The Twentieth Chapter - Outbreak
Edgar frowned. "Excuse me?"
The old soldier prodded his hat ever so slightly upward, revealing a pair of strained eyes. "I'm afraid that I just received orders that no one -- not even Your Highness -- may leave the premises," he answered.
"This is outrageous!" Edgar gestured towards the tall, iron gates of the Mansfield residence. "I refuse to be treated like a prisoner and demand an explanation."
A half-hearted shrug was the only response Edgar received. Long since dulled to the resentment of pompous nobility, the guard turned back to his view of the city, relaxing against walls of solid stone and returning to his statue-like role.
Edgar stormed back to the Duke's estate. First the Empress had kept them waiting for days even after they arrived in Mansfield, then their meeting had been cancelled until further notice. Now, his access to the city was being revoked. It was infuriating! Their excuses were benign and while Banon had counselled against action -- it would make them seem rather petty -- Edgar swore there was some manner of maliciousness involved.
Well-maintained cobblestone led to a great mansion -- worthy of a family who had founded one of the core cities of the Empire -- but Edgar had seen better in his lifetime and was thoroughly unimpressed. He passed the courtyard and its vast gardens, waited for a servant to open a pair of finely carved wooden doors, and entered the Duke's house. He waved at Banon and Strago, the pair were busying themselves with the Duke's selection of fine books.
Led by the sound of victorious cries and desperate panting, Edgar waltzed into a large, open chamber whose periphery was decorated with the weapons of the ages. Many were historical artifacts, an extensive collection of blades, polearms, shields and bows; Edgar had been hard-pressed to find even a single weapon of war that the Mansfields had not owned.
Aside from the latest advancements from Narshe, of course.
In the centre of the room, Cyan was sparring with one of Charles Mansfield's guards. Edgar recognized the stout soldier as the Captain, but even the leader of Mansfield's personal escort was unable to land a blow on the Knight of Doma. The two men were fencing -- a gentleman's sport -- and while steel tips were a blur between them and their footwork almost a sprint, Edgar noted with a sly smile that Cyan was not even sweating.
The Duke of Mansfield hovered over the edge of his seat with a childlike glimmer in his eyes. He shot to his feet and applauded fiercely when Cyan scored the third and final point of the match.
"Lord Mansfield," Edgar said as he joined in the applause.
"King Edgar!" Charles had a lop-sided, goofy grin on his face. "Sir Cyan is an incredible swordsman! Not since the days of my youth have I been so thoroughly impressed by any warrior. He has defeated every single one of my guards, and I would like to think that I employ only the finest."
Edgar chuckled politely. "And the rapier is not even his preferred blade."
"The knowledge of which only stokes my hunger!" Charles declared. "But I take it you are not here to watch your comrade trounce my personal escort?"
"That is most perceptive of your Lordship," Edgar acknowledged. A stinging rebuke was on the tip of his tongue just as Cyan neared.
"Sir Cyan! That was wonderful," Charles commended. "I must ask: would you do my humble servants a favour and teach them why exactly they were so easily defeated? It would bolster my confidence in these guards; their competence is rather suspect at the moment."
Cyan laughed equally politely; he was no stranger to nobles and their ilk. "As a personal favour to your Lordship, I would be delighted to assist."
Charles shook Cyan's hand. "I shall speak with the Captain, please excuse this interruption," he quickly scurried off.
"Seems he likes you," Edgar remarked.
"If either of us were worthy of such a statement, surely it is not I," Cyan remarked in a low, almost-snidely tone.
Edgar snorted. "Someone has to do it, and he's an interesting man."
"Nobles are manipulative individuals, it is hereditary. But I suppose it is hardly necessary to remind thee of vigilance."
"But you just did," Edgar winked.
Charles returned at that point. "Please," he gestured to the Captain standing dejectedly off to the side.
"With pleasure," Cyan said. "Your Lordship, King Edgar," he excused himself and stalked towards his latest student.
"I apologize for the interruption; I couldn't let such an opportunity slide. Please, you were saying?"
"No harm was done," Edgar waved aside the insignificant slight. "I was intending to investigate the commotion in the town square when I was turned away by your guards at the gate. Most peculiar behaviour, I'd say."
Charles immediately lost his good cheer. "So it is that. I had hoped you were objecting to feasting on duck again."
Edgar patted his stomach. "Your chefs are quite skilled, but I would deem such a squabble unworthy of either of our attentions."
Charles nodded. He gestured to one of his aides. "Two glasses," he commanded before turning his attention to serious matters. "I'm afraid, King Edgar, that you are not the only person unable to leave my humble estate. I am also a prisoner in my own house."
That was an unexpected revelation. Edgar kept the surprise off his face, thanking Charles' servant for the glass of red wine instead. "I must admit that was not the answer I expected, much less desired," he said before taking a sip.
Charles swirled the wine in his goblet. "Please, let us breathe some fresher air."
The two noblemen strolled through the vast corridors of the Mansfield household, up several flights of stairs and at last to a balcony overlooking the expanse that was the city of Mansfield. The house was mostly bare and empty; a lasting reminder of the Civil War. Anson Tilton, the Emperor at that time, had taken a page out of the darkest annals of history by proscribing his political foes. That their fortunes were plundered and their estates ransacked had been the least of the nobility's worries. Charles was the last of his family now, the rest were missing at best.
Edgar could only imagine the political chaos within the Empire at the moment. A new soldier-Empress, a government that composed of many that had recently opposed her, nobles still reeling from innumerable personal losses, in addition to all the instability caused by civil war. It was amazing that the Empire had even managed to reunite.
No amount of military force, not even the Empire's vast armies, could keep the peace amongst so many people. That the current Triskele Rebellion was the first of its kind suggested that Danielle had done well reuniting not just the military, but the people as well. In a conversation between himself and the Duke of Mansfield, Edgar recalled that Danielle had been quite forgiving after her coronation; her greatest political enemy, Anson Tilton, had been allowed to keep all his authority!
Edgar could see the brilliance behind such action, but only as long as Anson was truly loyal. That was unlikely, and the King of Figaro planned to widen whatever rift was already between those two.
Charles took a deep breath of the fresh, spring breeze. The Mansfield house sat atop a hill, and they were at the tallest point of that building, so their view was nothing less than spectacular. Edgar's eyes narrowed when he saw the masses of people gathered around the town square. They seemed to form a carpet that spread throughout the city, hundreds of thousands in the streets upon their knees. They were chanting something that Edgar could not make out; instead it was constant low rumble.
"Even here, in the city that my forefathers built," Charles said grimly as he watched the scene.
Edgar frowned. "What's going on? Why are so many people gathered on the streets like this? Don't they work?"
"That they do," Charles agreed. "But today is special and while I disapprove, I find myself powerless to prevent it."
"What exactly is this? It can't be commonplace."
"Indeed," Charles gestured towards the centre of his city. "Do you see that: the white figure towering over the rest?"
Edgar narrowed his eyes. "A statue?"
"Yes, do you remember seeing it during the tour of my city?"
He swirled the wine in his goblet from side to side. At last, he remembered. "I do believe it was a bust of the First Citizen, Anson Tilton."
"Your memory is impeccable," Charles acknowledged. "This-" he made a wide sweeping gesture, "-is a vigil for him."
"First Citizen Anson Tilton is dead," Charles stated blankly. "He was murdered in the recent, vicious attack on the Imperial Palace by the Maverick's barbarians."
Edgar's eyes went wide. "What?"
"Indeed," Charles shook his head. "They snuck into the palace past those defending the capital like the cowardly dogs they are."
"Barbarians," Edgar agreed, shaking away the irony.
"These are dark times. I admit that despite our past disagreements, I have grudgingly grown to respect the man over these last few months. Mister Tilton was an intelligent, skillful administrator of whom the Empire will sorely miss. Without him and his gaggle of scholars, I doubt that the Empire could have regained even a tenth of her glory after the Empress took the throne. His loss has diminished us all."
Edgar rubbed his eyes in frustration. When he had first heard that Danielle allowed Anson to serve as her head administrator and de-facto civilian leader, it had been a miracle. It would not have been difficult to play the two off each other, achieving a permanent split between the military and the civilian leadership and perhaps weaken the Empire so that it could never go on the offensive again.
That had been a fantasy, but some of it might have been achievable. Not anymore though.
"This is terrible," Edgar whispered honestly.
Charles agreed, but not for the same reason. "If only I had pushed the late-Governor to continue his campaign beyond Actarian Bay, perhaps the Maverick might have been killed before the winter solstice. Instead he has struck twice at the heart of the Empire, that treacherous bastard!"
"How many have been lost?" Edgar asked. Terra and Locke were in Vector, were they not? He remembered Terrance had told him so.
"No one knows. But while detailed reports are still in writing, I doubt anyone else of prominence was murdered. Bad news has a way of travelling on its own."
Edgar shook his head in grim understanding. He hoped that Terra and Locke were safe, but did not wish to play his hand yet. "I suppose the additional security at the gates is for our own safety?" he turned back to the original subject. "Riots must be a great fear."
"It is an unintended benefit... King Edgar, I will be frank with you. I feel we are kindred spirits and though we are separated by a generation, our hopes and dreams are the same. I have worked tirelessly to protect my homeland from enemies, both foreign and domestic. I know you share a similar passion."
