Still not mine. If it were, Serah would disapper through time with Noel and leave Lightning and Snow alone.

A/N: Sorry for the very long delay. I've upped the rating for Mature Themes here, but not for any sort of sex. Sorry to anyone who thought this story might suddenly turn happy.
Thank you to those who continued to prod me and remind me that there are people waiting for updates: eleanorlavish, Skyfire79 and Fading Into Darkness have all pushed in the past few weeks or so for an update. I promised Chapter 31 of Evolution but you got this instead. Chapter 31 is done, but still requires revision. Expect it in the next week or so.

Warning: This chapter deals with disturbing themes, which should not come as a shock to anyone who has been reading the story. If you are sensitive, don't read it. I don't usually bother warning for things that ought to be obvious (and considering the plot of this story, it really ought to be obvious), but I feel that there's enough disturbing content in this chapter to give you a chance to turn back.


"He who does not punish evil commands it to be done."
-Leonardo da Vinci

-The Faces that You Meet-

"Why did you think this was a good idea again?" she asks herself after a half hour of walking through shin deep, ice crusted snow. Her ankles are sore from the effort of plodding along, and her feet are hollering at her for allowing them to go numb so soon after thawing.

Her nose is numb, her cheeks are burning, and her fingers throb with sluggish blood flow. She wonders if cold thickens blood. The way all her body systems feel – like they're struggling to continue working with ice in her veins – makes her wonder if she wouldn't bleed something slushy if she were to cut herself.

This walk is taking too long.

She wonders, not for the first time, if perhaps she didn't hallucinate her entire adventure trailing the caravan. Maybe she followed a herd of Adamantoises and mistook them for murderers in her delirium. The idea bothers her – frightens her, even – for its possibility. It's not the most preposterous thing she's ever thought.

It's not even the dumbest thing she's thought tonight, for that matter.

She crests a hill, catches her foot on something and gets pitched forward into the snow. Momentum sends her sprawling, then gravity grabs hold of her and she flails a bit on her way down the icy hill, rolls and spins, gets dizzy, soaked and bruised before coming to rest at the bottom of the incline. She gasps and groans.

That sucked.

She sits up and shakes herself off like a wet dog, spies light in the distance.

She's here.

She swears at herself about her carelessness. Her exposure. That little fumble could have cost her the whole mission. She pulls herself out of the snowdrift, keeps low to the ground as she creeps for cover.

Reconnaissance: it's never been her forte. Lightning is more blunt instrument than surgical scalpel, more hand grenade than sniper bullet. She's always been a hit first and ask questions later kind of girl. If it were only her life in the balance, she'd stick with what works for this mission.

She can plan an attack with the best of them, and execute it better than most. But creeping around and gathering information? Yeah.

No.

That's not her thing.

Still, she's the best woman for this job because she's the only woman for this job. She works her way around the perimeter of the camp until she finds a good angle and then settles in to survey.

Usually a plan involves a way in and another out. She's got the former covered. It's the latter that's her problem right now. Slaughtering her way out is her last resort as it will involve the highest casualty count amongst potential survivors.

There are no acceptable losses as far as she's concerned, so fighting her way out of the camp will not happen unless there are no survivors for her to rescue.

She shivers at the prospect, then shakes her head.

No. She's not here to doubt herself. These types of men don't take prisoners just to execute them. The gut shot bodies of the men at the destroyed outpost are proof of sadism. It wouldn't be satisfying for a sadist to just kill the hostages...not when torture, terror and degradation are available options.

Those women have to be alive; they may wish they weren't, but they are. For now.

Lightning knows it.

A sadist enjoys destruction, and destroying a person takes time. It's like peeling an onion – you have to strip down layers and layers before there's nothing left.

Lightning learned just how hard it is to crush the human spirit during her time as a l'Cie. In the midst of the massacre known as the Purge, people were stripped of their homes, their dignity and their humanity. They were herded like cattle onto trains to be 'purged' to Pulse. They were promised a forced emigration to Hell, but all they encountered at the end of their train rides were the business ends of PSICOM weapons.

They watched neighbors, friends, family and strangers murdered en masse before their eyes. The Hanging Edge was filled with the wails of children, the screams of the dying and the stench of the dead.

She expected the civilians around her to be less than useless.

They surprised her. She remembers Sazh telling her 'they want to fight.'

'Good for them,' she replied, and moreover, she meant it. She had expected everyone on that train to cower and whimper like whipped dogs. She expected them to get in her way or get themselves killed in a panic. Instead, they took up arms and fought for their lives. Had Lightning not been so fixated on her destructive goal, she might have been moved by their tenacity. Unarmed civilians fighting off trained soldiers? It was surreal. But they hadn't just fought. Oh no.

In the end, they won!

The human spirit is a very hard thing to destroy. So, those women are still alive. Lightning is betting her life on it.

She watches the camp for movements, assesses the layout. She remembers the function of the large back building – a garage of sorts for their war machines. The inner perimeter is lined with what Lightning assumes are barracks, except for the northernmost structure. The lack of windows as well as it's fortified position would suggest it as food storage, but Lightning would bet her life it's the prison.

Is betting her life on it, in fact.

Furthest point in the camp, with a mountain behind it, a perimeter fence around it, and buried behind lines of enemies.

Perfect spot for the prisoners. Chance of rescue before the prisoners are executed – approaching zero. Chance of escape without being seen? Less than zero.

This is going to suck.

Lightning takes a steadying, fortifying breath. Plan B it is.


