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[Fanfic][FFVI] "The Grace of God"

Posted: 28th September 2005 01:21

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Author's Notes:
Um, are you guys (CoN) still accepting fanfics? Regardless. This is my first after-game fanfic ever, as well as my first multi-chaptered (finished) fanfic ever. It is also my tribute to that well-beloved genre. I hope to have a new chapter up weekly.

A word of caution that I'll lift directly from William Goldman's The Princess Bride.

There's a lot of bad stuff coming up. There's death coming up, and you better understand this: some of the wrong people die. Be ready for it. This isn't Curious George Uses the Potty.

With that lovely preface.

Quote
Prologue

GRASS STILL DID not grow on the central plain of the southern continent.  Months of spring had come and gone, and the land flowered everywhere else from coast to coast, but still there remained a bare spiral of waste in the place where Kefka's tower had once stood.  There, the sandy soil was as hard and nonporous as concrete.  It didn't absorb water; rain would bead up, then run off in thin rivulets.  Sometimes, after snowstorms, travelers would report that the moment a flake touched the ground there, it melted -- sometimes  in a hiss of steam.

There was probably some exaggeration to the stories, as there was probably some truth behind them.  But the place was indeed barren, and therefore avoided, as one avoids burial ground, or the site of some bloody battle.  No one dared cross through  if it could be avoided.  No one set up camp nearby.  And so no one was there to see when, one winter's midnight, the ground there turned to metal.



The Grace of God
Chapter One


THE INVITATION ARRIVED just before sunset, on a cold and cloudy afternoon in midwinter.  Though it was several weeks early, Celes knew who had sent it the moment she saw the carrier: an immaculate, smooth-feathered dove, the curve of its wings defined by a thin edging of gold leaf around the tips.

The bird was a patient visitor.  It had probably been there for some time before Celes noticed it, settled into the cold earth of her windowsill flower-box; and when she lifted the sash and coaxed the bird gently inside, it fluttered delicately for a few moments, then lighted with regal grace on her mantle.  It stayed still as she lifted away its soft under-down to reveal a strip of cream-colored paper wrapped around one leg and tied in three places with thin gold cord.

Celes unraveled carefully, steadying the dove with the side of her thumb. Then, the moment the paper was freed, the bird fluffed its wings and took off, soaring across the room and through the open window like some bric-a-brac figurine come to life.

"Polite," Celes murmured, and smiled faintly.  She watched the bird ascend past the rooftops and chimneys of Albrook, then suddenly glide down and turn west, a clear white break in the darkening sky.

It was a few minutes before a damp, chilly breeze reminded Celes the window was still open, and she crossed the room and shut it.  After a moment she drew the heavy green wool curtains as well; and she stood there, in the dim dusk light.

She already knew what the paper in her hand said.  She had received three such messages in the past three years, each sent on a winter morning, each brought by a distinctive gold-and-white dove.  She had forgotten that another was due.  Or perhaps she had not wanted to think of it; it would lead, inevitably, to thoughts of the past.

Regardless, Celes was not one for trying to evade the inevitable-- and besides, she could not very well stand about the dark all night.  Briskly, the curling letter held between two fingers, she lit the lamps above the fireplace and on the end tables, then sat on the couch and opened the letter, which had been folded into thirds.  She recognized the thin, refined handwriting at once.

"To her Esteemed Ladyship, MISS CELES CHERE,
In the company of HIS MAJESTY the KING.

Dear Celes,

As usual, you'll have to forgive that header.  No matter how many times I tell the stewards that it looks ridiculously pompous, they still insist on adding it each time before mailing.  Old traditions die hard, it seems; perhaps because no one has the bollocks to kill them.

Etiquette rantings notwithstanding.  Yes, much to my great disbelief, it's time for another grand dinner.  This one will be particularly spectacular, I hope, with several dozen more guests than last year.  (Yes, before you ask, many of them are women, but I assure you it is merely a matter of coincidence.)

I have sent carriers to the other guests of honor (or rather those with definite addresses; again Gogo has proven especially difficult to track down) and I fully expect it to be a grand reunion.  The progress we have made this year is wonderfully encouraging and I'm sure we would all like to share in it.

Respond whenever it is convenient.  I truly hope you can attend, Celes.  Many of us have missed you.

Cordially,

HIS MAJESTY KING EDGAR RONI the FIRST,
Sovereign to the COMMONWEALTH of FIGARO."


And then, a quick looping scrawl at the bottom.

"Hey Celes, we haven't seen you in a while!  You have to come to the dinner, I need someone to put this brother of mine in his place.  Oh yeah, have you talked with Locke lately?  Last time he visited he mentioned you guys falling out of touch or something.  Oh well, don't worry, he'll be here this year and you guys can play catch-up to your heart's content. Well I guess I better end this before it becomes a novel.  Hope to see you soon!
    
-- Sabin"


So.  Celes closed the letter back on its folds.  It was time again for the feast at Figaro castle.

Four years had passed, then, since Kefka's death.  To Celes it seemed both merely weeks and eons ago, a time somehow separate from chronology and memory.  But then, that was how it had seemed from the start, wasn't it -- from the morning of the tower's collapse.  Exactly, to all the world's people, as though they had awoken from a long, troubled sleep and were unsure how to live in this familiar but nearly forgotten world.

That first morning had been the hardest: dazed and aching, and town after town in near-ruins, without government or leaders.  It had seemed overwhelming, then, and there was some question as to whether the wounds Kefka had inflicted could be mended without at least a grace period of anarchy.

But then, things had seemed to settle themselves.  They had each chosen a town or province to oversee and assist, for at least the time being, and the days went by in a sequence of rebuilding, planting, surveying, flying from town to town to check progress and take notes.  All those concerned, including Celes, been very brisk and ordered in their duties, precise, as if to be less systematic were to slip back into the nightmare.  Perhaps they had simply lived so long with a grand objective that, without one, they were lost.

The months passed quickly, in either case.  Soon, it became clear that a punctuation of some sort was needed, a way to mark the progress made.  It was Edgar, of course, who first came up with the idea: a feast.  A celebration of Kefka's fall, and of the revival of the world, held each year on the vernal equinox for obvious symbolic reasons.  Friends from before the ruin were invited -- surviving Returners, old allies.  New visitors were welcome, too: every mayor, and many shopkeepers, workers, lucky children and families from every town.  And of course, the most important guests, the ones who had been there.  Including Celes.

Of all of them, she had been the most reclusive.  She rarely visited anyone, and when she did, it was those nearby -- Cyan, sometimes, in Tzen, once or twice Setzer in Maranda.  Nor did she maintain any real line of communication.  Edgar, who was sort of the base of operations, was the only one who ever received her carriers, and even then only every other month or so.  Besides that one spring night each year, she was nonexistent.

It was, Celes told herself, because she had the most work to do.  After all, Albrook had been next to decimated after the fall, being closest to Kefka's tower; the people there needed her to be a reliable leader, a constant presence.  Thus justified, she committed herself to rebuilding everything -- the houses, the economy, the government, the morale -- with such total and consuming devotion that it bordered on obsession. 

She did not ask herself why, only knew that it went beyond duty, or responsibility.  Defining it more deeply than that did not interest her.  That would involve entering dangerous territory, disturbing places she had carefully avoided for years.

Still.  Celes smoothed out the invitation and placed it under a glass-globe paperweight on the coffee table.  The feast did come just once a year.  And it would be nice, wouldn't it -- to see everyone again?   And just for a little while.

She reached to the end table, hand hovering near the drawer -- the briarwood fountain pen would probably be most appropriate.  She took it out, along with two sheets of pale blue paper, and began.

To His Majesty King Edgar Roni Figaro.

Dear Edgar and Sabin,

I am delighted to hear from you both, and of course accept your kind invitation.  I expect to arrive by ship on the nineteenth or twentieth and should reach the castle by the following morning. 

It will be good to share memories again.  Sometimes it is far too easy to simply forget.

With best regards,

Celes


***

Figaro Castle had perhaps needed a full six weeks to prepare.  The party's size had seemed to multiply every year since its conception: the first had seen maybe one hundred guests, all fitting comfortably at the two massive banquet tables in the Great Hall.  The next had close to five hundred; the next, twelve hundred; and on this evening, Figaro Castle held nearly three thousand guests, servants, and entertainers.

Of course, it would be impossible to accommodate them all in the Great Hall, and as the company swelled, so did the boundaries of the party.  The Hall was still the center of it -- perhaps because it was where the hors d'oeuvres could be found -- but now the celebration overflowed into the throne room, the ball room, and outside to the moonlit peristyle.  Less crowded, but still filled with music and drink-sipping, chattering guests were the galleries and terraces of both wings and, further back, the great glass-enclosed conservatory and arboretum.

The Great Hall itself had never looked more beautiful: every crystal chandelier lit, every sconce glowing with an exquisite gold-dipped tea light.  The huge arched windows were clear and luminous, the oak-and-ash parquet floor waxed to shining -- and flowers, radiant yellow and red, were everywhere.  Probably Edgar would have to be frugal for the next six months to compensate, Celes thought. 

She was standing against the east wall, drinking champagne and letting the activity pass in and out of her line of vision -- people talking and laughing, reaching to take appetizers from platters, hugging old friends.  It was most comfortable for her, this: watching.  Although the party was, as always, perfectly lovely, she somehow felt detached from it, from the relaxed and easy familiarity that everyone here seemed to share.

Perhaps she ought to go looking for Edgar, to exchange a few pleasantries before dinner.  She had just lifted her glass up, preparing for the trip through the throng, when something warm and coarse brushed against her leg.

Startled, she steadied her drink and looked down to meet two dark, sober eyes.  It took her a moment, through the confusion of passing legs and shifting skirts, to make out the rest: a lean-muscled Doberman, muzzle frosted with gray, seated at her feet.

"What --"  Then recognition hit.  "Interceptor?"

As answer, perhaps, he placed a heavy paw on the toe of one silk ankle-boot.

Celes was at a bit of a loss.  Fortunately, just then she heard a voice, clear over the clamor of conversation and clattering of dishes.

"Hey!  Hey, get back here, you nutty --"

It was Relm, navigating her way sideways through the crowd.  Her eyes were on Interceptor, but then she looked up, saw Celes, and immediately broke into a grin.

"Ay!  Celes, I thought maybe it was you!"  She laughed a little breathlessly.  "I'm sorry, hold on a second -- this guy's a bit keyed up --"

Relm leant down to Interceptor.  "Where did you go?  I had your beef pâtĂ© all ready, and you disappeared."  She rolled her eyes at Celes.  "He has a little caviar and boom, instantly starts running amok."

"Don't we all?" Celes said, smiling.  Relm, at fifteen, was beginning to show hints of the woman she would become: a defining of her features, a darkening to her honey-blonde hair.  Her enthusiasm, however, had remained unchanged.

"Yeah, well, he should be on his best behavior.  Edgar made a special exception for him to be here tonight."  Relm looked down sternly at Interceptor, who huffed through his nose in reply.

"That's right, go ahead and play innocent.  Still, I guess I should be thankful -- he's so much better with people now, isn't he?  He sure seemed to recognize you, anyway."

"Yes," said Celes, and shifted her foot a little, awkwardly.  Interceptor still hadn't lifted his paw.

"Oh!  Lord, I'm sorry."  Relm pulled Interceptor back by one shoulder.  "Get off her, huh?  Act your age.  She doesn't have any food for you.  Greedy thing, I don't know why I put up with him sometimes.  But God, Celes.  How are you?  How has everything been?"

"Great," said Celes.  "And you?"

"Oh, just wonderful.  This party's insane, isn't it?  I love it.  Have you seen the Ferruti?"

"I have."  Edgar had hired out the world-famous Tzen Ferruti, acrobats extraordinaire, and Celes had seen a few glimpses of their trapezing and crab-walking when she passed by Chesme Hall.  "How's your grandfather?"

"Oh."  Relm snorted.  "Exactly the same.  He's sitting back there --" she pointed a thumb at the crowd -- "being incredibly boring.  And getting sloshed, on rum of all things.  I don't know why; have you tasted it?  It's awful."

Celes raised her eyebrows.

Relm waved a hand carelessly.  "Oh, I just had a sip."  Her grin was inexhaustible.  "God damn, but it's great to see you again, Celes.  I can't believe it's been a year already."

"It is pretty unbelievable."

"Have you kept in touch with everyone?  What about Locke?"

Heat prickled at Celes's nape. 

"Ah," she said.  "Well, I'm afraid I really haven't.  I've been a bit of a hermit, I think.  I keep telling myself I'll start sending carriers, but things have been so hectic --"

"You haven't kept up with Locke?"  Relm was dismayed.  "Oh, no.  Why ever not?  That's awful, Celes, I'm sorry."

"Oh, well --" Celes felt her hands tense up as she stalled for time.  Relm's frankness, her candid concern, had startled her; although, after four years, it really shouldn't have.

"It's not that awful, Relm," she said finally.  "We've all been busy."

"Have you at least seen him here tonight?"

"Not yet --" and time to steer the conversation back to normalcy -- "but then I haven't seen anyone, besides you.  I was just about to go people-hunting."

Relm, eyes bright -- perhaps she had had more than just a sip of the rum, after all  -- still didn't look convinced.  "Well, all right."  She looked at Interceptor.  "I guess we'd better get going, too.  I hear the cooks are trying to get rid of all their leftover bones."

The dog's ears perked immediately.  He stared not at Relm, but straight ahead, as though struck with a vision.

"Shall we?"

Before she had even finished speaking, he was off and sprinting, winding around legs and tables.  A series of startled cries tracked his progress to the door.

"Of course that's not true," Relm whispered to Celes, leaning in conspiratorially.  "But talking to his stomach seems to be the only way to get him to do anything nowadays."  She began to weave her way back.   "Listen, Celes, I'll see you at dinner, okay?"

"Okay," said Celes.  She waved lightly.

"And you needn't worry about him," Relm called, nearly swallowed up now.  "I just know he wants to talk to you.  Bye!"

Celes opened her mouth to answer, but somehow couldn't think of a single thing to say.  At last, she raised her head and called back a final "Thanks, good-bye."  Too late, for by that time Relm was out of sight, and Celes was alone.

Feeling unsettled, she finished her champagne, then decided, suddenly, to leave.  It was too warm here, for one thing.  Stifling, really, and noisy besides.  Chattering guests hovered about, countless and relentless, and she no longer had the desire nor the strength to engage in pleasant small talk with any of them, should the need have arisen.

She raised her glass and began to maneuver briskly through the crowd -- "pardon me, excuse me, pardon me, pardon" -- to a little-used side door, draped with a garland of red and gold roses, which she lifted out of the way as she passed.

The corridor was quiet and cool after the thrumming human noise of the party.  With echoing footsteps, she began to walk without any clear idea where she was going.  Faint sounds of talk and laughter from the Hall followed her.  It seemed comforting -- peaceful, like distant music to one half-asleep.  Perhaps to be aware of the party, while still being apart from it, was best.

Soon Celes realized she had wandered into the Figaro Family Hall.  The walls on either side were hung with huge, ceiling-to-floor portraits of the line of desert kings, in successive chronological order.

Academic interest stirred, Celes walked closer to study what looked to be the first, and certainly oldest, painting.  It showed the founders of Figaro: dour Rene of Letia, his graying blond hair pulled severely back from a face that had unfortunately experienced one battle too many, and next to him his ruddy-cheeked brother Roni, who sat straight-backed in a golden throne, a cutlass at his side.  The next portrait was Rene's son Ferdinand standing triumphantly before the castle doors, with a crystal water-glass in one hand: the heraldic representation, Celes knew, of the taming of the vast Figaro desert.

On the paintings went.  Celes followed them, recognizing monarchs like the buxom, freckled Aventene, much-loved queen and first female ruler in any of the free territories; the grandly mustachioed Maracamus II, who was, as Celes understood it, remarkable only for his facial hair; and the famously intellectual Princepi, who nevertheless looked ridiculous wearing a stiff, elaborate neck ruff and an equally stiff expression.  Finally, at the very end of the hall, was Edgar.

Only it wasn't just Edgar.  Very unusually for a royal portrait, Sabin also appeared in the painting.  The two brothers were posed on the castle's lookout tower against a brilliant red sunset, their arms around each other's shoulders.  Both, though Edgar looked like Sabin was squeezing him a bit too hard, were smiling broadly.

There was something unusual, however, about the whole painting.  It appeared less professional than the others.  Apart from the twins' informal poses, other traditional elements were missing: the symbolic scepter and cutlass, or the red book stamped with the gold seal of Figaro.  Leaning closer, Celes saw why.  At the bottom, where she had expected to see the elaborate black signature of Owzer's School of Portraiture, there were only the handwritten initials "S.F."

Celes straightened and raised her glass to her lips, thinking.  Was she remembering incorrectly, or hadn't Sabin and Edgar's father been named Stuart?

Then someone behind her spoke.

"A rather drab family, don't you think?"

The voice could not have been more familiar.  Nevertheless, Celes was taken by surprise.  She half-gulped her mouthful of champagne, then managed to swallow the rest before she turned around.

He was leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed, easily relaxed -- taking no notice of her, it seemed.  His entire attention was focused on the painting in front of them both, which he studied with faint dislike.

"Thoroughly unremarkable in appearance," he continued, "uninspired in wardrobe, and lacking in intelligence, if Edgar is any indication.  In short, a family quite unworthy of the royal line.  If they had any brains at all, they'd let me take over."

His eyes lowered to meet hers.  Candlelight danced.  Then there it was at last, that slow, dazzling grin.

"Hello, miss."

Celes had learned long ago that it was impossible to resist returning that smile.  "Hello, Locke."

"I see you too decided to escape the madhouse," he said.  "As usual, we're the only ones here with any sense." 

It was true that he was dressed in monochrome -- black tuxedo, white shirt, silver waistcoat and cravat -- but somehow he seemed to glow with his own well of color.  She had the disorienting feeling that she was still looking at a painting.

"So it would appear," she answered.

They had begun to moving toward each other, with slow steps that neither seemed fully aware of.

"How long have you been here?" Locke asked.

"Since early afternoon."

"Ah, I've only just arrived.  I found out chocobos take longer, but they certainly beat the hell out of boats."

That made her laugh.  When she looked up again, she saw his attention was now solely on her.

"It's great to see you," he said.

"Likewise," she replied, more softly than she had intended.

"So how have you been?  What have you been doing in -- Albrook, still?  I haven't heard from you in ages, it seems like."

"Oh, I know."  Best to agree.  "It's been so hectic.  We've been having some trouble with the soil -- shriveled seedlings, that sort of thing -- and the assembly quarreled over whether to replant for, oh, it seemed like months.  I've tried to keep in touch, but -- well, the time just seems to fly by so quickly."

"Tell me about it," said Locke.  "I just ended this six-month stint in Zozo I stupidly agreed to.  I guess Edgar thought I'd feel at home or something -- which offends me greatly," he added.  "Now it feels like I was there for hardly a week, but at the time, it was just as much fun as you can imagine."

"What, sleeping with your shoes on so no one would steal them?  That does sound fun."

"You know it.  And keeping my wallet in my underwear."

"Lovely."

"It's good for the leather," he said.  "Anyway, I'm done with that now.  Back in Nikeah till the end of the year at least."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes.  And, as such," he began, puffing himself up importantly, "I shall be nary three days from Albrook by ferry."

Celes felt a tiny tickling sensation in her stomach.  "Oh, really?"

"And I am willing to partake of that gruesome journey if you would, perhaps, like a visitor sometime."

"Well," she began.  "Well, I wouldn't want to subject you to such an ordeal."

"Don't worry, I've been building up my endurance," he said.  "Or, you know, if you prefer, you could come to Nikeah.  Get that gambling stumblebum to fly you over, maybe.  I'd make us tea and crumpets, it'd be grand."

"Tea and crumpets?  I believe you once told me you couldn't even boil water."

"Well, strictly speaking that may be true, but everyone deserves a first try.  And maybe it'll be a nice night for a bonfire.

"But you would like to?" he added.

"Well..."  Celes chanced to look at him.  His expression was open, earnest.

"Yes, maybe, if it will all work out," she said finally.  "Yes, sure."

"Great."  He flashed that same grin.  "I'll send you a carrier about it after you get back."

"Actually I think it would be a good idea for us all to meet periodically," Celes went on.  "I've been thinking we should discuss in person the different methods we've been using.  What works, what doesn't, in terms of administration, especially.  The reactions we've been getting, the variables ..."

She trailed off then.  Locke was listening attentively, but still she could see in the wry tilt of his mouth, the slight sadness now to his eyes, that it was the same as always.  He saw right through her.

Perhaps it was time to leave again.
 
"Well, in any case," she said.  "It was great to see you, Locke, but I have to go back to my room."

"Now?"  He raised his eyebrows.  "Before dinner?"

"I'm afraid I've got a bit of a headache," she said ruefully.  "My ship leaves at dawn tomorrow, and I'm sure I'll sleep right through till noon if I don't get some rest now.  But maybe I'll see you again at dessert," she added.  "After I lie down for a while."

"Oh."  He seemed startled into movement, placing his drink on a nearby end table.  "Of course, feel better.  And if I don't see you, have a good journey, and we'll get together soon?"

"Sure," Celes replied, and, unsure of what courtesy dictated she do next, touched the side of his arm lightly.  "Tell Edgar and Terra and everyone hello for me."

"I will.  I'll say it in your voice, too, which will be sure to entertain them."  Locke covered her hand with his own.  "It was great seeing you, Celes."
"You too," she said, and gently drew back.  "Good night."

"Good night."

Down the corridor she walked then, briskly, swirling her drink and staring into it as though that occupied all of her attention.  It wasn't until she had turned the corner that Celes slowed, then stopped, to exhale deeply and lean against the wall, her eyes closed.

It nagged at her; at last she had to admit it.  Why should this be so difficult?  They both had, after all, been at the very least comrades-in-arms for nearly two years.  Shouldn't that have been long enough to alleviate this ridiculous anxiety, this elusive and groundless fear she felt?  Was it simply that she was still trying to get used to herself in times of calm, instead of in the urgent rush of war?  Or was it something else?

Suddenly lying down for a while began to seem like a truly appealing prospect.  Celes finished the last of her champagne and, seeing nowhere else, placed the flute on a mahogany display case nearby.  A moment later, she thought better of it and folded her lace handkerchief underneath.  She had a feeling the castle servants would appreciate the use of coasters.

Her room was in the East Wing, on the other side of the castle.  Even as she began the long walk back, through the empty corridors, she heard the voices from the party as clearly as ever.  The guests must have been the most rambunctious they'd ever been, if they could be heard from this distance.  She didn't want to think of the cleanup job Edgar would face in the morning.

In the hallway crossing hers, Celes was surprised to see, in this empty part of the castle, a guest pause, then start off in the other direction.  Though he was dressed in light colors, she had to squint to make him out, a fault of the shadows.  Probably he was looking for the bathroom.

The party was certainly rowdy.  Celes was sure that she was moving farther away from it, but with every passing minute it seemed that the murmurs were growing louder.  She was beginning to wonder if she'd be able to sleep at all through the noise when someone passed briskly by her.

