Even though I said I'd retired from the world of fanfiction, I've made a brief return to fulfil my long desire to write something for FF8. Although this is, regrettably, very tongue and cheek, and totally AU; not to be taken too seriously! I kinda feel like my thirteen year old inner okatu is writing this. You have been warned so don't hate me. But, hey! Hopefully it'll be a fun trip.
Totally gotta shout out Nimmieamee here. Massive inspiration for me, especially in regards to Knight lore. Go read her fic: The Nether Rippers. It's amazing.
And Hell Followed With Him
Rinoa Heartilly didn't bother to stifle her unlady-like yawn as she raised her arms and stretched, then winced as a succession of wet pops tracked down her spine. It was as much as she deserved, she supposed, for sitting in one spot for three and a half hours. Her sight was bleary and when she rubbed her eyelids with her fingertips red blotches ruptured her vision. But red blotches were good, right? It meant that her eyeballs hadn't shrivelled into stony raisins. Yet.
She gave a groan, borne from frustration and lack of sleep, and finally prised her fingers away from her lids so she could glare hotly at the dreaded dissertation on her desk. 'DD' for short: the unwanted acquaintance that tagged behind every thought, every dream and every general waking moment of her current life like a bad smell.
Her glare shifted to the screen of her laptop, then to the jumble of papers neglectfully scattered around its base. Who was she kidding? It couldn't be called a dissertation. It was just a muddle of notes: randomly selected quotes from historians, bullet points of potential subjects, meagre annotations, and a single doodled flower with a smiley face.
The cursor flashed at the top of the blank word document on the laptop's screen. Mocking her.
She slammed the laptop closed with another croaky grunt, then contemplated the cold dregs of the coffee she'd made a few hours ago.
I could've minored in fashion, she lamented. Or cookery. Or – or dog grooming! But I had to pick Classical Studies, didn't I? Thought it might be clever. Or at least interesting…
She back pedalled a bit, feeling guilty. It was interesting. Historical accounts were like a collection of fairytales, most of the time. Dark, bloody fairytales, sure, but they often held her interest. Modern civilisation was built on the bones of far older ones, alternatively leeching and distorting its predecessor like a parasite, until nothing was left but remnants and stories and speculative essays. Sometimes history was so farfetched – so brutal – Rinoa had a hard time believing it had happened at all. Just because they'd found a broken vase from the Derium Era or a headless statue sculpted in Emperor Tristan VI's reign didn't instantly validate their existence. It simply meant that someone had existed at some time, and the rest was largely open for interpretation.
Anyway, while the stories were interesting, they hadn't contributed to her major as much as she would have liked: Politics and International Relations.
She acknowledged that history repeated itself, but Rinoa was an advocate of change. For changes to be made – for peace to be made – she reasoned she first had to have an understanding of previous wars: what made them start, what made them go on, what ended them. If she gleaned some clever insight into the world of politics through history, maybe she could apply them to today.
Or at least, that's what she'd hoped. Instead, Classical Studies had gone way back. Too far back. Back to times when silly superstitions were the driving fuel of decisions: fear of witches, fear of gods, babies sacrificed on alters, hearts eaten while they still pulsed, tree bark devoured to induce visions of the future; angels, devils, sorceresses and knights, all of which had been unaccounted for for generations. Centuries, even. Just broken pottery and broken statues to apply flimsy evidence to their alleged existence.
Though sorceresses and knights had existed at some point, she knew. Everyone knew. There was enough magic and monsters in the world to attest that. Still, that didn't help the current political climate, nor her budding future as a politician, nor her petition for change.
Nor did it help her write her dissertation.
Her stupid, pointless, boring, unwritten dissertation.
Rinoa made an undignified noise then slumped forward onto the desk, head nestled in her arms. She prayed tomorrow would bring her some inspiration. And once her dissertation was complete and she'd earned her minor, she never wanted to hear the word 'history' again.
She didn't know how long she'd been asleep, but it couldn't have been for more than a few minutes. Her sight was still to bleary, her head full of cobwebs, her eyes dry and swollen. But then… why was there sunlight slanting through the blinds?
