Wind was the first audible sound. Wind, whistling through the glassless window. Then the sound of cloth rippling and snapping back against the wooden wall. Finally, waves crashing in the distance, muted by the surrounding structure.
Must be near an ocean.
The next sensation realized was the surface of a bed – not terribly soft. Probably made of hay and scavenged feathers.
What followed was a chill. The blanket was thin and tattered, and the wind outside relentless.
It was time for eyes to open, but when they did, they were greeted with blackness.
No… disuse. It took a moment for them to become reaccustomed to light. Head turned to the side; faced a sparse, tiny room. Arm tried to lift, but fatigue dominated. Muscles had withered.
There was no choice but to succumb to sleep once more.
* * *
Once more awakening, ears were greeted with a new sound. Shuffling, thumping, like footsteps nearby. Eyes wearily focused on the figure of a boy, half naked and hair wild. Voice failed to call out, but a whispered sigh escaped. The boy turned, bewilderment all over his face. A strange but cheerful sound escaped his throat as he leapt to the bedside.
“Locke!” The boy wiggled excitedly. “Locke awake!”
“G… Gau,” whispered Locke.
Gau skipped around the small room in a joyous dance. “Locke awake now!” he cried again and again.
“I… can’t move.”
The boy rushed back over to Locke, now looking slightly concerned.
“Locke sleep so long,” he said sadly, growling as he spoke.
“Long time.” Locke then noticed how haggard the boy looked. Ribs poked through his torso; nasty, untreated wounds blemished his skin. He could see that he walked with an odd limp, as though a broken leg had not been properly set back in place before healing. When he opened his mouth, teeth were missing or visibly rotting. Locke felt a sinking feeling in his gut.
“Where are we?” he managed to gasp.
Gau limped to the window and peered out as the cloth flew in his face. “Eye-land,” he replied, sounding it out phonetically. “But too small. All people dead. Not big food.”
He returned to Locke’s side and a grin spread across his face. “But Gau find food!” he announced proudly. “Gau Locke’s mum!”
Locke managed a weak smile. “Yes… you’re like my mother.” He tried to roll onto his side, and after much effort he succeeded. “Why is it so hard to move?” he wondered aloud.
“Locke sleep soooo long. Maybe forgot how.”
The Returner was almost afraid to know exactly how long he’d been unconscious. Long enough to outlive everyone else who’d been on the island, anyway. He hoped none of his friends had been among them.
Over the next few hours, Locke worked on willing his limbs to move. He’d never imagined it could be so difficult to do something so basic; he felt like a newborn baby lying on that hay-bed, flexing his joints simply for movement’s sake. For a while he stared with vague horror at his own arms. He was almost as thin as Gau – his fingers looked skeletal and his veins protruded noticeably. But he felt guilty when he realized how much Gau must have been sacrificing to keep his comatose friend alive. The boy looked positively awful. Not only was he sharing what scarce food he could find, there must have been monsters out there on the island, judging by the wounds all over his body.
With much effort, Locke had managed to sit up, though not without blacking out briefly due to the rush of blood to his head. Upon regaining consciousness, he pulled himself up once more and gently let his feet over the side of the bed. A long lock of hair fell over his shoulder and into his face. His heart began to rush anxiously as he pinched it between his fingers and held it in front of his eyes.
His hair had never been anywhere near this long.
Dull, ashy-blonde waves of hair fell easily below his shoulderline. He ran his fingers through the greasy locks with unease. He felt his chin – well, the patchy stubble wasn’t particularly remarkable. He’d never been successful at growing a beard, but this – this impressive length of hair flowing from the top of his head – could only mean that he’d been asleep for a very, very long time.
At least a year, he estimated, if not longer.
He glanced down at his chest through his open shirt. There were his ribs, too, he noted sadly. He now understood the difficulty of movement; his muscles had been slowly withering away as he’d slept uninterrupted for the past year.
All of a sudden, he couldn’t believe he was even alive. But that he had survived was all thanks to Gau – bless that strange, feral child Sabin had picked up on the Veldt.
A loud yelp then came from outside. Locke heard Gau’s wild growling cries of rage as he tore apart some lesser beast. The tussle did not last long, and soon he entered the doorway dragging a bloody mess of meat behind him.
“See, Locke!” He gestured innocently at his kill. “Gau bring food! Gau Locke’s mum!”
Locke had to chuckle this time. But as the boy hauled his load back outside to prepare it, a slight sadness washed over him. Whatever had raised Gau out in the wild had obviously done the same for him, and now it was Gau’s turn to care for a helpless cub. Though Gau was a generally cheerful person, his was an undeniably unfortunate story. Sabin had relayed the rumors he had heard in Mobliz – about the man who, believing him to be a demon, had thrown his newborn son out to the mercy of nature.
Locke decided to wait until he’d had a proper meal to attempt walking. It seemed like ages before Gau returned with charred meat hanging off a large stick. Under normal circumstances, Locke would have hesitated before this questionable cuisine, but this was not the time to be finicky and his stomach was rumbling loudly. He graciously accepted the chunk of blackened meat held out to him and slowly took a bite. It was rather tough, and he didn’t want to think about how Gau had managed to feed him while he had been unconscious.
It was strange to feel his stomach fill after eating so little. But it was a good thing, for the time being, he figured; this meat would probably have to last the two of them for several days at least.
As he now dared to lift himself off the bed, he voiced the questions that had been burning inside of him for hours now.
“What happened to everyone else on the airship?” He wondered how much language Gau actually understood. He had rarely interacted with the him on a personal basis before; the kid had tended to stick with Sabin whenever possible. “Do you know where uh… Mister Mash is?” For some odd reason, this was the nickname Gau had bestowed upon Sabin.
“Mister Mash…” the boy echoed sadly. “Gau not know. Mister Mash not come to eye-land.”
“What about the others? Celes? Edgar? Terra?” Locke pressed on hopefully.
Gau shook his head. “Gau and Locke only. Some more people come too, but Gau know only Locke.”
Locke sighed. At least he hadn’t confirmed that they were dead, but he still had no idea if the others were alive. For all he knew, he and Gau could be the only ones left of their party. Or in fact, the only ones left in the whole world.
The thought was terrifying.
But he pushed it out of his mind for the time being and tried to concentrate on keeping his balance. Gau cheered him on as he took a wobbly step forward, hunched over and clutching the top of a makeshift stool. As he attempted a second step, his knees buckled and he crashed to the floor. Gau let out a bizarre cackle but helped Locke back to bed. He sat still for a moment, trying to catch his breath and calm his trembling. Walking was apparently too ambitious at this point.
And though it was the last thing he wanted to do, Locke laid back down and closed his eyes. Sleep easily washed over him, and for the first time in over a year, he dreamt while he slept.
* * *
It was a few days before he successfully walked across the room even with support of the stool. Several more days later, he was finally able to stand on his own and walk short distances. No thanks to the lack of nutrition, he was not gaining strength at any rapid pace, but he was feeling a bit better. Now, two weeks after he had awakened, Locke stood outside on the beach nearest the small shack, leaning on a crooked staff.
He was going crazy here. Stuck on this tiny, solitary island with only an animal-like boy who could barely converse for company. All he could think about were his other friends, wondering where they were and if they were safe. He had been sorely disappointed, upon exiting the shelter for the first time, to find that he could see the shoreline in every direction, save for to the north where the land elevated steeply and dropped off as cliffs on the opposite side. And beyond the ocean, there was nothing. No other landform could be seen from anywhere on the island. What were the chances of actually making it to a mainland if he constructed a raft and put himself to the mercy of the wind? Probably slim to none. If he didn’t run out of food, burn to a crisp from the sun, get caught in a storm or eaten by sea creatures, there was still no guarantee that there was even anything on the other side of this expanse of ocean.
But how much longer would they really survive on this island?
A large shadow passed over him and he looked to the sky. A great, winged creature swooped overhead, circling the island. Locke’s heart raced. What was that thing? A dragon? It didn’t have a tail, and it appeared to have claws on the ends of its wings, like a bat. His curiosity was not so strong as to keep him standing out in the open like a fool; he hurried back to the shack as fast as he could. Gau was standing just outside, glaring up at the beast.
“Gau, what is that?” asked Locke, panting.
“Skull bird,” came his reply. Locke squinted up at the creature and though it was difficult to see with the sun behind it, sure enough, its head was nothing but a bare, white skull.
Locke felt faint. If that thing decided to land, he and Gau were dead for sure. He backed into the shelter and pulled at Gau’s arm. “Come on, let’s try to stay out of sight.”
“No, Gau protect Locke!”
“I think it’s better if we don’t get its attention…”
“Gau fight skull bird before; kill now!”
The demonic beast swooped down near the ground, close enough for Locke to feel a gust of wind through the open door, and it was then that he got a sense for how large it really was. A low growl escaped Gau’s throat and Locke shrank further back inside. Gau was putting himself in danger, and Locke was too weak to do anything about it.
The creature let out a shrill cry and swooped again. Dust swirled up in small cyclones, temporarily blinding the boy. He rubbed at his eyes quickly and continued to stare it down as it dove once more. This time, the enemy had come too close to the nest.
Gau flew into a rage and lashed out at the beast, striking with his sharp, clawlike nails. It shrieked as blood spilled from a wound on its massive leg and rushed back into the sky. Gau galloped away from the shack and the skull bird followed from above. Locke cautiously peeked through the window opening to watch as the two clashed once more. The demon sent Gau flying with a swift beat of its wing, catching him in the side with one of its ghastly claws. The boy rolled and stood back up immediately, maintaining his offensive stance.
This time, as the hellish creature sped towards the ground, Gau leapt at the last second and grabbed hold of a leg. He was carried high into the air as the beast kicked and flailed. Gau swiped at its wing as it came crashing towards him and slashed through the leathery skin between the boning. Terrible cries filled the air. At last the wild child was thrown and he yelped like a dog as he hit the ground. Locke cringed. He knew he would be speared instantly by the creature’s great talons if he dared show himself. Yet somehow it was still more painful to have to watch the boy take such abuse.
Unable to bear the scene any longer, Locke frantically began to search the small room for anything he could use as a weapon. He couldn't just stand by and watch Gau get killed – not after he had cared for him and kept him alive while he slept for a year. Rummaging through a knapsack, he came upon an unexpected treasure. Locke held the glassy object to the light – a ghostly red teardrop sparkled in the center of a jagged, pale green crystal. He recognized it instantly as Magicite.
But who was it? he wondered. Each Esper’s Magicite crystal had its own distinct look, but this one was unfamiliar. No matter, he thought; any aid would help, regardless of source. He rushed to the door, only to then note that his surroundings had grown oddly quiet. Peering around the corner, he could see the beast had perched on the ground many yards away. It let out a snort and bobbed its head up and down. There was something in its teeth.
Once again overcome with fear, Locke could do nothing but gape in horror at the scene before him. He fingered the crystal nervously and stuttered breathlessly, “Esper… Esper, please… please come…”
He felt his legs about to give out and he leaned against the doorframe for support. His head was reeling from panic and weakness.
“Please, Esper… please come…”
The Magicite was draining his energy, but it was not enough to summon anyone.
Now barely able to see, he stumbled backwards into the shack and tripped over the stool. The crystal clattered to the floor and Locke blacked out as pain shot through the back of his head.
* * *
Something was tickling him. He put his hand to his face and touched something unexpected. In one swift motion, he was sitting up and a rather large spider was scurrying away from his body. He shuddered. Then he remembered what was going on.
Locke rushed out the door and whipped his head around. The demon was nowhere to be found. Squinting in the direction in which he last saw it, he made out a small figure in the distance. He ran across the plain until he stood over the body of Gau.
Nausea immediately overwhelmed him and for once he was thankful his stomach was empty. The boy was dead.
He worked up the courage to lower his eyes and face the victim once more. Gau’s body was mangled. Ribs and organs spilled out of his abdomen, and many were missing. His neck was torn; skin and muscle eaten away. But the carnage seemed so… random. It was as if the creature had not hunted for food, but merely for the sake of killing.
Locke didn’t bother to stop the tears from flowing down his cheeks. There was no one to see him, no reason to suffer in proud silence. For the first time in many years, he simply allowed his emotions to pour through his body as violently as they would come.
Was this it? Was this what the end of the world was really like? Just him and some bloody scraps of meat drifting on a tiny piece of land. He laid down on the ground, half hoping the sun would make him burst into flames.
Everyone else had to be dead. There wasn’t a single shred of hope left in his soul, and he had begun to tire of thinking, maybe.
Let the skull demon come back and pick me apart too, he thought angrily. Just come back and put me out of my misery.
But no shadows passed overhead; no great flapping of wings could be heard. There was just the sound of waves crashing all around forever and ever.
* * *
Every action, every movement from the moment he finally stood up was executed in a daze. First he paced around the island, sand burning his feet and sweat soaking his shirt. He stared out at the undulating sea, transfixed at the perpetual bobbing of its waves. His legs brought him up to the apex of the northern cliffs and he closed his eyes as the wind lapped at the moisture on his body. The heavy locks of his long hair were lifted and scattered in a chaotic dance around his head. And then he felt himself falling forward, though he hadn’t made any conscious decision to do so.
It was a wonderful sensation, freefalling through the cool oceanic air. All the anxiety and pain he had been feeling since his awakening melted away as his body was enveloped in a blanket of beautiful emptiness.
Even the shock of a sudden collision with the water could not break his meditative state. The iciness only relaxed him further, and soon the intoxicating lack of oxygen lulled him graciously to sleep.
* * *
Locke shivered himself awake.
He spat out a mouthful of salt and sand and lifted his head. He was lying belly-down on one of the island’s many beaches.
He did not feel so peaceful anymore. Nights on the solitary island were freezing cold, and by this time the moon had been hanging overhead for a couple hours now. Locke picked himself up off the ground and dragged his body back to the little shed, where he stripped off his wet clothes and wrapped a tattered blanket around his shoulders. Spotting the small remaining supply of dried meat, he tore off a chunk and took a bite.
If the demon couldn’t maul him, the sun couldn’t incinerate him, and the ocean couldn’t drown him, then he could survive anything, he thought. There had to be some reason he was still alive. Hell, first and foremost, he had survived an airship crash and slept soundly for a good year before he had a chance to live through this new set of challenges.
In the morning, he would tear down the shed and build a raft from its walls. He would load it up with what was left of the meat, and pile on what few blankets he could find. He would shove off and let the wind carry him wherever it willed, and the world be damned if he didn’t someday reach land.
Firm in his resolution, he settled in for one last lonely night on the island. But not before regretfully burying the remains of the strange boy from the Veldt.
Chapter 2: Hollow and of No Use
“Another hallucination…!” Locke groaned, rolling onto his back. The raft bobbed up and down and a wave of salty water splashed in his face. He pulled the blanket back over his head despite the blazing heat. It was the only thing protecting him from the sun’s unyielding rays.
He had been at sea for days. So many unbearably hot days and freezing cold nights, all spent hiding under the scant protection of tattered blankets. The food was gone; his first meal had been vomited overboard thanks to the raunchy, constant bobbing of waves beneath him. After that, he ate the dried meat one bite at a time, taking another only when he was certain the first had been completely digested. By now he felt as though a hand had grabbed his stomach and was twisting it in knots. He imagined the view from above – a vulture’s-eye view of a hungry, dying man floating around on some planks of rotting wood. Was there even any meat on his bones worth picking at? Probably not much, though the skull bird could still have a fantastic time ripping off his limbs for amusement.
But now, there was something just barely visible on the horizon. He had seen this before, though, and it had never seemed to come any nearer to him. A mere trick of the mind, causing his eyes to see what he so desired to see. Surely this was another illusion, another cruel joke, taunting him.
“Ah-ha-ha...” he bellowed from beneath the blanket. “You think you can fool me again, can you?” He sat up and the raft rocked dangerously. Then he pointed at the mirage and cried out, “I’m not a fool!”
The blazing sun caused him to quickly throw the blanket back over his head. He gazed at his hands; they looked like they belonged to an old man. His own voice echoed in his mind, and he suddenly felt like the fool he’d just denied being.
This was stupid. He was Locke Cole, charismatic adventurer and treasure hunter, not a senile old git. He was confident, energetic, and filled with the stamina of youth. And he certainly wasn’t going to let his mind get the best of him, of all things. Though his body was broken, he still had his wits. He wasn’t going insane… he wasn’t Kefka.
Had their enemy survived the collapse of the world? Did he live to see this wasteland he’d created?
A terrible vengeance coursed through Locke’s veins. He hoped so. He wished more than anything that Kefka remained alive, but that he was suffering. Maybe he was stuck on an island somewhere too, his flesh being picked apart by the skull bird. A sadistic grin crept to the corners of his mouth. He only felt slightly ashamed at having delighted in such a thought; after all, he had no reason to feel sympathy for the madman. It was because of Kefka that he was here right now, wasting away in the middle of the ocean. It was because of Kefka that Gau had been put in a position to die such a terrible and senseless death. And if he found that his other friends were no longer alive either, he knew where to lay the blame.
If ever a man deserved to suffer, it was Kefka Palazzo.
Locke vowed that if he ever found him, he would see to it that he received his rightful inheritance of torture. And he didn’t care that if with Kefka, his own kind and humanistic self died as well.
* * *
The heat had caused him to lose consciousness for a while. He had blacked out a number of times before, but on this occasion he was rudely awakened when he hit the water and swallowed a mouthful of the disgusting, salty liquid. His arms flailed as he pulled his head above the waves and gasped, choking. He looked around – the raft was floating away from him. He started to swim toward it when he finally took notice of his surroundings.
He was near land.
There was a beach, just ahead! And it spread out for miles in either direction – this was no island! Elated, he began to swim as fast as he could toward the shore. But he was quickly overcome with fatigue and the muscles in his abdomen cramped up. He took a deep breath and concentrated on simply floating on his back. Perhaps the waves would bring him closer…
It was agonizing how slowly he made his way to land. But at last, he was dragging himself onto the muddy beach, where his skinny legs wobbled violently before he fell to the ground with a crash.
He had to keep moving; he had to find food! He lifted his head laboriously; he would eat that grass up ahead if it came down to it.
But as he looked around, a glimmer of hope raced through his heart as it had never since the day he awoke from his coma. To the east, there was a town. Keeping his mind focused on the goal, he picked himself back up and shuffled off toward it.
The sun was beginning to set by the time he stepped foot onto paved roadway. His clothes had long since dried and were caked with mud and salt. His hair was matted and tangled, and he knew he must be a pathetic sight.
Those suspicions were confirmed when his eyes met those of a middle-aged woman stepping out of a shop. She froze in place, judging whether what stood before her was man or beast.
“Ah…” Locke started, hoping she wouldn’t be frightened away. “Sorry…”
“Oh dear,” she said, her expression softening to something of pity. “What’s happened to you?” The woman approached him.
Locke was so relieved not only to have found another human being, but one of compassionate demeanor. He nearly broke into tears, but held them back.
“I…” For some reason he was dumbfounded. Memories of the past few weeks flashed through his mind with such a ferocity that overwhelmed him. “I didn’t think there was anyone else alive…”
The woman shushed him and beckoned for him to follow. He was surprised when she took his arm and gently nudged him on the back to guide him along, apparently unrepulsed by his condition. They walked to the stoop of a small but comfortable house a little further into town. The woman opened the door and led him inside.
The scent of… cleanliness greeted him as he stepped into the house. Locke glanced around; the house was sparsely decorated and very tidy. He eyed a cushioned couch in the corner longingly, and he was at once aware of the pain that enveloped his entire body. Across the room he could see a doorway leading into what must have been the kitchen, and his stomach groaned.
“Why don’t you get cleaned up and I’ll fix you something to eat,” she said, taking his arm once more. He followed her to a small bathroom and watched her fill up the tub. He was amazed at how unquestioningly this woman was going out of her way to help him.
“What is… this place?” Locke asked feebly.
“Ah, this is the town of Albrook,” she replied. “Forgive me. My name is Mae.”
He introduced himself in return.
“Locke,” she confirmed. “Do you know where you were before you arrived here?”
He looked at his feet. “I was on an island. Everyone else died, so I built a raft and just hoped to find land.”
Mae let out a sympathetic sigh as she retrieved a fresh bar of soap from the cabinet.
“Well, I’ll give you some privacy while you clean up… Or are you injured? Oh no, I should’ve thought of that sooner,” she said with a frown.
“I should be fine.”
“All right, then just take your time. Let me know if you need anything.”
Locke nodded and Mae walked out, closing the door behind her. He was still in somewhat of a daze at what had just happened. But then he looked over at the tub filled with steaming hot water and all other thoughts dissolved. He gingerly stripped down, joints aching as he contorted his body to peel off the rags that covered him. With another glance at the door, he stepped over to the wash basin and started to scrub the filth off his skin.
Though he wouldn’t have said he’d done a completely thorough job, he was certainly cleaner than he had been in all the time since his awakening. Mainly, he was eager to get into the hot bath and experience relaxation for a change. The water had cooled to the perfect temperature by the time he dipped in. He sat back and closed his eyes, and for the first time in so long, he actually felt glad to be alive.
Some time later, there was a faint knock at the door, and Locke jumped, startled out of a daydream.
“Oh, no hurry,” came Mae’s voice. “I’ve just put some fresh clothes outside the door for you. There’s dinner whenever you’re ready.”
“Thank you,” called Locke. He was still bewildered at how altruistic this woman was, but he was certainly grateful.
A few more minutes later, he reluctantly lifted himself out of the tub and dried off with the thin towel left for him on a shelf. Wrapping the towel around his waist, he cracked the door open slightly and peeked out. When he saw that the area was empty, he reached out and grabbed the clothes sitting just outside of the bathroom.
They fit reasonably well; the pants were rather baggy, but he was just glad to be wearing something that wasn’t filled with holes. He glanced back at the bathroom – he had made quite a mess. He quickly mopped the floor with the towel and scooped up his old clothes. They were headed for the trash.
Mae had a modest supper waiting for him in the kitchen. She took the rags from his hands and discarded them for him as he sat down at the table. His stomach growled again but he couldn’t bring himself to touch the food.
“Please, just Mae will do.”
He nodded. “I can’t thank you enough for all you’re doing for me… but, I have to ask – why? Everyone’s got their own problems.”
Mae gave a knowing smile and took the liberty to slide some steamed vegetables onto his plate.
“Certainly they do,” she said, now taking a seat herself. “But we’ll never rebuild this world if we don’t try to help each other out with these problems. I find that by helping others, I really help myself…”
Locke looked up at her as he spooned in a mouthful of food.
“I lost my husband and daughter when the world collapsed,” said Mae, now looking more solemn. The Lord’s Light of Judgment came down upon this city and took the lives of so many, my only daughter among them.”
“Light of Judgment…?”
Mae looked surprised. “Have you not seen the great beams of light that sweep across the sky? It doesn’t happen too often these days, but still… I couldn’t imagine there was a place on the planet that they didn’t reach.”
Locke set down his fork. “I lost consciousness on that… day the world changed. I just woke up a few weeks ago, to find myself on an island with only one other person. He had been caring for me all that time… but then he was killed by a great, flying beast.” His eyes met Mae’s. “Have you seen a… a ‘skull bird’? It’s a huge, demonic-looking thing with bat-like wings and a skull for a head.”
“Death Gaze,” she replied with a grimace. “For centuries he had been but a myth – I hadn’t even heard of it myself, but that’s what people have been saying. When the earth split apart he rose from the depths of Hell. Now he terrorizes the skies… We have been fortunate to not have been bothered too much by him here in Albrook, but I’ve heard terrible stories.”
The memory of seeing that creature hovering over Gau’s body, picking at his flesh, sickened Locke to the point of losing his appetite. His stomach felt surprisingly full anyhow.
“So you slept for over a year?” asked Mae, obviously changing the subject. “That’s amazing… It’s a miracle you’re alive today.”
“Yeah…” Locke agreed. There were so many questions burning in his mind. He wondered where he should start.
“So, what happened after the Floating Continent crumbled?” He figured that even if she hadn’t seen it herself, everyone must know about Gestahl and Kefka and the Statues by now.
“It’s difficult to say what the exact details are. I’ve heard so many rumors about the Empire and Espers and magic that I don’t know what to believe. It seems to me that some ancient magic was disturbed, probably due to the power-hungry meddlings of the former Emperor, and suddenly the world was just… torn apart. It was the Apocalypse, to be frank. They say the Lord descended and unleashed his fury upon this planet by sending out the Light of Judgment to smite those who displeased him. Now he sits proudly on his throne at the top of the great tower in the center of this continent.”
“There are those who worship him out of fear,” she continued, hardly masking the disgust in her voice. “But he is no God of mine.”
Could it be… Kefka?
“He slew my daughter first. Then my husband died trying to help another village that had been attacked. No… The Lord God should be merciful and gracious. Whatever is up there is not God. God is dead.”
Locke wondered whether he should tell Mae about his first-hand experiences on the Floating Continent, about how all of this was so much more evil than she even imagined because it was really the work of Man. He decided it could wait for now.
* * *
Locke spent the night, presumably in Mae’s late daughter’s old room. The two shared further conversations during which Locke learned about the present state of the world: The Empire had crumbled along with the Floating Continent. There were always rumors that former military leaders were trying to regroup and rebuild the Empire, but there was little evidence of their success. For the most part, people were simply trying to survive. The major cities seemed to be governing themselves, maintaining a low profile lest the Light of Judgment come their way.
Mae invited Locke to stay with her as long as he needed – an offer he graciously accepted, as he would certainly need some time to recover. In the days following, he explored the town, hoping to discover an old friend but knowing deep down that he shouldn’t be too disappointed when he found no one. The world was a big place, and he could spend years searching without ever reuniting with any of his former companions.
He finally decided to reveal to Mae who he really was – or rather, who he had been.
“The Returners?” she exclaimed, pausing from her kitchen work.
“It’s true… I was there on the Floating Continent when it crumbled.”
Mae dropped the vegetables she was pickling and sat down at the table with Locke. “Why didn’t you tell me before?”
Locke opted to continue his story in lieu of a straight answer.
“We’d been tracking the Emperor for a long time, and we knew he was on the verge of doing something extremely dangerous,” he said, waving away the details. He had no desire to spend hours telling tales of their epic journey in full at this point. “A group of about ten of us followed him to the Floating Continent…”
“How did you get up there?” she asked.
“We had an airship.”
Mae no longer looked at Locke with pity, but with awe and reverence.
“We found Gestahl and his henchman Kefka by the three ancient Statues –”
“So the Statues are real?”
“Yes. They were… sacred to the Espers.” He found his own memory fuzzy on some of the details near the end. “Gestahl thought that if he could harness the power of the Statues, he could rule the world.”
“He was a vile man,” spat Mae. “It killed me to live in this city, ruled by the Empire. But I would’ve been imprisoned if I’d ever voiced my true feelings here.”
“Turned out that Kefka was the real threat,” Locke continued. “He killed Gestahl and threw his body off the Continent. Then he… disturbed the balance of the Statues, and that’s when things began to fall apart…”
He paused, trying to recall everything that had happened amidst the chaos. Mae watched him in silence.
“We just tried to escape after that. We managed to make it back to the airship, but it must have crashed then. I think I was thrown from the ship before it hit the ground, though… Next thing I know, I’m waking up on an island in the middle of nowhere and I’ve lost a whole year.”
There was another moment of silence.
“I guess we didn’t succeed in what we’d set out to do.”
Mae looked deep in thought. The wrinkles around her eyes and mouth were very noticeable just then.
“Can you… use magic?” she asked finally.
Locke hesitated. “I could… but I was never very good at it. It wasn’t Magitek,” he added quickly.
“No, I wouldn’t expect a Returner to wield the Emperor’s bastard magic.”
“Well…” He thought of Celes. But he let a few more words go unspoken.
“I just… I’d heard stories about the Returners. Some were saying that they were magic-users, and I couldn’t understand how that was possible.”
Locke stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out the small, greenish crystal. He’d tied it to the insides of his clothes before setting sail on the raft, and it had miraculously stayed with him on his journey. He wondered how much he should be telling Mae, but he was still feeling that desperation that comes from lack of company and it was nice to have a sympathetic ear to listen.
“This is Magicite. It’s kind of what’s left of an Esper when it dies. The Esper’s spirit is housed within here, I guess, and it’s possible to call upon it and harness its power. Whereas Magitek was the infusion of an Esper’s essence into a human by force, the use of Magicite is entirely up to the will of the Esper.”
Mae gazed at the crystal in awe, but to Locke’s relief, she did not ask to handle it herself.
“You sacrifice your own energy to call upon the Esper or its magic,” he continued. “Some people – I guess the more spiritual ones; I could never really figure out why some were better at it than others – were able to learn spells permanently so that they didn’t need to carry the Magicite to cast. I wasn’t one of those people. Anyway, I tried using this back on the island when Death Gaze came around but I… I wasn’t strong enough.” He regretted bringing the subject back to Gau.
After a few moments, Mae stood up and went back to her work.
“What will you do now?” she asked, and Locke replaced the Magicite in his pocket.
“I’d like to try to find my friends… But I have no idea if they’re even still alive.”
“And then will you fight again?”
Locke looked up. “Fight?”
Mae shrugged, a sad expression on her face. “I know the Empire is gone, but all is still not right with the world. Far from it, really…”
“You mean ‘God’ in the tower and the Light of Judgment.”
Mae turned away to hide her emotions. Locke looked down at his arms resting on the table. They were still as skeletal as ever.
“I don’t know if I can fight anymore…”
The woman faced him again, wiping tears from her eyes with the back of her hand. “No, no, I don’t mean to put the weight of the world on your shoulders. You’ve already been through that once, right?” She gave a weak laugh, trying to brush off the depressing air that had settled around them. “It will work out in the end… We’ll pull through somehow.”
Locke could only gaze at her in amazement; this woman who’d lost her whole family to the wrath of God was still optimistic about the future of mankind.
* * *
A week later, Locke was beginning to get anxious. By now it was clear that none of his former companions were in Albrook, and even questioning some of the locals had brought him no news of their whereabouts. Either they hadn’t been through here or they hadn’t made an impression on anyone.
He had taken to testing his strength and exercising as much as possible without negatively impacting his body. He was so frustrated with his lack of muscle tissue, knowing that he would be unable to survive traveling on his own, that he became irritable. He was sick of waiting around for something to happen on its own. It was time to take action.
Mae could tell he was itching to leave, and Locke felt bad that he was subjecting her to his ill temper when she was being nothing but hospitable to him. He did the best he could to remain pleasant around her.
But then the next day she delivered some excellent news.
“There’s a relief convoy headed for Tzen that’s leaving in a couple days,” she said, interrupting his weight lifting of water jugs. Locke looked at her with interest.
“I know you want to leave… to start looking for your friends. And while I’d be worried for your safety, as I’ve come to think of you as one of my own in this short time… I know that you have your own life to live.
“Tzen has been a target for the Light of Judgment recently… The Bastard Lord has been unmerciful toward the great city. As we’ve been rather fortunate here in Albrook, a group of volunteers have decided to go to Tzen to help the citizens recover and rebuild. I couldn’t let you leave on your own, but perhaps you’d be safer traveling with a convoy…”
“Thank you – oh, this is great!” said Locke, his old adventurous spirit rising up within him. This was exactly the kind of thing he was hoping for. And as he had no leads, Tzen was as good a place as any to start his journey.
But Mae looked troubled.
“Nevertheless… It will still be very dangerous. This was… Well, my husband went on one of those relief trips many months ago. The Lord apparently didn’t like the idea of people going out of their way to help others recover from his wrath. My husband – and the rest of the convoy – were struck down by the Light of Judgment.” Her voice had fallen to just above a whisper.
Locke was at a loss for comforting words. “Well…” he tried, “I suppose I have to get out there somehow. I think I’m too weak yet to take on the beasts of the wild on my own, but I’m just itching to get started…!”
The older woman gazed off at the window, lost in her own thoughts. “You’re really an inspiration, Locke,” she said, her eyes still fixed on empty space. “You’ve been through so much hell, and yet you still keep going. I want so badly to keep you here now, to hold on to this resilience you show and protect it.” She looked over at him, finally. “But then you wouldn’t be out there fighting, would you. And I don’t necessarily mean that you’ll challenge the Fallen God face to face… Just that you’re fighting for something we all need to be reminded to fight for. For friendship, love, life in general… It’s so easy to give up and relinquish all to the oppressor. Your defiance of submission and death is the kind of rebellion that we all need. Perhaps it could even be his downfall if everyone could gather the courage to stand up for these precious things…”
He wasn’t sure he should be the one taking credit for being ‘inspirational’ at the moment. Sure, he planned to travel and account for his missing companions, but he was lost on his own. If they regrouped and retook their position as rebel fighters, he would gladly join in. And certainly, if he found the strength and the opportunity, he would slay Kefka for his atrocities. But the thought seemed to be borne out of personal vengeance anymore, which was hardly noble.
Furthermore, it was somewhat ridiculous to think such ambitions could be carried out by a man stripped of all his former power. But then, what other path did he even have to choose? There was truly nothing else worth living for.
Mae loaded him up with supplies and money, which he reluctantly accepted only due to her unwavering insistence. With the gold, he purchased two simple daggers, a sturdy black leather vest and gauntlets at the armory, and a pair of new boots at the shop next door. He filled a small pouch with medicinal herbs and an elixir and secured it to the side of his belt. Finally, he took a strip of cloth and tied his long hair back. He wasn’t fond of the look, but it served as an odd sort of reminder that things were different now, and he was no longer the person he had been but a year ago. Perhaps if he ever again felt settled in life, he would cut his hair back to the length he was used to.
Mae watched as Locke joined the group of seven other men and helped them load up the carts. Women and children wept for their husbands and fathers, fearing they would never return. Mae had been among them the day her own husband had left, but today she stood wearing an expression of solemn acceptance. Crying did nothing, she’d told Locke, when meanwhile these brave souls were actively trying to make a difference.
The convoy was ready to go just as dawn broke. The sky was overcast and a muddy shade of purple, as it often appeared in these post-apocalyptic days. As the first chocobo-drawn cart began to move forward, Locke looked back at Mae and smiled. I’ll keep fighting. I won’t give up on this world, he wanted to say, though he didn’t quite believe it himself just yet. She waved as they drove north, away from Albrook. A twinge of sadness pinged in his heart to leave her behind, but he knew his destiny lay along the road ahead.
Chapter title taken from: Travis - "Driftwood"
Chapter 3: Have Mercy on the Cowards
It was a painfully slow trip.
The journey from Albrook to Tzen would have taken a couple days regardless, but the security measures they were taking dragged it on for nearly a week. Rather than following the obvious route directly north, they skirted the eastern edge of the continent, giving the ominous tower a wide berth.
It was a bizarre experience; the large mountain ranges that had once broken up the land in this area had been completely leveled, and even at such a far distance, the tower was still visible on the horizon. Locke wondered what it looked like up close, but his curiosity would not be bringing him near it any time soon.
“Situated in the exact spot that the Imperial Castle once stood, in Vector,” said one of the men, who had noticed Locke staring intently at the distant structure.
“How is it that the mountains just… disappeared?” he asked.
“On the day the world cracked, the Light of Judgment rained down upon this entire area. Back in Albrook, we watched as it sliced clean through the mountains right before our eyes. It was so loud – so many explosions! I thought I’d go deaf from the sound. Then all of a sudden, debris from every direction – rocks and trees, chunks of buildings and even bodies – began flying toward the Capital, clustering together and forming a great tower. It was difficult to see because of all the ash in the air, but a few weeks later, when the dust began to settle, it was as though the land had flattened itself to bow before the Lord’s Tower.” He leaned back and watched for Locke’s reaction, but it was probably not the kind he’d been expecting.
Locke’s face had subtly twisted into a look of disgust. “And has anyone seen this Lord?” He was beginning to get aggravated with the way in which everyone referred to the destructor of the world.
“Well, no, but surely you’re not suggesting that the tower is empty?” the man said somewhat accusingly.
“Of course not; there’s obviously someone there.” But not God. “But why deify him? Has he commanded you to worship him?”
His companion was now losing his patience with these ignorant questions. “What man can wield the power to ruin the entire world? We don’t need a spoken command to realize that if we oppose him, he strikes us down!”
They rode in silence for the next few hours.
* * *
At long last they neared Tzen. The drivers calculated that their convoy was about an hour outside the city, but their feelings of relief quickly dissipated as the clouds began to darken overhead. In a matter of minutes, it was as though night had fallen. The chocobos slowed their pace as the men pulled over to decide the best course of action.
“We’re nearly there – might as well keep at it rather than wait out here for the storm! We’re too vulnerable!” voiced one of the men.
Others disagreed. “No, we should stop and ready ourselves! The storm is coming too quickly!”
There wasn’t much time to argue after all, as a blinding white soon light filled the sky, and the calm silence was viciously broken by the sounds of terrible explosions. The light swept in a beam past them, tearing the earth apart and setting the surrounding vegetation ablaze. The men dove to the ground in a feeble instinctual attempt to protect themselves from the danger at hand. The chocobos were knocked off balance and took the carts to the ground with them. As Locke pulled himself out of a heap of scattered food and medicines, he looked to the southwest. Was this a warning shot? Was Kefka angry they were bringing aid to a suffering town, as Mae had feared?
But as swiftly as it had come, it was all over. Everyone stood up cautiously, amazed to be alive and with only superficial injuries. One of the carts, however, had been completely smashed by the force by which it had been thrown back. Without missing a beat, the men began to gather up the supplies that had spilled out and rearrange everything back into the remaining carts. An older man hopped onto the back of the now-cartless chocobo, as there was now considerably less room inside the vehicles.
“That is what happens when you defy the Lord,” mumbled Locke’s traveling companion.
* * *
There was no doubt that the destructive beam had been aimed for Tzen, so the convoy rushed through the last leg of their journey as quickly as they could. They arrived in about half the time they had estimated it would take, and their haste was rewarded by a horrifying sight.
A huge gash had literally cut the city in two. Every building, tree, or person in its path had been incinerated. Houses closest to the wound crumbled as flames razed them to the ground. Tortured weeping and moaning rang out from all directions.
The men dismounted their carriages and stared at the carnage in silence. The body of a young woman lay sprawled on the ground before them, burned and bloodied. Sections of flesh on her face and arms had been melted away, exposing the skeleton underneath. One of the men began to retch.
The seasoned, older man who had ridden the chocobo stepped forward and signaled the others to follow. No point in staring; these people need help. Get to work, were his unspoken instructions. They took a collective deep breath and set out to find any survivors that still had a chance.
Toting a backpack filled with medical supplies – and with little idea how to properly use them – Locke swiftly walked in one direction, trying to keep his composure. Those injured cried out even louder when they saw a healthy man who could possibly help them, and Locke was suddenly overwhelmed with anxiety. He couldn’t help everyone! There were only eight who had come from Albrook, and he had not expected to have to do emergency relief when they arrived. He wasn’t a doctor. He could use potions and elixers and bandage a wound, but even his former magic – weak though it had ever been – was gone. He cursed himself for being so obtuse – why had it been so hard for him to learn spells, when it practically came natural to some like Edgar and Sabin? And Celes… there had been times when she even outperformed Terra. So many of his friends had excelled with Magicite in hand, but he’d never felt like such a failure as he did in this moment, when a bit of skill in magic could be used to save lives.
The wailing of a little girl – no more than four or five, covered in ash and blood – grounded his wandering thoughts. There were no guardians in sight. Locke rushed over to her to see if she was injured and quickly discovered the reason for her lack of supervision.
She was standing next to the corpse of a man whose legs were missing and face had been blasted to obscurity. Most of his body was blackened.
“Daaaaaddyyyyyyyy!!” she screamed again and again, her voice rasping.
Locke stood gaping for a moment, eyes wide and slack jawed. It was a nightmare come to life, except that he was expected to react consciously. No mysterious dream-force was there to move his limbs for him or tell him what to say.
“Are… are you hurt?” he asked stupidly to the girl, his breath now coming in sharp bursts. Her reply was to continue screaming.
He could see that her left arm hung limply at her side and was purple from bruises. It was clearly broken. Though his mind shrieked reminders that he knew how to set a broken bone, it was as though his body was suddenly paralyzed. He finally forced himself to drop his satchel to the ground and opened it, hoping to find something that might be of use, but his hands were trembling so violently that anything he picked out immediately slipped from his grasp.
He looked back at the girl and reached out to her. “C-come away from there,” he coaxed, finding it increasingly difficult to breathe.
The girl let out another terrible wail and backed away from him, tripping over some debris. She fell to the ground and screamed ever louder.
Locke began to cough violently; he felt like he was suffocating. Smoke from the nearby burning buildings was wafting into his lungs and stinging his eyes. All he could see when he looked around were more mutilated bodies, dead or barely ticking. From the rubble behind him there was an arm reaching out, patches of flesh missing, just as he’d seen on the woman at the edge of the town. As he stumbled to his feet, he choked again and suddenly he was vomiting. He dropped to his knees once more and tried to crawl away, childishly thinking there could be some escape. Nearly blinded by all the smoke and ash, he couldn’t see where he was throwing his hands, and he recoiled in horror when he felt something moist and slippery beneath his palm. Another body was trapped beneath the debris, only its head protruding, but it had been smashed by the falling rocks and its contents were spilling out onto the ground.
This is insane!
His mind reeled. Scrambling upright, he faltered forward, deeper into town, but no further away from the carnage.
He couldn’t save these people. Most of them were already dead or taking their last breaths. Even those with less grievous of injuries would find no comfort by his hands.
Up ahead, a woman paced frantically outside of a collapsing house. She tore at her long blonde hair in frustration and anxiety, and suddenly Locke’s heart skipped a beat. Could that be…?
“Celes?” he called weakly, picking up his pace.
She turned toward him. It was not her.
“Please help me!” she cried, her voice a cackle of desperation. “My son is trapped inside the house!”
At that moment, one of the other men from Albrook approached the scene. He was a rather burly man, confident and strong. He had surely already saved plenty of people in the time that Locke spent cowering and running away. Locke suddenly felt very ashamed at the way he looked; covered in filth and other people’s blood, telltale streaks cutting through the ash on his face, and of course, no supply pack on his back. That had been left on the ground back by the girl and her charred father.
“Locke, give me a hand!” the man shouted, instantly springing into action by pulling debris from around the front door. Numb, but determined now to contribute something useful, Locke lumbered over and awkwardly grasped a fallen support beam. It wouldn’t budge. He cursed, frustrated with his withered muscles for what seemed like the hundredth time
His companion had begun ramming the door with his shoulder. Locke could see that the frame was bent and that the roof above it had collapsed in – rubble was most likely blocking the other side, making it impossible to get through this entrance. Suddenly, a flicker of instinct finally kicked in and Locke began to visually scour the building, looking for another opening. He quickly spotted a gap in the wall to his left, though it was above his head, presumably leading to a room on the second floor.
“There!” he shouted and coughed, pointing up at it. “We can get in through that hole!”
The larger man grunted and said, “You’ll have to go in alone. I can lift you up there, but even if I climbed up myself I wouldn’t be able to fit through.”
Locke tried to mask the nervousness on his face. “R-right. Go on, then.” The man bent down and held his hands out for Locke to step up. He grabbed the man’s broad shoulders to steady himself, and with one swift motion he was hoisted into the air. He scrambled to grab hold of the edges of the gap, but they crumbled on contact. Nearly slipping down, the man down below called out words of encouragement.
“Come on! Get in there!” Well, it seemed more like a command.
Locke put his strength to the test and pulled his body through the portal just as a new wave of smoke billowed out of the opening.
He succumbed to another fit of terrible coughing, and he pulled a dirty cloth from his back pocket to tie around his nose and mouth. The smoke was so thick he had to crawl along the floor, lest he be completely enveloped in the toxic clouds.
“Is anyone in here?” he called and coughed again. He wished he’d at least learned the boy’s name before going in. “Let me know where you are! I’m coming to get you out!” He decided he’d have to limit these outbursts to a minimum, as every time he opened his mouth he inhaled a disgusting mouthful of dust and ash. His voice was so muffled and lost in the roar of the fire he doubted anyone would be able to hear him anyhow.
It was nearly impossible to see much farther than a few feet in front of him, and he wondered how he would ever find this boy. He spotted a staircase leading to the first floor, and he gratefully slithered down it, avoiding gaps and a burning piece of wood. It was much clearer downstairs, which allowed him to stand upright.
“Hello?” he called again. “Is anyone here?” He dashed from room to room, becoming increasingly worried at the support beams and chunks of ceiling that continued to crash to the ground around him, bringing with them the flames from the floor above.
“Hello?? Answer me!” he cried, coughing violently and rubbing his eyes. They stung badly, and the heat inside the house was becoming unbearable.
Then, in the corner of one room, he saw what looked to be a small shoe. Approaching, he then noticed the foot that belonged to it.
It was sticking out from beneath a heavy, fallen ceiling beam. Locke’s heart pounded. He dropped to his knees and peered around the debris. There was an arm, and there was a tuft of hair poking though as well. Flinging the smaller splinters out of the way, he unearthed a grisly sight.
The boy was lying on his back, pinned down unceremoniously by a heavy wooden beam. Blood obscured the part of his face that was visible from beneath the log so that it was difficult to make out the details of the damage. Willing himself strength, Locke shakily hoisted the heavy mass off the small boy’s body and rolled it aside.
