If you've read Starstruck Bromance, mainly the parts from Eternally Cursed, then you should know what this story's all about. If not, go read that, because this will be terribly confusing if you haven't yet. This is the finale to Eternally Cursed, though Mu and I still have some ideas that happen before this. There are some major differences between this and Time's Scar, but some things have remained the same. ;)
"Lady Claire, what are you doing up there in that tree? Napping, at a time like this?"
Lightning bit back a yawn as she pushed herself up from the thick branch, blinking back the remnants of a Sleep spell from her eyes. Blonde braid hanging over her shoulder, Agrias smirked at the squire and sighed deeply, more so amused with Lightning than angry with her. Somewhere off in the distance, back at the camp, Ramza was having a heated argument with the elder of their group, Cidolfus; something about who would lead the party to Dorter come morning.
"It's only dusk, Agrias," Lightning drawled as she peered around the decaying tree. "It's quite nice up here, actually. Amazing how easily you can block out noises from camp at this height."
The holy-knight laughed faintly. "Well, come down soon. We're just about to set up watches, and I'd rather not have Cidolfus worry over you again. Three nights of not sleeping in a row can't be well for your health."
"I'll keep that in mind."
Lightning settled back down against the massive trunk of the tree, folding her arms behind her head. With only four members in their party, it was much more difficult to travel around each city and countryside. Heretics, they were, and for that they were hunted like beasts. It was a hard life, yes, but she was used to it. All her life she'd been running from something, and now she was ready to face it. Only a few more weeks, and then everything would be over.
She was afraid of what was to come, seeing Ultima again and defeating her. But there were many things she looked forward to: Ragnarok was in Ivalice again, calling himself the Serpent Bearer; and Balthier promised to visit again. He hadn't said when, though, so Lightning was feeling rather impatient.
Lightning had made sure to follow the same path she had previously. She joined the Order and became a squire, fought Delita and lost, joined up with Ramza and Agrias, and found Cidolfus again. The Virgo Stone and Alma were in the hands of the Lucavi, but Lightning knew that wouldn't remain so for much longer. After all, the gods had failed many times before.
"I suppose I better head back to camp," Lightning mused. "Can't have Cidolfus worrying over me again..."
When she rejoined the others, she wasn't surprised to see Ramza pouring over a high selection of wanted posters. The one that really caught her eye was her poster: the Phoenix. Lightning glanced down at her brown and silver squire uniform, somewhat disappointed she no longer had her crimson trench coat. Alma had been wearing it when she was captured by Wiegraf Folles.
"Anything interesting?" Lightning asked, sitting herself beside Agrias.
"Your bounty's been raised again," Ramza said almost cheerfully. "Nearly a million gil for your head, Lady Claire. I suppose it is a good thing you're immortal, or else it would be much harder for you to avoid bounty hunters."
"There is one bounty you might be interested in," Agrias said as she handed over a crumpled piece of paper. "The Godless Thief has been running amok near Dorter. He's like you, isn't he?"
Lightning had to grin when she saw the crude sketch of a fanged hume-like creature. "I once thought that too, but he and I are very different. I can't help but wonder why he's suddenly interested in auracite, though." She touched the piece around her neck. "Although, magicite like that is what brought us together in the first place."
"So you do know him?" Cidolfus laughed heartily. "Phoenix, my dear, how many more secrets are you keeping?"
"Not as many as before. Would it be all right if I went after this Godless Thief tomorrow, Ramza?"
Ramza shrugged. "You're not bound by any chains here, Lady Claire. Just be careful when dealing with this...er, man. He sounds dangerous."
"Trust me, I know who I'm dealing with."
Lightning climbed out of the gangly window with a heavy sigh, peering over the edge and gazing down at the long distance to the road. A few rats here and there, as well as a decent amount of flies, but there weren't any signs of hume-life wandering the streets at this time of day. She gripped the side of the railing and pushed herself away from the windowpane, allowing her feet to dangle a few moments before dropping to the street. Her armored boots made a sudden clanking noise against the rock, echoing the sound for awhile afterward. Lightning rested her hand idly against one of the buildings, leaning her head in the crook of her arm.
