Disclaimer: This is rated R for a reason. Yeah, okay, like you can't read. I'm telling you again. There's R and then there's R. I'd say this is R. There's nothing too graphically violent in here, nothing pornographic, and this sure as hell isn't a lemon. And it could very well be at this point that I don't have a good perspective on just how graphic this might be. But I meant to horrify, and successful or not, this is as graphic as I get. This is rated R for damn near everything in the book: violence, language, sexual content, and a good old dose of plain ol' dark and disturbing themes. If you don't like that stuff, you may want to stay away. Otherwise, have fun, and I hope I manage to give you a scare or two.
I see you.
The gaze pierces her, pinning her in place, caressing her in a way that is somehow both clinical and obscene. Beneath that gaze she is naked in flesh and in soul.
naked, nowhere to hide nowhere to run nowhere nowhere nowhere legs so watery with fear and something else something worse something nasty but good
too good it shouldn't be so good
beneath her the metal floor is so cold it burns and around her she can hear their voices chanting but that no longer matters because the light is shining on her the LIGHT and it's so bright brighter than anything white as snow pure as snow white hot burning burning, burning her away
I see what you are.
it won't stop looking it won't stop God why won't it stop no no not that not no no please it can't look there it can't how can it no no no no-
I see what you do.
the gaze peels away her defenses roughly and her mind fills with boiling hot mercury and she sees it too, the man that tried to scream after she punched him in the throat but could not gasping rasping the blood that splattered from the other one she cut down hot on her skin the crimson sliding down her body over her legs between her toes in the shower swirling down the drain down down and down and down and
down into the ground wet earth filled with the bodies that she put there dozens scores hundreds all by her all her work beautiful work isn't it artistry in death what do their eyes see there in the ground, wormeaten and dirt-covered and shriveled can they see beyond could they even begin to imagine this could anyone
did you like it did it feel good it did feel good didn't it doesn't it feel good to be alive she can't lie it can see it knows what she is it can see everything she is it knows what's deep down inside deep deep where they can't see and she can't see but sometimes she can feel it and it feels wonderful better than anything and she lies and says it doesn't but it does, it does when you embrace what you truly are
but that thought is gone and her eyes are burning and crackling, red seeping across her vision
I see what you want.
and she thinks of hurting him, breaking his neck with a sharp sweet crack like a woodknot snapping in the fire biting him drinking his blood but it doesn't matter he doesn't matter he never mattered not ever and somewhere in her childhood she laughs cruelly at a bird with a broken wing, thrashing comically on the ground in a herky-jerky circle and somewhere she kills a man begging for mercy and somewhere she fucks the man she thinks she loves with blood still dark and crusted under her fingernails and the room stinks of copper and sex and sin and she is foul she is human she is nothing and everything she believed in is nothing and love is nothing and life is nothing and the universe is nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing NOTHING
Her hands rake down her face, short fingernails tearing through flesh and leaving weeping red furrows in their wake. She is crying, sobbing brokenly in nonsense sounds as the light grows and surrounds and engulfs her, expands to fill her entire frame of vision. She is breaking down before that gaze, shriven to the core by its breadth, its depth, older than the seas and stone, older than time, older than reality.
I see everything.
As tears spill from her eyes in ecstatic torment, she feels the truth coming on strong now, so fast she can't keep it away any longer, a thundering unstoppable battering ram where before it was only a whispy caress. She knows that she is teetering on the precipice and the worst part is that most of her does not care because after what she has seen she knows
that the gaze is everything it's all that matters it's all that can be accepted there is nothing else nothing else and giving in will be sweet and good and even though part of her still thinks of running her blood-slick hands are busy between her legs and she can feel the pleasure spiking, building yes yesyesyesyes
I see you.
Her next scream, sweetest pain and pleasure intermingled, takes the last shreds of her sanity with it.
a Final Fantasy VIII fanfic
The most merciful thing in the world . . . is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.
-H. P. Lovecraft
"...I don't want to go among mad people,"Alice remarked.
"Oh, you can't help that," said the Cat. "We're all mad here, I'm mad. You're mad."
"How do you know I'm mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat,"or you wouldn't have come here."
Quistis Trepe stood in the center of Balamb Garden's communication center, struggling to stifle a yawn. Her eyes, still bleary from sleep, drifted over the diverse array of monitors, viewscreens, and digital readouts that surrounded the perimeter of the circular chamber. Young techs, apparently accustomed to working this hellish graveyard shift, typed in industrious silence at their workstations, the light from their viewscreens painting their faces in pale electronic hues. They seemed almost part of the machines with which they worked, uniforms crisp and sharp, movements sure and alert. They didn't even bother to acknowledge the presence of the SeeDs standing among them.
Xu, too, looked SeeD-yearbook fresh, but Irvine and Zell looked as bedraggled and sleep-deprived as Quistis felt. In Zell's case, that was quite a surprise - somewhere in the back of her mind, she had been convinced that Zell never slept, but instead stood in a corner somewhere all night plugged in to an electrical socket, dancing in place as he recharged. The mental image caused a half smile to creep onto her face, but worry quickly pushed it away. What could be so wrong that Squall had gotten them out of bed at this hour to deal with it?
"So, what do you guys think is up?" Irvine asked, his eyebrows drawn together in a look of worried consternation. In the sparse light provided by the communication center's consoles and viewscreens, even his sun-darkened skin looked pale. "Squall needs us to sing him a lullaby, maybe?"
He tried to sound upbeat, but Quistis could see the lines of worry around his eyes, and she remembered -as well as anyone who regularly used a GF could remember- that even at the orphanage Irvine had always been the most sensitive, deep down. Zell had cried the most, but Irvine had taken things seriously for his age even then. She could remember, just barely, just enough that she knew it wasn't false, the time Irvine had asked her if the story was true and the sky really was going to fall on them all. She wished she could tell him there was nothing to worry about now as she had then, but she wasn't so sure herself.
There you go again, she chided herself. Trying to mother them all.
"I dunno." Zell yawned, stretched his arms above his head, and began to jump from foot to foot in an attempt to wake himself up. "But I was havin' a great dream! See, I was in Goodbye Pupurun, and I was running through the forest-"
"Squall will give us our orders," Xu said, her clipped tone slicing across Zell's babbling with scalpel precision. "Until then, discussing them is pointless."
Zell brought a hand up to scratch his nose and made a face at Xu behind it, forcing Quistis to stifle a giggle despite herself. Xu was a good friend, but her adherence to Garden discipline certainly bordered on absurd from time to time.
The door at the opposite end of the room hissed open and Squall walked into the chamber. He looked shrunken somehow, his shoulders sagging ever so slightly, his face thin and drawn, his eyes red and lined. He seemed to have aged years in the few months since he'd taken over the role of Garden Commander, and Quistis worried that this job was killing him, sapping his life away like a fatal illness. The image of him as she had always wanted him to be stole into her mind despite her best efforts - Squall, so serious, so strong and brave, holding her close, wanting, needing her like she needed him. It was impossible to reconcile that image of quiet strength with the deteriorating man standing before her, and that realization came with a sudden icepick stab in her heart.
You shouldn't feel like that, she told herself, angry at any sign of weakness, however private. He's not yours to worry about and he never was, and pretending differently will only hurt you more. It's not like you need him, anyway.
Squall made his way across the room, looking towards them but not at them. His eyes seemed instead to focus on a point in space above their heads, and Quistis realized with a prickle of gooseflesh that he was dreading the coming briefing.
Squall halted a few feet in front of them and pressed a number of buttons on a nearby console, bringing a viewscreen to glowing life. In seconds, he keyed in access codes and called up an enlarged photo of the southern hemisphere that had been taken from orbit.
"This image was taken eight hours ago by G-Sat 4 as it moved over Centra." His voice was even, mechanical. Too controlled. He pressed another button, and a glowing dot appeared off the coast of the continent onscreen. "This was the position of Trabia Garden at 1400 hours. Their mission log reports that they were engaging in underwater salvage. However, something seems to have gone wrong."
Trabia, Quistis thought, and her heart gave a painful lurch. Selphie. She remembered the last time she had seen the girl, blowing kisses to Irvine as she boarded the transport, one of his hats perched on her head at a crazy angle, her face lit up by a radiant smile. With effort, Quistis restrained the impulse to look at Irvine. He would be worried enough without everyone in the room giving him sidelong glances.
"This image was taken at 1800 hours." The dot moved a few pixels to the southwest. "This is a time lapse of the movement of Trabia over that period of time." Onscreen, the dot wove erratically, traveling towards its endpoint along a looping, twisting path. "The Garden is drifting."
"Drifting?" Irvine's voice came from behind her left shoulder. Quistis kept her eyes focused on Squall, afraid of what she'd see if she looked at the sniper. "Drifting?"
"Is the sky gonna fall?"
"Drifting," Squall repeated, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. As if Irvine wasn't going out of his mind with worry. "There's no one at the helm. In addition, approximately three hours ago Balamb Garden received an automated distress signal from Trabia that lasted for twelve seconds before being terminated. It was not repeated. All attempts to hail Trabia since have failed."
"What are you saying?" Irvine asked again, his voice growing frantic. "Are you saying something's happened to them? To Selphie?"
"I'm saying that something has happened, period," Squall said, finally turning to face them. The light from the viewscreen transformed his face into a landscape of light and shadow, and as she looked into the dark depressions around his eyes, Quistis again realized how weary he looked. How drained. "I'm saying we have no idea what that something is. And I'm saying that you four are going to find out."
"Just the four of us?" Zell piped up. "I mean, if something -" He stopped himself. "If something, uh, disabled all of Trabia Garden, how are we supposed to deal with it? For all you can tell us the entire freakin' Galbadian Army could be lying in wait!"
"Unlikely," Xu said. "You can see for yourself that the Garden is the only thing showing up on the G-Sat view. There would have been aircraft, ships, something."
"It's a moot point," Squall said. "I don't expect you to deal with anything. If something or someone did take the Garden, then the four of you won't be able to handle it alone. But Garden can't afford to risk our entire force by throwing them blindly into this situation. Of all the SeeDs we have here currently, you four are the best qualified to investigate this, and that's just what I expect you to do. Get in, look around, and if things start to look bad, get out. The four of you aren't out to fight a war. This is strictly a fact finding mission."
"Fact finding?" Irvine laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. "Maybe that's all it is to you, Squall, but some of us care about the people in that Garden. Some of us are willing to go out and risk our lives while certain other someones sit around and give orders-"
"That's not fair and you know it," Quistis said, surprised at the strength in her voice. "Squall's the Garden Commander. His place is here. That doesn't mean he's any less worried than the rest of us-"
"That's enough from both of you," Squall said, and the flash of pain she felt at the reprimand angered her. Stop chasing after his approval like a dog. You're better than that. "Think I'm a jerk or a coward if it makes you feel any better. I don't care as long as you do your job. You've been given your orders. Xu will be in command. A transport is already prepped and waiting in the hangar."
Without another word, he turned and walked away, never stopping to look back. To everyone else, Quistis knew he must look uncaring, nonchalant. But she had known him, watched him, from the time they were children to the present day. She could read his emotions as surely as a blind woman could feel out words and images from dots on a page, could tell by the way he walked, by the way he held his head, by the stiffness in his arms, that he did care. That what Irvine had said had hurt him, that he wanted nothing more than to strap on his gunblade and come with them, title and regulations be damned. That however much he wanted it, he would never allow himself to do so, because he was just that stubborn.
Does Rinoa see the things I see about you? Quistis wondered. Does she even try?
"All right," Xu said, stepping in front of the other three and putting her hands on her hips as the door hissed shut behind Squall. "Time is of the essence. I'll expect everyone to be at the transport in ten minutes. Now move out!"
Zell pulled another face as they turned to go, but she could see now that his heart wasn't in it. He was as worried about Trabia and Selphie as she was. Irvine looked and sounded even worse - forehead streaked with sweat, hands working nervously in the pockets of his duster. Perhaps it would be best for all of them if he sat this one out, but even as the thought occurred to her she knew she would never suggest it to Xu. Irvine had the largest stake in this of any of them, and to deny him the opportunity to check on Selphie himself seemed the worst kind of cruelty. Still, Quistis made a mental note to keep an eye on him, just in case.
The door to the chamber hissed open. At this time of night the halls of B-Garden yawned broad and empty. Most of the students would be in their beds asleep, or maybe in the training center doing anything but sleeping. Quistis would've taken either alternative over the mission ahead, even if it would mean fending off the clumsy pawing of the most annoying of the Trepies. She had a bad feeling about all this.
It doesn't matter, she told herself. Look at what happened the last time you acted on your feelings. Be logical. There's no need to worry until you know something for sure.
"It's probably nothing," she said, forcing a smile. She knew it probably wouldn't help, but couldn't stop herself from making the effort. "You know how computers can be. Maybe the whole thing just glitched up or something."
"I'm sure it's nothing," Zell said, picking up on what she was trying to do. "I mean, Selphie can take care of herself, and there are hundreds of students just like her there, so I'm sure it's fine."
"No there aren't," Irvine said, his voice nearly inaudible.
"There aren't?" Zell asked. He rubbed the back of his head, the way he always did when he was confused and too embarrassed to admit it.
"No." Irvine kept his gaze locked on the floor, as if he were ashamed to let them see him like this.
"There's no one else like her."
The moon hung low in the sky like a pale, bloated egg, casting a sickly pall over the churning water below the transport. As Xu guided the bulky aircraft towards Trabia's last known location, the face of old Hyne glared out from the moon's surface, filling the upper half of the viewport. Rusty splotches formed his heavy brow, his thin streamlined nose, his leering grin. Xu looked up from the controls into that distant face and was filled with a sudden and irrational fear that they were flying right for the maw of the beast, that Hyne was going to open his great bloody mouth and eat them.
That's foolish, she thought, angrily brushing an errant strand of hair off her forehead. The situation is bad enough without you acting like a scared little girl. You've been to the Esthar observatories. You know what causes those patterns.
The dark red patches on the moon were where the creatures called by the Lunar Cry gathered most thickly, for whatever strange reasons they had - to mate or feed or prepare themselves for the journey across space. Of course, knowing the truth was hardly comforting. It only meant that millions of monsters seethed where before she had seen only one.
And wasn't that just the situation? The mystery of what had happened to Trabia was only part of the problem. There was also the question of why, and what might have happened elsewhere. In her mind, a thousand possibilities and fears warred for supremacy. It could be nothing but a decoy to draw out B-Garden, or an attempted coup by the Trabia command, or a test for a new viral weapon or...
The end result was that danger and potential death lay in all directions. And on top of it all, I'm stuck with this team.
It wasn't that she doubted the bravery or the raw talent of the other SeeDs with her - the SeeDs that had, after all, saved the world. She had seen their files and knew that Kinneas was the best shot the Garden had ever seen, that Dincht's reflexes and reaction time bordered on the superhuman even without the aid of Junctioning, that Quistis was excellent at assuming a primary or secondary leadership role over small units. The problem was, her high-ranking position at the Garden had exposed her to deeper files, files that couldn't be accessed by global media outlets - thin, black folders that nestled in the deepest regions of B-Garden and were full of equally dark secrets. She had seen too much. Dincht was overly sentimental, impulsive, a terrible leader. Kinneas tended to bend or outright break under pressure. And Quistis...
Well, Quistis she wanted to trust. They had been friends and colleagues for a long time. But there was her dismissal from her instructor's position, black marks on her record. And if she was so good, why hadn't she been placed in command? Xu had a year of seniority on her, but after the events of the Sorceress War Quistis had as much if not more battlefield experience. Their Garden rank was nearly equal, so why not go with Quistis? Was there something wrong with her?
"We're almost there," Quistis said from the copilot's chair. "I'll go back and get the others." She stood up and brushed past Xu in a rustle of clothing. The pneumatic door at the back of the cabin sighed open and then closed again behind her.
