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In The Nuclear Season

Chapter Text

For Terra, memories of the world’s destruction are as insubstantial as a nightmare. Her first escape from Narshe was much the same, her recollections saturated with sensations rather than a meticulous chronology of events. When she recalls the mining town it's tinged with the bite of ice and the sensation of falling, falling, falling.

But when Kefka sets everything to chaos, Terra tastes volcanic ash in her mouth, hears the groans of an airship about to split in two, and she succumbs to her esper form. She takes to the sky before she realizes what she is doing.

As the planet morphs and changes, Terra flies.
*

Terra wakes in a modest house, tucked into a small bed. She pulls the blankets to her chin, looks at the stained walls, and wonders if she’s fallen so far that she’s back at the beginning. Perhaps Arvis will walk in through that door, ask her for her name, send her off to the caves, and she’ll stumble through the stony, coal-black darkness. Perhaps she will meet Locke, and everything will start again.

Things are not quite that strange. She hears the sound of light footsteps, and in walks a young woman. The stranger takes one look at Terra, jumps a bit, says “good, you’ve woken up,” and then she scurries away. When she returns, she's accompanied by a young man of a similar age. A gaggle of children follow in their wake. Terra stares in a bemused sort of way, as the older pair places a tray in front of her. She sits up, thankful that she is still dressed; sometimes her clothes transform with her, sometimes they don’t. Looks like she got lucky this time.

“Ah, please don’t get up. You’re still pretty weak.” The woman smiles as she speaks, while her male counterpart stays silent. “I’m Katarin, and this is Duane. As for these kids here...”

She rattles off the identities of the children behind her, even though their names melt in Terra’s mind like snowflakes on skin. She’s more cognizant of their hollow cheeks and piercing eyes. Here and there some of them are mottled with bruises or marked with bandages.

The tray in front of Terra has a plate with one sad piece of toast, a fried egg, a cup of apple juice.

“’We have salt and bread to share with you.’” Duane speaks for the first time, and though he’s still frowning he also peers at Terra with concern. “That means we’re welcoming you to Mobliz,” he adds in a more casual tone.

Terra looks up at him. It seems as if there’s something she must say or do here, but instead she can only cough. She drinks the juice in order to settle her throat, and thirst and hunger make it taste especially vivid.

“If you eat our food you’re under our protection,” says a boy standing near Katarin, “And you’re also our friend. It’s custom.”

Terra splays her hands on the tray. “I’m Terra,” she says, her voice scratchy from disuse. “I offer you my protection, too. If that’s acceptable?”

She’s bewildered when some of the younger ones smile. Terra bites into the toast and tries to conjure up her next course of action. Her friends, Locke, Edgar, Sabin, Celes, all of them… They all like to get up and do things.

Do they have a king in Mobliz? An elder? A general? What had her companions said about their trips to this small city? “Can I meet with one of your… your adults?”

At once the tentative grins die, and it’s like a strong gust blowing out a row of candles.

“That would be you,” Katarin sighs. “You’re the only adult here.”

*

Although Terra gathers that the devastation of Mobliz happened over a course of hours- days, even- it’s a tale that’s quick in the telling. The Veldt plateau rests uneasily atop numerous fault lines. It lies beside magma rich mountain ranges and torrential rivers. A chaotic shoreline is its other neighbor. When Kefka had upset the makeup of the entire planet, many of the grownups of Mobiliz were swallowed up by lava, pinioned by rock slides, and carried away by waves as tall as buildings. Some survived the initial barrage only to succumb to wounds and infection. Others ventured on to the steppes and to hunt. Weakened by Kefka’s attack, they became easy prey to wild animals. None of them walked away by choice, however. None of them willingly abandoned the children.

Terra’s pockets are still lined with magicite and she thinks she must be seeing this town through Maduin’s eyes. Here, after all, is a town built at the edge of the world. Here were people that kept to their own ways. They bothered no one, disturbed nothing, and the cruelties of the world came for them all the same. Yes, her father and mother would understand this.

