Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy XIII, or make claims to anything except the original story concepts presented herein.
A/N. I'm not dead, though many of you may have wished I were for leaving you hanging for so long. Also, this is much shorter than intended, especially after such a long hiatus. The reasoning is simple: the chapter ended naturally and no amount of coaxing the second half made it fit. The two halves are different in content, narrative flow, etc. I couldn't make it work. I am, however, 11 pages into the second part. No promises, but I will try to get it up forthwith.
"Begin at the beginning," the King said, very gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.
Fimbulvetr I :
From Within You, It Devours
It's gradual when it begins. Lulling. It's a tickle, an itch. It's maggots squirming. It's bugs scrambling, creeping; it's legs like filaments skittering across flesh landscapes.
They are few at first, and she brushes them away with careless, dismissive fingers.
They are Hydra; they are legion. The invasion is absolute, the battle lost before it begins. They flee from her questing hands, scurry up her nose, nest in her ears, burrow under her skin. Dozens – hundreds! – of them, infecting, infesting her. Mindless sweeps of fingers grow frantic and clutching. Fingernails hook into flesh, gouging, tearing until clots of blood and meat grow sticky and bulky beneath her nails.
Still she fails; still they advance.
She ignores the agony and carves out furrows, peels away ribbons of herself in futile pursuit. With jagged nails she chases after the chewing, clawing creatures, always a step behind them on their trek through her muscles and sinew towards the safe hollow of her bones.
She scratches and screams around a throat full of maggots.
She blinks, exhales and stills. She stands at a brink, overlooks the cataclysm. The Behemoths lumber towards the boneyard, striding, striving towards their rest. Envy for a destination – a goal, an end – washes over her and she drowns in the undertow.
She turns away, turns the page. It's not her end, her time. Her heart still beats, and the clock ticks away. It runs, as she runs...
She's running, seeking something unremembered.
She chases herself in circles, finds only more road. Hers is a millennia-old journey down well-worn trails. It's catwalks and bridges and a continuous, disembodied scream. She's a lab rat and every turn leads to electrical shock or dead end; she's a goldfish, ever-surprised by the treasure chest in her tiny bowl.
The bugs niggle and worm their way through her, but they no longer matter. She knows now that always have they been there. Will always be there.
They are part of the whole of herself, and she can no more remove them than amputate her head.
She ignores them for the matter at hand. She's got places to go, people to kill. Time ticks away.
—Marches to footsteps and heartbeats.
Hope's frantic footfalls follow her, but she dismisses them and him. He is a pest; he holds her back, makes her weak. He is the bugs beneath her skin, consuming her foundations to leave her skeletal in the onslaught.
She should have left him, killed him, let the curse claim him.
A shout from behind her snags her attention, draws her gaze from the path. Gone is the puppy trailing her. In his place stands a miniature Cie'th, ridiculous in its short pants and yellow jacket, gray, crystal-crusted skin a terrible clash to the stylish clothing.
It lurches, and stumbles over its own over-sized feet.
The chasm yawns, and she ignores it. The abyss beneath her is of no concern, even as it slavers and drools.
She huffs, wraps bloodied fingers around her hipbones and taps her foot.
The Cie'th lumbers over, swipes at her with a clubbed limb. She tuts at the monster, looks it up and down as it gives up its attack, puts its head in grotesque hands and weeps. She turns from the sight, unable or unwilling to watch.
The Behemoths look as supplicants as they ease into their final rest. Face-first, they kiss the ground upon which their ancestors last walked.
Something is wrong; something's missing. There's a hole inside her, invisible, gaping. She feels the lack, knows it's there.
It's impossible to prove a negative. What's gone is gone, and she'll never miss it anyway. You can no more find what's forgotten than reclaim lost time. The search for forgotten memories is fruitless, the path a route to madness.
Time and memory are both irrelevant; acceptable losses.
The past can't matter in the face of the now, and now she faces a monster in boy's clothing. The picture shakes her foundations, rocks her core. Something inside her shrivels in the face of yet another broken promise.
She is stone. She is a soldier, a warrior, unbending. She looks the once-boy up and down, notes the fashionable footwear torn through by gruesome feet. And here she cracks. Hadn't they had this conversation already?