Xu kept her eyes focused on her instruments, no longer wishing to look into the leering face of the moon. Trabia Garden was only a few miles ahead, and though they had entered radio range some time ago, there had been no attempt from the Garden to communicate with them. That could mean one of two things: either no one was monitoring the communication equipment or the silence was deliberate. Xu licked her lips, trying not to think of how the transport was already well within range of Garden's long distance missile launchers. But then, did it really matter? Trap or no, there could be no turning back. For better or for worse, their orders were to find out what had happened here, and she hadn't become first Cid's assistant and then Squall's by backing down.
Xu adjusted the controls and brought the transport in low over the water so that the backwash from its engines cut a wide swath through the waves below. At least if it came down to a firefight, whoever was manning Trabia's guns would have to work a little to angle in the shot.
Then she looked up and the form of Trabia came into view on the horizon. The Garden bobbed on the waves, silhouetted against the moon, all sweeping prow and delicate spires and smooth curves, its surface studded with tiny dots of red light.
Ghostlights, she thought in a panicked rush, despite the fact that she knew, knew the bright pinpricks were only Garden's external running lights. Like the unblinking eyes of the dead. The Garden looked like something out of a fairytale, but not one any child would ever want to hear. To her eyes it seemed a great floating castle, its surface soot black, its spires sharp and threatening, its curving, streamlined body bloated with hidden corruption. Within she could imagine dark passages slick with blood, the coppery stench of death, wails of torment and madness.
"Doesn't look like anything's wrong," Dincht said from immediately behind her.
Only years of training kept her from jumping right out of her skin. Instead, she forced herself to keep her voice steady. "The scans read clean. No radiation or obvious chemical agents detected."
Enough, damn it. She had been so focused on her morbid fantasy that she hadn't even heard the door behind her open or the other three SeeDs enter. If they were Galbadians, you'd be dead now. Dead with the foolish thoughts of a child still rattling around in your head.
"And there's not even any visible damage," Quistis said, extending her arm over Xu's shoulder to point at the growing form of the Garden before them. "The place looks as new as it did during the opening ceremonies. Even the lights are working. It's like someone just fell asleep at the wheel."
"Yeah," Dincht said, his voice tinged with uncertainty. "Asleep. Could be, right?"
Xu's first impulse was to tell him that was the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard, but she realized that he was doing it for Kinneas's sake more than anything else. The sharpshooter had looked so bad after receiving the news that she would have asked Squall to remove him from the mission if she hadn't known that the young Garden Commander never reversed his decisions. He had to know that Kinneas was a possible liability to the mission as well as she did, but as he had said, there was no one else. Still, she feared that if they stumbled across the corpse of his little girlfriend in here or even talked about the possibility seriously, Kinneas was going to crack. If whatever drivel Dincht spouted helped keep him going, she wasn't going to tell him to stop.
Besides, as ludicrous as his suggestion was, it was far, far better than the bloody possibilities spinning around in her own head. Part of her only wished she could believe it.
"That's enough, Zell." Irvine said. He sounded angry, but at least it seemed to give him some strength. "I know what this might mean. There's no need for you and Quisty to keep dancing around it like this. I'm not an idiot and I'm not a child."
You're just acting like both, Xu thought. Some part of her knew she wasn't being entirely fair, but if there was anything she despised, it was unprofessionalism.
"I'll take us into the portside hangar bay," she said in a tone that brooked no argument. "Everyone shut up and strap in. It may be a bumpy ride."
Xu guided the blocky transport up and towards the Garden, activating the VTOL engines as she cut power to primary propulsion. The craft would be far easier to hit while it was hovering, but no one had fired on them yet, and if she went screaming into the hangar at top speed, the crash would probably kill them all anyway.
With slight adjustments to the controls, she sent the ship skimming over the Garden. At this distance, the glossy surface was not black but a phosphorescent emerald, catching the moonlight in its translucent surface and holding it fast. It was just an effect of the laser reflective polymer coating, but Xu thought of a ghostly galleon drifting across a midnight sea, glowing with otherworldly light.
That's it. I'm asking for a few weeks off after this mission is over. A little paranoia was healthy in a soldier, but if her superiors knew the thoughts running through her head they would dismiss her from SeeD immediately. She was jumping at shadows, acting like a scared little girl.
Then the hangar bay yawned wide before them and there was no more time to think of anything but landing. She guided the ship in with frugal bursts of the craft's jets and set it down with only a slight jolt. A flick of a switch killed the main engines and she was already out of her harness and on her feet before they fell silent.
"We're sitting ducks in here," she said. "Everyone out."
Yet once they had disembarked and done a quick perimeter sweep, it became obvious that there was no immediate danger at all. Not only was the hangar empty, it appeared as pristine as any place with regular vehicle maintenance could. There were no signs of forced entry or struggle, no bodies, not even any craft not registered to Garden.
"I don't get it," Dincht said, scratching his chin. He sat on the stabilizer wing of a G-17 jet fighter, dangling his legs in midair like a child in a high chair. "This place looks better than the hangar at Balamb. The Garden seems fine. It's like everyone just went off on vacation or something."
Quistis leaned against the tail of the fighter, her arms crossed, a small frown marring her beauty. Xu had seen that look on her face a hundred times before, usually during difficult SeeD planning sessions while she huddled over a map of the target area and plotted how best to achieve objectives. Quistis was thinking, working the puzzle over in her mind, and she was coming up with nothing.
"I've had enough of this." Kinneas paced incessantly, his heavy footfalls ringing on the metal plating of the floor. "We've wasted way too much time here and found nothing. We've asked ourselves what could be going on a hundred times, and admitted we don't know just as many. Are you all forgetting that there are people in there? People who might need our help while you sit around joking about vacations and falling asleep at the wheel?"
Kinneas walked over to the hangar's interior door, resting the stock of his gun on his shoulder as he tapped at the keypad with his free hand. He didn't turn around, but he kept speaking.
"Sef- Selphie is in there, and I didn't come on this mission to stand around debating things when she might need me. I'm going in. The only question is whether the rest of you care enough about your friends to come with me."
Xu found herself wondering just how such a petulant man had managed to help stop Time Compression and kill the most powerful sorceress the world had ever known. She wanted to call him the fool he was and banish him to the transport for the duration of the mission, but the others were already moving towards him, Dincht protesting that he did care and Quistis laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. They were as eager to check on their friend as the sharpshooter was, if a little less vocal and a lot more disciplined.
Still, though his reasoning was misguided, he had a point. They were never going to get to the bottom of this if they didn't actually enter the Garden. She would have preferred to do so with two of them on each side of the door as it opened, prepared for whatever might be waiting on the other side. But Kinneas had already keyed in the access code and the door was already hissing up into the ceiling. She only hoped that if the entire Galbadian army was lurking in the hallway to ambush them, they'd have the courtesy to shoot him first.
Xu reached beneath her skirt and drew her snub-nosed pistol from her leg holster, then moved to join the team at the door. The long hall beyond stretched empty and immaculate. Nothing stirred. There was no sound save the mild whirr of Garden's air scrubbers and the beating of her own heart.
"All right," she said, glaring at Kinneas as she did so. He had gotten them out of the room, but he wasn't calling the shots now. Just because she agreed with his decision didn't mean she approved his violation of protocol, and he was sure as hell getting written up for it when they got back. "We'll form into two teams. Kinneas, you're with me. Quistis and Dincht are team two. Kinneas and I will go up to the Command Center and attempt to find out just what the hell is going on here. Team two, I want you to head across to the starboard hangar bay and make sure it's secure. If anything's in there that isn't supposed to be, I want to know. After you're finished there, join us in the command center and we'll decide on our next move. Watch yourselves, and stay in radio contact at all times. Understood?"
Dincht and Quistis nodded their assent and headed off down the curving hall. Kinneas made a grand show of leaning against the wall and giving her an insolent look from beneath the brim of his hat, his eyes full of poison.
"Listen, Kinneas," she told him, balling her free hand into a fist. "I don't care what Squall said, another outburst like the one you just had and you can stay in the transport like the spoiled brat you are. I'm calling the shots here."
"I know why Squall picked you to be the mission leader," Kinneas said. He smiled, but it was an ugly thing, the grin of a cornered rat preparing to bite. "Because you don't care about anyone or anything but getting the job done. Anyone else might be looking for the people who are supposed to be here now, jeopardizing the mission, but not you, huh? You just don't care."
It wasn't that she didn't care, not really, but there were some things no true SeeD could afford to do, and giving in to sentimentality during a mission was one of them. Garden was supposed to grind that out of you, but it had apparently failed to do so here. There was a prickle of warning in her mind and she thought briefly of Winhill, of his body, of her own frantic screams-
That doesn't matter. She pushed the thoughts away, locked them down.
"That's right," she said, putting on a grin to match his own. "And that's why I'm in command and you're taking orders. Now why don't you follow along like a good little boy so we can get this over with as soon as possible?"
Xu walked past him and down the hall without stopping or turning around, knowing full well he was still leaning against the wall, glaring his hatred at her back. That was fine. He could hate her if he wanted. Everyone could hate her if they wanted. It didn't matter. She would get the job done, and that was all that counted.
She could not keep one corner of her mouth from quirking up in a geniune smile when she heard his footsteps fall in behind her, as she had known they would.
She always got the job done.
"Starboard hangar is clear," Quistis said into her handheld communicator. "Nothing's out of place. It was the same the whole way here."
Xu's voice emerged tinny and warbling from the tiny speaker. "Understood. Kinneas and I are still en route to the command center. Wrap things up there and join us ASAP."
Quistis flicked the transmitter off and tucked it into her belt before turning to Zell. "Ready?"
Zell nodded, shifting from foot to foot in an attempt to work off some of his adrenaline. The faster all this was over, the better. He was worried about Selphie and the rest of the students and he wanted to know what was wrong now.
If they'd walked into a battlefield, it would have been terrible, but at least he would know what had happened. But finding the place clean, virtually untouched, was even worse. He felt like one of those poor saps in the movies, wandering around clueless as a snarling monster stalked him, waiting for just the right moment to pounce. Good or bad, he'd never been fond of waiting for anything, and he was constantly fighting the urge to shout for whatever might be out there to just jump out, kill him, and get it over with.
"Jumpy?" Quistis asked, with a look that added, as if you were ever any other way.
"I just want to know what the hell is going on here. This is all weird. Too weird, dammit!" Zell kicked the landing strut of a nearby aircraft as hard as he could and tried to ignore the pain that exploded in his foot. He really needed to stop taking out his anger on his surroundings if they were going to take it out on him.
"I know." Quistis said. "I'm worried about Selphie and the others." Her hands fidgeted with the handle of her whip. "And us."
Zell only shrugged. He was scared too, for his friends and for some deeper reason he couldn't quite understand, but he didn't want to show it. Squall wouldn't be afraid, and even if he was he wouldn't tell. He'd want the others to be confident, ready for anything, and he wouldn't show his own doubts. He'd- well, he'd shrug. And he'd say-
"We can take care of ourselves. No sense worrying until we've seen something to worry about... I guess."
Well, he wouldn't say "I guess."
"Maybe you're right," Quistis said as they walked out of the hangar. "But I'd say this is something to worry about." She spread her arms wide to indicate the yawning mouth of the hall before them. The thin veneer of green marble covering the floor gleamed. The bright walls with their color strips were unmarred, pristine. All was bathed in soothing off-white light.
And it was all wrong.
It reminded Zell of the time that he had fallen asleep in one of the B-Garden's private study rooms and had woken up in the dead of night. He'd slipped out and started to make his way back to his room in the dormitories, walking as quietly as he could so as not to draw any of the roaming faculty to him. But somewhere in the middle of that walk, something had happened. He couldn't explain it, but a creepy, prickly sensation had started between his shoulder blades and crept all the way down his spine until he was biting back a scream of terror.
The halls of Balamb had looked the same as always, with their smooth curves, bright colors, and stark lighting, but it had suddenly felt as if he was the only living thing in the entire place. His footsteps, as quiet as he tried to make them, reverberated heavily, and in the returning echoes he heard strange sounds and voices, speaking words that he could not quite understand. Without its halls glutted with running, giggling students, without its PA system blaring obnoxious announcements, Garden was different. Sterile, lifeless, an intricately constructed tomb for legions of the dead. In his imagination he could see them, packed side by side beneath the marbled floors, embedded in the titanium walls, rotten and rotting in tattered uniforms, calling with jagged and blackened teeth for him to join them.
But I'm already one of you, something within had said, thrashing against the cage of his sanity with the panicky urgency of a trapped bird. SeeDs don't grow. They only die and rot. He had felt a scream welling up within him, and he might very well have released it if a pair of drunken students hadn't rounded the corner then, supporting one another as best they could as they stumbled along. Their presence had broken the spell of the moment, and after he returned to his bed and slept the rest of the night through, the memory of his terror was only a pale, washed-out remnant of its former self.
Now, though, he could feel that fear returning full force, and he knew that there would be nothing to force it away. This was no longer a Garden. It was a tomb. They were trespassing in the halls of the dead, and they would all suffer for their intrusion. They would join their friends in the darkness under the floors and drift on the sea for all eternity.
Man, you're freakin' out here, Zell, he thought, resisting the urge to slap himself in the face. Squall wouldn't be thinking about this, he'd be thinking about stuff that actually mattered.
"So," he said with as much false bravery as he could muster, "What's the fastest way up to the CC?"
"Down the hall, through the cafeteria to the central column, then up the elevator to the top floor. Didn't you study the schematics on the trip here?"
Quistis sounded like she was scolding a student for not doing a homework assignment, but it didn't bother Zell. He was just glad to have a friend close by right now. Hell, he'd be glad to have anyone close by. Seifer himself could stroll in, thump him on the head, and call him a chicken-wuss and he wouldn't much care. In a place as quiet as this, anyone alive was welcome company.
"Yeah, but you know me, I can never remember that stuff." He rubbed the back of his head, ruffling his hair. "Let's just get goin'."
They made their way out of the hangar and down the hall, their footsteps loud on the marbled floor, birthing echoes that rebounded off the high ceiling and made it sound as if an army was marching behind them. Even without Quistis' knowledge of Trabia's layout, the bright blue stripe running down the wall would have guided them to the cafeteria just fine. They hesitated outside the room only a moment before nodding to each other and springing within, standing back to back, their eyes darting through the room for any sign of danger.
The cafeteria was smaller than the one at Balamb but still quite large, with a curving ceiling and a wide window in the outside wall that looked out over the sea. Tables stood throughout the room, chairs pushed beneath them in disciplined rows. Metal trays rested in tidy stacks like silver towers, and the lunch counter gleamed white and spotless. Everything seemed in order.
But he felt Quistis stiffen against him, her muscles tightening in alarm. For a moment nothing happened, then she shifted, leaning her head back against his shoulder and positioning her lips near his ear. There was a brief moment where he almost smiled as he considered how much one of the Trepies would pay to be in this position, but then her whisper, barely audible even this close, turned his veins to ice.
"I smell blood."
Zell sniffed the air and found the only thing he could smell was Quistis' sudden and nervous sweat. He ignored the shaky feeling in his bowels, the sudden surge of adrenaline that shot through him, that screamed for him to get the hell out of here, and shrugged his shoulders gently as if to say, where?.
"Behind the counter." Her rapid breathing rasped in his ear, and he could feel the feverish beating of her heart. "Through the door there. Fresh, or the scrubbers would have filtered it out already."
Zell moved away from her slowly, turning to face the counter on the balls of his feet and creeping forward a few steps. He looked back at her, and they had the kind of wordless conversation that only two SeeDs could manage.
He cocked his head towards the counter and extended his hand, palm out, towards her.I'll go first. Cover me.
A worried frown crossed her face, but she gave the slightest of nods and reached forward to give his arm a squeeze. Be careful.
A quick smile. You bet.
