(A/N: Another new short story about our four-legged friend, Red XIII. :) This one's kinda like a children's fairytale or a story from folklore; if you've ever read the Just So stories, you'll probably recognise the style. I hope you enjoy. Reviews are much appreciated. :)
Disclaimer: FFVII is the property of Square Enix. I am borrowing these characters for fun, not profit.)
How the Beast got its Flaming Tail
Darkness reigned over the canyon. The moon shone down bright and full, but its brightness was dimmed in comparison to the Cosmo Candle. Nanaki padded up the rough, well-worn steps and across the canyon floor. He had arrived back from the evening's hunt to join his family, as he did every night. The fire's brilliant, everlasting light cast a glow over their faces. As soon as the cubs saw him, they shouted delightedly.
They were always pleased to see him, but tonight he thought he sensed an extra hint of excitement in their voices. This was confirmed when the cubs bounded towards him, light flashing from their tails. His mouth opened in surprise and joy. They leapt at him and he batted them away with his paws, smiling.
"Look! Look!" Kelu cried.
"We're all glowy!" said Elia. She ran around in a circle, chasing her own tail, a blur of light.
"Well, well," said Nanaki. "When did this happen?"
Dinne turned towards them, her silhouette outlined by the fire. "Barely an hour ago. They've been running wild, waiting for you to come back."
He joined his mate by the Candle and watched his cubs chase each other fondly. It took around a decade for his species to develop the flame on their tail – it ignited suddenly and was a matter of great honour, for it marked the transition between infancy and childhood. His cubs were still so young, but they were now ready to start their first hunt.
This meant that the whole family needed to return to their tribe in the mountains, where the cubs would officially be accepted as part of the clan. There they would receive their tribal markings and, after making their first kill, obtain a headdress to adorn their mane. Nanaki remembered his own first hunt: his parents had helped him bring down a cockatrice. Of course, they had done most of the chasing and fighting but once the bird was cornered, they had let him sink his teeth into its throat and taste the last gurgles of its life. Since then, he had always worn cockatrice feathers pinned into his mane – a symbol of his first kill.
"We should set off tomorrow," said Nanaki.
"Tomorrow?" said Dinne. "Oh, but Nanaki – look at them! They're so small. I know it's tradition but I think it's far too early…"
"Do they want to go?"
She was interrupted by the cubs, who now rushed headlong at their parents, still full of excitement.
"Are we gonna go back to the tribe now?" Elia asked eagerly.
"I want to meet them all!" said Kelu.
"Not tonight," said Nanaki. "Tomorrow."
Both cubs looked disappointed, but it was Elia who spoke up. "Tomorrow? Why can't we go now?"
"Because I have something very important to tell you first."
This was mysterious enough to make the cubs forget about going back to the tribe.
"What is it?" Kelu asked.
"Tell us!" said Elia.
"It's a story."
Elia hissed. "Not a bedtime story! We've heard all those before."
"No, this is a different story. A story you haven't heard before. And now that your tails are burning, you're old enough to hear it."
The cubs sat still and rapt, their eyes shining in the light of the fire. Dinne nuzzled Nanaki. "This sounds intriguing," she said. "I think I'll listen too."
"What's the story called?" Kelu asked.
Nanaki lay down on his belly, close enough to the fire to receive its heat, but not so close for it to become uncomfortable. Dinne curled up next to him and closed her eyes, but her ears were pricked, so he knew she was listening. His cubs snuggled together too, watching him, and when the whole family was settled, Nanaki began.
"Grandfather Bugenhagen told me this story – it is a legend passed down from both man and beast. It is the story of how the beast got its flaming tail.
"Long ago, at the very dawn of the Planet, there was Man and there was Beast. Beast was a great hunter, blessed with strong teeth, silent paws and great swiftness. But poor Man was the least blessed of all the Planet's creatures. He was naked and shivering, slow and defenceless. The only gift he had was his wits. Beast took pity on Man. He hunted for him, guarded him, and kept him warm in the cold night until Man could make clothes for himself, using the fur of other animals. For a time, Man and Beast lived and hunted together in harmony.
"But Man was not satisfied. However many skins Beast brought him to cover himself, he still shivered and cursed the cold air. However tender the meat that Beast caught, he still complained that his teeth could not chew it easily enough. And although the shelter in the cave that Beast found for him was as safe as it could be, Man was still afraid, for his eyes were weak and he could see nothing in the dark. Beast had tried his best and he was sad that he could not please his friend.
""If only the Planet had been less stingy in her gifts to me," Man moaned. "What a wretched, feeble creature am I!"
