Olde Acquaintance In Albrook
Sabin tossed and turned uncomfortably.
Chills played across his body like mice in the walls. He sought sleep
so eagerly that he was surprised to wake and realize that he had
He remained motionless with eyes closed, savoring the sensation of heaviness in his body. His stomach no longer churned. He heard Terra speak to herself nearby. Whether she was awake or asleep, he did not know.
“Where are you from? Tell me, magic monster. Where?” she murmured.
She began to hum or perhaps mumble. It sounded like a spell. Sabin cracked his eyes open. He faced east. The sun should have blinded him, but instead he saw only shadowed bricks and gravel, and in the distance, a forest of hoodoos, pillars supporting nothing. He shivered. Terra’s mumble definitively became a poem, repeating the same lyrics over and over. The words changed in Sabin’s ears as he listened.
“To which to walk to wear
Despair despair despair
To witch to walk to where?
Despair despair despair…”
Sabin had never heard it before but the tune bore the mark of Kefka so thickly he had no doubt that the madman had been its origin… or so he told himself so that he did not have to consider the alternative: that Terra had invented it herself.
He shifted to roll over, trying to make it look natural as if he was still asleep. The tune ceased immediately. Sabin yawned and squinted.
“Were you saying something?” he asked.
“Nothing. Just a silly song.” She fiddled with her sleeve where the old cloth was brown with blood stains. She was sitting upright, her legs tucked under her. “I’m ready to head to Albrook as soon as you are,” she said.
Sabin sat up, massaged his skull. It didn’t like being lifted off the ground. “What?”
“I said I’m ready to go to Albrook.”
Sabin considered cracking a joke about Terra reading his lines, but it was too early. He played the skeptic instead. “Even assuming we can sneak into Albrook and steal a boat, where do we go from there?”
She shrugged nonchalantly, plucking a rock off the ground and tapping it against other nearby rocks, “I don’t know. We can hug the coast, follow it along.”
There were two ways to follow the coast from Albrook: west, back to Tzen, or east, to Mobliz.
Mobliz, he thought. Maybe Terra had not known about the monster, but now she sought it as a link back to the magic she had lost, the same way she had sought the Sealed Gate in the ruins. Sabin rubbed his temples. His mood was not conducive to theorizing or the type of verbal sparring that would be needed to get the truth from Terra, but he longed to quit this land.
“Fine. Let’s go.”
They gathered together their meager supplies and departed. As they distanced themselves from the shadowed wastes, the low morning sun swam hazily into view.
“There is no way to hide your muscle,” Terra said, her chocobo trotting along, “but as for me, they will expect a green haired woman.” She winked at Sabin, who found her scheming unnerving.
“I understand,” he replied, and he did understand now that the sun warmed his body and his head had cleared: Terra had renewed her quest for magic. She trotted her bird ahead of his, sitting easily in the saddle, her head held high with newfound energy. Sabin stared at her, but divined nothing more by studying her back.
Before Kefka’s death even Sabin himself had been a powerful magi. Sabin and his friends had been enriched by an accumulation of magicite greater than any the world had seen in a thousand years. Power had throbbed within his veins. He shuddered at the thought. Magic had put the world in its current state: not a single upright tree as far as the eye could see, just an expanse of scruffy brush and dirt undulating with the ridges of the spiral centered on Kefka’s now-ruined tower.
Wark! His chocobo squawked. It cocked its head to eye its rider.
Unconsciously Sabin had been pulling on the reins. He released them and patted the chocobo’s feathers.
He sighed. I’m worrying needlessly. Magic is gone. I have nothing to fear. Best to work with Terra and deal with the question of Mobliz later.
He called out to Terra. “I know someone who might be expected in Albrook.”
Sabin restrained his chocobo to a leisurely pace. They had enough food for a few days and he needed the time to recover. Terra, impatiently trotting her mount ahead, kept doubling back so as not to lose him.
In less than a week they set up camp a few miles outside of Albrook, beyond the sight of any watchtowers. Terra changed into new clothes she had stolen from Mace, then Sabin took the cleanest, sharpest blade they had (also stolen) and carefully used it to shave her head. Terra shifted the pale green strands, the color of a shallow sea, between her fingers.
