Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 9 – Part 1)

Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!

Since this chapter is particularly long, I’m going to wait until I’ve posted each part of it on this blog before posting the complete chapter on FanFiction.net.

Reminder: If you’re looking for the previously posted parts of the story, go to the “Categories” drop-down banner on the left banner of the site and choose “Final Fantasy: Returning Hope”.

Ghost - Sad (Front)Ghost - Sad (Front)Ghost - Sad (Front)
*Spites via http://www.videogamesprites.net

The group of three men and one dog were two hours walk into the forest when Sabin started to break down. He’d had some extreme training over the past several years, but between fleeing the Returners’ hideout, wrestling with a giant octopus, trekking halfway across the continent, and battling his way through an Imperial base, he was well and truly exhausted. Cyan clearly had too much on his mind for one man to deal with, and Shadow had the look of a man who was rapidly losing interest in his journey. Even Interceptor was acting odd, trailing behind with his tail between his legs, whining and looking around at the shadows as though nervous.

“Is he going to be okay?” Sabin asked, gesturing at the shivering pup.

“He smells death,” Shadow replied simply.

Sabin raised his eyebrows, but Shadow offered no more. They continued their traipse through the dark, miserable underbrush.

Some time later, his patience wearing more thin with each passing moment, Sabin was finally ready to call it a night. He was opening his mouth to suggest that they find a place to camp for the night when a sound rang through the trees, a sound so loud that they nearly leapt out of their skins.

It was a steam whistle.

“A train, here?” Cyan wondered with some shock. “But Doma’s railway was destroyed.”

Sabin’s surprise was set aside in favor of joy. A ride! he thought, and burst into a run in the direction of the whistle. It only took a moment before he burst through a cluster of trees and right out onto a docking block. There, looking like a jewel amongst the gloom, was a midnight-black, multi-car steam engine.

“Hey!” Sabin cried, pointing at the single open door directly in front of him. “We can get in right here!”

The others had followed close behind and didn’t seem to share Sabin’s enthusiasm at the prospect of a ride.

“Sir Sabin…” Cyan gasped out nervously.

“We can’t wander around out here forever!” Sabin rationalized with a grin. “We absolutely have to get on board!”

Cyan’s eyes had gone wide. “But Sir Sabin!”

“Don’t worry!” Sabin insisted. He jogged through the open door without a care in the world. “Let’s go!”

“Sir Sabin!” Cyan exclaimed in horror.

As soon as he was inside the car, Sabin realized something was wrong. All the seats were empty. There was no sign of a single soul. “What the-?” he muttered.

The others rushed in behind him, Interceptor crying openly and Cyan looking very much as though he might vomit.

“Sir Sabin!” he begged. “Please, we’ve got to get off this train!”

Sabin had half a second to realize that Cyan was probably right before the door behind them suddenly slammed shut. Shadow quickly turned and gave the handle a good yank, but it didn’t budge. Less than a second later, the steam whistle blew again and the group felt the floor lurch beneath their feet.

“I-it’s moving!” Sabin observed stupidly.

Cyan groaned and yanked at the door, willing it to open though he was certain it wouldn’t. “We’re too late,” he sobbed.

“What’s with this train?” Sabin demanded. “What the hell are you so freaked out about?” Despite himself, he found that his heart was starting to beat strangely fast.

Cyan’s face was somehow pale and dark at the same time as he turned his back on the immovable door. “This is the Phantom Train,” he explained. “It carries the departed to…the other side…”

Sabin felt bile rise in his throat. “A-are you serious?”

Cyan nodded. He looked like a reasonable man, Sabin thought, but he was absolutely sure of his fantastical claim.

“I have also heard such stories,” Shadow offered with his usual stoic calm. “And it would explain why Interceptor is so upset.” He gestured to the whining hound who had just emptied his bladder in the corner of the car.

“B-but,” Sabin cried, beginning to genuinely panic, “Wait a sec! I don’t wanna go there!”

Cyan’s face was turning green. “We all have to go sometime.”

“I have things to do here!” Sabin was shouting hysterically now. “We have to stop this thing! Let’s make for the engine.”

