Phew. Another chapter complete. And it didn't take a year this time! Go me. Haha. Not many chapters left now, folks!
Side note: Yep I made up the Luminance spell up. S'over it.
Into The Light
"A-ahh! Ugh, don't do that! I thought you were a freakin' zombie!"
Garnet lowered her hand and the newly conjured magic ball of light respectively, her face twisting into a disgruntled expression. "I don't look that bad, do I?"
Blank hesitated for the briefest of moments wherein the sensitivity of women was considered and brutishly discarded. "Yes. I was about to stab in your face. Repeatedly. With something pointy and preferably sharp. Word from the wise: food is a good thing."
"Would you feel like eating if you were me?"
"Um, no. Guess not. But it doesn't change the fact that you look like you're decomposing."
"Well, here are your choices: you either put up with my zombie-face, or we walk around in darkness. And just so you know, the latter probably isn't the wisest of choices because there's a rather large drop on either side of us."
Blank's eyebrows disappeared under the bandana tied across his forehead. "Oh, really? I hadn't noticed actually. Thank the gods for your astute observations, otherwise I might have continued to frolic carelessly across the slippery roots, fear of falling and certain death be damned."
Garnet felt fresh sweat prickle her forehead as the dark abyss was brought to her attention once more. She swallowed noisily and volunteered a lacklustre, "Ha ha."
Their arrival at the Tree of Life had been heralded by a storm of devastating proportion. Blank had made some joke about not standing under trees during a thunderstorm, but abruptly shut up when a fork of lightening the size of which belittled even Ramuh's creations struck the canopy and sliced off a branch that would have propelled them into the next life had it landed on top of them.
They waited the worst of it out a safe distance away from the trunk, beneath an outcropping of intersecting roots, and it was there, in the fading light, that Garnet got a good look at the tree for the first time in years.
Although it had become a shadow of its former self, it was still as huge and intimidating as ever. Its leaves had long since withered and died, laying bare a labyrinth of branches that had the texture of hardened, wrinkled skin; a bouquet of crippled arms reaching into the dark sky. Garnet remembered it as a haven of life and mysterious beauty, but it now looked ghastly, truly something from a nightmare, wreathed in thunderheads and scarred by lightening. Its roots seemed to be everywhere but the ground and were frozen in the strangest positions, testament to their violent death throes. It was strange to remember its past appearance; the Iifa was now so still and dead.
Yet Garnet still feared it. A darkness lived at its core, like maggots in a corpse. Was the key to new life on Gaia really here? Garnet struggled to believe it as the darkness swallowed the light of her Luminance spell and bathed everything else in ghoulish shades of grey.
"Can't you cast a happy colour?" Blank complained as he thumbed the hilt of his sword. "Don't you have a Happy Rainbow spell? Or a Smiley Sun spell?"
"Let's just get this over with," Garnet said as she squinted through the gloom and towards what she presumed was the right way.
It was unusually dark here. The sun had not yet set, but the clouds were so thick that they had cast the land into premature darkness that only thickened as they progressed deeper into Iifa's lair. Though the leaves were gone, the branches were woven so thick that everything beneath Iifa's canopy was snared within an eternal twilight.
Garnet cast a worried glance behind her as she began to walk again. After some discussion, they decided it was best to position the genome between herself and Blank. Garnet knew the way (roughly, for the landscape had changed considerably since her last visit) so had to be in front, and she didn't trust Zidane to take the rear; if he fell or lagged behind they probably wouldn't realise until it was too late. They needed to keep their eyes and ears trained for any possible signs of zombies (or dragons, though Garnet decided to keep that little gem to herself – Blank was still struggling with the idea of the undead infesting the tree) so couldn't expend energy babying him along.
There had been no change to Zidane's demeanour. He remained quiet and impassive as usual, his gaze roaming casually across Iifa's landscape as if death did not lie one misplaced footfall away.
Garnet returned her gaze to the path ahead. Years before, the roots and branches had extended from the trunk in one vague direction, but now the foliage made no sense. The way was frequently blocked by trunks of varying size, crisscrossing and twisting around each other with no semblance of order. They emerged from the darkness below like some giant squid emerging from the deep. It was disorientating and chaotic, but through gaps in the foliage Garnet could discern the enormous trunk, and as it drew closer her sense of unease increased.
