carmilla: The Black Angel inside a heart shape.  Caption reads "I [heart] girls with guns" (Girls with guns)
[personal profile] carmilla
This fic is unfinished and I currently have no plans to finish it.

SUMMARY: Yuffie deals with the strange rituals of her clan.


The girl knelt before the altar, the high priest chanting the ancient ritual prayers over her bowed head. The incense in the temple was thick and heady, inducing drowsiness at a time when it was most vital to stay awake. As the priest stepped aside, a black robed man approached the girl, holding out a knarled hand to her.

"Come," he said, in a voice made hoarse by the sacred smoke, "it is time." He twisted the serpent’s head carved on the back of the altar. Suddenly, the earth began to tremble. Out of the shifting dust of the great desert rose a magnificent temple, old as the land itself. It cast long shadows as the sun rose behind it. And from below the ground came an ear-splitting shriek, like that of some terrible predator aroused from its slumber.

"He awaits you," said the old man with a strange half smile. "You must fulfil your destiny." His hand on the girl’s shoulder, he led her forward to meet her fate.

In a flash, she twisted under his hands, leaving him stunned and breathless on the floor. Taking one last look at the awe-inspiring edifice, Yuffie muttered, "Screw destiny," and took off from her father’s pagoda as fast as her legs could carry her.

**********

Three days later, it was a flustered, breathless looking ninja that hammered on the door of Cloud and Tifa Strife’s Costa del Sol villa, some time after sunset. Surprised and a little annoyed to be interrupted during their quiet time, Tifa went to answer the door. Seeing Yuffie, she was about to yell at her to go and play her childish pranks elsewhere, or at least wait until morning, when she noticed the look on her visitor’s face. Even during their mission to save the Planet, she’d never seen her look so serious.

"You’d better come in," she said, stepping aside. Yuffie smiled her thanks and dashed in through the door like a rabbit into its hole. ‘What’s up with her?’ Tifa wondered. She went back to the sitting room to tell Cloud they had a guest. Rather to her surprise, he sounded pleased that the young ninja had decided to pay them a visit.

"After all, Tifa," he said, "we haven’t seen her in nearly two years. It’s always possible she might have grown up." Tifa giggled, then her face grew earnest again.

"I think there’s something seriously wrong," she said. "She had the weirdest look about her just now, kinda scared and upset. You don’t think she could be, you know, in trouble with the law or something? I mean...." Tifa trailed off, not wanting to sound nasty, but she remembered just how much she had wanted to wring Yuffie’s neck when they’d met for the first time and she’d had half her gil stolen. Not to mention the time when the young thief had taken ALL their materia.

"What, our Yuffie?" said Cloud disbelievingly. "I don’t think so. Not that she couldn’t have done something bad, but even she’s not fool enough to let herself get caught. Not by our law enforcers, at any rate." He sniggered. When he’d been with the Shinra, SOLDIER had been law. Now that they had been disbanded, the militia set up in their place were renowned for their incompetence. If anyone had problems in Costa del Sol, they tended to ignore the militia altogether and go straight to Cloud and Tifa. After all, what was the use of having two war heroes in the town if they never helped you out? In return, the couple were offered the use of their honeymoon home for free for as long as they liked, and had been living there since they got married, shortly after Sephiroth had finally been defeated. Their wedding was the last time either of them had seen Yuffie, when she twisted Tifa’s arm into letting her be chief bridesmaid, and disappeared halfway through the reception taking at least five of the complimentary bottles of champagne with her.

"I’m not so sure," said Tifa, shaking Cloud out of his reverie. "That may be the case here, but what about in Wutai? I’ve heard that their laws are much stricter than ours."

"Wutai’s laws," Yuffie drawled, leaning on the door frame, "are so out of date that not even my father can manage to keep within them. It’s Wutai’s traditions that are the real drag. I don’t suppose you have a spare bedroom, do you? I’m really tired."

"Of course," said Tifa, blushing slightly. She hoped her guest hadn’t heard too much of their conversation. She didn’t want Yuffie to think that she always accused her friends of thievery when they turned up on her doorstep in the middle of the night. She led the exhausted teenager to the second bedroom and went back downstairs to Cloud. He looked far less flippant than he had done before.

"I agree with you," he said, "Something’s up with her. Something big. I don’t like that look in her eyes, Tifa. I’ve never seen her so scared before."

"Why so bothered all of a sudden?" asked Tifa in a teasing voice. To her surprise, Cloud actually flushed and looked away.

