The Dying of the Light Chapter 2

Who Leads the Leader

By Luna Manar

"…Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way…."


They didn’t have to wait long.

Squall’s ordeal, paired with loss of blood, had left him with little strength. He insisted he was fine, and, thanks to the wonders of healing magic, walked steadily again. He had retrieved his weapon from where it had fallen, but even as he tested the gunblade’s balance with smooth ease born of a decade’s practice and sliced the air with the same wicked precision, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was not going to survive this battle if he had to fight in his weakened state. Along with fatigue, there was death in his eyes, and everyone saw it. He expected to die. But he expected everyone else to live. The question that was hanging unspoken in the air was: what did Squall have in mind? His orders were obvious, and so were the consequences.

So what the hell are we gonna do if he goes an’ gets himself killed?

Zell had been frustrated with Squall’s plan of action since the moment it had been offered, and still, he wasn’t fully satisfied with it. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Squall’s judgement. He didn’t, however, consider himself, or anyone else, for that manner, in any way expendable. Why just give one’s life up when there could be a better way?

What kinda dumbass just walks into kingdom come like that?

There was no time for Zell to voice his protests; only moments after he had formulated an argument for Squall, Ultimecia, looking frustrated and volatile, appeared above them.

Is it just my imagination, or does she look a whole lot meaner this time? Zell stood up slowly from where he’d been sitting against the wall, waiting in fidgety silence for something to happen. He barely took the time to glance at everyone else. Squall had stopped his tireless practicing. Rinoa didn’t bother to look at the reason for the interruption. Irvine, seeming subdued and fatigued as he had since Selphie’s death and disappearance, toyed with the trigger of his weapon. Quistis, who had been trying to get a word out of the despairing sharpshooter, ceased her efforts. No one said a word.

Zell fumed. It was all so damn awkward. Why didn’t they just attack? Why couldn’t Ultimecia get her ugly face down there with them and fight like a…witch?

Another moment of uncalled-for silence, and Zell simply couldn’t stand it any longer. Livid, he stomped forward two paces, gesturing rudely at Ultimecia’s contemplative figure. "Yo, Psycho-sorceress! Get your butt down here and fight, ‘stead of sittin’ up there all high and mighty!" He smiled when he got a reaction: a sideways, contempt-filled leer of disgust. "Wuss woman," he egged her on, starting to hop back and forth from one foot to the other, striking at the air as though he could knock her to the floor from where he stood. "Witch Bitch! Ult-i-meee-cia’s a fat-assed LOSER!!"

Meanwhile, Squall fought the inclination to shut Zell up with a spell of silence (a trick Quistis had used on him once or twice). He cringed inwardly at the rowdy SeeD’s taunting. Zell, that won’t get you anywhere. Just be patient. I want to know what she’s going to say first. But he couldn’t voice such opinions now. No time. Time…

Ultimecia was smiling, an eerie, stomach-churning sight on her painted face. "SeeD has been destroyed," she announced, spreading her arms to her audience. "Your Gardens are as ashes. Your comrades are kold on the field of battle. Pity that you left them. They might have stood a chance, had you not abandoned them—"

Her anecdote was cut short by Zell’s rage- and grief-filled cry. He stood in place, glaring upward at the witch, his fists so tight his knuckles grew white, but he ignored the pain he was causing himself. He began to tremble all over, desperate to battle this hated enemy, but unable to get to her to strike a single blow. And he could do nothing—not until Squall indicated otherwise.

He felt someone’s hand on his shoulder, and wrenched his head around to stare at whoever had dared to touch him.

His shock almost overcame his anger when he saw Squall standing just behind him.

"Don’t grieve yet," the squad leader murmured quietly, fixing Zell with a stern stare that held in it not only authority, but also—odd to see in Squall’s face—understanding. "It’s how she weakens her enemies. She attacks your resolve and tries to drive you into despair. If you give in to it, you’ve already lost. …There’s a good chance she could be lying."

Zell swallowed to force down his rush of fury, but his trembling lessened and his fists went down. He stood a little straighter, felt a little better. He nodded slightly.

Squall left him and stepped forward to address the witch. She was eyeing him keenly, seeming to await his impending words.

He couldn’t help himself. He had been dying to ask the question: "What do you want from me, damn you!" His arm slashed the air in a sharp, violent motion, which was a mistake; he had to hide the short rush of dizziness the aggravated gesture caused.

His words only served to expand that awful grin of Ultimecia’s. "So perfect, that I should go looking for you throughout the centuries, and you came to me yourself. Squall, it is not I who will be damned, but you. It is you whom I have searched for, you which history once claimed would lead the battle to fight me. But, alas, you are long dead in the age in which I once lived. But here, in this reality of realities, the moth flutters headlong into the flame! So it shall be. Hell will be yours, child, and your entire civilization will have the privilege of listening to you scream!" She spread her wings, took a delicate step off her high-rise, and stood suspended in the air. Gradually, as though supported by an invisible elevator, she descended to the floor, speaking still as she went. "For you are the only one, Squall—the one strong enough for this use! With you, my transformation will be inevitable. Leonhart." She began to walk toward him, almost casually, a sickeningly mischievous look in her calculating eyes, which, as she came closer, Squall could see were gold-rimmed hazel, pupils shaped as spades, a tattoo on her soul.

Squall had readied his weapon to defend himself if needbe, though he had the distinct impression Ultimecia had no intention of directly attacking them. The mention of his last name confused him. "What?" Belatedly, he realized that no one else in the open chamber was moving save for himself and Ultimecia. But they were not trapped—for there was no hint of a struggle in their faces—rather… Ultimecia…has frozen time?

"Yes, I see you komprehend your situation, SeeD." Ultimecia had been watching him, had seen his thoughts in his eyes. "There is no help in comrades who cannot hear your cries for mercy."

"Hell if I will," he growled in return, taking a step back from her as she approached him, then another, gunblade ready to strike the second she came within range. "I don’t care about your stupid time-warp."

