A Long Cold Winter Chapter 7

Situation Tactics

By Intrasonic

Shifting his weight in the name of comfort, Lance idly leaned his chair back, propping his feet up on the table. In stark contrast to this image of relaxation, Celes was standing before the room's window, staring wordlessly at the horizon.

"Rather pleasant accommodations, don't you think?" Lance inquired cheerfully. "I do believe that the poor lad accidentally gave us first class tickets."

No response.

So..." he continued, his demeanor unruffled, "...exactly where _is_ the second base located?"

"In the mountain range to the west of Thamasa," she finally replied.

"Strange. Taking into account the changed geography of this world, compared to how things used to be..."

Lance looked thoughtful. "Are you sure you aren't feeding me a lie the way you did Shadow? That corresponds to the location of where the Espers were found after they destroyed Vector. And there is supposed to be an entire base present there?"

Celes smiled thinly. "I question it myself, but only a little. It is quite probable that it is deep underground the mountains. The party that located the Espers found them above ground level in the mountain's caverns."

"That would be consistent with what I know of it," he agreed. "I understand that it was a party of four who located them... the once-half-esper Terra Branford, Locke Cole, Strago Magus, and Relm Arrowny."

Celes raised an eyebrow at that. "You're well informed for someone who wasn't even there."

"I travel a lot. I read a lot. And I ask a lot of questions. The exploits of those who defeated Kefka are in high demand by scholars. I have made more than a small amount of money discovering them for myself."

Lance abruptly blinked. "And I almost forgot. I had meant to ask you previously about that bandana I picked up at the first base, A-1. You believe it to be from the renowned explorer Locke Cole?"

Her face hardened over just slightly. "I _know_ it to be. It is a tradition for him to leave a bandana behind at any place he successfully explores. The fool."

Lance decided on a brief topic change. "So what are your thoughts on our opponents?"

"I only know some of them. You seem to have picked up some opponents yourself. What of Nicholas Xerxes?"

"Nicky? Ah... he's a nice guy who suffers from a serious case of tunnel vision, that's all."

"I don't take kindly to being attacked by his soldiers, unprovoked," Celes replied coldly. "Do you care to give me a reason to let him live the next time I see him?"

Lance looked regretful. "I find myself hard-pressed to think of a concrete reason at the moment. But he is not as dangerous as he seems. Merely overzealous."

"The most dangerous people are those who are overzealous, Lance. What is his goal with this business? What is his opinion of the power sources believed to be at the heart of it?"

"Well, when magic was at the heart of the issue, he was adamant that magic should be provided for the good of everyone. The Empire's attempt at controlling it was not taken well. Hence, their anti-Imperialism. Now... I imagine it is the same. He desires to obtain this power and will do everything in his power to make sure it is made available to everyone as quickly as possible."


"Sometimes, he certainly can be. History stays that what he is doing could be very disastrous. This world is still recovering from the discovery of magic. It's not yet ready for another form of power."

"He knows nothing of this power, yet is still convinced it could benefit everyone?"

Lance raised an eyebrow. "And what do you know of this power yourself?"

"Nothing, but I am more than familiar with it's predecessor. Magic was nothing but a curse. It was given to people who should never have had it."

"Emperor Gestahl? Quite true."

She fixed him with a look. "Gestahl was only the first person on that list of people. If you think he was the only one, your sources are in error."

Lance nodded, taking the rebuke in stride. "At any rate, Nicky is no doubt convinced that only he knows well enough to make sure the power is given to everyone as quickly as possible."

"And what of you? What is your goal for finding this power?"

Lance shrugged. "History has yet to give me an example where absolute power did not corrupt. Finer men than me have fallen victim to power. I don't feel like taking the chance. I'm a historian, and this represents a gap in our knowledge of history. And a rather difficult one to fill at that. I am hoping to fill it myself."

Abruptly, Celes closed the window shutters, shrouding the room in relative darkness. "Show me that globe you found in A-1."

Lance raised an eyebrow, producing the clear globe that he had located in the first base. A faint glow was emanating from it, too weak even to cast strong shadows against the wall. "A rather curious contraption, I must admit. It glows with no evident source of power. I smell no smoke or fumes. At first glance, I imagine it to merely be a light. What do you make of it?"