It was immediately clear that the boy was dead. His chest had been split open by the beam’s sharp edge, and his face was completely smashed in.
Partly due to the ghastly display before him, but intensified by the toxic smoke all around, Locke could feel himself growing faint. A rush of awful questions flooded his mind. Should I leave him? What mother deserves to see her child in this state? But if I return without him, she’ll want to keep looking, perhaps hoping he’s still alive…
Reluctantly, he decided he must fulfill his mission: he had found the boy; now it was his duty to bring him out. He deserved a proper grave anyway.
Locke gingerly slipped his hands under the boy’s body, cringing at the feeling of his limp, dead weight. He looked around – the house was deteriorating as rapidly as the fires were spreading. There was no way he could get back up to the second floor now; he’d have to find another way out.
He ran toward the front door but it was indeed blocked, and Locke had no time to clear it away. Flames prevented him from getting anywhere near the windows. Frantically, he strained to think of a plan, but just then one corner of the house caved in on itself. Without hesitation, he scrambled toward the wreckage, barely avoiding falling debris, and dove out to the street, twisting his ankle upon landing. He clutched the little boy’s corpse to his chest.
The young mother ran over to him as he picked himself off the ground, shielding the boy’s wounds from her sight.
“My baby!” she cried, extending her arms.
Locke coughed and hesitated, unsure of what to do.
“Miss…” he began, breaking into yet another coughing fit. “I’m sorry, he’s…”
A look of horror spread across her face.
“My son! Give me my son!” she shrieked, clawing at Locke’s arms. Locke looked over at the man who’d lifted him into the house for support, but he was focused on trying to calm the young woman.
“Give him to me!” she screamed again, so resembling an enraged and rabid animal.
Locke cautiously lifted the boy away from his chest, knowing exactly what was to come.
The woman had the boy halfway in her arms when she saw his damaged face. She began to scream so shrilly that Locke’s ears began to hurt, and he moved to take hold of the child as his mother nearly dropped him out of shock. The strong man grasped the woman from behind to keep her from flailing so wildly.
As she continued to wail, two of the other men from Albrook rushed to see what all the commotion was about. The sight before them was self-explanatory. A tall, blond man roughly Locke’s age swung his satchel around and extracted a vial of orange liquid. The burly man held the woman tightly as the other forced the mixture into her mouth. She sputtered and coughed, and struggled even harder, screaming, “No! You won’t kill me too!” But in a matter of moments, the shrieking silenced, her muscles relaxed, and she went limp.
“Tranquilizer,” said the blond man as if to answer an unspoken question. “All my syringes are broken.”
Locke gazed down at the boy in his arms. In all his adult years, he had spent rather little time with children. By his mid-teens there weren’t too many kids in his small village, aside from a few newborns and toddlers, maybe, and he was always busy fulfilling his own interests. Once he left town for good and met up with Edgar and Arvis and the other Returners, he was fairly set in the path his life was taking – which no longer seemed to include ‘settling down’ of any sort. But in this moment he felt an odd and maybe inappropriate sort of nostalgia. He couldn’t help but think – if she… if she’d lived… he would probably have had a child of his own by now.
Why did it always have to come back to death?
He thought it some vague, macabre allusion appropriate to his own life story as he pressed the child against his chest, blood and innards spilling out onto his own body.
A strange calmness – or perhaps it was more a numbness – took over his whole being.
The dead wife he never married; the dead son he never fathered.
His face contorted, and, not caring that the other men were staring, Locke closed his eyes and silently wept, still cradling the little corpse.
* * *
There would be no rest for them that night. Other townsfolk lucky enough to live farther from the center of the attack had come to their aid, helping the volunteers from Albrook to put out fires and tend to the injured. The original seven, who had been planning this trip for a while, had trained themselves in medicine in preparation. Locke, however, being a last-minute addition to their crew, had no such practice aside from the crude tricks he had learned on his own past adventures. As there was little time for bumbling apprentices, he had been assigned to help extinguish the fires and pull bodies from the debris while the other men worked as healers. As dawn approached, many of the fires had been controlled, and now Locke had been given a new task: digging graves.
Sweat trickled liberally down his face as he drove his shovel into the ground, lifting away dirt and repeating the motions again and again. There were a few others helping him, and it was clear he was not alone in his exhaustion. So many had died, they didn’t have the time to dig proper graves for each and every one. Worse, the bodies were so horribly mutilated that most couldn’t be identified, and it was indecent to leave them out any longer than they needed to be. Locke and the other citizens of Tzen worked to dig long, shallow graves, in which they set seven or eight bodies before covering them back up. They had been at it for hours; their fourth mass grave was about halfway done.
Locke paused to rest, leaning on the shovel stuck in the ground and resting his head on his arms. He closed his eyes, but whenever he did he saw vivid images of all the mangled bodies he’d buried. Even after dealing with the carnage for so many hours, it never made it any less difficult to stomach. There were countless others who had ended up like the little girl’s father, charred nearly to ash and unrecognizable. Many were missing limbs, and even more common still were those whose flesh and muscle had been melted away, exposing the bones underneath. Never in his life had Locke ever imagined such horror could even be possible.
The hours dragged on and on until finally Locke could push his body no further. His shovel clattered to the ground as he collapsed, nearly rolling into the grave himself. The others rushed to drag him out and it was decided that perhaps it was time for everyone to rest a while. The sun was nearly set, and tonight there were fewer burning buildings to give them light by which to work.
* * *
A rotting stench filled his nostrils. Looking down, Locke could see the reason for his difficulty in movement: he was buried up to his thighs in bird carcasses. Large birds, too, and some mere skeletons. He picked up one skull and studied it closely. He wondered why it didn't have a beak.
He hadn't seen it move, but he was certain that the pain shooting through his hand just then was because the skull had bitten him. He tossed it away and started to run, his legs suddenly freed.
He ran until he felt it was okay to slow his pace. In the meantime, he walked through familiar terrain – the path between Narshe and Figaro Castle – always so beautiful when the world was green and growing. Leaving the mining lands, that first long pass southward never failed to steal his breath on every journey through. The mountains on either side framed a pristine glacial valley, dotted with trees but largely clear; long and winding where a river once flowed many years before he was even around to witness it. The rolling plains thereafter held an appeal of their own – tall grasses dancing into infinity. He always followed the sun and stars carefully to keep to his path – though he wouldn’t have minded getting lost there, his duties to the Returners kept him on schedule. The cool forest was next, often quiet and solemn. It boasted the brightest greens he had ever seen in his life.
Locke felt an overwhelming sense of calm just then. He watched the light shimmer through the leaves and onto the forest floor, and at that moment he knew he should not go further, lest the magic disappear. And yet, sadly, his legs carried him beyond the trees. Instead of the expected desert sands, his feet then met solid dirt, in a place where the air smelled like ash and death and the sky was always dark.
It was time to start digging again. Locke slaved for hours longer, hunched over a shovel, throwing dirt over his shoulders. He was angry that no one was helping him. Slice, stomp, pry, heave – over and over and over again. He dug a hole so deep and wide it began to look like a cave. When he looked up, he couldn't even see the sky. But he knew he mustn’t stop digging, so he continued to bash his shovel against the hard rock below his feet, while nothing so much as fractured anymore.
From above, a figure fell gracefully. The crack and crash that resonated when she landed, however, made his bones tremble. He stepped around carefully, searching for the one who had fallen, but he could find nothing and no one. So he dropped to his knees and began to claw at the ground with his bare hands. His fingernails splintered against the rocks. Yet he eventually broke through.
A woman’s smooth face framed by creamy black hair appeared under the debris. She looked to be asleep, but the sight of her made Locke nearly cry. Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead a voice rang incessantly through his mind. He continued to dig her out of the grave, his hands moving automatically and frantically. After a time – which seemed instantaneous somehow – he looked down at himself to find he was elbow-deep in blood. But the sight elicited no reaction; he simply reached into the wound he had created and lifted out a small child.
The scenario seemed familiar somehow but presently he couldn’t place it. He sat on the ground with the weight of Rachel’s child in his arms, until he felt a prickling on his shoulders. A bird with bat-like wings perched upon him and looked him in the eye. Then it swooped down to steal his treasure, and the suddenness with which he threw his body forward caused him to awaken from him nightmare.
Suffocating heat was the first thing to greet him. Locke rolled to his side and sat over the edge of the bed, noticing his clothes were completely soaked with sweat. His long hair stuck to his neck and forehead, and he tried to rub the moisture away with his arms, but they were sweaty too. From the window, he could see that light was beginning to break on the horizon, but the sky these days glowed a deep burgundy at dawn, and the sight did nothing to settle him. Looking around, he could see that he was in an unfamiliar room, and sleeping in another bed nearby was one of his fellow gravediggers.
Locke stood and walked toward the door, quietly exiting the room and then the house. It was slightly cooler outside, and he pulled off his shirt so that the breeze could soothe his bare skin. He was trembling, visions of his nightmare still terribly vivid in his mind. Looking at his hands, he half expected them to be covered in blood, but they were clean.
He felt paranoid, manic. Death was following him like a vulture in the sky – and not just death, but horrible, gruesome bloodshed. Deep in the rational part of his mind, he knew he was not the one responsible for any of this, but the dream had set him over the edge. He was scared. He was ashamed. He wanted to hide himself from the place the world had become and fade away alone. The lands he had loved like the beautiful Narshe Valley were gone. His friends were all gone. And he was useless in this ruined world.
His legs brought him to the place where the carriages were parked. He found the knapsack filled with supplies from Mae and pulled out a new set of clothes. Making sure that no one was around, he stripped off his sweaty outfit, poured a canteen of water over his head, and, rubbing himself partially dry, dressed himself in the clean clothes. Then he walked over to the nearby pavilion where the chocobos were being kept and picked the lock on one of the stable doors. The sleepy bird thankfully made little noise as he led it outside and over to the carriages. He slipped his now-stained leather vest around his arms, tied the daggers and the little pouch of herbs to his belt, grabbed his supply bag and hopped on the chocobo’s back.
Knowing full well how cowardly his actions were, he spurred the chocobo into motion and rode away from the city without daring to look back. Somehow he had convinced himself that the constant mental torture this place was subjecting him to would justify his running away, but in the back of his mind he knew he would soon be consumed with guilt over this hasty decision.
But it wasn’t fair, was it? He had stumbled upon this unfortunate situation, an unknowing outsider expected to help when he had problems of his own to deal with.
Of course, there were hundreds, probably thousands of others staying behind to offer their aid. Certainly they were having nightmares too – these were their neighbors, their families! And yet he was the only one fleeing.
They hadn’t risked their lives to fight the Empire before the Collapse! They weren’t on the Floating Continent; they didn’t witness the things he’d seen up there!
But did that really make him more important? Was he above doing the dirty work?
Fury welled up inside him, bubbling in his stomach and rising to his throat like bile. He was angry at himself, angry at the late Empire and Kefka, angry at the world. Angry that this evil had to exist to bring out his shortcomings.
And then he didn’t care what he was doing. He sped south along the shoreline through the night, and the next day, until it was night again and he reached the bridge the convoy had passed on its way to Tzen. He slowed the chocobo to a trot as they crossed it, and paused momentarily when they reached the other side. Left or right? he wondered.
It didn’t really matter; he had no idea where he was or to where either direction led. After the bird had had a chance to rest, he kicked it back into a run and headed south, following the narrow, snaking strip of land for miles and miles until at last he spotted a small settlement in the distance.
Chapter title taken from: Coheed and Cambria - "No World for Tomorrow"
Chapter 4: The Masks That the Monsters Wear
It was about midday as Locke approached the smattering of houses located near the tip of the peninsula. He didn’t recall ever having visited this town before, though he might not have recognized it if he had. In fact, he wasn’t entirely sure if it wasn’t completely deserted; the buildings had begun to fall to ruin and there wasn’t a soul in sight.
Locke dismounted and led the chocobo through the streets, searching for signs of life. After several fruitless minutes, he thought he heard a voice. He halted, straining to listen for more.
“Is it Humbaba?” a child’s voice squeaked.
“No! It’s a man with a chocobo!”
Footsteps came running towards his direction. Then there was the sound of a slight struggle.
“How do you know he won’t hurt us?” accused the first.
“Let me go!”
“Hello?” called Locke, not letting on that he could hear what they were saying. “Is anyone there?”
Two young children, probably brother and sister, peeked out from behind one of the houses. They cautiously walked towards the newcomer.
“Who are you?” asked the girl, who looked to be no older than Relm Arrowny and had that same air of defiance.
“My name is Locke,” he replied. The girl glared at him, never breaking eye contact as though to intimidate him.
“Salem!” she barked, and her younger brother jumped to attention. “Go get Duane!” The little boy scuttled out of sight.
“Why have you come here?” she asked slowly, sizing him up.
Locke was beginning to get a little confused at this girl’s authoritative manner, but decided it was best to comply. “I’m just a traveler,” he lied.
A moment later, Salem returned with a brown-haired teenaged boy. The older boy looked at Locke in the same scrutinizing manner as the girl and repeated her questions.
“My name is Locke, and I’ve just… wound up here on my travels,” he answered again. “What town is this?”
“This is Mobliz. My name is Duane, this is Salem, and his sister Corinne,” he said, gesturing towards the girl. “Forgive our demeanor… We’ve never really had any visitors.”
Apparently deeming Locke to be no threat, Duane led him into one of the buildings and down the stairs to the basement. There, Locke was greeted by many more small faces like those who had met him at outside. It was as if he had walked into an orphanage.
“There are no adults here,” said Duane, as though reading Locke’s mind. “They all perished while protecting their children when the Great Light split the town apart over a year ago. Katarin and I are the oldest.” A teenaged girl stood up from a chair on the other side of the room and walked over to the two of them. She had long, light brown hair and her belly stuck out noticeably. Locke couldn’t help but compare; she was definitely younger than Celes or Terra.
They exchanged greetings and as they made themselves comfortable, Locke related to them a highly abridged version of his story. In turn, Duane told Locke about how he and Katarin had found themselves to be the default guardians to all the young children of Mobliz after the Collapse. Their lot took up residence in the two houses left in the best condition. Katarin and some of the younger children gardened what vegetables they could in the rocky soil, while Duane and the more mature ones of the bunch, like Corinne, hunted small game and fished in the surrounding area. Life was difficult, but their basic needs were generally satisfied.
“Our major concern,” continued Duane, looking uneasy, “is a beast called Humbaba. This town used to be located near the Veldt, so we were accustomed to living near all kinds of different monsters. The Great Light separated the land around Mobliz, which I believe has drifted south over time. I remember seeing the waters part and the ocean floor rise to the surface, with which our island-town eventually collided. It’s just a guess, as I have never ventured far from this town, but I believe the path you took to get here was once known as the Serpent Trench.”
The Serpent Trench! The name was familiar to Locke, as that was how Sabin had once come to reunite with the Returners, bringing with him the Doma Knight Cyan and the wild child Gau. The sudden thought of the Veldt and Gau brought a pang of sadness to his heart, but he carried on, not wishing to relive such sad times in front of a stranger.
“And what about Humbaba?” Locke asked.
“Oh, yes! I was just saying we used to be close to the Veldt… But in all my life I’d never seen anything like this beast! And in fact he looks nothing like all the other monsters I’d gotten used to seeing – this creature looks… archaic, like something described in a legend I’d heard as a child. That’s why we’ve come to call him by that name. I’m convinced the demon of the Humbaba myth has risen thanks to the chaos that split the world apart.”
First Death Gaze, and now Humbaba? Locke had never heard these tales before, and his grandmother had certainly told him a lot of stories growing up. But it didn’t matter what myths and legends rumored their existence – these creatures were real threats now.
“He comes around every so often and terrorizes our settlement,” Duane continued with sadness in his voice. “The first time we saw him… Well, there had been a lot more of us then. We’ve secured these two buildings as best we could, and we all take turns keeping watch for him. Nevertheless…”
Duane glanced at Katarin, who then spoke up for the first time.
“We owe our lives to a mysterious shadow that protects us from the demon!” she said, clasping her hands at her heart. “A few months ago, Humbaba attacked, and we were certain he would tear this building down. Then suddenly, he let out a terrible cry, and I could see a figure dressed all in black challenging the beast! I had been outside at the time Humbaba arrived, so I was hiding in another house, though I was certain I would be discovered and killed. But this shadow kept fighting Humbaba until the monster gave up and retreated! I ran to thank my savior but he disappeared as quickly as he came. Since then, it’s as though he has been our guardian, for whenever Humbaba returns, so does the shadow to fend him off.”
Locke desperately wanted to believe that this “shadow” was the same assassin who went by that very name, but he knew it had to be a coincidence. There was no way the heartless mercenary would ever stick around this orphanage for months, merely for the sake of protecting them from a demon.
* * *
Locke remained in Mobliz for a few days. He was at a dead end and knew that he would eventually have to backtrack up the Serpent Trench, pass the bridge and see what was at the northern end.
His first night brought him little sleep; as he lay awake in a makeshift bed, the guilt he knew was coming for him flooded his mind. What a coward I am! Everyone I’ve met has unselfishly risen to the tasks set before them, and what do I do but steal a chocobo and run away. Who am I?
He was not the same Locke Cole he had known himself to be a year ago. If he looked in a mirror he knew he would see the face of an idiot; someone he was not proud to be.
But could he really go back to Tzen? He felt horribly ashamed of himself, and he didn’t like to think of what sort of reception he’d be given if he trotted back up to the ruined town on the stolen chocobo.
What else can I do? He racked his brains for an alternative form of penance. I’ll… I’ll go to the tower and destroy whatever’s up there causing all this, be it Kefka, or…
He sighed and closed his eyes. What he needed to do was to stop thinking so much.
All right, so I fucked up. Let’s just take it from here and I swear I’ll keep fighting till it’s over. ‘I’d sooner die than give up the fight,’ or something like that, right?
Promises, promises, promises… He certainly had a knack for making them.
* * *
As dawn broke on the third day, Locke stirred restlessly. He knew he should get going soon; there was nothing here for him and he felt like he was just getting in the way of Duane and Katarin. The children, however, were quite thrilled to have a new face around. He hardly had a moment to himself, as each youngster wanted to spend time with him. Locke was happy to play games with the children – it was nice to let simple pleasantries consume his days for a change – and when they tired of that, he told them stories – both the tall tales that his grandmother used to tell him and true accounts of his treasure hunts from better days. Such an escape was appreciated by all, as Duane and Katarin were grateful to be relieved of some of their duties entertaining the kids for a while.
Yet in his heart, he knew he shouldn’t remain too long, lest he and the children become too attached to each other. He had to move on, and each day he remained in Mobliz would make his eventual departure that much more difficult.
But still… he was overwhelmingly curious to see this “shadow” for himself.
A low rumble interrupted his thoughts. The house shook almost as if there was an earthquake – though he knew it couldn’t be so, because the house shook again, and again. It seemed to be… footsteps of some great creature.
Locke sat up quickly and looked around – everyone else seemed to be still asleep. He rose and tiptoed around the children sleeping on the floor toward Duane and Katarin’s room. Halfway across he heard a whimper, and turned to see Salem sitting up and clutching his blanket.
“It’s Humbaba, isn’t it?” the boy asked, sniffling.
Locke put his finger to his lips. “It’ll be all right. Duane and I will protect you.”
He gently knocked on the door, and was startled when Duane opened it immediately. Katarin was sitting over the edge of the bed with one hand on her forehead and the other on her belly. She looked like she was going to be sick.
Duane glanced back at her. “Will you be okay?” She nodded and waved him away. The young man grabbed his hunting knife, bow and quiver and motioned for Locke to follow him out and up the stairs.
“What about the shadow?” asked Locke, hoping not to sound as if he were mocking them.
“While he has come without fail since that first time months ago, I will not assume that he will save us forever. It would be foolish to sit back and expect everything to be taken care of. Humbaba is a fearsome creature, and if we didn’t fight, he would kill us all.”
Locke couldn’t help but notice how young Duane looked. It was like seeing the new soldiers drafted into the Imperial army – baby-faced and wearing the expressions of old men. It was terrible that Duane had been forced into this position as town elder when he was barely sixteen years old. And Katarin was clearly already pregnant with their first child. As though they needed another responsibility.
Locke wasn’t sure what he was expecting the demon to look like, but what he saw standing at the edge of town was nothing like he could have ever imagined. Twice the height of a man at least, and nearly four times as wide, Humbaba seemed to loom over them even at a distance. He was covered in green scales, and a line of ominous-looking horns ran down his back, all the way to the tip of his tail. As he stepped forward, the ground shook, nearly knocking Duane and Locke off their feet.
They peered out from behind another building at the beast, contemplating the best course of action. Locke guessed that their feeble weapons would have little effect on Humbaba’s thick, scaly skin and suddenly understood why it was able to return again and again to terrorize the town. This was a beast that would not go down easily.
Humbaba approached ever closer, and there was no sign of the shadow-savior. Locke noticed beads of sweat forming on Duane’s forehead. He was probably expecting his own death.
When the creature came uncomfortably close to the building where Katarin and the children were sleeping, they sprung into action. Duane fired an arrow, which would have accurately pierced the shoulder of a lesser being, but upon contact it snapped in two and fell to the ground. The beast turned his attention to the direction from which this nuisance came. Locke immediately dove out from behind the building and ran toward the entrance of the town, hoping to lead it away from the others.
Humbaba spun around with surprising agility and let out a roar that shook the earth nearly as violently as his great footfalls. Then he gave chase. And it did not take long for him to catch up with the scrawny young man laboriously sprinting ahead of him.
With a great sweep of his arm, Humbaba sent Locke flying. He landed on his right shoulder, clutching at his bleeding side and cursing himself for having forgotten to put on the leather vest and gauntlets before setting out. As he scrambled to his feet, he fumbled desperately inside his shirt for the small, green crystal he had tied to a cord and hung around his neck. Just as he grasped it, another claw swiped his other side and threw him to the ground once more. He concentrated with all his might even though the pain was making him dizzy.
Please, Esper…! Please come! I offer you my strength!
He struggled to stand, but his energy was draining rapidly and he slipped on the loose dirt. A dark shadow fell over him and he could see Humbaba’s massive figure hovering next to him.
He braced himself for a final blow.
But instead he heard a piercing cry. He ventured a look and saw the demon rearing its head back in pain. As he flailed around, Locke could see something sticking out of Humbaba’s eye.
Then he saw the shadow.
But if his eyes were not deceiving him, there were four shadows.
Humbaba lashed about, tearing his claws into one of them, but it was as though it really was a shadow, as the beast’s arm passed right through it. The dark figures taunted Humbaba, running in circles around him and always staying just out of reach. One of them pulled out a dagger and flung it toward the green demon with such speed and precision that Locke didn’t even see it fly through the air. The blade found its mark in Humbaba’s other eye.
Locke was now trying to crawl away – more than once had the beast’s huge, clawed feet stomped uncomfortably close to his prone body in the confusion. As he dragged himself to safety, he noticed that there were now only three shadowy figures flitting around. But in watching them carefully, it was obvious that only one was actually doing the attacking. The other two served as a distraction while the third pulled out blade after blade and hurled them at the monster. Finally, it bounded to the roof of a nearby building and, with impossible accuracy, sent a spinning object into Humbaba’s open mouth as it let out its final roar. Its throat severed from within, it fell to the ground with a tremendous crash. The leader shadow, now alone, leapt to the ground and cut off the demon’s head with a short sword.
As though there were not an audience of children now watching him, transfixed, the dark figure nonchalantly began to collect his weapons from the monster’s corpse.
Locke stared at the savior, his mouth agape.
“Shadow!” he cried, dragging himself to his feet and hobbling towards him.
Shadow looked up.
“It really is you!”
“Locke Cole,” he greeted simply.
Duane suddenly ran forward to meet them. He looked more flustered and boyish than ever.
“S-sir,” he stuttered. “I cannot thank you enough…”
“Unnecessary,” came Shadow’s reply. “Just keep doing your job, and I’ll do mine.”
Duane was speechless. He and Locke watched in silence as the assassin continued to extract daggers and shuriken from Humbaba’s corpse and wiped them on the cloth tied around his waist. Satisfied with all but the one in his throat, he turned to walk away.
“I trust you can dispose of this yourselves.”
“Shadow, wait!” called Locke, grabbing the man’s arm. “You can’t just leave.”
Shadow shot him a deadly glare from behind his mask. “It’s what I’m known for.”
Ignoring this cryptic reply for the moment, Locke ran to put himself between Shadow and the way out of town.
“Y-you don’t understand! You’re the first survivor I’ve met among those of us who went to the Floating Continent! We have to stay together!”
“Give me one good reason.”
Locke sighed in frustration, trying desperately to think of a way to convince him to stay. Of course Shadow would be as surly as ever. What luck it was, meeting him.
“Just… hear me out, okay? Will you at least stick around for a little bit so I can talk to you?”
This was awkward, to say the least. He’d hardly ever directed a word to the mercenary a year ago, and now he was about to pour his heart out to this man.
Before he could stop himself, he told him everything. He admitted all the things he had left out when he’d told his story to Duane and Katarin – how he had seen Gau picked apart by Death Gaze, how Mae had nursed him back to health after rafting to the mainland, how he had witnessed the destruction of Tzen and how he had abandoned those in need. He admitted his cowardice, his shame, and his desperation to redeem himself.
Regardless of the black cloths covering most of his face, Shadow’s eyes did not show any sign of reaction. As Locke finished his sad story, Shadow turned away.
“So you’d live the rest of your life as one big act of atonement, basing all your actions on the belief that by doing so, you’ll make up for your past mistakes?”
“Trust me, you’ll get trapped. Nothing will ever seem good enough. And really, nothing ever will be. Doing one good deed – or even a hundred – does not erase a fault. It is a foolish way to live.”
Locke couldn’t help but wonder if Shadow was speaking from experience.
“Nevertheless,” said Locke, his spirit sorely abused, “I still want to fight. I want to find our friends, and see if we can’t at least finish what we started.”
“What makes you think that they’ll want to continue?”
“Well, that’s what I’m doing now, right? Convincing you to come along.” Locke eyed Shadow cautiously. “Anyway, what were you planning on doing now that Humbaba’s gone? Clearly you’ve been hanging around here for months, solely for the sake of protecting these kids,” he said, gesturing to the crowd of children huddled some distance away. “That’s rather uncharacteristically humanitarian of you, I’d say. No one’s paid you to kill Humbaba, have they? Seems to me you’re already itching to fight simply to protect the innocent.”
“How many times did you have to recite a speech like that to yourself before you believed in it?” Shadow challenged.
“Do you actually follow your own advice?” retorted Locke.
There was a pause, and a silent mutual understanding. Yes, they were both flawed men. They perhaps did not exactly abide by their own words wholeheartedly. But the spirit was there. Deep down, they each hoped they could make some sort of a difference; hoped that their shortcomings would not overpower their enthusiastic ideals in the end.
And it was certainly for that reason that Shadow turned to face Locke, gave him the faintest of nods, and said, “Well then, start proving your worth. Get your ass over there and help me drag this corpse to the sea.”
At this, Duane and the whole lot of children rushed to help, and the tense air was finally broken by a chorus of young voices lauding their heroes.
It had been a long time since Locke had honestly felt this optimistic.
Chapter title taken from: Portishead - "Wandering Star"
"So how did you create the illusion that there were four of you?” The question had nearly slipped Locke’s mind.
It was the day after Humbaba’s defeat, and after bidding farewell to Duane, Katarin, and all the children of Mobliz, he and Shadow set off up the Serpent Trench. The stolen chocobo had escaped – probably around the time of Humbaba’s appearance – and was nowhere to be found, so the two of them walked.
Shadow had loosened the lower half of his mask, to Locke’s surprise, and let it hang around his neck like a bandana so that his face was visible. Locke decided not to comment on this unexpected exposure, but he couldn’t help sneaking a look now and then. He figured it was due to the heat, but nevertheless it was still rather shocking that the mercenary would reveal so much of his identity so casually now. He had a stern face, unsurprisingly, with a slightly crooked nose and a pair of faint scars on his chin. Locke estimated that Shadow was only a few years his elder, though the stress lines creasing his visage perhaps suggested otherwise.
“An Esper called Fenrir,” he replied, pulling a small, green crystal from one of the many hidden pockets on his outfit. “I only just found him. I might not have been able to defeat Humbaba without his help.”
Locke nodded. “I have Magicite, too…” He lifted his own crystal out of his shirt. “Except, I don’t know which Esper it is, and it hasn’t yet come when I’ve called. It drains my energy but I guess it hasn’t been enough.”
Shadow took the Magicite between his fingers to study it more closely. Then he shook his head. “Never seen this one before. But you’ve never really had much of a command over this stuff, have you.”
Locke bristled but refrained from protesting. He knew he was awful at working with a new Esper – he’d never been able to call one without knowing its name (Your faith is rather weak, Terra had once admitted to him shyly, They don’t really trust you) – but he refused to ask Shadow for help with his Magicite shard. He seethed in anger silently for several miles, until his curiosity outweighed his annoyance.
“So where were you before you ended up in Mobliz? How did you survive the airship crash?” Locke asked, finally waving bothersome thoughts about Espers and magic out of his head.
Shadow had always hesitated before replying, as if to hint that he found conversation distasteful. When he did speak, his words came out at a leisurely pace but with a gruff undertone – had he not been so impersonal and curt, he might have made a good storyteller. “Most everyone took a leap of faith long before it hit the ground. I jumped into the ocean between the old Imperial and Northern continents and swam to South Figaro. Stayed around there for a while and then caught a ship to Nikeah, which is where we’re headed now. I take it you’ve realized the world map is significantly changed?”
“Well, Duane figured this land we’re walking on now was once the Serpent Trench, and Mobliz used to be attached to the Veldt; that’s evidence enough for me.” Locke also recalled how the mountains that once surrounded the Imperial Capital had been completely leveled. He couldn’t begin to fathom what other surprises awaited him as he traveled around the new world.
They met few beasts along the way, but they were of little threat, even for Locke. He was beginning to feel a bit stronger, though their lack of consistent, nourishing food wasn’t helping to speed up the recovery process.
Without the aid of a current to push them along, traversing the dry-land Serpent Trench took a terribly long time. Shadow didn’t provide very friendly company, and the mercenary’s stoicism in turn put Locke in a bad mood. It had been two weeks at the very least before they could finally see a town in the distance. This had better not be another dead-end, thought Locke bitterly, and grumbled further under his breath.
But to his delight, the great mercantile city of Nikeah stood in nearly as good of shape as it had before the Collapse. Many of the buildings appeared to have been repaired or rebuilt entirely, but it was generally well off, much as Albrook had been.
Locke was infinitely grateful for Mae’s money as he handed some over for a hot meal and a soft bed at the inn. As he and Shadow settled into their room, all he could think about was the possibility of meeting another one of their former companions as he scoured the city the next day.
But Locke did not sleep so soundly after all. All through the night, Shadow tossed and turned in the next bed noisily, as though plagued by nightmares. The disturbance kept Locke at attention, even as he told himself that he didn’t care; it wasn’t his concern.
* * *
They split up for a more thorough search of the city. The first run brought no results; the second more of the same. If Shadow was disappointed, he didn’t show it, but Locke was feeling quite set back.
“I don’t think anyone’s here,” Locke said gloomily.
“Then let’s take the next boat out of here.”
The unlikely pair headed to the wharf to inquire about the ship’s runs. Locke was expecting to head to South Figaro, from where he hoped to seek out Figaro Castle. Surely, Edgar and Sabin must be there! But the sailor they’d found on the dock had some disappointing news.
“Don’t run to South Figaro these days,” he said plainly. “A great Leviathan keeps terrorizing their port. We’ve lost enough men and vessels to convince us it’s not worth the risk.”
“What about Narshe?” asked Locke, remembering the canals by which ships used to run between Nikeah and the northern mining city.
“Narshe’s a wasteland. Nobody lives there anymore.”
Locke fidgeted restlessly, unhappy with these replies but unwilling to give up.
“So where do you go?”
The sailor glanced behind him as though the answer was back there somewhere. “Well, we got a ship getting ready to depart for Carith Harbor – it’s a new port east of Kohlingen. Our biggest business ‘round there is with the Dragon’s Neck Coliseum to the north. It’s the only thing worth going that way for, but if you’re into that kind of thing, I think we can squeeze you two aboard.”
Locke replied without bothering to consult with Shadow.
“We accept. When do you depart?”
“Just before sunrise, tomorrow morning.”
* * *
Locke was at once excited and nervous. For one thing, he hated boats, and the memories of floating around on the raft were still much too vivid in his mind. But otherwise, he was headed back to his hometown… where, as he’d last left it, Rachel’s body still lay, perfectly preserved in the basement of the eccentric old herbalist’s house at the edge of town. Thinking back on it, Locke often thought he’d been just as crazy to let him keep her there. Was there really a way to bring her back? It had been so many years now, and he was nowhere closer to restoring her to life as he was on the day she died. He felt almost foolish for thinking it was possible.
But then, if he simply gave up and buried her – what if he found what he needed after it was too late? He had, admittedly, realized the cycle he had inadvertently trapped himself in quite a while ago now. Furthermore, there was no denying that he was a very different person today than he was five years ago. His life had, in many ways, moved on… and the world had too. But he shook the thoughts for the time being; he talked himself into circles every time he found himself back in Kohlingen, and there were more important things to consider for the time being – such as the possibility of finding certain friends still alive…
The ocean was uncomfortably rocky. Locke spent the better part of the days sitting against the outer wall of the ship, ready to jump up and lean over the edge as necessary. Shadow, meanwhile, remained indoors, untroubled by the ship’s movements. All in all, it was a blessedly uneventful voyage.
Several days later, the ship docked in Carith Harbor, and Locke stumbled drunkenly onto the ground. He swore loudly, vowing to never board another seafaring vessel again. Shadow snorted.
Carith Harbor did not provide travelers many amenities, so the two set out immediately for Kohlingen. They traveled quickly, in part due to Locke’s eagerness, and by noon the next day they arrived at the town.
The sight with which they were greeted was… well, disappointing would’ve been a gross understatement. Kohlingen had fallen nearly to ruin, as buildings had crumbled and remained largely unrepaired. People still inhabited the village, but it was a pathetic display overall. Locke hurried to where the herbalist’s house once stood, only to find a pile of decaying rubble in its stead. He looked about in a panic, wondering if he was in the wrong location – hoping there was a mistake; that this really wasn’t where he’d left Rachel’s body. But he knew deep in his gut that there was no question – the peculiar shade of purple the house’s wooden siding had been stained peeked conspicuously out from the heap of rotting planks and roofing. There was no doubt that Rachel lay buried beneath it.
One of the locals had followed the visitor and now watched him with interest. The middle-aged man circled around him and, squinting, addressed him, “Locke Cole?”
Locke whipped around sharply to face the man. He recognized him as one of Rachel’s neighbors.
“Haven’t seen you in a long time,” the man ventured. “Almost didn’t recognize you with that hair.”
Locke shrugged. Relations had been awkward between himself and the other residents of Kohlingen ever since the accident. He wondered why this man was even talking to him now.
“The house collapsed when the Great Light came to our town several months ago. The ground caved in around the old man’s basement and buried them both. There was nothing anyone could do.”
Locke was suddenly overtaken by rage. His fists shook at his sides.
“And no one’s bothered to clean this up?” he roared. “What the hell kind of grave is this? So she was crushed by the walls of the basement and you just leave this pile of… shit on top of it all?” He spun around to see a number of other villagers now milling about, watching like vultures of gossip and spectacle. “It’s been months, you say? Why haven’t you repaired these buildings? Or at the very least, cleared away the ones that just barely stand, decaying? This town is a disgrace!”
A woman reproached him. “And where have you been all these years, Locke? You ran off years ago and you’ve hardly been back since! You have no right to come marching in here and telling us how to live!”
He stepped toward her menacingly. “You practically drove me out of this town. You all blamed me for what happened to Rachel and it got to the point that I couldn’t even walk down the damn street without being ridiculed! What choice did I have? I’m not telling you how to live – you can eat shit for all I care, but if you all loved Rachel so much, then what the hell kind of monument to her is this?” He gestured dramatically toward the pile of debris.
“I would’ve taken her body away from this town if I’d known what lazy savages you were!”
The commotion drew the attention of a woman who’d been sitting inside the nearby pub. Locke could tell immediately from her appearance that she wasn’t a local. She was tall, with a confident air about her to match her impressive height. Her hair curled wildly, framing her tanned face, and she was dressed like a sailor. She leaned against the side of the building to watch the scene unfold before her.
The older woman who had challenged him before stuttered a few ill-formed comebacks, but she really had nothing to say. With a broken sneer and a quivering lip, she turned on her heel and stormed away from the scene, kicking up clouds of dust as she departed. Locke watched her leave with a hollow sense of victory – he had been right; the villagers had treated them both wrongly, but it didn’t make the present situation any less sickening.
As the rest of the villagers shuffled away in awkward silence, Locke was left alone to brood. Shadow, who had been observing impassively from a distance, turned to walk into the pub and eyed the woman suspiciously as he did so. She returned his glare.
Locke paced around for a few moments, and then fell to his knees before Rachel’s unlikely grave, his spirit defeated.
This is it. If there’d been any hope of bringing her back, it’s all over now. She’s gone forever.
It hit him hard. She was really gone. But he was too angry to cry at this point. He just stared at the debris, incredulous that it even existed at all, and his mind was erased of all thoughts.
A few moments later, a voice with an unusual accent startled him.
“So you’re Locke, huh.”
He turned around to see the sailor woman standing a few feet behind him.
“Forgive me, I probably shouldn’t have interrupted your mourning.” She was a bit blunt, but she seemed sincere.
Locke shrugged. “Whatever… I should’ve said my good-byes years ago.”
“I’ve been to this town several times over the past few years. On a number of occasions I’ve heard yours and Rachel’s names mentioned. Seems these people have nothing better to do than gossip about old news. I take it your story goes back quite a-ways.”
“A bit… Kohlingen is filled with good-for-nothing backstabbers. I was Everyone’s Best Friend until the… incident.” If this woman hadn’t already overheard the story, he didn’t feel like explaining it now. “I grew up here; it seemed like the nicest place to live. But you do one thing wrong and they make your life hell and nothing you can do will bring their favor back toward you.”
The woman offered her hand. “My name is Daryl, and I apologize for being nosy… I was just interested in finally meeting this person I always hear talked about. As an outsider, I completely agree with you: these people are lazy savages. And I couldn’t believe that this Locke character was as rotten as they’d made him out to be.” She gave him a wink.
Locke couldn’t help but find her personality oddly familiar, even though he was certain he had never met her before.
“So if you know how terrible this place is, what brings you here at all?” he asked, a drop of misery in his voice, as the two walked back toward the pub.
Daryl let out a wistful sigh. “Well, seeing as I already basically know your story, it’s only fair I tell you mine, right? Or does that not interest you?”
“I asked, didn’t I?”
She grinned, but it quickly faded. “It’s not the happiest of stories, either. In fact… Well, my history is something I generally keep to myself, on principle.” She let her eyes wander to the sky thoughtfully. “But I think, perhaps, you can sort of relate.
“Several years ago, I was seeing this guy. We got along wonderfully; I daresay we were perfect for each other. Same interests, hardly ever argued – you get the picture. Our relationship was getting pretty serious then, and I had a feeling he would ask me to marry him soon. And that was what I’d dreamed of for so long, you know! But I got cold feet. I ran away; let him think I was dead. I felt horrible, because I knew he was suffering, but I was so afraid to go back. In shame, I took on a new life to avoid him, and I never saw him again…
“You probably think I’m a terrible person now, don’t you?” She let out a sad chuckle.
Locke frowned. “Not at all…” They entered the pub and sat at a table near Shadow, where he nodded at the mercenary to indicate to Daryl that he wasn’t a stranger.
“But the way you say you never saw him again – there’s still a chance, isn’t there?” asked Locke, reflecting on his own plight. “I mean, we really just don’t know these days, do we?”
Daryl fidgeted in her seat, playing with her fingers as though she were questioning her decision to suddenly reveal her secrets.
“No, it’s pretty set in stone,” she said with a curiously sad smile. “I’ve seen his vessel… and his grave.”
Locke lowered his head out of respect and waited for her to continue.
“He was kind of famous,” she said reluctantly, but with a hint of desperation in her voice, as though she’d been bottling these words inside of herself for too long now with no one to listen. “No point in hiding it anymore, I guess; I’ve already confessed this much. My ex-boyfriend owned an airship; it was a flying casino of sorts.”
Locke’s eyes suddenly widened as he looked back up at her. “Setzer?”
Daryl was taken aback by the forcefulness with which he’d said his name. “Had you visited his casino, the Blackjack?” she asked.
“Yeah, but I wasn’t there to gamble. Setzer was a friend of mine – of ours – sorry, I didn’t introduce you – this is Shadow…” Locke stumbled over his chair as he stood to gesture at his companion. His mind was a whirl from the shock at the news that he was talking to Setzer’s former lover. She seemed to be thrown into just as much confusion as he.
“But wait! You said he’s…?” Locke couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought aloud.
Daryl nodded solemnly. “He somehow got involved with the Returners, so I’d heard, and he drove his airship with them up to the Floating Continent. But when the Cataclysm occurred, the ship was hit and he crashed.”
“Yeah, yeah, we’re the Returners! Or, two of them.”
“You were a Returner,” corrected Shadow.
“We were up there on the Floating Continent,” he continued, ignoring the mercenary. “But we don’t know what happened after that. I was thrown from the airship before it crashed, and Shadow jumped. We’ve been trying to find the others that were with us that day.”
Locke wasn’t sure if Daryl would be upset with him or not – had she been a supporter of the Empire? He remembered Setzer had found the Empire generally favorable until they’d basically conned him into helping them out.
But to his surprise, she simply chuckled and shook her head, though her expression was somber.
“So it really was true… Setzer with the Returners; who’d have thought? And you guys were with him. Yeah, I admit, I supported the Empire back then – as did Setzer. I mean, if it wasn’t for the Empire, we wouldn’t have had our airships – oh!” She suddenly looked as though she had just let slip something she’d meant to keep secret.
Locke just stared at her. She didn’t seem to be very good at keeping things to herself; she would likely explain on her own.
“Well… Setzer didn’t have the only airship in the world… I had one too. We grew up in Jidoor, so our families were fairly wealthy. As you’re a Returner, you probably already know about how the noble houses made underhanded ‘donations’ to the Empire in exchange for petty titles and privileges,” she said reluctantly. “Both our families donated heavily to the Empire’s militant research fund… Not to Magitek!” she added quickly, catching herself again. The term had become somewhat of a taboo word even before the Collapse, especially in rural towns like Kohlingen that had resisted the Empire’s influence right till the end.
“To the aviation departments, obviously.” Daryl continued. “In exchange, they offered us two of their prototype models. To be honest, the original plan was for us to test them out for the Empire, but their designs were eventually scrapped in favor of smaller and more agile units. But seeing as they were already ours, Setzer and I took it upon ourselves to learn to commandeer the ships. We both fell in love with the skies shortly thereafter, and it became clear that it would be more than just a hobby…”
Daryl sighed miserably. “I told you I ran away once I was sure Setzer was going to ask me to marry him. It was… even worse than that. I challenged him to a race around the world in our airships, to see whose was fastest. He was actually rather nervous about accepting, because he knew it would be dangerous, but he gave in at my persuasion. Shortly after we took off, I landed near Kohlingen here and buried my airship in a massive tomb. When I didn’t show up at the finish line, I suppose he presumed me to be dead.
“Since then I’ve taken to the seas rather than the skies. And now the answer to your earlier question, Locke, is threefold: I return to Kohlingen because it is the closest town to where I laid my dear Falcon to rest, it is now the closest town to the newly-built Dragon’s Neck Coliseum – a major trading hub for many ships stopping at the neighboring Carith Harbor – and it is also the closest town to the crash site of Setzer’s own airship.”
It was a lot of information to digest. Locke was still in disbelief at the news that Setzer was dead.
“Do you know of any survivors of the crash?” It was Shadow who finally spoke.
Daryl shook her head. “It was a couple weeks before I could even get here, once I’d heard of it. The remains of the Blackjack were still there, and I saw two crude burial mounds. The first one I dug up ended up housing Setzer’s body… I gave him a proper burial in the tomb with the Falcon, but I left the other one alone.”
Locke glanced at Shadow. Daryl seemed to read his mind.
“The other body is no longer there, however,” she said cautiously. “When I returned a few weeks later, it had been dug up as well. They did seem to be temporary graves, anyway.”
“So that suggests that there was at least one other death at the crash site, as well as at least one survivor,” reasoned Shadow.
“I would say so,” Daryl confirmed. “Unless anyone else on the airship was from Kohlingen, I doubt any of these people would’ve meddled in those affairs.”
Locke scoffed. “Even if there was someone from Kohlingen, they would’ve just gone on as if nothing had happened.”
There was a lull in the conversation as the three of them mulled over all the excitement and confessions of the day. After a few minutes, Daryl spoke up again.
“Are you trying to reunite the Returners?”
