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The Grace of God Chapter 5

"A MOST UNUSUAL morning, General Rurik. Don't you agree?"

Emperor Gestahl's throne room was resplendent in the colors of the season. Spring flowers, imported from Maranda, set the theme; banners with "New Life Through Magitechnology" silkscreened on them hung in varying color schemes on the walls.

The Emperor himself did not seem to notice, or if he did, did not seem to care. He sat on his throne, oblivious to the two red-robed Imperial guards on either side of him or the dark-haired officer in blue and silver kneeling before him. His attention was on a pearl-hilted sword on his lap, the blade wrapped in many layers of strange, shimmering cloth. A slight, acrid scent of burning filled the room.

"Unusual indeed, sir," replied the dark-haired officer.

"I don't believe I've ever been that close to a Returner before. A shame that I wasn't aware of it at the time."

"If you had been, sir, I've no doubt the man would be dead as we speak."

Gestahl's moustache shifted slightly: the closest he ever came to a smile. "Yes, well, perhaps. And an Esper discovered in addition. Most extraordinary."

The officer's brows lifted. "Then you're sure it was an Esper?"

"I would bet my very life on it. Don't forget that I was present at the Great Raid twenty years ago, Dimitri."

"Of course, sir. I suppose I'm just amazed. After so long, to see an Esper in the flesh -- as it were."

"I too had forgotten how exhilarating it could be. My old age catching up with me, I suppose. Regarding the Esper...?"

"It's been moved to a stasis tube in the MRF. Currently it's just under observation, but we're prepared to begin the draining process on your orders."

"Hmm. Not yet. I wonder if we couldn't find more where this one came from. You say it spoke our language?"

"That's what General Chere reported."

"Interesting. Most interesting."

Gestahl unwrapped the sword in his lap and held it by the hilt. The fabric that had been covering the white blade had corroded, as though burned through.

"Silk woven with reflect," he said to General Rurik conversationally. "I had hoped it might last a little longer than the others. How, incidentally, are Colonel Braunstein's burns?"

"Dr. Leavens says he may yet regain use of his hands."

"Good. I'm glad to hear it; he was a fine soldier. Tell me, Dimitri. Do you think it is coincidence that a Returner attempts to steal this sword less than a week after the Colonel discovers it?"

General Rurik didn't reply. No reply was necessary.

The Emperor gave the sword a few idle swipes. "I grow weary, butting up against the same magic wall I have been trying to break down for twenty years," he continued. "Something tells me this sword may be what I need to crumble it at last. I would like a special scabbard made for it -- mythril, perhaps, or crystal. Forged with both safe and shell."

"At once, my liege."

"Very well then, Dimitri. You are dismissed."


***


It was late afternoon before Celes heard. She had been waiting in the shadows near the Grand Boulevard, clutching and unclutching the hilt of her sword, when at the toll of five o'clock a newsboy appeared, carrying a large bundle of papers and crying out the headlines. Emperor Safe. Esper Captured. All Danger Past.

When Edgar opened the door of the chandler shop for her, she swept right by him.

"What is it?" he asked immediately, watching her as she took off her scarves with brisk efficiency. "What's happened?"

"They've got Terra," she replied shortly.

In the silence that followed, she took her sword from the table, attached it to her belt.

"You're sure?" Edgar said at last, his voice quiet.

"It's in the evening edition."

"And Locke?"

Celes's jaw tightened. She shook her head. "I don't know. There was no mention of him."

"We ... " Edgar, staring at the table, sounded dazed. "We have to find them. Terra would be in the Facility, wouldn't she. And Locke ... "

Celes straightened up. "I'll find Locke."

Edgar gave her a long, hard look, and took a breath. "Right. Right. Be careful, Celes. Please." He took her hand in both of his.

Of all the things she was concerned with right now, to think that her welfare would be one of them. But she nodded as she drew her hand back.

"I will. You too, Edgar."

It wasn't until she was in the thick of the streets that she noticed the strange hilt of her sword. The Atma Weapon -- she had taken Terra's weapon by mistake. But by then, it was too late to turn back.


***


Terra awoke, achy and exhausted, to find herself in a cramped place and brightly-lit place. Blearily, she tried to take in her surroundings, but she couldn't make sense of them; her vision was strangely different. Wider, more vivid, less clear. It took her a minute to realize it was because she was still in Esper form.