For an answer, she took the glowing globe from him. "Where exactly did you find this?"

"In the vault room, over the door. Had the vault door been open all the way, it would have illuminated the vault."

"And how bright was it when you found it?"

Lance shrugged. "I saw the glow from some distance, actually. It didn't seem to react to my presence, if that's what you are asking. I understand some magical artifacts could be made to do so."

Celes nodded, idly inspecting the globe for a moment in her left hand. Then without warning, she cupped the globe between both her hands.

"It doesn't even give off any heat," Lance added. "Most curious-" he choked off his sentence as Celes uncupped her hands.

Instantly, the entire room was lit up in a brilliant white glow, the source obviously being the globe itself. Lance blinked in the sudden brightness, momentarily dumfounded as the shadows were melted away by the light.

"My dear..." Lance breathed.

Celes glared at him as she none-to-gently placed the globe back in his hands. Instantly, the light vanished, the room returned to its darkened state. "Are you still looking for a watery grave, Saroth?"

He was too distraught to even smile. "Celes... what did you do?"

She shrugged. "As you say... merely a light. I am going for a walk."

With that, she left the room, the door shutting silently behind her. Lance stared at the door for several moment before returning his attention to the globe. Concentrating, he willed the ball to glow brighter. After several moments effort...

Nothing happened.

Confusion lined his face. He had little doubt that Celes was responsible for the globe's growing brighter. Now as for _how_ she had done it... he had no idea.

Sighing, he pocketed the ball and re-opened the shades. He would ask her when she returned. A mysterious individual, growing more so by the day.

Perhaps he would go for a walk himself.


The gently pitching forecastle of the ship was rapidly overtaken by stiff winds, but Lance was more than their equal. After a certain amount of ocean traveling, turbulence was easily regulated to a background sensation.

Besides, the sunshine was pleasant enough on its own. Ahead of the ship's billowing sails, there were few passengers to interrupt the quiet. To be exact, there was only one other individual in sight.

"A lovely day, isn't it?" he called out to the captain.

The captain nodded. "It is indeed. With weather and winds like this, we may yet catch the ferry that left yesterday."

"But pity the poor ship that is trying to go the other way."

"Only a trifle," the captain maintained. "With all the people crossing to settle on the Thamasa island, there are far fewer going the other way."

Lance nodded. "Yes, I noticed that a lot of the passengers seem to have brought their belongings with them. I understand the climate in Thamasa is rather good these days."

"Compared to everywhere else, perhaps. Some scientist types in Jidoor figure on the weather being warmer there in the days to come."

"I hear that Narshe is becoming warmer too."

"Hmph. Not may people have a mind to try and settle there. If the snow ever melts, things may change. But until then..."

"True. But history says that nothing is ever permanent. Will these same people rush back home after the winter?"

"I think not. Thamasa's land is one of the few that the Empire and Kefka left untouched. The village took a beating, I understand, but the countryside is still in prime condition. A good place to set up a home for life, methinks."

"Indeed," Lance agreed, returning to staring out the horizon. "As you say... we may yet catch the ship that left yesterday."

"Whatever the case," the captain chuckled, looking at the hazy mist in the far distance, "our crossing will be a good deal faster than theirs. I understand King Edgar and his brother are aboard it."

"I heard so myself," Lance agreed sagely. "The _terrible_ inconveniences of royalty, hmm?"

The captain chuckled. "As you say, my friend. So what of you? You keep balance up here better than some of my men."

"I have been travelling for a long time now. I find the deck of a boat much more comfortable than the back of a chocobo. There is nothing like a little salt mist in the air to keep your blood pumping. And nothing like a roaring storm to make you appreciate that afterwards."

"Ha! I will vouch for that myself! But we're not likely to see many storm this trip. Although I believe His Majesty's ship may find the going a bit rough..."



With a slowly fading chuckle, the door to the quarters was thrown open.

"What a BLAST!!!" Sabin crowed, shedding his wet shirt as he entered the room. "You oughta try it, big brother!"

"Laugh it up..." Edgar growled, holding his stomach for dear life. "I _hate_ travelling... by ship."

"You didn't mind Setzer's airship."

"How often... did you see me up on the deck, Sabin?"

