Fiction Fragment Fridays: Returning Hope (Chapter 1 – Part 2)

For your reading pleasure, here is the second part of Final Fantasy: Returning Hope, Chapter One. This part is a bit long because I want to break up the parts of the story into chunks that are easy to read, rather than cutting them up in the middle of scenes.

Warning: there may be profane language in the following excerpt.

Reminder: you can see the previous posts of this story by choosing “Final Fantasy: Returning Hope” from the Categories drop-down banner on the left side of the blog.

Terra - M-Tek (Front)Vicks - M-Tek (Front)Vicks - M-Tek (Front)
*Spites via http://www.videogamesprites.net*

Approaching the mining town, the soldiers’ ears met only sounds associated with steam power. All around them machinery popped, hissed, and belched puffs of smoke, but not a single person was to be seen anywhere. It was not likely that their approach had gone unnoticed. Three sets of Magitek armor made a fair bit of clamor.

“Let’s put her on point,” Wedge suggested, gesturing at the woman, “No point in taking any risks.”

In a v-formation with the woman at the front, they moved steadily yet cautiously into the center of town. The din of wind, steam, and machinery was everywhere, but the lack of living creatures was unnerving. There were lights shining through the curtains of many houses, yet no shadows moved within. If there were any humans tucked away in those buildings, they weren’t making themselves known.

Somewhere nearby came the unmistakable sound of rocks being kicked off of a ledge. Biggs and Wedge turned quickly, but it all happened so fast that they almost missed it. A very large dog that may have easily been a wolf jumped from a bridge spanning two buildings to their left. Teeth bared, a growl on it’s lips, the great grey beast hurled itself straight toward the woman’s throat. Unfortunately for the canine, the mysterious woman’s reflexes were unmatched. Even knowing to watch for the reaction, one could scarcely have seen her move. Before Biggs, Wedge, or the wolf-dog knew what was happening, a startlingly violent flash of flame erupted from the front of the woman’s armor. A yelp rang out through the dark town and the poor beast collapsed to the ground in a scorched, stinking heap.

A strangled cry burst from the shadows to the left, presumably from the owner of the recently deceased guard dog.

“Biggs!” Wedge yelled, “Over there!” He raised his right cannon arm towards the noises.

“Over here too!” Biggs responded, glimpsing movement to his right.

“For Narshe!” a strong voice bellowed from behind them.

The altercation was a short one. Though the miners were plentiful and determined, they also wore very little in the way of bodily protection and carried no weapon more powerful than a hunting rifle. Between the disturbingly fast skills of their point-woman and cover fire from Biggs and Wedge, soon the ground was littered with two dozen men and another handful of curiously large canines.

“Retreat!” someone screamed, and the remaining miners took of in several different directions.

Biggs made to give chase to a larger group scrambling up a hillside, but Wedge held him back. “Let them go. Our source said the esper was found in a new mine shaft.” He pointed towards a grouping of mine entrances at the far end of the mountain town. One had wooden braces which looked much newer than the others.

With a last longing glance towards his quickly escaping prey, Biggs grumpily followed Wedge and the woman into the fresh mine shaft. The rocky passageway had been masterfully excavated; it was easily wide enough that, had they wanted to, they could have walked side by side. The bracing was such that the shaft might easily stand for a hundred years. Humming lights lining the walls suggested that there had been work going on here very recently, if it wasn’t still going on.

There were two adjoining passageways, so they took the one that looked as though it went deeper. But before they’d gone very far at all they were blocked by a messily boarded up doorway that looked very much like it had been hastily constructed within the past half hour.

“I’ll handle this,” Biggs offered, raising one of his mechanical arms. The arm hummed and whirred; the cuff around the ‘wrist’ spun, pulling the metal hand back through the arm to be quickly replaced by a long, thin missile. “Stand back!” Biggs demanded, and the woman compliantly stepped to one side. With a squeal and a flash the missile was released, and with one explosive burst of energy the makeshift door was reduced to scrap.

As the dust began to clear, a distinctive coughing could be heard from the uncovered room.

“We won’t just hand over the esper!” a hoarse voice cried, “Destroy them, Whelk!”

The rock ground, walls, and ceiling began to tremble. Biggs and Wedge took a surprised step backwards as the passageway filled with an enormous creature the likes of which they’d never seen. It’s body was a massive spiral shell that shined and shimmered in the meager mine light. Bulging out from underneath the shell was an immense slug-like creature. It’s flesh was thick, brown, and extremely slimy, and two huge eye stalks swiveled horrifically on the top of what must have been it’s head.

Without thinking, Biggs quickly loaded another missile into his Magitek arm, “I’ll take care of this fucking monster!”

