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Final Fantasy VIII

Never Childhood
By Thomas G. Wier III [ 02-22-01 ]
Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13


Based upon the characters, storyboards, and other related materials of Hironobu Sakaguchi and Tetsuya Nomura

Chapter 1

Hide. Run. Eat. Sleep. Wake up. Hurry up. Get moving. It had been a life of simple commands, and a life that would offer no more. The young girl had accepted that. There was no other choice. She could either obey her mother's commands, or die and let the alley rats mourn her passing only after they stripped the flesh from her bones. Her mother would certainly have no time to grieve. It would be hard enough to find a place to leave her body. After that, perhaps even joy might follow, as one mouth would be much easier to provide for than two. The child was otherwise never regarded beyond those commands. There was no love - there had never been any time for that.

It was no exception on that cold night as they ran, hand in hand out of necessity rather than a bond. The young child's legs simply could not keep up with her mother on their own; they were much too small. As to the age or name of the child, she knew not. As was the case with love, there was simply no time to deal with the luxury of knowledge, and names were not currency with which to purchase a loaf of bread. All that was needed was to know how to run, just as they were then running from the soldiers. Just as they would be running until the day they died.

"There she is!" came a shout from behind, and immediately following came the gunfire. It was no shock, no surprise, that the soldiers would open fire on a child and her mother. It had been that way since she was born, and it would always be that way. She never questioned their actions, just as they never questioned their orders or their consciences. This was life on the streets of Esthar, and one had to either accept it or lose one's place.

The bullets ripped into the sides of the alleyway, sending painfully sharp fragments of steel and stone cascading past as they ran for cover. The young girl cried out weakly as one of those pieces struck her leg. She would have fallen, open to the next barrage, had her mother not jerked her by the arm and ran with her around the corner. Her mother was strong, and the girl admired her for that. Yet what else could be the result of carrying her daughter all of her life and keeping her safe from the many threats of the city? It was life that they fought for, even when such life brought only misery and pain.

"Hide," came the simple order, and like a soldier herself, the young girl hastened to obey. They had been fortunate enough to find a small crevice in the wall of a run-down theater that emptied into darkness. They would not be followed in there. For a moment, they were safe.

"Wait," her mother commanded, the voice as strong in a whisper as it was in a shout. She would have to check and see if the coast was clear. Danger had an odd way of lulling one into a false sense of security, but it was never able to trick her mother. Her mother was the greatest person she knew.

"Get moving," she said, poking her head back into the crevice. The soldiers had already given up, going back to their bars or brothels or whatever held their interests until their next shift began. The mother and child were not important. They were not worth noticing. They were hardly even worth killing, had not the scent of blood excited the soldiers into their only outlet of rage. The homeless were often butchered at the expense of a good time. It would be no different with the child and her mother than it would be for any other like them.

They left the theater, scampering stealthily down the deserted alleyways, creeping past the corners manned by the jealous whores and their pimps. Without being seen by anyone, the mother had returned her daughter to the safety of their own alley, one used for little more than the disposal of rotted fish. The smell had long ago ceased to bother them, and the seclusion of it offered an unexpected surprise. It was wet, slimy and miserable, but it was quiet. That was all that they needed... all they could ever expect.

Wrapping her child in some crusty blankets in the shadowy corner of the alley, the mother produced a small pastry and broke it in half, handing it to her daughter.

"Eat," she commanded, and the young girl did, not even tasting what some would deem stale and bland. She consumed it ravenously, nearly choking on each crumb. It did not take her long to wolf the small thing down. When she finished, she watched as her mother did the same, not even aware of her child's pleading stare. On the streets, it was one against everyone else... even when "everyone" included your own child.

"Wait," her mother said, as she quickly brushed her daughter's face with her rough, callused hand. "Stay," Without another word, she was gone, and the girl knew that she would be gone until the morning. There was only one way for a woman to make money on the streets, and her mother could not leave that money to everyone else. It was needed. Pride was for those who still lived for life. They merely lived to live. The child understood that. That was the way it was. That was the way it would always be. That was what she would have to do when her mother was gone. Live to live, and for no other reason.