It took a few moments of groggily blinking at the coffee stains on her notes (she'd fallen asleep at her desk again and boy would her neck pay for it today) before she realised that the sun should not be slanting across the desk yet. But it was. And that meant she was –
She jumped up too quickly and her cramped back muscles roared in protest. There was no time to bemoan them though, no time for a shower either, no time even for breakfast. Rinoa dared to glance at the digital clock on her oven and immediately regretted it.
"Late, so late, so so so late –"
No time for coffee. No time to brush her hair. She yanked on an old pair of jeans, a white t shirt, a big, dark pair of sunglasses and a stylish wide brimmed hat, then spared a precious second to appraise herself in the mirror. Good job she knew how to accessorise. Maybe she could start a bed-head trend?
She grabbed her notebooks, purse, phone and keys and practically flew out the door and down the apartment's stairs, feet barely touching the floor. She all but tackled the landlord, who was casually sorting mail by the front door. Very casually barring her way. Almost as though he knew she'd be down at some point.
"In a rush?" he asked with an easy smile that didn't quite reach his eyes.
"Ah, yeah," Rinoa said, as she tried to cram her notebook into her small designer handbag while lamenting the impracticalities of high fashion. "Look, I'm realllly late. Can it wait?"
"By 'it', do you mean your rent?" he said. "I think 'it' has waited long enough."
"I know, I know. It's just the tuition fees – "
"Paid by your father."
"- and the bills - "
"Also paid by your father."
" – and the… the travel costs?" She bit her lip. "You have no idea."
"Clearly." His smile had disappeared now. His gaze dropped to her purse. "New?"
"End of the week, Miss Heartilly."
"Right. End of the week. Don't worry, it'll be there. In your bank account. The rent, that is." She edged around him like he had sprouted Cactaur spines, then shot out the door with a gusty, "Bye!"
Outside the day was cool, though not without the promise of spring. The sun had shrugged off its frosty edge and the night's rainfall had left the air smelling earthy and fresh. Rinoa hurried down Timber's streets, eyes carefully avoiding the Galbadian soldiers both stationed and patrolling. Seeing them was like finding fleas on a puppy; they were unwelcome blemishes on the homely, bustling city of Timber. The pretty brick houses with their colourful shutters and flower pots just beginning to bud was spoiled by their presence, and the city's residents stole past them with an air of defeated tolerance.
Her gaze snagged on a poster hurriedly pasted onto the side of a bus stop:
Fight the Deling Dogs! Fight for a Tyrant-less Timber! Join the Resistance Today!
She grinned wryly. Perhaps Timber wasn't entirely defeated. Not yet, anyway.
She hailed a taxi and paid extra so the driver wouldn't take the long routes. He even cut down a bus lane or two, so she gave him a tip when he dropped her off on the other side of the Industrial District.
Timber sat at the centre of a web of tracks that spun their threads across the entire continent, from the great plains of the south, through the fertile farmland and rich woodland to the west, under the eastern seas and over snow-capped mountains that neatly trimmed the continent's edge. The west of Timber was rolling grasslands, cultivated by farmers and their herds of cows. If Rinoa squinted, she could pick out the bands of mercenaries hired to keep monsters at bay.
She didn't have time to contemplate the scenery in detail. She caught sight of the aircraft carrier sitting at the end of a short runway owned by Timber University. It was rarely used, for Timber was, afterall, a city of trains. However, today was an exception.
"I'm so sorry," Rinoa huffed as she ran up to her tutor, one hand on her hat to keep it from flying off. "I haven't put the schedule back have I?"
Cid Kramer, guest lecturer of Classical Civilisation at Timber University, glanced down at his wristwatch then shrugged with an unconcerned grin. "Eh, I don't think the bones will care if we're an hour late for digging them up."
"Get in the plane, child, you'll put us behind schedule."
