THE NEXT MORNING dawned chilly again, and blustery, the bare branches of the city trees thrashing in the wind. It was still unseasonably cold, unseasonably dry; and in Vector, tremulous with fear and suspicion, the morning seemed charged with some almost palpable energy.
Such was the atmosphere in which General Leo Christophe made his way to greet the immured Esper. At first, on reaching the Containment Room, he thought it was asleep; but then he saw two deeply glowing yellow eyes watching him as he came closer.
"Good morning," he said. "I apologize I couldn't be here longer yesterday -- there was an urgent situation that required my attention."
The Esper pushed itself up off the glass, heavily. It seemed tired somehow this morning, taking long, labored breaths, those magnificent eyes dull and heavy-lidded.
"The Returner?" Its voice was similarly dispirited, flat and low.
"Yes, actually. I don't suppose you know anything about his escaping?" Leo considered his next words carefully. "Or about, perhaps, a friend of his? A woman. She looks like -- she looks extraordinarily similar to General Chere."
For a second, Leo thought he saw a glimmer of emotion pass over the Esper's face: surprise, perhaps, or something like relief. But it may have been his imagination, for when it answered, it was with the same low, neutral voice.
"No. Do you have reason to think so, considering ...?" It gestured, indicating its present situation.
Leo smiled ruefully and shook his head. "No. No reason in particular. It just seems as though, ever since your arrival, events have conspired to make life more and more bizarre in this city."
"Perhaps it's a sign."
"Perhaps. But of what?"
With an effort, the Esper pushed itself fully upright. Its eyes glittered. "General Leo. You place too much faith in your Emperor."
"You've said that before," Leo replied, with a frown. "I'm still not sure why --"
"Please, hear me out."
Leo could hear, for the first time, something almost human in the Esper's voice. He was quiet as it continued.
"His intentions may have been honorable in the past, but they certainly are no longer." It moved closer to him, against the glass. "I only wish you could see what I see. The Emperor cares only about magic now, only about Espers. He has made that young general -- Dimitri? -- his partner in his obsession. It will be the end of him, and his Empire."
Leo waited until he was sure it had finished.
"Why are you telling me this?" he asked, carefully.
"Because you deserve better to go down with him. Because I believe you can change the path this world has taken before it falls further into destruction."
"Me -- why?"
The Esper was silent for a moment. "You are a good person, General Leo. Maybe the best person I --" It shook its head. "I believe that you will do what you know is right, once you've seen what's wrong."
"Maybe," he replied, with a faint smile, "you put too much faith in me."
"I don't think so." It was speaking very softly now, its breaths sounding loud and arduous through the intercom. "Leo. I don't belong here. I can't stay here. Please let me go."
Something in the Esper's expression, in the hushed, almost feminine quality to its voice, reminded Leo suddenly of someone he knew. He could not, though he tried, make himself meet its almost-human eyes.
"I'm sorry," he said at length. "I can't do that. Not yet; please understand."
There was a long silence.
"I do understand," the Esper sighed. It was quiet for a moment. "You asked me before, General Leo, whether we Espers have names."
"Yes, I did."
"I wasn't truthful with you. We do have names, just like humans. I can't tell you mine; I'm sorry. But I think you might know it anyway, or will know it, soon."
Leo furrowed his brow. "I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"We have families, too," it continued, turning now to look at him. "I had a mother. She died when I was very young -- I barely remember her at all."
"I'm sorry," Leo began to say, but the Esper spoke over him.
"I do remember one thing, though." It was taking slow, deep breaths now between every other word. "A song she would sing to me. A lullaby.
"The sun has gone, my angel,
Night is growing near.
Do not cry, my child,
There's no need to fear."
The Esper's voice was low and sweet, and as it sang, Leo could see, in his mind, a scene backlit by the warmth of firelight and the presence of someone beloved. A soft hand stroking a soft brow, the drowsiness that came from perfect comfort, from perfect peace.
It was lovely, and he wanted to say so. Only it suddenly seemed like an impossible effort to make his mouth work. He rested his weight against the control podium, eyelids grown heavy, as the song continued.
