The Dying of the Light Chapter 1

Captive Hopes

By Luna Manar

"I have been to Hell and Back
A pawn of time’s foul beck;
Sin-scarred Knight and branded Black
A king of beasts in check."


If there was one word that could describe Squall’s thoughts as of the moment he stepped into the Master Chamber of the cursed castle, it would have been "confused."

He had expected a great audience chamber, a mass of guardian beasts to protect the ruler of the time-compressed world. He had envisioned a throne surrounded by monsters, atrocities of nature to freeze the soul and creatures devised to deal all types of unspeakable deaths to any who would challenge their master. He had pictured an ornate room, filled with incense and candles, gold-trimmed curtains, tapestries and carvings about the ceiling. All these he had prepared himself for, plus an immediate attack upon his intrusion to Sorceress Ultimecia’s hallowed lair.

Instead he found not booby-traps and chaos, but what seemed, at first, to be a hollow, tomb-like shrine. Pillars held up the stout walls of the area, but there was none of the illustrious décor that would otherwise outfit a ruler’s chambers. Nothing of the sort, in fact; the floor was smooth tile, arranged in a simple design of blue and grey. There was no ceiling. The pillars that supported the structure also crowned it, giving it the appearance of a miniature coliseum. The walls were stone, even crumbling here and there, dusty and decrepit in the shadows. And in the center of it all was not a simple throne, but the only ornate design in the entire circular space.

High up on a pedestal, guarded only by two torches at either side, was a single chair, shaped to look more like that of a justice’s seat than a monarch’s throne. Behind and above, a stone griffin sat diligently watching, a silent, lonely sentinel that was the only private witness to the throne’s single occupant.

Having crept inside the doorway one by one, Squall, Quistis, Selphie, Zell, Rinoa and Irvine cast about their bizarre surroundings, and all lowered their weapons with hesitant wills at the lack of resistance they encountered. Save Rinoa, who carried no weapon. She stayed behind the others, her eyes locked on the initially motionless figure upon the throne.

"…The hell?" Zell sneered, cracked his neck in bored confusion at the empty-looking place. "Rinoa, I thought you said she was in here."

"She is," Squall answered for her, pointing to the elevated throne. "Look up there."

Zell did, shading his eyes as if to see far into the distance. "That’s her? But she’s like, meditating or somethin’. I thought that was a statue!"

Irvine nudged him in the shoulder. "Hey," he muttered, "don’t complain. Maybe it’s just the break we need to catch her off guard?"

The statue Ultimecia opened her golden eyes, and trained them wordlessly on those who would seek to destroy her.

Every murmur of conversation stopped. Every weapon was hefted with a click or a snap.

Selphie pulled on Irvine’s coat, hissed conspiratorially, "She heard that!"

All six froze in an odd sort of wonder. Was this truly Ultimecia? Had they reached her, at last?

The woman in the throne moved, finally, stretching the claw-like fingers of her right hand and sighing visibly, as if awakening from a long nap. Little could be seen of her while she was sitting, save a grandly exaggerated headpiece, giving her the appearance of sporting two long, tapering horns that meandered outward two feet to either side of her smallish head. Her face was narrow and painted, velvety violet stripes gracing her ashen cheeks to meet at the corners of her thin, dark lips. She was obscenely pale, a violent contrast to her rich, dark robes. Long tresses of silver hair fell across her shoulders, though to look at her, she could not have been much older than a college girl.

The two sides were silent for long moments, staring, sizing each other up while the wind howled beyond the walls.

"Well…" The word was Ultimecia’s, the first she had spoken. She sounded like one prematurely aged, a raucous, distinctly staccato crow’s voice echoing from the throat of a young woman. "What a surprise. So you are the one who has headed the fight. I did not think that we would meet again." Her eyes singled out the leader of her assassins, pinning him with spade-shaped pupils.

Squall’s eyes pulled up in confusion. She was speaking to him. What is she talking about?

"Squall, do you know—"

"No," he cut Rinoa’s question off in the middle with a sharp look over his shoulder. "I don’t…"

"Of korse not," the sorceress spat from her high-rise. "No man could ever remember such things—"

It was Ultimecia’s turn to be interrupted, by a high-toned voice of the smallest of the six, a girl in yellow who pushed her way through to the front of the group. "Set all the people free," Selphie cried, as commanding as she could make herself sound, "and fix time back to the way it should be!" She fixed Ultimecia with an uncharacteristic scowl. "Or else, we’ll have to destroy you, and we’d rather not do that."

Speak for yourself, Squall caught himself thinking.


Squall twisted, barely avoiding a edge of a white-hot rod of energy that had erupted from one of the torches at Ultimecia’s side. The cry he heard immediately following his evasive maneuver had been Irvine’s—and he felt the hairs on his neck rise as though they’d been singed by the beam that had rushed past him. A murmur grew around him, and he fought the inclination to turn and stare. He would not turn his back on Ultimecia. But the more he listened, the more desperately he wanted to see—though he didn’t need to, from what it sounded like. His jaw clenched anxiously, and his hands gripped his weapon tighter as he listened to the verdict from the parched throat of the witch:

"Time is as it should be."

And behind him, though he could not see, he knew—Selphie was gone. Just like that. No real reason, no warning, no fight. That was it. She was…

Squall’s brow furrowed. That was too easy.

Irvine’s choked voice behind him only confirmed Squall’s dark belief. The attack had not been meant for him. Only to silence the offender who had dared to cry out in the defense of humankind.

"Sefie… Aw, no…"

For Squall, Irvine’s grief faded into a haze of his own anger. From the corner of his eye, he saw Rinoa come to stand beside him, and he didn’t care to read what news was on her face. Selphie…you didn’t even get to fight. Though he loathed to see the expression, Squall forced himself to look away from Ultimecia’s impassive leer, and at Rinoa’s shocked expression of grief.

Not even Selphie’s Guardians had not been able to protect her.

But it was just a single blast of magic. Nothing special. How…? What kind of power is this?

Squall’s mind whirled. Was Ultimecia truly that strong? Every defense they had prepared, every shield they had erected before they had set foot in this room—was it all for nothing? He searched Rinoa’s stare for answers. He found none. Selphie…

Until now, Squall had not lost a single person under his command, not outside of the Gardens’ clash. It seemed that record no longer stood.

He felt a hand on his other shoulder, turned to find Quistis staring at him. She was clearly frightened.

So am I. They were all frightened.

Zell knelt beside Irvine and the fallen Selphie, who lay unmoving at the base of the door they had come through, a large, black mark scorched into the chest of her yellow outfit. The oversized nunchakus she had been holding only moments ago lay broken and tangled alongside her lifeless form. She looked peaceful, as though sleeping, but Zell knew without feeling that it was not a sleep to be interrupted, likely for good. Oddly, he could not find it in himself to grieve. He could not feel anything at all. Only the vague, emotionless realization that this was it—he was here, at the end of their journey, and they would face Ultimecia to the death.

Amidst a momentary panic in which he didn’t truly feel fear, Zell leaned closer to Irvine and roughly shook his sorrow-shocked friend by the shoulder, whispering at the top of his throat. "Shit, man, whaddo we do?"

