Chapter IX Queen Sacrifice
With Ferdid dead, Jezikan and Dahl missing, and the shadow of the Lunatic Pandora darkening Fisherman's Horizon, panic ruled the Galbadian troops. The SeeD present were barely more at ease; only the citizens of FH were capable of dealing calmly with the danger. Methodically they began re-organizing their city, taking advantage of the upheaval to expunge Galbadian officers from places of power by excuse of their superior knowledge of their defenses. For the most part the soldiers were happy to let someone else handle the problem while they found secure places to hide.
As if any of it would do any good, if the Pandora did bring down a Lunar Cry.
Kiros set his jaw, determined not to allow his teeth to chatter. His blood was running cold enough that his frozen state could be mistaken for icy calm. "You're sure you can control that thing?" he demanded again of Odine.
The doctor shook his head. "Not certain, no, but the theory is sound. The equipment is in my lab here, as I say, all I should need."
"That's why we're taking you to it," Kiros said. "It had just better work." Beside him, Ward grunted agreement. They picked up the pace, escorting the doctor through FH. Citizens strode past, intent on crucial errands, while Galbadian soldiers scurried here and there like ants revealed under a displaced stone. If summoning the Pandora had been the Galbadians' plan, as Odine insisted it was, then they should have prepared for it better. At least informed their troops. But then, Kiros recalled, the Galbadians had never been very competent with their army. They had made Laguna a captain, after all.
He so accustomed to dodging people that he wasn't looking at faces, and therefore almost missed who he nearly rammed into while turning a corner. A brief glance at the owner of the red boots stopped him dead in his tracks. "Quistis!"
"Kiros?" She also paused to take in him, Ward, and the doctor.
Kiros in turn observed those accompanying her. "Rinoa, thank the Brothers!" He spotted the fair, limp stranger slung over Zell's shoulder. "Who's that? Where's Jezikan?"
"That's Lord Dahl, but he's out of the picture now," Quistis explained hurriedly. "Jezikan got away, we don't know where."
"What's going on up there?" Rinoa demanded. "We've been searching for the quickest way up, but lots of passages are closed off. Is Jezikan--"
"Worse," Kiros grimly replied. "The Lunatic Pandora's right outside. With luck Doc Odine here might be able to do something about it, but Cid and Xu are firing up Galbadian Garden to evacuate FH, in case he fails. And Laguna's gone back to Balamb Garden--" He stopped, then realized there was no easy way to put it. "We got a communication from your Dr. Kodowaki. Squall's condition is deteriorating."
All four SeeD made identical soft exclamations, and Ellone pulled her sweater tight around her shoulders. Rinoa was silent, steadier than Kiros would have expected, but he caught the pain that flashed through her eyes, cutting to her soul. "How bad--" she whispered, then steeled herself. "The Pandora--is it still coming? What can we do?"
Quistis stepped in front of her. "You and Ellone can go back to Squall--that's where you need to be. Kiros, can you take them? Zell, go with Ward to help him guard Odine and keep us informed how that goes; Irvine, Selphie, and I will see where Cid wants us." She looked them all over. "Okay?"
"Not hardly," Zell muttered. "But it's not like we have a choice. Let's go."
* * *
Squall had not moved a degree since Rinoa had left his bedside. But his face seemed paler, closed eyes sunken further into blue shadow. There was a cast of death to his stillness that could not be countered by the slow rise and fall of his chest, and his skin seemed cooler to the touch.
Laguna, seated beside his son, looked hardly better off. Dark patches gathered beneath his eyes, and his motionless vigilance erased his usual boyish energy, making him appear even older than his true years. Rinoa knew Squall sometimes doubted his father felt anything more than casual affection for him. She could not help but think that he would see the truth, if only he would awaken now.
"We can't keep him on life support forever," Dr. Kodowaki told them quietly. "He's failing on us, and every minute his chances go down. Ellone, do you have any idea--"
"I think I understand," Ellone said, even softer than the doctor. "I felt what Dahl was trying to do to me. It's more than drawing nightmares over people. If someone is killed in mind, in spirit, then their body can't survive. That's why Squall didn't wake up when Dahl was stopped. In his mind, he's already..."
"But if the body's alive, the person's alive," Dr. Kodowaki said. "There's been no damage to the brain; I've never heard of a case--"
"There's more to a spirit than the brain it resides within. The mind only knows what it perceives, not what actually occurs. When I send people to the past, it's only their minds which move. But they are there, no matter where their bodies are. It's reality, for them."
"You mean..." Laguna raised his head, slowly, as if it were weighted. "You're saying Squall is dying because his mind thinks he's dead?"
"That's crazy," Laguna said flatly. Then sighed. "But if you're right, how..."
"We can get him back," Rinoa stated fiercely. "Dr. Kodowaki said it. If his body's alive, then Squall is too, somewhere, somehow. We just have to find him and tell him that he's not dead."
Kiros opened his mouth, probably to repeat Laguna's previous comment, but decided better of it and shut it again. Rinoa whirled toward the other young woman. "Ellone, can you send me into Squall, like you tried before? Now you know what Dahl did, maybe you can do it."
