The Broken Sword
Serah awakened just after dawn from a sleep haunted by the very strangest of dreams. She had dreamed of a gleaming palace wrought of crystal and set in the sky. It was a jewel more beautiful than any star, one birthed by the glory of the gods. There had been other dreams too, fleeting things, lingering things that nevertheless left her feeling as though she'd lost something very important. There was thunder in those dreams, and lightning, and a bow that could pierce the very clouds. Even now, as she sat up, she could almost feel it in her hands, along with other hands – stronger than hers – that had taught her how to use it.
But more than what she'd seen was what she'd felt. The dreams had passed so swiftly, a tide of sights and sounds and smells too vast for her to keep track of. But beneath everything there had been a deep, abiding sorrow. It was the weight of centuries of suffering, a pain so vast not even a god could have withstood it. Yet someone had, of that she was sure, and there was a presence in her dreams, cold and splendid in its isolation, that was at once achingly familiar but utterly alien.
There had been another presence in her dreams as well, one that glided against her mind. It had felt soft and familiar, like starlight on a clear winter night, or cool water on a hot summer day. It made her think of lush forests and fields of flowers.
None of her dreams had made any sense, and the more she tried to grasp their meaning, the more they seemed to slip away from her. Soon enough, only the last, lingering impressions remained. Then, even they were gone, and the world was once again as it had always been: simple and plain.
"Something troubles you."
Serah jerked back at the sound of Lightning's voice and would have fallen had the goddess not reached out to steady her. Lightning eased her back into the wagon with a strength that was far beyond human, and a gentleness that reminded Serah very much of her mother. She couldn't be sure, but there was something different about the goddess today. Had Lightning looked into her dreams?
"I… had some strange dreams." Serah flushed beneath Lightning's scrutiny. The goddess's gaze was intense but utterly unreadable, and taking in Lightning's pristine appearance, Serah couldn't help but wonder how dishevelled she looked. Certainly, she felt quite horrible, so she had to look at least a little messy. "Did anything happen last night while I was asleep?"
"Yes." Lightning turned and went to tend to a pot of water boiling over their campfire. "We had a visitor."
"A visitor?" Serah blinked wearily and rubbed at her face only to pause. Her cheeks were still damp as though she'd been crying in her sleep. "Who was it?"
"Aerith." Lightning took the pot of water off the fire and began to brew one of the teas that Serah liked. The scent of it filled the clearing and Serah sighed. Her mother had always said that a good cup of tea could make any situation better.
"Who is Aerith?" Serah asked. "The name sounds familiar, but I can't place it."
"I am not surprised. You have not met her." Lightning offered Serah a cup of tea. "She is the goddess that rules over this place."
Once again, Serah nearly fell out of the wagon, and it was only Lightning's quick reflexes that kept her from scalding herself with the tea. As it was, most of it ended up on Lightning, and Serah watched as the steaming liquid pooled on the back of Lightning's hand. A normal person would have been screaming in agony, but Lightning didn't even seem to notice.
"I am so sorry." Serah bowed her head and reached for a cloth to dab the tea away. "I – it was an accident."
Lightning voice was gentle but firm as she took the cloth from Serah. "Even now, you act as though I might hurt you. I gave you my word, Serah. You will never come to harm from me, nor should you ever fear that I will let you come to harm." Her eyes narrowed a fraction and the air grew just a fraction heavy as some small measure of her divine power spilled out. "The fact that I allowed the tea to touch me does not mean that it can do anything. There is no power that any mortal can wield that can harm me, even if my powers have yet to fully return."
On impulse, Serah reached out to touch Lightning's hand. The goddess's flesh was warm beneath her fingers, and for a moment, she could have sworn that Lightning flinched. But then the moment passed, and the goddess pulled away. "Thank you for not being angry with me. I'm still a little clumsy, I guess." She smiled awkwardly. "But you surprised me, is all. You met with a goddess, and I slept right through it."
"We gods can shatter the world in our wake, or walk through it without a sound." Lightning glanced at the forest around them. "Of all of us, Aerith was always one of the kindest, and she has invited us to the home of her Cetra. Is lies to the north of here, and we should arrive just before dusk."
"It must be close then." Serah eyed the forest. The trees were so densely packed that she could hardly imagine them making good time, not unless Lightning used her powers to clear a path for them.
"In a manner of speaking." Lightning looked back at the fire. "I will finish making breakfast. Perhaps you could use that time to see to yourself."
Serah blinked and then looked down at herself. Sometime during the night, the tunic she had worn to sleep had slipped off her shoulders, leaving her clad only in a thin, almost transparent undershirt. With a squawk of alarm, she retreated back into the wagon to change into something a little more suitable. If anything, the fact that Lightning's expression remained as serious as ever only added to her embarrassment.
After a light breakfast and the obligatory round of sword practice, the two of them continued their journey deeper into the forest. But this time, the trees seemed almost to part in their wake, and where before the forest had seemed dark and threatening, it now seemed to welcome them. Flowers in full bloom dangled from the branches overhead, and more than once, Serah caught sight of inquisitive dear and rabbits marking their approach. A curious humming bird even took a liking to her hair, though it was wise enough to stay well clear of Lightning.
"Aerith is welcoming us," Lightning explained when she caught Serah's curious look. Her eyes drifted to the hummingbird that had settled on top of Serah's head. "Though it would seem that she is still a little strange."
Serah giggled as the hummingbird hopped off her head and onto her shoulder to give Lightning what looked to be the bird equivalent of a glare. "You said that you two did not part on good terms. Were you able to… mend things with her last night?"
Lightning looked sideways at her, and Serah wondered once again if perhaps she'd overstepped her bounds. Despite her often cold exterior, the goddess was quite a mercurial creature, almost as hard to predict as the storms she ruled over. "It is never that simple for gods. We forget nothing and thus our deeds, good and ill, endure forever."
"That seems very sad," Serah murmured softly.
Lightning's gaze settled on Serah's face, but the young woman could not shake the feeling that the goddess wasn't seeing her so much as someone else far away in space and time. "It is."
They made good time through the forest, and as the sun began to set, plunging the woods deep into shadow, they reached a widening in the path. From the darkness on either side of them came figures garbed in long cloaks woven of leaves but as a fine in thread as gossamer or silk. They had chestnut coloured hair, and their green eyes seemed almost to glow as they regarded first Lightning and then Serah with something close to reverence.
"We are the Cetra." The words came from a woman who wore a pink and purple dress beneath her green cloak, and at her approach, the others bowed their heads. A small smile crossed her lips, and each footstep she took left the grass beneath her feet untouched. There was a grace about her that no mortal Serah had ever met possessed, yet it was nothing compared to that of a goddess. "Our goddess, Aerith, bids you welcome. Beyond this place lies our home, the City of the Ancients, and you are both most welcome there."
"I thought it was a village," Serah murmured as the Cetra parted to make way for them. Despite the friendly words that had been spoken, it did not escape her notice that all of the Cetra were armed, either with bows or with swords. "Besides, how could anyone build a city here?"
The answer came a moment later, and it took her breath away. Her mind told her that it could not be real, yet her eyes sought to take in every detail. The city was vast beyond any she had seen, and the buildings were of a graceful design unlike anything she had ever known. They were almost like seashells, she thought, great, soaring edifices that curved gracefully ever upward toward an enormous, wooden sky. Dozens of swiftly flowing brooks cut through the city, and rose up into the air, flowing somehow over and around the buildings, and forming vast curtains of water where men would have built walls.
Trees towered over everything, their branches and roots winding through countless buildings until they met high above the city, forming a single, unbroken ceiling of centuries old wood. And though the night was dark, the city was bright, lit by the glow of countless crystalline flowers blooming over the buildings and floating in the streams of water that floated in the air. Hundreds of Cetra walked through the streets, and as she watched, a little girl stopped and pointed, only to be hurried along by her parents.
"What do you call this place?" Serah breathed.
"It has many names."
Serah turned and then took a slow step back. There before her stood a woman, but no mere more mortal, nor even one of the Cetra. This woman was undoubtedly a goddess. Her hair fell in long waves of lustrous brown, and her emerald eyes were filled with a mix of kindness and mischief. Power hung in the air about her, but where Lightning's power drove away all things before it like a storm sweeping over the plains, this goddess's power was the warm sun on a winter day, and Serah's soul was the flower turning to meet it.
"I am Aerith," the goddess said. "Creator of this place and mother to the Cetra." She smiled. "And as for this place, it has no name in the tongues of men, for no child of man has ever laid eyes upon until now. But to the Cetra it has many names: safe haven, shelter, place of beginning… home."
