THE FOURTH UNIVERSE Chapter One

THE FOURTH UNIVERSE

CHAPTER 1


"Behold. The saviors of the universe. Guardians of humanity."

A crystal orb shines crimson luminescence, projecting hazy mystic images of six resolute young men and women defying tremendous odds in their attempt to vanquish the most despicable evil to have threatened all of existence.

"Ignoring their weaknesses, putting aside personal strife, conquering their direst and deepest fears."

Glowing bright yellow after casting a spell of motivational rage upon himself, a statuesque lad clad with a long coat and dirt-black hat clenched his teeth, as his impressive silver-coated combat rifle fired salvo after salvo of devastating neutron pulse energy beams at the majestic and fear-inspiring entity whose vile designs sought to compress all of space and time. With each hit, the entity winces in pain, unable to resist the debilitating effect of concentrated subatomic particles bombarding its chronal energy-infused form.

"Their voyage was a long, arduous, and even painful one. Overwhelming horrific adversities, they have at last come face-to-face with this abomination of a sorceress."

Embattled to the core of his being, the man garbed in black poured all his energy in unleashing his deadliest maneuver: a flurry of lightning-quick swings, stabs and slashes that pummeled the weakened enemy. It culminated in a powerful final blow that left an energy trail right through the abomination's battered body.

"And in the end, they prevailed. They have saved existence from total extinction. And the world now owes them a debt that not even a million willing lives can sufficiently repay. There is no question about it. They are heroes. Magnificent warriors and protectors of life's inviolable sanctity."

White light fills the void. The air crackles with unimaginable power as the very life essence of the wicked sorceress empties back into the physical realm from whence it was stolen. Infernal noise resonates into all directions as her hellish screams of agony explode uncontrollably.

"Heroes."

Unfazed and unfettered, the mighty sestet stood their ground, gazing with squinted eyes at the spectacular demise of the repulsive death-bringer. Their black-clad leader maintained his menacing battle stance. The girl with the golden locks didn't relinquish the tight grip on her flexible whip. One whose face is painted with an indiscernible pattern stayed close-fisted, still prepared for the unexpected.

"No, not heroes. That is an understatement. An insult."

Then it began to die down. The light, the noise, the screams, all subsiding one after the other. Until there was nothing

"Legends. Legends all. To the very core of their beings."

except for the six stalwart warriors. Exhausted, panting, and shaking with residual rage. But their faces are marked with nothing but relief. A job well done. A journey ended. A mission accomplished. A universe saved.

"And I despise them. I hate each and every one of them. And I will take pure joy in purging their battle-ridden bodies of the very life essence that animates them."

The crimson light swirled and spiraled. Then dimmed into nothingness to reveal a huge silhouette. Gargantuan and ominous, the mere shadow of the incognito figure speaks pure might. Unadulterated power. Immeasurable malevolence.

"If you hate them so much, then why are you even bothering to what's that glorify their exploits?" The dark shade began.

"Glorify..? Glorify?!? I can see that the years have not been kind to you, old friend. Where's your cunning? Your diabolically astute judgment? Have they been all dulled by those countless centuries of sleeping inside that pathetic lamp? Have they been stripped of the very basic rule of battle that demands for warriors to know their enemies?"

"Hrrr" a barely audible groan echoed.

"You've been away too long. As have I. And both our faculties aren't as sharp as they used to be."

"No kidding." retorted the shadow. He then followed it up with an inquiry spawned by distant memories of the past. "It wouldn't have to be that way if you only listened to me before. Like, I still can't understand why you'd give away your powers just like that. We'd at least have had more of a fighting chance against Hyne had you done otherwise."

"I thought it was the call of the times. Wealth and power can only get a woman so far. And I thought I'd be happier if my name becomes spoken through the ages with a tone befitting that of a legend."

"So what's your problem? You got what you wanted. Not too many sorceresses become the center icon of religions, you know."

"Among a pitiful group of useless old hags who are mostly looked down by the better part of society? You call that being a legend?" snarled the first figure covered with a blood-red cloak. "And to make things monumentally worse, THESE upstarts completely surpassed my greatness! And all it had to take was ONE battle against Ultimecia."

"What can I say?" replied the shadowy figure. "Some guys have all the luck."

"Do not mock me, creature. We may go a long way back, but don't ever think I'd hesitate to have you regressed to a pathetic Imp."

The enormous silhouette didn't answer, visibly shaken by the concealed woman's fearsome threat.

"Enough talk. We have a job to do. Have you accomplished what I set you out to do?"

"Yes I have, my lady. The remaining three have all been accounted for."

"And..?" the woman asked as she stared intently at her co-conspirator.

"Urhhh yes, of course. One is a flower vendor at Winhill. The second is a young mother based in Dollet. And we both know where the third one can be found."

"Yes hmm you're pulsating. Too eager to go after the third target?" the woman inquired with a wry smile.