Esper form -- strange. It seemed to her she hadn't transformed in a long while, but she couldn't remember why that might be. Shakily, she stood. She was in a cylinder of some thick glass, about four feet in diameter, its exterior outfitted with tubes and panels. Reflexively she pressed a palm against the glass -- it, of course, didn't give. Equally reflexively, she muttered a warp spell.

At least, she tried to mutter it. The words caught, rasping, in her throat, and she coughed, the sound echoing. Even the thought of the spell was coarse and faint in her mind: thinking of it gave her a sudden, sharp headache. Someone had silenced her, and the effects had not yet worn off, but who --

All at once she remembered. Heart pounding, she forced herself to focus her vision. At last she recognized, with a chill she felt from crown to toes, the vast high-ceilinged Containment Room of the Magitek research facility.

She had to fight the urge to beat against the glass, to ram into it with her shoulder, to thrash and pound her way out and run as far away from this nightmarish place as possible. But it would do no good, she told herself, taking deep breaths to try to calm down. She knew firsthand how thick the glass was in the Empire's stasis tubes; and if she should run now, who knew what they might do with Locke. If he was still alive.

She felt more than heard the approaching footsteps. Closing her eyes, she slumped against the glass again -- no need to let them know she was awake and aware unless it was absolutely necessary.

"... should be reviving soon. The grogginess usually wears off in about eight hours."

It was a male voice, slightly muffled. Discreetly, Terra opened her eyes to slits to see a tall, gangly man in a yellow lab coat holding a clipboard. Next to him was the handsome officer with the dark hair who had led the execution.

"Ah," the man in the yellow coat said, pointing at a display panel. "I believe it's waking up."

There was no use in pretending anymore. Warily, she pushed herself back, and, though she was trembling inside, stood as tall and straight-shouldered as she could.

"Splendid specimen, isn't it?" he continued, sounding reverent. "Most powerful, too, if our preliminary tests are any indication."

"Hmm." The dark-haired officer made an expression of distaste. "I believe 'freakish' is the word I would use. You're sure this tube will keep it contained?"

"Absolutely sure, General. It's not so much the tube itself as what's in it. Observe."

The man in the yellow coat flicked a switch, and Terra saw, to her horror, a luminescent blue fluid begin to well up at her feet.

"Completely nullifies any magical properties," he continued.

The fluid, strangely cold and insubstantial, rose to Terra's knees, and she had to consciously stop herself from pulling back to try to escape it. There was, she reminded herself, nowhere to go. Her legs began to tingle, as though they were falling asleep.

"Will it be able to speak?" the general was asking. "The Emperor is keen on knowing."

"He needn't worry. Professor Cid developed this solution himself right before he died. It's quite unusual; we've been studying the formula for twenty years, but we're still not sure whether to classify it as a liquid or a gas --"

"Will it be able to speak or not, Dr. Leavens?"

"Er. Yes, certainly. If it is indeed capable of speech."

The fluid had risen to Terra's clavicles. She bucked once, involuntarily, feeling the stirrings of genuine panic. She tried to force herself to relax. It wouldn't hurt her, they wouldn't hurt her; she would find a way out, Edgar and Celes would save her.

It didn't do much good. As the liquid reached her chin, she helplessly tipped her head back and stood on her toes, hands braced on either side.

"It won't be damaged, of course."

"Oh, no. The solution is toxic to humans, of course, but quite innocuous to Esper physiology." The two men continued their conversation, but Terra couldn't pay attention. Liquid sloshed over her mouth, and she let out a small, desperate sob, but then there was no time left. She took a deep breath and squeezed her eyes shut, and the fluid closed over her head.

Minutes passed. Her heart pounded in her ears; she shrank into herself, trying to find somewhere to hide, somewhere to escape. Finally, she could stand it no longer. She let out a scream, and breathed in.

It was like the last second before drowning. Cold liquid rushed into her lungs, and she bucked crazily, clawing at the glass, trying to cough. There was, however, nothing to breathe but the fluid. After the moment passed, and she was still alive, she quieted. Motionlessly she crouched there, her eyes tightly closed, taking weird, open-mouthed breaths.

"... assume General Chere will be conducting the interrogation?" she heard the doctor say, his voice staticky but otherwise perfectly clear. He must have activated some kind of intercom. She opened her eyes; for a split-second, they burned as if splashed with lye. But then her vision cleared, and she could see, though everything was tinted a light, almost imperceptible blue.

"The General is occupied with another task," the dark-haired officer replied. He leaned forward and knocked on the glass. "Have you got anything to say to us, Esper?"

"Oh, please, sir, I must ask you not to do that. The instruments are very sensitive..."

