Quistis braced herself against the bow as the ship ran aground; white, pockmarked stone like a fossilized beach scraping the hull. It wasn’t a bad landing, given the circumstances. Quistis tossed one glance back towards the ships, and after that, there was nowhere to look but into the abyss.
The doors were open, the SeeD spread out but still watching each others backs, just inside the archway. A dark hall, with ensconced candles higher than she could reach, not illuminating much. The floor glowed softly as well, light coming directly from the stones, flickering off the walls in lazy curves, as if reflected from water.
Beautiful, though Quistis hadn’t expected anything less. Listening, all she could hear was the softest, distant roar, the surf crashing from all points at once against the outer walls of the spiral. They were standing in a small antechamber, she could see a wide opening leading to what was probably the tower’s center room. It had felt like they were being herded, for a long time now, and Quistis hated the feeling.
//Herded... or swallowed.// Oh, even better.
“Gonna be a lot of paperwork, when this is over.” Zell murmured.
“Maybe I shouldn’t try winning so hard.” Quistis murmured back.
“At the risk of being the jinx,” he said a little louder, shaking as much of the blood from the ocean’s battle as he could off of his hands. “I think that was too easy.”
It was clear Fuujin did not agree, though no one could blame her.
“He landed ahead of us. He could have found another way in.” Quistis gave her a thin smile. “More than nine lives he’s got.” Her eyes swept across the rest, except for Seifer and one of the Balamb fighters too injured to leave the ship, the teams were surprisingly whole, two White SeeD taking the place of the fallen man.
“We stick to the plan. We assume that Rinoa knows we’re here, and we use that to our advantage. She wants us close, she wants to gloat before she launches a final strike." Ultimecia certainly had other opportunities, Quistis was starting to think the theatrics must have been a failing among all the Sorceresses.
//It's only a failing if she loses.//
Quistis had not liked the look in Ellone's eyes, the woman giving her arm a final, warm squeeze just before she disembarked. Whatever Ellone had said her purpose was in coming along, Quistis knew she was there only to help Squall, once they got him back. The thought that they would fail had never crossed her mind, but now Quistis wondered if they might not get /all/ of Squall back, a problem she could not begin to consider, let alone solve.
//Solve the problems you can, Hyne knows we've got enough of those already.//
"All right, teams, you know the plan. Secure the area, try to locate Headmaster Leonhart, and find the Sorceress. Engage the enemy as they come, but don't waste too much time. We find Rinoa, we take her down. Move out."
It seemed they still had at least some radio contact, the signal staticky but voices audible on a quick test. A minor miracle, but not enough. The younger SeeD, and the White SeeD that had accompanied them were focused solely on the battle ahead, most of them wary and alert but not overly worried, every mission treated with the same level of determination, all posing the same threat. Quistis managed to meet all the eyes of her friends, the old team, and they were not so eager, and this was not the same threat. Squall was out there somewhere, possibly wounded, or possibly...
//Seifer, you bastard, you’d better not be dead.//
The world was submerged, reduced to blurry shadows in deep, still waters. Squall moved with the swift silence of his lady’s blessing, no sound as his boots crossed the cold tiles, passing through the edges of walls unconstrained. Nothing was solid, all of it patterns in stone, even the angles of stone and wall blurring and bleeding together. Frightening, but he had no time for fear, not when his lady had bid otherwise.
His reflection curved back on him in every glassy, black surface he passed, young and strong. At his prime, when losing was an impossibility.
Footsteps, and he slid soundlessly behind a pillar, raising his gunblade, watching the thin, reflected shapes move along the flat of his blade, taking positions at the edge of the staircase, carefully fanning out as the hallway widened.
Two in uniform, he had taken down enough of these sort in his time, to know where to set and twist the blade for the fastest kill. Defenses so meager one could hardly call them that. Two SeeD with them as well, one with a gun in her hand and the other obviously a veteran. No weapon in sight, did he really plan on going hand-to-hand against a gunblade?
