The Brink of Despair

There was a cold breeze blowing in from the ocean, carrying with it the scent of saltwater and the kiss of humidity heavy in the air. The breakers rolled harder and dashed themselves faster on the beach this evening, as if even the lifeless land understood the depth of what was occurring this moment. Beneath a clouded sky tinged pink with alien light, the broken crystals littering the beach twinkled faintly, wetly, in the shadow as it passed fast over the sand with graceful sweeping motions, almost quicker than the eye could catch. The waters glowed a faint, ethereal blue, thick with the bioluminescence of long-vanished alien life.

In the center of the pink-hued skyscrapers amongst the only bright color amid the ruined landscape, the clock read half-past.

And once more, the sweep of brilliant green encircling the spire shattered into thousands of tiny shards.

The rose-haired woman clung to the spine of the winged beast carrying her through the air in her chase, trying to see past the glare of the realm's alien sun glowing behind the ever-present clouds. A shadow broke the glare – there he was, flying with enviable grace and poise over the landscape, leading her on as he had done all evening.

In the singularity she had found herself trapped in, there was no past, no present, no future, all things compressed to a single point of existence.

She urged her mount onward, and the beast's wings beat more furiously as he struggled to keep up with the leader. It was a near-hopeless endeavor – her antagonist had been here longer and could see further than she, knew every inch of the land better than she could hope to in a hundred years. The only thing that cooled her blood was the brush of the breeze across her skin and the weight of hope she still carried within her. Somewhere on the crooked timeline of Valhalla, her sister and her companion were fighting the final battle, while she was here, in the same place at a different time, chasing the man she had pursued for centuries.

In her heart, she bore hope, and also despair. She would not give in to it, of course, for she was the champion of this realm, one of the last hopes for the corrupted world she had come from, but in her heart, she knew the truth, and she knew how this would end.

Her mount blasted her charge with a flare of energy; he gave an animalistic screech of pain before plummeting out of the sky. Springing from her perch, Lightning followed, headfirst, watching the ground come up fast. The dark-winged creature of chaos burst into shadows, then from the darkness came Caius, human again, and he hit the ground first, leaping aside as she landed seconds behind him.

The impact rattled her from head to toe: her armor rang with it, forcing her to grit her teeth from the pain. Calling her sword to her hand, she brought it up just in time before he pounced on her, knocking her back with a single blow from his enormous broadsword. She came up on her feet to be met by him again. Where he had begun many of their fights, and interrupted some of their clashes, with taunting words, this time he came at her in silence, and it was more frightening that anything he could have said.

Somewhere, her sister and her companion fought the final battle.

She, too, fought, for everything she had ever known.

As her body fell into the familiar rhythm of battle, she pulled her mind away to see her surroundings. They had landed in an unfamiliar plaza surrounded by ornate, carved columns five times her height. Beneath her feet, the stones were inlaid with gems and colorful tiles, though both were well-weathered by now. To her right, the plaza halted at a balcony, beyond which the sea burst at the foot of the cliff. To her left, the temple, highest point in the land, towered into the sky.

When she refocused on what she was doing, she realized with a start that his expression was not one of sadistic glee or harsh determination or any other expression she could remember. Instead, it seemed almost neutral, except for the faintest trace of a smirk on his lips. The longer she stared at it, the more concerned she became, and finally caught his blade on hers, stopping him in his tracks. They slid a moment on the broken stone underfoot, kicking up puffs of dust in the still air – which should, by all means, be moving, what with the cold breeze still fluttering her hair across her eyes.

Blinking through her bangs at him, she panted under the strain. He was strong – stronger in this moment than he had ever been, in any of their previous battles. She had always known he had been holding back, but to be faced with the reality made her feel very cold.

"Dare I say you look concerned, my dear?" He spoke, calmly, gazing into her eyes as he did, smirking wider.

She felt her arms trembling, struggling under his raw power.

