leapt forward, wind buffeting the Returners and the crew.
"Kupo!" cried Mog, pointing below them.
The sea below them was bubbling madly, the water on the far side of the violet wall of energy looked sick and oily. Waves twice the height of a man were beginning to hammer away at the beach, and towering black thunderclouds began to gather sporadically, firing bolts of lightning and unleashing cracks of thunder.
Setzer looked behind him, and saw the wave of energy rapidly approaching.
"We can't outrun this!" he yelled, "Everyone brace for impact!"
Returners and crew raced to grab hold of railings or posts. Strago held Relm tightly, while Shadow and Interceptor crouched next to them. Sabin wrapped one thick arm around Terra and another around Celes, then grasped a pair of ropes, crossing them to give him greater stability.
"Hold on," he ordered the two women.
Both women tightly grasped Sabin's arms, and Locke and Edgar did their best to anchor themselves next to them.
"Here it comes!" yelled Setzer, "Hold on!"
The wave of energy overtook the Blackjack, and ripped the airship to shreds. The craft broke and splintered, almost seeming to explode in every direction. Cries of pain came from everyone, and the explosion of energy tore them in every direction, ripping everyone from each other's grasp.
Celes screamed Locke's name as she saw him disappear in a shower of shattered beams, and then screamed again when a secondary blast ripped her and Terra from Sabin's arms. She heard Sabin's roar of defiance and anguish, and caught a brief glimpse of him stretching, trying to reach them both. But the explosions and the gusts of wind pulled them apart and she quickly lost sight of him.
Her descent into unconsciousness was blessedly swift, for her final thoughts were enough to destroy her.
It's over. We lost.
On this day, the world was changed forever. No land was spared, no one was left unaffected. No one would ever forget this day. No one would ever forget the day the world began to end. The memories of this day would stand the test of time.
They would call it… the Day of Ruin.