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The Grace of God Chapter 4

IT WAS THE impact itself that shocked Celes most. There was no sense of the cosmic about it, nothing earth-shattering, just a solid heavy thump that might have come from any stumbling fall. She had been bracing herself for far worse. Perhaps it had been that expectation that knocked the wind out of her -- for a while she could only lie there, catching her breath.

The ground beneath her was the same hard, smooth steel. For a second the sinking thought occurred to her that they might not have gone anywhere at all, that they might have just fallen through to the other side of the wall, like her earring. Then she felt tiny prickles of cold on the back of her neck, and raised her head. It was snowing again.

Celes pushed herself upright. They were in a narrow city alley, littered with glass bottles and damp, filthy scraps of paper. What looked to be a warehouse, or a factory, lined one side, its roof a clutter of pipe-like chimneys. She looked over her shoulder. Behind her, where the glowing wall should have been, was a tall, nondescript building of its exact shape and height. A regular pattern of windows checked its facade; soot-darkened icicles hung from its eaves and dripped water onto the alley below. It was perfectly unremarkable. Nothing about it suggested it might have been some otherworldly portal.

"Oh, I didn't like that." Next to her, Locke was stirring, but he stayed face-down, his voice muffled. "I didn't like that at all. Next time we get to land on pillows."

Celes took his hand and helped him up. He grinned at her as he brushed the snow from his shoulders, but for once she couldn't return his smile.

Meanwhile Edgar was holding a slightly unsteady Terra upright. Her eyes were glassy, her cheeks flushed, as if she had a slight fever. When she brushed a strand of hair away from her face, Celes could see three small bruises on her left wrist.

"Are you okay, kid?" Locke asked her, concerned.

"Yes. I'm just -- a little tired."

"I imagine you're a bit out of practice when it comes to magic," Edgar said. "Rest for a little while. In the meantime, we'll try to figure out where we are."

But Celes already knew.

She should have realized it, she thought, as soon as she'd heard Setzer's report from Albrook. The ground turning to metal. But she hadn't thought to connect that to anything; it had just seemed to her like another freak occurrence in a long list of impossibilities. And in the wastes, the light had been too dim and strange for her to recognize the distinctive sepia tint to the steel ground: the same sepia-tinted steel that made up the buildings here, the same uniform material bonded to everything in sight. Cheap to produce, she remembered. Strong and durable. Easy to clean, never rusted.

"Celes," said Edgar. He was watching her carefully. "Don't tell me -- don't tell me we are where I think we are."

She didn't answer. There was a rumbling in the distance. Slowly, without thinking, she walked to the end of the alley. She looked up; snowflakes fell into her eyes, but she could still see, far away, the 11:15 off-peak train curving around the massive, monolith-like walls of the Vector Imperial Palace.

"Impossible," Edgar muttered. "It was -- everything was destroyed --"

"A world of impossibilities," Terra said, stonily. She was standing next to Celes, her hands in tight fists at her sides. "Of differences."

"But I thought that meant -- I had been expecting different countries, different people! How can this --"

"Shh," hissed Locke suddenly, pulling him back.

Two women, bundled up in mufflers and holding umbrellas, were walking past the alley. One looked at them strangely and whispered something to her friend. Both quickened their pace and hurried past.

"It's too dangerous here," Locke said quietly, when the women were gone. "Anyone can see us. We need to find somewhere to hide."

"Do you think they knew who we were?" asked Terra.

"Who knows. But four people hanging around in a back alley looks suspicious no matter what world you're in."

"Somewhere to hide." Edgar laughed humorlessly. "It's Vector, Locke. There is nowhere to hide."

"Then we break in someplace."

"I doubt even you could manage that."

"Listen," Celes spoke up, voice crisp. "If this Vector is anything like the one we knew, there will be soldiers patrolling every major street and avenue. Breaking into a building would be like asking to be arrested."

"Then what should we do?" Locke asked. "We can't very well stay here."

"No, we can't. Locke, do you remember when we came to rescue the Espers?"

"Yes. Of course. Why?"

"There was that woman -- the Returner sympathizer. She let us have dinner with her."

"I remember that," said Edgar. "Her house was more like a shop."

"It was a shop," said Celes. "Or near enough. It was a very old building -- it had been used for candle-making before the city was electrified. No one bothered to tear it down afterwards. I think they forgot it existed."

