A/N: This was a difficult chapter to write, not just for the challenge I faced in putting it together, but that a lot of things were going on in my life at the time, and some themes in this made it near impossible to pick up a pen and keep going. And then, other days, I would find it a good coping mechanism for getting my stress and anxieties out. What I'm trying to say is, this was as torturous to write, as it will be for you to read it. And I really, really hope that you can forgive me for that.
Any who, I've kept you all waiting long enough. Please enjoy reading this very chunky piece of a chapter I would've loved to have titled: Serah the Badass.
Time for a Farron to shine…
Adam & Eve
Chapter 8 - Venom
Two and half years ago in New Bodhum, when the village itself was still being built, there was a young boy by the name of Kichiro who had snuck off into the wilds of Gran Pulse with his friends to go play. The fences weren't as secure back then and patrols weren't as heavy either, making it easy for someone to slip by unnoticed if they tried, especially for a child. And as misfortune had it, three boys, Kichiro among them, escaped without single person seeing them.
Hours later when the two friends returned, Kichiro didn't. The boys had said they were playing a game of hide and seek, and Kichiro hadn't come out of hiding. They had no idea where he was and had spent most the afternoon looking for him, thinking their friend was just fooling around. It was only near sunset when team NORA and rest of the New Bodhum found out about Kichiro's disappearance, that search parties were sent out to find him.
But they were too late. They found the Kichiro dead, his body curled up amongst the shrubs he'd been hiding in. The cause of death had been from a bite to the throat by venomous snake; the swelling from the bite killing him in minutes as it shut off his airways before Kichiro had even the chance to crawl out of hiding. He was only seven years old.
It had been too heartbreaking to watch, as his parents had held him in their arms, crying for their son to wake up to avail. And then had looked towards both her and Snow, judging them with teary eyes without a single accusation spoken for what it was; just another death to be blamed on them for the cause of The Purge. Unable to cope with their loss, or to live in the same village as the ex-l'Cie, both mother and father had left days later.
To lose a child and so young, it was the pain no parent should ever go through, and Kichiro's death served as a reminder that Gran Pulse wasn't a paradise; it was dangerous to those not prepared for its harsh beauty. They were free of Fal'Cie, but not from danger, they never would be.
After that incident, her and Snow got some classes going to keep the kids preoccupied most the day, with better defenses being put into place to make sure no other children wandered off unsupervised from New Bodhum. And of course, each child was warned to go to the nearest adult if they ever suffered a snake bite or spotted any of the legless reptiles anywhere in the village.
One thing Serah also vowed to do after Kichiro's death was to study her hardest in perfecting the Esuna spell. She and half a dozen others in the village were already showing signs of magic; a gift once only gifted to l'Cie, despite none of them ever having been branded before the fall of Cocoon. Young and old, Serah had trained with them, doing her hardest to ensure they too could control the magic and use it safely, along with the Esuna spell, so if the day came again when somebody got bitten, they too could rid the venom from their body before it claimed another life.
It was one of Serah's proudest achievements, especially in that the youngest of the group to have been taught, a five year old girl named Honoka, had later gone on to save her brother's life when he was stung by a poisonous jelly fish floating in those shallow waters by the beach. If Honoka hadn't been there to use her magic within seconds of her brother going into a fit, he might not have survived.
But all that pride meant little to her now, for all those months of training were made useless, because like all Serah's other spells, Esuna wouldn't work. She tried and tried, putting everything she had into it, but Esuna wouldn't cleanse the venom away.
Noel, was dying…
"It's getting worse."
Serah had managed to get Noel inside the hollow base of a large tree near to where she had found him; the opening in the roots just wide enough for them to slip through, and hopefully, prevent anything nasty getting in. It wasn't the most secure of hideaways, but it was better than leaving him out in the wide open for anything to come across him. It was the best Serah could do, as getting Noel anywhere far on his legs in his condition was impossible, and he was deteriorating, fast.
The bite Noel had gotten from the snake's fangs hadn't penetrated deep enough to be fatal, and the wound itself was only weeping a small amount of blood. Unfortunately this was of little assurance after how much he'd lost already and when the bite itself on his ribs had already swelled up twice to what it had been in that time since finding him. If Serah didn't do something soon...
"Luck really…isn't on my side today, huh?" Noel struggled out with, yet Serah was too worried about him to tell if it'd been an inappropriate pun or not; and really, couldn't bring herself to ask.
The young man was prompt up against one of the roots inside that hollow tree, hers hand pressed to that tender snake bite that was causing him more pain than she wanted to think about as she kept trying to work the spells away to no success. Serah had enough previous experience to know that keeping Noel both still and calm would slow the speed of the venom. It wasn't a permanent solution, but it would buy him some time. What Serah could do with that spare give time however, she had no answers to. What solutions could she find out here in the middle of nowhere? They may as well have been in a desert all for the good it did.
And Noel, he didn't have long. She'd seen more than enough death in her life to be aware of that. But the worst thing about it was, that Noel knew that too. How couldn't she with the way he was looking at her, like every breath was a gift before he might draw his last.
"Shut up! Just, shut up okay?" Serah kept the pressure applied to his ribs while she kept trying to summon a Esuna or a Cure spells; the heated skin and the smell of blood making her hands shake uncontrollably. "This isn't working. Why isn't it working? I gotta…there's has to be something else we can do. If we can find that artefact, maybe get you to a gate-"
Noel shook his head. "It'll take too long..."
"Then I'll go! I'll find someone and bring them through to help you." Serah said.
"The gates don't work, for other people…"
"I'll make it work! I don't care!" her concentration on the spell faltered, and it was a battle to bring that focus backs. "I'll find a way, somehow…I…"
The artefact had floated down to the falls. Unless it had landed on the riverside, it would've been washed far down stream by now. There was no way of getting to it in time, or finding the gate that it belonged to. And it was like Noel had said; nobody else could journey through those gates. It would be impossible to bring him help like a doctor or a magic user from the outside. Even on the off chance Serah found someone and she was able to bring a first aid kit through the gate, would anyone even have anti-venom for a snake as deadly of that from the future?
This powerlessness to help him was unbearable, and it terrified Serah on what might happen if Noel didn't get medical treatment soon, that even with the trauma and misery it'd brought her years before, Serah would become a l'Cie again, if it saved him. But just as much as she was scared, Serah was angry too, and what angered her was Caius. The Guardian had gone out of his way to help her, but when came to doing the same for Noel, the man had done nothing. The very boy he'd trained as a future Guardian for Yeul and he had helped Serah instead.
How could that man be so cruel? Had Noel's life no value anymore?
"I can't just let you…I can't…!"
A feverish hand rested on her cheek, wiping away the tears. The tiredness on Noel's pale face was insufferable, and she fought to stay strong as his words broke her from inside.
"Hate to admit it, but, you might have to…"
For someone who had given her so much strength, taught her never to give up, it was the hardest thing to hear, Noel trying to make her accept that there might not be any hope for him. It was almost too much for Serah to take.
Snake bites were lethal, and from something as big as Serpentress and then to have lost so much blood…Noel could fight death, fight it with everything he had, but she could see in his eyes that it was the end for him, and that, he was scared too, of losing that fight. And yet still, he tried to be brave for her, putting on a smile while the venom slowly ravaged his body. But Noel wasn't giving in, he continued to hold on, as if waiting for a miracle just like Serah was.
If Noel wasn't going to give in, then she wasn't either.
"Maybe, but we have to try," Serah retracted her hands away from where they were pressed at Noel's ribs, gently prising off his own hand to be rested tenderly her cheek, as she grasped it in front of her. "Come on Noel, think. You said Serpentress was from your time, right? Then there must be a connection! If someone out there is messing with us, then they must've chosen Serpentress because only you would know about it; and that only you would know how to make an antidote if one of us got bitten."
"But I don't…I've never seen one," Noel confessed, staring up through the hollow trunk of the tree, where the sky was nothing but a mere dot. "Grandmother, she told me about it, years ago…said it attacked hunters, before I was born…"
"Hunters? What happened to them? Did any survive?" Serah asked urgently. "Try and remember. You knew what Serpentress was. Did your grandmother teach you about it in one of her books? Show you a picture of it maybe?"
If their hunters had been attacked by Serpentress one time, then Noel's village must've taken some sort of precautions after that, just like her people in New Bodhum did when Kichiro died. The problem was however nobody in Noel's time period knew magic anymore, the ability lost through the generations as the world slowly died. But, if his grandmother told him about the attack when he was young, there must've been some reason behind it. He did say, she had always taught him useful things, to learn from past mistakes.
