"Do you think," Hope asked, "that if we open up the top of this place, the bottom closes?"
The gunblade pressed against Lightning's legs. She ignored it, shifted it, touched it. The metal nuzzled her thigh. Below her, the rings of the tower were stacked in perfect, unattainable circles; above her, they reached even higher. She wondered what they would look like split open the rest of the way, bisected like a straw so that both halves of the tower lay flat across the chasm. The journey would be much simpler then.
Hope leaned further over the drop, his knees braced on the low railing as he studied the mechanical structure. "I mean, who even builds a place like this?"
"Whoever leaves must have scrambled it," Fang remarked thoughtfully from Lightning's other side. "Or maybe it happened when the tower was first broken, way back when." She cocked her head, the ruff of her hair spreading over her shoulder as she squinted at the distant ground. "Could you stand to live in a place like this? What if you had to run down the hall and throw a switch every time you wanted to nip off to the pantry for some milk?"
Lightning closed her eyes.
Staring at their dilemma wasn't helping. Neither was listening to anyone talk about it -- because, unfortunately, Fang's description was almost exactly what had happened on the Fourth Tier. Early on in their ascent, a stray hit had scattered their rations, bursting one of their packs open and ruining the dried meats and fruits. Troublesome, but not impossible to survive.
The partial loss of food would have been fine, if they had been able to move quickly through the ruins. But the tower did something to their heads; it kept them running in circles, checking and rechecking rooms that continued to fill up with Cie'th, chasing down targets for the Menhirrim while looking at rows of identical doorways. They had watched the innards of the tower spin around for what felt like eternity while they jumped from elevator to elevator, whirled around like batter in a bowl.
It had taken them far longer than expected. Eventually, Lightning had stopped them all to review their supplies. The amount they had left was disturbingly low. If they could make a straight dash through the rest of the Tower, there wouldn't have been any cause for concern -- but no one was certain how many Tiers might be left.
The verdict was clear. They would have to hunt.
They'd split into two groups, keeping Hope, Fang and herself in the Tower to see what else could be unlocked. The remaining three had gone back down to earth to play predator and prey with the beasts. At the time, Lightning had planned to clear the rest of the way before Snow's team could even return -- but their luck refused to improve. On the last cycle through the Fourth Tier, they'd exited one of the elevators and had run directly into a pair of Varcolaci Cie'th; before Fang could goad them into hitting her, they'd gone after Hope, who had instinctively backed towards the elevator just as the Cie'th had plunged for his head.
The resulting flurry of sparks had shredded both of the Cie'th, sent Hope sprawling with minor burns, and had jammed the controls -- locking all three of the elevators in place, and them with it.
There was no way up. There was no way down. Until they could get the elevators singing again, they were trapped.
Hope had taken the news surprisingly well, settling down to try and experiment with the controls, as if the malfunctions were only a classwork assignment that he could figure out if he had just enough keypads to type on. Fang had kicked the lever a few times, and then shrugged gamely and yielded the dilemma to him.
And Lighting -- Lightning fought the nearby Cie'th, and stalked up and down the walkway, and scrutinized the inner ring for handholds in case they had to climb. And simmered.
Taejin's Tower was a mystery that she had only limited interest in. It was a riddle that was meant for scholars, not fighters. Her biggest concern was how to get them out of it, along with dealing with a fal'Cie that wanted them not dead so much as inconvenienced, because instead of destroying them on the spot, it had blasted the pathway forward. In light of the fal'Cie agenda, Lightning wasn't sure if it had given them a casual threat, or a challenge for them to continue forward despite the odds. She wasn't sure she cared, either.
All Lightning knew for certain was that she, Hope and Fang were spending forever stuck in a tower with musical elevators, cradled in radiance and symmetry: a building made by fal'Cie for fal'Cie, but which had carvings so delicate that they were smaller than Lightning's palm. The rooms on the outside of the rings were coated in rosettes and scrollwork, every inch of them matching the delicate artistry of the elevators. Even the machinery was beautiful.
Which bothered her more than it should. She knew now that fal'Cie disdained humans; the fact that they had devised something so elegant on a mortal scale felt contradictory. There was no cause for it, no need: most fal'Cie could fly, they didn't require stairs. But, more than that, there was no purpose in carving ornamental designs that were small enough to be touched by human fingers, in rooms too compact for the Tower's master to fit inside.
Pulse was a world full of sudden, hungry dangers. In the lair of one of its fal'Cie, she hadn't expected music.
She opened her eyes, retreating from the edge. Something must have shown on her face, because Fang trailed behind her, watching as Lightning studied the floor. "Got a new idea?" the woman asked, tilting her head in inquiry.
