Disclaimer: The characters, settings, the idea, and everything in Final Fantasy 8 belong to Square-Enix. However, I do own all original characters.

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Fate's Game

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Part I: Set-up

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Chapter III: Inferno

Quistis inhaled as she stepped out of the vehicle, breathing in the scent of ash and smoke. Her eyes burned from the grit floating in the air, and, cursing, she fought down a cough. She should've known by now to keep her breaths shallow when she was here. How many trips had she taken to this forsaken place already? Twenty? Thirty?

Blinking, she pushed a damp strand of hair out of her face. Already sweating…She'd barely been out of the car for a full minute. But it was so stuffy here—the air was so still; no breeze blew across the land to provide any relief, and she could feel the heat emanating from the ground through the thick soles of her boots. She spared a moment to thank whatever god there was that she had changed out of her formal SeeD uniform into her more casual wear – a light orange blouse with detached sleeves the color of maroon, a skirt the same shade as the blouse, and a dark pair of trousers beneath the skirt - before meeting Squall at the front gate. She pulled the zipper of her blouse down a bit further, unmindful of her modesty; it was too warm.

Her glasses were fogging up from the humidity. Frowning, she tore them off her face and tossed them back into the car, closing the door. The world immediately became a blur of colors and indistinguishable shapes, and she awakened the Guardian Force dwelling within her psyche. An instant later, her vision sharpened as Shiva enhanced her senses. The ever-present threads of magic in the air materialized. A small bit of manipulation, and the atmosphere suddenly felt, to her at least, cooler and less oppressive. Wonderful. The beads of perspiration dried on her forehead. She sighed in satisfaction, a smile tickling her lips.

An abrupt scuffing sound made her turn. She watched as Squall slammed the car door shut behind him. He was also sweating, she noticed; the white – actually, now it looked grey from the soot – cloth of his torn shirt was turning transparent, and she marveled at the outlines of his hard muscles...

Stop it, stop it, stop it.

She ripped her eyes away from his body to look at his face. He was gazing off into the distance, and, following his gaze, she found him staring at the cliff wall before which she had parked the personnel carrier. She could make out the two Garden Faculty members who stood there at the base, guarding the entrance to the Fire Cavern, a cave that shone with an eerie red light.

"That's the Fire Cavern," Squall said. Quistis glanced back at him. He was fingering the chain hanging off his gunblade handle. A sign of nervousness.

"Yes, it is." She paused. Should she ask him? She hadn't dared during their silent fifteen minute car ride, and she knew how possessive he could be. Still, she had to try. "Squall, you know that Ifrit's a fire-based GF."

"I know." He shrugged.

"Don't you think Shiva'll be of more use to—"

"—no—"

"—you than Quetzalcoatl?"

"No."

Quistis clenched her jaw. Couldn't he see that she was trying to help him? "You haven't gone up against a Guardian Force before, and I'm not going to kid you: they are strong. You're going to need every possible advantage you can get."

"I'll be fine."

She opened her mouth and closed it again when he shot her a look. He wasn't going to listen, no matter what she said. Not for the first time, she felt frustrated. Frustrated and irritated and why couldn't he just let her help him?

But she kept her aggravation bottled up inside, where he couldn't sense it. "Fine," she said, turning away. "Let's move out."

Squall's hesitation betrayed his surprise, and she had to feel a small thrill of triumph from that. He had expected her to keep insisting on him to take Shiva. Well, let him be surprised, show him that he still didn't have her figured out. And besides—she'd feel more comfortable with the ice deity. Let him deal with the heat of the cave; it was his own decision and he had to face the consequences. "Come on, Squall."

They picked their way through the treacherous terrain, and approached the rock face. The Faculty members straightened as they neared.

"Halt," one of the two staff members said, his voice gravelly and rough beneath his yellow hat. Squall and Quistis stopped, and saluted—right hands upraised, palms facing towards their own faces—and dropped their hands back to their sides. "Are you here to take the Fire Cavern Test?"

Squall nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Name and number."

"Leonhart, Squall. Four-one-two-six-nine."