Sabin told her, “Your name is Corinth. You have a friend named Gerdau. Both of you are game hunters.”
“That’s all I know,” Sabin said.
“Well at least it will be easy to remember.”
“I can’t do much more without a better blade or risk cutting your head off.”
Terra reached up to feel her scalp. Short green stubble, looking more than a bit like moss, remained. “It will be fine,” she said. She stood and walked over to her chocobo. Then she bent down and rubbed her head in its feathers. The bird looked at her as if she were crazy. Sabin sympathized with it, but the soot that rubbed off from the chocobo darkened the stubble on Terra’s head.
She presented her pate for inspection. “Better?”
“Actually it is.”
Sabin stepped back to get the full picture. With a shaved head, doeskin leggings, and a loose leather jerkin over a cotton shirt she was nearly unrecognizable. Her face still looked girlish, but now that he looked closely he saw signs of wear on her features that he had not noticed before: darker skin under her eyes and her cheeks, though smooth, no longer resembled porcelain.
“We’ll have to tie down the slack in these clothes. They are too big for you,” he said.
“You didn’t bring your sewing supplies? I’m disappointed.”
Sabin put on a smile at the jibe, but his mind had already moved on to new worries. “Listen, I’ll get as close to town as possible tomorrow. Try to signal me if you run into any trouble.”
“I know the plan.”
“I’ll swim in to the harbor after dark. We’ll meet up there.”
“I said, I know,” she snapped.
Sabin shut his mouth and kept it closed. She had best control her tongue tomorrow. He had no desire to rescue her again.
Brush and tumbleweed clung to the dark dry soil that rolled along in little waves towards the horizon like a paralyzed ocean. Dust devils kicked up loose dirt. Terra felt the grit on her teeth, spat once, and started breathing through her nose. The sky suggested rain, but not yet, maybe not for a long time.
She could bring rain if she had her magic back, but she would not. She’d withhold it from this land that had given her nothing but pain.
Terra’s thoughts flew far ahead of her and the chocobo beneath her. There was a monster in Mobliz. Sabin would never tell a serious lie. He could prank and jest, but his face would not hold back a lie with gravity. Therefore, a real monster walked the land in Mobliz. And monsters could not exist without magic. Therefore Terra must get to Mobliz.
The chocobo she rode veered east. She pulled the reins to correct it and the bird warked angrily. She rode Sabin’s chocobo, since the soot on her own bird would be a dead giveaway. She got the sense that his chocobo didn’t like her, but carried her merely out of a sense of professionalism. Fine, she thought, she didn’t like it either. She much preferred her own bird. It had been a wild chocobo, or, more likely, a stray like herself.
A squat palisade, poked into view as Terra crested a hill. Albrook, she thought, and from there to Mobliz, and from Mobliz to magic. She pushed away thoughts of her chocobo. What was one more lost friend? It was just an animal anyway. That was the only reason it had remained loyal to her.
Albrook sank into the terrain as Terra descended a slope. Now she guided the bird over the crests of the highest rises so she would not surprise the guards of Albrook. When she drew near, a guard called out, “Ho there!”
The guard, shaded by a wide brimmed hat, leaned out over the wall with a crossbow in hand. Terra pulled the reigns to bring the chocobo to a halt.
“Ho!” She responded in the deepest tone she could project. “I am Corinth from Tzen. I’m hunting fugitives, a witch and accomplice. I seek supplies to continue my pursuit.”
“We didn’t expect anyone from Tzen so soon. Alright, come in, but slowly. The captain of the guard would like to take a look at ya.”
Terra dismounted and led the chocobo up between the doors of the open gate. Inside, two archers and a swordsman stood by, their weapons ready.
“That’ll do,” said the swordsman. “Stay right there.”
