The Dying of the Light Chapter 3

Guardians of Hope

By Luna Manar

"…for you and I are not destined to meet again in this world."


Rinoa stared into Griever’s fiendish eyes without fear or reserve, simply because she knew the creature, however twisted, could not hurt her. Even now as it hovered overhead, staring at her in pure, unadulterated hatred, it made no move to do her any harm.

She had known this to begin with. If Ultimecia had indeed pulled Griever directly from Squall’s mind when he had been in her custody, then no matter what the witch had done to pervert the Guardian, he was created of Squall’s psyche. And there was nothing in Squall that could intentionally hurt her; in that small, but significant sense, she owned this beast. She could not control him, but nor could Ultimecia command him to attack the blue sorceress that now stood guard over Squall’s inert body. Everyone else was vulnerable—just not her.

Griever appeared to be confused and frustrated at whatever contradictory thoughts were running through his hateful heart. The Guardian hovered, poised to strike, but clearly could not bring himself to lay a claw on the girl who sat staring at him defiantly.

Rinoa noticed the beast’s eyes stray to the silver chain that held the ring of its namesake. You remember, don’t you, she thought to the creature though it could not hear her. Even you remember…so long as I’ve got this, I can’t die. You’re Squall’s, no one else’s…and because of you, he’s still alive. I wonder if Ultimecia knows that.

Did that mean he would fight like Squall, she wondered, with the same unhindered ferocity? She remembered noticing that Squall often sought to overwhelm his enemy with his first strike, before they had a chance to turn and defend themselves. Watching as Griever abandoned his fruitless standoff with her, she thought to further strengthen the barriers that protected her three friends from harm, and wondered just how much good she was doing them anyway.

Quistis had recovered from her injury in the short lull of Griever’s confusion, with Zell and Irvine guarding her. Rinoa had urged them not to worry about her. She had her own agenda, her own plan to work with this Guardian of Ultimecia’s creation and Squall’s design. She just needed the right opportunity to present itself.

She thought briefly about what might have prevented the Guardian Forces from reaching them. Zell had clearly indicated that they were on their way, but had in some way become impeded or detained for reasons he knew not what. Not having called her Guardians (at Squall’s request), she hadn’t any idea why they had never showed up. She dared not waste the concentration it would require to find that out now.

As he rose to begin his next attack, a blinding flare of light exploded against Griever’s back between his wings. The Guardian roared in rage, twisting in the air to face the spellcaster who had sought (in futility, it appeared) to ground him.

Zell made a taunting gesture, seeking to draw the beast away from his friends and into the open where it might be more easily engaged. "Pick on somebody of your own caliber, man!"

Griever’s lip threatened to curl, but never did. His eyes squinted, and the expression was eerily familiar—and it was a sign they all recognized.

Zell momentarily suspended his bravado. "Uh-oh…" I think I pissed him off.

"I think you pissed him off!" Irvine’s voice warned him. Zell didn’t have the time to be annoyed. Griever attacked.

It seemed that Griever could move faster than thought. One moment, the creature was hovering in place. The next, he was careening toward Zell, the entire body of the beast glowing eerily with deadly power. Like a hawk descending on its prey, Griever crashed into the ground in a calculated collision, talons spread and wings agape. Blood-red claws and a razor-edged tail cut and scarred the broken ground as the Guardian grappled with his victim. The only thing that saved Zell from a bloody death under Griever’s claws was Rinoa’s barrier. Even so, he did not come away unscathed. Griever struck out at the SeeD with claws and fangs, seeking to grasp him and tear him apart. Only the very tips of the huge claws penetrated Rinoa’s shield, but it was enough to catch Zell on his arm, side and back; by the time he had scrambled out from beneath the monster, Zell’s clothes were torn and frayed, the spikes of his hair had been amply blown backward, and he stumbled dazedly away from the raging beast.

The silent sentinel over Squall’s body bowed her head and wept. So here, the slaughter would begin. Unless someone found a way to defeat the undefeatable.

Griever wasted no time in resuming his assault. Twisting around with all the ease and grace of his feline body, the Guardian launched himself into the air again. He hovered over them briefly, oblivious to the rounds that Irvine scored in his impervious flesh and the spells that crackled and sputtered around him in futile attempts to do him harm. In a sudden, oddly human-like motion, Griever crossed his long arms and appeared to concentrate. A shout from the woman with blonde hair warned her comrades too late of his intentions. Griever’s roar drowned out the woman’s puny voice, and brought the sky around him to his command.

Air and heat coalesced at a central point over the Guardian’s enemies. Darkness and light collapsed the growing sphere, releasing a shockwave of energy that raged like an army of white fire against Rinoa’s barrier. As before when he had attacked Zell, the shield could not completely deflect Griever’s power. The deadly front struck the three fighters under the sorceress’ shield, sending them to the floor, gasping for breath, ravaged with pain, and fighting to get back on their feet. He did not wait for them to stand. With another roar, he called not the skies but the heavens to his aid. Flames tore the air and drew more power from the wind. Hundreds of shooting stars rained down, breaking the tile flooring and exposing the dirt ground beneath. The fist-sized meteors missed their summoner completely, seeming instead to target his foes. The smaller balls of flame bounced off the shielding, larger ones burning up in the energy field. Some made it through. A few scored hits.

Quistis went down and did not get up. Zell knelt against the pain of burning wounds and stinging claw marks. Irvine got lucky. He was the only one of the three who remained standing after the storm had passed. More shots were fired as Griever swept down toward them all. The sharpshooter aimed for the beast’s eyes. Even if he could not hurt the thing, surely he could at least cause it some pain and force it to retreat.

Griever took one in the eyes. Head reeling, the Guardian screamed, rearing back and slowing his charge. But the hesitation was momentary, there was no injury suffered, and the pain only served to fuel his rage. He descended on Irvine, more furious than ever. Claws speared the barrier, back-handing a retreating sharpshooter and sending him hurdling head-over heels. Irvine lost his hat over the edge of the flying island. Sliding to within a few feet of the drop, he almost lost himself, as well. All the while, he clung stubbornly to his gun. Once again, he got lucky. Only his coat had been torn by Griever’s claws. One last glance after his hat convinced him that the beloved item was gone. He stood up and faced the beast that was flying toward him again. It seemed, one by one, he was losing every thing and every person he cared for.

