Searching for Hope

Caezin continued to sit in an overly confident manner in the saddle of his midnight-colored chocobo, the smug expression on his face easily detected through the veil he wore. The other riders of the Cult continued their onslaught, burning houses and townspeople alike, and the screams and cries of dispair wafted over to Terra, who stood towards the front of the group indecisively.

"What, didn't you hear me?" Caezin said. "Do you need even MORE goading?"

"I heard you." Terra's voice was low, almost dangerous. It was a tone that she rarely used.

"Then be a good girl and come here. Don't make me burn anybody or anything else."

Terra frowned, and opened her mouth to speak, when a needlelike dirk sailed past her head and head-on towards Caezin. She heard Locke say "Go to hell!" as the dagger flew towards the green-robed man before them. The chocobo nimbly dodged to the side, and the dirk sailed past to embed itself in an completely innocent burning house. Caezin looked at the dagger, and then back at the thief.

"Stupid. Very stupid." the mage raised his hand and pointed at his assailant. "Shadow Flare."

Locke blinked, confused, and then clutched at his sides as the air around him grew white-hot. His muffled cry was heard as darkness formed around him, and then exploded. When the magic cleared, he lay on the ground next to the already-floored Celes, gritting his teeth in pain.

Sabin yelled, and shot an Aurabolt at Caezin. The Cult member swatted the mystic energy away as if it was a fly, sending it flying back towards Sabin. The prince ducked just in time, but Mog, who was standing behind him, was hit by the energy full-force in the face. With a squealing scream, the moogle flew back into the side of the Elder's house.

Interceptor snarled, lunging at Caezin, but was disposed just as easily with another "Shadow Flare" spell. Caezin cast Fire3 on the entire group, rendering Celes, Mog and Locke near-unconscious, and the rest of them fairly weak, save for Terra, who for some reason absorbed the spell. The half-breed looked around at her friends, shaking her head. She couldn't let them get hurt anymore. This was had to stop. It had to stop by any means possible.

"Stop it! Stop it right now!" She stepped forward. "They have nothing to do with this! My friends....the people of this town...make it stop! Don't hurt them!"

Caezin removed his veil and gave Terra an almost shrewd expression, as if he was haggling over some wares instead of people's lives. "In that case, will you come with me?"

Terra's head dropped, her shoulders slumping forward in defeat. "...yes."

Edgar pulled himself up to his feet. "Terra, no!"

She raised her head to face him, ignoring Edgar. "Anything to make you stop this. But...I have a condition...."

The mage's expression was smug. "I don't think you're on any terms to make demands, my dear,"

Her voice was low and menacing again. "I could tear you apart, Caezin....but I won't. I'll ask for something instead....I want you to leave my friends alone. Don't hurt them anymore....and don't hurt Thamasa anymore."

Caezin gave a shrill whistle, and the assault on the town stopped, the ranks of mounted Cult members forming up into neat lines behind their leader. "Done. Now..." He extended a hand towards her.

Edgar shook his head. "Terra....please don't do this....there has to be another way."

Terra took a tentative step towards Caezin, then turned to her friends. "Don't worry about me. It's the best I can do for you..." Her eyes softened as they fixed on the King of Figaro. "Take care of yourself, Edgar....and take care of my kids." She then turned to Caezin, who helped her sit in front of him on the saddle. She showed a momentary bit of disgust when Caezin wrapped his arms around her waist, but quickly pushed it back. Caezin shook the reins, and the Cult members took off to the sky, leaving the group standing there in disbelief.

Edgar hung his head in silence, but his brother shared his and everyone else's sentiments at the moment, and his reaction expressed it perfectly.

"...Goddamn them..." he said as he pounded a fist against the side of the Elder's house.

* * *

Terra watched as the ocean whizzed by below them, loathing herself more and more with each passing mile. There had to be another way....Edgar had said that. But she couldn't think of another way. She just wanted her friends...the people she loved, to be safe. The Esper inwardly cursed at herself for being so weak so..... human? Was that it? Was she truly human? She had finally started to feel human, to remember them. Slowly but surely, the memories prior to the Slave Crown incident returned to her, although they were fuzzy....a mixture of jumbled images and confusing words.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a hand that inched higher up her torso. She pushed it down. Caezin was getting more and more familiar with her on this trip wherever, and she was doing her best to not let him succeed. The very thought of the old mage's wrinkled hands on her made her sick, and the thought of him putting them in places he shouldn't made her furious. She swallowed down her fury, and continued to sit obediently in the saddle.

"So where are we going?" She managed to ask.

"You don't necessarily have the right to ask questions." Caezin's voice said near her ear.

"I went along as you asked, and I'm behaving. Can't I at least know where I'm headed?"

Caezin sighed. "Fine...if you're going to be that way about it. We're headed to the Cult's Tower."