Locke shrugged. “Not really… Right now we’re just trying to find any of our friends who are still alive. Whether or not they’ll want to keep fighting once we do find them, I can’t guess…” He frowned, and then said resolutely, as though he were just making this decision right then and there, “But I’ll fight. I don’t care what it takes. Too many people have died already – too many of our friends have died – that it would be a disservice to them if I gave up now. What the hell did we chase the Emperor around for all that time if we were just going to forfeit when something went wrong? I know I can’t take on this greater evil by myself, but I’m hoping to find others who’ll go with me, as they did before the Collapse…” He tried to make his voice remain confident throughout his speech, as much for his own assurance as for that of his audience.
Daryl knit her brow and stared at the table. She looked as though she were about to say something, but then changed her mind.
“Do you have chocobos?” she asked finally.
“No, we’ve been traveling primarily by foot,” answered Locke.
He noticed a sudden twinkle in her eye. “If you’ll help me dig her out, I’ll put the Falcon to your service. Not sure how well she’ll run after all these years, but I’ll do my damnedest to get her back in the air.”
Locke looked at Daryl incredulously. “You’d do that? Oh, tha– but why? You hardly even know us.”
Daryl raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? But you’re the only person I’ve met who’s even considered doing something about the state of the world today. Okay, I’ve never been much of an activist myself, but I’m starting to get sick of being around people like these.” She lowered her voice as the bartender had taken to giving the three of them dirty looks at their constant unpatriotic outbursts. “And there hasn’t been a day that’s passed that I haven’t thought about Setzer… I was such a fool for leaving him. If I hadn’t, perhaps I’d have been there with you guys a year ago anyway when he took you to the Floating Continent…” Her words drifted off as though an ominous thought were passing through her mind.
“The least I can do is pick up where he left off, right? I mean, I’m not really a fighter like you guys are, but I’ll do what I can. I feel like I owe it to Setzer.”
“Seems to be a trend around here,” noted Shadow, standing up.
Locke stood also. He stuck out his hand and grinned. “Well, if you’re offering an airship, I’d be mad to refuse. I can’t thank you enough, Daryl.”
Their new pilot shook his hand firmly. “Think nothing of it. I’ve been itching to be in the clouds again.” She winked. “Now, it’ll probably take a couple days to get the Falcon out and running, so we should start as soon as possible. Once she’s in the air, you’re the boss!”
“Well then, let’s get going!” said Locke, a surge of joy flooding his chest.
* * *
The tomb stood half a day’s march west of Kohlingen. Locke and Shadow watched as Daryl fiddled with the hidden opening that would be the tomb’s entrance. Soon enough, they were staring at a gaping, dark passageway down into the burial grounds.
“Don’t ask how I got the airship down here in the first place,” said Daryl, motioning them to follow. “And don’t be surprised if we run into a few things unexpected…”
Nothing Shadow can’t handle, Locke laughed to himself. Perhaps even greater than his optimism over having acquired an airship, a pilot, and a new friend was his relief that he was beginning to feel like his old self again.
Chapter title taken from: Rush - "Losing It"
Chapter 6: Scars Are Souvenirs You Never Lose
Needless to say, they hadn’t found the Falcon in perfect condition. But the damage was nothing Daryl couldn’t fix, and three and a half days later, the propellers were spinning and the airship was ready to take off.
“I’ll need to get fuel from somewhere eventually – sooner rather than later,” said Daryl as she checked the engines one last time. “And these will need more oil, and I’ll have to go through and really repair the sails and floorboards… Ach, lots of work! But she should be fine for the time being.”
“What about your trade ship job?” asked Locke. “Aren’t you a sailor now?”
“Come on, you should realize by now that I make a lot of hasty decisions,” she said with a wink. “To hell with the ocean! I’ll send my resignation by carrier pigeon.” And Daryl laughed heartily.
They walked back up to the deck where Shadow was waiting. As Daryl pulled a heavy lever, the propellers whirred to life and for the first time in many years, the Falcon began to lift off the ground. Wind blasted their faces as the captain and her two passengers braced themselves for takeoff.
“Where to?” Daryl shouted over the din of mechanics and wind. She held her compass at the ready.
“Figaro Castle!” came Locke’s reply, and suddenly the ground was a mile below them, the village of Kohlingen growing ever smaller in the distance.
As the ship coasted to the desired altitude, Locke walked to the bow. He could now finally get a sense of the damage done to the world; even here, on one coast of the old Northern Lands, much of the earth had been broken into smaller islands. Vegetation was scarce, and it seemed that for the most part the mountains around here had been leveled as well.
He closed his eyes, and as the thin atmosphere stole his breath, he felt the same intoxicating dizziness he had felt atop the northern cliffs of the solitary island. His heart began to race and he clutched the railing for fear that he might find himself falling forward again... but he no longer had the desire to slip into a silent, suffocating death.
Flying was nothing like sailing. Locke didn’t experience the same nausea he suffered from the ocean’s perpetual undulation. In fact, he had found riding an airship to be quite thrilling – he loved looking down at the world below, as at this distance it made him nearly forget about all the evil that took place there. He understood why some people thought the clouds housed a secret, perfect paradise – if angels looked down they would see only beautiful shapes and colors, and everything would indeed seem to be flawless. He sometimes wished he could believe in such stories, but his grandmother had done a thorough job of insisting he put his faith in nothing he couldn’t see standing in front of him so he could physically fight back if necessary. His personal experiences had pretty well solidified these convictions besides.
The time passed quickly, and before he knew it, the ship was descending. They landed at the edge of a desert.
“Sorry I can’t get you closer, but I’ve never felt good about landing her in the sand,” said Daryl.
“Not a problem, we’re used to it…” Locke’s voice trailed off as he gazed at the large structure far in the distance. It was undoubtedly Figaro Castle, and he felt immense relief that it was actually still standing. After all the unfortunate surprises he’d had already, he had been bracing himself to find it destroyed or missing completely. Now he just hoped that he would find welcome faces beyond its walls.
“I’m going to stay here with the ship,” said Daryl as she opened the door and lowered the stairs for the men. “I don’t want to leave her unguarded, and I need to keep working on repairs.”
“All right,” said Locke. “Will you be okay here till tomorrow? It’s already late afternoon; we may spend the night.”
“It’s as I expected anyway. Take your time; just don’t leave me hanging for a week!” She smiled, and the two men departed for the castle.
It was blazing hot as they traversed the desert. As obnoxious as it was, Locke had to admit that the middle of a desert was an excellent natural defense – if soldiers had tried to march across in full gear many would certainly have fainted long before they reached the castle.
But it was definitely much hotter than he’d remembered. In fact, the climate seemed to be generally warmer all over the world these days; the aftermath of the Collapse being more than just what was visible. Locke was tempted to pull off his shirt, but he knew he would get horribly burned if he did. Shadow had once again removed his lower mask, and had even taken off the sleeves of his tunic to keep cool. He redressed as they neared the castle, concealing his identity once more.
Wiping sweat off his brow, he was certain he looked less than presentable by the time they arrived at the gates, but that wasn’t unusual of visitors to the desert castle. The guards halted the two newcomers as they approached.
“Who goes there?” a young guard asked sternly. Locke didn’t recognize either of them.
“I am Locke Cole, and this man goes by the name Shadow. We are old companions of the King, and we seek his audience. He will know us by name.”
The guard squinted at him suspiciously and then shouted for a lackey to check on their approval. Locke fluttered his shirt and tried to comb his fingers through his tangled hair as they waited for the young guard to return. A few minutes later, they were greeted with good news: “The King will see you now. Follow me.”
Shadow, as usual, showed no emotion as they walked through the great, familiar halls of Figaro Castle, but Locke was excited. He chuckled to himself to think what Edgar would say about his haggard appearance, as the handsome king had always made a point to look his best and at times bordered on being narcissistic. How wonderful it was to finally be reuniting with a good friend!
The party passed the throne room and stopped at the doorway to a moderately-sized meeting space. The guard gestured for them to go ahead and bowed as the guests entered.
They were greeted with a familiar face.
But it was not Edgar’s.
“Locke, Shadow! You don’t know how surprised I was to hear you were at the gates!”
Locke quickly wiped the look of shock from his face and stuttered, “Sabin!” He stepped over to Edgar’s twin, still as burly as ever but wearing an outfit he never thought he’d see him sport: a silken tunic with a stiff collar and shining metal clasps cascading down the front. Fine pants tucked into ornate boots, and a decorative sash was tied around his waist. An asymmetrical cape fell over his left epaulet, all in shades of Figaro’s royal blue and gold. If it weren’t for Sabin’s body mass and short cropped hair, he would look just like his brother.
He clapped Locke on the back with his right arm and nodded a greeting to Shadow. As he stepped back, Locke could see that his face was heavily scarred from what looked like burns.
“Damn, it’s good to see you guys!” said Sabin, the expression on his face hinting that he too had given up hope of ever reuniting with friends; ever finding another survivor of the crash.
Locke was reluctant to ask, but the question slipped off his tongue anyhow.
“Yeah! But I gotta say, I was actually a little surprised to see you here. At least, all dressed up like that. I thought that wasn’t your style?” Locke could feel the corners of his mouth turn up in a grin, ever lighthearted; but his eyes, he knew, betrayed his expression.
And to confirm his fears, Sabin’s face fell likewise. “Hah, yeah… It’s not. But that’s not really up to me anymore.” He sighed and pulled out a chair. “Please, have a seat. You guys look tired; did you walk all the way here?”
“Basically…” Locke sat down slowly and let his voice fade. He wanted to hear Sabin’s story first.
The younger twin was clearly hesitant to begin. Then, resolutely, yet sounding as though he had been keeping these words silent and restrained forever, he said:
“Edgar is dead. And that leaves me as King of Figaro.” It was blunt, but there was no point in shirking the truth.
Locke felt his gut drop to the floor. There were a million things he wanted to think and say and do but his mind was suddenly wiped clean. This was the worst news he had heard yet, and though he had always known it to be entirely possible, he wasn’t quite ready to deal with the confirmation.
But Sabin continued. “Back on that day… what everyone’s calling the ‘Collapse’… you’ll recall how the airship was breaking apart.” Locke nodded slowly. “Everyone was jumping ship because it was obviously going to crash. Well, I was all set to dive overboard myself, but then I remembered that Edgar was below the deck in the engine room. He had gone down there to try to keep the engines running as smoothly as possible while Setzer escaped the Floating Continent and attempted a landing. Everyone had gone except for Setzer, Edgar and myself. I told Setzer to get the hell out of there and I would get Edgar and we’d follow, but the man was mad. You should’ve seen the look in his eyes when I suggested he abandon his ship. No, he was dead set on sticking with it till the end.” Sabin reached for a glass of water before continuing.
“I didn’t have time to try to talk him out of it. Edgar didn’t know how bad things were outside, so I had to go and get him. I rushed to the engine room and shouted for Edgar to get out, but just as he turned around there was an explosion, and he was right there to take the brunt of it. As I ran toward him, the ship was starting to get unbearably rocky and it was nearly impossible to keep my balance. And then all of a sudden, it hit the ground.”
Locke bowed his head, teeth clenched and entirely unready to hear the rest of Sabin’s story.
“The crash messed me up pretty badly, but I was okay. All I could think of was finding Edgar. I found his body crushed by parts of the engine, and as I was clearing it away there was a second explosion. Blew my left arm clean off.”
Sabin lifted his cape with his right hand, revealing an empty space where his arm should have been. His shirt had been tailored so that the sleeve closed around his left shoulder.
“Luckily, the intense heat of it mostly cauterized the wound, but served to give me these burns in the process. My entire upper body is covered in scars. Still I tried to rescue my brother, but by the time I dug him out he was… dead. It was the most terrible thing I’d ever seen…” He turned away and his chest convulsed in a choke. Locke had lost a lot of important people in his life – and he was sure Shadow had too, though the man would never admit it – but nothing could compare to witnessing the death of one’s twin brother. Even though they had lived very separate lives for the past decade, Locke knew that they had always been very close. Edgar had spoke often and fondly of his brother in the days before they reunited to fight the Empire.
After a pause, Sabin continued shakily. “I pulled him out but he was so… obviously…gone.” He nearly spat the word onto the table in a mix of defiance and heartbreak and despair. “Fires were spreading through the remains of the airship, so I got us out as fast as I could. I hardly even felt any pain from losing my arm, as I was so focused on Edgar…” There was another short break.
“I laid his body some distance away from the wreckage, and then went back to see if I could find Setzer. Considering the severity of the damage to the ship, I assumed the worst. Suspicions confirmed, of course… He...” Sabin shook his head in refusal to describe the scene and cursed quietly under his breath. Locke was finding this confession hard to bear – as if the news itself wasn’t terrible enough, watching his friend break down in the process of reliving such horror was like a knife twisting in his gut.
“I carried him out as well, and then dug two graves the best I could for the time being. I knew I had to bring Edgar back to Figaro, but there was no way I could have traveled bearing his body in my current state. Regretfully, I left him… To be honest, I can’t even remember much of what happened after that. I made my way back to Figaro to find the Castle in chaos. I took a long time to recover… Once I was strong enough I went back for Edgar’s body, but…” Sabin frowned. “Setzer’s grave had been dug up. I have no idea who had done it, or why they left Edgar alone.” He shook his head slowly. “So I retrieved Edgar and brought him back here for a proper burial in our catacombs. Since then I’ve served as King. It’s been… difficult.”
Locke was staring at his knees. He felt like a little kid for some reason; like he’d just been given a lecture about why he couldn’t have what he wanted. It wasn’t fair! He wanted to scream and kick and throw a tantrum at the world. Why? Why Gau, the innocent? Why Setzer, the ultimately selfless? Why Edgar, the noble and intelligent? Why his best friend?
Rage swelled inside of him, and a wave of awful, spiteful thoughts crashed through his mind. Who was next? Would his next stop bring him news of the horrible deaths of Celes or Terra? Would he hear the story of how Relm’s bloated body had washed ashore somewhere, or how Strago had fallen from the sky and snapped his neck upon landing? What about how Cyan had somehow been pierced by his own sword?
The only thing that calmed him was the thought of directing that anger toward the one who had caused all of this. If he’d had any doubts or hesitations before, they were gone from him now. Kefka would pay. Locke would see to it they finished what they started on the Floating Continent: vengeance for the world.
He finally looked up at Sabin, whose expression was miserable. Perhaps due to Locke’s reticence, Shadow, somewhat surprisingly, spoke up: “We have news of Setzer’s final resting place.”
Sabin turned toward the former mercenary, thankful that the silence had been broken.
“In the town of Kohlingen, the two of us met up with his former cohort, a woman named Daryl. When she heard of the crash, she came to retrieve Setzer’s body, and buried it in a tomb west of the small town. You can be assured that he has been given the proper respects he deserves.”
Locke couldn’t help but notice that Shadow had been much more… noble than he’d ever been before the Collapse, at least around others (his attitude toward Locke remained as stony as ever, though, he thought somewhat bitterly). Perhaps having spent so much time around the children of Mobliz had softened him up a little.
Sabin nodded. “That’s good. It puts my mind at ease to know he was taken care of.”
“You’ll find it interesting to know that Daryl was the one who brought us here from Kohlingen,” Shadow continued. “She has an airship.”
Sabin seemed to light up with interest, now that the conversation was taking a turn for the positive. It was now time for Locke and Shadow to tell their story.
* * *
The three men were just sitting down to dinner as Locke finished recounting the last part of their journey. A modest meal was laid out before them – quite a step down from what Locke had seen served at Figaro Castle in the past. Sabin explained that since he had ascended to the throne, he insisted that he be given no special treatment simply because he was King. He was aware of the nearly universal poverty and widespread famine that had been ravaging the entire world since the Collapse, and he had made it clear that he would not allow a citizen of his kingdom to starve on his account. Besides, after spending ten years living in the mountains, he was quite accustomed to meager rations.
“So how have things been in the kingdom this past year?” asked Locke as he filled his plate with a polite portion. He felt a little guilty that Daryl was left alone in the airship while he and Shadow enjoyed a nice meal in the cool castle.
“Well, as I said, it’s been difficult,” said Sabin, brushing his cape out of the way. Locke’s eyes involuntarily wandered to the empty space where Sabin’s left arm should have been.
“I am not the leader my brother was. I know nothing of diplomacy, of ruling a kingdom, of military strategy… Not that there’s much threat of war these days, but we still have to protect the citizens from beasts and be ready for that damn Light of Judgment. I wonder now if my time spent away from the castle was foolish. What use was it running around Mt. Kolts all those years? I just let Edgar do all the work, and now that I have to take over I have no idea how to do it.”
Locke set down his fork. “You have no reason to regret your years of training. Sabin, you were a great help to us in our fight against the Empire! We wouldn’t have been able to get as far as we did without your strength. There was no way to know that… things would turn out this way.”
Sabin grunted. “Well, I’m left with nothing now. I can’t fight anymore; I’ve hardly had time to train since then, and I still feel stupid with this missing arm. It wouldn’t help me lead the kingdom anyway. I need Edgar’s intelligence, not muscular strength.
“And Edgar wasn’t just intelligent, he was a genius!” he continued, clearly growing upset. “In the ten years he served as King, he turned Figaro completely around with his mechanical knowledge. You know how advanced South Figaro was – but he brought those comforts to the smaller villages of the kingdom as well. And this castle never moved before his reign. Our father had had a knack for machines as well, and it was he who had begun the project. But the problem of getting this massive fortress to actually move had stumped him for years. Once Edgar had complete control over it, the project was finished in no time.”
A somewhat uncomfortable silence allowed the clinking of silverware on plates to echo around the room.
“When I first returned to the castle, weeks after the crash, it had just resurfaced after going underground during the Collapse. The engines had been damaged and the castle was trapped. Many people suffocated to death. We were hit with the Light of Judgment not long after that, and now the mechanisms are irreparable. The engineers have been working on them ever since, but they have no idea how to fix them, as our entire library – which included the schematics for all of Edgar’s inventions – burned when the castle was hit.”
Locke sighed and gulped down the rest of his wine – the one luxury Sabin had allowed for this special occasion. He’d missed the way it swam around in his head, calming his worries and relaxing his body. His tolerance had obviously decreased over time, and after just two glasses he was feeling uninhibited and optimistic.
“Sabin,” he declared, “we’re gonna fix things. Yeah, the world’s turned to shit, but we can change that. And we won’t be able to bring it back to the way it was, oh, two years ago, but we’ll make it better! The Empire was screwing the world over, but now she’s gone. Right now, we have to regroup and fight this new evil. I absolutely believe that Kefka’s the one in that tower, and I swear on my life that I will see to his end. Once he’s gone, it’s just healing from there on. And I know I’m making it sound simple, but I think that’s how we have to start looking at it! No one’s dared to confront Kefka because everyone believes that it’s just too complicated to the point of impossibility. He’s not a god; he’s just one man. Sure, he has an obscene amount of power, but he’s not immortal. He can bleed as well as I, and I vow to you, and to everyone that I will die before I forfeit this fight.”
He knew it wasn’t just the alcohol giving him confidence; he finally believed it himself.
“I’ll fight in the name of Edgar, Setzer, Gau, and everyone else who’s died because of him. They gave up their lives for us, and I’ll gladly lay mine down for anyone else. It’s taken me a long time to accept the fact that I may not live to see the free world again, but now I embrace it. I wouldn’t be able to live knowing that I did nothing to try to achieve that dream.”
Shadow, whose mask had been removed so that he could eat, squinted at Locke. Locke thought he read what seemed to be a look of approval in his eyes, however faint.
“What I mean to say is, even though horrible things are happening, and we’ve lived to witness our friends and loved ones die before us, we can’t give up. We need to stick together, support each other, and continue the fight we started long ago. The others died fighting, and we need to either see it to the end, or go out the same way.”
Sabin frowned at Locke. “Are you asking me to go with you?”
“If you agreed, I wouldn’t refuse your company,” Locke said with a grin.
The new king sighed, pausing for a serious thought. Finally he answered, “I’m sorry, but I can’t leave.”
Disappointment dampened Locke’s enthusiasm, but he had been expecting as much.
“You have to understand; I would go with you in a heartbeat if things were different, but I can’t abandon my kingdom again. It was fine for Edgar to join you before because there were no immediate pressing matters to be dealt with in Figaro, but since the Collapse, it’s been constant work trying to get the kingdom back in order. People are homeless, people are starving, disease is spreading, and they need a leader to help them through this. But don’t think you’ve come here in vain… You’ve at least made me realize that I need to stop comparing myself to Edgar and focusing on my shortcomings. You’re right – the world is shit right now, and even though your words still don’t change the fact that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, you can be sure that I’ll be here, working day and night doing everything I can to get these people strong enough to keep going. There need to be some survivors to live in this world after Kefka’s gone, right?” he said, allowing a slight chuckle.
Locke smiled, and the three of them stood up. He walked over to Sabin and clapped him on the back.
“I’ll certainly miss having you along with us on our travels, but it gives me confidence to know that you’re alive and doing your damnedest to still make a difference in the world.”
Sabin shook Locke’s hand firmly as though sealing an agreement.
“If you do need anything from me, don’t hesitate to come back and ask,” said Sabin. “I’ll do whatever I can.”
* * *
As Locke readied himself for bed in one of the single guest rooms, Shadow appeared in his doorway. He was still in full gear, hiding behind his mask once again.
“We’re just leaving without him?” he said, his eyes looking dangerous.
“What do you mean?” asked Locke. “He has to stay for the sake of the kingdom; he explained that.”
Shadow scoffed. “He made it pretty clear that he doesn’t know what he’s doing here. I’d say he’s not contributing anything that his aides can’t do without him. Never mind that he’s down an arm, we still need his physical strength.”
Locke shot him his meanest glare. “What the hell is wrong with you? Of course they need him here! The people of Figaro have long respected and loved their monarchs. They depend on them for strength, even as figureheads. Sabin is the last of the direct Figaro bloodline, and if he just leaves on what would be universally regarded as a foolish suicide mission, the kingdom of Figaro would be thrown into a state of chaos. You know how no one has even thought of challenging Kefka; Figaro’s citizens wouldn’t understand if their King left to do just that!”
“Exactly – no one will face him. That’s why we need all the manpower we can get.”
“We’re not going to march up to Kefka’s tower tomorrow, for fuck’s sake, Shadow! Who knows; maybe Sabin will join us in the ultimate battle, but he doesn’t need to come with us now.”
“So it’s fine to go on without Sabin just like that, but you crawled on the ground and pawed at my legs to get me to leave my world behind and join up with you. Were my responsibilities just not as important? Or did you just need me to keep your weak ass alive until you got what you needed – an airship?” Shadow’s voice dripped with acid.
Locke was incredulous. “I don’t even understand why you’re having such a problem with this! Honestly, I thought you’d be a little more sympathetic, seeing as you were selfless enough to babysit those kids in Mobliz. Or did you have some other motive for sticking around there?” he retorted. “You’re making absolutely no sense. When I knew you before, you did nothing unless you were getting paid. Then I find you protecting a village full of children presumably out of the goodness of your heart. Now you’re all fired up over destroying Kefka and saving the world, yet you throw a fit when one person won’t come along with us because he has a kingdom to protect. Are you also pissed at our friends who died, because they can’t help us now either?”
Shadow and Locke glared daggers at each other.
“Get your priorities straight. Sabin said we could come back to him if we really needed his help. Once we have a solid plan and more people to back us up, we can see if he’ll join us at Kefka’s tower.” Locke turned away from Shadow and went to address his imaginary belongings. When he peeked over his shoulder a moment later, the man in black was gone.
Chapter title taken from: Goo Goo Dolls - "Name"
Chapter 7: Like a Dead China Doll
Locke and Shadow didn’t speak a word to each other during the entire walk back to the airship the next morning – early, before complete sunrise, so that they might arrive back at the airship before it became too unbearably hot. They at least seemed to agree that silence was preferable to argument, anyhow. Daryl had just awakened at their arrival, groggily appearing on deck of the Falcon to greet them, then shuffling downstairs to open the door. Locke related to her the main parts of Sabin’s story while she ate a quick breakfast and readied the ship for takeoff.
“I’m sorry to hear about Edgar,” she said, pausing from her preparations. “It’s unfortunate I was born and bought into being a supporter of the Empire. I’d been to the great city of South Figaro on many occasions, and I know that the kingdom was flourishing. I can imagine that Edgar was an excellent leader.”
Locke leaned on the deck’s railing and looked out across the desert. Figaro Castle, nearly a dot on the horizon, danced behind the waves of heat that emanated off the yellow sand. An oasis for the weary; a sleeping giant for the enemy – the sight of the great fortress in the distance had always been a welcome one to Locke, especially as he traveled there south from Narshe. The sight seemed far lonelier – emptier now. “Where to next, captain?” he finally asked, blinking his wistful thoughts aside.
“That’s up to you,” Daryl reminded him. “You’re the boss, remember?”
“I was hoping to leave Figaro Castle with more of a lead... Honestly, any place is as good as the next. Is there anywhere you want to go?” His heart really wasn't into the 'mission' that morning.
“Actually, I’ve been hoping to stop by Jidoor…” said Daryl. She pulled the heavy lever and the engines whirred to life below. “Living on the seas is the best way to hear the latest gossip – you can't be a sailor and not become a storyteller besides. I've heard some nasty rumors about Jidoor over the past year, and I’m curious to see if they’re true. That, and it’d be the best place to get supplies with which to refuel and repair the Falcon... well, provided the rumors aren't entirely true.”
“What sort of rumors?” Locke asked, breaking his gaze over the desert and turning toward her.
“Oh, that bandits from Zozo have since gone south and stirred up trouble in the city. I’m sure it’s true, but I’d like to see just how ‘bad’ it really is.” Daryl seemed to wave it off without concern, noting that she didn't take much stock in the exaggerated degree with which her fellow seamen told their tales.
“All right then, to Jidoor!” proclaimed Locke, and the airship ascended in a cloud of dust.
* * *
She landed the Falcon a good distance away from the great city – whether or not the rumors were true, she wasn't about to go advertising the fact that she had an airship, regardless of the caliber of the residents therein. As Daryl had been the one particularly interested in visiting Jidoor, Shadow volunteered to stay behind and guard the ship while she and Locke headed toward the city.
What they found there took them by surprise. Daryl’s overheard gossip didn’t even begin to encompass the severity of the city’s situation. It no longer even remotely resembled the noble center of wealth and high culture it once was. Windows everywhere were smashed, garbage littered the streets, and the only people to be found were shady-looking characters who all looked like they’d seen their fair share of gang violence. In fact, it was as though Zozo had completely relocated and overtaken Jidoor.
“Oh my god…” breathed Daryl, as the two of them entered her former hometown. “This is unbelievable.” Locke glanced around nervously. The idea of such sudden transformation and perversion made him extremely uncomfortable.
“We probably shouldn’t stay here too long,” he said quietly. “I have a feeling we’re in a lot of danger.”
“I agree… oh my god,” she said again.
“Let’s at least try not to look too much like tourists.”
Daryl nodded and the two of them made a serious effort to minimize their gawking. It was certainly difficult pretending to be a local, though. Knowing what the city had been, and seeing what it had become was hard to digest.
The deeper into the heart of the city they walked, the more unsettled Locke became. He constantly looked sideways over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed – having dealt in semi-shady business himself in the past, he knew what signs to stay alert for, but he knew he stood no chance in a den of thieves who boasted little respect for convention. Furthermore, judging by the sun’s angle in the sky, it was becoming late afternoon. Remaining in the city after dark would be foolish, and both he and Daryl knew it.
Locke, a few steps ahead of Daryl, rounded a corner and, as he was again looking in the other direction, nearly ran right into a young woman. He mumbled an apology but then froze. His heart pounded as he stared at her.
“You lookin’ for something?” she asked, brushing her long, blonde hair out of her face.
“C-Celes?” he stuttered in disbelief.
The woman turned up her eyebrow. “Who the hell do you think I am?”
Locke furrowed his brow. No… it definitely wasn’t Celes. This woman was a few inches shorter, her eyes a different color, her face slightly rounder. But the overall resemblance was striking.
“Sorry, never mind,” he said awkwardly, trying to feign confidence.
But the woman reached out and grabbed his arm as he tried to walk past.
“Wait.” A sly grin crept across her face. “You aren’t in a hurry, are you?” The woman pulled Locke close to her and she whispered into his ear, “I’ve got some free time and a nice hotel room waiting.”
Locke lowered his eyes and noticed how tightly her shirt clung to her breasts. Hmm, she looks a bit bigger than Celes, too.
Just then, Daryl joined them and the younger woman pulled away. “Might I ask what’s going on?” asked Daryl, a sudden authority to her voice.
“Ooh, that’s bold, bringing your woman here with you,” the prostitute cooed. “Or are you looking for a threesome? I’m up for that, but it’ll cost extra.”
“Get lost,” said Locke, shaking her hand off of his arm.
“But you were staring at me so longingly just a minute ago!” she pouted.
“I thought she looked like Celes,” Locke mumbled, embarrassed, more to Daryl than to the prostitute, as he turned to walk away.
“Well, if you change your mind, you know where to find me!” the girl called. “My name is Maria.”
Daryl had still been staring at her. “The opera singer?” she asked incredulously.
Maria raised her eyebrow again in that same haughty manner. “Former opera singer, yes. The opera house was destroyed over a year ago, and no one around here is so pompous as to give a damn about that sort of thing anymore. What the hell does it matter?” The tone of her voice was impatiently rude.
“That’s sad,” commented Locke disdainfully, still trying to edge away from the situation.
“Look, it’s not like I really had a choice, so you can keep your mouth shut and your judgments to yourself unless you’re paying for my services. I’ll even pretend to be Celes, or whatever her name is,” she added with a wink.
“You’re disgusting.” Locke began to walk away once more, and Daryl followed.
Suddenly, Maria called out again in an afterthought. “Hey, wait a minute! Was that the name of the girl who replaced me at the opera that one time? Did you have anything to do with that?”
“Yeah. What of it?” Locke replied over his shoulder, growing frustrated.
Maria let out an odd cackle. “I heard her singing was awful. No doubt that's why Setzer stopped harassing me. You can tell her thanks for that, from me.”
“What the hell is going on?” roared Daryl. “What did you have to do with Setzer?” She stormed back over toward Maria.
“The cad kept sending me these stupid love letters during my run as prima donna. He was convinced he was going to sweep in during a performance, kidnap me and marry me, like some ridiculous faerie-tale ending. Then this girl comes along who apparently looks like me, and the Impresario has her stand in for me on the night Setzer was supposed to come, and he took her instead! I was pissed at first, because she kind of ruined my reputation. I heard her performance was horrid.” However, her expression was less of regret and more of amusement at the reaction her story was eliciting.
Daryl fumed. Locke was now more worried that she would start tearing Maria apart than he was mad at the girl’s arrogance. It was becoming difficult to keep one eye on the ensuing fight and the other on his own back, moreover.
“How old are you?” Daryl hissed.
“Seventeen. How old are you? Twice that, at least?”
“Daryl, let’s go,” said Locke sternly. They had already attracted enough attention as it was. To his relief, Daryl was content with directing a few choice words at the former opera singer before stomping away from the scene. Maria laughed as they departed.
“Would you care to explain the relationship between Setzer and that… whore? Apparently you knew something about it, considering you got involved somehow?”
Locke had been dreading this interrogation from the moment Maria introduced herself. He was also unnerved at the fact that Daryl, in her blind rage, was leading them deeper into the city, and meanwhile the sun was setting further.
“All right, just slow down a minute, okay?” he said, wanting to stop her before they found themselves cornered in a dark alley somewhere. “I honestly don’t know the extent of their relationship, but from the way she spoke, I don’t think it got much farther than Setzer writing her a few letters. Judging from what I knew of him at the time, I think he was just trying to stir up a bit of mischief.” It was a bit of a white lie, but there were other, better times when this conversation could have taken place. And thinking ahead, he knew he couldn't exactly admit that they had basically exploited Setzer’s fascination with the young opera star in order to trick him into lending them his airship.
“Our companion, Celes, happened to bear a resemblance to Maria. What she said was true – on the night Setzer was supposed to take her away, we replaced Maria with Celes.”
“And... what was the purpose of all of that?” asked Daryl, no less angrily.
“As a favor for the Impresario of the opera house. He was afraid Maria would never return if she were married, so to protect her, Celes stepped in. Honestly, the only reason I agreed to be a part of it was to play a joke on Setzer. He knew as well as anyone that he didn’t actually have a chance with her, and we thought it’d be funny if we pretended that, once she was captured, Maria agreed to marry him, only to reveal that she wasn’t who he thought she was. I never actually met the real Maria in all that time, though… I had no idea she was such a…”
“Bitch?” Daryl finished with a bitter laugh. Locke looked at her apprehensively. He knew there were a few holes in his story, and it made them all look like a bunch of idiot kids backstabbing each other for kicks, but he prayed she would overlook the details.
Daryl sighed. “I guess I can’t be mad at Setzer for moving on and being attracted to someone else. I rather expected it, actually. It was a bit of a shock knowing for sure now – even more so having met the girl. It just bothers me that he would go for someone so… horrible! And she’s ten years younger than me, too!” she lamented.
“I wouldn’t doubt if he never actually met her in person,” said Locke. “I’m sure he would have forgotten about her real quick if he’d known what she was actually like.”
“It really is sad, though, that a once-famous opera singer has been driven to prostitution,” Daryl said, shaking her head. “Could be that this last year is what’s shaped her attitude, too. I shouldn’t blame her. This place is terrible.”
Twilight was settling in. Rough-looking men and women were already staggering around, clutching bottles of beer and moonshine. They had long since overstayed their welcome, if they’d ever been welcome in the first place.
But something up ahead caught Locke’s eye. In the northern sector of the city, there was a large, grandiose building on the top of a hill alight with colors. Loud music and the din of raucous conversation carried down even to where Locke and Daryl were standing some distance away.
“That was the mansion of the nobleman Owzer,” explained Daryl, noting Locke’s interest. “By far the richest man in Jidoor, he was basically a puppet of the Empire. He had no significant political power, of course, but the Emperor showered him with petty honors and meaningless gifts so that he would continue to contribute money to the Empire. I can’t even begin to imagine what’s going on up there now…”
“This is going to sound stupid, but I have to see what’s up there,” said Locke. Something was burning in his chest. It was a nagging feeling and a physical sensation that he couldn’t explain, but something was undoubtedly pulling him toward that mansion, and he couldn’t ignore it.
“It’s getting dark –”
“I know, but I really need to check it out. I’ll be quick, but I can’t leave without going there.”
Daryl reluctantly agreed to go along, provided that they were out of the city within an hour.
As they approached, it was apparent that the mansion was housing a raucous party. There were people everywhere; the women barely dressed and the men barely restrained. Locke and Daryl slipped off to the side so that they could approach the gate surrounding the estate from somewhere inconspicuous. It was difficult to remain unseen, especially since there were a large number of heavy guards placed all around the property.
“Is this really the time?” whispered Daryl, half-joking but clearly somewhat nervous.
Locke elbowed her. “I honestly think there’s something important in here.” The burning sensation grew more intense in his chest.
Satisfied that no one was watching, Locke slowly crept up to the menacing wrought-iron gate. He squeezed himself between two withering, thorny bushes and peered through the opening between two of the gate’s large spokes. So this is where all of Jidoor’s money went, he thought as he took in the scene. The bush to his right rustled slightly as Daryl joined him.
Beyond the gate, hundreds of people crowded the courtyard of Owzer’s mansion. Though nearly everyone looked as though they’d just stepped out of Zozo, it was easy to see which of them boasted a degree of wealth. They were the ones with an air of satisfaction about their faces, where others pawed at them like beta-dogs, vying for attention and vindication. Shameless men and women alike offered a favor here, a flash of skin there, all in the hopes of winning the fleeting love of the more fortunate revelers among them. Locke and Daryl nearly jumped when two bodies suddenly crashed into the gate before them, locked in a frenzied and passionate embrace. They strained to look past but found a hand wandering up a tattered skirt to be rather distracting.
Daryl turned toward Locke. “What could possibly be here that’s so important?” she whispered pleadingly.
But Locke had no time to respond before his eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped. Through the crowds of people, descending the center staircase was girl with dull, porcelain skin and wavy green hair. She was dressed in far more opulent clothing than anyone else in the courtyard – a silver damask bodice squeezed her torso to what looked like painfully thin proportions and pushed her small breasts so that they billowed over the top of the lingerie. A long, layered skirt fluttered around her legs as she walked gracefully into the crowd. Escorting her was a disgustingly sly-looking man, more than even generously plump, his arm around the girl's slight waist in a rather ungraceful manner. She was completely impassive.
“That’s Owzer!” whispered Daryl incredulously. “What a pig he’s become! I bet he’s behind all this, that scum.”
“That’s… Terra,” Locke lamented. All of a sudden, the burning in his chest grew nearly overwhelming. He reached into his shirt and pulled out the Magicite crystal and at once realized that it was the source of the heat. It must be reacting to Terra!
Looking back over toward her, he could see that she suddenly winced and put her hands to her ears. Owzer glanced at her questioningly, but she shook her head and dismissed the action.
A madness suddenly flooded Locke’s veins. What was she doing here? Why was she acting so calm? He felt completely helpless. Hundreds of bandits and gangsters stood between himself and Terra. How would he ever reach her?
Owzer then began to speak. It was difficult to make out what he was saying, but the crowd seemed to be reacting immediately. Shouts arose in bursts from the men in particular. As the responses gradually grew fewer and farther between, he gestured dramatically and a band began to play a bacchanalian tune. The party resumed, and Owzer, with Terra still on his arm, descended into the crowd.
Without a second thought, Locke scurried off through the bushes, trying to follow, trying to see where they had gone. Daryl let out a muted yelp after him, signaling her distress that they'd be caught if they kept up like this.
He strained his eyes, desperately trying to make sense of the sea of cloaks and limbs beyond the iron gate. He had completely lost sight of Terra, and the pit in his stomach grew heavier. Anything could be happening to her. He knew her to be a strong woman, but the utter lack of emotion that he'd seen in her face was unsettling. She'd looked as though she may as well have been wearing the slave crown again.
Daryl caught up to him at the same time as did one of the large estate guards from the other side.
“Trying to see the show without paying, are we?” the guard asked menacingly, cracking his knuckles.
Locke leapt to his feet without hesitating. He growled an unsavory threat and reached for his daggers. But before he could make a move, Daryl firmly grasped his arm and pulled him harshly to the side. She broke into a run, practically dragging Locke behind her as they fled from the estate. The guard didn’t seem interested enough to follow them.
The two finally came to a halt behind the abandoned relic shop south of Owzer’s mansion. Locke held his side and panted for breath. When he had enough air in his lungs to spare, he shouted a curse and pounded his fist on the wall of the building.
“I can’t believe this!” he railed, regardless of whom he might be attracting. He knocked his forehead on the stone wall and rested it there, too frustrated to form words.
“Locke, we have to get out of here,” said Daryl, with more seriousness in her voice than he’d ever heard.
“I’m not leaving until I get Terra out of that...” He couldn't finish his sentence. It pained him to speculate.
“We’re going to get killed if we stay much longer. The two of us can’t do anything against the whole lot of this city –”
Locke shot her a glare.
“Look! You have to be realistic!” she pleaded. “Okay, I don’t know this girl personally, but it makes me just as sick as any to see her stuck in that situation. Nevertheless, if we’re really going to get her out of there, then we need to go back, think of a solid plan, and wait until we have a concrete opening to get where we want to be. Rushing in blindly would be a death sentence.”
Locke’s chest heaved with anger, but he knew Daryl was right. He opened his mouth to say something when, out of instinct, he suddenly pressed his body up against the wall just in time to see a dagger fly past, dangerously close to his face.
He and Daryl quickly found themselves surrounded by five wicked-looking men.
“Well, well…” said a tall, gruff man wearing an eye patch. “You must be newcomers to this area. You two have been stirring up quite the trouble this evening, so I hear. First you harass the little miss Maria, and then you’re caught trying to sneak into Owzer’s private party. Let me make this clear.” His face was so close to Locke’s that the stench of whiskey wafted unceremoniously over him.
“We have a way of doing things around here, and if you don’t follow the rules, you may find yourself lying in a pool of your own blood.” He held a long knife up to Locke’s throat.
Locke met the man’s glare with equal ferocity and for once, he found the lack of streetlamps nearby to be to his advantage. As the bandit gave his threatening speech, Locke’s hands were busy relieving him of his other weapons. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing Terra in this vulgar position that had jolted his old confidence back into him, but nonetheless, he no longer felt like the coward who could do nothing to defend himself nor those he loved.
At the same time, Daryl stood still but on guard as the other four men circled her like ravenous wolves. If they assumed she couldn’t defend herself, they were about to be in for a nasty surprise. She waited for Locke’s move.
Locke allowed but a second to pass after the man uttered his final word before he stabbed him in the lower abdomen. As the bandit flinched, Locke keenly slipped out from between the wall and his antagonist to witness Daryl grab a wandering hand and twist it with such violence that a loud snap could be heard. Moving with adrenaline-enhanced haste, Locke ducked to avoid the frenzied swings of fists and knives aimed at his upper body and slashed at the ankles of the three yet-untouched assailants. Meanwhile, Daryl moved in to greet the leader with a swift kick to the face as he whipped around, clutching his bleeding stomach. Locke planted one of the stolen daggers into the side of the man with the broken arm as he made a move to retaliate against the bold woman. Then the both of them turned toward the remaining three, who had all fallen to their knees in agony as blood poured from the wounds in their lower legs. They each kicked them to the ground, and with a last taunting flash of a stolen blade, Locke and Daryl sprinted away from the scene and beyond the city walls.
Convinced that they were far enough away from danger, they stopped to rest. Breaths came in heavy panting once again as the two of them hunched over with the agony of burning lungs lacking oxygen. Locke could feel bile rising in his throat due to the strain he’d put on his body. Once he’d caught his breath, he stood up straight and marched resolutely toward the airship without a word, and Daryl followed him through the darkness.
Chapter title taken from: Elliott Smith - "Waltz #2"
Chapter 8: Rejoin the World
A heavy weight had settled on the small party. Over the next few days, each kept their thoughts primarily to themselves as they brooded over all these newfound troubles. Outwardly, Shadow was still unhappy about letting Sabin off so easily, though his motivations were impossible to ever really discern. Daryl was revolted at the state of her hometown. Locke could barely sleep knowing that he’d left Terra behind in... what, exactly, was it? It was almost worse not knowing, because it made his mind jump to every filthy, awful possibility. And certainly, they were no closer to achieving any of their goals.
Daryl had parked the Falcon outside of South Figaro, where Locke and Shadow took turns scouring the city for clues to distract themselves while Daryl continued to repair the airship. Her anger made her work feverishly, though her mood was slightly softened to find that South Figaro offered many of the things she needed.
Four days of loitering in various sectors of the city and striking up conversations with patrons in the tavern brought no news of their friends. The two men were clearly aggravated by their consistently fruitless efforts, which of course did not help to ease the already-existing tension between them.
On the fifth day, Daryl took a break from tending to the Falcon to have a look around the city herself.
Rather than heading for the tavern to try to squeeze out information from the local drunks, her first stop was the great harbor. South Figaro was still a major trading port, despite its cut-off from Nikeah, and she had been there many times in her years as a sailor. And as always, if there were any one particular place to pick up gossip, she knew that this would be it.
“Ahoy!” she called out to a group of men standing around smoking cigarettes and pipes. They glanced at her and seemed to be somewhat surprised at her seafaring garments.
“Lady sailor?” one asked, generously offering his hand.
Daryl grasped it firmly and nodded. “Just interested in hearing some stories, if you have any.”
The men looked at each other lazily and the first man shrugged. “Not too much excitement lately, but no news is good news, innit?” he said and then grinned, like a kid who couldn't keep a secret.
“What’s that?” prodded Daryl, placing her hands on her hips and cocking her head.
“Aw, nothin’ you’d be interested in. Just rememberin' a real pretty lady passenger from Carith Harbor last week that got us talkin'.” The men snickered and Daryl rolled her eyes with amusement. From her own sailing experience, she knew there weren't too many women riding ships between cities since the Collapse, so anything with curves these days was sure to grab these men's attentions.
“Oh yeah? What’d she look like?” she continued, half humoring them, half genuinely interested.
“Long, blonde hair. Stony blue eyes. Carried a sword at her hip. Looked like a serious handful, she did!” The men shared another chuckle.
“Jordan here kept trying to talk her up, but she warn’t interested in the least!” piped up another sailor, and they all laughed at Jordan’s expense. “No idea why,” he added innocently as Jordan shot him a good-natured glare.
“She was too young for me, or looked it at least. I asked her why a pretty little girl was out on her own totin’ a big weapon like that. Don’t seem right to me!”
Another sailor chimed in. “She didn’t look too happy about bein’ called a little girl,” he sniggered. “That rather took some balls – I thought she was gonna draw her sword right then!”
“Right, well, she said she was treasure huntin’,” Jordan continued. “I said, ‘You got your treasure right here, babe!’” He guffawed with laughter.
“What a liar!” accused his companion. “He didn’t feed her that stupid line,” he said aside to Daryl.
“Maybe I shoulda! I bet she would’ve dropped everything right there and stayed with me!” exclaimed Jordan and the sailors all roared with laughter. “But alas, we parted ways upon docking. I think she said she had some business on the old Imperial Continent.”
