The New Flesh

Chapter Eighteen

By Scarlet Fever

They had all decided to return to Esthar. Nida had made a brief stopover in Dollet to get his father, and now they were all trying to deal with the destruction that Valhalla had caused to the city. Nida had gone to the Air Station, because he knew Valhalla would be back, and he wanted to be ready for her. The others had spread out, starting to deal with things in the city.

"Laguna, I am quite alright. I want to help."

Laguna shook his head, his stormy eyes dark. "No, Edea. We can handle it. How do you think I would feel if I let you just do whatever you wanted, and you exerted yourself?"

"I'm not a child, Laguna. I need...." She sighed heavily, tracing the blanket with her fingernails. "I can't just sit here. I have to do something. I have to occupy myself...." Her eyes became sad and distant. "If I only sit here, I'll start thinking about everything we've lost..." She touched her heart with a spindly hand. "Please, Laguna. I am quite determined."

He couldn't do anything but smile sadly and squeeze her hand. "You're as stubborn as Squall."

They both looked up when there was a knock on the door. Quistis poked her head in, which caused Edea to smile.

"Matron!" Quistis exclaimed. "I'm so glad to see you." She came into Edea's room with Xu behind her. "How are you holding up?"

Edea sighed. "I'll live. So, what....." Edea was going to ask what happened, but when Quistis took Edea's hand, the Sorceress could feel magic moving through the blonde woman's body. "Oh, Quistis...."

Quistis sat in the chair beside Edea's bed. Xu stood on the other side of the room. Quistis couldn't help but be sad when she looked at Xu. Quistis hadn't told Xu anything about the rape yet. It just hadn't been a good time after meeting up with Nida and the others. Quistis knew she had to say something. She should also get checked out by a doctor. "I absorbed Kronos's powers," the blonde explained.

Edea narrowed her eyes. "There is something else, too. I can see it in your eyes."

Quistis looked over to Xu, then to Laguna. "I'll tell you later." She then remembered. "Oh, Laguna. I'm sorry. Nida's father is out in the hall. He wanted to meet with you."

"Really?" Laguna crossed his arms over his chest. "This should be interesting." He was rather intrigued to see Daisuke Nomura again. He'd only met him a few times in the past, a good lawyer and serious sort of man. But, it would be a much different meeting this time. "I'll leave you ladies to talk." He squeezed Edea's hand, and then patted Xu's shoulder as he left.

Edea watched him go, then fixed her golden brown gaze on Quistis. "You were hesitant to speak in front of Laguna. Quistis, tell me what happened."

She looked to Xu. "Xu, sit down. This isn't going to be pleasant."

Xu's face scrunched up in concern. "What is it?" She sat on the other side of Edea's bed, folding her hands in her lap.

"When I was fighting Kronos, she was talking. I turned my radio to white noise so I could hear it. But, the soldiers that she'd brought heard it. I ended up being put under a sleep spell, and when I woke up...." Quistis looked down at her knees, ashamed to meet the eyes of either Xu or Edea. "They were on me."

"Who....?" Xu asked darkly.

"The soldiers." Quistis flushed angrily. "They had.... raped me." It was the hardest thing Quistis had ever said in her life. She felt dirty and used, and weak because of it. She felt hot tears stinging her eyes, and when she met Xu's gaze, those tears fell down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry."

Xu's expression was stricken, and there was shock and sadness in her almond shaped eyes.

Edea wound her arms around Quistis's shoulders. "Don't apologize, Quistis. Don't you dare. You have nothing to be sorry for."

Quistis buried her face in Edea's long hair, relishing in the familiar smell of it. It reminded the blonde of when she was a little girl. She couldn't remember her mother or father at all, so this was the closest thing she had to being held by her mother. Quistis knew that if she wanted to, she could cry on Edea's shoulder. But, although there were tears on her cheeks, she couldn't bring herself to cry. She didn't want to. She didn't want to let them make her cry. She was stronger than this, better than them.

"Did you go to a doctor?" Edea asked.

"Not yet," Quistis admitted. "I know I have to, but things just got so insane, what with Viator and Kronos dead. Tempest is dead, too."

"Where are there powers now?" Edea saw that Quistis wanted to change the subject, so she did.

"Nida has them."

Edea's countenance clouded. "Oh."

"You sound concerned," Quistis said.

"I am." Edea rubbed her hands together. "This much power is so dangerous. It's what made Ultimecia what she was, what made the Inaudax so evil, what polluted Adel. Even the best Sorceresses have fallen to such power."

"You don't think Nida can handle it?"

"I hope he can, Quistis." She stroked the side of Quistis's face.

"There's more, too. Apparently Pallas took whatever Griever had given Squall, so she's stronger now."

"Are they in Trabia?"

Quistis nodded.

"Here, help me out of bed." Edea stood, putting a black satin robe around her nightgown.

"Maybe you should just rest," Quistis whispered, holding Edea's elbow. "You look very pale."

"I need to help. Valhalla did damage, and I want to do something."

"I'm sorry about Cid...."

"Quistis, thank you. But.... He wouldn't have wanted me to just sit around and cry. He was always proud of how emotionally strong he thought I was."

"You are that emotionally strong, Matron."

Edea smiled. "You should get to a doctor." She went out into the hallway, and disappeared.

"She's right," Quistis muttered. She then noticed that Xu had not said a word since her confession. "Xu?"

Xu slowly reared her head up. "I'll come with you." Her voice sounded dull. They left Edea's room, and walked towards the medical wing of the Palace.

"Xu, please say something." Quistis felt a chill in her heart. What if Xu thought that Quistis was dirty or tarnished now? "I didn't mean for it to happen."

"I know that," Xu said quietly. She looked at Quistis out of the corner of her eye. "I... I'm furious with them for doing this to you. I want to hunt them down, and I will."

"They're already dead," Quistis said quietly.


"I need you right now, Xu." Quistis stopped walking to look at the other woman. "You don't think I'm damaged goods now, do you?" She put her hands on her belly, just above her pubic bone.

Xu whirled around, and there was a hot expression on her face. She gripped Quistis's shoulders tightly. "Don't ever say that to me again, Quistis. I do not think that. At all." Her voice softened. "Come on. We need to get to the doctor."

Quistis nodded, following Xu. The other woman's anger reassured Quistis. "Thank you, Xu..." Quistis whispered.

Xu's expression became sad. "I wish none of this had ever happened."

"But, it did...." Quistis thought of Nida's dark expression, the blackening of his eyes when he'd looked at her. Although Nida was one of her closest friends, she was glad not to be near him right now. He was frightening. She touched her belly again, and entered the medical wing of the Palace.

"It's a shame we had to meet again under these circumstances," Daisuke said lowly. He and Laguna were sitting in a study. "Especially because things aren't wholly business anymore." Daisuke drank out of the glass of club soda Laguna had poured for him.

Laguna himself was drinking stiff vodka. "I hope you don't mind if I have a drink. I really need it."

"Not at all."

They both sat in silence, Laguna far more nervous and fidgety than Nida's father.

"Look.... I guess I should apologize for my son's behaviour at times."

"What for?" Daisuke asked. "Squall's a very nice young man. A bit shy, but that's not a flaw."

Laguna smiled sheepishly. "Really? This surprises me. Most people think he comes across as cold, and a bit of a prick."

"I didn't think so in the least," Daisuke said after taking another drink. "But, his manners are very different than yours."

Laguna laughed at this. "Oh, that's true enough." He grew serious. "You'll be safe enough in the Palace. But, I don't think that any of us will really be safe until this whole mess is settled."

"I agree. Nida had to put up a magical barrier just to protect our house." Daisuke's expression became closed. "My wife is dead because of this power."