Sabin merely laughed again. "The captain practically ordered me to get down below. Doesn't like me surfing on the forecastle edge. It's great balance practice."

"This is a _storm_, Sabin. You're _supposed_ to take shelter."

"Ha! This is nowhere near a storm! I remember when Duncan would take us students out on the lake with a sail boat whenever the weather was lousy. He'd make us balance on the edges of the ship without falling off. After we got good at it, he made us spar at the same time. The loser had to swim back!"

"Uh huh. _Lots_ of fun."

"Aw, cheer up, bro. The storm can't last forever."

"That's all that's keeping me going right now."

Finally deciding to have a little mercy on his older brother, Sabin attempted a diversion tactic. "Say, I meant to ask you before. You ever meet a guy named Clyde?"

It seemed to work a little. "Clyde?"

"Yeah. He was the bodyguard for the guys we got the wool from. I talked with him after for a little bit. He seems like a dangerous sort of guy. He wouldn't give me his last name, so I was wondering if he might be a criminal or something. He had a bit of an assassin look to him."

"What... did he look like?"

"Hard-edged sort of guy. Blond hair, not much of a tan. Knows how to hide a knife."

Edgar thought the matter over. "It doesn't ring a bell. You might be right. The Empire had a lot of assassins in its hire. This might just be one of the few who survived it all and is trying to make a living as a bodyguard now."

Sabin thought the matter over. "Yeah... you're probably right. So what do you think about that Nicholas guy?"

Edgar smiled thinly. "He's not the only one who's after this power. He's just the first one I've seen who might be capable of finding it. I've dealt with a few other people who have claimed to be discovering it."

"You mean, you've heard about this already?"

"Only bits and pieces. A couple of diplomats from various groups have already given me some subtle hints connected to this. After much discussion, I locked them in jail overnight, then sent them home. I don't take kindly to being threatened."

"So you _have_ been_ distracted lately!"

"I suppose I have. The idea of someone getting their hands on this power secretly was a very disturbing idea. Until now, I've been deliberating whether or not to pursue the matter myself. Without involving Figaro directly. Nicholas is just the person I've been waiting for, I think."

"So can we trust him?"

"I think he'll backstab us without a second thought if he thinks it's necessary. If he's the leader of Sidewinder, he'll have men to back him up somewhere. I wouldn't be surprised if we ran into them at some point. Or perhaps after we find what we're looking for."

"So what are we looking for?"

"According to Nicholas, there are an undisclosed number of Imperial bases to be uncovered. The first was north of Mobliz, the next is to the west of Thamasa. Apparently, each base contains some sort of key or information needed to access the power. Some unidentified person apparently won the first race. I hope we do better this time around."

"We're not going to do better if Nicholas tries anything funny."

"He won't do anything until we actually get in his way," Edgar soothed. "It's the way this business works. Right now, I'm actually helping Nicholas. He's got the king of Figaro working _with_ him to uncover this business. We probably won't run into trouble unless I attempt to shut the operation down. Which I'm not prepared to do quite yet."

"How come?"

"Some new source of power, like magic? If it really exists, then I want it brought out in the open so that we can understand what it is. Otherwise there's a big risk that some other person will discover it on his own and do his worst with it. And we'll never know about it until its too late."

"I... never thought of it that way," Sabin admitted.

"Politics makes you paranoid, little brother. Take it from me."

"So what do you think about Celes and Shadow?"

Edgar sighed. "I don't like it at all. From what you tell me, they've got a day's head start on us. And if what Nicholas says is true, Celes is going to be making a lot of information available to this Lance Saroth individual. We'll have to move fast."

"What if we have to fight them? You know Cyan is practically begging for an excuse to fight Celes. And I'd say Shadow's even more dangerous than she is."

Edgar sighed again. "I don't know, Sabin. I hope it doesn't come to that. But if it does, that why I'll be glad to have Nicholas with us. Especially if he's arranged to meet a few of his men on Thamasa."

"They could backstab us at any time."

"I think Nicholas is worried more about the other party than us. And if it comes to blows, they'll have their work cut out for them, then. Didn't you tell me how well they did against Cyan by himself? And we'd be backing him up from the start this time."

Sabin managed a rueful smile. "Yeah, I guess we'd be taking a few of them with us, wouldn't we?"

