Three.

"Wait," the woman with the green hair said. Her request didn't stop Seifer– as very little would– but Ellone paused and turned, the heavy feeling in her chest twisting and tightening. She could scarcely breathe for the fear that had overtaken her thoughts. "Where is he going? Are we sure we should leave?"

"You don't have to do anything," Seifer growled. He had nearly moved out of range of the fire's warm glow, and his footsteps were still audible in the keen silence. Ellone wasn't sure who to side with– she couldn't very well let Seifer wander about the castle alone, and he seemed to be the only one who knew the way through the corridors, but the others were just as confused as she was, if not more so, and she couldn't leave them alone either.

"Seifer, just– just wait," she called out, hoping he would listen, if only for a moment. "Listen, Yuna and–"

"Rydia," the green-haired woman said.

"Rydia," Ellone finished. "If he's right, and we're in Ultimecia's Castle, we shouldn't split up. I don't know what's here, and I don't know what will happen, but we should probably stay together."

The two strangers looked at each other, sharing a glance that seemed both significant and suspicious at the same time. Rydia raised both eyebrows, and Yuna bit the inside of her lip, shrugging slightly.

"Does he know where he's going?" Yuna asked, breaking the silence. "Is there a way out?"

Ellone glanced in Seifer's direction, but could no longer see the outline of his coat in the glow. When he didn't answer, she could only assume that he didn't have one– and the notion was not a comforting one. All she knew of Ultimecia's Castle was the dark feeling she got within the magic of Time Compression, a tingling that wormed itself beneath her skin. She'd seen flashes of it as she'd thrown the children into it– flashes of a dark place, shrouded in mystical energy and covered in secrets. The children themselves had rarely spoken of what had transpired within the stone walls, and she could hardly blame them. She got goosebumps just thinking about the chamber they were in being part of the castle itself.

"I don't know," Ellone answered honestly, after a long pause.

"Why should we trust you?" Rydia asked, her face hard.

"Because," Ellone started, and then sighed, swallowing hard, "I think I might have been the one to bring you here."

xx

Xu came to in the hall of mirrors, sitting up sharply with a half-shout on her lips and her fingers tight around the gun in her hand before she realized that the people surrounding her were reflections of herself. An entire identical army of mussed brown hair, rumpled pajamas and guns pointing right at her.

She lowered her gun slowly, and was slightly comforted when the horde of mirror-Xus did the same.

What the hell had just happened? If this was some new field-test that Commander Leonhart had come up with, well, she was going to have words with him over that...six days in the Centran desert, then the first real sleep she had gotten in weeks, and now mirrors. A bunch of huge fucking mirrors.

Xu decided that Quistis must have talked Squall into this. It was the sort of logic puzzle that the instructor was always bemoaning Garden's lack of. With a sigh, Xu pulled herself to her feet, testing her limbs to make sure nothing had broken in the violent impact with the cobblestone floor.

At least she'd grabbed her gun before the world went to shit.

There was a flicker of red motion out of the corner of her eye, and Xu whirled, her gun out in front of her and her finger steady on the trigger.

"Easy," the figure in red said, stepping toward her with a great long sword over his shoulders. "I will not hurt you."

"Put down the sword, and we'll talk," Xu snapped. She'd had far too much experience with psychos and giant gunblades to really trust anyone wielding a sword so carelessly.

...Okay, so it had been one psycho with one gunblade, but the principle still remained.

"There are no fiends here," the man said, his voice level, as if the idea was absolutely absurd. "It is safe."

"Put down the fucking sword," Xu repeated, her tone hard. It was the same that she used drilling cadets; it had been specially designed to get an immediate response. The man raised an eyebrow at her voice, but lifted the blade from his shoulders as if it were featherweight, bringing it point down into the ground. There was something about the way that small orbs of brightly colored lights burst from the tip as it met the floor that made Xu profoundly uncomfortable.

"I'd appreciate it if you would do the same." He nodded at her gun, and Xu debated for a moment, then lowered it a fraction. "My thanks."

Xu simply narrowed her eyes at him. "Who are you? And where is this?"

He had the gall to chuckle a bit, and Xu's finger itched to pull the trigger. "I am Auron, and I believe the more important question at hand is when is this."

xx

Seifer stalked through the long corridors, his feet on autopilot, pacing familiar hallways. Goddamn Sorceresses, and even if Ellone wasn't a Sorceress, goddamn her, too.

"Seifer, will you please stop?"

He ignored the Loire girl's pleading, and pushed hard against an intricately engraved door. At least the lighting had improved somewhat; dripping wax candles in ornate sconces littered the walls every few feet.

The door opened with a long creak, a death rattle of wood against stone, and he had barely made it more than a meter into the room when something leaped out of the shadows and slammed him against the floor. Hot saliva dripped onto Seifer's face as Rinoa's pet dog stood on his chest and snarled in his face. Behind him, Ellone let out a short scream.

