But I am better: still methinks I fainted;
Or was the whole a fearful, nightmare dream?
Nay, am I yet not dreaming?
- Edmund Clarence Stedman, "Saul"
Fate slew him, but he did not drop;
She felled—he did not fall—
Impaled him on her fiercest stakes—
He neutralized them all.
- Emily Dickinson
Here is where the world will end:
It is not on the plains of Abbadon, as the ancient Estharan plainsmen thought. It is not under the silver sands of the Moon, as the Centran prophets cried. It is not a great upheaval of fire and rock from the depths of the dry soil, as old Galbadian nomads believed.
The world will end in the master room of a Castle just off the Cape of Good Hope, above the balcony which abuts the spiraling clocktower ramp.
It will end because six fighters are simply unable to turn back Fate in a single heroic battle.
This is where the world will end.
There was no real wall on the majority of the balcony--just a sheer drop into space, possibly with one raised stone to prevent anything from rolling off quite so easily. When squall opened his eyes, he found himself staring directly out into the roiling clouds--regardless of the fact that he could feel the cold stone under his left cheek.
His right arm was one expanse of sheer agony, and there was a wet chill on his side where it lay. He didn't even have to look to see the blood--a thin trickle had rolled down in front of his face before anyone had been able to bind it up.
Squall wasn't the type to make any sort of vocal response to pain, unless it was truly unbearable. And that was good, according to SeeD--being able to suffer silently was crucial in any number of situations, especially those in which one did not one to be found.
None of his senses were informing him of any danger, so he pushed himself up on his uninjured arm. At once, someone was at his side to support him--a quick glance revealed it as Quistis.
She was injured, he realized with a start. there were huge claw marks cutting through her jacket on her back and side, and the blood had tinted the fabric red. Bruised skin--the telltale mark of Curaga healing--was clearly visible.
And in her eyes, there was something that he had never expected to see--not from her. It was the faint edge of pure resignation, lined with the darkness of utter despair.
"The situation--" he began, and she shook her head.
"We lost Rinoa and Zell," she informed him softly. "A--'absorbed into Time,' Irvine called it. Selphie... might not recover. Your arm is shattered, six of Irvine's ribs are broken, along with his left ankle. Your gunblade is gone. Of our GFs, only Bahamut and Eden are still accessible--and Bahamut is losing power fast. Paramagic stores are low, and--"
He shook his head to stop her. "Ultimecia?"
Quistis winced an looked away.
"Alive," Irvine supplied from somewhere behind him.
Using his good arm, Squall turned himself to face the sharpshooter. Irvine was sitting next to Selphie--who lay on the stone floor, pale and very still. Irvine's ponytail had come undone, and his voice was rough--he was breathing in painful hisses.
"We--dammit, Squall, we got her down and dying, and then she just came back at us. I don't know how. We were close, though, we were so close--and we were lucky to get out of there with our lives."
"Not that it matters much now," Quistis said, looking out at the clouds. "We didn't stop her, so now she's going to compress time. ...we failed."
Squall breathed deeply. The aftermath of the battle was only beginning to sink it--it was hard to make sense of. He had heard what they had said--he understood the words. But he couldn't understand the implications--not yet.
(Rinoa--gone. Zell--gone. Selphie--dying. Irvine, Quistis and I--helpless. Trapped.)
"No possibility of a regroup?" One of his instructors had told him that shock, in moderation, could be a blessing. It kept you from being overwhelmed with grief or terror--it pushed all that aside, and let you function as long as it didn't consume you. Ignoring the tragedy of war and not letting yourself freeze up were the secrets to a campaign--if you won you could mourn later, and if not it would be someone else's problem anyway.
Quistis shuddered. "I can't imaging going back there," she admitted, voice small. (She's terrified,) Squall noted. "I just--"
"Squall." Irvine came to her rescue, voice strained. "I can't lift my gun, you don't have a weapon, and she's not so far gone that she won't put up a fight. If you want to go die heroically, that's about the only thing we can do."
(Rinoa--gone. Zell--gone. Ultimecia--alive.) "How did this happen?" (This shouldn't have happened.)
"She's a sorceress, Squall!" Frustration, futility, and anguish combined in Irvine's voice, and he brought a hand down on the balcony's rock ledge. "The most powerful sorceress in all of time, and we were idiots to take six--six kids off to fight her!"