Silently, he stood tall and let loose every round he could manage before Griever closed the gap between himself and his enemy. Irvine met the attack with his eyes open, sights trained perfectly on the creature’s hateful stare.

He only blinked when Griever stopped short of knocking him over the edge. The Guardian pulled up, missing Irvine altogether, and twisted in the air, pumping his wings and growling furiously as he tried to dislodge something from his back.

Zell had the beast by its white mane, and despite having been pummeled by claws and flaming stones, was making for the best rodeo display Irvine had ever seen in his life. The sharpshooter even smiled as Zell whooped and shouted, clinging gamely to the back of Griever’s neck as the monster roared, bucked and twisted.

"YEEEEE HAH! Irv, you’ve gotta try this! Ohh, yeah! Ride it, baby, ride! Hoo!" He began reciting a chant Selphie had made up not long ago, albeit slightly edited, and he sounded nothing like any sort of cheerleader—from him, the words were taunting lyrics:

"Eenie, teenie, tiny, tale,
catch a lion by his tail,
if he hollers let ‘im wail,
show ‘em SeeD’ll never fail!

But the show didn’t last long. With a particularly violent twist, Griever managed to throw Zell off, and his bladed tail barely missed slicing the offender in half on the way to the ground. Zell landed with a painful crack. His shoulder split at the joint. Griever dove for him.

Another cracking sound cut the melee, and this time it was Griever who was sent tumbling to the floor by a force so powerful it knocked him out of the air. The heavy creature crashed with a sound like thunder, shaking the ground and causing the fringes of the island to fall away from the whole. Clawing and snarling, he skidded across the dirt and tiles, inflicting deep gouges in the floor, and finally coming to a stop not far from where Zell had fallen. Jumping back to his feet, unharmed and furious, Griever kicked backward at the incapacitated, scoring a bone-snapping blow that almost threw Zell over the edge.

Ignoring the slow moan of pain behind him, Griever searched for his other attacker, tail lashing dangerously. The magic had been exceedingly powerful, to knock him from flight. But even as he stared at her, he knew the sorceress in blue, the one he could not harm, was not the one who had attacked him. His gaze rested on an inert figure laying in the center of the island. His blue eyes burned colder.

With a single, powerful beat of his wings, ignorant of the shots being fired at him from behind, Griever landed beside the woman he had previously thought dead. Now he knew better. He fumed internally. He was no mere animal. Playing dead would not fool him out of attacking. He would see to it that his enemies realized this. Muzzle arched in a livid, snarling scowl, he rested a clawed hand atop the "dead" woman, and watched in satisfaction as her eyes snapped open in terror.

Make them suffer!’ His mistress had said to him. So be it.

Rinoa’s heart was in her throat. She had seen Quistis fall, and had thought she was dead. She had lifted the barrier surrounding her friend, the better to concentrate on protecting Zell and Irvine. She’d had no idea Quistis was still alive.

Now she couldn’t bear to watch, and turned her head away in grief and shame, her shoulders jerking painfully as she heard Quistis’ first scream.

If I’d known…if I hadn’t taken the shield away, this wouldn’t be happening. Quistis, I’m so sorry! Rinoa opened teary eyes and tried to concentrate on keeping Zell and Irvine safe. She looked nowhere else but Squall’s peaceful face. She knew Zell could no longer fight. He was still alive, but there was no telling how much damage Griever had dealt him. Irvine stood over him, ready to defend his remaining comrade with his last breath. That’s all Rinoa had seen before she’d been forced to look away. Quistis’ spell had been supremely executed. Without looking, the veteran SeeD had still struck Griever squarely with the Ultima magic, saving Zell…and forfeiting her life in the process. If Quistis had been expecting such an outcome, Rinoa couldn’t know. Somehow, she doubted it. Had Quistis trusted Rinoa to protect her?

Rinoa trembled, fighting the remorse building in her heart. She knew she couldn’t afford to give in to guilt. Not now. Even if she had to fight Griever herself…

But they couldn’t go on like this. Griever would slaughter them one by one. Zell and Irvine were at the opposite edge of the floating throne room, at the fringes of Rinoa’s ability to protect them. If she hoped to shield them, she would have to get closer to them.

She couldn’t leave Squall’s side. He’d asked her not to. She would not. She couldn’t attack. To do so would mean dropping the shield. Quistis’s screams had died away. Still, Rinoa could not look. She pressed her hand against Squall’s quiet heart. He was still warm.

Squall, how do we fight him? If you can, tell us how…I believe…

More shrieks and shouts. Rinoa trembled under the rage of the beast.

{Where are they?} Leviathan twisted and coiled in distress. {This realm is pure insanity! I cannot make heads or tails of it. How are we to find them in this mess?}

"As most of us have learned, Leviathan," Diablos offered with unsettling calmness, "Ultimecia’s time-compressed world wreaks havoc with this dimension."

{I know that!} Unusually agitated, the Water Guardian twisted this way and that, desperately seeking some indication of where to go. Cerberus sniffed and snorted at the air in his own version of the same futile effort. The other Guardians began to gather behind them.

In disgust and frustration, Ifrit snorted a puff of hot smoke, causing Pandemonium to veer warily away from him. "This is impossible. Even in this cursed place, we have been able to find our way before! Why are we walking in circles now?" The Fire Guardian sneered with his feline visage and tossed his head bullishly, scattering yet more Guardians, who had no desire to meet the business-ends of his giant horns. "There is a chaos in this place. Diablos, you must surely feel it."

"Undoubtedly," the demon assented, "their battle has become so heated—forgive the pun, my friend—that it is creating too great a disturbance to isolate. The chaos is, in essence, everywhere."

I disagree. All eyes turned to one of Cerberus’s heads—whichever was closest—and waited for him to speak again. No battle could create such an effect, not even in this place. Even if the Universe itself was at war, we are a part of it, and could learn to journey it. Something—perhaps intentionally—is preventing us from following our summons. I detect a strange scent. It resembles that of a Guardian Force…but it is…abnormal. I do not understand it. Perhaps it is that presence which is causing this confusion.