"But we'll hope it doesn't come to that. If we get into a fight, we back out. Then in a few days, they get to try their hand against Figaro's entire army."

"This is giving me a headache."

"Me too. But we'll do what we have to do. Just remember what happened the last time a man got his hands on a super-power. We've got to prevent that from ever happening again. No matter what it takes."


It was some time later that Lance pushed the doors to his quarters open, having just descended from the top deck. One his favorite ways of passing time during ocean trips was to engage the captain in story-telling. And this captain had been a wealth of the like. Naturally, most were likely tall tales, but even in them, small grains of truth were always present. Good for future reference.

"Good evening-"

Faster than he could even blink, the edge of a sword was pressed against his neck.

Lance froze in mid-step. "Is this a bad time?"

"This would be a good time for you to learn to knock," Celes stated, withdrawing the sword just as smoothly. "You are fortunate that I heard you long before you opened that door."

"Indeed," he agreed, eyeing the room speculatively. In the center of the room, a cylinder of metal was suspended from the ceiling by a thin string. All around, thin flakes of metal were scattered on the floor. "Taking up metal-carving? I'm most impressed. I'd almost swear that that rod used to be a candle holder."

"That's because it was," she replied. "I'm practicing. Consider yourself lucky I didn't end up practicing on _you_."

"I've always considered myself lucky, thank-you. Just the same, I hope they don't charge us for the candle holder."

"They won't. It came from a different room. The occupant was not of a mind to protest."

"Fair enough. By any chance, did you use that little staring trick of yours on him?"

She fixed him with a glare. "Staring trick?"

Lance smirked, despite the mildly queasy feeling his stomach was beginning to give him. "You're doing it right now to me. At first, I had thought it merely to be a set of gorgeous eyes..."

In one fluid motion, her sword was leveled at his neck again.

Lance continued on without blinking. "...but as of late, I've noticed it seems to be quite deliberate on your part. You did to those two chaps at the dock, and for all I know, they're still retching. Most curious."

The sword didn't move. "You ask too many questions, Saroth."

"I know it," he agreed. "But I'm not trying to pry. I'm simply curious. In all my travels, I've never seen anything quite like that. Most effective for avoiding fights, I imagine."

Just as quickly, her sword was sheathed again.

"It's a technique I learned some time ago," she replied shortly, taking a seat in one of the room's chairs. "It gives a person the sensation of extreme nausea and sickness, and can even create mild paralysis if necessary. It's more effective on some people than others."

"Most impressive. I assume that it's not magical?"

"Magic is gone," she stated.

"So what kind of power is it?"

"A martial artist would call it 'chi'. Or life-energy. Extremely skilled martial artists can channel into energy blasts, not unlike magical attacks. But it requires a great deal of training. I am only a novice at it."

"Most fascinating," Lance acknowledged. "Does it have anything to do with how you made the globe light up? I'm also rather curious about that. I can't seem to duplicate the effect myself."

"You never will be able to. Just accept that Imperial generals were skilled in much more than just magic."

"You are a constant reminder of that fact," he agreed, idly fingering what was left of the candle holder. It was almost a completely cylindrical, smooth surface, which said a great deal for both her accuracy with her sword, and the sharpness of the blade. "Shall we go over my documents in more detail now?"

Taking the cylinder from him, Celes pocketed it. "At the agreed price."

Lance produced a handful of thin gold bars from his pocket. Counting out five, he pushed them across to her. "I believe we should start with that set of five papers you previewed before."

"For a mere historian, you are wealthy."

"I get some sponsoring from various educational institutes," Lance admitted. "Some people desire information very highly. Anything that I don't have to spend finding the information is profit for myself. And a long time ago, I was kicked out of a casino for winning too much. I'm finally finding a use for my winnings now."

"Have you ever met a man named Setzer?"

"The man who kidnaped you during that opera? I heard about that. A pity I missed the performance."

She scowled. "You know entirely too much."

"We were both raised in Jidoor. He was the man who dragged me into the casino in the first place. He was attempting to prove the existence of luck to me. I like to believe I demonstrated to him that history has long favored the indifferent gambler."

"You are obsessed with history."

"I most certainly am," he agreed, not looking the least bit disturbed by the prospect. "The papers?"