For a few days she maintains a low profile. She speaks little, eats even less, and tries to avoid adding to anyone’s burdens. They are living in what was once the mayor’s house and it’s easy enough to avoid encountering anyone. Sometimes Terra goes outside and surveys the damage. If she walks to the east, she’ll hit the ocean. The waves will rise up to her waist, and sometimes dead fish knock against her legs. When she looks west she takes in a steppe that sprawls as far as the eye can see, and it calls to her as much as it unsettles her.

Everything about her situation is primal, chaotic. Slipping into old habits is as simple as breathing. She’s not a general like Celes, but she has been a soldier. She has been a weapon. She is waiting for someone to come to her with orders. She’s waiting for someone to deploy her to her next duty. The Emperor using her to bring cities to heel, Banon demanding she use her magic to fuel the revolution, so many possibilities, really. Someone will ask for her. Someone will make a demand of her.

This never happens. The sun sets and rises twice before Duane seeks her out. When he does so, it’s not to send her to war. It’s to bring her into the tentative domesticity of Mobliz.

“You look like you need something to do,” he says, and Terra follows him without question.

“I’m sorry,” she says, because it’s what she’s heard people do in situations like this.

“It’s not a criticism.” Duane looks over his shoulder at her as they walk down the hallway. “When we found you, I thought you might be an enemy spy. But no one seems to be coming to attack, and you’ve been a decent guest.”

“I see.” They stop by a doorway that Terra knows leads to the communal dining area. She looks down at her feet and thinks that she’s been a perpetual guest her entire life. “Yes, I don’t want to make trouble.”

“And you give the kids something new to talk about, and distractions are always good, right?” He actually winks, and that action stirs up a distant memory. Maybe from Narshe’s caves.

The storage area is packed with jars, barrels, and crates. Cold air washes over Terra’s shins and she thinks that there must be an icebox further on. She turns in a circle, taking it all in.

“It seems like a lot, I know.” Duane holds up a gaslight lamp, and it highlights a container of peaches. “We have Katarin to thank for that. She had the two of us raiding the houses of the dead and stockpiling their food.”

Duane is looking at Terra expectantly, and there’s a kind of tension at the end of his explanation that often indicates the speaker wants her to ask a question. Terra is never sure why people do this; can’t they just explain everything in one go?

“What happened?” she asks, obliging him.

“It’s Katarin’s doing again. She’s always been good at math and one day she told me that we’re going to run out of food within months or even weeks, unless we convert it in various ways. It’s just gonna spoil and so on. I joked that, hey, maybe we should just fry up all the meat and have ourselves a feast, and wait to die but…” He sighs and sets his lamp on a shelf.

Even Terra can see the problem here. “She didn’t appreciate that much, I take it?”

“Hah. She started yelling that the world was probably ending but she was doing all she could to keep us alive, and the least I could was dry some meat… That reminds me, are you squeamish?”

Terra recalls the battlefields of the past few years. She remembers the weight of a slave crown, and her magitek armor clanking across the greasy, corpse-riddled mud.

“Not at all.”

“Good. Okay. Let’s go preserve some food then.” And Terra stares at him for a second or two longer than is probably normal. He seems in a hurry to improve his relations with Katarin, and … and that’s significant, somehow. It’s not one person meeting the demands of another person. It’s Duane assisting Katarin, specifically. Much like how no two clouds look the same, their relationship is its own entity separate from all others.

Terra shelves those ruminations in the service of the task at hand. It’s easy enough; cut the fat from the meat (they store that elsewhere, along with the bones; there will certainly be a use for it at some point), coat it in salt, oil, and pepper, and heat it at a low temperature. Duane blathers about how it's a shame to do this to perfectly good meat, but it will last longer this way.

The air is soon filled with the scent of drying jerky, and Katarin wanders into the kitchen. Her face is cloudy, but then she takes one look at Duane’s grin and her eyes light up.

“I rushed over here because I thought you were using up our rations but-”

“Here I am being responsible? It happens.”

