“And to think that this has been here for the past thousand years,” Edgar mused as he leaned on his crossbow.
Sabin took a deep breath of the cool underground air, which was pleasantly humid and carried the faint smell of running water. “Where do you suppose the light’s coming from?”
“The moss, I assume. There’s a bioluminescent strain in the South Figaro tunnel. It’s not native to the mountains, and I always wondered where it came from.”
“Do you think the lake is connected to the aquifer under the castle?”
“It’s difficult to say,” Edgar replied as he snapped the bow’s limbs closed and holstered the device. They had followed an ancient road leading through the caves winding within the bedrock, careful to stay within range of the ceramic paving stones. Who could know how all the passages were connected? Edgar’s concerns were the sand and the sky, and the people who lived in the present. Whatever this giant cavern might contain, it belonged firmly in the past.
Still, one had to wonder.
“I’ve been reading about the War of the Magi,” he said, “and hiring scholars to do the same. Some have come from as far as Doma, where knowledge of the old tongue has been preserved.”
Edgar glanced at Sabin, who nodded in acknowledgment and – Edgar hoped – approval.
“There’s a theory that all of this was once a sea,” he said, making a sweeping gesture at the vista before them – the stone cliffs, the still and luminous waters of the underground lake, and the monstrous castle rising from the far shore. “Figaro may have once stretched across an archipelago.”
“That would be a sight to see,” Sabin replied, crossing his arms. “And we might see it again in our lifetimes. I assume you’ve noticed how close the ocean has gotten in the past year.”
Edgar had noticed, and there wasn’t a night that he didn’t lose sleep as he turned the matter over in his mind. Every month the storms that swept over the inland sea carved another mile or two from the shore.
Edgar grit his teeth, torn between confessing his anxiety and passing it off as a joke, when he felt Sabin’s reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“It will be nice to have some water to go with all that sand,” he said with a grin. “If anyone can figure out how to make our castle float, it’s you. And we’ll have plenty of time to map out everything down here once we’ve taken care of our business with the Tower. I hear you’ve become quite the expert at escaping from court.”
Edgar let out the breath he’d been holding. “I learned from the best.”
“That’s the spirit.” Sabin’s laughter rolled down the stone path as he set off to rejoin the others.
. . . . . .
Relm sneezed into her hand. It was just her luck she hadn’t brought any tissues. There was a loose ball of rags in one of her back pockets, but they were all thoroughly saturated with turpentine. It was her duty as an artist to see the world, but she’d had just about enough of abandoned ruins. The magic of this place was as thick as pollen in springtime, and just as aggravating to her sinuses.
She sneezed again and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. It didn’t help.
“That’s a disgusting habit.” Setzer produced a handkerchief from the cuff of his sleeve like a magician and offered it to her.
“Don’t be a creep,” Relm countered, but she accepted the handkerchief and blew her nose properly.
“You want this back?”
“Keep it. My treat. Have some of this too.”
He placed a small glass bottle filled with clear liquid into the palm of her hand before she could object.
“This isn’t booze, is it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s tonic water mixed with mint and a drop or two of ether. I use it for hangovers, but I assume it will work for allergies.”
Relm removed the cork stopper and sniffed the bottle. Small bubbles rose from the liquid, which was pleasantly fragrant. “It’s a placebo,” Relm decided.
“Of course it’s a placebo,” Setzer agreed. “Not even magic works on hangovers. Drink it anyway.”
“Fine.” Relm tilted her head back and downed the bottle in one gulp. The concoction tasted exactly as Setzer said it would – of mint and ether. There was also a touch of citrus, perhaps to keep it fresh.
She sneezed again. “I’m going to sit down for a bit,” she said after wiping her nose. “You go on ahead.”
“I think I’ll sit with you.”
Relm scowled. “I’m not a child. It’s not like I’m going to get lost if you’re not here to watch me.”
“Who said it’s for your benefit? We’ve been walking for hours, and my back hurts. Didn’t anyone teach you to be considerate of your elders?”
Relm shrugged and took out her sketchbook. Setzer wasn’t bothering her, and she’d always liked when people watched her sketch – it was like she could see her drawing through another pair of eyes.
