They were only a few steps into the Underground Waterway when a chorus of croaking rose ahead of them.
“Behind me, Rydia,” Cecil said, terse but calm.
The little green-haired girl did as told, raising the rod Cecil had bought her in Kaipo. The cave was dim. Vents in the vaulted ceiling let in narrow shafts of light from the surface of the mountain far above. She could only see the path a few steps in front of them, and Cecil’s Dark armor blended into the shadows so that the knight could barely be seen at all when he wasn’t moving.
Rydia heard a splash of water and saw dark shapes moving ahead of them, like slick boulders.
Something lashed out from the shadows, and Cecil caught it on his shield. The sticky tongue stuck, and Cecil pulled its owner close to meet his blade.
It was a toad, Rydia saw as it let out one last croak and died. A big toad, bigger than Rydia.
She didn’t scream like she had the first time they had faced the giant centipedes in the desert, but planted her feet and raised her rod in front of her. Squinting to focus on one of the other shapes in the shadows, she whispered the chant of a spell. Ice crystals formed around the monster toad, cracking and killing it instantly.
The last toad stood directly in their path, swaying and croaking.
Rydia began another ice spell as Cecil ran to meet it. As the Dark Knight raised his sword to strike, the toad let out a final croak that seemed to hit him like a hammer blow. He stumbled back and seemed to collapse into himself, like a clay figure being squashed into a ball. He shrank and fell to the cave floor with a small plop.
“Cecil!” Rydia shrieked and forgot to continue casting her spell. The toad advanced on her with a great hop, close enough now for her to see its bulbous, staring eyes and slick, striped skin. She hit it with her rod, but the blows didn’t seem to do anything. She ran back towards the cave mouth and raised her rod once again. She held her concentration as best she could as the toad advanced on her, and called Chocobo. Her eidolon came galloping, a flash of yellow feathers in the shadows. It kicked the monster toad away from her, punting it into the subterranean stream.
“Cecil?” Rydia whispered in the sudden quiet as Chocobo left. She listened for any sound of monsters or Cecil, but heard only the sounds of dripping and running water. She stood frozen for a long moment, not daring to move, until something landed on her foot.
She shrieked, the sound echoing off the cave walls.
It was a toad, large but not monstrous, with dark blue skin the exact color of Cecil’s armor. It croaked up at her.
“Cecil?” she asked it.
The toad bobbed its head.
“Oh no,” she wailed. She bent to pick him up. He barely fit in her two cupped hands.
She heard noises, wings in the distance, more croaking. She stuffed the toad that was Cecil into her bag and ran from the cave.
Once more in the sunlight, in the scrubby vegetation of the edge of the desert, Rydia plopped down on the ground and took the toad that was Cecil out of her bag to set him beside her.
She didn’t cry. She wanted to cry, but after Mother, after Mist Village, she had no tears left.
Rydia didn’t know what to do. She knew there were items that could turn Cecil back into a human, but she didn’t know what they were or what they looked like, and anyway, Cecil had been carrying all that stuff. All she had in her pack was water, some goblin jerky, and two little vials of Ether Cecil had given to her. She didn’t know if his curative items had been absorbed as part of his new, amphibian form, or if they had been dropped in the Underground Waterway.
Either way, she didn’t dare go back alone.
She would have to go back to Kaipo.
Rydia wanted to stuff Cecil in her pocket and run back to the oasis, back to relative safety and people who weren’t toads, but she thought of Rosa, writhing and sweating and calling Cecil’s name. She and Cecil had been going to Damcyan to get a Sand Pearl so they could rescue her, but first Rydia was going to have to rescue Cecil.
Cecil and Rydia had travelled by night so they wouldn’t get the Desert Fever the way Rosa had. Rydia would have to wait until nightfall.
She moved into the shadow of a large rock where she curled into a ball on the ground. The toad that was Cecil nestled itself under her arm like a bizarre stuffed animal, and they slept.