She continued to advance on him. He continued to retreat.

"Look at you," the sorceress spoke with pity, "beast though you are, you will back into a corner, hissing like a frightened cat. Poor, foolish boy, your instincts betray you!"

Squall stopped. His back had hit a wall that shouldn’t have been there. He did not look behind him, did not take his eyes off of Ultimecia for a second, but stood his ground. He had a hunch…

Ultimecia leveled her right hand at him, fingers splayed out as if ready to catch something thrown to her, and stopped, just out of reach of his weapon.

Squall’s eyes narrowed. Ultimecia, that’s the first big mistake you’ve made.

"You’ll never get a better shot," he said quietly, lowering his weapon. He made a vague sweep with his left hand. "I’ll ask again: what do you want from me? You wouldn’t be going to this much trouble if you didn’t want something." Get her closer. She wouldn’t have stopped if I couldn’t hurt her.

"Of all fools, you surprise me the most with your density!" In frustration, the witch curled her extended claws, seeming more than ready to sink them into his flesh. "I offer you a deal I suspect you will not comply with."

"What’s that?"

"You," she hissed, "for them."

"Why didn’t you just kill them, Ultimecia? You have the power."

"I will—one way, or the other! Konsider your answer carefully, child. Your small friend is already mine. But your life force, Squall—your blood, and I will spare them the agonies they deserve! I will cast them to oblivion, rather than keep them."

"Curing the disease by killing the patient," Squall spat back. "No deal."

Ultimecia’s smile twisted into a cockeyed smirk. A strange wind blew about the time-bereft world. "Your acquiescence is of no importance. Your life force I need—and your blood I will have!"

Squall began to tremble, a draining sensation fading into his body like a specter. He fought to breathe, fought to think, leering at Ultimecia from behind the blade of his weapon which he’d hefted again to ward off the spell. The motion was futile.

She was staring back at him, smiling. "And for this final act, you will bow before me, the first of all, leading your people into my power!"

He struggled for command of his body, fought the unseen force that was pulling him down. He was fighting with her strength. But it was a different kind of power-struggle. When she had strung him up, it had been a physical assault, and then one of the mind. She had controlled his body, tortured his mind. But, he remembered, when she had reached for his soul, he had forced her away.

Now he was fighting her again in much the same way. It was not his body that he struggled with, but his will. He fought the intense inclination to fall to his knees before this woman, fought a terrible desire to submit to her power, fought the awe and the fear that had reached inside of him and wrapped around his heart. He breathed a weak moan that caught in his throat. His blade touched the ground.

She’s…strong. But she can’t…not me!

Squall shivered at a queer feeling, a tickle at the back of his neck that stretched out in a smooth embrace around his ribs, his spirit.

My will to fight her. This revelation sparked a need to struggle, fueled by fear, strengthened further by his memory of Ultimecia’s futile attempts to enter his heart, earlier. But Ultimecia was stronger than she had been before. Her power held him in a near-crouch. Ropes akin to the wires that had once skewered him fell across his shoulders and anchored him to the ground, dozens of thin strands with the strength of steel cables wrapped around him and bound him to the floor.

Squall’s breath quavered. He had never felt so isolated as he did now. There was no one to help him. He was already weak, and so tired. The constricting tethers felt warm in their tightening entrapment. His head tilted back so his eyes could see the sorceress, the fear breaching his scowl and transforming it into a numbed look of mild terror. His eyes quivered as he watched Ultimecia smile. He thought of her black wings, thought of how they would feel wrapped around him in a hateful embrace. The torture they promised was almost inviting to him, now. It would be so easy to fall to his knees in this state, in this place of hopelessness, worship this encompassing power he felt so trapped by. It would be so much easier, to fall to fear and die in torture, than it would be to continue this charade of courage, standing alone with nothing but his words and the cold truth to defend himself with. If he fell now, the demons of death that were waiting at Ultimecia’s beck would descend on him, tear him to pieces, and his blood on their fangs would be the first of millions of souls. But at least it would be over. At least that way, he wouldn’t be so tired, anymore…

‘Never will you fear death, for it shall claim you!’

A knot grew like a knife in his throat. The black feathers threatened to envelop him. She was close to him now. Very close…

Rinoa. The name entered his mind of its own accord, a mere whisper in this chaos of fear. But as death neared, the whisper grew to a shout, and the image of the black became obscured by white, white wings that shone of hope. Remember Rinoa…I’m not alone!

Steel flashed. Ultimecia hissed in startled pain and stepped back again, a shallow cut where the gunblade had grazed her hand staining her dark claws with her own blood.

The sword clattered to the ground, though Squall still held fast to it. His head bowed and he crouched, panting. She was here. He could see the girl in blue, in his mind’s eye. She was still trapped in time, but she was watching him. Longing for those white feathers to surround him, he focused on them, feeling his soul rise as the wings lifted his heart from his helpless reverie, the memory of love striking steel in his faltering will. Rinoa…you’re with me… His face hardened, the dream of subservience shattered in his vision. I’m on my own… But not helpless. Not forgotten. Rinoa was there…all he had to do was give her the means to break Ultimecia’s spell.

He tested the strength of the restraints that held him down. Weakness, he remembered, was the illusion that Ultimecia played upon the most. If I believe I’m stronger, I can be…

Only one way to find out.

Bravado. Squall almost smirked. Who would have thought it would ever have a practical use?

"You’re going to have to do better than that," snarled the leader of SeeD as he began to rise. He felt the force around him begin to falter as his resolve strengthened. "I can feel your desperation, Ultimecia." He raised his head, fought the pressure on his soul so he could face the witch. "If you were as powerful as you make yourself out to be, you would have killed us all a long time ago. It’s obvious you’re trying so hard just to stay in control…" He swallowed thickly, licking dry lips and pulling heavy breaths to speak. "You’ve fought SeeD, and you barely won. Now you want me…because I started it all. I’m the one…who led the fight." He saw her rage intensify. It became easier to stand. Black energy crackled around him in small bursts as the tethers melted away. He wasn’t sure if he actually saw the dark sparks, or if he simply sensed it, but he did know that he was creating a wall of defiance that not even Ultimecia’s power could penetrate. It was not easy—he had to fight simply to stand halfway—but it was working, slowly. He seemed to be hitting a nerve. She was letting up. He pressed on, struggling for a grip on logic, enough to find himself reasons to taunt her.

