Terra awoke and took in her surroundings groggily. There was nothing spectacular about the room from what she could see, aside than the fact that it was dark. Her head throbbed, as did her wrists and ankles, and with some slight experimental movements, she realized she was cuffed around each appendage, including her neck, and secured to a chill metal table. A few console lights blinked in the darkness, giving a rough indication of the size of the room. It appeared to be only twenty feet long, and about fifteen feet wide. There was the faint hum of machinery and fans, and every once in a while, a clicking sound, like a breaker popping, would be heard. Then there was the constant, low beep to her left, an alien sound. Aside from these sensory clues, Terra couldn't discern that she was much of anywhere, aside from a lab.
There was a click sound, and cold florescent lights from above blinded her momentarily. Terra blinked in the harsh lighting, but didn't see anybody in the room. She did note that the reason the table felt so cold is because they had removed all her clothing, save her undergarments. This apparently had a purpose, for many discs with wires connected to them were attached to various spots on her bare skin, most of them on her torso. She turned her face to the left, and saw a small machine that housed all the wires from the discs. It gave off a soft beeping sound, and every time it made a sound, a thin green line would wiggle on a small viewscreen. Terra swallowed hard. She was thirsty, and still weak from both the drugs and her encounter with Shadow.
She blinked a few tears away. So that's what happened to him. Terra always hoped that he had found peace, even in death, but now it was obvious that death didn't claim him just yet. Instead, insanity had found him. Terra choked down her grief as the subject of her thoughts entered the room.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I don't think I need to answer that."
"Indeed. You'd best get comfortable, since you're going to be here for a while." He looked at the beeping machine to her left, and chuckled. "So it would seem that your heart isn't as calm as your face belies. You can't hide your feelings here, Esper. There are too many machines that delve into your very being, and they can nullify any masks you may put on." He turned his back to her as two men in long white coats entered the room. Terra had seen men like this long ago in Vector. Long, white coats always indicated a magicite lab technician there, and the things they did to Espers were horrific.
Shadow stopped and looked over his shoulder as his men approached her. "Behave for my technicians, Esper. The better you behave, the less...stressful things become for you. I would say that I'd make things less painful, but that is entirely impossible." He then left the room, leaving the two alone with her.
The heart monitor to Terra's left increased the rate of its beeping sound as the two technicians got to work.
* * *
The Cave of the Phoenix was still hard to access, even via airship. Setzer bumped Sabin away from the wheel once they reached the appropriate mountain range, and did some expert maneuvering through the twisted, spire-like peaks. Many of the mountains came seriously close to the Falcon's flanks, but her gambler pilot flew her confidently, and brought her to a low hover at the cave entrance. Locke threw down the rope ladder, and looked at the group gathered at the aft deck.
"All right, I'm sure you all remember how this works. There's some traps in this place that have to be disarmed from somewhere else. We'll split up, like you did when you had to find me in this hellhole, and make our way towards the altar over the main lava pit. I'll lead one group, and Celes will lead another. We both know the way." He turned to Gau, who was raising his hand politely. "Yes?"
The boy smoothed back his long hair a bit nervously, as if he felt he was asking a stupid question. "Um, how did you make it through here the first time? That is...if the traps have to be set off from different locations, how did you manage to set them off?"
Locke shrugged. "Easy. Xain lead me through the one way, and Django went through the other."
Gau frowned. "All by himself? With those undead things living down there?"
"You don't know Django." The thief looked at the group. "Are we set?" There was an assortment of nods and affirmative sounds. "Good. Let's boogie."
Cyan and Strago remained on board the Falcon, while the rest of them descended the rope ladder. Mog ignored the ladder and simply flew down, his stubby moogle wings capable of short flights. Edgar lit two lanterns, and extended one towards Locke. "Here. I know that it'll be brighter where the lava is, but I doubt you'll be able to see otherwise."
The treasure hunter accepted the lantern, and handed it to Setzer. "You're taller than me. Hold this."
Setzer took it with a smirk. "No comment." He then went into the cave with Locke, Relm and Gau in tow. Edgar held his lantern high as he, Celes, Mog and Sabin went into the dim entrance.
