A/N: I apologize for taking so long with this chapter. My life these past few weeks has been consumed by cleaning and helping fix my house up in preparation for trying to sell the place, and I haven't had a lot of free time. I don't know how long this state of affairs will last. Anyway, if this chapter sucks horribly, that's probably because it was hastily written in between bouts of housework, and I was distracted. I'm not saying it does suck horribly, I'm just saying that if it does, which it might, there is a good reason why.
Chapter 10: Flight from Figaro
Just a roll, just a roll
Just a roll on the drum
Just a roll, just a roll
And the war has begun
Now the right thing's the wrong thing
No more excuses to come
Just one step at a time
And the war has begun
Fairport Convention, Sloth
Terra woke abruptly in the depths of night, sharp, sudden fear pulsing through her. Something was wrong. She bolted upright, grasping reflexively for the sword by her bed even as her mind began to register details. A dim, ruddy glow filled the night, casting the small room into deep shadow and flickering light. Fires were burning somewhere below. The sounds of battle drifted up to catch her ears, clashes and shouts and grating screams. She stumbled to the window, breath catching in her throat, her sword gripped numbly in one hand. The reverberating pulse of magic crackled in her head.
Night lent the scene below her a strangely tenuous quality, as though she had stepped into some dark, feverish dream. Figaro Guards battled helmeted, brown-uniformed soldiers along the outer walls, firelight glinting off weapons and armor, the darkness periodically broken by blinding flares and thunderous explosions of sound. Heavy, hulking war machines waded through the fray, letting loose with bolts of flame and crackling energy. There weren't many of them, but the magic-wielding machines were taking a heavy toll.
"No," Terra whispered aloud, shock and resignation warring in her voice. This is my fault, she realized with dull horror. I brought this on them. She felt sick. Nauseous guilt and fear rose in her, tempered by anger and a sudden, steely resolve. Her hands clenched around the hilt of her sword as she stared down at the battle below, eyes narrowing. She had to stop this, had to find some way to make it end.
The door behind her crashed open, hitting the wall with a ringing slam. She snapped around with whirlwind speed, fire already flickering in her hands as she spun to meet the intruder. It was only Locke, breathless and ashen-faced.
"Terra," he gasped, "Thank the gods! C'mon, we've got to get you out of here."
She shook her head wildly. "What about the castle? We can't – we have to – I can help them!"
"No way," Locke answered, taking her firmly by the shoulders. "Are you crazy? You're the one they're after!"
"But Figaro –"
"Will be fine, as soon as we get you out," the thief said tersely, "Trust me on this, all right? We have to hurry." He grabbed her wrist and pulled her after him, quickly but as gently as possible, under the circumstances. Dazed and half-paralyzed with shock, Terra could do little but follow Locke's lead. She stumbled blindly after him, barely aware of the path he took through the Figaro's back halls, or of the frantic chaos of a castle under attack. Civilians and occasional soldiers rushed past them on incomprehensible, urgent errands, taking no notice of the thief of the green-haired witch-girl winding their way through their midst. He led her at last to a small annex behind the castle proper, brushing past the few, nervous guards with a wave of his hand.
The room appeared to be some kind of stable. The floor was strewn with straw, and a musky, animal scent filled the air. Slatted wooden stalls lined the walls, and Terra could sense the rustling movement of large creatures in the flickering half-light. She stayed close to Locke, glancing around nervously. The thief paused for a moment in thought, then unlatched the door to one of the stalls. Terra stepped closer, curious to see what manner of beast was held within.
It was a gigantic bird, long-legged and powerful, covered in violently yellow plumage. The creature stood taller than she was, from the top of its feathered crest to the tips of its sharply taloned feet, and it seemed built for running. It regarded her warily with one wild, imperious eye, swinging its head from side to side and ruffling its feathers. She stepped closer, curious, and it drew back with a menacing hiss.
Terra jumped away in spite of herself. "I don't think it likes me very much," she said quietly.
"Don't worry," Locke answered with a tense smile, busy examining the other birds in the stable. "It's just a chocobo. Even the wild ones never attack humans, and tame ones like these are really gentle. Pet him if you like, he won't bite."
Terra reached out a tentative hand, only to jerk it back sharply as the chocobo reared up, squawking and flapping its great wings, snapping at her with a sharp, dangerous looking beak. Tame or not, the creature looked half wild now, and ready to bolt at any moment. Terra looked helplessly at Locke.
"I definitely don't think it likes me very much," she repeated.
Locke shrugged, nonplused. "I'm sorry, they're usually very good with strangers. The fighting out there must've made him skittish." That said, the thief set to work calming the great bird, stroking its feathers and cooing soothingly. Soon enough the chocobo was back under control. Locke pointed to a large box against one wall, filled with some kind of leafy vegetable that Terra had never seen before.
