Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 5 – Part 1)

Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!

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”.

Sabin - FingerTerra - Blink (Left)
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Sabin knew the mountains like the back of his hand. Within only a little over four hours he’d led them down a back pathway, out into a green and flat ravine between ranges, and well on their way to the Sabil Mountains to the northeast. On the hike the brothers caught up with each other with help from Locke on the most recent events. Terra was concerned about the part of the story that revealed her abilities, but Sabin’s reaction to the news was one of calm interest.

“Magic, eh?” he said, smiling at her. “Master Duncan used to talk about how alike to magic some of his techniques are.”

Terra nodded enthusiastically, thinking of Vargas’ strange and powerful wind attack.

“Of course it’s not really magic,” he explained further. “The details are a closely-guarded secret, but the techniques I perform stem from a harnessing of physics, nature, and the power of illusion.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Terra admitted. Edgar and Locke also looked as though they were quietly struggling with this information.

“Well, for example,” Sabin said to Terra, “What sort of magic can you do?”

Without giving it a second thought, Terra lifted her palms and conjured a small flame between them.

Sabin smiled. “Now, there you have it,” he chuckled, impressed and amused. “See, you can pull fire out of the air. Where once there was nothing, now there is flame, using nothing other than your desire for it to be so.”

Terra nodded.

“But how is what you were taught different then?” Locke asked, thoroughly interested.

“If flame is already present, I can manipulated it.” As a demonstration, Sabin performed a strange movement with his hand that caused Terra’s flame to wiggle and dance. “But I cannot create.” He dropped his hand and Terra let the flame disappear. “Vargas commanded a very old technique that allowed him to guide the movement of air,” Sabin explained further. “But it only worked well in the mountains, where air currents are easily bounced off the rock.”

“It’s quite amazing, I must admit,” Edgar spoke up. “That move you did was…dizzying, to say the least.”

Sabin nodded soberly, his recollection more sobering than proud. “It’s more of an illusion than anything,” he modestly insisted. “The victim sees more punches than are actually being thrown, and thus doesn’t know which ones to block.”

Terra envisioned the rocket-fast punches she’d barely been able to keep track of and understood.

“What I do is the result of years of practice and dedication,” Sabin said, then turned to Terra with a grin. “But what you do…well, that’s something genuinely amazing.”

He seemed to be in such honest awe that Terra found herself quietly repeating his words in her head for the remainder of the hike.

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 4 – Part 2)

Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!

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”.

Vargas (Front)       Sabin - Action
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The base of Mount Kolts was foreboding. There was a path, but it was thin and steep. They would have to go single file, and the chocobos would have to be left behind.

“They’ll be okay, won’t they?” Terra asked as they dismounted.

“They’ll be fine,” Edgar promised. “They’re extremely smart birds, and well-trained. They’ll stick together and make their way back to the forests to the west of Figaro Castle. There’s a stable master there who will take good care of them.”

Terra nodded and turned to her chocobo. She nuzzled her face into its feathery cheek and whispered a quiet, “Thanks for everything.” The bird cooed softly at her and ruffled its wings in reply.

“Okay, are we all set?” Locke asked. He was looking warily up the path, to a spot about a hundred meters away where the air suddenly became very foggy.

“Ready,” Edgar replied, voice steady. He pulled the auto-crossbow from his back and held it at the ready in front of him.

Terra nodded and began clenching and relaxing her fists in preparation. She looked back at the chocobos one more time and they squawked at her once before turning and trotting off together. Terra silently wished them a safe journey.

They headed up the mountain cautiously, Edgar at the front, ready to sink an arrow into anything that attacked them. Locke was at the rear; he’d produced two long, curved knives from his pack and was twirling them around his fingers while keeping his eyes warily on the fog. Terra walked in between them, no physical weapon on her, but continuing to clench and flex her hands. She tried to watch all directions at once in case either man found himself in trouble.

Though the path was steep, slowing their ascent, it wasn’t long before they began to approach the wall of fog. It was a little disconcerting, to be sure. The misty whiteness hung in front of them, still and silent, as though an invisible wall was holding it from sinking down any lower. It was thick as well; even Terra’s excellent eyes couldn’t tell what was beyond it.

Without meaning to, the trio had stopped in front of the white wall, hesitant to proceed. From somewhere above, a small rock fell with a gentle, echoing clatter, and Locke jumped. Eventually, just when Terra was starting to wonder if the men had gotten cold feet, Edgar took a deep breath and choked up on his auto-crossbow.

“Keep close,” he instructed. “And watch your footing.”

It was an odd sensation, Terra thought. She could make out Edgar’s body in front of her, and she could feel Locke’s presence behind her, but everything around them was a void of white and shadow. They shuffled along very slowly now, taking care that their feet continued to land on solid stone. For all intents and purposes, they could have been climbing the mountain with their eyes closed.

Terra stopped suddenly. Preoccupied, Locke stumbled into her. Edgar whipped around at the sound.

“What’s wrong?”

Terra’s eyes were narrowed, staring at a spot some fifteen feet to their right. “I saw a shadow…”

Given the nature of their journey, Edgar and Locke decided to take the claim very seriously. They raised their weapons, eyes darting to where Terra was staring.

Cautiously, her arms raised out in front of her, Terra began to creep forward to where she’d seen the movement. Eventually, gingerly, the fingertips of her left hand met rock; her right hand met open air. With Locke and Edgar creeping along behind her she examined the rock wall – and the absence of rock wall – with her hands. She noticed that minuscule movements in the air displaced the fog from the area where there was no rock.

“It’s a cave,” she deduced. With the men sticking close to her sides, she began to move into it.

They walked very slowly at first, feeling along the walls to guide them, Terra now in the lead. Soon, however, the fog began to clear. Gradually a wide tunnel appeared before them. It was dark, but without the fog their eyes were able to adjust. Terra conjured a small flame in her hand to help guide their way.

“I’m…I’m not sure which way he went,” Terra stammered when they came to a fork in the road. “But I’m sure that the shadow I saw was a large man.”

Edgar nodded gravely. “Alright,” he said. “We’ll try the right path then. I’ll lead, Locke will keep an eye behind us, just in case. Terra, you keep the light going.”

She adhered, but as they started down their chosen path she couldn’t help feeling anxious. Neither man’s eyes were as good as hers and she worried that the shadow-man would pop out and attack before either of them saw anything happening. If only she’d seen where the shadow had gone, they’d know where to focus their attention! She found herself obsessively turning back and forth to make sure that neither of the men had been silently murdered while she wasn’t looking.

“There’s light up ahead,” Edgar announced quietly. It was only a tiny light at first, but they soon found themselves coming back out into the mountainside.

There was no fog here; only clean, crisp mountain air and the bright mid-day sun shining down on them. There was a rickety-looking bridge creating a path from one ledge to another, and when Terra looked over the edge she saw that the fog was below them, masking their elevation.

A flash of movement brought Terra’s eyes back up to another cave opening at the far end of the rope bridge. “There!” she hissed at the men. “Someone is in that cave!”

Eyes narrowed, Edgar lifted his auto-crossbow and dashed across the bridge. With a cry of alarm Locke ran after him, and after half a second of surprise, Terra followed.

“Edgar, hold up!” Locke cried. “This bridge might not be safe!”

As though his words had been a prophecy, the air was suddenly filled with the sickening echo of snapping wood as a foot-board broke. With a yell of alarm, Edgar disappeared from sight. Locke hit the bridge with full force on his stomach and threw his arms out, barely snatching Edgar’s flailing hand out of the air. The force of the catch jerked both men forward. Locke quickly looped his feet around the rope rungs of the bridge to stop himself himself from being yanked through the hole as well.

“You idiot!” Locke bellowed.

“I’m sorry!” Edgar’s cracking voice wafted up.

Helpless as to what she should do, Terra dropped to her knees, scraping her legs on the weather-beaten wood, and began hauling on Locke’s legs. “Hold on!” she cried, panicked. “I’ll pull you back!”

“You can’t!” Locke grunted as she nearly ripped his legs from his body. “The two of us together are too heavy!”

She was about to argue, but just as she opened her mouth another ear-splitting crack filled the air.

Locke had just enough time to twist his head and look at Terra with wide eyes before the entire bridge collapsed beneath them.

The moment of the drop seemed to last forever as Terra’s heart raced, but the fall itself was all too fast. Before a second had passed they were hurtling through the layer of fog. Less than a second after that, the wind passing by her ears began to burn. Half a second later they’d come to a very sudden, extremely jerky stop.

For a moment Terra thought they’d hit the bottom and died. Then she realized that her right hand was still locked in a death-grip on Locke’s pant leg. Further below, looking as though he might pass out from fright, Edgar was still dangling from Locke’s arm. After a few seconds of tense silence, Terra took note of the strange position she’d landed in and looked up to find that the leather belt she’d wrapped around her waist to carry a pouch of seed for the chocobos had caught on the thick branch of a tall tree. They’d been saved by a lonely tree growing in the middle of the mountain. Edgar’s hanging feet were less than five feet from the ground.

“What’s this tree doing here?” Terra asked aloud, examining their surroundings. The tree’s great brown body and spindly green leaves were the only color amid a sea of gray.

“Do you honestly give a damn?” Locke replied, laughing out loud with near hysterical relief. “Hey Edgar, think fast!”

Edgar had half a second to prepare before Locke dropped him, but he managed to make the landing with both feet. “Hey!” he cried, though he too was laughing nervously. “You could have broken my legs!”

“It’d be more than you deserve, you idiot!”

Terra was laughing now too. She couldn’t have said why, but it felt so right. They’d almost died, but been extraordinarily lucky…should that really be so hysterical? Disbelief of the situation buzzed around in her head, and yet she couldn’t stop the strange giggles.

