The Girl Without Memories
General Celes Chere suppressed a sigh as she quickly scanned over the reports of the Fifth Army. Needless to say, it wasn't encouraging. She had raised her objections before, but the fact that the Imperial Army was spreading itself needlessly thin seemed to fall upon deaf ears. Already, the Fifth Army had been placed under her command, the Third Army under General Leo Cristophe. She did not enjoy the prospect of fighting a war on two fronts on two different continents, not with the numbers she was being provided. Furthermore, it was already October the twenty-fourth; considering that all preparations were supposed to have finished in shy of just a week, they were behind schedule. Celes had her officers to thank for that; she had had problems with them since Day One.
The Fifth Army, suffice to say, was undermanned. By "army", it meant that her battlegroup in her theater of operations was supposed to have amounted to somewhere around fifty thousand, if not sixty thousand, soldiers, five or six divisions. She received only thirty-five thousand, a bit more than what were usually three divisions and far less for what was expected of an army-strength battlegroup, with a vague promise that there was an informant in the city that would provide valuable intel. The supply lines from Vector to Albrook was still weak, having only been established, and Celes was still at a lack of weapons and equipment. A sword, pistol sidearm, and several fragmentation grenades was the standard armament of the standard Imperial infantrymen, armaments that most of the Fifth Army was still lacking in. Despite Vector's factories and advanced technology, the Empire could not possibly provide firearms to every soldier, and most of the military funding was going to MagiTek research anyways. There only have one corps of MagiTek armors so far, as opposed to the promised three.
Celes was both very similar and much different than the girl she had been ten years ago when she first met Terra, an event that she could recall only with the vaguest of details. Puberty had been kinder to Celes than it had to Terra, giving her full-bodied features and assets, smooth curves that were not suppressed despite years of training and physical abuse. She was not only as tough as they come; she was a beauty on the battlefield, a pale, lithe, blond warrior who danced across the battlefield with an icy demeanor that won her the nickname the "White Queen" amongst her men, the "Blizzard Knight" amongst the conquered. Her eyes, sharp and contemplative, as blue and deep as the oceans themselves, were excellently complimented by long, wavy blond hair, down to her waists, adorned with a crystal blue tiara around her forehead. Favoring mobility, she chose a custom short-cut green jumpsuit as he attire of choice, accompanied by white gloves and boots, an obvious indicator of high rank. Created originally for pilots of the IAF, the simple jumpsuit, exposing her arms and legs, permitted quite a bit of mobility and was resistant to both cold and heat. The jumpsuit was not only capable of deflecting light-caliber rounds, it was also slightly magic resistant, perfect in magic warfare.
Not that she needed magic insulators; the Empire was the only army that utilized magic for combat.
"I am aware," Celes stated clearly, with a slight chilly edge in her voice, as she addressed her direct subordinates, "that the rations for our army were supposed to have been delivered three days ago. When I inquired, I was told that you were on to it. You said the rations would arrive in two days. Yesterday, when the rations were supposed to arrive, I inquired again. You said you'd look into it. It's the third day since the rations have been late. What's going on?"
Her subordinates, a mix of half a dozen colonels and majors, glanced at each other uncomfortably in silence for several seconds. Undoubtedly, Celes knew, they were trying to figure out whom to blame this on, and how. The group was gathered around Celes' desk in the captain's quarters of the Imperial destroyer Vigilant, the command vessel of the Third Army, second only to the flagship of the fleet Neptune, part of the Second Naval Battlegroup. The room wasn't overly large, only three meters by three, as battleships were built with little accommodating space, more for utility than comfort. It was, however, the largest in-door room in the entire ship with some measure of privacy, so it was there they congregated. The room itself was rather bare; only a bed, a desk, and a bookshelf kept Celes company, but she did not mind. There have been times were caves were a rarity, trees were a distant hope, and rooms were unheard of, the nearest one being at least five hundred miles away. Survival training at the age of fourteen helped her cope with the lack of luxury.
The Vigilant was stationed approximately a mile off the ports of Albrook, anchored down to ensure that the ship stayed there. Already, Imperial ships of the First and Second Naval Battlegroups were crowding out the ports, especially those which needed to store up on supplies and rations. The entire port had been cordoned off by order of the Emperor, and only Imperial military vessels, priority given to military ships with an empty cargo hold, were the only ships that stood a chance of hooking up to the ports. The Vigilant was a mile away to ensure that they would not take up valuable space.
Colonel Samuel Whitaker spoke first, clearing his throat as he did. He was a gruff, belligerent young senior office, an infans militis. While he had much experience in the field and was reasonably intelligent, he was also far too aggressive, arrogant, and petty for Celes' to be comfortable with, and it wasn't any secret that he would've preferred to be in the Third Army than the Fifth. His actions and attitude towards Celes were borderline insubordination. Celes knew that there was one colonel and two majors in the room who did not approve of Celes, a general who happened to be a woman years younger than they, being their direct superior; Whitaker was the head of that little faction, one that had been giving her far too much trouble, in her opinion.
"The supply lines between Vector and Albrook have not been completely established," Whitaker said, sounding defensive, for his ground forces were supposed to be helping in clearing the path, "Although our reserve forces are currently…"
"I've heard that excuse three days ago," Celes interrupted tersely, unimpressed, "Does anyone have a more constructive alibi?"
Whitaker shot a withering, hateful glare at Celes at the obvious rebuke, but no one really bothered to look his way; that Whitaker hated Celes was something taken for granted, and no one really actually needed to look at his face to tell Whitaker was shooting an unpleasant stare at their general. Most of the enlisted and the NCOs, non-commissioned officers, appreciated and respected Celes, if not liked her. Undoubtedly, the rank and file were quite glad that generals, too, led their armies into battle instead of merely second-guessing a campaign from an armchair. Most of the officers, however, had a completely different mentality. Used to the luxuries of leadership, they did not give a damn as to whether or not Celes led the army into battle personally; the political power struggles were what was important to them, and most of them weren't entertained by an eighteen-year-old female general lording them around.
Evidently, Colonel Chad Woodling decided that some face-saving for Colonel Whitaker was in order. "General, if I may," he said simply, "It is my understanding that the Second Army, having just returned from Tzen to Vector, swapping posts with the Fourth Army, has become the main focus of resupplying efforts. We did not have such a problem when we received orders to rendezvous in Albrook after our campaign in Maranda, but Tzen utilized scorched earth strategies during the Second Army's campaign, and they have been hard-pressed enough to require the Fourth Army to take their posts instead. Although the supply lines are indeed a large factor, we also have to consider that our factories and farms cannot produce supplies and rations for two armies, never mind three, with any appreciable rate of speed."
Celes looked neutrally at Chad, who looked back in the same manner. Out of her senior staff, Celes had learned to appreciate the neutral, taciturn, low-profile Chad the most. A quiet officer whose loyalties were not with any commanding officer, but the Empire as a whole, Chad could be counted on for his loyalty and his tendency to stay out of the chickenshit power struggles that the upper echelons of the Imperial Army were so infamous for. Chad was the military intelligence officer attached to the Fifth Army; although not part of the legendary Imperial Intelligence, or the Double-Eye, Chad had friends looking out for him in the clandestine agency, who exchanged information with him, and he was quite comfortable where he was. Chad had limited battlefield experience, but was familiar with leadership positions in small-scale black ops.
"How long do you think until we can finish resupply operations, then?" Celes inquired, figuring that, if she was going to get anything constructive from this question, it would be from Chad.
Chad paused just for a few seconds, deep in thought, then promised, "It is my belief that the Third Army will have finished all resupply operations and continue its deployment with the Second Naval Battlegroup in less than one week, ma'am. At the very most, we will set sail at the end of the month."
Not a very optimistic analysis, Celes noted, but moreorless appreciated that Chad used "my", an indicator that he was moreorless willing to take responsibility for this. "That's still behind schedule," Celes noted coolly, "Our orders were to deploy in two days."
Chad nodded, seemed pretty calm about it. Too calm, Celes noted, and was suddenly aware that she would not be surprised if Chad was a member of some much larger conspiracy. "I have some contacts in the Double-Eye close to the Emperor and his staff," Chad shrugged, "I'll do what I can to convince them we need the time, but I'm afraid there are no promises, General."
"Not to cover for my superiors, General, but…" Major Neil Horton added, unasked, which pretty much meant he was covering for his superiors, "…the real problem is with the Second Army moving back to Vector, prompting a reprioritization of the supply teams back home. It has little to do with supply lines or our own Fifth Army."
Celes sighed, brushed aside several stray strands of hair that managed to get into her face. "Very well," Celes muttered, deciding a concession was in order to appease her officers, particularly Samuel Whitaker, and save some face, "What's next on the list?"
"General, if I may," Chad again, and Celes actually found herself a bit annoyed at Chad's interruption, "I have word from Imperial Intelligence that they are in the process of conducting a black-op in Narshe, supervised directly by Court Mage Kefka Palazzo in a joint venture with the Double-Eye, codename Operation: Deep Miner. I was instructed to inform this staff of such, and that we have standing orders to exercise military force against Narshe in case Operation: Deep Miner is a failure."
"Which means," Celes commented dryly, "we will have to split the Third Army even further. We might as well annex the entire continent while we're at it. I suppose we won't have any reinforcements in that regard?"
Colonel Jacob Robinson, a bookish, accountant-type commanding officer, quickly conjured an unnecessarily thick stack of papers from his hand. "The situation seems to stand as it has been for a while, aside from the shift between Second and Fourth Armies, ma'am," Jacob responded, "With the Second Army now in Vector, they and the First Army are now on garrison duty in Vector. The First Army is on standby status, while the Second Army is resupplying. Although it would've been appreciated if the First Army were mobilized with us, the First Army has not marched from Vector for the past decade, and I do not see why it would happen now. The Fourth Army is now in Tzen, several of our regiments remain in Maranda, the Sixth have been keeping on station in Albrook for a while now. The Seventh Army has yet to be activated, so…" Jacob trailed off, leaving Celes to fill in the blanks.
Celes sighed once more, pushed herself away from the desk she sat behind and stood, turned and walked toward the window, her back, shielded with a luxurious white cape, to her subordinates, which, she knew, would piss off at least three of them. Celes was careful about where she tread; on one hand, she didn't imagine that every infantryman of the Fifth Army was loyal to her. Many, like Samuel Whitaker and Neil Horton, wished it was an older male general, such as General Leo Cristophe, that was leading them, not her. On one hand, she could simply have her senior officers removed. But that would leave a large gap in the command chain, and her popularity amongst the enlisted would drop. And, frankly, she'd rather have their loyalty than her officers'. It was the infantrymen that were fighting this war, not the colonels and major assembled in the room. On the other hand, she did need to keep them in line.
"People," Celes said, looking out the window of the captain's quarters as she stared out to the blue horizon, ocean as far as she could see, "we are fighting a war here. There will be people out there fighting and dying. We're not playing a game here; we need every kind of advantage we have. I understand resupply efforts aren't exactly fluent, and that we only have three divisions instead of four or five. This, however, only means we're going to have to redouble our efforts. We're going to be fighting overseas, and trust me when I say supply lines between two continents are going to be much harder than whatever problems we're having here right now. We're going to be spread incredibly thin at this rate, so the last thing I want is for us to assume we're just going to move in for a complete, suppressive victory."
"The Third Army is going to move in under the near-same conditions as we are," Samuel stated bluntly; to Celes, he might as well have stated "you can't accomplish what General Leo Cristophe can".