“No, wait!” Wedge cried, but a moment too late. The missile impacted upon the creature’s shell. Biggs grinned at the shrieking squeal it emitted, but his face quickly dropped. The clearing dust revealed no physical damage to the shell, which was now suddenly glowing a bright white light which filled the mine.

“Get out of the way!” Wedge shoved at Biggs’ armor, almost tripping them both before they could steady themselves. Within a second of the push, a precisely directed bolt of lightning demolished the wall where Biggs’ head had just been.

“Shit!” Biggs screamed, “What the fuck?”

“I read about this thing,” Wedge explained quickly, “A lightning whelk. These things follow around storm systems, ‘eating’ lightning and storing the energy in their shells. Attacking the shell releases bursts of that stored energy.”

“Okay, okay!” Biggs yelled impatiently, “So we’ll attack the head then!”

They stepped forward together, but jumped back in surprise when the whelk screeched again and released several smaller bolts of electricity. All around them bits of wall exploded. The whelk’s eye stalks writhed maddeningly.

“On second thought,” Wedge grumbled to himself, “Hey, witch!” The woman was still standing silently to one side; she turned her head to Wedge’s voice. “Kill that thing!” he commanded.

The Magitek armor moved casually, as though it were going for a leisurely stroll. The woman moved to stand in front of the nightmarish whelk. Lightning crashed all around her but she didn’t even seem to notice, and miraculously did not get hit. The whelk looked down at her, eye stalks twisting as though it were confused as to how she’d gotten so close. It’s shell began to glow, but before a single volt could be released two huge mechanical hands reached up and grasped the creature’s thick, slimy neck. It screeched in alarm and it’s eye stalks bulged from the pressure. The Magitek hands squeezed tighter as gears began to turn and shift. Excluding the missile cannons in the arms, every weapon on the armor clanked noisily into place and aimed at the massive neck. Through it’s significantly compressed throat, the whelk let out a final echoing screech before it’s hide was sliced open by a barrage of fire, electricity, explosives, and blunt weaponry. Without any feelings of remorse, or even a real comprehension of what she’d done, the woman tossed the twitching head unceremoniously aside.

“Yes, well…I suppose that will do…” Wedge stammered. Biggs couldn’t reply, as his jaw was hanging clear open. “Let’s, um…let’s move on then, shall we?” A little sick to their stomaches at the gruesome display, the men nervously waved the woman forward.

They crept cautiously into the recently blocked-off cavern, but whoever had set the whelk on them had evidently decided he’d rather be elsewhere.

“Look!” Wedge hissed.

There, sitting at the back of the hollowed-out room, was a massive crystal of ice. Within it’s confines stood a being that neither Wedge nor Biggs would have ever been able to describe if they’d been asked. It’s enormous wings were wrapped around it like a cape as though it had been trying to warm itself in it’s last moments. The feathers had a magnificence that could never be put into words. It was as though every strand of down was singing a sad song of light and dark, peace and war. Biggs and Wedge were captivated by the feathers. The woman, however, was staring directly into the esper’s pure white eyes. They seemed to be staring resolutely into hers, examining her, trying to speak to her.

Without being prompted, the woman slowly climbed out of her Magitek armor and took a few tentative steps forward. Wedge caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and dragged his attention away from the singing feathers. “Hey!” he yelled, “Where do you think you’re going?”

As she continued to move slowly forward, the frozen creature began emitting an eerie light, as though a flickering candle was being reflected through the many facets of the ice crystal.

“What’s this?” Wedge exclaimed, “Where’s this light coming from?”

Biggs barely had time to turn to his comrade before there was a bone-chilling scream and Wedge vanished in a flash of light.

“W-Wedge?” Biggs exclaimed, “Wedge! Where are you? W-what’s happening?”

No one would ever know what Biggs saw at that moment, but if the woman had been looking at him she’d have seen his eyes go wide and his mouth open in silent horror before a second flash of light swept him away to join his comrade.

The woman was not, however, watching her fellow soldiers vanish into the light. She was hypnotized by those white eyes. Without moving or giving any kind of indication that it was even alive, the esper was boring into her soul, analyzing her, wordlessly interrogating her. The feathers were not only singing now…they were performing a lament the likes of which human ears have never heard, and never will. The glimmers of light coming through the ice were blinding, though she was unable to close her eyes against them.

Her lip quivered and all at once a million thoughts came rushing through her head, filling her mind with painful images that made no sense to her. She grasped her head and cried out, falling to her knees on the hard ground.

“Who are you?” she cried with a hoarse voice that had not been used in a very long time, “What do you know about me? Please! Tell me, who am I?”

And with a final flash of light, she lost consciousness and dropped to the ground.

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