"Oh, I'm sorry...." Laguna said quietly. "I know what it's like to lose the person you love." He thought of Raine, that she died so long ago, and he still missed her dreadfully. He also thought of Kiros, who had died so recently, Laguna's wound still so fresh. He also thought of Edea, how she must have been suffering under her brave countenance at Cid's death.

Daisuke waved his hand. "It's okay. We were getting divorced anyway."

"Oh.... Sorry, but which one of them did it?" Laguna thought hatefully of Schuld killing Kiros.

"It was Nida."

Laguna's eyebrows shot up. "What?!"

"Well, it wasn't really Nida." Daisuke folded his hands in his lap. "It was the power inside him. I don't know why he's taking so much on himself, absorbing all this power." He shook his head. "It so destructive."

"I don't know Nida as well as I would like, but I think he has a plan."

"I think he does, too. But, it's another story if it can come to fruition. I don't want to think badly of my own son, but that much power can be intoxicating."

"Don't I know it." Laguna frowned. "It's why Esthar was under Adel's regime."

"They seem to love each other very much," Nida's father pointed out, changing the subject.

"Yeah, they do. I was afraid that Squall wouldn't be happy again after breaking up with Rinoa Heartilly. But, for the most part, Squall seems very happy. I'm sure he'd be happier if the Inaudax would just vanish forever."

"Rinoa seems like a lovely girl."

"She's very sweet." Laguna smiled distantly. "Before I met Raine, Squall's mother, I was in love with Julia Heartilly. But, I left Galbadia, and she married General Caraway. He was a good man, and I know she was happy."

"Squall and Rinoa don't seem to get along, though."

Laguna furrowed his brow. "I wish Squall wouldn't act like that to her."

"I think he's just jealous. He doesn't want Rinoa to come between him and Nida."

"You're probably right. Well, you're more than welcome at the Palace as long as you like." Laguna smiled brightly, but it was tight around the edges with worry. "This place always felt too empty anyway."

"I'm sure that Irvine's probably looking for you," Seifer said quietly to Selphie. They were sitting in one of the entertainment rooms. But, there wasn't much entertainment going on.

"I know," Selphie muttered. She and Seifer had been sitting alone in the room, mostly silent. Selphie had started asking him a few questions about Xystus, but it hadn't really gone anywhere. She wondered if he was trying to get rid of her. She vocalized this.

"Of course not," Seifer said. "But, you don't seem very happy with my company." He cocked his head as he leaned back on the couch. "You don't seem very happy period."

"Because I'm not," Selphie said. "I just feel... wrong."

"Wrong?" Seifer echoed.

"Yeah. Like... I shouldn't be here, and I don't mean in Esthar. Like I shouldn't be here in my body."

Seifer shook his head. "You aren't the only person to have come back from Xystus." He gave her a knowing look. "But, I don't feel wrong about it, and I know that Zell doesn't."

Selphie sighed, resting her elbows on her knees. "You think I'm just feeling sorry for myself, don't you?" She gave Seifer a sidelong glance.

"Well, this isn't the Selphie that everyone grew to know and... tolerate."

She frowned at him, but her green eyes showed that she was trying not to smile. She failed, and a grin cracked over her lips. It was the first time that Seifer had seen her smile since she'd reappeared in their lives.

"Everyone loves me, Seifer Almasy. It's you that they only tolerate, because you're such a bully."

Seifer made a raspberry at her.

"Going to add me to 'the list'?" She retorted saucily.

"You better fucking believe it."

Selphie laughed, which caused Seifer to smile. "It's nice to see you smiling and laughing again. Frowning is so unlike you."

"More like you?" Selphie asked.

Seifer just raised his eyebrow. "So, why are you avoiding Irvine? I mean, you still love him, don't you?"

Selphie shrugged. Her mannerisms started to relax, releasing her sadness and tension. She still wasn't her familiar, bubbly self though. "Of course I do."

"Then, why are you avoiding him."

"Because I don't know if it's the same love anymore." She looked over at Seifer. "I mean.. Maybe you wouldn't understand. You had Zell with you in Xystus. But, time has passed. Time doesn't halt, even in Xystus. You know that...."

Seifer nodded.

"So, it's not like all this time has passed for him, but not for me. I felt all the time, too. While I was gone, he moved on with his life. And, I moved on too. I know that sounds kind of strange since I was dead, but...."

"I understand."

"Right..." Selphie started playing with the hem of her shirt, running it between her fingers. "I mean... I'll always love Irvine, but he's moved on with his life, he had started to have feelings for Elle. How does he think it makes me feel when I come back here, and he ignores her like nothing has happened. Everything has happened!" She balled her hands into tight little fists. "I'm avoiding him because I'm mad at him for trying to pretend nothing has happened." Selphie stood, her nerves jangling. She turned to face Seifer, who was watching her calmly. "I don't want to forget what happened. I want to remember the horrible things that happened to me."

Seifer flinched. He knew she meant her awful torture and murder at his own hands.

Selphie noticed, and sat beside the tall blonde again. "I'm sorry, Seifer." She patted his leg. "It wasn't you. It was Ultimecia. But, all the same. I don't want to forget it. I mean, I would rather not have daily dreams about it, or wake up from nightmares all the time. But, I don't want to forget it happened, because..." She cocked her head in typical Selphie fashion. "What's that saying? 'If we forget history, we're doomed to repeat it'?"

"Yeah," Seifer muttered dully.

"I... I know this sounds silly because of only saying I felt 'wrong' in my body only seconds ago." She pulled a sheepish face. "I'm so mixed up. But, I want to be stronger because of it. I guess I don't want to be stronger in body, but I want to be stronger in mind. You keep your mind even after you die, and if I keep this knowledge, it makes me stronger. Does any of that make any sense?"

"Yes," Seifer answered. "But, I think maybe you should be telling it to Irvine. Tell him how you feel about all this."

Selphie nodded. "Yeah, you're right. I guess I just can't ignore him forever. You think that I'm ignoring him too because I'm afraid I might start to feel as passionate as I did before all this happened, and I'm scared of this?"

Seifer snorted. "I think you already have an answer to that in your head, and don't need me to reply." He frowned. "But... How would you feel seeing Irvine with Ellone?"

Selphie was silent for a few moments as she thought. "I really don't know. I mean, it made me mad, and it hurt me to see him brush Ellone away. I think it's something that I would have to face when the time came. If he still wanted to be with me, and really didn't want her, then..." She sighed, becoming morose again. "I'm so fucked up."

They sat in silence for a while, Seifer not sure what to say to her anymore. Then, the door opened and Zell came in. "I've been looking everywhere for you!"

Selphie and Seifer both stood up. As soon as Seifer stood, Zell got the taller blonde in a tight embrace. Zell buried his face against Seifer's hard chest, his strong arms around Seifer's waist.

Seifer cupped the sides of Zell's face, titling it upwards. "Zell, what happened? Is everything okay?"

Zell stood on his tiptoes to kiss Seifer quickly, then looked to Selphie, who had a confused, curious look on her face. Part of Zell felt warm and happy because there was a hint of the old Selphie in her emerald green eyes. "You really didn't hear anything?" He asked, pulling away from Seifer.

"About....?" Seifer asked, sitting back down, a bland look on his face. The look on his face was completely opposite from what he felt inside. Inside he was a wreck. He'd been so worried about Zell, and to see that he was safe was euphoric.

"There are three more dead Oracles."

"That's good news," Selphie said. "But.... You don't look totally happy."

Zell sat on the coffee table, so that he could face Seifer. "I'm not."

"Well, what happened?" Seifer asked.

