NB: This replaces the previous Chapter 11 (Day of the tentacles) in order to move things on slightly faster.
Chapter 11: Guardian Angels, Part One
Well, I hope everyone enjoyed our little sortie into the chaotic, testosterone-sloshed world of 'arbitrary deathmatch'. In my opinion, I don't think Terra and I did too badly for our first bout. I mean, yes, she was almost punched clean through a log wall, but I feel that she should be given credit for her attempt to beat a six-foot-seven brick of meat senseless with a frying pan. It didn't work, but it's hardly her fault that the brick in question had spent the last decade seeking enlightenment by cracking himself over the head with an array of increasingly solid objects.
While we're on the matter of people with extremely hard skulls, I should also mention that the whole confrontation with Vargas reminded my fiancee that, despite everything we've been through, my understanding of unarmed combat is about that of an office worker whose greatest nemesis is the change-eating vending machine down the corridor. In her opinion, this shocking lapse in my skillset means that I'm going to end up bleeding out in an alleyway after some six-year-old kid with dysentery takes a liking to my googly-eyed keychain. In my defence, I pointed out the extreme challenge that this hypothetical six-year-old would face in mugging me if they, their dysentery, and their dreams of illicit keychain ownership were all reduced to elemental carbon by a satellite-frazzling bolt of divine judgement, but this argument fell on deaf ears. To her, the fact that I can summon plasma hot enough to melt tungsten is entirely irrelevant; it doesn't count if you don't see your assailant off using nothing but your fists, feet, and a good hearty shout. Why? I don't know, but apparently this is the conclusion you reach after six or so years of psychotically intense martial arts training.
Anyway, in order to placate her I tentatively agreed that I'd find time to learn more about punching bricks in half and the proper pronunciation of 'Hiya!'. Somehow, this rather hesitant suggestion managed to trigger the neuron marked 'Your training begins NAOW!' and started a chain of events that concluded with me tapping out on the lawn, having been twisted into a shape that a pretzel would find uncomfortable. Call me old-fashioned, but when you're starting out on your road to self-defence perfection you generally expect your teacher to open with things like 'this is how to tie your belt' and 'this is how to defend against a punch from a man who wants to hurt you very slowly'. You certainly don't anticipate being launched through the nearest open doorway and bent into a shape that roughly approximates the Penrose triangle, and say I was unamused would be a strong contender for Understatement of the Bloody Century.
In the interests of fairness, I should probably also say that I have never, ever seen my fiancee so embarrassed or apologetic, and when I'd cooled down a little she freely admitted that she'd gotten a touch over excited and carried away in the heat of the moment, which would certainly explain why she very nearly put me into low orbit. Later still, she put on her very best puppy face and begged me for another chance, promising that we'd start at the beginning and wouldn't progress to fending off knives, batons, and rabid wolves for at least a week. Maybe two, if I turn out to be a slow learner.
Of course, anyone who knows me and my resistance to those big, sorrowful eyes will be entirely unsurprised to hear that I've given in. If I'm being honest, though, it's not really about the self defence; no matter what she says, a bolt of lightning powerful enough to emit X-rays will do you for most any situation. In this case, it's all about her. When she talks about her training, she speaks with the kind of fire and passion that she normally reserves for critiquing art, and it doesn't take a genius to realise that she's deeply unhappy that she's let it slide in recent times. We all do things for the ones we love, and if being tossed around like a ship in a storm brings a smile to her face, then that's exactly what I'm going to do.
I'm being dragged into town to go look at gis and some kind of shock-absorbent matting. In the meantime, please feel free to take a moment to saw 'awww' or snigger behind your hand, and I'll take the high road and pointedly ignore you.
Vargas was gone, but his short visit had done an impressive amount of damage. Most of the furniture had been reduced to piles of cheap wood and fabric, and my friends and family were lying in dazed, moaning heaps wherever the martial artist had thrown them. Locke and Edgar, thankfully, would be absolutely fine, at least once they'd finished complaining and massively exaggerating the extent of their injuries. My sister's future was not so certain, however; in my absence she had slumped back to the floor, and her grey pallor and shallow, wheezing breaths were setting off little red klaxons all over the inside of my head.
"Tee? Tee!" I said softly, kneeling down beside her, "It's okay, I'm here."
"Good," she muttered, "My ribs...killing me..."
"Hold on," I said, and lightly laid my hands on her ribcage. Almost immediately, small pockets of white-hot pain blazed across my mind, and I felt my fingers dig into her clothing as I forced my way through the agony to the underlying injury. Now that I had time to assess the damage, I realised that it was worse than I had originally thought; Vargas' blow had smashed several of Terra's ribs to pieces, creating a shifting mass of bony shards that dug viciously at the surrounding tissue whenever she breathed. So far, the worst of it had been held in check by her latent abilities, but they were already starting to flicker and would probably vanish completely the instant she lost consciousness.
"It's not good, Tee," I said honestly, "Four ribs broken, three of them in two places."
"And if you weren't a Mage Knight, and I weren't a Mage Knight, right now I'd be praying that you'd survive long enough for us to airlift you to Castle Sacae," I smiled a little crookedly, "You'll be fine. Once I put your ribs back together, you should be able to sleep the rest of it off."
"Thanks, Firma," she murmured, as I got to work, "'Sorry to be such a... pain."
"You're not a pain, Tee," I said firmly, "You did brilliantly."
"Yeah, right," she snorted, "I barely scratched him."
"I'm serious!" I insisted, "You were this close to having him...y'know, before he cleaned your clock."
"Hah," Terra smiled weakly, "Don't...make me laugh, Firma. It hurts too much."
"Sorry," I said quickly, "Just lie still; it'll be okay soon."
"I know," she said, and then motioned me closer, "...when you get a chance, take a look at Edgar's crossbow."
"You mean his-"
"Ye-ahh!" she winced as a piece of bone jumped back into position, "I'm not sure what he's done to it, but...magical. 'Think it may be that thaumium you got off of Jumbo."
"Really?" I cast a surreptitious look over my shoulder to the tangled mass of limbs that represented fifty percent of our little team's biomass, "How odd."
"It's clever, certainly," she said darkly, "I'm not sure I like it."
"I'll check it out," I promised, and gave one of her freshly-repaired ribs a mental poke, "That should just about do it. Just stay off the magic overnight, let your body rest and you'll be as good as new by tomorrow morning."
"Thanks again," Terra said, as I helped her slowly to her feet, "You might want to check on those two. They're awfully quiet."
"Maybe they're just getting comfortable," I suggested, and Terra sniggered, "C'mon, let's give them some privacy."
"I heard that, pal," a warning growl came from somewhere in the heap, "I'm not so sure I like what yer insinuatin', y'know."
"Quite so!" said another voice that could only be Edgar, "The national press would have a field day if they discovered I were enjoying the company of such a... common individual."
"Common? Me?" Locke protested, "Listen here, you bloody fop, I'll have yer know my tastes are very refined!"
"Indeed," Edgar remarked, "Nobody else knows more about second-hand jewelery."
"Are you calling me a thief, Edgar? That's it; I'm going to kick your bloody ars-"
"Stop struggling, Locke! Your boot is caught in my hair!"
"Well, maybe if yer just cut it like us commoners, this sort've thing wouldn't happen!"
"Maybe if you took some care over your personal appearance..."
"...and there's the noise," I said to Terra, who was clearly trying very hard not to laugh, "Go get some sleep, Tee; I've got this under control."
"I'm sure you do," she said, and ruffled my hair as she turned to leave, "Good luck!"
It took some doing, admittedly, but eventually I managed to calm the pair down enough to disentangle Edgar's finely coiffed locks from Locke's bootlaces, at which point it simply became a matter of prising them apart with a well-placed boot and a piece of shattered furniture. Eventually, and with a few yelps of pain, I managed to drag them apart far enough to get a decent look at their aches and pains. As I suspected, both of them had largely escaped injury, with the worst of it being a pair of minor headaches and some bruising around Edgar's neck where Vargas had throttled him. After quick check to confirm nothing had escaped my notice, I turned my abilities loose and let them deal with the problem.
"Thanks, pal," Locke said, once the gold-blue glow had faded from the room, "That's much better."
"Excellent," I said, and rubbed my hands together, "Cash or cheque?"
"Let's just call it even," he retorted, "Y'know, for risking my life attacking that walkin' pile of anabolic steroids. Who was he, anyway?"
"Beats me," I said, and looked over at Edgar, "'Knew your brother, though."
"Indeed," the king's expression was unreadable, "I only wish I knew how."
"I'm sure we'll find out," I said, and then added, a little wryly, "In fact, I know we will. Probably in excruciating detail, too."
"Aye, Firma's right. I wouldn't worry about it," Locke said, and stretched luxuriously, "Anyway, that was a nice bit of midnight entertainment, but I'm completely knackered. How about you guys take the first watch an' Terra an' I'll relieve you in four hours?"
"Terra needs to sleep; Vargas really did a number on her ribcage," I said firmly, "In any case, do we really need to post a watch? I mean, what're the chances of him coming back?"
"He came here in the first place, didn't he?"
"I agree," Edgar nodded, "We should err on the side of caution."
"If you say so," I sighed, "'Guess we'd better get some of this wrecked furniture on the fire, then."
