Roots. Endless twisting and gnarled roots. Some as thin as a strand of hair or as thick as the belly of the Prima Vista. Some roots overlapped and some seemed to go straight to the center of the tree. Either way, the path was crooked and often interrupted by many deep chasms that dove into utter darkness.
Walking was overrated, as Quina had thought many times previously. It disliked the fact that going on a gourmet sampling trip required so much sweating, hopping, jumping and fighting. But it followed their mighty and fearless leader nevertheless. Out of everyone Quina had the vague memory of, Zidane seemed to know where they were going more than anyone else.
And Zidane had set their pace into more or less a dead run.
"Can we please take a break?" asked Nima, huffing and panting, trying to catch his breath. Nima was one of the bolder members of their group, one who had the nerve to speak despite the situation.
Everyone was equally exhausted, but dared not voice their discomfort. They were all bound by adrenaline to press forward. It had been confirmed that their enemy was at this monstrous tree. If they stopped him, then maybe they could stop the needless bloodshed. It was the best that Dagger could hope for. It was what Garnet, the princess, must at least try to do.
Zidane paused and turned quickly in a hauntingly familiar manner, though no one could quite put their finger on it.
"Yes." said Zidane tersely. Since Shiva's unexpected appearance, his demeanor had changed slightly. The care-free personality had faded, and a young man driven by unknown motivation emerged. It was almost as if he was a different person altogether. "Let's rest. We'll need all of our wits to face Kuja."
By then, they had arrived near the center of the tree. The trunk, braided by many other small branches, seemed to stretch forever into the sky. Great leaves, large and small, shaded their rest area.
Robotically, Zidane paced over to a woody root that had a bed of moss and lichen. Others did the same. Their muscles still throbbed from the effort of their previous encounter with a monster. They all took the moment of respite to take a drink from their water canteens, stretched their tired limbs and rubbed their sore legs and toes. They all took the moment to observe each other and chatted to relieve the tension.
Quina looked the same as always. S/he slobbered all over anything that looked faintly edible and carried that air of heedless adventure as easily as a woman carries a purse. However, its cookie shaped eyes drooped slightly, fully aware of the dire seriousness of their situation.
Vivi sat close to Nima, asking thousands of questions about Black Mages and their existence. Vivi seemed to have overcome his initial timidness and had mustered enough courage to ask as many questions as he wished. Nima, the older Black Mage, seemed to have relaxed his inexplicable contempt for everything and indulged Vivi at whim.
Eiko, their newest ally, huddled close to Zidane, all smiles and sweetness. She was a free spirit who had yet to fully comprehend the seriousness of their situation. She chattered happily about everything and nothing at all. Zidane, with his naturally affable attitude and engaging personality, easily charmed the lonely young Summoner. However, his expression had taken a tint of wariness.
Dagger found a place to rest alone. Of all of them, her expression was most wrought with troubles. They needed to hasten and stop Kuja. They needed to stop Queen Brahne and save her and all of Mist Continent. She, as Princess Garnet, needed to apologize to her fellow countrymen and rebuild the shattered relationships on the Mist Continent. Her entire being trembled at all her responsibilities and she suddenly felt overwhelmed.
"You really shouldn't brood about it," the aforementioned default leader of their motley troupe said.
"Easy for you to say," Dagger fumed slightly, finding herself riled over how easily Zidane just overlooked her responsibilities. "How did you get away from Eiko in the first place?"
"Quina promised her something good to eat," said Zidane with a smirk. "But seriously, you really shouldn't brood about it. We will stop him, one way or another."
"How?" said Dagger, her voice very small. "I keep on thinking what we'll do once we get there? Do we just ask? Can we even beat him? We don't know if he is good in a fight or..."
Suddenly, Dagger felt a finger on her lips.
"Sometimes, you just need to plunge forward without any thought. We have come too far to turn back and do nothing. Besides, how hard can it be to beat that girly-looking thing?"
Dagger snickered at the unexpected description.
"Good. You're smiling," Zidane commented approvingly. "You haven't smiled in a while." Then he followed up on his advantage. "I bet I can get you smiling even more if you let me take you on a date."