(...Laguna was so sure we could handle it. I was so sure we could--) "Who are you blaming?"
"I--" Irvine looked stricken, and swallowed. "I--Hyne, Squall, I didn't mean it that way--"
"It doesn't matter." Quistis was assuming her natural role as mediator. "What's done is done."
Silence returned to the balcony. Irvine turned back to Selphie. jaw tightening. He didn't bother to disguise his grief.
(...what's done is done.) Squall tried to stand up, and Quistis moved to prevent him--but he managed anyway. His arm flopped downward, a dead weight on his shoulder.
Quistis swallowed. "We lost the packs," she explained needlessly. "...I couldn't make a sling."
He glanced around. Irvine's jacket, though damaged, still had a good amount of cloth to it--his own was much the same way. Although, he realized, there wouldn't exactly have been anything to cut it with.
It was a question he couldn't ask aloud. He was the leader--it was his responsibility to figure out what happened next. To salvage an unsalvageable situation.
(Quistis, Irvine and I--helpless. This shouldn't have happened. Don't think about it. Think about a way out--)
He looked at his remaining comrades. No one returned his glances. (...they don't expect me to know what to do,) he realized. (...because it isn't just that we failed. I failed.)
"You can feel the world getting pulled into Time Compression from here," Irvine remarked blankly. "Look at the clouds."
Squall didn't. Instead, he turned away--walking toward the balcony door.
"What are you doing?" Quistis yelped, alarm overflowing her voice. "Squall!"
"I'm taking a walk," he said as evenly as possible. (Don't be so concerned for my safety. We're going to die here anyway.)
"Let 'im." Irvine sounded tired. "What harm's it gonna do?"
Squall continued walking.
"You need love and friendship for this mission--and the courage to believe it. It's all about love, friendship, and courage. I'm counting on you guys!"
Speeches were needed before a battle, because a battle was death given scope and force. Speeches were needed to goad mortal beings to mortal acts--to persuade them that there was something worth giving up one's very life for. Speeches were the mechanism by which life became a means to an end.
Laguna didn't know this--or if he did, he didn't think about it. He had been caught in the moment, in some futile imagined glory. What he had said might have been true, but it was meaningless.
"Love and friendship and all that sounds corny, but everyone seems to be up for it."
"You think it'll succeed?"
Love, friendship, and courage were sentiments, and sentiments couldn't compete with sorcery and steel.
"As friends, don't forget one another! As friends, believe in one another!"
Rinoa--gone. Zell--gone. Selphie--dying.
"Believe in you're friends' existence...."
Quistis--giving up. Irvine--resigned.
"...and they'll also believe in yours."
Nonexistence seemed like a blessing right now. Or maybe it was the easy way out.
"To be friends, to like one another, and to love one another... you can't do these things alone. You need somebody."
The easy way out....
(The easy way out.)
On occasion, Squall would talk to himself. It wasn't something he wanted other people to know, and he had always regarded it as a habit he should try to break. Now, however, he couldn't spare the willpower to try.
He was hidden among the clock's gears--tucked away back in a corner of the belfry. The wind was howling especially loudly up here. No one could hear him, even if they had followed him.
That was the crux of the issue--they had failed, and now the world was ending. An easy thing to recognize, and a hard thing to comprehend.
"Ultimecia is alive, but wounded. If Ultimecia dies, then Time Compression will end. But we can't fight her and win."
(Rinoa--gone. Zell--gone. Selphie--dying. Irvine, Quistis, and I--wounded, helpless.)
"We're within Time Compression."
(What's done is done. What's done--)
"If we cease to exist, we will never have existed."
(Absorbed into time, Irvine called it.)
"If we can't remember each other, we'll never have existed here. But Ultimecia can remember herself and still exist."
(Ultimecia--alive, but wounded. Us--never here. What's done--)
"We came to a time when Ultimecia was here, but we weren't. If we don't exist, then we arrive. Ultimecia is wounded, and we aren't."
(Shaky logic--very shaky. But we're going to die anyway.)
"If we die--we live, and we win."
(And this shouldn't have happened. Rinoa--not gone.)
"If we live, we live to see Time Compression completed, and then it's too late."
(If we live--we die, and we lose.)