Squall frowned, rocking back a half-step. Yes, this man did plan exactly that, with a cocky grin that belied the fact that he was one of the best men to have on a team. More cautious in battle than he ever let on...
//How... how do I know...?//
Of course Squall knew him. Rinoa had known him too. All of these his former friends, now seeking to destroy her. As they had in the past...
//No, that’s not right.//
Squall frowned, pushing the irrational thoughts to the side, as the group continued down the hall.
//Kill them. Kill them all.//
As his Sorceress commanded, he would obey, but even as Squall stepped out he found himself tipping the edge of his blade, preparing to deliver a much more awkward strike, non-lethal. Why?
//Strange uniforms... SeeD as well? But that doesn’t...//
The blow was slow and slightly clumsy, but still enough to send the first man crashing to the floor, the second turning just in time to catch the return curve of his sword. Squall fought against his own intentions, he would have had all of them down now if he'd just aimed to kill, why would his body not cooperate?
They’d tried to hurt Rinoa before – yes, yes they had - and he was glad to see blood, a slash against the man’s arm effectively disabling him – though he struck out with his fist again, not the point of the sword. What the hell was wrong with him?
He didn’t look, throwing a hand back and calling on his Sorceress’ borrowed power, the magic she had given him, hearing the ice bolts when they shattered and sunk into the rock, knowing he hadn’t hit his target. The counterattack came fast, his opponent very brave for only having fighting gloves to counter a gunblade, and even then he didn’t seem intent on lethal strikes. Stupid, the only way he’d possibly win this is if he gave it his all. Not like he usually fought –
//How do you know?// Squall took a step back, the image of this man at his shoulder, grinning, not his enemy – a memory, but this SeeD as young as he was, not the older man watching him now in horror now – why?
“Squall? Hyne, Squall - what did she do to you?”
He had his arms up, but his stance was relaxed – why would anyone be so suicidal? Even as Squall lunged in, he wanted to shout at the man for letting his guard down, for being so damn stupid. The name skirted the edge of his tongue and howled somewhere just below the surface of his thoughts and in a few more moments, it wasn’t going to matter.
The shot ricocheted off the edge of his gunblade, breaking his attack, sending his blade gouging deep into the stone over the SeeD’s left shoulder. It was the opening his opponent had been waiting for, hands coming up into a hold, connecting because Squall had been expecting a strike, or an attempt to break his neck. Not this – sleeper hold, and even being careful the SeeD had a lot of strength in those hands, Squall could hear his ears ringing. It was a solid hold, and he wondered why the person with the gun hadn’t finished him off yet.
“I don’t... want to hurt you, Squall.”
He did want to hurt Rinoa, though. Squall let the gunblade fall, sagging a little, needing only the extra moment before the other man could compensate. Good, the SeeD was very good but a knight had the strength of his Sorceress to back him, enough to break such a simple hold – enough to break more. He was free and lashing out, faster than the other man could block. One punch sent the SeeD back, stumbling, and Squall swept his gunblade up – and heard the click of the rifle, forgetting about the gunman because he’d had every reason to fire before now.
No... not a he. The girl did not fire, and he did not raise his own weapon toward her, could not, because she wasn’t supposed to be here at all. Her eyes were wrong, strange and wet. SeeD weren’t supposed to show emotion, and why was she-
"Uncle Squall? You don't remember me?"
The words hurt, and he didn’t know why. Squall looked down, to where the other SeeD was sitting on the ground, a little blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, watching him closely. The girl didn’t belong here, not this time, and she wasn’t his enemy even if this other SeeD was, even if Rinoa had told him and he was /certain/-
//None of this... why isn’t this right?//
The girl shouldn’t.... she didn’t belong, and this wasn't the battle he was supposed to be fighting. Squall lowered his gunblade, and stepped back, disappearing through the wall, the echo of the SeeD shouting his name ringing in his ears.