"I keep seeing things." Blank's voice was barely above a whisper, alerting Garnet to the stillness of the place, to the silence, despite the fact she could sense flickers of life lurking somewhere within the steady gloom.
"I dunno, everywhere." Blank sounded unnerved, but Garnet could hardly blame him. She'd been keeping her eyes ahead, keen not to lose the distorted trail scrounged from her memory, but she too had been subject to the strange flickers of movement in the periphery of her vision.
"It might be a monster, so keep a look out."
"I know what a monster looks like," Blank snapped. "I know what Ghosts look like too, and Zombies. I don't think it's either of those. It's too ethereal and strange. It looks… familiar."
Garnet's stomach knotted with trepidation. "What do you mean?"
"I dunno." He huffed. "Man, this place is gettin' to me. Let's pick up the pace, eh? Faster we get in, faster we get out."
Garnet couldn't have agreed more.
At some indistinct point, they breached the trunk, and by then the day was almost dead. Darkness devoured her puny light source, sparing a meagre square that lit the roots directly in front of her feet. Once inside the bulk of the trunk, the roots thickened and flattened inexplicably, and then she was in the place where she had stood all those years ago, with Zidane, Vivi and Eiko.
Garnet funnelled energy into her ball of light and it flared brighter, throwing off a layer of darkness. She stared down at the strange transportation device just beyond her feet, which had been spared the wrath of the roots' final display of aggression. She frowned, casting her gaze around. The place was hemmed in with the roots, and large chunks of the trunk had been knocked loose. It seemed strange that the transportation pad remained untouched. Was this an act of sentiency? Or was it magically protected?
"'Sup." Blank stood beside her, arms crossed, as he stared curiously at the pad. "Is this how we get down?"
Garnet's gaze trailed back to the pad and she nodded. "Yes. I was a little worried that there would be debris obstructing the downward path but I have a feeling it'll be fine. It'll take us straight to the bottom."
"How does it work?"
Garnet turned to Zidane. "Genome, please stand in the middle of that circular pad."
The genome in question stared blankly at her for a moment, then obliged. He took his place at the centre of the pad, then returned to staring at Garnet.
"Abracadabra," Blank said.
Something clicked in Garnet's head and she rolled her eyes. "Oh, wonderful. The device must have reacted to Zidane's Terran soul last time we came here. Now that he's become an empty vessel he's about as useful as you and I."
"Don't tell me…"
"We're taking the long way down," Garnet confirmed. She glanced around uneasily. "I hate to say it, but I think we should set up camp. There's no way we can navigate so many hundreds of feet down in the pitch black."
There was a moment of uneasy silence as the pair absorbed the quiet darkness and the roots twisting around and above their heads like a nest of snoozing serpents. Somewhere far away, there was the howl of something not human.
"Worst camping trip ever," Blank said, then rolled his shoulders and cracked his knuckles. "S'pose I'll take first watch. Do you reckon Airhead over there remembers how to pitch a tent?"
Garnet sighed. "Don't get your hopes up."
Blank smirked. "I never do when it comes to Zidane."
Unsurprisingly, sleep evaded Garnet. She slipped in and out of a light doze, never far from the surface of consciousness, and when she managed fall asleep proper she would be inexplicably jolted awake, rest a tantalising finger breadth away. She could credit this to simple stress, but a niggling somewhere between her two minds suggested it was something else, and she was inclined to agree.
Memories would come to her without stimulation, random and vivid and varying in age and subject. She credited it to Memoria. Though the portal itself no longer existed, she imagined fragments of its influence might remain among the dead branches of Iifa. Or perhaps she was just overthinking.
Mostly, she was unnerved by Zidane. He had been reluctant to share a tent with her but had submitted on command. He lay incredibly still, but he was not asleep. Garnet could sense his wakefulness and it made her uncomfortable. What did genomes think about in those moments before sleep claimed them? Surely they must think of something; a mind cannot simply be blank… Can it?
Garnet couldn't imagine quiet within her mind, nor did she wish too. It was akin to being dead – a pointless, meaningless existence filled with nothing. Unnatural.
Groaning, Garnet sat up. She lingered for a moment in her knot of blankets, rubbing her eyes with the balls of her hands, then felt Zidane's blank gaze on her back. She shuddered, then unbuckled the tent flap and crawled out.