"And your SeeD support."

Quistis stepped forward and saluted again. "Trepe, Quistis. Instructor Number Fourteen."

The other Faculty member spoke up, addressing Squall: "Very well, then. I'm sure that you know the risks involved, as well as the objective of this test. You are to defeat the Guardian Force Ifrit in battle and, if possible, junction him. Be aware that, if you do manage to obtain his allegiance, he is not yours and may be given away to any other cadet in the Garden upon your return."

"Sir."

"You are given a total of forty minutes to complete this task. Your SeeD support is there to support you in battle until you reach Ifrit, whom you must fight on your own. She cannot aid you in anything else, meaning that you will have to make your own decisions regarding your pacing, the direction you go in, et cetera without her council. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"The clock will begin as soon as you enter the Fire Cavern. Are you ready?"

Quistis felt, rather than heard, Squall take a deep breath. "I am ready."

The two Faculty members nodded to one another and stood aside to flank the entrance. The cave gaped open, like a mouth waiting to swallow them whole, the stalactites hanging from the ceiling resembling bloodstained teeth.

"You may enter."

Another deep breath. This time Quistis shared Squall's apprehension.

And then they plunged straight into Hell.

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As Squall stepped into the Fire Cavern, he had to prevent himself from recoiling away from the heat. He could physically feel it settling over him like a suffocating blanket, and the shallow breaths he took didn't quite seem adequate enough, especially with the heavy stink of sulfur hanging in the air. The stench was much more powerful than it had been outside. Sweat rolled over his face and down his back, but he forced himself to take a step forward. The crunch of gravel underfoot. He unsheathed Lionheart, the blade ringing as it scraped against the scabbard.

Before him ran a single long and twisting path surrounded by flowing magma and composed of red igneous rock. He could tell that it had once been a part of the lava flow, but somehow, time or an outside force—perhaps Ifrit—had altered it so that it had become a trail that led deeper into the cave. Squinting, he tried to make out its length, but it was difficult to do so considering the dimness of the light, and he gave up. He would find out soon enough, he figured, proceeding down the trail, stepping between the stalagmites that jutted up from the ground. Behind him, Quistis's footsteps were loud enough for him to hear over the noise of the sluggish magma.

They walked for some short distance before she spoke up: "You know…"

"What?" Squall wiped away a drop of perspiration from his forehead, peering ahead for a threat or a fork in the road.

"The boys often choke on this test when I come with them."

A shrug. "Good for them."

"I guess my charm makes them nervous."

He froze. Was she implying what he thought she was implying? "Whatever," he muttered under his breath and picked up his pace once again, deciding to ignore her comment.

Quistis must've heard him, because she immediately said: "Hey, loosen up a bit. I was kidding. Just trying to keep you relaxed, that's all."

"Am I supposed to be relaxed?" he murmured.

She didn't answer—apparently, she had discerned the note of tension in his voice— and Squall quietly thanked the gods for hushing her. The trail grew rougher beneath his boots, rocky ruins blocking the path. They climbed over them, and gradually, he became aware that they were going down. Down, down, down into Hell, past the point of no return…

He shook himself. He had to stop thinking like that. Fear was his worst enemy, the one that was always waiting behind the corner. It made his hand tremble, made his peripheral vision disappear, made his strokes clumsy, made his feet tangle up, and a million other mistakes that he couldn't afford when every little move he made mattered to his final score. Even if he was one point off the cut-off, he wouldn't make it. And he had to; there was no other alternative.

Seifer…How had his rival done? He strained to remember. Not too shabbily, if his memory could be trusted. The blond had sauntered into the dorm hall, with a statement along the lines of: "It was easy. The brute couldn't touch me." Squall could recall how he had been tempted to ask his rival if he had junctioned Ifrit. Of course, the answer was no, and in the end, he hadn't questioned Seifer. That would have been childish and petty.