""You have my friendship," said Beast. "That is a gift. I know of no other creature who can talk and think so eloquently as you."
""That is true," Man said. He set his great brain to the task, and thought and thought and thought, while in his heart, his resentment against the Planet grew.
"Now, there was one element of the Planet which was extremely dangerous and destructive, and thus the Planet had decreed that no creature should have it. It was an element sometimes produced by heat or friction. When it ran wild, all creatures fled from its red hungry tongues which consumed all matter like a ferocious dragon. Fire was hot and bright, and Man decided he should have it, for he believed that he had the wit to control it when no other creature could.
"So Man gathered some dry wood together and brought it into his cave. Beast went off to hunt and lo and behold, when he came back, a merry fire crackled inside the cave, its smoke vanishing through a hole in the roof. Beast was terrified of the fire, as all creatures are, and he dared not go into the cave. But Man was sitting by the fire comfortably. He said, "It's quite safe! Come in, and bring the food!"
"Beast was filled with wonder, for he saw that Man had indeed tamed the fire, and so he entered the cave and found it to be not dark and damp, but light and cheery. Man had no need of his heavy furs, for the fire provided warmth. He had no need of Beast's sharp eyes, for the fire provided light. And when Beast gave to him the meat he had caught that day, Man spitted it on a stick, held it over the fire, and roasted it. He ate the cooked meat and said that the taste was much improved. Beast tried it, but he preferred his meat raw.
""Isn't this wonderful?" said Man. "I can use this fire to defend myself. None will dare attack me for fear of getting burned!"
"Beast saw that fire was indeed a most useful element for Man, yet he felt uneasy. "The Planet has said that this fire is not for the likes of us," he said. "Surely we are forbidden to use it."
"But Man waved his hand dismissively. "Not for you, perhaps," he said, "but I am a man and I can control this fire. It is for me to use, whatever the Planet says."
"The next day, Man went out hunting with Beast. He carried a flaming torch, and instructed Beast to chase his prey towards him. Beast obeyed, and as soon as the rabbit prey had dived into a patch of thorns to escape his claws, Man set the torch against one of the branches, which caught alight immediately. The rabbit was driven out by the flames and straight into the path of Man's spear. Man was delighted. But Beast ran up to him, panting. "The fire is spreading!"
"Alarmed, Man dropped the rabbit and beat at the scrub with a large branch. He tried to stamp out the fire, but he had lost control. The smell of smoke was thick. Dry branches and grass crackled and died as the flames devoured them. "Run!" Beast cried.
"Man and Beast ran for their lives as the land burned around them. Beast's paws were scorched and Man's face was sooty but they made it back to their cave otherwise unscathed. Looking outside, they watched the fire raging, leaving nothing alive in its wake. Horror swept over them; Beast howled and tears made pale tracks down Man's cheeks. They both heard the screams of the Planet, for the land was burning and the Planet was in pain. They could only wait, helpless, for the fire to burn itself out. It left behind a great swathe of blackened, smoking earth, while the corpses of trees stood bare and hollow, their branches pointed like accusing fingers across the horizon. All that had once been green was now ash.
"Man did not light a fire that night. The pair of them had nothing to eat – the rabbit that would have made them a fine meal had turned to ash like everything else. They lay in the darkness of the cave, hungry and miserable.
"Then, just as Beast had closed his eyes, finally able to ignore the ache in his stomach and sleep, the cave filled with an ethereal light. Man's hand tightened on Beast's shoulder – both wide awake, they stared in fear at the apparitions before them.
"The ghosts of all the creatures who had died in the fire had appeared in the cave. Every species, from burrowing worms to long-legged chocobos, stared at them with solemn eyes. Their forms merged into each other freely as they moved, and not an inch of the cave's interior was empty, except for the patch of rock where Man and Beast sat, the only living creatures in the cave, their hearts thumping. The spirits spoke in unison.
""We are the voice of the Planet," they said. "You have injured us. You have left a gaping wound in our flesh. You have used the forbidden fire and caused death and destruction, just as we feared."
"The voices echoed and echoed around the cave. Beast was shaking uncontrollably and he could feel Man beside him shivering too. The spirits seemed to expect an answer, so Beast gathered his courage and said, "Planet, we are sorry. We are very sorry for the damage we caused-"
""No," said the spirits. "You did not cause this damage. Man did. Man, you are to blame for this, and we shall take away your ability to make fire and confine it beneath the earth, where it shall never be misused again."
""Please, Planet," Man begged. "I can control fire – I won't let this happen again, I promise."