"She gave me some good advice once," he mumbled. "I owe her a little help now."

"Good advice? Like what?" Cloud’s muttering became incoherent, and Tifa decided to drop the subject. "Well anyway," she said, "if it’s not the law, what do you think is up with her?"

"I’m not sure. She said something about Wutai’s traditions, right? Maybe they have some crazy ceremony they want her to do. Or........" his eyes glittered with sudden humour, "maybe it’s an arranged marriage! I’ve hear they’re quite common amongst the more traditional ninja clans. Can you imagine Yuffie in a wedding dress?" Tifa and Cloud shared a few moments laughter at the girl’s expense. Tifa sobered first.

"What if it actually is?" she said. "That would be horrible for her. Yuffie’s always been such a free spirit."

"True," said Cloud. "And knowing that, we probably won’t find out what’s actually wrong until she’s willing to tell us. And, as that is the case," he leaned in very close, and whispered, "shall we go to bed?"

"With Yuffie next door?" asked Tifa, shocked.

"She’s out like a light," said Cloud, who was now running his fingertips up and down Tifa’s arm. "Nothing’s gonna wake her up for the next few hours at least."

Tifa sighed, and gave in. After all, she reflected, as her husband led her towards the bedroom, it was no very great sacrifice.

**********

Many miles away, Lord Godo looked down at the warrior kneeling before his throne. His voice was cold and passionless as he gave his instructions.

"You know what tradition decrees," he said. "The Firstborn must undertake the trials when they come of age. Leviathan demands it. And if they cannot pass the ordeals, His hunger must be assuaged, not by their triumph, but by their blood. If my daughter does not return within a one quarter cycle of the moon, it is your duty to hunt her down and destroy her. You have your orders. See to them."

The warrior’s face was expressionless. All in Wutai knew their duty.

**********

Yuffie slept very late the next morning. The sun was nearly at its zenith by the time she rose. Making her way into the kitchen, still yawning, she found Tifa making lunch.

"Well, you’re up bright and early," Tifa said, using her teasing tone again. "Fancy some brunch?" When Yuffie didn’t respond, Tifa grew serious. "Long time on the road, huh?" Yuffie nodded. "Never mind. Have something to eat, then you can tell me what’s bothering you."

After some food, the ninja girl started to look a little more human. "Where’s Cloud?" she asked. "I thought he’d be eating with us."

"Out in the mountains again," replied Tifa. "They’re having some major monster problems up there. They think there’s a clan of dragons breeding in the caves, and it’s a long journey to get there, and they have to wipe out as many as they can whilst they’re there. He probably won’t be back until the sun starts going down. It’s dangerous to hunt at night." Yuffie had winced slightly when Tifa said ‘clan’. It didn’t go unnoticed.

"So, are you going to tell me what’s wrong or not?" asked Tifa, as they were clearing their plates away.

"It’s kind of a long story," Yuffie said.

"That’s OK, I’ve got plenty of time. Besides," her host added mischievously, "it gives me an excuse not to go help out at the bar, and since my new bar maid can take care of things perfectly well by herself, an excuse is all I need."

"You started another bar?" asked Yuffie.

"Bought out the previous owner," said Tifa. "He couldn’t believe his luck. And even war heroes have to make a living, don’t they?" Her tone was an invitation.

"Actually, my father was taking care of me," Yuffie said, putting an emphasis on the ‘was’. "Up until my eighteenth birthday, that is."

"Did he kick you out?" asked Tifa, sympathetically. "Tell you you had to earn a living?"

"No. He just told me I had to take the seven trials of Wutai, and if I failed any of them I would die and my body would be fed to Leviathan." Yuffie’s voice had a highly sarcastic edge to it. Tifa started to smile, then she took a look at her young friend’s face. "My gods!" she exclaimed. "You’re not serious?"

"Ancient family tradition," Yuffie said, bitterly. "Well I survived it, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t. It’s your destiny, my daughter, don’t fight it." Her voice was cold, and mocking, but there were unshed tears in her eyes. "I’m only doing this because I love you, and I want you to be everything you can be. His exact words. Bastard!"

"How did you get away?" asked Tifa, mind still reeling.

"Slipped the Master of Ceremonies the elbow and ran. Didn’t stop running til I made it to a boat, then came here as quick as I could. It’s very good of you to put me up for the night, but I can’t stay here long."