"We have a responsibility, Lord Mansfield," Edgar answered. "Many of noble birth believe in entitlement, that their upbringing binds their subjects to serve their will. Though that is true, it is hardly the entire truth. It is we who serve the people; men of power protecting those who cannot protect themselves."
"Well said!" Charles agreed. "Despite the fact that our homelands are not the same, our common nature cannot be denied. For that reason, I do believe you deserve to be notified of the coming storm," Charles turned to meet Edgar's gaze, the two noblemen judging each other's honesty and trustworthiness.
"And what is that?" Edgar asked, watching the gathering of thousands out of the corner of his eye.
"There are rumours -- dangerous rumours -- that something horrible is happening in Vector," Charles' voice dropped to a whisper. "They say the barbarian did not attack for the First Citizen but for a darker reason. My friends tell me that this-" he stressed the last word, "-is the reason why the Empress cannot be found, why her escort has disappeared and none know her location. The Empress is no coward. Yet she is giving orders from behind a curtain of deception."
Edgar's lips mashed against each other. "What is this danger?"
Charles looked around as if he expected anyone would be listening to them. None were, of course. "A plague," his voice was barely a whisper now. "A magical plague."
Shivers travelled down Edgar's spine. "Impossible," he whispered.
"My men are already preparing for our departure. You will come with us," Charles said. He gulped down the remainder of his wine. "We leave tonight."
"Lord Mansfield, are you sure?"
"No," Charles shook his head. "But I will not take the risk; I have seen what an outbreak of deadly malaise can do to a city; nine out every ten dead, corpses rotting upon the streets while those living are choked by the decay of the departed. I remember before the trains -- before quick transportation became commonplace -- and how quickly disease could travel. Now, with the advent of technology..." Charles fell silent.
Edgar had also dealt with such disaster before. A memory of the past returned, of a town stricken by a rotting disease in the remotest region of his Kingdom. He recalled the stench of death, a scene that rivalled even those of war. It had taken years before a cure could be developed, and even then it only worked if the disease had been caught in its earliest of stages.
That a plague could be magical...
"One does not live as long as I have and ignore the advice of his friends," Charles said at last. "Though I do not have solid proof, what I do know is that an incurable poison was used by the barbarian, striking down many in Vector. Those who did not die quick were sapped of life slowly and painfully. Now, scant days later, many are growing sick from disease without rhyme or reason. Not just the commoner, but those in high places. It is clear to me that this poison is spreading like a disease."
Charles' gestured to the west. "Vector is already contaminated and I fear a plague carrier will come here as well."
"An incurable poison that spreads?" Edgar couldn't believe it. He had encountered many wasting diseases in his life, and none had been incurable. "Even if it's not just a coincidence, surely Imperial Magi-Technology-"
"Not even the First Citizen has found a cure," Charles said meaningfully. "I will not risk it! We will leave tonight for the safety of the highlands. Do not worry, I will ensure that the Empress can contact you when the time is right. I give you my word on that."
Edgar nodded. "Very well-" he blinked. "Wait, First Citizen?" he echoed. "Anson Tilton is dead."
Charles glared at Edgar as if the answer was obvious. "Of course Mister Tilton is dead. But the Empress created his post because she did not have the time to keep control of the fractured armies and still lead the common man. That has not changed, and the Empress has wisely selected another First Citizen."
There was a palpable, growing sound of pride in his voice that Edgar caught. "Should I already know him?" he asked.
"Her," Charles corrected. "She is known by many titles, but you would know her as Lady Terra Branford."
Edgar's wine glass shattered on the stone balcony.
It was another riot.
Locke Cole averted his eyes, drew his hood over his head, and turned at the nearest corner. His feet quickened their pace upon dark-stone roads; what trail he left behind was washed away by the pouring rain.
A trio of Imperial guards stormed past him, giving him wide-berth as he was dressed like a fellow soldier. Their quarterstaffs were out, ready to take control of yet another mindless crowd, but their faces told the real story. Their heads were bowed and their eyes lacked spirit. They were on a futile quest, the instigators would escape easily but even if they were caught, every prison was already overflowing with their kind.
Their words were too seductive, their ideas too well-grounded in reality. If this riot was smothered, another would flare up within the hour.
His arm ached as he threw a flimsy wooden door aside, the secretary inside protesting his rude intrusion. One look at his uniform would have sent the girl scurrying back into her ledgers, but that was unnecessary. Her face went white when she recognized who he was.
Locke paid her as little attention as he had the lawless crowd. Stairs groaned from his angry footsteps, his bruised ribs pulsed in pain, and he paused in front of a familiar door.
He took a deep breath.
Inside was what was considered luxury for an injured man. His own private room with a window to the outside world, a soft bed and flowers upon a nightstand. Unread books lay in a pile beside the colourful arrangement of lilies, roses, and several more varieties that Locke didn't recognize. A fresh scent lingered in the room, covering the lifeless smell of cleaning agents.
Norris sat in an old wooden wicker chair. His beard needed a trim, bags were beneath the eyes. The old Colonel looked like the sleep-deprived officer he was. Locke could probably count the number of hours the Magitek Knight had slept. After all, he was the one that kept Norris up.
Locke signalled the old man. Once, twice, at last Norris replied with a shake of the head.
No? No?! Why?
Terra sat on a stool beside the bed, dressed modestly to avoid attracting attention. Her grey hair was drawn back into a ponytail, a clean white coat borrowed from the doctors draped over the shoulders. She looked even more exerted than Norris. Had one been far enough away to overlook the old Magitek Knight's wrinkles, Terra might have seemed the eldest.
Not that she looked the worst. Sherwood lay upon two pillows, back raised so that he could speak freely with his guests. His gaunt, wrinkled face turned to the newcomer.
Two weeks. Most had barely lasted one.
"Locke," Sherwood's voice was strong, even if the rest of him was not.
Locke forced a smile. "I found some for you," he said as he pulled out the flowers wrapped protectively underneath his cloak. "The florist guaranteed me they're from Tzen."
Sherwood smiled. "They smell right."
"Good!" Locke said with fake cheer. He slipped the star-shaped yellow flowers into the vase and tossed the rest aside.
Terra stood. Her deep blue eyes made contact with Locke.
Locke's smile quivered.
She shook her head slowly.
That was why Norris said no. Locke sighed, his strength ebbing away as he did so.
Norris stood as well. His smile seemed genuine. "Sherwood. I'm afraid I can't keep you company any longer. You know how it is, the Empress wants this, the Empress wants that. Report on this, research some of that. They never give us anytime to lie down and sleep."
Sherwood nodded. "Of course, Colonel. Thank you for coming."
Norris chuckled. "Let me know if you need anything else, alright?"
As the Magitek Knight strode out of the room, Terra glanced from Locke to Sherwood apprehensively. "I should go as well," she excused herself. "Knowing how things are these days, there's probably already a crisis that's already getting out of hand."
Sherwood smiled. "Thank you, First Citizen, for everything."
"For you, Sherwood, it'll always be Terra."
"Of course, Terra."
The two magic-users left the pair alone. Locke found himself staring out the window, at the rain that fell relentlessly upon the urban sprawl of Vector. The sound of droplets softly tapping against the glass was the only sound in the hospital room; the rioters and their cries for vengeance were thankfully unheard.
Locke's breathing was forcefully slow, taking in the sweet scent of Tzen-grown flowers.
It was a comfortable silence. The two men relaxed in each other's presence, truly safe-guarded from the rest of the dark world for the first time in years. Locke pulled Norris' wicker chair to Sherwood's bedside and sat down, inclined to bask in the tranquil environment.
Time passed until the rain lightened up.
"Sherwood," Locke began. His forced smile was long since gone.
The Imperial archer's eyes had been half-open. With a flicker, they became alert once more. "Yeah?"
Locke's finger idly scratched the side of his knee. "I-" he frowned. "I want to apologize."
"No, hear me out," Locke's fingers dug into the fabric of his pants. "A lot has passed since Gwendolen Ford. You lost a good friend there who gave his life doing what I should have been doing. You never held that against me. Even afterwards, you still helped me out. You taught me the tricks of the trade and not once did I ever even thank you."
Sherwood stayed silent.
"I owe you so much," Locke mumbled. "You made it possible for a naive, immature child like me to keep a promise that he could never have kept alone."
"You're being too hard on yourself," Sherwood said with his eyes closed. "You never needed me."
Locke glanced up at his friend. "Maybe. But you did help me keep a promise." Silence again when Locke expected a response. He took a deep breath and continued.
"I want to tell you about someone who meant a great deal to me."
Sherwood's eyes opened. "Locke, you don't have to."
"I want to. I need to tell someone."
Sherwood snorted. "We've known each other for a while now, worked close enough that I swear we almost think the same. Do you really think I don't already know? I mean, be honest here. You already know what happened to me."
Locke nodded slowly. "You grew up in Tzen. I can guess."
"First my family. Then later, my sister."
Locke swallowed back the bile in his throat. "That was different. That wasn't your fault."
"And you? Don't delude yourself. You're not that important."
Locke blinked away the wetness in his eyes. "Perhaps."
"We were going to marry."
"At least you had that going for you."
Locke smiled briefly. The two men grew silent once again, the only sound in the room were their breaths. Light rain rapped against the windows. At last, he found the courage to say it out loud.
"Her name was Rachel."
It seemed to catch Sherwood by surprise and for a moment, the two men saw clear through the other. Their souls were laid bare, unguarded for the first time in years.
