THE FOURTH UNIVERSE Chapter Fifteen

THE FOURTH UNIVERSE

CHAPTER 15

(Conclusion)


"There's another one! Wow! That's the brightest one so far."

Rinoa's fascinated gaze stayed aloft long after the shooting star disappeared from the night sky. Unwittingly, her left hand slithered and wrapped around Squall's folded legs. It was way past midnight, and they should have been picked up by Irvine and Selphie hours ago. But not that they mind the tardiness, as the two were deeply immersed in this quiet moment of solitude, doing the thing the two of them love the most: watching shooting stars in the middle of the vast flower field bordering their Matron's stone house.

Feeling an abrupt touch of chilly air on his face, Squall took off his black jacket and put it around Rinoa's shoulders. She looked back at him and smiled, a warm and loving gesture that brought immense comfort in his heart.

"Squall, I'm so happy for you." Rinoa opened. "It's so good to know you and Laguna have settled everything."

"Yeah" the head SeeD softly replied. "It feels kinda strange, though."

"Strange? Why's that?"

"I'm not sure. I'm excited and at the same time a bit scared too. I don't know what will happen after this. Like, what am I supposed to call him now?"

"'Dad' would be good."

"You're kidding, right? Do you know how it feels to suddenly discover that your father is still alive? I feel so uncomfortable"

"I'll bet" Rinoa trailed off before settling into an uneasy silence. Her suddenly gloomy disposition didn't escape her lover's attention.

"Oops ahh sorry" Squall stuttered in apology after realizing that their topic reminded Rinoa of the unsettled animosity still permeating between herself and her father. He tried to grope for words that might relieve her of the emotional burden, but Squall just can't find the right words. It was Rinoa herself who subsequently broke the ice of inquietude.

"You know, I was really only using his job as an excuse."

"How come?" Squall returned, his eyebrows meeting together in puzzlement.

"I don't know maybe I was just so mad at him that I have to present a valid reason to account for how gravely I felt."

"I don't think I understand."

"I'm blabbering. Sorry. What I mean is it's not really his position in Vinzer Deling's regime that angered me. It's more like your typical father-neglects-daughter-so-daughter-rebels thing."

Finally, he thought, she's opening up her feelings about her father. Squall remained silent to allow Rinoa to continue.

"It was my fifteenth birthday. I wasn't really expecting to celebrate it with him since he had already stood me up for more times than I can remember. But on that morning, he gave me a really wonderful gift."

"What was it?"

"My own personal issue Triple Triad card. You've seen that one, right?"

Of course, Squall retorted in his mind. Though he didn't dare tell her the truth that he lost that card in Balamb a year ago when he tried to win the Gilgamesh card from Quistis.

"Anyway, there was that card, together with a note from my father that said he'd pick me up at 7 so we can spend some time together. But he never showed up as usual."

"And you got angry only because of that?"

"What do you mean 'only because of that'? It was my birthday, for cryin' out loud!"

"Okay, okay. Chill." Squall retorted to the apparently incensed Rinoa. "I'm not going to lecture you on giving him a break. But I just think it's been a fairly long time already. And things are different now. You once said we shared the same burden of having irresponsible fathers. In a manner of speaking, you're right.

"But we'd be nothing more than equally irresponsible children if we're going to leave it at that and don't do anything about it. You still love him, don't you?"

" Of course I still do." Rinoa reluctantly answered. "But it's not that simple, Squall."

"It doesn't have to be. I don't know about you, but I'm not about to continue on with my life while holding a grudge on someone I care about."

She bowed her head and sighed. "Y-Yeah it does get pretty exhausting"

Gently lifting her head up by her chin, Squall lovingly landed a tender kiss on Rinoa's lips before staring at her adoringly. Suddenly, everything became clear for the former Forest Owls rebel when her lover planted another kiss, this time on her cheeks. When he looked back at her, she was already smiling.

"Okay I'm gonna go talk to him."

The intimate moment was abruptly disturbed by a loud howl coming from a short distance. Soon, Rinoa and Squall were annoyingly gawking at a pair of six-armed monsters.

"Death Claw alert!" Rinoa exclaimed.

"Dammit, I'm not in the mood for this." Squall shot out before summoning a GF. "Quezacotl, sic 'em!"

The azure-clad SeeD quickly followed suit with a GF summons of her own. The creatures reel back helplessly as they were mercilessly pummeled successively by the Thunder GF's lightning wrath and the burning assault of the awe-inspiring dragon lord, Bahamut. It didn't take more than a minute for the pair to vanquish the stray beasts.

"Heh, shoulda known better than to hang out here without Diablos." Rinoa remarked with a giggle.

Squall then wondered out loud. "Come to think of it, where is that guy?" Momentarily closing his eyes, the SeeD commander immersed himself in brief meditation before turning his attention back to his girlfriend.

