"Celes Ascending" by Imrryr
Chapter 12: "No Place for Joy or Pleasure"
"Hope whispers softly in my ears!
We shall be free, we shall find peace."
- The Prisoners' Chorus, from Beethoven's 'Fidelio'
Early evening onboard the 'Blackjack' as it flies over the sea.
"I look stupid."
Celes stood behind her, watching with barely suppressed amusement as Terra pouted, arms crossed, at her reflection in the mirror. "It's only temporary," she chided as she continued to brush the woman's hair. Inwardly, she was exhausted. She had already reassured Terra on this particular subject about a dozen times today.
It had taken hours – and more than a few muttered curses - but she had somehow succeeded in bleaching her friend's formerly forest-green hair to a golden blonde. Celes would never exactly complain about being so close to Terra, and the woman's hair was easily the softest thing she had ever touched, but honestly, it would've been easier trying to bleach the fur of a cave bear.
Terra grumbled and pouted, and throughout the entire ordeal her eyes would keep darting towards the door like a trapped animal. It was only by keeping a subtle, yet firm, hand on the woman's shoulder that Celes was able to keep her planted in the chair. Perhaps the girl's esper nature was rebelling against the unnaturalness of hair-coloring agents? Celes didn't know, but it was as good a theory as any.
"I still look stupid."
Celes chuckled and shook her head as she took a step back, finally releasing Terra from her horrible ordeal. Looking in the mirror it was striking just how much her own hair had grown over the past month and a half. Perhaps she would cut it before asking Terra to dye it. She glanced at the still pouting woman in front of her, her arms now crossed tightly across her chest like a petulant child. Perhaps she would get someone else to dye it.
Silently, Celes brushed the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. Whenever Terra got upset, her immediate surroundings would get noticeably warmer, which was why the flowers Setzer for some reason went to the trouble of keeping in this large dressing room were now lying brown and wilted in their vases. Indeed, there were times in the past hour when Celes worried that the entire room might spontaneously combust.
If only the Siren could work some of the same illusiory magic she had performed during Celes' debut at opera house, but unfortunately it wasn't a risk they could afford to take. In fact, now that Locke, Sabin and Cyan all possessed magical abilities, they would almost certainly have to dampen everyone's abilities for at least as long as it took to break into the Research Facility. Magitek knights were well-trained in seeking out sources of magic. With sufficient concentration and awareness, it was possible for a magically infused knight to sense another knight from fifty yards away, if not further.
There were going to be a lot of knights in Vector.
It was all very unfortunate to say the least. Celes had taken one of those magic-dampening potions years ago during her training. For several hours afterwards she just felt empty inside, like the most important part of her was missing.
If ever anyone wanted to really torture a magitek knight... those potions were a good place to start.
So, they would be handicapped in that respect, not to mention the fact that even getting to the Empire's Magitek Research Facility itself was going to be no small feat. Celes still had no idea how they would actually manage it, but the first hurdle would just be getting to the front doors. In actuality, the district of Vector they would need to pass through was a rough, lawless sort of place where tough looking folks bristling with weapons and sporting wild green hair wouldn't exactly look out of place, but Terra was easily the most sought after person in the entire world.
So, no, as Celes had explained time and time again over the past few hours, her friend would definitely need a disguise.
Preferably, a good disguise.
Although, if Locke was telling the truth about Terra's performance at the opera, maybe the girl actually could pull off the whole street-tough look if she tried.
And if she had any money left, Celes would've gladly spent her last sovereign to see that.
In the end though, Terra was lucky; the average Imperial citizen would have no idea what she looked like, so with her unusual hair color hidden, the girl could pass through Imperial lands without being recognized. Celes on the other hand had her face plastered all over Empire; on statues, paintings, and not a few recruiting posters.
Tiredly, she stripped off her gloves and stretched out her hands. Dying Terra's hair darker would've been so much easier, but they were in a hurry and had to go with what Setzer happened to have on board; and judging by the sheer quantity of bleaching products she'd found on the 'Blackjack', the gambler truly must've had a thing for blondes.
Considering what he had planned to do to Maria, Setzer was lucky women didn't run at the sight of him, Celes groused. As far as she was concerned, this was definitely an alliance of convenience. She still half-expected Setzer to leave them stranded if the situation went south.
Although, really, with the possible exception of Sabin, every man on this ship was on thin ice with her at best.
Being the only other woman onboard, they had just naturally expected Celes to know the most about the act of dying another person's hair. Because, of course, the Empire trains its magitek knights as hairdressers to keep them busy when the campaigning season ends.
Ugh. Sometimes she really hated men.
From the other side of the large dressing room, a familiar series of tones interrupted the light orchestral music that had been coming from the large radio. Terra regarded her curiously as Celes held up a finger for quiet. It was the IBN, the Imperial Broadcasting Network. "This is Vector calling," a male voice announced over the static. "The Imperial Navy has reported the sinking of three enemy ships off the coast of the Commissariat of Figaro, including the HMS Svegliato."
