~*Words Said In the Dark*~

The only things that had to know were the shadows.

~*X*~

Prologue: An Unexpected Pitfall

Sunlight spread warm rays across the green, immense plains of Gran Pulse. The Archylte Steppe easily covered the lion's share of the lower world, and for miles and miles it offered an uninterrupted view of the fields. For that reason, it was immediately evident to any of the predatory creatures that so much as raised their heads that there were human intruders in their territories.

Not just any human intruders. L'Cie.

Well. At least there were Chocobos present to give the heroes a quick lift.

Hope clung to his with an uneasy grimace as the massive yellow bird strutted forward, great talons churning up the dirt as it moved. The party was going…somewhere. North? He wasn't entirely sure, but he trusted Lightning to get them to…wherever, safely.

Speaking of which, Lightning was leading the group, looking perfectly comfortable on the gigantic avian as if she had been riding them her entire life. The wind toyed with her pale pink hair, and sunbeams lit her up like some kind of angel.

Hope sighed, leaned forward a little, and ended up losing his grip as his mount stumbled just a bit. He almost fell off, but then a hand was on his shirt and someone hauled him safely back into his former position.

"Careful there," Fang chided, her wild eyes glinting with amusement. "Can't have you falling off and being trampled, now can we?"

He felt his face heat up as Vanille, who was riding nearby, giggled openly at him. Muttering thanks to Fang, he sought to pay better attention. His little crush on Lightning was going to get him…well…crushed. Underneath the feet of a Chocobo. Or with his luck, he'd roll down a hill first and then be crushed by an Adamantoise.

"This isn't so bad," observed Sazh as Light glanced over her shoulder to see if her protégé was okay.

"Can you imagine us walking this place?" Snow seemed horrified just at the prospect of it.

Hope had to admit that he agreed. The Archylte Steppe was far too humongous to cross on foot in a reasonable amount of time. His Chocobo squawked and shook its tawny head, and the boy wrinkled his nose at the musty scent of its golden feathers.

Fang struck up a conversation with Snow and Sazh rode up to ask Light something. Evidently, this gave Vanille the opinion that she should go talk to Hope. The tribe girl smiled brightly at him, looking easily at home on her steed. "What do you think of Gran Pulse so far?" She inquired in her curiously accented voice. Hope liked to think that it was rather different from Fang's, though of the same origin. It just…fluctuated. The same vowels and consonants could, or could not, be pronounced the same way every time she said them.

He rubbed the Chocobo's neck absently as he coaxed it into picking up its speed just a tad. Vanille's kept pace with his. "It's beautiful," he admitted. "It has something that Cocoon was missing."

Her green eyes twinkled, the bangles on her wrists clinking together as she gestured around them. "It's not artificial."

Shrugging at that, he grimaced as one of the monsters—its name escaped him for now, but it was large and wolf-like—growled savagely and pounded after them. The startled Chocobos put on a burst of speed and outdistanced the ravenous creature, their long legs crossing greater spaces than the would-be hunter's.

"That thing looked like it was starving. Where's its pack?" wondered Snow aloud to Fang.

However, it was Lightning who answered. "Maybe they died. Maybe it got separated. What's it matter?"

"Just wondering, Sis." Realizing his mistake a little too late (his soon to be sister-in-law was not fond of that title) Snow hurriedly said to Sazh, "What are you going to do when your Chocobo grows up?"

The dark-skinned male scratched his head as the aforementioned chick peeped out of his afro. "I don't really know. Maybe—"

The rest of the words were lost to Hope, because at that moment the floor collapsed.

He and Vanille had been riding at the back of the party, and now the plants and earth just started sliding inwards, as if something was sucking them in. The Chocobos screeched in fright, their talons and wings moving every which way as they endeavored to escape the unexpected pitfall. Feathers swirled around them like bright yellow dust motes.

Lightning pulled her mount to a stop hard, probably way harder than required. Hope noticed her eyes go as wide as Fang's did at that moment as the two women yelled;

"Hope!"

"Vanille!"

Vanille was screaming, more panicked than frightened, and Hope vainly tried to calm down his mount. He thought about jumping off, but the ground was dropping away too fast. He didn't even know what was going on, really.

Sazh and Snow were unsure what to do, backpedalling to avoid the falling earth. Hope winced as he saw Vanille's Chocobo buck furiously, knocking its rider from its back. It kicked with quite a lot of force, attempting and succeeding in finding solid ground, but in the process one of its clawed feet struck the tribe girl on the forehead.

Her eyes rolled back and with a groan she vanished into the soil.

For a second, all Hope could see was his mother dropping into the abyss.