"Get off of me, you stupid mutt!" Seifer shoved the dog hard, and swore violently as Angelo sunk her teeth into his forearm. Angrily, Seifer pushed his free hand against Angelo's face, covering her eyes, and tore his arm out of her grasp. Plenty of skin came away with tearing coat fabric, and the pain very nearly made his eyes water. The dog growled at him, her haunches up in the air, ready to launch again at a single wrong move.

The dog had always hated him, sure, but she'd never gone out of her way to make him part of her daily diet. Seifer glared right back at her.

"Angelo. Come."

With the command that floated out of the darkness before them, Angelo turned away from Seifer immediately, puppy-calm as she trotted away.

"Rinoa?" He moved forward, after the dog, but the darkness only grew as he pressed onward. Rinoa did not respond. "Rinoa, what the fuck is going on?"

Nothing. He couldn't hear anything but his and Ellone's breathing.

"Rinoa!"

xx

"I think we've lost them," Yuna said, after a long moment of silence, when all Rydia could hear was the jagged rhythm of her own breathing. The walls were still stone, and still cold, and the darkness was still almost overbearing in its completeness, and yet she was somewhat glad that she was not alone amidst the maze-like corridors, even if she knew little more than her companion's name.

They were stuck in what appeared to be a circular room, with six identical portals lining the walls– portals shrouded in shadows so thick that Rydia could not see what lay beyond them. None of them had any identifying markings, and they had lost sight of the two figures they had been following several minutes ago– or, she assumed it to be minutes, but time could be passing at alarming rates in such a place. The thought twisted in her stomach, adding to the nervous tension there.

"Do we continue?" Yuna asked from Rydia's right. Rydia didn't answer, but she did hold her hands up higher near one of the doorways, hoping that the flames that still danced in her palm would shed some light past the openings. She was wrong– either her magic was not what she thought it was, or the inky blackness was made of far more than simply the absence of light. The darkness was playing tricks with her mind, and she did not much care for it.

"I don't even know which way to follow," Rydia said, finally, keeping her eyes on the portals as well as she could.

"How did we get so far behind?" Yuna half-moaned, and Rydia was unsure if the other woman wanted a response. The startling loss of sight ahead of them had been rather abrupt, almost as if the distance between the two parties had stretched due to some outside forces. It was only another puzzle in the growing list of them, and without their guide, they had no idea where they were going or how to begin trying to solve it.

"This whole castle is magic," Rydia mused. The fire in her hands flickered as if in response. "Is there any sort of tracking spell you can do?"

Yuna looked surprised.

"No," she answered, slowly, as if thinking the question over. "I don't know of anything."

"Me neither," Rydia sighed. "And I can't start a warp spell without knowing where my destination is."

The two looked at each other, and Rydia grimaced.

"Well," she said, shoulders slumping forward. "What do we do now?"

xx

"Where did she go?" Ellone asked, between sucking in glorious bursts of oxygen to her screaming lungs. She bemoaned her own lack of exercise, and had to admit surprise at Seifer's speed– perhaps Squall was keeping his cadets in far better shape than she had remembered being necessary. "Did we lose her?"

"Dammit, I can't see anything!" Seifer growled, though she wasn't sure if his anger was directed at her or the shadows currently blocking their path. Ellone was sure she had heard Rinoa's voice– but even Seifer, it seemed, hadn't managed to catch a glimpse of the dark-haired girl in the blackness. Ellone hadn't felt any stirrings in her magic when the voice had emerged– shouldn't she have felt something, anything, even if only remnants of the Time Compression spell?

She bent down, wheezing, wishing that Seifer would stop long enough for her to properly catch her breath.

"This place is a fucking maze," Seifer growled, ahead of her, and she was inclined to agree. They'd lost the others– Elle had glanced behind her during the blind pursuit, but their footsteps had suddenly stopped, and she'd been unable to find them again. She hoped they were alright, at least, or making better progress than she and Seifer were.

"What now?" she asked Seifer, when she felt steady enough to try speaking again. He didn't answer, and for a split second, she was overcome with terror, thinking she had lost him, too. "Seifer?"

She could hear his footsteps, even though she couldn't see him, and they began moving again, toward the direction Rinoa's voice had come from.

"Seifer!"

"This way," he said suddenly, and fingers brushed against her shoulder, then her arm, and finally, Seifer's hand settled around her wrist, pulling her along behind him as he went left. She supposed she ought to have been grateful that he had come back for her, but Ellone was more focused on trying to stay on her feet at his fast pace than anything else.

The darkness slowly lifted as they walked, and as soon as Seifer could see again, he dropped his hold on Ellone's wrist. The candles in their sconces flickered as he broke contact, nearly going out. The flames flickered back to life, though, before he could worry about the darkness swallowing them up again. He looked back over his shoulder, past Ellone. The hall that they had just come through gradually faded back into darkness the further ahead he looked.

Nice trick, he thought darkly.

