I. 27 Years Old
Dusk fell over the grey-pebbled rooftops of what had once been Maranda. The shadows were more numerous now, blotting the dusty corners of the landscape with a confident shade of violet. He moved his feet in a steady rhythm, the heels of his boots click-clicking against the cobblestones. The tavern was not very far.
That was when the shrill and almost welcome cry of a woman in peril came echoing through the distance. He stopped for a moment, awash in the familiar colors of his self-righteousness, before rushing head-over-feet towards the sound. There were four of them: three unfocused grey blobs of men and one small white woman. Her profession was clear from the low-cut neckline of her dress, its many folds doing much to accentuate and little to obscure. Twine ran awkwardly between her fingers, her hands bent backwards round each other.
Locke sometimes thought the world was darker without the light of judgment.
Fist met jaw abruptly, before Locke even had time to greet the lady who was not a lady. Keeping his gaze steady, he took the blow with a small step back, lips parting slightly, left hand rising to wipe the new-spilt blood off his cheek. There was nothing heroic about his dark and fingerless gloves, but the red could not stain the black. He wore mostly dark colors now; he bled more than most. Eyes darted in appraisal, running up and down the black and gold stripes of Locke's shirt.
As if in response, Locke bowed. It was ridiculous, keeling before this already bent whore with a deeper grace than he had ever showed the court of Figaro. The flourish was deliberately exaggerated, his slow smile aware of the irony, but Locke meant every bit of it. Her eyes went wide with the unexpected depth of his gesture. She tried to stand a little straighter, though her legs could not support her weight. Chivalry could do that to a person.
Suddenly, things began to move. The three men fumbled forward, the smell of gin on their breath and daggers winking silver in their hands. Locke managed not to wobble as he righted himself, knees slightly bent, his feet positioned just so far apart. Strange, that his instinct was to reach for the part of him that once could call down the stars, though magic was dead and buried and he had helped dig the grave himself. No matter-- he had never been much good at it anyway. As he ran his tongue over the still-bleeding wound in his cheek, Locke remembered that he had other weapons. With deliberate relish, he reached for the red-gold hilt at his side.
II. 6 Years Old The thin sheets and woolen blanket were not enough to keep out the midwinter chill, and he clutched the covers to his knees to keep from shivering. The old woman was hobbled over her grandson's bed, her crippled form swathed in loose drapes of cheap fabric. A single candle burned on the nightstand in the corner, its small light almost dwarfed by the all-consuming shadows. But for the two of them, it was enough.
"All right. One more. Then it's time for little boys and grandmothers to go to bed."
The boy giggled. "That's what you said last time."
"Is it?" He nodded vigorously. "Well, I don't remember! I must be getting old." She smiled. "Well, once upon a time, there was a young man who lived on a farm."
He groaned. "Not another farmboy story."
"I thought you liked farmboy stories."
"I do. It's just, if it's the last one, it should be really, really good."
"Really, really good, eh? What would you like to hear about?"
"That's easy." Even in the near dark she could see Locke was smiling, the pink of his lips curved like the edge of a knife. "Tell me about a knight."
III. 21 Years Old
The windows of the pub were painted over, but there were still small specks of light coming in through the cracks. Two old friends were sitting at a table across from each other, their naked hands resting on unpolished wood.
He leaned in over his cup of ale, sandy hair hanging in greasy strings over his river-blue bandana. Locke spoke slowly, his voice hoarse with thirst and regret.
"You haven't heard?" There was a note of worry in the man's voice.
Locke shook his head. "Not since last winter."
"Oh." His companion looked deep into his wine, his left hand idly tracing circles on the tabletop. "Well, the Gestahlians invaded Kohlingen a few weeks back."
A moment passed.
"And?" His friend was still staring at his drink, as if the multi-faceted reds were something more than cheap claret. "James, just finish the story."
So he did.
Locke stood up and started walking, clutching his side as if he'd been stabbed.
"Wait! Where are you going?" He grabbed his friend by the arm, and pulled him round so that he could finally look him in the face.