There were voices just across the way, whispering about setting traps and capturing a "monster so fierce it scared even the bravest of knights". Well, at least she was in the right place. She'd have to remind Balthier not to get so carried away when scaring humes out of their wits, especially ones with swords and guns.
"Time to move," she told herself and quickly dashed around the corner. In the distance she could hear a heartbeat thumping excitedly, while another was slow and content. There were others there, but Lightning had more difficulty in hearing the hearts of others than Balthier. He tried teaching her once before, but she had so much of a hard time that she punched him out of frustration. He stopped teaching her afterward.
There! The headhunters were hiding in numerous spots, all preparing their weapons for when the Godless Thief would arrive and take the bait. Lightning paused, staring apprehensively at her surroundings. What bait? From what she could see, there were no carts or boxes of auracite lying around, nor were there any sickly humes standing around. If there was no bait already, then—
"Get 'er, men!"
Lightning spun in time to block the nearest sword with her arm, ignoring the faint stinging pain erupting from her elbow. Her gunblade was drawn in an instant, cutting down the headhunter and turning toward the others. One, two, three, four, five, six—well, there were more than she expected, at least. Lightning poised herself for battle and smirked, motioning for the men to come forward.
The first one dove for her as if he were a beggar after a scrap of food, and she easily rendered him unconscious by slamming her boot against his head. The second one wasn't as foolish; he managed to scrape her arm before he was defeated. The third, however, was as tactical as her and held her at gunpoint. She froze, staring at the pistol with fearful eyes.
"S'no need to fret, missy Phoenix," he said with a false grin. "We jus' need you to sit down an' be patient, tha's all. We know you an' tha' Godless Thief have got somethin' goin' on. He'll come to your rescue, he will."
A shadow overcame them from behind, and Lightning smirked widely. The headhunter collapsed when something whacked him on the neck, falling with a gasp of "dammit!". Balthier stood behind him, cracking his knuckles.
"Too right," he chimed rather happily. "One of these days you and your little friends should learn not to pester me."
The headhunter holding a spear was both startled and stunned, backing up with the rest of the group. "It's him!" he stammered, teeth chattering. "Th-the Godless Th-thief!"
"Now that we've dispensed with the pleasantries, tell me where we might find the Cache of Glabados."
Lightning rolled her eyes. "Always for the theatrics, aren't you?"
Balthier only shrugged. The headhunters refused to comply and were easily dispatched, and as they ran off like a pack of skittish chocobos, he started laughing. This time it wasn't the Madness, just his carefree laugh that Lightning hadn't heard in years. Lightning was briefly overwhelmed with relief and embraced him, nearly knocking him over with a hug that rivaled that of Snow. Balthier returned her embrace hesitantly, wrapping his pleasantly warm arms around her and resting his chin atop her head.
"What? No jaw breaking and head spinning punch from you this time?" he asked.
"If that's what you really want..." she warned, smiling as she moved away from him.
He shook his head fervently. "I think I'll wait until I've done something a bit more brash for that." He glanced over her shoulder to the retreating men, a smirk sneaking about his lips. "Can't stay out of trouble with men, can you?"
"I was handling things well enough for a while, actually. I was just...momentarily distracted. Caught off guard."
"Is that what they're calling it nowadays? Admit it, Light, you're getting rather daft in your old age."
She scoffed. "Keep up with that kind of talk and you'll get that punch you long for so much." Lightning sheathed her gunblade and eyed Balthier, making sure everything was all right with him. He seemed be faring better than usual, though she figured that Madness had recently had dinner judging by the strong tawny color of his skin. Balthier raised an eyebrow at her, crossing his arms.
"You know how much I hate it when you hide things from me."
"You're worse than Fang; always bothering me." Lightning turned away and almost started walking in the other direction. She kept her feet firmly in place, however. "I don't like seeing guns raised against me. They...they remind me too much of Mustadio."
Balthier's gaze softened. "The pup's not here, is he?"
Lightning shook her head. "You could have told me that you didn't have heirs, you know. I'd forgotten you were a lot more dedicated to Fran than my Balthier was." She paused, realizing her slip. If Balthier discovered the truth—the Madness wouldn't be very happy with her. "Where is Fran, by the way?"
