Falling Through A Strangled Darkness
"On the road that I have taken,
one day, walking, I awaken,
amazed to see where I have come,
where I'm going, where I'm from.
This is not the path I thought.
This is not the place I sought.
This is not the dream I bought,
just a fever of fate I've caught."
----The Book of Counted Sorrows
She was drowning. Her body swirled and tossed within the violent rapids. Occasionally she would manage to thrust her head from below the depths and break through the churning surface of the water. She would gasp loudly as she sucked in oxygen for her burning lungs. Those breaks were becoming fewer and far between, as her strength ebbed away into the brackish river. Panic seized her mind, until all rational thought was completely gone, except for one solitary voice. And it managed a whispering echo in her ears.
"This is the part where you pray for a miracle, Rinoa."And with another intake of breath above the surface, she did.
Fate is a wicked two-sided coin sometimes; it will save you from drowning, only to dash you against the rocks. This thought somewhat registered as she tumbled flailing over the waterfall. She was ripped into the depths of the water below. The abyss was so deep she never touched the bottom. She managed to free herself from the undertow of the rushing water and brought herself above the surface once more as her arms found a floating tree branch, which bobbed up and down indifferently on the waves. The log drifted closer to the bank and she kicked feebly to reach it. The sand sifted through her fingers as she grabbed at it hand by hand to drag herself to the shore. She crawled onto land with trembling effort, partly from the dripping cold, mostly from the exhaustion. Her body was marred with bruises and stinging cuts that came from being tumbled among the rocks. The salt of the water did little to soothe them. When she had completely emerged out of the water, her body collapsed onto the sand and she retched violently. The oily water exited her lungs and splashed onto the sand forming small rivulets that twisted and turned on the grainy surface. Her throat was raw and sore as the coughing finally subsided. She rolled onto her back as her chest heaved graciously for the night air, sending oxygen coursing through her body. For a fleeting moment, her eyes closed, and she felt safe. She was exhausted, miserably drenched, freezing, and sore, but safe. Her eyelids drooped and sleep almost claimed her within its grasp. Her right arm fell loosely to the side. A clang of metal reverberated in her ears as the arm hit the ground. Her eyes opened and refocused themselves to the stars that filtered through the stretching branches of the treetops above. She sighed inwardly. Fate obviously wasn't through with her yet.
Rinoa stared at the object of torment wrapped around her wrist. It was a work of beautiful craftsmanship. Its shimmering sliver surface reflected the light of the full moon. Small blood red jewels smoldered along the center of the bracelet. They burned her even now. She couldn't remove the thing because of the blinding pain it caused when she tried. It felt like it was taking a part of her life away. A wave of anxiety hit her as she realized that she couldn't be exactly sure that it wasn't. Slowly, bit by bit, taking pieces, eating away at her till there was nothing left. She shook the thought away as primal instinct urged contemplation to take a back seat, there wasn't time for it. "It's a horrible fashion statement." Wit decided to take one last jab before it shut down completely. She turned and rolled slowly to her feet.
She found it difficult to stand as her body ached and pleaded with her to linger on the ground a few moments longer. The sodden threads of her knitted cloak weighted her down. Regretfully, she removed it. She cherished the old thing but realized it would only hinder her progress. The garment sailed through the air as she tossed it as hard as she could into the river, where she hoped it would sink, leaving no trace of her existence to be found. It hit the water with a noisy splash. The wings painted on the back of her blue cloak fluttered serenely on the water's surface as if to wave goodbye before the current dragged them from their flight down into the depths below. She dumped the water out of her shoes, amazed to find that they managed to stay on her feet. She was even more astonished to find her necklace still intact around her neck. Her feet slid back into the waterlogged boots and she crouched down at the river's edge. Carefully her hands dipped into the water as she washed the sand and blood from her body. "Blood will be easy to track."
"Then again," realization spoke up, feeling that it had a say-so in the matter, "They're going to find you anyway." Still, she had to try.
She cupped her hands again in the water and made ready to splash it on her face. The moon reflected in the self-made pool and she caught a glimpse of her own reflection. It quivered in the moonlight, becoming distorted amid the small ripples. She stared harder and watched as it shifted, becoming something else, something so horrible that she dropped it from her hands in terror. It spilled into the waters surface, becoming bigger. It smiled at her. She backed away from the waters edge.