Many of the desert creatures that had attacked Rydia and Cecil on their journey here ignored her now. Maybe she was too small and quiet to be much of a threat. Or maybe something about Cecil’s dark sword drew malice.
Even so, she was still alone and cold under the night sky. The moons were mismatched red and blue slivers, and the sky beyond was clear and thick with stars. Her mother had taught her some of the constellations: Ashura, three sets of bright eyes, low on the horizon this time of year; Leviathan, a vague squiggle in the apex of the sky; Artemis, with her bow aiming at the brightest star.
Rosa was an archer like Artemis, Rydia thought. She wondered what would happen after Cecil made Rosa better. Would Cecil and Rosa take her…. wherever they lived, now? Would they be her parents now, or something like parents? Cecil said he would protect her. He fought off those soldiers for her. Surely he wouldn’t just leave her in Kaipo? She shivered, and hugged Cecil the toad to her chest.
Rydia knew that there was a star that always pointed north, but she didn’t know which one. She wasn’t sure which direction Kaipo was in, anyway. Fortunately, enough traffic travelled between Kaipo and Damcyan that cartwheels, chocobo feet, and boots left a ragged path through the dunes. The wind nearly swept the sand clean at some points, but it was enough for Rydia to follow.
Something grabbed her ankle, and she dropped Cecil in surprise. A hand, almost human shaped, but red and scaly. A sand sahagin, Cecil had called them. She struggled to pull away from it, but without much luck. The thing was crawling out of the sand at Rydia’s feet, finned face and arms rising out of the ground. It opened its mouth wide to reveal long, needle-like teeth, and sunk them into Rydia’s right calf.
As Rydia cried out in pain, Cecil the frog leapt onto the sahagin’s blank black eyes.
“No!” Rydia screamed, but the distraction was enough to make the fish-man release her. She was able to pull back, but two more were crawling out of the sand. She clutched her rod and murmured a spell, tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes from pain. She could feel a warm trickle of blood on her ankle, pooling in her boot, and she dared not look down.
One of the fish-men reached her, slashing claws across her left arm and chest. She stumbled but her concentration held. She hissed out the last words, and lightning arced out, striking all three of the creatures. She didn’t wait for her eyes to readjust to the bright flash, but ran, limping, hoping but not knowing that the fish-men were dead. She collapsed once she crested a dune, and put a hand over her mouth in horror when she saw the trail of blood behind her.
You have to heal yourself, Rydia. No one’s going to do it for you. She half-cried out the words of the spell, hurting everywhere and still not daring to look at her damaged leg. Green light weaved itself around her, and the pain eased. She picked up her leg to inspect it. Congealing blood still clung to her, but the skin held together.
Cecil hopped up beside her in the sand.
“You shouldn’t have attacked it,” she scolded him. “You can’t do much good as a frog. What if it had eaten you?”
Cecil croaked dolefully.
She scooped him up and they continued on their way.
Until the sun rose, they didn’t encounter anything worse than sword rats and goblins that didn’t seem interested in bothering Rydia.
Kaipo was in sight, the oasis’ pools sparkled in the early morning sun. Rydia had long ago drank the last drops from her canteen (and dribbled a little bit of it into Cecil’s wide toad mouth). She would have run the last few hundred yards were she not too exhausted.
She felt vibrations under her feet that could only mean one thing. A sand worm.
“No,” she whispered. She was too tired to run. She was going to have to stand and fight.
She was already casting an ice spell when the sand worm burst out of the ground in her path. Ice crackled around the creature. Rydia didn’t wait for it to dissipate before she started casting the same spell again. She would have called Chocobo, but she didn’t think she had enough energy left.
The great worm heaved itself toward her. Ropes of saliva dripped from its grotesque, round mouth, but before it could reach her, its skin frosted over. The frost grew into jagged spikes of ice, and the worm fell to the ground with a thud Rydia felt in her bones.
