Echoes of the Past Chapter 2
A beast's dying scream filled the air.
Celes Chere sheathed her sword as she watched the huge, dog-like animal die, feeling little pity for it. After all, it had attacked her before she'd even drawn her weapon; she had a couple of bruises to show for it, no doubt. It was just part of the experience of travelling in the unguarded places between towns.
It was only late afternoon, but the sky was already growing quite dark. The days had been shorter since the Unbalancing, and the nights colder; on top of that, their last winter had lasted quite a bit longer than it had in the past, and summer had been much shorter and milder. Even then, in what should have been the middle of spring, the air around the former general was much cooler than it had been in the spring when she'd been a child - more results of Kefka's meddling, no doubt.
Celes had seen a lot of things change for the better in the three years since Kefka had died. But she knew that some things were gone for good - the blue skies, the long, hot summer days, and the short, mild winters she'd grown up with in Albrook and Vector. It was just another sign that the world would never, ever be the same.
The people had certainly been trying to rebuild it, of course. She herself had been in Maranda for the past two years, helping the people there. When she'd first come to Maranda - a hundred years ago, it seemed sometimes - it had been a huge, bustling town full of wealthy merchants, a kind of resort town. But when her men had been done with it, there'd barely been anything left. Now that everything had changed again, she wanted to atone for her actions as a general... if that was even possible.
Of course, not everyone in the city trusted in her good intentions, or in anything about her. Maybe it seemed like centuries at times, but in reality, it hadn't been much more than five years since she'd torched the city for the first time. There were a number of people there who probably still wanted her dead, or at least banished from the city for good. But they were in the minority; the rest had recognized that there was a great deal of work to be done, and that the Empire was dead and no longer a factor in their decision. They didn't fully trust her, of course. They'd be fools to do that, she thought bitterly.
But they'd at least tried to understand her need for redemption.
It had been some time since she'd gone adventuring. She'd rather missed it, she decided. It felt good to travel again, to test herself against the wilderness. She was going to have to do it more often - much more often, if for no other reason than to try to adapt to not having magic to rely on. She'd already caught herself trying to cast her old ice spells a number of times, just since leaving Nikeah. That hadn't been a problem, since she'd been fighting only a few wild animals; if she ever had to fight a real opponent again, though, that would be a severe weakness, one that would very likely kill her.
Still, as a familiar figure came into view, she decided that the travelling itself wasn't nearly as good as reaching her destination... at least, not on that particular journey. "Locke!" She waved at him, letting him know that she'd seen him; a smile spread across her face, one that she wouldn't have tried to stop even if she could.
"Well now, pretty girl, what a nice surprise!" He broke into a run, and so did she; it wasn't long before they caught up with each other, practically falling into each other's arms. It had been a long time since they'd seen one another, and it wasn't until just then that Celes had realized just how much she'd missed him.
After a long embrace, Locke pulled back just enough to bend his head and kiss her, first on the forehead, then on the lips as she turned her face up to meet his. "I wasn't expectin' to see you for a few days yet," he said softly in that quick, clipped way of his, a smile on his face. "But I can't say I'm not glad to have you here."
"Good. If you did say that, I'd have to kill you."
"You'd have to try, you mean," he shot back with a gleam in his eyes, "and I'd have to punish you for the attempt, and make you enjoy it too."
Both of them giggled at that; it was easy for Celes to laugh then, with her beloved stroking her hair. She hadn't been quite so quick to laugh in the past two years, though. She'd been able to spend a great deal of time alone as a child, because she'd never known what it was like to have a companion; now that she'd known one, though, being alone could be difficult, almost impossible. Locke's message had been a relief in that sense, because it had given her a way to find him in enough time to catch him before he was off again.
Of course, in another way, it had been anything but a relief.
He lifted one gloved hand to her face, tracing the bags under her eyes with some concern. "You're still having trouble sleeping, love?"
She nodded. "A little..." In reality, though, it was much worse than a little trouble; it was almost every night. And the strange thing was, there wasn't any reason for it. No nightmares - at least, nothing that she remembered. All she knew was no matter where she was - at home, in a tent, at an inn, or anywhere else - and whether or not she was alone, she would always wake up in the middle of the night, terrified about absolutely nothing, and shivering with cold. She'd started keeping her room almost uncomfortably warm, and had recently taken to sleeping in front of the fireplace in her house surrounded by down blankets, but it didn't help; when she woke up, it was as if she'd spent the night in a snowstorm. When it had first started, she'd woken up in Locke's arms more than once, shivering uncontrollably with tears trickling down her cheeks.
