Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 7)

Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!

Now that I’ve caught up to what I had already had written and posted on, I’ll be posting these new bits on both sites. If you’ve never been to, I urge you to take a look. There can be a lot to wade through, but I’ve been known to find some gems in there.

Reminder: If you’re looking for the previously posted parts of the story, go to the “Categories” drop-down banner on the left banner of the site and choose “Final Fantasy: Returning Hope”.

celesLocke - Steal
*Spites via

Locke ran like a ghost, his footfalls as silent as a snowflake. He quickly rounded a corner and maneuvered his way down a skinny alleyway, where he stood stock still in the shadows. Several years of experience fighting the Empire had taught him a certain level of stealth.

“Where’d he go?” came an angry voice from the road.

“I think he went this way!” replied another. The two sets of footsteps faded in the distance and Locke released a sigh of momentary relief.

“Yeah…” he mumbled to himself. “Better get to Narshe on the fly.”

Locke Cole’s particular skill set had always made him very useful for causing damage and discord amongst Imperial outposts, but the occupation of South Figaro had been more complete and well-organized than he was expecting it to be. It seemed that whatever the Empire was planning, they were taking even their smallest precautions to heart. There were sentries over almost every inch of the town, and though he’d managed to get in easily enough, it was clear that getting out wasn’t going to be as simple a task. The damage he’d caused to a shipload of supplies and weapons hadn’t gone unnoticed; they were alerted to his presence now and they weren’t just going to let him waltz out the front gate, so to speak.

With bated breath he peaked out of the alleyway and into the road. His pursuers had disappeared, but two Magitek soldiers had taken up position at the end of the road. Keeping his movements quick and graceful, Locke slipped into a nearby shop.

The overall feeling throughout the town was one of subdued fear. Even here in the shop, where a few townspeople milled around picking up foodstuffs, everyone was very quiet. Though they had no immediate reason to expect anything of the sort, everyone was solemnly waiting for the Imperials to do something violent or destructive. Locke shared their concern because, in his experience, violence and destruction were almost inevitable when it came to dealing with the Empire. Thus far things had been quiet, but it couldn’t last for long, and the waiting was nearly as bad.

“Hey!” said the shop merchant suddenly, causing everyone to jump. “You’re that thief, Locke, aren’t you?”

Locke’s face flushed hot red. He was an easy-going guy most of the time, but if he had one fault it was his temper when dealing with the stigma that had been placed on him for many years now. “Hey!” he growled back. “Call me a treasure hunter or I’ll rip your lungs out!”

The merchant’s face transformed into a snarl. “I’ll call you exactly what you are, you filthy troublemaker!” he snapped. “You’re the bastard causing all the problems for the Imperials, aren’t ye?! Keep it up and we’ll all suffer for it!”

Locke felt his ears burning at the words. You ungrateful, insufferable ass! he thought, but before he could snap back a response, an older lady carrying a wicker basket spoke up.

“Are you saying we should just accept this occupation?” she admonished the merchant. “We should just roll over like good little dogs and let them destroy our way of life? Live quietly in constant fear?!”

The merchant was struck dumb by her scolding. None of the other patrons seemed ready to take sides, but everyone was watching in interest. The spirited old woman marched right up to the counter and stuck out her hand.

“Your robes,” she demanded, her lips pursed.

The merchant blinked foolishly. “W-what?”

“Your robes!” she repeated impatiently. She shook her hand urgently, as though to say ‘I haven’t got all day’. “Your merchant robes! Give them to me! You’re going to lend a helping hand to this brave young man as penance for being a right awful asshole!”

Locke couldn’t help but snort in laughter at the old woman’s choice of phrasing. A younger customer laughed out loud. The merchant was thunderstruck, but the woman’s glare was as fierce as a hungry tiger and so he quickly peeled off his robes, revealing only a white t-shirt and shorts underneath. One of the customer’s whistled, causing the merchant’s face to flush an embarrassed pink.

The old woman accepted the clothing with a curt nod and walked back to walk with a grandmotherly smile on her face. “Might these help a little, deary?” she asked. “You’re trying to go unnoticed, yes?”

Locke shot a quick smirk at the merchant and grinned at the nice old woman before accepting the robes and throwing them over his head.