He shook off the thoughts of Seifer and quickened his pace. How much time had passed already? He pulled a watch out of his pocket, glanced at it, put it back in. Ten minutes. So he had at least half an hour left. Long enough for him to defeat Ifrit and retrace his steps back to the entrance. At least, he hoped it was sufficient. The gossip around the Garden had suggested that the test hadn't been too lengthy, and if Seifer could manage it, he could as well. He strode forth with a new determination, confident in his own aptitude.

However, as the distance between them and the cavern entrance grew, a sense of uneasiness slowly settled over Squall. They were being watched, he was sure, being watched by eyes. Cunning eyes, intelligent eyes that calculated their strengths and weaknesses. Not the eyes of mindless beasts. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Squall blinked some sweat out of his eyes and tightened his grip on Lionheart.

"Iffffrrrittt, brrotherrr."

He stiffened. Could it be Ifrit? he wondered, shivering as he heard the long, drawn-out syllables. For some reason, they put him on edge. Quetzalcoatl was a Guardian Force of little words, and didn't speak unless absolutely necessary. Something was wrong. Stopping, he held up a hand. Quistis came to a halt behind him.

Up ahead, the trail wound on, leading into another cave cut into a wall of the cavern. Squall stared at it. Two pinpoints of light in the shadows, flickering on and off, on and off. He took a step forward, and they disappeared. Turning his head to the side, he gave Quistis a small nod, and together, they approached the opening, Squall holding Lionheart before him in a two-handed grip, Quistis wrapping her fingers around the chain whip belted to her right hip. Squall brushed the foreign presence in his mind, preparing for an attack.

As they drew near the gap, Squall thought he could make out words carved into the wall to the right of the opening, but when he tried to read them, they were unintelligible. Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate, they read. What could they mean?

"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here," Quistis said. Squall turned. At the sight of his raised eyebrows, she added, "That's what it means. It's been there for as long as I remember. A short while after Garden was established, Cid brought in a few linguists to transla—"

A guttural snarl was their only warning. Squall spun around, and watched as a monster bounded out of the gloom, its flame-tipped tail swishing behind it as it rushed at them with a roar. He reacted, throwing himself to the side and bringing Lionheart up in a wide arc. A flash of steel, glittering orange in the firelight. The thud of metal cutting through flesh. He jerked the blade loose before it could be torn out of his hand by the fiend's momentum. Blood splattered everywhere, steaming as it met the cave floor, hollowing out indentations in the rock, and hot liquid ran down his arms, scarring his skin. A tang of iron in the air.

Over the rush of blood in his ears, he heard a sharp crack followed by a bellow of pain, and then shrill screeches coupled with the flap-flap of wings filled the air. The noise—it had woken the other monsters! Squall cursed and twisted his head to see Quistis jerking her whip away from the fiend; the whip's metal tip was colored crimson."Above you!" he shouted.

And then the world was drowned out by the black bodies of bloodthirsty imps.

He readjusted his grip, now holding Lionheart in his right hand, and slashed at the closest monster. It fell away, squealing in pain as its purple entrails poured out of the lower half of its severed body. With his left hand, Squall pointed at another winged shape and bound the magical filaments floating in the air together, using his will to shape it into a block of ice. A second and he dropped it; it landed with a thud, crushing the fiend. The snap of breaking bones. Another slice at a flying imp; a black-and-red wing tumbled to the ground, twitching. But whenever he killed one, another rose to take its place; they were innumerable and persistent, and he didn't have the time.

"Quistis!" he roared, swiping at the chittering creatures to keep them at bay. Miniscule sharp teeth sank into his forearm, and he wrenched his arm away, throwing the fiend to the ground. A stab. The silver blade covered in dark blood. "Quistis!" he called again. Where was she? He could summon Quetzalcoatl to take out all the monsters in one go, but not while he was under attack. The summoning required too much concentration, too much energy. He grabbed the ethereal threads again and, with minimal focus, sent a weak electrical surge shooting through the pack of fiends. They withdrew, wary of the new power. One more shout: "Quistis!"

"Here!" and then she was beside him, chain whip in hand. Blood trickled from a wound on her scalp, and her blonde hair was matted and disheveled, but she seemed fine overall.