Death would be a reprieve, the child often thought, but her mother had told her that it would be a sin to let themselves die. They would go to a place called hell where they would be tormented night and day. The child knew that this was silly, though. After all, it made no sense to punish torment with torment.

Unwrapping herself from the blankets, she looked down at her muddied leg. Blood ran in dark rivers down the flesh, twisting and turning as it snaked along, a perverted tattoo so commonplace that she paid it little heed. She also pulled out the fragment of stone from her leg without so much as a wince. Pain was nothing new to her. She could deal with pain.

Now she had but to wait for her mother to return. She would have money, and they could eat a decent meal. It was all she could hope for, and it would haunt her thoughts all night.

But it would not be her only thought. Nightfall was the time when she would be able to let her thoughts run wild without worrying about commands. She could sit back and just think. It was a luxury that her mother would never have, and it was a treasure that she held on to enviously. No one could ever take her thoughts away from her, even when she would grow up and have to assume her mother's unclean profession.

They were never common thoughts. Often, the young girl could see places... places she had never been before, places that she had never heard described by anyone. She had never been out of Esthar, and most likely never would leave. Those distant lands, however, still called out to her, a beacon of hope placed tantalizingly out of reach. She had spoken of those places with her mother only once, and what followed was the closest thing to a conversation they had ever had.

"Mother," she had asked, "is there such a place where the water stretches farther than the land, and the birds fly over tall wooden beams with green fur?"

Her mother only nodded, obviously thrown out of her practiced daily routine. She did not appreciate her daughter's inquiry.

"And is there such a place where the stones climb to the stars at night, taller than the tallest buildings?"

"Yes, but nowhere near here. Now be quiet and keep your mind on finding something to eat."

They were the most words she had ever heard her mother speak out loud, and the shock of hearing her voice for more than a brief moment did indeed bring the young girl to silence. Even at her early age, she could tell that her mother did not want to think of such things as vast puddles of water or high rocks. She would never see them, and neither would her daughter.

That did nothing to keep her thoughts still, though. The young girl could see those lands, smell the clean air, listen to the animals cry out deep within the gatherings of those beams. There were other people, too. They lived in cities, but they were not like Esthar. They were small, peaceful, and clean. Children laughed and ran around in fields, interacting with one another in a strange, yet appealingly innocent way. They didn't have to hide from soldiers, and they could walk about the city without fear of being shot. Everyone had enough to eat, and most of the homes had a man and a woman live with a small group of children.

Best of all, though, was that she was there with them. She would laugh and run as she played with the other children, not even knowing that what she was doing was called playing. She would swim in the giant puddles of water, and no one would shout in anger or hurt anyone on purpose. After a day in the vast land of plants and water, she would run inside one of the houses where a man and woman would feed them yummy, wonderful food, and they would nestle in large beds with thick, warm blankets. The other children in the house, two boys and another girl, would wish her a good night, and call her "sister." They had names of Alan, Jacob and Julia, but she was happy with sister. It fit her, and though she would have liked a name as well, she was happy to be accepted by them... to be loved.

It was during these moments, just as her thoughts led her into slumber, that she would suddenly realize where she was. The last thing that she would invariably see before her eyes fell shut and pulled her into slumber was the opening of the alleyway, as the dim streetlights flickered on to drive the vipers of the city streets back to their dens... just as others took their places. It was the end of another day in Esthar. Another one just as dismal would await the young child in the morning.

Chapter 2

When she awoke, the sun was already high up in the sky. Looking about her, she searched for her mother. Tossing aside the blankets, she began to panic.

"Mother?" she asked. She was not there. She had never come back.

"Mother?" she cried out, caring not who heard her. Jumping out of the pile of blankets, she looked around her wildly, tossing garbage cans around the alley in a vain attempt to find her mother. Tears formed in her eyes, though she tried to hold them back. Her mother would not want for her to cry. She would want her to focus and remember where she was. She would want her to find food. She would look for breakfast. That, however, would mean leaving the alley, and that was something she had never done without her mother.