The young man's face strained with concentration, looking close to passing out.
"Don't…I don't know. Most dead, I think…one guy, he made it back but was..."
Serah leaned closer. "What? Noel what's the matter?"
He looked at her, eyes wide with realization. "Leaves…the leaves!"
"Flans, Serah…the leaves from flans. The…the hunter that came back, he was bitten, but…healed him. Grandmother said…remember now," Noel gave a raspy chuckle, stopping when the pain got too much. "A convenience this is, ending up here…in the forest known for flans…"
Convenience was understatement. For the snake from Noel's time to be here, and the antidote to its venom being the leaves of a particular breed of flan mostly found in this forest, the words setup may as well have been stamped all over it; the setup to a cruel conceived plot. But there was cure, there was really cure for him! No matter how risky it might be, an antidote wasn't something Serah could easily ignore.
"I don't understand, why a flan?" she asked, leaning closer.
"Because, they're immune to poisons…that's what, I tried to tell you before. They don't have organs, blood or hearts like us…" Noel said, shutting his eyes. "Must be why, so many…"
The schools of miniflans to have surrounded the trio when they first got here, there'd been hundreds of them. That must've explained why they hadn't been scared off by Serpentress. The snake could've swallowed them whole, but with that many miniflans, they could've fended off Serpentress no problem with their Fire spells. The only issue for Serah was that they weren't in that era anymore. Would the flans still even be here? This dying forest was so empty now, and Serah hadn't spotted any other monsters around, little less flans…
If Noel had any chance of surviving this, she had to try. Waiting here holding his hand, it wouldn't save him.
"But, but that's it right? I just have to get those leafs and you'll be okay? It'll help you?"
Noel slowly nodded; his breathing weak, but labored. "Think, so…unless, grandmother was wrong, it should. Any flan with…but…"
"I'll do it," anxiously Serah peered out passed the roots to where the outside awaited. "I will. Somehow, I'll a find one for you."
"I know it's dangerous, Noel. It's like you said, it can't be a coincidence this is happening," she gripped his hand tighter, blinking the tears away before they could fall. "But I'm not letting you die, and I'm not leaving you behind. We're sticking together, and that's that."
She could see he wanted to detest. It was right there on his face, that earnest belief her life was of more value than his own. Whatever he might've said, she wouldn't have listened to him anyway, no matter how well thoughts out his reasons. Serah couldn't, not when Noel was looking worse for wear by the minute. And he was hurting a great deal more than he was letting on. The act he always used to pull when he tried to played it tough, like no injury could ever faze him or make him squeamish...that control on that pain was slowly beginning to slip, and it was enough of a warning that they both couldn't sit around talking forever.
Serah had to get a move on, even if she dreaded the thought of leaving him here like this.
A hand still grasped over his, softly Serah touched his cheek, stroking it. "You remember what you said to me about the Goddess before don't you, back in the Void Beyond? You said to never give up hope, and to stick things out. I'll do what I can, but I need you to keep fighting this, Noel. Don't let it win...so stay awake. Promise me, you'll stay awake until I get back."
Through the deliriousness he battled to overcome, Serah saw something familiar there, a look she'd seen Noel give her many times before in the past, but only now did she truly understand it. The things she was still, too scared to say.
He squeezed her hand. "I'll, try…"
It was the best promise Noel could give her; and all that could be said.
She had to go.
"You'll be okay," she whispered, brushing the damp locks of hair from tired his face. "I'll make sure of it."
Unsure if it was appropriate or not at first, but inevitably putting those doubts aside, Serah leaned down and a lightly kissed the young man's forehead, their gazes lingering upon each other for a long time, before she finally pulled away. And reluctantly Serah turned to leave and to go find Noel what he needed…when he suddenly grabbed her arm.
When she looked back, there was pleading in the young man's eyes, the need to tell her something, in case they never got another chance.
No, they weren't going to say goodbye. Serah wouldn't let him do it, let herself do it. Noel would survive, he had to…
"I'll be right back," Serah promised, mustering the bravest smile that she could for him. An unwillingness to let go of her, in the end Noel could resist no more, that grip of his loosening; hand trailing down her wrist to grasp her own hand briefly, before slipping away.
And Serah silently prayed as she left, it wouldn't be for the last time…
They watch the pink haired woman leave the hideaway beneath the roots of the dying tree, her head whipping around, searching the forest before she finds her way and runs off in the direction of the crystal pillar.
Sad green eyes remain on the girl until she is gone, a gaze soon to fall upon that of the tree, wanting to go to it, run to its base.
A protective arm wraps around the Seeress's shoulder, her Guardian conscious of that wish.
"Come, there is nothing more to be done here."
A small nod she gives, her tears all too real as the gusts of chaos that consume them. And to another time they go; to a not too distant future…
"Come on Serah, focus."
She was back at the crystalized tree, with no answers on where go from there on out. There hadn't been any flans around before, and her quick jog around that pillar confirmed as much, long before Serah came to that conclusion. She needed a lead, something that told her where the miniflans had gotten to. Then again, there was always the possibility they had simply died out in the last hundred years or so...
"There's got to be flans around here somewhere," Serah glanced up around at the branches, but no answers were found out there either. Noel would know what to do. He had tracked monsters down for meat back in his time, and had used that trick several times on their journey to hunt down a particular monster or two. She should've thought to ask him for advice, or allowed him to teach her when he was well. Even if she was a vegetarian, things like that seemed trivia now.
Yeul had led her here, and she had seen this pillar in her dream as well. If Noel's suspicions on this being a set up were right, then being brought here too wasn't a luck of the draw. And if so, it was up to the force out there doing all this to make the next move, if Serah wasn't already about to wandering into more danger. She just had to pray this was one trap she could find a way out of.
"Hope, if you're watching this. I could really do with your help right now…"
That soft and distant childlike voice had Serah immediately turning in surprise; her instantly leaping in her chest on spotting the small glimmer of a soft pink light hovering near the edge of that clearing by the trees. The light radiated from a gem, and attached right on the end of it, was-
The moogle went soaring towards her like a speeding bullet, crying out a kupo of relief on flying into Serah's arms, almost knocking her back a step as she caught him. Mog was erratic in emotions; jumping between happiness and tears he was so overwhelmed to see her; that for once, her magical companion didn't complain on being overly hugged like a cuddly toy.
"I found you! I found you, kupopooo!" the moogle squeaked, wriggling into closer to Serah's embrace as she held him. After getting separated, and Noel getting hurt, she was afraid she might never find the moogle again, especially after the horrible dream she had when passing out. But he was here with her, he was safe.
"Oh Mog…" gently she pulled the moogle away from her, grasping the sides of his chibi face while he floated there, wings flapping. "Are you're alright? You didn't get hurt did you?"
"Mog is ok. Springy as can be, kupo!" the moogle said cheerfully, before sulking a little, "But I couldn't find Noel or the artefact anywhere, kupo! It got scary…"
"I can't complain with you there," Serah said, studying Mog closely. She didn't see any snake bites on him anywhere, and he seemed healthy, meaning Serpentress hadn't been able to get to him before it up and vanished. That was one thing to be grateful about at least. But the moogle was missing his clock staff; a tool that might've served great use in transforming her into a miniflan again, and save them a great deal of trouble. Then again, it probably wouldn't work anyway, like the moogle's other spells hadn't before.
But Noel though, he was still...
"I'm just glad you're safe, but we've got bigger problems to worry about right now than finding the artefact," her voice cracked as she let the moogle go, and closing her hands together in front of her chest. "Noel's been poisoned! Serpentress got him, it bit him. He managed to get away and I have him somewhere safe, but I don't know what how long he's got. You have to help me find a flan that has leaves, it's the only thing that'll work as an antidote."
The moogle's ears perked up in alarm, looking as if he would suffer mini meltdown…when he pressed a mitten paw under his chin, his mind slipping away into his thoughts. And he turned away, kupoing quietly.
"What is it? What's wrong…?"
He looked back at her, hesitating before he broke to her the news.
"I know where to find a flan with leaves, kupo."
"You do!?" Serah felt her heart jump with excitement, hope. "Please, you have to take me to it right away. Show me where it is!"
The moogle twitched nervously; then slowly, he nodded.