"You’re still afraid…now more than you ever were. Soon, Rinoa will be able to break through, and you’ll have to deal with all of us again. When that happens, you won’t have such an easy time subduing us. Your spell on me can’t last forever." He fought with muscles that felt constructed of lead and managed to raise the gunblade into a ready position once more. "Is that what makes me different? That power you want so bad from me, it’s the same thing that keeps you from taking over my mind, isn’t it?"

"You are a man!" the witch screeched, backing away two paces and striking at him with a clawed hand. She missed. "You have no power against a sorceress! You exist to give your strength! You cannot use it!"

"But I can keep you out with the strength. That’s what sets me apart from Seifer. You didn’t want him, you used him. Used him to try and get to me…"

"Fool child!"

A beam of red light shot from the sorceress’ claws, striking Squall in the shoulder, piercing through to the other side. He grunted in pain, staggered back a pace, but did not fall. "You won’t kill me, Ultimecia. You need me. You need my life force to complete your dream. That’s what you were saying, wasn’t it?" Reality was becoming clearer to him by the moment. The more he spoke, the easier it became to believe. "You miscalculated how much it would take out of you to work your spells to go back in time. You grew weaker and weaker, and when the war finally happened, SeeD became too much, and you almost lost. After all…the effort it took to possess Adel, Edea, and Rinoa was too much. You don’t have the power to keep yourself alive. Am I right?" He felt liquid warmth begin to trail down his injured arm, but the heat only served to prove to him that he was alive, his heart beating, his strength returning. "That’s why you’re so desperate. That’s why you had to find me. Not to rid yourself of SeeD’s leader…you want me so you can survive off my life force." He forced a smile of his own at her mute rage. "I’m the only one, for some reason. It just happens that I’m stronger than any other soul you could find to devour."

To Ultimecia’s shock, Squall began to laugh, quietly, reveling in some joke only he understood.

"I’m not the fool. Don’t you get it? You’re the one who’s destroyed yourself. I would have been just another SeeD. But in your history, I’m the one who defeats you. So you set out to kill me, and to find Ellone, so that I wouldn’t be a problem, and you could travel further back in time to use Adel. Instead you found out that your own spells were killing you." His amusement faded.

Ultimecia’s eyes quivered. She seemed frozen, unsure of what to do.

Squall pressed his advantage, playing on her hesitation. "Even in the beginning, you focused so much on finding me, you were clumsy, and altered events in the past so that you put me in the middle of everything, and it snowballed on you. Because of your intervention to find Ellone and I, you made it so that I was the one that fought you in Deling City, came back to the Garden and became its leading officer. I led the war against you, instead of someone else. You pit Seifer against me to lure me to you, so you could kill me. You almost got away with it, except I escaped. After that, you realized you didn’t have the power to keep Edea from forcing you out of her mind. That’s when you decided you needed an alternate source of power. You were too weak to handle Edea anymore. So you took Rinoa, you used her to get to Adel, and you brought me right to your front doorstep."

Squall’s limbs felt lighter now, and he took a solid breath, feeling his body gradually return to his command, like regaining circulation in a limb that had fallen asleep. "In a way," He tilted his head to the side for a brief moment, "I have you to thank. You put the one person who could make me stronger into my life. Before I met her, you would’ve had me. I wouldn’t have had the strength to fight you. I’d be too lost in despair and self-torment to care. If you were telling the truth, now that you’re finished fighting SeeD, you don’t have your attention divided, and you should have more than enough power to subdue me. You can’t. Wanna know why? Because after the hell you’ve put me through, after I nearly lost Rinoa, after I saved her from you, after I began to feel this way…" He shook his head angrily, flinging sweat from his face, though his true intention was to unveil the scar on his forehead. His hair out of his eyes, he straightened his stance, faced Ultimecia with ice-colored fire, crowned by the scar of experience that seemed alight with the same bloody glow smoldering in his eyes. "…I’ve become too strong for you to dominate."

Squall saw fear kindle in the sorceress’ blazing stare, and kept up relentlessly, using the truth against her. He took an unsteady step forward.

"Depending on each other, trusting each other…it gives us something to fight for. It gives us the will to survive. It’s given me the strength to resist you. Sucks for you," he added derisively, his tone becoming much sharper, even scolding. "All this work to change history in your favor, and the books will still record that I was the one to defeat you. But what they’ll leave out," he murmured in cruel triumph, his blood turning cold as he took another step toward the witch, then another, "is what I’ll never tell them. They’ll leave out the reason I came to be where I am. You were the catalyst for my position! You botched your own grand plan by bringing your own killer to you. You made your own history come true. You screwed up. Now the only hope you have to survive is to kill me…" He tensed, feeling new strength course through him, the frozen time melt around him, and his weapon poised to fight. "…Because if you don’t, you can be damned sure that I’m gonna kill you." He heard four voices behind him—one called his name, and the others waited for his command. His mind centered, and his call went out. It was answered silently to him, beasts of immortal power sounding a battle cry that rocked his brain with their resonance: the Guardians had been waiting to be summoned. They were coming. All of them.

Squall’s eyes narrowed to slits, targeting Ultimecia for what he knew in his heart would be his final battle. Absolute Finality.

It was time for this fantasy to end.

Ultimecia’s painted face tightened in rage as she watched her spell crumble around her. That girl, damn her! How had she become so strong? The black-winged sorceress patiently folded her wings as Squall’s puny entourage was reanimated. With a single, swift hand gesture, he had signaled all of them to surround her.

