A Long Cold Winter Chapter 8
Into the Depths
The sun was scarcely breaking the horizon when Strago first stirred from his sleep. Easing himself out of his bed, he groaned upon letting his weight settle upon his feet. Mornings were becoming more and more overrated as time went on. He had been far from the powerful warrior of his younger days when he had set out with the other Returners on their do-or-die campaign against Kefka, but he had made due. Now that the crisis was past, it seemed that nature was forcing him to make up for those times. Or perhaps this was simply a side effect of the destruction of the magic that had once been a small, but integral part of himself and those of his village.
Days like this were the worst, when he only wished to crawl back into bed and sleep until lunch. His joints all protested irritably at the treatment they endured in the process of descending the steps towards the kitchen. Relm had occasionally suggested that they move his sleeping quarters to the lower level of the house, but he had adamantly refused any such pampering. He might be old, but he had yet to be classified as an outright cripple. And if he had anything to say about it, that day would never come.
In the meantime, breakfast needed to be prepared, and it was his day to do it. He and Relm regularly alternated days. He had little doubt that she would have willingly done it every morning, but there was no need to deprive her of beauty sleep. Considering how rare it was to see her sitting in one place, she probably needed all the rest she could get.
Besides, every hour she remained asleep was one less hour that she could potentially spend around Clyde. Despite his claim of non-interference, Strago trusted the man even less than he had trusted the faceless ninja by the name of Shadow. Learning only yesterday that they were the same individual had been a shock at first, but it had long been replaced by disgust. Somehow, he had always hoped that Relm's worthless father had fallen off the face of the earth forever.
He probably shouldn't have been so optimistic. Clyde had grown up in Thamasa from birth, and if there was anything Strago had picked up about the man, it was that he was a survivor. Having developed a keen dislike of his magical inheritance early on, Clyde had taken it upon himself to learn plenty of other skills in its stead. Unfortunately, those skills all seemed to lend themselves to a traveling and shady lifestyle, and they had eventually caught up with him in some business involving the Empire. Although not before Clyde had managed to get himself a wife, then a child. Clyde's decision to let Strago raise Relm, while he fled was something that Strago had whole-heartedly approved of. Clyde's return on the other hand, was something he had hoped would never happen.
It seemed that reality was not so obliging. Just the same, he held some faint hope that Clyde had left the village since their discussion last night. Was that too much to ask?
"Ha!!! This is great!"
"Strago will be mad."
Relm made a face. "He's just an old fuddy-duddy! He thinks that I can't take care of myself! He's just too old fashioned, that's all. Just because _he's_ getting old, he thinks everybody else is too! Besides, with you and Interceptor, I'll be perfectly safe!"
Clyde nodded slowly as he rode alongside the girl's chocobo, atop a bird of his own. The dog was keeping pace with ease alongside them. "Rest assured, I would not have volunteered to escort you if I wasn't able to protect you. Even Strago can't deny that I'm an excellent fighter."
"Don't you worry about Strago. I'll talk with him when we get back. Besides, I left him a note explaining everything."
"Very considerate of you."
"Oh, I don't want him worrying or anything. He'll act really angry, but he won't mind at all. Besides, it's all his fault for not taking me himself."
"As you say," Clyde agreed.
The elder of Thamasa village glanced up from his breakfast to see the door to his house being thrown open by a somewhat frantic looking Strago.
"Strago? What is the matter?"
"It's Relm! She's gone!"
And Strago was in an uproar? The headstrong nature of Strago's adopted granddaughter was well known about the village, but it was generally conceded that she was smart enough not to do anything too heedless. Even Strago had to admit that much. "And..."
Strago handed him a note, siting down a convenient chair to catch his breath. His old age was doing its best to make itself known right now...
The elder read the note aloud. "Don't worry about me, Grandfather. Mr. Clyde is just escorting me to the mountains so I can do some landscape painting. He says we can be back in a few days.'"
The elder was distinctly underwhelmed at the revelation. "So she has gone for a sight-seeing tour with someone? Without your permission?"
"Elder!" Strago snapped. "Doesn't the name ring any bells with you?"
"Mr. Clyde..." The elder's eyes snapped open. "_Him_? But he's..."
"Very much alive and well," was the sour reply. "He arrived yesterday. And he seems to think that this village is in some sort of danger. So he's cajoled Relm into leaving town with him."
The elder was on his feet now. "If we're talking about Clyde, this could be serious. We should check with the docks and at the stables."
"I already did," Strago replied. "They took two chocobos before the sun even came up. We'll never catch up to them now."
The Elder groaned. "Then we have one of two options. We can simply let them go for now. The only way off this island is through the port here. We can hope that they return in good time. Or we can have a tracker pursue them."
Strago winced. "As much as I hate to admit it, I don't think that it would be a good idea to send someone after them. If Relm won't come back willingly, we'll never be able to take her back by force."
