As far as I can tell, there aren't any spoilers in this. It's set during the Mt. Roneal (for real, this time) sidequest to get the Refined Flightstone, but it should be a safe read for just about anyone. Enjoy! -Vil
Luke attempted to pull his coat tighter against the frigid wind, but there wasn't much he could really do about it. They'd brought along the winter clothing they had purchased in Keterburg before, and the rest of them looked warm enough, though the constant barrage of snow and icy wind was starting to wear them down. Luke shoved his hands back into his coat pockets irritably; he had forgotten his gloves.
"I think my f-fingers are going to f-freeze off," he muttered as the wind picked up again. He shivered just a bit more under Jade's slightly annoyed gaze and Natalia's angry glare.
"You're not the only one who's cold, you know," Anise supplied, one hand held in front of her in an attempt to keep the snow out of her face. The other hand was wrapped tightly around Tokunaga, to keep him from falling off. Some of the snowdrifts were nearly waist-deep for her, and it was getting annoying.
"These certainly don't seem like ideal travel conditions," Jade agreed cheerfully, turning around again and continuing to walk. Guy gave the colonel's back a dirty look.
"He doesn't look cold at all," he said quietly to Luke, who nodded in irritated agreement. "He looks like he's perfectly warm."
"He probably is." Luke's sigh matched the indignation on his face. "That uniform is probably heated, too." Guy swore in the man's general direction, and Luke tried his best to cover a laugh.
Jade turned his head slightly, smiling in his usual frightening way. "Did I hear you say something, Guy?"
"N-no, not at all." Guy laughed and rubbed the back of his head. "It must have been the wind. Haha." Jade studied him for a long moment before turning back around again. Guy let out a long, silent breath, openly relieved.
"Even I knew that was fake, Guy," Luke muttered, shaking his head. He froze when Jade stopped again, holding up one gloved hand.
"What is it, Colonel?" Anise asked, stopping just behind the man, all annoyance at the snow forgotten. He motioned for silence, and the group complied, turning slightly in various directions, squinting through the snow in case something was approaching.
Anise was the only one to keep her eyes on Jade instead. He looked uncommonly serious, even if he did hear enemies approaching. After a while, he shook his head almost imperceptibly and relaxed a bit.
"Well?" Natalia asked when she noticed this. Jade reached up and adjusted his glasses, looking slightly embarrassed.
"Sorry. This old man's ears must not be what they used to be." He shrugged, shaking his head. Almost immediately Luke's face dropped from anxious back down to frustrated, and he returned to muttering about the cold as he trudged along. The rest of them followed him, wishing it were always so easy to forget about the cold.
"I don't believe you, Colonel," Anise said pointedly as she took her position behind him. He cleared a lot of the snow from her path for her simply by being so tall, and this way she could be sure only he heard her.
"Whyever not?" Jade asked amicably.
"Because you don't just hold us up like that for nothing. You did hear something, didn't you." She crossed her arms, fingers drumming impatiently on the shaft of her mace.
"It's nothing you need concern yourself with, Anise." Jade fiddled with his glasses again, which only made Anise frown deeper. "Even if there was something, there isn't anymore. Let's not get the others all worked up about it."
Anise sighed. "If you say so, Colonel."
"Why the hell did we come out in this weather, anyway?" Luke grumbled, kicking angrily at a large snowdrift. His foot found the rock buried beneath the snow and he yelped, cursing.
"The last time Noelle flew us past here, she spotted some kind of other entrance into the mountain, remember?" Guy supplied as Tear and Natalia watched Luke's antics with a mix of annoyance and amusement. "We came to check it out."
"Couldn't the Albiore have set us down in front of the door?"
"It's too dangerous to fly through a blizzard like this," Natalia admonished. "The Albiore might not be able to handle it, and then where would we be?"
"Somewhere warm, probably." Luke managed to keep that low enough that no one else heard him over the wind. Hadn't Natalia ever stopped to consider that what was dangerous with the Albiore might be worse without it?
"Stop hopping around like that. You look foolish." Tear gave Luke a stern glare before turning back toward the mountain, picking up her pace to catch up; Jade and Anise had already passed them. Luke made a face back at her and half-limped after her, shifting his hold on the item bag so he didn't drop it.