She had to go. That was all there was to it. First, she would have to skip breakfast. If she didn't find her mother, it would all be for naught anyway. Her mother was the survivor; the child was just the companion for the bitter journey, an extra worry in a world that offered no more than peril. There would be no point to her life without her mother.

The young girl stared out into the street from her dark sanctuary. How could she bring herself to step amongst the vultures when she herself was but a mouse? There was a simple answer that found its way through her jumbled thoughts. She would have to imitate the survivor. She would have to be like her mother.

Narrowing her eyes into contemptuous slits, just as her mother had done before leaving their illegitimate home, she tightened her hands into fists and strode briskly out toward the light, not even thinking ahead. She would have to be the survivor now... at least until she found her mother. Then the title would be handed back to her with great appreciation and due awe.

There were not too many people out on the streets. Many who lived in the rundown area were still inside their homes, most likely too afraid to leave for fear of being mowed down by either the gangsters or the soldiers. Either way, the girl was relieved to find that she would be unmolested during this first leg of her search. People in the city other than her mother frightened her. Certainly, they didn't frighten the survivor.

Almost laughing, she suddenly remembered that it was she who was now the survivor. People should not scare her. The survivor would just be one of them and find a way to get through the next twenty-four hours. The survivor was fearless, so even if she were scared, she would have to pretend to be fearless.

And so the new survivor set out, walking down the street with a no nonsense air, glaring at those few people who shared the dingy streets with her. Some ignored her all together, while others saw her but still paid no mind. A child in Esthar was no precious commodity unless they were born to the wealthy. Besides this, she was dirty and small, and she was avoided like the plague. Finding her mother would be easy, it seemed.

The city seemed to open up as she walked, people sitting on their front steps, others talking or arguing with soldiers, and other street children gladly helping themselves to the contents of all of the unwary pockets.

The girl had seen this done before, and asked her mother if she should do the same. The notion had struck her mother as horrifying, however, and she gave her simple response.

"No."

While the girl never understood why she should not take from others when clearly so many others did just that, she obeyed her mother. She was the survivor. She would know what to do when she found her.

Walking the streets seemed rather harmless. She didn't understand why it was that she hadn't been allowed to walk about more freely before. Certainly the soldiers that passed her didn't bother her, and no one even bothered to look down at the child that walked by so piteously and without the gruff guile that masked all others in her station. She was free of assault, but she still wanted to find her mother. While she was gone, everything seemed to move so slowly. It was almost surreal.

It wasn't until an hour had passed that someone called out to her. Looking behind her at a large, stained dumpster, she saw an older man amble out with arms outstretched. He was easily twenty feet away, but a horrible reek was still quite noticeable on him. Eyes glazed over and mouth hanging open, he lunged forward with a low gurgling sound. No one on the streets even bothered to notice, and no one interfered. Frozen with terror, the girl could do nothing as she was grabbed and dragged back to the dumpster.

The smell of the man was so horrible that it brought tears to the child's eyes, and his clothes were covered in mucus and other unknown fluids. It wasn't until he reached to pull at her tattered hair, however, that she kicked at him. She knew not where she kicked, but he released her and fell to the ground. Screaming after her, the bum did nothing but writhe in agony. Not even looking back, the child wordlessly ran back toward the alley, dodging both people and their rude comments. Wiping the tears from her eyes, she could barely even see where it was that she ran.

It took her a short while to stop and rest, recovering from what had happened. Her mother had had many terrible things happen to her right before her daughter's eyes. Looking up to the sky, the child breathed in silent thanks that she had saved herself. Even after her experience, she had to smile. She had survived!