"The Third Army is also only moving against one enemy, the Kingdom of Doma," Jacob countered immediately, not appreciating Samuel's attitude towards their general, "while we're quite likely to assault and occupy two targets distant from each other on the Northwestern Continent. Not to mention they were the first to receive resupplying efforts, before the Second Army returned to Vector."
Samuel opened his mouth, prepared to say something in retort, but he was cut off before he could even start. "Colonel Whitaker," Celes said without turning her back to face the Colonel, but no one could mistake the frosty edge in her voice for anything else, "When you address a superior officer, you say 'sir', 'ma'am', or 'general'."
The casual shifting of weight and changing of body postures of the officers behind Celes, a subtle sign of awkward movement, was enough a sign for Samuel to realize that the remark had stung. Doing his best to prevent his face from going red with embarrassment and rage, and refraining from reaching out to strike at the general before her, Colonel Whitaker said in a quiet, tight voice that was obviously strained to keep a scowl out, "Yes, General."
Celes turned around to face her council of war once more. "Back to the subject at hand," Celes said simply, "Supplies and rations aside. How do we stand?"
"Major Pascal has the preliminary analysis of the status of our divisions, ma'am," Chad assured, "Major?"
A slightly-lower ranking officer in the room stepped forth, his hands, not unlike Jacob's, also full of papers. Not for the first time, Celes wondered exasperatedly if her subordinates only knew how to be accountants, warlords, or spies. "General," Major Oliver Pascal saluted first before delivering his report, "As of the moment, we can be assured that the heavy weapons for this campaign, mostly amounting to mortars and MagiTek armors, have arrived and are loaded onto our ships. I have checked with our engineers, and they have promised they can be activated upon our landing. That is on the side of heavy weapons. The Fifth Army itself has all arrived in Albrook, with all personnel accounted for as of the twenty-third of October…" Jacob paused, then added, in a slightly uncomfortable tone, as if the insinuations of this bothered him, "…As per orders from above, the true target of our campaign has yet to be revealed. There have been rumors floating around despite our best efforts to simulate a campaign against Kohlingen. The rumors have proved to be insubstantial, however; the majority of our soldiers are not yet certain of our theater of operations, despite several simulated campaigns."
Celes nodded to Oliver, but her eyes wandered over to Chad, and that was signal enough for Chad to speak his part. "I've checked the roster with the Double-Eye and ran background checks with their departments, ma'am," Chad assured Celes, "A deep probe would be unconventional to accomplish within our allotted time. However, we are convinced that there are no soldiers in the Fifth Army with ties to Figaro. We can relax slightly with the slight promise that word should not leak out to the Figaroians."
"General, forgive me for saying, but…" interruption from Oliver, "…I am still against the concept of this campaign. Figaro is an allied kingdom, and we're about to launch an invasion against them. I understand that there is very little we can do about that, but my greatest concern is whether or not our soldiers, who may or may not have ties to Figaro, are comfortable with attacking an allied kingdom. And even if they are, we have conducted two simulated campaigns in Maranda so far, yet they have been assuming that our target is Kohlingen. This will become a logistics nightmare when we reveal that our target is South Figaro. Maranda has similarities to Kohlingen, yes, but less so with South Figaro. General, without further preparations, I'm not sure our divisions are prepared to launch an attack on South Figaro."
"It's the slight matter of flipping the map upside-down, Major Pascal," Major Ryan Dean sneered, sounding derisive enough, "Unless you insinuate your division is unable to do so?"
For a moment, Oliver and Ryan glared at each other venomously, and Jacob joined in on the hostilities, for when Ryan insulted Oliver's division, he was also insulting Colonel Jacob Robinson's, Oliver's direct superior. Celes felt a rising ire and an urge to flash-freeze everyone in this room; their chickenshit behavior was starting to get truly out of hand. Before Jacob could say anything in retaliation, though, Chad quickly said, "Major Dean, that will be enough."
Ryan seemed rather embarrassed, being lightly chastised by his own superior officer, and a moderate one at that; it was obvious that he held Chad in higher regard than Celes, whom he had expected to intervene instead of Chad. "My apologies, sir," Ryan muttered, "It won't happen again." Celes looked at Jacob and Oliver, whom she knew were moreorless supportive of Celes as their general, and saw them trying to not-so-successfully stifle a smug grin on their faces.
Celes sighed heavily, an obvious sign that she was exasperated, as she sat back down in her chair, and the colonels and majors took this as a cue to shut up and stand fast. She wanted to end this meeting on a good note, or, at least, as good a note as she could with these men, and that mostly amounted to momentarily pleasing both sides. By no means was she obliged to, but she was not stupid enough to not know she was also in a compromised position of leadership. "Major Dean has a point," Celes said simply, raising not just one eyebrow in the process, "Geographic similarities in a simulation are never perfect, each battlefield is different. The soldiers are going to have to learn how to adapt. We will, however, reveal the actual location and conduct emergency briefings in three days. This should give them a quick idea of what they're up against. And…" Celes looked at Chad coolly, expressionlessly, as if she was directing her next statement directly at him, "…if the Double-Eye's promises mean anything, we might have some valuable intel that will allow us to infiltrate the city with ease."
Chad nodded, a simple bob of the head, down and up. "That was what I have been informed, ma'am," Chad agreed.
Celes looked at the remaining corps of officers, her gaze icy and steely, looking upon them, expecting more out of them, and wondering how much more they could deliver as competent officers. "Are we all comfortable with this? The delayed informing of our forces and a third simulation here in Albrook?"
Slow, hesitant nods around the table were the answer to her question. "General," Major Horton quickly added to that, "As per orders, my men are ready to impose curfew in three days in preparation for our simulated invasion here in Albrook. We only await the final order."
"Very well, Major Horton. I'll keep you informed. And we can be certain that our forces will be ready for a simulated campaign in South Figaro at that time with any semblance of accuracy?" Celes seemed to direct that question towards Whitaker in particular.
"Of course, General." Whitaker didn't know if that was to be taken as a challenge or otherwise; his voice was, surprisingly, carefully neutral, a rarity for the belligerent officer.
Celes turned her head away, her gaze distant, as if she was thinking about something, staring at an ethereal plain only she could see, leaving her officers at a silent impasse. Finally, after a moment of awkward silence, Celes asked quietly, "Is there anything else we need to discuss here in this room?"
Jacob consulted his notes quickly. "Not that I'm informed of, General," Jacob replied. The other officers didn't seem inclined to speak either.
Celes nodded, not looking at any of his officers, said tiredly with a bit of finality, "Very well. Dismissed."
When Terra Branford awoke, she was not necessarily aware of such. Her mind had not registered the immediate fact that her eyes had opened, and, as this happened, her mind was almost completely blank. There was something in her mind that subconsciously told her that she did not actually know what this indicated, nor was she sure how to respond to that. So she simply lay there for the time being, gathering details and facets of her surroundings without realizing it. There was an awful lack of self-consciousness arising from Terra.
The first overwhelming detail was that it was comfortably warm. Terra wasn't sure why, but she derived more comfort from it than she would've normally imagined. Every once in a while, her body would give an involuntary shudder or shiver, and every time that happened, she would be slowly shaken more into awareness as the movements seemed to trigger more information from her mind, each action a catalyst to something. For now, though, she realized she was prone, warm, and covered in a blanket. Judging by the fact that there seemed to be another flickering source of heat, Terra deciding that a fire was burning…somewhere. She didn't turn her around to look from where she lay. She blinked several times rapidly as she fought against the roadblocks in her mind, trying to grasp for words that she, for some reason, did not know existed, and could not conjure. She, though, did not necessarily find that strange.
Terra blinked again, as if each moment would rid her of the fog clouding her brain. With some effort, she managed to squeeze out some words that she had been thinking about, yet could not form with her mind. Words such as "warmth", "room", and "bed" made it back to her slowly, her vocabulary coming to her head in a step-by-step fashion. The mental pathways began to interlace once again, as if something had ruined a spiderweb before, and the spider was now weaving everything from scratch to create a new image.
It was several minutes afterwards that Terra felt confident enough, felt assured that her brain seemed to work in the way it should've worked. She tried to feel her arms, move them slightly, but she could not. Frowning slightly, then realizing that the mere motion of frowning seemed quite alien to her, tried to frown again. Her brow furrowed repeatedly, finding the motion uncomfortable, but the more she did it, the more she felt that it was familiar, like an old friend separated ages ago. The same went with her arms; every time she tried to move them, they only responded reluctantly, but as she continued to think, continued to try moving her arms, they responded ever more fluently. When her arms finally decided to be completely obedient again, Terra slowly pushed herself to an upright sitting position on the bed. Looking around, she noticed many details around her. The room itself seemed to be crafted out of wood, and, judging by the presence of a cupboard, a carpet, a jar of flowers, a chair, a table with a finished meal on it, and, obviously, a bed, she assumed that it was a…
A…a… Terra struggled with herself, her mind, What was it called? A bed…bed…bedroom. Yes. This is a bedroom.
Curious about why she was here, she pushed herself off the bed, but it soon became apparent that she had taken things a bit more hastily than she should've. As soon as she had twisted her body to swivel her legs across the bed over to the floor and tried to stand up, she realized, a bit too late, that her legs had not completely regained its functionality just yet. As soon as she tried to stand up, her legs gave away, and she crashed unceremoniously onto the floor with an audible yelp, one that was startled out of her, one she did not realize she made until she had finally come still against the floor.
Footsteps, hurried, sounded outside the bedroom door on the other side of the bedroom just moments after she fell. Someone, apparently, had heard her tumble. The sound, coupled with the tumble, served to jolt Terra back into her mind; Terra was already slowly climbing onto the feet before the door to the room opened, and was helped back by strong arms the rest of the way. Terra looked up wearily, found herself looking into the kind, concerned eyes of an aged man, not quite elderly yet, but not too far away. Although his hair was predominately brown, already, streaks of white and silver were making its way across the man's receding hairline.
Terra found herself quite disorientated, even as she was helped upright. "W…Where…" Terra whispered, trying to look around with eyes that suddenly refused to focus, "…am I?"
"Easy there," the man said, ensuring that Terra wasn't going to take another spill on the floor, "You're in safe hands. You're in a house, my house. No one's going to harm you here." Seeing how Terra seemed to have gotten her bearings back as her eyes fought for focus, seemingly becoming a bit more alert and aware as the man uttered those words, he let go of her for just a moment…which proved to be a mistake. No sooner had the man let go of Terra that she suddenly collapsed to the floor, clutching at her head, whimpering in pain as she sagged to her knees, seemingly unable to concentrate as she made small, gasping noises at the sudden jolts in her head.
"My, my," the man muttered, kneeling down as well as his strong arms came around Terra's own in the attempt to assist her up, "And I only just removed the crown…" the man proceeded in helping Terra up once more, taking gentle care of her as he lifted, as if he was lifting something as delicate as china, "…Alright, come on, girl, up you go. Let's get you back in bed; I think you definitely need some rest."
Terra did not protest as she shakily limped back to the bed under the man's guidance. All she managed to whisper as she was laid back down was, "…Head…hurts…"
Not a shocker, the man thought to himself. "Easy there," the man assured Terra, "You'll be fine, I promise. So why don't you lie down while I get you something hot to eat?"
Terra obeyed as she quietly lay in bed, one hand still clutching at her forehead. It still hurt, mightily at that. She felt terribly exposed as the man left her side, moving away to her left, as if he had been some sort of wall that had suddenly disappeared. She felt…vulnerable. At the mention of eating, however, Terra noticed than a pleasant smell had reached her nose. Strangely enough, she felt as if she had never smelled the food before, but the more the aroma entered her nose, the more she felt like she had smelt this before. This is…stew. He's cooking stew. She turned her head towards her left, saw that the old man was coming back with a hot bowl of stew.
