“Impossible,” Chaos rasped, voice rumbling like earthen fire. “Who would have thought… that a mere pawn, possessed such power…”
His black and red wings spread – lava erupted around him, cracks of light shimmering across his arms, torso, face.
“Here ends… the conflict of the gods!”
The flames roared. The fire consumed him.
Then Chaos was no more.
Cloud dropped to a knee, shoulders heaving from exertion. Blood and sweat trickled down his face – irritably, he swiped it from his eyes.
He’d done it. He’d done the impossible.
He’d killed a god.
Blue and silver armour clanked with each heavy step, the shallow water lapping at his boots. A soft white light permeated the landscape; a peaceful silence settled over alien shapes.
A sliver of a memory slipped past – purpose, resolve, and knowledge, instilled in him by means he could not name.
“Cosmos,” he murmured, and set out to find his goddess.
So began the thirteenth cycle.
“Chaos… has been defeated.”
The words, softly spoken, tolled across the landscape like a bell. A ripple passed through the nine gathered warriors – flinches and gasps of hope and shock.
Even the Warrior of Light could not hide his disbelief. “How?”
“An agent of Chaos, turned upon him.” Cosmos folded her pale hands in her lap, expression solemn and sky-blue eyes strangely sad despite the victory.
“No way!” Zidane yelped. “One of their own?”
“This is a fortuitous turn of events indeed,” the Warrior of Light pronounced.
"Does this mean we can go home?" Onion Knight asked eagerly.
Cosmos closed her eyes for a long moment, as though listening to a sound only she could hear. "Still, forces of disorder exist in this world." The words were but a musical whisper on the wind. "A thread of Chaos's power remains.”
“So we have to defeat Chaos’s remaining warriors, then,” Cecil surmised.
“No problem!” Bartz declared. “It’ll be easy!”
Squall rested his gunblade on his shoulder. “You shouldn’t take the other side so lightly. Or have you already forgotten one of them took out Chaos?”
That cast an uneasy silence over the group.
The Warrior of Light drew his sword, and inclined his head respectfully towards his goddess. “It changes nothing of what we must do.” He turned to the rest of them. “Victory is close at hand. We must not delay.”
“Chaos has been defeated,” Ultimecia drawled, tapping one long, tapered claw against her elbow. “By one of our own, no less.”
“You think we should get revenge?” Jecht asked, rolling his shoulder and cracking his knuckles.
“Do you truly want to take on the warrior who defeated Chaos single-handedly?” the Emperor interjected, expression full of lofty derision. “By all means, you’re welcome to invite failure upon yourself.”
“Ha, didn’t realise you were such a pansy.”
“He’s been awake many more cycles than you,” the Emperor coolly informed the former Cosmos warrior. More cycles than even him – and he’d been undefeated for at least four. Yet none of them had paid him much attention, bar Sephiroth – and even he only because they shared home worlds. He’d withdrawn himself from the fighting some two or three cycles ago – quietly defeating anyone who challenged him, building experience, regaining lost memories.
Seasoned ones were troublesome. But none of them once suspected how strong he’d truly become. Certainly not powerful enough to challenge Chaos. Certainly not enough to win.
If they had, they might not have let him slip so quietly by the wayside.
“I agree it would be foolish,” the time-witch conceded gracefully. “But the question now is what will happen to us. I have no desire to fade into forgotten history.”
“Well, better get used to the idea,” Jecht declared. “With Chaos gone, 's only a matter of time before we disappear, right?"
"Perhaps not." The Emperor raised his staff, coaxing forth a foreign power, giving it shape. The dark miasma swirled into form before him. "In his dying moments, Chaos left us a parting gift."
Jecht, the poor fool, just looked at him flatly. Ultimecia was quicker on the uptake. "Existence." She folded her arms, pensive. “But why?” It went unspoken that Chaos cared not a whit for his pawns.
“Spite, I imagine.” He let the manifestation dissipate, tendrils of powers vanishing into obscurity once more. “Or one last grasp at victory, even after death. Who can know for sure?” Garland might have insight, but he cared little for sharing his thoughts with the rest of Chaos’s summoned.
“Huh.” Jecht scratched the back of his neck, tousling his ragged mane of hair further. “So what are we supposed to do with it then?”
The Emperor allowed himself a rare, indulgent smile. "As I see it, there’s only one path to survival.”
Ultimecia mirrored his smirk. “…Cosmos.”
“Correct. Cosmos herself is weak now, but her power will soon return. We would be well served to act before that happens." Chaos’s power would not sustain them indefinitely in a world ruled by harmony – as it was, those of his summoned who perished last cycle had not come through the purification. For them, death now was death eternal.
