The Twenty-Second Chapter - No Mercy

The warm wind whipped at his face. It was arid out upon the Plains of Callaghan and there were many who preferred the fresh, salty breeze that came from Breckenridge Sound.

Not Cyan Garamonde. The heat invigorated him. He could almost feel the blood coursing through his veins as his chocobo galloped through the rough country. Talons picked out soft patches of ground between the hard rock as rider and mount climbed steadily higher. A few trees were here and there, but the vast majority of vegetation was wild-grass that they trampled over.

The well-trained bird halted on his own, alerting his rider with a loud cry.

They stopped just shy of a sheer precipice, one that dropped a dizzying height. A few pebbles rolled off the side and fell out of sight. Beyond was the vast expanse of Callaghan, a soft breeze rippling through the fields of wild-grass. The sky was still a muted grey, but just the slightest trace of the rising sun could been seen peaking over the horizon. A wide, speedy river twisted its way towards the light -- it had probably carved out the valley below in ages long since forgotten. Now it lay quite far away; a lush, fertile field between it and the cliffs.

His eyes narrowed.

Upon that fertile field of wild-grass was a fortified camp. It was not permanent, but typical Imperial practice for armies in the field. Trenches, battlements, ordered rows of tents and makeshift roads were a hint to the eye of any discerning foreigner: this was no band of barbarians, but a disciplined, civilized force.

Even if they belonged to the Maverick.

"Sir!" three more chocobo riders arrived, outpaced by the Knight of Doma but not in the least bit weary. The closest, a broad-shouldered man who wore an eye-patch, held out a pair of binoculars. The other two maintained their distance.

"I can see far enough, Captain," Cyan replied. He had no need for a pair of lenses.

Beneath them, the army of General Forsythe was manoeuvring once more. Nightfall had led to a deadly mistake: camping upon defensible terrain instead of readying for a quick departure in the morning. The choice might have been obvious for a lesser leader, but for one that had been on the run as long as Forsythe had, it was a glaring oversight.

One that would lead to his death.

Just finished fording the river was the Second Army, led personally by General Alysworth. They were spread out, somewhere in the order of fifty-thousand men. Hundreds of crimson banners flapped in the wind, the varied marks of those who bore them were inscribed proudly in gold and black threads. Though few were the same, the Imperial Emblem was the only symbol visible at a distance. The plains were covered by the Empire; from this distance, the varying greens of wild grass were totally replaced by the brown helmets of the Imperial Army.

This was but one of the dispositions that the Empire had sent into the Plains of Callaghan, and one alone was all that was necessary to crush Forsythe's retreating forces. For two weeks, a combination of five Imperial Armies had manoeuvred again and again, pushing Forsythe further and further back while trying to force an engagement. Outgunned and outnumbered, Forsythe had been unwilling to fight.

It was a war of attrition. Their opponent gave ground, retreating north of Oakham while gathering many of the units scattered about the countryside. The Imperials had laid siege to that city while perusing their prey. They could not trap Forsythe -- the man had been a career soldier under Gestahl and his generalship was more than just academic -- but they could prevent him from uniting with the rest of the Maverick's forces.

They pursued the enemy so far that even the Imperials had to worry about being stretched too thin. Forsythe knew this and Cyan supposed this General of the Maverick's might have thought his odds were good. Karen Alysworth's army was the larger, but made up of lighter units. At least, that's what one might have guessed from the pace of the chase.

"Forsythe's no fool, have to give the man credit for that. But he's been outplayed; General Alysworth's a genius," the Captain analysed. He smiled as a thunderous roar erupted from the Second Army.

The artillery pieces had fired and their song would not end for hours. The Third Battle of Callaghan had finally begun.

"Forsythe has the cliff on his left, but he is focusing the bulk of his forces on the right," a lifetime of experience interpreted the situation unerringly. "What is General Alysworth doing? Her disposition over there cannot hold!" Cyan growled. He noted that the twists and turns of the river had serendipitously given Forysthe room for manoeuvre while depriving Karen of the same.

The Captain held out the pair of binoculars to Cyan. "It seems Forsythe expects just that."

Cyan knew that the eye-patch wearing Imperial was no fool -- many of Farin's men were quite capable thinkers as well as warriors. He reluctantly pressed the lenses against his eyes and squinted.

Fifty-thousand men were about to become locked in combat, each square-like formation was six ranks deep and hundreds abreast. There were many of these staggered in lines, spacing between still intact as they advanced. Thousands of men in brown leather armor were about to slaughter each other should the opportunity arise.

And that opportunity was still likely, despite the ferocity of the artillery duel. There was no worry of a long siege, Alysworth's forces were advancing without abandon and no matter what type of battlement had been built in Forsythe's favour, they were hastily-raised and the quality was lacking. In addition, the same cliffs and rivers that protected the enemy's flanks were also bottling him up.

This would be a bloodbath.

But the real story were in the guns -- hundreds of cannon pieces firing continuously. Cyan had never seen so many gathered; attached to wheels and drawn by chocobo. The Imperials had never relied on the cannon, preferring their hulking Armors instead.

However, with the massive disparity in artillery, General Alysworth was slaughtering the entrenched traitors. Thick knots of black smoke rose into the air behind the thousands of friendly soldiers on foot, thundering blasts so numerous that there was a continuous rumble in the earth. A dark cloud began to form overhead from all the cannonade.

It was devastatingly effective, so effective that Forsythe's decision to leave his fortified camp was a blunder beyond compare.

And then beams of brilliant crimson light exploded through the Maverick's ranks, those lucky enough to survive the cascading walls of flame were sent flying away by the force of many explosions. Miniature mushroom clouds rose into the sky, glowing crimson and raining ash below.

"Those men on the right flank, they strike a different poise," Cyan mused at last. He lowered the lenses. "Heartier."

"That's Fedelis."

"Fedelis?" Cyan echoed.

"Veterans, sir. 9th Division; they fought for Maley's Point through the winter. Tough bastards."

Cyan allowed himself a brief smile. Everything became clear to him. "It seems Forsythe could not comprehend the changes in disposition."

The Captain nodded.

"Very well, alert General Starson," Cyan turned his chocobo around. "The cliffs are impassable, worthless even for a small team to scale. We must hasten the march."

"-and then we'll have'em between two fires!"

Cyan nodded gravely. "The day shall be ours."

North of battlefield, the four men galloped back to the Third Imperial Army. Forsythe had made his last mistake: an additional forty-thousand men were about to make their presence felt.

---

She narrowly avoided the big hulking soldier, his armor and cape combined made him seem like two men. She scowled at him, but between the metal helmet and his quick pace, he saw nothing.

"And you are?"

Relm turned around and looked up. These soldiers were taller than the rest. "I'm Relm," she answered.

The bearded man frowned. "Well I don't know if I'm supposed to let children through..."

Relm scowled at him. "General Alysworth told me to be here before the battle."

"Well the battle's started, hasn't it?" the soldier pretended to cover his ears as the mass of cannons fired once again. "Schedules are strict, early or tardy, we can't make any exceptions."

"Stop teasing her," his partner snapped. "Go right ahead, Relm, before the General notices."

Relm smiled warmly at the man who helped her out before rushing past them. Karen and her staff were not in a tent for once, their tables of maps and models were finally exposed to the sun. They were surrounded by a cordon of soldiers as messengers constantly ran in and out.

"Girlie! Glad to see you finally made it," it was one of older men on Karen's staff. He had bushy eyebrows that made it seem like he was always angry, but Relm discovered that the man was just the opposite. "They're over there," he pointed to the right.

At the biggest table was a huge map pinned down with blocks on top. Encircling that was a host of officers; Karen Alysworth and many of her staff. The General was easily picked out, her dark cape fluttered each time the cannons fired. She was wearing brown leather armor, one with wide shoulder guards and many leather segments that encircled her body.

The first time Relm had met the General, she hadn't seemed any different from the other ladies back home. Farin had done the introductions, praising the lady and explaining that Karen would make a better mentor. It was obvious that Farin owed Karen a favour now, so Relm grudgingly followed her around. Relm hadn't liked it at first -- Cyan wasn't going to be with Farin -- but then she saw Karen work.

She saw what it was like to be at the head of the Imperial Army.

Tens of thousands of soldiers were at her beck and call. Many were bigger and stronger than she was, some were older and others younger, but they all respected her. If Karen started talking, everyone would hush up and listen. If Karen wanted something, they would get it for her right away. Even if Karen wasn't doing anything, everyone would glance at her nervously, waiting for her commands.

It was awesome.

And then there was the army. It was huge! She had thought Farin's army was big, but his was just a small part of the Imperial Forces. Karen didn't give her a number, but Relm guessed it was something like half a million. It was just like the stories in her grandfather's books.

"They're driving towards our right flank as we speak," one of the officers pushed a red block on the hastily drawn map. "Intelligence confirms that Forsythe has yet to withdraw back to his camp."

"It seems like the 9th's ruse worked," commented another.

"But now engagement is unavoidable lest we expose ourselves. If they have plague poison, we could be risking everything. It'd be no different from marching into Magitek fire!"

Karen made eye-contact with Relm for a brief moment -- the mood was serious and a silent greeting was the limit of courtesy -- and nodded sagely. "Well, we expected as much. Artillery and Magitek Armors look great on paper, but in the end we must rely on steel. Only a fool would make plans without preparing for the enemy's greatest weapon; remind all commanders of quarantine procedures and have all doctors prepare for the worst."

"Hasn't this started too soon?" a short officer, barely half a head taller than Relm, pointed out. His eyelids were drooping as if he needed a nap. "The plan was drawn with the assumption of engaging after dawn, not before! Yet they marched to battle the moment we crossed the river."