Fear had passed; on its heels came rising anger. Slowly, Terra stood, and stared unblinkingly at the officer.

He drew back with a shudder. "Ugh. Repulsive thing."

"In that case, sir," the doctor said nervously, "who --"

But the dark-haired man interrupted him. "You made it!" he said, but he wasn't addressing the doctor; instead he was leaning back and speaking in the direction of the doors.

"Yes. Sorry to keep you waiting, Dimitri."

Terra had been so occupied with her emotions; the humiliation, the discomfort, her hatred of the two men, that she had not noticed the arrival of a third until it was too late. The voice that now reached her ears through the cackling intercom made her freeze mid-breath.

Impossible. Unthinkable, it could not be... But without Kefka ... without Thamasa ...

"Always late, Leo," said the officer, grinning.

How could it be, she wondered, how could it be that he had not changed at all in five years? As he approached she could see it all: the same fine, dusky skin, the same serious eyes, the same manner of movement that drew the eye by its very ease, by its unthinking nobility. She pressed forward, all anger forgotten, trying to see more of him, as much as she possibly could. In the blue-tinted, watery light, it was almost too easy to believe he was only a vision, that he was just another dream.

The dark-haired general was speaking. "I thought you'd never make it out of Figaro."

"I'm sorry I couldn't come earlier." The same careful voice. The sound of it, more than anything Terra had seen, brought her closest to breaking. "The census took longer than we expected."

"Well, it's a relief you're here. I thought I'd be stuck babysitting this overgrown insect."

Dr. Leavens looked hurt.

"I'm referring to the Esper, doctor," said the officer with a roll of his eyes.

"Then it is an Esper. Remarkable." Leo was watching her now. How strange to see compassion in the face of a Vector soldier.

"It has, sir, some of the highest levels we've ever recorded, " the doctor put in eagerly, handing Leo the clipboard and pointing. "And equal strength in all three of the principal damage elementals; most unusual."

"I'll leave you to it, then," said the dark-haired general, sounding bored. "Have fun. Leo, remember the conference at six."

"I will." Leo looked up as the man left. "Thanks, Dimitri."

Terra was breathing the fluid with ease, now -- but then, she felt almost certain she had slipped into a world of unreality. It did all feel remarkably like a dream, pieces from her past fitted together into a crooked, confused puzzle.

Leo was looking into her eyes. "Magnificent," he muttered, shaking his head. "Little wonder they're creatures of magic. General Chere told me it spoke to her?"

"She did, sir, but ... frankly, I'm a little dubious of her report. None of these animals has ever shown us the ability of, let alone proclivity to, speech. And General Chere is --"

"Yes, doctor?"

"Oh, it's just, she, ah -- seems to take little interest in non-military matters, particularly the study of magical creatures." He smiled uneasily. "I only wonder if she truly understood what she saw."

"I'm inclined to think so unless proven otherwise, Jerome."

"Of course, sir."

After a moment's thought, Leo straightened up.

"I am General Leo Christophe," he said, raising his voice a little. "I am a representative of the Empire of Gestahl. Do you have a name?"

Terra could not have answered if she wanted to. Floating slightly, she merely looked at him.

"Can you understand me?" Leo continued, watching her intently. "Can you speak? Would you rather communicate with signals?"

She was careful to stay quite still.

"To be honest, sir, I suspected this would happen," the doctor whispered. "It's like trying to get a dog to talk."

"Mm," replied Leo, obscurely.

"We haven't encountered an Esper in over twenty years. In my professional opinion, we should hook it up to a depletion conduit as soon as possible, so we can start studying its magical composition."

In a sudden stab of panic, Terra jerked her head to the doctor -- realizing too late her mistake.

"Ah," said Leo.

"What is it, sir?"

"You didn't see that? It seemed to react to your words."

The doctor studied her, squinting through his glasses. "A reflex, most likely, to the sound of my voice. As I was saying, sir, I would advise the Emperor to rethink his position. Specimens often weaken in stasis, and their magic along with them. I do believe it would be in our best interests to begin the draining process immediately."

Leo considered this declaration for several agonizing minutes, during which Terra had to force herself not to close her eyes in silent prayer.

"Thank you for your advice, Jerome," he said at last. "But I think we'll be holding off on that procedure for now. What time is it -- almost six?"

"A quarter to it, sir."

"Very well. If you could continue to keep the Esper under observation for tonight. I'll voice your concerns to His Majesty."

Terra stared at the place where Leo had stood long after he was gone.