There had been no small about of debate on whether to light a fire, but when their light was extinguished and everything became a slate of depthless black, they both immediately and steadfastly agreed that a fire was a necessity. Blank attested that he'd rather see what was going to eat him before it did so, and Garnet found the Iifa Tree unnerving enough in daylight, let alone swathed in solid shadow.
Blank was hunkered over this fire with his back to the tent, his head drooping against his chest so she initially mistook him for being asleep, but when she drew closer he glanced over his shoulder. His eyes were rimmed with dark smudges and glazed beneath heavy lids. She felt very sorry for him then. Baku never did really cut him a break.
"You can take some rest," Garnet said as she took her place by the fire.
"It's only been a few hours."
Garnet bobbed a shoulder. "It's okay. I can't sleep." She caught his look and pulled a face. "Honestly, it's fine. Don't worry about me. I'm used to not sleeping nowadays. I'll wake you up in a few hours, I promise."
"I look forward to it." Blank got to his feet and stretched his arms, shoulders cracking disapprovingly, then all but dragged his feet towards the tent. "I'd warn you about the zombies but they'll probably mistake you as one of their own, so give me a shout when they drag you away to make you their queen."
Garnet threw a pebble at his retreating form, retracting her earlier sentiments of pity.
Once the tent flap was closed and the general rustling of Blank settling had hushed, she was left with the void of darkness and the ambiguous calls of monsters and insects. Worse, she was left with her memories.
Vivi… What did you find here?
Unbidden, a memory formed behind her eyes. She was walking down a cobblestone road lined with narrow, rambling houses – familiar – Alexandria? Yes. Some back street she didn't recognise. Her eyes trailed down from the blue sky threaded between terracotta tiles and to the two thieves leaning casually against a brick wall –
Garnet shook her head and blinked, spine straight and stiff, hands curled in her lap.
That… This isn't my memory!
She stared up at the sky, forgetting for a moment where she was and expecting to see stars, but there was nothing but a tangle of roots trimmed in amber firelight.
Another memory played out within her mind. She was flying, peering disinterestedly down at a patchwork landscape turned monochrome beneath twin moons. She caught a glimpse of silver feathers beneath her feet, of a powerful wing thrusting down and catching an updraft, propelling them higher until she could spot the peaks of Lindblum on the horizon –
Garnet leapt to her feet, heart pounding. The sound of her feet crunching against the husks of dead leaves was far too loud. When had everything become so still? When had the fire burned so low?
A warning trilled from the place between her conscious and subconscious mind. She gripped Whales Whisker in an offensive position and stirred her magic to life. Was it her imagination, or was the darkness… moving?
What monster is this?
It was undeniable now; the darkness was indeed shifting. It warped and pulsated just beyond the fire's reach, tangible yet shapeless at once. Garnet strived to discern something solid out of the writhing mass, but failed. It was getting closer. Blank's name was on the tip of her tongue until the thing rolled into the fire light and she was struck speechless.
Mist. Clouds so thick it looked like it could be plucked straight from the air, rolling across their campfire. Garnet stared numbly as it rolled past her calves and obscured the bottom of the tent. She shivered, though not from the night's chill. Icy fingers walked up her spine as she stared into the gloom. Where was it coming from? It certainly wasn't in the quantity it had been all those years ago but nonetheless…
She was about to turn toward the tent and awaken Blank when a shimmer of light caught her eye. For the briefest of moments a red light danced between the tangle of roots like the eye of a dragon watching her from a cave. It blinked out, then reappeared farther away, twinkling in one spot, then looping down almost playfully.
Garnet felt she should have been wary, but something quelled her unease. She found herself wandering after it, her thoughts full of Vivi and the orb that had rolled beneath the bed. She walked to where the platform ended and gave way to a drop of indeterminable proportions.
She lit a Luminance spell and dropped it. The light fell like a tear drop, slowly dying as it plunged further away from its mage, but before it was snuffed out it revealed a series of roots that entwined to form many layers. There were dead vines too – maybe she could use them as a ladder?
Garnet barely managed to keep her balance as the voice rocked her forward. She whirled, flared another Luminance spell, and came face to face with Zidane.
"Zidane? Zid, is that you?"
The genome stared at her. "It is unsafe to traverse so close to the edge."