"Follow me, kupo…"
Through the trees Mog led her, the two hurrying along as the moogle retraced his steps from where he'd previously come from. After all the shortcuts taken crossing through muddy ground, pushing her way through foliage to maneuvering passed fallen trees to keep up with the moogle, the two of them finally winded up at the base of some extremely high cliffs. It was like a huge wall of black rock, jagged and heavy in moss and weeds. And before them was the entrance to something, a cave.
Far into thae darkness, Serah could see faintest speck of light coming from somewhere inside…
"It's in there, kupo."
In small steps Serah moved forward, only to find herself stopping, air caught in her lungs.
This was too strange. Flans were usually out in lush habitats or living up high in the trees. What was one doing here, in a cave? To go trudging into the dark with monster lurking somewhere inside wasn't a plan Serah was particular thrilled of, and everything was quite in there, much too quite.
"Mog, this flan…is it, friendly?" Serah asked.
"I don't know, kupo. When I awoke, the flan was sleeping. It was how I was able to escape," the moogle kept his distance from the cave like she was, hovering near to her side. "But you should be careful, kupo, especially you."
Serah dug her toes into the dirt. "Why do you say that?"
Mog gulped, his wings beating that much quicker. "You will see, kupo."
The flan, if it was dangerous or tried to attack them, they didn't have anything to defend themselves with. How could they be so sure this flan would be as friendly as the miniflans they had met in the past, long enough for it to see reason? They had to be able to convince it somehow, and there was no way could they back out and let Noel down. If worse came to worse, they could simply outrun it. Flans had never been fast monsters on their feet since they didn't have any feet to speak of. But running away wouldn't get them any closer to finding Noel his antidote.
When it came down to it, it was all or nothing.
Serah stood strong with her shoulders back, taking a deep breath. "Let's go, Mog. Stay close, and be ready to translate for me. If there's any chance of getting through this peacefully, we have to try."
With a final look to the forest, everything in Serah warning her to turn back, into the cave they went.
Visibility quickly dropped the further they went in, with only Mog's glowing gem to stop her from tripping over. Yet even with that light, they could barely see a few feet in front of them; the darkness obscuring too much to tell if anyone or anything was in there with them, while the forest behind them looked more distant every time Serah spared a glance back, as if that outside world might disappear forever.
It was colder in here too; the draft flowing through leaving her teeth chattering and body shiverish, with the constant dripping of water running from the ceiling to splash on her skin. The stone ground was moist and slippery in places, scattered in rocks to catch painfully underfoot, and with nearly each step, sticky goo stuck to her bare feet.
Mog was right; a flan had been staying here.
The obscurity of that cave was soon to be left behind, as that tiny prick of light Serah had spotted near the entrance of the cave grew steadily larger the longer they walked, getting closer. The light was from a narrow passage opening up in the cave wall ahead. Not to the outside, the light was too blue to be that…more crystal?
On stepping through boundary of dark into light, their eyes quick to adjust, Serah let out a silent gasp at the massive cavern she and Mog were now residing in. It was huge, like the dome of Old Bodhum to have once hoisted its firework displays; the cavern reaching higher than any room she had ever seen. And the entire place was full of that glowing crystal, all of it had once come crashing in like a ginormous tidal wave from an opening in the ceiling centuries ago; left frozen in time as if the hands of a time within this place stood still.
It was like seeing the remains of her hometown after the death of Orphan all over again; nothing left but just clashes of crystalized waves to have consumed everything in a chaotic sea of destruction. Serah had cried when she had seen it not long after losing Lightning, just as she nearly had when she, Noel and Mog had visited the lake outside Bresha Ruins, and memories cut too deep to stay there long.
Though there was indeed wonder, little beauty to be discovered in this place for her...and any trace of that beauty was soon to be lost when she began to realize that there were figures within those rippling waves of the crystal.
At first Serah mistake it took it to be an illusion, a trick of the light perhaps, yet they were no such thing. Within that crystal, there were women. Hundreds and hundreds of women…
Serah staggered back, a hand grasped over her mouth to suppress her scream. There was so many of them, hundreds, maybe thousands of women made of pure crystal, trapped in graceful or romanticized poses with their bodies fused into the waves; not a single one of them showing any sign of distress.
Something wasn't right.
Their bodies looked imperfect, as if water over the years had eroded them away; nothing like the crystal of Vanille that the trio had found in Oerba at a time when Cocoon still floated in the sky. And the longer Serah was to look in terror at those crystal women, the more flaws hers eyes began to pick out; figures with arms or legs longer than the others, a face or body drooping heavily on one side, to some missing limbs altogether, as if not even fully formed.
These women, they weren't l'Cie that had fulfilled their focus. This was crystal from the pillar, yes, but these figures were just sculptures, nothing more.
Floating with relief Serah could see that now, that great amounts of the crystal in the cavern had been eaten away, carving trails through the waves that the sculptures spawned from; like mermaids bursting out from the deep blue. Everywhere, even on the ceiling, was covered in these amateur looking sculptures; all of different sizes, with some no bigger than herself, to those the size of buildings.
But it became very clear as Serah edged in further into that cavern, that the sculptures were all of the same person, each one molded into the image of a petite young woman with flowing hair…that…
She grasped at the ringlets of her pink hair, a nausea overtaking her empty stomach.
They was her, the sculptures were all of her!
"This is where I woke up, kupo," said the moogle floating nearby; voice a whisper, though Serah was barely with it, too horrified at the scene in front of her and those crystal faces on those sculptures all resembling hers. They weren't crafted from tools or from human hands. These sculptures were made by something that had the time and means to melt the crystal away, for it would've taken decades, perhaps even longer to have created them all.
The repulsion those sculptures gave her, at the thought somebody made them after all she'd gone through as a l'Cie, made Serah want to destroy every last one of those crystals…
"Mog what, what is all this?"
The moogle's nose twitched nervously. "I don't know, kupo…"
"How can you not-" Serah hadn't even the chance to quiz Mog for more when they heard the loud gurgles of a creature from inside that cavern. And she spotted a large orange figure moving from beyond the sea of sculptures, shifting between the figures petite and tall, like distorted images seen through misty glass.
Something was coming.
"Quickly," Serah snatched a startled Mog from the air, bundling him in her arms as she took them into hiding, finding shelter behind two life sized sculptures joined together like siamese twins. Couched down, she and Mog stayed there huddled together, as a monster slowly emerged from a trail through that crystal ocean, and the strange dream Serah had in the forest came back to her in that instance; the dream of something inhuman scooping Mog out of the water with orange gooey fingers and carrying him away.
She should've recognized it straight away in that dream, yet only now did the truth piece itself together on what breed of flan it was that had rescued her friend from the dangerous rapids.
It was tall, nothing like Royal Ripeness, but still tall. Its colors not as vibrant as other flanbanero and its plump tomato body looking almost sagged like a partially deflated balloon, with the corner of those silver eyes drooping. Injured or Sick? No, more like the flan was old, very old. Whatever aged it was didn't really interest her, for there on flanbanero's stork were the leaves Serah needed to save Noel; a whole bunch of them.
With the height the flan was, there was no way she could reach up high enough to snatch one without being noticed, and the leafs looked too thick for the Mog to tear off quickly enough to make a break for it. The flan would attack them if they even tried, not doubts on that.
How were they going to do this...?
The flanbanero's body turned sluggishly from left to the right, searching around the for something. Time went on, and it didn't let up. The flan just kept slithering around; searching, constantly searching for what couldn't be seen in that cavern of crystal.
Was it possible...had it heard them come in, smelt them?
"You have to talk to it, kupo."
Serah looked down at the moogle, his nose wriggling, the lines of those unseen eyes furrowed in a worried frown.
"But Mog…I don't…"
A miniflan was easy to deal with, but the flanbanero that they inevitably grew into with age? Any time the trio had encounter such flans had been met with hostility. And this flanbanero was huge, larger than any Serah had ever met. What chance did they have against this thing?
The moogle gently tugged himself free, staring into her doubting gaze. "You must or Noel will die, kupo."
"I…" Serah fell quiet, a shiver running over her skin on suddenly becoming aware they were no longer alone.
Through the gaps between the joined arms of those twin sculptures, a large silver eye was looking directly at her and Mog; a huge orange blob seen through the crystal.
