Final Fantasy VI: A Promise
I'm not sure how you would classify the events of that night. Some folks would call it a rescue, others a jailbreak, still others a chance encounter or an act of fate. In their own ways, they're all right, but I would call it something entirely different; it was more or less the disinterrment of a corpse.
A warm, salty breeze toyed with my hair as I made my way down the darkened streets of South Figaro. No villagers were allowed out of their homes after dark owing to the strictly enforced curfew which had accompanied the near uncontested arrival of Imperial troopers, and so I took great care not to be seen. The clack of hobnailed boots against the pavement stones echoed through the abandoned market. I gripped my dagger and ducked behind a wooden stall, watching with steel-hued eyes grown accustomed to the darkness. My heart raced and cold sweat broke across my forehead as the footsteps neared, then stopped.
Where I'm from there is no god of thieves, but that didn't keep me from praying to whatever power gives us rogues our luck and lives. Peering out from my personal patch of midnight, I caught a glimpse of green fatigues and brown leather boots. Scraping against the stones, those same boots turned toward me and approached. I bit down on my lip to stifle a terrified gasp and crouched down lower, my whole body enveloped in tiny drops of liquified fear.
Clack. Clack. Clack. I fought the instinct to flee for my life, knowing that if I did, I would surely die. Some people would call me a coward, but individual honor had nothing to do with what I was doing in South Figaro that night--or what I had been doing for the last few weeks. Edgar Figaro and the Returners' ringleader Banon sent me to the occupied harbor town to slow the advance of the Empire into Figaro's territory as much as possible, and I couldn't do that lying face-down in a pool of my own blood in some nameless alleyway.
A thin stream of blood trickled down my face from the lip I'd cut out of stress; the coppery taste in my mouth only served to agitate me more. Inside tight kid-leather gloves my palms sweated, and my grip on the dagger tightened so much I began to shake. This was it. I'd had it at long last. In the back of my mind I saw my own corpse set up for display in the town square. Suddenly the air felt very heavy and very cold. Terror sunk its claws deep into my flesh.
"Hey, Hobb! Can you come here for a second and take a look at this?" The voice was very near, just above my head. It took every ounce of control not to scream.
"I'm coming, I'm coming...gimmie a second!" Another set of hobnailed footsteps approached.
Slowly, carefully, I worked a dart loose from a sheath on the underside of my left bracer. The only way to ensure I had any chance at all against these two was to kill one of them quickly and suddenly. My aim would have to be perfect. One flaw and I would join the dead on display in the square. I prayed.
"Looks like the fruit vendor left some goods," said the first.
There was a sound of biting and crunching. "Not bad, not bad," came the second voice through what was likely a mouthful of apples. "Sure as hell beats Imperial rations."
"Why don't you take some back to the others? I'll join you in a half hour when my shift's up."
"See you." The second set of boots departed.
When the boots had vanished completely into the night, I relaxed a bit, listening to the other soldier continue to snack on his cache of abandoned goods. Still clutching both dart and dagger, I waited for him to leave, hoping I could soon continue on my way without having to clean any blades of his blood. As of yet I had not killed a single enlisted man, and I hoped I would not be forced to mar my record.
Sudden movement overhead elicited an instinctive reaction from my body. I tensed immediately and brought my weapons to the ready, dagger tucked up against my right forearm, pommel between my fingers, and dart ready to flick in the direction of the sound. The boots moved again, but not away from me as I hoped, but straight toward where I hid among the trash and rats.
In a moment I found myself staring up into the face of Fear. The soldier stood over me, holding an artificial light source powered by Magitek. His fatigues were pale green in color and lacked any sort of rank designation. His face was completely obscured by the brim of his helmet, also green in color. He wore goggles and held an apple core in his hand.
"What the hell?" he exclaimed, dropping the core as he reached for his short sword. The Magitek light struck me in the eyes, temporarily blinding me.20
I didn't have time to think about how to avoid violence this time. Leaning back onto my right shoulder, I kicked up and swept his legs at the knees. He grunted, and the boots seemed to stagger back. The sound of metal scraping against metal hung in my ears. I rubbed my eyes and scrambled to my feet.
"Who are you?" he demanded of me, advancing.
Slowly my focus and eyesight returned, and I could make out the outline of his face against the light. I didn't have a choice, and I knew it. His lack of rank marked him as a recruit, and his accent was common to the area--more than likely a victim of the Empire's brutal tactic of pressing local conquered youths into service to fill the holes in its ranks. How ironic that his only "dangerous enemy" would be the agent dispatched to be his savior. Regrettably, though, I didn't have the clout to be able to talk him out of spitting me on his blade, and I had a job to do. In the dim moonlight, my left hand flashed.