"Nonsense," said Tifa. "You’re no trouble to us." At Yuffie’s raised eyebrow, she amended, "Well, none we can’t take care of, anyway. We’d be happy to have you here until that crazy family of yours gives up on you, if you like."

"No, really, a week from now I’ll be more trouble than I’m worth."

"What do you mean?"

"Another of those good old family traditions. If I don’t take the trials, they’ll send an assassin after me. Got that? A fully trained, Wutai assassin. If it was a warrior, no doubt you’d be well able to take care of me. Even if it was an army, you’d probably be alright. One of our assassins? You’d be strangled in your beds before you heard them coming. I’m not going to let that happen. If I’m on my own, I have a fair chance of beating them. With you two to look after, I couldn’t make any guarantees."

Tifa had to smile at the young ninja’s arrogance, but her eyes were grave.

"You’re sure? There’s nothing we can do for you?"

"Do you do miracles?" asked Yuffie, softly. "I could do with one."

Tifa had no answer for that. Uncomfortably, she changed the subject.

"By the way," she said. "What advice did you give to Cloud? He mentioned it last night. Said he owed you one."

Yuffie’s eyes twinkled. "Oh, that," she said, some of her old flippancy returning. "That was just after we kicked Sephiroth’s butt. All I said was, he had to get his priorities straight. If he liked Aeris more, he could go and join Vincent in the ‘mourning your old lovers’ club. If he preferred you, he should tell you already. I mean, what was he trying to do? Remain lost and confused in emotional turmoil forever? He was certainly doing a good impression of it."

Tifa was staring at Yuffie, open mouthed. "I guess I should thank you," she said after a while. "I had no idea."

"Hey, no sweat," said Yuffie, casually. "The guy needed a little prompting. He was bugging the hell out of me with that whole tough guy act."

Tifa turned the conversation away to other things, still stunned. Perhaps there was more to her friend than she had always thought.

**********

"You’re sure you don’t wanna stay?" Tifa asked, for the fifth time.

Yuffie’s exasperation melted when she saw nothing but genuine concern behind the offer. "Sure, thanks," she said softly, turning away. She was halfway down the garden path when Tifa called to her.

"Yuffie! One last thing, before you go!" She turned round. "Yes?" Tifa handed her a mastered Leviathan summon materia.

"Happy birthday," she said, simply. "And good luck."




It was raining. Yuffie hated rain. She used to quite like it, when she could view it from inside somewhere warm, and dry. In the middle of the forest, crouched by a small, spluttering campfire, it was no fun at all. She knew that it was good, really, that it was raining. Nanaki had told her that the fact that it rained so much these days was a sign that Planet was recovering its natural equilibrium. She smiled. He had really come into his own lately. When he had first come back to the Canyon, he told her, he had felt lost and wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself. But studying Buganhagen’s books and talking with the Elders, he had learned a lot about the Planet, and decided that they all needed to take a more active role in helping it to recover. The school he had set up was flourishing, and Marlene was due to start there sometime next year. Nanaki was doing well. Responsibility suited him, Yuffie thought. She had paid him a two day visit the other week before taking the back way out through the Gi caves, so as not to attract attention.

She was currently headed for Rocket Town, hoping that Cid might lend her the Highwind for a few days so that she could make her escape faster. Idly, she wondered if Cid and Shera were together yet. Honestly, she didn’t see what they were waiting for. They acted like a married couple already, for Omni’s sake! That dragged her mind back to the present. It was the 3rd of December - exactly two weeks since her birthday. By Wutai’s traditions, and assassin would have started tracking her a week ago. How nice of them, though Yuffie bitterly, to give me a head start. She hadn’t seen anyone trailing her yet, but that meant little. Any Wutai assassin with an ounce of pride would never be so careless as to announce their presence before they struck. Hopefully, if Cid would lend her the Highwind, she could gain the upper hand, and buy herself some time to prepare. One thing Yuffie knew; sooner or later, she would have to fight. Wutai’s warriors never gave up.

**********

Keen blue eyes scanned the dripping landscape. Curse this rain! Yuffie had slipped away again, and her hunter was forced to stop and shelter from the downpour. Calmly, the fire was made up, and the bedding laid out. The target couldn’t run forever. Wutai’s finest had many skills. They knew how to wait.