"Are you sure? We'll sent Vincent. He's a strong man. Even Clyde-"
"Clyde will slit his throat without blinking," Strago interjected. "Clyde was always anti-social, but take my word for it - he's gotten much worse over the past fifteen years. I'm not so sure Vincent would have been a match for him even when he still had his magic. And Interceptor is with them. If that dog got it into his head that Relm was being threatened..."
The elder reluctantly nodded in agreement. "I see what you mean. There are days when I think that beast looks at every human being aside from Relm as a walking side of meat."
"Sometimes I do too," Strago admitted. "At the very least, I have confidence that neither Clyde nor Interceptor will let any harm come to her. But Relm still doesn't know who he really is. He fed her a story about himself being an old friend of mine from Doma."
"I thought it was Rebecca who was from Doma-"
"Yes, yes, that's right," Strago agreed. "He didn't seem to want to tell her who he is yet. So he couldn't very well say that he was from here, right? She would have questioned every single person in the village upon hearing that. For all I know, he was just waiting to get her alone like this before letting her know. Where she couldn't escape."
"What's this business about the village being in danger that he mentioned?"
Strago made a face. "Something that I am highly doubtful of. Something about there being a source of power under this village. One different from magic. And apparently a lot of people are after it."
The elder looked thoughtful. "That is rather... doubtful. As our village can attest to, magic was around for thousands of years, although only the past few years saw much use of it. For some new type of power to suddenly emerge after all this time..."
"I don't believe it for a moment," was Strago's opinion. "This is just a scheme of Clyde's to take his daughter back as easily as possible."
"Perhaps it is. In that case, we should warn the docks to be on the lookout for her. If he tries to leave with her by boat, they can delay the ferry until we can arrive."
"Let's go do that now."
A knock on the door interrupted their discussion.
"Come in," the elder invited.
The door was pushed open wide, allowing a quartet of men to enter the room.
Strago's eyes opened wide. "Edgar, Sabin, Cyan! How long have you been in town?"
Edgar nodded politely. "Nice to see you, Strago. Elder. We just arrived now. Our ship was delayed by bad weather."
"What are you doing out here, all three of you?"
"Hath thou seen the general as of late?" Cyan asked quickly.
Sabin intervened. "We're wondering if anybody's seen three people recently. One of them is Celes, one is Shadow, and one is a guy named Lance."
"They should have arrived on the ship yesterday," Edgar supplied. "The three of them are wanted for various crimes, as well as questioning. Have you seen them?"
That was enough to make Strago silent.
"I do not believe they have come by," the elder ventured. "Strago?"
The old man shook his head. "No... I haven't seen Celes or any man by the name of Lance. As for Shadow..."
"You've seen him?"
"He just left this morning. With Relm."
Edgar raised an eyebrow. "This sounds like something we should discuss in more detail than I had originally planned."
"His real name in Clyde," Strago was saying wearily.
The six individuals, comprised of Strago, Edgar, Sabin, Cyan, Nicholas, and the village elder were sitting around a table. None of them looked particularly comfortable at the moment.
"What's he look like?" Sabin wanted to know.
Strago gave a brief description.
The martial artist frowned. "That's him alright. And he was Shadow all this time? I wondered how he knew some of that stuff about me."
"And he's left with Relm?"
Strago nodded, decided not to get into detail over Clyde and Relm's relationship at the moment. "They left early this morning without my knowing about it."
"He was an accomplice with Saroth," Nicholas maintained. "He's a criminal."
Edgar cut him off with a wave of his hand. "If we see him, we'll deal with him. I don't particularly like the idea of Relm being alone with someone like him. But I can't make any promises on finding them, Strago."
Strago reluctantly nodded. "I understand that, Edgar. Any help would be appreciated."
"What is your business in the mountains?" the elder wanted to know.
"Classified," Nicholas muttered, just loud enough to be heard.
Edgar silenced him with a glare, but slowly nodded. "I'm afraid that I can't give all the details. But we have reason to believe that... some matters of grave importance lie in the mountains to the west. As... representatives of various interested parties, we're investigating it in a team fashion."
Around the table, representatives of various interested parties coughed or rolled their eyes at the statement, a fact that was not lost on Strago. "Nice to know you're all in such good agreement over this business."
"Isn't it?" Edgar agreed dryly.
"But in regards to this business," the elder persisted, "does it actually concern the village here in any way?"
Four heads shook negative in reply.
"Our business is purely out in the mountains," Nicholas maintained.
"Was thou led to believe otherwise?" Cyan inquired.
"I _knew_ Clyde was lying," Strago growled, by way of answering the question.
"Let's go," Edgar decided, standing up. "This Lance character and Celes must have avoided the village somehow. We don't have any time to lose. Elder, Strago, if you see them, do what you can to keep them from leaving again."
"Hah! What'd I tell you, my friend? The ferry ahead of us is only now pulling away."