"Oh, excuse me," she said softly, a reflex, but the person simply marched ahead without heeding her.  Whoever it was was dressed in what appeared to be a light gray guard's uniform, with helmet and shoulder epaulets.  The ensemble was somehow familiar, but she couldn't be sure why -- it was too hard to make him out in this strange dim light.

It was the same guest as before.  Celes wondered why he would be wandering around this part of the castle, which Edgar had essentially closed off except to close friends.  She walked faster to catch up a little.

"Pardon me," she called to him.

It was like the man hadn't even heard her.  He simply kept walking, then turned the corner sharply and entered a darkened ballroom.

A bit annoyed now, and suspicious, Celes quickened her pace and followed him.  "Excuse me, sir," she called, more loudly this time, in case the guest had poor hearing. "I was simply wondering if --"

What she saw then took her voice away.

Here was the source of the murmurs.  The ballroom was teeming, swarming, with palely-dressed soldiers, talking to each other indistinctly, crossing from one side of the room to the next, sharing papers and studying maps as though preparing for military action. 

But that wasn't what struck Celes speechless.  The room was illuminated only by the moonlight streaming in through the latticed windows, and now Celes realized that the guest she'd followed wasn't indistinct because of the dim corridor; it was because he was, as the figures all were, made not of flesh but of some flickering, ghostly, translucent substance.  By their eerie white-gray glow, Celes finally recognized where she'd seen their uniforms before.  They were the standard fatigues of third-class Imperial troops.

"What," she whispered.  "What is --?"

The murmurs had grown louder, more confused and frenetic.  Involuntarily Celes took a step back.  Words like joke, trick, treachery flitted through her mind, but none were adequate to explain this feeling she had, the fearful sense that something was very wrong.

"What is this?" Celes demanded of the closest soldier, raising her voice to be heard over the din.  He didn't answer.

"What is going on here?" she said, almost shouting now in anger and fear, but then the soldier turned to face her.  Though his ghostly eyes were without pupils, they seemed focused on some point beyond her head.  The shifting, crackling mist of his skin flashed momentarily, like lightning, and for a second Celes thought he was about to speak -- until he strode forward and straight through her.

It was though the world had cracked.  The instant the soldier's wraithlike body touched her skin, all of Celes's muscles seized up violently; it felt like every cell in her body had been isolated and turned inside out, fused together, torn to nothingness.  And beyond the pain was something worse: the sensation of dropping into an abyss, freefall into terrible eternity.

Celes wanted to cry out, but all that escaped her lips was a weak gasp.  When the soldier finally passed through her to the other side, she dropped to her knees, fell forward onto one hand, and breathed raggedly, trembling, feeling faint.  White footsteps swarmed around her; the voices had grown deafening.  Her vision swam.  She couldn't think.  She wanted to cover her ears, but before she could try, another soldier walked carelessly through her, then another, and another. 

Convulsing, she collapsed to the floor.  This time she could do nothing, could not even try to call for help, only shudder and lock up from the pain.  Voices shouted nonsense at her, atoms flashed and crackled, and the universe churned and raged until at last it broke into blackness.


This post has been edited by L. Cully on 24th October 2014 10:10

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Some ghost of me might greet my son
the day he is delivered.


Eternal Sleep, Track 1-1: The Blue Planet
Post #97602
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Posted: 28th September 2005 04:42

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Palace Guard
Posts: 2,543

Joined: 17/1/2001

Awards:
Celebrated the CoN 20th Anniversary at the forums. Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Second place in CoNCAA, 2002. 
Has more than thirty news submissions to CoN. Contributed to the Final Fantasy I section of CoN. Vital involvement in the Final Fantasy VII section of CoN. 
Mr. Thou just put up a few new ones, so yes, the CoN is still accepting fanfics. smile.gif

I like this take on the typical "feast at Figaro castle after Kefka's death" fic. Most fics like this merely go on and on about what people are doing after, but this one feels different, making the feast into a holiday. I'm also very curious about those soldiers.

My favourite part of actual writing is the prologue, the way you used words. Some fanfic writers forget to use tools like aliteration, rhyming and a little description.

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I had an old signature. Now I've changed it.
Post #97605
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Posted: 28th September 2005 19:54

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Holy Swordsman
Posts: 2,033

Joined: 29/1/2004

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Member of more than ten years. Participated at the forums for the CoN's 15th birthday! User has rated 25 fanarts in the CoN galleries. Member of more than five years. 
Second place in the 2004 Gogo Fanfiction contest. Third place in the 2009 Quiz contest. 
That was killer smile.gif

I really enjoyed the story itself in it's less than typical fashion and as always you stun me with your imagery. Painting with words is the only way to put it. Looking forward to more.

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If you've been mod-o-fied,
It's an illusion, and you're in-between.
Don't you be tarot-fied,
It's just alot of nothing, so what can it mean?
~Frank Zappa

Sins exist only for people who are on the Way or approaching the Way
Post #97669
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Posted: 28th September 2005 21:52

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Wavey Marle!
Posts: 2,098

Joined: 21/1/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Third place in CoN European Cup fantasy game for 2011-2012. Member of more than five years. Second place in CoN European Cup, 2008. 
Winner of the 2004 Gogo Fanfiction contest. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy IV section of CoN. Contributed to the Chrono Trigger section of CoN. 
Wow. Awesome as always, L. Cully.

Very vivid imagery, as with most of your work, and a pretty interesting prologue. I like ones that seem to hint at something big later, but don't blow it all away in three sentences.

The first chapter proper is a pretty interesting continuation of that. The semi-contrast between the festivities of a party and the grim encounter with of a ghost army of sorts is nice in my veiw, and I like the somewhat ironic way that Celes initially fears the ghosts of the past when she thinks of going to the feast, then blunders right into ACTUAL ghosts of the past... possibly. Again, I like how it hints at something far deeper that is to unfold in the next parts, which I hope comes as quickly as it possibly can, because you've got me and I assume Mogmaster and Elena99 hooked. biggrin.gif

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"Only the dead have seen the end of their quotes being misattributed to Plato."
-George Santayana

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here..."
-Abraham Lincoln, prior to the discovery of Irony.
Post #97678
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Posted: 28th September 2005 22:52
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Behemoth
Posts: 2,773

Joined: 24/6/2001

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Celebrated the CoN 20th Anniversary at the forums. Contributed to the Final Fantasy VI section of CoN. Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. 
First place in the 2008  Has more than fifty fanarts in CoN galleries. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy I section of CoN. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy IV section of CoN. 
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Always figured you to make the best fanfiction round here and you haven't disappointed. Very tense and thought provoking. Can't wait for the next chapter.

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Post #97684
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Posted: 29th September 2005 15:48

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Black Waltz
Posts: 903

Joined: 29/5/2005

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Member of more than ten years. User has rated 25 fanarts in the CoN galleries. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy V section of CoN. Second place in CoNCAA, 2011. 
Member of more than five years. Has more than fifteen news submissions to CoN. First place in CoNCAA, 2009. Vital involvement in the Final Fantasy IV section of CoN. 
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...MORE!! I demand More!!
Seriously, that's one awesome piece of writing.
*waits...*
Post #97740
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Posted: 2nd October 2005 20:57

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SOLDIER
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Joined: 7/8/2003

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Hey, fellas, thanks for all the great feedback. This was a bit different -- uh, a lot different -- from other stuff I'd written. I had fun with it for that reason, though. Onward:
Quote
The Grace of God
Chapter Two

A FAINT WHISPERING was what finally roused Celes to consciousness. Though she was only barely aware of it, the sound evoked some elusive and nameless dread in her, some recent memory. She stirred and made a small sound of unease.

"Shh, wait. Did you hear that?" Celes could hear more clearly now. A man's low, patrician-accented voice was speaking. "I think she's coming around."

"Try not to wake her if you can," whispered another voice, this one soft and female. "She should rest as long as possible."

"If we keep making noise she is going to wake up," replied a third. The voice was barely audible, but nevertheless unmistakable. Locke's.

Celes stirred again, feeling the weight of sheets and blankets on her. So she was in a bed somewhere, but she couldn't think why Locke would be here, too. Nor did she know why she felt so strange: battered, and somehow raw.

"Unh," she muttered, with effort. Her lips and tongue were dry. "What's happened?"

"Celes?" She felt a weight on the bed as someone sat beside her. "Can you hear me?"

"Yes," Celes whispered. She tried to moisten her lips, without success. "I just need to…"

Finally she managed to open her eyes. The world was blurry for a time, until she recognized the deep red of the ceiling wallpaper. She was in her guest room in Figaro Castle. Blinking her eyes to help focus them, she glanced to her right. Sitting there, looking anxious, was Locke, his jacket and tie removed and shirtsleeves rolled to his forearms.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

The feast -- the party -- the portraits -- the memory of the evening slowly returned to Celes. She remembered clearly, too, what had happened after. What had she seen in that room? The phantom soldiers couldn't have been real people, not with the way they had passed through her as if they were made of nothing but vapor; and Celes refused to believe they had been ghosts. They could only, then, have been a product of her mind, a malfunctioning of her senses. To cause all this trouble over a hallucination -- Celes felt suddenly embarrassed.

"I'm fine," she said as resolutely as she could manage, and struggled to sit up, ignoring the dizziness. Locke reached over help by adjusting her pillows. "I was just -- overtired, I think."

"Nice try, Celes." Celes looked over to see, for the first time, Edgar standing at the foot of the bed. His arms were crossed over a dark-blue silk waistcoat. "But you can't blame things on yourself this time."

Not fully comprehending, Celes was about to answer when someone handed her a glass of water. It was Terra, still wearing her satin elbow-length gloves. A few curls had come loose from her topknot.

"Here," she said. "It should help."

Celes accepted the water -- gratefully, for she suddenly realized she was parched with thirst. She emptied the glass in one long, steady draught, then asked, "What do you mean, Edgar, that I can't blame this on myself?"

"I mean that we saw the same things you did."

"The Imperial soldiers," said Terra. "Did you see them? And the flashes of light?"

"We certainly did," Edgar continued. "Caused a fair bit of pandemonium in the Hall, too, I don't mind telling you."

"But…" Relief that she wasn't, in fact, going mad, had met with new trepidation. "If that's so, why didn't anyone else…"

"Pass out? Some did. I've got nurses watching over them."

"Did any of them touch you? The ghost things?" Locke asked her.

"Yes," said Celes, and shivered. "A few. It was -- awful."

"That's what did it," said Edgar. "We managed to clear out most of the Hall once the flashes started, but when my guards tried to arrest the, er, visitors, they just collapsed the minute they touched them."

Celes was silent, digesting this new information. Her head was clearer now, and that she hadn't gone through that terrible experience alone was a comfort, but there was still the memory of those soldiers.

"What were they?" she asked.

Edgar and Terra exchanged a glance. Locke shook his head slowly.

"We don't know," he said. "There was all the lightning and shouting and everything, and then it all just -- vanished."

Edgar grimaced. "The party's over, needless to say. Most of the guests decided to go home early --"

"I couldn't imagine why." Locke rolled his eyes at Celes.

"-- and I put everyone else up for the night in South Figaro."

"For the night?" asked Celes. "What time is it?"

"Almost eleven, I think," said Locke, and Edgar took out a gold pocketwatch to confirm.

"Eleven?" It had been nearly five hours she'd been lying unconscious, while everyone else had rushed around, handling things. The notion did not at all please her. She began to push the bedclothes aside.

"Hey, wait, wait." Locke stilled her hands. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Locke, I'm fine."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes. It wasn't all that serious to begin with."

"It didn't look that way when I found you."

That made Celes pause. She hadn't known it was Locke who'd brought her here. She thought of him discovering her passed out on the floor, and carrying her to her room.

"Believe me, I'm sure it looked worse than it was," she replied, feeling warm.

Locke wasn't convinced. Luckily, just then there came a low knock at the door, and Setzer, looking splendid in full tuxedo and tails, as well as the ubiquitous opera trenchcoat, walked in.

"How's the patient?" he asked quietly, before noticing Celes was awake. "Well! Finally decided to join us, eh?" He was teasing, but the expression on his face was genuinely relieved. "You feeling better?"

"Yes," she replied, pointedly.

"She's still recuperating," Locke told him. "What's the news?"

"It’s the same in Thamasa." Setzer paused. "Well. The flashes and voices, anyway, and the ghosts, but no one there said they looked like Imperial soldiers, so that was a nice change. I told them it was probably just an electrical storm, and that you were investigating it, Edgar, and not to worry."

"How'd they respond?" asked Edgar.

"Well -- I suppose the hysteria might have quieted down a little." He thought about it. "Not very much, though."

Edgar dropped into an armchair. "Great."

"You mean to say this happened in other towns?" Celes was wide awake now, sitting upright.

"Every town, it looks like so far," Setzer replied. "Every city, too."

"What about Albrook? And Mobliz -- has anyone checked there?"

Lightly, Terra placed a hand on Celes's knee. "Edgar invited everyone from Mobliz, remember? They're all right. Most of them were in Chesme when it happened, and it wasn't as bad there."

"And Albrook is, well…" Edgar seemed unsure what to say next. "It's okay, Celes, it's as good as can be expected. It's just that --"

"It's just that what?"

"It's just that for some reason things seemed to be worse there, we don't know why." Edgar looked to Setzer.

"People saying they saw things no one else did," said Setzer. He was quiet. "Things like the sky going black. The ground turning to metal."

"But it's okay," Edgar said hastily, seeing the look on Celes's face. "Cyan went there right after and he says things have mostly calmed down, that everyone's shaken, sure, but mostly not hurt. He's going to stay there for tonight."

"That's very kind of him, I'm sure, but it won't be necessary," replied Celes. Deftly, so Locke couldn't react in time to stop her, she pushed the covers away and swung her legs over the side. "I'm returning to Albrook." Abstractedly she noticed, with some relief, that she was still fully clothed, though her bodice had been loosened and her cameo choker removed. So, too, had her shoes, which were lined up neatly beside the bed. She reached over to them.

"Celes, wait a second," Locke began, but she didn't listen to him, only began pulling them on. She had been lying idle for far too long; it was scathing to think that she had burdened someone else with her responsibility.

"My place is there," she went on, not looking up as she tied her laces. "Setzer, will you take me?"

Setzer looked startled. "Well, I --"

"No," said Edgar firmly, "he won't, because we need you here, Celes."

Celes straightened up, looking at him. "Need me here? For what?"

"To help us figure this all out. We still have no idea what hell happened. For all we know, it might happen again."

"That's a possibility." Celes returned to her laces. "But surely you have experts here who know more about such things than I do. I'm hardly an authority on scientific phenomena, Edgar. My duty is to ensure the safety of Albrook's people."

"That's why Cyan's there --" here Celes made a sound of impatience -- "and, well, besides, Celes, Strago says he thinks he's heard about something like this before."

She paused. "Oh?"

"Yes. And --" Edgar, looking uncomfortable, glanced at Locke. "He thinks it might have something to do with magic."

Silence followed his words. After a few moments, Celes drew herself upright. Locke was watching her, his expression serious; Terra was silent, her eyes averted.

"It's not definite in the slightest," Edgar went on. "Not in the slightest. I mean, you know as well as I do that there's actually far more evidence against the idea than for it, but since we have nothing else to go on so far... well, Strago wanted to talk about it when you woke up."

"I see," said Celes, slowly. Resting her hands on the edge of the bed, she stared at nothing in particular.

"So I thought we could all meet in the banquet hall to talk about it." Edgar spoke quickly now, with an artificial nonchalance. " At the very least, you all can help me get rid of some of the food. How about in a half-hour? That is, of course, if you're feeling up to it, Celes."

"Yes, that sounds fine."

"Good, then. Locke, Setzer, would you help me spread the word?"

Setzer held the door open for Edgar. Before Locke joined them, he placed a hand on her shoulder.

"Hey," he said quietly. "Don't go playing the martyr on me, all right? Tell me if you feel at all strange."

"I will," she said. She let out a breath. "I really will, don't worry."

"We'll talk later, Celes," said Terra. "See you soon." She closed the door.

Celes was alone now. Slowly, she pushed herself back on the bed until she was again lying on it, this time above the comforter, and stared at the ceiling.

There was no denying, true, that there were very few possible explanations for the events of the evening. Memories flashed through her mind: gray-white whisps of force, senseless whispering in her ears, and that feeling, most of all, that feeling of becoming lost in layers upon layers, endless layers, of existence. The entire episode was imbued with a most troubling sense of wrongness.

But at the same time, Celes could not accept it had been magic. It wasn't merely wishful thinking on her part; it was the simple, logical conclusion. Firstly, and most importantly, magic had ceased to exist. Before a irksome voice could remind her that so thought the world after the War of the Magi, Celes also remembered, firmly, that this time the Statues had been destroyed, obliterated, turned to dust -- and, with Kefka dead, their power too.

Secondly -- and this was less empirical, more personal, but far more reassuring --whatever had happened in that ballroom did not feel like magic. And Celes knew what magic felt like. For as long as she could remember, she had felt it, almost seen it, it in the air, in words, in her skin and blood, the way one feels the potential of power in humming machinery. The events tonight, though alien and inexplicable, true, did not stir that part of her that joined her to magic.

Or had joined her, she thought suddenly. It had joined her four years ago. Could things have changed since then?

Certainly she had changed. Those first few days after Kefka's fall, she had spent most of her time sitting on the beach, smelling the air: fresh now, cool. It no longer had the sharp, unnatural tang of magic. And she had been glad to see it go.

It had given her a feeling close to elation, that first time she tried to cast a spell and felt no prickle on her skin, no sense of unearthing something ancient and omnipresent. She could imagine her blood: the old, Magitek-tainted cells dying and new, pure ones being born, natural and clean as water. Later, when she walked through South Figaro, she saw the newly-built buildings and streets as tough and rootlike, organic. These, she had thought, would only be destroyed by the natural chaos of the earth, only by wars or time or clumsy human error, not by some elusive eternal power that, though she had once exploited it, had always been a mystery to her.

So surely if somehow, unthinkably, ridiculously, magic had appeared again in the world, Celes would have felt something -- anything. It had been a part of her too long to think otherwise.

Her gaze fell on the porcelain water-pitcher on the bedside table, and her empty glass upturned next to it.

She sat up and looked at them for a moment. Where was the harm? There was none. As Edgar had said, the evidence against it was far stronger than the evidence for it. Nevertheless, she hesitated for a long moment before she reached for the pitcher.

She filled the glass up almost halfway and replaced both pitcher and glass. Briefly, she folded her hands on the night table and rested her chin on them, thinking. Then she then sat up and took a deep breath.

It took a moment to remember, to reorient herself, but then she focused on the contents of the glass in the way she had first been taught as a child: as though she needed to draw its interest, captivate it. She placed one hand next to the glass and raised her first three fingers slightly, as though gesturing to get someone's attention.

"The white in water," she said. The words were as familiar to her as a lullaby.

"The white in water.
The clear of cold.
The bright in breaking.
The sharp of shone."


There. She had addressed her servant; all that remained now was to issue her command.

"Ice," she said softly.

A tense moment, and then -- nothing happened. There was no jump of force from her lips to the glass, no rippling in the fabric of space. The contents of the glass were still motionless -- and still fluid, a fact she double-checked by swirling it around a bit. Her water had remained water.

She sat back, feeling relieved, if a bit foolish. Of course it had remained water. The world had been, after all, changed completely, almost as if it were a new place altogether; and whatever might have been true in the past certainly was no longer. No matter what Strago, wise though he was, might think.

Celes rose and re-tied her bodice as best she could, the ruched satin giving her some trouble. Nevertheless, she found herself in remarkably better spirits. To do battle against haunts of the past was grueling -- memory tainted the struggle, clouded sight of the objective. To rise up to some new trial, and overcome it, was far easier.

She took off her bracelets, put them in her valise, and fastened the clasp. Then she flicked the light switch and closed the door.

***

The banquet hall, like the rest of the castle, seemed quite cavernous and lonely now that the revelry of the evening was over. Seated at the great table were Locke, Terra, Setzer, and Edgar, as well as Sabin, Relm, and Strago, all oddly crowded around one corner of the thirty-yard-long table.

At any other time, it would have been an amusing sight: seven partygoers seated around a table meant for a hundred, all of various age, all in formal wear in various stages of dishevelment. While Strago still looked dapper in his dark-green suit coat and trousers, Relm had changed completely, into baggy pink harem pants and a collared pajama top. Interceptor was on the floor at her feet, gnawing thoughtfully at a large hambone held between his forepaws.

Edgar and Sabin had been talking to the group heatedly, but when Celes approached they stopped. Sabin smiled at her.

"Hey, glad to hear you're feeling better," he said. "We were worried about you for a little while there."

"Oh." Celes made a dismissive gesture as she withdrew a chair to take a place at the banquet table. "Please, you shouldn't have been. I'm quite well." She tried to appear as uninterested in her condition as possible. "Forgive me for interrupting. Please, go on."

Edgar looked sheepish. "Oh, Sabin and I were just discussing a shared experience of our past."

"Uh, I did not share that experience, Edgar."

"Certainly you did. You were the one who suggested rotten oranges in the first place."

"What? Please. I'm not gonna be included in your heinous crimes, dear brother." To Celes he said, "Our Aunt Mildred's piano bench never smelled the same."

"That is a gross exaggeration."

"I think it's an understatement, myself. Although 'gross' is the right word. Were you there when she opened it up? I think it took three years off my life."

"Well, there's no use in squabbling over unimportant matters," Edgar said loudly. "What's important is that we're now all here, so we can begin, correct?"

There were murmurs of agreement. Servants, silent but watchful, had begun distributing food, piling plates perhaps a bit too high with leftover olives, roasted red peppers, basil artichokes, cold cooked shrimp, crudités, and various cheeses and breads -- only the appetizers. As they hovered about, Edgar continued, seeming not at all distracted.

"As we're all aware, " he said, "tonight at five-twenty Figaro time, a phenomenon took place that remains quite inexplicable. There were enough witnesses here, obviously, that we have a detailed account of the events. Reports from around the world are similar" -- here he acknowledged Setzer with a nod -- "and relatively mild. It could have been far worse; as it is, there seems to have been no serious or lasting damage. Still, especially with the particulars of the incident being what they are, and the -- past experience we've all had with similar strange occurrences, I thought it would be best if we, ah..."

Edgar's easy stream of diplomacy had hit a bump. He blinked, apparently trying to make his next words sufficiently official.

"Well, if we talked about it," he said at last.

In the short silence that followed, Celes glanced, without meaning to, at Strago. He was steadily spooning pure brie into his mouth, looking very engrossed in the task of eating and not at all interested in what Edgar had just said.

"I think," Setzer spoke up, "that what we really need right now is an explanation. It's all well and good to assess the damage and take precautions and whatnot, but the people -- the people I saw, anyway -- are scared. They don't know what they're recovering from, you know? Let alone what they should be guarding against."

"Same as us," Relm said grimly.

