"My lullaby, hung out to dry.
What's up with that?
…It's dark in here.
Bleeding is breathing.
You're hiding underneath the smoke in the room.
Bleeding is believing.
I saw you crawling on the floor..."
Underneath the Smoke, Vol. 1:
by Catherine Rain
They were together again. Sitting on an outcropping of crystal and rock far below the main path, their arms entwined around each other's waist, they talked in voices too low to overhear. They must have thought they were alone, for Rosa leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, and he turned back to her and kissed her more properly.
Rydia sighed, settling her chin in her hands as she watched the happy couple from the walkway above their heads. She could not imagine a sweeter or more perfect pair.
She whirled, feeling slightly guilty at being caught in her voyeurism, though she relaxed a little upon realizing that Edge would think nothing of it. "Hi."
"Whatcha up to?"
A gossamer-draped wrist flicked towards the couple below, indicating the view.
Edge whistled, and looked ready to say something, when Rydia jabbed him sharply with her elbow and put a finger to her lips, silencing him. They were distant but not out of earshot, and Cecil or Rosa's attention might be caught by a stray word, thus revealing the spies.
The ninja's dark eyes danced. He crouched, putting an arm around Rydia, to her slight discomfort. "I found a whole cave full of treasure."
"Probably Bahamut's lair." Was he getting ideas from the pair below? The thought terrified her; she resolved to stick safely to business.
"No," he insisted, "this is way too small. It's just got some jewels and some very nice weapons."
The summoner held her shoulders stiff, afraid she would offend him if she brushed his arm away, but longing for a chance to escape his grasp. Any moment, she feared, she would twitch from the sheer tension and awareness of his arm across her back, and then she would be embarrassed at having done so. "So why didn't you bring it back?"
"I can't carry all of it myself." He said this as though it were obvious.
"Well, I didn't know. Do you want me to help you bring it back-- is that it?"
"If you don't mind, hon."
She pressed herself forwards against the railing, trying to relax. "Sure, let's go."
Finally she had an excuse to stand up and step deftly away from him. Once more able to think clearly, she played over her strange feelings as they walked, taking care to stay a few paces distant so he could not touch her again. Why was she so scared of his closeness? Did it discomfit her because she did not want his attention? Or did she really like it, and fear to admit it to herself?
I like him, she told herself, and then, No, I don't like him. He was the only man to pay her any mind, and she was flattered, and wanted it to mean something. That was all.
He led her to a small cave within the larger cavern that networked the surface of the moon; it was a little hole in the wall, the mouth a mere crawlspace latticed by rock uprights. Rydia saw at once the practical reason he had called on her help: Cecil would have had difficulty squirming through the tiny corridor. The small, bony ninja hunched down his body and twisted at the waist, backing into the hole and pulling himself along with the help of handholds he found in the wall. Tucking her long silk sleeves up and knotting them at the wrists, tiny Rydia followed suit.
Inside the dark passage, she noted a faint glow rimming Edge's grey silhouette in white; the crawlspace was not long. The two mages slithered out a wider hole into a room lit by the natural glow of white lunar crystal. Rydia sneezed, and waved a hand through the dust motes floating in the air.
Before she could even see the room, Edge leaned over in front of her, his arms spread protectively. "It's a behemoth."
She peeped out from over his shoulder. "Looks pretty small to me."
He laughed falsely, his wiry frame tensed for action. The creature perched on top of the jewelry was a juvenile, only three feet long; but they had discovered the hard way that even the little ones had long teeth and a devastating bite. It raised its violet head, gave a feline yawn, and stared at the intruders.
Edge stared back.
It hunched itself up and pounced.
Rydia flung herself sidelong to the floor, allowing the creature to leap lithely over her, and cried out in startlement as Edge landed on top of her a second later. He muttered apology, rolling off her, and sprang to his feet to face the beast. Rydia noted a smear of dark red on the grey cloth of his shirt, but snapped her focus back, disciplining herself to chant a spell.
She never had the chance. The ninja charged, swords cutting a pattern through the air, and flung his sharp weapons straight at the raging animal. It roared, twisting backwards in pain, and flung its body into the wall, its head crashing into the arch above the entrance to the crawlspace.
There was a horrible rumbling noise as of cracking rocks and pouring silt. The behemoth crumpled to the floor, its body falling most of the way into the crawlspace, only to be buried under a small avalanche of dirt and crystal shards.
They stared at the now-sealed exit, then at each other, in slowly building dismay.
"Have you seen Edge?"
"No," said Rosa, "I thought it was a little too quiet."
Cecil lowered his head in thought, strands of white-blond hair dripping in front of his eyes. "Come to think of it, it's been just about as long since I've seen Rydia... I'd suggest searching for them, but..."
The archer could not contain a small, sly smile.
"Okay, why don't we give them some time. If they don't turn up in a few hours, we'll go looking for them. Agreed?"
Rosa nodded. "They might be talking. Or something."
Rydia and Edge were indeed talking. "Dammit!" he snarled, kicking the wall in frustration. "Dammit all to hell!"
She stared at the angry ninja helplessly. "I don't think we can dig out of here."
"We have to," he muttered. "They have no idea where we are."
She curled back reflexively, afraid of his temper and of what he might do, and pushed her splayed fingers into the pile of golden coins on which she sat. The cool pile of metal gave way soothingly to her questing hands, covering them in gleaming pools of gold. It felt oddly and comfortingly soft. "If we pull the dirt out of that hole, more will just fall to cover it."
"Not if we stop it up at its source."
"How could we do that?" She stared around the room, seeing little of use-- dirt, coins and sharp weapons, as well as the few provisional potions they had at their belts. The swords could be used as picks, but stopping the rocks from falling down to the bottom of the wall was implausible-- especially as the slide was hidden behind the inner stone wall.
His expression set in a maddened scowl, he stared at the wall. "Watch this."
Rydia saw the orange-red aura with her mage's sight, glowing and expanding from Edge's body to spread along the contour of the wall. He closed his eyes, falling into a deep trance; she could almost see the concentration radiating from his profiled face. After a moment, the wall itself began to glow red-hot in a thin line above the blocked exit, and she inched away from it uncomfortably. Bits of debris and moss that were stuck to the wall spontaneously burst into flame, causing her to jerk back with a frightened hiss.
"Edge," she called tentatively. Lost in concentration, he either did not hear or ignored her call.
A large patch of moss caught fire, and she shrieked in panic. "Edge!"
He snapped his eyes open and turned to stare at her in irritation. "What?" The spell subsided as he turned away, the little flames on the wall burning out into glowing patches of blackened ash.
"I-- I don't think," she stammered, "it's a really good idea to have fire in here. I mean, if the whole cave catches fire, we won't be able to get out."
He frowned, exasperated. "It'll fuse the rock up there together."
"That won't do us any good if we're dead..."
"So what else do you suggest we do?" He folded his arms firmly.
Tears sprang to her eyes, and she tried to contain them, hoping he would not notice. "I don't know. Just... just not that. I don't think it's safe, that's all." Her eyelashes flicked bits of water, spraying as she blinked.
He must have seen the bright shine, for his expression softened, the scowl melting away. "Hon... you okay?"
Scrubbing at her eyes, she muttered, "No..."
His anger gone, he knelt beside her and gave her a hug. "I'm sorry," he said. "I wasn't angry at you."
"Well, I just thought it was unsafe." Truthfully, she had been terrified, but she did not want to admit it to the thin explosive man who held her close against her better judgment. Being in his arms was not comforting; rather, she was anxious to get on with the business of letting go.
"I didn't mean to yell at you."
"That's okay." Did he still not see it was beside the point? It was not his anger that she feared.
After a minute she judged that she could let go without offending him; as he did not loosen his grasp, she pulled away a little, compelling him to release her. She pushed tendrils of green hair out of swollen, reddened eyes. "Really," she insisted, "can we do this another way?"
"I don't know. Let me think."