Still snickering, Dagger shook her head goodheartedly, blushing slightly at his blatant request. "A date? I've been kidnapped. How can I go on a date?"
"I'll let you go for a day."
"No, Zidane. I think it's safer being kidnapped."
"Ooo. Playing hard to get. I think I'm falling for you all over again."
"Zidane! This is not the time!" Now she was getting slightly irritated.
"Will you two focus on the task at hand?" it was Nima who intruded. He shuffled in his black mage way over, yellow eyes critical. "We must strategize our next move. This is Kuja we're dealing with and it's not child's play. We must plan."
Quina, who had gotten back from food begging, spoke up. "Mister Mage, why you so worked up about this Kuja person? We are many and he is one! We going to win!"
"You think numbers mean anything to him? He orchestrated a war among all nations of the Mist Continent without incurring immediate danger to his person or arousing the ire of the nobility who no doubt suffered from his wars."
No one answered him. In all honesty, they were in the dark about Kuja. They knew of his exploits, his masterful manipulation of kingdoms and undeniable intelligence. So far, they didn't even know if he had any weaknesses.
"Um..." Vivi peeped. "What do you mean that nobles gathered to dispose of him?"
This time, Dagger caught on. "Yes. How do we know you're not just making this up?"
Nima laughed sarcastically. "How do you know if any of us are lying? How do I know you're not lying? You may not even be the real Princess Garnet," There were grave implications in his words.
"I think I know a way," Zidane spoke up unexpectedly, immediately stopping the budding conflict between Nima and the group. "To defeat Kuja."
"How would you know?" Nima demanded without thinking.
"Do not speak out of turn, Nima," said Zidane with uncharacteristic command in his voice. "You haven't earned the right." Then, before anyone could make another comment, Zidane continued.
"We know that Kuja is a powerful magician. So if we can create an area where he cannot use his magic, we might stand a chance of subduing him. Inside this tree, is a creature called Soul Cage. It can create a large blanket of null-magic field. But we need two groups. One to go to the top of the tree to catch up with Kuja and another to the bottom of the tree to activate the Soul cage."
"You want to split up now?" asked Dagger, dismayed.
"You want to save your mother, don't you?" Zidane asked. "That means stopping Kuja before she arrives." Zidane went into full scheming mode. "A stronger physical fighting team should come with me. That means Quina and Nima. Which means Vivi, Dagger and Eiko are in the second group that will go and activate the Soul Cage."
"No! Eiko wailed. "I want to go with you!"
The thief was taken back. "Eiko..."
"Let her go with you Zidane," said Dagger. "I think Eiko would be safer with you. Vivi can protect me."
Dagger gave a look that spoke no arguments. "Please. You're the group who is going to face Kuja. I believe that this is for the best."
"Well...alright," said Zidane. Then, his tone turned formal. "One last thing. Eiko, Dagger, no matter what happens, you two should never summon from this point forward."
Zidane blinked, looking like someone had caught him cheating, but the reasons he gave were sound. "Remember what Shiva said? His voice compels. I'm going to bet it has something to do with eidolons and whatever it is, it isn't pleasant."
"What if Kuja want to kill us?" Dagger asked.
Zidane shook his head. "I haven't figured that part out yet, but he's not after your life, that I'm sure of it. He would've done the deed by now if that was his goal."
After the plan was decided upon, everyone picked up their packs and knickknacks, and followed the old unused paths. Along the way, Zidane explained that the Soul Cage must be burned in order to activate the null-magic field and suggested ways to do it, mainly with phoenix downs and fire magic. Everyone unquestionably followed Zidane, pressing on until they reached a strange-looking manhole in the middle of a clearing near the trunk of the tree.
"This is it," said Zidane. "The spiral that goes to the Soul Cage." He tapped the manhole. The cover plate lit and tinged. "Stand on it and the plate will lower you down to the core of the tree. The Soul Cage is a nasty-looking petal."
Dagger and Vivi wordlessly stepped into the cover.
