WELP I bet you thought you'd seen the last of this fic, eh? 3 years since my last update. Amazing how time just slips through your fingers, but I never intended to abandon this. It's too much fun to write and I don't know if I'll ever shake this old habit of writing fanfiction - I've been doing it for fifteen years! I knocked this chapter out in a day and hopefully I'll be able to continue at a better pace. I'm also working on another FF8 fic that is already 15 chapters completed, though I promised myself I wouldn't post it until it's finished.
I have no idea if anyone is still around in this fandom to pick this fic up again, but if you are, reviews are always appreciated.
Rinoa thought she knew what cold was.
She fondly remembered frosty Deling mornings wrapped up in scarves and mittens, clutching steaming paper cups of hot cocoa while waiting for her chauffeur to pick her up and take her to school. She remembered running through freshly fallen snow in the parks, catching snowflakes on her tongue and trying to knock down icicles with rocks. She remembered fur trimmed boots skidding on ice and sparkling city lights on bitter nights.
Rinoa thought she knew what cold was.
She was wrong.
The cold in Trabia burned like fire. The snow storm seemed almost sentient in its savagery; it whipped and bit and stung and numbed with unrelenting force, until her skin was raw, her limbs stiff and leaden, and every inch of her screamed in agony. Where normally such pain would sharpen her mind, it left her sluggish instead, and Death whispered in her ear to lay down and sleep. Sleep would take away the cold. Sleep would make it better. Sleep would make the pain go away.
No. She could not sleep. She would not listen.
One foot in front of the other. Left, right. Left, right. One foot in front of the other.
The wind whipped the world in a frenzy, blending white sky with white ground and bleaching away even the darkness behind her eyes. The line of firs at the mountain's base was the only blemish in the otherwise stark landscape, and she trudged towards it at a snail's pace.
Right. Left. Right. Forward.
She wouldn't last much longer in such a place. It was a blessing she'd worn walking boots, though even those were now soaked through. Her bare arms were utterly numb.
It seemed like a small eternity had passed before she finally breeched the treeline. She walked for several more minutes until the worst of the storm was hindered by the thick trunks and canopy, though it did nothing to abate the cold.
Rinoa turned to wait for her knights, her hands braced against her arms, shivering so hard she thought she could hear her bones clattering together.
Squall and Seifer came to stand beside her. Neither showed outward signs of being cold, and although their thoughts were miserable across the Bond, she eyed their indifference with nothing short of loathing.
"Izamel granted us affinity to certain elements," Squall told her, reading her resentment across the Bond. "As a result, we have a higher tolerance to extreme temperatures than normal people."
Rinoa forced words though chapped lips and clenched teeth. "I'm th-the sorceress here, wh-why don't I have that?"
"You could change all this, you know." Seifer eyed her with that hungry look, then snapped his fingers. "Just one word and you could turn this frozen wasteland into whatever you wanted. Make the clouds roll back, the sun come out. Shit, you could make it into a desert if you wanted to."
"I c-could… make it warm?"
"You could," Squall said, "but the consequences would be disastrous for the ecosystem. Irreversible." He shot a withering look at Seifer. "He knows that. You saw for yourself what Izamel's magic did to our lands."
"You could just make it a bit warmer," Seifer pressed. "Or at least stop the fucking storm."
Rinoa gnawed on her lip, and it began to bleed. She didn't even feel it. "No… I can't control myself. I might scorch everything, kill everything. I c-can't…" She trailed off despondently. "What am I going to do?"
Her knights watched her silently for a while, waiting for her to take the initiative. The storm howled through the trees and shook heavy loads of snow off their branches, where they landed on the forest floor with muffled shh-unks. Rinoa tried to think of a plan, but her thoughts were as frozen as the land.
Seifer's end of the Bond shifted impatiently. He said, "Damn, but you're a weakling," then pulled her unbidden into an embrace.
Rinoa went stiff in his grasp, a range of expletives and protests spluttering to her lips, but then her eyes widened in surprise.
He was warm. So warm.
"It's a talent," he said smugly.
"It's the element Izamel gifted to him," Squall rectified. The end of his Bond lanced with irritation and awkwardness, and he placed a hand on his hip and looked away. "What's the plan?"