"Nope. I checked the others' junctions, and Diablos isn't with anyone of them either. What happened to him?"

"Don't worry about him. Diablos is just taking care of unfinished business." A hollow voice rang out from behind them. Turning around, the two astounded SeeDs marveled at the magnificent form of Quezacotl hovering above them. But this time, he was not alone.

"It's a pleasure to finally converse with you under easier terms, noble warriors." The King GF, Bahamut thundered.

Rinoa couldn't believe her eyes and ears, as she became tremendously enraptured by the breathtaking presence of the two Guardian Forces whose manifestations, as far as she understood, should only be reserved for battles. Squall's reaction was less involved, on account of his earlier experience of convening with the Thunder Guardian.

"Hey So uhh is this going to be a regular event from now on?"

"No, I'm afraid not, Squall. With Vesta's ultimate demise, the vibrations within the dimensional interval have begun to normalize gradually. I think this is going to be our last chance to congregate in this manner." Quezacotl explained, promptly followed by Bahamut's majestic resonance.

"Your courage knows no bounds, young warriors. And your compassion is without limit. I have been fully accustomed to the tradition of Guardians being the ones who protect their human hosts. But in the recent case, it was the complete opposite."

Rinoa heaved an even deeper breath as Bahamut continued. "I am overwhelmed. I suppose that expressions of gratitude are in order. So thank you I couldn't have been more correct in allying myself with you and your comrades."

"Thank you" The SeeD commander retorted. He's not exactly sure how to react in the face of this proud and at the same time humbling moment of being exalted by no less than the sovereign of all servitor spirits. Unsure of how to react, the SeeD commander's right knee reluctantly started for the ground. The King Guardian nevertheless dissuaded him.

"Do not bow before me, noble warrior. I myself am a servant like you."

The moment stood still for Squall and Bahamut, as they both regarded each other with unparalleled awe and respect. One completely awash by a mixed feeling of pride and humility for having been exalted by nothing less than the sovereign of all Guardian Forces, and the other astounded at the sight of a mere human whose courage surpassed the greatness of the firstborn. They honored each other with the utmost respect and admiration regarded by one warrior to another.

"Anyway, that's all we wanted to say." Quezacotl intermitted. "Now if you'll excuse us"

"Quezacotl, wait!" Squall hurriedly called forth. "I have one more question if it's okay with you."

"Go ahead."

"It's about Griever. How"

"You wonder about Griever's participation in the final act?" Bahamut interjected. "You shouldn't. His apparent resurrection was no different from that which made possible the return of Cerberus, Siren and the rest."

"Yeah, but all of their cases are likewise puzzling at the very least. I really thought they were dead, but"

"By now you should already know that Guardian Forces cannot be confined under the shackles of true death. We are immortal, being the great Hyne's lasting legacy on this planet."

"Yes, I know. But I saw with my own eyes how they were killed. And we weren't able to revive them because they weren't junctioned to us when Vesta destroyed them. So what really happened back there?"

"We ourselves didn't know this until recently. Apparently, there was another world that escaped all our awareness, a dimension that for the purpose of the last events served as a temporal stasis plane for the Guardians. Since it was previously unknown, it didn't have a name to speak for, so I just called it the Death Well.

"We're still quite unclear as to the exact nature of this place. But Jeremiah earlier discovered that there is a nexus between the Death Well and the physical plane. Your name for that place is the Great Salt Lake. The energies of the Death Well resonate through the physical world in that location, in the process spawning an assortment of undead creatures."

"And..?"

"Recently, a foreign element wielding immense, malevolent monster energies came in contact with the nexus. You know this element as the Crystal Pillar. This object's unique mystical vibrations reacted with that of the Death Well's, eventually constructing a pseudo-life form whose incredible powers reflected the violent essence of the Crystal Pillar and the boundless supernatural forces of the Death Well. I understand you recently battled this beast to a stand-off."

"Hades Sentinel" Squall mumbled. "Hades Sentinel the underworld sentry. So that's where it came from."

"So what's the connection between the monster and the other Guardians?" a mesmerized Rinoa finally joined in.

"Hades Sentinel was not called as such for no reason. It came into being as a consequence of the real result of the interaction between the Death Well and the Crystal Pillar: the creation of a preternatural 'degeneration zone' that somewhat functioned as the Well's only portal. It came to be known as the Seal. However, in the perception of mortals, it manifested itself as a pseudo-Guardian who went by the name 'Valhalla.'"

"Oh" The raven-haired SeeD voiced out in recollection of the GF they acquired from Hades Sentinel. Bahamut then opted to pick up from Quezacotl.