***


A sharp shock to his jaw. Not painful, but annoying, when he was trying to sleep.

"Returner," he heard from somewhere far away. Then a crack against the side of his head and a brief, colorful display of lights from behind his closed eyelids. A whack across his face, and the taste of blood in his mouth.

"Returner." The voice was cloying.

"What," he tried to answer, irritably, but all that came out was a sort of garbled grunt.

His face was beginning to hurt. He tried to open his eyes, just in time to see the dim, blurred motion of the next blow. He shied back to dodge it, but something was keeping him still; it struck his collarbone with a jarring sting.

"Ow," he mumbled. "Cut it out."

For a second there was silence, then raucous, guffawing laughter.

Locke took advantage of this brief reprieve to concentrate on opening his eyes. Squinting, he made out three fuzzy shapes: two brown, one a garish chartreuse. It only took him a moment to realize they were three uniformed Imperial soldiers.

"Wonderful," he groaned.

He remembered only snips and pieces of how he had managed to wind up here when he'd planned to be home with the Illumina instead, but that was enough. Dimly, he wondered how he had managed to survive. Terra must've ...

He looked down at his chest -- his arms were above him, chained to an eyebolt on the wall -- and saw with some shock that his shirt was dyed through with still-damp blood. But there was no pain -- his face, in fact, felt a good deal worse -- and he was still alive, somehow.

The slap of a gloved hand across his face brought him back to more pressing matters.

"Wake up, dog piss," the green-armored soldier was saying. "You'll miss all the fun."

"God forbid," said Locke with difficulty, through his swollen lip.

The soldier struck him carelessly, on the jaw this time, and Locke tasted blood as his head banged against the wall.

It was going to be cute, getting out of this one.

"All right, Jenkins, good job, good job," one of the brown uniforms spoke up. "Move aside, please."

The green-armored soldier scowled, but did so.

"Here's the story, you sack of shit," his friend continued lazily, approaching Locke. He was pulling a set of brass knuckles onto his left hand. "Only reason you're not wearing sixty bullets right now is 'cause they think you might want to talk to us a while. What do you say to that?"

"I say, 'who wouldn't?'" Locke replied. He discreetly spat out a mouthful of bloody saliva. "You seem like such a great conversationalist."

The soldier turned back to his friends, and laughed with great exaggeration. "Hear that? Guy thinks he's funny." On the last word, he turned and slammed his fist into Locke's stomach.

Locke dry-retched once as the wind was knocked out of him. He had only a second to catch his breath before the soldier struck him again, and again, this time on his jaw, this time on his cheekbone, this time in the eye.

Dizzily he was aware of the others laughing. There was a brief pause as the two brown-armored soldiers switched positions. He had just enough time to see a broad, grinning face and a drawn-back fist before the second one set in.

He must have blacked out then for a minute, because the next thing he knew, he was taking deep, painful breaths, and the soldiers were no longer laughing. They were talking to someone.

"... course, ma'am, sorry, ma'am, but the General assigned us to --"

"General Rurik ordered you to guard him, not knock him unconscious."

Even in his bleary, punch-drunk state, the voice made Locke start upright -- much to the protest of his aching stomach muscles. He hardly noticed, however, when he at last focused on her. General Chere.

She could have been Celes's twin -- or Celes, perhaps, as Locke had first seen her: the impassive mouth, the impassive voice, dressed in the rich white and green uniform that she had worn once, as a general in Thamasa. But there was something else about this woman that, now that he could get a good look at her, made Locke wonder how he had ever mistaken her for the Celes he knew. Something mechanical, an emptiness in her expression and her speech, as if there were nothing beneath her surface at all.

"Yes, ma'am," the soldiers chorused, suddenly subdued.

"Leave. Expect a court summons in the morning."

"Yes, ma'am."

And then, it was just the General, and Locke, his battered body suddenly gone cold.


***


Far down the corridor, the green soldier chanced a quick glance back at the interrogation room and let out a relieved breath. "Bloody hell. I thought she was gonna turn us into imps, or toads, or something."

His friends snickered at this, but quietly.

"Nah. She likes to lock you up in one of them solitary boxes downstairs if she thinks you're being insub," the burly soldier replied. "You're lucky we got off with only a warning, Jenkins."

"Wish I coulda gotten off in more way than one," the green soldier said, leering.

This earned him a cuff on the ear. The two brown-uniformed soldiers, superior in their six-month seniority, launched into a heated, whispered lecture.

"Shut up, Jenkins. Goddamn, you make me sick."