A broad shouldered man popped out of a two-story brick building with a sword and shield emblem above the door. He scurried hastily down the cobbled street towards Terra and the guards. He wore a dusty tabard with a captain’s sigil thrown on over rusted armor. A shock of necklaces bounced around his neck, clinking on his armor. As the captain ran he fumbled to take ring after ring from a pouch at his hip and slip them on to his fingers until Terra hardly believed he could flex his fingers at all. All these accoutrements, Terra knew, were magic charms long since rendered impotent.
Terra kept her face stony, secretly delighted by the fear she, the witch of the badlands, induced.
Red faced and breathless, the Captain came to a halt in front of Terra. He peered at her nervously before asking, “Corinth?”
“Where’s your partner?”
“Gerdau? He’s in Tzen. We only had
“Indeed, about that…”
“It escaped from its pen. We didn’t find it until after we sent the pigeon to you. Lucky fella, to escape the nasty witch.” Terra reached up and scratched the bird behind the neck, quite enjoying this theater.
“Right,” the captain muttered, nodding his head and seeming to cross an item off a mental checklist. He walked a wide circle around Terra, inspecting her from every angle. Her palm suddenly itched for Ragnarok. She had left it behind with Sabin in case the message from Tzen had specified that the witch carried two swords. Atma weapon remained strapped across her back, but it would be hard to reach quickly.
The captain completed his circle and arrived back in front of her. “What more can you tell us about the fugitives?”
Terra shrugged, “You got the carrier pigeon message? Not much more we know. The witch has got green hair, carries two old swords, and rides a dirty chocobo. She’s been seen in the shadow of the tower often. The man is large, muscular, blonde hair with rat-tails. His name is Sabin, though he won’t use that name obviously. He used to be a hero to the people of Tzen.”
“Huh. Well, I didn’t know that last bit, but it hardly helps us find him. I doubt those two will come near here.”
“Well, if they can’t find food in the wastes they may get desperate. I hunted game in this area before I hunted these two, and I honestly can’t say which will be the harder task.” Terra suppressed a smile at her clever improvisation.
“True, true. Thank you for your time. I won’t postpone you any longer. Albrook is always eager to assist our neighbor to the north.” The captain bowed slightly then hurried off. Apparently the fugitives were not the only urgent matter in Albrook.
Albrook hadn’t changed much since she had last passed through. It was a port town to the core, stretching along the coast without penetrating far inland, as if no one in the town accepted anything but riverfront property.
Terra strode down the main walkway. Waves crashed and churned at the base of the three story cliff to her right. Nervous of the cliff, she walked close to the buildings though she disliked the way they stacked on top of one another and seemed to lean out towards the sea as if drawn by its magnetism.
She decided that Corinth too would not like the cliff. What else? Corinth would want to refresh himself, she thought. She headed for the tavern figuring that this would also be as good a place as any to inquire regarding a ship.
The tavern was not as she remembered. Ill-maintained, it had become dank and dim. The air inside concentrated the stinging smell of sea salt. A lanky bartender with a beak nose wiped the counter with a rotten rag saturated with beer and worse.
“Something to refresh a traveler,” Terra said, stepping up to the bar.
The bartender met her eyes and held her gaze for a moment longer than she was comfortable with before turning silently to fix her a drink. She looked around the bar for possible threats. The dark corners hid much, but she heard two distinct groups, both men speaking softly among themselves, both well-armed. Terra listened more closely, but they hid their conversations well. She heard only the sound of rats running across the rafters and weapons clinking in the shadows.
A loud thump startled her as the bartender slammed a mug down on the counter. Somehow he had moved silently even as she listened to all the other sounds in the bar.
“Thanks,” she grunted. “You’re busy. Who’s this crowd?”
The bartender worked at a bit of food in his teeth as if he hadn’t heard the question then said offhand, “Soldiers and mercenaries.”
A wave of fear swept through her. She looked down at her drink, tried to act casual. “Oh? They here for the fugitives?”
Terra breathed a sigh of relief and wondered about the bartender. For a bartender, the man was rather naïve. Terra took the opportunity to swell her legend. “The badlands witch was captured in Tzen, but she used her magic to escape, killed nearly all the chocobos in Tzen on her way out. She travels with a big guy named Sabin. They are very dangerous.”