In the end, naturally, it was me who ended up feeding the dying fire with pieces of cheap fibreboard. Meanwhile, Edgar (who had developed a sudden and crippling fear of splinters) fiddled endlessly with the increasingly unlikely mess of metal and cabling that was apparently his answer to the hordes of intelligence agents and magically-enhanced walking tanks who were hot on our trail.
"How're the repairs going, then?" I asked, a little sourly, "It looked like a fairly impressive explosion."
"Mmm," he said absently, and then looked up, "I'm sorry, Firma? What was that?"
"The repairs. How are they going?"
"Oh! Fine," he said, and tilted the thing so that I could see, "It was my fault, really; I should've stuck with the netting until I'd fully tested the new system...but there you go. Lesson learned."
"Uh-huh," I said, and prodded another piece of wood into the crackling blaze, "So what is the 'new system', exactly?"
"It's..." Edgar paused, and for a moment I fancied he looked a little sheepish, "Well, I adapted it from one of Terra's ideas."
"You remember that thaumium that we retrieved from Jumbo? It got me thinking about what Terra had scrawled all over my notebook, and I thought I'd try and incorporate it into one of my designs."
"Yeah, I remember that," I peered closer, "So that...purple bit there is one of the ten-thousand-gil-a-shot bullets from Jumbo's anti-me gun?"
"I've had to remove the casing, but yes," with a tug, Edgar plucked it from its housing and held it out for my inspection. It caught the firelight in strange, unnerving ways, and I felt unaccountably uneasy in its presence, "It's an amazing material, you know. I've tried it with heat, light, and electricity, and it seems that whatever I put into it, it amplifies it many times over. See how it's reacting to the fire?"
"The shifting lights?"
"Exactly," the king sighed, "I just wish I knew where it was drawing its energy from."
"Well..." I paused, and then decided to come clean, "Terra said she sensed magic around your crossbow thingy. She specifically mentioned the thaumium, too."
"Really?" Edgar looked towards the bedroom, "Maybe I should ask her-"
"No; she needs to sleep!" I snapped, a little more forcefully than I intended, "Sorry...I mean, do you want me to take a look at it? I could probably confirm what she was saying."
"If you don't mind."
"Not at all," I said, and closed my eyes. In the shifting, grey world of my mind's eye, the thaumium was easy to spot; a dark, ugly bruise around which the magic twisted and flowed like a whirlpool, "Yeah, this is magical - in fact this looks just like that anti-magic grenade Fendon had, Edgar. A little smaller, but still the same," I opened my eyes, "Hold on; Sentinel Asaline said that was a Figaran design..."
"She said that?" Edgar frowned.
"She did," I said, and then, "Which would mean that you were developing weapons to-"
"Contain people like Terra and yourself? I suppose we were, yes."
"By 'contain' you mean 'kill', right?" I snorted, "Don't try to sugar-coat it for my benefit, please."
"If it helps, I didn't really have all that much to do with it."
"You'd be astonished how much that doesn't help."
"I can understand that," he said, and sighed, "Now try to understand my point of view, Firma. Less than a month ago, you and I were enemies, politically speaking. If the Emperor had ordered your wing into battle against Figaro, would you really have risked your life and career by disobeying?"
"Well, I..." I began, and conceded, "No, I suppose not."
"Of course you wouldn't," Edgar smiled, "To be honest, when you and your sister first appeared,, my father's strategists thought that you were the first examples of a new super soldier project. They were sure that within a decade we'd be facing armies of people like, well, you."
"So you needed something like...that grenade?"
"Exactly," an eyebrow went up, "And considering that you and Terra managed to bring down two Golems almost entirely by yourselves, I'd say that their worries were well-founded - at least they would have been, if the Empire hadn't prioritised developing Magitek weaponry over magically enhancing individual soldiers."
"That's an odd thing to do," I said, and then added, "That...was an odd thing to do, right?"
"Well, yes and no," Edgar shrugged, "We know of six magic users, yes?"
"Seven," I corrected, and then added, "But six who're still alive, yeah."
"Well, you and your sister have always had your powers, your General Celes was enhanced when she was very young...so that leaves Kefka, your Major Anceleti, and that MK6 girl. One was driven insane, one failed, and the third - well, the third is admittedly a bit of an enigma...but still, do you see what I'm driving towards?"
"That the enhancement process doesn't work on adults?"
"That is certainly a possibility," he nodded, "Or if it does work, the result is too unreliable to be a feasible super soldier. It's probably easier to develop weapons and vehicles that your current army can use immediately instead of having to raise your Magitek Knights from children - and less costly when one inevitably dies. That's my reasoning, anyway; your Emperor may have been thinking along very different lines."
"If he was thinking at all," I remarked, "That aside, you haven't explained how your dad managed to track down this wonder material for his anti-magic grenades - or how the Empire managed to get their hands on it."
"To be honest, I'd be surprised if he had anything to do with it," Edgar smiled broadly, "It was probably some defence contractor who actually developed the device. Maybe they were selling to both sides."
"That doesn't sound very patriotic."
"It happens more often than you'd think, actually," he said, "The Empire and Figaro both use similar rifles; brought from a Jidooran company, incidentally. The Empire buys its body armour from the same company who sells grenades to Figaro, too. It's why the Empire's been so careful about outsourcing Magitek weaponry; it doesn't want twenty years of R&D to end up in the hands of the highest bidder."
"Yeah, that would probably be a little annoying," I agreed.
"I think I could bear it," he chuckled, "Still, all this talk isn't replacing this capacitor. Do you mind holding this for a moment while I take a look?"
"Um..." I began, but he had already tipped the bullet into my open palm. It was strangely warm to the touch, and in the dim light I fancied that the shifting lights had taken on a slight golden hue.
"Thanks," the king said, "Now let's see about this blasted bit of wiring..."
"Is it bad?" I asked, throwing the bit of metal idly from hand to hand.
"It's worse than I'd hoped, but not as bad as I feared," he said, a little absently, "Could you make a bit of light for me, Firma?"
"Yeah, sure," I said, and focused my energies into a space just over his meta-weapon. My hand tingled, and a moment later a rather nebulous ball of light shimmered into existence. It was, to be frank, a bit pathetic.
"That's very... soothing," Edgar said, a little hesitantly, "Would it be possible for you to make it a little brighter?"
"It should be brighter," I replied, irritably, and fed it a bit more juice. For a moment the ball brightened, almost imperceptibly, and then settled back down into its 'soothing' state, "Oh, for heaven's sake-!"
"It's okay, Firma. Give it a few minutes and then you can try again," Edgar was clearly struggling to contain a smirk, "It doesn't make you any less of a Mage Knight."
"Do you want me to hit you? Do you see this fist?" I said, and presented Exhibit A for his inspection, "Do you know how many playground fights this has los- oh, what the hell?"
Both of us stared at my fist - or more specifically, at the brilliant, golden light spilling out from between my clenched fingers. Slowly, warily, I relaxed my grip, revealing the now-blinding hunk of purple metal wreathed in tiny bolts of blue-gold lightning that snapped and snarled as they coursed across its surface.
"Is that the thaumium?" Edgar said wonderingly, shielding his eyes against the glare, "Firma, what is it doing?"
"I-I don't know!" I protested, "It's-"
"Get rid of it, man! Quickly!"
Spurred to action by his tone, I hurled the thaumium across the room. The sparking, spitting gob of metal traced a white-hot line through the air and exploded scant moments later with a brilliant flash and a blast that rocked me back on my heels and rattled the weapons in their mounts. When my vision cleared, all that remained were a few sparks that drifted, smoking, to the floor.
"My word!" Edgar's voice was strangely dim and distant, "Firma, are you okay?"
"I...think so," I said slowly, and checked myself to be sure, "What happened?"
"I, um-" Edgar began, but then the bedroom door banged open. Terra stood in the doorway, her eyes flashing dangerously.
"What in the world is going on out here?" she demanded, "Are you two setting off fireworks?"
"Would it be possible for me to get an entire hour of uninterrupted sleep? Or is that going to be asking too much?"
Edgar smiled wryly, "You know, you sound an awful lot like your brother when you're irritated."
"Locke said the same thing," my sister frowned, "I don't know why either of you are surprised by this fact."
"Clearly he's a bad influence."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Terra smiled, and seemed to relax ever so slightly, "You two aren't off the hook yet, though. What the hell are you doing out here?"
"We were investigating the thaumium," I said, a little distantly, "You know, that thing that you asked me to look at?"
"Yeah? Did you find anything out?" she said, and then her eyes widened in realisation, "Hold on - that wasn't what exploded, was it?"
"But...how?" my sister shook her head, "You know what? That's not important. Are you guys okay? You're not hurt, are you?"
"Oh, I'm just fine," I said, with just a hint of sarcasm, "Being blown up is really starting to grow on me."
"I think he's had a very nasty shock," Edgar said, and chuckled,, "I'm...used to having little mishaps like that. Comes with the territory, I suppose."
"That was a 'little mishap'?" I blinked, "C'mon, the damn thing nearly took my hand off! What do you consider a big mishap?"
"I'm not sure," the king considered this, and then said, "Tell you what; when I have one, I'll let you know."
"Ah, I wouldn't worry too much about it," I said, and added snidely, "I'm sure the mushroom cloud will be quite sufficient."
"Okay, Firma, that's enough," Terra said wearily, "How about...why don't you go and get some sleep? I'm sure that Edgar and I can get to the bottom of this, and you clearly need the rest."
"No, you're exhausted! You're always ratty when you're tired!" Terra pointed out, "Moreso than usual, I mean."