Seifer smelled like blood and ash and the jasmine fabric softener she'd used to clean their robes with. She could hear the steady thumping of his heart and feel the rise and fall of his chest beneath her cheek. He radiated warmth like an open flame, so hot it made her clothes steam and thawed the frost clinging to her hair. She pressed her fingers against his chest, wriggling them until the first dregs of painful feeling returned. His arms were strong around her and she admitted, somewhat begrudgingly, that it was actually quite comforting.
It occurred to her for the first time proper that they were real, flesh and blood, not magic or figments of her imagination. Actual, living, breathing people.
That revelation only worked to frighten her. Because if they were real, then her magic was real. And if that was case, she really was in a lot of trouble. If she made it out of wherever the hells they were now, that is.
"Maybe we should head for the mountain," she suggested. "Often people build at their bases to protect them from the worst of the storms. Maybe there's a ski resort nearby, or at a least a cave."
Her knights mulled over this plan sceptically, but as they could offer no alternative, they began trudging through the forest and into the mountain's vast shadow. Rinoa hunkered against Seifer as best she could while trekking, and he tolerated her frozen fingers around his arm with just a trace of impatience.
The forest began to thin and give way to a rocky incline too steep to climb. They stayed mainly within the treeline to avoid the snowfall, and followed the mountain's base to the left, picking their direction at random. It was growing dark, and even her knights began to betray signs of concern at that. It was already minus degrees, and even with their elemental tolerances they would not last through the night without shelter.
Rinoa continually scanned for signs of civilization, but there was nothing; no tramways or roads, not even a satellite station at the top of the mountain. It was a true wilderness. How had she managed to teleport them here? How could she control it? Though there were fewer deadlier places than the ice fields of the north, she could just as easily have teleported them to the middle of the ocean, or into the volcanic lava fields of the Heath Peninsula, or the blistering Kashkabald Desert.
Though that was little comfort when faced with the very likely possibility of freezing to death. Would it be worth taking the chance and trying to teleport? How did she even do it the first time?
Squall cut through her musing, calling over the howling of the storm. "Deysi, there is a cave."
"Thank Hyne," she said, wilting against Seifer. "Let's get inside."
Rinoa had to spend many minutes blinking into the darkness before she could discern any shapes. The walls were jagged and the cave extended deep into the mountain's bowels. She wondered whether it had been carved by lava streams long dispersed, or perhaps it was an abandoned mining site. There was no signs of life, though a strong smell of ammonia and damp clung to the place, almost making Rinoa wish for the pine outside.
They traversed some way from the entrance where the storm could not reach. While the knights went about securing the area and checking for danger, Rinoa found a large bundle of dried branches further inside the cave, and gathered the smaller pieces into her arms to be used as firewood.
Just as she neared the entrance, a movement caught her eye in the shadows. At first she thought it was Seifer, but the colours were so vibrant they gave her pause. She peered into the darkness, and a catlike creature stepped nervously into the light. She was so shocked it didn't occur to her to react, and by then the creature had whizzed past her with a distressed mewl and disappeared into the snowstorm.
It took a moment for her to process what she had seen, and when she did she could hardly believe it. A wild Moomba! She'd seen them only in pictures, but its fiery mane and oversized paws were unmistakable. They were meant to be extremely intelligent, but she did not begrudge its hasty escape. After all, humans had a history of hunting and enslaving them.
Putting aside her encounter, she dumped the firewood on the ground then squatted on her haunches to study it. She teased the magic to the surface of her thoughts and let it stew there, unnerved by how easily it came to her, like the name of an old friend.
She chewed on her fears for a moment longer, then found the knowledge in Iklatek in her mind, and pushed hot magic through her arm and out through her fingers.
Sparks jumped to life out of nothing, a pitiful display really, little more than a child's sparkler on Burn Night, yet it was enough to catch the kindling and soon a fire was roaring.
Rinoa leaned back on her haunches, pleased with herself.
"That was pathetic."
Seifer emerged from the shadows of the cave and smirked at her. "I saw Izamel raze whole villages to the ground with a snap of her fingers. Flames rained from the sky, exploded up from the ground, burning so hot even water couldn't douse them."