Exhausted and weak from spent emotion, she leaned on a brass box and tried to come up with a solution, but all that would run through her head were thoughts about Edge, a repetitive cycle of confusion and worry. She realized now that she could not love him-- indeed, his company was not that special to her. When he was nearby and not trying to flirt with her, she enjoyed his presence and thought that she should talk to him more often; but when he was away, she never missed him, not once. Having to go and socialize with him was a chore she hated to do. Cecil and Rosa were her real friends, for she always missed them-- never more than now. How could she have thought she loved a man whose company she hardly even cared for? Indifferent to him even platonically, and always possessed of a wish to pull away from his touch, she certainly did not want to be his sweetheart. At best, he was a passable friend.
"Come up with any ideas?" he said abruptly, making her thoughts scatter and hide.
He leaned back against the wall, irritation thinly concealed. "When you do, let me know."
As the white candle wax softened and dripped over the mark neatly cut in its side, Rosa lifted her head to look up at her sweetheart. "I think we'd better look for them now."
Cecil agreed, and marked out areas of the cave to hunt for their missing friends. Staying together seemed wisest, despite the low probability of danger; the plan was to stay out of trouble and slip unnoticed past the behemoths, which dwelt only on the main paths in a few certain areas wide enough for the great creatures' comfort.
"I'm sure they're fine," reassured Cecil as they packed their belongings in the knapsacks they each carried.
Rosa nodded, but her mind was filled with horrifying visions of Edge and Rydia dead or worse. "I can't stop thinking about what might have happened... even though it probably hasn't, I know..."
"I can't imagine they've been getting along for hours. If anything bad has happened, it's probably that they're not speaking to each other by now." He patted her hair, smoothing it without disarraying the meticulously placed curls. "That's all."
She gave a weak smile. "I hope so."
"So what can we do?"
"Will you stop asking me that?" the summoner snapped.
Edge shrugged, stood up and paced around the cave. He walked with an oddly bouncy step, taking two beats to set down each foot-- first the toe and then the heel-- as though dancing to some inaudible song. Finally he leaned back against the wall, sprawling out as though relaxing; almost instantly he jerked to his feet again, rubbing his back and scowling at the sharp stone he had leaned upon.
"Aah, I'm bored."
"I want to get out of here as much as you do," pointed out Rydia. "And may I remind you that this was not my idea."
"I'm sorry, hon. Didn't mean to upset you."
"I'm not upset," she cried, afraid he would try to comfort her again. Then she realized how tense she sounded, and tried to soften her voice, to sound casual enough that he might let her alone. "I'm just… in a bad mood. For obvious reasons." Some of which would not be so obvious to Edge, she thought wryly; they involved being stuck with him.
He sat down on the dusty floor and began to eat a granola bar.
"What are you doing?"
"Eating," he mumbled, his cheeks full of food. "Want some?"
"No." She wanted to throttle him instead. Clearly it was up to her to actually do something about their situation. Did he not see how serious it was? No one knew where they were, and they had no way out; and they would probably die before they were ever found. She closed her eyes, trying to keep the tears back.
Desperate, she began to pace around the inside of the cave, pulling at stones. She knew it was dangerous to loosen the fallen rocks-- the entire room might collapse on her head-- but such a death would be better than languishing in the tiny cave until they ran out of oxygen or died of thirst, depending on whether there were hidden air holes. She climbed up the wall and felt around the loose rocks near the low ceiling.
Suddenly, she started to laugh. It wasn't really funny, she told herself, but knowing that she ought not to laugh only made her convulse even harder in helpless amusement. Her hands slipped from the rocks she was holding on to, and she dropped two feet to the ground, crouching in a ball and laughing herself silly, flinching as a few loose stones hit the floor beside her.
"What's the joke?" said Edge.
"Of all the people," she gasped. "You and me. We've both lived in caves. We should know better. Especially me. I should freaking know better than to get myself into this mess."
But he had stopped listening. "Ya-HOO!" he screamed, punching a fist in the air. "Jackpot!"
"What--?" She stared with narrowed eyes, confused.
"Look! Look! Hey, hon. Hey. Look up."
She raised her eyes to see the wall from which she had fallen. The top part had crumbled, revealing a tiny crawlspace just large enough for one person to slither through. She went limp with utter relief.
"A way out?"
"Maybe. I'll go," offered Edge.
"No, you stay here. Please." She would go crazy if she could not do something productive. "I'll go."
"Did you hear that?" hissed Rosa, stopping in her tracks.
Cecil shook his head. They waited, frozen still, for a minute, but no further sound reached their ears.
"I thought I heard someone yell 'who.'"
"'Who's there,' maybe? Or 'you'-'where are you?'"
"I don't know… but it was definitely human, and it came from that direction." She hoped it was not a cry for help or a reaction to danger.
"How much do you want to bet it was Edge?"
She smiled at the truth of this. "I'm inclined to agree."
They continued down the passage, following the sound.
Rydia slithered through the tunnel, which remained dismayingly dark inside. It was slow going, sliding her body through the narrow space without cutting herself on the sharp rocks; she was already scraped and bleeding, but at least she had avoided any major gashes. With no light at the other end, however, the tunnel might prove to be an exercise in futility.
She caught herself wishing for Cecil to be her savior. It was logical enough, but she was amazed at how much she actually wanted it to come true, and not merely because she wanted to be safe. She would rather be rescued by the white knight than stumble out of the mess through her own skill.
How unlike me, she thought. How different this is from my usual hope. Rosa would have longed for rescue by the dashing knight, but that was Rosa; and Rydia had never thought that way. She had always been able to fall back on the protection of her friends when necessary; but she preferred to extricate herself from her own messes.
Yet somehow, she could not get the image out of her mind: Cecil pulling her from the rubble, worried about her, treating her as his lady. It was exactly what he would do for Rosa-- it was a Rosalike thing to happen. The scenario worked better if she pictured herself actually being Rosa instead of herself.
Was she jealous of Rosa? Did she have a crush on Cecil? Oh, no, she thought, I've got a crush on Cecil!
The thought made her heart flutter. She was a tragic heroine. Certainly that was easier than her problem with Edge, for who would sympathize with her about being too much admired? Being the victim of unrequited love was far more flattering. Now she would pine away-- would sacrifice for Cecil, would cast him sorrowful looks, would burn with jealousy as he doted on Rosa; but she would keep her friendship with Rosa as sweet and untainted as the purest blossom of spring.
Of course it would have to be secret. It would be Rydia's own private torture, which would haunt her forever, until someday, when she died, Rosa would read her private diary, and discover the truth. She would then clasp the tear-stained papers to her heart, and cry, "Oh, Rydia! I never knew-- never would have guessed! Such a kind, worthy friend, to harbor thy feelings unuttered in thy soul, for the sake of my sweet Cecil and my wretched self! Alas, poor, noble Rydia, thou hast sacrificed thy happiness for thy true love!"
Yes. It was good.
Oh, right, but not good for Rydia. She would cry a lot, doubtless, in secret. She would suffer a thousand torments. Alas, the sufferings of love!
Her arms were cramped against her body by a narrow place in the tunnel. She grasped at a rock ahead of her, trying to pull herself again through the difficult spot; but she could not squirm through. Raising her body up a little on her knees in order to lessen the weight, she tried to scoot forward, placing her hands on the rock floor before her as, constricted as she was, she could not move them beneath her. She pushed with her knees, kicked with her feet at empty air; but whatever she tried, her body would not budge.
Alas, the sufferings of being stuck--!
"Help!" she cried as loudly as she could in the awkward position of lying on her stomach. She hoisted herself up a little bit, took a deep breath, and screamed.
It was so loud that her own ears vibrated in aftershock. Maybe, hopefully, someone had heard it. Then, as she could think of nothing more to do, she flopped back down and tried to rest.
Minutes later, a crescent of white glowing light opened a few meters in front of Rydia's face. It widened into a jagged hole, through which peeped a curly-haired silhouette.