"Give him some of those," he said to her. "They're gysahl greens, chocobos love 'em."
She grabbed a handful of the greens and offered them slowly to the chocobo, moving with unthreatening care. The bird fidgeted anxiously under Locke's hands, regarding her as it might a predator, but slowly it stretched its long neck down to take the gift, examining her warily.
"Great, I think he's starting to trust you." Locke said encouragingly. "Try petting him now."
Terra reached out cautiously, running her fingers through the soft feathers, scratching the bird's head. This time, instead of rearing back the creature warbled with contentment. Despite all that was happening outside, Terra found herself smiling slightly. It was nice to be trusted.
Edgar cursed inwardly. He had known an attack was coming, but he hadn't expected one so soon. He had thought it would take time for Kefka to marshal his forces, but in hindsight it seemed likely that the mad general had this planned all along. The man's visit had been a mere formality, or possibly an opportunity to gloat.
How could I have been so stupid? He furiously slammed a fist into his open palm, muttering imprecations against Kefka and the Empire and his own damnable shortsightedness. He hoped the psychotic general was sane enough to respect a parley flag; he needed to buy Locke and Terra some time. He stormed out to the castle's ramparts, waving the flag like a talisman. His other hand held his signature crossbow, a weapon perfected by years of tinkering. He hoped he wouldn't have to use it just yet.
General Kefka was standing amid the carnage, giggling with glee, seemingly untroubled by the fact that most of the dead were his own. The madman looked up, icy amusement painting his pale face, and gestured languidly for his troops to stop the attack. Most of them obeyed.
"What is this?" Edgar shouted down at him. "You attack your allies? There has always been peace between Figaro and the Empire."
Kefka smiled coldly. "Bring me the girl," he snapped. "Now!"
Edgar shook his head, feigning bewilderment. "I told you, we have no girl here! Call off your troops!" The general literally threw back his head and laughed, a high, chilling sound that sent shivers down Edgar's spine.
"You persist in this… charade?" Kefka sneered. "Then, welcome to my barbecue!" With that, the man flung an arm out, fire leaping from his thin fingers as he giggled like some lunatic child. The flames passed over Edgar's head and broke like a wave on Figaro's walls, harmless but uncomfortably close. A warning shot. The king of Figaro knew that, but when he flinched and threw his arms up to shield his face, it wasn't an act. He turned to the guard beside him, who was white-faced and shaking from the close call he had just survived, and whispered to him to tell the chancellor to get ready. The man nodded sharply, and retreated back into the castle's protection with obvious relief.
Edgar looked down, raising the singed flag once more.
"It seems I have no choice," he said slowly, filling his voice with bitter resignation. "I'll get her for you now. And then you leave Figaro in peace!"
"Of course," Kefka smirked. Lying bastard, Edgar thought to himself. Prepare for the unpleasant surprise of your life.
Terra held on to the running chocobo for dear life, leaning into the creature's strong, feathered neck and praying to any gods who might be listening not to let her fall. She really didn't know how to ride one of these things, and she was sure at any moment she would be thrown to the ground and trampled. Locke had assured her that she didn't need to know how, that the chocobo was well trained and all she needed to do was hang on tight. Be that as it may, the giant bird seemed just as frightened to be carrying her as she was to be riding it, and at the moment she would almost rather take her chances against the Imperial soldiers. Fighting, at least, she understood.
Locke was ahead of her, riding a chocobo of his own with confident ease, and a riderless bird ran beside her, apparently meant for Edgar. As they neared a tall, arched buttress, Locke called out to the king, who according to Locke was waiting above. They passed beneath the arch, and sure enough, the king plummeted from the sky with a shout, landing atop the running chocobo with surprising grace, a crossbow clutched in one hand. Terra was impressed.
Kefka was amused. "Shameful that a king should flee, leaving his people to die!" the madman crowed. "How utterly delightful." Edgar only laughed triumphantly.
"Dive!" he shouted, "Dive now!"
Mechanical noises filled the air, loud clanks and rumbles, and the chocobos reared up frantically as the ground beneath them began to shake. It felt like an earthquake, sonorous and terrifying. Terra's curiosity overcame her fear, and she looked back over her shoulder to see a very strange sight. The huge castle seemed to be folding in on itself, towers and ramparts drawn inward, doors and windows sealing with a clang. Then, ponderously, the entire structure actually started to sink into the desert, the stunned Imperial soldiers unable to do a thing in response. Within minutes, the castle had vanished beneath the sands. That's not possible, thought Terra. That is not possible!
"No one can defeat the people of Figaro," Edgar shouted, firing his crossbow back into the ranks of the pursuing soldiers. Locke gave an exuberant, wordless cheer, throwing his fists in the air and whooping like a madman.