"I told you to take care of your feet, Hope. We'll never get anywhere if you can't walk."
"Sorry," he whispers. The monster stares at her with the boy's green eyes, some strange cocktail of unidentifiable emotion percolating there. "I never wanted to be a burden." She hates the feeling of his gaze on her; like a nutcracker it squeezes at her, exposes all her tenderest parts. The urge to pluck those eyes from their sockets almost overwhelms her. "I just wanted your attention."
"Yeah, well, you've had it." She looks at the ever-lengthening path. Her eyes burn even as they roll. "Too much of it, to be honest. I have important things to do, and instead I've been changing your diapers!"
She stares at the endless miles of catwalk and road.
They are back at the beginning. Somehow, when she wasn't looking, the world shifted out from beneath her and all her progress vanished. The entirety of the Vestige, the Peaks, the Gapra Whitewood stand before her.
The Behemoths have reached their end while she and her progress were unmade.
Everything is pointless. She's lost, and losing more of herself with each breath, but she cannot deal with intangibles. Instead, she focuses on the long, hard road ahead.
She throws her hands up in the air and grunts out: "See? Now we have to start all over!"
But the boy is gone. She's alone in the darkening woods. It's as she always wanted, except there's no burgeoning triumph swirled in with the pain.
There's only emptiness.
She listens to the sounds of bugs chewing, watches the Behemoths die.
"I should save them," she whispers to no one.
She is hollow.
And she's running the catwalks again, deep within Mah'Habara, tunnels and catwalks and endless darkness. Her sense of time and direction disappear into the abyss, yet something draws her forward.
Purpose and will. If she were anyone else, she'd call it Fate.
But she is Lightning and her fate is her own; she's forged it from flesh and bone, and life and death, with gun and blade. She doesn't believe in divinity or grace, and hasn't for long years.
The bugs are still creeping along her bones, gnawing away flesh and nerve. Creating, nesting in negative space.
Pretending that they aren't squatters; acting like they own the place!
Then again, she thinks, perhaps they do. She hasn't been alone in her own skin for monthsyearscenturies. There's always been something unsettled within her. Something dark and alien:
Once upon a time there was a little girl, she thinks.
But the little girl lost her way.
Or perhaps she was really led astray.
Either way, the young girl died,
and something else crawled deep inside.
It wore the girl just like a dress,
and with her hands, it made a mess.
It killed, it stabbed, it stomped and screamed,
and murdered all the young girl's dreams.
It changed her name to hide its face,
and in her life it made its place.
So she knows that she's always been an imposter, but now she thinks that perhaps she was just a vessel all along. That the creature that crawled inside the dead girl all those years ago was just an opportunistic squatter.
And the bugs are laughing and chattering inside her ears, mocking her from the confines of her throat. We know the way, they giggle. We do! But we'll never tell. Tick tock goes the clock! The urge to slip her blade into the hollow places and dig them out – to filet and carve until they are as ruined as she – rises up from her churning gut. She examines the curve of the blade—
"You're going the wrong way, Sis." She huffs and abandons her examination of the blade. "You're going to burn if you go that way. You should follow the Behemoths. They remember the path."
"How would you know that?" she snipes as she turns toward the (un)welcome voice.
Snow's bloody and bleeding, impaled on a rock as thick as her thigh. His pinned to the ground like a bug, grunting and gasping. It's beautiful and horrible, and she wants to etch the image into her mind; wants to taste and touch and experience his pain, even as something cringes and recoils within her. She kneels beside him, entranced, and says, " And I'm not your sister."
"I know it." More blood oozes from his mouth. She bends and sniffs it, licks her lips. "I've always known," he wheezes. "But we've had fun pretending, haven't we?"
Bony fingers chase the blood as it runs down his face, swipe through it. She ghosts them over her lips, slides them, one-by-one, between.
"Pretending is all we ever do," she answers. Her fingernails pick a furrow into the flesh at her wrist, catch on, disappear beneath it. The skin of her forearm peels up like that of a roasted bird, all easy going, until it catches at her elbow and tears with a slurp. She dangles her bloody prize over him, watches it wriggle for a long moment, before casting the flesh aside. She presents to him the gray skin in the wound as she might an unwrapped gift. "See?"