"Amy," he answered with a pained expression.
"She forgives you," Locke remarked. "Everyone can find forgiveness."
"I know," his pale lips replied, but the downtrodden expression remained.
Locke understood. Because even knowing that, it didn't make things any easier. He sighed. "When you see her, tell Rachel I'm sorry."
Sherwood grinned back. "She knows."
"Yeah, but it's just good manners," Locke answered with a cocky grin.
They shared a laugh, the strain of the moment passing by as both finally accepted what was going to happen. Outside, the sun broke through the clouds and illuminated the wet, sparkling metropolis of the Imperial Capital. Light flooded into their room and the arrangement of flowers seemed to grow taller, their colours more vibrant and their scent ever sweeter.
Locke patted his friend on the shoulder. A light, contented smile rested on his face.
"I won't let what we've done go to waste."
Sherwood closed his eyes one last time.
And the two men were silent from then on.
Terra was waiting for him outside, leaning against the wall sombrely. She snapped upright when Locke exited, closing the door with a quiet click. "I wasn't listening," she excused herself nervously. But that awkwardness faded away when she saw the smile on his face.
"It doesn't really matter," Locke answered. "I'm not embarrassed. Now where's the Colonel?"
"He went to get some water," Terra licked her dry lips. "I don't think he's slept at all in the last four days," she explained. "He's been under a lot of stress."
Terra looked him up and down, amazed that he was so composed. The words she had practiced seemed inadequate for such a moment. "Locke, I'm sorry about Sherwood," she stated blankly. She knew better than anyone that there was no hope.
Locke's hands gingerly rested on her shoulders. "I know you tried your best," he replied. "I'm really thankful you tried as hard as you did."
"I know you and him were good friends, and I wish-" Terra gasped as he drew her in, embracing her delicately.
"It's alright Terra, you did everything you could." His breath was warm and soft against her ear. Her back tingled, but she didn't break away. It was so comforting, she thought as she closed her eyes and relaxed.
"I'm sorry about Anson as well. I couldn't save him in time."
Terra blinked repeatedly, fighting away tears as that memory resurfaced. It had been barely two weeks since the Imperial Palace had been attacked, not nearly enough time for her to bury his memory and accept such a loss. She could still feel his warm blood on her hands, still seen the crimson stains upon her clothes.
Her chest heaved painfully and she laid her head against his warm shoulder.
"I'm sorry," Locke chided himself. "I shouldn't have brought it up."
Terra gritted her teeth and willed the tears away. She pulled back and shook her head. "No, it's alright," she said as she wiped her eyes. "It's been half a month, I should be over it."
Locke's silence bothered her and she glanced up to meet his deep, brown eyes.
"It wasn't your fault," he consoled.
"There were a lot of mistakes and plenty of blame to pass around. No single person can be held responsible for that disaster," Terra stated politically.
Locke eyed her suspiciously. It made her uncomfortable, for some reason it felt like he knew she was lying. "Anyhow," she quickly continued. "General Donner has already paid for his error in judgment, as did every single traitor and the barbarians themselves. The only thing I regret is that they died before they could be tried in the courts and executed in front cheering crowds."
Terra leaned against the white walls, turning her back to Locke for a moment and hoping that he wouldn't think anything of it. She quickly composed herself once more, taking deep breaths and calming herself down.
When she turned back, Locke had taken a seat beside the door. Only a few days ago, an armed guard had been standing before Sherwood's room at all times. Now it was hardly necessary. "What's it like in the Palace?" he asked.
Terra sighed. "Chaos. Everyone's in a state of shock," she shook her head dejectedly. "I should have known. Every time we met them, every indication that I ignored; they kept improving their magic, advancing their stealth spells continuously, refining their technique until I could barely keep up. Yet I still didn't realize it."
"It's not your fault," Locke said as he stood up. "You couldn't have possibly guessed that they would be able to attack the Imperial Palace!"
"No, I couldn't," Terra admitted. "That aide of Donner's who switched the Imperial Guardsmen was just the tip of things; with each passing day new facts shed light on the mystery surrounding the attack."
She glared at him.
"But I don't need to tell you that."
Locke swallowed visibly; he was never very good at lying to her face and they both knew it. But fortunately, he was saved by the arrival of Norris.
"I just doubled-checked with the men, it seems like they have no idea what the instruments are," Norris rubbed his bloodshot eyes. "Locke, we're going now."
"Going where?" Terra snapped. She had known Locke was up to something, but had no idea that Norris had been the mastermind. The Colonel had been the highest-ranking officer in Vector after the Guild's attack. Forced to take command, he was so busy keeping control of the garrison that she didn't think he had the time to scheme behind her back.
"Downtown," Norris began. Locke made gestures that he probably thought were secretive, but they were apparent to Terra and Norris ignored him anyways. "We have a lead on what Corian did during the day and considering this one is a witness, it's possible he's also affiliated with the Guild. We need to take proper precautions."
Terra narrowed her eyes. "Who's Corian? And are you telling me the Guild is still in Vector?"
Norris glanced over at Locke who cleared his throat awkwardly. "This is an ongoing investigation of one of the Guild Members that masterminded the entire plan. This one man links together many of the traitors your people have uncovered, including the guard who stabbed you. I believe it may lead to some new revelations about the Shroud."
The Shroud, Terra felt her blood boil as she thought of suffocating aura. She levelled a deadly glare at Locke. "Do you remember a girl by the name of Anna?"
Locke looked insulted by her insinuation. "Of course I would remember her!" he answered indignantly as he pulled back the sleeves of his cloak. "Her blood ran down these arms!"
"Well," Terra pulled her own sleeves back and revealed the carefully hidden bandages beneath. "We have something new in common. So don't ever leave me out again! I want to know the moment either of you find out anything."
"Of course, Sophis," Norris quickly answered for both of them. "Locke, I expect you within the hour. Hopefully this isn't another waste of time," he grumbled as he left.
Locke saluted while Terra glared on.
"I would have told you eventually," he grumbled. "I just didn't think you needed to know-"
"That you were chasing Magitek Knights on your own?"
"Not everyone in the Guild is a Magitek Knight, or a warrior for that matter," Locke mumbled. "I can handle it."
Terra sighed. "Just make sure to tell Norris everything, I trust his judgment more than I would trust my own. It was his instincts that led to these quarantine procedures."
"Yeah, like they really help. Not a single new case and riots everywhere. Great job there."
Terra turned around and where she expected malice, she saw only disappointment. "We... we can't be sure whether the toxin is infectious yet. Norris' experience with diseases like this tells him that it could be another whole week before symptoms show."
Locke sighed. "I know, I just... I thought if we could bring those doctors from outside Vector..."
"It's been eating at Norris as well," Terra explained to Locke's surprise. "He's a fighter, it's all he's ever known and it's all he can do. Experience from decades in the army led him to declare quarantine, but that doesn't mean he doesn't care. He's not a healer, but he tried to help Sherwood with every bit of energy left in that old body of his."
"I know," Locke answered. "Just like I know you feel responsible for the Guild's attack."
Terra opened her mouth, but no words came out. She shuddered as she thought of that day. At how they had invaded the center of the Empire. At how she had been powerless to stop them!
Locke gently touched her chin and she realized that she had been glaring at the floor with deadly intent. "I know you'll stop whatever the Guild has planned," he said. He gently rubbed the dark circles underneath her eyes. "I believe in you. I always have."
Terra smiled despite the severity of the situation.
"I said some terrible things that day in the middle of winter," Locke began.
"Funny," Terra guided his hand away from her cheek. "I don't remember any of it."
Locke's eyes were downcast. "I never meant to leave for so long. At first it was just a single day, but then they needed people at the base of the Dalziel Mountains, and then-"
Terra squeezed his hand. "It's alright Locke, I already know."
"Anthony's Pass? Oakham? Callaghan?"
Locke blinked in surprise. "How did you...?"
Terra peered at him playfully. "I'm Lady Terra, you silly fool."
They shared a private chuckle before Locke suddenly realized how they looked together. He pulled his hand back embarrassingly, clearing his throat and gesturing towards the stairs. "I should head out. Norris will need my help," was his excuse as he slipped past her.
Terra folded her arms. "You don't always have to run," she remarked to his retreating form.
"I'm not," he answered immediately. "But the world is too dangerous for me to idle; these last weeks made that evident. I made you a promise, Terra, and I intend on keeping it."
"There are always dangerous things out there. The world is a dark place."
"The coming weeks are going to be a tough struggle, I could use a close friend," Terra continued softly. "There will be a big meeting soon, between the Empress and all the high-ranking personnel throughout the Empire. I'll be there, of course, and I'd like it if you were there by my side."
"Well," Locke turned around slowly. "Who am I to refuse the First Citizen of the Empire?"
Terra scowled. "I didn't mean it like that."
"I know," Locke squeezed her hand. A light smile graced his visage. "I'd be delighted to stay, just for you."
It was raining when Edgar stepped out of the carriage. Mud splattered against his cape as his boots sank into the soggy ground. He glanced up at the grey skies, frowning at the unending storm. The wind blew open his cape and the rains were relentless, so thick that waves visiblyrippled across the ground.
A soldier snapped to attention when the newcomers arrived, face in awe as rainwater ran down the sides of his brown helmet. Strago had just stepped out of the carriage but not a single droplet hit the loremaster, instead they bent away mid-fall.
