“Now you bring me two birds to care
for and still no payment.” The stable master puffed his chest out
and scowled at Sabin. “And look at this animal! It’s filthy,
covered in soot.” He patted Terra’s bird, showing Sabin the black
dust that came off on his palm.
The stable was a modest wood building, painted reddish-brown and sheltering only eight pens. It clung to the southern edge of town near a pathetic little meadow bordered by scraggly trees. The sun had just risen above their bare branches and the light bypassed Sabin’s eyes to knock around his fatigued skull like rocks in a kettle. The stable master seemed invigorated, eager to start the day with a righteous victory over an undeserving parasite.
“I’m sorry. I’ll pay you back, I assure you,” Sabin promised.
“Like you paid me last time before you busted into my facility and fled town?”
Terra sat against the stable wall, still bound and now gagged. As soon she had regained consciousness she had started shouting her best magitek armor imitation and boasting about how many imperial troops and Narshe guards she had killed. Sabin hoped that her madness was merely some consequence of delirium. She needed water, food, and rest, and so did he.
“I can give you two legendary swords,” Sabin offered. At this Terra moaned a protest behind her gag and stomped her feet in the mud. The stable master just laughed. “Look,” Sabin said, “I don’t have time for this. This woman needs help.” He scooped Terra up with both arms. She squirmed once in protest then slumped.
“You need help, mate. These two birds are mine now. You aren’t taking them anywhere unless I say so, and that isn’t likely… ever. And that’s not the half of it. You’re also going to clean out the stable. You hear me? Don’t walk away from me.”
Out of patience, Sabin carried Terra to the tavern. Anger made his forehead throb. At the tavern he demanded a room from Mace who put his hands up defensively, but made no comment on Sabin’s rudeness and lead him upstairs to an empty room with two beds. Sabin secured Terra in one bed. He removed her gag. She remained silent and eagerly drank the water he gave her. Sabin had some for himself and then passed out in the second bed.
The wind twists the clouds into ribbons. An unbearable heat sears the air. The summit of Mt. Kolts is burning. The flames part and Sabin knows that the creature who walks out is his training partner, Vargas, but in the dream he sees Terra emerge in Esper form, pink hair flying, clawed hands flexing, a naked being of fiery energy.
Sabin hears himself speak. “I’m sorry, but you leave me no choice.”
He knows what comes next. He will kill Vargas who appears as Terra.
Suddenly Duncan is there. He shakes his head. “I’m so disappointed in you Sabin.”
“He left me no choice! I had to.”
“Easy there, big fellow. Don’t strain yourself.”
The vision of Mount Kolts vanished, shunted aside by the unexpected voice.
“You’ve got a fever. You’ve got to stay in bed. Though big as you are I doubt I could force you, even in the state you’re in.” Now Sabin recognized the voice as belonging to the tavern keeper, Mace. Mace crouched beside his bed on the left next to a bureau with a clock on top. A fire burned in the fireplace at the foot of Sabin’s bed. He felt so hot. The room swam before his eyes.
“You’re talking in your sleep. You need to try to relax. The wound on your arm is infected.”
Sabin looked to his right, at the second bed, the one where he had unceremoniously deposited Terra. His vision blurred again, but he didn’t see any green. He blinked.
“Terra,” he groaned.
“Don’t worry about the witch. We took care of her.”
Sabin fell away into himself, into darkness.
“You captured the witch. Congratulations.”
“Where is she?”
“You needn’t worry. We took care of her, lynched her. It was quite a spectacle. Sorry you missed it.”
Sabin woke alone. The sour stench of illness emanated from the twisted sheets wrapped around his legs. Silence caromed around inside his head. There was a memory or a nightmare on the edge of his consciousness. Had he just spoken? Had they… “Terra!”
He rolled out of bed, fumbled to the floor, kicked at the tangled sheets then shuffled on his knees over to the second bed. It was empty. He pushed himself up to his feet. The rush of blood blacked out his vision. He wavered, but steadied himself with deep breaths. Finally he looked out the window.