On the surface it sounds like an argument, but Terra tilts her head, watches closely, and decides it might be the opposite. When Katarin stands on her tiptoes and kisses Duane, Terra makes note of that too.

“Thank you for helping out.” Katarin turns her attention to Terra now. She clasps her hands, gratitude shining from her eyes. “Sorry he roped you into doing some of his chores. Even though you’re a guest!”

Terra opens her mouth and shuts it. As often happens with the people she encounters, Katarin’s spoken words don’t quite match her precise meaning. She doesn’t seem to be trying to trick Terra, either.

“I felt like I had to do it,” Terra says at last. “I’m a guest but… That doesn’t mean I can’t help out, right?” She really wants to know.

Duane and Katarin share a look.

“Yes,” Katarin says. "Sure you can."

“The strong need to protect the weak. That’s true no matter what the state of the world.” Duane looks at her long enough that Terra realizes he’s talking about her, and in a favorable way.

That evening, Terra learns there is a kind of contentment that comes with fulfilling a necessity. She helps the two teenagers prepare a meal for the children- Katarin chattering all the while about her methods to use as little food as possible- and then Terra assists them in filling their plates. These children are still alive, and therefore they need to eat every day. Like servicing the war machines in Vector, the children need assistance in order to keep operating.

(The machines in Vector never chattered about their day, however. Nor did they ever pitch a fit at the thought of going to bed.)

*

Terra dreams about her friends from the time before. It's inevitable. She sees their bodies every night. Impaled on mountain ridges, or smashed to bloody ruin in the wreckage of an airship. The lack of knowledge creates a void where anything and everything is possible. The gods must have created espers and humans in an equally empty space, but Terra has no wish to play at being a deity.

Each morning she feels a strange burning pressure in her eyes, She’ll shake her head, trying to dislodge the sensation, wondering if there’s a cancerous growth somewhere in her skull.

Some of them must have survived, she thinks, without any real conviction. They are strong.

She begins a routine of staying up late, reading books pilfered from a dead man’s library. She soaks in the words, allows them fall into her brain, and she begins to see the world through newly aware eyes. She takes in tales of heroism and bravery, cowardice and deceit, romance and loss. She learns about history, science, and technology. She begins to construct a timeline of the world; all the things that led her to this point, to this decimated city at the edge of the world.

Her nocturnal ways give her a second purpose. The children often have nightmares, and at the first hint of screaming, she’s on her feet. Part of it is simply because she knows the horror of waking up frightened in a dark room, but part of it is… something else entirely. Some compulsive need to comfort these children.

“Good night, mama,” one little boy says, sleepily, after several nights pass in this way. It’s the first time anyone names her as such, and Terra is so stunned she neither confirms nor denies it.

“Goodnight, Mikheil.”

After this encounter, her habit morphs into something else. She reads to the children before they go to bed. For her it's a continual learning experience, and for them it's a type of lullaby. There are fewer bad dreams all around.

*

Terra is less certain when it comes to farming. She has been in an itinerant state during her time with the Returners, and she’s never been in one place long enough to learn agricultural habits. Still, there’s a need to do it. Terra learns that horrific scavengers circle in the air with some frequency, and on rare occasions that the coast is clear one must do farming work. Or there will simply be no new food.

Katarin asks some of the children to helping Terra in her endeavor. For the most part they chatter to one another, a few of the older ones muttering behind gritted teeth that ‘the soil doesn’t look too good these days.’ Terra digs her fingers into the earth and wonders what good soil would feel like.

“Are you a rusalka?” One of the girls asks, and Terra recalls that her name is Elene.

“What is that?” Terra blinks. She must ask the question, because maybe she is one.

Elene elbows the younger boy standing next to her. They have the look of siblings. “See, Kostandin? She’s not. So stop blabbing about it.”

Kostandin wanders up to Terra and gives her an appraising look. “You didn’t say you aren’t.”

Terra sits on the ground, cross-legged, to look him in the face. “I don’t know what one is.”