With Terra keeping a firm grasp on his leg, Locke swung himself to another branch. He tossed down Edgar’s auto-crossbow – which had gotten tangled in the branches – and helped Terra to safety. Together they descended the large tree that had saved their lives, and Terra promptly gave the trunk a huge hug. She only released the embrace when Locke spoke.

“What is it, Edgar?”

The young king’s brow was furrowed as he examined a piece of wood from the fallen bridge. He ran his fingers along the break, which was straight and perfectly smooth through the first three quarters of the depth of the board.

“This plank was cut,” he announced. There was a gleam of anger in his eyes. “I think someone tried to kill us.”

“But why?” Terra asked.

The voice that answered her was deep, cold, and unforgiving. “Because you dared to scale my mountains.”

Their heads turned, surprised, up to an alcove of rock above and behind the tree. There, crouched like an enormous cat ready to pounce, was a huge, bulging man. His skin and thin ponytail of hair were dark, and the only clothing he wore was a loose pair of black pants. His arms were massive and his muscles twitched and bulged as he stared down at them with hate in his eyes. “Sabin sent you, didn’t he?” he snarled, baring his teeth.

“Who’re you?” Locke retorted.

The murder attempt momentarily forgotten, Edgar posed a different question. “Sabin? Is he here?”

Locke pushed his friend aside and stepped forward, pointing an accusatory finger. “You were shadowing us earlier, right?”

Even from here Terra could see the man roll his eyes. “Brilliant!” he mocked. Then, to their surprise, he placed both hands at the edge of the outcrop and pushed off with mighty force. He propelled himself over them and landed a few feet away on the other side with a foreboding thud. When he stood up to his full height, Locke visibly gulped. The man was even bigger than he’d looked; at least twice the size of Edgar.

“And how unlucky it is that you should have to run into me!”

Edgar got one shot off before the man rushed. The arrow was aimed perfectly, but the man was very fast and very agile. The shot bounced uselessly off the rock wall behind them. The charging bull went straight for the king, but missed when Locke yanked his friend out of the way. While he was distracted, Terra threw out both of her arms, but the fire merely licked at his heels as he leapt to a large rock out of reach. If he was surprised by her use of magic, he didn’t let on. Instead he bowed, grabbed on to either side of the rock – which was almost as big as he was – and began to lift. He hoisted it above his head as though it had no more heft than a wooden chair.

“Watch out!” Terra screamed to the men, but to her surprise the bolder came hurtling straight for her. In a panic move she raised her hands and screamed. The rock exploded brilliantly, showering everyone in shards. Terra and her comrades shielded themselves, but the huge man stood still and allowed a few shards to mar his skin.

“Enough!” he cried, his face clearly wrought with anger. “Away with you!”

It wasn’t magic, of this Terra was sure, but the technique he used then was powerful, beyond what most humans were capable of. He swung his fists, up and down, back and forth, and he created wind. Or perhaps he commanded it… It was hard to explain. Regardless, a mighty wind was conjured where a moment prior there had been nothing. Terra’s dress whipped around her legs and she had to squint her eyes against the sting of the rushing air. Again and again he swung his arms. The wind grew and grew until Terra started to stumble backward. A muffled yell, barely audible, made it to her ears. Leaning into the wind as much as she could, she raised her arms above her head and looked over to the tree. Locke and Edgar were there, hanging on for dear life, Edgar’s cape whipping so violently that it looked like it might rip from his shoulders.

Come on! Locke mouthed, reaching one hand out as far as he dared.

She tried, but the wind tripped her, pushed her off course, and she soon found herself on the ground, nails digging into the rocks in a desperate attempt to stay still. She tried to raise her palms toward the caller of the strange wind technique, but every time she tried she was pushed back even further. Locke was shouting, though there was no way she could have heard him, and Edgar looked one step away from letting go of the tree and running to her.

Terra was just about to shout to them not to move – not that they would have heard – when a large pair of bare arms wrapped around her waist. Before she could twist around to see who the arms were attached to, she found herself being hoisted into the air and carried, as though the wind no longer had any effect. Locke and Edgar were staring in shock, but the new stranger dropped Terra next to them and turned before she could see his face. She stared, instead, at his body. He wore only a loose pair of blue pants and a sleeveless white top, and although he wasn’t freakishly enormous like the other man, his arms were muscular and very large. A short shock of spiky golden hair stood straight up from his head, and the muscles in his back were tensed.

“Give it up, Vargas!” his angry voice exploded over the wind.

“Is that you, Sabin?” Vargas laughed cruelly. He saw that his attack was having no effect and lowered his arms.

With the wind disappearing, Terra leaned forward to look at Sabin’s face. Though the body shape and hair style were very different, she was surprised to see that the face was Edgar’s through-and-through. The eyes, in particular, were absolutely identical.

“Vargas, why’d you do it?” Sabin cried. His hands were clenched into shaking fists. “How could you do in your own father like that?”

Vargas’ face twisted into an ugly sneer. “Fool!” he screamed. “He made the mistake of choosing you as his successor! He snubbed me, his only son!”

Sabin’s shoulders slouched. “No! You’re wrong! You were the one he chose!”


Sabin shook his head and Terra saw pain on his face. “Our master wanted you to be his successor, not me. He appreciated your spirit…”

Vargas’ whole body was shaking, his face darkening with the rush of blood. “Enough of your lies!” he shrieked, his face contorted with rage. “Now have a taste of my Blizzard Fist, you bastard!”

Terra saw it coming and quickly wrapped her arms around the trunk of the tree. The winds came in one enormous, continuous gust that was as frigid as ice water. Tears sprung to Terra’s eyes as she struggled to see if Locke and Edgar had managed to hold onto the tree. In a moment of panic, when she couldn’t immediately see them, her fingers began to slip.

But it ended almost as quickly as it had begun. Locke and Edgar had lost their grip, but had only flown a few feet before the winds dispersed again. When Terra looked she found that Sabin was only a couple of feet from Vargas now, fists held high in a boxing stance. Vargas was rubbing his chin, his eyes fierce.

“Ahh, Sabin…the Master has taught you well.”

“I guess there’s no avoiding this.”

Vargas raised his hands in a mimic of Sabin’s stance. He was so enormous that Terra couldn’t believe Sabin didn’t tremble.

“Fate made us train together, and fate will send you to your doom!”

Vargas began to charge. The spectators tensed in concern, but in one split second Terra saw a wave of calm and confidence pass over Sabin’s face.

“Blitz technique!” he bellowed. His voice echoed all through the mountains.

Vargas stumbled, and for the first time since he’d appeared before them, there was something other than rage on his face. Terra thought it looked like…fear.

“W-what the-?” he stuttered. “H-he already taught you that?!”

It was an amazing sight; Terra’s eyes flew, trying to follow the movement of Sabin’s fists. Locke and Edgar stared so blankly that it was clear all they saw was a blur of motion. It was hard to watch, but it was also hard not to. Vargas’ head snapped back and forth; his chest, stomach, and arms moved in strange ways with every landing of Sabin’s fists. It was impossible to tell whether it was the last hit that did it, or if Sabin just realized eventually that it was over.

Vargas’ body, beaten to a pulp, dropped unceremoniously to the ground. For a moment Sabin stared at it as though he expected the man to jump back up, but when nothing happened he slowly lowered his fists.

“If only you hadn’t been in such a rush for power…” he said quietly. There was genuine pain in his voice.

The silence was deafening until Edgar could no longer hold himself back and shouted, “Sabin!”

Sabin jumped a mile, as though he’d forgotten anyone else was there. “Big brother?” he replied, spinning on his heels.

The two blond men wasted no more time in sprinting toward one another. Their laughter filled the mountains as they clapped each other on the back and examined the changes that time had brought. Terra was again struck by how identical the two faces were.

“The brothers are reunited!” Locke cried jovially.

“Brother, yes…” Terra smiled and approached the reunion. “At first glance I thought he was a bodybuilder who had strayed from his gym!”

“B-bodybuilder?” Sabin exclaimed. He burst into laughter. “I think I’ll take that as a compliment!” he roared. Soon, however, he turned back to Edgar with a concerned look. “Anyway, brother, what are you doing here?”

“We heard about your Master’s murder,” Edgar explained, looking a little sheepish. He glanced over at Vargas’ body. “We, uh…came to rescue you.”

Sabin guffawed at the irony of it, but there was also a joyous gleam in his eyes. Clearly, Terra thought, the idea of his brother rushing off to save him made him happy.

“Yes, it’s a terrible thing that’s brought us together,” Sabin eventually sighed. He looked to Vargas as well and the pain returned to his eyes. “I’ll miss them both terribly.” He shook his head suddenly and turned back to the others. “But that wasn’t really what I meant, brother. Why are you here, away from Figaro?”

“We were on our way to the Sabil Mountains.”

Sabin nodded slowly, shooting glances at Locke and Terra. “To the Returners’ hideout, no doubt?”

Edgar and Locke nodded.

Sabin raised his eyes to the sky and thought quietly for a moment. “I’ve been watching from afar,” he admitted, “Hoping that the world might regain some of its sanity… At this rate Figaro will be reduced to a puppet state.”

“No!” Edgar exclaimed. He shook his head angrily. “Our time to strike back has arrived! The Empire will pay for all it’s done!”

Sabin’s eyes dropped to meet Edgar’s and the two brothers gazed at each other for a long time. Terra could only assume that they were both thinking about the past…about their father…

Eventually Sabin broke the silence. “Think a ‘bodybuilder’ like me could help you in your fight?” He winked at Terra.

Edgar, in spite of himself, looked surprised. “You’d join us?”