"You really don't know anything, do you, Jenkins? She's a bloody witch."

"All pumped up with Esper juices like a runny boil."

"Get it straight now, Jenkins. Chere has a fancy enough face, sure, but she's got icewater for blood. Even Rurik says it."

"Your boyo'd freeze soon as she touched it."

"And break off like an icicle."

They had to struggle to keep their laughter muffled.


***


At first Celes had had no plan at all. Heedless, careless, feeling nothing but the need to hurry, she'd returned to the Grand Boulevard and walked briskly from one avenue to the next, as though she would be drawn to Locke by instinct, or sheer force of will. But as the shadows lengthened and the evening grew cooler, so too did the blind driving urgency that had kept her moving, to be replaced by a heavy, growing dread.

Somewhere in the eighth precinct, she slowed. Where was she going? Markets, factories, upper-class districts. They would not have taken Locke to such trifling places, not a man who had tried to steal from the Emperor himself in broad daylight in front of a crowd of thousands. But the two prisons from her memory had been empty when she found them, long dead and boarded-up, no more than two more indistinguishable warehouses.

At last Celes found a tree, its branches still bare despite the season, and sank down into the cast-iron bench beside it. She pulled down her muffler to breathe the cold air -- it seemed to her she hadn't been able to properly breathe all day -- and covered her eyes with wool-gloved fingers. She felt hollow, dangerously weak, unable to make her mind work. It was this city: this city that kept going, cheerfully, cruelly, even when the world was collapsing around her feet. She hated it, hated every person in it.

She felt eyes on her. At once she jerked upright, to see a passerby stopped next to the bench. His head was craned, his eyebrows furrowed, as if he weren't quite sure what he was seeing.

As soon as he noticed Celes watching him, he jumped a little, startled. Then, his eyes downcast, he gave her a strange little nod and continued on his way.

Soon she became aware that more people were nodding at her as they went by, taking furtive glances in her direction and hurrying along before she could respond -- if she had wanted to respond. One, she recognized too late, was an Imperial trooper; his nod was brisk and smart and accompanied by a single, barely audible word: "General."

So. They thought she was that woman. Celes's mind raced. They thought she was that woman with Celes's face, Celes's past, that creature she could barely remember without her forehead flushing hot from rage. She realized, without a doubt, that wherever that woman was, Locke would also be.

And so it was like a dream as she made her way back through the streets, her face bare and confident, the townspeople she passed taking double-takes, their eyes wide. Like a dream, and almost comedic, the way she walked up the two hundred stairs of the Imperial Palace -- to the fortress of the enemy, with her sword sheathed, with her magic nonexistent, with dozens of guards watching her as she stepped right up to the main entrance. But she had long gone past fear.

"General," said one of the sentries at the door, surprised and trying to hide it, his eyes unsure in the shadow of his helmet. "Welcome back. I had thought --"

"Yes, lieutenant?"

If she were going to do this, she must have no hesitation, no doubt in her absolute right to be here. "I'm sorry, I only thought you were in the palace, occupied with the, um, situation. I wasn't aware you'd left."

For a second she considered trying to make the soldier elaborate on the "situation," but dismissed the idea just as quickly. Now was not the time to pry out further information, not when the entire sentry regiment had its eyes on her back.

"I had an errand, lieutenant," she said. "If you'll excuse me?"

It must have been the tone of her voice, that cool disdain that was only too easy to remember and emulate, that struck all doubt from the sentry's mind.

"Of course, ma'am," he said hastily.

The two sentries unbarred the door and opened it for her, then snapped to attention, their halberds at their sides.

Celes walked between them, her head high. There would be more soldiers within, she knew, ready to react with surprise as the Imperial General Celes Chere passed them in civilian clothing and a damp, weather-beaten traveler's cloak. But she would pay them no attention; in fact, she could not, now that she knew where she was going.


***


Warily Locke followed General Celes with his eyes -- or eye, since the left one was swelling and reluctant to open. She hadn't spoken a word to him since she'd arrived, and it was in eerie silence that he watched her move around the small interrogation room, reading over a report, preparing a small, peacock-patterned leather notebook, checking the ink flow of a fountain pen by holding it up against the light.

Really, it was remarkable how much she resembled Celes. Locke found it difficult to look at her for too long. Sometimes, she seemed more like Celes than a twin could ever be, in the furrow of her brow, the straightness of her back, her intense concentration on the task at hand. More often, however, she seemed like a poor, almost perverse doppelganger: that brisk, coldly efficient manner in Celes's body; that expression devoid of any emotion, whether cruelty or otherwise, on Celes's fine, serious face.

