In South Figaro, life went on.
Imperial occupation, annoyance that it was, did not change the basic facts of daily existence. Gold still had to be procured, work still had to be done, and bellies still had to be filled. So, even under the shadow of Magitek titans, even surrounded by patrolling troops in full uniform, people carried on about their business.
And, surprisingly, business was good.
Tavern owners, in particular, were raking in the gold pieces, and every corner seemed to have a merchant hawking his "exotic northern wares" to a dull-witted Imperial or two. If there was a certain amount of wariness in the crowds in the street markets, it seemed to be counteracted by the promise of raw profit. Perhaps things would sour in a few weeks when the Imperials had tired of such diversions or when Imperial Taxes were levied, but for now it seemed as if the town had been invaded by a particularly well-armed and wealthy horde of tourists.
Of course, these tourists, like most, weren't overly polite.
"Out of the way!" the green-clad trooper said, shoving the two merchants aside as he made his way down the middle of the wide cobblestone street. The men stumbled, the merchandise in their packs jangling as they tried to keep their footing.
"Imperial dogs," one of the merchants hissed, looking back over his shoulder at the receding figure. "Have they no manners?"
"Cyan, I told you to be quiet," the other whispered, adjusting his turban with a look of annoyance. "If any Imperials hear that accent of yours, they'll know we're not Nikeah merchants for sure. Besides, we already know the Imperials have about as much manners as they do brains, and fortunately that isn't much."
"My apologies, Sir Locke."
"No problem. Just remember, you're a deaf-mute."
They resumed their trek through the city, Locke in the lead. The treasure hunter sighed as he made his way through the snarl of streets that crisscrossed the South Figaro wharves, looking for any sign of Returner activity. The sun had not yet reached its zenith in the sky, and yet it already seemed like a very long day, and already the fresh fish spilling from every street stand they passed were beginning to smell rather ripe. The fish gazed up at him with glazed eyes as he walked by, and he was left with the very disturbing impression that they were about to start laughing at his plight.
Problems had begun scarcely an hour after the Returner ship had pulled away from the coast of Doma. The ship had proven itself to be just the piece of junk it appeared, and as it had limped across the Aryth ocean on feeble engines, Locke realized that they would never reach South Figaro before the Imperials did. He had been right.
Once the ship had pulled into a secluded cove some distance from South Figaro, there had been the task of convincing Duane to stay behind and the task of preparing Cyan to go along. Locke had wanted to refuse the samurai utterly, as it would have been safer for all of them, but the man's determination to avenge his family would not be quelled. Locke found himself comparing that determination to his own desire to protect, and had sympathized. Deciding Cyan would fare far better with him as a guide than without, he had scrounged up another merchant's disguise and hoped for the best.
Sneaking into the city had eaten at his nerves, but truly wasn't that hard; a smile and a faked Nikeah accent, a few gold pieces pressed into the appropriate palm, and an Imperial trooper opened the gates willingly.
The true problem had come once they were within and he had started searching out former Returner strongholds. They were empty, often burned. Secret signs were obliterated. Contacts had simply disappeared. It was beginning to look like the Imperial sweep had cleared out every Returner in the city. If that were the case, he didn't know what they would do.
At least he could console himself with the fact that the suit he had gone to such lengths to capture was safely away on its journey to Nikeah, and after that, Returner HQ. Perhaps once Edgar's engineers had a look at it, they could really begin to understand how those damn Magitek devices worked, and maybe even make some of their own. Of course, there was the question of who would pilot them, and with South Figaro under Imperial control and the Returner cells decimated, the pool of likely candidates seemed to be diminishing quickly.
The bright canopy over the street stall was familiar, but the man beneath it was not. Still, this was one of the few leads left that they hadn't checked. So, with some trepidation, the treasure hunter stepped up to the front of the stall and called to the man within.
"Do you have any Jidoorian snapper?" he asked, the well-rehearsed code phrase falling easily off his tongue.
"What?" The man in the stall glared at him from under bushy eyebrows. "Are you some kinda idiot? They're all upstream this time a'year, and there ain't a man alive that's going to venture up into them monster-infested mountains just for a fish."
"Oh! My mistake..." Locke said, not missing a beat. "My wife adores them."
"Eh," the merchant grunted. "Buy some of these tuna. They're a lot cheaper and sturdier than them prissy snappers." He gestured to a deep bin at the corner of the stall where flies buzzed in abundance.
"Erm.... no thanks," Locke averted his eyes from the gruesome spectacle. "My friend and I will just be going." Quickly, they retreated from the stall and made their way further down the road.
"Damn it, that sure wasn't Jortul or any of his associates," Locke muttered, almost to himself. "And he was one of the last ones on my list."
The two men continued down the lively streets, passing through the tightly-packed crowds with no small amount of jostling. Leaving the dead fish and the wharfside stalls behind, they entered an even seedier neighborhood where the buildings lining the streets were little more than glorified shacks and the gutters overflowed with refuse.
"The Mythril District," Locke said by way of explanation to the silent Cyan. "One of the town's embarrassments. Edgar's been trying to clean it up forever with little success, but it does have its uses. There are so many underhanded dealings going on here, our people can sneak around all they want and still fit in."
The neighborhood only got worse as they moved on. Soon, some of the shacks were replaced with rough bars and drunks joined the trash in the gutter. Locke noted that quite a few of the figures slumped in the streets were wearing Imperial uniforms - it seemed that the more economic trooper preferred cheap northern ale to expensive northern wine. A number of women stood on the corners or lounged against the buildings, their clothing and their bearing speaking clearly about their method of garnering income.
"Hey, handsome!" One of them shouted, looking at Cyan. "Wanna little fun?" She twirled a curl of dirty blonde hair around her fingertips.
Before the samurai could respond with indignation and break his enforced silence, Locke answered her catcall. "He can't hear you. He's a deaf-mute."