Ultimecia’s realm had refused to bend to trivialities like time and space, and this place was no different. Quistis’ ears buzzed constantly with white noise, sounds she knew were not really there. Flickers of movement in her peripheral vision, the world bending oddly at the corners, like a fisheye lens, only to snap back into place when she shifted her gaze.
Everything was very still, very silent. Waiting.
A shot behind her, and Quistis turned, whip ready – Esca, the Trabian girl, with her gun still raised and pointed at her own reflection in a now-shattered mirror.
“Sorry. Sorry, I just...”
“It’s all right.” Maybe Rinoa meant for this, although Quistis thought it seemed a bit too subtle for her. To confuse and unnerve them, until they took each other out and saved her the trouble.
//Or not.// Quistis felt her breath catch, watching the mirror bleed shadows, slow and syrupy on the ground, pools of darkness that flexed and contracted, seeping through invisible cracks in the stone. Silence enough that she could hear the SeeD behind her as his gloves flexed.
The attack came from the wall, stone erupting out in a blue, gleaming shower, dissolving into shadowed claws and snarling, jagged fangs. The crack of the whip splintered a gaping hole in the monster’s body, driving it back just before the claws could slice through the Balamb boy’s chest. Quistis turned, at the sound of scraping behind her, and everywhere she looked were more and more long, shadowy spikes, creatures all similar looking but with limbs and heads all scattered about – here two pair of curved fangs, there six legs, there no head at all.
Behind her, she felt a push of air and a sound that was more pressure than anything audible, the distinct feel of a Guardian Force being called – and red glimmers flickered and flared in the air as the creatures lashed out, enough magic that Ruby Light could hold them at bay... but it could not last forever. Quistis was just about to attack, better to take out what she could now and hope they couldn’t regenerate – when a flicker of brightness, magic leaping into a spark of flame leapt past the ruby shield.
The Trabian girl had cast, and not a weak spell, Quistis watching in surprise as the spell caught itself between the shield and the wall, amplifying between the two magical barriers and obliterating everything in between, monsters screaming and thrashing as they dissolved into nothing.
//... they sent her here with a GF?// No one had informed her of it, and Quistis rounded on the girl, the question half out as the forgotten radio against her ear let out a burst of static, and she heard a familiar voice.
“Squall’s here,” Zell sounded out of breath, not a good sign. “He attacked us.”
Quistis briefly shut her eyes, steeling herself. It had been expected, planned for. It was just something they would have to work around.
“Shit, Quistis... it’s like Rinoa flipped a switch or something. He’s /young/ again, he looks just like when we fought Ultimecia the first time. I don’t think he recognized me, but Jayne stopped him. He didn’t...”
The words were broken off by several more breaths, and Quistis realized Zell was trying to buy time to talk to her – and it was probably Jayne firing in the background. The Sorceress was making her move. “I think Rinoa twisted his past in with this now, made him think he was supposed to be fighting us, like he was Seifer or something.”
“We knew this was a possibility. It doesn’t change the plan.”
“He could have killed a couple of the White Seed – hell, he could have killed me, Quistis, but he didn’t.”
“We’ll get him back, Zell. He’s still–”
At first, she could hardly believe the sound, thought it must have been the ocean’s roar amplified, the sea let loose into some lower chamber – Rinoa wouldn’t flood this place, she /couldn’t/, could she?
The sound only grew, from impossibly loud to all but devastating, echoing off the walls and making it difficult to even take a breath around it. Quistis had fought T-Rexaurs in the training center, and even at their most furious they hadn’t sounded so... unstoppable. The other SeeD were frantically shifting positions, glancing from corner to corner as they searched for the source of the sound, but Quistis had the rather disturbing suspicion that even though the roar had been breathtaking, it had come from whatever long distance could be measured in this impossible space.