Alright, so Plan A had always been a long shot. The idea of sneaking in and out unchallenged when her nature tends less towards sneaky and more towards kill-'em-all-let-god-sort-'em-out was far-fetched. Still, she's more naturally inclined towards sneaking than role-playing, so who could blame her for hoping?

Plan B, on the other hand, requires something far more challenging for Lightning than mere stealth – meekness and surrender.

Lightning's jaw clenches at the very thought. She's never surrendered to a thing in her entire life. Doing it now is going to chafe worse than a too-small pair of wet, wool trousers.

Lightning works her way around the dune towards the front of the complex and gives up the sneak part of the game.

She needs to stumble on the compound. She needs to seem desperate. She—

"Hold it right there!"

The voice startles her, makes her stumble. She turns toward it but catches a hand between the shoulder blades that sends her tumbling forward off the top of the dune. Her arms pinwheel for a moment before gravity grabs hold of her and tosses her about like a rag doll. The rolling pummels the wind out of her, and the snow burns her already icy skin.

She comes to a rest at the bottom of the dune, out of breath and disoriented.

"Crap," she murmurs.

"Don't move!"

Double crap! She freezes. She hears footsteps crunching and she feels her heart kick up a fuss in her chest, tastes the blood in her mouth before the adrenaline charging through her veins steals all the moisture from her mouth.

She hadn't wanted to be literally caught off-guard.

"What have we got here?" The large, hulking figure steps into her periphery, pauses beside her and nudges her with the toe of a boot. She takes in the lone figure.

Patrol. Appearances are deceptive: patrols always come in pairs, which means there's another guard lurking around. If this group is even halfway decent, the partner would be close.

Well, it's not ideal circumstances, but it gets the job done.

Showtime.

He carries his rifle in a loose grip before him. She could disarm him and break his jaw with the butt of the rifle before he has a chance to let out a yell. A swift elbow jab could crush his larynx. She feels her muscles coil to do just that, to show this terrorist what a real soldier can do. She wants to watch fear fill his eyes as the life drains from him in a slow hiss.

Remember the plan. Infiltrate. Locate the hostages. Escape before Sazh turns the camp into a smear on Gran Pulse.

She beats her instincts into submission and forces her muscles to unclench.


/"You can't attack these men alone, Soldier. You're good, but you're not that good."

"'I'm not going to attack, Sazh." Lightning tells him. "And for the record, I am so that good."

A lack of confidence has never been her problem.

"Yeah, yeah. You're amazing and we bow before your magnificence." Sazh is only being semi-sarcastic. She smiles at him until she sees him catch up to the conversation. "Wait. What do you mean you're not going to attack? What's your plan then?"

She braces herself for the explosion.

"I'm going to get captured."/


"P-Please..." she whispers, hopes the word doesn't sound as bogus as she feels. "Help me. My transport..."

"Oh, I'll help you alright." He reaches out and grabs her by the hair, drags her up and out of the snow. She feels hair tearing and she grits her teeth. The squawk that she lets loose isn't half as contrived as she wants it to be.

Gaining her feet in shin deep snow with someone using her hair like a leash is difficult. Her struggles amuse the man and he jerks her to the side so she lands on her knees. He presses her face toward his crotch and she recoils. He yanks on her hair until she hears tearing an feels a sharp pain in her scalp. Tears leak from her eyes, forced out by the intense pain. She reaches both hands up and grabs his wrist, digs fingernails in until he hisses and pulls her all the way to her feet.

Every instinct in her insists that she end the assault before it starts. She forces herself not to react as he grabs her hair again to pull her body flush against him. One defensive move will give away the game. Weak and helpless, Lightning. You're a victim. You're chattel.

She feels her hackles rise and her fists clench at the thought. Her thighs tense up in preparation for a leg-sweep. It takes all her effort to keep her muscle-memory in check.

This submissive, terrified victim thing is going to be harder than she thought.

She lets out a breath and goes limp, babbles about Amphisbaena attacks and dead companions. He slaps her to shut her up, then pulls her face to his. His breath is enough to make her eyes water. He drops his one handed grip on his rifle to get two hands on her body, and the temptation to snap his neck is almost too much to resist.

She squashes it; she needs to get through the gates, and right now, she's half-way to her goal.


/'You're out of your damn mind!'

"Alright, hear me out."

"I don't listen to lunatics! Are you sure you didn't hit your head?" He grabs her head to look in what she considers an overly dramatic move. He made his damn point without the theatrics. "Maybe all the cold froze your damn brain."

"Sazh! Listen." He shuts up, but he sure as hell doesn't look happy about it. "If we attack them with the intention of rescue, what's to stop them from killing the hostages?"

"What's to stop them from just killing you?"

He's got a point, and he knows it. He presses his advantage: "You're not their type, Soldier."

What the hell is wrong with her? "I'm a woman," she argues, trying not to sound defensive.

"You're a soldier."

"You see a soldier when you look at me because you know who and what I am. They will see..." The thought makes her face heat and her ears clog with humiliated rage. Sazh looks away from her and stares into the middle-distance – loses himself in thoughts of worst-case scenarios. She doesn't enjoy saying: "They'll see another object to use, and don't you doubt that."

Sazh recoils as if slapped. "And why are you going in there again? You're not really making a great case for you not being insane, you know."

"Because they'll walk me right in where they keep the hostages." Sazh shakes his head, opens his mouth to protest more. She talks fast. "And then I'm going to teach them what the phrase, 'don't judge a book by its cover' actually means."/


"Aren't you just..." his hand wanders over her body and she clenches her jaw as he grabs a handful of flesh and twists. Hard. She winces and he grins at her, presses his growing erection against her thigh. "...lovely? I'll help you, but what'll you do for me then? You gonna be nice to me?"