The name sounded vaguely familiar; it was likely a Figaran ship. Aside from Edgar's desert kingdom, only the larger of the Western Kingdoms and Nikeah had any navies to speak of, and all were technically still at peace with the Empire.
Though, at this rate who knew how long that would last.
Just a few nights ago, Celes had listened with growing irritation to a broadcast from the Foreign Office of yet another promise by Gestahl that the Western Kingdoms had nothing to fear from the Empire. He had once made those same promises to Tzen, and Albrook, and Maranda.
"Also, today the Ministry of Public Health has announced a decrease in the chocolate ration to twenty grams per week."
Celes frowned as the announcer continued rattling off the day's events: a military airship that collided into a row of homes outside of Tzen's airport, reports from the advancing front south of the Sabre Mountains, and five men and women who were hanged for treason in a suburb of Anacreon.
It had been a month and a half, but there was still no mention of a renegade general, or a missing magitek witch for that matter. She'd been listening for Imperial broadcasts ever since she defected, but with nary a peep about either herself or Terra. Doubtless the Empire had little faith in the average citizen's ability to apprehend them, but still, she expected to hear something.
There was a rogue magitek knight out there. Why waste a golden opportunity to scare the general population?
Then she was blinded by what had to be world's largest flash bulb and staggered back until her hand brushed the wall. When she could finally see again, there was Locke Cole standing by the open door, camera in hand.
"What the hell was that for?"
Celes shook her head. "You're just going to have to take that again. I haven't even dyed my hair yet."
"Oh," the thief said sheepishly, "right." Locke took a surprised step back when he realized that Terra was in the room with them. He gasped. "Uh, wow. You look... uh... different, Terra."
Terra blushed ever so slightly under his gaze, but Locke looked even more uncomfortable and he tugged at the neck of his shirt. Did he have a thing for blondes too, Celes wondered?
"Where did you get that thing anyway?" she asked.
"I borrowed it from Edgar before we left."
She must've not looked entirely convinced because Locked continued, "Like I said, for passports. You never know when they might come in handy." He dug a grey booklet out of his coat pocket and tossed it to her. Printed on the cover of the hand-sized booklet was the golden seal of the Empire. Flipping through the pages, Celes had to admit that they were perfect forgeries, everything from the texture of the paper down to the fake visa stamps. "I'm impressed," she said as she handed it back.
Locke seemed visibly buoyed by the compliment. "I can forge documents for every nation in the world," he said proudly, "but if we pretend to be Imperials it will attract less suspicion."
Celes agreed. She was glad they had someone coming along who understood these things.
"I repeat," announced the same deep voice as before, "The Imperial Navy has reported the sinking of three enemy ships off the coast of the Commissariat of Figaro, including the HMS Svegliato."
"Well, that's Figaro's only airship carrier and it's just that, according to the Imperials, that particular ship has been sunk three times since the war started."
Celes leaned tiredly against the large glass window that ran from floor to ceiling in this room. She supposed it wasn't likely that any espers would come flying it through this time. "Have you had any word from Edgar?"
"Indeed, I did," he said, flopping down heavily onto the couch. "If nothing else, at least you won't have to worry about the Empire expecting you to turn up in Vector."
"What do you mean?" she asked, folding her arms across her chest.
"There's a female captain in the Narshean militia who's about your size. The Figarans just put a helmet on her and Edgar gave her a few lessons on how to act like you."
Celes' growing frown seemed to escape Locke's notice, "Keep your head held high, don't smile, freeze anything that comes within fifty feet of you. That sort of thing. Apparently, she's a dead ringer for you."
Just what she needed, another woman who supposedly looked exactly like her. "And how is she supposed to pass herself off as me when she can't do magic?"
"Edgar said he would take care of that. Figaro's been working on machines that can emulate ice magic."
That was news to her. "You mean something like magitek?"
"Nope. It's all done entirely conventionally. Don't ask me how it works. Edgar could tell you, but the explanation would likely bore you to tears. It certainly does me."
Placated, Celes relaxed again. "With his reputation, it's a wonder he finds the time for all his machines."
"He is rather dedicated to them," Locke said with an easy smile. "Still, as far as the Empire knows, you're leading an army against South Figaro as we speak."
"Do they have a chance?"
Locke sighed. "Not really. The last I heard, the plan was to keep holding them off in the caverns northwest of the city. It should at least limit the effectiveness of the Empire's heavy weaponry."
Celes shook her head. A war of attrition wasn't much of a plan, and it was a war the Returners were certain to lose eventually. Time was most assuredly not on their side.
Also, Kefka knew that she had defected. So the more immediate question was, what did the Empire assume she would do next? Under more normal circumstances - though the life she had been leading for the past month could hardly be classified as normal - the first target would be South Figaro. The Returners were very short on manpower. Kicking the Empire off the continent would give them an important source of troops to draw from as well as finally show the world that Emperor Gesthal's forces were not invincible.
The boost to moral would be incalculable.
It was what Celes would do.