Shrugging the SeeD off with an irritable shove, Irvine dismissed the question, too deep in the image of Selphie’s prone heap to care about much else. "I dunno," he choked in response. "Squall’s the genius."

Zell frowned. "Bull! He can’t do everything himself! We gotta—"

He froze, stared. Selphie was fading, becoming translucent before his eyes.

Irvine’s choked cry nearly came as a screech as he tried desperately to hold onto the still hand of Selphie’s slowly vanishing form. But the more transparent she became, so too did she grow more insubstantial, and in moments, Irvine’s trembling fingers were clutching at cold, soulless air.

The sharpshooter’s eyes seemed dead. He knelt, unbreathing, beside the place where Selphie had once been. "We…we stopped believing," he murmured suddenly, blindly looking over at Zell.

"Whoa, hang it, Irv…you sayin’ that when she died, we stopped believing she existed? I don’t think so, man."

"No! Can’t you SeeDs use your heads?" Irvine slammed his eyes shut, tearing his hat from his head and clutching it in both hands. "To us, she’s gone! Gone!"

"So she disappears? I still don’t get it—" Zell’s attention was stolen by Squall’s voice, raised and angry in Ultimecia’s direction. He looked behind him to see their leader advancing slowly toward Ultimecia’s pedestal.

"So what if I led a war," he was shouting, slashing at the air with his free arm. "Aren’t I just another SeeD to you?"

Ultimecia, having watched the proceedings dispassionately, daintily folded her knife-point hands. "Ahh, SeeD…"

It was a pleasant voice, one that put Squall on edge and made the hairs rise at the back of his neck once more, this time in a chilling sense of recognition that he had not felt a moment ago. He’d heard that coarse voice before, he was sure of it…

"SeeD, SeeD…." She seemed to contemplate, then began to laugh. "SeeD, SeeD, SeeD! Bah! Fools, all of you. Kurse all SeeDs." The sorceress leaned back easily in her throne, lifting her right arm to motion with her devilish hand as she spoke, her casual tone filling the open room with an air of deception. "You spend your worthless lives preparing for a hopeless battle. Now, you swarm on your fruitless crusade like lokusts across the generations, spreading your righteous vanity like a plague!" She lost her calm, her grating voice became one of disdain and scorn. "Very well, then… Soon you will see, children, the naïves that you are."

Squall felt the sorceress’ stare turn on him before he saw it, met it, held it. Hatred, pure and unencumbered, twisted in his heart.

He hadn’t the chance to act upon it. "But you!" Ultimecia leveled a slender finger at him.

The pain was sharp, quick. It failed to bring a sound from Squall as her directed words cast an unseen spell that hauled him off the floor and into the air. This was no lightweight levitation spell he was subject to; he felt as though someone was holding him up by his ribs. He struck out uselessly with his weapon, slashing only air, stopped the struggle when little came of it, and hung in the air by nothing, staring lividly at this witch who held him in her power. His breaths came heavy, not out of fear but that terrible hatred; somehow, instinctively, he knew this was Ultimecia and not a counterfeit. He also knew, though he had never before seen her—or had he?—that he hated her, despised her with a passion so powerful it shocked him. His eyes narrowed at her, his brow knitted. She stared back with infuriating coolness.

He could see her, now, in clear detail. She stood slowly, revealing a voluptuous figure barely concealed by robes of blood red. Her body was painted, too; stripes, like artificial veins, traced her pale flesh in currents along the contours of her belly, throat, and what was visible of young breasts that belied the aged voice and hair of this woman of timeless power. Behind her—what he had thought at first to be a decoration of her throne—raven-black wings folded with a soft rustle. Sorceress wings, like Rinoa’s, only these were black and sleek, not of the encompassing softness Squall had seen in Rinoa’s, had often wished he could touch. He recoiled from Ultimecia’s image as something poisonous, even as it captivated him; it was a dark beauty that graced this sorceress, sensual, arousing in an awful, sickening sort of way. His mind struggled like a thing speared.

A simple motion of Ultimecia’s clawed fingers sent the gunblade flying from his hand. At first, both Squall and Ultimecia had ignored the shouts below them. Squall noticed one voice, now. He heard it through the sharp pain that had assaulted his hand, beyond even the cold, rising ache that seemed to be gradually creeping outward from his gut. He heard the weapon clatter to the floor, and then—

Searing pain shot through his body like a bolt, made him jerk in midair. He spat a sharp cry of shock.


Rinoa— His mind, if not his voice, reciprocated the call with automatic responsiveness. He shut trembling eyes against the pain, suddenly weak beyond fathoming. He barely managed to raise his head and open his eyes wide enough to see that he was hanging in a nightmarishly familiar fashion, arms forced out to his sides. He felt constricted and fought for breath he couldn’t seem to catch. He noticed distantly that the pain in his gut had spread out to his hands, and that it was channeling through thread-thin lines that appeared to pass straight through him—

Through him?

Squall’s consciousness returned fully at this realization, and he forced himself to look around him. He growled and hung his head feebly, trembled on the support of three wires that did indeed pass straight through him, skewering his stomach and wrists. The spell that had been lifting him up was gone. He was supported twenty feet in the air by the torturous strings alone. He dared not move. Any motion caused the black things that held him to rake ruthlessly at every muscle and nerve they passed through. He turned his head to search the ground below him for—something. What had he in mind? Voices reached him from below, all at once, overlapping each other like rising steam.

"Ultimecia, let him go—"

"Holy shit, the hell is she doing—"

"No, Squall—"

He heard loud cracks and felt the world shake painfully around him as a number of powerful spells struck a bubble-shaped dome around Ultimecia. The blasts faded away harmlessly. You can’t get to her that way, he thought silently to his friends. She’s too strong…our magic doesn’t mean anything to her. Ultimecia was talking to him. He had come closer to her somehow, brought to her on a whim. He lifted his head to stare at her through a haze that stung. He heard her too clearly.

"You," she spat accusatorily . "Led them. Brought them here. Are you fool enough to think I wouldn’t notice!"

He started to answer. "You—"

"Silence! Look down there, Squall. Look at your friends."

Slowly, unable to do anything else, Squall did so. He saw four faces staring at him, all wide-eyed with fear. Looking into those helpless expressions, he understood with a terrible, numbing certainty that he was to be butchered before their eyes.

"The ones you care for the most," Ultimecia hissed, "the ones who trust you to all ends, you have brought them here, and their blood is on your hands."

Like hell… Squall shook the guilt she was throwing on his shoulders. He knew that giving up on the basis of shame was a incantation for ruin. He tried to buy time. If he could find the mind to think, come up with anything, a skill learned in Garden, a spell, anything that would break the magical wires that pierced him and held him suspended and paralyzed… "What…you choose to do, I have no control over," he rasped through the hot pain in his lungs. "If they die, it isn’t anyone’s fault…but yours." He coughed, causing the wires to slide mercilessly against his insides. He grimaced at the metallic taste of his own blood, and forced himself to swallow the gore despite the tightening knot in his throat, lest he drool red as he murmured shakily, "I’m not just giving up. Just a bully…you’re just a bully like Seifer."