"So?" Her smile was missing a few teeth. "Nothin' sez we gotta talk." She thrust her narrow hips at them and giggled, but there was something desperate in the sound.
"Just ignore her," he whispered to Cyan. "That is, unless you want to spare a word to the goddesses for her sake."
As they passed, the treasure hunter reached into his pocket, dug out a small bag of gold pieces, and tossed it to her without a word. Maybe at least that would keep her from selling herself for a day or so. He thought he heard a muffled gasp behind him as she looked within the bag, but he did not turn around. Then, they turned a corner and she was out of sight.
There it was again, that blind desire to protect. It seemed to be beyond his control, and he was helpless to fight it. Whether he was faced with a Jidoorian noblewoman, a fellow Returner, or a common street whore, he still felt the need to shelter them from harm. He would never let what had happened to her happen to another woman, not if he could help it.
Fortunately, thoughts of the past were repressed quickly when he looked up and saw that they had reached their destination. Before them was a scruffy little building made out of wood and scrap metal, with a tiny, crooked doorway. A battered sign swung above the entrance, proclaiming in faded letters that this place was "The Stray Cat." This was one stray, Locke thought, that not even the kindest little girl would want to take in.
"Er, maybe I should go in alone," he said, scratching his chin. He wasn't sure how Cyan would handle the place.
"There's no need to go in at all," the voice said, flat and icy. "Flo's not there. Of course, she didn't seem like a very good informant anyway. And, I must admit, I'm curious about why you feel the need to speak to your deaf companion."
Both men froze in shock at the sound. Footsteps sounded behind them, and Locke saw a shadow fall across the pavement in front of him, obliterating his own.
"Shitshitshit!" he swore under his breath, his hand creeping into his tunic and gripping the handle of the dirk there even as he turned slowly around. Cyan, too, was reaching for the handle of his concealed katana, his face set in determination.
They had been found out, but they weren't finished yet. Whoever this was, he was about to find out that they were not easy prey.
She had always been such a tidy little girl.
Even without being told, she liked to keep things in their proper place. When she was growing up in the steel cradle of Vector, he had never had to tell her to clean her tiny room once. She always seemed to keep it neat and to enjoy doing so.
But as Cid stepped past the pair of guards and entered the room in the Figarian manor house that served as her quarters, he found himself staring in shock. For whatever various colorful adjectives he might think up to describe Celes now, "tidy" was certainly not one that came to mind.
The general was slumped across a table in the middle of the room, her cheek flat against the wood, her eyes blank and unfocused, her hair spread out across the oaken surface. In her hand was bottle half-full of blue liquid, and more empty bottles were strewn about the table and the floor. The rest of the room was in similar disarray; the bed unmade, chairs overturned, clothing scattered haphazardly.
"'lo, Cid," she said, waving her hand in welcome. Her words were slightly slurred. "What are you doing here?"
And then, wonder of wonders, he didn't blurt out the news right away. Instead, he heard himself say, "What are you doing, Celes? It's not even noon!"
"This is my first bottle today," she said, suddenly defensive. "I need it."
"And I need you in your right mind! This is serious!"
Panic washed over him, shaking him to the core. He had spent all of his energy trying to get to Celes in the hope she could make things right. He had crisscrossed Vector, escaped the esper girl, survived one hell of a crash, and navigated the Figarian Plains just to reach her. But now that he had reached his goal, he found not the strong, capable girl he had raised, but a burned-out drunk.
For a moment, he wondered if he was imagining this, if his escape from the flaming remains of the transport and his slog across the plains was nothing but a fever dream. Perhaps he was still trapped within the wreckage, bleeding slowly to death. Perhaps he had died and gone to his own personal hell.
"What's wrong?" she said, rising and walking towards him. She hardly stumbled, and hope fluttered in his heart. Maybe some of the old Celes was left after all.
There was nothing to do but say it outright. Any delay would only prolong the agony needlessly. So he told her, beginning with the truth behind her infusion and Magitek power, then of Kefka's demands, and finally of the destruction of Vector and his own flight to the north to find her. The story was a long time in the telling, but by the time he was finished, Celes looked almost sober.
For a long while, there was only silence, and when Celes finally spoke, her voice was quiet and subdued and hardly slurred at all.
"Cid.... this is just so much..." she said, walking over to stand by the narrow window. "I don't know what to think of this. I don't how you expect me to make it all better. I don't even know if I want to." She stared down at the busy street outside as if she expected to find the answer there.
"Celes... what are you...?"
"Maybe the Empire deserves to be destroyed." She looked back over her shoulder at him. "I wouldn't shed a tear. Maybe they were asking for something like this to happen with all their experiments." She closed her eyes and shuddered, as if remembering something. "Maybe you and I deserve it, too."
"I think I understand how you feel, dear." Cid sighed, looking down at his hands. "I'm afraid I've had a lot of my illusions dispelled recently, as well. I've come to view myself in a very different light. And for what it's worth... I'm sorry about... how your life has turned out. I really didn't want this for you. I've been so blind..."
"You don't have to apologize. You and Leo were the only ones who even cared. To everyone else, I was nothing but a puppet." She shifted her gaze to the table where empty bottles sprawled, and Cid realized that whether she knew it or not, something was still pulling her strings.
"There's more than the Empire at stake here, though, Celes," he continued."This girl... Terra... is totally insane. She decimated Vector, the Imperial Capital, the most well-defended city on the planet, almost single-handedly. I don't think she'll stop there, and I don't think anyone but you can stop her. Maybe at least if you- if we end this, we can make amends for our other actions."
"You seem awfully confident of my abilities," she said. "Especially considering my condition." She waved an arm to indicate the disordered state of her chambers.