"Get them!" Kefka was screaming, somewhere behind her. "I want the girl alive. Kill the others! Kill them!" A spray of bullets hit the sand around her, causing her chocobo to balk and veer wildly, out of control. She shrieked and clung to the bird tightly, which only maddened it more. She thought the terrified creature would throw her to the ground, but suddenly the king was there, reining the chocobo in skillfully.
There was the sharp crack of gunfire, and Edgar jerked forward, blood already spreading across the sleeve and side of his perfectly tailored silk coat. He gave a strangled cry of pain, and looked on the brink of falling, but he clung tightly to his chocobo, gritting his teeth, and returned fire with his good arm. Locke circled back around to help Edgar, but the thief and his knives could do little in this fight. Terra looked back to see the Imperial infantry aiming and preparing to fire once more, and two of the giant armored machines thundering after them, firing lasers hot enough to turn the sand they hit to smoldering glass. We're going to die, she thought with a curiously flat indifference, beyond even fear. She could see Kefka capering in the background, shaking his fist and raving. The lunatic met her eyes, and a slow, cruel smile spread across his painted face. Terra shuddered, tears rising in her eyes.
Her power came to her then, unbidden and barely controlled. She concentrated, trying to regain her hold on the energy raging in her, trembling with the effort of keeping the magic in check. Slowly, she cleared her mind of everything but the battle. Focusing on the shadowy shapes of their pursuers, she finally abandoned control, let loose her power with a shriek of fury. Flames washed across the battlefield, searing the Imperial soldiers where they stood. Terra hated this. She hated killing, felt every enemy death like a dagger to her soul, but she couldn't stop. She was caught up in the blaze, and could no more still the magic coursing through her than she could stop an avalanche with her bare hands. Worse still, there was a part of her that welcomed this wild release. A part of her that reveled in it.
The surviving foot soldiers fell back, unable to keep pace with the racing chocobos and unwilling to face the inferno that met them if they tried, but the war machines kept up their measured and surprisingly fast tread, firing as they went. They kept coming long after the three fugitives had left Kefka and the rest of his army in the dust.
"We can't outrun them," Terra heard Edgar shout. "We'll have to fight."
"We'll be slaughtered!" the thief responded in disbelief. "Do you have any idea how badly those things trashed Narshe? We can't fight magitech armor."
"No choice," came the king's grim reply.
Terra flung fire at the things, the… magitech armor in a continual barrage, but it was difficult to tell if her assault was doing any good. Sparks flew and metal scorched, and smoke poured from a dozen small holes in the machines' armored plates, but they didn't seem to be faltering, and Terra knew she couldn't keep up this torrent of magic forever. She had gotten little sleep, and fear and stress had taken their toll, leaving her in poor condition to fight a battle. Already, her head was beginning to ache, and it was becoming an effort to gather the power necessary for each magical strike.
Everything was a blur. Dimly, she registered her friends fighting beside her. Edgar, looking sick and pale with pain, was struggling to reload his crossbow with a wounded arm. Locke leapt from the back of his chocobo just in time to dodge a searing blast of magical energy. The riderless bird fled across the desert, leaping and flapping its wings as if trying to fly. The thief rolled on the sand and came up with a dagger in each hand, staring after his vanished mount and cursing angrily.
Locke then did something very brave and very reckless. He ran toward one of the machines, still muttering expletives under his breath. The armor's pilot obviously hadn't expected the sudden assault, which bought the thief some time to clamber up the machine, slicing at tubes and wires with his knives. The pilot tried to dislodge him, but the thief clung like a crab, stabbing and cutting the metal hulk. Terra turned her attention to the other machine.
Focusing her mind on the magitech armor, she concentrated, summoning up her deepest reserves of strength. She needed to destroy this thing, and she needed to do it soon; none of them would survive much longer if she didn't.
"Help me do this," she whispered aloud, clutching her pendant in one pale hand. "Help me…" She had no idea to whom she was talking, to herself or some desert spirit, or something far stranger even than that, but the words brought her the strength she needed. Magic filled her in a burning tide, stronger than it ever had before. She gathered up the rising power and released it, flinging out a hand toward the magitech armor, fire rushing through her veins. Rising flames washed over the machine in a searing torrent, smoke and steam pouring off it in waves. Some kind of fuel tank must have at last ignited, because, with a thunderous boom and a ballooning cloud of boiling smoke, the machine exploded from within. All that was left was a smoldering shell, blackened and smoking, and the ash gently drifting in the suddenly silent air.
Swaying with exhaustion, Terra wiped the sweat from her aching brow. Tiny blobs swam dizzyingly behind her eyes, and it was getting difficult to keep from falling off her chocobo. Her hands didn't seem to want to hold on like they should. She drew in a sharp, shuddering breath and forced herself to look around, to see if her friends were all right.