"Well....." Zell cupped his chin in his hand. "Quistis is a Sorceress now. She has Kronos's powers. What bugs me is that Nida didn't seem to pleased when he found out she had some of the Inaudax power in her. He got this really dark look on his face. It passed really quick and all, but still..." He stared off into space. "I ended up fighting Viator, and luckily with Adel's help, I killed her. Pallas got stronger, though."

"Huh?" Selphie cocked her head. "How?"

"Because she absorbed Griever's powers out of Squall. Nida was able to save him before he died, but Pallas got away with the power."

"So, who got Viator's power?" Seifer asked. He already knew the answer, though.

"Nida," Zell answered. "Nida also got Tempest's powers. The only ones that are left are Pallas, Valhalla, Gietzen and Tevedes."

"Valhalla will come back," Selphie pointed out. "I think she wants to fight Nida with airships."

"I would say that it would be an easy fight for Nida, but he could still die in an airship crash." Seifer furrowed his scarred brow. "I wonder what all this means for Quistis?"

Selphie stood after a few silent moments. "I think I'll leave you two alone." She gave them a soft, sad smile, and left the room.

"So, what happened here?" Zell asked.

Seifer explained quietly, troubled by what Zell had told him earlier.

"I guess it's a good news, bad news sort of thing," Zell muttered. "I mean, three more Oracles are dead, and that's really awesome, but...."

Seifer looked over as Zell sat beside him. "But, Tevedes is still left. We've never really seen her do anything. I'm betting that she's a lot stronger than the other Oracles were. And, dealing with a power like Gietzen's... We'd have to fight her in complete darkness, with other Oracles to back her up."

Zell moved across the couch so that his side was pressed to Seifer's. "I'm just really glad you're okay."

"Me too, Chicken Wuss."

Zell punched Seifer hard in the arm. "I'm expressing my concern for you here, Almasy. And, you have to go and ruin it."

"I try." As Seifer said this, he slowly ran his hand up Zell's muscular thigh.

"It was nice to see that look in Selphie's eyes," Zell mused, his voice becoming far-off and dreamy as Seifer's hand reached his groin. "Nice to see her getting back to her old self. At least a little."

Seifer took his hand away from Zell's upper thigh. "You're talking about Selphie while I'm making a move for your dick, and you chastise me for ruining the moment?"

Zell gripped the sleeve of Seifer's black shirt, and pulled the other man towards him. "I really was worried about you," Zell whispered when their faces were extremely close to each other, Seifer's forehead pressed to Zell's.

"I know," Seifer whispered back. "I was worried, too."

Zell kissed Seifer's lips gently. "I even wondered what it would have been like if you died."

"I already did die," Seifer pointed out, snaking his tongue over Zell's lower lip.

"But, I was with you when you died. We died together, we went on together. But... It would be different if we died at different times, you know?"

Seifer shrugged, pulling Zell close. He set the smaller man down in his lap. "But, nothing happened. We're both fine. No use in dwelling on it, Chicken Wuss."

Zell shook his head, slightly rolling his pale eyes. "God, you're never going to let that go."

"It makes you so mad, though."

Zell dug his fist into Seifer's thigh until the other man cried out.

"That hurt," Seifer muttered, rubbing the spot on his thigh. "You're such an abusive boyfriend."

"So are you!" Zell exclaimed.

"This is a very unhealthy relationship," Seifer said as Zell began to undo his pants. "We should really break up." He said this in a whisper, because Zell's hand had dipped into his pants, stroking his hardening cock through his underwear.

"Well, then I should probably stop doing this...." Zell squeezed Seifer's cock, which twitched to further hardness. "You would never break up with me, would you?"

Seifer shook his head, his head lolled back on the couch, his peridot eyes closed. "No..." Seifer finally breathed. He shivered as his pants were opened further, and his erection was exposed to the air of the room.

"Because you love me, right?" Zell asked, kneading Seifer's groin muscle with his thumbs.

"Yeah..." Seifer answered.

Zell lowered himself to his knees in between Seifer's legs. He parted the long limbs, and let his breath wash over the inner line of Seifer's thigh. "You don't sound very sincere."

Seifer slowly let out his breath, the shunting of air mixed with the quiet sound of a moan wrenched from deep within. Seifer wanted to say Zell's name, but only a squeak came out when Zell's wet mouth was suddenly all around the head of his penis. Seifer's body jerked upwards when Zell's tongue stroked the tip with a wet, lavish stroke. Seifer's eyes slowly opened as Zell's mouth started working on his shaft, one of the smaller blonde's hands working in time with the movements of his mouth. The low lights looked like blurry blobs, and there were little pinpricks of white floating across Seifer's vision. One of his hands gripped the material of the couch, a thick material that resembled a tapestry. His other hand moved through Zell's hair.

It always seemed that Seifer noticed life more in the height of sexual pleasure. Under his one palm, he could feel every stitch of the fabric of the couch. It was thick, like old drapery, and embroidered extensively. Seifer had never really noticed how much work must have went into the fabric before. Just looking at it had only shown a faint jacquard pattern, but now he could feel everything about it, feel where he stitching was worn from people sitting on it, feel the slightly lumpy context of the feathers that filled it. He could also feel each strand of Zell's hair against his palm, feel the warmth of his scalp underneath. It was like he could feel every taste bud on Zell's tongue against his cock. He could feel Zell's breath like it was a balmy wind all around him.

He was maddeningly aware of Zell's thumbs kneading the tender flesh of his upper thighs, was aware of his own skin pulling as Zell massaged it. He was aware of every muscle in his body, and how each was pulled taut, each was on the brink of snapping, each was about to shatter. Seifer could feel every bead of sweat growing on his body; on his forehead, a single drop moving down his spine as Zell's mouth moved further down his shaft, how intensely wet and hot it felt. He could feel every beat of his own heart, could feel the pulse in his neck. He could even feel the pulse in his wrists, his thumb, his legs. He could feel the blood moving through his body as if he were bathing in it, as if it were outside him rather than within.

When Seifer arched his hips upwards towards Zell's face, and Zell's mouth slid further down his shaft, Seifer was at his most alive. Not just because it felt good, not just because he loved Zell, and to be so close to him was wonderful, but because it was like his whole body woke up when Zell touched him this way. He felt parts of his body, nerves under the skin that seemed dormant most of the time. When Seifer came into Zell's mouth, the white pinpricks that had been floating across his vision like flotsam exploded into bright, blinding pulsars of light, until all he could see was white. Even though he could only see this sea of brightness, Seifer could feel Zell's lips on his, could taste his own semen, bitter on Zell's tongue. He could also taste Zell himself, the softness and flesh of his lips. As Seifer's vision cleared, Zell tucked his head under Seifer's chin, wrapping his arms around his lover's waist.

Zell listened to Seifer's heart, glad that he could. Although he was unscathed, he could have really been hurt by Viator, and things could have ended up a lot worse than they had. Zell just wanted all this to be over. Although he could steal a few moments like this with Seifer here and there, it wasn't the same. It had been a long, long time since things had been normal. And, not just for them, for everyone. Zell had a feeling it would all be over soon, but would any of them even be alive to enjoy it?

Squall had just finished conversing with Fujin and Raijin about the situation in Esthar, and was now heading back to the Airstation after having stopped in the Esthar Shopping Centre. When he got there, Nida was sitting alone on a bench, looking up at the Ragnarok. There was a crew working on it, but people seemed to be avoiding Nida, like he had some sort of disease. When Squall sat beside him on the bench, the brunette could see that Nida's eyes were closed, and he seemed to be in a meditative state. Squall slowly put his hand out, and touched Nida's thigh.