A shame the manikins had only gravely wounded Cosmos, rather than felling her decisively. They might have been rid of both gods in one swoop of Shinryuu’s tail.
“Of course,” Ultimecia pointed out smoothly, “We still have Cosmos’s little puppets to deal with.”
And there lay the true dilemma.
Cloud stared dully out across the Bahamut Isles.
The cycle had continued. He'd killed Chaos – he hadn’t revived - and yet still the wheels of destiny turned.
He didn’t understand it. This was Cosmos’s victory now, wasn’t it? Kuja hadn’t come through the Purification. Tidus and Terra had gone missing too. The stalemate had been broken.
So why hadn’t they gone home?
Something was wrong. There was some element of this conflict he’d overlooked.
The clatter of armour had him tensing, ready to draw his sword. A moment later, he relaxed at the sight of a midnight-black helmet, edged with gold. Just Golbez. One of the few unlikely to be looking for a fight.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding,” Golbez greeted him.
“Were you looking for me?”
A deep chuckle. “Not particularly.” Golbez often had the sound of a weathered old man, though Cloud knew he was at best only ten or so years his senior. “Though now that I’m here, I’m curious to know your thoughts.”
He didn’t need to explain what he meant. “Why we’re still here, you mean.”
Cloud didn’t comment.
“I find myself perplexed,” Golbez confessed into the deep silence. “Victory for Cosmos outright was not something I anticipated. Truthfully, I can no longer predict what will happen next.”
Chaos, though he stood for disorder, was predictable to them. He was a vengeful god, and acted the part with impunity. Cosmos, however… her goals were opaque.
“You had some plan to end the cycle, didn’t you?” Like him, Golbez had stood largely apart in the conflict, though there had been plenty of rumours of him consorting with the dragoon and paladin. “Sorry if I messed it up.”
“It is not unsalvageable,” Golbez replied amiably. “This way, too, he will be safe.”
So it was true, then. There was somebody on Cosmos’s side he wanted to protect.
Cloud could understand that very well indeed.
"Why are you on Chaos's side?" he asked. The Lunarian - whatever that was - engaged in battle most reluctantly, and there were plenty of accusations that he'd given more than just advice to Cosmos’s side. He wasn’t bloodthirsty like some of the others, nor professed any grand ambitions. Frankly, he seemed better suited to Cosmos’s side than some of Cosmos’s actual warriors.
"At first, I thought it a weakness in my heart," Golbez rumbled within the black armour. He turned to look out over the craggy landscape, chunks of loose earth suspended improbably in the sky. "Now, though... I wonder. Perhaps it was merely freedom I craved."
"And what about you, Cloud? Is it peace you’re fighting for?"
He hunched his shoulders. “Nothing like that.” Like Golbez, there had simply been someone he wanted to protect.
And yet… a horrible thought began to occur to him.
“I have to go,” he said abruptly, and strode away.
“This is most concerning,” the Warrior of Light declared as he surveyed the empty landscape.
Small strike teams, they’d decided. Chaos’s warriors rarely moved in groups – though how they knew that, no one could say. So Warrior of Light, Cecil and Zidane had set out in one direction – Tidus, Terra and Onion Knight, the other. A small group could attack faster, retreat faster, and go unnoticed longer. Three groups of three – the most solid tactical formation they could make with their numbers.
Yet when they set out, they found nothing.
“Maybe they’re hiding,” Zidane suggested with a cocky air.
“But surely there would still be manikins,” Cecil pointed out. The crystalline artifices that wandered aimlessly across the landscape, viciously attacking any who dared encroach on their imagined territory, were conspicuously absent.
This deep in Chaos’s territory – or what had once been Chaos’s territory – that didn’t make any sense at all.
“Something most foul must be afoot.”
“An ambush?” Zidane asked, arms folded behind his head.
“It would not be out of their character,” Cecil agreed.
Chaos’s forces would be desperate. The end of the conflict was close – they could all sense it.
Yet somehow, the Warrior of Light could not quell the pounding trepidation in his chest.
“Hey, a gateway!” Zidane called. He scampered ahead to the glowing red sigil – the portal that would lead to a disjointed slice of a forgotten world.
A sudden sense of familiar power washed over him, sweeping all the doubts from his mind. This presence - he recognised it.
At last, they had found one of their foes.
Onion Knight would have rather had Squall along. Or Cecil. One of the more reserved ones, anyway. At least one of the ones that didn’t treat him like a child.
“Do you guys want to take a rest?” The sun-bleached blond tossed a white and blue ball in the air as they walked.
“Again?” Onion Knight stopped short, the feathery plumes of his helmet swaying with the abruptness of the motion. “We’ve barely made any progress at all!” They hadn’t even found their first Chaos warrior yet!