"What did you call me? What did you say?"
"It is unsafe to traverse so close to the edge."
"You called me Dagger."
The genome's eyes were glassy orbs in the glare of her spell, reminding her of a the eyes of dead fish. "Yes."
Garnet opened her mouth to speak, but found her thoughts were too muddled to make sense of anything, much less the placid genome. She sighed gustily, wondered if she was going mad, then turned back to the edge just in time to glimpse the red sparkly light, some distance below.
"I'm going down," she told the genome. "Wait here."
"I will accompany you."
Garnet glanced over her shoulder. "It's too dangerous to climb down at night. I said wait here."
Garnet blinked in surprise. In all her time staying in the village, she had never heard a genome refuse anything. What did this mean? Another sign? Should she let him follow? But what if he fell and died?
It's just an empty shell, Mikoto would say. There are others identical to it. It's replaceable. I can build a new one.
But it looked like Zidane, even if it wasn't Zidane. Another genome wasn't really the same as this one. Zidane's shell was unique…
Regardless, her instincts were prickling, and she sighed again in defeat. "Fine. But stay close to the light and don't make any stupid jumps. Quickly now, before we lose the red light."
The genome didn't respond or question Garnet's faerie light. He waited for her to mount the tangle of dead vines and then followed suit.
Garnet discovered it was rather difficult navigating down crumbling, unstable vines with just one hand, so she snuffed out her Luminance spell, dousing the couple in darkness. Although the nearest root was not too far, without the comfort of light it may well have been an endless abyss beneath her feet. The relief she felt when her feet touched solid root was enough to make her question her decision to pursue the red light alone.
Well, not completely alone.
With an agility that defied his near-comatose state of mind, Zidane landed beside her with a quiet thunk. He stared at her, awaiting her next move.
"I thought I told you not to jump," she said crossly.
"I won't be damaged," he told her.
"You're as stubborn as…" She trailed off. "Well, hurry up, then. It's a long way down."
Garnet continued descending. It was a laborious process; the vines were half rotted and prone to give way mid-climb, sending the queen skidding down on her stomach for a terrifying few heartbeats as she madly grappled for a foothold. Yet the vines were a blessing. Their absence was sorely felt when she was faced with a jump that threatened her with a sprained ankle. Often she would have to awkwardly slide down, the root's rough exterior ripping and staining her clothes.
Needless to say, she was soon out of breath, cut, bruised and sweaty, cursing the languid life of a queen. Zidane was as unbothered as ever and usually at the next level before her, staring idly at her struggling form and not bothering to offer a hand.
Some time into their descent, Garnet had to stop to catch her breath, leaning forward with her hands on her knees, feeling sweat trickle down the bridge of her nose. It dripped onto the ground, leaving a tiny dark stain.
Wait… I can see it?
She stood straight and peered around. She could vaguely discern the roots and trunk warped around her. Was it morning already?
Garnet walked to the edge of the root and peered over the side. Finally, the bottom could be seen, twinkling between gaps in the fauna like a shattered emerald. The strange light pulsated and shimmered and Garnet felt that strange tendril of dread unfurl in her chest.
The red light appeared again, some way down, dancing and whirling between the branches.
"What is this place?"
Garnet looked at Zidane. He was staring over the edge too. The green light toyed with the aquamarine in his eyes, turning them into a fairy cauldrons of gemstone glitter. His expression was vacant, as always.
"It's where we go when we die," Garnet answered. "And what we are born from."
Zidane looked thoughtful for a moment, then evenly replied, "I did not come from here, and I will not return to here when I expire. I am a vessel. I will return to nothing."
Garnet felt an inexplicable rage towards Garland then. How could he create intelligent life but give them no purpose? They lived a meaningless existence, lingering on the outskirts of emotion, unable to die but unable to live. For the first time, she felt sorry for the genomes. Was this how Mikoto felt? Was this why she strived to create a new genome, one that could feel, live and die?
There must be a way.
"Come on, we're almost there."
Garnet put her head in her hands and tried very hard not to cry. Crying was useless. Crying didn't run a kingdom, or save the world, or get her husband back. It wasn't productive in the slightest. Yet it was such a hard thing to fight.
There must be something. Anything.
She had expected an answer. Expected it to be waiting for her at the bottom. But there had been nothing and now she had no idea what to do.
