Echoes of the Past Chapter 3
"Look out!" "Weapons!!!"
In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing, finding food can be a difficult task at times. The rest of the time, it's a near-impossible task. Especially for a common, stupid beast that's already gone a week without a proper meal.
"It's gone mad!" "Stay together!"
In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing, an expedition carrying supplies is somewhat like an oasis in a desert. And as far as the common, stupid beast is concerned, the expedition is holding up a banner reading the bestial equivalent of 'PREY'. Arguably, such a beast might well consider both the supplies and the expedition to be 'prey'.
"Watch out!" "Move lady! MOVE!!!"
But even the simplest of beasts is inborn with the ability to discern the easier prey from the harder prey. The smaller, the weaker, the slower, the target; the easier it is to catch and kill. Such has been the way of predators in millennia past, and such will be the way of predators for millennia to come.
"Hey, that's my spear!" "What the hell are
The ability to see colours and discern a trap are talents that few predators possess. And as the smaller, weaker, slower target knelt completely motionless against the remains of a stone wall, it was forcefully proven that this particular predator had neither.
A wave of silence passed over the clearing as the wolf-like animal slumped to the ground, a spear now driven through its chest and out its back. The butt of the spear was still braced against the stone wall, the animal's momentum having done the job of forcing the weapon through itself. The wielder of the spear was still kneeling between the wall and the business end of the spear, with only a small amount of room to spare.
"...couldn't see the spear..."
"...ran itself through..."
One of the nearby men finally got up the nerve to
approach her. "Geez, lady! Are you okay?"
Celes stood up slowly, allowing the beast's weight to drag the spear to the ground. "I'm fine, thanks. Was that the only one?"
The man nodded, unwrapping a piece of cloth from his one hand and handing it to her. "Here, you've got some of its blood on you."
She took the cloth, using it to wipe her one arm clean. The cloth was heavily stained with sweat, suggesting that its normal purpose was to act as a makeshift glove. "Thanks. Is everyone alright?"
"Everyone's fine. Looks like that beast just wandered in here by accident. That was a cute trick you pulled with that spear. Are you afraid of anything?"
Celes shrugged, inwardly wondering if her heart had even bothered to speed up. "It was a just a wild animal. You don't have to be afraid of them, just careful."
The man gave her a look that clearly indicated that he thought otherwise about the matter. But like everyone else there, he knew enough about her to imagine that she'd been in far worse. It was probably all relative, he'd decided. "Let's get back to the wreckage, shall we?"
"Hey Joseph!" the man yelled with a chuckle. "You get to clean your spear off!"
A ripple of good-natured laughter echoed around the clearing as the owner of the spear put on an exaggerated look of irritation. In the middle of nowhere, it was as good a tension breaker as anything could hope to be.
Celes shuddered as she made her way back to the ruins again. Was she afraid of anything, the man had wanted to know. As though not fearing some wild animals was something to be respected.
She had plenty of fears to call her own. And these ruins were doing nothing to help her forget them.
"Gimme a pry bar."
"Don't break this one, alright?"
"It's not my fault that the last one was defective."
"You're not supposed to jump on it!"
"Man, everyone's a critic..."
The ageless art of rooting through piles of junk
never died. It merely found new piles of junk to root through. And new people
to do the rooting. And this time around, the remainder of Kefka's tower was
providing plenty of opportunity to refine the art.
It had come as something of a surprise to Celes, finding so many people already present. Evidently Locke's letters had made good time, to say nothing of finding open ears. Because the population of people around the ruins was enough to rival the occasional small village, and it was holding steady despite the lack of concrete findings thusfar. Apparently, some 'treasure hunters' had also been searching earlier, but it had been unanimously agreed that 'finders-keepers' wouldn't apply to this location. Anything worthwhile found would be made known and available to everyone, which had discouraged some of the profiteers.
There were still a few incidents with animals, but they were nothing that a determined group of men with weaponry couldn't scare off or kill. The majority of the wild predators preferred to leave the area well alone, almost as though they knew something was wrong about the area, even after the departure of Kefka.
"Careful," Celes was warning. "That beam is rusting
"I see it," the man opposite her agreed. "What do you suppose is in this bit o' mess?"