The bartender picked at his teeth again. Apparently he hadn’t dislodged the food on the first try. “Huh,” he said, “never heard of a witch in the badlands. Should I be worried or does she just kill birds?”
Terra seethed. “She has green hair and rides a black chocobo. She is a killing machine and she communes with Kefka’s ghost. I’m a great game hunter, but she has evaded me.”
“Have you met Gerdau and Corinth?” the bartender asked, suddenly interested. “They hunt in this area.”
Terra delayed by raising her glass. She had said too much. The beer burned her throat. “Never heard of them.” She changed the subject, “you never said what the soldiers and sell-swords are doing here.”
“You don’t know about the soldiers? They must have arrived in Tzen by now. They’re imperial soldiers.”
Terra’s stomach clenched and she did not think it was due to the beer. She had not thought about the empire in a long time. The emperor had killed her mother with his bare hands and placed the slave crown on her head to use Terra on the battlefield, but he was long dead and the empire’s evils had paled in comparison to Kefka. In less than a year the empire had gone from the cusp of world domination to the imperial capital being razed to the ground and the emperor suing for peace. Terra had been responsible for much of that reversal, but she realized that this would be a bad time to boast more to the bartender.
An image flashed to mind, an image of the mob in Tzen. There had been soldiers in the mob wearing black and red, imperial colors.
“Oh, imperial soldiers,” she said casually. “You should have said so in the first place. I thought you meant these were some other soldiers. Of course the imperials are in Tzen, not that it did us any good against the witch.”
He smiled knowingly at her. She didn’t like that at all.
“And the mercenaries?”
“The mercs are just passing through. They say they’re monster killers.”
She coughed loudly at the mention of monsters, cleared her throat, and “ahem”ed deeply. Chairs shifted as patrons turned to look towards her, but she was too preoccupied to notice. Sabin wasn’t the only one that believed monsters had returned. That must mean that magic has returned. It should be impossible, but then again, monsters and imperial soldiers should be impossible too. It was as if the world was reverting back to the way it had been before the cataclysm. Except this time the witch was no naïve young slave.
The bartender flashed a knowing grin again. This brought Terra out of her reverie.
“I know something about you,” he said.
“I don’t see how you could,” she replied, judging how fast she could draw her sword across his neck and be out the door.
“It’s written all over your face. You’re something special, but not one to envy. You’re not actually impressed by this witch and you’ve seen real monsters before, things people weren’t meant to see, not like most of this crowd. They say they’re monster killers. They’ve known hardship to be sure, but the most killing they’ve done is probably a few slit throats in a back alley for some quick coin, with one exception.” He held up a finger for emphasis. “You should meet him.” Then the bartender called out into the dark. “Hey, old knight. Come over here for a minute.”
Terra stared straight ahead, willing the old knight to not be who she thought it was.
One of the mercenaries said, “Mr. Thou, they’re talkin’ to ya.”
She suppressed a groaned. It was him. Ever the honorable knight, he wouldn’t lie for her. Her cover was blown. The return of magic meant nothing if she was lynched by ignorant sell-swords.
A chair scraped across the floor and a body in armor and heavy boots stepped across strained floorboards. The body sank onto the stool next to Terra with as much relief as a body carrying the woe of a lifetime can feel.
“Everyone calls this one Mr. Thou,” said the bartender. “Mr. Thou, meet… What’s your name?”
“Terr…an,” Terra croaked. She forced her head to turn ever so slightly, forced herself to look into Cyan’s eyes. Could he read her eyes? Could he tell that she needed him to forget his damnable honor for one moment?
In the gloom his eyes were dark slits hidden beneath bushy eye brows and crinkled skin. “Terran,” Cyan said, “a long time hath passed”.
“So you two know each other?” asked the bartender.
“Correct,” said Cyan, “We art olde comrades from the war.”
“I knew it,” said the bartender, his powers of divination confirmed, “Though I wouldn’t have guessed Terran here was old enough to have fought…” he lowered his voice so the imperial soldiers couldn’t hear, “…in the rebellion.”
Cyan turned his gaze directly on Terra. “No, thou wouldst not assume so, but Terran is full of surprises. Let us step outside, olde friend. We should share stories in private.”