She realized she was shaking, as the thunderous sound ceased, and the hair on the backs of her arms had risen, the air crackling heavy with some unseen power even as the Ruby Light finally ceased. The walls were charred, no sign remaining of the monsters that had threatened them. The SeeD did not seem reassured, staring at her and obviously waiting for some sign she was unimpressed, that she’d faced things that sounded like that a thousand times before. Quistis wished she could give them that confidence.
“What was that?”
Swallowing twice, she made sure her voice was steady. “Let’s try not to find out.”
//I can guide and cloak you, knight. She will not know you are here until it is too late.//
Seifer would have been more interested in the fairy tales Edea had told, if the ghosts and guardian angels were as homicidal as the flickering image of the Sorceress leading him now. The tower really did have the feel of a fantastic grotto, clusters of dimly lit stone rooms all gathered around the central rotunda, empty space that went up as far as he could see. The throne room was down at the bottom, vacant now, though he knew Rinoa was only waiting, would certainly want her final moment there. The ghostly Sorceress had agreed with his judgment, amused by such needless ceremony, the edges of her form turning darker gold, as she curled around the walls, forcing the torches they passed to splutter, like sparks from an ironworks.
/Are you always so angry?/
He froze, breath choked off, as she sent him a very clear picture of Squall lying dead and cold at his feet, Rinoa smirking in victory in front of him.
//Always.// The ghostly image flitted across the wall, disappearing to a small, vague blur that shifted across a bank of decorative columns, reappearing on the other wall. //The others have arrived, your people.//
Seifer carefully crossed the hall, leaning over the edge of the balcony – much higher than he thought they had climbed. He could hear faint shouting, a flash of light, the clash of weapons.
//The Sorceress can shift this space as she wishes. They will not go anywhere she does not wish them to.//
“... that’s why I’m here.” Seifer smirked, and felt it freeze lopsided on his face, as the ground shook beneath his feet and a terrible roar filled up all the silences, turning the air solid. He had his back to the nearest wall immediately, but couldn’t begin to tell where the sound came from. It faded slowly, and he glanced from door to door – nothing that sounded like that could possibly /fit/ in this tower.
/Rinoa can shift spaces, like that Sorceress said... most of this ‘place’ probably doesn’t exist./ It had been easier, when he had been a Knight, and half brain-dead or whatever she had done to him. The details hadn’t particularly mattered, and the things that made those noises hadn’t been trying to eat him.
/Do I want to know what that was?/
//Naram Sen, the lion god. You think of them as Guardian Forces, but he is much stronger than that.// Her thoughts tried to explain it directly to him, more clearly than words, but there was no comparison to make. //Much stronger.//
/Like Eden./ She could see the memory he hadn’t really been there to remember – Squall had shown him the GF on tape, years later, tested in a lab and even then only under the highest security, for a very short time. Too powerful to use, it had been locked away long ago.
Eden was in this world, though, and no matter how many of those feral forces Rinoa brought over, if she died they would go back to that other place, the oncoming Cry a result of her power, nothing permanent if she did not live.
//... not if it finds an anchor of its own.//
Seifer thought the shock of the roar was bad enough – but he’d remembered Squall describing what it was like to use Eden – or be used by Eden – and five years after the fact it had still left him pale and troubled, just talking about it.
//If the lion god took him, it would make him the most powerful-//
/It would fucking destroy him!/
Using Shiva had been more than bad enough, even before it had shattered those places in Squall’s mind that kept Rinoa at bay. Forcing a GF like Eden into Squall’s mind now...
The ghostly Sorceress curled around a column, her voice toneless.
