by Lassarina Aoibhell
"Celes, get down!"
Before she could react, something large and heavy slammed into her. She hit the ground with a thud. "Oof!"
An arrow sang as it embedded itself in the ground an inch from her ear. "Somebody get hold of that bastard and stop him!" a male voice shouted, near her ear.
The person who had tackled her sat back and helped her sit up. Celes pushed her long blonde hair out of her face and sighed. "Thanks, Leo. What is going on?"
His mouth twisted into a derisive smile. "One of your loyal troops decided to assassinate you."
Celes raised an eyebrow and looked at him. "Well. That's...just lovely."
He shook his head. "How can you make light of this?"
She shrugged. "The arrow didn't hit me, did it? So what's there to be worried about?"
"They could try again," he argued.
She almost smiled. "I'll be fine. Although I would like to know how that one slipped past the screening for possible recruits."
Leo looked like he would have liked to argue with her, but instead, he sighed and helped her up. "The Emperor said he has new orders for you," he said.
"Good. I've been twiddling my thumbs around here for long enough. I was wondering when I'd get to actually do something." Her quick salute earned her the nod of dismissal. She set off toward the mass of metal and machinery that was the Imperial capital, Vector.
It was a bright, sunny day, but no one in the Imperial Army was being given a chance to enjoy it. Celes herself had been supervising drills when Leo tackled her. The distant groan and clank of machinery indicated that the Magitek machines were being serviced.
Such simple engineering that accomplished so much. Celes's slender fingers curled around the hilt of her Runic blade. The ancient sigils insribed into the blade enabled the sword to absorb magic. Lifting her hand, she stared at the palm. Needle-thin white scars formed the shapes of runes across her hand. Her Runic power worked best with the sword she wore, but any blade would do. Her ability to withstand any kind of magic attack without harm was one reason she held such a high position as an Imperial General.
The Magitek infusions were the other. Only the highest-ranking Imperial officers were given the special gift of magic. Kefka had received them, but the process had twisted something in him. Now he paraded around half in drag looking like a clown. He had always made her uneasy, but now he frightened her. She, whom the soldiers called an ice queen.
His growing power frightened her more. Power...It seemed to be at the root of everything, these days.
The guards at the outer doors of Vector were very young, and very new. Their uniforms hadn't yet acquired the creases and scrapes of hard wear. They barred her from entering.
"Halt! State your name and business." The blonde one was trying to look impressive and stern. She hated the new ones.
Celes drew herself up to her full five feet, ten inches. She was an inch taller than he. "My name is General Celes Chere, Imperial Rune Knight. I have business with the Emperor. Now get out of my way."
"Y-yes ma'am!" they stammered in unison, quickly pushing open the door for her.
She stalked past them, her long white cloak flowing and swirling around her. Her bootheels rang loudly on the metal-plated floors. Other guards, recognizing her trademark cloak and sword, let her through without question.
She had to pass through the Magitek Research Facility to reach Gestahl's quarters. Cid was there, fussing with yet another Esper in yet another glass tube. She called out a greeting.
"Ah, General Celes! A fine day, isn't it?" Cid rubbed a hand through his graying hair and pulled absently at his bright yellow lab coat. There were new stains on it. Clearly he hadn't gotten around to laundering this week.
"Depends on your definition," she replied. "One of the new recruits thought I'd look better with an arrow in my chest."
Cid gulped. "You're all right?" he demanded, his eyes raking over her anxiously. It was like being six years old again, when he had been her caretaker.
"Leo knocked me out of the way. I'm fine, the moron is in custody." Maybe Gestahl would let her mete out his punishment? "How's the research?"
He brightened and gestured animatedly at one of the tubes. "The revised process is yielding a higher rate of magic extraction by nearly ten percent. Soon even common soldiers will have access to Magitek power!"
Celes studied the creatures floating in tubes all around her. A large whale-like creature emitted mournful sounds. A frankly breathtaking woman with blue skin, barely covered by a purple wrap, sent shards of ice at the wall of her tube. Celes walked closer to that tube, feeling an odd kinship with the Esper inside.