It's what any commander would do.
It was obvious, so obvious in fact that even the Figarans had thought of it.
That was a comfort of sorts. The Empire should have little reason to expect their two most wanted criminals to waltz straight into Vector. And if they were expecting it, well, they would probably be expecting stealth. Singing the lead in an opera followed by hijacking an airship and riding it to the Southern Continent certainly didn't meet anyone's definition of the word.
It was odd how comforting that leap of illogic was, but then she was very tired.
Chances are the people wouldn't be told about Celes' defection unless she was actually in Imperial custody. Then Kefka could make a real show of it. He always did revel in his public executions.
Terra was still staring at herself in the mirror. She had pushed herself close to the glass and kept tilting her head this way and that, seeming to inspect every strand.
Celes felt a pang of regret. Had there been any other way to disguise the woman, she would've taken it. Although, it was unlikely that Terra would've been happy with the results in either case.
"You don't like blonde hair?"
The pout remained. "I look stupid."
Celes took the hint and dropped that particular line of conversation. She joined Terra at the mirror as Locke lounged on the couch, reading a magazine. "Maybe I should cut my hair before I dye it." That would save time, plus it would make her less recognizable. Celes had long hair for as long as she could remember.
Terra finally broke eye-contact with her mirror image. "What? No!"
Celes raised an eyebrow.
"I mean... um, you shouldn't."
She pushed a lock of hair behind her ear as she regarded her reflection. "If it was shorter I might be able to pass for a man," she said.
Terra, already blushing from her outburst, blushed even harder at the image that conjured up in her mind.
Well, Celes thought, if the idea provoked such a negative reaction from her friend, she wouldn't do it. Dyeing her hair would probably be enough anyway. She'd just need to carry herself differently; behave in a manner less befitting a general and more a civilian. She could manage that.
Over the next few minutes, Locke gave the two women all the information he could about the current state of the war. To put it shortly, things were not going that well. It was only thanks to Figaro's advantage of terrain and the fact that the Imperials had vastly over-extended their supply lines that Figaro and Narshe hadn't already been conquered.
They needed to act soon. Celes hoped that this venture in the heart of the Empire would pay off and pay off swiftly.
Finally, Locke made his excuses, something about talking to Setzer about how the heating on this deck was clearly malfunctioning, and left Celes and Terra alone together again.
Meanwhile, Terra, in her renewed wandering around the room, had reached the door the thief had left open.
The half-esper looked at her with all the wide-eyed terror of a person being singled out for execution. "What?" she asked hesitantly.
Celes held up some cotton swabs. "We still need to do your eyebrows."
With superhuman speed, Terra bolted through the door.
Later that evening...
Celes slumped against the gunwale and let out a deep breath. The weather-deck of Setzer's airship was a nice place to reflect in silence, she found. It got uncomfortably cold up here at night, or at least uncomfortably cold for a normal person, which made it the perfect place to be alone. Thousands of feet below, city lights could be seen hugging the coastline; the Gulf of Arioch, if she wasn't mistaken. Last year she had trained troops in amphibious landings on those very same beaches.
Now she was coming home as a traitor and spy.
Celes tapped the rail in irritation.
Part of her still yearned for simpler times. Not that being an Imperial general was ever simple exactly, but ordering troops into battle came to her so much more naturally than undercover spying missions, or slowly falling in love with your best friend for that matter.
She huffed, but that was soon followed by a prodigious yawn. It had been a long day.
The deck slowly canted to port as the ship changed direction. It was surreal just how lightly the wind blew through her hair up here despite the exposed nature of the deck and the way the 'Blackjack' was still giving an admirable display of why she deserved the title of the fastest airship in all the world. The sun had set hours ago and Setzer had long since turned over the helm to one of the ship's crew. The old, bearded man stood by the ship's wheel with his charts, taking regular readings of the stars, but if he had any interest in contact with others, he hadn't once shown it.
After what felt like hours of deliberation it was eventually decided to land just outside the city of Albrook. Like every city on the southern continent it was occupied by the Empire, but with any luck they would alight under the cover of the thick, heavy fog that usually swamped the southern coast every morning at this time of year.
Then Setzer would take the ship over the eastern mountain ranges and wait for the all-clear.
It was a decent enough plan. Plenty would probably still go wrong tough.
She heard soft footsteps approaching her and wasn't at all surprised when Terra joined her at the rail, her hair and eyebrows now unnaturally colored. The woman looked out over the clouds and the trail of stars in the sky and smiled at the sight. Celes found herself wanting to smile too; Terra's love for the natural world was infectious.
Sparing Celes a brief glance, Terra asked, "Has Artemis spoken to you recently?"
Celes shook her head. She hadn't heard a peep from her esper companion in days. The dreams continued unabated every night though and they were just as bizarre and disturbing as ever. There were so many exotic creatures and places in those dreams; flowing rivers of lightning, forests of glowing trees that hung from the roofs of caves, and always, the beautiful female esper that Artemis loved so dearly. Celes wouldn't be able to describe it all if she lived for a hundred years.