She stares into the blood spatter on his face as if it might yield knowledge of the future. She sees only death in the pattern and nods once.
"Yeah," he says, disinterested. Unimpressed. She sits back on her heels with a huff, and lifts the knife.
For my next trick…
" I've got some of my own, you know," Snow says, interrupting her violent musings.
"Really?" How intriguing! The idea alone is buoying. She's tired of being alone.
She's always been alone. Ever since forever.
If you're alone when the music stops, everything goes cold, dark and washed in terror.
"Yep. But mine's all inside." He points to the rock in his gut. "Underneath."
She stares into the hole in his gut, eyeing the grinning abyss. There is another universe through that hole. She's sure of it. If she could just climb down and go through the hole in the world, everything would be alright.
She thinks of the Behemoths, and considers tearing her way inside.
"It's all dead underneath," Snow says.
"I can fix that."
"I know you can. You have to fix it, Sis."
She brandishes her knife and licks the keen edge. Blood wells on her tongue and drips onto his smiling mouth. She smears it with a finger, paints designs on his face. Replaces the foretelling of death with patterns of lilies.
"I can make it so we match."
Snow laughs as she slips the blade between the flesh and muscle of his cheek and rips.
And she's running the catwalks in the Ark, running away from things instead of toward them. She can feel the hot breath on her neck, smell the rot that surrounds the monster like a wall. It's gaining on her, she knows. Taking two steps for each one of her own. It's closing in fast.
It's almost here.
And the bugs are chewing through her, gnawing away, tearing through marrow and sinew. Soon she'll be an empty husk; a chrysalis.
Relief and fear are full partners.
"Poor lost Soldier," a familiar voice mocks. "You don't look too good, you know. Feeling off, are you? Probably should have listened to this old man."
She spins, finds Sazh standing with his guns drawn.
"He's got some tricks up his sleeves yet."
He has her in his sights. One well-placed shot could end it all.
Something like hope creeps into the hollows within.
"Sazh," she says, just to say something. She watches a roach worm its way out of his ear, slither across his cheek and wriggle back into his mouth. She shivers and scratches at her own itch. "How're you doing?"
"Better than you," and it's a flagrant lie. She doesn't call him on it.
They're all fading, vanishing.
Like clay, they're reshaped, each one twisted and hollowed.
"All this running and killing and you still can't make your way to her. All you've ever wanted, for what?" Lightning shrugs, turns her palms up in acquiescence to his point. "You're just running in circles, you know. The answers are right in front of you but you won't see them. That's why you're still gonna fail." He just sounds so pleased at the notion. "You were always going to fail."
She rolls her eyes. Tell me something I don't know!
"Can you help? Or are you just going to blather on about things you don't understand." She scratches at her leg with the tip of her Edged Carbine, watches the skin flake off like tree bark. Black blood wells up in its wake. She dips her finger into the gore, sniffs at it and rubs it on her gums for luck.
It's bitter, turns rancid on her tongue.
"Oh, I understand alright, Soldier." He smirks, and something incomprehensible flickers in his eyes. Like a tiny cloud passing over the sun, it's gone almost before she sees it, and yet every hair on her body stands on end. "I see everything, and it's all dead beneath."
The Behemoth sighs as it reaches the center of the graveyard. It's a sound of heartbreak and solace, and finally, finally, finally, coming home.
"What do you want to know?"
"Everything. Nothing. I'm not sure where to go."
"If you ask me, doesn't much matter where you go anymore." His smile is dark and bloody before his tongue wipes away the gore. She has the crazy urge to taste the edges of his grin, lick the words and answers from the ruins of his mouth.
Her tongue flickers over her lips in anticipation.
"No matter where you go, there you are," Sazh says and points his gun at her. He squeezes the trigger. She flinches as dust puffs from the muzzle. "And that's never a good thing, Soldier. You're Ruination incarnate."
She smiles as humid breath gusts over her neck, stirs her hair. Leathery hide scrapes her skin; strong arms wind around her. It's so comfortable. Familiar.
"You're going to tear it all apart."
Now that it's caught up to her, she isn't sure why she bothered running at all.