To hell with the plan. She'll submit to being groped as a cost of doing business. Anything beyond that is going to cost this asshole his male parts.

He pinches her again just to see her pain.

And his life.

"Jace? That you? What the hell are you doing?" The pig – Jace – snarls at the interruption, squeezes her hard enough to bruise and mumbles something unflattering under his rotten breath.

"Piss off!" More footsteps. The fingers in her hair twist even tighter, wring tears from her eyes as he bites her neck.

She may have to go with Plan C. Too bad she hasn't thought of one yet.

"Are you nuts? You took one of the bitches out?" Lightning would bristle at the use of the word 'bitches' but seriously, she expected nothing less. "The boss is going to kill you."

"Nah. Found her." He exhales his rotten breath into her face. "How's that for luck? Her transport had an unfortunate encounter with one of the nastier beasties. She came here looking for help." He sneers and huffs a laugh into her face.

"Help?" The newcomer looks almost horrified. "Oh, sweetheart, did you ever take a wrong turn."

Sweetheart? She thinks she prefers being called a bitch. She looks over at the other sentry and he looks almost...sad?

What?

It's ridiculous and insulting. She wants feed him his teeth one by one.

"Come on. We gotta take her in."

"Why?" Jace sounds like a petulant child being relieved of his favorite toy. "No one's gotta know. We can do her and dump her."

If that's his plan, she'll have to improvise, adapt and overcome. She has no problem leaving this man drowning in his own blood, if he insists.

A tiny part of her may even be looking forward to it. A little bit of retribution might be cathartic. After all, she's had to endure his hands and his mouth on her already. She has no problem returning the favor, and she has no doubt that she can make the experience for him twice as painful as he made it for her.

"Well, I'm not getting flogged over a some piece of ass, so if you want to deal with the boss's shit, that's fine. You saw what he just did to that that guy? You want some of that tasty action for yourself? Personally, I like my skin intact, thanks ever so." Sentry B – the rapist with a heart of gold – pauses for dramatic effect. "Let go and I'm bringing her in. You'll thank me for it later." Jace curses, squeezes and pinches hard enough to pull a very real yelp out of her.

"I'll see you later, bitch." He releases her, grabs his crotch and adjusts himself. "We're going to have a real good time."

She stumbles at the sudden relief and sentry number two grabs her by her injured hand. She pulls the hand out of his grip with a grunt and he mumbles, "Sorry," and catches her around the upper arm.

Sorry?

He steadies her on her feet in the snow. She watches as Jace takes off, mumbling about all the fun they are going to have later.

"You alright?"

The question sends her blood pressure high enough to turn all the snow directly to steam. Her head pounds, her face heats and her fingernails cut through her mittens to embed themselves in her palms. It takes a steadying breath before she feels like she can assume her role as the meek victim. She sniffles and nods, buries the glare as deep as it can go.

She's afraid it's not deep enough.

"Come on. Let's go."


The march through the camp is humiliating. She's pinched, poked, prodded, groped and grabbed so many times that she is red-faced, aching and bruised in both her body and ego.

Her 'escort' through the camp offers her the helpful advice to "Keep your head down and your mouth shut."

She bites her tongue, banks her rage and lets herself be dragged across the camp. She says nothing as she is 'frisked' – if one can call molestation frisking – and then relieved of her possessions. The stench of alcohol is thick and pungent, and she feels an enormous gratitude that that these men are even bigger amateurs than she suspected. While the small group of guards is distracted going through her bag and turning out her pockets, she scans the surroundings and formulates a plan.

The layout of the buildings creates gaping blind spots in the camp – either they're too arrogant to care, or too stupid to notice.

If she were a betting woman, she'd pick the latter.

She checks the angles on all the watchtowers, spies a deep shadow behind a building near the perimeter fence that looks to be out of line-of-sight of all the lookout posts. The only place that really has a clear view to the space behind the buildings would be up on the cliffs that form the rear wall of the camp. She glances up – and up, and up some more, until the cliffs meet the sky. She can't see any post up there, but that doesn't mean there's no sniper. If this were her camp, she'd post a sniper on the back wall – an excellent marksman with a high-power rifle and a rocket launcher would offer maximum security with minimal supplies.

Considering all the mistakes she's seen, she doubts they're good enough to take such precautions.

Then again, she didn't make it across Gran Pulse last year by offering anything the benefit of the doubt. Erring on the side of caution means that she's going to need a distraction inside the camp to divert all attention from the back wall, and the shadowed blind spot behind the barracks. She thinks of Sazh re-wrapping her broken hand and smiles.

Distraction won't be a problem. All she needs to do is use it to lead the prisoners into the blind spot where they can cut through the fence, slip through and disappear into the shadows of the mountain and the recesses of Mah'Habara.

Then Sazh can bring the rain.

She sucks her teeth and refocuses her attention on the gaggle of guards surrounding her. She watches as they toss her clothing and supplies onto the floor, and stifles a smile when they allow her to keep what they term her 'pet rock.' They cackle at their own cleverness and Lightning has to bite her lip until she tastes blood to stifle a derisive snort.

She holds Odin's stone in both hands and wonders if it would be possible to summon the Eidolon. She would take great pleasure watching Odin cut a path through this pack of wolves.

She goes back to surveying the layout, notes the positions of the turrets and the location of the bunkers in relation to the back building – the prison. A hard jerk on her arm startles her from her perusal, catches her off-guard and almost tears her off her feet.