Sometimes she would try to describe what she saw to Terra, but not tonight, after last night's dream she'd need an hour just to get started. "What about you?" she asked with a trace of humor as she gestured to the horizon with her free hand, "Any desire to fly away?"
Terra cracked an embarrassed smile and shrugged, which earned a laugh from Celes. "No. I think I'm beginning to understand how to control it though."
"Really? Can you do it at will?"
Terra pursed her lips. "I'm not sure. When I get close to changing, it burns." The transforming made every sensation - sight, feeling, hearing - so much more intense. It was overwhelming and frightening and it wasn't something she was keen to experience ever again.
Celes stared back, her eyes betraying her sympathy. "There's no need to rush anything, Terra. Maybe one of the espers in the factory will be able to help?"
The young woman nodded. "Do you really think there are any still alive in there?"
Celes' eyes dropped back onto the starry horizon. "I hope so," she whispered. She didn't want to say anymore than that. The truth was, the Empire probably had many espers in that facility just waiting in stasis. Before she defected there had been no sign that magitek production was slowing down. If anything, it had been ramping up for the coming Northern Campaign.
"You said you've never been inside, right?" Terra asked.
Celes murmured in affirmation.
Terra's shoulders fell a little as she looked back out at the stars. She was afraid of what they would find in that horrible factory, a place where espers were treated worse than animals.
Wordlessly, Celes put a hand on the woman's shoulder and the worries receded... just a little.
Two days later.
She had no clear memories of the city that now lay before her, a gloomy, sprawling metropolis that from afar resembled a twisted mass of concrete and metal, as if it were trying to mimic the destruction its people had wrought on half the world. Over it all, the enormous metal pyramid of the Imperial capitol stood silhouetted against the distant mountain range and a darkening sky beyond. It was a forbidding sight and constantly unnerved her whenever she caught a glimpse of it.
But as they passed from street to street, Terra would see things - a storefront, a sign, a uniform - which would earn a brief flash of recognition. However, these feelings faded just as quickly as they appeared.
Perhaps she had seen it all before, or perhaps she hadn't. From what little Celes had told her, combined with her own sketchy memory, Terra knew - vaguely - that she had only ever left the city under guard and with Kefka's slave crown upon her head. It robbed her of so many memories, but perhaps in some cases that was a good thing.
The sun was touching the mountains by the time she and her Returner friends passed through the southern gate. Thankfully, despite the heavily armed guards and enormous tanks, security in the Imperial capital wasn't quite as tight as it had been in Narshe, and they were rushed through the checkpoint with little more than a cursory look at their fake passports.
Still, it had been necessary for them to leave their weapons on the airship. Terra knew that Celes felt the loss of her runic blade keenly, but there was no way such a rare and ornate weapon wouldn't attract the attention of even the most slow-witted guardsman.
At least they had their magicite stones. Over the past few days, with the help of the spirits of Ramuh and his friends, Sabin had gained the power of lightning, Cyan fire, and Locke now commanded Kirin's healing powers. In fact, Sabin and Cyan had switched stones with each other just last night. Ramuh's magic would be a better match for the old Retainer, she thought. Most of the time he was quiet and focused, but when he fought it was with quick, efficient and deliberate movements; like a thunderbolt out of the blue.
It worried her though. She could tell that the man was keeping much to himself. Perhaps stoicism was a trait all Domans shared? Terra didn't know, might never know; there were so few Domans left now.
Even after taking the dampening potion, she could still sense the power emanating from her companions as they walked together as long as she kept close enough. It was similar to the feeling she would get when encountering a magical beast - like the ones inhabiting the grasslands outside Albrook - just a vague sense of magical power; the tickling of static electricity, the crackling of fire, and the soothing hum of curative magic. However, Celes felt different than that.
There was power there certainly – ice... pure and clear and cold, but immensely powerful in its own way - but it also felt stronger, less contained somehow. Maybe that was Artemis, or - she glanced at the expressionless woman walking confidently beside her, her head held high - maybe it wasn't?
The former general and the retainer of Doma had gotten into another shouting match just before they landed yesterday. Flare ups between those two would only get more dangerous the longer they were in close proximity and the more spells they had at their command. At least Celes' runic blade would grant her a little bit of protection should Cyan turn his magic on her.
At least today had been quiet, and Cyan kept mostly in the company of Sabin and the two of them were walking in the lead of their little group.
Admittedly, Terra wasn't paying much attention to either of them. Instead, she would find her eyes drifting to her friend. The woman's new black hair made her fair skin seem even paler by comparison.
Walking around in full armor would've also attracted attention, so Celes and Cyan left theirs behind on the ship. Now Celes was dressed in a black corset, tight yellow leather pants and yellow arm warmers that almost reached to her bare shoulders.
Terra wasn't sure what she thought of her friend's choice of clothes, but for some reason she couldn't seem to take her eyes off them. Her new outfit wasn't bulky like the opera dress had been, instead it was light, non-restrictive and hugged her body much more tightly than her chainmail and armor had done.