He turned and eased over the lunch counter, slipped into a fighting stance, and slid sideways through the narrow batwing door. The room beyond was long and narrow, lined with stainless steel appliances and marbled counter tops. The place was immaculately clean, and he wondered if it had ever been used.
Then he saw the blood.
It pooled out across the floor at the far end of the room, staining the linoleum a red so dark it was almost black. He could smell it now, too, as if the very sight had sharpened his senses. The scent filled his nostrils, coppery and sharp, the stink of battle, of death. His gorge began to rise, but he clamped down on the sensation and kept moving forward, his gaze darting about the room, lingering on the knives hanging on the walls, the rack of dangling pots, the closed cupboard doors.
Just another battle, he told himself, trying not to think of rotting things beneath the floor, in the cupboards. Of thrashing in the dark and screaming with the total, all-consuming fear of a child. Just another mission. Nothing you can't handle. Keep it together. Keep it together...
A sudden surge of motion blurred in from his left, from below his line of sight, and almost before he knew the attack was coming it had struck home. A solid weight slammed full-force into his side - there was the harsh scrape of metal on metal and a high electronic scream, and then he was stumbling sideways into one of the counters, his head slamming painfully into a hanging pot and sending it clattering to the floor. Spots danced before his eyes and he felt himself blacking out.
Yet even with his head ringing from the impact, even with his body reeling off balance and almost paralyzed by the sheer suddenness of the attack, his SeeD instincts were still operating. As he threw out one arm to brace himself, his fingertips sweaty and slippery against the marble countertop, he cocked the other and lashed out with his elbow.
A grunt of pain came from his left and he pivoted to see his attacker doubling over. In that moment, his eyes opened in shock-
What the hell?
-but his trained hands were already moving, hammering into his opponent's stomach with all his might, driving them back. The figure pirouetted almost lazily as his punches struck home and then tumbled to the floor in a flailing tangle of limbs.
The door at the far end of the room swung open and he whirled towards it, raising his fists to confront the next threat. But it was only Quistis, her whip held before her, ready to be uncoiled at the flick of a wrist. His first reaction was to be mad at her for not coming sooner, but then he realized that the entire struggle couldn't have taken more than a couple of seconds. He and his attacker had both been that fast. But that didn't make any sense- how could-
"What happened?" Quistis asked, voice shaking. In all the time he'd known her, Zell had never seen her more worked up- eyes opened wide, cheeks livid and flushed, shoulders heaving up and down as she gasped for breath. This mission - this place was scaring the hell out of all of them.
Before he could answer, she looked down where the attacker lay and gasped. He looked with her, hoping that he'd imagined it the first time.
A girl of fourteen or so lay sprawled out on the linoleum at his feet. She was still wearing her light green Trabia uniform, though it was wrinkled and torn in places. Her hair was short and curly, cropped close against her head like she was one of those old black and white movie stars they showed on the late reels at the Balamb Theater. Her left boot was missing, and the stockinged foot beneath looked small and vulnerable. She looked so small, so fragile lying there, her eyes closed, her breath coming slow and deep. If not for the blood staining the corner of her mouth, she could have been a princess out of a fairy tale. Sleeping Beauty, struck down by a curse in the very act of getting dressed.
"She went nuts," Zell said. His voiced sounded strange in his own ears and his mouth felt like he'd been chewing on tacks. He couldn't look away from the girl on the floor. At least he hadn't killed her, but he very well could have; he hadn't pulled his punches at all and she almost certainly had a cracked rib or two at the least. "I thought she was tryin' to kill me, but maybe-"
"She was," Quistis said, pointing to his waist, where the cheap plastic handle of a kitchen knife jutted from the ruins of his communicator.
The tip of the weapon had bitten deep into the metal casing, and he pulled it free with difficulty, wincing as he realized the kind of damage it could have caused if she had aimed just a little higher. Then he saw the blood that stained the blade and realized that someone else hadn't been so lucky.
"It's not mine," he said, noticing the look of alarm on Quistis's face. Then he realized she wasn't looking at the knife, but at the place at the far end of the room where the blood pooled.
Quistis stepped past the body of the unconscious girl and over to the puddle, her eyes widening still further. She took one shaky breath and closed her eyes, then visibly steeled herself.
"I know," she said, somehow keeping her voice steady as she beckoned Zell over. "It's his."
The pallid, naked corpse of a student leaned against the wall, his throat opened from one end to the other in a yawning red gash. Sightless, glazed eyes stared at the ceiling, and his mouth lolled open in surprise. Zell had seen plenty of dead bodies before, but this was one of the worst. On a battlefield, you expected stuff like this. It went with the territory. But here, murder wasn't hidden behind a battle or a cause, however cheap and transparent. Here, it lay naked and bleeding beneath stark white lights, terrible in its very simplicity.
"Shit," he said, averting his eyes and throwing the knife into the corner. Something squirmed in the pit of his stomach and he felt bile burning his throat. "What- what the hell is goin' on in this place?"
You don't want to know, a slick, creeping voice whispered. Trust me, you don't want to know, because once you've seen, you can't be blind again.
"It's bad," Quistis said, her voice high and reedy. Somewhere far back in his mind, a dim memory emerged, of the orphanage buffeted by thunderstorms, of all of them piling into Matron's big bed. Quisty's voice had sounded this way during those times, but then her expression had been one of sheer terror. Now, she only looked ashamed. "Whatever it is, it's something bad. I'm afraid. I know I shouldn't be, after the things we've all been through, but I still am."
He opened his mouth then to tell her he was afraid too, to stop acting like Squall for just a minute and admit that no matter how hard he tried, he was still Zell and he still got worked up over even small things and that all he really wanted right now was his Ma. But before he could say anything, there was a scraping sound behind him and the girl dove into his legs, sending them both tumbling to the floor.
No way! he thought just before the back of his head slammed against the lineoleum with piledriver force. Stars danced before his vision and he felt one of this teeth loosen. He'd landed in the blood and could feel it in his hair, sticky and vile, but there wasn't time to think about that now - the girl was already moving, slithering up his prone form to get at him. She straddled his chest, her small hands wrapping around his neck, ragged fingernails biting into his flesh.
For a moment, Zell was too stunned to act. There was no way she should have been able to even move so soon after the blows he'd landed; he'd killed armored Galbadian soldiers with punches like those. It took the tightening of her fingers around his throat, thin but as strong as bands of iron, to pull him back to consciousness.
He hooked a left into her side with all the strength he could muster, but her grip didn't falter. The shock of the blow only forced her downward until her face hovered just above his own like some sort of grotesque mask, eyes gaping wide, mouth twisted up in a manic grin. Her eyes were blue and had probably been pretty once, but dozens of blood vessels had ruptured, turning the whites into pink pools shot through with deeper streaks of red. Her breath, stinking of madness and death, rasped out from between her clenched teeth and washed over his face.
He punched her again and again, so hard his fists sank into her sides and he felt bones shifting, but her grip didn't falter. She leaned closer, and in that instant he saw the blood at the corner of her mouth and knew that it was the dead boy's, that she had knelt on hands and knees and lapped his blood from the floor like a dog. Then her tongue emerged from behind red-stained teeth to lick his own face, smearing a slick trail of bloody saliva across his chin and lips. He recoiled, and if not for the vice grip around his windpipe, he would have released the loudest scream of his life.
Instead, it was her that screamed, a keening, shrieking noise like a bird. Quistis's whip snapped and cracked, wrapping around the girl's throat in dark coils. He couldn't see the Instructor, but he heard her grunt of effort as she tugged on the weapon, pulling his attacker back and away from him. The girl released his throat and grabbed at her own, tearing at the strangling cord, but the whip bit deep and held fast. Zell slid back and gained his feet just in time to see Quistis wrench the whip suddenly sideways. There was a sharp crack and the girl tumbled backwards, her head flopping sideways at an unnatural angle.
Neither of them said anything as she fell to the floor, twitching. Not until bloody froth emerged from her lips, her breathing stopped, and she at last lay still. Not until they were sure she was dead. A SeeD never made the same mistake twice.
"Shit," Zell said again, running the back of his hand across his face. His throat hurt like all hell, but tending to it wasn't as important as wiping away her bloody kiss.
Quistis freed her whip with an expert snap of her wrist, but she looked and sounded anything but professional as she slumped against a counter, her hair hanging in tendrils across her face, her breath coming hard and fast.
"Sorry," she said. "Had to get around behind her for a clear shot. You okay?"
"Yeah." Zell braced himself against a counter top and probed at his throat with his free hand. Her nails had broken the skin in several places and there would definitely be some bruising, but it seemed mostly okay. He'd survived worse. "Yeah, I guess. This is crazy. This is all so crazy-" He could feel something breaking up inside and he realized that he wanted to cry. But he couldn't. Not this way. Not now, when everyone was depending on him.
Quistis pulled her own communicator from her belt. "I'm going to call Xu, and then we're getting the hell out of here. Whatever's going on here, we can't face it by ourselves. The sooner we join back up with the others, the better."
Zell only nodded, still wheezing for breath through a throat that burned like fire.
"Team two reporting in," Quistis said into the device. "We've run into some problems. We were attacked, but managed to fight them off."
"Get up to the command center immediately," Xu said. "You can give your report then. I've got problems of my own and we need to pool our forces to deal with them."
"Yes," Xu said. There was a long moment of silence. "I've lost Kinneas."
Irvine wished that he hadn't had to do it. It wasn't that he had set out to disobey orders. He felt the sting of failure worse than most of them, felt the shame of fumbling during missions, felt he had something to prove. A part of him still thought back to that first mission, when Squall and the rest had all been counting on him and he'd almost let them down. Of course, it turned out to be for the best that they had failed to assassinate Matron, but that didn't erase his failure. He had still screwed up, hesitated. Another time, another place, and he might have killed them all. He didn't want that to happen again.
But this was about Selphie, and for her he'd do anything. Break any rule, piss off whoever he had to, even kill, if it came right down to it.
It hadn't. He'd tried to control himself, tried to tell himself that following Xu's orders was his job, that he had no choice and no reason to disobey her till he knew something more, but once they had reached the CC, his resolve had broken into a hundred tiny pieces. The body slumped in the corner, the old man with the gun in his mouth and his brains sprayed across the wall, was bad enough, but it was not the worst. When he saw it there, lying on the floor, something in him had just snapped. Before he knew it, his gun was leveled at Xu and he was telling her to get on the floor and freeze.
He'd seen from the look in her eyes that she wanted to kill him, that she was considering it, that if she had only been a few steps closer instead of all the way across the room, if she hadn't set her gun aside to work at one of the consoles, she would have gone for it. But he'd seen resignation there too - she was fast, but not faster than his trigger finger, and he could cut her in half before she had time to do so much as twitch. She had done as he asked, he had backed out of the room and apologized, then he had run as fast as his feet could take him. He didn't know if she bothered to give chase, but by the time he started to worry about it, he was already onboard the elevator and headed down to the dormitory level.
The communicator at his belt had chimed and Xu's voice had emerged, so choked with anger that it had seemed to him that it must be a visible thing, that he'd see it curling out of the communicator's tiny speaker in poisonous green coils of smoke. She had cursed his name and called him a deserter and a coward and proved that despite her prim and proper appearance she could swear like a sailor. He had listened for maybe thirty seconds before flipping the damn thing off and turning his attention back to the matter at hand. She could bitch at him later, and he had no doubt she would. He'd lose his position as a SeeD over this, maybe even be court-martialed, but that didn't matter. What did anything matter, if Selphie was-
Don't think like that.
Irvine ran down the twisting halls of the dormitory level, moving as fast as he dared, running his eyes over the nameplates on the metal doors. In his time, he'd been in every single one of the Gardens, and while they were decorated with different motifs, they were all equally easy to get lost in. Everything looked the same, especially the living areas, and if he hadn't remembered Selphie's room number from his earlier visits, he could have roamed the place for hours and turned up nothing.
But he did remember-
-the way she met him at the door, wearing only one of his shirts and a sleepy expression, her squeal of delight as he swept her up in his arms and took her to the bed, her sweet laughter, melting into sighs and moans-
(Something bad's happened.)
-her form pressed against him in the dark, arm thrown over his chest, breath coming deep and slow. Her head resting in the crook of his arm. The look on her face, tranquil and calm and trusting-
-her voice, tickling his ear as she leaned close to whisper, "I love you." Her lips on his own, slow and tender, urgent but patient, eager but not demanding, because there was all the time in the world. All the time in the world and they'd be together forever.
(Never again. Never.)
In his rush, he nearly ran past the door. It was like all the others on the second floor - metal and rectangular and featureless except for the stenciled number 2443 and a nameplate reading Tilmitt, S. A small keypad was set into the wall to the left of the door. For one horrible moment Irvine thought he had forgotten the entry code, but as his hand traced over the keys, his unconscious mind took over and acted on a dimly remembered pattern. A few quick keypresses later, the door hissed open.
Light from the hall stabbed into the room in a dozen angular shards, creating weird patterns of light and shadow. All of a sudden he was four again, huddled in bed, staring out from under the cover with one wary eye at the things that lurked and shuffled in the dark. Shapes loomed in the darkness, half-remembered hulks that he knew must be Selphie's furniture but that seemed nonetheless shrouded and threatening. Across the room, the glass eye of a stuffed moomba caught the light and held it fast, gleaming dying-ember red. His shadow splayed across the floor, twisted and distorted, a gangly creature of darkness trapped in a rectangle of white light like a fly in amber. He took a step forward, and the creature thrashed against the walls of its prison.
"Selphie?" He fumbled for the light switch, flipped it, but nothing happened. The bulb must be out. The room was filled with a silence that was not a silence. A silence that seemed to breathe with thin, reedy gasps.
Like a man being strangled, he thought. But it was only the air scrubbers, of course. What else could it be?
Irvine moved further into the room, away from the harsh yet still comforting light of the hall. The thick shag carpeting muted his booted footfalls to a mild rustle, but to his ears it still seemed horribly loud, like sandpaper rasping against old, bleached bone.
His heart skipped a beat as he bumped into something in the dark, a great heaving mound that gave underneath his foot and tumbled to the floor, but then he realized it was only a pile of clothes. Despite her rabid enthusiasm in setting up the Garden festival, Selphie was the most disorganized person he knew. The thought of her rifling through the closet, not even stopping to look at half the dresses she threw aside, was enough to bring the ghost of a smile to his face.
Then he looked into the corner, and the smile slipped away.
The curtains on the room's only window were drawn, but in the center a thin sliver of moonlight shone through, casting a narrow bar of light into the far corner and across a pale, bare shoulder. The curve of milk-white flesh floated in the surrounding darkness like the fragment of a dream, silvery and insubstantial, and as he looked upon it he felt his mind slip, tumbling down slopes choked with grabbing weeds and sharp rocks. He imagined a phantom lurking there in the dark, flashing her ghostly charms, seducing him with hands and mouth so cold they burned.
The person in the corner shifted positions, and the spell was broken as he saw a familiar flash of brown hair. His legs went watery with relief and he almost collapsed, but he couldn't, not yet. Not until he was sure she was all right.
"Selphie?" he asked again. "Are you okay? It's all right. I'm here."
As he spoke, he moved towards her, his steps slow and measured. He knew he should be overjoyed to see her alive, but something was tickling inside, filling him with a slow and persistent dread. She hadn't answered him. She was curled up in the corner like a broken child, so unlike the Sefie he knew and loved. Something was wrong. With her, with this entire place.
"Irvy?" Her voice was tremulous, faint. He thought of that voice in his ear and felt his fear fade a little.
"I'm here," he said again, rushing over to her and kneeling down. It was still too dark to see anything but the curve of her shoulder, but he didn't need his eyes for this. Before he was even aware he was doing it, he had taken her in his arms and pulled her close against him, burying his face in her hair, holding her as tightly as he dared.
