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Chapter 9 Release

Leonhart looked up into the face of a very angry young woman, who looked more than a little like the boy who held Griever.

"I'm seeing if that's my ring he's wearing, since you ask," he said a little stiffly. He'd gotten rather used to being invisible and alone, lately.

To his surprise, this answer appeared to make sense to her. Her eyes widened a bit, and she moved to get between Leonhart and the boy. "If the ring in question is called Griever, then your answer is yes," she said, "and you're going to get the hell away from my boy."

He did as ordered, though he knew he could outfight her. The problem was, he couldn't kill her. They were both already dead. The best he could do would be to render her unconscious for a while - and given the clear anger in her blue-gray eyes, he rather thought he'd have to do so repeatedly. She spoke like a woman near the end of her tether, patience frayed and eyes just a little wild.

"Then it is my ring," he said simply. "Though I suppose that's more technicality than reality, since it's there and I'm here. Have I done something to offend you, lady? Or do you get so violent with anyone who comes near your child?"

"Anyone and everyone," she said evenly, determinedly. "You aren't the first one to take an interest in him. He wants to be left alone, and I'll make sure he is left alone - especially by every damn spirit that comes through wanting to manipulate him into solving their little pieces of unfinished business."

Leonhart's head snapped up at that, eyes narrowing as he glared at her. "You have guessed aright at my intentions, lady," he said evenly. "But I am a Knight of Centra. I don't make small requests. And I rather doubt this boy has the property of every spirit that comes near him dangling on a chain around his neck, either. It is my ring that lets you see your son, lady. I think one favor is fair enough exchange for being allowed to watch your son grow up."

Tears glittered in her eyes then. "You think so?" she said, her voice cracking a little as she held them back. "He can't hear me. I try to protect him but he's so lonely, so sad. His sister was taken away last year, and from what he's said all of his companions but one are gone. I can't do anything a mother should do out here. I can't keep him safe - except from opportunistic bastards like you!" There was open fury and desperation in her voice now. "He doesn't have anyone he can count on, that he knows of. But I'll watch over him whether he knows it or not. He may feel alone, but I won't let him be manipulated by your ilk."

Leonhart frowned then. "How does he come to have Griever?" he asked, trying a tangential approach.

"It was mine, and my father's before me, and his father's before him," she said, as though reciting the linage of a curse. "Back all the way back to you, I suppose. Or further, if you inherited it too. My father protected me when I lived from the manipulations of the ghosts, and now I protect my son. So don't go trying to claim it's a family favor. We started doing this because the earliest generations of our family went schizophrenic with the voices in their heads - and that means you didn't protect anyone."

Leonhart nodded gravely. He'd never seen his daughter, born after he'd gone blind. "It might please you to know I was probably in hell at the time, lady," he said simply. "I have created a Guardian Force, and it's not very happy with me. This boy," and he indicated the child sitting on the rocks, "is foretold by Bahamut to be the only chance that Guardian Force has at freedom. I told you - I am a Knight of Centra, and I do not ask small favors."

"A Guardian Force?" asked the woman, surprised for just a moment out of her protective posture. "You... made...a Guardian Force? You must really think me stupid."

"Then go inside, and whisper to the Sorceress Edea," he said. "I persuaded her to retrieve its prison, and she hinted to me that she may give it to this boy when he is older."

The young woman shook her head. "I'm not leaving him alone," she said. "We have all the time in the world - it can wait until he goes back inside for dinner."

"Then perhaps we have time for introductions. I am Leonhart of the Sorceress Marie, once-Empress of the Empire of Centra."

The woman blinked slowly, evidently unimpressed - perhaps even scornful. "I'm Raine Leonhart, and this is my son Squall. Who, if I see you direct so much as one word to without my permission, I will happily put you through a great deal of pain to protect."

She meant it too, he could see - there was a hint of desperation in her voice, as though if she made it plain how far she would go, he would forbear attacking her. She was a cat arching its back and hissing, hoping that if it hissed loudly enough the dog wouldn't fight. The boy could be no older than five; probably her guilt at dying while he was young propelled her to make threats she couldn't possibly fulfil. She certainly didn't look like she'd had combat training. Not that he would fight with her over this, even for Diablos' sake. If she was right, then in a way the boy was as much his son as hers.