Rinoa stared at her little fire, going cold. She raised her hands to warm them. "Well, I'm not in the business of razing villages to the ground, thank you very much. "
"You don't seem to be in the business of much at all," Seifer said. "Is this what we're condemned to? Babysitting a little girl too lazy to do anything other than start campfires?"
"Shush up," she said. "Why are you like this? I won't get anywhere if I can't control my powers first."
"He enjoys provoking people," Squall said as he trudged in from the cold outside. "Ignore him."
"I will do something," Rinoa continued, spreading her fingers to feel the warmth of the fire. "I said so, didn't I? The first thing I'm going to do is free both of you. But I can't do that – or anything – until I have things under control, and snarky remarks and bickering are not going to make that happen any faster."
They lapsed into grumpy silence, each of them studying the flames and the sporadic shadows they cast on the walls. Rinoa shifted closer to the heat and her tummy rumbled. When was the last time she'd eaten?
"Who were those soldiers?" Squall asked, apropos of nothing.
Rinoa cast her mind back to the attack. Strange that they had not been uniformed. If Selphie was right, the Galbadians and Caraway were openly searching for Rinoa and had no reason to disguise themselves, unless they'd hoped to catch her unawares. Additionally, those soldiers seemed willing to kill her if need be, and for all their differences she knew Caraway would never have given that order. Had it come from another power within the Galbadian government? But how had they found her so quickly?
Cid had said on the phone to seek Caraway's protection and had seemed nervous about the Estharians. But why?
"Maybe they knew," Seifer said, reading her across the Bond. Squall nodded in agreement.
"That Izamel's power was trapped inside her sarcophagus. Maybe they wanted it."
Rinoa thought about this. "Cid said they were under strict instructions not to open it and that the Estharians were desperate to get it out of Galbadia as quickly as possible."
"You were there to do the dirty work for them," Squall said, "while they reaped the rewards."
Rinoa scoffed. "It's hardly a reward. If I could give it to them, I would."
Seifer looked down his nose at her, his expression twisted with contempt. "The power of the sorceresses is prized and unequivocal; it is a gift that can reshape reality around a single person's whims. It is the dregs of a dead god – a god, deysi. There are people who would kill for that kind of power."
"Yes, there are," Squall said, staring stonily at Seifer.
"Are you saying I should be thankful for this?" Rinoa asked.
Seifer lifted his hands and shrugged. "Maybe you should. Do you know how many have sat on that kind of power and done nothin'? It's shameful."
"You'd rather I be some kind of… of dictator? 'Listen to me or else I'll magic you to death'? I won't do it!"
"Maybe it is best it went to you," Squall said. "If it had fallen into the hands of the others, what might they have done with it? To us?"
Rinoa thought about Esthar and Galbadia's constant battle for power, their use of magic and technology respectively to keep their citizens subjugated. "Probably nothing good…"
"Well then," Squall said, as if that wrapped it up neatly.
That didn't explain what they wanted to do with her though. Kill her? Use her? Her ignorance was crippling. "Maybe if I talk to them…"
"No," Seifer said. "You need to be in a position of power first. They likely know you are vulnerable right now. If you prove your strength first then you can lay out terms, barter your freedom, fight if you have to. This might be hell frozen over, but if we don't die you have the isolation you need to hone your magic. Revealing yourself before that is too risky."
"Also we're unfamiliar with their weaponry," Squall added. Bitterness chorused his words across the Bond. "It would be beneficial for us to study this modern warfare before engaging them again."
Seifer harrumphed, but voiced no objections.
Rinoa sighed. "I guess right now we just need to focus on getting out of here alive."
Squall nodded, apparently pleased by her logical thinking, then his end of the Bond became deathly still. He frowned at the fire. "Deysi, where did you find the firewood?"
Rinoa gestured carelessly to the darkness beyond. "It was just in a pile down there. Guess the wind must've blown it in or something."
The Bond became crystal sharp and the knights shared a look, something intangible passing between them.
"What?" Rinoa said.
They both leapt to their feet in unison, drawing their swords, at the same moment a huge shadow loomed in the cave's entrance. Rinoa scrambled up and backed away behind her knights.
"That wasn't firewood," Squall said miserably.
The shadow stepped into the light.
"It was a nest."