"Kohlingen! Where else?" The syllables were erratically punctuated, his tone switching rapidly from high to low. "I have to find a way to bring her back."
"Locke. She's gone." His expression was solemn. "Gone in the sense that she's never coming back."
"I know. I know. But I have to try."
The other patrons shuffled their chairs pointedly, but the two men did not notice. They were too busy paying attention to something that was no longer there.
"Dammit, James. The last thing she said was my name."
IV. 25 Years Old
The day was so clear and so blue that it was easy to forget the world was dying. In the shade of an old imperial monument, two men were talking. One was clearly a merchant, the richness of his clothes desperately trying to proclaim something that no longer mattered. The other was so deep in shade that it was impossible to make out anything but his shoes, which were awfully dusty.
"Yeah," the merchant was saying, the weight of his navy blue turban obscuring his eyes, "they broke into the Imperial library a few weeks ago. Turns out Gestahl had been doing all sorts of research on the War of the Magi." He laughed. "It's funny, but the man had quite a bit of respect for faerie tales."
"And you can get me in?"
"Course I can. I dunno much about magic, but without you I wouldn't have my sister." His expression took a turn for the serious. "I'd do just about anything for you, after that." He paused. "What are you looking for, anyway?"
"Oh, you know," the dusty-booted man replied, his eyes fixed firmly on nothing-in-particular. "The same thing everyone else is."
The two men shared an awkward chuckle, but neither said anything after that.
V. 26 Years Old
The cave was carpeted with liquid fire-- Goddess, but it was hot. His body was covered with multicolored bruises, his hands laced with blisters. There were a few potions left in his bag, next to the stale brown bread and pieces of dried meat, but he had convinced himself that he didn't need them. After all, the cuts under his eyes only made his vision sharper.
If Locke was going to make it to the chest, he needed to try something soon. The knots he had used to hold the switch down would only hold for so long, and he could only make the swing when the fire ebbed low. He had already made the necessary calculations. The angles for this sort of jump were perfect, the taut rope fastened securely to a jutting outcrop overhead. The only problem was that the rope might give way in the heat. He did not think of that as his feet left the ground.
What would he do, if she returned to him? The red thread of her absence was all that held him together.
It wasn't in the chest, whatever he was looking for. What he found instead was a dagger, elegantly carved and gracefully pointed. In the white-silver of the blade he could see his features reflected; it caught the week-old grime and the dry crumbling blood with the same conviction as the searing hazel of his eyes.
VI. 26 Years Old
Of course, Celes already knew the answer. He was here with her and not down in that strange smelling basement surrounded by things that should have died long ago. But the queer orange stone of his was no longer cracked, so something must have happened.
"How did it go? Is she--"
"She came back. But only for a little while."
"Oh." She never did figure out how to tell him she was sorry.
"Nah. It's alright." She must have looked skeptical, because he felt the need to repeat himself. "From here on in, I'll be alright." He handed her the stone, which was squirming with magic. Still alive. How was he smiling? The world was dead, his love was gone, and he kept putting one foot in front of the other like it was nothing.
Locke was shaking his head. "That woman. You take so much, and all she wants to do is give it back."
Celes was sure he would have elaborated if asked, but she did not. Instead she followed him out through the dead yellow fields, fingers brushing the dirty blue bandana she still kept in the folds of her cloak. After a few minutes, he turned round and showed her all the treasures of the Phoenix Cave. A few potions, a tuft of phoenix down, a flashy looking shield, and a beautiful dagger with a red-gold hilt.
"What's this?" she said, picking up the dirk and examining the carvings on the blade.
"That?" He did not look at her as he spoke. "I call that the Valiant Knife. The more you bleed, the sharper it gets."
A few nights later, curled in her tiny flat bed and cocooned in the hum of the airship engines, she realized he was not just talking about the dagger.
VII. 27 Years Old
The chill of the metal warmed, the blade perfectly weighted in his hands. Deftly, he dodged the next blow, his cheek still bleeding from the inside and the iron taste of blood still reddening his mouth. With a shudder, he realized that it felt like home.