"Brave words," was the predictable answer, "but foolish ones." Ultimecia, bored of the stunned silence below her and Squall’s stubborn stolidity, smiled wickedly at the horrified fools below her, waved her arm in Squall’s direction. "You’ve had your chance. Now, they will watch you suffer!"

This time Squall was conscious of his injury, and his choked and broken shouts of torture rebounded off the high walls of the place as several more "wires"—barbed and frayed here and there like old twine—struck him one after another, from all odd directions, with no discernable source or end. They shot into and through his shoulders, his sides, arms, legs, all at uneven angles, twisting him forcibly until he resembled nothing so much as a ragged marionette whose strings had become hopelessly tangled. He choked wretchedly as a thorny thread settled itself securely just beside and against his heart. His heavy pulse became torture with every beat.

Ultimecia seemed pleased with his reaction. "Feel the agony, Squall," she hissed fervently. "Enjoy it, for it shall be all you know!"

Some distant part of Squall’s mind registered the fact that her voice had changed, suddenly. Ultimecia no longer sounded hateful or even angry; her tone had smoothed out, become encouraging, even alluring. He fought against a sudden, terrible inclination to simply release his mind, release his will. The light of Rinoa’s voice below began to cloud over with Ultimecia’s presence. Squall shuddered, pain forgotten.

I’ll give you one last chance, Ultimecia’s voice whispered seductively to him in the darkness. Release your will to me, Squall. Let me cherish your soul. You will never have to fear again. Never will you fear death, for it will claim you! She curled her deadly fingers into a fist. Surrender, Squall! To me, Squall, to me… Squall…

"Squall! Squall!"

The screams penetrated Squall’s overcast mind, a shaft of blinding sound in his slowly fading realm of will.

What? Ultimecia’s voice lost its enchantment, and Squall pulled himself from her—pulled his soul from her.

Not you— He cried out defiantly, and for a time he faced Ultimecia in his mind. In the next moment, he had powerfully, violently forced her out.

The wires snapped taut and lifted him up a few inches, hoisting him to a new height of pain and bringing forth a fractured, agonized growl that caught and stuttered in his throat. He gasped in shock, breathed in some of his own blood, and retched, which only served to make the wires of torture tremble.

She can’t have me, he managed to himself through the agony, through the fear. Ultimecia…that’s it. That’s why she hasn’t killed me. That’s why she hasn’t killed any of them. She wants me alive. She wants…she wants me!

"You cannot imagine what I can offer you…"

"Squall, don’t listen!"


"Don’t let her! Squall, fight her!"

Ultimecia’s cooing voice echoed once again in his mind, drowning out Rinoa’s cries, but failing to impede their message. You have no power against me, Squall. You cannot fight forever. Spare yourself so much torture…let me have you. Let me embrace you. Come with me, give me your power—Squall, you will be my Knight!

Again she reached for him. Again he forced her away from his spirit. I don’t think so, he fired back silently, no longer aware of the time-compressed world around him. That’s the last thing I’ll let you do.

Welcome me, and you will live a fantasy you couldn’t possibly dream of. Accept me, and I will grant your wish of finality, Squall. Deny me, Ultimecia warned him, and you will know the true meaning of suffering!

Better that than to be screwed over by you. Squall felt Ultimecia’s power grasp at his soul, and he forced it back a third time. Forget it. You can’t control me. It occurred to him that that is what made Ultimecia so desperate. She could not control him, could not take him unless he fell to her. But why did she want him? What did he have that she felt she needed?

Agony fell upon him in torrents. Images flashed in his mind’s eye, terrible images of pain, death and desolation. Balamb Garden, a crashed heap in the middle of a desecrated Esthar, both gutted from the inside and blackened to rot at Ultimecia’s will. Ellone, captive to Galbadia’s wardens and subject to their every joke and command and erotic desire. Rinoa, cornered by a monster that lingered on the edge of sight, such that only her frightened eyes and cowering body were visible before the shadowy beast rushed in and tore her to pieces in terrible, bloody detail. Himself, standing on the other end of a thin, transparent wall, only inches away but helpless to do anything but watch in horror and listen to her screams as the monster ripped her apart piece by agonizing piece.

The wires that held Squall became nothing to him. Pain had a different meaning now. His heart lurched, his stomach threatened to twist out of his gut, and his entire body shook in a ragged cry of torment.

You made your choice, Ultimecia crowed in his mind. Now, suffer the consequences of your folly!

"Stop it!" He could hear Rinoa scream, but could do nothing to ease her fear, her suffering, and he hated himself for it, hated Ultimecia for it. He fought the illusion, refused to believe that Rinoa was dead, that the images shown to him were anything but fiction. And if she lived…because she lived…Rinoa had only to choose to fight. He also knew that such a decision would have to be hers alone. He could only hang here. He could not fight. He had no strength. There was only one thing he could do, only one defense he could wield—his last and ultimate weapon:


Below Squall’s tortured form, Rinoa could not bear it any longer. Though Quistis stood behind her and tried to grab her shoulder to prevent her from moving toward Squall and, therefore, the witch, she avoided the hand and rushed forward a few steps, standing almost directly below Squall’s skewered and trembling body. As she stared in terrified disbelief at the scene, her eyes fell to the stone floor, which was already beginning to bear the stain of a few drops of hot red, darkening the rock.

She knew what Ultimecia was doing to him. Physical pain would never draw Squall into Ultimecia’s maw of power. But madness, madness induced through torture of the soul… What can I do? Someone behind her threw another spell, which sizzled harmlessly out of existence after striking Ultimecia’s barrier. I can’t fight…I can’t fight without him! Despair pooled in her throat. She could always fight, always, as long as Squall was there beside her. But now, he was the one who needed to be fought for. The others had no ability to help him. So she had to. She was the only one with that power. She watched another drop of blood spatter against the stone. Her expression hardened, and she lifted her face to the wicked sorceress responsible for Squall’s suffering. Her voice was angry, high-pitched, a scream from her heart. "Ultimecia—!"

Who only ignored her, continued regarding Squall with pride in her work, pride that sweetened her voice once again. "Such a pathetik sight." She chuckled quietly. "Worthless, if you do not serve me. You come here, when you know you have no power against me. What a fool."

Squall had heard Rinoa’s enraged voice. "Yeah," he murmured quietly in response to Ultimecia’s claim. Without any real breath, his words were tainted with his blood, but for a time, he vanquished the nightmares in his mind that threatened to tear his sanity into chaotic shreds. "What…you don’t know can’t kill you, right?" With supreme effort, he lifted his head to stare Ultimecia in the face. His eyes narrowed once again, but not in hatred, this time; his expression was one of calm amusement.

Ultimecia did not like this look. He knew something she did not. Once more, she tried to reach into his mind to take this understanding from him and make it her own. Once more, he deflected her with little effort.

She was startled by a flaring blast that caused her shield to stiffen, and the bubble of protection became visible in a myriad of colors and streaks of energy. The barrier held, but the attack had made a considerable disturbance. Whatever had struck at her had been exceedingly powerful. For the first time in minutes, her attention turned from Squall and to the ground below. Her dagger-point eyes scanned the four living creatures before her, and the gaze eventually fell upon one, a girl in blue. Recognition further chilled Ultimecia’s cold heart.