"Who are you?"
Branches cracked in the distance to her left. It was all the incentive she required. She climbed the steep embankment and ran.
Darting clumsily she made her way through the forest tripping over dead limbs and rocks, and anything else her wet boots were able to seek out in the darkness. It was getting her nowhere fast and she knew she was making far too much noise. She stopped in her tracks and listened. For a moment she could hear nothing except the sound of her own heavy breathing and the blood rushing through her ears, then, another shift of leaves in the distance, closer than the last she'd heard. As quietly as possible, she pressed on forward. Her hand was held out before her in the darkness feeling her way through the shadows like a blind man.
Another sound approached her ears, a guttural and unearthly growl.
She remained still. It was close, though her ears were unable to recall how far. She placed her hand against a tree and guided herself to a position behind it. She curled her knees up to her chest; trying to control the tremors of her body, panic was the only word registering in her mind. "Calm down! Calm down! Calm down!" she screamed inside herself. She tried controlling her breathing taking in deep gulps of air only to find that it caused her to breath to become more rapid and ragged. Her heart pounded so hard against her ribs that the rings on her necklace clanked in time with its high-speed cadence. She snatched the rings and spun them around to the back of her neck. Her head leaned for support against the tree; her muscles became weak with fear. "So alone." Her eyes began welling up with tears.
"No! Don't fall to pieces now!" another voice inside her shouted, "You don't have time!"
Trying to regain composure she wiped furiously at the hot tears on her face. A breeze picked up around her, quivering the leaves hanging above her head. They rattled with quick succession. Her mind realized too late that it wasn't the wind.
The ground seemed to explode beneath her as she glided a few feet and then skidded against the ground. The tree she had been leaning on was ripped in half by tremendous jaws. Large jagged splinters flew in every direction. She tried scrambling to her feet but it was already upon her, pinning her to the ground, its jaws just inches away from her head. Rinoa stared up at her pursuer. It stood towering before her with three sets of fiery eyes that blazed into the center of her very soul.
"Cerberus, please," she pleaded with the guardian.
It said nothing to her. The center head parted its lips as another bowel shaking growl rose in its throat. Its hot and rancid breath steamed against her face, it was all she could do to fight the uncontrollable urge to gag. She shut her eyes tightly as the beast lifted its heads and let loose a howl so thunderous that shuttered the foundations of the trees.
Rinoa lost touch with her senses momentarily as her head was left spinning from the onslaught on her ears.
A flare went up in the distance illuminating the blackened forest like a swift and vanishing sun.
The hound had treed the prey for the hunters.
More flares ignited the sky as each of the hunting parties responded. They were coming.
She didn't want to die, not that way. Her mind searched frantically for a distraction. Eyes fell on the bracelet again, and the idea came to her. Tentatively she brought it up off the ground and enclosed her other hand around it. Cerberus growled again and bent its heads closer to further signify its threat. Rinoa took a deep breath, shut her eyes, latched her fingers around the bracelet, and yanked it with all her might.
Blinding red light burst forth from the Odine bangle. Cerberus reeled back onto his hind legs, confused and blinded. Searing pain coursed through her and she screamed. Her fingers lost their grip and she rolled over and crawled on her hands and knees out of the way of the thrashing guardian force. Its tail whipped around violently as it pawed at its eyes and roared furiously. She crawled quickly in the opposite direction, unable to see anything in front of her. As she brought down a hand to make contact with the ground it failed to find anything beneath it and dropped into nothing, taking the rest of her with it. For the second time, she was freefalling. About half way down her body made contact with the slopping precipice. She rolled down the surface until it dropped her with a "thud" at the bottom.
She opened her eyes sometime afterwards and brought herself to her feet again. Every inch of her was in pain. She looked skyward to discover a now full blanket of stars over her head. For some strange reason they gave her a sense of hope, as well as a little bit of light to her surroundings. She could see the hand in front of her face she realized. She followed through with the gesture waving her hand to and fro at eye level. From between her fingers she saw a field that would be all too familiar in the daylight. Fate could be such an ironic bitch too.