A scream escaped Serah's throat, haste in retreating back with the moogle as that giant of a flan crawled out from beside those sculptures, blocking off their escape. The silvery orbs of the flan's eyes slowly widened on contact with the pair, its toothless mouth sliding open further the longer it stared at the pair without a sound. But no closer did the flanbanero move.
Serah's immediate impulse was to run, having seen enough here to want to stay away for life. But it was the thought of Noel lying there, dying inside that tree that stopped her from taking such action in going the cowardly route.
She couldn't run away, not when Noel needed her.
A quick look at the moogle and her shaking hands squeezed tight, Serah approached the flanbanero very, very slowly.
Her heart beating like a hammer, she gulped. "Um...h…hello…?"
The flan was still as if its body had set in rock solid, its drooling mouth remaining wide open; slimy face blank and unresponsive. And then suddenly, immobile the flan was no more, as it made a move towards her; arms stretching out.
A sculpture Serah's back bumped into, cornered into a small area of those crystal carvings with nowhere else to go as the flanbanero just kept coming, gurgling loudly in delight.
"Mog hurry, say something to it!" she yelled.
"Like what, kupo?"
"I don't know! Just get it to-" Serah gasped as one of the flan's arms wrapped around her waist, slime sticking to her skin as her body was lifted off from the ground. She kicked and wriggled in a panic, yet nowhere near powerful enough to free herself, or to stop the flanbanero from drawing her close to its putrid smelling mouth.
Serah let out a terrified scream, shutting her eye from fear of herself about be swallowed whole by the monster.
But, nothing happened…
Fearful she cracked open her eyelids, half expecting to see the insides of a flan's mouth or stomach even. Speechless however Serah was left, on discovering she was in fact being cradled in the arms of that flanbanero, those large eyes softening at her with those cheerful gurgles from its throat sounding almost similar to a purr.
The flanbanero, it was hugging her?
Mog went soaring up to speak in that flan language, and by the harshness of it, to tell the monster off. Whatever Mog said hadn't worked, for the flanbanero didn't listen, and only continued to cuddle Serah in adoration, leaving her stunned and at a loss at what was going on.
Then her brain finally kicked in.
"E-excuse me, I know that you're happy to see me any everything, and I'm happy to see you too!" Serah squirmed at getting more slimed by the flan. "But um, would you mind putting me down, please?"
The flanbanero obeyed almost immediately, carefully setting Serah down on her two feet without any further protest. And surprised, she stepped back, shaken up from the expressive flan that left her body covered in a thin trail of orange goo; the smell cringe worthy enough to have her turning her nose in disgust. How her friends at NORA would've laughed at her for at getting hugged by massive flan; somthing in itself that sounded ridiculous.
The flan had understood her though, meaning it knew English too, just like those colorful flans had in Sunleth Waterscape years before when Serah had told them to stop attacking the crystal pillar. So strange…
The flanbanero gave a number of long bellowing groans, trying to speak to her.
"The flan says that he's missed you, kupo."Mog was quick to translate. fluttered to her side.
"Missed me?" Serah wiped the orange goo from her face and the rest of her, removing it with little succeed. "But where? I mean, how does he know us, know me?"
Understanding her question, the flan spoke in its gibberish, those silver eyes looking her up and down, with something almost...familiar about them.
Mog spoke. "It was here in this forest, when he was a small flan, kupo. He remembers it like it was yesterday, when he saw the most beautiful flan no other could compare to, kupo."
It was then it clicked, and Serah just knew then which flan this was. The stork decorated with so many leafs; whose big puppy eyes were like those of a certain flan that had barely even a day ago for Serah, had asked to be her mate.
She couldn't believe it.
"You…you're that miniflan!"
The flanbanero's gooey face lit up when she said that, as it knowing straight away which of those hundreds of flan she meant; the corners of its wide mouth rising, resembling a smile. With a joyous sound the creature went to pick up her for another clingy embrace, but Serah was quick to back off, holding up her hand.
"Wait!" to Serah's relief, the flanbanero listened once again. "There's a reason I'm here today. Truth is, I need your help, and you're only one who can."
A happy gurgle came from the flan.
"He says he will help you in any way he can, kupo," Mog said.
Well that was good, but that was only half the job was done. Now came the tricky part on convincing it to give up one of its leaves and to explain so in a way that a flan would be able to understand. Noel was counting on her to get it right.
Please, let it help.
Serah gripped her hands together, mentally counting to three. And then, she began.
"The friend that was with me on that day when we first met...my um, mate. Well he's here too, in this forest with me," Serah bowed her head, catching her breath. "But he's very sick. A large snake, Serpentress, it poisoned him when we were separated from each other. And I…he's dying…"
Serah couldn't think about it, of Noel all alone in his battle to cling to life while she was here in this cavern. Nor could she escape the frightening possibility that he would lose that fight in her absence. He'd always been strong, more than her...but still...
"He told me…Noel said the leaves from a flan will save his life, that it's the only thing that will rid the poison from his body," she looked up at the flanbanero again, unable to hold back that nagging fear in her gut at being in the monster's presence. "That's why I need your help. You're the only one who can save him. If you don't, I'll lose him."
The flanbanero was silent; mind slow in taking in all that she had said. And then unexpectedly, the flan groaned at her, its body slouching over as it turned away solemnly, and didn't look back.
It wasn't the response she had anticipated.
Time not their ally; Mog flew up to the giant flan to find out what was wrong. Thus there, the two spoke in that strange language, words passing between flan and moogle of which Serah couldn't figure out, leaving her mind in a more jumbled mess as to what was going on.
Had she said it wrong? Didn't it understand?
Serah came close to interrupting them, when the moogle finally finished, returning to where she stood arms nervously crossed.
"Well, what did he say?"
Mog tensed, tapping his paws together. "The flan says he is sad, because he thought you had come to meet him, kupo. He's been waiting these many centuries to see you again."
A lonely moan sounded from the flan, sulking even that more as it refused to turn around. Serah thought it to be some joke, but one look at that flanbanero made it clear that it was no lie. This explained now why the sculptures were all of her and none of Mog, and especially, none of Noel.
It didn't just like her. The flanbanero was in love with her.
Serah clenched her fists, marching forward to confront the creature "Listen I...I'm sorry. I'm sorry this isn't what you wanted. But if you don't help me, Noel will die. And if not then, then tell me where to find other flans that will."
The flan blew out a bored huff from his drolly mouth, flicking its gaze elsewhere as it spoke in its language.
"He says there are no other flans, kupo," Mog explained, hurrying out the translation. "They left the forest with the other monsters, sensing the end draws near, and sough to escape from it. The ground beneath quakes and soon will split, and when it does all life will perish, kupo."
Serah felt her body go cold. "The end? You mean the fall of Cocoon! It's soon!?"
"I think so, kupo…"
No, it couldn't be true. She thought were close to 500AF by a few decades or so, but not this close! If the ground was starting tremor enough to scare the monsters away, and to have sensed something wasn't quite right with the planet, then it couldn't be too far along from Cocoon's demise. For all they were aware of, the pillar might crumble at any given minute!
Not only did she have to save Noel, but now they had to get themselves off Cocoon before it crashed onto Gran Pulse, among everything else. When would this nightmare stop getting any worse?
"T-then it has to be you! Please!" Serah shuffled around to face the flan, practically pleading with it. "Noel needs an antidote, and soon. You have to let me make him better, so I can take him away from here and to somewhere safe."
The flan however wasn't so compliant or as eager to please her anymore. Annoyance brewed in its body language, bumbling out its words to her.
Mog hung his head, gulping "He asks 'why should he save the puny one, when it is the puny one that stole you away?' kupo."
"What? Because, because he's my friend that's why!" Serah said in defense, angry. "And he didn't steal me away, not in that way you're thinking..."
More gurgles the flan made.
"But you said he was your mate, kupo."
"No I, but that was…Look it doesn't matter who or what he is, I just want to save him. He'll die if I don't!" Serah was losing her patience, barely able to keep herself together. "Doesn't that meaning anything to you? Don't you care?"
So was there another huff from the flanbanero, almost appearing to roll its eyes at the human and moogle; interest quickly beginning to fade, before the flan added something else.
Mog's small ears hung low. "He says he will do anything for you, but…only you. He will not help the puny one. He won't save Noel's life, kupo."
"No! You can't do that!" Serah yelled, only to be silenced when the flanbanero let out a deep bellowing cry, shaking the confines of that cavern. The flan puffed its body out imposingly, flaring up in an intense red as if threatening to attack her with magic; the silver flames burning in its eyes revealing its true monstrous nature.