“They’re a little tight, but the price was right!” he announced. Several patrons chuckled now while the nearly-naked man scowled. Locke grinned boyishly at the old woman. “Thank you very much, m’lady. This should help nicely!”

She nodded with a smile. “I’ll give you a bit of information as well,” she told him. “If you go into the big house at the end of the street, there’s a man who used to be a servant at the mansion. His grandson is letting merchants through the tunnels under the house so they can avoid the soldiers.”

Locke’s face lit up. “That’s great information, mum! Thank you a hundred times over!” He leaned down and gave her a squeeze and a quick peck on the cheek and dashed out of the shop while she was still glowing.

To add insult to injury, on the way out he snatched a large bottle of strong cider. Call me a thief and I’ll act like one! he thought with a savage grin.

With his hood and the throat of the robe pulled tight around his head, Locke wandered casually down the street toward the house the old woman had mentioned. His heart raced as he walked past two particularly trigger-happy-looking Magitek soldiers, but miraculously they simply sneered at him as he sauntered by.

The big house at the end of the road had a back entrance. Taking care that no soldiers were watching, Locke walked up to the entrance and gave a few soft raps on the wooden door. A slot he hadn’t previously noticed slid open and a pair of small brown eyes peered out.

“Merchant?” a young voice asked. Locke opened his mouth to answer, but the child – who looked to be about ten – had already pulled open the door and ushered him in.

“Come on,” the boy insisted with a wave. “The tunnel through town is over here.”

“Actually,” Locke stopped him, “I was hoping more for out of town…any way you could help with that?”

The boy thought for a moment. He seemed about to say something but then thought better of it. “You’d better talk to my grandfather,” he insisted, pointing upstairs.

Locke found the older gentleman sitting at his kitchen table upstairs and tried not to startle him, but the man turned his head sharply when Locke stepped on a squeaky board. “What’s that then?” he cried jovially. It was evident that he’d been drinking. “A visitor! Pull up a chair, pull up a chair!”

Locke obliged with a friendly smile, sitting directly across from the old man. Though he didn’t want to appear rushed, he decided to get right down to business. “I hate to be so forward, but I’m short on time, sir. I’d heard you might be able to point me toward a tunnel out of town.”

The older man gave Locke what he must have thought was a stern look and waggled a finger in front of his face. “Now now!” he said a little too loudly. “That’s not how you barter, m’boy!”

Internally, Locke rolled his eyes. This man clearly needed a couple dozen cups of coffee. With a sigh, he pulled the lifted bottle of cider from inside the merchant’s robes. “This is all I have to offer,” he insisted.

Luckily the man’s eyes sparkled at the appearance of the honey-brown liquor. He reached for it greedily and Locke pulled it away with raised eyebrows. The man blinked stupidly for a moment and then roared with laughter.

“Alright, alright,” he guffawed. He slapped the table with mirth and shot Locke a huge grin. “So you do know how to barter after all!” He enjoyed the little joke for several more moments before taking a deep breath and steadying his gaze on Locke’s face. “Trying to escape town without being seen by the soldiers, eh?” he asked with a wink. “You’ll be the one who dumped the supplies off the ship then, hmm?”

Locke said nothing, but allowed the man a slow grin. The old man’s eyes twinkled and he smiled back.

“Well in that case…” He finally dedicated himself to the conversation by leaning across the table as though they were in a top-secret meeting. “There’s a secret passage in my cellar that leads to the mansion. I used to be a servant there, you see, and it was set up for emergency purposes.” He began to speak more quietly, as though he thought someone might be spying on them, and Locke had to lean in closer to make sure he caught everything. “Once you get in the mansion, you’ll have to do a bit of snooping, but I know for a fact that there’s an old smuggling tunnel in there somewhere that leads out of town.”

“A smuggling tunnel under the mansion?” Locke repeated, a little surprised.

“How do you think the owner’s family came to be so rich?” the old man asked with a wink.

Locke nodded.

“Get on then!” the man said suddenly, his voice even louder than before. “Hop on outta here before they start beating down our doors lookin’ for ya!” He let out a few more loud laughs before adding, “Just tell my grandson the password!”

“And what’s that?” Locke asked. He stood up and surrendered the bottle of cider.

With a wink, a large gulp, and a hushed voice, the old man revealed the secret: “…Courage.”

The young boy was waiting for Locke at the bottom of the stairs. “Password?” he asked expectantly.