She had been walking with Terra and Celes as they circumnavigated the lake, but she’d allowed herself to fall behind once the path became steeper as it headed uphill toward the castle. It was a stroke of good fortune that Setzer had caught up with her at a particularly good vantage point. Relm made a rough outline of the castle before filling in the details, all the while keeping her eye out for any potential points of structural unsoundness. She was too young to die, although she had to admit that being trapped in the crumbling ruins of an ancient castle would be a suitably glamorous way to go.
Relm glanced over at Setzer, who was neither sitting nor watching her. He regarded the ruins of the castle with a cold and appraising gaze.
“Do you think it will come down on us?” she asked. If anyone would know about things crashing, it was Setzer.
“I doubt it,” he replied. “The magic is so thick in this place I can smell it. Whatever has been keeping this castle standing won’t be affected by our presence. But who can say? With our luck, there’ll be some sort of dragon waiting to meet us in the foyer.” He paused and finally looked down at her sketch. “Notice anything interesting?”
She had, in fact. At the moment she was adding it to her sketch as one of the finishing touches. “I think there might be secret passage.”
“On the lower level, leading into the rock behind the castle? I was thinking the same thing myself. How much would you like to bet that Terra leads us straight there?”
“I don’t gamble,” Relm replied primly as she stood up and closed her sketchbook. “It’s a disgusting habit.”
. . . . . .
Terra sat on a stone bench in the castle gallery, watching as Relm and Celes studied the ossified body of Odin. Neither of them appeared to have noticed that the magic of the stone was sealing the entrance to a secret passageway. She’d bring it to their attention once they finished their examination.
“So this Esper was supposed to be the queen’s knight?” Relm asked with a frown.
“Who wouldn’t want to have a bodyguard like this?” Celes slapped one of the statue’s meaty thighs. “Just look at this big boy.”
“Do you think they were, you know…?”
“They were,” Terra confirmed. They both turned to look at her.
Celes’s surprised expression softened into a smile. “That must have been so romantic, being in love with someone you saw every day but could never touch.”
“Think of the pining,” Relm agreed with a sage nod.
“Oh, but they did touch each other. They could even have had children,” Terra corrected them. “It would have been possible. I remember that was something my parents worried about, but their concern turned out to be groundless. They had me, after all.”
“Wait, hold up,” Relm objected. “You remember your parents talking about how they were worried about having children? Wouldn’t that have happened, like, before you were born? How could you remember something like that?”
Terra was confused by the question. “Doesn’t everyone have memories from before they were born?”
Relm’s eyes went wide, and Celes laughed. She crossed the room and sat down next to Terra before throwing her arms around her shoulders.
“You beautiful creature,” she said, kissing Terra’s cheek and smoothing back her hair. “Never change.”
“Is that an Esper thing?” Relm asked as she joined them, sitting down on the other side of Terra. “That’s not fair! I want to have an Esper father too. Hey Terra, do you think my dad might have been an Esper?”
Terra looked into the past. It was right there beside them, after all, spreading behind them like a rich and vibrantly colored shadow. She could see who Relm’s father was, and she could see the moment when Relm discovered his identity for herself, but she decided not to say anything. She liked to keep some ‘Esper things’ to herself, after all.
“Perhaps,” Terra offered. She paused for a moment and decided to add something a bit more human. “No matter who he was, I’m sure he loved you very much.”
. . . . . .
The dragon guarding the sealed passage leading away from the castle had been a pathetic thing, old and weak from hunger. Its tired eyes had been milky with age and neglect. Celes felt bad about killing it, but it refused to let them retreat once it had spotted them.
The chamber that housed the statue of the ancient queen was a mirror of the gallery where Odin had made his last stand. Celes held what remained of him in her hand, watching his magicite sparkle as its facets caught the light. When called, his spirit had sprung from the stone, riding a horse that had not been a horse, not with teeth like that. He wielded his sword not with grace or finesse, but with absolute power, as one of the old gods might have wielded a gale wind to cleave a mountain in twain.
Celes didn’t know what sort of wizard it would take to turn bring Odin to his knees at the height of his prowess, but she could make a guess.