"No, this is correct," Karen answered immediately. "The timing should be perfect."

"But Fedelis may not hold against that force," the short man protested again.

"They will. Have faith," was Karen's curt reply.

"Still, we should reinforce river-side," pointed out a tall man with a blue cape. "The 9th Division is stout, but we risk Forsythe trying to escape by fording the river. Considering our lack of communications with General Starson, we should not take the risk."

Karen folded her arms. "Derek, would you explain to the Major why we haven't cordoned off the river?"

All eyes fell upon a young boy. Relm thought he was maybe two or three years older than she was. He was actually taller than some of the officers but so thin that he looked like he never ate. A lanky kid like him was out of place amongst large, hulking professional warriors.

Relm had met Derek a couple days earlier, when Farin had first introduced her to Karen. He had been quiet then and was quiet now. That Karen had picked on him turned his cheeks cherry-red.

"Well," Derek cleared his throat. His eyes darted around meekly.

"It's quite alright," Karen soothed in a soft tone. "You've been under my tutelage for several months while the Major has been securing our lives against the enemy. He doesn't mind being shown up," a glare was directed at the blue caped man.

"Think of this as a test," the Major quickly added.

Derek looked down at the map, analysing carefully. His eyes snapped up at last. "We should leave an outlet free as we press forward. It's so tempting to attack that they won't think of anything else. By funnelling the enemy along a predictable path, the chances of being surprised elsewhere is minimal."

Relm glanced at the map. That made sense.

"Very good. Most importantly, we don't want Forsythe to get desperate," Karen explained. "He knows that it's not a blunder and we're aware of our weakness, but it'll still play with his emotions. He'll remain lax, advancing instead of fortifying because he believes in his last resorts: to manoeuvre across the river and flee, or to attempt to accost us doubly along the right flank."

Most of the general's staff looked shocked. "What if he does just that?"

"Then he's already lost," Karen scowled as a particularly loud cannon explosion deafened their ears. "Major, see to it that the men don't destroy all our guns in their haste. I want the enemy destroyed, but not at the expense of our artillery pieces."

The blue caped man nodded. His fist went to his heart. "Sir."

As he left though, another arrived. This one was a messenger who exchanged hushed words with one of the General's staff. Quickly, he readjusted the red blocks, putting several on top of the blue hexes that represented the river. "This disposition is already minutes old," he growled. "If the 9th falls-"

But Karen had already stepped away, bringing her binoculars up to her eyes and looking towards the center of the enemy army. Relm could make out the enemy without aid though; they dotted the field with their numbers, a mass of black and brown that was covered in smoke. Fire beams lanced towards them, raking lines in the field and searing an uncountable number of men with each shot. Karen's army retaliated with dozens of blasts for every shot as rows upon rows of cannons thundered away.

"Fools. They've thinned their ranks," she commented to no one in particular. Karen glanced down. "Relm, have you read the texts I gave you?"

Relm looked around her in shock, realizing she was standing right beside the lady general. No one else had dared, but she had accidentally stepped forward in order to find out what Karen was observing.

"Of course," she replied with what confidence she could muster. "The entire stack!"

"I take it that's why you were late."

Relm grimaced. "Yes ma'am."

"Very well, let's see what you've learned. What is our next course of action?"

Relm pursed her lips, swinging a leg from side to side as she thought. Karen had given her many books and she had read many of them, but they were long and boring so she had skimmed a lot. Sometimes, there were blocks of writing that spanned multiple pages; no pictures, no graphs, not even a chart. She had definitely skipped those.

Yet, as her eyes turned back to the map where the battle was being modelled, something seemed to make sense. Maybe it was all the battles she had read about, but the way the blocks were moving, there seemed to have a pattern.

Another messenger arrived and the plot was updated with the shifting and removal of more coloured squares.

There was a pattern! It was... it was like two beasts entwined.

"We should crush their center now," Relm declared confidently. Her eyes went wide when she saw the surprised looks on everyone's face though, was she wrong?

It was Derek, of all people, to speak out first. Perhaps he felt emboldened by his answer's acceptance, or maybe it was because he was picking on her and not the older soldiers. "We'd lose the ability to reinforce our left flank, especially with Forsythe's cavalry bearing down on Fedelis. That's too brutish!"

But Karen chuckled quietly to herself. Her arm rested softly on Relm's shoulder with a light, inviting smile on her face.

"A decade ago, Danielle told me to do the same," she whispered.

Relm blinked in confusion.

"But no, it was imprudent then and it's still imprudent now," Karen's voice rose and she was addressing her staff. "Now we wait."

"For what?" Relm asked.

Karen narrowed her eyes, shielding them from the reflected glare of the sun. Her hair fluttered in the breeze and her frown deepened.

"For our men to do their duty."

---

His sword lifted the soldier clear off of his feet, a fatal gash across his chest spilling blood all over the many segments of his brown leather armor.

"For Justice!" Cyan Garamonde hollered.

His chocobo dashed through the shallows, a trail of mist rising in the air behind him. Alert soldiers had turned towards the unexpected assault from the river only to be greeted by charging wall of cavalry. Many could not even bring their shields to bear before the blows came. Cyan's sword tasted blood with every swing, a different flavour each time but always satisfying.

The river was a deep Imperial crimson.

Lines of men collapsed, formations deteriorated. A few enterprising officers had begun a retreat, but their actions only confused the dying flank of Forsythe's army even more. The artillery of Farin's forces joined in; beams of spiralling infernos following the arcing trajectories of their cousins in war.

Cyan's chocobo dashed through a field of corpses splattered apart by cannonfire and into the enemy. Twin blasts of fire narrowly missed him as the roar of cannons sent smoke and dirt flying into the air. Friendly arrows fell upon them, embedding into his shield and those on foot who had chosen to stand their ground.

This was nothing new.

His chocobo was like a predatory beast, the bird's helmet was splattered with blood and its steel armor had shrugged off more than one arrow. His mount dashed faster and charged headlong at the Magitek Armor that had fired on them; it was as if the bird had a grudge to settle with the pilot.

Cyan felled two more soldiers as he passed, killing them before they killed others. Another managed to bring his shield to bear, but Cyan's blade took the soldier's arm along with the cloven shield. A multitude of fireballs erupted to his right. Arrows flew through the rising flames and thick black smoke, thousands cruising in long lazy arcs that darkened the sky.

Forsythe's ranks were thin, he had been overstretched and unprepared for the assault upon on his right flank. He had made many mistakes and now, there was nowhere for the Maverick's general to run.

Blood splattered across his leather armor and Cyan barely blocked an arrow with his shield. He screamed a deadly cry and threw a javelin, piercing the offending bowman in the chest and sending him flying backwards. Pulling at the reins, his chocobo turned its attention back to the Magitek Armor.

"Abomination," he cursed.

It was nothing more than a shape obscured by smoke and dirt that had been kicked up by thousands upon thousands of exploding shells. It was not the biggest Cyan had ever seen, but there was no time for proper classification. Icy blasts tore into the ground, but Cyan had known they were coming and briskly cleared the deadly shockwave. Still, even with his foresight the force almost threw him off his mount.

Then blue light blasted past his vision, leaving a trail of white snow that Cyan blinked away. One, two, five blasts of ice and fire slammed through the Magitek Armor and tore it apart at the seams. As the arms fell off and the beast teetered on one leg, cannonfire caught it square in the chest and an explosion of flame engulfed the deadly machine. It toppled to the ground and shook the earth.

Cyan's eyes snapped to the victor. The largest of Imperial Magitek Armors, a lumbering beast that was more building than war machine, had its huge cannons pointed in his direction. The pilot within saluted in a gruff manner.

Now that was new. Magitek that was on his side.

Two knights passed him -- Cyan recognized the Captain from before and gave a brusque grunt of acknowledgement. The thousand men that Farin had assigned him had excelled in combat, slaughtering Forsythe's cavalry from the rear while Cyan had taken a small, capable detachment deeper.

He was not alone though. With a brilliant black cape flying behind him, the like-minded General Starson slew two men before turning around for a third. Only two of his personal bodyguards could keep up with his swift chocobo as Farin advanced deeper than was prudent. Four men accosted him, their pikes scaring the mounts as they advanced.

One of Farin's bodyguards fell and the General was exposed. Two more fell to his deadly sword, tendrils of electricity snaking around the bloody blade.

But one had snuck behind him. With a cry of effort, Cyan hurled a javelin. The flying spear cleaved through shield and pierced the enemy through the chest.

The General finished off the remainder, glancing up to discover his saviour was Cyan. He grinned as his bodyguards -- the shaven heads of Donnach and Reinhardt were amongst them -- finally arrived.

"Cyan! I knew you'd be here," Farin shouted as they waited. Every second that passed, another chocobo joined them. "Justice is served today, wouldn't you say?"

"These despicable villains fall before us, but we must strike while the advantageous is ours," Cyan counselled. He noted with a sense of satisfaction that Farin had not hid behind the bulk of his army. The rumours had proven true.

"Your suggestion?"

"Deeper with our fifty chocobos against the cliff, we shall come down behind Forsythe's line."

Farin laughed, but it was filled with bloodlust. "Bold, almost too bold. I like it!" and then he turned to men gathered around him. "Today is the first stroke, one of many in which we will avenge all those fallen to the barbarian! And we, the Eighth Vindicet, shall draw the blood of Forsythe!"

"Glory to the Empire!" the man cheered.

And then they were off.

They charged behind enemy lines, half a century of chocobos unopposed until they caught sight of Forsythe's battlements: broken, smoking, and aflame from the vicious combination of cannonade -- elemental and conventional. Their flags were burning, the tents smouldering, and the fifty men fell upon a score of confused and uncoordinated barbarians.