The answer must be here. It must be. Vivi… Zidane… Please! Help me. I can't do this by myself…
Garnet lifted her head from her hands and stared at the platform's edge. It was completely unchanged since the time they had defeated Soulcage. Beyond the platform and several hundred feet down was a pool of blinding light that radiated sentiency and life. Potent magic of the likes which she could not fathom hummed in the distant, plucking chords in the very air so she could feel their vibrations against her skin. The eidolons stirred in her mind, excited by being the near the source of all life and power.
Garnet could not share in their excitement. She re-read Vivi's journal over and over. What had he done at the Iifa Tree that prompted the mages to have souls? Nothing seemed changed in the environment, even in the magical aura of the place. Yet he had found something, she was sure of it. If she was going to get Zidane back, surely it would be here? Was her journey all for nothing? Would she merely have to accept her husband as an empty drone?
Garnet looked sideways, head still cradled in her hands. Zidane was staring at the platform too, though his brow was creased with what might have been concern. She sat up.
"What's wrong? Are you… remembering something?"
"No. But… I sense danger nearby. I believe we should evacuate this area."
"You sense danger?"
"…Something is coming."
Zidane had barely finished his sentence when the ground began to shake. It came from somewhere deep beneath them, gurgling upwards like the earthly bellow of a Hilgigar. Garnet climbed to her feet with difficulty then gripped a root for support. A vision of flailing roots smashing the bracken earth flashed before her eyes and fear gripped her in tight claws. Was Iifa coming to life again?
In a moment of disorientating de ja vu, the source of the rumbling revealed itself and Garnet staggered backwards with a cry of dismay.
A tree emerged from the other side of the platform, springing from the green inferno like a grassy Ifrit. It was belittled by Iifa, but still the size of a normal tree and therefore much larger than Zidane and Garnet combined. Unlike Iifa, it retained its leaves, and they rustled amongst branches that shifted back and forth between a peculiar cage of stone and brick. Between this foliage was a face of nightmares, shorn through the middle by barky teeth. Its eyes were dark slits beneath a heavy brow of wood, lit at its centre by a red gem.
The platform shuddered as it planted itself before the two onlookers and its roar echoed up Iifa's hollow trunk.
"Trespassers," Soulcage stated, "must be eliminated."
Garnet barely moved in time to dodge the rain of razor sharp leaves Soulcage shot from its branches. They became lodged in the platform, one hundred green knives, as she scooted backwards out of harm's way.
"Zidane, move!" she yelled, and the genome mimicked her evasive manoeuvre, looking puzzled though hardly frightened.
How is this happening? We defeated Soulcage to stop the Mist! Why is it back? How is this possible?
Another hail of razor leaves shot her way and this time she wasn't so lucky. Although she avoided the worst of it, the foliage cut through her clothes and into the flesh of her left arm and leg. She yelped, pain cutting a tunnel through her limbs, then groped for a Cure and a Protect. With some effort, she threw them Zidane's way too, while he stood to one side, wary but unaggressive.
Garnet braced herself against the platform and gripped Whale's Whisker, reaching for the place inside her mind where the magic brewed.
The tree loomed before her, rustling its branches and gnashing its splinters of teeth. Bright fragments of light erupted upwards from its writhing roots, whirled around its trunk and danced between its leaves. The air was scorched by its magical aura as Soulcage amassed its energy into an attack.
Garnet opened her eyes, smirking slightly. Too slow, you overgrown weed.
She felt the power rise up inside her, light and powerful, and spoke the name of the spell that all Undead foes feared most: Life.
The magic was snatched from her control and the spell fizzed out with an anticlimactic pop that smelt like cut grass.
Stunned, Garnet almost dropped her weapon.
What on Gaia was that?
She reached for the magic again but it was as though her ability had been dispelled, or rather, she had been shunned of it. Garnet barely had time to process this before she was knocked off her feet by an intense shockwave. The Protect exploded inwards and the breath ripped out her lungs and her knees buckled. Whale's Whisker skittered out of her grip and rolled over the edge of the platform, disappearing into the luminous green pit below. She yelled in dismay, though was torn from the loss by Zidane's own yell. Some of Soulcage's leaves had ripped through his Protect and pierced his torso.
She called to her magic, frantically scouring every corner of her mind, but it was hidden from her. Even the eidolons were slumbering, immune to her call.