They kept walking in silence for a while, shivering and listening to the howling wind. The snow continued to pile higher, and the darkening sky was evidence that the storm wouldn't be letting up any time soon. Guy shuddered as the wind picked up fiercely – it sounded eerily like the mountains were screeching at them.
"It's getting colder," Tear observed.
"Darker, too," Natalia added.
"And it's snowing harder," Anise put in. All three of them looked pointedly at Jade, who was walking in front again. He looked back, smiling.
"I'm sorry, I'm afraid I didn't hear you over the wind. Were you saying something?" They glared at him in varying degrees of annoyance, with Anise's being the most scathing. Jade laughed, looking behind them to where Guy and Luke were shivering pitifully. His voice took on a put-upon tone. "Oh, all right. It would be terribly inconvenient if one of you were to freeze to death." He motioned toward a narrow opening in the side of a rock wall. "Let's stop in there for a while."
"Best thing I've heard all day!" Luke practically sprinted for the opening, Guy not far behind. The redhead stopped short just inside, and Guy barreled into him. Both were sprawled on the ground by the time the rest reached them, but neither seemed to mind.
"It appears we've found our entrance," Jade said, brushing a bit of snow from his clothes before pocketing his hands and stepping gracefully over Luke and Guy to get a better look. "Interesting."
"It does look like the kind of area around the Sephiroth," Tear agreed, noting the style of the floor and the eerie glow of the lighting. "And those structures are very similar to the arches we saw here before."
Guy had managed to get himself off the floor and had made a beeline for the structures in question. He had hoped they were some kind of ancient fontech; his face fell a bit when he realized they weren't. "They're not arches, they're torches."
"Torches!" That excited Luke enough to get him up, too. "That means fire, right? Warmth?"
"Well, I guess, but—"
"Mieu!" Luke shook the item bag, pulling it open forcefully and grabbing the cheagle as soon as his head popped out. The little blue-green creature blinked at him, yawning.
"Hello Master. It was so cold out there, I decided to go to sleep. Where are we?"
"Inside. See that thing over there?" Luke turned Mieu toward one of the torches, and he nodded as well as he could while suspended in the air. "Light it." Mieu nodded again, using the Sorcerer's Ring to shoot a burst of fire at the nearest torch. It caught, but the fireball kept traveling, lighting several of the other torches along the floor.
"Very interesting." Jade surmised. "Well, if a break is really necessary, I suppose this is as good a place as any. Anise, why don't you cook something?"
"Of course, Colonel!" Anise jumped up excitedly, filching the bag from Luke and beginning to dig through it for food. "Any requests?"
"I can help you if you'd like, Anise," Natalia offered, much more charitable now that she was warming up again. Even the warmest of her clothing had been seriously put to the test out in the blizzard.
Anise's face – and almost everyone else's – flashed horror-stricken, but she got control very quickly and smiled in the most endearing way possible. "That's okay, Natalia. I really like cooking, and I've been wanting to try a new recipe anyway." She sorted out her ingredients and regarded the lit torch with a bit of a frown. "This might take a while, though."
"Well, what can we do to pass the time?" Guy asked, now thoroughly disinterested in just about everything in the room. He'd really been hoping to encounter some Dawn Age fontech this time. He sat down on the stone floor and leaned against one of the unlit torches. Luke followed suit, already looking bored.
The rest of them sat down, too. Luke jumped a bit when they heard the screeching wind pick up again outside, and Tear glanced over at him, laughing quietly. Luke glared sourly back at her. "What? You know it freaked you out too."
"Not really. It's only the wind, after all." Tear shrugged, brushing some of her wet hair out of her face.
"Colonel Curtiss." Jade looked surprised at Natalia's formality, but he offered her a pleasant smile of acknowledgement. "I recall that on our last trip through this mountain range, you mentioned a story surrounding the sound of the wind here."
"Why, yes, I did." He rubbed the bridge of his nose for a moment. "But it's not exactly the kind of story most people would want to hear."
"I'm up for just about anything at this point," Luke said lazily. He was debating moving Mieu off his lap, but the cheagle was keeping him rather warm, so he decided against it for the moment.
"Oh, tell it Colonel!" Anise flashed him her most adorable grin. "You're so good at making stories sound real!" She kept her attention fixed on Jade until he sighed, shaking his head.
