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Nothing Like Home

Chapter Text

The airship juddered and set down outside of Tzen, Memry cheerfully calling out instructions to the flight neophytes about how to brace for landing. Cabanela, already having discovered how to negotiate his long legs, steadied Alma, who shot him an all-too-brief smile. He left his arm around her shoulders as Memry finished her landing checks.

“Weeelcome to the Empire, baby,” Cabanela said, shooting a brief glance at the distant outskirts of the town. “Just a quick stop in Tzen, here, and then we can be on our way.”

Alma drew herself up, letting the brief moment of familiarity fade as she shrugged his arm away from her shoulders. “I don’t want to spend much time here, Cabanela. Maybe it would be better to send Lynne in to get whatever information it is you need and let her catch up to us.”

Cabanela shook his head. “My baby doesn’t know where to go or whooo to talk to. These people know me here; old friends, nothing like ‘em.”

Alma shrugged. “All right, then, but you’re not going alone. If you go, we go.”

“I tooold you before, baby, I’m not going to run off again.” He bristled, shoulders stiffening at her tone.

She frowned at him. “I know what you told me, but here’s what I’m telling you: until we see Jowd safe, I’m not letting you out of my sight.”

He drew in a long, incensed breath, ready to argue, but Lynne joined the discussion, possibly to defuse the burgeoning quarrel. “We should probably go! We don’t want to draw any more attention than necessary, right?”

Memry joined in, “I think it would be better for the Ladybird and me to stay in the air, rather than hang around here. We, uh, should probably not be seen in Vector. Have someone send up a signal when you’re ready—we’ll be looking for you. ” She slid a glance at Cabanela. "Tell the old bird hi for me...and, hey, no need to mention how we met again, huh?"

Cabanela shot her an affable grin. "Nooo promises, baby, the Prof would love that story."

Lynne flourished a finger, distracting Memry. “A signal. You mean like this?” She let a fireball build, then flung it away across the deck.

“Hey! You break it, you buy it!” protested Memry. “No fire on my airship! Just shoot it from the ground—hey! I said the ground!”

Lynne, laughing, juggled another fireball and tossed it to Missile, letting it dissipate as it flew.

Missile pranced, barking, making his breath cold so it puffed out clouds, just for the sheer joy of the noise and the sensation. Cabanela and Alma tried to continue their conversation over the barking, and Memry gesticulated at Lynne as she told her off, until all of them were silenced by a tentative voice.

“…Hello? Um, excuse me?”

Memry peered over the balustrade. “Uh, yes? Can we help you?”

The young woman standing below wrung her hands. “Um, we in town were just wondering if you were bringing provisions, or maybe news…? News of our boys?”

Lynne looked over as well. “Your boys? You mean, like soldiers?”

“Oh, yes, miss, they took all the men away almost a year ago and we haven’t heard anything since. H- have you come from the front? Maybe you know something about the men from Tzen?” She peered up at them, eyes pleading.

Cabanela joined them at the railing. “I’m frooom Tzen originally, baby, but we don’t know anythin’ about the soldiers right now.”

Her head snapped up at his voice, the appeal in her eyes turning to abject fear. “General Cabanela! I-I didn’t realize this was your p-personal ship, sir. I’m so sorry, I n-never would have dared—” she backed away, bowing deeply, hand going to cover her face in delayed reaction. “P-please, sir, I hope I haven’t offended you. I won’t ask about them again, sir, just please, please…” She wound down into a mumble, face nearly pressed into the dirt as she groveled.

Cabanela straightened and locked eyes with Alma, who stared him grimly down as she stepped to the railing herself. “Don’t worry, we’re not here to harm you,” she said in her gentlest tones. “We have a scant bit of business in town and then we will be away.”

“Anything, anything for General Cabanela,” the girl choked out. “Just, p-please don’t hurt us. We’ll do anything, just please don’t destroy Tzen!”

Cabanela peered at the town, utterly lost. “Baby, I don’t knooow what you’re talking about. I just need to speak to some folks who live here.”

Confusion filled the girl’s voice. “M-my lord, there’s no one left here who knows you. Not. Not, um. After last time you, er, visited…” She looked up, paled, and quickly averted her eyes from Cabanela’s face, putting her hand over her own eyes again.

Alma’s eyes narrowed. “I think you’d better show us.”

She nodded to Memry, who hit the lever that let down the gangplank. Alma, Lynne, and Missile filed off, leaving only Memry and Cabanela, who hesitated at the top of the plank. She slapped him on the back in comradely fashion, sending him staggering forward just a step. "Remember, don't tell my uncle anything!"

“Come on, Mister Cabanela!” barked Missile. “Don’t be scared!”

Alma stared at him, then huffed out a breath, holding out a hand to him. “Come on. Let’s just get this over with and be on our way.”

He darted a glance at the cowering girl, then carefully walked down the plank, his usual flamboyance muted to near nothing as he put a hand in Alma’s, squeezed with a nearly imperceptible tug, then let go.

“All right, baby, you’re right. Leeeet’s do this.” He stepped out onto the grass, and Memry retracted the gangplank.

“Remember, send up a signal,” she called to Lynne, who nodded and let a brief spark jump off her fingertip, all mirth gone from her face. The airship rose into the air and quickly disappeared into the distance.

Chapter Text

As they entered Tzen, the shock spread outward in ripples. A distant scream echoed, then was quickly hushed. The girl ran as soon as she saw an opening; no one chased after her. No one would look directly at Cabanela; they either turned away as he passed, a deliberate turning of backs as he paced through the streets, or they put their hands over their faces, holding them there as if to mask their identities. The soldiers that patrolled the streets in their Magitek armour made the same odd salute, then whispered amongst themselves as they passed by.

The little group hurried through the narrow walkways, avoiding contact as much as possible, past the shops and houses to a ruined building past the edge of town. Cabanela stared at it, his voice remote.

“I liiived here once, they told me,” he said. “Don’t remember it, but I was booorn to be their servant.”

Alma nodded. He had told them this story, once, long ago when things were wholly different. The Empire had taken this area, destroying the royal family and disrupting centuries of tradition. Cabanela had been taken from the training school that had once stood here and given to the custody of the Empire.

“I always meant to buy this land back someday,” Cabanela continued, face distant. “Seeems it would be pretty useless now. Got nothin’ here that looks like home.” He strolled onward, toward a small stand of thickly-clustered trees.

“I leeeft some things here in a hiding place a couple—no, you said it was a few years ago now,” he explained over a shoulder. “Hooope they’re still here. There was a man I knew who lived in the forest here, hiding from the Empire. If he’s still here, maaaybe he kept them safe for me.”

Lynne cocked her head to the side, puzzled. “We’re so close to Vector here—why would he stay?”

Cabanela stared into the thicket. “He said he wasn’t sure he’d be welcome anywhere else. Weeell… if he’s still here, you’ll see, baby.”

As they entered the densest part of the thicket, a man appeared to ooze from the shadows. “Cabanela. I knew you’d be back.” His blue skin seemed to disappear into the gloom. “Are you here for your things?”

Cabanela smiled at him, relief in his voice. “If they’re stiiill here, baby.” He reached out a hand to clasp the blue man’s shoulder. “Anyhoot, s’goood to see you still safe. I thought maybe you’d gone looong since.”

The man slipped backward. “Where’s your friend? I was hoping to see him again.”

Cabanela cocked his head, puzzlement on his face. “Who are you talking about, baby?”

The man drew himself up, a scowl appearing. “The masked man. I owe him one. Left me some scars I’d love to repay.” He sneered, formerly affable face twisted in rage. “No more than I owe you though, traitor. Led them right to me, you did. Thought I was gone, huh? Bet you thought I’d died.” A knife appeared in his hand, wickedly sharp edge glinting with an oily gleam. “I’m happy to return the favor.”

Cabanela jumped back, a swipe narrowly missing his chest. “Heeey, man, I haven’t seen you in years! Last I knew, I’d gotten you out of Vector and away from the Doc’s experiments.” He pulled his sword, parrying the man’s mad swings. “Gratitude, nothin’ like it.”

“I don’t owe gratitude to someone who turned around and tried to have me conscripted,” spat the man. “And we all know what happens to your soldiers. Your help might as well have been a death sentence.”

He leapt forward, intent on the attack. “I should have known no tool of the Empire could be trusted.”

Alma stepped in front of Cabanela, knocking the man’s knife away with one well-timed swing of her sword. “Whatever your grievance with this man, I’m afraid we have no time to waste. We don’t want to hurt you. Give him his things and we’ll go our separate ways.” She effortlessly knocked away his continued struggles to reach Cabanela or his knife. Missile dashed in, growling, and Lynne slipped around to flank him, until the man finally stilled and stepped away, evidently giving up the plan.

He chuckled, a black and humorless huff of breath. “I’m only here to protect Tzen, as best as I can. After you took away all their men to play soldier, they needed someone. All they’ve got is me. Everyone else is dead, I hear.”  He paced backward. “This isn’t over, Cabanela. I’ll find you again. I only kept your things safe in the hopes that I’d get mine back, and now I know I will.” He gave them the odd salute, hand over his face, and disappeared back into the foliage. “Don’t come back. And if you do, don’t ever be alone.”

Lynne rounded on Cabanela. “What was that all about?”

“I don’t know, baby. I saved him years ago from the magic infusion experiments. I thought we were friends, of a sooort.”

Missile snorted, then sneezed. “He was scared of you, Mister Cabanela!  That’s no way for a friend to be! I’m not scared of my friends!”

Alma looked down at him. “And are you scared of Mister Cabanela?” she asked, smiling a little sadly.

Missile barked and ran in a circle, tail wagging madly, “Not at all!”

Cabanela grinned fondly down at him. “Thaaanks, kid. A vote of confidence, nothin’ like that either!”

He led them through the forest to a tree that appeared to have been blasted with lightning. Reaching into a hole in the trunk, he retrieved a small metal lockbox, from which he removed a key and a small greenish stone.

“This should get us into the Professor’s laaabs,” he said, brandishing the key with a flourish. “And I found this befooore when I was snooping around the Doctor’s research suite. I toook it, hoping it might give me some sort of clue; I don’t think the Doctor had even seeen it yet.” He handed the stone to Alma. “Look familiar, baby?”

“Magicite!” squeaked Lynne, surprised. “How…?”

“The Doc’s in charge of magic experiments, baby. He must have just finished with this one.” His face went grim. “I’d maaade a distraction so I could sneak into those labs; I can only hope he hasn’t figured out the significance of these stones yet.”

Alma held the stone in her cupped hands, level with her eyes. “Excuse us,” she said to the Esper inside. “Our need is great. We can only ask you to help us, but we won’t force you if you would prefer to rest.”

The Esper’s spectral voice echoed through the clearing, faint at first but growing stronger. “H-help you? With what? More war, more fighting? I won’t help you kill. I’ve seen the magic of too many of my friends used for such terrible things.”

Cabanela put a hand on the magicite; the ensuing scream pierced the clearing. “No! Not him! I won’t be used by someone who killed so many!”

He dropped his hand, his face locked into blank dismay. “I don’t know anything about that, baby, but I wooon’t touch you again.”

Lynne spoke gently, her normal boisterous energy tamped down to unusual gentleness, “We’ll leave you here if you like, but we’re going to rescue your friends in Vector. We have a few here with us, too, and I promised them you’d all be safe. Maduin, Siren, Kirin, and Ifrit. Do you know them?”

The magicite stones floated free from their hiding places, circling the magicite cradled in Alma’s hands. They all gleamed green for a few moments, some incorporeal communication intangible to the rest taking place.

My name is Seraph,” the esper in the stone finally said. “I will go with you and lend my powers to yours, but—”

“Anyhoot, I said I won’t come near you, baby,” Cabanela cut in smoothly. “I wooon’t ask that of any of your friends.”

“I only add my plea to the others: I beg of you, rescue us,” she said sharply. “The others have assured me that you mean us no harm, and indeed, I remember that you were kind, even gentle with me before, even though you didn’t know what I was. For that memory alone, I will withhold judgment. Use our powers if you must, but if I ever deem you unworthy know that I will do my best to strike you down where you stand.”

Cabanela nodded. “It’s a deeeal.”

He looked around, peering through the foliage for the other denizen of the forest. “If youuu can hear me, thaaanks for protecting Tzen, maaan. We’ll be leaving now. I won’t be back, that I prooomise you.”

He led the way out of the forest, back straight and unbending. Alma, watching the back of his head as she walked, might have been the only one to hear the tiny tremor in his voice as he walked away from the place that had once been home.

Chapter Text

Lynne and Missile slipped ahead to scout as Alma and Cabanela made their way out of the small forest into which Tzen was nestled. Without discussion, they all made the mutual decision to avoid going back through the town; the townsfolk were already in enough of an uproar.

Tzen fell behind them quickly, Cabanela setting a quick marching pace and, unusually, moving along without conversation, not even an attempt at a hum or a jaunty whistle to break the silence. Even his usual chaotic energy seemed turned inward, his face drawn and sad. Alma was left with her own thoughts, a loneliness which, she was surprised to find, was unwelcome. Her own thoughts were likely no happier than his. At least misery could be lessened if it was shared. As it was, the long march only made it seem to grow.

She supposed she was the one who should begin the conversation, but all in all, she wasn’t sure what to say. No one in his homeland appeared to want to stand face-to-face with the man, to look him in the eye. She more than understood the feeling. How many times had she gazed at him with searching eyes since the aftermath of the battle at Narshe, only to turn away when his eyes met hers? She saw the man she had always seen, but there had been the embers of madness in his eyes there in Figaro. Repeatedly, without respite or mercy in the course of the last five years, he had come to her, wheedling, promising, begging, threatening, and he had acted on his promises. He had attempted to set her home—no. It was the place she had once thought of as their home that he had desecrated, where the embers of madness had burst into full blaze. The sands of Figaro had extinguished those flames. Had they extinguished his too, by some miracle? Was it some sort of temporary madness, then, brought on by the infusions? But how, then, to explain this amnesia? Was it feigned? A lie? Yet, when he gazed at her with his haunted eyes, she saw nothing but sorrowing honesty and naked confusion in them.

By the goddesses, she was tired of turning this puzzle around and around in her head. She wanted to be able to say that he was one or the other, evil madman or honorable friend. Failing that, she wanted to know that he wouldn’t slip into some fugue yet again. She wanted to be free of the nagging doubt, the fear that she would be forced to kill the man she had counted as family if he fell into that madness again.

“Alma? Hey, baby. Yooou all right?” Cabanela had turned to her, waiting. Alma realized her steps had slowed to almost nothing; she lagged behind him by quite a distance. He had just dispatched a few roaming monsters, entirely without her notice or help. He walked back to her, peering at her. The worry in his eyes was unbearable. How dare he worry about her? Automatically, her gaze slid away from his.

“I’m perfectly well. Just hungry, I suppose.” She glanced around vaguely. “This isn’t a good place to stop; it’s too out in the open. Let’s try to find a little more cover and stop for a rest, shall we?” She knew she sounded unconvincing but it wasn’t exactly a lie. She was hungry, a soul-deep longing for what she had lost. She wanted her home back, but not the empty castle she had left. Home was Jowd, laughing his big booming laugh, all unfettered joy. Home was Kamila, shyly presenting her first attempt at a new machine. Lynne, eyes squeezed in concentration as she practiced picking locks, Missile curled by her feet. And once, Cabanela, lit only by moon and starshine and singing his heart out on the parapets, a serenade for Jowd and her alone.

She shook herself free of the memory. She would see her family home again. She swore it. Jowd, Kamila, Lynne, Missile, and— She tapped her fingers one by one into her palm but stopped before counting all five. She squeezed her fist closed. Save four. Let events decide what fate held for the fifth, and for herself.

The sky slid into twilight, the light breeze that had been pleasant in the sunlight now chilly and insistent. Alma shivered and picked up the pace. Lynne and Missile would be finding their way back to them soon and they would need to make camp for the night.

That evening, as they sat around the campfire, making plans for their entrance to the city, Lynne and Missile seemed oblivious to the tension; Alma would have bet her last gil that neither were. Missile even curled by Cabanela’s side that night, as if to proclaim that he, at least, held no qualms regarding Cabanela’s fidelity. Nevertheless, Lynne’s banter with Missile and Cabanela as they spent the next day and a half crossing the last of the plains to the city seemed more frenetic somehow, as if to make up for the silence between Alma and Cabanela. Alma knew the same doubts that plagued her mind were in Lynne’s. Only Jowd’s rescue could ease the seething anxiety.

As the lights of the city hove into sight, late in the evening two days later, Alma breathed out, a different kind of tension and anticipation filling her body. Jowd was here; answers were here. The machines of Vector were nothing like home, but somewhere in this city, the twisted mirror of Figaro, the beginning of the long road back waited.

Chapter Text

Cidgeon took a large gulp of tea and made a face in disgust as he realized it was cold. He had been sitting too long, hunched over the latest specs for the new magitek armor prototypes. The Emperor had specified that he wanted armor that could resist magic used against it. Cidgeon’s brow furrowed as he read that stipulation yet again. Who was the Emperor thinking of attacking? Surely not Thamasa. The existence of magic was a closely guarded secret amongst the village residents. It had to be a more obvious target; given the recent construction of an Imperial base to the East, Cidgeon thought he knew where.

It was time to leave. The Empire had been his base for many years, but the Emperor’s aims were clear. He wouldn’t stop until all was his; Cidgeon’s first duty was to protect his home.

“And what of the boy?” That nagging thought, yet again; Cidgeon’s erstwhile foster project was still much on his mind. He had tried to rationalize: the Emperor and his colleague had dumped that boy on him. Cidgeon had no duty to him beyond raising him. Cabanela was grown, had made his choices. Yet, Cidgeon was fond of him, even through his newest behavioral vagaries. He felt almost like family. His presence had made these cold labs seem almost friendly.

Cidgeon resolved that he would talk to Cabanela once more. Of late, their interactions were strained, almost painfully terse. Cidgeon would make a final effort to talk him from this path; the infusions had clearly taken their toll. Cabanela needed to leave Vector, go somewhere that would remind him of finer, warmer things. Cidgeon was aware of the irony; he had never been a particularly warm human being, “or father,” his traitorous thoughts supplied, but for Cabanela’s own sake, and Cidgeon’s, they needed to go where humanity was the dominant presence, not the cold and metal of machinery.

Cidgeon hopped from his stool and stretched his back with a grunt and a few small cracks. He would take a stroll to Cabanela’s current favorite haunt, the great sparring grounds that stretched behind the castle. He was sure to find him there. Since Cabanela had become a general, leaving his former title of ambassador behind, he had been overseeing the training of the troops night and day. His former diplomacy seemed subsumed in warlike zeal, but they would speak, and Cidgeon would find the words, somewhere within himself, to convince the boy to leave. They would rescue the King of Figaro together and get out, leaving the Empire to implode under its own greed.

He hurried through the halls, nodding at the various lab assistants and court flunkies he knew in only the vaguest of terms, mostly through Cabanela’s connections. He had to admit, Cabanela’s charm had certainly made things easier for the both of them over the years. There was nowhere in Vector Cabanela couldn’t go, it seemed, and that leniency extended to his Imperial custodian.

As Cidgeon climbed the endless stairs leading to the dizzy heights Cabanela favored, he could hear the clamor from the sparring grounds. They must be having some kind of battle royale down there. He sniffed. Was there to be a feast afterward? It smelled odd; roasting meat, the stench of the charnel house, and a metallic, burning scent of ozone mixed in with it.

Some premonition hurried Cidgeon’s feet up the stairs ever more quickly. This was wrong. He could feel the magic in the air, getting stronger with every moment. Cabanela wouldn’t, couldn’t use his magic against his fellows, surely. As he came up the last stairs, he could see the tall, lanky form of Cabanela dancing on the parapets, twirling, arms raised as he exhorted someone below to greater efforts. Cidgeon jumped back as a bolt blasted from the sky, but it earthed itself somewhere lower. Cabanela began to laugh. At first it was a chuckle, then a guffaw, then full-throated, unrestrained laughter, high and wild with almost childlike delight.

“Yeeees, puppet, good! More, moooore!” He called down. Cidgeon edged to the top of the stairs on soundless feet so he could see down into the dueling ground. He couldn’t comprehend the sight at first, but there could be no mistake. Broken bodies littered the earth, mostly charred to a crisp, completely unidentifiable one from the other. A few lone soldiers stood bravely or scattered in some frenzied impulse of survival to the corners, but bolts struck them down with unrelenting ferocity and complete precision.

“Don’t miiiiss even one, baby!” Cabanela pointed and another bolt flew, but not from his own fingers. Cidgeon squinted. A man mirrored him on the blasted earth down below, a man wearing a pure white mask and robes, riding white magitek armor that had clearly also once been pure white, but now ran red with blood and was spattered with dark soot. As Cidgeon watched, he struck down the last of the soldiers, then returned to attention, waiting for more orders.

“Whiiiite and red, nothing like it!” Cabanela flipped his own pristine white cloak and brilliant red scarf and twirled all the way to one side of the parapet, then the other. Cidgeon crouched, suddenly sure he did not want to be seen by this capering, laughing madman. This was not the boy he had raised. The Cabanela he knew was nowhere to be seen. This was the man they called the Emperor’s jester; he was a man cruel and cold, with no shred of humanity left within him. Cidgeon had heard the rumors. He had not been prepared for the reality.

“Briiiing in more!” the jester crowed. “Briiiing in the boys from Tzen!”

Cidgeon fled. He could not watch that thing he had once considered his boy murder more soldiers. He would have to find another way, a way to knock him out and take him by force. It was clear he would need dedicated medical and mental care before he was lucid enough to face the consequences of these actions. He thought hard as he ran down the stairs. Jowd was here, and from all accounts of the man, might be strong enough to knock Cabanela out and then they could carry him out through the catacombs. They would get to Thamasa and Cidgeon would remand the jester to the care of his old friends, people who were better versed in healing magic. He would take Kamila and Jowd and get them back to their home, then go back to Thamasa and help with the research to return the boy, that fool, to lucidity.

It was a plan, a workable plan. All he needed was to find Jowd.

His breath hitched in something perilously close to a sob. He ran faster, closed his ears to the muffled screams and sobs coming from the sparring arena. 

"Find Jowd."

Chapter Text

Cidgeon spent the next great while in fervent, feverish research, reconnaissance, and endless frustration. He had thought he could go anywhere in Vector, but had never pushed those boundaries. Now that he was, his limits were becoming all too painfully evident. He had asked for an audience with the Emperor. It had gone predictably. Sith had greeted him, all smiles and politicking, but had deflected the conversation away from his plans for Cabanela or the whereabouts of royal political prisoners.

“My good man,” he had said, “your business is magic, technology, and the merging of the two. And your monsters of course. Stick to that, won’t you? I believe that will suffice. Egads, man! You don’t need more on your plate, surely!” Sith’s magitek bodyguard and adjutant, one of Cidgeon’s own early creations that had been created as a proof-of-concept, a show of possibility for the Emperor, had shown Cidgeon out with no signs of recognition or compunctions as to his own protests on the matter, and that had been the end of that. Sith had refused any further attempts at an audience; Cidgeon’s sources told him that the Emperor was on the verge of terminating Cidgeon’s research. Thus far, he had managed to eke out just enough new information to keep the Emperor intrigued, if not pleased. It was a dance he did not relish, and it took all too much time to stay ahead of the Emperor’s machinations. Dancing had been Cabanela’s forte. Cidgeon found it a clumsy and infuriating waste of mental resources.

He prided himself on his lack of guile, but he had attempted to channel the boy’s charisma and get some information from his colleagues. Dr. Asbolus rode high in the Azul Empire; he was the favored of the Emperor. His research suites were easily triple the size of Cidgeon’s own and his fingers were in pies ranging from ever-increasingly complicated magitek to the magical infusion experiments. Cidgeon had attempted to visit, as if casually, but had been expelled politely if firmly by a lab assistant.  Asbolus himself sneered and treated him with open scorn if they happened to cross paths. It was clear his respect for Cidgeon, little as it had been, had waned. Asbolus was a man with no time for fringe research, Cidgeon had heard him explaining loftily to one of the lab assistants. That, at least, was going to plan. Cidgeon had always tried to keep Asbolus from too much interest in the deeper intricacies of monsters and magic, purposefully making magitek seem much the more profitable path. It seemed the doctor had taken the bait.

Cabanela himself visited Asbolus far too frequently for mere tests. He was avoiding Cidgeon, always fifteen or twenty long-legged steps ahead of him when Cidgeon happened to see him at all. His white-robed and masked subordinate always strode by his side, never showing any sign of perturbation or even personality. Cidgeon began to suspect that Asbolus was attempting something new—perhaps the masked man-thing was akin to Sith’s adjutant, a mere mechanical homunculus with only enough intelligence for following orders. But why would he need such a thing? Cabanela had magic and had attained reasonable prowess on the battlefield. He did not need a puppet, and yet he seemed to relish the thing’s presence.

At last, Cidgeon could bear it no longer. Cabanela’s malice grew ever more disturbing by the hour. He visited the doctor without fail every morning and evening; the feel of magic grew ever thicker around him. Cidgeon needed to get him out, now. He couldn’t wait any longer for his chance. He needed to get into Asbolus’s labs. Perhaps he could obtain some clue, if he could but find some kind of research. Any kind of documentation of the process Cabanela had gone through would be helpful. Asbolus’s notes could turn the tide, help Cidgeon turn the whole situation around, but how to get in there?

Something had to give. The days passed, tension mounting higher and higher. Cidgeon had completely changed his daily routine so that he could walk by Asbolus’s suites at times he thought the doctor might be coming or going, slowly putting together the patterns of Asbolus’s daily life. Subterfuge of this sort was not his specialty, but no one else was left to do it. Quietly, he began putting his Imperial affairs in order. He could not leave his experiments for exploitation—the break could happen at any time and he needed to be ready. Any monsters he had were quietly let go or disposed of as humanely as he could. His lab assistants were reassigned, as unobtrusively as possible; the Emperor’s displeasure with him made that seem all too plausible. Cidgeon put on the mask of harried, overworked Professor and bided his time.

He had gleaned some hurried, hushed rumors of a new experiment being run deep within the mining facility. Asbolus was going to attempt a different kind of magical fusion, he’d heard. Cidgeon didn’t know who the unlucky subject was, but he blessed them for the distraction even as he hoped they wouldn’t suffer too prolongedly. Every such experiment he’d tried with monsters and magic had been fatal. In any case, there would be a skeleton crew in the labs; Cidgeon, at last, had a chance to get a good look at Asbolus’s plans and research. He hadn’t seen Cabanela in days, either. Perhaps he was wherever the doctor was.

Once in the labs, a task Cidgeon managed by dint of a magically-fueled shower of pebbles here and a leaking pipe there, lore-powered distraction tactics along with his own shortness of stature, he made his careful way to Asbolus’s offices, a place he had once known well in the early days of magic research. They had been professionally cordial with each other, at that point, often meeting to guardedly share interesting tidbits of research. Fortuitously, Cidgeon managed to distract an assistant just as he was leaving the office, evidently-forgotten medical bag in tow. Cidgeon duly took advantage and slipped in just as the door was closing.

He found the neat rows of leather-bound journals in the place they had always been kept, although they now had a large and imposing lock, a system that appeared to have been bolstered by magic. Cidgeon frowned at it. Asbolus’s skills with small and intricate magitek works were impressive and worrying. The lock was far beyond Cidgeon’s own magical abilities to crack. He thought for a moment. It was clear his time here was coming to an end. There was no further reason to try to be subtle about this, and Asbolus had fallen prey to a basic security error: he had enforced the lock with magic but had not made it difficult to damage. A well-aimed stone, a lore Cidgeon had previously and privately rather derided as useless but one that he was steadily coming to appreciate more as of today, damaged the lock casing and allowed Cidgeon to use a precisely targeted and very small-scale aqua rake to burst the internal pins.  The lock broke open, damaged beyond repair.

Cidgeon shrugged. This had to work now; he had tipped his hand. He grabbed the last journal and made sure the door was locked, then sank down to read.

Month X, Day 2

P continues unchanged—the combination of relics appears to keep him perfectly docile, although I note he no longer follows any orders but S’s. A dangerous precedent, and one I have tried to discourage.

S’s obsession with the prisoner and with P continues to spiral to dangerous heights. Have managed to check it for now with regular distractions, but S needs encouragement to remember who his masters are. Perhaps punishment, rather than distraction, is in order. I will consider what can be done.

Month X, Day 4

P’s state unchanged.

S no longer sufficiently entertained by combat testing nor mollified with promises of greater magic. He wants to attempt interrogation of the captive Espers we currently hold, a possible strategy if he were to do it with my supervision. He refuses my presence, however. Yet another distraction is needed. I grow weary of coddling his whims.

Month X, Day 7

General Beauty, to my great surprise, has suggested a potential solution to the question of S’s continual insubordination. His toys are of too great an importance to him. His affections must be curbed. She suggests removing S’s sources of control for P. It is true I have yet to use the Crown on an Esper. I believe her suggestion to have merit. I have prepared to enact this plan in 3 days, following preparation of the half-Esper subject Sissel. The experiment will take place in Research Room 36A-2 as I deem it to have little chance of mortal harm to either the subject or myself.

P’s state unchanged.

Month X, Day 10

Initial testing of the crown on Sissel appears positive. He responds well to orders, although his magic is not of the flashy kind S favors. It will, however, be of far greater use to the Empire; his ability to speed or slow time on command will no doubt be quite useful to the troops he accompanies. The Emperor is delighted; he has already made plans to send a small contingent of soldiers to Narshe in order to capture the frozen Esper there. An excellent result.

S and P are, however, not as promising. Upon removal of the relics, P sank into a coma from which he has not recovered. He has been ensorcelled for so long that we may have done irreparable harm to his abilities to function. For now, he has been contained for further research and examination.

S is inconsolable at the loss of his so-called “puppet” although he appears to understand that until the crown can be duplicated, it must no longer be held by one subject. He also appears to harbor no further interest in P, turning his entire focus on D99.

Month X, Day 15

Disaster upon disaster today. Where to begin? P recovered enough to escape the cell and turned up wholly unexpectedly in the morgue while I was autopsying one of S’s broken toys. S managed to subdue him and demanded the crown back.

News also came today that the half-Esper Sissel somehow escaped the soldiers sent to escort him to Narshe. The crown is lost, and Sissel has fled. I am utterly appalled. What an atrocious waste of resources.

S is in a fury. He has decided to eliminate P, saying his presence is no longer necessary. In fact, I concur. P has proven nothing but a liability and a distraction for every single person who has come in contact with him. Without him, perhaps S will be easier to control. In typical S fashion, he has decided to use P’s termination as a flashy show of power.

Month X, Day 22

As expected, S had the Primus experiment terminated. Good riddance and one in the eye to that old fool as well. S is all but unbearable now, however. He has declared himself no longer Secundus but the only one of his name. For clarity, I shall continue to refer to him as S in these journals.

Primus experimental subject now defunct.

Month X, Day 25

It is time to turn my attention to S’s other obsession. The prisoner is a further distraction and has proved himself remarkably resilient. I have had enough. It is time to help the process along. I have finally found a use for C’s research—if an Esper can be drained of magic and the magic infused into a subject’s blood, what can a monster’s magic be made to do? A fascinating avenue of study. I have decided that prisoner D99 is an excellent test subject; no matter whether the experiment succeeds or fails it acts as a control to S. The experiment will take place in Research Room 19F-6. The room’s subterranean location provides better protection should the experiment go awry. I am prepared to begin tomorrow, I believe.

If he survives, D99 shall henceforth be referred to in these journals as Tertius, or T.

Cidgeon looked up, aghast. The last entry had been written the day previous; suddenly the Doctor’s mysterious experiment had been made all too clear. Damn the man—the rest of his journal made little sense. Secundus was clearly Cabanela, and the doctor had some mysterious hold on him. Cidgeon gritted his teeth. That was his boy, and Asbolus had corrupted him for some unknowable Imperial whim. He would pay for that.