Escorted by three of his own blue-coated guards, Edgar quickly made his way up the stairs to an old castle. They were in the highlands near Sellenger, the majestic backdrop of the Dalziel Mountains hidden behind sheets of rain. Built in days long forgotten, the castle foundations had eroded over time and its walls overlooked a sheer precipice that dropped straight down into the forests below.
Imperial soldiers, brown leather weathering the storm far better than Edgar's wools and silks, stood guard all about the courtyard. Edgar could tell that the castle had been abandoned until just recently, likely chosen when news of the plague was revealed to the Empress. He returned the friendly smiles and waited.
Cyan and Arvis both dashed out of the rain and under the shelter of the castle. Banon had declined the invitation; he had fallen ill recently and that had been a fierce scare. However, it had just been a cold from their journey. Lord Mansfield had also declined. It was a military matter, he said, and his confidence in the Empress' abilities were justifiably strong.
That he would have no effect on the outcome was a disregarded point.
An escort of a dozen men awaited them in the entranceway of the castle. "King Edgar, you are expected," the captain of the squad announced. The gruff, battle-scarred but clean-shaven warrior wore gleaming chainmail without a helmet. He was not wet though, so Edgar instantly knew that this was a man detached from Danielle's personal guard.
They followed the Imperial soldiers through dark, neglected stone hallways and up several flights of stairs. The sound of the storm grew louder as they climbed and the reason became clear once they reached the top. An open balcony stretched its way around the periphery, the rain kept out by a sloping roof supported by stone pillars. There was a room in the centre, circular as well and guarded heavily by Imperial Knights. It was the only name Edgar could attach to such warriors, wearing plate armor and bearing shields and pikes. These were men that belonged on chocobos.
"Your guards will have to wait outside," the Captain of the Imperial soldiers pointed out.
Edgar nodded. "That's understandable."
Within the warm room was yet another circular table -- Edgar could only wonder if the symbolism has been intentional -- that was lit by strange looking lamps. Bathed in a warm yellow light, a number of grim-faced Imperial officers were silenced by the arrival of esteemed guests. None were wearing armor, so that was a good sign to start. Of course, there was steel enough just outside the door.
Many men and women sat at the center table, but most were seated along the stone walls. Amongst that crowd -- aides and staff most likely -- was a boy who looked quite out of place, surrounded by empty seats. He had neither the look of a servant nor the aura of authority that suggested he was in charge of anything.
Turning his attention to those in charge, Edgar counted a half-dozen officers with stars on their chests and a few with four bars instead. All were cleanly-shaven and wore freshly-ironed uniforms; this was not a rag-tag collection of commanders. Yet he did not recognize a single officer. No one remained from Gestahl's court.
With three stars upon both shoulders, Edgar found it rather telling that a woman outranked every single other officer. And sitting beside the current three-star general was a former one, her dark dress uniform only a departure from the rest due to its colour. She still wore the medals and rank bars of her former position, except there was an additional star upon her wide shoulder guards. Her long red-hair had been pulled back and she was watching Edgar intently.
"King Edgar," the Empress Danielle gestured at a seat that had been oddly empty beside her.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Edgar put on a restrained smile. He took his seat next to the Empress, eyes noting that Terrance Cassidy and more importantly, Farin Starson, were both absent.
Interesting. Then this was unlikely to be all of the Empire's high-ranking personnel.
"Empress," Edgar turned to Danielle and nodded respectfully. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched his friends settle along the outside, near the exit and facing the Empress. Arvis sat down hesitantly between Cyan and Strago.
"Thank you for coming to this Counsel, King Edgar," Danielle said. "I'm afraid that we're about to begin."
"Of course. That is understandable considering the severity of the situation."
Silence settled in, uncomfortable for Edgar though he certainly did not show it. His eyes drifted around the room as he judged the men of the Empire. All were battle-hardened with an aura of experience and authority, he had no doubt that the Civil War would have pruned away the undesirables. He compared it to Douglas' impressions of the Figarian Navy and frowned.
Suddenly, his eyes snapped to the centre of the table. For some reason, he felt something happening there. Yet he saw nothing on top of the bare, but finely lacquered, mahogany. Edgar's eyes drifted as he wondered why his attention had been drawn there.
Then a column of blue light erupted skyward. It shot all the way up to the ceiling, a pale azure glow that was just strong enough to be seen. The older, moustached man sitting across from Edgar looked distorted -- the light was subtly wavering.
Edgar's eyes grew wide as an image faded into existence, the figure of a woman that had been shrunk down. Despite the difference in size though, her eyes were somehow level with his as she stood upon the mahogany table with an inscrutable expression. She seemed to be made out of solid light, a spectrum of blue colours that resolved itself into one incredibly familiar face.
"Terra," Edgar muttered audibly.
Everyone's attention -- all save the Empress herself -- snapped to the King of Figaro, rebuking him for the breach in protocol. Terra's eyes flickered to him as well, clearly surprised by his presence before she composed herself again.
"Empress Danielle," she greeted respectfully.
"First Citizen Branford," Danielle's words were crisply spoken. "It appears the spell is successful. Congratulations."
"Thank you, Empress," Terra answered.
Norris and Locke exchanged brief looks as Terra stood between a trio of floating blue orbs. Sapphire shapes swirled over the surface of each sphere and released shimmering waves of energy, creating an illuminated plane of light at Terra's waist.
"I'm surprised it worked," Locke whispered. "That book looked like it was falling apart. Where did you find it again?"
Norris sighed. "The spell won't pick up our words unless we stand within the triangle created by those communication foci," he said loudly. "As for the book, I picked it out of the rubble back in winter. It was buried underneath a heap of ash in the library."
"So how do we-"
Norris closed his eyes and Locke's eyes began to drift. It felt like they were surrounded in a sea of haze.
"Cast it now," the old Magitek Knight commanded.
He must have been speaking to Terra, because Locke certainly did nothing. Yet the haze faded away and suddenly, they were surrounded military officers of all ages.
"Edgar!" Locke exclaimed in surprise. He spun around, picking out those that he recognized. Karen Alysworth was there as well, sitting next to Danielle. In the back, Locke noted that the boy from Anson's entourage was there, as were- "Arvis?" he echoed. That Cyan and Strago were with Edgar was not surprising, but his old friend from Narshe?
Norris raised an eyebrow. "My, what a collection of attitudes," he muttered. "For once I'm glad to be stuck in Vector."
"You know many of these officers?" Locke said, still wondering how it was that Arvis had made his way to the Imperial Counsel in Sellenger. Why were they there? And how? After all, they looked like invited guests.
"I do know them, yes," Norris strolled over to a particularly angry looking General sitting along the periphery. His hand swiped the image, passing through magic effortlessly. "Brigadier Falkland, 17th Division. Egotistical hardass," Norris growled. "He got a couple of the best ISF squads killed during the Doma War by sending them on hopeless rescue missions for downed pilots, apparently it never dawned on him that he might lose to the so-called uncivilized."
The Colonel pointed at another young man with a scar running across the top of his forehead. This one sat at the centre table. "Newly promoted-Brigadier Kinsley, 10th Division. Stubborn fool with little foresight, loyal enough to kill himself without question if so ordered."
Locke's eyes narrowed. He had known Norris long enough to tell that the Colonel was hiding something else. He might have sounded angry, but that was nothing more than a thin veil.
"Thank you, Empress," Terra raised her voice. She might have been ignoring them, but that didn't mean they weren't disturbing her.
"Believe me Locke," Norris said in a hushed tone. "You wouldn't want to even share a cup of tea with any of these officers." He took his seat, back facing the two men he just picked out.
"For someone who's been in the military as long as you have, I'd expect you to have some friends in high places," Locke noted.
"All the good people are dead," Norris whispered with haunted eyes. The wrinkles on his face were more pronounced than ever.
"What about Karen?"
Norris did not reply, instead concentrating on Terra's speech. A sigh left Locke's lips and with a lingering look of concern, he decided to let the matter drop. At least Terra was finally sharing the classified developments on the Plague.
"As everyone has feared," Terra began, "we have confirmed that this is indeed a Magical Plague. Anyone who still held out hoping that this was not the case should cast aside all doubts: the Maverick has unleashed a disease to threaten the entire world."
There was murmuring amongst the Imperials; they had all suspected, but confirmation that they were under attack by a magical disease was something wholly different.
"First Citizen," Danielle's voice silenced her subjects. "The recent sicknesses in Mansfield and Sellenger, can you confirm they are all of the same source?"
"We can," Terra answered. "The outbreak in Vector was not an isolated incident, though we have reason to believe that the source was the same in all cases. However, with the trains running again, transmission of the disease has spread at a rate that cannot be exaggerated enough. My scientists are still trying to sift through what information we have, but we cannot stop all the unwitting plague carriers until it's too late."
Swearing was accompanied by cries of horror, the Imperials were torn between anger and fear.
"Then the quarantine on Vector has failed," Danielle stated blankly.
"No," Terra refuted off-hand. There were some older generals who were surprised at such an answer, directly contradicting what the Empress said, and were aghast at the brazen attitude of the First Citizen.
"Please explain," Karen interjected on their behalf. "You must understand that the quarantine on Vector is a huge source of debate. We are actively turning away our own citizens, bringing arms to bear against those trying to leave. The riots are growing out of hand and Vector does not have the garrison to quell them. Home Division cannot be called upon as they remain plague-free, and thus we have been forced to deploy Armors. An incident is inevitable."