"I don't...I'm not sure," Ellone murmured. "I...can try." She bowed her head, the air seeming to thicken around her with the intensity of her concentration. Rinoa felt it reaching, the unmistakable sensation pulling at herself, an inner draw, nothing like the magic yet just as persuasively, powerfully attractive.
Then it cut her free, sudden as a snapped cord. She caught her breath, heard Ellone gasp with shock at the release. She looked up to see Ellone's eyes meet her own, dark hazel liquid with tears. "I can't reach him," the other woman whispered. "I can't find him. There's nothing to bring you to."
"Then don't!" Rinoa pushed herself to her feet, and found her legs shakier than she expected. She steadied herself with a hand on the back of her chair. "Don't try to find him, Ellone. Just put me there--"
"I can't." Ellone almost sobbed. "It doesn't work like that for me. Dahl sought out people, contacted them. I only connect them--I can be a bridge, but I can't just--just grab people and throw them into others."
"Are you sure?" Laguna stood. "Elle, could you do what Dahl can, if you tried? If you had a good enough handle on someone, if they reached for you when you reached for them--maybe it would work."
Ellone blinked. "What do you mean..."
Laguna took her by the shoulders, bright green eyes wide and intense. "You told me once that last year, when you sent Squall into Rinoa, you couldn't have done it if you hadn't known Squall so well. You didn't know Rinoa well enough yourself, but it was easier to send him than someone else, right? Because it was Squall. Well, you know me that well. Try sending me into him."
"I can't!" Ellone gasped. "I can't--you didn't feel it. What it was like, trying to reach Squall--it's so empty. There's nothing there, nothing of him to find--"
"We won't know for sure until we've really looked."
"It sounds dangerous," Kiros remarked, stepping forward.
Laguna cocked his head, not smiling. "Yeah, I'm guessing it is."
Ellone's head was down, her short hair veiling her eyes. "I don't...it could kill you. I might make you like him, Uncle Laguna, and I don't know--I don't even know if I can--"
"It's all right." He held her hands and squeezed. "You just got to try, as hard as you can, Ellone. Please?"
She glanced up at him, and something in his gaze caught her, like a rabbit paralyzed by a poacher's flash. Slowly she nodded.
"Okay." Laguna turned to his minister. "Kiros? You'll be President, if anything happens to me. That is, if Esthar will listen to you. I'm pretty sure they would. They already do anyway. Say good-bye to Ward for me too, please. If I don't come back or anything."
Kiros made a quick bow. "You got it," he pledged. Then he clasped Laguna's shoulder, cleared his throat and said thickly, "You better be careful, my man."
"Aren't I always?" Laguna grinned for an instant, then took up Ellone's hands again as he sat her and himself down on the bedside chairs. "All right, Elle. I'm ready."
"Good luck," Rinoa whispered.
Laguna winked at her, then shut his eyes as Ellone began.
* * *
"'It's missing'?!" Zell exploded. He felt like he had been posed on a knife's edge since Squall had collapsed, and every subsequent blow staggered his balance a little more. Mental images of the Lunatic Pandora bearing down on them, flattening the Gardens and FH in its path, were not helping his patience in the slightest. "What do you mean, 'it'? Your control thingie for the Pandora?"
"No. That is right here." But Dr. Odine's tone was far from comforting. "However, if she has the pendant, this might as well be a pile of scrap circuits."
"Who's 'she'? Jezikan? What pendant? What are you talking about?"
"She must have taken it," the doctor continued, ignoring the SeeD. "I had not realized she was so perceptive...or so foolish... Stupid woman, even if Odine's pendant works as expected, it will mean the destruction of more than just yourself--" Still muttering, he bent over his device, fiddling urgently even as he shook his head.
Ward rumbled. Reaching for the radio to alert the others, Zell threw the Esthar minister a look over the doctor's hunched shoulders. "I'm with you there three times over, man. I've got a bad, bad, bad feeling about this."
* * *
With every step she took, the jewel around her neck glowed a little brighter. A pity there were no witnesses to admire how the green glow set off her eyes, her fiery hair.
Jezikan craned her neck to admire the pendant's scintillating glitter. In the shimmering emerald light she could see the power itself, could almost feel it when she ran her fingers over the ice-smooth facets, like water washing over her hands. Was this what it was like for her, for the girl sorceress? That brilliance, only inside, so it filled the heart and pulsed in the blood like embers. This was power as she had never experienced it before. To rule men, as Ferdid had, ineptly but with acknowledged authority, there was desirable strength in that, a strength she had wielded herself. To rule over life and death, over dreams themselves as Dahl was capable, she had yearned for that, to know how it was to peer into another's soul and be its master.
But this...to hold the energy of existence in her hand, and know it to be hers to manipulate...this was what she had truly wanted. A force so great as to be untouchable, beyond any danger, above any mandate. She walked through the frozen caverns of the Lunatic Pandora, and the ice walls seemed to sing to her, a song of marvelous, unbridled might, which resonated in the crystal pendant around her neck, and through the soul of her being. Her power to take. She would master the Pandora, and with it the world.