Without hesitating, Locke went to an obvious pressure plate on the floor, and stepped on it. There was a shuddering sound, and a large hunk of the rock wall swung inward, revealing a passage. "Get on your way, already. I don't want to stand here all day."
Celes stuck her tongue out at him, and went through the door with her group. They found the appropriate pressure plate, and opened a doorway for Locke's group. In turns, they went to certain pressure plates in the warm floor, and caused doorways to open, or stairways to appear, or even traps like spikes to disappear. The whole process took a while, and some of them began to get testy, from the intense heat if anything at all.
Celes wiped at her brow as the Figaro brothers simultaneously stepped on a plate to create a stairway for Locke's group. Both brothers were stripped to the waist, likewise the men across the way in the next group. The ex-general looked at their bare torsos with distaste.
"Lucky bastards." she panted. "At least you can take your shirts off."
Edgar smirked. "Well, if you really want to, nobody's stopping you..."
"Edgar Roni Figaro, I heard that! When you get your royal ass over here, I'm gonna kick it seven ways from Wednesday!" Locke angrily waved his bare arms in the air from across the chasm that separated the two groups. Edgar waved his arms and mimicked the thief, while his brother laughed. Locke did not laugh. "If you think you're funny...."
"Oh, but I am funny. See? Even your girlfriend is laughing."
The rock bridge that spanned the chasm fell into place from the ceiling at that moment, and Locke sprung on the opportunity, running across the new pathway at near-top speed. Edgar managed to blink once before the thief rammed into him. The result was a domino effect, which knocked both men over, and into Sabin, who fell onto his backside. Celes did not fall over, but did nearly collapse in helpless laughter. Gau laughed as well, but Relm just rolled her eyes.
"Ku.....po.....po...." Mog leaned against his pike wearily. "Male or female, at least you guys can take clothing off. I can't remove my sub-arctic fur. Can we PLEASE get this over with, before I boil in my own hide? I'm dyin' here!" With that comment, there was no more horseplay, and they continued to progress to the center of the volcano.
They all reached the particular room where the Phoenix Magicite once was housed, but found it empty. Sabin almost pouted, and scratched at his sweaty hair. "You're kidding me....all that long walk through a damn volcano, and there's nobody here?"
There was a low, animalistic growl from somewhere in the cavern. Immediately they went for their weapons.
Relm made a rueful face. "Oh sure, jinx us while you're at it. Don't you know that things only happen when you say something dumb about them?"
Sabin smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. In any case, it only sounds like one, and there are eight of us."
Locke twirled a dirk in his hand, and put it back into his boot. "Don't bother, it's only Django. At least I think it's him."
"It's me." A low male voice said. It was quiet, almost like a growl, but had something of a refined quality to it. "I won't harm you....unless you're planning something funny."
Setzer held up his lantern, his pale chest glistening with sweat. "Nothing funny, Mr. Django. We just want to see Xain."
There was a strange sound, almost like laughter mixed with a panther's growl. "Mr. Django. That's amusing." The voice seemed to come from everywhere, every word bouncing off the sides of the dome-shaped cavern. "Why do you need Xain?"
Edgar looked around, trying to find the mysterious "Django". "It concerns Cosmo Tower, and the cult residing in it. The cult has one of our friends, so we want to wipe them out and get her back. I think Xain might be interested in this."
"Fine, then." The voice came from directly behind the group. They all whirled around to face the speaker. A large hyena-like beast stood there, regarding them with intelligent gold eyes. It had gray fur and a silver mane, but the end of its tail was peculiar. There appeared to be a bit of oddly-colored blue flame at the tip of its long, slender tail, but the creature seemed unconcerned. It had a large tattoo on its left shoulder, and several on its feline face. It opened its mouth to speak again, showing sharp carnivore teeth. "I'll fetch Xain, then." He fixed his golden eyes on Locke. "Mr. Cole. Good to see you again. How goes your interesting stealing business?"
For once, Locke didn't pounce on the whole "treasure hunter" fiasco. "Fair, I suppose. It's good to see you too, Django. As friendly as ever, aren't you?"