"I should of figured that." Terra frowned, trying to think of a way out of the situation. She had threatened to tear Caezin apart, saying that she held more power than he did. The truth was, she was just bluffing to buy time, in hopes that somebody would of thought of something. Nobody did, so here she was, weak from fighting off a meteor spell earlier, on her way to...what? She saw what happened to the Espers...and her father. Was that going to happen to her? She didn't even know, or want to know.

The chocobo circled down towards the ominous-looking tower that stood out against the stark desert it stood upon. Wherever she was headed, and whatever was going to happen to her would be made clear to her soon enough.

* * *

"Stop babying me."

Celes checked Locke over again, casting perhaps more cure spells than were needed. "I just want to make sure you're okay..." She put a hand to his forehead.

"I'm fine." the thief snapped irritably. "Shouldn't you make sure the others are all right?"

The ex-general's blue eyes seemed to pale to a gray-blue. Locke knew that warning sign: she was either about to cry or about to kill something. "I'm only trying to help you..."

He sighed, sitting up to fold her in his arms. "I'm sorry if I'm a little punchy....I didn't mean to yell. It's just that the thing we didn't want to happen just happened, and I feel helpless."

Celes nodded wordlessly, obviously just as upset as he was. Across the room, there was another thud as Setzer punched the wall in frustration. The pale gambler seemed to be taking the abduction of Terra very personally, and now that he was healed, he had become almost violent.

Celes raised her face from Locke's chest and turned towards her tall, pale friend. "Setzer...please stop it."

Setzer slammed the wall with his fist again, making all the windows in the room vibrate. "I can't...I feel as Locke put it! Helpless!" He raised his fist for another blow, then dropped it, panting. "It just isn't fair....luck always used to smile upon me. Always. But in the last few years...." He dropped down into a chair, pushing his silver hair out of his face with his right hand. Celes could clearly see that the skin on his knuckles was torn from him punching the brick wall. "You guys don't know what this does to me." His voice took on a solemn tone, not unlike the one he used when speaking about Daryl.

Celes stood and went to kneel near him. "We all feel the same, Setzer...all of us. Terra's what brought us all together....Terra's a very dear friend to all of us. I understand."

Setzer brought his bleeding hand down on his thigh almost vehemently. "No! You don't understand! It's because..." He stopped, looking at Celes with his gray eyes. "'s because Terra's more than a friend to me." The gambler shook his head. "I tried to keep the whole thing not persue it. But I can't ignore it. I know how I feel about her, and I can't stop denying it....not ever, not at a time like this."

Locke gave a low whistle. "And I thought Edgar had it bad....why didn't you tell any of us?"

The gambler sighed. "I didn't want to be so damn obvious. Sure...everybody knew about Edgar, how damn smitten he was with her...but I didn't want to seem like a love-struck buffoon like him. So I kept silent, I kept it to myself. I didn't even tell Terra...although I really wish I did. For some reason, I think that if she knew that somebody really..." he nearly choked on the word. "..loved her, she would of stayed with us. She wouldn't of left."

The treasure hunter shook his head. "You've got it all wrong, Setz. Terra left because she knew that she was loved. And she loved us back...all of us. We're like family at this point....and that's how Terra sees us. We're the only warmth she's ever gotten, aside from those children in Moblitz. She left so the people she that we wouldn't get hurt."

"Don't blame yourself, Setzer." Celes said softly. "Nobody prompted her was Terra's to decide, and nobody could of wavered it."

"What about Edgar?" Setzer strained through gritted teeth. "I heard her...of all of us that were there, she turned to him and said 'take care of yourself, Edgar'. I heard her! You're saying that nobody could of changed her mind....what about good ol' Eddy? Huh? It's obvious who she holds in the highest regard...if anybody could of said anything or did anything....why the hell didn't he? Why did he just respond with a 'Terra, no'?!"

Locke stood up angrily and strode over to the gambler. "Don't you even blame Edgar...or anybody else. How do you think Edgar feels?" Setzer stared up at the sandy-haired man stupidly as the thief waggled an angry finger in his face. "He feels just the same as you! At least he said SOMETHING. He tried his best, just as we were all trying to get to our feet. And what about me? I tried too!" Locke grunted as Setzer turned away. "Look at me you asshole....this is NOT just about you and Terra, this is about ALL OF US. We all feel damn terrible, and we all want to do something! So suck it up and come back to reality!"

Setzer stood up angrily, towering over the thief, who was a good five inches shorter than he was. "You're not helping thief....why don't you just shut the hell up and get out of my face?"

It came without warning. At one moment, Locke's arms lay at his sides; the next, his right fist came up swiftly to clip Setzer harshly against his jaw. The gambler, who was not prepared for the blow, staggered back and fell into the chair behind him, just as Celes stood up, crying out Locke's name in shock. The treasure hunter glared down at Setzer, brown eyes burning, and opened his mouth as if to say something but was cut short by Celes.