They would witness it, all those who had cursed her, all those who had obliterated her family and destroyed her name, her reputation, everything that had meant anything to her once. They had tried to destroy her, but she had been reborn, had created herself from nothing to rise to the presidency, or as close as she was able. And now she would be born again, the magical third birth, from which she would emerge the queen of the world. They would see her on the Pandora's throne--the few of them who still lived. They would see her power and know they meant nothing to her. Not then, not when she held everything in her hand as easily as she grasped the pendant now.
She heard a scuffle, twisted around and fired the kill-beam clutched in her other hand. By pure chance she hit her target; the laser drilled a pencil-thin shaft between the imp's muddled, bloodshot eyes. Its gibbering holler echoed through the passage after its corpse had tumbled to the icy floor.
Skirting its still bulk, she continued up the tunnel. The gun was steady in her hand, but no other creature attacked. The Lunatic Pandora recognized its master.
At last she emerged in the central grotto, where the Crystal Pillar rose up through the floor, impossibly huge and dark. But its blackness was strung through with veins of brilliance, flashing in time with the glowing of the stone around her neck. As she approached the bands brightened, illuminating the intricate pattern of fissures that guided the magical energy stored within. Multicolored light ran like blood through the pillar's clear depths, until the whole crystal shone with its vitality.
It pulled her closer, a pure, instinctual magnetism more charismatic than any man's. She pressed one hand to the glassy surface, both cool and warm, hard and solid yet simultaneously giving and flexible. Her fingers sank into the substance, transparent and so perfectly smooth she hardly could tell they were engulfed, but for the pressure against the back of her hand, and the brightening of the pendant to a blinding radiance.
Unnerved, she yanked her hand free. It released her without obstruction. She stared at the luminous, unmarred plane. And understood.
Perhaps that was why this had failed before. No sorceress could sacrifice her own power to give herself entirely over to this creation. For centuries it had waited, for millennia, for her to come, without the magic, only the will. One with the strength to accept its most terrible gift without resistance.
The pendant burned with verdant flame, scorching her breast. Jezikan sank against the living glass, and surrendered herself to the heart of the Lunatic Pandora.
* * *
Laguna slumped so suddenly Rinoa nearly didn't leap forward in time to support him. Kiros assisted her in laying the president down on the other bed. He was as quiescent as Squall; in repose the resemblance between their faces was undeniable, and the cessation of consciousness was as disturbing in the father as in the son. At least there was no sign in Laguna of the pain that had twisted Squall's face when he had first fallen.
Ellone sat stiffly upright in her chair, her eyes mostly closed and her lips barely parted as she breathed, immersed in concentration.
Kiros examined them closely, his friend and his friend's foster daughter, both caught up in the same spell which had swallowed Squall, and frowned. "I guess now we wait."
Rinoa nodded, not trusting her voice. She wished she had some of the faith Irvine had spoken of, belief in gods, in the power of prayer. But deities were only manifestations of the magic she had within herself, other forms of the sorceress powers, the same energy of the Lunatic Pandora which threatened now. No more reliable than any strength, only as dependable as those who wielded it.
That was what it always came down to, in the end. The people, those with the strength, the abilities, the influence to change the fate of the world, for good or ill. That was all there was. Faith in people. She believed in Laguna, believed in Ellone. And always in Squall. She could do nothing more now. It had to be enough, since it was all she had.
Obscurely comforted by that realization, the events of the past days catching up with her, Rinoa was drifting off into a half-sleep, when a shock cut through her consciousness like a burning arrow. She was on her feet in an instant, the chair clattering to the floor.
Kiros scrambled up with her, grabbed her arm. "Rinoa? What's wrong?"
"I don't know." She looked at Squall, at Laguna and Ellone. All still motionless, nothing changed. The danger she felt, pricking at her nerves like insect stings, wasn't here. "Stay here, watch them," she asked him. "I'm going to the bridge, I need to see it."
"See what?" he demanded.
And then the eastern windows of the medical bay lit up, as if dawn were coming a few hours too soon. Amber luminance filled the room with sharp shadows.
"That," Rinoa said quietly, and pointed outside to where, half a mile away, the once-black Lunatic Pandora was shining like a new sun, the Crystal Pillar blazing gold up and down its towering height.
* * *
He had expected blackness. Instead he found himself in a void so complete even darkness was impossible, too substantial to exist in this emptiness.
He had been prepared for the dark. This was worse, far worse. It took conscious effort just to realize he was here, was still existing. I am Laguna Loire. I am Laguna Loire and I have come to save my son.
He tried to shout Squall's name, but there was no voice, no sound at all, without air. He would have suffocated, if he still had lungs.
Darkness he could have taken. There was nothing, and that was more terrifying than he could have imagined.
But he was here, occupying the emptiness, and he could not be alone. Squall was here, somewhere. It was only a matter of finding him. Piercing the void until he reached what lived beyond it.
How does one pierce nothing?
Love, friendship, courage, he had told them. It had worked for them before, seen them through the trial of time compression. Laguna closed his eyes--he had no lids to lower, no eyes to see--he closed his eyes anyway. Shut them tight and concentrated. He conjured Squall's image in his mind, as if he could summon him with thought alone. Perhaps he could. What else was there, in this non-place?