"I understand the concerns of the military but you must understand that while the people are afraid, we must continue to do our utmost to contain the infected areas," Terra answered. "We must assume the worst case as long as we don't fully understand the disease and in particular, its method of infection. It is whimsical in nature as all plagues are, but worsened evermore by the magic that created it. That the people-"
"You're saying this was created?" Danielle snapped angrily.
"That is the only conclusion we can draw," Terra responded. "The source has been confirmed to be a poisonous glaze, likely harmless unless it enters the bloodstream. The assault on the Imperial Palace was the main vector of infection in the Capital. We are certain that once in the blood, the disease manifests itself and begins to spread without fail."
"You are saying that the Maverick's attack on the Imperial Palace was done explicitly to poison our people, so that our efforts to save them will begin the spread of the plague?" Karen's mouth remained open in shock.
The scream of one irate, infuriated warrior pierced through the air and through the communication spell. All eyes turned to the man shaking with rage, his eyes blazing with fire and his chair knocked down by an explosion of unrestrained fury.
"Cyan!" Arvis was pulling on the sleeve of the Doma Knight.
"Despicable savage beasts!" Cyan screamed again. He was wrath incarnate, directed at none and actually shared by many of the Imperial officers present. His outburst would not be the last.
"Sir Cyan is correct," one of the generals at the table pointed out. "He is only saying what we are all thinking."
"Holding back in hopes of reconciliation was doomed from the start," another eloquently said. "These men might have once hailed from Vector, but they are truly Domus Proditor and should be treated as such."
Nods around the room as Arvis did his best to calm the knight beside him. The murmur of agreement continued until another of the many unnamed generals spoke up. "Once in the blood, how does it spread?" he asked.
Terra's calm attitude faltered for a moment. "We don't know. It could be restricted to touch, but it is more than likely airborne."
Locke subconsciously pulled his hands close.
"However, either case can be prevented so long as quarantine remains. None from a city known to be plague-stricken should travel anywhere else. The army must enforce this!" Terra growled. "That Colonel Ferdinand had the foresight to deploy the Imperial Guard and Home Division in this manner might have already saved thousands. If he had not done such a thing immediately following the attack on the capital, it would be impossible to ever contain the outbreak. At least now, we have a chance."
"What of efforts to detect the plague, or to cure it?" Karen asked.
Terra visibly swallowed. "Until symptoms show, we cannot detect the Plague. As for cures... they have all failed without a solution in sight. Magic and science are equally powerless."
Karen closed her eyes and rubbed her temples in frustration. She swore under her breath.
"First Citizen," Danielle's expression was devoid of sympathy. "Hundreds are becoming symptomatic in Vector everyday and that number will reach thousands within another two weeks. Cases are showing up throughout the Core, and if this pattern continues, all of the Empire will be infected. I have had enough," her hand slammed against the table.
"I want answers!" the Empress screamed.
Terra straightened, unflustered by Danielle's outburst. "Fire eliminates the disease, we have confirmed this. In addition, we are certain that the plague has an incubation period anywhere between four to fourteen days; though it's quite possible it could be hidden even longer than that. After this, early signs of the plague will show: shortness of breath, drying skin, weakening of the body and spirit-"
Norris rested his forehead against his arm, shuddering as Terra continued listing the ailments. Locke had been with the Colonel to see many of the afflicted. There had been thousands whose every breath was one step closer to death; thousands whose hopes for a cure were an unachievable dream. This was the way the Maverick worked. This was what the Guild sought.
The agonizing deaths of millions.
"-lesions and then the draining of life-force," Terra finally took a breath. "Premature aging is the last stage before the body fails. The Plague has been fatal without exception."
"How long?" Karen whispered.
"After the initial signs... two weeks at most, but the average has been four days."
"By the Goddesses," Danielle whispered as horrified looks spread throughout her ranks.
Locke shot to his feet and turned to the window outside for fresh air. He stared at the grey skies over the urban sprawl of Vector, listening to the familiar chanting just beyond the walls of the Imperial Palace. He found himself unable to find fault with the rioters, their hatred for magic was understandable. They screamed for blood, cursed the soldiers and demanded to see their rulers.
His eyes drifted back to Terra. He knew how tired she really was, despite the confident, unflustered act. If the people knew how hard she was trying, how she strained the limits of her abilities with each passing day, perhaps they would understand that there were two sides to magic.
The Plague could infect them at anytime, Terra more so because she was researching it daily. She was risking her life trying to find a cure.
He had to protect her, Locke gritted his teeth. Even against the unseen enemy, he had to protect her.
Edgar was speechless. Now he understood why Danielle would have invited them to this meeting. She wanted them to know what was happening, and she wanted them to know first-hand so that they could not accuse her of deception.
His eyes flickered to the faint blue image of Terra standing behind the old man -- a Colonel Norris Ferdinand -- and he shook his head in awe. First Citizen of the Empire indeed, Edgar had no idea what Terra had gone through, but no longer did he doubt the Duke of Mansfield's words.
First Citizen Terra Branford was no figurehead.
Her attitude was commanding, her authority undisputed. The teenaged girl Edgar had met in Castle Figaro was long since gone, she seemed like someone else entirely.
What had happened?
And now the Empire, teetering on the edge of another Civil War according to the words of Charles Mansfield, stricken by a magical plague created as a weapon? A deadly blade that could not be stopped, killing indiscriminately without any cure.
Edgar didn't blame Cyan for his anger; his own hands were shaking in fear. What if plague carriers fled to the Northern Continent? Two weeks for incubation, another two before they died...
Douglas had to know, immediately.
"-infiltration throughout the ranks." Norris answered.
"That's unbelievable," the three-star female general named Karen Alysworth growled. Edgar thought well of the woman, she seemed quite capable and intelligent, even showing sympathy at times. A rarity in the Imperial Armed Forces and especially important since at the moment, she was second only to Danielle.
"Many of those men were loyal to Anson to a fault," Karen continued. There was were scowls and grimaces amongst the officers. Edgar hid his own feelings of glee at how little the General cared for politics. "That they would betray him and Vector itself is ridiculous. Frankly, I find all of your observations suspect at the moment, Colonel. Perhaps the stress of the situation is affecting your judgement."
"Your suspicions are understandable, General Alysworth," strangely enough, Norris seemed to be prepared for her agitated response and took it in stride. "However, the evidence is undeniable and all conclusions have been verified."
Edgar watched as Terra faded away; there must have been some sort of range for the communication spell.
"Verified?" Karen echoed. "By what means? Last I remember, magic cannot tell truth from lie."
Norris straightened visibly. "The details of our operations are classified. Suffice to say, we have undeniable facts, witnesses, and confessions from those involved."
"Classified?" Karen's frown twisted into a sneer. "From who?"
"That's enough, General Alysworth."
Edgar watched as Danielle attempted to take back control of the situation. Bickering within the military structure itself, he mentally scoffed at the notion. What an embarrassment.
"There must be some reason for these betrayals," a large, heavy-set Brigadier pointed out.
"Of course," Norris agreed. "The answer is a former Magitek Knight by the name of Corian."
"Corian? Who was he and how was his treachery hidden from us?"
"He was forgettable soldier before his betrayal. He was not particularly gifted upon the battlefield," Norris answered. "Records show that he was one of the many veterans to be retired after the winter and given a sizable plot of land just south of Ethelben."
"Are you telling us that he was not assigned to the Maverick?" Karen's voice was icy-cold.
"He had been a part of the 10th Division during the majority of the Civil War, stationed at Maley's Point."
Disgust, Edgar shared the feeling with the Imperials around him. This was a man whose country had given him all he wanted: provided for his future and rewarded him justly for his service. And in return...
"And what did he do?" Karen asked.
"He returned to Vector where he excelled in creating the necessary mental unbalances for the Shroud to take hold."
"The Shroud?" Karen echoed. The Colonel's punctuation was such that all gathered at the Imperial Counsel heard the titling of two simple words.
"It is a spell of sorts, an aura that has been encountered by my forces before," Norris answered the confused looks all around the table. His little figure turned around slowly, looking at each person in turn before returning his attention to Danielle. "The First Citizen and I have confirmed that the spell dominates one's mind."
"Mind control?" someone gasped in shock.
"Contemptible," Karen spat and she was not alone. The list of traitors that had allowed the enemy to enter the Imperial Palace and left it a death-trap had been extensive and shocking. But such surprise vanished in a flash as anger took its place. Clamour in the chamber rose and Edgar noticed that Danielle seemed unable to stop it.
"First a plague, now they're controlling our minds? Damn this accursed magic!" someone shouted over the noise.
"Death to these monsters! They're worse than the Espers!"
"Vector won't be safe as long as these traitors breathe!"
"The Maverick must be destroyed!"
Danielle's fist slammed onto the table. Once, twice, finally the crowd grew silent.
"Continue," she growled at Norris.
"As you wish, my Empress," the Colonel replied. "The Shroud generally cannot be detected, though the best of Magitek Knights can sense a lingering aura. However, when activated, even the weakest Knight can sense the void that exists. The Shroud dominates one's feelings and thoughts. We believe it intensifies the emotions that were prevalent when the spell was buried into the victim."
"Victim?" a bald-headed General echoed. "You mean traitor."