The late Primus, Cidgeon supposed, was some unfortunate who had survived the infusion experiments and been given to the controlled Cabanela for reasons likewise unclear. Cidgeon could only hope his death had been as quick and as painless as possible. The most pressing part was this prisoner D99, clearly the mysterious King Jowd of Figaro judging from Cabanela’s interest in him. There wasn’t much time—the experiment could begin any moment. Cidgeon had no more time to wait or prepare. The rescue would have to happen right now.

Chapter Text

As the group passed through Vector’s outskirts, spiraling down into the vast quarry that held the ever-sinking city, Alma found herself feeling more and more out of place. On the surface, she shouldn’t have. The whole city was an engineer’s dream and she’d spent enough time in Figaro to be more or less comfortable around machines, despite not having the kind of interest in the way they worked and were built that had been her daughter’s bailiwick. Figaro, however, was warm and inviting, the blue and gold of desert and sky repeated in the flag and representative colors of the place she’d come to call home.

Vector was all oil and iron, brown smog and bloody-red Imperial banners hanging in equal uneasy splendor. Even the air felt hostile. No one smiled at each other or made pleasant small talk. Everyone rushed everywhere. It took Alma some time to realize that the busy streets were a façade. Everyone looked busy so they wouldn’t be stopped by the Imperial soldiers patrolling every corner, but people were noticing the man who had walked into the city center and slowing to gawk before hurrying away.

Cabanela’s head appeared on a swivel as he turned his gaze over the city in which he’d spent much of his life. His face was the picture of bewilderment. Lynne, watching with fascination, finally succumbed to her curiosity.

“Cabanela, what’s wrong with you? Did you eat some bad chicken last night or something?”

Cabanela, watching a patrolling soldier harass a passing woman, absently shook his head, and then appeared to recall himself in the group.

“My head is spinnin’, baby. Nothin’ here is like I remember.” He pointed at the soldiers. “They never used to patrol in the city before. You could see the skyyy... and people could walk around without worryin’ that a soldier would drag them away…” He shook his head again. “Anyhoot, we need to figure out how to get to the Professor’s old place—there’s a passage underneath to the labs that he used to use to get to work. I’m hopin’ weee’ll find him there.”

Alma’s mouth tightened, just a little. She’d heard a great deal about the grumpy Professor who had raised Cabanela, but the idea of her daughter being raised by a man who lived, even part-time, in this cold city seemed far more fearsome now that she’d seen Vector for herself. She knew even less about Thamasa, this Professor’s supposedly real home, then she’d known about Vector, but she found herself hoping it was green and lovely, a place as far-removed from this as she could imagine.

As if divining the direction of her thoughts, Cabanela murmured to her and Lynne, “Don’t wooorry, baby, the Prof. kept Kamila far away from here. He didn’t want her to catch the Emperor’s eye.”

Alma nodded, a tension she’d only barely noticed slightly dispelling. At least this mysterious Cidgeon had that much sense. If only they could find him, she might finally get some answers as to what he had been doing here over the past five years, and what was happening with Cabanela. She dared to hope for just a moment that he might even have found Jowd or at least some news of him but firmly tamped down any impulse to rising optimism.

As they’d unwarily stopped to talk, they were beginning to draw more prolonged attention. Cabanela, never able to resist the allure of movement for long, was snapping his fingers to some unheard beat, a spark bouncing off his nails and sizzling out with each snap. A crowd had begun to gather, townspeople gossiping behind their hands. No one dared to catch any of the party’s eyes; anyone who inadvertently caught Cabanela’s gaze promptly put their hand over their face in the same salute they’d given in Tzen. A soldier hurrying over to break up the gathering gasped when he noticed Cabanela and stood to attention, saluting. Alma noticed yet more people edging away from the back of the crowd and hurrying away, no doubt to tell their employers who and what they’d seen. They needed to stop drawing attention and quickly.

Lynne appeared to have the same idea. “General Cabanela,” she said, drawing her hand over her face in imitation of the salute, “we must get you off the streets, sir. We should get back to the palace.”

The look of astonished loathing Cabanela gave her at her unexpected subservience and his sudden ominous stillness must have passed for the appropriate scorn to the soldiers and townspeople, who started sidling away, watching the sky and his fingers fearfully. Alma nudged him, infinitesimally, with her elbow, and gave him the hand sign when he slid his eyes to her. “Play along.”

She picked up Missile and whispered to him to keep quiet. His ears flattened and she put her hand on his tail to stop or at least partially disguise the wagging he couldn’t seem to control. This disguise hung on a thread. They needed to get off the streets.

Cabanela led them at a quick trot through the streets, avoiding the busiest ones and ducking those who attempted to stop him to curry favor with a seasoned air. Alma supposed that even before all this, he had been used to a certain degree of notoriety, but many of those who came to speak to him exuded an air of fear mixed with a kind of near-reverence. He was the face of magic in this city, a power the Emperor had wielded with laser accuracy for the last five years.

Alma found herself trembling. What if the proximity to the Emperor and to the place he’d held so much power for so long returned him to the laughing monster he’d been? Would she have to fight him, perhaps even kill him, in these dark and unfriendly streets? Missile looked up from his perch in her arms and licked her face.

“Don’t worry, Miss Alma! You don’t have to be scared! I’ll protect you!”

Alma squeezed him and put her face against his fur. “I know, Missile, and I’m counting on you...”

Missile let his tongue loll out in a doggie-smile as he panted, then he licked her again as his tail wagged regardless of her restraining hands.

“We can take on any bad guy together! You, me, Miss Lynne and Mister Cabanela!”

Cabanela turned his head at that and gave her a half-smile. He reached out to ruffle Missile’s ears as something caught his eye; a small, narrow house awaited on the next corner. His steps quickened and he said with an encouraging gesture,

“Hooome, sweet home, baby. Let’s go say hi to the Professor, shaaall we?” As Cabanela danced up the small set of steps to the door of the house, Alma felt a flash of foreboding and stepped back, just as the door opened and an old lady stepped out. She peered up at Cabanela with blurry-eyed incomprehension.  

“Who are you?” she said, voice creaking like a rusty gate-hinge. “What brings you to my home?”

Cabanela blinked down at her, nonplussed. His voice, when he spoke, was unaccustomedly uncertain.

“Does… does Professor Cidgeon live here… baby?”

“The old woman’s eyes widened, then squeezed in amiable kindness.

“Oh, he moved back into his research suites long since, boy! When I retired from the castle kitchens, I moved in. Here, don’t I remember you?”

Cabanela smiled and seemed to relax a little. “You shooould! You saw me every day of my life until I left for my fiiirst job outside of Vector!”

The old lady nodded her head. “Won’t you come in? I think I have some cookies and lemonade, dears.”

Lynne peered into the dimness beyond doubtfully. “In there? Do you even have any rooms in there?”

“Come on in inside, love, and you’ll see how we all fit,” said the old woman with a little smile. “There’s plenty of room if I need it.”

Alma slid her eyes down to Missile, whose ears were pricked watchfully but he made no noise of dissent or warning. Shrugging, she put him down and he trotted in ahead of them, plumy tail waving as he disappeared through the doorway. One by one, they followed her, with the old woman herself bringing up the rear. Eyes scanning the street watchfully, she closed the door firmly behind them.

Chapter Text

The inside of the house was no more prepossessing then the outside. They filed through a small and narrow hallway, the light flickering queasily overhead. As they reached the end of the hallway, with no doors or windows to the rest of the house making themselves seen, Alma’s unease only grew. She leaned forward to ask Cabanela why his old mentor’s house was such a strange piece of real estate, only to hear a nasty click behind her. It wasn’t really a surprise. Her hands slowly raised, she began to turn, knowing what she’d see. The woman held a large automatic crossbow, hands poised to release a flurry of bolts at one wrong move.

“Whaaat gives, baby?” said Cabanela, already slithering back to put himself in front of Alma. “I thought we were friends.”

She remained stone-faced. “Don’t move, General. Stay still, if that’s possible for you.” She nodded at his companions. “Friends. Is that what you told Tinctoria when you saw him in Tzen? Is that what you told these people? And, be honest… do you even know the meaning of the word?”

“Tinctoria didn’t give me any time to tell him anythin’, baby. Things got a liiittle sticky.”

“I’ll bet. Why don’t you tell him now?”

A cold draft blew in from seemingly nowhere, causing Alma to shiver in the sudden breeze as wood rumbled against wood and the back wall of the house slid away, leaving the man in question to arise from the darkness below, knives already drawn.

“You see, Cabanela? I told you I’d find you again.”

Growling, Missile darted forward, already barking, and launched himself at the man’s knees. He yelped and stumbled backward, a knife clattering downward. Lynne, with lightning reflexes, flung a hand out and Slowed the knife and Tinctoria at the same time, then knocked the knife away from her dog. Blinking, the man fell back down the stairs in slow-motion, but Cabanela reached a long arm past Lynne and grabbed him by his shirt, stopping his fall and setting the man back on the top step.

“Now, look,” Alma said, exasperated, to their antagonists, “This is Cabanela’s homeland. In fact, this was even his home. I was hoping someone would be able to tell me what’s been happening here since he doesn’t seem to know.”

Lynne chimed in, “Can we stop with the surprise attacks and try some negotiation please?” She picked up Missile, still growling at the man on the stairs. “Calm down, buddy, we’re gonna work this out…”

“Stop trying to attack Mister Cabanela! If you try it I’ll… well, I won’t say, “Welcome” to you for sure!”

Alma essayed a tentative smile at the old woman. “You said you used to work at the castle? What’s your name?”

The woman scowled. “I’m not telling you that just so you can turn around and tell the Emperor we attacked his Jester. Do you think we’re idiots?”

Cabanela made a noise that could have been a chuckle. “Jester, baby? Meee?”

She snorted. “You’re certainly no joke to us. You dare to come back here and treat me as though you give a damn about the people you knew when you were a boy? To pretend that you didn’t turn around and betray us all to the Emperor as soon as it was—” she paused, and said the next words as though they were something slimy, “Politically expedient? I suppose someone might laugh it that, but it certainly wouldn’t be me.” She gestured with the crossbow at Alma and Lynne. “And now you have, what, magical floozies at your beck and call too? Managed to get some magic swordswoman and a random thief under your bloody thumb too, somehow? And how much did the Empire pay them for their cooperation, I wonder?”

Lynne, incensed, opened her mouth to say something probably better left unsaid, but Cabanela, who had been staring at the old woman while she ranted, suddenly snapped and pointed at her. Despite herself, she flinched, then glared at him.

“Acacia! Riiight, baby? From the castle kitchens; nice to see you didn’t misleeead me on that one. Best seed cakes in the palace, I remember.”

Tinctoria, having recovered from the Slow spell, muttered, “Oh, great, and now her cover’s blown too.” He looked ruefully at Acacia. “What should we do?”

She squinted at the group but said nothing for a long, tense moment. Lynne said, “I suppose we should have known there would be counterspies here, but you’re a little behind on the news! I feel now would be a great time to mention that we’re not with the Empire… and by the way, that’s treasure hunter to you! Not thief!”

Tinctoria scowled. “There’s no way we’d believe that—any of that. The most feared General in the Empire swanning around the commoner’s quarters of Vector—don’t know what you’re planning, but there’s no way you’re getting out of this.”

“No, really,” Lynne said, with a small smile. “We’re with the Returners, and I can prove it.” She flipped open her coat and took a small pouch off her belt. “This first.” She pulled out a small badge. “See? I got this when I joined.”

Acacia stared at it, then her. “That means nothing,” she finally said, her voice tight. “Looks fake. Like a child’s toy.”

Lynne rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said, “then here’s this. See the seal? This is a letter from the leader of the Returners. Emma? Huge hair? Loud voice? Likes purple. Ring a bell?”

Tinctoria reached out a hand, “Let me see that.” He read it, then handed it to Acacia. “It could be forged but… that looks like her handwriting…”

Alma growled. “Look, Figaro has been working with the Returners for years now to get our King back. Are you really telling me you didn’t know that? If Emma is your contact, she would have told you about all of this.”

Acacia’s gaze caught on Cabanela’s and held it. “He changed when magic came back in the world. You might have too, especially since you now wield it. This letter says you’re the Queen of Figaro? Well, your Majesty, we’ve learned to our cost that politics and magic shouldn’t mix. And there are some fearsome rumors about what he can do with that magic of his...and… we haven’t heard from Emma directly in weeks. Not since the General went to Narshe… not that we’ve heard anything from him either until now…” She sighed as she wound down. “But this letter… I guess you’ve earned the right to tell your story. Come downstairs, and let’s… negotiate, as you put it.”

They filed down the narrow, dark stairway to a room far below ground level, lit only by small luminaires at the corners. Acacia reengaged the safety lock and set the crossbow carefully into a corner before turning to Cabanela.

“Alright, General. Talk.”

Chapter Text

The small, dim room seemed to get many degrees colder as Cabanela did his best to explain the tangled mess of magic, international politics, courtly intrigue, and his own involvement in the same, with a few pointed interjections from Alma and Lynne. The explanation went so long that Missile fell asleep on Lynne’s feet. Acacia and Tinctoria listened with silent skepticism tinged with fear at the tales of the Empire’s depredations.

“This is unbelievable,” Tinctoria said, slumped in his chair, hands to his face. “How deep does this go?”

“Alll the way down, I imagine, baby,” said Cabanela. “How much mooore did they dig? I don’t remember the city being sunk quite this much.”

Acacia snorted. “Every day a little more. No one knows what they’re digging for, exactly, but the rumors are there’s a completely new city under there. If you’re looking for the King of Figaro or captured magical beings there’s your best bet.”

“Well, then that’s where we have to go!” said Lynne, bouncing up and striking a pose. “King Jowd and the espers might be near each other! That will make this easy!”

Alma and Cabanela side-eyed each other. Both knew that “easy” was not the word, but what else were they to do, in the end? If their mission lay deep in the pits under Vector, into hell they would go, for Jowd’s sake.

“Well, anyhoot… What about the Prof?” said Cabanela. “Did he really move back into the research suites? We need to find him too.”

Acacia frowned. “No one around here’s seen Professor Cidgeon in a while. He might be at the palace; he might be underground. It’s hard to say.”

Alma tried to hide her impatience. Another diversion, now? It was so hard to be patient, knowing Jowd was close and waiting for her. An old scientist, no matter his connection to Cabanela, was not her priority.

“The old man’s a tough old bird, baby, and vital to this whole plan,” said Cabanela. “He might have crucial info on Jowd’s whereabouts, and we’ll neeed him to get to—“ he stopped abruptly and eyed the Returners. “To his home, so we can pick up Kamila.”

Alma nodded. It was frustrating but she couldn’t deny the logic. “Where should we start?”

Cabanela thought for a moment. “I think the palace miiight be our best bet first. The Emperor used to have him come check on the palace magitek pretty frequently. There was this bodyguard, a reeeal marvel…”

Tinctoria coughed. “A real piece of work, you mean. I’d be careful, Cabanela. Things aren’t the way you remember.”

“I’m assuming you can’t go back to the palace yourself at this point,” said Alma, nodding at Tinctoria. “Acacia, you know Vector the best at this point. What do you suggest?”

“I still have a few friends in the castle,” she said reluctantly. “I suppose we could make a visit… but I can’t be seen in company with him. If the General has been declared a traitor there’s no way he can waltz into the palace.”

“I have to go, baby,” said Cabanela, straightening in alarm. “The Prof wouldn’t trust anyone but me.”

Tinctoria gave a derisive snort. “You sure? No one trusts you at this point.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Alma sighed after a moment and said, “Look, we’re not splitting again. It’s more dangerous to have him out of our sight than to stay together.”

Cabanela’s face twisted but he said nothing, only spreading out a long-fingered hand in a silent invitation for her to continue.

“It will have to be a disguise,” said Alma, looking him up and down. “Lynne, can you get hold of some clothes? Maybe a merchant, or a soldier?”

Lynne chuckled. “I think I can manage that. They may not be exactly the right size…”

Cabanela shrugged. “I won’t like them, no matter what, baby, so just maaake the best of a bad situation.”

“Give me an hour, then,” said Lynne. “Missile? You with me, boy?”

Missile rolled over and opened a sleepy eye. “You go, Miss Lynne! I’ll stay here!” He sidled up to her and said, in what he probably thought was a whisper, “I’m going to protect Miss Alma and Mister Cabanela from these other people while you’re gone!”

Lynne raised an eyebrow at Cabanela and grinned. “Well, one for you anyway. OK, folks, be back as quick as I can!”

It was not quite an hour before she got back, bearing a bundle in triumph. “This should be pretty good; that guy at the inn seemed like a creep anyway so he can just deal with it. But, um. Cabanela?”

He looked up from unknowable thoughts, his scarf running though his fingers as he fidgeted, face blank. “Yeees, baby?”

“Security at the palace is really tight. We can try a disguise but I’m not really sure we’ll get in anyway. I don’t think you should get your hopes up… but I thought of an idea. The innkeeper had a prisoner’s outfit, for some reason? I kind of think he might be an escapee but we have other problems right now. Anyway, I thought maybe we might try bringing you as a prisoner.” She turned to Alma. “I managed to, um, liberate a couple of soldier’s outfits for us. And a set of dog armor for Missile.”

Cabanela recoiled. Alma put a hand on his shoulder, as though she was calming a shying chocobo. “It’s worth a try, Cabanela. I know it’s not ideal, but if you really think we should go to the palace, I think we have to make this work.”

He leaned into her touch and was quiet for a moment, a bare instant of stillness, but then jumped up. “You’re right, of course, baby, and at least it’s not sittin’ around here.” He retreated to a corner and threw on the disguise while the others did similar. The smock was far too large and had a few suspicious stains, but he ignored the discomfort as he hitched up the pants, miraculously long enough, and tied them with a rope. The shoes didn’t remotely fit so he kept his own. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Alma looked him over uneasily. He didn’t look like a prisoner. He stood straight and proud, face unbruised and his hair perfectly coiffed.  She reached up and rumpled it for him as she considered suggesting they rough him up a little, but rejected the notion out of hand. Even for expediency’s sake, she couldn’t do that to him.

“You’re going to have put some of those acting skills I saw at the Opera House to use,” she said. “Put yourself in… in Jowd’s shoes for a moment.”

His face sobered. “Every moment since I left Figaro, baby.”

She twitched, but left her thoughts unsaid, merely contenting herself with, “Are we ready to go?”

Acacia said, “We’ve been slowly building a network of tunnels, but it’s slow going. Of course, the palace is up some levels so we don’t have any underground paths there but we can go over the ducts and get you pretty close to the entrance plaza. It will be up to you from there. Do any of you need anything? Are you all feeling healthy and ready? I have potions if you need them.”

Tinctoria added, “I’ll guide you through the tunnels when you’re ready to go.”

“I think we’re all dressed, and we’ve checked our supplies and equipment,” said Lynne. “Let’s just leave already!”

Chapter Text

The trip through the tunnel to the ductwork labyrinth surrounding the pit of the city seemed to fly by, all of them walking quickly, excitement lingering in the air. Action at last; a plan at last. Cidgeon awaited somewhere above; Jowd likewise below. Even a dangerous and breathtaking path over the depths, the group edging carefully over the ductwork, was accomplished without too much fuss, although there was a scare when Lynne put a foot wrong and nearly tripped.

“I wonder if any of the Espers have magic that can make you fly,” Lynne mused aloud. “That would be really useful, don’t you think?”

Alma shrugged. “We can ask if we meet any.”

They arrived at the ladder up to the creaking metal flooring of the entryway to the palace. Cabanela stared up at the ziggurat, looming far above, the Imperial banners billowing in the foul-smelling and fitful wind that blew from the polluted city.

“No time like the present,” said Alma, “and little enough of that. Where do we go from here?”

“I managed to get to the other side of the platform before the soldiers caught me and kicked me out before,” said Lynne. “Don’t worry!” she said in response to the identical frowns of worry Alma and Cabanela shot her way. “I kept it sneaky and just let myself be herded like a good Imperial citizen who had lost her way.” She plucked at her soldier’s outfit. “And now we look like we have a reason to be here, at least. So it should be fine this time!”

Lynne climbed up first, then Alma, who stood watch while Cabanela handed up Missile and then climbed up last. A quick, cursory knotting of rope around his wrists and the prisoner complete with escort stood ready to begin the short march.

“We still don’t want to run into any more people than necessary,” said Alma. “Let’s do our best to avoid the patrols.”

Cabanela squinted at the stairs, which led up to massive doors, the entrance to the inner sanctum of the palace and the Emperor’s throne room. A monstrous figure blocked the way.

“Is thaaat the Emperor’s adjutant up there? What’s it doing here?”

Tinctoria, standing below on the ducts and looking up at them, shuddered. “I told you things were different. That thing has had so many upgrades and changes that no one even knows what all it can do anymore, but everyone knows it’s more than just a little off, it’s absolutely dangerous. They’re calling it the Emperor’s Guardian now.”

“Why isn’t it with the Emperor then?” said Lynne, peering up in fascination.

Tinctoria shrugged. “It’s a magitek thing that’s gained some kind of free will. Who knows why it does what it does?”

“Well, anyway, we have to get past it if we want into the palace,” said Alma. “We have a plan; let’s stick to it.”

Tinctoria nodded. “I’m headed back to the hideout. We’ll try to support you if necessary.” He swung a hard glare Cabanela’s way. “I still don’t trust you, General, but they need you for now. Betray my fellow Returners and I will see you dead.”

Cabanela raised an eyebrow. “Not much more to say then, is there, baby? You’d never listen anyway.”

They parted ways, Tinctoria taking his careful footing back across the ducts and Alma, Lynne, and Missile falling into a loose escort formation for the prisoner. They marched up the steps and Lynne and Alma saluted the huge man with a hand splayed across their faces in the gesture they’d seen before.

“We’ve come with the traitor, General Cabanela,” Alma said, making her voice as arrogant and regal as she could, but thankful for the helmet that hid her eyes. “The Emperor will want to see us right away.”

The Guardian sneered down at them. “The General is no traitor, miss. I believe you are all impostors, miss.”

It slapped a strange apparatus in front of it. A wash of magic rolled over the party and the results of the scan flickered on the screen.

“You are Queen Alma, titular ruler of Figaro, your Majesty. You are her bodyguard, Lynne, treasure hunter and Returner liaison, miss, and you are Miss Lynne’s small dog, Missile, sir. I have confirmed that you are not Imperial personnel, your Majesty. As for your companion, he will be detained following your deaths, your Majesty.”

Cabanela broke his bindings with one quick and clever flick of his fingers and slid in front of his escort. “You won’t be killing anyone today, maaan.”

“We shall see, sir.” The huge masked man slapped the apparatus again, causing alarms to wail all around them. “You will not escape, sir.”

Cabanela called the lightning from the sky, aiming it directly at the guardian’s chest. It earthed itself harmlessly, absorbed into the humming shell of magic that arose around the magitek monstrosity. Missile tried a fireball with similar effect, then flung himself forward, barking something about biting the big, masked man, but was repelled by a similar wall of protection that appeared to deflect all physical force. The huge man began to walk forward. It was not fast; it didn’t need to be. It was an indomitable force, bringing doom where it walked. The metal of the flooring crunched beneath every step. The strange apparatus that appeared to control his magic was dragged with him; they could see it was chained to his feet and appeared to roll.

“We need to get out of here,” snapped Alma. “Everyone, retreat back to the entrance.”

“Wait! We can’t lead them back—” said Lynne.

“Yes, I know! Get to the ducts! I have a plan!”

They ran, the guardian following them at a leisurely stroll. As they hopped the fence and jumped back onto the ductwork, the guardian didn’t even lift his feet, still moving forward implacably through the railing and dropping with a huge whump onto the metal below. The whole framework shook, metal creaking and popping underfoot as they backed away.

Missile crouched and growled, ears flattening as he sniffed the air. “The bad man smells strange!  I don’t like him at all!”

 “Get ready to get back as fast and far as you can,” Alma murmured. She unsheathed her huge sword, standing at the ready. As the Guardian stomped forward, she charged her power and let it go, aiming not at him but at the ducts beneath his feet. “Now! Go!”

Metal began to fall apart at the seams, unable to take the pounding footsteps combined with the force of Alma’s blow. The party backed hurriedly away as the Guardian began to move more quickly, but the metal shook itself apart faster and faster, popping and snapping. With one last colossal shriek, it gave way underfoot, dropping the huge man and his controller into the abyss, leaving the inner paths of the ducts open to the air.

Lynne began a sigh of relief as he fell, hopping backward as the metal shook. The ducts nearly came apart underneath her but held steady and stabilized. Her cheer was cut short; the Guardian reached out and slapped his apparatus in midair, showing no sign of fear. Its drop slowed and stopped as magic flared and spread to encompass the Guardian. He began to float upward, ever so slowly, the magic straining to lift his enormous weight, angling so that he could knock them into the depths himself.

“Guess that answers your question, baby,” said Cabanela, face grim. He shoved his way forward, putting himself in the front again, causing them all to teeter. “You all go. I’ll take care of this.” He readied a spell, preparing to call down the most powerful bolt of lightning he could, in some kind of hope that he could break through the magical shell before the monstrosity reached them.

The first two deflected harmlessly into the void; the third ricocheted back at them, nearly causing the ducts to begin to crumble yet again. Alma grabbed his hand and stopped him before he could cast a fourth.

“It’s useless. We have to get out of here, draw it away—“

“No, Cabanela—we will draw it away.” Acacia and Tinctoria appeared from the inner workings of the ducts, crossbow and knives ready.

“Cabanela—” Tinctoria met his eyes. “I’m sorry.” He gestured helplessly. "I should have known—"

“What?” said Lynne.

“I’m sorry, there’s very little time to explain,” said Acacia, calmly watching the Guardian float upward. “I got word almost as soon as you left that Professor Cidgeon went into the underground facility and hasn’t been seen in months. The Emperor withdrew his support for his projects and turned everything over to the Imperial Doctor’s hands.”

Cabanela went pale. “Asbolus has him?”

“We think he has King Jowd, too,” said Tinctoria. “If you want to save them, you’ll have to go underground.”

“Tinctoria, we have to go,” said Acacia. “Get ready to jump—”

“Wait!  What are you planning?” said Alma.

“We’ll draw this thing away from you,” said Acacia. “For the good of the cause!”

She jumped, drawing her own long knife as she fell. Tinctoria took a wild glance at Cabanela, hesitating, but jumped almost in tandem with her, the two of them catching onto the chains near the Guardian’s feet and overwhelming the magic keeping him up. He began to fall again, gravity helped by the momentum of Acacia and Tinctoria swarming around to his back and swinging on the chain to keep the magic control apparatus from his reach. As he flailed at them, they all sank into the depths.

“Cabanela!” called Tinctoria. “There’s something else, something you need to—“ The Guardian managed to grab him, silencing Tinctoria with a grip around his throat. Tinctoria struggled and Acacia went to his rescue, but it wasn’t long before they were too far down into the echoing pit for anything else to be heard.

 As they fell, the Guardian’s eyes fixed on Cabanela’s. It bellowed something unhearable. Cabanela held the stare but deliberately turned away after a few seconds.

 “We’ll see them again,” he said, iron certainty in his voice. “Let’s find Jowd and da—the Professor.”

Chapter Text

There wasn’t much time and all of it needed to be spent in action, not planning; Cidgeon needed to walk and think. He ducked out of the upper labs more or less the same way he had come in, debating the entire time whether a diversion was necessary but ultimately deciding on speed and surprise over flash and noise. As he all but ran into his own suites, to grab the pack he’d already had prepared, Lovey-Dove flitted from her perch where he’d left her. Asbolus’s labs were no place to take the former research subject, but he certainly wouldn’t be leaving his good lady behind.

He stepped out, not bothering to lock the empty and barren labs, sparing not a glance for the place he’d spent so many years. They weren’t lost, weren’t wasted, he told himself. He’d gained far more than he’d spent in this place. Lovey-Dove, certainly, information and plenty of it on the Empire’s aims, a foolish boy that despite himself, he’d come to care for, and through him, a connected family that began with his young protégée back in Thamasa. Jowd, the unknown factor, would be worth the time too, he told himself as he hurried down halls and deeper into the facilities.

His credentials could stop allowing him through at any moment. Research Room 19F-6 was far below the surface, in the old mining section where they dug tirelessly for the metals strong enough to hold the framework of magic and circuitry needed for the endless rounds of magitech experimentation. It was the center of magic research—the labs on the surface were mere satellites to the real work in the blackness below.

Cidgeon calculated as he hurried at a fast shuffle, Lovey-Dove fluttering along behind him or dropping into his pack when she needed a rest. The Espers were held in the E section of the subterranean labs. If he could manage to find and rescue at least a few of them along with Jowd, so much the better. He could take them back to Thamasa, let them hide in the caves until some of the furor blew over. They, too, were family, of a sort, and didn’t deserve to be left with the Empire.

“One in the eye, indeed,” he muttered. What had Asbolus meant by that anyway? He was sure he was the old fool mentioned, but letting this changed Cabanela torture and send some poor peon to a miserable death, while vile, was no worse than any other act the Azulian doctor had perpetrated. Why was this one worthy of comment? Mysteries upon mysteries, and no time to solve them.

At last, he reached the elevator that led to the central hub of the deep mines, through which he could go directly to Section E and cut through it to F. Jowd was minutes away—how long did he have? Would it be enough? The elevator dropped soundlessly into the abyss, taking Cidgeon and Lovey-Dove into the dark.

He stepped out into the brilliantly lit, scrupulously clean halls of the Magitek Facility Research and Development department. It didn’t seem as though they were in the depths. The walls and floors were spotless and gleaming, the acerbic smell of cleaning products hanging in the air over a deeper, more salt/metallic note. Trust Asbolus to take a mining facility and repurpose it to a hospital anyway. The man never could bear to work above suspicion.

The assorted noises and clamor from the halls leading to A-D, the sectors where they researched weapons both mechanical and biological in nature, magic as manifested by non-Esper subjects such as psychics, fortune-tellers, and bards, and the main magitech building facilities, sent Cidgeon skidding down the hall to E and F sectors, which at least had few if any researchers wandering the halls.

He had meant to go directly to F, but there were guards to the doors. E was silent and unguarded for the moment and he knew a less obtrusive entrance into F, a door where he might possibly make less of a scene and preserve the element of surprise when he knocked out the guards. He presumed everyone was either watching the experiment in sector F or going about their business in other sectors, but it really was oddly quiet. Even Lovey-Dove sank into his hair, her body trembling against his head. He could feel her straining not to panic and knew she was reacting to his own nerves.

“Shhh, shhh, old girl,” he murmured, reaching up to soothe her. “We’ll be out soon enough and go back to Thamasa. You’ll like that, won’t you?”

As he turned a corner, the last leading to Sector F, his heart sank. There were two people in the hall ahead. He had done so well avoiding everyone up until now; he just hoped he could talk his way around whatever these two might say to stop him. He forced himself to walk casually, slowly. Perhaps he could stroll right by.

“Where is he?” the shorter, dark-haired one hissed at the older man next to her as Cidgeon came within earshot. “They said my son is here, has been here all along. We have to find him. You promised.”

“Ssh!” the man said through his prodigious beard. “Cait Sissel, you must be patient. We haven’t even come close to searching all these rooms. I can feel their magic here somewhere—“ he whirled around, pinning Cidgeon with his gaze. “Who are you?”

Cidgeon backed a step. “Just passing through,” he said, endeavoring to look harmless.

The old man drew himself up, towering over Cidgeon. “You work here. The stench of their works is on you. “ He frowned. “And a magic I haven’t felt for so many years, not since—“ His eyes narrowed. “Thief,” he said, flinging a hand forward. “You dare to flaunt my own kin’s magic to me after you stole it? What did you do with the Loremaster after you drained his magic, thief? Where is his body?”

The bolt of lightning shot from nowhere; Cidgeon just barely managed to jump back in time. The bolt left a blackened crater in the middle of the otherwise spotless white hall. The woman squeaked and jumped behind her escort, peering fearfully out at Cidgeon.