This foolish chit of a girl had storms in her narrow eyes, and seemed to be staring as much in concentration as anger. But how? Ultimecia should have sensed her before. Not to mention, the girl should have died in the ruthless cold of space! How was she still alive? "She is here!" The black-winged sorceress turned a smoldering glower on Squall, who hung limply, lifelessly in his little world of pain. If Rinoa could loose a spell powerful enough to strain Ultimecia’s barrier…then she must still be a sorceress!

For the first time since she had seen these children, Ultimecia felt a tinge of real fear. Her murderous scowl sent tremors through the wires that held Squall, punishing him. Her mind sent terrible, heart-wrenching images to him, emotions of raw despair, loneliness, fear. This was his doing. The life of this sorceress child—it was his fault!

"How dare you," Ultimecia spoke quietly, dangerously, and her folded black wings shivered, an action that was mirrored by Squall’s supports, shaking the wires ferociously, bringing a weak cry of physical and emotional rending from this young SeeD who had done her such injustice. Her tone was level, matter-of-fact and pitiless. "You shall die, Squall, and they will be witness to your death! But death will not come to you quickly. Not until you give yourself to me!"

Squall was still recovering from the shock of the twisting wires, managed to answer with a weak threat that held within it every hope he had ever harbored of surviving this encounter. "Doesn’t matter. If I die, Rinoa…" His eyes darted down to the blue sorceress, remembering with feverish intensity the power he had sensed in the white wings. To his surprise, she was looking back at him, and for the briefest of moments, both suffering stares locked. "…Rinoa will fight you." And she was whole, she was alive—he would never believe the horrid lies that Ultimecia forced upon his soul. No, it was all a lot of fantasy. Meaningless, hollow. What he saw staring up at him was real, and what he felt in his heart, that was real, too. He did not look away from her, and Rinoa’s resolve started to buckle under the pain she saw in his quivering eyes. But his face solidified, and he silently forbade her to fall to her despair. You can do this, Rinoa. You have the ability. Use it. "Even without me," he continued to speak to Ultimecia, though he did not for a moment remove his stare from Rinoa. "she has the power to destroy you. She and the others—"

The scorn he received for this distant warning was expected, and the wires that skewered him vibrated horribly in reprimand. "She is a mere trifle."

Rinoa had to step back to avoid being hit by the light rain of blood that fell to the floor. Fueled by anger, she whirled and released another white lance like she had used before on Ultimecia’s shield. It was absorbed in the same manner as the previous one.

"Bah," Ultimecia scoffed, sneering. "You are in love with her. How diskusting. A self-defeating concept, Squall. You of all people should know that by now. You can’t possibly know the meaning of real love?" The sorceress eyed him as though he should understand what she was talking about.

Squall ignored her to the best of his ability, refusing to listen. He was keeping his eyes open to replace Ultimecia’s hallucinations with the real sight of Rinoa’s face.

The punishment for his defiance was many times anything he had endured before now. The wires twisted inside him, tearing muscle, constricting his heart. His mind became a killing field; friends died countless times in various, torturous fashions. The reality of hopelessness wrapped around him, suffocating him, and through it all, he wondered what his faceless parents would have done, had they known the fate that would one day befall their son.

"Ultimecia, release him!"

"Oh!" The witch scoffed at Rinoa’s scream. "And for what reason, I ask you?" She gestured at Squall, who was all but dead hanging from wires that had suddenly thickened to steel cables. "You are in no position to make demands!"

"Because he’s not yours!" With a cautious step forward, the blue sorceress made a fist with one hand, absently letting it stray to her chest. "He’s given his heart to someone else. He has no need of you."

"You know not what you speak of," Ultimecia sneered in disgust. Of korse he needs me. Only I can offer him his true destiny."

"He can choose his own ‘destiny!’"

"How little you know, foolish girl."

Staring up at Ultimecia, Rinoa almost didn’t notice that the world around her had vanished into black. She was left standing alone in a cold white spotlight, and when she turned around, found her friends gone. The only other people she could see were Ultimecia and Squall, and the latter was fast fading into the darkness.

"You think you can kontend with me?" Ultimecia’s voice surrounded even the blackness.

Rinoa whirled and stared at her in furious spite. "Where are the others?" she demanded shrilly. "You better not have hurt them!"

"Their kondition is no fare of yours." Ultimecia now regarded Rinoa with calm impassiveness, spreading and then folding her ravenshaded wings. "My suggestion to you is to leave. Now. No harm will come to you if you do this."

"Let Squall and the rest of them go, and I’ll think about it."

The witch on her pedestal shook her head and tsked in what could have passed for honest sympathy, had Rinoa believed Ultimecia capable of such an emotion. "How unfortunate, little sorceress who does not understand what she is. You should have died in orbit, girl. You would have been so much better off."

Rinoa watched tensely as Ultimecia spread her wings again, the palms of her clawed hands pressed flat against each other. The sorceress’ pedestal faded away, and when it was gone, she still remained aloft, descending only once her hands had parted. Her arms drifting down to her sides, she lowered herself to the floor with all the grace of living mist.

Rinoa backed up an involuntary pace. As a sorceress, she had also learned that she, too, could levitate herself using only her mind—no spells whatsoever—but she was awkward, clumsy at it to the point of not trusting herself to so much as boost herself six feet off the ground. But Ultimecia—she maneuvered air and earth as though there was little difference between the two.

Against such ease, if Ultimecia meant to fight, how could Rinoa hope to survive? Even if their abilities were ultimately the same, Rinoa had no idea how to engage in a sorceress’ duel, much less win. Her adversary seemed so much more experienced... Rinoa glanced up at the place Squall should have been, hanging from his wires. He was gone.

She was alone.

"And now, little witch," Ultimecia purred as she examined her own hands, ascertaining they were razor-sharp to her satisfaction, "We shall see who is superior in this challenge you have brought me. And you will die. I will tolerate no further interruptions."

Rinoa, strike at her! His body would not last much longer, but Squall’s heart was still alive to call to Rinoa beneath his torment. Fight her! She can’t handle me and you at the same time! Do something. Anything! Damn it, Rinoa! Again he felt the blade-edged cables curl in his guts and under his skin. With Ultimecia’s attention focused mainly on Rinoa, he had been able to fend off the nightmares, fight through to consciousness and hold onto it so that he could see what was happening before him.

Time was null. He knew that. To anyone other than Rinoa, Ultimecia, and himself, what he saw was not taking place, nor would it ever. He dared to struggle against the wires, to create a distraction, anything to veer the witch away from Rinoa. If he could draw Ultimecia’s attentions for long enough…

He ceased struggling with a dismal groan. If I do that much more, I’ll kill myself. He was no good to Rinoa dead. She and Ultimecia were facing each other. Rinoa looked terrified, though she was doing her best not to show it. She kept looking in his direction, but acted as though she couldn’t see him. Had Ultimecia masked him from her view?