A crimson sun lit upon newly-constructed gallows in the town square. The simple wood structure glowed strangely in the harsh light as if it came from another world where it was commonplace to thank heroes for saving the world by ending their lives. He clenched his fists and made murderous promises. If they had so much as harmed a hair on her head he would drown Tzen in blood.
He sensed himself float to the stairs, then down into the tavern, as if he were observing someone else, someone whose actions he could not be held accountable for. Two swords lay exposed next to their sheaths on a round table in the middle of the tavern. They drew him near. A ray of light from a window caught Ragnarok and flashed in his eyes. The burning orange heart of the once-green magicite in the hilt had turned to a black lump in a clear encasement. The blade was nicked but clean. He lifted it with his good arm and dragged the rusted Atma Weapon off with his other arm.
A sound came from a side room he had not noticed before. Drawn to it, he drifted. He entered a small storeroom at the top of a staircase. He descended. At the bottom were two doors: one opened into a dark room, smelling of alcohol, the other was closed. He held still and listened. A person behind the door made small sounds; conversation? Or was it humming? It sounded like a magic spell. The violence left his body in one sweep, replaced by desperate hope. “Terra?” he called out.
The voice went silent, but he was sure it was her. He dropped the swords and kicked the door. A wave of nausea swam up from his belly. He ignored it and kicked again. He kicked until the wood split and the door swung inward.
She was curled up against a wall. She hung her head and said nothing as he leaned in the door frame and let his body decide whether or not to puke. His body deigned not to puke and instead treated him to wrenching pain and piercing chills.
There was no time to let it pass. Doubled over, Sabin shuffled to Terra. He touched her gently on the arm. “It’s Sabin,” he whispered. “We’re getting out of here.” She barely stirred. He put his hands under her arms and helped her to her feet. She felt insubstantial.
Terra’s eyes landed on her swords. With sudden vigor she lunged forward to grab them. Sabin could not have restrained her if he had tried.
She stood slowly, lifting both blades point up, parallel to her body. With the weapons in hand, she seemed to gain solidity as if some kind of energy flowed into her, propped up her joints, and drove the frailty from her lithe body. Her head turned slightly though she did not look directly at Sabin.
Did she even remember who Sabin was? Did she remember herself? He wondered if long term side effects of the slave crown had finally manifested.
“Follow me,” she said. He nodded. With that, initiative was transferred.
Did Terra want blood? Vengeance? Sabin didn’t care. He winced at a malodorous smell that bubbled out of his throat. Pain filled him to the brim and overflowed, cascading forward and backward through time until the physical pain became one and the same with his shame and worthlessness, with his brother and Vargas. There was no Sabin, only a vessel for suffering remained. The vessel and Terra ascended the stairs.
In the tavern Terra ran to and fro like a nest-building bird. She strapped on the two sheaths and then searched the cupboards for food and other supplies. She shoved what she found into a canvas sack she had pilfered from a cabinet. Sabin got the message. They were leaving. He ascended the stairs to the second floor as if they were the final ascent to Mount Kolts’s summit to retrieve his boots. When he returned he caught Terra talking to herself in a hushed, but angry whisper. She silenced herself when she saw him and handed off the bag she had filled, then she drew her swords.
Seeing her like this, hefting these weapons with surprising strength, her hair a wild tangle of green reaching out like the tendrils of a strange sea creature, her green eyes lidded and all her facial features tapering down towards her narrow chin, itself a kind of down arrow indicating her position at the bottom, unable to sink further, uncaring how low she might bring the rest of the world, Sabin felt a glimmer of doubt. Should he protest, stop her before she did something that could not be undone? A throbbing ache began at his temples and he remembered the world outside. He felt its cruel expanse beyond the thin tavern walls. This world would kill them and forget their very existence.
“I’m sorry,” Sabin blurted out. “I didn’t know that they would try to hurt you.”
She looked on him with a mixture of pity and disgust. “I believe you, but my swords don’t.” She cackled at her joke while shivers ran up and down Sabin’s spine. Then with a grimace she ordered: “Open the door. We don’t have time for this.”
Sabin eased the tavern door open slowly and peeked out to survey the streets. Direct sunlight stung his nerves. He blinked rapidly, glanced north and saw no one. He looked south and found himself staring straight into Mace’s face.