She was naked, and he'd held her like this many, many times before, but this time she felt different, wrong. Her flesh beneath his fingers was cool and moist, her muscles stiff and rigid beneath her skin, her breath quick and rasping. She didn't respond to his embrace; her arms hung limp at her sides, the tips of her fingers swaying and brushing against his thighs. Most of all, it was the smell that clung about her that bothered him. She smelled like wet metal, like seawater, like oil, like blood.
"I came as soon as I found out," Irvine said, lips moving against her hair. "I was so afraid I'd lost you. If something had happened, I don't know what I would have done."
"Survived," she said. "Or died. That's all there is."
"Selphie, what's wrong? What happened?"
"Nothing," she whispered against his chest. Then she giggled. "And everything."
He felt icy fingers of dread closing around his heart, but tried to ignore them. It'll be okay, she's in shock or something, that's all. You'll get her out of here and get her taken care of and she'll be back to her old self in no time.
"Selphie." He slipped a finger under her chin and tilted her face upwards. He still couldn't see her in the dark, but just knowing that she was looking at him made him feel a little better. "Did someone hurt you?"
The fluorescent light overhead crackled and sprang to life at last, and it took everything he had, every shred of SeeD conditioning, of personal willpower, of compassion for the woman he loved to keep from screaming.
Her face was torn open in several places, gashed into red furrows that were still fresh and raw. For a few seconds, he could only stare at their severity with a kind of numb clinical regard, and then a fresh wave of horror hit him as he realized the gashes were self-inflicted, that she had ripped her face open with her own fingernails. The rest of her body was similarly marked. Deep, bloody gashes festooned her breasts, her thighs, her arms. He knew if he looked down at her hands, her delicate, long-fingered, beautiful hands, he would find the nails crusted with blood and pieces of her own flesh.
But that wasn't the worst. The worst was-
Her eyes. What the hell happened to her eyes?
He had gazed into those eyes a thousand times, but now he could hardly stand to look at them. They were streaked with a hundred spiderweb tendrils of crimson that leaked blood like slow poison, staining the surrounding whites the sickly pink color of raw meat. Even worse than the ravaged eyes themselves was the sick, gleeful light he saw shining in them, a light that made his flesh twitch like it was going to crawl right off his bones.
He found himself remembering his last mission to Timber, when the provisional government had contracted SeeD to exterminate a persistent group of rebels that disapproved of the new regieme as much as they had Galbadian rule. SeeDs still didn't come cheap, and the new government was enthusiastic and idealistic, but crippled by debt. As a result, only two operatives had been paid for.
Rinoa had wanted to go, and Squall had given in for a change. Irvine had been selected for support, and the two of them had tracked the rebels for a week, following their trail back from the surrounding villages they raided to the forest where they had holed up. The same forest, Rinoa had told him, where Squall and the others had once had a vision of Laguna.
At first, the mission had almost been fun. He liked Rinoa well enough - she was funny and she sure wasn't a drag like Xu or someone would have been. They shared the same homeland and some of the same interests, and he found their friendship deepening through their journey. He distinctly remembered breaking camp that last morning and thinking that this mission had been nice, almost like a vacation, and that the only shame was the two of them couldn't have brought Squall and Selphie along.
By that afternoon, Rinoa was on all fours in the forest undergrowth, retching as he strode through the clearing finishing off their fallen opponents. The air stank of blood and cordite and the ozone of spent Thundaga spells. Bodies were sprawled across the ground, riddled with bullets or torn apart by magic. But carnage was nothing new to them now; they were SeeDs, and death had become a part of life. What they had not expected, had not had the capacity to expect, was the string of fingers the leader of the rebel band had worn around his grimy neck, the pit behind the camp full of dead little girls, the look in the man's eyes, the kind of look that could only be revealed after everything sane, everything human, had been carved away, leaving only the raw, bleeding animal core beneath.
Squall had told him later that Rinoa had had nightmares for a week. His had lasted longer, but maybe only because he'd been the one to shoot the guy, to stand over him and look down at him as he died. He'd heard the gravelly voice in the back of his mind then, even as the man breathed his last breath and the malicious light in his eyes dimmed.
Don't look at me like that, those eyes had said. Don't act like you're something better than me. None of you are. I'm what you get when you strip away the parts of us that like watching the tube and playing the fucking guitar. I'm you, whether you want to admit it or not. The only difference is I realized it and ran with it, while you kept it chained up inside. It won't stay chained up forever. It's hungry. It has to be fed.
Now, he was facing those eyes and that rabid look again, and this time they were her eyes, full of blood and madness.
Am I dreaming this? It all seemed like something from one of the terrors that struck him in the small hours of the night, the ones where he woke up screaming and Selphie moved to hold him. But she couldn't do that now because she was part of the nightmare, a mutilated and ravaged thing, speaking nonsense, turning his blood to ice.
What felt like a thousand different emotions struggled within him, twisting his stomach in gradually tighter knots even as they loosened his grip on reality. He loved her. He was terrified of her. He wanted to protect her. He wanted to hold her. He wanted to run. He wanted to scream. He was going to scream, it was just too much, it was just too much- the only answer was the scream and scream and hope it woke him up because this couldn't be real it couldn't, it couldn't it couldn't-
"Don't be afraid, Irvy," she said, and her voice was low and slow and sweet, the same way it was when she spoke to him in the dark, when his heart was still racing a mile a minute and he was still streaked with sweat. "It's sooo good."
He removed his duster and stood up, draping it around her shoulders. It was a useless gesture, but all he could think of to do. She must be cold, and at least if she was covered he wouldn't have to look at what she had done to herself.
"I saw." Selphie stood on shaky legs and pulled the duster tight around herself, shivering. He reached out to steady her but she sprang away from him and twirled around. "I saw everything."
"Don't be afraid," she said again, reaching up to cradle his cheek with her bloody fingertips. Her touch felt vile, obscene, and he bit back a moan of fear and disgust as a rusty knife twisted in his gut. "Fear isn't real. Nothing is real besides him."
"What isn't real?" All of this felt absurd, like something out of one of G-Garden's philosophy classes, the ones where he tended to relax, ride low in his chair, pull the brim of his hat down to hide his eyes, and look at the pretty girls. But now his every pore was slick with sweat, his heart hammering with explosive force. He forced his hands to steady, took her by the shoulders, looked into her ravaged face. Tried to tell himself that it was only Sefie, and she wouldn't hurt him. She couldn't. "Selphie- baby, what's wrong with you?"
"Nothing." She nudged a toe at the carpet. "Everything is nothing."
"Selphie, I-" He trailed off. What could he say? That she was scaring him to death? That she was acting like she had lost her mind?
"I love you."
Great, he berated himself. I'm sure hearing that will solve everything.
"No you don't," she said, raising her head again. Her hair had fallen across her face when she looked down and she didn't bother to brush it away. At least he didn't have to look her eyes, but the rabid grin that curled across her face was almost worse. "That's not real, either."
"We need to get back to the others," Irvine said, reaching down to grab the communicator from his belt. He couldn't allow himself to think about the meaning of what she was saying right now, not when they were still in this awful place, when he still didn't even know what had happened to her or any of them. For once, turning to the mission felt natural, necessary. "I'm probably going to be booted out of SeeD for coming to get you, you kn- hey!"
Selphie stepped forward, snatched the communicator from him, and darted back in a smooth movement that belied her earlier weakness. He didn't even have time to think about what she was doing before she was halfway across the room, holding the device high and looking at it with her head cocked.
"Hey!" he protested, taking a step towards her. He felt anger rising within him, fierce but unfocused. He was angry at her for scaring him, angry at himself for being afraid, angry at the world for putting them in this position in the first place. "Give it back!"
Selphie stared at the floor and rocked on her heels for a moment, looking for all the world like a petulant little girl being scolded. Then, she shook her head, dropped the communicator into one of the duster's pockets, and ran for the door.
Irvine was fast, but she was faster. He lunged for her as she darted around the bed, missed the hem of the duster by mere inches and went sprawling, smashing his shins against the bedframe, falling face down in the midst of her tangled sheets.
The bed smelled like her, so painfully like her that he wanted to sink into its soft depths and forget all of this, the slick, oily fear that oozed in his stomach, the pain in his legs, the thing that wore her face and the disgust it woke in him. Just to forget for a moment, that was all. Just to sleep, and wake up to something better-
(her the real her this can't be her it can't)
-but the door was already hissing open, and he pushed himself up with effort. He'd sworn to protect her always, sworn it to himself a hundred times as he held her sleeping form in the dark and realized he never wanted to let her go. He had to follow her, no matter what she had become, no matter where she was going.
He had to bring her back, because if he lost her, there'd be nothing worth going back to at all.
"I don't believe it," Zell said. He dropped down into a crouch and picked up the nunchaku on the floor before him, turning it over and over in his hands. "He actually pulled his gun on you?"
"Do you think I would have let him out of here if he hadn't?" Xu stood at a nearby console, tapping at the buttons and looking up at the bank of dark viewscreens before her periodically. As she worked on with no visible result, her exasperated grunts grew louder. "Once he found Selphie's nunchaku on the floor, he snapped and said he was going to look for her, no matter what I said.Well, he better hope he runs into one of those crazies out there, because when SeeD gets through with him, he'll wish he was dead."
Quistis stared down into the monitor of the console she was working on, trying to focus on sorting through Garden's mission logs. It was the best place to look. If she raised her head, she would see the forlorn look on Zell's face, the rage in Xu's, the body of the gray-haired man that slumped in the corner with a gun in its mouth.
No wonder Irvine wanted to get out of here.
She knew on some level that Xu was justified in her anger. Quistis would have been mad enough if Irvine had just disobeyed her orders, but if he had drawn his gun on her, she was sure she would have been as angry as Xu right now.
But they hadn't been her orders, she would never have given those orders, and she could feel no anger towards Irvine for his actions. In a strange, shameful way, she almost felt, well, jealous. There was no one willing to throw everything away to come after her, after all.
Not that she needed them to. Not at all. She could take care of herself. But sometimes you wanted things you didn't need, and needed things you didn't want.
Good for you, Irvine, she thought. Find her and come back safe.
"The system's hopelessly snarled." Xu frowned and glared at the bank of screens in front of her like she wanted to put her fist through them. "It took a command level access code to even get in, and I'm still not sure what's going on. Any progress with the logs?"
"A little," Quistis said. "I've managed to find the general logs, but it's nothing terribly specific." She tapped at her own keypad and called up lines of text on the screen before her, her eyes darting across them as they slowly scrolled down the screen.
Trabia Garden Central Systems
Deep Sea Salvage Site 732 - Designation: C- Pre-Centra Ruins
6/2/89 - Excavation begun
6/12/89-6/29/89 - Artifacts 001-028 recovered
7/1/89 - Excavation begun on sub-layer 4 - 5000 years pre-Centra
7/15/89 - Large chamber located in sub-layer 6 - 10000 years pre-Centra - possible oldest human construction ever discovered
7/21/89 - Excavation begun on chamber
Zell stood up and stretched as Quistis finished reading the onscreen information aloud. "The last log is on the twenty-first? That was only yesterday." He looked at his watch. "Hell, that was only a few hours ago."
"What could've happened since then?" Quistis asked. "How could things have gotten so... off in just a few hours?"
Xu made a few final keystrokes and was rewarded with a brief chime. "That's what we're going to find out. I've managed to unlock the master log. Quistis, take a look at the last 24 hours while I try to get the security cameras back on line. Once we know what happened and can see what's happening now, we'll have a better idea on what to do next."
"Man, I think we ought to just get the hell out of here and let Squall figure this one out." Zell was still pale, even more jittery and shaky than normal after his brush with the girl. Quistis, too, was still feeling the effects of that moment, but her dread, rather than expressing itself, curdled inside, silent and persistent.
She pushed her worries away, keyed in the appropriate code and called up another list.
Trabia Garden Central Systems
0600- Excavation on chamber c, sub-level 6 begun
0800- Resupplied by Timber Shipping Co.
1200- Excavation complete, artifacts recovered
1400- Artifact retrieval begun
1500- General Alert sounded, Authority Level 1, Access code T4532- Yugov, A.
1555- Red Alert, Authority Level 1, Access code T4532- Yugov, A.
1600- System Lockdown Initiated, Authority Level 1, Access code T4532- Yugov, A.
0124- Distress beacon activated, Authority Level 3, Access Code T2122- Tilmitt, S.
0124- Distress beacon deactivaERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR THE STRONG WILL FEAST UPON THE WEAK ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR MINE TO MAKE AND MINE TO BREAK ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR HAIL THE KING OF BLOOD THE WATCHMAKER ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING NOTHING ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR ERROR
0352- System log accessed, Authority Level 1, Access Code B3451- Miura, X.
"I don't get it," Zell said from his position by the doorway. "The place went crazy in the middle of the afternoon yesterday, then nothing till early this morning. Then Selphie turned on the distress beacon and then turned it right back off? It... none of it makes any damn sense!" He turned around and punched the steel wall.
"Look," Xu said, turning to face him and pointing to the nunchaku curled on the floor like a steel snake. "Her weapon is still here. Selphie didn't turn the beacon off. She was in here trying to signal for help when they broke in. Whoever- whatever- came in here didn't want that call getting out."
"Damn," Zell leaned back against the wall and rubbed his forehead with the heel of one hand. "I guess that means Selphie is... Damn."
Quistis said nothing. She wanted to be sad, she wanted to be angry, she wanted to be vengeful. She wanted to feel anything but the cold, numb terror that was creeping over her now. She was sinking in a sea of uncertainty and fear, fumbling for anything to keep herself afloat. And all she could seem to think of were the words that had scrolled across the screen, the words she hadn't dared read to the others. Those words sounded in her mind, in a voice low and slick and wet like maggots gnawing on a corpse.
(the watchmaker the king of blood nothing nothing nothing)
She had imagined them, that was all. She was just jittery and tired and her eyes had chosen that moment to go soft on her. That was all. There wasn't any need to go back and check. It was a momentary lapse. That was all.
(mine to make and mine to break)
Xu turned back to her console. "As for the rest, whatever happened yesterday happened fast. The situation seems to have gotten out of control so quickly that all Commander Yugov could do was lock down the vital systems using his access code. Then," she cocked her head at the body in the corner. "He killed himself to keep the code out of enemy hands."
"Yeesh," Zell said, face wrinkling up in disgust.
"Standard military tactics," Xu said, unperturbed. "Never leave the enemy anything he can use. Yugov seems to have done a good job there. Even my access level can't free much more than minor systems. Helm control, weaponry, comm array - it's all down and it's going to stay down. That's why the Garden is drifting. The only things still working are redundant systems like the distress beacon Selphie tried to activate."
"Dammit!" Zell said, lapsing into one of his usual moments of unfocused, nervous anger. "We still don't know anything, even after all this. What do we have? Some computer readouts, bodies, and a crazy girl that tried to kill me. How does it fit together? What does it even mean?"
"Security cameras are online," Xu said. "Maybe they'll tell us something." There was a sharp, sudden pop and the bank of viewscreens on the console in front of her sprang to flickering life, revealing a sweeping panorama of empty hallways, empty training rooms, empty classrooms, and-
"Irvine and Selphie," Quistis said, stepping up behind Xu and looking over her shoulder at one of the screens. She felt the fear in her crystallize and break, stabbing her with a hundred razor shards.
Irvine had always loved to watch her run.
Even when they were children, Selphie had never seemed to walk anywhere. She was always in a rush, always in a hurry to race ahead and see what was around the next corner or over the next hill or under the next rock. Selphie had been made to run, and time hadn't changed that at all. And when she ran, her long legs pumping beneath her, she was beautiful - gliding along with smooth, ethereal grace, as if she were not running across the ground but above it.