"Well...what about your ribs? I thought I told you that you shouldn't be up and about-"
"I'll be fine," she said, and gently rotated me towards the bedroom door, "You worry too much, Firma."
"Fine...whatever," I said, and ran my fingers through my hair, "I have no idea what you hope to get out of this, but...fine!"
We're going to pause here for a moment, partially so that everyone can take a breather, but mostly because Terra's rather blase response to serious injury (see: 'You worry too much') has reminded me of a particularly annoying group of individuals who I swear must be the bane of anyone who works or has worked in the field of 'sewing your leg back on after that grisly chainsaw accident'. I swear, or at least hope to the gods, that whoever's in charge of celestial justice has reserved a special hell specifically for these people, because if they haven't there's going to be some godsdamn bureaucratic restructuring after I pop my clogs.
I suppose, again, that some context is probably required. My Grand Unified Theory (such as it is) is that patients tend to fall largely into one of two groups. The first group (which, mercifully, is the grand majority of the population) are plain, boring, unassuming people like you who work in a plain, boring, unassuming desk job as a means of passing the interminable length of time between now and your inevitable demise. You go to the pub, take walks in the park, and understand that when you're hurt and ordered to a hospital bed, its because a Sentinel is advancing their professional opinion that your recovery time will be drastically reduced if you remain prone, immobile, and (preferably) silent. I like people like you.
The people who are the problem here are that small, select group of people who seem to believe that life is an action movie and they're the protagonist. Not just any protagonist, mind you; it's always that archetypal warrior-type who can soldier on despite having sustained injuries that, but for narrative intervention, would have reduced them to a leaky sack of meat containing enough lead to qualify as a brownfield site. While that would normally be fine (if a little annoying), it's suddenly rather less fantastic when you're attempting to explain to someone with two broken legs that, no, they cannot 'walk it off' or that their barely-attached arm is not 'just a flesh wound'. I know that you're trying to put on a brave face for your significant other, but to be honest I really don't care; just shut up and let me drag you to the emergency helicopter, you deranged loon.
I suppose the main issue I have with a lot of people in this category is that they're tying up valuable time, resources, and my limited supply of magic with terrible injuries that could have been totally avoided with just the tiniest smidgen of forethought. These are the arrivees who come with notes like 'this patient's other leg is in a crocodile', 'this patient banged together two chunks of sub-critical uranium', or even 'this patient accidentally set off his own minefield'. As you can guess, these mishaps tend to result in injuries that range from 'serious' to 'spectacular', and none of them would have happened if the people involved had listened to their guide, a physicist, or even basic common sense. Thankfully, most of them only have the opportunity (not to mention the requisite body parts) to make their particular mistake once, because otherwise nobody else would ever see the inside of a treatment room.
I'm going to finish this with a personal plea: if you think you may be in this group, please do me a favour; the next time you're about to play amateur electrician or juggle nitroglycerine, ask yourself 'has Firma's shift finished yet?'. If you do, you will make me the happiest Sentinel in the world.
Despite everything that had happened it took me a long time to get to sleep. I lay on the hard, unfriendly mattress, listening to the nonstop shriek of hurricane Esme and the creaking cabin walls while my mind flitted uselessly from one thought to another. Eventually, my exhaustion won out over my background anxieties, and I drifted off into a twisted, nightmarish world of exploding bodybuilders and magical whirlpools that lasted until I fell out of bed and landed on my nose.
"Mornin', Firma," Locke's voice was, I decided, far too...present for my liking, "Sleep well?"
"Passably," I said, clambering slowly to my feet, "You?"
"Oh aye - 'cept, of course, for the bit where some idiot playin' with explosives nearly blew us all to kingdom come-"
"Yeah, yeah, I know," I rubbed my eyes and gave him a dull, bleary look, "Any chance of breakfast?"
"There's some porridge," he said, and then added, "Yer better eat up fast, though; I want us to be packed up an' on the move in half an hour, okay?"
"On the move? But what about the hurrica-" rather belatedly, I noticed that the wailing and ominous creaking was nowhere to be heard. In its wake, there was a calming silence and, in the distance, the melodious trills and twitters of birdsong.
"Esme's gone, pal. Reckon it'll be clear blue skies for the rest of the day," Locke said, "An' if she's gone, you can bet that your friends in the intelligence services ain't gonna waste any time tryin' to pick up our trail."
"Mmm, point," I nodded, "Are Edgar and Terra still trying to puzzle out the secret of that stuff that almost killed us?"
"Beats me," he shrugged, "I found 'em sleepin' peacefully next to that blasted contraption of Edgar's."
"Nothing exploding? Nothing on fire?" I asked, and Locke shook his head, "Probably didn't get anywhere, then. They're still asleep, I assume."
"Didn't have the heart to wake 'em," he said, and rolled his eyes, "'Sides, knowin' Edgar he was probably working 'till the sun came up, an' I reckon your sister probably was too."
"Well, she's always been competitive," I said, and yawned, "Right...give me five minutes to get myself together and I'll wake 'em up. Reckon you could get the kettle on?"
By the time I located an rather stiff, sweaty pair of socks and gone through the rigmarole of lacing up my boots,I could hear the kettle whistling furiously in the next room. As promised, Locke had also managed rustle up a large bowl of steaming porridge that, rather worryingly, looked and smelled like it was one good lightning strike away from becoming self-aware.Still, I was starving, and the glorious sunshine outside had lifted my mood to the point where even the dubious origins of my breakfast couldn't bring me down.
As promised, I found Terra and Edgar propped up against one another on the settee, snoring quietly in their slumber. The king was clutching the latest iteration of his multi-faceted death machine like a child holding his favourite toy, while my sister was smiling gently in her sleep, seemingly more at peace with the world than she had been in a long, long time. It was a moment of tranquility, perfectly preserved, and I could see why Locke hadn't wanted to wake them earlier.
"If it were anyone else, I'd say it'd was cute," he remarked, "With these two, though..."
"Nothing like a homemade weapon of mass destruction to bring people together," I said, and took a big bite of potentially sentient porridge, "You're right, though; this borders on sickening."
"Gonna wake them?"
"I suppose," I said, and gently shook Terra's shoulder, "Tee? It's time to wake up. Tee-"
"No, Firma!" she mumbled, "It's the blue wire! The blue-whuh? What's going on?"
"Morning, Tee," I said, "You were dreaming."
"I...so I was," she said, and rubbed her eyes, "I think you were in it, too."
"So I gathered," I said, and raised an eyebrow, "It's a good thing I woke you before I got us killed."
"Hah. You were funnier in my dream," she said, and carefully manoeuvred the still-sleeping king into a sitting position, "I don't suppose anyone's made any coffee, have they?"
"Aye; the kettle's just boiled," Locke said, "There's porridge, too."
"I can see that," Terra said, surveying my bowl with a look of mild horror, "That's porridge, yes?"
"The cereal made from oats?"
"Feel free to starve, lass."
"I'm...I'm sorry; I didn't mean to be rude," she apologised, before adding hopefully, "You said there was coffee?"
"Yeah, as soon as Firma makes it."
"I'm making it?" I gave him a quizzical look, "Didn't I ask you to make it?"
"You asked me to put the kettle on, pal," Locke reminded me, "'Sides, hot drinks are your department, jus' like yer sister here's gallantly volunteered to go an' feed the chocobos."
"I have?" Terra said, "But-"
"When yer done, bring 'em round the front, and I'll get Edgar to load 'em up once I've slapped him back to life. Is that all clear?" Locke stared at both of us in the ensuing silence, "I weren't jokin' when I said I wanted to be gone in half an hour, y'know! Now move!"
The next twenty minutes passed in a whirlwind of coffee and high-speed packing, punctuated at one point by a shriek of pain and some loud, inventive cursing as my sister and the chocobos got to know each other a little better. Shortly thereafter, and just as I finished stuffing the last pair of socks into a handy bag, the door slammed open and Terra stalked in, wearing a dangerous expression and nursing a nasty looking bruise on her upper arm.
"Coffee?" I said brightly. I knew that look.
"Yes!" she said angrily, and downed the proffered cup of black liquid in a single go before slamming it back down, "I take back everything good I ever said about Connor, Firma. You were right; he's a godsdamn menace."
"That bruise looks like his handiwork," I said, and quickly refilled the cup. Again, Terra knocked it back, "What happened?"
"I decided to feed that monster first - you know, just to get him out of the way," she said, "The instant I turned to deal with Graham? He tries to take a bloody chunk out of my arm. Would've done, too, if I hadn't shielded myself."
"Good thing you did," I smiled sympathetically, "Want me to take a look at it?"
"I'll be fine," she shook her head, "He didn't do any real damage; it just hurts like hell. Is everything packed, then?"
"Just finished, actually," I said, and nodded over at Edgar, "You hear that, your Majesty? Terra's gotten the chocobos all warmed up for you."
"So I heard," the king said, looking apprehensively at Terra's war wound, "Has anyone seen Locke?"
"He went off into the thicket," my sister replied, "He said he wanted to be sure that the 'perimeter was clear' before we set off. Not sure what that-"
As if on cue, the door banged open once again, and Locke came darting into the cabin. His face was pale and sweaty, and for a moment he stood there gasping for breath before staggering over to the settee.
"What're y'all doin' standing around in here?" he burst out, "We have to leave, an' we have to leave right now!"
"What?" I said, suddenly anxious, "What did you see?"
