Chapter 23 - N.p.s.N.g.s., Conclusion
Squall seemed to materialize from the very mist. He stood ready in combat position, facing Ultimecia. Lionheart was in his grasp, glowing with an eerie bioluminescence in the gray surroundings. The sorceress opened her mouth and a piercing shriek split the air.
"You!" Ultimecia stood, her face twisted in fury and eyes glowing with hatred. "I will have your life, impudent child! You dare face me in my domain, alone? Do you forget that when last you faced me, it took all your power to defeat me?"
Squall's eyes blazed with crystalline intensity. He narrowed his gaze and glared at her. "You talk too much."
"Knight, to me," she commanded. "It is time to klaim your destiny."
"If you insist," said Seifer, brandishing Hyperion and moving to stand beside Squall.
"What is this?" Ultimecia demanded.
"I believe we were calling it 'my destiny'," Seifer smirked. "It's my mind. Consider this your eviction notice."
"Fool! Despicable whelp! You should now kall it your demise!" She lifted her hand and the fog began to coalesce, whirling and compacting to form a chrysalis. "Thanataeros!" she screamed. Massive mercury wings like a dragon's emerged first, wet and covered in ichor. Claws reached out, flexing, followed by forearms covered in gleaming iron scales. Feet pushed through and shook the very ground where they struck. The cocoon began to dissipate, revealing flaming red biceps, a silver torso, and black legs, all muscled and covered with pulsing veins. Two horns ornamented either side of its head, the eyes shared the eerie amber gaze of its mistress, and two fangs hung down outside its mouth.
The monster swung at Squall with one gleaming claw. Raising Lionheart to block the oncoming hit, it impacted between the fiend's second and third digits, sundering flesh, blood vessels, and cartilage before coming to rest in bone. Howling in shock, the beast moved forward, pressing down further on the blade wedged in its hand. Squall braced his feet, but felt them sliding back under the mounting pressure.
Seifer rushed forward, burying Hyperion in the palm of the monster. Exerting his full strength, he felt the blade slip forward as Thanataeros continued to press down. Seizing the grip in both hands, Seifer dropped to the ground, rolling away as he pulled down on Hyperion, sending the gouging teeth ripping through bone, splattering blood and flesh in a descending arc.
Squall withdrew and ran to cover Seifer as he stood. Already another assault was on the way. Lightening seemed to crackle through Thanateros' veins. The damaged hand popped and spat as electrical charges sparked through the gaping hole in the palm. Wings beating furiously, the monster rose in the air, out of reach of a gunblade. It hovered in midair then began a dive down to the ground. A lightening bolt struck the ground between Seifer and Squall, sending them flying through the air. Bellowing, the creature bared its fangs and swooped down toward Squall.
Squall lay dazed, his head spinning. He opened his eyes only to see the looming form of Ultimecia's creature. It flew low, claws extended in preparation for swiping across defenseless human flesh. Scrambling back, but unable to stand, Squall swung Lionheart with all the force he could and felt it make contact with the tough hide of the torso. A single claw grazed across his thigh, carving a deep gash that nearly hit bone.
Seifer had blacked out from the impact. He was regaining consciousness when he saw Squall under attack. Seifer forced himself up on unsteady feet and ran as best he could to Squall's side.
"You have to get her," Squall said.
"You're hurt. You need to get out of here."
"No. You can't do this alone. You won't make it and you know it. Listen to me. If you can take Ultimecia, it will all be over. I can't do it Seifer, only you can."
"We'll do it together."
"I said no. Get her, now! I'll distract, just wait for the signal."
Seifer took a step back, his emotions warring with his battle sense. Squall struggled to his feet, his injured leg dragging behind him. Thanataeros landed behind him and Squall turned to face him. As the fiend raised its uninjured hand Squall yelled "Now!" and ran toward the creature. Seifer bolted toward Ultimecia, Hyperion raised to strike her down.
Squall unleashed a deadly barrage of swipes and thrusts, then raised Lionheart above his head for one final swing. In a desperate attack of fury, Thanataeros plunged his claws deep through Squall's abdomen just as Lionheart impacted the skull with a deadly crack.