"There's no one I trust more." He forced a wan smile. "You're in command of the largest remaining Imperial force. There are troops still in the other southern cities and a few prototypes in the eastern base. Leo has a sizeable group at Doma. If you gather support from them, perhaps we can do something..."
"I'm not fit to command anyone." Celes lifted her hand in front of her face and stared at her fingertips as if something was written there. "I don't want to be part of the Empire. I don't want to be a killer anymore, Cid. I don't want... this. I don't know..."
There was a scuffle of movement outside, and then door swung open with a crash. Cid and Celes whirled to look at the man who entered, his face curled up in a self-satisfied sneer.
"That's very fortunate for you, general," Boaz Almeda said as he stepped into the room. His Falcons filed in behind him, their weapons drawn. "Because I am perfectly willing to make sure you're not burdened with the... pressures of command any longer."
Locke was only split seconds away from burying his weapon in the man's chest when he happened to glance up at him. He stopped short just in time, the tip of the dagger quivering in the air a few inches away from the other's tunic. It was a good thing; while the man's clothes were those of a merchant and his hair was several shades darker, his facial features were quite familiar. Locke tucked the weapon back into its hiding spot, deciding it might be best not to assassinate a monarch. Especially one he usually called friend.
"Well, someone's edgy today," the man said with a laugh. He did not seem overly perturbed by his brush with death. Cyan had sheathed his katana and was staring at the exchange in puzzlement.
"You wouldn't think it was so funny if you had a few holes in you right now, Edgar." Locke hissed, looking up and down the street to make sure no one was near enough to overhear their conversation. If all their sneaking around had been ruined by Edgar's little outburst...
"We're bound to attract attention if we stay here too much longer," Edgar pointed out, almost as if he had been reading Locke's mind. "I'm sure most of these people are too drunk or drugged to notice much, but I'd rather not risk it. Let's go someplace a little more private."
The Mythril District, fortunately, had no shortage of dark, cramped alleys, and it took them only a few moments to secure one that was empty except for a few rats. As Cyan stood watch near the street, Locke leaned back against one of the alley's damp brick walls and turned to Edgar, his voice streaked with annoyance.
"What was the meaning of that stunt, anyway, Edgar? And what the hell are you doing here?"
"Just making sure you're staying on your toes. And I'm doing the same thing here that you are; looking for any sign of the Returners. Also, it's 'Gerad', at least as long as we're in town. I don't think it would do for Imperial eyes and ears to find me here." Inclining his head toward Cyan, Edgar asked, "So who's this, and why is he deaf?"
"It's a long story," Locke said. "He's Cyan. We picked him up in Doma."
"I hope he's not all you picked up in Doma."
"No, E- Gerad, he's not. I got the damn thing, even though it nearly cost me my life. It's on its way to the HQ now."
"Good, good," Edgar leaned back against the wall on the other side of the alley, his pack jangling. "So, any suggestions on what we should do next?"
"Sir Locke," Cyan interrupted in a voice scarcely above a whisper, his eyes still roving the street from the mouth of the alley, "I am grateful for all of your help, but I cannot help but wonder how all this is bringing me closer to my goal. All we have done so far is wander aimlessly about."
"Don't worry, you'll get your chance," Locke said, stepping away from the wall. "But there's no way we'll find Shadow alone unless he wants to be found. And I'd rather not have him expecting us. To make any headway here, we need some informers to help out."
"Shadow? The Shadow?" Edgar asked, his eyes widening. "I get the feeling I don't even want to know."
"Cyan has someone to avenge," Locke said, attempting to cut off the conversation. He still didn't know how comfortable the samurai was talking about the death of his family, and in any case, now wasn't the time or the place. Smoothing the wrinkles out of the front of his tunic, he looked at the others. "We might as well search out the last few leads we have. Maybe we'll turn something up."
Edgar shrugged. "Not likely. It seems like a clean sweep. Still, there's nothing to do but try."
Locke shook his head. "I suppose there isn't. In any case, we should get a move on. Like you said, the longer we stand still, the more likely we are to draw attention."
Their hearts heavy, the three men left the alley and continued their futile search through the city.
Celes's hand clenched her sword hilt with white-knuckle severity as Boaz Almeda and his men entered the room. With their harsh red and black uniforms, their drawn weapons, and their grim faces, the Falcons were like their namesake, cruel predators waiting to fall upon helpless prey.
But she was not helpless. She might have been bathed in magic from sacrificed espers, she might have climbed a blood-slick ladder through the Imperial hierarchy, she might have burned away a good part of her soul at Maranda, but no matter how ill-gotten and unsavory her gains, they were real. She was not helpless. She was not prey. She was a fighter.
"I don't know what you think you're doing, Almeda," she said, the sudden strength in her voice surprising even her. "But you're a fool if you thought it was going to be that easy. Call your men off or carry their corpses out later. Your choice."
Almeda smirked, but motioned for his troops to stay where they were. "Such a change in attitude. I thought you were tired of killing."
"I am. For you, though, I'll make an exception."
"It's fortunate that I learned how to eavesdrop, you know," the red-haired commander said, that disgusting self-satisfied expression still on his face. "I heard quite a lot. Thank you, Cid, for your speed in getting here. It's helped me prepare for any more of Celes's deranged agents in advance. You look like hell, though."
He turned to the Magitek scientist as if expecting a reply, but Cid just stammered.
"Enough of your games, Almeda," Celes interrupted. "First, tell me what you're doing here. Then, tell me why I shouldn't kill you right now."
"What I am doing here, Celes, is listening to the fabrications of a drunken madwoman. Ranting and raving about the fall of the Empire and how she is unfit to lead and how we should all be destroyed."
"It's no lie!" Cid shouted. "I was there! I saw that thing.... I-"
"I am astonished," Almeda said, cutting through Cid's protest. "This is one of the most horrific things I've ever seen in my life. General Celes, we thought we could trust you... so why did you do it?" He raised his right hand and made a sharp gesture.