"Here," the man said as he sat down on the bed beside Terra, handing her the stew, complete with spoon, "Drink this. You'll feel better."
Even without the slave crown, Terra obeyed, taking the bowl in her hands silently. She looked at the spoon for a long moment, wondering what on earth it could be used for. It was slightly more difficult to place than before, so she resorted to simply placing her lips on the edge of the bowl and slowly pouring its contents into her mouth. It tasted quite good, and she felt warmer than she had moments before, allowing the feeling to spread throughout her body. It felt…different, somehow. As if she had never tasted something like this before. She quickly took another sip, and, soon, half of the contents of the bowl had already traveled down her throat. The stew was pretty good.
Terra also began to notice a few more aspects about herself even as her mind became clearer with the warmth. She was dressed in red, her dress simple in both design and material, clearly meant for functionality over elegance. Her hair, she noticed, was heavily curled, dirty blond, and reached down quite a bit, just shy of her waist. Her skin was as pale, perhaps from the cold, and although the flames had warmed her skin, it had little effect on her bones and flesh; the stew helped there. It was coming back slowly.
"Do you feel any better?" the man asked Terra. Terra looked at the man for a moment, then simply nodded, her expression stoic and empty. The man gave a small, wry smile; at least things were improving by a bit.
"My name is Arvis," the man introduced himself, "Arvis Jun. I live here in Narshe. What is your name?"
Name. Terra took a double-take at that word. What is a name? Terra wondered. She tried probing into her mind, trying to figure it out, digging into the recesses of her memories to find an answer…only to find emptiness inside it. Terra frowned, tried again, as if hoping to grope around and find something. It didn't work; moreover, her probing seemed to only serve to give a painful jolt through her brain, and, immediately, the remaining half of the stew spilled over on the bed as her hands went to her head again, clutching at it in pain and she let out a muffled cry. Arvis was quick to quickly remove the bowl and blanket before it could burn her skin.
"Whoa, there," Arvis frowned, quickly lowering his head to where Terra's was, an expression of agony written on her face, "Are you alright? Hang in there. Hang in there, you hear? It's going to be quick, it'll pass soon." Arvis seemed to be quite familiar with the symptoms, and, no sooner had he said it, the aching in Terra's head subsided to a dull throb. It still felt a little painful, but not like the kind of jolt it had been like before. Terra felt as if someone had shot a lightning bolt through her head. She quickly wiped away the tears that had formed in her eyes, blinking every now and then as if to clear her mind and ascertain the pain had truly subsided.
"Easy," Arvis whispered, his voice gentle, confirming that Terra was truly alright, "Feeling better now?" Terra nodded slowly; the pain had shaken her badly. Arvis, seeing that Terra was herself now, moved over to a nearby cupboard, and retrieved what looked like a circlet for the head. It was dark, metallic, a design sinister and unwelcoming. Terra flinched at the device involuntarily; she did not know what it was, but she felt like it was something that she once knew…like an old enemy.
"This is a slave crown," Arvis explained, gesturing towards the device, "It's of Imperial make, but smugglers, slave traders, and other kinds of scum love getting their hands on these when they can. It was robbing you of your thoughts, making it so you'd do whatever they told you. It damages the head a bit…" Arvis paused, then added hastily, "…But I'm sure you'll be fine."
"I…" Terra whispered, tried to say something, "I…can't…" Terra paused for another moment, prepared to probe her mind again, then stopped, remembering how much it had hurt last time, facing the void in her mind and trying to grope around in the complete emptiness, "…I can't remember…I don't…know. There's…nothing there. I can't remember a thing…"
Arvis patted Terra gently on the back. "Don't worry," Arvis assured her, "It's a side effect to the slave crown, a common symptom. It comes with damage to the brain. It'll all come back to you; it always does…in time, that is."
Terra frowned, her eyes downcast. Somehow, the feeling of being pitied…she met it with mixed feelings. It was something she felt she was used to, something she felt she was not used to, something that she found relief in, something she hated. Terra shook her head slightly; she didn't like how her mind was shooting in a thousand different directions now that there was a big, gaping void in the middle of it. I mustn't give up, Terra thought as she winced, preparing herself for the pain to come as she attempted to enter the deepest recesses of her memory again. Name, Terra thought, I need a name…
Several jolts in her head caused Terra to flinch, but she relaxed slightly when she realized that they were not completely painful; rather, they felt almost fuzzy, as if something in her brain was fusing together after having been torn apart. Terra concentrated again, noticed that her head felt warm, almost hot, and put on a determined expression as she tried her hardest to grasp out into that void. She felt as if she had something; if she could just reach out to whatever it was she could not see and grab it…
"Terra," the named had left her lips before she even thought about it, which surprised her slightly as she whispered it again, "Terra…" she paused, as if making sure that the name sounded familiar, then, again, "Terra…yes. My name…is…Terra."
Arvis seemed impressed in spite of himself, crossing his arms and allowing a grin to pass along his face. "Terra, huh?" Arvis repeated the name, smiled, "It's a good name. A down-to-earth name for a girl such as yourself. But that was truly impressive! I've never heard of anyone recovering from this so fast. Most people take weeks to recall their own name, but you did it in seconds! Who knows when it'll all come back to you? You're really tougher than you look, you know."
Terra managed a small smile, one of gratitude and slight embarrassment. "I…" Terra whispered, nodded, and finished, "…I try." She found the feeling of being confined to the bed uncomfortable, and the embarrassment she was experiencing only enhanced the feeling. Slowly, she allowed herself to make it up to her feet, making sure that, this time, she was well-balanced and in control of her legs, before permitting herself to take a few steps back and forth. She seemed to be okay.
"That you will," Arvis nodded, watching Terra attempt to regain her ability to walk, and, suddenly, his face turned solemn, his acute eyes burning into her own, and Terra suddenly felt a bit uncomfortable, if not slightly overwhelmed, "Terra, listen to me for a quick moment. I believe you are someone special, someone who can help us with our goals. I know that, with your amnesia, this will probably all sound very…" Arvis paused, noticed that the confusion on Terra's expression had reached an unusual climax, asked, "…Is there something wrong?"
"I'm sorry," Terra whispered, seemingly a bit embarrassed, as if realizing she was asking a question which the answer was probably obvious, "but what's 'amnesia'?"
Arvis smiled awkwardly. "It is a disorder," Arvis explained, "in which one cannot recall her own memories."
Terra blinked, thought about it for a moment. Yes, now that Arvis had explained it, the word did seem familiar. She knew the word, she had used it before. She nodded, signifying a response, before quietly whispering, "…Okay." Understandably, she did not seem thrilled by the prospect.
"As I was saying," Arvis continued, "I think we need your help. You were, by influence of the slave crown, being forced to commit acts of atrocity for the Empire. But things have now changed. You are yourself again. You are your own. You can do whatever you choose to do. Power over yourself is your given right. And now, there is a path before you, one that, if my suspicions are correct, only you can travel, only…"
Whatever Arvis was going to say, he did not finish it. There was a sudden knocking in the distance, three knocks, delivered rapidly in force. Arvis' head shot towards the wall; Terra did not know it, but it was towards the front door of the house. Arvis quickly frowned, putting both his hands on Terra's shoulders as his eyes riveted back to Terra. "Stay here," Arvis commanded, "Just stay here for a quick moment, and don't make a sound." Without waiting for Terra to foster any sort of response, Arvis was already moving out of the bedroom, making his way across the living room towards the front door. The fire in the fireplace was still burning, providing Arvis with a bit of warmth to overcome the sudden cold fear that had gripped him. He was not worried about what might happen to him, but if his suspicions were correct, what might happen to the girl, to Terra, was…
Three knocks again, harsh, delivered in impatience. "Open up!" the voice outside called, "We're with the militia!" Arvis scowled, his guess on the money. How the hell did the militia find out she was here? Arvis wondered. He had taken extra care to maneuver through the back alleys and side streets to ensure that no one saw him carrying a young girl from mine shaft thirteen, yet here the militia was, knocking on his door. Composing himself, as if nothing at all was wrong, he adopted a straight, pleasant face as he stopped just for a moment at the door, taking a deep breath as he did so. Leaving the door chain on, Arvis opened the door just slightly, enough to draw the chain taut. Indeed, outside were two militiamen, dressed in white cloaks and jackets. Beneath them came a growl, and, as Arvis' eyes moved towards the source, he soon realized why he had been found out. Attack dogs, Arvis thought bitterly, they sniffed her out.
"Good evening, gentlemen," Arvis said pleasantly, with a hint of fatigue in his voice, "It's the middle of the night here; to what might I owe the pleasure of this…unexpected visit?" Immediately, Arvis regretted his choice of words and expression; a more irritated, drowsy stance would've done to reflect the fact that Arvis had been sleeping through the night, a better cover for his innocence. Then, again, the lights were open at his house, ruling out that possibility. This would have to do.
"We're here for a girl," the head militiaman closest to Arvis said point-blank, the barrel of his submachine gun not quite pointed directly to the ground despite the sling around his shoulder, "She's the MagiTek armor pilot that had attacked the town several hours earlier. We believe she's taking refuge in your residence."
Gig's up, Arvis thought as he continued to smile pleasantly. "I'm afraid there's been a mistake," Arvis said simply, "I've been up all night with paperwork, and I'm certain there's no girl here. Now, if you excuse me, I really should get back to my work. Good night."
The guard saw what was happening and attempted to shove his submachine gun in the way, but Arvis had already slammed the door shut and locked the door in front of him, turning both knobs to ensure that the double lock would keep the door in place for a moment. He was already running for the bedroom, towards Terra, when more banging pounded on the door, angry whacks of the submachine gun against the wooden frame. "Hey!" a militiaman shouted as he banged on the door, "Open this door! Open this door right now and hand over that girl! She's an agent of the Empire!"
Arvis nearly slipped as he made a frantic turn into the bedroom, and, not surprisingly, found Terra standing there, an expression of fright written plainly on her face as she saw Arvis run into the room. The sound of the pounding and the not-so-friendly voices had made their way to the bedroom, and, if Terra didn't understand what was going on, she at least understood that there was something very, very wrong. Her hands were clasped to her chest, looking at Arvis uncertainly, as if she suddenly realized that he was a serial killer, or someone who had done a serious misdemeanor and was being chased.
"Wh…" Terra tried to speak, her voice barely a whisper as her eyes, wide and full of panic, searched Arvis for an answer, even as the man righted himself moved directly for Terra, "What was that about? 'Empire'? 'MagiTek armor'?"
Terra flinched visibly as Arvis quickly stormed up to her, grabbed her by the wrist. She was almost completely sure that Arvis was going to harm him, but Arvis was already talking before she could say anything. "There's no time to explain," Arvis panted, pulling Terra, who, at the moment, was too stunned to protest as she was dragged along, towards the back door, "You need to get out of here…" Arvis paused, seeing how Terra seemed positively frightened and uncertain, and placed both hands on her bare shoulders again, hissed, "…Trust me! You have to trust me. I'm trying to save you right now. I'm not going to give you back to the Empire so they can do what they want with you, and…" Arvis gestured towards the direction of the pounding door, "…these fools aren't going to listen to reason, not after what happened tonight. Come with me, this way, quickly!"