Like a hawk snatching prey, Lightning knelt and traced one of the blocks underfoot. Each of them was plain -- but the pattern they had been laid into was subtle, interwoven with nubbled strips. Textured to keep creatures from slipping off the side, she figured, things that couldn't fly -- and her hand went slack, heavy with confusion. "Someone must have made these things. Fal'Cie don't need rooms, inscriptions, decorations. They don't need stairs. Or elevators. What else lived here before? And, if they were human, then why did something like Dahaka care?"
Fang pressed her lips together, pivoting on her heel so she could lean against the wall. One arm curled around her lance, holding it at lazy rest. "The fal'Cie make beautiful things, sure. But they don't make them for us. It's just something they happen to do that we happen to be able to appreciate. The sun doesn't shine to make us feel good. It'd keep doing that even if it burned us alive. We're simply lucky that it doesn't."
Lightning snorted. "Some good any of this fanciness will be, if we starve inside it."
"Oh, cheer up," Fang replied, reaching out to swat her shoulder. "At this rate, you're moody enough to turn Cie'th long before there'd be any danger of that."
The morbid humor almost lifted Lightning's mood. Almost. She stretched, rolling her shoulders, and reached for her gunblade. "Speaking of which, it's almost time to check on them. I'll go left. You take the right."
They parted in opposite directions, scouting for any threats that had returned during their rest. The monsters had a disturbing habit of infiltrating rooms that should have stayed clear, even though Lightning and Fang couldn't find where they were coming from; some of them could fly, but the landbound beasts must have been crawling up from somewhere, and that secret was what Lightning was hoping to find. If other creatures had lived in the Tower before, there might be alternate access routes. If so, there could be a hidden tunnel down -- or another one leading straight up.
Otherwise, they could try to harness the flying Cie'th as kites, but that option was squarely in the category of ridiculous. Lightning was saving up a list of last-ditch efforts; the very bottom involved calling for help when Snow and the others returned.
Strategically, she should stay in place and protect Hope. But the thought of sitting around doing nothing was like sand in her blood, rasping against her bones. Impotency was a chain. Her own restlessness was killing her.
Lightning was direct; she liked solutions. Patience had been one of the hardest qualities for her to learn in training school, not because she couldn't apply tactics, but because she preferred to act once her path was clear. She wasn't Snow; she didn't charge ahead without a plan. But neither was she the type to watch and wait if there was a chance she could do something, anything at all, and the inability to find a path forward was gnawing at her. It was chewing her up on the inside, flooding her with jerky, nervous energy, like a thousand tendrils of electricity crawling over her bones. It was driving her mad.
She finished her loop early, finding no new enemies on the prowl, and returned to the elevator dock. Hope had buried himself back in the control panels, tinkering away while muttering to himself. She left him in peace, letting her body work out its tension by pacing back and forth on the walkwalk, playing a game in how quietly she could move while still keeping an aggressive pace.
Fang trotted back eventually, and shrugged in a single no.
But then the woman spoke up, before Lightning had time to give voice to frustration. "The way I figure it, this whole tower's like honey and bees," Fang announced, settling her lance into its brace. "Bees make honey that we can eat, but they're not making it for us. It's just as likely that humans were made in a way that could enjoy it. Just like this tower here. Hell," she snorted, digging her heel into the balcony, "everything the fal'Cie make could actually be repulsive. We'd just never know because we were made in a way that favors them."
Lightning felt her expression twist. "And that doesn't bother you?"
"Nope." Fang grinned. "I like honey, but I don't owe the bees my mouth." She spread an arm towards the central emptiness, her skin dappled with the glow of multicolored lights: green on their floor, blue surrounding. "The tower's pretty. So's fire. There's no need for explanations. You find something appealing, you don't need a rule for why. It just is."
A protest -- pointless, an argument simply for the sake of being stubborn -- started to crawl out of Lightning's mouth. She shut it down and strode over to the edge, trying not to wonder just how far a l'Cie could fall and still live. "I'm going to try another floor while Hope works. There are a few between here and the Third Tier that we haven't visited -- one of them might have a solution. The monsters haven't come out this far, so you both should be safe. In case the fal'Cie returns, the elevator should provide cover."
Fang offered a long, skeptical whistle, which was ruined by the amused expression that claimed her pursed lips. "And how're you planning on getting up again?"
"I don't know. But I can't stay here," Lightning confessed, and took the first step onto the railing.
Vertigo had been hammered out of her long ago in the Guardian Corps; still, she moved cautiously, not wanting to fall before she was ready. "This would be much smarter if you had some rope," she heard Fang say behind her -- and ignored it, peering down at the level below her. It was tempting to try a backflip, but the trajectory would probably throw her out too far; grabbing wildly at anything in reach was as likely to kill her as it was to save her. The Fourth Tier also lacked any of the triangular, jutting platforms as well, which was unfortunate. Those would have been perfect to use as a launching pad.
Simply swinging down from the niche between the elevator and the wall wouldn't work; though they were staggered on the Fourth Tier, the surrounding levels were cut smooth, meaning that she was likely to strike herself against subsequent overhangs like a bird hitting glass. If she took that option, she'd have to zig-zag across the balconies. That tactic would require extra horizontal velocity. It was possible.