"That one's an Ice Esper," Cid said. "Be careful, she's been trying to break that tube since she got here."
No wonder she felt drawn to it. Ice was her element. She rested a hand against the tube. What must it be like to be trapped within a tube and feel your essence being drained away? Was it painful or only sad? Could you feel yourself dying piece by piece?
What are you, a general or a bleeding-heart? Appalled at herself, she stepped back from the tube and straightened her sword belt. Next thing you knew she'd tell her troops to give quarter on the battlefield.
The clinical research facility was starting to give her the creeps. "Good luck with your research, Professor Cid."
"Thank you, General Celes," he mumbled, already deep in an analysis of the lab sheet in front of him. Celes turned away from the man who had raised her and went to meet with the Emperor.
The back stairs were empty. She scrambled up seven flights, barely even breathing hard when she reached the top. She kept herself in excellent condition, unlike other generals *cough* Kefka *cough* who didn't seem to care.
She rapped politely on the door. "Come in." The bored voice was that of Emperor Gestahl.
She walked in silently. There was a green-haired girl, about her own age, standing by the window. She wore a metal circlet that rested an oddly cut gem against the center of her forehead. Slave Crown. The girl was Gestahl's most potent weapon, with natural magic power. She had killed fifty Magitek-armored soldiers in three minutes.
Celes looked away from the powerful girl who stared with empty eyes, and saluted the Emperor. "You sent for me, my liege?"
"Yes. I have a mission for you and fifty of your best troops."
Excitement hummed through her blood. She'd been rotting in Vector too long. It was time for action.
"Your mission is to destroy the town of Maranda."
She nodded crisply. Maranda had been giving aid to those damned pesky Returners. Fools. They thought they could defeat the Empire? The very idea was laughable. "Do you want the citizens alive or dead?"
"Just kill the ones who interfere. Leave the rest alive to see what their foolishness has cost them."
She saluted and, at his nod, turned to go.
"If you complete this mission to my satisfaction, I'll give you command of the camp near Doma."
"I won't fail you, Your Excellence."
She walked out, quietly shutting the door behind her, then leaned against it and marveled at her good fortune. The camp at Doma? Everyone knew that Doma would be the site of the next major battle. And Gestahl was going to let her command it if she just managed to wipe out one pathetic little village.
Straightening, she started down the stairs. There were plenty of preparations to make before she and her troops could leave, but they would leave within 24 hours or her name wasn't Celes Chere.
The dark, humid summer night clung close around them like a suffocating cloak. Her troops were dead silent--because they knew that if they alerted the townspeople to their presence before she gave the order, she'd see them dead by her own blade. She was not going to screw this up.
The quiet, productive little town was now safely asleep, all their lights turned out like good little citizens. But the signs of the Returners' presence were there. The tattered, torn Imperial flag--which Maranda had once displayed so proudly--fluttered weakly in the faint breeze.
Foolish. Moronic. Idiotic.
They would pay.
"Let's go. Don't kill them unless they do something stupid. Just get them out of town. I'll do the rest."
Her soldiers nodded. These men, unlike the idiots in Kefka's legions, were respecful rather than fearful of her magic. Then again, you'd have a reason to fear magic if you were in Kefka's legions. Such power should never be given to madmen. And he'd never been quite right even before the infusion.
Who could expect a child engineered from Gestahl's cells to be sane? The process hadn't even been perfected yet when Kefka was made. A lot of processes hadn't been perfected when performed on him. And they'd all twisted him into something less than human. But that wasn't her problem right now.
There were fearful cries from the town as her soldiers roused the citizens and herded them out of town. One man drew a dagger and ran toward her.
Two arrows were buried in his back before he'd taken five steps. He fell, dead.
She smiled in satisfaction. They were quite satisfactorily cowed, now.
She walked into the deserted town. A puppy whined. Then silence reigned.
She began chanting softly, feeling the power build around her. Alone, standing like a slim white spear in a pool of light from one of the street lights, she must look almost like a primeval goddess.
Like that Esper in the Magitek Research Facility.
Dammit, now wasn't the time for that!