“They’re scary things. Ghosts of dead women.” Elene clasps her hands, her eyes shining. Terra notes that, despite the grim topic, the girl is a bit excited. “They’re usually by the water.”

“We found you by the shore,” Kostandin says, solemn. “And rusalka like to drown men. So if you are one, can you not kill us? None of us are grown yet. Probably not even Katarin or Duane even if they like to pretend they are.”

Terra rests her knuckles on her knees and thinks. Wonders if this myth of rusalki is related to espers, and the War of the Magi. Perhaps not; there are other kinds of monsters in this world, after all.

“I don’t drown anyone,” Terra says, and she can almost feel the heat of her fire. The inferno of the battlefield. “And I’m just a- I’m not a rusalka.”

“Oh.” Kostandin looks a tad disappointed, and Terra wonders why some people secretly want the things they know are dangerous.

“A water spirit, hm?” Terra tries to picture it. “They probably feel like cold, clammy fish.” She smiles.

“Ewww.” Kostantin and Elene both sound delighted.

Terra reaches out to shake hands in the manner she’s seen among the Returners. Kostantin returns the gesture. “Yes, you feel human.”

And if I wasn’t one? “I won’t be a danger to anyone here.” Terra gets to her feet, brushing dirt from her hands. Kostantin runs off to supervise another farming project, and Elene reaches over and hugs Terra.

“What?” Terra returns the embrace, and it feels like Elene’s sharp bones stab into her heart. Katarin’s right; there isn’t enough food to go around.

“Kosta likes to ask a lot of questions.” Elene laughs, and presses her hands to her face. “Some of the other kids hate it, and he misses our mom a lot. I guess… thank you for talking to him?” Her voice squeaks at the end. From uncertainty, Terra thinks, but the look in the child’s eyes suggests unhappier undercurrents. “I can’t do it all.”

“Ah, well,” Terra muses. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking questions.”

*

The hug from Elene opens up a new avenue by which Terra analyzes the world. She watches interactions between the survivors of Mobliz, and observes that humans like to reach out and touch one another . It’s a type of communication that comes with rules and habits of its own.

There’s the way the children embrace her whenever she does something helpful (sometimes when she so much as smiles at them.) There’s the way that Katarin pats them all on the shoulder when she’s feeling affectionate. There’s the way the kids gently punch and shove each other, and then laugh about it as if it were even better than a hug.

Katarin and Duane reserve some actions for their alliance of two. They kiss all the time, like they might not get to ever again. When things are peaceful, they take to one small room for hours at a time. The older kids- the ones just a few years shy of adolescence- joke that they’re going to make everyone a new sibling soon enough. /p>

After Terra’s lived here a while, she starts dressing in the Mobliz fashion. That means close fitting trousers, and tunics that drape to her mid thigh. They’re light and comfortable, and help Terra to move through the harsh terrain with ease.

Katarin smiles a bit sadly when she sees Terra attired thus. “You look like a Mobliz girl now,” she says. “You could have grown up here and gone to school with me.” When she turns Terra around to help her braid her hair, Terra thinks about protesting that her ponytail works just fine. However, it seems that Katarin needs this moment far more than Terra needs a new hairstyle. Terra keeps her peace, and even enjoys the feeling of Katarin's fingers combing through her hair.

(It’s strange that Terra can picture dealing a killing blow to Kefka, but she cannot imagine herself as a schoolgirl surrounded by friends.)

*

When the sun rises in the sky, and holy magic is at its strongest (or so Mobliz's folklore says) Katarin walks barefoot through the crop fields. She shakes a set of tiny bells, and chants a prayer for the health of their land. She was once the daughter of Mobliz's shaman and now, it would seem, she believes the city's spirituality is her responsibility.

"Sometimes she tells me that she thinks Mobliz is cursed by the gods," Duane tells Terra once. Every morning he waits for Katarin to come back, and Terra has begun holding this vigil along with him.

"Why does she say that?" Terra asks.