Terra prepared to nod, and almost screamed as a sudden series of loud, rapid bursts, automatic gunfire, was heard from the front door, but Arvis' hand was already sealing Terra's mouth, preventing any sound from coming out, just as Terra had finished drawing the breath in for her to make that scream. "Come on, this way!" Arvis hissed, pulling Terra along again, knowing that the militiamen, realizing Arvis wasn't going to open the door, had begun to fire at the door with their submachine guns. It would only be a matter of seconds before they would be able to make a forced entry into the house.
"Put this on," Arvis commanded as soon as they had reached the back door, which was just right outside another door of the bedroom, leading to a small, dark hallway. Immediately, Arvis had procured a large jacket from the rack, and, Terra, seemingly having been jolted into awareness by the rapid, violent chain of events around her, was aware enough to realize that this was an article of clothing, and put the cloak on as Arvis helped.
"It's freezing cold outside," Arvis said, buttoning some of the larger buttons as Terra's body practically disappeared under the large bundle of clothing that was obviously too large for her, "so make sure you keep this on at all times, got it? Keep it on until you leave Narshe…" the submachine gun gunfire stopped for just a moment, and both of them, Terra and Arvis, noticed this, turning their heads towards the previous source of the sound, before they both flinched at the next series of sounds, the sickening crunch of wood, indicating that the militiamen outside were now punching and kicking their way through a splintered wooden door, which was enough to bring Arvis back to his senses, "…Alright, listen! You have to make your way out of town through the mines, do you understand? It's going to be dangerous, but you can do it. Go through the mines, get out of town if you want to live! I'll try to buy you some more time!"
The sound of a distant crash turned their heads towards the front door again, not visible from where they stood, and this time, Arvis practically pushed Terra out the door as he opened it. "Go, go, go!" Arvis hissed quietly as he gently shoved Terra outside into the snow, leaving her bewildered as she fought against confusion and fright, obviously uncertain what to do, arrows provided for her yet no one to guide her, "Go for the mines! Hurry!"
And, with that, Arvis quickly closed the door behind her, locked it. Terra stared at the door in fright for a moment, still uncertain of what to do. The sound of three-round burst from a submachine gun inside the house, though, was enough to send her bolting with a yelp; the sound had come from indoors, several meters away, but in the quiet of the night, it sounded much closer. Looking around, Terra saw that the backdoor led onto a small bridge, a wooden path suspended in midair that was part of the crisscrossing network of the canyon town. For this particular bridge, located a single floor above ground, the wooden planks led to the western side of the canyon. The snowstorm had stopped and the night was slightly clearer, already nearing dawn, but it was still freezing nonetheless. Terra huddled down next to the northern wall of Arvis' house for just a moment, just for her to catch her breath and become accustomed to the temperature. She had a good view of the rest of Narshe from the second floor bridge, catching a sight of the industrial mining town, the hundreds of pillars of steam coming out of fireplaces, furnaces, chimneys across the coal city. It was still dark; dawn had not yet graced Narshe, and it was far too late for most lights to be turned on.
"I told you, there's no one here!"
The sudden roar from inside the house sounded much different from the tone of voice that Arvis used to speak with her; despite huddling together, Terra suddenly felt much colder hearing Arvis screaming at someone, screaming with abject rage. Her eyes widened as she shuddered involuntarily, looking at the window just above her, a window that might've permitted her to see an enraged Arvis, if she stood up to look. But she knew better.
Terra could hear the heavy, rapid footsteps inside the house. Three sets of them. One of them came unbelievably close. Although she and someone who was walking inside were divided by a wooden wall, Terra was still practically able to feel someone walking by. The proximity of the footsteps badly unnerved her, and Terra was almost absolutely sure that, if she didn't move now, the footsteps would stop, the window above her would open, and someone would see her. She looked around, her wild eyes darting around, burning with panic. Her eyes found an opening, what looked like an open vent that led back into the building, a metallic enclosure between the second story floorboards and the first story ceiling. She scrambled inside on all fours; even with her bulky cloak, her frame was so small, so frail, that she had no problems moving inside the vents.
"Get out, get out!" Arvis' voice became clearer, and Terra could tell that the voices were right above her, right on top of her, "How dare you trespass here into my room into the middle of the night! Has the militia turned into some sort of secret police?" She suppressed a sudden need to cry out in fright; the footsteps above her, coupled with the voices, were far too close to her. She knew that her pursuers were mere inches away from her, divided only by several wooden boards. She bit her lip, willing nothing to come out of her mouth, clasping her hands over them for a good measure. Terra felt almost bewildered that she had not been found out yet. Of course she hadn't been found out; they could not see her, and she knew it. Still, the voices were heard with such clarity, the footsteps just above her, dust coming down from the ceiling of the vents every time a foot came down above her. It was too real not for it to be overwhelmingly frightening.
"We know the girl is here!" the militiaman's voice was clear now that he was just right above Terra, his voice not louder than Arvis', but intimidating enough, "Where are you hiding her? Victor, check the back door, see if she's hiding there!"
"Goddammit!" Arvis again, "How many times do I have to tell you? I've been here all alone for the past few hours!" A set of footsteps were moving away, but Terra knew that it was headed towards the back door, close to her. All the militiaman had to do was to kneel down and look in, and he would see her. Terra continued to scramble further in, and, upon arriving at a junction in the vents, a path leading right, Terra dove in, like a mouse into a rathole, disappearing from sight just as the militiaman, having made his way outdoors, noticed the vent, knelt down, looked in, and saw that he could not see Terra in the vents. Deciding that Terra was not there, the militiaman stood back up, advanced further down the bridge, looking for signs to see if Terra had escaped elsewhere.
Terra continued to tremble in fear; that call had been close. Ever tremor from her body seemed to create an excess of sound as the buttons of her cloak scratched against the metallic vents, and the chattering of her teeth, both to fear and cold, added to the sound, sounds that, to a frightened Terra, seemed to be abnormally loud.
Arvis' voice again, a bit further away, no longer directly on top of Terra, but still close, still delivered in anger. "Goddammit, how can you be so stupid? You know me! I've been trying to push for anti-Imperial reform for years! I've been talking to the elder about it, I'm practically known for being anti-Imperial! What in the hell makes you think I'm trying to protect the Empire now?"
Even from inside the vent, Terra heard a cracking sound, something that sounded like something hard smashing itself against flesh. Even with her hands over her mouth, Terra could not completely stifle a cry that escaped her throat. Already, tears were streaming down her eyes, threatening to freeze on her cheeks. Something crashed onto the floor right above her, something that sounded like it had the mass of a body, followed by a grunt of pain. The crash was so loud that Terra practically felt as if something had crashed onto her. She gave another muffled cry, but, thankfully, it was blocked out by the crash.
Another set of footsteps, approaching. They fell silent somewhere above. Then, a voice. "She's not out there."
The first voice, frustrated. "She's not in the house either."
Scratching sounds on the floor, sounding vaguely like footsteps, but not quite. They became more frantic, more erratic. Then came the barks, indicating that the attack dogs seemed to be going wild around the house.
"I told you," Arvis again, his voice weaker than before and slightly slurred, as if he was wheezing for breath, but not losing any of his rage from earlier, "There's no one here!"
There was an uncomfortable lapse in conversation, the presence of voices nonexistent, with only the sounds of the paws scratching on the floorboards and the incessant barking audible. Finally, the second militiaman. "Dammit," he scowled, "Dogs are going crazy here."
Terra did not wait any longer; seeing her chance, seeing that all of her pursuers were seemingly still gathered in the house, she began to frantically claw her way out of the vents, squirming, crawling towards the exit. The barking above her continued, the attack dogs obviously picking up the scent, clawing at the ground below them, as if they could scratch their way through the floor to dig out Terra. Terra worked her way in a mad craze, pulling herself out of the vent. She did not look to see if there was anyone outside that would catch her popping out of a vent; as soon as she made it back into the snow, she simply began running, nearly tripping, ankle-deep in snow and having not fully gotten back on her feet before she started bolting for the mines, scampering on all fours for a few steps before managing to continue with a run onto the bridge leading west. Behind her, the barks in the house were growing louder than before, incessant, threatening to engulf Terra's senses. She ran.
The wooden bridges were not wide, meant only for a single human to access various parts of the canyons from their own back doors, only four feet wide. It did help that the bridge was firmly built, refusing to bend or shudder even as Terra rushed through it, but it did not help that the bridge was at least ten feet in the air and without railings, providing Terra an excellent view of, not to mention a potential excellent fall to, the streets below. It was still night, the skies dark, the streets desolate, yet every shadow on the street drew her suspicion and fear, and for good reason. The militia of Narshe was out on a witch hunt.
She had made it halfway across the bridge when commotion below attracted her attention. Looking towards the source of the sound, she quickly saw a small squad of militiamen, four in all, all dressed in the usual white cloak and robes, having been searching in the streets, fifty meters to her left. One of them had called out as he brought a submachine gun to bear, pointing it directly in Terra's direction as the other three turned in unison, "Up there! She's up there!" Immediately after, the barrel of his firearm flashed three times as a three-round burst was fired towards Terra. Terra did not quite understand what the black instrument did, nor did she understand the insinuations of it being pointed at her…until a beam of the bridge next to her suddenly exploded into splinters, and Terra screamed as she shielded herself, stumbling from the sudden flying flakes of wood, dropping to the floor as she nearly stumbled.
"Stop it!" another militiaman interjected, quickly grabbing the first militiaman's submachine gun and pushing it away, "Cease fire! We want her alive!"
Terra wasn't sure what was going on, but she had regained her balance, a beam had exploded next to her a moment ago, and whatever the hell had been firing at her certainly wasn't anymore, so Terra took that as a cue to continue running down the bridge, scrambling onto her feet and rushing in towards the caves. The mines weren't too far off; she had already made it halfway past the bridge, and the other half was only a twenty meter dash until her feet would hit snow once more, and then stone as the caves would shield her from the wind and chill.
The pandemonium raging in Terra's mind had subsided someone, as had her breathless gasps, when she had finally made it deep enough into the cave to no longer see the entrance of the caves behind her, the only source of light from the torches lit in the cave. Her dirty blond hair had become disarray in her mad rush, and, as her hands moved to brush them out of her face, she realized that, upon her hands coming into her line of sight, they were trembling furiously. Terra huddled herself close together; it was much warmer in the mines than it was in the snow outside, yet Terra felt no warmer than she had felt outside. A cold grip had wrenched her insides, and, as she settled down onto the dusty ground, hugging her knees, she realized that her heart was threatening to jump out of her breast, and trails of tears were frozen on her cheeks.
She didn't mind them; she just wanted to calm down and get her bearings right again. She felt so disorientated, so dizzy. She had no idea what she was running from, or why she was running. Fear was one step away from her, and that was the only real reason compelling her to do anything. She tried to think, tried to remember, tried to recall anything that would help piece together her situation. Again, she attempted to reach out into the void, reach into the emptiness, hoping that, perhaps, groping around blindly, she would manage to find something. Anything.
Please, Terra said to the emptiness and herself as she searched, I just want to know…I just want to remember…
The emptiness almost swallowed her whole, threatened to gain her complete attention, had echoing footsteps from afar, the sound of multiple rapid footsteps approaching, jolted her back to reality. Realizing that they may as well be the prelude to her torture, or whatever these men had in mind for her, Terra tried to get back up, but failed as she did so, stumbling onto the ground from her sitting position instead. She clawed at the ground, looking back at her legs in a panic; they were shaking, refusing to respond, frozen in fear. She stifled a cry as she clawed at the ground, her fingernails digging into the dirt, trying to climb her way back up, or, failing that, crawl her way through the caves. She was not making much progress in that department, however; her arms felt weak, numb, doing no better in hoisting herself across the ground.