"It looks Imperial," she admitted. Despite the abundance of generic garbage everywhere, it didn't take long before you started to notice variations between the different piles. Some held more promise than others, while some simply held more potential for injury. Locke would have referred to it as 'Treasure-hunting instincts', while a cynic might have dubbed it 'Garbage-Vision'. "I don't think Kefka really bothered to make this tower stand on its own. He just used the Three Statues to hold the garbage together. And most of that garbage came from Vector."
And garbage was something that a city like Vector had never been short on, she reflected inwardly.
"Hell if he didn't have plenty of power to spare," the man agreed. "You think this junk here looks manufactured?"
"Maybe. I can't tell yet."
"I'm beginning to wonder if we're ever going to find anything useful in all this junk."
"I'm sure something will turn up. We just have to be patient."
"No argument from me. I just wish I could be as hopeful as you are."
Celes laughed weakly at that. Hopeful? The only thing giving her hope thus far was the fact that they hadn't found anything significant yet. As far as she was concerned, she'd be quite happy if they finished sorting all this junk and wound up finding nothing.
Her instincts strongly insisted that she had better not get her hopes up too much.
"Hey, Celes!" one of the other groups hollered.
Turning, her eyes immediately fell on a small item that had just been pried out from a particularly useless-looking pile of scrap-metal. It was clearly in poor shape, but the absence of rust indicated that the metal was of above-average quality.
"It looks like an Imperial strongbox," she guessed, inspecting it carefully. "A lot of lower ranking officers used them for documents."
"Still locked," one of the men determined through experimentation. "There might be something inside!"
"Keep away from that pry bar!"
"Does anyone have a hairpin?" Celes inquired, inspecting the box for a moment. It was a shame that she hadn't bothered styling her hair lately, or she'd have been able to produce one herself.
"Yeah, I found one in all this junk, believe it or not."
"That only works in stories, you know-"
Celes smiled as the top of the box popped open. She'd have to remember to tell Locke when she saw him next. "I learned from the best."
"Hey, it's got stuff in it! Bring the light over here!"
"Why do you think it was locked?"
"It's some papers. Quit blocking the lantern and let me read it."
"You got centre stage, buddy."
"Always knew I'd make it someday. *ahem*...
"To my dear Florence. I hope this letter finds you well. I trust the weather in Tzen is better than it is down here in Vector. Since those damnable Espers ruined this great city, most of our time is spent on patrol. The looting and rioting happening is absolutely ludicrous at times, but we do our best to contain it. I will admit to occasionally wondering whether the Emperor truly cares these days, but I am sure he has his mind on more important issues.
"Somehow, in the greatest and busiest city in the world, it is still lonely. I hope to be granted a leave of absence soon, for I miss your presence like I miss the sun itself. Even as I write upon this cold, hard, unfeeling desk, I yearn for your warm and gentle touch. Would that I could hear your melodious voice and taste the sweet scent of your-
"-that's it I ain't reading this anymore! This is
a cheesy love letter or something!"
Laughter all around.
"Stirs the bottom o' my heart, I tell ya!"
Celes was laughing too. Like everyone else, she had felt the tension in the air before, and could feel it fading away now. Even the most insignificant thing could prove to be a boon if they managed to find it, a simple strongbox potentially holding knowledge of near-infinite wealth to a world struggling to heal itself. And if it had proven to be a false lead this time, the next time could easily be different. In the meantime, it was time to return to their business.
A shout further delayed their returning to work, in favour of turning their attention towards 'Ol' Jed'. One of the first people to attempt what they were doing, he was presently taking a break on account of a broken arm suffered after a mound of garbage decided to collapse on him. But knowing him, he wouldn't let it delay him for too much longer.
"Chocobo's approaching!" he yelled. "'bout six of 'em!"
At times, any distraction was a welcome one. This was one of those times.
"Who is it?"
"Dunno. Maybe they want to help out?"
'They' didn't want to help out. Or, if they did,
they stood to get some very expensive clothing very dirty in the process.
"Good day to you," Ol' Jed called out.
"Well met," one of the men offered in return.