Cyan almost laughed, such was the feeling of battle in which righteousness was being served. The moral defence of a nation and the crushing of an immoral opponent, there was no doubt in his heart that he was doing the right thing. He would chase out every villain who sought to win through treachery and cowardice, one who slaughtered men, women and children indiscriminately!

Never again would anyone dare to wield poison as their blade.

A bloody mist lingered in the air and Cyan could no longer kept track of all he had fought. Five, ten, fifty, maybe even a hundred opponents had fallen to his blade. They were all faceless and unremarkable, mere extensions of the evil that had occupied Maranda.

And then he was alone atop a small hill, his mount patiently waiting. Fresh blood dripped down the side of his face; he did not remember whose blood it was. He wiped it aside and watched as the enemy burned around him. The thousands of guns of the Empire launched shells into the midst of their foes, a chorus of thunder announcing each vengeful blast of an unforgiving god.

Farin arrived next to him. The General's sword flashed out and the heavens responded with a bolt of lightning.

The two men turned to each other as the sun rose high into the sky. Their bloody capes, his blue, Farin's black, rustled in the wind. Their armour made their statures ever wider and their helmets hid all but their eyes.

Cyan finally understood the purpose of the flamboyant red-crest atop Farin's helmet. He turned away from Farin, and the General away from him. Each had a confident smile upon their face as they waited together in silence.

---

"Their center is collapsing!"

Karen scowled. "I can see for myself," she snapped, her binoculars still held against her eyes.

Relm had been denied the lenses. Even though they were on higher ground and had a good view, she wanted to see more. Those brown and black squares had collided and broke apart, like thousands of ants they swarmed at each other seemingly without pattern. Relm wondered what the battle would look like up close. She wondered what it was like for those soldiers to fight.

The sword at her side was heavy.

Her mind drifted to Strago -- stupid gramps. Quickly, she refocused and wondered if Cyan was in the middle of battle. Of course he was, she decided. Relm glanced at the updated map of the battlefield and tried to guess where he would be. The blocks were entwined with each other now and there were a large number of them gathered near the river. They represented thousands of men each.

Only half a year ago, she would have been stunned silent at the mere existence of such numbers. Now she wanted to be out there amongst the thousands, commanding them, fighting alongside of them... like Cyan was doing. Like he had always done.

Oh how she wished she could see it.

"You want to be out there, don't you?"

Relm blinked rapidly, spacing out in the middle of the battlefield shouldn't have been possible but she had managed it. "I can fight," was her only reply to the powerful General.

Karen smiled and shook her head. "That-"

The closest cannons thundered and suddenly, they were separated by thick black smoke. Relm coughed the moment she inhaled the putrid fumes, they burned her nose something terrible. She gritted her teeth and quickly closed her eyes, they were watering from the stinging smoke. When a gust cleared the nasty stuff away from them, Relm suddenly had a new-found respect for the taste of air.

"Look and tell me what you think," Karen held before Relm's face a pair of binoculars.

Relm took her gift and scrambled atop a conveniently empty table. She mimicked the other Imperials -- Karen chuckling when Relm looked into the wrong side -- and suddenly she was in the middle of the battle.

A man who looked like Locke, his face dirty and beads of sweat dripping from underneath his helmet, was panting on the field. He grunted as he threw a spear, eyes wild as he screamed in effort. His lips formed words that Relm tried to understand.

A blade tore the soldier's face in two.

Relm flinched, barely stifling a cry of horror. She lost the man in the chaos of battle and try as she might, she could not find him.

But there were thousands more like him.

The cannons thundered again and Relm saw men, dozens of them, blown to pieces by exploding shells. Smoke and dirt blocked her view, but Relm was almost glad she couldn't see everything. Shapes screamed voicelessly as fires devoured them. She tried to swallow, but her throat was dry for some inexplicable reason.

Then her sight rested upon the dark, hulking menace that was the Imperial Magitek Armor. Like a man hunched over, it staggered towards her covered by a shadowy veil, pinpoint specks of light flaring into blasts of brilliant magical energy.

She lowered the binoculars, recalling those same monsters storming her home.

Grandpa.

"Well?"

Karen was waiting impatiently. Relm didn't know why, but she just stared back at the General dumbfounded.

"I asked a question: what do you think?"

Grandpa... Relm gazed down at her feet. She kicked at the dirt. Cold sweat was already running down her back.

Karen turned away to address her staff.

"Engage the right flank," Relm's voice quivered, but it was filled with determination. Karen would not walk away from her, not until she had told the Imperial General what was on her mind! "With a single blow you'll break the enemy!"

She would fight the Plague, just like her grandfather.

"A bold idea," was the blunt response.

Karen spun on her heels. "General signal: Advance upon the enemy," hers was the voice of god. "Have the 6th and 14th merge by battalion and fall back to support the 10th, all Brigadiers will coordinate strictly by the book. Any mistakes and I swear I'll decimate their command regardless of the outcome!"

Karen's general staff was now a maelstrom of activity, aides running all around her as flags were raised and messengers were sent. All the while, cannonade thundered across the Plains of Callaghan. Men died every second, stabbed, blown to pieces, or consumed by blasts of magic.

Relm stood beside Karen and watched it all.

The books her grandfather had given her, they didn't describe war this way. From their distant vantage point, Relm saw the same scene repeated over and over again. There was no thrill to this battle; no knights in shining armor.

Her mind's eye recalled Cyan's gallant image, saving her from Imperial soldiers deep within the mountainside. For some reason, the scene was more vivid this time. Details came to life: the chill of the winter air, the scent of blood, the reflected light in drops of sweat, the screams of the dying. The spray of spittle from Cyan's mouth as he charged to save her.

The fear in his eyes.

A hand suddenly grasped her shoulder. Relm was shocked to discover that she had been shaking.

"It is terrible, is it not?"

Relm could only manage a nod.

Karen squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. "Maybe you are too young to start. I know I was."

Relm was speechless.

"But..." Karen trailed off. "Do you still want to study, Relm?"

Just like Grandfather.

Relm nodded.

"Very well. You have some keen insight, it's no wonder General Starson sought a tutor for your talents," Karen smiled and let go of her shoulder lightly.

Relm watched the battle continue in a silent stupor. Time passed by quickly and if Strago or Cyan were told how long she stayed quiet, they never have believed it. News came and went: General Starson had crossed the river, the 9th had routed their opponents, Forsythe's right flank was collapsing, and that the enemy had retreated into his burning fortifications and sued for peace. But everything seemed dull to her.

It was Karen who finally snapped her out of her solitude. "I want my chocobo readied and the Major alerted," the lady General declared. "We're joining the melee."

Relm glanced back to the models in confusion. "Why are you going out to fight?" she asked, keeping an eye on the battlefield.

Derek, who had seemed jealous by how much attention Karen was giving Relm, lashed out. "It should be obvious: the battle's not over and this battalion consists entirely of fresh troops. We'll join for a final push that breaks Forsythe's last-ditch defence."

Irritated by the way he spoke, Relm drew on a deep font of hidden strength. "Don't be stupid," she snapped. "There's no need to risk catching the Plague, we've already won!"

Karen stepped between her apprentices. Her dark cape cascaded down her armour, covering the sword she had just put on. She turned her back to Relm. "That's quite enough Derek. You should take a long, hard look at your study habits. You could learn a lot from Relm."

Victorious, Relm stuck out her tongue.

Karen turned around and Relm quickly acted as innocent as possible.

"-no matter how imprudent she is," Karen declared to Relm's dismay. However, Karen lowered to one knee and put a reassuring hand on Relm's shoulder. "You did well today, but you still have a lot to learn from me," she said with a wink.

Her bodyguards had arrived, their bulk making the General look tiny in comparison. Still, Karen took her red-crested helmet from the two and fitted it to her head. With one last glance at the two children, she turned back to the smoke and debris that marked the camp of their enemy. A thundering crescendo of cannonfire seemed to declare her intent to join the front.

"Let's move," Karen ordered as the blue caped Major and a dozen chocobo-mounted knights took formation beside her. The sun was high in the sky. "It's time to finish this battle."

---

As the Imperial Armed Forces prepared for the final blow against Forysthe and his army, Edgar's face was mashed against a wooden table. The smell of alcohol wafted into his kingly senses. His face twisted at an odd angle and he bolted upright. The sheets upon his bed were fresh, clean and untouched. Beside it, a clock was ringing; it was noon.

He had fallen asleep.

Blinking away the grogginess, he grabbed a cloak to hide from the glare of the sun. Exiting Bill's empty establishment, he was surprised to see Arvis waiting just outside. A bead of sweat ran down the older man's face.

"Sorry about that," Edgar excused himself. Nodding gruffly at the two Figarian soldiers that stood guard, he quickly pulled on his hood. "Aren't you hot?"

"It's nice to sweat for once."

Edgar rolled his eyes. "Can't say I understand you Northerners."

The two men strolled to the outskirts of Halstead, trailed by their bodyguards. There, Imperial manpower was conspicuously missing. Instead, only Figarians were visible as they prepared a carriage in one of the local stables. Most of the men saluted or bowed to Edgar, but others were so busy with the chocobos that they could only nod respectfully in the presence of their King.

The commander of his personal guard stood stoically in the sun. There was not a trace of sweat upon his face, despite the heat of the sun and the deep blue garb he wore.

"Major," Edgar ignored the crisp salute. "Is everything ready?"

"Of course, my King. Also, Admiral Pellyn sends his regards, but it is Admiral Amedeo who is waiting in the bay."