"But you just said –"
"Here are some notes for you to go over." He handed her a stapled wad of paper. "Background information on the site, excavation details, expected findings and their historical relevance, blah, blah, blah." He flapped a podgy-fingered hand. "You get the gist. Now, I'm going to sit in the cockpit with our dear pilot and we'll start making tracks. That hat looks wonderful on you."
And with that baffling sentiment he bustled away into the cockpit, leaving Rinoa to board the aircraft alone.
There weren't many seats left and after gauging the annoyed looks shot her way from her fellow classmates (who had been kept waiting for a little under an hour in the cramped, hot craft) she discreetly took a seat at the back, alone and by a window. A flight attendant offered her watery coffee in a polystyrene cup which she gulped down like it was the best thing she'd ever tasted (it wasn't), then promptly requested another.
After the plane was airborne, she slotted her coffee into the cupholder in the armrest, then opened the booklet outlining the excavation. The plane jostled slightly, disturbed by some minor turbulence. Further down the cabin someone groaned then dashed to the bathroom. Rinoa was very glad she hadn't gone out drinking the night before.
She read the words printed on the front page.
Excavation of Pre-Centran Ruins
Location: Eastern Lolesterin Plains, Esthar
Suspected Era: Ballisic or Ventina Age, Pre/post Tensin Era
Possible Discovery: ?Ventian Circus; ?Mass burial site; ?Settlement; ?Tomb
Rinoa scoffed. Leave it to Cid to make such wild and unrelated speculations. A settlement was most likely, or a mass burial site, both of which were mundane and unsurprising. Pre Centran civilisations had been destroyed by war and a Lunar Cry (as had the Centrans for that matter) so the earth was understandably littered with bones and remnants of old villages and cities; those that hadn't been blasted into dust or obliterated by Moon Monsters. Still, a tomb might be interesting if it belonged to someone important. Didn't the Ballisic civilisation have multiple kings that ruled plots of land rather than entire empires? It might be fun if they found buried treasure.
A circus was unlikely but not impossible, though she fervently hoped it wasn't one. The Ventian circuses had been giant amphitheatres that rose above the sandy plains so high as to cast half its surrounding city into shadow. Inevitably, they had not lasted through the trials of wars, so if they were to dig up the circus now it would likely be foundations buried in the sand, i.e. a bunch of boring old rocks.
This won't help by political career at all, Rinoa lamented as she half-heartedly flicked through the booklet. Though at least I might get a tan.
Rinoa hadn't been excited to learn that as part of her minor degree she had to undertake a minimum of a six week internship. Ideally she would have liked to spend her time in the Citizen's Advice Bureau or at least done something with public affairs. But then that man, General Caraway, had offered to have her shadow some of his lackeys as a politician's assistant. So just to spite him she took a placement with a series of small archaeological exhibitions, funded by some eccentric bigwigs in Esthar. That would show him.
Well. Except Rinoa didn't really like rooting around in the hot dust of the Lolesterin Plains and camping in cramped tents during the cold nights. And she didn't share the excitement of the other students when ambiguous chips of pottery were discovered, or fragments of metal that might have been part of a spear or shield or tankard. Might have. The stories behind them were interesting, but it would take months of research and testing (that was done in Esthar anyway and rarely communicated back to the students) before the stories began to piece themselves together. She kind of wished she'd taken the placement at the Deling Museum of Ancient History. At least the hard work had already been done.
After some time sifting through the notes, Rinoa nodded off. In her dream she was on her hands and knees in the red dust of a desert. She was brushing away a thin layer of sand to reveal an artefact, but upon closer inspection it was actually her dissertation, too old and frail for the writing to be made out. When she completely unearthed it, it crumbled and sifted through her fingers like ash.
The plane touched down a few hours later. The landing on the plains was always tumultuous as there was no official runway, just cracked arid rock, and the plane jerked and swerved when it landed. Rinoa stared out the window as the plane rolled to a halt and spotted the white line of tents that lined the ditch of the excavation site, like a giant's bleached spine half buried in the sand. She put on her sunglasses and hat and braced herself for a long day.