The Behemoths march in ever-shrinking circles, moaning and stamping the ground.
"True," she says, and leans back into the waiting arms. "But that's neither here nor there. I need to find the way out. It's important."
"Well, don't turn around, Soldier," Sazh warns. "Keep on moving forward. If you look back, all is lost."
"If you look back, you'll burn."
It's pointless advice. She can feel the monster's heartbeat now where it presses against her back. The steady thud beats in time with her own heart, its breath a rattle against her spine, its sweat oozing into her pores where her own seeps out. They're almost one.
She can feel the bugs tunneling their way back to the surface, making their way toward the monster, creating a breach in her defenses. Opening a chasm.
Then she will be gone; nothing more than a meat-marionette.
It's all a matter of time tick – tick – ticking away to the tempo of her tapping toes, and the rhythm of drumming fingernails; disappearing like her tooth enamel under the incessant grate and grind of stress clenching.
"Well, if you don't have anything useful to tell me—" she starts, and completes the sentence with a quick beheading. The wet slurp of rending flesh is almost satisfying. Sazh's head rolls away, chuckling and grumbling as it goes. The chicobo lets out an indignant 'WARK!' as it scampers away. Blood coats her hands, trails hot up her forearms to pool at her elbows in fat droplets. She smears her cheeks, brushes her lips: paints her face with her kill.
She feels more like herself, so adorned.
Sazh whistles once and she preens at the compliment. She almost regrets her actions until Sazh's head whispers, "Now you look better. Like yourself. I barely recognized you before."
She smiles, throws a pleased look at Sazh before—
She's running, exhausted, panting for breath. The weight on her back is growing and she feels empty where once she was full. The lack is more obvious for all she can't comprehend it. It's an emptiness with no name, no identity. Something is working at her, chewing holes in the fabric of her being, leaving her tattered and insubstantial.
She should care about that. Of course, that vital part must be long since digested, so it's well-gone.
Can't care without a soul, after all.
"You need to hurry up, Light," Vanille says. "We're going to be late to the party!"
"Party?" Lightning asks. She looks down at the tapestry of herself. Her patchwork skin is bloodied and ruined: pasty and gray and black and red.
She's not dressed for a party.
"Don't tell me you forgot!" Vanille exclaims and waves a hand around. "And here I invited all our friends."
Said friends are ringed around them, closing in with deliberate, loping stomps. They are gray and crystal, full of anger and strict purpose.
"They don't look in a party sort of mood," she says. Not to mention that they are not dressed right either.
Vanille only beams and waves at them.
The Cie'th are approaching, trudging over crystal stained red and black. Hope, Sazh and Snow are all motionless, gutted, bleeding on the ground.
"What happened?" Lightning asks.
"Huh? Oh, them? They didn't want to come to the party. So I had to let them go."
Lightning nods her acceptance and turns to face the guests.
She's almost there and they're almost here. The Behemoths are marching, running. They sense the end and are searching for the path home.
A Cie'th attacks and she dodges, parries.
Vanille lifts her weapon to cast a spell,
but she holds only a blue flower.
"Oh! Isn't it pretty, Light! I thought they were all gone," she babbles, sniffing the petals. Vanille plucks them one by one whispering, "she kills me; she kills me not," with each before devouring the amputated petal.
"Vanille," Lightning snaps and takes out another Cie'th. The monster belches out an annoyed harrumph – a sound which conveys offense rather than terror or relief – before it explodes into an amalgam of crystal and confetti. Vanille catches a fluttering piece of monster in her open mouth, as if she were trying to catch snowflakes on her tongue rather than pieces of dismembered corpse. "I think we should focus here."
"Focus? Oh, right! We should do that," Vanille says and looks up at Cocoon. "But first, it's time for the party. I haven't seen my friends in years. I wonder if they'll recognize me. Do you like my dress?"
She twirls around once and opens a vortex that pulls at Lightning's guts, sucks at her shell. She can feel pieces of herself flying off, drawn into the void.
Chunks of her swirl around, caught in the maelstrom of Vanille's Death spell. She snatches at them, tries to stick them back like mismatched puzzle pieces. But for every one she grabs, three more are torn away to be swallowed into the nothingness.
