The sky was a stormy tone of black, darkening with every second that went by. The air was dense, as if the oxygen level was slowly diminishing. In the sky flew an anomaly that could only be conjured up in a child's nightmare – a pale woman with a twisted smile, her face and body with strange purple marks, her eyes like slits of fire, with grand grey wings like an angel but horns protruding from her head like a demon. She cackled manically, her voice ringing through the endless abyss.
Squall Leonhart tired to stand tall, but his body ached with magical ailments that he had never experienced before. It was as if sanity was slowly draining from his system and his will to live was being crushed by excruciating pain. His hands remained firm on his gunblade, but it was growing heavier in his hold.
He glanced around the bizarre setting he was in – was he still in his own world, his own time? Selphie lay knocked out on the ground, if you could call it that, looking frail and useless without her usual energy. Quistis was standing over her, frantically trying to revive her before it was too late. Zell stood not too far away, desperately trying to summon a Guardian Force, but to no avail. Irvine stood in the distance, firing his bullets laced with magic at their foe, but it seemed that the bullets disintegrated into nothing.
Squall felt a warm touch on his arm. He looked over his shoulder and his eyes met Rinoa's, full of fear.
"Are we going to die, Squall?" she whispered, loud enough for him to hear.
"We can't die here," said Squall firmly, "we have to save the world. It has to be us. I'll protect you, don't worry." He had hoped that the feigned confidence would be enough to keep her spirits up – he knew that Rinoa hated pessimism. Then again, she hated liars too...
Rinoa's bare arm was bleeding dangerously, but she was good at masking any pain she might have felt. Squall uttered a cure spell over her and her wound healed instantly. However, almost immediately after that, the Sorceress Ultimecia unleashed another fatal flurry of silver coloured magic, making Squall and Rinoa fall helplessly to the ground and making any prior healing obsolete.
Pain surged through Squall's body, and it felt like his bones would shatter. He wiped the blood from his brow and heard Irvine swear loudly as he suffered the same fate.
"Squall, what do we do?" yelled Zell, rolling away from the attack before it could get him. "We can't summon our GFs! None of our attacks are working on her!"
Quistis let out a sudden cry of pain as she was engulfed by silver flames, and she fell like a toy soldier. It seemed she was knocked unconscious too, just as Selphie had been.
Any hope left in Squall quickly evaporated. Was this how it was going to end? Did he go through that long, hard journey to discover the truth and to save the world he thought he detested so much just to die here? Was this ... the ultimate failure?
"We can do it," Rinoa had said to him before the final battle, "We'll do it all together. We've come so far."
They've come so far only to fall so fast...
"Foolish SeeDs," sneered Ultimecia. "You are all merely children! Did you really believe that you can defeat me? I am a divine descendant of Hyne! You cannot kill a Goddess! Time will compress! The world will become one with me, and all humanity will see a new era!"
Ultimecia flung her arms out and ascended higher into the air, a dark and fearful aura emanating around her. The world began to morph, or maybe it was Squall's vision distorting. A violent typhoon-like force ripped through the air. Whatever it was, he and all his companions roared out in agony. The sensation was like gravity trying to tear his body into pieces from every angle. A deafening screeching noise throbbed in his ears, almost piercing into his skull. With what little energy he had left in his body, he threw his arms around Rinoa, holding her so tightly as if his arms would shield her from the agonising pain.
It was the end. The first mission they failed was the one that mattered most.
A blonde warrior that went by the name of Cloud Strife stood in a deserted church in the slums of what was once known as Midgar. The silence was soothing – it was good to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. He claimed to live a quiet life now, but since the defeat of Sephiroth for the second time, his mind was still not quite at ease. It probably never would be.
Cloud rested his sword against one of the pews of the church and walked towards the flower bed in the centre of the church, radiating with vibrant life. The scent brought a bittersweet sense of nostalgia to him, with fond memories of Aerith lingering on his conscience.
He bent down and picked one of the pink lilies, intending to give it to Tifa when he returned to Seventh Heaven. It had been a long time since he took a day off of work to have a 'family day' with Tifa and the children ... maybe he'll do it tomorrow...