"Amedeo?" Edgar knew that name. He pursed his lips. "Just as well, Pellyn would probably disregard the ploy. Amedeo would jump for the chance."

"Are you sure you want to go through with this, Edgar?" Arvis asked.

Edgar let loose a deep sigh. They were safe here, protected by his finest and most loyal of men. Here, he could speak his mind freely and not worry about spies.

"I've thought this through many times... and my conscience can't bare further inaction. Arvis, I'm counting on you."

"Don't worry about me, I'm not much more than a messenger," Arvis patted his chest, where Edgar assumed a secret pocket was hidden behind the fashions of Narshe. "Let's hope this Admiral Amedeo will follow your written orders."

"I would love to speak with Amedeo myself, but my presence here is essential. I'm not sure how convinced they are that you must return home to discuss the new political arrangements."

"It's the truth," Arvis pointed out. "The Elder may not be happy with the new Empress."

"He'll be happy so long as there's peace in Narshe," Edgar growled.

"Perhaps, but the cost might wound his pride. Anyhow, the sun is already high in the sky. I suppose this is where we part, King Edgar," Arvis bowed slightly. "It was an honour, as always."

Edgar shook his head. "I owe you greatly for doing this, my friend."

Arvis' smile was devoid of any joy.

"Let's hope you've done the right thing. This is a dangerous game we're playing."

---

They dismounted in the midst of thousands of Imperial soldiers, many covered with blood and gore. The ground laid beneath a blanket of corpses and clouds of smoke darkened the skies overhead. A rain of white ash fell down upon them, thin flakes fluttering softly through the air. In the background, Forsythe's battlements burned.

Farin raised his blade.

A cheer erupted throughout the ranks, cries of victory and shouts of joy. They raised their weapons and saluted.

"For General Starson!" one particularly bold commander shouted above the rest.

That sentiment echoed through the ranks of the Third Imperial Army. They cheered on their victorious general, louder than the cannons that had won them such a victory.

Farin removed his helmet, his face visible to the thousands surrounding them. Blood and dirt were mashed in lines across his face, but there was a smile beneath all that grime.

"For our Empress, for Vector, and for the Empire!" he hollered.

"The Empire!" the thousands thundered.

Cyan folded his arms and watched as the victors basked in their glory. He did not join in the celebration, but did return the gratitude of the men that passed by. He stood near Farin's closest circle -- Reinhardt, Donnach, and several of the decorated men that had been recently transferred to his command.

"I can't believe it. You would be Garamonde."

A familiar face: he was short and perhaps a little on the thin side for a soldier. His leather armor was also clean of grime and gore, so Cyan knew at once that this man was a pilot. A flash of insight came to him.

"Thank you for saving my life," Cyan offered his hand.

The Imperial pilot looked down at Cyan's outstretched arm, eyes wide in disbelief. He had a silly grin on his face. "You know, all I can think of right now is how absurd this is. I can barely stop myself from addressing you as the Relentless."

But the gruff soldier took Cyan's hand strongly. "I'm Captain Waldgrave," he offered.

"Godric," Cyan made the connection.

"So you've heard of me? I guess after Third Reddenhurst, it was bound to happen."

This was the man that had almost caught them in Nestil, forced them to send Sabin away and had been a shadow that they had feared for weeks. And now, this man -- a Magitek Pilot of all people -- had saved his life.

Absurdity did not adequately describe the situation; Cyan could not hold back his laughter. "The day is full of surprises!" He slapped the pilot on the back and laughed away the tension and stress.

Godric coughed, recovering from Cyan's strong blow. His seriousness faded away though and he joined an unlikely partner in an equally unlikely laugh.

In the background, Forsythe and thirty-thousand corpses burned.

---

The Battle of Third Callaghan was over. Of course the Empire had won, and by an overwhelming margin at that.

Locke shook his head. He had read the report and while it was supposed to be good news for everyone, it was not for him. Time was running short for the Guild and its fanatical mages. With the destruction of General Forsythe and his forces, the back of the Maverick's army was broken.

Oakham had fallen as well, encircled as the city was by Brigadier Falkland and his 17th Division. The Empire was on the march and in its wake, her enemies burned in mass graves.

Locke had discovered that the Maverick's last true army, all veterans of the Maranda War years ago as well as the Civil War, had been marching to Callaghan when Forsythe fell. Karen had succeeded in preventing the Maverick from joining his veterans into a single, cohesive force. Now the greatest conventional impediment to the Empire's total victory was camped out in the Plains of Incledon, blockading any entry into the Marandan heartland. As for the warlord himself, the Maverick was doing all he could to recover. News had spread quickly that armies were being raised in Sutton and Maranda.

But it was the unconventional that was the greatest danger. They could not find the Guild's leadership -- not even a name! -- and her members were just as difficult to locate. They had left their mark on many villages, that was for sure, but they had vanished from the memories of many. Considering the pace of the Empire's advance, Locke knew it was only a matter of time before those mages got desperate.

He dared not imagine what the fanatics would do when pressed against the wall. That was what nightmares were for.

"Not a single lead," Locke muttered as he glanced around the occupied village.

The Inquisition's efforts were redoubled. Orders from Norris were to capture any Guild Member at any cost. Their efforts had led to this small village on the coast and the moment it had been feasible, they stormed in. Locke should have been nervous -- they were close to Sutton -- but in light of the Plague, mere armies that stretched beyond the horizon didn't seem to be that big of a deal. For all they knew, they were the walking dead.

They had to find the Guild's headquarters before it was too late.

"High Inquisitor," one of the men under his command gestured.

Locke followed the Inquisitor into a mansion they had taken over. A number of the bounded villagers knelt on the ground. They remained tight-lipped despite their obvious connections to the Guild.

"Still unwilling to talk?" Locke asked once more. The silence didn't surprise him, but it was disappointing. "We know the Guild was here, your own people were abused and tortured. We can protect you from them. There's no reason not to help us."

This village had been visited by several Guild Members and the fanatical mages had stayed here for weeks. Many of the people were scarred in disturbing fashions; Locke's stomach turned whenever he saw their gaunt, thin bodies and wide-eyed stares filled with eternal horror. They should have received their pity, but instead Locke had to mark them as Shrouded.

That there were some who conspired against their own people...

"Fine, we don't have time for this anymore! Take him and him, her too," Locke pointed at the ones that looked important to him; the ones that would likely have had meaningful contact. Perhaps they had been an official or a business owner, but no matter what they were or how far they had fallen, Locke could still pick them out of the crowd.

"What about him?" the Inquisitor gestured at a young man with one arm.

Locke judged the teenager for a while. "Yeah," he answered at last, somewhat reluctantly. His gut told him that the well-fed teenager might know something.

"We should take that one too."

The Inquisitor pointed at a boy, no more than ten years in age. He hid behind the skirts of his mother, the woman who Locke had just picked out.

"No," he hissed through gritted teeth. "Not him."

"Sir, even if he doesn't know anything, we might need him as leverage-"

"I said no!" Locke growled. His eyes burned with rage. "Do you understand me, Inquisitor? Not the boy!"

"As you command, High Inquisitor sir."

Locke left the house and with a cry of frustration, pounded the supports of the awning above him. The thin cloth swayed from side to side as he punched the wood, grunting with each impact. Dust and dirt fell until his hands, wrapped in tough leather gloves, complained about their mistreatment. He gasped for air and wiped at the beads of sweet that ran down the sides of his face.

"Damn the Guild," he whispered underneath his breath.

Locke stormed back to their campsite, outside the village for security reasons. Only two men were there, the rest were keeping an eye on the town.

"High Inquisitor Locke," one stood up as Locke approached. "We've got a message."

The men were always uneasy around the glowing green globe that was their source of news to the outside world. Locke was surprised by their reaction; men of the Empire rarely blinked twice when they saw magic. As a result, he had to ensure his own abilities were a secret; he preferred if the Inquisitors he commanded did not feel the same way towards him as they did towards the Guild.

Reaching into the soft, yielding surface of the green ball, Locke gestured according to the instructions he had memorized and slowly retrieved a small piece of paper from it. Norris had gone without sleep for a day or two creating these; only the most important and trustworthy teams had been given them.

The writing was small, barely legible if Locke hadn't had so much experience with Norris. Apparently, the Inquisition had already slipped into Pierpoint and discovered some terrifying things. Norris didn't have the room for details, but explicitly told Locke to head south and await his arrival. Norris was short on men after sending several teams north.

Locke's eyes narrowed. Norris was sending forces north? That was further away from Maranda, away from anything that mattered.

What could be worthwhile north of Pierpoint?

---

His eyes snapped open. He bolted upright, covered in a sheen of sweat despite his nakedness. His breaths came in ragged gasps, his heart pounded so quickly that a headache of epic proportions threatened to overwhelm him once more.

"Not again," he whispered.

The candle next to his modest mattress was almost burned down. He had forgotten to extinguish the wick... again. Judging by the melted wax, he guessed it was still a few hours before dawn.

Well, he wasn't getting back to sleep this night.

He grabbed a convenient towel and wiped his face of all the sweat and grime. He tossed the soaked cloth aside and picked up one of the few clean shirts he still had. Alert eyes wandered across the walls of the little shack he called home.

At the geometric patterns that spiralled all over the walls.

His eyes averted in embarrassment, only then realizing that his right hand had fallen to his side and was tracing circles on the sweat-soaked sheets of his bed.

"Dammit!" he cried out, whipping his shirt at the wall in frustration. His calm breathing sped up again as blood rushed into his head. He gripped his rebellious hand and glared at it, willing it to be still.

"Sabin!"

Sabin Roni Figaro turned to the intruder that stormed through the thin wooden door of his home. Her red ponytail whipped around her neck as she skidded to a halt.