Squall must have startled Nida, because he jerked, and Squall felt like he'd been electrically shocked. He felt a slap across his cheek like an invisible hand. Nida's wings briefly appeared, and it was that which had hit Squall in the face. Nida looked over at Squall, his eyes hooded, and his irises black under his lids. He stared at Squall like this momentarily, and then the wings disappeared, his eyes turning chocolate brown once more.

"Sorry..." Squall said quietly. "I scared you."

"It's okay." Nida sighed, looking up at the Ragnarok. "I'm just waiting for Valhalla to show up again."

Squall bit the inside of his cheek, putting his hand in his pocket. He felt the cool metal of his purchase in there. "Can we talk for a minute? While we still have time?"

Nida brushed his bangs out of his eyes. "Of course." He smiled sadly at Squall. "And, I should probably apologize for scaring you."

Squall shook his head. "No. It's fine." He sighed, feeling strangely tongue-tied as he looked into Nida's face, his large almond-shaped eyes, his straight nose and high cheekbones, his full and pretty mouth, and his flawless olive skin. "I...." He trailed off.

Nida's mouth cracked a grin. "What is it? You look so serious..." Nida's brow furrowed. "And, for reasons besides Valhalla or Iudicium."

Squall took his hand out of his pocket, and put it in his lap. "You know that I love you, right?"

"Of course," Nida said quietly. "And, I love you too. Is that what this is about...?"

"No. Well, sort of." Squall kept his head down, his cheeks warm with blush. "I know that even if I begged you, you wouldn't let me come with you to fight Valhalla. You want to face her alone in the airship."

"Are you trying to say that you don't think she'll use her ship again?" Nida asked.

"No, I bet anything she will. It has nothing to do with her, or any of them." Squall raised his stormy eyes to meet Nida's gaze. He then took Nida's hand in his own. "I was just thinking about when my father left Raine, how after he said goodbye to her, he never saw her again."

"Oh." Nida touched the side of Squall's face with his fingertips. Squall could feel the sting of black magic in the touch. Even when Nida was completely himself, Iudicium was still there, and stronger than ever. Nida's touch had always sent joyful shivers up his spine, but it was added by the burn of the Goddess of Judgement's touch. Nida looked down when he felt Squall slip something on his finger. Nida pulled his hand out of Squall's warm touch, and looked at it. Squall had slipped a silver ring on his left ring finger. Nida narrowed his eyes at it, then looked up at Squall. "What's this for?"

Squall held up his hand, showing that he'd changed his Griever ring, and now was wearing a silver ring that matched Nida's own. "My father told me that when he left Winhill, he put a ring on my mother's finger, and then showed her that he was wearing a matching one. It wasn't a big wedding or anything, but they were just as married as anyone else."

Nida cocked his head. "Are you saying we're married now?"

Squall shrugged. "No. Well... maybe. I just wanted to show you that I love you. It doesn't have to be a wedding ring. Just think of it as a commitment."

Nida smiled gently, leaning forward. He pressed his forehead to Squall's, touching the sides of Squall's face, feeling the heat of blush in his cheeks. The metal of the ring was cool against Squall's skin. "You're so cute when you get flustered, and try to verbalize your emotions."

"Is this.... okay though?" Squall covered Nida's left hand, that was still on his cheek, with his own.

"Yeah, it's okay...." He kissed Squall gently. Nida then put his head on Squall's shoulder. Neither of them had noticed that someone was standing in the door to the hangar, watching them.

Rinoa had come to see if everything was okay with Nida, and to wish him luck. She was worried for his safety, because an airship crash could and still kill him. And, any Inaudax wasn't meant to be trusted. But, she'd halted coming towards them when she saw how close Squall and Nida were sitting, and how serious Squall's body language was. And, she hadn't been able to help overhearing their conversation. Part of her felt happy, and part of her felt sad. She hung back in the shadows as Squall and Nida embraced. She was happy to see that Nida himself was happy, but part of her felt cold and sad, the part of her that had growing feelings for Nida, the part of her that was still attached to Squall. Squall had been her first real love, after all. She knew that she hadn't really loved Seifer, but she had really loved Squall. Just because it hadn't worked out didn't change those feelings.

Rinoa clasped her hands in front of her heart, watching them silently from the shadows. She suddenly saw Nida become tense, and he rose from the bench. Squall did too, looking up at Nida in confusion. Rinoa could see darkness clouding Nida's expression.

"She's coming," Rinoa heard Nida say.

"Just...." Squall trailed off. "Don't do anything too foolish."

Nida stroked the side of Squall's face, then walked to the Ragnarok, disappearing inside of it. Squall stood his ground as the ship started up, staring up at it as the hangar opened and it took off. Squall heard footsteps approaching him, the high clack of women's shoes. He turned his gaze sideways and saw Rinoa stop beside him, the shoes a pair of boots with chunky heels. She was wearing a pretty red bustier with satin spaghetti straps and black velvet pants. Her hair was in a nice bun, some of it falling across her forehead in a side part along with her bangs. It looked as if she'd dressed up nicely on purpose.

"I hope he's going to be okay..." Rinoa mused, looking up to the sky. The Ragnarok was out of sight.

"You look nice. Dressed up for a reason?" Squall asked casually, trying to hide the tension in his voice.

Rinoa looked down at Squall's left hand. "I couldn't help but overheard some of your conversation with Nida."

Squall looked at his former girlfriend. "How much did you hear?"

"Enough," Rinoa answered. "Enough to know that you made more of a commitment to him than you ever did to me." She sighed sadly. "I guess he really does love you."

"You sound disappointed," Squall muttered. "Were you hoping that he would reject me, then whisk you away in his arms?"

Rinoa just glared at him. She didn't say anything, though. "Whatever makes him happy is okay with me. That's what being a good friend is about, Squall."

He crossed his arms over his chest, looking up at the sky, too. He remained silent, wanting to ignore Rinoa's comment. It stung him. He could feel the weight of the ring around his finger, and he prayed silently to Iudicium to keep Nida safe.

"You knew I would come," said Valhalla's cheerful voice over the radio.

"I did," Nida said back. He looked across the sky to her silver zeppelin, which was just a glittering dot.

"Clever of you to stay within Esthar's magical barrier."

"Maybe you should be saying it's 'safer for you' instead," Nida said darkly.

Val laughed into the intercom. "So confident. You know, too bad you're in the way. You're so cute." She flew closer. "I'll even show my good will, and fly into the barrier, too. We'll fight fairly, pilot versus pilot."

"An Oracle of the Inaudax being fair?" Nida raised an eyebrow, and the scepticism was evident in his voice.

Val laughed again, flying closer, so that the nose of her ship was facing the nose of the Ragnarok. "Hey, it can happen."

Nida just smiled darkly. He knew that Iudicium's magic was stronger than Esthar's barrier, even Trabia's barrier. He figured Tevedes would know that, but would Valhalla? Well, better to have that card up his sleeve than use it right away. Nida gripped the steering wheel of the ship, and he and Valhalla began their duel.

She flew closer to him, and Nida jerked the Ragnarok to the right. He was glad he was the only person on board the dragon ship, because it was going to be a rough ride. Nida used this chance to study the movements and flight of Valhalla's ship. It was far more nimble than the Ragnarok, but the armour looked like it was thinner. The nose looked more delicate. But, it could have been magically altered. Nida jerked when he felt the side of the ship being hit by one of Val's cannons. Nida jerked the wheel hard to the left, turning the ship around. As it spun, he fired on her silver ship. The armour of the Ragnarok was thick and tough, so the blast had done little damage. Nida hit the hull of her ship with the cannon. It left a smoking hole. Nida was right in that her armour was much more delicate.