**********

On the 6th of December, a slight, cloaked girl who wore the braids of a ninja arrived in Rocket Town. Politely, she inquired after the Mayor, but learned that he had gone on honeymoon with his new wife to a secret destination. The girl’s ingratiating smile lessened somewhat. Her next question: would it be possible for her to borrow the Mayor’s airship, at a fee, of course? It wasn’t possible; he had taken his ship with him. Muttering several choice expletives under her breath, the girl hurried away.

**********

Yuffie was worried. Despite her confidant words to Tifa, she wasn’t at all relishing the prospect of fighting one of her father’s elite. She was glad for Cid and Shera, of course, but couldn’t they have picked some other time to go away and leave her stranded without any means of transport? Going on foot over the rough landscapes was exhausting; she hadn’t eaten a proper meal in days. All she could do was try to stay one step ahead of her unseen pursuer.

**********

The assassin was getting angry, despite all mental discipline. Where was Yuffie? The trail had gone cold at Rocket Town, and picking up a fresh scent was proving remarkably difficult. None of the group who had defeated Sephiroth two years ago had any idea where the young ninja was. Suddenly, inspiration struck. It was a very long shot, but it might just pay off. The warrior set off again, wrapped firmly in a cloak as protection against the frost that was setting in.

**********

Yuffie was nervous. Of course, it might just have been paranoia, understandable under the circumstances, but she thought that somebody was shadowing her. Appropriate word, shadowing. She never saw more than a shadow, a fleeting silhouette that disappeared before she was sure it had been there in the first place. For her own peace of mind, she put it down to the stress of the last few couple of weeks. It would only be another two days before she reached the chocobo farm, and then she would be home free. A gold chocobo was almost as fast as the Highwind, and more flexible in the terrain it could travel. If she took it to one of the uncharted islands, she would have weeks to prepare for the coming battle, and she wanted those weeks badly. All the same, she kept more alert than she had done before, and slept less easily at night. After all, she couldn’t be too careful. She was becoming more and more afraid, and that wasn’t a good state of mind to have in a combat to the death.

The nightmares had set in a week back. At first they were fractured, though no less disturbing because of it. But night after night, they got clearer. The great temple rose out of the dust before her, and she was pushed roughly forward. Her father stood to one side. Vainly, she reached out her hand, asking him for help, but he turned away to congratulate the robed assassin who had brought her back. Tifa appeared, and handed her a materia. ‘Tifa!’ she called, ‘Help me!’ Tifa just smiled, said, ‘Good luck, Yuffie,’ and faded away. The ground began to shake beneath her feet and the materia in her hand grew white hot. Alarmed, she dropped it, and as she watched it transformed itself into a great snake, which grew and grew until Leviathan himself towered over her. He swooped down, mouth open, and she heard her father’s voice saying, ‘You have failed, my daughter,’ as she stood transfixed, staring at the rows of sharp, vicious teeth....

Yuffie shook her head, trying to rid herself of the horrible images, when she saw a figure on the path in front of her. Small and slight, and wrapped in a heavy travelling cloak, the warrior stood at bay, silently awaiting her approach.

"Who are you?" Yuffie asked, knowing the answer already.

"The one who was sent to hunt you," the figure replied in a soft voice.

"Why haven’t you killed me already?" Yuffie demanded, her voice steady although her hands were shaking badly.

"I wanted to give you a chance," came the reply. "It’s not too late, Firstborn. You may still take the trials and save your life."

"I’d as soon save it by fighting you," Yuffie said, with a deal more confidence than she felt.

"As you will," said the warrior, impassively. Suddenly, the soft voice took on a more urgent note. "Yuffie, forgive me. I didn’t want it to end this way, but you leave me no choice."

"Who are you?" asked Yuffie again, this time with greater curiosity and less fear. Her father’s elite were said to be emotionless in the execution of their duty. This one seemed... different.

"I am the one who must bring about your death." The voice was sad, but the tone resolute. Yuffie readied herself for battle.

**********

Yuffie had never known a battle like it. The warrior eluded her, seeming insubstantial as a puff of smoke. Wherever she threw her shuriken, the enemy was no longer there. Twice she spun round just in time to avoid a dagger in her back. The blade was black and dull, but the tip shone. ‘Poisoned weapons’ she thought disgustedly, dodging another blow. ‘As if I didn’t have enough to deal with.’ As the assassin closed in, she was forced to slash and block with her weapon in her hand. She wasn’t built for close range combat. How long they fought, she couldn’t tell. Her only thought was that she must end the battle before the sun went down. At night, she wouldn’t have a chance against this intangible foe. At last, her assailant began to tire. Although the strikes were only a fraction slower, Yuffie noticed the difference, and rejoiced silently. Suddenly, she broke away and ran into the foliage around the path. Her opponent spun round to face her with a triumphant look; surely, in the woodlands, the younger ninja wouldn’t stand a chance. Yuffie hurled her shuriken, and it buried itself in the assassin’s chest. Her enemy dropped like a stone.