"Knock it off! What's wrong with you, Locke?"

Locke continued to glare down at Setzer, who was massaging his jaw while locking the gaze of the man standing in front of him. The thief stood there for a few more uneasy seconds, and then strode out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Celes looked at Setzer. "Are you all right?"

He nodded. "He's damn strong for a little shit. I'll be fine...just surprised me, that's all."

She sighed. "I'm sorry about this.....I'd better go talk to him."

Setzer sat up, waggling his jaw like a cow chewing cud. "Yeah, you'd better...before he pops somebody else."

Celes rushed out of the room into the main room of the Elder's house, but didn't see Locke anywhere. Mog was seated near the doorway.

She looked at him. "Where...?"

"Outside." the moogle said before she could finish her sentence. "And did he look mad."

Celes brushed past Mog, and nearly walked past Locke, who sat against the side of the house, holding his head in his hands. He didn't move when she sat down next to him, but made a faint grunting sound. She slipped an arm around his shoulders. "Locke..."

"Look, you don't have to say anything. I know I was an ass, I know I shouldn't of hit him or blew up like that, it's just..." He raised his face, which held an expression of anger, frustration and sadness all rolled into one. "The whole situation upsets me....really upsets me." He closed his eyes and sighed. Absently Celes noted how long his eyelashes were....something that made him seem even more beautiful to her. "I've known Terra longer and better than anybody else. I was the one who came to her in those mines...I was the one who always supported her during the Kefka thing. And it wasn't because I was doing it for her sake....I was doing it, because I said I would." He opened his chocolate brown eyes partway, his gaze distant. "I promised her that I would always protect her. That I would never let anything happen to her."

"You said that to me too."

"I know. I said that to you because I love you, Celes. But I love Terra too....not the way Setzer or Edgar do, but more like she's family. Like she's a part of who I am. She filled that gap that I held inside me....made me feel like I had some hope in this world. Made me feel like I had something to actually live for, if ever slightly." He turned his head to face her. "Banon said that Terra was a ray of hope. He was right...she was; she was the hope in me."

Celes nodded, knowing that she should feel jealous, but for some reason she didn't. "It's okay."

"Is it?" He rested his head against the wall behind him and swallowed, his adam's apple bobbing. "I don't care if I sound selfish, or seem like an idiot. I miss her, and I want to do anything to get her back with us, where she belongs." Locke sighed, his voice taking on a mournful tone. "Is that so wrong?"

She shook her head. "No. No, it's not." There was nothing else to say, so she rested her head against his shoulder, and sat with him until his melancholy passed.

* * *

The tower was almost exactly as she had remembered it: tier upon tier upon tier of endless stairways, all spiraling up to the unknown. Doorways were on many of the floors; some did not have doors, some merely housed landings for the seemingly endless stairway. Terra panted as she was forced up the blue-black stairs, ignoring the fact that Caezin harshly held her wrist in a surprisingly strong grip. She had thought him a weak old man, but for some reason this ascent up the staircase seemed to barely phase him. It definitely phased her, though. Being half-Esper, she was blessed with a high stamina and strength, especially for a woman. However, that strength and stamina were sapping away with each step.

She stumbled, nearly pulling Caezin down with her. He harshly pulled her up with a disproving expression.

"Can I ask something?" she panted.

"I suppose." he conceded.

"If everybody was riding black chocobos that can fly, why didn't you just fly them to the top of the staircase? It would of saved time and effort." She didn't want to openly admit that she was exhausted, although that was probably already evident to the old mage.

Caezin continued without slowing. "The Master doesn't allow just anybody to go to his area, and that includes chocobos. He would probably flay me if I brought some smelly birds into his presence. So, we walk."

Terra sighed ruefully. "This isn't fair."

"In your case, nothing is fair. That was the general idea."

She ignored that. "I'm half-Esper, and probably one of the strongest women alive. Why is it that you, a man who has to be around seventy, can outwalk a twenty-year-old half-esper on a stairway?"

"My Master rewards me for his service. I asked for youth in return for my services, so he's going to give me it a little bit at a time. He's already given me the strength and stamina of a young man." He leered at her. "Probably even more than your little blond boy-toy."

The half-breed growled, an almost animalistic sound. "Don't you ever speak of my friends like that."

Caezin continued to drag her along, smiling in a naughty way. "Oh, you mean that king isn't your sexual slave? Too bad for you....he looks like he would of been willing to boff you any day."

Terra ignored her situation, and kicked him in the back of his knee with an angry shriek. He went down, pulling her down with him, causing both of them to fall back down several stairs onto the previous landing. Terra rolled a bit more, and nearly fell off the landing. She clutched at the railing and peered at the far dropoff below, the gray-stoned ground some forty stories down. The Esper backed up until she came to a wall, and sighed in relief.