"Well, if you insist." Satisfied, Anise returned her attention to her cooking. "But I'm warning you now; it's not a happy tale." When he received no objections, he shrugged slightly, shifted so he was sitting a bit more comfortably, and began.
"They say that before Keterburg became the thriving silver town it is today, it was little more than a small village of people who planned to explore the nearby mountains for usable minerals. They were the sort of people who would choose to live in a frigid mountain pass; the idea of mining in frozen caves wasn't much different.
"For several years, the town was prosperous. The miners found precious metals and stones in far greater quantities than they had in many of their previous homes. They were able to catch a sufficient amount of edible fish, and trade for anything else they needed. In time, the mines of Keterburg reached deep into the mountain.
"Around this time of prosperity, many travelers began passing through Keterburg to experience its unique atmosphere and wares. One of these was a tall, striking stranger. He arrived from seemingly nowhere – on the day of his arrival, no boats were scheduled to dock in Keterburg Bay – but he was kind and helpful, and the residents of Keterburg hardly minded when he stayed longer than most visitors.
"One day, the miners returned from their caves spouting nonsensical tales of a horrible creature dwelling within, a monster with vivid red eyes who could roar like the wind. They refused to return to the mines after that. With no miners, however, the town would swiftly begin to decline. So the kind stranger made up his mind to travel through the mountains and face the creature himself."
Jade paused for just a moment, watching his audience with a bit of smug pleasure. They all seemed quite fixated on his little tale. Natalia, especially, was watching him with open anticipation, and even Anise had turned her focus away from her cooking for a bit.
"There was a young woman in Keterburg, a teacher, who had nothing but the deepest affections for the stranger. She begged him desperately not to go, to remain and try to find some other way to save the city. But he had made up his mind, and early the next morning he set out, alone.
"He wasn't entirely alone, however – she was following him. She trailed behind him, silently and secretly, keeping pace with him quite well for the most part. It was only when a snowstorm came up that she lost sight of him. She continued walking in his direction, and when she was sure she had lost him she began calling his name.
"It was growing darker, and colder, and she still hadn't found him. The wind picked up fiercely, and she reluctantly found the only shelter she could – a tiny opening in one of the rock walls. She followed the opening through the mountain, realizing it must be one of the mining caves. She felt safe, out of the cold and protected by solid rock. And perhaps the man she loved, her stranger, had come in here as well."
Jade could read the building emotions on every face he could see, even Tear's, which was a rare thing. Luke was holding onto Mieu rather tightly, and Anise had both hands wrapped around a stirring spoon so forcefully she risked snapping it in two. Natalia was leaning forward, on her hands and knees by this point, looking breathless. Jade's smile widened fractionally as he continued.
"She heard a sound at the back of the cave. She turned around expectantly, but all she could see in the darkness was a pair of glowing red eyes. She ran, as fast as her legs could carry her. The creature caught her at the mouth of the cave. With her last breath, the woman let out a piercing, frantic scream."
The wind rose quite suddenly, its passage through the snow and stone making a loud screech. There was a collective intake of breath – Luke went so far as to yelp – and Anise's stirring spoon splintered between her fingers. Jade kept his bemused smile, lowering his voice to achieve a more haunting pitch.
"They say that the sound of the fierce mountain wind in the pass is really the woman's final scream, repeated over and over as she calls for her lost love to rescue her from the demon creature with glowing eyes. The woman's soul will never be satisfied or rest until her stranger comes for her, and frees her from her prison within the mountain. They say when you hear her cries, and the wind picks up and the snow builds, it is a sure sign of impending disaster."
Jade let his final few words sit in the air for a moment, as frozen as the ground outside. His smile widened a bit more as he chuckled quietly, spreading his arms in an unconcerned shrug. "Of course, it is just a story."
That seemed to snap them out of it. Guy shook his head quickly, as though trying to rid himself of whatever he was seeing in his mind. Luke shuddered, making a face in Jade's general direction, grumbling, "I don't know why I agreed to listen to that."
"That was…amazing, Colonel," Natalia said breathlessly. Jade was almost certain the princess was smiling, too. "You made it sound so real. So…haunting."
"I believe it was originally intended to be a tale to keep the children of Keterburg away from the dangers of the mountain. I recall an addition of some sort about the monster looking for new victims." He waved a dismissive hand, shaking his head. "Hardly any cause for concern."