“Stop!” Cidgeon spat, hoping he could explain before being blasted out of existence. “You’ll draw attention!” He put his hands up. “I’m not an infused being. I have magic naturally.”

“H-how?” husked the woman, peeking around her companion’s robes. “How could a human have Esper magic without stealing it…?”

“How do you?” Cidgeon asked, eluding the question with practiced ease, although he knew the answer from the application of a little critical thought.

“We are magic,” she said simply. “In our bones and blood.”

“Espers,” Cidgeon said. “How did you escape?”

The man said, “There’s no time for this. If you didn’t steal our magic, just answer this. Be you friend or foe?”

Cidgeon snorted. “Few would call me friendly, but I mean you no harm. I was hoping to find any Espers I could, but I have to rescue someone first. Come with me if you want, and I can get you out of here.”

“We have to find my son,” the woman said firmly, with the first spark of determination Cidgeon had yet seen from her. “I won’t go anywhere without him.”

Cidgeon found himself soothing her as though she were a wounded, broken pigeon. At least that was a familiar situation. “We have to find Jowd, and then we’ll rescue your son. What’s his name? What are yours?”

“I’m Ramuh,” the old man said. “This is Cait Sissel—“

“And my son is Sissel,” she said eagerly. “He’s a half-Esper. Have you seen or heard from him?”

Chapter Text

Cidgeon gestured them along, keeping them moving, mind working furiously. Sissel’s name was fresh in his mind from the doctor’s notes. Cait Sissel seemed volatile and he hadn’t forgotten the blast of Ramuh’s magic, not to mention what the old man might do if he knew of Cidgeon’s connections. Did he dare tell them what he knew? And yet, how better to create trust than by being open from the first? He might need their help to rescue Jowd, to be sure, but as Ramuh had pointed out, they were also kin, of a far-removed and very distant sort.

And… what right did he have to keep information from someone looking to help their son? Wasn’t he in almost the same situation? Not his son, exactly, no, of course not, but someone he had responsibility for. Someone he needed to save, if at all possible. Someone, if one didn’t examine it too closely, he might be persuaded to call family.

“I do know of your son,” he finally admitted, carefully looking straight ahead and staying poker-faced, absently taking Lovey-Dove from his head and holding her close. “If he’s the one I read about, he escaped some time ago.”

Cait Sissel gasped. “You mean—he’s not here? We’ve stayed for nothing?” She glared at Ramuh.

“Not nothing,” he returned, unperturbed. “Although we know others of our kin have escaped as well, there are some left here. We must find and rescue them all.”

Cait Sissel’s mouth quirked in a petulant twist. “I suppose, but—“

Cidgeon edged away from her, considering how best to deflect the impending argument.

“They normally keep all the Espers here in this sector,” he chose to say, opting to focus on what he might need to know first. “Where are the rest of you?”

Ramuh’s voice went bitter. “There are few of us left. Some they’ve killed, and some, well… they may have escaped.”

“We hope so, anyway,” chimed in Cait Sissel. She paused, then offered, “We managed to escape when I muddled a researcher who wasn’t, um, careful enough, and then I turned him into an imp. He might be wandering around somewhere still.” Her expression went fierce. “He’d better not find us again or I’ll do worse.”

Cidgeon chose not to have her clarify that; there was something dark in her tone that said he’d likely regret the asking. He changed the subject instead.

“I’m looking for a human, another prisoner—he’s supposed to be in the next sector. I’ll rescue him, then get out.”

Cait Sissel’s expression went eager. “And you’ll take us as well? This place is so confusing. We’ve been wandering for hours and it seems as though we keep coming back to the same area.”

Ramuh scowled at Cait Sissel, his beard crackling with sparks. “Cait Sissel, I will not tell you again. I am not leaving without at least finding some news of our kind. I can feel them; they are close.”

Cidgeon opened his mouth to say something, some reassurance of his aims, but had the wind knocked out of him in the next second by a rising wail which, after a moment, he realized he was not hearing with his physical ears. Both Ramuh and Cait Sissel were doubled over, retching helplessly. He himself felt queasy and weak after that blast of psychic trauma from, he had to assume, the rest of the captured Espers. Lovey-Dove had launched herself from his arms and fluttered around his face, fanning him with her wings until he straightened. He couldn’t help but be grateful for her. With a gesture, he sent her to fan the two Espers, who seemed much more affected.

“What— what was that?” Cait Sissel choked out after a moment. “Ramuh, was that—?”

Ramuh straightened, his mouth a grim line. “Yes. There can be no doubt.”

Cidgeon had doubt and plenty enough to go around, but he said, “We won’t do anything useful by standing around here. We need to go.”

Ramuh nodded. “That was close. I believe it to be from one of these rooms ahead—we may pass it on the way to your rescue.” He strode forward, his whole being glimmering with flickers of lightning.

Cidgeon began to walk, then looked back. Cait Sissel was still standing, a fearful, far-away look in her eyes. He hesitated, then reached out to touch her arm. As soon as his fingers made contact with her flesh, she hissed.

Don’t touch me. How rude can you be, and you Esperkin? My magic is my own and none others’.” She stomped down the hall, hair fluffed around her head in her anger.

Cidgeon drew back his fingers but hurried after, Lovey-Dove settling into his own hair with practiced grace. At least it had gotten her moving, no matter the reason. That blast had rattled them all. What if it had something to do with Jowd and the experiment? He could already be too late.

The hall was coming to an end, and as Cidgeon had hoped, it was unguarded from this side. A simple set of double doors stood in their way, although Cidgeon was sure there would be guards on the other side. He considered the lore magic at his disposal. Would stone be enough to knock them out? It was messy but he wasn’t sure how else to accomplish what he needed, except—

He hurried forward, stopping Ramuh and Cait Sissel in the middle of a hushed argument before they could open the door.

Interrupting Ramuh mid-word, he asked Cait Sissel, “You said you could use your magic to muddle and confuse people, right?”

She nodded, still tight-lipped at his supposed rudeness, although he was honestly unsure what part of it had gotten her so up in arms. Well, she’d need to get over it. It wasn’t the first time he’d been inadvertently rude to someone and it would certainly not be the last.

“There are guards on the other side of this door, I’m sure of it. I’m going to open it just a crack and you need to confuse them before they can turn around.”

“Who are you to be giving us orders?” she asked sulkily. “We’re supposed to be rescuing everyone, so shouldn’t we be staying here?”

Ramuh sighed. “Cait Sissel, you grow somewhat tiresome. The magic came from that way, beyond this door. With him or without him, this is the way we need to go.”

Cidgeon said, “If you work with me, we can get out of here. If that’s what you want, anyway.”

She made a tiny, inarticulate mewl of frustration but nodded. Cidgeon reached for the door just as the whole thing blew inward, revealing Cabanela and the slumped bodies of two guards.

“I’ve been waaaaiting for you, Prof,” he said silkily, flipping the scarf he’d been running through his fingers nonchalantly back over his shoulder. “I figured you were coming to get Jowd. What tooook you and your friends so long, baby?”

Chapter Text

Cabanela smiled broadly, clearly relishing the shock of his entrance. “Don’t be so surpriiiised, baby! When I dropped by your labs for a little chaaaat, I saw you’d packed. Figured there was only one place you’d go, Prof… you must know where Jowd is.” Desperation lay raw in his dark eyes. “The doc took him away, Prof. I have to get him back.”

Cidgeon recovered from his surprise. “So you found him, bo-- Cabanela? A recent thing? What happened to letting me know?”

His eyes shuttered, a hard veneer of caution slamming down over the vulnerability they’d nearly revealed. “Caaaan’t trust anyone these days, Prof, yoooou know how it is. After all, look: heeeere you are, consorting with the enemy.” His airy wave, just a little too theatrical, took in Ramuh and Cait Sissel.

Cidgeon blinked, nonplussed. “The enemy? But—”

Cabanela twirled away, ignoring the interjection. “Now, Prof, I know your friend here,” he dismissed Ramuh with a flip of his hand, “but I don’t believe this loooovely lady and I have met yet.” He essayed an elegant, operatic bow, ending with Cait Sissel’s hand in his as he raised it to his lips for a kiss. She snatched it away, speechless, and cowered back, crouched almost to the floor in an attempt to make herself small and harmless.

Ramuh interrupted, his whole being gleaming with roiling sparks as Cait Sissel trembled behind him. “Those soldiers… what did you do to them?”

Cabanela glanced down at them for a bare instant, flicking his hungry gaze back at Cait Sissel. “Just a little tummy upset. They’ll be sick for a while, and then… proooobably die? No concern of mine, baby.”

Ramuh scowled, thunder rumbling somewhere in the distance. “A brazen thief who admits to using my own magic to kill humans...” Cidgeon could feel his hair beginning to rise, static building all around, the smell of ozone thick in the air.

Cabanela shrugged. “They miiiight not die. Someone might heal them. Or maybe they’re strong enough to survive a little bio-magic, baby. Anyhoot, not my concern.”

The thunder rolled to a crescendo as Ramuh let the magic he’d been building go, letting loose an enormous stroke of lightning before Cidgeon could even think of stopping him. It rebounded, earthing itself again in its caster as Cabanela smirked and held up a hand.

“Reflect Ring, baby. A neeecessary tool when dealing with your kind, wouldn’t you agree, Professor?”

Ramuh recoiled. His own magic hadn’t harmed him, had even healed some small injuries from what Cidgeon could see, but he obviously had no idea how to proceed with someone clearly many steps ahead.

“I have a feeeew other little tricks up my sleeves, so let’s not be too hasty with throwin’ the spells around, huh? I don’t really neeeed any more of your magic anyway, baby.”

Cabanela had always been a little wild, a little beyond understanding, but there was something feral in the rictus of a smile he shot at the three of them. Cidgeon could feel Lovey-Dove cringing, shivering in every feather atop his head. She’d never been afraid of the boy before. And these soldiers—Cidgeon had seen Cabanela order the puppet to kill but this brought it home in a way the distance had not. Could he even dream of rehabilitating and redeeming this man? Should he?

He’d been silent too long; the smile had vanished from Cabanela’s face. “No matter, baby, this is all taking too long. You must know where Jowd is, Prof. I know he’s in this sector somewhere, but it would take soooo long to search all these rooms. The doc’s betrayed us all; he’s going to try to make Jowd his neeeext experiment.”

Cidgeon nodded. “I do know. Did that blast of magic earlier have anything to do with that?”

He’d taken Cabanela aback. “Yoooou felt that, Prof?  Weeell, well, well. A man of so many surprises, even after all these years…”

Cidgeon raised an eyebrow. Cabanela had known his secret since he was a child. Had the infusions stolen that memory, too, from him? Cautiously, he ventured, “This old dog can still pick up a new trick here and there, boy.”

The scowl he received from Cabanela could have blistered paint. “Don’t call me boy, Professor. Not your plaaaace, hmm?” He shrugged. “Juuust didn’t realize you were strong enough to feel the magic floating around with those little lores of yours. You miiiight be a life more valuable to the nation than I thought, baby.”

Cidgeon winced. No one in the Empire needed his abilities on their mind, and for good or ill, his former charge had to be considered firmly within the Empire’s clutches for now.

Cabanela, his good mood restored, clapped him on the shoulder. “I’ve bought us some time, Prof. Managed to tie up the good doctor with a distraction on an upper level. Bring your pets, won’t you? Leeeet’s go get Jowd.”

“W-we’re not going anywhere with you!” spat Cait Sissel, “Murderer! Thief!”

Cabanela kept his smile as he turned his gaze to her. “You remiiind me of someone, baby. A kitten of my acquaintance.”

She gasped. “You know Sissel? Oh—” she clapped her hands to her mouth and retreated back to her crouch.

“Aha, you doooo know him. Well, baby, if you must know, he escaped with a little… assistance from me. But he took something of mine with him.” He wagged a finger playfully at Cait Sissel. “Bad kitty! When we get out of here, perhaps we can all get our oooown back, hmm?”

Something dark flickered in his gaze. “And theeeen… well, I’m sure we’ll all get our happy ending, baby. I saw him veeeery recently. I’m sure it won’t be so hard to hunt him down.”

Her wide eyes shone, slit pupils dilated wide, hands clenched together in hope. “Ramuh, what do we do? He knows my son. He’s seen him. If—if we could just get out of here…”

Ramuh turned his fierce glare on Cidgeon. “I know not your connection to this monster. I cannot, will not trust him, but somehow, I can tell you mean us no harm, despite your complete lack of knowledge of your own history. Do you believe this… man to be necessary to our aim?”

Cidgeon clenched his fists in his pockets. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. He’d hoped Jowd would prove a stabilizing influence on Cabanela, that he could rescue the king before they ran into him. Ramuh was right. They couldn’t trust Cabanela as he currently was, but when would this chance come again? If Cidgeon could just keep the boy calm and focused on their aim, maybe their escape was less of a gamble and more of a certainty.

Nothing about this was right. But what choice did he have, really, when it came down to it? He could no more leave his boy here to be eaten alive by the Empire’s monsters then he could have left Lovey-Dove, all those years ago, or these Espers now. A soft touch, that’s what he was.

He nodded at Ramuh, hoping his silence would communicate something of what he was thinking, then fished a couple of antidotes out of his pack’s first-aid kit and handed them to Cabanela.

“Give these to the soldiers.”

Cabanela snorted inelegantly but did as Cidgeon requested, keeping his eyes on the Professor the entire time, never blinking.

Cidgeon turned to Cait Sissel. “You’ll have to imp them. Can’t have them coming after us anytime soon.”

Together, they placed the unconscious imps on the other side of the door. Cidgeon let a gentle wind blow over them, healing the damage they’d already taken. These soldiers were likely just conscripts, after all. When he was sure they were well and truly out, but mostly healed, he straightened. “Cabanela…” he swallowed the rest of what he wanted to say. He couldn’t yet tip his hand, but he dearly hoped the rest of this rescue would go more smoothly. Without saying another word, he began the walk into Sector F, heading for Jowd, hoping the rest would follow.

Chapter Text

Together but apart, they proceeded through the maze of halls, Cidgeon’s fast shuffle competing with Cabanela’s long-legged stroll. This sector was much less well-lit and more industrial in feel, Cidgeon couldn’t help but notice, and sounds echoed strangely down the halls. There were no guards. Cidgeon tried not to focus on that, but the thought lay in the back of his mind as Cabanela chattered about inconsequentials and the Espers grimly kept walking, keeping their senses tuned for their kin.

“Asbolus is moving his labs down here, Prof. Did you know?”

Cidgeon nodded, feeling Lovey-Dove shift her balance on his head and settle back to her watchful crouch. “I didn’t know, but I’m not surprised. Lot of room underground and not much oversight.”

“Yoooou said it, Prof.” Cabanela’s face went hard. “The doc thinks he can pull a fast one on me— us, but wait until he sees what’s about to happen, baby. Throwin’ a wrench in aaaall his plans here.”

Cidgeon allowed himself a brief, satisfied smirk. One in the eye, indeed. What a pity he and his little coterie would be long gone by the time Asbolus saw it.

“Ahh, theeeere’s a smile,” Cabanela crooned. “Beginnin’ to think we were on the outs, Prof! Glad to see you perkin’ up a bit.”

Cidgeon’s face immediately drooped again. He’d forgotten, for just a second, the danger of his situation. This mercurial Cabanela could turn on them any moment. That was why he hadn’t told him their destination from the beginning; he needed Cabanela to need them. But how long could he keep the façade up? The room was nearing by the second. They were passing through the research labs now. The research rooms designated for experiments lay around the next corner.

He felt the vicious roil in his guts beginning again, the queasiness returning in full force, as Ramuh gave a muffled exclamation and Cait Sissel squeaked.

“They’re here! Ramuh, they’re here!”

“Oh, thank the goddesses we’re not too late.” Ramuh rushed to the nearby door, Research Room 19F-2 by the label neatly printed on a plaque next to it, his usual austere manner forgotten in his rush to find the rest of his kin. He pulled it open and recoiled, staring in shock. Cait Sissel, rushing in behind him, managed to stop just short of touching him but stared in equal horror at whatever lay within.

Cidgeon’s eyes slid to Cabanela, who looked—pleased? Satisfied?

“Who—who could have done this?” husked Ramuh, his ever-present lightning gone completely inert in his shock.

Cidgeon peered in. The sight that met his gaze stunned him. Two beings—a unicorn, a vast whale-creature—lay sprawled on the floor. They were still and sizzling, a vicious parallel to the soldiers Cidgeon had seen Cabanela having his puppet roast on the battlefield. They breathed, still, but Cidgeon thought there was likely no saving these Espers. Ramuh rushed forward, dropping to his knees, weeping helplessly, gone childlike in his utter despair.

“No. No, please… please don’t leave us…”

Cait Sissel stepped into the room as well, hand to her mouth in speechless dismay. Her other hand fisted at her side, her claws cutting into her palm and causing blood to slowly drip to the floor.

Cidgeon whirled to Cabanela, dread coiling in his stomach.

“Did you do this?”

“Mooooi?” Cabanela inspected his fingernails. “Not me, baby. Must have been Asbolus. Don’t know why he’d just throw away his toys, but hey. They weren’t woooorth anything to him anymore, I suppose.”

“Not worth anything?” Cait Sissel whispered. “They were—they were our friends, our family—“

“And now they’re meat, baby, and Asbolus can’t use them for his experiments. They served their purpose, and be glad they’re somewhere better now.”

Cabanela’s eyes gleamed with the light of madness and Cidgeon’s stomach heaved. The stench of blood and charred flesh was overwhelming, overlaid with a smell of ozone and the stink of utter abject fear. He could not be sick, not here, and add that to the chaos of the situation, but it was difficult. Lovey-Dove had sunk into a quivering ball, smaller than he would have believed possible, and was huddled into his pack, as far from Cabanela as she could get while remaining in contact with him.

He swallowed hard. Whatever little magic he had, he needed to protect the Espers from this madman. The boy was his responsibility. Cidgeon couldn’t let Cabanela kill anymore, even if that meant Cidgeon himself had to be injured or killed. He stepped into the room, in front of Cait Sissel, Ramuh, and the other two Espers, aware for the first time in many years of how he’d shrunk as he aged. He was little enough protection for them but he had to hope that their trust in him wasn’t misplaced.

“Oh, I seee,” Cabanela grinned down at him, clean white teeth bared in that uncomfortable rictus yet again. “Yoooou think I’d hurt them and you’re willing to stop me? I just don’t understand his attachment to you, baby.”

Cidgeon shook his head. “Cabanela,” he said, as gently as he knew how, “You’re ill, son. This isn’t you.”

Cabanela threw back his head and laughed uproariously. “Hoooow right you are, Professor! And you’ll never know how much, baby.” He scanned the room, insouciantly leaning against the doorway. “Let’s seeee… magic I already have, weak elemental, healing, and…” he leaned forward, putting his face level with Cait Sissel’s. “I could use your magic, baby. Don’t suppose you’d volunteer for the infusion experiments?”

She rushed past Cidgeon and slapped him, her hand leaving a bloody print on his cheek. Without flinching, he raised a hand and wiped the stain away, leaving his cheekbone clean and flawless.

“Thooought not, baby, and it’s not like you’re all that useful to me anyway.” He straightened and turned, sauntering through the door as he fixed his hair and scarf just so. “Thanks for getting me so close, Prof, I’ll take it the rest of the way. Can’t be too far noooow, after all that walking we did.” He shook his head mockingly. “I’d say I can’t believe you’d choose these things over me, but it’s no more than I expected, really, Professor. You always did have a taste for monsters. I have to say I prefer the cleanness of technology.” He pirouetted, twirling in an elegant spiral and ending with his usual flourishes. “I’ll leave you aliiiive for now… for old time’s sake. Faaaamily, nothin’ like it.” The door clicked closed, the lock catching.

He called through the door, “The guards should be here any minute, dooon’t you worry. Have to have a shoooow for the Emperor after all…” His dancing footsteps faded, gone beyond Cidgeon’s reach and into the unknown.

Chapter Text

With the Guardian gone, the platform they’d managed to reach previously was oddly quiet. The soldiers had evidently been shooed to lower levels, the Guardian having been deemed enough to keep the palace entrance sufficiently guarded. Although Cidgeon was somewhere deep underground, as was Jowd, they had no way of knowing where to go without a guide or at least a map.

“It sounds like it’s almost a whole other city down there,” said Lynne, frowning down into the depths. “Cabanela, do you have any idea where that doctor’s research labs might be?”

Cabanela shrugged, flicking his gaze back and forth from the palace to the city, keeping watch for soldiers, making sure they were safe where they were. Moving, even if only a little. “A bit, baby. Been to the ooold sectors before—“ he broke off, wrinkling his forehead in the effort of recollection. “A long time ago.”

Alma let out a long breath. “It would be hard to get there from here on the ducts, I imagine.”

Lynne’s telling look at the fragile metal framework and scaffolding spoke volumes. Even Missile didn’t seem to like his footing here, huddling close to Lynne’s feet and whimpering softly.

Alma looked back at the palace looming dark against the hazy sky. “The Emperor would have a way into the area, though, wouldn’t he?”

Cabanela’s jaw dropped. “That’s crazy talk, baby. We caaan’t go back there after the noise we just kicked up.”

“Why not?” Lynne said suddenly. “You heard that thing. It said General Cabanela was no traitor. If news of your defection hasn’t reached the palace yet, somehow, we’re already dressed like soldiers. And we brought your clothes along; you can just change and stroll right on in. This isn’t really a change in plans at all.”

“And it’s not as though we’re looking for the Emperor,” Alma said, putting her hand on his shoulder. He twitched under her grip like a nervy chocobo. “We’re just looking for the way into the underground city.”

He turned and looked into her eyes, his own dark blue gaze boring into her brown. “And if the Empire’s looking for us, baby? I caaan’t lose both of you to them.”

She managed not to slide her eyes away, although it was difficult to hold his gaze. “This is not new, Cabanela. I already lost all of you to the Empire. I thought I’d never get any of you back, especially not—“ she stopped before she could say the final “you,” other hand clenched into a fist, thumb rapidly tapping her four fingers in nervous sequence. “I’d go anywhere, do anything, to find my daughter and my husband.”

His hand slowly reached out and, almost shyly, took hers, stilling her fingers’ frenetic counting. He brought his forehead to her own, leaning into her.

“I—Alma, my Queen, I—“

Lynne coughed politely, making them both jump. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said, not looking particularly so, “but this is really not a good place for a heart-to-heart.”

Alma turned away, trying not to show how relieved she was. She had come so close to believing that she could almost have forgotten everything she knew about him. His eyes were so pleading, so naked in their honesty. She could almost have forgiven him, and that was the one thing she could not afford to do, not here, not with the memories of five years and her lost families between them. Not with the puzzlement of Narshe and his whereabouts during that fraught battle so fresh and recent. Not with the road ahead of them so clouded and uncertain.

There was a small silence and she could feel Cabanela’s eyes on her. Dithering didn’t suit her. They had a plan; they would stick to it. “Lynne’s right. Get changed, Cabanela. We’ll cover you from prying eyes.  And then we’re going in there.”

“This is a baaad idea, baby,” he muttered, but accepted the bundle of his own clothes from Lynne’s pack. He dropped into the entrance from the ducts that Acacia and Tinctoria had so recently used and shimmied back out of the reviled prison attire, then came back out of the duct frowning.

“What’s wrong?” said Lynne.

“It’s juuust…” he brandished the bundle. “They’re ugly and huge, baby, but I almost hate to see them go.”

Lynne looked puzzled, but Alma thought she understood. However tenuous, the garments were a connection to Jowd, a link from them to wherever he was in those underground cells.

She took the bundle, holding it tight for a moment, then said, “When we get Jowd, we won’t need these prison cast-offs any more, right?”

Cabanela nodded but looked unconvinced. Alma sighed and shrugged. “All right, there’s room in my pack. Perhaps we’ll need them again.” She stowed them away and looked around, trying to decide the next best way to regain the platform.

The path they’d come from had been destroyed by the Guardian’s heavy tread, but they were able to find an alternate route which took them to the opposite side of the floor. The guards that occasionally patrolled by on the overhead platform as they crept beneath their feet seemed to notice nothing amiss as Lynne hit them with a sleep spell for good measure and the palace entrance was gained with a shocking lack of drama.

As they entered the halls of the palace, however, Cabanela seemed to get extra nervy. His usual saunter stiffened into an echo of Alma’s stride and he dropped back to walk a pace behind the others, shadowing their footsteps, without even seeming to notice the strangeness of his behavior.

Lynne and Alma caught each other’s eye. What was this new mannerism? Missile even seemed nonplussed. Cabanela was taking the position Missile normally walked in. He sniffed at Cabanela and cocked his head to one side, tail still for once as he puzzled over his friend.

“Cabanela?” Lynne questioned after a moment of this. “Aren’t we supposed to be guarding you? You’re the general, we’re the bodyguards here, right?”

Cabanela blinked, then looked down at his traitorous feet, walking without his conscious guidance.

“You’re right, baby, silly of me. Don’t know what I’m thinkin’.” He moved back to the front, but his whole gait was stiff and uncomfortable.

“Breathe, Cabanela,” Alma said softly. “Remember?”

His shoulders eased after a moment of controlled breathing and he regained his former nonchalance. Fortunately, they had passed no one during this time, but the main bulk of the palace lay ahead of them.

“The Emperor’s throne room lies straaaight ahead. The barracks are that way,” said Cabanela, gesturing left. “The Imperial living quarters are over this way.”

“Which way would be better?” Lynne said, head whipping from one anonymous door to the other.

Cabanela looked down at Missile, “Heeey, little warrior, have you gotten the lay of the land yet?”

Missile was busy sniffing the air. “There’re lots of men wearing armor that first way!”  He said, “And I smell food in front of us!” He drooled. “It smells really good!”

Alma smiled. “We won’t be eating here, that much I can promise. Sorry, boy.”

“Awww…” Missile’s ears and tail drooped as he continued to sniff. “That way smells like…” his nose wrinkled. “Like when you shoot lightning, Mister Cabanela! Or when one of the Esper people shows up!”

He growled, looking above them. “There’s a smell I don’t like up there. But… it smells like you, too, Mister Cabanela. And Sissel!” He started to bark, tail waving. “We have to go that way!”

Cabanela shrugged, deflecting the identical stares Lynne and Alma directed at him. “There it is, baby, alll the way to the top or when our friend here tells us otherwise.”

Chapter Text

They took the stairs to the right, Cabanela graciously accepting the covered-face salutes and stunned looks of the soldiers they passed as his due. Alma and Lynne did their best to look stoic and unconcerned as Missile trotted along happily beside them all.

Alma knew the façade could break any minute and she could see from the way Cabanela’s shoulder blades pinched together that, despite her reminder to breathe, he was having trouble controlling his manic nerves. At one point, she touched his back, meaning only to comfort, but the way he jumped and whirled, eyes wide, hissing out an irritated huff of breath but giving her a pained smile when he saw it was only her, had her backing away. And yet, it was oddly comforting in a perplexing way.

The Cabanela from the past five years had been all deference, all respect, and yet it had never been anything but patronizing. It was as though she had stopped being Alma and become only a trophy in his eyes. He never treated her with less than that same oozing charm, but his guard was never down either. That Cabanela would never have turned his back on her. He didn’t trust her, a fair exchange as she had no longer trusted him either.

This Cabanela was all too human, all too fragile a bundle of nerves. He let her walk behind him with her greatsword, trusting her to protect his back if necessary. He treated her as if she was the woman he’d professed to love so long ago, not the trophy Queen he had to conquer. Alma felt the shell around her heart crack a little more. If only Jowd were here, and Kamila, or better yet they were home. Her fist unclenched, her hands finally falling still to her sides. They were close. They could make it—it was just one step ahead of another, as she’d done for the past five years. And when they did… well, Cabanela being there too might be no bad ending, if things continued in this fashion.

A door up ahead opened and two red suited Imperial guards stepped out to flank it, followed by several courtiers and—Alma felt her heart stop. It was Sith himself, goddesses help them all, and he had noticed their little group. He stopped and the ever-present smirk Alma had noted on his face at previous events at which she’d been present widened just a little.

Alma blessed her lucky stars she’d been a mere child last she’d seen him, at a court function in Doma, but she pulled her helmet down more firmly over her face.

“I say! General Cabanela, my good man!” Sith exclaimed, beaming. “And here I thought you were still returning from Narshe. I trust your excursion was successful? Have you brought the Esper back for your Empire?”

Cabanela swept into a bow, smooth and certain as ever. “I left Narshe in the caaare of the soldiers, your Majesty. I expect they’ll send news any day now,” he said, with perfect truth.

“What? But my dear fellow, as their General, should you not be there by their side? I’m sure I said come back with the Esper, you know.” Sith’s mouth curled in a petulant snarl. “You wouldn’t want to be a disappointment to the Empire, my good man. Confound it, we can’t afford to make mistakes!”

Alma could see Lynne trembling out of the corner of her eye but Cabanela essayed his most elaborate court bow. “Of cooourse, your Majesty, but it was vitally important I return immediately.”

Sith raised his bushy eyebrows. “For what reason, General?”

“I had to let the goood Doctor know that his little pet showed up and was killed in the fighting,” Cabanela said, all smooth solemnity. “We gaaained an Esper and lost another, Your Majesty.”

“Harrumph!” Sith might have been rolling his eyes, but who could tell under those eyebrows? “A paltry excuse, man. It’s a miserable state of affairs if I can’t rely on my own generals to stay with their troops.”

He frowned, peering at Cabanela. “This is a truly shocking lapse in judgment, my good fellow. Magitek is certainly a convenient thing, granted, but the way you use it is just plain “off,” confound it. Perhaps I should expect it from one of Asbolus’s little experiments.”

Cabanela gritted his teeth but began to return an urbane reply as Sith held up a magisterial hand. “Enough. You soldiers there.”

Alma realized after an instant to whom he was referring and stepped forward, saluting the Emperor with the salute she’d seen previously given to the general.

“Yes, your Majesty?”

Sith started and peered at her. “Good Goddesses! Woman soldiers? General, I didn’t think you had it in you. Dear me. And only half-trained, too, I see. Doesn’t even know how to salute her Emperor, my good man, err—woman! And… is that an adorable little doggie? Most irregular! Enough to give me a case of the vapours!”

Cabanela’s eyes widened just a touch; the disguise was cracking. Alma curtsied, hoping manners hard won in the courts of Doma would at least carry the day in this emergency.

“My apologies, your Majesty,” she said, bending her head low. “My lord Cabanela found us begging on the streets of Narshe. Please forgive us for appearing before you in this state. My sister and I have always wanted to live in Vector; Figaro is no place for people like us…” she trailed off, hoping the Emperor would draw his own conclusions.

Missile barked. “Why are you acting like that? You all are being strange!”

Lynne snatched him up. “Quiet! How dare you speak in front of His Majesty like that?”

Sith’s stance relaxed and he resumed his crooked smirk. “Aha, I see you’ve found some charming accompaniment to add to your retinue. The human touch! It’ll be good for you, man. And you found another interesting creature to add to your mentor’s menagerie? Quite the attachment you still harbor for him, my good fellow.” He stared at Cabanela, eyes hard and suspicious.

“No, your Majesty,” said Cabanela, “you misunderstand. I’m briiinging this specimen for the doctor. I was taking him to the labs.”

“Aha, General, and you forgot they’d been moved underground. Egads, man, just admit your mistakes and accept the consequences!”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

The Emperor frowned for a moment. “My good fellow, I believe it’s been too long since your last session with the Doctor. You’re acting positively unlike yourself. I must say I rather prefer it, actually.” He thought for a moment, then gestured to one of his personal guard. “You there. Escort the General, his—” his smirk turned into a leer, “his ladies, and his dog directly to Dr. Asbolus. Use the elevator upstairs, won’t you, my good fellow, and then report back immediately after.”

“As my Emperor commands,” the red-suited soldier responded, giving a picture-perfect Imperial salute.

“Now, you see, that’s how you do it,” said Sith to Alma as an aside. “Female soldiers, my goodness, whatever will this fellow come up with next?” He straightened. “Dismissed, General. I expect your full report immediately after your session with the doctor.”