“Sabin! What are you doing? You should be resting. I… hurgh!”
Sabin grabbed him by the shirt and dragged him bodily inside. Terra was upon him in an instant, crossing her swords and placing Mace’s head between them like pruning shears ready to lop off a tree limb.
“Terra, no!” Sabin protested.
“Shut up. And you,” she looked at Mace, “lead this witch to the stable.”
Mace moved slowly towards the door with his neck between the blades. Sabin watched dumbly with his arm stuck out indicating, ‘stop’.
“Sabin, I’m your friend,” Mace pleaded.
“Shut up.” Terra barked. She pressed the blades against Mace’s neck. Sabin found no more protests forthcoming, but vomited loudly on the tavern floor. He wiped his face with the back of a trembling hand. His beard had grown in and was damp now with half digested porridge and stomach acid.
Sabin recovered himself. Mace led the way outside. Immediately an old woman screamed at the sight of them, dropped the basket she had been carrying and scurried back up the street.
“Faster,” Terra commanded.
Mace shuffled his short legs a bit faster. Sabin felt as if they were crawling to the stable. Nonetheless he struggled to keep pace, one hand jammed against his stomach as if he could quash the pain there.
They headed downhill, east towards the sun. The ground was damp and rutted with lingering puddles from a recent storm. The buildings pressed close around them. Most were two stories high. Tzen had been a wealthy, if claustrophobic, town long ago. Their shadows stretched long behind them like a trail for the town guard to follow. Finally the odor of bird droppings wafted up the street.
A bell rang frantically back near the center of town. Someone had sounded the alarm. Moments later people began spilling out into the streets with hammers, shovels, hot pokers, pitchforks, and other miscellaneous improvised weaponry. It took less than a moment for all eyes to turn towards the large muscular man standing next to the green haired woman with two swords bracketing the tavern keeper’s neck.
“The witch! Get her!”
A dozen townsfolk, with more running down the streets, closed in from all sides. The better-armed and bloodthirsty came running while those with less battle enthusiasm lagged behind. Sabin had fought off larger and better-trained hordes than this, like when he was caught in the Imperial army camp besieging Doma castle. Sabin was unmatched in single-combat and knew that the key to group combat was to take control of the situation so that it becomes a series of one-on-one fights.
The lessons came readily to mind. Lesson one: don’t let your opponents decide when to engage you. Instead select one of the nearest foes and go to him. Always take the initiative. Lesson two: let your opponents provide your weapons for you. Use the momentum of your first opponent to throw him at others and buy more time. Then, simply repeat one and two.
Sabin knew all the strategies and the techniques to execute them, but theory and practice felt miles apart in his condition. His vision swam as his blood pressure rose, his ears rang with the slightest sound, and his muscles protested every movement. He breathed deeply and tried to center himself, but pain stabbed through him. If he could not overcome it, the next stabbing pain he felt might be from an actual stab wound.
Suddenly Terra let out a piercing laugh.
Even the fierce-looking burly man with a steel pitchfork, who had been leading the charge, paused.
Terra pushed Mace to the ground and put a boot on his neck to keep him down. Then she raised both swords aloft.
“Prepare to taste my magic, fools!” She began to loudly cast a spell. The words for Cyclone spilled from her lips.
Sabin himself stumbled away from her in fear. Cyclone would not distinguish friend from foe. He too would be swept into the sky and battered by windswept debris before being dashed to the ground. Terra spoke with such conviction that he momentarily forgot that magic was gone, had been banished by his own hands two years ago.
The townsfolk turned and fled with cries of, “By Kefka, spare us!”
Terra whined a mock imitation, “Ohhh, by Kefka, spare us!” then she winked at Sabin, which did not comfort him at all. She poked Mace to his feet with Ragnarok. They ran to the stable with Sabin struggling to keep up.
The stable master was pacing outside the stable, a worried look scrunching his face. He paused in surprise when he saw the three of them coming. He hurled commands to stop, and demanded to know what was going on. Sabin, seized by sudden energy, knocked him to the ground with a single blow. It was an uncharacteristically sloppy, violent strike which rendered him unconscious. It would leave a mark.