"I have time, I think," he said. "Sorceress Edea was right in that he would have to be much older before he could safely break the prison. But, lady, eventually he must. He has inherited my ring - and with it, my wrong. Had you lived, it would have fallen to you. And most likely it would have killed you. If you permit it, I will see that it does not kill him."

"What a fool you are," said Raine flatly, "to think that you could tell me this, and I would countenance your getting my son involved at all. He doesn't know about your damn ring, and he most certainly doesn't know about your damn wrong!" She hugged her arms across her chest as if to hold back sobs, and said, "He doesn't even know about me. Leave him out of your game, Leonhart of the whoever. He's got a clean slate. Please Hyne, let it be good for something." She pleaded now - she knew she couldn't protect her son against an accomplished fighter, but still she tried.

Their argument was interrupted then, as the child Squall cocked his head - evidently being called. He got up from his perch and made his way back to the house, flickering in and out of view as the ring bounced on its chain, the two ghosts following. Edea was evidently aware of their presence, but spent her time trying to cheer the boy and whoever it was sitting with him - someone called Seifer, who was evidently annoyed at having been forced to amuse himself without company.

Then Squall and Seifer were sent to bed, and Edea was evidently alone in the kitchen. "I sense you," she said. "I would appreciate it if you not bother him now - when ghosts speak in his dreams, he has nightmares. And he already has enough of those, I can assure you." There was a hint of disapproval in her voice for that. "You may think yourself beyond my reach, being ghosts. I will tell you now, and tell you once only - there is no place beyond the reach of a Sorceress. Touch my children, and you will find out exactly how much I can do."

"Perceptive, isn't she," said Leonhart curiously. "What an Empress she would have made..."

"Are you talking about Adel?" asked Raine. "She's the only Sorceress I know about who's trying to rule anything, and she's not exactly on my list of favorite people. She took Ellone...I can only hope Laguna found her, because I can't see either of them."

"No, not Adel," said Leonhart. "I have seen Adel - actually, it was from her that I worked out I should come here. Adel is a corrupted Sorceress - she has no Knight to keep her sane, as this Edea does." He turned to Raine. "I will make a deal with you. I will tell you how it was - how the Empire was ruled, how Griever came to be and I to receive it, the lamp, everything. I will make no attempt to speak with your boy in the meantime, either. When I have told you everything, you will use it to judge whether I may influence him to break the prison I have made. If you refuse, I will leave and try to find another way - who knows, he may have children of his own one day and give the ring to them, and I can try again. If you accept, I will limit my influence to that which will be needed for him to break the prison and survive the process. I will even help you to keep other spirits away from him in the meantime - or until such time as he breaks the prison and my debt is paid. Is it a bargain?"

Raine looked at him skeptically. Plainly, she doubted his story could be that good. "All right, Leonhart. I don't mind being entertained for a while. Try anything, and I'll make you regret it for the rest of your existence."

Leonhart only nodded - he and Raine understood one another. Then he began to tell his story, from the time that the Sorceress Marie found him trying to hold up her carriage as a bandit, to his arrival at the orphanage. It was a long tale, and the two of them fended off the advances of several other spirits while he was telling it. Occasionally she would tell him a little bit of lore handed down in her family, usually having to do with his ring, or something about Squall. But mostly she was content to listen, or question him for more detail. The only thing he would not tell her was the event that led to his name becoming Leonhart, and to his receipt of Griever as Marie's gift. That, he told her shortly, was personal.

It was by no means a short tale, and with the interruptions of other ghosts eager to latch on to a visible non-Sorceress, it was several days before he finished. At the end of it, they each understood the other's position more clearly - Raine had had good reason not to leave her son's side, Leonhart found. Every spirit that intruded had just one oh-so-reasonable request, that it was willing to fight Raine to see accomplished. Leonhart and Raine worked together then, to render them mute or otherwise harmless until they did not return. It was easy for him to see why Raine regarded him as just another spirit with just another request, especially since the intrusions came almost hourly. It also raised her in his estimation - for obviously, alone and without training, she had managed to keep all such intruders away from her son for the five or so years of his life. Still, the constant intrusions were wearying on a spiritual level - for both of them knew they would never cease as long as Squall carried the ring.

It was easy to see why Raine was so snappish and hassled, but still she had persevered. Leonhart had to conclude she had a core of steel, to work so ceaselessly for her son.