Lance nodded in response to the captain's boast. "Indeed... you're as good as your word. How long ago do think they arrived?"
"Methinks a few hours ago, perhaps. That's the usual change-over time for a ferry."
"Let's go, Saroth," Celes ordered, already headed down the gangplank that lead to solid ground.
"Coming, coming. My thanks for a pleasant trip, captain. Fair sailing in the future."
"Have a good day yourself."
Lance quickly caught up to Celes. "This could be trouble. I don't think we want to run into King Edgar at this time."
She forcefully redirected their walking path, pointing them both towards the chocobo stable. "I know that, Saroth. But we don't need anything in the village. We get ourselves a chocobo apiece, and we move."
"Excellent. I'll do my best to ensure we get good birds for this leg of the trip."
Once inside the chocobo stable, it was with no small dismay that Lance observed that there were only two birds present in the entire place.
Upon his noting that, the owner apologized. "My other six birds are all rented out right now. L'il Relm and her escort took the first two, and King Figaro and his men took the other four."
"They've already left?" Celes inquired.
"About an hour ago."
"Yes?" he inquired, looking the two remaining birds over with a critical eye.
"Arrange for the birds and get ready to leave immediately. I have some questions to ask in town. I'll be back shortly."
A quick double knock sounded at the door.
"Come in," Strago invited, almost hoping for a moment that it might be Relm returning already...
The door was pushed open without hesitation, Celes entering quickly.
Strago blinked. "Celes! What are you doing here?"
"I'm in a hurry, Strago. But I need to ask you a few questions."
"Edgar said that you're a criminal!"
She gave him a flat look. "Edgar is misinformed, Strago. At any rate, I'll be heading his way as soon as I finish talking with you. Him and I can settle things ourselves. But I need to know, have you seen Shadow around here?"
Strago winced. "Why?"
"No games, Strago. I know he came by recently. I want to know if he's still around."
"No... not any more."
"So he was here," she confirmed. "Where did he go?"
"To the mountains to the west. How do you know he was here?"
"Because I'm the one who made him come here first."
She shrugged. "Tell me what his business here was."
"He left... with Relm. To the mountains. He seemed to think this village was in some danger..."
Celes nodded. "I made him believe that."
Strago's eyes narrowed. "What!?! You mean... _you're_ the reason Clyde all but kidnaped her?!?"
"His real name is Clyde, is it?"
"Save it, Strago," she interrupted. "You've no one to blame but Clyde himself. He was the one who turned traitor. What's his concern over the girl?"
"That," Strago growled, "is none of your business."
She shrugged, turning to leave the house. "As you say. Good day, Strago."
"Wait just a darn minute, Celes!"
She stopped, but did not turn to face him. "Yes?"
"What in blazes is going on here?! First Clyde, then Edgar, Sabin and Cyan, and now you... just what is going on?"
She was silent for a moment. Finally, "Some foolish people are trying to possess something they have no business possessing. Nothing more."
"What's wrong with you? You're not acting normal."
She afforded him a brief glare. "Don't act so senile, Strago. I'm acting more normal than I have in a long time."
Wordlessly, Strago watched the door close behind her.
Lance was waiting outside the stables with two chocobos when Celes finally returned, a pack slung over her shoulder. "The birds are ready to leave. Are you done you business?"
"Shadow came through here already," she informed him, mounting her ride.
Lance chuckled at that, mounting his own ride. "So you were right, it seems."
"He took a girl with him, no doubt to try and protect her."
"Interesting. It seems our friend has some vested interests concerning this town."
"Are you familiar with the name Clyde'? That's Shadow's real name."
Lance looked thoughtful. "I've met a few individuals named Clyde in my time... but no one who even comes close to matching Shadow's profile. Sorry."
She frowned, also looking thoughtful. "The name seems familiar... no matter. Let's go."
"I'm afraid these birds are not the best to be found."
"We'll have to make due. Hopefully they won't have access to the information that we have."
"I hope not," Lance agreed. "But I would not count on it. Some of these documents, I obtained them from Nicholas. And he has others in his possession. He'll have the location for certain. With luck, he may not have the vault codes."
"With luck. Or perhaps... he may not know the proper way in at all. He may simply be relying on manpower to find a way in."
"If he has to, he will. He's always been a rather determined man. Terribly one-track mind, but determined."
"He dies when I see him next."
"You don't like him very much, do you?"
"He reminds me of someone. Emperor Gestahl."
"That sounds a little severe. From what I know, the Emperor was actually a very well-meaning man."
"The road to ruin is paved with good intentions, Saroth. A historian like you should know that better than anyone."
"Point," Lance granted. "But I don't believe you killed Emperor Gestahl, correct?"
"Kefka beat me to it."
"Is that so? I understand there was a confrontation aboard the floating continent, before the world was ruined? But I was never able to obtain the details. Not many witnesses, naturally."
