Courage and Strength Chapter 5
By Meriko Robert
Freya poked her head into a crevasse and then jerked her head back immediately. Not having seen anything nor smelled anything amiss, she glanced into the opening again and then cautiously stepped forward. She explored the winding fissure in the mountain of the Fire Shrine for a few minutes, but then turned back after only a short while. The passageways were jagged rock, icy cold to the touch, and quite dry. The entrance to the fissure itself was packed with crumbling snow, which did not answer to the descriptions she had read of in the book that had directed them thus far. It was mid-morning, and after several hours already of searching and nearly half the mountain's face explored, the fabled gemstones did not seem to be any nearer to hand than they had been a month ago.
Coming out into the shadow of the mountain once more, she glanced about and found Sir Fratley climbing towards her in quick, short leaps from the larger cavern that he had just finished exploring. She tilted her head at him inquiringly, but he shook his head. Once within speaking distance, he called out, "None of the caverns I explored seemed likely. But I think we are close." Pointing back towards the way he had come, he indicated the caverns he had chosen to explore, which were scattered across the lower half of the shadowy side of the mountain. "There, along the edge of the shade, were some small caves that wound along for some time as usual, and then grew markedly heated. The ones directly below us were quite frozen."
"So perhaps the cavern we seek is just beyond those there, in the sunlight." Freya noted with a nod. Rather than answer, Fratley simply inclined his head down the mountain and began leading the way back down, jumping from various ledges and outcroppings of rock as easily as a human child might skip along paving stones.
The sun had not yet gained the high point of the sky when Freya finally found something of note. After calling her companion over, she resumed examining the entrance to a large cavern she had discovered.
Like the others scattered high about the northeastern side of the mountain, this crevasse breathed warm air from its maw, indicating that their depths were connected in some manner to the lava that flowed within. They all had rocky patches in front of them as the heat slowly melted a clearing in the ice and snow that bound the mountain from top to bottom. However, this cavern in particular had a strange, slick icepatch forming within the cleared area, fed by a slowly trickling stream of the same slimy liquid.
It had the appearance of water, but moved with all the sluggishness of chilled oil, and the oddity of finding a frozen puddle forming in front of the heated cave had further caught Freya's eye. There was also a strange, coppery tang to the stuff that made her uneasy somehow.
Sir Fratley stood by her side for a moment, examining the rivulet leading from the cavern that fed the ever-expanding puddle, and then stepped inside the opening to have a quick look about. After a minute or so, he returned and then said, "I think you have found it, Lady Freya."
She nodded in reply, but slowly, as if reluctant, and it caught his attention.
"What troubles you?"
After a thoughtful frown, she suddenly blurted, "It has been nagging at my mind for a few hours now...if there were records of this gemstone deposit including its location as well as how and when one might come to claim it, it seems to me that the taking of one of these gems should not be so easy."
"Easy, Lady Freya?" Fratley returned with mild surprise. "You are more hardy than I thought, if you think the fruits of our labor during the past six months have been simply won."
She shook her head and replied, "No, but what is there here that we have not been able to face with hope of success? Surely these gems are of value enough that kings and queens before ours must have given thought to retrieving one or more, and the dangers here are no more than a small company of soldiers might have been able to overcome."
"There are treasures enough already unearthed to occupy the minds of rulers all over the world," Fratley noted, "without their having to dig through archives and earth to find new ones."
"Perhaps," Freya conceded, and then added, "Still, this simple task to walking up and taking the stone in hand strikes me as oversimple." The lurid descriptions of danger and the missing pages from their guide floated in her mind's eye like shades trying to warn of danger. She tried to shake them off, dismissing them as manifestations of nerves. Fratley spoke once more, and she focused on his voice to further settle herself to the completion of their task.
"Not all worthy treasures are guarded appropriately. Do not call trouble, for it finds us often enough without invitation."
She gave a laugh at that, and replied, "True enough, Sir Fratley."
The lava flowed steadily through the tunnels and caverns, sometimes bubbling up in a small cave like a molten spring, and sometimes emptying out into a gorge like a fiery waterfall. All throughout the mountain's veins and arteries, the volcano's hot blood pulsed, filling every crack that it poured into. There was only one series of caverns that the lava did not fill, by the grace of being situated near the very top of the mountain's upper rim, and its lengthy, winding chambers and passageways being out of the lava's creeping, flowing reach. Molten rock yearned upwards through the cracks and crevasses that led to the caverns, but from many yards away, instead pouring out and down into a deep, never-filled lake. Only heat rose upwards without any concern for gravity, and it was this ever present heat that kept the ice wraiths trapped within their lofty, lonely caverns.