And Raine understood that it wasn't just another request. Yes, like all the others Leonhart had a wrong he needed a living person to right for him. But it wasn't simple human justice that was driving him - he had wronged a Guardian Force, a godlike being who would otherwise be trapped for all time. It wasn't a simple case of a murdered person wanting justice, or a forgetful person wanting to pass on a message. A powerful life was at stake. A life that - and this part caught Raine's interest - would be indebted to her son if he freed it.

She had seen the future Squall and the dying Sorceress, not long ago. Squall would need all the power he could get. When Leonhart finished his tale, she nodded her agreement. "You can speak to him," she said reluctantly. "Help him grow to be a strong fighter. He'll be in a war whether I want it or not. The least I can do is give him the best possible chance of success."

Leonhart nodded gravely. "I will limit my influence to that which is needed only," he said. "I will try to teach everything I can. And when the prison is broken, I will leave him in peace." He looked away for a moment. "Perhaps then, I will find my Marie again."

* * * * * * * *

It wasn't long before the Sorceress Edea fled the orphanage, getting as far away as she could before Ultimecia's hold on her was complete. The ghosts saw the kind Sorceress' battle, but could offer no aid. Their mere presence was a distraction to her. After she left the child Squall grew if anything more withdrawn, seeking out-of-the-way places where he might cry unnoticed.

Leonhart left it to Raine, to offer what comfort she could. Surely, she would be better at it than he. He wasn't sure if this boy was really the one he'd need - but it was very hard to accurately gauge adult potential when all you could see was a child.

Then Squall was taken from Centra to Balamb Island. The ghosts knew that Edea's Knight was responsible, for they saw him carrying the lamp to one of the boxes that went with Squall. They split up to verify that the same man removed the lamp from the box, too. Squall was given a black uniform embroidered with silver thread, and apparently was now in some sort of military academy.

Both ghosts found themselves wishing Squall were the sort of person who conversed with others. Much of what went on they had to infer from surroundings. But now Leonhart took over most of the watching, for when Squall began combat training he could reinforce the lessons, and impart additional options. Raine spent her time trying to get Edea's Knight to hold the lamp, in the hope that some answers might be given.

He seemed to be of help, at least. Shortly after coming to Garden, though, Squall stopped crying. Slowly, though his skills in fighting grew, his emotional responses dropped. To Leonhart, it was like watching someone grow into Lan. He'd always wondered how Lan could have possibly ended up the way he did. But Squall was not Lan - there was still a soul there, walled off behind pitiless gray eyes.

Leonhart almost wished he had not agreed to limit his influence to helping the boy in combat. Jian had been quite right in his judgement of Lan, and if this boy - with this attitude - were to free him, Jian might react without thinking. Even Raine couldn't get the boy to react most of the time now, and it was disturbing her greatly.

"What are they doing to him?" she pleaded once. "Why are they doing this?"

Leonhart had only the truth, as he saw it. "They teach him to fight," he said. "But he's too young. It takes a toll on a young mind, to learn to fight too soon, and worse - to know it is real and no game. You saw how he reacted to his first battle."

"Didn't you say you taught your Squires to fight?" asked Raine. "Isn't that the same thing?"

"No," said Leonhart flatly. "Never did we send the Squires against human foes, not unless there was no choice. They dueled each other to first blood only, and even fights with monsters were limited. I kept my Squires safe in a fortress of their own making, so they did not have to fight unless they left it. This place - the Empress would have destroyed it with her own hands, had it been made in Centra. I would give a great deal to know why this Knight of the Sorceress Edea's has done this."

Raine watched her son thoughtfully for a while. "It may be because of Squall himself," she said, half to herself. "I didn't tell you about that - but one day, after Ellone was taken, I saw Squall run out to search for her. I was about to follow him, to make sure he was safe - when lo and behold there he was in front of me! Only not a child, but full-grown and wearing the most outlandish clothes. A wounded Sorceress appeared soon after, and he moved to kill her but Edea stopped him. She took the dying Sorceress' powers, and the other Sorceress disappeared."

Raine looked thoughtful a moment. "The full-grown Squall mentioned 'SeeD' - something designed to kill sorceresses. And 'Garden', which trains 'SeeD'. Edea had no idea what he was talking about, and shortly thereafter the older Squall disappeared again. If they're teaching him to kill...perhaps they're teaching him to kill Sorceresses like Adel, or the one who appeared on Edea's doorstep."