"Don't bother," Celes suggested, her voice almost sounding weary. "It's in the past."
Lance looked at her thoughtfully. "History dictates that very little is ever truly in the past."
"As you say... in the past."
The stars were beginning to appear in the sky above when the party of four decided to stop for the night. The area of Thamasa tended to have long days and short nights, perhaps one reason that the climate was recently regarded as one of the less-harsh.
It was a fact that was dully appreciated by the four as they sat around a fire, watching their intended meal slowly cook through.
"The mountain's shadow is ideal farming land," Nicholas was saying. "Unfortunately, it's still a little too far away to be entirely safe. A few years, and I assume it will become populated as well."
"I could see that happening," Edgar agreed quietly. "So... according to your documents, we reach the site tomorrow morning?"
"Correct. Although finding the exact location will be troublesome."
Sabin reached over the fire to adjust the meal as it cooked. He and Cyan were the only two properly experienced in wilderness cooking, and with Cyan in a rather foul mood lately, the duty had fallen to him. "You mean, you don't know where the place is?"
"Not exactly," Nicholas admitted. "As I said, it will take some searching. We should keep an eye for our competition."
"I wish I knew where they were," Edgar muttered.
"They probably didn't take any birds because we woulda been able to follow them," was Sabin's opinion. "We've probably passed them by now."
"So we have a head start, at least," Nicholas agreed. "Let us hope it is enough."
"You know," Edgar began, "this is the point where I'd like to hear from you that you have some men in the area that could help us in our search."
"As a matter of fact..."
Cyan scowled, finally raising his voice. "Methinks he doth plan treachery-" Edgar smiled, cutting Cyan off with a mild wave of his hand. "I'm happy to hear that. About the men, that is. How long before we meet up with them?"
If Nicholas was surprised at the show of support, he hid it quickly. "They're in the target area at the moment. They arrived by boat from the north. We'll meet up with them before long, I believe."
"Anything to increase our chances of success," Edgar agreed.
"Sure beats searching by ourselves," Sabin seconded, adjusting the meat again. He wasn't entirely sure why his brother was so enthusiastic about having more men joining the group, but he might as well show a little support for whatever his brother said. And get ready for when things turned ugly.
A short distance away, one of their chocobo squawked loudly.
"Stupid birds," Nicholas muttered, even as the other three birds joined in shortly afterwards.
"The monsters in this region number few, but I shall ensure there is no trouble," Cyan announced, standing and starting over to the birds.
"It might be Saroth," Nicholas mused.
"Not if they walked," Sabin objected. "They'd be at least another day or two getting this far by foot. Or longer. Probably just an animal wandering around."
Cyan returned several moments later. "T'is nothing my eyes can discern. Methinks they merely smell an animal in the vicinity."
The matter settled, they resumed waiting for the meal to cook.
"Tell me again why we're not sleeping tonight?"
"Shut up, Saroth," Celes hissed angrily. "No noise until I say so."
The tone of the command was an adequate voice of reason for Lance, and he kept silent, letting his chocobo continue onwards, a step behind that of Celes'. The steady thumping of the birds' feet was almost hypnotic; only years of experience kept him for dozing off atop his bird. He could go for a considerable time without sleep, but it was harder when he wasn't actually doing something interesting. Riding along under a moon-less sky, with an empty stomach, without quite understanding the immediate rush... wasn't interesting.
Fifteen minutes passed before he heard something of note. "It's safe, Saroth."
"Safe? Safe from what?"
"You need to keep your eyes and ears open. We just passed their campsite."
There was no need to explain to Lance who they' included. "I assume they're not aware of us."
"Their birds spotted us, but they calmed down afterwards. We're ahead of them now."
"Good. Any chance we could grab a bite to eat?"
"Not yet. We need to finish our business before they even arrive."
"How long before we turn north?"
"Not for some time. We're approaching the mountain from the west side, in case you'd forgotten."
Lance raised an eyebrow at that. "But I distinctly remember-"
Celes cut him off in mid-sentence. "Then you remembered wrong, Saroth."
He slowly nodded in reply. "As you say... perhaps I am merely tired."
"Wow! I've never tried roast squawkers before!"
Clyde raised an eyebrow. "Squawkers?"
Relm nodded. "That's what we call these birds around here. All they ever do is try to eat crops, and when we shoo them off, they squawk and squawk and squawk..."
"So are they safe to eat?"
"Quite. They are a staple food for most travelers."
"Neat. Is there enough for Interceptor too?"
"He already ate three while I was hunting them."
Relm took a closer look at the dog, spotting faint hints of blood around the animal's muzzle. "Interceptor, you're such a messy eater!"
In reply, the dog merely licked its chops.
"Do you know what kind of dog he is?" Relm inquired. "I was never really sure. Nobody in Thamasa knows, and I never asked Shadow when he was still around."