"Rydia?" said a soft, anxious voice. "Are you in there?"
"Yes!" she screeched, clawing at the rubble around her. "I'm stuck!"
Her savior, not the paladin but her new rival in love, squinted into the gloom. Then she turned her head to glance at something behind her. "Cecil, can you pull her out? It does look like you could reach..."
Rosa stepped away from the opening, and a white-draped shoulder appeared. A gloved hand reached blindly into the hole and felt the edges of the tunnel, questing.
"I'm right here," called Rydia, and grasped his hand in both of hers.
Cecil looped his fingers around one of her tiny wrists, and she was pulled forward, her shoulders scraping painfully against the rock walls. She gasped as the rough stone abraded her skin.
"Are you okay?" he called.
"Yeah. I'm just getting a little bit scraped up."
"I'm sorry... Do you want to pull yourself out on a rope or something?"
"I don't think it'd work." She tried again to shift her arms, but she barely had room to move. "I don't have the leverage. You're going to have to pull me out anyway."
She bit back a wail of pain and allowed herself to be dragged out of the hole, dust-covered, her silk dress torn and its wispy sleeves cut to shreds, gravel stuck in her scraped elbows and knees. It was nothing like the rescue she had so romantically envisioned. She was dirty, bleeding, ragged and in need of relieving herself. Her hair was a tousled mess falling in her face, but this at least was its intended style. The rest of her was in serious need of retouching. She glanced nervously at Cecil, aware that she hardly looked to her best advantage, but he was now sorting through his knapsack and not even looking at her.
"Are you all right?" worried Rosa. "Cecil, do you have a cure--"
"Already found it." He held up a small blue bottle.
"I'm fine," protested Rydia, trying to save the shreds of her dignity. It would, after all, have been better if she had rescued herself-- better than being dragged unceremoniously out of a hole; at least she would not have been the helpless child who made work for everyone else. That was probably how Cecil still saw her-- as the little girl he'd had to rescue not-so-long ago.
"Drink it anyway," said Rosa, "and you'll be better."
She realized arguing would only make her look silly, as though pretending she was not scraped would make it somehow less true-- and as usual, Rosa had a good point. She accepted the cobalt glass bottle.
After hearing what had happened to the missing party members, Rosa had a suggestion. "I could get Edge out easily. If I cast a shrinking spell on us, we could simply walk out of that tunnel. We could even bring a little of the treasure."
Everyone agreed that this was a good plan, and soon a pint-sized Rosa began her trek through the tunnel. Rydia sighed in private agitation. It rather wrecked her damsel-in-distress idea when Rosa herself thought up and set off on a rescue mission singlehanded.
Lady though she might be, Rosa was not really as helpless as one might be tempted to assume. She was small and soft-voiced and absolutely prim, and she seemed to be both meek and naive-- but she was neither; she simply fit the stereotype of a meek and naive person. Despite the image that she put forth, she was actually brave and capable; she often pushed herself to her physical limits, and had saved their party from disasters on several occasions. Rydia was embarrassed to have forgotten this. The sweet and ladylike image she had had of Rosa had overwritten her perception of the truth, and nearly made Rosa into something she was not. Actually, she was smarter, stronger, braver, and better than Rydia had remembered to give her credit for. It only made Rydia feel even less capable of winning Cecil's love. Rosa was close to perfect, and she was already his; why would he need anyone else?
That night they made camp a second time at the same site in order to be rested for the coming ordeal. Bahamut's lair was close by, but they were all tired and unready for a serious test of strength, having spent most of the day searching out treasure. Edge and Rosa had returned with pocketfuls of rare gold coins, shrunken and enlarged along with their carriers by means of the same spell. The wayward prince had been so proud of finding the cache that he seemed unfazed by the inconvenience to which he'd put his friends. He sat by the fireside now, polishing his swords with a scrap of soft blue fabric.
He hardly needed to speak out loud to remind everyone who had found the most treasure, but he had mentioned it several times anyway. Rydia let out what she hoped was an inconspicuous sigh. She had to her credit neither the claim of finding treasure nor the prudence of not having gotten trapped; whether she viewed Edge's foray as helpful or idiotic, she still came out of the situation looking useless.
Suddenly tired of seeing his satisfied expression, she drew herself to her feet and walked away from the campsite. Edge could watch the fire and organize the supplies himself. Rydia had not really minded being helpful, as someone had to sort the potions, but the ninja's lazy attitude irritated her; for once it ought to be his turn to do the boring job. She thought about reminding him to keep an eye on the fire, but he was not that dumb.
She meandered through the passageways aimlessly, making note of the way back; mainly she wanted to escape from Edge so that she could think in peace. The tunnel she followed led onto a small cliff, little more than a hole in the wall above a much larger room. Cecil and Rosa stood against the wall, down there, and they were kissing.
Oop, she thought, embarrassed; but they had not seen her. She scuttled back against the side of the opening so she would be concealed if either of them happened to look up. Then she remembered to be jealous.
It was obvious from the way he kissed Rosa that he loved her and could hardly think of anything else. Rydia could tell that without even having experience in the matter; it was that blatant. It was the oh-so-painful proof that his attention was on Rosa, that it would never drift or waver, that Rydia was unimportant compared to the way he felt for his childhood sweetheart. No matter what Rydia did, that truth would not change.
"Jealous?" remarked a voice behind her, and she nearly yelped out loud.
"Ssh!" she hissed at Edge. "You startled me."
"Are you jealous?"
It was supposed to be secret! "Of--?" She waved a hand towards the couple. "Of course not! It's not like I have a crush on Cecil or anything silly like that."
"I meant of kissing." He hadn't even looked jealous himself-- hadn't seriously thought she did have a crush on Cecil, she realized; it was nothing more than a pickup line.
"Actually, no." She gave him a disgusted look, which he did not even seem to see.
Why, oh why, when she tried to get away from Edge, did he have to follow her? Abruptly she remembered why she had come here in the first place, and why she had not come before. "Did the fire go out?"
"No one's watching the fire--?"
Maybe he was that dumb. "You stupid idiot!" She took off running down the corridor, envisioning the entire campsite going up in a terrible blaze. Perhaps even as they spoke about kissing and crushes and frivolous matters, their only route to safety was blocked by a wall of fire. They would be backed into a corner, as the deadly flames crackled slowly towards them-- heating the walls and floor to an unbearable temperature, filling the air with noxious smoke, rubble collapsing in upon them as they smothered and died...
As she bolted down the corridor into the widened tunnel, she was relieved, and slightly surprised, to find that the campsite was not glowing a deadly orange: in fact, the fire had all but gone out.
She had panicked. Now, seeing that her fears were unfounded, she felt horribly embarrassed. She unrolled her gold-colored sleeping bag and crawled inside, curling deep into the bag and hiding her face under the covers. She neither moved nor spoke to acknowledge Edge when she heard him return.
"Ryd, hon?" she could hear him ask, muffled by the cotton batting. "You asleep?"
Kissing. She was not jealous of kissing. She could remember the exact sound of Edge's voice asking her, repeating in her mind annoyingly like a single musical line that was only meant to be played once. The cadence cut off at the wrong place for it to repeat smoothly, and it made her restless.
She had no desire to kiss Edge-- it was, of course, Cecil that she loved. She thought about kissing Cecil, and immediately realized that she did not want to do that either. How could she have not noticed that before? She hadn't even thought about it. She clearly did not want to kiss Cecil.
Now that she was thinking about it, she wondered whether it was even true that she loved him. She did not want to actually kiss him or touch him or any of the things that love would involve. She would be happy to hold his hand or rest in his arms, but it would be a symbol of how much she cared about him, not an end in itself. Her heart and mind were interested in him, not the other parts of her body.
Does that mean I don't love him? she thought. It was part disappointment and part relief. She would not have to rival Rosa if his love was a prize she did not really want to win, and she would not have to be miserable because she had lost.