They filled the caverns with their unearthly shrieks, constantly shifting and stirring, restless and mad from the day they were hatched until the day they died. Long, knobby limbs with pale, leathery hides stretched over them were constantly stretched, pushed into their fellows, and then retracted as irritated hisses and snarls met the intrusion. They gnashed the rocks of their ever-expanding caverns with long, diamond-hard fangs. They clung to the ceilings and walls and floors and each other with cruel claws, and flew short, clumsy, cramped flights wherever a breath of space could be found to fly in. And they bred, and bred, and bred, each female filled to bursting with eggs and young that devoured her from the inside out, until the caverns could hold them no longer, and they spilled down into the tunnels that led to the burning waterfall. And there, in the chain of heated chimneys, they screamed and shrieked and clawed their neighbors to death as they tried to escape the rising heat. Their bodies would hiss and steam as the cold air they exuded fought with the superior might of the volcano's breath, and all year long, but for one day, the ice wraiths' population would be checked.
All year long, but for one day, the ice wraiths fought and clawed and gnashed and bred and died. And on that one day, those that slid and were pushed down the chimney lived just a little bit longer on the way down. And those that died first lengthened the life of those that followed just a bit longer with the frost from their bodies. And so on, and so on, until the ice wraiths began to pour down the tunnels, leathery wings tucked close to their bodies as they plummeted down the long-forbidden paths, the ones in front screaming and dying and paving the roads with their frost, heeding some buried instinct to push on, and on. And so on, and so on, twisting through tunnels, turning back from hot ones, and pouring into cooling ones, until the one path to the outside of the mountain had been cleared, and the ice wraiths could explode into the snowy air to glut themselves on ice and salt water and snow, to prepare for another year of seclusion in their cavern, killing each other and breeding up new kin.
That day was near. That day was now. A bulging ice wraith stumbled near the flue upon another wraith, and immediately received a tearing blow from an angry claw. She struck back, the full weight of her torn, pregnant belly bearing down upon her attacker, but her oily, icy blood was everywhere and in every nose, and she was soon lost in the frenzy that ensued. Her unrecognizable remains slid down the chimney, followed by some dozens of her unborn kits, leaving behind a trail of frozen gore. Two or three of her attackers followed her down to their deaths, and others sniffed at the tunnel they had rashly gone down.
The sniffing ones were jostled by the ever-restless mass of their kindred, and some fought, while some were struck down and sent flying down the tunnel as well. More bodies fell, some flailing out, some attempting to fly, and some already dead. At the edge of the cavern, more sniffing ones replaced the ones that had gone down.
More and more misty white shapes began to fly down the tunnel, with the living now outnumbering the slain and the rivers of frozen blood paving the way. More and more ice wraiths dared the tunnel, the cooling tunnel, the not-hot tunnel, and the dormant idea, the dream, the memory of ice and snow and water began to stir in the colony. Even those kits that had never smelled the outside air began to salivate for salt water and ice, real ice, not blood ice as the idea of Outside began to move through the pack, as silently and surely as any hive-mind communicated a thought. Now wraiths fought to go down the chimney that they had fought to stay out of mere days ago. The lava was receding. The tunnels were cooling with the blood of their kindred. The day was here.
Torch in hand, Fratley put one cautious hand on the rocky edges of the cavern and looked back at Freya from several feet within.
"The rocks are warm, but not unbearably so," he noted. "And there is a cold wind blowing out in addition to this odd stream chilling the floor. The record was right. Whether magic or not I do not know, but the tunnel is being cooled."
Freya stepped up to his side and let the bitter air ruffle her hair and clothing for a moment before replying. "Well, whether magic or not, it will not wait for us," she finally said. "There is only one hour's time in which to find the gems. Let us proceed as far as we can, at least."
Holding their lances at an angle so as not to mar the tips against the low ceiling, the two Knights began threading their way through the cavern.
The wraiths were nearly wall-to-wall now, with claws digging into rock and flesh with equal ferocity in the rush for open air, their maddened minds uncaring of whether or not they injured their kindred. The wraiths climbing over the walls suffered the most, as the creatures in the center of the passageways clawed at them in order to better propel themselves along, and frenzied wings slashed open flesh nearly as often as they cut through the air.