Shaking, Yuffie approached the body, and pulled back the hood of the assassin’s cloak. She gave a little cry of horror. She recognised that face. It was Carrie, her best friend, whom she hadn’t seen in over four years. She had known, of course, that Carrie had wanted to join her father’s elite; when they were younger she had talked of little else. But this? This was too terrible. How could Godo be so cruel as to send her only close friend to hunt her? It was beyond belief.

Carrie stirred, and moaned a little. She was alive! Barely. Quickly, Yuffie fumbled out her materia, and tried to cast Cure 3 on her, but it was too late. The injury was too serious, and the spell wouldn’t take hold. Carrie’s piercing blue eyes focused unsteadily on the girl leaning over her. "That you, Yuff?" she asked. Her voice was barely above a whisper.

"Yes, it’s me," said Yuffie, her voice breaking. "Carrie, I’m so, so sorry. Why? Why did you have to do this to me? To us?"

"Duty. All warriors of Wutai must do their duty. That’s why I had to do it. I had to try and bring you back. Yuffie, there’s something you have to know...." her voice trailed off unsteadily.

"Yes?" Yuffie’s voice was quavering; she was close to tears.

"Yuffie, if you take the trials, Lord Godo has to step down and offer the leadership to you. The trials prove you worthy to rule Wutai. Yuffie, if you could rule... think how much better you could make it."

Yuffie looked badly scared. "I’m far too young for that kind of responsibility," she said shakily. "How could I possibly rule?"

"Yuff, please, do it, for me. Think what a difference you could make. You could get rid of all the stupid traditions. You could make us great again. I know you could... please, Yuffie, please...." Carrie’s eyes fluttered closed. Her breathing slowed.

"But, Carrie, I’m scared! Please Carrie, don’t leave me, don’t make me do this...." But Carrie didn’t answer.

**********

The nightmares were getting worse. As Leviathan towered above her, she shrank away. It hesitated, then turned on Carrie, who was standing by her father’s side. ‘Please, Yuffie, please...." Carrie screamed as the great serpent swooped down upon her, her blue eyes meeting Yuffie’s, pleading with her. Yuffie stood motionless. Her father muttered, "Twice a failure. She has killed her friend....’ as Yuffie saw that her shuriken was dripping with blood.... Screaming, she woke up, covered in sweat, and lay awake, trembling.

**********

"So what are you going to do?" asked Tifa, after Yuffie finished her story.

"Do?" answered Yuffie, dully. "What can I do? I’m going back to Wutai. I don’t have a choice."



It was sunset when she saw Wutai again, the sky flushed with crimson. From her perch on the top of Da Chao mountain, she saw the temple outlined against the sun, dark and forbidding. Beneath her, Wutai town stretched out, silent and peaceful at the day's end. The town dwellers generally slept and woke with the sun, but even so it was unnaturally still. It was as if the whole town lay dormant, waiting for something. Waiting for me, Yuffie thought. Just looking at the building etched against the skyline was enough to make her shiver. She really didn't want to go in there. But I have to, she told herself firmly. Not for my father, but for Carrie, for Wutai. And it's the only way the nightmares will ever stop. Forcibly pulling her mind back to the task at hand, she began to descend the steep path that led to the town.

**********

She could feel the eyes on her as she walked along the empty street towards her father's house. A couple of times, she looked around quickly enough to catch sight of a head disappearing behind a curtain. Let them stare, she thought grimly. Let them whisper amoungst themselves. Let them wonder what I'm doing here, and why I'm alone. Let them call me a thief and a coward, let them think what they like. I don't care anymore. I don't care about any of them. She fixed her eyes on the tower, and, head held high, went to talk with her father.

**********

"So." Lord Godo's voice was cool, haughty. "You were brought back. Leviathan will be pleased. And where is your captor?"

"Carrie is dead, Father," said Yuffie, her voice even colder than his. "I have come back to take the trials for my own sake, and for Wutai's. Not for yours. I am here to honour Leviathan, not you. I will go to the temple at dawn tommorrow. Alone."