Selphie raced ahead of him through the halls of Trabia, his coat billowing out behind her. He followed as best as he could, forcing muscles already watery with stress and fatigue to comply. But just like the fairies in the stories Matron used to tell them, she remained forever out of reach, flitting along just a little too fast for him to catch with his clumsy strides and grasping hands.
Their chase through the twisting halls of the dormitory level ended in a darkened stairwell that Selphie plunged down without hesitation. Irvine followed, his heavy booted footsteps reverberating loudly as they fell on flimsy metal steps. As the stairs wound downward, it became harder and harder to see, and finally only dim red emergency bulbs lit the way. In their meager light, he could see puddles of water standing on the steps and drops falling from the ceiling above.
They were in the bowels of the Garden now, and the very thought made his flesh creep. He wondered how Squall and the others who had gone into B-Garden's sublevels managed to sleep at night, knowing that just a few dozen feet below them there were rooms like this, wet and dark and slick like steel wombs, burning with sick, feverish light. He wondered, now that he knew, if he would ever sleep in a Garden again. He had always told himself he'd follow Selphie into hell if he had to, and now it seemed that he had. Everything fell away - his memories, his friends, his entire life in the sun. There was only him, her, the chase, and the terrible place it had brought them.
Selphie ran on, unperturbed by her surroundings or the treacherous, slick footing of the stairs. In the burning red light, her beauty took on a vital, horrible quality he could not quite define but that nevertheless made him want to turn and run in the opposite direction as hard and as fast as he could.
At length, the stairs terminated in a long, straight hall lit by more dim red bulbs. By the time Irvine reached the bottom of the stairwell, his lungs were burning and his legs cramping, but he forced himself to push on. Selphie was down here, and he wasn't stopping until he had her in his arms again. And this time, this time, he wouldn't let her go. Because no matter what, she was still Selphie. That was all he needed to know. That was all
(everything is nothing)
The hallway opened suddenly into a vast circular chamber. Much of the floor was taken up by a central pool of water, around which cranes, spools of steel cable, and crates were arranged in a disorganized sprawl. The only illumination was provided by a ring of lights set in the railing around the pool, which lit up the central area but left the outlying regions cloaked in shadow. The thing that impressed him most was the sheer size of the place; it was the largest room he'd seen in T-Garden, easily a hundred yards from one end to the other - maybe more, depending on how much was hidden in the darkness beyond the pool.
"Selphie?" Irvine called, stepping into the room. His voice echoed back to him, strained and forlorn, a moment of warmth and life born into the void and just as quickly extinguished. He caught a glimpse of her, pale and ghostly in the darkness, gracefully darting between the darkened hulks of crates and machinery, and then she was gone again.
Then he noticed the other sounds. Muffled footsteps, muted whispers that were just within the range of audibility, rasping, breathing in the dark. The sounds seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, and he knew they were not alone. That there were others here, stalking through the maze of machinery. Coming for them.
No. For you.
They emerged from the darkness around him almost as one, and they were both strange and terribly familiar. Garden students and faculty, old and young, male and female, all together, all swaying to the tune of some unknown and ancient beat. Some were naked, some wore uniforms as impeccable as Xu's, some were covered with cuts and bite marks. His eyes darted among them, and they returned the look with gazes that were just as bloodshot as Selphie's.
She's just like them. She's just like all of them. She's-
They were all different but they were all the same, a hundred puppets on a hundred strings, all held in the grip of one bloody fist. And the thought of who might be pulling those strings made all his earlier fear feel like nothing.
"Welcome," a female student said, swaying to the tune of that unknown music. Her hair, soaking wet, hung across her face and shoulders in raven-dark tendrils. She was beautiful and all the more terrible for it, and when she smiled he saw that her teeth were stained the same red as her burning eyes.
As they closed in around him, Irvine felt something in him, something that had been creaking and groaning like an old tree in a gale ever since the mission briefing, finally crack. His sanity, maybe, or at the very least his courage. Part of him wanted to start shooting into them like his life depended on it, part of him wanted to run, but most of him wanted to sink to the floor, curl up in a ball, and wake up from this nightmare.
It was all just too much. First Selphie and then all of them, it was just too damn much, no one could be expected to deal with this, not their girlfriend ripping and shredding her own flesh and running around screaming nonsense, not the bloody eyes, not the grins and the stink of death, not the dark, the damn dark that suddenly seemed blacker and deeper than anything in the world. He closed his eyes, not only to blot out the images before him, but to keep out that darkness, to replace it with one of his own making.
This is hell it has to be it has to be wake up Irvine wake up wake up WAKE UP-
Irvine came out of his mental fugue as a hand trailed across his face, snapping him back to reality. He realized he had fallen to his knees, his hands bracing him up on the cold metal floor, his gun forgotten. Tears coursed from under his eyelids and trailed down his face, tears that would have shamed him any other time but now felt like the only option, the only possible response any sane human could make to such a situation.
Then the soft touch came again, and with it a spark of red hot rage, everything he had left packed into one condensed ball and then set alight. He wasn't some scared little boy. He was a man - a SeeD, damn it, and if they were going to kill him, he was going to go down fighting.
His eyes flew open, his hand grabbed his gun, and he snapped it in front of him in firing position in less than a second. But his reflexes were not fast enough, not faster than his mind, and when he saw that Selphie was standing in front of him, his trigger finger loosened and he slumped forward, defeated. He couldn't. Not her. Not even for his life.
It was too much.
Selphie wrapped delicate fingers around the gun and pried it easily from his grasp. A flick of her wrist sent it clattering away across the floor, but he no longer cared. It was useless to him now anyway. Just like everything else he had ever learned. How could any amount of training prepare one for something like this?
Selphie dropped into a crouch beside him and leaned close, so close that he could smell her. She stank of blood and sweat and sex, and as he felt her coppery breath wash over his cheek and lips, he found himself biting back a scream again. He was no longer simply repulsed by her touch but mortally afraid of it. Her madness seemed to be contagious.
"Shh," she soothed, licking along his cheek. Her tongue was dry and rough and he shuddered, but she only pulled him closer. She took him in her arms, holding him in a grotesque parody of every embrace they had ever shared, pillowing his head between her torn and bleeding breasts. Horror and disgust rose within him, but his whole body felt loose and disconnected, an awkward thing he had no idea how to operate. He felt his muscles loosening, felt his body going limp, giving in. Part of him just wanted this to be over with.
"You'll see," she said, stroking his face. "We all have to see."
There was the harsh squall of ill-maintained machinery as a large crane beside the central pool began to move. Rusty components screamed and the crane's arm groaned with the strain as cable spooled through its length. The water in the pool began to bubble and froth.
Something was surfacing.
A green, tubular shape broke the surface, shedding water as it rose ever higher. The retrieval module was old, battered and rusted, its serial number faded, but something about it seemed terrible nonetheless. Behind the thin veil of metal and fiberglass, something moved. Something alien and terrible and utterly incomprehensible. Part of him, some seething animal instinct at the base of his brain, could sense it fighting inside, fighting to be free of its prison. Fighting to get at him.
Then the pod's hatch began to open, slowly, slowly, and Irvine saw
I see you.
Irvine's last sane thought was that the light was too solid. It didn't light up the room so much as stab into it, didn't dispel the darkness so much as push it aside, filling the entire frame of his vision. It was not a light that illuminated, it was a light that destroyed, full of force and weight and power, and as it fell upon him, it burned everything he was away.
His eyes popped and crackled as crimson seeped across the world, but it didn't affect the light, burning so pure and white, so real. The light wouldn't be affected by that, it was everything and his pain was nothing and he understood now yes Selphie was right next to this everything really was nothing it
I see what you are.
and he saw it too, remembered the time he and Selphie had poked the bird with the broken wing, laughed as it turned in circle after circle after circle stupid bird so stupid didn't realize when it was broken
he was angry at Zell and he threw the rock and it had gashed his lip open in a wet red blur and matron said no don't ever do that again and he thought he had felt bad at Zell's tears but really something had liked them because they were power and Zell was just a weak wussy crybaby he cried so easy it was the best thing the only thing to hurt
standing on the balcony of Galbadia Garden her skin so warm and soft breasts heaving in the moonlight her silky blond hair pooled on her neck and she said no she can't they can't it's too much of a risk and he wanted to hurt her, he wanted to twist his fingers sharp and hard inside her and make her scream for teasing him like this that bitch that bitch she had promised they could she had broken her fucking promise-
he was broken too they were all broken and they were all nothing everything they ever did meant nothing they were not real things they were tools they were filth they were made to hurt
I see everything.
Part of him floated back and he realized that he had not ceased to exist. His mind had been seared, but with the pain came cleansing knowledge. Of them. Of himself. Of his purpose. He thought of the forest outside Timber, the smell of death, those rabid eyes, burning above their gruesome garland, but this time the face on the body was his own. In the end, when all the illusions were stripped away, when he finally saw the beautiful ugly face of humanity, nothing else could be denied.
The monster in the darkness was him. Was all of them, and it was terrible and wonderful.
Selphie was still cradling him in her arms and his mouth was full of her blood; he'd been lapping at the gashes on her breasts since the Light had struck him, drinking deep of her foulness and pain, slaking his human thirst. She would do the same to him soon, bite him as they rolled naked on the floor together, sharing their race's destiny.
Together they would hurt like neither of them had ever hurt before but somewhere deep down had always wanted to. He thought of breaking her beautiful fingers, of her teeth sharp and unrelenting on his flesh.
Together they would make the most beautiful kind of hate.
He was not aware the screams were coming until they were there, and then he thought they would never stop. It didn't make sense to him that he should scream, for his fear had been burned away - not that it had ever been real to begin with. He was not afraid now that he knew the truth. He was not happy or sad. There was only acceptance.
Selphie reached down to muffle his cries with the palm of her hand, and the expression on her face that might have been regret, if either of them had believed in emotion any longer.
"Seeing isn't easy, Irvine," she said. "It's very hard on us, because we've been blind for so long. Seeing has to bend us a little bit to get us out of the old shape we used to be in. But a lot of people - most people - break instead of bend. They can't see the truth, or can't accept it. They're weak."
She leaned down and kissed him then, replacing her hand with her lips, hooking her tongue underneath his own and easing it into her mouth, suckling gently. Then her teeth snapped down like a steel trap, scissoring through flesh and muscle. He gave a muffled screamed as his mouth filled with crimson, his blood mingling with her own.
Irvine convulsed in exquisite pain, the raw stump of his tongue flopping in his mouth like a beached fish as his limbs thrashed and clawed at the floor. His body was still trying to scream, but all that came out was a loud, fluid-choked gargling sound.
Selphie licked his blood from her lips. "Remember what he said. The strong feast upon the weak, Irvine. The strong survive."
The others were moving to surround him now, and the part of his soul that was not screaming, the part that understood what it meant to truly be human, was pleased to meet such an end. It was his destiny.
His to make and his to break. All hail the King of Blood. The Watchmaker.
They closed in tight around him, their hands drifting over his body, gentle and harsh, carressing and tearing. Their breath was hot on his exposed flesh. Their voices rose and fell in a hundred different chants, but they all meant the same thing.
Glory to Hyne.
His screams did not last long.
Xu became aware that she was gripping the edge of the console so hard that it was biting deep into her palms, but she couldn't seem to release it. There was pain, but it was muted and distant; her entire attention was riveted on the screen. The screen where scenes like something out of a nightmare pranced and cavorted before her astonished eyes. Selphie and the others down there had surrounded Kinneas, fallen on him, and started to- to-
"Oh," Dincht said, his voice soft and incredulous. "Oh fuck. Oh fuck us." Somewhere to his left, Quistis was noisily sick.
"Stay calm," Xu said, but she no longer had the strength to even make her body obey her commands. She could feel her legs shaking, her knees knocking together, goosebumps springing up on her arms. She was a SeeD. She was prepared to die. But nothing she had done - nothing she could have done - would have prepared her for this. They were- they were-
"Everyone just stay calm."
It was ridiculous to even ask, after what they'd just seen. They had seen Kinneas look offscreen and suddenly go into convulsions. They had seen Tilmitt hold him close, seen the things they had done. But even that was not the worst. Through some sick and horrible sort of coincidence, Irvine's flailing had apparently activated the transmitter on his communicator just in time to pick up his blood-soaked screams and the hideous chanting
(hyne the watchmaker the king of blood the builder the judge)
that came from the others as they fell upon him. Quistis had finally turned her communicator off and thrown it across the room as if it had been tainted by the sounds flowing through it.
Xu tore her eyes free from the monitor and turned to look at the others. Quistis still sat where she had fallen hard and gracelessly on her ass moments before. She had folded in upon herself like one of her own collapsible whips; arms wrapped tightly around her legs, chin pillowed between her knees. Her pink skirt framed a face pale and streaked with sweat.
Dincht was still on his feet, but he seemed wobbly, and his face was contorted into a frozen scream. He reminded her of a skittish rabbit trapped in the center of the road, trembling with restrained speed, ready to break and run to his death at any moment.
Xu blamed herself. This whole mission had felt wrong from the moment the Garden had slipped over the horizon, but she had ignored her instincts and led them in anyway. She had been so quick to dismiss her fears when the first and most important lesson any SeeD learned was to trust their instincts. She had failed to do so, and now one of her team members was dead and two more were hovering at the breaking point. As for herself, she didn't need her SeeD medical training to know her rapid breathing and jerky heartbeat were bad signs. The last thing she needed right now was to slip into shock.
"Okay," she said, releasing her grip on the console and rubbing the deep indentations in her palms. "Okay, let's just think about this for a minute."
"What's to think about?" Dincht shouted. "Did you see what they did to him? Did you see what they are? This is- there's- WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?"
"They found something," Quistis said. She still looked fragile with her head resting on her knees and her arms hugging her legs close, but her face had that familiar thoughtful frown. She was coming back, and at that Xu felt relief. They needed her now more than ever. "They were excavating that chamber right before things went bad. We just saw all of them down in the excavation room. I think-" She stopped for a moment, as if thinking how best to phrase the words. "I think they found something that wasn't meant to be found."
"They all move alike," Dincht said. "On the screen, I could tell. They all moved like that girl that tried to kill me. Sort of slithery, you know? All bent over. Whatever it is, they've all got the same thing."
"What could it be?" Xu asked, but something wormed in her stomach and she thought she knew, that she had known from the moment she'd first looked into the bloody face of the moon and had her dark premonition.
Quistis sighed and placed the heel of her hand against her forehead. "We all heard what they were saying. The Watchmaker. The King of Blood. Hyne."
"But that's stupid." Dincht threw his hands up. His eyes darted between the two women and he spoke slowly, as if they were children. "Hyne's not real. He's just a bedtime story. And even if he was, we kicked his ass and he ran away or something, remember?"
"Maybe they found him." Quistis stood on shaky legs.
"Whatever they found, we have to get rid of it," Xu said, and just like that, just with those words, her mind was made up. Squall had told them to take a look around and get out, and the chances of doing that were already impossible. They couldn't risk leaving this place now without making sure whatever happened here stopped here. Much as she disliked Kinneas, Xu never would have wished that end on him. The least she could do was make sure he hadn't died for nothing. "We're getting out of here, but we're not going to give them a chance to do anything after we're gone."
She called up a schematic of the Garden on the screen to her right, her eyes scanning its interconnecting lattice of glowing lines. They would be somewhere along the central column... there!
"Since the end of the last war, every Garden has had a self-destruct system installed. This system consists of a ring of extremely powerful explosives placed at strategic points along the central part of Garden's structure. These explosive charges can be activated manually at the source in case of computer failure. And that's a good thing, because we're going to rig this place to blow."
"WHAT?" She didn't bother to look, but she could tell by the tone of Dincht's voice that he was probably jumping around and throwing his hands in the air. "You mean- you want to blow the place up? You want to kill everybody in the Garden?"