Another series of footsteps were heard in the distance, yet they were lighter, faster. Echoing pants and barks confirmed the worst of Terra's fears: The dogs were loose on the hunt. And she was prey.
The dogs had appeared before Terra even realized it, and they were fast. Two gray huskies, with shiny beads as eyes, cold and deep, their fangs sharp and dripping with saliva, the kind of aggressive dogs that are furiously loyal to their trainers…and utterly deadly to their foes. Their powerful muscles bristled under their skin, dark lines twitching just below the skin, barely hidden under their long white-and-black fur. Their jaws snapped as they raced down the fifty-meter path towards Terra, their jaws snapping like something evil from hell, their aura of belligerence preceding their actual attack. Terra only climbed ever more frantically at the sight, gasping as she did so, but even she knew she wasn't going to outrun two attack dogs, especially in her current condition.
The attack dogs continued, no hesitation in their approach, as they got within five meters of the panicking Terra, their jaws opening as their legs loosened, bent, tensed, then proceeded to propel themselves into the air, eager to sink their fangs into human flesh, both of them glaring at Terra terribly, who had looked up, knowing what was coming…
She screamed, shielded herself with her arms, as if her frail limbs could possibly deflect the two dogs, and, just as she did so, her arms lit ablaze with a red flare, and, before she could react, she had winced, turned away as the light of her arms blinded her, and then there was a wave of heat she barely felt bursting through her body, then through her arms, before exiting them. She stumbled backwards at the feeling; the blast itself was not forceful, but she had been far too shocked to have been prepared for such a sensation. She wondered if the dogs were already upon her, if their fangs had found the warm, crimson liquid of her life, if the heat of her blood was now flowing out of her and on her…
She opened her eyes slowly, fearing that the scars and disfiguring of her flesh may be too harsh an image for her to bear, but as she opened her eyes, realizing the heat had subsided just slightly, she looked down upon herself, saw herself unharmed, and the path behind her completely clear, the dogs nowhere to be seen. Confused, her eyes followed the source of a sudden, slight crackling sound to her sides, and she proceeded to look left and right.
The two dogs were there, each one beside Terra, and, with a start, Terra realized that they were lying on their sides, burning. Their bodies were ablaze, tongues of fire licking what little remained of their flesh as the fur and skin burnt away, leaving only the flesh of the hounds to satisfy the hunger of the flames. Lifeless, the dogs simply lay there, dead, unable to prevent the fire from decomposing their body, slowly peeling layer after layer of themselves to plain view, a sight that Terra found far more frightening than the attack dogs rushing at her, preparing to dispatch her.
The disgusting lump of flesh and bones drove a cold fear, or perhaps panicked revulsion, into Terra's heart despite the flames warming her body as her eyes went wide and hollow, blank, staring, horrified at the scene and trying to turn away, yet her body would not respond, herself being riveted by the scene. Her mouth, the small, petite little thing, was hanging just slightly ajar at the sight, and she fought for control over herself, tried to turn away, tried to run. With the dead, burning dogs beside her, it didn't take too long for her to be motivated; shakily, she managed to get back onto her feet, closing her eyes, trying to flush the memories from her head, feeling strangely light and nonexistent, before breaking into an awkward run, which proceeded to evolve into a sprint. She wanted out of here.
Perhaps the divine powers had heard her prayers.
As she sprinted, ran in a blind panic, scared, frightened, the ground below her, aged, brittle, abused by the necessities of mining, suddenly gave way and shattered below her feet. Terra only had a moment to scream before the abyss welcomed her into its embrace, sending her into a short fifteen-foot freefall…
…that was thankfully broken by a slight inclination of the cavern walls, diverting her weight slightly to the side, slowly her rapid descent, before permitting her to bounce off, a pained cry following immediately after, before she finally finished the five-foot fall onto the ground, where, upon impact, a second cry was forced out of her throat.
Still she laid on the ground for just a few seconds before she had realized she had fallen from the floor above, and, upon understanding such, she pulled herself, slowly, to her feet. Her right leg, she saw, was bleeding, a result of having scraped herself across the slant of the mine walls. It was far better than having fallen completely flat on the ground below, though. She could not quite comprehend this, however, and could not be thankful for such a situation; even as she made it back up to her feet, the pain was ever evident, not just in her leg, but in her head as well. The voices, the pain, the disorientation had all made it back into her head once more, the feeling of emptiness and helplessness filling her mind as she struggled against it futilely, watching in surrender as it consumed her.
Dizzy, pained, and traumatized, she wobbled…and collapsed onto the ground, alone, in a dead faint.
The sun had trickled some of its rays into the canyons, providing Narshe with some form of natural light, when he arrived, accompanying the light.
The first thing he had noticed when he prepared to enter the town was that it was bustling with frantic activity. It wasn't surprising; the Imperial assault on Narshe must've had turned a few heads and shaken a few people, a small, covert attack force operating in a neutral town. Already, civilians were mingling with the militiamen, sharing gossip, man and woman, young and old. The crowds were all throughout the street, each of them accosting each other as if hoping the other would have more information, all while surveying the damage done to their city. Their ire was up; how dare the Empire attack a neutral city.
It was hard sneaking into a canyon town with only one known entrance. His motive for stealth was specifically because the city was in a panic; every stranger seemed like a possible suspect in the aftermath of an atrocity, and he didn't visit Narshe often. Eyes that traced him, a face hardly familiar within the snowy streets of the cold mining town, gleamed with suspicion. Still, though, security still seemed somewhat lax, and it was clear that the militia was as startled and uncertain as the civilians who were just beginning to discover what was going on. He passed through unmolested.
Still, he was careful enough to take side streets and back alleys regardless, deciding to play it safe. There was no point in being caught now; he had done nothing wrong here, and there were probably far more important things to do than spending the night being interrogated by the militia. A leather coat was "borrowed" along the way to his destination; it was cold here, and he had been summoned on sudden notice, with no chance to stop anywhere to procure extra clothing.
It was deeper into the town that the scars of the assault became more evident. Jagged black lines showed where the beams of the MagiTek armor had cut through. Bullet marks peppered the streets and walls, 20mm by the look of the holes, showing where they had relentlessly torn through. A blown house seemed to indicate something that resembled a gas explosion…perhaps the result of a well-placed missile. He was familiar with the specs of MagiTek armor, having conducted surveillance activities on them before for various interests. MagiTek armor was one of the most fearsome weapons on the battlefield, and those who might end up going against one often preferred to know what hell had in store for them.
Yet he was not here to survey the damage in Narshe. His visit to this cold, wintry mining town was for another purpose entirely, although, admittedly, even he was not clear as to exactly why he was summoned.
The first thing that truly alarmed him in the morning was the sight of a certain house when he managed to get close enough, which was something around thirty meters, on the snowy cliffs on the eastern side of the pass, aligned with the second floor buildings of Narshe, one of the natural streets of the city. He had intended to enter through the front door like a gentleman, yet he stopped cold in his tracks, his eyes widening in surprise then squinting in suspicion as he trained his gaze at the front door of the building. It was a two-story building, yet the first floor was on ground level, one residence, while another above it was surrounded by both bridges and a cliff. The man noticed with some alarm that the front door of the second floor was damaged. "Damaged" might've been an understatement; he couldn't even seen the front door save several splinters on the hinges, indicating that the door had crashed in, a sure sign of a forced entry.
This doesn't look good, he thought as he moved to the east, further towards the cliffs, using the jugged rocks as a form of cover as he approached the house. His eyes scanned every window, preparing to stop and hide as soon as movement appeared in any of the glass panes. Thankfully, though, whatever or whoever was in the house, it was still, with no indicator that he would be discovered. He made his way low, sticking close to walls when he had the chance, and, when he had reached the house, stuck below the windows, using the shadows to his advantage, pausing every now and then to listen for sounds from the inside. There were none.
Getting close enough to the front door, he looked down, and was not at all surprised to see that the wooden door had been spliced, torn through by bullets, shredding the door. It was a mess, and, to that extent, he made his way in quietly, without a sound, calmly and lightly walking in with suppressed footsteps, his eyes darting left and right, up and down to search for unseen threats. The parlor wasn't very large, a small hallway that eventually led right to the living room. He pressed himself against the wall, sliding along it, minimizing his chances of being found, going further along the path, taking careful care not to step on the wooden splinters and give himself away. Making it to the end of the hall, he turned right, and, to his slight relief, found that the interior was slightly less disturbed than the parlor, although not necessarily untouched. Large objects such as couches, tables, cupboards, bookshelves, and, in one case, a grandfather clock were moved and flipped in disarray, while the floor was fresh with what seemed like dirty footprints originating from boots, even paw prints. Attack dogs, if I had to guess, he thought.
On the far end, a man with wearing blue and white, gray hair brushed to the back of his head, could be found seated, wearily, in front of an office chair, his back to he who had just entered. His eyes scanned the room again, looking for dangers he might have missed, factors he might not have realized, then scanned the man sitting in the chair one more time, before finally deciding that the room was safe and clear.
"Shit," Locke Cole muttered, looking around at the mess as he placed his arms on his hips, "What the hell happened here?"
Arvis turned around from where he sat, seemingly not surprised of Locke's appearance, just of the complete silence in which he had arrived. "There was a dispute," Arvis said plainly with a shrug, standing up. His voice was slightly slurred, stilted, as if it hurt his mouth to talk. Locke frowned as Arvis turned, giving him a better view of the older man. The right side of his cheek was bruised, slightly misshapen, and was still matted with a bit of blood. Apparently, something had struck him hard across the face, hard enough to crack something inside.
"A 'dispute'?" Locke repeated skeptically, raising an eyebrow and keeping his brown eyes trained on Arvis' wound, "Look at your face." Undoubtedly, he thought of it as an understatement. At first glance, Locke Cole could've seemed like just about any other passerby on the street. Aside from the cloak he picked up, his attire, a blue pair of trousers, a blue vest, and a white shirt under it, were all made of ordinary, average material, unadorned, slightly coarse; he seemed like just about any other random person, unworthy of a second glance. The only real noteworthy item on him was a blue bandana wrapped around his head, and that was usually passed over with a fleeting glance as well.
It was at the rare second glance that one began to notice the details surrounding the young man in his mid-twenties. He seemed to fade into the background nicely, doing so without effort; he just seemed to be able to be immune to scrutiny and attention. His fingers were thin, long, nimble, and, on occasion, one could catch his fingers dancing in the air, as if he was playing an invisible piano, or conducting an invisible orchestra, the motion of his fingers quick, sure, and true. He was not muscular, yet the firm tendons under his skin, visible through faint groove lines on his skin from a closer observation, showed that he was no slouch. His fair skin displayed several scruff marks, as if he had spent his time in a factory or a mine shaft, streaks of dirt across his fair face. Grayish-blond hair, going down to his neck, were roughly divided into bangs under his blue bandana, inadvertently hiding his brown eyes below, which reflected a clever, brilliant gleam, a sure indicator of his wit, if not his intelligence.
"Just a bruise," Arvis waved it off, walking his way over to Locke, making sure not to step on anything that might've been knocked over to the floor, his movements, careful and uncertain, telling Locke that the guards had moved things, Arvis had not moved it back, and now Arvis found himself unused to navigating through a familiar room with objects where they weren't supposed to be, "It'll heal in time. That said, enough about me, let's talk about you. It certainly took you long enough! Busy with all that robbing and plundering, I presume?"