<So speak up, man, what’s the answer?> Pandemonium, silent until this point, sighed powerfully, letting his impatience further permeate the conversation with the stench of anxiety.

Cerberus’s ears drooped, and his heads bowed in unison. I…do not know.

Carbuncle clambered atop Leviathan’s head again, his own ears limp with defeat. …So it’s over. We can’t find them.

{Nonsense!} Leviathan rippled with anxious annoyance. {I refuse to believe hope is lost. I will continue to search until Ultimecia herself destroys me.}

As will I, Cerberus barked with three voices. But my heart is frightened…I fear that if we do find them…we will not find much.

So we crush the bastards who cause da problem! Sacred pounded once big fist into the palm of his other hand, and shook his horns roughly. Grind ‘em to powder!

"not so fast, bro." Minotaur horned in, forcing all present to crane their necks downward in order to see him. "can’t do that if they’re all dead. no people, no power, remember?"

Oh, yeah. Sacred’s face fell, and he snorted in dismay. Sorry.

Siren pointed, suddenly. As was her nature, she said nothing, but let her actions speak for her. The Guardians turned attention to the indicated direction.

What is that? Carbuncle’s question echoed their collective thoughts. Not far away, a shivering, blazing red and amber light hovered, as though it had been watching them and listening in on their discussion.

It was a cloud-like thing, a tiny nebula that pulsed and flared like a fiery heart. It moved upon being discovered, rising above the Guardians’ heads. There it remained, overlooking its spectators.

Most of the Guardians were too ancient not to recognize the little entity as a human soul. What was amazing was that this soul knew how to recognize them…and how to find them, evidently.

Leviathan tested a curiosity, wondering if the spirit could understand them. {Who are you?}

There was no direct answer, at least, not at first. Of course, it made sense—disembodied as it was, the soul had no way of communicating with them in words. But there was a reaction, nevertheless, one that indicated some form of understanding. The nebula flared brightly, then dimmed again to a softer radiance.

I know! Still perched on Leviathan’s head, Carbuncle waved his paw about excitedly. Charades!

Ifrit sneered. "This is no time for games, chipmunk."

Not a game, silly! The little Guardian giggled. Just to talk! If it can’t speak, then maybe it can show us what it wants to say. Siren does it all the time. He glanced at Siren, who smiled appreciatively, her winged ears wavering gently.

Leviathan took the suggestion to heart. He addressed the soul once more. {Indeed. If you can, show us who you are, or what you want to say.}

Diablos had other ideas. Annoyed, he flapped his black wings, rising over the other Guardians. "Standing idle in an attempt to converse with a human spirit is hardly what I deem an appropriate use of our time. Come. We must continue our search. Aiding lost souls is a pointless activity."

<So what if it ain’t lost?> Pandemonium folded his bloated arms. <Maybe it can help us. And you complain about us making impulsive decisions."

Yeah, agreed Sacred. What if it came lookin’ for us?

{Hush!} Annoyed at the constant bickering amongst the Guardians, Leviathan cast them all an angry scowl, one that was made stronger (if perhaps a little silly-looking) by Carbuncle’s own beady-eyed leer. Wisely, there was no laughing, and the water serpent was allowed to continue his one-sided conversation with the human spirit.

When he looked back to where the little nebula had been, however, he saw not a glowing cloud, but an image. The gaseous soul had reshaped itself, so that it was no longer a formless entity, but a flaming, very recognizable symbol: the head of a roaring lion.

There was no question amidst the Guardians just who it was that had found them. There was surprise, even shock, but no skepticism. Only one human bore that trademark.

Cerberus lunged forward, landing firmly in front of Leviathan and howling with delight at the sight of his lost summoner. Take us to them, he cried with all three heads. We will follow!

The image disintegrated, leaving only the nebula, which hovered for a moment before flaring again and racing out into the darkness.

There was no strength left in Rinoa’s heart, and no answer to her pleas. Griever was torturing her. With every blow against her shield in his fight to reach Irvine and Zell, Griever rocked Rinoa’s mind. Each attempt was more brutal and savage. Rinoa fought to strengthen the shield enough to keep the beast from so much as touching Irvine or Zell. She had never tried so hard at anything. Irvine was doing his best to tend to poor Zell, who was no longer capable of fighting by any stretch of the imagination. When Rinoa had dared to look around her again, Quistis’ body—whatever might have been left of it—had vanished. Only a pool of blood marked the ground where Griever had killed her. Now, only Zell and Irvine remained, with Rinoa as their faltering wall of defense.

Even if she could defend them from Griever, they had no hope of ever killing the beast. He was completely immortal, like the other Guardians, only, somehow, he was able to stay and fight for however long Ultimecia wished. There was no Code of the Guardians known to Griever. He followed no rules. All he existed for was hate, blood and death. It was his sole purpose.

Squall could not answer her. If he even heard her anymore, she could not know. If he could, there was nothing he could do to help her, or any of them. More and more, Rinoa was beginning to believe that their hopes had died with Squall.

But she would not let herself believe that. He had told her not to leave his side, and to trust him. She did trust him. His word was the only thing she trusted, anymore.

Griever collided with the shield one more time. Rinoa cried out, cringing. Her head was spinning with the strain. She couldn’t hold it up much longer.

Another roar. Rinoa opened her eyes. The voice—it was different. It wasn’t Griever’s bellow. Cooler, lighter, deeper…

Leviathan? She twisted around just in time to watch a watery portal expand behind her. Instead of his usual slow, gradual transition from water to flesh, however, Leviathan burst from that other dimension he resided in, sending showers of glittering diamond water spraying in all directions. The giant serpent howled melodically, and twisted his sinuous body to face Griever, hissing viciously in threat. Griever stopped his attacks on Rinoa’s shield, and faced this new adversary. For a moment, it looked as though Leviathan and Griever were bound for a one-on-one duel.