"Yes," Xu said. There was no use in denying the facts; if he still couldn't accept the terrible reality of the situation after what they'd all seen, that was his problem. "We can't be sure what happened to them, but they're gone. No one sane - no one human could have done what they just did. And it may not be what you want to hear, but I think killing them is more merciful than letting them live like this."
She didn't tell him the rest, that she feared she'd never get the horror of the sight out of her mind, that she'd be haunted until the end of her days, the terrible images burned forever in her mind. Destroying those things was the only way to purge herself. It was the only way to retain her sanity.
"But we don't know that they're gone for good," he insisted. "Maybe there's something we can do if we just think this out-"
"There's no room for argument here, Dincht. I'm in command of this mission and we are not leaving the Garden in their hands, no matter what. My orders stand."
"Your orders!" Zell slammed his fist down against a nearby console, cracking a keyboard and sending loose keys skittering across the floor like dislodged teeth. "I'm tired of your orders! This goes beyond orders. I don't care what Squall told us back there. He couldn't have expected this. None of us could have expected this, and I don't care how many years of seniority you have, you don't know what the hell you're talking about. You want us to kill all our friends? That's fucking crazy. You're fucking crazy."
The anger that flared in her was as sudden and hot as any Firaga spell. He was criticizing her? A less skilled commander would have cracked by now, but she was still in control. She was always in control.
She had read Dincht's file and remembered that the only operation he had led during the Second Sorceress War, the attempt to stop the Lunatic Pandora over Esthar, had failed completely. He had already proven himself to be useless as a leader. How dare he presume to attack her?
"I'm not nearly as crazy as they are," she said, turning to face him. "And what do you think will happen if that insanity spreads? Are you prepared to accept the responsibility for that?"
Dincht opened his mouth to say something else, but Quistis laid a hand on his arm to quiet him. "She's right, Zell. I think if Selphie and the others could see what they've become, they'd want this. And we can't take the risk."
Dincht hung his head. "I just-"
"It's not pleasant," Xu said, laying a hand on his shoulder. If he wouldn't respond to force, a little gentle twisting might work. "Our missions usually aren't. But we still have to do our duty."
"All right," he said at last, still not looking up. "But I don't have to like it."
"No, but you do have to do it. The charges can only be reached through access shaft E-7, and there's no way either Quistis or I would be able to fight effectively in such close quarters. It's going to have to be you. I'll stay here and give you instructions over the com."
Dincht stepped away from her and there was a long, pregnant moment of silence as he stood with shoulders sagging. Then, he shook his head and straightened his spine, turning back around to face her. She saw the doggedly stupid resolve on his face and prepared herself for an even bigger tantrum.
"Okay, Commander, I'll do it."
Well, that was a surprise, even though he'd used her rank to show he was only obeying her because of regulations. As long as he did the job.
"Very well. You'd best take Quistis's communicator and get going, then. I'll give you the directions en route."
"Just one more set of codes to input." Xu said through the communicator clipped at his belt. "Ready?"
"Yeah," Zell said, voice muffled by the chemical glowstick he held between his teeth. "Go."
As she fed the numbers to him, Zell leaned closer to the keypad set in the wall of the shaft, hooking his free arm around the iron rungs of the ladder to secure himself. Xu talked about this like it was easy. Like he hadn't had to climb down a couple hundred feet and bypass half a dozen locked and coded security curtains. Like the shaft wasn't narrow enough to send his claustrophobia into overdrive and dark enough to make his flesh creep and deep enough that if he slipped he was halfway sure he'd never hit bottom.
The last of the weak red emergency lights had ended fifty feet up and two armored curtains ago; only the ghostly blue light of the glowstick illuminated the keypad before him as he put in Xu's numbers. At least this was the last one, and after he finished they could get the hell out of here. He couldn't wait to get the hell out of here.
But part of him couldn't help but worry that even if he made it out, he'd never be able to leave this place behind. The things he'd seen already were enough to give him nightmares for the rest of his life. Irvine, dead. Eaten. Selphie turned into a terrifying shamble of a thing that made his stomach twist itself into knots. Their eyes. He'd never forget those mad, bloody eyes.
That doesn't matter. Do this. Get it over with.
"Okay, I've entered the code," Zell said. "What now?"
"There should be a timer on the opposite wall of the shaft. Once you've set it, there'll be no going back. We only need enough time to get clear. Thirty minutes should be sufficient if we push it. Since the main computer is down, they won't even know we've armed the charges, but we don't want to give them more time than we have to."
Zell gulped, a task that was far from easy with the glowstick still clenched between his teeth. "It took me almost fifteen just to get down here."
Xu's tone was unforgiving. "Well, you had better climb fast. Don't bother reporting back here, we'll meet you at the hangar."
"Great," Zell said under his breath, thinking about how nice it'd be to bounce her head off of his T-Board a couple times. But she had a point, and as nasty as she was, she was still a lot better than the things lurking around here.
He turned, keyed in the appropriate time, and pressed the activator. With a whirr, both keypads sank into the walls of the shaft and were immediately covered with curtains of adamant. He knew that above him the others were following suit; now, there was no way for anyone to disarm or tamper with the charges short of tearing through the wall, and this place would blow long before anyone got that chance.
"Charges armed," Zell said, "I'm on my way."
The hand that darted from the shadows to grasp at his ankle was pale, willowy, long-fingered; the hand of a pianist. Silver charm bracelets jangled on a slender wrist as the hand tightened its grip, its nails biting into his flesh.
He shouted in pain and confusion and the glowstick slipped from between his teeth, tumbling end over end as it fell, casting crazed shadows along the walls of the shaft. For one fleeting moment he glimpsed the face of the girl who had grabbed him, her eyes bloodshot and staring, her mouth stretched wide in a crazed grin. Then he saw that there were others climbing up behind her.
A lot of them, he realized as the falling glowstick diminished to a point of light and then vanished altogether, leaving him - them - in darkness. A whole FUCKING lot of-
(I can't die here please I can't no no no please)
"Zell?" Xu's voice came harsh and fast. Even at a time like this, she still sounded like she was lecturing him for running in the halls. "Zell! Answer me!"
Answering her was the last thing on Zell's mind. The girl moved as fast as the rest of them, and he could already feel her hands scrabbling about his thighs and midsection, already smell her sweat-soaked madness. In the dark her breath was fast and frantic, the panting of a wild beast. Clutching fingers tightened on his belt, muffling Xu's ongoing demands, and he felt something in him snap.
Zell cocked his arm and slammed his elbow down onto the top of her skull, once, twice. Her struggling immediately ceased as she fell into unconsciousness, but her grip did not loosen. For one horrible moment he was afraid her dead weight would pull him from the ladder, but then there was the sound of ripping cloth and she fell away from him, his communicator still in her grasp.
That doesn't matter, he told himself. Move it, Dincht! Move it move it move it!
Zell climbed with reckless speed in the darkness. Still, falling to his death was preferable to falling into their hands. They seethed up the shaft behind him, and even in the dark he could tell they were close, their grasping fingers falling just short of his feet. He didn't know how they could climb so fast in the dark and didn't want to. He just wanted away.
He wasn't going to make it, not at this rate. He'd have to stop to open the armored curtain and then they'd be on him. That wasn't the way he wanted this to end. They had gotten Irvine when he was alone and helpless in the dark, but he wasn't Irvine and he didn't need a gun to fight. If they wanted him, they'd have to take him.
He remembered skirting the access hatch in the wall on the way down, but when he felt it in the darkness before him now he tore it open and dove through, rolling into the room beyond. He fumbled for another glowstick, snapped it.
The room wasn't what he would call huge, but it was big enough for him to move, to strike, and that was all he needed. The walls and floor were bare; the room looked like it had never even been used. It wasn't that unlikely, he supposed- Trabia was only about a month old.
Time to break this baby in, he thought, scattering the rest of his glowsticks on the floor. He'd need light to do his work.
So this was it, then. He'd always wondered how he was going to go out. SeeDs probably all wondered that, but none of his friends had heard the statistics that his Ma dug out of those trashy tabloids she liked to read. This says the odds are ten to one against a SeeD reaching age thirty, Zell, she'd said, standing beside his bed, holding a blearily-printed copy of the Balamb Sun and thrusting it at him like a weapon.
Maybe it was true and maybe it wasn't, but it was more true than the lines Garden fed them and sometimes, when sleep was slow in coming and he tossed and turned in the sweltering air of his bedroom, the Balamb night pressing hot and heavy down on him, the questions would bubble to the surface of his thoughts like rotting corpses drifting up from a lakebed. He wondered who the oldest SeeD was and wondered how many people whoever it was had seen die and wondered if whoever it was could bring himself to care anymore and wondered if he wanted to live that long or if he'd rather die or if it even mattered. Sleep was often a long time in coming. Sometimes it didn't come at all.
But now, it was different. He was not calm; far from it. The feeling that surged through him now was the very antithesis of calm. His heart was racing and jerking in his chest, his breath coming quick and fast, his lips curled back in a rictus grin. Every nerve, every muscle fiber crackled and hummed with energy. He didn't know why this sudden euphoria had come over him, but he knew he was not afraid. He was strung the fuck out, he was amped like he never had been before, but he was not afraid.
It was the certainty of it that took away his fear, he realized. Maybe I was never afraid of dying, he thought. Maybe all I wanted to know was how it was going to happen. Maybe I wanted it to happen, why else wouldn't I get out when Ma begged and why else would I be here with them why-
Then they were close, reaching for him with pale, bloody hands, and there was no more time for thought.
A raven-haired girl, naked and covered in blood, lunged for him, but he pivoted away and lashed out with his elbow, catching her in the side of the face. There was a wet, gristle-choked crack and her cheek cratered inward, broken jawbone swinging free on its shattered hinge, teeth spilling from her mouth. She tumbled aside, gore-streaked breasts flopping obscenely as she hit the floor, and he was already dealing with the next one, a dark-skinned boy still wearing a hockey uniform. He'd bitten through both of his lips and his naked teeth and gums worked behind their tattered remains, an eternal grin slick with blood.
Zell slammed the knife edge of his hand into the boy's neck as hard as he could, severing his windpipe, then gave his gasping form a solid kick that sent him to the floor. They were tough, these things (not people, not anymore, they couldn't be), but even they could be hurt, killed. And they were slow, God they were slow and he was among them, striking at will, using everything the Garden had taught him to deadly effect and he was, unbelievably, winning.
You can't touch me. A burly man in the overalls of a maintenence worker swung a wrench at his head, but his left arm flashed up to block even as his right darted forward with the raw, blind instinct of a striking serpent. The heel of his hand hit the man in the nose and drove the bone there up and into the front of the brain. The man was dead before he even hit the floor, though he likely didn't know it yet.
None of you can touch me. He twisted again and a knife thrust missed him by inches, but he snared the arm, her arm, he knew even though he couldn't see behind him, because the hand clutching the knife had a pink ring around the second finger shapped like a kitty-cat. Show me a guy wearing that ring, and I'll show you a fucking faggot! Seifer's voice crowed in his brain, and then Zell bore down and snapped the arm in half.
I'm the wind. And he was, not a gentle breeze but a big screaming red hurricane wind, breaking down everything in its path in a temper tantrum and having a hell of a time. His lungs burned and he was slick with sweat and blood and any moment could be his last, but he'd never felt more desperately, vitally alive. Part of him, the little Mama's boy that other people called a chicken-wuss, whispered in frantic tones that he should stop and slow down, that he was getting out of control, that euphoria was the last emotion he should be feeling right now. He pushed it away, impaled it with the rough, spiky pleasure of the moment, and it died without further complaint.
Zell took the fight to them, stepping over the bodies of the ones he'd already killed, six or seven at least. The foremost of the ones remaining moved to meet him, swinging a familiar-looking weapon.
Gunblade, Zell thought as he dodged the first few slashes, and he smiled. It was just like sparring with Squall, except Squall was good, and this kid fought like he hadn't even passed Basic yet. But he was fast enough, and as he advanced Zell was forced to give ground as he waited for an opening.
It happened suddenly - the kid lunged at him, his gunblade rising over his head and then blurring downward. Zell, still backpedaling, felt the breeze on his face, saw the glittering edge flash by mere inches from his nose. Close, but not close enough. His mind dissolved into wild, triumphant roars. Missed you motherfucker you missed you fucking mi-
His opponent's finger tightened on the weapon's trigger, and there was a split second in which Zell realized that this wasn't just like his sparring matches with Squall, that his opponent was using live ammo. Then came the explosion, the hammerblow on the left side of his face, the stink of gunpowder and blood and burned flesh, and he was falling.
The pain crashed into him before he could hit the floor, massive and monolithic and heavy, obliterating everything, seizing him and pulling him down into a dark, churning lake of agony. Glitter-flecked waves of crimson consumed his vision and he thrashed against them, hearing the frantic scrabbling of his limbs on the floor but not seeing them, not seeing anything but that ghastly red veil. Blood was in his eyes and blood was running down his face and somewhere, distantly and obliquely, he heard the sound of his own screams.
The were closing in around him now, he could sense them somehow even in this state, feel the madness, the wrongness in them as they drew nearer. But he could do nothing to stop them, could do nothing at all except scream and twist in the jaws of agony and hope the end was fast. His mind, reeling in panic, reached out and seized the first thought that strayed near-
behind the walls they were behind the walls just like I thought just-
They seized him by the heels and calves with cold hands, lifted his legs into the air. Then he felt a tug and he scraped along the floor, his head bumping against the metal plating, the impact sending fresh shots of agony through the seeping wound on his face. Yet worse than the pain was the fresh, vital sense of terror that rose in him. They were dragging him, taking him, and even in his agony he knew where. He knew that his premonition was now complete.
Join us, the dead things in the walls had called. Become us.
And he would.
Just before he spilled over into unconsciousness, Zell realized that he was screaming for his mother.
When Zell's panicky voice had come through the communicator for the last time, when they had heard him scream and then go silent, Xu and Quistis had thought that was the end of it.
Then the voices had come through the other end, sliding over one another like eels in the dark. Slippery, cold, animal. But the worst part was that among their sobbing and moaning and crazed laughter, some of them were chanting, singing in raw liquid voices like blood trickling through a rusty grate.
the strong shall feast
(he has returned)
upon the weak
(we are all his playthings)
everything and everyone
shall bleed for him
(screaming in the darkness)
under sky and under stone and under flesh and under bone
(but he will forgive)
the builder's wrath is fierce
(he will rule again)
his to make and his to break
(bathed in the blood of an age)
his to make and his to break
(clothed in the tattered flesh of the dead)
his to make and his to break
(The King of Blood)
HIS TO MAKE AND HIS TO BREAK HIS TO MAKE AND HIS TO BREAK-
"Stop it," Quistis said. Xu didn't turn to look at her, but she sounded impossibly weary, as if she had aged decades since this horror began. "Turn it off, I can't listen anymore. We're not going to find out anything anyway."
Xu cut the transmission and the babble of voices faded away, but their words hung suspended across her thoughts with ragged, rusty hooks.
"We have to get moving," Xu said, running her eyes across the bank of viewscreens on the console before her. Most of the crazies still seemed to be gathered in the excavation chamber; their forms swayed and twitched in the weak light like mad, capering phantoms. The other cameras showed no movement, but what did that prove? They had pounced upon Dincht quicker than anyone could have expected, and they might still be roaming through the unmonitored access passages, closing in, cutting off avenues of escape. "Finished dumping the data logs to disc yet?"
"Three more minutes," Quistis was still bent over her own console, her hands flying over the keys and replacing the large data storage discs as info from the Garden's last day spooled off the hard drive. Then she asked, as Xu had known she would.
"What about Zell?"
"He knew the risks, just like the rest of us," Xu said, almost wishing she could hate herself for it but knowing she was right. In a situation like this, the mission parameters, the code, were all they had to hold onto. Anything else would only get them killed faster. "Death is a possibility on any SeeD mission."
"There's worse things than death." Quistis's voice was soft, but determined. "And we've just seen it. I don't want that for him. For any of us."
