Qabha reeled backward under the force of the blow, ramming into Daran and almost bowling him over. The SeeD pushed him away, cursing something about damn Centran mantis-hunters and letting off a string of hypercharged Firata spells. The ice GF disappeared, dissolving into nothingness.
Qabha hung his head as Daran dusted the dust off his white uniform, shaking out his gloves and grimacing at the bloodstain near his left shoulder. You shouldn't be out here, he said again.
I must show you where these Guardians are, Qabha said, thick accent deepening as he fumbled for words. I am most truly apologetic.
Cut the fancy grammar, Daran snapped. I need a Firaga draw monster. My high-level magic is depleted.
You destroyed that Guardian, Qabha said in mingled awe and fear. None of my people ever have.
Daran stared at him for a moment, then motioned for the boy to sit down. he said. There are five levels of magic: basic, low, mid, high, and ultimate. I used a Firata spell. They aren't naturally occuring--not like the mid-level Firagas and crap you use. You need this kind of stuff. Get it? When Ultimecia blew away all the draw points, we found that out real quick. Firagas just don't cut it anymore. Hell, Firanas barely do. With all the free energy floating around and messing up the monsters, you get lucky when an Ultimata does the trick. We were just lucky that that GF was weak.
Qabha jumped up. This Guardian was not weak. This was Shiva.
Daran snorted. Right. Shiva. Listen, kid, there are a lot of ice-elementals out here. That blue creep wasn't the Frozen Lady.
Qabha looked skeptical, but said nothing. Daran turned to the horizon. He hated these missions for the Centran nomads, but it was better than getting himself slaughtered in the assault at the sorceress's castle. Look, kid, he said. Show me this big GF, and we'll get you back to your camp in time for dinner. Fair?
The boy nodded eagerly. he said. Fair. This way.
Before he could see the GF, Daran could hear it. The sound made him cringe--made him wonder what it must have been like for whoever had found this. One low, continuous wail--wavering but never ceasing. Glancing at Qabha, who seemed somewhat graver than usual, he asked himself again why he had agreed to let this little kid be his guide. Little kids should never be around to hear things like this.
Unnerving, isn't it? he muttered under his breath. The kid nodded.
He is in pain, he said.
He? What he?
Qabha motioned to the hill from which the sound was apparently coming. Despite the fact that it was the same dust-brown as all the rest, it seemed a bit bleaker. Daran stepped forward, only to have the kid catch his sleeve.
Don't worry, Daran said. It'll be all right. I'll be here.
Make him not cry, Qabha said, and Daran turned to see--surprisingly--not fear, but a look of worry and pleading on the boy's face. Daran stared for a moment in confusion--it seemed like he was more afraid than Qabha was.
Daran said, moving towards the hill. He almost told the boy to wait for him, but a vision of the huge Manti lurking in this area of the continent told him not to.
The wailing grew more intense as they moved up to the top of the hill--not noticibly louder, but somehow more striking. Daran had to grit his teeth for the last several meters, until he finally reached the top to find--
Qabha was pulling his sleeve--pointing to something on the ground. Kneeling, Daran could see a faint patch of white.
Qabha began to brush away the dust, revealing more of the curving form. The dust wiped away easily, and soon the entire shape of a skull--mouth open--was visible. Shuddering, Daran put his ear near the bleached teeth.
The skull was screaming.
He is in pain, Qabha explained. Daran sat back, rattled but determined not to show it.
he muttered. It's just bone. It can't feel pain.
Qabha stared at him, then began to dig away at the base of the skull. Soon he had uncovered a row of vertebrae and a pair of shoulders, one with a nasty break in it. Daran bent over to help, hands trembling as he tried his best to block the wailing from his mind.
Qabha worked faster than he did, scraping away caked dirt and prying out stones, careful not to so much as scratch the bone. Daran shuddered every time one of his fingers dug to deep of slipped, striking the skeleton and bringing the wail sharply into focus. Finally, though, they had excavated the body.
Man died in a fight, Daran remarked, staring at the rusted blade resting between the curving ribs and the multitude of breaks and even cuts in the bones. Daran shook his head. Poor guy. They must have left him to rot with the knife still in him.
And the ghost, still hateful, waits here and wails its anger.
Nah. Ghosts don't exist. This is just some weird coincidence. Some really weird, creepy coincidence.
Qabha shook his head. he said. Blade, placed here-- he drew a line across his own chest, --body went away, blade fell. This man was a warrior. He thumped his chest. He died here, was buried with honor. This is his blade.
What's that? Daran asked, motioning to a glint of metal wrapped around the skeleton's neck. Qabha touched it, following the line of the necklace into the dust and pulling it out carefully. Moving it through his fingers, he examined it until a silver meddalion rested in his hand. Turning it over, he pointed to something engraved on the back. Daran took it, looking at it closely.
You can read it? Qabha asked. Daran shook his head.
Hell, no. That's old Standard English, not New Standard. I never learned it.
Qabha took it, looking at the letters. Placing the meddallion back into the cavity of the ribs, he backed away respectfully. You, SeeD, he said. You listen to this warrior cry. He is in pain. Help him.