Val made an impressed noise into the communicator. "Not bad, Nida. Not bad at all." As she said this, she spun her nimble zeppelin around, and flew right towards Nida. She titled it so that one of the wings was pointed down towards the Ragnarok. She flew so close that her wing cut into the left wing of Nida's ship. The armour around the rest of Valhalla's ship was more delicate, but she had the upper hand in speed. The wings were also a lot stronger, and Nida saw some of the systems show warning signals on the dash console after the edge of her wing had cut into the ship. As she passed by, Val shot a missile at Nida, and it hit the damaged wing. Nida ignored the slight protest that the ship was giving him, and turned around. As he did, he shot a few powerful cannon shots at her. It hit the back of the silver ship, and jerked it forward. Nida knew he could handle the slower dragon ship. He'd flown Balamb Garden many times, and could do it in his sleep. This ship was like a nimble sports car compared to Garden.

Val laughed into the communicator. "You're persistent, I'll give you that." She flew closer again, and did a turn in the air so the ship was on its side. She cut through the bottom of the ship with the strong edge of the wing. It set off an alarm in the Ragnarok, an alarm that Nida ignored. Before Nida could react , he felt something hit him that wasn't a cannon. It was a fireball. Nida noticed that they had flown out of Esthar's magical barrier, and the fireball had been part of Valhalla's magical arsenal.

"Fair, huh?" Nida snarled into the intercom.

"And, you believed me?" She laughed cheerfully. "I didn't think you'd be so naive."

Nida narrowed his almond shaped eyes dangerously. He hit a button on the ship, and then drained all the power from life support reserves. It was a dangerous move, but he needed the extra boost of speed. He zoomed closer to Valhalla's ship, and pressed another button. Valhalla must have been taken aback by the quickness of the Ragnarok. The button that Nida had pressed was the one that unsheathed the claws in the arms of the ship. The claws dug deeply into the armour of Valhalla's zeppelin. Valhalla shot a cannon upwards, and because their ships were joined, it caused a large explosion between them. Their airships started to descend, closer to plummeting. Nida saw that they were still fairly close to Esthar, so he steered them towards the Salt Flats.

Valhalla fired up at the ship again, and it caused them to rapidly spiral towards the ground. Valhalla was underneath the Ragnarok, so she took the brunt of the crash. Nida ended up hitting his head on the steering wheel, and it caused him to feel dizzy. He put his hand to his forehead, and it came back with blood. He touched the spot again, and his power moved through his fingers, his body a host for the thickly rushing power of Iudicium. The cut on his forehead was healed instantly. Nida examined the dash console, and the Ragnarok was in far worse shape than he was. He rose to full height. He could feel that Valhalla was still alive, and could feel her magical energy. Nida left the ship, and ended up having to up thirty feet down to the ground because the Ragnarok was tangled on top of Val's silver zeppelin. The fall didn't hurt Nida in the least.

Valhalla jumped out of her mangled ship, glaring at Nida. "Fun's over." She crossed her arms over her chest, and vanished into thin air. But, that wouldn't hide her from Nida. His powers were too strong for teleportation to hide her. Nida walked towards where her magical signature was, like a homing beacon to him. As he walked towards the spot, the ground started to shake. Nida dodged out of the way of some falling rocks, which were pointy and jagged. The ground continued to shake, and it split open. The wind was cold, and it bit into Nida's skin. As he walked closer to Valhalla, as her magical energy got stronger, and as the ground continued to shake, Nida's anger rose, as did Iudicium's.

By the time he reached her, his wings were out and concrete on his back. Now, whenever his wings were truly out, they were dripping blood, leaving an alizarin trail along his path. Val was standing her ground, and saw the dark look on Nida's face, the blackness of his eyes, and the large and bleeding wings on his back. It stopped her heart, but not long enough to take her aback. Valhalla stretched her arms out at her sides, and turned her face skyward. The ground shook all around Nida, and rockslides started to fall down around him, but he would not be deterred.

"You think a rock slide can stop me?" Nida hissed, no longer Nida. "Nothing you can do kan stop me." Nida stalked towards Valhalla, wings arched as if they were prepared to propel Nida into flight, blood dripping down around him, his coat flapping in the cold wind of the Salt Flats. Valhalla sent a fireball from her palms at Nida, but he swiped his hand, and closed his hand around the flames, absorbing them into his palm. He then took the same hand, and put it around Valhalla's throat.

The power he'd acquired from Viator and Tempest made Nida strong enough that he didn't have to kill Valhalla to take her powers. The flames that he'd swallowed into his hands burst forth again, licking over Valhalla's neck as her powers were sucked out her by Nida's hand. She felt like she was being drained of her life, like she was being sucked to the marrow. Nida's hand was still tight around her throat, even after all her Sorcery had been absorbed into him.

"Any last words?" Nida asked harshly. Valhalla could see Iudicium in front of her, like a gossamer film over Nida's features, like her pale face and long white hair had been projected onto him.

In response, Valhalla spit in Nida's face. He tightened his grip on her throat, cutting off her air supply. He turned his face downwards, letting the spit roll down his cheek, and onto the ground. When he tilted his head back up, Valhalla gasped, or rather tried to. Instead of Nida's face, the face Valhalla had seen had been pale, with pale hair, but had not been Iudicium. The hair had been silver, the eyes gold and burning, the face lined with plum tattoos. Valhalla had seen Ultimecia's face. She didn't have time to rationalize it, because her breath was squeezed out of her, and she died with Nida's hand choking her like a vice.

Nida dropped Valhalla's body on the ground like a stone. He couldn't take the Ragnarok back to Esthar because it was smashed up. He closed his eyes, and teleported back to the city. He didn't even have time to relish the feeling of his body splitting apart and joining the molecules of everything else about the world, because an instant later, he was in the Esthar Airstation. Nida noticed that things looked different to him. Everything looked underwater, in slow motion. He saw that Squall was still standing there, and that Rinoa was now with him. He approached them with purpose.

Squall opened his mouth to say something, but hesitated. The look on Nida's face was dark and foreign. Rinoa, whose bustier looked so red it was blinding to Nida, was taken aback, putting a hand to her chest.

"What is it?" Nida asked.

"Are you okay?" Squall asked, recovering from the shock of seeing such an alien expression on his lover's face. His eyes were black, and his wings were fully out, dripping blood wherever he walked. Other people were staring at him too, avoiding him. "What happened to the Ragnarok?"

Nida looked over to one of the hangar attendants. "The Ragnarok is in the Salt Flats, crashed with Valhalla's zeppelin. Retrieve it."

The attendant jumped on the spot, and scurried away with a frightened look on his face. Nida turned his attention to Squall and Rinoa again. "Valhalla is dead."

They shared a look. The power oozing from Nida had told them that as soon as he'd teleported into the Airstation.

"I'm going to Trabia. Now." When Nida said 'now', his voice was gone, replaced completely by the harsh voice of Iudicium. It even sounded a bit like Ultimecia. "I'm taking a small craft."

"I'm coming too," Squall said immediately.

"Me, too!" Rinoa piped up. "You need all the help you can get..." Her voice trailed off when she looked into Nida's eyes. He wasn't himself.

"Fine," Nida answered, his voice clipped. His wings folded onto his back, and disappeared. There was still blood dripping from the hem of his coat. He climbed into a small craft. Squall and Rinoa had to jog forward when he started the engine.

"Wait..." Squall said. "We need out weapons."

Nida closed his eyes, and Squall's gunblade, along with the fans that they'd taken from Tempest's body fell to the ground in front of Squall and Rinoa's feet. Without a word, both Squall and Rinoa a little afraid at that moment, picked up the weapons, and got in the craft with Nida.