Then the rest of the Guardians arrived, all of them roaring and snarling and screeching. Ifrit burst forth from an explosion of flame. The Minotaur Brothers climbed over the edges of the floor, snorting and tossing their heads, brandishing huge morning stars. The wind began to churn, whipping needles of dust in Griever’s face while Pandemonium materialized from within a small twister of sand and debris. Darkness overshadowed the sky, bringing with it the terrible screeches of a thousand tiny bats, which rushed past a snarling Griever in a chaos of wings, squeals and sharp vampire teeth. They congealed nearby, forming the sphere of black blood that Diablos escaped with a single sweep of his dark wings. Somewhere there was music, haunting, enchanting, and though she remained invisible, Siren made her presence discreetly known. The final gateway opened, and the last Guardian to arrive stepped out from a glowing red gate, a portal from Hell into this no less demented realm. Three-headed Cerberus howled and growled as the gates closed up behind him, and he stood in the center of the circle with the rest of the surviving Guardians backing him. Leviathan and Diablos moved to flank the demon dog, and the three faced Griever as the captains and commodores of their terrible army. The Guardians surrounded Griever, all of them bristling with their power and ready to fight to the immortal death.

Rinoa watched all this with a mixture of relief and total awe. Never before had she seen such a display from the Guardian Forces. She had never thought that the creatures could work as a comprehensive whole.

Her assumption was clearly wrong. That didn’t matter. The Guardian Forces, once hailed as gods by ancient civilizations, were here.

And they were angry.

Griever surveyed his new challenges with cool patience. He counted eight beasts, all of them as immortal as he. Immortal, yes. But not omnipotent. They could be defeated, beaten into submission. None of them were as powerful as he was. He could take them all, if he was careful.

He growled deep in his throat at the three-headed dog beast directly before him. That one was the strongest. He would take him out first. Meanwhile, the creature, who appeared to be the ringleader of this unannounced circus of deathless beasts, was snarling in menace.

Freak of Guardians! What are you? Name yourself, or face destruction!

Griever did not answer. He had no intention of answering, now or ever. He only stared deep into the three pairs of yellow eyes, calculating the creature’s intent. He knew the Guardian Forces would not attack one of their own kind, not unless the Guardian in question had broken one of their sacred laws. What did this black-and-red monster believe?

Snarling, yellowed teeth bared and dripping with acidic saliva, the hell dog began a slow, cautious approach of the hovering pseudo-Guardian. Griever watched him carefully, and listened.

I am Cerberus, Guardian of the death that awaits you if you refuse to answer…now.

As if the last word was a cue, all the other Guardians took yet more threatening stances, each of them—even gracious Leviathan—seeming anxious to rush in and tear this traitor to pieces. {This creature,} the serpent announced darkly, {is the source of the chaos that has been preventing us from reaching our charges. He is not a Guardian Force, Cerberus. He is not anything that will ever become a Guardian. He is a creation with the power of a Guardian. A synthetic Guardian Force, one that should not be allowed to continue to exist!} In his barely contained anger, Leviathan hissed again, edging his head forward. The Water Guardian looked ready to burst with fury. {Mark my words, imposter,} he warned, {your prowess will never extend beyond this puny scrap of land.}

At the same time all the threatening and bellowing was beginning, Irvine crouched over an semi-conscious Zell. Both arms broken, not to mention a rib or two, Zell seemed too mired in pain to care much about what was happening. Irvine glanced nervously at Rinoa, who was watching the Guardian standoff with awed fixation.

Darn it, Rinoa, I know it’s fascinating, but quit watching the show for a second. Zell needs your help! With much arm-waving, Irvine finally succeeded in acquiring her audience. Saying nothing, he pointed fervently with both hands at Zell, watching Rinoa expectantly for a response. Disappointingly, she only shrugged helplessly. Trying again for her comprehension, the sharpshooter pointed at her, then at Zell again, waving his fingers about in imitation of witchy spell-casting.

Rinoa made a signal with her hand, one Irvine couldn’t understand, himself. He gave her an exasperated look of confusion. Is that some SeeD thing that Squall taught you? He shook his head and spread his arms in frustrated entreaty. I don’t understand that stuff. Signal in English! He started to adjust his hat, only to remember belatedly that he’d lost it to the skies far below them. He settled instead for scratching his head.

"The…shield, man…"

Startled, Irvine bent closer to Zell, all the while marveling that the SeeD had still been paying attention. "Say that again?"

"That shield thing," Zell rasped between rough breaths that painted the ground with small flecks of blood. "Can’t…keep it up if she helps me. One or the other, man…"

"That Griever bugger is surrounded. How do I tell her to forget the shield and help you?"

Zell said nothing else. Either he didn’t know or couldn’t speak any more than he already had.

Irvine settled for mouthing the words, "do it anyway," hoping Rinoa would get the point.

As if seeking advice from him, Rinoa looked away and down at Squall. If their lost captain could give her any kind of guidance, it was on a level that only Rinoa could understand. Irvine waited.

Rinoa closed her eyes the shield that had been protecting them became visible for a brief second before flickering and fading away. A pale ripple of her sorceress magic preceded the glittering blue that surrounded her and caused her hair to waver. Irvine twisted around to stare at Zell. As he watched, a similar radiance, far more intense, surrounded the SeeD’s body. A sharp gleam of white, like sunlight glinting off steel, grew in Zell’s chest before shooting out in all directions. Irvine was forced to avert his eyes. When he looked back, Zell was slowly, delicately picking himself up. Immediately, the shield was back up.

Zell tested his arms, first one, then the other, taking deep breaths all the while. While Irvine sat amazed, Zell rolled his head, audibly cracking his neck, blinked a few times and unsteadily stood up, teetering a bit before gaining his balance. Irvine made as if to help his friend, but Zell waved him away. "Nah, I can stand up." Nevertheless, the normally spunky SeeD seemed mellowed and tired. He didn’t even seem to think about the fact that Rinoa had healed him in a matter of seconds.

Irvine glanced over his shoulder at Rinoa, whose eyes were still closed. She was still as stone, save for her breathing. If she could help Zell that fast, the sharpshooter wondered, how come she couldn’t do that for Squall earlier…? He supposed it must have had something to do with the fact Ultimecia had inflicted those injuries.

He supposed it didn’t matter, at this point.

"So what’s goin’ on," Zell asked him wearily. "What’s all this? The big guys are all here."

He received only a shrug for an answer.