However, after looking around, she realized that she was still very far from her alley, and skipping breakfast had taken a terrible toll on her young stomach. It growled its protest, despite having gone without many times before. Clutching her gut as she walked, her newly found misery afforded her no reason to look to the old woman who watched her with intense interest. All she did was amble back to the alley, aware that as a survivor, she had neglected to find food for the day. That would have to wait until the next day. For now, all of her energy allowed her nothing more than the luxury of finding her odiferous sanctuary. She had gone without food before, she could do it again.

Chapter 3

There was no dream that night; no thought to fill her head. She counted this as a blessing, though, as she had had nightmares before, and her current situation would have provided her with little else. As it was, she had awoken many times that night, reaching for her mother who sometimes slipped under the blanket with her at night. It was a reaction she never realized she made, and tears began to form in her sleepy eyes. Waking from her restless sleep, she looked out to the morning sun. It was time for her to go out into the world; a thought she little appreciated.

She walked down the sidewalk, careful to keep her distance from the alleys and dumpsters. This time, she would have to find a meal, and then her mother. Again, she did not even hear the old woman speak to her until she had nearly passed her by.

"I said come here, little girl! Come here and sit, little one!" The old woman's voice was as rough as her mother's hands and deep from overuse. The girl turned and looked at the old crone and winced. She was a stooped, wretched looking creature with many huge warts that adorned her face like badges of honor, a reward for surviving the harsh reality of Esthar. Her hair flew all over, falling to the floor in sheets of gray, tangled and split beyond repair. She clutched greedily at a thin wooden cane with gnarled fingers gripped by debilitating arthritis. Looking down at the girl with eyes small and set deep within her skull she called out again,

"Come here! Don't be afraid of an old woman! If anything, I should be afraid of you!"

The girl was uncertain as to whether or not she should go. For one thing, her false courage was no match for the hideous spectacle that was the aging beast before her. For another, she wanted desperately to find her mother. She would just keep walking and leave the old woman to her own survival.

As the girl turned, however, the old woman called out, louder this time so that all on the street might hear, "I know where your mother is, I do!"

She stopped. Turning slowly, disbelieving, she raised an eyebrow just as her mother would have. She would not let this old hag bully her...but how did she know about her mother? How could she be sure? Her mother would want to know. So would she.

Walking to the old woman, she put on her meanest face, which was actually comical under all of the dirt and grime, scrunched up her nose and asked boldly, "Oh yeah? Then where is she?"

Sitting back, the elderly crone motioned for the girl to sit. The girl did, but hesitantly, betraying her actual terror of all things human. She lost all former semblance of a survivor. Now she look like a child about to be scolded by her grandmother, keeping her arms folded tightly against her chest, eyes darting from the woman to the street.

"Where is she?" the girl asked again, trying to sound brave, but by now that act had been misplaced. The old woman knew just who she was.

"There will be time for that later, my child. For now, I'd like to talk about you."

The young girl could feel the tears form in her eyes. She didn't want to talk! She wanted to find her mother and go back to their alley forever and never leave it again. Still, all she could do was sit there and be silent as the tears began to flow freely, her dirty face much too caked with filth to show it.

"Very well then," said the woman, her voice friendlier now, "I'll talk about myself... then I'll talk about you, okay?"

The girl could only nod, and the woman continued. "My name is Callie. Miss Callie Deling. No, I never married, and no, I'm not sorry. Far too many evil men out there to tell them apart from the good ones, I say. I travel around, looking for this or that, and I've been doing that for the past fifty-three years."

The girl looked up, her interest peaking. Fifty-three years was a number so immense to her that it seemed like an eternity. Staring at the woman, her eyes widened in wonder and she forgot about her mother for a moment. In her underdeveloped, neglected mind, the child was sitting in the presence of time itself.

"I know much about the world, and I know much about what's NOT in the world, as it were. I see things in people that almost no one else can see. I can see their lives, their souls... I can see their worth. Let me tell you child, I have been very disappointed by what I have seen in this 'Jewel of the Empire.' To be sure, I was hoping to meet someone very special..." She looked to the girl and added with a smile and a bit of mirth, "Maybe you can help me find them?"