"Why did you kill Cid?"
To Celes, time seemed to slow and fracture, splitting into a hundred separate instants devoid of sound or emotion. Her senses wrapped in layers of wool, she could only watch the nightmarish drama play out. She would remember this moment, she knew, for the rest of her life, and yet she was too stunned and too far away to stop it.
The soldier stepped forward dreamily, his blade sweeping up and flaring brightly as the sunlight caught it and then slashing down in a steel blur. Blood splattered the floor, the walls, her. The yellow-slickered figure gasped and lurched against the heavy table, sending a cascade of bottles flying into the air. They shattered into a hundred tinkling shards as the Magitek scientist tumbled face down on the floor, and with the crash, time seemed to flow normally again.
"Cid!" The scream tore forth from her lungs savagely, and then her legs were pumping and she was at his side. She knelt down beside his stricken form, all thoughts of Almeda and his Falcons gone in the sudden onslaught of terror.
"Cid!" She tugged on his shoulder and he flopped over, revealing a ghastly wound that stretched diagonally from neck to mid-chest in a ragged red trench. Battlefield experience told her at a glance that the wound was mortal, but she allowed hope to have its way, just this once. As he gasped like a fish and hammered the floor with his fists, she placed her hands against the worst part of the wound and pressed down, trying to stem the vital flow. Blood bubbled up between her fingers, sticky and red.
Blood on your hands, Celes. Blood blood blood on your hands.
"Cid, be still! Don't try to move... don't...." He continued his wild thrashing despite her advice, almost as if he were already beyond hearing. But there might be a chance, if only she concentrated enough, if only the magic spell was perfectly crafted...
Celes closed her eyes and delved down arcane paths, reaching deep and brushing at the icy, throbbing shard of magic buried in her soul. Stolen magic, she now realized. Pure esper essence, drained from a living creature and infused into her so that she might partake of its power. It was not a pleasant revelation, and where once caressing that cold fragment had brought comfort and confidence, it now brought only a stab of guilt and regret.
That doesn't matter! As long as it works... please, please let it work...
She gathered and focused frosty blue strands of power, carefully shaping the cure spell with her mind, imagining the wound beneath her fingers closing, the flesh knitting together again. As soon as that image was crystallized, she pushed it outward, willing her power into the Magitek scientist's body.
"No!" She wailed. Intensifying her concentration, she gathered the magic and pushed again.
This couldn't be happening it had always worked before and why wasn't it working now she couldn't fail it couldn't fail not now not now not now it had to work it had to had to had to had to
No! No time for hysterics oh goddesses what's wrong work work work you have to work WORK!
Cid gave one last groan and then fell silent. His shaking had stopped long before, and his hands now lay still at his side. Blood was beginning to ooze down his chin in thick red runnels.
"Cid, don't do this!"
"I wouldn't bother," Almeda said. "I don't think you'll be spellcasting for some time. Really, I wonder why Gestahl wasted so much time and money on a program that can be countered by simple drugged potions."
"You bastard," Celes sobbed, looking down at Cid's still form. As she closed the Magitek scientist's eyes, she felt rage stir within her, consuming her sadness and leaving raw anger in its place. Strangely enough, the rage was not hot but cold, like the magic within. She felt as if she were freezing, the blood in her veins riming with frost, the tears on her cheeks crystallizing into shards of ice, her soul bathing in a wintry pond. When she stood and drew her sword, staining the finely crafted hilt with Cid's blood, she half expected to see snowflakes swirling throughout the room.
"I'm going to kill you," she said, letting the ice in her soul flow from her lips.
"Celes, please." Almeda spread his arms wide, as if he were trying to placate her. "Hasn't there been enough bloodshed at your hands already today? Are you going to carry on with this mad crusade? Please, don't kill any more innocent Imperials, I beg you."
The Falcon who had struck down Cid was dead before he knew what had hit him; a single slash with her runic edge opened him from crotch to throat and he fell back in a shower of his own blood, his heels drumming out a crazy beat against the floor. Not bothering to watch him die, she turned and slashed at the next one. Her blade bit deep into his weapon arm and he screamed as his wrist drooped, dangling limply by one thin strand of meat. His sword slid from his fingers, but before the weapon could even hit the floor, the point of her sword pierced his heart.
She pulled her weapon free and whirled just in time to block a slash from behind. The Falcon grunted and advanced, swinging his broadsword so quickly that she could barely intercept his blows. Dimly, as she struggled to fend off the onslaught, she heard Almeda call out to his men:
"Alive! I want her alive! Can't you men handle one drunk?"
As if the word drunk had been a curse, she was suddenly aware of how leaden her limbs felt, how the entire world seemed to be a little out of focus, how the ground seemed to sway slightly under her feet. Celes struggled against the vertigo as best she could, knowing that for Cid's sake, she had to fight on.
Finally, her opponent made a mistake and overextended himself. Ducking under his clumsy swing, she drove her weapon forward, burying it up to the hilt in his midsection. Blood frothed from his mouth and he went down, but before she could pull her sword from his corpse, disaster struck.
Pain exploded in the side of her head and glittery bursts of light flared across her vision as the soldier behind her connected solidly with the flat of his blade. Suddenly, she was on her knees, the floor looming only inches away from her face. She lifted her head and tried to get back to her feet, but the world pitched and yawed wildly, growing ever more blurry before her eyes. Then came the boot in her ribs, and the horrible pain like inhaling brimstone.
She lost her balance and fell on her face, instinctively grabbing her midsection and curling up in the fetal position as more blows rained down upon her. Almeda was still talking, and his voice lingered in her brain even as the knockout blow slammed into the back of her skull.
"Careful with the face, men. She has to look nice for her public execution."
It wasn't quite their last resort, but it was close.