The surreal, leafy elevator spun around a green stalk. The shaft of the elevator tube glowed like some type of oil lamp was behind them. The round plate they were on started out slowly enough but accelerated rapidly.
Dagger felt sick as the air pressure changed and played havoc on her sense of gravity. She leaned against Vivi for support as the air suddenly became thinner and thinner. She barely noticed that both of them were losing consciousness on the way down.
When Dagger came to, she noted the thick clammy air. It felt like a sick room, next to a crematorium, completely unnatural and unsettling. But when she opened her eyes, she realized that she was nestled in a bed of glowing mushrooms and moss. She was at a small clearing where the woody parts of a nearby cavern were glowing blue. Faint light seemed to be emitting from all the plants around her. The round platform which transported her down to the pits of Iifa floated just above her.
The contrast was alarming. Her eyes saw a scene of fairy tales while her other senses reeled in fear. This place, while strikingly beautiful, hid unmentionable secrets.
"Ow..." A voice emitted from behind her.
The small black mage was struggling to sit up. His hat was nearly flattened. It seemed that he was thrown off a bit away but did not suffer much damage.
"I'm alright," said Vivi, more to assure himself than Dagger. "Where are we?"
Dagger took a deep breath and steadied her heart. She could do this. She would uphold her responsibilities. "Only one way to find out."
The two began by following the path to explore. The walls were wrapped with incandescent flowering vines. Inside some of the vines were the bones of other explorers who no doubt had mistakenly followed the trail down. The motif of beauty and death repeated itself in the long gallery that lead deeper and deeper down. It stopped at a root path that wrapped around a trunk and outcropped onto a cliff that overlooked a bottomless pool of green liquid.
And a white-haired sorcerer was already there.
Dagger watched from behind a large hump of root, careful not to make too much noise. Her first impulse was to rush to him and demand that he stop whatever he was doing. However, Vivi pulled on her sleeves, reminding her of caution.
The two observed him now. Movement full of purpose, Kuja strolled to down the steps and onto the platform that circled what looked like a desiccated Venus fly trap. The petals were all half-rotted and boils contained little worms, which wiggled about.
"Wake up, warden," Kuja barked. "Wake up, Soul Cage!"
The Soul Cage, an age-old monster, rooted to the very body of Iifa herself, stirred. It rose like a monstrous amalgamate from a child's nightmare. Dull yellow eyes blinked. Its teeth grinded in its lipless jaw. Its blocky body, the size of a house, groaned under the strain of movement as it peeled itself out like a piece of dead skin.
"Ahh...The Dark Messenger," it whispered in a throaty rattle. "Here to see Mater?"
"What else would I be seeing?" he snapped. "Open up, Soul Cage."
Deep in the pool, the dark mass called Soul Cage writhed as the flow of green, unpurified souls filtered through. From the many countless years of filtering, the original soul of Iinetha had turned into black ooze full of man's filth.
The ooze rippled. It struggled, and coalesced into the form of the zombie woman from an earlier encounter. Her perfect black form glistened in the dim light. Her face, arms, legs and body were as dark as night. Only a faint sparkle of yellow near her heart added color to her monochromatic presence. The woman was so beautiful that even Dagger drew an inaudible gasp.
The liquid woman leaned forward, reached out to touch Kuja gently on the cheek. She sang dulcetly in a language that neither Dagger nor Vivi understood. It was a contradictory gesture in Dagger and Vivi's minds. No one in the world should be showing the evil incarnate any affection or gentleness. Then the woman brushed one of the sorcerer's sprouting feathers only to shrink back in pain.
Dagger looked again, only to see Kuja burying a hand in the creature's chest, his fingers wrapped around the faint sparkle of yellow.
The woman looked down in surprise. Then she choked and writhed in pain, clawing at Kuja's arm as if she could flay his flesh from bone. Sure enough, her clawing dug deep and crimson liquid flowed.
Kuja stood immobile, barely wincing from the pain as he whispered healing spells. Blue upon blue sparks wrapped around freshly opened flesh, closing them just as quickly as they were formed.