Clyde eyed the dog speculatively. "He... has the appearance of an Imperial hunting dog."
"I've never heard of those."
"They were bred specifically for use in the Imperial army. They were eventually discontinued because of their inability to breed naturally."
"Wow. So you think Interceptor's an Imperial dog?"
"Perhaps. Very few dogs grow to be as large as him, and those that do are rarely so heavily built."
"Well, Interceptor's the nicest dog in the whole world, aren't you?"
Interceptor barked in agreement.
Relm looked over towards the mountains, only their peaks visible now that the sun had gone down. "So can we go do some cave exploring tomorrow? I've never tried to paint underground scenes before."
"As you wish. It will be dark in the caves, however."
"I know. One of my teachers in Jidoor taught me how to take dark scenes and make the painting brighter, so this will be great practice. Are there any monsters in the caves?"
"Not many anymore. But the ones that are still around can see you before you see them."
"What about Interceptor?"
Clyde almost smiled as he idly scratched behind the big dog's ears.. "The monsters will be in for a surprise, I think."
Surprisingly enough, it was early in morning that Sabin first noticed signs of life beyond the immediate group he was in. They had only been traveling for a few hours at the most when a small encampment became visible on the horizon.
"Those your men?" he asked Nicholas, doing his best keep any accusing tones from his voice. He mostly succeeded.
"I do believe they are," the man agreed with a smile. "And I now believe that we have adequate man-power to tackle the obstacle before us."
"Excellent," Edgar agreed. "Although your men don't seem to be early risers."
Sabin had to laugh. "You're one to talk, big brother!"
"They were under instructions to simply wait for my arrival, Edgar," Nicholas explained. "But I expect they can be ready to break camp in under an hour."
"Even better," Edgar approved. "I could use a quick break to stretch my legs before we hit the mountains."
Sabin did his best to look casual as they entered the camp. A brief glance suggest upwards of twenty men in the group, virtually all with both light armor and weapons. Not exactly the image of workers/explorers. Monsters were still around these days, but they weren't _that_ bad surely.
His older brother was still playing the part of the jovial king overseeing the operation. Occasionally, he would comment on various preparations, or inquire about expected conditions. Nicholas seemed well-prepared, which only earned Edgar's further approval. Either Edgar was genuinely pleased, or he was simply playing the part of the ignorant fool until it suited him otherwise.
"You have some excellent drills."
Nicholas noticed what Edgar was referring to. "Figaro-made, I'm sure you've noticed."
"I certainly have. Believe it or not, I designed this model myself, actually. Lightweight, and still plenty of penetration power. Your taste in machinery is impeccable, if I do say so myself."
"Then by all means, you're welcome to shoulder one yourself. I would not be at all surprised if you're better with one than my men are."
Nicholas was certainly a diplomatic individual himself, Sabin decided. Either he was secretly plotting to have them all killed when the time was right, or he was overjoyed at the cooperation he was getting from the king of Figaro. For the hundredth time, Sabin was reminded why he was just a martial artist, rather than the ruler of the largest surviving kingdom in the world. Edgar played the game of diplomacy with the same instinctive smoothness and ease that Sabin executed a simple punch or kick.
And Cyan... was still Cyan. The man had yet to even dismount from his steed, and if he looked carefully, Sabin could see that the man's swords were loose in their scabbards. At least one person wouldn't be caught unawares if a fight broke out. Sabin could only hope that Cyan wouldn't be the start of a fight.
"I don't believe _this_ was mentioned in the documents."
Celes scowled. "Those documents... are undoubtedly quite old."
"You're certain this is the entrance?" Lance inquired, producing the documents that had led them to this location.
Celes pulled a page from his grasp and looked it over briefly before returning it. "This is most certainly the place. I assume that you were not prepared for this?"
Lance sighed, eying the massive field of fallen rock before them. By his estimation, much of it was recent, which was to say, within the last ten years. Some of it was perhaps within the last five. "I was well-aware of the extensive geographical alterations to the north section of this mountain range, but I was always under the impression that this area had escaped generally unscathed..."
Celes removed her pack from her tethered chocobo and began to rummage through it expectantly. "You were wrong. Fortunately for you..."
After several moments, she produced something. A collection of red sticks with strings running out of their ends. "..._I_ came prepared."
"You brought dynamite?" Lance inquired incredulously.
"Available at the general store," she agreed. "New farmers must often... alter rock formations on their territory. This should be adequate for our needs."
Lance caught the roll of fuse that she tossed at him, smiling at her non-chalant manner. "My compliments on your foresight. But are you certain that will be enough to deal with all this rubble? I've generally found that store-bought dynamite is seldom of good quality these days. And there is a great deal of rock in our way."
"Placement is the key," was her answer, even as she began to make her way across the field of rocks.
"Of course," he agreed, idly following along behind her. Eyeing the fallen rocks around him, he was unable to help but notice a few interesting things. One did not make a living from archaeology and exploration without learning to read rock formations.