"I'm going to summon Quetzalcoatl!" he yelled over the noise.

"Go for it! I'll do my best to keep them off!" Fragile strands wove together into a net as Quistis concentrated on creating a Barrier, and a translucent shield emerged, shimmering with rippling colors. Spotting movement out of the corner of his vision, Squall ripped his eyes from the spell; the monsters had begun to approach again in a single solid mass. Chatters and clicks. A quick nod to Quistis, and he retreated a few feet to give her more room to use her weapon.

Squall took a deep breath as the first of the creatures smashed against the Barrier. The thump of a body striking a hard surface. Shutting the clamor out, he concentrated on the being that was coiled around his brain and called, praying for an answer from the Guardian Force. There was silence, complete silence during which his heart pounded in his chest, his blood rushed in his ears, and sweat poured into his closed eyes. He was hovering on the edge of a precipice with the wind buffeting him from all directions, pulling at his shirt, tugging at his hair. And he prayed, prayed for the deity to come.

He jumped.

"Quetzalcoatl!"

A loud clap of thunder and a cry of freedom that seemed almost like a song, unfolding and undulating and, above all else, alien; it rang in his ears, a pure sound that echoed through the chambers of his mind, echoed through the chambers of the Fire Cavern. An uninterrupted hum that brought to mind images of an unstoppable storm, the fury of nature, and the patter of rain on dead, rotting wood that had been struck down by lightning—split open with its smoking and blackened heart laid bare—in the midst of a tempest.

And then it stopped. A lull broken only by the beats of enormous wings and the crackle of electricity. The tension and fear in the chamber were tangible; Squall could taste them, could smell them, could feel them. They were afraid.

He opened his eyes.

Mighty wings of green and yellow, complete with black foreign markings, filled Squall's vision, feathers shining with a strange radiance as the Guardian Force hovered, motionless and still as a tranquil lake. Blue lightning ran along the length of Quetzalcoatl's birdlike body, and the sharp stink of ozone filled the air, overpowering the cavern's natural sulfurous odor. A tongue flicked out of the serpent's mouth, testing the air, and Quetzalcoatl blinked slowly, as if he had been blind for many years.

Too many years, it seemed. The head snapped forward, the mouth opened, revealing a maw that was lit by writhing lightning. The imps broke free of their horror and scattered. But they couldn't escape the bolts that leapt from Quetzalcoatl's mouth no matter where they went. Squall shut his eyes against the brightness of the attack, and he caught a whiff of burning flesh. Shrieks resonated throughout the cave, the noise ricocheting off the walls, drowning in the clatter of falling rocks as the violence of Quetzalcoatl's assault knocked loose hanging stalactites. Muffled explosions, screams of pain, the sputter of lightning, the rumble of thunder.

When it had grown silent, Squall pried open his eyes again, watching as Quetzalcoatl's avatar disappeared, disintegrating into tiny motes of light that floated upwards and faded away. Charred bodies were littered around the chamber, their flesh still steaming from the heat of the lightning. Noticing movement out of the corner of his eye, Squall turned and saw Quistis stepping over a corpse. He attempted to move, but fell to his knees. Lionheart dropping out of limp hands. He was exhausted, he realized distantly. Quistis rushed to help him.

"You okay?" she asked, kneeling beside him. Squall nodded through a bout of nausea. "I should've summoned Shiva. You still have Ifrit ahead of you," Quistis added, sounding guilty.

"I'm fine." He struggled to his feet and grabbed Lionheart, stumbling a few steps forward. His legs felt as if they were made of lead.

"Here, let me." Quistis came up behind him and grabbed his arm. He was too tired to pull away, but he watched with narrowed eyes as she manipulated the strands that surrounded them, drawing them into herself. Recognizing that she was casting a Cure spell, he relaxed. A white light flowed from her fingertips to bathe over him, washing away his pain and fatigue.

"Thanks," he said as she removed her hands.