The young soldier dropped both the light and his sword and staggered back, clutching his throat wordlessly. I readied my dagger and followed him, stepping over his discarded gear. A black pool of blood collected where he fell to his knees. The young man thrashed about, dragging his hands through the blood as he emitted a sickening, whining gurgle. Once he turned his gaze upward to meet mine, and though I could not read the "why" in his eyes for the goggles, I knew it was there. In any other circumstance I would have taken pity on him, but amid the blood in the darkness, all I saw was a dying Imperial soldier. The local young man was gone. I watched coldly as he died.
Though something faint in the back of my mind screamed at me to feel guilt, I reached down and siezed the Magitek light and looked the soldier's body over. The blood had spoiled his over-tunic, but his pants and under-shirt were in good shape, as was his helmet. With all the efficiency that defines my trade I stripped him down to the underclothes in that alleyway. His uniform turned out to be baggy on me, which was all that much the better; I slid the pants on over my own and was able to get into the under-shirt without my own clothes showing. Exchanging my flexible and supple shoes for his massive hobnailed combat boots, I tucked the pants into them and then belted on his pouch and sword sheath. To complete the image I plucked the goggles from his face, wiped the blood from their lenses, and donned them. The helmet was quite large on me, but it hid my face, so I considered it a benefit. Sheathing the short sword and concealing my dagger and newly retrieved dart, I dragged the soldier behind a trash heap and proceeded to act like I knew what I was doing.20
Beneath the moon and sparkling stars I clattered down the street as best I could manage, my neck complaining of the heavy steel helm, my mind's eye replaying the events of the past few moments in my head again and again. Painful memories of another time and place bubbled to the surface of my consciousness and vanished as quickly as they had come, leaving a bitter taste in my mouth. There was only one Imperial soldier who truly deserved to die, or so I thought. That unfortunate someone who I sought with all my energy, and in whose heart I planned to plant my dagger, was an enigma. The only things I could be sure of were that he was proficient in the use of magic, was younger than I, and wore a white cape into battle. It was this white-caped monster, this blonde demon who had taken from me everything I held dear, and it was for that reason I joined the Returners. As for revenge...it was to that end that the young recruit had died. His death, too, would be avenged when I spilled the blood of the Imperial general who had taken my happiness.
I approached the inn, which served as headquarters for the Imperial army, and paused for a moment outside, surveying the town. The calm winds and twinkling lights in the myriad windows belied the tension that crackled and arced beneath the town's surface. South Figaro was a well-known nest of Returner activity, and I had watched daily as many of my comrades were dragged out into the streets from their hiding places and brutally put to death by young troopers who may well have been neighbors or friends before the invasion. I could have stepped in, but I would have revealed myself. Yet more deaths upon the head of my great foe, and upon mine until I could cleanse myself of the sin of apathy. Now, it seemed, was my time for action. Though my disguise was not the best in the world, most would take me for a dressed-down, recently recruited trooper who had yet to build much muscle mass.
A tan-uniformed officer wearing lieutenant's rank stepped out of the inn carrying a docket of papers. He spied me staring up at the stars, oblivious to his presence, and barked at me.
"Recruit! What in the godsdamned hell are you doing? Ten-hut!" He rapped my helmet with a gauntlet-clad fist.
I started visibly and snapped to my best imitation of an Imperial attention stance, bringing my free hand up in salute.
"Yes, sir! Hail Emperor Gestahl, sir!" The words burned my mouth even as I spoke them.
He looked me over, rubbing his chin in thought. I was riveted to where I stood, worried that he would see through my disguise and gut me on the spot.
"Hail, indeed. You're saluting with the wrong hand, Recruit. And where's your tunic, huh? Got blood on your shirt, too. You've been fighting again, haven't you?"20
"Err...yes sir, but I was provoked this time, sir. I left my tunic in the barracks, sir, because it had blood on it, sir. I'm going to launder it tomorrow." I switched my hands and tried my best to look official.
The lieutenant laughed, his breath smelling of strong drink. "Fresh meat! We must have picked your sorry carcass up in this town, Recruit. Well, dammit, I could flog you for being out of uniform...but...if you take this docket to the garrison commander I'll let it go just this once. Understood?" He eyed me.
"Yes, sir! I'll take it to the commander straightaway! You can count on me, sir!"