"Goddesses, Celes, I'm sorry," he said softly. "Leaving you alone in that state..."
She shrugged it off. "It's alright, dearest," she whispered. "It won't last forever. Sooner or later I'll figure out some way to... to make it easier," she finished awkwardly, not sure whether she would or not. Waking up at such odd times made the nights seem so long, and made it hard to get to sleep at all at night. "Besides, I'd go with you if I could, but I didn't want to leave Maranda with all the trouble they've been having." We've already discussed this, Locke. You know that. I... we both thought it'd be best the way it worked out.
"Well, it won't last forever, I promise you that." Some of the lightness came back into Locke's tone. "Won't be long before I can stop this hard work and come home, Celes. Then we can travel together as much as we want to."
She gave him a little half-smile. "I'll look forward to it, Locke." Then her face darkened. "But... I didn't just come here to see you again, really... as glad as I am to see you, I mean. I -"
"Yeah. Yeah, I know." Locke's face was serious - not nearly so grim, but serious. "C'mon. I'll show you what I was talkin' about in that letter." He took her hand and began to lead her towards the place that she remembered so well. "There's a little outcropping that we can see some of the site from..."
It wasn't much of a lookout point - just a dozen feet or so above ground, only useful because the site that they were looking out over was in a bit of a depression in the earth. It was as though the ground had sank under the weight of all of the rubble, Celes had thought. But at any rate they could only see the merest corner of the excavation site.
That was enough. There were so many people, walking around and sometimes over the ruins, poking at them with their tools and carting away useless rubble. Celes couldn't help but stare. "So this is it..."
Locke nodded. "Yeah. That's what's happening now."
The treasure hunter didn't sound overly concerned about it, which only made Celes more confused. Kefka's tower... how can they do this? How can they stand to... It bothered her, not least because of her own memories of the nightmarish place. When they'd escaped from the tower three years ago, she'd thought it was utterly destroyed - a pile of lifeless rubble, nothing more. Seeing all of those people swarming around and over it was... strange, and not at all pleasant. "Why?"
Locke was standing next to her, looking out over the project. "Several reasons... a lot of it is curiosity. And of course there's the fact that the Empire's main city - and its old labs - are somewhere below that rubble - maybe there's something intact in there, still."
That's what I'm worried about... Celes closed her eyes. Why can't people be happy with what we have now? Why are they trying to dig up the past? "It hasn't been going on for long, has it?"
"Not at all," Locke confirmed. "You can't keep somethin' like this a secret for long. They got here a month ago, and the digs started a week after that, or so I'm told. The old man who's running this operation is a strange one - wanted my help and didn't want to pay any more than necessary for it, basically. He fought every second of it, but I wore him down. He knew that I'm one of the best," he said with some pride.
Celes didn't answer him; she just opened her eyes, studied the site below. There were no heavy tools of any sort; the men seemed determined to pick the tower's ruins apart with their hands and the force of their wills. Of course she knew that really, there were no tools because they wouldn't want to risk destroying any valuable artifacts, but still it was disturbing. Just as much as the rest of the scene.
It gave her chills. Just remembering Vector at all gave her chills.
"Do you want to go down and see a little of it, love? There won't be much time if we linger - we've got to be off to Nikeah if we're gonna catch the ship to Narshe - "
"No," she said quickly. "I want to stay here for a while."
"You are?" The older man really didn't sound as surprised as one would think he would be; he and Celes had planned this trip for some time. It had been a very long time since the young woman had seen snow, and she'd hoped that during some of his time off they would be able to spend a bit of time together, something that they hadn't had a lot of in the recent past.
She nodded, her eyes still fixed on the excavation site. "Yes... I want to see if they find anything. I want to see if they're right."
Locke was silent for a long moment, just standing there with his hand resting on her back. "You're scared, love, aren't you?" he finally ventured, softly.
Her voice quivered as she answered. "Of course I'm scared," she replied softly, turning to look at him. "I mean... how could they do this? How?"
"There might be somethin' down there that can help the world, love." He flashed her a charming smile; at any other time or place, it would've distracted her from her worries. "After all, I should know that not everything the Empire created turned out bad."