"No," Norris responded. "While the Shroud itself has a general effect on those near the aura -- weakening resolve and turning the mind in a more malleable mush -- those directly affected by it have typically been tortured into submission. We have overwhelming evidence that many of those responsible for our breaches in defence, including one of General Donner's top aides, were abducted and tormented into a shell of their former selves."
"A weaker mind is quickly broken, but even the strongest may not be able to resist the combination of the Shroud and whatever agony they're being put through. Fears and hatreds are amplified to the point that the mind is overwhelmed. This is the most direct effect. We are still trying to discover other consequences in addition to how the spell works. Suffice to say that this is not the easiest of tasks."
"What of this man, Corian?" Karen asked.
"He was killed in action during the raid for which he was responsible. There is no doubt that he was acting of his own accord."
"A single man," Karen whispered dreadfully. "Could he have been the only one capable of... mind control?"
Norris took a deep breath. "It is possible, but in my opinion, rather unlikely."
"What of the facts, Colonel?" Karen pressed the matter.
"We don't know."
"That is understandable, Colonel Ferdinand," Danielle interrupted. "Again I must thank you for your decisive judgement in Vector," she commended.
Edgar noted that the Colonel did not seem to take any pleasure in being personally congratulated by Danielle. Now that was interesting! His eyes flickered over to the red-haired Empress whose praise was of little significance to her subordinates.
"You are dismissed."
"Your Imperial Highness," Norris' head bowed respectfully.
Danielle was then impassive for a while. Edgar watched attentively as she tapped the table at a quicker and quicker pace. At last, she finished her mental deliberation and turned to one of the men in the periphery of the room. "Bring him in," she ordered.
A murmur that accompanied her words told Edgar that this was unexpected by those gathered, but Danielle had prepared this surprise far in advance. Baldric -- the sight of whom caused Edgar to feel slightly guilty -- stalked out of the room. He was gone for only a half-minute and when he returned, a plainly dressed man followed.
Two of the Generals shot to their feet, looks of utter hatred on their faces. Others were more shocked than angered. Edgar noticed that Norris, his little blue figure shimmering in the middle of the table, was shaking with rage.
"Enough," Danielle growled. She turned to the new arrival. The man was unshaven, perhaps a decade older than Edgar and a number of scars were all over his face. A patch of pale white skin could be seen running down the neck and likely continued along his chest; the parting gift of a fireball. Though his white tunic was certainly no uniform, Edgar could tell that this was a military man
"Citizen Kennard, you will tell everyone what you told me."
"Who is that?" Terra asked. She had been one of the few who had been prepared for the entirity of the Imperial Counsel. It had pained her to know such things, and even more to keep it secret. Yet it was preferable to being kept in the dark; beset by the horror of the unknown consuming everything dear.
But who was this Citizen Kennard?
Norris did not answer -- he was standing in the midst of the communication globes -- and Locke's brow was furrowed in confusion. "He looks familiar, I think I've seen a picture somewhere," he stood up and walked over to the image in question.
Terra watched as Locke mumbled to himself. She caught precious little, but she did hear something about 'the face of the enemy'. She frowned, wondering if she knew what the Maverick looked like. So long had she spent in Vector, guiding the Empire's restoration with Anson's help, that she had never taken time to learn about those who threatened them.
The dark shadows that still moved against the Empire.
But unlike her, Locke had been on the Western Front. Unlike her, he had worked alongside of Norris and faced hopeless odds almost daily. Unlike her, he had kept his focus on the barbarian.
Like Anson had told her to do a thousand times.
"Wade the Sha-!" Locke cleared his throat and cut himself off. "That is Colonel Wade Kennard," he turned back to Terra and saw the question on her face. "He was one of the commanders deployed to Maranda," Locke explained. "One of the Maverick's top men."
"We had him imprisoned all along?" Terra asked. She glared suspiciously at Danielle's likeness. "Impossible, I would have heard of him."
"Over two months ago, Norris told me that this... man was still at large and we were to keep an eye out for him," Locke explained. "He's one of the most ruthless-"
"Hush!" Norris stuck his head out for a moment and silenced the loquacious duo.
Wade weathered the threatening scowls of his former colleagues, clearly stripped of his rank but otherwise unharmed. He did not look like a prisoner, but he had been humbled. "I'm unsure of where to start, Empress," his voice was energetic and there was just the slightest hint of respect in his posture.
"The beginning would be best," Danielle's fingers tapped against the table. Though she was the least cross of the ranking Imperials, it was clear that animosity was not above her station. "Lead with the results of First Vector."
Wade cleared his throat. "The Siege of Vector was an unmitigated disaster for General Drummond's forces," he started.
Terra narrowed her eyes. "Did you hear that?"
"What?" Locke asked.
"-and after the alliance broke down, we found ourselves unable to adequately retreat. We had been over-extended and our logistical capabilities were strained even with Governor Ashford's full-."
"He still respects the Maverick," Terra whispered in a deadly voice.
"-ordered a full retreat. However, a thrust by Caleigh had crippled Drummond's regiment and most of high command. At that time, I was under orders to abandon any who could not keep the pace, and that's what I did. It wasn't until later that we discovered General Drummond had been left behind. But even then, Caleigh and much of the Home Guard were counterattacking without restraint. He bled our retreating forces around the clock; by the time we managed to rally and establish a defensive cordon, I found myself one of the only ranking officers still alive."
Restrained mumbling from the crowd and an especially confused look from Karen. Norris stepped away from the communication globes and shook his head, sad wrinkles creasing his cheeks.
"Norris..." Locke began reluctantly. Terra knew what was on everyone's minds. She summarized what she knew of the Empire's command hierarchy. Her math was right, but she didn't want to believe it either.
"That's a lot of corpses," Norris remarked in a monotone voice. There was just a hint of wetness beneath his eyes.
"General Drummond's return was nothing less than miraculous; Magitek Knights -- former ISF -- had saved his life from behind enemy lines and evaded Caleigh's pursuit. I never thought anything of it at the time -- I mean, those men were heroes! -- but everything changed that day."
"The empty ranks were filled soldiers without leadership qualities or experience for such positions. I watched impotently as Command was filled with those I did not respect. They dug into the Plains of Callaghan, building fortresses and sending regiments into the Core every so often. I was ordered away and tasked with the southern Strachan passes. I suspected then that something else was going on, that I was being sent into exile..."
Wade sighed. "You have to understand, I have friends back in Maranda. Governor Ashford was a good man, he administrated the area masterfully after we conquered that Kingdom. I mean, we had Marandan-born soldiers serving in Doma in just two years! Everyone who had served in the war had been offered swathes of land; then we rebuilt their cities, paved new roads, farmed new land and created industrial capacity to rival Albrook! The difference between us and Tzen..."
Wade trailed off awkwardly. That Danielle was a hero of the Tzen War had obviously just occurred to him.
"Continue," Danielle ordered. Her fingers impatiently tapped out each syllable.
Wade swallowed the lump in his throat. "Veterans were recalled to the front and conscription doubled. Rumours spread, first of strange events in Pierpoint, and then of horrific experiments. But I was always ordered to ignore them, guaranteed by Command that they were nothing more than rumours."
Terra noticed a glimmer of concern on Edgar's face. It was only there for a moment, but Terra had read him like a book.
"Then I visited Sutton," Wade shuddered. "I had a couple friends and former colleagues there, but they had changed. Their attitudes were different, their priorities warped. I didn't hear them talk about restoring the Empire, not like those of us still at the front. They were talking about how they would establish their own Kingdom. Bigots like Forsythe were agreeing with how General Drummond was supporting the Magitek Knights and their research!"
"That was the first time I heard of the Guild."
Terra's wrath simmered. Those deluded heretics, she cursed.
"I don't know when it started, but I guess those Magitek Knights banded together like brothers. All I remember was wanting to get the hell out of Sutton. It was gave me shivers the whole time. I couldn't think, I couldn't breathe; it was like the entire world had gone mad."
Norris was at the edge of his seat.
"The Guild approached me. They called themselves Peers; wanted me to go to Maranda," Wade shook his head. "I refused and told them I was needed at the front. I had never feared for my life before -- death doesn't scare me -- but after seeing what I had seen," he took a deep breath, visibly shaken, and composed himself.
"I ordered my forces deep into the mountains. We dug into Strachan and I told General Drummond that we would go dark -- no communication, no reinforcements -- and that breaking the silence would inevitably lead to our deaths. I was never given the go-ahead on the plan and that was disturbing enough on its own, so I wrote to Governor Ashford; again nothing. Abandoned by command, I gave the order. We stole off with enough supplies to survive months of siege and hid in the mountains. Three months of deliberation later, I defected along with every man of my division."
The former Imperial made eye-contact with Empress.
"I will not be a pawn of the Guild."
The moment of silence that followed was non-existent. The Imperial Counsel erupted in an uproar to rival the riots in Vector.
"Three months," Locke repeated. He rubbed his eyes, tired, and decided to open a window. Fresh air streamed in, a cool breeze that flowed over the city of Vector. The city was awash with conflict, isolated riots for the most part but there was the sound of organized chanting coming from Gates of the Imperial Palace. The Imperial Guard would have their hands full again.
"It looks like the Empress has had this knowledge for a while," Norris remarked. "Though alone, it's an unbelievable tale. I can see why she hid this man for as long as she did. The world has gone mad."
