The Goddess and Her Warrior: Chapter 8
The speed took my breath away. My thoughts felt as fast-flowing as this ride, swirling together as the trees seemed to. I'd ridden the chocobo for about three days now, nearing the Lufenian city. There was not a moment to lose; even as I journeyed there the dark elf wizard could be splattering Matoya's blood about the stone-cobbled streets. The moogle, the pirates, even the citizens could be torched, drowned or electrified, whatever was the evil sorcerer's pleasure.
The dark elf wizard had a vicious mind and delighted in the screams of his victims.
Those screams that came from my lips mere days before.
Those screams that echoed in my head this very minute.
My lady's visit had lifted my spirits momentarily and it was critical at that night of utter despair...but now that I had time to re-evaluate everything that joy melted away to bitterness. Maybe the whole visit was only to prompt me to continue the quest; the affection only bestowed upon me to keep this horse pulling the cart.
But men in love are ever fools in love. It goes without saying that I would continue to fight for her, even were it obvious she would cast me off soon after.
My chocobo crested a hill over the city and my heart caught in my throat. Columns of smoke billowed into the skies. Flames rose from several buildings. Carnage and destruction left a wake of broken bodies and bloodied streets. Where the moogle, the witch and the others where was not immediately evident so I turned my mount around to descend the other side of the hill.
A wizard powerful enough (or perhaps with enough soldiers) to wreck such havoc was more formidable than one weakened warrior. My palms sweat in my gloves as I urged the chocobo on. It gave a snap of its beak but I just pushed it harder, determined to reach the city in hopes of saving as many of the citizens as I could.
Tettering my testy mount to a lamppost I then strode through the streets. Tears prickled my eyes as I checked the bodies and found most of them dead. The few that clung to life I did my best to bandage and make comfortable. They would not likely live to see another dawn, but I could make their suffering less for as long as they lasted. One young girl I discovered alive I returned to her mother, making for the one bright spot in this destroyed, desolate place.
So appreciative of my assistance the woman told me all that had happened. The wizard claimed the city almost instantly. Many of the pirates had apparently switched sides and joined the undead minions as they roamed the city burning and looting and likely committing acts even more vile than that. Matoya herself was rumored to be burned as a witch of the black arts and none knew the fate of Master Kupo.
When I asked for Astos's whereabouts she of course pointed to the heavily armed fort at the edge of the city. How was I to infiltrate the fort? Then an idea popped into my head, quite a rudimentary one, but the kind I figured that just might work. I picked up an item from the woman and made my way towards the building.
Arriving at the fort I took care not to be seen by the guards, slipping from shadow to shadow, hugging the wall. I headed towards the rear of the building. None of the undead soldiers or pirate ruffians watched here which suited me just fine. I quickly removed my helm and tied a long rope (the item I'd gotten from the mother) to one of the horns, knotting it twice. Then with a great heave I threw it up and into an open window.
Giving it a tug I found to my satisfaction that it held quite nicely. Now, would it retain my weight? With a sigh I gripped the rope and tentatively climbed up. My eyes often glanced over my shoulder anxious over the possible approach of sentries and I had to take it slow lest I destabilize the rope and fall. However fortune shined on me as I reached the window and leapt inside the room with a single bound.
I untied my helmet and placed it back on my head, abandoning the rope. The room I occupied was a tiny bedchamber. Hearing voices I smoothly slumped to the floor and rolled under the bed. Two pirates stepped into the room for a few minutes. They muttered about the witch and the moogle, about the imminent death of the former and the detainment of the latter.
To my immense delight (and unexpected fortune) they mentioned how Matoya was being taken to a hill outside the building. There she would be tied to a stake and incinerated by flames brought forth by the wizard's own hands. I instantly knew why Astos had chosen this particular demise for her. The sorceress despised being considered a witch of the dark arts, the kind that were often burned in any civilized city.
It would be much easier affair to allow the witch to die and use Astos's distraction to steal the cube away. But, as you probably figured at this point, I wasn't about to do that.
After they left I hurried down the marble staircase. Master Kupo's life didn't appear to be in immediate danger so I sought to locate Astos before he burned Matoya. As more of the dark wizard's minions entered the rooms I was in I quickly took shelter behind whatever curtain, furniture or pillar was at my disposal. I supposed a more courageous knight would have slain all manner of these vile creatures but I am only one man.