The icy blood that led the way down the ever-falling floor was now a river that reached from one side of the passage to the other, further propelled along by the bodies that thudded to the ground and then slid forward, weight and the slickness of the liquid aiding gravity.
Faster and faster the bodies slid and the pale blood flowed, and faster came the survivors, frosting the cooling caverns with their own bodies and breath. The lava receded, the rocks cooled, and the ever-strengthening scent of the salt sea lured the wraiths from their shelter like a siren.
The thin rivulets by their feet were suddenly met with a rush of freezing cold liquid, as if a miniature dam had broken somewhere beyond the range of the feeble torchlight and sent this small river rushing down the sloping floor. It was followed by a renewed gust of air that ruffled their hair and clothing and set their noses to stinging with a strange, metallic scent. On the wind came also a strange noise...almost like the shrieks of a storm beating around the eves of a house, oddly misplaced here in this cavern.
The unease that had haunted Freya momentarily at the entrance suddenly came strong upon her once more. In the same instance, three things happened.
Freya said in a rapid, nervous manner, "I think we should..."
And Fratley's voice overlaid hers, asking, "Do you hear..."
And the wraiths burst upon them.
Everything seemed to explode.
He heard Freya cry out to him in alarm just as the torch he held before him shattered into a thousand embers, the bright flare of light accompanied by the sound of unnerving shrieks and screams from all around him. A brief glimpse of pale white forms flitting past, and then darkness swallowed them up. Bodies collided around and into him, and he instinctively pressed up against the wall to guard his back while striking out in front of him with the remains of the torch and his lance. But as uncountable claws dug into him, he deserted his spot and began running with the flow of bodies, shouting at Freya to do the same.
All was chaos around him for a frantic few minutes as he fought to get ahead of the creatures, slashing at them with his lance and fighting for every foothold that he could possibly gain in the icy, slippery cavern. Just ahead of him and to his left, he caught glimpses of Freya at the very forefront of the pack in the dim light that grew stronger as they neared the entrance. She seemed to be taking rather short leaps, gaining only the bare minimum distance to keep from being swallowed up in the beating wings, and Fratley saw that she was purposefully staying close in order to beat as many of the creatures down as possible in order to clear the way for him.
Her frantic efforts bore fruit just a few seconds later as Fratley finally fought his way forward and then kept just ahead of the silvery, shrieking wraiths that hounded him. No longer slowed down by wings buffeting him from all sides and claws ripping at his clothes and weapon, he fairly flew down the frozen passageway until he spotted a fork in the cave system. Gambling on the guess that the wraiths would follow the slick trail of ice that he now knew was the blood of their own, he headed for the side passage, shouting for Freya to follow him.
He dug his claws into the rock and ice just before the branching and darted into the darker space, and then whirled around to ask if Freya had taken any serious injury.
She was not there.
Fratley stood stunned for a moment, and then leapt for the opening to the main tunnel once more, but had to jerk back as the wave of wraiths suddenly rushed past, making of themselves an impenetrable wall of wings and limbs. A stray claw struck at him, tearing his left ear into bloody shreds and wringing from him a startled oath.
The wraiths were flying down the tunnels so quickly that it was only a minute or so before the pack began to thin. Careless of his own safety, Fratley edged out into the main tunnel once more and peered up and down the passageway, beating aside random wraiths in an almost absent manner, the bulk of his concentration being given over to his searching. The mass of creatures blocking the weak light from the entrance soon scattered and were gone, leaving the Dragoon Knight in a surreal stillness after the crazed noise and motion. He turned his head left and right, straining to see in the dimness, and had to stop a moment to wipe away the blood that streamed from his ear down into his eyes.
Blinking blearily, he shook away the blood from his hand and then stopped and stared at the ice-slicked ground. The wraith blood had crystallized somewhat and now refracted the light a thousandfold, making of the floor a glittering, slushy carpet. On that strange footing, the scattered drops of his own blood bloomed like black roses, and right down the center ran a thick dark stripe. Fratley let his bloodied hand fall to his side as he frowned at stared at the inky swath in the ice, and as he watched, it grew longer...inching its way down the ice as gravity pulled it...glittering a dark red as it reached the sunlight straining into the cavern.