Still, maybe there was something he could reach in this woman. Locke was keenly aware that time was running out; he could feel it as keenly as the ticking of a clock against his hand. If he could just get her to respond, even just a few words, maybe it would be enough to help him get out of here. It was worth a try.

"They're very enthusiastic with their welcomes here," he spoke up, experimentally. Her back was to him, and Locke carefully studied her to gauge any reaction, but there was none.

"A little too big on the physical contact, though," he continued. "I never was comfortable with that sort of thing. Do you mind if I ask where I am?"

He might not have even spoken, for all the response he got. The General took the leatherbound book in one hand and with the other drew up a high-backed chair, in which she sat, legs crossed, pen in hand.

"What is your name?" she asked, not looking up.

Locke knew, with a sinking feeling, that there was no point in keeping up his one-sided repartee. He remained silent.

It had been a long time since his training as an agent for the Returners, since the numerous sessions on resisting torture, but he remembered enough. And with what was at stake here, he would sooner tear out his own throat than tell her anything.

Grimly, he braced himself, but the General didn't move. She didn't even repeat the question. All she did was write something down in her book, and go on.

"Who sent you to assassinate the Emperor?"

It would be useless to deny it. Again, he said nothing, and again she didn't press him, vocally or otherwise, merely made a small note. Unreasonably, her non-action made Locke far more afraid than if she had reacted angrily, or violently.

"What is your connection to the Esper that attacked the palace at seven-fifteen this morning?" she said next, and this time she did look up.

Locke found he couldn't bring himself to look into her eyes. He dropped his gaze to the floor.

He heard the soft scratching of pen on paper. Then there was a scraping sound -- the General had pushed her chair back. Delicately she placed the notebook on it, and the fountain pen beside, and approached him.

Locke's heart was pounding. He felt exposed, transfixed, like an insect pinned in a collection. A slight fragrance reached him as she drew closer; he couldn't quite place it, until he realized it was the orange-scented soap that Celes sometimes used. He had to close his eyes briefly.

"What is your name?" she said, and placed three gloved, magic-glowing fingers on his neck, almost gently. He looked away.

When the first shock of pain coursed through him, it was nearly a relief.


***


It would all have been for nothing, of course, if the layout of the palace had changed. So many things in this world had, after all. There were subtle, insiduous little differences here, differences that swelled into world-shattering effects. And after all, more than five years had passed since Celes had stepped foot in this place. It was foolhardy to believe she could navigate her way through a cracked reflection.

But Providence was, for once, with her. Her chambers were where they had always been, in the East Wing, overlooking the Emperor's courtyard. She had made her way to them via back staircases and little-used corridors; though she may have had the perfect disguise, she was taking no chances.

This part of the palace was strangely devoid of life. Besides the blank-faced guards who had guarded the breezeway, she had seen no one: no staff or servants, no pages carrying messages from one end of the palace to the other. It was also quite cold. The warmth from the central heating pipes didn't seem to reach this far.

The door to her rooms was, as it had always been, unlocked.

Celes passed through the antechamber, the chilly room bare but for a narrow bookcase, a wood chair, and a matching table that held a small bowl of fruit. She walked past the small library which, at a glance, had far fewer books than she remembered, past the chrome-and-porcelain washroom with its hot and cold taps, and made her way through the bedroom, with its dove-gray carpet and immaculately made sheets, to the large walk-in wardrobe.

Briskly she pulled off her clothes, and began, working from memory. First the thick cotton undershirt, then the coat of mail. It was Minerva, its tiny overlapping diamantine plates shining iridescent in the white gaslight. It was also heavier than she remembered. Next came the black leggings of a thin, strong cloth, then the light green, thigh-length surcoat woven with unbreakable threads of emerald -- a miracle of craftsmanship and magic.

Then came the white. The white knee-boots with green trim; the white silk frock coat with gold and green watercolor accents; the pure white epaulets, gauntlets, cape.

A wisp of memory flickered through her mind as she worked. Whispered voices, heard as she passed by. The White Witch.

Firmly Celes ignored it, pulling on her gloves and, as the finishing touch, the silver circlet set with emeralds. She glanced sidelong at the floor-length mirror only long enough to make sure her hair was set properly in place; she had no desire to see herself like this. Her pearl earrings, she kept. They had been a parting gift from her birth mother, or so Cid had told her. Finally she rebuckled her own sword-belt -- a perfect double of the ones in the wardrobe -- and turned off the lights.