She thinks she’s alone…

Squall’s own fear rose in his constricted throat, widening his bloodshot eyes. He knew Rinoa, knew that she could not stand alone, could not fight if she thought she was the only one left. Despite her earlier spouts of self-driven assaults on Ultimecia’s shield, she was still dependant on others for support. If she felt that no one else was there with her, she would most certainly falter…

Rinoa! Rinoa, I’m right here! I’m here watching you. You’re not alone! Salt sweat stung his dry eyes. He trembled, trying, then forcing himself to take in the breath to speak, to cry out, make some sort of noise. If she could not see him, then perhaps she would be able to hear him. Come on, damn you, take a breath. Take a breath, say something, her name, anything.

"Rinoa! I’m here! Fight her—"

His air and words were choked off by the cables. He felt the life being squeezed from him. His breath stuttered in a bloody retch.

No…she won’t kill me. She wants me alive. She won’t kill me… "She—she’s a master…of illusions!"

If his words could be heard by anyone but Ultimecia, he did not know. But on the chance that Rinoa could hear him, if only faintly…if he could anger Ultimecia enough, get her to punish him enough, her guard would weaken, and Rinoa could strike…but only one way. And it meant his own destruction.

‘Your words may not reach her, Squall, but your heart will.’

He screamed past the atrocities that flooded his mind, seeing the images but not comprehending them. "She hasn’t—taken you on…because she’s afraid!" The cables threatened to tear him apart. "Afraid of us! Of you and I, together!"

Ultimecia’s rage flooded him, attacking every sense and thought, tearing at his soul in a blind, sadistic fury.

"Strike at her! Fight—"

Another wire. Another blade, pressed against his throat. He could no longer speak.


"Squall?" Rinoa grasped at the air weakly, reaching for where Squall should be, but was not. Her fingers curled softly, closing around a hand she could no longer hold. Tears brought fire to her coal-black eyes.

The witch had taken him. Taken him away to torture him. And there was nothing Rinoa could do about it.

Rinoa felt her knees begin to give way, stumbled and barely kept herself standing. Squall!

Ultimecia had her hand up about to throw the killing spell. So this is how it ends, thought the blue sorceress in her despair. This is…my death. Squall… She thought back to her life, wished she could have said good-bye to so many people. Angelo…I hope someone takes good care of you. Maybe Headmaster Cid will. He’s so kind…he’d understand.

This couldn’t be right. There were too many people counting on her, counting on Squall, on Zell, Quistis, on all of them.

A master…of illusions…

A whispering in her heart reached her in bitter fragments. She almost didn’t hear it. Her eyes rose from her defeated despair and stared out into the blackness, away from the sight of the witch who was murmuring words that she somehow could understand, lyrics to a song of death that would take Rinoa and her soul into the darkness of Ultimecia’s hell of servitude. "Squall…?"

…she’s afraid!

Rinoa was once again straining to see into the dark, up where Squall should have been. "What…?" Was it really Squall that she heard, or were her memories playing cruel tricks with her?

Afraid of us!

"I don’t understand." She trembled. Was it him? She could hear the final words of Ultimecia’s inescapable incantation.

You and I…

"Squall, where are you!" A nightmare. This had to be a nightmare.

She’s a master of illusions…afraid of us…of you and I…

A figure shuddered in the blackness, suspended high above the floor. Has he been there all along?

Rinoa, I’m right here!

"I can hear you..." Her whisper did not seem to make a sound. She faced Ultimecia, who raised her arm to the black heavens.

Fight her! You’re not alone!

Blankly, the blue sorceress watched Ultimecia’s hand fall to throw the spell. Squall’s ring felt heavy and cold against her skin.

You and I—

It was coming for her. Her arm drifted up to ward off eternity, but ended up clutching the necklace of silver and steel and holding it tight against her chest. Her lips spoke in tandem with the last word she heard, cried out a singular incantation as the white-hot fire of Ultimecia’s blast enveloped her.


The explosion flared and expanded, seemed to encompass the infinity of darkness in its entirety, a force of destruction that reached beyond the dark and into the deepness of endless existence. It surrounded her, blinded her with its brilliance. All around her, she could hear screaming, like the voices of a hundred tortured souls. She fell to her knees, aghast at the hellish roar—thousands upon thousands of spirits, all trapped, all howling in despair and pain, the agony of each one of them tangible to her. Pain so strong, it went beyond description. The pain of one who is being eaten alive, the screams of so many souls that now fed Ultimecia’s dark heart of power. Trembling, Rinoa buried her face in her hands and wept with them, every spirit held captive within Ultimecia’s dungeon all and at once became her own. And Squall—was he to be one of them?

This can’t be happening! How can anything so horrible be real?!

Then it died. All of it—the screaming, the blinding light, the searing heat, the death and desolation and fear. With a start she pushed herself to her feet, and stood staring.

There he was. Trembling, suffering with the thousands, and gazing back at her with the saddest eyes that Rinoa had ever seen.

Ultimecia rose into the air and propelled herself backward to stand on nothing beside the cretin who had dared give her enemy support.

"Fool! Worthless brat!"

Squall heard the curses, felt the harsh bite of claws on his cheek, but could not respond. He had no more strength left, had used what he didn’t have in reserve to cry out in anguish at the sight of Ultimecia’s power consuming Rinoa. He could barely move his eyes to see, or lift his head enough to stare. Blood streamed in rivulets from his wire-cut throat, and he tasted more of the sickening stuff in his mouth, but had no power to spit it out. He felt his heart dying, and could not fight or even react to the fear that was befalling him.

He couldn’t so much as whimper as the steel cords pulled tighter. He had no choice. He would await death in silence.

Ultimecia was laughing, a raucous, nauseating noise. "Worthless! You make my life difficult. Your defiance is astounding, Squall. It makes no difference. She will die when I have a chance to deal with her. Meanwhile, there is nothing she can do to fight me. And while you hang here, dying…" With a horrible smile, Ultimecia reconsidered her judgement. "Ah, no, but you will not die, not yet."

Squall wished he could have shaken his terror, or released the painful fear in some way. He could only listen as Ultimecia spelled out his sentence with unholy pleasure. "You deserve far worse. All of you, including those nitwits you brought with you. Death will bring no respite! What you shall endure is Death beyond Death, a dimension beyond your wildest imaginings, where I am Truth, and all shall serve me for the rest of what you kall eternity! –But you," she hissed, her voice constricting in choked rage as she pulled him closer on his wires, "you will not be a slave. You have not the right! You will suffer agony beyond komprehension, but you will never die! Tell me, Squall, what is your worst nightmare? What grips your heart and twists your soul? What is the worst pain you can imagine? I will make it a hundred times as potent!"

Squall opened his eyes, raised his head just enough to look over at the place Rinoa had been.

She was still staring at him. Still alive. She had survived? There was disbelief and pain in her eyes. Had she realized, too, the only way to kill Ultimecia—here and now? That’s right, he urged her silently. You can’t help me, Rinoa. The only thing you can do for me is stop this pain, and take Ultimecia down in the process. End this, he pleaded, closing his eyes which were finally beginning to slicken with sadness. Don’t let this go on any longer than it has to. You have the power, he thought solemnly. Strike at Ultimecia.