“Well, maybe you’re okay, but spare a little thought for the lady!” Tidus said with an easy air.
Oh. Onion Knight darted a quick glance at Terra, but she just gave him a small smile. “I can keep going. We haven’t even had to fight anybody so far.”
“Ok then!” The blitzballer gave them a big grin, and kicked the ball as it landed. It soared away, spinning through the air in a slow arc until slapping back into his hands with a sharp thwack.
Tidus made it very hard to resent him.
“I’m worried, though,” Terra confessed in a soft voice. “It seems… a little quiet.”
Tidus nodded, eyes turning distant, and expression serious. “Yeah…”
Onion Knight frowned. Thinking about it, it was strange they hadn’t seen even one manikin yet. “Maybe the manikins disappeared when Chaos died?”
“I don’t think Chaos summoned them,” Terra ventured, though her brow was creased.
Tidus nodded again. “Yeah. I don’t know why… but I get this weird sense that they came from somewhere else. But those Chaos guys could definitely control them.”
He wanted to ask how they knew that, but kept quiet. There were many unexplained facts of this war. So many of them were missing memories. They seemed to trickle back, over time – other times, they simply knew things without knowing why.
Common sense, he told himself. When they’d first made their way to Sanctuary, the manikins had attacked them exclusively, and the few encounters with agents of Chaos showed the manikins willing to ignore their much closer presence in favour of attacking them. Using logic, anyone could make those assumptions.
“Hey, who do you think we’ll find first?” Tidus asked, changing the subject. “I hope it’s my old man!”
“But aren’t you worried about fighting him?” Terra asked softly.
“No way! I hate his guts!”
Onion Knight rolled his eyes. Comments like that made him wonder how in the world Tidus had wound up in Cosmos’s camp. “Can’t you be serious for once?”
Tidus gave him a grin – though it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “What about you, short stuff? Isn’t there anyone you really want to beat?”
He huffed and stomped ahead. “I’m not interested in any childish vendettas like you. I’m just here to keep my promise and protect Terra!” Cloud of Darkness, he knew, came from his world, but she was just another villain who had to be stopped. He wouldn’t care in the least if one of the others took her out, so long as they won in the end.
Tidus shrugged. “Well, ok. Just might have helped if we had a clue. What about Kefka, Terra? Any idea where he might be hiding out? Wandering around like this doesn’t seem to be doing us much good.”
“Ummm… I don’t really know,” Terra apologised.
Onion Knight paused, the cogs in his mind spinning to life. Why hadn’t he thought of it like thatbefore, instead of just running off in the direction they’d been pointed? He should be thinkingabout this. If it had been Cosmos who died, what would they do?
“Wait!” He spun on his heel. “I think I know where all the manikins have gone!”
Garland staggered back. His enormous cleaver crashed to the ground, chain rattling as it skidded across the dungeon floor. He laughed, long and low.
“What is it you think you will accomplish?” he asked. His hollow voice had gained an edge of wetness and pain.
“We shall end this conflict, once and for all,” the Warrior of Light stated firmly. “You god has been finished. Surrender. The Light will prevail.”
“Still clinging to such romantic notions…” A scornful chuckle. “You don’t even recall, do you? Light, darkness… this war has raged on for centuries. The same battles, fruitlessly repeated, a never-ending cycle of conflict!”
“What?” Cecil sounded disturbed – though his expression remained hidden behind dark armour. “That can’t be!”
“Look within yourselves. You know it is the truth, even if your minds cannot recall.”
Zidane brandished his daggers, tail lashing, voice pitched high with denial. “I don’t believe it! And even if that’s true, this time it’s over for good!”
“Perhaps… that is so.” His breath grew laboured, the pauses in his speech growing ever wider. “A world without Chaos.” Garland chuckled darkly. “Indeed, it is not a world I care to see.”
The Warrior of Light remained steadfast and silent. Only fitting that he observe his foe’s end respectfully.
He would be the first of many, and then they would have peace.
“No matter,” he rasped, words echoing deeply in his armour. “The experiment is a failure. I have done my duty. I care nothing for the fate of this world.”
Darkness began to leak from his form – he grew strangely insubstantial, a mere ghost of his massive horned shape. “But do not be so proud, warriors. Do you really think that the forces of Chaos will sit idly by and surrender? Miserable insects…” He laughed again, the sound fading as the darkness consumed him and he vanished from sight.
Then finally, silence.
Cecil shifted beside him, armour jingling faintly in the sudden quiet. “What do you think he meant?”
“Just the usual threats from a sore loser?” Zidane asked.
No, Garland hadn’t been like that. He fought with his own twisted code – a kind of honour among enemies. He didn’t make baseless overtures.
Realisation struck like a blow.