Terra put her teeth together in a sadistic smile. Sabin looked away, the nausea and shame redoubling within him. Terra put a foot on Mace’s back and kicked him towards the stable’s broad doors. She and Mace entered. Sabin closed the doors behind them pitching the room into darkness.
“Don’t try anything.” Terra said. She kicked Mace again for good measure. “Get on your knees.” In the darkness Sabin felt certain Mace would die. He found it hard to care.
“Sabin, take two chocobos outside. I’ll be right out.”
“Terra… you remember my name?”
“Don’t be stupid. Just do as I say.”
So he did. He saddled up two birds and took them by the reins. He thought they were the birds that he and Terra had come in on, but it was hard to be sure in the dark.
Mace began whispering Sabin’s name over and over again.
“I’m not deaf.” Terra said.
Mace went silent. Sabin opened the doors casting light on Terra standing rigidly with two swords bracing Mace’s neck. Sabin shut the doors behind him, turned, and saw an angry crowd. The townsfolk were shielding their eyes against the sun, wielding sundry dangerous implements, and marching down the street towards him. They were lead by uniformed swordsmen wearing tan with black and red crests that Sabin could not make out. Something about them seemed familiar, but this was neither the time nor place nor condition for ferreting out the source of an idle memory.
“Terra! We have a problem,” Sabin yelled over his shoulder while slinging the sack of supplies over a saddle. He pulled at the straps to secure it. From inside the stable came the unmistakable sound of a heavy body falling to the ground. Sabin dropped his hand from the straps and placed his forehead into the chocobo’s feathers. He felt as if he himself had murdered Mace and maybe he should let the crowd kill him, end the pain now, swiftly.
Then a rock hit him, striking his bicep squarely on the wound that had been infected. He roared with rage. The chocobos would have fled, but he gripped their reins tightly. He turned hate-filled eyes on the mob. They paused, some with rocks in drawn-back arms, paralyzed by his outcry. Sabin shifted his feet into a fighting stance. His fighter’s instinct kicked in and he singled out who would be the first to die, a swordsman in the front row who looked to be the least green of the bunch.
Terra threw open the stable doors producing gasps, screams, and a few cries of “witch!” The mob drew back in fear.
Sabin uttered his own curse at the sight of her. “By Kefka!”
She sheathed her swords without bothering to clean them. She mounted the slightly sooty bird in front of her. It didn’t seem to mind that her clothes were soaked in blood, though Sabin’s bird gave a start.
The mob lurched forward. The swordsmen raised their swords. The peasants flung rocks, hammers, and other hard objects.
Sabin put a foot in his bird’s stirrups, struggled to pull himself up. His bird warked and scowled. It ducked and squatted as a rock sailed over its head. This lowered its body just enough for Sabin to swing himself into the saddle. The bird launched into a sprint, kicking up a spray of mud into the onrushing crowd.
Sabin and Terra headed south, though Sabin did not realize this at first. He wrapped his arms around the neck of his chocobo and lay against it with his head down. The illness tortured him constantly, the pain had diminished slightly, but what remained showed no sign of ceasing. With each breath he inhaled dust and the bird musk that stunk of droppings, but the sulfurous smell that occasionally erupted from inside of him was worse.
The Isthmus of Ruin would be under water by now, cutting off the routes to Mobliz or Nikeah. The town of Albrook, due south, was the only other settlement on the continent. Terra lead the way and Sabin’s bird diligently followed, but when Sabin lifted his weary head to glimpse the last of the sun’s light fading beneath a shadow that fell from no object, he realized that Albrook was not her intended destination. He called out to her to slow.
His chocobo drew up next to hers and again he thought he heard her silence a conversation she held only with herself.
“Terra, we should go to Albrook.” He felt rather dim making this plain statement, but knew of nothing else to say.
“Not Albrook. Tzen will have sent warning by carrier pigeon. Albrook will be expecting us,” she replied, sitting erect in her saddle with carmine, wind-dried blood caking her clothing.
She was right and he had not expected to be faced with such stark rationality.