Her stumble elicits a round of taunting that makes her face and ears burn.

Let them laugh now. It's the last chance they'll ever have.

Escape won't be easy, but considering her captors are a drunken rabble rather than a tight-knit unit, it won't be impossible either. The shadows provide cover, and the perimeter fence is flimsy. All the turrets point outward and the sentries are less than observant. After all, she'd managed to get close enough to the camp to spy and survey.

Twice. And the first time she was hypothermic and exhausted.

The nameless sentry who brought her into the camp mutters under his breath and shakes his head as he herds her toward the 'prison.' He pulls a key from around his neck and slides it into what looks like a Master Lock. A smooth twist of his wrist is followed by a click, thud and squeal, and the door opens to reveal the shadowed room beyond. The guard turns toward her with a look that bears too close a resemblance to regret.

In that moment, she thinks she hates him more than the others. At least they don't pretend to be horrified by their own depravity. This man almost looks apologetic, and yet here he is shoving her into a prison to face a future of gang rape, torture and eventual murder.

She can't wait until this place is wiped off the face of Gran Pulse, but she hopes she meets this one in her escape. She'd like to have a chance to teach him the true meaning of regret.

Something of her loathing must show in her eyes because the regret vanishes under a wave of unanticipated rage. He shoves her into the room and swings the butt of his rifle at her face. The move catches her off guard and she takes the full weight of the blow across her temple and cheekbone.

The thwack resounds in her head and echoes when her skull connects with the ground. She chases after her ebbing consciousness, watches it circle the drain as she reaches for it with grasping fingers—

"Welcome to Hell, bitch," he snarls and slams the door.

—and she loses the race by a nose.


"When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn."
-Harriet Beecher Stowe


Part II:

Consciousness comes in stages.

The first thing she notices is the smell. It's a putrid amalgam of body fluids, mold, dust, and stale air, all overlaying the stink of pain and fear.

She gags, and it sets off sparks behind her eyes and unconsciousness threatens to drag her under again.

No!

She grunts and rolls her head, searches her memory for an explanation. The images are fuzzy but she pieces them together enough to realize where she is and how she got here.

Her heart hammers away in her chest and throat which aggravates the pounding – stabbing – throbbing pain in her head.

Get your fear under control, lest it grow into panic. Fear can be an ally, but panic is always the enemy.

She reaches for her training like a lifeline and hangs on with both hands and her teeth! She needs to keep a tether to consciousness. She can't afford to waste time. She can't fight if she's unconscious! She didn't come here just to die.

Get control of your breathing.

There may not be time to waste, but she needs to reassert control.

She takes a breath through her nose and holds it when the pain in her head goes supernova. She blows it out and repeats the process. Counting...counting...counting until the bright pain dulls to an exquisite but manageable agony.

She tries opening her eyes, but someone must have pulled the pin out of the grenade in her head and the small movement triggers an explosion that sends her plummeting into semi-consciousness.

The next time she rouses she notices the sounds. The room buzzes with an unidentifiable white noise. It's muffled. Distant. But now that she hears it, she zeroes in and listens...

It sounds like breathing. Or maybe voices. Whatever they are, they either too far away to hear, or the blow to her head rang her bell but good.

She spends some time floating in between – a place where her senses are still functioning, but her pain is duller. She tries to identify all the smells and sounds in the room.

The next thing she realizes is that there are hands on her, pawing at her clothes. There's a body pinning her down. She feels the panic swirl up to choke her and she struggles. The weight on her gets heavier as her attacker muscles his way between her thighs, and she feels the vibrations of what can only be laughter rumbling against her prone body.

"Told you we were going to have some fun," he whispers, sweeps a stinky, clammy tongue up her cheek.

Revulsion and humiliation war for top spot, but she can't think about either.

She stops moving and breathes. Focuses.

The hands work at her shirt until she feels cold air spill across her abdomen. Fingers pinch her breast before moving down to work on her pants. She shoves the panic aside and concentrates on her training.

She needs to move fast; she's got one chance here.

She grabs both wrists, pins the right one at her chest and shoves the left one into his waist.

"What...?"

She lifts her hips, brings her left leg up under his left arm and her right over his right shoulder.

"Bitch..."

Bastard.

She hooks her right foot under her left calf and squeezes. He curses and sputters at her as she uses all her strength to cut off air and blood flow. She feels him trying to break the lock with his left arm so she straightens and twists, pins his right arm to her body, works it until it's trapped under her right armpit, while she arches her body and squeezes.

She's only ever used a triangle choke in training. Back then her big concern was not to go too far, afraid her zeal in combat might severely injure or kill her partner.

She has no such worries now; severe injury or death is the goal.

She squeezes harder, ignores the pain pounding through her head as the man's struggles weaken. There's a dim sallow light filling the room – her attacker must have brought a lantern of some sort – and she watches as the man's face turns purple with trapped blood. His eyes are wide for the few moments it takes for the move to steal consciousness. Then they droop. His body goes lax and still she doesn't let go.

She's in no condition for hand to hand. Only one of them is going to get off this floor alive and she's determined to claim the prize. Her head swims as she continues to squeeze the life from him.

She holds until she's certain he won't get up, then squeezes a bit more to be safe. She's pretty certain she's sporting a concussion, so trusting her senses is going to be an issue.

Err on the side of caution. Two full minutes later she decides that if he gets up, she deserves to lose.

