Disclaimer: The characters, etc. herein are not mine. I make no money. This story is for entertainment purposes only.

I apologize for the unannounced and unplanned hiatus. This past year has been full of things, both great and terrible. Mostly terrible. Writing takes a great deal of energy and concentration, and this story – this chapter in particular – takes more than most for me, and I just haven't had any to spare. To be fair, I still don't, but this chapter has been sitting in draft form since last October. I decided this past weekend to spend a few days working on it and posting it, whether I loved it or not.
Here it is.

I'd like to thank my friend Chris D. for prodding me every few months to get back to writing and reminding me that I have readers that are still waiting for the next installment. I appreciate your patient tolerance while I tried to get myself to writing again.


"True stability results when presumed order and presumed disorder are balanced. A truly stable system expects the unexpected, is prepared to be disrupted, waits to be transformed."
-Tom Robbins

The Seven Veils Part II:
Vexed to Nightmare

She's floating on the surface, body light and far away. The darkness is damp and cloying, lapping at the corners of her mouth; it slides over her lips, slithers up her nostrils to wend its way into her body. It's inky, putrid and pungent as it splashes against her soft pallet and sloshes against her tonsils. She hacks, fights, but it works its way down…

…Down….

…Deeper into her until she's smothered. Her lungs rebel, her body seizes, and the world swirls and dances until it finds an axis it likes enough to stay for a spin.

She sputters and turns inside out, gasping and vomiting and hacking like a cat with rodent-sized fur-ball lodged in its throat. It goes on and on, oxygen playing a shell game with her until her whole body aches….

It's not the ache of a good, thorough workout. It's an exhausted, pained kind of ache. The sort that comes from overtaxing an already battle-weary body. The swirling world slows until she can rise, rub her shoulder and take in her surroundings.

The Vile Peaks are hideous as she stares at the endless piles of debris – corpses of an ancient war – and sneers at the view.

She's gone back to the beginning.

Wrong, all wrong, something whispers. You don't belong here, it says, but the voice is quiet, dizzier than she. Best to ignore it. There's no room for confusion or contemplation now; she has places to go and people to kill.

She staggers to her feet and braces herself against the nearest pile of refuse. She feels disconnected from the world, like all her plugs are in the wrong inputs; audio and video are a jumbled mess.

Everything wavers, and the world looks like film that's been double-exposed. She sees the Peaks, but she sees a white plain. She is alone, but she sees shades and shadows

friends and family

before the moment passes, wipes away the synesthesia and everything holds still. There's nothing but the Peaks. No movement, no people; no air but for the small, dwindling amount in her lungs.

It's like a dream until understanding crumbles.

This is done and past. This is wrong, her mind whispers.

She can't fight her senses and they are telling her she's in the Vile Peaks. She smells motor oil, tastes dust, sees miles of ancient, broken war-machines. There are jagged edges of twisted metal, broken glass that loom and threaten.

The Vile Peaks are disgusting – a blight on Cocoon. She can't understand why the Sanctum allowed the wreckage to remain. Perhaps they are monuments, meant to keep the people of Cocoon vigilant about the ever-present threat from Pulse.

Perhaps they are omens, meant to foretell the doom of the future.

Lightning doesn't know which, or if either, are true. It's possible that the Vile Peaks were kept for as both monuments and omens. It's possible that the rulers of Cocoon were just too lazy to remove them.

It's possible they are meant to buttress lies.

The thought confuses her by smacking of truth. Still, it's far too abstract a concept for her rage-soaked mind. She doesn't enjoy analysis – she's a woman driven to action, not dissection.

Unless said dissection includes her blade. But here she is, thinking about philosophy, history and politics.

Screw it.

She turns and sees Hope's wide, fearful eyes; the look causes a tightening in her chest that she chalks up to irritation, even though it smacks of deep affection.

But that makes no sense, so she releases the idea.

She forgot about him: the boy with more guts than brains, pushing and begging to trail after her on this suicide mission. She has to figure out how to ditch him. He's a liability: too young and too soft. She has no desire to be looking after some kid; and even if she'd had the inclination, she has no business playing caretaker. After all, look what happened to the last person she tried to protect.

She shoves thoughts of Serah away before they can be allowed to fester.

Turn and run, she wants to say. Get away while you can. Sazh will watch over you.

Hope yells "No!" and it's a pickaxe to the eardrum. Cradling her head doesn't help, and then the floor falls away from beneath her feet. She falls and stands, spins and flails.

She's at the center of a singularity, unraveling under the force of too much time and gravity.

Her vision flickers, images of real stone mountains overlay the mountains of broken machines. Instead of dried oil, she smells dried blood. Her lips taste of iron and salt, the world goes sideways...

/Hang on, Sis, Serah murmurs.