He pressed down a little harder, and her arms began to visibly shake. A second later, he reversed his tactic, too fast for her to see, and brought both of their swords up, forcing hers aside. Landing a vicious kick to her midsection, he sent her flying back into a pillar.

So many times he had tossed her in their previous battles. He had thrown her across the city, dumped her onto the beach, tried to drown her in the sea, but each time her armor had cushioned her fall. This time, though, was different than all those other times. This time, when he threw her, she went faster, and her armor, while taking the brunt of the impact, couldn't handle it all. The pillar cracked; she slumped to the ground with a groan.

He approached with slow, careful footsteps.

Dragging her arms beneath her, she pushed herself up, swaying on her feet. Her hand found the grip of her sword once more, which she brought up, angled in front of her, to face him. Assuming a battle stance, she braced herself in expectance of his attack. Her body ached, head spinning; she felt her heart pounding her chest. Still the cold breeze blew over her, and still the dust hung, suspended and immovable, in midair.

He halted his approach. "You have managed to last far longer than I expected, warrior. I am impressed."

His voice was chillingly emotionless, save for the inflection on the word am. Swallowing her doubt, she tasted fear like bile on her tongue. Something was wrong. Something was horribly wrong. If Serah and Noel had succeeded in their fight, why was she still here?

"Save your praise."

"All timelines lead to me." He spoke calmly, emotionlessly, a drastic contrast to the fire in his eyes. Something was dreadfully wrong. "No matter how many paradoxes are solved, no matter how hard your friends may try, the world is corrupt, and the darkness has shrouded spacetime." He extended his left hand, palm up; she stared at him, trying to understand. "All timelines from your day of miracles lead to me."

And Lightning understood.

He was behind her, blasting her off her feet, sending her facedown into the plaza, where she skidded to a halt, face raw, before she could register the horror. The stone wrecked her elbow; her knees became sore.

"You sent her on a suicide mission."

From where she lay, Lightning picked her head up, squinting into the light. Caius stood halfway between her and the pillar she had landed against previously. It seemed inhumanly impossible for him to have moved that fast, close the gap as quickly as he had.

"You sentenced her to die."

Horror flooded her as the worst possibility formed in her mind. A second later, he lifted her clean off the pavement with one hand, suspending her in midair at his eye level for a few seconds, putting a great deal of strain on her neck as she hung helpless.

"Yes, Lightning. Your sister has perished."

And he pitched her into the ground, slamming his elbow into her midsection when she landed. She recoiled in pain, clawing at the ground, trying to stand up. Fear and anguish filled her; she swung her legs beneath her and hoisted herself to her feet.

"I don't believe you. She's alive. She and Noel fixed the timeline. There's nothing–"

"Fixed?" The volume of his voice didn't change, but the tone did, drastically, dipping into some shadowy corner of his primal self. Terror shot through her heart. And anguish. And something worse. "They played into my hands and closed the loop. It cannot be broken. Time is already in ruin."

Something flooded her, pushing aside the fear, the pain, the anguish, and she let loose a shout that curdled her blood, launching herself at him. The instant of surprise was all she needed: her sword flashed out, missing him by barely an inch, reversed, turned over, and slashed across his chest, tearing a nice gash in his armor. Using leftover momentum from the initial swing, she kicked him away from her, where he landed on his shoulder.

"You want to shut me up? Really want to win? Kill me first!"

And she sprinted toward him, sword grasped in both hands, to finish the job. Instead of pain or fear or doubt, she felt only hatred.

The final titanic clash of time and space began, and Lightning realized she was no longer fighting to slow him down so her sister could fix the timeline – she was fighting for her own life now, for the memories of the dead, in the hope that her actions could somehow prevent the apocalypse. Her hatred made her powerful, blinding her with mad fury, pushing him back until they found themselves tumbling over the edge of the plaza. He transformed into the winged beast of nightmares halfway down; she landed on his back and drove her sword in.