"Sleep, my love, my only.
Sleep, my darling dear.
Ever am I with you,
Ever I am here."
Too late, Leo realized what was happening. In his warm, drowsy, firelit mind, he fumbled to remember something of his training, of the tactics to resist. Strike yourself against something. Jar yourself awake. Even one good hit could clear the magic from your brain completely.
It was no good. He tried to heave himself against a corner of the podium, but his movements were slow, dreamlike, conducted by a woman's softly singing voice. He slid to his knees as though guided by a careful hand.
Then there was the sound of glass breaking, of water rushing, of deep, grateful breaths -- the Esper had broken free, Leo realized, with a faint sense of relief. As soon as the containment liquid touched him, it would set his skin on fire, stinging him from head to foot, and even the strongest sleep spell could not prevent that from rousing him.
Only there was no burning when the fluid sluiced over his outspread hands, no piercing heat. There was only, for a second, a slight tingling; and then nothing, as though the liquid were no stronger than water.
Something was pulling him back, away from the liquid's flow. The Esper, he thought, but by then he could not even reach for his sword. The magic was coaxing him to quiescence with a steady and gentle motion, drawing darkness over his head like a blanket.
"Sleep, Leo," a voice said from far away, and the words knitted everything together, the song in his ears, the scene in his mind. "Forgive me. Be well; good-bye."
In the moment before he dropped completely into unconsciousness, Leo thought he felt the brush of lips, feather-light, against his brow.
There was no reason to guard the roof of the Imperial Palace. The roof was spiked and spired, and so no enemy aircraft could land, or even hover there, for very long -- not non-Imperial aircraft, "enemy" or otherwise, was a concern anymore, ever since the only owners of airships in the world had died in a most convenient husband-wife accident several years ago. And so no one was watching as Terra lit softly on an overhang, lifted the heavy iron hatch door, and slipped inside.
In the darkness of the hatch, she transformed back into human shape for the first time in three days. She had to hold still to the ladder for a few minutes as a wave of dizziness passed over her; after so long as an Esper, her senses felt fuzzier, her mind duller. But she could not afford to take any chances now, not when she was so close, not after all she had been through.
She touched ground and groped around in the dark for a doorknob. The roof-hatch, she remembered well, led to a small, half-hidden closet right outside Gestahl's throne room -- the result of the Emperor's many paranoias, this one being a combination of claustrophobia and the constant fear of sudden attack.
Cautiously she opened the door. The hallway was vast and grand, gleaming with blue-and-silver wallpapers and massive scarlet banners. Her footsteps made no noise on the thick carpet.
Terra could not, as she walked, stop thinking of nightfall. There were only hours left, only one path of the sun remaining until her world, and all the people in it that she loved, were lost completely, lost forever. The knowledge was like a constant clenching in her stomach, a lump in her throat.
It was probably for that reason, then, that she did not notice the fist swinging at her until it was too late. It connected, hard, with her nose; and it was more out of surprise than pain that she staggered back and fell to the floor, one hand held against her face.
"Oops. The poor little mousie got hurt."
Two pairs of hobnailed boots walked into her line of sight. Imperial sentries. They must have been guarding the main entrance, down at the other end of the corridor and so out of her range of sight. She had been taken completely off-guard; there were no guards here, usually -- but of course security would have been increased ...
"You see that, Burke?" One of them, a cheerful-looking blond with red cheeks, was elbowing the other. "She came crawlin' out of that place just like a little mouse. Where'd you think you were going, Mousie?"
His friend sniggered.
Breathing hard, Terra looked up at them, one hand holding her bleeding nose. The feel of the blood, warm and wet against her face, had sparked something in her, all the pain and fear and rage that had been churning in her for almost a week. It seemed she was looking at them through a red haze, a miasma of it.
"Tell you what," the blond guard continued. "You're so pretty, I'll tell them to go easy on you down in gaol. What do you say? In exchange for a kiss?"
Terra stared at him till her eyes burned.
Frowning, the guard kicked her sharply in the side. She doubled over.