She smiled pleasantly as the foul sorceress in blue joined the broken circle. Ultimecia was not afraid. Not of Squall, the SeeDs or this irritating witch-girl. Here they were, ready to fight to their deaths—and so they would have their deaths, in due time—and she had only to terminate them. She was no longer harried throughout the centuries with SeeD’s incessant gnats. Very well, then. She would fight. They would fall, one, then another. Which one first? The three fools that Squall and the girl had brought with them, of course. She would kill them now. No talk. No more ridiculous delays. After that, she would be free to deal with Squall and the black-haired wench. And oh, how she would deal with them…

Without so much as a glance around her, Ultimecia crossed her arms in a dark X against her chest, tilted her head backward. With a sudden, powerful thrust of her wings, her body feather-light to the air, she shot upward, out of the immediate reach of her would-be attackers. Another twist of her fluid body and strike of one clawed hand sent her three chosen targets sprawling.

Irvine landed at the base of the wall, bruised, winded, and dizzy, but alive. Some sort of shield—he’d seen it flicker into place just before Ultimecia had let loose her first attack—had protected him from the witch’s blow, where any conventional magic would have proven useless. It looked like Rinoa was making good on her word. He picked his gun up from where it had fallen beside him, and stood steadily once more, resolutely staring up at Ultimecia, as did Zell and Quistis. They all looked on her with grim pride; they had their own sorceress on their side, and she wasn’t going to make it easy to kill any of them. Not like she had Selphie.

Irvine remembered this and flipped his hat up out of his eyes to glare at Ultimecia head-on. His already sorrow-stricken face creased in new tension. Zell and Quistis stood by his sides, echoing his stance.

"Is that all you’ve got," Zell shouted to Ultimecia’s infuriated eyes, "or is your battery a little low, Witch-Bitch? C’mon," he taunted, indicating his chin, "I got your recharge right here!"

If Zell had been expecting a sucker-punch, he got one.

Ultimecia screeched in rage. Lightning tore the air, ripped through the powerful shield that protected him, and struck him squarely in the chest, again sending him head over heels. Coughing and sputtering, Zell picked himself up (and what little dignity he had left about him), and turned around—to find that the full-scale war had finally begun.

Where are they?

This question repeated itself in Squall’s mind as he stumbled, rolled away to avoid another bolt of white light, shot from Ultimecia’s claws. And another. He flipped agilely from his back to his feet, but the third attack was too fast for him to avoid, and he ended up letting the broad side of his gunblade take the brunt of the strike, knocking him sideways. Though dizzy, he did not fall.

Some part of him found the fact he was still standing strangely amusing—wasn’t it a simple fire spell that had taken him to his knees five months ago, when Seifer had forever scarred his face? Now, he was strong enough to take a sorceress’ blow, and keep his footing.

What experiences can do for people, he thought absently, and sidestepped another white beam. Ultimecia rotated her attention between all five of her attackers, focusing on one, then another, but never striking all of them at once. She could have done so, and Squall knew this—her tactics up until now had been bizarrely simple and predictable. Squall suspected it wouldn’t stay that way for too long.

But what to do? No one could reach her in the air—their spells were useless—and where were the Guardian Forces?

Zell danced out of the way of a shot of white. His head buzzed with the effort it had taken to call on all of his Guardians, making it difficult to think or react. He’d taken two blows from Ultimecia already. Still, he was game, but for what? The witch refused to come to the ground to fight. He felt annoyed—annoyed at Ultimecia’s cowardice, and annoyed that he could do absolutely nothing about it. Except wait.

Not something he was particularly good at.

That strange burning…it was getting into his hands, again. Like a vicious itch, it tormented Zell from beneath his steely gloves, made his hands sweat and his fingers ache. He wanted nothing more than to pummel Ultimecia with everything he had. When that opportunity presented itself (if it ever did), he had in mind a few choice maneuvers to finish her off with. Who was she calling worthless? He’d teach her a thing or two about SeeDs.

As it was, though, Ultimecia had them scrambling to keep out of her line of fire. Until the Guardians came, they had no weapon against her, and each time she scored a hit on one of them, the cost was greater, the pain more severe. Evidently, Rinoa was having trouble protecting them, even with her sorceress powers, and she was looking more and more fatigued with every passing moment.

Zell managed to run safely to her while Ultimecia was busying herself trying to lance Quistis and Squall, the latter of which seemed to be faring none too well. Zell told himself they could handle themselves for a few seconds while he checked up on their shield-bearer. Rinoa barely noticed him until he was right next to her.

"Yo, you okay?" Zell’s comment came just in time to keep her from falling to her knees. He caught her in mid-sentence. "You don’t look so hot."

"I’m fine," she lied, though she didn’t try to keep him from supporting her.

"That’s some major BS if I ever heard it. You’ve been hangin’ around Squall too much. C’mon."

With a stern frown, he grabbed her hand and pulled her behind a pillar, avoiding another blast from Ultimecia, which cracked the stone floor nearby. They crouched behind that pillar for a few seconds to shield themselves from the next barrage of white lances, before daring to speak again.

"How much longer you gonna keep it up," Zell hissed, "before you fall on your face? I mean really."

Rinoa seemed about to fire back at him, but stayed herself and reluctantly answered the floor. "Not long. I’m sorry. I can’t help it, I’m so tired."

"No kiddin’." He said it as if the information were news to him. "Well I got bad news for ya. The GFs are taking their damn time."

"Zell! Rinoa! Incoming!"

Bolting in opposite directions, Zell and Rinoa managed to get out of the way before Ultimecia’s magic tore the pillar apart, sending heavy debris flying in all directions. Rinoa tripped on her second step, thought for certain when she heard the stone explode that she would be buried alive in moments. But someone seized her by the arm and hauled her clear of the falling pillar, hurling her fast to the ground to keep her from harm’s path. She struck the floor hard, skidding painfully, and felt small pieces of stony debris bounce off the back of her head and shoulders.