Raine's son. His son. That he could have a child, that he could have any part in the existence of a life not his own, still sent a thrill of amazement through him. Amazement, and pride. And that it was Squall...
His son looked like him, the spitting image, they all said, though Laguna couldn't see it, quite. Maybe in some of the lines of the face--but his eyes, sea-gray, storm-gray eyes, those were Raine's, calm as the eye of a hurricane, deeper than the very ocean. And in them Raine's courage, Raine's strength, that Laguna could never hope to possess.
Yet still...Squall was his as much as Raine's. His child by blood. Ellone was the daughter of his heart, never to be forgotten, but Squall was his son. There was love in that, absolutely immutable. Armed with it now, he reached into the abyss.
He felt it pour into him, that emptiness. He was awash in a sea of the void, drowning in an utter vacuum. The nothing filled his mind, impossibly, driving back memory, intelligence, consciousness. All thought of Squall blasted away--any thought vanquished. He strove to catch the shards of himself...
I am Laguna Loire.
He was in the void again. No, outside of it. Not a part of it. Illusions danced liked ghosts on the fringes of his perception. Squall standing before him--not really. Only a projection of his own thoughts, his own hope. He was nowhere near his son's own, true being. That lay within the void...but to enter the void was to lose even those visions, the last remnants of memory.
Losing himself, the danger Ellone had warned him of. As Squall had been lost, on the border between death and oblivion. Being lost to the void himself was not nearly so terrifying to Laguna as knowing Squall was here, abandoned, alone, without even hope to hold onto.
It had to be possible to cross that boundary. Through nothing to the life still within, somewhere. Life gave life. Two lives could hold onto one another, find one another and then find the way back together. If they found each other, then neither would be lost. If they found each other.
Love, friendship, and courage. Whatever he had. Whatever it took. Squall was his son.
Braced with that affirmation, Laguna re-entered the void. And gave himself to the nothingness.
* * *
"So this pendant replicates a Sorceress's magic?"
"No, no, not precisely, though, theoretically, the, the principles are s-s-similar..." Dr. Odine wrung his hands, stuttering like a Shumi with the desperation of putting his knowledge into foreign words. He stared nervously around at the SeeD surrounding him. Quistis appeared the calmest, so he entreated her, "It was not meant to be this way, you understand. If Jezikan indeed used it as we suspect, as the evidence suggests--"
"Evidence? You mean that?" Zell threw his hands in the direction of the brilliant Lunatic Pandora, casting a golden aurora around the dish of Fisherman's Horizon. The SeeD and the scientist had climbed to the near rim to observe the phenomenon, and for Odine to verify its cause. And its effect, which according to all theory was far from desirable. "Jezikan stole the pendant and turned that thing on!" the blond SeeD accused.
"In a manner of speaking...well, yes," Odine agreed shakily. "The pendant has the effect--this is all theoretical, you understand, I had not the opportunity to test--"
"What does it do?" Selphie demanded.
"The pendant should, theoretically, alter the aura of a normal, that is, non-magical personage, so that they will appear to have, to most techniques of measurement, the aura of a Sorceress," Odine said, all in a rush. "You realize even I have not the expertise to recreate the actual and true magic of a Sorceress, but in my studies I learned how an ordinary ki may be manipulated to reproduce a similar frequency to--"
"So in other words, with the pendant, Jezikan looks like a Sorceress to the Pandora. Meaning it'll obey her commands." Irvine rarely looked so grim. "Not good."
"Your control device doesn't work at all?" Quistis asked.
Odine shook his head. "Worthless. Absolutely worthless, if ever it functioned. I had not the opportunity to test that, either. But..." He hesitated. "There may not be a fear. The Lunatic Pandora does not merely serve a Sorceress; it draws power from her. Jezikan has not the life energy to sustain it for any length of time--"
"It's too late."
They all spun around. Rinoa hopped off the final step of the ladder and landed beside them, boots clanging on the rim's metal deck. Her face was as serious as ever they had seen it. "Kiros has spoken with Esthar's scientists. According to the observations of their orbital station, a Lunar Cry has already started forming on the moon. It'll fall within the next forty-eight hours, and it's coming down here. FH will be destroyed for sure."
"Two days should be enough time to evacuate everyone--" Quistis began.
"Those you can get to leave," Irvine murmured. "Some won't give up."
Rinoa shook her head. "It gets worse. The Pandora's on the move, according to Esthar. It's already in motion, accelerating very slowly. And the lunar monsters will follow it. All the way to Galbadia, straight to Deling City. Even without Jezikan's guidance, it'll keep on going. And bring the tail of the Cry with it."
"A Lunar Cry...over Deling City?" Irvine blanched. "But everything in the area will be hit--and they won't listen to a warning from us or Esthar, not until it's too late--"
"The Pandora won't reach Galbadia," Rinoa said. "Or attack FH. I'm going to stop it."
They stared. "You?" Selphie said finally. "Rinoa, how--"
"Of course!" Odine exclaimed. "The Sorceress, yes, the Pandora would obey the Sorceress. Such it was constructed for. But...but." He swung his head from side to side in a definite negative. "Even with your power, once begun the Cry will not end until it has come to the Pandora."