"That's not entirely true," said Edgar. "We know that whatever it was involved Imperial soldiers. I'd say, it being five years since the Empire collapsed, that's worth mentioning. And their uniforms certainly looked genuine to me. What do you think, Celes?"

Celes, who had been distracted, blinked. "No. I mean -- yes, you're right, their uniforms did look genuine. Third-class standards, winter, not designed for battle. But these ones had --" She squinted, trying to remember. "The collars were higher, I think. The belts were narrower. So were the gauntlets."

"So they could have been fakes," said Locke.

"Maybe," she replied. "But I don't think so."

"Neither do I," said Terra, who hadn't touched her plate.

Edgar, after glancing at Terra, asked Celes, "So what do you think?"

"I think they looked --" she paused, looking for the right word. "Richer. More professional."

The group took this in. Then Setzer, who had been drumming his fingers impatiently, spoke up. "Okay. So the Imperials looked fancy. That's very nice for them, I'm sure, but I think it may be more noteworthy that they were made out of smoke. Might be just me."

Edgar gave him a withering look. "I was getting to that, thank you. Strago..."

Strago looked up attentively, still eating his brie.

"You said that this might have something to do with magic. Now --" he lifted a hand to the group -- "I know none of us wants to think about that possibility. But so far, as explanations go, we're coming up short. So do you think this signals a new kind of magic? Something residual, what? Because Terra and I went over all the old spells, but we weren't able to think of one that might have been the cause of this."

"Oh, no, no, no," said Strago, sounding rather muffled, as his mouth was full. He swallowed and continued, more clearly, "None of the old spells, no. Those are gone. Disappeared four years ago."

"We do know that, Grandpa," said Relm, rolling her eyes.

"So how could it be magic?" asked Celes, and folded her arms. She was keen to hear the answer.

"Magic?" Strago looked startled. "Can't be magic. Magic's gone. Disappeared four years ago."

There was a pause. Edgar cleared his throat.

"Ah, yes, but, Strago... I thought you said magic had something to do with this. Maybe I was wrong?"

"Maybe," Strago agreed.

Before anyone could begin grumbling, Strago sat up straight. "Wait! No. I did say that. But not that all those ghosts and lightning and whatnot were magic. That's not possible. Magic's gone."

"Disappeared four years ago," Locke said quickly. "So...?"

"So what happened was I said to Edgar, I said, 'Y'know, Edgar, I think read about something like this in an old book of magic back in Thamasa.'"

"What book?" asked Celes.

"Umm." Strago scrunched up his face, which, given his wrinkles, had a startling effect. "Give me a second, now. Anthology of... no, that wasn't it. Archival...  Archival, anthology... hmm. Relm," he said, turning to her, "what was the name of that blue book with the silver lettering, and it was so big I needed your help to carry it?"

"There were a million like that."

"But this one was very old," Strago said impatiently.

"Again, a million."

"This one was so old that every page had been coated in glass and then you dropped it and I lost the first two chapters!"

"Wait -- oh." Relm covered her mouth. "I remember that. That was funny. You were jumping around yelling and your face was all red."

"Yes, yes," said Strago. "What was the name of it?"

Relm was quiet for a minute. "Complete... Archival..."

"Ha!" said Strago.

"Jeez, let me finish, old man," said Relm. "Complete Archival Collection of Poly... Polygeotic, Particularity." She sat back, pleased with herself.

"Oh, yeah, I've read that one." Setzer was dumbfounded.

"Do you still have it?" asked Edgar. "We could go to Thamasa right now and retrieve it."

"Uh," said Strago. "Well, it wasn't actually mine."

"Wasn't that one of Nigel's books?" asked Relm.

"Hmm, yes, yes, it was."

"And who's Nigel?" Locke asked.

"The kid whose house burned down," Relm told him.

There was a general, horrified silence. Locke was the first to find his voice. "And -- with Archival Polykinetic Possibilities in it?"

Relm bit her lip and looked at her grandfather. "Um."

"I'm afraid so," said Strago.

Locke slowly buried his face in his hands. Setzer rubbed at his mouth, his eyes blank. Edgar leaned back in his chair and let out a sigh.

"Do you remember anything from it?" Terra spoke up, at length.

"Well." Strago twirled his moustache between his fingers. "Well, yes, a few things. It was a book, you see, that had been written before the War of the Magi, using mechanical printing. Very rare, you know, so I was very interested in it.

"It was strange, too. It hardly had any spells in it. Mainly it had theories, you know: things that prophets had seen when they went into trances. Secrets about the universe that had been around for so long that no one could remember whether they were true or not. Things like that."

"And it had something about what happened tonight?" said Terra.

"Ye-es. I'm sure it did. Let me remember. It was in the last chapter. All the last chapters were about different worlds."

"Different worlds?" asked Sabin. "Like different planets?" He was interested in astronomy.

"Not exactly. More like... oh, it was very complicated. Especially for my old brain. About worlds, millions of them, countless really, that are like ours. But we can't see them. Don't ask me why not."

"Maybe they've been vanished," Edgar said, thinking aloud. "But where would these worlds be? In space?"

"The book said they exist right, um, I don't know. On top of ours. Or alongside it, or something like that. It didn't make any sense to me."

Celes thought back to the feeling she'd had when the ghostly creatures had touched her, the sensation like falling through endless strata of space, through infinite grains of sand. What Strago had said did make a little sense to her.

"Anyway," Strago went on, "the reason I remember it is, there was a very old legend mentioned in there that I've never read anywhere else. It was about the Goddesses, and how they came to our world. We all know that they were banished here from somewhere else, but we've never wondered where.

"Well." Now he lowered his voice dramatically. "The legend said that right before the Goddesses appeared in our world, mighty storms of mist and lightning rocked the earth. And gray ghosts of terrible monsters appeared, which would poison anyone they touched."

No one had to mention how familiar this sounded. Strago continued. "And then the Goddesses came screaming out of a gash in the sky, and the storms ended, and the ghosts disappeared."

"We didn't see a gash," Celes pointed out.

"No, but we also didn't have three all-powerful magic beings appear, either."

"No," Setzer said. "Thank God."

Edgar leaned forward. "Okay. And since we're all quite painfully aware that many legends have a basis in fact, you think something similar to this one happened tonight?"

"Well," said Strago, "do you have any other ideas?"

No one replied. There was only the slight clink of dishes as the servants went around clearing the table in preparation for the main course.

"So," said Sabin at last, "we possibly maybe know what we have on our hands. But we still don't know why it happened. Or worse, if it might happen again."

"My knowledge ends there, I'm afraid," said Strago. "If only I had that book. I'm sure that there was much more left to read in that chapter."

"Unfortunately, we're out of luck in that department," said Edgar, glumly. He rested his chin on his hand.

"Sir, if I may?"

All eight guests turned to see a young servant, several plates balanced in one arm, who had spoken.

"Forgive me for interrupting," he said. "But I couldn't help overhearing about that book you're so interested in, sir."

"That's all right, Conrad," said Edgar. He sat up, possibly to look more kingly. "What's up?"

"Well, I'm sure you're aware of the castle library. And you too, of course, Prince Sabin."

"Uh, yeah, right," Sabin said, looking uncomfortable.

"It's just that it has that enormous section on magical theory," the steward continued, shifting the plates to rest against his hip. "It was your father that insisted on it, I think. If there's any other copy of that magic book in the world, it would be down there."

"Of course," said Edgar.

"They're listed alphabetically, too. If you have the title, I can go look for it right after I put these away."

"Ah." Edgar cleared his throat. "Yes. That would be great. The title is Archival Collection of... Postmodern..."

Sabin piped in. "He means Archival Collected Polygamist... of --"

"Complete Archival Collection of Polygeotic Particularity," Relm told the servant, with a sigh.

"Yes, that's the one," said Edgar, banging the table with a fist.

"Okay. Great." The servant smiled. "I'll be right back."

There was a lengthy silence after the servants left. Locke coughed once.

"I was going to mention that next," Edgar said at last, but everyone had already begun to laugh.

"I haven't been down there in years!" he protested, to no avail. "How was I supposed to know about the magic section? I didn't even know we had one."

"Maybe if you spent a little less time tinkering with your gadgets, bro," said Sabin, wiping at one eye.

"And you should talk. 'Polygamist,' indeed. At least my answer was somewhat half-assed."

"Hey, I was really trying to remember."

"Children," said Locke soothingly, "you may put your worries to rest. Your answers were both half-assed. Now, on to more important matters. We might have this book, which would be very good, but on the other hand, it's past midnight." He pointed across the table, where Relm lay slumped leaning on one elbow, eyes closed.

"Oh," said Terra, with a smile.

"So I propose that we finish this meeting in the morning. All of us have had a rough night, some rougher than others, and we're gonna be no good against otherworldly rifts if we don't get our beauty sleep. Especially Setzer."

"Hey!"

"Sound good?" Locke went on. "All agree?"

"I suppose so," said Edgar, stretching. "Although I think I should stay here for when Conrad gets back. Sometimes I hate being a king. If you'll excuse me," he added to Terra and Celes.

"I'll stay with you," Celes said. "I would like to see this book for myself, if it exists."

"If it does, it will probably still exist in the morning," said Locke.

"I'd rather not wait."

Locke slid his chair closer to her, and grimaced. "Yeah, but you were one of the ones with the rougher nights," he said. "Don't you think it would be a good idea to take it easy?"

"Locke, I'm fine."

"I know that, but -- please. As a personal favor."

Celes looked at him, even though she knew direct eye contact might prove hazardous. His expression, while not quite pleading, was serious; it made her think about what she had promised before, about not playing the martyr. As much as she hated to admit it, she did feel a little weary: her limbs ached dully, as though she were recovering from a flu.

She sighed. "All right."

"Hurrah," said Setzer, rising. "Although I don't know why I'm so eager to go to sleep. It'll just be that much sooner I have a hangover."

"You weren't driving that maniacal machine while drunk, were you?" Locke looked suspicious as he stood up with the others.

"Of course not. I was flying it. And I wasn't drunk. At least I don't think I was." Setzer looked thoughtful. "I'll know for sure tomorrow."

"That, my friend, means you were," said Edgar, from his place at the head of the table. "Have as good a night as you can, everyone. I shall keep a watchful eye for the Polygamist."

"Ha, ha," Sabin, who had been recruited to carry Relm to her room, called back sarcastically. "Don't fall asleep reading."

Edgar had given the all of the guests of honor rooms near one another, presumably for socializing purposes, so it was a motley crew that made its way towards the East Wing. Celes was secretly grateful for the company: her last solo walk down this corridor was a memory a little too vivid for her liking.

They said good-night to Strago and Relm first. The latter, fast asleep, was slow to respond as Sabin tried to coax her off his shoulder and onto her bed. She finally awoke to find her arms wrapped around his neck, and let go so hastily that she had to scramble to land on the bed instead of the floor. It was the first time Celes had ever seen Relm blush. (Sabin, of course, had his own bedroom, and parted ways after dropping Relm off -- blushing a little himself.)

Terra left early. "I'm going to check in with Katerin and see if everything's okay." She looked bone-tired already, but Celes knew she would end up staying half the night with her children, all of whom were bunked up in the observatory after Edgar had promised, the previous year, that they could sleep under the stars. "See you in the morning."

Next was Setzer, who rifled through the pockets of his coat before finding what he wanted: a deck of gilt-edged playing cards. "A little solitaire before bed is good for the soul," he informed them solemnly, before bidding them good-night.

And then it was, as it had been earlier, just Locke and Celes. They had been given rooms across the hall from each other -- Celes reminded herself to frown at Edgar in the morning -- and neither seemed willing to be the one to leave first.

"What a night," said Locke finally.

"Yes." She felt like she wanted to say more, but about what, she had no idea.

"You're feeling all right?" He squinted at her.

"For the last time, yes."

He shuffled his feet a bit in the silence that followed.

"Well, I suppose --" Celes began, but Locke spoke before she could finish.

"Listen, Celes, I know you say you're okay, but I saw everything, too, and, well, hell, I'm not okay. I don't want to bug you, but if you want to -- if you want to talk, or... I just mean, I'm here." He pointed at his door. "Right across the way. I don't get bothered. So..."

For one split-second, Celes had the crazy desire to take him up on it, to tell him everything: how she hadn't really had a headache in the portrait hall, how she had tried to turn her water into ice, how frightened she felt, not just about what had happened that night, but about so many things she couldn't pin down, couldn't name.

But the feeling passed. Instead, she gave him a small smile.

"I know," she said. "Good night."


This post has been edited by L. Cully on 3rd March 2006 21:13

--------------------
Some ghost of me might greet my son
the day he is delivered.


Eternal Sleep, Track 1-1: The Blue Planet
Post #98084
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Posted: 2nd October 2005 21:43

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Wavey Marle!
Posts: 2,098

Joined: 21/1/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Third place in CoN European Cup fantasy game for 2011-2012. Member of more than five years. Second place in CoN European Cup, 2008. 
Winner of the 2004 Gogo Fanfiction contest. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy IV section of CoN. Contributed to the Chrono Trigger section of CoN. 
Even more impressive, and still maintaining the suspense, I note. A few interesting, seemingly minor, revelations and the usual high standard of imagery and writing just make me keep looking forward to more.

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-George Santayana

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here..."
-Abraham Lincoln, prior to the discovery of Irony.
Post #98093
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Posted: 14th October 2005 06:19

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Joined: 7/8/2003

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Um, oh yeah, there will be bad language at some point (weeks from now). One word. Will that be a problem? I fiddled with it, but fear it has to stay. Regardless:

Quote
The Grace of God

Chapter Three

SOME HOURS BEFORE dawn the lightning storms returned.  Celes woke, her heart pounding, to shouts and screams; and by the time she managed to stumble into the hallway, still in her nightdress and grasping an unsheathed silver falchion, it was over.

The episode had been brief this time, only a few minutes.  Nevertheless, and despite the protests of the castle guards, Celes didn't go back to bed.  She and the others (sans Sabin, who, to his discomfort and by Edgar's request, was seated on the throne of Figaro as emergency regent) spent the rest of the night in Edgar's huge and cluttered inventing studio, where his experimental long-distance message machine tapped out a steady tattoo of code from around the world.

Locke, and a pained-looking Setzer, did their best to decode roll after roll of incomprehensible dots and dashes according to Edgar's notes.  As for Edgar himself, he was the only one who knew how to reply, and did so until morning, frowning as he tapped the machine's small gold type-key incessantly, a black glass funnel held to one ear.

Meanwhile, The Complete Archival Collection of Polygeotic Particularity had finally been found, cross-indexed into the fiction section. Celes and Terra studied it in shifts, looking through it as carefully as they could; the paper was so old that it crumbled at the edges despite their best efforts, and the ink had faded to a faint and nearly unreadable blue.  The language, too, was arcane, and referred heavily to scientific terms none present had ever come across.

The reports were much the same as they had been the last time: the same news of ghosts, inimical to the touch, and furious storms.  City leaders were waiting to hear Figaro's advice as to whether they should declare states of emergency or not.  Some towns, like Tzen and Jidoor, already had.  Only one town had not reported at all.

Finally the waiting had dragged on too long for Celes.  "Are you sure he knows how to use it, Edgar?" she asked suddenly, breaking the silence, looking up from the same page she had been reading for the past fifteen minutes.  "He never was good with machines."

"Cyan helped me build most of these."  Edgar did not pause in his work.  "And Albrook's telegraph is one of the most advanced.  He'll send a message soon."

Celes glanced at Terra, who caught her eye sidelong; both of them had heard the unspoken if he's all right in Edgar's words.

"Red sky observed on Veldt," Locke recited haltingly to Setzer, who was transcribing.  "May be expo -- sorry, explosions.  Wish to discuss weaponry options.  Doma."

Setzer handed this message to Edgar, who glanced at it and grimaced.

Setting her jaw, Celes tried not to think about Albrook.  Locke had made her promise she wouldn't try to go back until morning broke at the earliest; and besides, it would take her too long to arrive to be of any help.  They had all agreed that traveling anywhere in the Falcon was too dangerous, now that the storms had proved recurrent. 

Instead, she tried to focus on the task at hand.  She returned to the book in her lap and, on a whim, opened gently to the slim appendices toward the end.  She was turning the pages and scanning the text automatically when a phrase caught her eye:

"infinite nearby worlds"

Something about the words caught in her mind, stirred something in her.  She turned back to the passage in question.

"(Byanum 6.2.5 cont'd) ... the wavefunction, instead of collapsing at the moment of observation, carries on evolving in a deterministic fashion, embracing all possibilities embedded within it. All outcomes exist simultaneously but do not interfere further with each other.  Thus while it is possible to detect the presence of these infinite nearby worlds through the existence of minute interference effects, it is impossible to travel to or communicate with them ...
(Byanum 6.2.6) While proponents of the "Goddess" theory argue that magical intensity of sufficient strength could indeed breach the divider of space-time between two such paths, no known force could come close to the cataclysmic power needed to open such a passage ..."


She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry, and read on.

"(Byanum 6.2.7) In addition, it has been proven that such an aperture could only exist for a very brief period before sealing completely, leaving both quantum tracks exactly as they had been.
(Tussion 4.4.1 rebut.) While skeptics may claim that access to decoherent branches would be possible for milliseconds at most, some assert a gateway could remain exposed, or even be expanded, were a unique source of extreme magical complexity assimilated into a coeval parallel reality where it did not otherwise exist.  Such a breach would necessarily result in annihilation for track prime, as it would be gradually corroded by the encroaching second track into non-existence..."


"Terra," said Celes.  There was a hoarseness to her voice.  "Look at this."

A small frown line appeared between Terra's eyebrows as she took the book.  It deepened as she read.

"You think this has happened?" she asked quietly.  "That there's a -- break in our world?"

"I think it's possible."  Celes saw, in her mind, the swarming white footsteps, felt in her stomach the sharp sudden shock of her universe cracking apart.  "It ... felt that way."

"'Magical intensity,'" Terra read out loud.  "But that can't be.  There's no magic left."

"I'm beginning to wonder if we can truly know that for sure."

Terra let the book rest against the table and looked across at Celes steadily.  "I'm sure."

She was likely the only person in the world qualified to be, Celes had to admit.  And yet ...

Suddenly she noticed how quiet it had gotten. 

"What happened?" asked Locke.  He was watching her and Terra intently.  "Did you find something?"

Terra looked at Celes, and cleared her throat.  "Yes.  I think we may have found what you were talking about, Strago."

The old man, who had been resting his chin in his hand, started.  "You have?  Where?"
Terra showed him the page, and Strago's mouth moved soundlessly as he followed the words.  "Breach the divider ... yes ... gradually corrode.  Oh, dear.  Yes, I'm afraid this is exactly what I was thinking of."

"What is?" said Edgar.  They were all crowded around the worktable now.  "What is it?"

"These storms are not coming from anywhere in our world," said Strago.  "They're coming from another realm -- one like ours, but where possibility rules."

"'Where possibility rules'?" said Setzer.  "Come again?"

"This book claims that every possible outcome of every event occurs," said Celes, impatiently, "only in a different ... reality.  And that there's no way to reach these different realities, I might mention."

"Unless a cataclysmic magical event opened a door…" murmured Strago.

"Which isn't possible, as there have been no such events."

"Not since four years ago," he replied pointedly.

"Right."  Then Celes realized his implication.  "Do you mean to say you think such a door appeared four years ago?"

"It's certainly possible."

"But ..."

"It seems to me," said Strago, "that the destruction of the Statues would most certainly be as cataclysmic as their appearance.  If not more so."

"But it says here that a break would appear for 'milliseconds at most'," said Edgar, who had taken the book and was scanning it as he spoke.  "Which means if something did happen, it would have been at the moment the Statues were destroyed, and not years later.  Just as the storms in the legend appeared only for a short time when the Goddesses first appeared."

"Well -- I suppose so, yes," Strago said, stroking his chin.

"This one line," Terra spoke up.  She was reading over Edgar's shoulder.  "'A gateway could remain open were a unique source of extreme magical complexity' --"  She shook her head and worked her mouth slightly, as though the language had twisted her tongue.  "What does that mean?"

"A powerful magical source, if it fell into the break, could keep it open," said Edgar.

"Or expand it," said Strago darkly.

"A powerful magical source."  Locke had begun to pace.  "Like the Statues.  But those -- those, we definitely destroyed.  I mean, I was there."

"I think we all were, Locke," said Setzer.

"What else could it be?" asked Terra.  "Magicite?"

Strago shook his head.  "I doubt that would be powerful enough.  Look here.  It would need to 'yearn to return to its true home.'  Be strong enough to remember ..."

"I'm not convinced," Celes spoke up.  "This book even admits to being mostly conjectural.  And I believe I would have remembered if we had left anything behind at Kefka's tower, especially if it were strong enough to slash open a pathway between two realities."

"Would you really have, Celes?" asked Terra softly.  Her eyes were focused somewhere beyond them all.  "I know I only remember that day as a blur.  There was so much being destroyed.  We barely made it out with our lives, let alone what we brought with us.  Everything magic was leaving us ..."

She  trailed off.

"Perhaps," Celes replied begrudgingly, after a minute.  "But as Edgar said, why would this be happening now, and not four years ago?"

No one had the answer to that.

"So," said Setzer, at length.  "Where would this break be?  Everywhere?  Because if that's the case, I don't think we'll be able to close it again."

"No," said Strago.  He was twisting his moustache as he flipped through the book.  "No, while the effects might be seen everywhere, the break would be in one place.  Wherever the magical calamity occurred that opened it to begin with."

"Which would probably be --" began Celes.

Before she could finish, Edgar's telegraph machine began clicking wildly.  He jumped out of his seat and rushed over to it.  Without bothering to look out the paper scrolling out, he pressed his ear to the glass receiver and decoded as he went.  "Areas ... surrounding ...

"It's from Albrook," he announced at a break in clicking, and Setzer, thinking quickly, threw him the notebook.  Edgar caught it one-handed and began to write.

The message, when it has been sent in its entirety, read:

"Order restored in city and areas surrounding.  Unconfirmed reports of perpetual darkness in Vector desert.  Please come as soon as possible.  Be armed for battle.  Cyan."

***

The massive steel doors of the armory clanged hollowly as Edgar pushed them open.  "It's all here," he said, "all as we left it.  I decided to have everything put into storage two years ago.  I had thought -- I had hoped that they could someday be a display in the Jidoor Museum."

"You didn't think we'd need to use them again," said Celes.  It wasn't a question.

"No.  No, I'd hoped not.  But Cyan seemed ... Anyway.  If we're going to be prepared, I say we should be prepared in style.  Weapons are over here.  General relics are in that chest, although I can't see much use in taking any of those rings, or that old gem-encrusted box ... look with your eyes, Mr. Cole, not with your hands."

Locke, who had been rifling through the chest, looked wounded.  "I was only making sure everything's in order."

"Right.  As long as by 'in order' you don't mean 'in your pockets.'"  Edgar had opened a massive, glass-faced cabinet in which dozens of swords and daggers were displayed.  "Let's see.  Here's your rune blade, Celes.  Locke, you'll want the graedus, I think.  Ah."  He went quiet.