Trivette's bar was scarcely deserving of the name. It festered in the basement of a rather rickety building bordering the Mythril district, a rough place that served rough men rough ale and looked the part. The floor was hard-packed earth, the tables and chairs crude and poorly made, and the bar itself nothing more than a long plank laid atop a row of old ale barrels. The meager light that beamed in from the narrow windows near the ceiling mercifully left the floor, the patrons, and the barmaids in deep shadow. The very thought of the things that might be crawling about in the darkness was enough to make a man shudder, but getting a good look at them would be even worse.
I can't believe this dump is actually part of my kingdom...
Edgar Figaro sat at one of the small tables, wrinkling his nose in distaste at the mixed aroma of sweat and cheap alcohol that permeated the room and trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. Across the stained and pitted tabletop, Cyan wore a similar expression of disgust. The samurai's eyes, however, were adamantine-hard as they surveyed the dim expanse of the bar.
"Try not to look around so much," Edgar said in a low voice. "The last thing we need to do here is draw any attention to ourselves."
Doing so would turn an already bad situation deadly. They were, after all, lying in a nest of vipers, and the slightest twitch could incite an attack.
Vipers indeed, The young king thought, anger filling him at the thought. Trivette's bar might be an inexcusable dump, but damn it, it was Figaro's dump, and its current patrons just didn't belong.
At nearly every table, stretching from one end of the darkened bar to the other, were Imperials. Their faces were pale ghosts in the dim light, floating above dark uniforms that were nearly invisible. Many were shouting and yelling, banging their ale mugs against the tables and calling for the barmaids. Others, already soused, slumped across tables or simply laid motionless on the floor.
It looked, in other words, like any of a dozen other bars he had seen in Imperial occupied territory, but yet...
Something's different... what... something...
The thought escaped him as he glanced at the bar. Locke leaned easily against the splintered surface, apparently still engaged in conversation with Trivette, the bartender. If the way the fat man sweated and fretted behind the bar was any indication, his nerves were worn to the nub, but at least he was still breathing. He was, in fact, the only living Returner they had seen all day. That had to say something about his knack for surviving.
"These'rr on the house," a gravelly voice from behind him said, and he turned to see a serving girl standing there with three mugs of ale. Well... perhaps the term "girl" was stretching it a bit, given her rough voice and crudely shaped features, but the massive bosom that jutted out like the prow of a ship from her torso definitely marked her as a female. "Master Trivette extends his welcome to ya."
"Greetings, miss. How are you tod-"
Paying no attention to him, she dropped the tray unceremoniously on the table, jostling the cups and splashing a bit of ale across the already stained surface. Then she turned with a grunt and was gone in a rustle of cotton skirts.
"That wasn't very polite," he said to no one in particular. He was accustomed to girls staying to chat for some time, to their shy giggles, and blushes, and coy flirting. It was the rare woman that could resist Edgar Figaro, and yet he seemed to have found her.
Oh, like you'd even want her attention anyway, Edgar, he chided himself. You really are full of yourself. Besides, right now you're just Gerad, the simple Nikeah merchant....
He nudged the pack resting below the table with his foot to assure himself it was still there, smiling as the materials within clanked together. He might look like the average merchant, but his cargo was far from typical. He only hoped they wouldn't need to use it. He wasn't even sure it would work.
Locke was returning now, weaving his way through the crowd of drunken Imperials with care. He dropped into the table's third misshapen seat, a grin stretching from ear to ear.
"I think we've found what we're looking for. Trivette couldn't talk much now, of course, but at least he's still alive. He's supposed to send word in a minute."
Edgar glanced back towards the bar just in time to see the fat man's back vanish through a small door set into the wall behind the ramshackle structure. Two or three barmaids followed him, looking back over their shoulders anxiously. Almost before he was aware of it, a stab of fear shot through Edgar and beads of sweat broke out all over his body. Something wasn't right.
What's going on here?
Locke and Cyan, both sitting with their backs to the bar, had failed to notice the sudden rush of activity. Lifting one of the ale mugs to his lips, Locke took a sip, only to spit the drink back with a look of disgust a few seconds later.
"Ugh," he said, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. "This stuff could strip the paint off a bulkhead. I don't know how these Imperials can stomach enough to actually get drunk."
When he had previously surveyed the dank room, he had noticed something out of place, but hadn't quite been able to identify it. Now, it was as if Locke's words had tripped some switch in his brain, cutting through the darkness and bathing the truth in grim, bleak light:
He had not seen any of the Imperials in the room had taken a drink, despite the proliferation of mugs throughout the tables. In fact, now that he looked closer, most of them were looking around much more alertly than any drunk should be able to. Even some of the bodies on the floor were shifting and rising - slowly, to be sure, but with an unmistakable smoothness. The barmaids and Trivette were long gone, and now there was no one in the room but the Imperials and the three of them. Even as he watched, too shocked and frozen with horror to speak, the brown tide began to shift, getting up from their tables, easing in front of the doors at either end of the room, cutting off all avenues of escape.
Forcing himself to remain calm, Edgar reached down into his merchant's pack and began to hastily assemble the parts within, his engineer's fingers nimble on cool metal even when working blind. He continued to look straight ahead, trying as hard as he could not to let his anxiety show on his face. If only they would hold off for a few more seconds...
"We've been had," he whispered as two of the parts joined with a muted click. Even as his hand groped madly for the third, he kept his voice low and even. "Our fault."
"What?" Locke asked in the same harsh whisper. He kept the grin on his face with some effort.
"How does a spider catch a fly, Locke? We've walked right into the web."
Locke glanced casually over his shoulder at the now-vacant bar, then turned back and swore. The words coming from his mouth jarred heavily with his plastic grin. "Goddesses damn you, Trivette! There's no telling how many others fell into this trap."
"The Imperials are in here with us," Cyan said quietly. "Perhaps it is they who are trapped."