"I still don't think I believe all of it," Locke remarked. His eyes flickered outside, obviously infuriated by the chanting. "And I'd like to think I've seen the worst of the Maverick."
"If only," Norris grumbled beneath his breath. He turned to his right. "Sophis?"
The First Citizen of the Empire blocked out the noise of her people, those that were calling out for the deaths of those responsible for the Plague, and for the total elimination of the Magitek Corps. "It sounds like we know what the Shroud can do if exposed to it continuously," Terra remarked darkly.
A sad nod. "The world has gone mad."
Edgar watched the rain fall down the side of the mountain, disappearing into a valley of mist far below. Water cascaded over the edge of the castle roof and fell in sheets just an armslength away.
"-and our capable forces have deftly handled the surge of monsters from the Floating Continent's rise. There are still some that could cause worry to even cities, but they are few and no sightings have been reported ever since the army slaughtered one of the large flyers near the end of winter."
Edgar forced a smile on his face. Karen was an interesting woman, but she was clearly on her guard in his presence. He had hoped that her blunt speech during the Counsel had been indicative of a lack of political aptitude, but instead discovered her grave distaste for the game.
"These monsters have not reserved themselves to solely the Empire, my own people have reported sightings of dragons the length of battleships. However, we haven't seen these ancient beasts since the winter began," he responded.
Karen nodded in understanding. "They are powerful and seem to be nigh-impervious to all known weapons. Our elemental cannons could blast through mountains in less time than it took to penetrate their skin! My sympathies for your soldiers, I can't imagine your response if one of those abominations attacked."
Edgar was about to respond when an aide arrived with news for the General. After exchanging departing pleasantries with Karen, Edgar retreated back to his friends. A frown returned to his face when he saw Cyan and Strago, they had certainly not resolved the argument almost three weeks past and it seemed as if it was tearing them apart.
Arvis looked uncomfortable between the two, nowhere near the peacemaker that Banon had been. Edgar sighed loudly. Rarely did anyone notice Banon's feather-light touch, but his absence was always noteworthy. Without him, feelings of resentment were never addressed, animosity was left to grow rather than weeded out early.
Edgar couldn't even understand what had come between the two men. It should have been minor; Strago had spoken hastily but Cyan should have understood a grandfather's protective nature. Why the two continued to be at odds over such a slight was inconceivable to him.
"What are we still doing here, Edgar?" Strago growled impatiently. "Despite your impressive seating arrangements, it's not like we're doing anything here." He gestured towards the group of Imperials entering the meeting hall again. "Only the Goddesses know what the end result of this Imperial Counsel will be, but frankly I rather not brave another half-day of awkwardness to find out."
"It does seem like we're being neglected," Arvis offered in an attempt to mimic Banon's rhetoric. "I can see Strago's point; though-"
"Terra is working for the Empire," Cyan interrupted. He glared condescendingly at Strago. "It is a noble cause, she is trying to prevent this toxin from destroying the world. We should trust in her judgement and support her, even if it is from afar."
"Lunacy!" Strago snapped. "You heard her say it herself, Vector is under quarantine! Even if she wanted to leave, she can't."
"Locke was by her side, I saw his image for a fleeting moment," Cyan argued. "He would ferry her to safety if that was truly the case. No, she is using her magic to save lives and that is a virtuous endeavour!"
"Enough, both of you!" Edgar stepped between the two men and sighed. "This is not the time for pointless bickering. It doesn't matter whether or not they made the right decision, we can't rescue Terra or Locke from Vector. This Plague threatens everyone, not just the Empire. Were we to go there ourselves, we'd risk becoming infected."
The two men grew silent, avoiding eye-contact with one another as Arvis shifted his feet uncomfortably.
"Let's keep our minds on what we're here to do. Perhaps we're playing into Danielle's plans, but right now, all I see is a leader who is pandering to her subordinates. Gesthal never gathered his underlings together like this, but she has to. It's a sign of weakness," Edgar watched the faces of his friends and frowned. "Has this not occurred to any of you?"
Strago cleared his throat. "You are closer to her than anyone else."
His frown deepened. "What I discovered before is still true today. Danielle seeks allies," Edgar announced in a lowered voice. "Today was the final piece of the puzzle. I finally have a foolproof plan to guarantee peace."
Arvis looked at Edgar as if he had grown wings. "And what is that? Nothing has changed."
"Terra has the right idea; I was afraid that she was being manipulated, but it's clear that Danielle actually relies on our favourite half-Esper. Now that's exactly what we need to do here."
Edgar gestured towards the many dignitaries and ranking officials of the Empire. "We're going offer our help in their time of need. We'll get our treaty, but we'll do more than just sign a piece of paper declaring peace between our peoples. Instead, we offer our services and make it so that they have to rely on us, depend on us, and become friends with us! You don't go to war against a friend."
"We... help the Empire?" Arvis echoed dumbfounded.
"We help ourselves. Even if we don't think about the long-term benefits of having friends like the Duke of Mansfield or one of those many Imperial generals, think about this epidemic. What if it crosses the ocean? From what Terra has already discovered, we know this toxin could reach our homes. Imagine what this magical disease could do to our people," Edgar clutched his stomach as a wave of nausea hit him.
Cyan nodded slowly. "This is the work of a devil. Poison is an enemy that cannot be fought and make no mistake, it kills worse than any blade and does so indiscriminately. Worse, it can be delivered by a single man. If the Empire's bane finds itself in our homelands, its wake shall rival that of total war."
"That's right," Edgar agreed. "And remember, this is a magical plague. The Empire, with its Magitek and advanced sciences, can't develop a cure. If the biggest, most resourceful and highly-advanced nation in the world can't fight the plague, what hope do we have?"
Strago folded his arms. "You are not alone, Edgar."
"Thamasa is so small that it can't even be expressed as a fraction of the Empire," Edgar waved aside the loremaster's comment. "We need the Empire, my friends. And now, when they need help, we will be there whole-heartedly. We will offer our hand in friendship and in doing so, find a permanent peace."
"-nor will I tolerate a warlord as a neighbour!"
Danielle was angry, that was to be expected. She was making a speech to draw the emotions of those gathered; also expected given the circumstances surrounding her position of authority. However, what Edgar did not understand was why she was outlining a course of action to those at the Imperial Counsel. Without even a meal to settle the stomach, the Empress had gone from listening to making policy. Considering the size of the group, any statements made would be set in stone lest she look weak and indecisive.
It was a manoeuvre that Edgar was unfamiliar with. Whether it was wisdom or madness, he was hesitant to judge.
"The Maverick has sent Ambassadors to convey his sympathies at the vicious attack we have suffered. He has denied knowledge of the attack, evaded responsibility and has even offered his assistance! The nerve of this barbarian, to play the game of politics while slaughtering our citizens by the thousands!"
"Since the dawn of the Empire, we have had but one policy to deal with those who dared threaten us. We have but one response for those who venture upon our soil and injure our citizens. It does not matter whether the threat is a nation, an army, or a single individual; nor will we allow our enemies to hide behind a facade of diplomacy. This Guild-" Danielle spat the words, "-is responsible for the Plague and they are commanded by one person."
Danielle turned to Karen Alysworth, the most powerful officer in the room, and her voice quickly took on a serious, composed tone.
"General Alysworth, I want your strategy to destroy the Maverick."
All eyes were directed on the elder woman. "Empress," Karen began respectfully. "As you are well aware, we have contingency plans for nearly every imaginable scenario. Unfortunately, only one is valid in this case."
Edgar could understand that. The Imperial military was fighting an enemy whose weapon could be transported by a single person and once used, was an unstoppable force.
Karen's aides began to pass folders throughout the room, the brevity of which emphasized how hastily Danielle's top generals had worked to prepare for this phase of the meeting.
"The strategy will be one of resource denial. By minimizing exposure, prioritizing long range engagement through the use of our superior artillery, we will deny the enemy their primary vector of infection."
"Two armies will venture beyond the Plains of Callaghan. An improvement over the strategy employed in Marandan War three years past, we shall take and establish permanent footholds in Oakham and Pierpoint. After our base of operations is secure, we strike Sutton and Maranda in tandem. Dividing their army and severing communication lines at Kinneil, we will starve them out of their fortifications. The Navy will provide the necessary support from Breckenridge Sound, as well as shelling the enemy throughout the duration of the war and ensuring that they are blockaded on all sides."
Edgar glanced down at the bulleted list and blanched. The Imperials did not even pretend to avoid collateral damage! The tactics they were employing would -- without a doubt -- kill ten innocents for every enemy combatant. They were absolutely without mercy!
"We will need to double the current Naval resources available to the Fourth Army, but they will deploy immediately. I ask for no less than half of the Magitek Armor Corps and once we have mustered our forces, we will begin the process of establishing ourselves. No less than four major engagements are anticipated before besieging Sutton; another before Maranda. Five months until Sutton is taken, Maranda in another two."
"Of all the contingency plans, this one marks the greatest departure from our traditional strategies. But based on the experiences of the last two seasons as well as the technical superiority of our forces, estimated losses are restricted to about two divisions. Even the Plague will only double that count at most, our procedures for dealing with epidemics have been without fail for two centuries."
There were uneasy murmurs around the room and judging by the surprised looks on many, Edgar guessed that he was not alone in his belief that Karen was too optimistic. Considering the Empire was planning on conquering a self-sufficient state comprised of their former comrades, expecting such a low number of casualties in addition to a timeline of less than a year was audacious.
