Chapter 1

Do you figure he’s dead? He looks in pretty bad shape.”

“If he’s dead, he hasn’t been for long. His body’s still warm. Check his pulse, will you?”

“How in hell am I supposed to know how to check a pulse? I’m a mercenary, not a doctor.”

A sigh. Then, “Pay attention this time. It could come in handy.”

Locke blinked when a hand closed around his wrist.

“He moved, you know,” a third voice said from behind him.

Locke pulled back his arm and forced his eyes open all the way. Two men were squatting beside him. Their clothes were of a strange cut, but they looked like normal guys to him. Not that that was much comfort. Half the normal guys Locke’d known would just as soon have slit his throat as helped him to his feet.

“Well I’ll be,” the bigger of the two men said. He was at least a head taller than Locke, and a lot more than a head broader - most of it muscle, too. He looked like a real bear, especially crouched over, his shaggy black hair tumbling down onto his face.

The other one was a lot thinner, but not so much shorter as to make a difference. His brown hair was - mostly - kept back by a blue headband. He wasn’t making much effort to keep his gloved hand off the sword he wore at his waist.

“Where am I?” Locke croaked. He might not have been dead, but from the feeling in his throat when he tried to talk, he wasn‘t too far from it - and would have felt better if he‘d been even closer.

“About four hours out north of Greenhill,” the thin guy said.

Which helped about not at all. Locke tried to remember how he’d gotten here. The last thing that had happened...

The rift.

Memories flooded back to him, fast enough to take his mind off keeping his body sitting halfway up.

He’d tried - and failed - to stop Celes from going through the rift. Then her, and that bastard Ghaleon, too, had gone through it. He’d followed.

Had they sealed it up? He figured they must have, and probably not too long after he’d gotten through, either. Celes had been real sure that they could, and he didn’t have any reason to doubt that she was right.

But how had he managed to make it through that rift alive? He was no mage, that was for sure. Best guess was, he hadn’t had to be.

The last thing he remembered was everything being dark, and someone telling him to close his eyes, to sleep, and his Phoenix magicite glowing just like it had in the days before they’d destroyed Kefka, and then... nothing.

Where was Celes? Surely she couldn’t have gone too far, not in... how long?

“Hey, are you okay there, friend?”

Locke’s eyes opened. He hadn’t really realized that they’d closed again. “I... yeah.”

The bigger of the two men shook his head. “I wouldn’t go half that far, not and call myself honest.”

Locke looked down at himself. He could see what the guy meant. His clothes had seen better days before he‘d gone into the rift. Now, they were pretty much rags, and dusty ones at that. He wondered if that was from the rift, or from whatever tumble he’d taken afterwards. Hell, half the damage was probably from his scrape with Ghaleon.

And he wasn’t looking a lot better than his clothes, either. There wasn‘t an inch of him that hadn‘t picked up a cut or bruise.

His body didn’t want to do what he told it to, but he forced his hand up to his mouth. It came back with more than a little blood.

He felt like he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for days, and as dry and scratchy as he throat was, maybe he hadn’t.

“You’re a lucky guy, whatever happened to you,” the thin guy said. “A few months from now, and you’d have been monster fodder within an hour. As it is, most of the big ones are sleeping.”

Locke nodded slowly. None of this made much sense to him, but he knew about monsters, that was for sure. “Water?” he croaked.

The thin guy reached down and pulled a flask from under his long blue cloak. “We aren’t far enough from home to be packing water. We‘ve got some good ale here, but-”

Locke grabbed the flask and gulped down as much as he could.

“-it kinda burns when you haven’t had anything to drink for a while,” the thin guy finished. From his expression, not quite a wince and not quite a shrug, he must have said that more than once to someone else.

Locke didn’t much care about whoever the someone else was, because it more than ‘kinda’ burned. He switched from gulping burning ale to gulping cool air, not that it helped much. “Good,” he said when he’d caught his breath. It was good ale, even if it hurt like hell going down. Experimentally, he took another swig. He didn’t regret that one. Not as much, anyway.

In fact, now that he’d gotten his wits together, Locke was starting to realize just how much he’d like more ale than was in the flask. He hurt like hell and then some. When the pain in his throat quieted down, every other part of his body started trying to outshout the others about just how bad it felt.

Locke looked at his two benefactors. He could only figure that was what they were, too, since they could have killed him or robbed him without wasting their ale. “Who are you?” he asked. His voice was still a lot quieter than his aches, but it was coming back to him.

“I’m Flik,” the thin guy said. “This is Viktor. They call me Blue Lightning, and him ‘The Bear’. I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.”

“I can’t put my finger on it,” the big guy - Viktor, apparently - said, with the same lopsided grin Flik was wearing.

They seemed real nice. Locke wondered if they were nice enough to haul an injured man back to whatever the nearest thing to civilization was around here... wherever here was. If not, at least nice enough to let him come along.

A few good nights in a real bed would shut up his aching body, if anything could. He wasn’t sure if anything could, but he was willing to give it a shot.

And the nearest thing to civilization was where he’d need to go if he was gonna look for Celes. He would find her, aches and pains or no aches and pains. He’d find her and take her back. Home.

He’d find Ghaleon, too, and teach that arrogant-

“I see you aren’t going to finish the introductions,” came a snooty voice from behind him.

Viktor pointed, and Locke craned his neck to see what he was pointing at.

There was a sword hanging in midair.

Locke blinked, wondering just how much damage his head had taken.

“And this rusty piece of scrap metal,” Viktor said, “calls himself the Star Dragon Sword.”

Locke shot a glance at the bigger man.

“That was better late than never, I suppose,” said the sword.

Locke passed out.