AUTHOR'S NOTE: And so we begin the third chapter of A Storm Gathers. This story is basically my theories of Lightning Returns: FINAL FANTASY XIII, and I'm curious to see what you think of how things are coming along so far. Tell me in a review!
This story will begin to diverge from LR:FFXIII because I'd like to progress it before the game comes out, and so I'll be creating a lot of different events and OCs that don't necessarily follow the actual plot. Nonetheless, I think you'll enjoy my rendition as I introduce Noel, Lumina, Hope, Snow, and others!
"You should know who I am…or should I say, what I am."
.:A STORM GATHERS:.
Chapter 3 – The Side of Darkness
["Prologue – To the Ancient Land" – Shadow of the Colossus OST]
"How much further?"
Hope, from his position atop a cluster of boulders, had a fairly good view of their surroundings above the blanket of fog that had rolled in around the base of the shrine's cliff side. "Not far. There's the desert from earlier, and buildings…only a few minutes and we'll be on the outskirts."
How long was I asleep?
Hope turned away from the view and slid down the unstable rocks, running to a stop at the bottom in front of her. They had found a peculiar dead tree to rest at; although it was routed deep in the rocks, the tree looked neither dead or alive. It was simply…there. A white coating covered the bark and extended to its branches, which held no leaves at all and instead sharpened to a point. At its base was Lightning, who had leaned against the trunk for support.
Hope noticed she had closed her eyes; her face held an almost peaceful expression instead of the usual stoic yet gentle face he remembered from so long ago.
Hope sighed and peered once again through the fog. He thought he could see the outline of the buildings just at the edge of the fog, but it could have been his imagination. Either way, the faster they found someone, the faster he could figure out what was going on.
And then there was Lightning, who was weak again after their hike through boulders, thorns, and the fog. He didn't want to push her, but he also knew she had a reputation to uphold, and that was important to her. She hated being this vulnerable; he knew she was having trouble accepting the fact that Hope was going to have to lead the way.
It worried Hope.
Why hadn't her strength returned tenfold by now? Surely after her sleep in the crystal she would have regained her previous powers and gained even more incredible powers?
It was decided, then.
"Why don't we camp out tonight and head over in the morning?" Hope suggested as her eyes snapped open.
She nodded her assent and straightened.
"Sounds like a plan."
Hope scratched his head and looked around, realizing just where they would be spending the night – cold, hard, sharp rocks protruded from the ground everywhere and the only piece of land that didn't present a hazard was the base of the tree, where the roots intertwined together to create a semi-comfortable resting place. Lightning immediately sat down and began peeling her gloves off, flexing her fingers as they met the cool night air.
Hope walked towards the tree and placed himself underneath a thick branch, bending his knees before jumping up and snatching a thick branch; he snapped it and bits of white bark fell to the ground.
Lightning looked at him in confusion. "What are you doing?"
The previous Academy director snapped the branch into smaller pieces and crouched in front of her, making a pyramid of the twigs.
"It's going to get cold tonight and if we're going to stay here, we'll need warmth. The fog is heavy enough so no one can see the light," he explained, wiping his gloves off on his grey pants.
"Right. Good thinking."
It was good to see Hope take charge in situations like this.
To her surprise he cupped his hands over the pile of twigs, his hands glowing slightly with orange and yellow until a fire burst from his palm and into the center of the pile, igniting a small but adequate fire. It cast immediate warmth and light over the two, throwing their shadows behind them as the night crept upon them.
Lightning waved her hands in front of the fire, reveling in the sudden warmth that crackled and popped, sending sparks into the air. She watched them explode into little lights, imagining them as fireflies for a brief moment before inwardly scoffing at herself.
"So when did you gain your powers back?" she asked, snapping out of her reverie.
With the fire between them, Hope sat with his back to the boulders.
"Once a l'Cie, always a l'Cie."
"He became a pilot and that was the last I saw of him until your sister's battle against Caius. He traveled with Dajh a lot after you disappeared, and we all sort of went our separate ways," he said with a slight sad undertone.