"Hang on, Sis!" Snow shouts./

...and she stares at bloodstained white bandaging. There's a smart pain lurking beneath the gauze; a pain that whispers of a serious hurt. She searches her mind, remembers filthy claws sinking into soft flesh, tearing through taut muscle. The puncture hurt – oh yes! – but not nearly so much as the subsequent shredding. Flesh and muscle torn like wet tissue, blood pouring forth like a sacrifice. The pain was unreal in intensity, something that her mind denied outright, like a child might deny the permanency of death.

It's a denial born of shock; the mind's first reaction when it realizes that irreparable, irreversible harm has been perpetrated upon the body. The litany of denials runs like tickertape through the mind, pours out of the mouth in complete disconnect to thought.

/No no no no no no no. It's all fine, you're fine. It'll be fine./

But it's not. Nothing will ever be fine again.

Shock – she knows as her body shivers – causes all sorts of interesting side-effects. She's seen soldiers deny the severity of their wounds even as their entrails poured forth from their bodies. It was much the same with her when her arm split in two, when her foot pulverized in her boot, when her brain ruptured in her head.

I'm good.

No worries.

Walk it off, Soldier.

It's all fine.

It's not as bad as it looks.

Lie upon lie.

She remembers the wound. It bled and she swooned. There was pain and fear, but peace and acceptance too. She stared into the abyss and waited….

…Waited…

…And waited, but she never tipped over. Sazh and Snow snatched her back, pieced her together with magic and pressure bandages and blind, stupid luck. She remembers stitching and crying, healing and dying.

Or almost dying.

Remembers the uncomfortable warmth of Snow's hand around hers; recalls a distinct disturbing shift.

She remembers the shooting star shaped scar left behind. That injury happened eons ago: a month, a lifetime, a whole other body. So why now is there blood staining the bandage again? Why is there more of it drying into the lines of her palm, tracing her life line, bisecting the love line?

Why is she here again? This is wrong.

So wrong—

—"Is another lesson required?"

The voice drags her into the present, where she is held as shield and weapon by Barthandelus. She flushes, then freezes, too confused to acknowledge the terror flowing in and around her.

What is happening to me? She's lost in time, in her mind, in her memories. She has no idea what's real anymore. She has an overwhelming urge to put her weapon to her temple and squeeze the trigger.

That would offer clarity faster than any amount of deduction.

"No!" Hope shouts. "No, please." Lightning closes her eyes at the tears in the boy's eyes. At the fear in his voice. "We'll...Just...don't hurt her."

"How sweet!" Barthandelus croons. "It seems your affections are not misplaced, Claire. The boy would sacrifice himself for you, too."

/"...me too...I'll try to watch out for you, too."/

I know. It's a point of vast pride and anxiety. Hope looks at her, knows what she's done, sees what she's becoming, and he loves anyway. May the Maker help her, she knows.

From the dark joy invading her mind, she realizes that Barthandelus knows too. The six of them are each other's worst weaknesses, just as he planned it.

He alienated them, drove them from their homes, and hunted them until isolation and desperation united them. This interdependency was part of the plan all along. The focus united them, and now they're all entwined. Braided together like a rope, magic and lives woven together like a tapestry.

She thought it was their greatest strength, but now she understands that it's just one more weapon for him. That which binds them to one another is what he will use against them. He hates humanity and all its weaknesses. Love, she realizes, is the biggest weakness of them all.

She closes her eyes, feels a tear burn at the corner of her eye.

How can they win when all their best weapons are their greatest weaknesses?

"Out of the mouths of babes, they say. Do you share the child's wisdom? Or must I carve another lesson from her flesh?"

Sazh nods, eyes focused in the vicinity of Lightning's feet. She follows the gaze, sees the pooled blood. She looks away, looks at her friends for answers. Snow sways in the breeze, still suffering from his own wounding. He shudders and looks away.

Fang relaxes, lets her fingers go lax around her weapon and whispers, "Yeah, alright," like a surrender.

Lightning wants to shout at Fang. Tell her that she can't let him force them into docility. Snow and Hope won't do it, and Sazh and Vanille don't have the stomach. They've been over the realities. She, herself, is useless, twisting in some forced madness, paralyzed and broken. Fang is their only hope now. If she gives up, they're all lost.

"Just let her go," Vanille whispers and Barthandelus laughs.

"Oh, my poor dear. I'll never let her go. She is mine." He almost sounds remorseful as he seals her wound, magic burning and shivering through her.

She's dizzy with blood loss; sweaty and nauseated and the world shifts. "It is over—"

—Over. They've failed.

"Because the only one who did know how to use your weapon is dead!" Barthandelus claps his hands with glee. "You killed him! The protector of humanity, and the guardian of the secret of Ragnarok. Such a closely guarded secret. And now it's lost forever."