“Maybe she’s sacking the great tower!” whispered a sailor and the others shushed him.
“She’d have to be a damn fool to do that!” retorted another, unamused by such a jest. “Naw, she looked smarter ‘n that.”
Jordan shrugged. “I dunno, if she was really smart, she woulda taken up my offer to buy her dinner!”
More laughter, and Daryl shook her head and smiled. “All right, boys,” she said, lifting her chin. “I gotta get back to work, but thanks for the entertainment. See ya ‘round!”
The sailors waved good-bye to her as she practically skipped back to the airship.
* * *
Locke jumped as Daryl ungracefully slammed open his door.
“Pretty young woman, long blonde hair, stony blue eyes, wielding a sword. Took a ship from Carith Harbor through here just last week to go on a treasure hunt on the old Imperial Continent. Sound like anyone you know?”
Locke gaped at her for just a moment.
“You are an amazing woman, Daryl.”
* * *
Just as quickly as the party had set sail in their newfound optimism, they found themselves facing another dead end. Locke paced anxiously up and down the deck of the Falcon as Daryl and Shadow frowned at him. The ship was parked on the shore east of Tzen and the midday sun blazed unforgivingly upon them.
“A treasure hunt on the old Imperial Continent…” Locke was muttering to himself as he ran his hand along the railing. He stopped for a moment to wipe the sweat off his brow and retie his hair back. Shadow let out an irritated sigh.
“I’m sorry! Hold on…” Locke’s genius apparently flowed much more easily when there was no audience to scrutinize him.
“We’re going into Tzen to ask around, as was suggested in the first place,” declared Shadow, pushing his weight off of the stair rail.
Locke gave no immediate reply.
“Locke, you can stay on the airship if you want,” said Daryl, a bit of impatience in her voice as well. “But someone has to go and find out if she’s been through this area. The Imperial Continent is huge; we can’t just magically figure this out on our own. It took long enough for us to get to this point anyway; we don't want her moving on even farther before we lose the trail again.”
Lines creased across Locke’s forehead as he frowned at his hand resting on the railing. Daryl could see that he was on the verge of saying something, but his hesitation carried on for too long.
“How many towns are you going to exile yourself from?” she cut in, her boldness taking him by surprise. “Just because you showed a bit of weakness in a time when anyone would be pissing themselves doesn’t mean you’re going to be lynched by an angry mob if you show your face around Tzen. If you really want to keep avoiding the consequences of your actions, well… you can get ready to miss out on a few things in life. You wouldn’t be the first person to lose a loved one just because you were too afraid to come back and try again after running away.”
Locke at once hated and loved Daryl for her unforgiving attitude. Her words stung, but it finally awoke in him the drive to do what he needed to do, regardless of whether or not it would be pleasant. There were more important things at stake than his own comfort and reputation.
“All right,” he said quietly but firmly. “Let’s go into Tzen.”
With those words, the engines of the Falcon hummed to life and a hot wind whipped around as the propellers began to spin. Daryl steered the ship closer toward the small mountain range north of the city in hopes of being somewhat less conspicuous yet still close to their destination. As she shifted the gears to land, however, a terrible screeching sound followed by a low, rumbling boom set the captain cursing. She eased the Falcon to the ground and stormed down the stairs below the deck. A moment later she returned, no less agitated.
“I’m gonna need an extra set of hands for this one,” she said bitterly. “It’s nothing that can’t be fixed, but I need help lifting some heavy pieces back into place.” She pulled a bandana out of her pocket and threw her head forward to tie her thick hair into a ponytail. Shadow stepped forward without a word and Daryl, approving, began to lead him downstairs. Locke folded his thin arms and met Daryl’s gaze as she paused briefly to give him an inquisitive look.
“I’ll go into the city while you guys work on the ship,” he said. The tone of his voice was neither uncertain nor overcompensating. It was genuine, as though he hadn’t spent the last few weeks second-guessing himself; as though nothing had ever happened to change the person he once was.
Daryl nodded and flashed him a quick grin. “We’ll see you tonight then,” she said and she and the shadow disappeared under the deck.
* * *
The first sight that greeted Locke as he neared the city’s borders was a very large graveyard. It was crude; the graves marked simply with large stones, and here and there a wilting flower lay limply atop the slight mounds. As he made his way through, he came upon the mass graves he himself had helped to dig. Fresh waves of guilt fluttered in his stomach, but his expression did not betray him. Only when he approached the crumbling remains of the city walls did he pause. The broken stones only ever reached as high as his knees in some areas; he suspected the wall had crumbled long before the latest attack on Tzen. There were no more territorial wars from which a great wall would protect the city. These stones were now needed to repair houses and to mark graves.
With a somber glance around the area, Locke stepped over the old border and walked to the main road. Crude bridges had been built over the gash in the earth that had split the town. The buildings in its path had been mostly cleared away. Ash from fires long since extinguished still covered the ruins and swirled in the air when the wind picked up. Very few people could be seen outside in this area; Locke suspected that most of the citizens had moved farther back into the city where there had been less damage. He continued walking, lost in thought.
About a mile in, he stopped to consider a small vegetable garden outside a dusty home. He was amazed that anything could grow in such brittle, dry earth, but he figured these people must be getting their food from somewhere. He was just about to continue on when he heard a soft, “oh!” The exclamation was repeated more loudly when he turned to face the direction from which it had come.
Across the way stood a young woman with a familiar blonde ponytail. She held her hands to her heart as she scurried over to Locke calling, “Excuse me!”
The woman’s face looked to be about Locke’s age or younger, but her expression was wide-eyed and childish. She looked up at Locke with tears in her eyes.
“You’re… you’re the man who went into my home as it collapsed to save my son!”
The confidence he’d built up was beginning to leave him.
But he had no time to falter as she collapsed at his feet and he dove to catch her under her arms. He gently guided her back up and she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck.
“I’m sorry…” he began to say, but her sobs cut him off.
“No, no!” she stammered. “I’m… I never thanked you; I’m so sorry…”
Locke returned the embrace, feeling her chest heave against his as he held her almost as fiercely as she clung to him. He wasn’t sure why he did it, but all of a sudden a rush of emotions flooded his body – sadness, passion, relief, hopefulness, and desire. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt another’s body so close to his own.
He was even a bit reluctant to let her go as she gently pulled away from him, wiping the tears from her cheeks with the backs of her hands. She tried to calm her own erratic breathing as she spoke.
“I can’t thank you enough. I couldn’t believe how selflessly you put yourself in danger for my sake. I didn’t deserve your kindness, and I’m embarrassed at how I acted towards you back then. I’m so sorry… I-I don’t even know your name…” She bowed her head and Locke could see tears drip onto her bare feet.
He placed his hands on her arms and looked at her sadly. “You have no reason to apologize! It was a horrible shock for you…” She began to cry anew, and she buried her face into his chest once more. This time he restrained himself and held her much more lightly.
“My name is Locke,” he said softly. “And I should be the one apologizing to you, and to everyone of Tzen. I was a coward. I ran away when people depended on me.”
The woman looked back up at him. “Locke…” She shook her head. “I figured you’d left when I never saw you again after that, but… I’m certain it was difficult for you to bear. It was hard enough for the people of Tzen, but there was no reason why you – a man not even from around here – should have had to suffer with us. It was a horrible time. In fact, many others left too…”
“But I stole a chocobo,” he began, not bothering to think that it was odd he was admitting this to a stranger.
The young woman gave a sad smile. “Oh Locke, I hardly know you but I can tell you’re an innocent soul. That was probably the least harm you could’ve done to anyone. Actually…” Her face became serious, and he could see a hint of anger in her eyes. “One of the men who came with your convoy from Albrook turned out to be a thief. I didn’t catch his name either; he was tall and had blond hair. Of course, I had nothing to lose at that point, but I heard other people who were under his care had what few valuables they had left stolen. He took off one night; I heard the leader of your group shouting about how two had left now…”
Locke knew the man she described. In his mind he still had the vivid image of him forcing the tranquilizer down her throat.
He turned away from the woman. “This world is full of trash,” he said, crossing his arms and surveying the area around them. Dust swirled in a tiny cyclone nearby as a gust of wind blew through the street. He wanted to rant on, about the people of Kohlingen, about the Zozoan gangs in Jidoor, about the Empire's lasting effect on the world – but then he also had to think about Mae, and Daryl, and everyone else who still gave the world a fighting chance, so he stopped himself. This continued pessimism would do himself no good.
“Please, won’t you stop in and rest for a bit? Let me get you something to eat or drink,” said the woman, gesturing to a small house down the road. Locke politely refused, but she insisted profusely, so the two of them headed into her modest home.
“My name is Laila, by the way. I am forever indebted to you.” Locke shook his head sympathetically.
Locke was seated at a small, round table while Laila prepared a pot of tea and some biscuits. She was living with her grandfather now, but he was old and sickly and needed her to take care of him. She placed the modest spread on the table and sat across from him.
“So what brings you back to Tzen?” she asked. Though certainly calmer now, there was still a fragile twinge to her voice.
Locke sighed. “I’ve heard an old friend of mine has come to this continent in search of something; ‘treasure’ perhaps. I’m trying to catch up to her. I haven’t seen her in over a year.”
“So you’re the adventuring type after all,” said Laila, smiling warmly.
“Well, I don’t much look it anymore.”
“Nothing is the same as it used to be.” She poured hot tea into Locke’s cup and then into her own. “What does she look like – if she still looks the way you remember her?”
Locke closed his eyes for a moment. He was getting that strange feeling in his stomach again.
“She has very long, pale blonde hair and stony blue eyes. Sharp nose and chin, almost regal looking, but her features are still quite delicate. About my height. I think she’s nineteen or twenty years old now. She would be carrying a sword.”
Laila looked at him with great interest.
“Her name is Celes.”
Laila sighed longingly and smiled. “You describe her with such reverence,” she said, swirling the tea in her cup. “I certainly would’ve taken note if I’d seen her, but unfortunately I don’t believe I have.” She looked up eagerly. “We should ask the innkeepers! There are few left in Tzen, but if she’s been through here, she must’ve stopped for at least one night. There really isn’t anything else around here for miles, so she’d have to have come from afar and still had a long way ahead of her.”
Locke was a bit surprised at the excitement with which Laila hurriedly cleared their dishes and pulled him outside in the direction of the nearest inn. But then, he suspected, she must have been terribly lonely all this time. Her son was gone and he had seen no sign of a husband, nor had she mentioned one.
No news at the first inn. Unsurprising, as it was a small boarding house far from the main roads. The owner had heard or seen nothing of the girl described; she was far too busy for gossip, dealing with all of her tenants – citizens of Tzen who had been displaced by the attack, graciously being allowed to stay indefinitely. Laila practically ran to the next place, dragging Locke along by the arm.
This inn was in a much more central location, but Celes hadn’t stopped there either. A “no vacancy” sign was posted outside the door, as these rooms too were housing the homeless. The owner, a heavyset man with deep circles under his eyes, gave a vague mention to having “possibly” seen the girl they’d described walking down the street at some point, but he had really been too busy to notice either.
Laila’s enthusiasm did not wane as they headed to the third inn; a large but slightly run-down (thanks to all the recurring attacks) stone building just off the main road. Its front entrance had a nice view of the wreckage left by the Light of Judgment. Locke held the door as his companion quite skipped inside. He marveled for a moment at how resiliently she’d recovered from her depression now that she felt needed and helpful. Her youth suddenly shined through the extremely premature lines on her face.
The two told their story once again, and this time, they could see a positive reaction in the proprietor’s expression as he listened.
The middle-aged man straightened his glasses and leaned against the counter. “Oh, goodness, I won’t forget that girl’s image for as long as I live! You bet she came through here – stayed at my inn for two nights just earlier this week. What a sight she was, dressed all in gold, decorated with fine scarves and jewels, and that ornate bronze sword at her hip. More than that, the look in her eyes was so… disturbed. I would’ve sooner believed her to be a madwoman than a fighter were it not for the tone of her arms! But the most bizarre thing was that – with such an exotic appearance, I immediately assumed she’d come from some distant land; a foreign culture like Doma, you know? But no… her accent? Was unmistakably that of the late Imperial aristocracy. I tell you, I didn’t sleep the whole time she was here. Absolutely scared the life out of me.”
Once the man finished his story, Locke realized he’d been gaping. He relaxed his expression but maintained a perplexed frown. Dressed in gold? Decorated with scarves and jewels? He could scarcely imagine Celes in anything but her military-green uniform and white cape, despite her brief stint at the opera. As for the “disturbed” expression of her eyes... well, she was always a difficult one to read. He decided not to dwell on it.
The innkeeper continued. “Didn't talk much, and I was afraid to press her for information beyond my own business. If you're wondering where she went to from here, I couldn't tell you. Albrook would be my guess, as it's the closest major city around.”
At that moment, a man who looked much older than he probably was chimed in from his seat in the lobby.
“Phoenix Cave,” he rasped, and all eyes turned to him. “Northwest of here, in the center of the mountain range shaped like a star.”
A brief silence lingered as everyone waited for the man to continue, but he did not elaborate.
“How...?” began Laila.
The old man cleared his throat noisily. “People like that girl there will open up when they know you won't ask questions.”
“So you don't know any other details?” tried Locke.
Another forceful grunt drove his point home. Locke and Laila looked at each other, nodded at the man, and left the innkeeper with a gracious bow.
Outside, Laila could barely contain her excitement. “How wonderful!” she sighed, clasping her hands together. “You should be able to catch up to her now, right? I wonder what she's after; I haven't heard much about this Phoenix Cave, other than rumors of its surfacing since the Collapse.”
Locke was strangely quiet, his brow knit as he tried to conjure up very old memories. The story of the Phoenix Cave was one legend with which he was familiar – its supposed treasure was one that he'd yearned for after Rachel's death. But as far as he had known, it had all been an ancient myth. Research and exploration had never yielded a single hint that the Cave existed anymore, or ever had. But something in the back of his mind had kept telling him to keep looking... and so he continued to allow Rachel's body to be preserved in the eccentric man's basement...
His face burned as the image of the remains of the collapsed house flashed in his mind.
If the treasure really did exist... and now it was too late...
He suddenly noticed that Laila was staring at him and regained his composure.
“Yeah, I'll find her,” he said, forcing a smile. And though the thought of reuniting with Celes made his heart leap, he couldn't help but dread what still lie between them.
If the stories his grandmother had told him were entirely true, a dragon would be standing guard of the Phoenix Cave treasure.
Chapter title taken from: Alcest - "Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde"
Chapter 9: If Your Mind Inside Was Like Mine
The Falcon circled slowly above a cluster of five distinct mountains. Each was tall and jagged, and they looked as though they had burst through the ocean surface to stand guard ominously at the northern edge of the old Imperial Continent. Deep within the center of the range, a faint but distinct orange glow flickered.
“There is no way I can maneuver the ship all the way down there,” said Daryl, gritting her teeth. She and her two passengers were looking skeptically over the side of the hull.
“Can we throw a rope down?” Locke asked.
“Sure, but I can't stay in the air while you're in there. This thing eats up fuel as it is. I'll have to park on that landing near the forest to the southwest, but I'm not sure how I'll know when to pick you up.”
“I'll send up a flare,” said Shadow. It was reassuring to know that the former assassin still had his assorted tricks literally up his sleeves.
A short time later, Locke and Shadow were descending a rope ladder that dangled a good several feet still above the landing. When their boots hit the ground, they signaled up to their captain and the airship disappeared from sight. Locke couldn't deny he felt a bit of a twist in his stomach seeing how cagelike the mountains looked from this angle, but he reminded himself that there was a point in his life when he would've happily scaled these heights in search of an adventure. And after all, Celes had to have found her way in here on her own.
As they considered the entrance to the cave, the men were greeted by an uncomfortably hot breeze. Inside was certain to be even worse.
“Well, let's go in and see what it's like,” determined Locke, before anyone could jump to conclusions. No point in wasting time speculating their fate.
But when they stepped through the rocky portal, they were almost immediately faced with two diverging passages. And the heat inside was stifling; Locke already found himself retying his hair away from his neck and wiping his brow. They retreated back to the landing outside.
“Of course it would be a maze,” Locke muttered with frustration, removing his leather vest. “And if I want any sort of armored protection I'll die of heatstroke...” He tossed the vest to the ground and looked up to see Shadow offering him a small stone.
“We could easily get in over our heads here, and we'll likely have to split up,” said the man in black. “We'll each carry a scout. The bases will stay just outside the entrance here.” He placed the larger halves of the warp stones among the surrounding rocks. “What do you say, if we're separated for more than an hour we agree to return?”
Locke nodded, watching as Shadow hid a flare near the warp stone bases. “Wait another fifteen minutes, then send this up regardless.”
Shadow then stripped off his mask and some of the heavier parts of his body armor. If the assassin was trading protection for comfort, then he was judging that the heat would definitely be a serious issue. Locke adjusted his outfit likewise, and the two of them headed back in.
The split pathway quickly proved to be designed that way for a reason: the men ended up having to work separately to clear the passages further for each other. Locke wondered aloud how Celes could have possibly gotten through the cave alone.
“I could do it and so could you; it would just take more time,” said Shadow with a great air of annoyance in his voice. “Do you doubt her magic abilities that much?” Locke decided to keep quiet from then on. It was becoming aggravating, how often he was getting berated for his lack of faith lately.
It was becoming difficult to think straight in the suffocating heat of the cave, however. More than once they passed by bubbling pools of lava and flames that actually danced upon nothing but hard rock. The air was extremely thin and it made both the men sluggish. After an hour and a half, there was still no sign of Celes and though they didn't speak of it, they were both wary of encountering the supposed dragon at the end of the path while already worn down.
The water supply they had brought with them was quickly diminished even with careful rationing. Locke stopped to squat on the ground to rest a moment – all surfaces being too hot to lean or sit upon – when he thought he might lose consciousness.
“Get up,” Shadow commanded. “You'll lose your inner balance and black out.” And he actually held out a hand to help up his weaker companion.
“I'm not leaving without Celes,” said Locke, his voice quieter than usual. Shadow said nothing and continued on.
* * *
A low rumble in the distance caused the travelers to stop in their tracks.
They waited, and after a minute there was another rumble, followed by a crash or an explosion. It was difficult to tell which.
Without further hesitation, they increased their pace in sync and headed quickly forward. As they rounded a corner, the sound of a cry or a roar reached their ears, and the rumbling continued. It was strange how the sounds echoing through the tunnels were distorted so drastically.
Now, each moment wasted on disarming a trap or opening a hidden door was agonizing. And though the sounds grew louder and more terrible, they never seemed to be getting any closer to the source. These signs of life had given the men a second wind, but Locke seriously wondered of how much use he would be if they were indeed about to run headfirst into the lair of an angry dragon. He gripped the bladed boomerang Laila had given him before he left Tzen – a relic of her grandfather’s, graciously accepted. Well, he thought – if he could be no more than a distraction to open up an opportunity for someone else to attack, as he'd done with Humbaba, he would gladly play that role.
Finally, bright flashes of light were visible from beyond the next portal. But as they rushed toward it, the heat became almost unbearable and caused them to stop suddenly. It was a lucky maneuver: just then a giant blast of fire came shooting from the doorway and nearly engulfed them. Both men began to waver as they gasped for air, their vision going slightly dim. The sounds that came from the next room were deafening and horrible. Then Shadow charged ahead and Locke, though his body protested every physical movement, followed.
They were suddenly aware of the silence that greeted them as they stepped through the doorway. Their boots splashed through large puddles of… blood? and the stench they encountered nearly made them retch. An enormous, scaly carcass lay on the floor before them, its wounds spouting red rivers. Locke tried to call out but it came out as an uncontrollable coughing fit. He crumpled his shirt, which had been tied about his belt long ago, to his mouth to filter out the lingering gases and odors. If this wasn't so obviously the end of their journey, he would've considered using the warp stone to escape right then.
There was a small doorway at the opposite end of the room. Shadow made a slight gesture inviting Locke to go ahead. Heart pounding, he navigated his way around the dragon's body and hurried through.
A woman was hunched over an ornate box a few feet ahead. The sound of Locke's footsteps caused her to whip around suddenly and draw her sword at the ready on instinct. Locke's breath caught in his throat as he stared at the tip of her blade, mere inches from the space between his eyes.
He remembered the first few times he had seen Celes, even before they had met in South Figaro. On scouting missions for the Returners, there had been a couple of instances when he, posing as a merchant or a low-ranking soldier, had been able to witness her as an acting General of the Imperial army. She had always been swift and efficient; one could practically see the gears constantly turning in her mind. Whether she was conscious of it or not, she seemed to have mastered the art of looking at once graceful and deadly; expression stern, calculating, always planning her next move, a master of war and commanding leadership even at her young age – and maybe it was simply her youth that accounted for her beauty, as such a lifestyle would surely take its toll on a smooth and lovely face in due time. Yet, something in her eyes had looked like she had already given up on life back then. She was as close to being a machine as one could be with red blood still flowing through her veins.
The Empire had a knack for turning their best officers into the living dead. It was a wonder she had found the willpower to rebel in the first place.
As he came to know her, she showed more signs of humanity – in some ways childish, too – like she had been robbed of so many normal life experiences that concepts of love and genuine kindness were distorted to her. It had been during their raid on the Magitek Research Facility, when she had spared them from Kefka's wrath (or rather, it was during their reunion after the fact, when she was able to explain herself), that he saw a major change. It was as though she had discovered that she could act upon her own emotions rather than solely on orders or tactical planning.
What he saw before him now was an entirely different person yet again. She was still Celes, with her long hair tied up by a bandanna in a disheveled twist, white boots and golden pants stained with patches of red, and her bronze Runic sword gleaming. She wore a deep indigo bodice and her bare shoulders and muscular arms glistened with sweat and blood. But her eyes glowed like bright blue flames with a passion and fury he had never before seen. It nearly made him step back.
And then the moment passed, and recognition took over. She lowered her sword and regained the air of the young woman more familiar to him.
Locke's appearance would be equally shocking to her, he knew. The long hair aside, his face was gaunt and his ribs were still quite visible through his sides and chest. Had he not been traveling, he would have been able to spend more time recovering from his lost year, but he had not permitted himself that luxury.
Each was at a loss for words. So Locke allowed his body to move toward her of its own accord and he took her into an embrace. And she returned it, holding him tightly with a bit of happiness, and a bit of desperation.
The only other time they had ever been anywhere near this close was right before her performance at the Opera. And suddenly, a second rush of memories came crashing through his mind like a wave, flitting by in clips and phrases – a prisoner in chains – She’s a pawn of the Emperor! – tangible distrust lingering in the air – Why did you bring her here? – glittering walls of ice, breaking down – I doubted you, I’m sorry. – face flushed, heart racing – That ribbon suits you.
Locke felt a faint tug on a strand of his ponytail and he realized Celes was weaving her fingers through it.
“I like the look,” she said softly into his ear, with a tenderness he was unused to hearing from her. He dreaded the knowledge that this moment would be terribly fleeting, and he made his body commit to memory the feel of her curves against his skin, his arms across her bare upper back, their cheeks touching, her heart beating on his chest… And then she broke away when she caught sight of Shadow stepping through the portal, and he could almost watch her transform back into the creature of order and practicality that she naturally was.
“Who...?” she started, not recognizing his face and reaching for her sword once more.
“It's Shadow,” Locke assured her, turning toward him.
Shadow paused, considering them both, not caring that he may have interrupted a wastefully emotional moment. “If we've all found what we're looking for, I suggest we get out of here,” and he reached for his warp stone.
“Save your items,” said Celes, suddenly business as usual, her voice regaining that edge of command. She turned back to the treasure box and gathered her things, and then she uttered a spell and a glittering white light brought the three of them to the entrance of the cave.
* * *
The small party was below the deck of the Falcon, relaxing and recouping their wits. They remained parked near the Phoenix Cave so as not to draw attention from the Tower until they had a solid plan of where to go next.
Though overjoyed to have been reunited with Celes, Locke was so exhausted that he couldn't quite show his enthusiasm just yet. He wished he could think about anything other than a bath and a soft bed at the moment.
Daryl, however, was full of energy and quite fascinated by this newcomer. It was no secret that her admiration for strong women ran deep, and Celes couldn't shake her authoritative presence if she tried. With innocent curiosity first and tact second, Daryl drilled her with questions about her role in the Empire and what she had been doing over the past year. Celes patiently brought them all up to date as she scrubbed the blood – some of it the dragon's, some her own – from her arms and face with a cloth and small basin of water.
“I have been traveling since the Collapse, collecting stories and searching for any sort of answers for why the world has become the way it is today. I knew that I could never hope to restore order on my own, but I have been hoping to find anything that might help. I guess... what I found today has been the biggest step forward, hasn't it?” She gave a small, polite smile.
Locke couldn't keep himself from focusing on her eyes. As she spoke of the Empire, she reverted back to that nearly-dead look from long ago. When the subject changed to the present, the blue flame ignited once again. It must have been what the innkeeper in Tzen had seen as the madness within her. It was certainly not easy to read.
The sky was turning dark outside, so they decided to camp overnight where they were. Locke excused himself to bathe in the nearby sea. He wasn't entirely surprised when Celes appeared conveniently right after he'd dried himself off and reclothed, though had it been anyone other than the impartial ex-General, he might have suspected either something of voyeurism or something carrying more meaning. Her golden outfit, now including an armored shrug and matching armlets, shimmered faintly in the moonlight. Her hair, wavy-loose and swaying lightly in the breeze, was noticeably shorter than it used to be, the ends jagged and singed – and yet Celes, despite not being one to place care in her appearance, somehow always managed to look like a queen... or maybe it was his personal bias. She still wore the bandanna tied around her forehead.
“What have you really been doing all this time?” Locke ventured to ask as they sat down on the beach. “That story was pretty vague to have led you into the Phoenix Cave.”
Celes remained silent for a few minutes, staring over the sea and into the horizon. When she eventually spoke, her words took Locke by surprise.
“I know you want the Phoenix Magicite. You want it for Rachel.”
She knit her brow but never looked over to him.
“I'm sorry, but I can't give it to you,” she concluded unexpectedly.
Locke felt all kinds of discomfort at the turn the conversation had so suddenly taken. He never failed to amaze himself with how many times he would build up a reverence for this woman who would then turn around and – even if inadvertently – shoot him down with the reminder that she had been raised to be a weapon of war and was downright awful when it came to dealing with emotional situations. He reminded himself not to take it personally – but then, this was pretty damn personal.
“It doesn't matter,” he said. “Rachel’s gone now. It's of no use to me.”
Another silence fell between them. Finally, Celes looked him in the eye.
“I apologize. Then... that was rude of me. I'm sorry you lost her.”
Locke shook his head and scoffed to himself. “I lost her a long time ago. I've since realized I was being foolish about the whole thing. I've been hanging on to old memories blindly instead of celebrating their role in the past. When I woke up a year after the Collapse, alone and barely alive, I came to understand what it meant to take things for granted. There had been things right in front of me that I never did appreciate as much as they'd deserved.”
The sounds of the waves lapping at the beach were calming, but the air was still tense.
Celes hugged her legs and rested the side of her head on her knees, facing away from Locke.
“Kefka is in that Tower,” she said, her voice wavering ever so slightly – strangely. “I can feel that presence that is absolutely his.”
“He will die for what he's done,” said Locke, gritting his teeth. “I don't know how, but I’ll see to it that he repays the world with his life.”
But Celes looked up at him, her expression hurt and fearful.
“Locke,” she said, suddenly looking so very fragile. “I want to save him.”
The Returner had absolutely no words at this confession. He stared at the ground beside him, wondering just what the fuck was wrong with everything and everyone anymore. He resisted thoughts of why did I even bother and have I been a complete fool.
“I don't expect you to understand, but he was once an honest man,” Celes continued softly. “He was my mentor, my brother and my father and my friend. The thing he has become was not his fault. I witnessed his transformation, and I'll never forget what he looked like before he dyed his skin. I'll never forget the way he screamed during the Magitek infusion...”
“So what is your plan, exactly?” He didn't mean to sound angry, but the question came out terribly impatient. If it had been anyone else, Locke wouldn’t have hesitated to throttle the person who spoke such... traitorous words.
“I believe the Phoenix can heal him. If not... then the hope is lost. And I too will wake up to reality.”
After another moment, Locke offered a weighted consideration to no one in particular. “Have you ever thought... that someone who's been gone for so long doesn't want to come back? Doesn't want to see what has happened over time?”
Doesn't want to realize what he himself has inflicted upon the world? Doesn't want to see how those she knew before had changed in the meanwhile?
“It's easy to be blinded by our ideals,” Celes conceded indefinitely.
She then sighed and stretched herself onto her back, eyes closed. The anger and confusion Locke had felt subsided as quickly as it had risen within him as he watched her, realizing that she was just as lost as he. He really didn't know all that much about her, in truth; nothing that wasn't common knowledge, anyway. Her soul was much older than her actual age, though she obviously remained naïve in many ways. She was elusive and strange at times; she could be sensitive one minute and blunt the next. From the moment they met, he found her to be both frustrating and fascinating. (More frustrating, presently... but then, this was precisely what fascinated him. He was starting to drive himself mad with all this circular analysis.)
He had promised to protect her, but he knew she hated the thought. And really, she was the one who had just single-handedly defeated a dragon. She was a powerful warrior and magic-user.
Still, there was something very special about her that he wanted to protect. (Never mind that sometimes he felt he should be protecting himself from her.)
“That's a nice bandanna,” he said coolly, breaking the silence that had dominated the past few minutes. No point in perpetuating the uncomfortable tension.
She opened her eyes and flushed. “Um... it's yours...”
He found her accent adorable whenever she got nervous. (Now we're back to reverence, are we? he tutted himself.)
“On the airship, that day...” she continued, “I don't know if you remember, but when we were hit, the hull cracked and everyone began to lose balance. A few fell overboard; it was terrible. A piece of debris struck you and I saw you fall... I grabbed for you but only caught your hair and the bandanna slipped off in my hand. Then you fell into the ocean below.”
He hadn't meant to bring up further painful memories, but...
“I was ready to jump, but Sabin caught me and held me back,” she continued quietly. “I was later thrown from the ship during an explosion. I suffered some minor burns, but I landed in the water, close enough to swim to shore. I searched for weeks but found no trace of you. Or anyone else.”
Celes sat up and brushed the sand out of her hair.
“Remember when the sky used to be blue instead of orange?” she asked uncharacteristically. And at night, now, it turned a deep shade of burgundy before fading into the warm black of night.
Locke yawned. “I think it's time to stop thinking for today.” It was time to stop thinking about her, too, perhaps for a while... he would go mad before he figured her out.
He stood and offered a hand to help her up. They walked back toward the airship together leisurely, taking their time and silently enjoying the cool breeze.
And Celes never did offer to give him back the bandanna.
Chapter title taken from: Boa - "Welcome"
Chapter 10: Never Want to Be Like You
“Where to, chief? We're good on supplies for now, so we can go anywhere that suits you.” Daryl, ever the early riser, had already been up performing maintenance on the airship for a couple hours already.
Locke groggily picked at the assortment of dried foods they had with them, but then his attention perked up.
“We have to go back for Terra,” he resolved.
“I was hoping you'd say that,” said Daryl, at once solemn.
Celes had of course been made aware of the situation, and she and Locke had stayed up late discussing a plan of action the night before. Their idea was a familiar one, and it seemed like they would have little trouble pulling it off. Daryl would assist, and Shadow would stay with the airship, because truthfully, he was no actor.
The only aspect that Celes didn't particularly like was having to leave her sword behind, but she recognized the necessity. Locke lent her an easily-concealed dagger besides.
It was a dark and overcast day, which would be to their advantage, though it made the flight west over the ocean quite drab. A few uneventful hours later, Daryl maneuvered the airship near the forest north of Jidoor, and the party readied themselves. Locke took down his hair and made himself look disheveled (a task none too difficult, truthfully). He tied his old bandanna around his head for good measure and winked at Celes. “I've kinda missed this, to be honest,” he said as an aside, but knowing he'd end up giving it back to her afterward. Celes and Daryl set off ahead of him.
The women booked a room at an inn upon arrival, and Locke continued into the city. This time he made a concerted effort to act like a local and not draw particular attention to himself. He wandered into a bar that boasted a rather loud musical performance. Sitting down and ordering a drink, he had a strange moment of familiarity, and briefly yearned for the days when he did this sort of thing for fun.
Sure enough, one of the other shabby patrons started babbling. “Great stuff, eh?”
“You bet,” replied Locke. Ah, the mutual vapidness of drunks. “You know, I'm thinkin' of treating myself t'night,” he continued, taking care to mimic the accent and tone of native Zozoans. “Gonna find a girl.”
His inebriated companion gave a wide, goofy grin and nodded. “'Atta boy!” And he took another swig of his drink.
“Where do th' pretty ones hang out around here? I'm in visitin' for this special occasion.”
The other man grunted and looked deep in thought. “Up at th' Auction, near Owzer's place. That's th' best of th' best, but you'd best have your wallet out!” and he gave a terrible, hacking laugh.
“Sounds good t' me,” said Locke with a knowing smile. Then he finished his drink and with a clap on the back of the hopeless man, he made his exit.
He didn't have much trouble remembering where the old Auction House stood. He bounded up the steps of the Northern quarter of the city to be greeted by a rowdy crowd. The Auction – now more of a club – was just opening for the evening. Locke thought he recognized one of his attackers from the time before, but kept his composure and headed toward the entrance and paid his cover.
Inside, one would not have been able to tell that the place had just opened; the seasoned partygoers knew how to get things started right away. The auctioneer stage now hosted a band and a number of dancers, and people on the floor were cheering and dancing themselves, drinks in hand. Locke had been to a few places like this before, but he was more of a sit-at-the-bar kind of guy – then again, he wasn't here for pleasure anyway.
He ordered a drink but sipped it sparingly; trying his best to act like those around him but keep focused on his goal. After half an hour, he was beginning to worry that he might not, in fact, find what he was looking for here. He decided to give it another thirty minutes.
Just as he was about to give up and move to more desperate measures, he spotted her. Dressed in an ornate white corset and short ruffled skirt was Maria, doting over and feeding wine to a particularly smarmy looking man. Locke walked over as coolly as he could muster.
“Hey there, lady,” he said, taking her hand. She smiled at him but he could see a hateful glare in her eye.
“I'm sorry, sugar, but I'm all tied up for the evening,” she said sweetly and turned away from him. Her patron lolled his head back drunkenly as he laughed and put his arm around the escort.
Locke gritted his teeth but channeled his old charms.
“He seems like a well-endowed young man,” he said, leaning toward her ear. “But I don’t think he'll be giving you much of anything for too much longer.” The other man stumbled a bit just then. “Trade him off and I'll pay even higher.”
Maria turned back to face him, a look of hell on her face, masked as best as she could by a forced smile.
“If you don't leave me alone, I'll have you evicted, sir.”
Locke put on his most innocent face. “I mean no offense, miss! I've just got a lonely heart and a full wallet, and you really caught my eye. I was hoping to treat you right tonight.”
Her nostrils flared a bit to signify she was done keeping up with their act. “That was really lame, kid.”
Just then her patron stumbled and fell to the floor, apparently unable to hold his liquor.
Maria sighed as a pair of burly men picked the man up and tossed him from the club. “I guess that means I'm available... I take my payment up front.”
* * *
Locke had had to pay extra to get her to leave the club and accompany him back to the inn. He felt bad about spending so much of Celes' money but she had offered it up for the cause.
“I remember you from before,” said Maria, without a drop of enthusiasm in her voice. “You were with that bitchy old woman. What makes you so desperate for my company?”
“Oh, I figured I'd take you up on that offer to pretend you were Celes,” he said, feeling rather guilty at his own words. “Pretty desperate, you know.”
Maria laughed. “At least you're honest.”
They entered the inn and Locke quietly asked for the room booked under Maria's name. The innkeeper pointed him upstairs.
“After you,” Locke offered, pushing open the door for his escort.
And upon entering, Maria was immediately greeted by a hand clutching her mouth. Locke shut and bolted the door behind them as Maria thrashed about. Celes twisted the girl’s arms firmly behind her back.
“This isn't going to be as bad as it seems,” said Daryl, loosening her grip on the girl's jaw. “We just didn't want you making a sudden scene.”
“What the fuck is this?! Look, I'm sorry I yelled at you last time-” Daryl cupped her hand over her mouth once again.
“First, you're gonna have to be quieter than that. Second, it's not related to last time.”
Celes guided Maria over to the bed and tossed her down. Maria's eyes flitted between the three of them with a mix of anger and fear.
“I'm sorry to have had to trick you like this but there's something we need,” explained Locke.
“You couldn't have just asked?” she hissed.
“If someone came up to you and asked to swap clothes, would you have simply agreed?” Celes loomed over the younger girl, arms crossed. Maria was dumbstruck by her presence, but let out a soft “Oh.” She could see the resemblance they shared, but Celes was much, much scarier in person.
“Though I'm somewhat loath to do so, we need to trade places again,” Celes sniffed and tossed a spare outfit of Daryl's at her. “Put these on and give me your clothes; you'll get them back in a couple hours. While you're changing, I have some questions for you, and you will answer them all truthfully.”
Celes' militant efficiency was leading the charge, and everyone in the room could easily see how the young woman could have served such a high rank in the Imperial Army. She was formidable in action.
Locke awkwardly lingered in a corner of the room while the women changed. Daryl helped Celes into the frilly costume while Celes continued to drill Maria on details of things she would have to know to get into Owzer's manor without drawing suspicion. Had he seen it, Locke would've laughed at the ridiculous sight.
“What is the name of the person who does your hair?” Celes asked, her torso jerking backward as Daryl tightened the laces on the corset.
“Uh... a woman named Sal,” replied Maria, who was no longer afraid but growing annoyed once again.
Celes glanced in the mirror across the room. “Help me put my hair up in some way that goes with this outfit,” she commanded. Maria sighed and took some pins out of her purse. The most outwardly notable difference between the two was that Maria's hair was presently curled, while Celes' laid natural with a limp, untidy wave. A simple excuse of having visited her hairdresser last-minute would cover any potential questions. Locke, ever the enthusiast for disguise, admired the thoroughness with which Celes prepared for her role.
Maria cried out in protest suddenly when she caught Daryl rummaging through her purse a moment later.
“Cool it; I'm just getting some makeup,” Daryl said unceremoniously. These women were ruthless!
A few minutes later, Celes was ready to go. Though her makeup was a bit exaggerated (Daryl hadn't worn any herself in years) and her hair somewhat messy (Maria was used to having other people style it for her), she was certainly convincing. Looking in the mirror again, she declared that she looked horrid.
As she and Locke headed for the door, Maria called to them.
“If you're gonna steal my clothes and keep me locked in here for a few hours, at least tell me what exactly you plan on doing.”
“We're rescuing our friend Terra from Owzer,” said Locke.
Maria scrunched her face in confusion. “Who the hell is Terra?”
* * *
There hadn't been time to sort out the details back at the inn, as a resounding gong signaled the hour. Owzer's party would be starting soon, and they had to get to the manor before the festivities began. Locke and Celes hurried back across the city. Following Maria's instructions, Locke was able to enter the front gates to the manor easily, and Celes slipped around the back to the courtesans' quarters.
Daryl had stayed behind to keep an eye on Maria, whom she was finding to be a very difficult companion.
“We can get you out of here too, you know,” said Daryl from her seat in front of the door. “You don't have to stay in this place.”
Maria surprised her by scoffing vehemently. “Why the hell would I want to leave?”
Daryl was taken aback. “Because... you're living a terrible life, being used by men! We'll get you somewhere safe, where you can earn an honest living and you'll never have to sell your body again.”
“I'm honestly offended that you'd say such a thing,” said the younger woman, leaning against the backboard of the bed and crossing her arms. “My life isn't at all terrible – in fact, I love what I do.”
“Who says I'm being used? If anyone is being used, it's the men who pay me. They slave for their money and they just give it all to me, simply for dancing or doting on them or sometimes sleeping with them. It's so easy, it's fun and I'm free to do the things I want in the meantime.”
Daryl had grown contemplative and quiet. This was not the sort of thing she ever expected to hear from another woman.
“I'm happier now than I've ever been in my life,” Maria continued. “Life at the Opera House was terrible. I wasn't there because I wanted to be. My family was poor; they discovered I could sing, so they sold me into it. Never saw them again. As a ward of the Opera House owners, I had no freedom whatsoever. I worked and worked and was never allowed to have any fun. I could never go out. I could never date men. I had to remain 'unspoiled' because they thought I would ruin my voice or my 'ambition' to sing. It was like a prison. Now, I can choose or deny any client that comes my way, I love the company of men, and in these hard economic times, I'm probably one of the richest people in the world. I won’t deny I didn’t expect this sort of lifestyle, but there is nothing about it that I would give up, now.”
“But you're in danger,” insisted Daryl. “Your clients could hurt you, and Owzer is stealing money that is rightfully yours.”
“Haven't you ever paid taxes?” Maria retorted. “Owzer is very protective of all of his women – and men. We're extremely safe and the cut he takes goes toward keeping it that way.”
Daryl considered everything for a moment longer. “Well, I'll admit that I don't understand the willingness to live this lifestyle, but I'm not entirely convinced. Think about how easy it was for us to kidnap you just now. If someone really had it out for you, Owzer wouldn’t have been able to protect you.”
At this, Maria had no response.
* * *
Celes followed the mental map she had drawn in her head according to what Maria had told her about the mansion. She easily found the girl's room and stepped inside. Thankfully, she encountered no servants or maidens, as women who knew Maria well would certainly be able to spot the impostor. And she was grateful that, in a last-minute call, Daryl had thrown a thin shawl over her shoulders. Even though it wasn't nearly fancy enough to match the outfit, the detail would be easily overlooked and it hid the tone of her arms and upper body.
A brief scan of the room told Celes that there was nothing of use in here, so she retreated back to the hall in search of Terra. As she walked forward, she felt a strange burning in her veins and recognized it to be a reaction to some sort of magical presence. It didn't quite feel like Terra, but it was promising, anyhow.
A few courtesans passed her by and said hello; Celes simply smiled and nodded in greeting, as she didn't trust her voice to conceal her identity. Then she continued to follow the presence that pulled her. The halls were rather labyrinthine and heavily decorated with fine artwork. She was hoping to find Terra quickly and Teleport out of the manor, but the further she went, the more the magical presence disturbed her. By now she knew for certain that it was not Terra's magic that was pulling her, and she had no idea what could possibly be waiting at the end of the line.
A voice made her stop dead in her tracks.
“Maria! Where are you going? I thought you had a full schedule tonight.” Celes turned cautiously around to see a fat, toadlike man standing at the end of the hall. She had seen him before, at frivolous banquets in Vector thrown as thanks for the biggest supporters of the Empire. Owzer had not aged at all gracefully in the past couple years.
Celes cleared her throat. “I'm feeling a bit ill, sir,” she aired, covering her mouth. “I came to get something for it.”
“Tina's not going be of any help to you; the girl looks half dead herself anymore. Go back to your room and I'll send in a servant.”
“Yes sir,” she said, doubling back. Thankfully, Owzer did not appear to suspect anything was amiss just yet, but he led her all the way back to Maria's room himself, allowing no chance to escape.
“I'll have a servant right in; we'll be losing too much business with you out for a night.”
Celes nodded sweetly as he closed the door. Then she waited a brief moment and Teleported back to the spot where she had left off, rashly hoping no one would be around to witness her arrival.
Time was crucial now; when the servant would enter to find an empty room she knew the alarm would be raised. She ran ahead in the direction her heart was pulling her, and found herself before a heavy set of double doors. Without hesitation, she pushed them open.
The room beyond was vast, the walls decorated more lavishly than any other room in the manor. The far end of the room was raised by a shallow set of steps, and on the wall above was an enormous painting. A figure lay crumpled at the foot of the painting amid a sea of blankets and cloths.
“Terra!” Celes called, rushing forward. The green-haired girl did not move. Celes' chest began to burn so painfully it actually caused her to stop and clutch herself. She then realized the Phoenix Magicite, which she had refused to leave behind and so hung on a cord around her neck, was fiery to the touch.
Suddenly, Terra's eyes shot open and she grasped at her ears, writhing around on the floor. A gurgling cry escaped her lips.
“Terra!” Celes hissed again, but her friend showed no reaction to her presence. She started to walk toward her but was harshly thrown backward by an invisible force.
Just then, two terribly unexpected things happened: the painting above Terra began to undulate, and Owzer appeared right behind Celes, backed up by a small army of haggard but mean-looking men.
“You do share a striking resemblance with Maria,” he drawled, “but you're quite a fool to think you could truly pass for her on my watch.”
Celes instinctively went to summon a wave of ice to hold them all back, but she felt her magic being absorbed by something in the room. She cursed and brandished the dagger she had tied to her thigh. Costumes be damned; she should have brought her sword.
“Terra, wake up!” she rasped, still staring down Owzer and his men. Then she noticed how the lackeys were gaping at something behind her. Whipping her head around, she saw that a thick fog had begun to pour out of the painting and a large, shadowy figure was lifting Terra's body off the ground.