Thoughts of her mother returned again, and the girl was taken aback, but not by the request. It was rather with her own inaction. She began to offer her apologies and made ready to leave.

"No, I'm sorry, but I'm just a girl, and I need to find my mother..."

"Oh hush now," the woman interrupted, "your mother can wait, and you are not just a girl. Oh child, you are so much more..." She paused to clear her throat and continued on, leaving no time for protest.

"You are one of those people I have been looking for. In fact, you are the most beautiful of all!"

The young girl had never considered herself beautiful, even though she rarely had time to search for beauty itself. She had no idea what she must have looked like then, but she had seen her reflection a few days before. The dirt that marred her plain features could not possibly be a desirable enhancement to a face born for poverty despite her lucent, silvery eyes. She had long blonde hair that might have at one time been pretty, but it was now home to blackish soot and grime. A queen of the alleys she might be, but beautiful?

None of this she said out loud, but Callie seemed to sense her apprehension. "I can see it within you child, and don't bother to deny it! I don't like it when folks call me a liar! There are some people who are born seemingly for no reason. They go through life hurt, miserable, lonely, and one day they decide to end it all and waste the precious gift that has been given to them. They could have been great, leaders of all men, but they can't see their own worth. Instead they give it all up to eternity and jump feet first into the void... no, don't interrupt me now, I've got much more to say!"

"Anyway, those folks are not always a lost cause. They leave behind an even more precious gift to the world; a gift that could change the very face of life for all people. Do you know what such people are called?"

The girl shook her head, and the old woman smiled, as if she had been holding in a secret so profound that she physically felt relief upon the notion of its release.

"Sorceresses! They are the ones who guide life for good or ill, and they are the blessed of the world!"

Then, calming down a bit, the woman suddenly changed her direction completely and asked the girl, "What is your name, child?"

"I don't have one," the girl answered honestly, "My mother never gave me one."

"What?!" the hag shrieked, "Your mother never gave you a name? How could she not understand what a truly gifted... oh, it doesn't matter. I think, though, that you need a name. I don't want to keep calling you child all the time, since you will grow up eventually! Would you like for me to give you one?"

The girl nodded eagerly. "Oh yes!" she shouted, again forgetting her mother and waiting for a name that her brothers and sister could call her... a name her mother could call her by.

The old woman thought for a moment, grumbling to herself as the girl sat in expectant agony. She could not wait much longer. The anticipation was far too great! A name! To be someone when she visited her family at nights! To be a person to her mother, a person to all people! She almost burst when the old lady started to speak again.

"You, my dear, dear child, are destined for greatness. There is a name which means 'Great Life' in the old tongue, and I believe that it was fashioned those millennia ago just for you! Your name is now Ultimecia!"

Ultimecia tried out her new name on her tongue. It didn't seem to fit her, belonging more to the upper-class ladies she had seen drive past her and her mother as they returned from a day of scavenging. It was alien, it was strange, and it was wonderful!

"I'm Ultimecia! I'm Ultimecia!" she chanted over and over, hugging the old woman with delight, bouncing up and down as she did so.

"I am Ultimecia! My name is Ultimecia! I love my name! It is me! I'm Ultimecia!"

An abrupt thought suddenly halted her rapture, and she sat back down, crestfallen.

"But... will my mother be angry? What if she wanted to name me? What if she was just waiting and..."

"Oh hush now," the old lady chided comfortingly, "I truly don't think that your mother will ever object to your name... ever. What we need to discuss now, however, is you, dearie!"

"Me?" Ultimecia asked, wondering what there was to talk about. There was absolutely nothing of interest about her or her life. She had simply run with her mother whenever they were in trouble, and ate whenever they could find food.

"There is nothing about me to say," Ultimecia added. I just do what my mother says."

Callie frowned and let out a sigh. "Child," she huffed, "there is much more to you than you now realize. For one thing, where did you learn to speak the way you do?"