He lunged back up the passage as soon as he recognized the warm, dark blood for what it was, his feet slipping on the uncertain surface and his voice echoing off of the rocky walls as he shouted, "Freya!" The third calling of her name died in his throat as he spied a large shadow from which the blood flowed, as if it were a small lake that fed the red river.
Carefully wrapping his arms around the body lying on the slimy ice, he called her once again, his voice tentative and hushed this time.
A faint moan reached his ears, and an arm suddenly flailed upwards from the vague shadow under his face to grab clumsily at his sleeve, giving him reference as to how she lay.
"Hold on," he urged in a whisper, and gathered her as carefully as he could in his arms, trying not to disturb her. He wove a quick succession of general, sustaining magics about her as he lifted her, calling upon spell after spell until he was drained. After making certain that he had her secure, the Dragoon Knight turned and ran back to the opening where there would be light enough to look over her wounds.
He sped down the ice, digging his feet in to slow himself only when he seemed in danger of crashing into one of the walls, and reached the bottom in less than a tenth of the time it had taken for them to climb up. Sliding down onto his knees at the very end, he immediately laid the unconscious Freya down on the nearest snowbank, as a softer and more appropriate sickbed than the frozen blood of their foes, and then shrugged off his pack while raking her over with his eyes.
His hands worked automatically, opening bottles of potions to renew his magical abilities and restore some of the blood she had lost, but his heart seemed to cringe and sink as he catalogued her injuries. Just as on his own body, there were myriad short slashes and jagged tears in both her clothing and her skin. But where his greatest damage was merely a ripped ear, Freya's worst wound extended from just below her breastbone, down and across her left side to where her ribs ended.
Fratley gripped one of the potions so tightly that the glass shattered in his hands, startling him. Jarred from his horrified triage, he gritted his teeth and set to work determinedly. She would live. She had lost a great amount of blood and the deep wound had damaged her badly but he was capable of stabilizing her.
He would not let this woman die.
A nerve-wracking ten minutes later, the empty, glazed look lifted from Freya's eyes and she finally recognized him once more. Her bloodshot eyes roved in some confusion from the Knight still working busily over her to the bloody snow around her, and then as she tried to lift her head to peer at her wound, Fratley finally noticed her return to the land of the living.
She parted her lips as if to speak, but only a faint whisper of air came out.
"You are gravely injured," Fratley informed her, "but you shall survive."
A frown creased her forehead and she tried again. "Where?" she managed to rasp out.
Guessing that she was disoriented, Fratley said, "We are at the entrance to the cavern. You were struck down by a wraith without my realizing it, and when the creatures had passed, I returned for you. It is all right, Freya. I found you quickly. You shall heal."
Contrary to his expectations, her frown only deepened, and a purely distressed look came into her eyes. She shook her head as much as her feeble state allowed and said in shallow, broken whispers, "Why...what...are you...doing..."
He met this unanswerable question with yet another healing spell, this one aimed at knitting together new flesh. It was one of seven different spells that he had been casting approximately one minute apart, healing her as completely and quickly as he could without pushing himself into a stroke. While he was so occupied, Freya rolled laboriously onto her right side, propping herself up on one elbow and glaring at him. As Fratley somewhat wearily drank down another restorative drink, she asked, "How long...have you been...tending me here?"
The last word ended on a harsh cough, and Fratley's answer was delayed somewhat as he watched her retch up clots of blood into the already reddened snow by her side. Now that she was awake, he caught up the cloak he had shed and tried to place it around her shoulders, but she caught one of his wrists and glared up at him.
"Ten minutes, Freya. No more than that," he finally answered, wondering at her strange insistence and mood. "Now lie down."
He stared in shock as she actually slapped away his hand in a burst of energy and then ground out one emphatic word before falling into another coughing fit.
He had forgotten.
Shaking his head to dispel the moment's surprise and dismay, he took advantage of the injured Knight's weakened state and simply pushed her back down into the snow, cradled now in his cloak. She was his immediate concern. "Freya," he said in a soothing tone, but then sighed in exasperation as she struggled back up. "Lie still!" He nearly barked this last out as a command, frustrated by her refusal to be quiet. Didn't she understand that she was at Death's door?
He looked into her eyes.
She was sitting up once more, her entire body trembling with the exertion, and staring him down. She was a seasoned warrior with countless miles of travel under her belt and the blood of thousands of enemies on her lance. With his aimless, memory-less wanderings factored in, it was likely that she actually had the greater field experience than he.
