A/N: I hear Prishe is happy that she's garnered so much support. Lightning is very displeased, though, and is eager to make her comeback to wow her fans. Squall, on the other hand, is looking as clueless as ever... That schoolboy...

Edit26/06/2012: Chapter finally finished. More excerpts from Duodecim, so credits go to Squeenix. Also, from henceforth, I'll be using 'Famfrit' as the Cloud of Darkness' name.


The girl smacked her lips together a few times to moisten the dried flesh before suddenly sitting upright, her back arching as she stretched her arms high above her head with a pleased squeal.

"Ah, wow! I sure needed that!" Prishe blinked her purple eyes open and looked about. "Whatever you cooked, Squally-boy, make sure you get my stomach some of that again!"

She looked to her other side.

"Squall?" She strained her ears to listen for that familiar grunt.

It never came.

Maybe…he was scouting the perimeter again? She never really could fault him for it; she herself was guilty of running off to, ah, patrol the area, so to speak.

Pushing herself to her feet, the Elvaan monk adjusted her peineta before throwing a self-confident grin. She'd find that bastard, as usual, then they could both figure out what to do now that they were the last of Cosmos' chosen.

Prishe unconsciously wrapped her arms around her sides to suppress the sudden chilling coldness that wracked her body at bay.

He…Squall wouldn't be so foolish as to leave her alone…

right?


Silence descended after Prishe's vehement declaration at the metallic aggressor before Squall regained his wits.

Squall's eyes immediately darted toward the feral Prishe. "Back to the cave!"

Aerith's head snapped towards him at his bark, but Prishe remained firm.

"You two retreat! I can take this!" Prishe growled out, her eyes remaining trained on the phantom before her.

This thing wanted to harvest Squall's soul? Just when they reunited? If anyone had the right to kill the scarred SeeD, it was her, and so she would not allow anyone else that pleasure!

A shrill whistle came from the Phantom Train as it fired its engines angrily. "I will not be denied!"

"Bring it!" Prishe challenged as she suddenly took off into a predatory dash.

The Phantom Train sounded its whistle once more and charged forward at the foolish sack of flesh.

"Prishe, stop!"

"Damn it, Prishe!" Squall cursed as he attempted to give chase, only to stumble as another wave of vertigo struck his senses.

"Squall! Prishe!" Aerith shouted, eyes darting in both directions, unsure of whom to support. Throwing caution to the wind, the flower girl took off into a sprint after the speeding monk; she needed to rein the girl in so they could retreat back into the cave where the new arrival wouldn't be able to chase after them. Maybe then, they could figure out what exactly was going on. 'Another ghost train...!'

Prishe's body crackled with energy just as she stomped her foot on the ground, causing it to implode under the sheer force from her leg, and thrust both her palms forward.

"Eat this!"

The effect was instantaneous, and it left the two warriors in awe as the head of the train crumbled inwards against the force of Prishe's double palm strike. The sound of metal creaking and twisting filling their ears as Squall and Aerith gaped when the diminutive girl abruptly stopped the Phantom Train in its tracks.

"I will not yield!" It yelled.

The Phantom Train hadn't felt a thing; he was merely a metal golem, after all. Though it knew it was damaged, there no longer were any souls in its carriages, and so it didn't care about the consequences. It had failed and continued to fail in its duty. If it died attempting to harvest just one dying soul, then so be it.

Its only regret was not being able to witness the god dragon fall.

"Out of my way, whelp!"

Squall and Aerith's awe was short-lived when the train swung its head to the side and throwing the monk away.

"Ugh!" Prishe grunted as she twisted herself in mid-air to skid to a stop on all fours.

The ghost train wasted no time as it pushed its engine to its limit, accelerating forward with the full intent to kill the scarred man personally.

"Aerith, look out!" Prishe warned as she sped after the train.

Aerith held no illusions that she could take on the locomotive head-on the same way Prishe did, and so she quickly jumped to the side, rolling on the ground to buffer her impact before stopping in a crouch, a spell already formed on her lips just as the train sped past her. She thrust her staff forward. "Planet's embrace!"

Squall shimmered gold just as the train slammed into him, knocking the SeeD into the cave. The Phantom Train hadn't fared as well as its target as it was much too big for the rocky entrance and instead slammed into the low ceiling, its lethal charged abruptly stopped by the unyielding mountain.

The Phantom Train blew its whistle in outrage.

"Come out, meat!"

It pulled back before slamming forward again, causing the cave to rumble against the impact.

"Oi, tin can!" A wild shout from above drew its attention, and the Phantom Train could see the purple haired monk from earlier rapdily descending upon him with both her fists raised above her head, brilliants wisps of energy spiraling around her extended leg like a drill. "You can't have him!"

Knowing better than to stay still and take the full brunt of her deceptively tiny frame again, the Phantom Train immediately pulled back. A crater formed on the ground when Prishe landed, now standing in between the soul farmer and the cave housing her injured friend.

"Foolish sack of flesh!" Prishe heard the train growl and she barely had time to cross her arms in front of her frame just as the metal monster retaliated swiftly before she could get into a stable stance, bashing into her; the train had planned this counter all along. "Die, pest!"

"Argh!" The Elvaan grunted as she was once more thrown backwards, only to crash against a familiar fur jacket. "Squall?"

"Where's Aerith?" Squall growled, steadying the two of them.

"She's still outside." Prishe replied reflexively before her brows creased when she caught the glimmer of light reflecting off the gunblade in his hand. The monk immediately snapped. "Oi! You're not supposed to fight! I can handle this!"

"You're doing a swell job, too." He grunted in irritation. Prishe opened her mouth to retort when Squall continued. "Look, we need to get out of here. Fast."

Scenario after scenario raced through Squall's head as he tried to formulate their survival.

"If we stay in here, chances are that thing will cause the mountain to crumble down on top of us." He pointed out, pushing Prishe away from him. The ground shook again as if to emphasize his point. "And though you seem to be relishing this all out brawl with a train, I need you to focus. You can mess around with Doomtrain later."