All three saluted as the Emperor swept on about his business, Missile barking after him with barely concealed irritation at being so dismissed. Cabanela looked with curiosity at their impassive escort.

“Weeell, baby, shall we go?”

“Yes, General,” the soldier said, face expressionless. “Right this way.”

Chapter Text

Lynne and Alma walked behind Cabanela and the guardsman, unease permeating the air. Alma had not forgotten Narshe. Where had Cabanela been in that battle? He claimed to have been at the Elder’s house, where she’d insisted he stay, but the shrouded and masked jester that had greeted them on the battlefield had been all too eerily reminiscent of her five years’ tormentor. No, she had not forgotten, but she had allowed it to be put aside and this brought that uncertainty back into stark relief.  Cabanela’s replies to the Emperor had not been reassuring, and yet Sith hadn’t displayed anything but arrogant assurance of Cabanela’s loyalty, even while showing his irritation at the General’s lack of judgment. She had played along, but the turmoil in her head and heart had begun again. It was a reminder that he could not be unequivocally trusted, no matter her private yearnings otherwise.

The soldier led them several flights up the internal palace stairs to the palace roof, where only one room remained, a smaller metal-framed cube that crested the palatial ziggurat.

“That’s the elevator?” Lynne eyed it. It looked most unprepossessing for being the zenith of such an otherwise grand palace. “Why’d you build it on the top floor? Wouldn’t it make more sense to build it lower?”

The soldier shrugged, answering shortly, “Ask the General. He and Dr. Asbolus had this level built himself.” He sneered at Lynne, blatantly ogling her and Alma. She narrowed her eyes, but let it go unremarked in aid of keeping their disguise. The soldier snorted at her furious face and gestured them inside.

The room was small and comprised entirely of steel and mechanical parts. It appeared to house the controls for a set of cranes, no doubt used in the ongoing construction efforts, and a chair. As Cabanela saw the chair, he missed a step, then backed away, breathing coming shallow.

“Caba—General Cabanela, are you all right, sir?” Lynne asked, with a worried glance at the soldier.

Cabanela reeled, raising a shaking hand to his face. Whatever the chair’s significance to him, he appeared utterly lost to it in this moment, shaken to his core.  Lynne and Alma took a wary step back, the soldier escorting them raising his halberd to a defensive stance in a possibly futile effort to protect himself from attack. It was clear he harbored no illusions as to his safety with the General.

Alma couldn’t, wouldn’t let it all fall to pieces here. Whatever the Empire was playing at, the soldier needed to go if they were to make any progress. Perhaps if he were scared off with magic, he would leave. Missile had the magicite with Maduin and their strongest attack spells; perhaps a bolt of lightning would remind the soldier that it was General Cabanela that was supposed to be in charge. She edged around to Missile, still in Lynne’s arms, and whispered a suggestion into his ear.

A moment later, lightning struck down, hitting one of the cranes. The soldier squeaked, a terrified expression crossing his previously scornful features, and backed away. A moment later, an even larger bolt of lightning shot down, the electricity hitting the control unit and arcing in the confined metal space. Alma had only meant to make a show; she hadn’t realized the cranes themselves were magitek. The soldier hurriedly saluted Cabanela, hand to his face, cried out and ran; his discipline evidently only extended so far. Lynne, Alma, and Cabanela dropped to the floor, which shook under their feet as the cranes writhed in their housings like living organisms.

After a moment, they rose, breathing shakily. The controls appeared completely fried, destroyed in the arcing electricity. The cranes themselves appeared to have settled for the moment. Cabanela still had his eyes fixed on the mysterious chair. Lynne cast another wary glance at him but padded up to it. “Oh, it looks like the whole room is the elevator. Neat! And these are the controls! Is this like some sort of mobile throne room? That’s kind of weird.”

Missile barked, jumping into the chair and rolling around on the seat. “This is the center of all the things I smelled earlier! Sissel and the bad thing and Mister Cabanela, all mixed up!” He squirmed, paws flailing. “There! Now it smells like me and that’s much better!” He sat up, smiling his doggy smile, mouth open wide and tongue lolling. “So you can stop being scared now, Mister. Cabanela!”

Cabanela nodded jerkily, his usual grace completely abandoned. Something about this room had absolutely spooked him. Alma wished, not for the first time, he would or could be less vague about his previous time in Vector. He raised a shaky hand to his hair, smoothing back the tufts that had come awry when he’d dropped to the floor, tracing the lines of new gray, his other hand still covering his face. After a moment, he spoke, his voice almost normal.

“We could probably have uuused the soldier as a guide, at least, don’t you think?”

“Well, maybe, but it’s more trouble than it’s worth to keep Imperial personnel around, I suspect,” returned Alma, glad to see him returning to equanimity as he dropped his hands and shook himself back into Cabanela-ness. Questions of his loyalty aside, she still needed him to find Jowd and to see him reeling like that had brought her hackles right back up. What if he slipped back into the madness? She had almost started to believe it wouldn’t happen again. This interlude was a sharp reminder to keep her distance.

“Too true, baby,” said Cabanela. He looked over at Lynne, still examining the chair. A look of distaste crossed his features as he looked it over and he made no attempt to come closer. “Preeess the button, baby, and let’s see what’s waiting down there.”

She did as he asked and the walls rose around them as the floor of the room itself began to sink. Just as they were about to drop below the level of the outer flooring and the door, a last aftershock rolled through the room, one of the cranes jumping in its moorings. Something beneath them, in the mechanism of the floor, went ting and something else, a wire perhaps, snapped. A second later, without any further warning, the whole floor began falling at a much faster pace than is usually reckoned safe for an elevator. The wire that had snapped slithered through the pulley holding the mechanism in place, whipping out and snapping Lynne sharply across her arm as she jumped back.

Machinery howled as they fell, helplessly holding onto each other in an effort to keep from being blown apart. The elevator’s safety railings shredded away around them, leaving them to freefall with the remains of the floor and the counterweight mechanism into the darkness of the pit. Lynne was unconscious, blood draining freely from the wound on her arm, Missile biting desperately onto her clothes to avoid being lifted away by the howling wind.

Alma cast about frantically. She had no spells that could help, and none of the magicite she carried seemed to either. She looked down. There was dim light down there gleaming around the edge of the metal floor; the ground was fast approaching. They would not survive this fall. After all this, was this how she’d end, splattered and useless, the Empire having managed to bury her after all? Her fingers clutched Cabanela’s, but she had to try one last time. She threw herself at Lynne’s dead weight, grabbing blindly in her pack, screaming the words to activate Slow on the counterweight mechanism and pulley and hoping the magicite Lynne carried would somehow take note. It was a last-ditch, desperate effort that was rewarded with a wash of magic. The floor slowed—it wasn’t much but it was, just possibly, enough.

A moment later, it hit the ground with an enormous and resounding whump, mechanical parts clanging and flying as the rest of the mechanism succumbed to the stress and the friction. All of them were, yet again, dashed to the ground, Alma landing across Cabanela with a grunt and Lynne’s unconscious body slamming painfully against the broken flooring with Missile on top of her.

After a moment, Alma sat up, moaning painfully with the effort of disturbing her stiffening limbs. Shakily, she reached for the magic she’d already learned, the first time she’d ever used it without an Esper acting as the locus. She cast the strongest cure spell she had and watched the terrible wound on Lynne’s arm knit and heal without a trace. For good measure, she cast it again, and again, until the buzzing in her senses told her it would no longer help.

Her legs weakened and she sat, landing against Cabanela, who had just sat up. He braced her and they sat together, united in this moment, waiting for Lynne to awaken.

Chapter Text

It appeared they’d fallen far past the hospital floors, deep into the foundations of Vector. Down here were the old mines and the detritus of construction waiting for new floors to be built. It smelt strongly of old, moist dirt, fungal growth aplenty, a faint faraway tang of something that was perhaps a mining explosive, and something that only Missile could smell, which he described as “Sissel, but different, but the same!”

Alma could see they would probably have to climb back out. An old, defunct mining cart sat on a track, long past use or service. There was no moving it, she was sure, not without someone with muscles like her husband. If they had to come back this way, perhaps they could use his help to get it moving and they would have a ride out. In the meantime, the track itself looked more than a little precarious to walk on, the ground on which it lay dropping away into the darkness before too far down the tunnel. It was clear, however, this cavern wasn’t completely abandoned. There were small lights in sconces set into the walls, apparently lit by magitek. She shook her head. It was ever more pervasive. Where it would end, who could say? It made her uneasy.

Lynne, at last, twitched and moaned. “Oooh… what happened…?” Her hand went to her arm, the injury healed without a trace, but Alma knew from prior experience in many a battle that the brain didn’t let go of the injuries that easily. It had to be convinced that the muscles and nerves were knit back together, that there was no reason for the pain it was sure it felt.

Missile abandoned his explorations of the cavern and rushed to her, bounding into her lap and licking her face as she tried to fend off his frantic tongue. “I’m sorry Miss Lynne! So sorry! Are you OK? I didn’t mean to fall on you!”

After a moment of his wild wiggling in her lap, she smiled at him, and said, “Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to fall on you, buddy!  How could you be our Top Pomeranian then?”

“Huh?” Missile reared back, looking at her in bafflement. She just laughed and ruffled his ears, allowing his confusion to let her get her feet under her and stand. She gently put Missile on the ground, where he trotted along happily at her heels, and walked over to where Cabanela stood examining the joists of the old mining supports, a small fireball held in abeyance in his hand warming the chill air around him.

“What happened, exactly?” she asked, absently rubbing her arm as the last of the pain was slowly dissipating. He handed her the fireball, knowing that she had the fire spell learned, and she held it for him as he peered into a large, deep fissure in the wall, narrow enough to walk through but no less terrifying in its own way than the defunct mining track.

“Those magitek cranes attacked us and we feeell, baby, way down below Vector.” He looked with distaste at the damp earth and muck all around them. “I thiiink we went right through the floor we needed. We’ll have to find a way back up.”

Alma joined them, looking apologetic. “I’m so sorry, Lynne,” she said, examining Lynne’s arm. “I had no idea that those cranes would react to a lightning strike that way—I just wanted to scare off that soldier.”

Lynne gave it one more brisk rub and let out a breath, ignoring the last of the pain. “It’s all right! I’m OK, really, you don’t have to fuss!” She shot the queen a smile. “It’s not like I died, after all!”

Alma looked unconvinced, but allowed herself to be persuaded, contenting herself with holding her hands to the warmth of the fireball that Lynne still held. The air really was cold, so far below the ground.

Cabanela fished in his pack and brought out a magicite. “Want to switch me, baby? Ifrit here and I have learned all we caaan from each other, I think, and looks like your friend there has taught you all she knows too.”

Alma took the magicite. It glowed with warmth from the inside, a fire barely banked but held to embers by the confines of the stone. She nodded and handed him Kirin, with a word of thanks to the Esper inside for her kindness in teaching Alma the spells she knew. The stone gleamed a little brighter for a moment, then dimmed again as Cabanela took it. He didn’t press the issue, putting the magicite with the others without a word. Some of the magicite had accepted him; some had not. Thus far, he had abided by his word that he would not use their magic without their consent.

Missile yapped, tail waving. “There’s someone coming! They smell like… like…” he paused, nose quivering. “It’s that different-but-same smell. Sissel!”

He tore off through the narrow crack in the wall, catching the others by surprise. Lynne squeezed through and took off after him, heedless of the danger, crying for him to stop, but he didn’t or wouldn’t heed her. As he ran the tunnel widened around him, showing signs of having been purposefully carved out of the surrounding stone. Missile scampered straight to the feet of the oncoming group’s leader, a woman as blue as any member of the Azul Empire, and stretched up so he could plant his paws firmly on her knees.

Welcome!”

The woman he’d jumped on drew back, the icy fury on her face changing to simple confusion. “What—what is this?” She stared coldly at Lynne, squeezing herself between the rocks and muttering, Alma and Cabanela following with difficulty behind.

As Alma squeezed into the cavern, Cabanela following closely behind her, the temperature seemed to drop even further. All the humans immediately began to shiver as the group behind the woman drew closer together and began to mutter. Missile trotted back to Lynne and sat by her feet. She picked him up and held him close, although he seemed not to feel in any danger.

“I thought so,” the woman said in chilly tones. “I thought I felt his magic in this goddesses-forsaken hole. Who are you and what have you done with Ifrit?” She glared; her gaze was diamond hard as it caught Alma’s eye. “They worked so hard to escape. Why did you bring them back here?”

Chapter Text

Alma kept her eyes on the eyes on the Esper and her hand movements slow and obvious as she reached for the magicite she’d taken from Cabanela earlier and put in her pocket.

“He asked us to come back here and rescue the rest of you,” she said, remembering the bright, too-hot room back in Zozo where they had met the Espers for the first time. She held the stone out to the ice-woman. “He’s here and can confirm that for you if you like.”

The woman made no attempt to take it. “I can hear him from there if he dares to speak to me,” she said, temperature dropping even further in the cavern. “He left us with no word, no idea of where he and the others were going. And now he returns, and the Esper he was is no more. He brings humans, no less, and this—“ she stared Cabanela up and down, “—this thief of our oldest and wisest’s powers.” She turned away. “I should leave you all to freeze here. It would be no more than you deserve.”

“Shiva,” twittered the small floating creature behind her, “I know you’re angry, but perhaps you should hear what he has to say?”

She scoffed, “What could he say that would explain his actions, Carbuncle?” A bright tear of ice fell and smashed against the ground. “He left me—us, here, alone.”

Alma stared at the Esper in her outstretched hand. If a stone can project shame, it was radiating it. Her lips compressed into a grim line. No wonder he and Cabanela had worked well together from the outset.

“Back in Zozo…” Lynne said slowly, remembering, “Ifrit said that he had to get back to save the ones he’d left, that he’d never meant to be gone so long. He’d exhausted himself trying to get these Espers with us out and he was drained…” She caught Alma’s eye.

The boar-creature that was the third of the Esper group rumbled, “And so you humans killed him and our kin in his moment of weakness and stole his powers!” He began to paw the ground. “Let them freeze? We should trample them and leave them to rot.”

Lynne said, “No! You don’t understand! Ifrit gave himself up and, and he hasn’t spoken since then and—“

Shiva whirled. “Is any of this true?” Ice spears coalesced from the air behind her, spinning to aim with deadly precision at the humans. “Speak carefully, intruders. If you did this—“

“Please, stop!” The voice came from nowhere, surprising them all. “Shiva, my sister, you must listen to them. I think they may be our only hope.” Seraph’s magicite, glowing with pure white light, floated from Lynne’s open pack, “They are flawed, sister, I grant, but they have done their best. I don’t believe they wish to harm us.”

“Seraph! I—I thought that Doctor had truly killed you!” The last member of the group rushed forward, ghostly hands reaching desperately for the stone. “Oh, Seraph, I’ve wanted to join you every day since then.”

“Phantom, love… what are you doing here?” Seraph’s voice faded in shock. “I thought I’d never see you again. I didn’t want you to see me this way.”

The wraith took the magicite, kissing it and clutching the stone to their chest. “Well, I wanted to see you anyway I could. Please, Seraph, don’t push me away now. I never want to be without you again.” They looked up at Cabanela. “Bless you, whatever the others say. I owe you an eternal debt.”

“This is all too confusing!” complained Carbuncle, its fur bristling. “Shiva, you put those things away. Shoat, calm down.” The little creature floated into the center of their tense circle. “We don’t have to fight here. Let us hear what they have to say.”

Shoat grumbled but fell back as Shiva nodded tightly. “For Seraph’s sake I will listen. And… for Ifrit’s. Come with us.”

She led them through caverns, toward parts of the mine that had obviously been more used and shaped by human hands, saying little while they walked except that they had a base away from prying eyes, although Lynne tried to draw her out a little more. Phantom cradled Seraph’s magicite, whispering to it and listening to her story. Missile and Carbuncle gamboled along the hallway, Carbuncle riding on Missile’s back as he raced along one moment and then warping just out of reach of Missile’s playful snaps the next. Shoat brought up the rear, grunting with the fast pace and grumbling to himself. Alma and Cabanela walked side by side just ahead of him, Ifrit snugly tucked into Alma’s belt pouch between them, and not a word to say.

When they were all settled in the relative warmth of the tiny metal room at which they arrived, evidently once a departure point for the mining carts but long unused, the four Espers asked the humans and Missile to tell their tale.

Cabanela said, “I suppooose the story begins with me, and the infusion experiments.” He explained what he’d agreed to, so many years previously, and tried to tell them what had happened, although words failed him sometimes and he had to let Lynne or Alma take over. The story was beginning to come easier, however, the more it was repeated, although it still seemed unbelievable. Alma could tell the Espers thought so as well, but they accepted his apologies and promises that he would never steal an Esper’s magic again, at least on the face of it.

At last Alma interjected. “And what of you Espers? How long have you been here? Are you all that’s left?”

Shiva’s face filled with indescribable bitterness. “We were left behind when the others escaped, and we thought we’d never leave. Some of us,” she nodded to Phantom, “gave up and have spent their time since then waiting to die, wasting away for what they had.”

“And some of us let it make them cold and hard,” chimed in Carbuncle, sleepily nestling deeper into Missile’s fur where he lay against Lynne’s legs. Shiva glared at the little creature but didn’t deny it. “But me,” it continued, “I think we have something to offer each other.”

Shoat grunted. “What makes you think that?”

“It’s simple.” Carbuncle said smugly, preening his ears. “They have knowledge of the human world we lack, and we have skills they can use. We should offer them our magic and let them get us out of here.”

Shoat growled. “Give up our bodies and let these humans have our magic? Not likely.”

Shiva drew her knees in and put her arms around them. “It’s true that living in this human world has weakened us, Shoat. This isn’t a home.” She carefully didn’t look at Alma, still holding Ifrit’s magicite in the vain hope that he would speak up in his own defense. “We’re already lost.”

Phantom looked up from their reverie. “How long have we been trying to get out of this pit? Weeks? Months? You’ve been trying to break this stone prison since we fell down here, Shoat, and failing. Face it. We’re weak and getting weaker by the day.” They held up a hand, glowing faintly translucent in the gloom. “I’ve already wasted away enough down here.” They stood, holding Seraph’s magicite to themself. They wafted to the startled Cabanela and sunk into a deep bow. “I owe you everything for saving Seraph. She’s the only thing I ever loved and I won’t lose her again. Please, allow us to travel with you.”

Cabanela’s jaw dropped, but after a bare instant he said, “You don’t neeed to bow to me, baby. I already said I’d get you all out of here if I could.”

Phantom nodded and turned to the others. “You all make your own choice. I’ve already made my decision.”

Carbuncle said, “You already know I agree with Phantom, but I do have one condition.” He turned to face the humans, little face deadly serious. “You have to rescue the last of us.”

“The last of you?” said Lynne. “I thought everyone else was dead, or gone.”

“No,” said Shoat, closing his ruby eye in resignation. “There is one more, and she broke all the taboos of Esper-kind and then gave herself up to save us.”

“And her name?” Alma asked, but the sinking pit in her stomach told her before Shiva said it.

“Cait Sissel, the youngest of us all. Dr. Asbolus has her.”

Chapter Text

Cidgeon stared helplessly at Cait Sissel, immobile in her shock and fear. Ramuh lay prostrate on the floor, his former strength exhausted. After a moment, the old Esper rolled onto his back, eyes staring blankly upwards.

“Cait Sissel. Come here.”

She came and knelt timidly by his side.

“Take my hand.”

She gasped. “No, Ramuh, I—I can’t—“

“Cait Sissel, you have a great deal more strength than you’ve ever let yourself believe. Your son is out there. And the human—Yomiel—I think he waits for you somewhere too.”

“We’ll go find them both, and the rest of our kin, you and I. Together…”

“No. Cait Sissel… my time has passed. Bismarck, Unicorn, and I... take our powers, use them as best as you can, and live on for us. Will you do that? For the good of all the Espers?”

Cait Sissel sniffled, hands held firmly away from Ramuh’s body.

“My time grows so short. I only held out for your sake, my dear… but this has broken me. Just coming to this world weakened me so much, and being in close contact with the thief of my powers—it was like he was draining me the entire time he was near…” He reached out, blindly grasping for her hand. “Take what I have left. Take Bismarck’s and Unicorn’s power and save yourself. Please.”

His gaze found Cidgeon. “Protect her. Don’t let her be the only one left in this land. There are still others here... I beg of you...”

Cidgeon nodded. “As best as I can.”

“That’s all I ask…” Ramuh closed his eyes as his reaching hand found Cait Sissel’s. “Don’t worry, Cait Sissel. We’ll still be with you.” His body began to gleam with warm, yellow light. Her hair stood on end as his remaining power rushed into her body, becoming part of her own magic. The light dwindled as his body seemed to compact into a gleaming green stone. Weeping, she reached out her hand and touched the unicorn’s flank, then the whale’s. Their magic poured into her as they, too, turned into stone, their corporeal bodies disappearing into the ether.

Cidgeon awkwardly stood away from the tableau, not wanting to intrude. “I don’t want to rush you, but we have to go. We can’t stay here.”

She nodded and stood, her eyes still welling with tears which she let stand as she held the stones out to Cidgeon. “These are magicite—what’s left when an Esper willingly gives up the last of its power. You can learn spells from it.”

Cidgeon recoiled. “No. Lores are fine. I see now why you didn’t want me to touch you and I’m happy to keep it that way.”

She shook her head. “When you touched my arm earlier, nothing happened. It only works that way for full-blooded Espers, I think.  It’s why we only choose to be with each other when we’re absolutely sure it’s forever…” She stared into the distance and back in time, then shook herself back to the present. “But magicite is different. Take them—you may need their powers to escape. You can’t hurt them anymore. Once an Esper chooses to turn into magicite, that’s it. Their body is gone, permanently, at least here.” She looked down at the magicite, gleaming in her hand. “I hold most of their magic now, but their essence is still in here. They want to help you.”

“Come on then,” said Cidgeon, gruffly. He took the magicite gingerly and stored it away, silently resolving never to use it if at all possible. She nodded at him, and looked around one last time. The room was empty, the carnage it had so recently held only a memory. The nausea plaguing Cidgeon was gone, he noticed. The air was still, holding only the lingering scent of metal, ozone, and an odd note he couldn’t identify. The scent of magic itself, perhaps.

Cidgeon examined the door. None of his lores would budge this one; it was made to hold its inhabitants in, not keep them out, and both the lock and the hinges were inaccessible from the inside. He sighed and reached for his bag, hoping he could find something with which to take the door down, but Cait Sissel stopped him.

“What will you do now?” said Cait Sissel softly.

“The plan hasn’t changed. I’m getting Jowd. For his daughter’s sake if nothing else.”

“And your… what is he to you?”

Cidgeon met her eyes. “He’s my boy.” He said it simply. “I don’t know that he can be saved anymore. But I had to try.”

She closed her eyes briefly. “I understand. He helped my son escape and I’m not ungrateful—but there’s something so dark and cold in him. It’s… it’s not human, nor is it Esper… I don’t understand him. Or you, or anything about this human world. Oh, Yomiel, Sissel…” she dropped her head into her hands, tears falling between her fingers. “I wish we’d never come here. I want to go home,” she whispered.

Cidgeon shuffled awkwardly. Comforting broken animals and children had been outside of his comfort zone. A crying woman was far beyond that. Lovey-Dove, however, had no such worries. She flew out of his pack, lighting on Cait Sissel’s head and cooing gently as she snuggled in. The sniffling stopped. After a moment Cait Sissel raised her head and caressed Lovey-Dove’s side gently.

“Thank you, kind one. I’m sorry… I know there’s no time for this.” New resolution shone in her eyes. “There’s a world out there that’s better than this. I’m getting out and I’m finding my son.”

Cidgeon nodded approvingly, but she continued. “I can’t help you with your plan, though. I’m sorry, but I won’t help that monster in any way… once I keep my promise to Ramuh and rescue the others, we part ways.”

“That’s enough.” Cidgeon understood. He didn’t even know himself why he was holding onto hope for Cabanela, but still somewhere deep within his battered heart, it lingered, tenacious as a weed.

Cait Sissel’s human form dwindled and melted away to leave only a black cat, looking at him with too-knowing yellow eyes as Lovey-Dove, startled, flew away and back to her customary perch. The Esper turned and zapped the metal door frame full-force with one of Ramuh’s lightning bolts, melting it to slag and knocking the wooden door away as sparks ran from her whiskers and dripped to the floor. The door began to burn as they walked out through the smoke, leaving the empty room behind.

Chapter Text

As they entered the very last hall, Cait Sissel’s ears flattened and even Cidgeon could hear the sounds of a furious row coming from an enclosed area that looked rather like a nurse’s station. A wide door into a small, brightly lit room, medical supplies and other implements lining the walls on shelves, stood open behind a counter holding hundreds of pages of what appeared to be medical notes. Cabanela and Asbolus stood inside the small room, nose-to-nose. Cidgeon stopped, out of easy sight of the room although he could just barely see in, and listened intently; it sounded as though Asbolus had caught Cabanela in the midst of retrieving Jowd.

“My experiment, my rules, Secundus,” the doctor hissed. “I say what happens down here.”

“Don’t call me by that name, doc. I’m Primus now,” Cabanela snarled back. “You kneeeew I’d never leave Jowd. You can’t just—“

“The Emperor’s will is that I can just, and I don’t care what you think you won’t do.” Asbolus interrupted, his voice irritable and bored. “Don’t be so predictable.”

Cabanela’s voice dripped pure shock. “Predicta—! You’re callin’ me predictable?”

“Hmph, of course you are,” the doctor said, coolly turning his back on him and making a survey of the syringes laid out on a small worktable. “You owe everything to me, Secundus. You really think I don’t understand you down to your smallest components?”

Rage boiled in the air, Cabanela too infuriated to speak for a moment. “You daaaare—“ He reached for Asbolus, hands clenching spasmodically in his fury.

“Tsk, tsk, Secundus, really? What did I just say?” Asbolus reached into his jacket and pulled out a blank-faced ceramic mask. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want anything to happen to this. After all, how could you control your new puppet without it or the Slave Crown?”

Cabanela stopped, eyes narrowing. “Whaaat do you mean, doc?”

“If this experiment works, you won’t need a Crown to control the subject. Just some light post-hypnotic suggestion and you wearing this artifact. Now what do you think? Can’t you think of someone that might benefit?”

Cabanela froze, then his lips widened into a broad smirk. “Is thaaaat the Emperor’s game, doc? Not a bad idea…” He reached for the mask, eyes alight with possibility.

“Ah, ah, not yet.” Asbolus twitched it away. “Subject Tertius needs a long course of treatment before he’s ready for you to… work your magic. Don’t worry, you’ll have a fine time while you’re waiting. The Emperor has orders for you.” He tucked the mask back into his lab coat.

Cabanela folded his arms, stubbornness in every muscle of his body. “I’m not leavin’ Jowd in your hands, doc.”

“Oh, I think you will,” Asbolus said, drawing a translucent milky liquid into a syringe and squirting a little out to remove the air bubbles, then adding the liquid to a large bag of what Cidgeon could see appeared to be blood plasma. “The Emperor wants you to go to Narshe and get that frozen Esper.”

“I doooon’t give a damn about the Esper—“

Asbolus spoke over him. “…and Sissel was last seen there with the Slave Crown.”

A broad, manic smile spread over Cabanela’s face. “Weeeell, doc, now that’s a different story. Your little plan doesn’t sound soooo bad for my king. It might work but a little back-up never hurt anyone.”

“Good. Let me give you the rest of your orders and start you on that last dose of plasma from Primus, and then you need to leave immediately. The Yonoa is waiting. I’ll have Tertius ready for you when you come back.” He rolled up Cabanela’s sleeve and plunged an intravenous needle into a vein with the ease of long practice, taping it down with none-too-gentle hands. “Sit down.”

Cabanela sulked, but flounced into a waiting seat, flinging his long legs out and crossing them as insouciantly as if he was the one in control of the situation. Asbolus, muttering, began to hang the bag of plasma on a nearby pole, readying the infusion.

“Ah, by the way, doc, the Professor found out about this experiment too. I trapped him and a couple wayward Espers in another research room. Seeeend some guards to 19F-2 while I’m tied up, won’t you?”

Asbolus frowned and opened his mouth, no doubt to start yet another argument, as Cait Sissel used a delicate claw to tug at Cidgeon’s pant leg. He looked down, nodded, and they tiptoed on past the medication room toward the last stop on this interminable journey, a large room far enough down the hall to be out of hearing from the station.

Cidgeon thought hard. Asbolus and the Emperor were sending Cabanela away. He’d missed his chance to rescue the boy now, unless… could he and Cait Sissel knock Asbolus and Cabanela both out? And what was the purpose of this Primus’s plasma being transfused into the boy? Were they recycling it in an effort to make the infusion stronger on their one living subject? Cidgeon shook his head. That was a terrifying thought, but he didn’t have time to ponder the implications. Although… if the mask could be used as a control artifact, what was stopping Asbolus from using it on Cabanela? Had the boy even thought that far? It wasn’t like Cabanela to be short-sighted but the infusions had changed so much.

If he could just get Jowd out, before the boy did something he’d later regret, it would make it easier to retrieve Cabanela. All he’d have to do was use the promise of Jowd as a lure, and they could get him before he left for Narshe. It was unpleasant, but Cidgeon couldn’t see any other path. And then he’d need to make sure that mask was destroyed, he thought to himself. For that poor white shadow on the battlefield in his memory, for Jowd, for the sake of any other potential subjects. For Cabanela himself.

As for Asbolus, the Blue Death had destroyed every bit of good Cidgeon had ever hoped to accomplish with his research, his touch tainting Cidgeon’s legacy as surely as any poison. Cidgeon wasn’t sure that he’d be able to restrain himself if he ever had the chance to return the favor. Cidgeon would happily wring the doctor’s neck, but revenge was a secondary consideration to rescue.

He took one last look back at the boy before slipping into the experimentation room. They’d need to hurry. Asbolus wouldn’t be much longer.

Chapter Text

The chamber was large and, for the moment, dim. Surgical lights waited, but they were off and waiting to be moved where necessary. A worktable sat, neatly laid out with surgical implements shiny and sterilized, ready for use. A research assistant, one of the Empire’s citizens, was busy laying out the last of them. With a muttered word, Cidgeon knocked her upside the head with the stone lore and, while the woman was still seeing stars, he got her again with the stone for good measure and managed to knock her out within seconds without any great fuss made.

Just inside the room, four Espers lay still and unresponsive on a neat row of operating tables. Vials of a milky-white liquid Cidgeon had to assume was their blood sat in regimented rows within compartmented containers. The assistant appeared to have been acting as phlebotomist while waiting for Asbolus. Another apparatus awaited nearby, bags of a greenish fluid apparently waiting to be titrated with the Esper blood. He sniffed at the compound and, with a shock, realized he recognized the smell as monster ichor from a species indigenous to his own hometown area. Had it been stolen from his lab or was the Empire closer to finding Thamasa than he’d thought? Cidgeon strained his admittedly weak sense of magic, but could feel few signs of life from the Espers. How long had they been here?

Cait Sissel squeaked and rushed to them, but Cidgeon turned his attention to the room’s other inhabitant. At the other end of the room, a tall metal chair sat ready, a man strapped quietly into the seat. If not for the fact that his eyes tracked him as Cidgeon stepped closer, Cidgeon would have thought the man as likewise unresponsive as the Espers, but he had no bags or lines attached to him, and only light leather restraints and a metal head-cover held him down. If the man had cared to try, he could have broken free.

Cidgeon stared at him. This was the resplendent king, the man his boy thought outshone the sun? This man’s eyes were dim and apathetic; his sun had evidently set long ago.

“Are you Jowd?” Cidgeon asked. Surely he’d gotten this wrong.

“Who’s asking?” The man responded, voice rumbling in his chest and rusty with disuse.

“Cidgeon. Cabanela sent me,” Cidgeon said briefly, moving closer and beginning to remove the restraints. Even if this wasn’t Jowd, he couldn’t in good conscience leave someone here to Asbolus and the Empire’s tender mercies, but who else could it be?

