Bloody Dawn By Night




As far from God
As Heaven is wide
As far from God
As angels can fly.

-- Garbage.



"Attack from the east. That way…"

Celes Chere stared blankly at the letter again, green eyes glancing over the words without really reading them. She'd read them a million times already. She knew what they signified.

Attack from the east. That way you can kill more and more, Celes. Attack from the east. That way you can burn again. Remember Maranda, Celes? You torched it to the ground. Do you want to do it again? Attack from the east from the east the east the dawn a brilliant bloody sunrise

Scorch them all Celes you know you want to just murder every one of them for your liege lord or is it just for you


Her white-gloved hand slammed down on the table, and she forced herself to cast the letter away. She sat in her quarters onboard an Imperial ship, on her way with a fleet more than ready to take the city of South Figaro. At her command, they would land on the eastern shore of the northern continent tomorrow, and from there march straight to the great trade city. And they would take it with ease; after all, they had a turncoat in South Figaro. The love of gil had proved quite enough to move him to aid them in their assault.

Attack from the east. That way, the soldiers will be thrown off-guard. They'll be guarding the ports most heavily, given that's the most obvious source of attack. I shall do my part and make sure the city marshal dies before he can rally his troops. In the confusion, the city shall fall with ease. All I ask is that you leave my home and my family untouched, along with the sum we agreed upon in our earlier dealings.

It was no good. The words in the letter were still etched in her mind, burning with a million meanings.

This was cowardice. Surely that's why she dreaded tomorrow so much. This was no honest attack. The Empire would rely on confusion and the greed of men to carve out a niche on the northern continent. Cowardice. 'I should order a change in plans, and try the naval assault we had originally intended.'

But no. She would not do that. Her officers would balk, and even though they must surely follow her in her decisions, she would find herself in hot water with the Emperor afterwards.

Sighing, the Imperial General stood up and went over to a small porthole set near her cot. It was already dark out. When she'd sat down to review battle plans, it had been late afternoon. What happened to the day?

It was overcast much as it had been during the day, and the sea and sky alike were black. Looking out her little window like this, it was almost impossible to tell you were on a ship. Staring out the porthole revealed just murky black, like…

Like staring into the depths of your stained soul all darkness not a spark of light oh no you wasted that all in Maranda poured it out of you in the flames

Her gaze fell from the dark sky to the wooden floor of her cabin, strands of her long blonde hair falling in her face.

'Have I lost my nerve? Where's my resolve? All's fair in love and war after all all's fair all's fair I've done nothing wrong nothing that another wouldn't have done I am just a soldier no…'

"No!" she cried out, exhaling sharply as her eyes lost focus. She stumbled about for a moment, a sharp pain becoming apparent in her head, until she managed to grip a chair nearby. Even that barely kept her on her feet, as her wobbly movements made it teeter back and forth as though threatening to fall over.

She just stood there leaning over her table, over her maps and memos and battle plans, and breathed in and out, in and out, in and out. After some indefinable amount of time, a sharp rap sounded at the door of her cabin. She blinked, as though not sure for a moment what it was, then spoke.

"Come in."

'What is wrong with me?' The door opened with a protesting creak to reveal the still-armored form of her first lieutenant, James Thade. 'A… panic attack? Am I that weak?'

"Yes, Lieutenant?" Celes asked, nodding politely at the older man. He returned the gesture and punctuated it with a salute that felt like an afterthought, and regarded her silently for a moment before he began to speak. Celes had always hated how he looked at her. There was no apparent disrespect, nothing insubordinate… but under his gaze, she felt like a little girl again, like a foolish little girl masquerading in a general's garb.

"I apologize for disturbing you, my lady, but the hour grows late and we still need to discuss the strategy for tomorrow."

Again with the gods-cursed strategy. We slaughter, Thade. We kill and burn and blacken my soul even more, my soul and yours and everyone else on this ship. "Yes, of course. What is it you are unclear about?"