She knew without having seen that it had been Squall who’d thrown her to the floor. She also knew it was Squall who gently laid his hand on her scraped shoulder. She winced at the sting, but the touch alone asked the question: "Are you all right?" Words were needless. Rinoa pushed herself up, faced him only long enough to nod her thanks and reassurance, then found herself defending the entire group—all of whom had rushed to her aid—from a vicious assault of holy magic.

The roar of each explosion was deafening. Having caught all five of her opponents in one place, Ultimecia sought to obliterate them in one fell sweep. Rinoa could not afford to simply dampen the blows in this case. She had to repel them completely if she dared hope to save her friends. She had only to think to strengthen the shield around them, but thinking drained her. It was hard to think beyond the fear. Again she fell to her knees, holding up one hand as if her fingers alone would ward off Ultimecia’s attacks.

She heard a scream, recognized it as Quistis’s voice, and her hope gave way—Ultimecia had gotten through. They would all die…all except her. Ultimecia couldn’t kill her.

She was roughly caught up and dragged to the side, and felt herself pressed tightly against another body. There was another scream of agony. She curled up into a ball, willing the chaos to leave her. She was being buried under bodies. The world, the whole world would suffer because she wasn’t strong enough. The weight tightened around her, she felt warm blood spill onto her. It was not hers, and she knew it. She could hear the thousand screams of terror and pain again. They were dying, they were all dying…

The noise stopped, and with it her delirium. Her world stopped spinning, she found the courage to open her eyes. At first she saw only blackness, then her other senses started working again, as well. Her face was pressed into something soft; the restraining force around her was not the weight of dead bodies, but the strength of someone who was holding onto her in a grip so powerful it hurt. The smell of musk and sweat and blood registered. Moments later, the familiarity of those scents. A friend’s voice identified their owner for her.

"Squall, man! Shit—Squall!" Was it Zell who had yelled? She wasn’t quite sure.

A rip began to form in Rinoa’s heart when she felt the arms that had embraced her start to weaken as the life drained away from them. Trembling, she lifted her face from Squall’s shirt, searching desperately to find and meet his eyes. She found them, held them for a short time. Shock had rendered his stare numb, such that Rinoa could see nothing in it—only a hint of pain and a world of fear. She tore her stare from the terrible blankness on his face, and found the reason for his shock.

Her shield had indeed failed. But it had not been Quistis’ death scream she had heard. It had been a scream of terror. She realized too quickly what had happened: Ultimecia had shot at her, and Squall had grabbed hold of her, tucked her under the protection of his body, and taken five deadly white lances that had been meant for her. They had gone through him, but he had weakened them so that by the time they passed through his body and reached their true target, they could not have harmed her.

The second scream of agony had not been that of any of her comrades—the scream had been Ultimecia’s. The witch continued to rage even now.

"NO! No, you worthless fool! No, no, no! Not you! Not you!" The witch sounded ready to burst into tears.

The bleeding burns ran clean through Squall’s body, bloody patches in his chest and stomach that left the fabric of his shirt stained and seared. It seemed the only vital thing the terrible lances had missed was his heart.

Rinoa felt her chest constrict as she looked into his eyes once more. Even her healing powers were not fast enough to fix this injury. She saw comprehension return to Squall’s eyes, and felt his body relax, though he struggled to maintain his hold on her.

"Not you," Rinoa repeated Ultimecia’s plea in a whisper. "Please…not you."

Squall smiled weakly. His body began to shake, and he bowed his head to brush his lips against her forehead. He pulled her closer, leaned on her until she was forced to support him. With the remaining strength he had left, he whispered in her ear.

"Trust me…don’t leave my side. I’ll be here…just remember…that."

"Squall… Squall no, wait, don’t—"

He couldn’t answer her. He had no ability to speak anymore, no power to live, no strength to breathe. He had already taken so much strain, and managed to function and fight regardless of how many times he had been brutalized and re-repaired. Now everything that supported his body was crumbling, and no amount of magical patching could keep him from internal collapse.

Squall felt himself falling apart on the inside. Despite Rinoa’s pleas, his muscles failed him, sending him keeling sideways onto the cold floor. She caught his head before it could hit; then he felt other pairs of hands help to ease him gently to the ground. They’re all here…still alive.

Some internal function in his mind warned him of the seconds, silently counted down to him just how many he had left, as though his body was a computer, one facing a total system failure. But at this point, that’s all it was to him. His body, a machine, a construction, nothing more.

Survival…what did it mean anymore? Time, life, existence…it all had a different equation in this place. His death would be of little consequence, perhaps even of some use. Ultimecia was screaming. Had he defeated her? No, not yet. He still had to…


There was no fear of oblivion in his mind or shuddering heart. Death could not stop him. Not here. Here, there was still a chance for life.


He could see her, holding desperately onto his hand as his brain registered the last hint of feeling in his limbs. He could hear her weeping voice, a sad music to him as his vision began to blur. "Oh…please. Please…"


A hope, a fear, a light in her eyes he could still see. He glanced for just a moment at all the others gathered around him. He could see only them. Ultimecia’s cries faded into the background, leaving only his friends, and then, only Rinoa.


His eyes remained on her for another instant, then he closed them, knowing that if he did not, he would not have the chance. He didn’t want anyone to see the fire die. It could not die. It had to live on in their hearts, else his efforts would be futile.

The only vision that was left was a memory of space, eternity. A toneless, emotionless voice announced cold, truthful vengeance. The memory alone promised him victory, though the words meant nothing.

Life-support – has – terminated.

The exhaustion released him, he settled down warmly to rest in a world of infinite light.

"So…what now?"

It seemed like a stupid question, but Zell could think of nothing else to say. He stood slowly, though he was shaking slightly in barely contained grief. The unthinkable had finally happened. Squall was dead. Ultimecia was still alive, screaming aloft in the sky above her throne.


He was surprised to hear someone say his name, even more surprised when he realized it was Rinoa who had spoken. "W’sup?" The word was in no way jovial, simply the first response that came to him.