“Courage, buddy,” Locke replied. He ruffled the kid’s hair and smiled. “Like what you and your grandpa have.”

The boy’s face split into a wide grin as he pulled Locke over to a shadowy, unassuming wall. He reached behind the stairs and pulled something Locke couldn’t see. With a small click and a pop a section of the wall came free and swung outward like a door. Locke gave another smile and a nod to the boy, stepped inside the dark tunnel, and pulled the door closed behind him.

The tunnel was pitch black, its emergency lanterns long since burned out. The stone walls were covered in slimy molds thriving on the water that seeped through the earth above. Luckily it was a direct path to the mansion – not having to follow roads or avoid houses – and thus Locke was spared the enjoyment of having to spend too much time in there. In less than ten minutes he found himself climbing a set of moldy stairs and carefully, quietly, shoving aside a section of false floor.

He was in the wine cellar. The realization made him smirk to himself; he imagined the old grandfather still occasionally traversing this particular tunnel from time to time, nipping a bottle or two.

A sound from upstairs made Locke twitch. Quickly, careful not to make too much noise, he replaced the trick floor and jammed his body between the wall and two large barrels of wine.

The cellar door burst open. In huffed a pretty middle-aged woman with a sour look on her face, followed closely by an Imperial soldier with his helmet cocked to one side and a devilish grin on his face.

“Come on now, love,” the grimy soldier cooed. “Don’t be like that! Give us a kiss, eh?”

The woman pursed her lips so hard they began to turn blue. She picked up a particularly large bottle of wine and wielded it like a weapon. “Come one step closer, I dare you!” she growled.

A disgusting smile on his lips, the soldier took a single exaggerated step forward. True to her threat, the woman hauled back and swung the bottle, but the soldier deftly caught her wrist. He yanked her forward hard so that their bodies pressed against one another. The woman dropped the bottle in surprise. It smashed spectacularly on the floor, spraying their ankles in a fine red.

“Try anything and my husband will have your head, you bastard!” she cried, her voice breaking with frustration.

The soldier sneered. “Your husband sold out his entire town, love! What makes you think he wouldn’t rent out his wife as well?”

The woman’s mouth dropped open and Locke had officially seen enough. “Hey!” he called as he leapt from his hiding spot. “That’s enough!”

The soldier jumped and released the woman, surprised to have had an audience. He barely had time to reach for his weapon before Locke had crossed the room and punched him in the chin with as much strength as he could muster. The soldier crumpled to the floor. The woman stared, blinking, in shock.

“T-thank you!” she stuttered. “But…who are you?”

Locke shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he insisted. “Please, tell me, is it true what he said? Did you husband sell South Figaro to the Empire?”

The curl of her fists and the disgust on her face were all the answer he needed. “He gave them information,” she explained. “A large sum of money in exchange for information on how to quickly and easily take the town…Ha!” She laughed without mirth, and her eyes appeared a little moist. “As though he needed the money!”

Locke felt his blood boil at the very concept of it. What, they didn’t have enough trouble dealing with the Empire? Now they had to throw a couple of full-blown traitors in the mix as well?

The woman’s face softened a little when she saw his expression. She sighed. “For what it’s worth, he regrets it now…”

“It’s not worth much,” Locke grumbled mercilessly.

The woman turned her head sideways. “You’re a Returner, aren’t you?”

Locke didn’t answer. Instead he glared down at the unconscious soldier.

“Looking for a way out of town then?” she asked. “Come, I’ll show you. It’s the least I can do.”

Locke took a long, slow breath to calm himself, and nodded. Getting to Narshe was the most important thing right now.

Careful to avoid the Imperials milling around the house, the woman led Locke through seemingly endless hallways lined with expensive-looking rugs and wall art. Locke’s eyes lingered on some of the pieces with longing…if only he could take something with him, it would fund the Returners for a long time.

Eventually they came to a long set of stairs leading down to an underground level.

“Downstairs,” the woman explained. “The very furthest room is a storage area, and in the very back of that room is a large grandfather clock that is fashioned into the wall. Wind the hands of the clock forward five hours and the passage will open.”

“Thank you for your help,” Locke said quietly. He started down the stairs. “And please, punch your husband int he face for me.” He quietly, but quickly, descended the rest of the staircase before he could catch her chuckle.