"Ultimecia would lose by losing the battle. ...Ultimecia would lose by winning the battle. ...but we withdrew."
The wind was goading him to a resolution, tearing the world apart. (If we die--we win.)
"If we die... we win."
There is something about despair that even the animals understand. It's what grips a deer staring at its own death, so that it can only stand stiff and still--every survival instinct frozen, unable to save itself. Convinced of its ruin, it awaits and enables its ruin. Despair is self-fulfilling calamity.
Terror is despair given desperation, is desperation given form and voice. Despair and terror feed on each other like symbiotes--they sap each other, strengthen each other, endure.
There is no reasoning with this. There is no reason within it. It is the reason that wars are lost and injustices perpetuate themselves in the world. Despair is a real presence, heavy as manacles around the soul.
The end of the world is nothing but despair given free lease on reality. Nothing but that.
"We have to go back," was the first thing he said when he walked back onto the balcony. It was met with exactly what he expected--blank, immobilizing fear on Quistis's face and shattered hopelessness on Irvine's.
"We can't--" the sharpshooter began.
"If we go back, we'll win." Quickly, he made a decision--they couldn't know why it was necessary. They wouldn't believe it--Irvine and Quistis lacked the ability to regard things that way, to see facts and transactions. They were grieving. He was not.
Sometimes, shock could be a blessing.
"We have to engage Ultimecia again. It's the only way."
"Squall, we can't defeat her!" Quistis was pleading. Who knew what Ultimecia had done to her--everything in her manner suggested deeper wounds than the ones on her back. "It's impossible."
(No, Quistis,) he thought. (We can't defeat her. But we can die, and that's better than giving up. At least then, we have a chance--even if it's true that I might be wrong.) "It's necessary."
Irvine looked away. After a moment, Quistis did too.
There was a time when hearing him speak with such certainty would have moved them to do anything. He never sounded certain unless he was--which he rarely was. His certainty held value.
But now, trying to cash in on that, he found himself speaking to a deaf audience. The one time he tried to cry wolf, they were already wise to his lies. (...they don't believe me. As a leader, I--I failed.)
They had followed him to the ends of the world. Now there, they refused to follow him back.
He closed his eyes. "Irvine?"
"Give me your rifle."
There was a tense surprise in the air. "Squall, you can't win alone," Quistis informed him.
(No, I can't. It won't do any good if she kills me. You two will still--) "...I know."
He opened his eyes again. (Believe in your friends' existence. Believe in your friends. Believe... in me. I failed as your leader, but now I need a second chance. Just... give it to me, please.) "Give it to me."
Irvine looked at Quistis. Sighing heavily, he motioned Squall over. "Don't do anything stupid," he said hollowly.
Squall took the gun, holding it awkwardly in his good hand. It was hard--under no circumstances would he have gone into battle so ill-equipped to fight. (But there won't be a fight. There won't be.)
"How do you reload this?"
"You don't. I lost the ammo." Irvine sighed. "It's automatic, anyway. Six shots left. Not enough to do anything useful."
(Enough to do one useful thing.) He walked to the door, awkwardly maneuvering the rifle so that he could brace it--shakily--under his arm and against his chest and hook his thumb into the trigger. Aiming at a spot of the wall across the ramp, he fired.
(Too low. Five shots left.)
He fired again--a hit. And, just to make sure, he fired a third.
"You can't snipe her," Irvine said. "She'll just block it. It's no good, Squall--"
Quistis could move, and she still had her whip. Irvine was weaponless, and badly injured. In any confrontation, it was clear who would be attacked first. The aim was always to attack the one who could still fight back.
It was the reason he had been able to survive, unconscious. The reason he was still alive to do this.
(I may not be a leader, but I know what I have to do. I'm--sorry.)
He turned around, and aimed.
And pulled the trigger.
(Two shots left.)
People assign leaders to do what they cannot--to have the strength of will to accept what they cannot fathom. A good leader is like a good speech--goading people onward, goading miracles from laymen, great feats from ordinary people.
Only a leader can do what all others would shy from. Only a leader can order soldiers to their deaths.
Leaders are the executors of necessity--the executioners of paralyzing choice.
He dropped the rifle when the last bullet was spent. The balcony would have been silent--but for the screeching of the wind and the screaming of blood past his ears.