"Y'know that hillside we came down last night during the storm? Well, there were at least ten people up there on chocobos. Armed, too, by the looks of 'em."
"Imperial Intelligence?" asked Edgar.
"Hard to tell, but I can't think of what else they'd be."
"Can't we hide here?" Terra suggested, "I mean, maybe they'll pass us by and-"
"They'll check the copse, Tee," I said.
"Oh..." she looked a little disappointed, "Well, how long do we have?"
"Well," Locke paused for a moment, "That hillside's still real sodden from the downpour last night; it'd be suicide for them to try and climb down it right now. It looks like they're just watchin' the lay of the land while they're waitin' for it to dry out."
"...and how long would that take?"
Locke spread his hands, "Noon? Maybe sooner."
"So an hour?" she considered this, "That's not so bad."
"If its all the same to you, Terra, I'd rather have more than an hour's lead on a group of heavily armed commandos," he said, a little sarcastically, "Some of us old hands think that a margin like that's just a wee bit on the thin side."
"You said you thought they were watching the land," I said quickly, eager to head off an argument, "Aren't they going to see us the instant we leave the copse? A decent sniper could probably hit us at this range."
"We'll head north, so's we can keep the trees between us an' them for as long as possible. There's a network of old ditches nearby that we can use for cover 'till we reach the forests south of the Sabres. It ain't perfect, but it beats runnin' over open ground."
"If we keep running, aren't they just going to follow us all the way to the Returner base?" Terra objected, "Shouldn't we try to stop them here?"
"Someone could get hurt, Terra."
"I know," she frowned, and then added, "That's the point."
"No - I mean, one of us could get hurt. Will get hurt, actually," Locke said, "D'ya remember what yer brother was sayin' about these people? They spend every day training to kill the people who their superiors tell 'em to kill. That time yer spent readin' all those books? If you were an Imperial assassin, you'd be spending all that time an' more at the range or on the mats or out in the field jus' so you could get that extra edge over yer targets. As much as I hate to say it, we're no match for 'em."
"But I'm a Mage Knight-"
"They know yer a Mage Knight, Terra!" he said, more loudly this time, "That's why there's ten of 'em and they'll be packin' high calibre weaponry! If you go out there and start tossin' fireballs around, they ain't gonna be surprised, y'know; they'll be expecting it! All they'll do is thank you for makin' yerself such an obvious target right before they put a bullet right between yer eyes!"
There was a long, shocked silence, and the air thrummed with tension as Terra and Locke glared at one another. Finally, the thief's shoulders sagged, and he gave a long, soulful sigh.
"I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't mean for it to come out quite like that. I'm not doubting yer bravery or ability, Terra, but I've seen too many friends killed or captured for stupid reasons to let you risk yerself like that."
"It's okay," she said, but I could see the subtle tightening of the skin around her eyes, "I suppose I was being a little overconfident."
"Aye, jus' a little," Locke said, "Don't worry about us leadin' them to the Returner base, Terra; they've dealt with Imperial snoopers before, an' I'll be very surprised if they don't have to again. It'll be okay."
"I'm sure it will," I said briskly, "On the other hand, standing around here reassuring one another isn't putting any distance between us and them."
"Yer right, it ain't," he said, turning serious once again, "Everyone grab their stuff and let's get goin'. The sooner we're away, the happier I'll be."
The atmosphere was tense as we grabbed our packs and carried them across the thick churned mud to our waiting chocobos. Connor, who had been carrying himself with a haughty, rather self-satisfied air, took one look at my expression and immediately knelt down to let me sling the saddlebag across his back.
"Smart bird," I murmured, and he gave a short, annoyed little hiss in response. With a grim smile, I clambered on and waited for Locke to confirm that we hadn't left anything behind that might help any potential pursuers in their hunt.
"At least its a beautiful day," Terra remarked tensely, more to herself than anyone else.
"Yeah," I said, and added absently, "It's almost a pity to waste it on being run into the ground."
"Oh, come on, Firma!" she snarled suddenly, "Why do you always have to bring everyone down? Can't you just give the pessimism a rest once in awhile?"
"I...um..." I stuttered, taken aback by her anger, "Sorry?"
"You're sorry? That's nice!" my sister said scornfully, "If you're going to be dead weight, you could at least be quiet!"
"'Dead weight'? What the hell do you mean by that?"
"Oh, you and your bloody Sentinel rules and your 'I can't possibly hurt someone who's trying to kill me! That would be wrong!' You want to know the actual Locke thought we can't deal with those assassins? It's because he knows that while the rest of us are fighting for our lives you'll be hiding behind a tree suffering from another moral aneurysm!"
"Actually-" Edgar began.
"So I'm a useless coward? Is that what you think of me?" I retorted, my voice rising, "I'll remember that next time you need your ribs repaired, you ungrateful-"
"I wouldn't have needed to have my ribs repaired if you'd stepped in before that madman hit me!" Terra yelled, "But no, you stood there like the world's most useless magically-enhanced lemon while I got my clock cleaned! What is that if not dead weight, eh?"
That hurt. It must have been obvious that it hurt, too, as I was pretty sure I saw a flash of regret in Terra's eyes. Still, it only fuelled the anger that was now burning coldly in my chest, and so I took a deep, shuddering breath and said, in what was almost a whisper, "I crossed two continents to find you, Tee. I killed someone because they were threatening you. After I'd had a rifle round put through my shoulder. Maybe you should remember that."
There was that flash of regret again, but I knew my sister too well to expect her to back down now, "I sacrificed everything for you, Firma," she said, in an equally chilly tone, "Do you have any idea what I've lost? Can you comprehend that at all? It makes getting shot in the shoulder look kind of pathetic."
"Enough! Both of you!" Edgar said, his calm demeanour slipping for just an instant, "This has been a very stressful time for all concerned, and I understand that you're both scared and angry. Still, you need to be working together, not placing blame or saying things that you'll later regret!"
"Try telling him that," Terra glowered at me. Before I could reply, she drove her heels aggressively into Valanice's flanks and, with a surprised squawk, the chocobo took off into the thicket and was shortly lost amongst the trees. I watched her go, silently, as I felt the rage crystallise into a cold, hard ball in the pit of my stomach.
"Sisters, eh?" I said, a little distantly, "I suppose I'd-"
"I'll find her, Firma," Edgar said quickly, "If you go after her it'll just make things worse."
"You need to cool off and calm down," he said, "Both of you. If you catch up with her you'll be at each other's throats before you know it, and right now that is something we really can't afford."
"I-" I started, but as with Terra before him Edgar drove his heels into Graham's flanks and took off into the undergrowth, leaving a trail of claw prints and the odd yellow feather, "You know what? Fine! Be like that!"
With Terra and Edgar both gone, the clearing suddenly seemed a far colder, less welcoming place. A disconsolate wind soughed through the trees, carrying with it the distant birdsong that had, I fancied, acquired a faintly mocking edge. Connor pawed listlessly at the dirt and gave me an impatient look, but wisely decided to remain silent. After a few minutes of uneasy silence, the cabin door creaked open and Locke strode out, looking faintly satisfied with himself.
"All don- oh, where's everyone gone?"
"Terra took off," I said, indicating the tracks leading out of the thicket, "Edgar went after her."
"Yeah, I heard yellin'," he said, "Figured you two were havin' a bit of a spat. 'Least she went the right direction, aye?"
"Small mercies, I guess," I said coolly, but was relieved nonetheless, "Shall we be off, then?"
"Yeah," Locke said, and clicked his tongue. Obediently, Alexander knelt down to let the thief climb aboard.
"Neat trick," I said, "You'll have to show me how to get Connor to do that."
"I think Connor'd interpret it as an invitation to rip your head off, pal," he chuckled, and then added, "Look pal; I know yer still het up from yer tiff, but can I tell you something?"
"You were eavesdropping?" I raised an eyebrow.
"Aye, jus' me an' the rest of Figaro."
"Indeed," I said, "And your advice was...?"
"Don't be too hard on yerself, pal, or yer sister," he said kindly, "I know that the Empire says that eighteen-year-olds are adults an' all that, but I've never actually met one that was. Truth be told, I did most of my growin' up in my early twenties."
"So...you're saying that we're stupid kids, then?"
"Stupid kids with magical superpowers, yeah," Locke said, happily immune to my sudden glare, "Look; when I was yer age I used to fight with my brother all the time, an' it's not like we were on the run from trained assassins. All this stress, the constant risk of death? It has to come out somehow, an' if you an' yer sister weren't arguing at all I'd have to seriously wonder if there was somethin' wrong with you."
"Because we're stupid kids, right?"
"An' don't you forget it," he said cheerfully, "'Course, me an' my brother weren't twins. People always say that twins have some kind of special relationship-"
"Yeah, and those people never knew Terra," I said, and nudged Connor into a canter, "There was a reason I was closer to Elli."
"What, you mean you never had yer own special language?"
"Well..." I considered this, "We used to beat each other with the semaphore flags; does that count?"
"Never finished each others sentences?"
"Are we really doing this?" I rolled my eyes skyward, "No. No telepathy."
"Funny; I heard Mage Knights were telepathic."
"Telekinetic? Yes. Telepathic? No."
"How about...the ability to sense each other's pain?"
"Let's test it, shall we? Go and punch Terra, and I'll tell you if it hurts."
"I think I'll pass on that, pal."
"Okay, okay... I've got another one..."