The underground level of the mansion was dark, except for a thin line of light coming out from under the first door down the wide hallway. The door was open only an inch or two, but as Locke tried to sneak past his attention was caught by the unmistakable sound of fists hitting flesh. Cautiously he knelt to the ground and peered through the small opening in the door.

There was a woman, her hands chained to the wall above her. Her head was hanging, long, pale blond hair falling all around it. It was clear that the soldier nearest her had just punched her in the face. She was so still that Locke wasn’t entire sure the punch hadn’t killed her. Two more soldiers stood off to the side, grinning in a feral manner.

“So the mighty Celes has fallen!” the aggressor laughed cruelly. “This is what happens to traitors!” He swung back again and slapped her across the face, causing her head to snap back and loll forward. Now she stirred, raising her head to stare at the soldier with ice-blue eyes.

Locke was shocked to see that, even under the bruising on her cheekbones, he recognized her. Celes Chere…one of the Empire’s most powerful generals. A traitor?

“How can you serve those cowards?” she asked in a harsh, but calm tone.

The soldier raised his hand again. “Hold your tongue!”

“Isn’t it true,” Celes shouted, a strange fire in her icy eyes, “That Kefka is planning to poison the people of Doma?!”

Locke’s heart leapt into his throat. Poison Doma? They wouldn’t dare, would they? There’d be national outrage!

“Shaddap!” the soldier screamed. He hit her again, harder this time, and she spit a small trail of blood onto the floor at his feet.

One of the other soldiers stepped forward and grabbed Celes by the crown of her hair, yanking her head up so that he could stare into her furious eyes. “I’d hate to be in your shoes tomorrow,” he hissed with an evil grin.

The faintest hint of fear passed across Celes’ face.

“You!” The first solider, rubbing his fist, barked at the last one who was still standing to the side. This one looked to be the youngest of the three. He quickly brought himself to full attention. “Keep a close eye on her until tomorrow!” the older soldier commanded.

The younger soldier raised a hand in salute. “Yes Sir! I can go for days without sleep, Sir!”

The eldest soldier nodded once, swung at Celes once more with a sickening ‘crack!’, and started for the door. Locke barely had enough time to scramble to his feet, jump and grab at a rafter, and haul himself up into the ceiling. He whipped his legs out of sight just in time for the two older soldiers to emerge from the room. He held his breath as they walked beneath him, praying they wouldn’t look up, and sighed gratefully when the immediately moved upstairs.

And now came the decision. What to do about the Celes situation?

She’s an Imperial general! shouted one part of his mind.

But she obviously disapproves of their plans! yelled another.

She’s done her own evil for them, and you know it! She’s still one of them! She’s a monster!

But if she’s really deferred, then her knowledge could be useful…

She could easily stab you in the back the second you save her!

But if I don’t save her…they’ll kill her.

Quietly, Locke dropped back down to the floor and peered into the room. The young soldier had taken all of two minutes to sit down and rest his eyes. He was already snoring pathetically. Celes’ head was hanging listlessly; the last punch must have knocked her out.

Slowly, careful not to creak the hinges, Locke pushed the door open. He crept on tip-toe pat the snoozing soldier, to where Celes hung from her chains, limp as a doll.

They must have grabbed her while she was off-duty, Locke thought. Either that or she was attempting to sneak off unnoticed, because she wasn’t dressed at all like the general of an army. She was wearing a very plain, but pretty, white dress made of several layers of sheer material. There were a dozen rips in the top two layers that showed a struggle had taken place, and the pale brown leather boots she was wearing were covered in scuff marks and mud.

Gently, Locke put a finger under her chin and raised her head. She was extremely pale, her skin like paper and her hair like sunlight. She was pretty, even under the damage the soldiers had done. In fact, if her hair had been a dark brown, she’d almost look like…

Locke shook his head viciously, furious at himself for even thinking it.

His movement caused Celes to stir. She groaned a weak groan and her eyelids began to flutter. When she looked up at Locke with eyes as blue as the most crystal clear lake, he found that he’d subconsciously made his decision.

Confusion passed across her bruised face as she looked from Locke, to the snoozing soldier, and back again. “What do you hope to peddle down here?” she asked at a whisper, a hint of incredulity in her voice.

Locke felt his face flush as he looked down at the merchant’s robes. “Oops…” he whispered. “Forgot I was wearing these.” In his embarrassment – why was he embarrassed? – he hastily ripped the robes up over his head, partially dislodging his bandana and mussing up his hair.