Duane sighs. "We used to be nomads on the steppes. Katarin wonders if we've forsaken the gods by living in a walled city and they are taking revenge."

Terra remembers a relevant chapter from one of her books. "Didn't that happen centuries ago?"

"The gods have long memories."

 

*

Conservation is key these days, and in the spirit of that Terra winds up holding on to her old clothes. One day she begins tearing them apart at the seams, thinking that, perhaps, she can convert them cloth that can be put to other purposes.

When she tugs at one seam, coins fall out and clatter to the ground. They’re gold, silver, copper, bronze, all kinds of metal, really. The paper notes bear the faces of monarchs and rulers from many different cities, towns, and principalities. She kneels down on the floor, clutches a bill from Jidoor, and remembers how this money wound up where it did.

Yes, it was Locke’s influence. Back in Figaro, she had once caught him taking needle and thread to one of his shirts, sewing money in between the pieces of fabric. After being questioned, Locke had explained that it was one of the most foolproof ways to ensure you always had money on hand.

“Or to keep a thief from getting it easily,” he had said, with a smile that Terra now recognizes as self deprecating. His explanation had seemed reasonable to her, and she had asked Locke to show her how to do the same.

The habit proves to be a fortunate one. After all, here she stands, surrounded by a veritable small fortune. If she puts it to good use, could enrich this small, struggling town. That is, if there are places in the world that recognize cash. If there are places that still trade in money, rather than meat, shelter, and water.

If there are other places in the world at all.

She wander over to the wall, leans her elbows against the windowsill, and stares out at the Veldt. The setting sun is turning the sky into the approximate color of lacerated skin, and she feels the horizon tugging at her. It sinks its claws into her heart and she knows she won’t be content until she knows what’s out there.

The question remains; why hasn’t she gone already? She’s been strong enough to leave this place for some time now.

*

“Thamina is going to lose,” One of the children, Shirin, says. She's looking over at her cousin.

Some of the others are crouched around a game board, moving pieces about, rolling dice, and varying between arguing and giggling. A few others are napping. Terra had played this game, won once (“winners luck!”), lost the second round, and is now relaxing with Shirin.

“What makes you think so?” The rules are still lost on Terra for the most part.

“She seems bored.” Shirin shrugs. She had played one round, herself, before opting to sit by the windows. Terra understands that action now; the light filtering through the glass is pleasant on her skin. “Thamina usually loses when that happens. But she’ll stick around until the others stop playing.”

During the attack on Mobliz, flying debris had managed to severe Shirin’s hand completely. Whenever she talks about that injury, she mentions it in a detached sort of way. Allegedly Duane had seen her bleeding, carried her over the kitchen, and cauterized her wrist. Shirin seems to be taking this loss in stride, prone as she is to shoving her stump in people’s faces and laughing at their reactions.

(One morning, when she and Terra were the only ones awake, Shirin had confessed that sometimes she still feels a ghost hand attached to her arm. Terra had told her that was common enough among similarly wounded people and, no, there was nothing wrong with her.)

“Do you and Thamina get along?” Terra asks. She is especially fascinated by the varying permutations of familial relationships.

Shirin opens her mouth to speak, but the words never come out. There’s a strange whining sound from outside, a pulsating rhythm in the air, and Terra feels the window break before it happens. She dives to cover Shirin, and glass shards rain onto her back. She doesn’t have to look to know that some of them pierced through her back and that she is bleeding. Terra sits up, and takes in the sight of the other children. No one is hurt, but they are wide-eyed, shaking, whispering things like ‘no, no, no,” and ‘not again.’ Somehow this spurs her into action. She leaps outside, landing with cat-like grace. There are three demons in the sky; creatures with the faces of men, bodies like lions, wings made of knives, and they float amidst shrapnel and dust. When they open their mouths they emit an unearthly shriek.

She should be scared but, instead, she burns with purpose. She raises her hands above her head, performs lightning spells, and she kills them, banishes them. And if her magic feels diminished, somehow, at least it serves its purpose.