But if she did not love him, how to account for her feelings? She wanted his attention and his affection. He certainly had hers. In fact, she worshipped him; and although it might be an unfair thing to ask, she wished he would think of her as number one. It was not a general wish for affection; she wanted, specifically, Cecil's; and no one else's heart would satisfy her but his. What else could it be but love?
Nothing made sense.
It was slightly easier once she admitted to herself in so many words that she wanted Cecil's affection; regardless of what it implied about love, it was true. I want Cecil to care about me. At least that's true.
She did not fall asleep for a long time-- not until she heard Cecil and Rosa come back to the campsite as well.
Rydia lagged behind her companions, lulled by the rhythm of their boots clicking softly against the crystal-encrusted floor. She knew she was implicitly on rear guard duty, but no one had actually told her to watch their backs. In fact, that was literally what she was doing: observing her friends while her scrutiny could pass unnoticed.
She had never paid much attention to Rosa before, but now it was Rosa that she closely watched. What is it about her? wondered Rydia. What does Cecil see? Rosa was a nice person, to be sure, but she did not stand out. The primary virtue in Rosa seemed to be the absence of glaring flaws. She was decent in all respects, but captivating in none. Why did Cecil love her so much that without her, he had seemed ready to break?
Perhaps there was something special about her that Rydia simply had not noticed. She would try to see the things that Cecil saw, and figure out how to love whatever he loved. Perhaps this way she could begin to understand him, to walk upon his path or one that paralleled his; perhaps then he would listen to her and love her more. Besides, Cecil was a fair judge of merit; therefore Rosa was a wonder, and Rydia the one who had missed noticing her grace. Whatever Cecil loved could be nothing other than good.
Wrapped up thus in reverie, Rydia did not notice the behemoth until it whipped past her and pounced on Edge from behind. She skittered backwards in surprise; the ninja was already pinned to the ground beneath the monster's massive paws. An arrow sailed straight into the behemoth's left eye, lodging deep inside, and it slumped, lifeless.
Rydia had not even had time to begin chanting a spell before it was a moot point. She trembled with the delayed rush of fear and surprise, wishing she could have moved quickly enough to do something besides watch.
"Oof!" Edge squirmed forward on his elbows, struggling to pull himself out from under the claws of the corpse. He squeezed between its furry toes and climbed to his feet. "Man, that was scary as shit." He wrinkled his nose. "Smells like shit, too."
Pushing away her shock, Rydia folded her arms and frowned at him. "Aren't you going to thank Rosa? For bailing you out?" Perhaps the others would not think of Rydia's own failure in missing the attack.
"Yeah," said Edge. He smiled at the blonde archer. "Thanks. I owe you bigtime."
"Don't mention it," said Rosa. They both wore awkwardly polite expressions, as if to stress the fact that they were absolutely not flirting with each other in any way, so that no one could reasonably claim otherwise. She patted his arm with the palm of her hand in a friendly fashion, and he blinked, and patted her arm in return. It was so formal that Rydia had to swallow a giggle. Rosa had looked natural and correct, whereas Edge had just looked silly, trying to appropriate mannerisms that were not his.
"You know what?" said Cecil. "I think this behemoth was put here on purpose, to guard the path."
"Put here? By Bahamut?" Rydia blinked. "Actually, that makes a lot of sense. Some of the ancient trials were sort of like that. You had to fight through all these lesser demons, or monsters or whatever, to prove you were even worthy to challenge the greater powers."
"Lovely," said Rosa.
"If that's true, there'll be lots more surprises waiting for us on the path." She sighed. "Are you guys sure you really want me to do this? We have to hurry and find whatever's calling us, if we're going to stop Golbez... and this is going to take a much longer time than I said it would."
"I think we have to take the time," said Cecil quietly. "Without Bahamut's help, we might not be able to handle Golbez anyway."
Rydia nodded, her heart flip-flopping in her chest. She would have to go through with the trial after all. For a moment, she had hoped she could get out of it.
"Since this is going to take a while anyway, why don't we scout the area? We can find out what lies down this path before we take it. Some of these other passageways probably wind close to it, and there might be more holes in the walls," suggested Cecil.
"All right," said Rosa, "in that case, why don't we split up?"
"You and Edge take the branch corridor just back there," she continued smoothly, "and Rydia and I will go down that hole."
"Um..." An expression of worry spread on Cecil's face. "What if you run into a behemoth? Maybe it would be best if we all stayed together..."
"We'll be fine," the healer insisted. "The trials are set up for this corridor, so whatever we do we should be okay. Besides, Rydia can just fry anything that does attack."
Rydia grinned, having a sudden mental image of herself as a frying pan. At least Rosa seemed to think she was useful... and maybe she was, after all.
"But down the hole..." persisted Cecil. "You don't even know what's down there. You might get trapped."
"That's why it needs to be us and not you. We can use the size spell to get out."
Cecil nodded slowly. "All right... but be careful."
Would he have been so concerned if it were just me? Rydia thought sadly as she and Rosa walked back down the corridor.
"So," said Rosa, "are you scared?"
"Of the hole? Not too much. There's probably less of a chance of running into something nasty down there..."
"Actually, I meant of Bahamut's trial."
"Oh. Well. Just a little bit, I suppose. I feel like I'm not as scared as I should be, even though I'd rather not be scared at all. It's not like we'll actually die. Bahamut never kills challengers; he disables them. So it's less dangerous than even walking down this hallway." It was strange how little she thought about the fact that she might soon die from any given battle. She lived in constant danger these days, but instead of brooding about her mortality, she generally ended up worrying about something else-- something irrelevant or perhaps trivial. She supposed that had she been in normal circumstances, working to figure out her feelings for her friends would be logical, but compared to the gravity of their quest it ought to be no big deal. Why, then, did it consume her so? "It's kind of funny. I'm not even all that worried about facing Golbez. It's like whatever happens, happens. Maybe I just can't really believe that we all might die."
"Hm. ...I wish we could all see things that way."
"Are you worried about Golbez?" Was that what this was about?
"I wasn't referring to that." Rosa slowed as they approached the edge of a gaping dark pit in the floor. "It looks like there might be steps..."
Rydia put one foot down on a narrow ledge at the rim of the hole, testing its strength. "Yeah, I think there are stairs. Can you do any spells for light?"
"I don't know anything like that... but what about a fire spell? We could make a torch."
The summoner winced. "How about if we just maintain a magical aura?"
"Won't that be tiring?"
"We can take it in shifts. If it goes on too far without any crystals to light our way, we'll just come back up."
Rydia closed her eyes, concentrating, and the power began to fill her mind and body, swift and bright and lancing. She seemed to bubble with light-- pouring both into her and from her, pouring from that mysterious source to which all life looks, the breaking of her heart and the breaking of day. The magic flowed through her, searching for an outlet, but she dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands and reined it in.
When she opened her eyes, she could see the dark greenish glow of her own aura reflected from the walls and from Rosa. "Bright enough?"
They began climbing down the stairs of cut stone into the murky pit.
"So..." said Rosa. "You're afraid of a little torch, but you're going to fight a fire-breathing dragon god soon and you're not that scared?"
Rydia's heart leapt into her throat. Somehow, every time she thought about the fight against Bahamut, she'd managed to forget about what Bahamut actually was. She had put it out of her mind along with the idea of confronting Golbez, thinking of it as a battle like any other battle, and something she wouldn't have to worry about until she got there. But as Rosa had pointed out, Bahamut would likely snarf fire at her, and what would she do then? Freeze in terror? Surely she'd fight just the same. "I'm not that afraid of fire."
"Yes, you are," said Rosa flatly. "You're petrified."
She thought back to the way she had been behaving recently whenever near flames, and quailed. "Okay. So maybe I am." Or had she been overreacting-- freaking out to the maximum possible extent, in order to remind everyone else how much she hated fire so they wouldn't expect her to go near it? "I think I'll be okay, though. I hope."