“What the hell is that thing?” demanded Celes.
Owzer snorted. “Something that's been a pain in my ass for months. But if it'll finally take the girl and leave me alone, we can all be happy.”
Celes slashed at the man's stomach with such speed that everyone in the room was taken aback. Owzer doubled over and growled at his men to attack the intruder. Unfortunately, Celes would be no match for this many foes with no magic and only a short dagger for a weapon. She backed away from the herd and, glancing over her shoulder, then noticed that blackened vines had emerged from the painting and were drawing Terra into it.
Magic again failed her. Panic began to rise in her chest.
Then Terra screamed as once again the Phoenix Magicite began to burn. Celes could finally see that the girl's earrings and necklace were made of Magicite shards. The two Espers were reacting to each other.
And then, though she did not will her spiritual power away, the Phoenix stole Celes' energy of its own accord and released itself from the Magicite she carried. A heatless fire engulfed the room and the men began to scatter. The great bird cried out and blew its flame over Terra's body. Finally, the girl awakened.
Even after the Phoenix's flames died down, her body continued to burn. Her hair began to turn rosy-white and her skin glowed like a blinding light. With a sudden burst of energy, she transformed into an Esper, destroying the demon behind her at the same time. Her metamorphosis after such a long sleep threw her into a rage as it had the first time her Esper form had awaked over a year ago. Unable to control her own power again, the room was quickly demolished and she flew through a wound in the ceiling.
Celes shouted curses as she started toward the door. But she was stopped by a sudden pounding in her chest as the Phoenix retreated to its Magicite. Upon regressing, the fragile crystal shattered into a fine powder and scattered everywhere. She cried out in despair.
She recovered just in time to notice Owzer lunging at her with a makeshift weapon. Celes dodged to the side and fled from the room, ignoring him completely. Tears stung her eyes as she Teleported to the courtyard outside, where she easily spotted Locke looking incredulous. The original plan would have had him join her in the mansion, but he had been unable to get farther than the gardens after all.
“Which way did Terra go?” she shouted, grabbing his arm as she broke into a sprint.
“Southwest!” he gasped, trying to keep up with her pace.
“Hopefully she won't have the energy to fly too far this time.”
* * *
Daryl and Maria were both looking out the window. Even from this far away, they had been able to hear the commotion and flashes of light coming from the manor up north.
“Looks like things are going smoothly...” noted Daryl sardonically. Just then they saw what looked like a white comet shoot low through the sky nearby.
“What the hell was that?!” Maria cried, jumping back from the window. Daryl shrugged. “I... want to leave,” said Maria, skipping toward the door. Daryl caught her wrist.
“Look, I won't tell anyone about what you did, just let me go! I don't want to stay here anymore!” shrieked Maria.
“I don't care about the clothes; you can have them. And no, I don't want to come with you!” Maria twisted her arm around to try to free herself from Daryl's grip.
Daryl looked defeated. Maria started to cry.
“Just leave me alone. You guys are scaring me.”
The older woman dropped her arm. “I'm sorry, Maria,” she said. “Even in trying to do good, it's easy to get caught up in your own way of doing things and not realize the harm you might be causing as side effect. We meant no offense to you.”
Maria stared at her for a moment, her muscles tense. Then she opened the door and fled from the inn.
* * *
“Shit!” cursed Locke as they stopped to catch their breath. “Why does everything have to end up so complicated?”
“I'm having trouble locating her. Her energy is so wild right now it's impossible to pinpoint,” said Celes. They leaned against the side of a building for a moment, panting.
“Should we go back to the inn first?” Locke wondered. But then they heard a set of footsteps stomping toward them from the south and they braced themselves.
“Hey, guys!” a familiar voice called. It was Daryl who ran up to them, supply bag over her shoulder. “That shooting star have anything to do with your friend?”
“Yeah, which way did she go?”
Daryl pointed in the direction she had seen the white light fly earlier. Celes took off without question.
“Where's Maria?” Locke asked before following. Daryl shook her head and told him not to worry about it. Then the two of them continued after Celes.
Chapter title taken from: The Music - "Cessation"
Chapter 11: I'm Not Stopping
Terra, now reverted back to her human form, was just awakening to find herself in a strange room. Her entire body ached, and she felt the unsettlingly familiar sensation of having lost a very long period of time. In fact, the most recent memories she could conjure up were ones many years old, though she was aware of the fact that there were large gaps in her recollection of time. Sitting up in the bed, a pressure pulsated behind her forehead as she struggled to remember anything in the recent past.
“Ah, Terra!” came a voice that she wanted to say was familiar, but that she was unable to place. As she sat up, a long-haired man wearing a black vest and boots, charcoal pants and a stained white shirt stepped into her view. She had no idea who he was. But she didn't even have the energy to feel afraid.
“How are you feeling? It's so great to have you back with us again.” The man grinned warmly. His smile faded subtlely, however, when Terra did not respond.
Her head fell and tears dripped onto her knees. She hated this feeling. The only thing that was familiar right now was this feeling. It was frustrating and frightening, and it made the pounding in her head even more intense.
The man kneeled on the ground beside the bed and a put a sympathetic hand on her arm.
“Can you tell me what's wrong?” he asked softly.
Terra's back shuddered as she sobbed. “I don't know who you are. I don't remember anything.”
She could hear the man sigh, and then the click-clack of a new set of footsteps entered the room.
“She's lost her memory again,” said the man to the newcomer. A woman's voice cursed under her breath. “But how could this be?” he continued.
“Her mind was always somewhat faulty after the Slave Crown,” explained the woman. “Kefka would have her wear it for certain periods of time, then remove it. She always came out of it with bouts of confusion and amnesia. They got worse over time. As with early Magitek infusion, the Slave Crown Magi-technology was faulty. Basically, it did what they wanted, but with unfavorable side effects... didn't stop the Empire from using them, though.” Her voice carried a hint of guilt as she spoke.
“But she hasn't worn a Slave Crown for almost two years.”
“Even something as simple as a blow to the head could have messed her up again. She can't be controlled without a Crown physically on her, but she can still lose her memory from time to time even now... so it seems.”
Terra could feel their eyes on her, so she looked up. The woman was tall and golden all over, and she looked somewhat defeated.
“Terra, do you recognize us at all? Remember anything?”
The green-haired girl shook her head. She knew these people were supposed to be familiar to her; the way they spoke to and about her told her so. And though she raced through every thought and memory she could conjure up, she simply could not place them.
“What about Magicite?” suggested the man. “That revived her that time in Zozo.”
The golden woman's expression became quite sad.
“Phoenix...” she said vaguely.
“But you wanted it for...”
“It's gone. It broke her trance in Jidoor yesterday, then shattered.” Terra could sense a strange tension in the air between the two in the silence that followed.
“I'm sorry,” the man said softly. And the woman turned and left the room.
The man lifted the small crystal tied about his neck on a leather cord and studied it. He looked at Terra and asked, “Does this make you feel anything?”
Terra, helplessly confused, gave him a look that promised nothing.
“I'm tired,” she said and closed her eyes for a moment. The man stood up and offered her another blanket.
“Then get some more rest. You'll be safe in here.”
He watched as she lay back down and pulled the blankets over her shoulders. Her empty mind allowed her to drift into sleep easily, oblivious to the world around her.
* * *
“Thamasa? I'm not too familiar with the area. Not sure exactly where it was before, and I certainly couldn't tell you where it is now...”
Shadow gave a grunt in response and looked over as Celes and Locke ascended to the ship's deck.
“Celes, might you know of Thamasa's whereabouts today? Shadow is interested in making a trip there,” said Daryl. Locke looked at the former assassin questioningly, but he was met with only a stony glare.
“I do not, but that we're headed toward Maranda is fortunate.”
Locke's confusion continued to mount. In the year previous to the Collapse, Maranda had been very poor and run-down, recovering from the Imperial attack that General Celes herself had led upon the town. He couldn’t imagine that after a second brutal attack, there would be much left to the civilization.
“I haven’t yet seen it for myself, but there are hushed rumors that Maranda has become a gathering-point of brilliant minds. I'm certain that we will be able to find some useful information about the world there.”
“Why Maranda?” wondered Locke.
“First, and judging by the current state of Jidoor, I would imagine that some of the former aristocrats escaped south and east once the landmasses converged, and those types tend to stick together. Second, a community once stricken is much better able to recover from subsequent assaults.”
Nothing more was spoken on the subject. Locke noted that while Celes had always been practical, her skin seemed to have grown thicker over the past year. He wasn't sure if he found it admirable or unnerving.
* * *
Maranda indeed appeared to be the ruined world's best kept secret. Though quaint, Maranda was clearly thriving, where most other places were struggling to stay afloat. The houses were all intact and the people looked reasonably well-fed. Celes showed no sign of hesitation as she led Daryl and Shadow through the streets she once burned.
After questioning a few softspoken residents (it was if they even spoke in whispers so as not to draw attention to their town), the party invited themselves into a small building that served as the study and meeting-house of the local think tank. A young woman immediately rose from her place at a large table to greet the newcomers, concerned.
“May I help you?” she questioned sternly, eyeing Celes with suspicion.
“We mean no intrusion, miss,” said Celes, waving off the woman's untrusting attitude. “We are travelers seeing enlightenment about the world as it is today.”
Unfortunately, the Marandan woman's fears were confirmed the moment Celes began to speak. She swiftly brandished a sword, causing the men in the room to rush to her aid as well.
“I thought you looked familiar. The Empire shall never take us again!” she hissed.
Celes raised her hands in peace. “The Empire is dead. You of anyone should know that.”
“Then what could you possibly want from us this time, Celes Chere.”
“I will not waste my time or yours pleading with you to believe me or begging for forgiveness. I abandoned the Empire shortly after the atrocities I inflicted upon your people. I regret my involvement in the attack, but I cannot undo the past. You may trust my words or not.”
The woman hesitated, considering the strange company the former General now kept. When there was no response or movement from anyone, Celes unhitched her sheathed Runic sword from her belt and offered it to the Marandan woman.
“You may hold this for as long as I'm here, if that will put you at ease. We will not stay long.”
After a thought, the woman lowered her own sword and accepted the Imperial one.
“Please be brief and succinct,” she conceded. “We don't like when people come in and out of our town.”
It was true that Maranda had become a hub for the sharpest thinkers around, and it was largely due to the efforts of Lola, the young woman who had accosted them at the door. After surviving Celes' attack on the settlement, and upon the death of her fiancé – a soldier serving abroad before the Collapse – she began to keep very close track of the Empire's actions. Though not technically the 'leader' of the town, she was the most active in organizing the relief efforts after the Collapse, and was the one who had initially made the call for like-minded individuals to centralize and study the new world they were left with. The hope was that, once there was some understanding of their surroundings, mankind would be able to fight back, and then rebuild and flourish once again.
And so, as the result of many combined efforts – kept very secretive so as not to arouse suspicions from the ominous tower that stood in the center of the old Imperial Continent to the east – Maranda was home to the most extensive map of the ruined world, among other important recordings.
Daryl was most vocal about her enthusiasm over the map. With a borrowed stack of paper, she furiously copied down notes and sketched the relative whereabouts of various landforms. Large portions were still inaccurate or missing, but it was far better than any of the crude sea charts she had been relying on so far. She happily chatted with a few of the cartographers, asking questions and giving her own input on the areas with which she was most familiar.
“You know, I’d love to get more involved with this once these folks no longer need my help so much,” she said thoughtfully to the Marandans. “I believe in what they’re doing, and I owe it to everyone to get them to where they need to go, but I don’t mind telling you now that I’ve got an airship on my hands.”
At this, even Lola – who had been keeping close watch of Celes and the equally-unnerving presence of her black-clad cohort – perked up.
“The floating casino?” she asked.
“Not the Blackjack, but a similar prototype. And I have a lot of experience with sea sailing as well. Your graciousness in helping us now is invaluable, miss, and if we all survive this crazy mission I promise I’ll come back and help your cause, if you’ll have me.”
Lola beamed as Daryl gave her hand a strong shake.
And thanks to Daryl’s charms, the Marandans were suddenly much more open to sharing their knowledge with the newcomers. One of the cartographers pointed to a vague shape in one corner of the map.
“We believe the lands belonging to the Thamasa tribe, if they still exist at all, would be on an island in this area. None that we know have personally been there yet, but we theorize on this location based on the movements of other landmasses during the Collapse. However, there is a conflict in our theories: sediment from as far north as the Veldt has been found in nearby waters as well. We are uncertain as to what exactly stands in this location,” said the cartographer. “It is of course possible that the lands have collided and mixed, as this was very common following the Collapse. As you know, our own Maranda County was once connected to the Imperial Continent.”
“But is there anywhere else that Thamasa may be, other than in this spot?” asked Shadow suddenly.
“It could certainly be anywhere, or nowhere at all. This is our best guess, and we have no other theories at this time,” said the man. Shadow simply nodded in response.
* * *
Now armed with information and a fresh set of supplies, the party set out for the long haul southwest. It was to be a tedious journey over a whole lot of nothingness, and even Daryl was slightly anxious at the idea of flying such a distance over relatively uncharted waters.
Locke had not made any progress with Terra, meanwhile. No matter how many stories he told of their previous adventures together, her memory was never sparked. It made him sick to go through this again; all he could think about was sitting next to Rachel’s bed, doing the same thing for the similarly-amnesic girl years ago. Before her father drove him out of town, that is.
“I think I’m bad luck for women,” he eventually confessed, slumping over.
Terra looked at him, puzzled. “But your heart seems true. And your friend is very strong. Have you caused her bad luck as well?”
“Celes? Not yet, I don’t think... but maybe I should stay away from her just in case.”
“Don’t be so grim.” She smiled very briefly. “I'm sorry I can't remember anything... but I feel it's happened before.”
“I was half-kidding,” he said, and sat back up. “I wish there was something more I could do to help you right now.”
Terra shrugged. “Thank you... for being kind to me.”
* * *
“So what's the story with you and Thamasa?” Celes was leaning on a rail, arms crossed and watching Shadow closely. She was not yet convinced he was genuinely on board for a Returner cause. “If we're going this far out of our way for you, we have a right to know why.”
“You speak as though you weren't only the most recent active addition to our group,” Shadow said venomously as he turned to face her. “This could have been in the plan for a while now.”
“Then how about we don't keep secrets, as it only makes you look suspicious. Please, fill me in.”
“I thought it would be obvious; the ancient magi of Thamasa might be of aid or service. Given their connection to and knowledge of the old wars, they could have insight on what's going on today.”
Celes did not break her stony gaze.
“Perhaps we'll find the old man there.”
She didn't believe a word of it.
“And you can lay off the militant stoicism. I think it's dissuading your suitor.”
At this, she finally flushed. “Don't mock me,” she growled and retreated below deck as Shadow laughed to himself. But after a moment he quietly added to no one:
“Don't lose your own humanity just yet.”
* * *
It was quite dark by the time anyone noticed they were near land. A large island that appeared to be thickly overgrown with trees stood not too far ahead. Locke and Daryl took turns squinting through a hand-telescope.
“Why does something seem weird about this?” Locke wondered aloud. It was difficult to see with only the moonlight to go by.
“I suppose it's not impossible that they survived the Collapse, but these trees look extremely old. I haven't seen such a dense old-growth forest in all my travels this past year. And they certainly wouldn't have originated on an island...” Daryl shuddered in the cold night wind that whipped around them. “I've no experience with magic, but I feel like something unusual's at work here.”
“Just what we need...”
Once they were close enough, Daryl circled the airship around the island, giving it a wide berth just to be safe. Through the darkness, they saw nothing but trees anywhere on the small land-oasis.
“I haven't seen any sign of other land around here,” she said to all who had gathered on the deck. “Though this place gives me the absolute creeps, I think we should land here at least till morning.” There was no protest as she deftly maneuvered the Falcon to an uncomfortably tight clearing along the edge of the island. The sudden silence that struck them as the engines died down was ominous and more than one person on the airship found themselves holding their breath.
“Well,” said Locke finally, keeping his voice low. “Nothing to be done until daylight. Let's lock up and get some sleep.”
He couldn't help being momentarily mesmerized by the stillness of the trees before them. Even next to the airship, they seemed impossibly tall. He wasn't a superstitious person, and no instinct of magic ran in his blood, but he too could feel something hiding within the forest. He made certain to check the locks to the cabin area twice before allowing himself to retreat to his bunk, but he had a sinking feeling that a bolted door would do little to keep them secure.
He was startled to run into Celes in the main room down below.
“We should take turns to keep watch,” she said. “I'm not convinced we're safe.”
Locke shook his head in agreement. “There's really something off about this place.”
“I'll stay up first. I'll never sleep just yet anyway. May I wake you in a few hours?”
“Yeah, whenever,” said Locke. “I'll keep the door open; just don't scare me awake.” He tried to laugh it off but he couldn't entirely mask his nervousness. As he reached his doorway, he turned back to watch Celes settle onto a bench in the lounge and dim the lantern next to her. Though admittedly tired, he didn't want to sleep while she sat alone in the potential line of fire.
It was thoughts of Celes slaying a dragon just the other week that finally persuaded him to settle into bed. In fact, those thoughts were quite comforting, when he really dwelled on it.
Chapter title taken from: Björk - "Hunter"
Chapter 12: About the Souls You Kill
Shadow moved slowly about a rocky cavern, his steps weighted back by something he couldn’t yet see. A disheveled young man with a patch over his eye fell into his arms, staining his coat and cape with blood. He continued to walk, half dragging the man. He had to keep moving. They had to get to the next town.
Shadow stopped and the man was on the ground. His companion rolled to his side and looked at his own hands, shining red but muddled with dirt.
“Is that… my blood?” he asked. Shadow did not reply; no words came to his mind, nor a voice to his tongue.
“Clyde, you gotta go,” the man continued. “I’m just slowing you down.”
Shadow looked around but saw mostly empty darkness. A shape like a dog ran by in the distance.
“Is that… my blood?” a voice repeated, more like a whisper in his ear this time, and Shadow turned to run.
“Wait, Clyde! Before you go… do me a favor.”
No, no, no. He knew what was coming next. He’d gone through this before.
“Take your knife and finish me off.”
“Think of what they’ll do to me if they catch me alive!”
“I’m trembling, Clyde. I’ve never been scared before in my life and now I’m trembling like a bitch.”
He turned back around to find that in place of the bandit was the body of a young girl.
“Do it,” she said, though she seemed lifeless. Her face was obscured by a mess of curly blonde hair. “Don’t leave me here! Don’t leave me!”
Though he had every intention of staying, his legs started to pick up on their own. He took off in the direction of the dog, and he felt like he was sprinting though he covered very little distance. A train whistle blew from somewhere far away. And then, from much closer, the sound of a woman’s shriek caused his eyes to open suddenly. Even before his vision completely adjusted to his surroundings Shadow could see he was not alone in the room.
* * *
Locke awakened sharply at the cry as well. His body acted automatically, jumping toward the door and reaching for the handle. Then a faint glow caught the corner of his eye and he had a moment to wonder why the door was now closed.
When he turned around, he found himself facing the effigy of Rachel, whose skin was completely drained of color.
“What the f–”
He was certain he wasn’t dreaming, but he clutched at his face to be sure. With his other hand he grasped the door handle, still anxious about the yelp outside.
“Locke, I’ve found somewhere that we can be together again at last,” said Rachel, smiling, and her voice – so familiar – sounded so strange somehow, like an echo.
Locke’s eyes darted around the small room as though looking for an explanation. Was this a ghost? An illusion? A trick? Rachel reached out toward him and when she touched his arm, he was actually surprised to feel solid flesh, having half-expected her hand to pass through.
“Aren’t you happy?” His heart raced but not entirely in a good way. He hated the way it sounded when this… projection of Rachel said his name. It wasn’t right. But it was. It was her exactly. So why did it bother him so?
Because she was dead.
He wrenched the door open behind his back and slipped out into the main room, shutting it swiftly. The lanterns were all extinguished but he could hear a struggle in the far left corner. A woman’s voice sputtered and gurgled painfully. Stumbling as he ran, Locke could make out the shape of a large, long-haired figure stooping over… his hands wrapped around Celes’ neck.
The intruder seemed to be too preoccupied with his victim to hear Locke approaching, which allowed Locke the opportunity to fold his hands and bash the man sideways on the head. However, instead of making contact, his limbs passed through the figure like a specter, causing him to be thrown to the floor.
He cursed as he picked himself up. And then he realized, incredibly, who was Celes’ attacker: the late Emperor Gestahl.
“Traitor!” Gestahl hissed, and his fingers pressed even deeper into his ex-General’s neck. “Ingrate! I raised you and gifted you with magic and you betrayed me!”
Celes’ arms thrashed helplessly and sparks glittered at her fingertips, but she was unable to conjure spells in this frantic state. Locke was on the verge of panicking – he couldn’t summon magic himself without the aid of Magicite and clearly this enemy could not be harmed by physical force. And he feared trying to pull Celes to safety lest he injure her seriously.
“Shadow!” he called in desperation and tried the assassin’s door, only to find it bolted. “Are you kidding?” he cursed. With no time to meddle with locks, he kicked the door as hard as he could. The old wood was weak and splintered easily. Inside, he found Shadow literally wrestling his own demons.
Shadow leapt and swung a blade at a strange man with an eyepatch. The weapon passed through his body like air.
“You have no problem brandishing that knife at me now, do you?” taunted Shadow’s guest. “A bit too late, Clyde. You should be here instead of me…”
“Magic!” called Locke from the sidelines. “Try magic if you have it!”
Then a sudden thought struck him, as both an idea and a fear: “Terra!” He ran to her door, foregoing conventions of decency, and swung it open. The green-haired girl was sitting on the edge of her bed, wide-eyed, facing a young woman whose features reminded him so much of Terra herself. Though he could hear no word pass among them, they seemed to be communicating. Terra covered her mouth with one hand and tears began to fill her eyes as a bright light emanated from the visitor. Locke was temporarily blinded, and when the light died down, the stranger was gone.
And then there was that moment of recognition he saw in her eyes once in Narshe, and once again in Zozo, so long ago. Terra looked over at Locke, and suddenly the pieces of her mind fit back together.
“Locke!” she cried out, running over to him, an incredulous look on her face.
“We can catch up in a bit – but Celes needs your help now.” The two hurried into the main room to find the other woman unconscious, her attacker just retrieving her Runic sword for himself.
“Gestahl...!” Terra growled, a sudden hatred filling her expression.
“You, too; ungrateful! Traitorous!” the old man spat, and he lunged with the stolen sword. But Terra was swifter, quickly conjuring a fire to burn the wayward soul.
“You deserve no afterlife.”
Gestahl shrieked – not from the pain, but from the knowledge that this time, his existence was truly ending. And soon the former Emperor was gone forever, his soul destroyed just as his body had been by yet another turncoat of his army.
Terra then rushed to Celes' aid, and Locke went back to check on Shadow. He found him sitting alone in his room; the one-eyed man nowhere to be found. Locke opened his mouth to speak but Shadow cut him off:
Locke backed out and immediately headed for Daryl's room. He was worried at the fact that he hadn't heard anything of her during all the commotion. He knocked on the door and hesitated, waiting for an answer. When a call of her name elicited no response either, he gently pushed the door open, bracing himself for another nasty surprise.
What he found wasn't pleasant, but it was still a relief. Daryl was standing by the window, elbows leaning on the pane with her head buried in her arms. Her shoulders heaved in great sobs, and Locke felt guilty for walking in on such a personal moment.
“Are you okay, Daryl?” he asked softly. After a moment her back straightened and she turned to face him, wiping her eyes.
“It's so much harder saying goodbye face to face... It's not fair.”
Locke waited for her to continue.
“Setzer came to me. Or – his soul, I guess. Now I feel so much more regret at having left him years ago... How cruel of me to make him think I was dead.”
He felt a bit of a pang in his chest for his own sake – he would've liked to have seen Setzer again, but then... it was true that parting would perhaps be more painful than it was worth.
“Is everyone safe?” Daryl asked, trying to regain her composure. “It sounded frantic out there. I'm sorry I did nothing to help.”
Locke shook his head. “I think everyone's okay for the most part... I need to check on Celes though. Will you be all right?”
“Of course.” And she looked away. “I may just be lost in my own head for a bit now.”
“Please let me know if I can do anything,” he said as he stepped back toward to the door. Daryl gave him a gesture that said he should be tending to more important things, and so he hurried back to where Terra was kneeling beside Celes. A few lanterns had been re-lit, revealing a mass of terrible marks and bruises around her neck and collar.
“She hasn't awakened yet, but she's stable,” said Terra, a healing spell glowing at her fingertips.
Locke's mind was reeling from everything that had just transpired. Friendly spirits, malicious spirits – were they even spirits at all? – who could touch humans but who could not be touched... Why? And how?
A small sound broke his thoughts. Locke and Terra turned their heads to see Rachel standing at the other end of the room by Locke's door, looking sadder than he had ever seen her. His stomach dropped as he stood and slowly walked toward her.
“I don't... What is going on?” he asked, a tone of defeat in his voice.
“I see you have your own life now... I should have figured.”
“Is it really you, Rachel?”
The girl nodded and clasped Locke’s hands in her own. She looked so much younger than him now, and he wasn’t sure what to say or how to react. He figured if he’d ever had this opportunity, he would be near ecstatic, but…
He moved to touch her face but his hand could only pass through. He found it vaguely grotesque, but all he felt was a sort of numbness inside.
“This Phantom Forest has become a haven for those unsettled,” she explained. “But we cannot go further than its perimeter. The train to the last land has stopped running. The tracks are all broken…”
After a pause, his words poured out, “I’m sorry about before. So many awful things have been happening; I didn’t think you could be real. Or I thought you were going to… I don’t know.” Try to take me with you.
She wrapped her arms around his waist and though he could feel her body pressed against his, he was unable to return her embrace. “I know we live in different worlds now, but I still get lonely. It’s terrible to say I’m waiting for you, isn’t it? Most people adapt and are content where they are, but I’ve been pining over solid ground. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to be alone,” she sobbed.
Locke never thought his heart could possibly break in so many pieces. Had she been able to come to him like this years ago, he might have been more inclined to stop his breath and join her. But his life was very different now, and it would be useless and selfish to die for old love. And… he had further selfish reasons to stay alive today.
“I’m sorry, Rachel,” he said quietly as his hands dumbly stroked the air about her. “I wish things hadn’t ended the way they did. I’m sorry for everything. It’s all my fault.”
“No.” She looked up at him. “You did nothing wrong, and I shouldn’t be going on like this. Your life has moved on and… that’s wonderful. I’m grateful for the time we had… I wish you the best.”
She looked over at the two young women at the other end of the room. Terra sat on her knees and faced the floor solemnly. Celes, now awake, had propped herself up on her side and did not bother to turn her gaze when Rachel’s eyes met her own. Her expression, as usual, was unreadable.
“Please be happy.” And Rachel leaned up to kiss his lips. It was strange feeling her touch but not her warmth. He thought he could feel a sliver of his soul being sucked away, but he knew he was imagining it.
When they parted, Rachel turned toward Terra. “If I may ask of you… I’d like to be released from this limbo too. I’ll never make it out of here, and the time that passes is agonizing. I feel as though I’ve already been here for an eternity. Please… burn my spirit…”
Terra looked torn and her eyes darted to Locke’s. “It’s a terrible way to go…” she said nervously. In truth, she even felt bad for having delivered Gestahl’s fate with such a cold heart, regardless of all the atrocities for which he was responsible.
“Please, I’m suffering. I want to leave with mostly good memories.” Tears began to stream down her cheeks. “I need to go now or I’ll be trapped here forever.”
Celes gingerly pushed herself up to her knees, her face slightly flushed. “I can deliver you mercifully,” she said. Her eyes lingered momentarily on Locke’s, and then she looked back to Rachel. “If you would like.”
The girl nodded. And though she visibly trembled, she smiled brightly as a swirling light began to glow at Celes’ fingers.
“Goodbye, love,” said Rachel, and she held Locke’s hand one last time. Her image began to fade as the Holy spell consumed her. And Locke did not pull away even as it burned at the flesh on his hand and wrist. When the heat and light subsided, Rachel was gone forever.
The silence between those left was dense.
“Thank you,” he eventually said, and he looked like he wanted to say something more. But then he turned and left to tend to his wound alone.
Celes let her weight collapse onto a nearby bench. Her sister in arms sat down next to her and for a long time, nobody spoke. At some point, Celes looked over at Terra.
But on her tongue, too, words stopped short. So she simply allowed her barricade to break down and she leaned toward her companion. Terra gently pulled her down and rested her head in her lap, and Celes let her to stroke her hair until she fell into an exhausted sleep.
* * *
The general mood was quite somber once the sun rose. No one had gotten much sleep, and the night's events weighed heavily in everyone's hearts. The crew lumbered around the still-parked airship awkwardly in silence, none wanting to be the first to discuss what they had just experienced a few hours earlier.
Locke apologized to Daryl about the door he had kicked in, but she waved it off. “The whole interior needs to be redone anyway,” she said, the usual bounce to her voice missing.
“Wait, where is Shadow?” Locke wondered aloud. The assassin was no longer in the room with the damaged door, nor was he anywhere else below the deck. Locke ascended the staircase and unlatched the portal to the main level.
“Ahh-h...?” he breathed in surprise as he peered around. The deck was filled with ghostly figures. In the morning light, it was much easier to see that their feet didn’t quite touch the ground, and their bodies were just shy of being opaque.
Terra appeared behind him. “What is it?” she asked. Locke stepped aside so that she could witness for herself the strange sight. The spirits moved about slowly or not at all; it was if they were simply loitering. When Terra continued out onto the deck curiously and walked among them, they paid her no mind.
“Ah… excuse me…” she tried, and her hand – rather unsurprisingly, by this point – passed through the shoulder of a man. He stopped and faced her.
“Are you bringing us away?” he asked.
“I don’t know what you mean…” she shook her head.
The man’s already downtrodden expression seemed to fall further. “We all perished when the world fell. But we have been unable to find rest. The forest is filling up and there’s nothing and no one to bring us to the end. What’s more, it seems as though others who had previously died without peace have been thrown back here too, seeking settlement for the ills in their lives… There’s nothing we can do; we’re trapped on this island…”
Terra was hesitant to respond. “We… cannot save you, I’m sorry…” She better understood Rachel’s plight now, but she couldn’t suggest they destroy every soul in the forest. It didn’t seem like a solution, and she couldn’t bear to do it anyhow.
There was perhaps far more wrong with the world than she could have imagined, when her mother’s ghost had reawakened her mind the night before. “Life itself has been violated and torn apart. The world has become something completely new and terrible.” She had expected destruction and poverty, but a world where even death was no escape…?
Daryl had followed closely behind at the notion there was something afoot outside. From the portal beside Locke she spoke to Terra:
“We can’t solve every problem. I know what you’re thinking; you all seem to have this in common – but it just isn’t something any of you or I are capable of; not right now. We need to keep moving. Just continue on toward your main goal.”
The ghostly man nodded, having already accepted his fate, and shuffled away to leave the airship.
“This is depressing. Where the hell is Shadow?” said Locke quietly. He looked toward the forest; it was so thickly overgrown that he could hardly see beyond a few feet in. “I don’t think any of us should necessarily start wandering around in there looking for him just yet, do you?” Daryl shrugged uncertainly.
“What if he’s in danger?” asked Terra. “He shouldn’t have gone alone.”
Locke sighed in frustration. “Let’s wait a half hour. In the meantime, we can come up with a plan if it does come down to some of us going in.”
* * *
“I’m over it. Why do you keep following me?” The man with the eyepatch was sitting on a tree branch that overlooked a small lake in the midst of the forest.
“If you were over it, you wouldn’t still be here, Baram,” said Shadow from the ground below.
“I was never really settled in life either, so it seems appropriate. I’m sure I’ll see you here someday for good as well.”
“Why didn’t you come for me the last time I was here?”
“You were too far gone, Clyde. I can understand a bit of overcompensation, but becoming a killer for hire after you couldn’t bear to put one man out of his misery?”
Shadow snarled. “Don’t preach at me. You were scum too. We both were, and always have been.”
“Well, it’s touching that you’ve finally grown up,” said Baram as he jumped down from his post. “If you’re trying to apologize, I accept it. I don’t care. Move on with your life, while you still have one.”
“I am. That’s why I want to ask you something.”
* * *
Locke and Terra were reluctantly preparing to enter the Phantom Forest. They were default for the mission as Celes had locked herself in her room and no one really wanted to face her just yet. Daryl paced anxiously on the deck. The spirits had all gone but she clearly wanted to leave as soon as possible.
“Okay, well… we’ll be back in a bit,” said Locke, twirling a dagger absently. His left hand was bandaged but he hoped it wouldn’t hinder him too much. He was also banking on the fact that Terra was indeed fully recovered; however, she too was only armed with a borrowed knife.
Just as Locke began to descend the rungs down the side of the airship, he heard a faint buzzing sound. Peering over his shoulder, he saw a figure flicker into view at the edge of the forest.
“What the hell, Shadow!” he called angrily and pulled himself back up to the deck.
The assassin said nothing as he easily leapt to the first rung and scaled up the side of the ship. Locke caught him roughly by the shoulder as he started to walk past.
“All right!” Locke shouted, seething. “I know we all have things we don't want to talk about, but we need to start working together – otherwise we're just traveling aimlessly, or tiptoeing around each other. From now on, for as long as we're all together, everyone stays informed of everything at all times. If something's bothering you and it affects someone else, come out and say it. If you want to go somewhere on your own, tell the others so we know where you are. We can't afford to be acting like a bunch of strangers.”
“About time you grew a pair and took a stand,” said Shadow, a smirk in his voice.
“Fuck off. We need to seriously start thinking about where we're going next, and what we're going to do about the Tower.”
“Well I'm glad you asked before you started raving, because I have some information that may be of use to us.” Locke had about had enough of Shadow's sarcasm, but he waited for him to continue. “First is that Thamasa is obviously not on this island. It no longer exists as a settlement. However, according to those who have perished since the Collapse, the Thamasians have returned to their nomadic roots and are currently wandering the Veldt. They figure if they keep moving they'll avoid the Light of Judgment, as they rightly feel they are at risk for being a target due to their magical abilities.”
“And is there anything of particular interest to us among these people?” asked Locke, still somewhat impatiently.
“If it means anything to you, neither Strago nor Relm are among the souls wandering this forest. They are likely still alive, and we may find them among their people. They could be of great aid to us with regard to the Tower.”
“...Sounds good, then,” said Locke simply, looking to the others for agreement. As his eyes swept around, he caught a glimpse of Celes standing in the shadow of the doorway to the cabins. “So unless anyone disagrees, shall we head to the Veldt?”
After a moment of mutual silence, Daryl made the first move. “All right, let's get the hell out of here.”
Chapter title taken from: Weh - "Sealing Fates"
Chapter 13: How Fragile We Are
While his courage still served him, Locke knocked lightly on Celes’ door. She called for him to enter.
“What’s bothering you?” he asked, to the point, while lingering in the doorway. He had a fairly good idea of the problem but he wasn’t in the mood to skirt around these kinds of issues anymore. His own emotions had been taxed so far lately that his body was no longer allowing things like depression or self-doubt to manifest in the first place. Hitting rock bottom, so to speak, had unceremoniously punted him past his lingering (and ever-growing) crowd of personal demons, which left him with no choice but to keep barreling forward.
Celes looked at him for a moment, then stood and closed the door behind him. “Did I do something terrible last night?” she asked the floor.
“Is this about Rachel?” And she nodded in response. Locke put his hands on her shoulders to guide her away from the door. “You did what she asked. It’s what she wanted.”
Celes faced him, her usual air of confidence dulled by a wave of uncertainty, making her appear less like a former military General and more like a naïve young woman barely out of her teens. “But is it what you wanted?”
“It doesn’t matter what I may or may not have wanted,” he said, shaking his head lightly. “She deserved to have peace if that was her wish. And like I said before… I should’ve let this all end years ago. I’m sorry this part of my past has been put on display, but it’s over now. Life moves on.”
She made a thoughtful sound and sat on the edge of her cot.
“Please don’t dwell on it,” Locke added.
“I feel like we’ve witnessed something that people like us should not know,” she said, changing the subject suddenly. Strange timing was a quirk of hers, especially when it came to discussion of the heart and soul. She either waffled about it or tore it quickly from her skin like a bandage.
“What do you mean?”
“This conundrum with death. I’ve never really had a fear of dying, under the condition that it was the true end. But that’s not certain now, is it? What a terrible fate it could be.”
Locke made his way to the window and leaned back on the frame, considering. “There’s not much point in living if we’re too concerned with what comes after life,” he concluded. “If it’s fate, we can’t escape it, so we gotta make sure our time here is worth its while.”
She gave him a faint smile. “I’m trying to figure out how to be so optimistic.”
“Start by not getting too lost in your own head. Be a little spontaneous and make yourself happy once in awhile. When it comes down to it, no one can define exactly how to life your life; it’s up to you to make it a good ride.”
With a quick grin he made his exit, and Celes was left to ponder all the things she wasn’t supposed to think about.
* * *
The trip north was extremely long, but it allowed everyone a chance for some well-deserved rest. The break also made for the opportunity to realize how sore muscles were, and how hungry stomachs were for hot food. But then, they were all fairly used to foregoing luxury.
Terra leaned on the rail of the deck and watched the world pass slowly below the airship. She sighed at the sight of the barren land they had recently come across. Even from up high, she could tell that there was little life on the ground.
“It's a strange feeling... I had been conscious this whole time, but it was as though I didn’t absorb any thoughts or visuals. I never noticed how dead the planet has become.” She caught sight of Shadow out of the corner of her eye. He too was looking over the edge thoughtfully.
“I now understand where I've been this past year,” she continued, simply voicing her thoughts. “A doll on display; an offering to a demon. It makes me sad. But it doesn't seem all that surprising. I'm almost used to being a puppet by this point.”
“That doesn't sound like a very healthy conviction,” said Shadow from behind his mask.
Terra shrugged. “When you've been told what to do all your life, how do you start making your own decisions?”
“What makes you decide to stay here, then?”
She considered his words for a moment. “We’re… They’re my friends, aren’t they?” In the weighted silence that followed, it became painfully obvious just how broken every single one of them was – ex-Returners, ex-Imperial soldiers, ex-mercenaries, all. So many fears and uncertainties veritably pulsed through their veins – and yet it was a constant struggle of keeping-it-hidden versus how-do-I-tell-you – as if they all believed their own self-doubt was exclusive.
“It's not something one should put too much thought into.” Shadow glanced downward and noticed a small settlement below. It was Mobliz.
“I spent a lot of time with Celes when we were much younger,” Terra continued, “but in later years we were so often separated, having been ordered down different paths. We used to have a strong connection… It’s difficult for me to know what she’s thinking anymore. I suppose… that while I was always rendered oblivious, she grew up knowing exactly what she was doing, and what the Empire was doing, and it twisted and hardened her.” Terra grew quiet. “But what do you fight for?” she then asked, turning the focus to Shadow. “I thought you came with a price. Have you been hired? …If you don’t mind my asking.”
“No,” he answered, his voice slightly bitter. “Such a specialty is no longer worthwhile in this world. I have no good reason to be here or anywhere; I’m here because I’ve resigned myself to it. Anything I do must be forced, because naturally, I care about nothing.”
“It’s frivolous. This is a charade.”
Terra faced him sadly. “There is nothing that brings you joy?”
His eyes were piercing but stoic. “I deadened myself ten years ago. Perhaps I regret it, but it’s how I work.”
“Maybe after all this, you’ll find something that suits you.”
Shadow grunted. “I don’t foresee much of a future for myself beyond this mission. I’d like to account for the things I neglected long ago, and then disappear.”
They shared a mutual silence. After a time, Shadow noted:
“You make pleasanter company than the others around here.”
* * *
“Land, ho!” called Daryl on the third morning. “That’ll be a couple hours yet, but the Veldt is on the horizon.” She was perched on the bow, telescope to her eye. The air was becoming much warmer the further north they traveled. Under different circumstances, they might have been better able to enjoy the nice weather, though the wispy, indigo clouds soaking in the perpetually orange sky always felt as though they carried a hint of poison in the air.
Terra was to be the key to locating the Thamasians – her Esper blood most suited to sensing their subtle and ancient magic. Daryl felt they should drift aimlessly as little as possible, knowing that the sight of the airship circling overhead would look suspicious and frightening to anyone down below, especially on such open land. So once they neared the edge, she set the Falcon to generally follow counterclockwise the perimeter of the Veldt, now a large and jagged island.
It was a fascinating expanse of land, covered in dust and dry grasses. Trees were sparse but appeared in small clusters, as though keeping together for safety; their trunks twisting and ragged, their leaves thin and flat, like mushroom caps. Now and then a herd of monsters could be seen roaming or grazing in the distance. Even under the hum of the airship’s propellers, it was apparent that the land beyond was overwhelmingly quiet and calm.
Or largely dead.
They made their way around the island slowly and carefully, hours of peering through telescopes and waiting for a spark yielding no results, and everyone feeling the prick of the sun on their skin becoming uncomfortable. Terra, moreover, tired easily in the bright, hot light, and was having difficulty concentrating. As they neared the northern tip of a cluster of elevated land on the western shore, Daryl eased the airship to the ground and gave its engines a much-needed rest. Eager to feel solid earth under his feet again, Locke skittered down the rungs and launched himself off the side of the ship, landing fairly gracefully though stirring up a cloud of dust.
The Veldt was indeed quiet. But it was a peaceful sort of silence, somehow – nothing like the eerie, foreboding reticence of the Phantom Forest. Locke suddenly flashed back to his first trip down the Serpent Trench, alone, weak, and wondrous at the new world. He realized then that much of the open land was truly not so fearsome as it seemed. Certainly there were exceptions – Death Gaze, Humbaba, dragons lurking in caves and vengeful spirits wandering forests – but in general the monsters of the overworld were weaker, less aggressive, and fewer in numbers than they had been before the Collapse. All walks of life – not just men – had been sorely affected by the cataclysm and the Light of Judgment, and all were equally struggling to thrive once again.
Locke stretched his muscles and then unsheathed a dagger, twirling it about his fingers. He felt anxious in a way – at once eager for the action to start, or for the freedom to leave behind all the ‘responsibilities’ he had assigned to himself since departing the solitary island. This latter thought was strange, however – for, what would he do if not search for his friends? Where would he go if not down a path toward improvement? It was a lazy thought as much as it was a tired one. He had spent the past five years doing this sort of thing – working for the Returners, being an unlikely go-between for them and the King of Figaro, fighting against the Empire, against evil. But for a brief moment, he felt a faint tug, like a hand pulling on the back of his shirt, reaching into his heart, and a snippet of a memory flashed into his mind. There was a girl on his arm, and they were walking through a garden. She was telling him about each plant; which provided nourishment, which had healing properties, which were simply beautiful to look at. She took pride in her cultivation, and she spoke of opening a shop and a botanical nursery someday. He loved the idea, and he loved her, and he looked forward to helping her realize her dreams.
And then he remembered that he was responsible for erasing those dreams from her mind. With the suddenness of a fall, all plans were off. And so it was that he found himself standing alone on the edge of a dry prairie today, hoping feebly to find an old man or a young girl somewhere in the middle of it, so that he could continue wandering tomorrow…
He noticed that his feet had taken him away from the airship and toward a cluster of trees near the base of the stunted mountain. The wall of courage and confidence that had built up in his chest so suddenly the other day was crumbling back down, when it finally struck him like a blow that Rachel was indeed gone. Nothing of her remained; both her body and her soul had been wiped clean from existence. He hated that, after all this time, he was still having trouble accepting that she was no longer a part of his life, but then – they had been together for longer than yet they had not.
Lost in his own thoughts, Locke paid no notice to the passage of time. It was a faint rustle of footsteps behind him that finally grounded him again.
Celes stood a few feet away, looking once again regal and steadfast, though her expression was somewhat softer than usual. She waited a moment before speaking, as if her silence was a placeholder for words of comfort and sympathy that she otherwise didn’t know how to form.
“Terra has sensed a presence,” she said, concertedly trying not to sound like she was giving a military report. “It is faint, but she’s confident it’s the aura of the old Magi.”
Locke nodded and shifted his weight from the nearby tree trunk back to his own legs. The two walked side-by-side in silence back to the airship, where they were greeted by faces both expectant and hopeful.
* * *
“I wish I could build a smaller flying device – like a personal airship,” said Daryl offhandedly. “Ach, that’s another for my ‘to do’ list someday…I'm gonna be busy till I'm old and grey.”
The Falcon grazed slowly across the Veldt in the direction from which Terra had sensed – what she thought to be – Strago Magus’ presence. Daryl had the ship flying as low and leisurely as was safely possible, but it was a difficult task over such dusty ground. The last thing they wanted to do was stir up a nasty cyclone near a group of people… wherever they were.
This is what was bothering them. As they advanced, Terra’s sense became stronger, yet no scope brought sight of anything resembling humans in the distance. And as the land was so flat, a settlement – even a nomadic one – should have been visible at some point. Eventually, the aura started to grow weak again, and Terra suggested they land temporarily.
“I’ll go and search on my own,” she said, to much surprise of the others. “I know little about the Thamasians as a people, but as magic-users, I would suspect they’re employing cloaking techniques to hide themselves in this open environment.” She could see Celes nodding in agreement to herself.