Strike at me!

The blue sorceress stood shaking, terrifyingly aware of the power she had just utilized. She had the strength to repel Ultimecia’s attack with only a thought. She had never dreamed that possible. But…then, what Edea had told her must have been true. No matter how deadly the sorceress, no matter her age or experience… ‘All those who share Hyne’s power stand on level ground.’

Rinoa was no more and no less powerful than Ultimecia herself. The witch’s strength alone could not harm her. Squall had helped her see that. Now he suffered Ultimecia’s punishment for it.

Rinoa could not hurt Ultimecia with brute force, any more than Ultimecia could harm her. The black-winged sorceress would only deflect or absorb her attacks. The shield around her could stand up to most anything at all.

But not the wires.

Thinking about any way she could get around Ultimecia’s shield, Rinoa remembered with a knot in her throat that the cables holding Squall in his contorted hell of hallucination were of Ultimecia’s creation. In order to keep them in existence, and to control them, the evil witch had to be supplying them with energy directly. If Rinoa attacked the center point of those wires instead of Ultimecia…she could do it. She could hurt the witch, maybe even kill her.

So, too, would she kill Squall. He had no defense against such destructive forces. By fighting Ultimecia, Rinoa would be sentencing Squall to death, by the hand of the one he loved.

She put her hand to her lips and shook her head fervently, tears painting her cheeks. He stared back, his eyes pleading. Did he know what she had to do? And if she did do it, was there any guarantee it would work in the first place? No…but one thing for certain: such an attack would kill Squall, no matter its effect on Ultimecia.

Too painful. Too sad. There had to be another way.

I don’t care if I hurt Ultimecia or not. She toyed with Squall’s ring—now warm in her hand—and meandered a few steps in the direction of the terrible spectacle she beheld. Ultimecia noted her presence, but did not seem concerned by it. I just want you to stop hurting. I never want you to hurt, Squall, and never…never like this! It would be better…wouldn’t it?

‘Squall, don’t! I’m a sorceress.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘SeeD will come kill me. And the leader of SeeD is you, Squall…"

‘That’s enough! I’d never do anything like that.’

‘I’ll be here…’

A soft light came to her eyes. Her tears turned to watery crystals as she stared. She felt wings at her back, and the answer in her heart. Yes, that was it. The only way.

Slowly, she let go of the ring.

Far away, Squall smiled weakly and lowered his gaze to the darkness.

I promise.


The sorceress sneered in irritation as a massive blast of sheer force tore uselessly at her impenetrable shield. The fool girl was trying to stop the sorceress from hurting her beloved. In response, Ultimecia decided to twist the knife deeper. Another wire was added. It passed through the broken SeeD’s knee, shattering bone and grinding against the broken shards, turning his leg at a sickeningly unnatural angle. He made no sound, but his agony radiated from him in waves. Too bad, that he could not faint from pain in this unearthly place. There was no such thing as too much pain.

Pain… Pain!

The heat was almost unbearable, but Squall absorbed it with relish, basking in the deadly power of Rinoa’s attack. It was the first wave of true relief he had felt since this torture had begun, and now the prospect of death by love’s gentle blade was indeed welcome. As Rinoa’s unhindered magic coursed through him, he felt Ultimecia’s power over him weaken. Elated in this final freedom, his body stretched, heedless of the wires, which were snapping all around him into glittery showers.

Squall’s eyes closed as the fatal rush of Rinoa’s energy found its way into his mind, where it expanded, then plunged, sharp and true, into his heart. For a moment, all he knew was the heat—there was no pain—and he existed as energy, formless. His body had become a shell that shivered and glowed like a dying star. The power inundated him, became a part of him. Inside of him, it focused condensed, and finally, mercifully exploded.

The star went nova. Within his heart became a storm.

With a shriek of pain, Ultimecia retracted her mind like a hand that had touched a hot stove. Before her eyes, the cables that held up her captive began to thin, weaken and snap one by one, vanishing into thin beams of light or shattering into sparkling fragments that fell like magical confetti to the floor.

The blackness was gone. She was back on her pedestal. The throne room surrounded them. Not seconds had passed since she had conjured her endless torture chamber.

Another sting of pain, and more of the wires gave way, bursting into shimmering sparks or simply disappearing as she lost her control over each one. A third shock to the network, this one ten times the power of the other blasts, and she was forced to release it completely. With it, her SeeD captive.

Squall dropped twenty feet to the stone floor, a broken, bloody mess of pain and exhaustion.

But still alive.

Innovative, Ultimecia noted, silently. The girl must have struck the edges of the magical cables to weaken them, and by doing so had avoided killing the boy. She’d also lost her only chance to deal Ultimecia a heavy blow. The witch smiled to herself. Rinoa’s unwillingness to sacrifice him had doomed them all.

Freed from Ultimecia’s influence, Squall regained consciousness, only to lose it again after a brief, delirious glance about him.

The girl was rushing to him, calling his name.

Ultimecia would not allow her the privilege. With a violent swipe of her hand, she forced Rinoa backward, sending her reeling into the wall beside the entrance to the room. A blue shield took the brunt of her impact, saving her from any serious injury and gouging a dusty crater in the stone structure of the castle.

Wait, she prodded herself all of a sudden. She is a sorceress. Yes. Useful…I will tolerate it.

So the little bitch could play games. Fine. So could Ultimecia. But the others, they were not an issue. Only Squall—she had to keep him alive—and this child-sorceress Rinoa were difficulties. So frustrating that she could not simply smite them all where they stood and be done with it! But before she resulted to wasting her energies—for she would need everything she had to complete her task once full control of her world had been achieved—she had one more card left to play.

The old-fashioned ace up one’s sleeve. If it worked, then why scorn the practice?

Squall’s mind whirled, grasping at the string of Rinoa’s startled scream and using it to pull himself out of unconsciousness. He opened his eyes halfway and feebly tilted his pounding head in the direction of the sound. He saw her get up stiffly from the floor and brush the rough scrapes on her arms free of debris and dust.

He closed his eyes again and trembled, not in fear or pain, but sheer anger. His throat choked a hoarse, cracked voice, lips formed words with no breath. "…Damn you." Let me get up, let me survive. I’ll kill Ultimecia. I’ll kill her! He spat blood, along with a broken piece of molar onto the hard floor. He coughed, trying to move. Pure rage prompted him to try to rise, but ultimately his efforts failed, after two attempts at pushing himself up on his one good arm. His soul smoldered in hatred, willing him to get up, to fight, to kill. His body would not obey.

He heard four pairs of feet galloping toward him. He was oddly surprised. He’d almost forgotten about the others. They were still here? Still alive? No…all but Selphie. Damn Ultimecia.

The first voice he heard was Quistis. "He’s still alive! Help me!"

Then Zell: "Geez, he can survive anything, can’t he? Er, knock on wood, I mean…"

Squall somehow noted Ultimecia was not stopping them. He knew she would let them help him. For whatever sadist practice the sorceress had in mind for him, she evidently needed him alive. Otherwise, they would all be dead now.