Later, when she looks in a mirror, she’ll understand what the others saw after the battled ended. Her tunic is torn to shreds, blood soaked, and her hair is snarled around her head. They’re no longer scared by injury or magic. They simply crowd around her, praising her, calling her mother, until Katarin reminds them that she’s all scratched up and in need of care.

“So you were a soldier for Vector,” Thamina says, as Terra plucks glass from Shirin’s skin. The girl looks on in concern, and Terra thinks Shirin eventually would have said that, yes, she and her cousin are close. “Since you have magic.”

She chants a cure spell and Shirin’s scratches smooth out, fade away to nothing. Shirin whistles low, and then smiles in stark amazement.

“Yes, I was.” Terra stands up, and the two sisters follow suit.

“Well, there were a lot of them,” Thamina muses. “I guess they can’t all be evil.”

Shirin elbows Thamina. “She actually killed lamassi for us!” she exclaims, naming one of the ancient demons that have begun roaming the Veldt with more frequency. “Isn’t that amazing?”

“Definitely.” Thamina rarely smiles, but when she does she always looks a bit stunned to be happy.

“Some of the little ones called me ‘mother.’” Terra begins the process of unsnarling her hair and tying it back up. “I wonder why.”

Thamina props her chin up on one of her fists. “Well, most of them saw their parents dying to protect us. So, to them, you acted just like a mother.”

Terra thinks on her vision of her mother lying dead in the forest, a knife in her throat. “My mother died trying to save me, too.”

*

From that day on, she begins teaching the children self-defense. How to run and hide in the best locations, and how to attack if the situation demands it. The children begin to understand what Terra already knows; knowledge leads to self-confidence.

*

Starvation is more of a threat than demon attacks, however. Katarin has a habit of going to the storerooms, counting up their supply of seeds, and coming back with a face like rotten milk.

“What do you know about the rest of the world?” She asks Katarin and Duane one night, as they are making sure the boarded in windows are still holding.

“Absolutely nothing,” Duane says. The mirth in his laughter is as false as a thief. (Falser, actually.)

“Maybe we should leave?” They could do it, Terra thinks. She could lead them across the steppes.

“I’ve thought about it.” Duane sits down on one of the battered up couches. “But some of the young ones are still weak.”

“Also this is all I- all we know. It might hurt their spirits to have to leave, after everything that happened.” Katarin joins him, and Duane throws an arm around her shoulders. “Our gods are here. Even if some might be angry with us.”

“Just give me a second,” Terra says. (Even though she knows her actions will take longer than a second. It’s just what people say.) When she returns, she tosses her stash of money at her friends’ feet.

Katarin gasps, and Duane leans forward to count up the money.

“I can’t be sure,” he says, slowly, “but this is probably more than our parents make in a year.”

Terra shrugs because she can’t confirm or deny the veracity of this.

“Looks like being in the Gestahlian army pays well.” Katarin says. She hugs her knees to her chest, and looks the very picture of misery.

“I suppose.” Terra doesn’t say that the majority of this is plunder from defeated soldiers and demons. Or that her captors certainly never paid her. “I’ve been thinking for some time that I could… Go see what’s out there. And if there are other towns I could buy grain and crops from them.” She pauses. “I don’t intend to run. I’d come back. And then you’d know more about what’s out there. This way you wouldn’t have to leave before it’s safe for the children.” She’s haunted by the possibility that demons might kill them before she has the chance to come back, but she would rather take action than watch Mobliz succumb to a lingering death from hunger.

“It makes sense, but-”

Duane’s words are cut off when Katarin begins to cry. This is not the picturesque weeping of heroines from Terra’s stolen novels; this is flat-out sobbing, and Terra guiltily wonders what she did to merit this reaction.

“It’s probably dangerous out there,” Katarin wipes tears away with her sleeve, and it's not the first time Terra's noticed the circles under her eyes. Duane leans over to kiss her on the temple.

“I know, Katarin,” he says, in a gentle voice. “But did you see how Terra killed the lamassi?”