“Why did you attack me?” he asked.
She kept her eyes ahead and answered evenly.
“I didn’t want to remember myself and I was afraid, afraid you were not real. Think of it. The last thing I expected was to see you out here in the ruins. If you were a hallucination that meant I was truly losing my mind, but you’re real. I know that now. Locked in the tavern cellar, I had a lot of time to think, to remember things that the ruins let me forget.”
Sabin nodded solemnly, understanding what he heard, but also understanding that there was much more to hear.
“Why did you come here?” Terra asked.
Sabin replied immediately, the answer well practiced on his tongue. “I wanted to complete Duncan’s work, to train new pupils as Duncan trained me. So I went to Mobliz.”
Terra raised an eyebrow and studied his face. “You thought an emaciated orphan would make a better black belt than any of the children in Figaro or Nikeah? Why did you really come?”
“I… There were difficulties in Figaro and Nikeah, well, I hardly know anyone there.” Why hadn’t he sought a child in Nikeah? It would have made sense. Sabin could not answer the question.
The shadows deepened and a cold wind gusted from the direction of the ruins. Sabin realized he had been sidetracked.
“Terra, we shouldn’t go to the ruins.”
“Oh? Not ‘don’t go’ or ‘I refuse to go’, but ‘shouldn’t’? So you’re judging me, is that it? You can’t imagine what it has been like for me.” She burst into tears adding perplexity to Sabin’s catalog of afflictions.
Her sobs gradually ran their course. Then she said, “I didn’t kill the tavern keeper. I killed the other chocobos. They won’t be able to pursue us.”
She smiled for only a moment, but it shined in the gathering gloom, because it contained a hint of real amusement, a hint of the innocent child buried deep within her. “You say that as if the lives I took were worse.”
Sabin laughed, but his mirth was as brief as Terra’s smile. “In a way, they were. You took innocent life when a person who would have lynched you was beneath your blade. You certainly aren’t insane, killing rationally like that. What are you then?”
She turned away from the sun and looked into the heart of the shadow cast by the fallen tower. Her innocence already buried miles deep she said, “I’m a half-dead hybrid.”
Sabin argued that they should camp at the edge of the ruins rather than deep within the shadow. They would be less safe from the threats Terra feared, but more safe from the unknowns Sabin feared. Terra could not deny that her threats had much ground to make up on foot, what with their dead chocobos, so she made this small concession.
Sabin made a fire while Terra rummaged through their supplies and took out some bread and water. They ate and drank.
Terra spoke softly, letting her thoughts wander. Sabin listened to her disturbing words as passively as he could. She had spent months alone in the ruins weaving illusions of grandeur around herself. Her recent capture and imprisonment seemed to have disabused her of these notions, but he would not risk disturbing the tight-rope upon which her sanity balanced.
“Kefka was surely mad in his quest for absolute power,” she said, “but, I think, when he achieved the pinnacle of his strength, when he constructed his tower from which to judge the world and built his beam of light on top to cut apart continents and burn lives like parchment, I think he had an epiphany.
“His failure was in drawing back in fear from the void of the epiphany. I think he should have gone further, cut deeper into the land. In his short time as a god he unleashed Phunbaba and the Eight Dragons from their tombs within the earth. He should have cut to the core and exorcised all the evil. Then he should have scoured the surface of life to give the planet a fresh start.
“Instead he wallowed in his own depression, occasionally reflecting it outward to burn a village, half-heartedly cleave a few families.
“Ironically, he failed to extinguish his own hope. All the destruction. He wrought it with the sole purpose, not of extinguishing hope, but of finding some that he could not snuff. He found that hope in us, and we killed him. Now look at us...”
Sabin rubbed his chin, feeling the beard, now crusty with the dried contents of his stomach. Together they certainly did not cut the image of strapping heroes.
Terra gestured at him with the tip of her sword, she hardly ever released the hilt. “You never answered my question. Why did you come here?”
“I told you, I sought pupils.”
“Not why did you go to Mobliz, which still makes no sense, but why did you come to the ruins?”
“I was searching for you!” Sabin exclaimed as if the answer was obvious.