Sabin nodded, his face grave. “I’ve been sheltered away here, studying, for too long.” His gaze returned to the still body of Vargas and a sad smile appeared on his face. “Besides, I think Master Duncan would rest easier if he knew his disciple played a part in bringing peace to the world.”

Edgar couldn’t keep the grin off his face. He happily clapped his beefy brother on the shoulder. “Come then,” he said joyously. “We’ll need a guide down the mountain. And also,” his eyes glanced toward Terra, “There is much to talk about.”

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 4 – Part 1)

Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!

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”.

Edgar - Shocked Locke - Steal Terra - Blink (Left)
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Edgar ran.

By the time Locke and Terra reached the chocobo stable he was already on his mount and dashing out the door. As hastily as they could they grabbed their own steeds (Locke almost fell from his again) and urged them into the fastest run they would allow. They never quite caught up, but they managed to keep a clear visual on Edgar as they all sped north.

With the speed of the chocobos at their side it wasn’t long before the small house began to appear against the backdrop of the mountains. It seemed to be in good repair to Terra’s eyes, and she found her mind wandering, wondering if upkeep was one of Sabin’s duties as a disciple.

Edgar reached the house first and was off his chocobo and in the front door before Terra and Locke arrived. When they finally walked inside it was to find Edgar sitting on one of three single beds, clutching a small, clear vase of bright blue flowers.

“He was here,” he whispered, though of course they’d already known that. He held up the vase of flowers and there was a look of pain on his face. “These were his favorite flowers…our mother used to put them in our bedrooms at night so the smell would soothe us to sleep…”

Locke and Terra walked into the room and sat down at either side of Edgar.

“I’m sure he’s alright,” Locke assured him. Terra wondered quietly how he could say such a thing when there was no way he could really know.

No one knew what to say, and so they sat in silence for several long minutes, until the quiet was finally interrupted by the soft footfalls of another chocobo arriving out front. Edgar’s head shot up and he barely managed to shove the vase at Terra before he was out the door. Gazing at them with a strange feeling in the back of her throat, Terra gently set the flowers down at the head of the bed before she and Locke followed.

The newcomer wasn’t who Edgar had hoped for. He was an older gentleman with gray hair, who looked rather surprised to find people here.

“Oh!” he said, adjusting his glasses and dismounting his chocobo. “Who’s this now? Friends of Master Duncan?” He gave a sad little shake of the head as he said the name. “I’m just here to pick up a few things for his wife,” he explained without being questioned. “We moved her back into town, you see, to try and take some of the stress off.”

Locke waited impatiently for the old man to finish before he spoke. “Actually, we’re friends of his disciple, a man named Sabin. Do you know where we might find him?”

Edgar’s face was beaky as the old man removed his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt while thinking. “Well,” he spoke slowly, casually, neglecting to register the urgency on the younger peoples’ faces, “The talk that’s been going around is that young Sabin and Vargus have both disappeared. Not even the missus knows where they are, and she’s in a right awful state over Vargus, being he’s her son and all.”

Both Edgar and Locke were practically shaking over the old man’s calm and painfully slow response. Even Terra, despite herself, was shifting her weight back and forth, longing for the old man to say something useful.

“Now, they could very well be anywhere, doing anything,” he continued on, pushing the newly-smudged glasses back on his nose. “But if I were to wager any money, I’d say they’d gone up into Mount Kolts to meditate on the situation. Master Duncan would take them up there for training and the like, you see.”

Now that the information had finally been spat out, Edgar looked ready to make a run for it again. Locke held him back with a firm hand on his shoulder. “Thank you very much,” he told the old man. “We won’t keep you any longer.”

Terra nodded politely at the old man, who looked remiss that the conversation was over so soon. They gathered up their chocobos and began to lead them calmly away from the house.

“Let’s go!” Edgar insisted. He tried to leap on his chocobo’s back while Locke gripped at the back of his cape.

“Calm down for a moment,” Locke demanded, his voice firm. “We’ll go, but I want you to breathe for a few minutes first. You’re too wound up, and that’s not a good state to be in if we’re going to be climbing a mountain!”

Edgar made a face and fussed like a child for a moment, but then he squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on taking long breaths and slowing his heart.

Locke turned to Terra. “Now,” he said to her, “I want you to decide for yourself whether you’re coming with us or not.”

Terra was taken aback. Why would she not go with them? “What do you mean?” she questioned.

“We might be following a murderer into those mountains,” Locke told her bluntly. “If the man in town is to be believed, a murder who killed his own father. It could be very dangerous, and we can’t drag you into it against your will. It’s not your fight. We could rent you a room in town and-” He stopped because Terra had a strange smile on her face.

“Is that all?” she said. “I’m in danger from the Empire anyway, so this is really no different.” Locke opened his mouth to speak again, but she cut him off. “I’m coming,” she insisted. “You two might need me to save you again.”

With his eyes still closed, Edgar grinned. Locke’s lips twitched upward a little and he nodded.

Terra didn’t say anything out loud, but she felt warm inside. Locke’s concern had sparked a strange flame and changed her views on her presence in this situation. This wasn’t all about stealing the Empire’s best toy, or recruiting a magic-user to the Returners. Locke genuinely cared for her safety as well.

“Okay, Edgar spoke up, opening his eyes and taking one last deep breath. “I’m calm, I promise. Can we go now?”

Locke scrutinized Edgar for a minute and then nodded. “Okay, let’s head out. Keep your auto-crossbow at the ready.”

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 3 – Part 3)

Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!

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”.

Edgar - FingerLocke - DeadTerra - Cast
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“No, no, no, no, no,” Locke groaned. He pulled a blanket up over his head. “I refuse. Leave me here to die.”

Edgar shook his head. Terra, who had no idea why Locke was so cranky this morning, sat on the edge of his bed and watched with interest as Edgar ripped the blanket back down from his pale face. Locke moaned in protest and curled up into a ball with his arms over his head.

“You promised this wouldn’t happen!” Edgar accused angrily.

“It’s a cruel fate that I can’t escape from!” Locke shot back, his face turning green. “It’s not my fault!”

Terra’s curiosity got the better of her. “What’s wrong, Locke?”

“He’s sick,” Edgar explained with his arms crossed. “He’s always drinking too much and letting himself get sick.”

“Oh,” said Terra. Was that all? She looked sideways at Locke for a moment and then reached up and placed a hand on his forehead. His skin was clammy, but she held contact.

“What’re you…?” Locke began, but cut himself off.

Terra’s hand had begun to glow, softly at first, and then as bright as an open flame. Locke fidgeted nervously, trying to pull his head as far back into the pillow as he could, but he soon relaxed as a pleasant, warm feeling fell over him. The light began to die away and Terra pulled her hand back.

“Better?” she asked.

Locke’s eyes were wide. “Completely!” he exclaimed, practically jumping from the bed. “What did you do?”

Terra shrugged a little. “Healed you? I don’t know what the limitations of my powers are, but I thought it might help.”

Edgar shook his head in awe. “You just get more and more amazing…”

“Not really,” Terra mumbled, looking down at the bedsheets. She liked helping, but she didn’t like being gawked at as though there was something strange about her.

Locke saw where the conversation had gone and caused a distraction by throwing his pillow hard at Edgar’s head and taking off at a run down the hallway. Terra couldn’t help but let out a little chuckle as the king took off after him.

A few minutes later Locke was nursing a rapidly-bruising forearm while Edgar paid the innkeeper for their night’s stay. Terra wondered, with a raised eyebrow and a small smile, if either of them were even as old as they looked.

“Did you hear the awful news?” said a man at the back of the room to an older maid.

Terra turned her head in interest.

“What’s that, then?” the old maid asked.

“Master Duncan’s been slain!”

“No! You must be mistaken! That can’t possibly be true!”

“But it is, my dear woman! And what’s more, his son and that disciple of his have disappeared as well!”

“My gracious…whatever do you think could have happened?”

“Well…this is just between you and me now…but I’ve never much trusted that son of his…power-hungry, you know?”

“Oh no, you don’t really think that, do you? His own son do him in?”

“Well I don’t rightly know, my good woman, but if I were that disciple fella, that young Sabin, I’d be watching my back real close.”

Terra was distracted from the conversation by Locke’s voice. “Hey, Edgar? You okay, buddy?” She turned to look and saw that Edgar’s face was blanched white, his eyes locked on the man and the old maid. He looked a hundred times worse than Locke had looked that morning.

With a stab of emotion in her chest, Terra recalled that ‘Sabin’ was the name of Edgar’s younger brother.

Gradually, looking as though he was holding back the urge to vomit, he began to move toward the man and the old maid. “This disciple named Sabin…” He barely spoke loud enough for them to hear, but they both turned at the sound of his voice. “Does he, perchance, look like me?”

“As a matter of fact,” said the man, with a hint of surprise, “His hair is much shorter and he’s rather more muscular, but the face…definitely.”

Edgar began to tremble. He opened his mouth again, but no words came out.

Locke, who had only heard half the original conversation, began to catch on. He stepped forward quickly and gave the man and the maid a serious look. “Where did Master Duncan live?” he demanded.

The man looked suspicious, but the maid saw the green seeping into Edgar’s face and she conceded immediately. “In a little wooden house about ten miles north of here.”

She’d barely gotten the words out of her mouth before Edgar was out the door at a run.

Locke looked at Terra and she nodded at him before the two of them turned and quickly took off after their companion.

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 3 – Part 2)

Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!

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”.

Shadow (Left)           Locke - StealEdgar - Shocked Terra - Glance
*Spites via

The journey was barely a day long with the help of the lovable chocobos. They found the one that had run off wandering a little further south, looking decidedly regretful that it had abandoned its rider. Locke forgave it for dumping him in the sand and gave it and the others a few handfuls of seed before they continued on.