"That's the spirit," Edgar said, his grin almost genuine now as he snapped the last piece onto the metal device in his hand. All that was left was the bulb, the only bulb; he fumbled for the glass orb and attached it to the rest of the device with three sharp twists, sending up a quick prayer of thanks that it hadn't broken in transit. "Now..."
This will be close, his mind told him flatly.
Close, but it could be done. He knew for a fact both he and Locke had survived tight situations before, and this Cyan certainly looked capable of pulling his own weight. If they worked together, moved fast enough, hit hard enough, they might yet escape.
The Imperials continued to close in, their measured movements clear to him now that he was truly paying attention. They formed up slowly and inexorably, tightening into a ragged circle with the table in the center. Swords and autocrossbows moved from belt to hand degree by agonizing degree, and it would only be seconds before one of the Imperials called out for them to surrender if they were lucky or for his men to kill them if they were not.
Not that either was going to happen, if they could help it.
"Okay," he said, licking his lips nervously. "On three, both of you get down and cover your eyes. It's about to get very bright in here, and if you want to make sure you go on seeing, you'll be careful."
"One..." The Imperials were closer now, close enough for him to make out their expressions even in the dim light of the bar. Their faces displayed a bevy of emotions: anticipation, anxiety, blank determination, anger, but definitely not drunkenness. These men, whatever else they might be, were alert. Ready to kill.
"Two..." The footsteps of the ones behind sounded loud in his ear, and a part of him expected to feel hot breath on the back of his neck and steel at his throat at any moment. Staying the trembling of his fingers, he began to pull the device from the bag at his feet. It had never been tested, but he did not allow himself to think of what would happen to them if it did not work.
Edgar kicked the bottom of the table, upending it with a crash as Locke and Cyan each dove to one side, wrapping their arms around their heads and rolling as they struck the floor. The young king leapt to his feet, tearing the device from the bag in one smooth motion, his hands already flying over the controls. A beam of sunlight from the one of the high windows caught the device and danced across its surface, enveloping the dull grey metal in a brilliant aura of light. For just a moment, the boxy little tool looked like jewelry fit for the goddesses' own hands.
Machinery is a beautiful thing, Edgar thought. And then, just as the Imperials began to give their first alarmed shouts, he pressed the firing button, turned away, and clamped his hand over his eyes.
The prototype he held had been named the Flash. It looked a simple enough thing, resembling nothing so much as one of the common picture cameras the people of Figaro had been making and selling for decades. However, where other cameras held photography plates in their steel guts, the Flash housed batteries of enormous charge and power, all of them wired to the single massive flashbulb mounted on the front of the device. When the Flash was fired, was supposed to throw out a wide, powerful blast of light, enough to dazzle a man if it glanced him and perhaps fry his retinas if it struck him directly.
However, no matter how much the engineers had talked about the effect when he took the prototype from Figaro, no matter how much he had personally tinkered with the device during the boring days of chocobo riding, no matter how many times he had wondered if he should fire it and waste the only bulb the engineers had prepared, nothing could have prepared him for what happened when the Flash went off.
A second sun bloomed in the murky confines of Trivette's bar, carving away the darkness and sending the shadows scurrying for cover. The light stabbed at Edgar's face through the gaps in his fingers and flared across the back of his eyelids. Still, he had gotten off lightly; many of the Imperials were already beginning to scream as their vision burned away.
The bulb mounted on the front of the Flash gave a little pop and died, and the light vanished. The shadows rushed back in to claim their territory with a vengeance.
"Move! Move!" Edgar screamed, blinking furiously to restore his dazzled vision. Spots danced before his eyes as he swept his head back and forth, trying to make out what was going on in the sudden gloom.
A few of the Imperials behind them had been spared the worst of the Flash's effects and were already moving in to attack, albeit less than gracefully. As the first ran in, Edgar twisted to avoid a clumsy slash and then pivoted, raised the Flash high in both hands, and smashed it down savagely upon his assailant. The tool literally exploded, breaking into a thousand tiny shards as it impacted on the side of the soldier's head. The Imperial didn't even have time to scream; the concussion caved in his skull with a bone-breaking crack, killing him instantly. He stumbled, then dropped soundlessly to the floor in a rain of bone fragments, wires, and hex nuts. Edgar scarcely noticed, having already turned to take on the next opponent.
If the soldier had been only a split second faster, his thrust would have taken Edgar directly in the heart, but luck was with the young king. He managed to slip to the left at the last possible moment, causing the tip of the short spear to rip through tunic instead of flesh. As the Imperial stumbled, still off balance from the momentum of the stab, Edgar jumped towards him.
I hope this works...
Simultaneously, Edgar struck out with both hands, his right smashing down onto the spear right below the blade, his left wrenching upwards near the butt. The result was everything he could've hoped for. The spearhead dipped low towards the floor even as the butt leapt up from the Imperial's grasp like a living thing, smashing the man directly in the face. Edgar tore the weapon free and spun it in his grasp as the man reeled back, blood fountaining from his broken nose. The soldier fumbled for his sword, but before he could draw it, Edgar drove the spear into his chest, impaling him. The Imperial stopped and looked down at his wound for a moment, his face registering only shock, and then he groaned and crumpled to the floor.
Locke and Cyan were fighting furiously as well, slashing away at the hordes of Imperials that were now encroaching on all sides. The treasure hunter fought with a dirk in each hand, ducking, dodging, and stabbing at vital weak points like a man gone insane. Imperials closed to do combat with him and went into the shredder, dying with hearts pierced, windpipes slashed, bellies torn open. The samurai battled alone, his katana flashing in the meager light, a steel serpent with deadly venom and lethal accuracy. Before him, the massed Imperials fell like ragged brown wheat under the scythe.