Terra smiled coquettishly. “Maybe you were searching for me ever since you left Figaro.”
Sabin blushed, coughed, and turned away. “Terra, you mistake me. I… You’re like a little sister to me.”
She frowned then said with dead seriousness, “I’m an only child.”
“You don’t have to be alone. Of all the places you could have gone, why the ruins?”
“I had many reasons. My earliest memories are of Kefka. Did you know that? I was just a little girl when the Empire put me on the battlefield and Kefka was my commander. I didn’t hate him. I didn’t know what I was doing.
“This is also the last place I was whole. You can’t imagine what it was like. I lost half my soul when magic fled the world. Kefka’s tower of brick and magic collapsed, but I, the child of Esper and human, somehow survived. I thought maybe some remnant of magic survived here in the ruins. So I came searching for my better half.
“The Sealed Gate must be here somewhere. It was on the land that Kefka raised into the sky and used to construct his tower. Imagine if I could open it just once more…”
Terra stared into the fading flames in the fire pit. Silence stretched on. Sabin slouched against the flat side of a boulder, feeling ill though his sickness had abated. He felt full of Terra’s words, but unable to digest them.
“Did you find…” he trailed off.
“What? Magic? No.” She laughed, but Sabin found nothing funny about it. “Why? Are you scared? Big Sabin with all his strength. I’m the one who should be scared. I’m defenseless. I’m nothing any more. Half human and half, literally, nothing. You have no idea how it feels.”
Sabin knew better than to protest, but he did know. He knew exactly how it felt to be worthless. His thoughts flashed back to South Figaro: no pupils to train, and then to Mobliz: monsters he could not defeat.
“What happened in Mobliz?” He asked.
Terra tossed a stick on the fire then sought the comfort of Atma Weapon in her palm. “The same thing that happened in Tzen; superstitious people got rid of a powerless witch.”
Sabin frowned. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”
“A bit,” Terra replied. “Shortly after we defeated Kefka, after I landed in Mobliz, things were fine. The children were happy to see Mama Terra and I was happy to be with them.
“Then the illness came. The children began to get sick. They asked me to heal them, to use my magic. I tried to explain that I couldn’t anymore, but they didn’t understand. Duane and Katarin’s baby got sick and died. Katarin was practically comatose with grief. Duane was furious. He turned the children against me. He told them that I was practicing evil magic against them.
“I tried to use cure magic. I tried harder than I have ever tried before. I uttered the words and made the signs. Of course nothing came of it. I got angry and desperate. I started practicing black spells just to see if they would work. I tried to cast Doom on an insect, Break on a chair. I couldn’t so much as cast Bio on a moldy slice of bread. One of the children caught me in the middle of Bio and ran to tell Duane. That’s when I fled the town.”
Sabin wanted to believe her. He wanted to comfort this girl for whom he felt much fatherly affection, but she was not a girl anymore. She absentmindedly scratched dry blood from her clothes. Sabin wondered if it was all a production: the tears, the sob story. Her delusions of grandeur had disappeared too quickly to be replaced by frailty. Did she believe him unaware of the monster in Mobliz?
“Terra, I went there, to Mobliz. Tell me the whole story.”
“That is the whole story! Do you think this is easy for me?”
“Terra, tell me where the monster came from.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sabin scrutinized her face. He wanted to believe her, and for this reason did not trust his own judgment. He tried a new tack. “There is a monster in Mobliz, an ancient creature from all appearances. The children have befriended it or it has befriended them. It protects them from trespassers. I fought with it and was defeated.”
Terra smirked then controlled herself. Sabin suspected she was pleased at the thought of the monster besting him, making him feel weak like her.
“I thought we killed all the monsters. It is news to me that one escaped our holocaust.” She looked down then asked casually, “Did the monster use magic?”
Sabin shook his head.
“No,” Terra said. “Of course not. Are you sure it wasn’t just an animal?”
“I know a monster when I see one,” Sabin said indignantly.
“But without magic, how can it survive?”
“I could ask the same of you?” He regretted his words immediately.
They said no more. The fire dwindled and they lay still though peaceful sleep eluded them both.