"I know that," she said a bit too quickly. "I just..."
But she couldn't finish the sentence, not right away. She was busy coping once again with the images flashing through her head - images of floating as faceless technicians injected frozen mana into her body that felt like it was burning her thin, frail body from the inside. Images of casting and recasting her new "spells" until she was exhausted, and then being forced by her trainers to cast them again until her mind felt like it was bleeding. That had been over for a long time, but it didn't matter; they still sent a shiver through her body that just wouldn't go away.
"I think," she said more quietly, her eyes locked on some distant point of the horizon, "that maybe some things should stay buried...."
Locke could tell that she was upset, of course. He always seemed to be able to tell. She felt his hands pull her close, and let her head rest against his chest, hoping that maybe if she stayed there she'd be able to regain some of that warmth that her memories always drained away.
"I know there's a lot of pain down there, love. I can't deny that - I saw a hell of a lot of it myself, and I was only there twice or so." Locke was whispering to her, his chin pressed against her shoulder. "But think of it this way - there's one good thing about this whole bloody mess, way I see it. See, if people are willin' to search these ruins at all, it means they're gettin' over bein' afraid of 'em. They're healing, Celes. And believe me, healing hurts like all hell, especially when you've gotta do it without any help." He lifted his head from her shoulder to regard the excavation site. "I haven't had the chance to talk to a single one of those men out there, but I'm sure that a lot of 'em are gonna tell me that they were scared outta their minds at the thought of messing around in what they all thought of as a forbidden place. It probably took 'em days to decide to come down here. But when it gets right down to it they'd rather come to the ruins and see it's all over than stay at home livin' in fear for the rest of their lives."
"Yeah... I guess you're right." But her mind was still far from being at ease. I'm just worried that they're going to find something else to be afraid of... something other than magic. Something else that the Emperor would've unleashed on the world if he hadn't fallen in love with MagiTek... if he hadn't decided that recreating the Magi was so "fitting" to his new order. Maybe there're some things there that'll help the world, but still... there's bound to be something down there that no one's ready for.
"Well, if you think stayin' here for a few weeks will ease your mind, then I don't have a problem with it," the reformed thief said lightly, "although I'll surely miss having you by my side. Narshe's a cold country to be stuck in alone. I'm tempted to just stay with you, but... well, much as I hate to admit it, that old town's got the best years of my life in it." He smiled at that, a bit ruefully. "I suppose I can't just let it lie dead in the snow forever, 'specially now that the rest of the world's comin' back around too."
Celes nodded her understanding; he'd told her the stories about his past before. Most of them had involved several crimes, petty and not-so-petty, in the old mining city. In fact, it was one of his Narshe exploits that got him and the gang he'd been running with at the time imprisoned, and later deported to Kohlingen to work off the rest of their sentence. The rest...
...well, Celes could guess the rest. Locke hadn't wanted to talk about it much; it seemed that Rachel was still a sensitive subject at times, even though he'd sworn that he'd cast off the obsession he'd created for himself when she'd been murdered. Maybe he just didn't want to make her uncomfortable by talking about his old fiancée with her; maybe he didn't think she'd understand how it felt to lose a loved one.
He's probably right, too. I never really had anyone like that to lose...
"But Narshe shouldn't take long to rebuild, since most of the old structure's still there." Locke had pulled out a parchment diagram of the city, and was jabbing his finger at a few marks that he'd probably made. "There's a bit of work to be done shorin' up the mines, of course, since a few years in the cold will weaken the strongest wood. And the old heating systems - see, that's the plant there - that's going to be a right bastard to replace. But as far as livin' there again, that won't be a problem."
"You said that there were going to be some people joining you there, didn't you?"
"Well, of course. There's gotta be someone to care for the buildings till the repairs are made. Besides, I ain't much of a mechanic, y'know - or miner, or builder, or anything really useful. Someone else deals with those details. I'm just a scout, really - I poke m' nose in and make sure nothing's gonna collapse on the builder's heads." He rolled up the parchment and stuffed it into a pouch on his belt. "Not that I think anything big's likely to go wrong; with magic dead and most of th' old monsters gone, the biggest things we're likely to worry about are hypothermia, wild animals and maybe a cave-in or two."