Rinoa's nanny had been a religious woman, the kind rarely encountered except for in remote towns in South Galbadia, where they still prayed to the moon and left offerings of wheat and clay idols to the monsters, and believed chocobo delivered messages from the dead. Caraway had tolerated her because Julia had chosen her, and Julia had chosen her because she wanted to help anyone who was a victim of Galbadian totalitarianism, and the upper class held the Old Ways in disdain, dismissing them as uneducated bumpkins and phasing out their religious practices across the city. Nanny Abigail had been kind, but very very pious, and had read Rinoa scripture from the Holy Book instead of the fairy stories her mother picked.
Rinoa had been a little scared by Nanny Abigail's stories of Hyne. He cut a frightening figure in the First Word of the Holy Book, where he burned children alive and tore himself into two, then disappeared into the world, never to be seen again (but always present, always watching, Nanny Abigail would say). Without Hyne's magic, Nanny Abigail said, the moon wept and its tears were monsters imbued with old magic that swept over the world to do what Hyne could not manage: kill all humans.
Nanny Abigail held the sorceresses in high esteem and spoke of them with a wistful note in her voice, saying they were the closest a person could come to Hyne, and were blessed by birth to walk alongside him in the afterlife, whereas all other humans had to earn that privilege. She also described in detail the monsters that did his bidding, and it was those stories that gave her terrible nightmares. Tonberries that crept silently through the corridors to disembowel Hyne's enemies with their knives. Great cats with whiskers that conducted thunder. Hulking giants that wielded cleavers as large as cars. Winged devils with hornet-like abdomens that sliced up their prey with wicked talons.
Within the safety of Deling and Timber, and with a strong military presence throughout the countryside, Rinoa had seen very few monsters in her life. She had glimpsed them only in passing as she stared out the window of a train or car, and they had always seemed so small and unthreatening, nothing like those of her nightmares.
Yet even the most frightening of Nanny Abigail's stories and her worst nightmares did not prepare Rinoa for the terror of seeing a Blue Dragon.
It was huge; the crest of its head scraped the top of the cave and its wings touched either side of the entrance. Its body was thick with muscle and folded in scales that gleamed iridescent in the firelight. It reared up on two legs, flexed its wings, and snorted green-tinged fumes through a beak trimmed with teeth. Amber eyes regarded them for a moment, and then it let out a thunderous roar.
"Shit," Seifer said.
Where Rinoa was frozen in utter terror, her knights were all action. They leaped forward in unison, barely giving the dragon time to muster an attack. Their swords reflected the amber light of the fire as they slashed at the monster's hide. Purple blood arched up the walls and sizzled as though acidic. The dragon roared again and turned with speed belying of it bulk; its colossal tail whipped across the floor, putting out the fire and knocking Rinoa off her feet.
Squall and Seifer had leaped out the way and resumed their attack, pushing it out of the cave and into the dark snowstorm outside, while Rinoa had landed awkwardly on her back and become winded. She gasped for breath as the magic pulsed through her veins, and the rocks around her began to tremble. The mountain rumbled.
Calm. Calm down. You don't want to be buried beneath a landslide.
She caught her breath and took a few more to steady her panic. Outside she could hear the clash of steel, the snarling of the dragon, and she could smell magic. How she knew it was magic she did not know, but she was sure of it. It smelled like citrus and copper and something she couldn't place – something earthy and sickly.
The cave lit up with pink light. A spell had been cast.
Rinoa rushed to the cave's entrance to watch the fight unfold. She felt disconnected from what was happening, almost as though she was watching a movie about knights fighting a dragon to save a damsel in distress.
Which. Actually. Was exactly what was happening.
Squall and Seifer worked harmoniously despite their differences in technique. When one would engage its attention the other would take the advantage to hack at its scales, and they made sure one was mostly out of its direct line of sight, causing it to swing back and forth in frustration, searching for its prey.
It was fast though and not hindered by the three feet of snow and the freezing winds and blinding flurry. This was its territory. Its talons ripped easily through their robes and Rinoa watched through her fingers as crimson splattered against the white turf. But the knights did not falter and their minds were closed off with concentration.