"If you lived in a humid volcano instead of a nice dry desert, would you be happy?" The large beast padded past the group, pausing momentarily to sniff Gau for some reason. It then went to the altar that once held the magicite, and pushed at a panel in its side with a forepaw. A grinding sound was heard, and the large altar lowered down to floor level. The gray animal eyed them as he stepped onto the platform. "Remain here." The altar raised up, pushing its rider to a rectangular hole in the ceiling, where it fit in perfectly. The altar remained in the dome-shaped ceiling, the large basalt pillar of it stretching up nearly a hundred feet. It remained there for several minutes, which seemed somewhat eternal from the intense heat from the lava pits below. The shuddering grinding was heard again, and the platform lowered itself back down. Django sat on his haunches to make room for a woman in robes, who fixed her eyes on the group as the altar placed itself back into its original position.
Sabin grunted. "Who's she? Django...you said you'd get us Xain."
The "woman" frowned, and spoke in an obviously male baritone. "I am Xain..." Django chuckled, and the prince glared at the beast. "Shut up...you know I hate it when people think I'm female."
The gray beast continued to chuckle as he jumped off the altar. "Sorry....it's just I never get tired of that joke."
Xain stepped towards the group, and at a closer range, it was a bit more evident that he was a man, if ever slightly. His soft, effeminate features, pale skin, and long red-black hair distinctly threw off his whole male being. However, he was far too tall to be a woman, just as his hands were too large as well. He flipped the long black braid that was draped over one shoulder, sending it behind his back, and nodded to Locke. "Mr. Cole...a pleasure as always. I'm surprised to see you here."
"Same here, Xain. We need to talk."
"Indeed. Django told me about your plans. Do you really think you can eliminate that cult?"
"We're hoping." Edgar said, extending a hand. "King Edgar of Figaro." he said as the effeminate man shook it formally. "I think a proper explanation is needed here...in quite possibly a cooler environment. We can get into more of formal introductions elsewhere, if that's fine with you."
"More than fine. I, for one, am somewhat used to this blasted heat...but I'm sure my associate here wishes to be elsewhere."
"Oh, and do I ever wish..." Django said with a swish of his flame-tipped tail.
"Xain, I have an airship outside, which I'm sure is more than suitable." Setzer bowed slightly, which looked strange considering his thin, shirtless frame. "I'm Setzer Gabianni, owner of the Falcon."
"Yes, I've heard of you, gambler. Please, let's go to the ship. My personal chambers above are somewhat cooler than this room, and I'm already feeling the heat."
Relm eyed his gold and red robes, which seemed to have something of a religious significance to them. "With that outfit? No wonder."
* * *
Terra rubbed at her wrists as the door to her room slammed behind her. She had no idea how long she had been strapped to that table, but it seemed like ages. They had taken plenty of blood from her, and given her little to eat and drink, so she felt somewhat faint as she sat down on the small cot. At least they had given her back her clothing, if anything. If they meant to demean her, they were doing a good job; however, Terra knew that if she showed any sign of weakness, they would overtake her immediately.
She looked about the small room, which was nothing spectacular. More of those strange fluorescent lights buzzed softly overhead, giving the cell a somewhat cold and harsh lighting. There was something of a toilet in the corner, and a small sink, but no mirror. She didn't even have a window, just a small sliding panel in the door. Obviously, that panel was put in for them to watch her. There was also a small table along the wall opposite to the cot, and a tray with what appeared to be sustenance sat upon it.
Terra wearily got up, pulled the small table, tray and all, over to the cot, and sat down to eat. Might as well make do with what she had; she had no idea how long she was going to be here. Hopefully, her friends were on their way.
* * *
"I see." Xain said with a nod. "I can understand why this friend is so dear to you."
"She's the one that really brought us together." Celes said. "If it wasn't for Terra, most of us wouldn't know each other. Not only that, but I imagine that Kefka would still be in power."