'I must protest against that suggestion, Conductor.' The Guardian Force whined.

Squall duly ignored the poison train's plea in favor of the threat at hand.

"Come out, flesh sack! You're only delaying the inevitable!"

Squall squinted at the cave's entrance. "At least we know Aerith's okay. Whatever this thing is, it's after me."

Prishe blinked slowly as his words registered before snapping a glare at the taller warrior. "Alright Squall, riddle me this: why the hell do you have a psychotic train after your miserable ass? Did you spike its oil or something?"

"…"

"Your efforts are futile. I will not be denied his soul!" The Phantom Train bellowed, and Squall guessed he was talking about Aerith.

"Thought so. You're always causing trouble wherever you go!" Prishe sighed wearily as she scratched the back of her head, ignoring the Phantom Train's ranting; Aerith would be safe, for now, what with the fact that she was standing next to the obsessed locomotive's target. "Man, you owe me big after this! Hope my fishing spot's still there; I demand a feast for all this trouble,-" She thrust an accusing finger at him. "-you troublemaker!"

Squall blinked at her disbelievingly. 'Just a moment ago you were saying how you couldn't trust my food, and now you're demanding a meal?'

'The stomach is the way to a woman's heart, Contractor.' Shiva decided to chime in her amusement. Squall could feel cool tendrils of Shiva's caresses on his arms, soothing the aches that were acting up again. 'I know I cannot stop you, Contractor, but I trust you will succeed. For all of us.'

"…Whatever." Squall huffed, replying to both women; Shiva needn't be so melodramatic, and Prishe so excitable. "Can we get back to the situation at hand?"

"Garlic, salted, and stuffed with wild berries! Crispy, not burnt! Berries dried!"

"I heard you the first time." He growled impatiently. "Aerith, now?"

"Righty then! Got a plan?"

Their surroundings shook and Prishe absently slapped a falling rock away before it could hit them.

"If you could call it that." Squall pointed his weapon towards the blocked entrance, where the Phantom Train remained intent on forcing its way through, or bring down the mountain trying. "I'm taking it for a ride."

Prishe stared at the man intently before walking behind him and wrapping her arms around his torso.

Her hands began to glow with healing magick.

"Fire away!"

Outside, the Phantom Train blared its diabolic whistle, stunning the annoying pink pest momentarily and sending spectral reapers at the woman. "Foolish sack of flesh! Your deaths are inevitable!"

"Maybe so. But do please forgive us for trying to live!" Aerith challenged, swinging her staff horizontally to swat an incoming wraith, stepping forward with her left foot as she twirled her staff to deliver an upward strike at another wraith.

Aerith twisted her body, pivoting about her left leg and swinging her staff again to dispel the third. Her green eyes widened as the fourth and fifth wraiths came in tandem, and she leaped backwards whilst swinging her staff, managing to catch one on its head before the final left a gash against her skin.

"Ack!" She yelped reflexively with her new wound before swinging her staff again.

A flash of distaste crossed Aerith's eyes and she pursed her lips. A quick glance around confirmed it; she was back to where she started.

The Phantom Train seemed to know what she had been planning, as he made duly sure that the flower girl would not get anywhere near enough to board him. This fact did bring a small measure of comfort to the lone Cetra, as this meant that her initial assumption that, despite its sentient nature, the ghost train would not be able to move if she managed to destroy its engine.

Her problem now was approaching the mechanical golem; it seemed that it could sense its surroundings perfectly, in every direction. In retrospect, this made a lot of sense, considering this foe had no eyes, so it had to have some other method of seeing, as it clearly knew where it was going.

Aerith's fingers clenched tightly around her staff as the ground once more shook.

If she didn't hurry, then her friends would be buried alive underneath the mountain, and that was not something she was looking forward to any time soon.

But what could she do?

The mad train would not let her anywhere near it, and her repertoire of ranged attacks was lacking; she hadn't really had the need to learn more than the basics of self-defense.

She could try to blow up the train with her White Materia, but that ran the risk of her digging her friend's rocky burial herself. She also wasn't certain what the Phantom Train would do while she was casting.

"Hide all you want, flesh bag! I shall have your soul soon enough!"

Aerith's eyes hardened at the train's hungry call.

There was no time to think; the time for hesitation was over.

"Take me!" She shouted at the train as she charged forward, staff on her side at the ready.

The mad train's diabolic whistle sounded again, its high-pitched shrill calling soulless phantoms to once more hinder her advance.

Aerith exploded into action, zipping past the vanguard as nimble as she could, twirling her staff with destructive precision as she dispelled one scythe-wielding reaper after the next. A flash of spectral steel caught her eye and she pushed on forward, twisting her body to the side and wincing at the large gash it left on her skin – 'This will heal!' – and instinctively threw her elbow as she spun uncontrolled.

'Forward!' She screamed at her body when another blade dug against her leg. 'Forward, Aerith!'

She needed to move forward, or her loved ones would leave her behind once more. Out of sight, out of her grasp; Aerith did not want to wait around any longer simply hoping the best would come.

"Ugh!" A pained breath fled her lungs when the blunt end of the spectral reapers impacted against her chest. "F-fire!"

Embers flared around her body briefly, warding off her would be attackers momentarily as she staggered forward.

"Prishe!" She wailed as loud as she could against her burning lungs. "Squall!"

"NO!" The Phantom Train suddenly shouted; he could feel the man's soul abruptly leave death's door.

Aerith looked on as the metallic golem was suddenly pushed back by an angry red spear. "Sq-Squall!"

"HRUAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!" Squall roared as he pressed on his advance against the Phantom Train. His body burned with energy, his muscles protesting at the strain his indomitable will imposed on it.

The Phantom Train's wheels spun frantically as it attempted to push back on the mortal. It knew this pest could not keep this up for long.