Seifer turned to see Lionheart splinter as it penetrated the cranium. Thanataeros howled in agony as its skull was split asunder. An instant later Squall fell to the ground, lifeless.
Seifer felt every good thing within him die that instant. Like a demon unchained he crossed the space between himself and Ultimecia. She was grinning sadistically.
"Now who has truly won? You should have known better. You are a failure, and you shall die a failure by my hands."
"You overestimate yourself."
"Even if you kill me now, you have lost."
"There's just one thing you forgot."
"This is my mind!"
Seifer stood, Hyperion leveled at Ultimecia's breast, his eyes blazing in a cold fury. He finally realized that Ultimecia held no more power than he gave to her. He only hoped that somehow, he could find a way to save Squall.
"Ultimecia!" Seifer thundered, "I give you back that which is rightfully yours - the pain, the nightmares, the hatred. I give you the blood on my hands and the destruction done in your name. I give you back every scream, every tear, every life that was lost! You stand now in my domain, and here you hold no power. Your life is forfeit!"
With that, Hyperion pierced the chest of Ultimecia. As Seifer pulled the trigger, the golden aura penetrated through her body. She raised her bloody hands to her chest as her very substance began to disintegrate. Like dust it swirled to the ground. Time had caught up to Ultimecia. Seifer slammed the blade of Hyperion into the earth, a monument to the battle fought.
The shattered blade of Lionheart lay strewn across the dirt. Kneeling on the ground, Seifer took Squall's battered body in his arms and pressed his face against Squall's neck. The cost was too high - regaining his mind only to lose his heart. Tears flowed freely down his face, falling into the tangled mess of Squall's hair. He kissed Squall's lips, a silent farewell. Then, Seifer's arms enclosed on emptiness. Squall had disappeared.
There was no way Seifer could now undo what had been done. He wasn't even sure that even though he had control of his mind he would ever find his way back to his body. It almost seemed better to stay here than to return to a world without Squall. The mist surrounding him receded and he found himself kneeling by the low stone wall of the orphanage.
His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of giggles and the light footfalls of children's feet. Seifer raised his eyes to find himself face to face with a trio of children - a towheaded blonde boy, a brunette girl, and a fair skinned brunette boy with pale blue eyes. They stared openly at him, unsure of what to do or say. How had they come to be here?
"Hey mister, wha's wrong?" the blonde asked.
"I lost my friend." Seifer wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
"Are ya gonna go find him? What if he's alone scared?" asked the brunette boy.
"Well he was with me, but he left. He promised to be here, but I don't know how to find him. I don't know that there's any way to get him back."
It was too ironic. Technically, Squall had kept his promise. He was here. He was just all of five years old. Seifer found himself at an utter loss to explain what was happening. Were these merely fragments of his memory, delusions to entertain a mind on the verge of a breakdown?
"He can't be alone Squall! Once you got friends they stay with you all the time, 'cause they always stay here!" the blonde thumped on his chest with his open hand.
"Hmph. I bet'cha Sis could find him! She can find stuff good! Can you find him? Huh Sis, can ya?"
The little girl bent over. She placed a hand on Seifer's brow and looked up to smile at Seifer disarmingly. "He didn't leave you. He's waiting on you."
"Well where is he waiting? I'd like to find him."
"Oh, I think you know. You can head back through the gate at the front. It will take you to the road. You can't stay here. I'm sure you're very nice but this isn't your home."
With that they were gone in a flurry of feet and innocence. If only it were that easy to believe, that he could find Squall. To hold the memory of Squall in his heart wasn't the same thing as being able to hold Squall. Seifer closed his eyes. If he concentrated hard enough, he could swear that he could feel the faint tickle of Squall's breath against his lips, Squall's arms around his waist, the scent of him. Seifer's heart was torn. He stood up and began to walk toward the front gate. Squall wasn't here, wasn't coming. Squall was gone. Seifer stopped at the gate, one hand on the latch. He turned and looked toward the field one last time, willing for Squall to be there, as he had promised he would. Squall had never lied to him. Squall had never broken a promise. But Squall had never been dead before. With a heavy heart, Seifer looked over the field of flowers, pushed open the gate, and stepped through.
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