Flying high and fast, he carried her into the temple, dumping them both on the stone from midair. Before he had a chance to recover, she punched the blade clean through his chest, below the Heart of Chaos, instead piercing his true heart, pinning him to the stone.

It was only when she saw the look of intense pain in his eyes and felt him tense against her that she realized what she had done.

He slumped back, lifeless, and she stared at him in shock.

The wind blew cold against the back of her neck while the pinkish light faded behind her. Dead ahead, the crystal throne sparkled in silence. To either side, sheets billowed in the wind; dust moved like it was supposed to. Shadows of climbing vines danced on the curtains.

Slowly, hesitantly, she withdrew her blade, staring at the smear of red on it in dull shock. No more blood came from the wound she had just made: he was dead, truly dead, not just momentarily buried like when she had fought him the first time and thrown him under a pile of debris, but truly dead. She carefully wiped the blood off, then settled back on her heels, staring down at him.

He didn't move. The pulse normally visible along his neck was still, chest no longer moving, eyes slightly open but glossed over and cold.

Lightning had seen plenty of dead folks in her life, but somehow, this was unnerving.

As she hung her head to stare at her hands, stroking the blade, she heard a sudden sound that made her jump with how loud and unexpected it was. Before her, Caius's lifeless body stirred, chest heaving, pulse suddenly twitching erratically along his throat. A second longer, and she would have recovered, but it was too late: he was suddenly before her, seizing her throat, then throwing her to the ground and pinning her there. His sword came off his back to hover at her throat.

"No matter how many times I suffer that fate, I cannot get used to it!" The look in his eyes was one of raw emotion, so deep and powerful that it struck her to the bone. Gawking at him, she didn't struggle, too much in shock. She had seen plenty of dead folks, sure, but not one had ever come back to life in front of her.

"I…" She didn't know what to say.

"Did you honestly believe you could kill me that way? I wish it were so!" His voice was rough, cutting into her like a knife. "I can't die. No matter what, I cannot die!"

Her hands gripped his forearm, trying to pry his hand off her throat. Slowly, she felt his grip loosening, though she wondered whether it was her, or him.

"You must pierce the Heart, or I can never die!" he snapped at her, eyes still fixed on hers. This time, however, his eyebrows overshadowed his eyes, making it seem as though he had none at all. Pushing a little harder, she gave up and kneed him in a most uncomfortable area, then tossed him off of her.

"Then stop moving so I can!"

As she swung, intending to cut him in half – how easily would he breathe again, she wondered, if he were to be decapitated, or worse – he vanished in a swirl of chaos, startling her into halting. Blinking in confusion, she looked around as the chaos dissipated. She was alone, nothing but clouds and darkness visible beyond the windows, nothing but the sound of her own labored breathing to break the silence.

Lightning stood there for a long time. Why had Caius led her here, anyway? Of all the lonely places in Valhalla, he had taken her here, to the crystal throne.

Why would he do that?

There was the sound of something whisking across the stone, like sandpaper, or dust blown by a harsh wind. She turned her head, this way and that, searching for the source. Then, like someone flipping a switch, the wind died. It simply died, completely, totally.

In front of the crystal throne, a shadow appeared in midair, gained form, and coalesced.

Lightning gasped. "Serah!"

There were two people standing before her, facing each other. On the left was Noel, disbelief on his face, while her sister stood on the right, staring blankly into space. Slowly, she gained an expression, one that tore at the observer's heart, and began to topple backward, eyes glazing over. Noel reached out, seized her wrist, and pulled her against him, but Serah did not respond, limp as a ragdoll in his arms.

Lightning felt her body grow numb.

She heard the young man's voice, raw with hurt and emotions she would not dare try to name, calling Serah's name as he sank to his knees with her still clasped against him. A few moments later, the image faded, shooting off as black shadows into the depths of the throne room, and Lightning still stood numb with horror.

"She is the same as Yeul. Her travels executed her."