Ultimecia shrugged and replied, "I guess my mother taught me. I just listen to her." From the moment that comment left her mouth, though, she realized how hollow it sounded. Her mother rarely said anything aside from the normal commands. It had been that way since she could recall with any certainty. No one else ever spoke to her, and the only other words she had heard in her life came from the slurs and curses of soldiers and prostitutes.

"You just knew how, didn't you?" Callie prompted. "You never had to learn. It was born to you, a talent you never even realized as the blessing it is!"

She smiled wryly and licked her elderly lips with interest. A look of mischief briefly played across her face and she said with confidence, "I'll wager there are a few more talents you haven't shown anyone. I'll go further and say that even you don't know what they are, eh?"

"I really have no idea what you're saying," Ultimecia snapped, her outward appearance showing anger, but her inner voice shrieking in terror. There was only one thing that Ultimecia could think of as a talent... her thoughts. That someone else should be privy to her own mind! The idea was ghastly, and for a moment she felt like running from Callie. Those thoughts were hers and hers alone, and an old woman would not be allowed inside without her permission - something she would never receive.

"I know about your heart," Callie breathed softly just as Ultimecia was about to jump up and run. "I know that you hold great innocence for a little girl who has been hurt so badly. There is such love in your heart, and in a world lost to vile wickedness, that is a powerful, beautiful thing. It's that love that keeps your world from falling, and it's that which allows for you to hope for more."

Dangerously close to saying too much, Callie suddenly went silent. Her small, sunken eyes fell on Ultimecia with affection. Sitting in Callie's presence, the city noises seemed to blur, fading as it did so, leaving the two of them alone on the steps.

At first she was frightened, and she turned to run. But the darkness just swallowed her, a darkness not of evil, but of a cool summer's night... a night with her brothers and sisters. She ceased to struggle and let it guide her mind. She could feel her thoughts, just as she always did, take hold, and now she could see. There, within herself, was the love that Callie had mentioned, the love she had never thought she herself could even begin to possess.

"How are you doing this?" Ultimecia whispered, her eyes wide in amazement, wet with tears of joy. It was so wonderful! A warmth of such gentle tenderness flooded her whole being, lifting her beyond the stink of the city and taking her from its fears and vulgarity. All fell before the power that lay dormant in her heart, a force of will so strong, yet one she never even knew was there. Nothing else mattered now... nothing else even existed. How could it when her very soul was being lifted toward such splendor?

"I am doing nothing but showing you who you are..." came a voice so distant yet distinct. "This is you, my dear, dear child, my Ultimecia. Such boundless hope and peace rests within you, one that can bring light to all in all lands... all times. Your heart rules you, and one so blessed can only lead all mankind to salvation. I have finally found you... so many years I have held your image in my mind in vain; you are more beautiful, more radiant than I ever could have dreamed of!"

Ultimecia sobbed openly, actually feeling beautiful, but not for her face. Her Inner Light turned plain to radiant, dark to light. It made all things glorious, and even the evil that was Esthar could do nothing to quench its magnificence.

"Love needs no reason to grow," Callie continued, "it only needs a willing heart...the perfect heart for a sorceress. Many have corrupted their hearts with the power. They never knew what love was. Now you see. Love is not for the deserving, it is for all. You can feel it without warning, you can feel it for your enemy, and you can feel it even in the darkness. Love carries us beyond such mere obstacles as death, and it feeds the starved soul. In you, such love is perfect, and you have found a way to keep it within yourself... even in the black heart of Esthar."

"I can see it!" Ultimecia cried between sobs, never wanting to lose sight of it again, wanting only to stay within her own heart, looking at all the world with her new perfect sight.

"But one must not hide within," Callie warned, "or life will lose its purpose. You must guide your soul through life with as light a heart as you have now. There are others who need your example, as they are weak, and can ruin the world with their foolish pride. You must look to the light within, for in times of struggle and despair, your own voice is the truest. I will guide you always... now awaken!"