"What is it?" asked Celes.

"I had forgotten."  Carefully, he drew a long, blue-bladed sword from the back of the cabinet, its edge as sharp as the day they had found it.  Shimmering, it caught the light both within and without; the shine was remarkable.  The Atma Weapon.

He handed it to Celes.  At once she found herself back in the past, when they had been on their desperate crusade, when all of them had been as fiercely close as ones bonded by blood, when she had been too occupied with life and death to wonder why nothing seemed to make sense.

"I think you should take it, Terra," she said suddenly.

"Me?  Oh, I don't need -- I mean, Edgar, you don't have a weapon yet."

"Ah, but I do."  From a display case he withdrew a dark mahogany automatic crossbow, its finish slightly battered from wear, but its gold gears and sprockets shining as brightly as ever.  "And how I've missed it."

"I think you should take the Weapon, too, Terra," said Locke.  "I mean, it's from the Esper World, after all.  I've always thought of it as yours."

Slowly, Terra reached out to take the sword.  As soon as her fingers touched it, the blade pulsed, once, with warm white-blue light from hilt to tip -- just as it always had in Terra's grasp. 

For Celes, it had always remained inanimate and cold.

"Scabbards and sword-belts, ladies," Edgar was saying.  "I believe this one's yours, Terra.  And yours, Celes.  Now."  He opened a chest of drawers.  "Here, Locke.  I suspect Setzer will want his poison darts -- careful.  A dirk ought to do for Relm, don't you think?"

"Relm will be fighting?"  Terra looked alarmed.

"No.  Of course not.  I hope not.  I just want to be prepared for any possibility, that's all."

Just then Setzer stuck his head into the room.  "Ooh," he said, surveying.  "Fancy.  Pick up anything nice, Locke?"

"Actually, I --"  Locke saw Edgar's glare.  "No, of course not, Setzer.  I'm offended you would even say such a thing.  Here, these are yours."  He handed him a polished chestnut box.

Setzer snapped it open.  "Ah, lovely.  You know, I've gained quite a reputation because of these.  No one will play darts with me anymore.  Anyway, Edgar, the Falcon's all ready, but I thought you should know that it's snowing out."

"Snowing?"  Edgar was dismayed.  "Yesterday was the first day of spring."

"Yes, well, Mother Nature has a cruel sense of humor.  But she provides fantastic winds, so I can't complain."

"All right.  Thanks, I suppose.  We'll be right there." 

Edgar crossed his arms, thinking.

"Cloaks," he said finally, with a sigh, pulling open another drawer.  "And scarves, and gloves.  Damn.  I'd thought we'd finally beaten this winter."

***

On the deck of the Falcon, the wind was like a lash on Celes's face.  She had insisted on staying abovedeck, despite Setzer's protests, with the insistence she could better assess any damage to the countryside; but instead she found herself squinting uselessly against the stinging snow, huddled under her oilcloth cloak.  Locke was standing with her, gripping the railing tightly, one of his bandannas pulled so low on his forehead that it almost covered his eyes.

"Well, I sure as hell can't see anything," he said to Celes, raising his voice to be heard over the wind.  "Can you?"

"A little," she shouted back in reply, which was only barely true.  She could just make out the shapes of the various farms and villages on Albrook's outskirts, but there was no destruction that she could see.  Which was good, of course, but a part of her was frustrated.  Collapsed roofs, broken fences, split trees: all of them would have been something physical, something definite.  Instead it felt again like the storms and apparitions could have been nothing but a dream, one massive worldwide hallucination.

It had been the same in Albrook.  When they arrived, Cyan and Gau had been waiting for them at Town Hall, the only figures in the completely -- and eerily -- empty streets.  However, though all the townspeople had holed themselves up in their homes -- or already fled -- the city itself was as quiet and peaceful as could be, the snow falling gently on the fully intact buildings and into the calm, steady waves of the harbor, as if nothing had happened there at all.

Cyan's face, when he met them, told a different story.

"I saw it myself," he said.  "For a short while there were no houses: instead giant towers, and factories spewing smoke, the likes of which I have not seen since last we visited Vector.  And everywhere, those cursed phantoms.  They were far more corporeal, and higher in number, than they had been at Figaro.  Indeed, it all of it seemed very nearly real."

When Edgar asked him about the 'unconfirmed reports' he had mentioned in his telegram, Cyan glanced at Gau.

"A merchant arrived early this morning.  He claimed to have been near the Tower Ruins when the storms took place; he saw much the same we did.  However, he insisted that even when the lightning ceased, the wasteland remained dark as night, and moreover obscured by some strange heavy fog.  Certainly he was terrified; I think, perhaps, hysterical; and thus I would not have been inclined to fully accept his account as truth, except ..."

Here he trailed off, and Gau, looking at the ground, spoke.

"I know.  I saw.  All the animals all run away from that place, to the forest west.  They are all scared.  Something is there, bad.  I know."

Cyan had promised to stay in Albrook for as long as was necessary, and Celes had reluctantly agreed.  There was no sense in lending her presence to a ghost town when she was needed elsewhere; and besides, now, more than ever, she wanted to learn what was at the root of all this.

The hatch on the deck's floor opened, and Setzer stepped up, his coat whipping in the wind.

"Well, this is certainly unpleasant," he said, as loudly as he could manage.  "You sure you don't want to come down, Celes?"

"No, thank you."

"Suit yourself.  Don't blame me when you become icicles.  Two leagues to the Tower Ruins; see anything yet?"

"Not a thing," said Locke, his teeth chattering.

"Everything looks normal to me," said Celes.  "I wonder if --" 

And there she stopped, because all at once it was upon them.

It was as though they had entered into a black, opaque, silent sea.  One moment the sky was bright and pale gray with clouds, and the next there was nothing: no light, no snow or wind, no sound except for the humming engine and their own startled breaths.  But for the break in the air the Falcon left in her wake, they might not have been moving at all.

"Good God," Celes heard Setzer mutter.  There was the sound of thumping, of someone fumbling around with something metallic, and a click.  Then there was light again: just the dim red glow from the airship's emergency lights, but most welcome nevertheless.

"What is this?" said Locke.

"I think we've hit our 'perpetual darkness,'" Setzer said grimly.  "Wait.  Look there, up ahead."

He needn't have pointed.  Far beyond them, near the horizon, was the only thing visible in the dense blackness: a dim, white-gray blur.  As they grew closer, it became brighter, more distinct.

"I'm landing," said Setzer abruptly.

The Falcon touched down on what should have been the rocky, debris-strewn plain that made up the Vector Wastes, but instead, with a loud clang, it hit against a ground that was perfectly level, and clearly metallic.  Setzer kept the engine running as Celes and Locke climbed down.

The hatch opened.  "Hey, guys," said Relm.  "Are we -- holy hell."

She stepped out, her mouth a dark gap.  Strago followed behind her, and then Edgar and Terra, until they were all gathered on the metal floor of the wasteland, staring at the only beacon in an ocean of darkness.

It was a tall, flat, luminous pane, like the sole remaining wall of some massive self-shining rectangle.  Its surface constantly shifted with grayish light, crackled with tumultuous energy, its edges blurred to indistinction.  From its center it exuded a fine, steady haze that looked somewhat like fog but that, Celes knew, was something far more insidious.

"This is it, isn't it," she said.  "The gash."

What had she expected?  A phantom door, perhaps, or a bottomless hole; or maybe a ragged tear in the sky itself, bleeding darkness like a wound.  Not this coldly geometrical thing that radiated a chill that went beyond the lingering winter weather.  She found herself shivering.

"Yes," said Strago.  "'The place of storms.'  And the everlasting night ... Yes, this is it."

"So the book was right," said Setzer, who looked the way Celes felt: agitated and anxious.  "What do we do now?"

"We enter it," said Strago quietly.  "And retrieve what it was we lost."

"But we don't even know what that is!"

Meanwhile Celes had drawn closer to the gash.  It was two-dimensional, that much was certain; viewed from the side, it was invisible, except for a nearly imperceptible white line every time its surface flared with energy. 

She walked around to face it again.  Experimentally, she removed one of her pearl earrings and tossed it through.  A loud clatter told her it had landed safely on the other side.

"How are we supposed to enter it, Strago?" she asked, retrieving the earring.  "It doesn't appear to be accepting visitors."

"Well, quite right, it wouldn't.  There is a way to force it to.  However ..."

"Yes?"

"It involves a spell," he said, looking troubled.

"A spell?" Locke said.  "A magic spell?"

"Then that's it," Relm spoke up, her expression bleak.  "We're done.  We're done for, aren't we?"

"Not at all, lovey, not at all," said Strago.  “Hand me the book, if you could?  If a magical source created this opening" -- he sat on the cold steel ground and flipped through the pages, squinting to see in the weak light -- "it's likely that the world it leads to contains magic.  Wherein lies our opportunity."

Celes gazed at the wall's flickering, fluid surface.

"What does that mean for us?" said Terra.

"Well, if I'm reading this right, if one of us casts the spell while standing in the gateway, it will work."

There was a long silence.  Celes knew what they were all thinking: without the help of Magicite, there had only ever been two of them who could use magic.  Her, and Terra.

"How can we know for sure?" she asked at length.

"Quite easily, actually."  Strago inclined his head.  "Terra, you and Celes could each step into the gateway and try to cast a simple spell.  I don't know -- cure, perhaps."

The air was so still now that it seemed somehow menacing, as though the silence were a living thing.  Celes looked over at Terra.  In the starless, artificial night, her face was shadowed and inscrutable.

Celes drew a deep breath.  "Very well."

Walking into the gash was like entering a frigid stream.  She gasped at the shock of it, at its migraine-like intensity; but then, as though she were indeed in a stream, forced herself to adjust to the feeling.  Soon it had abated to an uncomfortable jumpiness in her chest, like the rushing sensation of adrenaline.  Then, with her back to the red-glowing airship, and facing the black abyss that had once been the Wastes, she repeated the words she had spoken only the night before.  The spell of ice.

Nothing happened.  Celes tried again, half-whispering, with the same results.  She was beginning to tremble.  One final attempt, and then she had to half-step, half-stumble out of the glowing wall, or risk her legs failing her.  She shook her head at the others, not trusting her voice.

Silently Terra stepped forward.
 
The shock of the gash seemed to hit her harder; she recoiled as if struck, her face twisted in pain.  It lasted, however, for only a moment.  She drew the Atma Weapon, braced herself with it against the metal ground, and opened her mouth to speak.

Before a word had escaped her lips, a sphere of red and white flame burst to life in the palm of her outstretched hand, pulsing and writhing, illuminating the plain for a mile in all directions.  For a minute, Terra only stared at it, too astonished to react.  Then she closed her fist, and, with one last lick at the darkness, the fire vanished.

Strago was the first to speak.  "Remarkable.  Remarkable.  So you see."

"Yes." Terra's voice was a whisper; she still stood in the midst of the glowing wall.  Celes took her arm gently and led her out.

Edgar folded his arms.  "Then we're going."

"Wait."  Strago was flipping through the book again.  "We can't all of us go.  It's difficult enough sending one person through the gateway, let alone six others."

"Are you saying that we should have Terra go by herself?  To a world that may be completely different from anything we know, to find some ... thing, that none of us even remember losing?"

"You'd find it easily enough once you got there," Strago said.  "Something that powerful practically oozes a trail of magic.  And no, I don't think you should go alone, Terra.  You'll need help, I daresay."

"I think," Setzer spoke up, "we should pick a nice round number.  Three.  Three more people."

The shifting gray-white surface of the wall wavered and flared.

"I hate to bring this up," said Edgar, "but the polyzotic book said there might only be a few differences between this other world and our own, right, Strago?"

"Very possibly."

"In that case, I think having a king on hand might be useful.  And more importantly, of course, I could never let a lady go unescorted."

"Hey, I might very well be a king in that world," said Setzer, grumpily.

"That, I very much doubt."

"I would also like to go," said Celes, interrupting the beginnings of a cat fight.  "There's too much of Kefka in this, too much about the Empire.  Unfortunately, I'm an expert on both."

"Then I'm going," said Locke at once.  They turned to look at him.

"Because, uh ... I want to," he explained lamely.

Setzer raised an eyebrow drily.  "A sound reason."

"Then if you'll just go over the spell with me, Terra, my dear.  As you see it's just a modified version of warp ..." 

Celes felt a tap on her shoulder.  She turned around to see Relm, her uncovered hair looking copper-colored in the ruddy gloom.  She was holding something tightly in her hand.

"Hey, Celes."  Her voice was low.  "I'd like it if you -- um, I want you to have this."
 
She handed her a cool, heavy object.  Celes held it up, to see it as well as she could in the artificial twilight. 

It was a plum-sized ball of pure polished silver, its surface intricately engraved with swirls and curlicues.  Celes recognized it at once.

"Relm."  It was all she could say.

"I thought I would bring it in case there were any monsters or anything here, but there aren't.  And you need it more than I do."

"But ... Relm, this is too important to you.  I couldn't possibly take it."

Relm smiled, though there was a quaver in it.  "It's all right.  When he gave it to me, he said, 'use it only in an emergency.'  I've decided that this is an emergency."

Celes hardly knew what to say.  "I -- thank you."  She tucked the ball into the pouch on her belt.  "I'll bring it back to you."

"Well, whether you do or you don't.  Good luck, Celes.  Not that you'll need it, considering who's coming with you."  She grinned mischievously.  "Love conquers all, doesn't it?"

This time Celes was too flustered to even shrug.

Strago and Terra, meanwhile, had finished their conference and joined the others.

"I'm afraid this break will only grow faster and faster while you're gone," Strago was saying.  "Albrook could become engulfed in less than a week.  The entire continent in fewer than two."

"So we'll just make sure to be back as soon as we can," said Edgar.

"It's not as simple as that.  While it may be difficult to enter the gateway, it's almost impossible to return.  The spell can only be cast once for both ways, and it only lasts for a short while."

"How short?" Celes asked.

"'Four sunsets,'" Strago read aloud.  "No longer than that.  You have to be back here by nightfall on the fourth day, or you'll never be able to return."

They took this in.

"As I see it, Terra," Celes spoke up, "you're really the only one of us who can make this decision.  Edgar and Locke and I are just your backup.  You're the one this endeavor can't do without.  What do you think?"

Terra was quiet.

"It seems to me," she said at last, "that all of us will be lost if we don't go."

Strago nodded.  "Yes.  Yes, exactly.  So that's that."  He looked the four of them over.  "Have you got everything you need?  Weapons?  Gold?"

Edgar held up a velvet purse that jangled lavishly.

"We're ready, I think," said Celes.

"Well, then," said Strago.  "Terra, I leave it to you."

"I'll be here in four days' time," said Setzer.  "Don't keep me waiting."

"Good luck," said Relm.  She held to Strago tightly as she watched them walk away.

Terra stepped up to the glowing wall and placed her right palm flat against its surface, as though it were the pane of a window.  "Each of you needs to be touching my left wrist," she told them, her voice slightly uneven, "near the pulse.  Locke, I think you need to take off your glove.  All right.  Brace yourselves when I tell you."

She took a deep, shaky breath.  "Now."

With that, she began to chant a rhyme, over and over, again in a strange, unsettling language that Celes had never heard before.  The words felt like more than words;  with their harsh and jarring sound, they broke the stillness of the air at last.

The wall crackled, then rumbled deeply.  Soon it had drowned out the sound of Terra's voice.  Celes opened her eyes.  The gray-white fog had thickened around them to the point of impenetrability; she looked behind her, but couldn't see anything of Strago and the others.

The rumbling grew to a thunderous roar.  Terra's mouth was still moving, rapidly, soundlessly; then there was a crack, and a rushing sensation. Celes felt herself falling headlong into nothingness, and opened her mouth to scream.
 
But she hit solid ground before she could -- for by then they had made it through.


This post has been edited by L. Cully on 15th October 2005 02:17

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Eternal Sleep, Track 1-1: The Blue Planet
Post #99695
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Posted: 14th October 2005 08:03

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Palace Guard
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Don't know how I missed you posting the second chapter.

Anyway, for the question at the start, yes, that's fine. From the forum rules:

"Swearing: In general, we will not ban you for cursing. You should remember that CoN is a site that is meant to appeal to ages 13 and up, and excessive swearing can be construed as a form of member abuse."

A few words in the context of a story is just peachy.

Interesting place that you're taking this to. smile.gif Though if every possible outcome of every event happens in different worlds...that's infinite worlds. It's hard to get my head around something like that.

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Post #99700
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Posted: 15th October 2005 01:36

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Swoon. Nothing needs to be said. I just can't wait for the next installment.

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Posted: 15th October 2005 21:48

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Wavey Marle!
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Hmm, hotting up now. Getting even more interesting.You've kind of set yourself up for pretty much anything to happen with that plot point, and that's keeping it all unpredictable. Anything can happen and I can't wait to see what it is.

Oh, and a little thing on the swearing query, personally, reckon it's fine in a story (Can't expect a bloke who has his liver on his nose to say 'oh dear, this is very painful') and some characters might just swear like troopers. Squaddies, fr'instance. I think when I asked, I was told it's fine so long as it's not in excess and pointless, and try to avoid the heavy artillery.

Anyway, intersting road it's going down, and it's nice to see the map's are out of date for once, and there are forks all over the place.

This post has been edited by Del S on 15th October 2005 21:50

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Posted: 16th November 2005 20:37

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SOLDIER
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Gad, sorry this one took so long. Midterms.

Quote
The Grace of God

Chapter Four

IT WAS THE IMPACT itself that shocked Celes most. There was no sense of the cosmic about it, nothing earth-shattering; just a solid heavy thump that might have come from any stumbling fall. She had been bracing herself for far worse. Perhaps it was that expectation that knocked the wind out of her. For a minute she could only lie there, catching her breath.

The ground beneath her was the same hard, smooth steel. For a second, the sinking thought occurred to her that they might not have gone anywhere at all -- that they might, like her earring, have merely fallen through the other side of the wall. Then she felt tiny prickles of cold on the back of her neck. She raised her head. It was snowing again.

Celes pushed herself upright. She was in a narrow alley littered with glass bottles and damp, filthy scraps of paper. What looked to be a warehouse, or a factory, lined one side, its roof a clutter of pipe-like chimneys. Behind her, where the glowing wall should have been, was a tall, rectangular building of its exact shape and height. A regular pattern of windows checked its facade; soot-darkened icicles hung from its eaves and dripped water onto the alley below. It neither glowed, nor pulsed, nor flickered. It was, in short, perfectly unremarkable. Nothing about it suggested that it might have been some otherworldly portal.

"Oh, I didn't like that."

Celes was startled into remembering she hadn't made her journey alone. Next to her, Locke was stirring, his voice muffled.

"I didn't like that at all," he continued, holding his head. "Next time we get to land on pillows."

She took his hand and helped him up. He smiled at her crookedly as he brushed the snow from his shoulders, but she avoided his gaze.

Meanwhile Edgar was helping a slightly unsteady Terra upright. Her eyes were ashine, her cheeks flushed, as if she had a slight fever. She brushed a strand of hair away from her face, and Celes could see three small bruises on her wrist.

Locke saw them, too. His brow furrowed slightly. "Are you okay, kid?"

"Yes," Terra replied, admirably steady now. "I'm just -- a little tired, I think."

"I imagine you're a bit out of practice when it comes to magic," Edgar said. "Rest for a little while. In the meantime, we'll try to figure out where we are."

But Celes already knew.

She should have realized it as soon as she'd heard the report from Albrook. Looking back, there had perhaps been some vague, unconscious disquiet after those words, which now came back to her too clearly -- light from the doorway, Setzer's arms crossed, "the ground turning to metal" -- but she hadn't thought to connect them to anything. It had just seemed like another freak occurrence in a long list of impossibilities. And in the Wastes, all had been too dim and too strange for her to study anything very closely, for her recognize the distinctive color to the ground: the same sepia-tinted steel that made up the buildings here, the same uniform material bonded to everything in sight.

Cheap to produce, she remembered. Strong and durable. Easy to clean, never rusted.

"Celes," said Edgar. He was watching her carefully. "What is it?"

She didn't answer.

There was a rumbling in the distance. Edgar was asking her another question, but Celes didn't hear him. Slowly, as if in a dream, she walked to the end of the alley and tilted her head back. Snowflakes fell into her eyes, but she could still see, far away, the midmorning passenger train curving around the massive, monolith-like walls of the Vector Imperial Palace.

For a minute, as the train's deep reverberating engine muffled any other sound, Celes could almost let herself imagine she was seeing some fantastic illusion, a glamour constructed by the most skillful of sorcerers. But when the metal ground beneath her feet stopped vibrating, and the train passed, and she was still in Vector --

"Impossible."

It was Edgar who'd said it. He was trying to sound calm, but his voice trembled. "It was -- everything was destroyed --"

"It's a world of impossibilities," Terra said, stonily. At some point she had walked forward, Celes realized, and was now standing next to her, her hands in tight fists at her sides. "Of differences."

"But I thought that meant -- I had been expecting different countries, different people! How can this --"

"Shh," hissed Locke suddenly, pulling him back.

Two women walked past, bundled up in mufflers and holding umbrellas. One looked at them strangely and whispered something to her friend. With quick, wary glance, they quickened their pace and hurried past.

"It's too dangerous here," Locke said quietly, when the women were gone. "Anyone can see us."

"Do you think they knew who we were?" asked Terra.

"Who knows. But four people hanging around in a back alley looks suspicious no matter what world you're in. We need to get out of here."

For once there was no disagreement.

"It looks like we're on the West Edge," said Celes. "It's only a mile or so till the Periphery. This way."

The city was eerily quiet as the four of them followed along the curving Grand Boulevard. It was bigger than the Vector Celes had known: richer, somehow. She glanced over her shoulder every so often to make sure the others were still following, and was stricken by the backdrop of steel towers, rising higher and more thickly grouped than she could have ever imagined.

After half an hour, it was clear Celes had been mistaken. By her estimation, they should have reached the city outskirts by now, but the buildings, while not as imposing as the skyscrapers in Vector proper, seemed to go on without end. They were new-looking; possibly munitions factories; possibly something else. Celes didn't recognize any of them.

"Okay, this is getting silly," said Locke. "Can you give me a boost, Celes?"

He was gesturing to a drainpipe. She cupped her palms, and caught a quick flash of his snow-dusted hair as he stepped on and up and climbed, light-footed, to the roof with a lithe and speedy technique Celes had always admired but never quite been able to figure out.

Locke visored one hand over his eyes as he squinted into the distance. "Bloody hell."

"What is it?" Edgar called up to him, keeping his voice as low as he could.

" I can't even -- I should be able to see Albrook's windmills from here. But there's nothing. Only more Vector."

"I wonder if it ever ends," muttered Edgar.

"Come down, Locke," said Celes.

She was trying to think, but it wasn't working very well. She felt constricted, claustrophobic. Vector itself seemed to be suffocating her, its metallic smell invading her nose and throat.

Locke landed with a soft snow-muffled thump.

"Right," he said. "So scratch getting out of the city. We'll just find somewhere to hide here."