"What's a matter, Mousie? Too good for me? Or did the cat get --"
"Bio," Terra spat at him, her voice a hiss, the word cutting through the air like a bladed weapon.
For a second he stepped back, surprised. Then he laughed. "I'm sorry, I don't know what that's supposed to mean. Would you mind terribly repeating ..."
He trailed off. His ruddy face was losing its color.
"I --" he said. "What did you --"
All at once he fell to his knees and retched violently.
"Brian!" cried his friend in alarm, crouching next to him. "What's --"
Whatever he was going to say was lost as the guard heaved again, vomiting blood.
Slowly Terra stood and stepped away from them, staring down at the blond guard all the while, her jaw set, her breath coming fast. She glanced at the other sentry, who skittered back, trembling and slack-mouthed.
She paid him no mind as she stepped delicately around them, and opened the door to the Emperor's throne room.
Gestahl had his back to her as she approached. Just in time, she remembered her appearance, and in the quick, sudden motion of flinging a sheet back, was an Esper again.
"Dimitri," he said, not yet turning around. "I had not expected you back for another hour at the least. How goes the search?"
"Where is the sword?"
Even in shock Gestahl moved slowly. Deliberately, his robes sweeping the floor, he turned to her. His face was more lined than she remembered, his hair more light. He did not answer her.
"Where is the sword?" she asked again, not needing to disguise her voice. The power of bio, a strong, virulent black magic, seemed to be coursing through her blood, fueling her hatred both old and new. Her voice was low and rasping of its own accord.
"I am not armed at present, as you can see," Gestahl answered levelly, but Terra could see a familiar brightness in his eyes, one that came when he had realized a great opportunity. "Perhaps if you told me why you want it so much?"
"No." Terra could feel rage rising in her again, that dangerous fire that had always threatened to consume her, drive her out of control. "Give it to me now." In the walls of the throne room, the fibers in the carpet, the particles in he air, she could feel the promise of heat eagerly awakening to her, straining to be set free. She felt, in Gestahl's own blood, in every cell of his body, how delicate the balance was that was keeping him alive, how easily that balance could be disrupted. It was almost a whisper behind her ear. Death.
"You don't know how easy it would be." She wasn't sure whether she was speaking aloud or not; the whispering had grown stronger in her mind. "How easy it would be --"
There was a sudden crackling in the air. Terra knew what it was before a single word escaped Gestahl's lips: bolt. A strong spell, but clumsily cast. She sidestepped it with ease, without even thinking, and a shudder of flame flared up from her fingertips, snaked through the air, and struck the Emperor in the eye.
He cried out, clutching at his face. The light from the fire had already disappeared, but Terra knew it had left behind an instant ragged scar and a white, blinded eye.
"You think because you've memorized some elementary incantations that you know magic," she said, walking closer. He pushed himself away. "You know nothing about magic. You know nothing about what it means, what it can do."
There was something glowing faintly gray from behind the Emperor's throne. Gestahl, shuddering with pain, wrenched out of the way as she reached over and retrieved the Illumina at last.
Before she left, she paused in the doorway.
"It is more powerful than you can possibly imagine, Emperor. And the next time you two meet, it will consume you."
Once in the hallway, Terra phased out of Esper form for the last time. She had almost forgotten the two guards, until she heard a voice behind her.
"Please. Please... mercy, he is my brother..."
Terra turned to see the young soldier, his comrade's head cradled in his lap. Two wet lines ran down his cheeks; he trembled as he looked at her. Terrified: Terra knew the look quite well indeed. But he didn't try to run as she came near.
"Your brother," she said.
The young soldier shook violently as she knelt down to him and looked him in the eyes.
"This is magic. This is a war with magic. You've seen it. Don't let anyone try to tell you a war will be different than this."
He nodded, a little sound escaping his throat.
She glanced sidelong at the man on the ground. He was no longer convulsing. His nose and ears had turned a dark purple-black; his eyes stared, unseeing, at the ceiling. At once Terra felt sick.
"Esuna," she whispered, and lightly ran a hand down his body. At her touch, his eyes closed, his rigid limbs relaxing.