"Home?" Serah whispered the word. Despite the grandeur of the city before her, the air was warm and filled with the scent of flowers. Here and there, Cetra spoke and laughed, and their children dipped their hands into rivers that flowed up toward the sky. Yes, home indeed.
"I am pleased you accepted my invitation," Aerith said, and though the words were simple, the look in her eyes filled them with greater meaning. She had not expected them to come, Serah realised.
"Your powers have grown," Lightning replied. "And this is no mere village."
There was a teasing gleam in Aerith's eyes. "Not all of us slept so long as you, and it was a village once, though it has not been for quite some time." She waved one hand and several Cetra came forward, including the one that had welcomed them before. "Ifalna, show Serah to her quarters, and see to it that she has something suitable to eat. There are matters that Lightning and I must speak of."
Serah shot Lightning a pleading look. The thought of being left in the care of the Cetra – whom she hadn't even seen until today – was a worrisome one. However, if Lightning was worried, she gave no sign. Instead, she nodded.
"Go with them," Lightning said. Her eyes softened, and Serah was struck again by the impression that Lightning was not seeing her, but someone else. "And know that no child of Aerith will ever do you harm. I will find you later."
Aerith nodded and a moment later, both goddesses vanished, leaving Serah to glance nervously at all the Cetra that had gathered around her.
"The gods have a way about them, don't they?" Ifalna said as she offered Serah her hand. "I am Ifalna, and you need not worry. I will look after you as though you were my own kin."
"Uh… thank you." Serah winced. "I'm just a little overwhelmed by all of this."
"I imagine you are." Ifalna helped Serah out of the wagon with another smile, though her eyes narrowed a fraction as Serah took care to bring her sword with her. "But please, trust us. Your goddess spoke truly, and only a fool would dare lay hands on the one chosen by the Sword of the Heavens."
"The Sword of the Heavens?"
Ifalna's eyes twinkled. "I forget sometimes that your people remember little of the gods. In the Old Days, Lightning had many titles, but that was one of her most famous ones. She was the Sword of the Heavens, the Blade of the High Mother who punished the wicked and slew those gods who dared break the divine laws of heaven."
Serah sighed. "I see. I met her only a short time ago, and there is still so much I do not understand."
"You will learn in time, I am sure of it." Ifalna took Serah's hand in hers and tugged her gently toward the city. "Now, come with me. You must be tired from your travels. We have prepared rooms for you, and if you like, you may have a bath while we prepare dinner."
There was little else Serah could do but follow as Ifalna led her through the broad streets of the city toward a towering building shaped very much like a conch shell. A river of water surrounded it, winding up into the air then falling back down in a wide, circular curtain around the building.
Her rooms were finely furnished, though the exact method of construction confounded her. Everything, from the walls, to the floor, and even the furniture, looked as though it had been grown or shaped out a single piece of material. Putting one hand on the wall, she gasped as it quivered beneath her touch. The entire building, it seemed, was alive.
Laid out on the bed were clothes in the colour and style of the Cetra. To her surprise, they fit her almost perfectly, and she marvelled at their softness. Also on the bed were a few spherical jewels that flared to life at her touch.
"What are these?" Serah asked. "I have never seen them before."
Ifalna took one of the jewels from her. "These are a gift from our goddess, forged from the blood of the world. They let us tap into the power that flows through all things." She closed her hands around the jewel and there was a flash of light before small wisps of fire formed in the air around her. "See?"
"Amazing," Serah whispered. No wonder Lightning had said that the Cetra were more than men but less than gods. "But why give any to me?"
Ifalna gave her a faint smile. "You might be surprised at what you are capable of." She put the jewel back onto the bed. "But enough of that. Perhaps you would like to bathe before you take dinner?"
"A bath does sound nice." Even though Serah was still trying to wrap her head around everything, the thought of a nice, hot bath sounded too good to pass up. Besides, she trusted Lightning. If the goddess said she was safe here, then she would be. And if there was any trouble, she was certain that if she called, Lightning would come.
X X X
"You and your Cetra have grown quite powerful," Lightning remarked. She was alone with Aerith in the other goddess's temple, a building formed out a single titanic oak that dwarfed every other structure in the city.
"We have had little choice." Aerith's eyes grew distant. "I can hear the footfalls of fate fast approaching Lightning, and the day will soon come when my strength, and the strength of my Cetra will be tested." She gazed squarely into Lightning's eyes. "I do not know how the High Father survived, but he has, and if he regains his full strength, then it will take all of us to stop him – if he even can be stopped."
Lightning nodded grimly. The High Mother and High Father had both possessed powers that dwarfed even those of gods like her. She had only been able to slay him the first time due to a grave miscalculation on his part, a mistake he would not make again. And even in his death throes, the damage he had done had been beyond calculation.
"Your people know of my past," Lightning said. "But how much do they know?"
"Little, perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, but much compared to other mortals. They know that there was a goddess named Lightning who performed a terrible but essential duty without complaint or just reward. They know that you were amongst the greatest of our number, and that by your sacrifice was the High Father overthrown." Aerith paused. "Only my chosen knows of Serah, and what she was once."
"You give me too much credit." Lightning stared down at her hands. Hands that had once been stained with Aerith's blood and Fang's blood, and the blood of so many others undeserving of her wrath.
"You hold yourself to a standard that not even a god could meet." Aerith reached over and took Lightning's hand in hers. "I hurt you and you hurt me, but let that be the end of it."
"Tread lightly," Lightning warned. "You overstep your bounds."
Aerith took back her hand and inclined her head. "Perhaps I do, though I had hoped… that perhaps you might have forgiven me." Her eyes hardened. "Let us speak of matters more urgent than our past. I have already told you that the High Father stirs, but I have also learned that he is not alone. He has won Caius's allegiance."
"Caius?" Lightning all but spat the name. "How? Save myself and Fang, he was once the most loyal of the High Mother's followers."
"I do not know," Aerith replied. "And he will answer neither my summons nor Fang's." She folded her hands in her lap. "And if he has chosen to follow the High Father, then our task will be much more difficult."
"Indeed." Lightning's power stirred at the thought of battle, and on reflex she reached out with her senses to check that Serah was safe.
"If you wish to see how Serah is, you need only ask." Aerith gestured at a large pool of water nearby and an image of Serah appeared. It showed the young woman besieged by Cetra children, all of them eager to meet the first human to enter their domain. Rather than be alarmed, the pink haired woman took the children's antics in stride, and it wasn't long before she had a child in her lap, and several others clinging to her legs.
"She was always good with children," Lightning said softly. "That much is still the same."
"Yes, yes, you're right." Aerith's smile was bittersweet. "Now, let us return to more serious matters."
"Very well." But as Aerith spoke, Lightning found her mind drawn to a past far away, and a Serah she would never see again.
X X X
Lightning gazed at the lesser goddess who knelt before her. It had been five years since Serah had become mortal, five years since Lightning had last set foot upon Cocoon. The High Mother had finally given up trying to convince her to return to Cocoon, and now, when there was a task for Lightning to perform, a message was brought to the home she had carved out of the barren rock of the Thunder Plains.
And though the weight of her duty was heavier than ever, a burden so great she could feel it crushing her soul, she performed with the same, ruthless efficiency as always. For what else was there for her? The lingering warmth she sometimes felt inside from the remnants of Serah's power was only a cruel reminder that her sister was gone, taken from her, and that nothing in the world could bring her back. If she could, she would have left her duty and all that it entailed behind, but when she looked upon her life, upon the emptiness that remained, she knew that she could not. Before Serah there had only been her endless duty, and now that Serah was gone, it was to that endless duty she returned.
Perhaps the only respite her duty offered was that it took her mind from what she had lost. The number of rogue gods, both the titanic children of Pulse and those of the High Mother and Father, had increased to the point that she had begun to suspect that some dark power was at work. But the High Mother dismissed her concerns, and whispers had reached her of the mocking laughter her words had been greeted with upon Cocoon. Lightning, the Sword of Heaven they had called her once. Now, she was merely Lightning, who could not even keep her sister from the arms of a mortal. All of heaven laughed at her expense, and the cold fury inside her only grew.
So Lightning fought the rogue gods, tracking them and dealing with them as the High Mother ordered. She restrained those she could, and when the order came to send them to oblivion, she did so without doubt or hesitation. The emptiness that had once terrified her, the vast, hungry nothingness that had filled her with loathing and horror, it held no power over her now. There were even times when she welcomed it, when she would let her soul wander alongside those she condemned to the very cusp of oblivion.