But now she was worried. Rosa's statement had brought home the fact that dragonfire was no calm little candle-flame. Though she hoped the things she'd heard about it were exaggerated, they were probably not. "And now I'm thinking about it. Now I'm scared."
"It's not your fault." She sighed tensely. "I probably should be facing it so I'll be ready for it when it comes. Not that I can ever actually be ready for it, but... you know. Better than shock."
"It won't help to worry. Let's talk about something else."
Rydia nodded, relieved. "So... What, actually, were you referring to? When you said you wish we could all see things like 'that'?"
"Well. The way you said that whatever happens, happens... that's what I wish Cecil would understand. He's taken far too much upon his shoulders. It's like he's carrying the burden of what everyone else does, in addition to his own. It's more than just the pressure of being a leader... he feels like he's responsible for whatever we fail at."
"Like if I don't pass Bahamut's trial?"
"Like that, yes. Or if you and Edge get buried alive. Or if we have to harm Kain. If we kill Golbez it's all Cecil's fault, and if we don't stop him it's Cecil's fault too. No matter how little influence he has on an event-- or how little choice-- he's taking the blame for every disaster... as if he could have stopped it, and failed to do so."
"Yes. And sometimes things just happen. Sometimes it's out of his control. He's only human."
The summoner nodded blankly, having no idea what to say. Rosa had probably asked her to scout together for the purpose of talking about this, but what advice could she possibly offer about Cecil? It was Cecil!
"I'm sorry. I'm rambling..."
"No, no, it's okay. I just... don't know what to do either. I mean, I feel like he's right, he must be, about stuff like that, because he's so good and moral and brilliant. But you've got a point, too."
"He is, though," Rosa sighed.
"Yeah. Honestly? Can I tell you something?"
"Don't sound so worried. It's nothing bad." But how to start explaining a thing like this? The silence was so heavy it nearly immobilized Rydia. "But sometimes I feel..." She trailed off cluelessly, and tried again. "It's just... well, Cecil means a lot to me, and I can't stop thinking about it. It's not like I have a crush on him or anything, I swear! It's not like that at all. I just care about him a whole lot more than maybe I ought to. I wouldn't dream of taking him away from you. In any way. I want him to be happy. But I feel like him being happy isn't even an issue, like he's above me so far that I couldn't affect him if I tried. And that's silly and untrue, I know. What I'm trying to say is, well, no one knows how much he means to me, but he does, and I can't get him out of my mind, but only in a completely platonic way. Like everything I do comes down to 'What reminds me the most of Cecil?' And 'What would Cecil think about me if I did this?' He's an ideal. It feels like he can do no wrong. Even though I know it's ridiculous because, like you said, he's just human. And-- oh, god, I'm sorry, I'm the one babbling. Not you. I, uh... I'll shut up now."
"Rydia, it's all right."
"I don't wanna bore you with my silly problems..."
"No, really, it's fine. They aren't silly."
She took a deep breath to calm herself. "Um... thanks." It was sweet of Rosa to put up with her ramblings and to act like she actually cared.
"I think I understand what you mean," said the healer. "Cecil's such a magnetic person. It's easy to admire him, or to walk away from a conversation thinking he's right. His charm draws people to him, and they believe in him no matter what mistakes he's made. It makes him a good leader... but it can also be very dangerous, because people will follow him blindly. They'll make his mistakes for him without a thought. I think that's actually why he ends up blaming himself for everything..."
"Don't you do the same?" pointed out Rydia. "Follow him?"
"Yes," she said absently. "I love him. So I follow him. But at least I'm aware of what I'm doing... I do it because I want to. I think about it and I think it's right. He is right a lot of the time, you know. It's not all charm. Most of it is logic and truth."
"I know he's right a lot," Rydia specified quickly.
"It's a good thing, too. In the hands of an irresponsible person, that magnetic power could be misused for sin. But if anyone can handle it, Cecil can."
"Yeah... Oh, I'm so glad you know what I meant!" She laughed, a breathy sound of deep relief. "I was kinda afraid to talk to anyone about this because I thought you'd take it the wrong way and think I had a crush on him-- and I don't, I want you to know that. And Edge wouldn't get it. And I can't tell it to Cecil. But you get it. Thank you." Now all she had to worry about was Bahamut.
"Just keep in mind that he isn't always right. No one is always right."
"I know," said Rydia. "I definitely know. I feel that he's always right, but I know the difference."
"Good, then it's not a problem. Actually, it's a relief to tell you about his brooding, too--"
They reached the bottom of the deep pit, and stepped down onto an uneven floor made of what seemed to be loose cobblestones that rattled and shifted beneath their feet with each step. Both ladies fell silent.
"What's that?" said Rydia. "What are we standing on?" She squinted at the ground.
"I don't know..."
"Could you give us a little more light?"
Rosa shut her eyes, and her body began to glow with a slight golden-white aura of magic. As it intensified, she opened her eyes and they stared into the distant, wide-open cavern in the soft and faintly flickering light. The silence was profound, and Rydia began to think about how deep under the surface they were-- not within the earth, but far away from it in the secret recesses of the crystal moon. She had never been in a place more alien, more dangerous or more... silent.
A faint clattering sound speckled that silence.
"What's that?" Rosa grabbed her arm, terrified.
She clamped her hand on top of Rosa's. "Shh."
They huddled together, absolutely still, wild-eyed.
Something gleaming and white appeared-- first a dot, then a line, a silvery crescent forming in the void. Rydia huddled closer to her friend, longing for light. The crescent widened to a thin strip-- no, two strips-- two white lines-- a crazed jumble-- a thing lurching drunkenly out into the open-- a lone skeletal dragon that opened its huge white toothed jaws.
Shrieking in unison, Rydia and Rosa scrambled up the stairs on all fours. Rydia's fingers still locked over the edge of her friend's white cloak. They climbed upwards, screaming and clawing at the stone in panic.
The flight of steps seemed endless. The circle of pale light at the top of the pit haloed two familiar silhouettes. Cecil and Edge shouted down to them. "Rosa!" "Ryd!" "Are you okay?" "What's wrong?"
"Skeleton!" they screamed back. "Dragon!" "Corpse! Aiiiiieee!"
"Are you okay?"
"Rosa! Rosa, are you okay?" As the breathless healer reached the top of the stairs, Cecil scooped her up in his arms, pulling her out of the hole to the safety of his embrace.
"We're fine," shouted Rydia, doing her best to climb from the pit and pull herself to her feet while trying not to lean on Edge. He kept putting his arms under her and getting in her way in a misguided effort to assist. "It was just scary. We're fine."
"Really," panted Rosa, "really scary."
From deep below echoed the distant clatter of uncushioned bones.
"It was a dragon skeleton," Rydia explained, trying to be rational if not perfectly calm. "It just appeared like from out of nowhere... hoo, boy."
"Did it attack you?" Cecil worried.
"No..." admitted Rydia.
"What did it do to you?"
"Well, it didn't do anything to us, precisely..."
"What was it doing?"
She exchanged an embarrassed glance with Rosa, who shrugged. What else was there to explain? Sheepishly she offered, "...Walking around?"
"That's it?" wondered Edge.
"Thank god you're not hurt..." breathed Cecil.
Inwardly shriveling from embarrassment, Rydia waited for the couple to pick themselves up from the dusty floor so they could return together. Edge put his arm around her shoulders as if to support her, and she tensed slightly.
"I'm okay. I can walk just fine."
"Just helping out." And he did not remove his arm.
She tried to walk as though she did not care that he was touching her, feigning blissful unawareness of his proximity. If she acted like it was a big deal, he would think that she thought it was-- when she really believed it to be the opposite of a big deal; no matter how he touched her, she would always be neutral. The harder she tried not to react to the physicality of his touch, though, the more difficult it was to remember exactly how one would walk or stand if one was not paying attention to walking or standing. Would he notice her nervous awareness and misapprehend?