"You're thinking we should try there," said Locke. "I'm agreeing with you."

"Wait," said Edgar. "Before that, I want to ... find out more about this place. I just, I can't accept this is Vector. Really Vector."

"None of us want to," said Terra, haltingly. "But I'm afraid it is. This street. I'm -- I'm familiar with this part of the city."

She didn't go on.

Celes squared her shoulders. 'Right," she said decisively. "We'll split into two groups, and meet back here in three hours. One will investigate the shed and see if it'll be suitable, and the other will find out as much about this place as possible. The politics, who's in charge. Any wars taking place. Where the Returners are. Any mention of an unusually strong change in magic in the last four years --"

"Sorry for interrupting," said Locke, but he didn't look very sorry. He looked more as though he were trying not to smile. "But how do you want to go about doing this?"

Celes had been taken off-guard. "Well, we ... any number of ways, really. We can ask any passerby, if they look knowledgable enough. Or we could simply eavesdrop. Or, um..."

She trailed off.

"I think maybe you should leave the snooping around to me. It's my specialty, after all," said Locke.

"If you want," Celes replied. "But one of us will go with you."

He shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea. No offense, but you're all a little too conspicuous. So you guys go check out the old lady's candle house or whatever it is, and I'll do some info hunting and meet you there."

"But we don't even know if the place will still be there," she protested.

"If that's the case, I'll come back here. Three hours, right?"

"Much as I hate to say it," Edgar spoke up, "it probably would be best if only one of us goes. It will look less suspect."

Celes folded her arms.

"Hey," Locke said. "Don't worry. I'm a pro, remember? I'll be fine."

She looked at him. Finally she said, "Three hours?"

"On my honor."

Celes sighed. "Well, I guess I won't be able to persuade you against it. Three hours, then. We'll be waiting for you."

"Be careful, Locke," Terra said.

"I will walk on cat feet," he promised, a hand to his heart. "See you soon."

He gave them a little salute, and they parted ways into the streets of Vector.


***


"Celes. I beg of you, stop pacing. You're going to make me break this."

Edgar was trying to repair an ancient, dusty paraffin lamp they had found, one long and precarious crack in its glass mantle. While they had found a few half-empty bottles of kerosene in one of the cabinets, there had been no wick to speak of, and Terra had nobly sacrificed her violet cotton sash to the cause. Edgar had cut it into strips using a tiny, multi-bladed knife he had procured from somewhere, and now he was trying, very carefully, to insert the twisted fabric into the lamp's chimney.

"He's late," Celes replied shortly.

The old chandler store had clearly long abandoned when they'd found it. Its windows had been boarded up, and an old, tattered mimeograph was posted to the door that may have once said "CONDEMNED" but that now only warned " ON EM D." Edgar and Terra had kept watch while Celes discreetly tore off the notice and pried open the door with her sword.

It had smelled strongly of tallow and mildew, not a pleasant combination, but not unbearable. And there was even some semblance of furniture, all covered in dusty white dropcloths: some chairs and stools, and a huge table drizzled with old wax drippings.

Most importantly, it was dry. The snow had turned to rain as the afternoon lengthened, and now, as evening fell, it beat on the old metal roof in a way that felt almost cozy.

"Only by ten minutes," Edgar said, tongue tucked into the corner of his mouth as he fiddled with the lamp. "Okay. That should do it, hopefully. Terra, if you could...?"

Terra tapped the makeshift wick with her fingertip, and it began to burn with a steady white light.

"Success!" said Edgar. "All it needed was the touch of a beautiful woman. But then again, don't we all."

"I think I have ample reason to be concerned, Edgar," Celes said, ignoring his last comment. "We're not exactly in South Figaro." But she reluctantly joined them at the table.

"He probably just got distracted by some shiny pebbles or something," Edgar replied with a dismissive wave.

Just then there was a rattling at the door. Edgar stood up first, and motioned to the women to stay where they were. He checked the peephole, then unlatched and opened the door to reveal a soaking-wet Locke with an equally soaked bundle of papers in one hand and a sack in the other.

"No one saw me," he said brusquely, by way of greeting. He stomped the water off his boots and stepped inside. "Not that it would matter much, anyway. Nice place."

"And hello to you too," said Edgar.