Caius now stood, back against hers. When he had arrived, she didn't know, nor did she much care. In her hands, her sword began to tremble.

"And she will be a prisoner until time meets its end."

The woman glanced over her shoulder, having to tilt her head up to compensate for his height. Half a second later she was being shoved forward, stumbling toward the throne, stopping herself at the edge of the abyss glowering below her. Hopping back, she faced him.

"Let her go," she snarled.

His right hand clasped the grip of his sword, but did not lift it off his back. "Let her go? You misunderstand."

"Fine." She forced herself to stop trembling. "Then stop moving so I can kill you properly."

"You can't!" Running up to her, he swung his sword out in a neat arc, tearing her off her feet. The blade struck her knees; with a crack, one of them popped out of alignment, sending white fire all up and down her leg. Falling, she hit the ground hard, sore, aching, in too much pain, her hatred slowly subsiding.

It was over long before this began.

His presence hovered over her, tall, dark, and silent, staring down at her with the sudden bout of anger and anguish fading from him. Lightning shivered, the pain in her knee making her nerves fire awkwardly. That whole leg would not respond to her biddings.

Finally, she found her voice, and said, "All this for one person."

"You would do the same."

A flame of hatred burned in her heart. "No." She forced the hatred away – no matter how awful things had become, it never justified complete hatred. "I would never do such a thing."

"For your sister."


He crouched beside her, but she couldn't turn her head to look at him. Sprawled on her back, her neck was just too sore. "Snow would have."

"That's Snow. I have integrity. The tempta–" Her mind wouldn't work right, the nerves firing all wrong, unable to form images properly in her head. What was she trying to say? The despair, anguish, pain… it was all too much for her this time. "Never. Not for anyone."

His broadsword came within six inches of her face, and he said, quietly, bitterly, "Until that opportunity comes, you can never know for sure."

She stared back at him. It had been a long time since she'd cried. Between this pain, watching him wake up from being killed, honestly killed, hearing his pain, knowing her sister was dead, knowing the world was about to end…

It was worth a few tears.

"You will not die." He replaced the sword on his back. "You will be cursed to an eternal slumber, to watch as your nightmare comes into being before you. It will be your curse to watch the world you swore to protect die, as you are helpless to stop it."

The double meaning of his words hit home in a way none of his eloquent speeches across the ages ever had.

His retreating footsteps brought her back from the brink, just for a moment.

"If there is a Hell, Caius Ballad," she said, "may you burn in it for eternity."

There was a second of silence. "When my day of death comes at last, I will welcome it." A moment later, the beat of large, armored wings broke the silence, leaving her, Lightning, champion of this ghostly metropolis, sprawled out on her back, alone.

A thousand years seemed to pass before Lightning sat up.

The silence hung around her like a veil. Caius was gone, disappeared to some other place in the realm no doubt, and with him had gone all her strength, determination, everything that had kept her going. Her sister's life. All hope for the world, for the future. Like cobwebs on the wind they drifted away, taunting her with their ghostly gleam, and vanished into the darkness. She was alone, on a vast plain beneath a black sky, with darkness all around, standing in the only point of light left.

Pulling her knees closer, she patted her crippled leg, bowing her head. Her sister was gone. Not only that, but she had been forced to watch it happen. One of the few people she truly loved in the whole world had just been taken away again, and this time she wasn't simply going to wake up like before. This time, not even Snow could have saved her. The heart-wrenching cry of sorrow she'd heard from Noel as he had cradled Serah's body was enough to prove that fact.

Utterly alone, and not by choice, Lightning cried. It had been a long time since she'd cried like this, buried her face in her hands and let herself go. So long had she kept her emotions tied up inside her, believing them to be a sign of weakness if they got out. This was worth crying for. These tears mattered.

When she was spent, she somehow dried her face and hoisted herself to her feet. Both her sword and shield winked out of existence. She stared up at the throne.

There was one way to survive the twilight. Long ago, when she had learned of his plans, she had kept it tucked away, a last resort.