Thade was not a tall man, but his facial features always gave that impression. He had a hawkish nose and thick black eyebrows that stood out sharply against his icy blue eyes and thinning grey hair. Whenever the man spoke, he had a habit of narrowing his eyebrows, giving his face an almost malicious cast.

"The other lieutenants noted to me that it was not made clear in the meeting this afternoon as to whether or not our soldiers are to take prisoners if men yield."

Damn you, Thade. Make me think of another sin. The order she'd received from the Emperor a few days previous had not been at all unusual, and yet it bothered her. They were, as usual, instructed to take no prisoners among the soldiers, but that the citizenry was to be left alone if they did not raise arms against the Empire.

"No. Our orders are as they usually are, Lieutenant. Kill any man who raises a weapon against us, whether or not he attempts to surrender."

Thade nodded, as though this order had no particular gravity. As though I told him the sky was blue. Should I resent that, or envy that? Perhaps… perhaps it's just me who has the problem. Was I always so weak?

Something inside her wanted to scream no, that she was a great soldier, not some whimpering child who'd faint dead away at the sight of blood. But it seemed a rather feeble cry.

Weak. Weak. Yeah, I was always weak.

.

"Be strong, little Celes. The Empire takes care of its own."

She'd only been seven the day she found out. Her parents were dead and they wouldn't tell her why. Such a horrible thing to tell a child. Such a horrible thing to do.

She hadn't understood, then. She'd cried so much at night, yelling at them in hopes that maybe, wherever they'd gone, they'd hear her and be sorry, be sorry that they'd left her all alone.

Maybe it wasn't fair to say all alone, but that was how she felt. She'd been an almost constant occupant of the Magitek Research Center for as long as she could remember anyway, and the various professors had always been around her.

But they weren't family, no… they were all so cold. Like she wasn't a person, like she was only a little bit more than the espers in their glass tubes. Everyone except Cid, anyway.

Cid cared about her. Cid was so kind, so kind… even through the tests they ran to see if it was possible to give her magic, he was so kind. She loved him for it.

And she hated him.

The years had passed so slowly there in Vector. She had her room – her cell, she came to think of it as she grew older – in the research center, and she had her military training, and she had the tests. God, the tests… they'd used her for everything from testing magic resistances to playing test pilot for the magitek armor when it started appearing. All to create a perfect Magitek Knight. All to make a little girl into a weapon. All for the glory of the Emperor, hallowed be His name.

The day she turned twelve, they injected Kefka with the magitek serum. They'd been gearing up for this for years… Celes had been certain she would be the first. Perhaps Kefka had taken pity on her – he'd always been a nice sort – or perhaps he'd just wanted that power for himself. Either way, it had been horrible. It worked, but it worked too well. He gained power of the espers, but he gained the madness those in the tanks had as well. It was so frightening, to see a man change so completely. He kept his place in the Imperial Army, though, remained a top general; his madness almost seemed to please Emperor Gestahl.

After that, Celes thought they'd stop the tests. Surely they didn't want another Kefka in their midst. Surely not, surely not… but she was luckless. They had expended resources to raise her as their little Magitek Knight, and she would receive the serum, madness or no.

She'd been fifteen. She remembered the last day before they took her to receive the injection, spent crying, spent yelling out pleas to gods who either didn't exist or didn't care. She'd even entertained thoughts of escape. By that point she was a capable soldier, after all, strong of blade and strong of mind. She'd already raised herself to an officer's position in the Imperial Army.

But when the white-coated men came for her, she went quietly. When they tied her to the experimenting table, she even managed not to scream. When they administered the gas that knocked her out, she didn't try to fight back sleep.

And by some miracle, when she woke up, she was still Celes. At least, she'd thought so at the time. Maranda would shatter those assumptions forever, but there was something else… something before that.

.

The blade danced in her hands as she moved from soldier to soldier to soldier. Thrust a Figaran disemboweled Slash clean decapitation Kill another murder another murder but all's fair in love and war.