"I see," Godo's voice betrayed no emotion. "A pity about the girl. I thought her a rather promising fighter, if a little hot-headed. I am glad you have decided to repect your home's tradidtions. If you feel you must go alone, then it will be so. I shall instruct the guards to let you pass. In the meantime... may I offer you a room for the night?" His courteous voice seemed absurd to Yuffie, and it angered her. How could he speak like that to her after what he had done? Perfectly controlled, but inwardly shaking with rage, she said calmly, "I will accept no hospitality from he I deem my enemy. I will not eat of his food, or rest under his roof, for I consider what is his unworthy of my touch." It was a quote from one of her father's favourite books, 'The Blackened Path', and she was glad to see some sign of a reaction from him.

"Very well," Godo said tightly, his face red with anger. "Sleep where you can, then. I wish you a good night's rest, for you will need all your strength in the morning."

Yuffie bowed, smiling slightly. She had got the best of this round, and she knew it. Her father had always advocated total self control, and he had come dangerously close to losing his. She left the room before he could make any further comment.

**********

Wrapped up in her sleeping roll, Yuffie shifted uncomfortably. She realised now she had probably been foolish to refuse the offer of a warm, comfortable bed, but her pride would not have allowed any other course of action. Gazing up at the stars, she saw the Great Snake winding its way across the heavens. When she was little, she had always loved the stars, and memorized their names and patterns. Carrie was the one who had first shown her the constellations, and had taught her about them. She blinked back the tears that were threatening. She had never cried over Carrie. It was not the ninja way. Any warrior killed honourably in battle should be celebrated, not mourned, for they had done their duty to its full extent. Duty. Yuffie hated that word. Carrie had done what she had done because it was her duty. Tommorrow, Yuffie would do the same. Well, she decided, it would be the last time. If - no, when - she completed the trials, she would take over from her father, and she would force Wutai to change. She would drag it into the present, by whatever means necessary. People would do what was right because it was right, not out of duty. People would be loyal to Wutai because they respected it, not because it was their duty to do so....

Still planning how she would rule, Yuffie drifted into the most peaceful sleep she had had for weeks.

**********

The guards crossed their axes across the temple doors as she approached. They looked magnificent, wearing shining bronze breastplates and high, red-plumed helmets, the traditional armour of religious warriors and temple guards. Their skin was tanned, and the muscle of their arms rippled and bulged. Their axe blades glistened in the light of the rising sun. Yuffie suddenly felt very small. The temple towered over her, the first of the sun's rays casting long shadows across the ground behind it, and throwing the carvings on its walls into sharp relief. The one just over the doors looked like some giant beast; Yuffie shuddered.

"I am firstborn of the ruling house of Wutai, and I demand you let me past," she declared, filling her voice with far more confidence than she felt. Then guards looked down on her, silently, and stepped aside. They were forbidden to speak whilst on duty. The great double doors swung open, seemingly of their own accord. To Yuffie, they looked like the gaping maw of some hideous beast, waiting to devour her. Inside, she could see nothing but blackness, total and absolute. But from somewhere deep in the heart of the building, a half remembered voice seemed to beckon her onwards like a siren's call. Squaring her shoulders, she marched determinedly in, and the doors swung shut behind her.



The slam of the doors echoed through her head. The darkness had seemed to be total, but as her eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, Yuffie could make out a faint glow in front of her. Deciding there was no other way to go, she headed towards it. Her footsteps echoed off the walls on either side of her, magnified by the shape of the room. As she came nearer to it, she could see that the gleam was actually a series of torches, lighting a great chamber. But it was only when she stepped into it that she saw what was waiting for her inside.

Her first impression was the stench. It filled the room, a sickly sweet odour of rotting flesh. The creature was like nothing she had ever seen before. It stood at least seven feet tall, a great bulk of tangled, matted, filthy hair. It was resting on its haunches, and its front paws scuffed against the marble floor, sharp, horn-like claws scratching at the smooth surface. Its face seemed most like that of a bear, with a great, heavy jaw that dripped saliva, and its eyes were bloodshot, and rolled wildly in all directions. Catching sight of the ninja standing motionless at the entrance, it gave a deep, rumbling growl, like thunder before a downpour, and sprang at her.