But though she sought a life of solitude, there were other who seemed determined to intrude upon her. The wind was ever present, gentle at times, and harsh at others, but always it carried Fang's words to her. The other goddess begged her forgiveness and pleaded for the chance to make things right. And each time, Lightning turned away. She was a mountain, and no matter how the wind begged or wept, she would not be moved by it.
But as the months went by, long and empty, and filled only with the crack of thunder, her heart went to a time when Fang had been her only friend. She would have given almost anything for Fang then, though she had never said so aloud. But to hide Serah's affair from her was a betrayal of the worst kind. Perhaps one day, she might muster some small fraction of the High Mother's divine mercy, but not yet. If she saw Fang now, or Aerith, she would strike them, and she did not know if it would stop there.
Now another summons had come from the High Mother. There was to be a meeting of gods near the mountains of the Yun, and she had been ordered to attend. With a flick of her head, she dismissed the lesser goddess before her and summoned her lightning to carry her to the meeting.
She landed on the mountainside in a blaze of divine glory, the ground around her torn asunder as a single, jagged bolt of lightning bore her down from the sky. It was well past dusk, but as she stood, her eyes had no trouble making out the familiar forms that waited only a short distance away. Fang was there and Aerith also, and as she looked upon them, she felt the blood in her veins run cold. A dark and terrible rage bubbled up from deep within her, a rage made only more terrible by its coldness. She was going to kill them, and she could not bring herself to care.
The sky split, and Fang had barely enough time to push Aerith clear of the lightning bolt that turned a good portion of the mountain into a pool of molten rock. Then Lightning was upon her, and the pink haired goddess's first blow struck with such force that the ground beneath them trembled and gave way. Fang tumbled back, end over end, kicking up a spray of pulverised rock and melted snow, but Lightning was far from finished.
With a bestial snarl, Lightning raced forward, and as Fang fought to steady herself, Lightning hurled her against the mountain. Every moment of pain that Lightning had felt, every hour of loneliness, every shadow of regret that had stained her soul – all of it poured out of her as she rained down blow after blow. The mountain shook, and dimly, Lightning was aware of Aerith screaming, of vines bursting from the earth to stop her, but she had eyes only for Fang. Why was the other goddess crying? Why wouldn't she fight back?
With a roar, Lightning lifted one hand and the Sword of Gathering Storms came, shattering the sky in its wake. She lifted the glowing blade high, staring for one endless moment into green eyes that seemed almost to welcome her wrath, and then someone slammed into her from behind. It was Aerith.
The younger goddess fought with a furious desperation, clawing at Lightning's sword arm in a frantic bid to tear the sword from her hand. Never before had Lightning raised a hand to Aerith, but the fury coursing through her veins demanded satisfaction. With a single, brutal blow to the chest, Lightning knocked Aerith aside. The other goddess skidded along the ground and crashed through a grove of trees. Shakily she stood, and it was only dumb luck that let Aerith dodge the blow that would have parted her head from her shoulders.
Before Lightning could swing her sword again, Fang was there.
"Not her," Fang whispered. "If you must be angry with someone, be angry with me."
Lightning's hand trembled. Fang had been so quick to defend Aerith, but why hadn't she defended Lightning when she had needed it most? Why hadn't she told her about Serah? With a growl, she shoved Fang back, and as the other goddess sprawled in the mud, she brought the Sword of Gathering Storms down in a strike she knew would end in Fang's chest.
Again Aerith hurled herself at Lightning, and the pink haired goddess's blow went wide, scorching a bitter path along Fang's right shoulder. Lightning steadied herself and turned, ready to strike Aerith down, only to pause.
Aerith was crying.
Slowly, the Sword of Gathering Storms slipped from Lightning's hand and landed, cold and dull in the dust. Serah had cried like that the last time they had spoken. The image was burned forever into Lightning's mind, her sister's cheeks wet with tears, her voice hoarse with a pain that was so much more than physical. To see that same look on Aerith's face was more than she could bear.
"Please stop…" Sprawled across the ground, Aerith clutched at Lightning's foot. "Lightning… please…"
Lightning sank to her knees. Her gauntlets were stained with blood – Fang's blood, Aerith's blood. Bile burned at the back of her throat, and she fought to keep from retching as she took in the bruises and cuts that marred Fang's face and body, and the wounds that Aerith bore. Was this what she had become?
"Why didn't you fight me?" Lightning whispered as Fang stood and clutched at the scar already forming on her right shoulder.
"Because I deserved it." Fang's voice was soft, so soft that even as a goddess, Lightning had to strain to here it. "We didn't call you here to fight, Lightning. We wanted… we wanted to apologise."
Lightning snarled. "Apologise? How dare you!" She lurched to her feet and shoved Fang back. "You knew! Both of you knew, and neither of you said a word! My sister is a mortal now, doomed to their endless cycle of death and rebirth. There will be no end to her suffering as a mortal, no end to the cycle until creation should come undone." She looked back and forth between Fang and Aerith. "You were my friends! I loved you! Of all the gods in Cocoon, I trusted you the most, and you betrayed that trust. I should kill you both." Lightning clenched her fists. "But how can I? For who else do I have? Who else is there who can walk the endless path of the gods with me, if not you two? Perhaps one day, I can forgive you for what you have done. But not today."
Lightning turned and made to leave, but Fang caught her in her arms.
"What words can I speak, what deeds can I do to make things right between us?" Fang's lips were by Lightning's ear, and the pink haired goddess could feel the moisture of tears against her neck. She flinched. Never before had known Fang to weep. "Tell me what I must do."
Lightning shoved her way out of Fang's embrace and turned, eyes colder than the dead of winter. "Tell me why," she growled. "Tell me why she chose him and why you did not tell me."
Fang's expression fell. "We never thought it would go that far."
Despite the fury in her heart, Lightning could not miss the sorrow in Fang's gaze. For perhaps the first time, it occurred to her that she was not alone in her loss, that Fang and Aerith had lost Serah too. Ruthlessly, she crushed any sympathy she might feel. She could have no sympathy for traitors.
"We thought it would be a fling, nothing more." Fang's tone was pleading, her hands moving restless through the air as though she wished to hold Lightning once again. "Perhaps she might dally with him for a few decades, but what are a few decades to us, Lightning? I thought… I thought to let her have her mortal lover for a while, and by the time I understood her intent, there was no changing her mind."
"She was always so stubborn," Lightning whispered. She felt tired, so very tired, and hollow inside.
"Yes." Fang closed her eyes. "But you should go see her. There is something you have to see."
"I will not." Lightning turned. "I cannot."
"She still loves you, Lightning." Fang's voice was soft. "Be sure of that."
"She loves him more." Lightning gathered her powers and called for the lightning to take her far away.
"Can things ever be the same again?" Fang shouted as Lightning vanished.
Lightning spared neither Fang nor Aerith a backward glance. "No."
And then she was gone, and for weeks afterward the sound of weeping was heavy on the wind.
For two months, Lightning pondered Fang's words. There was a part of her that longed for an end to her isolation. Fang and Aerith had betrayed her, but they were all she had left save for her terrible duty. Perhaps in time, she might find it in her to forgive them, but the hurt was still too fresh, the wound still too tender. And then there were Fang's words about Serah. There was something Lightning needed to see, she had said, but was it even possible for her to see Serah again.
More than anything, Lightning feared that if she laid eyes upon her sister again, she would do something unforgivable. She had almost killed Aerith in her fury – if not for dumb luck, she would have succeeded. What would she do to Serah, the person who had hurt her the most? If she hurt Serah, if she… killed her, Lightning would never be able to forgive herself. But even if she did not harm Serah, what would she do, where would she even begin? They had exchanged words before, words that could not be taken back, and the bonds they had once shared were as dead as Serah's divinity.
What finally made up Lightning's mind was the simple fact that Serah was mortal now. Lightning could afford to linger, to prevaricate, but every moment brought Serah closer to the doom that all mortals would have to face. Closing her eyes, she reached out once more for her sister's soul. It was mortal now, but no matter how many years passed, Lightning would always know it as well as her own. She found Serah a moment later, and before her courage could fail her, she vanished in a blast of thunder.
She appeared in the heart of a shrine set in the hills by a lonely village. Over the years, she had heard whispers from the priests and priestesses who prayed to her there. They had spoken of one who shared the colour of her eyes and hair, of a young woman who could foretell the coming of storms. Serah might have become mortal, but some of what she had once been still lingered.
Silently, Lightning studied the shrine. There were fine murals painted on the walls that showed her deeds, and not far away was a statue of her that was far too accurate to have come from some artist's imagination. Only one mortal knew the planes of her face so well. Serah had helped build that statue.