But Serah didn't back down, even as Mog shot in front to protect her, she stood strong.
"Please, Noel's sick and he needs me! Do whatever you want with me, but don't punish him for my mistakes," Serah swallowed her fear, her eyes stinging with tears she refused to let the monster see. "If you had any idea of what we've been through, you'd understand…it was him, all him. I'd of never left my home if he hadn't shown up, I'd of never…that's why it's all my fault, I couldn't let him go! And now he's hurt because of me, because I couldn't say goodbye!"
Messing with the timeline, it was a dangerous thing. Hope had often warned them of this, reminding them never to reveal themselves as time travelers to anyone, or to take things of significance from one era and leave them in another. But especially of all, he had said not to intervene with the lives of others, no more than they had to outside of resolving the paradoxes. To do anything of the sort might have devastating consequences on the timeline, and change history for lives that might've been left unaffected without their meddling. One life lost on their part could wipe out generations of people; children who were never born; the inventions from the great minds that never were, and so on...
Her and Noel, they weren't supposed to be together, not forever. When their journey was over, they would have to say goodbye and go back to their own times; the same for Mog to his own distant world. They had to, there was no other choice.
Because of Serah's unwillingness to let go, Noel's life was on the line. He was suffering for her own selfishness in refusing to say goodbye…but how could she; say goodbye to the one person that had helped her to find hope again after being without Lightning and Snow for so long? The first person in the three years, Serah could really open up to almost nearly about anything?
Noel cared about her, and she cared about him, more than she could've ever realized. She'd stopped seeing Noel as the future boy, and saw him as someone special, who she couldn't bear the thought of disappearing when their journey came to its end. She wanted him…she wanted Noel to become part of her life. Whatever the outcome, she wanted him to stay.
'You should come live with us. I mean, if you can't ever go back to your time, you're welcome to stay at New Bodhum. I'm sure Snow and the others wouldn't mind.'
'…Debatable, but he'd come around. If not, Snow would definitely talk some sense into him for you.'
'Hah, well…it's kind of you to offer.'
But she was so naïve to it, to everything.
"I didn't even know how much he meant to me, and then when I did, I just wanted to blank it out, pretend everything was fine like before. I hated myself, for betraying Snow and everything we had. It's all I've ever done! Destroy the lives of others and everyone I ever loved. That's why Noel has to live! I have to tell him everything, that I'm sorry! Please, I'm begging you, I'll do anything!"
The cherry red brightness to the flanbanero body had burnt out, intimation smoldering to nothing but ashes. It was silent, studying her with in its child-like curiosity reminiscent of when it was miniflan.
Serah may as well have spoken to a wall for all the good it did, or so she first believed until flan finally spoke. Yet there was no gentleness to come from its gibberish talk; not even a hint of mercy in its eyes. And that, worried her…
"Mog, what did he say?"
The moogle floated there unbearably quiet, the crystal bobble tipping over his face.
"Just tell me!" Serah demanded.
Mog flinched, and reluctantly turned around to face her. "He says, if you will do anything 'then stay with me until the end, never leave me and I will save the puny one'. That's what he asks, kupo."
Stay here, in Sunleth Waterscape until the end? Until Cocoon came crashing down onto Gran Pulse…?
The blood drained from her face. "But…I can't!"
The flanbanero let out an angry groan, so loud that small rocks of crystal rained down on them from the ceiling and shook Serah to her bones. A dangerous temper in the monster was beginning to reignite.
"If you don't, he says he won't help us, that he will find and kill the puny one to end his suffering," Mog squeaked fluttering back and forth apprehensively. "What should we do, kupo?"
All this time…all that affection for a human it had met once in its youth, craving her like an obsession that had it hide away here throughout its life, creating sculpture after sculpture in Serah's image. It wanted so much to obtain the real thing, that it was willing to kill those she cared about in the process to get just that. Yet the flan's obsession of her alone wasn't why it had stayed. The flanbanero was old, that to leave this forest and find a way off Cocoon, if there even was one…the flan would never make the trip. That was why it couldn't leave; it didn't want to die along. But Noel, he would die if she didn't get back to him with an antidote.
The clock was ticking.
"For one leaf, you'll let me save him…just one?"
Through that tough exterior, the flan's eyes softened at the news, sounding pleased.
"As many as it takes for you to stay, kupo," Mog translated as he left her side.
Serah gripped her hands tighter. "And you promise, you'll let me take it to him, to my friend?"
Irritation showed once more upon the flan.
"No, I will take it. You must stay here forever. Forever stay with me, kupo" Mog translated again, his voice more distant than before. "Tell me where and I will go, kupo."
Serah glimpsed passed the flanbanero, noticing the moogle wasn't anywhere near them anymore. Instead Mog was hovering close to the ground, his mitten paw fetching up something from the base of one the sculptures to have fallen from the ceiling; a crystal, a sharp piece of crystal.
Mog hid the fragment behind his back in the instance that flan shifted to moan questionably at the moogle, having noticed Serah was hesitating for reasons the monster couldn't figure out yet.
This flan, it wasn't going to let her leave. And there was no way she could tell the flan where Noel was, not after it had displayed jealousy towards him in calling him puny, and threatened to take the young man's life if she didn't accept its proposal of a suicide pact. Either way, it was willing kill him if it got her to stay.
Mog was already thinking two steps ahead.
So, she joined him.
Serah called the flan to get its attention, letting her fears slip away behind the mask she placed on herself as natural as could be as soon as the flanbanero looked back at her.
"Can I tell you a story before I decide? I promise it won't take long."
Confusion flickered across the flan's face, interest setting in, all focus put upon her.
"It's about some flans actually, you'll like it," Serah said, turning shyly away. She walked slowly to one of the sculptures of herself; its arms out beckoning with love…and Serah grasped at her arm where the brand had once been printed on her skin, trying her best not to shiver.
"There were these two sisters that loved each other very much. They went through a lot together, so much you wouldn't believe. On the day they thought everything would be okay, the eldest suddenly disappeared, as if the ground swallowed her when no one was looking. The young flan was heartbroken, not understanding where her sister had gone. She was convinced the eldest was still alive somewhere, yet nobody believed her; that is, all for except one flan, one of whom the young sister cared for dearly, if just as much."
Serah spun around, briefly catching sight of the Mog sneaking up slowly on the flanbanero towards its stork. She tucked her arms behind her back, forcing herself to faintly smile despite everything within her being against it. "He left for her, that flan, to go and find the eldest sister. But years went by and neither did one of the flans she loved return. The young flan, she almost gave up hope of seeing them both again…and then, one night, a star fell from the sky, and a blue flan appeared. This blue flan, he told her he had been sent by her sister, that they could go and see her if she went with him."
The flanbanero listened, its rage being calmed by her every word that it was hooked on, allowing her to continue while blissfully unaware of the moogle getting ever so close, but not close enough, not yet.
Serah nudged back a step, her hand secretly closing around the thin wrist of the crystal sculpture behind her. With a firm tug, the hand broke off, the sound of it breaking concealed under a sweet laugh. "The young flan, well, she was a little scared of him at first. The blue flan was different than all the others, and she wasn't sure if she could trust him enough to believe him. It took a little while, but in the end he convinced her. And over time, she came to care deeply about him too…and maybe, he did as well, in this own special way."
A pleased gurgle escaped the flan, melting away in a sea of content as it studied her longing, leaning close.
"The young flan made a promise to herself, one unspoken to anybody, but one she vowed to keep," Serah gripped at the clump of sculpture in her hand, her feet sliding into a stance, "She promised that no matter what happened, she would protect that blue flan until she found her sister again. She would protect him always, no matter what!"
Serah swung her arm, sending that the crystal hand of that sculpture went hurdling through the air. By the time the flan realized what she had done, it was too late; a thunderous wail soon erupting from the flanbanero to writher in pain at the sharp crystal lodged in its eye, silver droplets splattering across the radiant cavern floor.
Angrily the flan flung out an arm, narrowly missing Serah's by inches as the strength of that monster decapitated several of the sculptures behind her.
It was now or never.
The moogle didn't have to be told twice. He got straight to it, grabbing onto one of the flanbanero's leafs and began cutting away with that shard of crystal. The flan howled louder when he did so, the monster twisting its body frantically and bringing Mog along for the ride as the moogle desperately held on.