"What about everyone else?" Rinoa asked quietly. "Shouldn't we tell them?"

"The less people that come to Trabia, the better," Nida answered, the craft rising out of the hangar.

Squall sat in one of the four seats in the small craft, looking at Nida's profile. "Are you sure this is safe....?"

Nida didn't answer, power rolling off him like stormy, angry ocean waves.

When they arrived on the Trabia, the winds were howling, and it was bitterly cold. Rinoa shivered, most of her skin exposed in her bustier. She was happy to see that Squall was shivering, too. Nida didn't seem to feel it, and went ahead of them. Nida turned to face them, his breath slowly being let out. They could see it as a plume of steam. His face cleared, and he looked like himself again.

"Nida...." Squall whispered, taking a step forward. His teeth started to chatter. "Are you okay?"

Nida looked sad. "I'm sorry, Squall." He turned his gaze to Rinoa. "Rinoa... I'm sorry."

"For what?" Squall asked. He could see Tevedes's manor behind them.

"For anything that might happen from this point on." Nida turned, and started walking through the icy wind towards the manor. As they got closer and closer, Nida's wings began to appear again on his back, and when they stepped through the doors, the silence in the foyer was only broken by the splattering of blood on the floor from Nida's black feathers. Squall pulled out his gunblade, and Rinoa unfurled Tempest's fans.

Nida had tried to keep his powers under a barrier, but the manor had brought it out, and now he felt it stronger than he had when he'd had Valhalla at his mercy. He stepped into the foyer fully, and stopped when the double doors centralized in front of them opened. Tevedes came out, clad in a military outfit that looked very different from the Galbadian Army one she'd been wearing before. This one was black wool, with a full-length coat over black pants. She was wearing nothing under the coat, which had yellow armbands, and military bars decorating it. It was buttoned at the lip of her pants, and Tevedes's white, colourless chest was mostly exposed. In her arms was a struggling Daisuke Nomura.

Rinoa gasped, getting into a fighting stance. "Mr. Nomura!"

Nida's wings flared on his back. "Father," he hissed. Tevedes narrowed her eyes at the sound of Nida's voice.

"One more step, and your father dies before he hits the floor," Tevedes said lowly, smiling evilly at Squall and Rinoa.

"Go ahead," Nida said. "I insist."

"Nida!" Rinoa exclaimed.

Tevedes pulled out a long knife, and slit Daisuke's throat ear to ear.

"Fuck...." Squall cursed, taking a few steps forward. He stopped dead in his tracks, like he'd hit a brick wall. There was nothing there, but it felt like Nida's power. Nida took a few steps forward as Tevedes laughed and vanished on the spot. As Nida got closer, Daisuke jumped to his feet, and changed his form. It had been Pallas in disguise.

Rinoa gasped in relief. From as far away as they had been, she had been unable to see the lipid green eyes of Pallas that gave her away in transformations. Nida must have felt her magic. Pallas pulled out a large katana, and dashed towards Nida. She arced the katana down at him, but Nida grabbed her wrist, and the sword went flying out her hand like it was on a string, landing near Rinoa's feet. Squall and Rinoa could see the utter shock on Pallas's face, like she had underestimated how strong Nida really had become. Pallas tried to wrench her hand out of Nida's grasp, but it fell out of his hand anyway. Her body was turning to ash. Squall and Rinoa could both feel their hackles being raised, could feel the power transfer between Pallas and Nida. Her body completely turned to ash, and was nothing more than a pile of grit on the floor at Nida's feet.

"Aren't you going to give me a challenge?" Nida yelled into the house. It was obvious that he was calling to Tevedes. He went through the double doors without looking back at Rinoa or Squall.

"What's happening to him?" Rinoa asked.

Squall frowned, stepping forward to follow him. "What I was afraid of. All this power has consumed him."

Rinoa crouched to pick up Pallas's katana. She flipped it over in her hand, looking at her reflection in the blade. She put the fans in one of her belt loops, and took the sword. "We better go after him."

When they started to follow Nida through the double doors, they slammed shut in Squall and Rinoa's faces. The room suddenly became very dark.

"What are you going to do without your protector here?" Gietzen's sweet, yet oily voice asked, permeating all around them.

Rinoa looked around, but couldn't see Gietzen anywhere. She didn't want to have to fight her again. She barely survived it last time. "Squall..." She said quietly.

"Cast a barrier spell," he said lowly. He then started doing rapid blizzard spells against the torches in the room, and used magic to destroy the electric lamps. After he'd done this, Rinoa cast her barrier spell. It set the room into complete blackness, and they would be unable to cast magic on themselves, but at least Gietzen couldn't cast magic on them, and because it was completely black, she couldn't use her shadows against them.

Squall held his gunblade out in front of him, not even breathing. He was straining his ears in the dark, listening for any sound that could be Gietzen. He heard a noise close to him, and turned towards it. He could smell Rinoa's faint strawberry perfume. He trained his nose to recognize it so he wouldn't stab Rinoa. Even though he didn't get along much with her anymore, he didn't want to murder her. He then heard Rinoa whip around, her boots scuffling on the ground. She started moving away from Squall, so he moved, too.

He whipped around when he heard motion behind him. The sound of footsteps. When he turned, he could feel the briefest second of resistance against his blade, like he had cut through some sort of fabric. He then heard running footsteps passing by them a few feet away. Rinoa's footsteps also joined it, for she'd heard it as well. There was then a loud noise, and Rinoa gasping. It sounded like she'd banged into a piece of furniture. After Rinoa scuffling around, she was silent again. The silence stretched on for a long time, neither Squall nor Rinoa daring to breathe. In this silence, Squall wondered where Nida had gone. Squall must have been lost in thought, because when he heard a noise again, he gasped and spun around. He heard a cry of pain, then a clatter. It wasn't Gietzen's cry, though. It was Rinoa.

"Shit!" Squall cursed. "Rinoa..."

"Shut up!" She hissed. There was pain in her voice. He heard her moving around again, then more silence. Although, he could hear Rinoa breathing. It sounded like she was panting through clenched teeth. He wondered if he'd cut her badly with his blade.

Rinoa held Pallas's katana in one hand, her other hand holding her side. The tip of Squall's gunblade had gone right into her left hip. She could feel hot blood moving over her fingers, but she ignored it. Finding Gietzen was more important than her injury at that moment. She tried to quiet her breathing, but the wound hurt, and she couldn't help her grimace, and the panted breath shunting through her clenched teeth. She heard a noise again, footsteps and the rustling of fabric. So, Rinoa put both hands on the hilt of the katana, and advanced towards the noise, blood dripping down her leg. Squall had heard it too, so he was also moving. When Rinoa reached the spot, there was the sudden shatter of glass, then the room was filled with light.

It seemed glaring bright, but it really wasn't. Gietzen had smashed one of the windows, and it was letting the Trabian moonlight into the room. As soon as the pale light filtered in, shadows started to rise on the walls. Rinoa looked around the room, her eyes trying to focus. Her feet were slipping in a pool of her own blood, but then she saw the glitter of Gietzen's eyes within the shadows. She ran towards it, and Gietzen just laughed. When she arrived on the spot, Squall right beside her, the shadows crept all over them. That same cold, dead feeling that Rinoa had experienced the first time she'd run into Gietzen returned. It was a horrible, rotting ache that moved over her skin, cancelling out the pain in her hip from where Squall's blade had cut her.