They reached the cave by mid-afternoon and passed through as quickly as possible, as the birds seemed to be frightened of the dark. From there it was a leisurely trot across grassy lands until they came to the port-town of South Figaro just before nightfall. The view was beautiful from here; the clear blue ocean lay to the south of the town, and a vast mountain range, tinted red by the sunset, lay to the north. Terra and Edgar admired the view and took the chocobos to a stable just outside town while Locke, the least conspicuous of the three, ran to the nearest shop to procure some disguises. He returned with a long, dark green robe for Edgar, who would be most easily recognized by the royal crests for his clothing. For Terra he brought a black silk scarf to hide her strange hair color, which had been spoken about enough in rumors to be identifiable.

“There’s a bar attached to the inn,” Locke informed them as they donned their new fabrics. “What say we book a room and have a nice, relaxing drink before bed?”

Edgar looked like he might argue, but he caved at the pleading in Locke’s eyes and the interested look on Terra’s face. “All right, all right. But I’d better not have any trouble hauling you out of bed in the morning, Mr Cole. We can’t afford to be sleeping in.”

Locke grinned, and Terra was sure she caught a hint of mischievousness in the action.

Terra hadn’t gotten to see much of Narshe, and her mind had been too busy during most of her time in Figaro, so she took her time to take in the visuals of South Figaro. It was a lovely little town, busy with people. There was a bustling market district near the harbor; men were selling everything from fish and bread, to knives and swords, while women sold beautiful hand-woven fabrics and sweet treats. There were more children here than there had seemed to be in Figaro, running and playing if they weren’t fishing off the docks with homemade poles. Several large boats with colorful sails, packed high with crates, were docked in the harbor, either waiting to unload or to ship out. Finally, the houses and different establishments were made of either logs or wood paneling, giving a somehow warmer and friendlier feel than had the stone corridors of Figaro Castle.

The bar was busy, but there was a friendly atmosphere about the place and the travelers were lucky enough to snag a corner table as an older couple were leaving.

“What’ll I get yeh?” a busty barmaid asked with a smile.

Terra saw Edgar about to flash his dazzling smile, but Locke noticed as well and kicked him hard under the table. “Three of the house ale, please,” he said while Edgar hissed in pain. The barmaid looked at them sideways, but wandered over to the bar all the same and quickly returned with three large glass tankards.

“You’re an ass,” Edgar muttered at Locke under his breath as the barmaid wandered away, hips wiggling.

Locke simply laughed out loud and took a large gulp of his ale. After a moment Edgar, who didn’t seem to have it in him to stay mad for long, followed suit.

Terra looked cautiously at the glass of honey-colored liquid in front of her. She wondered why it foamed at the top and smelled musty. Eventually she placed the glass to her lips and took a swig. Locke and Edgar laughed at the face she made as she placed the glass back down to the table.

“Maybe we’ll get you something a little sweeter?” Edgar suggested, but Terra shook her head.

“No, it’s fine!” she insisted, not wanting to waste the drink. “I’ll drink it!” She took another gulp to prove her point, and controlled her reaction this time. Then she took another drink…and another. Soon her cheeks were starting to turn pink.

“Woah! Slow down there!” Locke chuckled. “We’ll be scraping you up off the floor if you keep drinking like that!”

As usual Terra didn’t understand, but she slowed down all the same. Instead of guzzling the mug of liquid, she examined it, wondering how it could taste so icy cold and yet still make her throat and stomach feel warm.

The men chatted casually about idle things while Terra studied the patrons of the bar. There were lots of men in filthy work clothes, drinking and laughing loudly, but also a few women. Terra observed that the men and women who were the loudest also seemed to be the ones with red cheeks and noses. The barmaid hopped from table to table, cheerfully serving drinks. Once or twice Terra saw her using her serving tray to smack the hands of red-faced men who tried to grab at her backside.

Terra’s gaze wandered past a trio of older men singing terribly off-key, past the middle-aged bartender who was daydreaming whilst drying a mug, and to the other side of the bar where a man sat alone with a dog at his side. Her eyes stopped here for a moment because he seemed so out of place amid the gaiety. He was dressed almost entirely in black; even his head and face were shrouded in black scarves so that only his dark eyes peeked out at the world. The only color on him came from a golden decoration on the wrap over his forehead, and a set of thick golden cuffs, one on each wrist. At his hip was a long, thin sheath that, presumably, housed a like-sized sword. A full mug of ale sat on the table in front of him, but he did not touch it. And then there was the dog. The dog was enormous and lean, mostly black like its master, but with a dark brown throat and belly. Neither its long, thin tail, nor its short pointed ears twitched as it sat obediently next to its master.

Terra stared at the pair for a long time.

Edgar’s angry voice brought her back to the table. “No, I am not following in his footsteps! I fully intend on returning to Figaro once our tasks are done!”

Locke’s hands were up in the air in defense. “Didn’t mean anything by it, pal. Just making an observation.”

Edgar fumed. Terra guessed that the conversation had turned to the twin brother who had run away from home. Still curious with the little information the handmaiden had offered, she wondered if it would be okay to prod the subject. After a few more gulps of ale she decided it would be fine.

“Edgar,” she posed the question slowly. “Why exactly did your brother run away?”

She had been worried that he’d get angry, but instead he looked rather surprised.

“The handmaidens mentioned it,” she admitted.

Locke looked interestedly on; Terra assumed from the look on his face that he’d never heard the full story himself.

Edgar stayed quiet for a moment, swishing the ale in his mug and glancing back and forth between it and Terra. Eventually, after looking at Locke and finding the other mane staring intently, he sighed and lay the drink down. “Alright, alright,” he said quietly. Both Locke and Terra leaned in to hear better.

“First off,” Edgar began, “Our mother died when we were very young. She’d been sick and eventually the disease took her away from us.”

Locke nodded, apparently having already known this part.

“Then, a few years ago, our father grew mysteriously ill. He’d been perfectly healthy before, and as he was rumored to have been funding an underground rebellion – the early Returners – it was widely suspected that he was poisoned by the Empire.”

Terra drew in a sharp breath.

Edgar continued on, eagerly now, as though he’d been secretly dying to get this off his chest. “Sabin was always innocent and carefree. He focused more on his martial fighting hobby than on things like politics and his royal position. When he heard that the Empire may have assassinated our father, and that nothing was to be done about it, his world shattered.

Father passed on.” Edgar paused here, recalling the painful memory. “And he left behind a wish that the kingdom be divided between his two sons. But Sabin rejected the idea of becoming a king. To have such power, and not even be able to avenge his own father? No. He wanted freedom from the insanity of the world that had fallen on his shoulders, and…and he wanted me to come with him.”

Locke sat up straight in surprise. “Really?” he asked.

Edgar nodded. “We made an agreement; the toss of a coin would decide. If it was heads, he’d win and we’d both leave Figaro behind together and find our own way in the world. If it was tails…we’d both choose whichever path we thought was best, no hard feelings and no regrets.”

From here, Terra and Locke could easily deduce what had happened. The three of them sat quietly for a minute, each imagining or remembering it in their own way, and Edgar took a long drought of ale.

“But I guess it all turned out, more or less,” Locke said quietly.

Edgar nodded. “Except for one thing.” He smiled sadly at the questioning looks of his companions before explaining: “There have been plenty of regrets.”

After a few more moments of silence the men began to speak quietly and casually again while Terra turned Edgar’s words around and around in her head. What exactly did he mean? Did he regret that he hadn’t gone with his brother, or perhaps that he’d let his brother leave? His attitude toward his duties would have her believe that he regretted allowing himself to become entrapped in the world of politics. This, she felt, she could at least understand a little. To be forced to play at allies with the very people who had murdered your father…the idea deeply unsettled her stomach. In fact, she felt a little ill.

Her hand flew to her mouth and she forced herself to swallow though the taste was horrifying. The men weren’t paying attention, so she quietly pushed her mug away and took a few deep breaths to settle her stomach. She closed her eyes for a moment to steady herself, and then slowly opened them.

The black-clothed man and his dog were staring at her.

Surprised, Terra stared back with wide, unblinking eyes. The man didn’t blink either, didn’t even move an inch. Terra wondered why he was suddenly so interested in her, and with a note of panic she wondered if he recognized her. Was he from the Empire?

Locke noticed the look on Terra’s face and turned in his seat. “See something you like?” he called sarcastically to the stranger.

The dark eyes didn’t turn toward Locke’s voice, but after a moment they turned back to the still-full mug of ale. Half a second later the dog turned away as well.

Locke’s face reddened. “At the very least you could give me a response!” He began to stand up, but Edgar hauled him roughly back into his seat.

“Are you crazy?” he hissed. “Do you know who that is? That’s Shadow!”


Edgar shook his head, the look on his face suggesting that Locke was exceptionally stupid. “Shadow is a famous mercenary-for-hire,” he explained in a low whisper. “He’s a money-grubbing madman. Rumor is he’d slit his mamma’s throat for a nickel!”

Locke raised his eyebrows and swallowed visibly. “Best to steer clear of him then…” he admitted while glancing at Shadow out of the corner of his eye.

Terra, however, was staring openly now. He was mysterious enough, for sure, but she didn’t get an evil feeling from him. She wondered if Edgar’s words were an exaggeration, and she felt a twinge of apathy for the man. People seemed to think she was dangerous too…

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 3 – Part 1)

Continuing on with Final Fantasy: Returning Hope!

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”.

Edgar - Shocked Locke - Shocked          Terra - Glance
*Spites via

She’d done it. She hadn’t wanted to hurt anyone, but she had let instinct take over, and instinct told her to protect the men who had protect her.