After nearly two minutes of desperate clawing, her movements slowed and her body slackened. Her black ooze of a body started to dissipate into little blue lights, like dying fireflies. As if the woman had accepted her fate, she leaned forward, embracing him one last time then faded into nothing.
"Solmne, Mater," Kuja whispered, an expression touched by pain and regret. "I've done all I can for you. May your spirit finally rest."
Dagger turned and slipped to a place where she knew he could not see her. For a moment there, Kuja seemed human, a creature marked by its ability to feel pain and sadness. The mere idea made her feel like retching in disgust. She could not believe that evil could wear such a convincing mask.
The lack of noise alarmed Dagger. For once, she realized that Vivi was not with her. Standing up, Dagger peeked at the clearing.
Kuja was not there.
Suddenly, Dagger felt a burning hand at her wrist.
"Some nerve, Princess," said Kuja beside her. "To think that you could've tracked me here without me noticing."
Dagger struggled to get away, but could not. His hold on her wrist was tight and hot, as if he was living fire. Despite his appearances, the meek and delicate courtesan that she remembered fluttering like some paper doll through the castle, Kuja truly had a vice-like grip. He dragged her to a spot where he had a better foothold.
"Let go of me, you scumbag!" Dagger demanded, twisting her body as if she could leave him through sheer will.
Kuja chuckled in that irritatingly superior chortle of his. "Scumbag? Is that it?" He spun her around until her back was against his chest. He breathed deeply at her neck, taking in her scent. "You smell less of a sickening sweet potpourri and more of a sweaty sow. Very enticing."
Dagger shivered before recovering, and tried to beat him back. "You're sick!"
"You're not the first to observe that," said Kuja as he spun her around until their eyes met. Hot and emotional chocolate brown eyes met dead black-blue orbs. "Don't give me that look for too long, or you'll have wrinkles."
"I won't! Let me go!" Dagger demanded again, only to freeze suddenly as she felt her wrist held tightly with a scorching hand and pulled against Kuja's body again. A simple dirk that was much more like a short sword pressed against her throat.
Dagger stopped all movement, eyes only gazing down at the dagger. She noted the gleaming blade edge and the simple hilt with a single pattern on it. Where had she seen it before?
"It's one of the greater ironies of life," he leaned close and whispered into her left ear. "You can summon beasts of legend to do your bidding, command the will of an entire nation. But if you let one assassin close enough to slit your throat, not even your strongest white magic can save you."
"You're going to kill me?" Dagger did her best to keep the fear out of her voice.
"Tsch! Of course not." Kuja scoffed as if he was just offered the stupidest suggestion. "That was never the goal. It would be too little to ask."
"Then what do you want!?"
"Simple. I want you and all of Gaia to suffer."
Dagger could hardly believe what she just heard. "What?"
Kuja's entire being seemed to flake with red spots. His eyes flashing crimson as if possessed. His voice however, was completely calm and almost singsong: "You've heard me. I want the world to drench in despair."
"Because you owe us, for the sins of your ancestors."
The Summoner struggled again, and by some miracle, she wiggled away from him. Dagger tried hard to keep the tears away. She felt her skin crawl from his touch and her inside burn from his baleful gaze. She backed up more and more, closer and closer to an edge that overlooked the pool of pure green liquid.
"Jump," Kuja said, "Please. I'm sure agony would be as a painless as a thousand needles, assuming that you don't drown first."
"That liquid down there is pure mist, an anathema to Summoners. First your blood will boil, then your fingers and limbs dissolve while your mind is ripped apart and your screams are muffled by your own inner demons. Your soul would be torn asunder by the millions of unfiltered souls. You may even experience death within centuries," Kuja chuckled lightly as if sharing some inner joke with himself. "If you were trained as a Summoner, you would've known to respect and fear it."
"You seem to know a lot of about Summoners," said Dagger, desperately trying to direct the conversation away from the threat to her immediate person.
Kuja only blinked slowly and tilted his head. His eyes grew even darker, flaked with ominous red, "Enough not to miss their existence."
