When Cid Raines awoke, he found himself in a ruined husk of a building with no recollection of how he arrived there. He inhaled and immediately regretted it as the dry air wracked his lungs. He coughed for several moments until he adjusted to this harsh source of oxygen. Weak sunlight poured in through empty windows, struggling against the darkness inside and leaving Cid disoriented.
After a moment of blinking around at cracked walls, he reflected that how he ended up there was less important than where he was. He searched his memory, but the last thing he remembered was turning to crystal after his defeat at the hands of the Pulse l'Cie. That had been in the Fifth Ark, but this was definitely not the Fifth Ark. It did not seem to be much of anywhere.
Cid tried to stand, only to discover this was not a wise course of action. The room did not just spin--it did the full five-act performance of the Pandemona Tango. Relieved that he appeared to have no dinner to vomit up, he tried to reach a compromise with his bellicose equilibrium by sitting. The room slowly finished its tango as Cid focused on his heartbeat. It seemed his only reliable bodily function at the moment, offering a comfortable and steady rhythm. He leaned back against the wall behind him, wondering where the hell Barthandelus had moved him.
A loud cracking noise drowned out the sound of Cid's heartbeat. Within a second, part of the wall gave way behind him. He felt a rush of air and movement, shortly accompanied by a stabbing pain through his skull. He found himself lying on his back, staring up at a sunset-streaked sky.
"Well," he told the sky as irritation flashed through him, "I appear to have wound up in the exact same position I awoke in: on my back. Once again, I am faced with the futility of my actions. At this rate, I can only conclude that I should embrace nihilism as a philosophy."
Cid sighed, even more irritated that there was no one around to appreciate his sarcasm. He sucked in a breath of stale air and struggled upwards, ignoring the jabbing pains in his head. After sitting still for a few minutes, breathing carefully and focusing on the sound of his heartbeat, the pain subsided. He considered casting a healing spell, but the idea of tapping into magic seemed far too daunting, considering that he could not even stand. Instead, Cid glanced around, finding that the wall had given way to reveal a lifeless city quite literally shattered to pieces. Cliffs rose on all sides, topped with hardy green plants, reminding Cid of sitting in an uncovered grave.
Nothing seemed familiar. He thought he had seen every part of Cocoon there was to see, but apparently he had thought wrong. He sat in the middle of a ruined wasteland, surrounded by nothing. Almost nothing, he thought, as an unearthly shriek filled the air, and the shadows suddenly seemed to move. Cid started, his eyes growing wide.
The shadow fluttered out from around the corner, revealing something with spindly legs and wings made of corrupted geometric shapes. In its chest burned a stone as red as blood, and a strange noise emitted from it, breaking apart sound and putting it back together the wrong-side up.
Cid reached for a sword he did not wear and tried to stand with legs that would not move. The Cie'th darted towards him, shrieking a death knell, and he prepared himself for the worst, as every good soldier should. He found a rock near him a rock, a paltry piece of stone, but he picked it up. He never could stand the thought of dying without putting up a fight.
A Ruin spell suddenly enveloped the creature, burning the air around it. The creature writhed and screamed, turning around to face its attacker. Cid could hardly see anything as the creature swooped and dove, sounding almost as if it were cackling. But the magic of his opponent seemed too much for it, and a few Aeros left it Staggered. A loud thwok resounded through the air, soon followed by many more. It almost sounded like a machine gun--or simply someone who was very fast with a blunt object. The Cie'th imploded under the attack, leaving the dusty ground scored.
"Damn things," Jihl Nabaat said, stepping towards Cid. She tapped her baton in her hand and studied him from behind her glasses. She did not wear a PSICOM uniform, but instead more practical leathers-- practical except for those heels she always seemed to favor.
"Well, this is a surprise," Cid commented, tensing. He clutched his rock, wondering if he was better or worse off than when the Cie'th attacked him.
"Really? One would think you'd have seen this coming."
"No, I can't say I'm good at predicting being rescued from Cie'th by dead women."
"Dead women." Jihl snickered, reminding Cid of their academy days, when she had snickered every time he gave the wrong answer to their instructor. "I'm no more dead than you, Primarch."
"Primarch?" Cid arched a brow. "Is this a joke?"