She'd opted to lead her troops into battle, as had become her custom since Maranda. Her lieutenants offered their usual half-hearted expressions of concern for her safety, but she ignored them, as always. Didn't they understand she didn't want to be safe? By leading the attacks, perhaps she could die, perhaps she could wash her hands of all this.

But it was never that easy. There were only a few hundred Figarans in the city to her thousand Imperials. The only advantage the opposition could boast were a few squadrons of auto-crossbowmen, and even that was futile when put up against the two dozen suits of Magitek Armor Celes' army had brought across the ocean.

And these men resisting her now… they weren't even soldiers. That much was apparent, with every thrust slash chop of her blade. There was no honest fight here. She had only been in danger once when five of them rushed her at once. And even then, her hand had spread open wide, and the magic had raced out.

A little more of the light left in me expended.

The five men had slowed almost immediately as the first telltale signs of frost began to show on their armor, a chill wind coming from this hellborn general they faced. Then, too late, they'd tried to speed up as the frost hit their exposed faces, and penetrated beneath their armor. They'd tried to stab her even as their fingers froze, even as their sword handles shattered icy in their grasps.

She struck the first across the face with the flat of her sword, and his face almost seemed to explode. The blood made so thin like ice-water was in their veins… it was no more than a nosebleed, but his lifeblood ran out before her eyes, and he collapsed after a scant moment.

The others tried to run, but they could not, their legs heavy with the ice, their feet blue with the frostbite. Her blade danced, danced like a child under the summer sun, and they all fell like slaughtered cattle to the ground.

The city gates stood before her. Oh, so easy to take them now. All too easy. All around her, the last bits of Figaran resistance died. Her legions were marching for the gate. The Magitek suits would blast it to bits within minutes, and then they would pour into the city, a black plague rushing into the wound. And it would fester, and the disease of the Empire would claim South Figaro as a piece of their rot.

"Imperial dog!"

The voice belonged to a lone soldier. The blade he held between his hands was many-notched, and the face behind it was dark-eyed and scarred. This was no summer pup, no crofter defending his homeland. This was a real soldier of Figaro, and the blade he held was a warrior's blade and he would die just like all the others.

"Dog?" Why yes, yes I am. A cur of the Empire, just a gutless dog serving its master. "You'll pay for those words, Figaran."

The Imperial General could have rushed him. The way he held his sword, it was unlikely he'd have been fast enough to stop her. But Celes wanted no quick battle, no sure victory. She'd drink in his danger and forget her sins for a moment. She'd drink in his danger and perhaps choke and die on it.

She began the game with a simple low jab, not too fast, downplaying her own abilities. If the man saw her strategy, he did not care to share in it. Her sword was knocked wide by his own within the blink of an eye, and she surprisingly found herself on the defensive for once as she danced back from a wide slash aimed at her neck.

The young woman surprised herself by smirking at the man, and waving one white-gloved finger at him. "You're too slow." Disgusting arrogance. She ran at the man then, who to his credit showed no reaction to her words, and thrust again, this time at his heart.

A quick sidestep kept him from death then, but the sword's tip still bit into his shoulder, and drank deep of his blood. Cursing through the pain, the Figaran managed to pull himself back and off the deadly blade, and swung wildly at her neck while she was still a bit off-balance.

He was luckless in this, though, for her weapon spun around in her grasp to meet his sword point-down. The two soldiers wrestled for control for a moment, the Figaran thinking himself at an advantage against this smallish girl.

The thought was erroneous, he found, as he was knocked back off of his feet into the bloody grass. Celes had an unnatural strength about her, and he felt his bravery disappear as she sneered down at him, blade pointed in his direction.

"What in the hell are you?" The soldier said, his dark eyes wide and fearful now.

Celes took a quick step forward and jammed her blade into the Figaran's throat.

"A monster."

.

"Monsters. Should be just over that ridge."

Only sixteen, and a captain. It had been her first major assignment; take a team of Imperial troops out into the forests west of Vector and clear out a monster problem people had been reporting in recent months.