I'm going to interrupt Locke there, mainly because the thought of recounting any more of his charmingly variable 'brogue' is starting to make my eyelid twitch. I'm also going to ignore most all of his various stabs at twin mysticism, because everybody's heard it all before and quite frankly the only people who profit are those quacks who write books about ley lines and the healing properties of gelignite. I get asked about this sort of thing all the time, and for some reason the people pressing me for answers get very disappointed when I explain that my ability to sense my sister's thoughts from halfway around the world is heavily reliant upon the postal system. C'est la guerre, I guess.
The actual reason I'm interrupting here was because I'm thinking that this whole bit is casting my relationship with my twin in a very poor light. Don't get me wrong; Terra and I were not particularly close growing up (for several reasons) and over the years we've had more than our fair share of arguments, fights, and generally reprehensible behaviour. Anyone with a sibling, however, knows that it is entirely possible to love them to bits (despite their glaring personality flaws) even while you're drawing up detailed plans to have them thrown off the nearest water tower. I may not be the most emotionally outgoing person on the planet, but it's fair to say that my slightly mad, idiosyncratic sister is one of the most important people in my life. I suppose that I should probably tell her that more often.
Anyway, I just wanted to emphasise that point (particularly the bit about the glaring personality flaws) before returning you to 'dubious advice from older people'. I think we can all agree that listening to people prattle on about their life experiences is just as exciting as 'extremely muscular arbitrary deathmatch', right? Right?
Terra and Edgar were waiting for us in a small, shaded gulley, shielded from the sun and any opportunistic snipers. In a slightly unusual reversal of roles, my sister was bent studiously over the ever-more-ludicrous home-built hand-cannon while the king kept an eye on the surrounding environment. This time, it had acquired a slightly strange reddish glow, and I wondered what, exactly, they'd done to it in the last ten minutes to achieve that effect.
"No, Locke," I was saying wearily, as we approached, "We never roamed the halls of the orphanage chanting 'come play with us'."
"And for the record? I've never worn a dress, blue or otherwise."
"Really? I'm surprised," Terra remarked, and shot me a glare that was equal parts anger and guilt, "You know, I think a nice blue dress would go really well with your eyes."
"Yeah, because fashion, colour, and 'Terra Branford' forms such a natural Venn diagram," I retorted, "I'll stick with grey, thanks."
"And you think I'm unfashionable?"
"It's a uniform, Tee! You-"
"Can you two bicker later?" Locke said sharply, "Those men up on that hill'll be makin' their descent just as soon as it's not suicidal, an' we're not nearly far enough away for me to feel comfortable."
"Indeed," Edgar agreed, "We're far too exposed out here on the plains. I trust this concealment of yours is nearby?"
"Close enough, aye," he said, and nodded towards a particularly magnificent oak that stood alone in the middle distance, "In fact, an' if I remember right, that tree is right next to one of the southernmost ditches in the network. I told you it was nearby."
"That tree?" I asked, and he nodded, "That specific tree?"
"Do you see any other enormous trees around, pal?"
"Admittedly…" I looked hopefully across the hilly plains, but saw nothing more than endlessly rippling grass, broken up by the occasional hunk of stone, "No."
"So, in answer to your question, pal - yes, that tree. That specific tree."
"Perhaps we could save the smart comments until we're safe and sound, yes?" Edgar said, and gave Locke a hard look, "I think one argument is quite enough for the time being."
"Right you are, Majesty," the thief coughed, a little self-consciously, and gently nudged Alexander up to a light trot, "If everyone could just follow me…"
Now, maybe something was lost in translation, but it very quickly transpired that Locke apparently understood the word 'ditch' to mean something very different to the commonly accepted Vectoran definition. In my (admittedly limited) experience of ditches, they were fairly shallow affairs, dug mainly for irrigation and to give hapless cadets like myself something to fall in during nighttime exercises. By comparison, this so-called ditch was something more like a wartime trench, being that it was deep enough to swallow an entire cadre of would-be-soldiers and wide enough to take their chocobos for dessert. The fact that there was an entire network of enormous trenches criss-crossing the Figaran plains wasn't, however, the strangest thing about them; even to my untrained eye they were clearly old, quite possibly on the order of centuries. Near the pathway leading down into the trench, there stood the jagged remains of what must have originally been a genuinely impressive obelisk, covered in well-worn, barely readable script that seemed almost Figaran in nature, at least when viewed from a certain angle.
"Old Laternian," Locke said, spotting my interest in the structure, "Probably 'bout four hundred years old."
"That's...quite old?" I said, a little uncertainly, "That writing looks familiar."
"You spotted that, did you?" the thief said, "Well, Figaran's really a composite language, made of of all the little kingdoms that used to exist hereabouts. Kinda like Vectoran, really."
"I'll take your word for it," I shrugged, "So, what does it say?"
"Nobody knows," he said, "Reason being about ninety feet of the damn thing's missing an' you read Old Laternian vertically, like Domanian. It probably jus' says something dramatic about how their empire will last forever or somesuch. Anyway-" he nudged Alexander down the stone ramp into his 'ditch', "-let's get a move on. We've got a lot of ground to cover before dark."
It took a bit more than a 'nudge' to convince Connor to follow his fellow bird down into the twisty, turny passages of the trench, and as we descended out of the brilliant Figaran sun I began to wonder if my noble, sociopathic steed wasn't quite a lot smarter than he was letting on. Despite the bright, sunny day, the sheer walls ensured that it was shaded and cool down here, and the bright yellow sandstone became muted shades of brown and red as the light slowly faded until to an eternal gloom. It was a lifeless place, too; the timeworn ramp simply gave way to uneven, wind-polished stone unmarked save for a light dusting of sand scattered in intricate swirling patterns, and while I saw the odd scrubby little place that had managed to cling to some dirt in a crevice or outcropping, they were yellow, stunted, and barely alive. For some reason, I felt like we were all unwelcome intruders in a strange, unforgiving world, and that thought sent chills up and down my spine. We needed to leave, and the sooner, the better.
"It's creepy, isn't it," Terra said quietly, apparently getting the same sensation, "Who built this?"
"Its likely an old fortification," Edgar said, "There was a point in Figaro's history when it was simply a loose alliance of small nation states, like the kingdom Locke was talking about. They used to fight constantly - constantly enough, at least, that defences like these became worth the effort."
"Was there a war here?"
"Been lots of wars here, lass," said Locke, a little sadly, "People'll fight over the silliest of things."
"Yes. I'm...beginning to learn that."
They continued to talk quietly amongst themselves, leaving me to listen to the rhythmic clicking of Connor's claws and the sigh of passing breezes. Okay, so we weren't welcome here; that was fine. This still beat being shot at, right? I mean, there were trained Wraiths up there, and a desolate, barren wasteland down here - obviously being down here was better, wasn't it? There wasn't anything that could hurt us, surely? There wasn't even anything living down here! Surely, as long as we stayed the course, we'd be fine, wouldn't we? Wouldn't we?
"Firma?" Locke's voice intruded harshly on my attempts at positive thinking, and it was all I could do avoid shrieking in absolute terror.
"Godsdamnit!" I swore instead, "Locke! Don't startle me like that!"
"What?" he said, and leaned backwards in his saddle, "I was just going to ask if you were okay!"
"No you're…hold on," a slow, rather nasty grin started to spread across his face, "You're not scared, are you?"
"Of course not!"
"Good," he said, still grinning, "'cause I was just tellin' yer sis an' the king here about all the people who've mysteriously disappeared in these here networks."
"Aye," he continued, "Vanished without a trace."
"That's not funny, Locke!"
"An' I ain't laughin'," he said, "They've always said that there were things lurkin' in these places. Just waitin' for some poor, luckless traveller to come within reach and chomp!" I jumped, and he laughed nastily, "Never heard from again. Always thought they were fairy tales, myself."
"They are fairy tales, Locke," I said, through gritted teeth, "Because they don't exist."
"Well, I used to think the same thing about Mage Knights," he smirked, and guided Alexander further into the trench, "But then I met you."
"Yeah?" I called after him, and then decided to let the rest of my witty retort go in favour of seething quietly in my saddle.
"I shouldn't let it worry you," Edgar said, with an amused smile, "We have quite enough real threats to deal with without adding local rumours to our list."
"I know! I'm not letting it worry me!" I took a deep breath, "Look, I don't like this place-"
"-I can see that-"
"-but I'm sure that any supposed vanishings have a perfectly rational explanation."
"Oh yeah?" Terra raised an eyebrow, "Who're you trying to convince, Firma?"
"Do I need to convince anyone?" I said, "I mean, do you really believe that there's some ancient evil lurking in these trenches, or do you think it's more likely that people have been robbed, murdered, and their bodies left to rot in the middle of nowhere?"
"They're both good options," my sister replied, and then inclined her head, "What was that?"
"What was what?"
"That noise!" she said, "'Sounded like someone crying out."
"Oh, come on, Tee! That's the most cliched-"
"Hold on, Firma, I heard it too," Edgar held up a hand, "It sounded like it came from up ahead. Actually, it sounded a bit like Locke."
"Locke? Oh, please," I snorted, "He's just trying to freak me out."
Terra muttered something under her breath, and then said, "Well, we should probably make sure he's okay. He's the only one who knows where we're going, after all."
"He'll be fine, you'll see," I said, and wheeled Connor around to follow Locke's tracks, "...you'll see."