Squall stabbed his blade into the shadows. Even though his gunblade hadn't cut any flesh, Gietzen still cried out, as if the shadows were part of her body. Rinoa noticed what Squall noticed, and she stabbed Pallas's katana into the shadows, too. Gietzen shrieked louder. Rinoa wondered if because the katana was an Inaudax weapon, it had more strength against another Oracle. She thrust her hip towards Squall. "Take one of the fans," she panted.

He saw what Rinoa was thinking, and took one of them. He looked through the shadows, and saw where there was a dark patch growing. It almost looked like blood pooling outwards, except that it was black translucence. He threw the fan, but it missed its mark. Rinoa took the other fan off her belt, and threw it towards the shadow. She also missed, but she must have nicked Gietzen, because there was an angry howl of pain. The shadows became thicker, and both Squall and Rinoa stumbled to their knees. It was like the shadows were entering their body, mummifying them from the inside out.

Rinoa gritted her teeth. She wouldn't let Gietzen do this to her again. She would beat her. Because of the barrier, she couldn't call Leviathan, so she crawled painfully on hands and knees, slipping in the blood that she was losing. Rinoa couldn't crawl any farther, but she willed herself to. She got to the spot where Gietzen was growing more shadows, and jabbed the katana into it. Rinoa hit flesh and bone, and Gietzen screamed. She plunged the entire room into the darkness of shadows. Rinoa completely collapsed onto her belly, screaming into the floor. She heard Squall cry out, too. But, she would not give up, not let the Oracle win. Rinoa stabbed into that spot again, wrenching another scream from Gietzen.

Squall was impressed by Rinoa's bravery, and dug deep into himself, and rose to his feet in the awful, cold shadows. He stumbled forward, but didn't allow himself to fall to his knees. Squall could hear Rinoa panting and whimpering in pain, and could also hear Gietzen's angry cries, so he walked towards the epicentre of the noise. By the time he got there, he was barely able to stand. As he fell to his knees, he arced his gunblade down with a powerful stroke, and he felt the blade cut through something. His weapon felt so heavy in his hands, so he dropped it. As it clattered to the floor, the room immediately became lit with moonlight again. The shadows vanished, as if being sucked away by a vacuum cleaner. Squall collapsed beside Rinoa. There was a pool of shadows remaining, though.

Rinoa raised her head, her arm coated with her own blood, her clothes being soaked in it. Her strong barrier spell had run out. Gietzen was bleeding all over the place, but she didn't bleed blood like Rinoa was, she was bleeding wispy shadows. Rinoa looked at Squall, her whole body shivering. They could both feel the power rising in the air as Gietzen began to die. She silently asked him with her eyes who was going to take the power. Rinoa nodded, saying silently that she would accept it. She'd been a Sorceress once before, and would take the mantle again. Without the oppressive shadows, she could rise to her feet, even though her hip hurt dramatically. She spread her arms out, closing her eyes, waiting for the power to enter her. She heard Gietzen cry out angrily, and it caused Rinoa to open her eyes.

From the pool of shadow blood, a figure rose. Large black wings bleeding red in the limited light spread out. "Nida!" Rinoa exclaimed, but she brought her bloody fingers to her lips. This was not Nida. Before Gietzen's power could enter Rinoa's body, the white, skeletal hand of Iudicium pushed her out of the way. It was nothing more than a gentle tap, but Rinoa flew backwards and hit the wall. Iudicium was an impressive figure. Squall looked up, kneeling before the white Goddess. Her hair was a kaleidoscope in the moonlight, white with the spectrum of green, mauve and blue in the strands. Her eyes were fathomless black, although more almond-shaped than Squall had remembered. They were Nida's eyes in her face. She was wearing her bone jewellery, but she was wearing the same long brown leather coat and black pants that Nida had been wearing. Iudicium closed her hand into a fist, and the power of Gietzen was added to the already heady brew of Sorcery in Nida's, or rather Iudicium's, body.

Squall could feel his eyes filling with tears as he saw the ring he'd given Nida on the pale hand, with its fingers that were so long they were freakish. Did this mean that Nida was gone, just another roadblock like the Inaudax? His question was answered when the power was completely in Iudicium's body, and she transformed flawlessly, just like Pallas had. She became Nida once more, and he still had her wings on his back, bigger than ever. His eyes stayed black, and a cool wave of energy filled the room. Squall and Rinoa felt it enter their bodies, and they felt completely refreshed.

"Why didn't you come sooner?" Rinoa heaved, gripping the hilt of the katana in cold fists, the blade pointed down towards the floor, which was still stained with her own blood.

"Your barrier spell was kwite powerful," Nida answered, Iudicium's voice coming out.

"Nida...." Squall whispered sadly.

"It will all be over soon," Nida whispered, his voice still Iudicium's but with Nida's voice echoing underneath. He offered his hand to Squall, who took it reluctantly. He hated feeling so afraid of Nida. When he was pulled to his feet, it was with such strength that Squall pitched forward against Nida's chest. Squall searched Nida's face, looking for Nida in those black, black eyes. It was like looking into black holes. There was nothing there but Sorcery.

Rinoa tried to reach out for Nida, wanting to do the same as Squall was, trying to find Nida in Iudicium's eyes, but in the blink of an eye, they were in a different place. She hadn't even felt the teleportation like she had in Deling City. She looked around, and saw that they were in the room that she'd see in one of her dreams. The one with the clocks on the wall, and the clock on the floor. Not the dungeon one with the blood fountain and the large portrait of Ultimecia, but the brightly lit one with the Persian rug on the floor. Tevedes was sitting in her large chair, looking at them blandly.

"I see that the last of the Oracles underestimated you," she said. "But, you will find that I'm not so foolish." She rose from the chair, staring at Nida.

Squall and Rinoa tried to step forward from the wall as Nida faced Tevedes. But, they both hit an invisible barrier, falling back on their asses. Squall rose to his feet immediately, pounding on the barrier with his fists. "Nida!" He screamed.

Rinoa pressed her palms flat against it. "Please be careful," she whispered quietly. She then looked to Squall. "Tevedes is a lot stronger than the other Oracles, isn't she?"

Squall looked over at his former girlfriend. There was real worry and fright in her eyes, and he knew that look must have been mirrored on his own face.

"You will find, my dear Goddess, that I was named First Oracle of the Inaudax for a reason." Tevedes took out her riding crop. The wings on Nida's back flared. Squall and Rinoa could only watch, not even knowing if their voices carried through the barrier. Tevedes and Nida both looked very calm, as if they knew beforehand that it would have come to this. To Squall and Rinoa, it was like watching a classic duel, both Nida and Tevedes even bowed to each other before beginning.

Tevedes was the first to make a move. She flicked her riding crop out towards Nida, the whippet on it shooting something out. It hit the floor, and a hissing noise was made as the rug was eaten by acid. Nida countered by dodging easily from the acid, and spread his wing upward. The feathers cut across the wool of Tevedes's jacket, some of the arm falling away. The ends of Nida's feathers were glittering silver, razors. Just like when Rinoa had used them as throwing darts in Timber. Because Tevedes's arm was exposed, they could see the glittering rings that pierced between the ulna and radial bones in her arm.

Tevedes and Nida paced around each other, in slow circles. She flicked the acid out a couple more times. It even went in Squall and Rinoa's direction. Both had ducked when it came flying towards them, but it hit the barrier like it was a window, and just streaked down it. Nida began to lengthen the shadows in the room, tapping into Gietzen's power.

"You don't have all the power of the Inaudax," Tevedes noted, her voice cruel. "You're missing the power of Kronos."