Katarin nods, and laughs for some reason. “Yes, I’m being silly. I’m sorry. If anyone can survive out there then it’s Terra.”

People touch all the time. Terra takes a gamble and rests her hands on Katarin’s forearms. Judging by the way Katarin leans against her, Terra seems to have guessed correctly.

“I’ll be alright out there. I promise.” She smiles, because people have made promises to her before, and now she can do the same for others. “And I’ll definitely come back.”

“You’ll always be welcome here,” Katarin says, when Terra steps back.

“Yes.” Duane nods his agreement. “Mobliz is your home if you want it.”

*

Once the decision is made, all involved agree that she must leave at dawn. Better to go all at once, rather than give the children a chance to worry over it for weeks.

The survivors of Mobliz all line up to see her on her way. Some are crying, others smile, and every single child is brave.

Duane walks up to her and hands her a packet of food meant for the trip. In the times before, Mobliz’s economy had been bolstered by outfitting tourists for their trips out into the Veldt. Duane’s father had run one such shop. Terra knows by now that it would be graceless to refuse, even if they need these things. “For the trip.”

Katarin presses a warm mug into her hands. “It’s milk tea,” she explains. “When someone we love leaves Mobliz we pour out milk to the gods and ancestors. But, well…” She trails off, and Terra understands. It’s wearying to constantly mention the facts of poverty. It's wearying to explain that sometimes tradition takes a backseat to need. “May it help keep you warm.”

When Terra turns and begins her journey into the unknown, she does not look back. However, the words of goodbye ring in her ears like a particularly memorable melody from the opera.

Katarin has labeled her as someone worthy of love.

*

Terra’s journey hugs the shore. Water and life coexist hand in glove, and civilizations always spring up by rivers and oceans. If there are other survivors, she will find some of them by this sandy wasteland. If not- if Mobliz truly is all that’s left- it’s a comfort knowing she can retrace her steps. Water will lead the way back.

The Veldt is every bit as feral and undisciplined as has been rumored, with miles upon miles of brownish grass sprawling out into infinity. Every so often Terra sees animal carcasses, piles of bones (some even look human), or desperate creatures that must one foot in the realm of death. Other animals seem as strong as they must have been in the times before, and that gives Terra hope. Perhaps the world isn’t rotting from within after all.

Clouds blot out the sun in vast streaks. The wind howls through Terra, throwing dirt in her eyes, and yanking the breath from her lungs. Even when her eyes water from the pain, she feels as though she could spread her arms and let the wind hold her aloft. When she is on the steppe, surrounded by nothing but emptiness and violent gales, she notes that this is what she feels in her bones before she transforms into an esper.

She comes closer to understanding the placidity of her father’s people; emotions are a redundancy when you hold all of nature in your palm.

When sky clears, Terra watches the sun set in a vicious blaze, she bites into beef jerky, and remembers Gau. When they had retrieved her from Zozo, he had spent the better part of a half hour tailing her and talking about his homeland. He had spoken slowly, conveying his meaning through monosyllabic words; people were scared of the Veldt, but if they looked closer they would see adventure and life as well.

If she ever finds him again, she’ll tell Gau that she now understands what he was trying to say.

*

Setting up a tent is a familiar ritual for Terra. So is mouthing the words of a protection spell in order to cloak her position from the eyes of predators.

The habit of insomnia remain equally steadfast; this far from Mobliz she frets over the children’s welfare, and whether Duane and Katarin are running themselves ragged. One such sleepless evening whining howls and clawing sounds interrupt her musings. When she opens the flap of her tent six or seven pairs of bright yellow eyes slice through the darkness of her campsite. They belong to a type of wolf that only roams on the Veldt and, though they can’t break past her spell, they are aware that she is there. Terra kneels and glares back. She doesn’t move, she barely breathes, and eventually the pack slinks off in search of easier prey.

Somehow she is not scared of the thought of sharp teeth digging into her skin and rending flesh from her bones. More shocking is the realization that her magic is no longer as potent as it once was. She has noticed it before in Mobliz, and she notices it now. Once upon a time, her protection spells had been foolproof. Back then it had seemed impossible that anyone could so much as detect her work.