And before anyone could protest to her declaration of setting off alone, Terra’s skin began to glow. Small, white flames ignited at her fingertips and spread about her entire body with a shocking suddenness. But instead of consuming her, they cocooned her figure and what emerged was truthfully a terrifying sight up close. Her normally-soft features sharpened. Her eyes changed from pale blue to a piercing crimson, and her thin, green hair teased itself into a wild mane that danced like a roaring fire. And though it may have been a trick of the eye, it seemed like tiny, ghostlike flames would flicker from nowhere and lap at her glowing, rose-colored skin.
“I will return shortly,” she said, her voice like an echoing whisper and her words reaching everyone’s ears before they could see her lips finish forming them. And then her feet lifted from the deck of the Falcon, and she moved about the air as though it were water, gliding gracefully away like a fish in the sea.
Daryl flushed with amazement. She had been told about Terra’s powers after they had rescued her from Jidoor, but all she had witnessed of the girl’s Esper form then was the comet-like streak of light across the sky.
“I’ve never seen so many wonderful things till I met up with you guys,” she said reverently. From her perspective, it was almost difficult not to be optimistic.
* * *
Following the pull in her chest toward the magical aura nearby, Terra snaked through the air fairly low to the ground. Whenever she flew as an Esper, her body felt inclined to move in ways she would have never considered – or been able to execute – as a human; twisting her shoulders and hips at odd angles to steer her direction, somersaulting and barrel-rolling to catch a gust of wind just so. These instinctual movements felt freeing, like she was more at home with her body in this form. It was unfortunate that it cost her so much energy to remain this way; that it was impossible for her to favor this powerful fire-creature over the small and slight humanoid girl.
Her senses perked to the northwest, and she writhed to focus her direction. Soon, she descended and steadied herself upon her feet, becoming a beast of the land once more. Closing her eyes, she breathed a whisper, her Esper tongue calling out to the fellow magic-users nearby. And then, as though a curtain were suddenly pulled back, a small settlement revealed itself and a group of about thirty Thamasians were standing before her, Strago Magus at the head. Leaning on his staff, he nodded enthusiastically, as if responding to the wordless call she had sent out. The old Magi – truthfully not so old for the people of his lineage, though his body language would suggest otherwise – shuffled forward with a smile hidden behind his bushy, white beard.
“Terra, my Esper friend,” he said, his voice gruff and crackly, “I was hoping we’d see you again.”
* * *
Strago accompanied Terra back to the airship with little in the way of formalities. In fact, he was quite prepared to leave even before she had arrived – the stir of magic in the air as of late had told him that he should be ready to fight again soon. His fellow Thamasians were somewhat wary to see their great sage depart, but they had been expecting it as well. And truly, they were fairly safe on their own, cloaked in the midst of the Veldt.
Of course, he had been expecting her first question as well, and was sadly prepared to give his response:
“No, Relm is not with us. I do not know where she is.”
And when they rejoined the others on the Falcon and delivered the same message, Shadow gave an odd grunt and settled into a corner, arms folded and making himself look very much like his namesake. But secretly, a familiar voice rang in his mind, accompanied by a vision of the one-eyed bandit in the forest, assuring him, cryptically, Your girl’s not here, Clyde. Don’t worry.
The addition of Strago to the team was, simply, the emulsion they needed to pool their resources and finally figure out exactly where their path was leading them. He had been spending the past year drawing on the collective memories of himself and his fellow Thamasians, analyzing the history and trends of magic throughout the ages as preserved in their culture, to try to remotely understand what was happening in the ominous Tower and what it could all mean. And, most importantly, what they could possibly do about it.
“The magic that resonates from the Tower is old; so very old,” he explained to the party, seated around the airship deck in the warm afternoon sun. “This isn’t entirely surprising – we do know the ancient gods are involved, after all. But it’s the extreme force and wrath that quite drips from this archaic aura that is puzzling… and the fact that Kefka’s branded Magitek is almost nowhere to be found. This could mean a number of things.”
“Could he have… absorbed himself into the gods’ power, or the other way around?” suggested Celes.
“That is certainly one possibility,” said Strago grimly. “There’s no way to tell for certain until we see for ourselves, but I must warn you: Don’t expect to find Kefka the way we left him on the Floating Continent. I have a feeling that the situation is perhaps more sinister than we may be prepared to face.”
Locke glanced sideways at Celes. Even out of the corner of his eye he could see the intensity of her expression as she stared a hole through her own knees. It was easy for him to regard Kefka as nothing but a monster that must be destroyed, but it was true, as she had said – she’d had a much deeper relationship with the madman before his fall from grace. Acting as a turncoat so many times over as she had done of late must have been taxing on everything from her confidence in her own decisions to her ability to trust… Again, he cursed the Empire; its fall had been inevitable, what with betrayal being practically an official political policy.
“So where do we start?” Shadow spoke for the first time since Strago’s arrival.
“Glad to see you’re still following,” Strago joked with a bit of a sting, which Shadow stonily ignored. “Yes, well, I’ve unearthed an old tale,” he continued, taking a moment to stretch his back and shuffle with his cane. “An old Esper story, supposedly dating back to a time when Life and Magic themselves were new to the world. Before the three gods went to war and subsequently decided to put themselves into balance, there was created a more rudimentary safeguard against potential abuse of power: two great Weapons, one in the form of a beast, and one as a sword. I've no doubt you recall the monster guarding the Floating Continent?” Solemn nods in response. “Ultima, the very beast; destroyed.”
“How could something we have killed have been supposed to keep the gods in check?” asked Locke skeptically.
“It was an archaic and imperfect system. Its biggest flaw was that, in order for it to truly be impartial to who was abusing the power, the beast could not be controlled. And it was created before the existence of Espers or even magic-wielding humans. Perhaps we can take a bit of comfort in the knowledge that we, today, are stronger than the gods ever originally anticipated... consider that.” There was a rather mischievous glimmer in Strago’s eye as he said this.
“Now, the sword, on the other hand, may be our victor. In the hands of one pure-hearted and powerful, it could be used to lay the gods to rest.”
“But that’s an apocalyptic tale, isn’t it?” wondered Terra aloud. Her blood ran warm with electricity as the story was told, its place in Esper history being one of mutual memory. “The Ultima Weapon brings about the end of all life in magic, not just that of the gods…”
“That could be,” Strago nodded. “The story does not come naturally to my mind as it does yours, so I don’t know all the details.”
“Ultima Weapon… if it does exist, is very dangerous… This is what the Espers know, anyway. Wield it only when absolute nothingness is preferable to the agony of life…”
All eyes were on Terra. The girl found her breath catching in her throat. “In this, Man must usurp God to deliver the final judgment… But… do we have this right?” she ended in a near whisper.
“Let’s… find out more about this first,” said Celes, stepping forward to relieve Terra. “We’re getting ahead of ourselves; we don’t even know the true situation in the Tower at this point anyway. Magus, do you have any leads on where this – sword, was it? – might be?”
“All signs point to present-day Narshe,” the old man answered with surprising conviction. “This is what I gather from comparing the various stories of oral tradition.”
“Then is that our next destination?” Locke glanced around for confirmation from all, then nodded in Daryl’s direction. “At the very least, we can hope to gain some more information. If we even find this Ultima Weapon – well, we can weigh our options afterward.”
Dread saturated the air that whirled around them as the Falcon’s engines roared to life once more. It wasn’t that nobody expected to face a great and terrible power at the end of all this, but perhaps none had really considered how grave the reality might be. Aside from the erratic, yet destructive, streaks of light across the sky, the world had been fairly calm since the Collapse itself – but there was no denying that the crooked tower to the southwest was housing a sleeping giant. Its subjects were already largely beaten into submission, but it was just waiting, anticipating that rebellion, that provocation to arise, so it could stamp out the rest of humanity with a flourish of violence.
And what about Ultima Weapon, this hidden ace? Would it truly come down to a matter of by whose hands will we all die? It was, unequivocally, a sickening thought, and one that inspired little hope in anyone.
Chapter title taken from: Sting - "Fragile"
Chapter 14: So Darkness I Became
They hadn’t flown very far before the sky began to grow ominously dark. But the cloud cover was scarce, and the setting sun still blazed on the horizon – it was by some unseen power that the orange atmosphere above them dimmed to a dull sepia over the course of about an hour. The ship was set to fly as low as possible, the water of the ocean below skimming and splashing in their wake. Though none aboard the Falcon was comfortable, Daryl was most visibly agitated. She paced up and down the deck, tapping her hands on the railing and returning to the main control often to check how it was running. Not only was the fuel supply teetering a bit too close to empty, it was obvious that something terrible was heading their way.
“We gotta stop in Nikeah,” the captain declared suddenly. “I can’t get us to Narshe without refueling and I frankly don’t want to fly in these conditions if at all possible. There is no way this can bring anything but bad news.” There were no objections to this, and just then a bright light flashed in the distance, like an electrical storm... or the Light of Judgment. “I think we’re close anyway. That land you see to port should be the northern tip of the Serpent Trench, if I’m not mistaken.” She rifled through the sketches she had made in Maranda, frustration and worry visible on her face.
A large wave splashed high and sprayed the deck. Daryl rushed to the control and elevated the airship as she accompanied her movements with a string of curses. The ocean was growing tumultuous even though, still, no clouds appeared overhead.
“Why are we flying so low?” Terra asked in a hushed voice, inching closer to Celes. Even when her longtime companion had her defenses raised against the world, Terra still felt she radiated something that felt like safety and don’t worry; it’s under control that went back to their childhood days together.
“The Tower is active,” Celes replied, watching the horizon as though expectant. “We’re extremely vulnerable right now and we don’t want to attract the Light of Judgment.”
“Dammit!” shouted Daryl as the Falcon lurched sideways thanks to an errant gust of wind, throwing everyone off balance. “I’m landing as soon as we reach dry ground. We can continue to Nikeah after this passes.”
Another flash of light could be seen to the south. Strago shook his head sadly. “It’s a tragic day for some poor village back there…”
But their collective attention was suddenly jostled elsewhere when a startled cry came from Locke at the other end of the deck. Circling above them was a great, winged creature that had approached so quietly no one had noticed it coming. Without warning, it swooped down for attack. And Locke, on instinct, grabbed the bladed boomerang attached to his belt and let it fly with a sharp whistle. The weapon smartly made contact with a fang in the creature’s bare-skull mouth, cracking it off and eliciting a terrible screech from the beast as it doubled back. Locke whipped around as he caught the returning weapon. His eyes were wide with rage.
“That’s Death Gaze, the monster that killed Gau,” he growled, signaling the others to prepare for attack.
Celes stepped up to his side and drew her Runic blade. Magic pulsated from her hands, around her wrists and nearly all the way up her arms in anticipation as her eyes flickered to his. While she was an expert at keeping her expression impassive, her magic tended to betray her stoicism.
Death Gaze recovered from its minor setback quickly. As it dove a second time, Celes slashed her sword, charged with magic, and a shell of ice enveloped the beast and then shattered in a glittering display of power. While the attack again caused the beast to temporarily retreat, it seemed largely unfazed.
“He is extremely powerful…” said Celes, disturbed by her reading of the blow. “And in the air, we’re in his territory.”
Locke pretty well knew what that meant. As his companions rose to the occasion, firing magic and scrolls and other damaging attacks, he was left on the sidelines gripping his daggers and boomerang and once again feeling utterly useless. He had no special powers, he wasn’t particularly strong anymore, and he was shit with magic. His fists shook around the handles of his pathetic weapons; he felt silly even trying to use them. He would contribute nothing to this battle; he could do nothing to personally avenge Gau. Adrenaline coursed through his body in anger and frustration and suddenly he dropped his blades to the floor. Without putting so much as a thought into what he was doing, he tore the Magicite crystal off the cord that still hung around his neck and clutched it so tightly its jagged edges nearly pierced the skin of his palm.
Esper, I command you! Come to my aid! I offer my strength and command you to come!
Just then, he felt as though he had been kicked in the chest as his strength drained with such rapidity that his legs gave out. His vision momentarily went black and his knees hit the deck with a crash, but he wobbled and managed to stay upright otherwise. The crystal had become so hot it was burning his hands, but he refused to let go. And then, finally, he felt it release him.
A wall of water shot straight into the air as a monumental creature – at once draconic and fish-like – burst from the ocean surface. Its size was so great that it dwarfed the skull bird, and with a flourish, the Esper opened its massive jaw and spewed forth an explosion of blue flame. So extensive was its reach that Strago had to conjure a wind to keep the friendly fire from damaging the airship.
Death Gaze, forever silenced, fell limply into the ocean, where its body sank to the depths. The Esper followed, its form dissolving out of sight even before the tip of its tail had completely submerged below the surface of the water. And suddenly, the sound of the Falcon’s engines and the still-furiously lapping waves seemed so much quieter than they had before. Locke gingerly pulled himself onto a nearby bench as the others stood in stunned silence, not really knowing what had just happened or what – if anything – should be done next.
“You summoned Bahamut!” said Terra finally, her eyes filled with awe. She walked over to him, tiny licks of flame still jumping off her skin as her own Esper form receded. “May I see the Magicite?”
He handed it to her without a word – he wouldn’t have been able to make so much as a squeak if he’d wanted to, anyway – and she examined it fondly and whispered praises and thanks to the Esper on his behalf.
Meanwhile, Daryl climbed out of the corner she had thrust herself into once the action had started. “Ho-oly shit,” she said, her hands and legs trembling. “I’m glad I’m on your side…” She shakily grasped the controls of the ship and steered it back on course for the land that was now thankfully no longer too far away.
Over the remaining time in flight, Celes helped Locke below deck where she hummed regenerative spells over him, which soothed his body and calmed his racing pulse. He felt nearly as weak as the day he first awoke on the solitary island, but he was happy knowing that he had finally put Gau to rest; that the boy’s sacrifice had not been in vain. Just before he drifted into a lazy slumber, he thought he’d have to tell Sabin the next time he saw him.
* * *
The magical storm was passing by the time the Falcon blissfully skidded to rest on land. The airship itself practically sighed in relief along with the captain and her crew as its propellers slowed to a halt. The weary passengers disembarked, eager to stand on solid ground, but boots squishing into damp soil that had just earlier been crashed upon by massive waves. The eerie sepia color in the sky had faded by then, but as the sun was setting, it was beginning to return to its now-familiar dark crimson hue.
Shadow, sharp-eyed, scanned the area carefully. “Lady,” he said, addressing Daryl in his clear and steady drawl, “This does not appear to be Serpent Trench.”
Daryl had to resist the urge to direct her frustration toward the messenger. She was already fretting about the state of her airship and all the new repairs she was going to have to make in addition to the ones she’d been neglecting already. She settled on an exaggerated sigh and went back to find her map notes and a compass, though in the fading light she wondered if it was even worth addressing at the moment. Lighting a lantern, she poured over her sketches, shaking her head slowly.
“I don’t know,” she said with an exasperated shrug. “There’s nothing on the map in between the Veldt and the Serpent Trench so if we’re not on one or the other, then this is an uncharted island.” She rolled her eyes back as though expecting some oracle in the sky to give her an answer. “I’m trying to recall the world map prior to the Collapse but as far as I know, this could be anything. Or nothing. I don’t know.”
“Don’t worry about it for now, dear,” said Strago, patting her arm. “We can check it out in the morning. It’s been a long day.”
Murmurs of agreement came from the others and they all eagerly retreated to their rooms below the deck for some much-needed rest.
* * *
Shadow wasn’t convinced he had even fallen asleep in the first place, despite feeling the unmistakable sensation of being jolted awake. He sat upright and held completely still, listening for minutes on end. He would wait – he could wait – as long as necessary until he heard it again.
Minutes? Hours? later, there it was – a faint cry in the distance. A human cry; a desperate scream echoing from somewhere on the island. He leapt to his feet and hurried to the deck. To his surprise, he found Strago there, pacing in the darkness. There was a moment of tense silence between them, and Shadow, eyes locked with the old man’s, quickly concealed his identity – unwittingly revealed – with his lower mask.
“Did you hear it?” the mercenary finally asked.
Strago cleared his throat. “I don’t hear very well at my age,” he said with an infuriatingly simple shrug. Shadow twitched, and the old man straightened. “I do feel a familiar presence,” he continued, more seriously this time. “Does this concern you?”
Shadow did not answer; the old man’s question carried too much consequence. Instead he replied, “I’m not waiting till morning,” and turned toward the deck ladder.
“You're not leaving without telling anyone again, are you?” called Strago, at which Shadow halted in his footsteps. The mage had not been present with them on the island with the Phantom Forest.
“Your words are maddening,” said Shadow, poison practically dripping from his tongue. “This isn’t the time for cryptic games.”
Strago sniffed. “Regardless, the sentiment still stands. Wait for me to tell the others we’re going.”
For a brief moment, Shadow actually considered waiting for his unwelcome cohort. But when Strago disappeared below the deck, the man in black slipped down the rungs of the ladder and took off into the darkness alone.
* * *
“Are you kidding me? He left again?” Locke ranted, half-delirious, the dark circles under his eyes that lingered constantly these days even more pronounced in the harsh lantern light. The ill-rested party stood shivering on the deck only a few mere hours after they had turned in for the night. “I’m half inclined to say we just leave him behind.” He swayed drunkenly to the side, as he was still relatively weakened from the strain he'd put on himself in summoning the great Bahamut.
“Now, I'm not going to say I’m ever impressed with his methods, but Shadow is on the trail of something important. I’m about to follow, but I wanted to inform you all first and see if anyone wished to join me.” Strago tapped his staff on the wooden floorboards absently and eyed the younger crowd before him.
“I’ll come,” said Terra, who looked the most awake of the group. “But what do you think is out there?”
“I’m loath to speculate aloud,” was all the old man offered, and for an instant, his expression looked strangely sad.
Locke’s shoulder bumped into Celes’ for a third time and she caught him by the side, steadying him. “Send a signal if you need immediate help...” she said, watching Locke practically fall back asleep standing up. “I’ll follow a little later otherwise.”
Strago made a noise that sounded like a mix between a grunt and a laugh and then gestured for Terra to accompany him off the airship. Then they too disappeared into the night.
* * *
The cries grew louder as Shadow approached the distant, crumbling structure – but they were erratic, sounding almost like a one-sided struggle. There would be a series of terrible shrieks followed by a long length of silence, and then a yell, and the voice would quiet once more. His feet finally reached the first step of the vaguely-familiar fortress: he stood at the entrance of the long-since abandoned Doma Castle. He shivered against his will, swearing he felt something like a spirit pass through his body. This place was wrought with magic and death, and for a second, he almost wished he weren’t so bullheaded as to come alone. But it wasn’t his own potential demise he feared.
Crossing the threshold, he listened for signs of life from within but the voice had been silent for some time now. He passed the deteriorating iron gates and stepped around broken columns whose stones could have been grave markers for all the bodies he knew had fallen there a long time ago. The front doors to the castle itself were closed, but the shambled wall was easy enough to scale and he entered through a wound in the facade. He peered around in the darkness – not quite able to see, but he hesitated to light a flare whose crackling flame would give him away. Instead he held a short katana at the ready and continued to walk forward, slowly and silently.
A gurgling scream suddenly erupted around the room, but he could tell its source was somewhere else in the castle. He decided then to light his path and as the fire flared to life, he was, in a rare incidence, truly taken aback by the sight that greeted him.
The walls were splattered with thick blobs of color that oozed and pulsated as though they were breathing. When after a moment he realized that they did not appear to be inclined to jump out at him, he took a closer look and noticed that the seemingly-shapeless masses did indeed have distinct, if distorted, features. He recognized a couple as monsters he had encountered at some point or another, except... with no internal support; no bones to give them shape. It was as though they had been skinned and tossed aside, somehow messily sticking to the walls and still trying desperately to be alive.
Even though they were beasts – enemies – the scene was horrific. The shells-of-monsters were everywhere, and as he made his way through the labyrinthine castle, he found they were in no short supply. Writhing, bleeding skins – some even managing to reach out a rubbery arm or spindly finger – as though they were pleading to him for help – quite coated nearly every surface about the great fortress, inside and out. Shadow was seriously beginning to question whether he should continue alone when he heard the voice again – so wretched but so wonderfully human – shriek and cry and cough, raspy and desperate, and he knew he couldn’t stop.
His flare was waning and he quickened his pace, boots splashing in the putrid substance that oozed from the horror-house monsters. His heart pounded with an anxiety he hadn’t felt in as long as he could remember as he watched the flame flicker and die – feeling, childishly, that the real monster would emerge once the light went out. And as the darkness dominated once more and he rounded a corner, he bumped into a solid figure that startled him so badly he let out a yelp of his own.
He heard heavy, haggard breathing. Then the breathing turned into choking and retching. And then interest overtook fear and Shadow forced his eyes to focus, aided by the faint moonlight that spilled through the cracks in the walls, and he could see that the figure was indeed human – small and hunched over, gasping for air. The body teetered into the wall and fell to the floor in a fit of convulsions, and her screaming – so deafeningly loud, now – echoed through the castle yet again. Shadow scooped the flailing waif into his arms and retreated, though with significant difficulty as he was largely blind in the darkness and the body he carried wriggled violently as though seizing up.
Following a faint glow of light, Shadow made his way to a window and saw that it led to a courtyard one story below. Kicking out the remains of the already-shattered glass, he perched in the sill and leapt to the ground, feet stinging with the shock of impact. He quickly moved to lay his burden on the thin and patchy grass, where she continued to writhe and sputter, her eyes wide but glassy, foam spraying from her mouth. Her skin and clothes were caked with muddy colors, and her long, tightly curled hair was tangled in a nest about her head. She spat sounds like a hissing animal, thrashing her fingers like claws in the air and then suddenly, she fell limp and quiet.
Shadow was at a loss for what to do, and he felt – so strange to be experiencing such strong sensations all of a sudden – a weight sinking, sickly, into his stomach. He was now breathing so heavily his mask felt like a gag, and he knelt, helplessly, next to the girl’s body, dumbly hoping that perhaps she would snap out of it on her own. He pulled off a glove and felt for her pulse – it was there, thankfully, but it was racing dangerously, inhumanly fast. And yet her chest was still, taking in no breaths at all.
A few minutes later a small croak escaped her lips. Her eyes still stared, unseeing yet wild, into a space beyond that only she could see. Then her voice creaked again and she howled strangely, though her body moved no further. At that moment, Shadow could hear footsteps approaching, and he looked up to find Strago and Terra sprinting toward him.
“Relm!” Terra gasped as she skidded to a halt, quite horrified at seeing the girl’s condition. Strago’s expression was severe and grim.
“What’s wrong with her?” Shadow demanded, as though expecting Strago to know the answer. “She’s unconscious of the world before her and she suffers cycles of fits.” The others had never heard the elusive man’s voice so intense before.
“This is demons’ work,” said Strago quietly, circling his staff in the air, trying to get a sense of the source of the magic that so saturated the entire grounds of the fortress. “They are plaguing her mind somehow.”
Terra, meanwhile, had dropped to her knees and was swishing healing spells over the young girl’s body, if only to soothe her superficially. But Relm soon began to convulse and gasp again, and as if on cue, the screams started anew. Terra struggled to lift and hold her more upright, lest she choke on her own tongue. She whispered Esper chants like a lullaby and tried to sync her aura to Relm’s, attempting to gain any sort of insight on what was happening to her, and how they could help.
No answers were eagerly rearing their heads toward them by any means. Terra was beginning to tire herself out by running down the list of healing spells she knew, casting them rapid-fire in hopes that something would elicit any sort of positive response. Eventually, Relm’s wild thrashing overtook the slight woman, and she was knocked to the ground as the girl suddenly thrust herself back to her feet. She hobbled, zombie-like, back toward the castle and stopped when she reached a solid wall. The others watched, dumbfounded, as she bent down and scooped a generous handful of moist dirt from the ground and began to smear it on the stone facade. Her fingers artfully manipulated the soil, pushing the color around, adding more as necessary, until – and only a short time later – an amazingly realistic image of a spindly monster appeared like a mural on the wall. A second later, the image began to squirm, and it slid limply from its post, sagging and hanging off the wall like a skin – just as Shadow had seen inside.
The others grimaced at the display; the monster shell flopping, half-lifeless on the wall as though the conventions of... anything normal did not apply to its being. And then, unseeing of her own handiwork, Relm continued on her way, wandering listlessly about the courtyard, her eyes focused on something not of the waking world.
“How do we... how do we fight a demon that’s settled into her mind?” asked Terra desperately, picking herself up off the ground. “And might there be something here in the castle controlling her from the outside?”
“The only demonic presence I can sense is coming directly from her,” said Strago. “This leads me to believe there is nothing that can direct us to her captors other than herself.”
“But no magic I have would be able to exorcise her! How do we see what she’s seeing?”
“Through dreams...” spoke Shadow unexpectedly. Sensing on this occasion that he would not be able to get away without explanation, he continued. “I have faced lesser dream-demons myself; they tend to follow me – or prefer me, for whatever reason. I am able to fight them off. She may not be strong enough. Or it’s that these demons are particularly wretched.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said Terra, rather horrified at the thought.
“It’s an oddity not well studied,” said Strago carefully. “Why some are oft afflicted and others never suffer once in their lives. Some consider it a disease or a disorder from within; it’s generally dismissed as simple night terrors, but some suspect it can be blood-related. ...But no matter on the details.” His eyes met Shadow’s somewhat ominously. “Do you think you can connect to her?”
“Put me to sleep; we’ll find out.”
Without further delay, Terra uttered a sleep spell and Shadow’s body fell limp. She laid him gently on the ground while Strago corralled Relm closer to their circle. Then all they could do was wait, uncomfortably and anxiously, and merely hope this shot in the dark would somehow reach its target.
* * *
Shadow found himself wandering through a strangely undulating environment. It was as if the scene could not decide exactly what it wanted to be – a dark forest, or a well-lit museum? The frequency with which it shifted was starting to make him ill. He closed his eyes and tried to focus on one thing. When he opened them, he was standing in the forest, and his stomach was thankful it stayed that way.
But at the same time, he knew this wasn’t where he needed to be. He started forward, and as expected, soon felt a familiar weight on his arm. His bleeding companion clung to him, groaning, asking if the blood that stained both their cloaks was his.
“I don’t have time for this, Baram,” said Shadow, gritting his teeth. He tossed the injured man’s body aside unceremoniously, and somehow, this harsh deviation from ritual stung his heart.
“How could you... just abandon me like this?” Baram choked.
“This isn’t what happened. And this won’t change what happened. I don’t need to relive it every damn night of my life!”
With the force of his words, the scenery shifted, and Shadow was back in the pleasantly warm and bright museum. Fine artwork hung from the walls, and a smattering of well-to-do patrons tittered politely about the room. Unsure of what he should be looking for here, he scoured his surroundings, noting belatedly the swish of a cape behind him. He was still wearing his old clothes from the dream before.
Growing frustrated, he looked for an exit – maybe whatever was of significance here was outside. As he turned around he bumped into a young woman, who apologized and blushed when their eyes met. There was something very familiar about the silky red skirt she wore, and the matching ribbon in her hair. But strangely, though he looked right at her, he could not distinguish a single feature on her face, as if it were blank. (But was it really? He couldn’t tell. This bothered him.)
“I just love these paintings,” he could hear her say airily. “I wish I could collect artwork myself...”
Then the scenery faded, and Shadow was once again dressed in his assassin’s garb. He stood in the center of a village square, but everything looked somehow taller than usual, as though he were seeing it from a child’s perspective. This warped view made it difficult to maneuver and stay on balance at first, but he quickly accustomed himself to it. His feet brought him to a house on the northern edge of town, and without even opening the door, he found himself inside. The blank-faced woman (Her face wasn’t really blank. He just couldn’t focus on it for some reason. That had to be it.) sat in a chair, reading, while a toddler girl, splayed on the floor before her, scribbled on a stack of papers. The shapes she drew were rather sophisticated for her age, and even more remarkably, when she completed an image, it floated off of the paper, into the air and did a little dance. Crooked flowers and pudgy bees wiggled before her eyes and she giggled with each new creation.
“Mommy, draw something!” she said, turning to the woman behind the book.
“Mommy can’t draw like you, Relm,” the woman replied with a smile in her voice. “Your pictures are special.”
Satisfied with this response, little Relm went back to her pen and paper and continued doodling.
Suddenly, Shadow was back outside. But the seasons had changed, and so had his perspective. His view was still warped, but he felt taller this time. He walked east, through a thinly wooded area (Don’t bring me back to the forest...) and came to a clearing. The toddler was now a few years older, and she frowned intensely at a stone grave marker in the ground. Taking a deep breath and a paintbrush from her pocket, she began to wave it in the air, foregoing paper completely by this point and somehow creating her magical pictures in the space before her.
Shadow watched in silence as Relm painted, unable to see any color emerge from her brush but knowing that she was employing a crude form of her pictomancy nonetheless. When she finished and stepped back, no visible image appeared before her, but the ground beneath her feet suddenly shook. She gasped and jumped back. The gravestone toppled over and the soil cracked open. He couldn’t see what she saw, but as she looked by her feet she screamed and cried and ran out of the woods. Shadow turned to follow as the scene started to fade, but he willed it to remain a bit longer.
Relm sprinted into the house at the northern edge of town, shrieking in terror all the way, causing more than a few neighbors to turn their attentions to the girl curiously as she ran. Shadow managed to slip into the house before the door closed behind her, just as Strago – looking ever so slightly younger – descended the stairs to catch her in his arms.
“What is all this about, Relm?” he asked, steadying her.
Between sobs, she managed to confess: “I tried... to paint mommy... and... and...” She was unable to finish her sentence.
Strago shook his head sympathetically as he put an arm around her shoulder. “Never paint the dead,” he warned. “You cannot bring life to that which no longer has it.”
At these words, Relm broke into further sobbing, and the old man held her close. The scene then finally faded for good.
The flickering, twisting environment returned, and it gave Shadow no less of a headache this time either. He swore he heard a sinister giggle echo from somewhere, but, spinning around, he could see nothing but flashing lights and shifting shapes in every direction. Concentrating fiercely, he managed to steady his vision and his surroundings grew dark. He was in a small room, sitting on the edge of a bed – it was nighttime. To his left, the blank-faced woman slept soundly, peacefully, unaware. Shadow picked up the pair of boots on the floor next to him and pulled them on, then secured his old cape around his shoulders. A dog stirred in the corner of the room, standing, looking at him expectantly. He nodded and exited the room in near silence, shutting the door with a soft click just as the dog slipped through to follow.
He was back in the shape-shifting nothing-room. There came another giggle.
Shadow drew a short sword with each hand. He had had enough of being jerked around, and was more than ready to unleash his wrath upon an errant trickster demon.
Suddenly, Relm’s piercing screams filled the space around him. Then he felt like he was falling and when he landed – ungracefully – he was back inside Doma Castle. He cursed, wondering momentarily if he had awakened or not. But, noting that the walls were clean, he figured he was still in the dream, and set off to find Relm once more by following her voice.
The castle shifted constantly, in a nauseatingly surreal manner. In one instant there was sunlight beaming through the windows, and in the next it was dark. The hallways moved. He would exit one room only to find himself back in the same place. It was driving him mad, so finally, he stopped and simply called her name.
Silence. Then coughing. Then a response, but one he wasn’t expecting.
“Sir Cyan?” Relm shouted from somewhere nearby. Her footsteps rang through the hallways and she appeared in a doorway at the opposite end of the room, looking startled. “Shadow?” Without hesitation, she approached the man in black, tears in her eyes. “Sir Cyan – I can’t find him!”
“What’s going on?” asked Shadow, sheathing his swords. The young girl grabbed his hand and pulled him forcefully back in the direction from which she had come.
“We’ve been trapped here for so long,” she rasped, her voice breaking into sobs though she put up a valiant effort to sound strong. “We just came to see his old home, but then there was a flash of light and the land broke off and we floated away… it’s an island now… we’re stuck…” She broke into a fit of coughing. Shadow halted in his footsteps and forced her to stay put so she could speak easier.
“So where is Cyan?”
“I don’t know!” she wailed. “We’ve been here for… I don’t know how long! Weeks! And we’re hungry and this place is haunted!” He waited for her to continue. “He’s been acting weird; he called me ‘Owain’ and he’s talking to ghosts. And he’s crying and I don’t like it when he cries. Men shouldn’t cry.” She wiped a tear from her own cheek. “When I woke up the other morning I couldn’t find him. He’s disappeared.”
And as soon as the words escaped her lips, she too vanished. Shadow was suddenly left alone, and the castle was pitch dark.
“All right, demons… let’s just get this over with,” he growled. Two voices giggled in unison. The sound was infuriating.
With a jolt, Shadow was thrust into another room and his ears were immediately barraged by more frantic screaming.
“No! No, Cyan! Why did you do it? Why did you leave me? Why does everyone leave me!” Relm was flailing around as though she were mad, tearing at her hair, clawing at her face, throwing herself at the walls and in so many ways looking and sounding like a dying animal. “Why-y…!”
Shadow rushed to the girl’s side, but this time, she did not acknowledge his presence. Even when he lifted her by her shoulders, she simply wriggled from his grasp and continued to thrash much like she had done in the waking world. But then, as though she was suddenly struck with an idea, she leapt to her feet and sprinted away. Shadow, growing exasperated but still determined, followed.
Relm led him to the throne room of the castle. There, he discovered the source of her anguish: the Doma Knight, to cease the mental torture apparently brought upon by the ruined castle, had fallen upon his own sword, kneeling forever in a bow of honor before his late king’s throne.
“I can bring you back…” said Relm, her voice strange as she stood beside Cyan. With trembling hands she pulled a paintbrush from her pocket. “I will bring you back. I can do it now. I’m better at it now.” To Shadow’s horror, the girl began to wave it in the air, and just as it had done that time many years before, the magical brush created no colors but painted its picture invisibly in the space between them.
“Relm, stop!” he shouted and ran toward her. But her resolve was set, and nothing Shadow could say or do would distract her from this goal. As she finished, the ground rumbled and shook, and they both watched as Cyan’s body began to grotesquely reanimate. It was all wrong, the way he moved – without any of the fluidity of heaving lungs and warm blood beneath flesh. And at that moment, Shadow realized what was happening. He grabbed Relm in a detaining hold – harsh, he knew, but it was perhaps necessary. She shrieked and Cyan fell back to the floor.
“What are you doing? Let me go!” she yelped and struggled against his grasp.
“He’s not alive. You’re just manipulating his body with pictomancy, and it’s wrong.”
She burst into tears. “I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it!”
The castle walls melted around them and the nothing-room of flashing lights and shapes appeared once more. Shadow loosened his grip and Relm collapsed onto the floor, sobbing in a curled-up ball of arms and legs. Three demon-giggles now sounded, and then erupted into raucous laughter – and as Shadow redrew his swords yet again, the creatures finally showed themselves. They were small and imp-like, with knobby limbs and crooked noses, and faces that looked childish but twisted. They bounded around with infuriatingly chipper energy.
Then without so much as a warning, the three demons concentrated their energies in unison and sent a powerful delta attack barreling toward Shadow and Relm.
* * *
The sun was peeking over the horizon; as the light reached Terra’s closed eyes her head bobbed up as she suddenly awakened. “Oh!” she said softly, rubbing the drowsiness from her eyes. She and Strago had been sitting there for quite some time now, with little sign of action. Shadow’s head was propped in her lap; Relm, now still, was cradled in Strago’s arms.
She looked down at Shadow. Though his face was largely covered, she could see the muscles straining beneath the cloth of his mask. “He’s fighting something…” she said. “Is there nothing we can do to help?”
“Dream-magic is not my area of expertise,” said Strago. “You’re welcome to try, but I cannot advise you on how to enter their dream or how to find them once you get there.”
Terra sighed. The whole idea of it was quite incomprehensible to her as well. She could only hope that Relm’s state of calm as of late was a positive sign. That her friends were being attacked from within – and she, unable to see what exactly was happening or do anything about it – was nearly making her sick with worry.
A long shadow stretched across her face and she looked up to see Celes and Locke finally approaching. They seemed more than a little surprised to find their cohorts apparently lounging around the courtyard at daybreak.
“Happen to know anything about dreams?” Strago asked, in a halfhearted attempt to sound more hopeful than anyone really felt.
* * *
Shadow was struggling badly. The imp-demons were far more powerful than their size suggested, and their delta attacks were brutal. Relm cowered behind him, too distraught to do anything to defend herself or aid in battle – not that he expected her to. The mercenary fingered his last scroll; a lightning spell that he knew would fall short of being truly effective in this situation. After all, the last three he had thrown had merely damaged one demon and healed another.
He had never minded the idea of dying in battle, but this was not the one he wanted to end up pronouncing his demise.
His mind raced to think of anything that could be of use. But they were in the middle of nothing and nowhere, and the only weapons he had were on his person (and rapidly running in short supply). He briefly thought back to his faithful dog, Interceptor – who had not been seen since the Collapse – and wished he were there to fight beside him like old times.
…And suddenly, an idea struck him. He considered the instances in which he had manipulated his own dreams, tiring of the repetitive monotony his guilt-fueled nightmares incessantly inflicted. It was a large part of the reason he had grown to be so dead to the world emotionally – this ability to toss aside the details he cared not for, to mould his thoughts into whatever was most pure and efficient, regardless of consequence. All he had to do was remember that while this conflict may be somewhat physical, it was still largely mental. He was in his own mind as much as Relm’s. With concentration, he could take control – for in truth, these enemies were on his territory.
The scenery steadied and dissolved into a dark forest. Not his favorite place to revisit, but it was certainly and thoroughly familiar. Upon noticing the change, Relm scrambled away to hide behind a cluster of trees, and Shadow leapt into the branches overhead. The three demons grunted in slight confusion as their victim had unexpectedly gained the upper hand, their heads darting around, searching for the man who blended into the shadows.
There was a fluster of energy and a rustling in the flora on the edge of the clearing. A silver wolf stepped into the moonlight and bared its teeth at the demons, saliva dripping from its fearsome jaw as it growled. If the imps expected it to attack, they were mistaken, for the wolf disappeared even more suddenly than it came, and then four dark figures dropped down from above.
...If there were three of them, it was only fair he add a few more to his team too, wasn’t it?
Shadow and his reflections circled the demons, each in a threatening stance, ready for attack. The little imps began to engage their combined power once again, but when they released, their energy happened to be wasted on one of the false figures. In their distraction, Shadow jumped in to deal some real damage with his sturdy blades.
But one reflection down so quickly, Shadow felt he still needed more help. Refusing to believe it ever might not work, he whistled through his teeth with as much confident expectancy as he could muster, and sure enough, a light galloping could be heard racing toward them through the trees. With a speed so great it visibly startled the dream-demons, a muscular, dark-coated canine burst into the clearing like a cannonball and caught one of the imps by the neck. Interceptor thrashed his head wildly, throttling the smaller beast and dragging its body mercilessly over the ground, blood spilling everywhere. And in this second opening, Shadow attacked again.
Their brother now dead, the remaining demons’ anger multiplied, and they threw both man and dog backwards with ease. Shadow rolled on his shoulder and recovered, then jumped back into the tree branches to regroup his remaining reflections and confuse his enemies once more. While still hidden, he concentrated hard, willing the dream to bend to his favor in this fight. Bring him to me, Baram! I know he’ll be there with you. Do me this favor... please.
That’s rich, asking me for a hand, came the response in his mind. I’ll do it for her.
And when he leapt back down to the ground, he landed beside Cyan the Doma Knight, his soul upright and animate, with all the grace and strength he no longer boasted in the waking, living world. He drew his sword, and with the aid of Shadow’s distraction, cut down one more of the nasty imps.
The third, alone and naught without his brothers, attempted to flee, but Shadow closed in and delivered his final avenging blow. And then the woods were silent.
Shadow and Cyan looked to Relm, who had been clinging to a tree trunk in the near distance. The girl’s image began to fade away as she was finally, blissfully released from her nightmare.
Cyan bowed his head deeply and neither said a word for some time.
“I brought this upon her,” the elder man eventually spoke, “by not standing up to it on my own. My actions were shameful.”
Shadow tilted his head away and relaxed his stance, somewhat awkwardly. “All anyone is doing anymore is atoning for their sins. Don’t think you’re alone... I’ve wronged her too.”
Cyan nodded thoughtfully, uncomfortably. “Still, so dishonorable...”
“There’s no use for honor anymore. Just find peace. You’re a good man.” Shadow pulled off his mask in a gesture of trust and the two clasped hands in unspoken gratitude.
“As art thou,” noted Cyan with another bow.
And in the next blink of Shadow’s eyes, the Doma Knight’s spirit vanished.
Chapter title taken from: Florence + the Machine - "Cosmic Love"
Chapter 15: Celebrate This Chance to Be Alive
What followed was a time of recovery, of mourning, of regrouping their spirits. Prior opinions (or lack thereof) regarding the elusive masked mercenary were quietly set aside in unspoken truce – an agreement, a realization that this threat they all faced was indeed a threat for everyone equally. They were all victims as much as they were soldiers. They were to see this to the end, together.
There was something about the encounter in Doma Castle that sobered the entire group. Maybe it was Relm’s age – pity always runs higher for the young – maybe it was the absolute violation she and Cyan had endured (and in the latter case, succumbed to) – but it made them think: this was the worst thing they’d ever witnessed. Previous to this episode, they had thought they’d already seen the worst. What further worsts yet awaited them? The future seemed to hold nothing but disgusting, vile promises.
Bless Relm’s resilience – had the girl been a weaker soul, she might not have survived (even in a figurative sense) her ordeal. The Falcon just barely carried them to Nikeah, where Relm was rushed to the nearest place touting the greatest comforts available, and Daryl and Terra and Strago doted on her the most. She was bathed, she was embraced, she was laid to rest in a soft bed where there was always someone by her side at all times. Sleeping soundly for the first time in none-knew-how-long, she looked quite like a sweet doll, lashes dark and curly hair framing her face and shoulders like a halo.
Before they had left the island, Cyan’s body had been given its proper respects. Locke and Celes had begun to search the fortress for clues or anything, but upon waking, Shadow ordered them away before they could stumble upon any horrors, and did the deed himself, telling the others the knight had left the world with honor and bravery. And so would be his legacy.
* * *
It was a full day and a half before Relm had the strength to sit up in bed. She had been silent and somber in her moments awake; so different from her familiar outgoing disposition. There was mutual worry for her psyche – the girl was fierce for her age, but even Shadow couldn’t know exactly what she had seen and experienced in all the time before they had come to her rescue, and he knew too well the draining effect of persistent nightmares – even lesser ones.
That second afternoon, Terra sat in a chair next to the bed, wherein Relm was just stirring. She opened her eyes and stretched, and after a silent yawn, she scrunched her face suddenly, the heels of her hands shooting to her forehead. She let out a whisper and a croak.
Now at attention, Terra leaned closer to her inquisitively. “Are you okay, Relm?”
The girl tried to speak, but only an odd crackle escaped her throat. She opened one eye and looked at the green-haired woman, who stared, intensely concerned. Then she saw her lips move. But she heard no voice to accompany it. And Relm opened her mouth, expecting the familiar piercing vibrations of a shriek or a scream to rumble through her, but nothing came there either. No voice from Terra, no voice from herself. At least tears were still able to pour from her eyes with ease.
Her breath quickened to hyperventilation, and Terra moved to take her into an embrace. She was too overwhelmed to protest; her head pounded, her ears rang but heard no other sound, her throat ached but could barely pass a whisper itself. She felt as though she were still trapped in her nightmare. And maybe she was.
Others had entered the room at the apparent commotion. Her grandfather was now there, standing next to Terra and leaning in as well. The man with the dog she had always liked was lingering in the doorway.
Terra was now holding her at arm's length, wiping the tears from her cheeks and smoothing her hair out of her line of sight. She steadied the girl, and guided her chin up so that their gazes met. Relm could tell that Terra was now speaking strongly and clearly, but the persistent, agonizing buzz in her ears continued to drown out the woman's voice. Relm shook her head, salty wetness pricking her eyes once again.
Then Strago was handing her a pencil and a piece of paper, to which she had a violent reaction, throwing herself backwards into the headboard of the bed, trying desperately to scoot as far away from the offering as possible, horror emanating from her expression.
Unexpectedly, the man in black stepped forward. He motioned for the old man to put the paper and pencil away, which he did, and Relm relaxed slightly. And then, as Shadow looked to her directly, she felt an even greater calm wash over herself, though she really did not know why. A sensation like deja vu told her that she had seen Shadow recently, though she could not recall any meetings with him since the world had collapsed. She could see the dark irises of his eyes – the only bits of raw flesh visible through his assassin's garb – cold and stony, yet fueled by an intensity that no statue could ever boast. Then after a solemn moment, he reached up to his face and untied the cloth mask that covered his nose and mouth, and he spoke – his words silent to her yet she understood them anyhow –
If you cannot hear my voice, can you read my lips?
Relm nodded. My head is pounding. My ears are ringing, her own lips said, though her voice came out in clipped squeaks and creaks that she did not even hear. There are knives in my throat. She groaned in frustration, one hand clutching her forehead, and the other she raised to an ear. She stuck one finger inside and wriggled it around, hoping it would clear the awful, tinny echo therein. A look of dismay came to her face when she saw she had scraped dried blood from inside of it. “Why?” she croaked helplessly, and everyone could understand her this time.