Lightning closes her eyes, feels the last of her hopes slide away from her. The terror consumes her, ensnares her. They're done. They came searching for answers and destroyed the source.

/Wicked Barthandelus...Unchanging...Same are the tricks he plays on Humans/

"So Ragnarok is lost, and will never come again."

/Devious/

"That is, unless I call it. And call I have. Oh yes! And I've been patient. But no more."

Something screams, distant; something flutters from within.

Ragnarok has heard the call. It comes.

It seeks.

"Time is up," he says for all to hear. The flutter twists, blossoms into an infant pain. "It's time for you—

"—time to unleash," he whispers, a secret between the two of them. "I thought you would. I expected it weeks ago. After I locked your sister in her crystal grave—

after your mother
—your lover; your wife; your son; your world.

"You were so close. You were already such a honed weapon and so beautiful in your righteous fury. You charged towards Eden, ready to destroy everything in your path."

/She needs to turn Hope away. She'll destroy him like she did Serah./

"You were on the brink and I was salivating for the destruction. You almost murdered your sister's fiancé in cold blood. You abandoned your companions."

abandoned your love.
—tried to murder; tried to kill; wanted to die; longed to destroy.

Lightning remembers her own fury –
/Snow's, Fang's anger
Hope's, Sazh's grief
Vanille's guilt/

–a bright, burning thing, hot enough to incinerate.

"But then you went and got yourself a puppy."

The cascading whispers stop and the world coalesces.

His whole demeanor shifts as he focuses on Hope. The boy looks terrified, but stands his ground. Lightning wants to scream at him to run, to shield him from Barthandelus' attention, to do anything other than hold still and writhe.

She's trapped and hopeless. She can't protect Hope anymore, realizes that she never could. The kindest thing she could have ever done for him was to leave him behind and never lay eyes on him again.
/Kill him. Break his neck. One well-placed shot…/
Instead she dragged him along on her ill-advised trek to Eden, and he's followed her ever since.

Like a puppy. Barthandelus has it right and it opens an ache in her chest.

Hope's admiration felt good, warmed some dead part of her. She'd been wretched for so long that she'd driven her own sister from her; she didn't even want to be in her own company anymore. That this boy would seek her out, fight to remain beside her was…flattering.

Oh, gods! She's as bad as the monster whispering in her ear. Worse, even.

"When was it, little Claire? When did the boy go from nuisance to surrogate? Did you think that saving him would absolve you of losing your sister? Did he fill the empty maw in your soul? Is that it?"

It is. Maker help her, it is!

"You drove her into her grave. Did you really think he would be any different?"

No, she thinks.

"You restored my hope when you abandoned him in the Vile Peaks." Lightning feels shame rise like a tide within her. "You left him to die, and were happy to be rid of him."

Lightning wants to argue. She wants to deny all the claims. It would be a lie, would be pointless. She's transparent, everything of her bared to the fal'Cie's vulture gaze. She's exhausted with all the lies. She's tired of the razor edges of all her secrets slicing into her and everyone she loves. They're shards of glass beneath her skin, beneath her fingernails, caught in eyelashes. They bite and worm and each movement she makes drives them deeper into sensitive flesh, embeds them in her frayed nerves.

She left Hope behind in the Vile Peaks and was happier for it. Hope was dead weight; he held her back. His presence was both nuisance and distraction. Babysitting some green kid put a kink in her plans and a cramp in her style. She wanted nothing more than to charge into Eden and destroy everything – including herself.

Taking care of Hope was a pain in the ass. She never signed up to babysit: Not her sister, and surely not some sniveling kid! She was sick of taking care of people.

Besides, she sucked at it. Just look at her track record.

"But then something changed for you. What was it?"

But she couldn't destroy Hope. Oh, she considered it, for sure. She considered turning her own weapon on him. Cutting his throat would have been kinder than the fate that awaited him on his own in the Peaks. A bullet to the brainpan would have spared him the agony of being hunted and despised in his own home. A quick twist could have snapped the neck propped against her numbed leg. It would be over before he knew it, and she would be free.

She could have – perhaps should have – finished him off in those first days.

But she couldn't. His heart beat against her, strong and steady; his breath ghosted across her flesh, soft and trusting; his body pressed against hers, young and growing, and she couldn't do it. All the logical and selfish reasons howled in her head to just end him, but she couldn't.

She couldn't murder, and decided that she just couldn't bring herself to commit euthanasia. Mercy killings weren't her bag; besides, Hope followed her of his own free will. She made no secret of her plans or her path and he followed her. He wasn't her problem!

Except he was. She couldn't do it, or let it happen to him. He was young and innocent. He was hurt and orphaned. He needed protection.

"Was it when he called for his mother in his sleep?"

He reminded her of Serah: soft and smart and so, so strong.

"I was so disappointed in you."