"It's an easy thing, to hurt," she said to the young soldier, feeling suddenly tired, and deeply sad. "There are so many spells for that. It takes much more strength to heal."
The sun was moving inexorably across the sky. She took Illumina in her hand and stood, to begin her way home.
Celes heard the shouts in early afternoon. She had let Locke sleep as long as he could, unable to bring herself to wake him when his fever had finally broken in the night, allowing him the first real rest he'd had in days. It was midday before he awoke.
They had secured his broken bones as best they could, bracing his ribs with two cloth-wrapped, rigid metal strips on either side. His leg they secured with a smoothed slat of wood, until it could be knocked about from all sides without pain, a fact that Locke demonstrated enthusiastically, despite Celes's protests.
Then they'd begun the long, arduous journey up the stairs, Locke leaning heavily against her, to a side entrance that Celes knew was little-used. It was also closest to the alley from which they'd come. They had reached the ground floor when sounds of a distant clamor reached their ears.
"What is that?" said Locke, struggling to remain upright. He leaned against the wall for support.
"I'm not sure," Celes answered. People were shouting nearby; she could almost make out their words.
"... search everywhere! His Majesty wants this palace turned upside-down. Don't rest until the creature is dead!"
Creature. Could they mean Terra? For the first time, Celes felt a rush of hope.
It did not last long. From behind the corner there suddenly appeared a third-class ground trooper, his eyes wide and gawping as they fell on Celes.
"General!" he shouted. "Over here! I've found --"
The Atma Weapon was unsheathed and in Celes's hand before she knew what was happening. With a blinding blue flash the trooper's throat was cut, and he had collapsed to the floor.
"Come on." She replaced her sword and draped one of Locke's arms over her shoulders. "We'll go this way."
She led them back into the stairwell, the shouts growing louder behind her. When they finally reached the landing, however, she took a step back. The floor was teeming with soldiers. None of them seemed to have noticed them yet, but they effectively blocked any passage back into the basements.
Just in time, Celes pulled Locke with her back into the shadows, as a cluster of troops came rushing by.
"What do we do now?" Locke looked as though he were in pain and trying to hide it. Daring chases were obviously doing his injuries no good.
Celes's mind raced.
"Vehicle storage," she whispered at last. "It has the only windows without screens. This way." They slipped past the view of the soldiers and into a narrow, high-ceilinged hallway halfway between the ground and first floors. It was empty of troopers; perhaps they had not moved on to such obscure byways yet.
Vehicle storage was bolted shut, an inconvenience that Locke, leaning against Celes for support, made quick work of. As they entered, the door clicked shut behind them, but Celes did not notice.
There were no vehicles here, it being a long-neglected room designed for outdated transportation like chocobos or small coal-powered locomotive engines. There were, however, as she had promised, five wide wall-to-wall windows, screenless, letting in the cold outside air. There were also thick iron bars, places no more than a foot apart, blocking every one.
Celes walked to them, grabbed onto a bar, and pulled herself up, experimentally trying to push herself through. It seemed as though she could just barely make it, if she abandoned her sword.
But when she stepped back down and gave Locke a careful boost, it became clear to both of them that this method of escape would be impossible for him. He would not be able to fit at the best of times, and never with cracked ribs and a broken leg.
"We'll find another way," she told him, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. "The South Wing."
But when she tried to turn the doorknob, it wouldn't budge. It had locked behind them. For a while, she just stared down at the knob, her face blank. There was no keyhole on this side.
So. After all this time. After everything they'd been through. Their luck had run out at last.
"What is it?"
She just shook her head.
Locke tried the knob, tried to force it, until his forehead beaded with exertion. He stood beside her, panting. The sound of footsteps and shouting soldiers drew nearer.
"Celes." His voice was quiet.
Dimly, she turned to him. He wouldn't look at her, but walked back to the windows, where he stared out into the city.
"You can fit, Celes. You have to go."
She regarded him with something like incredulity. "What?"
"There's no reason for both of us to --" He shook his head. "Please. There's no reason for it. Please go."