"It is wrong!" cried Leonhart. "To condemn a Sorceress to death merely because she exists, with no chance to prove herself? It is my own mistake, thrown back at me ten times over! Raine, if I had not struck this bargain with you, I would leave right now. To teach this boy to kill what may well be an innocent girl..."

Raine's face was set. "Adel is no innocent, Leonhart, and you know it. If they are being sent to fight her, they need all the help they can get."

"And the girl who Adel passes her power on to? Who came up with this idea? It makes no sense to kill Sorceresses - not this way at least! She'll always pass her power on to someone else, she has to, and her successor will know exactly who her enemy is. It's a state of war between this SeeD and the Sorceresses, and it's a war that SeeD must eventually lose - for the number of Sorceresses can never be made zero for long. Even if you manage to give the world only one Sorceress, and she becomes a Guardian Force...another Sorceress or two or three will be born eventually."

Raine waited quietly while Leonhart fumed, but did not appear overly moved. "We'll just have to see, Leonhart," she said. "It's not as though we can change anything - and before you ask, the answer is no. You may not make my boy an instrument of your crusade. I have faith in him - I can still see a soul in his eyes. The Garden hasn't crushed him yet. If he finds a good Sorceress, I have faith he will do what is right."

"I hope so," said Leonhart heavily. "If he doesn't, though, I swear I will drive him mad."

"You'll have to go through me first," Raine replied coolly.

* * * * * * * *

The two didn't speak much after that, each attending to what they saw as their duty. Leonhart recited tactics and strategy almost non-stop, and sent suggestions to perfect the boy's form with his rather clunky-looking sword-gun. Raine tried to elicit emotional responses, or at least keep some shred of the boy's soul alive. And both of them fought any other spirit that tried to get close - Leonhart giving Raine a few pointers in that arena as well, since once Diablos was free he would leave.

He'd have to admit, though, that the quiet boy had grown on him. There was something in him that reminded Leonhart of Jian, though he couldn't say exactly what.

Finally, the work appeared to be done. Squall's silver-on-black uniform was changed to gold-on-black, and he went to a celebration. Raine was delighted; Squall had never shown the slightest interest in social gatherings. Someone even dragged him onto the dance floor. Leonhart laughed as he recognized the dance steps, and called out a few pointers. The dance was an old, old waltz, and it pleased the Knight no end that someone, somewhere, had preserved it from the ruins of his Empire.

It was a good sign - a sign of fortune. And it was borne out, as well - for the next day, Squall was summoned into the presence of Edea's Knight and given a mission. Both Raine and Leonhart heard every word, for in the man's pocket was the lamp - one hand caressing it nervously.

"Give it to him," said Leonhart - willing the bumbling man to obey. "Give Squall the lamp."

It worked. As Squall moved to leave the Garden, Cid reached out a hand to stop him. "Oh, and Squall," he said, "I forgot to give you this. It's a cursed item, but if one with enough power uses it, it should be of great help."

Squall turned back and accepted the lamp wordlessly, then moved again to leave. This time, he did not stop.

Raine turned to Leonhart. "Well, the moment you've been working for has arrived. My son has your lamp. Is he strong enough to use it?"

Leonhart considered the question carefully. If Squall failed, it might well be twenty or thirty years more before another attempt could be made. In the end he decided that yes, Squall was probably strong enough. "I think so," he said. "Only one way to know, though. Squall - open the lamp. Open the lamp. Open. The. Lamp."

Squall was remarkably resistant to suggestions which carried an element of risk, he found. He didn't bring out the lamp until Raine - who was getting rather tired of hearing Leonhart repeat the same phrase over and over - joined her voice in the suggestion. But when he did, he wasted no time in unscrewing the lid - revealing the steel orb within. Darkness poured from that orb, and when it cleared Squall was gone.

"What happened?" demanded Raine. "What did you do?"

Leonhart shrugged. "I did nothing," he said. "This is the trial - he is in their prison now. If he fails, he joins them. If he succeeds, they are bonded to him. What is the word he uses? Junctioned?"

Raine seethed. "You didn't tell me that, you bastard," she snapped. "I swear by Hyne, if he fails, you are going to wish you were alive again just so you could die."

"I rather doubt you could do worse to me than the Sorceress I imprisoned had in mind," Leonhart said mildly. "But I am sure she would welcome any tips you might offer her. I bid you good day, Raine Leonhart." And with that, he left her - his bargain was done. Perhaps now he might find his Marie.