Fire exploded all around her, igniting wood sucked dry by summer's heat. Screams of protest rose from the townspeople. She stood, alone, in the middle of the inferno, watching the flames rage. Sweat beaded on her forehead from the heat, but she didn't move.
She reveled in the destruction. Finally, she would be achieving her ambitions. The command at Doma would make her the Emperor's right hand. She would replace Kefka.
Eventually, she would replace Gestahl.
A child screamed as she staggered out of a burning building, her hair ablaze. She stared at the young girl, feeling sick.
Doma isn't worth this. My ambitions aren't worth this.
Another part of her was icily practical. It's just one child, you stupid bitch.
She couldn't do this. Murmuring another quick spell, she cast Ice on the poor creature. It died quickly.
Why? All they did was go about their simple lives.
They only wanted to protest Gestahl's high-handed ways.
My God, I was a part of it.
She couldn't reveal her feelings yet. The troops she'd brought were loyal to her, but they were more interested in staying alive. They'd kill her themselves if they thought she might post a threat to the Empire, because they wouldn't want to have to deal with Gestahl if they let her betray him.
Very well. She could wait. And eighteen years of living under Gestahl's eagle eyes had taught her the acting skills she needed to survive until she could escape.
She would join the Returners.
The thought would have made her laugh at the irony, if she hadn't felt such sorrow at destroying people's lives and livelihood.
Silently she turned and walked out of the inferno. She gave the orders to return to Vector. And she planned.
"I've given the position at Doma to Leo. I need you here right now." Gestahl's expression was just apologetic enough without indicating that he was weak in any way.
She nodded silently. Old bastard. Playing with me, the way you play with everyone. Especially that girl. Your 'weapon.' Tearing her thoughts from her, making her your puppet.
"Dismissed, General Celes."
She left silently. She was already thinking hard. It would be much harder to defect from Vector than it would have been from Doma. But--
She heard the familiar, insane laughter and stopped dead. Whatever it was Kefka was up to, she didn't want to be in on it.
"Mwahahahahaha. That little goody-two-shoes Leo would never get the job done. But with this poison, Doma will fall in minutes!"
He's going to poison them.
She hesitated. If she were caught...
....Well, it was better than taking more innocent lives.
Silently she moved through Vector, headed for the area where they kept the carrier pigeons. The note she wrote to the people of Doma was short and clear. The Empire intends to poison you. Guard your water supply. The note to Leo was even briefer. Don't listen to Kefka.
She had just released the pigeons when two arrows zipped past her and struck the birds, tumbling them to the ground.
"Ah, Celes." She turned at Gestahl's voice and saw him shaking his head. "It's a pity you discovered your sense of honour so soon. You would have been so useful."
He's going to kill me anyway, I might as well go out with style. She spit at him.
The guards wrestled her to the ground, wrenching her left wrist and bruising her ribs. She didn't resist. She knew every jail cell in Vector inside out and backwards; getting out wouldn't be a problem.
But they took her to South Figaro.
The guard struck her again. Her head spun. She couldn't think with the pain that filled her awareness. She tried to evade the blows, but she was chained to the wall and couldn't move.
Gestahl had sentenced her to death. "There will be no traitors in my empire, and especially not in my army. She'll die tomorrow morning. Till then, lock her up." He had tipped her head up so that she had to look at him. "I think I'll let Kefka direct your execution, my dear," he had said in a voice that oozed satisfaction. "I'm sure he'll enjoy it." She knew what that meant--not the quick mercy of the guillotine or the headsman's sword, no indeed. If Kefka was in charge, it would be a very slow, very public execution, probably beginning with some form of torture and ending either by burning at the stake, or being drawn and quartered. But there was no help for it now. She was locked away in South Figaro beneath the millionaire's house, waiting for her death.
"This's what happens to traitors!" Another blow, harder this time. "So, the mighty Celes has fallen!" The guard's sneering words came from a great distance.
"How can you serve those cowards . . . " The words hurt her throat. She must have spoken her thought aloud.
"Hold your tongue!" the guard snapped.