"What do you mean, it wouldn't matter much?" asked Celes, taking the papers and carefully trying to peel the top piece away from the rest.

"Well, apparently, the Returners aren't too popular in this neck of the woods," replied Locke, who was wringing out his bandanna over the washbasin. "In fact, you might say we're pretty much extinct."

Celes managed to extract a thin, water-transparent leaf of paper from the bundle and held it up to the lamplight. The combination of water and age gave it the color of weak tea.

"This is a newspaper page," she said.

"Read it."

She gave Locke a curious look, then squinted to make out the lettering. "Dated... six years ago. 'Jidoor, Monday. The once-affluent cultural center of the Eastern peninsula has been rocked by several incidents of insurrection in the past year, but the worst came last night, when rising tensions between the radical guerilla group called the "Returners" and local Imperial authorities finally erupted in violence. The organization incited a widescale revolt at around ten pm. The looting and rioting lasted well into the night. When the smoke finally settled, three Imperial troops had been killed, and dozens more had been injured.'"

Celes furrowed her brow and read on. "'Thankfully, these casualties were not in vain. Among the revolutionaries killed were several leaders of the Returners, including a "Locke" Cole, a radical-minded mercenary whom many think to be the mastermind behind last summer's Artisan's Rebellion.'"

There was a pause.

"You're dead," said Terra softly.

"Yes, as a doornail," said Locke, who did not seem overly bothered by the news.

"Where did you find these?" asked Edgar, who was sitting with Terra at the table, peeling papers apart and laying them flat.

"Oh, you know, the usual places," Locke said. He took a dropcloth, sniffed at it with a grimace, and rubbed at his wet hair. "Historical conservatory, library. Filched a few from private collections. I took the liberty of picking us up some grub, too," he said, tossing the sack onto the table.

"Locke," said Edgar warningly. "You did not steal food."

"No, I did not. I bought it. Thanks for treating us, by the way, Edgar." He threw him the red velvet purse, which sounded substantially emptier than before.

His mouth agape, Edgar felt his pockets. "Why, you -- how did you even manage that?"

Locke only bit into an apple and grinned.

"We will be discussing this later. Thoroughly," said Edgar, with a glare. He scanned a front-page headline. "Looks like you're still around, Celes."

"Yeah, you're quite the celebrity," said Locke. "Highest-ranking general, Secretary of Magitek Studies, governor of four cities... or was it five?" With the cloth draped absently around his shoulders, Locke pulled up a stool to the table and rifled through the papers. "Maybe it was four."

"I'm still an officer of the Empire?" asked Celes. She was standing in the center of the room holding Locke's death notice, though she was staring right through it. The letters all seemed to blur into each other.

"Mm hmm," said Locke. "Ah, here it is. Let's see -- oh, I'm sorry, governor of three cities and second heir to the throne."

"Behind Kefka, I'm sure," muttered Edgar.

"Ah, but there. There is the most beautiful thing," said Locke, wearing a wide grin. "A 'Mr. Kefka Palazzo,' the first Magitek test subject, died at age six. They published a little news brief about it -- ten years later, of course. In fact, it was part of a story about how your transfusion was going so well, Celes. Where is that one?" He began scanning the papers again.

Terra, meanwhile, had noticed Celes's unusual silence. She unobtrusively pushed back her chair and met her at the window.

"Is anything wrong, Celes?" she asked, keeping her voice conversational. "You haven't said much."

Celes smoothed the paper she held before she spoke. "It's just -- so bizarre, that's all. This -- " she gestured to the paper -- "the situation we're in... everything. The way things might have been."

"It does take some getting used to," said Terra. "Being able to see outcomes that could have occurred. How we might have turned out."

Celes felt herself tense slightly.

"I think it would behoove us," Terra continued slowly, "to keep in mind that, no matter how things might seem, this world isn't ours. The people here are not us." She smiled faintly. "Otherwise things could get a bit confusing, I think."

"Forget about the transfusion," Edgar was telling Locke. "What about Terra and me?"

"Right, um," said Locke. He put the newsletter he was holding down and stared up at the ceiling. "Edgar, you and Sabin died in your teens of a mysterious plague -- of the Imperial poison variety, I'll bet. In any case, both South Figaro and the castle are part of the Empire here, so it worked out well for them. How lucky."

"Just how much of the world is part of the Empire here, Locke?" Celes asked.