"The spirits hissed and their movement grew more agitated – they flew around Man's head, who cowered fearfully. They said, "We are angry. We shall not return to the Lifestream until our anger is abated – we shall haunt you every night, we shall never let you sleep…"
""No!" Man cried. "Please! I'm sorry for my foolishness, but I will learn from my mistake!"
""Lies!" the spirits hissed. "You are not worthy, human. You cannot be trusted."
""Then tell me," said Man. "Tell me what must be done to regain the Planet's trust."
""And how may we earn your forgiveness?" added Beast.
""If you truly want the aid of fire, you must show yourself worthy to have it. If you can fetch fire from the depths of Hell itself, then we shall esteem your courage and determination – and you shall have your prize, and our forgiveness."
"Then with a great whistling noise, as though the very air were being torn apart, the spirits disappeared. Man and Beast were left alone in the dark.
""Fetch fire from Hell itself!" said Man. "An impossible task. It would kill me!"
"Beast touched his nose to Man's hand. "Let us sleep now," he said. "Perhaps things will look better in the morning."
"But things did not look better in the morning. In fact, they looked worse. The sun's rays shone down on a dead, blackened land, filled with charred plants and the rotting husks of once living creatures. The smell carried across the breeze was truly vile. Man and Beast went to bathe in the river, the only clean place for miles around, and there they discussed their plight.
""The Planet will heal itself," said Beast. "The damage will not be everlasting and soon we will be able to find food."
""But what about the Planet's anger?" Man demanded. "Am I to be cursed every night with these wailing spirits? Am I never to find rest, even as the land grows green again?"
""Perhaps if you were to beg the Planet for forgiveness," Beast suggested. "You could swear never to attempt to steal fire again."
""And be the Planet's most pitiful creature for all eternity? Always weak, always despised – all of nature against me and nothing to fight back with? No! The fire of Hell may be impossible to reach, but I will think of a way."
"Once again, Man sat down to think, while Beast went abroad in the land to search for prey. He crossed the river, which marked the edge of the fire's destruction, and travelled through a bleak canyon before he found a suitable area. When he returned, his coat was slick with perspiration and his head drooped in fatigue. Man, to his surprise, beamed at his return.
""Beast! I have been waiting for you. Come, bring the food to me. I won't mind to suffer it raw, for I have an idea and if it works I will never have to eat raw meat again!"
"Beast dropped the meat next to Man, who was sitting outside the cave. "What is your idea?" he asked.
""Simple," said Man. "I cannot retrieve fire from the pit of Hell, so you must go in my place."
"At first, Beast thought that his ears weren't working properly. "What did you say?"
""I think you are the only one who can do this," Man explained. "Though the Planet has been frugal in her gifts to me, she has been generous with you. Your nose will lead you right, your eyes will pierce through the darkness of the pit, and your thick fur will withstand the heat."
""But the Planet charged you with this task," Beast stammered. "I mean – it's not proper, that one such as I… a mere beast…"
"Aha!" said Man, stabbing his finger towards Beast. "But did the Planet specify that I must be the one to retrieve the fire? No! A task, done in my name, may be completed successfully even though I am not the one to do it – but it must be done in my name. That is why you are the only one who can do this. Beast, my friend, will you do this one last favour for me? I know I ask much of you, as I always have, but I promise that I will repay you. I will share this fire with you, and you will benefit from it as much as I."
"For a short time, Beast sat still, his flanks heaving. He was afraid. It was said that Hell was a place of fire and brimstone, a place the living could not enter. How could he, a mere beast, succeed in this task?
""I – I don't know," he said, confused.
"Man stroked Beast's head and his words slipped right through into Beast's heart. "Please," he whispered. "For friendship's sake."
"Man knew how much Beast valued his company, for of all the creatures in the world, they were the only two who enjoyed such friendship. Most creatures keep to themselves, but Man and Beast had created a bond which transcended their species. So Beast put his fear aside and said, "This I will be glad to do for you, for friendship's sake."
""Thank you, my friend," said Man. "Eat, and then you may go."
"So, tired as he was, Beast set out on his journey to Hell that very evening. He crossed the river, made his way past the canyon and through the green savannah, towards a great mountain in the distance – a mountain that sometimes spewed hot lava, and was said to be a way into the underworld. The sun set and the moon rose. When Beast reached the top of the volcano, all the stars were spread out above him. He looked up. O stars, he thought. I may never see your beauty again. Shine brightly to show me the way out, for where I am going, there are no stars.