Locke's eyes seemed to widen just a bit with a mock expression of shock, before he scowled, seemingly displeased. "I prefer the term 'treasure hunting'!" Locke declared in irritation, crossing his arms.
Arvis snorted. "Semantic nonsense!" Arvis countered.
Locke gave Arvis a cocky grin, raised a finger into the air, as if it made all the difference in the world. "There's a huge difference!" Locke chuckled, "Treasure hunter sounds so much more adventurous, romantic, and…" Locke paused, then shrugged trivially, as if he added the following as an afterthought, "…you might say, legal…than robber or thief…" Locke suddenly paused, realizing he was lingering too far off-topic, and nodded to Arvis, crossing his arms, "…Anyways, you called for me, yeah? I received your messenger pigeon; is there something you need me to do? I don't get too many courtesy calls from Narshe."
Arvis nodded, closed his eyes as he paced the living room a bit, and Locke, noting how much older Arvis suddenly looked with that simple motion, was suddenly worried that Arvis would forget the objects in the room have been displaced, and would trip over something. "Yeah…" Arvis blew air out of his mouth, looking out the window, "There is something. There is a girl I'd like you to meet."
At this, Locke's eyes widened in genuine surprise, not a mock expression, as he strutted forward towards Arvis, as if to get a closer look at the man, either to check his expression to see if he was joking, or if the butt of a submachine gun had slammed too hard against his head. "This better not have anything to do with that MagiTek-riding, Imperial witch!" Locke hissed, a voice that sounded more stunned than it was angry.
Arvis looked amused and impressed despite himself. "Narshe was just attacked hours ago," Arvis stated coolly, "and you already have some info on that?"
Locke grimaced, tucked his hands into his pockets. "Word from Figaro was that the Imperial ambassador in Figaro Castle told the castle to expect three MagiTek armors tomorrow," he stated, "They keep me well-informed. I did a bit of digging myself, and found out a few things. It isn't too hard to put one and one together…" Locke shrugged, stopped, looked back at Arvis with a frown, "…Shit, we are talking about the witch, aren't we? I mean, they just ransacked your room. I'd only assume the Narshe guards did that."
"It isn't her fault," Arvis noted, turning from the window to look at Locke, "She was under the influence of a slave crown."
Locke raised an eyebrow; it was obvious he had not heard that part of the story. "Can I see it?" Locke asked, "The slave crown, anyways."
"I'd show it to you…" Arvis sighed, "…if the city guard hadn't already taken it. And we don't have much time. The city guard is pursuing the girl as we speak. This city has the strength to stand up against the Empire, but they won't use it. Their philosophy is clear: 'We will not wage war against another city, kingdom, or state, nor will we intervene in a conflict between other cities, kingdoms, or states.' Narshe's a city of miners, engineers, and workers, with no interest in wars or politics. You can say this is a town born from the proletariat, people sick of this kind of shit. The people here are too stubbornly independent, too stuck to this philosophy, to join an underground resistance group like the Returners. I tried to explain that the Empire was controlling the girl, but they wouldn't listen…" Arvis shrugged, "…I think they were afraid I'd take the slave crown to show that the Empire had been controlling the girl, Terra, then try to sway the populace into taking up arms against the Empire."
Locke sighed, brushed his gloved hands through his hair above the bandana as he did so. Politics at its best, Locke thought to himself silently, not speaking it aloud; the comment probably wouldn't be appreciated by Arvis. Returner or not, Arvis was a resident and homeboy of Narshe, his hometown. Scrutiny best be kept to a minimum.
"So that's how it is, huh…?" Locke whispered, his turn to look out the window, noting that it was truly morning now, the canyon beginning to be lit by the sunlight, then nodded, "Alright, then…I'd be loathe to waste a girl on the Empire anyways. So you want me to get her out of Narshe on the double?"
Arvis nodded, winced as he strained one of his wounds by moving his head. "That would be the idea," Arvis agreed, "Make your way to Figaro for the time being; Narshe can't afford to launch a search party outside of their borders, and we can only assume Terra will be safe in Figaro until we can find a safer place to hide her."
Locke raised an eyebrow, clearly skeptical. The wheels were turning fast in his head. "The Imperial ambassador in Figaro Castle knows about the girl," Locke noted, worry laced in his voice, "It's not extremely likely he won't notice. We're compromising Figaro's alliance with the Empire if we're to offer her sanctuary there. I know their ties aren't all that great, but their guise as the Empire's puppet state is doing wonders for us."
"We don't have much of a choice in this one," Arvis admitted, crossing his arms, "Figaro is the only place that can offer her sanctuary at the moment. While it would be a good idea to smuggle her to South Figaro directly, there's little we can do at the moment without the full support of King Edgar and the Kingdom of Figaro. He'll have to understand the situation, know what the next move is. Neither of us are very political; he'll know how to deal with it."
"Yeah," Locke concurred, scratching a stubble of hair just above his blue bandana, "We're just two farts doing the waterworks. Well, time's a wasting, and the damsel's still in distress; that's why they call upon the knight in shining armor. Where did our lovely lady head off to?"
By his own admission, Locke was not a professional tracker, but years of being a "treasure hunter" and "adventurer", as he would call it, as well as "thief" and "spy", as others may have called him, endowed him with enough knowledge and experience to follow the trail of the missing girl. It hadn't been completely difficult to follow the trail. Knowing that she had escaped through the backdoor, he had simply followed the path until he discovered that there was a split beam on one of the bridges upon reaching a fork in the road. Upon closer inspection, Locke saw that there were bullet holes into them, light 10mm rounds, seemingly a three-round burst. Standard Narshe submachine gun rounds. Someone from the militia had been shooting in this direction, probably at the escaping Terra. He could bet that she ran this way.
It did not take long for him to run past the bridge into the mines, and discover the second clue. Upon reaching yet another fork in the road, there were clearly two burning lumps of god-knows-what in the distance. Upon moving up for a closer look, he saw with a start that they were the burnt carcasses of two attack huskies. The lumps were almost unrecognizable and disgusting to look at, as if they had been left in some poisonous lagoon for centuries. Locke actually had to pinch his nose as he decided that this was the right direction, and moved further down the cave.
Locke wondered what kind of heat the girl, "Terra", if he remembered Arvis correctly, was packing. The dogs were on fire, but Locke couldn't really find any sort of blast marks anywhere. There were no signs of grenade bursts or missile explosions. An incendiary grenade, maybe, Locke thought to himself, taking one last look at the two dead, burning dogs, or perhaps a flamethrower. No, probably not a flamethrower; the only way she could be hauling that around by now is if Arvis gave it to her, and Arvis sure as hell doesn't have that kind of weapon. As far as Locke was concerned, the only kingdom around that actually incorporated flamethrowers as an infantry weapon was Figaro. And Terra sure as hell wasn't from Figaro.
The next and last sign that led Locke to Terra was, funnily enough, a hole in the ground. This clue was so ridiculously easy that Locke actually grinned, bemused, as he walked over calmly, lightly, to the hole and looked down. It was twenty-foot fall to the ground, generally not fatal, although there might've been a few bones cracked along the way. Thankfully, though, as Locke managed to peer down the hole, he saw that the wall slanted some, which probably would've helped broke the fall of whoever had the misfortune to stumble down to the floor below. Surely enough, even from above, Locke could see the girl he was searching for. From twenty feet away, Locke could tell that she was definitely a teenager, with a developing body, but still room for more maturity.
Not that it mattered to him anyways. His hands clutching onto the edge of the hole, he slid down from the second floor, and dropped gracefully and lightly onto the floor below, bending his knees to absorb the shock. For a man who often moved from cavern to cavern and jumping from buildings, a twenty-foot drop was hardly a feat to be impressed about.
Locke knelt down next to the limp and unconscious Terra, his hand immediately darting for the neck to detect a pulse. As he did so, his eyes scanned over the crimson-clad Terra, noting the red robes she wore, simple yet elegant, purple ribbons dancing across her body, particularly around the shoulders and waist. Locke frowned at that. Most definitely not a soldier, Locke told himself, and definitely a civilian. The slave crown at its best. Carrying absolutely no weapons that Locke could see, Terra was slightly curled in an almost fetal position, her skin pale and smooth, flocks of dirty blond hair flowing from her head, almost covering all of her delicate face. A thumb lingered close to her lips, as if she, even in her sleep, wished to place it in her mouth, and Locke, detecting a pulse, could not help but smile as he slid his hand to Terra's face to caress her cheek. Poor little thing.
Leaving Narshe was now of the utmost priority. While Locke certainly didn't come to Narshe often, he knew the city well enough to know that there were always hidden passageways in the mines, routes out of the city in the emergency. In this case, he did know several of those routes, handy passages that granted him access in and out of the city without anyone noticing. Now was a time to use such. Except footsteps in the distance told him that there might be complications.
The cavern he had dropped into, he knew from previous exploring attempts, was something of a spiderweb, a maze with many intersections branching off to each other. It made for a great place to play hide-and-go-seek, but, listening carefully, Locke could instantly tell that there were plenty of them approaching, which only meant it was that much easier for her to be surrounded. While had no problems with a bloody knife, nor did he have problems with evading search parties, there was the girl to be concerned about. Terra was unconscious, unmoving, and a very vulnerable package. While a glance at her told Locke that Terra probably only weight around fifty kilograms, easy enough for him to carry in his arms, it was going to be difficult to hide, nevermind fight, with her in his arms.
And he certainly couldn't carry her while trying to outrun attack dogs, which, Locke knew, were fast approaching, judging by a lighter, faster set of footsteps sounding in the distance, followed by incessant panting. It sounded like there was quite the number of the attack dogs, sniffing out Locke's scent. Locke listened carefully, trying to make out each individual set of footsteps. Wonderful, Locke thought, grimacing, there's a whole bunch of them…probably around six attack dogs, three guards. While Locke could easily hide from human pursuers with his stealth, attack dogs were another matter. No matter how good he was from disappearing into an alcove, vanishing into a gap, dogs could always pick out a human scent, and he had no doubt these huskies already had him traced.Locke had run into enough tight spots to be acquainted with canine fangs, and he had no intention of having teeth marks implanted into his ass, especially not here.
The following sight was so hilarious that Locke wondered if it was suitable for this situation.
He had first turned his head around when he had heard a soft noise, something that sounded along the lines of "kupo". His knife had found its way into its hand before Locke even realized that, a trained reaction, meant to be done, not to be understood, for instinct was oft faster than intuition, yet as Locke looked up the hole he had come from, his eyes blinked twice, almost as if he was certain if he blinked hard enough, his eyes would stop playing tricks with him.
Staring back at him was a small, cautious, white head, furry, with what looked like a red pompom above its head, bobbing up and down as it looked down at Locke with small, curious eyes. "Kupo?" the head said in a soft voice as it looked down, its mouth nearly hidden by the fur coating its head, long whiskers, three on each side, extending from above the mouth, quivering as it spoke. A second, similar head popped up next to the first as they both stepped closer to the hole, allowing Locke to see exactly what they were.
The first time Locke had seen a Moogle was when he was fourteen, exploring a cave outside Kohlingen during his early years as a self-proclaimed "treasure hunter". When Locke had stumbled upon one by accident, the first thought that came across his mind was that someone had been here before and accidentally dropped an oversized white teddy bear. That was exactly what the Moogle looked like, a teddy bear, with fluffy white fur, a build that was no greater than three feet, short little limbs, and small pink wings extending from its back that proved too small for flight. Locke could still remember the surprise when the Moogle suddenly moved and squealed "kupo", which pretty much exhausted whatever vocabulary Moogles had that were within human comprehension.