She made her way through the tall grass in a limping trot, never looking back. The old abandoned ruins of the orphanage loomed up ahead. Weary and nearly broken, she decided to take refuge there. She couldn't run anymore. Climbing through the debris she made her way to the door. It opened with a drudging groan. Dust leaped up with each step she took on the rotting wooden floor. Few rooms remained intact with all four walls. As she advanced she noticed a small bathroom in the far west corner. Turning towards it she hoped against hope for some running water. She stepped inside the doorway and was caught off guard by the figure standing at the back wall. She screamed in surprise and fell to the floor, a hand over her mouth. The figure did the same. It was a mirror. She laughed despite herself at her jumpiness. "What a mess I am. She looked at the dirt-ridden figure with hair matted around her face. To think, I'm even afraid of myself." The words echoed through her mind. Her smile died quickly.
She approached the mirror cautiously. Her reflection was shifting again, distorting and twisting hideously. She shook her head praying it was just her eyes playing tricks on her.
"Who are you?" Came a voice that rasped against the marrow of her bones. Rinoa trembled.
Her eyes opened toward the reflection again and she took a horrified step back.
The reflection smiled wickedly. Its eyes glowed with a yellow blaze.
"They're not mine!"
"Your not me!" she screamed at the mirror.
It laughed gleefully as it reached outward towards her, eyes burning with a fueling fire. They held something so destructive in them.
"So much... hate."
She took another step back.
For the first time she noticed her reflections hands were covered in blood. It flowed like raging waterfalls from its fingertips. It wasn't her blood, she realized, which horrified her even more. It was the blood of thousands, thousands of screaming men, women, and children all dying in absolute torment, by her hands. Her reflection laughed again and drenched itself in the red fluid wiping it across its face, licking it from its fingers in delight.
"Stop it!" Rinoa screamed. "It's not me!"
She looked down as the blood fell from her own hands.
Desperately she tried to wipe it off. Her reflection was still laughing hysterically. She ran out of the room as fast as her legs would take her, wanting nothing more than to get away from that thing, that reflection...of herself.
No, it was impossible, she thought. She wasn't capable of such things. Was she? She collapsed in a heap against a stone wall and wept bitterly, sobs wracking her entire frame. She wished she were anywhere right now, anywhere but in this place, with that thing in the other room. A warm light spread across her and she opened her eyes slowly. She turned to see a very familiar place, a familiar place she somehow couldn't recall. Stuffed animals lined the wall she sat against and a small bed sat under a long window in the far corner. The walls were decorated with pictures of dancers and crude, faded drawings done in crayon.
It was a child's room.
Yes, she remembered now.
A stuffed toy fell next to her foot and she lifted it off the floor. It was a moomba, tattered and worn from years of a child's love. She held it tightly against her as if it were the only lifeline holding her swaying back and forth over a dark, endless abyss. She reached out with her free hand and touched the linen on the bed, her fingertips glided idly across the surface as memories flooded her like a tidal wave.
Placing her head against the cool surface of the mattress she closed her eyes.
My name is Rin-o-a
It's nice to meet ya,
I live at 214
The song ricocheted through her mind in a child's singsong voice. She remembered it well.
I'd thank you kindly
If you could please, friend
"Take my hand now, and lead me home," she finished gently.
It was the song her mother had taught her to sing when she was little. If in some place she became separated from her parents, she was to find the nearest police officer and sing it to them. It was an easy way for a four-year-old to remember an address, and it was one of those melodies you never forgot. She never had to use it, but she silently wished it would somehow help her now. She had never felt more lost and alone in her entire life.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a small yellow ball that rolled against her feet. She picked it up, but dropped it just as quickly as a small giggle pierced the silence of the room. A small child with raven hair stood in the doorway, hands behind her back and rocking to and fro on her feet.
"Hi," the child said shyly.
Rinoa smiled. "Hi," she whispered.
"My name's Rinoa," the child said, "What's yours?"
"I'm a lot of things, to a lot of different people," the older girl replied.
This brought a laugh from the child.
"Your silly," she giggled.
"Yes, that too," Rinoa responded.
Footsteps could be heard coming down the hallway.
"Honey, who are you talking to?"
"This funny lady in my room, mama," she said excitedly to the figure down the hallway, "She don't even know who she is."
Julia Heartily walked through the doorway as vivid a reflection as Rinoa had held in her mind for the past 12 years.
Her mother gave the child a warm smile, which quickly faded as her eyes met Rinoa's. She reacted quickly, grabbing the child protectively.
"Who are you?" Julia demanded, "What are you doing in my daughter's room?"