"Etro," she murmured, speaking to more or less empty air, "I failed." Bowing her head, she blinked away more tears. "And now all must face the consequences."

Crystal stasis was the last resort she now would succumb to. Crystals could survive falls from great heights, could survive being scratched at and scarred. The inherent durability of some Cie'th, like the Undying, was a simple but meaningful testament to that. If she sat on that throne, on the crux of Valhalla's strange physics and laws of reality, then she could survive. She could hold on. She could bear what hope was left, though it flickered like a dying flame deep within her.

"I will continue to fight, in what way I can," she said. "I will sleep, until the end of time."

Caius must have known. He must have known the only way she could hope to survive the end of the world was to relinquish her life to stasis. In it she could gain some much-needed rest. The only issue was going to be getting up there, for she could not merely teleport like Caius.

She took a step forward, stopping only when a fluffy white feather drifted from the ceiling. Hesitating, she gazed at it, recognizing it.

The overseer of this realm touched her mind.

"I don't have time for this," she said, feeling bitter. "I must get to–"

Etro cut her off, dropping the feather right on the stone to her left. Lighting gazed at it, blinking in confusion when a pinpoint of light flared up from the quill. It was small, almost invisible to the naked eye, but even here it seemed to shed waves of warmth. Energy. Like electricity.

"I don't understand."

Whenever Etro spoke to her, or any other being like her, there was a massive language barrier, as they existed on separate realms in completely different forms. The most these creatures could do was give Lightning images and sensations for her to interpret, along with affirmatives or negatives in the form of warmth or cold respectively. In some cases the sensations were easily read and the images simple to understand; at other times, they were far more complicated, depending on how vast a concept they were trying to communicate.

When Lightning had first arrived here, the images in her head had been of the battle she was soon to partake in, along with sensations of weariness and hope. Only when she had understood fully had her Guardian Corps uniform been replaced by her suit of Valkyrian armor.

Understood, and accepted.

The images this time were unrecognizable, of faces and locations she had never seen. Lightning grew irritated: time was short, and this was not the time to fuss about anything, least of all ancient memories.

The longer she stood here, the worse she felt.

"I can't linger," she said, weary now. "Time is short. I must sleep now, or there will be noth–"

The sudden barrage of images and sensations about knocked her off her feet.

She saw the vast plains of the Archylte Steppe, rolling for miles into the distance, beneath a cloudless blue sky and a warm, cheerful sun. She saw the ebony spire of Taejin's Tower piercing the blue on the horizon. She saw people, faces she'd never known, flashes of a familiar village, flickers of a vaguely familiar city, greenery and fast-flowing waters and bright flowers, hunters with spears, knights on chocobos, heard war cries, smelled blood and fire and hot metal, felt the wind blowing her hair back from her face. Over it all, tearing through the confusion with a roar of power, came the unmistakable figure of Bahamut, the sky-king, slashing a line of destruction straight through an army, tucking his wings and rolling tight, flying into the sky. He punched through, driving the army back, cried out in pain, and plummeted to the ground. When he landed, in his place there appeared a prone, lifeless human body, looking very small compared to the beast it had been.

Caius Ballad lay there.

Then the images stopped, and Lightning toppled back, landing hard on her rear on the stone, realizing with a start that she was panting. Blinking, over and over, furiously, she tried to clear her head. The images and sensations had been overwhelming; still she tried to sort them out.

"Caius… Bahamut…?" She stuttered and murmured, trying to work out what had just happened, trying to understand. That was Caius she had just seen, Caius, soaring as Bahamut himself, then lying dead on the plains as an army turned tail and fled. Many times had she seen Caius transform himself into the winged sky-king, but she had the funny feeling that this wasn't a normal instance. The fact that he'd been lying dead, facedown in the grass, afterward, cemented that.