As his allies crouched beside him, Squall quivered here and there; gingerly testing his muscles, trying to determine what was still in tact and what was in pieces. To his astonishment, the leg that had been snapped in Ultimecia’s darkness was not broken. Nor was his throat cut. Perhaps all of it had been an illusion. Still, the wires that had held him in the air had been real enough, he tasted blood, and he recalled having spit out a broken tooth. In any case, he could hardly move for the pain that still lanced his body. He twitched slightly.

At least the visions were gone.

Oh, but they would haunt him, if he survived this. Of that there was no doubt in his mind. For now he was numb to them, could not have called up the horrible scenes if he’d wanted to, but they would never leave him.

Prattle filled his ears. "Is he awake?"

"Hey man, you conscious?"

"He’s moving—"

"Naw, look, I saw his eyes open!"

"What about the…uh…"

"She’s gone. Who cares? Can you help ‘im, instructor?"


"Wait." Another voice, clear light in the muddle of chatter. "Please, let me…"

His mind was in shambles. He didn’t want to be touched, and felt he might have choked if someone had tried to. But if Rinoa could help him, if it was just her, and no one else…

"I can heal him, completely. I’ve…I’ve done it before. I know what she’s done to him."

A gentle pressure rested on his shoulder, the one that had first been speared by Ultimecia’s magic. Squall shivered, so relieved, so happy that the dreams had indeed been illusions. He could feel her fingers run along his sleeve, the care she took in taking hold of his torn hand and clasping it between her palms. He knew this was real. It had to be.

"Squall? Can you hear me?"

He had to answer, somehow. Have to get up. Have to move… So tired.

"Please…wake up, please." Her touch strayed again to his arm, toyed briefly with the torn leather of his jacket sleeve. He felt her jump when her fingers touched hot blood. His eyes opened and he did his best to focus on her.

‘If you wouldn’t look away…if you just kept your eyes on me.’

Though it sent vicious shards of quicksilver shooting up his arm, he squeezed her hand tightly, desperate for a way to answer her that didn’t involve words—such needless words…

‘Help me… If you can. If you want to.’

His hand began to tingle. The alien sensation of Rinoa’s healing magic filled his blood. He rested his head on the cold ground again, but kept his eyelids parted. The pain in his hand was fading quickly, but he knew that to rid him of every wound, every rip in his flesh and every torn muscle, would take—relative—time. He only hoped Ultimecia would see fit to give Rinoa the opportunity to use it. He believed she would. The sorceress had seemed so acutely intent on keeping him alive and awake, he could only guess that his physical condition was indeed of some use to her. Why the witch, in all her terrible power, hadn’t healed him herself, was curious. Perhaps she felt it beneath her…?

Meanwhile, a fruitless war against the sorceress raged throughout the generations.

He eventually stopped thinking about it. He even forgot about where he was, and who was with him, why he was here. He only remembered that he had been in pain, and that slowly, all that pain was going away. He tried, but could not keep his eyes open. They drifted shut over a period of minutes, hours, days—it didn’t matter anymore. Soon the only thing he was aware of was how this bizarre and gentle sensation moved from one part of him to another, taking away the pain wherever it touched him.

He couldn’t sleep, though dreams plagued his mind.

‘When I couldn’t run any more, I screamed, Squall, where are you!’

‘It was a scary dream.’

‘Maybe some day, I could become like a lion, too.’

It wasn’t until the majority of his agony had left him that he was able to rouse himself enough to stare at the one who had spent so long mending his broken body. Still the dream echoed.

‘If you come here, you’ll find me.’

‘Your hands are cold…’

Squall’s mind slowly began to focus itself. Somehow, he’d rolled onto his back without having been aware of it. He saw no sign of the others. He imagined they must be somewhere nearby, perhaps guarding he and Rinoa.

‘I know what I want, and what I have to do...’

He could not hear or sense Ultimecia. Was the sorceress still here?

‘Rinoa, call my name!’

One was. She was still by his side. Her hand was pressed firmly against his stomach, where the pain of a particularly vicious wound from one of the thicker wires was gradually dwindling, along with the distant whispers of his dreams. He watched her for a while in silence. She looked exhausted, more concentrated than he had ever seen her. She was so intent on her work, she didn’t notice he was looking at her.

When the pain in his gut had all but gone, Squall dared to attempt a question. "…Where is everyone?" The voice sounded as if it had come from the throat of a dead man.

Despite that she had seemed unaware of his conscious audience, there was little if any surprise in her eyes as they rushed to fix upon his weary vigil. "Over there," she whispered shakily, sounding exhausted. Her voice carried hardly any emotion beyond an echo of terror and obvious fatigue. "Talking about what to do next."


Her head swayed grimly. She took her hand from him, set it in her lap, and turned only her head to face him. "Disappeared."

Squall’s eyes flit gently from her face to the hands she had rested in her lap. Blood covered her hands. His own. He took a mental inventory. All pain in every limb, every wound, was gone, save for the dull ache of fatigue and the sting of a few extra scrapes and bruises. Ever so carefully, he rolled to the side, planted his hands against the cold rock, and pushed himself up to a crouch. This action alone set his head spinning. For a moment, he threatened to topple over, too busy fighting the dark spots in his vision to expend any energy on keeping himself upright. He caught himself, though, refusing to fall in such indignity. Breathing heavily from the exertion of simply getting up, he rested, giving himself time to catch his breath and reorient himself. He covered his face and, still panting a little, spoke past his fingers, his voice raspy and forced. "No… She was just waiting for you to finish healing me. She’ll…come back…she’ll try to take me again."

"She can try." Rinoa’s answer was curt and non-negotiable.

At first, Squall said nothing in response. What more was there to say? Oh yes. "Hey…thanks."

"For what?"

Haltingly, as though unconvinced of what he would find, Squall brought his hand away from his face, only to stare at it blankly, trapped in the memory of the horror. The glove was still pierced; jagged holes marred the back and palm, but not a mark desecrated the flesh beneath. Squall marveled at the bizarre fact that it was over. For now, at least. Now…

Again abstaining from speech, he nodded at her bloodied hands, regarding her impassively from the corners of his eyes. Then his interest returned to his torn glove. Distracted as he was, Squall did not see the blue sorceress shake her tears away.

"Oh… You’re welcome, Squall."

This bought his attention. She only addressed him by name when she needed him to pay attention; he’d learned that much about her, at least. What he saw in her eyes now both puzzled him and moved him. A chill determination had cleaned her face of uncertainty. It was an emotion that seemed to grow stronger when she looked at him. She was still afraid, that was obvious, but something had changed. Something…

"I think I understand, now."

Squall shook himself out of his clouded thoughts. "Understand what?"

"Ultimecia. I think I know why she hasn’t taken us on, herself."

"Why’s that?"

"Because…" Her mood darkened, and she stood up slowly to explain, hiding her hands behind her. "She’s…Squall, did you look at her? She’s grey and thin like an old woman, but she’s not old. No one else can hurt her except…except us. She has no reason to waste energy by killing the others, because she needs all she’s got. She shouldn’t be able to do what she’s done with time, so time’s messed with her. Her own spells are killing her. She hasn’t taken total control yet. She’s still too busy fighting SeeD trans-dimensionally. I think she’s very weak. She needs every ounce of her strength just to maintain what she already has. If she doesn’t have to waste it on us, she won’t. She can’t afford to."