"No pro—" Her eyes widened. Squall spun around—

—and a heavy body bowled him over, throwing him to the ground. His gunblade flew out of his hand again. Razor-sharp claws dug into the flesh above his right hip. Blooming red roses on a field of snow. He gritted his teeth and wrestled with the monster as teeth flashed in the light, lunging for his throat, snapping open and shut, open and shut. Burning spittle dripping onto his shirt. Desperate, Squall reached for the Emerson knife at his waist, still holding off the beast with one hand around its throat. Unjunctioned, he would never have been able pull that off and would have been dead already.

Sweaty fingers scrabbling for the knife's hilt, pulling it out. Squall flicked it open and drove it into the soft meat beneath the monster's jaw, right above its throat. Hot blood ran down his arm in waves, and the beast pulled away, bellowing. He shoved it off, and seized his gun, which he hadn't been able to get to under the beast, but before he could discharge the bullets, three explosions rang through the air. The monster staggered to the side and collapsed, blood running from the holes shot into its neck. Starting in surprise, Squall looked up to see Quistis holstering her own gun, a grim look on her face as she offered him a hand.

"How much time do we have left?" he asked, a little out of breath as he picked himself up, ignoring her gesture, and replaced his gun. The monster's corpse lay off to the side, and he realized that it looked remarkably like a lion. A black lion with veins of red shot through its fur and a flame-tipped tail that smoldered wetly as it died. It was the monster that had attacked them at the beginning, he noticed, seeing for the first time the gash in its shoulder and the glistening wound in its neck where Quistis had injured it with her whip. His Emerson knife remained embedded in the jaw; he opted not to retrieve it, instead taking the time to cast a quick Cure spell on himself.

"Twenty to twenty-five minutes." Her voice brought him back to reality, reminding him of the situation. "You have to hurry, Squall."

Squall nodded and raked the area with his eyes to locate his gunblade. When he found it, he understood that he had been very lucky. Lionheart was lying on the edge of the path, perilously close to falling into the lava; a few more inches—centimeters, even—would have seen to the demise of his weapon. He made his way towards it and picked it up, handling it with care. "Let's go."

The ground trembled as they passed through the cavity cut into the wall. Darkness enveloped them, a darkness so thick that they couldn't see their hands in front of their faces. Cautiously, Squall wove a Fire spell and lit the gloom, holding the globe of fire in his left hand. Sure, it would give off their position to any monsters lurking behind the boulders, but Squall felt that being able to defend himself was better than fighting blind. Quistis shot him a puzzled look at his decision, but he shrugged, and she left him alone. She wasn't allowed to question his judgment, he knew.

With their path lit, Squall felt more at ease. They continued on in silence, until, at the end of the road, an exit appeared, lit with a lurid red light. He stalked through and entered into another section of the cavern with Quistis following directly behind him.

Coiling around like a snake, the path ended at the center of the chamber where it formed an island surrounded by stalagmites that rose from the ground to stab at the ceiling. A sizeable pit was positioned within the center of the rock formation, its depths filled to the rim with burning lava. There were no other exits leading out of the room; the way in was the only way out.

A weak earthquake shivered through the cavern. There was a grinding sound, like something was shifting. Squall immediately glanced back at the opening they had just come through and saw the wall melting and flowing together to form a solid rock face. Trapped! Quistis placed a hand on his shoulder. This was part of the Test, then…He braced himself. That meant that Ifrit was near.

"Who dares to enter my domain?" The deep voice emanated from nowhere and from everywhere. Squall advanced closer to the pit, his jaw set.

"It is I, Squall Leonhart, and I have come to challenge you."

A bestial laugh and a snarl. "Do you know who I am, mortal? I am Ifrit, the Guardian of Fire, made by Hyne from the smokeless flames. I am of the first race, one of the oldest of the Guardian Forces, and you, a human, dare to challenge me?"

"I do." The heat swirled around him, dry and intense.

"Very well, then." Ifrit snorted. "Pray you do not regret your decision."

A column of lava and fire shot up from the pit, and a tremor shook the cavern. Stalactites crashed down from above, landing in the molten sea with weak splashes. Squall stared in fascination, unable to tear his eyes away, and when the vibrations finally ceased, the inferno faded away to reveal the hulking shape of a colossal beast covered in short brown fur.