The moments passed, seconds, minutes, hours – Lightning could scarcely tell – and then she sensed her sister's presence. Even in the dim light cast by the flickering candles, her divine sight told her a hundred different things, and every one of them added to the cold weight that had formed in her gut. There were the beginning of lines at the corners of Serah's eyes, and her once fair skin had tanned slightly in the sun. There were callouses on her hands too, and her gait was no longer smooth and seamless. Serah was mortal now, but even that paled in the face of what Serah held in her arms.
A baby girl.
Lightning drew herself up to her full height. "I told you never to speak my name again."
"So you did." Serah smiled, and Lightning felt something inside her clench. How badly she had missed that smile. "Yet here you are, sister."
Lightning's jaw clenched. "Do not call me sister."
"You are right." Serah bowed her head, though Lightning still caught the flash of pain before she lowered her gaze. "I no longer have that privilege, honoured goddess."
Lightning flinched. How cutting the words felt. Serah's pain brought her no joy, only more pain. Regardless of the words they had once exchanged, they were sisters still. At least, that was what Lightning's heart whispered, though she did her best to ignore it. "Who is that child?
Serah straightened. "My daughter."
Lightning fought down the terrible rage that welled up inside, but even so, the air around her cracked with electricity and the polished stone at her feet glowed with heat. Her sister had a daughter, one sired by that mortal buffoon. Yet when Serah stepped forward and lifted her daughter so that Lightning could see her, her anger died almost at once.
Perhaps the mortal fool had been the girl's father, but looking at her, Lightning saw only Serah. The baby girl had the bluest eyes that Lightning had ever seen in a mortal, and her hair was the very same shade of pink as Serah's. She trembled, and almost without thinking, she reached forward only to stop as the baby's gaze caught hers. There was no fear in those eyes, only a simple curiosity. Gently, the baby cooed.
"I named her Claire." A single tear trickled down Serah's cheek, and she gave Lightning a heartbreaking smile. "Many times I listened to the storm, hoping to hear your voice again, and each time the lightning flashed across the sky, I heard a whisper in my heart. 'Claire', that is the name the lightning brought me."
Lightning wanted to turn and run, but she could not. Instead, she could only stare at the child who was so very much like Serah. A quiver ran through her. Was this why Serah had given up her immortality, to have a child with that fool? Yet even as her anger stirred, she felt it calm as the baby girl's face scrunched up in displeasure at the long lock of Serah's hair that brushed across her face.
"She was born a little over two months ago," Serah said. She smiled. "Here, hold her."
"I cannot." But before Lightning could pull away, she found herself holding the baby. The girl was so fragile, and Lightning fought to steady herself. What good were hands like hers for holding a child? Her hands were for dealing out death and judgement, they had no business holding something so frail, so small, so innocent. Yet the child seemed perfectly at ease, and as Lightning ran one finger along the baby's cheek and across her nose, the girl gave a little sneeze and smiled. In that moment, Lightning was lost.
"I am sorry." Lightning looked up and her eyes widened as Serah bowed deeply, pressing her head to the cold, stone floor. When she rose, there were tears trickling down her cheeks. "There are no words in the tongues of men or gods that can express how sorry I am for the hurt I have dealt you." Serah's voice firmed. "But I love my husband, and I love my daughter, and I love you." Her voice caught. "I do not ask for you to forgive me, I only ask that any hatred you have, any anger you might feel, that all of it ends with me." She smiled. "And I make you this promise. Though I may die, though my body might wither with the passing of the years, for as long as my line should endure, for as long as a son or daughter of my blood still lives, you need never be alone. My children and their children, and their children all the way unto the breaking of the world will remember the bond that we once shared, and they will honour it if you let them." She bowed again. "And no matter how many times we are parted, I promise also, that I will find you again if that is what you wish."
Lightning looked from the baby in her arms to the mortal kneeling before her. The world turned on moments like these, and though her pride and her hate and her pain demanded that she refuse, she found her lips moving, the word spilling out of her like tears. "No other has ever hurt me as deeply as you." Her eyes closed and she thought of Fang and Aerith, and of that terrible fight upon the mountaintop. "I do not know if I can forgive you, but I love you still."
Serah looked up. "I cannot ask for more." She swallowed thickly. "Honoured goddess."
Lightning handed the baby back to Serah. "I despise your husband with every fibre of my being, but I would like to know your daughter." She paused. "Sister."
And so it came to be that Lightning took to visiting the little village by the hills whenever the opportunity arose. She still refused to return to Cocoon, and she could not quite bring herself to speak to Fang or Aerith again, but little by little, she felt her hatred begin to slip away. Serah would never be the same, and there would always be a gulf between them that no words could ever bridge, but it was better than nothing. Soon, Claire was old enough to walk and to talk, and Lightning wasn't sure whether to smile or weep when the little girl took to embracing her each time she visited.
To Claire, Lightning was not just a goddess – she was an aunt, someone she trusted and loved without doubt or reservation. It was if Lightning had been given Serah again, and when the time came for Claire to learn the ways of the sword and the bow, it was Lightning who taught her as she had taught Serah so many years ago. The girl took to the weapons as quickly as her mother had, and the only person prouder than Serah was Lightning.
But though Lightning spoke often to Serah and Claire, she never once spoke to Snow, and the mortal was wise enough to keep well clear when she visited. Even years later, when Claire was showing the first signs of womanhood, Lightning could not look upon Snow without fighting the urge to kill him where he stood. Only the thought of Serah and Claire's grief stayed her hand.
The seasons passed, one after the other, winter turning to spring and spring into summer and then to autumn and at last to winter again. Lightning did not return to Cocoon. Instead, she wandered, returning now again to the village or to the Thunder Plains as she carried out her terrible duty. Almost before she knew it, Serah was no longer a young woman, and Claire had blossomed into an almost perfect copy of her mother from her younger days, if only a little bit taller.
But even as Lightning watched Claire become a young woman of no small fame and skill, she could hear the footfalls of a doom fast approaching. Each year, Serah grew older, wrinkles forming at the corner of her eyes, and when they sparred, Serah was always just that little bit slower, that little bit weaker than before. Lightning was a goddess, eternal and unchanging, but Serah was slipping away from her, pulled ever further away by a power that not even the High Mother or High Father could halt. Some called it destiny. Others called it fate. To Lightning it was cruel beyond words.
In time, Claire married a young man from the village, and to her surprise, Lightning felt no great anger over it. She had always known that Claire was mortal, that she would love and live in the fashion of other mortals. But when Claire had a child and Serah became a grandmother, Lightning's joy was tempered by a panic so great she could scarcely breathe. And always the footsteps of doom grew louder in her ears, the endless cycle of mortal death and rebirth drawing ever closer with each moment.
She fled, unable to watch as Serah gave a dry, wheezing cough and held the baby up to eyes that had lost none of their lustre, but much of their keenness. But as always, Lightning came back. More than ever, she was desperate to hold on to what moments she could have with her sister, and so she set aside her duty, sending away every messenger of the High Mother as the day of Serah's passing grew ever nearer.
Snow passed away first, and not long after, Serah took ill, and nothing Lightning tried could save her. Fate had decreed her sister's passing, and all Lightning could do was watch as the cycle of death and rebirth stole her away.
"Thank you for staying," Serah whispered.
"Did you think I would not?" Lightning's voice was calm, almost cold. She was holding Serah for the last time, and both of them knew it.
"I had hoped you would." Serah's eyes drifted closed, and Lightning's heart felt as if it would burst. The years had carved wrinkles across her sister's face, and her once fair skin was tanned and weather by long years in the sun. But even now, on her deathbed, there was something in Serah's soul that called out to Lightning, but with each moment it ebbed a little, pulled relentlessly away by the chains that shackled all mortals. It was the destiny of a mortal to die and to be reborn, over and over again, and even the gods could not change that.
"You are dying," Lightning whispered.
Serah nodded slowly. "I am." Her eyes opened and her expression grew rueful. "Even now, you look the same, but I can still feel the hurt inside you." She put one hand on Lightning's arm. "I am sorry for the pain I caused you, but I do not regret the life I lived nor the child I had." She glanced past Lightning to Claire who standing by the door. "I only regret that we have to part."
"I hated Snow." Lightning's eyes hardened for a moment and then grew soft. "But not Claire. She was always yours daughter more than she was his."
Serah chuckled softly, and Lightning could feel the touch of death drawing near. She wanted to rage, to howl, to scream. But death yielded to no one, not even her, and even gods could die. "We will find each other again, for even if I am no longer a goddess, I am still your sister. We will find each other again, and perhaps in that next life we can be happier." She grinned. "Though you will likely spoil me rotten again."