It was to be flan's thrashing actions to shake Mog off him that were eventually to be its undoing; the force of the small moogle being swung around so hard it tore the last of the leaf off that Mog clung to, throwing moogle clear of the monster along with his prize.
"I got it, kupo!" Mog yelled in a great panic as the flanbanero slithered hastily towards him, large drooling arms out to take the leaf back.
Serah was already moving, pulling the brittle arm off the handless sculpture, and charged, stabbing the pointed end of crystal into the flan's side. Distraught the creature cried out, stopping it just long enough for Mog to get away.
"Go! Take it to Noel!"
"But Serah, kupo!?"
She pushed the crystal in further, the pain holding the flan off for a little longer. "Just go! I'll be fine! I'm right behind you!"
"Ku...Kupo!" Mog nodded, resisting the urge to stay for her any longer. And he flew out the cavern, leaf in hand.
The flanbanero turned, bending down to make a grab at Serah, but too quick she for its; easily dodging through those clingy arms of jello that had her cringing at the mere contact with her skin.
She couldn't let it catch her.
Running, Serah made a break for it like a fugitive free from her ceil, her left arm scathing the side of one sculptures and near to tripping on another at the frightening cries of that flan behind her. At that cavern entrance, did Serah dare herself into looking back;her immediate thoughts to escape it for good wavering in that instance, feet falling still.
It hadn't pursued her, the flanbanero was just sitting there where she had left it wounded; its left eye ruptured, weeping that silver fluid like tears, with the piece of the crystal sculpture still stuck in its side, bleeding out orange goo. No more was the flan engulfed in a fit of rage...for it just stared at her brokenly, a sad deep moan resounding out from the monster's throat, at having been betrayed, and by all things, her.
For a fleeting moment, guilt consumed her.
Serah turned away, and took off into the dark reaches of that cave; running blind in the dark for the daylight at the far end of it that she couldn't reach quick enough. Even once she made it outside, free from the things she had seen, Serah could still hear the flanbanero from deep inside that cavern; its wails of distress ringing out through the forest, with the sounds of crystals being smashed apart; over and over again…
Stay wake…he has to stay awake…
Tired and dizzy, everything aches. His ribs in agony every time that he breathes; pulse palpitating out of rhythm, trembling in his chest like dying songbird.
He tries to distract from it, to think of better times, anything to keep conscious. But both a difficulty and frustration it is, his mind scratched blank.
Images swirl, colors and shapes; sounds dulling with his vision.
Someone is here.
Sending Mog off on his own had been a mistake. They were so focused on getting the leaf from the flanbanero and escaping unharmed, that Serah hadn't had stop to tell him precisely where it was she had hidden Noel in the forest.
Worst yet, she was having trouble finding her way back, still being shaken up by her experience inside that cavern that was sure to leave her unable to look at any other flans the same way again. She swore, the next time Noel ever said, 'they're just flans' to any that showed affection to her, she really would hit him.
But first things first…
"Mog, where are you!?"
Serah stumbled to a stop by a large fallen tree, her hand clutching at the cut on her arm still stinging from where she had caught it on the sculpture. The forest around her was sinisterly still more than before, the pockets of sky seen through the branches swamped entirely over with clouds, with the air heavy in the smell of old wood rot. But no where, could she see the moogle.
She called out, nearly screaming.
The distant roar from the forest far behind her made her nearly leap out of her skin, quick to make Serah get on the move again, not wanting to stay longer in case the flanbanero had second thoughts and came after her.
Mog was smart. He wouldn't have gone off searching for Noel without knowing where to look first, not without her. And that was what Serah was counting on, that Mog had the sense to go back the crystalized tree where they had found each other, and that he would be there waiting for her.
Serah just had to get there, and then everything would be alright. They had to be...but that pillar, where on Cocoon was that-
She slid out from some bushes, and saw something through the trees, light.
Heart pounding Serah moved forward, her run weakening to a jog for having used up most her energy most on the way here, no thanks to the flan that had scared her witless. Even now the repercussion of her actions worried her if the monster was to ever find them again in this forest. Noel definitely wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. He couldn't afford to be...she had to make him well again.
Onto the clearing surrounding that crystal pillar Serah was to be once again, relief barely having time to settle when she saw something lying on the dirt amongst the shards of crystal.
It was a piece of the tore leaf from the flanbanero, and resting right on top of it...was her bow.
What in the-
"Mog!?" Serah hurried over, crouching down to retrieve the weapon, its metal cold to the touch. "Are you okay? Mog, say something!"
No answer. The pink gem on the bow didn't glimmer, and regardless of how hard she shook the weapon or how loud she called his name, Mog didn't respond or transform back into his original form. If he could hear her, or was conscious of her presence, he wasn't showing it.
What was going on? Why had Mog turned into a bow?
Movement stirred in the corner of Serah's eye, something big.
"No, not again!"
She shot up on her feet, raising that bow forward, when her body suddenly went numb and any command her brain gave to fire was lost in that paralyzing fear when she saw the giant snake that was Serpentress slide out from the forest; its head raised high off the ground, like a behemoth on its hind legs ready to attack. And there clutched within its jaws, like a dog with a bone, was-
An adrenaline rush burst through Serah's veins, the pain tightening in her chest as she nearly dropped that bow entirely.
He was unconscious, lying there helpless, trapped. His head hung back with eyes sealed shut and his every limb slack and lifeless. The rows of razor teeth from that snake, they…they were impaled into his body, blood dripping like wine from injuries too grave, too deep...
The snake closed its jaws tighter around the young man, sinking its teeth in even further. And from Noel's bluing parted lips, came a husky cry of pain.
Serah's fury knew no limit.
"Let him go!" she strung back the bow, energy flowing through the weapon as the magic within it began charging up. "I said let him go!"
Serpentress lessened its grip on the prey in its mouth, but it didn't listen to her. It only crept closer, using Noel as both bait and a human shield to get in closer to her.
Within those hungry gold eyes, intelligence thrived. Though it actions weren't agile as Serah had known it to be, moving unusually more passive than more. The red markings on the snake's scale, they weren't as illuminated or define, and there were injuries carved amongst them, lacerations.
As distance between her and Serpentress narrowed, she noticed below the snake's jaw, there was a broken remains of a spear-like object sticking out from between the scales; along with several other smaller ones down its spine.
Somebody else had attacked it?
The snake's jaws suddenly fell open, dropping Noel several feet to the ground, where the young man landing roughly on his back without so much as a whimper from the impact. And with angry hiss, Serpentress lunged for her.
Serah tumbled back, her hand releasing the strings on the bow as she fell, and in doing so, a magical arrow flew forth, piercing Serpentress's belly and cutting off its attack as the snake flailed its body in agony.
It worked this time! The bow really worked!
She had a weapon!
Getting a grip on her nerves, Serah took aim and shot another one, this time hitting higher up, close to the snake's head. It sent the Serpentress into an even madder frenzy, quick to turn its suffering on her and lunged again, nearly snapping Serah up in its mouth.
She dived out of the way, wincing when the tiny fragments of crystal in the soil dug into her side. The pain it brought immobilized in those few seconds she struggled to stand. She was barely halfway up when a shadow casted on her, and she saw Serpentress was already rising, preparing to take her out.
Her hands grip on the bow, willing with her mind a single word.
It transformed, the two ends of that bow binding together into a blade just in time for Serah to swing the weapon up, slicing the snake's mouth and shattering several of its teeth, forcing it back.
Not having time to pull the pieces of crystal from her bloodied skin, Serah willed the sword back into a bow and raised the weapon once more at the thrashing snake, taking careful aim…
When out of nowhere, the ground began to shake.
It was like nothing Serah had ever experienced; her balance unable to compete with those the powerful tremors that soon had her tumbling down on her hands and knees. The forest around her groaned and creaked; twigs and leafs falling all over that clearing as entire branches came away. And before her, huge cracks started to run rigid in the pillar, spreading up the crystal like thin ice on a lake about to give out underfoot.
Cocoon, was it…?
"No, please not yet!"
Serpentress was too distracted by the quakes to pay Serah any mind; its head whipping around confused and hissing angrily when a huge chunk of crystal from the pillar crashed down onto the clearing near to the snake's tail. Fragments were blasted out everywhere as more crystal fell through those white clouds, sharp pieces nearly hitting Serah in the face as she raised her arms in front of herself for protection.
Debris from the pillar fell short of the unconscious young man lying some meters away, several coming dangerously close to crushing him.