She releases her hold, feels a trembling spasm start in her lower back, and takes a deep breath to work through it. His dead weight collapses across her leg and she shoves and wriggles until the man she just murdered is no longer touching her. Her breath erupts from her in a broken wheeze and she shakes her head, closes her mouth and concentrates on getting it under control.

Snap out of it. Hyperventilation might end in unconsciousness. Keep it together.

She pulls her shaking body upright, wraps her arms around her knees, and gets her first look at the surroundings.

She almost wishes for darkness.

The room is small and empty but for the lone, dingy, sagging cot. The metallic frame sports cuffs at all four corners. The bare mattress is stained and crusted with filth that can only be various dried body fluids, including some very conspicuous spattered bloodstains. She can't help but be grateful that the savage she just killed – Jace, she realizes – was too interested in making good on his threats to bother locking her to the cot.

Lightning adjusts her clothes, finds tears where the dead man on the floor got a bit too over-zealous. She scowls and kicks at the body, jerks back when an arm twitches. She lets out an undignified squeak and gropes next to her for something – anything – that might pass as a weapon.

Her fingers touch smooth stone – Odin! – and she closes her hand around it, swings it up, across her body and down again, to smash onto the man's skull. Blood arcs up, spatters across her shirt and her face, speckles into her open eyes, splashes over her hand and smears across the stone.

She lifts to do it again – to keep hitting until she sees brain – but she stops mid-bash. She feels like she's unraveling, veering off into full-blown panic. She places the Odin stone on the ground and presses two fingers into the man's carotid artery.

Nothing: no pulse; no respiration. No life.

He's dead, and probably was before she brained him. She knows that bodies can twitch after death. She's seen it once before – something to do with electrical impulses still firing through the nervous system.

Get a grip. Panic will get you killed. If you die, so do all the hostages.

She stands up and watches the world swim in and out of focus. She blinks through it, touches her temple and winces. Her fingers come away tacky and dark with drying, clotting blood. The bruise is likely spectacular, but blood loss isn't an immediate concern. She can't speak to the severity of the closed head injury but her skull is intact and not gushing blood.

Small favors. She'll take what she can get.

She opens and closes her jaw to gauge if it's broken. It snaps and crackles like breaking glass, sends sparkles of color across her vision with each movement. She takes her chin between thumb and forefinger and wriggles it around a bit. Tears pour down her face as the hinge lets out a dry pop. She curses, presses her palm against her face and waits for the pain to lessen. A few deep breaths later, she prods both cheekbone and orbital bone. The touches cause tears to pour from her swelling eye, but the pain holds steady; the bones are whole, if bruised. She wipes her eye with her thumb.

Okay, then.

She catches sight of the blood smeared on her hands and wipes them on her shirt. She looks down at the body on the floor and heaves a huge sigh. Things may not be going all according to plan here, but she's doing okay. She's infiltrated the camp with only minor damage.

If one can call an attempted rape 'minor.'

She shivers, feels her legs wobble a bit. Her knees turn to liquid.

There's blood caught under her fingernail, drying into the whorls of her fingerprints.

Her skin crawls in all the places he touched.

"Stop it," she tells herself. "It didn't happen." Keep it together.

She picks the Odin stone up from the floor, slips it into her pocket and turns her attention to her bandage. She's amazed that they didn't search the cast, but not shocked. It fits with her assessment that they are a bunch of amateurs posing as warriors.

Gratitude for her good fortune floods through her. Her eyes flicker to the cooling body and everything in her seizes up. She looks away and starts working on the cast; her fingers tremble as she picks at the bottom bandages, her insides quiver like jelly, and her breathing is still too fast.

Her vision blurs with tears and her legs don't want to hold her weight. She closes her eyes, presses her shaking hands to her mouth and lets out a silent sob.

The attempted assault rattled her more than she'd care to admit. She feels as if she's skating the knife's edge of hysteria at a time when she needs to be clear-headed.

"Deal with it later, Soldier. Do your job now."

She counts backwards from ten, then does it again. Over and over until she feels her body calm and mind settle.

"Good."

She starts over, picking at the bottom bandage until she lifts the flap and is able to unravel the cast. She ignores the tremor in her fingers as she worms them beneath the heavy bandaging – between splint and arm; she smiles when they brush against warm metal.

Sazh, you are a beautiful genius.

She slides the shiv from its hiding place and secures the bandage again. The metal catches the dim light, throws a small spot of light into the darkened corners of the room. A thumb scraped over the edge satisfies her as to the keenness of the blade and she feels some of the rock in her gut dissolve.

Being armed does more to calm her nerves than any pep talk ever could.

She palms the weapon, wraps her bandaged right hand around it to get a feel for the blade and make sure the bandaging will protect her hand from the razor edge of the shiv.

Time to go to work.


She makes it two steps before it dawns on her that she's locked in the building she thought was the holding cell and that she is all alone. The prisoners she expected to find on the other side of the locked door are nowhere to be seen.

Her face gets hot for a moment before her whole body goes numb. If the women aren't here, she has no idea where to find them.

She's failed without doing a damn thing.

Her knees unlock and hit the floor beside the body with a hollow thud.

Nothing. It was all for nothing.

She closes her eyes in hopes of stopping the tears. She came into this camp to save those women and all she's succeeded in doing is getting herself knocked out, nearly raped, and locked up with a dead man. She promised her sister she was off to do something worthy; swore to Hope and Sazh that she had things under control.

And Snow...

Her breath hitches at the thought of him.

/I want to know you're safe./

Snow doesn't even know where she is. She didn't give him the courtesy of a call. She didn't leave him a message. She didn't leave him with anything but a bruised jaw and bad memories.