Rydia walked around it and into Kaipo. She stopped at the oasis’ pool first, and dipped her hands in the cool water to drink. Cecil splashed himself in the shallows. She scooped him up once more and headed for the item shop.
The door was locked, so she rapped on it. She got no answer, so she banged on it.
“Excuse me, but we are closed,” the rumpled looking old man who finally answered the door said.
“But—but,” Rydia said. “My friend’s been turned into a toad!” she said.
“Fine,” he said. “Five hundred gil for a Maiden’s Kiss or you can come back in two hours and pay the regular price!”
Rydia stopped short. She didn’t have any money.
“Well, which is it?” the man demanded.
“I—I don’t have any….gil,” And then she couldn’t help it. She started to cry.
The man frowned and looked very uncomfortable for a moment, but that didn’t stop him from closing the door in Rydia’s face.
Rydia ambled through the streets, still crying, not knowing where to go. She found herself wandering back toward the pool.
“Child, whatever is the matter with you?” a voice asked her.
Rydia looked up to see a blue-haired young woman balancing a huge water jug on her head.
“Muh—my friend got turned into a—tuh-tuh-toad,” she sobbed. “And I can’t turn him back ‘cause I don’t have any muh-money.”
“Well, that’s easy enough to fix,” she said, heaving the jug from her head to set it at her feet. “All you’ve got to do is kiss him.”
“What?” Rydia said dimly.
“That’s what they sell in the shops for it. They have a girl kiss a piece of wax paper and they wrap it up,” she said, kissing her own hand and making a gesture like slapping it on something. “Anyway, haven’t you heard the stories? Where you kiss a toad and he becomes a handsome prince?”
Rydia shook her head, bewildered.
“But I can’t kiss Cecil!” Rydia protested, blushing.
“He’s got a girlfriend!”
The young woman laughed. “Well, this is your only chance, then, isn’t it?” She patted Rydia on the shoulder and heaved her water jug back on top of her head.
“Wait!” Rydia said as she left. The young woman turned to look back at her. Rydia held up Cecil the toad. “Maybe you could kiss him for me?”
“I’m afraid it wouldn’t work, lovey.”
It was the young lady’s turn to blush. “Ah….now. You’re going to have to ask your mother about that.”
Rydia started crying again. She couldn’t help it, after all that had happened, the reminder was too much.
“Ah! What’s wrong now, little thing?”
“I… don’t have… a mother… anymore,” she said between sobs.
“Well, now….” The young lady said slowly and approached Rydia again. She set down her water jug and knelt beside her. “I’m not gonna explain the birds and the bees to you, but maybe you can steel up the courage to kiss your prince, huh? Don’t cry, little thing,” she said, patting her cheek.
And then she was gone.
Rydia sat in the shade of a palm tree. She sat Cecil in her lap, and looked down at his rough, bluish skin. Rosa wouldn’t mind this once, surely? It would be sort of a favor to her.
Rydia paused. Could she really let this be her first kiss?
Surely it didn’t count, kissing a toad? Even if the toad was a human that was only temporarily a toad?
Rydia puckered her lips, and planted a kiss between Cecil’s toady eyes.
“Oof,” she said, as the toad was suddenly not a toad but a full grown man in plate armor.
Cecil rolled away from Rydia only to kneel beside her and pull her close again.
“Forgive me,” he said into her hair. “I should have been more careful. I should have given some of the curative items to you. I should have taught you.”
“It’s okay, Cecil, we made it,” Rydia said, finally relaxing for the first time in nearly twenty-four hours. His gauntlets were hurting her ribs, but that was okay. She tried to pat his back, but her hand only made a dull thud against his armor.
“I tried to protect you and I’ve done a terrible job of it. You were so brave. Thank you.”
Cecil sounded choked, as if he was trying not to cry, but Rydia knew that couldn’t be right. Cecil was a grown up, and a man, and a knight, and none of those cry.