"Uh, I'd say about, oh, all of it," he answered. He began reading off an official-looking document. "Figaro, Doma, Jidoor, Kohlingen, Mobliz, Narshe... even Zozo. And of course all of the Southern continent. The only one not mentioned is Thamasa, and I'll bet that's because no one knows it exists yet."

"And if Thamasa's smart, it'll keep it that way," said Edgar, an edge to his words. "Sabin and me gone in one shot. How honorable."

Terra stood by the darkened window. "And me?"

They turned to Locke, who shook his head softly. "There, I turned up short. There's no record of you, or anyone resembling you, for as far as I looked back. To be truthful, you could be alive or dead here."

"Probably," said Celes slowly, "probably you are still somewhere in Vector, or were here when you -- passed away. If Narshe is under Imperial rule, I doubt it's still a mining town."

"It's not," Locke said from the table. "It never was, here. It's really nothing more than a northern base. All of the mining is done to the mountains to the east."

"Which would mean that Tritoch was never discovered," said Celes, "and you were never sent there to communicate with it, Terra."

"But she might have transformed anyway," said Edgar. "We can't assume anything here."

"No," said Celes. "We can't. Terra and I, at least, will have to stay out of sight as much as possible."

Suddenly Terra spoke up. "There are only four sunsets left."

"Too right you are," Edgar agreed. "Locke, did you find anything about what we're looking for?"

Locke leaned back from the table. "Not a thing. If anything they seem to be farther behind in magical technology than we were. Magitek armor was mentioned in a scientific journal once as 'theoretical,' I think, but that's about it."

"If they had discovered something truly powerful, they would have taken pains to keep it a secret from the general public," Celes said. "But whatever it is -- I'm sure that it's here, in the city somewhere."

She couldn't explain why, exactly, she was so certain. It was a tiny niggling sensation in the back of her mind, as though she had almost remembered something only to lose her train of thought at the last second. It was maddening, and persistant. Something was here that should not have been.

"Strange as it sounds, I'm sure of it too," Edgar remarked. "Maybe it's because of the trail Strago was talking about."

"It's here," said Terra, for whom it did not seem to be in doubt. "And I think we know where it most likely is."

Celes found herself nodding vaguely. "The Magitek Research Facility."

"Is that even still around?" said Edgar. "I thought they had no real Magitek here to speak of."

"Nope," Locke replied, "it's still around. Underfunded, maybe, and unloved, but definitely still around."

"The Emperor would never abandon his pet project," said Terra darkly.

"Then that," said Celes," is where we have to go. Tomorrow."

There was a long pause. Edgar broke the silence. "Well, I don't think we should use up our light if we don't have to. And I know I, for one, have had a very long day. What say we turn in?"

After a brief squabble in which Edgar insisted he and Locke should sleep on the bare floor -- much to Locke's dismay -- they agreed to pile all the cloaks and dropcloths in one corner to make one large, almost comfortable communal mattress. ("Actually I like this idea much better," said Edgar. Locke boxed his ears.)

In the end, it didn't matter. Ten minutes after turning out the lamp, all four were asleep.


***


The rain had stopped by morning. Celes woke up with a serious crick in her neck and from a light, disorienting sleep where she had thought she was back in Vector. It was only when she looked out over the top of one boarded window that she realized, with a heavy feeling, the day before hadn't been a dream.

They spoke little as they prepared. In the chilly bright air of the morning, the impossibility of the situation they were in suddenly felt very real indeed. Celes felt herself acutely aware, as she laced up her sleeves, of what was at stake here, of what the book had said: that this world would eventually consume their own, this world of the Empire. She refused to entertain the notion.

It was lucky the weather was still unseasonably cold. Otherwise the scarves she and Terra layered over their hooded cloaks would have been unbearably warm, not to mention conspicuous. As it was, when they reached the city proper, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the bundled-up crowd.

"I'd forgotten Vector was so big," Edgar said quietly as they walked. "Or maybe just that it had so many people. Is it just me, or does it seem like the whole city is awake?"

"Vector always seemed like that," Terra replied.

"Yes," Celes said, but she was uneasy. Even if the city had, in this world, grown since she saw it last, she couldn't imagine the streets being this crowded so early in the morning. It was barely light outside, and yet the still-damp sidewalks were teeming with people, all hurrying along in the same direction, as if there was to be a parade or an announcement somewhere.