Lightning laughed, but it was more of a sob. "I promise, I will wait for you." She saw Serah's eyes begin to dim, and forced herself to speak. "I forgive you."
Then Serah was gone.
Lightning turned and shook her head at Claire. Then she took Serah's body into her arms and walked out into the lonely hills around her shrine. How frail Serah felt in her arms, how light. The blue eyes that she had loved so much were now closed forever, and the pink hair that had once been so like her own had faded to white. She had told Serah once, that she would shed no more tears over her. There, in the hills, she broke that promise.
As if to mock her pain, the sun shone brightly in a sky free of clouds, until finally, her grief took form, and a storm rolled in. The sky wept then, it wept long after her own tears had run dry, and there were tears too on the wind. In the end, it was Claire who found her, still rocking Serah's body back and forth with a grief that seemed beyond control. She had killed so many, she had seen such terrible things. But this one death, the loss of this one life, was worse by far than all of them put together.
They buried Serah in a field near the village filled with blue roses, and on that day, it rained again. Lightning watched from afar, her face dry for she had no more tears to shed. Serah was gone, and her heart was hollow. Long after the other mourners had gone, she remained, her eyes locked onto the patch of earth that now held her sister. It was only when the wind stirred beside her, and Fang appeared, that she moved.
"She is gone." Lightning's voice was dead. "Fang, she is gone."
"I know." The other goddess's eyes were filled with pain. "Aerith will not leave her forest, though I have heard her weeping." She looked at Lightning, and reached up to touch her cheek. "You have no more tears to shed."
Lightning nodded slowly. "No."
"Then let me shed them for you." And with that Fang pulled Lightning into her arms and wept.
Eventually, Fang left, and Lightning went down to the village to speak with Claire and her daughter, Diana. There was enough of Serah in them to soothe her pain a little, and even if it was not quite the same, it was better than nothing. She left them with a promise that she would return, but she could see from the shadow in Claire's eyes that the woman understood it could never be the same again.
She went to the Thunder Plains, to the home she had carved with lightning out of the hard, unforgiving rock. It was there, watching the storms break overhead, that the High Father found her. She felt his presence long before he arrived, and watched closely as he sat beside her. The High Mother was a woman of impossible beauty, a perfect blend of gentle femininity and martial valour. But the High Father was different. He had the appearance of a man well past middle age, stately of bearing, but old. His eyes though gave away what he was, for he could see all the paths that lay ahead, and when his gaze fell upon her, it was as though he could see right through her.
"Your sister is gone." The words were spoken softly and with a hint of regret.
She nodded slowly. It had been centuries since she had needed to speak to him. "Yes."
"What would you give to have her back?" he asked.
Lightning stiffened, and something ugly stirred inside her. He of all people should understand that she could never have her sister back, that even if Serah was reborn, she would not be the same. "That is impossible."
The High Father's smile was gentle, as though he were talking to a child. "You know of fate and destiny. What if I told you they could be overturned?"
She rose to her feet. "You speak of blasphemy." The cycle of death and rebirth was older even than the High Mother and High Father. To tamper with it could destroy all of creation. And as great as her grief was, she was not so wretched as to wish for that. "Do not speak of such things again."
The High Father only shook his head sadly. "You have given so much, Lightning, and received so little in return. Perhaps one day you will realise that you deserve more. When that day comes, then I will seek you out again." He stood, and his form faded, taking him back to Cocoon. "If fate and destiny are so cruel, why not change them?"
And Lightning watched over generation after generation of Serah's progeny, unwilling, or perhaps unable to leave behind what was left of her sister. But each generation had just a little bit less of Serah in it, until finally there was no warmth in their gaze, only reverence. Lightning the sister, the aunt, the friend – that Lightning was dead to them. Only Lightning the goddess remained. And the fragile friendships she'd begun to rebuild with Fang and Aerith could only do so much to ease the pain that realisation caused her. Serah had broken her promise after all.
So one day, Lightning simply walked away. She left Serah's children, and for years, uncounted years, she stayed away. She spent her time haunting the mountains of the Yun, or the great forest that Aerith had begun to grow. Then one day, centuries after she had last laid eyes on Serah's descendants, she heard weeping. It was a weeping she had heard before, a weeping that struck a chord within her very soul, and for a moment she could not believe it was real.
But still she went, and there in the woods not far from a large town filled with tall, stone houses, she found a small child huddled beneath an old tree as a storm swept overhead.
"Stay away!" the little girl yelled, and it was a voice so familiar that Lightning could scarcely stand it. "Please, just leave me alone."
Lightning dimmed the radiance that filled the air around her and dismissed her amour. Gently, she shrugged off her cloak and offered it to the girl beneath the tree. Above them, the sky shook with thunder, but rather than look afraid, the girl seemed almost pleased.
"Are you not afraid of the storm?"
The girl wrapped the cloak about her shoulders and looked at Lightning with eyes the colour of the summer sky as she brushed back a lock of her pink hair. "I've always liked the thunder – it's the rain I don't like." She tilted her head to one side. "You're a goddess, aren't you?" She trembled. "Have I done something wrong?"
Lightning shook her head. "My name is Lightning, and you have done nothing wrong."
The girl's eyes widened. "Lightning? I've heard of you. All of the people in my family worship you. They say you keep the bad gods away. They say you rule the storms."
Lightning nodded. Somehow, over the course of centuries, Serah's family had forgotten their origins. "They speak truly." Her eyes narrowed. The girl was skinny beneath her clothes, too skinny, and her hair had clearly not been washed in weeks. "Why are you here?"
The girl sniffled and wrapped her arms around her knees. "Because I don't want to work for my uncle anymore. My parents say that I have to since we owe him money, but I don't like it. His family is mean to me, and no one takes care of me."
"Do you want to leave?" Lightning knelt and offered one hand. "If you want, I will take you somewhere else, and I will take care of you."
The girl's lips quivered. "You don't even know my name."
"Then tell me your name." Lightning smiled faintly. "And know that I will never do you harm, nor will I ever allow harm to come to you."
The girl smiled and took Lightning's hand. "I feel like I can trust you, even if we've never met before today. My name is Averia."
"Averia?" Lightning stood, lifting the girl easily into her arms. It was a beautiful name, but there was no mistaking the soul that looked back at her from those hauntingly familiar eyes. This girl was Serah reborn.
"You look sad," Averia whispered, reaching up to touch Lightning's face.
"I was remembering someone I lost a long time ago," Lightning said. "I still miss her."
Averia pressed herself closer to Lightning. The goddess shivered. They had only known each other for a few moments, but already the girl trusted her so much. "I hope you see her again."
The irony was almost enough to make her weep. "I think I will." She lifted one hand and summoned the lightning to take them away. Serah had promised to find her somehow, and she had.
X X X
Serah woke up when someone knocked on her door. It was Ifalna, the Cetra dressed in much the same manner as she had been the previous night.
"You slept well, I hope." Serah nodded. "Good, then perhaps you might like to watch some of the exercises we do."
"Exercises?" Serah asked.
"Well, it's more like training, actually." Ifalna smiled. "All Cetra are trained in the arts of war, for one day, the time may come when we have to defend our forest."
Serah dressed quickly and then followed Ifalna into a large open space that had been set aside for training in weapons and combat. There were scores of Cetra there, and she watched in awe as they moved through a well-honed series of techniques with swords and other weapons. She had seen many mortal swordsmen, but even the best of them paled when compared to the Cetra. They moved as though they were a part of the land itself, each step, each shift of balance, smooth and flowing, but as solid and firm as a mountain. Yet compared to Lightning, they were nothing. Serah had seen the goddess fight, and even those terribly one-sided contests had revealed a deadly, brutal grace that not even the Cetra could match.
"You see impressed, but only a little." Ifalna laughed good-naturedly. "I am not surprised. We learned our ways of fighting from our goddess, who in turn learned them from the other gods. Your goddess, however, was said to be unequalled with the sword." She grinned. "Would you like to try your hand at a little sparring?"
"I'm not sure –"
"Come," Ifalna insisted, guiding Serah into one of the many sparring arenas. "We are all eager to see what the chosen of the goddess Lightning can do."
And so, before she knew it, Serah found herself standing opposite one of the Cetra. Her opponent was a tall male, lean and toned from years of practice. Each of them had a sword, and neither of them wore any armour or padding.
"Till first blood or yield," Ifalna shouted before she stepped back and dropped her hand. "Begin."