"Waiting for us just outside the city. We should quit this place anyway—can't have any more bounty hunters tailing us, can we?"
The group's reaction to Balthier's arrival was less kind this time around. Ramza immediately drew his broadsword and threatened to behead the sky pirate, while Agrias started casting a Holy spell under her breath. Lightning had to assure them that Balthier wouldn't dare betray them, though she wasn't exactly sure of that herself. As long as the Madness was kept under control, then perhaps there wouldn't be any problems for the remainder of their journey.
"Two undead beings, a holy-knight, a mercenary-turned-knight and the Thunder God..." Agrias muttered as she stared into the campfire that night. "What an odd arrangement we have."
"It could be worse," Lightning said quietly, watching Balthier fiddle with his cuffs and finding it very hard to resist telling him to stop. "I once traveled with a gang of sky pirates that were only children. And then the Queen, her knight, and a fool joined the fray."
Balthier gave her a cat-like grin. "That fool wouldn't happen to be dear old Ice, would it?" he asked.
"Do we know any other fools?"
Ramza glanced up from where he was polishing his sword. "So you, too, are from Old Ivalice?"
"I've lived here in Ivalice for a long time, though not as long as Light here. Nearly going on fifteen-hundred, aren't you?" Balthier nudged her in the side, earning a stoic glare in response.
"Watch it," she snapped. "Just because I didn't punch you before, doesn't mean I won't now. And for your information, I've lost count of how old I am."
"Hm. And here I thought you kept track of these things..."
Thankfully Cidolfus changed the subject. "We're heading down below the ground tomorrow," he said with pride. "My dear Phoenix is convinced that the Gemini Stone is hidden beneath Goug, and she's quite certain no man has gained its power just yet."
"Zalera needs two humes to possess; one for himself and one for his shamaness," Lightning added. She remembered it well: Fang and Vanille were the unfortunate ones who came across the Stone and took its power for their own. "If we're lucky, none of us are attuned to the Stone. I'd hate to see any of us end up like Delacroix or Wiegraf..."
"And with the Gemini Stone, we're one step closer to finding Alma," Ramza murmured. "Perhaps if Zalera has been awakened, we can convince him to join our fight against the Lucavi."
Balthier growled faintly, making Lightning send him a warning look. "The undead are not so easily tamed like whimpering pets, boy," he said sourly. "You would do well to understand that. Zalera is no pushover; he'll be ready to claim Light and I as his slaves should he sense our presence."
"As I've warned them, all they need to do is hit us with some Holy." Lightning ran a hand through Balthier's hair, hoping to calm him down. His shoulders became less tense, and he slouched. "Granted, that might hurt us a lot more than it seems, but at least then we won't try killing anyone."
After deciding on watches for that night, the group departed into their respective tents and readied themselves for bed. Lightning curled up beneath the blankets of her bed mat, watching Agrias untangle her braid. The blonde was staring off into open space, humming quietly to herself as if no one else was in the tent. It wasn't until Lightning was ready to cast Sleep on herself that she spoke up.
"That sky pirate," she said, "he's quite strange. I half-expected him to look more like a rabid fiend than a charming young man."
"Balthier is one of a kind," Lightning answered. "But don't tell him I said that."
"You two must be very close. It's almost as if your presence calms him."
Lightning closed her eyes. Of course she had to be the one to tame the Madness; with Fran gone, Balthier would surely lose his mind completely. "I'm the only one he has left. If I were gone, I don't know what would happen to him. I'm almost afraid to think that, if I weren't here, he'd be worse off than he already is."
Agrias lowered her brush and looked at Lightning with concern. "So the rumors are true? All those wanted posters?"
"I can't say. That's up to him to decide." She rolled over, blocking out the rest of the world and finally going to sleep.
But her sleep did not last long.
Lightning awoke to the feeling of someone roughly shaking her shoulder, and saying in a panicky voice, "Lady Claire! There is something strange outside the tent!" Worried that it was the Madness coming out to play, Lightning grabbed her gunblade and moved for the tent door, only to freeze in place. Was that Balthier talking? No—he should have known better. But he didn't know better, because he wasn't aware that Fran wasn't truly there.