"Anise? Are you all right?" Tear was giving the small girl a worried frown. Anise was staring fixedly at her broken stirring spoon, and she appeared to be shaking. At Tear's words, though, she looked up and gave them a winning smile.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Just thinking a little. Anyway, the food's ready. Onion soup!"
"I don't like onions," Luke said defiantly.
"Then don't eat," Tear shot back, standing to help Anise pass out the food.
"I hope I didn't frighten you too badly, Anise," Jade said apologetically as she handed him his bowl.
"That's okay, Colonel. I mean, really, some of the facts of that story just didn't add up." She smiled a bit more genuinely at him than she had at the others. "But Natalia's right. You're really good at telling ghost stories. And it was just a story."
"If that's what you want to believe, go right ahead." Anise scowled at him, but she knew it was useless.
"Maybe it's just me," Luke said hesitantly, "but it seems like it's too dark and cold to go back out into that snowstorm again. I mean…it could be really dangerous." He had to wait to finish as the wind rose again, screeching. "A-avalanches, and all, y-you know."
"Master? You're shaking." Mieu really had no concept of how soft a whisper was supposed to be.
"Y-yeah, well, it's cold. And I'm tired."
"That's a pretty weak defense, Luke," Guy teased. "You're scared out of your mind, aren't you."
"Oh, and you aren't. I saw the look on your face at the end of his story, Guy."
"I was absorbed in the moment of the story. I wasn't that scared," Guy defended, shaking his head and grinning.
"Oh yeah? Then let's leave. Guy can go first."
"H-hey, I never said I was ready to leave!" Guy backed away, nearly spilling the rest of his soup. He frowned in annoyance at Luke's laughter. "All right, fine, maybe I was a little scared. But I'm not nearly as bad as you."
"All things aside," Jade cut in – he had stood, and was looking out of the opening at the snowstorm still raging – "it may well be safer to remain here for the night. It wouldn't do to take unnecessary risks now, after all."
There were muted sounds of agreement from the rest of the group, and within an hour they were prepared to sleep. Even Luke was remarkably efficient at this when he needed to be.
"I'll watch first, if that's all right with all of you," Jade offered, fiddling absently with his glasses. Nobody disagreed, and one look at them confirmed why. Most of them were already out. All that traveling through the snow must have been more taxing on them than he'd realized.
He was quite surprised when Natalia approached him. He was looking out the opening of the cavern, but he could hear her approach. He didn't look her way until she addressed him, however.
"Colonel Curtiss?" Natalia asked politely, waiting until he turned toward her to continue. "That really was a thrilling story. If you don't mind my asking, is that a story from your childhood in Keterburg?"
"Actually, aside from a few half-remembered details, I made it up." He grinned in a less disconcerting way than usual. "The basic structure of my story was similar to another I heard once, but I couldn't recall enough of it to tell it effectively."
"Then…there couldn't be any truth to it, could there? None of it really happened?" Natalia's eyes were wide with expectation. Jade leaned back against the stone wall of the cavern and pushed his glasses higher on his nose.
"Well," he said slowly, lifting his eyes a bit to meet hers. Natalia held back a gasp as the firelight caught his garnet gaze. "It's said that all stories, no matter how fantastic, are born from a foundation of truth." He smiled just slightly. "I suppose it can be left up to interpretation."
Natalia was at quite a loss for words, especially when, for the briefest of moments, the colonel's expression softened. He looked almost…sad. Wistful, perhaps, she decided. "Do you really think so?"
Jade shrugged, spreading his arms and sighing a bit in what seemed like irritation. "It was just a story meant to scare children away from the mountains, Princess. Nothing more." He smiled politely at her, returning his hands to his pockets. "You should get some sleep."
"Of course. Good night, Colonel." She nodded to him, turning toward the fire as he turned to look back at the entrance. Oh, but that's silly. Don't be so gullible, Natalia, she told herself firmly. She did her best to put it out of her mind as she went to sleep.
Jade looked back out at the snow as the wind picked up, howling and screaming. He heard movement behind him, from Anise's direction, and glanced her way. He really should apologize to her for such a scare…but some of them were so easy to get, it was far too entertaining to stop.
He turned his red eyes back to the endless snowfall and watched.
Thanks for reading. I hope it was enjoyable, and I'd love to hear your thoughts!