The SeeD were still disbelieving. "Rinoa," Quistis said, "you're a Sorceress, yes, but you've never controlled the Pandora before. When we sank it last year Squall piloted it, like Seifer had--it's something Knights can do, right? But it wasn't fully activated then. How are you--"
"I don't know yet." For the first time a crack of uncertainty showed in Rinoa's determination. "But I'm a Sorceress, and the Pandora was made for us. When I'm inside it I'll know what to do. I think." She drew a breath. "That's why I'm here--I need help. I can't fly to it on my own; the winds around it are too strong for me to handle. If one of you could pilot a craft--"
"I can," Selphie instantly volunteered.
"I'm coming too," Zell said, so quickly as to give no chance to be contradicted. "If Jezikan brought backup you might need help."
"This is going to be dangerous--" Rinoa began.
"Exactly." Zell nodded. "So I'm coming."
"Rinoa--" Quistis began, then stopped. "Rinoa, what about Squall?" she said instead.
The other girl's face tightened, the resolute mask hardening a little more. "Laguna and Ellone are helping him." She reached out, caught Quistis's arm. "Quistis, I don't know if there's anything you can do, but if--if you can--" Her mask slipped for an instant, and Quistis caught the fear in her eyes. Rinoa might be putting all her spirit and will into whatever her plan was with the Pandora, but her heart remained where it always was, with the missing of their number lying in Balamb Garden's infirmary.
"Whatever I can," Quistis promised, and Rinoa smiled faintly before vaulting down the ladder after Zell.
"Good luck!" Irvine called. Selphie gave him a thumbs' up, then followed the others down.
* * *
I am Laguna Loire, President of Esthar...
I am Laguna Loire, President...
I am Laguna Loire...
I am Laguna...
Drifting away. Currents, wind, gravity, pulling everything asunder. Memories sank below, floated above. Out of reach. Entropy mastered life.
Beyond birth and death, past order, past chaos, before the very beginning and after the very end.
Duty lost, knowledge lost, desire lost, self lost. There was no am; there was no I. Not here, not now, and this was everywhere, for all time. Lost, and so they both were lost, and so he would not be saved...
Failure--but there was no self to fail. Courage gone. Friendship gone.
Squall is my son!
And the void was gone.
The land was so barren it hardly could be termed a desert. A blank, sunless sky stretched over uncountable miles of wasteland, sprinkled with sand and jagged stone, without a single sign of vegetation or fauna.
But at least it wasn't nothing. Laguna nodded to himself. "Better." He was standing on the colorless earth, breathing the dry, dusty air. No matter that it was all in his mind, just a trick of perception. He had form again, a coherent line of thought--as much as his thoughts ever were coherent, he could almost hear Kiros comment. He could feel the ground under his boots, the wind ruffling his hair. He wore his favorite blue jacket--where had that disappeared to? He hadn't worn it for years. One of Esthar's officials had probably deemed it uncouth and tossed it. But now it fit loosely around his shoulders, worn and comfortable. He brushed dust from the collar and risked a grin. "Much better."
He scanned the area, and noticed scuffles in the gray sand. Footprints. The tread of a familiar boot. At least, so they appeared, and appearances were everything here.
Head down, eyes on the rocky ground, Laguna started walking along the faint tracks toward the featureless, impossibly distant horizon.
* * *
"Hang on!" Selphie had to yell over the roar of wind buffeting their craft. With all the strength in her petite frame she wrenched the stick to the right, tipping the flyer starboard. It swooped skyward as its stubby wings caught the updraft, its passengers clinging with both hands to their seats as they were thrown against the straps. "Sorry!" Selphie shouted. "This'd be easier in the Ragnarok!"
The Lunatic Pandora loomed before them, brilliant and enormous, surrounded by the vortex of whirling air pummeling the flyer. A single crevice was barely visible in the shining wall before them. Fighting with the wind to align the craft with the narrow opening, Selphie shoved the stick forward, then gunned the boosters, rocketing them through the turbulence. Zell shut his eyes. Rinoa hung on grimly and watched the wide, flat expanse of the Pandora's side grow in the windshield.
At Selphie's quick motion, the flyer tilted, dipping down to slide neatly into the mouth of the tunnel. Firing the retrothrusters, she jerked them to a halt, then cut the engines. The craft settled with a bump on the icy cave floor.
"Sorry about that landing," Selphie apologized again. "I'm out of practice with these things."
"We're alive?" Zell opened his eyes. "We're alive!" he cried triumphantly, pumping his fists in the air. He eagerly unbuckled himself and sprang from his chair, heading for the hatch, only to be brought up short by Rinoa's pale face. "Rinoa? You okay?"
Selphie was at her side in an instant, helping undo her straps. "Did you bang your head?" she asked worriedly.
"I'm...fine." Rinoa stood shakily.
"Yeah, right." Zell looped his arm around her shoulders to stabilize her. "It's this place, isn't it. You're reacting to it."