"What are those?" she asked, and he glanced to his left at the portals along the wall, black holes that could have been mistaken for modern art if he hadn't known any better. Seifer shrugged.

"I don't know."

"You've been here before, you have to know--"

"I don't know," Seifer snarled, and turned away from her, stalking across the floor in the direction that they had been heading in.

"Wait," Ellone said, as he made for the door at the other end of the hall. "I can hear something."

Seifer groaned, but moved closer to the portals as Ellone did. She leaned forward, her hand outstretched to touch the inky darkness. "Don't touch that," he snapped, and she looked up at him.

"Why not?"

Seifer's expression contorted for a second, and then he shrugged. "It's your funeral," he said, and then shut up as a third voice floated into their conversation.

"--do we do now?"

Ellone looked sharply at him. "Isn't that Rydia?"

Seifer shrugged again. "How the fuck would I know?"

xx

"Wait," Yuna said suddenly, and Rydia did as she requested, halting her feet in her movement around the circular dead-end of sorts they were stuck in. The brunette seemed to be concentrating on something, her head cocked to one side, toward the passageway she was closest to. She pursed her lips and then motioned, suddenly, for Rydia to move closer to her, and the mage could do little more than comply.

For a long second, Rydia couldn't hear anything, and then, as if the words were being carried on the breeze she could hear snippets, tiny fragments of sound that barely formed themselves into words.

"... would I know?"

"Is that–?" Rydia started, and at the same time Yuna began, "That's–"

They both stopped and looked at each other. The voice had definitely been male, and had definitely sounded like Seifer had, sarcasm and all. At the same time, as if on cue, both woman turned back to the doorway the voice had emerged from. The sound drifted away again, gone almost as quickly as it had arrived, and Rydia could hear her own labored breathing heavy in her ears. She couldn't tell if she was glad or frightened by the notion before them.

"You definitely heard that?" Yuna whispered, as if she was afraid to break the silence. For the first time, Rydia noticed a flash of steel hanging on her belt– a weapon, she surmised, and she was disappointed in her herself for not noticing sooner.

"Do we follow?" Rydia replied. There was another moment of silence that hung between them, and then Yuna took a hesitant step forward. The tip of her shoe disappeared into the shadows, but nothing else seemed to happen. The brunette turned back to glance at Rydia, and shrugged.

"I think– I think it's our only option," Yuna said, and Rydia was inclined to agree with her. The other woman slowly began moving further within the doorway, until she was half-immersed in the darkness, and Rydia followed. She stayed close, for if their earlier experiences were anything to learn from, distance meant nothing within the bounds of the castle, and as she dipped into the blackness she reached a hand out to clasp her fingers around the back of Yuna's shirt.

"It seems like a tunnel," Yuna said, voice low. The sound echoed through the corridor around them, and Rydia wondered exactly how close the walls were. "I can't see, but it seems straight."

"Keep your hands out, then," Rydia responded. The fire in her hand had gone out the moment she'd stepped within the shadows, and she'd extinguished the spell, having no need for it if it could not give them light. Her palm felt cold and empty after having held the flames for so long, and she wiped her hand on her tunic as if to rid herself of the sensation.

For a very long time, the two moved with pain-staking diligence through the halls, and after awhile, Rydia's hopes of finding the others fell again. Seifer's voice could not have come from so far away that they would still be searching, and she didn't know what that meant.

Suddenly, Yuna pitched forward. Light flooded Rydia's senses, blinding her after so long in the dark, and as she threw her hands over her eyes to block the whiteness, she heard the swishing of metal through air, and Yuna's surprised shriek.

xx

When the voice disappeared, Elle had to stop herself from reaching into the shadows.

"What happened?" she asked, feeling foolish even as the words left her mouth, for Seifer had been standing beside her the whole time, and would know little more than she did.

"How many times do I have to tell you that I don't know?" Seifer hissed. He moved away from the darkness, as if already disinterested in it. "Let's go."

"But–" Ellone started, and realized it was useless. Arguing with Seifer would get her nowhere, and the fragments of Rydia's voice had already long since faded into nothing. "Right. Let's keep moving then."

xx

Rinoa sat in Ultimecia's glorious throne, her head cradled in expensive velvet, and closed her eyes.

"They are all here, all who would stop us."

The voice was sharp, high, thready and extraordinarily pleased. It took her a moment to realize that her lips moved with the words, the sound echoing all around her in the chamber.

"They're my friends.."

"They wish to end us, to keep their imperfect world, and they are fools."

Heavy footsteps, a knight, her knight. She could see him, storming the halls to eradicate her castle of anything that could harm her.

"Squall..." Rinoa murmured, and felt something tighten into a hard knot in her chest when she heard his response, brisk and military:

Your orders, my lady?

Rinoa swallowed hard, and when she spoke again, her tone was dismissive, cold, any doubt in her voice folded away into nonexistence. Haven't you found them yet?