With a quiet grinding of wood against wood, the ferry eased into the recently completed harbor of Thamasa. Even as bystanders were hustled out of the way, heavy mooring lines were secured between the dock and the boat. Passengers shuffled impatiently along the edge of the boat, most quite eager to set foot on dry land again.

Apart from the main group, a lone passenger stood atop the forecastle's railing, keeping his balance with deceptive ease. Draped in a loose brown cloak, he surveyed the dock area without expression. A short distance away, a mooring line was secured by a sailor and pulled taunt on both ends.

With cat-like grace, the man leapt onto the rope and walked down it to land on the dock, unmindful of his precarious position. Ignoring several angry cries, he stalked away from the boat and into the village itself. A man who attempted to physically block his path was halted in his tracks with a single cold-eyed glance.

No one else tried to stop him.

Entering the village at a more leisurely pace, the man surveyed the surroundings with a detached interest. Whether casually observing some elderly men talking on a bench, or critically analyzing some of the older buildings in the area, it was all done with an expression that suggested indifference.

"Catch the ball! Catch the ball!"

The stranger's steps slowed, ever so briefly, before continuing deeper into the village.


"Good boy! What a clever doggie!"

Again, the stranger's steps slowed, his face suggesting the tiniest hint of sadness. But just as quickly, it disappeared. Then the stranger had reached a house and pushed the door open without even knocking.

"Supper's almost ready, dear," an elderly man admonished, hearing the door open. "Go get cleaned up-"

With a metallic clatter, an envelope was allowed to drop onto the old man's desk.

Saying nothing, the stranger simply waited as the white-haired man's eyes traveled up and down his length in disbelief. "You... you're..."

"Long time, no see, gramps."

The expression on the old man's face was now livid. "What are YOU doing HERE!?!"

"Just dropping off a little donation, that's all. Just like always. Anything wrong with doing it in person this time?"

"Get out of here! Before she sees you!"

As though in response, the door was pushed open a second time, a blonde- haired teenage girl running in. Mindless of the mud she was trailing across the floor, she was equally ignorant of the confrontation taking place.

"Oh, do we have a visitor?" she inquired politely, looking the stranger up and down briefly.

Silence rang throughout the room for several extremely long seconds.

The girl made another attempt. "Well, aren't you going to introduce me to this man, grandpa?"

The old man was still silent.

Shaking her head, the girl ignored him, turning to face the stranger square on. "You'll have to excuse Strago. Must be his old age getting to him. I'm his granddaughter, Relm. Pleased to meet you!"

At this, the stranger finally nodded briefly. "A pleasure... to meet you. You... may call me Clyde. I am an old acquaintance of your grandfather. We haven't met in some time, and I neglected to tell him I was coming."

"Oh, how nice! Won't you stay for supper, Mr. Clyde?"

"I would hate to impose..."

"Nonsense! We'd love to have you for supper. Isn't that right, grandpa?"

An elbow to the side finally shocked the old man back to his senses. "R-Relm dear... you go get washed up for supper now. I... need to talk with Mr. Clyde... alone."

That reply sounded positive enough for the girl, who quickly ran upstairs, shutting the door behind her.

After several moments, the two remaining men fixed each other menacingly.

"She has certainly grown up, hasn't she?"

"You fool!"

"You're paranoid, Strago. The last time she saw me, she was crawling on her hands and knees. And you expect her to recognize me _now_? Besides, doesn't everyone think I'm dead?"

"You listen to me, Clyde!" Strago hissed angrily. "I don't know what you're doing here, but she doesn't need the likes of you interfering!"

"On the contrary, old man. What if I told you that there were a number of people coming here right now. People who think there's a new source of power to be found under this village... one perhaps even more powerful than magic? People who wouldn't hesitate to deal with a group of now-powerless people with deadly force?"

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"Exactly what I said! I've already dealt with some of their number. But more are coming. And they won't hesitate to use force if they think this village is in the way of their plans."

Strago forced himself to meet the other's look of challenge. "And you would hate for a _certain_ little girl to get hurt, hmm?"

"And you will protect her? With your now non-existent magic?"

"And what can you do by yourself?"

"More than you think."

Pushing open the front door, the man gave a shrill whistle. "Interceptor... COME!!!"