"Oh, no," Jihl said, her smile offering a promise of sharp objects thrust into tender spots. "I would never joke with the man who helped destroy Cocoon."
"Destroy Cocoon?" Cid's head spun, as if he had fallen again. "I tried--" He did not know what he had tried. Not enough.
"Let's talk elsewhere." Jihl gestured at the ruined city. "The Haerii Archaeopolis is crawling with those things, and worse."
"The Haerii what?"
Jihl smirked. "It's like having my own personal echo." She bent down to yank Cid up by the elbow. His body screamed with pain at the movement, but he kept his face expressionless. He had spent four years in the academy with Jihl Nabaat. As with any predator, he knew better than to show her weakness.
Jihl pulled, and Cid stumbled. He discovered that he could still walk, albeit without any dignity, and he unfortunately had to rely on Jihl for guidance as the world wobbled. To his relief, his headache had reduced to a dull ache. Thirst, hunger, and the longing for a hot bath likely distracted him from the pain. Either that, or Jihl's jibe about him helping to destroy Cocoon had landed its mark better than he thought. He could not even explain why it bothered him--when he had turned to crystal, Cocoon was still very much intact.
Jihl seemed unconcerned as she sat, but she had used that trick to hide her true feelings since their academy days. Though she had made attempts to keep her outfit neat and clean, unmistakable discolorations and patches left her looking shabbier than Cid had ever seen her. Considering that his own uniform was stained and torn, he had no basis to feel superior.
"I thought Barthandelus destroyed you for the sake of privacy," Cid commented as they walked.
"Who told you that?" Jihl asked. Her fingers dug painfully into Cid's arm. The fact that she did not stumble as she dragged a grown man significantly larger than her along made Cid feel rather inadequate. That was a rather special talent of Jihl's.
"Who was Barthandelus, again?"
Cid resisted the urge to grind his teeth. "The bloody Primarch."
"The only one we've had!"
Jihl's voice hardened. "There's been two in recent memory. I presume you mean your predecessor?"
"My what?" Cid stumbled again. His ankles ached. "I was never Primarch, dammit. Stop saying that."
"As you like. In any case, I am clearly as alive as you."
"I was told differently. Dysley really was a lying bastard, like most fal'Cie."
Once, such a remark would have earned Cid a baton across the temple. Now, Jihl's face went blank. Cid could tell she was hiding something, but he wondered what. Anger, frustration, disappointment, sadness--these were emotions that Jihl had rarely expressed in all the years that he had known her. Not that they had ever been particularly close. They had spent their academy years together in Unit 57-B--along with Yaag Rosch--but their friendship had been as ephemeral as a Fire spell in a blizzard. Yet, Jihl and Yaag were the only friends he truly recalled having--Rygdea had always been his subordinate, not his friend. After graduation, Cid went into the Guardian Corps, and Jihl and Yaag into PSICOM. Little love had been lost between them by the end, especially given his vocal resentment of the fal'Cie.
They approached what looked like a small camp. Jihl dumped Cid by an unlit campfire, which she quickly rectified with a Fire spell. The warmth seeped through his torn uniform and help eased his aches and pains. He stared up at Jihl. "You know. I'm beginning to suspect that you're not casting magic from a Manadrive."
"How clever of you."
Cid could not repress a smirk. "So, how does it feel to be a l'Cie?"
"I don't know, why don't you tell me?" The fire reflected of Jihl's glasses, making her eyes impossible to see.
Cid did not know a word strong enough to cover his initial resentment of becoming a Sanctum l'Cie, so he kept silent. He glanced down at his gloved right hand, which covered his l'Cie brand. He pulled the glove off to find a strange brand etched onto his hand, one filled with swirls and flourishes much unlike Barthandelus's simple, blocky brand. This one was elegant and intricate. Cid stretched the glove back on and put the curiosity from his mind. What did it matter whose brand it was? He was still a doomed creature.
"Would you like some food?" Jihl asked, in that peculiar tone of hers that somehow managed to be both polite and mocking simultaneously. "I'm afraid all I have are military rations, though."
"Rations will be fine. You forget that I was in the Guardian Corps, Jihl. We never ate so well as PSICOM."
Jihl tossed a canteen and a pack of rations before Cid, then set upon her own. Cid nodded his head in thanks, even though she was no longer watching him, then took the canteen and quickly gulped down the water. He licked his lips again, relieved to find moisture on them.