"I'm staying here."
He suddenly grabbed hold of her shoulder, his eyes overbright. "Celes, I'm begging you. Please, I'm begging you."
"Locke, I can't --"
"I asked you before not to play the martyr. You said you wouldn't. If you -- if you care about me at all, you'll do this for me."
"Could you?" she demanded. She hadn't cried in five years, but the tears were hot in her eyes now, threatening to overflow. "Could you go, if it were me?"
He looked at her, mouthing helplessly, trying to form words into what they both knew would be a lie.
"Could you, Locke?"
"No," he said at last, brokenly, and with that word it was as though they had sealed some concordance, that they had agreed to the universe to serve this sentence of death together.
Somehow they both dropped to their knees, Locke ignoring his injured leg, and then at all once they were holding each other. The tears were flowing freely now; Celes found herself crying into his neck, an intimacy she would have never before allowed herself to imagine.
Each was murmuring words of solace to the other, each trying to take in the other's pain as one would a sickness; and so the kiss, when it came, seemed only like another kind of comfort. But in his warmth, with the thudding of approaching footsteps far away in her ears, Celes was suddenly, keenly aware of how brief their time was, how many chances she had given up for reasons that no longer made any sense. Desperately she surged against his mouth, holding his head between her hands, trying to lose herself for her last minutes in his taste, in his heat, in his memory.
And for a moment, as he gathered her into the press of his body, she was lost -- outside of herself, inside him. Then a distant part of her brain finally registered the sound of the door clicking; and they broke apart.
General Chere stood in the doorway. Her sword was scabbarded, her fingers clenched around the doorknob.
Celes sprang up, drawing the Atma Weapon in one swift movement. The blade flashed blue -- and then all at once it was enwreathed in thick, blue-white coils of flame. She hardly noticed.
The General seemed agitated, out-of-breath, as she met Celes's gaze.
"What is your fixation with this man?" she asked.
Celes said nothing, only held the sword in front of her, a steady demarcation. "If you try to touch him, I'll kill you. I swear to God, I'll kill you."
There was in the end, it seemed, no divine justice, no swaying of the laws of nature for the greater moral good, but what of it? Without magic, she would be killed in an instant, but what of it? Her life, her beating and bleeding mass of flesh, her body, she could give to Locke. And she would.
In perfect grace she kept the sword suspended before her, even when shouts and running footsteps from the hall burst into the room -- dozens of soldiers, to be sure, rifles at the ready, and a voice shouting orders -- that dark-haired general was here too, then. All of them saw two flawless White Witches, two generals without souls, and all the other had to do was cast a simple spell, fire, ice, vanish, death, and the standoff would be over. But neither moved, and Celes with her free left hand felt the warm leather presence of Locke behind her, and loved him, and the Atma Weapon pulsed with fire.
"Imperial scum," the General whispered, looking at Locke.
Celes did not move, registered only the hostility in the General's words and not the meaning. The world was very sharp and defined all of a sudden; she could see the outlines of each of the forty soldiers in her peripheral vision. Somehow the world had frozen, because General Chere had not cast a spell to prove she was the actual General Chere, and then the General suddenly turned and said,
"You maggots, you Imperial scum. The Returners will never die."
The General took her sword and took an awkward lunge at the nearest soldier, an impossibly clumsy move, one someone with even the most rudimentary swordsmanship training would never attempt. The soldier sidestepped it easily, grabbed her wrist, twisted it. The Ragnarok clattered to the floor.
"Seize her," ordered the dark-haired officer, and then there were soldiers teeming -- not around Celes, but around General Chere. They bound her hands roughly, pushed her toward the door. Celes could not comprehend what was happening.
"Well done, General," the dark-haired officer said.
She turned toward him, her face blank, emotionless without effort.
"I'll take the Returner. You can continue the search for the Esper."
If she had not practiced for most of her life, if it hadn't come to her as second nature, all would have been lost then. She was still dazed, still in some kind of trace, but her voice saved her of its own accord: cold, undoubtingly superior.
"I'd rather bring him to the Emperor myself, thank you."