He reminded her of herself – orphaned, lost and alone. Yearning for vengeance or justice, or just a pound of flesh, and goddamn it, she could provide it!

Revenge. Violence. Oh yes! She could deliver plenty of death to him. She could serve it on a platter and they could feast well.

"I wanted to tear him to pieces for ruining my plans; for ruining you. I planned to squash him like the bug he was, but didn't. I don't know why," he says, sounding mystified, like his motivations remain hidden even from himself. He shakes himself out of the stupor and grins. "No matter. I am so very glad I stayed my hand."

Hope was an anchor tethering her to the world. To life. She's never regretted her decision to save him. To shield him.

To protect him…

Until now.

"You, child, are such a small thing." Snow puts his hand on Hope's shoulder but Hope shrugs him off. Lightning can feel the magic gathering. She can sense Hope's power as surely as she can feel her own fingers and toes. He's as familiar to her now as her sister's laugh, and her father's calm; her own steady ruthlessness.

She cannot allow this monster to destroy this boy.

The bitter truth is, she cannot stop him.

"It's a marvel to me that you hold all that power. Alexander." Barthandelus sounds star-struck. "I've never seen any l'Cie survive Alexander's wrath. Not until you."

"Whatever!"

Barthandelus chuckles at the insolence and continues right on as if Hope never spoke. "Such enormous power in such a tiny package. It's the first time I've ever been pleasantly surprised by a mistake."

"Shut up!" Snow yells and grabs Hope's collar to yank him backwards. "Don't you talk to him!"

"Mistake?" Hope whispers as he weasels his way out from behind Snow.

"Don't listen to him, Kid."

And Snow is right, but Hope is transfixed. Barthandelus has baited the hook well, made his catch.

All that's left is to reel him in.

"Yes, of course you were a mistake. You weren't part of any plan. You, like your mother, were meant to die in the Purge."

Hope shakes his head.

"Ignore him." Lightning didn't know Vanille's could sound so strong. "He's trying to hurt you. Don't let him."

"Had she been a weaker woman, you would have perished." Lightning winces. Truth is truth, and it is painful. "Of course, had she been a stronger woman, she wouldn't be dead and you wouldn't be here right now."

"Don't you talk about my mother!" Hope's voice doesn't shake with either the rage or grief welling inside him. Lightning's heart breaks with pride.

But Barthandelus pays no heed. For him, there's only the catch, only the kill.

"Quite fortuitous actually. That she was both just strong and just weak enough. And here you are."

Hope snarls. Snow hangs onto his collar, whispers, "Easy, kid."

"Fuck easy!" Hope barks. Fang's grin turns feral at the vulgarity.

The ridiculous impulse to scold Fang wells up before being subsumed by the reality of time ticking off their final moments.

As it stands, time is gone; there's blood in the water, rats in the corn. The beast is slouching, the birds are flying, howling indignant. The behemoths are lumbering, marching toward their final rest among their ancestors.

The humans are hunting, huddling; they are murdering neighbors and sacrificing their children. They are ripe and ready for reaping.

The fal'Cie have chosen their sides, chosen against life. The shadows are long now, and soon they will paint both worlds, swallow them whole in a great gulp.

The end is upon them, and they are all that stands before the might of apocalypse. They are battered, torn, weary.

They are falling; failing.

"Your mother's death in defense of the buffoon was a happy accident, my boy. It set you on the path to destiny – to me!"

"Happy accident?" Hope rages, and Lightning can taste the bloodlust that had been dormant since Palumpolum flare to life. Hope's whole body trembles with the effort to hold still against the overwhelming horrors.

"He's baiting you, kid." Snow's voice is pleading, ragged. He's pale and shaking, stretched beyond even his vast limits, desperate to protect Hope. Lightning can see in his eyes that he knows he's going to fail. as he pleads: "Don't listen to him."

Vanille closes her eyes, and Lightning can sense the magic.
Fang tightens her grip, adjusts her stance.
Sazh raises his guns.

It's coming.

"She was a casualty of war," Barthandelus informs.

"Shut up!"

"A whetstone. A crucible." Lightning hears Sazh's guns cocking and hopes he can fire a bullet right into Barthandelus' big mouth. "Fodder, and nothing else."

Hope closes his eyes and holds his breath. Barthandelus chuckles and the world turns fuzzy with his joy.

"She was unintended—"

"Don't—"

"—but not unappreciated. You are...a masterpiece."

"Hope—"

"Stop talking to him!"

"Don't! It's what he wants!"

"Her death was not my plan," he repeats. He's found a tender point and he is enjoying poking it until it bleeds. "Your father, on the other hand...well, I killed him quite deliberately."