The flames that had erupted from her palms began to slowly die down, revealing a scorched and twisted mess of metal in their wake. Terra gradually lowered her arms, leaving the last of the fire to burn itself out, and turned in disgust from the smoking, stinking heap.

The look on Edgar’s face took her by surprise. Rather than looking relieved, she found him staring at the smoldering fires with eyes as wide as saucers, his jaw hanging slightly open.

Locke was hoisting himself from the ground, rubbing his head and stretching to peer around Edgar’s chocobo. “What’s happening?” He blinked a few times at the pile of melted metal and then up at Edgar’s shocked expression. “W-what’s the matter?” he asked in concern. “Edgar, you look positively spooked!”

“D-did you see what I just saw?” Edgar stammered.

Locke glanced back to the receding flames and then, oddly enough, started to examine Terra from every angle. “You loaded for bear, kid?” he asked, and Terra realized he was looking for the weapon she’d used to cause such destruction.

“She’s amazing!” Edgar exclaimed suddenly, startling his chocobo. He turned his wide eyes to Locke’s. “That was magic! Magic!” He said the word as though it meant something both holy and terrifying.

“M-m-magic?” Locke stuttered. He looked at Terra, and then back at the destruction behind her. He was looking with new eyes this time. His eyebrows raised and his mouth dropped open in realization, his face now a mirror of Edgar’s. “She used magic?”

“Terra…” Edgar barely whispered. “Where in the world did you learn…?”

Terra’s face was hot and her heart was fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings. She clenched and unclenched her fists, confused and upset, completely insecure and unable to speak. What had she done wrong? She’d saved them, hadn’t she? What was the problem? Why were they looking at her that way?

“I…sorry…I…” she whispered, her voice cracking painfully. “I…I just…”

The pain on her face registered something in Locke and he shook himself out of his own bewilderment. He shoved past Edgar’s chocobo and rushed to grab one of Terra’s hands. “No, no, it’s okay!” he promised frantically. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to make such a big deal out of it!”

“Me either!” Edgar insisted loudly. He hopped from his chocobo and rushed forward as well. “It’s just that I’ve never actually seen magic before…where did you…?”

Locke cut him off at the strange look in Terra’s eyes. “Look, Edgar…Terra can use magic and we can’t, and that’s it! She’s still our friend, and frankly we could use her help. She certainly saved our hides just now!”

Terra’s heart fluttered again, but for new reasons this time.

“You’re right, of course,” Edgar admitted. “This doesn’t change anything, naturally. She’s still just Terra.” He grinned at her, his smile genuine and sincere.

She let her face break into a smile and allowed instinct to take over once again. “Thank you Locke!” she cried, wrapping her arms around him for a quick, tight embrace. She squeezed once, firmly, before releasing him and giving Edgar the same treatment. “Thank you Edgar!” By the time she stepped back again both their faces were red as roses.

“Stop swooning!” Locke hissed under his breath at Edgar.

“You stop swooning!” Edgar hissed back.

The voice was distant, but they all heard the enraged shriek coming from the direction in which Figaro Castle no longer stood.

“Perhaps we should move on?” Edgar suggested urgently.

With everyone in full agreement, they quickly saddled up on the remaining two chocobos – Locke squeezed on with Terra – and took off to the south-east as fast as the birds would allow. Kefka’s furious screams eventually faded into the early morning air.

“He’s scary,” Terra observed quietly. She couldn’t stop picturing his abnormally pale skin and blood-like makeup.

Her simple observation caused Locke to chuckle, but there was little humor in the sound. “He certainly is.”

They rode in silence for several long minutes before Terra spoke up again. “Where are we going?” she asked.

“Through South Figaro and then into the mountains,” replied Edgar. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

“Another Returner,” Locke explained. “Our mentor, Banon.”

“He will surely like to meet you,” Edgar said, smiling at the thought. “Especially with what we now know. Your magic just may be the key to winning this war.”

“Magic…” Terra rolled the word around in her mouth. It sounded familiar, but ultimately meant nothing to her.

“Terra has magical powers,” Locke said, mostly to himself. “According to Arvis, that esper seemed to…react to her. Could there be some connection?”

Terra thought about it for a moment, but nothing came to her. “I haven’t the foggiest,” she said honestly. “I didn’t really think about it. It just seems completely natural to me that I have the use of this power. It’s like breathing.”

Edgar frowned. “But no human is born with the sort of power you seem to have, and-”

Terra’s face had fallen again and Locke was glaring daggers at the king.

“I apologize,” Edgar said quickly. “I just meant that you’re very unique. I’m sure the Empire will be coming after you, and if they get their hands on you again…well, it won’t be good for anyone.”

Terra imagined the death and destruction her powers could cause under the influence of another slave crown. “What should I do?” she pleaded.

“You want to understand all of this, right?” Edgar asked. “Then I think we should consult with Banon. He is very wise.”

Terra didn’t reply, but after a moment she gave a quiet nod.

“Alright then. There’s a cave in this direction that will take us to South Figaro. We’ll make our way there and rest for the night.”

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 2 – Part 4)

Since I’ve decided to start working on this project again as a way of getting my word count up, I’m going to keep posting bits of this for a while. Enjoy!

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”.

Edgar - Chocobo Mount Locke,P20-,P20Chocobo,P20Mount.gif.pagespeed.ce.ll8OpsZGZf Terra - Chocobo Mount
*Spites via

None slept soundly that night, but Edgar – having been plagued with nightmares about his family – was the first to realize that something was terribly wrong. He’d thrown on his favorite navy uniform from the day before and was walking through the halls with his auto-crossbow in hand when he heard the first scream.

“What the-?” The auto-crossbow was quickly strapped to his back and he took off running.

Edgar’s personal chambers opened out onto a stone bridge that spanned two of the outer towers; this vantage point gave him a wide view of the carnage below.

“What’s happening?” he screamed to a Figaro soldier below who was attempting to put out the nearest fire.

“It’s the Empire!” the soldier yelled back in a panic. “It’s Kefka!”

The laughter, rife with insanity, that echoed through the courtyard made Edgar’s blood boil. Kefka was standing, roaring with mirth, in the center of the chaos as screaming Figaro citizens ran from the fires.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Edgar bellowed in a rage.

“I know you’ve got the girl!” Kefka squealed back. “Bring her to me now, or welcome to my barbecue! Kya ha ha ha ha!”

Edgar’s fists clenched as he screamed a string of profanity that echoed across the desert. His outburst only made Kefka laugh harder.

A body appeared behind Edgar. “Your majesty,” the Chancellor spoke quickly and quietly. “The soldiers are gathering everyone inside as we speak…” As he said the words Edgar looked for himself. Those who were dashing about in the courtyard in a panic were actually quietly ducking into the main building.

“You’re ready then?”

The Chancellor nodded slightly.

Edgar glanced across to the eastern bridge, where Locke and Terra were watching from the shadows, out of Kefka’s view. Terra looked positively terrified, but she was dressed and ready. The two men locked gazes and Locke nodded.

“Do it,” Edgar commanded.

“Good luck, your majesty,” said the Chancellor before dashing off into the nearest corridor.

Edgar took a deep breath, hitched his cape back behind his shoulders, and hoisted himself up onto the wall of the bridge. “Kefka!” he bellowed.

Kefka looked up, and a wide, insane grin spread across his hideous white face. “Change your mind?” he called in a mocking tone.

“I guess I have no choice!” Edgar called back. But as Kefka laughed in glee, the young king placed two fingers in his mouth and belted out a sharp whistle that pierced through the night air. A cry like an eagle’s called in return. Before Kefka understood what was happening, three huge, yellow, chicken-like creatures – the size of horses – came sprinting around the tower. The three chocobos stopped beneath the bridge and Edgar leapt deftly onto the back of the lead.

“Ack!” Kefka cried out in surprise, but he quickly fell into maniacal laughter once more. “Shameful that a king should flee, leaving his people behind! How utterly delightful!”

Edgar wasn’t listening. He steered the chocobos, as swift as any other creature that ran on land, to the eastern bridge. “Jump!” he cried, but the others were already ahead of him. Terra landed gracefully on the back of her chocobo, while Locke almost tumbled right off his. He cursed loudly. Edgar urged the birds into a gallop, past Kefka – who was now gaping with wide eyes – and through the gate that he’d broken through.

“Go!” Edgar called behind as loud as he could. “Dive now!”

“Submerge mode initiated!” came the Chancellor’s voice from high on top of the central tower. “No one can touch the people of Figaro!”

“Yahoo!” Locke cried across the desert.

There was a sudden immense rumbling, like the entire desert was shaking.

“What’s happening?” Terra yelled out in alarm. Edgar was grinning at her.

“The people of Figaro have long studied the potential of machinery,” he explained, winking and pointing to the auto-crossbow on his back. “What you’re hearing is the secret of our desert castle!”

And with a second, closer look, Terra gaped in surprise to see that the huge stone fortress was actually beginning to slowly sink into the golden desert sands. In the foreground, as the sand rose in large, dusty clouds, Terra saw Kefka running as fast as his legs would take him and felt an uncontrollable urge to laugh out loud.

The three galloped away, laughing together, secure in their knowledge that the people of Figaro were safe. It was not yet so, however, for them.

“Go!” came Kefka’s enraged voice, wafting on the wind. “Get them! Get them!”

It happened very quickly. Two soldiers, clad in full Magitek armors, emerged from the clouds of sand. There was a sound like an explosion as something collided with the sand mere feet from Locke. His chocobo reared and screamed in surprise, dumping him to the ground as it took off as fast as it could go. Edgar brought his mount to an unsteady halt in front of his fallen friend and ripped the auto-crossbow from his back. A round of bullets that could have easily been fatal shot the weapon away from his hand.