They were possessed of a fairly anonymous look, with none appearing to be a leader of any sort. It was entirely possible that they didn't belong to some organization, but not very a likely possibility. Their clothing matched, right down to their sword handles, and was tailored in a way that most common rogues couldn't be bothered to afford.
"We understand that there has been an attempt at excavating these ruins," another of the men stated.
"For about a month now," Jed confirmed.
"Has anything of note been found?"
"Nothing yet, but these things take time, y'know."
"So, where do you men hail from?"
"We are members of the organization 'Voices of the Earth'."
"And what can we do for you?"
"To be perfectly straight, we are here to demand that you cease your efforts here."
The statement enough to evoke a poignant moment of silence throughout the group. Then everyone replied at once.
"-You can't be serious-"
"-I'm not going anywhere-"
"-Who the hell do you think you are-"
"-You've no right-"
"-Why don't you and your horses just go and-"
Celes sucked in a breath and steeled herself. "I'm sure that the King of Figaro would be fascinated to hear about this," she noted in a loud voice. It had been a long time since she'd used that tone, but dealing with new army recruits had never allowed for timidness.
It was more than adequate to get the strangers' attention. As one, they glared at her, ignoring the rest of the angry comments around. "King Edgar of Figaro has no jurisdiction here," the closest informed her.
"And neither does the Voices of the Earth," she agreed, advancing a step forward.
"Understand," another attempted, "we are not attempting to be unreasonable. You would be Celes Chere?"
"I am," she agreed.
Yet another of the men gave her a brief bow of the head. "A genuine pleasure to make your acquaintance then. As my partner has said, we are not being unreasonable. Indeed, this world is highly indebted to you, Celes Chere, and none more than ourselves. But-"
"If that's true, you have a funny way of showing gratitude," she snapped, her temper beginning to slip, despite her efforts. "You can refrain from showing any more of what you showed to my granddad last year!"
Several of them muttered back and forth between themselves before looking back at her. "If, by 'granddad', you are referring to the Cid who was originally the Empire's Chief Researcher-"
"-who saved my life-"
"-who made MagiTek technology possible in the first place-"
"-who helped oppose the Emperor-"
"-who created the monster who ruined this world-"
"-who gave me the chance to fight that monster!!!"
Silence echoed between the two groups, each silently daring the other to object in a more direct fashion. Judging from the assortment of weapons all had within reach, the potential for violence was getting more real with each passing second.
"Please, you are being unreasonable," one of the strangers placated. "You have already stated that you have yet to find anything of worth. Furthermore, this is a potentially hazardous area, as the lot of you can doubtless attest to. And there is a very real danger that anything of worth found could prove to be extremely dangerous."
"This won't go away if it's ignored," Celes insisted. "It needs to be dealt with sooner or later. Better now than later on."
"You're searching blindly and in ignorance."
"I was one of the people who helped storm Kefka's tower. And the tower was built from Vector's ruins," she reminded him. "I think I'd have better idea of what might be here than anyone else, don't you think? Or do you think that you know better?"
The statement was a difficult one to refute, and the group of men didn't even try. "Better this remains buried forever," one suggested. "Are we really so eager to rediscover the means of the world's destruction?"
"I already said that I have a better idea of what's here than anyone else," was Celes' answer. "And I still don't know what else might be here. Furthermore, I don't particularly like digging through this rubbish like this."
"Then I fail to see the problem-"
"-but it has to be done," she finished firmly. "This needs to be dealt with. And it won't be dealt with by letting it be ignored. If you want to help us with the digging, then you're welcome to join. But you've absolutely no right or authority to demand that we leave."
Judging from the nods and hardening expressions, the rest of the people assembled were in complete agreement with her.
"And the next time you want to make such demands," Celes added, "tell your masters to come and tell us themselves."
"If you people are so opposed to peace and determined to place this world in danger-"
"If you're so determined to protect this world's peace, where were you when there was something to resist?! This world is peaceful, and one of the things digging through these ruins will accomplish to keep things that way!"
"If that is your final answer..." The six men exchanged guarded looks before nodding in unison with each other. "...so be it. Do as you will."
With that, they turned their chocobos and headed off at a brisk run.
"Wonderful," Celes muttered. "Just wonderful."