Sabin took off at a sprint for the next car, but stopped dead in his tracks when he opened the door. Cyan, having run after him in a desperation not to be left behind, slammed into him. The two of them gaped at the car before them with a mixture of fear and amazement.

The car was filled with spirits. Some were thick, solid white masses with a scarcely human shape to them. Others had very visible human features but were barely more than wisps of smoke. Some were wandering aimlessly, while others were curled up in seats, staring out the windows as though not really seeing anything in front of them.

“Would you prefer to stay here then?”

Sabin and Cyan jumped and turned to Shadow. He was staring at them incredulously while comforting Interceptor. Sabin shook his head emphatically and Cyan shrugged his shoulders sheepishly. Shadow raised an eyebrow.

“I’m goin’, I’m goin’,” Sabin muttered. He took a couple of deep breaths, shot a look at Shadow, and plowed into the car with Cyan hot on his heels.

One of the solid white apparitions took immediate notice of them and wafted up into Sabin’s path. Sabin stiffened visibly and looked for a way to get around it.

“We’re looking to disembark,” came Shadow’s calm voice from the back of the pack. “Can you lead us through to the engine room?”

Strangely, the featureless mass managed to establish an almost amused demeanor. It nodded, turned, and beckoned the group to follow. Sabin and Cyan couldn’t move for shock. Shadow shoved past them while keeping a comforting hand on Interceptor’s head. Sabin looked back at Cyan with wide eyes. Cyan shrugged and steadied his hand on the hilt of his sword before nodding.

The strange spirit almost seemed to dance through the cars ahead of them. It seemed to be the highlight of its night to give them a tour of the train. Every so often one of the other specters would glance their way – one wispy woman with terrified eyes stared at them as long as she could see them from her seat – but for the most part they didn’t seem to notice the intruders at all.

“This is creepy as hell,” Sabin muttered with a shudder.

“Can we trust…it?” Cyan asked while waving a hand toward their guide.

Sabin shrugged a little. “Do we have a choice?”

Several cars forward, Cyan noticed that they had attracted a follower. A spirit that looked very solid, but only had the barest semblance of human form, was trailing very close to their group. Cyan nudged Sabin and pointed. While their heads were turned, their guide halted to a dead stop.

“What’s wrong?” Sabin inquired. He looked past the spirit to see that another specter was blocking the doorway to the next car. They were currently outside on their walkway between cars, the ground and tracks hurtling along beneath them. They could only move forward into the next car or backward into the one they’d just left.

“I believe we’ve been herded,” Shadow spoke up. There was a hint of amused interest in his voice. The spirit that had been following them had been joined by three friends and the four of them were blocking the return path. The spirit blocking the forward path made a low hissing noise that could just barely be understood by human ears: “N.o…e.s.c.a.p.e…”

Sabin’s face paled and Cyan nervously reached for his sword.

“It will do no good to fight them,” Shadow explained, ever calm. “They’re already dead.”

“Then what the hell do you expect us to do?” Sabin demanded. Several more spirits were pushing out from each of the surrounding cars. They were rapidly becoming outnumbered four to one.

“Sir Sabin,” Cyan cried, pointing, “There!” The spirit that had been guiding them had shimmied up onto the roof of the car and was gesturing to a thin ladder alongside the door, almost invisible in the dark.

“N.o…e.s.c.a.p.e…!”

While Sabin and Cyan were chilled by the wispy words, Shadow shoved through the expanding crowd. With what must have been a great effort, he shoved a yelping Interceptor up onto the roof before quickly following by way of the ladder. The other two men were behind him in an instant as more and more specters pushed out of the cars. One of them snatched Cyan’s leg as he climbed, but a frantic flailing of his sword dropped it back to the floor.