Back then, her magic had been a secret. The Emperor didn't want any rebel sympathizers to know that a teenaged girl had the magic as well. To be entirely honest, he likely would have preferred it if no one had known of Kefka's either, but the man was a bit of a lunatic, and word spread quickly in Vector.

There shouldn't have been any trouble. After all, what were monsters to a well-trained Imperial team? But no, things weren't so simple, as she'd later learn. Things were never simple in the Empire.

While there were some wild dogs in the woods, they did not turn out to be the real monsters. Celes had learned that quickly enough, when crossbow quarrels appeared in the chests of the men around her.

Bandits, she'd first thought. Or Returners. But no. No, the men who dropped from the trees, auto crossbows and swords in hand, were Imperial special operatives. They killed her entire unit while she watched, barely managing to keep herself alive amidst chaos and blood and flashing steel.

And then the confusion and rage and sorrow welled up within her and she exhaled and all was left cold in her heart. Cold in her heart, matched by the frozen landscape and rime-covered corpses that surrounded her.

It had been the first true test of her magic. Indeed, that's all it had been; Kefka and his unit had come out of nowhere as she wept on the ground like a child and explained the whole thing. Just a test, with human lives as fodder. She'd seen such tests done on that half-esper girl, but… she wore a slave crown. She had no thoughts to call her own. She had no will of her own.

And neither, it seemed, did Celes.

.

Celes woke up with a gasp, sitting bolt upright in bed. With one hand she wiped her brow, cold with sweat, her eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. She was in the chambers she'd chosen for herself in the home of their South Figaran informant.

Again, I dream of that. Will I never be free? She shook her head, and pulled herself to her feet from beneath satin sheets onto the too-cold wood of the floor. Locked in a prison of my own making. Shivering, the young general reached for her clothing, neatly folded over a chair, and pulled her shirt over her head. Or perhaps that's misleading. Look at all of this. The spoils of war. Paid for in blood I had no claim to. Fully clothed but not armored, she picked up her sword belt and strapped it around her waist. A quick glance out the window showed the night was clear; the moon was full, the sky was starry. Yet I took it, didn't I? Bleed the world, Celes, bleed your own soul dry.

Pulling on her heavy white officer's cloak, she walked out of the room and made her way outside.

Security on the streets was about as heavy as she'd expected for the time of night; patrols were watchful, but not plentiful. Indeed, with the magitek troops placed strategically throughout the town, and with much of the town's strength spent, there was little need for further vigilance. Celes was, for the most part, left alone with her thoughts as she walked down the cobblestoned streets.

It was a cold night for South Figaro; it seemed winter was slowly making its presence known in these last weeks of autumn. Fitting, the general thought. Too fitting for myself.

What am I, anymore? Another soldier in war, just following orders for the glory of the Empire? Or am I worse?

She stopped before a small pond along the edge of a row of houses. A waterwheel sent ripples through the waters as it slowly turned through the night, and distorting her reflection as she looked down.

I'm a hypocrite. All of this guilt in me, but what does it matter in the end? I'm bloodthirsty. Just a beast, a vicious dog let loose by its masters on helpless people. I'm not 'just following orders.' I give the orders. Cold as ice. Cold –

The piercing scream of a young woman knifed through the night air, jarring Celes from her thoughts. As she looked around confusedly, the cry came again, more desperate this time, and mixed with just a hint of a choking sob.

Later, she wouldn't be able to say just what had made her look for the woman screaming. It went against her outward character in many ways, the confused half-concern she'd felt but had been unable to identify as that, and certainly against any sort of better judgment. After all, the city was well in hand, and the soldiers of the Empire were, as a rule, not female anyway.

The scene she came upon in the alleyway behind the weapons shop should thus have not been surprising in the least. The woman who'd screamed was, in truth, no more than a girl – she couldn't have been a day over 16 – but that meant little to the four Imperial Soldiers who had her pinned against a wall, one of them kissing her forcibly as the others looked on and laughed.