The sudden noise interrupted his train of thought, and in an instant, Cloud felt a heavy weight fall upon him. Caught off guard, he fell on his back, glad that the soft flower bed had cushioned him in the sudden impact. He slowly lifted his head to see what had caused him to fall so suddenly. To his shock and embarrassment, a dark-haired girl had fallen right on top of him. He could not see her face, but she was wearing clothes of blue with angel wings imprinted on the back.
A fallen angel? he mused.
Cloud sat up, carefully placing the girl onto the floor of the flowerbed on her back and knelt down beside her. She was unconscious, her face was slightly sweaty, her lips cracked, her skin very pale, and her arms very bloody. He wondered how she got into such a state – and more importantly, why did she fall? Was she on top of the old plate of Midgar? That certainly was strange – nobody lived there anymore since the fall of Meteor.
He looked up at the church's ceiling, which appeared to have been damaged again. He wondered how many people had fallen into the church and whether it could survive another blow from a human being.
Cloud looked back down to the girl who had fallen through. "Hello?" he called out to her.
The feeling of irony and reminisce wavered in Cloud – it was only a few years ago that Aerith was playing the part he was playing now, and he this mysterious girl.
Except I didn't fall on top of Aerith, thought Cloud, wanting to laugh at the image. I wonder how that would have gone down. Hopefully this girl won't ask me for a date when she wakes up.
"Hello?" Cloud said again.
Still, there was no response. Cloud put two fingers on her neck and could feel a faint pulse. As he touched her, something inside of him stirred. The feeling was unsettling, almost like an unsent spirit inside of him trying to unleash itself...
Cloud shook the thoughts out of his head as he removed his hand from her neck, reached into his pocket and pulled out a red feather, glad that he always kept one on his person. He let the feather drop onto her chest as he muttered, "Phoenix Down."
Almost immediately, the girl's eyes fluttered open and she began gasping for air. The sight was so strange – Cloud had never seen anyone react like that to being revived before.
The girl continued to gasp and wheeze, sweat dripping from her brow. She coughed once, and a little blood came out of her mouth.
This isn't normal, thought Cloud.
"Esuna," said Cloud forcefully, laying his hands above her.
A mysterious sparkling green light emanated from his hands and flowed into the girl's body. The girl's gasping ceased, and her breathing became more regular. She let out a slow sigh, her eyes slowly drooping down...
"Are you all right?" asked Cloud.
Her eyes opened again slowly. "Am ... am I dead?" she asked quietly. "Is this heaven? Are ... you ... an angel...?"
"Ugh ... ungh..."
Squall commanded his body to move. If he could think and feel ... did that mean he was still alive? Was the fight with Ultimecia all just a very bad dream?
"What ... happened?"
That was Zell's voice!
Squall opened his eyes and struggled to sit up. To his amazement, he was lying on the grass in a field of flowers – he recognised it straight away as the one near the orphanage, where he and Rinoa made their promise.
He looked around to find Zell and Irvine standing limply, and Quistis and Selphie were still unconscious. Squall did not remember how they got there or why they were there.
"We're alive," sighed Irvine in relief.
"Last thing I remember was getting walloped by Ultimecia," said Zell, massaging his temples.
"Me too," murmured Irvine. "Hey, we should heal the girls."
Irvine rummaged through his pockets and used a Phoenix Down on Quistis and Selphie. The two young women came around shortly, groaning groggily, and then fell into the same state of confusion as the others.
"Where's Rinoa?" said Squall suddenly, noticing that she wasn't there.
"You're right, she isn't here with us," said Zell, frowning.
"You don't think that..." Selphie began, but Quistis cut her off.
"Let's look for her, she can't be too far away," said the blonde woman.
"But first, let's heal ... my head hurts," whined Zell.
Quistis nodded and put her hands out, pointing at Zell. She closed her eyes, concentrating, and said, "Cure!"
Quistis opened her eyes, looking at her hands confusedly. "W-What's wrong?"
"Here, let me try!" said Selphie. "CURE!"
Again, there was no effect.
"Hey, why isn't our magic working?" said Selphie, panicked.
Squall grimaced and channelled his thoughts to connect with Ifrit and Bahamut, trying to sense their presence. However, that familiar feel of security and safety he felt when his Guardian Forces were protecting him was absent. He couldn't connect with the guardians – it was as if they had been unjunctioned from him permanently.