Xain fixed his eyes on her. "And how do you know he still isn't?" The prince rose and walked over to one of the large windows that was in the large room that once was Daryl's sunroom. It now served as Setzer's office and drafting room. Tubes of blueprints for various machines, mostly airships, filled the shelves lining the walls. Books were scattered between the blueprints, some with scraps of paper sticking out between the pages. Despite the addition of the books, blueprints and a large drafting table, Setzer had changed little about the original design, and many comfortable chairs situated around a low oak table took up most of the room. Locke, Celes, Setzer, Strago and Edgar sat in the chairs. Relm stood off to the side with her sketchbook, obviously drawing Django, who calmly sat next to the chair that Xain was occupying moments before.
The prince of Jidoor continued to stare out the window. "Kefka might be dead, but the ideals, insanity, and pure malice that laid behind him still exists. It still exists in the cult. Like most insane organizations, when their leader is gone, they'll attempt to compensate for it in any way possible. They may have a new leader that showed similar traits to Kefka, so in him the cult found a way to survive. No, not survive; flourish." He turned back to them. "Naturally, one would think that eliminating the leader would solve the problem...however, this is not the case. That would be the last step."
Setzer leaned forward in his chair. "First? Why not peg him first?"
Xain sighed. "It's simple: start out with the cult members without ranks...mere toadies. Then, work up to the men of importance. A leader isn't strong if he can't lead anybody." He paced a bit, his long braid trailing behind him. "From what you've told me, your plan is fairly solid. That is, it would be solid if you were merely going to save Terra and eradicate the leader of the cult. However, I think the wisest decision is to slightly alter the plan. One or two people go to find Terra, while the rest of us handle the cult, one by one."
Django looked up at his friend. "What do you mean 'us'?"
The effeminate prince smiled down at the hyena-like beast. "Didn't you know? We're going with, to help them. Gather your tribe, Django. I think we'll be needing them."
* * *
The next morning, Terra awoke from a deep sleep abruptly as somebody shook her roughly. It seemed as if she had just gone to sleep, and here she was...awake again. Damn the luck.
"Get up, witch." Caezin said gruffly. "The Master needs to talk to you."
Terra blinked blearily at him, trying to get some of the sleep out of her eyes. "Master? What does Shadow want with me, anyway?"
Caezin growled low and backhanded her, sending her reeling back onto her cot. "You have no permission to speak ANY of The Master's names....even his old ones. He is your master now, and you'll give him respect. You'd better give him respect, bitch, or things will be very unpleasant for you."
She sat up, rubbing at her cheek. "Things already are unpleasant for me, in case you didn't notice. I don't think it really matters what I think or do at this point, so I refuse to give anybody respect here." She glared up at him as he raised his hand for a second swipe at her. "So what....you'll hit me again, Caezin? For being defiant? What, are you so small that you'd pick on those who are seemingly helpless to make yourself feel bigger?"
The response was another slap. This one brought tears of pain and a salty taste to Terra's mouth. She grabbed at her jaw out of an instinctive reflex from the pain, and he laughed low. "Who said that I was small, Esper? If I can bend you to my will, even from a mere slap, it shows that I have more will and power than you can ever posses."
The half-breed didn't look up at him, but dully stared ahead with her green eyes, gritting her teeth. "You can't bend me...or break me. I won't be broken."
Caezin roughly drew her up to her feet, pulling her face close to his as he leered. His acrid breath invaded her nostrils, no doubt from the half-rotten teeth contained in his malicious smile. "But that is where you're wrong, my dear. You will be broken, even if it half kills you." He then shoved her from her small cell, and marched her down the hall, towards that monster of a staircase.
Terra held her head high, still not willing to submit. She couldn't submit. She wouldn't be broken.
* * *
"Let me get this straight one more time, brother..." Sabin said, eyeing Edgar with a careful eye. "...you want me and the others to go wipe out this cult, and you and one other person will sniff out and get Terra."
"Why can't I go with you, then?"
"Because your skills don't lie in being stealthy, Sabin. I can very well sneak in with one other person, but you're as large and noisy as an ox. I'm sorry...but you'll have to go with Xain's group."
Sabin sighed, rubbing at his face wearily. "Big brother...what if something happens to you? I'd totally hate myself if anything did."
"I'll be fine. You know I can hold my own. Besides, all this material that Celes gave me will protect me."