And as near as his trained eyes could see, there had been two different collapses in this area. One was newer, and consisted mainly of small to medium-sized rocks strewn all around the entire vicinity. Random, chaotic, and exactly what he would have expected in the wake of when the world had ended. Normally no big deal to get around.
The second collapse seemed slightly older, and more focused. The boulders were far larger and they had obviously come from what had once been an overhanging rock ledge. What was left of the ledge was an indentation, very much different from a typical sheering-off of a ledge. As though... someone had used explosives to remove the ledge. Such a thing was quite possibly a method used by the owners of the base to block access...
...But the fallen rocks had yet to show signs of prolonged exposure to the elements. The devastation had most certainly happened within the last five years. Some the rock edges were still sharp enough to date the collapse to less than three years. Yet until now... he had been certain that the places he sought had been sealed away for at least fifteen years-
Lance quickly set aside his musings at Celes' yell. "Is something wrong?"
"I've pinpointed the likely entrance. Bring the fuse."
Surveying where she was planting the dynamite, he had to agree. Had he been devoid of a map, he would have guessed at the entrance being right where she was working. Exactly in the middle of what appeared to be a deliberate landslide.
"You are experienced with dynamite, I see," he observed, beginning to lay out fuse for the explosives.
"Dynamite pales in comparison to the explosives _I_ was trained to use."
"I don't doubt it. By any chance did you ever work with Forencite?"
After several moments of ignoring him, she finally nodded. "It was widely used in Imperial land mines."
"I've only had a chance to use it once, but I found it far superior to dynamite. Have you any idea where I might be able to get my hands on some these days?"
"It is not made any longer. The Imperial army manufactured it partially through MagiTek technology. Although I understand Figaro Castle possesses a small amount obtained after the Empire was defeated."
"Perhaps I may see if I cannot purchase some from them. It's far lighter than dynamite, and much more effective."
Celes stood up, her arms now empty. "Unless you feel like being buried here, get clear."
"Excellent incentive," he agreed, skipping back across the rocks after her, leaving a trail of fuse behind them with practiced ease. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that you just used up our entire supply of dynamite in one shot."
"There are six more sticks in my pack, in case these don't go deep enough."
Crouching down behind a large pile of boulders, Celes produced two pieces of metal and handed them to Lance. "Make as many sparks as you can."
"I've never seen a fuse that would light by spark alone," Lance objected, taking the items nonetheless.
Celes pulled out her sword and held the blade near the end of the fuse. "Just do it, Saroth. Near the sword."
Holding his questions for the time being, Lance knocked the piece of steel once against the flint, noting the ensuing sparks with some satisfaction. Their effectiveness established, he proceeded to shower the end of the fuse line and the sword with sparks from the implements.
And nothing happened. At first.
Then Lance realized that the sparks weren't hitting the ground. It was difficult to see in the overhead sun, but he could almost swear they were gathering around Celes' sword... the realization was enough to make him stop striking the pieces together.
Fortunately, his efforts seemed to have been adequate for the task. Removing her sword, she pointed her outstretched palm towards the end of the fuse. A moment later, a small gout of flame flickered out and set the line afire.
Briefly speechless, Lance watched the flame slowly travel the length of the fuse. "You're just full of surprises," he finally said, ducking down again behind the rock.
"If I'd known we were looking at so much drilling, I could have arranged for some explosives to be brought from Figaro."
Nicholas shrugged in reply to Edgar's comment. "The rock here would be quite resistant to dynamite, I'm afraid. Even your drills are hard-pressed, it seems."
The scene before them was one of twenty men working intently at drilling out a rock wall. Several burnt patches indicated the sites of several ineffective attempts at using dynamite. But progress was slowly being made with the drills.
"Just let the bits cool off every so often, and they'll do just fine," Edgar reassured him. "Figaro machinery doesn't break if it's given a little bit of respect. But I wasn't talking about dynamite. Figaro castle has a small stash of Forencite that we obtained from a military base after the defeat of the Empire."
Nicholas raised an eyebrow. "I don't believe I've heard of that explosive before."
"It was used for land mines by the Empire. But as far as destructive power is concerned, it outdoes dynamite by a factor of anywhere from ten to twenty. The more enclosed of a space you plant it in, the better. We can't even manufacture it, but as Figaro has no plans for making mines any time soon..."
"A pity," Nicholas agreed. "Perhaps I may yet take you up on your offer if the third key proves this difficult to access."
"Key?" Sabin finally interjected.
Nicholas smiled thinly. "My apologies on not mentioning that earlier. As near as we have been able to determine from these documents, what we are after are three keys. These keys will allow access to our ultimate goal. Although we are still attempting to discover where that is. But in the meantime, there are three keys to be found. At least, we believe them to be keys of some sort. Our sources are somewhat vague."