//Yes, but what would be left would be good enough for her. She has sent him off to fight his allies. It amuses her. If we can defeat her now, while he is distracted-//
/If she dies while he is still her knight, he might not survive./
It had been very difficult, not to mention that truth to Quistis, and at times he knew /she/ knew, watching him close with the question in her eyes. What had it been like, to be under a Sorceress power? How had he survived, first Edea’s defeat and then Ultimecia’s? Seifer wished he’d had an answer to give her, anything but a jumble of distant and yet still vivid memories, and the certainty in his soul that if Edea had died he would have died with her. Knowing that he couldn’t afford to have them hesitate, to take down Rinoa now, but that if he didn’t find that part of Squall that was his and not hers, they would save him only to watch him die.
//He is your beloved.// Seifer had been worried about taking her assistance, that she would want only Rinoa’s destruction, at any cost, and one did not negotiate with Sorceresses. The flood of memories proved otherwise. Her memories – gentle laughter, a tall, smiling boy with blond-gray hair – he had been her brother, her only kin and her only friend, and the only remaining measure of her love was her hatred for the Sorceress who had murdered him.
/I need him alive, or else this victory will mean little to me./ He could sense more hanging on the silent question – she was sympathetic to that desire, but the pull of a Sorceress on her knight was strong, very strong, and Squall had loved her even before...
/I did not spend two decades of my life with a man who couldn’t see the difference between what he loves, and the ghost of what he once loved. I trust him, even now./
//Then we will go to him.// A door at the end of the hall swung open, where there had been no door a moment before, and into a room that most likely couldn’t exist, not with the curve of the wall as it was. Seifer rubbed at eyes aching from the constant contradictions, wondering if anything remained of the other teams, and quickly stepped through.
The roar caught him by surprise, and Squall nearly lost his footing on the stairs, catching himself hard against the opposite wall and freezing there, pressing against rock now solid instead of... of...
Why did he think he could walk through walls?
The roar finally abated and though he had a job to do, a mission to fulfill, Squall wanted nothing more than to run as far as he could, and curl up and hide. It was going to find him, that horrible sound. It was inevitable, but if he could put it off, just a few moments longer...
He was being a coward, and knew it, and though Rinoa had not yet punished him for his fear, or the worse transgression of running from those he had been ordered to kill, she would. Her attentions were elsewhere for the moment, but these SeeD had no chance of standing against her, not for long.
The roar finally faded, although he had to listen carefully until it disappeared into the echo of the sea. Squall realized he was shaking, and his hand came away wet when he reached up to his face. The world smeared and blurred slightly, and he shuddered, some long-ago memory sweeping out of the shadows just long enough to trace a path of ice down his spine. He tried to clear his thoughts, but the simple act of tracing back the last few moments was difficult, clouds and sea spray drifting behind his eyes, numbing and burning and – who was that girl? The one he didn’t know, but who looked so familiar?
He shivered, arms hugged tight against his chest. It was love, Rinoa’s love, and she hadn’t wanted to hurt him but she was a Sorceress so this was how it had to be. He had to be strong, because she needed him.
Squall forced himself away from the wall, the rush of new power surging over him like a plunge in icy waters. The spire was awakening, all the old ghosts out and watching, murmuring over the spectacle. He quickly reached the bottom of the stairs, passing through another long, many columned hall. It was easy to sense the presence of his enemies, some above and more below. Engaged in fierce combat and all believing they were making progress, when it was all just a curve on the same spiral, and they would end in the same place.
He drew his gunblade and stepped into the next room, preparing for another leap through space, to face them again, and this time he would not fail. Instead, he stopped short, almost forced back as another figure stepped through the opposite door in the wide, round room.
//Golden, blazing and golden and of all the people who didn’t belong here...//
Squall grinned, but never knew it, the expression instantly twisting into a grimace of pain, icy claws raking at the inside of his head. He would have cried out, had he had the breath to do it, but the same icy chill rose up, filling his lungs and flooding him with power – power, rage and her command.
The world was fading, sights and sounds, and all he could see was the figure of his enemy, blazing more brightly than ever, the villain he would destroy.
“Seifer,” Squall growled, lifting his gunblade. Across the room, the cursed, fallen knight slowly drew his own sword.
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