'Especially that corset,' she thought. Celes looked really good it. She'd looked really good in that opera dress too, of course, but this was more like something she would actually want to wear and the confident way Celes carried herself as she walked now only made Terra's eyes wander even more.
Then of course, there was the hair. The jet blackness of it served to emphasize just how pale the woman's skin was. She hadn't cut it like she had threatened to, but it was free now, instead of tied up into a pony-tail as she usually wore it.
She wondered how hard would it be for Celes to dye it blonde again? It looked better that way. Much better than Terra's own fake blonde, almost white, hair. Absently, she scratched the back of her head. Her hair felt dry and strangely fragile, not like normal hair at all, but more like straw.
"Hey," Celes said softly, interrupting her thoughts. "You all right?"
Terra nodded. She liked the way the former general's normally cold expression always seemed to soften a little whenever she spoke directly to her, her tone never icy or dismissive like it so frequently was around her Returner friends.
The older woman tucked a strand a stray lock behind her ear. "Do I have something in my hair or something?"
Nervously, Terra shook her head and that rare half-smile she so enjoyed returned to the woman's face.
"Then why do you keep looking at me like that?" Celes asked, her voice barely above a whisper. Thankfully, none of the men walking ahead were paying them the least bit of attention.
"Will it be hard to get our hair back the way it was when this is over?"
Celes shook her head, less to say 'no' and more to express her disbelief at the question. "Are you still worrying about that? Blonde doesn't look that bad on you."
"I was thinking about your hair, actually."
Her friend canted her head ever so slightly and smiled. She knew Terra well enough now to know that the question wasn't meant to be insulting.
"It should be blonde," Terra continued.
The smile broadened. "Really?"
Again Terra nodded. She felt strangely uncomfortable talking about this. Whether it was because she was now blushing, or because of the way Celes' blue eyes stared so intently at her, she didn't know.
Noticing Terra's discomfort, Celes mercifully changed the subject. "Do you sense anything?"
The woman's gaze dropped to the concrete sidewalk as they continued along. She tried to concentrate on any magical sensations like the one that had drawn her to Ramuh so many weeks ago.
It took some time. One of the side-effects of the magic-dampening potion she had taken was how it seemed to mess with her ability to concentrate. Still, she could sense magitek knights - there were dozens, maybe hundreds of them in the city - but she saw no espers. There was nothing in all of Vector with the power that Ramuh once possessed, nothing that felt like him or like Narshe's frozen esper Valigarmanda.
Looking up again, she frowned. "Nothing."
Celes let out a breath. To be honest, she hadn't expected Terra to sense anything. That damn dampening potion made her feel disturbingly empty inside and she couldn't sense a thing as far as magic was concerned. "Don't worry. The factory probably has something to dampen magical energies as well." She had no idea if that was really the case or not, but it seemed plausible. She had lived in Vector for years and had never sensed anything special about the magitek factory, even though there must've been dozens, if not hundreds, of espers in there.
"Is it left or right?" Locke asked when they reached the next intersection, a confused thoroughfare with at least six different exits.
"Second left then right," Celes said, taking the lead. The center of Vector was built on the ruins of a nameless and long-forgotten city and as a result the streets were twisty, sometimes wide but mostly narrow, and easy for even for a local to get lost in. The only straight-forward route in all of Vector was the wide avenue that led from the main gate to the Imperial capitol. Then something hit her like a punch to the gut; the memory of evicting people from their homes just before construction began was still fresh in her mind. As a newly minted private in the Imperial Army, it had been her first assignment.
Terra's eyes were darting from one alley to another. It was growing darker by the minute and she drew closer to the woman at her side. Street lamps were few and far between in this part of the city.
Celes whispered in her ear, "Try not to look around so much."
Terra's wide eyes asked the question.
"You look like you've never been to Vector before," the woman continued. "The people around here love it when outsiders wander into town. They'll think you're an easy mark."
Terra may have lived in Vector all her life, but this place was as alien to her as Zozo or Narshe, or indeed, any other city in the world. Vector was worse than Zozo though. No trees lined its streets and the air smelled of soot and sulfur. There was nothing to be seen but machines and people. Everything was a mass of metal and concrete and asphalt and she hated it.
Celes was still advising her, "Just try to act like you've lived here all your life."
"How do I do that?" Terra whispered back.
"Try looking annoyed. It's pretty much the default expression in this place anyway."
She tried, but when Celes glanced back at her and responded by slapping a hand over her mouth to cover her laughter, Terra knew she had got it wrong somehow.
"There!" Celes said suddenly at Terra's much more naturally narrowed eyes and downturned lips. "Now you've got it."
It was perhaps a dozen more blocks to go before the factory, but they were forced to stop behind a crowd of people as a military convoy rattled slowly past. Celes peeked over the heads of the onlookers long enough to recognize that the convoy was part of Leo's First Army. Then she kept her head down. It wouldn't do to be caught before they had even entered the damn factory.