"A’ight." Heaving a huge sigh, he decided he might as well resume his unwanted role as "replacement for Squall." At least right now, he had an idea of what he was going to do. "Irv, you stay here," he instructed. "I’m gonna…go talk to ‘er." He gestured at Rinoa. Not waiting for an answer, Zell did his best to straighten up, and marched, not too importantly, over to where Rinoa knelt, still in her trance.

Meanwhile the Guardians tensed for battle.

{…your prowess will never extend beyond this puny scrap of land.}

Leviathan had to snatch his head back to avoid a right-handed cuff by Griever’s scythe-like claws. The "fake" Guardian was amazingly swift. The sea serpent only narrowly escaped with his pointed snout still in one piece. But the motion was enough; Leviathan would hesitate no longer. He attacked.

Screeching his anger, the giant sea serpent lunged forward at the leonine beast, striking like a cobra, aiming for the eyes. Three lightning-fast stabs of his pointed, horny beak landed no successful blows, but they were enough to put Griever on the defensive, backing up a few feet to avoid each attack. Leviathan followed the brief assault with another shrill battle cry, and called on his own power to aid him in his next strike.

The other Guardians were behind him, their own roars reinforcing his own, and the thunderous sound rocked the air. Leviathan’s body began to lose its cohesion. His next pass, as expected, did not deter Griever, but encouraged the creature to attack. The blood-red claws struck Leviathan squarely in the face—and passed uselessly through a body of impervious water.

Griever found himself suddenly trapped in the coils of a liquid constrictor. Sea water tightened around his chest, filled his mouth. He tried to roar, and only succeeded in breathing in a mouthful of the salty stuff. His wings were useless in the suffocating enclosure. He began to writhe, twisting desperately in a futile attempt to free himself. He felt giant hands and claws on him. Sacred, the larger of the Minotaur Brothers, plucked the water-encased Griever from the air and threw him roughly to the center of the floating floor. The impact did not harm Leviathan, now nothing but a monstrous water container.

Griever felt the water pressure around him increase, threatening to crush him. He had no strength to free himself. But he could still see quite well through the transparent liquid. His blue eyes fixed intently on the girl. He could not touch her. Another human was walking toward her. He didn’t have what Griever sought. The icy gaze rested at last on the lone person a few meters away, the gunman that had scored a hit in the beast’s eyes. Eyes narrowed. It was not much, but he would do. Bellowing soundlessly in his watery cage as Diablos and Cerberus descended on him, Griever reached out with his mind, grasped the power he had sensed within the human, and violently snatched it away.

Irvine had never had anything draw magic from him before. It was a rather painful, peculiar feeling, but he was able to keep standing even as he watched the unmistakable magic energy fly away from him and to…whoever it was that had taken it.

Only humans and certain, very rare animals had the ability to glean magic from other beings. Irvine found himself somewhat disconcerted as well as puzzled, brushed his hand over his hair in an attempt to center himself. What was that? When he looked up again, his eyes widened. A flutter of fear entered his heart.

Griever cast the spell he had drawn from Irvine’s mind. The spell had not been meant to attack with, but as an escape tool; Leviathan, having surrounded Griever completely, became suddenly opaque. Griever had frozen his living prison. The Guardians who had rushed in to attack him now had their limbs mired in ice.

Not a moment later, the sphere of ice cracked through to its center, and Griever, screaming his rage, broke free. His wings snapped open, knife-like feathers slicing through the ice and sending shards of it scattering in all directions. Two thrusts of the powerful limbs carried him upward again. This time, he was not surrounded. He had room to move.

True to his intentions, he attacked Cerberus first. Stuck in the ice, the dog could not move to avoid any assault. His heavy, reptilian tail was still free, though, and he didn’t hesitate to use it.

Griever had made a miscalculation in diving at Cerberus head-first. The thrashing tail of the hell dog whipped around unexpectedly, slamming against Griever’s face and knocking him to the ground. Griever flipped onto his feet and took to the air again before he could be overwhelmed by the many smaller Guardians—who were standing around like jackals, simply waiting for their chance to move in.

There was no time to rest. Once in the air, Griever came face-to-face with a huge, black-winged demon. Diablos crashed into him with crushing force, and the two began to grapple in the air, Griever’s booming roars and Diablos’ raspy grunts bouncing off walls that didn’t appear to be there.

Ifrit took the opportunity to rush to Sacred, Cerberus and Pandemonium’s aid. The Fire Lord, being who he was, had the privilege of melting the unnaturally hard ice that immobilized the other Guardians’ limbs. He did this by simply touching the ice around each trapped hand or paw; his lip curled in a wicked, cattish smirk. Holding out on hand, he conjured a flaming mass of lava, and casually tossed it into the remaining chunks of ice. The molten liquid spread over the frozen pieces, quickly melting them away—or, more accurately, evaporating them completely.

The steam that rose from the quickly cooling ground twisted and gave itself form—and in a few moments, Leviathan’s glowing eyes were scowling at Ifrit from within a vaporous, serpentine apparition.

{Thank you, O Lord Pyromaniac, but that was just a bit more than was necessary.} Gradually, the mist was beginning to settle, and the serpent began to regain a watery consistency.

In a rare, comical gesture of apology, Ifrit offered a sheepish, toothy grin and wisely moved away from the rapidly recovering Leviathan, who, by the looks of it, was half-ready to exact retribution and drench the fiery Guardian.

Meanwhile, Diablos and Griever had taken their battle to a height that made the contest very difficult to see. It was impossible to tell who, if either of them, was winning, and there was little any of them—save Leviathan, who had not yet regained complete control over his form—could do to assist.

"Says who?" Ifrit sensed the collective thoughts of the other Guardians, and snorted puffs of red smoke. "You act like a bunch of mortals. Whoever heard of a Guardian who couldn’t fly?" To emphasize his words, he rose a few meters off the ground, floating easily in mid-air.

I resent that question… Cerberus flattened his ears, his feet heavy on the ground. But his attention was on the skies.