"I WILL NOT BE DENIED!" The vessel of souls bellowed as its gears spun even more wildly to overcome this stalemate. The man will die!

"Aw, can it already!" Aerith's eyes darted upwards where Prishe's voice came just in time to see the Elvaan monk slam both her fists against the metallic golem's first carriage; the monk had clearly used Squall's attack to launch one of her own.

The strength of Prishe's fists caused the train to buckle about the point of impact, the metal churning and breaking against the Elvaan monk's might. Aerith's wits suddenly returned to her when the train retaliated with another whistle as the monk flipped back, ectoplasmic reapers hot on her tail.

"Protect!" The flower girl called out as she threw her arms out.

The reapers dissipated upon impact with the spherical matrix of magick the shimmered around the Elvaan girl. Prishe bared her teeth in a feral grin when she landed on her hands and feet, half-aware that Squall's magick had finally given out while Aerith was already running to assist him, and prepared to give the coup de grâce upon the vulnerable golem.

"Hope you got a repair stop nearby, canny!" Prishe darted passed the spectral reapers set against her, ducking underneath the train in a crouch and planting her feet firmly on the ground. She strained her muscled and pulled. "'Coz ol' Prishe here bought a ticket to Painville just for you!"

The Phantom Train felt its head get picked up off the ground as the diminutive Elvaan lifted him off the ground, soaring higher and higher as she jumped. "NO! No, no, no, NO! I will not be denied. I WILL NOT BE-"

"I said CAN IT!" Prishe lurched her body backwards at the peak of their ascent before slamming the Phantom Train head first on the ground, effectively derailing the metal golem and decisively ending the skirmish with its engine buried deeply underground.

"Hah!" Prishe gloated as she stood to her full height. "Take that!"

"I will not yield!" The Phantom Train yelled and prepared to blow its whistle once more to unleash all manner of hell on the three warriors when a shard of ice suddenly slammed against its horn, halting its last attack. It could sense the other two warriors approaching its fallen frame. "No, no! I will have his soul! I will have your soul! Your souls belong to me! They are mine!"

They were his! They did not belong in that gluttonous dragon's belly! Couldn't these fools see that he was doing them a service? He would deliver them from that flying snake's jaws! They would no longer have to return to this slaughter-world!

If it could not do this, even, then what else was left for the carrier of souls? Why was it allowed to function until this time? ! Why couldn't it have perished that fateful day when the dragon and the voice feasted on its meaning of existence?

"I WILL HAVE YOUR SOULS!"

"Geez!" Prishe clenched her fists and savored the feeling of her knuckles cracking. "Doesn't this thing ever give up?"

The monk fell into a charging stance as she cocked her right arm backwards, tendrils of ki and magick gathering at her palms, casting an ominous shade of green against her dark skin.

The Phantom Train spun its wheels frantically in a futile effort to escape its dangerous predicament.

"Screw it. I can't listen to this all day. Nighty-night!"

Squall's voice rang through the clearing.

"Prishe!"


"You're about to learn why 'oppose' rhymes with 'dispose'!"

"Always happy to take out the trash!"

Vaan eyed the mage in front of him critically. Years of living in the slums of Rabanastre had honed the young thief's survival instincts and, at the moment, those very same instincts were screaming at him that things were about to turn sour, too soon.

His predicament started abnormally enough.

The young sky pirate had been separated with the group whilst fleeing at the opportunity Lightning granted. Knowing better than to travel alone, Vaan had decided to make his way back to the Order's Sanctuary. However, with his path through the Gulg region blocked by manikins, Vaan had decided to scale the snow-topped mountains instead, and cut through the Elven Snowfields soon after.

Besides, that girl he fought before might have headed this way when she flew off.

It was at this point where the sandy-haired youth saw a massive airship descend from the clouds to land at the large expanse on the mountain top. Its appearance had tickled something at the back of his mind – he knew this ship, but from where? – and so he decided to infiltrate the sky fortress and investigate.

Besides, if he managed to hijack this huge thing, it'd make travelling this world so much easier. And fun. Especially fun.

He had fully expected there to be company, and indeed, there was.

Manikins had piloted the airship, and Vaan made quick work of them.

It was when he reached the bridge that he saw something unusual; a clown was berating a timid blonde girl.

He recognized this blonde girl as the same warrior that had attacked him earlier before. Despite only catching a glimpse of her soft features before she transformed into something feral and wild, and then being forced to frantically dodge magicks wielded with skill the likes of which that would put even Fran's skills to complete and utter shame, Vaan was first and foremost a street rat. Years of running and hiding had ingrained in him a keen eye and sharp memory, especially for people's faces.

But back to the matter at hand.

Normally, Vaan wouldn't do anything about this – it kind of looked like a lover's spat to his eyes, or a one-sided argument between friends; he was never really good at reading the mood – when the clown had done something and the girl let out a strangled scream of pain.

"AAAAAAAAGHH"

"Hey! Leave her alone!"

"Who? What? When-where-why?"

Vaan's eyes flashed and immediately he was upon the duo, recklessly charging in to protect the unknown lady. If there was one thing he couldn't stand, it was people that abused their powers to cause harm on others.

It was a childish and naïve motive, but Vaan honestly didn't care. He'd seen so many of his friends – fellow orphans and street urchins - suffer under the ambitions of those that wielded power.

The sky pirate hadn't expected the mage to be this powerful.

While the battle had been a stalemate, at first glance, Vaan could feel beads of anxiety trickle down the side of his head; the clown had been toying with him, and Vaan was already hard-pressed to put up a fight.

Then there was the strangely reticent girl, who hadn't made an effort to run or hide or help; the girl had merely stood there, fist against her breast, watching the fight unfold with half-aware, half-worried eyes.

"Huuuooooo- BURN UP!" Angry flames engulfed the sky pirate's arms as he charged forward at the clown mage, taking advantage of the opening the clown had made when he stumbled against a step.