Then, over the bustling crowd, Celes thought she heard a whistle. Despite knowing better than to acknowledge the calls of strangers in this place, she looked to her right and saw a dark robed figure standing there alone in a narrow alley, its face concealed in shadow. It held out a hand and beckoned her closer with a curled finger. Celes coughed to get the attention of her companions and then indicated her intentions with a sharp nod of her head.
Despite their dubious looks, everyone followed her without a word. Whoever it was down here, they might be less likely to start something with five people bearing down on them. Surprisingly, the shrouded figure held his ground, even when Celes was within a yard of him.
Like a monk removing his cowl, the figure pulled back his heavy hood with both hands. Celes gasped. That face... It wasn't a man at all. It was -
"Fang," she gasped. It was her all right, Oerba Yun Fang – formerly Colonel Fang of the 'Flying Vipers' - but much of the left side of her face was covered in slightly raised scars, just a little darker than her natural skin tone, and there were shiny flecks running up and down her neck, almost like freckles. It looked as though she had survived a fight with a flamethrower, except of course that such a fight wasn't generally something people lived through.
Two things hadn't changed though: Fang's familiar piercing green eyes, and that maddening smirk of hers.
Still, Celes kept her distance. This was like meeting a ghost. Or, rather that's exactly what it should've been like. Fang was supposed to be dead. Nobody attached to that secret mission had made it out alive. 'They died for the glory of the Empire.' That was all she had ever been told.
"What happened to you?"
"Long story," Fang said dismissively. "Maybe I'll tell you some time. Come on; let's get off the street before we attract attention." Fang gestured at her skeptical looking companions. "Bring your friends too."
They were led down a series of narrow alleys, passing over piles of discarded scrap metal as well as other much less pleasant things. Everyone watched Fang was varying degrees of suspicion, all except Locke who seemed perfectly at ease. Did he know her, Terra wondered. Eventually, they reached a metal door that only opened when Fang gave the password.
When everyone had passed through, Celes found her back shoved hard against the metal wall. "What the hell, Celes?" Fang demanded. "You brought her and yourself to Vector? Why not bring Banon along next time and wrap him up in a box with a nice big bow on it? Give the Empire the chance to catch all their most hated enemies at once."
Even with Fang appearing to be half a second from breaking her neck, Celes sighed and rolled her eyes. "I'm the only one who really knows this city, and Terra –" Celes paused, deciding on just how much she should let this still very angry woman know, "Terra needs to get inside that Magitek facility." Then she thought of the silent esper still residing in her head, "And so do I."
Fang snorted and released her. "So it's true," she said smiling now, "you've defected."
"Yes. It's true," Celes said gruffly, dusting off her clothes. Hopefully, the resistance in Vector was in better shape than this filthy hovel they occupied.
In the center of what looked like it used to be a kitchen was a rather dented and worn metal table. Fang bid everyone to sit down, but only Sabin and Terra actually did. Cyan hovered near the door, evidently not convinced they were safe. Locke instantly began chatting amiably with one of the room's other occupants, a stern looking old women Celes didn't recognize. Celes stared pointedly at the thief until he finally noticed and gave her a somewhat reassuring smile. 'Okay,' she thought, 'I guess this isn't a trap then.'
Fang was leaning against the table, studying Terra closely, "You're the so-called magitek witch, right?"
Terra gulped. Fang's gaze was intense to say the least, but not exactly threatening... more searching and curious, really. She nodded.
"A pleasure to meet you then," their host said, holding out a strong hand, which like the rest of her was criss-crossed with scars, mostly the kind one gets from bladed weapons. She shook the hand nervously, "I'm Fang."
Locke chimed in from his spot near a shuttered window, "Fang's our top operative in Vector, and this is -" his elderly friend fixed him with a glare that sucked all the life out of the room, "- someone who would rather remain anonymous," he finished lamely.
Celes shook her head in disbelief. Locke knew Fang was alive this whole time? She wanted to be angry at him, but she had no right to be. She'd long assumed Fang was dead. There were a million questions she wanted to ask, but they had more urgent matters to attend to right now.
"So," Fang drawled, "You guys plan on taking the facility tour or something?"
"Or something..." Celes muttered.
The woman grinned. "It would be a hell of lot easier to get in there if there was just one of you, you know?"
Well, that was easy enough to agree with. "True. Unfortunately, we need to do more than just get in."
"Planning on sabotaging the place?" Fang asked, her eyes brightening.
Celes shrugged. "If we can." Sabotage was certainly on the agenda, but that alone wouldn't be enough to stop the Empire from overrunning the north. They needed to find something useful, something game-changing. They needed to find the espers.
Fang dropped into a chair, mounting it backwards in a very familiar way. From this angle, Celes couldn't see a single burn scar, but even with the scars, Fang was still beautiful. She still exuded that confidence that allowed her to rise through the ranks so quickly. If she was leading things here in Vector, then the resistance was surely in good hands.