"It was purely providence that made for the appearance of the Seal around the moment some of our kin where 'killed'. I guess it is fate's way of ensuring the failure of Vesta's mad schemes. When she destroyed Valhalla, she inadvertently broke the Seal, in the process releasing the essences of the lost Guardians trapped within the Death Well."

"Zell was right." a flabbergasted Rinoa remarked. "It is awesome."

"However, there is a grim trade-off to this." Quezacotl began anew. "The Death Well dispersed together with the destruction of the Seal. Having nothing else to hold its essence back, it effectively radiated into the outside world, completely dissipating in the process. You pretty much know what this means."

"The Guardians don't have a temporal rest plane anymore, or whatever it is you call it." the SeeD leader surmised.

"Correct." Concurred Bahamut. "The resurrection of the slain Guardians has been relegated to an event which can never happen again. The next instance an unjunctioned GF dies, he will remain 'dead' forever, in a manner of speaking."

"Well actually, that only means the spirit of the GF will be confined to the dimensional interval, with the ability of coming back to the material plane forever denied him." The Thunder Guardian added.

"So, does that mean Griever is gone forever?"

"As far as you're concerned, yes. But needless to say, it is not the same in our case."

"Yeah" Squall trailed off while looking at his ring. "At least he redeemed himself in the end."

"As it should be, noble warrior." Bahamut seconded. "In truth, even at the moment of bitter salvation when we were forced to face Griever in that battle against the sorceress, I had no doubt in my mind of his eventual repentance."

"Why is that?" Rinoa asked.

"Because it was his destiny." The dragon lord declared with authority. "As is the destiny of all the servitor spirits who survey their territories in the physical realm. You should know what it means to be destined for a greater cause, warriors. In the same manner that your SeeD was created for the main purpose of vanquishing the sorceress, we, the firstborn, were also created to obliterate the threat posed by the evil demigoddess. And like all of us, Griever was created for that ultimate purpose. A purpose for living that in the end, he fulfilled with irrefutable honor."

"Oh" Rinoa echoed in amazement. Squall, on the other hand, merely smiled. He can't deny the happiness he felt for having learned of his hero's vindication.

Bahamut then levitated closer to the two SeeDs, spreading his mighty wings in a display of regal grandeur.

"Warriors, don't let Griever's sacrifice be in vain. We will be with you as your allies for as long as you need our aid. But the sanctity of the passing of time and the safety of all who breathe will always be entrusted in your hands. This is not the end, but merely the beginning."

And with the final reverberations of Bahamut's august voice, the two Guardian Forces began to fade back into the darkness. Until finally, there were only Squall and Rinoa, still staring at the point in the sky where Bahamut and Quezacotl vanished. The disappearance of the GFs subsequently gave way to the roaring arrival of the Estharian space shuttle.

"Squall, should we tell them about what just happened?"

"Of course! We are a team, you know."


"Should do this more often." Zell thought to himself while gawking admiringly at Balamb Garden's resplendent central edifice, with its assortment of vibrant lighting and sentinel beams that made for a truly spectacular after-dark view from the training center terrace, otherwise known as the Secret Area.

Swinging his attention to his hands clad with crimson fighting gloves, the Balamb native slowly closed them to a fist, flexing his forearm muscles in the process. He wondered quietly, pondering intently about the future and the number of times he will be required to utilize these same hands in beating his enemies either to submission or to extinction.

"I never expected to see you here." Zell promptly turned around to see who just came by, which turned out to be his Galbadian colleague, Irvine. "The cafeteria team didn't leave any hot dogs for you again?"

"Yeah, kinda." He chuckled. "How's it goin'?"

"Same ol', same ol'" The gun wielder nonchalantly answered. His eyebrows drew closer when the usually hyped up Zell settled to a silent disposition. "Hey, what's on your mind?"

Letting out a fatigued groan, Zell moved to directly face Irvine before responding to his inquiry. "This is never going to end."

"What is?"

"The fights. The battles." He returned with a whining pitch. "When we beat Ultimecia, I really thought that was it. I mean, we almost died fighting her." He paused for a short while before continuing. "Who'd think an experience like that can still be topped? I didn't think so, until Vesta suddenly popped out from nowhere."

"Yeah, I think I can see what you're driving at." Irvine agreed. "Where there's two, who's to say there won't be a third?"

"Exactly." Zell shot back while resting his head on his forearms.

"Well, here's what I think: I suppose that's the very reason why we're here in the first place. Why we are who we are."

"What are you saying that we're destined to beat the crap out of every would-be-world-conqueror mook? Is that it?"

"Yeah, something like that" Irvine retorted with a wry grin. "You have a problem with that?"

"No, not really well actually, yeah, I have a slight problem with that." Zell quipped, turning around to rest his back against the wrought iron railing. "To most of you, I may look brash and impulsive who's almost always looking for a fight whenever I get the chance. But someday someday, I want to have a family of my own too, you know."