Strago's face actually paled upon hearing the command. "Clyde... you..."

With joyful chorus of barking, a giant black shape bounded into the house, all but knocking Clyde over in the process.

"That's a good boy," Clyde whispered to the giant dog. "It's been a while, hasn't it? But you've been taking good care of her, haven't you?

"It was you all along," Strago whispered. "Shadow... you were that cutthroat assassin the whole time!"

"Don't be so quick to throw insults. She would be dead now, if not for me."

"She never would have been in danger, if not for you!"

"Unfortunate. But, the Empire is dead now. She is no longer in danger."

"If that's the case, you've haven't been in any hurry to reclaim-"

Clyde spun quickly. "Silence, old man!"

Strago closed his mouth.

"Your granddaughter is a curious one, isn't she?"

The older man's brows furrowed as he saw where Clyde's eyes were pointed. "Relm! You know better than to spy on... guests!!!"

With a sheepish look on her face, Relm pushed the door open. "Uh... spying? Not _me_!" Under her breath, "Didn't even have time to begin spying..."

Clyde smiled thinly. "They're all like that at her age. But you should be careful, young lady. You wouldn't want to pick up too many of old Strago's manners, now, would you?"

"I'll have you know I'm a perfect lady, Mr. Clyde!"

"Of course you are. Is this your dog?"

Relm glanced towards Interceptor. "Well... kinda. His name is Interceptor. He actually belongs to this ninja guy named Shadow, but no one's seen him for over year a now. So I'm taking care of him until Shadow shows up again. He seems to like you... he usually doesn't like strangers..."

Clyde chuckled. "Dog's don't like people who are afraid of them. They can sense fear, you know. I'm not afraid of him, and he knows this... don't you?"

Interceptor gave a cheerful bark and Clyde scratched him behind his ears.

"So are you going to stay for supper?" Relm wanted to know.

"I... think we've enough to eat for three people," Strago finally agreed, passing a warning glance to Clyde. He didn't know exactly how, but he had a hunch that things had just gotten a little more dangerous. As for what this all portended... he didn't dare let Clyde out of his sight until he was certain things were safe again.

"Well, don't just stand there," Relm admonished good-naturedly. "Come sit down!"

Strago sighed quietly and headed over to the dinner table. This entire situation had the makings of a powder keg. He just hoped that when it blew up, Relm was nowhere nearby.


"So you're a traveler?"

"I am," Clyde agreed.

Relm's eyes lit up. "That's _soooo_ romantic! Traveling the world over, seeing all the villages, the people, the places... can I come with you?"

Strago choked on his mouthful of food upon hearing that comment.

Clyde merely smiled. "I'm afraid that's not quite possible. Why, Strago would hunt me to the ends of the earth if I agreed. It can be very dangerous sometimes, you know."

"I can take care of myself!"

"I believe you. But I don't think Strago does."

"She's just a girl," Strago finally managed to get out. "As though traveling across the world to fight Kefka wasn't enough for her. And Jidoor even now."

Clyde raised an eyebrow. "Jidoor? Then you would be that painter that so many people are talking about? Relm Arrowny?"

Relm blushed. "I'm not _that_ good..."

"Nonsense. I've heard many good things about you while I was there. So what kind of painting do you do?"

"Mostly oil and watercolor painting. I like doing landscapes, but there isn't much to look at around here. Strago won't let me go anywhere interesting."

"It's dangerous out there!" Strago maintained. The tone of his voice suggested that the conversation was an old one by now.

"There are many wild beasts out there, you know," Clyde agreed.

"I'll take Interceptor with me! He's the toughest dog in the world!"

Clyde nodded. "He certainly looks like it."

"I wanted to go to the Zozo mountains too, but Strago said it was too dangerous."

"The city is _full_ of thieves and cutthroats. You're going _there_ over my dead body, Relm."

"It's a little too dangerous for a pretty girl like yourself to go to," Clyde admitted. "If you were ugly, it might be a little safer."

Relm blushed again. "So how did you and Strago meet?"

"We knew each other from a long time ago. I grew up in... Doma, and decided to see the world for myself. I wound up in Thamasa after a bit, and met Strago. This was back when Strago was still an adventurer, not an old man like he is now. But we haven't seen each other in almost fifteen years now."