Teeth gleamed as the man bared his teeth in what might have been a smile. “That supposed to be a good thing?”

“He seemed to think so,” said Cidgeon gruffly, puzzled at the man’s lack of response. Cabanela obviously had strange tastes. It certainly wasn’t something he’d ever understand. With an effort, he got the restraint loose on one hand. “A little help would be nice here.”

Jowd—he had to assume it was Jowd—scoffed. “Sorry. If the trash is already picked up who am I to dump it again?”

Cidgeon scowled at him. He understood the impulse to rudeness but it was irritating to be the recipient. He went around to the other side, tugging at the other hand’s restraint. Jowd’s eyes followed him, patient and dull, waiting for Cidgeon to finish happening to him.

“I’m not exactly gaining anything here by helping you, so can you get a move on?” Cidgeon growled when the second restraint was loosened and Jowd still refused to move. The king sat slumped, the restraints at his feet still strapped tightly despite the fact that one good kick would have knocked him free.

“And what good would that do?” Jowd said, closing his eyes.

“Well, I’d be able to go home for a start,” Cidgeon snapped as he bent painfully to untie the first foot restraint, Lovey-Dove already fluttering off his head to tug at the other one. “Your daughter might like to see you too, although I’d be hard pressed to know why at this moment.”

Jowd’s eyes snapped open; Cidgeon could feel his stare although his monotone voice never changed register. “My daughter’s gone, although I’d like to see her too. Maybe the train will let me off at her stop as I go.”

Cidgeon blinked. Was the man ill, or hallucinating? What train?

“No trains to Thamasa,” he said, opting to take Jowd at face-value. “We’ll have to take a boat.” Jowd let out a bark of laughter, then stared blankly at him as Cidgeon loosed the final restraint. He seemed particularly slow on the uptake; Cidgeon peered into his eyes to see if they were dilated. Perhaps he’d already been drugged? And yet, they seemed clear, pupils at normal size.

Shrugging, he stood back. “We have to go before Asbolus gets here. Come on.” He put a hand on Jowd’s massive arm, attempting to tug him upward.

“And why should I?’ asked Jowd, still unresisting but immovable from his seat. “Cabanela will come back and do your job for you. There was no need for you to find me when I’ve been found all this time.”

Cidgeon snorted. “Cabanela’s different than he was.” That was no longer in doubt, if it had been, with this revelation that he’d known Jowd’s whereabouts for rather longer than he’d told Cidgeon. How many other secrets was Cabanela keeping?

Jowd nodded solemnly, his mouth quirking in a parody of a smile. “Or is he just the same and we’re the ones who see him for what he is now?”

Cidgeon stilled. He’d been resisting just that thought for some time, but he shook his head decisively. “The boy’s a fool and always has been but this is new.”

Jowd opened a hand, neither confirming nor denying Cidgeon’s thoughts. “Get these others—I assume they’re Espers—out and go. Leave worthless stuff behind.”

Cidgeon took a breath and said flatly, “Get to your feet, boy. I promised Cabanela that I’d get you safe to your daughter and that’s what I’ll do.”

Jowd sighed resignedly and rose to his feet, removing the head-piece and kicking the restraints away. “Take me to Kamila then. Get it over with.”

He looked Cidgeon over. “That little dagger there should just about do the trick if you get it in the right spot.” He knelt down, hands behind his back, so he was almost eye to eye with the professor. “I suggest going for my heart, if you can find it.”

Chapter Text

Cait Sissel, on the other side of the room, was fumbling with the Espers, attempting to wake them without touching them. She cast Dispel on Carbuncle first, remembering that he’d always been the most like her back at home, and how they’d played long ago, when they were children. When the first spell didn’t immediately work, she sent an Esuna washing over him as well. That seemed to do the trick and as Carbuncle stirred, Cait Sissel cast the same combination of spells on the rest of the Espers as well.

She remembered them all; Shoat had been outwardly the most vocal about her relationship with Yomiel, but he had given them a lovely wedding gift and had come around frequently afterward to make sure they were doing well. Phantom and Seraph had lived in the dwelling next door, and they would have been annoyingly goopy had she not known that Yomiel and she presented much the same picture in those halcyon newlywed days. She hadn’t seen Seraph in some years. She hoped for Phantom’s sake they might find her as well.

Shiva had always intimidated her. The Esper was so cold, both in presence and word. Even before Yomiel had appeared so precipitously in the Esper world, Shiva had always treated her with barely-concealed disdain. Cait Sissel supposed it was only to be expected—she was the youngest of them all and knew nothing of the outer world nor what Shiva had borne there, long centuries hence. Ifrit had been one of those that led the escape attempt some months previous; she had thought Shiva had gone with him.

Their enforced servitude as glorified lab animals had made it hard to speak to any of them, and she had worn the stigma of being the mother of a half-Esper and the one who brought a human to their world, thus sealing their doom. Shame had prevented her for too long from trying to reconnect, but this was their last chance. Whatever the mad doctor was planning would kill them all if she couldn’t convince them to trust her now.

She morphed back to a more human body so she had hands, rather than paws, with which to loosen the Esper’s bounds and to remove any of the remaining tubes siphoning their essence away. The lab assistant had had a spare pair of gloves in her pockets. Cait Sissel appropriated them so she could avoid the magic bonding that could happen between two unprepared Espers who touched skin unwarily.

As they began to moan and stir, she looked over in time to see the huge human fall to his knees in front of the strange little man who’d brought her so far. Gruff and unknowing of his history as he was, she couldn’t help but feel that slight sense of kinship with him yet again; his advanced human age was still childish by their standards and it didn’t make him any more aware and knowledgeable of Esper traditions. She hadn’t realized at first, but in a way, he was now the youngest Esper of them all.

Cait Sissel spoke softly to her kin, encouraging them to wake, to rise, so they could escape. Kinship or no, she’d fulfilled her promise to the man, and his relationship to their tormentor put her more immediate kin in more danger with every moment. If she could wake Carbuncle, he could, she was sure, somehow warp them all out and they could go their separate ways with no harm done. She could search for Yomiel and Sissel, the Espers could go home, and the humans… well, they would do what they would do and were no longer her concern.

Cidgeon was growling at the big human he’d called Jowd to get up and stop being a damn fool, and the Espers were slowly returning to consciousness. It was up to her to take the next step. Cait Sissel took a breath, and began pushing the heavy table, fortunately wheeled, over to the side of the room where the humans where. They would all need to be in much closer proximity for the spell to work.

At last, the table stood in front of Cidgeon and his rescue, and Cait Sissel stood, panting, trying to get her breath back for one more push. Carbuncle, at last, woke up, much to Cait Sissel’s relief, and she wasted no time, leaning over and whispering to him what needed to be done. She knew Cidgeon would protest leaving his monster boy, but she had heard Cabanela back at the examining station as well as he had. There was no hope in her for his rehabilitation. He had sounded too hungry, too spiteful, when he talked about her son. She had learned, to her cost, that humans could and would lie at will. Yomiel had never lied to her. Others had, all too frequently. This Cabanela lied about everything, with indiscriminate cruelty and little care for whom he hurt. Even Cidgeon, she was sure, had been less than forthcoming. Lying was a skill humans had and Espers lacked; she spared a thought to wish they had been found by someone a little less human so she could trust him now.

To her dismay, Carbuncle shook his head. His power was weak; he couldn’t warp a party this large to somewhere he’d never seen. He might be able to get them back to the lab room they’d been taken from, but what good would that do? It would be going back to the same servitude they faced here, and they would find themselves in this room again soon enough.

Cait Sissel stared at her hands. She felt strong, the magic still fizzing in her blood from Ramuh, Bismarck and Unicorn. If only she had the warp spell—she shook herself. That way lay the path that had partially begun the War of the Magic. Espers did not take others’ magic without explicit consent and a bond of love. To steal another Esper’s magic was the height of hubris.

No. There had to be another way. The humans, with their cleverness and their ability to navigate this world—surely, they could find some path from here? Cidgeon had, at last, managed to get his rescuee, the man called Jowd, to stand. Still, he wavered, his hands clenched on the stability of the table while he fought for the strength to take the first steps away.

As Cait Sissel began to explain to Cidgeon the problem, and the other Espers, waking, began to add their own questions and unease to the mix of emotions in the room, a voice cut through them all, stopping all conversation dead.

Dr. Asbolus strolled through the door, holding a syringe, his eyes cold and hard as he advanced on them, kicking the unconscious assistant’s body out of the way.

“Explain what you’re doing in my labs, Professor. You have no right to mess with what’s mine.”

Chapter Text

Cidgeon couldn’t have said whether it was fear or anger that made his voice want to shake more as he answered, but he did his best to reply in as steady a tone as he could manage.

“Yours, huh? I think most everyone here would agree that they are their own.” He took advantage of his shortness of stature and the fact that he was behind the worktable Cait Sissel had, for some reason, pushed over to his side of the room, and began to call the magic. If he could just catch the doctor off-guard, knock him out the same way he had the assistant…

“Hands where I can see them, Professor. Cabanela let me know that you have a few little tricks I should be aware of.”

“Don’t you mean Secundus?” blurted Cidgeon, ignoring the pang he felt that Cabanela had told the doctor something he’d promised to keep in strictest confidence.

The Doctor froze, searching his face. “And what do you know about Secundus?” he said at last, watching Cidgeon narrowly.

“I know the Emperor told me to make sure the boy was taken care of. You’re a fine one to talk about hands-off,” said Cidgeon, fighting to keep his voice level.

The doctor seemed to relax. “You old idiot, he was always the Emperor’s and it’s on his orders that I’ve done this. All of this. If that’s your only consideration, just be grateful the Emperor took him back before you got too attached.” He took a step forward. “You could still end this. Just leave. Turn your back on the Empire and go.”

“And leave the boy?” Cidgeon shook his head. “I won’t. I made a promise to him.”

Asbolus chuckled, the sound low and terrible, as he took another step forward. “You really think he cares about the promises you made anymore? He’s beyond caring, that I can promise you.”

Jowd groaned, deep in his chest, and sat wearily down again. “I know I certainly am. You’d do better to just accept the doctor’s offer and leave us.” Lovey-Dove rose from Cidgeon’s head and went to flutter around Jowd’s, attempting to get him up, to make him move, but he ignored her, not even bothering to wave her away.

Cidgeon fought the impulse to swear in frustration. “And what of these Espers and Jowd if I leave?”

The resultant babble was cut off as Asbolus brandished his syringe, the Espers’ eyes following it fearfully. It was clear the contents were not new to them. Cait Sissel cowered back from her position in front of them all, but stayed still, steadily refusing to back away.

Asbolus smirked. “Their lives or deaths will forward the Emperor’s will. You’ve lived here this long, Professor. Don’t you want to know what we could create? What my—that is, the Empire’s—experiments can really bring forth? You have the chance to truly be a part of something great here, and the best way to do that is just walking away.”

Cidgeon took a deep breath. “You’re scum, Asbolus, not fit to call yourself a researcher, let alone a doctor.”

Asbolus huffed a breath that might have been a laugh. “Fine. The guards are on their way back from that little wild pigeon chase Secundus sent them on. You and your stupid bird—another of mine, and don’t think I haven’t noticed—might have lived, you know, but now you’re going to die trying to escape. Secundus won’t mourn you, and I know I certainly won’t. You think I can’t see right through you? Your fondness for the boy is going to be the death of you, and I’ll relish it.” He laughed again. “To think I thought you could ever be any kind of rival. You don’t know anything about what’s going on in Vector, with the Empire… or with your so-called son.”

As if on cue, guards began to file into the room behind him, standing to attention and blocking the door as Asbolus waved them back from coming in any further.

Cidgeon scoffed. “You know I’m not Cabanela’s father, Asbolus. Just an old professor doing the Emperor’s bidding.”

“Don’t pretend that you didn’t secretly think of him as your son. Anyone could see you loved that kid. Morons, the both of you.”  Asbolus began to walk forward again, pointing at the Espers. “But he’s mine, as these things are mine, and have been mine, and will be mine, especially you, you cat-woman-monster. Don’t think of trying anything funny, or your own son is forfeit. Just like your friend’s kid here.”

A low yowl rolled through the room, the sound surprising everyone, not least, it seemed, its originator. Cait Sissel, standing in front of the table, seemed to grow to twice her size as her hair fluffed around her, her eyes narrowing to the tiniest of slits. She hissed at the doctor, still striding forward, reaching out his hand to take her arm.

“You will not threaten my son. I know he’s not here, that he escaped from you. You’re a liar! All of you humans lie! It’s disgusting!” She turned, the gloves ripping away as her claws tore through them. She groped behind her with a hand, other hand’s claws tearing through the cloth of the lab coat and into the skin of the doctor’s arm as he got too close. He hissed and jumped back.

Cait Sissel growled at him. “But I made a promise and I’ll keep it. I won’t let us—any of us—spend one more moment here!”

Her hand swept across Shiva’s shoulder, Shoat’s flank, and through Phantom’s incorporeal flesh before finally managing to grip Carbuncle’s, their magic settling into her with a blinding multi-colored gleam. “Carbuncle, I’ve got your magic. We have to warp—now!”

Jowd still sat, resolutely resistant to escape, but Cidgeon had the presence of mind to catch his sleeve and the table, hoping against hope that the magic would somehow take them as well. He could only hope they wouldn’t go far, so they could catch up to Cabanela on his way out of Vector. He cried out to Lovey-Dove to drop into Jowd’s hair. The spell seemed to oblige his urgent need by expanding itself to cover the three of them along with the Espers.

As the spell warped reality around the Espers and humans behind the worktable, Asbolus made a grab for Cait Sissel, knocking her hand away from Carbuncle’s and jarring the table hard so that Cidgeon and Jowd were knocked back. In that crowded moment, Cait Sissel lost control of the spell, but the other Espers disappeared into nothingness. The very last thing Cidgeon saw before the magic took him too was the guards pouring into the room and Asbolus, eyes alight with hungry fascination and ignoring the blood still dripping from his arm, clapping a plain white mask to Cait Sissel’s face.

Chapter Text

Alma listened to the Espers’ story, her heart sinking. She looked around, in futile expectation that she had simply missed Jowd and the elusive Cidgeon, but the cavern was as devoid of hope as ever.

“So why’d you stay?” puzzled Lynne. “You have the magic and all. You could have just left.”

Shiva gave Lynne a challenging look. “Would you have left family behind? Or your friends here?”

Lynne shook her head, shamefaced.

“And…besides…” Shoat rumbled. “We can’t warp out. We don’t even know where we are, so Carbuncle doesn’t know where to go. We’ve been digging our way out, slowly.”

Carbuncle chimed in, “We were hoping to have an escape route at least, before we tried to rescue Cait Sissel, but it’s been months. We should have recovered by now, but we…” he faltered. “We’re all fading. Phantom went the fastest, but we’ve been hanging by a thread.”

Seraph asked Phantom, from where they sat a little apart, “Why didn’t you turn to stone already? Become a magicite?”

“Magicite is…” the wraith hesitated. “That’s for those with hope, you know? I—I didn’t have any left, so…” They fell silent, hugging Seraph’s magicite to themself. After a moment, they said, “I know better now.”

Shiva nodded. “We talked it over. We weren’t going to leave any of ourselves for the people of this Empire. We couldn’t take that chance.”

Lynne listened to this in mounting indignation. “So you were going to leave yourselves where no one would ever find you, or remember you? That’s—that’s terrible!”

“Better to be gone and forgotten under the earth than to have our memories and what we believed and stood for be desecrated by humans. Love, friendship, even family… it doesn’t mean much when you’re already dead and buried.” Shiva shot an unfriendly glare at Ifrit’s magicite, sitting silently with the rest on the ground. “Or when you’ve been abandoned.”

Cabanela opened his mouth, but Alma found herself jumping in to refute this. “I truly don’t believe any of them ever meant to abandon you. If you could have seen the desperation we saw, back in Zozo, especially from Ifrit, I don’t think you’d believe it either.”

Shiva raised an elegant shoulder, ice crystals forming and breaking in the air all around her. “He won’t even speak to defend himself—there’s not a lot a human could say to defend him.”

Cabanela said, “And whaaat could he say that would make it all right, baby? He made a mistake…” He looked to Alma, his dark eyes pleading, “…and I think we all know how that feels.”

Shiva sniffed. “Then let him say so.”

There was a long silence in the room and Shiva sighed. “I thought so.”

Alma said, “Well, leaving that aside for a moment… the other humans that were in the room with you, have you seen them since?”

“Other humans? Like the doctor?” Carbuncle’s little face twisted in disgust. “Of course not.”

“No, like the one that was imprisoned with you,” Alma said.

“Or the one that was with Cait Sissel!” Lynne chimed in.

“Oh, them.” Shiva looked thoughtful. “They were knocked away from us when she…used Carbuncle’s magic to warp.”

Carbuncle said, “They probably still got caught in the spell? But they didn’t warp with us so I’m not sure.” He snuggled further into Missile’s fur, pulling his ears over his head. “They may have been sent to someplace they’d know but with my warp and Cait Sissel’s warp going at the same time, we got sent way off course. I’d guess there’s a ley line convergence down here, so the warp sent us to the path of least resistance.”

“And whaaat about Cait Sissel herself, baby?” Cabanela interjected. “I don’t like the sound of that mask.”

“We…” Shiva looked away. “She tried to save us, but the doctor has her. And she took all of our spells. He’ll probably be using her magic for infusion.”

“Well, anyhoot, we can be sure that’s not happening yet,” Cabanela said confidently. “I’m the ooonly infusion case they’ve got, baby, and I won’t be doing that again.”

Shoat snorted. “I’d put nothing past that human up in those labs. He’d find a way.”

There was a small silence, each alone with their thoughts. At last, to Alma’s surprise, Phantom was the one to break it.

“Seraph doesn’t completely trust you, but… you could have killed us with the magic you hold and left long since. The fact that you didn’t—it says there’s something in you that‘s beyond our experience, so, as I said, I’ll go with you. I’d go anywhere if it meant being away from here and with my angel.” They pointed a spectral hand at Cabanela, who blinked. “You tried to save her, and I think you want to save us too.”

“Phantom, please, you can’t—” Seraph protested.

“There’s no stopping what will happen to me now, angel. I thought I would die down here, with no way to go home or save anyone. I was willing to accept it, because I lost you, so I… I’d lost everything. But now… I have the chance to get something back. We have the chance to get something back. It’s… hope.” The wraith cradled the magicite in their hands. “I’ve always said you were my gift from the Goddesses and this just proves it.”

There was a much longer silence. At last Seraph said, with something like a sob, “I love you too, you idiot. Come with us, then.”

Phantom raised their head, hood falling back from eyes filled with tenderness as they picked up Seraph’s magicite and kissed it one more time, and a flash blinded them all as Phantom give up the hold on corporeality they’d been maintaining for so long. When Alma’s vision cleared, two identical magicite sat side by side, lined up neatly in front of Cabanela.

Our magic is yours to use at need,” Seraph said. “Any of you.”

The other Espers took a breath, and Carbuncle spoke up from the nest of Missile’s fur. “Well, I guess it’s me next!” he said cheerfully. “Thanks in advance for getting us out!” The light gleamed and disappeared, leaving only the green stone nestling into Missile’s side. He yawned and gave it a sleepy lick, curling tighter around it.

Shoat gave a low groan. “I can’t say I’m happy about this,” he rumbled. “But better to go with you than break down alone here in the dark. Doom here, doom there… what’s the difference in the end…?”

Shiva sat, still and cold, surrounded by ice crystals sharp and cold in the air. “So my choices are to stay and be alone or go with people I can’t trust, accompanied by someone who abandoned us? Forgive me if that seems like no choice at all.”

Alma took a deep breath and reached out her hand, ignoring Shiva’s hiss of warning as she took the Esper’s cold hand in her own. It burned but she ignored the pain, focusing instead on Shiva’s face.

“I think I know something of how you feel. I can’t know your pain, or what you’ve been through… but I also had to do everything on my own when I was… left alone. And I wanted to turn to stone sometimes, so I wouldn’t have to—to feel.”

Shiva’s fingers clenched involuntarily around hers, but the Esper didn’t look away.

“I—yes. It hurts! And I don’t want it to hurt anymore.”

Alma nodded. “Being alone won’t make it not hurt. It’ll just make it hurt more, until you fade away like your friend.” She took a deep breath. “If you can’t trust us about anything else, you can trust me on that. And… I promise, you can also trust me when I say I’ll do what I can to get you all out of here, because no one deserves to stay alone in the dark. If you come with us, I think you’ll be saving yourself, and of course, you’ll be saving Cait Sissel.”

“Is that enough?” quavered Shiva, her eyes filling with tears that drifted down like snow, landing softly on Alma’s lap and melting in the heat of Ifrit’s magicite.

“Only you can answer that, don’t you think?” asked Alma in return, as gently as she could.

Shiva blinked, then nodded. “Humans lie. I’ve seen it in action. But…I believe you. I don’t know why. I’ll go… but keep your promises or frostbitten fingers won’t be the worst of what you’ll get from me.” She looked over at Shoat. “Are you ready?”

“No,” he grumbled, but he rolled to his feet. “Let’s do it anyway.” The light flared and died, leaving the four magicite stones gleaming a faint green in the stillness of the now much less-crowded room.

Chapter Text

Alma shook her fingers, looking down at the cold, waxy skin in rueful dismay. Cabanela exclaimed in shocked surprise and grabbed her hand, letting the warmth of his cure magic wash over it until her hands relaxed and softened back into health.

“Frostbitten fingers… I suppose she wasn’t joking about that.” Alma laughed weakly, attempting to reclaim her hand, but he held on.

“That was insanely dangerous, baby.”

“It was necessary.”

“Not to hurt yourself!” Cabanela’s face contorted as he struggled to hold back the anger and failed. “Thiiis is why I wanted to come alone! I wanted to protect you so you wouldn’t get hurt!”

“And leaving me without any news for years, then slithering into Figaro to recruit me for your Imperial masters when my defenses were weakest is how you chose to protect me and not to hurt me?” Alma’s eyes blazed. “Oh, but you were slave crowned, right? Well, that doesn’t explain why you left without even a note in the first place!” She snatched her hand away, rolling to her feet and scooping up Shiva and Ifrit’s magicite, still on the ground. Her back and shoulders were stiff as she stood with her back to the rest, fiddling with the pack.

“Alma…” Cabanela dropped his hands and stepped to her side. “I’ve made mistakes. Big ones, baby, and I won’t deny what I did five years ago hurt you. I caaan’t defend myself against what I don’t know I did, but I’m not Ifrit, stayin’ silent when the woman I lo—when my old friend hurts herself and accuses me of betrayin’ her.”

“Well, I’m not Shiva, who can coldly accept what someone she cared about does and go on! What you did, these last five years, it broke us all, Cabanela, you included, so you’re the last one who can say a word to me about getting hurt for doing what I believe to be the right thing.” Her voice softened. “Phantom was right. I know you want to do the right thing too. We’ll find Jowd and everyone else, then talk about how we can make sure what… you were… can’t relapse and take over again. You can rest and recover from whatever the Empire did to you, and I’ll take it from there.”

“What I was?” Cabanela returned, his voice artificially light and even. “Right. Caaan’t have that, not for someone you… cared about.” He stooped down to pick up Phantom and Seraph and handed Seraph to the startled Lynne, who stared at the two of them with wide, uncertain eyes. “Since your queen wants to put herself in danger, you get some KO-fixin’ magic, baby, and you don’t let this niiice lady’s offering go to waste until you’ve learned eeeverything she has to teach. That way when her Majesty goes down to an injury that shooould have been avoided, she’ll at least have you around to pick her back up.” He bent down to Missile and tapped Carbuncle. “You can only warp to places you’ve been to, right baby?”

“As a magicite I can’t go far and it can’t be someplace too crowded…” Carbuncle answered after a moment, his voice distant and far away. “I… didn’t really realize how hard it would be to use magic like this….” The light of the stone dimmed. “I think the only place I could take us is out of the city.”

“No!” protested Alma. “We’ve come this far. We have to figure out how to get there from here so we can rescue Cait Sissel.”

Cabanela didn’t look at her. “Can’t breeeak our promises, baby. I told you before they remained and that’s still true. All of them.”

“Cabanela, I didn’t mean—" Alma began.

“Don’t.” He put Carbuncle in his pack and Phantom onto his belt, his movements stiff and jerky, a sharp contrast to his usual graceful fluidity. “I prooomised you before I’d do whatever it took to fix it. If what it takes is watching you throw yourself at danger then that’s what I’ll have to do, but don’t ask me to stay out of it. That’s a promise I can’t keep.” He took a beat, hands still, then whirled around, dropping into a deep, ostentatious bow, his eyes shadowed and dark. “And when we’re done, when you and Jowd and your daughter are safe again and home in your bright and sunny desert castle, weeell, then I can say I’ve done my job, stop caring, and let Lynne take over guarding you all. Until then, I keep carin’ and we keep movin’.”

Lynne jumped up. “Alma, I don’t like seeing you hurt yourself either but all’s well that ends in cure magic, right?”

Missile jumped up too, tail waving excitedly. “Miss Lynne, even I know that’s not how that saying goes!”

“Well, whatever! The point is, the Queen’s fine for now and Cabanela’s doing his best and it’s not—not fair for you to fight when we have so much to do!”

“Not fair? Lynne, what—” Alma began to interrupt, but Lynne stopped her, wringing her hands.

“I don’t know much about how you three were five years ago, but Cabanela’s right about one thing, we need to keep moving now. You can’t stay frozen thinking about what happened then. Believe me, I know!”

“Um, yeah!” barked Missile. “I don’t like being cold either! So I want to get out of this dark and stinky place please!”

Cabanela blinked. “Little Warrior, you’re so right. Got any ideas on how to do that?” He sniffed. “Whaaat do you mean, stinky, anyway?”

Missile’s ears flattened. “It’s faint, but it smells like the time Miss Lynne took me to the doctor after she found me. I don’t like that smell, Miss Lynne.”

Lynne scratched his ears. “I know, buddy, I know. But which way is it coming from?”

He raised his face, small black nose twitching as he busily sniffed the air. “There’s a breeze coming through the cave we came through… from that way…” He trotted back toward it.

Lynne went with him, Alma and Cabanela hastily finishing their packing and trailing behind.  He walked up to a large stone wall, seemingly hastily shored up for tunneling and reared on his hind legs, barking at a tiny crack in the wall.

“I can smell it! It’s coming from here!”

The humans looked at the crack with dismay. It wasn’t even large enough to get Missile through, much less anyone their size.

This is the problem we ran into,” offered Shiva. “Shoat could kind of feel that there is something through that wall but we didn’t have anything that would break it….”

Cabanela thought for a moment. “Don’t suppose lightning could get through it, baby?” he said hopefully, after a moment.

“You can try…”

 He gestured everyone back and let his strongest lightning bolt fly. It chipped the stone and left a blackened ring, but otherwise seemed to leave the wall unharmed.

“Maybe that’s too much brute force for this,” mused Alma after a moment of silent thought. “Back in Doma…” she paused for a moment to let the pang of loss fade yet again, “…my homeland was a place of water and stone. We were constantly having to shore up the walls against erosion.”

“Erosion!” Lynne turned wide eyes on her. “That would take years!”

“Naturally, it would…but…”

Cabanela grinned, their argument forgotten for the moment. “But with magic we can make it go faster, is that what you’re thinkin’, baby?”

Alma nodded, holding up Shiva’s magicite. “Missile and I can both use ice magic now, and you two have fire. We continually freeze the rock, then melt it until the crack is big enough to get through. Then maybe we’ll find a better situation on the other side?”

“Only one problem…” said Lynne, slowly. “We’ve used a lot of magic and we’ve had no time to rest. I don’t know how much more I’ve got in me.”

Alma dug through her bag.  “Well… we’ve got a few of these tinctures that we’ve found or bought along the way… and about five of these strange elixirs we keep finding. It won’t be as good as real rest, but I don’t see any good place to put up a tent around here.”

“Hopefully we won’t have to do it a bunch!” Lynne looked down at Missile. “All right, buddy, you got the plan?”

“Aww… you mean you want to go toward the bad smell?” Missile whimpered. “I don’t want to go back to the doctor!”

“I know, I know,” Lynne soothed him. “But don’t worry! Maybe we won’t even see him, and that way we can get out of here real soon!” He waved his tail, looking up at her with utter trust.

“Yes, Miss Lynne! What do I need to do again?”

“OK, Missile, follow my lead,” Alma said, pointing at the crack. “Let’s break through this wall!”

Chapter Text

The wall’s destruction began slowly but proceeded more and more quickly, the supernatural erosion coming more easily as the group found a rhythm. As the crack grew, they found ways of working together to break it down faster. Finally, with a concerted volley of bolts from Missile and Cabanela, they were through, only to find a similar cavern with similarly hastily-built tunnels. There appeared to be rather more of them, however, on this side of the wall, and they lead in a multitude of directions.

Missile declared that he couldn’t really smell anything over the magic lately in use and the dust and stone chips in the air, so they picked a tunnel that appeared to go up and was more recently constructed than the others. After about thirty minutes’ dedicated walking, Missile slightly sulkily announced that the “bad smell” was getting much stronger. It wasn’t long after that they found a large cavern filled with the detritus of old construction and what appeared to be storage crates, and beyond that, a hall leading to a set of stairs marked for emergencies.

As they climbed through the landings, the successive floors began to seem less like a warehouse, becoming more and more finished with tiling and paint. At last even humans could smell the sharp astringency of sterile cleanliness that Missile persisted in calling a bad smell. Alma had to agree. It seemed to overlay other notes, a bitterer and more metallic one, and another indescribable with words but instantly memorable. The last time Alma had smelled that odor had been when she’d gone to Doma on that ill-fated and tragic trip five years previously, but she had not forgotten it and likely never would. Death waited here, and its scent wafted under and around the various smells that attempted to mask it.

They had been encountering and swiftly dispatching monstrous beasts for some time, even on the way up the stairs, but they were beginning to encounter stranger things, entities as much mechanical as they were flesh, and reeking, so the Espers and Missile said, of magic misused and twisted. Alma began shivering with rage and fear the first time they took the field with five small beings, child-sized and smiling brightly, that exploded when they were damaged, littering masses of circuitry mixed with bits and pieces unpleasant to peruse too closely around the area and damaging everyone. What sort of monster could or would create these things and then leave them to wander? It was a horror beyond human understanding, and yet Alma feared the source of them was all too human in the end. She bit back nausea and dread as she destroyed yet another one and sprang back to avoid the fallout as much as possible.

They were all growing tired of the endless stairs and the likewise endless battles, but the relief Alma felt as they emerged into a small, empty anteroom wherein they could take a brief rest and recuperate a little was tempered with worry for what might be beyond the door. Whatever had destroyed Cabanela from the inside out waited here. What if Jowd was in a similar position?

She looked at Cabanela, who was taking advantage of the short break and sorting busily through magicite in the absence of something more pressing. He’d evidently learned the spells from Carbuncle and had handed the magicite to Missile, who accepted his new friend back joyfully. Phantom now rode on Cabanela’s belt alone. Lynne, too, had learned Seraph’s spells as Cabanela had charged her, and she swapped Espers with Alma to begin learning from Ifrit. They seemed as ready to go on as could be accepted, she supposed. She stood up, offering a hand to Cabanela where he knelt. He smiled for her—a brief, constrained smile yet a curving of the lips nevertheless—and clasped her hand briefly, but he levered himself up under his own power instead and swung his pack back to its casual sling from his shoulders. He was fine. He was safe. Surely Jowd was too, wherever he was.

As they left that room into another, a larger enclosure that housed several large and noisy turbine engines that were set so as to vent from the room beyond, a figure met them inside, slipping into the room from the opposite direction.  This one loomed over the pipsqueaks they’d fought before, and his face was terrifyingly blank. On his—its—bare chest, a metal plaque appeared to be attached, welded into its blue skin, and emblazoned with “#024.” Alma looked closer. The thing bore a distinct resemblance to Cabanela if he had been born of the Azul Empire, but there was no way Cabanela’s face would ever remain that still and devoid of expression, as if it was wearing a mask.