"You shouldn't be here if it hurts you," Selphie said. "We can take care of Jezikan--"
"No." Rinoa pushed away from Zell and opened the hatch. Before stepping outside she clutched the side of the exit and willed herself steady. She wasn't dizzy, precisely, but there was a strange disorientation, as if she were seeing out of more than her own eyes, standing on more than the floor of the craft under her feet. She felt the Pandora around her, and the ice and stone spoke to her without language.
Almost unconscious she was moving, she strode out of the craft and started down the tunnel, called by the power around her resonating with the power in her blood. Only peripherally did she register Zell and Selphie hurrying to catch up, assuming protective positions on either side of her. When the corridor branched off in three directions she chose the one on the left without breaking her stride, following directions burned into her mind.
The strange, flickering brilliance which lit the crystal caverns from the inside glowed brighter as they neared the core. "Where's the monsters?" Selphie wondered. "We fought imps everywhere last time we were in here."
"I don't like this," Zell muttered, as light poured through veins of color within the ice overhead. "What are we gonna do when we find Jezikan? What if she's got protection?"
"She doesn't," Rinoa said.
"How do you know?" Zell grabbed her arm when she didn't answer, yanking her off her stride. She stumbled and tugged away, but he didn't let go. "Rinoa, what's this place doing to you?" He studied her intently. "Me and Selphie are getting worried. I mean, this is your thing as Sorceress and all, but it's definitely weirding you out."
Rinoa glared at Zell, and saw not anger but honest concern in his blue eyes, mirrored in Selphie's. She exhaled a shuddering breath, forcing aside the need pulling at her spirit. "I'm sorry. This is...it's not what I was expecting." She closed her eyes, concentrated on putting infused knowledge into words. "Jezikan is alone, in the center of the Pandora. We're almost there."
Her friends didn't question, followed her willingly down the passage. They remained silent until they crossed the crystalline bridge at the end of the tunnel, and entered the core of the Lunatic Pandora. Though they had been here before, fought here before--fought Adel, for her sake--Rinoa heard Selphie and Zell both gasp.
The chamber's translucent walls curved smoothly around them, a womb illuminated by magical energies wavering like colored flames. In the center the Crystal Pillar, the Pandora's heart, burned with pure power. Barely visible floating within that fire was a smudged shadow, a silhouette of a human form curled into fetal position.
Rinoa remembered standing here once before, Seifer shoving her toward that fiery heart, that glorious prison from which the Sorceress Adel reached for her. She could clearly recall every line of the evil ecstasy in the Sorceress's face, but the memory brought none of the terror she had felt then. Without a twinge of fear, she laid her hands on the glowing pillar.
Under her touch, the crystal pulsed like a living animal. The silhouette within shifted, uncoiled, then moved forward, not with its limbs but as if propelled by a force from behind, pushing toward Rinoa. Its arms and legs were spread like a star's points, its back arched and head thrown back.
"Rinoa!" Selphie whispered anxiously. Zell, not quite panicking, pulled Rinoa back. She retreated without protest, and grouped tightly together by the entrance the three of them watched as the figure was pressed against the inner wall of the pillar, flexible translucency distending over the human form.
Then it broke. The freed figure collapsed to the shimmering floor on hands and knees. Trembling with effort, it pushed itself up, sitting with its back to the now-solid crystal.
Rinoa felt the shock of recognition arc through her friends, though they must have guessed. Rinoa herself had known with certainty who it was, but even she was momentarily struck mute by the sight.
The lady's garments were as rich as ever, the lace trim and expensive silk of the loose blouse and pants untouched. But her body... All hair had been burned away, auburn locks, brows, even her lashes, and her bare scalp was streaked with vivid scarlet scorching. Her skin was shiny, like newly-cast plastic, pulled so tightly over the skull it seemed as though the cheekbones would pierce the taut membrane. Were it not for her eyes, glittering feverishly but still a striking indigo, she would not be recognizable. She was no longer a woman, was not even human; she was like a caricature of a living being.
Around her scarred neck, a small pendant flashed green, throbbing like a heartbeat. Her head slowly swiveled toward them, twisting independently of her torso. The delirious eyes met theirs; the cracked lips contorted in a paroxysm of a smile.
"Jezikan Deling," Rinoa breathed. "What have you done? What have you done!!" She was screaming. She was enraged, strangely not by what Jezikan threatened with the Pandora, nor what she had inflicted on Squall, but fury that anyone would do such a thing as this, that someone would willingly become this travesty of life, for any reason.
And only for power...
The disfigured mouth opened, spoke in an unvoiced hiss. "Sorceresssss...." Her mad stare lit on Rinoa, and the creature began to choke, throat working in labored wheezes. Jezikan was laughing. "It falls! You feel it. It fallsssss..."
The Lunar Cry. And she could feel it. Standing here in the heart of the Pandora, she sensed the pull its power exerted on her increased a hundred-fold for the magic monsters of the moon. They could no more resist it than a fallen stone could contest gravity. Jezikan was barely alive, but the call was already initiated. Her death would stop nothing. Once begun, the Lunar Cry would come to the Pandora. Nowhere in the world would be safe from that summons.
And Rinoa understood what was necessary, as she had known from her first sight of the Lunatic Pandora over Fisherman's Horizon.