Rinoa didn't hear the words; her composure had broken down completely as she sank to her knees. The tears streaming down her face.
"What are you talking about?" The flabbergasted woman questioned. She caught sight of the tinge of yellow in the intruder's eyes and the Odine bangle snapped tightly around her wrist. "Sorceress!" she exclaimed, "You're a sorceress!" She wrapped her arms tightly around the child, who sensing her mother's fear, began to cry loudly.
"Its me," her lips trembled as the word lost itself on her tongue. "Rinoa." Doubt had already begun to claim her as well.
Julia turned her eyes away from her.
"Mother, please, believe me!" she screamed.
"No!" Tears now welled in her mother's own eyes as she turned to face the girl again. "Leave us alone, you demon," she sobbed. "My daughter is not, a monster!"
A freight train couldn't have hit Rinoa any harder in that moment.
"Someone help!" Julia yelled. "There's a sorceress in my house! She's after my daughter, someone please help me!"
Lights flashed from down below the open window and the door down the steps was thrown open with a bang.
She would've let them take her then. What good would it do for her to run anymore? There was no purpose, no meaning...to anything. But the small flicker of the flame that holds the will to live overcome her hopelessness, and it was enough to bring her to her feet again.
Voices and heavy footsteps could be heard in the stairwell as she stared down the only means of escape, and broke into a full run towards it. The window shattered into fragments as she threw her body through the glass and splintered wooden frame. The cold pavement greeted her just as kindly as it rose up to meet her. The breath was knocked from her body and she gasped to retrieve it. Rinoa's eyes fluttered open and she found herself far from her home in Deling and on the cobblestone streets of Timber. Or at least, what was left of it. Most of what remained was smoldering ashes. Dead bodies littered the streets, their faces locked for eternity in fear and anguish. The few survivors stood amidst the wreckage and wept for the ones lost to them.
A small boy was the first one to notice her standing there. His eyes grew wide.
"Witch!" he cried. "It's the witch! She's come back for the rest of us!"
She recoiled in horror.
"I did this? No, I never wanted to hurt anyone. Please someone tell me this isn't happening...please."
Hate filled the eyes of the survivors and they grabbed whatever debris they could find. They were going to defend themselves.
"Please, listen...I don't know what's going on, what I've done, I...I can't remember anything." She said. "I don't want to hurt anyone."
Suddenly, a shot rang out through the street. She screamed as burning metal tore through her shoulder, shattering it with a sickening sound. Motorbikes hummed through the debris as the townspeople cleared out of the way. The hunting party had caught up with her at last.
The shock and the loss of blood made her light-headed, her vision began to blur. She heard the roar of the engines as they circled around her, and then stopped. Someone grabbed her from behind and she struggled like a wounded animal at its last attempt of life.
"Thought you'd escape did you?" came a gruff voice that whispered in her ear and laughed. "None escape...Ever."
She was about to pass out. Closing her eyes, she welcomed the darkness.
A finger prodded her wound and sent fire through her again.
"Uh-Uh little girl, your gonna want to be awake for this."
She was lead to the town square where she was vaguely aware of having her hands and feet tied around a long splintered pole. The pain was agonizing. She watched them dance. They danced in celebration around her. Dancing in the success of their kill, which stared back at them, completely helpless.
One of the dancers broke from the crowd holding in his hands a bucked of liquid. He thrust it upward splashing its contents all over her. She choked as some of it made its way through her lips. Gasoline.
The crowd suddenly went silent. A procession was making its way through the street. They were dressed in black robes and they marched in perfect unison. Behind them she could see a chocobo carrying a passenger on its back. And then she knew who it was, even before she could see them clearly. The cloaked figures halted before her, and stood at attention as their commander rode through the midst of them and stopped before her. The chocobo snorted and stared at her with red eyes, its feathers black as pitch. The rider stepped off. The figures removed their hoods and remained at attention. And the sorceress saw her friends that she had known and had loved. And they saw her, without any recognition at all, only carrying out their duty, their purpose.
She turned her gaze to face him. He was her life, and now, he had become death.
The ice of his eyes made her shudder. They weren't the eyes she remembered staring into, so long ago. They were so hollow.
"Sorceress," his deep voice reverberated "You have been found guilty of crimes against humanity. As commander of the SeeD army, it is my duty to carry out your sentence, of death."