The thief had managed to cover a surprising amount of ground in such a short time, but we finally tracked him down to a point where the path split in two. As we approached, I realised that he was sitting unnaturally straight in saddle of his chocobo, every muscle had tensed like a deer caught in a spotlight. His breathing was fast and shallow, and even in the dim twilight of this trench I could see that his skin had acquired a pale, unhealthy pallor. Something was clearly very, very wrong.
"Locke? " I said quietly, and put my hand on his shoulder. He tensed suddenly at my touch, and I felt a nervous jolt run up and down my spine, "Locke, what's going on?"
Silently, the thief held up his hand, and I cocked my ear as I tried to work out what exactly had gotten him so het up. For a moment I couldn't hear anything, save for the disconsolate sighing of the wind, but then I caught the tail end of a long, keening wail, and my blood went cold as it disintegrated into the deep, heaving sobs of someone in indescribable pain.
"You heard that, right?" Locke said hoarsely.
"Yeah," I replied, "Sounds like someone's in trouble."
There was a pause, before I added, "And we're going to help, right?"
"Well…" he began, a little uncomfortably, "I'm not sure we have time."
"We don't have time? Someone's clearly hurt, Locke!" I protested, "A woman, too, from the sounds of it. Isn't that normally your cue to spring into action?"
"No need to be facetious, pal."
"I'm not being facetious, pal!"
"Well, neither am I went I say that we need to get you two to the Returner base. We don't have time for detours."
"...what?" I blinked, "But...Locke!"
"Every second we spend dilly-dallyin' is another second that Imperial Intelligence can spend catching up to us. Assuming, of course, that they ain't responsible for what's goin' on."
"You don't know that they are!" I snapped, "What if someone's fallen in and broken their leg? What if they've been attacked by something?"
"Nothing lives down here!"
"Then someone! Holy Callista, I can't believe we're actually having this discussion!"
"Calm down, both of you!" Edgar said, sharply, "Firma, your desire to help is very commendable, but you need to learn to think before you leap. Are you familiar with the term 'sniper bait'?"
"Are you familiar with Johann Scott?"
"Mmm, good point."
"Who's Johann Scott?" Terra asked, suddenly.
"He was an ex-Imperial sniper who fell in with the Marandese separatists," I said, "He got it into his head that the Sentinels down south were in the pocket of the Empire-"
"-which ain't too far from the truth-" Locke cut in.
"-thank you, Locke," I said acidly, "Anyway, he used to snipe random people to get the attention of the Sentinels, and he'd shoot them too when they came to help. Managed to murder twelve or thirteen people before they finally hanged him."
My sister considered this for a moment, and then said, "What a bastard."
"So yeah, Edgar," I turned back to the king, "I am familiar with the term 'sniper bait' and so were those Sentinels Johann killed, but it didn't stop them from doing their duty."
"And yet they were not Mage Knights with a million gil bounty on their heads," he said curtly, "The Empire wants you dead or captured with alacrity; as it stands, you and your sister are simply too valuable to risk in such a venture."
"So...we're going to let this poor woman, who may have just suffered a totally unrelated accident, bleed or starve to death because Terra and I are 'too valuable'? Have we really gotten that paranoid?"
"Firma, we can't take the chance!"
"But she could be dying!"
"Well, better her than you!"
Edgar's cry echoed up and down the lifeless trench leaving a long, horrible silence in its wake, and the king's face slowly drained of colour as his brain caught up with his mouth. Locke shifted uncomfortably in his saddle, his eyes darting between the king and myself as we all waited for someone, anyone, to say something and clear the tense, thrumming atmosphere that had suddenly descended on the group.
"That…" Terra began, "...that was a pretty terrible thing to say."
"You're right, my lady," Edgar said quickly, "And I apologise. I-"
"It's okay. We've all said things we've regretted," she said, and glanced ruefully in my direction, "But I've got to ask: when are we going to take a chance?"
"I…" Edgar frowned, "I beg your pardon?"
"Because of us, because we're 'valuable', Kefka and his assassins have been running amok over the whole damn continent! Narshe, your castle, South Figaro - people have been injured or killed for helping us or just being nearby, and all we've done is say 'oh, its too dangerous to get involved' and left them to die!"
"It's not going to get any safer, Edgar!" my sister continued, her voice rising, "And they're not going to stop chasing us! How many more people are we going to let get caught up in this whole stupid debacle before we say enough is enough? Well?"
There was another uncomfortable silence, and then Terra smiled crookedly and said, "Wow, um...it turns out that I'm actually quite angry about this."
"So you are, lass," Locke sighed and turned to Edgar, "Look, yer majesty, we ain't gonna win this one. Let's face it; if they want to go and do somethin' rash there ain't much we can do to stop them. They did bring down a couple of Golems, after all."
"I know," Edgar said, and gave us an unhappy look, "I just wish you two understood how much this dangerous little venture could cost us. This is foolishness."
"Believe me," I said, "I'm not particularly enthused about the 'dangerous' part, as she-" I jerked my head in Terra's direction, "-will tell you. Loudly."
"Will you give it a rest?" Terra retorted, "I said I was sorry!"
"In the most oblique manner possible, maybe."
"Fine! I'm sorry! Happy now?"
"Anyway; we'll be quick," I turned back to the king, "They won't even have time to draw a bead on us."
"Be that as it may, I'd rather that Locke accompany you on this single minded mission of mercy," Edgar said, and held up a hand as Terra started to protest, "Hold on, my dear, I-"
"You're about to patronise me, aren't you," she said dangerously, "Don't."
"I assure you, that was not my intention," Edgar said quickly, "I simply wanted to highlight the fact that Locke has a great deal more experience in clandestine matters than any of us, amnesia or no. Besides, I think it prudent to keep one of you safely out of harms way so that when-"
"-if-" I cut in, and got a Look for my troubles.
"-something happens, we are in a position to render appropriate aid. Given the seriousness of our situation, I feel that some caution is definitely warranted."
"Okay, I understand," my sister sighed, and gave me a weak smile, "You'll be careful, right?"
"Well, yeah," I said, "I'm not sure why everyone thinks I'm so eager to get my head blown off."
"In any case, Firma-" the Look intensified, "I expect you to do everything that Locke tells you to do, when he tells you to do it. Understood?"
"Yeah, yeah..." I said wearily, "In any case, the sooner we go, the sooner we'll be back. Coming, mate?
Without really waiting for a reply, I gave Connor a gentle nudge with my knees to get him moving. For a moment, the chocobo eyed me with a long, dangerous look, but then apparently decided that it really was in his best interests and set off quickly down the left hand path, his talons clicking loudly on the dusty stone. From somewhere behind me I heard someone curse softly in Kohlinglese and a surprised squawk, followed quickly by the padding of another chocobo as Locke and Alexander drew alongside. The thief gave me a long, frosty look; obviously, he wasn't exactly happy about being dragged along with me on this so-called 'mission of mercy', but to be honest I wasn't all that bothered. I had had quite enough of running away, or turning up just too late to be of any use, and there was no way I was going to let a bunch of Imperial assassin bullyboys change the way I responded to people who needed help! If Locke was right; if it turned out that they had hurt someone in order to entrap us….well, as far as I was concerned, they were very quickly going to wish that they hadn't.
We continued down the trench in a grim, angry silence, following the echoing wails of the injured woman. The strange acoustics of the trench warped and distorted her cries, making it impossible to tell how far away she was, if we were getting closer, or if we were even in the right part of the bloody network. Beside me, I could sense Locke starting to fidget and fiddle, and just as I was sure he was about to make us turn back, we came around a bend and-
"Oh, Callista," I breathed.
"Aye," Locke agreed, and added curtly, "Yer still reckon that Imperial Intelligence ain't behind this?"
As it turned out, our injured person was actually a pair of injured persons, bound together back-to-back and lashed roughly to the side of the trench. One of them, a man from the looks of it, was hanging limp and unresponsive, whilst the woman was still whimpering and struggling weakly against her bonds with a single hand. Their clothes were tattered and torn, and beneath the rags their bodies bore the unmistakable bruises and lacerations of a savage physical assault. The parallels between this and Gagnon's little test were totally unmistakable, and for just a moment I was sixteen and standing in that cold cell amongst the smell of blood and sweat, staring into the pleading, desperate eyes of his tortured plaything.
"So, pal, what do we do?" Locke's voice seemed strangely distant, "Firma? Firma!"
"I…" with a deep, shuddering breath, I forced that memory back down to the depths where it belonged, "Sorry. What did you say?"
The thief gave me a long, concerned look, and then apparently waved his objections aside, "So what do we do?"
"What do we do? I fix this, Locke. Now." I said firmly, "Stay here and keep watch."
Quickly, I dismounted and dropped lightly to the hard stone floor, prompting a slightly confused 'wark?' from Connor and a nudge from his enormous beak.
"Stay here, Connor. This could be dangerous. No-" I put out a hand as the chocobo tried to follow me, "I said stay! Listen to me!"
Surprisingly, that seemed to work. Having satisfied myself that at least my ride wasn't about to get himself shot up in the name of Callista, I turned away and walked carefully down the trench towards the badly wounded pair. Locke was right; the amoral goons of Imperial Intelligence were almost certainly behind this, and if they were then it was a pretty safe bet that there was at least one or two of them camped out somewhere nearby. They weren't going to stop me, though. Nobody was going to stop me.