"Trouble," Siana Deardon gasped.

Sabin grabbed a shirt out of the nearest, dirty pile and pulled it on. "What's wrong?" he asked in a cocky manner. "Did Ben hurt himself again tripping over the-"

"South," Siana interrupted. "Intruders are coming from the south."

Sabin's smile vanished. "Are you bringing in the garbage again?"

"This isn't the time for games," Siana snapped. "They're good, I barely noticed them pass. Definitely elite troops, probably former ISF."

"We're in trouble," he deduced from the wrinkles on her face.

Siana nodded. "That's an understatement."

Sabin grabbed what weapons he had lying around. Armor was not going to help them, not the way they were going to fight. However, this was the first time Siana had sounded scared of advancing Imperials. In half a year and over a dozen fights, not once had Siana ever complimented intruders. Hers was always a professional opinion, one that had proven reliable and fail-safe.

"We've dealt with plenty of infantry, those two magic-less buffoons that pretended to be Guild Members, and even a Magitek Armor the last time," Sabin growled. "It's been months since any further incursions, why start again?" he mumbled in frustration. He hoped the lull would not be their undoing.

Siana tapped her feet impatiently as a belt of knives went around Sabin's waist. He fitted his brass knuckles carefully. "So what's our chances?"

"Bad, and getting worse with every minute. These guys already found some of the traps, and probably the decaying corpses at the bottom of the valley."

"We better move."

The two dashed out of his home and away from Dorset.

---

Siana was right, but Sabin had not expected any errors from her. The Imperials who were advancing were not just good, they were excellent. Like shadows, they passed through the thick underbrush with hardly a scratch on their arms. Had Sabin not have spent so many months in these woods, he doubted that he could have kept up with these men. They were professionals trained in the art of infiltration.

They had never faced anything like this.

Sabin motioned to Siana, telling her to keep the others silent. Without surprise, the unofficial militia of Dorset had no chance against men like these: warriors trained to kill from a young age. Sabin could probably deal with them in single combat, but soldiers worked in teams to their advantage.

This was very bad.

Their only chance would be a dangerous, rocky pass that was the only safe route down into the valley. It was narrow, offered little cover, and the fall was fatal.

Sabin was hidden underneath leaves and dirt, as still as a corpse. The Imperials would pass by him and when he judged the timing was right, he'd give the signal and a deadly rock-slide would wipe out these soldiers.

Unfortunately, the enemy had split up and sent two ahead to scout the treacherous descent. Apparently wise to the dangers of passage, these men were taking no chances. This was almost their worst-case scenario: they had to wait until the two scouts declared the descent safe. Then when the remainder of the group ventured down, the militia would have to deal with those two while the rock-slide killed the rest.

It was a good plan except for one, little problem. When the scouts signalled, only half the enemy made their way down the cliffs.

Now it was the worst-case scenario.

Siana had feared this from the beginning. The former-pilot knew that if the Imperials were smart enough to follow such precautions, they had no choice but to kill the ones descending while ambushing the ones left at the top. That was what she, a few of the stronger men of Dorset, and Sabin prepared for.

The timing would have to be perfect. The moment the rocks began to fall, they would have to strike. Otherwise, those at the top would alert their comrades descending.

A drop of sweat ran down Sabin's cheek. His fingers traced inexplicable patterns into the dirt.

No!

Two men detached from the group at the top. They were moving towards the point where the hidden boulders were.

This was really bad.

He moved without thinking, rising from his hidden spot like an earthen monster. Dirt and leaves fell off of him noiselessly as Sabin stalked towards the two men. The taller one was in front, he looked to be a leader. The one behind seemed paranoid. Sabin fought the urge to crack his knuckles as he advanced within spitting distance, hiding behind a thick tree trunk as one of the men glanced back.

Now.

His fist connected with the nearest, a forceful blow to the stomach that dropped the man with little noise. Sabin charged over the fallen and pulled out his knife.

click

Sabin halted in his tracks. He could feel the eyes of another man behind him.

There had been three, not two.

He had still been four steps away from the tall man in the lead, who turned around with what seemed to be a look of admiration. An axe was held out and ready, his one-eyed visage evidence of his warrior status. He wore a plain cloak that was the shade of the forest, only a single symbol above his heart marred his camouflage. It was a white octagon with the Imperial Emblem painted in red. From a distance, it looked like dripping blood.

"You don't look like one of them," he announced simply.

Sabin didn't know what the one-eyed man was talking about, but stood tall and awaited the killing shot from the crossbow behind him.

"You're not Guild, are you? You're protecting the village in valley," he continued to muse.

There had been enough oddities today that Sabin suddenly made the connection. The elite nature of the men -- without a single one that looked like a Guild Member or displaying the traits of a Magitek Knight -- and the way they moved, acted, and responded to any perceived threat.

"You're hunting them," Sabin whispered.

The one-eyed man dropped his axe slightly.

"Lower your weapon, soldier."

Siana's hiss was like that of a cobra. It carried in the moist forest air, clearly coming from behind the man with the crossbow.

The one-eyed man's single eye flickered towards his ally in the bush. It was a chance that Sabin could have taken, a quick strike to the throat and his opponent would be down. Their plan would continue and hopefully, they could protect Dorset without too many deaths.

But instead, he took a chance.

"I am protecting the village," Sabin acknowledged. "And who are you?"

The one-eyed man's attention returned to Sabin. The half-smile on his face was definitely one of admiration. "Military training," he noted. "Well, it seems like you have the upper-hand for now. In hopes of avoiding bloodshed, might I suggest we all lower our weapons? You might have the advantage, but your plan with the rocks won't work. The village would suffer if any of my men were to fall."

Sabin gritted his teeth. He had chosen to risk it all. "Let go of him," he said to Siana, deliberately leaving out her name.

A grunt of frustration -- she probably didn't like his decision -- and then something happened that made the one-eyed man nod in approval.

"I think it's unlikely the Guild managed to come here, given those rather... fortunate acts of nature," the one-eyed man continued. "I think we're friends."

"And why is that, Imperial?"

"Because I am High Inquisitor Miles of the Imperial Inquisition. Our group has been hunting those affiliated with the Guild at the command of the Empress Danielle. So we have a common enemy, man of Dorset, and that makes us friends."

---

"-and the Inquisition has been active in pursuing any possible connection to the Guild. So far, we believe that they have yet to cross the ocean and spread the damned Plague, but we cannot be sure."

Twelve heads today, one more than yesterday. Edgar's tally had gone up again as yet another messenger was murdered.

"It would be best if we coordinated our efforts," Danielle levelled an unnerving look at Edgar. "We need to restrict ocean travel."

Edgar sighed. He had to focus. "These pirates, what would they gain by making such a crossing?"

"Petty criminals do not concern me," Danielle tapped the desk for dramatic effect. "The lawless brigands have been crushed once more and what remains is unlikely capable of the crossing."

"Then why have your vessels so far north in our waters?" Edgar countered. "What we need to do is to tighten our grip on the Guild and keep them isolated. That's why I offered you my ships and that's what they're doing now: ensuring the Maverick does not escape."

That was not all they were doing, but Edgar left that unsaid.

"We do not know the intentions of fanatics," Danielle admitted. "But the threat that still exists is not directed towards the Empire, they cannot pass into the east. It is reasonable to assume that they will seek refuge and there are many places in the north where they could hide."

Edgar agreed reluctantly. He could see where this was going.

"The fanatics must be completely destroyed. Our forces will pursue them wherever they flee, even within your country."

"That would be infringing on our sov-"

"Edgar, enough," the Empress snapped. Today, Danielle seemed unusually impatient. "We are either allies or not. I am not suggesting that my armies will establish a permanent presence, nor even independent movement through your kingdom. I am asking for us to work as partners, not just here, but wherever the enemy hides."

Despite knowing Danielle's loathing of equivocation, Edgar was out of choices. Until more facts arrived and he was sure that this alliance was not in error, he had to delay. Until he was sure the Empire would not turn around and stab them in the back once its borders were secure, he would only commit the absolute minimum. He had to do everything in his power to assure the safety of his people.

"That's quite reasonable, but I am unwilling to commit until Arvis returns. There is more to the northern continent than just Figaro," Edgar pointed out reasonably. It had barely been a week since Arvis had left. That gave him over two months of excuses.

"Then wait, King Edgar," Danielle lowered her arms. "Wait and pray that when the Plague strikes the north, I am still willing to commit my men to die for a foreign cause. Perhaps I might send a token force of ships -- say... two divisions -- and keep my own people out of danger while maintaining our relations."

Blunt and brutal; Edgar knew this was a dangerous game he was playing. He could feel everything and everyone slipping away from him. Events were moving at a brisk pace, like a tide that was dragging him out to sea. Cyan and Strago had both abandoned him, each risking their lives and fighting the Plague in their own manner. Terra's commitment made theirs' seem pitiful and with her was Locke. Everyone else had already decided the path they would follow. Edgar was alone.

Alone to barter, to scheme, to decide the fate of the world.

"Perhaps we could work on a more detailed agreement, outlining a path to guide our nations through this crisis and become closer friends," his words took on a meek quality. Let her believe she had the upper-hand. Edgar needed time to think and regain a grasp on the situation. If the price was his pride and dignity, well so be it.

"That's interesting, a plan towards mutually beneficial goals. But I wonder, what would do you see at the end of this road, King Edgar?"

"As closer allies, I believe a day will come when we leaders would meet as friends, advising instead of negotiating. It would be the same for any of our subjects; there would be no apprehension when speaking to someone of another continent."

Danielle smiled. "That is a... peaceful vision."