And I still had a High God to confront and defeat.
Just as I paradoxically feared and hoped Matoya was with the dark elf. Her dark eyes were wide, frightened. Her hands were bound and she was gagged, likely to keep her spells at bay. A stake had been erected on a mound of earth next to a fountain and the two of the wizard's minions (my former pirate companions) were already hard at work tying the witch to it.
The significance of the torment of running water whilst one burned was not lost on me. Astos was truly a sadistic man.
Pushing back his black, silver-stitched robes, Astos chanted in a language vaguely familiar to me. My own eyes expanded like coins as I realized what he was casting. Without a thought to my own safety, and the advantage of surprise abandoned, I swung out my sword and leapt towards him.
"So good of you to finally join us, Warrior of Light," mocked the dark wizard as he spun around to face me. Azure energy crackled from his fingertips and shot towards me. I twisted in mid-air, narrowingly missing it. As I dropped back to earth, more violent energies surged at me. Ducking and jumping I evaded them barely.
"I knew you would find me and the witch." When the former pirates would have engaged in the melee he waved them off, clearly toying with me. Again and again he unleashed bolts of blue at me, forcing me into an entirely defensive routine. "You are so kind to give me the joy of seeing your face as she burns."
My jaw unhinged as I watched the dark wizard extend a hand to Matoya. Flames burst from his palm and encircled the witch. Her scream knifed me like no sword could.
"You will die for that, wizard!" I yelled, dashing at him. "With the Light I shall smite thee!"
My fury got the best of me. This time, I did not dodge his magical assault.
The same flames that was consuming Matoya engulfed me. Letting out an instinctive howl of pain I fell to a knee; just as the witch I was a literal human torch. Now Astos let his cronies have a go at me and they gleefully joined the fight. Seeing easy prey they attacked simultaneously, blade and axe both descending towards my head.
Forcing myself to my feet I blocked them both at the same time; the axe with a shield and a sword with my own sword. I was screaming all the while the fires rose from my armor and cape. I knew I must be a terrifying sight as a man in my shape should be rolling on the ground not in the midst of combat.
I kicked the sword-armed pirate back so I could deal with the other pirate more permanently. Slapping the flat of my blade against my shoulder, it caught fire as I suspected it would and this I drove into the gut of the pirate. His insides charred while still in his body. With a shriek he fell to the grass and almost immediately died.
The other pirate took one look at me and fled. No accounting for fealty from one as fickle as a pirate I suppose. I took this moment to quickly cup some water and splashed it over me, extinguishing the flames. Hauling off my helm I dunked it in hoping to get a generous portion of water so I could douse the witch too.
However I might have guessed that the dark elf would give me scare a moment to breathe. He withdrew a wand, aimed at me and a bolt of crimson lightning struck me full in the chest. I flew backwards a good two dozen feet, colliding with the stone wall of the fort. My sword fell to the ground at my side. Light burst before my eyes, which was pretty ironic for one such as me.
The wizard snickered and cackled and casually stepped over to me. His boot met me squarely in the face, breaking my nose. I gave an agonized cry and slumped to my side. Astos said, cold in malice, "You forget, dear warrior, that I now possess the seeing orb. I understand you better than a mother or a lover could."
Pressing his wand against my back Astos transmitted electric charges that seared my skin, eliciting moans of pain from me. To add insult to injury he chattered on about my slavery to Sephiroth, my hopeless quest to kill Shinryu and my heart divided by two women who were truly one. Though he didn't fully understand how I could be a tool for war or how Sarah and Cosmos could the one and the same Astos enjoyed tormenting me anyways by mentioning it.
"And your lady...I will savour destroying her, giving her to my torturers to visit upon her what they did to you..."
A shudder took my limbs and not solely attributed to the shocks Astos sent through my nerves. I had barely survived that hell; if Sarah felt even a minute of that it would shatter my soul. My eyes drifted to the wizard's neck where he'd adorned the pendant I'd gifted to my lady. His own eyes gleamed as he drove the wand as deeply into my skin as it would go.