Tired of the other Guardians’ incessant tendencies toward prattle, Leviathan wasn’t paying attention. He was too busy trying to make out the battle high above. His eyes were keen, and if he had to make a judgement, it was that the fight was not going well for Diablos. As soon as he could, the sea serpent had every intention of lending his assistance. If he could bring the battle closer to this ground, Cerberus could fight, as well. If Ifrit chose to charge in to Diablos’ aid, that was all well and good, but Leviathan doubted it would be enough. Watching the fight from below, Griever appeared to Leviathan to be immune to Diablos’ magic—which left the dark Guardian with only his immense strength as a weapon. Pandemonium could only control the air, and in this case, violent winds would cause just as many problems for Diablos as it would for Griever. Siren’s song seemed louder now than it had ever been, but if it was directed at Griever, judging by all the bellowing, it had no effect whatsoever of the creature. Carbuncle had no offensive powers.

{Carbuncle?} Where was the little Guardian, anyway?

"Yo," Zell whispered, startling Rinoa as he crouched down next to her. He offered a brief half-smile at her reaction. "How ya doin’?"

She nodded vaguely as the first screech of battle rose from the throng of Guardians, and for a moment, they both watched as the first attacks were exchanged between Griever and Leviathan.

But despite the shaking of the ground, the roars and the ruckus, the eerie sound of Siren’s song in the wind, neither Zell nor Rinoa had much wish to watch for long. Zell had given Irvine that role. Instead, he raised his voice a little to be heard over the noise. "You know what that thing is, don’t ya? Tell me about it." He never mentioned how she had healed him, did not thank her. It was too soon to be extending gratitude.

Rinoa stared at him for a moment, then looked down at the floor. She grasped the ring on its chain at her chest. "Zell, do you remember the monster that’s on Squall’s ring? The one I asked you to copy for me?"

"Well, sure. I remember it looked cool. What’s that got to do with anything?"

Rinoa hesitated, then held up the ring, such that the "monster" was facing Zell. "Take a closer look."

Zell leaned forward, squinting at the finely detailed metalwork. He raised an eyebrow and sat back again, watching Rinoa uncertainly. "…A lion with wings?"


"Hey…that Griever thing looks a lot like a lion with wings." Zell began to look more and more uneasy, as though some terribly uncomfortable notion had popped into his head. "You’re freakin’ me out, girl. What’s it gotta do with everything?"

"The name of this symbol is Griever." She stared at the ring, finally let it rest against her skin once more. "He’s Squall’s creation," she explained. "A Guardian Force…it’s one he made up." She watched sadly as Griever broke free of an icy entrapment. "Griever is a symbol of strength and courage. It’s Squall’s way of fighting his fear."

"…I still don’t get it."

"Griever can’t die," Rinoa summed up. "When Ultimecia had Squall in her power, she took Griever from his mind, and recreated this facsimile."

"Pretty damn good facsimile." Zell craned his neck to watch as Diablos and Griever rose higher and higher into the sky. "The big guys don’t seem to be leaving a scratch on ‘im"

"Somehow, Ultimecia was able to give Griever life, and then bend him to her will. If he has every quality that Squall gave him, then I don’t know if any of the Guardians here will be able to beat him. I can only guess…but as far as I know, Squall made up Griever to be the ultimate Guardian."

"What about Bahamut? And that Quetzer…Ketzy…whatever his name is?"

The tired sorceress sighed gravely. "With Squall gone, they have no reason to come…I’m surprised Diablos and Cerberus showed up." For that matter, she was surprised at Leviathan’s appearance. She hadn’t actively called Leviathan. Why had he come and others stayed behind?

"I got another question."

She blinked, jarred from her thoughts. "What’s that?"

"Selphie an’ Quistis…disappeared. Why’s Squall still here?" Rinoa did not answer. Zell briefly glanced at Squall’s body, and repressed a shiver. He still couldn’t believe Squall was dead. Any moment, he expected his friend to open his eyes and get up. The part of Zell that knew that it was real, that Squall would never come back, sent chills through him. He couldn’t find it within him to feel any emotion at the loss. Perhaps that was partly because he didn’t fully believe it had happened. Part of it was because he had to be strong for the rest of them. Part of it was because he knew he still had a job to do.

Quistis and Selphie, too, lingered on his mind, but for some reason, it wasn’t as hard for him to believe they were gone. They were no longer here to look at. He could feel loss over them…and the terrible ache was transformed to anger in his heart. That witch bitch’s got the nerve to steal stuff from other people’s heads? Talk about unoriginal. The thought did not reflect his rage, which was causing his fists to shake. He covered one fist with the other hand to calm himself. "So this thing is from Squall’s head. That means it’s gonna think like Squall in a lot of ways, right? In a way, it’s Squall we’re fighting, here."

Rinoa cringed. "Zell, don’t say that—"

"It’s true, Rinoa. I know you don’t like it, but now that I think about it, it’s been fighting like Squall this whole time. You get in my field, you learn to see these things. Trust me."

"Squall would never attack his friends!" Rinoa snapped, tears brimming. "He would rather die…" She trailed off, regretting her poor choice of words.

Zell put a hand to his face. Immediately afterward, he realized how unlike him it was to do this, and lifted his head, staring at his hand. Squall used to do that a lot when he was having trouble. He made a decision as an agonized scream tore the air high above. "I’m not gonna forget ‘im, ‘k? That thing up there isn’t him. All I’m sayin’ is that it fights the same way. If we’re gonna have a prayer in hell of taking it down, we gotta learn to think like Squall…an’ then we gotta learn how to outthink ‘im."

Diablos crashed to the ground.

Griever wasn’t far behind, plunging toward his enemy, wings tucked at his sides. The leonine beast landed on its feet, pinning the black-and-red Guardian beneath his crushing weight. To Zell and Rinoa’s utter astonishment, Diablos howled in pain, then shattered beneath Griever’s claws. Each piece of Diablos became a screaming, fluttering bat; the bats collectively dispersed, effectively dissolving the defeated Guardian Force.

Griever stood tall, roaring victoriously. There was not a scratch on him.

Rinoa bowed her head and prayed to whoever might be listening.

Ifrit was the first to return Griever’s roar of triumph with one of fury. "Beast of witches," the Fire Lord bellowed, "You are stronger than you look. But face the rest of us at once, and see how well you die!" There were roars and screeches of concurrence.