"You sure told them how things are."
She shook her head. "They'll be back, I'm almost sure of it. I don't think they realized how many people are already here, that's all."
"You think they're gonna get some more people to make a fight out of it?"
She shook her head. "I don't really know. But whatever it is that they want, I know that they're willing to kill to get it."
"Don't let it worry you too much. You were right, this is something we've all gotta do. It ain't the most pleasant, but 'tis necessary. So why don't we all break for some supper and talk things over together?"
Supper could generously be called a 'Potluck'. Although a more realistic person might call it 'Scavenging'. Put simply, throughout the day, some people would make excursions out and see what could be felled or found in the name of food. Anything that was brought back would be divided among those present. It was hardly a luxurious method of obtained food, but it was inexpensive (arrows occasionally weren't recovered), and owing to the hunting talent of some individuals, fairly consistent.
"-a good yield today-"
"-pass some o' that roast wolf, will you?-"
"-are you sure this salad is dead now?-"
"-I'd kill for some beer right now-"
Amidst the usual observations and comments, one group's discussion was somewhat more focussed in nature. Even as they ate, the group was discussing the recent confrontation in a more realistic sense.
"Do you really think they'll be back?"
Celes nodded slowly. "Those men looked like they knew how to fight. But I don't think they counted on there being so many people here."
She was acutely aware of how much attention was being directed towards her, much of it (admittedly) quite deserved. After all, she had been the one who to openly spoke out against those men in the first place. She had gone so far as to actually argue with them. She had been the one to lay down conditions and terms against their own.
The fact that she probably had more combat experience than most men twice her age might have been a reason too, she silently admitted. Even if she wasn't about to put it on a resume, being an Imperial General tended to instill a latent desire to be in control of a situation. Any situation. It was probably one of many reason this entire place gave her the creeps.
"So if there hadn't been as many of us...?"
"I don't know," she admitted. "Maybe. I don't doubt that they would have preferred for us to leave willingly. I honestly don't know why the Voice of the Earth would be so interested in these ruins, so I don't know what's motivating them."
Left open-ended was the implication of what might have happened had the men not gotten their preference. "So what can we do? How many men do they have?"
"We've got weapons for hunting, not fighting. Things could get messy if we don't do something before they get back."
"We're in the middle of nowhere. No town would be willing to provide soldiers out here."
"Maybe," Celes realized, "we don't need soldiers. What we do need is a reason for them to not want to fight. I could talk with King Edgar of Figaro."
"This is a long way from Figaro."
"I could ask him to send out an exploration party here. It would only make sense that he'd want to keep an eye on how things develop out here. They could work with us, but any attack would be considered an attack on Figaro itself..."
"That might be a good enough deterrent."
"Then let's go ask!"
"Edgar might not agree to it. Sending a party out here is a pretty cheeky thing to do, even if he is the most powerful king in the world."
"And he might not want to bother. Especially with his engagement recently."
Celes raised an eyebrow. "He's engaged?"
"Just recently. To one Sonya Freidrich. She's part of the New World Restoration Movement. And I imagine that he gets all sorts of requests these days."
Just another reminder of how long it had been since she'd seen Edgar, she supposed. "I could go and ask him myself. I think he'd pay more attention to any request from me in person."
"You'd do that?"
"Of course. Besides, it's been too long since I've seen him." To say nothing of being mildly curious about the woman who would actually return the flirt's interest.
"I guess you'd be better able to convince him than anybody else here. But are you sure that it's safe? If those men..."
Celes shook her head, getting to her feet. She hadn't been comfortable with this business to begin with, but the exchange with those men before had just aggrevated the discomfort even further. The sooner this was dealt with, the better she was going to feel. "Those men won't try anything yet. Not until they've talked with whoever is in charge of them. And with some luck, I'll be with some other people on the way back."
"You do that. We'll handle things here for the time being."
"Be careful," she warned. "If they come back before I can get back... don't do anything rash. They might try to provoke you into starting a fight."
"Diplomatic reasons. Even the Empire did it once or twice." She offered a grim smile. "You're less of an aggressor if you don't actually start the fight, right?"
"Point. We'll keep that in mind."
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