"It's a mere shadow of your former powers, isn't it?" she guessed, gazing at him.
He looked up at her sharply.
"Yes…I feel vulnerable. Ever since Cocoon fell, I've always felt like there was something missing…"
"I do wish Alexander was at my side now, but…there's nothing we can do about it now. I'm not a l'Cie anymore," Hope said.
"I'm not a l'Cie, and I still wield Odin. It isn't impossible…you should know that by now," she said softly.
"What are you, then?" Hope asked bluntly, catching her off guard.
She turned her gaze away from him and back to the fire, as if searching for the answer in its embers.
"I don't know, Hope… I don't know."
["Hope's Theme" – FFXIII-2 OST]
Their conversation drifted to Hope's studies during the ten years that he was the Academy director. He told her about the Oracle, the device that recorded all visions that the seeress of the City of Paddra – Yeul – had seen. He explained how it worked and how he had managed to find a team to help him restore it back to its original condition.
"Through the Oracle we watched your battle in Valhalla against Caius. It was what gave your sister even more reason to keep searching for you," he said.
And then there was the Academy, founded by Hope Estheim himself when he was barely out of his teens and graduating college. He rose quickly in the ranks of his own organization until he was elected the director, gaining respect and admiration from the new citizens of both Academia, the City of the Academy and residents of other towns on Pulse. He told her about Alyssa, the girl who seemed to be a promising advisory side-kick when she agreed to enter the time travel device that sent them five hundred years into the future of Academia.
"Up until we met with Serah and Noel again, I was developing the Ark; our safe haven for when Cocoon finally fell. And then…well, you know all the rest."
Serah died in Noel's arms.
I fought on in Valhalla, feeling the growing pain in my own heart. I pushed it away and focused on Caius until I defeated him. That's when I met with Serah for the last time…
"Why don't you get some rest? I'll take first watch," Hope offered to change the subject.
"You sure you can handle it?"
The sides of Hope's mouth inched into a smile. "I'm pretty confident. I'll wake you in a few hours or if something's wrong."
She lay on her side with her back facing the fire, eyes closed. Hope took that as the signal to lay his own boomerang by his side and folded his arms over his knees, watching the darkness around them. She folded an arm under her head.
She breathed out deeply.
["Sign of the Colossus" – Shadow of the Colossus OST]
The night wore on past midnight, and Hope still kept watch.
Lightning had told him to wake her after a few hours, but he figured she needed the sleep much more than him. It also gave him time to sort out his thoughts and lay out a plan for tomorrow…eventually, he was going to have to approach her and broach the subject of what had happened on the cliff side outside the shrine. It alarmed Hope, and quite frankly he didn't care about Lightning's pride anymore as long as she was safe. After her abrupt disappearance from Pulse the day Cocoon fell, Hope seemed to be under the same notion as the rest of the group – minus Serah – that Lightning was crystallized with Vanille and Fang in the pillar…later he had spent many sleepless nights mulling over his thoughts, ashamed that he had given up on searching for Lightning so quickly. How had he resigned to the fact that she had just sacrificed everything to hold up Cocoon?
As the years passed he eventually grew into the director of Academia, and resigned himself to making the world a better place for survivors of the Fall and Vanille and Fang, who were still entrapped in the crystal. As he spent his days studying the Oracle and designing the Ark, his thoughts wandered to his mother, and Lightning, too, trapped forever in a realm beyond time, stuck in a cycle of battle against the Guardian of Time.
She didn't deserve that, he had thought. Just like Mom.
The Oracle gave him the reassurance that at least Lightning was indeed alive and more importantly, protecting Valhalla with an iron fist. Caius never once defeated her in the visions he witnessed in the Oracle.
It all came back to what had happened to Lightning up at the shrine. Only minutes before she broke the shell of her crystal, he vaguely remembered sitting in the far corner of the shrine, eyes glazed over and his body unmoving. Whether by the sheer force of her awakening or his own will to wake up from his stupor, he didn't know.
I'm just glad it was I who found her and not someone, or something, that did instead.