"Somewhere to hide." Edgar laughed humorlessly. "Have you been paying attention? It's Vector, Locke. There is nowhere to hide."

"Then we break in someplace."

"I doubt even you could manage that."

"Listen," Celes spoke up, controlling herself. "If this Vector is anything like the one we knew, there will be soldiers patrolling every major street and avenue. Breaking into a building would be like asking to be arrested."

"Then what should we do?" Locke asked. "We can't very well stay here."

"No, we can't. Locke, do you remember when we came to rescue the Espers?"

"Yes. Of course. Why?"

"There was that woman -- the Returner sympathizer. She let us have dinner with her."

"I remember that," said Edgar. "Her house was more like a shop."

"It was a shop," said Celes. "Or near enough. It was a very old building -- it had been used for candle-making before the city was electrified. No one bothered to tear it down afterwards."

"You're thinking we should try there," said Locke. "I'm agreeing with you."

"Wait," said Edgar. "Before that, I want to ... find out more about this place. I just, I can't accept this is Vector. Really Vector."

"None of us want to," Terra spoke up. "But all the streets we passed -- I was -- I'm familiar with them."

She didn't go on.

Celes squared her shoulders. 'Right," she said, voice crisp. "We'll split into two groups, and meet back here in three hours. One will investigate the shed and see if it'll be suitable, and the other will find out as much about this place as possible. The politics, who's in charge. Any wars taking place. Where the Returners are. Any mention of an unusually strong change in magic in the last four years --"

She didn't get to finish, for just then Locke spoke up.

"Sorry for interrupting." He didn't look very sorry. He looked more as though he were trying not to smile. "But how do you want to go about doing this?"

Celes had been taken off-guard. "Well, we ... any number of ways, really. We can ask any passerby, if they look knowledgeable enough. Or we could simply eavesdrop. Or, um..."

She trailed off.

"I think maybe you should leave the snooping around to me. It's my specialty, after all," said Locke.

"If you want. But one of us will go with you."

He shook his head. "I don't think that's a good idea. No offense, but you're all a little too conspicuous. So you guys go check out the old lady's candle house or whatever it is, and I'll do some info hunting and meet you there."

"But we don't even know if the place will still be there," she said, more loudly than she meant to. The idea of splitting up in such a place...

"If that's the case, I'll come back here. Three hours, right?"

"Much as I hate to say it," Edgar spoke up, "it probably would be best if only one of us goes. It will look less suspicious."

Celes folded her arms.

"Hey," Locke said. "Don't worry. I'm a pro, remember? I'll be fine."

She looked at him. Finally she said, "Three hours?"

"On my honor."

Celes sighed. "Well, I guess I won't be able to persuade you against it. Three hours, then. We'll be waiting for you."

"Be careful, Locke," Terra said.

"I will walk on cat feet," he promised, a hand to his heart. "See you soon."

He gave them a little salute as they parted ways.

***

"Celes. I beg of you, stop pacing. You're going to make me break this."

Edgar was trying to repair an ancient, dusty paraffin lamp they had found, one long and precarious crack in its glass mantle. While they had found a few half-empty bottles of kerosene in one of the cabinets, there had been no wick to speak of, and Terra had nobly sacrificed her violet cotton sash to the cause. Edgar had cut it into strips using a tiny, multi-bladed knife he had procured from somewhere, and now he was trying, very carefully, to insert the twisted fabric into the lamp's chimney.

"He's late," Celes replied shortly.

The old chandler store had clearly been long abandoned when they'd found it. Its windows were boarded up, and an old, tattered mimeograph was posted to the door that may have once said "CONDEMNED" but that now only warned " ON EM D." Edgar and Terra had kept watch while Celes discreetly tore off the notice and pried open the door with her sword.

It had smelled strongly of tallow and mildew, not a pleasant combination, but not unbearable. And there was even some semblance of furniture, all covered in dusty white dropcloths: some chairs and stools, and a huge table drizzled with old wax drippings.

Most importantly, it was dry. The snow had turned to rain as the afternoon lengthened, and now, as evening fell, it beat on the old metal roof in a way that felt almost cozy.

"Only by ten minutes," Edgar said, tongue tucked into the corner of his mouth as he fiddled with the lamp. "Okay. That should do it, hopefully. Terra, if you could...?"

Terra placed one finger against the makeshift wick, and with a small white flash it shuddered and sparked to life.

"Success!" said Edgar. "All it needed was the touch of a beautiful woman. But then again, don't we all."

"I think I have ample reason to be concerned, Edgar," Celes said, ignoring this last comment. "We're not exactly in South Figaro." But she reluctantly joined them at the table.

"He probably just got distracted by some shiny pebbles," Edgar replied with a dismissive wave.

Just then there was a rattling at the door. Edgar stood up first. He checked the peephole, then unlatched and opened the door to reveal a soaking-wet Locke with an equally soaked bundle of papers in one hand and a sack in the other.

"No one saw me," he said brusquely, by way of greeting. He stomped the water off his boots and stepped inside. "Not that it would matter much, anyway. Nice place."

"And hello to you too," said Edgar.

"What do you mean, it wouldn't matter much?" asked Celes, taking the papers and carefully trying to peel the top piece away from the rest.

"Well, apparently, the Returners aren't too popular in this neck of the woods," replied Locke, who was wringing out his bandanna over the washbasin. "In fact, you might say we're pretty much extinct."

Celes managed to extract a thin, water-transparent leaf of paper from the bundle. She held it up to the lamplight. The combination of water and age gave it the color of weak tea.

"This is a newspaper page," she said.

"Read it."

She gave him a curious look, then squinted to make out the lettering. "Dated... six years ago. 'Jidoor, Monday. The once-affluent cultural center of the Eastern peninsula has been rocked by several incidents of insurrection in the past year, but the worst came last night, when rising tensions between the radical guerilla group called the "Returners" and local Imperial authorities finally erupted in violence. The organization incited a widescale revolt at approximately ten P.M. The looting and rioting lasted well into the night. When the smoke finally settled, three Imperial troops had been killed, and dozens more had been injured.'"

Celes furrowed her brow and read on. "'Thankfully, these casualties were not in vain. Among the revolutionary fatalities were several leaders of the Returners, including a "Locke" Cole, a radical-minded mercenary whom many think to be the mastermind behind last summer's Artisan's Rebellion.'"

There was a pause.

"You're dead," said Terra softly.

"Yes, as a doornail," said Locke, who did not seem overly bothered by the news.

"Where did you find these?" asked Edgar, who was sitting with Terra at the table, peeling papers apart and laying them flat.

"Oh, you know, the usual places," Locke said. He took a dropcloth, sniffed at it with a grimace, and rubbed at his wet hair. "Historical conservatory, library. Filched a few from private collections. I took the liberty of picking us up some grub, too," he said, tossing the sack onto the table.

"Locke," said Edgar warningly. "You did not steal food."

"No, I did not. I bought it. Thanks for treating us, by the way, Edgar." He threw him the red velvet purse, which sounded substantially emptier than before.

His mouth agape, Edgar felt his pockets. "Wh -- how did you even manage that?"

Locke only bit into an apple and grinned.

"We will be discussing this later. Thoroughly," said Edgar, with a glare. He turned back and scanned a front-page headline. "Looks like you're still around, Celes."

"Yeah, you're quite the celebrity," said Locke. "Highest-ranking general, Secretary of Magitek Studies, governor of four cities... or was it five?" With the cloth draped absently around his shoulders, Locke pulled up a stool to the table and rifled through the papers. "Maybe it was four."

"I'm still an officer of the Empire?" asked Celes. She still stood, holding Locke's death notice, though she was staring through it. The letters all seemed to blur into each other.

"Mm hmm," said Locke. "Ah, here it is. Let's see -- oh, I'm sorry, governor of three cities and second heir to the throne."

"Behind Kefka, I'm sure," muttered Edgar.

"Ah, but there. There is the most beautiful thing," said Locke, wearing a wide grin. "A 'Mr. Kefka Palazzo,' the first Magitek test subject, died at age six. They published a little news brief about it -- ten years later, of course. In fact, it was part of a story about how your transfusion was going so well, Celes. Where is that one?" He began scanning the papers again.

Terra, meanwhile, had noticed Celes's unusual silence. She unobtrusively pushed back her chair and met her at the window.

"Is anything wrong, Celes?" she asked, keeping her voice conversational. "You haven't said much."

Celes smoothed the paper she held before she spoke. "It's just -- so bizarre, that's all. This -- " she gestured to the paper -- "the situation we're in... everything. The way things might have been."

"It does take some getting used to," said Terra. "Being able to see outcomes that could have occurred. How we might have turned out."

Celes felt herself tense slightly.

"I think it would behoove us," Terra continued slowly, "to keep in mind that, no matter how things might seem, this world isn't ours. The people here are not us." She smiled faintly. "Otherwise things could get a bit confusing, I think."

"Forget about the transfusion," Edgar was telling Locke. "What about Terra and me?"

"Right, um," said Locke. He put the newsletter he was holding down and stared up at the ceiling. "Edgar, you and Sabin died in your teens of a mysterious plague -- of the Imperial poison variety, I'll bet. In any case, both South Figaro and the castle are part of the Empire here, so it worked out well for them. How lucky."

"Just how much of the world is part of the Empire here, Locke?" Celes asked.

"Uh, I'd say about, oh, all of it," he answered. He began reading off an official-looking document. "Figaro, Doma, Jidoor, Kohlingen, Mobliz, Narshe... even Zozo. And of course the entire Southern continent, which isn't even divided up into cities anymore. It's all Vector. The only country not mentioned is Thamasa, and I'll bet that's because no one knows it exists yet."

"And if Thamasa's smart, it'll keep it that way," said Edgar, an edge to his words. "Sabin and me gone in one shot. How honorable."

Terra stood by the dark windows. "And me?"

They turned to Locke, who shook his head softly. "There, I turned up short. There's no record of you, or anyone resembling you, for as far as I looked back. To be truthful, you could be alive or dead here."

"Probably," said Celes slowly, "probably you are still somewhere in Vector, or were here when you -- passed away. If Narshe is under Imperial rule, I doubt it's still a mining town."

"It's not," Locke said from the table. "It never was, here. It's really nothing more than a northern base. All of the mining is done to the mountains to the east."

"Which would mean that Tritoch was never discovered," said Celes, "and you were never sent there to communicate with it, Terra."

"But she might have transformed anyway," said Edgar. "We can't assume anything here."

"No," said Celes. "We can't. Terra and I, at least, will have to stay out of sight as much as possible."

"Yes," said Terra. She blinked and shook her head slightly, as if coming out of a daze. "There are only three sunsets left."

"Too right you are," Edgar agreed. "Locke, did you find anything about what we're looking for?"

Locke leaned back from the table. "Not a thing. If anything they seem to be farther behind in magical technology than we were. Magitek armor was mentioned in a scientific journal once as 'theoretical,' I think, but that's about it."

"If they had discovered something truly powerful, they would have taken pains to keep it a secret from the general public," Celes said. "But whatever it is -- I'm sure that it's here, in the city somewhere."

She couldn't explain why, exactly, she was so certain. It was a tiny niggling sensation in the back of her mind, as though she had almost remembered something only to lose her train of thought at the last second. It was maddening, and persistent. Something was here that should not have been.

"Strange as it sounds, I'm sure of it too," Edgar remarked. "Maybe it's because of the trail Strago was talking about."

"It's here," said Terra, for whom it did not seem to be in doubt. "And I think I know where it most likely is."

Celes found herself nodding vaguely. "The Magitek Research Facility."

"Is that even still around?" said Edgar. "I thought they had no real Magitek here to speak of."

"Nope," Locke replied, "it's still around. Underfunded, maybe, and unloved, but definitely still around."

"The Emperor would never abandon his pet project," said Terra darkly.

"Then that," said Celes," is where we have to go. Tomorrow."

There was a long pause.

"Well, I don't think we should use up our light if we don't have to," said Edgar. "And I know I, for one, have had a very long day. What say we turn in?"

After a brief squabble in which Edgar insisted he and Locke should sleep on the bare floor -- much to Locke's dismay -- they agreed to pile all the cloaks and dropcloths in one corner to make one large, almost comfortable communal mattress. ("Actually I like this idea much better," said Edgar. Locke boxed his ears.)

Celes ignored them as she turned off the lamp.

Sleep did not, as she had expected, come easily that night. Sometime after the midnight train, she turned over to see two eyes shining in the moonlight. Terra was staring up at the ceiling.

"Terra?" Celes whispered.

Terra glanced over. She didn't seem overly surprised to find Celes was still awake.

"Just thinking," she murmured. "I guess I'm finding things confusing, too."

Celes didn't reply.

"It's strange," Terra went on. She seemed to be talking as much to herself as to Celes. "I would have thought, before today, that I'm a completely different person than I was when I… lived here. But today, when we saw the Palace, it was as if those five years had never happened. I felt as scared as I did the first time I came back."

"You are a different person, Terra."

"Oh, I know that. And once I remembered that, and believed it, I felt a little better."

Celes wished she could say the same.

"Sometimes, I think, you need to believe in something to make it true," Terra said, looking back at Celes. She smiled briefly.

"I…" Celes smoothed the surface of her makeshift pillow. "Yes, maybe."

She didn't even sound convincing to herself.

"You should sleep, Terra," she said abruptly. "We need to be rested for tomorrow."

"Yes. You're right. Good night, Celes."

"Good night."

Celes turned back over, but it would be a long time before she closed her eyes.


This post has been edited by L. Cully on 3rd March 2006 21:24

--------------------
Some ghost of me might greet my son
the day he is delivered.


Eternal Sleep, Track 1-1: The Blue Planet
Post #102826
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Posted: 16th November 2005 21:11

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Holy Swordsman
Posts: 2,033

Joined: 29/1/2004

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Member of more than ten years. Participated at the forums for the CoN's 15th birthday! User has rated 25 fanarts in the CoN galleries. Member of more than five years. 
Second place in the 2004 Gogo Fanfiction contest. Third place in the 2009 Quiz contest. 
I like the altrenate reality, and I think you're doing a good job of not leaving any plot holes that usually come along with parallel world stories. It's akin to FMA in that respect... sort of wink.gif.

Anyhow, It's good and of course I'm looking forward to more of it.

--------------------
If you've been mod-o-fied,
It's an illusion, and you're in-between.
Don't you be tarot-fied,
It's just alot of nothing, so what can it mean?
~Frank Zappa

Sins exist only for people who are on the Way or approaching the Way
Post #102829
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Posted: 16th November 2005 23:16

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Wavey Marle!
Posts: 2,098

Joined: 21/1/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Third place in CoN European Cup fantasy game for 2011-2012. Member of more than five years. Second place in CoN European Cup, 2008. 
Winner of the 2004 Gogo Fanfiction contest. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy IV section of CoN. Contributed to the Chrono Trigger section of CoN. 
When I said the map was out of date I didn't expect it to be litterally...

Still interesting and still looking forward to more.

--------------------
"Only the dead have seen the end of their quotes being misattributed to Plato."
-George Santayana

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here..."
-Abraham Lincoln, prior to the discovery of Irony.
Post #102843
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Posted: 6th December 2005 03:29

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Here's where the warning comes in.

Quote

The Grace of God

Chapter Five

THE RAIN HAD stopped by morning. Celes woke with a serious crick in her neck from a light, uncomfortable sleep where she had dreamt she was back in Vector. She rose, muzzy-headed and confused at both her sleeping quarters and still-sleeping company. It was only when she looked out over the top of one boarded window that she realized, with a heavy feeling, that the day before hadn't been a dream.

At breakfast (such as it was; Locke had gathered an arrangement of food that could be described as "whimsical") they mapped out a plan.

"If the Facility here is similar to the one we knew," Edgar began, struggling to open a tin of sardines, "it'll be almost impossible to get in. It was sheer luck that we managed it last time."

"The main doors will be heavily guarded," Celes agreed. "We'll have to try another way."

"What about the north entrance?" said Terra, who was cutting off a piece of honeydew melon with Edgar's knife. "I think it's older."

"Hmm. You're right, it is. It's… it was, rarely used except for deliveries."

"Then there we go," Locke said brightly, around his third cream puff. He had confectioner's sugar on his nose.

"It's not as easy as that," Celes said. "There are magical wards."

"Can they be dispelled?"

"Yes, but…" She had been about to say, Yes, but we can't cast dispel, before she remembered that one of them could. She focused on the cold cooked potato she was slicing.

"Yes," she amended quietly. "Terra, you'll have to be on point, then."

They worked out the rest quickly. After the wards had been disabled, they could enter one of the processing rooms, and then Edgar would try to shut down the mechanical cart delivery system, causing a distraction. Past that, they would do what they had always done: the best they could.

They spoke little as they prepared. In the chilly bright air of the morning, the impossibility of the situation they were in suddenly felt very real indeed. As she laced up her sleeves, Celes recollected what the book had said: that this world would eventually consume their own. This world of the Empire, like a sickness insidiously sprawling, invading even realms beyond. She bit down on a shudder of disgust.

It was lucky the weather was still unseasonably cold. Otherwise the scarves she and Terra layered over their hooded cloaks would have been unbearably warm, not to mention conspicuous. As it was, when they reached the city proper, they were indistinguishable from the rest of the bundled-up crowd.

"I can't believe this Vector is so big," Edgar said quietly as they walked. "Or maybe just that it has so many people. Is it just me, or does it seem like the whole city is awake?"

"Vector always seemed like that," said Terra.

"Yes," said Celes, but she was uneasy. Even if the city had, in this world, doubled or even tripled in size since she saw it last, she couldn't imagine the streets being this crowded so early in the morning. It was barely light outside, and yet the still-damp sidewalks were teeming with people, all hurrying along in the same direction, as if there was to be a parade or event somewhere.

Locke suddenly stopped short in front of her.

"What is it?" she began to ask, but then she became fully aware of her surroundings. The masses of people had all stopped and were gathered in the street, muttering to each other, clapping together gloved hands numb with cold and stepping from one foot to the other as if in great anticipation. Celes couldn't understand why, until she realized where they were: in front of the Imperial Palace, its doors wide open, the red banners bearing the seal of Gestahl unrolled and shuddering in the wind.

"What's going on?" said Edgar from behind her.

On the great raised dais from which the Emperor had so often issued proclamations, there stood five or six troops at full attention, rifles by their sides. Leading them was a fine-featured, dark-haired officer in a cape and breastplate of blue and silver whom Celes did not recognize, and beyond them was a young man, pale and trembling, with his hands bound behind his back.

"Citizens of Vector," the dark-haired officer announced, his voice carrying over the suddenly quiet crowd. "You witness this morning the administration of justice. Thomas J. Mann, you have been convicted of desertion from the armed forces of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Gestahl. Your sentence is death, to be carried out this morning."

The crowd clapped and cheered their approval.

"Public execution," Celes muttered in disgust. "There were always proposals for them -- I never thought they would be put into practice."

"We don't need to see this," said Edgar, bowing his head. "Let's go."

"Wait."

Terra was staring up at the platform. She had pulled down her muffler, and Celes could see her face was slack with shock. "Look."

There, far to the left, seated on a throne so far back he was almost in the shadows, was a most familiar man indeed. Emperor Gestahl, straight-backed, his moustache perhaps a little longer and little more streaked with gray, watched the assembled throng before him with an arched eyebrow, apparently more interested in its reaction than in the events taking place not thirty paces from him. Against all expectation, Celes felt a jolt of elation at seeing him alive again. It was more in emotion than in thought that she remembered him, this man who had been so much like a father to her.

"We knew he would be here," she said, her voice faltering only slightly. "We just have to accept it, and --"

"No! The sword; don't you see?"

Celes looked closer. Beside Gestahl's throne was a magnificent pearl-hilted sword, bare and unsheathed, resting in an ornamental gold stand decorated with classical designs and fleurs-de-lis. Unusual, to be sure -- the Emperor, in her world, would never have armed himself, thinking it distasteful when there were dozens of guards about ready to die for such mundane concerns. But when she noticed, as she squinted, a barely perceptible blur around the sword's edges, a faint corona of grayish light, she realized at last.

"My God," she whispered. "Illumina."

At once it all came back to her. That frenzied feverish night when they'd hacked through Kefka's tower, clawing their way through the nightmare he had created for them to destroy. They had brought it with them: Illumina, the unaccountable incandescent weapon that had pulsed with what seemed to be a consciousness of its own. Who had been wielding it -- her? Terra, Edgar? She could not remember. And then left behind in their escape, forgotten, as the Statues crumbled and dragged it into this foreign world. The sight of it here made her sick with worry, as though it were a child who had been lost.

"That's it, isn't it," Locke whispered to her. "What we came to find."

She could only nod. On the dais, the dark-haired officer finished his speech and gestured to the armed troopers with a flourish.

"Locke, wait," whispered Terra urgently.

He had begun to push his way through the crowd.

Celes grabbed him by the arm. "What are you doing?"

"I'm going up there to get it."

"Don't be idiotic, Locke," Edgar said incredulously. "With half of Vector watching?"

"I can climb up from the back. No one will see me. And what better distraction is there?"

"You can't really mean --" Celes was at a loss for words. "You don't really mean to --"

"When's the next opportunity going to be?" Locke demanded. "Will it be sometime in the next three days? Look -- no one's guarding him now. This might be our only chance."

It was true, Celes had to admit, that the Emperor probably would not be this vulnerable again anytime soon. But to try to steal a sword under his very nose was madness.

"I still think -- Locke!"

He had slipped through the throng almost without her noticing. She tried to follow after him, but after a few paces realized it was futile: there were simply too many people, not to mention Imperial guards. She would just give him away all the faster.

"I hope he knows what he's doing," she heard Edgar say behind her.

She didn't reply; she couldn't. She could only hold a knuckle to her mouth and watch.

***

As Locke had suspected, there'd been no troops guarding the back doors of the palace. They were probably all waiting with the rest of the crowd, eager for bloodshed. He set his jaw as he scaled the wall nimbly, finding handholds in the palace's irregular walls of bonded metals and piping. Here he was, taking advantage of a public execution to provide him with cover. But it couldn't be helped, he reminded himself; it wasn't his fault. And soon they would be out of this goddamned place for good.

"Ready," he heard a voice bellow as he reached the top. It was that dark-haired officer, his sword drawn and pointed to the prisoner.

Here was his chance. He crawled toward Gestahl's throne. There were, as he had thought, no guards here, and he knew that, against the Palace's mottled facade, he in his dark and muted clothes was all but invisible.

"Aim!"

His heart was beating in his throat now, but he had entered a state of mind where he did not notice, where the world had narrowed to a narrow tunnel at the end of which waited the sword.

Locke drew closer to the throne. He could hear the Emperor's deep, steady breathing. Not an armspan away was the Illumina.

He waited there, motionless, until he heard what he had been waiting for.

"Fire!"

There was a gasping cry, and then the cracking sound of several guns going off at once. Locke winced, closing his eyes, but he forced them open again when he heard the tremendous response from the crowd. Through their raucous cheers and applause, he slid the sword silently from its frame.