“Who are you?” Celes hissed.

“I’m with the Returners,” he replied with a candid honesty that surprised even him. “Name’s Locke.” The robe was angrily discarded to the corner of the room.

Celes’ eyes widened. “Returners!” she exclaimed. The soldier snorted loudly. Locke nearly had a heart attack, but he didn’t waken. Celes lowered her voice. “I was sneaking away to search for you! I used to be General Celes…” Her face hardened visibly before she finished her sentence. “…Now I’m just a common traitor.”

Locke burned to discuss that statement, but thought better of it. Time was not on their side. He pulled an unassuming piece of wire out of his jacket and reached for the large padlock holding Celes’ chains together. She was silent while he worked, watching with what appeared to be genuine interest. Within moments the chains went limp and Locke let them down to the floor gently to avoid too much noise.

“Come on, let’s go!” he said.

Celes blinked several times. She seemed to be surprised. “You…you’d take me along?”

“Of course!” Locke hissed, but Celes was shaking her head.

“I can barely walk after the beating they gave me,” she insisted. “I’m grateful for your help, but…even if you get me out of here, you wouldn’t be able to protect me. No, I think I-”

“I’ll protect you!” Locke retorted suddenly, and a little too loudly. His face was burning red. “Trust me! You’ll be fine!” Without waiting for a reply he scooped the woman into his arms (thanking his lucky stars that she was surprisingly petite for a general) and stormed silently toward the room at the end of the hall.

The room was extremely cluttered, stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes of every shape and size, and all manner of junk. Locke eyed a handsome grandfather clock gathering dust at the far end of the room and made toward it, but was stopped by Celes’ hand on his wrist.

“Please, grab that before we leave,” she requested. She was pointing earnestly at a long, delicate looking sword, white as snow, with strange symbols on the hilt. “They took it from me,” she explained. “And it could be useful.”

Locke couldn’t help but examine her eyes as she gazed at the sword. The look she had was that of a small child who’d had their favorite toy taken away and had just spied it hidden in a low cupboard. He leaned down to allow Celes to gingerly retrieve her possession, and then took off for the clock.

Celes watched a Locke freed one hand and began to wind the clock’s hands. He found he was holding his breath, part of him expecting nothing to happen. But as he twirled the hands past the fifth hour in succession there was a soft click and the entire section of wall – clock included – swung forward. Locke let out a sigh of relief and heard himself mimicked by Celes as she clutched at her sword like a security blanket.

The path was as dark as the tunnel from the old grandfather’s house, so Locke placed Celes down and let her swing her arm over his shoulder so that he could help her walk as they both felt their way. They had been tracing their hands along the rough earth walls for about five minutes when Celes finally broke the silence.

“Why are you helping me?” Her voice was barely a whisper, but it was loud and clear in the quiet of the tunnel.

Locke continued to shuffle forward, thinking of all the possible responses he could give. All of them sounded stupid in his head. Eventually, though it killed him to admit it out loud, he went with the most honest answer.

“You remind me of someone,” he admitted. Hurriedly, before she could respond, he added, “But what’s it matter anyway? I just want to, okay?”

It was quiet again for a few minutes before Celes spoke once more.

“You’re awfully trustworthy for a Returner.”

Locke stiffened. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He felt her shrug. “I guess I just thought you’d be more suspicious of me is all. I was expecting to find your hideout and be immediately thrown in a cell or something. I did some awful things for the Empire, after all…”

Locke decided to ignore the implications that he was being foolhardy. Instead he posed a question. “So what made you suddenly want to betray them?”

Celes tensed a little at the word ‘betray’. After a few moments of silence she answered quietly. “I grew up in the Empire. They’re the closest thing I’ve ever had to family and I’ve tried to make them proud. But they’ve done a lot that I’ve disagreed with and when I heard about the plot to poison Doma…well, it was the last straw, I guess. All those innocent people dead, just because they won’t surrender their stupid fortress! I had to try and stop it.”

Locke heard sincere fear and sadness in her voice. It helped him feel more sure about his decision to help her.

Celes cleared her throat and straightened her back, as though embarrassed that she’d spoken so freely. Locke wondered if perhaps she wasn’t used to have someone she could actually express her thoughts to.