There's a moment where the whole world stops breathing. The litany of denials from her friends breaks off like the snowpack in an avalanche. The sound of stitches tearing, of fabric shredding and ripping comes from everywhere at once. It's the sound of sails wrenching from mast and boom to flail in punishing winds. A herald of disaster.

It's her sanity splitting and splintering; the veil between reality and fantasy rending.

It's the sound of Hope's jacket splitting down the back as he wrestles himself from Snow's grasp.

Hope's red-faced, eyes blazing hatred and vengeance as he charges toward her. She shakes her head and feels Barthandelus' dark joy as he prepares to attack

/an example/

when Fang body checks him, sends him sprawling and gasping like a beached fish. He tries to move but Fang plants the blunted end of her staff in the middle of his chest. "Stay down."

As if he could move after that hit.

Hope's fury morphs into something far uglier; he rolls onto his side, curls up on himself and weeps into the sleeve of his torn jacket. He heaves great sobs straight from his gut. They excoriate everyone, tear them from the inside out and taunt them with their impotence. They cannot protect Hope; they cannot even offer simple comfort.

Snow kneels beside him, hands hovering but never lighting, like he's afraid touching Hope might shatter him.

The next wail comes from his toes, rattles his entire body like a seizure. She feels her eyes burn in answer.

How could she have not considered Bartholomew? They left him behind without a backward glance. She spirited his son away with promises of protection and left the father to stand against an entire, terrified populace and a corrupt leadership. Of course they would have killed him. The Lightning that was – the one loyal to the Sanctum – would have executed him herself.

After all, a target's a target. Right?

"That it, then?" Fang barks, tearing Lightning from her thoughts. She is incandescent, face red, fingers bone-white where they grip her lance. She's every inch a warrior goddess, a destroyer, awful and terrible to behold.

It's easy to see how she once wiped out an entire planet. She looks ready to do it all over again.

"Making little boys cry?" Anger refracting into an array of outrage through every facet of her voice. A lesser fal'Cie – or l'cie, for that matter – would cower before her magnificence. "That's how you get your kicks?"

"One way," Barthandelus concedes. "Your fragile human emotions are a source of infinite...curiosity for me. I can never predict how any of you might react."

It's probably the first honest thing Barthandelus has said to them; or perhaps the first dishonest thing. Lightning has no problem believing that he has no idea what might cause pain. Then again, he always seems to hit exactly every exposed nerve-ending with impeccable accuracy.

"So, you just keep right on killing us until you understand. That the plan, then?"

"No." The word is decisive. "Not quite. It was a way to pass my time, isn't that right, Mr. Katzroy?" Sazh's face tightens and Fang's lip curls. Barthandelus's amusement swirls pink across Lightning's vision as he continues, "But that has never been either plan nor goal. The goal is to bring the end to the cycle. Stop the wheel, as it were. And it's time—"

"— to stop playing games." The perspective shift leaves her weak and dizzy. She drops to her knees, but no one seems to notice. They are all staring at Barthandelus, large and looming despite his diminutive form, watching sneaky smiles spread across his face(s). Lightning blinks to focus her eyes and the multi-headed sphinx is gone, leaving only the benign old man.

All wrong.

"You took a shot and missed. Be proud of yourselves. You've done more than all those before you."

"We're not done yet!" Snow declares.

"Yes, you are," the monster says with an air of finality. "You are done; it is done. My amusement and patience have both come to an end. It's time to cease playing games and complete your focus."

"That's never going to happen!" Snow yells.

"Oh, but I think it is," Barthandelus replies. "I've watched you all grow into fine little l'Cie. And like any patient parent, I've let you rebel. You've all run amok and spit in the face of your creator. I've given you enough rope to hang yourselves ten times over. And hang yourselves you have! You've slaughtered your way across Gran Pulse and reached this dead land. You've exterminated the Protector and conquered the tower. You've seen everything there is to see and still you are here, in my grasp. You've failed. You've had your fun. But no more. I've come to remind you of your obligations."

"Obligations?" Vanille squeaks out.

"Your focus, my dear. It must be completed. Or if you prefer, think of it not as completing your focus, but as protecting your loved ones. You do remember them, don't you?" He pauses and a slow smile spreads across his face, smooth as warm butter. "Do I need to remind you of little Serah? Or little Dajh? Must I threaten to shatter them like so much glass if you don't do what I tell you? Will you force me to stoop so—

"—low? You threaten and hurt my son, and call yourself a leader? He's just a little boy!"

"You wound me with your accusations, Mr. Katzroy. Your son was not my doing, however entertaining that may have been." She can feel Barthandelus' amusement filter through her body. Her ears ring, and her stomach twists. Her head spins in slow, obnoxious turns.

She's not sure how much more she can take.

She's a broken puppet dancing at the end of fraying strings. One hard twist….