On her way back out, she threw her old clothes into the incinerator chute with only a twinge of regret and doubt. There was, she reminded herself, no time for second guesses.


***


Locke clamped his eyes shut, jaw clenched, as the electric current of magic seized him, jarring his teeth, filling his mouth with the hot white taste of burning. It lasted a long, long thirty-three seconds -- he counted -- and then it was over. He had a minute to rest and prepare himself for the next jolt.

"What is your name?" the General said again, her one-phrase litany. Unlike earlier, she seemed focused on that one question in particular, asking it again and again, as if to hear the answer would mean a full confession.

Locke would give her no such satisfaction. His current situation was by no means pleasant, particularly in light of the more down-to-earth interrogation methods the three troopers had so thoughtfully provided not long before, but it was not nearly the worst he'd ever experienced.

He could, then, endure this positively easily. He planned to pretend to crack in a few hours, let slip some "vital" piece of information for them to puzzle over for a bit, just in case they got fed up with his reticence and decided to execute him out of spite.

The General's fingers flared white again, and the shock raged through his body, making him convulse with stinging electricity.

He took slow, deep breaths when it had passed, trying to pace his endurance.

But then the General had removed her hand from his neck, and returned to the table. There was the soft "pop" of something being uncorked, and Locke caught a glimpse of a rose-colored glass vial as she raised it to her lips and drank. He smelled something heady and strong, something that made his eyes water. Ether.

He knew firsthand how it burned the throat worse than any liquor, but the General didn't so much as grimace. She replaced the stopper and the bottle, then slowly drew off her gloves and placed them on the back of the chair. Only then did she walk back to him.

"What is your name?"

Locke set his jaw, braced himself, and then -- then pain exploded, through him, around him, everywhere, and he was screaming, his back arched impossibly far, writhing in his bonds. Every nerve, every vein was on fire; he couldn't breathe to scream again -- and then it was over, and he hung slack in his chains, trembling.

His brain wasn't working. Nothing he had felt, nothing had ever been -- Aftershocks coursed through him, cruel little stabs in his fingers and joints. What spell could -- he had never felt -- "What is your name?"

She was going to do it again. That was all he knew.

"Henry Rourke," he whispered hoarsely. A boy he had known in school, the first name that had entered his head.

The General studied him carefully.

"What is your name?" she said, after a moment.

"I -- Henry Rourke," but then it was on him again, stronger this time, ripping him apart, tearing him to shreds, and his brain would not even shut down, as it should have in such agony; he was aware, fully aware of every second. His right leg began to vibrate with it, like a tuning fork, and by the time he felt it break, his screams had become almost inaudible whimpers.

He slammed up against the wall when she stopped, tears running down his face. His leg was twisted at an impossible angle, the flesh there broken.

"What is your name?"

"No," he said. "No, please don't --"

It gripped him beneath his skin, beneath his eyes, it was everything he knew; his bones quivered, bleeding from the marrow, his cells alight and shrieking. There was nothing left in him, no endurance, no strength, and he would tell her everything, everything, if only it would be over --

"Stop, please," he screamed, louder than he believed he could, loud enough to drown out the sound of a cracking at his side. "Please, Celes, please!"

And all at once it did stop. He fell limp, his arms slack, shoulder dislocating from the sudden dead weight of his body. He was breathing wetly: there was something wrong with his lungs, something broken.

"What?" she asked, very quietly.

He barely heard her; he was barely conscious.

"What did you say?" More loudly this time.

He didn't reply.

There was silence for a long while. Then she walked up close to him -- she exuded coolness against his feverish skin -- and shook his menacles slightly, as if checking to make sure they were still secure. He made no sound, even though the motion sent shivers of pain down his dislocated arm.

His eyes began to roll back into his head. The last thing he saw were her white boots, walking away from him.


***


Celes reached the fifth floor -- the Intelligence offices -- just in time to hear approaching footsteps. She drew back into the stairwell, hoping the shadows would hide her well enough, but whoever it was passed her by without so much as a pause. Cautiously. Celes leaned forward just far enough to catch a glimpse of a figure with long blonde hair and a white cape round the corner at the end of the corridor.

Her breath caught in her throat, as much from the sudden, paralyzing shock of rage as from the realization she had nearly been discovered. For a brief second, she felt the urge to chase after that figure, to ambush her with sword withdrawn, but then she reminded herself

The click of her boots on the metal floor sounded loud to her ears, and reëchoing. This hall was nothing but small, rarely-used offices of the lower beaureaucrats; this late in the evening, it was empty, the electric lights in the corridor dimmed for the night.