Her answer was quiet, and oddly, untainted with sorrow, even as she continued to brush Squall’s copper-brown hair back over his deaf ears. "I think it’s up to you to decide."

"Decide what?"

"What to do next," Quistis murmured blankly, still caught up in her own shock. "She’s right. Believe it or not, Zell, after Squall, you are the highest-ranking SeeD here."

"S-say what…? Me—? Whoa, wait, that…that can’t be right. Even over you? Instructor?"

The "instructor" shook her head sadly. "Not anymore, Zell…I’m not qualified to take his place, in this situation. You are. You’re in charge, Zell."

Zell suddenly found all eyes on him, and a creeping weight tightened around his chest. A one-sided, desperate inner dialogue bounced back and forth behind his quavering eyes. Hell—is this how Squall felt all the time? What’s up with this? I can’t replace him! No one can replace him! It’s Squall, man!

Ultimecia gave him no chance to protest. Sinking as close to the ground as she ever had, only a few feet above the floor, she crossed her arms over her chest, bowing as though in respect of the dead. Her cracked voice was hardly respectful. But it was reverent. "I warned the fool what would happen if he refused me. Now…the power of his own heart shall be the instrument of your torture." She lifted her eyes to leer at her adversaries, tear-tainted irises blood red with rage. Black streamed down her cheeks, unholy tears.

Zell’s hands began to itch again. The opportunity was too much to ignore. His chance to do something, an act that had little to do with the magic this sorceress was so impervious to. He didn’t wait for the witch to finish her speech.

"Get back!" He warned his remaining entourage. He made a signal with his hand: move in when I give the signal. No more words, he rushed forward as Ultimecia was parting her lips to speak again. A roaring cry augmented his power as a fire-tinted aura built around him.

"Compress THIS, witch-bitch!"

The glow burst into a ring of released energy as his fist struck the ground not fifteen feet from the startled sorceress. The built-up energy met the ground as well, converging on the point where Zell’s strike had landed.

The floor began to shake. Cracks formed in the tile beneath his fist, first a few small ones, then a single, black line wound its way across the floor. Moving almost too fast for the eye to follow, it raced and rumbled like a strand of rocky lightning underneath Sorceress Ultimecia, and the subsequent thunder split the ground in its wake. The break glowed with the same fierce, fiery-hot energy that had created it, and all at once the floor erupted in a blaze of flame, flying stone and searing heat, all originating from Zell’s vengeful gouge in the earth. The blast reached out and grabbed Ultimecia, ignoring her magical shield completely, scorching her graceful wings and transforming the outermost black feathers into equally black tufts of smoke. As Zell and his friends behind him watched in awe, Ultimecia writhed momentarily in the flames, screeching like such a wounded crow before propelling herself higher with one powerful thrust of those increasingly frail-looking wings. Her flowing dress was torn and charred on the edges, the ends of her long, silver tresses blackened and frayed.

For his efforts, Zell had to sidestep a vicious barrage of magic, backpedaling away, all the while shouting and whooping, "See, you can hurt ‘er! You can hurt ‘er, you see that? DID YOU SEE THAT!"

He turned to run for his life, though he knew Ultimecia’s range was not limited to the edges of this throne room-turned-arena. He heard the witch screech something in a bizarre language, watched rather than heard Rinoa scream at Ultimecia as a chaotic cloud of black swept him up and pulled him into its center. There he hovered suspended and immobile, stretched out amidst a maelstrom of darkness. His chest suddenly constricted, his joints cracking painfully. He couldn’t breathe—he felt like his body was being pulled apart one way, then crushed the other way in a monstrous hand. Pain such as he had never experienced tore at every nerve, but he couldn’t scream, could not utter a sound for the crushing force around his lungs. This is it, he thought, teeth clenched, eyes shut against the pain. She’s gonna do to me what she did to Squall—oh, geez, I’m envying you about now, man! What would you do…?

White bored through the blackness, banishing the pain and the constricting storm. Even through closed eyelids, Zell was momentarily blinded by the glare. He dropped abruptly to the floor, and lay there, too shocked, to terrorized to dare movement. He was sure that if he moved, his bones would crumble in his limbs. He stayed there, trembling.

When he did open his eyes a few moments later, he found Quistis and Irvine standing over him. They were yelling something. Gradually, his sense returned, and with Quistis’s help he managed to stand and turn around, still shaking, to face Ultimecia once more.

The witch was still close to the ground, but out of reach still, should anyone else try to attack her as Zell had. Zell looked over his shoulder. Rinoa was still on her knees beside Squall, murmuring something too quietly to hear, as though sharing a secret with her departed love. Had she stopped Ultimecia’s spell, or was it something else?

"Hey…Quisty, Irv," he hissed without breath through clenched teeth, still trying to recover from the brief torture he had just experienced. Both turned their attention to him, while keeping an eye one Ultimecia, who seemed to be concentrating, hovering in the midst of some spell. Another glance at Rinoa confirmed his Zell’s fears—from the look on her face, Ultimecia was up to no good (what else was new?), and they had to act fast if they were to do anything about it. Judging from her helpless expression, Zell doubted she had any advice to offer, so turned to Quistis and Irvine, allowing Rinoa to continue her vigil over Squall’s body. "Listen, I got a hunch," he continued after the pause, and a cough. "Irv, pop a slug at witchy woman up there, will ya?"

"Why for?"

"Just do it, will ya!"

Raising an eyebrow, Irvine adjusted his hat, then hefted his gun and aimed the barrel with nonchalant skill at Ultimecia, letting loose two shots that bounced off the walls of the open place. Both shots bounced harmlessly off Ultimecia’s shield.

"Now, Quisty, toss somethin’ at ‘er, a spell."

"What kind of spell?"

"I dunno! Any kind! Just so long as it’s meant to blow crap up, it’s fine." Why couldn’t people just listen to him without asking so many questions? They didn’t have much time. Zell sighed shakily in false exasperation. Man, I gotta work on my people skills.