"Though I'm flattered by the implications of my greatness, I simply cannot be in all places at all times. Neither you nor your son were part of my plan. You both should have been purged, like the rest of the dregs. Or left at home to spend your final hours huddled together in terror of the Pulse Threat!"

Lightning feels dread creep in around the edges. There's an edge to Barthandelus' voice that has little to do with smugness or self-satisfaction. It's something to do with his plan—

Sazh shakes his head. "So you're saying that..."

—and Sazh's involvement in it.

"You have Kujuta to thank or blame for the fate of your child. He was Kujuta's pawn; a means to ferret out my l'Cie and expose my plans. One last gasp at rebellion, if you will."

"Kujuta never could accept my vision of the future. He grew soft. Too fond of humanity and the worship they heaped upon him."

"Maybe he's just not psychotic," Fang suggests.

"You said it," Snow spits.

Sazh deflates. All the rage he carries dissipates in an exhalation, and he sags to his knees. Fang steps forward in a vain effort to shield him from further hurt. She doesn't bother to try and draw him from the ground.

Barthandelus has broken Sazh, and now he will finish him off. A coup de grace might be merciful, but Lightning isn't willing to watch Sazh give up and die, or worse, turn.

Become. The oily whisper slinks in, sweeps through, renders her unclean. Sazh shivers, shudders and she understands that she's heard only an echo.

She fights her bonds to distract Barthandelus and shut him up. She needs to get to Sazh, to shake him from his misery before he drowns in the muck. Her efforts seem to amuse more than annoy, and Barthandelus wrenches her harder, twists her until she squawks.

"I am quite sorry." He twists the knife: "Your son was collateral damage. As was your wife."

"My wife?"

"That's it!" Fang charges him, and Lightning moves without thought; Fang's blade clangs, sparks, rebounds, and both of them stare stunned at the Edged Carbine held aloft between them.

"Get out of my way, Sunshine."

Oh, but she wants to. She tries to lower the weapon but her body doesn't respond to her command. It readjusts to a defensive posture and pauses, challenging. There's a sound like low static in her head, tingling along her skin, raising the fine hairs of her body. There's a bare tremor in her muscles, invisible, winding her ever tighter.

Potential energy gathering, making her all the more deadly when it finally unleashes.

Fang grits her teeth. "Fine. Hard way it is, then." With that, she strikes.

Lightning moves faster than she thought possible considering the dizziness and pain. She's suffocating under the weight of the control, but her body moves like the perfect weapon it is. Her muscles tremble with the effort of striking a balance between reining herself in enough not to kill, and letting loose enough not to die.

It's not Fang's time yet. Not Lightning's time, either.

Through it all, Barthandelus drones on, never losing his grip on her dance; continues spreading poison with truths no one wants to hear.

Picking off scabs and prodding at the bleeding wounds beneath until everything oozes and putrifies.

"You have little Claire to thank for the death of your poor wife. Had she just stayed put that day in the hospital, your wife and she never would have crossed paths."

Lightning remembers her. The kind, beautiful lady

/Are you alright, child?/

and she clenches up, misses a step. Fang's blow connects, sends her tumbling with a stifled shout.

Huh. She still bleeds crimson despite the dark malevolence spreading through her like cancer. It's incongruous.

Her blood feels inky. Foul.

Tainted.

"No!" Someone yells, and she looks up into Fang's horrified eyes.

Another voice barks out a harsh: "Are you crazy?"

First blood seems to have deflated Fang's commitment to her task. Lightning rises, undaunted, and readies herself.

The tightness inside and around her eases, and Lightning reaches for her body again. Her fingers brush against something resembling control. The fog in her brain recedes almost enough to get a clear look at her friends.

"But you mustn't blame Claire. She had just received such a nasty little shock, the poor dear. And really, it isn't her fault that you humans are such frail, inelegant creatures. Susceptible to the most insignificant pathogens. And little Claire – all grief-stricken and despondent at the loss of her parents – carelessly carried the deadliest of all right out of the hospital that day." Barthandelus' face flickers before her, then disappears from view again.

His grip on her body is gone – or perhaps it was never there – but she's still just as trapped. Now she's caught in Sazh's gaze, anger and grief blaze out of him with a ferocity she's never seen.

Sazh...

/I'd hate to think of my baby left all alone./

"You must understand: that was never part of my plan. That little nasty was custom designed to kill two humans and then die off."

/Did you run away?/

"But they are...unpredictable at times, no? A single cell that can destroy an entire complex organism. They're quite remarkable. Humans on the other hand? I will simply never understand what she saw in you." There's a long pause. "But viruses I can respect. They don't piss around and whine, and talk about their feelings. I don't have to hear about their young. They don't flout and cry and stink everything up, and puke their insecurities all over everyone in range. They just do their jobs. Simply. Efficiently."

I didn't...

I'm sorry...