So occupied were they that they didn't even hear her walk up behind them. And as she looked on, Celes felt something deep inside herself break.

Her blade slid out of its sheath too easily, glinting slightly in the night. The soldiers heard the noise, but scarcely had time to react before she moved. She grabbed the nearest of the four by the throat and pulled him off-balance towards her. As she did she slapped him across the face with the flat of her sword, so hard that his helmet was knocked from his head.

"G-General Celes?" one of the men stammered in fear, fairly shrinking back against the wall. She paid him no mind, her burning eyes locked on the one she had in her grasp.

"What in the hell do you think you're doing?" Celes' words were little more than a growl, and scarcely recognizable as anything human. Rivulets of blood running down his face, the unlucky soldier tried to shrink back in terror. The strong hand around his neck made the attempt little more than thrashing, and its grip only tightened, further restricting airflow. As the others looked on in horror, the young woman slipped away unnoticed. Celes let her go.

"I… I… our captain had given us leave to…" he choked out, his eyes wide.

"To what? Rape innocent children? Is this the glorious Empire?"

"General… I, well, the child was no innocent." One of the other guards, making sure to keep out of sword's reach from the crazed woman, hesitantly put in. "W-we caught her wandering the streets, which you had stated as forbidden. We were only, I mean, having a little fun with her before we killed her."

The lady general went silent at that, shutting her eyes briefly. When they opened again, they centered on the man who had spoken, cold as ice. "A little fun, soldier?" Her eyebrows narrowed slightly, but still, no true emotion was readable in that face. "A little fun." The man in her grasp choked desperately as her grip tightened once more, and she began to lift him off the floor. "Just… a little… fun. Answer me, then. Does anything about this look like fun to you?"

As she spoke the words, she dropped the nearly-unconscious soldier, who went to the floor without any resistance with a flat sound like a bag of rocks. The other three soldiers winced slightly, then drew back in horror as their seemingly-mad general flipped her sword about in her hands and drove it straight into the man's skull. There was a sick, dull sound like a melon being split open, and blood spattered onto the woman's fine Imperial clothing and white cloak.

One of the remaining three bolted immediately; Celes did not pursue him, instead turning her glance to the soldier who'd spoken up to her. Her eyes looked dead, hollow.

"Well? What do you think? I think it would have made old Gestahl proud."

"I… General… General, why? He was breaking no laws, he was a good man."

"A good man!?" Her face came alive again at that, twisting in rage as she fairly shrieked the words. "What, about anything we have done in this land, has been good? This man was a killer, a man who took away peoples' lives for the glory of a madman sitting thousands of miles away! This man was a rapist, this man thought nothing of the lives of the people here! And you're all just like him."

"And you're not?" Celes whirled around at the unfamiliar voice, only to see Lieutenant Thade standing along with two magitek suits. Their weapons were trained firmly on her, and Thade had his sword in hand.

"Lieutenant! What are you doing here?" she said, her rage gone as if on the night breeze, replaced with an empty sense of almost-confusion.

"General Celes, I had hoped I was wrong. I have been noticing your strange moods these past weeks – all of the officers have – but I had hoped they were something you would work through. You were such a brilliant warrior. But… to catch you in this? Murder of a law-abiding soldier of the Empire, coupled with these treasonous words?" He shook his head slightly, and he almost seemed to show pity for her even as he nodded for the two soldiers nearest Celes to draw their own weapons. "It cannot be overlooked. General Celes, I hereby declare you under arrest for the crimes of treason and murder. Come with us peaceably, and you will not be harmed. You will be granted a –"

Just what it was she would be granted would never be stated, because right at that moment magic burst from between Celes' fingertips, engulfing the alleyway in a stinging and visibility-reducing blizzard.

The momentary confusion would have been more than enough for the woman to simply slip away, but instead she found herself attacking one of the soldiers that had witnessed her betrayal. He never even saw her coming, so preoccupied was he, and her sword slipped between layers of armor almost effortlessly. He died within moments, and her sword came up again, the blood drying almost immediately in the biting wind.