Deep suspicion gnawed at Dagger. "So you hate us."
The man only shook his head. "Hate barely describes the emotion I have for your kind." He took another step, coming ominously close. "Now, are you going to go drown yourself or should I push you in? I would be satisfied with either."
Suddenly, without warning, a deep roar came from behind Kuja.
Spinning around, Kuja noted with barely perceived surprise that the Soul Cage was in flames. Over fifty phoenix downs had been thrown at it along with fire spells. Waves upon waves of blue spun out as the Soul Cage collapsed.
The culprit was Vivi himself and he kept on chanting until the null-magic field took complete effect.
An indescribable expression overcame Kuja's face. He quickly muttered words and seemed genuinely surprised that no fire floated around him. "My magic..."
"Can't be so high and mighty without your magic now, huh?" Dagger said with bravado. She had waited for the moment to take the upper hand.
Kuja's form pulsed red and he closed his eyes, clutching his temples as if in deep pain. "No. My magic is very important!" He took deep breaths as if trying to suppress something, then his form completely turned red. "What have you done!? You useless doll!" He shouted at Vivi.
Kuja screamed. His body glowed almost too bright to look at. The pool itself glowed and the entire cavern seemed to rattle in response.
Then it was over. When Kuja opened his eyes, the previously blue-black orbs were now sooty red. His chilling smile returned. His skin took on an even sicklier hue of pinkish gray and his eyes had sunken deeper in his sockets. He looked like an undying demon.
Dagger, her fear over taking her better judgment and Zidane's warning, whipped out her staff and summoned her most reliable eidolon, Ramuh.
Immediately, the trusty old man who became Dagger's very first eidolon guardian materialized.
Kuja seemed hardly impressed. In fact he kept his smile. "Come, Ramuh," said Kuja, his stance challenging any direct call of lightning. "Strike me, if you dare."
"Attack him!" Dagger commanded.
Ramuh, sworn to do as his master commanded, raised his staff to call upon bolts of electricity and strike down his master's opponent. Once enough energy gathered, he pointed his staff at Kuja, almost touching him.
Kuja stood there, his form glowed, black and red embers crackling about him. The Mist around him turned from green to red also, vibrating hard like shivering balls of gunpowder. The entire pool rang in unison.
The moment Ramuh's staff touched the man, flecks of dark red stained the eidolon like a ravaging disease. The arm turned, and Ramuh recoiled, his face a mirror of surprise and horror. "You promised!" Ramuh screamed at Kuja. The red flecks advanced to the thunder god's shoulders. The thunder bolt dissipated. "You promised not to turn us!"
Kuja smirked. "You touched me Ramuh, and doomed yourself. I've warned you of that long ago."
Ramuh twisted, his jaw agape in a silent scream. By now, the red flecks had overtaken his body like a swarm of ants ravaging a corpse. Ramuh gave a final utterance to Dagger "Run! Lady Summoner! His voice compels us and we cannot oppose him!"
Dagger, far too horrified by what had just occurred, stood rooted in place.
Then it was over.
Ramuh, no longer blue and green with a kindly grandfatherly smile, was glowing as red as Kuja.
The expression on Kuja's face was ambivalent, as if he could not discern if this obvious advantage was pleasing or not. "Begone!" Kuja commanded.
Ramuh burst into pieces, disappearing.
"What just happened?" Dagger asked, breathless.
"The Soul Cage can and will nullify my magic...but it only enhances my other ability, my ability to compel all things with a soul." He flicked his now-red hair. "An ability that was suppressed by my magic."
"The Walking Dead," Dagger realized with fixed fear and awe.
"An Abomination who was supposed to be smothered at birth," said Kuja sardonically, touching the newly sprouted feathers along his hairline. "But I was the result of selfish love, a symbol too precious to smother, the thing that must suffer the ills of the living." Kuja took a step toward Dagger, forcing her toward the pool again. "A prince of a muddled blood that knows only destruction..."
A rock was thrown. Kuja spun around quickly only to see Vivi, forgotten in the background.