Ifrit voiced a low growl and lowered his head. A mane of fiery red hair extended from the base of his skull all the way down his spine, and two gleaming black horns stretched back from his head. He sported four more horns as well, two curving out towards the front of his wolf-like muzzle from behind his jawbone and two more protruding from his shoulder blades. Flames licked out of the sides of his mouth, throwing his features into a sinister light. Lava oozed from his jaws to run down the bristles of fur clinging to his lower jaw, and massive claws dug into the packed ground, tearing up chunks of rock. The clink of metal as the golden bracelets encircling his wrists rang against each other, and the click of glass as the purple beads wound onto his necklace clacked together with every movement. He bared his teeth—razor-sharp daggers—and Squall had the impression that the beast was grinning at him, mocking him. He raised his gunblade.

And then Ifrit leapt forward. Squall twisted aside, bringing Lionheart slicing horizontally across his body as he spun away. The blade passed through sinew and muscle, and Squall pulled the gunblade free as the Guardian Force let loose a roar before crashing into the cave floor. Bits of stone and rubble scattered through the air. Growling, the great beast picked himself up and turned. A jagged wound tore through Ifrit's right shoulder, and out of it poured steaming magma. A glare of hatred as Ifrit opened his jaw—

—and fire streamed out. Squall dove out of the way just in time and felt the heat of the flames as they struck a nearby boulder. He glimpsed the shimmering air, the now-orange and glowing rock, the thickness of the substance left behind. Something in his stomach turned at the sight of the molten stone that trickled slowly down the path. The rock—it had melted. He tried not to think of what would have happened if the fire had hit him.

Suddenly, something slammed into his chest, knocking him to the ground. Chest heaving for breath, he was partially aware of the shadow that fell over him. Move! He rolled to the side, and an enormous talon smashed into the ground beside him, right where he had just been. Rust-colored dust flew up. Quickly, Squall grabbed at the floating magic, desperately trying to shape it into a useable form. Another black outline above him; he rolled the other way, his shoulder coming up against solid flesh. Lowering his fingers to touch the ground, he closed his eyes.

A moment later, a bellow of anger filled the cavern. Squall opened his eyes, saw that Ifrit's claws were frozen fast to the floor. But he knew that the ice wouldn't hold for long—already, it was melting—and he snatched his gun on his belt, crawling out from under the Guardian Force. Standing, he turned to face the monster, and aimed. Four explosions, four bullets lodged themselves into Ifrit's chest.

A shudder ran through the beast. Lava dripped out of the bullet wounds, running down the Fire Guardian's chest. Eyes of molten gold emanated a rabid fury. "Impudent human! You believe that you can harm me?" And before Squall's very eyes, the bullet wounds in Ifrit's chest sealed themselves up. The cut on his shoulder disappeared, leaving only a pale scar to serve as a testimony to the injury. "I am invincible! I am unconquerable! I am indomitable!" The ice chaining him to the ground began to crack, hairline slivers creeping through the frost.

Squall dropped the gun and withdrew, holding an arm over his eyes as shards flew everywhere, touched the lava, melted, steamed up. Cold knives rained over him, a painful yet welcome feeling, and when he lowered his arm, a ghostly mist tinged with pink shrouded the battlefield. Ifrit stood before him, his gargantuan frame blocking almost everything from view. Squall backed up, the hand holding Lionheart dangling uselessly by his side.

"I am Ifrit, god of your Hell. Bow down to me," Ifrit snarled, and lifted a hand to deal him a forceful backhand. But Squall brought up his gunblade in a wide slash, the silver blade biting deeply into the Guardian's arm as it came down. More blood—lava—trickled over Lionheart. A sharp yank, and Squall wrenched the weapon free before Ifrit could jerk it out of his hands. Another roar of pain. A small retreat, and Squall stabbed the monster in the chest and pulled the trigger.