The horror was beginning to set in, overriding shock. His good hand shook, and he wouldn't have been able to take another shot even if he had to.
It was possible, now, to take fate into his own hands. He was the only one left.
(Believe in your friends' existence, and they'll also believe in yours. Hyne, but I killed--)
He tried to ground himself in the reality of the situation as a recourse from the terrible truth of the moment--but it was futile. Horror of one kind awaited him in the confines of his own skull, and horror of a completely different nature awaited him in the world of Ultimecia's reign.
(Rinoa--gone. Zell--gone. Quistis, Irvine, Selphie--gone. Gone. Killed. Dead. Won. Gone. Won.)
He knew what he had to do--he knew what would happen if he didn't. But he couldn't bring himself to go back up the ramp, to push open those terrible doors--
The stones at the edge of the balcony weren't nearly enough to keep anyone from falling off, and it should have been easy to do so. But when he approached it, something held him back.
(It... isn't easy to die. It's easy to be killed, but I--)
He had to focus on the task at hand.
...it wasn't easy to jump, with full knowledge of the implications. His muscles froze up, his chest constricted, his heart beat faster.
(...I have to.)
He closed his eyes, and tried to think of anything but what he had to do. He thought of tactics--of the battle, of the retreat. He thought about the architecture of the Castle--Northern Centran, thought the gargoyles were unmistakably Eastern. He thought about how he needed to have the latch on one of his ammo belts repaired.
He tried not to think of what he had--or hadn't--done.
He thought about taking one step--one little step, just a bit forward. Single steps were easy. Just simple things, learned in childhood.
(I can take one step.)
Falling is exhilarating. It is terrifying. It speaks to primal instincts--the desire to fly, and the base terror of losing control. It is vertiginous, nightmarish--the dream of falling is such a common phenomenon because falling is such an instinctive fear.
Every synapse seems active in falling. Your life flashes before your eyes. You feel the rush of wind past every bit of exposed skin, feel the air tug at your clothes, feel the weight of your body as--suddenly unsupported--it yields itself to gravity. Everything passes through your mind in an instant--recognized, understood, becoming a part of you as nothing else can.
Every nerve is alight with cold dread when you're falling.
Every nerve is waiting for that one last moment,
He hit the ground in a crouch, senses alert to everything. The air was salty, here--salty and stale, with dust and what might be rot carried on the breeze. Nothing alive could be heard. It was cold, and the ground was damp. He could see out of the corner of his eye the rest of his party making the same evaluation--except for Rinoa, of course, who was simply looking around in mingled shock and horror.
Ultimecia's castle flickered before them, and solidified. Bodies phased into existence on the great, black chains that tethered it to the ruined shore.
"...White SeeDs," he observed darkly. "We're fighting across generations."
The Castle floated against the sky, dark and foreboding. Who knew what secrets it held?
"Ultimecia's reign," he said, mostly to himself. Catching the slip, he grimaced and added "We have to end it now," for the benefit of his company.
Turning to his team, he looked them over. Each one seemed shaken--but unhurt.
(And here.) "...good. We all made it."
There was a murmured chorus of agreements, a few observations, and Squall motioned up the chains.
"I don't know what's going on. But, since we're still here, I think we still have some time to finish our job. ...let's go."
He wasn't one for great speeches, and they knew that. They wouldn't expect them from him. What they were expecting of him was to lead them to victory--a much harder task, but one in which he was as confident as he reasonably could be. They started up the chains at his command, and he lead them--until Irvine put a hand on his arm. "Wait."
Squall turned. "What?"
"Does it somehow feel... like we've been here before?"
Squall glanced around. "This is the Orphanage," he identified.
"Yeah, I get that, but...."
Squall shook his head. "Keep your mind on the mission," he advised, and turned away.
Had he looked down, he might have seen something--a black-jacketed figure, quietly dissolving into time.
But he did not.
The world will not end on the plains of Abbadon, as the ancient Estharan plainsmen thought. It will not end under the silver sands of the Moon, as the Centran prophets cried; nor in a great upheaval of fire and rock from the depths of the dry soil, as old Galbadian nomads believed.
The world will not end in the master room of a Castle just off the Cape of Good Hope, above the balcony which abuts the spiraling clocktower ramp.
It will not end because six fighters are simply unable to turn back Fate in a single heroic battle.
This is not where the world will end.