"Then the brave Beast plunged into the darkness of the volcano and so he came to the pit of Hell. The underworld was dark but for the glowing rivers of molten rock. Tiny rivulets cracked the rock beneath his paws and Beast was careful not to step on them. The pads of his feet hurt with every step he took, but Beast padded forward. The burning air singed his fur, but he continued downwards. A heat haze shimmered all around him and the light of the bright magma seared into his eyes, but he kept them open.
"He did not know how long it took, that journey into the very depths of Hell. Time did not seem to pass there. But Beast was a mortal, living creature, and he could not pass through unaffected. The heat burned his fur red. The brightness made his eyes shine with a fiery gleam. He had to creep and crawl through tunnels, and soon his whole body hunched low, his shoulders protruding above his back.
"Then, finally, when Beast thought he couldn't take one more step or breathe any more of the arid air, he arrived at the bottom. He crossed a narrow stone bridge to a flat circle of rock, and all around the rift, fire leapt and danced. The great chasm of fire dazzled Beast's eyes. But this was what he had come for. He took another step forward onto the plateau.
"A low, terrible voice rumbled, "Who dares to venture into the very pit of Hell?"
"Beast's heart was beating so fast, he was sure it betrayed his fear. But he answered loudly, "I do! It is I, Beast, who dares venture into this pit!"
""Why are you here, Beast?"
""For one thing only. Fire!"
"The voice laughed. Echoes of its rumbling laughter reverberated around the walls until it seemed as though the cave was full of cackling demons. "You wish to bring the sacred fire back to the surface?" the voice asked. "Then you will have to get past me first!"
"And then, right in the centre of the circle of fire, a huge figure appeared: the great spirit guardian, Ifrit. Ifrit was part man, part beast and all rage. He threw back his horned head and roared. Knowing that he had no choice but to fight, Beast snarled back at him. Against a colossus such as Ifrit, he had little chance of winning, but he didn't let that deter him. Wary, Beast circled Ifrit, closing the distance between them slowly, watching for an opening.
"Ifrit snorted; smoke billowed from his nostrils. He lifted his green-skinned hands and fireballs appeared in each one. These he threw with venom; Beast dodged both of them, leaping in the air, and landed behind Ifrit, his claws scoring against the rock. Almost without pausing, he sprang at Ifrit's exposed back. A great roar echoed through the cavern. Beast raked his claws across Ifrit's flesh and snapped at his shoulder – another roar of pain escaped the guardian, but Beast howled in pain too – Ifrit was scalding to the touch, and he let go, tumbling away from Ifrit even as the guardian swept his fist around to deal a mighty blow.
""You have injured me!" Ifrit roared. His rage caused the chasm of fire to burn higher and hotter than ever. Smoke surrounded him; Beast coughed and choked, but he couldn't give in – not now. He darted forwards once again and bit Ifrit's leg. His mouth burned, so he let go instantly and ripped at Ifrit's other leg with his claws. Ifrit roared and rose up into the air, a giant fireball forming above his head. Even a few feet below it, the heat blasted at Beast; he was burning, burning everywhere; he felt as though his blood was boiling.
"Ifrit raised his arms and sent the fireball crashing down like a red-hot meteor. Beast fled out of its path, right to the edge of the stone circle – he almost stumbled into the chasm, but dug in his claws and turned at the right time. The ground shuddered as the fireball slammed into it. Beast yelped – there was fire in front of him and fire behind him – pain burned in his tail; it was on fire too. Desperately, he rolled on the ground to try and extinguish the sparks in his fur.
"Ifrit emerged from the blaze to find Beast on his side, panting, his tail a blackened stump, but at the sight of him, Beast growled once more and got to his feet.
""Why do you persist?" Ifrit roared.
""Because," Beast answered, "I made a promise to a friend. I won't return without the fire!"
"Ifrit was amazed. "You would die for your friend?"
""If I must, yes."
"At those words, Beast sensed a stirring in the air. The smoke began to clear. The fire around them died down slightly. Whispers flitted through his ears, though he could not discern the words. Beast was half-dead already, his fur charred, his lungs full of smoke. But Ifrit had heard the whispers and now he looked upon Beast in wonder.
""You are a brave warrior, Beast," he said. "You fought me valiantly and even managed to wound me. The Planet has spoken. You have shown your courage, and your gift will be the sacred fire."
"Then the light of the Planet rushed through him and Beast felt his body restored. His burns vanished, his tail reappeared and his aching muscles now felt fresh and ready to be used. He sprang up, all trace of fatigue gone, and immediately noticed something different about his tail. Beast twisted his head behind him and saw a dancing light on the end of his tail, which flicked from side to side, quite beyond his control.