The heat was a merciless beast that swallowed her whole as she stepped out of the plane. The sun clapped scalding hands against her pale skin and roasted the sand under her shoes, leeching every drop of water as though it had an insatiable hunger for something it could never attain.
"We've found another potential excavation point," Cid announced to the little group. "It's looking more and more likely that this was a location of some ceremonial significance in the past."
"What era?" one of the students asked as they began to trek across the desert to the tents.
Cid waved a hand in an equivocal gesture. "Still uncertain, though our sponsor in Esthar seems convinced it dates back to the Tensin Era; pre or post war, we're not sure."
Finally, something interesting.
"War?" Rinoa prompted, weaving between the others to walk alongside Cid. "What war?"
Cid levelled her with a look that might have appeared condescending on anyone else. On him it just looked fatherly. "One of the greatest civil wars in history: the Clans War." He spread his arms, gesturing to the barren landscape that stretched out to a heat-blurred horizon on all sides. "This was once a great land ruled by a single man, Emperor Do'Shin, and under his rule the lands were separated into clans overseen by lords. Unfortunately the climate was beginning to change and resources were thinning, and the clans fell into dispute over territory. They hired 'family protectors'" – he inverted the term with his fingers – "though they were really mercenaries, who sustained and claimed borders, assassinated powerful family members and essentially tried to cripple their rival clans in hopes the emperor would hand over their titles and land to their respective masters."
"And did he?"
Cid scratched the side of his nose. "Well, he didn't have a chance to put down the civil war. You see, legend says there was a sorceress. Izamel, her name was. She set the two biggest clans fighting against each other. She had her two knights assassinate the lords, then she claimed the clans as her own. She used her power and their armed forces to conquer the other clans, and eventually overthrew the emperor. But her greed cost her the land; she'd scoured it to almost nothing. Hence her nickname Tyrant of the Deadlands."
She didn't consider what wealth can be made from the natural resources of a flourishing nation, the way that Galbadia uses Timber for its lands and trade, Rinoa thought. She just wanted power and military force. Or maybe she knew that the land was going to die because of the climate change so didn't bother trying to sustain it. She frowned. It seemed to her that whenever a sorceress meddled with affairs the whole thing went to pot. They cleared entire civilisations for their own purposes but from the ashes of their reign nothing grew, like a rainforest burned down to the roots.
"Anyway," Cid continued, "she died before she could move on to Esthar, which was her ultimate goal, some say. She'd wanted Do'shin's military empire as a force to rival Esthar's, though she didn't care that her ambition drove her nation to ruin."
"How did she die?"
Cid shrugged, then grinned widely. "Well, maybe we'll find out today! Texts suggest she was buried in this region." He laughed. "They say she put a curse on her tomb before she died, and whoever disturbs her will suffer her wrath."
Rinoa stared at the tents, squinting against the sunlight glancing off their white canvas backs. "You think we've found her tomb?"
"That's what our sponsor hopes!" His expression clouded momentarily, but before Rinoa could question him he scurried towards the dig with surprising nimbleness for a man of middle years, leaving Rinoa in his dust.
Sorceress Izamel. For some reason the idea of finding a sorceress' tomb made Rinoa's belly knot with unease. She shook herself. Politicians couldn't afford to be swayed by silly stories. But perhaps she could learn a thing or two about governing different political factions from the Clans War.
The new arrivals, herself among them, were debriefed in a tent near the entrance to the site and were given two bottles of water, some cheap sunscreen and some basic tools rolled up in fabric that she secured to her belt. Rinoa was assigned to the newly discovered area a short walk to the east of the main excavation site. She wasn't particularly thrilled about this. Cid suspected the mound was suspicious and so wanted it dug up, except of course they couldn't just dig in case they smashed an already smashed vase or something. Instead they needed to use their little trowels to chip away at the unaccommodating rock face, for hours and hours, taking care to inspect and evaluate even the smallest of pebbles, without any guarantee of finding anything. Cid seemed optimistic though, but then again Rinoa couldn't think of time when Cid wasn't optimistic.