"Collateral damage," Sazh whispers, like he can't decide if he's disgusted or horrified by the designation. To have your whole life – everything you love – destroyed, and find out that it was just a big mistake of fate is beyond anything Lightning can comprehend.

Barthandelus chose to take her life apart brick by brick, but Sazh? His life was destroyed by proxy. Everything he loved and everything he was, was taken from him by somehow entering her orbit one too many times.

It's unbearable.

"I'm sorry to say it, Mr. Katzroy, especially after you've just received such terrible news..." and he doesn't sound sorry at all, "but, you are the new fly in my ointment." Vanille puts her hand on Sazh's slumped shoulder as Fang inches closer. "I just don't understand why you're here or how you've survived this long. You're weak, you see. My little Claire should have abandoned you on The Hanging Edge. Vanille should have killed you in Nautilus; and after your son changed, well, I half-expected you to end yourself!"

"Jihl was supposed to ensure that you were removed. She failed me." Lightning remembers the look of shock on Jihl's face as Barthandelus – then Primarch Dysley – delivered her a deathblow. Lightning couldn't drum up any sympathy for her then, but she might feel a tinge now. Loyalty rewarded with betrayal hits an all too discordant note within her now.

"I would chalk it up to coincidence, but three times is a pattern. Your wife, your son and you make three. So, it's not a coincidence, and I don't believe you humans are important enough to merit any sort of fate. At least not one that I don't spoon feed you, and etch into that pitiful flesh of yours, so I can only deduce that your life has been...manipulated by one of my enemies – one of the traitorous few who refuse to accept the future I'm crafting. So, I hope you understand why I simply cannot allow you to continue on this journey."

Lightning can't stop staring at the broken look in Sazh's eyes. She yearns to reach out and offer comfort. This stalwart, steadfast man who has become a part of her family. This man who saved her arm as she bled out; who whispered about his dead wife – the wife she killed! – while she lay dying in a forest of Gran Pulse. Sazh – who saved her ass more times than she can count, and made her laugh even more often! This man, with his gentle wisdom and quiet strength.

This man, whose life she has destroyed.

I'm so sorry.

Fang breaks the staring contest by stepping between them, blood dripping from the tip of her Bladed Lance. Lightning can no longer see Sazh's devastation; Fang's righteous fury is her entire universe now.

"You want him? You'll have to come through me."

Become. The voice slithers like snakes in her ears, through her head, worms its way beneath her skin.

"You've had your fun. Let's get on with this."

Become. It's louder and closer. Burning the pathways of neurons.

"It's time to stop hiding—"

Become. Like hell hounds biting at her heels. Like death breathing on her neck.

"—and to fight properly."

Give in. Become.

"Fang—"

"Stow it, Hero. I'm ending this. Now!" She punctuates it with a twirl of her weapon.

"Don't—"

"I'm keeping a promise to a lady," Fang interrupts.

Lightning feels her own grip tighten around the hilt of her weapon. Sunlight glints off the keen edge of her blade as it's lifted.

It's time. Kill her.

She moves without thought or will and attacks. There's a clang of metal on metal, and a curl of Fang's lip. Fang is strong, but Lightning's fast. Fang has fury, but Lightning has madness.

Become.

She ducks a half-hearted swipe of the Bladed Lance, returns one of her own at Fang's belly, and follows up with a jab for her ribs. Fang back flips, grits her teeth and thrusts the blunted end of her weapon into Lightning's sternum. The hit steals Lightning's breath, and with it, a good portion of her remaining restraint.

Gut her. Bathe in her blood, spread her entrails across the ground.

"Stop it!" Hope shouts, and her ears pop with the buildup of magic in the atmosphere. Whatever spell the kid's about to cast is going to be a doozy.

She's earned her death, sowed it into the fallow ground of Pulse. Granted it to hundredsthousandsmillions.

Lightning whips her Edged Carbine and slices a score into Fang's cheek. The blood spatters over her arms, over the ground.

Finish it.

There's a wrenching in her gut that almost drives her to her knees.

Finish her!

She recovers enough to block the next blow, sees the sparks fly on the next strike where the two blades catch and hold.

Her mind gets fuzzier and her body gets faster. She rains blows down on Fang until one connects and she opens a deep furrow across Fang's thigh.

The horror is a yawning chasm beneath her.

"You're a coward, you know that?" It's not really a question, and Lightning doesn't understand the context anyway. "All you fal'Cie are, in the end. Think you're gods, but you're just as lost as we are."

Fang twirls her weapon and leaps. The concussive force sends Lightning sprawling across the gravel. Skin abrades and bleeds, pieces of crystal embed to prickle and sting. The pain brings her back to herself enough to uncurl her fingers from the hilt of her weapon and concede.