* * *
They spent over a week in Nikeah. Everyone alternately gave their share of time helping Daryl repair the Falcon and tending to Relm, though even in her weakened state, she was growing weary of the attention. Her loss of voice and hearing were both deemed temporary – and both caused by her own screaming in Castle Doma, reverberating off the walls, perhaps enhanced by vile magic – though her throat seemed to be healing much more quickly than her ears. She could whisper just fine now, at least – it was painful to speak audibly, but as time went on she was at least able to rasp out a full sentence on occasion. Sounds as she perceived them, however, remained but heavily muted mumblings. And the ringing never stopped.
She continued to refuse writing or drawing materials, though it would have made communication easier. And though they tried to be patient, this worried the others – why would Relm, the artist, recoil so violently from her beloved paintbrush? She would not explain... and neither would Shadow.
In fact, Shadow had revealed very little of what he had seen in the dream that night – exactly what horrors did the girl suffer, exactly how did the knight perish. It was this secrecy that fueled Strago's angry accost of the man in black one late afternoon near the Nikeah harbor.
“I know who you are, and I don't care,” the mage spat, in an uncharacteristic display of rage. “She is my granddaughter, my family, and I deserve to know what happened to her. I cannot help her if I know not what plagued her – what continues to plague her! ...Do not disservice her twice.”
At this, Shadow turned around to face the old man.
“Whether it be pride or shame, I tell you: leave it,” Strago continued. “I will not play games with my granddaughter's life. Or her sanity.”
A long silence passed between them – a silence that ticked away at every year of silence that had preceded this; over a decade of abandonment and nonexistence. Ten years of moving-forward-regardless and deadening emotions. So at last, Shadow spoke.
“It is true that even when I attempt to do what is right, simply for right's sake, I often fail. I am so far removed from that which is human that I don’t know how even to act in the company of others. It’s easier for me to say nothing and walk away than it is to bother with feelings and relationships. Is this what you wanted to hear?”
“Then you will not be spared any details.”
Strago folded his arms. “If you're concerned that I am old and faint of heart, you're mistaken. I am old, and you would be surprised to know the things I've experienced in my day, even personally. I did have a daughter too, you know... who suffered hardships of her own, before she succumbed to her untimely death.”
“Well.” It took Shadow a minute to gather his thoughts. And then, shortly, he recounted the nightmare, the true causes of Relm's disturbance and Cyan's death, and the final battle that ended it all. At this, Strago nodded solemnly, and each turned to go about his own way. But at the last moment, Strago retraced his steps and said:
“Thank you for saving her. But don't feel tied to us. If you'd rather go, then do so – release yourself from this feeling of necessity here. You have your own life... and that's fine.”
Shadow had stopped in his tracks as Strago spoke, but never turned around or gestured in acknowledgement. And he did return to the airship as usual that night.
* * *
It seemed as though they had been at a halt for ages before the party finally set sail for Narshe. The winds grew bitter and sharp as they flew north, and even with warmer clothes on hand it became nearly unbearable to stay on the open deck. Daryl kept herself cooped in her control box and entertained a visitor now and again, though for the most part the others stayed below where at least the wind didn't whistle so loudly. They were again relieved to settle on ground a few days later, though it had been tricky finding a spot to land that didn't look so icy. The view was nearly solid white in every direction.
“So we're heading into the frozen mountains with no direction, in search of a mythical sword that may or may not exist. This is awful.” Locke's teeth chattered and he pulled his coat tighter. The icy snowflakes whipping at his face may as well have been tiny blades, and he noticed, with a bit of contempt, that his three companions seemed decidedly less afflicted by the weather. Damn magic-users, he grumbled to himself. It's not fair, they don't have to suffer the same normal inconveniences as us common humans.
But then – he also had to add as an afterthought – the damage that magic could do was, largely, far worse than anything nature could throw his way. It was hard to truly complain now that Relm was on board, still reading lips and swearing off her own powers. She, of course, had stayed behind on the airship, along with Shadow and Daryl. At least Daryl would provide her with pleasant company, he thought.
The group stepped over the old borders of Narshe, the once-great mining city, and paused for a moment to take in the sight of its remains. It looked as if snow had been falling almost constantly for the past year, forming icy shells over the houses and factories. Though winters had always been long up here, it had never been this dreadful – it really was true that the world's climate had shifted since the Collapse. Locke walked ahead and brushed snow away from what he guessed to be the door to a house. (He knew which house it was; it had had a little blue awning and wrought-iron florets framing the windows. He always noticed it when he visited Narshe on Returner duty, though he had never met anyone who'd lived there.) A layer of powdery snow crumbled to the ground as his gloved hand reached a thick wall of glassy ice. He rubbed at it until the surface became clearer – and then he could actually see the iron florets about the small window on the door. He took a step back and shivered not only from the cold. Under the fresh snow, every single building was encased in these clear ice-prisons. He couldn't stop his mind from wandering to the thought that maybe there had been people trapped in the houses before they had permanently frozen over, doors and windows locked by ice.
He looked to the northeast. He knew exactly which unshapely heap of snow and ice up on the hillside was once Arvis' house. For a moment, he was torn between wanting to go up there and explore, and fearing what he might find.
“Can I...?” he began absently, knowing it was foolish to tarry in this freezing wasteland when they had a mission to fulfill.
Strago cleared his throat. “Go on,” he said, as though granting a child permission to go play in the snow. “I'd like to spend a moment to study these conditions anyhow, before we continue too much further.”
Locke began to wade his way through the maze of white-sheeted houses toward the hill upon which Arvis' Returner base was situated. With a quick backward glace at Terra and Strago, Celes followed. They trudged single-file through the snow, boots sinking under their weight at random, at times causing them to stumble on this unkind pathway. It was very slow, arduous going. When they reached the base of the hill, they stopped.
The stairs that had formerly led up the steep slope had been crushed by the snow and ice, and their splinters were long since buried under the same. Even if bare-handed climbing had been an option – which it might have, in Locke's better days, before this frozen apocalypse – the side of the hill, as everything else, was so coated in slippery ice that it would be impossible to make it anywhere. So he stood there and stared, mind as numb as his fingers and toes – wondering what was the point to any of this – coming to Narshe, wandering aimlessly till they perhaps died of hypothermia or worse. Meanwhile, his body shivered uncontrollably.
Celes approached his side, and through the thick layers of leather that shielded (though not very well) his body, he could feel her slight touch on his shoulder. As he turned his head to look at her, he suddenly felt very, very small. He felt like time had lurched backwards, and he was a young boy again, facing a wall he couldn't climb. He was not yet nimble enough, strong enough, clever enough to pass this obstacle. And in his childish mind that was it; it was the end of the world. Give up now; there's no use in anything. He was cold and tired and hungry already – but he did have his hearing, dammit! – and it would have just been a whole lot easier if he'd never even woken up on the solitary island, wouldn't it.
How... disgusting. A scathingly familiar voice sneered inside his head: Traitor! Ingrate! He was the one who deserved to be called all those things and more.
But when Celes spoke – bringing his attention back to the present, the real world – her words were not accusatory, nor were they demeaning.
“You're uncomfortable in this weather. I can warm you.”
He blinked in somewhat surprise, and his eyes focused out of their haze into hers. Only then did he notice how close both her hands were to his face, not quite resting on his shoulders, but hovering over them. He could feel the odd vibration of magic between them – something he could never really get used to – wiggling like an electrical current, feeling dangerous even if the spell's intent was to heal. He heard a whining buzz and then a green light saturated his vision for a few seconds. The wind, though it still nipped at his hair, suddenly stung a bit less. The process repeated two more times. Though the end result was not basking-in-the-sun warm, he was certainly able to cease his shivering.
“What spell was that?” he asked, always confounded by the far-reaching capabilities of magic.
“Just Shell,” she said, and lowered her arms. “I've altered it to protect against damaging temperatures.”
“You can do that?”
Celes gave a faint smile. “Magic is malleable. There's no formula for spells, no mystic chants or recipes that make them what they are. It's a very organic process; one must synchronize the flow of energy within the body and from there it will be shaped into something personal.”
Locke shifted his weight to one leg. “Huh. I don't really understand, but I guess that's why I'm terrible at using magic,” and he laughed slightly.
“It's not very easily taught, either... It must be sensed and felt.”
For a minute, they stood and listened to the thick near-silence of the falling snow surrounding them. Locke tilted his head back and marveled at the sight of the snowflakes, now drifting more gently downwards – more like tufts of cotton than the stinging bits of shrapnel from shortly before – which he could now enjoy that he no longer felt so agonizingly cold. The angry, helpless thoughts had fluttered out of his mind as well, and in this moment he was able to see that there were indeed still beautiful things left in the ruined world. He closed his eyes briefly, letting the flakes land and melt on his eyelids, feeling the cool droplets slide onto his lashes but not overwhelm him with cold. It was strange, but not unpleasant, this magic warmth-shell.
He then noticed – but wondered when his arms had moved so to touch – the feel of something solid under the palms of his hands. With a leisurely glance downward, he saw that he lightly cradled the curve of Celes' hips through all the layers of leather and fur and cloth between them. He then began to wonder when she had gotten so close, but his thoughts were interrupted when her lips met his – softly, testing, shooting-first-and-asking-questions-later – and he was suddenly preoccupied by his own return of her kiss. And in that instant during which they crossed some sort of significant threshold, all the months of longing, all the weeks of tension simply melted away, just as the snowflakes that dared to fall into the path of their hot breaths.
Emboldened by the signal that she was welcome, she shifted and kissed again, with greater intensity this time, and he matched her pace and strength. His hands slid from her hips to her lower back, nudging their bodies closer; she wrapped her arms over his shoulders, behind his neck, catching his long hair between her bare fingers, feeling the heat he now emanated.
He could hear each breath she took, swore he could feel her heartbeat through their cloaks – after all, it raced in tune with his. Perhaps what she had said about magic was not so different from this.
She broke momentarily to gasp for air, and he moved to kiss the corner of her mouth, the curve of her jawline, the side of her neck. He nudged her scarf away with his chin, brushing his lips onto her collarbone, and felt a slight tug on his hair as she clutched at the back of his head. Their lips met once more, somewhat feverishly this time, as though the world were collapsing around them right then, last chance, it all ends after this – and he wished, knowing she was thinking it too, that they were anywhere but ankle-deep in snow, wrapped in their own separate blankets.
They paused, heavy breaths visible in steamy clouds between them. Locke felt something like a magnetic pull to lean back into her – and maybe it was her hands behind his neck, actually drawing him closer – but he hesitated. He gazed at her features – so close he could only focus on one thing at a time – her pale blue irises, glowing with white flame; the tip of her pointed nose, red from cold; her lips, dark and full, lightly parted in anticipation. A rush of genuine happiness and satisfaction coursing through his veins for the first time in... who really knew anymore, and he broke into his trademark crooked grin – the sight of which, offset by his dark, tired eyes and tousled hair, caused Celes to flush.
“I guess we can stop being so careful around each other, eh?” said Locke.
Stop being so afraid, stop feeling so unsure. Stop hesitating, stop the silence, stop the tension. Stop denying.
Her response and agreement came in the form of one last long and gentle embrace, their lips fitting together precisely like shards of something once whole, being pieced back together again at last. Finally separating, grounding themselves and remembering where they were and why, felt nearly like that awful, lonely shattering all over again – but this time they held the pieces in their hands, ready to be puzzled back into place at the next opportunity.
Chapter title taken from: Tool - "Parabola"
Chapter 16: Me and Eternity
It was a different kind of cold inside the caves of Narshe; the kind that preserved, that kept dead flesh from rotting, or at least staved off the spoiling for a time. And that’s what it felt like, walking through the dark man-made hallways – it was if they were exploring a frozen tomb, a vast labyrinth of tunnels that housed old secrets and ancient reminders of life long gone. The air was stale and thin. The ground beneath their feet was, for most of the way, a slick sheet of ice. It had been slow going from the start and there was no sign that the path would ever become easier.
Terra clutched Celes’ arm for support. She was having trouble catching her breath the deeper into the mines they went, as both the stench of death and the pull of something magical grew stronger with each step forward. When they descended a stone ladder through a portal in the floor, Terra became so dizzy that she lost her grip and fell – thankfully caught, if a bit ungracefully, by her sister-in-arms. The party paused for rest at this point.
“Are we getting in over our heads?” asked Locke, helping Celes to steady the slight woman. “Do we have any concrete clues yet?”
Strago circled his staff around himself in that manner he always did when he was thinking. “I am getting mixed signals,” he said. “There is an ancient magic about the air, but its direction is completely indiscernible to me.”
Terra now sat on the ground, back against a cold stone wall. “It’s so strong here, but we’re not even close... it’s overwhelming.”
“I don’t understand... why is it having this effect on you?” Locke was concerned. As Terra had sought out Strago on the Veldt, her strength had never waned. It couldn’t be the act of seeking magic in itself.
The green-haired woman shook her head. “I don’t know... it’s not a malicious aura, but it’s so taxing on my energy to be near it.”
“But you’ve been through these caves before, and this didn’t happen then!” Locke didn’t mean to sound accusatory, but all this vague magic-talk and experience would never be anything but foreign to him. He felt nothing lingering in the air, no pull or push, nor draining of strength. The only thing he could think of to relate was the feeling of an Esper using his spirit through Magicite, but at least that was a straightforward cause-and-effect. Hold Magicite, call Esper, lose energy – this was a logical string of events. Why the same outcome would happen while merely strolling through a mine made no sense in his mind.
“Something new has been awakened since the Collapse,” explained Strago. “It has slept for centuries, but its second time in this world has come.”
Well, he’d heard that before. Death Gaze, Humbaba, the Phoenix Cave and the dragon therein – he really hoped this something wasn’t going to be yet another ancient monster of myth-turned-reality.
Terra signaled that she was ready to continue, so the others helped her to her feet and they trudged on.
* * *
Relm shuffled through Daryl’s stack of sea and star charts, maps and notes listlessly. She was growing bored, trapped on the airship with nothing to do. Though still certainly aggravating, she was getting used to the incessant ringing in her ears, and if reading lips was what she had to do to understand what anyone was saying, well, that was fine too... It wasn’t as though she had a choice in the matter, anyhow.
Feeling a vibration in the floorboards upon which she sat, she turned around to see Shadow approaching. They stared at each other for a moment, until finally Relm croaked out, “Where is Interceptor?”
After a pause, Shadow lowered his mask and said clearly, silently to her: He did not survive the Collapse.
She let out a sound like, “Hm.” And then, “Will you get another dog?”
A companion so faithful is hard to come by.
“Yes... I know.”
Shadow’s eyes darkened. Suddenly there were a thousand things he wanted to say, could have said, perhaps should have said – and so he raised his mask and said nothing further.
* * *
Another agonizing hour of sliding and stumbling through the mines of Narshe had finally brought them to a small clearing outside in a deep mountain valley, where Terra was finally able to catch her breath. Still clinging to both Locke and Celes, she breathed deeply, enjoying the bitter wind that stung her cheeks and ears – it awakened her senses and made her feel alive once again.
And yet, she had grown more ill than ever. Her legs gave out and she would have dragged her companions down with her were she not so small and thin.
“There has to be an Esper involved,” she said, nearly crying in her exhaustion. “He’s calling me, leading us to him, but I don’t know if I can withstand this much longer...”
“Do you think we’re close?” asked Strago, somewhat anxiously. This type of seeking-magic was out of his league; the one who beckoned them was speaking only to Terra.
She nodded weakly, but did not move her legs when the others began to step forward. With a glance at Celes, Locke bent to put his free arm behind the slight woman’s knees and lifted her off the ground in a cradle. Even he was surprised at how light her body was – she had perhaps wasted away somewhat over the past year as well.
Strago was poking around the area with his staff. They were apparently facing a dead-end, unless they had had the means to climb the icy rocks surrounding them – but the mage sensed the undulating sinews of aged magic twirling about the air like invisible vines. After a moment of consideration, a cyclone of powdery snow began to swirl around his body as he conjured a spell, a deep hum like a bestial song emanating from his throat. The others stepped back, Celes shielding Terra with her own body from the residual wind. Just then they heard a loud crack, and a gash suddenly split the sharp ascending slope before them. As chunks of ice and stone began to crumble from its side onto the ground, they came to see a new pathway opening up in the mountainside. Beyond was a dark cave, from within which even Locke could feel the strange and unmistakable vibrations of magic trembling out of the portal.
“That’s a good enough sign for me,” said Strago lightheartedly, and they all headed in.
Once inside, their eyes adjusted to the faint blue glow about the area. They could see that they faced a long and straight corridor; this mountain housed a great, secret chamber, locked away for centuries. Whether friend or foe awaited them at the end, they didn’t know, but there seemed no other option than to walk ahead and meet their fate.
As they neared the end of the path, Terra began to stir. Locke set her gently to her feet and she gingerly took a step on her own. Then she fell to her knees in an apparent bow.
A ghostlike figure appeared, sitting upon a dais, holding a glowing sword – however, the three who remained standing found it impossible to focus their eyes on the sword-bearer. Their vision racked back and forth, ever blurred around the not-entirely-humanoid person meditating before them. It was as if they weren’t allowed to see; this was a sight not meant for humans. They each wondered in turn if they should kneel as well.
But then the figure opened its eyes and acknowledged their presence, and told them without speaking that they should be at peace. Terra raised her head, little ghosts of flame jumping off of her skin though she did not transform.
“You are Esper...?” she asked carefully, reverently. The being stood then, and a wave of ancient radiance poured from his translucent body. Yes, he said, I am the first. The first chimaera of human and beast and magic, created when the wrath of the warring gods crossed paths with creatures of the land. I am the beginning and the end. I am Ragnarok.
He gestured with the blade in his hands. This sword is the Ultima Weapon. It is useless on its own. He stepped down from the dais and presented it to Terra, who accepted it into her own hands – at which moment it immediately stopped glowing. Its power must be conducted through the body of the one who wields it. Its power will come from me.
Terra breathed a word, and as she did so, her body flickered in flame and she briefly looked as though she had taken her Esper form. With this sword I can defeat the gods? ...It is they whom we pursue, isn’t it? she asked.
Ragnarok made a series of movements, all with the languid fluidity of being underwater, the muscles of his face stretching and contracting to a multitude of expressions, though his mouth never opened to speak. In the midst of it, they received a message that silently echoed like Yes, but it was vague and uncertain and they all wondered if their minds were filling in answers for them. Then, clearer again, he continued:
But you must understand the consequence that comes with this. The world will enter a new era.
Terra bowed her head again but said nothing. Ragnarok’s spirit began to melt away and absorb itself into the sword, whose blade emanated a faint blue-white light before fading once again. The party was left in absolute darkness.
* * *
Everything from then on passed by in a blur. A Teleport back to the borders of Narshe – a flight south to the edge of a desert – a trek across a hot sea of yellow sand – an exchange of hugs and greetings and a blissfully filling meal – a long and restful sleep in soft beds. And after everything had settled, the remaining group of Returners – plus Daryl – sat about a round table in the strategy-room of Figaro Castle. The Ultima Weapon, which looked so tattered and unimpressive in this light, lay in the center.
“Here, we formally recognize those who have fallen before us,” said Sabin, standing with glass raised. “To Gau, the selfless; to Cyan, the noble; to Setzer, the brave.” He hesitated. He could feel the weight of everyone’s eyes upon him. So he closed his own as he made his final gesture.
“To Edgar... the great King.”
Eight glasses rose in solitude and drained in memory.
“And to everyone else we have lost along the way; heroes in their own right,” he added quietly.
Strago stood up at this point to relieve the young king. Sabin took his seat, eyes downcast, and adjusted the cape over his left shoulder; the empty space it concealed a reminder that even the survivors had only made it so through great sacrifice of themselves as well.
“You all know why we are here now, and what we are to discuss,” began the old mage, tapping his staff on the fine stone floor lightly. “And while I thank you all to join our conversation today, I will first remind everyone that you are under no obligation to remain with us if you do not wish. There is no use in skirting the fact that we are facing an uncertain fate – death – and I will not send anyone unwilling down that path.”
If he expected a response to this, he received none. So he continued.
“The obvious end is that we – however many of us – must enter the tower to the south and confront that which lies within. There is no way we can know for certain what exactly we will face until the time comes, but it will be something of powerful, ancient magic. We know the Warring Triad is involved; we know Kefka Palazzo is involved. What this mix of old and new, innate and bastard magic has birthed... well, if it could alter the face of the world, one can only imagine what its wrath will be like up close. Leave no regrets behind the day we march, is all I can say.”
Locke made a motion under the table with his hand and was a bit startled when his knuckles knocked against Celes’ halfway. They glanced at each other out of the corners of their eyes, and knit their fingers together firmly.
Shadow’s eyes swept around the room. A mix of emotions could be read on the faces that encircled the dark polished table: resolution, fear, doubt, uncertainty... cheeks flushed and brows furrowed as all attempted to remain stable, but it was a heavy burden they carried. If they failed, it would likely mean the end of all. But even if they succeeded... they all knew there would still be grave consequences – it was just what, exactly, that they did not know.
His gaze rested upon Relm, seated to the opposite side of her grandfather. She, a girl not quite of twelve years, her ears nearly deaf, her voice still largely dumb, somehow looked the most resolute of anyone. It was fury that burned within her, so hotly that it could be felt from a distance to anyone paying the right attention – anger and rage, disgust and contempt – she rightly knew that she had been wronged so many times over already in her short time in the world, and yet she knew that others had had it even worse. Something like vengeance quite radiated from her body. It was a formidable thing to read from one so young.
Shadow felt... pride, as he looked at her – but also heartbreak. She was wildly strong, or would be someday, once she learned to properly manifest her power... But at the same time, he wondered guiltily if she would come about it the wrong way – if she was coming about it the wrong way.
He saw too much of himself in her. She was already going down a path of kill emotions, they just get in the way. And this was the very thing he had hoped to avoid in the first place.
He had failed.
And so he looked away from her.
The old man’s voice broke his reverie. “What needs to be discussed today, is – how exactly do we go about succeeding. We cannot think of the danger. We must put fear aside. How will we end this war in our favor?”
At this, Sabin again made a motion. “I can at least offer something to start. We have discreetly sent scouts in intervals to attempt to gather any information possible about the tower since our last meeting,” he gestured slightly at Locke. “The most basic thing to note is that there does not appear to be any possible way of entering through the base. Though it may sound foolhardy, it may be that the attack must commence from the top down. Which... would require the use of an airship.”
Daryl stood quite suddenly, in a bit of over-eager desperation. “I pledge myself and the Falcon to you. I have no experience with magic or warfare, but in Setzer’s honor, I will do what I can to be of aid and service.”
“Your offer is accepted graciously,” Strago said and nodded.
“I don’t know if it goes without saying,” Sabin continued, “but these plans are not known to anyone but those of us present. I have not informed anyone of my kingdom – advisors or otherwise – that there is a planned attack on the tower. I figured...” he sighed, “it would be best if the thought not burden the minds of those uninvolved. Even if the outcome were to be unfavorable in the end.”
“No, you are right in your thinking,” assured Strago solemnly. “I will be completely honest in declaring that we are facing an ultimatum. If we succeed, then the great victory may be known thenceforth. If we fail, it will likely be the end of life for all as we know it. Let the burden rest on our shoulders and none others... as arrogant as it sounds.”
“But is this truly our right?” Terra’s voice came like a whisper that tiptoed lightly across the table and stopped in front of each person in the room, testing their resolve, questioning their motives.
“My dear, you have a pure and noble heart,” said the old mage. “But I encourage you to consider the words of Ragnarok, your ancestor. This is not our right, but our duty...”
Your duty. But he didn’t want to put such pressure on her.
“But again, strike the thought from your mind if you are able. I encourage you all to think only of victory, and of the future.”
Celes gave Locke’s hand a squeeze before she spoke up. “So, let us form a plan of action. We must exhaust every possibility we can think of and plan to react accordingly. There is no room for failure.”
* * *
The discussion went long into the night. Relm fell asleep in her chair at some point, and Daryl carried her off to a guest bedroom. Strago and Celes were most active in the strategy-talks, though Shadow proved to be a source of wisdom for many of the dead-ends they thought they had talked themselves into. By the time they all finally retired, many hours after the sun had set, they had a tall stack of papers, written notes for plans that would begin to be sorted out the following day. Though exhausted, they all slept in fits till dawn.
Daylight brought no less work, and further difficult was the fact that Sabin was often interrupted to attend to some diplomatic crisis or another within his kingdom. Each time he returned to the strategy room, he looked more flustered than before. At one point, he finally let slip a few curses and confessed that he still felt completely out of his league as he slumped back into his chair at the round table.
“I just can’t handle this... it’s not that I don’t want to; I’m trying so hard... but nothing I do seems to ever fix anything... I don’t know how Edgar did it...” He ran his fingers through his hair anxiously. “It’s been like this since Day One.”
Strago made a move to say something but Sabin cut him off, continuing, “I don’t even know how I’ll get out of here for a day to join you at the tower! It’s like if they discover their king is gone – that they have no sleeves to tug on and complain to – they’ll just implode!”
“King Sabin,” began Strago, and the young man looked at him pleadingly. “Don’t even...” Sabin said, shaking his head.
“Sabin,” Strago corrected, “If your place is meant to be here on that day, then do not worry for the rest. It will be equally important to keep things calm and orderly in the kingdom during the activity in the tower. Even if we were to succeed, if we came home to chaos and panic, it would be nearly as disastrous.”
“I don’t know if I’d put it on an equal level as the destruction of the entire world, but I’ll take your point. …Thank you.” Sabin let out a sigh of relief. Though he still felt a twisting sickness in his stomach. He would have much preferred to be out on the battlefield with his friends, even if it meant his own demise...
“So are you out?” asked Shadow with blunt force. The tension mounted once more.
“We’ve not made any final decisions,” said Terra carefully, eyeing everyone in the room, and lingering her gaze on Shadow. “But if it is determined that Sabin’s most effective place is back here in Figaro, then he will stay to keep order among the citizens.”
This answer seemed mercifully to be acceptable. The storm was again calmed for the time being.
* * *
Another day of strategizing, another long day spent shut away in the little room, projecting, guessing, arguing about what could be done in a situation that they were, in the end, going to approach rather blindly. By the end of the evening, a concrete plan still had not been made. The general thought creeping into everyone’s minds was that by this point, they were simply staving off the inevitable. But tensions were running so high that they couldn’t just let it go as it was. And so the next morning, they planned to meet again and talk further.
Sabin was growing wary at the whole thing. He could tell there were rumors beginning to spread through the castle – who were these people, why were they holding secret meetings for days on end with the king – and he was equally afraid of anyone jumping to false conclusions as much as he didn’t want them suspecting the truth. Midway through the fourth day, he was about to excuse himself, lest his advisors start to revolt – when two of them boldly interrupted the private talks before he could even make the motion to leave.
“My liege, we apologize for entering uninvited,” began one breathlessly, a man perhaps a few years younger than the king himself. Sabin waved his formalities off and bade him continue. The advisor gulped and announced, “South Figaro has been targeted by the Light of Judgment. We have no reports on the death toll yet, but the messages we’ve received by carrier pigeon are frantic.”
The color quite drained from Sabin’s face. “T-tell them we’ll be sending aid immediately,” he said, stumbling to his feet. “This is my absolute priority now.” He seemed to be saying it as much to himself and the Returners as he was to his advisors. The two young men bowed quickly and hurried out of the room, knowing they had authority to begin organizing relief efforts on their own. Sabin hesitantly glanced back at his companions still seated around the table, who all stared with a mixture of sympathy and unease.
Locke’s thoughts flashed back to his abysmal stint in Tzen with the meager relief convoy from Albrook. But his mind being far clearer now than it was back then, and having been actively participating in strategic discussion for the past three days, the gears in his brain switched easily and he leapt to his feet. Though it had not been quite as frantic in the past, he had been here before. He had thrown back and forth ideas with Edgar when the Empire was talking about encroaching upon South Figaro, and then again when Imperial troops had eventually occupied the city. He had been there for many of Edgar’s great political decisions; they had been a formidable team in secret. The joke – of course an exaggeration – had always been that Figaro Kingdom was actually being governed by a vagrant from the Far North.
“I could officially employ you, you know, if you’d just apply for citizenship in Figaro,” Edgar had said once, filling his own glass with the cheap wine that Locke preferred. “I think I can guarantee you’d be naturalized; I know the guy who signs the papers,” and he laughed.
“Nah,” Locke had said, refusing the offer not for the first time. “Less responsibility this way. I can always cut out whenever I want.” He grabbed the wine bottle with a wink. “It’s okay, you can take the credit so long as I don’t technically have to follow your rules.”
“Are you hunting treasures on my land again, Cole?”
Locke just smiled innocently as he watched the burgundy liquid splash into the bowl of his glass.
He really missed those days.
But in their honor, he stepped forward now. “The rest of you, finalize the plans for the Tower. We ride tomorrow morning,” he declared, and then turned toward the anxious king. “Sabin, let’s talk outside. Can you come too, Daryl? We’ll be back before nightfall,” he added to the others as the three of them left the room. And so, the countdown to the final confrontation began.
* * *
Relm sat frowning before the vanity mirror in the guest bedroom she had been sharing with her grandfather. She awkwardly tried to braid her hair, but it was so thick and curly that the result was hardly worth the effort. “I should cut this. It’ll just get in the way,” she squeaked, her voice still clipping off in whispers. She saw, through the mirror, Strago look up at her inquisitively. Now, Relm... his lips began to say to her. She immediately scrunched her face in anger.
“Don’t even tell me I can’t come along!” Her words rasped and croaked even worse when she tried to yell. In truth, most of the time others had to read her lips to understand her as well. “Is that what you were going to say?”
Strago couldn’t even respond. He simply gazed at her sadly.
Tears welled in the corners of her eyes as she whipped around to face him directly. “Do you have no faith in me? Do you think I’ll just get in the way? I understand what’s happening; I’m not stupid. You’re convinced that tomorrow we’ll either save the world or destroy it completely. I know I’m not very strong, but I’m not going to be left behind. I’ll not be left alone anymore!” Then she burst into tears.
Strago knelt on the ground before her and steadied her shoulders. He waited for her to wipe her eyes clear so she could see him speaking. At this short distance, she could hear a faint and muddled murmur under the relentless drone but it was still the movements of his mouth that held any meaning to her.
Dear Relm, my granddaughter – I only want to see you safe. Please understand the reason for my rules and actions in the past. You are my family; my life. However, I understand that what we face now is something different altogether. So... yes. You may join us. I would want to be with you to the end, if it were the end after all.
They looked each other in the eye for a moment. Then Strago continued.
You are young... But you are mature and resilient and strong for your age. Forgive me if this has been hard for me to comprehend at times.
Relm nodded in acceptance.
The way you have adapted and recovered from your hardship recently has alone proven that many times over. I’m proud of you, Relm. I’m so very proud of you.
Tears again pricked at her eyes, but she blinked them away, so as to be able to continue to “hear” clearly.
But understand this: if you truly resolve to join in battle tomorrow, you must fight.
She nodded again.
Pick up your brush.
It was then that she hesitated. Up to this point, she had still been refusing to paint or draw.
This is your specialty; your power. This is how you fight. You can be very strong – but you must realize that you control this power; not the other way around. Pick up your brush.
Ferocity shining in her eyes, she reached over and resolutely grasped the ivory-handled paintbrush lying on the vanity.
* * *
Sabin was in South Figaro, directly attending to his wounded citizens and the floundering leaders of the city. Having eased the king’s anxiety with sound and sane advice, Locke had shipped him and a party of men and women and chocobos from the castle off to the Second Capital by way of the Falcon. He and Daryl turned immediately around to rejoin the Returners and prepare for the grave day ahead. As promised, they returned just as the sun was setting and the desert was beginning to cool off for the night. The crimson sky overhead, tinged with purple, never looked so ominous.
After their own talks had settled, the small band of warriors parted ways to deal with their impending fate in their own manner. Twisting, gut-wrenching nausea prevailed, even among the most seasoned stoics of the group. This could very well be their last night alive – and not just for themselves, but for everyone left in the ruined world. All were finding it impossible to focus on a future-after-victory, as Strago had advised. For all they knew, this was it. Make tonight count. Enjoy now the feeling of breath in lungs, the pulse of blood through veins; it may all be stopped and spilled tomorrow.
Terra found that she could not keep herself still. She wandered the castle, pacing its vast corridors, running her fingers along the cool and rough texture of its stone walls. She wanted to marvel at every sensation, appreciate every experience for what it was, but even this felt more overwhelming than calming. Bare-footed, she wiggled her toes over a fine carpet in the throne room, then shuffled over to a chilled marble floor and felt her skin glide over its surface. She thought of where she could go next – there was sand outside to filter through – but, regretfully, she could not trudge through dirt or feel the tickle of grass here in the middle of the desert. She would have to remember the last time she’d experienced this and remember it fondly for now.
In her meandering, she came across Celes at some point in the afternoon. The taller woman’s face looked quite pale, the skin below her eyes sagging. Her posture was not so stiff as usual; her shoulders rounded, her chin down. She looked as though she had just emerged from battle, not that she were on the eve of one.
Terra took both her hands into her own. The electrical vibrations of magic buzzed lightly between them like a kind massage, and Celes closed her eyes.
Neither wanted to say a word. No thank yous or remember whens or anything that would hint at the finality of the situation they faced. Just silence, and the soft hum of magic. That was enough.
Terra lifted one of Celes’ hands to her lips and kissed it. Then she looked up at her sister-in-arms and smiled. “I’m glad to fight by your side,” she finally said.
Celes responded with a faint smile that the other woman could read more in her eyes than her lips. Then they parted ways.
* * *
Up on the Northeastern tower of the castle, Shadow sat in meditation. He wholly considered this to be his last night in the waking world regardless; the climax and ending to his story. He cared not for what happened after tomorrow. Death – even restless death – would be more peaceful than anything life had to offer. He hadn’t settled any scores, hadn’t righted any wrongs, in his mind – but he no longer cared (if he ever did in the first place). It was the end, ready or not, and he would be gone forever in a few short hours. Fulfill this last mission to the best of his ability, and lay this body to rest.
He counted every breath without number, felt the air suck into his chest, fill his lungs, race to his heart, and rush out again. He felt the breeze on his cheeks, rustling his uncovered hair. This naked exposure to nature – something he had avoided for so many years – was, though he would be loath to use the term – the most spiritual thing he had experienced in... perhaps, ever. For the first time since he could remember, he found himself appreciating the beauty in everything around him. The rolling sand dunes for miles before him, a lovely sight. The cool air that made the hairs on his arms stand at attention, a thrilling sensation.
If he slept where he sat, he didn’t notice. He felt lucid under the dim light of the stars above in the clear, crimson sky. These last hours were blissfully nightmare-free.
* * *
Daryl had decided to spend the night aboard the Falcon, alone. She bade Locke good-night and watched his chocobo gallop back toward the fortress in the distance. Then as she looked around, perched on the tip of the bow, she felt as though she were the only person left in the world. So much emptiness surrounded her – but somehow, it was more beautiful than ominous. No companions, but no enemies, either. Just sky and sea and land, fading gently into the shadows as darkness fell. She gazed at the stillness, listened to her own pulse beating, and finally, it overwhelmed her. Tears poured down her cheeks and the sound of her little sobs seemed to carry for miles and never return in echo.
“I could’ve done so much more in my time,” she said to herself and no one. “I could’ve done great things too.”
She stretched herself along the wooden rail nimbly, shuddering with dizziness as she turned onto her back and faced the stars.
“I do hope you meant it when you said you’d forgiven me, Setzer. I don’t deserve it, but I still hope it’s true. I’m still as big a coward now as I was when I left you. I’m scared. I have faith in your friends but I’m... just... terrified.”
She covered her face with her hands and the skin beneath her palms felt hot and slippery with tears.
“I love this life. Even it’s messed up. I don’t want to die tomorrow.”
She wished she weren’t alone in the end. But she couldn’t have passed these hours with anyone else.
* * *
The castle felt strangely quiet upon Locke’s return. He could hear his own footsteps reverberating loudly through the hallways; passed hardly a soul as he walked toward his guest-quarters. Castle Figaro, suddenly a ghost-town: this hit harder than anything up to this point. Void of friends, void of allies – no... they were nearby. They had simply lessened in number. Nevertheless, the surreality of it all made him feel as though he were intoxicated, the corridors melting and shifting ever so slightly as his feet carried him through.
He was tired. He – as everyone – had hardly slept over the past few days, and he didn’t expect much sleep tonight either.
And yet, as he reached his room, he was okay with this – having been greeted by a frantic tangle of limbs and cloth and racing heartbeats. Hair and fingers wove together, skin glistened with feverish sweat, an undulating connection made among a sea of knotted bedsheets. And the silence of their surroundings was made all the more noticeable when pierced by cries of desperate ecstasy – leave no regrets behind the day we march – well, none was a tall order, but they were making certain the list was quite shortened. Testing, yet barreling forward; fluent, while taking haltering steps – it was all as imperfect and strange as it could have ever been, and yet it was the most wonderful end – if end it shall be.
And as they lay on their backs, window-filtered moonlight spilling over the rise and fall of their chests, they, at least, could spare a minute to think naught of impending death and destruction – satisfied in stealing another moment for selfish indulgence as they turned and explored each other’s lips once more. But languidly this time – as though the fury had calmed, peace had been made with their destinies.
She lightly twirled a lock of his hair between her fingers; his hands meandered up and down her bare back. Tanned skin, glowing – she was still golden all over, even unclothed, as this. Her hands were calloused, a few faint scars dotted her body, and she was still at a loss for words, as though wrangling her deepest thoughts and emotions into coherent sounds were more fearsome a task than leading an army to war. And he, a man of stories, who voiced too much of himself at times, was at last finding comfort in the silence, listening instead for the things unspoken that vibrated like a spell between them.
It was, perhaps, a touch of magic that accompanied her kiss after all. Her lips tingled with a sudden iciness, as though they were standing back in snowdrifts of Narshe, and it sent a slight shiver down his spine. He pulled her closer, and he watched a small spark jump from her fingertips out of the corner of his eye. The wiggling hum of electricity lulled him to sleep and continued to tremble excitedly until she, too, was finally able to close her eyes and rest.
* * *
Shadow’s eyes burned in the dry desert air. Still perched atop his tower, already having watched the sun set hours before, he was now anticipating its return on the opposite horizon. The morning sky was beginning to lighten, gradients of orange mixing in with the red. He wondered if blindness would be worth witnessing this last sunrise in full, knowing, in the end, it would not.
That such a thing existed at all, and that there were appreciative eyes by which to view it, was enough.
He shifted his position to better face the birth of the day. It was then that he noticed a small figure sitting on the tower to the northeast. The edges of her wavy green hair shimmered in silhouette. At this distance, he couldn’t read the details of her face, but he knew she had been watching him. So he nodded simply in acknowledgement, and settled in for the show. Then she turned to face the morning sky as well and waited for the warm light to cleanse them of this darkness.
Chapter title taken from: Týr - "Ragnarok"
Chapter 17: Ruin
The weary soldiers readied themselves that morning and somberly gathered on the deck of the airship. Something about each of them had noticeably changed overnight, even if it wasn’t a physical transformation. Most outwardly visible was young Relm’s appearance: as she’d suggested, she had indeed taken a blade to her hair and cropped it quite short, so that it now crowned her head like a curly, blonde bonnet. Still relying on her eyes and other senses over her ears, she wanted nothing to get in her way and muddle her awareness. The new style aged her, and her expression of determination made her look as mature and battle-ready as any of her companions.
Terra clutched the tattered sword of Ragnarok, sheathed and tied to her belt in waiting. The fact that she felt nothing from it – no buzz, no aura of magic – did little to instill confidence within her, but she knew she would have to trust the old Esper’s prophecy. For regardless of all their talks, all their strategizing and planning, she knew it would come down to the Ultima Weapon, and her hands – pulsing with Esper blood – wielding it.
There was no need for words this morning. So when everyone seemed as settled as they could be, Daryl fired up the engines of the Falcon and they ascended into the great eternal sky. Course set south, they settled in for a long and agonizing wait as the ship carted them across the vast oceans toward the Old Imperial Continent.
* * *
Circling above the crooked tower, each had their first true glimpse at what lay before them. A mosaic of ruins – pieces of Vector fortress, shrapnel of Imperial weaponry, petrified tree limbs and crumbling rocks from the once-surrounding mountains – reconstructed and reshaped into this massive ode to itself, this idol of godly power and oppression. And as they hovered over it, they knew that at any moment, if that which sat upon the throne within so desired, the Light of Judgment could sweep into the atmosphere and strike them down. But the air was still, save for the cyclones about the airship’s propellers, and they took it as a sign that they were being beckoned inside. A great crane, situated at the tower’s crest – which many recognized as having once nested beside Vector’s Magitek Research Facility – suddenly rose to life and whirled around like a spindly, mechanical finger, drawing its thick-linked metal chain in a slow circle. For a moment, they just watched and wondered if there was more to it than this.
Daryl breathed a hiss through her teeth. “Thanks to this, I can’t deliver you directly. The Falcon isn’t so agile as to avoid that thing...”
“Lower the ladder from here,” said Shadow. “We can climb down the crane.” At this, the others couldn’t help but glance nervously at both Relm and Strago, who, while useful in straight battle, weren’t quite physically suited to such a task. As if answering their unspoken questions, Shadow produced two stones. “These are the last two that I have. Engage the scouts when I signal that the bases are in place.” And he handed them to the Thamasians.
Daryl dropped a rope ladder, and Shadow nimbly slid down the side, balancing himself onto the tip of the crane’s nose. Considering his options, he then lowered his legs over the metal beam, grasped the chain, and shimmied down until his feet reached the roof of the tower.
Before taking a deep breath and following suit, Locke passed on the signal from below that the two bearing Warp Stones could join the mercenary on the tower. Celes went next and Terra last, though not before giving Daryl a quick embrace.
“Go somewhere safe, now,” she said, her hand lingering on the taller woman’s shoulder. “Thank you for all you’ve done for us; we’d never have gotten here if it weren’t for you. We’ll… be back…” Then she turned and descended before fear and uncertainty could have a chance to brandish their claws and sweep her away.
The captain watched her last passenger glide into hell, and then, regretful that she could do nothing more useful, steered the airship away where she would perch at her telescope and wait.
* * *
Inside was a horrific amalgamation of everything physical that had once represented the world, emulsified by hatred and magic. As previewed from the outside, they could see that the whole tower was constructed out of shards of humanity; buildings, houses, machines – torn apart, packed together like a chaotic puzzle. Skeletons of men and beasts embedded in the walls; brittle flora reached out limply for sunlight that would never touch them. And as they wound their way through the labyrinth – separated into groups of two from the start – they discovered where all the strongest monsters had been hiding all along. It seemed as though only in here did they thrive, nourished merely by the nearby magic so powerful it saturated the air all throughout the tower.
They were resilient, for now. Fueled by adrenaline, anger and hope, the Returners rose to the challenge and cut down their foes as they barreled forward. But they would grow weary in time, and once they reached what certainly had to be near the end, each team would find they faced a fearsome battle before they were even reunited as a group.
The Demon, the Fiend and the Goddess – projections of the ancient gods, represented by the statues – mobilized and descended upon the freedom fighters who dared oppose them. Their forms were like nothing these humans had ever seen before – archaic beyond imagination, hardly done justice by their smaller, stone idols, and radiating power and glory in such a way that their enemies nearly wondered if they should continue to fight or prostrate themselves in humiliation.
But they fought; they fought for life as they knew it, for their friends who had died fighting before them, and for the future of their world, however ruined it might be in its current state.
And if they lost, or if they gave up, it would all be for naught. So they refused to submit to these creatures of destruction that had done nothing for the world in over a thousand years. It was not the gods’ place to rule; it was not their right to judge mankind.
Nor was it Kefka’s. And as the three gods eventually succumbed to these mere mortals, the Returners knew they had not yet truly faced their ultimate power.
They were gathered in a great steel hall, together but still segregated by glass barriers, through which they could see each other but not even truly regroup one last time before crossing the threshold to the End. They granted themselves a long moment to rest and heal, and all – sitting or leaning on something or someone for support – finally felt exhaustion begin to set in. Seeping wounds were tended to, weapons were wiped clean, dwindling supplies rearranged, and then... it was time to take that final deep breath of courage and open the doors before them. Strago guided his granddaughter – of whom he was so proud today, as she utilized her strange brand of magic with more finesse than ever before – hands on her vaguely-shaking shoulders, to face the ominous portal on the right. At the opposite end, Celes tightened the bandanna around her forehead and messily tied her hair back. Next to her, Locke twirled a dagger between his fingers absently. Still they said nothing to each other, even in this moment of finality – as they had refused, in just as few words before, to acknowledge that there was anything Final about this after all. Even if they didn’t believe it, there would be no premature good-byes, and so when they noticed Terra pull herself to her feet on the center platform, Shadow straightening himself nearby, they exchanged a look of resolution and nothing more.