Yuffie dodged to one side as the beast charged, slashing at its flank as it passed her. She instantly realised this was a mistake; it gave a howl of rage, and seeming not to notice the blood coursing down its leg, whirled round to face her. Its mouth opened wide, exposing rows of sharp, yellowed teeth, and reeking of decay. It swooped down at her, snapping viciously. There was only one thing to do. Yuffie ran.

Fortunately, she was faster than her pursuer, and managed to keep out of its way. However, she seriously doubted that she could outlast it stamina wise. She had to think of a plan, and fast. Making a quick leap as the beast charged her again, ramming its head into the wall, she stepped on something which crumbled beneath her feet. Thinking that the floor was collapsing, she sprang to one side. Risking a quick glance back, she saw that what she had stood on was the remains of a skeleton, and it looked to be human. Scraps of flesh still clung to it here and there, but the bones seemed to have been gnawed on. A single eyeball remained, staring balefully at her out of the fractured skull. Yuffie turned away, swallowing back the vomit rising in her throat, and didn't notice the creature's next attack until it was almost too late. There wasn't enough time to dodge, so instead she dropped and rolled. She avoided the crunch of its jaws, but one heavy forepaw caught her a crushing blow as she rolled away.

Badly winded, gasping for breath and feeling that her lungs were on fire, Yuffie staggered to her feet and started to run again, sure that she was going to collapse at any minute. She could feel blood seeping from a shallow cut in her back. Looking for her adversary, she found it hadn't moved. It was sitting back, licking her blood from its claw. It raised its shaggy head, and gave a roar. Then all the torches went out.

The blackness was suffocating. Yuffie had never been so scared. She ground her teeth together to keep from crying out, not wanting to give her position away. 'That's it,' she thought, trying to maintain at least a little of her mental discipline. 'If I can't see it, I'll have to listen for it.' At first, all she could hear was her own heart, pounding madly, but as she concentrated, she became aware of other sounds.

First it was the breathing. Rapid, shuddering gasps, like the panting of a dog. Then, as she held her body motionless, something far more frightening; heavy footfalls, soft, stealthy - and directly behind her, drawing nearer. Yuffie had done a fair amount of hunting in her time. More than once, she had herself been hunted. But never before had she felt the sheer terror of the prey animal that senses the predator behind it. She didn't scream. She didn't think. She just ran.

The beast bayed in excitment as it gave chase, sensing victory was at hand. But as Yuffie ran, her brain began to work again. Suddenly, she veered sharply to the left. She had a plan. It was stupid, reckless and likely to fail, but under the circumstances it was the best she could do.

The monster followed hot on her heels, still not quite able to match her speed, but confidant it would catch her soon enough. As she hit the wall, Yuffie started to run along it, one arm stretched upwards. Within twenty steps, she found what she was looking for - one of the torch brackets. Making a final effort, she jumped, catching hold of it with both hands and pulling herself up. Her speed had bought her some time; when the beast arrived beneath her, she had perched herself on top of the sturdy, wrought iron bar. She could smell the rank odour of the foul thing, and hear it snuffling about, seeking its missing kill. Trying not to think about what she was doing, she dropped down on top of it, straddling its neck.

The creature growled in rage and shook its head, trying to dislodge her, but she grabbed a handful of matted fur and held on tight, digging her heels into what she hoped were sensitive spots in its throat. Grasping her shuriken tightly, she started to hack into it.

Its skin was tough and leathery, and the fur proved difficult to cut through, but Yuffie kept on slashing desparately, knowing it was her only hope. The creature howled and thrashed about, but she held on grimly. It seemed to go on forever, but at long last she felt her blade slice through something soft and yielding. An instant later, hot, sticky blood gushed out, drenching her hands. The beast's cries became gargled, and it convulsed. Yuffie sprang clear, not wanting to be caught up in its death throes. With a last, despairing moan, the thing lay still. Yuffie sighed with relief, and the fear, pain and tiredness she'd been holding back rushed over her in a wave. She passed out.

When she came round, the torches were burning again. She got to her feet and brushed herself down. Looking round, she gasped. The body of the creature had vanished completely. The floor, which ought to have been slick with blood, was gleaming white. The skeleton, too, had gone. But strangest of all, the cut on her back seemed to have healed. Yuffie had heard of spells that could transport the mind somewhere and leave the body unharmed, but never on this kind of scale. And no matter whether it had happened in this room or in her head, she was sure she had had a narrow escape from death.

There was a door on the other side of the chamber which she was convinced hadn't been there when she entered. Sighing resolutely, she straightened her back, and headed for it.