An explosion like a detonation shook the air, made the stalactites vibrate. There was a silence, and then Squall felt an immense force throw him away to the side. Lionheart went clattering into the distance. His head struck the cavern wall and darkness encroached on the edge of his vision. The pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. The rush of blood. He couldn't hear anything, couldn't see. The world was spinning. What was happening?

He felt himself being lifted up by the collar of his shirt, felt claws digging into his back. Ripping agony drilled into his body, and a hot fluid trickled over his torso. Hot, stinking breath on his face. It smelled like brimstone, like fire. Like Hell.

"Give up, human!"

He coughed. Iron in his mouth. "N-No."

"No?" Squall had the faint sense of being lifted higher. "No?" Ifrit repeated, incredulous. "Then you will be destroyed!"

Cure, Cure, Cure, Cure, his mind screamed, and Squall drew the magic in. A flash of white light lit the darkness of his lips. A soothing sensation crawling over his body, wiping away his pain and weakness. He opened his eyes, saw Ifrit snort in surprise. The claw opened. Squall fell out, and hit the ground rolling. His eyes caught on a flash of metal, and he lunged for the gunblade. His hand closed around the familiar grip. He spun around, thrust his weapon into the looming creature, pulled the trigger again. Another explosion, another roar. But before Ifrit could counter, Squall ducked beneath the Guardian Force's upraised arm, hacking at the knee as he evaded the beast's attack. He spun to face the injured monster, hand extended; a bolt of lightning leapt from his fingertips to strike Ifrit.

The Guardian Force endured the pain of the magical assault, but Squall could see teeth grinding together furiously, lava sloshing from his mouth. When the electricity waned, Ifrit raised a hand. A ball of fire formed within his palm, and he flung it at Squall. It exploded at Squall's feet. Debris filled his vision. When the dirt settled, Ifrit was gone.

Squall peered around, Lionheart held at the ready for a surprise attack. Where? His mind worked furiously. Ifrit had the power to heal himself, and was probably doing so even now. One demonstration of that particular attribute was certainly enough for Squall. That meant that he would have to injure the Guardian Force enough so as to impair Ifrit's ability to rejuvenate effectively. But how much was "enough"?

Suddenly, a stream of lava shot at him from out of nowhere, splattering against the ground. Squall evaded it, but felt some drops sear his skin; he gritted his teeth. He would not show any pain. Not now when Ifrit was weak. Squall couldn't allow the Guardian Force to sense that he was at a disadvantage, or the beast would be heartened.

"Surrender, mortal, and I will spare your unworthy life."

Squall wiped at the sweat that had gotten in his eyes, pushed his bangs to the side, not bothering to reply. Eyes scanning the environment.

An eruption. He turned and watched as a grotesque frame burst from the lava-sea. Ifrit landed, and without hesitation, charged, head lowered, horns gleaming lethally in the firelight.

And Squall met the rush head-on. As the Guardian Force bore down on him, he thrust his gunblade into the beast's chest and pulled the trigger. A deafening blast. A heavy weight sagged against his blade. He could feel the heat traveling up his weapon. But he didn't let go. He pulled the trigger again. And again. And again. Kept pulling it until the chamber was empty, until it clicked uselessly in his hand.

Then, he pulled Lionheart out and backed away.

Ifrit staggered forth a step, staggered back a step, and finally slumped down, horned head bowed. A rasping breath shook his body as he tried to draw in some air. The wound in his chest was ugly, and magma trickled out to pool around his kneeling form. He was obviously attempting to heal himself, but the pain seemed to keep him from doing so, and, eventually, he just stopped trying.

Squall took a step closer. Ifrit's head snapped up at the sound of his approach. The light in the glowing eyes dimmed. "I…am defeated…But how? For me to lose…and to a human!" A pause, and Squall could almost imagine a sigh of resignation. "No matter. I…" Here, a hesitation. "I offer you my allegiance, Squall Leonhart—my allegiance and my strength. Do you accept?"

"I accept."