After this statement by the pale General, all the seeming calmness of the duel disappeared. Nida and Tevedes began to attack each other in earnest. Tevedes slashed out with her riding crop again, hitting Nida in the shoulder. The acid burned the fabric of the coat he was wearing, and the crop whipped across him like a brand, leaving a red burn mark. Nida balled his hands into fists, and the floor exploded with blue flame, licking up Tevedes's body. It turned the riding crop into ash, but Tevedes had more tricks up her sleeves, and didn't need a weapon at all. She made a hand gesture, and the room started to rumble. Rinoa watched with wide eyes as the room darkened. She wondered if the barrier would hold when Nida and Tevedes started to cast really strong spells. Acid and razors was probably child's play to power like theirs. Rinoa reached her hand out, and took Squall's.

He continued to watch the fight with fear. Sweat was beginning to dampen his back and armpits, and he squeezed Rinoa's hand back, terrified for Nida, and also for his and Rinoa's safety. The darkening of the room had been a spell charging. Tevedes then unleashed a spell that neither Squall or Rinoa had ever seen before. In the back of her mind, Rinoa realized they were probably going to be the first to see these spells in thousands of years. It was like an Ultima spell, and it rolled through the room with a greenish hue. Rinoa actually almost lost her balance, and clutched herself to Squall's side. He wrapped his arms around her, and he could feel that he was shaking as much as she was. She could also feel that he was sweating as much as she was, too.

Nida grunted, and stood his ground against the archaic Ultima spell. It exploded around him in a cylinder of green light, and he screamed as the powerful spell permeated his body. But, his power would not be outdone. Through the Ultima spell, Nida cast his own. Rings of yellowish light began to wave through the room, and light zinged up from them as they began to rotate like a giant wheel. It was the spell Apocalypse that had been Ultimecia's trademark, but that was only the base of the spell. When the light zinged up, Tevedes jumped out of the way, but the light had burned the tail of her coat to cinders. She hissed when another upward beam of light rose from the rotating rings, and it caught her arm, burning the flesh to the bone.

"So, that's how it's going to be?" Tevedes hissed. She closed her eyes, and although it was indoors, the ceiling seemed to move with clouds. Tevedes crossed her arms over her chest, her fists balled at her shoulders. She laughed as glowing blackish purple rings moved through the floor, rotating along with the yellow rings that Nida had called forth. But, coupled with this was the fact that wings sprouted out of Tevedes shoulders. She was hovering over the ground, her wings keeping her in flight. They weren't feathered angel wings like Nida's, but pointed wings like Diablos. Bat wings. However, the spines were glinting in the light of the spells working across the floor. They were hinged like a human spine, but made completely of metal. The wing itself was made of feathers, but they were so slicked with black blood that they looked matte.

"Surprised?" Tevedes called across the room as Nida's wings let him gravitate off the floor, as well. Tevedes made a motion with her arm, and her rings rose with knives made of energy, spinning so fast that Rinoa and Squall's eyes couldn't follow. The whole room was shaking, and Rinoa held Squall tightly, feeling the ground under her feet moving as if it was going to fall out from under them. The spells continued to work against each other, and imploded on each other in a great white blast that sent Rinoa and Squall flying backwards. Rinoa yelped as she felt her elbow shatter against the wall. Squall groaned, the back of his head hitting the wall with force. He slumped downwards, his hand searching for Rinoa's.

Everything in the room was white because of the explosion, like a huge Shockwave Pulsar spell. Rinoa rose to her feet, too frightened to think about the pain in her elbow. She pressed herself to the barrier, her breasts flattened against it. "Nida!" She cried.

Squall stood up too, and touched the silver ring on his finger. "Nida, oh God... Please...." He panted, sinking to his knees, his forehead pressed to the barrier. It cleared, and Nida was a hump on the floor. Squall felt tears move down his cheek when he saw that Nida was moving. "He's alive.... He's alive...."

"Nida!" Rinoa screamed. She saw that Tevedes wasn't much better. She was leaning against the wall, one of her metal wings looking like an umbrella with a broken spoke. Rinoa brought her hands to her face and screamed when Nida rose to his feet.

Squall immediately looked up, for he'd bowed his head in relief. Horror filled his eyes, and he let out a strangled gasp. It wasn't Nida that was standing there. The big black wings had shrunk and gotten a little pointier, and Nida, although still in his clothes, was gone. Ultimecia was standing in his place.

"It must be a trick," Rinoa ranted, looking at Squall with her eyes flashing. "He must be using Pallas's power to put Tevedes off her guard. He must be doing that!" Rinoa nodded, smiling. "It's a good plan."

Squall nodded, but he was far less enthusiastic. Nida/Ultimecia rose to her feet, looking at Tevedes with glittering gold eyes.

Tevedes was holding a hand to her side, but seemed a bit frazzled by Ultimecia's appearance. She then laughed her cruel laugh. "Nice try, Nida."

A frown appeared on Ultimecia's face, her darkly painted lips turning downwards. She flipped one of her long locks of silver hair over one shoulder. "Oh, I kommend you for keeping on your toes, but I'm a bit disappointed that you kan't rekognize me, my kruel Mistress."

Tevedes blinked, and Rinoa and Squall shared horrified gazes.

Ultimecia waked across the room, and touched Tevedes's chest. "See?"

"Intervigilium..." Tevedes whispered. "Kan it be?"

"No, no... no, nonononono..." Rinoa repeated over and over again. Squall felt silent tears streak down his face. The feeling in the room was so ugly. They'd been able to feel the dark power of Iudicium during the fight, but this was totally different. This was the ugliest feeling in the world. The feeling of Ultimecia's power was so much thicker and darker than Tevedes's, so much darker than anything they'd ever felt, except for the day that they'd fought Ultimecia so many years ago. Squall had known he would never forget the feeling of Ultimecia's power, and he knew it was her. He knew.

"What happened to Nida?!" Rinoa asked desperately, crouching beside Squall. She had tears in her coffee brown eyes, because she was just like Squall... She knew what Ultimecia felt like. "What happened to Nida?!"

Tevedes knew what Ultimecia felt like, too. "How...?" Tevedes whispered, wonder on her pale face.

"Don't be dull, my love." Ultimecia's hard yet beautiful face showed amusement. "Iudicium absorbs any power she touches." Ultimecia's voice rang through the room, and cut at Squall's heart. He could see the ring that he'd given Nida only a couple hours earlier on Ultimecia's finger. It stabbed at him, stomped on all his feelings for Nida. "Bekause I'd been one with her, she took my powers. I've planned this all along. And, all the Orakles are still with us." She frowned. "Except for dear Kronos." Ultimecia glowered at Squall and Rinoa from across the barrier. "Too bad she is trapped within that useless girl, Kwistis."

"Nida!!" Rinoa screamed, her heart shattering.

Squall was just panting, shaking his head. His vision was blinded by tears. "Oh God..."

Tevedes laughed and wrapped her arms around Ultimecia's shoulders. "We have Iudicium..." She sounded as light as a little girl. Her metallic wings folded on her back and disappeared. "I kan scarce believe it."

"Believe it, my love." Ultimecia touched Tevedes's arm rings. "Nida is gone. He kouldn't handle this power..." Ultimecia stroked her hands up and down Tevedes's chest, up the swell of her breasts. "But, I kan."

Tevedes bowed her head, and devoured Ultimecia's mouth in a passionate kiss that caused black and ugly power to swell through the room, over Rinoa who was screaming in agony, her hands sliding down the barrier until she was slumped on the floor, banging it weakly with her fists, and it swept over Squall, shattering his heart as he watched the only thing that was left of his lover, his life, be kissed by Tevedes The Cruel. Both Ultimecia and Tevedes laughed against each other's mouths, continuing to kiss the passionate kiss of long separated lovers as Squall put the silver ring on his left ring finger against his quivering lips.

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