Celes nodded gently, already dreading his departure again. She saw him so rarely, it seemed; she wanted nothing more than be with him, but things always seemed to happen - like his new scouting jobs, or her efforts to expand Maranda and make it more like the city she' destroyed - that kept them apart. She'd finally found some time to travel to see him, and now this had happened... "You'd better be careful, Locke," she said softly. "I don't want to lose you up there."
"I know." He reached down and took her hand. "And I don't want you gettin' too close to a bad excavation and dying in a cave-in, either. You watch out for yourself, too."
"I will. I'm sorry that I - "
"Hey, now. Don't be, ok? You've gotta do what you feel's right, and I understand why this whole mess scares you." He lifted her hand to his lips, kissing it gently before continuing. "And I'm hopin' you won't be alone here either. The man in charge here's already sent some other pigeons out."
"Messages? To where?"
"Well, let's see..." He let go of her hand, started counting off the messages on his fingers. "Figaro, Doma, Jidoor - not that Jidoor's government's likely to care too much, but they've still got some influence in this world. All of the big nation-states, and as many of our old companions as I could locate off the top of my head. If this place does turn up somethin' big, I'd rather have everyone find out at the same time, or else it'd be the old days all over again." Locke sighed a bit, his eyes the slightest bit troubled. "The old man didn't want to do it; he wanted to sell whatever he could find off to the highest bidder, I'd wager. I had to... persuade him a bit, but I managed it. And I'm sure that at least one or two of 'em are gonna want to come down here themselves."
"Locke," she murmured. "You're scared too, aren't you." It wasn't a question; she hardly needed to ask.
The treasure hunter sighed deeply. "You know me too well, Celes. Yeah, I'm scared too. If I hadn't made those arrangements to help out at Narshe, I'd stay down here with or without you, love. Although, I'd much prefer to stay with you," he added with a twinkle in his eye that quickly faded away. "I'm tryin' to stay positive 'bout it, though. It's ain't easy, but I'm tryin' because worrying about it isn't gonna help anyone."
"And maybe there is something that the world needs down there." The former general's voice was very soft. "If only Granddad were still here..."
"Yeah." A shadow fell over the thief's eyes. "Damned murderous bastards, killing defenseless old men..."
Celes nodded; after almost a year, it still hurt to think about it. Finding him murdered in a hotel room in Albrook would've been painful enough, especially after all of the effort she'd gone through to save his life so long ago. But then there was the note next to his body, the one from the "Voices of the World" that had warned that the same fate awaited any who had associated themselves with the Empire. Celes, strong as she still was, hadn't been able to sleep for days. It didn't matter that the killers had been caught a mere two days after the body was found; it had still terrified her, kept her awake at nights standing by her door with her sword in hand.
She missed Granddad almost every day; he'd been taking care of her all of her life, even if she hadn't known it. But she missed him even more just then. If he were alive, he could probably tell us something. He knew almost everything that went on in the labs in Vector....
"Well," Locke sighed, "Much as I hate to let you go, I guess I'd better take you down there. I've got to get goin' if I'm gonna catch my ship."
Celes nodded. I'm not sure I even want to go down there... there're so many memories even with Vector still buried down there. Kefka... But she couldn't just stay away. She had to do something, or else she'd end up hearing about some new and horrible experiment that had changed the world, and she'd hate herself forever for not doing anything to try to stop it.
The two linked hands, and Locke flashed her a smile before he turned to lead her down to the ruins. Celes couldn't suppress a shudder as the site grew closer. If only she could have known exactly what was down there, somehow... but she couldn't, and nor could she help but fear that there were things there that would be better left to rot in the wreckage, things that would destroy the world all over again.
Locke grumbled as he fought the bitter winds that blew into his face as he trekked north. Damn it. This continent's not supposed to be so bloody cold...
It was just his luck that he'd end up travelling against the wind. Narshe was quite a long ways away from the site - a long sea voyage from Nikeah, unfortunately for his digestion. It was going to take him a few days just to get over the lingering effects of the seasickness enough to be any use to his employers, he thought bitterly. Ships and him just... didn't get along well.
Besides, he'd been far more tempted than he'd let on to just forget Narshe, to stay at the ruined tower with Celes. Part of it was pretty basic; he'd missed her terribly, and hadn't expected her to come to see him at all, let alone decide to stay at the tower.