A soothing sensation came to her before the images came again, slower and gentler this time. Lightning had no time to recover from the first bout, but this time she didn't need to: the images were coherent now, lasting longer apiece, making far more sense.

Caius reappeared, in his familiar black-and-purple-hued armored bodysuit, kneeling before a woman resembling Yeul herself. He seemed to be saying something, but she couldn't make out the words. Again she saw him flying over the plains, again saw him hit the ground as a dead man, but this time the images continued to show a familiar glow within his body, and a few minutes later he was awake again, looking very surprised. She saw an image of postwar Cocoon as it crystallized, saw herself being torn from the timeline, saw the death and destruction leading up to this very point–

Lightning made the connection abnormally fast, possibly helped along by her unseen companion. Blinking away the images, she stood.

"Caius is as much a part of this as you reaching into our world."

The affirmative came as warmth all over.

Lightning continued linking the hints together, gaining a more complete understanding. Previously, she had not been interested in the why of the paradoxes, only in how to stop it from spreading further. She didn't consider herself to be particularly clever or scientifically savvy, especially since the implications of this new information belonged to a sect of science laughed at by observationists. Had she witnessed the proof of this theoretical science, so new that it still wasn't taken seriously, generally known as "quantum mechanics"?

If that was the case, two events, inherently linked, were responsible for this corrupted timeline: Caius receiving the Heart of Chaos, and Etro infecting the world with chaotic energy.

Each gave birth to the other.

And suddenly Lightning had a headache.

Did she dare try to wrap her head around the implications? It was a complex idea indeed – parallel universes, stable time loops, infections of chaos, corrupted timelines–

The image of a window pane, a very normal-looking glass window pane not unlike the floor-to-ceiling ones along the Narthex in Eden, popped into her head. It was raining torrentially outside. A stone flew toward it; it left a split in the glass. Another stone, a bit larger than the last, came, widening the split and adding cobweb-like cracks. Finally, a third stone came and hit the impact site of the first two stones. With that, the pane shattered, and rain drenched the room.

It was a lot easier to understand that way.

"I get it," she said, folding her arms. If nothing else, working out this puzzle based solely on images and sensations kept her mind off other, more… unpleasant topics. "So what does Caius have to do with this?"

A succession of images came to her head.

Lightning reaching out toward a glowing portal vaguely resembling some of the cracks in the Historia Crux; her, standing amid swarms of people in primitive clothes carrying advanced weapons of steel and iron; her, running along the bank of a river toward the same army she'd seen before. At her side, brandishing a spear with a cruel blade resembling the Ragnarok sword, was Caius. As she watched the images unfold, she wondered why she was there, in a time and place she'd never been.

The answer came like a javelin straight through her brain. "No."

Another image came. This time, it appeared to be from her perspective, looking up over the familiar dropoff near the Western Benchland toward the horizon. Hanging in the sky was a large brown orb, as unobtrusive as a cloud, but too big and too close to be a moon. She realized with a start that it was Cocoon, not yet scarred from the War, snoozing peacefully, housing its millions of inhabitants who had no knowledge of the world below.

"No, I must stay here." If she left to do as she thought she was being asked to do, she put the whole world and the whole timeline at risk. "It isn't–"

The image of those she had traveled with appeared now: she, Snow, Sazh, and Hope, standing and looking up at the crystallized Cocoon. Serah ran toward them alongside Dajh.

Lightning blinked away the burn in her eyes. "But if I… if I do this…"

A soothing sensation settled over her like a blanket.

She lowered herself to her knees, mostly to take the weight off her leg, which had begun to grow sore. Patting that knee, flexing the fingers of her right hand, she bowed her head. They were suggesting time travel, to a point before the War of Transgression, something that wasn't normally possible. Going back to a foreign time to live in a foreign land, trying to stop something – she wasn't quite sure what yet, but she had an idea – from happening, was a heavy burden.

What if she failed?