But the world is choking to death on impossibilities.

*

 

Terra holds her flame filled hands under a mug, and contemplates how long it takes for water to boil. (A long time, it would seem.) She is thankful to have discovered a lake and is equally relieved she has enough presence of mind to care about water purity. Disease and infection were the leading basis of casualties in Vector’s armies, far more than wounds received in combat, and Terra is determined not to perish from such a thing. Even if she currently feels as though her body has been carved from salt and ash.

When Terra hears footsteps, she steels herself for battle. Since she set food on the Veldt she he has had to dispatch wild predators every few days. When she slowly turns her head, she first sees tiny human feet, and then a doll clutched in a child’s fist. Her spy is the very first human she’s seen in a week.

Oh, is she abandoned? Terra gestures for the child to come closer. “Hello, are you alright?”

The girl blinks at Terra, her eyes as blank as two gray stones, and then she turns and runs away. Two adults stand sentinel in the far distance, and they appear to be calling the girl’s name. She is not an abandoned child after all.

Terra takes in the adults’ posture and thinks they must be looking at her with suspicion before they turn to leave. She watches that small family disappear into the horizon and envy punches her in the gut.

Now, now, she scolds herself. You belonged to two different groups, and you left them both. You flew from one, and walked from another. You have no right to feel lonely.

*

Terra encounters other humans. Some are robbers and bandits, threats best avoided. Others are refugee families grateful to encounter a soldier equipped with the magic of the fallen Empire. Terra invokes cure spells over their children, accepts the food they give her in gratitude, and listens to tales of what has happened to the world during her isolation.

Terra begins to notice commonalities among them all.

“You’re from Vector, aren’t you?” she asks a young mother named Livia, as the woman’s son dozes in Terra’s lap. “Nearly everyone I’ve met so far has been.”

“Yes, we are.” Livia has the accent of someone raised in the slums of the Imperial City. “The upper levels were destroyed, but those of us on the outskirts made a run for it. We were able to survive because we were too far from the blast.” She smiles, crookedly. “First time being dirt poor has helped any of us, I’d bet.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Terra thinks of the magitek labs’ indentured servants. Slaves, really, given how little they were paid. The ones who sometimes sneaked bread or candy to her during her otherwise tightly constrained childhood. “Why did you end up on this continent?” She is beginning to get a mental picture of the new world map, and Livia has traveled quite a distance.

Livia reaches over and brushes hair from her son’s forehead. “Tzen and Albrook were none too keen to care for a bunch of refugees. Not if they were from the city that once occupied them. I think they just want to get on with their lives and forget that Vector ever existed. Can’t blame them really.”

Terra turns her head from left to right, looking at the tents and fires that dot the landscape. At night, the ocean waves hiss and crash against the sand. “So you’re going to start again all the way over here?”

“We’re going to try.”

*

 

With every footstep, it feels as though the land becomes more and more congested with humans. Terra can no longer speak to all of them, but she can hear snatches of conversation. What they were doing the day the world ended. Rumors that Kefka had holed up in a tower and was attacking villages with high powered energy beams. Refugees’ relatives who had gone north in search of a fabled tower and never returned. As she listens, she looks out over the sea and is gratified at the sight of a landmass across the water.

Terra arrives at an impromptu port town, and she asks around to see if there are any available ships.

“We’re ferrying people back and forth from the Veldt to Albrook,” says a man who has the look of a sailor. Terra wonders if it might be a trick, but decides that these refugees had had to get across the ocean somehow. “Do you wanna go?”

“When do you leave?”

“In about two hours.”

Terra is about to protest that, no, that’s too soon. She has to prepare for the voyage. And then she realizes that, no, she’s only in charge of herself, all her materials are strapped to her back, and there is nothing keeping her here.

As the boat pulls away and the Veldt recedes into the distance, Terra wonders if she will ever see it again.