Away, they had to get away from here! Now, or they'd be killed!
Fighting against the tremors, Serah hurried over as quickly as she could, staggering and stumbling the whole way while more crystal rained down from the pillar like giant hail stones. She dropped the bow on reaching Noel's side, collapsing on her knees at the sight of those gaping stab wounds he had sustained to his chest and thighs from being in the snake's mouth; the amount of blood alone more than enough to crush the heart in her chest.
Her hand went to his face, but he didn't respond to her touch.
Serah threw herself on him, shielding Noel with her body when crystal debris the size of a Time Gate crashed into the ground next to them, showering flesh-cutting shards over the pair.
More and more sections of the pillar was breaking off; dozens of them shattering like crystal fireworks, revealing more of the tree locked within to have been eaten away by decay. It crumbled apart before her eyes; its branches snapping off in an explosion of wood and crystal, little left to support the dead tree up.
But not even Cocoon impending destruction was to stop Serpentress for long. The injured snake soon on the move again, arching its back high with a hiss, fangs ready to strike the two humans in its sight.
"No!" Serah made a grab for her bow, trying to overcome the shaking of that planet long enough to get in a good shot. Yet she hadn't the need to waste an arrow, for in that moment, a massive piece of crystal fell from higher up the pillar, landing on the snake's body with spine breaking force.
Serpentress let out a loud hiss, attempting to wrench itself free, only for more of the pillar to fall on the reptile, slamming onto the snake's skull. Serah lost hold of the bow, turning to protect Noel from the crystal dust cloud to smother them in the fallout; wincing at the pebble sized clumps to struck at her back. And she listened on, shaking in the fear as the snake to have caused them so much suffering and torment, disappeared in an avalanche of crystal, crushed beneath what remained of that once beautiful pillar, brought to ruins.
The ground, stilled…
Coughing, Serah wiped the crystal dust from her eyes, cringing at the sight of Serpentress's crushed tail poking out from the huge mountain of glass-like rubble, just scarce of killing them both. No movement came from the rubble, no life from what little she could see of that snake's body. It was dead, it was finally gone…
Close call didn't quite cut it.
In the destruction from that branch of pillar, a snow flurry began to fall softly over the clearing. But snowflakes they weren't, for they didn't feel cold or melt on contact with Serah's skin; the flakes almost grainy to touch. It took a while to figure out that they too were specks of crystal, all of them glowing, like tiny fireflies over the forest, where the tremors to have shaken the planet were no more.
If Cocoon was to fall, it wasn't to be today.
A faint cough spurted out, movement shifting from the body in her arms.
"Noel!" Carefully Serah supported the young man up in her arms, rubbing the crystal dust away from his face "I'm here, Noel I'm right here. It's me."
He was conscious, those blue eyes open and staring up at her as if having woken from a deep sleep…but, those eyes were hollow and empty, almost seeming stare straight through her, as if Noel could barely see her at all.
Serah grasped his sickly pale hand, squeezing it when Noel suddenly went into a violent coughing fit, struggling to breathe; his lungs not taking in the air properly. And he brought up something dark, slipping down from the corners of his mouth; blood.
She bit down on her tongue, stopping herself from assuring him everything would be okay, that he had nothing to be afraid of now that she was with him. Serah could almost believe those words, thinking them…but Noel wasn't okay. Perhaps he had stood a better chance if she had left him somewhere safer than in that tree, somewhere Serpentress wouldn't have found him. But now in the condition Noel was? Serah didn't have to be doctor to be able to tell that the wounds he had gotten from the jaws of that reptile were fatal; that he was probably suffering internal bleeding somewhere from injuries that not even magic could fix.
Even if Serah was to give him the antidote, it wouldn't do him any good now…
Noel's lips moved, his voice barely loud enough that she had to crane her neck to hear him clearly. Just one word he was able to whisper out, and nothing else.
Serah gathered him closer in her arms, unable to fight the tears. "Don't say that. It's not your fault, it never was. It's me, I should've…I…"
Weakly she felt Noel's cold fingers squeeze at her hand, the young man looking at her in desperation to say more, but the words wouldn't come. Only more coughs replaced them; airways clogged up with the same dark liquid bleeding out from the rest of his broken body, and there was nothing that Serah could do about any of it. She wanted to scream, cry out for help, but no one would come, not even Caius. Even still, she kept glancing up, as if expecting to see the Guardian there or someone else that could rescue him. But it was just them, the two of them alone in that dying forest. Nobody would come running, not even her sister...
This couldn't to be happening. Noel wasn't supposed to die, not him! They were meant to change the future together and meet her sister in Valhalla. He wasn't meant to be dying in her arms in a place like this…why, why did she have to be so blind, so stupid!? Letting him get so close to her, it was all a big mistake! If she had just let him go and taken Snow's hand, Noel would be happy, he would be safe.
She'd killed him, she had damned them both.
"I'm sorry, Noel…I'm so sorry…"
He blinked at her, confused maybe, she couldn't tell. The watery sheen in his eyes and the way he clung to her hand for dear life told her enough on what he couldn't say. Yet with death looming over him, still Noel made the futile efforts to talk, only to bring more suffering on himself as he battled to hold onto the living world. And slowly, he was losing.
Tears splashed on blood stained skin, where a thin layer of crystal snow shimmered softly, blanketing them and everything within that forest in a beautiful blue diamond glow as those crystal flakes continued to fall from the heavens.
So much needed to be said, but not the time to tell it...
"Don't leave me, please don't go," Serah held him tighter, sharing her warmth with him, willing it into his body. "Stay with me, Noel. Please, I need you..."
His body felt cold, so little life left in him that he was unable to hold onto her anymore; a flash of emotion crossing young man's tired face as those hazy blue eyes grew more distant, looking passed her.
Water dripped onto her shoulder from above, trailing down her arm…red?
Serah snapped her head upwards, spotting something big curled up in one of tree overhanging the clearing, seconds before it came swooping down, and she saw darkness...
Agony drowned out her screams as blades stabbed into her back and torso, through skin and muscle, chipping bones as jaws clamped shut, crushing her. And through broken blood vessels, Serah felt the scorching heat of that venom flowing into her blood, up to her racing heart.
No, it wasn't impossible!
Serpentress tossed her away as easily as a ragdoll, throwing her body over the pile of crystal debris. A loud crack sounded out from something breaking in her hip and shoulder in hitting the ground on the other side, as Serah rolled to a stop face down in the dirt, and didn't…couldn't, get back up.
The pain was immense, eating away at every part of her that to breath was near impossible. It hurt, it hurt so bad it was all Serah's shell-shocked mind could focus on as she laid there, staring blankly as those tiny flakes of crystal lying inches from her face, as if the world had ceased to be.
How could this be happening? It was dead, she saw it die!
A pool was gathering beneath her, spreading out on that crystal covered soil; fresh diamond flakes falling into it, sinking in a sea of red. Serpentress had struck a deadly bite. She was losing too much blood, too quickly. Either the venom would claim her, or Serah would bleed out, and it was quickly becoming obvious to her frightened mind which one between them would win first.
'You can go. But you have to come back in one piece, promise?'
It was over. She was never going to go home.
Serah could hear it beyond the rubble, the excited hisses of that snake beginning to slither down the tree creaking from its weight on the other side of the clearing. Soon it would come for her and finish her off; and Noel too, if he was still…if Serpentress wasn't already…
It had been messing them the whole time. Food to be toyed with, that's all that murderous snake ever saw them as. She hated it. Even as she laid there with the life bleeding out from her, Serah wanted it dead, more than she had ever wished on taking a life, human or monster.
She couldn't let it end like this, being prey to be hunted and eaten. She refused to go down that way. If they were to die, then Serah would bring it with them.
Serpentress died once before, it could do so again.
Barely able to breathe, her hands squeezed into fists, only for her eyes widen in surprise on feeling the cool touch of metal in her left. Suppressing the cries of agony it brought upon her body with each blood filled cough, Serah slowly raised her head, and saw that a familiar weapon was lying at her side.
Her bow, how did it…
Don't give up, Serah
You can do it
Another hiss her ears picked detected, closer than before.
Time was short...
Serah clenched the bow with all her strength, her will fighting against the pain that was zapping away her energy. And onto her side she rolled, blood sticking to her skin; her hair, the taste copper in her mouth. Onto her good arm Serah tried to force herself up on, only to heave forward, vomiting up more red.