Looking around her, Ultimecia could see the world return, and she willfully stayed in place, allowing her love to transcend her disappointment. If she must return to Esthar, she would do so in grateful silence, fully aware of the lesson that she had just learned.

"Well," Callie began, looking upon Ultimecia with adoration, "what do you feel?"

Immediately the child flew into Callie's arms, finding words a poor substitute for the feeling within her. She wrapped her arms about her in a warm, tender hug. Returning the gesture, but also eyeing the growing crowd on the street, Callie drew the girl closer to her, facing her away from the road. Just then, two soldiers in strange white uniforms marched down the middle of the avenue, and to the shock of all, carried a limp, lifeless body. Only Callie knew who they were, and she eyed them with a look of both revulsion and pity.

"What is that?" Ultimecia yawned, her newly discovered senses still keenly aware of the tension on the street. She sat up groggily to see what was amiss, but the old woman turned her about gently and let her rest her tired head on the blanket draped across her lap.

"Nothing, my child. Rest now. You have just been through so much for one so young. I am so proud of you!"

With that, Callie began to hum an old song she had once heard a mother sing for her sick young boy in the ruined town of Balamb. Lovingly, she brushed Ultimecia's dirty but soft hair with her long, bony fingers.

Had Ultimecia seen the soldier's victim, she would have surely recognized the mangled face, long, tangled brown hair, and the small but powerful mouth, a mouth that would never again be able to utter another command. The lesson Ultimecia had learned would have been for nothing, and Callie would not allow the child's soul to die. The title of survivor would have to remain in Ultimecia's hands, as would one more fitting of her mild spirit. It would come in time.

"Sleep, then, my angel, and when you wake up, think no more of dreadful things. A new life is beginning for you here, but only you can make it whole. I promise."

Chapter 4

"This was once such a glorious city," Callie noted as she and Ultimecia walked down one of the busier boulevards of Esthar's commercial district. "People would marvel at the grace and splendor they found here during the days of President Loire. Technology had improved the quality of life for all Esthar's people, and it looked as though someone had for once lead a nation down the right path."

Ultimecia listened with half an ear, as she was more concerned with the chocolate ice cream cone that Callie had just purchased for her. Trying to aim it at her mouth as she walked, there was more chocolate on her face than actually in it.

Still, she noted the important names and places her teacher mentioned, occasionally offering a non-committal "Yup," or "Uh-huh." She did care dearly for the knowledge that was being imparted to her, but ice cream was something she had only dreamed of having only weeks earlier, and now treasured it as though it was a small, melting fortune. She didn't even notice the hovercars or transports as they whooshed along the most pristine neighborhoods of the city, or the constant flow of people to and from the various ergonomically shaped buildings. Esthar was alive in the central district, though it was a clever mask to the chaos and malignant darkness it hid within the city's festering heart.

"Now we have to contend with corrupt fiends like our current President Udine. He has allowed more than the degeneration of Esthar to continue... he has sold its pride to nations like Timber and Dollet in the form of bribes..."

Callie went on as she often did about Esthar's political state. She had turned out to be more than an old woman on the streets. Much to Ultimecia's surprise, she was rather wealthy, having come from a life as an advisor to the New Galbadian Republican Senate. Her great-great grandfather had once served as that nation's President, but was killed in a coup de tat. She told Ultimecia that although his name had been tarnished, the family fortune had remained, and after the hostile regime that overthrew her ancestor was overturned, her family was welcomed back to the Galbadian political forefront.

It was not that politics interested either Callie or Ultimecia in the slightest, but it had afforded the elder with a handsome stipend that she could use to live comfortably as well as support a growing young girl. Now, Ultimecia walked hand in hand with the old woman, dressed in fine red silks and designer fabrics. Her blonde hair, free of its charcoal prison, shined like the sun, and it fell youthfully around her pale-olive complexion. Her step was light and carefree, and for once she appeared to the world as she really was: a beautiful child more than worthy of its love, but not so proud as to demand it.