/I thought we were friends, at least./

Friends? Is that what they are? Snow has been many things to her since she met him but she's not certain that she ever counted him a friend. He's been pest, grub, enemy, comrade, partner, confidante, and family. He's been savior and destroyer; he's been dream and nightmare.

He is forbidden.

She reaches into her pocket and she finds the familiar knot of material. She draws it out and presses it against her face. A few traitorous tears leak from the corner of her swollen eye to dampen the material before she secrets the bandana away.

/I'm coming with you!/

You did, she thinks and the rolls her eyes at her sentimentality.

Head injuries suck.

"Enough," she breathes. Stop counting your losses. You have Odin, a weapon, your wits and your life. You've done more with less. Get off your knees and move.

Her effort to gain her feet again is clumsy and clamoring. If she has to escape without hostages in tow, she's going to tear her way through this camp. It'll be violent and devastating; it'll be glorious!

Her boots echo on the wooden floor as she paces the length of the room and searches her mind for a new plan. Something about the noise distracts her; it is somehow wrong...

Echoes? The hollow thud of her knees hitting a wood floor, and the white noises beneath her ear while she lay on the ground – voices or breathing, she thought.

Revelation is an audible click. Her heart does a two-step.

They are here! Right beneath her damn feet.

She hits her hands and knees again to look for a trap door or latch, feels around in the dark corners where the pale light doesn't reach. Her fingers brush something and she grabs it and is stunned to find that it's a rifle. Her hands go through the motion of checking the weapon – pulling out the magazine and counting rounds before reloading the weapon with a slap; maneuvering the bolt, and adjusting the sights. The weapon is adequate. In her hands, it'll be acceptable.

Everyone's odds of surviving just went up a lot.

She looks over at the dead man in the middle of the floor, thankful that the idiot was too eager to make good on all his threats to bother disarming himself and securing his weapon. She sneers at him, then smiles at the gun as she straps it across herself and shimmies it onto her back.

What else do you think he brought in here?

She glances at the door to the room, then back to the body. Her eyes flicker back and forth as she fans the flicker of hope burning inside her. She crawls over to the body and begins the disturbing task of patting it down and turning out pockets. She spots his jacket on the far side of the cot and shakes it out. Her search yields another knife, a flask of some foul liquor and a set of keys.

Fortune smiles, and so does Lightning.

She jingles them once and stuffs them into her pocket with her other treasures. She returns to her search of the room, carrying the lantern to search each nook and cranny, spies a notched wood handle and lock in the floor of the corner of the room. She works key after key into the lock until one turns. She stands and heaves open the heavy wooden door.

The smell hits her in her gag reflex; she steps away and swallows the vomit before it can reach her mouth. When her stomach decides to stop doing the Cha-Cha, she tries again. Lightning breathes through her mouth, peers into the abyss and stifles the idiotic urge to call out.

This is no horror movie, and she's sure as hell isn't a damsel in distress awaiting rescue from a mysterious boogie man. She just killed the boogie man, and the only one coming to the rescue here is her.

She has work to do.


She grabs the lantern, steels herself and descends the creaking stairs deeper into hell.

The darkness in the cellar is so thick that her torch barely cuts it. She squints through the feeble circumference of light into a living nightmare. It's not a surprise – it's what she'd been expecting, after all. Still, knowing a thing and seeing it are two different animals.

The flinch is as involuntary as her gasp.

She never thought that she'd see anything worse than the horrors Barthandelus created in order to summon his beloved Maker; never believed anyone could create something more debased than that demented fal'Cie.

She was so very wrong.

The room she stands in is less a prison than a torture chamber. There are people – women, and those too young to deserve the title – chained up and strewn about like decorations. The air reeks of a combination of sweat, urine, vomit, all underlying the pungent stink of fear. There are all manner of nasty contraptions: some she recognizes in a vague way, some she's never even imagined. She takes a step towards one table, sees the blood stains on and around it and decides to leave it be.

Some horrors are better left unexplored.

She puts her back to the torture devices – they are not why she's here – and turns her attention to the weeping women. Orphan was right: humans are beyond measure and without equal, even in their depravity.

"P-Please," someone whispers. Lightning snaps out of her gaping and kneels before the speaker. "Please!" Lightning shakes her head and shushes her. "Who are you?"

"I'm here to help," she says and then moves to do just that. There's no time for perusal or reflection; there's no telling when someone will come for another bit of 'fun' and find Jace's dead body.

There's murmuring and mumbling – sounds of fear and hope. They're scared to be hopeful and Lightning doesn't blame them one bit. It wouldn't take long for hope to perish in this charnel house.

She leans closer and examines the cuffs that hold the woman before her to the wall. No locks to pick, just nuts and pins. They are simple to remove. It's puzzling that these men who keep their prisoners behind two locked doors would be so blasé with their hardware.

Lightning takes in the taut chains that hold the women's wrists against the wall at shoulder height. As Lightning unscrews the nut from the pin, the answer to riddle becomes apparent.

Breaking a body is easy, but breaking a spirit requires creativity. Like erosion, it's all a matter of time and relentless force.

The locks are all part of the torture: the promise of freedom held just out of reach. Each woman would know that freedom was but inches away, if only they could reach, if only they had a few more inches of chain.

And of course, they never would or could.

Bastards!

She snarls and jimmies the pin out with her shiv. The woman groans – a sound full of two parts pain and one part relief – as she lowers her arms for the first time in who-knows-how-long. Lightning goes to work on the next cuff and she hears a whispered, "I don't know who you are, but thank you. But please...please you...you have to help the others."