"I can't find my GFs," said Irvine, doing the same thing. "Did someone steal them?"
"Argh, what are we gonna do without magic?" said Zell, kicking his shoe against the ground. "What if there are monsters still lurking around?"
"We'll have to make do with items," said Quistis, drinking a small vial of potion and handing one to Zell. "But they won't last long – we have to conserve them."
"We'll worry about that later," said Squall, "First, we have to find Rinoa."
The party split up to search the field for Rinoa. After about ten minutes of circling the vicinity, they came back together, all with the same report – she was nowhere to be found.
"She'll turn up," said Quistis reassuringly. "It's Rinoa, after all."
"You're right," said Irvine, nodding.
Squall tried to believe his friends for now, but a worrying feeling was stuck in his stomach. He had promised to protect Rinoa – had he failed?
The word almost automatically struck him back to his normal, professional self. They were on a mission to kill Sorceress Ultimecia to save the world from a fate worse than the end.
"We didn't defeat Ultimecia ," said Squall slowly.
"But Squall, look! The sky's returned to its normal colour," said Zell.
"Yeah, that's right!" said Irvine. "Remember Ultimecia partially compressed space and time, and we went to the future? And that future was all dark and gloomy ... the sky was a weird colour, and all the places we knew were gone!"
"So are we in our time now?" asked Quistis.
"Yay, we won!" yelled Selphie, skipping happily.
Squall shook his head. "Sorry to burst your bubble, but just because the sky looks normal doesn't mean we've succeeded. Remember, Ultimecia was casting time compression in the past, present and the future. The only way we could survive it and reverse it is by defeating Ultimecia herself."
"But ... the sky..." Selphie said, trailing off.
"Ultimecia wanted to use time compression to unify the past, present and future into her being – to put all time into a single moment," said Squall. "And if she did that, she can recreate the world to be whatever she wants."
"So you're saying ... this is what she recreated?" said Zell, frowning.
"None of us remember what happened," said Squall, nodding. "Face it, we had no hope of winning – we were close to death. There's no way we could have defeated her. We've failed."
"So now ... we're in Ultimecia's ideal world," said Quistis slowly. "The world as we once knew it is gone."
Selphie wailed in dismay. "No, this can't be happening! We're the good guys! We're supposed to win!"
Squall hung his head in shame. Everyone was depending on him ... on them. Laguna, Odine, Ellone, the entire world. And he let them down. Why did they entrust such a task to them? Why was he the leader of such an important mission? Did anyone even ask him if he wanted to save the world? He wasn't even an adult yet, he had his whole life to live – and now he had to live with the burden that he and his friends condemned the universe to a miserable fate – the fate of living in a world controlled by an evil sorceress.
Rinoa, thought Squall sadly, I need you now more than ever. I hope you're all right.
"Are you ... an angel?" asked Rinoa weakly.
Her vision was slightly blurred, her limbs felt weak, almost as if she had woken from a very long slumber. The handsome blonde man staring over her shook his head at her question, and with that, she could feel herself begin to drift out of consciousness again...
"Wait, wake up," came a male's voice. It was deep and had an emotionless tinge to it that reminded her of Squall...
"Just a few ... more ... minutes ... Squall," murmured Rinoa.
"Wake up, you can't fall out of consciousness – you might go into a coma if you do," said the voice.
The black memory of nothingness that Rinoa experienced when she was in a coma gripped at her. Was something a memory if it was nothing...? she wondered.
"Cure," murmured the man's voice.
Suddenly, Rinoa felt lighter in body and spirit, and the fatigue that plagued her was lifted almost immediately. The pain that ached in her body disappeared, and energy was returning to her. Rinoa sat up and looked around, her vision clearing.
"Where am I?" she asked. It hurt her head to try to remember what happened last.
"You fell from up there," said the blonde man, pointing up. "You were unconscious when I found you."
She appeared to be in a church, one that must have seen better days a long time ago. She sat on a bed of flowers, radiating with colours against the dull scheme of the church.
"Oh ... these flowers broke my fall," said Rinoa.