The two Moogles in the caves of Narshe above Locke, however, were not the one that he had seen near Kohlingen. He had not tripped over them, and they seemed more curious than frightened, looking down at Locke in an appraising way, as if immensely interested in what was going on, and wondering what they should do about it. They didn't stay that way for long. A sudden flood of excited "kupo"s suddenly came through the hole, and, before Locke could comprehend what was going on, the two Moogles looking at him were suddenly tipping forward, waving their little arms frantically, as if trying to keep balance and trying not to fall into the hole, although, with the length of their own arms, it seemed like that their "waving" their arms, which amounted to no more than a crazed wiggle, wasn't going to help things at all. The two Moogles quickly fell down the hole, which prompted a sudden flow of Moogles from behind them to appear behind them in a frenzy, also jumping down the hole, seemingly excited as they chattered amongst themselves, a sudden waterfall of Moogles coming down right in front of Locke. The first two Moogles landed unceremoniously on the floor with a high "kupo!", and comically squealed the same line each time each remaining Moogles, nine in all, proceeded to land right on top of them, bouncing off them, even, as they descended down onto the ground where Locke, slightly dumbfounded, was standing.
The Moogles seemed to moreorless ignore Locke's presence as first as they scrambled right past him towards Terra. All of them carried weapons of a sort, some spears, other boomerangs, more flails. Locke was immediately defensive, but paused as he noticed that the nine, eleven when the two unfortunate and stampeded Moogles on the ground finally picked themselves up with a pout, Moogles gathered around Terra seemed to be more fascinated and concerned than anything. A few of them seemed to hug Terra, another few nudging her, but Terra didn't seem to wake. Locke was slightly uncomfortable at the fact that there were just shy of a dozen Moogles that Locke was not familiar with surrounding the girl he was supposed to extract, but he couldn't sense any hostility from the Moogles, only what felt like friendliness and curiosity. In fact, Locke could almost feel a certain familiarity, a bond between the Moogles and Terra.
The Moogles were distracted from their interest, however, as the sound of approaching footsteps became ever more evident. The combination of boots and paws seemed to indicate a detachment of guards and attack dogs approaching, to which the Moogles, to Locke's surprise, actually seemed defensive, drawing their weapons as they formed what almost seemed to be a tiny phalanx around Terra. Locke certainly didn't speak Moogle, but the gesture seemed to indicate enough. "Moogles," Locke addressed them collectively in a hushed voice, seemingly quite surprised, "Are you saying you want to help?"
"Kupo!" came the Moogles' collective, cheerful reply, which Locke, while not quite understanding, decided to take as an affirmative.
"Alright," Locke nodded, hoping that the Moogles would serve as a good distraction, "You guys take care of the attack dogs; I've never liked wrestling with animals. I'll take care of the search teams. We game?"
"Kupo!" the Moogles replied, and, just as quickly, began to scramble off into two groups into the different paths of the cave. Locke heaved a sigh as he began a slight jog further into the caves, but also making sure that Terra was within eyesight; he wasn't sure this was going to work, not with him uncertain of the battle capabilities of eleven Moogles, which Locke, admittedly due to stereotypes and unfamiliarity with them, couldn't help but compare to teddy bears. His hope was that while the Moogles went ahead to distract the attack dogs, Locke would eliminate one or two of the guards, throw the entire search effort into confusion, and extract himself with the girl. He was, however, all too familiar with the fact that hope and reality rarely spoke the same language.
He could not dwell upon these thoughts, however; already, as he pressed himself close to the grooves in the cliff walls, he could see one of the guards moving down the central path, coming dangerously close to what Locke believed was a proper "defensive perimeter". Armed with a sword and dressed in white, the militiaman, in Locke's opinion, was a perfect target in these caves. Pressing himself tight against the wall, Locke took another quick glance at Terra, ensuring that she was lying there, still safe. It was likely that the guard would only see Terra before he got too close to Locke, and that his attention would be fixated on the girl; the guards had no idea Terra had backup in the form of a thief and eleven Moogles. Locke was sufficiently confident that he could get the drop on the guard.
True to expectations, the guard paused as he came closer, and Locke took that as the cue to tense his muscles in preparations to spring out; the guard obviously saw Terra, and was moving in for the kill as his footsteps became quicker, staying low, but ultimately coming in fast. A good textbook response, but, unfortunately, for the guard, the variety of information available to him was, sadly, woefully lacking. The guard had just reached the point where he would be passing through the groove that Locke was hiding himself in when Locke sprung out with a sudden burst of speed, his hand going for the man's throat. Locke wasn't the strongest man alive; most guards could probably outdo him in a competition of strength. But Locke had the advantage of speed and surprise, and the guard, judging by his shocked expression and his inability to act, didn't seem too keen on responding to an ambush.
This provided Locke with an opening, even as Locke used his right hand, which he considered as his dominant despite being slightly ambidextrous, to not only hold the man's throat as he slammed the guard against the wall, but also used it to guide his left fist in a hard attack at the top of the man's ribcage under his own right hand, right below the man's throat. Locke had learned the technique worked on just about every human being, male or female, and regardless of size. Scoring shots at the face, as well as the gut, were far too difficult and impractical, and a strong enough opponent could resist a few of those. Groin blows were not effective on women, not that Locke had ever tried. Deliver a blow to the position with sufficient force, however, and you force the throat to contract, leaving the victim painfully gasping for breath in a world gone airless, which was exactly what the guard did, dropping his spear as he withered to the ground, clutching at his throat in painful half-coughs that clearly were not making its way out. Guard one down, Locke thought.
Locke's slight satisfaction was short-lived. Immediately, down the hallway, came two attack dogs, huskies, moving down on him at high speeds. Locke scowled as he drew his knife; there was no way he was going to be able to deal with two attack dogs at once unarmed. Despite Locke's self-admitted skill, dogs were simply physically faster than humans, and Locke didn't want to be on the receiving end of those claws or jaws. I thought the Moogles were supposed to be handling them, Locke thought to himself as he prepared his blade as if to defend, but also tensed his leg muscles, preparing to jump upwards in the attempt to scale the walls to lose the dogs below him.
The timing of his jump was perfect, matched so that his rate of ascent, coupled with the huskies' velocity, would not interlink, meaning that the huskies would miss him by centimeters as he sought refuge by sticking himself to the ceiling of the cave. On the other hand, though, Locke found that it was not necessary; just as the canines prepared to jump, from both sides of the cavern suddenly sprang out eleven Moogles, who charged out from the hallways in two giant masses of furballs, wielding their weapons with their warcry. Locke almost lost his grip as he supported himself on the two walls of the cavern, sticking himself against the ceiling, watching this ridiculous display of overt force as he watched slightly agape with a slight sense of incredulity; the Moogles, small as they were, had crashed into the canines with enough force to divert their lunge and send them crashing to the ground, where the Moogles began to whack at the poor dogs with weapons with what Locke could only imagine was the strangest dogpile he had ever seen. The dogs had no chance of recovering and getting back on their legs, not with the massive Moogle tackle and the constant punishment they were receiving from a combination of spears, clubs, flails, and boomerangs. Within seven short seconds, the Moogles had had their way with the attack dogs, and they were on the ground, prone and whimpering, definitely alive, but out of the fight.
Well, Locke thought, that takes care of that.
A slight squeak from the Moogles brought Locke out of his amusement; Locke looked ahead and saw that another guard was approaching, apparently, having heard the agonized whines of the attack dogs and wondering what was going on. The bad news: The guard had seen the Moogles, and immediately drew a submachine gun, pointing it in their direction. The Moogles seemed to have a good idea what a submachine gun was; with a choir of squeals, the Moogles quickly scattered fled from the scene as the guard fired off a few warning shots, none of them meant to hit their target, as the guards were determined not to accidentally hit their dogs. No one that was experienced with firearms deceived themselves into thinking they could aim so well with a submachine gun, and the Narshe militiamen, while not necessarily professionals, were definitely competent enough.
The good news: He did not see Locke still clinging onto the ceiling. And the guard was moving close enough for Locke to have the drop on him.
Locke could see no reason why he shouldn't.
A downward angle was too difficult for Locke to administer any non-lethal blows. He was not heavy enough to simply knock the guy unconscious with sheer weight alone, and knocking him down would probably serve nothing but an ultimately useless close-range struggle, which Locke was, admittedly, not particularly proficient at. Stealth, speed, and finesse were his forte, not direct melee. While he admitted he probably had the skill to produce good chances in disarming the guard fast enough and knocking him unconscious, with what was at stake, Locke didn't take chances. His rapid descent down from the ceiling was accompanied by the swift drawing of the knife, and, by the time Locke finally landed on the ground, the militiaman was gasping from a long, gaping wound that ran through his back. It was definitely enough to put him out of the picture as the militiaman collapsed onto the ground, becoming all too aware of his wounds, but, with rapid treatment, maybe he had a chance. That was what Locke was really counting on; if his comrades found him wounded, they may make evacuating him a priority, rather than looking for Terra and himself. The diversion of manpower, resources, and attention would be a welcome change of plans.
Already, sounds of agitated footsteps and crazed bark from further into the caves indicated that reinforcements were approaching, and that the remaining forces in the area were confused as to why they were losing contact with their own men. As much as Locke wanted to try to hold them back, he knew that it would be an improbability; he was severely outnumbered, and trying to hightail it was probably better than trying to make sure his tail was completely clear. Thankfully, though, leaving two wounded guards and two wounded canines would probably force them to at least halt to administer medical aid, diminish the amount of men they could sent on a hunt, and force them to be slower to avoid being ambushed. Locke could use that.
Quickly running back to the prone form of Terra, Locke skidded to a halt, preparing to pick her up, but paused in slight surprise as he noted the presence of the eleven Moogles, looking quite cheerful…and standing next to the prone forms of another two attack dogs, obviously having been humiliated by a handful of teddy bears with weapons. Locke couldn't help but chuckle as he put his hands on his hips, looking at the group of Moogles before him. "Looks like you really gave them hell," Locke noted dryly.
"Kupo!" the Moogles seemed enthusiastic in their agreement.
Locke nodded in response, looked back at the source of the sound of footsteps, growing louder but still distant. "I'm taking off with the girl," Locke turned back to the Moogles as he bent down and picked Terra up, slinging her over his shoulder as the Moogles helped him halfway, lifting her body just enough for him to adequately build up momentum without straining his back, "Keep them just busy enough for us to put some distance between us and this hellhole, alright?"
Hopping up and down, the Moogles only seemed too eager to comply as they piped together in consent.
"Thanks, Moogles," Locke grinned at the band of eleven just before he turned to flee out through the back exit, "We're in your debt. So you can keep this one on tabs and find the right time to cash in, gotcha?"
"Kupo!" the Moogles squealed in farewell as they waved their weapons in the air, as if assuring Locke nothing was getting past them and their weapons. Locke had a good feeling his tail was covered.
Sufficient running had put some distance between himself and where Locke believed the Narshe militiamen were now. Granted, he wasn't as agile as he would've wanted to be, not when he was carrying Terra, but he still made decent speed, and he knew enough about search tactics to know the guards were going to have a hell of a time trying to look for him at this rate. Already, the stone corridors flashing past him on both sides in a blur were coming to an end.