"The infusion process changes the recipient every time," Fang was saying. "Espers are more than just sources of magic. They have personalities, desires, hopes and dreams, just like anybody else," she said, looking straight into Celes' eyes. "That's why they do it to children now. So no one notices the change."
She turned to Terra, "You, however, are different, but what's so special about you, I wonder?"
Terra's eyes darted nervously from one companion's eyes to the next. She wasn't sure if they were supposed to trust this woman yet.
Celes spoke up before Terra could say anything, "Maybe we'll tell you if you can get us into that factory."
Fang mimicked Celes' dismissive reaction from just a few moments ago with such accuracy that Terra was impressed. It seemed like these two women had known each other for some time. The dark-robed woman glanced at Locke who was now leaning against the bare wall, inadvertently flecking paint off of it with his heavy coat. "Can we trust these people?"
Locke nodded. "You have my word." Over the following tension filled minutes, the thief detailed his adventures since running into Terra in Narshe, emphasizing in particular the great lengths his new allies had gone to in order to keep Narshe and its frozen esper safe from Kefka.
Terra had been worried, but it seemed like Fang and her friends here trusted Locke's word implicitly. She relaxed a little and took a glass of water when the quiet elderly lady offered it to her. Sabin, meanwhile, was gnawing on a roll of bread.
"All right," Fang said, pushing her chair back from the table and standing up briskly. "I'll get you in."
The old woman in the shadows frowned more severely, "If they catch you in there, it could jeopardize everything."
Fang's gaze dropped to the floor and she nodded in agreement. "Might want to tell everyone to get out of town tonight, just in case."
"This had better be worth it," the matron said cooly as she disappeared down the dark hallway.
"If we could somehow shut that place down, it would change everything," Fang said, seemingly to convince herself more than anyone else still in the room. "The place is usually empty by twenty-two hundred hours. Until then, you guys are welcome to hang around here." She gestured to a cleaner, more brightly lit room furnished with couches, a record player and all the various amenities of home. "There's a sitting room over there, if you're interested."
The assembled Returners mumbled their thanks and followed her down the hall.
"Nice hair," Fang added as she strolled by.
Celes rolled her eyes, and as the room slowly emptied she stood still, keeping her gaze firmly on the opposite wall, waiting until it was only her and Locke left, then she called out his name.
"Hmm?" Locke murmured.
He blinked. "Thanks?"
"For trusting me," Celes reluctantly continued.
Despite the gloomy lighting, she could see the man's cheeks redden slightly. "Oh, sure. No problem."
Celes wasn't expecting Fang's idea to compete with Locke's 'impersonate the world's most famous operatic soprano plan' for a place on her top-five list of the dumbest plans she'd ever participated in, but alas, as she crawled slowly along a gently swaying metal girder that ran high over the heads of the two guards manning the entrance to the facility, it was hard to escape the feeling that yes, this plan was truly awful.
At least it was dark, and the loud constant hiss of steam escaping from some nearby grates that lined the elevated road helped mask the creaking of the girder as the six of them crawled along it.
She had no idea why the Empire left this metal ruin standing here, but she certainly wasn't going to complain. Much of the lower half of Vector was covered with such things - relics of long forgotten construction projects, or things even more ancient - she just hoped this one would bear the weight of all of them.
"I – I'm going to be sick!" Thankfully, that wasn't one of her companions; it was their 'diversion', an elderly Returner sympathizer who had just stumbled to his knees in front of the two Imperial guards.
One of the men lifted his rifle like he was considering hitting the old man in the head with it. "Get out of here," he muttered. Sometimes Celes thought they only assigned people to guard duty if their bearing suggested that they were sneering at you behind their masks, with bonus points if they could perfectly capture that particular tone of voice that says, 'you utterly disgust me.'
"Urgh... Gonna toss it all," the old man continued. Then, to Celes' great surprise, he vomited on both guard's boots.
"Hey!" they shouted in unison, stepping back hurriedly.
Sabin looked over his shoulder and grimaced while Terra shivered.
She'd have to give the old man credit for being committed to his act. In alarm, one of the guards dropped his magitek rifle, which fired a shot off to the west and shattered a window in a high-rise several blocks away.
"Ah, shit," the man said. "We'll be filling out paperwork for the rest of the night."
The radio at their little guard post suddenly came to life, "What the bloody hell was that?!" a voice screeched over the static.
"Sorry, sorry!" the senior of the two said into the receiver. The old man quickly disappeared into the shadows, his job well done as Fang whispered to them all to keep crawling forward. Eventually, after a ninety-degree turn to the left they were able to drop down to the empty street below where a combination of steam and more metal girders hid them from the guard's view, not that those two were paying the least bit of attention to what was going on behind them now.
Celes could hear one of them still moaning over the still hissing steam, "Dammit, and I just had these polished."
"Worked like a charm," Fang said, dusting off the dark robe she was still wearing, and everyone –even Cyan – seemed to agree. "Come on," she added, "I hope these door codes are still good."