He drew back just as silently. The Illumina felt warm and familiar in his hand, and he had to struggle not to laugh out loud in relief.

That had been one for the history books, he told himself as he crept back toward the wall. One of the Locke Cole top ten. Maybe it even beat out that slice of pumpkin pie he'd filched from his aunt's dinner plate when he was six. Then again, maybe not; that one had been a tour-de-force...

There was a sudden noise behind him. He spun around, Illumina at the ready, but he slackened his grip when he saw who was there. It was Celes.

Locke opened his mouth, maybe to ask a question, maybe to say her name, maybe just in surprise. Whatever the reason, it was enough to slow him down, to rob him of a few precious seconds where he could have realized that he had been wrong. The Emperor had not been unguarded, and the woman in front of him was not Celes. But by then it was too late; she had shoved her sword into his chest, and everything, everything, happened at once.

***

General Celes Chere watched the look of shock on the unfamiliar man's face as she swiftly withdrew her weapon. He made no sound at all as he collapsed to the floor.

There was a sudden scream from the crowd -- it sounded like a name. It was the voice, however, and not the words, that caught the general's attention. Something about it was eerily familiar. She looked out into the direction from which it had come, and caught a glimpse of a woman fighting her way forward, a glint of blonde hair --

Then there was a tremendous flare of rose-white light, and something blazing and sinuous streaked through the sky and slammed into her, knocking her breathless, sending her sword clattering to the ground.

Holding her side, General Chere forced herself up, only to freeze at what she saw.

Crouched over the man was a monster wrapped in pink and white fire, its eyes red-yellow slits, its flesh aglow and flaring. Before she could react, it took the bleeding man into its arms and shot into the sky with astonishing speed.

For a second General Chere could only stare after it, her mouth agape. Then the world moved into action again.

"Deploy the IAF!" she ordered the dark-haired officer, retrieving her sword. "Tell them to head east. Protect his Majesty!"

***

The crowd had quickly turned into a mob.

Those nearer the dais, who had seen the monster, fought their way out with the brutal force brought by panic; those on the edges, bewildered and frightened, only clung to each other and watched. Soon, however, people were pushing and being pushed in all directions, some tripping and falling, all screaming in the crush and the mounting hysteria.

Celes took no notice. She shoved the bodies in her way to one side, advancing through the throng with single-minded intent, her vision blurry and her breath coming fast and shallow. She felt something tugging at her cloak and pulled away, hard.

"Celes!" It was Edgar.

She didn't even pause.

"Celes, stop -- you have to stop --" He stumbled after her and grabbed her shoulder.

"Don't touch me, Edgar," she said, jerking out of his grip.

"You can't go after them, they'll recognize you."

"I don't care."

"Celes, you can't possibly fight them all -- they'll capture you, and then they'll capture me, and -- Celes, wait, please!"

She whirled around at last. "Don't presume to give me orders, Edgar." She was shouting, though she didn't realize it. Her voice shook. "You saw. You saw what she did to him. He could --" The word caught in her throat.

"Terra's with him, Celes. She can heal him; she's the only one. If you try to save him now, everything will be lost, do you understand?"

She stared at him, breathing harshly. Her eyes burned.

"He's with Terra, Celes. We have to trust her. She won't let him die. She'll bring him back."

The crowd was beginning to thin out around them. She said nothing.

"It's the only way to save him, Celes," Edgar said quietly. "We have to go back."

***

The rooftops of Vector were uniformly spired, or peaked, or otherwise unusable. It wasn't until Terra reached the old part of the city that she found an abandoned tenement building with a flat terrace on which she could land. She transformed back as she did so, and lowered Locke carefully to the cement surface.

He wasn't moving. Fingers fumbling, she parted his jacket. His white undershirt was saturated and cold with blood. She lifted it gently.

The sight of the broken and bloody flesh there was almost too much for her -- not like this, not on Locke. She closed her eyes and opened them again, resolutely. Then she whispered the strongest cure spell she could remember.

At first, nothing happened. It took her a second to realize -- she was slightly faint from the magic, from the drain of it -- and she tried again, her lips numb and clumsy. Finally the wound glowed white-green, and the skin there began to knit itself together.

Terra sat back, bringing one bloodstained hand up to cover her eyes. If she hadn't been able to use magic here, if she hadn't been able to cure him...

She didn't want to think any further. The spells had exhausted her, and for a minute she could only sit there, not thinking.

"Terra."

She opened her eyes to see Locke looking up at her. His eyes were frightened, his lips pale, almost white.

"Terra -- am I...?" His voice was barely more than a whisper.

"Shh, no, Locke, you're all right," she answered him, but her breath had caught in her throat. He should not look like that, not after being healed. Discreetly she raised his shirt again, and saw with horror that the wound there was reopening, the flesh splitting slowly apart, blood pouring out in a stream.

The sword -- the sword that woman had stabbed him with. It had been Ragnarok.

Terra could have cursed herself for not realizing it sooner, but in the confusion -- in the dizzying exhilaration of her transformation, she hadn't felt it for years -- she had not recognized the mark of Ragnarok. She had not remembered that it left a virulent wound that could only be healed by one person: the one who had inflicted it.

"Terra, I," Locke whispered, trying to take her hand. It was as though he knew he was dying, and was reluctant to let her know. His eyes were beginning to close. "You'll tell Celes -- tell her. Please…"

"No, Locke, I've healed you, you're fine," she told him, grasping his hands in her own, but she was already weeping. "You're fine, just rest, don't be scared, I'm here with you."

At last he had given up his struggle, and he didn't answer her. In the distance Terra could hear sirens, shouting, the whirr of propellers -- the Imperial Air Force was looking for them.

Seconds seemed to stretch into days. At last she bowed her head and pressed her lips to Locke's cold hands. Then she stood up.

***

Three Imperial aircraft landed in the outskirts of the city. From one of them stepped a tall, blonde woman with a crimson sword and a white cape that billowed in the wind. Imperial troopers followed behind her, their rifles at the ready.

In the shadow of an old tenement building was the creature, standing on two legs like a human being. At its feet lay the would-be thief -- still, lifeless. The General approached with caution.

Suddenly, and to her astonishment, the monster spoke.

"Take his body if you must." The voice was deep and rasping, inhuman. "But this Returner belongs to the Espers."

General Chere stilled. "What did you say?"

The creature was silent, its yellow eyes glittering.

With a light motion of her hand, the General signaled to one of the soldiers behind her, one carrying a complex metallic weapon. He fired, and struck the creature in the shoulder.

Terra gasped and staggered back as the bullet hit her. No -- it wasn't a bullet; it was some kind of steel dart. She tried to pull it out of her shoulder, but it had somehow burrowed in, past the reach of her fingers.

Dizzily she fell to her knees next to Locke. The dart was ensorcelled with something: mute, osmose, some spell that would simply prevent her from casting magic were she a human but that, in this state, made her feel as though she were fainting, not getting enough air. Her head swam as she tried to look up.

"Take it to the Facility," she heard the General say. Soldiers took hold of Terra's arms, and dark spots appeared at the sides of her vision -- their gloves, too, must have been coated with silencing magic. But she would not close her eyes until she saw -- she would keep them open by sheer force of will, if need be.

As they dragged her away, she watched General Chere take a long look at Locke's motionless body, blood still trickling from his chest. Slowly she knelt next to him.

Terra's vision was dim now, and she knew there were only seconds left.  Still she strained to see. But there was nothing, nothing but a faint green flicker from the woman's hands at the very last; and by then Terra knew her mind simply could not bear to separate what it wished to see from what was real: that Locke was dead, and she had failed.

The world went dark.


This post has been edited by L. Cully on 3rd March 2006 21:30

--------------------
Some ghost of me might greet my son
the day he is delivered.


Eternal Sleep, Track 1-1: The Blue Planet
Post #104512
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Posted: 6th December 2005 03:47

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Holy Swordsman
Posts: 2,033

Joined: 29/1/2004

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Participated at the forums for the CoN's 15th birthday! User has rated 25 fanarts in the CoN galleries. Member of more than five years. 
Second place in the 2004 Gogo Fanfiction contest. Third place in the 2009 Quiz contest. 
Capital show, Old Bean. Top notch stuff, eh?

Looking forward to more.

--------------------
If you've been mod-o-fied,
It's an illusion, and you're in-between.
Don't you be tarot-fied,
It's just alot of nothing, so what can it mean?
~Frank Zappa

Sins exist only for people who are on the Way or approaching the Way
Post #104513
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Posted: 6th December 2005 22:38

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Wavey Marle!
Posts: 2,098

Joined: 21/1/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Third place in CoN European Cup fantasy game for 2011-2012. Member of more than five years. Second place in CoN European Cup, 2008. 
Winner of the 2004 Gogo Fanfiction contest. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy IV section of CoN. Contributed to the Chrono Trigger section of CoN. 
Possible spoilers: highlight to view
You killed our funting "treasure hunter"!


Phemominal, do-doo-do-doo-doo.

The plot thickens, blood congeals and the realism begins.

And YAY! RIFLES! I like rifles.Don't like Swords.



--------------------
"Only the dead have seen the end of their quotes being misattributed to Plato."
-George Santayana

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here..."
-Abraham Lincoln, prior to the discovery of Irony.
Post #104574
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Posted: 19th February 2006 21:51

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Oof, sorry again to be so late. It's still kicking!

Quote
The Grace of God

Chapter Six

"ALL IN ALL a most unusual morning, General Rurik, wouldn't you agree?"

Spring, in the Imperial capital of Vector, was an event marked by the calendar, not by the climate, and the city décor was expected to honor this rule. Emperor Gestahl's throne room was certainly not exempt. Its green and white marble, magnificent at any time, seemed luminous in the morning light among daffodils from Maranda, tulips from Nikeah, lilies from Jidoor. Several weeks ago, banners proclaiming "New Life Through Magitechnology" in beautiful silkscreened calligraphy had sprung up overnight, crocuslike, on every lamp-post; and the massive original hung in an elegant and perfect drape over the Emperor's throne itself.

Gestahl seemed unaware of the splendor surrounding him -- or of the two statue-like red-robed Imperial guards at either side, or even of the dark-haired officer in blue and silver kneeling before him. His attention was on an oblong bundle of strangely shimmering cloth that he held in both hands.

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

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

"If you had been, sir, I've no doubt the man would have been dead before he touched the ground."

"Hmm." Gestahl's moustaches twitched slightly. It was the closest he ever came to a smile. "Well, perhaps. And an Esper discovered in addition. Most extraordinary."

The officer raised his eyebrows. "Then you're sure it was an Esper?"

"There's no doubt. You must remember, Dimitri, that I was present at the Great Raid itself."

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

"I had forgotten how exhilarating it can be myself. Regarding the Esper, Dimitri?"

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

"Hmm."

The Emperor was not a small man. He hadn't, as so many of his senators had, gained that gradual and inevitable stoutness that came with age and wealth and that commanded a certain comfortable respect. There was nothing comfortable about Gestahl. He had been a soldier in his youth, and had never really lost the thickness of the military in his arms, his chest, his neck; though he sat in it with natural, and surprising, poise, he had always dwarfed his throne. Yet something about the bundle he now held up to the light made him seem somehow lessened, somehow small.

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

"That's what General Chere reported."

"Interesting. Most interesting."

Slowly, with a show of caution so extreme it bordered on the ridiculous, Gestahl unwrapped the cloth bundle. A scent grew stronger in the air, mingled with the flowers -- a slightly acrid scent, as though of burning.

The cloth came free to reveal a sword -- surely ornamental, for it was so gleaming white that one wondered what metal could have possibly been used to forge it. Indeed, it looked more like it had been carved impeccably from ivory, or white glass, instead. The fabric that had been covering the blade had corroded, as if burned through.

The Emperor held the sword gingerly by the tip of its gold-and-pearl hilt and studied the ruined cloth.

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

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

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

General Rurik didn't reply.

"Have the Esper interrogated. No particular methods yet; I'd rather not have it damaged, if possible."

"Understood, sir."

The Emperor gave the sword a few idle swipes.

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

"At once, my liege."

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

***
Most of the factories in downtown Vector didn't let out until after dark, but the newsboy at the Third Street train station wouldn't wait for them this time. The sun was still low in the sky as he gathered up his papers, whistling a little tune to himself.

"Oi, Benny!" It was a window washer, just arrived, ladder in hand. He wasn't much older than the newsboy. "You turning in already?"

"Sold fifty before two," the newsboy replied, a wide white grin on his sooty face. "Everybody wanted a read about that Esper."

"So I would have too. My ma was there but she says she couldn't see nothing at all."

"They got a picture." The newsboy unfolded a paper and showed him. "Somebody drew it. I bet it looks worse than that, though. They just didn't want to scare nobody. Lookit those eyes. Like a snake, yeah?"

"Garn," breathed the window washer. He took the paper in both hands. "That'd be a sight to see. What're they gonna do to it?"

"Hey, that'll be one gil, thank you much," the newsboy said, snatching the paper back.

"What if I don't got a gil."

"Then you find somebody who cares, and -- hey! Hey!"

Beyond the reach of the streetlights, in the shadows, someone had slid a paper from the stack and was walking away.

"Come back here! You gotta pay for that!" called the newsboy angrily.

"Benny, look over."

The window washer pointed. Weighing down the stack was a thick coin, gleaming in the lamplight.

The newsboy picked it up and squinted. "What's it, something foreign? I never heard of no… commonwealth in Figaro."

"Looks like gold, I think."

"C'mon, Sam, nobody pays for papers with gold." But the newsboy bit it experimentally. His eyes went wide. "Holy --"

The window washer didn't waste any time. He ran to the end of the train platform, his ladder and bucket clunking, and peered into the dusk. Whomever it had been was still walking away.

"Hey!" he called. "Hey, wait a minute! You need anything washed?"

He didn't get a reply.

In one straight path from streetlight to streetlight, without once looking up, Celes walked; shedding, as she read, page after page that blew away like leaves in the wind. Once, her pace slowed, when she found what she had been looking for, but she soon righted herself. She never stopped walking.

When Edgar opened the door of the chandlery, she swept right by him and to the stack of weapons on the floor.

"What?" he asked, watching her remove her scarves. He was trying to read her face, though he should have known better. "What's happened?"

"They've got Terra," she said.

In the silence that followed, Celes found her sword, attached it to her belt. She felt inexplicably impassive and controlled, intractable, like blue-flaming alcohol in some efficient machine. Part of her wondered, in a far-off, dreamy sort of way, how long it would be before the shock ran out and she found herself running on nothing.

"You're sure?" Edgar replied finally, his voice quiet.

"It's in the evening edition." Gauntlets were next.

"And Locke?"

A flush like a fever passed over Celes then, and she realized, after a second, that she could no longer see the laces she was tying. Thankfully her fingers seemed able to finish the job without her.

"I don't know," she said. "The front page said only that the Emperor was safe."

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

Celes straightened up.

"I'll find Locke."

"Celes…"

"Yes, Edgar?" She was careful to enunciate her syllables.

He gave her a long, hard look, working through some inner struggle.

"Right," he said at last. "Right. Just -- be careful, Celes. Please."

Of everything she should be concerned about, to think that her welfare would be one of them. But she nodded anyway as she opened the door.

"I will," she said. "You too."

It wasn't until she had reached the city outskirts that she noticed the unfamiliar hilt of her sword. She pulled it out slightly: an inch of blue blade stared back at her. The Atma Weapon -- she had taken Terra's sword by mistake. But by then it was too late to turn back.

***

Terra awoke slowly, in stages marked mainly by stronger and stronger awareness of being aching, exhausted, and terribly uncomfortable. She was somewhere cramped, that much she knew, and brightly lit. In one of her more cognizant interludes, she tried, blearily, to take in her surroundings, but couldn't make sense of them. It was all one bright, headache-inducing blur. Her vision was somehow different: wider, more vivid, less clear. It took her a minute to realize it was because she was still in Esper form.

Esper form -- strange. She needed to rest her eyes before she could open them again, and she took this opportunity to try, with difficulty, to think. It seemed to her that she hadn't transformed in a long while, though she couldn't remember why that might be. Perhaps standing up would help.

Shakily, she managed it -- and, after the wave of nausea passed, her head did feel a little clearer. Focusing her eyes, she looked around. Surrounding her was a single pane of thick, curved glass, its exterior outfitted with tubes and panels, about four feet in diameter -- a cylinder, Terra realized, with her in it. With her trapped in it.

Reflexively, she pressed a hand against the glass. It didn't budge. Equally reflexively, she muttered a warp spell.

At least, she tried to mutter it. The words caught in her throat, and she coughed suddenly, violently, the sound echoing. She had to support herself against the glass until it was over.

She breathed deeply. Even the memory of the spell, the thought of it, had been faint and coarse in her mind -- trying to focus on it gave her a sudden, sharp pain in her forehead. She recognized the feeling. Someone had silenced her, and the effects hadn't worn off. But who would have, and why?

All at once she remembered.

"Locke," she said, without thinking, in the hoarse, deep, unfamiliar voice of her other self.

Even though it had been her first thought, of course he wasn't dead. Her memory was not quite cooperating at present, and besides which, those last minutes before she lost consciousness had been so frenzied and confusing that even if she were remembering, she could be remembering wrong. It would be foolish, at this uncertain point, to begin anything as overhasty as grief.

It was not quite working. Through eyes hot with tears, she strained to see more of the world outside of her glass cylinder, as though if she really wanted to she would see Locke nearby. He wasn't, of course -- all she could see were metal walkways, yards of rubber tubing, distant rows of glass cylinders like her own, all of it strangely familiar. And it was then that she finally recognized, with a chill that went from her crown to her toes, the huge, high-ceilinged containment room of the Magitek Research Facility.

For a minute it was too much for her. She had to fight the urge to beat against the glass, to ram it with her shoulder over and over, to thrash and scream and pound her way out and as far from this place of nightmares as she could run.

But it would do no good. She took deep, steady breaths, her eyes screwed shut against the silent, awful rows of stasis tubes. She knew firsthand how thick the Empire made the glass. It had taken -- what had they told her afterward -- the power of dozens of Espers to breach them? And here she was all by herself, trembling and teary and at half her normal strength already.

Besides, if she were to run now, who knew what they might do to Locke. If he were still alive.

Footsteps approached; Terra felt more than heard them. At once she closed her eyes again and slumped against the glass -- there was no reason to let anyone know she was awake and aware until it became absolutely necessary.

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

The voice was muffled. Discreetly, Terra opened her eyes to slits to see two men approaching. One was tall and gangly, dressed in some kind of yellow lab coat and holding a clipboard. Next to him was the handsome officer with dark brown hair that Terra recognized from the execution.

"Ah," the man in the yellow lab coat said. He was the one who had spoken. He gestured now to something on a display podium. "I believe it's waking up."

There was no use in pretending anymore. Slowly, Terra drew herself upright.

"Splendid specimen, isn't it?" the man in the lab coat continued as he studied her, sounding reverent. "Quite powerful, too, if early tests are any indication."

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

"Absolutely sure, General. It's not so much the tube itself as what's in it." The man in the lab coat leaned forward and flicked a switch.

At first, Terra thought nothing had happened; then she felt a shock of coldness against at her feet. A luminescent blue fluid, as thin and frigid as ice water, had begun to well up in the tube.

"Completely nullifies any magical properties," the man went on.

Terra stared at her feet. She could not quite believe what she was seeing, what the man in the lab coat was saying. The fluid, strangely light and insubstantial, was rising; it was almost up to her knees. It would continue to rise until it filled the entire tube.

She could stop it right now. She couldn't cast magic, but she could do something else -- change herself back into a woman, scream out, shock them into action -- anything, anything at all besides wait for it to happen. But she knew it would make no difference to them, that she would only be damning herself. God, if they knew she were both human and Esper, they would be beside themselves with glee -- more eager than ever to examine her, cut her open, lock her away here forever.

The fluid was at her waist now.

"Will it be able to speak?" the dark-haired officer asked. "His Majesty is keen on knowing."

"He needn't worry," said the man in the lab coat. "Professor Cid developed this solution himself, right before he died. It's quite unusual; we've been studying the formula for twenty years, but we still can't determine whether it should be classified as a liquid or a gas. Of course the composition is --"

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

"Er. Yes. Certainly. If it's indeed capable of speech."

It had reached her clavicles. Terra bucked once, involuntarily, and stretched her neck as high as it would go. Futile gestures, she knew, but she could not stop herself.

It was so unfair -- monstrously unfair, that she should be forced to make a decision like this for the second time in a single day. And this time, it was harder -- there was no one to save here, only the rising fluid, her harsh breathing, and these two vile men, talking to each other normally, as though nothing were happening at all.

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

"Oh, no. The solution is toxic to humans, but quite innocuous to Esper physiology."

They kept talking, but she couldn't hear them anymore. The fluid touched her chin; she tipped her head back helplessly and stood on her toes, hands braced against the glass. The only way to survive this would be to remember. There were four sunsets; there was the Illumina; there were Celes and Edgar. There was Locke.

Liquid sloshed over her mouth and she let out a small, desperate sob. There was Figaro. She squeezed her eyes shut and took one last huge, gasping breath. There was Mobliz.

The fluid closed over her head.

Moments passed. Her heart pounded in her ears. Mobliz -- remember the mess, packing up for the feast. The excitement. Remember Duane and Katerin. Remember Suza and Ruthie and Antoine and little Eva -- Eva, four years old next week.

Terra let out a scream, and breathed in.

It was like the last instant before drowning, before death. Cold fluid rushed into her lungs; she bucked, crazily, clawing at the glass -- then the moment passed, and she was still alive.

It was the fluid. She could feel it everywhere, now -- her lungs, her limbs, her heart and hands. It made her lightheaded, tingly, as though her entire body were falling asleep.

Eyes tightly closed, she stayed huddled against the glass, taking weird, open-mouthed breaths. She felt as though she would be content for the rest of her life, just breathing.

In time, she remembered she wasn't alone.

"…assume General Chere will be conducting the interrogation?"

The doctor in the lab coat was speaking. His voice, though staticky, was otherwise clear. He must have activated some kind of intercom.

Slowly Terra opened her eyes. For a split-second, they burned as if splashed with lye. But then her vision cleared, and she could see, though everything was tinted a light, nearly imperceptible blue.

The dark-haired officer was leaning forward, squinting at Terra. On what appeared to be sudden impulse, he rapped sharply on the tube with a leather-gloved fist. The sound reverberated.

"Well, have you got anything to say to us, Esper?"

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

Terra had reached the end of panic, the end of fear: and now, saturated in cold blue nothingness, all that remained to her was a seething, growing, slow-burning hatred. Slowly, she drew herself upright and she stared, unblinkingly, into the dark-haired officer's face -- as though her eyes alone could channel everything she felt, like sunlight focused onto dry paper.

After a minute the officer drew back. "Ugh. Repulsive thing. Hmm, what? General Chere? No, not this time. The General is occupied with another task."

"Sorry to have kept you waiting, Dimitri," came a voice.