"What do you see, Empress?" Edgar responded in kind, asking her to define an abstract term.

"I see the same as you, but more," Danielle gestured around them. "I see our military working together, soldiers eating with one another at a common table. I see us agreeing upon necessary courses of action, debating as peers joined in a common cause to secure our nations' safety."

Edgar mentally frowned; to her, even the notion of peace was seen in such a martial light.

"I see our people trading with one another: food, drink, books, art, workmanship... all manner of thought, freely exchanged and encouraged."

... and military technology, Edgar realized. Suddenly, everything became clear.

Danielle knew, or at least, suspected that they had developed something to counter the Empire. Certainly secrets could not be kept forever, not when Figaro commanded ships that could sail beneath the seas. And as time continued to pass, the probability that she would find about their submersibles would grow. It was inevitable.

This was an even more dangerous game than he had possibly imagined.

"For now, that is certainly a dream. But with some forethought and planning, such friendship might be achievable," Edgar remained calm and diplomatic despite the frantic churning of emotions. His mind ran wild with possible scenarios. He feared that Figaro's secrets would be laid bare and they defenceless against the vast might of the Empire.

Could Danielle know about their ships? Or worse, did she suspect what Narshe had created? They had managed to keep their finest invention a secret for so long! Only against Magitek Armors had it been used in desperation, and those pilots were dead and Terra's mind a haze.

"I propose a break, I am sure you have much to attend to," Edgar finished.

"Until tomorrow," Danielle agreed. "Lunch as always?"

Edgar wiped his lips and stood. "Of course. A pleasure, as always, and my compliments to your chef."

Baldric was already standing by the entrance, stepping aside in order to allow Edgar through. The King of Figaro paused outside as the flaps to Danielle's tent closed. He took a deep sigh.

Alone.

Edgar had known since he had been a child that his future was going to be a great challenge. He knew his responsibilities; never once had he questioned the path he walked. Everything fell upon his shoulders ever since his father fell ill. He had his duty... and he would not shirk from it.

"Sabin," Edgar muttered. He hoped the best for his brother.

"Unacceptable!"

With reserved surprise, Edgar realized that he was still alone. Baldric had not led him outside and past many bodyguards that protected the Empress. Instead, Edgar was left unguarded before Danielle's tent. This had never happened before.

Voices were coming out of the Empress' tent; there was little more than a thin weatherproof cloth between them. Edgar's ears perked up and against his better judgement, he decided to listen. With an uneasy eye kept on the entranceway, he strained the limits of his senses.

"Please, Empress," it was Baldric's deep voice pleading with Danielle.

"You know what happened to 7th," Danielle snapped. "There is no recourse! If the outbreak cannot be stopped, they will be decontaminated the only way we know how!"

"The army was aware of such risks when they fought, and I am aware of the same."

"You are not fighting," Danielle was irritated. Edgar could tell her composure was broken, her voice shook in a way that he had never heard before and her speech patterns were breaking down. "You're throwing your life away."

"I ask very little, Empress. All I desire is a week of time-"

"To travel to Mansfield and die," Danielle growled.

"The outbreak there is not so bad."

"It isn't contained!" Danielle's anger was unrestrained. "We can't contain it, you big fool! We're strained enough as is trying to keep the provinces from infection. I actually had to assign soldiers too green to pacify monsters to the recent outbreaks in Mansfield and Ethelben, there's no one left!"

"Empress, I will not let my nephew remain alone."

"You can't come back," Danielle snapped.

"Then I will not. But with my sister dying, Tyler has no one. You remember Tyler, don't you? He has curly brown hair and loves to tinker-"

"Baldric, please," Danielle reasoned. "If he's all that remains of your family, fine. I'll send Inquisitors to retrieve him. After the quarantine, you can go meet him. I'll give you as long as you need then."

"He needs his family now. His mother is dying. I must be with them."

There was silence, a long period in which Edgar thought he might have been discovered. But then Danielle's voice returned.

It was nothing more than a wretched, raspy whisper.

"I don't want to see you die too, Baldric. I've lost so many..."

"I have been but a ring of steel around you, my Empress," Baldric remained composed. "I have always been willing to sacrifice myself for your sake. Ten years, I have devoted myself to your service without reservation. Please, let me help my family. Tyler is all that's left."

One by one, the hollow sound of her finger tapping lightly against the desk dispersed through the thick silence.

"Granted," she whispered hoarsely.

"Thank you, my Empress. It has been an honour."

The sound of slow, heavy steps could be heard approaching.

And Edgar hurried away, his feet taking him as fast as they could. His back was slick with sweat despite the cool air. His heart was pounding faster than his legs moved, but not because he feared he would be seen.

He could not bare to look up, to even acknowledge the presence of Imperial soldiers. He just wanted to run away.

---

It stank in Vector. The high-heat of summer was bad enough, but when mixed with stench of rotting corpses, it created something truly nauseating. The air felt thick, so moist that it stuck to the flesh and even with the coarse soap provided by the Imperial Army, required multiple scrubbings to wash away.

It wasn't hell -- Strago had lived too long to so easily label any situation the terror of terrors -- but his heart ached and his stomach turned.

Imperial Guardsmen, still wearing their black-trimmed brown leather, were well-prepared with lances and shields. Ten men protected Strago as he prowled the streets of Vector, their demeanour enough to scare people away during peaceful times. In desperate days such as these, only the truly deranged gave them a second glance.

Strago heard soft sobs coming from one of the buildings on the side of the road, the doors themselves barricaded so that nothing -- hopefully not the Plague -- would enter. Many had smartly stayed indoors, isolating themselves from all but their closest loved ones.

It didn't help.

The Plague struck at a whim, killing entire families in one room but leaving their neighbours totally untouched. In some cases, entire buildings were full of the symptomatic, while others who had nursed the dying remained healthy for weeks. Strago remembered a family of six, everyone had been in the advanced stages except for the grandfather. A frail, old man whose life was at risk from the common cold, and he had to watch everyone he ever loved die before him.

Strago wept every night.

The riots had calmed down, not because the people had finally respected the wishes of their imprisoners. The army still treated anyone in Vector as an enemy; their battlements encircled the capital without fail. Everyone knew about the Principate Slaughter -- how their own army had turned Magitek Armors on an innocent and unarmed crowd. They detested the Imperial Army and given a good chance, would probably kill in order to escape Vector.

No, there was emotion enough to incite a riot. It was the lack of instigators that prevented this. Those who had spoken the loudest, swayed the crowds to their will and sent people against their former-protectors, it was they who had fallen to the Plague the quickest. People were deathly afraid of speaking out -- the Plague struck those who gathered crowds and spoke ill of the world.

Strago gave a half-hearted nod to the men guarding the Imperial Gates. Failure again, as it always. They had nothing to go on. The books -- if they even had analogous situations! -- were cryptic and rarely contained anything of substance. Everything the labs had tried, magical or not, had no effect. They were powerless.

One of the head scientists was waiting for Strago. There was not even hope on the man's face, apprehension gave way to resignation the moment Strago shook his head.

"Were there any abnormalities at least?" the scientist asked as he fell into step beside Strago.

"The children were further along," Strago answered darkly as he strolled through the halls of the Imperial Palace. His feet carried him at a brisk pace; the only thing keeping him going was force of habit. Children were dying. Kids! How could anyone have created such a horrible thing?

"You'd think that with these statistics, that the Plague is weakening and be more susceptible to our remedies," mumbled the frustrated scientist. "I thought it was a blessing."

"Yes, a blessing," Strago growled. "And if by blessing, you mean prolonging the pain before a gruesome death, then I might agree with you."

The Plague had changed. People were living longer once symptomatic, commonly surviving two weeks. Some had survived a month, outliving many that came down with the Plague after they did. The scientists were fearful that epidemic was changing in order to resist a cure; that their efforts were doomed to failure from the beginning.

So far, that seemed to be the case.

"I'll go over the data again. I doubt anything will change though," the scientist added under his breath.

"Yeah, go ahead," Strago sighed. He rubbed his eyes, tired from the day. Anytime he went out to observe and monitor those given treatments, he came back with a profound sense of mortality. It grew day by day, a pit of despair and fear that they might never find a cure.

That the Plague would consume all of civilization -- another apocalypse only a thousand years after the last.

Terra was on her balcony again, one that overlooked Vector from the high towers of the Imperial Palace. She was by her lonesome but as always, carried a single dagger for protection. Strago thought the weapon was a tad small and given the yellow gemstone on its handle, probably nothing more than decoration. That didn't mean Terra was unarmed though, far from it. If her magic was not enough to give a man pause, her shadowy protectors -- Imperial Guardsmen of the elitist nature -- were always close by.

She gazed over the Imperial Capital, resting her head in her hands while leaning upon the guard-rails. A thin red coat was wrapped around her upper-body, it was always there no matter what the weather was like. Her long grey hair fluttered freely in the wind. There was a hard look in her eyes and she was muttering to herself.

"Again, nothing changes," Strago reported gravely.

Terra straightened. A book had been held open by her elbows, one that she quickly set aside face-down. "I'm sorry," was her only response.

What intuition she had was apparently not enough to overcome this menace. Her power to heal did not even delay the inevitable. Strago studied Terra's haunted look, the hopelessness within deepening as he did so.

How could she not know what to do? Was she not the daughter of an Esper? Was she not a creature of magic incarnate and sensitive to the fabric of reality itself? She had mastered spells he had never known existed, understood principles that he could never grasp without seeing them in practice. She had lead them to victory over those who had sought to control the Gods themselves, against odds that were surely astronomical...

If she did not know how to fight the Plague, what hope did he have?