He pushed the bundle of papers into my hands and staggered off to the private home where he was quartered. I watched him disappear into the night and then, regaining my composure, started toward the mayor's house, where the garrison commander was housed. Things were working out better than I'd originally expected, for that selfsame officer was rumored to be the so-called "hero" of the Kohlingen campaign, the great White General who had slain a hundred enemies in a thought. Soon, then...soon, I would have my revenge. I continued on my way with renewed vigor, hobnailed boots clacking against the street as I went.
The mayor's house was easily the largest in town at two stories tall and almost a city block in size. It housed the city offices as well as the mayor's residence, and now served as the headquarters of the Imperial army's occupation force. I approached the guard at the door and saluted him. His corporal's tabs flashed in the artificial light as he returned the gesture.
"What's your business here, Recruit?" He looked me over thoughtfully. "And why are you out of uniform like that?"
I stood at attention as best as I could manage. He was not stupid and he was not drunk, so I had to cook up a feasible story. "I'm...fresh in from the front sir, and I have to deliver a message to the commanding officer of this garrison. It's urgent business!"
Cocking his head this way and that, the corporal considered my story. He spied the blood on the undershirt and shone his light on it.
"You look..." he said, sniffing, "and, oh, by the Emperor himself, you smell of the front! How long's it been since you bathed, soldier?"
An advantageous turn of events! It so happened that my failure to find decent lodging actually proved beneficial. With than in mind I continued my tale of battle with the Emperor's men.
"Sir, it's been a very long time, and the battle's been long and hard. I've an important message to deliver to the commander, so please let me through!"
The corporal grinned and stood aside. "Go on, soldier, and when you've delivered that precious message of yours, get yourself a bath and a nice long drink. And see the quartermaster for a new uniform! You look like you hacked your way through half a regiment."
I saluted again, hating more and more with each passing moment the Imperial beasts who subjected the world to their will. As the door creaked open to allow me entry into the lion's den itself, I renewed my promised to Rachel. Vengeance would certainly be had tonight.
Soldiers going about their business in the house watched me, many muttering comments about the front and, generally, how they were glad they were not there. I saluted where salutes were necessary and by and by found my way to the "office" of the commander, which had at one time been the bedroom of the mayor. He and his family had been relocated several rooms down the hall and were at present being "guarded" for their own "safety." I knocked on the door.
For several minutes I stood waiting, but no one answered. For the ever-present, ever-punctual Imperial army, this was particularly odd. I knocked and waited again with the same results. Strange, indeed. Tucking the docket under my arm and placing a hand on my dagger, I turned the doorknob.
"Unlocked..." The word escaped my thoat in a whisper; I pushed the door open and entered. Everything was in perfect order: documents and maps laid out on a writing desk, books, a detailed rapier and a white cape dangling from the coat rack, all the signs of a neat and orderly person. Why then, would this elusive general who I sought with such fervor be absent when everyone thought him present?
I glanced about the room but found nothing out of the ordinary on the surface. Still, something told me that I was very close to my goal. Long ago I'd learned to trust my intuition, so I searched thoroughly, checking every shelf and piece of furniture. On the writing desk were detailed battle plans for the invasion of Narsche. My stomach nearly leapt into my throat as I browsed them. These were the plans that Banon and the others so desperately needed, especially since Narsche was the rendezvoux point for us. I scooped the documents up and stashed them in the docket.
Upon examining the bookshelf nearest the bed, I noticed a faint crack in the wooden wall--a telltale sign of secret doors and passages if you know how to look. Somewhere on the shelf must be a switch, of this I was certain, so I pulled on every last volume until one finally gave way with the all-too familiar click which can either mean the motherlode or death or injury from a trap. I held my breath and released the dummy book.
With a creak the shelf dislodged from the wall and swung on concealed hinges. A dark stairway led down below the city and into a secret system of catacombs, it seemed. I could hear voices below; if the general was anywhere, he would certainly be there. My Magitek light clicked on at my command and I began my descent.
I continued down several flights of stairs until finally I stood in a hidden basement which could have been no fewer than two full stories below the city streets of South Figaro. The voices were more clearly defined now, and no longer sounded like a strategy meeting. No, it was quite different. More like a torture session. Frozen where I stood, I listened to the sound of blows landing and questions being barked at some unfortunate soul. Perhaps a soldier or a fellow Returner who had displeased the soldiers. Still, it had nothing to do with me in the least. I was here to stall the Empire and to kill the general. Damn the rest, I thought, if I can only kill the general.