Hope rubbed his tired eyes and sat straighter; rolling his shoulder blades, then slumped forward again. The fire had died down to just glowing embers, allowing Hope to finally see through the black night now that the fog had cleared. Looking out behind the white tree and to the horizon, he could make out yellow lights dotting the landscape somewhere in the distance. The longer he stared the blurrier the lights became.
Hope shook his head, trying to shake the exhaustion from his body.
Sleep was an appealing prospect at the moment, but he couldn't afford to leave their backs open for enemies to walk in and find them unprepared.
Focus on one thing, and shut out everything else.
Centuries later and Lightning's words still rang loud and true in his ears. It was a principle he lived by now; whatever obstacle came, he focused on it until he succeeded, shutting out anything to prevent him from reaching his goals. He did the same thing now, shutting out his exhaustion and focusing on the question that burned brightly in his mind:
Who was Lightning?
Of course, the mechanical answer would have been something along the lines of "Lightning Farron, former sergeant of the Guardian Corps Bodhum Security Regiment. Close friend from the war against Cocoon's fal'Cie before the Fall of Cocoon."
During the battle against Caius and Serah and Noel's race to correct the timeline, he would have described her as Etro's guardian, the strongest mortal and one of the very few to have survived an encounter with Caius Ballad, the Guardian of Time. She was devoted to Valhalla, serving under Etro and blocking any attack on the goddess using whatever means necessary.
Five hundred years later, he wasn't so sure who she was anymore.
Sure, he felt the Lightning he knew – Light – standing next to him; the same no-nonsense voice, the same eyes…yes, it was Lightning Farron in form. But in her heart, her brain…he wasn't so sure. The Lightning he knew wouldn't whisper the names of Etro, Lindzei, and Orphan the way she did; the strange chanting that had erupted from her mouth, devoid of all emotion. It was like some sort of demonic ritual following the sudden burst of light coming from the insignia that alighted on her chest. Etro's Gate.
It was like she was being possessed, and then that symbol, Etro's Gate…the same symbol I saw the day the world was thrown into chaos appeared on Light…
There was a reason for it, obviously. It just wasn't quite clear to Hope yet. But he swore he'd find the answer, to save Lightning and himself. Perhaps the strange ritual that took place a few hours before they stopped was just a side effect from waking up after a five hundred year slumber, but either way, the things that were happening to Lightning weren't normal, that was for damn sure.
Tiredly he raised a hand over the fire and let loose a small burst of flame, tucking new branches from a pile into the glowing embers. Warmth emanated once more even if the light was a little bright for Hope's comfort at this time of night.
I'll just rest my eyes for a few minutes…
A moment later he slumped to the ground, fast asleep and drowning in dreams of a world where darkness did not exist.
His mother Nora, along with Bartholomew were standing on a beach looking out to him, waving their hands with warm smiles on their faces. There was the entire gang, too, splashing around the beach and making a huge ruckus. Snow, Sazh, Serah, Dajh, Vanille, and Fang…they were all there. Only light ruled. The chaos didn't exist, and only happier days existed in the future and past.
Suddenly everyone standing on the beach faded to dust, whisked away by the wind. Hope reached out to them, but lowered his hand in shock.
His dream ended as a sound high-pitched and grating to the ears jolted him from his sleep. The dream fell away in shards, stored for future thought. But he wouldn't forget what he had seen…or what he had almost caught a glimpse of.
["Boldan – Silver City" – Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando OST]
The boulder he had been leaning against before he fell asleep rattled and shook dangerously as Hope's eyes snapped open; he sat up and rubbed his eyes of lingering sleep quickly and looked around, widening his eyes in shock.
In a half-moon on the opposite side of the collection of boulders and the white tree, six pairs of steadily gleaming eye sockets stared out of shadowy figures. They were black in color and seemed to be made of obsidian dust, but the darkness of their bodies formed into a wolf-like body. A shadowy tail protruded from the backend while paws were recognizable enough with no fur to aid Hope's guess. The snout in between the white eyes only confirmed his guess. They crouched as if ready to spring at any moment and each made individual snapping noises; their black mouths opened and closed, giving him a brief glimpse into an abyss of darkness down their throats. Their threatening growls and obnoxious snorting sent a shudder down Hope's back.