Griever sneered, turning slowly to face his next challenge. His white wings snapped open like switchblades, each razor-edged feather gleaming like silver in the sickly sun. Two powerful thrusts brought him about, and two more carried him directly into Ifrit’s claws. With the impact of the two Guardians, there was a great explosion. The blast seared Griever’s exposed belly and his clawed hands came away burned and blistered, a result of the simple act of touching Ifrit’s fiery fur. He paid the wounds no heed. Locked in a power struggle with the Fire Lord, Griever’s long arms gave him no advantage in the wrestling match he had started. The "lesser" Guardian was surprisingly strong; the two grappled and snarled for a few seconds, both feline heads roaring defiance in the other’s face. Other Guardians attacked, giving Griever no opportunity to defend himself. Pandemonium’s powerful breath brought the brawling Guardians into the center of the disembodied throne room floor. Sacred, daring the wrath of the fluttering wings, rushed in with a grunt, Morning star swinging. The spiked weapon bounced harmlessly off Griever’s tough hide. Griever and Ifrit continued to tear at each other. Ifrit was conjuring flame left and right, the air around him exploding with heat and cinder. His powers were not directed well; he threw flame and explosions without thought as to who else might become victim of the attacks, however unintentionally. One such fireball struck the ground not far from where Irvine was stationed. The sharpshooter shook a fist at him and yelled something that Ifrit was too busy to hear. Griever had him on the ground, and was raking at his hot flesh with furious abandon. The Fire Lord released a panther-like scream of pain and frustration, breathing fire in the eyes of his enemy. The assault had no effect whatsoever.

It seemed that the more Griever was attacked, the more aggressive and ruthless he became. Even with biting wind whipping at his face, a three-headed hell hound snapping at his limbs, the Minotaur brothers getting in a powerful swing wherever they could, and the sharp sting of Leviathan’s strike, Griever finally succeeded in getting his jaws under Ifrit’s defenses, snapping them shut on the Fire Lord’s throat. Cerberus threw spell after spell, blasting Griever’s face with fire and lightning, hoping to dislodge the deadly fangs. When this failed, and Ifrit’s roaring became weaker, Cerberus charged, howling. The big Guardian crashed headlong into Griever, finally knocking the winged beast away, forcing the jaws to release their hold.

Ifrit seemed dead. Giving a low whine, Cerberus nudged the Fire Lord’s head with one of his own, while Leviathan and Pandemonium kept their enemy occupied. Cerberus ignored his burned nose, nudged Ifrit again. This time the blazing eyes did open, but they were dim and reddish. The Fire Lord turned his head weakly to stare at Cerberus. "Defeated…by this?" His eyes went dark; Ifrit vanished, leaving behind only a charred patch to mark where he had met his defeat.

Cerberus watched from afar as Griever got the jump on Pandemonium, silencing the churning wind that blew gently at Cerberus’s ears. Sacred and Minotaur were simply tossed overboard, falling into the empty sky far below.

The hell hound growled deeply in all three of his throats, claws gripping the ground as he watched Griever ascend into the sky again. The blue eyes trained on him. Cerberus’ ears flattened. He waved his tail tauntingly above his head. He was the next target.

He sneered at the irony of it all. Who would have given thought to the prospect that the Guardian of the death gates would ever have to admit himself to his own realm?

Leviathan didn’t bother to help as Cerberus clashed with Griever. Powerful as the hell dog was, he would meet the same fate as the rest of them had at Griever’s claws. The liquid serpent looked to the skies. It didn’t matter. Griever could not be harmed. Every wound that was inflicted on the beast was healed within moments, and he would continue to fight until his opponent was too exhausted to resist him any longer. Leviathan thought to himself: {There is not a chance of taking him on, not if he can catch you. Once he’s on you, it’s all over. He won’t let go until you’ve expended every ounce of strength you have left. He becomes stronger with each assault. It’s almost as if…} He shrunk at the idea that came to mind. {As though he’s absorbing our powers. Simply by touching him, we make him stronger. No magic we can create is strong enough to defeat him. Perhaps…an all-out power-struggle is the wrong way to go about this. But what other choice is there? Are we too late? Have we exhausted every option?}

Cerberus was doing surprisingly well; his armored body protected him from Griever’s fangs and claws, and his sheer size made it impossible to grapple with him. But Griever had one advantage over Cerberus; his ability to draw magic. It should have been impossible, but there was the fact before Leviathan’s aquamarine eyes. Griever was deftly weathering blasts of pure white from each of Cerberus’s mouths, hovering close, drawing spell after spell from the snarling hound, all the while staying just out of reach of the heavy tail. Cerberus was lost in his own fury, growling, howling, jumping and snapping at a challenger that floated tantalizingly out of reach.

{He’s building up to something.} Taking the opportunity, the water serpent turned away from the fight, heading toward the sorceress he guarded. It was an unusual thing to do, but these were unusual circumstances. The Guardian asked his own summoner for help. He stopped just short of the powerful barrier that guarded Rinoa and her remaining two comrades. Both Zell and Irvine were on the ground now, trembling and helpless as they felt the defeat of their respective Guardians. Leviathan allowed himself a moment of sympathy for the two young men. It was enough to feel the pain of a single Guardian’s utter defeat, but all at once? It must have been nothing less than torment.

Leviathan looked through the barrier as though it were a glass window. His eyes focused on Rinoa, and the boy she knelt over.

{So it is true,} the Guardian spoke aloud, startling Rinoa, who started to cringe in fear. But the sight of her own Guardian, majestic Leviathan, peering down at her with sadness in his deep gaze, both calmed and moved her. {he is gone. It is a wonder he found us at all.}

"Found you?" Rinoa lowered the shield around her so the Guardian could come closer. "I don’t understand."