"You grew up in Doma?" Relm inquired. "My mom was from Doma, you know. Did you ever know a lady named Rebecca?"

Even as Strago's eyes narrowed, a faint twitch passed across Clyde's face. Finally... "I don't believe I ever did, no."

"Oh well. Just curious. So when I'm older, can you take me around the world?"

"Well... perhaps you should wait until you _are_ older. Then you can argue with Strago about it. If he says yes then, I'll take you for a little tour."

That seemed to satisfy her. "Okay. But you promised!"


By the time the fifth paper had been read aloud, Lance had a smile planted firmly on his face. Leaning back in his chair, he make Celes fully aware of this fact. "Celes, I do believe things are looking up for me this time around."


"That mountain is a virtual maze. They don't have a prayer of finding that secret entrance these documents outline."

"Assuming the entrance has survived."

"Oh, I'm sure part of it will have. The northern portion of those mountains were lost when the world was destroyed, but our target base, A-2, is clearly in the southern portion. I daresay that the others are going to attempt a frontal entrance. Even with a day lost, we should be able to beat them. The only question is the winner from round one... Locke."

The look on Celes face would have melted lead. "He is... quite skilled."

"I've heard many a story, I assure you. I hear that... you've worked with him before. So how skilled is he?"

"Skilled enough that we should waste as little time as possible."

Lance raised an eyebrow. "I am also curious... as to how I might obtain the first key from him."

"Worry about the remaining keys before that one."

"As you say," Lance agreed, letting the topic drop. It was just as well that he'd been made aware of the topic's previous relationship with the woman that he'd been hiring. He didn't pretend to fully understand why they were no longer together, but was acute enough to gather that the reasons were less than ideal.

Smiling again, he turned his attention to the coded documents. "Now that section where it outlines the codes for unlocking the vault... right here?" He pointed to a ragged portion on the second page.

Celes nodded in agreement, running her own finger across the lines. "It's rather messy, but understandable. A01, B1000, C1010, D100, E0, F0010, G110, H0000, I00, J0111. Those are the entry codes for the vault."

"Nasty codes," Lance acknowledged. "It could take years to find the correct code at random."

"Centuries," Celes corrected grimly.

"Or a helping of whatever acid our friend used."

"He won't be able to use it again," she stated firmly.

"You sound rather confident of that."

"Don't bother asking, Saroth. Just take my word for it."


"Got it!"

Setzer looked up from the book he was reading to see Locke entering the lounge room. "What's the news, my friend?"

"I've got our location confirmed. It's in the mountain area west of Thamasa."

"So Lady Luck told us true," Setzer noted, patting his pocketed coin affectionately. "Shall we go then?"

"Not yet. I've still got to decode the vault codes," Locke muttered, looking downcast again.

"Vault codes? I thought you used that metal-eating chemical for the first vault."

"That was because we saw the soldiers approaching before we even landed. And we didn't have time. But I don't have any more of that stuff on me."

"Where did you get it from in the first place?"

Locke made a face. "Celes gave it to me for a birthday present."

Setzer gave a brief laugh. "A present that only a treasure hunter could love, I'm sure."

"Yeah, I guess so. But she never did tell me anything about it. Heck, I wasn't even positive that it would work."

"So we've got to do it the proper way this time?"

"That's right. Like I said, I only know the basics of the code. But I think I can get the vault codes from the documents. What I _can't_ decode is the instructions for finding the vault. And I saw those caves back when we were searching for the Espers. We explored them all, and I sure didn't see any Imperial base there. This could be tough."

Setzer relaxed again. "Not to worry. We'll deal with that problem once Lady Luck throws it at us. We've come this far already, haven't we?"

Locke nodded, starting back into the other room. "Besides, it'll take more than this to stop the greatest treasure hunter in the world. I'm used to having Imperial assassins chasing me down. Compared to that, this is a walk in the woods."


"Relm is doing her chores. She won't follow us this far into the forest."

"It doesn't matter. If she does, I'll know it before she's within earshot."

"I'd expect no less from someone with _your_ skills."

The insult implied with the comment was not lost on the receiver.

"What's wrong, Strago?" Clyde inquired. "Still angry that you never realized who I was all this time? Why don't you just be grateful that after all this time, I haven't told her who I am?"