Slowly, the woman became aware of my presence, and as I approached her cries and struggles lessened until she was stock still and totally silent, staring at me with the numb faraway look of a someone deep in shock. Up close, I could see the disturbingly intricate network of cuts that covered her body, and beneath the dried blood there were deep, angry bruises that looked about the size and shape of a rifle butt. Was Gagnon responsible for this? Jumbo had mentioned that he was 'interested' in talking to me, and this certainly looked like his work...
Again, I took the mixture of pain and anger, squashed it up into a little ball, and forced it deep down inside. I had a bigger problem; specifically, what in the world was I meant to say to someone who had been viciously beaten, tied up, and left for dead? I'd never been told what to do in this situation! My mind raced, throwing up and dismissing various options until it finally settled on the one that sounded the least silly.
"Um...hi?" I said tentatively, and immediately felt like the world's biggest idiot.
"Are you an angel?" she said distantly. Apparently, she hadn't even heard my greeting, "My mother always said that an angel would come for me when I died…"
"I'm...no, I'm not an angel," I said, as kindly as I could. "Perhaps you could tell me-"
"But I can see your wings…" she continued, in the same distant voice, "All glowy and crackly...you certain you're not an angel?"
"I'm quite sure. Um-"
"I don't believe you," she said, and her cracked, bloodied lips quirked into a serene smile, "It's okay. You can be honest with me. I won't be angry."
"I...well," it had to be said that this was not exactly how I had expected this to go, but if her believing that I was an angel kept her calm, then maybe it was better just to roll with it… "What's your name?"
"My name?" she looked a little confused, "My name's Esra...but you already knew that, didn't you?"
"Okay, Esra," I continued, desperately fighting to maintain a measured, composed tone, "Do you mind if I take a look at your injuries?"
"Are you going to take away my pain?"
"I'm certainly going to try."
"I knew it," she sighed, and her smile blossomed, "You are an angel."
Bracing myself, I placed a hand as gently as I could on a relatively uninjured part of her shoulder. The sensation of her injuries came screaming into my mind, and for a brief, white-hot moment I felt every cut, stab, and bruise as if they were my own. The pain was almost overwhelming, and I found myself gritting my teeth and digging deep, hanging on desperately while my senses gathered the information I needed. Relatively speaking, she had been lucky, as while her assailants had certainly been thorough they hadn't actually dealt her any injuries that were beyond my ability to heal. With a bit of luck, some time, and a lot of magic, it was entirely possible that she'd live long enough to develop a crippling anxiety disorder.
With a gasp, I broke contact and staggered back, falling to one knee as the experience of being flayed alive slowly drained away. When the stars faded, I looked up and found Esra staring at me with a mixture of concern and shock-induced serenity.
"What happened to you, Esra?" I said, as I stood back up, "Who did this to you?"
"Are you going to visit divine judgement upon them?" she said, and for the first time I detected a hint of emotion in her voice.
"I'm going to visit something upon them, I'm sure," I said angrily, "Look; I'm going to get to work on, ah, taking away your pain. Tell me what happened."
"They were soldiers... I think," she said, her expression bathed in the soft glow of the blue-gold aura playing gently across her injuries, "My boyfriend - Christos, and I, we were going back home when they captured us and...and…"
"It's okay," I said gently, as I saw the tears well up in her eyes, "You don't need to go into any details. Did you hear them say anything?"
"I didn't understand what they were saying, but I think they were speaking Vectoran," she said, "I...I heard them say a couple of names, over and over. Bread...some kind of cereal…?"
"'Bran'?" I asked, cautiously. Her eyes widened, and I felt a chill go down my spine, "Branford?"
"How did you know? Can you read my mind?"
"Lucky guess," I said darkly, "So...they tied you up and left you here?"
"Yes," she said, sadly, "My boyfriend had the worst of it. He stopped talking a couple of hours ago, and...now he's cold. I think an angel came to take away his pain. Did you do that?"
"No," I said, and added honestly, "But I wish I could've been here sooner."
"I'm sure that you came as fast as you could," she sighed, "It's strange, really; after all this, this is the most peaceful I've felt in years. Is this what dying feels like? It doesn't feel so bad."
"It'll all be okay, Esra," I said. This was becoming seriously dubious, ethically speaking, "Just...relax, and I'll take care of everything."
"Okay," she said, and smiled gently, "I trust you, angel."
"Um...good," I said, and tried to change the subject, "I have to say, you're taking this all very well. Most people who I deal with are more...panicky."
"Is that so?" she sounded interested, "Do you deal with a lot of people?"
"I have to admit, I'm kind of new to this," I thought about this for a moment, "You're probably the fourth."
"Is that all? It doesn't feel like it," she said, and sighed deeply, "Will I be able to see my parents again? I've missed them for too long, and without them and Christos...well, maybe death isn't so bad." there was a pause, "We were going to get married, you know."
"Can you still get married if you're dead?"
"I…" I struggled for a moment, eventually settling on something that wasn't a complete lie, "I haven't heard anything that says you can't, I suppose."
"That would be nice," she said, and smiled again, "Angel? If I'm dead, can I let go of this?"
"Let go of...what?" I said cautiously. In response she twitched her tightly bound arm, and underneath the tight coils of rope I could see that she was grasping a large, black device that had a long, flexible antenna protruding from one end. My mouth suddenly went dry, and I had to work very hard to stop the sudden jolt of fear from showing on my face.
"They told me to keep a hold on this handle, but it's so hard to keep it clasped," she said, "And my fingers are so tired. Can I-"
"No!" I said urgently, "Don't do anything with that!"
"But... I'm dead and you're an angel. Surely-"
"Locke!" I called, "Locke!"
"What's wrong, angel?" Esra looked surprised, "Why are you so worried?"
"What is that connected to?" I asked urgently, "Did your attackers leave anything, or do anything unusual when they left you here?"
"I was almost unconscious at the time," she said, "But...I think I heard drilling. Maybe."
"I don't know!" she wailed, and with a lurch I saw her fingers twitch slightly around the handle of the deadman's switch, "I don't understand why it's so important!"
There was a crunch of boots as Locke arrived, looking ever-so-slightly out of breath, "What's goin' on, pal? What've you gotten so het up about?"
"Are you an angel, too?" Esre said, and her eyes narrowed, "Where are your wings? Why don't you have wings?"
Locke gave me a long, quizzical look, and then said, "Fir-"
"Are you an imp? My mother always told me to be careful around imps."
"Esre?" I cut in quickly, "Can you just give us a moment, please? And whatever you do, don't let go of that thing!"
With one eye on Esre, Locke and I retreated into the dark gloom of the trench. Once I was sure that we were well outside her hearing range, I turned to Locke and spoke quickly, in a low, worried tone.
"Okay, this is going to sound a little insane, but bear with me," I took a deep breath, "She and her boyfriend were kidnapped by Imperial Intelligence, beaten half to death, and strung up here either to die or to be bait for us. Now she's convinced that I'm her guardian angel, that she's either dying or already dead, and she's holding a deadman's switch that I bet you is linked to enough high explosive to bring this trench down on all of us! A bit of a problem, yeah?"
Locke digested this, "An' the boyfriend?"
"Dead. Apparently he's been cold for hours."
"Well, that makes things easier, I guess," he said, and rubbed his chin, "Why does she think you're an angel? What's this about wings?"
"I don't know! Do I look like I have wings?" I snapped, "She's probably hallucinating on account of having been out here for hours without food, water, or most of her blood!"
"Then why don't I have wings?"
"I don't know! Why is that the only part of this you have trouble with?"
"Well, that an' you impersonatin' a sacred entity-"
"Well, look, the sensible thing t'do would be to retreat," he said, "But I know you ain't gonna go for that, and I ain't gonna ask you to."
"So we're gonna have to get her an' that deadman's switch away from here before she lets go, providin' that it don't have a proximity trigger. After that, well...you can finish yer treatment, I reckon Terra's got some clothes that'd fit her, an' we can take her to the Returner base if she wants. So-" he took a deep breath, "-where d'ya reckon the bombs are, then?"
"She heard drilling, so they're probably embedded in the walls of the trench."
"You want surety? Get Terra. I'm just guessing based on what she's told me."
"It'll do," he said, and set himself, "Keep yer shields up, Firma; they may be watching, an' they may have a trigger system of their own."
Esra was, predictably, right where we left her, still covered in bruises and lashed to her dead boyfriend. Despite this, she seemed to be bearing up quite well, although whether this was due to shock, a strong belief that she was already dead, the presence of her so-called guardian angel, or a combination of the three was a little difficult to tell. Even so, I did see a little flicker of alarm cross her face as we strode grimly out of the twilight, and her expression did not improve when I called my multipurpose golden blade into existence with a flick of my wrist.
"Angel?" she asked anxiously.
"He's not an angel, lass," Locke said, "He's a very naughty boy."
"Not now, Locke!" I snapped, "But he's right; I'm not an angel."
"But…but..." Esra protested, "Your wings…"
"Are probably a product of dehydration and blood loss," I stated, "I suspect you're hallucinating. You wanted me to be an angel, so..."
"Then why am I healed? Why don't I hurt anymore?"
"I...well…" I looked helplessly at Locke, "I'm not an angel. I am a little...unusual."
"So I'm not dead?" she said, and almost immediately I could see the panic starting to build, "I'm definitely still alive?"
"And you let me believe I was dying?" she asked, accusingly. "Why?"