"Shouldn't matter as long as we remember what to do," said Locke.

At breakfast -- such as it was -- they'd mapped out a plan. Once they reached the Facility, Terra would dispel any magical wards on the north entrance. The door there was older, and rarely used except for deliveries; any soldiers patrolling the place would give it a perfunctory check at best. From there they could enter one of the processing rooms, and Edgar would try to shut down the mechanical cart delivery system, causing a distraction. Past that, they would do what they had always done: the best they could.

Locke suddenly stopped short in front of her.

"What is it?" she began to ask, but then she became fully aware of her surroundings. The masses of people had all stopped and were gathered in the street, muttering to each other, clapping together gloved hands numb with cold and stepping from one foot to the other as if in great anticipation. Celes couldn't understand why, until she realized where they were: in front of the Imperial Palace, its doors wide open, the red banners bearing the seal of Gestahl unrolled and shuddering in the wind.

"What's going on?" said Edgar from behind her.

On the great raised dais from which the Emperor had so often issued proclamations, there stood five or six troops at full attention, rifles by their sides. Leading them was a fine-featured, dark-haired man in a cape and breastplate of blue and silver whom Celes did not recognize, and beyond them was a young man, pale and trembling, with his hands bound behind his back.

"Citizens of Vector," the dark-haired officer announced, his voice carrying over the suddenly quiet crowd. "You witness this morning the administration of justice. Thomas J. Mann, you have been convicted of desertion from the armed forces of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Gestahl. Your sentence is death, to be carried out this morning."

The crowd clapped and cheered wildly.

"Public execution," Celes muttered in disgust. "There were always proposals for them -- I never thought they would be put into practice."

"We don't need to see this," said Edgar, bowing his head. "Let's go."

"Wait."

Terra was staring up at the platform. She had pulled down her muffler, and Celes could see her face was white. "Look."

There, to their far left, seated on a throne so far back he was almost in the shadows, was a most familiar man indeed. Emperor Gestahl, straight-backed, his moustache perhaps a little longer and little more streaked with gray, watched the assembled throng before him with an arched eyebrow, far more interested in its reaction than in the events taking place not thirty paces from him. Against all expectation, Celes felt a jolt of elation at seeing him alive again, this man who had been so much like a father to her.

"We knew he would be here," she said, her voice faltering only slightly. "We just have to accept it, and --"

"No! The sword; don't you see?"

Celes looked closer. To the left of Gestahl's throne was a magnificent pearl-hilted sword, unsheathed, resting in an ornamental gold stand decorated with classical designs and fleurs-de-lis. Unusual, to be sure -- the Emperor, in her world, would never have armed himself, thinking it distasteful when there were dozens of guards about ready to die for such mundane concerns. But when she noticed, as she squinted, a barely perceptible blur around the sword's edges, a faint corona of grayish light, she realized at last.

"My God," she whispered. "Illumina."

At once it all came back to her. That frenzied feverish night when they hacked through Kefka's tower, clawing their way through the nightmare he had created for them to destroy. They had brought it with them: Illumina, the unaccountable incandescent weapon that had pulsed with what seemed to be a consciousness of its own. Who had been wielding it -- her? Terra, Edgar? She could not remember. And then left behind in their escape, forgotten, as the Statues crumbled and dragged it into this foreign world. The sight of it here made her sick with worry, as though it were a child who had been kidnapped.

"That's it, isn't it," Locke whispered to her. "What we came to find."

She could only nod. On the dais, the dark-haired officer finished his speech and gestured to the armed troopers with a flourish.

"Locke, wait," whispered Terra urgently.

He had begun to push his way through the crowd.

Celes grabbed him by the arm. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going up there to get it."

"Don't be idiotic, Locke," Edgar said incredulously. "With half of Vector watching?"

"I can climb up from the back. No one will see me. And what better distraction is there?"

"You can't really mean --" Celes was at a loss for words. "You don't really mean to --"

"When's the next opportunity going to be?" Locke demanded. "Will it be sometime in the next four days? Look -- no one's guarding him now. This might be our only chance."

It was true, Celes had to admit, that the Emperor probably would not be this vulnerable again anytime soon. But to try to steal a sword under his very nose was madness.

"Maybe, but I still think -- Locke!"