She ignored the crumpled remains of the woman before them, turned to her friends. "Selphie. Zell."
They looked to her immediately, their eyes hopeful, faces frightened but resolute. She put a hand on each of their shoulders. "You have to leave. Now. Go back to Balamb Garden."
"Rinoa--" they both demanded at once.
She cut them off. "Selphie, fly carefully. The winds will be worse, but I'll give you as much time to get away as I can. You have to make it."
"Stop it, Rinoa, you're coming with us," Zell said, desperately. "Come on, we gotta move it--"
"I'm not going." Rinoa shook her head. " I'm the Sorceress."
"This isn't your responsibility!" Zell shouted. "It's not your fault, it's hers!" He gestured vehemently to Jezikan. "We're gonna get out of here, and find a way to stop the Pandora, all of us. Like we did before!"
"This is a way. The only way."
Selphie had her hand to her mouth, her eyes bright with water. "It's your worst plan," she said softly. "All your others were a lot better, Rinoa."
Rinoa tried to smile, and found to her surprise that she could. "Yes, but this one will actually work."
"What about Squall?" demanded Zell. "What are we gonna tell him when he wakes up?"
His fists were clenched, but before he could draw back Rinoa put her arms around him, pressing her face to his shoulder. "You have to tell him," she whispered, holding on tightly. "Tell him I'm sorry. Please, Zell."
She felt him shudder. Then he muttered, hoarsely, "Okay," and wrapped his arms around her, squeezed once with all his formidable strength before letting go.
When he released her, she rose onto her toes to kiss his forehead. "Thank you."
Zell twisted away, his head down. Rinoa took Selphie's hands. "Selphie, fly well. Don't--"
"We'll be fine," Selphie said. "Promise. SeeD's honor." Not waiting, she flung her arms around Rinoa, and murmured in her ear, "But you be careful, too. For Squall and all of us. Promise?"
Rinoa hugged her back, promising, "I'll try my best." She lowered her voice. "And, Selphie, tell Irvine this was the best time on the merry-go-round I've ever had."
Still facing her friends, she stepped back, away from them, toward the center of the room. "Hurry," she said. Then, "Goodbye." And turning around, she walked toward the Crystal Pillar.
Behind her she listened to their footsteps leave the chamber and cross the bridge. Not daring to look back, she kept moving her legs forward until she reached the pillar.
Jezikan canted her head back to watch, her neck arched at an impossibly angle. White teeth glittered between her shredded lips. "You...can't...none...can...ssstop..."
"I have to try," Rinoa answered. She reached down, dared touch the broken woman's shoulder. Through the fabric of her blouse her blistered flesh burned hot. The pendant's flashes were slowing, pulse becoming erratic.
"I'm sorry," the young Sorceress whispered. Then she again put her hands to the pillar. The smooth facet gave under her touch, and she allowed herself to melt into the embrace of its warm, brilliant light.
* * *
On the SeeD's orders, Ward brought Odine to Balamb Garden. He was accompanied by Quistis and Irvine, bearing the comatose Lord Dahl. Dr. Kodowaki supervised his placement on an available bed. From what the others said, the lord might never rise from it. Kiros wouldn't shed any tears over Dahl's fate, but the pale man's catalepsy too closely resembled that of Laguna and his son. Ellone moved a little, mouth opening as if she were trying to speak. But Squall and Laguna were still as death. And that observation was eating away at the spirits of their friends, taking a bigger toll than the looming threat of the Pandora.
The SeeD were incredible, he had to admit. Especially considering their youth. Kiros knew he himself hadn't been that mature when he was twice their age; he easily forgot he was old enough to be their father when he worked with them. At nineteen, Quistis Trepe kept her head in a crisis better than anyone he had ever met. Now she was on Dr. Kodowaki's 'com, calmly ordering the SeeD of the Garden to prepare for the evacuation of FH, her sharply beautiful face composed as she read off squadron assignments.
Then, pausing between commands, she glanced over to Squall's bed and bit her bottom lip, and looked just like a child in need of a cuddle, except for the too-adult heartbreak in her crystal blue eyes.
Kiros wanted to give her some comforting word, but there wasn't time, and he had none as it were. He settled instead for continuing with his interrogation, trying to glean whatever helpful information he could from their prisoner.
He wished he still had his katal. It had been years since he had wielded them; the arts of war were unbecoming to an Esthar minister. But he desperately wanted his old blades now, to have a go at carving that ingenuous obstinacy off Dr. Odine's squat face.
"I can do nothing!" the doctor insisted.
Which was so ironic he nearly choked. "What about all this?" Kiros waved toward Laguna and Squall and Ellone, to Lord Dahl comatose on the other bed, then widened his gesture to encompass the Lunatic Pandora outside. "You created Dahl, you brought the Pandora here--how could one man do so much evil?"
Odine blinked at him. "Much evil, you say? What do I care of evil, or good for that matter? Zis is science!"
"Wrong--science is putting knowledge to the test. This is just going to be disaster, if you don't figure out how to use what you know. How can we stop the Pandora?--what the hell?" Breaking off his question, Kiros grabbed for the nearby bedframe as the Garden rocked under his feet, bucking like a recalcitrant horse.