"Boing~" The clown skipped to the side by the tips of his toes – clearing a greater distance than what the action should have allowed –, casually dodging the sky pirate's attack. Kefka squealed gleefully when Vaan slammed against the steps, the floor beneath him erupting in a fiery blaze. "Woo! Hot, fire, hot! Boy, you do know what people say about playing with fire, dontcha?"

"Never paid attention." Vaan shrugged as his rifle shimmered into existence. The sky pirate quickly aimed and fired, blasting a scatter shot that made the clown leap back even further. He reloaded his weapon. "'Specially when there's so much fun with gunpowder!"

Vaan leaped forward and fired another round, and again the clown casually cleared several more paces back with a half-hearted skip.

The sky pirate smirked as magick welled around his arms.

'Perfect!'

"Gonna tear you asunder!"

Kefka's eyes widened as a cyclone erupted from underneath him. "Aieeee!"

A triumphant grin stretched across Vaan's face as he stood between the cyclone and the unknown girl. Despite the perfect setup, he couldn't help the uneasy feeling welling in his gut.

Survival instincts were still going haywire.

Vaan's heart raced when the cyclone's rage was finally sated, only to reveal the mad mage standing there unscathed, save for his windswept clothing.

"And here I thought you were just another prepubescent pretty boy…" A shiver ran down Vaan's spine at the seriousness in the mage's tone. Kefka's eyes glinted with unbridled insanity.

"Incredible!" Kefka threw his hands up in glee, a complete turnaround from his seriousness just seconds before. "That's the most fun I've had in minutes!"

Despite the giddiness the mage was showing, Vaan knew things were about to get much worse.

He glanced beside him where the girl still remained detached to the whole ordeal.

'This is why Plan A should always be executed first…'

Vaan grabbed her hand.

"Huh?" The blonde girl looked puzzled.

"Hey, snap out of it!" The sky pirate chided her frantically. "We gotta go!"

They both ran.

"Hm?" Kefka blinked at the sudden turn of events.

Vaan couldn't suppress the grin on his face as he turned around and waved at the mage, jogging backwards. "We'll finish this next time! For now," He caught the blonde's hand when she stumbled. "I'm just gonna take the girl!"

The blonde girl looked up at her kidnapper – or… savior? - curiously.

Vaan waved back at Kefka again.

"Catch ya later!"


Laguna looked around cautiously for his hiding foe, his machine gun raised and ready for any attack.

"It is time we put an end to this game."

Dark tendrils of magick swirled on the ground before him as a figure emerged.

Laguna let out a breath and prepared for another onslaught when he finally got a good look of the warrior before him. His eyes trailed upwards from the seemingly endless legs towards the barely clothed mounds that were just right, and further rostral still to reveal eyes of piercing gray.

'…eh?'

The Cloud of Darkness stared down dispassionately at the stupefied warrior before her.

"What's wrong?" She questioned uncaringly. "Frozen by fear's icy grip?"

"O-of course not, no. I'm not- not at all" Laguna stammered quickly and shook his head, feeling skittish at the Warrior of Chaos' presence. "Just, I, um, was admiring your uh, appearance is all."

The yellow tentacles took offense at the man's remark and snapped at him, making the man with the machine gun jump.

"N-not- not any particular PART of your appearance, much-A-ARGHHH!"

Famfrit looked on with genuine curiosity when the Cosmos' gunman suddenly fell on one knee in pain. Though waiting patiently as she floated above the floor, her guard remained raised in case the man was merely lulling her into a false sense of security.

"Argh!" The man groaned again before admitting piteously before explaining, "…Leg cramp."

Laguna groaned again pitifully, making the Cloud of Darkness blink pitying at the spectacle, her tentacles yipping in delight. "Unbelievable. Cosmos must rest well with brave defenders of your like."

"Grah- hey, don't look at me," Laguna clenched his teeth as he tried to get blood flowing back into his right leg. "I couldn't believe it either. Somebody oughtta tell her how to pick 'em better, ya know?"

That…was an unprecedented reply.

"So…" The being also known as Famfrit looked away as she processed the man's confession. "You disrespect even the goddess whom you serve." She spared the man another cool glance. "We would pity her, did we not oppose her."

"M-ma'am," Laguna braced himself before standing shakily and stretching his legs. "I don't exactly 'serve' anyone." He picked up his machine gun. "I'm just working with her, that's it."

Determined green eyes focused on the floating abomination, this time keeping his eyes trained into her piercing grays. "If the world comes to an end, then that's bad news, right? So the only choice that leaves is to try and protect it." Laguna scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "Then again, you know, it could be a little tough the way things are. What with these uh- what are they?" Laguna struck a pose as he searched for the word. "Munchkins?"

"Manikins?" Famfrit corrected the idiot.

"Yeah, them. That's what I meant. Those things are getting' old, real fast." He gave a tired shrug. "It's ridiculous! Where do they all come from?"

The Cloud of Darkness listened on thoughtfully as Laguna ranted, the gears of her mind spinning to reveal a wondrous opportunity.

"Anyway," Laguna said confidently. "I plan on findin' a way to get back home, munchkin infestation or not." He turned to the listening Warrior of Chaos. "I'm just doing what I gotta do to make that happen. I'm not 'serving' anyone, or anything like that." Laguna walked forward passed the floating abomination, lost in thought. "Sure, I may not be a god, but I figure I have SOME hope. I mean, that's all a soldier like me's really got, right?"

"Hmph." Famfrit scoffed as she made her decision as she stared at the soldier's back. This man was an unusual pawn of Cosmos, but she could make use of him. "Manikins have no place in this world." She disappeared, only to reappear in front of the raven haired Loire, startling him. "They are a foreign presence that unbalances a most delicate equilibrium."

"Huh?" She lost him; what was she doing?

"Know this, human." Famfrit drawled. "Manikins are cursed mockeries of men that crawled forth from the Rift, and now befoul this realm. Their masters do no more than pull the puppets' strings."