He had slipped through the throng almost without her noticing. She tried to follow after him, but realized, after a few paces, that it was futile: there were too many people, and Imperial guards everywhere. She would just give him away all the faster.

"I hope he knows what he's doing," she heard Edgar say behind her.

She didn't reply; she couldn't. She could only press her knuckles to her mouth and watch.


***


As Locke had suspected, there'd been no troops guarding the back doors of the palace. They were probably all waiting with the rest of the crowd, eager and impatient for bloodshed. He set his jaw as he scaled the wall nimbly, finding handholds in the palace's irregular walls of bonded metals and piping. Here he was, taking advantage of a public execution to provide him with cover. But it couldn't be helped, he reminded himself; it wasn't his fault. And soon they would be out of this goddamned place for good.

"Ready," he heard a voice bellow as he reached the top. It was that dark-haired officer, his sword drawn and pointed at the bound prisoner.

Here was his chance. He crawled toward Gestahl's throne. There were, as he had thought, no guards here, and he knew that with his colorless clothes he would be all but invisible.

"Aim!"

His heart beating in his throat, Locke drew closer to the throne. He could hear the Emperor's breathing. Not an armspan away was the Illumina.

He waited there, motionless, until he heard what he had been waiting for.

"Fire!"

There was a gasping cry, and then the cracking sound of several guns going off at once. Locke winced and closed his eyes briefly, but forced himself to open them at the tremendous response from the crowd. Through their raucous cheers and applause, he slid the sword silently from its frame.

He drew back just as silently. The Illumina felt warm and familiar in his hand, and he had to struggle not to laugh out loud in relief.

That had been one for the history books, he told himself as he crept back toward the wall. One of the Locke Cole top ten. Maybe it even beat out that slice of pumpkin pie he'd filched from his aunt's dinner plate when he was six. Then again, maybe not; that one had been a tour-de-force ...

There was a sudden noise behind him. He spun around, Illumina at the ready, but he slackened his grip when he saw who was there. It was Celes.

Locke opened his mouth, maybe to ask a question, maybe to say her name, maybe just in surprise. Whatever the reason, it was enough to slow him down, to rob him of a few precious seconds where he could have realized that he had been wrong. The Emperor had not been unguarded, and the woman in front of him was not Celes. But by then it was too late; she had thrust her sword into his chest, and everything, everything, happened at once.


***


General Celes Chere watched the look of shock on the man's face as she swiftly withdrew her weapon. He made no sound at all as he collapsed to the floor, the blood already flowing freely from his chest to pool around her boots.

There was a sudden scream from the crowd -- it sounded like a name. It was the voice, however, and not the words, that caught the general's attention; something about it was eerily familiar. She looked out into the direction from which it had come, and caught a glimpse of a woman fighting her way forward, a glint of blonde hair --

Then there came was a tremendous flare of rose-white light, and something blazing and sinuous streaked through the sky and slammed into her, knocking her breathless, sending her sword clattering to the ground.

Holding her side, General Chere forced herself up, only to freeze at what she saw.

Crouched over the man was a monster wrapped in pink and white fire, its eyes red-yellow slits, its flesh aglow and flaring. Before the general could react, it had taken the bleeding man into its arms and shot into the sky with astonishing speed.

For a second General Chere could only stare after it, her mouth agape. Then the world moved into action again.

"Deploy the IAF!" she ordered the dark-haired officer, retrieving her sword. "Tell them to head east. Protect his Majesty!"


***


The crowd had turned into a mob, people pushing in all directions, tripping and falling in the mounting hysteria. Celes took no notice. She shoved the bodies in her way to one side, advancing through the throng with single-minded intent, her vision blurry and her breath coming fast and shallow. She felt something tugging at her cloak and pulled away, hard.

"Celes!" It was Edgar.

She didn't even pause.

"Celes, stop -- you have to stop --" He stumbled after her and grabbed her shoulder.

"Don't touch me, Edgar," she said, jerking out of his grip violently.

"You can't go after them, they'll recognize you."

"I don't care."

"Celes, you can't possibly fight them all -- they'll capture you, and then they'll capture me, and -- Celes, wait, please!"

She whirled around at last. "What would you have me do, Edgar?" Her voice was shaking. "You saw -- you saw what she did to him. He could be dead --"

"Terra's with him, Celes. She can heal him; she's the only one. If you try to save him now, everything will be lost, do you understand?"