Quistis chose a simple lightning spell, unsure of what hunch it was that Zell was testing. Squall had always given a reason for his actions…

But Squall wasn’t here. Quistis let this fact fuel her, and threw the spell—which also struck harmlessly, absorbed in an instant by Ultimecia’s barrier.

"Okay, now both of you, same thing, at the same time."

Irvine and Quistis glanced at each other, and did as instructed. They understood what he was getting at—but why the demonstration? Irvine’s round hit the barrier and bounced off.

Quistis’s bolt struck at Ultimecia, seeming to ignore the shield altogether.

The sorceress trembled as the electricity coursed through her, but otherwise seemed unharmed, and continued with her spell. Her eyes opened, revealing again the bloody circles.

"Just a wild guess," Zell blurted triumphantly, standing straighter. "I get it now. ‘S why what I did worked. She could take magic or weapons, so I was just wonderin’ if she could handle both at once."

"We saw that. You could’ve just said so. So what’s the plan?"

Before Zell could open his mouth, Ultimecia’s voice one again ripped the air. It was a heartless, hideous giggling at first, one that mutated into a loud, haunting laughter, malignant and insane without being mindless. "Idiotik children!" she exploded, bringing her laughing-fit to an abrupt end. "You have not a plan in the world that will give you viktory! Worthless wretches, your chit sorceress protects you from my power, but even she has her limits! I have none! None, you pitiful freaks, none!"

Irvine raised a skeptical eyebrow, shouted back. "You in that hat, and you’re calling us freaks?"

Ultimecia ignored him. "You may fight and fight until you die of old age, and you will still never taste triumph! I am not willing to wait for that time to pass. Very well! You have laid out your weak little cards. Now, feel the wrath of my hand!" Slowly, she began to rise, a little higher, higher, until she was once again level with her throne. "The most powerful Guardian Force," she began, as though the words were the final incantation for her spell.

Rinoa’s head jerked up suddenly, staring at Ultimecia in horror. "What…?"

"…you shall—"

Eyes widening, Rinoa reached out helplessly in the other sorceress’ direction. "Ultimecia!"

Quistis whirled at her cry of fear. "Rinoa, what’s happening?"

Ultimecia finished her incantation with the single word that described her world at its core. "Suffer!" Her right hand raised above her head, gathered energy and threw it down, straight into the split in the floor. "Come hither to my kommand! Defend your master, champion of Guardians!"

Rinoa shook her head, unable to speak. She felt the summons that Ultimecia had sent out, one unlike any other. It called not on a Guardian Force, exactly, but the apparition of one…the persona of a beast so powerful, there would be no hope of destroying it. How can she call on him? How are we going to survive? Oh, Squall, help us!

How do we fight something that’s immortal?

At first it seemed like nothing happened. Or would happen. The ground remained still.


Rinoa’s grief-racked scream came in tandem with the portal that suddenly manifested in the broken stone. It started as a white pinpoint, expanding wider until it encompassed half the length of the throne room. Light spiked upward from the portal, and a hellish, beastly roar caused the ground to shake. Ultimecia was obscured and vanished into the blinding light and deafening noise.

Rinoa bent over Squall’s body as the creature rose, writhing and bellowing, from the portal. Sickly violet fur covered the four-legged thing from head to toe, oversized claws on each foot colored a dark blood red, huge spikes of the same color arming its elbows and heels. Arms that were too long for its body waved savagely as the beast broke free of the portal. Wings of steely white feathers lifted it into the air where it turned and faced its enemies.

Rinoa choked on her sorrow. The creature’s head was that of a lion’s. A white mane and a crown of blood-red spikes decorated a sneering face with blue eyes…blue eyes. Tears welled in Rinoa’s black gaze. How sad Squall would be if he saw this. A creature of the greatest majesty…Squall’s own imaginary Guardian that he had carried with him as a symbol of everything he desired to be…perverted by Ultimecia’s evil into this.

"The true power of the Guardian," Ultimecia’s voice boomed, coming not from where she had been floating but from all around them. "Show them! I want them to suffer! No mercy! Griever—make them bleed!"

Zell backed up with the others, away from this terrible monster Ultimecia had called forth. In truth, he felt somewhat relieved. Here was something that would fight him, something he could hit back. But it was unlike any monster or guardian he had ever seen. "Geez, the hell is that thing?!"

"It’s exactly what Ultimecia said it is," Quistis breathed, chain whip limp in her hand. She was the only person aside from Rinoa who recognized this twisted creature, and fear—as well as sorrow—was threatening to freeze her. Irvine continued to remain uncharacteristically silent, shotgun ready in his hands. It seemed nothing could surprise him anymore.

Zell had the advantage of not understanding what they faced, and his order served to set them in motion again. "Well don’t just stand there, round up! Protect Squall and Rinoa!"

’Squall and Rinoa’, Rinoa repeated to herself. … I’ve never actually heard anyone say that before…not like that… "Be careful, Zell," she warned as the three created a human barricade between her and Griever. "You can’t hurt him. He’s a Guardian Force…immortal…"

"WHAT?!" Man, and here I thought we were gonna rumble!

"Everybody," Quistis cried in a warning that was not needed, "watch out!"

As Griever shot toward them, forked tongue lolling and massive claws ready to tear into his enemies, the floor of the throne room rocked, sending everyone to the ground as the twisted Guardian swooped just over their heads, missing them all by only a few feet. The ground broke free of the castle itself, and began levitating up, up, towards the sky and the shaded sun—or was the castle falling away beneath it?

"Oh, shit—!" Zell rolled to his right, barely avoiding an unexpected sweep of the bladed lion’s-tail as Griever passed over him. A sharp cry behind him and a subsequent shout from Irvine alerted him that someone else had not been so lucky. He twisted his neck to look over his shoulder. "Quistis!"