A shudder. "You have it, then," and then the Guardian Force disintegrated, breaking up into radiant wisps of red light that twirled briefly in the air before floating towards Squall. He inhaled as he felt a new force entered him, a new being taking residence in his psyche. A whisper of power. The heat no longer bothered him, he realized; in fact, it seemed to give him life, seemed to strengthen him. He had won, had passed, had actually junctioned Ifrit. But there was still the Field Exam, he reminded himself. Still, it was exhilarating, this feeling of accomplishment. He allowed a smile of satisfaction to flicker across his face for a second.

"Squall!" He turned at the sound of his name and saw Quistis approaching him. She was smiling. "That—"

Squall cut her off. "How much time do I have left?"

"Five, ten—it doesn't matter"—she waved a hand—"The fact is that you actually beat him and he allowed you to junction him. That in itself is amazing! They'll probably overlook any time lapses; even if you go back half an hour late, you'll still pass! But"—here she chewed a lip—"are you hurt?"

"I'm fine," he said. "We need to move."

"Yeah." Quistis nodded and pointed at the far wall of the cavern. "The door's open again." And Squall saw that she was right. The molten rock had reshaped to form the opening, and it appeared as if it had never changed. But a strange sense of foreboding crept up his spine. He suppressed a shiver. His earlier mood of elation vanished, only to be replaced by cold fingers of apprehension.

"Let's go," he said.

As they approached the crevice, Quistis remarked: "That really was amazing. I was right, you know."

He didn't really care about what she was right about, but he said, "About what?"

"You and Seifer—you two are in a league of your own."

He wondered what Seifer had done to obtain Quistis's approval while not junctioning the Guardian Force, but knew it was against Garden protocols to ask after other students' test results. Instead, he shrugged, and they passed into the dark tunnel. Squall once again called up Fire, and was pleasantly surprised at how simple, how easy it was. He walked ahead of Quistis, boots striking the hard floor. He had not sheathed his gunblade; the ominous atmosphere remained.

Abruptly, a tremor rocked the cavern. Stumbling against a nearby wall, he cursed as he felt rough stone scrape against his skin. A clatter. Rocks were moving, were falling. The Fire Cavern was collapsing! Without Ifrit's presence, it seemed as though there was nothing left to hold the cave together. He heard a dark chuckle in his mind, confirming his suspicions. Ifrit knew, had known all the while.

"We have to get out of here!" Quistis's voice was muffled. "The cavern's caving in!"

Squall shoved himself off the wall and grabbed her hand, tugging her after him, taking fast yet measured steps. If they ran, they might lose their footing in this blackness and trip. No, it was better to walk—walk fast, yes, but not run. He would not let Ifrit win.

But once they exited the tunnel, they ran, sprinting full length down the crumbling path. Lava swallowed the ground behind them, rose up in waves of fire, and stalactites fell from the ceiling to shatter upon the ground, sending small stone chips flying. Squall tightened his hold on Lionheart and let Quetzalcoatl's strength flow through his body, bolstering his flagging speed and endurance. He hoped that Quistis was doing the same.

When they finally reached the entrance, they leapt.

Squall hit the ground rolling, softening the impact; still, it jarred his teeth, and he winced as his back slammed into a boulder, halting his movement. He staggered up and looked around. The Garden Faculty members were picking themselves up off the ground and staring at the now-nonexistent cavern with amazement, as if they couldn't believe that it was gone. Quistis was nearby, groaning in pain. A white light radiated from her body as she Cured herself, and then stood up, wiping dust off her outfit. She shot him a shaky grin.

"That was close."

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I'm alive. And guilty of laziness. But here you have it.

Ifrit is the FF10 version for no reason other than the fact that he looks way cooler. And there are two Dante's Inferno references in there if you must know. I may be forgetting some other things because I'm tired, but that's how it stands so far. Hope you enjoyed the chapter, which clocks in at over 6k words; of course I made it extra long for you guys. And I blame any missing punctuation marks or spaces on the Document Manager.

If you have any thoughts, comments, questions, complaints, etc., just leave a review, and I'll be sure to get to it. Constructive criticism is, as always, much appreciated. And, once again, thanks for waiting.