It did not help that he kept glancing at her with a confident, annoyingly possessive air, holding her back a few paces from Cecil and Rosa so they were walking as a couple. She half-expected him to break into some heroic speech: Fair Rydia, sweet Rydia, my Rydia, beautiful as the dawn, thou know'st that I would slay a thousand dragons for the honor of kissing thy dainty hand, except, it's hard to slay a dragon that's already dead. She stifled a giggle at the ending of the imagined speech. It seemed funnier than it probably was-- so funny, in fact, that she'd just forgotten about the fact that he was touching her, but now she remembered, and, oh god, he could probably tell whether she was tense or relaxed or aware simply by the way she moved or felt under his misplaced hand.
"So... Ryd, hon," he said. "Are you worried? 'Cause, you know, I can slay the dragon for you..."
Confused, she blurted, "But it's already dead!" How could he have known what she was thinking? How could she have been so accurate? She giggled.
"What? Whadda you-- Oh! Not the zombie dragon. I meant Bahamut."
"Oh god." She winced. "Bahamut." The spastic butterflies in her stomach multiplied spontaneously as she remembered exactly why she felt frightened. "Yeah, I guess I am scared. But... it is my battle."
"Are you sure..."
"It's my battle, and," she reminded him, "no one else can pass the test without me."
"Okay, hon, but if you need anything, just let me know..."
Did he think that was sweet? Did he think he was suave? He was just annoying, like a fly that would not go away. She wanted to scream these things at him, but she held herself back and was proud. She would not let him get to her. She would remain aloof. She did not care. "No. I just want this whole thing to be over with. As soon as possible."
Rydia had her wish. The corridor was neither as long nor as fraught with danger as the party had expected, and soon they approached a small clearing with a high, walled tower of shining white crystal. A delicate-looking ladder carved with a lacy pattern soared upwards to the top of the tower, which loomed out of sight.
"Bahamut's lair," said Rydia, "I think." She fought a tide of clammy fear.
"Exactly as we planned?" Cecil put one hand on a rung of the glassy etched ladder.
It startled Rydia to realize that he was asking her. "Uh, exactly. Don't change the plan unless I say so, or, if I'm down, Rosa says so." If I'm "down." Meaning, if I've been burnt to a crisp. It was so easy to say it, not thinking about what she was saying, and realize only later that she meant her own doom.
"These reflector shields… they're as strong as reflector spells?"
"Yeah, they're the same. You'll see and feel it exactly like a spell, so you couldn't tell the difference if someone hit you with it from behind." How did Cecil manage not to know that? Anyone who'd ever used a packaged shield would have noticed. Even the spell's "signature" buzz, the initial melting tingle of magic that felt different each time depending on the caster and the type of spell, was identical to that of reflector spells. It surprised everyone the first time they tried it; most packaged spells lost some of their buzz, but not the reflectors.
"And they'll last as long?"
"Yes." It seemed as though Cecil had never used packaged reflectors. Actually, she could not recall his ever having done so. "Haven't you used these before?"
"No, I don't know much about packaged spells…"
Huh. It hadn't occurred to her that most people didn't. Now that she thought about it, though, it would only be of interest to people whose jobs involved combat, and then only ones who used a certain fighting style. Cecil, for all his brilliance, simply wasn't into packaged spells; and thus there were things he didn't know. And some of those things might be things that she knew. Rydia had never thought about the things Cecil didn't know. She only assumed that since he was the more experienced—since he was Cecil—anything that she knew, he must already know.
She started up the ladder behind Cecil, keeping a large distance; she had a fear that she might put her hands underneath the place he was going to step, if she only took the care to remain a few rungs below his feet. Warm, dry currents of air rose around them, ventilating the cave with the strange light atmosphere of the moon. Her full skirt, so unrestrictive in battle, billowed out around her, and she self-consciously tucked it back around her legs every few steps she climbed. Thankfully, it was Rosa right beneath her, so Edge's view of Rydia's wayward skirt would be obscured. Not that any of them were able to keep their eyes on anything other than the rungs.
How could she have gone for so long without getting really scared of Bahamut? She must have still been in denial; for now the terror hit the bottom of her stomach like a lead gauntlet. Her hands had gone from their normal lily white to the color of bleached translucent curtains. Putting them one above the other, climbing itself, was not so frightening; it was not reaching the top that she feared. It was how she was going to deal with herself that scared her. How was she going to stand there and take a blast of fire, take flame and cinders flying all around her, and retain the coherence of mind to make good decisions? She had told her friends that she would give the word; the plan rested entirely on her. She had a knowledge of dragons that made her the only logical choice to lead this battle. But how could she be a good leader in this battle of blaze, she who was youngest and most naïve, she who turned coward at the roar of flame?
"Guys, wait." She stopped climbing. "Stop. I'm really scared."
"Of course you are," said Rosa. "But you can do it."
"No, I'm not fishing for a pep talk. I don't want one. Trust me, that is the last thing I want." Their encouragement—and their sympathy—would only make her feel even more inferior and babyish compared to the strength of her friends. "I just mean, I wasn't scared earlier, and now I'm really scared. Even when I said I was worried, it wasn't that bad. Now it is."
"Are you telling us you can't go on?" Cecil twisted his head to look down at her.
"No-o," she said slowly. "I can't back out. I need Bahamut. And I need to be the leader here. It's the only option… but I can hardly stand it."
"Either you can stand it or you can't," said Rosa. "We don't, or at least I won't, blame you either way. But you have to either go on or turn back."
"Yeah, my arms are tired," said Edge. "I don't blame you, but I wanna get off this damned ladder."
"Uh… I'll go on. I have to. But thanks." She looked up at the next rung of the crystal ladder, and wrapped her cold hand around it.
Rosa reminded her, "Didn't you say that Bahamut won't actually kill challengers—he'll just force a surrender?"
"Yes, that's right. He's a god. Divinity doesn't need to kill."
"Then we won't die. No matter what, we're going home. So the worst thing that can happen to you is pain. Life will go on."
"But pain… and fire… that's considerable. You say that's the worst thing like it's nothing, but it's pretty bad."
"Your life will go on," said Rosa, "whether you want it to or not. You think you can't cope with that, but you'll have to, and so you will."
"I guess." Rydia sighed, feeling almost as ashamed as she felt nervous. Rosa had a far better handle on fear, on danger, on life—on everything. Rosa lived gracefully, while Rydia herself was dragged through life screaming for mercy. But there was only one direction that made sense: to keep climbing up.
Rydia swung herself up from the ladder onto the edge of the plateau. The tower's top was flat, dark and smooth, as though the crystal had been planed with a tool. A path etched with patterns of crossed lines led, straight and smooth like a royal carpet, to an onyx temple guarded by a pair of stone figures—a boy and a girl, dressed as summoners. She could hardly breathe, for its chill beauty and power.
"At last," muttered Edge, pulling himself over the plateau. Rydia shot him an irritated look for spoiling her reverent silence.
But though her teachers had always instilled in her a sense of awe for the legendary crystal caves, they had never taught her how to properly pay her respects, should she someday be there. She realized the others were waiting for her to make a move, and she did not know the protocol. Stalling for time, she swept her gaze around the cavern, pretending to take it in; but she could no more concentrate on appreciating its grandeur than she could think of how to approach the temple.
One of the statues turned its head slightly, and she realized with a shock that it was a living girl cast in stone. It stared at the party with a gaze that looked deceptively blank. "Oh… you're a half…"
Half what? Rydia thought, wounded. Is she telling me I'm only half a summoner, without Bahamut's might? "I'm here to see Bahamut about that."
"What do you need?" The boy stared at her with eyebrow arched in half-scorn. "Have you come to pay homage to Lord Bahamut, have mercy on your soul?"
"I have come," she replied, her voice surprisingly firm despite her anxiety, "to request his aid, even should my friends and I have to prove our worth."