Terra’s voice caught in her throat. She nodded.
They stepped out into an overcast sky, yet it was bright compared with the inside of the tavern. Terra shielded her eyes as she looked up at Cyan.
He still wore his old armor, the navy blue breast plate of Doma. His long sword hung at his side. He kept it sharp and clean, quite unlike her own blades. Steely gray hair now tinged his eyebrows and mustache and ran through his pony tail. He stood tall with impeccable posture though his movements were no longer as steady as Terra had remembered.
He stared straight ahead and said simply, “Let us converse, if it pleases thee. I shall not reveal thine identity.”
Terra dipped her head in acknowledgement. “Thank you for that. I was afraid your honor would demand that you reveal me.”
Cyan smiled a fatherly smile. Despite the words he spoke next, Terra was filled with a sudden violent hatred. Sabin had also looked on her that way, as if she were still a child, the naïve amnesiac in need of protecting. If she still had her magic he would not look on her that way.
“What little honor I have hath long been trumped by loyalty to my truest friends.”
Terra faked a smile and blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “So, why are you in Albrook?”
Cyan sighed like the heaving of an old volcano. He gestured, suggesting they walk, so they did. Then he began his story:
“After Kefka, I returned to the town of Miranda to start life anew with Lola, the soldier’s widow with whom I had corresponded after the cataclysm. Alas, thou slaughtered the demon Wrexsoul that sought sustenance from the guilt and anguish in my soul, but my memories remained. Lola wished to marry, but I felt this would dishonor the memory of my deceased wife. She did not understand my objection. Our brief happiness disintegrated.”
Terra nodded and furrowed her brow all while thinking how much a fool Cyan was, how much a fool he had always been. His pain was nothing compared to hers and worse, it was self inflicted. Wrexsoul had been an idiot to choose him as a host when she was equally available.
“Other events motivated me to leave the Eastern Continent. Now I travel with a band of mercenaries bound for the Magic Isle. We seek to rescue the inhabitants of Thamasa.”
An electric tingle bounced from one end of Terra to the other and back again. What threatened Thamasa? Monsters? Monsters in Mobliz and the Magic Isle? Had she been wasting her time in the ruins while every where else magic flowed back into the world?
Cyan paused. Terra’s face betrayed her thoughts. “Thou pine for what hast gone.”
She glared at him, angry for having been seen through, eager to drop her subterfuge. “They say that monsters have returned to the Magic Isle, don’t they?” she asked accusatorily as if Cyan had tried to mislead her.
He answered evenly. “Thamasa’s survivors have holed up in the caves at the center of the island. They dispatched a plea by carrier pigeon. They claim that olde horrors stalk the land once more.”
Terra’s sight drifted into the distance as if she stared through the fabric of reality and saw the monsters immediately before her. “These creatures should have died when magic left the world. The Magic Isle should be an ironic name, but it isn’t anymore, is it?”
Cyan sighed. “I am a simple man. I know not of these things, but I do know of loss. Canst thou not let go?”
“Hmm. Neither can I.” Cyan looked up, his face crumpled with inner conflict.
Terra followed his gaze up to the sword and shield emblem on the brick building in front of which they stood. Terra hadn’t noticed that they had walked in front of the guard house, but she noted now how Cyan’s hand rested on the hilt of his sword. He spoke slowly and carefully. “Memories of my failure to protect my loved ones harm me alone, but what thou seekest is better left un-sought.”
Both of Terra’s palms itched for weapons, but she knew with certainty that any youthful advantage in speed she had over Cyan was more than matched by his experience with a blade.
“You’re going to turn me in? What happened to loyalty to your friends?” she hissed, fearful that an eavesdropper would overhear.
“I have considered resting this fine blade in my heart.” Cyan patted the blue steel of his hilt. “I am deeply ashamed even of the thought, and though I have no love in this world, I cannot sustain another failure to protect those who remain. Swear to me, Terra, that this path thou take leads not to death.”
Without thinking, without hesitation, Terra looked into Cyan’s eyes and lied, “I swear it.”