"Y-Yeah, that's right," mumbled the young man in front of her. "Are you all right now? How did you fall down here? The remains of the plate above Midgar are really dangerous, you shouldn't be up there."
"What are you talking about?" asked Rinoa, confused. "Midgar? What's Midgar?"
The young man raised an eyebrow. "You don't know what Midgar is?"
Rinoa shook her head.
"Do you ... remember anything?" he asked her. "Maybe the fall has impacted your memory. Do you know your name?"
"My memory is fine," said Rinoa, slightly annoyed. "My name is Rinoa Heartilly. The last thing I remember was ... fighting Sorceress Ultimecia with my friends."
"Rinoa Heartilly," mumbled the young man. "Well, at least you remember something. I'm Cloud, by the way."
"Nice to meet you, Cloud," said Rinoa. "Thanks for saving me. If you hadn't found me, I'd probably be dead..."
"Don't mention it," said Cloud, waving his hand. "Now you said something about ... Sorceress Ultimecia? Is that some kind of monster?"
"I ... I guess you can say that," said Rinoa slowly. She thought for a moment. If Cloud didn't know who Ultimecia was, did that mean that she and her friends defeated her? Was she back in her own time now?
"Yes ... yes, it's over," said Rinoa.
Rinoa looked at Cloud. "Oh, nothing." She grinned at the prospect that they had saved the world after all.
"I'm not sure why you're so happy, but I still don't understand how you can be fighting a monster above this church," said Cloud.
"We weren't fighting above any church," said Rinoa. "We went to..." She paused. He wouldn't have believed her if she said 'the future', and she wasn't in the mood for explaining. "We weren't fighting above a church."
Cloud shrugged. "Well, if you're okay now, I need to go now. It was nice meeting you."
Rinoa smiled. "Nice meeting you too. Thank you again for saving me."
I always seem to need saving, don't I? Rinoa thought grimly.
Cloud nodded in response and stood up, turning to leave.
"W-Wait!" Rinoa said suddenly.
Cloud turned around. "Yeah?"
"Can you tell me the way to Esthar?" asked Rinoa. She figured she could manage on her own to Esthar and wait for her companions to return to Laguna and Odine.
"Esthar? Where's that?" asked Cloud.
"Oh no, don't tell me I've wound up in Galbadia," groaned Rinoa.
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Cloud. "I've already told you, you're in the Midgar ruins. Just beyond here is Edge. I don't know any place called Esthar or Galbadia."
"W-What?" said Rinoa incredulously. "How can you not know? Esthar and Galbadia are only the two largest super powers in the world! I've been all over the world and I can tell you, I've never been to a place called Midgar or Edge."
"Well I've been all over the world too and I say I haven't ever heard of a place called Esthar or Galbadia," said Cloud briskly.
Rinoa was rendered speechless. Was this just a dream? It was as if the two of them were from different worlds...
Rinoa gasped suddenly. No ... it can't be true, thought Rinoa, did Ultimecia succeed at completing time compression? Is this the 'new world' that she created?
"No," murmured Rinoa. "It can't be." She fell on her knees helplessly.
Cloud, unsure of what to do, tried to keep composure. "I'm sorry I can't help you."
Momentarily, it was as if the sky flashed a blinding white and the world faded, starting anew. Seifer Almasy blinked back the stinging sensation left in his eyes from the impact and realised that his head was throbbing.
Dammit, he thought to himself, I need some water. He paused and took in his surroundings. The stone walls closed the small bedroom and made the room feel a lot colder than it was. A single-sized bed sat on the two edges of the wall, and adjacent to these walls was a locked mechanical door.
Why am I here again? Seifer asked himself for a second. White quickly flashed in his mind. Oh right, these are my quarters. I guess I dozed off while I was off duty.
Seifer picked up his gunblade, swung it over his shoulder and grabbed his key card sitting on the desk which read "S Knight Seifer Almasy Rank A" next to a photograph of himself, grinning triumphantly, and shoved it in his pocket. He opened the mechanical door and stepped into the grand corridors of Ultimecia Castle, looking around casually.
"Hey, Seifer!" called out a booming voice.