She stared at him, breathing harshly. Her eyes burned.

"He's with Terra, Celes. We have to trust her; she won't let him die. She'll bring him back."

The crowd was beginning to thin out around them. She said nothing.

"It's the only way to save him, Celes," Edgar said quietly. "We have to go back."


***


The rooftops of Vector were uniformly spired, or peaked, or otherwise unusable; it wasn't until Terra reached the old part of the city that she found an abandoned tenement building with a flat terrace on which she could land. She transformed back as she did so, breathing hard, and lowered Locke carefully to the cement surface.

He wasn't moving. Fingers fumbling, she parted his jacket; his white undershirt was saturated and cold with blood. She lifted it gently.

The sight of broken and bloody flesh there was almost too much for her -- not like this, not on Locke. But she closed her eyes and opened them again, resolutely, and whispered the strongest cure spell she could remember. At first, nothing happened, and she tried again, feeling slightly faint from the drain of magic. Finally the wound glowed white-green, and the skin there began to knit itself together.

Terra sat back, bringing one bloodstained hand up to cover her eyes. If she hadn't been able to use magic here, if she hadn't have been able to cure him ... She didn't want to think any further. The spells had exhausted her, and for a minute she could only sit there, not thinking.

"Terra."

She opened her eyes to see Locke looking up at her. His eyes were frightened, his lips pale, almost blue.

"Terra -- am I ...?" His voice was barely more than a whisper.

"Shh, no, Locke, you're all right," she answered him, but her heart was beating fast. He should not look like that, not after being healed. Discreetly she raised his shirt again, and saw, with horror, that the wound there was reopening, the flesh splitting apart, blood pouring out in a stream.

The sword -- the sword that woman had stabbed him with. It had been Ragnarok.

Terra could have cursed herself for not realizing it sooner, but in the confusion -- in the dizzying exhilaration of her transformation, she hadn't felt it for years -- she had not recognized the mark of Ragnarok, had not remembered that it left a virulent wound that could only be healed by one person: its wielder.

"Terra, I -- I'm," Locke whispered, trying to take her hand. His eyes were beginning to close. "You'll tell Celes -- tell her, please ..."

"No, Locke, I've healed you, you're fine," she told him, grasping his hands in her own, but she was already weeping. "You're fine, just rest, don't be scared, I'm here with you."

He didn't answer her. In the distance Terra could hear sirens, shouting, the whirr of propellors -- the Imperial Air Force was looking for them.

Seconds seemed to stretch into days. At last she bowed her head and pressed her lips to Locke's cold hands. Then she stood up.


***


Three Imperial aircraft landed in the outskirts of the city. From one of them stepped a tall, blonde woman with a white cape and a crimson sword; Imperial troopers followed behind her, their rifles at the ready.

In the shadow of an old tenement building stood the creature, on two legs, like a human being. At its feet lay the dying would-be thief. The general approached with caution.

Suddenly, and to her astonishment, the monster spoke.

"Take his body if you must." The voice was deep and rasping, inhuman. "But this Returner's death belongs to the Espers."

General Chere stilled. "What did you say?"

The creature was silent, its yellow eyes glittering.

With a quick motion of her hand, the general signaled to one of the soldiers behind her, one carrying a complex metallic weapon. He fired, and struck the creature in the shoulder.

Terra gasped and staggered back as the bullet hit her. No -- it wasn't a bullet; it was some kind of steel dart. She tried to pull it out of her shoulder, but it had somehow burrowed in, past the reach of her fingers.

Dizzily she fell to her knees next to Locke. The dart was ensorcelled with something: mute, osmose, some spell that would simply prevent her from casting magic were she a human but that, in this state, made her feel as though she were fainting, not getting enough air. Her head swam as she tried to look up.

"Take it to the Facility," she heard the General say. Soldiers, wearing steel gloves, took hold of Terra's arms, and dark spots appeared at the sides of her vision -- they, too, must have been coated with silencing magic. But she would not close her eyes until she saw -- she would keep them open by sheer force of will, if need be.

As they dragged her away, she watched General Chere take a long look at Locke's motionless body, blood still trickling from his chest. She finally knelt next to him; Terra could not hear the words, but she could see, barely, the glow of green light.

Then the world went dark.


Chapter 5

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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