"Because for all this time, you did nothing while she was in danger. The Empire, Kefka... and not once did you ever try to discourage her or convince her to go home!"

"And what of you? I seem to recall that you were found half-brainwashed in a cult. How well were you protecting her then? Be grateful she takes after me somewhat, or she'd be dead by now."

"She'd be in considerably less trouble if she _wasn't_ like you in the first place! It's beyond me how you ever got together with Rebecca in the first place."

"You never understood her. She had Doma blood in her veins... a pity Domians do not train their daughters to fight the dangers of childbirth."

"Hmph. If you had ever been of a mind to stay in the village, we might have been able to save her with magic. Or if you had ever been of a mind to learn how to use your own powers."

"I learned other powers. Powers that haven't faded away like the village's magic."

"Powers that are worthless for anything beyond killing."

Clyde waved aside the accusations. "Enough pointless bickering, gramps. I told you why I'm here."

"How do I know you're even telling the truth?"

"I don't lie about anything concerning _her_."

"For all I know, this is just a plot to get her away from me. You planning on turning her into an assassin as well?"

Clyde glared at Strago, anger finally becoming evident. "I'm trying to keep her alive! Nothing more! If I wanted to reclaim her, all I need do is tell her who I am. I could have done that at any time. But I didn't. She's done well for herself up until now. I see no reason to change that."

"Then just leave, Clyde. I don't buy this business about there being a danger to the village. This is some ridiculous scheme of yours, to try and get her back willingly."

The younger man chuckled, the anger fading away rapidly. "You've grown quite attached to her, haven't you, gramps? You're being paranoid about the wrong person, I'm afraid to say. Go back home and protect her yourself then. Just don't come whining to me later on. I've done what I could. I leave it up to Interceptor now."

The older man nodded. "Yes, you've done what you could, Clyde. Go back to wandering the world and killing people for money. Just so long as you don't ruin your daughter's life any further. I may not be the warrior that I once was, but you'd better believe that I'll defend her to the death from anything. Make sure that doesn't include _you_."

Strago's only reply was that of Clyde's shape fading away into the shadows of the forest.


Author's Notes:

Actually, the codes given for the vault are pretty stupid. The sequence of 0's and 1's is simply Morse code for the preceding letter. That is, 0 is a dot, 1 is a dash. Well, I thought it was better than just randomly typing a bunch of numbers and letters. Anybody else who's desperate for a stupid code like that can check out "www.soton.ac.uk/~scp93ch/refer/alphabet.html" for a page with a fairly comprehensive coded alphabet key.

It's rather interesting, the business between Strago, Relm and Shadow/Clyde. The idea that Shadow is Relm's father (Or even family for that matter) is never actually stated, but I've never heard anybody even try to come up with a different explanation for their relationship. The only evidence I've ever been able to find is that:

-Before heading out to Thamasa, General Leo is coincidentally able to pick up Shadow in town to hire him. And then it's Shadow's group that finds Thamasa first.

-Interceptor is friendly with Relm, against all odds.

-Shadow risks his life to save Relm in the fire

-Shadow's real name is Clyde (No last name is ever given, not even in the final credits)

-Shadow/Clyde expresses a desire to make the world a safe place for "the girl" as he leaves Thamasa. (Does not actually say "Relm", mind you)

-They, and only they, can wear the "Memento Ring" which is related to a departed mother.

-It is stated by a person that Strago is not directly related to Relm. Furthermore, they're given different last names in the finishing credits.

Somewhat interesting, ne? It's not exactly what you could consider hard-core evidence. Against this, it should be noted that Shadow didn't exactly display a lot of fatherly concern the first time to save Relm from the fire, and he left her immediately after the incident. As for their respective ages, I'm not quite sure. The cheat books like to give ages, but I don't really take them too seriously about that kind of stuff. Finally, unless Relm's mother was from Thamasa, Shadow shows a distinct lack of magical tendencies, which brings up the question about where Relm got her magic from. Food for thought, I suppose. Really, there's a million and one explanations that could be made to fit the evidence, I'd say. The explanation that I prefer... well, I'll be using it in this story, so just sit tight.

Next Chapter: Spelunking!

Yes, some people actually DO read C&C


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