Garnet climbed unsteadily to her feet again and turned her attention to Soulcage. To her surprise, the red light had reappeared and was dancing playfully by its side.
It… it tricked me? It led me down here to… die? Why? I don't understand what's happening!
Garnet sensed that Zidane's Protect had worn off in the same moment Soulcage turned its hollowed eyes on him. She cried out, conjuring the magic as fast as she could, but Soulcage was faster. Its aura swirled blue and red and the air stank of burning leaves, hailing its fiery spell.
The shell would not come in time and Garnet slammed her eyes shut. Zidane!
Garnet opened her eyes in time to see Blank leap from an overhanging root and onto the writhing tree, cutting off its fiery spell and tearing downwards with his sword so he left an ugly scar along its trunk. Purple sap spewed onto the ground and the tree arched backwards, roaring.
Once grounded, Blank whirled on Zidane. "You big, stupid idiot! I'm gonna punch you in the face!"
"Blank!" Garnet cried. "I…. It's….!"
"And if I wasn't a total fucking gentleman and you weren't a woman," he yelled, turning to Garnet, "I'd punch you in the face too!"
"Blank, the enemy is undead! Do you still have that elixr?"
"Course I do!"
"Use it on him!"
Blank shot her a puzzled look but fished around in his bag. The tree bellowed when it spotted the glass vial and conjured another Fira spell, leaves chattering like broken glass tinkering onto the ground, but Blank was faster. He pulled the cork with his teeth and lobbed the elixr.
Garnet's elation was extinguished as quickly as it was ignited when the red light launched itself through the air, hitting the vial and causing it to explode into a thousand useless pieces. Crimson liquid splattered onto the ground and shards of glass whistled past Garnet's face. She grit her teeth, furious.
What is going on?
"Anymore bright ideas?" Blank hollered while deftly avoiding a leafy bombardment.
"None! Other than having you beat the living daylights out of it! You… Wa-wait. Where's Zidane?"
Garnet spun around, eyes scanning the plateau. He had been close to Blank just a moment before but now…
Garnet followed Blank's extended finger and spotted Zidane behind Soulcage, dangerously close to the edge, with his back to the fray. The red light was gliding around him like a lazy butterfly.
"What the hell is he doing?" Blank yelled.
Garnet climbed to her feet. "Blank, do me a favour and keep the tree busy! I'm going to get Zidane!"
The redhead nodded and brandished his sword, then ran at Soulcage with a fierce battle cry tearing from his throat.
With Soulcage distracted, Garnet managed to flank it. There was little time to be wasted. Soulcage would notice her at any moment and Blank could not hold it off alone. They would have to flee and return with reinforcements. But right now, she had to get Zidane away from that red light, even if she had to drag him.
She ran up to Zidane, her arm outstretched to pull him away from the infinite drop into green nothing, but was halted in her steps.
The red light was expanding, pulsating in time with the light beneath them. It rippled like a reel of red silk and began to take on the form of a man. It creased and smoothed alternatively, giving the impression of shadows, then clothes and then features, and through the red veil glimmers of colour began to emerge. And as the red light grew in definition, Garnet began to recognise who it was.
The man turned to her and smiled.
"K-Kuja…?" Garnet breathed.
He was as she remembered, clad in the same clothes, long silver hair, cruel yet beautiful face, though his image was ethereal and painted watery red. She viewed him as if through a bride's veil and she sensed that if she was to reach out and touch him her hand would pass straight through his image.
Horror was replaced by anger, and she stepped forwards resolutely. "Get away from him! If you dare touch him I'll… I'll…" Kill you? Too late for that. She floundered, and Kuja tittered soundlessly behind his slender hand. Strange, she had seen that gesture countless times, yet his expression was different now.
Soulcage roared and turned. Too late she registered Blank's shouted warning. The tree loomed above her, teeth gnashing, as it conjured another spell that would likely knock her off her feet and into the pit.
She turned quickly to Zidane, hand outstretched to grab him, and Kuja mirrored her. But he did not pull Zidane to safety.
He pushed him.
Garnet screamed and lunged forward, falling through Kuja's image and grabbing the back of Zidane's shirt, but the momentum was too powerful and Zidane was not fighting it.
They fell together into a blinding pit of light.