"Of course," Edgar agreed. "So someone else obtained the first key, north of Mobliz?"
"That is what Saroth claimed. And whatever else I can say about him, he's not one for lying. Half-truths, yes, but not outright lying. So whoever has the first key will find it useless as long as we get at least one key. Then we will have to confront them sooner or later."
"I'd rather confront them now," Sabin muttered.
"As would I," Nicholas agreed. "But for the moment, we'll simply have to wait for them to come to us."
Suddenly, a massive explosion echoed across the surroundings.
"What the hell was that?!?" Nicholas demanded, even as everyone else stopped what they were doing in order to ask the same question.
"Explosives," Edgar replied. "And not from our camp here. The sound came from the south. Someone else around here is using explosives..."
"There's no way it could be Celes and Lance," Edgar asked. "Right?"
"If they didn't have birds, they should still be a day away..." Sabin agreed.
"Then it's probably whoever got the first key," was Nicholas' opinion.
"How much further do we have to work at here?" Edgar demanded. A cloud of dust was slowly rising into the air to the west of their own site, leaving no mistake about where the noise had come from. "Whoever they are, they're at least a few hours travel from here."
Nicholas didn't even deliberate on his next action. "Team A!!! Continue digging!!! Team B!!! Go investigate that explosion! I want whoever's there to be taken alive!!!"
"Very noble of you," Sabin was unable to keep from added.
"He merely thinks to obtain the first key," Cyan voiced skeptically.
Nicholas shrugged in reply. "Unless they have it on their person, we'll never find it by killing them. And besides, isn't a civil trial preferable to the law of the wilderness?"
"Very much so," Edgar agreed.
"My men are mine to command," Nicholas added. "But my men will cooperate with any that you send with them to the scene of the explosion."
Edgar shook his head quickly. "We will remain here. I trust your men to deal with the situation and bring back some people to question. As for here, we just lost half of your working men."
Sabin hefted a drill that had been cooling off. "Look like its time to get back to work then, eh, big brother?"
Edgar nodded. "I've noticed that you have good drill bits to work with, Nicholas?"
"The best available."
"Can you stand to sacrifice two drills for the sake of speed?"
Nicholas raised an eyebrow in interest. "Right now? I certainly could."
"Then I think it's time for the Figaro brothers to show you how to run a drill on overdrive."
Sabin deftly snapped the housing off of his unit, already beginning to fiddle with the innards. "Now we're talking!!!"
One of the working men ran up to their group. "Commander!!!"
"What is it?"
The man pointed up in the sky. "Airship!!!"
All eyes quickly moved to spot the object.
"That's the Falcon!!!" Sabin exclaimed, quickly recognizing the rather distinctive airborne shape. "What's Setzer doing out here... you don't think?"
"The only airship in existence," Edgar agreed.
"At the very least, he might be providing transportation for whoever got the first key," Nicholas noted. "But then who the hell just caused that explosion?"
"The ship isn't even heading towards that explosion," Sabin noted.
"Let's get working, Sabin," Edgar admonished crisply. "Things are getting too messy for my liking. We've already got Celes and Shadow to worry about. Right now, I don't need to compete against Setzer and anyone else he's bringing along with him."
Lance and Celes strode carefully through the thick clouds of dust that still hung in the air, making their way towards the site of the explosion. Upon reaching it, it was more than obvious that the placement had been pinpoint accurate. In place of a great deal of rubble, a passageway was now visible amidst the thick clouds of dust, leading directly into the mountain.
"Excellent placement," Lance complimented, producing the glowing ball from his pocket. "Shall we proceed?"
"With all due speed," Celes agreed, handing him her pack. "We're probably only a few hours at most from the others. They'll have heard that explosion all too clearly. Fortunately, we don't have far to go."
"Run in, grab the key, then run out," Lance agreed, shouldering the pack. "I couldn't agree more. Why do I have to carry your pack?"
"Because Shadow is somewhere out here in the mountains. Unless you would care to fight with him..."
"And I'm sure he'll be happy about you tricking him like you did," Lance agreed, unfastening his sword as they started into the cavern. "Lovely. Just lovely."
"What was that?"
Clyde was already on his feet, scanning the area carefully. "An explosion."
Interceptor was beginning to circle the area carefully, alternating between sniffing the air and peering around suspiciously.
"This is an unsafe area," Clyde finally decided.
Relm looked around the cavern warily, almost expecting something unsafe to suddenly show itself. All that presented itself was the cavern she was in the process of sketching. "I don't... see anybody around here."
"A place like this is vulnerable to a cave-in if any more explosions occur. We will go. Now."
Relm looked as though she wanted to argue the issue, but the idea of being buried in a cave-in wasn't especially appealing. "I... guess you're right. Let's go, Interceptor. We'll come back later on so I can finish my sketching."