Quistis was painfully picking herself up, with Irvine’s help. She was holding her side, which had taken the edge of Griever’s tail. It had only grazed her, but the cut looked bad enough that if it went untreated, she would not survive for too long.

Rinoa watched as Quistis warded away any help, insisting that she use her own healing magic and that she would be fine in a moment or two. Watching Griever twist in the air and start back toward them for another pass, Rinoa knew they may not have a moment or two to spare. Closing her eyes, she wearily re-erected the barrier that had fallen under Ultimecia’s assault, having rested enough to do so. Simultaneously, she beseeched a soul that had no way of answering her. Squall, you created him, you can change him! Help us! I believe in what you said. I believe you’re still here! I’m not giving up, I understand what you were trying to tell me. That death isn’t the same thing here… just because you die doesn’t mean you’re gone…not if someone still believes in you.

She looked up just in time to see Griever descend upon her.

Leviathan whistled in alarm when three of his fellow Guardians dropped back from the small mass trekking through the spirit plane, toward the desperate calls of those they had pledged to protect. {What are you doing!} The watery blue serpent hissed in rebuke as Quetzalcoatlus, Diablos and Cerberus lagged behind the others. The three seemed on the verge of turning back. {We haven’t the time to rest!}

Diablos hovered in place as the parade of Guardian Forces passed around them, his blood-black wings wavering in an almost feeble manner. "I…cannot go on," he announced darkly, with little if any emotion in his heartless voice. "He whom I protect…is now dead."

If Leviathan could have blinked in surprise, he would have done so. In silent shock, he shot a hard "stare" at each of the other two Guardians, and saw only cold affirmation in their eyes. His gelatinous body shimmered and rippled with indecision. If Cerberus and Diablos left, he would be the strongest Guardian left to defend his summoner—and her comrades. He would have to lead the rest of the dwindling Guardians into battle against this horror beyond horrors that they faced. {Come with us,} he urged the halted Guardians, despite their claims. {Your duty to answer your caller is not negated by his death. Indeed, I know whom you guard, and if he is dead as you say, then his comrades will need us all the more. You cannot back down on a basis of politics, protocol. Come. Answer the plea.}

<Why should we,> Quetzal crackled his disdain, flapping electrical wings in agitated candor. <Even Bahamut, who should have answered to begin with, never heeded the summons at all! He is our monarch, oldest among us. If he believes this effort is futile, then why continue?>

"Bahamut gave no reason for his decision," Diablos pointed out. "Be it unwise, that we should speculate about his logic. He may have yet to determine his course of action."

<Nevertheless!> The Guardian of Lightning twisted in his impatience. <I see no more reason to proceed.>

Cool your jets, Quetzal! With a scolding chitter, a tiny, bright ball of neon green shimmied up Leviathan’s long body, alighting on the Water Guardian’s head. The sparkling star dissolved, leaving in its place the squirrel-ish Carbuncle, who propped himself on his haunches and briskly groomed one rabbit-like green ear with a tiny forepaw. His ruby gem twinkled between his eyes in his fervency. If you turn and run home with your big sparky tail between your wings just ‘cuz no one’s screaming for you to come rescue them, don’t blame me when Ultimecia comes and twists you into one of her evil slaves! If it’s all about you, like it usually is, then think about it this way—no more world, no more people to protect, and as soon as we have no one left to call on us, our powers won’t mean a thing. Think about what she did to Catoblepas and Locutus.* Without anything to stop her, Ultimecia will waltz right up to you and take over your mind! How would ya like that, Blitz Bird?

<Not much,> Quetzal conceded, <but look at us, Bunkie! Odin’s dead, half of us have no strength left and were left behind, anyway, and our little human friends’ best asset just bit the dust. And if you’ll recall, not all the Guardians Ultimecia controls were brainwashed, you know. Tiamat joined her of his own accord. There’s six others left, not including all of us talkin’ here. I’m not some sort of kamikaze! You tell me how we’re going to live through it.>

"Again, you are assuming things that have not yet happened," Diablos growled in disgust, grinding his vice-like jaws so that his fangs rattled against each other. "We have not lost yet. Tiamat is simply a fool."

Enough! The booming tremor of Cerberus’s three-throated voice silenced the argument. The tri-headed hell dog let his two side-heads cast glowing, withering glares at Diablos and Quetzal. His center, commanding head faced Leviathan and Carbuncle, and his lips curled in bloodthirsty agreement. I believe Leviathan and the chipmunk to be right. Back down now, and lose any hope we once had of salvation. I will continue on with the others…you may both do as you wish, but remember the consequences of your decisions. I will not be responsible for anything that happens as a result of your cowardice. With nothing further to say, Cerberus launched himself forward, galloping past Leviathan to join the march to battle once again.

Leviathan stayed only briefly, and watched as Diablos wordlessly followed Cerberus’s example, folding his wings and bursting into thousands of tiny bats, which continued onward with the rest of the Guardians.

The water serpent bowed his head for a moment, letting Carbuncle slide off and resume his previous form as a ball of light, which sprinted away with another sparkling chitter. Leviathan faced Quetzal again. {Pandemonium was Selphie’s Guardian. She had not even the chance to call him before she died. Still he continues on with us. Will you be the first to abandon your summoner’s cause simply on account of his death and your own fear of defeat? Think about Squall, Quetzal. He is not a being who backs down to anything, least of all uncertainty and poor odds. If nothing else, those things make him more determined. A Guardian Force should emulate the qualities of those he or she protects, just as the summoner must match the qualities of their Guardian. At this moment, Quetzalcoatlus, I see little of Squall in you. That, I fear, may be just enough to prove the undoing of all of us.} Slowly, with a sorrowful air about him, the great sea serpent curled his lithe body around and took to a swimming flight through the plane of spirits, leaving Quetzal alone to quiver and buzz in a tumult of indecision.

With a furious, thunderous screech, Quetzalcoatlus turned back and parted ways with his brethren.

Chapter 3

Final Fantasy 8 Fanfic