As she walked to the area that was marked out with white ribbon tied between stakes, she glanced down at the trench to her left. Students and archaeologists chiselled patiently at its sides. Others sifted through dirt like miners panning for gold. Someone was taking photos of a partially unearthed skull, while a visiting professor from Balamb Museum was debating with the Assistant Head Archaeologist whether it was wise to use a trowel to pry the bones from the earth.
She sighed and peeled her shirt from her sweating back.
She spent the afternoon digging into the mound. The ground began to open up underneath her, revealing more compact rock. At one point someone excitedly declared a discovery, but Cid dismissed it as an old lizard turd with a supportive pat on the student's head.
They stopped for a break a few hours into the dig. Already Rinoa was having deep and intimate thoughts about her shower back home. Gods, she would die for a swimming pool right about now. Yet at the back of her mind the hand-in date for her dissertation loomed like thunderclouds on the horizon, and to take her mind off the gnawing anxiety she took a slow walk around the excavation site.
It spanned perhaps a quarter of a mile in total, but with every ambiguous mound discovered it was expanding to double that. Rinoa stared out at the barren landscape of Lolesterin Plains, nothing but rock and sand in all directions, and then at the scavenger birds wheeling overhead. There was a small band of mercenaries hired to stave off monsters, though there hadn't been so much as a territorial dung beetle to contend with, so they were all sprawled out in their tent, picking their nails with thin knives and playing cards.
She tried to picture the landscape as it had once been. She knew if she carried on walking another few miles she would come across a great dusty gorge in the landscape where a river had once flowed. These lands might have been fertile once. The years spanning the Tensin Era were meant to have been relatively prosperous pre-war; the houses had been tapering with slanted tiled roofs and ornate stone gardens. Rinoa remembered seeing a replica of a lady's dress in a museum once: it was made of heavy silk, wrapped around the body and secured with a thick bow at the back, all intricately embroidered with sleek, long necked birds that were long extinct. There had been a man's armour too, thick scales of leather hide underneath beaten sheets of metal.
Rinoa swept her gaze over the landscape. Dead. All dead. It was kind of depressing if she thought about it for too long. In six hundred years would a girl stand upon what had once been Timber, looking out across a plain of nothingness, and wonder what sort of people had once dwelt in the ruins?
The thought made her shiver. Had the sorceress done this, or had the climate change irrevocable scorched the landscape? Had the Lunar Cry demolished this area, or had the river dried up from natural causes and took with it the trade and prosperity of a once powerful nation?
Rinoa looked at the earth under her feet and her attention snagged on a lizard. It was nothing special to behold, its leathery skin an uninspired brown. It cocked its head, contemplating her through a slitted eye, then abruptly dived into the sand and disappeared, leaving something like a ripple in its wake.
Huh. Weird. Wasn't there just rock underneath the dust and sand? Rinoa dropped to her knees and brushed away the top layer with her hand. It took her a moment to process what she was looking at. She rapped her knuckles against it to make sure. Excitement scrambled up her throat like an animal wanting to be free, and with trembling hands she unrolled her linen tool holder and withdrew a thick bristled brush. She dusted away the debris to reveal something very large and made of stone. Strange symbols and pictures were inscribed into its surface and there was a large crack down its centre, apparently where the lizard had squeezed through.
Her exhilaration bubbled over and she leapt to her feet, shouting and waving her arms.
"Cid! Cid! I've found something!"
The cluster of archaeologists turned to stare at her. Cid separated from the group, looking red faced and sweating even in the shade of a tent. "What?" he yelled.
Rinoa frantically pointed down, grinning madly. "I've found something! I've found something!" She took a step forward. "I think it's a –"
The ground gave way beneath her feet.
She didn't have enough sense to cry out in alarm; she could do nothing but surrender to gravity. She experienced the weightless sensation of flying and for a terrifying moment she thought there had been a giant monster hiding under the sand and it had swallowed her. Then she hit the ground with a sickening jolt of pain that flashed all the way up her spine. Sand, rocks and dirt rained around her ears, knocking off her sunglasses. She yelled in fright and covered her head with her hands.