The Magitek armors, with their long stride, were on them in moments, all guns pointed directly at the two men.

“I’m really gonna enjoy this,” one of the soldiers snarled. He had both his cannons aimed at Edgar’s chest.

They were trapped. Edgar had no weapon and he couldn’t flee without leaving Locke for dead. The Magitek soldiers couldn’t possibly miss.

Terra made her decision without realizing it. The soldiers blinked stupidly at her as she leaped off her chocobo and ran into the center of the confrontation. Edgar shouted something that sounded like a plea to get back, but she paid him no attention.

“Then you’ll be the first, you little bitch!” the soldier screamed.

He barely got the words out of his mouth before Terra had raised both her hands, cried out unintelligibly into the night sky, and all the land before her erupted into an enormous pillar of fire.

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 2 – Part 3)

Since I’ve decided to start working on this project again as a way of getting my word count up, I’m going to keep posting bits of this for a while. Enjoy!

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”.

 Kefka - FingerEdgar - Angry
*Spites via

“There, isn’t that lovely then?” the senior handmaiden cooed.

Terra gazed at her reflection in the full-length mirror and wondered if what she saw was beauty. The handmaidens had dressed her in a delicate red silk dress that slid gently off her right shoulder and fluttered around her thighs. Scarves of white, gold, and a soft baby blue were tied loosely around her waist, hips, and wrists, and one of the younger handmaidens was currently using a few to tie her hair into a long ponytail, high atop her head, that fell soft around her shoulders.

“Come on now, my dear,” aid the older lady. “You look simply ravishing! Let’s see a smile, hmm?”

Trying to avoid moving and upsetting the girl who was fixing her hair, Terra used the mirror to give a hesitant smile to the handsome older woman. She grinned back.

“You really are very pretty, Miss Terra,” said the blond one who’d picked out the dress. There was a hint of jealousy there that Terra didn’t quite comprehend, but she also thought she heard honesty. “I’m surprised that King Edgar didn’t attempt to – how do they say? – court you.”

All the other girls giggled foolishly as though it were some kind of inside joke. Terra flushed.

“Well, that is…” she stammered, “I think that maybe he did.”

They didn’t quite stop giggling, but they looked at her a bit more seriously.

“And you turned him down?” the blond asked, incredulous, before bursting into laughter. “Oh, my dear, you certainly have more class than most of us! Not to mention self-respect!”

Terra looked around the room of laughing women and felt more bewildered than ever. “I don’t understand,” she admitted quietly. “Why do I have more class and self-respect?”

“For being able to turn him down, Miss Terra!”

“Oh, we’ve all had our turn with him, hoping we’d be the one to make him change his ways and settle down…”

“And become Queen in the process, of course!”

“Yes, but in the end there’s really no changing him. He’s just destined to be a hopeless womanizer!”

“Now, now, ladies!” the older handmaiden admonished them in a strong, loud voice. “That’s no way to talk about our poor Edgar! You all know perfectly well how much stress he’s been under since his brother left!”

The girls quieted down at this, some of them looking rather abashed, and after a moment Terra’s curiosity got the better of her.

“Brother?” she inquired to the older woman.

The senior handmaiden smiled wistfully, as though recalling a sad memory. “Yes, our king is a twin, you see. Sabin is the younger brother’s name…born only an hour after Edgar.” She looked as though the thought of him was causing her physical pain. “Such a nice young man he was…until their father passed away and he ran out on the kingdom, leaving Edgar to rule alone.” She sighed then and Terra couldn’t help but feel that there was more to the story. She decided not to pry.

“Ahem,” said a voice from the hallway. “If you harpies are just about finished filling Terra’s head with nonsen-ow!” One of the younger handmaidens had thrown a heavy silver hairbrush out into the hallway where Locke had been waiting. Several particularly rude words wafted into the room and the girls began to chuckle again.

“I’d better go,” Terra told them. She nervously folded herself into a low bow. “Thank you so much for the clothes!”

“No trouble, my dear, no trouble!” they told her, happily. Suspecting that her eagerness to leave with Locke meant more than it really did, they ushered her out the door amid foolish giggles.

“Harpies!” Locke grouched, kicking the hairbrush across the hall and into the door as it swung shut. Then he caught a glimpse of Terra and grinned, which made her cock her head in curiosity. “Hey! I knew there was a woman under that ugly old jumpsuit!”

Blinking, Terra wondered if he was serious. Surely he couldn’t have been unsure of her gender, could he have?

“Come on,” he gestured. “I’ll show you around the castle grounds.”

It was nearing twilight as they wandered back out into the main courtyard. The vendors and swordsmen-in-training had left, but there were still people wandering about, enjoying the cool night air.

“So, how do you like Figaro so far?” Locked asked as they strolled across the yard. “Not a bad place to hang out, hmm?”

Terra nodded idly, but was otherwise distracted by the first groups of stars that were beginning to pop up in the evening sky. Locke noticed her preoccupation and glanced up. “Nice view,” he commented. “You like the stars?”

They were like tiny diamonds as Terra gazed at them, sparkling from so very far away. “They’re beautiful,” was her answer, but there was more to it than that. Looking at them stirred something in her. It was the first time she’d really looked up at the night sky since she could remember, and they triggered an odd sensation in her memory. She felt as though there was something wrong with them…like she was looking at them from the wrong side…

A strange and piercing voice came crashing though her reverie.

“Edgar, you pinhead! Why do you have to live out in the middle of nowhere?!”

Terra jumped at the loud shout. “What in the world-?” she started, but stopped when she saw the look on Locke’s face. Contrary to the sunny, child-like expression he’d worn almost perpetually since their first meeting, now Locke’s face was stony, like a man struggling to hold back a wave of fury. “Locke, what’s wrong?”

“K-Kefka, sir?” rang the voice of the gate guard. “W-what are y-you…?”

“Out of my way, you fool!”

Locke seized Terra’s wrist suddenly. “Quick!” he hissed, dragging her into the shadows of a nearby corridor. They had barely hidden from view when the gate was raised and the most frightening man Terra could have imagined stalked in surrounded by guards in black and brown armor.

His clothing was exorbitant and rich-looking. He was draped in layers of blood-red robes, strewn with yellow, white, and green scarves and decorations, some areas peppered in spots and odd patterns. There was an enormous yellow and white ruff around the back of his neck that extended down to his mid-torso; it was opened in the front, revealing a snow-white chest underneath. His face matched the whiteness of his chest, devoid of color, and his long blond hair – much paler in color to Edgar’s – was piled in a tight knot high atop his head. But his eyes were the strangest, and terribly frightening. They were a fierce, bright, inhuman blue, and were surrounded by an inch-thick border of bright red makeup that bled in streaks down his face. It gave the impression that his eyelids had been slit from end to end.

Those eyes were mad…there was no doubt about it.

Terra felt a wave of terror pass through her as she stared at him, unable to blink.

“Edgar!” his piercing, insane voice rang across the courtyard. More quietly, to himself, he muttered, “Stupid Emperor Gestahl’s orders. These recon jobs are the pits!” His cruel eyes wandered around at the people scrambling to get away from him and then down to the sandy ground in distaste. Suddenly, those terrifying eyes widened and a snarl escaped his lips. “There…there is sand on my boots!”

The black-and-brown soldiers sprang into action as though their lives depended on it. They hit the sand with no regard for their knees, and scrambled like dogs to brush the sand from the crimson boots.

“What brings Kefka, humble servant of Emperor Gestahl, into our lowly presence?” Edgar’s voice rang out as he appeared from the main building and strolled across the yard. His voice was accommodating and friendly, but there was a hard edge to it and his face was as stony as Locke’s.

Kefka sneered at the word ‘servant’ before hitching a frightening smile on his face. He walked forward, kicking the soldiers on the ground out of his way as he went.

“A girl of little importance escaped from us recently,” he explained with a grimace. Locke’s hand tightened around Terra’s wrist and she sucked in a sharp breath. “We heard she may have found refuge here.” He grinned in a way that he clearly meant to be friendly; the effort was an immense failure.

Edgar stopped walking while he was still far enough for it to be have been considered rude, but Kefka didn’t seem concerned. “Hmmm…” Edgar said, pretending to consider this news. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with this Magitek-riding ‘witch’ everyone’s been whispering about, would it?”

Kefka’s porcelain face twisted. “Lies!” he screamed so loud that Terra was amazed Edgar didn’t jump from shock. A moment later he’d collected himself and resumed his horrid smile as though the outburst had never happened. “She…merely stole something of minor value. Is she here?”

“That’s a tough one!” Edgar responded, playing at being thoughtful. “You see,” he said while gesturing at the castle around them, “There are more girls in here than grains of sand out there. I can’t keep track of them all!”

Kefka’s eyes narrowed to slits and the grin on his face was like that of a starving wolf. “I’d hate to be you if we found out that you’re lying…” A small chuckle fell from his lips.

Edgar said nothing in return, but raised a silent eyebrow.

There was a swishing of red fabric and sand as Kefka turned to leave. His guards scrambled to follow obediently. As they passed the gate he called back, just loud enough for Edgar to hear, “I truly hope nothing happens to your precious Figaro!”

Edgar’s face trembled with anger.

When he was sure that the Imperials were gone, Locke stepped out of the shadows. “That guy’s missing a few buttons…” he grumbled.

“Where’s Terra?” Edgar asked.

She stepped out of the shadows, shaking a little, though it wasn’t cold.