"You said your sky pirate is one of a kind," Agrias whispered to her, "and I think you're right."
They leaned closer to the cloth wall, moving past the crickets chirping and chocobos squawking outside. Lightning held her breath (breathing was a habit she never learned to quit) and listened.
"—shouldn't have to deal with children again, Fran. Light knows how much I despise them. If that Ramza whelp crosses the line one more time, I'll..." A pause, then a false-laugh. "I'm only sharing my opinion, Fran; no need to fret so much. I promised Light that I wouldn't have any of her friends for dinner. And even though he isn't directly related to the Princess and her fool in this world, his blood probably tastes vile like Baknamy blood."
Agrias frowned, reaching for her sword beneath the blankets. But Lightning grabbed her arm and shook her head.
"I'm not surprised that Light is apt on keeping secrets from me. She's disappointed that she doesn't have her machinist this time around. She hasn't mentioned how he died yet, anyway." Balthier sighed, listening to empty words. "No—not right now, Fran. I made Light a promise. Why are you so set on having me feed this soon?" Silence. "Worried about Zalera, are you? I know what can happen should he control my mind. I've faced him before, remember? I do hope Light knows what's she's getting herself into, though. She seems rather out of it these days, and—"
Lightning pulled back, settling down in her bed mat and shutting her eyes. Agrias followed in suit, still holding onto her sword even while sleeping contently.
"Remind me again why I agreed to come along with you," Balthier groaned as he walked beside Lightning through the ruined city below Goug. The others had gone off ahead after he warned them that there were others in the area as well, most likely scavengers mooching for loot.
"Why can't you just admit that you've missed being warped between worlds?" Lightning asked, smirking. "At least with me, you're not running around as a skeleton in the middle of the night. Speaking of night: you and...Fran were up late."
"Were we? Time waits for no one, you know. Might as well waste it while we can."
"If time waits for no one, then what does that leave for us?"
Balthier lips parted as if he were to answer her, but the frantic voice of Ramza caught their attention.
"Wait, you don't know what that Stone can do!" he yelled. "If you hold it, it will—"
A stunning, black beam of light shot up a short distance away, and Lightning was running toward it before she even understood what it meant. Balthier wasn't too far behind, but she wasn't too worried about him for the time being. When they found the other three, Zalera was floating over them like a looming figure resembling Death itself. Cidolfus has his greatsword out already, and Ramza was busy protecting Agrias, who had been struck down in the blast. Balthier went rigid at the sight of the Lucavi, glancing all around for who he thought was Fran.
Zalera's skeletal face leered at Lightning and Balthier, sharp teeth glittering like diamonds. The shamaness grafted into his wing giggled with a whistling shrill, and Lightning found herself unable to control her thoughts. She could feel herself falling deeper and deeper into an abyss of darkness, claws scratching at her ears and trying to rip her apart. The sounds—the cries! It was all too much!
"Here dying, join my legion of undeath," Zalera's deep voice spoke amidst the darkness. "Your blood, the roses on unhallow'd graves!"
It was worse than before: losing control of her body and mind. Her soul felt like a weak flame, flickering in the shadows as if its light would fade at any given moment. She was afraid of what had become of Balthier, that he, in a fit of insanity, had given into Zalera's will and would kill her companions. Lightning struggled against the darkness, pulling at her soul to keep moving forward. It was like she was running up an endless flight of stairs, her leg muscles stinging at the strain of moving, up, up, up.
And then, like a ball of glowing light, she found herself. Lightning could see again, see herself fighting with her undead brethren against the humes. Squinting, she searched for Balthier amongst the chaos. There! But he was not slinking around the skeletons, toward the hume flesh so close to him. No, he was running right toward her!
"What is this? So easily you resist my will!" Zalera clenched his bony fingers in anger. "Changed, you have, mad one! Yet you cannot face your own kind, can you? You hide from the truth. Nay, she is not yours to claim!"
Lightning saw Balthier's silver eyes flash in her direction, and with a sharp motion he was pinning her to the ground, clutching her throat with the intent of ripping it out. Without control over her body, it was like watching herself die over and over again. But she couldn't die, and neither could Balthier. Lightning felt Zalera's will pull at her mind, forcing her to retaliate. She flung Balthier off and across the cave, but he landed on all fours, snickering with delight.