"Maranda will fly the Imperial Flag before the Winter Solstice," Karen concluded.
Edgar shook his head as he read the figures before him again. This was madness.
"General Alysworth," Danielle's voice filled the silence that followed. "That is unacceptable."
The benefit of having a military mind as a head of state, Edgar waited for the inevitable splash of common sense.
"Ex-Excuse me?" Karen was clearly stunned. "What is unacceptable, your Imperial Highness?" she quickly added.
Danielle drew out the stunned silence to ensure that none would miss her words.
"Eight months is far too long. I will not tolerate the barbarian's presence for any longer than is absolutely necessary," Danielle growled. "The strategy is sound, but the timeline will be advanced."
What? Edgar's mouth hung open for a moment before he snapped his jaws shut. Advanced?!
"Empress, with all due respect, we cannot expedite a strategy that revolves around besieging cities!"
"Then our goals will have to change," Danielle snapped. "Your strategy calls for the establishment of forward bases, it is clear to me that the months necessary to accomplish this is due to a lack of manpower and the need to minimize enemy contacts. These manoeuvres are planned to net mobile units while allowing us room to concentrate our forces if the barbarian attacks in numbers."
"That is true, but-"
"Then you will have more than two armies, General. You will have four times that number! As of this moment, you are being given access to the entirety of the Imperial Armed Forces. I want no less than thirty divisions out there and these bases established within the first month!"
The low, restrained murmurs had become gasps of incredulity. Hushed whispers expressed how preposterous the Empress' strategy was.
Edgar was left aghast. He knew where Danielle was coming from. He was also aware of how ruthless Karen's strategy wasalready. That Danielle was demanding more... even considering how despicable the enemy was...
"Empress, with all due respect, even had we the infrastructure of mustering and coordinating such forces already in place -- even if our logistics could support more than a quarter-million foot soldiers alone! -- the amount of time necessary to organize everyone would delay us by weeks!"
"I expect you to attack immediately and accommodate troops as they arrive. Are you telling me that given the full resources of our Armed Forces, that you are incapable of even that, General Alysworth?"
The icy rebuke quieted the chamber, reminding many that though Danielle acted like mere a commanding general, she was still the Empress.
"No," Karen answered with reddened cheeks.
"Good," Danielle flipped through her notes without lingering on the issue. "These sieges upon Sutton and Maranda will be hastened by committing every available unit: Magitek Armor or conventional artillery. General Alysworth, I don't care if we raze the cities to the ground. I want the Maverick's head on a pike in front of my Palace within two months. Do you understand me?"
Karen swallowed. "As you command, my Empress."
With those words, Danielle's personal aides passed around yet another folder. Marked as Operation Inquisition, this one was just as short but Edgar's brief perusal led him to believe that they were printed up far ahead. He skimmed every page, but was lost in the detailed analysis of reorganization that seemed to be part of every paragraph. What was Danielle intending?
"As you are all no doubt aware, public opinion on magic could be summed up as restrained hostility," Danielle began. "The First Citizen can undoubtedly give us a more accurate update on the situation in Vector."
Terra's blue-hued visage was unreadable. "I can hear their chanting outside the Palace. They want every Magitek Knight, friend or foe, killed and their heads placed on pikes."
It was not what Danielle wanted to hear, but Terra did not seem willing to go into further detail. After an awkward silence, the Empress continued.
"The Plague is the snowflake that started the avalanche; ever since the Esper attack upon Vector and the Long Night, we have struggled to follow the path that the late-Emperor laid down for us. We shall follow his lead no longer."
She took a breath. "I dissolve the Imperial Magitek Knight Corps. As of this moment, the Magitek Knight is extinct."
Edgar raised an eyebrow. What was Danielle intending?
"However, it is undeniable that the enemy has no qualms about using magic. I will not tolerate the existence of this Guild any longer than I wish the Maverick to remain breathing. The band of mages that are responsible for this... this Shroud, this Plague, I want them hunted down to the last man."
"I am creating a new body, independent of the Armed Forces and accountable only to myself. They will find and hunt these Guild Members using any means necessary. They will have absolute authority over the search and assassination of these fanatical mages. I want our enemies to be unable to relax without fearing reprisal, unable to sleep without fearing that it may become permanent."
"They venture within our borders freely for they are but individuals, concealing their true nature until the very last moment. They could be anywhere, acting as humble farmers or even respected veterans, all the while planning to infect entire cities with this demonic Plague. It is unacceptable! They believe they are above reprisal by hiding amongst us. I will not allow it! They will be ousted, hunted down, and slaughtered like the animals they are!"
"This is Operation Inquisition. We will find them wherever they are, be it within Vector or beyond the Plains of Callaghan. But let it be known that while these mages can run, but they cannot hide."
"Accountable to only your Imperial Highness," Karen paraphrased. "I would council against such a policy, as in the past the independence of such a body would only guarantee strife in the near future."
"Your objection is noted."
No one else spoke out though and Karen sighed in frustration. "Very well, who will command such a force? Who is in charge of destroying these fanatics?"
"Since the Inquisition will undoubtedly be exposed to the Plague, only soldiers already exposed will be considered. Of that group, there is but a single, distinguished senior mage."
Danielle turned to the blue-hued image in the centre of the table.
"Colonel Norris Ferdinand, you will establish and lead the Imperial Inquisition."
Terra's mouth dropped open.
"He didn't know," Locke breathed. Outside of the communication zone, he could safely state the obvious. "If he knew, he wouldn't-"
"I-I don't want the job," Norris stuttered. He looked through the field of magic, across half a continent, and into the eyes of the Empress. "I am honoured but I cannot accept it, your Imperial Highness."
"And that is why I am confident in selecting you," Danielle answered without a smile.
"Please, Empress, I-"
"General Alysworth will provide the resources necessary for you to get started, helping you find other mages who have already been exposed, as well as organizational and logistical difficulties you might face."
Norris glanced over at Karen, his face ghastly white.
Locke closed his eyes sympathetically. The responsibility of such a position... to find another Corian amongst the millions of Imperial Citizens and stop them from releasing more of the Plague, it was a horrific burden.
"You have done well so far, Colonel Ferdinand. By setting a quarantine before the disease was confirmed, you have isolated it and perhaps saved the Empire. Now you will take command of the Inquisition, your former friends and colleagues of the Magitek Knight Corps, and you will again save the Empire. You will do your duty and destroy the fanatics responsible for Fanshaw, and twice Vector."
Locke could hear Norris swallow, so parched was the elder man's throat.
"As you command, my Empress."
The Imperial Counsel was silent, still busy digesting all that the Empress had decreed. But she was not yet finished.
"Since the dawn of the Empire, we have faced many enemies and defeated them all. Our brave and courageous legions have kept monster and barbarian away from home, so that we may have peace and civilization. That the enemy has resorted to such treachery -- to release a Magical Plague in Vector -- is unforgivable!"
All about the round table, officers were nodding their heads in unison. Around the room, the crowd silently approved of all that Danielle said. Edgar could see the disgust on each of their faces as Danielle summarized the crimes that had been perpetrated against the Empire. Even Cyan had begun to nod along. Edgar didn't blame his friend for joining along. In fact, he might have been concerned if Cyan could not sympathize with the Imperials.
But what Danielle had proposed... Edgar understood. He knew what a hard decision it would be, to fight an enemy that used biological weapons. Still...
The Empress had risen now, her fiery hair and crimson face presiding over the Imperial Counsel like the vengeful spirit that bewitched them all. Her hands were clenched as she shook in anger.
"The warlord and his barbarians laugh at us! They seek to divide us, to sap our strength and weaken our spirit. They have used disease as their sword, delivered by a single, deceitful backstabbing traitor! We cannot co-exist with these treacherous mind-controlling fanatics!"
"It's the devil's magic!"
"There can be no peace!"
"We must utterly annihilate the cowards!"
With the crowd voicing their agreement, the Empress Danielle composed herself in the blink of an eye. The transition would have been jarring had the chamber been sombre, but instead it was awash with bloodthirst.
"In the face of this strategy, traditional measures cannot be judged as adequate. It is not sound military strategy to commit Imperial Forces into a disease-filled land; it is imperative that we adapt in order to assure our permanent security. Our defence is strong, but against the enemy we face, and the enemies that we will face, it is not enough."
"Even a single rogue agent could unleash another wasting plague. They could hide in the wilderness and strike at anytime. In order to combat such a despicable strategy, we need allies. Foreign nations desire such enemies even less than we and in this, we shall find common ground."
Edgar nodded. It was a good strategy. It was his.
"And so it is that we cannot allow any transgression to go unpunished. Be it the device of a single man, or the collective fanaticism of thousands, we will not balk when counter-attacking. We will find out what is dear to them and we will strike swiftly; aggressively and we will not accept surrender! Our legions will venture far and wide -- across the entire world -- to hunt down every rogue; his family, his friends, his city and his nation!"
"Our security shall be guaranteed by deterring any potential aggressor. We will respond with vigour. We will strike back with the full might of our armed forces; a policy of massive retaliation!"
Edgar's throat was suddenly dry.
"We are the Empire! We do not hold back! We will destroy our enemies without mercy!" Danielle spread her arms. "Glory to the Empire!"
And the chamber thundered in response:
"GLORY TO THE EMPIRE!"