If Leviathan could have smiled, he would have. He dipped his head lower, leaning forward with his long body until his pointed snout was only feet away from Rinoa. If she had tried, she might have been able to reach out and touch the Guardian’s slick-looking hide. But she did not try. She did not dare. {He heard your pleas, Rinoa. He came in search of us, and led us to you when we were lost in this dark world. It is because of Squall that we were able find you.} A cacophony of bellowing prompted Leviathan to twist his neck around to look behind him. Griever and Cerberus were struggling, the former pinned beneath the front paws of the latter. How Cerberus had accomplished such a feat was anyone’s guess. It did not matter. He was buying time at the most. Leviathan returned his attention to a teary-eyed Rinoa. {There is not much time.}

"He…heard me." Rinoa looked away from her Guardian. Her emotions betrayed her. She collapsed, falling forward to rest her head against Squall’s silent chest. She cried, choking to keep herself from making any noise. She heard no heartbeat, felt no breath. No comforting arms encircled her, no warmth shielded her from her fears. She had never felt so alone as she did in that moment. She didn’t care anymore. All she wanted was to be with Squall…as it was, life was what separated them, now. "It doesn’t matter," she murmured. Only a Guardian Force could have heard her. Leviathan did. And he continued to listen. "Zell and Irvine can’t do anything, I can’t do anything…Griever’s invincible. Squall’s done everything he can, and more…he’s given his life for us—Squall and Quistis, and Selphie, they all did." She sat up, slowly, hugging Squall’s still figure desperately in her arms. She buried her face in the white fur of his collar. "Squall heard me, and he brought you. I just want to talk to him…I want to know if he’s okay. If he’s scared, or…or sad."

Leviathan lowered his head to the floor and slithered quietly around Rinoa, circling the sorceress and her fallen love, his body a protective wall. A fin-like wing sheltered them in its shadow. {He is as close to your heart as he can be,} the Guardian whispered. {Do not lose hope. You will see him again, someday. Until then…he will wait.}

‘I’ll be waiting…’

Rinoa closed her watery eyes. Had Squall known that he would be waiting in this way?

{He will not leave you.}

She nodded slightly. Whatever happens, I’ll see you again, Squall. I won’t give up before I do.

<Big guy! C’mon, ya old dinosaur, get your scaly lizard butt outta bed. I didn’t come over here for nuthin’!> Screeching loudly, Quetzalcoatlus swooshed past a dark, hidden cavern, located on a forgotten island in the center of a roiling sea. He’d brought an army of thunderheads with him. The storm whipped up the wind until it howled past the cavern’s entrance, churned the waves until they crashed against the sides of the rock, sent bolt after bolt of white lightning raining down to scour the stony outcroppings above the ground and shake the cavern with thunder until it threatened to collapse.

In short, the Guardian of Lightning was throwing a temper tantrum, and in the process making an absolutely hideous racket.

Stony eyelids parted, revealing two glowing green slits in the rock inside the black cavern. The sleepy visage narrowed further at the sight of who had disrupted his slumber. A deep, low growl, louder and stronger than the storm outside, shook the entire island as the thunder never could.

Quetzal stopped his rampaging rants, and the skies quieted for a while as the ocean still rocked around him. He hovered in place before the entrance to the cave, waiting expectantly for a follow-up of this response from the darkness.

The eyes inside flashed angrily. {Imbecilic brat,} came an all-consuming, guttural voice that seemed to originate from nowhere. The sound was omnipresent, in the sky, the water, the earth, the darkness. Quetzal could hardly keep himself from shaking amidst the thunderous tone. {Are you quite finished? You have created enough noise to make the planets plug their ears and move to the next solar system. You need not make so much ruckus to awaken me! I hear every insect that walks on this earth—do you think I need you to announce your presence to be aware of it? A deaf moose could hear you coming from halfway across the world, for all the noise you make. If I wanted to speak to you, I would have been waiting outside long before you ever shined your ugly light on my lair!}

Quetzal waited with uncharacteristic patience for the insults to stop. He returned smoothly, <Well, I got you to talk to me, didn’t I?>

The green eyes narrowed to bare threads of furious light and the island shook again under the force of another thunderous snarl. {Smart aleck fool! WHAT IS IT?!}

<Oh, nothing much,> the Guardian cooed, his tone becoming more sarcastic as he went on, <the world as we know it is about to end, that’s all.> He awaited an answer for a full minute before deciding that the silent eyes were waiting for him to elaborate. <Evil sorceress, world domination, alternate dimensions, that sort of thing. Turns out the rest of us Guardian Forces are a little tuckered out, and the bad guy’s about to win. It came up in a conversation over coffee that maybe if we had you on our side, it just might turn the tables a little bit. So I was stopping by to let you know that unless something really good happens, the whole world’s gonna be enslaved by the time you finish your nap. Just thought you’d like to know. Y’know—in case you wanted to help or anything. Oh, and, by the way—> Quetzal added as he winged around to leave, <Squall’s dead.> He was about to fly away and leave the green eyes to their slumber again, when a bellow, louder than any of the others that had rocked the island, ripped the air and sent small claws of lightning crawling across the dark clouds. <Yeah,> Quetzal went on, turning around to face the cave again, <he, ah, called for you, but I guess you were asleep. Everyone else decided to go on to try and help his buddies, even after he died, but I came back here to get you, because you know what? Without you, we’re basically screwed. I didn’t feel like getting blown up or something, so I decided I’d come see if I could piss you off enough to get you into a fighting mood.> A short pause. <Is it working?>

The answer was a tooth-rattling bellow, and another question. {The girl, the one with Hyne’s power…she lives still?}

<Oh, she’s still alive. So far as I know.>

{Then there is still hope…}

<Believe me, I wish that was the general consensus.>

{Very well!} The voice roared, eyes shining angrily. Flashes of steely blue hinted at more than just the disembodied stare within that dark entrance. {I will go. As for you—you should return to your element. You need not dabble in this matter any longer.}

<Yeah, right. Nice try, big guy. I’m coming with you whether you like it or not.>

The clouds became yet darker, obscuring what little sunlight was left and pitching the skies into night as the eyes and their owner stepped forth from the cave. So dark was it that little could be seen of the beast’s armored form. A snort from the creature briefly illuminated the shore with blue light, outlining a lithe reptilian body and a huge pair of bladed, folded wings. The creature’s tail lashed like a whip in the dimness. {You choose to go, and I will not stop you. I warn you that you will only get in my way.}

<Don’t worry,> Quetzal countered with reserved confidence as the so-called King of Guardians spread his mighty wings and leapt straight up into the sky. <When you start blowing stuff up, I plan to be as far out of your way as possible.>

Chapter 4

Final Fantasy 8 Fanfic