Celes frowned. "Sorry to interrupt, but can I ask something?"
The larger Figaro brother turned, done rubbing his face. "Yeah?"
She looked at them critically. "You two are twins, right?"
"Yes, we are." Edgar said. "You've known this for a while, remember?"
"Just verifying something. If you two are twins, why does Sabin always call you "big brother"?"
Sabin laughed. "Two reasons. One: Edgar is older by seven minutes. Two, he was always bigger than I was, until we were about sixteen."
Locke looked up from the material orb he was examining. "Didn't you know, Celes? There's always a dominant twin...even when the twins are significantly different. Even though Sabin's much larger than Edgar, Edgar probably beat him up a lot when they were kids."
"Gee, thanks." Sabin said dryly. He then frowned. "I still owe you for that, brother."
"Sure, beat up a king, Sabin. That'll look good." Edgar smiled. "Besides, you were always too damn soft towards family. You'd probably hit me once and then start bawling an apology."
Setzer rolled his eyes. "Look...I didn't get up at the friggin' crack of dawn to discuss brotherly love between the Figaros. We have to finalize everything and get moving. I don't know what they're doing to Terra in there, but I DO know that I want her the hell out." He turned to Edgar. "I'll be going with you."
The king blinked, surprised. He, like anybody else, never really got along with Setzer. Mainly because Setzer was always an ass. "Uh, fine with me. I would prefer Locke, but..." he left it hanging.
Locke set his material orb down. "Nope, I'm going with Celes. If I don't, she'll beat me later."
Edgar gave a light smile. "Cole, you are completely whipped..."
"Me? We're going to rescue your goddamn love interest, aren't we?" There was an uneasy silence. "Well...aren't we?" He grunted. "Anyway, I think you and Setzer will be fine as one group. You're both good when it comes to trouble...and you both can run like hell, too."
Xain looked down at Django. "You'll go with them as well."
"Wonderful." The gray beast flicked his tail, but gave no other real response to indicate his displeasure.
The Jidoorian noble sighed at his companion's reaction, and then looked up at the others. "I will bring several of Django's tribe members with the main group. All are strong, well-trained warriors, and I'm sure that they will prove themselves several times on this excursion. The stratagem for this are simple: we will allow Edgar, Django and Setzer to travel up towards the top of the tower, where Terra is undoubtedly being held. After a good half and hour after they enter the tower, the first wave of magic-users goes. That would be all of us, with our material. Right after that is the wave of fighters, some of my men I have called from Jidoor. They once lived in Cosmo Tower as well, and would be more than pleased to get their proper home back. Finally, the members of Django's tribe will be intermixed with the two waves assaulting the tower. A few will travel with the material group, for back-up; others will go with the group of my men, and finish off any who were weakened by the magic group.
"As sad as it may seem, we shall show no mercy, my friends. All who have willingly joined this cult are insane, and their judgment clouded by the cult's twisted ideals. Trust me when I assure you that giving them death will be granting them a favor. My uncle has sent us supplies along with the men from Jidoor, so there will be hopefully plenty of healing and magical potions to go around. This way, healing magic can be conserved for more major injuries, and exhausted magic-users can be refreshed and made ready to use magic again. Any questions?"
Celes looked at Xain. "One. What happens when we encounter the leader, or at least the high members of the cult below him?"
Strago snorted. "Those "below him" would be people like Caezin. They basically don't have any guts or power, unless their boss backs them up. I think they'd be easy to deal with, considering our numbers."
Xain nodded. "Yes. As for the leader, I figure that even though he most likely is strong, our group is stronger. I know that Celes, Relm and Strago are all strong mages, as am I. With the others in our group, we can easily dispatch this so-called "leader"."
Edgar looked at Setzer, then at the strange beast named Django. "I suppose we should get ready, since we're heading in first. Setzer, we should probably set a course for Cosmo Tower as soon as it gets dark. Until then, we should run through the plan one more time, to check for flaws." His expression was grim. "I seriously don't want to botch this up."
* * *
More wires. More blinking lights. More pain.