The din made way for silence. Rinoa remained splayed on the floor, hands trembling against her skull, listening to the pitter-patter of rogue pebbles skittering around her. She realised she'd been holding her breath, and stupidly she gasped in air, only to find herself choking on dust and sand.
"Rinoa! Rinoa, can you hear me?"
Rinoa squinted through the thick, tan clouds. There was a circle of light above her and she spotted the indistinct smear of faces peering over its lip.
"Stay away from the edge, children," she heard Cid say (though half the archaeologists were grown men and women). Louder, he said, "Rinoa? Are you alright?"
Rinoa performed a quick self-assessment. Other than the pain from landing on her butt and the dust filling her lungs, she seemed to be fine. "Y-yeah!"
"Hold on, we're going to come down after you! W-we'll bring ladders! And rope!" He said this as though he was suggesting bringing cake to a tea party. "Don't go anywhere! And don't touch anything!" he added.
The faces retreated and all that remained was the hushed conversation of the lingering students. Suddenly, she felt very vulnerable.
Rinoa peered into the darkness around her. The shadows seemed unnaturally dense, and as the dust began to settle the air took on a thick, heavy quality, as though it was an old tired thing roused from slumber. She resisted the peculiar instinct to call out, to check she was alone.
She found her linen cloth of tools under a layer of sand. She emptied out its contents and tied the cloth around her mouth in hopes to filter some of the dust, then retrieved a little torch from the pack.
After giving it a few whacks it flickered to life. She pointed it into the darkness. The amber beam was choked with dust, but it also revealed that she'd fallen into a chamber that was definitely not dried up underground waterways. Quite the opposite: it was manmade.
The room was roughly hexagonal and large enough to throw back echoes. It was carved from great slabs of grey stone, and each flat surface was scribed from ceiling to floor with alien script. She approached the nearest wall and, gingerly, ran a hand over the markings. When was the last time anyone had seen this? Touched this? It could have been one hundred or one thousand years old for all Rinoa's knowledge extended, but she definitely knew it was old.
She turned slowly, letting the thin beam of light slide over each surface. Her eyes were adjusting to the darkness now as the sun greedily poured its light through the hole she'd made in the ceiling and diluted the shadows.
Her attention snagged on a lump at the far end of the room. She crossed the space cautiously, walking through the halo of light and back into shadow. Unhelpful recollections sprang to the forefront of her mind, mainly the traps that the old Vathrians used to build in their temples: spiked walls, snake pits, poison darts spat from invisible nooks. Or was that the latest adventure movie she'd seen? In the darkness of the ancient chamber it seemed interchangeable now.
The lump took form as a stone chest laid on its side astride a featureless altar. It was as long as she was tall and wide enough that if she was slightly insane she could have squeezed into it…
She recoiled, fear impaling her with a sharp spike.
A coffin. It's a freaking coffin. It's… it's…
The name stuck in her brain like a pin in a cushion and she was suddenly shaking with foolish superstition. Foolish, silly, very un-political superstition. Yet said baseless fear stirred the hairs on her neck and she shivered. What if the ceiling caved in and she trapped in here? Would she hear scratching inside the coffin? Hear the crackly breathing of someone else? Here the slow creak of hinges as the lid slid open?
Stop it! There's nothing in there but old bones.
She swept the torch light around the coffin in search for the treasure. But there were no chests spilling gold onto the flagstone floor, no golden statues with ruby eyes, no giant emeralds atop pedestals. There was, however, two long boxes beside the coffin; one on each side. She recalled how the Vathrian emperors and empresses would sometimes be buried with their pets or children, more often than not the latter being buried alive to oversee their passage to the afterlife.
The thought made her skin crawl again. That said, if these artefacts really were from the Tensin Era, sacrificial burial was never practiced. But did sorceresses even adhere to collective tradition? All the sorceresses she'd read about seemed to reshape, destroy and create tradition according to whatever mood they were in at the time.