He paused. "You...are allowed last words."
A million words flooded her mind in that moment.
Its not supposed to end like this.
Afraid to die.
I'm so sorry.
Tell me who I am.
Only one found its way through her lips.
"Mercy," she whispered.
He raised his gunblade. The tip of the blade clanked against the rings that rested on her chest.
Yes. Please. End it.
Angry voices erupted from the crowd, they were about to be denied their spectacle of triumph. "No mercy!" they chanted over and over, stomping and raising their fists in the air. Becoming so loud that it shook the heavens.
He looked over his shoulder back at them and then turned once more to face her. In one instant she thought she saw something in his eyes. Very fleeting, but she recognized it immediately. Regret.
"I'm sorry," his lips mouthed without sound. The gunblade fell from its target and pointed to the gasoline-saturated wood beneath her feet. She watched in slow motion as his finger wrapped itself around the trigger, and pulled.
The flames consumed her.
Hot. Burning. Unrelenting. Pain.
Darkness in a blinding light.
She knew nothing more.
Nothing, at all.
Vaguely, she became aware of a hand nudging her shoulder, rocking her back and forth.
Her eyes opened as her vision focused on the face in front of her. A pair of eyes stared back at her; concern that used to remain well hidden within them was now filling them so that it almost tumbled out of them.
She blinked, and then gave him a reassuring smile. "Hey," she croaked groggily. Relief flooded his features immediately.
"Hey, there you are." Squall smiled a little. "I was worried there for a second." He looked around. "Didn't know anyone could sleep so soundly outside on a night like this."
Rinoa suddenly became aware of the cold night air whipping around her and the feel of the frigid rail of the balcony that she was leaning against, the cool marble floor beneath her.
"How'd you get out here?"
She rubbed her head, confused. Afraid. "I don't remember really," she said nonchalantly, "Think I might've had a little too much to drink tonight." She chuckled. "Some party huh?"
"Yeah," he replied, "I feel a little wasted myself."
He offered her a hand up. She accepted and he pulled her to her feet.
They stood in the darkness for some time staring over the balcony at the sky above. Clouds were rolling in with a fanfare of booming thunder in the distance. Squall found Rinoa to be unusually silent, her eyes seemed to hold something he couldn't see clearly.
"You feeling alright?" he spoke up as he leaned on the railing to look at her.
"I'm alright." She replied with a bit of distance to her voice. "Just tired." He gave her a quizzical look. She flashed him another smile. "Your worrying far too much Squall, I'm fine."
Somewhere in the recesses of her mind she realized she was learning to hide herself as well as he did.
Something wasn't right, and Squall felt it. He wasn't satisfied with the answer. And he didn't have a clue on what to do. He approached her with diffident movements and slowly opened his arms to her as an invitation.
She accepted his offer with fervor, wrapping her arms around him tightly. He reveled in the closeness of her touch, the soft feel of her hair, and the wholeness he felt in her embrace.
"What'd you dream about?" he asked, trying to make conversation. He could have sworn he felt her tremble just then.
"You and me."
"Did we lose our clothes and have to walk into the cafeteria naked again?" he queried with a bit of a mischievous grin. "That'd be a horrible nightmare to experience again."
"Nothing, compared to this one," She thought to herself.
She forced a bit of a laugh. "Nah wasn't anything like that."
It was so horrible.
He waited for her to finish, but nothing else came. He didn't pry; he knew how much he hated people doing that. She didn't seem to want to talk about anything. So he just contented himself to be near her. Hold her, feel the warm breath against his skin; protect her with the very core of his being. He closed his eyes in the peace that came over him.
I hurt people.
Rinoa lay her head against his shoulder. She looked downward and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the marble floor. She quickly averted her eyes. Staring at her hands, she half expected to see the blood dripping off them again. She was so afraid of what they could do. This power was like a cancer. And she felt riddled with it.
"Who am I?" She asked in a quiet voice. "I seem to have forgotten."
Caught up in a dream of his own, he replied softly,
And it wasn't the answer she sought, but she accepted it. After all, what are dreams anyway?
She held him tighter.
Squall swayed back and forth with her gently. And there standing in the twilight, trapped up in his daydream, he mistook the shudder that quaked her body as a natural reaction to the bitter night air. And the droplet of water that splashed against his forearm was the first gentle drop of rain, heralding an approaching storm.