Thankfully, it seemed Locke and Edgar working together had managed to disable the other machine. It had halted in mid-step, sparks flying from its joints, and the pilot lay dead on the sand with several crossbow bolts protruding from his chest. Terra looked away from the corpse, forcing away the acidic guilt rising in her chest. He would have done the same to us, she told herself grimly. They all would have. They were enemies. Even so, the image of the dead man's waxen face was a difficult one to dispel.
A stifled noise of pain drew her eyes away from the magitech armor's wreckage. Locke was busy binding Edgar's wounds, and the king was trying not to make a sound. He was pale with pain and loss of blood, but he wore a hard, victorious smile. Locke glanced up at her, grinning, his face smeared with grime, sweat and blood which might have been his own.
"Whaddaya know," he said, his voice weak with relief, "We survived. Who'd have thought it?"
Terra slid off her chocobo and stepped over to the two of them, careful not to let herself stumble – she couldn't let either of them think her weak. It was difficult to think quite clearly at the moment, but Edgar's injury was bothering her. It didn't seem right that one of her friends should be hurt. She wanted to make things better.
Edgar looked up as she approached, flinching back involuntarily, a strange expression flitting across his face. She thought it might be fear. That wasn't right, she didn't want to hurt the man, not any more. She had to help him. She reached toward the king, but Locke stopped her, gently grabbing her wrist.
"What are you doing?" he asked. "Terra, let me do this."
"No…" she said faintly, pushing Locke's hand away. "let me… I can… I want to help…"
The magic was gentler this time, quieter. As she ran her hands over the king's bandaged arm it washed over her with the softness of spring rain, cool and light. Edgar gasped in surprise, touching the blood stained bandage with awe on his face.
"Edgar?" Locke asked uncertainly.
"It's all right," the king said with a terse, strange laugh. "Damned if miracle girl here didn't heal me."
Terra smiled like a child. "Told you… told you I could help…" she said softly, trailing off into silence. She swayed again, the world blurring before her eyes, and started to fall. Locke caught her and propped her up in his arms.
"Terra," he said, his worried voice sounding curiously distant, "Are you OK?"
"Fine," she managed, getting unsteadily to her feet. "Just… tired…"
"Are you fit to travel?" Edgar asked her, almost sharply. "You can bet Kefka hasn't forgotten about us. We need to leave now."
"She can ride with me," Locke said. "We're down a chocobo anyway."
Locke lifted her gently onto her chocobo's back, and clambered up behind her, calming the bird's squawks of indignation.
"You really wore yourself out, didn't you?" he was saying quietly. "Sleep a bit, if you like. I won't let you fall."
With that, they were off again, racing across the moon-silvered sands. The desert air was sharp and cool, the sky above sprinkled with millions of clear, bright-burning stars, and the night journey seemed imbued with a dreamlike strangeness. When not running for their lives, the chocobos had a steady, rocking gait, rhythmic and lulling. Leaning back against Locke's chest, Terra did indeed find herself drifting into sleep. The world swept by in a blur, dream indistinguishable from waking. She wasn't certain how much time had passed before she became aware of a quiet argument going on around her.
"You saw what she did, back there." Edgar was whispering urgently. "She took those guys apart!" There was fear in his voice. Terra stirred sleepily, the king's words pulling her back across the border into wakefulness. He was talking about her.
"She saved our asses, is what she did." Locke replied flatly.
"I know," the king said, shaking his head angrily. "I know. Its just that… well… that was magic, Locke! Magic!"
"You didn't know she could use magic?"
"Of course I did, but… I never really understood how dangerous it could be. How dangerous she could – " Edgar cut off abruptly, watching her with an inscrutable expression on his face. She was willing to bet he knew she was awake, and listening.
"I'm sorry…" she whispered. "I… um… I'm sorry…" She knew she was dangerous, probably more dangerous than even Edgar realized. She wasn't proud of that fact, but she couldn't deny it, and there was really nothing she could find to say.
"Look," said Locke quietly to Edgar, "We don't have to make such a big deal of this. Terra can use magic, and we can't. That's the only difference between us. The fact is, we could use her help."
Edgar was silent for a long moment, regarding Terra with reserved scrutiny. Then, at last, he nodded slowly. "Of course." he said quietly, "Please forgive my rudeness. It's just that I've never actually seen magic before, and it left me… shaken. But I am pleased and honored to travel with a woman of your power, and your beauty." The king's smile was impish, and Terra thought she heard Locke snicker at his words, but she also got the impression that the apology was genuine.
"Thank you, Locke," she murmured sleepily, already slipping back into reverie, "thank you Edgar."