The officer raised his eyebrows. A shadow of suspicion crossed his face. "I think, perhaps, that would not be the wisest course of --"
"General. Do not second-guess my decisions. And have your men double back to search the old hallways; they were uniformly overlooked. Now, please."
He regarded her for a moment longer, then inclined his head shortly.
"Of course, General." He motioned for his men to follow him out.
The minute they were alone, Celes felt her legs buckle, but Locke was there to keep her from falling.
"Come on," he said. His voice was weak, wavering, but somehow he was the one with the strength to get her moving, to lead them out.
The few soldiers left in the halls stepped to one side as they passed. Celes was moving in a dream, only Locke's weight against her keeping her moving as they passed through the corridors of the Palace and out into the city of Vector.
The sun was setting. Its ruddy light broke through Celes's trance, and all at once she was back at the Tower Ruins with Strago's voice echoing in her ears. Four sunsets.
Troopers were surging into the streets from the Palace, intensifying their search for the missing Esper. Celes took Locke's arm around her shoulder again and pushed her way through the crowd surrounding the Palace, keeping her head down, her mind empty. She did not pause until the crowd erupted into a deafening cheer.
"Citizens of Vector," came a voice, all too familiar, from behind her and above. Locke stopped, and she turned with him, to see that dark-haired officer standing once again on the huge raised dais, a squadron of armed soldiers by his side. And beyond them, standing tall, her hands bound behind her back, was a figure in white.
"You witness this morning the administration of justice," the officer went on. "This violent insurgent has been convicted of high crimes and treason against his Imperial Highness, Emperor Gestahl. Her sentence is death, to be carried out immediately."
The crowd cheered. Celes could not tear her eyes away.
Then Locke was encircling her with his arm, pressing her close against his shoulder. "Don't look," he whispered, "please don't look." And she didn't.
Locke watched as General Rurik motioned to the firing squad, and took a step back. His eyes, however, were fixed on General Chere.
One might think, watching her as she stood there proudly, that she was not afraid; that she did not, in fact, feel anything at all. But Locke could see, in the hollows of her throat, that her breath was coming fast and shallow.
She was looking over the crowd, but someone she seemed to sense him watching her. Turning her head slightly, she met his gaze, connecting with one pair of eyes in a sea of thousands. She did not look away.
Still she stood there unflinching. Locke clutched Celes to him, her face buried in his shoulder, and mouthed three words to the woman on the dais.
He would never know whether she had seen them or not; but for a second her mouth wavered, as if she wished to say something back.
Locke clamped his eyes closed at the crack of the guns, and oh, how horrible, how horrible was the wild explosion of cheers and applause from the crowd, louder than he could have ever imagined, as though they had been waiting their whole lives for this terrible moment. She felt Celes grasp at him, convulsively; he wondered if she had somehow felt the death of the General, of herself in a different world.
He didn't realize he was crying until she turned to face him, gently taking him by the arm.
"Locke. We have to go. We have to go."
"Yes," he said, wiping at his eyes. "Yes, you're right."
She had to lead him this time. The sun was sinking into the horizon; Imperial soldiers were everywhere, craning their necks to see over the throngs of people; and it was half-running, half-stumbling that Celes and Locke made their way through, past the streets, past the Boulevard, to the back alley where this had all begun.
It was Terra. She was holding the Illumina in one hand, her nose bloody. Edgar was beside her.
"Hurry --" It was almost dark. Locke and Celes staggered into the alley as one. Edgar and Terra were speaking, but Celes couldn't understand them; her brain had shut down at last. Someone took hold of her left hand. With her other, she held onto Locke fiercely, pressing into his chest, as if to lose any contact would mean losing him completely.
It was almost dark. Terra was saying something, speaking furiously; there was a rumbling in Celes's ears, and then she was falling; but she didn't care, because she was holding Locke.
As the first stars of the night came out in the Vector sky, an Imperial trooper ran down an old, obscure alleyway, thinking he had seen some flash of unearthly light. But there was nothing there, only broken bottles and scraps of paper. He moved on.
All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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