He heard Dr. Kodowaki exclaim as a couple loose bottles slid from her desk to shatter on the floor, and Quistis shout a query at the bridge. The quaking ceased as suddenly as it began, and in the subsequent silence he made out Nida's response. "We're not taking off--a deep-sea tsunami just hit us."
"From where?" Quistis demanded.
There was a short pause. "The Lunatic Pandora, apparently," the pilot finally answered. "It's rising."
Kiros's gaze went automatically to the window, and saw the Pandora, its luminance beginning to be washed out by the coming dawn, still hovering over the sea. "It doesn't seem to be moving."
"Slow acceleration," Quistis said. "It's so big you can't tell until it's really speeding. Nida, where's it going?"
"No clue on its trajectory yet," the pilot reported. "I'll keep you informed."
"Wonder if Esthar's noticed this yet," Kiros said. "What could've fired it up now?"
Quistis sat down, so abruptly Kiros went to her side in concern, leaving Odine gaping at the Pandora out the window. He laid a hand on her shoulder, asked, "What's wrong?" and grimaced as he did so at the absurd inadequacy of the question.
Quistis wisely didn't give any of the dozen appropriate answers, instead leaned forward and grabbed for the 'com again. "Selphie, Zell, come in. Are you there? Selphie--" Her voice was still level, but he could feel her trembling under his hand.
The 'com crackled to life. "We're here," Selphie replied, so subdued Kiros was hard-pressed to identify her voice. "We're on our way back to the Garden, Zell and me. But Rinoa--Quistis, Rinoa's still on the Pandora."
Quistis jerked. "Did she--is she doing what we considered before?"
"She's trying," Selphie said. "She thought she had to--we tried to stop her, Quistis, we tried, but--"
The 'com chimed as someone else broke into the conversation. "Quistis," Nida asked, "Esthar's on the radio, looking for Laguna or Kiros--"
"I'll take it," Kiros said, quickly entering his code.
"Minister Seagul," the caller said, and Kiros recognized one of their chief scientists, though his usually stodgy voice was peevish with stress, "can you possibly tell us what's happening there on site? We've just picked up an impressive energy spike from the Lunatic Pandora, and if our preliminary observations are correct, the lunar entities are responding to it as well, though it is too early to--"
He had had entirely too much of scientists lately. "I'll let you know soon as I figure it out myself," Kiros said, and cut the connection. More gently he addressed Quistis. "So what is going on?"
Quistis's cheeks were pale enough to make her golden hair look brunette. "We discussed it before," she said. "When we were debating whether to sink the Pandora, or try to destroy it, or do something else. There was another solution, but Squall--we couldn't risk it. Rinoa..." She swallowed, looked up and met his eyes resolutely, nerving herself. "Rinoa's merged with the Pandora, as a Sorceress can, to control it."
"To do what? Where's she going with it?"
Her gaze was intent on his, unyielding enough to make him flinch. "She's stopping the Lunar Cry--she's taking the Pandora to the only place that's safe for this world."
* * *
He had been walking for hours, figuratively at any rate, yet he was no closer to the horizon, nor, he guessed, to his goal. Laguna stopped to take his bearings, wiped his hand across his brow and gave the matter some serious thought.
He was neither hot nor tired. This desert was like nothing he had encountered during his adventures in the name of journalism. When he looked behind him, there were no landmarks on the stony, barren vista by which he could gauge his progress. Had he made any? This was not a physical journey, after all, but a mental representation. All symbolic.
He'd never cared much for symbolism. Actively existing among them now made his head hurt. Were these his symbols, or Squall's? If this was Squall's conception--only logical since it was his mind, after all--was Squall deliberately keeping a distance between them? Or was he completely unaware of Laguna's presence, lost in his own thoughts. Quite literally.
But he had left a trail, the tracks in the sand he had been following. Therefore Squall could be found, must want to be found, on some level. If Laguna could make himself known...
"Squall!" he shouted at the top of his metaphorical lungs. "Don't move! I'm looking for you! Stay where you are!" One of the most basic search and rescue procedures: when lost, stay put, so others can locate you. It had saved him on several occasions. If it worked in his beliefs, it should work here.
But his call disturbed some balance in the dreamscape. A wind began to blow, stirring and scattering the gray sand. The tracks were shifted, covered by whirls of dust. Laguna swore and began to run along what remained of the trail before its last traces were buried. He put his head down to shield his eyes from the flying sand--
And almost rammed head-first into a boulder. Raising his arms just in time to catch himself, he stopped and looked around. The desert was gone. In its place rose a rocky panorama equally as forbidding. He stood on a ledge near the pinnacle of a craggy mountain, as devoid of life as the desert, but at least the granite formations gave the place some character. This might have been a reality, a place in the true world, rather than a featureless fiction.
And he was not alone. Mere paces away another stood, facing away from him, overlooking the spreading mountain range.
Laguna cleared his throat. "Hello--"
The figure spun around. Slate gray eyes met his, and the smooth high brow furrowed, confounded. "Laguna?"
Laguna smiled, resisting the urge to throw his arms around the young man. "Squall."