Terra’s fingers wandered to the sheathed sword at her hip, but she did not draw it at this time. She simply engaged the lock on the door and at once, all six of them stepped... outside.
How this could be, they didn’t know. All this time descending deeper and deeper into the lower regions of the tower, and yet the platform onto which they at last crossed felt as though they were standing on the edge of a tall cliff, a throne of rock and bone and metal before them. Surrounding it on three sides, the statues stood, immobile once more, but somehow even more menacing than they had been just an hour before, ambulant, in battle. Blue-white snakes of electricity jumped from their forms, beautiful and terrifying at the same time. Behind even the statues and the throne, a massive, pulsating spire of sinews and vines twisted toward the sky – which, for the first time as anyone had seen in a year, was a cloudless, starless black. Entwined among the spire were humanoid figures, still as statues but posed with all the grace of living beings. And yet, it wasn’t this whole display at which the Returners gaped.
The throne itself was empty. Crumpled before it lay a pile of bleached skin stretched over bones and limp, pale hair. Dumbstruck and staring, they all wondered if this was truly the body of Kefka Palazzo, nearly skeletal, motionless, his waist merely draped with a cloth of royal indigo. But if they’d honestly had any doubt, his trademark red tattoos – faded but still prominent, confirmed his identity unquestionably.
Celes could not restrain herself from letting out a strange, strangled cry. She approached the body without a second thought and dropped to her knees beside him, where she could tell, by the movement of his eyes, that Kefka was, in fact, still alive. Her hands shook in hesitation, as though she were afraid to touch this grisly creature. Was it a trick? Was she simply too horrified?
And then she saw moisture well up in the corners of his eyes and tears slid down the sides of his sunken cheeks. Shakily, she lifted his head and upper body into an awkward cradle, her own breaths coming in sharp and irregular.
“Wh... what...” she stammered, unsure of which questions to ask. She had gone into this knowing he was her enemy, and yet, she couldn’t stand to see him in such an undignified and grotesque position. Any spark of magic once within him was gone. He was a shell, drained and powerless, tossed aside by the power that he himself had awakened.
“Anything I could possibly say wouldn’t be enough,” he croaked, his voice barely a whisper, and at this, tears dripped from Celes’ eyes too. “So I’ll say nothing, except... that this is all meaningless.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, her question grasping at more boundaries than anyone had time to explore in this moment.
“Life is meaningless, love and happiness – they’re all worthless pursuits. We live and we struggle and we die, and for what end?”
Celes tried to blink her vision into clarity, but at the same time, she wished not to see Kefka’s withered face.
“Nothing,” he concluded, closing his eyes. “It is better to eradicate it all and stop this frivolity.”
“That’s not true,” she hissed, her emotions achingly torn in two.
Kefka retorted quickly despite his weakness. “What meaning is your life? You were a drone as much as I, until I broke away and decided to end it all on my own terms. You could have joined me. Maybe together, we could have withstood their power.”
“And-and ended up like this? How do you think you are better off than me, right now?” Celes shook her head as Kefka let out a faint, rasping chuckle.
“The gods... overtook me... They wouldn’t listen to me even as I freed them, restored their power. But they will kill you all as I would have anyway, and soon I will die too, and then... the world will be clean.”
“What right have you to decide that my world is meaningless? Even superficial meaning... is worth living and fighting for,” she choked.
“I take it you’ve found someone,” Kefka said, his words growing slower and more haggard. “How quaint. I truly had thought you were above such trivial things, my dear. I am... disappointed.”
Her face streaked with tears, she managed to force out, “So am I.”
“Nevertheless, I would be honored to die by your traitorous hands. Please... I tire of this.”
Celes let out a sob and at the same time, a wave of energy pulsed over the group, accompanied by a deep rumble. The snakes of lightning about the three statues intensified in strength and frequency.
“Don’t be so weak,” whispered Kefka, a twinge of malice in his voice even now.
“Your arrogance masks your own weakness,” she said, sputtering. “You hate that you’re alone in the end.”
The once-great man gazed up at his former cohort for a moment before he spoke his last. “Put me to rest, then, and I’ll be with you.”
Another pulse caused the ground to shake this time. The others, watching stunned from behind, were thrown off balance. Straightening themselves, they cautiously readied for battle.
Celes wailed, a terrible sound, as she froze the blood in Kefka’s veins, forever ceasing his pulse. She had been prepared to take this man’s life if necessary – but not like this. This was heart-wrenching despair; this was twisted cruelty. Kefka was a broken man, and she would be the only one to have ever pitied him. And maybe she and everyone else would still die anyway, because of him.
She was given no time to mourn, no chance to recoup, for in the next instant, a blast resembling the Light of Judgment rained down and threw her body backwards with shocking force. She flew into the wall of doors from which they’d arrived, and a starburst of blood exploded onto the stone behind her head as it made contact. Locke rushed to her aid as she slumped, unconscious, to the ground.
In a flourish of grandeur, the spire beyond the throne began to writhe, and the statues began to crumble to a fine grain. As though the gods had been resting inside stone moulds, they suddenly appeared in full color as the dust swept away. What the Returners had fought before had not truly been the gods’ final forms – they knew this – and yet, it was sickening to have it confirmed. What stood before them now absolutely spewed forth magic and fury, and they were nearly knocked down by its aura alone.
Such arrogance you possess, to face us in opposition, came an echoing voice. It sounded at once like a whisper and a screech, and even Relm could hear it clearly. She leaned back into Strago’s body, and he rested his hands on her shoulders.
“What is your aim? Why do you strike our brothers and sisters down?” Terra had stepped forward and flames were beginning to flicker about her hands and wrists.
You are all vile creatures. Humans have lost all regard for those who gave them life. You have no humility whatsoever.
“The actions of the loudest few cannot speak for us all. We are here today because we love this world and we want to protect it.”
Yet you dishonor your masters.
At this, Terra snarled, and the flames leapt higher. “You have lain dormant for a thousand years; this may seem like nothing to you but the world has moved on since then. You are irrelevant to this generation; you have nothing to do with us anymore. You have no right to pass judgment on us today.”
An awful, cackling laughter followed. Waif, you are as arrogant as the nihilist who just died before you. Do you not understand that we are gods?
“If you mean only to destroy us, then we shall never respect you!” And as she drew her sword, her body engulfed itself in flame, transforming into the fiery Esper. The blade of the Ultima Weapon seemed to have grown in the metamorphosis as well, and it glowed with the same blue light as it had in Ragnarok’s hands back in the cave of Narshe.
Oh, Esper, that you are fighting for the sake of the humans is even more laughable. Do you not know your own companions?
With a movement of the Goddess’ wrist, Celes’ body began to lift off of the ground. She opened her eyes, barely conscious, and Locke, clinging to her, was levitated as well. The others watched with a mix of projected shame and terror as the two were put on display above them.
This woman wields the magic of your people, drawn from them by force. Your own relatives were tortured and killed so that she, greedy human, could harness their power for herself. And this man, selfish in his own right, tried to cheat death, wished to return terrestrial life to that which had already lost it in the natural order of things. They are both disgusting, wretched beings. And you defend them?
“You don’t understand humanity...” Terra retaliated, her voice never faltering. “We are all imperfect, we can all be terrible. But we can still love regardless; we can forgive and move on.”
Imperfect... terrible... it stung like a poisoned barb, especially for the fact that it was all true. Locke felt his fingers slip away from Celes, disgusted with himself, embarrassed at this exposure. Celes rolled her head around, weak with exhaustion, hoping to meet his gaze, but his eyes were turned away.
And what about those who refuse to change? Who wear a mask under the guise of caring, yet perpetuate their cycle of abandonment and disregard for others?
Locke and Celes were dropped unceremoniously to the ground and Shadow’s feet lifted into the air.
“It is easy for you to pick out our flaws, but you don’t see our complete stories, our entire lives, and every thought and dream and emotion that comes with it. You are spiteful gods! Your words are futile. I shall never turn my back on these people.”
Growing disinterested in talk, the Goddess released Shadow, and even his sharp reflexes couldn’t keep him from landing harshly as well.
Then you are a fool, and so is the Esper who fathered you, for involving himself with a human in the first place. The Espers were our beautiful children, destroyed by the jealousy of humans who knew not their own place, and now you, the last of their kin, are siding with the inferior half of your bloodline.
Terra snarled. “I speak for the Espers when I say they don’t want you either. By this sword of Ragnarok, your firstborn, I will strike you down!”
Leaping into the air with flight, Terra swung the blade at the Fiend and slashed off the first two of his hands. The god roared and reared back, surprised and wildly furious at the real power of this dissenting bastard-daughter. With a beat of his leathery wings, he knocked the small creature back to the ground, sword fading and clattering by her side.
Silently, slowly, Relm had been inching away from the scene until she hid among a small quarry of rocks. Strago, thinking she were fleeing in fear, had not stopped her. But contrary to this misjudgment of her character, her ivory paintbrush was steadily in hand, and she was conjuring a spell in secret. She knew she could not mimic or control a being of such magnitude, so she focused solely on one part... and as she painted the finishing touches of her invisible image, the lower arms of the Demon grasped his massive axe and swung it at the ankles of the Goddess.
The Goddess shrieked in agony, and Relm nearly jumped when she realized her complex pictomancy had been successful. Strago and Shadow both whipped around to look at her, wide-eyed, and she grinned.
“Well, let’s fight, damn it!” she shouted, loud and clear.
Just then, the pull of gravity reversed itself and they and everything around them began to float upwards. The gods disappeared and the Returners were ungraciously reminded of the sinewy spire in the near distance. Its embedded creatures writhed and grasped at them, fired spells and swiped with sharp claws in their direction. They fought a strange battle, slowly being drawn upward, unable to ever completely orient themselves with no solid ground on which to place their feet. And even stranger, as they neared the top, exhausted, the bust of a veiled lady raised her eyes and looked directly at Terra – and in them the Esper could read a kind of sorrow or pleading, and suddenly a soothing white wind eased over everyone’s tattered bodies. They arrived at the gods’ battleground – an expanse of hellish paradise – invigorated and determined.
Without so much as a warning, the Demon swung his axe of his own accord this time, causing the Returners to scatter. Strago began to conjure spells of assistance, and Terra, sword at the ready, felt her pulse quicken. Her speed and strength accelerated, she flew in circles about the Demon, and he, disoriented, flailed his axe wildly. On the downbeat of his attack, she deftly cut off his feathered wings.
Enraged, the Demon sent a massive Flare spell toward the party. To this, Celes stepped forward and braced her Runic sword over her head, and the entirety of the spell whirled around her and absorbed itself into her sword. She was unused to withdrawing such powerful magic, but she stood steadfast, and Terra again attacked in the opening left for her by the gods’ confusion.
The team fell into sync like a well-oiled machine. Shadow defended Strago and Relm as the old man summoned his lore and the girl bewildered the gods with bouts of manipulation. Celes continued to draw the enemies’ magic into herself, but they threw spells so powerful she was quickly overwhelmed – so Locke stood behind her in support, clasping her hands within his own, and offering his body as a reservoir.
“Let go!” Celes shouted over the din, half turning her head to face him. “You’ll get hurt!” An understatement.
“That’s the idea – so you don’t get killed.”
He witnessed the icy flame ignite behind her eyes again. But the fact that it had faded, before, rather disturbed him in a moment when he should have only had to focus on the battle before them. He knew she had been disregarding her own life as she launched herself into the relentless succession of Rune magic, and he couldn’t entirely believe that it was solely for the sake of protecting the others.
She stared at him for a moment, expression grim yet apologetic, before turning her attention back to the events at hand. And the next spell that passed through her shocked Locke’s body as well, and he felt his blood scald his veins. The attack that followed was cooler, but left him nauseatingly dizzy and with blurred vision. The third stopped his pulse for an instant that dragged on for an eternity, and when he came to he and Celes had both fallen to their knees. Though shaky himself, he could feel that her body was trembling violently.
“You have to stop!” he gasped, expecting his stomach to turn inside out at any second. “Celes...!”
She doubled over, clutching at her chest and grinding her teeth. She began to groan in between heaving breaths.
“I’m... going...” But she was unable to finish the thought before all the energy that had gathered within her began to spark in her breast. And before anyone could process what was happening, it exploded like a bomb, a great blue-tinted demi-orb expanding about her body with the speed and force of a tidal wave. The miasma engulfed all – friend and foe alike – but it was only the three gods who writhed in agony at its touch.
With a blinding flash, the aura dissipated. What followed was an ominous silence, like dust settling.
You blasphemous, ignorant creatures... Your desire for independence will bring about your own downfall...
Terra looked absolutely haggard; she had been taxing her strength to the limit by remaining so actively in her Esper form and wielding the mystical sword. Yet she dragged herself still forward, her resolution set, and with a final boost from Strago, she leapt and slashed off the head of the fiend. She laboriously delivered the Demon in similar fashion immediately after.
Enjoy this wretched world, alone. We will take back our gifts of beauty and power as we depart...
And as she pierced the heart of the Goddess, there was a sound like a heavy crash, and the ground beneath their feet began to crumble. They found themselves thrown back into the tower, now rapidly deteriorating around them. Frantically, they ignored their burning muscles and tightening lungs, their seeping wounds and broken bones, as they scrambled back through the labyrinth and burst out onto the sinking roof where the Falcon swooped by to pick them up. Daryl anxiously pulled five ravished warriors onto the deck of the airship, and it was then that they realized that Terra had never grasped hold of the rope ladder.
Scouring the area around them while clinging to railings as the ship sped away from the tower’s self-destruction, Locke spotted a flickering ball of fire in the distance.
“Over there!” he shouted with a gesture in its direction. “Can you follow her?”
Esper Terra – the comet, the shooting star – in her prime a fiery display of speed and grace, danced languidly in the air now, twisting her body painfully as she tried to stay afloat on the currents of air passing by. As the Falcon approached her, those aboard could see that her fire was fading, her light dimming. She silently cried out as she held on to the sensual feeling of the wind caressing her. The flames that leapt from her skin were no longer regenerating. Her altitude was beginning to decline. Daryl eased the airship to match her pace and they flew side by side, until their descent had brought them dangerously close to the ground below.
Celes pulled herself onto the port rail. Steadying her balance, she reached out her hand to the rapidly-humanizing Terra. The green-haired woman gazed at her sadly, but took her hand and allowed Celes to pull her onto the deck, where they collapsed into a pile of limbs and tears.
The Returners had won. Mankind had won. The humans overthrew the gods and the world was now rightfully theirs to rebuild and rule.
And yet, as they embraced in desperation, the young women – the saviors, the victors – their cries uninhibited, vulnerable, wretched – did not weep for relief. Celes and Terra, sisters in magic and sorrow – both at once successes and failures of life itself – clung to each other in fervid mourning.
They had won; true. They had also lost some along the way. But now they were losing themselves.
Chapter title taken from: Weh - "Ruin"
Chapter 18: ...
The crescendo of a whistle was the first audible sound. The whistle of steam escaping from a heated kettle, muffled by distance and a closed wooden door separating rooms. Following was the creak of footsteps over aged floorboards, and muted voices in conversation.
The next sensation realized was the softness of a bed. Softer than anything slept upon in weeks, maybe months. Certainly not a cheap inn-bed, and it carried no scent of community; this was someone’s bedroom, their private quarters, personal and loved, at least at some point in history.
What followed was a rush of warmth, to a degree nearly uncomfortable. Blankets and quilts abruptly tossed aside to allow the cooler, fresher air of the room soothe stifled and stale skin.
Sitting up, feet swinging to the floor, it was noticed that loose, linen clothing had replaced form-fitting leathers and armored plates. Hair that fell over shoulder felt unusually soft; smelled sweet and clean and free of the grime and sweat of battle.
Caught a glimpse of self in a mirror perched on a vanity across the room. The tanned skin of Celes’ face and collar looked unusually pale, even set against the white blouse she was wearing. She opened the top of the shirt and glanced down at her breast, fully expecting to find a deep wound, a scar crossing the hollow cavity from which she felt her heart had been torn.
There were a few cuts and gashes on the mend, but she was still intact, however empty she felt.
When she stood, she found her own garments neatly folded on top of a trunk at the foot of the bed. Next to them lay the hilt of her Runic sword. It took her a moment to remember that the blade had shattered with the release of the Ultima spell.
She picked the hilt up and considered it, and the weapon – so familiar to her for years – felt strangely foreign and heavy, even with its blade missing. Her muscles ached, but this weakness was unusual. She set the ornate handle down and opened the door.
The house appeared to be fairly small, and she easily found her way to the kitchen, from which the voices conversed. When she appeared in the doorway, two faces turned to look at her – only one of which she recognized.
“Celes!” greeted Locke, beaming, and he stood to embrace her.
Something about this connection – she, in his arms; he, in hers – felt different from times before. She couldn’t quite grasp what it was, but it was similar to the difference in the weight of the sword hilt. She felt... fragile, as though his strength overpowered her own – though not necessarily in a threatening manner. Just that something had shifted recently.
His closeness was comforting, but still she was unsettled.
“You’ve been asleep for a couple days,” he said as he pulled back slightly, and turned up his chin to kiss her forehead. She met his gaze, then. She liked how they were nearly equal in height, neither one ever looking up or down at the other.
“It feels like it...” she said, thinking that even her voice sounded somewhat out of place – though she knew that now she was simply being over-sensitive.
Locke gestured to the unfamiliar figure in the room, an older woman who was just pouring a cup of tea. “This is Mae. She helped me when I first washed ashore after escaping the island I woke up on after the Collapse. We’re in Albrook.”
Mae approached and gave Celes a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek, though its maternal implications were lost on the young warrior. “It’s so wonderful to meet you, dear,” she said, a glimmer of pride in her eyes. “There are no words to sufficiently praise you both, and the rest of your friends... I just knew, when I first met Locke, that the world was about to head back on the right path, and that he’d have something to do with it...”
At these words, Celes cracked a small, shy and bewildered smile, and she felt a hot rush of blood in her veins.
“Thank you,” she said, feeling a twinge of pride as well, but not for herself. “Thank you for having us here, and...” She glanced down at her borrowed clothing.
“Oh, my sweet, you owe me no thanks. Please, come and have something to eat.”
Her stomach felt as though it had caved in upon itself, but she had little appetite. She opted to sip her tea for the moment.
“I don’t remember...” she said, not quite wanting to finish the thought. Locke took the cue and eased her into the memories.
“You were delirious by the time we arrived. Daryl had to land somewhere close by but out of the danger zone – the Tower crumbled violently. Mae easily found us as we approached the city, and she insisted the two of us stay with her. The others went to an inn.”
“I would’ve had you all had I the space and comforts!” said the old woman with enthusiasm.
“How is Terra?” Celes asked anxiously.
“She’s been resting, too,” answered Locke. “I saw her this morning. Everyone is safe.”
“So she’s... alive?”
Locke looked at her curiously. “Of course. You caught her and brought her back onto the airship yourself.”
Celes turned up her palms in her lap and stared at them. “All magic is gone. The Espers are gone too. The gods took it all with them when they were destroyed.”
Neither Mae nor Locke said a word in response. After a minute of careful consideration, Locke finally spoke again. “Strago had mentioned something to this effect... I haven’t had much chance to talk to him yet, though.”
The feeling churning within her gut was one she experienced rarely but distinctly: she wanted to cry. But she had already shed her tears for this purpose, so she refused to let her body indulge. Instead, she admitted quietly, “I feel empty.”
Mae set a plate of warm biscuits on the table and noted to Locke that she had some errands to run and would leave the two of them alone to talk. He nodded at her sympathetic smile as she slipped from the room. Then he turned back to Celes, her head still bowed, and clasped her hands in his.
“I hadn’t realized how much a part of myself magic had become,” she continue. “Torn from me so suddenly, I... I feel like I’m drifting. I’m not in control.”
“But you are,” he said, and she finally looked back at him. “I don’t even want to tell you in words – you know you are strong; you know who you are. Your magic didn’t define you... that’s why you’re here, today.”
A spark lit and jumped, the familiar burning, like the electric vibration of magic in her hands – but... no...
Her muscles contracted; she squeezed his fingers. The spark leapt again, and she expected to see faint, flickering snakes of light out of the corners of her eyes. There were none.
Visceral memories flashed through her mind. Excited, hushed chatter on the subject of Espers and magic and Magitek amongst the wards of the Empire. Young Terra making a candle-flame dance and swirl for their amusement. Kefka, his face yet flush with natural color, showing off his first trick – a flower in his hand, smoldering to ash. The sterile scent of a laboratory filled with odd, humming machines. The prick of a needle in her arm and the sickening seeping of something cold and stinging into her vein. The ebb and flow of raw power within her body; the creeping temptation of Kefka’s whispers – suggestions of grandeur into her ear. The uncertainty and questioning as she watched him command Terra like a marionette with the Slave Crown. The absolute pleasure of control as she gained mastery over spells of ever-increasing strength and magnitude.
Her life had revolved around magic for years now – for as long as she could remember, it seemed. And now magic had simply ceased to exist. It was like being stripped naked and tossed into the cold – she felt exposed, vulnerable, lost – and yet, as she knit her fingers with Locke’s, there was again that buzz, that writhing flow of energy that reminded her so much of a successfully-executed spell. This closeness to another person was something she’d never before been granted – or perhaps had never granted herself – and so the feelings associated with it were unfamiliar.
And yet, they seemed to be proving to be rather familiar, in a way, after all. The spark was at once exciting and comforting.
Her reverie had drawn herself closer to him. And as she awakened, they met each other with equal intent – a slow and chary kiss, confidence building with each mounting second they held – parting only when they felt it safe to do so without fear of losing each other afterward. Locke watched with silent joy as the blue flame reignited behind her eyes, and this passion radiating from him in turn filled Celes with something... undefined. Something that grounded her, that wrapped about her body like vines and caressed her heart, cradling it gently until its errant rhythm steadied to a heavy, resounding beat; a battle-drum echoing in the distance, inspiring its soldiers to victory.
She lifted their still-entwined hands to her breast – to feel her own pulse, a last assurance to herself that she was independently alive. Then at last she spoke, her words articulate as ever, but without either the edge of militant stoicism or the wavering air of emotional self-consciousness.
“Wherever you go from here, now... may I go with you?”
Locke freed his hands and lifted himself to his feet, leaning into her and grasping the edges of the seat of her chair. Taken by surprise, she pressed her spine against the wooden back as he kissed her again, laughter on his lips this time. She couldn’t help but return his mischievous grin with a smile when he broke, and when he returned to steal a second quick kiss, and then a third. And then she laughed aloud, at once pleased and confused, and when he swooped in again, she threw her arms around his neck, holding him to her as they both stood up straight, demanding he stay for a proper embrace.
He began to lean again, dipping her backwards, and all the while planting kisses down her neck and to her collarbone, nudging at the top of her blouse and then allowing her to upright herself before he teased any further.
“So somber and serious!” he chided, and she brushed strands of his long hair away from his face. Their lips met one last time, sedate and simple, before he added, “I should hope we don’t part so soon.”
“No,” she said, a light smile lingering along with the taste of him. “I’ve already traveled the world by myself. I’m finding it’s a much pleasanter place with good company along.”
* * *
Despite the celebration and laud that resounded about the city, a definite air of anxiety lingered among the Returners that steadily waxed with each passing day they remained. Terra was recovering slowly but surely, though she mourned her missing Esper half and preferred to stay in bed for the fact that whenever she moved too sharply, its absence was tangible like a phantom limb. Strago and Relm were doing well for their part, and Relm’s voice had returned in full force. Her hearing, however, was still muddled, and they began to wonder if the damage might have been more severe than they had originally concluded. But she was a clever and confident girl, and had already quite gotten used to reading lips and sensing when others approached from behind.
Shadow had disappeared shortly after the ordeal had ended and had yet to return. Though none said a word of it, there was a mutual sense of disappointment that he was gone.
They’d sent a message to Sabin in South Figaro and his response had been hopeful and filled with praises. The city would surely recover, especially now that the threat of further devastation had passed. He promised to meet them in Albrook in a few days.
Daryl was nursing a glass of dark beer at the local pub and watching the patrons titter about what by now almost seemed like it should be old news. The Tower had collapsed. The tyrannical god(s) had been destroyed. The heroes were in town. But the same unsettled feeling that had been creeping over all the others was now reaching her as well: what now? She had promised Lola and the Marandans that she would help them map the new world with the aid of her airship. But for as happy she’d been to assist the Returners on their mission, she was growing tired of playing chauffeur. She felt an itch to do something more. She wanted to build, to work with her hands, dream up ideas and bring them to life with a hammer and wrench. After lazily observing the noontime-drinkers and considering everything a little while longer, she gulped down the rest of her beer and headed to the post office to write a few letters.
* * *
Sabin’s arrival was greeted by an unusual fanfare for being a foreign king – the men and women of Albrook were quick to celebrate anything these days, especially for friends of their saviors. He shyly shook some hands with a genuine smile near-permanently painted on his face in awe and elation. When he finally reached the inn at which the others were staying, hugs and cheers abounded once more, with a few tears besides.
After a toast and a round of drinks, the remaining Returners sat around the room, Terra propped up in bed, and the question was at last voiced aloud:
“So... what now?”
Glances were exchanged. For some, this was the first moment in years – if ever at all – that the road ahead was completely open. There were no orders, no responsibilities, just... free will. It was exciting in theory, but somewhat uncomfortable in fact.
“Guess we haven’t really settled yet,” offered Locke with a bit of a shrug. “How’s Figaro?”
“Mm, she’ll make out... You know, I’ll just keep on with what I’ve been doing...” Sabin scratched the back of his head absently. He still looked out of place in his royal garb, Locke had to admit to himself. And he suddenly felt a pang of guilt as he realized what was certainly going through Sabin’s head – these five were now freed from their duties, and the young king – whose freedom had been perhaps squandered in his youth – must return to his castle and awkwardly resume the role of his inheritance.
Locke loved Figaro kingdom. For as many times as he’d turned down Edgar’s offers of citizenship, over the past several years it had felt more like home to him than Kohlingen. South Figaro had been a bustling city offering all sorts of entertainment, its smaller towns and villages had always been friendly and beautiful – and moreover, its people seemed so generally happy. There were few public complaints about the monarchy, who for generations had worked hard to remain in their favor. Their pride in their nation did not overwhelm their sense of community amongst themselves or with the rest of the world. Figaro had, over many, many years, quietly become a great and stable kingdom. He could see himself staying there, if anywhere.
But there was no need for hasty decisions, so another round of drinks were poured, and the party simply enjoyed themselves and each other’s company for the remainder of the evening, until Sabin had to return home.
* * *
The woman opened her eyes. She was still lying in bed, even after so many days. He limbs ached to move and her heart was still too heavy with longing. Depression verily crowned and cloaked her.
Relm stood next the bed clutching a large wooden frame.
“Terra?” she repeated, a little too loudly. She watched and waited for a response she could see, and Terra looked up at the girl questioningly. Relm handed the object over to her – a canvas. Upon it was painted a lithe and flaming figure, all glory and confidence as magic swirled around her. The brushstrokes were strong and precise, slightly abstract for style, seemingly glimmering with a bit of magic themselves. Terra gazed, speechless, at this tribute to herself, her Esper, her lost half, and tears quickly pooled in the corners of her eyes and slid down her cheeks.
Relm flinched. “I’m sorry,” she said, voice wavering, surprised. But Terra shook her head and wiped her eyes and forced a smile through to break through her emotional display.
“No... thank you,” she said. “This is... beautiful. Wonderful. Thank you.”
“She’s still you,” said Relm simply, and nodded to cement the fact. Then she leaned in to hug Terra, and the Esper woman felt a weight suddenly lift from her heart, and she felt free again.
* * *
The time had come for decisions to be made. For the past several days, carrier pigeons had delivered back and forth lengthy written discussions between the people of Figaro, Maranda, and the Returners in Albrook, and now, as she attached her final messages and sent the birds into the air with a flutter, Daryl couldn’t help but grin excitedly. She hurried to the Falcon then, where the others were waiting to depart.
“It kinda hasn’t felt real yet, has it? That’s how it’s been for me, anyway,” she said, leaping over the rail and onto the deck. “But new life begins today! I know you guys have heard it a million times already, but I just think... it’s so amazing what you’ve done. Thank you.”
“Don’t discount yourself from the story,” said Locke, and he clapped her on the shoulder like an old friend. “None of us would be right here today – together – if you hadn’t agreed to join up with two sketchy strangers in Kohlingen a few months ago. Thank you.”
“I’ll take it,” Daryl laughed as she walked toward her control tower. “Now settle in, it’s a long ride to Maranda!”
The propellers began to spin, and the familiar warm wind caused hair and clothing to dance madly. Terra leaned over the starboard rail to have a last look at the growing crowd of people gathering to watch them fly away from Albrook. She could pick out the innkeeper and the house cook from where they had been staying; she saw Mae, who had visited once, to greet the rest of Locke’s friends; and off to the side, mounted upon a chocobo was a man dressed all in black, his face obscured by a mask – though his eyes glinted in her direction. For an instant, her breath caught in her throat out of surprise, and she waved to him as the airship began to lift from the ground. He nodded deeply in response – it was more like a bow – and then he kicked the bird into a gallop, away from the airship’s path, and away from the city.
* * *
Strago, Relm and Terra debarked at Maranda. Through their messages to each other of late, Lola had expressed interest in recording a written history of the Imperial Age, especially since all trace of the Gestahlian Empire had been destroyed during the Collapse. This is not something to be lost in time, she had said in a letter, All of the good and evil of Magic, the Gods and the Espers, and Man himself, must be remembered, revered and feared. Strago the Sage already had much history committed to memory, through the customs of his people, and so agreed to tell all he knew for public documentation. Terra had joined in for the cause likewise, for she wanted to record her Esper knowledge before it too faded completely. She would also relate all she knew of the workings of the Empire, though Celes had agreed to write and send her own stories back to Maranda, as she had known the Emperor’s ways – and its dealings with Magitek – with more depth than any other still living.
Relm, determined to be as useful as the others, offered to illustrate scenes of the great battles and events she herself had witnessed – as a record of things unable to be sufficiently described in words. She would also go on to paint portraits of the Espers – with the help of Terra’s direction – capturing the strange and unearthly beauty of these magical creatures now gone from the world. And so they would ensure that their legacy was not lost to myth, regarded as fiction – so at least they could hope.
Before departing, two young engineers from Maranda joined the crew of the Falcon for the remainder of the journey. Daryl invited them to observe the airship, note how it worked, and learn how to fly it. She couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of anxiety the first time she handed over the controls to one of the men, but she let the feeling pass, as she knew that bigger and better things would come her way because of this.
When the airship landed south of the Figaro desert the next day, the remaining passengers were greeted by a committee of three castle guards, waiting with five chocobos to bring them across the sands and to the great fortress beyond. Sabin was ecstatic to see them, despite having expected their arrival, and Daryl was eager to introduce the young representatives from Maranda and the details of their plans to collaborate with Figaro’s engineers in the coming years. First, Daryl would return to Maranda and teach them about her own Falcon and what she knew of the Blackjack (which, she had to admit, had been the more polished model of the two). As the cartographers made use of the Falcon to complete their world map, Daryl and the engineers would work to design smaller and more efficient airships for more convenient travel, and greater accessibility thereof. Once that project was successfully underway, Daryl, with a firm shake of Sabin’s hand, promised to return to Figaro and see if they couldn’t get the castle’s gears turning once more. Before she and her two new cohorts left for Maranda again, Sabin invited them to have a look at the engine room, where they marveled at its complexity and furiously scribbled notes to dwell upon over the next few months.
And then just Locke and Celes remained, and they absently followed Sabin around the castle and into the throne room. It seemed absurdly large, now, for some reason. There had been no ceremonies held here for years, and the tapestries and carpets were dusty and fading. Its upkeep had been ignored especially in the time following the Collapse, as manpower was needed for less superfluous things. Burnt-out torches lined the walls; a chandelier of a hundred drooping candles hung just before the skewed thrones on the dais. None were lit, so the only light in the room spilled dramatically from the windows lining the side walls, their beams accentuated by the dust that stirred as they walked from one end to the other.
Sabin meandered up the dais and dropped himself into the left throne; Edgar’s seat, and their father’s seat before. He looked to the ornate chair beside him; the Queen’s throne, empty for nearly three decades now. He wondered when it would again be occupied, if ever. Life as a monk had not conditioned him to follow a familial path; it wasn’t so much that he longed for a partner, just yet – but that the concept still seemed foreign to him. And like all of his other Kingly duties, eventually taking a wife and conceiving a new heir would be expected... It was just another source of pressure in an already monumental store of problems at hand.
His troubles must have been showing in his face, for when he looked up, he caught them both quickly turning away. But he had to smile, if faintly, seeing Locke and Celes standing next to each other, so naturally and comfortably for a change. He remembered Edgar gossiping to him, in the quieter moments of their journey before the Collapse, about how frustrated he had been, watching them act so tense around each other. “I want to just... lock them in a damn room together for a day so they can work it out already,” he had said, laughing. “I can tell they’ll have to tear each other apart first, but I think it’d be good for them to get it out.”
Sabin wondered what sort of soul-wrenching angst it had taken for them to get to this point.
“Hey, it’ll be great to have you around; I’m really happy you’re staying here,” he finally said to break the silence, and he straightened in his seat. “Friendly faces will make it easier...”
“About that...” began Locke, with a glance at Celes. “We’d like to offer our help. Pledge ourselves to Figaro.” And to Sabin’s surprise, the two dropped to a formal kneel before the throne.
“I used to work with Edgar quite closely, if informally,” Locke continued. “I have a good sense of his manner of diplomacy, and if you’ll have me, I can offer advice and guidance. I don’t mean to sound arrogant...”
“No, not at all...” said Sabin, somewhat flustered.
“And I’ve much experience with military tactics and leading large groups of people. I know this is a peaceful time, and will hopefully remain so, but I should be able to aid in organizing relief and rebuilding efforts of the kingdom with my knowledge,” said Celes, her voice strong and sincere. “Hopefully my former affiliation with the Empire will not deter you or your people.”
“Gods... please, stand up! You are my equals; I don’t want you bowing to me,” Sabin said, and all three stood. He stepped down to the floor and put his arm on Locke’s shoulder, looking to each of them in turn. “I would be more than honored to have your assistance. Truly. You don’t know how much it means to me, and to my family name, that you would be so willing to work for the sake of Figaro.” He blinked a slight mist from his eyes before continuing. “Figaro was a great nation before my rule; I want nothing more than for it to return to that humble glory and prosperity. Your service will be invaluable. Thank you.”
He shook each of their hands in formality, and grabbed them into a hug out of emotion.
* * *
Sabin allowed Locke and Celes to choose their own living quarters out of the available rooms in the castle; the place was still rather empty as compared to before the Collapse, as many had died and few had come to replace them so far in the ensuing chaos.
“Wow, this is huge,” remarked Locke of a suite in the northeastern tower. He, like Sabin, felt out of place in fancy environments, but he was at least used to Figaro’s style, so he could see himself eventually feeling at home in it. “What would I do with all this space?” he laughed. “I’d probably be fine in one of their broom closets.”
Celes quietly walked around the sitting-room, the bedroom and peeked into its attached washroom. Its stone walls kept the place cool during the hot daylight hours, and the windows framed a serene view of the rolling desert fading into the clear horizon. She thought back to her room in Vector, where from every direction she could see only metal and machine, and the smog that enveloped the city, obscuring the once-blue sky.
“Well...” she said, still gazing out the window, “If you would have me join you, it might not seem so vast.”
Locke flopped onto his back on the large bed in the center of the room, eyes closed and grinning. “Oh yes, I thought we were going to stop being so careful...?”
“You’re just as much at fault this time, too,” said Celes, and she sat on the edge of the mattress and turned to look over him.
“All right, then; let’s start over. Do you want to stay here, together?”
“Yes, I do...” She leaned down, holding her hair to the side, and kissed him, her heart leaping as she felt that spark yet again – that vibration that felt like magic, that made her feel at home – but that which she knew came from something else, something more tangible, something shared. She crawled around to orient herself with him; he, smiling as he reached up to her and pulled her close, and in their embrace she felt tranquil; at ease with herself, her lack of magic, and her acceptance of someone else into her private life... It was still faintly strange, but it was something she was happy to get used to... and above all... it did make her happy.
Even this in itself, she thought, was fairly new to her. Happiness.
Her hands affirmed this resolution, freely exploring his body lying next to hers, her lips and tongue savoring the taste of his skin, and all the while enjoying the sensation his fingertips left on her as well. There was no hesitation this time, each more tuned to the other’s rhythm, confident that they both wanted this equally, and of course knowing that this was just the beginning – no anxiety or fear of impending finality – that they could revel in this pleasure knowing that it wouldn’t end at this climax, that this was not an act of desperation, nails digging into the skin of backs in hopes of holding onto something that would soon be torn away.
And it was the pleasure that she noted, too, that was different this time – different with him – than times before, when there had been no emotional attachment, her guard still up, her motions as stiff and automated as in any other situation. It was pleasure, enjoyment of the sensuality, of the very freedom from routine and self-control that in fact made her feel more confident in herself than she had ever before, and she knew that this was good; that she was finally feeling independently strong, even as she drew herself closer and closer to him.
As their bodies trembled in denouement, sighing breaths still hot on each other’s skin, she listened to their beating hearts slow and marveled at the ease with which they fell into place with each other. It was so much like magic that it nearly ached, and she closed her eyes, concealing tears, and wrapped her arms about him. She felt his fingers gently stroke her hair, soothingly, lovingly, and she wondered, in her old wildly self-disserving way, what great thing she could have possibly done to deserve such contentment and bliss.
* * *
There was to be a ceremony for the induction of these two newcomers, not only as citizens of the Figaro Kingdom, but as official advisors to the throne. Sabin and Locke shared a laugh as a tailor had come to fit them for royal uniforms, Locke groaning at the formality of the golden buttons and stiff collar and epaulets. He was just glad he at least didn’t have to wear a cape.
“Tell me I don’t have to wear this shit every day,” he whispered to Sabin, “or I might have to reconsider my offer.”
“Perhaps we can work out a compromise... and get the king’s uniform changed too while we’re at it!”
Celes, unsurprisingly, looked most natural in her new military garb. For a moment, Locke was a bit sad to see her wearing a uniform again, but the thought quickly passed as he reminded himself that it was for a different – a better – cause this time. And even though to him, a life of discipline and order sounded like hell, it was where she excelled, and he was happy that she could put her talents to use in a way that would give her satisfaction.
The two were left alone in their room to dress and prepare for the ceremony. Locke moved lethargically, hardly eager to don such a frivolous-looking outfit, so he lingered in front of the bathroom mirror slowly tying his hair back and considering his reflection.
“Hey, Celes?” he called, and she appeared in the doorway, noting that he was still wearing a t-shirt and denim pants. “Wanna help me cut my hair?”
She gave him an inquisitive look. “Right now?”
“Yeah. I’d only kept it long after I woke up on the island as a... like a symbol to myself at how things had changed. I thought I’d cut it once I felt settled again, if ever. Maybe it sounds stupid. But I feel like now’s a good time. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like... myself.”
She smiled. She had to admit that she did enjoy symbolism and ceremony, so she empathized with this admission.
“I’m probably going to ruin it,” she warned, and Locke laughed.
“Do remember what it looked like before? It wasn’t fancy. Just shorter.”
He handed her a dagger, which she accepted and studied his ponytail. “Mm... okay.” She fished through the drawers nearby and found a pair of silver scissors and laid them on the counter. “I’m sorry if it looks bad!” And with that, she grasped the bunch of his hair and sliced through with the dagger. He shook his head a bit and let it fall into place.
“That wasn’t so hard,” he said with a smile, and she took up the scissors to fix it further. After a couple minutes, his hair was short and choppy and looking rather familiar. “You’re better at that than you give yourself credit for!” and he kissed her on the lips. “Thank you.”
“Yes, I did a great job,” she said slyly, running her fingers through the back of his hair. “Now get dressed; I’m sure everyone’s waiting!”
* * *
He didn’t like all the eyes upon him; this foreigner in royal clothes, coming from nowhere and being promoted to Diplomatic Advisor to the King all of a sudden. He felt self-conscious, knowing how different and out of place he looked in their uniform, even though he knew he was being accepted not just by Sabin, but by all present. Still, he had always preferred to stay out of sight – it was, after all, his specialty.
He wondered if Celes felt any of the same reservations, walking down the aisle of the throne room. Once a high-ranking servant of the Gestahlian Empire, their enemy, now wearing their skins as well – their new Military Advisor. If such thoughts ran through her mind, they didn’t show on her face – her own specialty: remaining impassive in her duty.
The ceremony was thankfully brief, though for Locke it still dragged. The moment they were allowed to leave the throne room and be on their way couldn’t have come sooner, but he lingered to chat with Sabin afterwards nonetheless. He was able to breathe a sigh of relief when he noticed the audience was finally beginning to filter out of the room. And, to his pleasant surprise, many of those who remained were staying so that they could meet Celes and welcome her to the kingdom. He hadn’t wanted to admit it, but he had worried there might be ill sentiment harbored against her for her association with the late Empire, despite her role in taking it down in the end.
“Hard part’s over now, right?” he said, and Sabin chuckled.
“Sure,” the king replied, easing back into the throne. “Actually, it does feel like it, for a change...”
Locke was silent for a moment as he found himself gazing at Celes, all poised and professional as she greeted everyone who came up to her – smiling politely, but not too eagerly; with a calculated amount of warmth – never exposing herself too much, but more open than during those times when her passion died out and expression turned to stone. He felt like he was getting to know more of her with each passing day, now – and yet, she was still somewhat of a mystery. He realized he would have to be satisfied with this hint of intrigue, this flicker of danger and uncertainty that came with her. They were very different people when it came down to it, and they likely always would be. Yet something had attracted them to each other, and he hoped that thing would be strong enough to keep them together... at least for a good long while.
“Man, don’t look like that; your heart’s not already breaking, is it?”
“What?” Locke snapped back at attention suddenly and turned to Sabin.
“You were looking at her like it was already over... or maybe I read it wrong.”
Locke grinned awkwardly, his eyes wandering to the side. “Nah, just thinking too much. I’m still jittery from the ceremony; wanna get some drinks?”
Sabin gave a casual nod and a smile. “Sounds good. Let’s ditch the formalwear, too. Meet in the castle pub in a half hour?”
“You got it!” said Locke, beginning to walk toward where Celes was entertaining the dwindling crowd.
“Hey Locke,” Sabin added, and the other man turned back toward him. “Just enjoy yourself. The hard part’s over, right?”
“Heh, yeah...” And when he returned his gaze before him, Celes was waiting with a smile – one different than the ones she had given to the strangers moments before, one that was inviting and genuinely borne out of happiness rather than public appearance. As he approached, she took his hand and excused herself politely from the remaining people nearby, noting that there was already much to be done, and she would get to know them soon.
They hurried down the halls, up flights of stairs, through the overpass that led to the northeastern tower, all hand-in-hand, like lovers much younger than they were themselves, and quickly shut the door behind them when they reached their room.
“What is this?” asked Locke, laughter in both his voice and his eyes as he marveled at her uncharacteristic giddiness.
“I don’t know, I’m just excited,” Celes replied, and as she dove in for a kiss, he threw his arms around her and lifted her off the ground for a moment; she, laughing and clinging to his shoulders. “I don’t know why.”
When he set her down, she walked to the main window of the bedroom and opened it, welcoming a hot desert breeze into the room. She rested herself onto the wide sill and simply enjoyed the feel of the wind in her hair. Locke made his way toward her and she took his hands in hers, knitting their fingers together.
“Maybe it’s...” she began, and Locke was actually somewhat surprised that was continuing to try to explain herself. “Like what you said this morning. You feel like yourself again, at last.”
He waited quietly for her to finish her thought.
“I feel, perhaps... that I’m finally understanding who I am in the first place.”
But in the silence that followed, a pang of deeply-rooted doubt stabbed her heart for a fleeting second. She invisibly waved it off, though not before Locke caught a glimpse of the flame in her eyes flicker as though disturbed by the breeze from the window. He swallowed the lump that had suddenly formed in his throat and smiled, giving her hands a squeeze and reverently kissing her forehead.
“I’m so glad to hear it,” he said softly. And there were a million more things he wanted to say, but he held his tongue once again – not that he wanted to go back to tiptoeing around her, but wondering if, perhaps, some things were better off – more beautiful, more permanent – if they went unsaid.
As if agreeing with this silent sentiment, Celes reached up to caress his cheek, and they at once both leaned toward each other, their lips meeting gently but confidently, reminding them of the way in which passion quelled anxiety – that how sometimes their hearts knew more than their minds.
Locke guided her to her feet as they parted, his arms around her waist, and, gazing into the sunlight that glinted off of her eyes, began to say, “I...” But he stopped himself from breaking this promise of reticence already. She made a small sound of inquiry, in reply to which he simply smiled and kissed her again.
It would be better spoken aloud at another time.
Best to let it stir and bloom and grow for now.
“Let’s meet Sabin for a drink,” he said finally, taking Celes’ hand to lead her away from the window.
She lingered for an instant – a last, hesitating glance back at the open desert sands beyond the frame – then pushed herself away from the stone to greet the new world by his side.