Instead of attacking, as Alma expected, it stood guard at the door, waiting quietly amid the eerie howl of the wind from the turbines.

“What is this?” Lynne drew her knife as Missile growled at the thing.

“Don’t know, baby, it’s a surpriiise to me too.” Cabanela’s face was hard and furious as he drew his sword. “Can’t say I’m a faaan though.”

As they drew near, the mechanical man swept his hand out, casting a spell. Water, or something like it but stinging and painful, coalesced from the sky and drenched them all, causing a fast retreat.

“Oh? Two can play at that game!” Lynne flung a fireball at the man, which washed over him and appeared to do nothing, not even damage. The return attack, a volley of ice, formed in the air and shot toward her.

Missile howled, “Don’t you hurt Miss Lynne!” and dashed past Lynne, his rage already affecting him beyond reason. Alma dashed after him, her sword at the ready. The thing attempted an attack at Missile; Alma blocked it and returned a heavy-handed stroke that bit into the man’s side. Lynne attacked from the other, attempting to pull the sword slung across its back away.

Cabanela managed to get the thing with a well-placed bolt of lightning, the man reeling back in a good facsimile of pain, but shortly thereafter a wash of light gleamed across its body, flickering off his face and into the shadowed corners of the room. As Cabanela prepared another bolt, a fireball came rocketing at him from the thing’s hands, and Cabanela was forced to dance back, still chanting. His next bolt perked the magitek man up, the damage that had been caused already seeming to melt away in the spell’s wake.

Lynne, panting, said “Stop! Don’t use magic!” just as Cabanela took an icy slap of water to the face and came out dripping and the worse for wear. “I don’t really get how it works, but I think we’d better just stick to normal weapons!”

Alma kept her eyes turned toward the magitek being as she prepared another attack. Lynne rushed the man again, attempting to steal the sword. Again, he sidled just out of her reach with effortless grace.

Cabanela drew his sword as well, the slim lines of it scintillant with the reflected light of the magical barrier washing across #024’s form. He feinted, drawing the thing’s attention just as Alma unleashed the full attack she’d been charging. Lynne attacked a moment afterward, at last managing to grab the tempting prize. Missile, as well, kept up his frenzy, savaging the man’s legs at every opportunity.

Although it managed a few return hits, the damage started to affect its movements. They grew slower and more erratic, leaving it open for more damage. As Alma slammed the last swing home, neatly sending the thing’s head flying from its shoulders, it spoke at last, the only sound it had made during their entire battle, and the voice was familiar, although muffled by static and clearly recorded long since.

“Weeeelcome, my Queen.” The head landed on the far side of the room, sparks flying from the severed wires in its neck as the light in its pale gray-blue eyes dimmed. “I’ve been- been- been- waaaaiting for you, ba- ba- by.”

Chapter Text

Cabanela walked over to the broken head and, quite deliberately, stomped down hard, destroying any lingering resemblance to him it might have had. His face was eerily tranquil in its fury; Alma’s stomach roiled when she looked at him. It was like seeing who he’d been before, the man who had tormented her, returned after all. And yet, his face was human. The thing—Alma refused to call it a man—was a mere jumble of parts, gone still and, not “lifeless”, Alma mentally corrected herself, but “inert.”

He stalked through the door his shattered double had so recently guarded. Alma, sharing a concerned glance with Lynne and even Missile, rushed after him.  They found themselves in a large, dimly lit room filled with enormous glass cylinders that stretched from floor to ceiling. Most were empty; some had a strange white powder coating the inside of the glass, and a few had pulverized shards of some featureless material that might possibly be shards of some fine white ceramic. The pathways through the tubes led off in all directions.

“This just gets weirder and weirder. Where should we even go from here?” worried Lynne, peering up and down the tubes and peeking around them into the various passageways. “Can any of you Esper folk, I don’t know, sense Cait Sissel? Like you sensed us earlier?”

There was a long pause. “We’re… trying…” said Shiva at last. “I… think I begin to understand why Ifrit did not speak before. Being a magicite is very different than being corporeal.”

“Hooow so?” asked Cabanela, taking Phantom off his belt and examining the stone seriously, his face relaxing from its frozen fury into more simple curiosity.

“How can I put it in a way humans would understand? It’s like… swimming underwater in the dark. I can feel the magic all around me but it no longer answers my call, only that of the one who holds me. Even to speak is a huge effort.”

Seraph spoke up from her place at Alma’s side. “It becomes easier, sister. I still cannot control my own magic, exactly, but I can, I suppose, surface more easily from the water now, to continue the metaphor.”

“All right…” said Alma slowly, “but what does that mean for sensing Cait Sissel?”

“Since magic is all around us, trying to pick out one individual source is difficult. And… there is something very strange about this place…” Shiva sounded uncertain. “There is a place quite nearby where… it seems… there is an absolute lack of magic at all, not even the background sense that should be everywhere, even in in your world. Can you not sense it?”

Cabanela Lynne, and Alma stood still and strained their senses, while Missile busily sniffed, but the latter three at last had to admit that they sensed very little out of the ordinary.

“Wait,” said Cabanela, his brow furrowing. “There’s sooomething, or rather…”

“Nothing, right?” said Carbuncle. “That’s what we mean. It’s big, and it’s spreading.”

“Oh, great,” said Lynne, anxiously. “Can we get away from it?”

“I’m not sure we should,” said Phantom. “There’s a… darkness at its core. Like sinking into the depths of the ocean… it’s terrifying. But… I think if we want to find Cait Sissel, we’ll have to go there too.”

“I don’t know if I can bear it…” said Seraph, her voice small. “These tubes… I was held in a thing like these before, but these feel… they feel like a void in the world, like they want to take me in and devour me whole now. It’s far, far worse than it was. Do you all feel it?”

There was a chorus of acknowledgement from the other Espers.

“What if we run into the doctor after all? He killed me before… what says that he hasn’t figured out something worse to do with our magic now? He’s had Cait Sissel, all alone, for months. Who knows what he’s done to her?”

“Well, we won’t let anything happen to you,” Lynne said confidently. “We promised, after all!”

“Right!” barked Missile. “Because that’s what heroes do! And little doggies too!” He licked Carbuncle and sat on Cabanela’s foot, his doggie-smile a bright comfort in the dreary room.

Cabanela bent down and scratched his ears, then straightened and nodded absently, his eyes still far away. “You’re safe with us, but I think you’re right that we’ll have to go into the dark, baby. Whateeever the Empire’s planning from here on, magic’s at the center of it. Find the center, find the Esper… and maaaybe some answers from the doc too, if we’re lucky.”

Alma opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again.

“What is it, baby? Got somethin’ to say?” Cabanela glanced at her, his face carefully neutral.

Alma hesitated, then spoke. “It’s just—what if this Dr. Asbolus turns you again? We’d be in real trouble if you… broke.” She met his eyes, knowing the fear in hers would hurt him but not knowing how else to convey how much that idea frightened her. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

He huffed, a humorless smirk crossing his features at some unknowable irony he heard in her words. “I was crooowned n’ bound before, baby. No slave crown anymore, so I think I’m safe.”

“You think?” Alma stiffened. “That’s not really the most reassuring thing in these circumstances. I saw what that thing back there did to you.”

“Doin’ pretty good the other way for not wantin’ to hurt me, baby, but you make a faaair point. What’s your plan?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know! And I hate it!” Alma slapped the flat of her hand against one of the huge glass-and-metal tubes, the whole apparatus chiming with an eerie sound like a bell. She startled, waiting for an alarm to sound or some sign of their presence to be noted, but the sound only died away into the waiting silence of the room. She shook her head, rueing her jumpiness, and made a concerted effort towards calm. Breathe. In, hold. Out, hold. Repeat. Cabanela reached for her, then hesitated, his fingers just short of her dangling hand. When she had her breaths under control again, she put her hand down, deliberately relaxing it by her side as she ran her thumb across the fingers. “Just… stay close. Please. I know things are strained right now, but I’m being as patient as I can for all our sakes, believe it or not. We may have to go into the dark, but we go together. Not alone. All right?”

He looked at her silently, his dark blue eyes slowly softening as they took in her unease and returning it mirrored alongside empathy and an emotion she was as yet unwilling to acknowledge, only that it was indeed different from his predatory gaze of only a year ago. He nodded at last, evidently mollified by whatever it was he saw in her returned gaze.

“All right, baby, close it is, nothin’ like it. Don’t you worry.” He turned back to glare at the cylinder, brow furrowed. “Anyhoot, enough standin’ around. We stay here too much longer, we’ll have company whether we liiike it or not. And I don’t like this room much, gotta admit. Feeels… familiar, somehow.”

“So which way do we go?” Lynne asked, barely concealed exasperation in her voice.

He pirouetted, ending with his back to them. “Into the heeeart of darkness, baby! Where else?” He pointed down the nearest passageway. Alma assumed it was more or less in the direction they needed to go, but had to swallow her trepidation and trust he knew what he was doing.  He gestured Alma and the rest ahead of him, taking a watchful stance at the back of the group as they walked into the locus of the magical emptiness only he and the Espers could sense.

Chapter Text

The tubes towered over them all, even tall Alma and taller Cabanela, and he eyed them with an uncomfortable air even as his saunter grew more pronounced as if to show he was unbothered. As they stepped through the room, noises seemed to echo and collect in eerie ways, the glass amalgating and reflecting back words that were almost recognizable. Unwillingly, Alma found herself listening for something that sounded purposeful in the sussurus and was unpleasantly surprised to hear the the thing they had fought’s words repeated in there, mixed with other words that made no sense to her. “Puppet,” “shadow,” and hissed mumbles that were even more inaudible.

Cabanela’s face was becoming drawn and troubled. Although his walk never faltered, Alma, on one of her many surreptitious checks of him, noted him raising a shaking hand to wipe it over his face, but as quickly stare at his hand and put it down again. It was as if the touch of his own skin on his face were repugnant. She longed for it to be simple, to be able go to him, as she would have once, and take his hand, letting the warmth of human contact be a comfort to them both, but she told herself she needed to stay up front, just in case they were attacked from the dark. He was fine. Nothing was going to happen.

Missile trotted along beside her, ears pricked and watchful, but relaxed for the moment. “What do you smell here, boy?” Alma asked, grateful for the distraction. “Anything new we should know about?”

He thought for a second, little nose twitching as he sniffed. “Dust… and there’s a smell like blood, but not blood…” He stood still for just a moment. “A lot of metal and glass… and that bad smell over everything. It’s still getting stronger.” He shook himself all over and kept walking. “I don’t like it, nuh-uh.”

Alma had to nod ruefully. “I don’t either. But I know our friends don’t, as well, and we have to keep our promises.”

“Oh, yes, Ms. Alma! Even I know that!” He turned his head to nose fondly at Carbuncle, strapped to his side in the carrier that Lynne had made for Missile’s magicite. “I won’t run away even if that mean doctor pulls out a needle!”

“Thattaboy, Missile!” Lynne chimed in. “You’re my brave doggie, huh!” Missile gave Alma’s hand a lick and ran forward to stand with her, his tail wagging a fierce rejoinder against the dark. They walked in silence for a bare minute or two more, but Alma noted Lynne’s eyes flicking uneasily around, her hand spasming on the hilt of her knife as she walked ahead, Missile trotting at her side. Alma sped up a little so she could walk abreast with them.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing about this feels right.” Lynne peered around her and into the dimness of the cavernous room. “I feel like we’re being watched.”

Alma looked around. It was true that the room, despite being crowded, was too empty of life, almost conspicuously so. If it had been Figaro there would have been guards at every major passthrough point, and people running around on castle business. This place was seemingly deserted, even the monsters that they had run into and defeated in the tunnels below making no appearance.

“It makes no sense, you’re right.” Out of the corner of her eye, Alma caught a flicker of movement and whirled, but nothing was there. A moment later, as they resumed walking, the creeping at the back of her neck prompted her to turn again, but there was only Cabanela, walking equally as uneasily behind her. They were all on edge now, heads swiveling to catch any tiny sound or flash of movement.

The great glass and metal tubes were changing as well, becoming more elaborate. Some were twisted in their seats; a few had enormous cracks in the glass. Alma had no idea how they didn’t shatter. Tentatively, she put a hand to one’s cool glass side. It hummed with energy under her hand, an energy she was beginning to recognize as ambient magic.

“This is bad…” The voice from Missile’s side made Alma jump. “There’s no way they should know how to use magic like this. Not without help.”

“What do you meeean, baby?” Cabanela’s voice sounded fainter than usual, and more nervous than his wont.

“This isn’t just Esper magic. It’s the magic of this world, harnessed and held somehow. The goddesses… they sealed this world away from the magic world for a reason. This kind of magic shouldn’t be floating around, much less used by, er, the uneducated. This is the kind of thing you find in the relics of the War of the Magi…”

Alma had taken her eye off Cabanela, and looked back to find him stopped, staring at one of the myriad tubes. They had passed so many that she could almost ignore them, but this one and, she noted, several around them, held a blank white mask, somehow floating in midair. Alma suppressed a shiver. Those dark empty eyes held something in them, a feeling she couldn’t name but instinctively was simultaneously drawn to and repelled by.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, halfway knowing the answer.

“Sooo familiar,” muttered Cabanela, his fingers splayed against the glass as he stared the mask down. “I’ve seen this before, baby, but I just-- I can’t remember where…”

Another hard shudder overtook her. It was cold, too cold, and the mask was unnerving her in a way she knew she couldn’t articulate were she asked. It was familiar to her as well. The white snow of Narshe, scarcely whiter than the pale shadow that had taunted her on its battlefields. It was so pale, so white and pristine, like a spotless white coat or white sands in desert bleached under the merciless sun.  It saw her, and it hungered.

She shook her head and backed away, her fingers clenched on the arm of Cabanela’s coat. “It’s not important right now,” she told him, pulling him away. “We have a mission.”

“Nothin’ like it,” he mumbled, almost automatically, still hypnotized by the face staring at them from the tube, but he seemed to come out of it after a moment as she dragged him along. “Hey, baby, you knooow I’ll follow you anywhere, so you can let me walk, you know,” he protested, equanimity seemingly restored.

Alma shook her head, but let him go as they caught up to Lynne and Missile, who hesitated at the turning before another hall. The gabble of words in the air was quieter here, but still rustled, almost below perception.

“Is that no-magic area close?” Lynne asked Cabanela, her voice low. “Missile thinks so, and it feels… I don’t know, different beyond here. Not… normal. The espers have gone so quiet…”

Cabanela snuck up to the corner with an ostentatious flourish, making a cup of his hand and listening around. “Yeah, baby, I think this is it. Caaan’t say I know what we’ll find beyond here, but I think we’re comin’ to an end of this place.”

Alma looked around him, down the dark, still hall. There were more of the giant tubes in straight lines down either side of a large, flat walkway. Each tube held a perfect, pristine mask, the faces of them trained on a much larger glass container at the other end. The murky liquid in that one obscured whatever it held.

While Alma was distracted, Cabanela had explained to Lynne and Missile that he would go ahead, using one of his new spells to let him sneak in, letting them guard his back. Alma would guard them. He sounded confident, on top of the situation, and again, Alma knew he was trying to leave them out of it. That couldn’t stand, of course; his tendency to leave them ten steps behind was not going to work here. Alma listened to him explain and then cut through his sentence with one flat word.

“No.”

He was caught with his mouth open, a half-smile on his face as he spun his plans. “Excuuuse me?”

“You’re not going in there alone. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you this, but you’re not leaving me—us again,” Alma said, her face fierce. “Lynne can take point and Missile and I will hang back behind, with you in the middle.”

He waved a hand in irritation. “It neeeds to be me taking lead. I’ve got the magic, I can feel it if something’s comin’. I’m the better scout this time.”

Lynne nodded. “He’s got a point…”

Alma’s mouth twisted a little. “He always does.”

“I said I’d stay close,” he said, “and I will, baby. How about this. You can be riiight behind me, sword at the ready to beat down the big bads when they come. We’ll go and check out that thing at the end of the hall and then go from there. I’m just actin’ as a lightnin’ rod here.”

Alma tilted her head at this mixed irony from their spark generator in human form, but accepted his revised plan with a provisional, wary nod.

This last corridor was eerily hushed, dark and utterly still. As soon as they turned the corner, the whispered babble of voices vanished in the the quiet air as if it had been muted. The click of Missile’s nails and the small movements they made as they walked seemed to echo forever into the abyss of space above.

They almost didn’t notice the first one, but Lynne, lingering behind, saw it happen as the mask in the first tube they passed crumbled and vanished without a trace and she pointed it out in a low voice to Alma and Cabanela. Each mask they passed on their walk down the corridor did the same, but somehow, they still could not see what was in the last great vessel that stood alone at the end of the hall.

It seemed to suck the breath from their lungs, the magic from the air. The magicite at their sides almost seemed to resonate in anguished sympathy but they had no words to offer. The last few steps brought them before the tube, standing as uncertain penitents before its majesty. One last mask floated there, in the contained abyss. It gleamed with pure white light, spotless, untouched by the murk roiling around it; only by straining their eyes could they make out the fact that it rested on someone’s face, someone who also floated motionless within the great glass cylinder.

Whoever it was was small, and seemed to be covered by ragged black fur that covered dangling humanoid limbs. It didn’t take much of a leap of logic to guess that this had to be their missing Esper, Cait Sissel. A whispered conference put them to work. Memry would have been better suited, but in her absence, Alma went to the bank of consoles to try to figure out the release for the glass while Lynne went to stand guard at the small exit they’d been able to see before. Missile went the other way to watch where they’d entered and Cabanela stood with Alma, ready to help with the release when she’d figured it out.

After a moment, Alma gave a low hah! of triumph, and the glass began to rise into the ceiling, releasing a cloud of mist and a trickle of liquid, which turned into a flood as the glass lifted away. Cait Sissel began to fall forward, and Cabanela leapt to catch her. She fell into his outstretched arms, the mask breaking away from her face and falling away to the floor as her eyes opened in shock and she began to cough, struggling away from him.

As the mask left contact with her skin, they could all feel it, like a silent implosion, as the magic of the world sucked back into the surrounding area. Cait Sissel, crying out, was the epicenter of the massive tide and she lashed out with many spells all at once in her effort to get away from the mask, the cylinder, and the man holding her. Cabanela dropped her, his face contorted in pain and disbelief as he cried words they couldn’t hear. The air around him distorted, swirling in otherworldly dimensions, and he disappeared into the warp, the damage done.

Chapter Text

Alma rushed forward, but he was gone. Cait Sissel lay crumpled where Cabanela had dropped her, mumbling just a little, words she couldn’t make out. Alma and Lynne knelt next to her.

“Send us to where he is, quickly,” Alma hissed to the Esper, worry and fury warring within her. Cait Sissel stared up at her, great golden eyes glazed and shining with tears, her pupils huge in the dark.

“He… he is in dreams now…” Cait Sissel said, her voice small and wavering. “His hair is… a blaze of light…in a darkened room… a candle to light my way home…”

“What’s she talking about?” Lynne said. “Or who?”

“I’m coming to you… Yomiel… Sissel…” Cait Sissel’s eyes slid closed.

Lynne fumbled for the magicite at her belt. “Can you help her?” Too late, she remembered she had Ifrit, who had been so silent since the day he’d joined them. “Oh…never mind, uh…”

Still without speaking, Ifrit floated forward and down, landing softly on Cait Sissel’s chest, the warmth of him heating the air all around her. Her hands came up to cradle him and a small smile grew on her face.

Rest, sister,” Ifrit said, the deep hum of his voice barely louder than the silence around them. “You’re safe now. We have you.”

Cait Sissel nodded, her eyes still closed, and the glow rose around her, leaving only a magicite in its wake. She and Ifrit floated up together, landing in Lynne’s cupped hands.

“We’ll take you to Sissel,” Lynne said, her voice gentle. “Carbuncle, can you tell where she—"

From the darkness, a wheezing chuckle arose and an Azulian stepped forward, his dingy hospital scrubs and lab coat at stark odds with the masked man that stepped forward with him. Lynne and Missile whirled, but it was too late. Their guard had been breached; the doctor was in.

“One thing you can say for Primus, he always disappoints,” the man said drily. “I certainly find it easier to deal with his shadow.”

The masked man’s head jerked, but he remained silent and his gaze returned to Alma. She was reminded of the mask they’d seen and passed. That empty gaze had been hungry, predatory. This one’s shadowed, dark blue eyes were ravenous, but its wearer was silent, and so very still. His brilliantly white robes shone with scarcely fiercer a light than the mask still lying on the floor. The mask on his face, Alma realized, was some kind of manufactured replica of the one that had lately been attached to Cait Sissel. It was easy to tell, seeing them together. The one on his face was mere porcelain. The one on the floor gleamed with an unknowable light.

Behind them both, Alma realized with a shock, one more person crouched, his hands tied with some kind of faintly glowing Relic. He’d been beaten, his face savagely rearranged, and he stared at them with big, frightened, familiar eyes. His mouth worked, but he could say nothing. Tinctoria pleaded with them from behind his captors, but he’d been silenced in some way.

“I see you’re confused,” the unmasked man said. “Dr. Asbolus, and this is the Emperor’s Jester. Pretty sure you’ve met. That pitiful wreck back there is one of my former research assistants. You’ve interrupted my experiment.”

Alma and Lynne stood in a concerted rush, standing ready, and Missile growled at the masked man in continuous, teeth-bared fury. Lynne and her dog moved in front of their queen, instinctively guarding her. Asbolus examined Missile with interest.

“Hmm. A tamed monster, is that what we have here? That old sneak really had me fooled. You’ll be a most interesting addition to my test subjects.”

“You’re not touching my dog,” Lynne snarled. “I won’t let you hurt any of us.”

Asbolus laughed his wheezing chuckle again. “That you think you have a choice is really something. Maybe you should be my new Tertius, huh? But no, I already have that earmarked for your Queen here, since I lost her counterpart. Quaternius? Eh. We’ll figure it out as we go.”

“What?” Alma jerked her head up.

“Oh, it’s nothing to worry yourself too much over,” Asbolus said airily, waving a hand. “A little light experimentation, maybe some infusing… hmm. I don’t have any live Espers left now, come to think. Maybe the little doggie might add a certain something…”

“Not that,” Alma said, ignoring his insinuations. “You lost your Tertius?”

“Oh, him.” Asbolus rolled his eyes. “He’s of no consequence. He and the old fool can go hide in that oh-so-secret nowheresville. Don’t need them now that we have you.”

The Jester, next to him, shuddered convulsively. Asbolus picked the mask up from the floor, examining it.

“Still intact, good, not that it was really a worry with it surviving since the War of the Magi and all. Well, not really all that useful for Espers, huh? Sucking all the magic out of the everything is somewhat counter to what we’re trying to do here. Good for controlling humans though. Nothing like it, as your buddy here always says.”

“That’s not—” Alma stopped. She couldn’t say that for certain. It couldn’t be Cabanela, could it? But it stood like him. Wore his coat, and the scarf she’d made for him to protect him from Vector’s colder climes. The only thing out of place was how silent and still he was.

“Ah, it’s all the same in the end,” said Asbolus, tapping the mask to his puppet’s face, making the strange not-porcelain of it ring like a bell.  “Right now, the false mask means he’s doing what I say, so it’s a moot point. Works like a charm too. I wish I’d tried this conditioning thing before.”

“Cabanela, please, fight it.” Alma pleaded. “If that’s you under there, come back to me. To us! We’ll find Jowd and—”

“Oh, come on,” Asbolus said impatiently. “I don’t have time for goop and we have a lot to do.” He snapped his fingers, and the puppet at his side stepped forward.

“Stay back! You’re not our friend!” Missile growled and snapped at them, eyes blazing. “You’re the bad-smell man!”

Lynne flung a hand forward, casting a spell, but Asbolus held the mask up, and it seemed to suck the spell away and gone.

“Oh, now that’s a trick,” Asbolus said, examining Lynne with interest. “You’re not an infused knight, so how--?” He peered at Cait Sissel’s magicite. “Oh, I see. And here I thought Primus was just stealing my trash when he took that green stone from my lab. How’d you get the magic from it?”

Lynne glared at him, unspeaking. He shrugged.

“Doesn’t matter, kid, you’ll tell me one way or the other.” He glanced around, considering. “Enough of this. We can talk later.” He snapped his fingers again. “Knock them out.”

Several bolts of lightning, huge in diameter, struck from nowhere, knocking the little group away from each other and off the dais. Missile began to fall into the maze of conduits and circuitry that underlaid the flooring, and Lynne rolled, dodging another bolt, to catch him. Alma looked up through the ringing in her ears and the dazzlement of her eyes at the white-clad puppet, reaching out a hand to him.

“This isn’t you, Cabs, please—” She caught Tinctoria’s eyes. They were wide and terrified. He shook his head fiercely at her, mouthing “Go!”, and frustrated, slammed his legs into the backs of Asbolus’s and the Jester’s knees, making them stumble. As they caught themselves, the false mask began to fall from the Jester’s face and Alma saw Cabanela’s eyes fill with terrible rage and cold, calculating purpose. It didn’t look human, that expression. It didn’t even look like Cabanela. All masks were off and Alma despaired. This was the true self of the Empire’s Jester. She’d been fooling herself to think otherwise. He pointed a finger at them again, and Alma knew he was readying another spell, even without Asbolus’s order.

Lynne had managed to get back to her with Missile. “We have to go,” Lynne said.

“We can’t leave! Not without—"

“I’m sorry! But we have to!” Missile yelped, and the stone at his side flashed. For the last time, the Warp spell went into effect, Missile at last giving it direction and strength beyond the unfocused casting of Cait Sissel, and they were away, leaving the unmasked Cabanela, Asbolus, and Tinctoria behind.

Chapter Text

Cidgeon‘s eyes blinked open to a face full of worried, fluttering pigeon, who darted and pulled at his hair and nose until he sat up, wiping the crust in his eyes away. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been out, but it couldn’t have been long.

He looked around as Lovey-Dove settled into his hair. To his surprise, his surroundings were familiar. It was the bolthole he’d created years ago, when Cabanela had first come back to Vector in that first desperate rush to find his desert king. It was a small room, equipped with an oven, a bed, some shelves filled with canned provisions and extra journals, and not much else. It had been meant for a place of last resort. Cidgeon supposed this qualified. He supposed the spell had taken his need for some kind of sanctuary and dumped them out here. At least it was timely.

Jowd sat huddled on the floor, facing a small fire in the stove. The magicite they’d gained at such cost sat next to him. Cidgeon got up to stand next to him, his joints painfully creaking—he felt as though they’d landed on the floor, hard—and examined him carefully. Jowd seemed undamaged, untouched. It appeared Asbolus hadn’t managed to begin his experiment.

“Did Cabanela hurt you?” Cidgeon said, opting for brisk.

“No. He likes his property pristine.” Jowd said, his voice flat.

“He doesn’t own you,” Cidgeon pointed out, puzzled.

“Tell him that,” Jowd returned. “When this little game of his is over, I’m sure you’ll have plenty to report.”

“This isn’t a game,” Cidgeon snapped, bending to pick up the magicite. “I told you before: I’m here to take you to Kamila and then you can go where you want.” He used a fold of his coat to handle the three stones gingerly, avoiding skin contact as he tried to hand them to Jowd. “Here. They said they wanted to help.”

“I think they’ve done plenty,” Jowd sighed, but took them, placing them into the pockets of his prison trousers.

“What do you mean?” Cidgeon asked, pausing as he began to turn away.

“They told me the basics of your story and told me how to use them,” Jowd said, avoiding his eyes.

“How long was I out?” Cidgeon asked, curious.

“…A while.” Jowd seemed to huddle more into himself, turning away. “You were pretty far gone.”

Cidgeon blinked. “In what sense?”

“You hit the floor pretty hard when we got here,” Jowd said, his voice remote. “I think you cracked your head.” He reached back into his pocket, pulling out Bismarck. “One of the spells put you right.”

“You cast it?”

“Didn’t see much choice. You were…gone. Like I said.”

Cidgeon reached up for Lovey-Dove, drawing her down into his arms. No wonder she’d been so frantic. “Sorry, old girl,” he murmured to her. “I’m here, not going anywhere.” He looked back at Jowd. “Thanks.”

Jowd shrugged, getting to his feet. “Least I could do. Don’t do it again.”

Cidgeon huffed out a breath. “Agreed.” He looked around, taking his long-delayed inventory as Jowd stood, staring into the middle distance, and Cidgeon realized yet again he was going to have be more directive if he wanted anything to happen in timely fashion.

“We’re not far here from an old mine exit,” he tried. “We’ll take one of the carts to the surface and then get out of the city.”

“Fine.”

“We can get you less conspicuous clothing there. At least not blue and white stripes.”

“Sure.”

“I’ll get you to Kamila and then I’m going after Cabanela myself.”

“Mm.”

“Feel free to weigh in here,” Cidgeon grumped, frustrated, as he stumped around to the shelves, putting rations into a pack. Lovey-Dove fluttered along behind him, catching things as he tossed them off of shelves.

“Sorry to be a weight around your neck,” returned Jowd, chuckling. “I’d be fine going back to my cell and getting this over with.”

Cidgeon wheeled on him. “There’s no going back there. Do you understand? That bridge is burned. I’d have thought you’d be more than ready to get back to your family.”

“My family.” Jowd sobered. “Alma’s got Figaro running well enough, Cabanela tells me. Should be annexed any day and then she’ll be brought to Vector too. Cabanela himself—” something went across his face before his eyes shuttered. “—is here. For what that’s worth. You keep talking about Kamila but she’s long-gone. Cabanela told me that too. So exactly what family do you think I have waiting for me elsewhere?”

Cidgeon squinted at him. “So Cabanela’s been… telling you things?”

Jowd laughed. “For…what, five years, it’s been just Cabanela telling me things. This is the most people I’ve seen in one day since the Empire got me.”

Cidgeon stopped, staring at him incredulously. “That makes no sense. He’s been looking for you for five years. He would have told—”

“He fooled you too, then.” Jowd shrugged. “It’s not surprising, I suppose. Can’t trust the Empire.”

Cidgeon scrubbed a hand over his face, frustrated. “We’ll have plenty of time to talk this over later. For now, I’m going home.” He began throwing things into a spare pack for Jowd to carry.

“Go home then.” Jowd sat down again. “He’ll find me sooner or later and for whatever it’s worth, you should be able to get away. Assuming you’re not just another of his traps.”

Cidgeon placed himself in front of Jowd, squinting into his face in the firelight. “My home is Thamasa. That’s where Kamila is.”

There was a flicker of life in Jowd’s eyes at last. “Does Cabanela know this?”

Cidgeon nodded. “Yes.” He didn’t mention that he was certain Cabanela didn’t know where Thamasa actually was. Jowd would have to be prodded to go, it was clear. Get him to his daughter, then get them to Figaro. Let the desert kingdom deal with their king while Cidgeon went after the boy.

“So, he kept that from me.” Jowd snorted. “Just one more lie.”

“But now that you’re gone,” Cidgeon persisted, “he might go after Kamila, when he learns you’re not here. He was sent to Narshe, but he could get back any day. We need to get to her first. Besides, he knows this bolthole. We’re not safe here.”

Jowd’s fists clenched and he took a deep breath, but said nothing for a moment. At last, he said with false carelessness, “Fine.”

“Good. Take this then.” Cidgeon handed him the pack. “Do you need to eat before we go?”

“No.” Jowd looked at the canned food, then away. “I ate while I was waiting for you to… come back.”

Something didn’t add up here, Cidgeon thought, but he wasn’t going to pry it out of this taciturn king right now. He turned to logistics, and they spent the next few minutes finishing their packing. When they were done, Cidgeon stood on the threshold of the room, looking back in at the stove, now out, and the small belongings left within. Jowd brushed past him, trudging with stolid step, presumably assuming Cidgeon would catch up, but Cidgeon paused. He had to.