The wind was rushing past at breakneck speeds from the top of the car. Cyan’s ponytail and the edges of Shadow’s robes flapped madly as though in emphasis of the dangerous position they’d placed themselves in. And still the spirits were coming, crawling up the ladder and hissing in unison: “You can’t escape…nowhere to run…nowhere to hide…”

Cyan looked over the edge with a grimace. “I believe we’re stuck!” he yelled over the wind. He raised his sword, ready to fight the advancing swarm, but Sabin was looking at their guide, who was frantically gesturing forward. The stack of the engine was visible from only a few cars away, belching thick puffs of smoke into the night air. The friendly spirit was making a strange motion, a kind of arch through the air.

Sabin nodded. “Okay!” he shouted.

“You have an idea?” Cyan swung his sword threateningly at the hissing spirits.

The grin on Sabin’s face was forced and nervous. “The time has come to see if all of my training has paid off!” he announced. Without so much as a word of warning, he grabbed a yelping Cyan, threw him over his shoulders, and ran for the far end of the car. If it hadn’t been such a precarious situation, Cyan’s shriek might have been humorous. As it stood, the move demanded all of Sabin’s concentration, so he barely registered the other man’s cry. He wasn’t nearly as skilled as Vargas had been in this particular technique, but he moved his arms and body in a series of well-practiced patterns and the attempt was successful. The gusts around them bent and twisted just enough to help carry them safely to the roof of the next car. The moment Sabin’s feet landed, Cyan dropped and clamored for something to hold on to, nearly losing his sword over the edge. “Thou couldst have warned me!” he gasped. His face was green.

“No time!” Sabin shouted. Before he could get a snarky response, he leapt back the way he’d come. The spirits were swarming the roof from every direction. Before Sabin could speak Shadow picked up Interceptor and shoved him in the other’s arms. “Take him,” the ever-calm ninja requested. “He’s too heavy for me.”

There was no time to argue. Interceptor cried out in alarm when they jumped, but he stayed perfectly still all the same. Sabin placed him down next to Cyan and turned to get Shadow, but did a double-take instead. He was gone! The spirits were climbing onto the roof, but Shadow was nowhere to be seen.

“Shouldn’t we keep moving?”

Sabin nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled around to find Shadow and their spirit guide standing behind a gaping Cyan.

“How the hell did you-?” Sabin shook his head. “Forget it. Let’s move!”

They shimmied down the ladder. Sabin and Cyan made to run, but Shadow stopped them. “Look,” he said, pointing. It was a large stone peg, vibrating madly, holding the cars together.

“We’ll never be able to move-” Cyan never got to finish the thought. Sabin strode forward with a deep breath and a shout, and the shackle burst into chunks and dust. Uncoupled from the chain, the spirit-swarmed car and all the cars behind began to lag behind.

Cyan, despite everything, looked amused. “Thine techniques are truly amazing, Sir Sabin.”

Amazingly, the spirits were still wailing at them as they faded into the distance.

“N.o…e.s.c.a.p.e…!”

“Nowhere to run…nowhere to hide…!”

Sabin couldn’t help but shudder a little. “Bloody persistent.”

“They can’t follow us now,” Shadow pointed out. “Let’s go.”

They encountered no further resistance as their guide led them forward, though they were now terribly wary of every spirit they saw. When they finally came to the engine room door, their guide stepped aside.

“Not coming?” asked Sabin.

The spirit made a motion like a shake of the head and a wave before turning and floating back the way they’d come. Sabin gave Cyan a wary look before moving to the door, taking a deep breath, and stepping inside.

There was no one there.

The three men looked around the room while the dog sniffed cautiously at every corner, but the engine room was definitely empty. There were panels of lights and buttons, sections of walls dedicated to enormous switches and levers, but no one was there to run it all.

Sabin walked up to one of the control panels. “Well, what should we try first?” he asked aloud.

Cyan’s face fell. “Don’t try any of them!” he gasped.

Sabin remembered the fiasco with the Magitek armor and winced. Cyan was clearly a total dunce when it came to machinery, but they had to try something. Wordlessly, Sabin reached forward and flicked a switch. Cyan cringed and Interceptor’s ears went back, but nothing happened.

And just as Sabin was reaching for a second switch, a voice filled the air around them: “SO!”