"In twenty minutes, it's not going to matter either way," Xu replied, not wanting to think about it any more than she had to. You sent him there, Xu, her mind whispered. You murdered him. But she couldn't think like that. The last thing either of them needed right now was an attack of conscience. "He'll be at the rendezvous point with us or he'll be dead. Nothing can change that now. Going after him would be suicide at this point."
"I don't care," Quistis said. "We can't leave him. It's bad enough that we lost Irvine and Selphie. I can't let that happen to him. I won't."
"We lost a lot more than your friends here," Xu said, forcing herself to keep her voice even. So good at twisting their emotions, aren't you? she thought, disgusted. Know just where to push, just how to make them do whatever you want. "And we may stand to lose a lot more if we can't stop this. We need to get this information out, and for that I need you here. We're moving out as soon as you're done."
She wouldn't admit her real reasons - even to herself, they sounded so very weak. She didn't want to be alone in this place. She didn't want to let another one of her soldiers run off to a fate worse than death. And what she said was true enough. She did need Quistis here - if the former students attacked, they'd stand a much better chance if they stuck together.
Quistis only nodded, the look on her face clearly showing her displeasure. Someone else to hate her, then. It hardly seemed to matter now; Quistis would never realize that Xu already hated herself for this worse than anyone else ever could, that she would blame herself for this disaster for the rest of her life. Her career was over, and it was hard to care. If she couldn't do any better than this, that was for the best.
Movement flashed across one of the screens, and Xu bent down to look. She started to call out to Quistis, but the other woman was already back to work and Xu didn't want to give her a chance to stop and think things over again. Onscreen, the excavation chamber burst into a flurry of activity. The assembled students made way as the crane poised over the pool rotated, bringing its burden into the view of the camera. It didn't look like much, just a standard issue SeeD undersea storage module, a little streaked with rust and dented from use, yet the figures around the pool knelt in reverence before it, bending until their foreheads brushed the floor. What was the meaning of this?
The storage module's battered door drifted open, and-
I see you.
-the LIGHT spilled up and out of the screen, striking her full in the face and tearing apart conscious thought in its wake. She realized that she had bitten through her lip, that her hands were gripping the edge of the console so tightly that the sharp edges were cutting into her flesh, that her eyes were burning and a curtain of red was falling over the world...
And then she was fifteen again and the back of the car was hot and sticky and his hands were on her. She had fought him with everything she had, first with words and then her fists, but her training was no good yet, she was only into her second year of self-defense and he was older and bigger and so much stronger and he was on top of her, his breath in her face, reeking of whiskey and vomit. Her roommate had told her to stay away from the Balamb town boys but she hadn't listened - why hadn't she listened? His hand tightened around her throat, surely he didn't mean to kill her, just rape her, but she didn't know, she didn't know anything anymore because she had told herself not an hour ago that he was nice, such a nice boy, and handsome too. But that was before he told her she owed him and she called him a jerk and he grabbed her and she said hey, come on, stop and he didn't. She couldn't die like that, not there, not in the backseat of that broken-down old wreck, not when she could still hear the stupid, cloying strains of music from the beach party not fifty feet away.
And then her hand was free and her fingers were digging into his eyes, burrowing deep. Blood ran down her knuckles and across the back of her hand and he screamed but that didn't matter, he deserved it, he deserved all that she could give him. She felt flush and her heart hammered as he shrieked and sobbed and they pulled her off of him, but that wasn't enough, not nearly enough - she wanted him to hurt like he hurt her, she wanted him to die, just die and was that her screaming, was it?
She was four and blood was in her mouth, her head still ringing from her father's slap. His voice rang out above her, stern, lecturing on the importance of being a good servant of God, a good citizen, a good girl. And she knew then with a certainty that would endure for the rest of her life that she hated him.
And she was seventeen and Timothy was dead in her arms, and she thought of the way it felt when he touched her for the first time and she shivered and she thought of the soldier that killed him and a different sort of shiver stole through her. She thought of slow work with a knife and wanted to be sick in the grass again but there was nothing left in her to vomit up, nothing left in her to care. It was gone, it was all gone. She peeled it away with most of the soldier's flesh, a strip at a time, and there was nothing left in either place but bone and-
And she was thirteen, her hands between her legs in the dark of her bedroom and she heard her father's voice in her head, harsh, condemning, and she thought, Fuck you, dad. Fuck you, as tears of shame slid down her face-
And she was eighteen and the blood was splattering her as she gunned the Dollet soldiers down-
And she was six and screaming again, pummeling the child on the ground before her-
And she was-
And she was-
As the download finished, Quistis removed the last of the discs and stored it in the pocket of her vest with the rest. Maybe the data on it would help the higher-ups at Balamb figure out just what had happened here, but she didn't care anymore. What had happened here went beyond anything numbers could quantify, beyond anything the human mind could grasp. Part of her still could not believe that this was actually happening; it was all too surreal, too senseless, too fast. She had stepped up to the precipice and tumbled over the edge into a universe where anything seemed possible, where madness was contagious and her own friends had become monsters.
Perhaps she would wake up in bed, scared and covered in cold sweat but all right. Perhaps she had suffered some sort of catastrophic stroke, her blood clotting in her brain and birthing this hallucinogenic nightmare. Perhaps the GFs had finally done what the Esthar docs warned about and driven her completely out of her skull. Anything. Anything would be preferable than believing she was awake, whole, sane, and this was really happening.
But are you sane? a voice in her head asked, and she wondered. Dream or not, she had decided that she was going to go after Zell. She couldn't leave him to his fate, no matter what her orders were, not after what she'd seen them do to Irvine. It was madness and they would likely both die and the cowardly part of her was whispering that she should get out, survive, but she couldn't do it. If she died, if she failed, then so be it. She would try, or she would never be able to live with herself.
Still mothering them all, she thought, and another time she might have smiled.
Quistis stepped back from the console and squared her shoulders. Her mouth was already open to tell Xu that she was leaving, that she'd finished with the data and her orders, that all the rules were off and she wasn't going to leave Zell to his fate, when the other woman spoke.
"Quistis," Xu's voice was never gentle, but it sounded strange now. Rough, distorted, as if her vocal cords were strained to the breaking point. "Come here. Something's going on in the excavation chamber."
Quistis knew something was wrong. She couldn't explain how she knew, not just yet, but she felt it nevertheless, as if ice water were trickling down her spine. She took one halting step toward the other woman. She picked up her whip from the console, almost unconsciously twisting the handle, readying it for a rapid strike. If there was one thing Garden ground into you, it was to trust your instincts. Once you'd been out in the field long enough, they practically became a sixth sense.
As she took a second step forward, Quistis realized what had set her off. The way Xu was standing, slumped heavily over the console, head lowered, shoulders sagging, simply looked wrong. If it had been Zell or Irvine, she never would've noticed, but Xu was always SeeD yearbook fresh, even in the middle of the night, even in the middle of this madness. There was a flash of a memory, of Seifer failing another SeeD exam, of him leaning against the wall and yelling after the departing Xu, Don't see how you ever passed with that steel ramrod up your cunt! and she bit back crazed, hysterical laughter.
Then Quistis saw the blood that had leaked out around Xu's hands where they gripped the edges of the console, saw that despite this the other woman was still holding on with white-knuckle force, and her laughter turned to hot bile. It couldn't be- how-
The screen,the thought came to her, frantic and yammering but horribly logical. Whatever it is is so bad it works through the screen-
"That's an order, Quistis," Xu said.
Quistis took a step back, letting her whip uncoil to the ground. If she could just move fast enough-
But Xu turned around, and for a moment, the shock was enough to freeze Quistis in place. Xu's face had turned into a clumsy parody of what it had once been, eyes bloodshot and bulging, mouth curved up in a manic grin, chin covered with blood. She looked like an animal. A rabid animal, crazed and pissed off and thirsty, ready to bite anything that came near, to rend and tear until nothing was left.
Is this how Hyne made us? Quistis thought, and somehow that was even worse than seeing her friend this way. Is this what we are?
"I told you that was a fucking order," Xu said, stepping away from her console toward Quistis. Behind Xu, the security camera feeds on the viewscreens were gray and indistinct, but Quistis knew that if she got closer she would see what was in the excavation chamber, and she would be just as lost as the rest of them. The thought pounded into her with such numb horror that she didn't realize, not until it was almost too late, that Xu had scooped up her snub nosed pistol.
Quistis's arm snapped forward just as Xu leveled her pistol and began to squeeze the trigger. There was a sharp crack as her weapon crashed into Xu's hand, knocking the pistol away, swallowing the sound of the gunshot-
Xu's bullet, traveling far faster than the speed of sound, had already left the gun before the whip struck home. It plowed into Quistis's left thigh, carving out a bloody tunnel, burrowing through flesh and muscle with ravenous intensity. The pain was blinding and immediate. Her muscles screamed in agony and locked up; she went down on one knee, blood gushing from the wound.
Through the haze of pain in front of her eyes Quistis could see Xu moving forward and though it took all she had, she lashed out again with her whip. But the angle and her positioning were bad, her swing slow and sloppy. Xu snared the whip with her hands and tore it from Quistis's grip easily. Throwing it aside, she kept coming.
Quistis tried to stand up, to at least meet her opponent on her feet, but it was no good. Her leg had gone dead beneath her; her muscles would not respond, would not do anything but scream out their pain in torturous stags that scattered her thoughts to the wind. And she was bleeding out - already the left side of her skirt was stained dark red, and she could feel sticky runnels oozing down her leg and into her boot, see the puddle of expanding crimson on the floor. The bullet must have nicked an artery, and the wound needed immediate pressure, but she was in no position to treat herself now. Maybe that was best. Bleeding to death was never the kind of thing a sane person hoped for, but nothing in this world was sane anymore. It would be better than becoming one of them.
Quistis lunged for the other woman, but Xu sidestepped her clumsy attack with ease and she went down hard, sprawling facedown on the cold, slick marble. Immediately she braced her hands against the floor, trying to lever herself up, ignoring the sudden taste of blood in her mouth. Her leg exploded into fresh agony as Xu kicked her and she went down again, breath coming in short, sobbing gasps. Shame settled on top of her fear- she was a SeeD, and she should be better than this. They were all trained to be better than this, but she had never trained with a bullet in her leg and her own blood drenching her, with a mind teetering on the edge of consciousness and a body screaming with pain.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see Selphie's nunchaku lying where Zell had dropped it, only a few steps away. She'd never used the weapon, but it was something, and it didn't seem too different from her whip. If she could only get over to it somehow she-
Xu's heel ground down on the seeping hole in the back of her leg and her thoughts were obliterated by her own screams. The world flared garishly bright and then darkened; spots danced before her eyes and her blood, hot and coppery, was trickling down the back of her throat now. But all of that was ancillary, meaningless, next to the pain. She had been hurt before, during the war, but it had never been like this. Then they'd still used the GFs and her friends had been with her. Now there was only her and the pain, and it was consuming her. She couldn't fight, couldn't even think. There was a split second when she allowed herself to hope for Squall and then she felt herself crashing into a black wall of oblivion.
But that merciful moment of darkness lasted only seconds. Quistis drifted back to feel Xu's hands on her, slipping under her arms, lifting roughly. Her injured leg spasmed and complained as she was hauled upright, but next to the earlier agony, the pain was nothing. She opened her eyes and saw Xu's arms curled under her own, pinning her in a full nelson, holding her close. Xu's breath was hot on her neck, rasping in her ear. She could smell the other woman's sweat, feel the feverish heat rolling off of her and the crazed, irregular beat of her heart.
They began to move, Xu dragging her backwards across the room towards the screen. Quistis closed her eyes and willed herself to be still, to not cry out from the pain that movement reawoke in her leaden leg. She couldn't let Xu know she was awake; she'd lost the fight on even terms and now she was tired, wounded. Surprise was her only chance. But it would be so easy to go the other way, to slip off into nothingness, dizzy as she was from blood loss. The pain, so unwelcome only a few seconds ago, was something of a relief now. At least it was keeping her awake.
Then she was yanked roughly around and she knew if she opened her eyes she'd see it on the screen, knew madness was only an eyelid's thickness away.
"Look," Xu's voice still carried some semblance of its old, cold authority, but it was soon lost in her madness like a candle in a blizzard. "Look. Look. LOOK LOOK LOOK YOU FUCKING CUNT LOOK LOOK LO-"
Quistis gave a sudden twist and her left arm popped free from Xu's grasp. Keeping her eyes clenched shut, she cocked her arm and planted her heels, driving her elbow back into Xu's gut. There was a satisfying impact and she thought she felt the grip on her other arm loosen a little, but Xu did not let go.
Xu's other arm snaked around Quistis's waist, pulling her close, and she realized she no longer had room to use the elbow strike. She tried for an over the shoulder backfist, but it was slow and clumsy and hit nothing but air. Xu's fingernails tore across her stomach, leaving bloody trenches in their wake. Quistis felt the other woman's lips trailing over her shoulder and then there was the sharp, sudden stab of her teeth, piercing flesh, ripping into Quistis like a carnivore tearing into a kill.
Quistis screamed and knew the game was up, that she was fighting blind against an animal who made its home in the darkest regions of the human soul and there was no way she could win. Xu's arm was still wrapped around her waist like a vise and the fingers of her other hand scrabbled across Quistis's face like the legs of a spider, struggling to pry her eyelids open.
Squall, she thought, and realized she was crying.
Xu's fingers trailed along Quistis's eyebrows, but she jerked her head to the side and they slipped away. Her left hand was still free, but what good could it do? She groped blindly, feeling for Xu's wrist, but stopped as she felt something stab her fingertip. Something sharp, there in the pocket of her vest, but what-
And she remembered removing the data discs, storing them safely away-.
-they must have broken when I hit the floor-
-in her pockets.
She clenched her fingertips around one of the largest of the shards and pulled it free. Then she stabbed it down towards the arm around her waist. There was a wet sound and the shard met resistance; she tightened her grip and bore down harder, twisting, not caring that the edges of the sharp plastic were cutting into her own fingers as well. Xu didn't make a sound, but Quistis felt her arm jerk away and she spun to her right, the makeshift dagger still in hand. The weapon slammed into Xu's side with her full weight behind it, penetrating deeply before it broke off with a snap.
Then the restraining hold on her arm was gone and she spun away, tottering on her own unsure legs. Her arms flailed out for balance and she fell back against the console, bracing herself. There was a split second where she had time to take a gasping breath and wonder if she dared open her eyes and then Xu was on her.
"Look, " Xu hissed. She was close enough to kiss, her saliva warm on Quistis's face. "Look into the face of your god. Gaze into the eye of eternity. Become a true human like the rest of us."
"You're crazy," Quistis shot back. She hadn't wanted to answer Xu before but now she was desperate to buy some time, to jockey for a better position. As it was, she could barely move - the entire length of the Xu's body was pressed against her own, forcing her hard against the console behind her. Her arms were trapped, folded against her chest like stunted, useless wings. "Like anyone would want to be what you are."
"You already are." It was the almost casual way she said it that was so unnerving, as if it were a fact she'd known all her life.
"You're lying," Quistis spat, and even though part of her was only saying it to draw the other out, the rest of her had to believe it was true.
Xu's fingers cupped Quistis's chin, tilting her head back, and she felt an gremlin dance down her spine. "There is no such thing. No virtue. No sin. Such things are not in our nature."
"Lying," and her voice was a hiss now. She thought of Squall, of fireworks on the beach, and of Xu herself, laughing her rare laugh in the Balamb Cafe.
"You are only dreaming. You have been dreaming your entire life, all of you. All through the long years since that war where our kind rose up against him. You have forgotten what we are. You and your kind are suffering from the greatest of mass delusions. And you call us mad."
