Chapter 3

Zalbard knelt in the total darkness of the Master’s chamber. Here, the shadows that followed the Master wherever he went were strongest. Shadows that hid magical energy as well as physical form. They pressed on Zalbard’s back, almost solid.

Of the Destined Ones, Zalbard had no fear. Of his subordinates and colleagues who sought to displace him, he had no fear. Of the foes he had once bent knee to, but had in time replaced, he had no fear. Of the enemies he’d made in his work, he had no fear.

There was only one being that Zalbard feared, and that was the one before whom he knelt.

"You have done well," the Master said.

"I am your humble servant, my Master," Zalbard said, knowing he was grovelling and that there was no reason to do so, for he had succeeded. But his fear was still there.

"We are aware of that."

Zalbard heard the Master’s footsteps walking a circle around him in the darkness. The sound, not quite metallic, of his armored boots rang in Zalbard’s ears.

"We will grant you greater powers, our loyal servant," the Master said.

Zalbard stiffened as he felt a gauntleted hand, impossibly cold, on his shoulder. The Master’s touch was even more terrifying than his presence. At a thought, he could snap Zalbard’s neck, condemn him to the eternity of magicite. The eternal slavery of magicite, for the Master used it as he saw fit.

No one would ever question his disappearance. "Zalbard?" they would say, those who had called him friend, "who is that?" When the Master took life, it was taken forever, it had never existed, and to think otherwise was to cease to exist.

No one knew where the magicite of the Master’s victims went. No one dared ask.

The hand moved from Zalbard’s shoulder.

"You did not take the lives of the three Destined Ones?" the Master asked, his voice neutral.

Zalbard froze. His mission had been to retrieve the -Heir-. Not to kill the Destined Ones. Surely the Master would not hold him accountable for their being alive? "I... thought they might be useful, my Master."

No sound. The chamber was as silent as it was dark.

How much time passed before the Master answered, Zalbard couldn’t say. It felt like an eternity, but it could not have been more than a few minutes. Yet those few minutes left Zalbard nearly reduced to tears, desperately wanting to cry out. There was no existence, no sight, no smell, no sound, no taste, no touch, no magic.

At last, the Master said, "You were correct in that thought."

Zalbard suppressed his sigh of relief.

"We must have at least some of them. Once they have been brought together, the Player is useless, but the Bearer is required. The Leader, when he appears, will be of equal importance."

Zalbard knew he should wait for the Master to continue, but he couldn’t bear another silence. "And the Seeker?" he asked.

There was no answer.

Zalbard steeled himself against the terrifying nothingness. It did not last for such a long eternity as it had before. But the Master did not deign to answer his question. "As a reward, Zalbard, we have granted you new powers. But your reward shall be greater than that. You may do as you wish with the -Heirs-, as long as they are not permanently damaged."

"My lord!" Zalbard said, happy for the first time since this terrible meeting had begun.

"You may go, our loyal servant."

And go Zalbard did, retreating from the chamber and its darkness with far less dignity than he would have insisted upon under any other circumstances. He half-ran, half-stumbled down the obsidian corridors of his home, relishing even the dim green light that permeated the place.

When he was safely away from the presence of the Master, he halted. He caught his breath and reflected on what he’d been told.

The Master’s insistence that the Destined Ones were needed came as a surprise to Zalbard. A fortunate surprise, as it forgave his failure to kill them.

Why the reticence in regards to the Seeker? Zalbard could think of only one reason. The Master was afraid of the man called Sephiroth. But surely, that was impossible. Zalbard had fought the man. He was skilled, powerful, but nothing that a Greater Devil or two could not handle.

And where was the fourth Destined One, anyway? This ‘Leader,’ who would surely be even more dangerous still. Leadership was established through power, or through cunning. One who could establish it over the Destined Ones would have to be mighty indeed. His absence worried Zalbard, for he could not plan for an enemy he did not know.

He banished such thoughts from his head as he approached his chambers. Business could come later.

His mind wandered to the more pleasant thing of which the Master had spoken, the reward.

So the -Heirs- were his to do with as he pleased, hmm? He anticipated that a great deal. The Master had charged him with breaking the wills of the first two after Zalbard’s former superior had been turned by their beauty. He had been one of the Master’s vanished victims, and Zalbard had become second in power.

Although Zalbard appreciated the charms of his charges, he knew better than to confuse enjoyment with infatuation. That road led to destruction. The dosages of pleasure and pain he had given the first two captives had made them his slaves, not he theirs.

He would enjoy seeing what set Althena apart from her sisters.

Regrettably, he would have to be quicker with her than with the others, whose wills had been eroded over years - more than a decade, for the first. The time until the Convergence, the Master had assured him, was growing short. To make Althena his, to have her obeying his every whim, in a few months at most? Perhaps less? That was a true challenge.

The challenge was likely to prove quite... interesting.

His lingering fear of the Master forgotten, Zalbard smiled.