"Hrrr, YES!" the creature quivered. "I I have waited so long for this golden chance at retribution!"

"Are you sure you want to do this, Tengu? You don't find your task daunting? You do know quite well that you'll be facing nothing less than a Guardian Force."

"ARRRGGGHHHHH!!! I WANT HIS BLACK AND STINKING BLOOD WASHING DOWN THE ROTTING MEAT CRUMBS CLINGING ON MY THROAT! AND I WILL SEE HIS REPULSIVE HEAD ADORNING THE VERY EDGE OF MY FEARSOME DEMON ROD! I WILL HAVE MY REVENGE ON DIABLOS!"

"That you will." The mysterious woman concurred. "You will have your revenge, and I will regain my godhood. This is going to be the sweetest moment in both our eternal lives, Tengu."


Sturdy steel structures and titanium trusses provided an unsightly contrast to the breath-taking grandeur of the famous Balamb Garden central edifice. It's not exactly a sight to behold, but at least Quistis knows that the work of restoring the Garden to its original sight in Balamb country will be over within a month. The popular instructor of the illustrious military academy lets out a sigh. For what purpose, she's not so sure.

It has been a year since that fateful event when they were compelled by incredible circumstances to travel into the future and face the vile sorceress known only as Ultimecia. Quistis still remembers the battle quite well. Well, who wouldn't? It almost cost her and her friends their lives. But more importantly, it was truly a task where failure was not an option. Anything less that total and complete victory would have meant the end of all that is, was, and will be. Though it has been that long, she still shudders at the thought of what their failure would have amounted to.

"Hmph, better stop thinking about it." the wise teenager dismissed her thoughts.

"Seems like yesterday when we last visited this place, huh." A voice from behind startled the bemused SeeD. She turned around to the welcome sight of her comrade and long time friend, the now equally popular Squall Leonhart.

"What? Oh, yeah. Seems like" Quistis trailed off, half questioning the circumstances that brought him to approach her like this. For as long as she can remember, not once did Squall take the initiative to come and talk to her. She was always the first to approach, the first to break the silence, and the first to be given the cold shoulder.

But what the heck, Quistis thought. It was all in the past. Though she knows only too well how notorious Squall was for his chilly attitude toward everybody, her observations of his recent behavioral pattern seemed to suggest that he was indeed a changed man. And frankly, she's not even half-surprised. Funny how being in love brings out the best in nearly everybody.

"Hey Squall. Fancy meeting you here." Quistis retorted as Squall occupied a spot right next to her along the wrought iron railings of the secret area', a secluded location in the Garden just beyond the monster-infested training center. "Where's Rinoa?"

"She's with Zell. And guess what those two are talking about."

"What?" the pretty instructor quizzically replied.

"Zell, of all people, is trying to convince Rinoa to give it a shot at a heart-to-heart talk with her father." Squall shot back, trying to hide an amused smile. "Don't you find that funny?"

"Zell? No, not at all. You know, Squall, you should give the guy more credit. Zell he seems to act brash and impatient most of the times. But he's a good man. If anything, he just cares too much about everyone."

"You think so?"

"I know so. And among the six of us, I think Zell is most qualified to give Rinoa a pointer or two about getting along with her dad. Remember, he's the only one among us who actually had a pretty good childhood with a real family." Quistis added, referring to the Dinchts, a kindhearted family in Balamb who adopted Zell and brought him up as their own.

"Hmm, you're right. I totally forgot about his Ma Dincht. Damn GFs."

"There you go again." The instructor exclaimed while tossing a rolling glance toward her erstwhile student. "You know, you really can't go blaming the GFs whenever you forget something."

"Yeah, I guess you're right, as usual" Squall snapped back as he looked at Quistis. He totally forgot about the next thing he wanted to say when he noticed how his former instructor's eyes sparkled as it fixed its gaze on him. Squall fell silent, totally caught off guard and not knowing how to react while Quistis stared at him with those mesmerizing blue eyes. Though they've been friends for so long, this is perhaps the first and only time when he got a really good look at her. Struck with a sudden bout of discomfort, Squall tried to avoid staring back at her, but for some reason he found himself not wanting to tear his eyes off her lovely face.

"Wh-Why are you looking at me like that, Quistis?"

It took a few moments before the instructor responded. "H-Huh? Oh, uhh nothing. Nothing. I'm sorry" Quistis stuttered, as if she just snapped out of a hypnotic spell. "I I have to go."

Squall did nothing but watch as the visibly shaken Quistis hurriedly ran off. Quite a few seconds had already elapsed, but the stalwart SeeD was still gazing at the door where the instructor made her exit.

Turning his eyes toward the awe-inspiring sight of Balamb Garden, Squall can't help but shake his head as he recalled how, at this very spot, he crassly turned his back on her on that night of the SeeD inauguration more than a year ago. For the first time in his life, Squall felt repentant for the countless times he turned a deaf ear on almost everyone who asked for his help.