The boy-summoner swept a hand to indicate the stairs leading to the shining black temple.
Rydia tiptoed up the staircase behind the others, afraid to make noise or disturb the dust. The girl guardian's stone eyes swiveled to fixate on Cecil curiously as he climbed past her pedestal. See, everyone thinks Cecil's the important one, even though I'm the one who has to ask for help. He's the one who shines against this dark and silent land. Nobody wants to know about me. I'm only the summoner. Half a summoner.
The temple's onyx interior was sprinkled with studs of crystal embedded in the walls, which revealed the cracks and soft lumps of the flaking black stone with a harsh white glow. The etched floor was hardly visible beneath the riotous mounds of rich diamonds. Rubies and sapphires twinkled among the pile like spots of dark dust in the clear white expanse, dazzling Rydia's mind. She felt lightheaded and surreal, as though this moment were part of a chilly night's dream, and wondered if she would remember this place clearly afterward.
A golden-white-haired man sat atop the shining pile, his face smooth but his eyes as ancient as the stars. His craggy features seemed bent in casual and untroubled ponderance, as though he contemplated the meaning of life but did not have to think too hard about it. He wore the rich velvet robes of a king, striped in russet and crimson and mauve and lined with the fur of the behemoth beast; and his sleek spiked crown, shaped like the rills of a dragon's spine, twinkled with rubies set in twists of silver and gold. His clothes proclaimed him a lord, but his face proclaimed him a god.
Rydia dropped to her knees before the throne of pure wealth. "My lord, I wish to ask a favor of you. I come to you in the good grace of Leviathan, king of the underworld, and Ashura, his queen, as a summoner in real need." The regal figure had not moved or swayed one iota from his posture; he seemed even to lack the human blinking reflex. Rydia wondered how well her speech was being received, as she had no indication from Bahamut's dispassionate face. The gravel and diamond dust beneath her knees pressed into her flesh, and she resolved to make this as short as she could get away with. "My friends and I are trying to stop the Giant of Bab-il from reawakening and destroying the world. If you could help me, I might actually have a chance."
Bahamut had not blinked, and Rydia began to wonder whether he was actually alive—what a morbid joke it would be if the stone summoners outside were animated and the apparently living figure within was a statue. She opened her mouth again. "I—"
She froze, mortified. She had just interrupted the god of summoned monsters. Wonderful. "Go on, my lord."
The hint of a smile touched his lips, and he nodded kindly, easing her horror. "You have defeated Leviathan, yes?"
"Still, it could have been done without the power of Light." He spread his arms, and the folds of his sleeves followed his motions like unfolding wings. "Whether you possess the true Light or not, I will judge."
Rydia darted a glance at Cecil, wondering whether his holy knighthood would make a difference in this battle. It was Cecil who had the Light, if anyone in their party—no, if anyone in the world did. Should she adjust battle strategy accordingly, knowing that he was the one who mattered?
Bahamut, however, drew her attention by going through a change too interesting not to be noticed. His body seemed to melt away into the air, even his shining crown and the pale fur on his collar fading like the visual imprint of a bright light. The blackness of the shining mottled wall seemed unbroken, yet it felt as though his presence had not gone…
Then the black wall moved, and Rydia saw in its motion the outline of a gigantic dark dragon, reflecting the crystals' glow. She made a startled sound in the back of her throat, which might have risen to a shriek had she not instantly dampened it down. She had no right to be surprised at seeing a huge dragon when she had come to this cave explicitly to visit with a huge dragon. Still, he was larger than she had hoped; and she had been looking right at him all this time, behind the illusion of his human body, without even knowing it.
"Fire," hissed Rosa. "It's not ice. He's only susceptible to his own dragonfire."
Rydia stood immobilized, her eyes riveted on the dragon. Ice should be this creature's weakness—should dampen his fire, should weaken and pain him. But she knew Rosa's refined mage sight would never err about something so basic. It didn't make sense, but she could only assume she'd missed something she ought to have learned long ago. She was glad they hadn't gone back for Cecil's icebrand sword after all. A firebrand—that was what they needed. Fire to wield like one's own body. The sheer devastating impunity of irresistible flame… should anything meet such a piercing flame, it would be unstoppable. The thought took her breath, nearly paralyzed her.
Action, she reminded herself. I need to act. Bahamut uncoiled, his neck rigid as a bottle, his golden talons curled into the palms of his dark silver claws. His long neck began to sway sinuously side to side as he fixed his eyes on the intruders, and a cold metallic rattling sound issued from the back of his throat. I need to act very soon.
"What's he doing?" whispered Edge.
"That's his clicker. He's warming up." She kept her eyes trained on Bahamut, afraid to look away and afraid that she could not move her body without great effort.
The dragon reared and spit on them. Rydia's clothes, hair and skin were smattered with oily dragon saliva. She winced, wiping at her face with a dry bit of sleeve.
"What the hell?" snarled Edge, flicking his hand violently in the air and launching greasy droplets everywhere. "That's disgusting! What the hell is this?"
"Dragon spit." She felt the glassy tingle of a reflect spell settle upon herself, and out of the corner of her eyes she saw Rosa glowing with a pale aura. "It's really flammable."
The tremendous creature hunched his body down and leapt into the air, beating his great batlike wings in a fury; for a moment he fell, then floated, and then he slowly rose higher, rising against the dark carved temple ceiling with its diamond stars. She stared in trembling awe, overcome half by his majesty and half by fear.
"He's warming up," she whispered as he circled over their heads, clicker chattering, around and around along the stark black frieze. "When his body heats up the metallic clicker in his throat, it'll make sparks. And… fire."
"Do something!" Edge yelled, his eyes widening. He grabbed her shoulder and shook it, nearly toppling her balance. "Don't frigging let him!"
"What am I supposed to do?" she shrieked.
The shrill sound of her voice was echoed by a trilling cry from the silvery black dragon, as deep and distant as if he were merely a speck in the crystal sky. Deep and distant, but pitched like a whistle from the stars.
"I dunno, just do something!"
Her face pinched as though she would cry; but instead of crying, and without even making a conscious choice, she shut her eyes and began to chant a solemn name: Leviathan. No tears would help but a flood to quench the fire. Each swoop of the massive wings above her head brought a roaring rush of wind through her hair; each sinister roil of the clicker sounded deep within her head. She hardly knew where even to pray for safety, but she focused on Leviathan with her whole heart, reaching out for that kind and familiar regal soul. Save me, Leviathan. Come and save me from your own revered lord god.
Her concentration was impeded by the slow, tantalizing sound of the clicker, primally frightening like the rattle of a snake, receding and returning, a constant rhythmic presence in her mind. The sharp cry of instinctive fear slowly seeped up her body, warm and rising, causing her nerves to tingle, and leaving hollowness in its wake as though it consumed each pore.
She stood on empty legs attached to empty feet, a shell supporting a heavy and ponderous head. Her concentration would not return, no matter how she bade it come back, no matter how many times she insistently thought the word "Leviathan!" and followed it with a still paper picture of the water snake. She normally excelled at concentration; and now, just when she needed it most, it was gone. Her head was heavy with buzzing that seemed to come from the walls and floor, as though transmitted by physical waves from the clicking of the encircling dragon. Oddly enough, though her feet and legs were hollow paper, she felt supported as if she were floating in her own element. Her mind drifted like a bubble, light, uncaring and aware of its own impending doom. Her heart was empty. She was free.
Rydia opened her eyes and saw Bahamut's face inches from hers. He opened his jaws of fire.