Hours later, when she was all alone and there was nothing to occupy her but her own thoughts, Terra would wonder how she could have possibly missed his arrival. Her only excuse would be that she had been so fixated on the pain, the humiliation, her hatred of the two men, that she simply did not notice the appearance of a third. Of course, even if she had, there was no telling that she would have believed it -- as the voice that she heard now, through the crackling intercom, belonged to a man long dead.

But here, there was no Kefka. There had been no Thamasa. And so --

"Always late, eh, Leo?" said the dark-haired officer with a grin.

He stepped into view; and how could it be, Terra wondered, how could it be that he had not changed at all in five years? The same fine, dusky complexion, the same serious eyes, the same manner of movement that drew the eye by its very ease, by its unthinking nobility. In the blue-tinted, watery light, it was almost too easy to believe he was only a vision, that he was just another dream.

"I'm sorry I couldn't come earlier." That careful voice. The sound of it, more than anything she had been through thus far, brought Terra closest to breaking. "The census took longer than we expected."

"Well, it's a relief you're here," said the dark-haired officer. "I thought I'd be stuck babysitting this overgrown insect."

The man in the lab coat looked hurt.

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

"Then it is an Esper?" Leo turned to look at her; Terra felt herself jump at the shock. "Remarkable."

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

"I'll leave you to it, then," said the dark-haired officer, sounding bored. "Have fun, Leo. Don't forget the briefing."

Leo looked up as the man left. "I won't. Thanks, Dimitri."

Terra was breathing the fluid easily now -- naturally, without thinking. But then, she felt almost certain she had left everything real behind and entered some hypnotic dreamworld. It did, in fact, feel remarkably like a dream: like pieces from her past fitted together into a crooked, confused puzzle.

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

"She did, but…" The doctor was hesitant. "Frankly, sir, there's always been a bit of an -- unfortunate tendency to anthropomorphize Espers. None of these animals has ever shown the ability of, let alone proclivity to, speech. And General Chere is --"

"Yes, doctor?"

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

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

"Of course, sir."

Leo appeared to be thinking. After a moment, he straightened up.

"I am General Leo Christophe," he said, his voice raised slightly but still conversational. "I am a representative of the Empire of Gestahl. Do you have a name?"

It was easy to remain speechless.

"Can you understand me?" he went on, watching her intently. "Can you speak? Do you communicate in some other way -- with signals?"

She didn't move.

"To be honest, sir, I expected this would happen," the doctor whispered. "One might just as well expect a dog to talk."

"Mm," said Leo, obscurely.

"We haven't encountered an Esper in over twenty years, let alone one this valuable. In my professional opinion, we should hook it up to a depletion conduit immediately in order to begin studying its magical composition."

"Ah," said Leo.

"What is it, sir?"

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

Terra had thought she'd suppressed her involuntary jerk of panic, but it seemed Leo had noticed. She could not afford another such mistake. She was careful, now, to appear uninterested, uncomprehending.

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

Leo considered this, for several endless, agonizing minutes.

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

"A quarter to it, sir."

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

"Thank you very much, General Christophe."

After Leo had gone, the doctor in the yellow lab coat hummed a little, tunelessly, peering at the control podium, adjusting something every now and then. Once, his gaze flicked up to catch Terra watching him.

His humming stopped. After a minute, he shook his head.

"Anthropomorphizing," he muttered, as he gathered up his clipboard.


This post has been edited by L. Cully on 3rd March 2006 21:39

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Some ghost of me might greet my son
the day he is delivered.


Eternal Sleep, Track 1-1: The Blue Planet
Post #108576
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Posted: 20th February 2006 07:22

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Holy Swordsman
Posts: 2,033

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Member of more than ten years. Participated at the forums for the CoN's 15th birthday! User has rated 25 fanarts in the CoN galleries. Member of more than five years. 
Second place in the 2004 Gogo Fanfiction contest. Third place in the 2009 Quiz contest. 
Hehe. Very very nice. Gripping. Compelling. All those other cliches used to describe really good stuff.

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If you've been mod-o-fied,
It's an illusion, and you're in-between.
Don't you be tarot-fied,
It's just alot of nothing, so what can it mean?
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Sins exist only for people who are on the Way or approaching the Way
Post #108613
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Posted: 20th February 2006 17:44

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Wavey Marle!
Posts: 2,098

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Member of more than ten years. Third place in CoN European Cup fantasy game for 2011-2012. Member of more than five years. Second place in CoN European Cup, 2008. 
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Worth the wait, certainly. Some major new questions cropping up here, and as intresting as always.



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"Only the dead have seen the end of their quotes being misattributed to Plato."
-George Santayana

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here..."
-Abraham Lincoln, prior to the discovery of Irony.
Post #108639
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Posted: 25th February 2006 20:51

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Black Mage
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ohmy.gif wauw, i haven't witnest such a storry in a long time, once you start reading you'lle keep on reading till the verry last word! if you would write it down it would be a bestseller , they would even make a movie about it! L.Cully , you really are one tallented writer! i can't wait untill the next story! happy.gif

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They may be monsters, but they're sea monsters. What're they gonna do? Flop around on deck and suffocate at us threateningly?
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Posted: 1st March 2006 03:33

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This story is most excellent. Can't wait to see the next chapter.

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Visions of Peace - Four Generals, One Empire, and the Returners caught in the middle.
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Posted: 3rd March 2006 06:29
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Behemoth
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Okay, yeah...this is the shit! Took me long enough to finally get round to reading it all but damb if it weren't worth it.

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Posted: 3rd March 2006 19:33

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Holy Swordsman
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I absolutely love it......and now I'm wondering how I could have missed this as it's been up for quite a while.

Anyways, I hope to read more of this as you put it up...
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Posted: 4th December 2006 06:52

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SOLDIER
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I F-

I FINALLY FOUND

I finally found my notebook. X( No other excuses, just shame. Onward!

Quote
The Grace of God

Chapter Seven

THE SHARP SHOCK to his jaw wasn't painful, not exactly. It was just annoying, when he was trying to sleep. The lights were already on too bright, there was a warm sting creeping along his jaw, and now someone was saying something. Calling him?

"Returner."

Well, that was a strange thing to be called, true. But it was far too early to try to puzzle out any whos or whys about it -- better to consider such mysteries after a nice long rest.

He had just settled back into comfortable numbness when something cracked hard against his head. Lights burst behind his eyelids in a brief, colorful display.

"Returner," said the voice again, cloying this time.

"What," he tried to answer, irritably; but his tongue, dry and swollen, stuck in his mouth, and all that came out was a sort of garbled grunt. He tried to open his eyes, just in time to see a dim, blurred rush of motion. Reflexively he shied back; but something held him in place, and the blow hit his collarbone with a jarring sting.

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

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

The noise made his head hurt even more, but at least it gave him a minute to concentrate on opening his eyes. They refused to go any further than a squint, but he could still make out three fuzzy shapes in front of him: two brown, one a garish chartreuse. It took him only a second to recognize them as the uniforms of three Imperial soldiers.

"Wonderful," Locke groaned.

There was surely a good reason why he had ended up here when he'd planned to be home with the Illumina instead, although it escaped him at the moment. He did remember something of a morning mission, a crowd, of noise and violence. There had been that woman who looked like Celes, a burning pain through his chest, and Terra crying somewhere far away -- but everything afterward was a complete blank.

Still more than enough to send a shiver down his spine.

It was then that he realized his arms were strained uncomfortably above his head, chained to an eyebolt on the wall; and when he glanced down, he saw, with some shock, that his shirt was dyed through with a livid stain of blood. But there was no pain -- his face, in fact, felt a good deal worse. And he was still alive, somehow.

A slap across his face brought him back to the present.

"Wake up, dog piss." The soldier in green -- the field trooper -- was talking to him. "You'll miss all the fun."

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

As if in reply, the trooper struck him again, on the jaw this time, and Locke tasted blood as his head banged against the cinderblock wall.

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

"All right, Wallace, good job, good job," one of the marshals was saying. "Stand aside, please."

The trooper scowled, but stepped back.

"Here's the story, you sack of shit," the marshal continued lazily as he approached Locke. "There's only one reason why you're not feeding the flies right now, and that's 'cause they think you might want to talk to us a while."

"Who wouldn't?" Locke discreetly spat out a mouthful of bloody saliva. "You seem like such great conversationalists."

At that, the marshal turned back to his friends. "You hear that?" He laughed with great exaggeration. "Guy thinks he's funny." On the last word, he wheeled around and slammed his fist into Locke's stomach.

Though Locke had tried to tense his stomach muscles in anticipation, the blow was strong enough to knock the wind out of him, and he dry-retched. But he had only a second to catch his breath before the soldier struck again, and again, on the jaw, on the cheekbone, in the eye.

At last there was a brief pause, as the two marshals switched positions. Locke dizzily tried to keep standing upright, though his legs felt about to give out. He'd be damned if he'd ever let these bastards see him stumble.

He caught only a glimpse of a grinning face and a drawn-back fist before the second marshal smashed him across the face with what felt, and tasted, like brass knuckles. Then Locke must have blacked out for a minute, because he next thing he knew the air was cool on his swollen face, and the soldiers had their backs to him. They were no longer laughing, either. They were talking to someone.

"Of course, Your Excellency," one of the marshals was saying, hesitantly, "but the General assigned us to --"

"General Rurik ordered you to guard the prisoner, not to beat him to unconsciousness."

The voice was an icy touch on Locke's skin; he froze, the pain of his battered body forgotten, the second he heard it. It was familiar, but wrong. Celes, but not. And then he saw the woman who had spoken.

What was making him tremble like this? It couldn't be that she resembled Celes so much. No, now that he had time to look at her, he wondered how he could ever have mistaken her for the Celes he knew. They shared the same appearance, yes -- the same lovely chiseled features, the same strong and supple body -- but there was something about this woman, something lifeless in her expression, empty in her speech, that made her seem more like a moving marble statue than a flesh-and-blood human being.

In fact, outfitted in that flawless white uniform of hers, she reminded Locke of how he'd once thought of Celes, back before he'd ever met her, back when he'd only ever heard of her. General Celes Chere, the military prodigy, the ruthless soldier, the White Witch. All just ideas of a person. Just shadows.

She was still talking to the soldiers -- reprimanding them, though her expression betrayed neither anger nor annoyance.

"You may leave," she said now. "Expect a court summons in the morning."

"Yes, your Excellency," they chorused, and, suddenly subdued, crept out the door with heads bowed.

As they passed, Locke had the strangest urge to ask them to stay.

***

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

His friends snickered at this, but quietly.

"Nah. She likes to lock you up in one of those boxes downstairs, if she really thinks you're being insub," the burly marshal replied. "You're lucky we got off with just a warning, Wallace."

"Yeah, yeah, okay." The trooper glanced back again. "She's a sight, though, isn't she? Would have liked to get off in more way than one."

At that, one of his friends yanked him backward while the other cuffed him on the ear.

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

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

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

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

"Even Rurik says it."

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

"And break off like an icicle."

They had to struggle to keep their laughter muffled.

***

At first Celes had had no plan at all. Some unconscious part of her must have believed she'd be drawn to Locke by instinct, or sheer force of will; she'd walked to the old train graveyards briskly, businesslike, without a doubt or second thought. And when she'd found both of the prisons from her memory there long boarded-up, indistinguishable from the warehouses surrounding them, well, that was nothing -- she'd simply retraced her steps and continued to search.

But when the shadows lengthened, and the evening grew cooler, so did the blind driving urgency that had been keeping her going. By sundown, after she had walked all the way to the eighth precinct, Celes came to herself with a start, like someone waking from a nightmare. But of course, here it was the nightmare itself that she had woken to.

And where had she searched; what had she found? Factories, markets, upper-class neighborhoods. Nowhere that a suspected insurgent would be held, and she knew it. But where else could she go from here -- the Palace itself? Ridiculous; to try to break in there would be suicide. Locke had tried, and he…

But she wouldn't allow herself to finish that thought. Not when she was still needed.

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

Something, a strange little tickle at the back of her neck, made Celes jerk her head upright. A passerby had paused next to her bench, his eyebrows furrowed, as if he weren't quite sure what he was seeing.

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

Soon it became clear he was not the only one; more people were slowing as they passed by her, taking furtive glances in her direction, hurrying along before she could respond. One, she recognized too late, was an Imperial trooper; his nod was brisk and smart and accompanied by a single, barely audible word: General.

So. They thought she was that woman. They thought she was that woman with Celes's face, Celes's past, that creature Celes could barely remember without her head going light from an acute, white-hot rage. The woman who was like a parasite, who was bound to Celes's life as with a chain. Without a doubt, wherever she was, Locke would also be.

Which meant Celes knew exactly what had to be done. And she knew, all at once, how to do it.

It was almost like a dream as Celes made her way back to the Grand Boulevard, her muffler gone, her face bared like a war banner, the townspeople she passed jumping out of her path with wide eyes. Like a dream, and almost parodic, as she walked up two hundred stairs to the Imperial Palace, to the fortress of the enemy, with her sword sheathed, her magic nonexistent.

Dozens of guards were watching as she stepped up to the doors. But she had long gone past fear.

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

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

If she were going to do this, she must have no hesitation, no doubt in the absolute truth that she belonged here.

"I'm sorry; I only thought you were still in the Palace, occupied with the, um, situation. I wasn't aware you'd left."

For a second Celes's heart leapt dangerously. A political prisoner could certainly qualify as a "situation." But now was not the time to pry out further information, not when the entire sentry regiment had its eyes on her back.

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

It must have been the tone of her voice, that cool disdain that was only too easy to remember and emulate, that finally made up the sentry's mind. "Of course, your Excellency," he said hastily.

He and his partner unbarred and opened the doors for her, and snapped to attention, their halberds at their sides. Celes walked between them.

It was as though she had stepped back ten years in time. The gleaming metal interior, the humming rows of electric lights, the sound of the doors clanging shut behind her; and most of all, the echo and murmur of hundreds, of thousands, of Imperials within.

But Celes would pay them no attention. She couldn't, now that she knew where she was going.

***

The General hadn't spoken a word to Locke since she'd arrived. In eerie silence she walked around the windowless interrogation room, reading over reports, preparing a small leatherbound notebook, checking the ink flow of a fountain pen by holding it up to the light.

Really, it was remarkable how much she resembled Celes. Locke found it difficult to look at her for too long. At times, she seemed more like Celes than a twin could ever be, in the furrow of her brow, the straightness of her back, her intense concentration on the task at hand. But more often she seemed like a poorly-made copy, and that was easier to take. Though it was bizarre, perverse even, to see that coldly efficient manner in Celes's body, that hard, closed expression on Celes's face, it did help Locke remember she was someone entirely different.

Still, she couldn't be a complete stranger, could she? There had to be something Locke could reach in her. Time was running out; he felt it as keenly as the ticking of a watch against his palm. If he could somehow get a response out of this woman, even just a few words, maybe he could learn something to help him get out of here.

It was worth a try, at least.

"They're very enthusiastic with their welcomes here," he spoke up experimentally. Her back was to him, and Locke watched for her reaction carefully. But there was none. It was if he hadn't even spoken.

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

The General didn't answer him. Besides a tiny, barely perceptible tilt of her head, she didn't react at all.

"I think there's been a misunderstanding," Locke went on, as he watched her pull over a high-backed cabriolet chair. "Well, maybe not a misunderstanding, exactly. To be honest, I don't remember exactly what happened" -- although he did remember, more and more with every minute -- "but I can tell you for sure, whatever it was, no offense was meant." Hard to smile with a bleeding lip, but Locke managed it.

Seated now, her legs crossed at the knee, the General opened the notebook in her lap.

"What is your name?" she said.

She had spoken to the book, not to him, and with a sinking feeling Locke realized his one-sided repartee wasn't accomplishing much besides hurting his swollen jaw.

It had been a long time since he'd had to think of torture and how to resist it. All Returner agents went through some training, of course, learned the basic techniques, but that had been years ago. Still, he was older now -- hell, he'd been a kid then, practically -- and he had more to lose.

And with what was at stake here? She'd be lucky to get a grunt out of him.

Grimly, he stayed silent, bracing himself. But the General didn't move; she didn't even repeat herself. All she did was write something in her book, and go on to the next question.

"Who sent you to assassinate the Emperor?"

That was unfair -- accused of a crime he actually hadn't tried to commit for once. But it would be useless to try to convince her of that. Again Locke said nothing, and again she didn't press him, vocally or otherwise, merely made a small note. Unreasonably, her non-action made Locke far more uneasy than if she had reacted angrily, or violently.

"What is your connection to the Esper that attacked the Imperial Palace at seven-fifteen this morning?"

This time she did look up.

Strange, that it should be so hard for him to look into her eyes. Locke dropped his gaze to the floor.

There was the soft scratch of pen on paper, then the scraping sound of a chair being pushed back. When Locke glanced up again, the General was approaching him.

Everything suddenly seemed intensified, magnified by a hundred: the ache of his arms, the heartbeat in his ears, the sharp taste of blood in his mouth. As the General drew closer, a slight fragrance reached him. Locke couldn't quite place it, until he realized it was the lemon-scented soap that Celes sometimes used. He had to close his eyes briefly.

"What is your name?" the General said, and placed three magic-hot fingers on his neck, almost gently. Locke swallowed, his mouth dry, and said nothing.

When the first shock of pain hit him, it was almost a relief.

***

Celes knew it would all have been for nothing if the layout of the palace had changed; so many things in this world had, after all. Perhaps it was foolhardy to think she could find her way through a cracked reflection.

But Providence, for once, was with her. Her chambers were where they had always been: eighth floor, East Wing, overlooking the Emperor's Courtyard. Her way there had been via back staircases and abandoned delivery routes; she would take no chances, whether she had the perfect disguise or not.

The eighth floor was strangely devoid of life. Besides the lethargic breezeway sentries who had jumped at her passing, Celes had seen no one: no bureaucrats talking in the corridors, no staff or servants, no pages carrying messages from one end of the palace to the other. Fortunate, certainly -- the fewer people who saw her, the better. And yet a part of her would have welcomed the sound of voices in this empty echoing hallway, which felt almost, in its silence, like a tomb.

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

Celes passed through the antechamber, the chilly room bare but for a narrow bookcase, wood chair, and a matching table that held a small bowl of fruit. She walked past the library, past the chrome-and-porcelain bathroom with its hot and cold taps, and made her way through the bedroom, with its dove-gray carpet and immaculately made sheets, to the walk-in wardrobe.

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

Then came the white. White knee-boots with green trim, white frock coat with green and gold watercolor accents. Pure white epaulets, gauntlets, boots, cape.

A wisp of memory flickered through her mind: the hushed murmur of voices as she walked by. The same words they whispered each time. The White Witch.

No -- now wasn't the time for that. Firmly Celes pulled on her gloves and the silver circlet set with emeralds. Her own pearl earrings, she kept; they had been a parting gift from her birth mother, or so Cid had once told her. Finally she rebuckled her own sword-belt -- a perfect double of the ones in the wardrobe -- and turned off the lights.

On her way back, Celes dropped her old clothes in the incinerator chute with only a twinge of hesitation and doubt. There was, she reminded herself, no time for second guesses.

***

The magic seized Locke's body with electric appetite, jarring his teeth, filling his mouth with the white taste of burning. It lasted a long, long sixteen seconds -- he counted, jaw clenched and eyes clamped shut -- before it abruptly ended.

"What is your name?" the General asked yet again. Unlike before, she seemed completely fixated on that one question, as if to hear the answer would mean a full confession.

Too bad for her, because she was in for a disappointment. Sure, Locke's current situation was far from pleasant, but he'd been in much worse ones. Probably. And though all his cuts and hurts burned and throbbed with each of the General's magical shocks, the pain had been bearable so far -- more than bearable, really. He could even pretend to crack in a few hours, let slip some "vital" piece of information for them to puzzle over for a bit, to give Celes and the others as much time as he could.

Bad idea to think of Celes. Locke had only a second to prepare himself before the General's fingers flared white again, and his body convulsed with stinging energy.

He took slow, deep breaths when it was over, trying to pace his endurance.

But then it seemed he wouldn't have to. The General took her hand from his neck abruptly. She returned to the desk, and flipped through a report for a few minutes, long enough for Locke to consider trying to talk to her again.

Just then there was the soft pop of something being uncorked, and light reflected briefly as the General placed a rose-glass vial to her lips and drank. Locke smelled something medicinal and strong, something that made his eyes water. Ether.

He knew from firsthand experience how it burned the throat worse than any liquor, but the General didn't so much as grimace. She replaced the stopper and bottle, then drew off her gloves. Only then did she walk back.

Her skin was very white, her eyes bright and clear, intelligent. The fingers against Locke's neck were smooth.

"What is your name?" she said.

Locke set his jaw, and braced himself, and then -- then pain exploded, through him, around him, everywhere, and he was screaming, writhing in his bonds, his back arched impossibly far. Every nerve, every vein was on fire; he had no breath to scream again -- and then it was over, and he slumped, trembling, in his chains.

He couldn't exactly remember what had just happened. His brain didn't seem to be working right. Everything in his head hissed, like radio static amplified to a bellow. Aftershocks coursed through him, cruel little stabs in his fingers and joints.

What spell could -- he had never felt --

"What is your name?"

The woman was going to do it again. That was all he knew.

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

A lock of hair had come loose from the General's tiara, and she brushed it aside, studying Locke with those brilliantly shining eyes.

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

"I... Henry Rourke," he tried to say. But it was on him again, stronger this time, ripping him open, slicing under his skin -- and his brain would not even shut down, as it should have in such agony; he was aware, fully aware of every second. His leg began to hum with his scream, like a tuning fork; the vibration grew stronger and stronger until at last something there splintered.

When it ended, Locke slammed up against the wall and back down again. His leg had twisted to an impossible angle, the flesh there broken and bleeding.

"What is your name?"

"No," he said in a sob. "No, please don't."

It seized him beneath his skin, beneath his tongue, beneath his eyes; it was everything he knew. His bones quivered, bleeding from the marrow, his cells alight and shrieking. There was no strength left in him, nothing left at all, and he would tell her everything, everything, if only it would stop --

"Stop, please!" he screamed. "Please, Celes, please!"

All at once it was over.

Locke collapsed, shoulder dislocating from the sudden dead weight of his body. A tiny whisper of a cry escaped him. He was breathing wetly; there was something wrong with his lungs, something broken.

The General was still there, still with a hand to his throat, but she seemed somehow frozen in place. At last she spoke, very quietly.

"What?"

Locke barely heard her. The room was growing dim.

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

Locke must have passed out then, briefly, because when next he opened his eyes it was to see the General, only inches away, studying him. Her eyes were narrowed, her lips parted. She looked angry, or maybe something else.

But Locke couldn't think any farther than that. Though he tried to answer her, to try to salvage something -- anything -- from his failure, his mouth wouldn't work, and his eyes refused to focus. The last thing he saw before he blacked out were her white boots, walking away from him.

***

Even in this twisted world, Celes had reasoned, any prisons would probably be underground. She was winding her way down the fourth-floor stairs on the way to the catacombs, encumbered by her thick, unfamiliar clothes, so troubled by how well they still fit that she almost didn't hear the approaching footsteps before it was too late.