A deafening roar from the training center ripped through the silence, and made Squall jerk in attention. "Quistis!"

Swiftly unsheathing his gunblade, Squall immediately dashed for the monster lair, where he found Quistis face-to-face with a full-grown T-Rexaur beast. With its gaping jaw and sharp fangs, the gargantuan monster flailed its massive tail as it prepares to pounce on the combat-ready instructor.

"Thanks for the assist, Squall. But I think I can handle this overgrown lizard. I still have a hundred Death spells junctioned to my status attack." Quistis assured her comrade who had just joined her. But before she can lash out at the beast with her deadly whip, a booming voice rang out from nowhere.

"NO!" the voice echoed, which distracted the two SeeDs. And before they could react, a man came running out of the bushes toward the monster. With lightning quick moves, the stranger managed to mount the T-Rexaur on the back of its neck. He hurled a metal ball attached to a long line made from Ochu tentacles. And as he jerked on the rope, the metal ball made a curved path around the creature's neck, coiling the rope around it. The T-Rexaur became even more enraged, bucking and struggling about as it tried to throw the fearless intruder off its back.

Squall and Quistis just stood there, mouths agape with wonder while witnessing the stranger riding the fearsome beast like a proverbial rodeo cowboy. They hardly even noticed the arrival of Selphie, Irvine, Zell and Rinoa, who joined them when they heard the T-Rexaur's loud howling from the cafeteria.

"What's the commotion all ab whoa!" Irvine blurted out. "Wow! Cool! I've always wanted to do that on a T-Rexaur!"

It seemed to take forever. But finally, the monster got tired of struggling and opted to fold its legs and rest its head on the ground in an apparent gesture of surrender. Looking equally exhausted, the stranger cautiously climbed down from the beast's neck. He stood in front of it for a few moments, then gave it a strong slap just above its nostrils. The T-Rexaur slowly picked itself up and subsequently strutted back, disappearing into the woods. When they became certain that it has indeed left, Squall and his crew approached the man, not knowing how to respond in reaction to his unconventional display of courage.

"Just have to show him who's boss, that's all." The stranger muttered when the SeeDs came within earshot.

"That's what we intended to do if you hadn't gotten in the way." Squall retorted, seemingly irked by the man's arrogance.

"And how did you plan to do it? By killing that poor creature? As you may have noticed, there are other LESS violent ways of approaching certain adversities."

Squall was about to give him the rub down when the stranger's appearance stirred some remote memories in his mind, recalling the time when the out-of-control Garden accidentally careened into the town called Fisherman's Horizon.

"Hey, I know you, don't I? Are you one of the guys from FH doing the restoration job on the Garden?" he asked, referring to the crew of FH technicians who offered to lend their expertise in restoring Balamb Garden back to its original site, which it was forced to abandon in the effort to save itself from the missiles launched by Galbadia.

But Squall never got an answer to his question. Quietly coiling the Ochu rope back to its harness on his utility belt, the man ignored the six and promptly made his way to the exit. Squall's eyebrows drew closer. He felt the same bad vibes as before when he first met the man along the docks of FH.

"Hmph, for someone living in a town that hates fighting, that guy could sure give the average SeeD a run for his money." Zell exclaimed, obviously impressed by what he saw.


"I heard you had a talk with Zell about General Caraway." Squall started as he lay beside Rinoa in one of the SeeD single room quarters in the dormitory. "So how was it?"

"I don't know." She hesitated. "I don't know if I can still talk to him."

Squall let out a long sigh. Though he still maintains a hands-off attitude toward other people's problems unless they explicitly ask for his help, deep inside, he really wants Rinoa to be reconciled with her father. Because that's what he's been itching to do himself. It's already been a year, and yet he still can't manage to gather himself for a heart-to-heart talk with Laguna. Though the evidences he collected for the past few months do suggest a conclusion that Laguna and Raine are indeed his parents, Squall still doesn't know how to start a conversation with the current president of technologically advanced Esthar. There's just too many things to consider and too much complexities to resolve.

"How do I start? How would I react? I used to think of him as a moron I wonder how he'd take it."

So many questions, Squall pondered. Is he ready for the answers?

"I have to go" he muttered as he lifted himself off the bed. "I'll just see you tomorrow. Good night."

Rinoa didn't answer. She just looked at him lovingly as he made his way towards the door. Just before disappearing from her sight, Rinoa called out to Squall.

"Honey"

"Yeah?"

"Uhh well, you know we've been going out for more than a year" Rinoa shyly remarked, which drew a fascinated smile from the SeeD commander.

"Uh-huh and..?"

"Do you think maybe even once you can well, you know spend the night with me..?"

Squall grinned even wider while staring back at the woman he loves with adoring eyes. No audible response came out from him as he went back inside her room and locked the door behind him.