As for the rest... well, he wasn't worried too horribly much about the excavation. He really did believe that if people were willing to dig it up, it meant more good than it did bad, because it meant that people weren't clinging to the fears from the past anymore. But he really was more worried about Celes than he'd let on, about a great many things - the excavation, her lack of sleep, and the murder in Albrook - maybe the last most of all. Damned terrorists, he thought grimly. Can't do anything about the world, so they go and kill innocent people and think they've made some kind of goddamned point - Then he caught himself, gave himself a bit of a mental shake. Yeah, right. The Returners started out that way too; if Banon hadn't come along we probably would've ended up doin' suicide bombings on Vector. Don't be such a fucking hypocrite.
But he hadn't expressed those worries, not to Celes. He didn't want to smother her, make her think he didn't trust her to protect herself. Celes wasn't Rachel; the former general and fighter was strong, and wanted to be able to take care of herself, and he knew that she would - if he gave her the chance. Sometimes, though, it was very tempting to just stay with her, to protect her from everything that the world could throw at her....
But, seeing Mobliz coming up fast in front of him, he put such thoughts aside for the long journey to Nikeah, and walked towards the village. That was one village he hadn't sent a pigeon to - not because he hadn't wanted to, mind, but because he'd wanted to tell them in person on the way to Narshe. Besides, there weren't any more pigeons flying up to the city; the ones that had been raised there were probably all dead by then.
It had changed a bit since he'd last visited, he noted idly. The buildings were fresher, and they were actually above the ground - apparently the old underground playroom that the kids had once lived in was gone. Caved in, maybe, or just blocked off. There were probably a lot of memories there, the former thief mused.
He walked up to one of the doors - the one to the largest and most colorful building - and rapped his knuckles against it three times. "Hallo!" he shouted out for good measure. "Anyone home?"
The door opened almost before he'd moved his hands away. "Hello, sir," the woman who'd opened it answered without really looking at him; she seemed busy with the squalling baby in her arms. "Do you need - " Then she took a closer look. "Wait, I remember you. You're one of Mama's friends, aren't you?"
"I hope I can call myself that," Locke replied lightly. "I haven't' seen you in almost two years, Kat. I see the rebuilding is coming along well?"
"Oh, yes, very well. We've had a lot of help from merchants who want to see the trade route to the south opened. But please, come in," she continued, opening the door a little wilder. "It's Locke, isn't it? I'm not so good with names..."
"No, you're right. I can't stay too long, though. Wanted to have a quick word with Terra." The playhouse looked much more comfortable than the old one, he decided. Much nicer, what with the wooden walls and the bright paint and the lack of a need for torches along the walls. The children stared at him nervously; he really didn't know any of them very well, having not visited in a very long time. "How is she?"
Katherine seemed a bit taken aback. "Mama? She's... not here, actually."
"What? Where'd she go?"
'I'm not sure." The young woman's manner changed completely. She seemed ready to apologize to him a half-million times. "She... well, she hasn't been sleeping too well lately, so she went on a vacation. Said that the stress was getting to her, and it was time to let me and Duane learn how to run the household for a while, since we were getting old enough for it now. But she didn't say exactly where she was going...."
"Well, that's a pity," he started. Then, as something seemed to connect in his mind: "She's had trouble sleeping?"
Katherine nodded. "She's been having horrible nightmares, she says. She doesn't tell me about them... but I can tell how terrible they are because she always seems to wake up screaming that she was on fire, that something was burning her... I think - " She glanced around for a moment, then leaned in closer and continued, "I think that part of the reason she wanted to leave for a while was because she knew she was scaring the children...."
Nightmares. Locke's mind was working furiously. That's a damn strange coincidence. Damned strange. Celes says she isn't having nightmares... still....
"Well," he finally answered, ripping a piece of parchment out of his vest pocket and handing it to her, "when she comes back, be sure that she gets this. It's very important. I can't stay any longer, so I'll be on my way."
Katherine took the letter, but didn't seem quite as willing to let him leave. "Are you sure? It's been a while since we've had visitors, and I could make some tea -"
"Ah, no, Kat, don't trouble yourself." The thief forced a smile. "And give my regards to Duane, will you?"
"I will, as soon as he wakes up. Thank you - "
But Locke had already slipped out of the door and resumed his trek to the north, taking his own misgivings, old and new, with him.
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