A pinprick of light appeared in the distance. Excited to be free of the overwhelming darkness, Locke and Celes began moving more quickly. Soon they found themselves emerging from a cliff-face near the ocean, several miles clear from town. They breathed in the fresh, salty-tasting air greedily.

“I think the cave to Figaro is that way…” Locke murmured, surveying their position.

“Where are we heading?” asked Celes. She gave a few experimental steps under her own weight.

“My friends will be heading for Narshe,” Locke explained as they walked. “If we can get to them fast enough we might be able to get a warning sent along to Doma.”

The hike to the cave was peaceful and quiet, thankfully. As they walked Celes found she felt more and more steady on her own feet and eventually she was walking without help. They were both determined to move as quickly as they could and didn’t waste their time and breath on idle chatter. When they did finally come to the cave, however, Celes had to speak up.

“Do you hear that?” she whispered.

At first Locke didn’t, but after a moment his ears picked it up as well. Amongst the sounds of dripping condensation and the occasional squeal of a bat, there as a faint, continuous rumbling.

“What is that?” Celes asked when she saw the change on Locke’s face.

“I don’t know,” Locke replied, squinting down the long rock corridor. “But it sounds a long way off, so let’s just try to move through quickly and hope we don’t meet up with it.”

Several minutes later, as they headed ever closer and closer to the rumbling, Celes shot Locke an exasperated look. “Good plan.”

“It’s not as though we’ve got much of a choice,” Locke grumbled. “We’ve got to pass through.”

“Wait a minute…”

Locke stopped and turned to Celes to find her listening with a look of concern on her face.

“We’re not moving toward it,” she explained with sudden certainly. “It’s heading toward us!”

She’d barely gotten the revelation out before the rumbling began to intensify at an exponential rate and the south-side wall exploded in a spray of rock shards and dust. Locke yanked Celes out of the way just in time as a mechanical monster appeared through the wall and blocked their path.

“What the hell is that thing?!” Locke exclaimed. He eyed the giant, spinning bore and the dozen flailing metal arms.

“Tunnel Armour!” Celes replied through gritted teeth. “Multi-purpose scouts sent out to try and locate insurgent hideouts. Stand back! I’ll take care of this!”

Locke’s response was incredulous. “Are you joking?!”

“Can you block lightning?” Celes demanded angrily as the machine’s arms began to light up. “Because I can!”

She had just enough time to push an arguing Locke out of the way and haul out her delicate sword as a painful hum filled the air. Six blinding bolts of electricity came hurtling toward her. Locke cried out in alarm, but his shout was soon silenced by shock. The bolts of electricity slammed into Celes’ sword and, rather than electrocuting her, seemed to be irresistibly absorbed by the thin blade. With a grin, Celes whipped the sword forward and shot the electric energy back at the Tunnel Armour.

Despite his amazement at her ability, Locke was able to see that the counter attack hadn’t done much damage. “It’s still coming!” he shouted. He rushed back to Celes’ side, his knives in hand.

Celes grimaced as the twisting bore blade whirred closer to them, threatening to grind their bodies into the walls. She glanced rapidly between Locke and the machine, seeming to consider something. Finally, just when Locke was beginning to get a look like he was going to do something stupid and chivalrous, she made her choice. She stepped in front of Locke, dropped her magic-reflecting blade, and threw out both arms.

“What are you d-?” Locke began. He stopped suddenly when a strange sensation began to rise in the air around him.

It was getting colder.

Celes muttered rapidly under her breath as the air around her arms began to twist and shimmer. Locke watched with his jaw hanging as a few tiny snowflakes began to trickle down around them. It seemed to happen in slow motion, but in reality it too barely a few seconds. The Tunnel Armour’s moving parts began to slow as shining layers of ice crystallized all over it. The gears whined in protest as they were forced to a dead stop. Eventually the entire metal monstrosity was halted. It was completely frozen under several inches of ice.

It was a few moments before Locke spoke. “Well…it looks…looks like we’re in the clear.”

He stepped past Celes and began to sneak past the frozen machine. She looked after him with sheepish confusion.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, sensing her stare. “You’ve definitely got some explaining to do after that one. But for now…let’s just get out of here.”

He continued moving through the tunnel. After a moment of staring after him, Celes picked up her sword and followed with a small, strange smile on her lips.


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