Edgar leaned in close to Locke and whispered, but Terra still heard. “Take her to her room, then come and see me in the throne room.” He straightened up a little and turned to Terra, flashing a smile that wasn’t nearly as dazzling as earlier. “M’lady, I’d love to stay here and chat with you, but I’m afraid the Chancellor and I must speak strategy. Sometimes I hate being king!” He sighed dramatically for effect, but Terra thought there was more truth to his words than he let on. “If you’ll both excuse me now?” He bowed and gave Locke a meaningful look before turning and heading back to the castle.

“It’ll be my fault…” Terra mumbled later, as Locke walked her down several corridors. “If that crazy man does something…it’ll be all my fault.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Locke assured her with a half-smile. “On the surface Edgar pretends to support the Empire, but the truth is that he’s collaborating with the Returners. Kefka has suspected this for a long time, so it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.”

“The Empire…” Terra moaned, a pain rising in her throat. “But I’m a soldier of the Empire!”

“That’s not true!” Locke exclaimed. He seemed aghast at the concept. “They were using you like a toy! Things will be different now, I”m sure of it!”

Terra shook her head and leaned against the door they’d arrived at. “I don’t understand,” she groaned. “What should I do?”

Locke’s smile was soft and patient. “I can’t tell you what to do,” he told her gently. “Nor do you have to decide right now. Be patient and make your choice once you feel you’ve seen enough to make the proper decision.” With a protective air about him, he placed a hand on top of Terra’s head and ruffled her hair a bit. “You’ll soon find your way,” he promised, before turning on his heel and heading back the way they’d come.

Terra reached up idly and ran her fingertips across the spot where Locke had touched her hair.

“But how will I know which way is right?”

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 2 – Part 2)

Since I’ve decided to start working on this project again as a way of getting my word count up, I’m going to keep posting bits of this for a while. Enjoy!

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”.

Edgar - FingerTerra - Blink (Left)       Locke - Laugh
*Spites via

“Almost…there…” Locke panted. “Just over…this next dune…I’m sure of it this time…”

Terra raised an eyebrow. Although she wasn’t nearly as exhausted and uncomfortable as Locke seemed to be, she reached up to swipe a bead of sweat from her forehead.

The climate had changed dramatically throughout their journey. On the second day they’d reached a moderate zone at the bottom of the mountains. Once here the temperature began to rise exponentially as they headed south. On the third day Terra had to shed Locke’s jacket as they traveled alongside a babbling river. On the fourth, they left the forest behind for warm, wide-open plains. By the morning of the fifth they’d passed into the desert, the scorching sun beating down on them mercilessly. It was here, somewhere, that Locke claimed they would come to Figaro Castle, but Terra was beginning to doubt his sanity. All she could see in any direction was endless golden sand.

Terra hadn’t asked any questions since that first night, making it a very long and awkward journey. Locke had attempted to prompt her a few times, but mostly they had walked in silence, stopping only to sleep and eat dried meats and fruits from Locke’s pack. It had been very uncomfortable for Locke, but necessary in Terra’s eyes. She was as yet unsure what she should and shouldn’t say around the young man. Did he know of her affiliation with the Empire or didn’t he? If he did, was he still helping her out of the goodness of his heart, or was she really a hostage? And if he didn’t, what would he do if she told him? Would he continue to help her, or would he leave her for dead here in this awful wasteland?

Her heart and instincts told her she could trust him, but good old fashioned fear kept her from risking it.

“Oh thank the bloody maker!” Locke sighed from the top of the dune. “We finally made it!”

Part of her (the part that was hot and tired) suspected that he had contracted sun stroke and was gazing lovingly down at another particularly large dune. She was therefore genuinely surprised when, upon reaching the apex of the mound of sand herself, she found what could only be described as a fortress, plunked right in the middle of the desert.

It was both beautiful and extremely impressive, its thick black stone contrasting against the endless golden sand. The outer wall structure ran all the way around in a perfect square, with a tall, circular tower rising up from each corner. Up through the center of the structure rose a fifth square tower where one could stand and overlook the entire fortress and the sands beyond. From a pole on this central tower flew three flags, though at this distance Terra couldn’t distinguish the designs.

Locke was halfway down the dune by the time Terra stopped staring. She followed him at a quicker trot than usual, sand sneaking into the crevices in her boots. She was as eager as he was to get in out of the unforgiving sun.

“Hey!” Locke was calling to the guards when Terra caught up to him. “Open the gate, will you? We’re dying out here!”

The guards were squinting in the sun and holding their crossbows at the read as they walked closer, but Terra saw that one of them was grinning. “Ah, it’s you!” he chuckled. “Get lost in the desert again?”

“I don’t get lost,” Locke snarled, but there was a good-natured tone in his voice. “Just let us the hell in already!”

All three guards laughed out loud now, but they signaled to a fourth who was on the inner side of the large, cross-hatched steel gate. It creaked open slowly and the guards ushered Locke and Terra in, snickering the whole time. The gate clanged back down behind them once they were safely inside.

They were in a great courtyard lined with potted plants and bustling with people. Terra tried to look around – her eye caught a man with a cart selling fresh bread to a crowd of laughing women and children – but Locke continued to stride purposefully forward. She had to jog alongside him to keep up.

“What’s the rush?” she asked. As she trotted along she turned with interest to watch a man with a chest plate teaching some young boys how to properly swing a sword.

“The king will be wanting to see us immediately,” Locke explained.

Clamping her mouth shut, Terra once more wondered if she wasn’t truly a hostage in all this. With a stab of panic she wondered if the king would have guards waiting to toss her in the dungeon and Locke was leading her straight to them. For a moment she hesitated, but she barely missed half a step before she continued along. The castle gate was shut; it wasn’t as though she could make a run for it now.

Locke led her into the main building of the castle, down hallways covered in beautiful carpets, up staircases lined with flowers and burning lanterns sprinkled with sweet-smelling incense. They passed through many doorways guarded by men in full, shining armor who carried large spears or swords. Some, like the guards at the gate, clutched crossbows to their chests. Terra’s eyes darted in every direction, but there was simply too much to be seen. She realized after the eighth or ninth passageway that she couldn’t remember how to get back to where they’d started.

By the time they came to a pair of large, ebony doors that could only be the entrance to the throne room, Terra’s heart had begun to beat irregularly. What was going to happen in there? She had little idea, and the thought of not knowing made her clench her fists until her fingernails bit deep into her palms.

Locke strode confidently past the guards – who didn’t give a second glance – and pushed the huge doors open just wide enough for the two of them to walk through.

The first thing Terra noticed was that the large room had an exceptionally high ceiling, but soon her eyes were drawn to the lavish decorations, the carpets and wall-hangings of crimson and gold. At the far end of the room stood two gorgeous thrones, the arms and backs of which were carved in intricate designs, with the seats covered in plush red velvet. The thrones, however, were both empty, as was the rest of the room, save for one tall man standing over a table littered with scrolls and maps. Terra relaxed a little at the absence of any guards.

The man at the table looked up at their arrival and Terra found herself surprised to see that he was rather young. She’d been expecting a man of age and wisdom, but this man couldn’t be more than thirty – not that much older than Locke or herself.

“Locke!” he cried, smiling. “You’ve returned!”

Terra stood resolutely on the spot as the two young men strode to meet at the center of the room. The greeted each other like the best of friends, shaking hands and patting each other on the shoulder. This man did not fit at all with Terra’s idea of what a king should be. He was tall and lean, with bright blue eyes and long golden hair that was pulled into a braid and hung halfway down his back. His navy and silver clothing, complete with a cape that billowed down to his ankles, were certainly regal enough, but they were wrinkled and dirty in several places. Though it was barely noticeable – he’d clearly attempted to clean himself up after whatever he’d been into – Terra’s eyes were sharp and she got the distinct impression that he’d been working with some sort of mechanical grease…not a very likely sort of thing for a king to be up to.

The king looked over at her suddenly, the smile on his face gone and replaced by a look of interest. Terra started to straighten her posture subconsciously, though she’d already been standing at rapt attention.

“You mean this young woman?” he asked aloud. Terra realized she must have missed part of the conversation during her assessment of his appearance.

The king walked toward her, a very inquisitive look on his face, and stopped with a few feet between them. Terra met his eyes, but his gaze quickly shifted. As she watched in confusion, the young king studied her body from head to toe before turning swiftly back toward Locke.

Terra’s face grew hot and the words came tumbling out all at once. “Hey! Just who the hell do you think you are?”

From the center of the room Locke burst into raucous laughter. The king speedily turned back to face her, his cape rustling around his shoulders, embarrassment clear on his near-flawless face.

“Oh! My apologies!” he gushed. “How absolutely rude of me to turn my back to a lady!” He swept in majestically, and before Terra knew what had happened, he’d scooped one of her hands in both of his and gently kissed the back of it. “I am Edgar, king of Figaro.” He paused and flashed a dazzling smile, which made Terra blink in surprise and puzzlement.

With a snicker, Locke sauntered up next to them and leaned in with a grin. “Surprised someone like me knows a king?” he asked. Then, without so much as a warning, he winked and said, “See you a bit later!” and dashed out of the room, closing the doors behind him.

Terra stared after him, her mouth hanging slightly open, feeling betrayed and abandoned.

“So!” Edgar said, still holding Terra’s hand. “You’re an Imperial soldier!”

Terra’s head whipped back to face the king and her heart sped up. So Locke had known!

“No worries, no worries!” Edgar laughed at the look on her face. “Figaro and the Empire are allies! Besides, it’s not in my blood to harm a lady.” He flashed that dazzling smile again. “Please relax while you are here in my castle.”

Allies? Terra thought. But what about the Returners?

Delicately, she pulled her hand from Edgar’s grasp and gave him an appraising look. “Be honest,” she insisted. “Why are you helping me?” Images flashed through her head; memories that had been slowly returning to her of the invasion of Narshe, of her uncanny reflexes and eagle-eye aim. “Is it…is it because of my abilities?”