* * * * * * * *

Jian and Carolin woke with a start. Something had changed. "Who dares disturb my sleep?" they said together.

The question had a rather obvious answer, though. Two young men and a woman were in their realm, weapons at the ready and fists raised. That in itself was enough to anger Carolin - this was their world, after all, and they should be shown proper respect. But what alerted them both that this was no ordinary fight was the sight of the group's leader. A young man in outlandish clothes, with Lan's coolness and the Lion's face. Almost - a deep red scar slashed its way from his right brow to his left cheek. Had it not been there, Jian and Carolin might have sworn it was some trick of the Lion's, some new betrayal to kill them rather than set them free.

It was enough to unbalance them both severely, and with their long sleep they were already more than a little confused. They fought the three warriors with everything they had - swiping with their claws, and using their pulling power to try and drag the trio into the ground. But they were weak, as Bahamut had proclaimed them, and eventually they had to admit it. "Too much sleep," muttered the Sorceress-half. "Too weak," mumbled the Knight-half. They fell to one knee - not out of any respect for their foes, but simply out of exhaustion. They had been trapped in a dream for Hyne only knew how long, deprived of any contact with the rest of the world that might have sustained them.

The one with the scar approached them then, pulled off his left glove, and held his hand out to them. Jian instantly recognized the ring on his finger. It is Griever! he told Carolin. How does he come to have Griever?

Probably the same way he comes to have Leonhart's face, returned Carolin unconcernedly. At last we understand why Bahamut said Leonhart must be persuaded to influence events - this person must be a descendant of some sort. I don't think he pulled his glove off to show us his ring, though. What do we do now?

Jian gave the mental equivalent of a shrug. Take his hand, I suppose, he said. He won, but I don't see our prison disappearing just yet.

Carolin agreed, and they reached out one black-clawed hand to take the one held out to them.

Neither were quite sure what happened next. It felt as though they were being sucked into the boy's body - but at the same time they could see light. Finally, light! They weren't in their realm any longer. Neither were they alone - another couple stood nearby, the Sorceress and Knight both wearing outfits of sewn skins, lightning-bolt patterns painted in yellow and red across sun-browned cheeks. Between them stood a hazy image of a yellow-plumed bird with arcing bolts flickering across its yellow-white eyes.

"Welcome," they said in a lilting cadence. "We are Quezacotl. Who are you?"

"Diablos," said Jian and Carolin together. "Where are we?"

"You walk in the eternal realm," said Quezacotl, "But you may see through this mortal's eyes when you choose. You are bonded to him - junctioned to him."

Carolin didn't like the sound of that. "We're what?" they asked.

"It is a good thing, not a bad one," said Quezacotl patiently. "Junctioned to a mortal, we grow in power. You are weak, Diablos. Junctioned to this one, you will grow strong. As we do. Already, we have learned to turn monsters into mere images of themselves."

"We'll see," said Jian and Carolin.

* * * * * * * *

Over the next few months they did grow to know Squall pretty well, and both of them learned important things. Jian learned that Squall was different from his old leader in several important respects - the most important being that he tended not to assume something was dangerous until it proved it was, though he mistrusted just about everything and everyone he laid eyes on. This made Jian much more comfortable - he hadn't liked the idea of serving another Lion at all.

Carolin, for her part, got an extensive education in exactly what it had been that the Lion feared when he caged her. Squall fought against the possessed Edea - Diablos was relieved that he forbore to kill her once she was no longer a threat - and the insane sorceresses Adel and Ultimecia, but agreed to serve as Knight to the benign sorceress Rinoa.

Even Carolin had to admit that the Lion had probably acted within the bounds of prudence, based on the evidence he had had. It didn't make her love him, but she was willing to forgo hunting him down and putting him back in a personal hell now that she was free.

Once Ultimecia was defeated, Squall released his junction into the storage banks of the Garden. At this point Diablos was as free as it had ever been, to roam the eternal realm and meet other Guardian Forces. Carolin was at this stage too curious to want to separate, though they quickly determined that they couldn't, 'junctioned' as they were to the Garden's storage banks. Periodically they checked on the sole surviving Sorceress, until the day they saw Squall appear again.

When he did, they realized that it was a good thing they had not separated, after all. Diablos might still be needed.

Chapter 10

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