She paused near one of the boxes, fingers twitching nervously. From the hole in the ceiling she heard fervent discussion about lowering a ladder. Apparently the rubble meant it was too unsafe.
Cid said she shouldn't touch anything, but… what harm would lifting a lid do? It looked sturdy enough, and if, for whatever reason, it did disintegrate under her touch, she could always say she found it like that.
Curiosity overwhelming caution, Rinoa wedged her torch between her teeth and angled it towards the box. It was scribed with the same characters as the walls and coffin and sported just a single, silver latch. She flicked it open and lifted the lid. It was stiff and unforgiving under her grip, like an eye groggily opening to harsh morning sunlight.
There was a sword inside, one like she'd never seen before. Despite being buried for centuries, its long blade flashed brightly in the torchlight, capturing her reflection and throwing back her light, almost like a rebuff. Go away, it seemed to say, leave me alone.
She ran a finger along the metal, cool under her fingers. She shifted the light to the handle. It was wrapped in black leather and etched with the face of some beast mid-roar. A lion? They had been extinct for some six hundred years. Well. Since the time of Izamel, she supposed.
The sharp sound of a rock hissing across the floor behind her made her shriek. The torch tumbled from her mouth, smashing against the stone floor and plunging her into semi-darkness. The lid of the box snapped shut as her fingers flew up in fright and she scurried backwards on her hands, heart hammering in her chest, into the sanctuary of the light cast from the hole.
"Are you okay?"
Cid's voice, calling down to her like some concerned god through a gap in the clouds.
Rinoa's gaze raked the shadows. Something moved in the corner. Fear clogged her throat and banished the air from her lungs. She could only sit and wait for it to take form.
The same lizard from the desert waddled out from under a rock and she deflated like a popped balloon, breath hissing out of her and shoulders slumping.
"F-fine… I'm fine. I was just… stupid," she answered lamely.
"Oh. Okay. Well. Don't touch anything," Cid reiterated. "We're going to send down the jeep's winch as it's too dangerous to lower ropes."
Rinoa drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them. Her eyes were fixed on the coffin. For some reason she felt like it was staring at her. Taunting her. What are you afraid of? it seemed to say. I'm just an empty box. Come see. Come see…
I can't believe I've discovered this, Rinoa thought. Would the credit go to Cid or would her name be written down in history? Her face split into a smug grin. Take that, daddy. I've unearthed a priceless artifact, all for Esthar's gain.
Her grin faltered a bit. Once it was in Esthar's grasp she'd probably never see its contents. At least not in person. It would be ferreted away by the secretive, greedy authorities in Esthar. If it was valuable or held residual magic, the news of its discovery would never even make international news. Would Cid let them open it once it was properly excavated from the chamber? Or would he ship it straight to Esthar?
Rinoa pursed her lips. Of course it would be the latter. Its contents might disintegrate when exposed to the elements outside. However, if it was still in its original chamber, maybe it wouldn't be so bad…?
The coffin remained unmoved. The lizard contemplated her, then blinked and unhurriedly retreated to a shadowy nook and disappeared.
Just a little peek won't hurt…
Rinoa stood up and approached the coffin. The crunch of gravel underneath her boots seemed unbearably loud in the soupy air of the chamber. She felt her forehead bead with sweat even though it was quite cool. She knelt beside the coffin and hesitantly touched the lid -
She snatched her hand back in alarm. Had she felt a pulse go up her arm or was it her imagination? She shook her head.
Her voice was way too loud in the chamber and she had the uneasy feeling that coffin might think she was insulting it.
"Not you," she clarified.
She trailed her fingers along its side, resolutely turning away any images her brain drew from the depths of her consciousness, mainly horror movie archives involving zombies and vampires, and replaced her unfounded fear with business-like stoicism. Afterall, she could hear the jeep's engine starting up so she probably didn't have long before she was rescued.
She braced her feet against the floor, bit her lip and pushed.
