The Shrine

Serah lost her footing in the thick, slippery mud and tumbled to the ground. Fiery pain shot up from her right ankle and she clamped her hands over her mouth to stifle a scream. Tears of pain and frustration gathered in the corners of her eyes as she forced herself to stand and hobble deeper into the rugged foothills behind her village.

Behind her, through the mist created by the steadily worsening rain, she could just make out the wavering glow of torches. The bandits were close, and in her current state, she didn't think she could outrun them for much longer. She needed to find somewhere to hide, but where? There was nowhere to go, nothing around her but unfamiliar trees and the cold, slimy mud. Desperately, she dragged herself up another ridge only to stumble as the ground gave way beneath her again.

She rolled down the hill. Rocks tore at her clothing as she fell, her dress ripped in more places than she could count, and one her shoes snagged on a tree root. The flimsy shoe broke, and she felt fresh pain shoot through her wounded ankle before she finally slid to a stop at the base of the hill.

For several long moments, she simply lay there. It would be so very, very easy to just give up, to just let the mud and grime and rain sweep everything away. Only the stark realisation that the bandits would find her gave her the strength to get up onto her hands and knees. If she couldn't run, then she would crawl, because as painful as that was, it had to be better than what the bandits had planned for her.

An anguished howl rose inside her, but she forced it back. The bandits had been raiding villages in the area for months now, but despite the villagers' pleas for help, no aid had been given, no soldiers sent. Part of her had always known that the High Council of Eden could be callous, but she had never understood exactly how callous they could be until the bandits had attacked.

Her father and the rest of the village's men had fought as best they could. But they were farmers and craftsman, not warriors. The battle had lasted all of fifteen minutes before the bandits broke through the village's meagre wooden walls. The surviving men were put to the sword, but the women and children were spared. All would be sold into slavery, but for the women there were other horrors to face.

Serah swallowed a sob. She'd seen one of her friends, the baker's daughter, dragged into a house by several of the bandits. The sounds – oh Maker – the sounds she'd heard afterward had chilled her to the bone. Her turn had come soon enough, but her mother, eyes filled with the kind of courage that only desperation could give, had made a grab for one of the bandit's weapons.

Her mother had earned a sword in the gut for her audacity, but in the sudden commotion, Serah had been able to get away. The bandits had gone after her, but for a while she'd had the advantage. She knew the village much better than they did, but the moment she left the village, she was confronted by the cold reality of her situation. The nearest other village was a day's journey away, and the bandits would easily catch her before she got even half that distance. The only place for her to go, never mind the fact that it was forbidden, were the foothills, the dark, foreboding foothills that no one had set foot in for more than a century.

Torches appeared on the hill behind her, and Serah staggered back to her feet. She could scarcely walk, but even hobbling was faster than trying to crawl. Ahead of her, through the inky darkness brought on by the rainclouds that covered the moon, she could just make out a large building half-hidden in a maze of tangled brambles and vines. It was the stuff of nightmares, but what lay behind her was far worse.

Shoving her way through the tangled vegetation, Serah winced as sharp thorns cut open first one palm, and then the other. Desperately, she pressed onward, all too aware of the lights that had begun to make their way down the steep hill. The bandits had seen her and they were not far behind at all.

Finally, she pushed through the last of the vines and brambles and found herself on the weathered stone steps of a shrine. Her eyes widened. Why was there a shrine here, and why was it abandoned? Ever since the Gods had cast Cocoon from the sky into the hell of Gran Pulse, people had stopped worshipping them. After all, why would people worship those that had abandoned them in a world filled with vicious monsters and countless tribes that seemed to want nothing more than their death? Shrines were torn down, temples desecrated, and those few who still prayed to the Gods found their prayers unanswered as the people of Cocoon turned first on the natives of Gran Pulse and then on each other.

Serah had never been inside a shrine, abandoned or not, but she could not afford to be choosy now. Clutching her injured hands to her chest, she hobbled up the stairs and into the dark, overgrown corridor beyond. A bone-deep cold filled her almost immediately, and she struggled to shake the sense that she was not alone. There was someone, or something, there with her, and it wasn't the bandits.

Her breathing came in short, sharp gasps as she felt her way down the dark corridor. After what seemed like forever, the corridor gave way to a large chamber. There were holes in the roof and the floor was slick with rain, but through the faint moonlight that had begun to emerge from behind the clouds, she saw a tall, unmistakably feminine statue at the far end of the room. This was a shrine to a goddess then, although she had no way of knowing which one.

"Please," she whispered, not caring that her prayers would most likely go unanswered. "If you can hear me, don't let this happen. Please… please…"

She looked around for a place to hide, but before she could find one, voices echoed in from the corridor. The bandits must have followed her inside and now she was trapped with nowhere to run. The cold in her bones turned into something thick and heavy, something that made it difficult to breath, or even think through the panic that had begun to claw at her mind.

"Well, well, you led us on quite the chase, girl."

Serah took a slow step back as the bandits filed into the room. There were a dozen of them there, all of them dressed in scruffy, bloodstained armour. They looked almost amused at her plight, and she shuddered as their cold, cruel eyes raked over her torn clothing. They would take their time with her, she knew, and they would make her suffer. A sob worked its way up from deep inside her, but this time, she didn't even try to hold it back.

"What is this place?" one of the bandits asked. "A shrine, or something?"