So she knew full well what such a deep abdominal wound meant. She knew also her own body's limits and resources. And she knew that restorative spells would need to be cast upon her body every few moments for several hours at least, and though the frequency could be lessened over the next few days, unceasing vigilance would still be necessary for so dire a wound.
Freya had long ago mastered the necessary spells as part of her novitiate, and there were potions in her knapsack enough to keep her magical abilities up, but they both knew that there was no enchantment nor substance in the world that would allow her the strength and endurance to treat herself of such an injury instead of another. Left alone, Freya would be dead within twenty minutes.
She drew a careful breath and whispered, her voice weak and thin but the force and determination behind them clear. "We've Journeyed six months...searched this continent for an entire season...hoping for this one chance. The King has commanded you to find that jewel...you will not...not fail in your duty now. GO!"
He stared down at her for just a moment more, at this pale, bloody, ghastly shade commanding him with such unimagined authority. Was this his Freya, then? The stripling Novice he'd tutored and taught, was she this angry Dragoon, glaring at him with outraged eyes and absolutely daring him to disobey her order? The woman he'd once thought of as overly emotional and perhaps even selfish, was she this desperately wounded and desperately precious person who was now dragging herself upright before his very eyes when she ought not to have even been conscious, and reminding him of his duty to king and kingdom? Such courage! Such strength and unswerving devotion to her duty! The Novice was tutoring the Mentor now, in the ways of a true Knight. Surely there was only one course for him now; to follow the example she set for him.
Closing his eyes to the terrible, awesome sight of her, he nodded once and then jumped up and ran towards the cavern.
Freya waited, trembling, just until he'd finally disappeared beyond the shadows of the tunnel, and then let loose the coughing spasm she'd been holding back, spilling forth a great gout of blood from her torn lungs. Even as she gripped tighter the pack with its restorative potions, overwhelming pain drew a great darkness over Freya's mind, and she fainted.
Keep going, ignoring the fear clawing at his heart, ignoring the bloody visions of her that menaced his mind's eye, ignoring the voice shouting and demanding that he turn around and save her...save the woman who was even now breathing her last breath and bleeding her last drop of blood onto the rocky soil. Keep going, for it was his duty as a Knight, to fulfill his mission, to complete the Journey, to return to the King with the gemstone that they had searched for and fought for...and that she was dying for. Keep going, because she had told him to, no commanded him to. Commanded him to be a Knight, a Dragoon, the Sir Fratley that she had so long admired and acclaimed...and loved.
He stopped suddenly, his feet slipping slightly on the gore-slicked floor, and looked over his shoulder toward the entrance. His face was twisted into a mask of pain, both at the certainty of Freya's death, and the unfamiliar indecision that tore at him. The Knight turned his shoulder as well as his head then, with achingly uncertain slowness, and it seemed as if his upper body were trying to force his legs to follow it back to the entrance.
A fellow Knight had reminded him of his duty to the King. He had to go on. It was what she wanted...for him to serve the King and not his own interests. It was what he had taught her. He had to put aside his personal concerns and her personal safety in favor of their duty as a Dragoon. The duty they both shared. That was what she wanted...
These thoughts jumbled together in his mind...images of Freya, the king, Cleyra...her voice echoing in his mind, first telling him that she loved him, and then shouting at him to leave her to die...and thoughts of his duty, of himself...the Dragoon, the Mentor, the one she looked up to and honored and loved...she loved him for his sworn loyalty and unswerving dedication, for being the type of absolute Knight who would leave her to die and fulfil his duty, just as she told him to do...
...just as he would have told her to do had it been he that lay dying.
And the image came into his mind then, switching her broken body for his, and his anxious eyes for her clear blue ones. And he heard himself give the same order...to leave him and do her duty and go on to retrieve the gemstone for the King.
All this time, the Dragoon Knight had remained frozen, half turning back, half moving onward, now locked in place as his mind struggled between duty and another Dragoon for the very first time in his remembered life. Suddenly, Fratley blinked, and the vision in his mind's eye vanished. All traces of doubt and hesitation fell from his body in that same instant, and he dug his feet into the icy ground and began running as fast as he could. With his decision made and his mind clear once more, his steps were not hindered by doubt, and did not falter as he sped along the tunnel with his purpose fixed clear in his mind.
Final Fantasy 9 Fanfic