"Really." Laguna hummed, delighted at the revelation. "So you aren't making 'em, then." This meant that Chaos' forced did not have full control of these munchkins, and there had to be some way to halt their invasion.

"There exists a portal which connects this plane to theirs." The Cloud of Darkness continued. "Seal that door, and no more of the puppets will be able to emerge."

'Hrmm?' "Meaning, they won't keep multiplying?" He clarified.

Famfrit turned to the human and nodded.

"A great deal of their taint has already spilt forth from the gate and into this realm. If you desire to stem its flow, follow the trail and seek out the source."

"Closin' a door sounds easy enough." He agreed before adding skeptically. "But if that's really all it takes, why would you tell me?"

The Cloud of Darkness let out an amused breath. 'He is not a complete fool after all.' "Did you not listen? These beings surge through the portal even as we speak. Should you choose to seek it out, all you will find is endless battle, and certain doom. As for us…" She floated past the man. "…we are but curious to see what manner of death you select for yourself."

With those ominous words of parting, the Cloud of Darkness vanished in a flash of dark magick, leaving the raven Loire behind to contemplate her words.

"Hmm…"

'Well, THAT put things into perspective.'

"First things first. Better let everyone know what's up."


"Oh-ho , if it isn't our double-crossing young disturber of the peace." A low baritone voice hailed in amusement.

Kain and Lightning broke their deadlock as the new arrivals appeared.

'Crap.' Lightning huffed when the armored giants Garland and Exdeath approached with their weapons drawn. Her eyes darted between them, Kain, and the fallen Bartz. 'Not good.'

"Tell me," Exdeath continued, ignoring the l'Cie in favor of the silent Dragoon. "How many friends whom you've betrayed does that now make?"

"What? !" Lightning let out a surprised breath. 'Has Kain really-?'

Seeing this turning sour too fast, and knowing what it is these two Warriors of Chaos wanted, Kain exploded into action, darting past the dazed Lightning and scooped up Bartz under one arm.

"Kain!" Lightning shouted angrily. 'Damn it! I let my guard down!'

The Dragoon spared her one unreadable glance before leaping off in a hasty retreat, Bartz in tow.

"Muohohoho…" Exdeath chuckled darkly at the turn of events. "This may be well worth hunting. I shall pursue him for the time being." The once tree from Moore turned towards his companion.

Garland scoffed. "Hmph. Suit yourself."

Exdeath promptly vanished in pursuit of the Dragoon.

Left alone with Chaos' Knight, Lightning grit her teeth and prepared for another battle, ignoring the numerous aches and stings of all the injuries she had sustained, both from battling the genome mage, Kuja, and from trying to stop Kain from murdering her in cold blood.

'A good place as any to die.' The l'Cie thought darkly, pointing her gunblade at the large knight.

Garland looked on in amusement.

"A manikin army will soon sweep across the very place we stand." He informed, and Lightning's fingers clenched tightly around the handle of her weapon at the revelation. "I needn't bother lifting my blade against the likes of you."

Lightning remained apprehensive, her suspicious eyes briefly darting to the massive cleaver the giant held loosely. The knight paid it no heed.

"The dolls have their purpose better than you could ever know."

Indeed, for the manikins had shattered the trust Cosmos' warriors shared with another. The Dragoon's, Kain Highwind's, actions were testament to that fact.

How pitiful these warriors chosen by Cosmos were.

"They may have their…imperfections…but they are more than capable of defeating you."

Lightning's glare intensified. "Says who?"

"Most of your friends have already departed." Garland informed, smirking underneath its helmet when the woman visibly tensed at the revelation. "You'd best enjoy what precious time you have left."

The giant turned away and marched, leaving the l'Cie alone.

"Departed?" Lightning questioned, her eyes narrowing in anger. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Garland paused but still did not turn to face her.

"Manikins are merciless. They know only how to deliver death and destruction, from which there can be no return. I suspect that we shall not see one another again. Fare thee well, soldier of Cosmos."

Lightning took a step forward to retaliate at the knight's mocking only to forcefully halt attack; she knew she attacking the Warrior of Chaos now would only spell doom for her.

And…there were other, more pressing matters at hand than acting on a petty grudge.

'Departed? That can't be!'

It hadn't been that long since Cosmos blessed them. The other warriors couldn't have fallen already, could they?

This just was not possible.

-"Fine." She grudgingly amended, accepting the scarred man's pitiful excuse. "Stay alive, Squall."

"…you too."-

She refused to believe it. They all couldn't have fallen already, so soon! But even as she told herself that, a sinister voice whispered that all was already too late…

They needed to regroup. Hopefully, the rest of Cosmos' chosen were smart enough to retreat from the fighting. She needed a plan-

She needed Squall.

The man had proven during their brief journey together that he was a veteran of war. With both their heads, they might find a way out of this mess.

Maybe- maybe there was still a chance.

Lightning raised her hand up in the air and snapped her fingers.

"Odin!"

Her Eidolon answered her call, the armored stallion prancing beside her as she mounted her steed.

"We gotta hurry." She commanded the beast.

Odin needn't any more prompting as it quickly darted towards the Sanctuary, leaving its master to her thoughts.

'Damn it, Kain!'


"Prishe!"

The Elvaan monk halted her finishing blow at the scarred warrior's shout.

"What?" She snapped at him, waves of destructive energy swirling around her raised palm just begging to be released; the monk was just about to shut the metallic golem up for good.

"Wait." Squall commanded, one arm slung around the flower girl's shoulder as Aerith supported his weight with their approach. "There's something I need to know."

Prishe's eyes darted from the brunet and back towards the half-buried train, then back again. She thrust her thumb over her shoulder petulantly. "From this thing?"

"Yes." Squall placed a hand on Prishe's shoulder as he disentangled himself from Aerith. "Let me."

Squall cleared his throat.

"You, train."