He and Cabanela had set up this room together. He didn’t know what vagary of fate or magic had brought him here in this last hour, but he confidently expected never to set foot in Vector again. Cabanela was different, or had been fooling him very well, according to Jowd, for those five years, but Cidgeon found that he couldn’t bear to leave the boy with nothing.

Cabanela didn’t know where Thamasa was. It was Cidgeon’s last secret from the boy, so he could have plausible deniability if he were ever caught. Just a small note, then, giving the boy some news, just in case, somehow, he were to come back to his senses. And if Cabanela was the monster he seemed? Than it might draw him to find Cidgeon, allow the master of monster-hunting to catch him in his trap and get him the medical help he needed, away from Asbolus and Vector.

There was a shelf of spare journals left, material Cidgeon couldn’t fit into a pack and didn’t really need on this journey. He took one from the shelf and put it on the desk, weighted open to an empty page. He thought for a moment, and wrote two words, leaving them to Cabanela and hope, and left the room behind, locking the door behind him as Lovey-Dove fluttered him onward, urging him to follow Jowd and the Espers.

In the darkened room, the pages glimmered softly, punctuated with Cidgeon’s scratchy handwriting, waiting for Cabanela.

“Have Jowd.”

Chapter Text

The old mine tunnels were slated to be destroyed or repurposed into research facilities, as the mine itself was no longer considered a viable resource. Cidgeon knew they’d found many War of the Magi relics in these mines when they’d begun building Vector; it was part of the reason they’d built downward so quickly. Sith, the man who would be Emperor, had created a vast trade in mineral resources alongside his search for more of the magic of the ancients. It had made Vector the richest city in the world within a generation and paved the way for the Empire’s rise before the amount and quality of the relics and other resources within had dropped sharply.

When Cidgeon had first come to the nascent Empire with his carefully-curated set of Thamasan relics (of which he’d carefully obscured the true origins), his prototype magitek, and the drips and drabbles of knowledge he’d given the Emperor, he’d encouraged Sith and his followers to look inward, to find the magics at the heart of their land. Like everything he’d told the Azulian Empire, it had been meant to protect Thamasa, keep the Empire centralized at least. It had been an uphill battle every step of the way, especially as Asbolus and Sith’s other toadies began whispering the insidious dual songs of colonization and expansion, but Cidgeon had helped them design the mine cart network to make the pot a little sweeter. The magitek in them meant they were self-propelled, could go anywhere within the mines with ease, and most importantly, were far faster than Jowd and Cidgeon’s walking pace. They could be out in the sun within twenty minutes, Cidgeon estimated, should things go well. He tried not to think about what his urgings had wrought on the other inhabitants of this land, both human and not. His sins were known to him already. It wasn’t necessary to dwell on them when there was so much to do.

Jowd climbed into a cart, already standing ready, and slumped against the cart wall. Cidgeon sighed, and painfully climbed in himself, flipping the series of switches that would start the cart into the labyrinth of tunnels and settling Lovey-Dove into his pack so she would be comfortably shielded against wind and inertia. If he’d thought Jowd was taciturn before, the man was completely silent now. As the cart began to move, Cidgeon saw Jowd’s hands tremble before he deliberately clenched them into fists.

“You’ll likely have the chance to use those before we get out of here,” Cidgeon told him. “They never did clear out the indigenous monster population in these caves, and I’ve heard rumours there’s other things down here now.”

Jowd snorted, but said nothing for a moment as the cart slid through the dank must of the mine. The mine cart trembled and rattled through the the damp tunnels and the two men sat in silence for a moment before Lovey-Dove’s warning coo alerted them to an attacker. Cidgeon peeked over the top of the cart to see a large purple monster, the muscles of its torso oddly fused with a magitek engine and somehow acting as the axel to one large spinning wheel. It was a grotesque magitek fusion, a perversion of both his work on monsters and the mine carts, and it was at once infuriating and nauseating to see.  

Grumbling to himself about Asbolus and his experiments, Cidgeon stood, balancing carefully in the careening mine cart. Without turning, he said, “Hey. I could use a little help here.” He heard the rustle and Jowd moving, and had to hope that was him getting into some kind of battle reasiness.

“Huh. That’s a new one on me,” Jowd said a second later. “It’s going to have to get a little closer if you want me to punch it though.”

“You have spells now,” said Cidgeon shrugging. “Or whatever else you learned through your martial arts training—” He felt more than saw Jowd’s stare at that, and added, “Cabanela told me you were a martial artist. Said something about blinding white chi or something, I don’t really get it myself.”

Jowd huffed something that might have been a laugh. “Don’t think I’m up to that right now. Haven’t been in a while.”

“Well, do whatever you want,” Cidgeon said, “But pick something and do it quickly. I can see more coming behind.”

“Hmm.” Jowd said, but stepped behind him, balancing carefully so as not to step on the pack where Lovey-Dove still poked her head out. “Well, no time like the present,” and he sent shards of ice flying at the monster, which flinched at first but then howled eagerly and sped up.

“I don’t think that worked,” Cidgeon remarked drily. “Try lightning or fire instead.”

Jowd twitched. “I’ll pass on the lightning,” he returned, his face blank, and sent a wave of fire washing over the monster. This time it howled in rage, its wheels stuttering as the axel piercing its skin grew red hot and burning under the onslaught.

“Better,” Cidgeon approved, and turned his attention back to the monsters coming. Judging from their reaction to the ice, water spells were out, and he’d prefer not to be hurt so he didn’t have to use his little trump card in Revenge. Stone it was—he was learning all sorts of new uses for it. Aiming carefully, he targeted one of the monsters racing up behind, a smaller red variant of the purple one, it seemed. Whatever Asbolus had been thinking, letting loose breeding monster/magitek hybrids, Cidgeon was cursing his name more with every moment that went by.

They fought together without speech for a few moments, with only the sounds of the tunnels, the screeching of the mine cart machinery, the growls and cries of the monsters, and Jowd’s slow and steady breathing as he conjured spells and flung them, although Cidgeon noted with concern he seemed to be slowing.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, when Jowd missed his spell in the pattern they’d developed.

“I’m…getting tired…” Jowd said slowly, blinking. “Like when I first started training…”

Cidgeon cursed himself for a fool. Of course, Jowd didn’t yet have the mental stamina to use magic for long without help, and he’d evidently started at less than full because of whatever mishap had occurred back in the bolthole. “Lovey-Dove, get him a tincture,” he said, and took the bottle from the bird himself so she didn’t have to fly up into the wind of the tunnel. “Drink this,” he snapped at Jowd, shoving it into his hands.

Jowd blinked again, and drank it, whipping the glass vial at an importunate monster when he was done. Already there seemed to be more life in his eyes, and when the next monster got too close, he was able to punch it with one of his much-vaunted lightning-fast strikes Cabanela had praised so, following it up with a ferocious blast of fire.

A moment later, the infamous white blast shot forth above Cidgeon’s head, squarely hitting a last purple monster and downing it.

“Feeling better?” Cidgeon said. Jowd cleared his throat, but before he could answer, a howl echoed through the tunnel and the largest and fastest monster they’d seen yet raced up behind them, its bright red flesh gruesome as it entangled with the visible engines and wires making up the apparatus that kept it zooming toward them. Cidgeon could just make out a metal plate on the area that served the monster as its chest, engraved with #128. Above the plate, firmly affixed on the monster’s face with stitches of its own flesh wrapped around wire, was a plain white porcelain mask.

Chapter Text

It was hard to hear over the howling of the wind and the monstrous bladed thing that had appeared before them, but Cidgeon felt more than heard Jowd’s stillness and the very small sound he made in his throat at the sight of the mask. Cidgeon recognized it too—it appeared extremely similar to the one Cabanela’s white-masked puppet had worn and which Asbolus had waved so casually at Cabanela earlier. Looking carefully, however, he could see it was not the same. It didn’t glow with an internal malice, for one, but it was also not quite such fine-grained ceramic as the other. This was a replica, made for some unknowable purpose in Asbolus’s zeal.

He began to point this out to Jowd, but the shift in the king’s stance alerted Cidgeon to dodge just before Jowd launched himself at the body of the beast, somehow managing to pummel the mask to shards before launching himself back at the mine cart and landing on his feet in a fairly stunning display of athleticism. Cidgeon could begin to understand what Cabanela had seen in this silent wreck of a man, back in his shining kingdom in the sun.

The monster shrieked in rage, putting on speed and drawing near, then nearer yet. It got close enough to slice at Jowd’s torso with one of the blades embedded in what served as its arms, narrowly missing Cidgeon’s head. Cidgeon just managed to bring up his knife, catching the blade and deflecting it, but barely. Jowd gave him an incredulous look, but prepared to pummel the monster again as the monster hissed and bared its sharp teeth, revealed when the mask was broken, and snapped at Cidgeon, attempting a bite. So close, Cidgeon could see the teeth were like those of the vampire monsters he’d seen—they’d drain him dry in an instant if he was fool enough to let himself be caught by them.

Cidgeon was a veteran of these kinds of monster hunts and battles, but Jowd wasn’t at his best and this constrained area put them at a severe disadvantage. He wasn’t one to fret, but they needed to bring the battle to an end. He conjured a stone, knocking the monster back a little, and yelled to Jowd to brace himself, then hit the sequence of buttons that would drive the mine cart faster, beyond its programmed limits.

As he'd expected, the monster howled again, seeing its prey escaping, and put on speed. The cart was racing, its motor straining, but the monster was gaining. Cidgeon could hear more coming, too. The exit was coming fast; Cidgeon knew there was a barrier there meant to block the exit of monsters into the general populace. The mine carts were supposed to stop before that juncture, but Cidgeon knew this one wouldn’t. It had sustained damage and Cidgeon was pushing it beyond its normal limits.

“Get down,” he gestured to Jowd, pointing to the bottom of the cart. “Brace yourself.”

Jowd slid to the floor, adroitly dodging another swipe from the monster, and Cidgeon threw himself over the pack and Lovey-Dove, hoping he could protect his lady from the impact. To his surprise, Jowd put himself over the top of them, providing yet another layer of protection before Cidgeon could deny the need of it. A few seconds later, they slammed into the barrier, and the monster slammed into the back of the cart. The momentum of the impact sent them all flying. Cidgeon could feel himself arching through the air, and could only hope that at least Lovey-Dove might be spared. This was going to hurt when he landed, but no sooner had the thought come than Jowd had him, pulled into that massive chest along with Lovey-Dove, and had curled himself into a ball around them. They landed, and Jowd rolled with the impact, letting the momentum carry him beyond the barrier, before he uncurled and let Cidgeon and Lovey-Dove free. Amazingly, he looked little the worse for wear, his hard-won martial abilities evidently still winning out over years of mistreatment and torpor.

Cidgeon got himself to his feet, checking his lady. She seemed unhurt as well. He whirled to take on the monster again, but it had been well and comprehensively smashed in the collision. While he watched, the bladed limbs twitched and a wheel spun helplessly. Cidgeon sighed, and used his magic to end it quickly. Whatever it had become under Asbolus’s hands, it still didn’t deserve a slow and painful death. Any other monsters following appeared to have been scared off by the commotion. Cidgeon nodded. He knew monsters, had been hunting them, studying them, training them, taming them for many years. He thought they were safe from here.

Jowd still lay, staring up at the angry gray sky, heavy with dark clouds. As he blinked, a thin rain began to fall and Jowd’s mouth opened, letting the water fall in as it may. Cidgeon knew the pollution of Vector gave the rain a nasty tang; it would be no better than what he’d heard of Zozo before long. It didn’t seem to bother Jowd. He began to chuckle, then laugh, then guffaw, still lying flat on the ground and letting the rain drench him. He laughed until he wheezed and the tears—or perhaps just more rain—ran down his cheeks and into his beard, and kept laughing. Cidgeon stared, then sighed. The man had been who-knows-where, probably underground, for five years. Let him enjoy the rain for a moment, if it pleased him in some way. There were few enough pleasures coming. Cidgeon looked around. This exit from the mines was just below the inn, a place run by a notorious ex-prisoner, thief, and con artist. He also owed Cidgeon a favor from years past.

Cidgeon let the pearly wind of a lore spell wash over the three of them, soothing any last injuries, aches, and pains. “We have to go,” he said as Jowd began to wind down.

“Where?” Jowd said, still staring blankly into the sky, although the laughter had, for now, trailed off.

“We’re making a quick stop and then we’re getting out of here,” Cidgeon said. “We need to get to Albrook as quickly as possible.”

Jowd sobered again, sitting up. “You really mean it, don’t you.”

“I’d hoped you’d been convinced of that by now.” Cidgeon snapped.

Jowd sat up, drawing himself back in. “They told me back at your hideout that you did. I didn’t believe them.”

Cidgeon stilled, then turned to face Jowd squarely. “Then why did you revive me?”

“It seemed only fair,” Jowd said, shrugging.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Jowd’s eyes shifted, but he shrugged again. “Sorry. I didn’t know if I could trust you. It was a reflex.”

What was a reflex?” Cidgeon said.

“Punching you,” Jowd said simply, getting to his feet. “That spell dropped us, I recovered first, I punched you, you hit your head on the rebound.” He stretched. “I ate one of your cans of food, thought about leaving you there, and the Espers and your pigeon there convinced me…not to. Like I said. Sorry.”

Cidgeon reached up and rubbed his head. It wasn’t even sore, but he didn’t remember any of that.

“So you damn near killed me.”

“Yes.” Jowd shrugged. “Didn’t mean to. Sorry. Again.” He began striding toward the outskirts of town. “We can go our separate ways from here.”

Lovey-Dove darted after him, pulling on his clothes, trying to pull him back to Cidgeon. Jowd gently fended her off as Cidgeon watched, but that decided a question Cidgeon hadn’t even known he’d had. Jowd wouldn’t hurt an innocent. He wasn’t insane, unlike the boy. He was just deeply wounded, and had struck at someone he’d thought was another tormentor. He wasn’t one of Asbolus’s monsters. He’d become one of Cidgeon’s.

Cidgeon darted in front of him. “You’re not going alone.”

“Don’t make me punch you again, old man,” Jowd said, his voice mild.

“You won’t,” Cidgeon said with utter certainty. “You saved Lovey and me in that cart. You don’t think I’m your enemy anymore.”

“Does it matter?” Jowd said, matter-of factly. “They’ll never stop coming after you if you’re with me. Stay away, protect yourself, and I’ll make my own way.”

“Look around you, boy,” Cidgeon said, not moving. “Does this look anything like home to you? You don’t know this place. You don’t know the Empire.”

“I know the Empire,” Jowd said, his mild tone slipping.

“You don’t know this Empire. Not the one aboveground,” Cidgeon countered. “I do. Come with me. Work with me. This isn’t home, not for either of us, but I know where it is. We can go back there.”

Jowd loomed over him, dark against the angry light of the sky. When he spoke, it sounded choked. “There’s no going home. Not for me. Not any more.”

Cidgeon nodded. “Not the way it was, yeah. Not for either of us.”  He knew they were thinking of the same person in that moment. “But the only way to find something like it is to move on. Are you with me?”

Jowd was silent for a long moment. The rain stopped, and the heat of a Vector summer instantly dropped around them like a cloak, the humidity causing everything to steam. Jowd shook himself like a dog, shedding droplets as his hair began to rise to its fluff. “I’m with anyone who can get me dry clothes at this point,” he said at last, chuckling. “If that’s you, take the lead.”

Cidgeon nodded. His gentle trap had caught a King. Now to get him to safety, somewhere like home.

Chapter Text

Cabanela landed in a swearing heap on the ground, already knowing it was too late. He’d failed, not only to save the Esper, but also to abide by the one thing Alma had continually asked: to stay close. That it hadn’t been by his own choices that he’d failed made it all the more galling. He lay still for a moment in the quiet dark, every part of him aching from the magic lashing he’d received from the falling Esper. He supposed he was lucky not to have come off worse. In that sickening instant before the warp he’d felt the chill of poison, the coldness of stone, the whirling of confusion, but also the comforting warmth of Esuna and the refreshing chill of cure magic. He’d been thrashed and restored all at one. The floor was dusty, clearly untouched in several months if not more. Where was he? The palace would never be allowed to get this dusty.

He stood, brushing himself off with fastidious care. It was a small room, equipped with an oven, a bed, some shelves filled with canned provisions and—Cabanela did a double take. He’d been here before, some five years earlier, when he had helped Cidgeon set up a room of last resort, a bolthole meant to be the last place they’d go before getting themselves out of Vector. Why here? He hadn’t seen this place in five years, had no emotional connection to it. Or—he thought in rising hope—perhaps this was where Cait Sissel had sent Cidgeon and Jowd and he’d merely been caught in the same spell that had been held in abeyance by the mask. They might have been waiting here for him, and he was only a little behind.

He peered around. The bed was unmade, dusty and long-untouched. The fire in the oven was laid, but had long been cold. The stores of food he’d left so neatly stacked had been rifled through, pushed aside, and Cidgeon’s favorites taken. He’d made to sure to include some preserved chicken jerky for Jowd when they stocked the place. That was gone too.

On the desk one of Cidgeon’s spare journals lay open, the Professor’s sprawling handwriting writ large across the page. “HAVE JOWD,” it said. Cabanela’s knees weakened and he sat, heedless of the dust, heedless of wrinkling in his clothes. Jowd was… well, he couldn’t know that either of them were safe, but they weren’t here. They’d gotten out. If he could just get back to Alma, get the whole group back to the Ladybird, Memry could get them to Thamasa. They would be back together. It was happening at last.

He found himself sniffling, and wiped a hand over his face, scrubbing away any incipient tears. No time for crying now, no matter the great tide of golden relief that washed though him. Alma was still deep in enemy territory. He had to get back there. His hand went to the magicite he held, but only Phantom’s magicite met his questing fingers.

“Uh, hey, baby,” he said, his hands tentative as he held the stone up. “You…all right there? Been reeeal quiet.”

“She’s gone.” The magicite’s voice was dull, even more lifeless than before. “Again.”

“Not for long, baby!” Cabanela protested. “We’re gonna march riiight back there and get them all back.”

“Yes. You said that.” The magicite’s glow dimmed to a mere flicker. “And I convinced myself you were trustworthy, more fool I.”

“I didn’t mean for this to happen,” Cabanela retorted, stung. “I couldn’t know your liiittle Esper friend would unleash everything she’s got on me.”

It doesn’t matter. We’re here, and Seraph and the others are not. They’ll die down there. I hear the Train howling for them already.” The flicker dimmed yet further. “I won’t stay here without her again.”

Cabanela said, “Waaait, wait, baby. It’s a little early to be giving up. If you’ll just stick with me, let me use your magic, we can send that Train dooown a different track.” He got up, executing a flawless twirl, and headed for the door.

“I gave you what body I had,” Phantom said. “You ask a lot if you think I would let you continue to use my soul.”

Cabanela was quiet for a moment, hand on the knob. “I gave my soul to Figaro a long time ago,” he said at last, voice soft in the gloom. “The moment I saw my King, and then later my Queen, it wasn’t mine anymore. Not just mine anyway.”

“…yes.”

“I didn’t belieeeve in love at first sight, you know,” Cabanela mused. “Always figured it was the kind of thing I’d just avoid. Tooo busy. Too driven.” He smiled a little. “Too much.”

“Seraph was the same,” Phantom said. “But she’d never be too much for me. Not my angel.”

“Lightning struck for you two,” Cabanela said. “You fooound each other not just once, but twice. And we can find them again, baby. It’s not impossible. We just have to get movin’.”

“And what about you?” Phantom said. “They already didn’t trust you.”

Cabanela gave the magicite a broad smile. “I make my ooown lightning, baby. I’ll make it work.”

The magite’s light in the gloom brightened just the smallest bit. “You’re a strange human, you know, but you remind me of some of my family. Back home.”

“So you’ll help me?” Cabanela turned the knob, looking out into the mine tunnels outside. There was a mine cart terminus nearby, he knew. Maybe they could take it back to the research areas.

“What choice do I have?” The words were bitter, but Phantom’s voice was wryly amused. “I don’t have much innate magic now. I knew Seraph’s and my spells when I had a body but I only have my own now. Three spells: Vanish, Berserk and Demi. You’ll have to use them wisely.”

“Berserk’s not my style, baby,” Cabanela returned. “And Demi won’t seal the deal for Asbolus if I run into him, will it?”

“…no.” Phantom’s voice went hard. “You’ll need weapons or spells from someone else to finish that one.” The magicite paused, then said. “That’s the other condition of this deal. If we run into the Blue Death, I will do my best to destroy him. He stole Seraph from me. Stole her life from her. Hurt us all. I won’t let him live.”

Cabanela nodded, stone-faced. He’d seen Asbolus hurt innocents over and over again, starting with himself at five years old. He was the kind of man who gloried in his small power over the weak. He was a plague at the heart of the Empire.

“That’s a deal.” Cabanela said. “And Vanish looks like it’s perfect for us to go slippin’ back into the research areas without any unwanted guests.” He headed for the mine cart terminus, slipping Phantom’s magicite back into its pouch. The mental connection was more than strong enough.

“Yes. Just remember it won’t last forever, and if someone manages to hit you with a spell, Vanish will fail.”

“No wooorries there, baby,”Cabanela said, his voice back to full confidence. “We rescued all the Espers and I’m the only one kickin’ around here with infused magic. No one to cast spells on me.”

“Maybe…” Phantom said, its voice troubled. “I hope you’re right.”

“Hey, hope’s more than what you had before, so we’re one up in that department,” returned Cabanela. “Nooow, where is that mine cart….”

He stopped. In the place of the terminus, there was a man-made wall, marked with a sign, “MINE CART NETWORK OUT OF ORDER. TAKE ELEVATORS TO RESEARCH LEVEL.”

Cabanela cast an eye back toward the bolthole. He'd had to leave it unlocked, but the entrance was well-concealed. None of the Imperial cronies had any reason, so far as he knew, to come back here, and the mine cart network had been sitting untouched but defunct since he’d come back to Vector. Something had happened to draw suspicion to this place in the interim. He thought he might hazard a guess as to who, but it was of no matter. Even if a trap awaited back at the research levels, there was no way to go but forward. He cast his Vanish spell and stepped into the elevator, hitting the button that would take him back toward Alma and whomever else waited.

Chapter Text

The ride up seemed to take a century, the almost intangible hum of the machinery of the elevator an ominous counterpoint to the ticking of Cabanela’s thoughts. Phantom confirmed that they could no longer feel nor track the others – they were too far away. Cabanela was left adrift again; he’d told Alma that was what he wanted, but not like this. Not without knowing that she was safe. Nothing about this trip was worth it if Jowd was emancipated only to exchange Alma’s freedom. He had confidence if he could just get back to the research levels, then find a way back down to the mask room, he’d find them again. How labyrinthine could it possibly be?

The elevator came to a stop, the door opening onto a brightly lit and clean central hub area, halls leading off to various research levels labeled A-F. The place swarmed with researchers and guards, a low roar of talk punctuating the noises of far-away research, the odd screech of metal, and an occasional scream, none of which seemed to faze the the morass of people clustering in this hub. There was a directions plaque on the far wall, next to another bank of elevators, which appeared to be locked and coded with a keybad. Cabanela gave the plaque and the people walking through the area a sardonic smile that no one saw. Tooo easy.

He danced over to it, dodging and jinking around people with practiced ease. It was just like going through a crowded intersection up in the city. He got to the wall and began to peruse, keeping a wary eye out for anyone walking too close to the wall and thus, him.

He had just found a promising avenue of exploration for getting back down to the mask hall when a small hubbub at the elevators by which he stood drew his attention. As the doors slid open, everyone in the lobby stopped still, hands going to cover their faces. There was a low-voiced conversation happening in the elevator, one that Cabanela couldn’t quite hear and was at the wrong angle to see. He turned from his perusal of the wall marker and looked down at his hands and feet. Still invisible to his own eyes. Why, then, were they giving that odd salute? Wasn’t that only for “General Cabanela?” Who could the dignitary using the restricted elevators be but Asbolus, he reasoned, but he doubted the Doctor, even despite his high titles and stature in the Empire, cared about salutes. Someone had to be with him, someone very important indeed. Sith? Or perhaps General Beauty, come to inspect?

He slid a little closer. This close, he could finally hear Dr. Asbolus’s dry tones as he spoke. “That’s enough, Secundus. You don’t speak or act this way towards me.” He started to walk out of the elevator and a hand pulled him back in, the fingers gripping on his stained scrubs with an implacable force.

The other person in the elevator, just out of Cabanela’s view, said, “I speak and act how I want, especially to people who just lost me what I’ve been workin’ years to get. This is on you, Doc. I had them, I haaaad them both, and you lost them both for me. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t roast you where you stand.” There was a thump and a sickening thud. “And your liiiittle pet here too.” Cabanela froze. The male voice he heard was familiar, uncannily so, but it buzzed unpleasantly in his head, setting up too-intimate resonances he didn’t enjoy and couldn’t immediately understand why he loathed so much. Whoever it was in there, he wasn’t Beauty or Sith.

Asbolus, his voice wryly amused, said, “I have the mask here, so you can’t roast me, for one. It’s just not possible for you. Two, you can still get your toy back if you’d just hurry along and let me get back to my research with my new project here. I’ve measured that the capabilities of that spell in all sorts of ways. They can’t have gotten far.” He stepped out of the elevator, still leaning in slightly so the door couldn’t close, pointing at something on the floor. “Take that with you to the research cells, won’t you? I have a little something special to mix up before I can attend to him but it’s on your way. Don’t hurt him more though, Secundus, you’re going to like what I have planned.”

“You’d liiiike that, wouldn’t you,” the other voice dropped to an irritable hiss. “None of this meeeeans a thing with them gone. Your projects are just junk as far I’m concerned, stains on the Imperial record, and since I don’t know where she is anymore than you do, sendin’ me on my way is just tryin’ to get me out of your hair. Not gonna happen, Doc.” There was the sound of another thump. “As if this thing of Primus’s means anything to me. I want them back.”

Asbolus turned away, rolling his eyes. “Fine, stay here and lose her. I don’t really care what you do, Secundus, especially not now that I know for certain Primus is still in play. If you don’t do what we want, we know how to make him do as we need without the problems you cause. He’s almost certainly still here too. Don’t forget that.” He brandished a mask, glowing pure white and painfully bright even in the brightly lit room and let the door close behind him as he began to walk away.

Cabanela was just trying to decide whether to follow him or chase the elevator when the door blew outward, followed by a massive cloud of oily electric smoke still roiling with uneasy sparks. Cabanela had to skip backwards to avoid being hit by the door and the edges of the spell. An uneasy feeling settled into his gut. Lightning magic, cast by human hands…another infused person? Impossible. He’d been told so many times that he was the only survivor of the infusions.

The caster stepped out a moment later, idly kicking a bound and familiar figure in front of him. If the crowd had been still and silent before, now the stench of raw fear fought with the stink of smoke as each and every soul in the room, with the notable exception of Asbolus, straightened, ensuring their hands were covering their faces in picture-perfect salutes. The caster did a little twirl, and then gestured them all to go, his face a mask of irritation. The crowd scattered in seconds, leaving only the four of them in the central hub: Cabanela, Asbolus facing toward him, the bound, gagged, and blindfolded man on the floor, and the last person Cabanela had ever expected to see step from that elevator, dressed all in white and wearing a familiar scarf.

“You don’t walk away from me that way, Asbolus,” the man he’d heard titled only as Secundus spat. “You’re just a researcher. I am Geeeeeneral Cabanela, and I say when you get to go.”

Chapter Text

Cabanela watched Asbolus’s mouth curl into a tiny, satisfied smile under his mustache before he turned to face his accuser. “Still and always Secundus to me, but all right, I hear and obey. What would Emperor Sith’s general wish of me?”

“Come with me and fiiiix the cranes,” Cabanela’s double said, prompt and iron certainty in his voice. “That airship will be comin’ for them, more fool the Empire for letting the thing stay in private hands. The cranes will take care of that for me, and I can capture the airship. I think it would be juuuust dandy as my private flagship.” A hungry smile crossed his face. “And I’ll geeeet my Queen here, finally. With the Aero-Cabanela Imperial on my side, it should be a snap to go find Jowd and the Professor. Come out, come out, wheeeerever you are!” He giggled as Cabanela, still unseen, recoiled, then finished, as if in afterthought. “You can haaaave the Professor for your reward. Surely you have a few plans for an old man and of your old toys.”

Cabanela’s hands curled into fists, although he had to restrain the spell wanting to course through his blood. A lot of half-formed speculation was making a lot more sense now. But how? How had the Empire done this? It shouldn’t be possible. It couldn’t be, but there his double stood, large as life and half as natural. Cabanela thought back to the crude and malformed doll which had borne his voice back in the facility. If this thing, too, was magitek, the crafting of it was orders of magnitude far beyond the Empire’s previously shown abilities. Far beyond Asbolus’s. How had they come this far without his knowledge? Without Cidgeon’s?

“Hmph,” said Asbolus. “Never did figure out why we should indulge you in that little obsession of yours with the Queen of Figaro, Secundus. She’s nothing. Not your magic ability, not the raw physical strength of D-99… just about no reason to keep her.” He looked thoughtful. “Although she does have practically all my Espers now, and they showed us down in the mask room you don’t need the raw magic if they’re turned to magicite…” He shrugged. “Fine, fine, I talked myself into it.”

“So glaaaad you’re willin’ to accommodate me, Doc,” the other Cabanela said coolly. “Let’s get to the cranes then.”

Asbolus spat a laugh. “Fine, fine, by your command.” He gave the general a mocking salute, swiping a hand over his face in quick parody of the respect he’d received from the crowd. “But get that for me, won’t you?” He pointed at the bound man again. “Bring him along so I can get him started on his treatment.”

Cabanela peered at the man again. Now that he was in the light, Cabanela could more clearly see what he’d missed in the elevator. Tinctoria lay there, badly scorched and, fortunately, very unconscious. Cabanela’s entire being clenched in fury. They were casually talking, here in this hall, about taking away everything and everyone he’d ever loved or with whom he had even had a connection. There was nothing he wanted more, right here and now, to destroy Asbolus and the thing he called Secundus, but three things prevented him. The first, his need for more information. These two had been too many steps ahead of him for too long. The second was his need to know where Alma, Lynne, and Missile were. Clearly, they’d had a run-in with Asbolus after Cabanela had been unwittingly warped away. He had to make sure they were safe and get back to them. The third was Tinctoria himself. If Cabanela attempted to blast Asbolus and Secundus into oblivion here and now, his cover was irrevocably blown, and right here in the heart of the Empire too. He’d never get out alive on his own, much less with an unconscious, scorched Azulian citizen over his shoulder. All he could do was follow them, for now, and try to heal Tinctoria when he had a chance. Seraph had granted him some spells in their time together that should make it simple enough.

Cabanela had his plan mapped out, again, and this time it was foolproof. Follow Asbolus, rescue Tinctoria, catch up to Alma after disabling the cranes once and for all. They’d fly to Thamasa and get Jowd, Kamila, and Cidgeon. Now that he knew the truth of this Pretender Cabanela, the explanations would be easy. They could use this information to tear the Empire and his duplicate apart, and then his King and Queen could go home, daughter in tow. Cidgeon could retire and rest easy in Thamasa, and maybe Tinctoria could find a new home there too, once the Returners were able to stand down.

His castles in the air were dispersed as the other Cabanela carelessly snapped his fingers, and Tinctoria floated up to about waist height so he could be pushed along without undue effort. He and Asbolus began to walk down another hall. Cabanela frowned, unseen, behind them. The double had more spells than he did. More power too? How far were they similar? He hastened after the doctor and his doppelgänger, still talking about Asbolus’s plans for Tinctoria. The Doctor had decided that the aborted experiment with Jowd would be far better suited to someone who should be proud to serve his Empire, he said, idle chatter as they walked. He had taken enough of the Esper magic from the cat and the remainder of Cidgeon’s notes and musings on magitek and monster-created poisons and serums to create a bioweapon he confidently expected to make a new breed of super soldier, ones that had magic but did nothing but obey their leader’s orders, given via telepathy. It was a replacement, he said airily, for the mask, which could only control one at a time.