Then she thought of something that clamped her heart in a vise: the Pulse Vestige floating past her as she and Sazh stood in the Hanging Edge, watching her sister crystallize in front of her, Snow's relentless optimism in the face of such extraordinary circumstances… the people she had journeyed with, how each had changed, how they had grown together to be like family…

Vanille, bearing her guilty conscience with bravery and cheer, however forced…

Snow, carrying death's weight on his shoulders, trying to help everyone at once, make up for all of his mistakes…

Hope, suddenly alone, forced to grow up too fast…

Sazh, ready to face the world to save his son…

Fang, making everything worse out of desperation, pushing on regardless of how difficult things became…

And herself, letting her walls down, learning to lead, rely on, trust others.

They had made a long and difficult journey, often having to make snap decisions, led by Barthandelus, coaxed by Orphan, completing their Focus but also rejecting it. How could she turn her back on the possibility of fixing things, restoring the timeline to how it was supposed to be, keeping that third stone from striking the window and letting the rain in?

Into the belly of the beast.

"What must I do?"

Simultaneously with a soft blue glow enveloping her body came an image of Caius, looking over the Steppe as an army swarmed over it, the expression on his face one of despair, and determination. As she felt her armor peel away, she saw him place a hand over his heart, beneath which the familiar glowing outline of a Pulse l'Cie brand could be seen. Seconds later he burst into shadow and soared into the sky. The fact that this event had been repeated three times now told her in no uncertain terms: this was what she was to prevent, no matter the cost, and it would be up to her to figure out how.

The outfit that replaced her armor was made of durable fabric resembling cotton. A peach-colored top, off the shoulder, brown pants, and boots made from tough leather alighted on her body with the blue glow. Adornments with multicolored shells and iridescent feathers appeared, some on her arms, others hanging off her waist, with one woven into her hair and hanging over her left shoulder. The entire outfit was colorful, made of lush colors and gemstone hues, but not so bright that it made one's eyes bleed. When the blue glow faded, she stood in Pulse garb, looking down at herself and wondering which tribe it was from.

The image of a crumbling metropolis entered her mind. After a second, she recognized it as Haerii, the ancient city on the border of the Faultwarrens. No doubt the outfit belonged to their people. Their proximity to the lush, colorful valley Titan frequented explained the structure.

"I'll do it." What choice did she have, in the end? She could stay here, wait it out, hope that one day she could fix what had been lost, or go back in time and take a chance.

The tiny pinprick of light, which she'd nearly forgotten about, grew until it towered over her as a golden column, vaguely resembling the anomalies she had seen before. No doubt it was the portal; she walked toward it, extending a hand, and paused.

Where would she be going? When would she end up? How was she supposed to accomplish her goal? It was a weary burden. On top of the death she'd seen, the end of the world she had glimpsed, it seemed as though she were running away again, much as she had in her old life. She didn't want to abandon her family, her friends, all those whom she had known, but she had no choice.

In her head, another image formed: a retaining wall with gaps, through which water rushed. Someone threw a sandbag on one gap, stopping the flow. Did that mean if she stepped through this gate, she would be effectively severing herself from this time?

Lightning took a deep, careful breath. It was simple. All she had to do was arrive at a fixed point, not long before this army actually came for Paddra, watch over Caius as he performed his Guardian duties, and prevent him from merging with Bahamut, ending his life. Very simple – a child could do it. With her training, it wouldn't be an issue.

One last image formed in her head: her, smiling and laughing amongst people she'd never seen before but took to be from Paddra, with Caius, sitting beside her with a soft smile. No, it could become an issue: what if she grew attached to the world of the past, and didn't want to go back?

You will love these people, this culture, this land, but you cannot stay.

"Just have a gate ready when I'm finished," she said, straightened her shoulders, and touched the portal.

I must complete my Focus.

She felt lightheaded, dreamy, much as she had when traveling through the Historia Crux the first time she'd landed in Valhalla. As her vision gave way to a curiously bright light, the last sensation she had was a quiet farewell.