The Cetra darted forward with a speed that should have been impossible to follow, but Serah had spent weeks sparring with Lightning. At the last moment, she twisted to the side, and her blade darted up to catch his. The Cetra's blade was longer, and heavier, and slightly curved, but the angle of her parry was perfect. His blade skittered off hers, and in the same, flowing motion, she lunged forward, her own sword coming to a rest an inch from his throat.
The only person more surprised that him was Serah. She'd seen Lightning perform that move before – had lost to it several times, actually – but she'd never been able to do land it herself. She'd dreamed of it though, even dreamed of another her that danced with the storm and struck with all the speed and force of thunder and lightning, but those were just dreams. Maybe all of her practice was finally beginning to pay off.
"Yield." The Cetra gave a laugh of disbelief and then bowed. "Well fought."
As if to prove it wasn't a fluke, Serah dispatched three more Cetra in short order before Ifalna stepped into the arena. Rather than a sword, the other woman wielded a long metal staff. Her gaze was keen as she studied Serah, as though trying to see right into the very heart of her.
"I am honoured to face you." Ifalna bowed. "It is not often that two chosen have the chance to face one another."
Serah had a split-second to realise what that meant – Ifalna was Aerith's chosen – before Ifalna lunged forward. The other Cetra had been fast, but Ifalna was on another level entirely. The Cetra's staff beat out a percussive drumbeat against Serah's sword as she struck again and again, twisting and turning so that each blow hit with all the force of a sledgehammer. More than once, Serah had to fight simply to keep hold of her sword, and no matter how hard she looked, she could find no flaw in the maelstrom of blows that Ifalna wove.
As tiredness began to set in, her vision blurred. She saw another brunette in Ifalna's place – Aerith? – and as Ifalna moved into another sequence of strikes, Serah knew, somehow but with absolute certainty, that after the first two strikes, Ifalna would throw a high slash at her head, followed by a downward chop and then a slash at her midsection. It was almost as though she'd seen the technique before.
Serah blocked the high slash and then twisted around the downward chop, but as she strained to deliver her counterattack, her blade only inches from Ifalna's chest, she lost her footing and tumbled to the ground. Ifalna's last attack went over her, but by the time she had recovered, the Cetra had one end of her staff resting against her stomach.
"Well fought. I am amongst our best, and I was lucky to beat you." Ifalna moved her staff aside and helped Serah stand. "How many years have you been training?"
Serah groaned. "Several weeks."
Ifalna's eyes widened in surprise as a murmur ran through the other Cetra. "No wonder the goddess chose you. Such talent is rare indeed." She smiled. "It is almost like you knew all of it already." She glanced at another part of the training ground. "But enough swordplay. How do you feel about archery?"
Serah shrugged. "I haven't really done much archery before."
"I see, well, you might find it interesting. We Cetra certainly do."
Ifalna led her over to the opposite side of the training area where several dozen Cetra were shooting at targets set up at a range of different distances. Their bows, Serah noted, we not like those common to her village. Instead, the Cetra seemed to favour recurve bows.
"The forest is an ideal place for ambuscades," Ifalna explained. "And for that, a bow is often better than a sword." Her expression hardened just a fraction. "There are those who would take what we have, so we are always careful to discourage any unwanted visitors." She took a bow and gestured for Serah to observe. "Watch closely, and once you are ready, you can try."
Serah paid close attention as Ifalna showed her the proper way to use the bow. She had seen bows before in her village, but her father had always favoured swords, so she'd never actually used one before. It seemed fascinating, and she gave a polite clap when Ifalna buried a string of arrows into the very centre a target that had to be at least a hundred yards away.
"Here," Ifalna said, handing Serah the bow. "Why don't you try?"
Serah nodded and took the weapon. The weight of it felt good in her hands, familiar. She took a deep breath, drawing the bow taut, and she could almost hear Lightning's voice in her mind telling her to take her time, to sight her target, to breathe. With a soft sigh, she loosed her first arrow. Then frowned. "I missed."
"You hit the edges of the target, not a bad first try." Ifalna made to take the bow away. "Would you like to see the rest of the city now?"
Serah stared at the target for a moment longer and then at the bow in her hands. "No, not yet. I want to practice this a little more." She readied another arrow, so intent on the target that she never saw the broad smile spread across Ifalna's face.
"How interesting," Ifalna murmured. "How very interesting indeed."
X X X
Serah wasn't sure how long she'd been practicing, her eyes locked onto the target as she readied arrow after arrow. Despite her best efforts, however, she couldn't hit the centre of the target with any degree of consistency. It was only when she heard a polite cough from behind her that she stopped and took stock of her surroundings.
Aerith and Lightning were there.
Serah flushed and scrubbed at the sweat on her face, horribly aware of the amused look on Ifalna's face as she explained what had taken place so far that morning.
Aerith's lips curved into a smile that stirred something Serah's chest. "Ifalna tells me that you've been practicing for more than four hours." She glanced at the target. "You're doing quite well, it seems."
Serah looked down. "I can't hit the centre consistently yet." She felt as if that was something she should have been able to do. "Maybe with more practice…"
"So you enjoy archery?" Aerith asked. It was strange, but there was something much more human about Aerith, though she was still unmistakably of divine origin. "Still, you must realise that most people are much slower to improve than you." She grinned and waved one hand. Several Cetra came forth with a large box, which Aerith handed to Serah. "Although if you're going to practice archery, you are going to need your own bow."
Serah opened the box and gasped. Inside the box was a bow wrought entirely of crystal, quite similar appearance to the armour that Lightning wore on occasion. But unlike that armour, the crystal of the bow was dulled and cloudy. It felt… dead, for want of a better word. Yet all the same, the worth of the bow must have been enormous.
"Take it," Aerith said gently, and Serah was startled to see a look of bittersweet remembrance upon Lightning's face.
Serah trembled. "I… it is too much."
Lightning spoke, and Serah could all but feel the weight of centuries of grief bear down upon her. This bow was no ordinary bow. "That bow once belonged to someone very precious to me. It is yours now. Take it."
"I can't." Serah shook her head. The weapon clearly meant a lot to Lightning. She couldn't just… take it. "I don't deserve –"
"You are my chosen," Lightning said firmly. "As she was once – the one who held it before you. There is no other, save myself, who has the right to hold that bow. Take it."
So Serah did.
The moment she touched the bow, she felt a jolt run through her. Then her hands closed about it, and she held it up. There was no bowstring and no arrow, yet she found her hands reaching forward to where the bowstring should have been. A crackling arc of electricity formed, and as she pulled it back, an arrow formed as well. The crystal of the bow that had been dull only seconds ago, now gleamed, its slender length encasing glowing shafts of lightning.
She turned, aimed at the target, and then fired. The wooden target exploded, little chunks of burning wood flying through the air, as she lifted one hand to shield herself. "Impossible."
Lightning's smile was sad. "As I said, it was meant for your hands."
Aerith nodded. "Indeed. Still, you must be hungry, Serah. Lunch will soon be served, and though gods do not need to eat, my Cetra make some wonderful food."
X X X
Lightning floated alone, high above the City of Ancients. Serah had spent the rest of the day exploring the city, and Lightning had accompanied her. To see Serah's face light up each time she discovered some fresh, new wonder had been a marvellous thing. But it had been painful as well, and she had seen some of that pain reflected in Aerith's eyes. Undoubtedly, Serah begun to remember some of her past, but it would only ever be in the form of dreams and vague impressions. Serah's soul was the same, but the memories that defined her, the experiences that had made her Lightning's sister – those were gone forever.
But despite her desire to stay at least a little distant from this new Serah, Lightning found herself growing more and more fond of her. This Serah was so much like hers. There was that same vulnerability, that same, almost desperate need for Lightning's approval. There was the same strength too, though it was well hidden. And of course there was Serah's love for the bow – both of them had been like that – and watching this Serah sleep with the bow clutched in her arms had reminded her of another time, long ago, when she had chided her sister for doing the same.
How terrible it was that history should repeat itself. Lightning could only hope that this time, things would be different. Somehow, even if she had to move the heavens and the earth, she would make them different. This Serah would not suffer as her sister had, nor would suffer the fate that Averia had.
X X X
Lightning took Averia to the shrine near the village where Serah had lived with Claire all those years ago. To say that the priests and priestesses there were surprised to see her was an understatement. Their surprise was even greater when they saw Averia in her arms. The girl was in a terrible state – poorly fed and dirty – but all the same, the resemblance between them was uncanny.
"See to her care." Lightning's voice invited no questions and brooked no disobedience. "She is my chosen. Should hard come to her then all your lives are forfeit."
But the girl would not let her leave. Instead, Averia showed a stubbornness that Lightning recognised all too well as she demanded that Lightning stay as she was bathed and clothed in a manner befitting one chosen by a goddess of Lightning's power.