"No...no! Leave....h...her...a...alone!" Vivi stammered, trying to be courageous. Now with null-magic field around them, his main power was rendered useless.
"Or what? How will you stop me?"
Vivi blinked. His innocent yellow eyes frowned and quaked in fear. By an act of impulsive behavior he learned from Zidane, he threw his staff at Kuja.
And the sharp end easily sliced through Kuja's thin skin at the arm.
Like any fleshy creature, Kuja bled and he could not stop it as quickly, due to his lack of magic. However the look on his face as he gazed at the wound was of horror. Red liquid flowed, but as it faded, sparkles of red mixed with blue.
Kuja then laughed, an insane hackling like that of an asylum-committed man. There were tears on his face. Either from twisted hilarity or insanity, Dagger could not tell. "I'm going Mad!" Kuja cried in between tears. "This proves it! Oh by the Gods! Years of work, years of careful planning, gone to pieces! Ruined by my own creations. Can you believe that, Princess? After working so hard, to have your endeavors become nothing?"
The change was far too sudden for Dagger to react to it. She only stood and stared, not sure what to do. She suddenly found herself wishing for that annoyingly controlled courtesan she knew back home, wishing that her status as princess could make him disappear with a word.
With jerky movements, as if controlled by a puppeteer, Kuja ingored Dagger and approached Vivi. His stature towered over the small black mage.
Vivi took only two steps backwards before he tripped.
"You are a VERY naughty doll." With that same sudden jerkiness, Kuja struck with a claw-like hand, plunging into Vivi's chest, and tore out a wet accordion-like device. With a flick of the wrist, he flung Vivi several yards backwards.
"Vivi!" Dagger exclaimed, horrified.
"He'll live...but not for long," said Kuja, madness in his eyes as he meaningfully crushed the device in his hand.
"Why you...! When Zidane gets here, he'll...!"
"Tisk, Tisk, Tisk. Zidane...Zidane..." Kuja repeated the name several times. Like a person who had just taken a healing tonic, a semblance of control returned to him and the red glow started to fade. "Is that all you're good for? Damsel in distress? I should kill you off and save Alexandria the tedium of a useless queen."
"He has never let me down!" said Dagger. "Zidane'll stop you!"
"Zidane...Zidane..." Kuja muttered again. The name seemed to have calmed him further as his sentences became florid again. When he spoke again, it was as if that mad laughing fit never occurred, his eyes returned to blue and the extra red feathers returned to strands of silver hair. "You know, princess, I always thought you were a little slow and peckish, like a little innocent song bird, but you're even more of an imbecile than I first imagined."
"You...you...how dare you!?" Dagger had never had her intelligence insulted.
Kuja chortled merrily, his brief episode of insanity forgotten like yesterday's meal. "Because you haven't figured it out yet, child! You live in a world of songs and benevolent guardians! You know not the darkness that encompasses everyone around you."
"Who are you talking about? Nima?"
Kuja smiled at that, now completely controlled and collected. "So...so predictable. You have been with him for so long, and you never noticed his masterful farce. I'm not surprised. He surpassed me in many regards. Acting is one of them."
Dagger felt the pit of her stomach sink and her heart drop. There was only one actor who fit Kuja's description. Before she could further dwell upon the thought, Kuja had already gotten skin-close to her.
"Tell you what, I'll just let you sleep...well, your body, anyways."
"What? What are you...."
Dagger felt an inexplicable numbness in her limbs and felt her leg muscles grow lax. It was not magic, she was certain, but Kuja just had this naturally hypnotic charm about him. She almost fell, but Kuja caught her by her waist.
"You're my little play thing now, my pretty china doll. I should be defiling you now, but I won't. I want to have time to enjoy breaking you. Just as High Summoner Alexander wanted to have time to enjoy breaking me." He nipped playfully at her ear. "I will ensure that all Summoners reap their full fortunes."
"What do you want from me?" Dagger managed to whimper weakly. She was far more confused than ever. High Summoner Alexander? Where had she heard that name?
"I want you to do exactly as I told you before. To kick back and enjoy the show."