"Because...because it kept you calm! Look, I'm a Sentinel; my name is Firmament Branford. You-"
"'Branford'?" her eyes narrowed, "It was you? You're the one they're looking for? Christos and I were-"
"-bait for us, yeah."
"And you still came?"
"I'm a Sentinel," I smiled, wanly, "What choice do I have?"
"Aye, yer mad alright," Locke shook his head, "In any case, Esra, our maniac here reckons that that thing yer holdin' is linked to a bunch of explosives buried in the trench wall. If you let go of it we'll probably end up being blown to pieces,, an' I think that's a scenario that we'd all like to avoid."
"I'm going to cut you down, Esra," I said, in a surprisingly calm, controlled voice, "We're going to take you and...your boyfriend back to safety, and then-"
"And then what?" she burst out angrily, "What am I meant to do? Put my life back together, without Christos or...or anyone else I cared about? Be the crazy, traumatised, lonely woman who everyone looks at with pity?"
"Well, with counselling-"
"Can counselling bring back Christos?"
"Then...please, just leave me alone," her shoulders sagged, and I could see her grip already loosening on the switch, "There's nothing left for me here now. If I let go of this thing, maybe an actual angel will come for me."
"Esra, suicide is not the option!"
"Because…" I had to admit, I hadn't really thought this one through, "You have your whole life ahead of you! You can still...um…"
"I thought so," she said, and laughed bitterly, "Why don't you go away and think about it, Firmament? Who knows; maybe next time you'll actually have an answer. If I have nothing to live for, then I may as well be-"
From further down the trench, in a patch of particularly dark shadows, there was a brilliant flash and, a moment later, a loud report that my brain immediately identified as 'rifle!'. Acting purely on reflex, I dove towards Esra as my shields flared to life as a hazy golden dome. I heard a sickening, meaty crunch and felt the unpleasant spray of a warm, wet liquid, and then there was another colossal bang as the bullet slammed into my shields, exploding into a spectacular cloud of sun-bright sparks that bit at my skin and smoked where they touched my clothes.
"Firma!" Locke called, "Are you okay?"
"I'm...I'm fine!" I replied, after a quick check to ensure that I was clear of shrapnel, "Esra? Are you-"
My question died on my lips as I stared into her accusing, lifeless eyes, her last words still thundering in my ears. Again, I felt that strange sense of something intangible streaming past me, and with a sigh her head lolled forward, her shifting hair revealing the gruesome exit wound in her forehead. Stunned, I watched distantly as blood flowed freely in rich red streams across her face, and fell in fat drops to stain the stones at our feet.
"Oh, I see," I said dazedly, and then reality reasserted itself, "Oh, no. Oh, Callista...no!"
"Firma!" Locke grabbed my arm, "Firma, it's time to go!"
"But nothin'! If they get a chance to reload, we'll be next!" he said, and began dragging my useless, unresponsive body back towards the chocobos, "Damnit, pal! Move!"
"But the...the bomb trigger!" I shouted, finally regaining control of my tongue, "Locke, she's holding the bloody deadman's switch!"
The thief's eyes widened, and then, "Oh...shite!"
"Yeah, that about sums it up," I said, and in a single smooth motion I ducked out of Locke's grip and started running back towards the bodies of Esra and Christos. If I was lucky, I'd have just enough time before her muscles relaxed…
"Are you mad, pal?"
"I have shields, you don't! If they hit you-"
Another crack echoed from down the trench, and both Locke and I ducked back as the round traced a brilliant golden streak over my shoulder and smashed into the trench wall somewhere behind us.
"Yeah, an' they're using high-velocity rounds! I told you these guys were kitted out to fight Mage Knights!"
"I don't care what they're using!" I snapped, "If those bombs go off, they'll bring this whole bit of trench-"
I stopped. Even in the darkness, I could see the ominous, black object in Esra's hand shake, waver, and finally fall as her fingers dropped limply to her side. Over and over it spun as it fell, catching the light in strange and chilling ways until it hit the bloodied stones with a loud crunch and then, just an instant later, a very nasty little 'click'.
The response was immediate; with a cataclysmic roar, sections of trench wall all around us were blasted into twisted maelstroms of flame and white-hot ceramics, and I caught a glimpse of Locke's terrified expression before the shockwave hurled us through the air. The world whirled, and then dissolved into a haze of pain and tinnitus as a chunk of flying rock cracked me on the side of the head. I was dimly aware of hitting the ground, hard, and then there was a wave of searing heat and a shower of shrapnel that traced thin lines of pain across my body. I braced myself, desperately pouring all my energy into my shields as I awaited the inevitable body blow of another round of explosions...and then there was nothing, save for the ringing in my ears.
For a while I lay there, too battered and bruised to even consider moving. Every part of me ached, and I felt hot, wet blood soaking into my uniform from the long cuts on my arms and legs. Finally, and with a long, drawn out groan of pain, I flipped painfully onto my front and struggled unsteadily up to all fours. My vision blurred and swam nauseously, and without any warning I suddenly vomited Locke's highly suspicious porridge all over my hands before collapsing back to the ground, totally spent.
"Luh...Locke?" I slurred. The pain around my head wound was rapidly becoming unbearable, and I had to clamp down hard to prevent a further resurgence of my breakfast. Why hadn't I listened to him? He'd been right, both him and Edgar, and now it was entirely possible that I'd gotten him killed. That realisation hurt more than the hole in the side of my head, and I felt my eyes wet with tears as it began to sink in.
There was a crunch of stone, and then a shadow fell across my vision, "Yeah, pal?"
"Locke?" I croaked, and tried again, "Locke, you're a-alive...and unhurt!"
"Yeah," he said, coldly, "No thanks to you, though."
"I warned you that this would happen, but did yer listen? Did yer bollocks," he continued, contemptuously, "Chargin' in without thinkin' an' no regard for anyone else. Admit it, you was only lookin' to feed that pathetic little saviour complex of yours."
"So she were tied up an' beaten, just like that poor man yer failed to save all those years ago. So? Yer could've assessed the situation, realised it were out of yer league an' gone to get someone like Terra or Edgar. Y'know," the shadow leaned in close, and I got the hint of a nasty little grin, "Someone who knew what they were doin'."
"I…" I choked back a sudden sob, "I do know what I'm doing!"
"Oh aye?" the shadow leaned away again, "'Cause from where I'm standin' you look like someone who jus' got their just desserts from chargin' in like a damn idiot. Yer patient's dead an' the only reason that yer still even breathin' is 'cause your shields took most of the heat for you. Good goin' pal; I can't wait to see what Terra an' Edgar're going to think of this."
"I tried!" I said, and felt tears trickling down my face, "I...I'm sorry! I should have listened to you! Both of you! I...just couldn't leave her to die!"
"Of course you couldn't, pal," he said, as I curled up into a small, tearful ball, "Trouble is, they know that, don't they? Imperial Intelligence know that all they need to do is string up some poor, innocent bugger an' you'll come running like the gullible do-gooder that you are. Yer know what the good news is, though? Any moment now, Imperial Intelligence is either gonna take you away or put a bullet in yer brain, an' yer won't have to be dead weight for anyone anymore."
"What? But...aren't you going to help me?"
"Who would want to help you, eh?" the voice dropped to just a whisper, and straining my ears just made my headache worse, "Yer just a liability."
"I'm not a liability!" I snapped, "I-"
I stopped; Locke was gone, simply vanished, without any evidence of his passing. In his place, there were two tall, heavily-set men wearing body armour and carrying powerful looking weaponry. While my mind was still far too addled with pain and confusion to fully comprehend what was going on, I still got a powerful, chilling sensation that these were not people who I wanted to be near, especially not in this state!
One of them was talking into a microphone located near his mouth, and by concentrating very hard I could just about understand what he was saying.
"Yeah," he said quietly, "Yeah, we found 'em. They're in a bad way, over."
There was a pause, and then.
"Nah, he's still conscious, but totally out of it. He was crying like a baby when we found him. Don't think he'll be able to put up much of a fight, over."
"Yeah, I know that Jumbo thought the same thing, but Jumbo was a bloody idiot. Believe me, if you saw him you'd know what I was talking about, over."
The man on the radio nodded to his colleague, who responded by giving the surroundings a quick once over. Apparently satisfied, he grabbed me, roughly, and dragged me into a prone position before stamping down hard on my chest. It was possible that I cried out in pain, but if I did I didn't hear it.
"Okay, and the other one? What do we do with him, over?" there was the briefest pause, and then, "He'll live, but I reckon he'll lose his arm, over."
"You worried about that?" growled the other man. He rolled his eyes in response, and then cocked his hand to his ear.
"I copy. We'll bring them both in. Yes. Very good, ma'am. Out," there was a barely audible click, and then he nodded to the man with his boot on my chest, "Alright. We're taking them with us. Do 'im and we'll get back."
The other man raised the butt of his rifle, and then paused, "Hold on; he's got some kind of head injury. What if I kill him?"
"What if you do?" the radio man shrugged, "Look, mate, he just survived a blast that reduced our other guests to wallpaper paste. I don't think you and your poxy little arms are going to be able to do anything that hasn't already been done to him. Now, would you kindly pop him one so that we can get him back to base?"
"If you say so," said the boot man, and I saw his shoulders tense, "On your head be it."
The rifle descended with shocking speed. For just an instant I saw the hard, metal butt whistling towards me, and there was a terrific crack as it slammed into my skull. For me, however, there was just pain, a storm of bright lights, and then darkness.
Utter, utter darkness.