A woman screamed.
My breath hung in my throat and my mind reeled. Screaming in pain...it was not a scream of terror or desperation, but of absolute agony. I'd heard such screams before, and this one sounded especially familar. It was the very scream that hounded me in my dreams, that rang in my mind's ear. This was the sound that drove my quest for revenge. Without thinking I tucked the valuable docket into my pouch and drew my dagger. Hobnailed boots clacking on the hard stone floor, I made my way toward the sounds, wincing every time the unfortunate female screamed. I knew I did not have time to save her, just as I had not had time before. I would find the general of this garrison and kill him, avenging my beloved Rachel thereby.
She screamed again.
This time I could not avoid the sound. It issued from beyond the thick wooden door to my left. I stood close and listened, practically in tears at the agonizing memories the whole ordeal dredged up.
"So, this is what becomes of you women who think you can fight like men!" The voice was half-drunken and harsh.
"Nothing but a soft-hearted girl...the Emperor was wrong to even consider giving you a commission, traitor, but now we've fixed that."
"You're...nothing but brainless dogs..." the voice was strained and weak. "Dogs...who serve butchers and cowards... Gestahl's nothing but a butcher..."
She screamed again in agony as she was struck hard by something very blunt. 20
The first voice laughed at her pain. "Well, then, General Celes...I'd hate to be you tomorrow! It's gonna be some show! I wonder how long you'll take to die, hm?"
General! This woman, this tortured so-called traitor was the great general whom I'd sworn to kill? I myself did not believe it, could not force myself to believe it. Her screams mingled with the screams in my memories, and I grew sick at the thought of my revenge. Four hobnailed boots approached the door.
Snapping to attention, I quickly concealed my dagger and rendered a salute as two enlisted men exited the room. The senior of the two, ranked as a sergeant, looked me over and returned my salute.
"You watch this room, grunt," he barked, "and don't let anyone in or out."
"Sir...yes sir." I could barely manage to get the words out.
He and his companion left me as I was and ascended the steps talking of drink and women.
As soon as they had gone, I drew my dagger again and pushed the heavy wooden door open. What I saw will be forever etched in my memory.
Honestly, I don't know what to call a discovery like that. She could have been very beautiful, and proved, later on, to be just so, but at the time so covered in bruises and cuts was this supposed general that she might have been dead for all I knew. Slumped against the back of the cell, her arms affixed to the wall by chains, she wore the tattered remains of a very ornate Imperial uniform. It was gold, the same gold as her long, flowing hair, but was stained with dirt and blood, and was torn in places. My boots scraped against the floor as I shifted them, and she looked up, meeting my gaze with deep blue eyes grown red from crying.
"You don't...look like much of a soldier..." she forced the words out. "Did they send you in here...to continue this brutal practice?" She seemed resigned to the idea.
I clutched my dagger and took a few steps toward her. "No. I'm a Returner. My name's Locke."
Her smile, then--or rather her attempt at a smile--was bitter. "Then you're here to kill me, Returner?"
"I want to know... Were you the commanding general at the attack on Kohlingen?" I took a few more steps toward her, and she watched me, eyeing the dagger.
Her eyes fell from the blade to the floor. "Yes, I was...at Kohlingen, at Maranda...Tzen...and South Figaro...if you're going to kill me, Returner, kill me!" She looked up again, tears rolling down her face. "Just don't stand there and gawk...please...I'm paying for my crimes, can't you see that now? Just finish me before they do...or do you like the irony of it? Of seeing them kill me?"
There were no words for what I felt. Here before me, unable to escape, was my great enemy, the human being responsible for so much pain and suffering. In one fell stroke I could avenge my dead love, I could finally spill the blood of that general...and yet, at the same time, I would not have been able to live with myself had I done so.
"What did you do to get you down here?" I asked, as emotionlessly as I could manage.
She refused to look me in the eyes. "I ordered the soldiers to spare all civilians, which is directly against Gestahl's orders that any who refuse to swear allegiance to the Empire must die...and so now I will die. Does that please you, Locke...if that is your name? You're the man from Kohlingen, the one the civilian girl called out for, then?"
I jumped. "What?"
"When we attacked Kohlingen there was a girl who wouldn't swear to the Empire...she called out for a Locke as she died. We...found out from the villagers that a thief by that name had fled about a year before. That was you...correct?" She coughed and spit a mouthful of blood on the floor.