"Stop! I can't lose anymore pieces. There's not going to be enough left to make it to the end!"
"Silly girl!" Vanille giggles and stops twirling. All the vitality that she once had is gone. She's gray and old, her youth and life stolen between one moment and the next. Her skin hangs from her bones like stretched-out, wet wool. Her eyes are shining black, sclera and pupil blended into thick onyx. "Don't you understand yet? You're already at the end. You've been here since the start."
And she's running over catwalks and stones, meadows and rubble. The crystal and bones crunch beneath her boots. She's murdered her way through Cocoon, slaughtered and bled her way across Gran Pulse, carved away chunk after chunk of herself in sacrifice, and still she's lost.
"You're not," Fang promises as she steps out of nowhere. Her Bladed Lance is two stories high and Lightning wonders if it was always that big. Figures it must have been; Fang isn't one for subtlety, after all. Lightning stops running and feels the bugs chew their way to her chest. They devour her heart lickity-split in the biggest anti-climax ever, and move downward from there. "Not really. You're almost there now."
"Where am I going?" Her abdomen swells and writhes. She pushes against it to contain what lies beneath. Nothing good can come out of her.
"Vanille said I was here. At the end."
/No matter where you go, there you are/
"You are," Fang huffs, like Lightning is an exceptionally dim child. She points to the ground, to a well-worn footpath. " Just follow the path."
Those footprints weren't there before. Lightning is sure.
Except they have always been before her. The Behemoths have trod this way for centuries in search for divinity, and she's been walking this path since her parents died. Walking in someone else's shoes; living in someone else's skin.
Taking up someone else's mantle. Fighting someone else's war.
"You've already found the way out," Lightning accuses. She's not certain why she's angry – there are too many reasons to count and weigh. She just knows that she is.
"Yes and no," Fang says. "I've blazed the trail, but I haven't escaped." She points to her brand as proof. "None of us ever escape. The wheel turns, the cycle continues, and there's not a damn thing to be done for it."
"This is your fault, you know." It's unkind, but Lightning doesn't care. Truth is often harsh.
"Yep. Told you that back at the beginning, didn't I?" Fang's fingers trace the shadowed edges of a bruise long faded.
"You did and didn't."
"And yet you're still here, Sunshine," Fang says. She points to the ground again. "Walk the path. You're almost there. Hurry up, or it'll be too late. It'll all be gone. As above, so below."
"If you hadn't failed, I wouldn't have to do this," Lightning says as she fits her feet into the marks before her. The footprints are too large, and the toe prints look like crystal halos around the tips of her boots. "Serah would still be alive. I wouldn't be a monster."
Fang laughs at that one, bares her teeth. Something shifts below the surface of pale skin: a shadow, a flutter. Lightning shivers.
"Oh, Claire," Not-Fang whispers, "haven't you figured it out yet?"
Not-Fang moves before Lightning can think, Bladed Lance whipping and slicing across her abdomen. The bugs erupt and swarm, engulf her body in seconds. She spasms under the onslaught, freezes in her impotence.
Then it hurts. It's boiling, cascading, tearing along a billion raw nerve-endings.
It's every pain she's ever felt at once, until there's too much input for her disappearing mind to process.
Not-Fang reappears behind her, leathery skin catching on the open sores; claw-tipped fingers skim over her brand, ripping bloody furrows through the open eye of it. Humid breath gushes over the open wound of Lightning's throat as Fang whispers: "Don't you understand that you've always been a monster?"
She opens her mouth in denial, but all that's left within her are the bugs.
"I just helped you achieve greatness," Barthandelus whispers as he shoves her empty skin through the door.
"Welcome to the world, Claire."
Title- Fibulvetre is from Norse Mythology, and it is the great winter which precedes Ragnarok. Subtitle is an adaptation of "From beneath you, it devours" from Season 7 Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
'As above, so below' - These words are pretty ubiquitous in occult texts, mostly Hermetic texts.
So why the notes? I've been doing a lot of reading about plagiarism, and I want to be very clear about only taking credit for that which is strictly mine. The content is all mine, though influence rises from many places. Keep the lines clear, people. They're not hard to see when you're on the correct side of them.