At first, Ultimecia rejected such lavish extravagance, feeling as though she did not deserve it after having let her mother disappear. The idea of parading about in dresses that cost more money than she even knew existed was appalling, and she refused to either wear them or even wash her hair. Callie herself even wore drab knit throws and simple black dresses. Ultimecia often wondered why she was different.

It wasn't for a week after she and Callie had met that she fell into another thought. It was late at night as she lay in her large, obscenely comfortable bed. Having been unable to sleep all night, she suddenly went into the darkness. Within, she could feel her mother's spirit. The survivor was at rest. There, in the darkness, mother and daughter had their last meeting. She didn't know where she was, or why she was there, but the feeling her mother exuded was so soothing that Ultimecia could not but feel happy for her. She had protected her daughter in many times of danger and had been abused by the very streets to which she had been born - it was her turn to stay in peace. Daughter would not call out to mother; she would not pursue her. She owed her the rest. And yet, before she left her, the spirit surrounded her daughter in a loving hold, an embrace that more than made up for the years of emotional neglect. Ultimecia's final gift was the feeling that Callie had taught her, one that her mother would cherish for eternity. They whispered their good byes, and Ultimecia awoke to her own voice calling out softly, "I love you, mommy."

Her final link to the past was finally at peace, and she was free to look forward, finding solace in Callie's company, guardianship, and wisdom. She never contradicted her and always obeyed every instruction she was given. Together, they had begun to discuss all of the things of the world - history, literature, mathematics, philosophy - there were so many subjects that a normal child would have been hopelessly overwhelmed.

Ultimecia, however, absorbed all of it greedily, thirsting for knowledge as she had once thirsted for water. She was particularly interested in language and geography, often combining the two into one lesson. Now she could learn the names for all of those wonderful creations of nature, and they rolled off her tongue as she savored every fragile sound, enunciating every syllable as though it was to be the last word she would ever speak. Lakes, trees, mountains, plateaus... all such marvelous words, all such marvelous things! What she really wanted to know about, however, were Sorceresses. The word Callie had used intrigued her on the day they met, and she spoke it out loud almost every hour. She was not quite ready for that yet, Callie had said. It would be time, but not for a little while. Until that time, she warned Ultimecia that it might be better if she not mention the word sorceress in public for a while.

"...on your face than in your mouth!" she suddenly heard Callie finish saying, realizing too late that her thoughts had trailed off without her. Looking up at her teacher, she asked meekly, "What did you say, Callie?"

Stifling a small laugh, the old woman repeated herself.

"I said," she chuckled, "you seem to have more ice cream on your face than in your mouth!"

Licking her lips, Ultimecia discovered that she had definitely been a bit careless with her frosty snack. Sheepishly, she grinned and laughed, the ice cream cone a goopy mess in her left hand. Taking out a large handkerchief, Callie began to wipe Ultimecia's face and hands, throwing away the ruinous cone with her fingers which barely pinched it in her grasp.

"I think," she said, still wiping her child's face, "that it is time to resume your studies. It is getting late anyway, eh?"

Rather than pout, Ultimecia was glad for the chance to gain more knowledge about the world. She nodded eagerly and began to skip in place, all ready to return to their uptown townhouse. It was only a block away, so she at first tried to run ahead, pulling Callie as she went.

"Let's go!" Ultimecia begged, tugging at Callie's sleeve. The old woman pulled her back gently and held her hand in a firm but even grip.

"You must be patient in all things," she said, "for that is the way of not only a great person, but of a Sorceress as well!"

Upon hearing the treasured word, Ultimecia went silent, focusing her excited eyes forward in the sort of mock patience that only a child could muster. She would endure anything to learn about the Sorceresses and their special place in the world. Skipping as she walked, the child began to sing softly the song that Callie had sung for her on those nights when she found it difficult to sleep. She pronounced each word with a delicate lisp, still stumbling over the ancient language in which it was first written. Her teacher smiled as she sang, humming the tune along with her as they neared their townhouse.

"Fithos, lusec..."

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