Edgar turned from her for a moment, pondering the question. “I’ll give you three reasons,” he announced after a mere moment. Glancing back at her out of the corner of his eye, he held up one finger. “First of all, your beauty has captivated me.” He turned fully to face her and continued before she could respond. “Second, I’m dying to know if I’m your type…” He flashed his grin again and, although he was handsome and confident, Terra found herself cringing internally. “I guess your…abilities…would be a distant third.” He waved this last off as though it was information of no consequence.

Terra was completely bewildered.

“Wh-…what’s with you?”

The change in his facial expression was infinitesimal, but Terra registered the flash of disappointment before Edgar managed to gather himself.

“Well then, if you will excuse me, m’lady,” he said with an unusually steady grin. “I have some important issues to attend to. Please feel free to wander about the castle at your leisure.” He bowed politely before turning to stride, missing a step halfway, back toward the cluttered table. As he walked away he muttered under his breath. The words were likely meant for his ears only, but Terra’s were exceptionally keen and she picked them out of the air easily: “Guess my technique’s getting a bit rusty…”

Terra stared at the king’s back for a moment, hesitated twice, and finally she quietly slipped out through the huge doors. A poorly-stifled snicker met her and she turned to find Locke lounging against the wall. He was attempting, and failing, to control his hysterics.

“Turned him down flat, didn’t you?” he chuckled. “I thought you might. I was hoping on it actually. Little lecher needs a good bit of rejection every now and then.” He was laughing out loud by the end.

Terra contemplated his words, wondering if she should find the situation as humorous as he did, or if perhaps she should be angry. Maybe there was some other emotion that would be suitable for this strange situation?

“Well…” she murmured, thinking about the king’s odd wording, “I suppose…I suppose any normal girl would have found him dashing.”

But I’m hardly normal… she added to herself.

Locke snorted once before pushing off the wall and walking over to Terra with his hands in his pockets, a smile on his face. “Ah, don’t worry about it!” he insisted, misinterpreting her meaning. “He’s an insufferable cretin and something like this every now and then would do him good!”

Terra nodded, though she didn’t understand at all.

“Come on then!” Locke trilled on, patting Terra on the shoulder. “Let’s go pay the handmaidens a visit and get you some more suitable clothes.”

Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 2 – Part 1)

Since I’ve decided to start working on this project again as a way of getting my word count up, I’m going to keep posting bits of this for a while. Enjoy!

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”.

Locke - AngryLocke - TentTerra - Glance
*Spites via

They walked in silence until they were a good distance away from the town. As they traipsed along, the only sound that of the snow crunching beneath their feet, Locke took the opportunity to steal quick glances at Terra out of the corner of his eye. He’d heard many rumors about the ‘blue-haired Magitek girl’. He’d heard people use the word ‘witch’ and exchange stories about how she could destroy an entire city (as no cities had gone missing lately, Locke was fairly certain these stories were exaggerations). Arvis, the old man from Narshe, insisted that she was nothing more than a victim of the Empire’s cruelty. Locke thought she looked simply like a scared young woman barely out of her teenage years.

It took them over an hour to reach Locke’s small campsite, at which point he determined it should be safe to break the silence.

“Alright, Terra,” he said jovially while sticking his head inside the tiny tent, “Let’s see what we’ve got here.” He grabbed two articles of clothing from the small pile he owned and turned back to find Terra gazing rather intensely at the remains of his fire from the night before. He wasn’t sure exactly what she was looking at, but when he cleared his throat she slowly turned back to face him.

“Here you go!” He grinned and held out a pair of jeans and a leather jacket. “These should warm you up a bit!”

Terra’s eyes slowly dropped to his outreached hands and there they stayed. She had a blank look on her face.

A few moments passed and Locke began to shift his weight nervously from foot to foot. “Um…” he said eventually, clearing his throat again, “I know they’re not…fashionable, and their probably way too big, but…”

Terra’s eyes shot up and widened. She looked as though she’d just woken from a trance. “No, no…” she stumbled over the words. “They’re fine, of course. Thank you very much…” She gave a strange, unsure smile as she took the clothes from Locke.

She pulled the jeans over the gray jumpsuit. Locke himself was fairly lean, so they weren’t enormous, but still they hung loose around her hips. The jacket was very large – Locke liked it baggy – but she wrapped it around her chilled body happily.

“Hungry?” Locke asked. He held out an apple from his pack.

Terra nodded frantically, only just now realizing what the pain in her stomach was trying to tell her, and accepted the apple hungrily.

Locke took a large bite of his own apple and chewed thoughtfully. “Maybe we should camp here for the day,” he suggested after swallowing. “After everything that’s happened, well…it’s probably been more than twenty-four hours since you had a decent rest.”

But Terra was already shaking her head. “Honestly, she told him, “I don’t think I could sleep now if I tried. I think…I think I’d just like to get far away from here as fast as possible. If…if that’s okay with you?”

Locke found it hard to believe that Terra wasn’t utterly exhausted after all she’d been through, but he replied with a smile and a “No problem!” and quickly began to gather up his belongings.

And he waited for the questions. He had assumed that, once he’d shown it was okay to talk again, he’d be bombarded with them. Surely this poor girl with a lost memory, finding herself in such a strange and frightening situation, would have a million questions to ask. And yet, she seemed strangely quiet, withdrawn, and uninterested. She was silent while Locke rounded up the last of his things and dismantled the tent. She gave only a small nod when he asked if she was ready to set out. He heard only the sounds of the snow under her boots as she walked.

It was, to say the least, a little unnerving.

As they hiked for mile after mile, Locke began to nervously wonder what her problem was. Was she scared? He thought he’d done a fine job of reassuring her that he was here to help and that he wanted to be her friend. Was it shyness then? She hadn’t seemed particularly shy earlier, but perhaps now that the initial shock had worn off… Or maybe she’d hit her head harder than he’d originally assessed. Could that be it?

A little too frantically, he whipped his head around to examine Terra’s face. She looked back at him with shock at his sudden movement and he quickly forced a grin on his face and turned back to the path. Well, she’d responded quickly enough anyway.

The truth was that while Locke was desperately debating why Terra wouldn’t ask any questions, Terra was having a mental and emotional battle over what questions she wanted to ask.

There were so many of them swarming through her head that she couldn’t seem to choose just one. Why had the men from Narshe been trying to capture her? What was this Empire they thought she was a part of? Who was the old man who had helped her? What were those little bear-like creatures she’d seen? The list went on and on and repeated itself multiple times through her head until it hurt physically. How could she possibly decide what to ask first? And how could she avoid the questions that she didn’t necessarily want to know the answers to?

Many hours later, when the sun had begun to sink behind the mountains, Locke collapsed and suggested they camp for the night.

“It’s another four or five days at least,” he explained. He panted, out of breath from the trek, while Terra’s breathing seemed perfectly stable. “We’re far enough away from Narshe now; they won’t follow us this far. We should rest and eat.”

Terra nodded in her quiet way and sat herself gracefully down on a fallen tree.

Locke reconstructed the tent to the low hotting of a waking owl. Once the tent was in place he extracted a few pieces of dried jerky from his pack and handed half of them to Terra. He observed, as she took them gratefully, that the strange young woman didn’t seem to register hunger until she was presented with food.

“Locke?” Terra spoke softly.

He jumped a mile at the sound of her voice. He’d become so used to the silence. “Yes?” he replied after a second of steadying his heart.

She hesitated a moment, fidgeting where she sat, and eventually she said in an even quieter voice, “Tell me about yourself.”

Locke couldn’t have been more taken aback. Of all the things she could have asked!

“Uh, well…” he stuttered his surprise. “What do you want to know?”

Terra flushed a little and stared determinedly forward at the owl stretching his wings from a nearby branch. “I don’t know…anything.”

He stared at her out of the corner of his eye for a long moment before finally speaking hesitantly. “Well, I’m a member of the Returners,” he told her. “I do a lot of…spying, and odd-jobs for them. The man you met in Narshe is one of us as well.”

“And who exactly are the Returners?” Terra asked quickly, and now Locke understood. She hadn’t known where to start, and now he’d given her an opening.

“Well,” he said, thinking about how to best answer the question, “We’re an organization that’s opposed to the Empire. I’m not sure how far we’ll get or how much good we’ll do, but I guess you could say that we’re trying to bring the whole thing down.”

Terra nodded quietly, but Locke could see that she didn’t quite understand.

“It’s like this…” He took a bite of his jerky and repositioned himself to face Terra. “There’s this guy called Emperor Gestahl. He has lots of followers and a huge army, and he does a lot of awful things like invading peaceful countries and taxing people nearly to death. I guess you could say, for lack of a better description, that he wants to take over the world.”

Terra nodded again, a little more enthusiastically. “And the…Returners want to stop him?”

“Right,” Locke confirmed. “We’re freedom fighters.”

Terra had many more questions, but she found herself suddenly rather frightened to ask them. She was thinking about the miners who had shouted from outside the old man’s house. That woman is an officer of the Empire! That’s what they’d said. Was it true? She certainly couldn’t remember, but they had sure seemed to think so. Did Locke know about it? Surely he wouldn’t have helped her if he did… Or perhaps he did know and she was really his unwitting prisoner, being duped into coming quietly.

Locke watched Terra’s blank face as she ran through the possibilities in her head. He expected that, how she’d finally broken the question barrier, she would continue relentlessly. After a few minutes, however, she simply nodded. The jerky strips were limp, forgotten in her hand as she stared into the trees where the owl dove at a field mouse.

Though it was a peaceful night, they both slept uneasily.