That brings her up short.

"Others?"

The woman nods and points to the far end of the cellar. "They separated us when we got here. They took my daughters from me."

Lightning puts a hand on a shaking shoulder and hopes that it offers a small measure of comfort or reassurance. She half expects to be shoved off – Lightning doubts she could bear having anyone touch her after suffering the sorts of assaults that this woman must have endured – but the woman leans forward and sobs onto Lightning's shoulder.

Beyond measure, indeed.

"They told us they'd kill them if we didn't obey the rules." Lightning closes her mouth and swallows down the roar of rage. "Said that our families would die if we tried to escape."

Your families are already dead.

Lightning doesn't ask the woman's name – won't ask any of them. She needs to maintain distance in order to act. She's here to save them – or rather, help them save themselves – not to be their friend.

A bit of compassion leaks out despite herself.

She pats the woman's back and promises, "No one is dying tonight but them."

The woman backs off and holds Lightning's gaze for a moment before she transforms. No longer is she a broken victim. Now she's a mother fighting for the lives of herself and her children.

What was it that Nora had said to Snow on the Hanging Edge?

Moms are tough. Lightning is counting on it.

The chain isn't bolted into anything; it's threaded through loops on the wall. Now that the woman is free, Lightning can pull the chain from where it hangs like a macabre decoration and wind it up. Add some weight to one end and it'll be a great weapon. She eyes the keys in her hand and looks upward, and visions of a master lock dance in her head.

She knows just the weight to use.

"Unchain everyone else in here." She starts counting through keys – six in total – and prepares to open the next lock. "I'll get the others, and then we're all getting out of here."


The prison basement is a House of Horrors that goes on and on, and each room is worse than the last. Lightning picks her way through the space, finds a total of fourteen living prisoners – less than she hoped but more than she expected – spread over three rooms.

There are a number of dead still chained to the walls. Each one she encounters rams another steel rod into Lightning's spine and another block of ice into her veins.

She hasn't felt this murderous since the start of the Purge. She winds the rage around herself like a familiar shawl.

A couple of women trail her through the rooms, searching for their lost family members. Lightning does her best to block out the sobs – some joyful, most devastated and grief-stricken. She blocks out the sounds of despair and checks each body. The ratio of living to dead drops with each room.

"We're really getting out of here?" one woman – girl! She can't be more than fourteen or so – asks her.

"That's the plan," she replies without making eye contact. The girl becomes her shadow, trails her around the room as she touches fingers to throats and ear to chests to check for signs of life.

"Where's everyone else?"

She wishes the girl would leave her. She needs to keep herself balanced between high-simmer and low-boil, and talking is too distracting.

"Everyone else?"

"Yeah, you know? The cavalry? Or...the army. Or whatever..." the girl trails off. "The heroes."

The word 'hero' feels like a kidney shot. She can almost hear Snow saying it – yelling about being a hero as he throws her a wink – and she smiles and aches at once.

What she wouldn't give to have that dumbass hero with her right now! His bark might be annoying, but he's got a hell of a bite to back it up, and she could sure use his help surrounded as she is by enemies with a group of civilians to protect.

She thinks of him leading NORA in the Purge: protecting civilians and fighting trained soldiers and smirks. This sort of mission would be right up his alley.

But Snow's not here. He's home with Serah where he belongs. He's doing what he's supposed to do.

And so is she.

"There are no heroes," Lightning says and wishes she didn't sound wistful. Or bitter. She clears her throat and tries again: "I'm afraid I'm all you've got."

"But, what are we going to do?" The girl's voice ticks upwards with horror and Lightning turns to tell her to be quiet.

The words die in her throat as she meets the wide green eyes. Suddenly, she's in another hell staring into another pair of green eyes. The memory churns up all those old feelings like so much stinky seaweed. It takes a moment to pack them away again – all that desperation and grief that forged into a weapon to use against Eden.

Against herself.

She thinks of Hope down here, trapped and chained up in this tomb – living amongst the dead, heartbeat transformed into a countdown clock. She thinks of Serah and the horrors that might have befallen her if she'd been unfortunate enough to be en route to visit Sazh and Dajh as she'd planned.

It's Lightning's worst nightmare and this young girl just lived it – just survived it.

Her resiliance is impressive.

"What's your name?"

"V-viola," the girl stammers.

"My name is Lightning, but you can call me Light."

"Light," Viola whispers. "I like that name." Lightning bends back to work as Viola steps closer to her. "Did they take you from your bed and burn your home too, Light?"

It's less the question and more the offhandedness that makes her fumble. "No."

"So what are you doing here?"

"I came to help," she answers as she unchains the last woman. "I came to get you all out of here." Only two alive in this room – and both delirious from their injuries. A military triage would call these two women 'expectant' and leave them.

Seven, five and two; fourteen of thirty-three. The percentage is dismal, but she still counts it as a win. Lightning has no intention of leaving any of the survivors behind. If they're going to die, she wants them to do so in the open air.

No one else will die in captivity; not so long as she draws breath.

"You came here alone?" Lightning hums an 'mm hmm' and Viola says, "I thought you said there were no heroes."

Lightning smiles despite herself, wonders what it is about her that attracts smart-ass kids. "Can you do me a favor, Viola?" Lightning waits for the nod. "I need you to stay with these women while I get some of the others to come and help carry them out of here. Then we're all leaving."

"But—"

"It'd be a big help," she insists.

"It's just..." Viola pauses and Lightning waits with a raised eyebrow. She resists the urge to tap her foot. "There's still The Pit."