Cid tore open the food pack and glanced around. "So what is this Haerii Archaeopolis?" he asked, and took a bite of the rectangular-shaped brown block. He coughed, but managed to choke it down. Somehow, he had forgotten how disgusting military rations were.
Jihl took a bite of a greenish block of food. Once, she would have complained about how revolting her meal was, but she seemed rather stoic about it now. "The remnants of an ancient Pulse City. This is all they have here, really. Ghost towns, just like this."
"Pulse!" Cid blinked. "We're on Pulse?" He glanced around, but his surroundings did not resemble the fiery, toxic hell that Pulse had been described as. Instead, he appeared to be atop one of the cliffs that overlooked the Haerii Archaeopolis below. Green plants grew around him, and insects buzzed. The dry air seemed perfectly breathable now that his lungs had adjusted. Though Cie'th crawled over the archaeopolis below, life existed here.
Jihl snickered. "We're going to have to work on your obsession for echoing me, Raines. Of course we're on Pulse. Cocoon stands as a monument to the way of life you helped destroy. Most of the people survived, but not Cocoon itself. Without the fal'Cie, it's a wasteland, useful only for scavenging."
"Were as responsible as you, from what I understand. I wasn't there to witness this, of course."
"Because you were dead. Or playing dead."
Jihl snickered again, but did not respond as she finished her rations.
"Why are you helping me, Jihl?"
"Lieutenant Colonel Nabaat will do."
"I prefer Jihl. It annoys you more."
Jihl glared. "I'm looking for the Mechagony. And you're going to help me find it."
"The Mechagony? Where the fal'Cie were born?" Cid blinked. He had learned about the Mechagony years ago, while researching fal'Cie in books forbidden to humans. It did not seem wise to tell Jihl that, however. "Why do you think I know anything about that?"
"Because you used to be a Sanctum l'Cie. You knew more about them than even than I did. The Sanctum fal'Cie hid it before they left for Cocoon, so the Pulse fal'Cie don't know where it is. You may be the only creature left in all existence to know of it."
Cid considered his options. Jihl had never possessed any great love for him, and even if he told her where the Mechagony was, she might kill him. However, if he led her on a wild chocobo chase, it could offer him a chance to escape. "Very well. You have to find the key to open the Mechagony first--and that key will tell you where it leads. I only know the name of the key's location."
"I know the locations fairly well by now, so it will work out beautifully."
Cid thought of all the ancient tomes he had read about Pulse during his research on the fal'Cie and quickly pulled a location's name from his memory. "The Faultwarrens."
"How convenient." Jihl gestured behind Cid. "We're right next door. We'll leave tomorrow morning."
Cid cursed himself internally. He might not be strong enough to put up a decent fight by the time they got there. "I see." He glanced back at Jihl. "Do you know how I got here?"
Jihl snickered again. The more she did that, the more Cid wanted to grind her face into the dirt. "You don't know? Well, I shan't ruin the surprise. You can figure it out yourself."
"Can you at least tell me why you call me Primarch?"
"All I know is that after I was--" She paused and turned her face to the side. "--removed from duty, you were made Primarch. You failed to protect Cocoon, and under your watch, Pulse attacked us. The Pulse l'Cie destroyed Eden, and with it, Cocoon."
Cid fell silent. He did not know if she told the truth or not, but it sounded perfectly in line with what he had known of Barthandelus's plans.
Jihl stood. "Tomorrow, we'll head to the Faultwarrens. For your sake, I hope you're not lying." She moved next to Cid and slapped handcuffs on his wrists. The handcuffs hummed softly from their small Manadrive, which produced a constant Fog effect on the wearer--a l'Cie special, PSICOM had called them. Cid's headache returned, and his thoughts took on the substance of mist every time he even considered a spell.
"Your trust touches me deeply," he said.
"As well it should." Jihl smiled and lay down beside him. "I hope you still only like boys, Raines, because if you get any ideas while I sleep, we'll be eating human testicles for breakfast."
Cid sighed and lay down, facing the campfire instead of her. Somehow, he always seemed to find himself in some ridiculous mess. It was his special gift. Some people danced, others sang, and Cid found trouble.
To be continued…