Its amber eyes fixed on Rinoa and that was all the warning she had before it lunged at her. The scream died in her throat and time seemed to slow as her world became made of teeth and scales. She fell backwards and threw up her arms, and her magic exploded outwards and took shape in its environment. The snow solidified into ice and twisted through the air, slamming into the dragon's side like a giant's fist.
The dragon roared in pain and staggered backwards, and Squall and Seifer leapt in front of Rinoa to resume their attack. In that second Rinoa smelled magic again, but before she could warn them a sheet of green vapour unfurled between the dragon's gaping maws, enveloping the pair.
Squall and Seifer blanched in unison while Rinoa coughed and tried to fan away the residual cloud. The acidity stung her eyes and it stank of sulphur. Otherwise, it had little effect on her, though her knights seemed pained across the Bond. When she tried to question them, they would not answer, but threw themselves back into battle, taking advantage of the dragon in its weakened state.
It took only a few more deft slashes before the dragon fell. It hit the snow with a pitiful rumble that almost made Rinoa feel sorry for it. It was, after all, just defending its nest against invaders.
The knights fell back, panting and sweating despite the freezing cold. She ushered them inside and they wordlessly collapsed on the ground. Rinoa retrieved the scattered firewood and relit the fire with a spark of magic, then assessed the state of her escorts.
They were both badly wounded. Seifer had a cut running across his upper back and he favoured his left arm; Squall had three shallow cuts across his chest and thigh from the dragon's claws. Both were pallid and sweating, and there was a smell of magic about them, sickly sweet like rotten fruit.
"It is a status ailment, deysi," Squall responded to her confusion across the Bond. "A sort of poison that drains a person's strength. We call it vilkik."
Rinoa felt the cold hands of dread clamp around her belly. "Is there a cure? What do I do?"
"You can cure it with magic," Seifer said. His voice rattled in his chest and he gripped his arm with a wince.
"I… I don't know how. I don't know how! Tell me! I'll try, I'll do anything to help!" You can't die in this place because of me, she thought. "Please, I can't do this by myself. I don't even know where to start with the magic, I can't even –"
But they were fading so fast and did not respond. Their eyes were closed, their faces twisted with pain and complexions a pallid grey. Sweat rolled down their faces and their limbs stiffened and relaxed and stiffened again. Their breathing was shallow and rapid.
"Squall! Squall, wake up!" She shook him but he did not respond. She crawled over to Seifer and shook him likewise, but he was deathly still.
Rinoa climbed shakily to her feet and began to pace back and forth, sinking her nails into her cheeks so hard they left red crescents.
They were going to die. They were going to die and she was going to be alone in the middle of nowhere and freeze to death and it was all her fault because she just had to open that tomb, just had to stick her nose where it didn't belong, so now she was in the biggest mess and had god damn super powers that she couldn't control because she was so stupid stupid –
Rinoa spun around in terror, half expecting another dragon, but nothing so intimidating loomed in the cave entrance. It was the Moomba from earlier. Or at least, she presumed it was.
It stared at her with liquid brown eyes and tilted its head. "Mreow?"
Rinoa dropped to her knees, fat tears spilling down her cheeks. "I don't know if you can understand me, but I need help. C-can you… can you help? My friends, they're… they're ill and…"
The Moomba just stared at her.
Rinoa pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. "What am I saying, of course you don't understand."
A soft paw touched her forehead, and when she looked up the Moomba's wet nose was mere inches from hers. It made a disconcertingly human like gesture with its paw, pointing towards the entrance, and when Rinoa shifted her gaze she saw a whole pack of Moomba edging towards the firelight. Three of them were dragging something huge and furry, and for a moment she thought it was a dead monster, but when they got closer she realised they were carrying three coats made of Snow Lion fur. The first Moomba dropped it around her shoulders and petted her hair, as though she was the cute cat-like mammal here. The other coats were draped over Squall and Seifer.
Rinoa swallowed thickly and wiped the tears from her cheeks. "Thank you, but… my friends. They're hurt. Poisoned. They were fighting the dragon and – and it breathed these fumes and…"
"Mreow. Mreow!" The Moomba gestured again.
Rinoa shook her head. "I can't leave my friends."
The Moomba pulled on her coat, dragging her towards the entrance. She stumbled after it, and when she looked over her shoulder she saw the pack of Moomba lift Seifer and Squall's bodies onto their backs and begin to follow.