The Pit?

Viola points toward another trapdoor.


Key number four.

"The Pit" is a house for the dead – a mass grave of sorts. The stench in the room is enough to tell Lightning that most of the occupants have long since passed on and gone to meet their Maker. She hopes that the next life treats these souls better than this one has. From what little she can see, it can't treat them much worse.

The bodies are stacked two and three deep at some points, piled up like sandbags in a makeshift levee. It's appalling.

Despite the stench and her own budding squeamishness, Lightning works her way through the room checking body after body for any sign of life. She left the lantern above with the survivors – a decision she regrets with her whole being as she picks through the piles of carcasses. No light means she has to handle each body – check pulses and respiration – to determine whether they live or die.

Each body she touches is in a different state of decomposition. Some are fresh enough to be in full rigor – less than twenty-four hours dead – while others are already putrefying. Touching one body gets her a handful of maggots that almost startles a girlish squeal from her.

"Keep it together," she whispers and waits for her heart to release its death grip on her throat.

Every dead body appalls her further, makes her wonder what sort of mad men occupy the camp. She'd thought she'd plumbed the depths with the Sanctum and Barthandelus, but these men are operating on a whole new level of dementia. Why keep these bodies so close? Why leave them to just...rot here?

Corpses carry disease, infect water supplies. It's one of Bartholomew's largest concerns as he designs the cities. And even if these murderers know nothing of the dangers of death, the smell is enough to deter most people from keeping them too near.

Unless...

She looks around the cold space and has a chilling thought. She runs her fingers over the stone wall and they come away gritty with ash. She rubs her fingers together and gives them a tentative sniff.

Gasoline.

It's a crematorium. They pile the bodies up, pour an accelerant over them and incinerate them all.

Then they start all over again.

She considers ceasing her search, leaving the rest of the bodies unchecked and getting out while she still has some semblance of her sanity, but finds that she cannot. She needs to complete this horrible task, to count and confirm the dead. It's the least they deserve.

"Light?"

She whips around toward the voice and sees a vague outline against the stairs.

"What are you doing down here?" She abandons her task and crosses the room towards Viola. She grabs the girl's arm and propels her to the stairs. "You shouldn't be down here. This is no place for a..."

Child.

She doesn't say it but Viola hears it all the same. Lightning braces herself for a very familiar teenage hissy fit.

Nice going, genius. You'd think she'd have learned something from dealing with Serah and Hope.

"I'm not a kid," Viola insists, voice flirting with hysteria. "And...I have to be here."

"No, you don't. I know you're not a kid," not anymore, "but this isn't any place for anyone. You understand?"

"I have to be here because my sister is down here," she chokes and breaks down into great heaving sobs.

Her sister. Lightning shivers, shudders at the horror.

The thought of her sister in a place like this is worse than anything she can imagine. It's worse than losing her to crystal stasis; worse than turning into a Cie'th.

Worse than tearing Cocoon out of the sky.

The words pour out of Viola then: "It's m-my f-fault. She was protecting me! And they t-took her. I heard her crying, and...and then it just...stopped. She's dead, I know it, and it's all my fault."

"No!" A girl protecting her sister is something to which Lightning can relate, as is searching for a lost sister. Viola's grief is something she can understand at the same time she cannot even imagine it. She has no idea what to say except: "It is not your fault."

She shoves her own grief aside, pulls the weeping girl into her arms and waits out the sobs that wrack her body. She rubs her back and offers no more words. There are no words. There's no one alive down here, and they can't carry the dead out. If her sister is down here, this will be her grave.

The icy logic burns her, but she knows she can't do anything for the dead but avenge them. She needs to concentrate on helping the living now.

She turns the girl away from her and urges her up the steps with a quiet, "come on," and a hand between her shoulder blades. On the second step up there's a sound from behind them. Every hair on Lightning's body stands on end. She clamps her hand over Viola's mouth to muffle the startled squeak, hopes that she managed to stifle it enough. She turns toward the sound and watches a door on the far side of the ceiling swing open.

Her heart speeds up at the thought of being caught in this room. She keeps her hand over Viola's mouth and drags her off the steps and into a pile of bodies.

The girl bites into the flesh of her hand hard enough to break skin, but Lightning refuses to relinquish her grip. Cold air blasts into the pit and she can see an ominous sky through the opening in the ceiling. It looks like another storm is brewing, and Lightning imagines the scent of fresh snowfall on the air.

She hears laughter followed by the unmistakable sound of flesh hitting flesh. A pained groan floats down on cold air and hits her nervous system like an electrical current.

Not. Possible.

"You wanted to see them, well here they are! Enjoy it, hero!"

A body topples unrestrained through the opening, drops the twelve or so feet from the ceiling and lands with a wet thud on the ground.

Lightning's hand drops from Viola's mouth and she breaks cover before the heavy door swings shut.

She doesn't notice the girl tugging on her arm, hear her whispered pleas, or feel the bodies squelching under her as she climbs them.

She can't feel anything but her heart in her throat, hear anything but her own denials, or see anything but the silhouette of Snow's body lying on the floor.


TBC... (and much sooner. Chapter 10 is already in the works)

I promised a reunion was imminent, I just never promised it'd be happy. (Runs away to go hide!)
I considered keeping the two parts as two separate chapters, but I'm really hoping to wrap this story up in twelve or thirteen chapters or so. (Considering my tendency towards LONG chapters, I'm guessing it'll be more like 15, but it's good to have goals. And an end.

Thanks for reading. Feedback is love!