Letting out a screech, I pushed through the pain. Knocking the wand back I lifted my sword and before the wizard could cast another spell I lodged the blade into his throat. Those laughing eyes twisted with terror. I yanked the sword free. With a gurgle of what I surmised was pain and disbelief he flopped to the ground.
Shaking I stood. The little leftover currents of magic made my muscles twitch painfully but my face hardened, resolute, as I calmly stepped away from the wizard. Matoya needed me desperately. I hurried to her side, patting the flames away, what little remained anyways. Her body was half-charred.
"You came for me, brave knight," she was saying between burnt lips.
"Shhh," I said, holding her gently, "You shouldn't talk. I'll get a white mage. You'll be fine in no time."
The slight shifting of her head was indicative of a negative. "It is too late and I am weary of this world anyways." When I would have gone for help, her hand weakly gripped mine. "Please stay with me until...until the gentle goddess calls me to her side."
Goddess? But I had no time to ponder as the witch was fading fast.
"I am sorry," I said softly. Tears brimmed my eyes.
"Don't be. It is my time." Her eyes shined, as if it weren't death that awaited but rather a festival of sorts. "You must go and save your lady. But do me a favour before you go...call me 'm'lady' and kiss my hand as I die. I always wanted a knight to do that." The cough that racked her body would rend skin from bone.
Choking I took her burnt hand lightly and drew my lips along the skin. "My lady."
By the time I lifted my head from her hand she was gone.
I located the moogle in the basement, locked in a tiny cell. He refused to leave my side the moment I found him. There appeared no wounds upon him and he was unguarded. After I'd slain the dark wizard few of his minions decided to remain. After burying Matoya with her seeing orb, obtained after a quick rummage through Astos's belongings, I took the pendant off the dark wizard and went to get the cube. It was in a chest I unlocked by bashing the hilt of my sword against said lock.
The next two days were a blur. Though weakened by all my ordeals I felt obliged to assist in digging ditches for bodies, doing some repairs and killing the few undead and pirates that lingered. It was with some comfort that I realized that the vast majority of the violence visited upon this city was the result of the walking dead, not the pirates. Still, I'd brought them to this continent after all, and though I could not rightly be blamed for their actions, guilt plagued me anyways.
But strangely enough the citizens had fared well, most taking shelter (the numbers I'd seen earlier were not nearly as many as those who'd lived here apparently) or fleeing. Stranger still several of them insisted that I looked like one of their ancestors and a few even treated me with reverence. I was shocked and tried my best (unsuccessfully) to dissuade them of their awe.
Standing before a vehicle they'd called the hovercraft on the third day I spent the better part of a half hour speaking with one of the citizens. The elderly fellow tried to explain how startlingly similar I was with the one known as Professor Cid.
"You don't realize how important he is to our history," he was saying, checking the engine in the hovercraft. For freeing them from the oppression of the dark wizard they'd insisted I'd take the hovercraft for my journey. "Or how much you resemble him."
"A coincidence," I said. My ill-mannered chocobo had already been loaded on the vessel, making snarling sounds. I ignored him. "I know no one named Cid."
"Cid had a son..." The man's white robed arms flew up to my face. "Are you him?"
I pushed the man's hands down. "I..." Recollection of my conversation with Sephiroth, of the fragmented memories with Cosmos, over my origins, brought fresh pain with this line of discussion. "I don't know. I don't think so. But if I should somehow survive my trial I will return and we can talk further. I would like to know who I am..."
At this point Master Kupo attempted to climb into the hovercraft but I gently pulled him back. "No, Master Kupo, here we part...for a while. I must travel alone."
The moogle jumped up and down in his displeasure. "Kupo! Kupo! Kupo!"
Somehow I understood what he meant. Lowering to a knee I looked straight into his beady eyes. "The chocobo goes with me because the hovercraft cannot take me through the forest that's in the direction I am going." In a sudden burst of inspiration I embraced the little creature. He was easily as furry and warm as any feline. "I trust you to keep these people safe."
Though a bit deflated Master Kupo gave me a little sound of agreement.
"Good," I said, standing. "I'm counting on you." Then I turned to the Lufenian man. "Thank you again for all your generosity. If I am able I will visit, promise."
"You will return," the man said, smiling.
I fired up the engines and was soon on my way.