“Oh, and I think you’ll like this, Secundus,” Asbolus said with a smirk as they stepped onto another private elevator up to the castle research levels, Cabanela dashing after them and squeezing into a corner of the elevator to ensure he wouldn’t be left behind. “I’ve decided to abandon my former naming structure for these soldiers. The idea of making a Tertius was…ill-conceived.”

“We agree there, Doc,” the general said, idly caressing Tinctoria’s hair, watching the sparks follow his fingers and burn each strand to the scalp. When Tinctoria whimpered, he sent the lightest ripple of a cure spell washing over him and began once more. Cabanela, again, considered a sword to that perfect face (well, it waaas) but was his brief and furious movement to do so was arrested in shock as Asbolus said, “And so, these new soldiers will be falling under a new initiative I’m calling Project Alma.”

“Whaaaat?” Cabanela’s double blinked in surprise. So did Cabanela, even though Asbolus couldn’t see it. “They got nothin’ to do with my Queen, Doc.”

“No, that’s just a happy coincidence,” said Asbolus smoothly, although both Cabanelas’ eyes slid suspicious glances at him. “It stands for ‘Azulian Living Magic Attackers’ and it’s the Emperor’s express command that you have an entire troop of them in your control. This traitor here will be our first experimental subject. Take his soul…metaphorically speaking… and give it to your control, along with hundreds more like him. Even thousands, if we like.”

“And whaaaat’s wrong with magitek soldiers?” the general said. “I’m perfect, baby, as you see.”

“And why duplicate perfection?” Asbolus said.

Cabanela’s narrowed. “That’s myyy line, baby,” he thought, but couldn’t say. He knew why not anyway. It seemed as though his double was a special case, unique and unduplicable, thus the failed experiments left to roam the mines such as the one he’d fought. Would that he himself had been the same. He’d thought he was.

Asbolus finished, “Besides, there’s always plenty of traitors and spies waiting to be caught and, shall we say, repurposed? The Professor’s too old or he’d be a good candidate…” he paused. “But I’m considering it anyway, for the inconvenience he’s caused me.”

The general’s eyes narrowed. “So that’s what you wanted to do with my king?”

“Sure,” Asbolus said, shrugging. “The Queen too, if we’d caught her. Isn’t that what you want? For them to dance to your every command?”

“No,” the pretender snapped. “I haaaad a puppet and he was useless. They have to want me. Want this.” He gestured a hand to himself. “They want Primus still, but when they understand… when they know what truuuue spotlessness is…” his mouth curled into that hungry smile again. “They’ll understand he’s nothing and they’ll be aaaall mine, and by their own will.” He rounded on Asbolus, catching the man’s throat in his hands and backing him against the elevator wall. “I will roast you if I find you trying to take my toys again, Doc. You have your own.” He slapped the helpless, floating Tinctoria on his leg, causing him to rotate in the air. “But with this thing, do what you want.”

The elevator chimed, a pleasant and innocuous noise, and the general pulled the doctor over to the door and dropped him on the revealed floor of his private research suites, raising a long and elegant leg and kicking Tinctoria after him. “Go and do your thing. Meeeet me at the cranes when you’re done.” The doors began to close. Cabanela had to make a choice, and quickly. He ground his teeth. He couldn’t even wish to be in two places at once anymore.

Alma, Lynne, Missile, and the Espers were strong. Memry would come for them and Cabanela knew they’d get out, with or without him. He could meet up with them later, but right now, someone he’d once called a friend was in mortal danger. He couldn’t leave him, not and be a Cabanela that he himself would want to know; he had to save Tinctoria and get him out. So much for his foolproof plan, but he was nothing if not flexible. Without another thought, he launched himself from the elevator just as the doors were closing, leaving his double’s self-satisfaction for the Doctor’s questionable mercies. He’d show them what a Primus could do.

Chapter Text

As the elevator closed, the Float spell on Tinctoria ceased, its caster evidently getting too far away to maintain it. He crashed to the floor, the shock of it evidently awakening him a little, enough to make him cry out. Asbolus rolled his eyes and rubbed his throat, then shrugged, beckoning to a nearby sentry to pick up Tinctoria’s dead weight and carry him. With another irritable gesture, he told the sentry to pour one of his standard-issue potions down Tinctoria’s throat to ease his woes. The burns began to fade and Tinctoria’s eyes flicked open, then fell closed again, the magic evidently not enough to heal the aftershock of pain. Watching him closely, Cabanela fell into the rear of the little procession.

They walked a moment. Asbolus didn’t bother with conversation, and Tinctoria didn’t appear to wake any further. The hallway was full of doors and rooms, some with observation windows. Cabanela resisted looking into them. Whatever else the Empire was up to right now, he didn’t have the luxury of focusing on anything beyond his immediate plan.

“The Vanish spell is going to fail soon if you don’t renew it,” Phantom whispered into Cabanela’s mind. “You need to find someplace you can step out of sight.”

Cabanela looked down. The very tips of his scarf and his shoes, the farthest things from his core, were a haze just barely coming into visibility. He didn’t want to risk losing his quarry, but he certainly couldn’t risk being seen, not now. Not with soldiers at every corner and Asbolus knowing for a certainly that there was no way he could be the duplicate. He picked up his steps a little, almost running, skidding into an open and empty lab and pressing himself to a wall out of sight of the entrance. The spell failed and his entire self flickered back into perceptibility. That had been too close. He’d need to practice with that one more to make sure he never got caught unawares by timing issues.

“Hey, thaaanks, baby,” he murmured to Phantom. “You holdin’ up OK?”

“That thing…person…that was you and not you…” Phantom said slowly. “I understand now why we were so confused. His entire being is a lie with a truth at the heart.”

“Gonna have to talk a lot more about that later,” Cabanela said, nodding. “Anyhoot, we’re good for now?”

Yes. You’re…good. Hurry now or your friend will suffer.”

Don’t gotta tell me twice, baby. A darin’ rescue, nothin’ like it.” He cast the spell again and dashed back into the hall, only to find that, as he’d feared, he’d lost sight of Asbolus and Tinctoria. The hall was long and straight, the lights bright, with sentries posted at regular intervals. Asbolus’s main lab had to be along here somewhere, and the Doctor had just turned off into it.

Cabanela hustled down the hallway, peering closely now at the windows, although what he saw in a few made him wince. Subvocally, he said to Phantom, “Can you feeel any magic anywhere? The Doc said he had some of your friend’s magic trapped, right?”

“It doesn’t exactly work that way,” Phantom said. “But I do feel that no-magic field, sort of. Do you still feel it? It’s smaller but, uh…more concentrated now? If the absence of something can be concentrated anyway…”

Cabanela tried stretching his senses, like flexing muscles he was barely aware he had. Maaaybe… there? That door he’d just passed felt strange, even though in itself it seemed thoroughly innocuous.

And now what? He couldn’t just open it. If Asbolus was on the other side Cabanela would have just given himself away. He needed a distraction or backup or… he stopped himself from that line of thought. He was here, he was alone, and he owed it to them not to mess this up any more than it already was. He’d wanted this. Now he had to make the best of it.

The door opened, causing Cabanela to leap back. The sentry who’d been carrying Tinctoria stepped out, making a sour face; Cabanela could understand. Dealing with Asbolus had always struck him that way as well, although that hadn’t stopped his inquisitive mind and feet from prying when he was a child and it wouldn’t stop him now. He even had the added bonus of not having to interact with Asbolus, assuming the spell and he stayed in sync, and the sentry had given him his way into the room.

Cabanela rushed the door, hoping the wind of his passing would just seem like a draft to the sentry, and slid in just before it closed. The small lobby inside was pleasantly and markedly dimmer than the hallways outside, and cool, almost abnormally so. It seemed as if this opened into Asbolus’s personal research suites. Somewhere down the hall, he could hear people murmuring. He followed the noises through a small hallway to a large open room bisected down the middle with a large glass pane, as if one side was an observing area, and the other was an experimentation room. Asbolus and a crowd of his assistants and students stood on one side, busily making notes and murmuring to each other.

On the other side of the glass, Tinctoria lay, restrained to the table by straps across his chest and shackles around all four extremities. He seemed as though he was just coming out of his unconsciousness, sweating and straining, crying out as he writhed against the restraints.

“As you can see, I injected him with this mixture,” Asbolus explained to his entourage, waving a clipboard as he used an empty syringe as a pointer. “I anticipated that this would only be the first dose, but he is already reacting.” He snapped at another assistant, standing by. “Did you send someone to help General Cabanela?”

“Yes, Doctor, but—”

“Good. I have no time for that prancing buffoon right now,” Asbolus said. “If he’s got someone to help him that’s enough. There’s far more important work to be done here.”

Cabanela eyed Tinctoria. The cast of his skin was going pale and gray, and his muscles twitched, bulging uncomfortably around the restraints. As Cabanela watched, his head tossed and two tiny blue horns broke free from the skin, curling out and upward, growing larger and larger as he watched. Tinctoria screamed, the sound scaling downward until it was a hoarse, awful roar. It went on far longer than human lungs should have allowed. His teeth were going pointier and his nose was, as well. His face lengthened and his eyes went a glassy blue.

“What’s happening, Doctor?” an assistant said, swallowing with an uncomfortable gulp and edging back from the glass. “Are we safe?”

“This is the form of the perfect soldier,” Asbolus said, his eyes alight with fascinated hunger. “Perfect power, with no restraints but the Emperor’s. An ultimate weapon.”

With a howl, Tinctoria burst from the straps and restraints, landing on all fours. His legs and arms were already beginning to elongate, curving into joints no human had. Muscles swelled and rippled, and he grew large, then larger still. The assistants and students screamed and ran, calling for help as they rushed out of the room. Asbolus still stood, writing notes, his face enraptured. “This is how it should have been—” he said, before two of his assistants grabbed him, dragging from the room despite his curses and protests, calling for sentries.

Cabanela rushed around the glass, no longer caring if anyone saw or heard him as he dropped the spell. “Heeey, baby, you gotta calm down, come on…”

“C…Cabanel…a,” Tinctoria breathed out, his voice mangled and rough from the changes to his jaw. “The real… one.”

“Yeah, baby, it’s me. It was me all along.”

“I. Know.” Tinctoria panted, his face contorting in pain as his spine elongated and grew longer still as a tail grew, lashing in uncontrolled anger, knocking over the table and breaking glass vials. “Tried. To. Tell…”

“Don’t talk, baby, it’s gonna be all right,” Cabanela said, a cautious hand reaching for Tinctoria’s shoulder.

“Too late.” Tinctoria threw his head back and howled again, a clawed and massive hand swiping at Cabanela, who skipped backward, dancing out of the way.  “Can’t. Control…” Tinctoria was still growing, magic rippling under his skin as his tail continued to thrash and grow longer still.

“Come with me. I’ll get you to the Professor and he’ll fix you riiight up. A cure, nothin’ like it.”

“No cure… for this…” Tinctoria’s voice had dropped into a low growl, and he now towered over Cabanela, the walls of the lab barely constraining him. “Asbolus… called me the first of Project Alma…” As his growth stabilized, the words seemed to come easier. “But they won’t control me… that easily… and I will be the only one.”

“Baby, you gotta come with me, and get out of here.”

“If you stay here, I will kill you and eat your magic.” The words were unequivocal, iron-hard. “Go and save who you can before I come for them.”

“Tinctoria, baby, I’m heeere to save you,” Cabanela protested.

“I am an ultimate weapon,” the monster before him said, stalking Cabanela, forcing him to dance backward out of the room. “I am what’s arisen from the ashes. I am eternal, older than the cosmos…”

“You’re just talkin’ crazy talk now,” Cabanela said, dodging around the glass partition. The monster that had been Tinctoria went right through it, glass raining in tiny shards all around.

You have to go!” Phantom spoke up. “He’s been corrupted, like in the War of the Magi. There’s no cure.”

“They did things like this in the War? Tried to make perfect weapons?”

“There is nothing like me,” the monster said. “They called those imitations weapons but I am the perfected form… Project Alma, the Doctor called me, but my name is Ałma. His claw raised, but stopped, frozen. “I shall conquer all… feeble creature, I shall kill you now!” Cabanela stared at him. Tinctoria, for just a moment, stared back, the creature’s body around him stopped as if frozen in time.

“Don’t forget me,” he said urgently. “I can’t stop this forever, but I can turn it against the Empire. Please, go, save them. Don’t waste it.” The claw trembled, then dropped, just in front of Cabanela. Even tall as he was, the talon was almost as long as Cabanela was tall. “Go.” The humanity in his eyes was gone as quickly as it had come.

Cabanela shook his head, desperately looking for another answer, but Ałma rushed forward, shoving him out of the room and swiping claws through the wall, causing a small avalanche of building materials. It howled, shaking the room. Cabanela took one step away, then another. Tinctoria had given up everything to give him one more chance to save Alma, to get her out of here before the monster began his rampage.

“I’ll see you again, my friend,” he murmured. “This isn’t the end for you.” He turned away, casting the Vanish spell yet one more time, and headed for the machinery at the base of the cranes, ignoring the other Cabanela, Asbolus, and the monster at the heart of the Empire for now. If nothing else, he could ensure none of them could stop the airship and Alma’s flight to freedom.

Chapter Text

Alma materialized, hand in clutching hand with Lynne, who held Missile. The whirling distortion of the warp faded out around her, leaving her nauseated and gasping against the cold wall against which she stood. She gritted her teeth against the rebellion of her stomach, blinked and blinked again, momentarily unable to reconcile the cold stone around her and the sun’s watery spring light, hazed in ever present Vector smog, with the cool glass, metal, and seething hatred of the room they’d left behind. They were somewhere in the Vector streets, near the terraces in the palace district but mercifully hidden from soldiers or prying eyes.

She raised a hand to her face, and it came away wet. She’d cried out to him; she’d begged and pleaded, and it had done absolutely nothing. Cabanela had looked at her with his hungry, empty eyes, the ones she’d seen countless times in Figaro, and she’d seen nothing like home in them.

She scrubbed a hand over her eyes, drawing it away from Lynne, who gave her an understanding nod as she put Missile down in silence. He sat huddled against their feet, and they were all silent for a moment. They’d come here for Jowd, for Cidgeon, for the Espers . They’d come with hope, with Cabanela, and had lost all of them. Every single esper had turned into hard green stone, bodies gone from the flow of time. Jowd and Cidgeon were long gone from Vector. Cabanela was…

Alma gave her head a hard shake. She’d known. Five years couldn’t be erased that easily. She’d been right to fear, right not to trust, right to worry. She’d wanted answers, a reprieve from the endless questions. Now she had them, and she hated it. The opera had meant nothing. The tenderness he’d shown to the weak was a ruse. Their journey had all been a trap to lure them into the Empire’s clutches. She should be grateful she’d escaped, had answers, but gratitude came hard at the moment.

Lynne said, “So…what now?” She peered around the corner of the building. “Oh, we’re behind the inn. Maybe Acacia could help us? We’re not far from her home here.”

“Help us with what?” Alma said, her tone dull. “We got what we came for.” She pointed at Cait Sissel, still in Lynne’s hand, and then gestured at the other Espers. “See? Rescued the Espers, just as we said we would.”

 “We have to go back for him!” Lynne said. “For them both! Tinctoria saved us and… and Cabanela…” she faltered. “Cabanela’s in there. He must be. We can still get him away from Asbolus, turn him back to the person we know and…” she stole a glance at Alma’s face. “To the person we know.”

“Where’s my friend?” whimpered Missile, against her feet. “That wasn’t Mister Cabanela.”

Alma sighed, bowing her head. This was the part of being a queen she’d always hated. “If we go back in there, we hand them Figaro and the Espers on a silver platter. They have no hold on us now, no more hostages. It would be foolish to give them back what they’ve lost.”

“What are you talking about?” Lynne stared at Alma, incredulity written on her face. “No hostages? They have one of our Returner allies – Alma, they have Cabanela!”

“No. As always, Cabanela has them,” Alma said, and heard the weariness and sorrow in her voice, solid and enduring as the stone under her feet. “Maybe you didn’t see, but he knew what he was doing back there. He wasn’t under the Doctor’s thrall.”

“That wasn’t Mister Cabanela!” Missile insisted. “It was the bad-smell man! He didn’t smell right!”

Alma knelt to him. “It was. I saw him. Whatever Asbolus did to him, it’s not going away.” She reached out, drawing him into her. “Our friend is gone.”

Missile howled, throwing himself against Alma’s chest. She knew the feeling, wanted to give in to it, but dogs could be allowed to show that kind of emotion. Queens, especially those who had charges to get to safety, could not. She buried her face in his fur, just once, and put him down as she stood up again, her face a mask of decision.

“We leave. If Acacia’s home is on the way, we’ll check in with her, get any information we can, and ask her and the Returners to find and resue Tinctoria if possible. They will need to be on guard for and aware of Cabanela. He’s dangerous to us all, especially now. We’ll go back to Zozo and reunite the Espers. Hopefully that will help Sissel, because we won’t have time to stay long. We’ve managed to commodify them all and make them even more valuable to the Empire, so we need to stay on the move.”

She began to walk, Lynne and Missile giving each other worried looks as they trailed behind her.

“From there, we fly to Narshe to tell them our plans and give them time to prepare. And then Memry will fly us to Thamasa, or as close as she remembers. If Jowd and Cidgeon are there, so much the better, but I will have my daughter safe with me.”

“And then what? What plans?” faltered Lynne, adding an unaccustomed “…your Majesty,” at the frozen glance Alma gave her at the interruption.

“And then we go back to Figaro and prepare for war. No more skulking in the shadows, no more hiding with the Returners. They’ve taken from us long enough. It’s time to return the favor.”

Chapter Text

The streets of Vector lay quiet and still, the crowd that had brought life to its dirty and straggling streets earlier gone, dispersed by the frequently-patrolling soldiers. Lynne took to scouting ahead and making sure the coast was clear before gesturing Alma and Missile onward. They took the long way, making a mad dash across the terrace before the Imperial district, then sidling around the weapon and armor shops. Missile stayed at Alma’s heels, his little nose sniffing busily to make sure no one could sneak up on them. As they made their cautious way to Acacia’s house, more and more soldiers were present on the streets, until all the caution in the world couldn’t prevent the occasional confrontation, but Lynne was able to put them to sleep if she could sneak quietly enough, and if not, the battles they fought were quick, dirty, and done as quickly as possible in order to keep the soldiers from raising the alarm. Alma breathed a sigh of relief when they made it to the narrow alley between the weapons shop and Acacia’s home; that relief was short-lived.

The plaza outside the narrow house where Acacia had been living was filled with an entire platoon of Imperial soldiers, and the emperor’s Guardian stood at their head. He waited patiently as squadron leader after squadron leader came, made his report, and left. Acacia was nowhere to be seen, but her house was under siege. Alma, Lynne, and Missile pressed against the side of the house, avoiding soldierly eyes, but sacrificing their own vision of the proceedings in the process.

“Can you hear what they’re saying?” Alma whispered to Lynne, who shook her head.

“Sorry, my ears aren’t that sharp. How about you, Missile?”

He cocked his head. “The other bad-smell man lost the lady that smelled like food. He’s looking for her and… ‘the other one’? And us, Miss Alma!” He growled very softly. “I won’t let him get us!”

“The ‘other one?’” Lynne raised a puzzled eyebrow. “They had Tinctoria and Cabanela. We’re all here, except Memry. Do they know about her?”

“I suppose they’re looking for more Returner sympathizers,” Alma returned, her voice low. “At least they don’t have Acacia. Perhaps she’s gotten out of the city.”

“Maybe. But they know where she lives…does that mean the Vector Returners are compromised?” Lynne peeked around the corner again as Missile began to tug on her boot. “What is it, buddy?”

“Miss Lynne, look! Over there! Do you think she has food?”

“…Oh, no. Look!” Lynne peered at the point at which Missile was busily sniffing, and then pointed across the plaza, to the edge of the platform above the drop off into the quarry. There was a tangled set of pipework and crates sitting there. Alma had to squint, but Lynne guided her sight until at last she saw Acacia, who stood on the ductwork, only her eyes and the top of her head visible above the pavement, her gaze fierce on the adjutant.

“She’ll get herself killed…” Alma murmured, watching Acacia carefully aim her crossbow between the Guardian’s eyes. “We need a distraction. Missile, cast a fireball, big and high as you can, into the air. Now!”

Missile sat, pointing his nose in the air, and barked a single, impossibly-loud yap, the fireball shooting into the air like a firework a moment after. A few of the soldiers screamed and cowered, throwing their hands over their faces, then looked foolish as the adjutant, standing calmly, pointed his hand at their location. Acacia’s head whipped toward them, and Lynne yelled, “Run!”

They bolted for the edge of the city, running again from the Guardian, who strolled toward them at a steady pace, soldiers pouring after him, his strange metal apparatus flating behind. There was no shaky ductwork or spells to save them this time, only the hope that Memry had seen the signal and would come for them. Their footsteps pounded over pavement, slowly giving way to loose and treacherous cobbles, then grass.

Alma didn’t dare look around as her heart pounded in her chest and she ran pell-mell, ignoring the incipient stitch in her side. Lynne ran ahead, and Missile, true to his name, had shot forward like a rocket. Was Acacia behind her? Was the Guardian? Or his soldiers? All she could do was keep moving, Cabanela’s last sanely given advice to her thrumming in her ears. No more standing around, he’d said, and this certainly wasn’t that. This was the time to go and no looking back.

The throbbing rotation of the airship blades above her broke Alma out of her breathless flight. Memry had thrown down a rope, and it dragged just in front and above Alma, who reached out, her fingers falling just short as she jumped, stumbling and catching herself to keep running. Were those hands she felt, reaching to grab her? She put on a burst of speed, managing to get a rung and climb. She felt someone just behind her and kicked back, but stopped herself just before kicking Acacia in the face and off the rope.

“Lynne, grab Missile!” Alma screamed, not knowing if they could even hear her as she climbed as fast as possible to the deck, drawing the rope and Acacia’s lighter, still-climbing weight as quickly as possible after her to throw it down for them as Memry steered, her face sharp with concentration as she focused on a dangerous low hover at quarter speed. Alma dared a look – the adjutant had dropped the easy stroll and was unerringly homing in on Lynne. They weren’t going to make it. Alma’s hands worked faster, gathering coils of rope and throwing, heedless of rope burns or splinters that may ensue. Behind her, Acacia had recovered from the climb and shot crossbow bolt after bolt at the adjutant. They didn’t seem to slow him down as they clattered and bounced off his softly-gleaming blued metal skin. It glared in the morning sun. It looked like death coming for them.

Lynne screamed something Alma couldn’t hear and began to rise in the air, the spell, which she must be sharing with Cait Sissel, floating her to safety. The adjutant slammed forward, but Lynne had Missile in one hand and the rope in the other and Alma pulled, Lynne’s magically decreased weight causing her to fly upward. The adjutant reached out, grabbing the rope just it was almost out of his reach, and stopped dead. His weight slowed the airship’s forward momentum just enough and the rope snapped tight, nearly throwing Lynne and Missile off, but Lynne’s reflexes saved them at the last moment and she let go, hopping lightly off the rope and onto the deck.

The Guardian began pulling the rope back toward him, the airship engines straining against the magitek muscles of his arms. At the same, the wail of an air siren arose, and the cranes they’d seen earlier at the top of the palace came to a mimicry of attention, their booms rising above the city and their long latticed jibs with their claws meant for rending and tearing swinging around to catch the airship. With the airship’s momentum slowed, they were in easy reach of the massive magitek apparatus. With a cry, Acacia drew her small belt-knife and started for the rope, but Alma drew her sword and severed it with one mighty swing. The airship began to pick up speed, but the damage was done. The cranes had grabbed them in a pincer attack, and they were dead in the air if they couldn’t fight them off. Below, the Guardian had used his strange apparatus to cast his own float spell and began to float upward.

Alma ordered, “Take out the cranes first and then we have to go! Memry, we need your help!”

Memry skidded to a stop next to them, having already set the autopilot to keep trying to fly on as soon as the cranes let go. “Where’s Cabanela?”

“Talk later!” Alma said, her face fierce as she prepared an attack at the crane on the port side of the Ladybird.

With a shudder and a jolt, the cranes let go, juddering in their seats as a lightning bolt from nowhere arced from the sky, landing in the midst of the same machinery that had supported the elevator from which they’d fallen earlier, attacking the same crane which Alma had just sliced with her sword. The cranes creaked and groaned, their precarious and evidently too-rapidly repaired infrastructure faltering, and a mechanical voice chimed, “THERMAL REACTION TRIGGERED. UNLEASHING THERMAL ENERGY.

Bolts fell all around the ziggurat’s roof, and in the blinding, glaring flash, they could just see a figure standing tall and proud. As the sound of the thunder quieted, he mouthed something she couldn’t hear and gestured to her. She knew that gesture. “Play along.” Or in other words, along with his mouthed speech, “Trust me.”

The Guardian was coming. The cranes had ceased their barrage on the palace roof and were beginning to swing back to the airship even as another siren arose from the beleaguered city and an enormous monster burst from the mine entrance, howling defiance and rage. Cabanela cast a glance at it, then fixed his eyes back on Alma. He made the gesture one more time, mouthed something else, and vanished, as if he had never been there in the first place. His long scarf, caught by the wind, flew free and was blown back and away by the wash of wind from the no-longer straining engines, zooming forward at full power now that the cranes had let go. The Guardian fell behind, left below to guard a city now empty of its quarry but very definitely full of angry monster of unknown origin, and Alma was left to stare at Vector and the spot where Cabanela had stood until both were out of sight.

Chapter Text

The engines sounded uglier than they had before the cranes had grabbed them, and the airship had long gouges in the wood and paint, but they were away. Alma let Memry’s angry, then worried fussing wash over her and away in the wind, just like the scarf she’d made for Cabanela. Gone, gone, gone again and back with more questions than when they’d landed. Let Lynne guard her and explain all to Memry. Alma needed a moment. She dropped to her knees on the deck, able at last to allow the strings holding her taut for so long to be cut and the tension to bleed free.

She looked at her hands, fists relaxing flat on the rough wood of the deck. Five fingers, five people. Jowd. Kamila. Lynne. Missile. And the thumb, the opposing force: she’d dithered about who that was meant to be. Was it herself she’d hoped to bring to home and peace? Was it Cabanela? Or was the thumb meant to remain a stand-in for all the promises broken between here and Figaro? She no longer knew what she’d intended. Her hard-won metaphor had been taken from her hands and cast adrift. Tap-tap-tap-tap. Four fingers. The thumb, opposed.

She sat back on her heels and drew her pack to her, reaching for the stained, threadworn clothes she’d stored for Cabanela, the ones that had felt like a link to Jowd. Beneath the ground-in dirt and scuffs, the pinkish smock’s stains looked like paint, a big blop of green slightly obscuring smaller dribbles of yellow. Some of the smock looked almost new, pristine and untouched. It had been a fine garment once, almost fit for a king. Wherever the innkeeper Lynne had stolen this smock from had gotten this garment, it did indeed feel like something Jowd would have worn. Its small weight in her arms felt comforting. It was a link to Jowd, but now it was also a link to Cabanela. She had to decide if that link was one she would allow herself to keep.

“Trust me.” And how was she to do that, with what she’d seen and heard? That he could even still ask bespoke an audacity even madder than the rage she’d seen in his eyes down in the room of masks, but he'd mouthed the words at her, unforgettable, unmistakable. The drift of song floated in her raging mind, quieting her thoughts until it was all she could hear.  “Per sempre ognor…”

“Qui a me, t'attenderò…” she murmured, finishing the song. Cabanela wasn’t the only one who could take meaning from those words. And yet, she hadn’t waited, and he hadn’t tried to ask her to. She ran the smock through her fingers, noted how the fine-woven thread caught the rough calluses from the sword, won through hours of training and combat. These weren’t the hands of a royal lady, pampered and preening. These were the hands of a warrior. They were the hands of one who had been waiting for far too long. Not idle while she waited, but in need of a better purpose.

Memry finished giving the hasty course of how to fly the Ladybird to Acacia, evidently having decided she was more likely than Lynne in this hard moment to keep a steady course, and came to kneel next to Alma as Acacia took the helm toward Zozo.

“Lynne told me what happened. I’ll take you to Thamasa whenever you want to go,” said Memry. “I can get you places at least.” She reached out an awkward hand to pat Alma’s shoulder. “I guess I’m staying your course for now.”

“That’s a step forward. Thank you,” Alma said. She gave Memry a small smile, tight and strange on her frozen face but the best she could offer. “I need my daughter with me.”

Memry sat with a thump on the deck, leaning back so she could look into the sky.

“You know, that guy always figures out a way to come out spotless. He will this time too.”

“Maybe that’s what I’m afraid of,” Alma murmured, her voice as soft as Cabanela’s eyes when he’d looked up at her from the palace. “Maybe his version of spotless now is so dark you can’t see the stains anymore.”

Lynne sat on Alma’s other side, Missile crawling over her and spreading out so he could be on both her and Alma’s lap, where the forgotten smock still lay. He laid his head on his paws, and his nose quivered as he took in its scent. Alma put her hand gently on his head, scratching his ears.

“Mister Cabanela and Mister King will find us. Don’t be afraid, Miss Alma,” Missile said, eyes closed. “I keep telling you that.”

“I know Missile. I’ll try.” Alma, at last, let the tears fall as the ship flew further, slipping through the atmosphere far and farther away from the embattled Imperial city. They were safe. She could let down the walls of royalty for this moment and remember to be merely human once more. If only being human didn’t hurt so much, it would have been cathartic. For now, it merely felt like a wound, draining and draining but without the ability to heal.

Lynne let her cry for a moment, then pulled out the Espers, one by one, and let them float free in a circle around them. “You’re all still with us? We’ll take you wherever you want to go if you’d rather not stay.”

Cait Sissel spoke, her voice sounding as one who’d been woken from deep sleep too soon. “He calls my name in blue…over the sea, and I can only answer… and where my candle lies… I can not say… he is bathed in flame and deep in darkness…”

“She’s been in thrall to that relic for too long, we think,” Ifrit said, his voice grim. “It’s not something that should have been in human hands.”

“Will getting her back to Sissel help?”

“We don’t know,” Shiva said. “We hope so.”

“You seem…better. More together.” Alma said, wiping her eyes.

“We’ve spoken,” they said together.

We have much to say and many things to forgive each other,” Shiva added, “but we shall not burden you with that when you have much else on your minds.”

“Suffice it to say that all of us here are in one accord. We shall help you until there is no need of us. There are still those we love back there. Phantom.” Seraph’s voice wavered, then firmed. “They weren’t with the Doctor, there at the end. There’s a truth there, with a lie at its heart. That man called Cabanela is not who he seems, but we don’t understand the nature of him.”

“You’re not the first nor the last to say that,” Memry said drily. She put a comradely arm across Alma’s shoulders and gripped Lynne’s. Lynne, after an instant of hesitation, reciprocated the gesture, and the three women sat together in a huddled mass, watching the sky.

Alma leaned her head back too, staring into the expanse above as the tears dried. The sky was brilliant blue, the sun strong and clear away from the haze of Vector. Blue and gold, Figaro’s colors. An omen? She had to hope so. They flew from one quarry to find another and she could not fail this time. There were no answers behind, not now. There was nothing mooring her but her quest.

The engines thrummed beneath her. They too were reminiscent of Figaro, but they carried her away and she had to be grateful for it. She had stayed there, afraid to move, for five long years. It was as much as her kingdom as Jowd’s now, but until she brought home its king and its princess, she would take up the mantle Cabanela had lost or relinquished, and keep moving, for the man in her memory’s sake. She swore it to herself here and now. Jowd. Kamila. Lynne. Missile. Cidgeon, if he was Jowd’s savior. For lost Cabanela, for herself, they had to come back to Figaro, all together, or she would not go back either. She could bear to lose no more of her family. Until they were all together once again, then the quest itself had to be where she lived. Until they were all together, Figaro itself was nothing like home.