My hand tightened on my dagger. "Yes, that is me. She was..." My voice faltered; I could not continue speaking, and balled my free hand into a fist in frustration. "You must hate me, then, so fine...get your revenge now..."
What was I to do? My promise of revenge rang in my ears as clearly as the day on which I had made it, but to look at her, to see this Celes...some kind of fallen angel, but not the demon I had imagined... How could I bring myself to kill her? It would be like killing Rachel again...to hear the screams...and I could not bear the sound. I watched the lady general for a few minutes as she cried silently, waiting for the blow that would end her life. If I killed her, I could never forgive myself, but if I left, she would surely die, and not so quickly and cleanly as if I was to do it. But still, my mind raged, she is the one who stole your happiness. She and she alone is responsible for the death of Rachel. Whatever she gets is what she deserves.20
"What will they do to you tomorrow?" I stood in shock at the words coming out of my own mouth.
Celes looked up at me again, pleading with eyes that had likely never begged for mercy before. She pulled at the chains that bound her to the wall and held back her sobs.
"Please," she managed to utter. "Don't stand there and gawk at me... If you're going to kill me, do so, and if not, then please...just leave me to them."20
I removed my helm and goggles and moved to her side. She watched me closely as I knelt down and reached into my pouch.
"Is that what you really want?" I asked. "Is it?"
Her eyes returned to the floor, and she slumped again, trying to blink back the tears that would not stop flowing.
Producing a set of lockpicks, I went to work on her chains and made short work of the simple mechanisms that kept the manacles in place. Obviously the grand Empire did not expect a jailbreak of any sort. Her head shot up as the lock clicked on the first lock; she withdrew her arm from the chain wordlessly, watching me all the while as I set about completing the task. 20
What was I going to do with myself...and what in the world compelled me to free this woman, this general responsible for so much bloodshed and despair? Why could I not kill her as I had sworn? It truly would have been easier if she had not been a woman. In that case there would have been no unlocking, no aid of any sort...just a heartless slitting of the throat after a handful of cruel words. Just like any of those Imperial bastards would have done to you, my mind reassured the rest of my body. Perhaps that is what it was: the question of which was worse, breaking an oath of blood or sinking to the same level as the butchers whose actions had made that oath necessary. I never wanted to be a fighter, a revolutionary least of all. If I truly had it my way I would never touch a weapon, but that's just not the way of the world, it seems. Lady Luck, the patron of all thieves and gamblers, seemed to have dealt me a strange hand, as a friend of mine would later say, for in my fulfilling my pledge I would only become the beast I hunted. A strange irony...to do right means sometimes to choose the lesser of two wrongs. I could not leave her here, and I could not kill her. The only thing to do was to take her with me.
"What...what are you doing?" Celes said, pulling her bruised hand free of the second manacle.
I replaced my lockpicks and stood. "Taking you with me to Narsche."
"So you Returners can have the private pleasure of killing me?"
I shook my head and offered her a hand up. "No one's going to kill you unless that's what you really want, and in that case it's not going to be me, lady..."
She looked up at me, still not believing any of this.
"That's not the..." Her voice faltered as she wiped tears away. "Look...I'll be a burden. I'm too badly beaten...I can barely walk. You might as well leave me here, though I do thank you for your offer..."20
"That's not a problem, Celes," I said, trying to instill at least a little confidence in her. The thought of her execution at the hands of the Imperials was beginning to sink in, and I in no way wanted that on my head.
She shook her head, studying her bruised and cut hands. "You couldn't protect me even if you wanted to. Just leave me a knife when you go, please..."
My stomach jumped at her request. It was too much for me. Even if it meant betraying my oath to Rachel, I just couldn't.
"Lady, if that's the way you're gonna be..." I reached for my dagger. "How can I get out of the city from here?"
Celes ran a hand through her hair and took a deep breath of relief. "There's a network of old, unused sewer tunnels. You can get into them by dropping down from the grill at the end of this passageway." She looked up and gave me an almost unplaceable glance. "And thank you...for giving me the chance at death with dignity."
Replacing my dagger with a smirk, I picked her up and tossed her surprisingly light frame over my shoulder. "What are you doing, Returner? I'm only going to slow you down, and then you'll die, too!" she exclaimed, struggling to get free of my grip.
I laughed and made my way to the door.
"Well, Celes, you apparently haven't heard enough about the indomitable Locke Cole to know that I will not leave a lady in danger and that I most certainly can get us out of this city. I don't care how much you struggle and whine. I absolutely will not put you down under any circumstances until we're out of this place. You have my solemn word."