"So what are you saying?"

"I’m saying, for her, we couldn’t have picked a worse time to pop up. If we can distract her enough, even if we don’t defeat her…maybe we can force her to use up what she has left, and then SeeD will be able to fight her."

"Maybe…" Squall started to stand, but his knees buckled, and Rinoa rushed forward to keep him from falling face-first into the ground. Embarrassed, but not having the luxury to dwell on it, he accepted her help and allowed her to take some of his weight. She was surprisingly strong. With her help, he stumbled over to the wall where Quistis, Zell and Irvine had been absorbed in an argument. One that ended the moment they saw Squall up on his feet (in a manner of speaking). There was a reverent silence as their leader joined them. Quistis helped Rinoa to guide him to a notch in the stone, against which he leaned gratefully before pointedly telling them both to let him be. It was an order no one protested; it was well known that Squall would despise the idea of other people seeing him too weak to stand on his own. In this case, he was allowed this small reclamation of his dignity.

Squall could guess what was going through their minds, simply by the looks that he was doing his best to avoid meeting. They’d seen him tortured—how little they knew!—and had expected him to die. Now he stood with them, weak and bloodied, his clothes torn where the wires had speared him, but he was uninjured.

How had the pain affected him? Was he still sane? Could he go on? Could he still fight? And pity. He would not tolerate pity. Thus he decided to put an end to their misconceptions there and then. "Report. What have you come up with?"

Zell, ready to burst in his silence, planted his hand on his hip and snapped his fingers in emphasis of his words. "Diddly-squat, that’s what."

The commander’s eyes narrowed to razor-blue slits. His voice, though still breathless, adopted a sharpness that mirrored that of his gaze. "Not good enough. I want solutions, and ‘we can’t do it’ doesn’t fall into that category. I’ve had enough of this. She’s shown us what she can do with a fraction of her real strength. I think it’s time we made a power play of our own."

"You mean the GFs," Quistis translated smoothly.


"But we thought about that, man," Zell interjected. "You’ve tried calling them here. It’s exhausting! Using GFs on her? No way. It’d kill us."

"I know, I know. It might tear our minds apart, but it could be enough to get to her, if what I’m thinking is right." Squall tossed sweat-weighted hair from his face, waited out the dizziness that followed the sharp movement, then continued his explanation. "I don’t know how long it’ll be before Ultimecia comes back, but when she does, I wanna be ready. I think this is the one thing she isn’t expecting us to do. On my signal, I want all of you to call to every single Guardian you’ve got."

"Say what?! Are you crazy?!"

"I mean it. That’s all we’re going to concentrate on, and that includes me."

At this, Rinoa was quick to protest. "Squall, not in your condition—"

"My ‘condition’ won’t matter very much if we’re all dead."

Reluctantly, she retracted her argument.

Zell wasn’t so quickly convinced. "What if she’s watching us right now? She’ll know our moves before we make ‘em. What if it doesn’t work?"

"It’s the best chance we’ve got, unless you have a better idea."

"No, but—"

"Then on my signal, everything we’ve got."

"But it’s suicide, man!"

Squall’s patience snapped. "That’s an order!" There was silence. Squall looked around at each face, acutely aware that he was very likely ordering them all to their deaths. This fact ultimately reached him, and his heartless scowl faded into one of grim understanding. "All right… Forget the order. This isn’t just a mission anymore. It’s an act of desperation. I said that to Rinoa, myself. But I’m…asking all of you, please… Rinoa believes that Ultimecia hasn’t killed us because she’s already using all her power to maintain this time compression thing, and fight off SeeD at the same time. We’re probably three of the most powerful SeeDs—"

"Left alive." Irvine had been uncharacteristically silent throughout the disagreement. He leaned against the wall adjacent to Squall, head bowed slightly, eyes obscured by the rim of his hat. This wouldn’t have been so unusual if it wasn’t for his slouched shoulders, bent knees, and arms hanging limply at his sides. It wasn’t his normal melodramatic ‘sharpshooter’ display.

For once, no one had noticed him. And for once, he hadn’t seemed to care.

Squall only acknowledged him. "Right. Selphie’s sacrifice shouldn’t be forgotten. The five of us are the only ones who have reached Ultimecia herself. We may not be able to destroy her on our own, but we can distract her."


"By throwing everything we have right in her face," he repeated in answer to Zell’s skepticism. "I wanna see how well she can stand up to a dozen Guardians. We owe our success up to this point to them. Now they’re here to help us win. I don’t think…I don’t think we’ve come this far just to be destroyed by our own protectors."

"I suggest we try to speak with them," Quistis offered. "Let them know what we’re planning." There was mutual assent from all present—save Irvine, who acted like he hadn’t heard her at all.

"At least one of us should keep his head together." Zell shot a worried look at Squall, but found no argument in his friend’s expression, and so continued, "If all the rest of us drive ourselves nuts with a hundred GFs in our heads at the same time, somebody’s gotta stay sane enough to snap everyone else back into reality."

Squall considered this. Perhaps it would take just that much more to draw Ultimecia’s concentration away from her goal. But if Zell was right, and they all went down under the sheer strain of evoking the powers of all their Guardian Forces at once, they’d be just as dead. When Galbadia Garden attacked, we didn’t return push with shove, and we paid for it. I can’t make the same mistake twice.

But what if…?

"Rinoa," he said after a breath and a heartbeat, "I want you to hold off."

"I can’t," she returned firmly. "I won’t back out just because you don’t want me in danger. I’m in this as much as the rest of you."

Squall had been expecting this argument, and reacted with a bitter smile. "I’m not asking you to back off. In fact, what I want you to do is a lot more dangerous."

Her defiance faded into apprehension. "What’s that?"

"When Ultimecia comes back…I need you to confront her. Hold her attention until the Guardians can get here, and I need you to take everything she throws back at us."

Quistis’s eyebrows shot up. "Squall, are you certain she can do that?"

"She’ll have to." He did not look at his instructor. Silent understanding passed between his stare and Rinoa’s. They both knew what the others didn’t, knew what had happened in that timeless void Ultimecia had created. They had both seen that one sorceress could not overpower another, no matter her experience or her strength. Perhaps it had been an illusion, but the reality of Rinoa’s power, Squall believed, was true. If anyone could protect them from Ultimecia, it was Rinoa.

"Okay," Rinoa agreed quietly. "I’ll do it."


"What is it, Zell?"

"Uh…not to go looking for problems, but…what if she doesn’t come back?"

This possibility hadn’t entered Squall’s mind until now. But he dismissed it quickly. "She’ll come back."

"And how do you know that?"

"Because she’ll come back for me." The looks of puzzlement were no surprise. "She wants me, somehow. I can’t explain why. I just know she does. That’s why she didn’t kill me. There’s something I’ve got that she thinks she needs. I wish I could understand it, too."

"She sounded like she had some sorta personal vendetta with you, the way she was talkin’."

Squall nodded seriously. "Maybe she does."

Chapter 2

Final Fantasy 8 Fanfic