Edgar backpedaled as three more Imperials staggered towards him, striking out with their swords and missing by bare inches. The bastards were everywhere, surrounding them, threatening to overwhelm them with sheer numbers at any moment. If most of their opponents had not been dazzled by the light, they would be dead already, but even the sheer number of their enemies gave an odd measure of protection; those few Imperials who could see to fire their autocrossbows in the wake of the Flash's outburst were unable to do so without risking hitting their tightly-packed allies.
Of course, Edgar reflected, the three Returners had no such problem. Even as the thought flashed through his mind, his hands were already moving, darting within his tunic to grasp the two slim pieces of metal nestled against his stomach. He tore them free in a twin flash of metal, brandishing one in each hand and waving them mockingly at the advancing Imperials. The soldiers hardly reacted at all until he gave each device a single sharp shake and their lightweight components unfolded with a series of loud clacks, transforming them into a pair of small autocrossbows.
Edgar could not help smiling in satisfaction as the Imperials began to back away. These Hornet autocrossbows were the latest collapsible models from Figaro, made for concealment and close combat. Lightweight, large clip, fantastic rate of fire, decent accuracy - just the thing, in other words, for clearing out an Imperial horde.
As he squeezed the triggers, the twin terrors blazed up with a surprisingly throaty chockchockchock, spitting dozens of small, high-speed bolts into the air. The foremost of the Imperials withered beneath the fatal onslaught, jerking backwards in a spasmodic dance as the deadly projectiles tore through flesh and bone. Edgar swept each arm out and then back in, firing all the while, raking the enemy lines with bolts and reducing men to bloody ruin.
The trio fought on with manic determination, their enemies falling all around them, but it was not enough. For every Imperial that went down, three more moved in to replace him. Small injuries and fatigue were taking their toll, slowing movements, dulling reflexes. And, perhaps most damning of all, the Imperials were getting more and more accurate as they at last began to recover from the effects of the Flash. Things were about to go very, very bad. Unless...
"We've got to get out of here!" He shouted to the others. His arms were beginning to hurt now, his muscles burning with exertion as he tried to keep the autocrossbow barrels level in spite of the recoil. "The door behind the bar! Move!"
Locke and Cyan took the lead, tearing viciously into the men between them and the bar like carnivores falling upon meat, forging a bloody path with sweat and steel. The Imperials fell back on all sides, dying before the grim rush in appalling numbers. As his friends continued to wade through the masses, Edgar brought up the rear, firing frantically away at anyone who tried to outflank them.
Afterwards, Edgar would never truly be able to recall that nightmare passage across the room. Individual moments were lost as screaming, running, bleeding and killing all blended into one ragged red tapestry of chaos. During the melee, he somehow lost one of his Hornets and gained a number of wounds: a light but bloody gash above his left eye, a nick on the underside of his left hand, a light cut below the ribs. His memory would never piece together how the events unfolded; all coherent thought fled in a moment woven of pure, brutal instinct, devoid of mercy or humanity, full of madness and death. It seemed as if it would never end.
And then, somehow, the bar was before them. Locke vaulted over and slammed his shoulder into the narrow door behind, only to rebound from the oaken surface and crash to the floor. He immediately rose and threw himself against the door again, this time with the assistance of the samurai, but still it would not budge.
"It's barred from the other side!" Locke announced as he staggered back to his feet. The treasure hunter looked as bad as Edgar felt, his entire form covered in blood and minor wounds. He had apparently lost both his dirks somewhere along the way.
"Fantastic," Edgar said, squeezing off the last few shots in his weapon's clip and fumbling for another. He slammed a fresh magazine in and resumed firing on the Imperials, who were now falling back to the far side of the room en masse. "Any... other... bright... ideas?"
"Get down!" Locke shouted as a pair of autocrossbow bolts embedded themselves in the door beside his head.
The three Returners dove for the floor just as the Imperials on the far side of the room opened fire, their weapons chattering like a horde of scolding demons. Edgar and Cyan dropped and rolled behind the bar in an attempt to avoid the deadly steel rain as Locke tumbled in the opposite direction.
Edgar rolled to a stop and dropped to his belly, swiveling his head back and forth and trying to make some sense out of the chaos. The Imperials were tearing the place apart. A shower of alcohol and glass shards fell all about him as salvo after salvo tore into the shelves above and behind the bar, shattering dozens of bottles per second. Solid thunks sounded as the bolts struck home on the other side of the makeshift bar, some penetrating almost all the way through the old ale barrels. The stout wooden structures splintered and groaned, their contents spilling and puddling on the earthen floor like blood.
"This is not good!" Cyan shouted over the din. The samurai was pressed almost flat against the floor, his hair dripping with spilled alcohol, broken glass piled up all around him.
"Where's Locke?" Edgar pushed himself to his hands and knees, trying not to flinch at the glass that cut into his palms. A bottle crashed against the floor in front of him, splashing his face with liquor.
"I do not know-" the samurai began, but even as he spoke Edgar spotted the treasure hunter. Locke was hiding behind an overturned table that was almost directly flush with the bar and perhaps a dozen feet away. Several bolts had impacted on the table, a few even protruding through the near side, but fortunately Locke did not seem to have been hit yet. Even though he wasn't able to return fire, he was still busily reloading.
Suddenly, mercifully, the firing trailed off. And then, Edgar heard a demand in the haughty tones of an Imperial Officer:
"Surrender or die like the worms you are, Returner scum."
"What guarantee do we have you'll keep your word?" Edgar called back.
Cyan's eyes narrowed in response. "None," he whispered, his voice grim. "The Imperials cannot be trusted."
"Our orders are to bring in any Returners alive, if possible," the Imperial answered. "You're far more useful to the Empire alive than dead, at least for now."
Edgar grimaced, reading the intent behind those words. They would be interrogated, probably forced to reveal the location of every Returner hideout they knew, perhaps even Returner HQ. That could not be allowed to happen. He had no desire to die here, but if it was that or betray the cause...