She leaned back against the stone wall. The bench she sat on was oddly warm. The moss from the tunnel connecting the lower reaches of the castle to the outlying cave system had made its way inside, and patches of luminescence spread across the dips and planes of the vaulted ceiling. The queen’s statue seemed to emit a soft white radiance into the dim interior.
Celes felt rather than heard Sabin approach. Even on the marble floor, his footsteps made no sound.
“Celes?” he called out. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she responded. “Is it time to leave?”
“There’s no hurry. Edgar and Setzer are arguing about something, and Relm and Terra are doing a spot of art appreciation. I just came to check up on you.”
“Thanks.” Celes moved to the side, offering Sabin a place beside her. He took it, sighing with relief as he sat down.
A few moments passed in companionable silence. “That was an impressive performance against the dragon,” Sabin said eventually. “I can’t seem to summon Espers for the life of me. Is there a trick to it?”
“No trick, just years of training.”
“I can imagine.” He laughed softly and shook his head. “Or I can’t, not at all. I’ve done my fair share of training, but what you went through must have been on a different level entirely. It paid off, at least.”
“I guess it did,” Celes replied, and Sabin didn’t pursue the matter. She appreciated that about Sabin – he never judged her for anything she’d done, past or present. Not for anything she would do in the future. How rare it was to find someone who only thought the best of you.
Or perhaps it wasn’t rare at all. Perhaps Sabin was normal, and she was the anomaly.
“It was always difficult, after the injections.” The words left her mouth before she realized what she was saying. Sabin nodded to show that he was listening, but he didn’t reply with any questions or comments. Celes decided to keep talking.
“It was dangerous – extremely dangerous – before Cid perfected the process. People died from the injections, and many of those who didn’t had to be euthanized afterwards. I wasn’t supposed to watch, but sometimes I did. I was horrified by how magic transformed the trial subjects, but I was never afraid that what I saw would happen to me. It might have been because I was so young, but the injections never hurt me in the same way they hurt the adults they were tested on – first prisoners, and then soldiers.
“It was the same with Kefka, at least at first. The experiments must have caused him terrible pain, but he never showed it. You might not believe this, but he was always cool and level-headed. I couldn’t tell you why he had such a natural tolerance for the injections, I never paid much attention to the science. Kefka tried to explain it to me himself with some analogy involving blood types, but there were too many words I didn’t understand.
“Kefka was never gentle, not in the way Cid always was, but he was kind, in his own way – or he was kind to me, at least. Then something happened. That was right around the time Vector began its preparations for war, and I think it had something to do with the emperor, but who can say?
“Whatever it was, Kefka began to take injections more frequently, sometimes even daily. Eventually he started to lose control. That’s when I learned to absorb magic. Kefka taught me the technique himself. If he hadn’t, the entire lab would more than likely have been destroyed.”
Celes shook her head. “There was something Kefka wanted, and he would do whatever it took to get it, even if that meant he lost himself along the way. Maybe he meant to destroy the Empire all along, and maybe he trained me to…”
Celes couldn’t bring herself to finish the thought: Maybe he trained me to stop him. She had failed once, but she might still have a chance. It would be a mercy, she told herself.
“Do you ever miss Vector?” Sabin asked, subtly changing the subject.
“No,” Celes replied. She didn’t think she was lying. “When that tower falls, I’m going to go back. Don’t laugh at me, but I want to plant trees. Over the whole mess, so that no one will even know it’s there in another hundred years.”
“I’m not laughing.” Sabin smiled at her. “Once you’re done, feel free to come visit us in the desert. You’re not the only one with ghosts in the basement, after all. We could use some trees here too.”
Celes stood up. It might take another thousand years, but one day all of this would be buried – the terrible things that happened in Vector, whatever terrible things had happened in this castle, all of it.
“What do you think happened to the evil wizard who turned Odin to stone?” she asked as she approached the statue of the ancient queen.
“She doesn’t look so evil to me,” Sabin answered, confirming her suspicions. “The choices we have to make aren’t always so easy, even in hindsight. We do what we can.”
“He must have really loved her,” Celes murmured. Odin’s magicite began to glow and hum as she drew closer. She held it out like an offering and watched in amazement as tears pooled in the statue’s eyes. They fell onto the warm crystal like drops of light.
“We do what we can,” she agreed softly.