"You? A family?"

"Hey, what's so incredulous about that?"

"Nothing" Irvine answered. "Anyway, if it's going to make you feel any better, listen up. I just got off the phone with Headmaster Cid in Esthar."

"And..?"

"And he said Galbadia and Esthar agreed to make an allotment in their yearly budgets for the purpose of financing the continued operation of Balamb Garden."

Zell's jaws dropped.

"My sentiments exactly, Zell my friend. At least now we're guaranteed that someone will be taking over for us when the time comes for us to... ugh, God forbid... retire."

Zell's jaws remain dropped.

"Glad to see you're taking this news well. Oh hey..!" Irvine blurted out upon seeing the arrival of Squall, Rinoa, Quistis and Selphie.

"WHOO-HOO!!! You guys heard the news?" Selphie jubilantly exclaimed before she took notice of Zell's expression. "Oh, you just did."

"This is indeed great news." Quistis followed up. "Now we don't have to worry about Garden shutting down and all."

"So guys, what do we do now?" Rinoa echoed while turning her attention to Squall.

The SeeD commander grinned widely. "Uhh well? What do you think? Let's party!"

Everybody's jaws dropped. Rinoa slowly stepped away from Squall and then whispered to Quistis.

"Did he just cast Aura on himself again?"

The group's festive mood was interrupted by a series of heavy footsteps. Everyone fell silent, and Zell frantically held his jaws up when he saw the trio casually approaching them. Squall was the first to step forward when the newcomers came within earshot.

"Hey guys Seifer."

"Squall."

The sudden arrival of their former enemy and his charges inadvertently brought forth an atmosphere of indifference in the middle of the otherwise jubilant gathering. Both parties remained quiet, unsure of what to say next. Rinoa then opted to shatter the uneasy silence permeating between the two groups.

"Heard about the news?"

"Oh, that? Hell yeah!" Raijin responded. "Best news I ever heard in a long time, ya know."

Seifer remained silent while training his eyes toward the six. Despite Rinoa's efforts, his scarred visage still reflected a slight trace of reluctance and uncertainty. And though it wasn't anymore displaying the vicious expression of enmity it once did one year ago, it likewise wasn't showing much sign of benevolence or contriteness. He was still, after all, the same proud and lofty Seifer. However, his face assumed a softer look when his gaze fixed on Quistis.

"Instructor"

"Seifer all things considered, I am quite glad that you're back. Same goes for all of you."

"LIKEWISE." A smirking Fujin retorted, after which she landed a solid elbow in Raijin's solar plexus when his finger began to make their way to his nose.

"Squall." Seifer shot out, which elicited a sturdy look from the SeeD commander. "Same time, same place. Tomorrow. What do you say?"

"You can bet on it." Squall snapped back. Rinoa's face assumed a slight look of alarm, but it was nevertheless instantly erased by a short glance from Fujin, who seemed to be telling her that boys will always be boys.

Deeming their business done with, Seifer, Raijin and Fujin then simultaneously turned their backs to the group and started to head forth. However, the muscle-bound enforcer suddenly stopped to check his wristwatch.

"Hey Seifer, we haven't done what we came here to do, ya know."

"Oh yeah." Seifer quipped before turning back. "Raijin, Fujin, include all of them to the list."

"List? What list?" Irvine wondered out loud. His questioning remark was immediately followed by Zell's exasperated groan.

"Oh man, this isn't happening! I just bought that new T-board."

"You can bet your ass it's happening, Chicken-wuss." Seifer snidely shot back. "The disciplinary committee is back."


Epilogue

He sat quietly with crossed legs in front of the unassuming magic lamp he once used as a channel between his dark kingdom and the material plane. Beneath his obscured visage, a wry smile lined his grotesque lips.

Earlier, Diablos stood supreme amidst the cowering figure of Tengu, who was vehemently begging for mercy. Turning a deaf ear on the Ogre-Bat's pleas, the dark Guardian used his mighty Gravity-based powers in conjuring a crushing suction well that violently compressed Tengu's hideous form inside the otherdimensional relic. He can still hear the futile howls of the bat creature, a fading resonance that degraded from thunderous to shrill, as he was absorbed inside the lamp.

"NO! ONE MORE CHANCE! THAT'S ALL I ASK!!! ONE MORE CHanceeeee"

Diablos then took hold of the magic lamp, playfully shuffling it between his blackened fingers. It quivered, indicating telltale signs of desperate protests emanating from its interiors. His hidden smile grew even wider.

"You will get your last chance, Tengu. That I promise." The GF muttered as he hurled the relic back to the physical dimension. "In the form of unreserved servitude. When the hands of another intruding warrior violates your domain to call upon your services. Thus is your sentence exacted."

~ THE END ~