Growling quietly, the dog fell into step next to the girl, although he continued to look around suspiciously. Directly opposite, Clyde was also looking around carefully. Explosions meant people were nearby. And there was no legitimate reason for explosives being used in this area...
"Broke through!!!" Sabin yelled triumphantly, regaining his balance as he began to pull the drill's glowing red bit back through the hole he had made.
Edgar ceased pressure on his drill, even as the motor ceased its unearthly howling noise. Overdrive was certainly a possibility with the unit, but the noise it made in the process strongly recommended against it. "Get the dynamite out! This time we're going to break through!!!"
Men were already running forward with said dynamite. Some gentle taps with a soft hammer, followed by a wad of fuse-impregnated blasting gum, and everyone was quickly taking shelter.
"T'is a relief to be done with waiting," Cyan was saying, one hand on the hilt of a sword as he took cover.
Sabin smiled grimly as he wiped the sweat from his brow. "Bet you're sad Celes hasn't gotten here yet, huh?"
"If the General is wise, she will cherish that fact."
"Set it off!" Nicholas bellowed. "And get ready to move in!!!"
"Bad luck goes to those who waste time."
Locke scoffed as he balanced at the edge of a crevice in the mountain. Even now, he was tucking a spare bandana into his back pocket, no doubt to leave behind after he recovered the key. "I'll be back before you know it. Just hover until I get back. I don't know who the heck all those men are, but if they think they're going to beat Locke Cole in a treasure hunt, they've got another thing coming!"
Setzer nodded, nudging a lever forward. In response, the massive engines aboard the Falcon increased their pitch slightly. "Then get moving. I don't feel like getting in a fight with that many men, you realize. And I'm hoping the Falcon can get out of this without any scratches, understand?"
"You worry too much. Between your Lady Luck and my amazing skills, we're laughing all the way to the treasure!"
Setzer merely smirked as Locke began to climb his way down the crevice. It was times like this that Locke could actually back up his claims of being a treasure hunter. The way he scrambled down the almost perfectly vertical wall of rock would put any spider to shame. And once he'd located the vault and the second key, he'd come back up just as quickly.
Then Setzer heard it. An explosion.
Locke was almost shaken off the wall of the crevice by the aftershocks, but years of hardened reflexes instantly came to his aid. Pushing off the wall, he spun in mid-air, falling into the opposite side of the crevice. Before his momentum had even ceased, he was pushing off again, returning to the original wall again. Only to push off again...
Setzer shook his head as he watched Locke bounce back and forth between the two walls, slowly descending down as originally planned. Locke still had a lot to learn about Lady Luck. She was excellent at keeping her devotees alive, but anything beyond that was strictly a bonus. He could only hope that Locke's skills would be enough to pull off the rest of the job...
Even as Relm yelled out, the ground beneath her began to collapse, jarred loose by the explosion.
Yet even as she began to fall, a grip of iron clamped around her wrist, yanking her off her feet and towards solid ground.
"Keep running!!!" Clyde ordered, pushing her further down the passageway. Rocks were falling around them, no doubt jarred loose by the two explosions. Whether or not anything else would collapse, he had no intention of waiting to find out the hard way.
Satisfied that the immediate danger was over, he wasted no time in catching up to the girl and the dog. Everything was going wrong.
"Idiots!" Celes growled, even as the ceiling began to crumble overhead. "Saroth! Run faster!!!"
Lance needed no encouragement, shielding his head as a small chunk of rock glanced off his shoulder. Larger slabs of rock were falling all around them, but somehow they managed to get through relatively unscathed. It was only after several moments that the destruction halted enough that they felt safe in catching their breath.
"The _idiots!_" Celes was still muttering.
"They must have used a disgusting amount of dynamite for that explosion," Lance guessed, brushing the dust off of himself. "Nicky has no trouble buying dynamite, but he obviously knows nothing about using it properly."
"Most of the inside of this mountain is made of extremely porous rock," she informed him disgustedly. "We entered at a section where the rock was harder. But we can only guess how many passages and tunnels were destroyed by their actions."
Lance frowned. "Let us hope that the way to the key is still viable."
Grabbing the glowing ball from Lance, Celes held it out before the tunnel ahead. After a moment, the ball began to glow brighter, illuminating a good twenty feet ahead. "We're still in the lead, Saroth. Let's not waste it."
Lance smiled as they continued forwards. He didn't pretend to understand how she was able to manipulate the glowing ball, but she was still his biggest edge against anything the other treasure hunters might have. "I hope those other parties are having the same problems we are."
"They're all fools," Celes replied stonily. "Sooner or later, they will learn not to chase after things they were never meant to have."
Author's Notes: Well, it shouldn't be too hard to see that some confrontation/fighting is in the works. Next chapter, actually. Who will walk away with the second key? Find out in Chapter 9!!! Until then...
Some authors look at the C&C that is and ask why?'
I look at the C&C that never was and ask why not?'