Panic rising, Lightning could only feel herself run toward Balthier and pierce her gunblade into his chest. Black blood splattered like paint, staining her armor and his vest. Balthier bit at her neck, and though she couldn't directly feel it, it still stung her soul. Her soul—the Madness was after her soul. It wanted to protect her, too, and the only way to do that was to—
"Away from her, fiend!" Zalera bellowed over the cries of battle. "Begone! She is mine!"
Zalera forced Lightning to drag herself away from Balthier, but he was too quick. Snap! Her neck cracked like a gunshot and she collapsed, laying on the ground like an unwanted rag doll. He was crouched over her in an instant, hands holding her face and silver eyes staring into sky blue. He was studying her, memorizing her face before he ate her soul. Fingers stroking her cheeks, she waited for the death that had fled from her all these years, teasing her each time her soul drifted away for even a moment. Yet even now, death would not come.
Balthier dropped to the dirt when a flash of Holy flew at him, toppling to the side with a mangled cry. He lay there with glassy eyes staring into blank space, and Lightning longed to reach out and hold him close, to keep him away from the Madness. Time passed, minutes lasting longer than they should. Soon Cidolfus was bent over Lightning, casting dark magick to heal her broken neck.
"Time for the Phoenix to rise," he breathed when she came to. Zalera was nothing more than wisps of Mist in the cave, and Agrias was clutching the Gemini Stone in her trembling hands. Not too far away, Ramza was pulling a disheveled Balthier to his feet.
"That better be the last time I come across that damned esper," Balthier moaned, rubbing his eyes. "Let's destroy that Stone and let him get a taste of his own medicine."
Lightning was shivering as she stood, using Cidolfus' shoulder as a balance. Keeping her eyes on the Stone, Agrias walked forward and bit her lower lip, uncertain and confused. "I would much rather bury this than destroy it completely," she said. "Ramza, I hope we won't come across any more Stones. Those scavengers had no idea that...that they would become such a horrifying creature."
"We'll return to camp and rest for the night. We can figure out what to do in the morning," Ramza answered boldly. "I'm sure Lady Claire and the sky pirate would much rather leave this place than stay any longer."
The flames quivered in the fire pit, fading in and out with each gust of gentle wind blowing against the camp. Ramza and the others had gone to bed, retreating to the dreams in hopes of finding peace and solace; something Lightning desired all her life. Instead she found pain, sorrow and loneliness. Even with Balthier sitting across from her, now, she had never felt so alone.
"I am sorry for earlier," Balthier said, breaking the sound of silence. "Zalera must have held a grudge since I fought him last with the humes from Earth. But taunting the Madness? That is terribly low, even for the seraph of death..."
Lightning refused to meet his eyes. "I thought you had it under control," she snarled gently. "After all this time, I thought you knew how to keep that...that thing on a leash."
"You know I can't do that, Light. The Madness is stronger than you believe, stronger than I want to believe." He sighed, resting his cheek in his palm. "I digress: at least we've gotten rid of yet another god. And this time you didn't have to watch your friends die with it."
"I almost died, Balthier. That thing almost killed me. It almost ate my soul. You told me that if it ever did that, I'd no longer be here."
"Isn't that what you've always wanted? To depart the mortal plain?"
"Not like that."
Silence overcame them like an itchy and uncomfortable blanket. Lightning continued to watch the flames totter across the logs, burning them until they were nothing more than embers drifting into the sky. She wondered if she, someday, would become embers of flames, flying away into freedom. She was called Phoenix, so where was her fiery death?
"Tomorrow I want to visit Ragnarok," she finally announced, startling Balthier out of whatever trance he was in. "He's in Midlight's Deep. It's been years since I visited him and Lindzei last, and he's probably wondering where I've been."
"You don't need to clear that with me," Balthier said solemnly. "Even though I would like to give that beastie a piece of my mind. Don't think I've forgiven him for dragging me across worlds just to deliver a damn rose."
Lightning met his eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she truly smiled.