"Flesh bag." The golem boomed coolly, mildly curious about what it was this mortal had to say.

"You mentioned something before. That 'our souls belong to you'." Squall's eyes narrowed. "What does that mean?"

"Your soul is mine, flesh bag. When your shell dies, I shall claim your souls as is my right and duty."

"So you're just a courier."

"I am a 'courier' tasked by the Gods, mortal."

"Yeah, some 'courier of the gods' you are." Prishe cut in snidely. "Tell the gods that if they want a piece o' me, then they oughtta bring their A game! I ain't some pushover!"

"…he was after me, Prishe."

"What the flesh bag said."

"Semantics." She waved them both off and folded her arms impetuously.

"Regardless," Squall prompted before the interrogation would get out of hand. "By 'gods', do you mean Chaos and Cosmos?"

"Those soulless abominations? Hah! Foolish mortal, the gods that created me are the True Gods! Not self-proclaimed deities forged out of amorphic ore, leeching off anything and everything they come into contact with."

That piqued Squall's interest. "Explain."

"It is as I said, flesh bag. The instant you answered their summons, your fate was sealed. This war you fight is a farce! The struggles you face are meaningless! This war is one without end, and your souls will never find rest even after death!"

"You speak as if we didn't know of this." Squall scoffed, though inwardly he knew it was a fair spiel. His arm unconsciously held Prishe tighter when he felt the Elvaan's grip on his jacket tighten at the fallen golem's words. "Still, you know something. How do we get out of this world?"

"You cannot leave this place, flesh bag. Your soul is tied here. However," The Phantom Train's engine rumbled, and Squall felt like he was being given a hungry leer. "If you choose to give me your soul, then I can guarantee that your suffering shall end. You will no longer be forced to fight."

"You're not taking him!" Prishe fired back angrily.

Squall placed a reassuring hand on her purple-topped head. "Easy, Prishe. I'm not gonna get taken away that easily." He turned his gaze back towards the golem. "It's as she said. We're gonna fight, and keep on fighting until we can't. Then we're gonna fight some more. There is always a way."

Despite the conviction with which Squall spoke with, inwardly, he felt desperate. 'There has to be a way.'

He glanced over at Prishe again; the Elvaan monk hadn't picked up on his uncertainty.

"No, foolish soul jar. There isn't a way out of this world. Once called, you will forever be trapped here until your soul perishes for all eternity. You will die here. If you give me your soul, then I can promise it will perish peacefully."

"C'mon Squall. This thing's getting on my nerves." Prishe disentangled herself from the taller warrior, cracking her knuckles in irritation. "Lemme break him."

"…One last thing." Squall folded his arms. He looked towards Aerith for affirmation, and the flower girl nodded her head. "What do you know about Shinryu?"

Aerith gripped her staff tightly when the Phantom Train exploded.

"SHINRYU!" Its engines fired wildly, and Prishe reflexively stepped in between the golem and Squall in case any funny business went down. It bellowed again. "SHINRYU!"

"Yes." Squall agreed coolly. "Shinryu. You know him. Talk."

"Shinryu is a gluttonous snake that lords over these lands!" The Phantom Train spat. "That snake is the reason I am chained to these lands! Shinryu and that other!"

"Good." There was a chilling sense of triumph glinting in the mercenary's eyes. "And who is this other?"

"I don't know." Despite its quieter tone, the anger in the Phantom Train's speech wasn't at all abated but, instead, was cold and full of hate. "But when I find out, I will enjoy rending that man's flesh. I shall pervert my most sacred of duties if only to hear his soul scream for an eternity and more."

An uneasy silence descended after the golem's proclamation. Squall and Aerith considered the Phantom Train's words while Prishe remained tense, waiting for an excuse to annihilate the god-sent golem for attempting to murder her friend.

It seemed only fitting that the one with the most to say had ended their pause.

"What say you, flesh bag? Now that you know the truth, will you offer your soul onto me for relief? You know of this world's lies. You know there is no escape. Should your soul house in my carriages, I assure you no harm shall befall upon yourself, and never shall you be forced to fight in this farce of a war."

"Now see here-!"

"Prishe," A soft voice began, and Prishe's head snapped to find Aerith's calming green eyes looking at her imploringly. "Let Squall decide."

"But he's-!"

"Idiot midget." Squall scowled softly, drawing the monk's attention. "Of course my answer is 'no'. I will find a way out of here, mark my words."

"Foolish mortal. You are only prolonging your suffering!"

"We're human. Well, mortal anyway." Squall looked over at Aerith and Prishe observantly. "You get used to it. And besides," The mercenary stared at the metallic golem piercingly. "Something tells me we're not at all safe with you. This Shinryu, he ate all the souls you were carrying, didn't he?"

"No he did not."

The Phantom Train's lie was as lucid as the purest diamond.

"It's obvious what happened. You're the ferry of souls, and yet there are none on you, while you hold a considerable grudge against Shinryu and his accomplice." Squall pointed out clinically. "You're only lying because you want my soul. Our souls. But for what?"

Prishe's ears twitched at Squall's words, and she threw out her guess. "Maybe he's planning to summon Shinryu." Her eyes widened when her mind caught up with her mouth. "Oi! You're planning to offer Squall's soul to that snake!"

"Prishe," Aerith called the monk's attention. "Do you think Shinryu could be the cause of that light?"

"It's possible. This thing's prolly planning on harvesting our souls then bargain with Shinryu using them! You bastard!"

"I only mean to kill Shinryu for his most blasphemous of deeds, whelp!" The Phantom Train confessed angrily; there was no longer any point to withholding the truth when it was already out in the open. "Is this not a blessing, then? Your torment shall end knowing that I will best your oppressor!"

"Yeah, fat chance, pal! You couldn't even trounce me!" Prishe huffed and folded her arms cockily. "Not that I blame ya! I'm just too awesome!"

"I will best that accursed reptile!"