They were marching through a cavern constructed entirely of metal. Metal sounds echoed down the halls, metal smells filled her nostrils, metal was so thick in the air Terra thought that if she stuck out her tongue she might even be able to taste it.
It was cold and alien to her and it was hard for Terra to fight the urge to go running in the other direction, away from this man-made prison. She yearned to feel the earth beneath her feet.
Fang led the way as they descended further and further, Celes and Terra side by side behind her with the rest of their friends, Locke, Sabin and Cyan, bringing up the rear. It seemed like the kind of place even Edgar wouldn't like, and none of the men appeared to be enjoying this little adventure. Cyan was frowning more than usual and muttering under his breath about 'infernal machines.'
Terra could relate.
Every once and a while she'd see something - a strange device, a brightly lit hallway, even a light stand - that brought back distant memories of previous visits to this horrible place. The masked scientists that poked and prodded her had been just like their surroundings; cold, and uncaring. At the time she had never left the city of Vector without her slave crown, had never seen the forests or the mountains. Now having tasted the world beyond, Terra wanted with all her heart to flee and never return.
The thought occurred to her; perhaps it was because of this unnatural place that those nameless men were the way they were?
Then she frowned. That wasn't right. She should hate them... shouldn't she?
At last they passed through a door and into a cavernous warehouse with high metal walls. A series of catwalks led to the floor below on which were stacked hundreds, maybe thousands, of crates. Between the crates were empty conveyor belts which continued to run even though the facility was completely empty of people.
Cautiously, they descended into the warehouse. They tried to be quiet, but it was hard not to make a sound when there were six pairs of boots treading along the metal stairways. Occasionally, Celes would examine a crate more closely and announce its contents. Every single one of them was filled with magitek weaponry of some kind; lasers, missiles, power cores, and a hundred other things besides. Still, Terra felt no magic. The effects of the magical dampening tonic they had all taken were beginning to wear off, but still, she could only just barely feel Celes, and to a lesser extent, her other Returner companions, save Fang. There was no sign of any espers.
Then she blinked. She felt something... something evil.
Everyone stopped in unison when Celes held up a hand. She gestured them behind a wall of crates as a door on the far side of the warehouse opened, revealing a man in silhouette dragging something behind him.
They watched in horror as it was soon clear that the man was Kefka Palazzo, and he was dragging something along the floor behind him.
Terra shuddered. That 'something' was a creature of some kind, one with a massive muscular body, red skin and a long red mane of hair. It was an esper.
Kefka dumped the body next to the conveyor. The massive, slowly moving machine was raised about three feet above the ground so that they could only see the mad clown's upper body now.
Kefka paced in front of the conveyor, smiling in the way that always made Celes' blood boil. It was a mad, gloating sort of smile and his teeth shone in the bright, artificial light of this place.
"I am a god!" he cried out, as if he were on stage in front an audience of thousands. "I'm all-powerful! I'll collect more espers, I'll extract their magic... and then... I'll revive the Warring Triad!"
Terra watched in horror as Kefka hefted the esper onto the moving conveyor-belt with supernatural ease. She yearned to reveal herself, to go out and save that creature before he disappeared forever, but Celes' firm hand kept her in place. The woman was shaking her head. Perhaps she was right. If they attacked Kefka now, there was little chance they would be able to stop him from escaping and bringing all the Empire down on their heads.
And she wasn't sure if she could even cast a fire spell with her magic still dampened like it was.
Kefka was still giving his one-man show, "I've already drained all your powers! You're useless to me now!" On to the conveyor went another esper, this one a tall, slender human-looking woman with blue skin and long, blue hair to match. "You too! Take a hike!"
Off the two bodies went, slowly down the conveyor and over the side into some dark pit that Terra couldn't see from this vantage point. She braced herself for a scream or some other kind of horrific noise, but not a sound was to be heard, not even a thud. She hoped that meant the espers might still be alive down there.
Kefka stood there a few moments longer, theatrically dusting his palms and seeming to revel in his victory over those two helpless creatures before turning swiftly on his heel and strutting out the door.
When the door slammed shut behind him, all the Returners burst out of hiding. Locke, Celes and Terra went straight to the pit. Terra looked down into it, but even with her excellent vision there was simply nothing to be seen. What disturbed her even more was how she couldn't sense anything either. Even the magicite stones the Returners carried could be sensed by her now... but she felt nothing coming from the bottom of that inky black pit.
It felt like she couldn't breathe.
"Hey." Celes said, a soothing hand still on her arm. "We'll find them. They're not dead. The Empire doesn't know about magicite, remember? Whatever the Empire normally does to espers after they had passed their usefulness, they certainly don't properly kill them, otherwise they'd know."
Locke nodded. "We'd better hurry though."
Fang murmured in agreement. "The way down is over here, I think," she said, running swiftly over to a nondescript looking metal door, the Returners close on her heels.
Next Chapter: The Magitek Factory part II.
AN - Updates will continue to be sporadic (but hopefully not every eight months sporadic). So many stories I want to write, so little time :l