Daran shook his head. he said. I don't know what's going on. It's just some ancient crummy skeleton--it shouldn't be screaming like this. You don't need me. You need an exorcist.
Qabha looked disappointed. Look into his eyes, he said. Daran exhaled--the kid and the wailing were making him feel rather ragged.
He doesn't have eyes, kid--he lost those with the rest of his meat.
the boy repeated. Daran glanced at them.
They're filled with dirt. Are we done here? Look, Garden won't charge you if--
the boy commanded. Daran shook his head.
You want me to do what? Clean out his skull at stare at the back?
Qabha smiled. Daran groaned.
Look, kid, it's a damn shreiking skull. I can't do anything with it! By Hyne, why can't we just leave and--
The boy reached over and grabbed his wrist, holding it with a strength that he couldn't possibly posess. Daran jumped.
he said. Okay. Let go of my wrist.
And you will... the boy thought for a moment, then grinned. Clean out his skull and stare at the back?
Yeah. I'll clean out his entire rotted carcass if you want me to... let go, dammit, you're crushing my damn wrist!
Qabha let go. Daran hastily dug in his pocket for a small knife, and began carving out the dirt in the skull as quickly as he could--not wanting to keep his hand in the vicinity of the wailing bone for too long.
The edge of the eye socket hit his knife with a hollow thuk, and Daran drew his hand back quickly. he swore, then followed it up with a string of mental exhortations.
The skull itself was shaking.
Hyne, Hyne, Hyne.
Qabha grabbed the skull in both hands, blowing hard into the eyes. Dust flew out of the skull, and the wailing subsided. A faint glow took form in the back of the skull. Daran reeled back a bit further. He fervently wished to be somewhere else--anywhere else. Even being with the half of his Garden that was attacking Ultimecia's castle as he reeled seemed like a wonderful alternative.
What is that? he demanded. Qabha stood up and pointed at the skull triumphantly.
Big Guardian, he said.
Daran said, shuddering. What's a GF doing in a human skull?
Qabha shrugged. GF lives in here, he said, tapping the side of his head. Helps out a lot.
You're talking about junctioning, aren't you? Daran stood up, shaking his head. That's crazy. People haven't junctioned those beasts for.... ...for about as long as they haven't used old Standard English.
The glow was beginning to materialize above the skull now, and Daran stood up to back away. This guy was Junctioning a GF when he died--died in a pretty hard fight. When he was buried, the GF was still trapped in his mind. It's been trapped for centuries--it must have been. And it's spent all this time... crying.
Qabha sat and reached out, twirling his fingers in the glowing miasma before Daran could tell him not to. The boy rocked back on his heels, crying softly. So sad, he said.
Don't touch that thing! Daran screeched. Qabha looked up at him oddly, but did not draw back his hand. Daran could only stand and stare, quivering.
He's so sad, Qabha said. He knows he can't do anything, but he wants us to understand. Touch him.
Daren didn't move. Qabha reached out a hand, offering it to the SeeD. Hesitantly, Daran took it and let his own hand be guided to the etheral GF.
A flood of images rushed into his mind.
Through eyes that were not human, he saw a cavern of fire. A world of ice. A world of burning blue light.
He saw a Garden, spacious design hailing back to the days of antiquity. He looked into deep eyes of a tall, yellow creature in a robe in a climate-controlled house.
He saw a black netherworld.
A field of flowers.
He saw a starry expanse, with a giant, warped human form hanging in front of him.
He saw a ballroom.
He saw a hundred of his friends die--now in this time, now vividly real.
And from somewhere far away, he heard a voice murmuring in butchered and broken old Standard English....
...the most powerful GF...
The glowing form dissipated, leaving behind only a sense of immense sadness. Qabha looked up at Daran.
He did not want to go, he said. They were trapped in the bones so long, many things became one thing. Now they all suffer as him.
Daran didn't understand any of it. But he couldn't help as he rolled over onto his back, tears in his eyes. The world faded out, and he lost conciousness.
When he came to again, Qabha was gone. Sitting up stiffly, he took a moment to listen to the utter silence around the Centran landscape. On impulse, he looked towards the west.
Where Ultimecia's castle had once been a floating shadow, Daran could now see only sky. He looked down at the skull. Someone--Qabha, probably--had closed the gaping mouth, and it was now grinning at him with an air of vacant contentment.
Daran turned away. A glint from the silver medallion caught his eye, and he turned back. Kneeling next to the skeleton, he picked up the necklace and turned the meddalion over in his hand.
The engraving was still there, lost Standard letters as enigmatic as ever. Still, there seemed to be some meaning behind them now.
He put the medallion down, engraving side up. The wind wafted past him as he continued to stare at it, trying to convince himself that the events were just some crazy dream. For a brief moment his thoughts were deterred into wondering who the man was, and--more importantly, it felt like--what the ancient engraving said.
The wind picked up for a moment. And, although it might have been a trick of his imagination, he thought he heard a voice whispering to him.
A Griever, it said.