""Fire," Ifrit rumbled. "The Planet has seen fit to bestow you with new gifts. You are now a creature of fire too."
"Beast was awestruck. "Thank you," he said, bowing his head. "Thank you so much…"
""Your species will be a light to the world," Ifrit said. "You can now make fire in the upper world – but yours is no ordinary fire. Yours is a permanent source of light and warmth, a beacon in the dark, a fire that will not burn. Take care of your gift, Beast." And as he spoke, his voice became laced with the many voices of the spirits of the Planet. "We give you great intelligence and longevity, that you may be worthy of your great responsibility – to be the sole holders of the sacred fire, and guardians of the earth. Watch over the Planet, and you shall continue to be blessed."
"And Beast felt his wits heightened and his years lengthened and his heart soared with happiness. Ifrit, the guardian of Hell, smiled upon him, and brought him up to the surface of the earth, where Man was waiting for him.
"The sun was high in the sky when Beast returned to Man. Not even a whole day had passed. Man emerged out of his cave to find Beast sitting by the river, licking his paw. His fur was sleek and red, his eyes shone with intelligence and his tail burned brightly. And Man was awestruck and he fell to his knees before the Beast who was no longer a Beast.
""Why do you kneel?" Beast asked.
""Oh, great fire spirit," said Man. "Grant me your fire and I will worship you."
"Beast was highly amused, and he perceived, for the first time, that his intellect now far surpassed that of the Man grovelling before him. But he did not want to let this knowledge spoil his friendship with Man. "Come now, don't be silly," he said. "It is I, your faithful friend, Beast, returned from Hell with your fire."
""Beast?" Man looked puzzled for a moment, but then he said, "Oh, Beast, my friend! You have changed so much, I barely recognised you."
""Indeed," said Beast. "But I am still your friend. Let us go hunting together, my friend, and when we return, you can cook your meat over a fire."
"Man was amazed, but he did not hesitate to express his gratitude to Beast. And so the two went hunting together, as equals, and their friendship remained intact. So it has been ever since, in the long history of Man and we, the creatures with a flaming tail, twice blessed by the Planet. Here in Cosmo Canyon, the harmony between our species was long maintained. We are still the only creatures who have ever truly been to hell and back and lived to tell the tale – or so my grandfather used to say."
Nanaki had reached the end of his tale. The two cubs, who had been still and silent throughout the story, now blinked and stirred as though waking up from a dream.
"So that's how we got the flame on our tails," said Kelu, sounding awestruck.
Elia head butted her brother scathingly. "It didn't really happen," she said. "It's just a story, isn't it, Father? It's not true."
Nanaki smiled. "Sometimes, a story doesn't need to be factual in order to contain truth."
That puzzled both of the cubs. Kelu sat back on his haunches and said, "Well, I liked it anyway. Beast was a very nice person, wasn't he?"
"He was too nice," Elia said. "That cowardly human didn't deserve his help. Why be friends with a man like that?"
"Ah, cubs, if only you knew. I wish you had been born in time to see humans for yourself. Some of the most wonderful people I knew were human – and some of the most terrible too."
Dinne stirred next to him. "But they are gone," she said, "and if there is a lesson to be learned from their demise, it is that only the creatures who live in harmony with the Planet can flourish."
"They nearly killed the Planet, didn't they?" said Elia. "Stupid humans!"
"They saved it as well," Nanaki growled, shooting a stern look at his daughter. The cubs had learned a little about humans from their parents, and Nanaki was anxious to teach them the good as well as the bad. His species would remember them with respect, and learn from humanity's mistakes.
"Well, that's good," said Kelu, nodding solemnly. "But we're the ones who are twice blessed by the Planet."
"Yes, we're the ones who are left," Nanaki agreed. Some day, he would tell his cubs just how close they had come to extinction themselves, but for now they didn't need to know that their small tribe was the only one on the Planet. He nodded towards the fire. "The Cosmo Candle has burned for as long as our tribe has existed. It is made of the same fire as we, and as long as we survive, it will continue to burn – forever."
The cubs gazed into the fire, which was reflected in their eyes. Everywhere around them was completely black, except for the little family sitting around the fire: a permanent source of light and warmth, a beacon in the dark, a fire that would not burn.
Nanaki and his mate curled up together, and the cubs joined them. Soon their soft breathing filled the air. He felt his family alive and warm beside him, and sighed happily. Yes, his kind continued to be blessed. His cubs might not realise it yet, but they were the inheritors of the Planet, sworn to protect it, just as the Planet had ordained long ago.