The second warrior managed to get his blade up in a desperate, half-blind parry as she rushed him, but he fell back several steps in the process.  Her second stroke came around almost unseen, biting into his arm and nearly knocking him from his feet. The third knocked his sword from his hands and left them numb and worthless.

"What sort of devil are you?" he shouted, barely audible above the raging blizzard winds. His only answer was yet another methodical slash of the sword, one that took his head off.

It was about that time that the magitek pilots managed to react to Celes' spell, as they almost simultaneously let loose bursts of flame from one of their arm cannons. The magically-formed blizzard thinned some as they methodically turned about and walked forward towards the woman.

Knowing her spell-borne advantage to be all but lost anyway, Celes let it fade, and ice and snow vanished in midair – as though it had never been there to begin with.

"Surrender yourself to us, Celes. Don't be a fool!" Thade yelled, trying to be heard over the roaring fires that jetted out from the magitek suits that were still walking directly at her.

If the traitor general had even heard the man, she gave no sign, so lost was she in her own battle rage. She lifted her bloody sword as if in salute to the machines before her, then closed her eyes, wrapping both hands tight about the hilt of her blade. As she did, a faint glow began to pour off the sword. It was impossible to give the resulting color a name; it was million-hued and it was nothing.

The scientists back in Vector had dubbed the strange ability "Runic Blade" when they first observed it, citing some sort of ancient word dating from near the time of the War of the Magi. Celes hadn't known what it was referring to at the time, and certainly didn't care now, so long as its magic worked.

To watch the scene, it would have looked almost as though Celes' blade had become a magnet for the flames, pulling them towards her. But rather than engulf her as seemed logical, they simply wrapped around the blade of her sword, then slowly disappeared into it.

The pilots had scarcely a moment to react as the last of the flames vanished. The only hint of what was about to happen was the look in Celes' eyes: they very nearly glowed with the power of the magic she'd absorbed.

Silently, the woman stretched out her left hand in front of her, her cloak billowing out behind her as a cold wind started to blow. The pilot she watched had just began to move, started to set the hulking machine to turning, when the spell took shape.

A massive spear of ice formed in front of Celes' face, and, within the blink of an eye, launched itself at and directly into the magitek armor before it, impaling it with all the force of a harpoon. The pilot shrieked and desperately pulled at the restraints that tethered him to the suit, but it was an action that came too late.

The armor exploded, tearing the pilot apart and knocking Celes from her feet back into the alley wall. As consciousness left her, she had just the time to think: my God, what have I done?

.

She awoke in chains, in a filthy stone cell below South Figaro. Her eyes slowly came into focus, darting about in horror and confusion until realization came to her several seconds later.

What have I done? Her wrists had been manacled to the wall, and were bruised and swollen; it seemed they'd been bearing her full weight for quite awhile. My god, I killed my own men. Her clothes were torn and filthy, and, from the look of her blood-spattered cloak, were apparently the same clothes she'd been wearing before. They lent further reality and gravity to her situation, and she hung her head.

My guilt was so strong inside me that I put more blood on my hands as if to cleanse them. After all… after all after all the soldier was a killer, a murderer. They all were, every last damned soldier in our Empire. Every one.

For a moment, she almost felt better, when another's words came back to her, like a slap to the face.

And I am one of those soldiers. I am no better… no. No… I am less. The others are the killing machines Gestahl wanted, but at least they are that. I murder indiscriminately. To satisfy my own moral hypocrisy.

Her head fell even lower. Wouldn't you be surprised, my Emperor. You never did perfect the magitek knight process. You never did. Kefka's insanity was simply more visible. My own… is to kill and kill, even as I hate myself for it.

"But if I live through this…" she muttered, her teeth tightly clenched, "I swear I will kill you for what you made me, Kefka, Emperor Gestahl."

And for once, the thoughts of murder brought no pangs of guilt with them.