"Nuh-uh you won't! Besides-"

"How about we make a deal?" Squall cut in coolly, stopping the excitable Prishe's tirade.

"Wait, Squall-?"

"Only your soul interests me, flesh bag." Despite its words, the Phantom Train sounded keen on what the man had to say.

"I know. My soul, in exchange for your cooperation."

Aerith gasped when Squall was suddenly on his back after Prishe backhanded his face.

"PRISHE!"

"Argh, damn it Prishe!"

"No! Damn. You. Squall!" The monk glowered over him. "You're not doing this to me, again! I'll kill you myself before I let you do this to me AGAIN!"

"Prishe, calm down." Aerith tried to placate the fuming monk. "I'm sure Squall didn't mean it that way."

"You didn't let me finish, you impatient midget!" Squall groaned out irritably as Aerith helped him up. His brows scrounged together in pain as he tentatively pressed at the bleeding organ- the Elvaan girl had actually broken his nose, among other calcium deposits! Thankfully, Aerith was already on the case with her healing hands. "Hyne damn it!"

Prishe remained standing still as a statue, her fists balled and trembling at her sides as her hair cast a dark shadow over her eyes. "Don't you ever kill yourself in front of me again." She whispered harshly. "I don't know what's wrong with you that you think it's alright for you to die, but damn it Squall! I'm your friend, ya hear me? That means your life is not your own anymore!"

Squall pursed his lips as the monk gave her spiel. It was only then when he realized the full gravity of what he had done. He knew it – intellectually and personally, he knew his useless sacrifice had only hurt the monk, but it was only now when he realized just how much, and honestly, he wasn't sure if he could ever earn her forgiveness, or if he even had the right.

Was this karma?

He had spent his whole life dreading the time when people would walk away from him, and yet it was he that had walked away from the person who needed contact the most. He felt disgusted with himself, and yet there was no time to dwell on such thoughts. Not now, not yet.

He'd make it up to Prishe later.

The SeeD gently pushed Aerith's hands away, and stood. The angry tremors wracking Prishe's shoulders ceased as she watched Squall walk past her, only to stop when they were side-by-side.

Squall wrapped an awkward arm around her shoulder and spoke. "I know I don't have the right but, please Prishe. Trust me on this. I promise I won't leave you ever again until we've seen you safely out of this hellhole."

"Fuck you, Squall." Prishe choked as she frantically rubbed at her eyes with her sleeve. Squall and Aerith chose not to comment, instead waiting for the shorter warrior to continue. "Fine. Go ahead. It's not like I can stop you." She ground her teeth. "Just…you promised. I'm gonna have you swallow your teeth if you ever break it."

"Promise." Squall affirmed, and turned his attention back on the metal golem while Aerith stood and buried the downtrodden Prishe in her embrace.

"Done with the drama, flesh bag?"

"Thank you for waiting." There was no hint of gratitude in Squall's formality. The mercenary stared at the golem coolly before continuing. "I have a proposition for you. Your cooperation, in exchange for my soul when I die."

"And what would you have me do?"

"You will follow my every order. You and I have similar goals. You want to reap vengeance against Shinryu. I want to escape this world, and to do that I'll inevitably face Shinryu. Follow my lead, and we'll both prosper."

"And what if I don't? How can I be assured that you will keep your end of the bargain?"

Squall folded his arms and addressed the Phantom Train's suspicion aloofly.

"You can't. You'll have to trust my word. Otherwise, Prishe will be more than happy to crush you right here and now."

"Damn straight." Prishe huffed, glaring at the metallic golem.

"I call your bluff." The golem cackled madly. "You need me, or you wouldn't attempt this bargain. I can always wait for your time to end, flesh bag. I'll harvest you, then."

"And I call your bluff. There is a reason you came to harvest me right now. Shinryu has always beaten you to the souls of the fallen, hasn't he? You have always failed." Squall told him coldly. "And as for my needing you, you've misinterpreted this situation. I don't need you, but you are a resource. A replaceable resource. I have the upper-hand here. Answer me now then; will you submit or perish?"

"…I will have your soul, mortal, but your offer intrigues me. Promise that when the time comes for that snake to appear, you will summon me. And we will achieve a glorious victory."

"Hn." Squall huffed, choosing to ignore the melodramatic words. "I give you my word."

"Very well then, mortal. The deal is made!" As if to punctuate its agreement, the Phantom Train blared its whistle.

"Good for you." Prishe spat.

Squall eyed the Elvaan girl with thin lips. "Prishe," he called out, approaching the monk. Aerith had chosen to remain silent and watch the scene unfold. "Just trust me, alright?"

Prishe marched forward and thrust her finger at his chin. "Do you realize the consequence of what you just agreed to?"

"Trust me, Prishe. I know."

"No! No you don't!" The immortal threw her hands up exasperatedly. "You- if you fail, that thing's gonna feast on your soul. And, if what it says is true, then you'll never come back." Her eyes shimmered angrily; why did he have to be so stubborn? ! 'You'll disappear forever!'

"I told you." He stared straight into her eyes seriously. "I know."

Prishe's eyes widened in horrifying realization. "Is- is that it then? ! Are you really gonna lea-"

Squall flicked her forehead hard. "Stop jumping into conclusions, Prishe. Just let me explain. Trust me." 'Even if you no longer have any reason to.' "I've thought this out. That thing doesn't know what it's talking about, entirely."

"You- argh!" Prishe pulled at her hair to stop herself from strangling the insufferable man. It hadn't even been a full day since they reunited, and again he was already driving her up the wall.

"Squall," Aerith decided to cut in as she massaged the monk's shoulders soothingly, her brilliant emeralds piercing Squall's sapphires. "I do hope you know what you're doing."

"I do." Squall nodded before returning his attention back to the glaring monk. "I promise you, Prishe. I will never leave you, not until I've seen you out of this world."

The two stared at each other, Prishe glaring while Squall looked on imploringly, before the monk finally breathed an annoyed huff. "Fine. I demand an explanation later."