Quistis could not explain the intensity of the anger that rose in her at that moment. Before there had been pain, weariness, fear, but it was gone, burned away by red, boiling rage. Her friends were gone, dead or driven mad, and for that alone she wanted to tear the thing that had been Xu apart. But more than that, its words tore at something deep within her. It was not enough for Hyne, for whatever it was that was driving them mad, to take lives. It also poisoned the world and the memory of her friends, cheapened and degraded everything she had ever felt, love and sorrow and loss. To say that she, that everyone, was mad for feeling, for living, seemed the worst kind of blasphemy.
She still could not bring herself to open her eyes, but she sensed and felt the other woman leaning closer. For a moment, she could only think of those rare times Xu had let her guard down and hugged her, once not so very long ago. He doesn't care, Quistis remembered saying. "Not for me. Not at all." And for once, her friend had had nothing to say. But that was all right, wasn't it? Sometimes you only needed someone to be there, to listen-
Quistis realized she was sinking away again, towards unconsciousness or madness, her thoughts spooling away. Dreaming, the other had said. There were worse things than dreaming, and maybe if she just allowed herself to drift away... But reality would not be denied; she came springing back to consciousness, one horrified thought racing through her mind-
She's - oh god, she's-
Xu's lips brushed over the hole she'd bitten in Quistis's shoulder, her tongue lapping at the wound. Bloodslick hands had slipped between bloodslick thighs and her fingers were working, twisting, hurting but at the same time curdling a sick, feverish heat. Her own narrow hips pumped against Quistis in spastic clockwork jerks, sending stabs of pain through her wounded leg. Perhaps it was this that had jerked her from her thoughts; perhaps it was merely revulsion.
Whatever had originally roused her, it was anger that kept her going, anger ignited by Xu's words and fueled by her touch. It was bad enough when only her ideals had been violated, but to have it happen to her body, to see her friend driven this far into insanity, woke something dark and primitive and reptilian in her brain. Rage pulsed behind her eyeballs, rose and consumed her, and then she was moving.
Quistis slammed her head into Xu's face with all the force she could muster and felt the other reel back. Hot blood splattered her face as she slid sideways, slipping from Xu's hold. Xu stumbled forward, and Quistis bulled into her, slamming her sideways, ramming her forcefully into the console. For a moment, Quistis groped blindly, and then her fingers were clenching themselves in Xu's hair, pulling her head back. Quistis waited until she heard the creak of vertebrae strained to the breaking point before pushing down with all the strength her rage had given her. Xu's face slammed into the console and a viewscreen broke with an almost delicate tinkle beneath it.
Have a look at that, bitch. Quistis thought. Another viewscreen broke, then another and another. Xu twisted, but even though she was still strong and Quistis's hands were slick with blood, she couldn't get away. Quistis smiled. She had it down to a rhythm now. Lift, slam, step to the right. Lift, slam, step to the right.
Xu's thrashing was weak now, the flailing of a bird with a broken wing. There was a flash of memory, of Irvine and Selphie doing something with a bird and her own voice telling them to stop, but that seemed far away and useless now. Right now, she had to concentrate on more important things. Like her form, her rhythm. Beating Xu's brains out reminded her, bizarrely, of using a heavy door knocker.
Knock knock, she thought. A viewscreen caved in with an almost reluctant sigh. Xu gurgled, her legs kicking frantically, heels drumming out a sharp tattoo on the floor. Garden calling. And then she was laughing harder than she ever had in her life.
She was still laughing several minutes later, when she finally opened her eyes and saw the trail of destruction she'd left behind. Blood and shattered glass was everywhere; she'd smashed out nearly every monitor in the room, and streaks of blood stained the consoles and keyboards like the spoor of some exotic slug. Xu's corpse was on its knees, slumped over a nearby console, buried up to the shoulders in a monitor. The sight was horribly ridiculous and Quistis was still laughing when her good leg gave out and she slid to the floor.
Well, I proved my point, she thought, glancing around. She was getting dizzy, probably because she'd lost a fair amount of blood. Still, at the moment she didn't feel so bad. Pleasant, almost. Sane human beings aren't violent at all.
A fresh wave of laughter hit her and she had to hold her side and then there was a hot rush in her throat and she was vomiting. After the spasms had passed, she raised her head, felt tears cooling on her cheeks, and realized suddenly that sometime in the middle of all this she had stopped laughing and started crying and hadn't even known the difference.
That's because there is no difference, she thought dully. Never is and never was and - oh God, she was right you're crazy you're all crazy look at this look at what you just fucking did....
When they came to get her a few minutes later, Zell foremost among them, she almost told them not to bother. There was no need for the ritual. She was one of them already and she always had been. She'd wandered astray, gotten a little confused, a little wrapped up in other things, but at heart she'd always been one of them. She'd just been dreaming, that was all. Just like she had thought.
Now, she was wide awake.
***Selected Headlines from the WorldWired Newsnet, 7/22/89-7/30/89***
Hundreds Killed in Trabia Garden Explosion
Garden - "Casualty Rate Estimated at 100%"
Garden - "We Have Not Ruled Out any Possibilities."
Galbadia, Terrorists Prime Suspects
Leonhart Speaks Out - "A Terrible, Inexplicable Tragedy."
Memorial Services Held at B-Garden
The sun was settling over the waves, the sky deepening and turning into a mosaic of purple and red. In this light, the beach seemed almost otherworldly - the sands stretched dark and quiet, the tide drifted slowly in, and the only sounds were the whispering of the ocean and the plaintive cries of the day's last seabirds.
Squall Leonhart walked that beach alone, the collar of his SeeD uniform turned up to shield him. It was early spring and the nights were cool here near the beach. They always had been and always would be - one constant in a life that seemed to change so much.
Rinoa had wanted to come down to the seashore with him, but Squall had asked her to stay back at the orphanage. It wasn't that she wasn't welcome; he simply wanted to be alone for awhile. She would want to talk to him about what had happened, press him for details, for feelings. Later, perhaps he could talk about such things. Right now, he was numb and he wanted to preserve that feeling as long as possible. He wanted to walk the sands of his childhood and try to forget for a moment that he had sent a trusted subordinate and three of his childhood friends, three of the people who had walked this very beach, to their deaths.
Matron and Cid were nearly inconsolable. The orphanage had running water and a generator, but no one had bothered to lay a cable out this far and any news they might get was weeks out of date. Squall had had to tell them himself, and he could still remember the way they'd seemed to wilt at the news - Matron's face turning into a network of deep wrinkles, running with tears, Cid's shoulders sagging as if someone had physically struck him. They had looked suddenly and terribly old, and part of him had felt guilty for telling them at all.
The memorial service had been an even greater nightmare, the televised eulogy an utter farce. He had spoken of duty and honor and service and other things that meant nothing, all the while seeing this place in his mind, their shared childhood more important than anything Garden could give them. There were no words to express the way he felt, what his friends had meant to him, what kind of terrible loss he had suffered. He blamed himself, replayed the events of that night in his mind over and over. It was Irvine's voice that always haunted him the most - Some of us care about the people in that Garden. Some of us are willing to go out and risk our lives... He had cared. He had. Just not enough.
And so he found himself here. To what? Ask for their forgiveness? Say goodbye in a way that wasn't garish and false as yesterday's memorial service had been? He didn't know. So often, he didn't know, and he wondered if everyone's feelings were this hard to describe or he was just out of practice at it. Either way, it didn't seem to matter. He was here, he was alone, and he had no idea what he should-
Squall stopped. It was lying there at his feet, half buried in the sand, but the last of the fading sunlight had caught it and caused it to glint.
CAFETERIA, the metal placard read. It was Garden issue, green trim, which had to mean-
Oh God. Pieces of Trabia are washing up here. Here, of all places, right on Cid and Matron's doorstep-
Would there be worse? Pieces of the Garden were bad enough, but pieces of Garden Students-
He felt ill, and suddenly he wanted no more than to be off this beach, away from here, on board the Ragnarok and back at B-Garden and in bed and in Rinoa's arms. He turned away from the sea, meaning to make his way up the gorse-choked hills and back to the orphanage, and then he heard the voice.
"Squall." It drifted out of a nearby stand of grass, parched and strained but somehow familiar. "Squall. Help me."
Run, some part of him screamed. Now. But that was ridiculous. He'd clearly heard someone calling his name, someone asking for help. And what danger was there? Whoever had called out didn't sound much like they were up to hurting anyone. He stepped closer, parted the tall blades of close-growing grass, and there, lying on the ground, was- but it couldn't be-
She lay facedown, her blond hair matted with seaweed, her uniform reduced to pink tatters. Her boots were gone, her feet bloody and bare. She was streaked with dirt and grime and she must be nearly frozen to death out here, but she was still breathing. And she had called his name.
"Quistis?" he repeated, kneeling by her. He let his hand play across her tangled, matted hair, the softest of touches. "I'm here. Are you okay?"
Guess, genius, his mind said, but beneath it there was still that hint of foreboding, that part that had told him to flee. Something that whispered that whatever Quistis might be, she was fundamentally not okay.
"Squall," she didn't face him, but her voice was reasonably clear. "Didn't think... would ever see you again."
"What happened?" he asked. "Why did the Garden explode? What happened there?"
"We saw." Her voice was flat, dead. "We saw everything."
"What do you mean?"
She rolled over onto her back, and trained as he was, even he could not keep himself from jerking back at the sight. Deep gashes crisscrossed her stomach, her leg was bleeding slowly from a scabbed-over gunshot wound, her shoulder had what was all-too-obviously a bite mark. But it was her eyes that looked the worst, those bulging bloodshot eyes like windows into insanity.
"You'll see, too." And her parched, bloodstained lips curled up in a smile. "They're coming."
She didn't need to tell him; he had heard them, moving along the beach with even, purposeful steps. He turned and there they were, a dozen or more, each as ragged-looking as Quistis, each with those same bloodshot eyes. They came in two rows, carrying a litter of woven seaweed and branches between them. He recognized those in front. Selphie, her slender, naked frame pale against the twilight-dark sand. Zell, half his face reduced to bloody red meat, his left eye dangling sightless on his cheek, but that smile, that damnably familiar smile, still splitting his face. Behind them came others, ones he didn't recognize, but they could have been anyone, anywhere.
And Squall knew, somehow, that what he was looking at was nothing less than madness marshalled together, chaos made into order. A new order. A future order. In that moment he imagined them swarming the world by the thousands, converts to the global religion of insanity. Part of it seemed almost understandable, in a mad world where children killed for money and the missiles flew and life was so tragically, brutally short.
A nest of reeds perched on the center of the litter, and as the strange mob drew closer, he could see it rustling, drawing aside. For a moment, the briefest of seconds but far too long for his still-sane mind, he saw the thing within. Saw the horrible, pallid realness of it, like the bleached flesh of a cave fish, saw it in terrible detail. The swell of skull, hacked viciously into a crude, battered shape, the sweep of deadwhite flesh that might once have been a cheek, the cold deadwhite blood vessels trailing like dangling roots from its surface. The rounded, burning orb perched in the ruined cathedral of a socket, seething, twitching with impossible bloodless life. An iris the color of riotous corpse-mushrooms, a pupil dull and black, but alive, unmistakably and terribly alive, and watching.
The thing's gaze turned to Squall, and he felt his blood turn to ice. His mind went blank, and chaos entered, filling the jagged spaces. Light streamed from the thing, taking him, lifting him, consuming the world. In his head, the gears of thought jammed and the machinery began to scream shrilly. He saw. He saw murder and profanity and horror and rape and love and destruction and creation and anger and hatred and they were all the same. Always had been and always would be, bound together and forever within him, within all of them. He understood. He saw.
He saw everything. He saw nothing.
And nothing spoke:
I see you.
Author's Notes: Well guys and gals, I just don't see how I can follow this. It's done. Head on up to review if you want, or don't. Feel free as usual to complement or criticize as you see fit. As usual, I'd also appreciate it if you tried to avoid spoilers, but if you can't, I won't be coming to hose your house down with napalm or anything. That being said, I'll close with a thanks for reading and allow you all to excuse yourselves now if you want. If you're interested though, a bit about why I decided to write this story in the first place and why I made certain decisions.
It's never a good sign when an author takes too much time talking about his or her work, but the secret we all keep is that we love it. It's hopefully also not a bad sign that I'm including some explanation here. I'm hoping that the story is fairly self-explanatory without being heavy handed, but if you have any questions, this will probably answer them. It may be cheating slightly, but hey, this is fanfic and we're all cheating a little, right?
First off, and something fairly common with my FF8 fics, is that GFs are scarce or nonexistant. This is because they tend to spoil the fun. In my continuity, Garden discontinues their use because they're causing lasting damage to both the memories and the genetics of their users. Bad mojo and all that. (Of course, that may be why everyone seems to be so damn fragile in my fics). Anyway, I've never had any complaints about it and don't feel too bad since the game itself ignores the hell out of them most of the time. Still, working a general explanation of why they didn't use GFs into this particular fic was rather cumbersome, so here you go.
When I set out to write a horror piece on FF8, I was well aware that horror is a field usually untapped in this particular fandom and others like it. The reason for this, I think, is that it's hard to find a horror big enough. The average person is pretty easily scared; a Jason or a zombie or two will do for us. But what in the world do you find to scare someone like Squall and the gang, who routinely blow away skeletons and monsters, jump through time distortion, and save the world? After all that, what could possibly reduce them to the kind of poor wrecks you usually see in a horror story?
I went with a twofold answer. I confronted them first with a manifestation of the ultimate outside evil - a chunk o'Hyne that Trabia was unfortunate enough to stumble across. I think it's probably obvious for anyone that reads horror regularly that this critter owes a lot to the Elder Gods of H.P. Lovecraft - the mere sight of these awesome, cosmic beasties could drive a man insane. (And if you didn't get the homage here, stop reading my crummy fanfic and find some Lovecraft!) In Ultimecia, the characters had defeated a villain who almost had the power of a god. The only way to top that, to reduce them from lethal killing machines to terrified victims, was to confront them with god itself - in this case, a malevolent, evil god who had created humanity as nothing more than a cruel, vengeful little plaything (And considering how Hyne behaves in the Legend of Vascaroon, I don't think I'm too far off the mark).
Yet at the same time, I wanted to confront them with a more realistic and universal monster - the one we all have living in us. You'll notice that for all its (hopefully evoked) creepiness, Hyne doesn't DO a whole hell of a lot other than drive whoever sees him mad by showing them their nasty side and letting their Id out for a party.
Ultimately the evil in this story is a very human one; it is the insane followers of Hyne that maim, kill, and eat one another like rabid animals. They are nothing more than people who have slipped beyond the constraints placed on them by rational society. Hence the repeated - and not, I hope, too heavy-handed - breaking of taboos in the story. The creatures drink each other's blood and engage in cannibalism. They turn on those most important to them. They seem overtaken with vulgarity. And pervy ol' Xu even gets off on fondling the woman she shot and bit two minutes previously. The goal was to break as many taboos as I could as fast as I could, and I think I got a fair number. (I guess I did miss incest, but you can find plenty of that in the slash section.) And of course, to paraphrase Stephen King, sometimes you just gotta go for the gross-out.
It may spoil you a bit to find out that I don't actually think God created us to be vicious little cannibals (in fact, I'm a Christian, though I think I'd have to answer for a bit if I read this story in Sunday school), but sadly enough I feel our nature does make its forays into the jungle. In a world where we've seen things like the Holocaust, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Intifada, it's hard to deny that there must be something in us that Just Ain't Right. Call it a negative view on human nature if you want, I'll call it being practical. After all, one of you out there might be just nuts enough to want to eat me. ;)
And with that little tidbit, I bring this tiresome effort in philosophy to a close. And I have to admit, looking up over it, that I find the fact that I'm laying all this out in a fanfic a little odd. But hey, just because you're never going to publish it and you're swiping a few characters doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do things RIGHT.
That's one philosophy you can hold on to.
Till next time,