Seifer turned around to find his companions, Raijin and Fujin, dressed in their uniforms approaching him. The uniforms were black and gold and gave off a very elite and regal aura, an aura that was so familiar to him. But Seifer never wore the uniform – he had always thought he looked too much of a pansy in it.
"Hey," greeted Seifer. "Any new missions to do? I'm bored outta my mind. I didn't think being a Sorceress Knight could be boring but I guess I was wrong."
"AFFIRMATIVE," said Fujin.
"There've been reports of a guy who has powers and abilities similar to sorceresses," said Raijin, "but he's a guy, ya know? Guys can't be sorceresses!"
"IMPOSSIBLE," bellowed Fujin.
"That's pretty suspicious," said Seifer, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "So what's he been doing? Claiming land and stuff?"
"Not really," said Raijin. "He just seems like a really angry guy, ya know? I think he killed a few people or something when they didn't know the answer to his question, ya know?"
"Right," said Seifer. "I better go investigate this guy. Where was he last sighted?"
"Well, he was first sighted at the Lunar Gate in Esthar, ya know?" said Raijin. "But he's reportedly heading for Esthar City."
"All the way in Esthar!" exclaimed Seifer. "Why aren't there any knights in the area who can take care of this?"
"Uh, well, there were," said Raijin uneasily, "but ... they were killed by this guy, ya know?"
"You're kidding me," said Seifer, flabbergasted.
"Well, they were just D and E ranks," said Raijin. "Esthar's supposed to be a low activity area so a lot of the newbies are placed there, ya know? Most of the A and B rank knights are here in Centra or up in Galbadia, where the real action is."
"Amateurs," grumbled Seifer. "All right, I'll take this guy on. I'm up for a challenge."
"You want us to come with you?" asked Raijin.
"Nah, I can handle this on my own," said Seifer. "Just gimme the mission files." Seifer pulled out a small PDA-looking device and held it out to his companions.
Fujin swiped a card through the air over the device, and a soft 'beep' sounded. Seifer opened up the file on his device and briefly read through the details, carefully examining the face of the offender. The grainy picture didn't reveal much about the culprit as it was taken from the side, but the most noticeable thing about him was his long, silver hair.
"It's all gone," said Rinoa vacantly. "My world has gone." She looked up at Cloud and stood up. "How old are you, Cloud? How long has this planet existed?"
Cloud, quite disturbed and quickly becoming convinced that Rinoa was insane, took a step back from her. "I – what? I'm twenty-three years old and this Planet has existed for millions of years..."
Rinoa suddenly looked more distraught. "Millions of years ... oh no..."
"H-Have you been poisoned by Mako?" asked Cloud slowly. She certainly did show signs of Mako poisoning – delirium, memory loss, confusion ... yet, she could still speak coherently and understand what he was saying. A strange case, maybe?
"I don't know what that is, so I'm going to say no," said Rinoa hurriedly. "Cloud, has anything strange happened lately? Do you have all your memories?" She stopped. "Is the ruler of your country a sorceress?"
"Hey, calm down," said Cloud. "I should be asking if you have all your memories. I'm going to take you to a doctor, okay?"
"W-What?" said Rinoa. "But I feel fine! Really! Listen, Cloud, I don't want to alarm you but this world is a lie. You have to help me find my friends so we can change it back!"
"Let me take you to a doctor first," said Cloud. 'This world is a lie' … honestly…
"No, there's no time!" said Rinoa, "We have to save the world!"
She's nuts, thought Cloud.
"You've suffered a bad fall and you reacted weirdly to my Phoenix Down," said Cloud. "Let a doctor look at you first, all right?" It wasn't the entire truth as to why he wanted a doctor to take a look at her, but he didn't want to trigger any more strange rambling from her.
Rinoa groaned in frustration. "Fine, have it your way." She grabbed his arm gently. "But you have to promise to help me look for my friends afterwards. You're ... you're the only one I know in this world."
Help her, a voice whispered in his head.
Cloud shook the thought out, wondering where it came from. He sighed.
I don't have to deal with this, thought Cloud. Since when was I a bodyguard service?
"Please," begged Rinoa.
"All right," said Cloud, almost mechanically.
Rinoa let go of his arm. "Thank you so much, Cloud."
"Come on, let's get going before I change my mind," grumbled Cloud.