"You said you would look after me." Averia huffed and turned her achingly familiar blue eyes on Lightning. "You promised you would."
"I have duties to attend to." Lightning forced back the tiny tremor of hope in her heart. There was no telling if Averia would take to her as Serah had. The girl might have Serah's soul, but everything in her life so far had been different. "But I promise that I shall return as soon as I can. If you have need of me…" Lightning paused, the words caught in her mouth. "Then call my name, and know that I will always answer."
Lightning turned the shrine into something of a second home. This time, she swore she would do better. She would save her sister and they would be happy. Just to be sure, she swore the priests and priestesses to secrecy. She had many enemies, and if any of them found out about Averia…
It soon became apparent that Averia was growing quite attached to her. Despite Lightning's regal bearing and divine status, Averia seemed perfectly content subjecting the goddess to any number of minor indignities. Averia demanded that Lightning help her pick out the clothes she wore each day, and at night, Averia would insist that Lightning tell her a story before she slept. When Lightning exhausted her meagre store of mortal tales, she told Averia of some of the battles she had fought, and these tales of war and glory soon became Averia's favourites.
As the girl grew older, she begged Lightning to teach her the ways of the bow and sword. She wanted nothing more than to be like the goddess, and it broke Lightning's heart a little to see how quickly Averia mastered her lessons. It was almost as though some part of the girl could still remember what she had once been. But that pain meant nothing because for the first time in centuries, Lightning had a home. After each mission, she would to return to the shrine, and no matter the time of day, Averia would rise to greet her with open arms and loving eyes.
In time, she told Aerith and Fang of Averia. A selfish part of her wanted to keep the girl to herself, but Aerith and Fang had loved Serah as well. Still, she made them swear to never keep secrets from her about Averia. They had hurt her deeply once. She would not give the chance to do so again.
And so the seasons passed as they were wont to do, and Lightning watched as Averia grew to be a paragon of loveliness. In the summer of the girl's sixteenth year, Averia's parents stumbled across the shrine, and they begged the girl to return home with them. Despite their kind words, Lightning could see the greed in their eyes. They had given their daughter away to settle their debts, and now that she had come into Lightning's favour, they wanted her back.
But if she had loved Averia before, she loved her even more when the girl refused her parents. When Lightning asked her why, her reply was simple.
"Who held me when I was scared?" Averia asked. "Who told me stories to soothe me when the nights grew long? Who taught me all that I know about the bow and the sword?" She wrapped her arms around Lightning, and pressed her face into the crook of the goddess's neck. "They are not family me. You are, and you are everything I wish I could be."
The words meant more to Lightning than any she had heard in centuries. Yet in them lay the seeds of Averia's doom for as the years passed, Averia grew to chafe at her life at the shrine. She wanted to see the world, to do great deeds as Lightning had. But Lightning was afraid for Averia was mortal, and no mortal who did great deeds ever lasted long. Finally, she forbade the girl from leaving the shrine without her permission.
If only she had not.
One day, Lightning was sent to deal with another one of the great mountains of Pulse that had awakened and gone awry. So grave was the threat that Fang and Aerith were sent as well. They triumphed, but all three of them were wounded, and as Fang and Aerith went to Cocoon to give the report, Lightning returned once more to the shrine in the hills.
As she drew near, her ears were filled with cries of concern and lamentation. She arrived in a blaze of thunder and lightning that shook the shrine to its foundations. Only one thing could cause such panic in her priests and priestesses, and as she waited for them to tell her, she could hear, once again, the footfalls of mortal doom fast approaching.
Averia had gone, and none them knew where. So Lightning reached out, straining to find Averia's soul, for though it was familiar, it did not shine to her as brightly as Serah's had, for Serah had been a goddess, and Averia was only a mortal. It took her only a heartbeat to find the girl, and then she was gone, moving as swiftly as the lightning could carry her.
She arrived in a place of black stone and withered trees, and for a long moment, she had eyes only for the hydra that lay broken upon the hillside nearby. Its heads had been severed, and the necks had been scorched with fire to prevent their regeneration. Arrows riddled its body, and dozens more were lodged in its eyes. Countless wounds had been cut into the hydra's flesh, testament to a level of swordsmanship that had no equal amongst mortals.
Above her, the clouds were already dark, and the first drops of rain began to fall.
And then she saw Averia.
The young woman was sprawled across the ground, and with just a glance, Lightning knew that she was too late – always too late. She could feel the touch of death upon the girl's soul, and in a daze, she stumbled over to gather her into her arms. No god could help her now.
The young woman's eyes opened slowly, and her lips curved into a pained smile. "Lightning."
"Why?" Lightning flinched as she realised that Averia was blind. The hydra's venom must have done it. But to kill a hydra alone, no mortal had managed to do that in millennia, and despite the horror building inside her, Lightning felt a swell of pride. The battle must have been magnificent. "Why didn't you call for me?"
Averia coughed, and it was a horrible wet sound. "I wanted to show you that I could look after myself." She shook. "I wanted to do great things like you have. I wanted to make you proud of me."
Lightning's heart clenched. "You silly girl. I have always been proud of you."
Unbidden, tears began to trickle down her cheeks, and Averia reached up to touch her face, only for her hand to fall limply to the ground. "Are you crying?"
Lightning closed her eyes and forced the tears to stop. "No, Averia, it is only the rain." And indeed, the rain had begun to fall more strongly, turning the loose dirt torn up by the hydra into a swell mud and muck.
"Do not be." Averia was beyond the help of the gods now, but still Lightning called to that part of her power that had once belonged to Serah. An age ago, Serah had been one of the finest healers amongst the gods, but Lightning could not heal. Her power could only ever destroy.
"I wish… I wish we could have had a happier ending." Averia's breath began to slow, and Lightning held her tighter still as death drew near, and at last, snatched her away. "I will find you again."
This time, Lightning did not rage at the unfairness of it all. Instead, she took Averia back to the shrine and called for Aerith and Fang. There would be no place in the earth for Averia. Instead, she would pass as mortal heroes did, burnt upon a pyre of fine wood with her weapons and armour. The winds would carry her ashes to all the corners of the earth, and songs would be sung of her deeds for as long as there was anyone left to remember them.
In death, Averia found the fame she had never had in life. Some called her Averia the Blessed, while others spoke of her as Hydra's Bane. But Lightning cared nothing for such titles, would have given all of them back if only Averia could be with her again. She had loved and she had lost, and she had found that love again only to lose it again. The other gods had once compared her to a glacier, cold and magnificent. Yet even a glacier could be broken, and even a mountain could be ground to dust given time. Her heart had broken, and this time, she did not know if it could be mended.
Once more she went to the Thunder Plains, and the arid waste seemed almost to welcome her. And as he had promised so many years ago, the High Father came to seek her out again.
"Why are you here?" Lightning asked tiredly.
"You know why." The High Father's voice was gentle, and his eyes were kind.
Lightning knew she should refuse him for what he had spoken of before was blasphemy, and she knew he would speak of it again. But the thought of what he offered was too much now for her to simply turn away.
"How long have you served the High Mother?" he asked. "How many have you killed her in her name? Too many years, I think. Too many lives. And look at what reward you have received. Only one thing was given unto you, and even that was taken away. Only once in all your life have you ever asked for her to protect life instead of dealing out death, and she refused." The High Father gazed at her with eyes that saw all of eternity unfold like a flower before the sun. "Do you think this is how the world should be? I do not. This world is broken, Lightning, but together, we might fix it."
Lightning's jaw clenched. For years, unnumbered years, she had done what was asked of her. She had defended the High Mother and the order of all things without complaint, and while others so much less deserving had found boundless happiness and joy, she had known only sorrow. While the other gods had sat idle upon Cocoon, lost in luxury and the pursuit of pleasure, she had fought and fought and fought, and still what little she had loved had been taken away. There was no fairness in that, no justice. "You speak of destroying the cycle, of changing the very fabric of creation."
"Yes." The High Father's smile was beautiful. "I speak of a just world, Lightning, a world where the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked cast down. Tell me, is it fair that we gods alone should enjoy life everlasting? So many of us are unworthy of it, while even the finest of mortals must endure a brief life filled with suffering and pain. There are those amongst the mortals who deserve better. Your sister, your Averia, was one of them. She slew a hydra, Lightning, a feat that would challenge even a god. Does she not deserve more? Does she not deserve to be freed from the endless cycle of death and rebirth? She should be amongst the stars, Lightning, set eternally beside the gods upon Cocoon."