Suddenly, the air around her became very hot, and a blinding white light surrounded her. Darkness seemed to draw to the hot air around her, like a magnet. Waves of pain ripped through her body as flashes of brilliant white and pitch black marred her vision. There was a loud popping sound, and she fell to the ground, writhing her legs in pain as she clutched at her sides. The remaining traces of the Shadow Flare spell dissipated, and she heard Caezin step up to her.

"Don't try that again, bitch." he said almost shrilly. "I don't think you can stand another one."

Terra gritted her teeth, and slowly stood up. She absolutely hated this man, and everything he stood for...and she made no effort to conceal that fact from her face.

Caezin just looked at her. "You can hate me all you want, bitch, but you can't do much. I know how weak you are at this point, so I doubt you can do much, other than kick me again. If you come along and behave, you'll be treated better. If you don't behave...well, this will be absolute hell for you, my dear."

She stared at him with her grass-green eyes, and narrowed them to angry slits. "I don't care how long it takes me, or how I do it....but I just want you to know that someday, I'll make sure you get the rewards for a fool with no morals." She then brushed past him, and obediently started climbing the staircase again.

* * *

Edgar shook his head as somebody knocked at the door again. He didn't want to be bothered at all tonight, not after Terra was taken away. It was his fault. He could of done something, he could of spared her somehow. But he didn't. Only desperate words came to him, words from a panicky idiot that didn't know what to do in a critical situation. He was a king, he was supposed to be able to handle critical situations! And yet, his mind and all his years of experience failed him when the person that changed his life was taken away.

The nagging knocking continued, and Edgar rubbed at his face. "'re bloody persistent. Is it that important? I said I didn't want to see anybody."

Somebody jiggled the door handle, and a snuffling sound was heard near the foot of the door. A muffled "Interceptor, sit" was heard. The voice was familiar.

Edgar sighed, rose, and unlatched the door to let Relm in. "Of all people, I didn't expect to see you come over to me."

Relm looked at Edgar's ravaged face critically. "Were you crying?"

"No, and that's none of your business. Did you want something?"

"Yes, just to talk to you." She sat down in a chair near the oak table at the far end of the room. Everybody knew that Edgar had locked himself in his room at the Inn, but nobody could manage to get to him. Relm figured that maybe if Edgar talked to a kid instead of an adult, he might listen to reason.

Edgar sat on the edge of the bed wearily. "Fine. Talk away."

The young artist took her hat off, and let her hair down. "I think you're being childish."

"That's pretty good, coming from a child."

"If that's what you think, doesn't that mean anything to you? A kid telling you that you're acting immature?"

"Immature?" With his Figaronian accent, he pronounced the word "imma-tour".

"Yeah. The rest of us have been thinking of something to do all night....planning ever since we recovered from the Cult's attack, and all YOU did was sit in here and pout for..." She glanced at the clock on the wall, which indicated that it was now quarter after eleven. "...almost four hours now?"

"I am not pouting." he said stubbornly as he stood up again.

She stood up. "Oh, were simpering. My mistake."

Edgar's blue eyes flashed like ice. "I think you should leave, Relm."

"No, I don't think I should. I think I should try to explain what us intelligent people are doing, in hopes that we can save our friend that we ALL love and that we ALL miss." She crossed the room to him. "You're not the only one who's hit hard by this, so don't act like you are!"

Edgar looked down at the girl, not knowing what to say. He slowly sank back down to sit on the bed, and rubbed at his face, groaning. "I'm're right. I'm being an ass right now, but I don't know what else to do. I feel like this whole thing wouldn't of happened if I had only thought of something." He sat there silently, his hands concealing his face from his guest.

When Relm spoke again, her tone was soft. "It wasn't your fault, Edgar. I feel bad too, you know....I feel like it was my fault, that maybe I could of controlled Caezin's mind, or maybe magically sketched that chocobo platoon....but I didn't. I just sat there like the rest of us, because things were happening so fast. I know how you feel helpless, but you're not." She sat down next to him, and pulled his hands away from his face to look him in the eye. "We all have to work together on this, all right? We can get her back...we've done it before."

Edgar nodded slowly. For some reason the girl's stare broke through the layer of stubborn self-loathing he had sheathed himself in, and made his thoughts clear again. "All right, Relm. I think I'm ready to help, now that I'm done.....simpering, was it?" He managed a small smile.

"Good, keep smiling....maybe you'll cheer up a little bit."

He leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Thank you for helping a hard-headed monarch see the light, my lady."

Relm giggled. "No problem. Can I tell all my friends that a handsome king kissed me?"

His small smile broadened into a grin. "Only if you tell me that we have a plan."

She stood, and gracefully curtsied to him. "Your Majesty, we do in fact, have a plan." The telepath smiled, dimples popping up on her cheeks. "And I play a big role in it too."

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