He jumped to his feet immediately and snapped open his boomerang, lifting his arm high. He glanced to his side as the corner of his eye saw something pink and bright.
It was Lightning; her body had caused the tremendous shaking; her body was lying at the foot of the boulders, a small cut on her forearm, splitting the black sleeve she wore underneath her armor.
Keeping an eye on the wild shadows, Hope knelt beside her and was relieved to find her conscious, a familiar fire alit in her eyes. She was alive, and she was angry. That was enough for him to know that she was fine.
"What happened to your watch?" she said through gritted teeth, climbing to her feet.
Hope placed a hand on her elbow to help steady her, then faced the shadowy enemies surrounding them. He flushed in embarrassment.
"I fell asleep."
"No use talking about it now, I suppose. Let's get rid of these things before morning light reveals us," she snapped, and immediately sprung into action, foregoing her sword for her bare hands.
Hope, slightly shocked by her sudden movement, took a second to react until he finally flung his boomerang, closing his fist to direct its return trip by slicing through a shadow closest to him. Immediately upon impact, the ashy creature disintegrated into dust-like particles and scattered in the air. The boomerang, crackling with sparks and vibrating slightly, sailed into the palm of his hand just in time to strike an approaching shadow.
Remnants of its figure remained as a disfigured blotch staggered forward, still intent on doing damage. Hope raised his hand to unleash a ball of fire when he spotted something dark out of his eye. It was too late. A shadow had leaped into the air, its jaws open and gaping mouth aiming for his throat. The boomerang was too slow. Ultimately, Hope's reactions were too slow. For a brief moment, Hope wondered what was down the throat as its abysmal mouth filled his vision.
When he didn't feel the jaws of death around his throat, Hope opened his eyes to see a metallic boot soar through the air in front of his face, crushing the shadow's face into the rock…he felt the air from the impact as she went by him, her face set and determined. Immediately its eyes separated from its body, free-flowing on the wind. Lightning used the momentum and kicked off the boulder to perform a wide arc behind the other attackers.
Only two were left; one was dispatched by Lightning. A hard dropkick collapsed its head and Hope finished off the last with a hard boomerang throw. Flicking the weapon into its idle position he leaned over and rested on his knees, breathing heavily. The strange particles that formed the shadows had since blown across the flat rock terrain and into the slight haze that seemed to be forever settled upon the land. Neither had a chance to examine the particles before they were gone with the wind.
"Wh – what was that?" Hope panted, glancing up at Lightning.
The woman fully donned in armor stared after the dust clouds, watching as the last traces of the strange darkness escaped from her reach. He couldn't see her face, but her fists were clenched; he noticed she had hardly broken a sweat during the fight. She also never drew her sword…
["Threshold" – Journey (game)OST]
She turned quickly without a glance and started heading off towards the vague shape of the village. With no other options, Hope scattered the fire as best as he could and caught up with her, putting his boomerang away. He was taken aback by her silence, but couldn't help but feel frustrated as well. How could he help her if she refused to tell him anything?
"Lightning, what is going on? What were those things back there?" he demanded, grabbing her shoulders and turning her around. Just a second ago she had been going full speed, nearly jogging towards the village in silence.
The sudden movement made her jump slightly, though instinct cooled her nerves instantly upon seeing her new companion's face. It was still a revelation to know that she was once again companioned; she wasn't alone anymore. The feeling gave comfort in her bleak situation.
"Light – "
"I don't know, Hope," she snapped, her sharp tongue like a slap in the face. Hope stepped back, slightly taken aback. Her eyes were hard, but he could tell she hadn't truly meant it. She sighed. "I'm sorry…I just…"
Hope looked away, peering towards the desert that lay on the horizon. They were close to entering the village's outskirts, with just a half mile or so of rocky terrain in between them. "I understand, Light. I'm just worried…you don't seem…normal," he confessed, awaiting her reaction.