Squall nodded his head. "Thank you, Prishe."

"You better be thankful!" She glowered before quickly shrugging it off. Damn this man for being such a troublemaker.

"Get me out of here, flesh bags." The Phantom Train suddenly cut in, drawing the attention of the gathered three. A grin split Prishe's cheeks when she realized the golem was still half-buried underground. "I cannot perform whatever task you have in mind, like this."

"I really oughtta just leave you there." Prishe grumbled. The monk waved off the meaningful stare Squall shot her. "I know, I know. I'm on it already, sheesh."

Prishe casually strolled towards the golem, glaring at it all the way. "You better be worth it, scrap metal."

The monk grasped its metal frame and pulled, lifting the engine carriage above ground before setting it down ungracefully and stretching her arms.

The Phantom Train fired its engines cautiously, testing its functionality. Prishe tapped her foot against the ground impatiently. "Well?"

"…Your assistance was prompt, flesh bag."

Prishe cracked her knuckles. "How about I promptly assist in disassembling you?"

"…Thank you, flesh bag."

"Better."

Several feet away, Aerith breathed a sigh of relief now that the danger was over.

Squall's eyes sobered at Prishe's display of strength. The mercenary already knew that if it came out to an all-out brawl, he'd be hard-pressed to match the monk's speed and strength, and yet, Aerith's words, one lone Warrior of Chaos had managed to not only match the Elvaan's strength, but managed to best her as well.

He pressed his eyelids tightly in thought.

He had always suspected that behind his bulky frame, a behemoth dwelled within Chaos' Knight, Garland. It seemed his suspicions were true.

'Ultimecia, Kuja, and now even Garland…' His thoughts darkened. 'Chaos has gathered quite the crowd. And there's that clown that played Kuja like a marionette…' Squall's head hurt just thinking of what they would be up against, his experiences as a leader already calculating the potential casualties they would suffer – something he didn't want to accept, even though all evidence pointed that the line of 'too late' had already been crossed with Kain's actions, alone.

Had he fought the Dragoon elsewhere, Squall had no doubts he would not be standing here, this day.

'There's still so much left unanswered.'

They now had affirmation about who Shinryu was, but that opened another can of unknowns with the matter of the dragon's accomplice. And then there was the problem of the manikins spilling over, hounding, he conjectured, Warriors of Cosmos, though that thought brought one chilling reminder to the forefront of his mind; what about Aerith?

Could she really be trusted, then?

Already, once, with the genome mage, Kuja, had they almost brought in a scheming Warrior of Chaos into Cosmos' sanctuary. What was Aerith's angle? Was her kindness just a façade?

Prishe…Prishe he could trust. His body screamed at him that Prishe could be trusted, his memories sang to him that Prishe could be trusted, and that, if anything, it should be the Elvaan monk that had trust issues with him.

-"…Don't lose sight of your goal." Lightning's voice was uncharacteristically soft when she spoke. Her fist remained pressed against his chest reassuringly. "If you don't, you will survive."

She took a deep breath before muttering warmly.

"And… we're all still here."-

Calm blue eyes revealed themselves as he remembered the l'Cie's words.

He hadn't time to contemplate his memories anymore; he'd just have to trust his instinct and follow Prishe, and have faith in the monk's trust in Aerith.

'One step at a time, Leonhart. First things first; warn Cosmos of Kain's treachery, and then convince whoever's still left of the lie in this world.'

"Squall?" Aerith's brows met in worry when she noticed the brunet's silence.

"It's…nothing. Really."

'Aerith is trustworthy. Prishe trusts her, and so should you.'

Squall shook his head.

"Time to get some rest." Squall declared, turning his attention back to the golem. "You, what should we call you?"

"I am known as the Phantom Train, flesh bag."

"Squall Leonhart." The mercenary nodded his head. "We have much more to discuss, but that can wait until morning. Aerith, Prishe. Get some rest."

"I'm staying first watch!" Prishe growled out.

Squall stared at her, but Prishe wouldn't be intimidated by his commanding gaze.

The mercenary relented. "Fine. You're on first watch. Phantom Train, you will stay here and guard our cave's entrance."

"Now a dog to a mere mortal…" The Phantom Train grumbled. Prishe blew a raspberry at the metal golem. "You better keep your end of the bargain, flesh bag. Shinryu will be mine."

"Of course."


A/N: Been a while, eh? Anyways, the usual stuff happened IRL. To be honest, I wanted to post this last Saturday as a birthday present from me to me to you all, but my university suddenly rang me last Friday saying that I was sitting in the borderline between two degree qualifications, and so I accepted their offer for a quick oral exam. Suffice to say, after relearning the past three years over one weekend, I managed to pass my viva last Monday, and bumped up my degree mark.

Again, yeah, I know there were lotsa copy-pasta dialogue from the game, but it's mostly to show you where things are at. Don't worry, all that is important. Trust me on that.

Anyways, LTRA-wise, rest assured we're nearing the divergence point.

Also, FFVIII fans, Syc0ticEpi0de has started their first story, Triple Triad King, which shows quite a lot of promise. From Squall's addiction to the game, to parodying the actual game itself (I lol'd when my nostalgia meter was jostled in chapter 2!), I'm sure FFVIII fans would enjoy the read and ride! Do help a new author out and show your support, as well. If anything else, their writing style is more poetic than mine ;)

(note to self: pick up a proper book to read to expand my literary horizon…)

Thanks for all your patience and support, everyone!

On a random note, any aspiring doctors looking for a school to study in… do not go to ICL, no matter how reputable they are. Their standards are student-driven with nothing at all to do with the quality of teaching (seriously, what orthopaedics surgeon starts off their lecture with "This is a bone. Its function is stiffness"?), and student satisfaction is crap (pretty much the entire student body is on omeprazole and beta-blockers, sleeping tabs, paracetamol, and other cocktail of stress-relievers).

I did say that note was random, eh?