Brilliant sparks of panic rushed through her body from her terrified heart, and as she raised her arms instinctively, a rush of warmth swept up through them, so violently that it seemed to burst from her hands and scorch the other side. Fire sprayed around her in all directions, veering crazily off at impossible angles. The adrenaline shrieking through her body seemed to support her entirely; she stood firm and untrembling through no conscious effort. Panic flooded through her, leaving in its wake a strong, vigorously beating body, surrounded by a haze of its own warmth that kept anything foreign from touching her. She saw her friends' faces in the blaze, familiar and tinged with the sparkle of surprise. Edge, who made no impression on her thoughts. Cecil, shining and wonderfully kind. Rosa, who understood. Rosa. They were haloed with burning glory as, one by one, they faded into the blaze.
The fire died into blackness. Still warm and glowing with the aftermath, Rydia swept her gaze across the charred soot on the floor and her body and the crumpled, crouching dragon on the ground before her. She felt at once awed and triumphant, and still a little bit panicky; her limbs trembled with the burned-out aftermath of her exertion. Had Bahamut breathed fire at her, or had she sprayed it at him? Had she withstood his attack or reflected it? She might have done either. Her hands twitched involuntarily with shock. Who could have known that flames could feel so nice?
Slowly, the dragon king lifted his sooty head and shook the ashes from his eyes. He heaved himself to his feet and faded, shimmering, into the breezeless air. The image of his human form took on a lucid human shape before them, slowly solidifying until the silver and gold of his crown reflected white crystal light.
"Well done," he croaked, and coughed lightly. "You have that Light."
She glanced at Cecil, and realized that he was looking at her; and so were Rosa and Edge. She stared wildly at Bahamut. "Me?"
"Yes, you," he chuckled. "You're quite a little firebrand."
Perhaps he meant, not the Light of Cecil's holy knighthood, but simply the light of fire? But she, herself—aligned with fire? It was difficult to believe. After so many years of shrinking from it in terror, she was still trying to understand the dying tingle along her veins. Fire as her element. Fire—as right. She had thought it so obviously false that she had never considered whether it were possible.
She nodded once at him, too absorbed in chasing the warmth along the pathways of her mind to feel intimidated by his identity now. "And… what happens next?"
The dragon king craned his head slightly forward, tilting it, in a way that looked strange on his human form. "I have indeed seen your strength and will. You can call my name when you need help, Rydia!"
Delight in her triumph caused her to almost giggle; she suppressed it, turning it into a squeak, and made a ritual bow. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
"You've earned it." He waved in dismissal, though he smiled with kindness and warmth as he released the party from his presence.
On their way down the steps of the temple, Rydia did stop and giggle. She shook her head, the string of pearls in her hair swinging back against her face, as she shivered and let herself be, for the first time in a long while, deliciously happy. "I did it! I really did do it!"
"Hey, babe, way to go," said Edge, and clapped her on the back. "You really gave him what-for, girl!"
Suffused with the strength of her pride, she straightened up and gave him a firm glare. "Do not call me 'babe,'" she snapped, unable to control her rampant emotions. "And I am not a 'girl.'"
"Hey, sorry," he protested, backing away, his hands in the air innocently. "Didn't mean to offend you, Your Majesty."
"Well, I don't appreciate being called 'babe' or 'girl.' God, it makes me sound like I'm still six years old." She rolled her eyes.
"Sorry. I didn't mean anything by it. Ya know that, right?" He gave her a wounded look. Rosa and Cecil, standing behind him, were watching her with concern.
Rydia closed her eyes and forced her raging emotions into a pretense of calm. "No, I'm sorry. I don't mean to yell at you. I'm just kind of… you know." She held out her trembling hands to show the level of stress in her system. "Not having the most stable moment." And she giggled. "I'm going nuts, or something. Please don't get mad at me."
"Oooookay," said Edge with relief.
"Sorry." She blushed. What she needed was self-control, which was far easier thought of than done.
She was immensely relieved to see Rosa and Cecil relax. She would not have them think her harsh or mean for all the treasure in the world. Such friends were a treasure of their own.
"I mean," she went on, filling the silence as she stepped down from the temple, "I am happy and stuff. Look what I just did!"
One of the stone summoners craned his head to look up at her from the base of the stairs. "You're the first that Master Bahamut accepted!"
She stopped in her tracks, sucking in a deep breath. It hit her as only a mild shock; she was too saturated in triumph to properly process the extent of her achievement. "Wow. I did not know that." Feeling that this was insufficient, she added, "I really did not know that."
The other summoner nodded in affirmation, sweeping her gaze across the party. "You seem to carry a lot of responsibilities with you." Her gaze lingered on Cecil, and Rydia remembered what Rosa had said about the weight of the burden he took upon himself. Rosa was right, as usual. She suddenly wanted to talk to Rosa very badly, to confide in her about the fire, and about what she had said to Edge, and explain herself, and ask questions... she had a hundred things to say, and all of them would have to wait.
The edge of the plateau looked onto dizzying heights, over open passages and ledges and holes in the rock walls like candy worn thin. Rydia felt as though she could see everything, the entire lacy layout of the cave, though she knew it to be impossible. Below her stretched the long crystal ladder and the work of climbing down, and the hardest part of their quest on the moon—the exploration of the strange palace in the east—had yet to begin. She quailed as the old familiar fear surged up anew, but the comfort of the warmth within her soothed her nerves. Fire was a terror and a comfort, a weapon and a shield; it was all she needed to have, all she needed to be.
The next morning, once again a shining lunar whiteness confronted Rydia, and she rubbed her bleary eyes, trying to recall why she felt so happy. The memory of the previous night's experience fell on her like a shower of brilliant sparkles, and her spirits were lighter than air. She squirmed out the top of the sleeping bag and sat up. No one else was inside the tent; she heard their voices outside, saw their silhouettes against the flickering, crackling campfire. Fire. She grinned.
Her gaze fell across a white wad of paper near her feet, weighted by a rock. Curious, she picked it up, brushing dust and crumbled rock from its surface. It was a folded square, the outside of which read:
To The Fiery Mage.
What could it possibly be? A note of encouragement from Rosa? Dare she to hope that it was praise from Cecil? Kain would certainly never write her a letter… She faintly dreaded the alternative, and she opened it to find with dismay that it was indeed from Edge. The royal signet of Eb-lan, impressed in wax, weighted the bottom of the paper so that it practically fell open in her hand.
Trust Edge to waste our candles putting his crest on notes, she thought wryly. Then she glanced at the writing-and for a moment she was stunned. He'd written her a poem.
Had it been from anyone else, she would have been thrilled. Instead it was a heavy burden on her heart. Now she would have to act thankful, or at least react in some way-she would have to either put up with his flirting, or find a way to brush him off without offending him or bruising his overripe ego. She scanned the verse with growing dismay. He was quite flattering, if traditional, in his praise… beautiful, eyes like stars, et cetera et cetera…
The next line stopped her short. She re-read it several times, unsure of what to make of it. What on earth could it mean--?
As the realization dawned on her, she began to giggle. She stared at the poem, and the more she thought about it, the funnier it seemed, until she was hooting with hysterical laughter, tears streaming from her eyes.
"What's all the hilarity about?" wondered Rosa, ducking into the tent.
Doubled helplessly over on the cave floor, Rydia held up the letter to her in one hand, unable to speak.
Rosa gingerly extracted the folded note from her clutch. "What's this?"
"Edge… wrote me… a sonnet… whoo, can't breathe," she gasped.
"While I can see how that could be amusing, I don't get why it's this funny. Even Edge's writing can't be that bad."
"Because he's…" Rydia gasped. "Bec-because he's… he's…" She shook uncontrollably with laughter.
"Because… because he's… he's… red… bec… because he…"
"He's red-green colorblind!" howled Rydia, and collapsed, screeching helplessly.
Rosa stared at the poem, then at Rydia, and broke out laughing.
- end -
[This is a work of fanfiction by Catherine Rain. It may be freely distributed so long as it REMAINS INTACT, including italics, punctuation, this disclaimer, et cetera, and CREDIT IS GIVEN to Catherine Rain. Final Fantasy IV and its characters are copyright Square; song lyrics are copyright Natalie Imbruglia.]