It was utterly dark outside. The moon and stars were hidden behind a thick mantle of cloud and the snow fell in icy sheets that whipped Rinoa's bare cheeks until they were raw and numb. She could barely see, barely hear, and in all directions there was only frozen darkness and the imposing shadow of the firs.
Yet the Moomba walked with purpose and direction, their flaming fur stiff with snow and their heads down, braced against the wind. Rinoa held on to one of their tails and followed blindly, keeping her eyes on her boots crunching through thick snow and praying the other Moomba would not drop her knights.
It felt like they had been walking for hours – though Rinoa was sure they would not have survived for so long – when suddenly they came across illumination. Rinoa looked up and squinted in confusion at what she saw. It looked like a giant spider hunkered in the snow at the base of the mountain, though as they neared she saw it was a construction almost as large as Caraway's mansion, with a turtle-like domed roof and six gargantuan pipes jutting from its sides. Curiously, there was no snow on or around it, and as they got closer she saw several pipes blowing hot steam across a path leading to the entrance.
The Moomba looked over its shoulder at her and nodded. "Mreow!"
Its entrance must have been at least fifteen feet high, yet as they approached it inexplicably opened, and Rinoa found herself in a stone courtyard under a glass roof. It was deliciously warm and she shed her fur coat. "What is this place?"
The Moomba beckoned for her to follow, and she did so after checking the other Moomba were keeping up with her knights. It led her to an ornate structure made of blue glass and wreathed in pipes, then through another set of doors and into an elevator that would not have looked out of place in Esthar. Once they were all inside, it bleeped, shifted, then began to descend at a pace so rapid Rinoa's stomach lurched and her ears popped.
When the door opened again, Rinoa could do nothing but gawk in astonishment. Gone was the frozen winterscape. Instead, there was lush green grass and fields of crops and ponds thick with lilies and bright splashes of wildflowers and brass houses. The cavern was so vast the ceiling was lost in darkness, though the rocky walls glowed with dazzling, natural illuminance. Even more absurd was the abundance of wildlife: rabbits, frogs, birds, butterflies and bees all found a home in this underground metropolis. The temperature was that of a warm springtime day.
Okay. Okay, this is weird. Maybe I've died. Or am I hallucinating?
The Moomba tugged her out of the elevator and while she stood and drank in her surroundings, the other Moomba hurried away with her knights. She reached after them lamely. "Hey!"
"Do not fear, we will tend to your comrades."
Rinoa frowned at the Moomba in confusion. "Did you…?"
The Moomba blinked at her.
"Here, Lady Sorceress."
Rinoa spun around and was faced with a Shumi. Just like the Moomba, she had seen Shumi only on television and pictures. They were a reclusive race by nature and vastly outnumbered by humans. She had learned they had several settlements scattered about Trabia but had been taught little else. If it was not of benefit to Galbadia, then it usually didn't make the curriculum.
"Oh," Rinoa said, and suddenly what the Shumi said hit her. "You… You know I'm a sorceress?"
"The Moomba told me," he said.
Or rather, Rinoa presumed he was a he, though she had once read that they were a sexless race. This Shumi was tall, with slack yellow skin and a purple robe that hid its body and most of its huge hands. She frowned at what he'd said. "The Moomba?"
The Shumi's eyes twinkled with amusement. "Yes, the Moomba are very perceptive of magic, especially old magic. We are Blue Mages by nature, did you know? We Blue Mages are not creatures of Hyne or the moon, rather we are born from the earth. Although we simple Shumi cannot sense magic as keenly as the Moomba can."
"Oh, I see." She didn't see. "Are you… not afraid of me?"
"The Moomba said you are good, so we do not fear you."
"Do you listen to everything the Moomba tell you?" Rinoa asked, throwing a sceptical look at the fluffy red creature chasing its tail.
"They are the pinnacle of evolution, the perfect form," the Shumi said without any trace of humour. He smiled kindly at Rinoa. "You are welcome here, Lady Sorceress. Please, come. The cold has not been kind to you, nor has this land's inhabitants, so I hear." He nodded towards the houses below. "Welcome to Shumi Village. Let me show you our humble home."