He shot a quick, questioning glance at Locke. The treasure hunter looked worried for only a second before he mouthed, Do it.
"What?" Edgar hissed, not quite believing his eyes.
Again, a short, silent phrase: Trust me.
"You've already killed enough of my men for me to want you dead, Returners," the voice said. "Surrender now or I might forget my orders."
You better be right about this, Locke.
With a quick gesture to Cyan, Edgar dropped his weapon and rose.
"Fine." He hesitantly raised his hands over his head, wondering if he was about to be cut down by Imperial fire like a cornered choco. "We surrender."
Locke rose next, followed a moment after by the samurai, who looked none too happy about this latest development. It was probably some sort of violation of Cyan's honor code to be taken prisoner this way. Then again, Edgar thought, it would be a violation of his own if he was forced to give out Returner secrets in exchange for his life. He could only hope Locke was truly hatching a plan to get them out of this without causing further damage to his people or their allies.
"Very good," The commander smiled, his face pale in the dim light. He gestured briskly to a pair of men standing behind him. "Norris, Gage. Chain them."
More often than not, men see only what they want to see.
Her husband had taught her that long ago, when they were still newlyweds, and in all their years of marriage she had never seen it proven wrong. When they looked at her, men saw only what they wanted to see: a woman of medium stature and weight, her once brown hair consumed by gray, only a few wisps of beauty still adhering stubbornly to her aging form. This impression did not bother her. Rather, she was comforted by the fact that she could so fool the outside world into thinking her nothing but a harmless old woman, for the harmless can see things that the brave cannot.
And see she did. Her husband had taught her how to do that, too. It had taken some time, of course, but by the time their son was born, she could pick out things in the world around her with alarming clarity. While the world saw only what she allowed it to see of her, she gazed into the very depths of its soul and found the answers.
She sat in her favorite rocking chair, listened to her favorite old record, stroked her favorite cat, and watched the world go by below her window.
The Imperials walking down in the street looked tired and nervous. She could tell that by their mannerisms alone - the almost imperceptible shaking, the plastic expressions of confidence, the way they kept looking around nervously. Their laughter was too loud, too manic. Many of them were nursing wounds or blinking their eyes furiously. Despite all these things, however, the Imperials weren't that interesting at all. It was the three men chained in the center of their unit that really drew her attention. They were dressed as Nikeah merchants, but a single glance was enough to tell her that was only the thinnest of disguises.
She knew the first, though she wasn't sure how well he really knew her. Locke, they called him, but whether that was his real name or not she could not say. She had seen him many times, in many different places in the city. He was a thief and a sneak, but he seemed to be a decent enough sort. She would guess he was working with the Returners, and he knew the ins and outs of this city as well as any man, almost as well as her.
The second she did not recognize personally. His bearing marked him as a fighter, though, and she thought she recognized the distinctive features of a Doman samurai in his expression and mannerisms.
And the third- the third....
For a moment, he gave her pause, and then she realized that she was looking upon her king. Oh, he had put a bit of effort into disguising himself, but the bone structure and those eyes were unmistakable, especially since she had looked upon a younger copy of them for many years. Apparently, however, the Imperials did not realize the importance of the prize they held, for they treated him no different than the others.
Like his companions, Edgar was covered in light wounds and blood, but none of them seemed to be hurt seriously. That suggested that they had surrendered instead of being subdued forcefully. Not that how they had been captured mattered right now.
As the group continued to walk down the street, now out of her line of sight, the woman shooed the yellow cat off her lap and stood up. Heaving a sigh, she walked out of the sitting room and down the hall. Her husband would definitely need to know about this. Time was of the essence. Once the Imperials knew what they had found, there was no telling what they might do to Figaro or its king. Without a leader, they would never be able to throw off the Imperial yoke.
The pigeons cooed in greeting as she stepped up into the attic, causing her to grimace in distaste. They were filthy things, and she was tired of cleaning the floor under their cage, but they did have their uses.
Ten minutes later, three birds were winging their way over the roofs of South Figaro, bound northeast with a vital message of warning.
She only hoped it would reach Duncan in time.
Time for the now ubiquitous end-of-chapter author's notes:
Another chapter is finished. Another is in the works. Writing these
isn't easy for me, but I'm not giving up. If you're enjoying this story,
I urge you to hang in here with me.
This chapter was completed some time ago, but I decided not to post it in
the wake of the disastrous bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.
While fake violence might be entertaining, real violence is sickening. It
didn't feel right to me to write about either, and so the posting of the
chapter was delayed.
Now that some time has passed and we've all begun to heal, however, I feel
that posting this is okay. Just so you know, no Imperials were harmed in
the writing of this chapter. I love those brown-garbed little rascals, no
matter what evil cause they might serve.
God bless America.
Next Chapter: What happens when you mix a thief, an Imperial general,
and a martial arts master? You'll soon find out! Be here for "Jailbreak",
the next chapter in the exciting saga of Dark Empress! /Robotech
Final Chapter and Summary
Time for the now ubiquitous end-of-chapter author's notes:
Another chapter is finished. Another is in the works. Writing these isn't easy for me, but I'm not giving up. If you're enjoying this story, I urge you to hang in here with me.
This chapter was completed some time ago, but I decided not to post it in the wake of the disastrous bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. While fake violence might be entertaining, real violence is sickening. It didn't feel right to me to write about either, and so the posting of the chapter was delayed.
Now that some time has passed and we've all begun to heal, however, I feel that posting this is okay. Just so you know, no Imperials were harmed in the writing of this chapter. I love those brown-garbed little rascals, no matter what evil cause they might serve.
God bless America.
Next Chapter: What happens when you mix a thief, an Imperial general, and a martial arts master? You'll soon find out! Be here for "Jailbreak", the next chapter in the exciting saga of Dark Empress! /Robotech Announcer.