"What about the books? Have there been any further hints?" Terra's half-hearted questions snapped Strago out of his brooding silence.

"None," Strago answered.

"Certainly something has to be there, we haven't covered even a quarter of all them," Terra pointed out. Though her words carried hope, there was none to be found in her despondent voice.

It annoyed Strago for some reason. "The books are worthless!" he snapped. "Inaccurate history with nothing resembling facts, they're more of a collection of stories and legends passed down the ages by half-wits barely capable of literacy! Oh the great Odin and his retinue's wondrous disappearing act," Strago's voice dripped with sarcasm. "We don't need anymore ballads about battles fought millennia past, and I swear I'll burn the next book that gives me a fifty-page poem about the beauty of deities!"

Terra lowered her head. "I understand how difficult it is... most of my books also cover the same subjects, written about the cause of war and what must be done to ensure it never happens again. The War of the Magi was the culmination of many foolhardy mistakes rather than a single root cause. It seems they wanted us, their descendants, to avoid their mistakes."

"Well, all they managed to do was to bind worthless piles of paper together," Strago grumbled. "Nothing useful has been found in the books."

"Not for combating the Plague," Terra agreed. She gestured at the blue book she was just reading. "They do give insight into other things though. We know the origins of those great beasts, the flying green skull and its kin, and we have an idea of how to deal with them permanently. If they return, countermeasures are in place to destroy these monsters bred for war. Our future is secure."

"If one exists," Strago grumbled. "The dead are piling up and our quarantines have only delayed the spread of infection. Forget about those monsters -- no one's seen them for months anyways!" he added beneath his breath. "There's no indication we'll ever stop this Plague!"

Terra's hands dropped. "You don't really believe that, do you?"

"Do you believe otherwise?" Strago replied.

"Of course," Terra answered. She turned back to Vector. "I have a destiny," she declared.

Strago furrowed his brow.

Terra closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if it was as fresh as the spring breeze instead of the putrid, death-soaked fog that choked Vector. "I've made promises," she whispered to the heavens.

Strago was exhausted. "Terra, we're friends, are we not?"

"We are."

"Then forgive me for asking, because no one else dares... but we need you in the labs with us. Your responsibilities as the First Citizen, they're too much. Some days, I don't even see you while we slave away improving yet another antidote. We need your guidance."

"I can't leave the Empire alone, not at this crucial time. It's during this crisis that the greatest challenges arise, the ones that could fragment what administration remains and turn generals into warlords."

"Terra, we can't find a cure," Strago said pointedly. "We don't even know where to begin! Everything -- everything! -- has failed."

"You have the best minds in the world. The best facilities and what resources there are, they're yours."

"But we need you," Strago begged. "We need your undivided attention."

"I can't give you that."

That she did not even consider his request, it infuriated him. "You would ignore the plight of the suffering, of the hundreds dying in Vector each day? Of the thousands throughout the Empire? For what, shuffling pieces of papers around?"

"Strago..." Terra warned with a low growl.

"You work daily to maintain power over the living dead," Strago snapped. "Go ahead! Keep writing your letters and conversing with nobility. Before you know it, this will be an Empire of corpses!"

When he had first met her, Terra would have been too shy to respond to such an insulting remark. When he had met her again, just a few weeks ago, she would have snapped back with the fury of a blazing fire.

Now, she folded her arms calmly and mused over his words.

"Strago," Terra answered at last. "I've lied to you. I don't spend my days maintaining relations with the House of Lords, and I've only given a cursory glance at edicts for the outer provinces. Despite what you think, I'm doing my best to save everyone."

"You're working on a cure without me?" Strago supposed he should have been insulted by being left out of her inner circle, but instead he felt just the slightest bit of hope.

"It's perspective," Terra answered. "Going into Vector everyday, I can see why you're so upset. But you have to remember that what you see is only part of the story. Devoting all our efforts into a cure for this Plague is a short-sighted response."

This Plague; the intonation left no room for other interpretations. "You mean there are more?" Strago whispered dreadfully. A shiver travelled down his spine as he already knew the answer. Terra's intuition on this matter was unlikely wrong, and her command over the Imperial network could not be discounted.

"Almost certainly," Terra acknowledged. "I've faced the Guild more than once and I tell you: the fanatics never rest. They'll keep improving what they have," her voice faltered, "-even if they're spells," she whispered.

"Another plague," Strago felt weak in the knees and quickly sat down. The air seemed thicker than normal, breathing was so much more difficult. "And we don't even have a cure for the first."

"That's why I haven't had the time to help you, because I can see the big picture. In fact, it's all I see. Everyday, I wake up and I remember what Anson told me. He was prophetic and had a keen sense of the challenges we would face. There are dark things out there, shadows that threaten life itself. The Maverick and his fanatics have set loose this Plague, but it's just the tip of their sword. They haven't unsheathed it fully and I don't know if they're ready to, but I won't devote my time to fighting just the first phase."

Strago understood. They had to find something generic but powerful -- a spell designed to fight any malady like the Plague. Anything less and the next iteration could wipe them out.

"If you need my help..." Strago offered.

"No, because I still hope you'll succeed. Your work is easier than mine, and we need it to give people hope for the future. That's why I've decided to assign Catherine to you."

"Your warrior mage? She's not exactly the thinking type."

"No, but she sees things in a different light," Terra explained. "It's all we have left, hopefully you'll succeed."

"Hopefully we'll both succeed," Strago corrected.

"It'll take time."

To forge a new spell? "It always does," Strago replied. He wasn't sure if it was even possible, history on the War of the Magi rarely referred to such details and instead focused on bravery and heroic deeds. With the Sealed Gate destroyed and the link to the Esper Realm lost, they could not seek the help of Espers and learn spells from creatures for whom magic was instinct. They had to rely on their own abilities...

Strago watched the grey-haired half-Esper, the only being alive who was still attuned to the fabric of magic. Terra seemed invigorated by their conversation. An ambitious look was on her face, one that gave Strago hope.

But if Terra could not forge a new healing spell, then the next plague would come. And perhaps they might find a cure for that, but then another one would come... and again and again. They would always be one step behind until at the very end, when there were no more left alive to fight.

Their future laid in the hands of Terra Branford.

---

Strago was not one to leave his fate in the hands of others though. He rested in the Marble Square, wishing that the Empire had bothered to repair the center of the Imperial Palace. Admittedly, it was probably a waste of resources. The Empire did not entertain foreign guests during a war and citizens were refused entrance. Only those who lived in and protected the palace would see the aftermath of magical battle.

There had been trees once, but they were cut down now. Even the stumps were blackened through, drained of life by sorcery. Rings of barren soil ringed the phantoms of proud oaks, not even the slightest hint of colour remained to delight the eye. Marble was cracked or broken, smudged by dirt and shrivelled by fires. Melted metal were frozen upon the walls, forever dripping from the decorative gold bands they once formed.

Strago frowned. This was too depressing a place to wait.

But wait he did, until wide-shoulders guards with rings of black leather approached him. Catherine was at her physical peak; shapely, rock-hard muscles peaked out from beneath the segmented armor. Strago had confused the warrior mage as a man more than once, her face was covered with battle-scars and her head was shaved bald. Her feminine charms were hidden beneath layers of leather, cloth and muscle.

"Lore-master. My Sophis has assigned me to your service," her voice was feminine in pitch, but her inflection was more like a man's.

"Call me Strago," he rose from his seat and they shook hands.

"As you wish."

"I hope you're up to date with the research," Strago said as the two began to walk towards the laboratories beneath the palace. "I don't have time to explain everything."

Two Imperial Guardsmen broke their statuesque forms and trailed the pair. Strago had been assigned bodyguards by Terra despite his objections. He did not need to be protected, least of all by illiterate mindless brutes. However, Terra had been insistent and he preferred her mind clear of everything save the Plague.

"I read all reports available up until yesterday's," Catherine announced. "Your research directly follows the scientific method, so it wasn't difficult to understand the underlying ideas. You still believe in advancing a potent counter-poison, correct?"

"That's one idea," Strago answered. "Unfortunately, none of the improvements have had any effect. Even alleviating the pain has been beyond us, the magical element is what we can't grasp."

Catherine pursed her lips. "There was no mention of this in the reports."

"That's because there's no evidence supporting it."

"Then it's a poor theory."

Strago rolled his eyes. "The Empire's schools are too strict. I swear your education chokes your ability to think! Don't you people value the experience and intuition of your elders?"

"Your many years indicate our failures are due to magic in the Plague?"

He nodded. "It's a gut feeling."

"Then we should try experiments in that direction."

Considering the abrupt change of heart, Strago expected mockery on the warrior mage's face. Instead, Catherine was perfectly serious, which thoroughly confused Strago. "Didn't you just say that without evidence, my theory is worthless?"

"Correct. But if you believe in it, then perhaps there is some merit."

Strago scoffed. "Now you're just humouring an old man."

"I am not," Catherine stated flatly. "I believe there are things we cannot understand, Strago. I believe that gut feelings are more than just that. I have magic," an icy flame burst in her upturned palm. It started to suck the warmth out of the air, glowing a bright whitish-blue as it devoured the heat of summer. "I didn't learn this through repetition, I just follow my instincts."

"Funny, I do the opposite," Strago grinned. "I believe that's the definition of irony."

"But you understand what I'm saying," Catherine let the flame flicker out and die. "I've seen the way you look at the Sophis. You believe in her, just like I do."

Strago twitched ever so slightly hearing Terra's appellation. He suppressed his revulsion. "I value her instincts, if that's what you mean."

"You have faith in her decisions," Catherine stressed. "I do so as well, and I don't need hard evidence to tell me what I already know."