"That's what it looks like." The leader of the bandits was a powerfully built man, and he moved with the swagger of someone well used to getting what he wanted. "But that doesn't matter. After all that running around in the mud, I think you boys deserve a reward." He leered at Serah. "I figure you can have her first. I had my fill back at the village." His eyes narrowed. "But don't kill her. Pretty little thing like her should fetch a pretty decent price."

One of the bandits stepped forward and grabbed Serah by the arm. She struggled wildly, but he was so much stronger than her.

"Settle down," the bandit growled. "I said, settle down."

"No!" Serah screamed. "No!"

He slapped her across the face with enough force to jar her teeth and she slumped back across the feet of the statue of the goddess. Bitter tears rolled down her cheeks, but she forced herself to stand. There was no running from what awaited her now, but at the very least, she could try to meet it as bravely as she could. Still, the faltering courage she'd manage to gather began to evaporate as the man who'd slapped her began to unbuckle his belt.

"Please…" Serah murmured, not sure to whom she was speaking as she pressed herself against the statue. "Please… someone help me."

The bandit laughed. "There's no one here to help you, girl." He looked past her to the statue. "And the Gods don't care about us, they never have." He grinned. "I remember your mother. She had pink hair too, didn't she?" He laughed. "Tried to pull my sword off me, but she ended up with it in her stomach instead. Pity she died for nothing, I would have liked to have had her first."

"Don't you talk about my mother!" Serah shouted. "Just… don't… you don't even deserve to…"

The bandit just laughed harder. "Look at that, she's still got some spirit in her. I'll take care of that though." He looked back at the other bandits. "Who wants to go after –"

You dare defile this place?

Everyone froze. Serah looked around in wild hope, for the words had not been spoken aloud. Instead, they had echoed through her mind like rolling thunder, and from the looks on the bandits' faces, they had heard the words as well.

"What was that?" the bandit asked softly. "I heard someone."

"It was nothing," the leader of the bandits growled. "Must have been the wind." He glared. "Now, do you want your turn with the girl or not? There are others here who'll gladly have your turn if you don't want it."

The bandit scowled and looked back at Serah. "I'll have my turn, I just want to know what that voice was."

Do you want my help?

This time the words were for Serah alone as she backed up against the statue. An eerie coldness had come over her, almost as though she were outside her body watching everything unfold.

"Yes," Serah whispered. "I want your help." Everything she'd seen the bandits do flashed through her mind and she had to close her eyes to try and ward off the terrible images. She was so, so scared, but more than anything, she just wanted something to happen to these bandits, she just wanted someone to make them pay for what they'd done.

They will pay. I will make them pay. Now, call my name.

"I don't know your name." The men's earlier worry had gone, replaced by amusement as they watched her appear to talk to herself. There was probably a part of them that derived a sick satisfaction at the thought of breaking not just her body, but her mind as well.

You know my name. You have always known.

Maybe her fear really had driven her mad, because now the voice was talking in riddles. "Who… who are you?" God or demon, she no longer cared.

I am the power that shakes the sky, the power that tears the clouds and calls the storm. I am the white flash that lights the darkest night. Call upon my name.

Time seemed to stop as all the pieces fell into place. Serah looked up at the sky riven with clouds and awash with rain. In the distance came the deep boom of thunder. She closed her eyes.

"Lightning," she whispered, and then louder, filled with a wild, frantic hope. "Lightning!"

For a moment there was nothing.

And then the skies answered.

A great jagged bolt of white-hot electricity sizzled down from the very vault of the sky. It tore through the battered roof of the shrine in a shower of melted stone and scorched wood and struck the ground between Serah and the bandits. Blinding light washed outward and the howl of thunder that followed in its wake was enough to knock Serah off her feet and toss the bandits back.

When the light finally cleared and Serah could see again, she was no longer alone with the bandits. A goddess stood before her, eyes the colour of a clear summer sky and hair almost the same pink shade as her own. Crystalline armour covered the goddess' frame, and her face held an inhuman beauty, at once cold and remote as a distant mountain, yet filled with an almost unbearable ferocity. The goddess lifted one hand and a shaft of electricity gathered there only to condense into a long, slender blade.

"Long have I slept," the goddess murmured, voice ringing with all the force of thunder, "And troubled has my sleep been." Her gaze drifted to Serah and in those eyes Serah saw all of eternity stretch out before her. "But this one has called me here. She is mine now, and for even thinking that you could lay one hand on her, you will all die."

The bandits were frozen, their faces locked into grim masks of absolute terror in the face of the goddess' divine fury. Serah could see that they wanted to run, but even as they turned to flee, there was a white flash and the scent of ozone. The last thing Serah saw before her fear and exhaustion finally caught up with her was the goddess alone in a sea of red, spotless and pristine.



Author's Notes

As always, I neither own Final Fantasy nor am I making any money off of this.

I've had this idea floating around in the back of my head ever since I saw the trailer for FF XIII-2 and I thought I'd get it written up. I also wanted to try and get something more fantasy oriented written, especially since I've already had a stab at Westerns, zombies, spies, and of course, slice of life.

In case it wasn't clear, this is very much AU. However, you can expect to see your favourite FF XIII characters turn up at some point, and maybe a few other FF characters too, depending on how things go. For those waiting for updates on my other stories, those shall, hopefully, be forthcoming.

As always, I appreciate feedback. Reviews and comments are welcome.