She froze. That was a dangerous thing to say.
"Things have never been normal."
"That's not what I meant."
She was caught dodging a question she knew she couldn't answer. Yet, what was on her mind…she couldn't just explain it in just one answer. She was centuries old and yet still twenty-four years old. She had been a l'Cie, cursed by the gods and cast onto the lowerworld. She had been the guardian of a dying entity, forced into an eternal battle against an undying foe. And now…what was she? Hope had asked her before, and she had answered truthfully. She really didn't know. With no guidance, no goal…she was lost.
"Hope, let's just find shelter. I'll tell you everything when I know we have a roof over our heads or at the very least food and water," she breathed tiredly.
He nodded and backed off.
The rest of the trip to the desert village was in silence, pierced only by the occasional dapple of rain drops pattering against Lightning's armor. The battle had sucked the last drop of energy from the warrior goddess as her eyes struggled to stay open. Hope offered help but she refused. She didn't need to be carried around, after all.
The rocks beneath their feet finally gave way to a fine sand, soft and grainy like the beaches of Bodhum when the tide was low and she and Serah could walk along and talk, one of the few moments of relaxation Lightning ever had…
But that was a long time ago…
"We made it," Hope announced, snapping her out of her reverie.
They had indeed arrived on the outskirts of a desert oasis tucked into an alcove of sand, spanning only a quarter of a mile, maybe even less. The distinct smell of salt water reached their nostrils as they inhaled fog-less air for the first time since Lightning's awakening – a beach must be nearby…or perhaps this was a beach. It was hard to tell.
A long structure looming out of the corner of her eye caught Lightning's attention. She glanced up and strained to see through the fog.
"What?" Hope said distractedly. "Oh yeah…I really think we should try and find someone who can help us, Light."
"No, you're right."
She turned away and examined the cluster of buildings half-hidden by tall, thick trees that were of an unknown species to her. They were similar to the seaside palm trees in Bodhum with their heavy leaves that stood strong against the ocean's harsh winds. An overhang of the trees' branches covered a vast portion of a small pond; its reflective surface was perfectly still…Lightning couldn't help but stare as she could make out the distorted figures of Hope and herself. Dark, brown curtains suddenly billowed as a breeze flowed down the sand. The pond's seemingly mirror-like surface was dappled with ripples and the spell was broken. The darkness of the night clouded any other objects from their view past the pond, but there seemed to be a sort of patio on the other side. The woman clad in silver shook her head to clear the frustrating thoughts that bogged her mind.
All at once a bout of dizziness and severe exhaustion overcame her in the form of a wave of pain in her chest. Red blurred the edges of her vision and the world spiraled into a tunnel that wound above her head, circling like a hawk. She desperately reached out for it, but fell forward over the crest of the sandy hill, her feathered waist splayed out.
Suddenly, Hope felt a chill run down his back; the hairs on the back of his neck stood up and a sharp chill shook him to his core. He could have sworn the next exhale was a frost of cold breath. He glanced behind him and could hardly keep back a surprised yelp. Three more of the shadowy figures they had faced earlier were creeping out of the fog, their pale eyes never blinking and trained on both of them, eyeing their prey. He was frozen with fear momentarily, but he knew that out of the two of them, he was the strongest at the moment. He turned, automatically reaching for Lightning. Instead of grasping her hand, his hands found nothing but air. With grunt of surprise he glanced quickly all around him, then looked over the side towards the pond, dreading what he knew what he was going to see.
Lightning's figure had fallen over the edge, spraying up sand in his face as she collapsed, her body tumbling towards the pond. The pearl-white feathers attached to her waist were ripped apart and thrown into the air, dust caked them and turned them an ugly brown. A quick look behind him showed that the shadows were feet away from ripping his throat out. There was only one way out…forward.