"Now hold on," Strago held up a hand. "Terra is half-Esper. She is literally part of magic itself. I mean, she's sensitive to the metaphysical in ways we could never understand. That's why I value her judgement in these matters, not because of faith."

"Then I value your opinion for the same reason," Catherine answered.

Strago lost a step. "What do you mean by that?"

"Are you not a descendent of the Mage Warriors? Were you not born with magic?"

"I am," was his slow response.

"Then you are also connected in ways I could never be," Catherine pointed out. "As much as I wish I was born with magic, I was not. You are special, Strago."

"I don't feel that way."

"I've protected the Sophis for many months now, and I am certain she does not think herself different from us. Her humility is noble, but the truth remains."

Strago was surprised by the woman. He had never thought someone who devoted so much time towards maintaining her physical shape -- to train daily for battle -- could be so insightful. "I think I misjudged you, Catherine. That was very perceptive of you."

If she was encouraged by his compliment, she didn't show it.

"Well then, do you want to hear the mad ravings of an old man?"

It was at that moment that five men strolled past them, their cloaks swishing against the ground as they waltzed through the center of the corridor as if they owned the entire palace. Both Strago and Catherine pressed up against the wall and let them pass. Their octagonal badges were easily visible even from a distance: the Inquisition. As the metaphorical arm of the Empress, their unlimited authority and explosive temperament made them feared by many.

Strago shook his head disapprovingly at the backs of the Inquisitors. Even if they were hunting down the Shrouded, their ways were disgusting.

"I prefer not to hear it," Catherine was unshaken, instead continuing the conversation as if it had never been interrupted. "But the labs are far away so I'll entertain your ranting."

Strago smiled at the level of self-confidence radiating from the warrior mage. "Well then," he began, feeling more confident just by being near her. "I believe we need to weaken the Plague's magical components with a fighting spell of our own. Then we let an antidote finish both weakened combatants. The only problem is that we need a sample of the original or else we risk killing the patient outright."

They turned the corner and followed a series of five gold and silver threaded arches. They were spaced part, each supported by marble columns that were engraved with images of historic battles of the Empire. Most of the carvings were damaged -- chipped or gauged by lethal steel.

"Another attacking spell within a diseased body? A dangerous idea... the balance would have to be perfect or else we'd create a monster more horrible than the one we're fighting. We'll definitely need an original sample, but I doubt we'll get any with all things considered," Catherine pointed out.

"Right, so the enemy must have thought that the initial stages of the Plague were its weakest point. I think that's the key: we need the weaponized form of the epidemic."

"We have failed to capture any of the Guild alive."

Strago sighed. He felt depressed again. "I suppose even if we did, it would take another week before we could get our hands on a sample. It's too bad none of our spells have ever interacted with the Plague. If we found even some magic that had an effect, maybe we could use that to fight the pathogen."

"Spells do not heal the wounds caused by the Plague?"

"You're not a healer, are you?"

"I could never could grasp the concept."

"No wonder," Strago humphed. "We ordered all the healers to treat the illness, but little can be done. We haven't even succeeded in comforting the dying; absolutely nothing we cast has an effect."

Catherine stopped in mid-step below an archway. "You mean the spells succeed, but it's as if nothing is there to heal?"

"Yeah," Strago failed miserably to keep away the image of a diseased girl he had just met. She had been covered in lesions, her lungs filling with fluid... twelve years of age with not another week to live. "We're fighting an atrocious monster," he whispered.

Catherine glanced around them. Aside from Strago's silent bodyguards, no one else was near. "We had the same problem a while ago," her voice lowered. "All manners of scanning, healing... nothing worked."

"Same problem?" Strago echoed.

"When trying to find Remiel Lilienthal's killer."

"Who?"

Catherine frowned. She quickly explained who Remiel Lilienthal was, describing the Governor, his peculiar condition, and the vicious ambush that led to his death. "We were tasked months ago in finding out why his entire body had seemed completely drained, but never got anywhere. As time passed, the autopsy was officially re-prioritized and we moved to other matters."

"Did the body not rot on you?"

"That was why we were so confused. It didn't seem like it was decaying."

Strago scratched the growing whiskers of a beard on his chin. "Intriguing. Ageless, you say?"

"So I was told."

"Killed by the fanatics?"

"So everyone was told."

There was a glimmer in Strago's eye. "Take me to this body."

---

Blissfully unaware of the Empire's deteriorating conditions and the growing death toll, a dozen Figarian vessels swayed to and fro in cold waters far from their homeland.

"The Lieutenant is nervous."

Arvis lowered his telescope. "Admiral Amedeo," he greeted the thin, wizened officer. The old man seemed starved, though only yesterday Arvis watched Amedeo eat a hearty meal. Considering his voracious appetite and unlimited energy, Arvis could not imagine why the man was so gaunt. Amedeo was almost dwarfed by his own uniform.

"You are a guest upon this ship, but we have officers on deck for a reason. There is no reason for your continual oversight."

Their ship swayed side to side and a salty mist lingered in the air. "I'm just nervous," Arvis explained. He gestured at the wall of fog all around them.

"We are in no danger, even in these foreign waters. Have faith, my Lord."

"I'm no Lord," Arvis protested.

Amedeo scoffed with his back half-turned. "Of course not," he declared.

Arvis shook his head in confusion. Such a strange old man.

"Admiral, UCS reports enemy contact," one of the senior Lieutenants saluted as he climbed the stairs to the quarterdeck. "They're trailing a single vessel. By its size, they're sure it's a ship of the line."

So they were coming, Arvis mused. That was quick.

"How long until they arrive?" whatever might have sapped Amedeo's physical strength did not drain his voice. He was loud, brash, and authoritative.

"UCS judged another five minutes by their wake."

"Lazy fools, remind them that any further delay would make them irrelevant. Letting the enemy come so close is a careless mistake!"

"Aye sir."

Amedeo turned to yet another officer. "Signal the fleet and beat to quarters!" he ordered. "Then I want you to personally handle the cargo. We can't afford anything to be broken; we have no spares."

The man saluted.

"And keep a close eye on the gun crews. Everyone's already nervous and this ship is arriving far too early. It could be a trap, but the last thing I want is an errant sailor spoiling everything."

Arvis glanced landward, looking for the ship that the submersibles had found. Even with his telescope, nothing could be seen through the mist. "I'm glad we have the UCS, otherwise this fog would be the end of us," he noted.

"Their reports are too slow at this range," Amedeo growled. "They make fine scouts further out, but I wouldn't trust that information. One, five or fifteen minutes; it could be anything."

"I'll keep an eye out."

"If you desire so, my Lord. Just don't make my men look bad."

Arvis cut short his sigh. He turned back to the mist.

The minutes passed by slowly, rife with tension. Their ship was the only source of noise, the ocean was quiet today and not a bird was near. Groans came from below their feet as men moved the cargo, but that only lasted a moment before being abruptly silenced. A system of pulleys was set above Arvis, those sailors working professionally without a word.

And then three minutes later, the sailor keeping watch whispered below.

"Sir, sails! East, over there," the young lad pointed.

The mist had allowed the vessel to come much closer than normally possible, but the Figarian fleet was already well-prepared. Amedeo pulled out his own telescope and joined Arvis' search.

"That's definitely Imperial-built -- what an ugly beast," the Admiral growled. "And they've come early, which means either they're feisty or we're in trouble. Lieutenant, open gunports!"

Arvis didn't protest, the response might have been hasty but they were definitely treading dangerous waters here. He scanned the enemy's decks; the sailors were all uniformly Imperial.

"Well, I've done all I've can. Now we pray."

"For what?" Arvis asked as he continued to scan the deck of the approaching vessel.

"That the ship is actually the one we're waiting for. I don't like the idea of dealing with former-Imperials, they're all the same: heartless bastards who can't be trusted."

Arvis sighed. "They did respond to our offer rather quickly."

"Yes, and with a ship of that size. I hope that we didn't approach the wrong Imperials."

"That's unlikely," Arvis tried to soothe the worries of the Admiral, but found himself wondering the exact same.

"All the same," Amedeo turned to his officers. "Hold until my signal. Reassure the men that the situation is under control."

"Is it, sir?" a freckled midshipman asked.

"Anymore of that kind of lip and you'll be swimming home!" Amedeo snapped. "You know better!"

But the officer did have a point, Arvis reluctantly admitted. His telescope scanned the approaching vessel. Her gunports were closed, but it could have been an elaborate trap that they had played into. If Danielle had the slightest suspicion, she would have waylaid their route with her own ships, ordering them to act like-

Arvis opened his mouth in shock as his eye passed a caped sailor. He refocused on that man, recognizing the face from all the posters. "Admiral," he said as he lowered his telescope. "It's the right ship. There's no need for our guns."

"I'll trust your judgement-" Amedeo scowled, "-but I won't trust any Imperial. Bloodthirsty and honourless dogs, that's what they are. I even have the Boatswain and our marines ready in case we're boarded."

"I wouldn't worry about that. They've conceded to all our conditions and more."

"So? Don't ever trust the Empire!"

"They'll do exactly as we say. They're desperate."

"And how do you know that, young man?"

Arvis let the Admiral's attitude slide and instead pointed. "Do you see the man with broad shoulders on their quarterdeck, beside those two with pikes?"

It took but a second for Amedeo to find that figure with his telescope. "The one with the burned cheek and black cape?"

"That's him."

"Their Captain? Very well, he'll have the honour of falling first."

"No Admiral, that's not just any mere captain. It's their General," Arvis gritted his teeth. "It's the Maverick himself, come to do business with us."

Beneath his breath, Arvis muttered:

"Edgar, you better be right about this."