Coming upon a familiar-looking dead end, Locke skidded to a halt as he looked around, ensuring that this was certainly the right place, and that they haven't been followed or watched. Confident that they were alone, Locke gently set Terra down on the ground next to one of the inclines of the war, hiding her there just in case someone caught him unawares, and took a moment to heave a sigh, catching his breath after a rather extensive amount of running and hiding. Screw this, Locke thought with a slight drown as he began to make his way over to one of the walls in the cavern, barely lit by a minimal amount of torches, I'm only twenty-five; I'm not ready to be all out-of-breath like this. Then, of course, it couldn't be helped. With all the rumors of an imminent Imperial attack floating around, much more time was spent dropping into different places to gather information and intelligence rather than performing some handiwork with a knife.
By the time Locke had concluded his thoughts and returned to reality, he was looking at a small switch on the cavern wall, a small slab of rock on the wall that was of just a slightly different color. While it would've seemed usual for any normal passerby, any suspicious individual could easily locate and identify it. There were actually plenty of these throughout Narshe; when the town was first founded, the initial intent was to have a method of transport throughout the town should Narshe come under attack. If overwhelmed by superior firepower, they could always fall back into the mines, then proceed to either evacuate civilians through those secret pathways, or outflank the attackers. However, as Narshe became secure in its position, confident that it would not be attacked, many of these secret passages were forgotten about, ancient relics of the past.
Though Narshe wasn't Locke's hometown, he had always taken some interest in "ancient relics", and he most certainly didn't forget. "This switch ought to do the trick," Locke grinned as he pulled at the switch, his gloved fingers gripping onto the rock tightly enough and sliding it downwards. Immediately, behind the cavern walls, the low groaning of gears was audible as the teeth of those cogs turned, and Locke turned around with some satisfaction; already, a small gap was forming as the brilliant white light of Narshe's daytime sun began to trickle into the cavern, forcing Locke to squint his eyes even as he began to move out of sight. If the door opened and Narshe guards came in looking for whatever was inside, Locke wanted to make sure that he got the drop on them, and not the other way around.
From the outside, mechanical gears had slid a small portion of the cliff wall away, moving it along its tracks to reveal an opening, a door, in which Locke and Terra could leave through. Locke pressed himself against the wall once more, his knife arm holding onto the dagger's handle as he peeked past the opening, allowing his eyes to adjust quickly into the sunlight, and searched for any possible Narshe guards out there.
There were none.
Motion in the peripheral of his vision caught his attention, and Locke snapped his head in that direction in slight alarm, then heaved a slight sigh of relief as he realized what the motion was. The girl in red, Terra, had managed to push her upper body upright, having regained consciousness and sitting in a half-prone position, attempting to shake the grogginess out of her. One hand was supporting her upper body, pushing against the dirt ground, while the other was curled into a fist as she rubbed her knuckles into her eyes. Locke grinned as he took his hand off the handle of his dagger and crossed his arms, making his way towards Terra. "Hey," Locke called out as a means of a friendly greeting, "Back with us now, eh?"
Terra's eyes went wide open as she turned to face Locke, and Locke regretted having spoken so soon; Terra's surprise and shock at Locke's presence were evident, but, for some reason, mixed into that terrified glance Terra was giving Locke was also a strange, savage, menacing glare that Locke found uncomfortable being on the receiving end of. However, when Locke blinked, the glare had disappeared, paving way for genuine and complete fear; Locke shook his head in resignation. He must've been imagining things. It was probably in self-defense, for both of them, anyways. Terra had been chased back and forth by guards and attack dogs with absolutely no idea of what had happened to her, and Locke, in his line of work, learned to trust as few people as possible.
"Hey, hey, now," Locke said gently, raising both his hands up in a peaceful gesture to indicate his lack of hostility, "You're safe now. See? No bad guys around. Just us, and we're getting the hell out of here. You're safe. You're going to be fine."
Terra blinked twice, seemingly uncertain, as she clasped her hands to her chest in a self-defensive gesture, her eyes darting left and right, ensuring that there were not any threats around. Locke stood there at an impasse, trying to seem as non-threatening as possible. Patience and technique worked this time, however; Terra seemed to settle down as the panic left her eyes, replaced with uncertainty, but she was definitely calm as she settled her eyes back onto Locke. "You…" Terra asked tentatively, looking at Locke, then turning her head around cautiously, as if making sure one last time that there was truly no one else around, "…saved me?"
Locke chuckled, tapped the toes of his boot against the dirt ground once, shrugging. "I don't like taking praise where it isn't due," Locke grinned, and made a pointing motion of his shoulder with his thumb, "Save your thanks for the Moogles; not sure I could've done it without them."
Terra blinked, seemingly clueless about what Locke was talking about. "Moo…gles?" Terra whispered the word slowly, slowly putting her free hand close to the mouth, as if she wanted to feel her lips uttering the word; "Moogles" came out strange as she said it, for a reason Locke had yet to understand, as if the word was something alien, something exotic, in Terra's mouth.
"Yeah," Locke blinked, slightly surprised at Terra's confusion, and extended a hand in explanation, "Moogles. You know, those…" Locke attempted to find a better alternative to what he had in mind, failed, and sighed, "…those white little teddy bear things?"
Terra paused once more, her gaze going distant, and Locke suddenly felt uncomfortable, feeling as if Terra was looking at something…invisible, an ethereal plane that Locke couldn't see. Her eyes became so deep and blank that he felt as if Terra's soul was no longer in her body, as if she was seeing something that made her not of this world…but as soon as that thought coursed through Locke's mind, Terra suddenly left out a soft, muffled cry as her hands went to her head, a lightning bolt having screeched across her mind and having its way with her, startling Locke to considerable alarm.
"Hey!" Locke started, sliding down towards Terra as he clutched at Terra's shoulder, trying to shake her out of it or, at least, give her some semblance of mental rapport in the form of physical support, "Are you okay? Snap out of it!"
"Ugh," Terra groaned, clutching at her head in obvious pain, her eyes tightly closed shut, "I can't remember a thing…"
Locke blinked. "What?" he made out pathetically.
Terra opened her eyes slowly, looked up at Locke with an expression that Locke found terrifyingly melancholic, the eyes of a girl who seemed extraordinarily lost and afraid. "It's…" Terra whispered, "…it's…like my mind's trapped in a fog…"
Locke blinked, then squinted his eyes in what seemed to be like suspicion, but checked that motion immediately. "You lost your memory…huh…" was what made it out of Locke's lips. Well, of course she did, Locke thought, seemingly a bit embarrassed that he was even suspicious of the girl in the first place, seeing how, you know, she had the slave crown and all that. I'm looking for shadows where they don't exist.
Terra seemed to suddenly seem surprised that she was saying it out loud, and looked at Locke with what almost seemed like an expression of panic, which put Locke slightly off-guard. "A…A man said it would come back…!" Terra added quickly, seemingly regretting having revealed she had no memories, then, as if seeming certain, averted her gaze elsewhere, resignedly muttering, "…Eventually…"
H-Hey, Locke thought, not sure what to think as he tried to keep a straight face on as he looked at Terra, don't look at me with those eyes like that. I can't stand those. "So," Locke shrugged, displaying an aura of seemingly nonchalance about it all, "you've got amnesia..." Locke grinned in a devil-may-care manner, hoping it would help Terra relax some, if she was even looking at him, "…So what? Don't worry about it. I've got a request from a mutual friend making sure you're going to be all okay, so I'm not going to leave your side until those memories of yours return."
Seemingly surprised at those words, Terra looked at Locke with a mingled expression of confusion, suspicion, and relief, apparently not quite understanding what was going on. It was probably the conclusion of the fact that Terra had little idea what Locke wanted, but was equally glad that it seemed she, superficially, had an ally so far. Locke seemed to catch up on the meaning behind Terra's glance, and chuckled as he stepped forth, offering a hand to help her back onto her feet. "I'm not going to abandon someone just because they lost their memories," Locke grinned, extending his hand towards Terra, "Trust me on this; I'll keep you safe. Promise. I don't like breaking them."
Terra looked at Locke's hand uncertainly for a moment, as if not sure what to do, before slowly, shyly, moving her hand toward Locke's own, still unsure, but, in Locke's opinion, ultimately headed in the right direction. "Come on," Locke grinned as he finished the motion, reaching forward even more to grab Terra's hand, much to her surprise, and pulling her up to her feet effortlessly, "Time's a wasting. Let's get going."
"Ah…yes…" Terra made out lamely as she was dragged along, her gait uncertain as her feet stumbled across the steps Locke was pulling her along, still confused and uncertain, but ultimately glad that there seemed to be someone, finally, someone, who was going to watch out for her in a world she did not recognize, in a world out to get her.
The two disappeared into the light as the gears to the hidden entrance began to spin again, sealing off the mine caverns and whatever had been plaguing Terra's mind.
Author's Note: God, that took forever. Almost six months since my last update; at least I know I didn't take a year. I know the ending seemed a bit rushed, but my goal was to finish the chapter as soon as possible after a three month hiatus that prevented me from writing anything after the Moogles first showed up. Hopefully, it didn't come out too bad; I know I hit a tremendous writer's block.
I know the chapter started a bit awkwardly with an older Celes in present time suddenly showing up. I wanted the chapter to focus primarily on Celes, yet, with six other officers in the room, two of whom will play an important role soon (you'll find out what, although I suspect many will have seen it a mile away), it was really difficult to really try and focus primarily on Celes, and I can't say I was satisfied with the outcome. On the other hand, though, I didn't want to delete that part; identifying who these officers are is going to be an important step towards something else in the story later.
You'll notice that I skipped the part where Terra remembers what Kefka had done to her. That was intentional; there will come a time when I explain everyone's backstories…somewhere in the far off future. You'll know when I get there.
I also made a few changes to Locke's core personality…which isn't actually the core basis of his personality, but, moreover, the way he acts. Rather than just a thief, I'm trying to portray as Locke as someone more confident, someone fluent in espionage and black-ops, someone to do the dirty work for the Returners. He's not quite Solid Snake, but perhaps a bit closer to that than how the game portrayed him.
Now, moving onto some of the reviews…
Peptuck: I, good sir, thank thee; it has been a very, very long while since I received a review as constructive as yours. This is the way reviews should be done. I thank thee muchly.
I can tell you, first, that my chapters generally are not this long; before Children of the Magi, my chapters were ten pages, maximum. Actually, I had been used to nine-page chapters. The prologue, I felt, was too important and too (please pardon my lack of modesty) powerful to not put into a single delivery; I would've felt it was a crime to separate it into separate chapters. I do NOT intend to write a chapter this long ever again, though, so rest assured; you SHOULD be able to read the rest of my chapters in a single sitting from here on out. XD
I realized my error with a six-year-old Terra running around...then, again, I suppose the Imperials were relying too heavily on their edict, and Cyne was not available at the time. It's really more of a "we'd rather have Terra working for us willingly" scenario, I guess. Then, again, I suppose that's why a dozen people got torched. Go gross overconfidence. I'm really glad you like my depiction of Terra and Celes in their younger forms, though.
As for Biggs and Wedge (heehee), yes, I realize that simulations of the mission would be conducted beforehand (I have Rainbow Six and Band of Brothers, the books, mind you, to thank for that basic tidbit), but, yes, as you have pointed out, time was of the essence. I suppose I misused the words, however; what I meant was that, as opposed to sending an entire army down on Narshe, a precision strike, meaning a swift swathing maneuver, into Narshe would be much more practical than sending a conventional army. As for technology...well, we'll see.
Again, thanks muchly for the review. I hope to see more of this stuff from you. X3