For a moment she thought it wasn't going to budge, then there was the sound of stone grinding against stone and she was shifting it forward. Forward and forward, inch by inch, until there was a pool of darkness underneath her.
The coffin was open.
Rinoa straightened and peered into the darkness. The sparse light thinned the shadows, revealing a cluster of objects inside and –
A great cloud of dust exploded out of the coffin and directly into Rinoa's face. She yelped, raising her arms to shield her mouth, then realised with horror that it was not dust but flies, hundreds of them, swarming over skin. She reared backwards and screamed, a choked, animalistic noise, and clawed at her skin with her nails, trying to scrape off the insects that were skittering over her limbs, buzzing and chittering, under her clothes, drinking her sweat. She clenched her eyes shut, dared not open them lest the flies got in, but she thought she saw purple light flare behind her eyelids.
Everything became eerily still. She opened her eyes and stopped scrabbling. She looked down at her arms, her legs, her torso, the backs of her hands. There were no flies. There was no dust. Her pale skin was streaked red from where she'd clawed herself in a frenzy.
What in Hyne's name…?
She looked at the coffin and her heart stopped. The lid. The lid was back in place.
No. No. I moved it I know I moved it.
She took a step back. Panic was threatening to snap its leash and tear apart her rationality. Her breath was short and ragged, like she'd been running.
I have sunstroke, she reasoned as she slowly rubbed the welts on her arms. Or maybe I didn't move it. Maybe it was just a trick of the light and I thought I had but…
But she had smelt it. The waft of foul, dry air that had rested undisturbed for centuries. And the cloud of darkness that had launched at her face –
Stop. Sunstroke. That's all it is. Fear makes people irrational, illogical.
The voice sounded frightened. She realised it was Cid's and that he must have been calling her for some time.
"I –ark - " Her voice came out as a rasp. She swallowed, her tongue like sand, and tried again. "I'm here! I'm… okay. I'd quite like to get out of this hole now."
"We've already lowered the winch!" Cid really sounded concerned now.
Rinoa turned around, away from the coffin, and blinked into the bright sunlight filtering through the hole. True enough a thick cord of wire had been lowered into the chamber, with a hook attached to the end large enough to comfortably wedge her foot into. She took a grateful step towards it –
A shadow shifted at the other end of the chamber, right in front of her. The movement froze her to the spot, hands raised to grab the rope, one foot in front of the other.
Cid's voice seemed very far away. "Rinoa? Rinoa, what is it?"
There were two figures standing in front of her. They were dipped in shadow, featureless but intimidating, both taller and broader than she. Her fragmented mind tried to convince her they were statues she had not noticed before, but she caught the minute movements. Breathing. Slight tilt of the head. The faint creak of leather. The light snatched little details: the gleam of the whites of their eyes, the glint of teeth – was one smiling?
Oh my gods oh my gods oh my gods
Something in her snapped and thrust her into movement. She grabbed the rope with both hands, jammed her foot into the hook and clamped her eyes shut. She wanted to scream for them to haul her up, health and safety be damned, just put the pedal to the metal and get her the fuck out of here, but the terror had left her mute. She just stood there and shook and kept her eyes fixed shut and waited, like how she used to hide under the covers as a child after a nightmare.
Oh my gods oh my gods oh my gods
Something pressed against her mind, gentle pressure both probing and wary. The beginning of a headache whipped across her temple. What was happening to her?
It seemed like she stood in that chamber, clinging to the rope with sweat-slick hands, for an eternity, but it must only have been seconds before the mercenaries began winching her up. She rose from the chamber like a soul ascending to the heavens, except she was shaking and crying, dry sobs of fear wracking her chest.
Get me out oh god please I'll do anything just get me out
Every second she anticipated a skeletal hand to snatch her ankle and pull her back into the darkness, but she was hoisted back onto the hot, unforgiving ground of the desert without incident. She scrabbled as far from the hole as possible before collapsing into an inconsolable heap.
Cid knelt down beside her, a wide grin cracking his face.
"So, how does it feel to be the first person to discover Izamel's tomb?"
Rinoa burst into tears.