A tear slid out of the corner of Terra's eye, unbidden. Luckily, the technician hovering over her with a metal device didn't see her. The pain he was causing with that small piece of metal was incredible, yet Terra didn't cry out. She flinched, naturally; she couldn't stop her instincts and reflexes. But she could control her urge to scream, to cry, to thrash her head from side to side. She promised herself that they wouldn't break her spirit, that they wouldn't rip apart and reshape her mind to their own design. Her soul and her mind were her own, and they were going to stay that way.
Shadow watched many of the procedures with a dull expression. It wasn't as if he enjoyed her pain, although sometimes a glare from Terra would bring that unnatural smile to his lips.
"What do you think when you look at me like that, Esper?" He said with a thin smile. "Do you wish to harm me? Kill me? Or merely let me feel the pain I know you're feeling right now." He shifted his weight, unfolding his slenderly muscled arms. "You can't hide it from me. If I can't see it in your eyes, I can see it through these devices."
Another jab from the device. More pain. Another unwanted teardrop.
"Why don't you cry out? You know you want to. You want to scream my name, curse who I am, do you not? Every time you feel an inch of pain on your bare flesh, you want to cry out, but yet you don't. You can't suppress it for long, Terra. Your human side won't let you."
Her eyes narrowed at his use of her name. "You can poke, prod, cut, burn, or do whatever sick twisted things you want to do. It doesn't matter...I was a magitek soldier for the Empire, and the empire was less kind than you to a half-breed Esper. All the experiments that you ran on me have been run countless times before. What do you think you're going to accomplish?" She bit her lip as the technician touched the metal rod-like device to her underarm area. "You're just wasting your time..." It came out as a near-whisper, but the malice in her voice was very evident.
The technician sighed, and looked up. "It's not working, my Master. She won't transform."
Shadow took a few steps forward, and looked down at the technician's findings that lay on the small table in the room. "This is ridiculous...I myself have seen her transform when she was provoked. Why won't she now?"
So that was it. It wasn't merely Terra they wanted; they wanted the wild, pink-furred Esper that laid inside if Terra. She rolled her head to stare at the ceiling, and sighed. "Because the Esper half of me is dead. Everybody knows that the Espers, along with magic, disappeared. As I said before, you're just waiting your time."
The ninja stepped to the side of the table, and looked down at her. "You couldn't be any further wrong. Magic is very alive, in the form of lifestream...which becomes material. As for Espers..." He snapped his fingers, and the technician came over. "Bring it."
The other man nodded, and left the room for a moment, then re-entered with a sealed jar of already-solidifying lifestream, lifestream in its makoro form. He set it down on the table, and then pulled out what appeared to be an IV with an empty bag.
"Espers are in their own world, which I'm sure you know. They no longer travel among us, save for you." As he talked, the man in the white lab coat jabbed the needle into Terra's arm, drawing blood into the attached plastic bag. The blood had a slightly orange cast to it. "The only way to call the Espers out is to have one of their own kind find one of the many entrances to their world, and ask them to open it."
Terra watched her blood fill the bag, fascinated. "There was only one gate, and it's blocked, forever."
Shadow gave that small, emotionless smile again. "No, there are many ways to the Esper realm, which is nothing more than a pocket of existence just outside our own; another dimention, only accessible by either a formal gate, like the one that you say was blocked...or by small rifts in the fabric of time and space between our two dimensions. I know this much, I've seen it in my past form." He watched as the technician took the needle out of Terra's arm, ignoring the small trickle of blood that made her way down her elbow from the lack of pressure on the pinprick. The white-coated man took the bag of blood, and hooked the nozzle of the bag's tube over a small hole in the sealed jar of makoro. Terra's blood dripped into the old lifestream, causing the substance to hiss and writhe, almost like a snake. When the blood was in the vial, the technician swirled it around to fully mix the two components together. The result was not a brown-tinged substance that lay on the bottom of the jar; instead, the blood and the makoro's joining caused the substance to solidify at an amazing rate, forming a small crystalline orb at the bottom of the glass container. The orb of material rolled inside the jar, giving off a faint glow, but not the usual green glow of material or even lifestream.
The glow was red. Like blood.