Her body screamed for defeat, but wouldn't have it.
For Noel, she had to do it.
Serpentress gave out a long hiss as it slithered its way around that huge mountain of crystal debris, its long tongue whipping out across the air, tasting victory within it. Until the snake froze, gold reptile eyes narrowing on discover its wounded prey was up on her knees, holding that elegant bow with a fully charged arrow pointed directly at it.
For Noel, who gave her hope…
Vision blurry, arms shaking, Serah let out a cry as she released that magical arrow, watching it tear through the air like a shooting star, moments before it pierced into the scaled flesh and bones of Serpentress's skull…or should have.
The moment the arrow made contact with the snake, the reptile was devoured in a burst of light. And the arrow instead, fired off into the forest, its light disappearing amongst the glow of the crystal flurry, too far for Serah to see.
Serpentress had disappeared.
Serah strung back the bow as if to fire again, fearing her mind to be playing tricks, but her body wouldn't comply; a sudden loss of control and strength sending her collapsing onto the dirt, the bow clattering away from her.
The crystal snowflakes, stopped falling...
A heartbeat drummed heavy in her ears, beating wild to keep up with the demands it was succumbing to. Everything was getting so dark; so cold, like she was slipping into a void where the pain from those broken bones and the snake's wrath didn't hurt anymore. It all just disappeared, a bliss settling over the fog in her mind, calling forth a dreamless sleep.
No, no she couldn't go, not yet! Noel, she had to get him. Serah didn't want him to die alone. He was there now, somewhere beyond the rubble where she couldn't see, all on his own…but there was nothing left in Serah to give to even try and reach him; to take those steps needed to get there…
She was dying.
And as she laid there struggling to draw breath, the same fear of death overcame her as when she had been turning into a crystal, and Serah realized, she was never going see her sister again, or tell her how much she had missed her. They would never go back home to New Bodhum together, never see the looks on her friends faces as they'd welcome them back in open arms. Serah would never get the chance to find Snow again; to tell him how sorry she was for everything, and how she still felt about him. And Noel, he would never know a thing at all at how much he really mattered to her...
Through the blurry dark haze clouding over her vision, there was movement; a figure stepping out from the forest, coming towards her. Along the ground Serah dragged her arm, reaching out towards the shape, as her sight went completely...
Her lungs forgot how to breathe.
It had been night when they exited from the Time Gate, the stars out in all their glory, and there the two time travelers and their moogle were, right on the outskirts of the thriving town by the coast, with the light of Cocoon's pillar in the distance, shinning brighter than the moon.
It was New Bodhum, not that of Serah's time period, but 200AF
A shock it was, seeing her small village transformed, with little trace of how Serah remembered it left except for the name both carved and painted on a sign into town. There were docks bearing hundreds of boats bobbing on those dark waters; streets with neighborhoods and market places; and people, so many people. It had all been a lot for Serah to take in, to even imagine her settlement of a few hundred would become that of a few thousands long after they passed on.
Such a draw the town was and the temptation to wander in being strong, Serah had declined in visiting it. When Noel had questioned why, she said it was because she didn't want to spoil herself, though in truth it was because she was afraid, in case anything of her life survived 200 years on, and she winded up discovering whether or not she or Lightning returned home, or if Snow survived the curse of a l'Cie.
Serah hadn't told Noel that at the time; the reasons why she was so insistent to turn her back on the town after getting so close. Though by how easily he'd let it go, Serah figured it must've been aware something was troubling her, as Noel hadn't pressed the matter further.
And of course, their mission came first, before leisure, they had to remember that.
So instead, the trio had chosen to go and find the artefacts Mog's bobble was reacting to; spending their time trekking through farmlands and the wilderness, while fighting some monsters along the way, and solving the paradox of a Gogmagog that just didn't know when to quit. They had found two artefacts in total, and both their matching gates; one right by the shore a few miles from the town, and the other right at the top of a high hill.
Two paths through time they could go, and having already activated the gate by the shore, they were torn over which path to take. As such, all three had sat down to take a breather after all their hard work, before reaching a decision. But if anything, it was Serah who had requested they relax, for reasons not to do with rest, but those of the distant coastal town still calling to her from all the way out on that hill.
There was both appreciation and gratitude in her, at being given such an opportunity to see New Bodhum's future and to be able to sit there and admire the view. Yet sadness too had engraved itself deep in her heart, for fears and doubts of the things still not in full sight.
If it weren't for other fellow time travelling companions being there, Serah might've cried.
"Noel, will you miss me when I'm gone?"
The young hunter had looked to her surprised, those ocean blue eyes aglow in the night.
"Uh, not in that way. I'm not, I mean…" her hand had gently stroked the back of Mog's head from where the moogle slept peacefully on her lap, staring out at the town lit up in the night. "It's just, I've been thinking a lot lately about the three of us, and the future after we reach Valhalla. I…I'm…I'm scared."
Closely Noel had studied her, his hair blown softly across his face by the wind. "About saying goodbye?"
"I see," his attention drifted, fingers brushing over the bracelet laced up on his forearm, touching at the blue bead on his finger. Over and over he rolled that small bead, his thoughts seeming miles away. "Well, you wouldn't be alone there."
"You've been worried too?" Serah had asked.
He'd stopped, giving a small nod. "On a number of things, yes."
Serah hesitated "Do you mind me asking on what…?"
Down at his side, Noel had let his arm fall, staring out at the town. "Perhaps another time, another place…but, if there's anything I've learned, is that goodbyes are always the hardest. I've been through many in my life, and it never gets any easier."
"Yeah, they're not all that easy for me either," Serah had confessed; the moogle curling up like a cat in her lap with a sigh of content from his dreams. Gently, she'd held onto his tiny paw. "It gets to me, knowing I'll never see or talk to someone again. Things like those last words or a last glimpse. Even people I meet just in passing, I…"
She'd breathed the salty sea air in deep, the stars above enchanting.
"You never answered my question."
"If you'll miss me, when this is over?"
"Serah glanced over at the young man, trying to catch his eye. "Well, will you?"
It seemed an eternity before Noel finally tilted his head to one side, lips bearing a smile as warm as the sun they had watch set in the era before that, his expression cocky.
"Will I get expelled if I say otherwise?"
"No of course not! Come on, I'm being serious!" Serah giggled, roughly nudging his shoulder; only for them both to be cut off from saying anymore by the sound of an explosion from far away, loud enough to wake the dozing moogle from his sleep.
In the sky over New Bodhum, had been a blossom of blues and violets lights, soon to be joined by more, an explosive burst of lights filling the night in an array of colors. It was a sight Serah hadn't seen in a long time, bringing forth the magic and wonder they had given to her the first time seeing them as a child.
Noel had leapt to his feet, like a soldier ready for battle. "What on Pulse is that? What's going on?"
His reaction had made Serah nearly laugh, more than Mog's own confusion.
"You've never seen fireworks before, Noel?"
"Fireworks?" the word sounded so foreign on his tongue, too innocent for someone his age.
Smiling, she'd elaborated. "They're used for festivals and special occasions. It's like a form of celebration people can go and watch in the sky."
"So, they're not…"
"They're fine, don't worry."
"Oh, good" sheepishly the hunter sat back down, soon to become mesmerized by those fireworks in the sky to have exploded in their burst of patterns, sizzling out into darkness with more enchanting ones replacing them; popping like firecrackers. "Had me thinking the town was under attack for a second there."
Again, Serah had giggled. "I guess that's understandable really, being new to all of this."
"Yeah," Noel smiled, leaning forward, as if having wanted to reach out and grab those fireworks from the sky; his face never hiding its fascination. "Well, they sure are something..."
"Kupo," the moogle agreed, having settled comfortably once more on Serah's lap to watch the display that the young man too was in awe by, both unable to peel his eyes away from those colorful fireworks that meant more to Serah than the two would ever understand.
A hand Serah had risen to her chest, closing it around the pendant of her engagement necklace as she'd closed her eyes, reminiscing of times with those she longed to meet again. And that perhaps someday, they would be a fading memory no more.
Seeing those fireworks, rekindled that hope.
"Yeah, they really are…"
Witness to times forgotten, restorer of lines disjointed.
The light that pierces the enveloping gloom of time, and illuminates the truth...
Daughter of Chaos Arc: Complete
Next Arc: Servant of Time
To be continued in Chapter 9 - Echo…