"Isn't it true that Kefka's going to poison the people of Doma, to the east?" she persisted, though she knew it was foolish to irritate her guards. After all, they only had to deliver her alive tomorrow. She could be unconscious, a breath away from death for all they cared, but she must be alive.
Another blow. This one was so hard that it snapped her head back. She felt her head strike the stone wall at her back, but only dimly. "I'd hate to be in your shoes tomorrow!" the guard chortled, kicking her in the ribs for good measure. The other one grabbed her throat, cutting off her air supply. It didn't matter. Better this death than Kefka's way.
He released her. Pity, that.
She could hear the two guards talking among themselves, then the door closed. She felt cool stone against her shins as her legs gave out. The chains on her wrists were holding her up, threatening to rip her arms from their sockets. That wasn't right. Standing up would help. She tried to, but her legs refused to obey her. Tears of frustration gathered in the corners of her eyes. Tears? What was she, a mewling idiot? An Imperial General should never sink this low. Pain tore through her body as she tried to struggle to her feet.
She fell to the floor again, her cheek resting against the wall--wonderfully cool stone. So cool and comforting... A shadow fell across her, but she felt it more than saw it. Her eyes were swollen shut from the guards' interpretation of "Deliver her alive tomorrow." She forced them open. Someone was bending over her. Concerned gray eyes, blond hair. A man . . . yes, but who? Not Leo nor one of her troops.... He touched her bruised cheek gently, then turned his attention to her chains. He went to work on the locks. In a short time, the chains fell away from her wrists. The pain in her shoulders eased somewhat, but without the slight support of the chains, she crumpled. The cool stone floor felt good against her bruised ribs.
Gently he helped her to her feet. The world spun and her legs quivered, threatening to fold again. She leaned against the wall, needing the support that the solid stone gave her. Sound.....oh. He was talking.
"I'm with the Returners. Name's Locke."
She spoke without thinking, ignoring the way the words tore her raw throat. "Returners!! I used to be General Celes...Now I'm just a common traitor..." Not that she pitied herself for her current state, but she wasn't a damned Returner. She'd planned to join them, but that didn't matter. She was going to die, Returner, traitor, or general.
"Let's go!" He gestured toward the door, past the guard, who was by now snoring loudly.
"You'd take me along?" she said in astonishment. She could barely think past the pain that was trying to take over her awareness. He was looking at her with surprise, so she tried to explain. "Thanks, but no thanks. I can barely walk..." She tried to take a step, to prove her point, and stumbled badly as a twisted ankle gave under her weight. He caught her and supported her until she was steady on her feet. She nodded in thanks. "I'm grateful, but...Even if you got me out, you'd never be able to protect me." And I can't protect myself. "No, I'm better off here."
"I'll protect you! Trust me! You'll be fine!" What the hell was his problem? In her state she'd be a burden at best and dead weight at worst. But he seemed sincere enough. Reluctantly, she nodded. He'd leave her behind when he realized how useless she was now. How the mighty have fallen, indeed.
"Let's go!" He let her lean on his arm for support until her legs started working again. He even half-carried her up the flights of stairs as they navigated the passageway that cut across town from the millionaire's house. As they were about to leave the town behind, she stopped him. "Why are you helping me?" she asked.
He hesitated for a moment. "You remind me of someone...But what's it matter, anyway? I just want to, okay?!"
What an odd man....but kind. So few men she knew were kind. Leo had been. But not Kefka and Gestahl.
"You all right?"
She blinked. "Yes. Sorry." She limped after him. They were going through the Cave of South Figaro to Narshe. She didn't look forward to navigating the cave in her condition, but she'd endured worse as a soldier. Shut up and march, she told herself. What kind of general are you if you give up just like that? She gritted her teeth and kept moving, kept fighting the cave denizens, kept forcing her body to go forward when it screamed in pain and demanded rest. She was an Imperial general and damned if something like a little beating was going to take her out.
As they entered Narshe, he touched her arm lightly. "Some of the Returners....they won't be pleased that you're here. But I'll protect you. I WILL NOT back out on my word."
He kept his word. He always did.
It was part of why she loved him, though she didn't realize it till much later.
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