She realized just in time, and, gripping the banister, heaved herself back into the shadows of the stairwell. For a minute she waited there, listening. Perhaps she had nothing to fear, now that she was a General in body as well as face, but she'd managed to avoid any potentially disastrous small talk thus far, and wanted to keep it that way.

But whoever it was walked past the stairwell without so much as a pause. Celes waited until the footsteps grew faint, then silently stepped down the last few stairs. She leaned out into the corridor, very slightly -- just far enough to see a glint of blonde hair and a flash of white cape rounding the corner.

Celes's first reaction, before hatred, or even shock, was a sudden impulse to follow. To go after the woman with sword withdrawn, to slash her through with a quick flash of metal, to stand over her and watch as she died. Battle rage -- Celes had heard of it, but never in her life experienced it.

The desire was so strong that it was almost overpowering. For a minute Celes was paralyzed, half in the stairwell, half out, a muscle in her thigh twitching as if urging her to pursue. But she didn't.

Because it would be the most foolish thing she could possibly do. And because she was here for a reason more important than revenge.

Celes glanced down the corridor. The General had come from one of the administrative wings: a narrow hall with nothing but the numerous, cramped offices of the lower bureaucrats. This late in the evening, it was empty, the electric lights in their steel sconces dimmed for the night. At any other time, she wouldn't have given it a second look.

Slowly she stepped into the hall.  Though the floor was carpeted, and the soft pad of her boots almost silent, Celes walked lightly. She wasn’t even sure what she was looking for, but there was a strange sensation, a pull in her chest, that made her keep going.

Halfway down the hall, she paused, and stepped back a few paces. There. A thin line of orange light, beneath the door to a room that should have been empty and locked.

Carefully Celes pressed her ear to the wood.

At first, she could hear only her own heartbeat. But when she closed her eyes and strained hard to listen, she could just barely hear something else. Breaths -- soft, ragged breaths, the kind of breaths that might make whoever heard them wince in sympathy. But Celes heard something else in them, and it was with a trembling hand that she opened the door.

The first instant she saw him, she was certain he was dead. It was as if everything she'd done to get here, every second in the chain of events that had begun at the party in Figaro, had been leading, inevitably, to this: the abrupt and utter slaughter of everything she knew. It had only ever really been a question of when.

It was only when Celes got closer -- she had been walking toward him without knowing it -- that she finally saw the almost imperceptible rise and fall of his chest. He was still alive; the breathing she'd heard had been his.

Slowly, Celes sank to her knees.

Locke's face was battered and bruised, twisted in pain. He hung slack in his bonds, his right arm contorted at the shoulder, his left leg twisted at the knee. Celes catalogued it all in detail, in some far-away, detached office of her mind.

Her body, it seemed, was acting under another authority altogether.

Gently she rested her fingertips on his cheek. She could almost feel the hurt radiating from his skin, dark heat in his breaths and in his blood. It was almost as if she felt it too -- ached with him.

Without even thinking, Celes began to murmur a cure spell. Then she remembered; her magic no longer worked. The one time, the only time, she had ever wanted it --

Enough. Celes willed her hand to stop shaking. There was no time for this.

"Locke," she whispered, then cleared her throat. "Locke."

He inhaled in his sleep, and winced, mumbling something. When at last his eyelids fluttered open, his expression was hazy and unsure, confused -- until he saw Celes's face. He recoiled suddenly, clattering against the wall.

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

Locke's reaction had sapped any energy he might have had left. His eyes were unfocused and glassy, and he seemed unable to lift his head all the way. But he managed to look at her again. "Celes?"

"Yes. Shh, don't move. I'm going to get you out of here. But I'm sorry -- I'm so sorry, Locke, but I need to know how to open these things."

His eyes closed, and for a minute Celes was afraid he had passed out. She could not have possibly brought herself to rouse him again. Then she heard his voice, weak but clear.

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

She found them. Both silver, both slightly curved at the end. One was thicker than the other.

"The big one," Locke whispered. "Put it in the lock. Near the top. Turn it to the right, just a little."

Tense with concentration, she did as he told her.

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

He walked her through it, step by step. When she finally lifted the last pin, and freed his right hand, he let out a cry of pain as his dislocated arm fell to his side.

At once Celes knelt back down to him, but he just shook his head vaguely, blinking back tears.

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

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

Celes was too focused on what she was doing: she didn't hear the door open, or the footsteps behind her. It was only when Locke inhaled suddenly that she glanced up and over her shoulder.

General Chere, white-clad, immaculate, stood in the doorway. In her right hand, the gleaming crimson blade of Ragnarok was unsheathed and ready; her left flickered with the unfathomable shadows of some black magic spell. Indeed, she would have already cast it, had she had not been frozen into immobility upon seeing Celes's face.

Time, and everything in it, had stopped. Or perhaps it was simply just the two women who had stopped. It didn't matter: for a moment, the universe held only them.

"What," the General whispered, still frozen. "What is…"

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

The General coughed, taking a step back. Eyes tearing, suddenly blind, she fumbled to reach the wall behind her -- but then, with one last spiraling plume, the smoke faded, and the room cleared.

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


This post has been edited by L. Cully on 5th December 2006 04:25

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Some ghost of me might greet my son
the day he is delivered.


Eternal Sleep, Track 1-1: The Blue Planet
Post #137474
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Posted: 5th December 2006 02:21

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Disciplinary Committee Member
Posts: 619

Joined: 2/4/2004

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. Third place in the 2007 Name that Tune contest. 
Great, awesome stuff. And this is coming from someone who usually reserves a certain level of distaste towards fanfics.

Also good to see you found your notebook. Hopefully we can see this continue in the future.

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"We're not tools of the government or anyone else. Fighting... fighting was the only thing I was ever good at, but at least I always fought for what I believed in." - Frank Yeager (a.k.a. Grey Fox)
Post #137549
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Posted: 5th December 2006 06:04
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Behemoth
Posts: 2,773

Joined: 24/6/2001

Awards:
Celebrated the CoN 20th Anniversary at the forums. Contributed to the Final Fantasy VI section of CoN. Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. 
First place in the 2008  Has more than fifty fanarts in CoN galleries. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy I section of CoN. Major involvement in the Final Fantasy IV section of CoN. 
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I friggin hope so! Y'got no idea how much I missed yer writins.

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Post #137577
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Posted: 24th October 2014 10:04

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SOLDIER
Posts: 768

Joined: 7/8/2003

Awards:
Member of more than ten years. Member of more than five years. 
omg. This site still exists. So do I.

I mean, what can be said? Long story short, I disappeared for a decade, but now am partaking in a life project wherein I finish all the unfinished stories on my hard drive and this one is foremost. I don't even know if youse guys are putting up new stories anymore, but it's the principle of the thing.

Hoping to finish chapters weekly/biweekly; this one is 8 of 12, so the end is near. Call it in honor of FFVI's twentieth anniversary.

Bless the CoN, by the way.

Quote
The Grace of God

Chapter Eight

IN EMPEROR GESTAHL'S throne room, illuminated faintly by early morning sunlight and tiny crystal fragments in the marble tiles, General Rurik bowed deeply. He had apparently dressed in haste, for he wore not his usual cobalt-and-silver dress uniform but a simple gray shell jacket and trousers, and his dark hair looked disheveled. He'd had, of course, enough time for a weapon: his ceremonial greatsword rested incongruously at his side.

"Not just the usual reconnaissance teams, sir," he was saying. "Thrice that number, at least—I've drawn from the Imperial Guard all the way down to district patrol. And the first squad was deployed less than fifteen minutes after General Chere's report."

"The entire Imperial Guard." Emperor Gestahl was pacing, an unhurried circle from his throne to the edge of the carpet and back again that seemed, despite its deliberate slowness, somehow agitated. "So you've left the Palace defenseless, have you, General Rurik?"

"No indeed, sir. Reinforcements arrived from Tzen and New Vector last night. Doma, an hour ago. But, as their soldiers are less experienced than our own Elite, I knew you'd prefer immediate deployment over any delay."

Gestahl didn't reply. But Rurik's words seemed to pacify him somewhat: he paused, stroking his beard as if in thought.

"And yet these so-called Elite have found nothing," Gestahl said, resuming his rounds.

"Nothing as yet, no. Though there have been reports of such a woman sighted in the Eighth District."

"From commoners, I've been told."

"Yes, sir. Merchants, passerby, that sort."

"And they did nothing."

"I believe," Rurik began carefully, "they thought they were seeing the General herself, sir. As did our own guards."

Gestahl slowed then, and inclined his head.

"Yes," he said softly, almost as though he were talking to himself. "A perfect double, they claim. Of course any number of magical techniques could achieve the effect. Muddlement, illusion… though the skill needed to create one so intricate, and on such a scale…"

Rurik said nothing, only waited.

At last Gestahl stopped pacing. His hand dropped to rest on a slightly luminous crystal scabbard, its sheen as iridescent as an oil rainbow, at his side. He ran his fingers lightly across it as he spoke.

"I'm ever more convinced, Dimitri, that some plot is at work here, one put in play against the nation at large. First an attempt on the Emperor's life—by a Returner, no less, three years after we thought we'd gotten the last of them. An attack immediately thereafter by a genuine Esper. Then the Palace itself infiltrated, the criminal freed, all by some organization with enough magical knowledge to disguise one of its members as not only one of my officers, but a Rune Knight and governor-general of the highest rank."

Gestahl lowered himself to his throne.

"This is a most inopportune time for me to be made a fool of, Dimitri," he said in a low voice. "I feel we're on the verge of some enormous discovery, a handbreadth away from our greatest victory. We must not allow the actions of a few determined saboteurs to interfere with that victory."

Rurik bowed his head in silent assent.

"Triple your men. Keep the firing squad on twenty-four-hour notice. I want every home, every building, every corner of the city searched. When you find them, bring the Returner back here, but I want the woman executed. Immediately."

"Understood, my liege."

"Then that will be all."

***

Terra awoke before dawn, or at least what she thought was dawn, in this silent, windowless place. The electric gaslights of the Magitek Research Facility were still dimmed, and the doctor in the yellow lab coat – who hadn't spoken a word to her after Leo's departure last night – hadn't yet returned, so Terra assumed it was either very late at night or very early in the morning.

She had spent the night in tense wakefulness, slumped against the glass, the containment liquid a constant cold tingling touch on every inch of her body, inside and out. Her sleep, what little she'd gotten, had been light and feverish—recurrent with nightmares of gasping and drowning, flash-memories of screams and blood in a burning Thamasa.

Now, she struggled upright, and stared out into the blue-tinted, watery gloom of the lab. A full day, and she still felt no hunger or thirst, nothing but the ever-present sting of the fluid that provided her not just with air but, it seemed, everything else her body needed. Even sleep—Terra suspected she'd only tried to rest out of habit, or desperation, not necessity.

They could keep her here forever, if they wanted.
Though she tried not to, Terra couldn't help but begin to imagine what it would be like. Living three impossible inches from freedom, year after year, till her muscles atrophied and her mind shattered. But surely they couldn't—they wouldn't. How could anyone, how could anything, survive like that?

Terra remembered then what the others had told her when they'd returned to Zozo, with Magicite in their hands. With her father.

She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her forehead against the glass, trying not to cry.
It was then that she heard the footsteps approaching.

Hastily, Terra pushed herself upright. Whoever it was still far off, but she wouldn't let them catch her looking weak, not for an instant.

But she ended up taken off-guard anyway, because it was Leo.

Even at this hour, he looked as if he were headed to some important ceremony somewhere—green greatcoat buttoned to the chin, gold ceremonial sash neatly knotted, his crystal-pommeled sword polished and shining at his side—as though Terra were some important foreign dignitary, deserving only the utmost courtesy and respect. Just as he'd always treated her.

"Good morning," he said with a smile, when he reached her.

Terra swallowed and kept her face impassive, even as her stomach tightened at those words. So it was morning—two sunsets had already passed. Half their time was gone.

"I was thinking," Leo continued, bringing one hand to rest on the control podium, "that you might prefer to speak in private. Dr. Le Vinges is a brilliant man, but I wonder if his enthusiasm might not be better suited to the role of scientist, rather than diplomat."

He bowed his head slightly, as if in apology. His dark eyes, open and unwary, stayed fixed on hers.

"Do you have a name?" he said presently. "A title—something others call you?"

She didn't reply, just kept her palm braced against the glass. Her stomach knotted tighter and tighter as the silence grew.

Leo checked every part of her for change or movement, any sign that she had understood. When he saw nothing, he tried something else.

"Sabache Mobaliz?"

As far as Terra could tell, his accent was impeccable. He watched her closely for a moment, and when he got no answer, he switched to "E Doma, ke wanimoka o?"

Those were the only two specific foreign languages Terra could identify, but Leo tried at least six more. He even, at the end, used the hand gestures that Edgar had once told her were being developed in Jidoor at an institute for the deaf.

Through it all, Terra stayed silent and still – unnaturally still—biting the inside of her lip.

She tried to focus only on breathing the cool, eerie containment fluid in and out of her lungs and trying to ignore the ache in her muscles from keeping still for so long.

Finally, after a long pause of watching her for any kind of reaction, Leo took a deep breath and a step back. His eyes traveled briefly over the thrumming machinery of Terra's prison.

"Is it this?" he asked, resting one hand very lightly on the brass frame of the control panel and gesturing toward her with the other. His voice was a little quieter. "The stasis tube?—that's what we call it. I imagine it must be distressing, to say the least, to be confined in such a way, and I apologize sincerely for it. But the few others of your kind that we've known seem to have lost all control over themselves the moment they entered our world. They went berserk."

Terra tried not to swallow. She knew. She remembered what it had been like.

"In many ways, it's to protect you more than to protect us. Some of your kind ended up destroying themselves in their frenzy. I'd very much like to avoid that if we can.

"But," he went on, stepping forward, "it's a precaution. And only that. If you can find a way to communicate with us, if we can determine that you mean no harm and you're not a danger to yourself or others, we would of course find you more spacious quarters."

At this, Terra's jaw tightened. Though she'd mostly managed to suppress it, Leo seemed to have noticed something, because he tilted his head the slightest bit.

"You have my word on that," he said.

He stayed like that, watching her closely. Terra said nothing, her fingers curled against the cold containment glass. Leo looked as he always had: so serious, so sincere. So sure that what he said was true.

After a moment he squared his shoulders slightly—the barest sign of disappointment—and Terra couldn't take it anymore.

Even when she was in Esper form, Terra's voice wasn't naturally rough, but after a silencing spell and a full day of disuse, the words came out in a deep rasp.

"It's not your word I'm worried about."

At this, Leo took a full, almost comical step back. He recovered admirably, however, clearing his throat and nodding, as though a talking Esper were an everyday phenomenon.

"Thank you," he said, voice remarkably steady. "I'm—happy to hear that. Is there a particular reason you put such trust in me?"

Something in Terra ached dully.

"I know you," was all she could say, before thinking to add: "By reputation."

"I see."

Leo stepped closer, and what a sight they must have made, she thought: the long-dead soldier, head tipped back and hands clasped behind his back, talking casually with the long-lost Esper girl through a barrier of prison glass.

Terra didn't realize Leo was speaking again until he'd already finished his question.

"Do you have a name?"

She stared down at him, swallowed, before shaking her head.

"I see," he said. "Do any of your people have names?"

"No." She would no sooner betray them in this world than her own.

"Is there a reason you were in Vector?"

That made her hesitate. There was nothing she could say, she realized, whether truth or lie, that might not make her situation worse. In the end she didn't answer at all, just watched him through the glass.

Leo seemed to understand, or at least realize he had to try a different tack.

"That man—the one who tried to assassinate the Emperor. Do you know him?"

Locke. Terra swallowed, her heart pounding.

"Another of our generals—Celes Chere, she saw the incident personally—seemed to think you wished him dead."

"Is he?" she blurted, before she could stop herself.

"Is he dead, do you mean?" Leo hesitated. "No. No, he's alive."

Terra let out a deep, slow breath. She concentrated on blinking steadily to keep from crying, kept herself still even though she wanted to slump against the glass and laugh with relief.

"Does that upset you?" said Leo. He was watching her curiously, trying to interpret this reaction. "Did he injure you? Insult you, in some way?"

Biting the inside of her lip, Terra stared at a point on the floor for fear he might read the expression in her eyes.

"If I've done anything to make you mistrust me, I apologize," said Leo, after a few minutes of silence.

Terra had to laugh at that, a short, harsh sound that crackled through her speaker.

"No, General." She felt very tired all of a sudden. "Like I said, it's not you I mistrust."

"Who, then? And please, call me Leo."

"Who? The rest of your Empire," she said at last, bitterly . "Especially your Emperor himself—General Leo."

"May I ask why? Emperor Gestahl has given his word that he comes to you in good faith—"

"His word means nothing to me."

But there was no point to it. Terra closed her eyes, let her head rest against the glass.

She stayed like that, listening to Leo's puzzled inquiries, feeling too weary to move. She focused on the sound of Leo's voice, not the words, which were the same ones that had taken him to his grave in another world. And he still believed it all, believed it completely. He would die here too, still believing.

Just then, the speakers around her crackled with pounding footsteps, and Leo's voice died away. Terra opened her eyes.

An out-of-breath page, her hair in disarray, was rushing across the lab. She skidded to a stop on reaching Leo, and t seemed she must have been sent in haste indeed, with nothing but an oral message; there was no Imperial-sealed letter in her hand, as was customary.

"General," she said, gulping. "The Emperor wishes to see you immediately. There's a prisoner been escaped, and talk of treachery."

Leo's hand went to the sword at his hip, as if out of reflex. "Does he need anything?"

"Just you and your weapon, sir. Oh, and any news about the, um..."

The page inclined her head in Terra's direction, either unwilling or unable to meet her eyes.

"I see."

Leo looked up one last time. Terra met his gaze directly, nothing left in her anymore for deception. She could tell he was searching intently for something, coming to some decision.

"Yes," he said at last. "Well, I'm afraid I'll be disappointing him in that regard. But lead the way."

***

The Royal Archives, contrary to their name, were kept not in the city's Palace but in Vector's beautiful, world-renowned flagship library at the corner of Empire Avenue. The building was one of Vector's oldest, built only a few centuries after the War of the Magi, and one of its best-preserved. Generations since had reinforced the original foundations and added their own touches—new wings and higher stories, special collections in sunlight-bathed reading rooms—and as the Empire expanded, so had the library, with books on every subject from all corners of the earth.

It was unlikely, however, that many of Vector's citizens were even aware of the existence of the Royal Archives. They were kept in the library's vast multifloor steel vault, hundreds of feet underground, behind three bulletproof doors and dozens of magical safeguards.
Only Imperials of the highest rank could gain clearance to the Royal Archives, and so usually it was a very lonely place, in spite of its beauty—even here, as per the Emperor's orders, crystal-and-gold chandeliers shone brilliantly on the waxed wood floor and the glass accents of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. But there was only one reading table in the entire vault, a lustrous cherry antique that was kept unusually well-polished, and it was usually empty. But not this evening.

Behind the vault's insular reference desk, the two librarians on duty talked softly to each other.

"How long has she been out there?" whispered one, a young woman with bobbed brown hair and spectacles, into the shield of her palm.

"Since the morning shift at least," replied the other, a middle-aged woman wearing a cream-colored ascot scarf.

"What's she looking for?"

"Nobody knows. She has me opening up collections I never knew existed." The librarian craned her head to see over the stacks where, far away at the reading table, a blonde woman dressed in white could be seen with her head bowed deeply over a book.

"It might be just to test us, you know," whispered the girl in spectacles as they watched her. "I hear she does things like that."

"Mm," murmured the senior librarian.

"It's true. My husband was in her unit. She has nothing better to do than come here and torture us, I mean it."

"Oh, now, Esther." The senior librarian gave the girl a frown before glancing over the stacks again.

After a pause, the younger woman spoke up.

"Could it be something for the Emperor, do you think?"

"Absolutely not, as far as I know. His Majesty's always sent notice beforehand."

"Hmph," chuffed the younger woman under her breath. "Typical of her."

The senior librarian turned back and spoke sharply. "Esther."

"But it's true, Miss Bay. If you'd heard the stories I've heard, it would chill you to the bone."

The senior librarian sighed.

"She doesn't bleed," said the younger woman, very softly. "She'll prick her fingers with silver pins, to do the magic, but no blood comes."

"You know as well as I do that's a myth from every Esper tale."

"No, my husband knows someone who's seen it." The younger woman stared over the stacks. "She doesn't have to eat or sleep. She's never laughed or smiled. She never even talks to anyone, and for her to keep us here half the night like she owns the place and everyone in it—"

"I'm not excusing her, Esther. But she's an heir to the throne, whether we like it or not."

"But—"

"Listen," said the senior librarian firmly. She dropped her voice to a whisper. "Of course there's something wrong there. Something sick. And it would break Professor Cid's heart to see it, rest his soul. He tried his best, but you can't make a human heart beat where there's no heart at all."

The younger woman didn't reply. Her eyes were still lowered sullenly, but the hard line of her mouth had softened a little.

"If you feel anything for her, Esther, it should be pity. Or gratitude. Seeing someone like her—well, it should make you thankful for your own lot in life. There but for the grace of God go we."

The younger woman looked reluctant to accept this. "I still think—"

She froze midsentence, however, when she glanced up.

General Chere stood before them with military poise, one hand resting lightly on the black pommel of her sword. At her side, on the marble surface of the reference desk, was a thick, ancient-looking book bound in blue leather, its pages yellowed with age.

"Your Excellency!" said the senior librarian, stammering. She rushed forward to give the General her full attention. "Have you found everything you needed?"

"I have, thank you."

The General's voice was cool, measured. She gave no sign of having heard any of the conversation she'd unwittingly interrupted, yet her gaze on the two librarians was so intense and unblinking that, after a few uncomfortable moments, the younger woman excused herself to the back shelves with a mumbled excuse.

"Splendid," said the senior librarian with a nervous smile. She gestured to the book. "Shall I return this to the Vault, then? Or do you plan to take further notes on it later—tomorrow, perhaps?"

"No," said the General. "I'll be taking it with me. Make a note if necessary."

The librarian blinked. "With you?"

"Yes."

"Ah…" The librarian fidgeted, fingering her scarf. "I beg your pardon, your Excellency, but—that is, policy regarding magical volumes, especially one in such delicate condition, ah… specifically forbids—"

But the General had already taken the book and turned on her heel, her white cape swishing behind her. As she walked briskly off, the senior librarian could only stand there openmouthed, hand still at her throat.

When the last echoing footstep had faded away, the librarian put a hand over her eyes. She sighed once, shakily, before taking a fountain pen and heaving open the heavy gold ledger chained to the base of the desk.

It was hard enough to write clearly with trembling fingers, harder still to write a title so long and unwieldy, and despite her best professional efforts the dotted i's of Polygeotic Particularity stained right through the paper.


--------------------
Some ghost of me might greet my son
the day he is delivered.


Eternal Sleep, Track 1-1: The Blue Planet
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