No. Not again.

Ignoring Light's orders—he didn't really notice it—he dove straight after Vanille. To his surprise, his Chocobo whipped itself around and followed, though because it had slipped or willingly, he didn't know.

Everything was heavy, warm, cool, and gritty. Rocks clattered off of him and Hope was shocked to find that his feet didn't touch anything. He was plummeting through empty black air!

After a few seconds, he heard the crash clatter hiss of stones, grass, and earth hitting something solid. He landed hard on his side and just barely suppressed a groan of pain. His feet were working on autopilot, and he scrambled out of the way before he was buried under the rubble. He spotted a familiar shape, and without stopping or slowing down, he grabbed her by her shirt and hauled her as far as he could in the short amount of time before the rest of the debris came hurtling at them from above.

He wrapped his arms around her and huddled close, shielding her unconscious form from the wreckage piling close by. After everything again became quiet, he pried himself away from Vanille and looked around him.

It was…a tunnel. A very, very long tunnel to his left that stretched on into blank oblivion. The only reason he could see at all was because of the miniscule sunrays that filtered down from small gaps between the rubble. The ceiling had caved in; hence their unceremonious drop into the network of underground passages, and for the time being…there wasn't a way out.

Hope worriedly turned to Vanille, and he felt his heart twinge in concern for her. There was blood on her face, running down in rivulets from where her wretched Chocobo had gashed her. He placed his hand on her forehead, muttering a Cure spell that washed away the torn flesh and knitted her skin together. He used his shirt to wipe clean the rest of the blood and decided that she would have to wake up on her own.

One second later:

"Hope!" Light's voice sounded unbelievably distant—though he could still hear her pretty clearly—and he squinted up. The rest of the gang was shouting out both his and Vanille's names.

"I'm okay!" He called back as loud as he dared, the tunnel magnifying his voice and causing it to echo. "Vanille is too, but she's unconscious!"

Fang snapped several things that aren't polite to repeat, the product of her anxiety. Lightning was a bit more levelheaded, and she continued. "Where are you?"

"Some kind of tunnel. It's like a whole complex of them." Maybe that digging Fal'Cie did this?

"Hang on! We'll get you out!" Snow, this time. There was a loud thump from above, and a shower of pebbles and dirt coated the two teenagers. The roof rumbled ominously.

"Wait, stop!" Sazh ordered. "Hope, how stable is the ceiling?"

The boy surveyed the general structure. "It doesn't look very good. At least, not around here."

"The last thing we need is another cave in—with them in it, Snow!" Light growled, and Hope could almost imagine her glowering whilst pacing, like a tiger in a cage.

"Got a better idea?" The self-proclaimed hero retorted.

Sazh sighed. "We could try our Eidolons, but…their weight could cause the whole place to collapse! They'd either be crushed or they'd suffocate," he said, referring to the trapped children.

Fang announced abruptly, "Where do you think those tunnels go?"

"They could go on forever," scoffed Lightning. "Even if they did come up somewhere, how would we find them?"

"They could find us. Either we send 'em packing down the passageways or we sit here and try to find a way to dig 'em out."

Hope's hand instantly went for his boomerang as he felt something's warm breath blast across the back of his neck. Whirling around, he realized it was just his faithful Chocobo, blinking at him.

"Kweh." Without another sound, it turned and padded off down the tunnel.

"Um…Light?" The platinum-haired youth asked, one gloved hand stroking his chin thoughtfully.

"What? Is something wrong?" She wasn't doing a great job at hiding her worry for him.

"My Chocobo is down here…and it's walking off. Should I follow it?"

A squabble of opinions erupted from the antsy adults up above, the loudest of which was Fang whom proclaimed that he couldn't move a single step until Vanille woke up.

Fortunately, she was coming around now. "Oh…" She moaned, clapping a hand to her head.

"How're you feeling?" Hope queried sympathetically, crouching near her and studying the confused light in her eyes.

"Like…a Chocobo just kicked me." Pause. "It did, didn't it? Where are we?" She stood up and gazed around, jaw dropping. "Wow, even I didn't know this was under the Archylte Steppe!"

"Vanille!" Fang's relief was obvious. "Are you okay?"

"Just fine!"

"Well guys? What should we do?" Hope shouted to their elders beyond the crumpled rocks and mounds of dirt over their heads.

More arguments broke out, before at long last Light replied in a grudging fashion that made it clear she disagreed with the general consensus, "Follow that Chocobo."


Author's Note: Yeah, this is just a prologue. This little story should have two more parts before it's done. Nothing particularly fancy.

What do you think so far? Review!