Halfway down the hall, she paused. There was a line of orange light coming from beneath a door to a room that should, by all rights, be empty and locked. Carefully, she placed one ear against it. Faintly she heard something: soft, ragged breaths, the kind of breaths that made whoever heard them wince in sympathy. But Celes heard something else in them, and it was with a trembling hand that she slowly opened the door.

For a minute, when she saw him, she was certain he was dead. It seemed as if all she'd done to get here, every event in the chain that had started at the party at Figaro, had been leading, inevitably, to this moment of discovery, to the sudden and utter loss of everything she knew. It was when she got closer -- she had been walking to him without knowing it -- that she finally saw, in his limp and broken body, the almost imperceptible movement of his rest moving up and down, and realized the breathing she'd heard had been his. And she dropped to her knees.

His face was battered, bruised, twisted in pain; he was hanging slack in his bonds, his legs gone out from under him. Celes catalogued it all in detail, in some far-away, detached part of herself.

Her body was acting under another authority altogether, as she reached out a hand to him.

"Locke," she whispered.

She wasn't trying to wake him. She wasn't even aware she'd spoken aloud. Gently, she placed her fingertips at his side; something hard jutted from beneath the skin. Broken ribs, then.

Without thinking, she murmured a cure spell, then cursed under her breath as she remembered. Her magic no longer worked. The one time, the only time she had ever wanted it --

Her hand began to shake. Celes willed it to stop. There was no time -- they had to get out of here.

"Locke," she whispered. "Locke, wake up."

He inhaled, eyes still closed, and winced at some pain at the bottom of his breath. His eyelids fluttered open. As he focused on her face, he recoiled suddenly, clattering against the wall.

"No, Locke, it's --" She had to speak, to keep her heart from splintering. "It's me, Locke, it's Celes. It's okay, it's me. Don't move, you're badly hurt."

Locke's violent reaction seemed to have sapped the last of any energy he had left. He mumbled something, his eyes glassy and unfocused. "I -- she --"

"I'll get you out of here. But, I'm sorry -- I'm so sorry, Locke, I need to know how to open these things."

His eyes closed again, and Celes was afraid he had blacked out. She could not possibly bring herself to rouse him again -- but then she heard his voice, weak but steady.

"My -- bandanna. Above my left ear. Two picks."

She took them out. Both were slightly curved at the end; one was thicker than the other.

"The big one -- put in the lock. Turn to the right, just a little."

Tense with concentration, she did as he told her.

"A little -- a little more. Listen for the click. That's it, right there ... Hold it there. Take the other pick and," he had to pause for a minute to breathe, "and push up."

He walked her through it, step by step. When she finally lifted the last pin, and freed his right hand, he let out a cry of pain as his dislocated arm fell. At once she knelt down to him, but he just shook his head vaguely, blinking back tears.

Celes had to manage his left hand more or less on her own, since Locke was now slipping in and out of consciousness, but she didn't fumble, didn't hesitate. As the cuff clicked open, she wrapped an arm around his good side, and lowered him gently to the floor.

"All right," she whispered, leaning his weight against her shoulder. "You're going to be fine. Just, stand you up -- I'm sorry -- like that, good. Let me just --"

Celes was so focused on what she was doing that she didn't notice Locke's sudden inhalation. It was when she looked over at him that she saw his face slack with shock and his wide-open eyes staring at something beyond her. She glanced over her shoulder.

White-clad and immaculate, General Chere stood in the doorway, the crimson blade of Ragnarok unsheathed and ready in her right hand. Her left was flickering and shadowed with some black magic spell, almost cast; and in fact she would have already used it, if she hadn't been frozen into immobility upon seeing Celes's face.

"What," the General whispered. "What is --"

Before she could finish, Celes reached into her belt and, with an abrupt and violent motion, flung something down to the floor. There was a sudden, blinding flash, and then the room was filled with a thick, opaque black smoke.

The General coughed, and took a step back. Fumbling to replace her sword, she began to recite a vanish spell; but then all at once the smoke cleared. She had to blink several times, her eyes tearing, before she could see anything.

The man and woman were gone. All that remained was a shining shape on the floor: a small, half-broken silver sphere, as delicate as a cracked eggshell, its surface exquisitely etched. When the General reached down and picked it up, it crumbled into tiny pieces which fell, glittering, through her fingers.


Chapter 6

All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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