Lightning closed her eyes, her ears ringing with the High Father's words. She had killed so many gods, and every one of them had deserved it. But Serah and Averia had not deserved their fates, they had deserved better. "How would you do it?"
The High Father put one arm about her shoulders and gestured at the sky. An image sprang up of a Cocoon filled not only with gods, but with mortals as well. Lightning was there, and beside her was Serah. "I would turn Cocoon into a paradise for the deserving. The cycle of death and rebirth can be broken, Lightning, and I would gather up the righteous and the good, and I would give them a place upon Cocoon. You and your sister would be together, and you would never have to lose her again."
Lightning watched the image, watched her sister smile and laugh. "The High Mother will never agree to this."
"She has grown aloof," the High Father replied, and sorrow coloured each syllable of his speech. "I have walked for many years amongst the mortals whilst she lingers upon Cocoon, too far above them to hear their cries of lamentation. But I hear those cries, those pleas for a just world, a fair world. Still, I believe that she will come around once she sees how much fairer our new world is. Wouldn't you like that, Lightning? You would be helping her to see the truth."
"The High Mother gave me life," Lightning said softly. "And you would have me go against her?"
"She gave you life, that much is true." The High Father smiled gently. "But does that mean she owns your life? Have you not paid her back in full for creating you? What sort of mother would bind their child to their will for all eternity? She afforded Serah the right to choose her own path, surely she can afford you, the one who has served her most faithfully, the same privilege."
Lightning looked at the High Father. Yes, the right to choose her own path. She had earned that much. The thought of returning once more to her endless duty rang hollow in her heart. If the High Mother truly loved her, then surely she would not begrudge her the chance to choose, to try and find a way to be with Serah forever.
"What would you give to have your sister by your side forever, even unto sundering of the earth?" the High Father asked. "For that would be your reward if we succeeded."
Lightning thought of Serah and Averia, of the warmth of them in her arms, of the feel of their soul. Each smile, each laugh, each word, each moment… to have those again. Her answer was simple. "Anything."
The High Father offered her his hand. "Then help me, Lightning, and together we will do great things."
Trembling, she took his hand.
X X X
Lightning drifted back down to the city and the room she shared with Serah. The young woman was asleep, sprawled inelegantly on her stomach with her bow clutched in her arms. A faint smile crossed the goddess's lips. Truly, some things did not change.
She thought back to her memories. That day on the Thunder Plains, that choice – everything had gone wrong from there. The High Father had lied to her, and everything had fallen apart. She had turned on those she considered friends even as they had turned on her, and the heavens and the earth had been torn asunder by the struggle that followed. Cocoon had fallen and Lightning had been lost in slumber. But this time, she would do better. She would make the right choices. For Serah's sake, she had to.
And then to the west, she felt it. It was the power of the High Father, a terrifying strength that could lay waste entire cities and boil away the oceans. Alongside it, she felt Caius, and against them both, standing alone and proud, there was Fang.
Aerith was right. The High Father had returned and Caius was at his side. Very well then. Let them do as they would. She had stopped the High Father once. She would find a way to do so again. For Serah's sake, for everyone's sake, she would have to.
Perhaps this time, she and Serah could have their happy ending.
X X X
As always, I neither own Final Fantasy, nor am I making any money off of this.
Well, it's been a while, but in my defence I've been through laptop malfunctions, Christmas, and New Year. This chapter is also a rather lengthy one (I think it's actually the longest one so far). In any case, let's talk about what happened here.
The title of this chapter is a reference to Lightning. In previous chapters, Lightning has often been referred to as a sword (see e.g., her titles, the Sword of the Heavens, the Blade of the High Mother). But no matter how well forged a sword is, it can still be broken. Perhaps a single blow might not be enough, but if you apply enough pressure and you strike it enough times, even the finest sword will break. Lightning is that finest of swords, utterly loyal to the High Mother and unflinching in her duty. But in this chapter she breaks. It takes centuries, centuries of loneliness and pain, and the loss of her sister a second time, but still, she breaks, and she makes a choice that changes everything (exactly how, I will be revealing later, although there have already been some rather blatant hints).
What makes this chapter so long is the need to show Lightning's backstory. There is nothing worse than hoping and dreaming for something and getting close to it only for it to be snatched away. And this is what happens to Lightning over and over again. Beneath such pressure even a god would break, and Lightning does. I could have written entire stories about what happened when Lightning made up with Serah and then when she found Averia, but I've chosen to condense them because the exact nature of those events aren't vital to the story (not to mention it would make this story even longer than it already is). Rather, what matters most is what those events did to Lightning, how they changed her.
Also at the core of this chapter is the notion of a "just world", one in which good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. This is actually a common cognitive bias that people have (i.e., many people seem to think that the world is, in fact, structured such that good things only happen to good people and bad things only happen to bad people). The fact of the matter is, the world is not just and it is not fair – not unless we make it so. And this is where the High Father makes his point. Lightning deserves better, but the fates have not been kind. Yet she is someone used to dealing with problems, to changing things. What the High Father offers her is the chance to change things, to destroy the source of her problems (i.e., the mortal cycle of death and rebirth). For obvious reasons, this is probably not a good idea, but to Lightning, it seems fair. After all, hasn't she given enough? Hasn't she done more than her fair share? And if the world isn't fair, shouldn't it be?
I also debated a number of different approaches to Averia (for those who aren't aware, Averia was the name originally given to Lightning during development of Final Fantasy XIII, and Diana is kind of stolen from one of my other stories since I'm lazy like that) and Claire (which is Lightning's real name in the game, and it is not a coincidence that it is the name that Serah hears on the thunder in this chapter). One of these included having Averia actually fall in love with Lightning (in a romantic sense – remember, she doesn't have her memories of her past life as Serah), but I decided to scrap that idea. Not only would it have been hideously complicated to write (but wonderfully bittersweet), I think it would have basically required writing its own entire story for it to make any sense (apologies to anyone shipping Serah/Lightning in this story).
With regards to Claire, I debated giving her a more prominent role in this story, but I decided I liked her best as an echo of Serah. For Lightning, it was the similarity to Serah that drew her to Claire, and as each generation passed, she could only watch as less and less of Serah remained in her descendants. It would have been like watching a television show you lose more and more of what you originally liked about it (only a million times worse).
And finally, this chapter should also answer some of your questions about why Lightning answered Serah's call in the first place (way back in Chapter 1). In case you missed it, I'll help you put the details together. Serah isn't just anybody and the place she called for Lightning's isn't just any old place either. It's a shrine nestled in the hills near a small village. Sound familiar? That's right – it's that shrine, the shrine where Lightning reconciled with Serah, the same shrine where she raised Averia. It's been centuries, but it's still standing, and of all the places in the world, it is arguably the one she has the strongest attachment to. You could say that Serah was extremely lucky, but that's not how things work. Throughout this chapter Lightning refers to the "footfalls of doom". The word 'doom' is often taken to mean something horrible, but it can also be used as a synonym for fate or destiny. What Lightning means is that she can feel the weight of destiny bearing down on her, the wheels of fate turning ever onward with a power that not even the gods can withstand. If fate and destiny conspired to break Lightning and Serah apart, who is to say, they might not conspire to bring them back together?
With regards to the Cetra, they are clearly based on the idea of elves common in fantasy literature. Their connection to the Planet made this an easy leap to make, although there was a second when I considered turning them into a bunch of tree hugging, hippie beatniks (thankfully, I decided not to). The choice of Ifalna as Aerith's chosen was always an easy one to make – I find it humorous in a good sort of way.
Finally, and on several unrelated notes, I have a few things I'd like to mention. I am now (finally) on deviant art under the user name RazielTwelve (since someone had already taken Raziel12, damn it). I'll be mirroring what I've got here, and maybe putting up some other things too (like outtakes, world building stuff, or whatever comes to mind, we'll see) that this site doesn't really allow. Also if you have any questions you'd like to ask me, drop by my deviant art profile and ask, and I'll do my best to get back to you.
I also now have a tumblr account because someone challenged me to detail some of the dangers of living in Australia. I decided to accept their challenge, and I'll be explaining some of the dangers of Australia's wildlife and environment (basically, everything can kill you). My next post on that account will likely be about koalas and how nature has moulded them into the perfect killing machine (and why the nickname "drop bear" is well deserved). You can find that at survivingaustralia(put a dot)tumblr(put a dot)com. Finally, if you want to keep up to date with where I am on my stories and read up on range of issues (e.g., why the conventional bookstore is dying), take a look at my blog which is at razieltwelve(put a dot)wordpress(put a dot)com.
As always, I appreciate feedback. Reviews and comments are welcome.