["Alive Inside" – The Walking Dead: The Game OST]
The next few hours for Lightning Farron were spent in a hazy dream, half-conscious and half-unconscious. A roaring headache plagued her mind the entire time and she could feel nothing below her neck except for a slight tingling in her chest and side, under her ribcage. Her eyes refused to open, but her sense of touch was marred by her inability to feel what was around her. She had the feeling she was under a blanket and definitely in some sort of bed; her head rested comfortably on a pillow.
Faintly she could hear a jumble of words, but she couldn't identify the speaker. She strained her ears, fighting against whatever ailment she had.
"What's wrong with her?"
"She came in contact with the chaos. Now it's threatening to override her brain activity…basically, taking control of her body."
"What the hell does that mean? Is she going to be okay?"
"I don't know…this has only happened a few times, but all the cases have turned out well . But they were strong-willed to begin with. This woman seems to be the same. If she has the will to live, then she will. We've bandaged it up an extracted the chaos. Rest is all she needs."
"I knew there was something wrong."
"How did this happen? You said earlier that your friend collapsed near the Dead Dunes after coming back…from the shrine? No one has been there for a long time. You people are strangers here."
"It's a long story…
Her head fell back, falling into another stupor of dreamless sleep.
She was coming closer to consciousness, but a thick fog still remained between the welcoming arms of sleep and stark reality. Nonetheless, she could make out voices. She was now sure Hope was around; his presence could be felt to her right even though her five senses were failing. Her guess was confirmed when the boy – or, young man – spoke, his voice tinged with worry and anger. She wanted to speak with him herself and find out what was going on. She had been through a lot, but being blind to the world was more frightening than any fatal injury she had sustained before.
"Lightning? Are you awake?!"
There was suddenly the sound of shuffling as a weight from the side of the bed lifted near her feet. She suddenly felt the presence of someone looming over her. With a considerable amount of effort she cracked open her eyes, wincing at the amount of moonlight that flooded the room, casting a spotlight through a window at the opposite end of the room. She looked up, surprised to see Hope's anxious eyes looking in to hers. Rubbing her temple, she got a good look at her surroundings.
The room she was currently in had dark wood paneling lining the walls and black floorboards covered in blue and black rugs. The windows were fogged, but Lightning could see the outline of the moon clearly enough. A large wardrobe rest to the left of the bed and a door to the right.
"Ugh..." she groaned, feeling a numbed pain in her side. "I feel like crap."
"Yeah...you fainted back near the pond. You…almost fell in; more of those shadows came after us, but you were heading straight for the water," Hope said, sitting back in relief. He had dark shadows under his eyes, evidence of lack of sleep. Even the bright colors of his Academia uniform paled in comparison to the dark palette of color around the room.
"So that's what happened? I don't remember much, just a lot of pain in my head again…where are we anyway?"
She started to push herself into a sitting position but hissed when she felt a sharp kink in her side, around her ribcage. She was covered in a new loose, soft white shirt, so she gently lifted it to find white gauze wrapped around her chest. Her eyes looked up in confusion.
"What's this? And where's my armor?" she asked.
Hope shook his head. "I didn't know what to do, so I dragged you into that oasis…they had us ride a crazy upside down train into this town…called it…Luxerion. After that, they transported you here," he explained.
Her eyes glazed over. "The City of Light."
His eyebrow arched in surprise. "Yeah…how did you know that?"
She snapped out of her reverie, shaking her head. "I, uh…heard something in my sleep I think..."
"Right…" He trailed off, skeptical. He moved to leave her side and open the door, but she stopped him.
"Where are you going?" asked Lightning.
Hope glanced at her over his shoulder and proceeded to turn the knob.
"To get the two people that saved your life."
Lightning grimaced again, holding her side.
"Well…where are they?"
"They're just out here. They've been waiting for you to wake up."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I know I haven't updated in awhile and I apologize greatly, but since LR:FFXIII news has been few and far between, I didn't want to take any drastic liberties away from the story. That being said, I want to get this fic going before the game comes out, so I'll be making my own story. The ending will be different, story, and a few of my own characters tossed in. Nonetheless, hope you enjoy!
* Dark Siders are just a placeholder name until I can come up with something better with the physical forms of the chaos that Lightning and Hope fought.