Their hearts pounded furiously, even Shadow’s. The voice boomed through the car, seeming to be everywhere at once. “You’re the ones who’ve been slowly my progress!” it bellowed.

Cyan’s jaw dropped comically, and Sabin suddenly understood. It was the train. The train was talking to them!

When it became clear that the younger Figaro brother and the Doman retainer had been stunned speechless, Shadow spoke. “Phantom Train,” he said, as calmly as if he were talking to an old friend, “We request permission to depart.”

The hearty laugh that filled the room was so loud that it shook the walls. “And why, precisely, would I want to allow that?”

Shadow spoke matter-of-factly, explaining as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Because we are accidental passengers on this journey, not yet passed on. And because these two,” he gestured to the other men, assuming the train could see him, “are on a mission to fight the Empire.”

The train seemed to take pause. “The Empire, hmm?” it considered. “The Empire has been creating a lot of extra work for me lately. Lots of souls who weren’t yet meant to move on…”

The tone of the train’s voice helped Sabin to find his own. “We’re trying to make our way to meet up with the Returners,” he said. “We want to stop the Empire from destroying more than they already have.”

Cyan seemed like he was going to add something then, but in the end he shut his mouth and averted his gaze from the others.

There was silence for what felt like a long time. Just when they were starting to wonder where the disembodied voice of the train had gotten to, it returned, decisive. “We’re approaching a stop. I will let you go.”

Sabin wanted to pump his fist in the air, but he managed to restrain himself. “Thank you.”

The train immediately began to slow down. “I am leaving you near the south exit of the forest. You will find Baren Falls to the east.” A squealing filled the air as the train’s brakes engaged. The men and the dog steadied themselves. “I suggest you move quickly. I can already feel the march of soldiers’ feet through the forest.”

“Thank you again,” Sabin said. He bowed awkwardly toward the control panel before running for the door and leaping happily at the platform. “Finally off!” he cried.

Cyan was raising an eyebrow. “Hast thou learned something about hopping aboard strange trains?” From where he crouched, patting Interceptor’s head, Shadow let out a single, out-of-character chuckle.

Sabin chose to pretend he hadn’t heard the question. Instead he turned to his comrades with his arms crossed. “We should get moving. Let’s go!”

Cyan nodded in agreement, but Shadow held up a hand as though to say ‘wait’. “We should let them board first,” he insisted.

Sabin and Cyan looked to the other end of the platform to see a mysterious sight. An enormous line of spirits were boarding the train. Unlike the ones they’d previously encountered, these still held onto their earthly forms. They would almost have appeared to be normal, living people, if it weren’t for the unusual glow that surrounded each one of them. They moved on to the train so quickly – literally hundreds of them – that the men scarcely had time to contemplate that what they were witnessing was the exodus of the dead of Doma. That is, until the final two spirits hopped aboard and Cyan let out a strangled cry.

Sabin looked first at Cyan, who was white with horror, and then to the two spirits, who had turned toward the cry. One was a beautiful woman with long blond hair; the other was a young boy, no older than seven. Sabin’s mouth dropped in understanding. “Cyan,” he croaked out, “Is…is that your wife and child?”

Cyan didn’t hear the question. The train’s whistle had blown and broken him from his trance. “No!” he screamed his denial. “Elayne! Owain!” He rushed toward them as the train steamed up and began to pull away. “No! Wait! Please wait!”

Elayne and Owain waved sadly from the train as it picked up speed. Cyan ran, hand outstretched as though to snatch them back from the moving vehicle. “Please!” he screamed, tears streaming down his face. “Stop! Don’t leave me!”

Elayne’s ghostly voice, sad but accepting, floated forward on the wind. “My love, you made me so happy. Don’t forget me.”

And Owain’s, trying to sound strong. “Don’t worry, dad! I’ll take care of mom! I love you, dad!”

Cyan had run out of platform. With a single heart-wrenching cry he dropped to his knees and watched the train disappear from sight.

Shaking all over, Sabin took a step toward the man, but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. He turned to look at Shadow, who was shaking his head silently. Sabin’s shoulders drooped.

A long time passed before Cyan finally stood again.

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