She feels power filter through her, flare her brand, and she chokes and rolls to avoid the next blow—

The Tyrant bears down on them, the Centaurion Blade hovering and dancing in mid-air like a polynose in an autumn breeze. The darkness is a physical weight pressing down on her body and mind. All she can see is Fang bleeding on the ground, fighting for her life. All she knows is Snow and Hope are counting on her.

She refuses to fail any of them. They need the whole group to survive this mess. If one of them falls, the rest will follow.

She lets her need flow through her and Odin arrives. Its presence is ominous and terrible, and something in her recoils like it hasn't done since the first arrival.

She swallows down the foreign feeling. Cut us a path!

Odin stands tall and mute. Hesitant.

Confused.

She mirrors its confusion with her own, watches as the Tyrant turns towards her.

It wears Odin's face.

Wait. What?

She shakes her head, watches as her Eidolon lifts Zantetsuken. She gets her Edged Carbine up in time to block the blow, but she isn't prepared. The back of her weapon strikes her head, splits it open and sends blood sheeting into her eyes.

Odin doesn't recognize her.

Or perhaps she's unrecognizable now. There's pressure building behind her eyes and in her ears. Any moment now, the entire top of her head will blow off, explode in a pyroclastic cloud.

Become! Accept and Odin will bow before your might. The whole of both worlds will bow before the will of Ragnarok!

She feels something shift inside her, and it translates to her world. No longer is she in the caverns of Mah'Habara. Gone are the endless miles dark, damp stone, replaced by the over-bright outskirts of Oerba.

Sunlight reflects off crystal to create too much blinding reflected light. Her eyes water. She closes them too late.

The image is burned into her retinas, tattooed on her brain.

Fang's blood is on her weapon, and Snow's blood stains the ground from her bullet. Sazh's wife is dead by her hand, and her parents were murdered for her benefit.

Her sister is gone because of her anger and weakness.

Hope's father died for her carelessness.

She will kill them all. Everyone. Not just her friends, but the entirety of humanity. It's a weighted certainty in her gut.

If given the opportunity, she will destroy Cocoon and all its citizens. She's a destroyer – just like her namesake. She always knew it and once-upon-a-time, the knowledge drove her onward. It was her impetus and pride.

It's what Barthandelus saw in her, what attracted his awful attentions. She's always been a monster, just never quite so plainly.

Being a destroyer was her strength; now, it's her damnation.

She cannot allow it, not so long as there's a single spark of herself inside the monster she's become.

She opens her eyes to see the majesty of Odin's sword and she lets her arms drop. Perhaps she even offers her neck. She closes her eyes —

Sorry, Serah.

A small voice answers: 'No, Sis.'

—Something snatches her backwards and away. The very tip of Odin's blade slices a furrow into her chest – bisects her brand – and there's an explosion like dynamite behind her eyes.

"Why do you continue to resist? You stupid, weak girl! Ingrate!" She feels blows raining on her body, magic burning and freezing and electrocuting at once. Something smells of overcooked meat, then burned hair mixes into the stench. She moans through her raw throat. "I gave you everything you wanted! I unshackled you, made you mighty! Offered you the chance to realize your greatest and truest destiny!"

Her body spasms, contracts with the agony of too much magic racing through her venous system. Her heart pounds, hiccups, runs itself to death in her breast.

"I gave you everything, and you repay me with rebellion?" He yanks on her hair hard enough to tear her scalp. The hurt is small in the wake of such utter ruination of flesh. She latches onto it as a means of hanging onto consciousness.

"If it is your wish to become a twisted monster, then I shall grant it you!"

Something pops in her head and sends a tide of blood cascading from her nose. It comes too fast, backs up, and leaks down her throat and out of her mouth. She can't breathe around it, can't swallow fast enough to clear her airway. She gasps, aspirates blood and chokes. Drowns.

Her lungs wrench, attempting to draw in air.

Another breath pulls ever more blood into her lungs.

Her joints unhinge. She gags, pukes, feels her stomach creep further up her throat. She turns inside out.

She drops to the ground, pulverized crystal slips into her nail beds and tears apart her cuticles.

"Lightning?"

She gasps, but the pain only gets sharper.

"Sis?"

She blinks, but her vision shrinks further.

"Come on, Soldier. Not now. Not like this!"

The world spins as she bleeds and bleeds; she gives up the struggle for consciousness. Her elbows unlock and she faceplants into the bloody crystal...

...and all is silence.


TBC... (hopefully much sooner.)

I know it's a confusing chapter. The next one will be told in a more traditional manner, and should clear up any confusion about the format in the past two chapters.
I also know there's a lot of talking here. No matter how I tweaked it, it felt like a bit exposition dump, but the questions needed answering and Barthandelus is the one with the answers. Barthandelus, I admit, is a bit of a blowhard, but he's also the puppeteer holding all the strings.