Slowly, Lightning's overtaxed nerves began to steady themselves as she worked at the puzzle. Her mind clicked neatly into place, mental routines sliding together like the lines of her gunblade: a configuration for combat, instead of a stored assembly of parts. The balcony rail was a potential second option; she tested her weight upon it before gauging the distance between it and the lower floor. It was low enough that she could use it to swing down, but the floor was thicker than she would have liked. If she let go early, she might be able to manage a shallow enough fall -- but, then again, she might not.
The elevator gap would have to work, then. There wasn't much room to maneuver. She'd have to gain speed another way.
Fitting herself into the narrow space between the machinery and the wall, she paused long enough to estimate how severe the fall would be. Each level was about four colored bands high; each band was just a little taller than her head. Approximating at seven feet tall, then it would be twenty-eight feet total: survivable. She had no excuse to fail.
"You know, I don't exactly see any doors on that level below us, Lightning."
"If your eyes are so good," Lightning replied, her attention pinned to the jump, her mind clear and serene, "then use them to find the correct route out."
After checking to make certain her sword was latched securely in place, she threw herself into a handstand on the walkway's rim, twisting in place as she did. The world flipped around; Fang's face flashed by, one eyebrow crooked as Lightning swung her legs down, and then did a backspring off the severed edge of the platform, intending on throwing herself into a javelin's arc towards the opposite side of the lower floor.
The curve of her body should have provided her with plenty of leeway to spare, but she had misjudged the handhold by the slimmest margin: the edge of the metal bit into her thumbs and slipped against her gloves, causing her to tuck her legs more quickly than she expected. Her left heel delayed; her spine arched too far. Lightning felt her weight rotate as she plunged through the air. Blood pounded in her ears. She corrected instinctively, moving into the flip, and rolled again. The Tower whipped around her, a maelstrom of metal lines and light.
Working fast, she reoriented herself as gravity slammed her against the floor, tucking in time to absorb the impact. The strike left her right side instantly numb, ribs stinging with the impact. She rolled protectively, a tight ball of elbows and knees, and finally came to a halt along the walkway.
The air felt as if it had been punched out of her lungs. After a moment, she heard Fang's voice.
"Lightning? You didn't land on a Cie'th, did you?"
Lightning took in a slow breath, making sure she sounded steadier than it felt. "Stay up there!" she called back. "Stay with Hope! I'll be fine!"
- - - - -
Recovery was a quick affair; being a l'Cie gave her stamina beyond that of any normal soldier, and magic helped to patch up the pains from landing. As powerful as she was, however, even her l'Cie enhancements wouldn't help if she picked her fights carelessly. No special powers would help if she dove headfirst into a group of enemies that shredded her before she could draw a weapon.
Fang was, unfortunately, correct in her assessment of the lower floor. There were no doors; there were no convenient levers, or buttons, or extra elevators hiding in the background. There were no hidden statues waiting to open a magical stairway straight to the top. Without wasting time, Lightning chose to descend again; these floors gave her more than enough room to run, sending herself into long dives across the walkway gaps like a swimmer taking wing off a cliff.
Down she traveled, criss-crossing back and forth in order to give herself enough room for the jumps. Adrenaline was a familiar balm for her nerves. She let herself indulge in it, focusing only on the fall, the roll, and the search for fresh doors, repeating the cycle over and over until she realized that she was looking at the top of the Third Tier elevator dock.
With no other options left to her, she braved the drop.
There were chambers on the Third; there were also monsters. The first room she surveyed had a pack of Gladiators, and past them, Managarmrs. Crouching down as she peered around the corner, she racked her tangled memories of the architecture. If she was correct, there should be a set of stairs past them down to the second level. From the second floor, she could always try to vault down to the first, and meet up with Snow's team. On the other hand, that wouldn't solve anything either: without the elevators, that would just mean one more person stuck on the ground, and one less to potentially help Fang and Hope escape.
It would be best if she continued the search, and found a way to bridge all the floors together.
The Gladiators weren't productive to watch; now that they'd established a location to guard, the machines simply tottered in place, around and around in lurching circles. The Managarmrs, on the other hand, were organic. They'd have to leave eventually to feed. They'd need water; they'd have to drink. They would be the ones to check.
She took the first battle carefully, clearing out the Gladiators on principle. They were slower than her, a point in her favor; with only her own blade and spells, however, they resisted every attempt she made to knock them off balance. She finally resorted to chipping away at each one slowly, spending most of her stamina in dodges as she vaulted over and across their ringed heads and let them waste their attacks on empty air.
Her lungs were working hard by the time she finished, turning each breath into a rasp. Beyond her in the next room, she could hear the whuffling grunts of the Managarmrs as they had become curious about the struggle. Immediately, she flipped around, pressing herself to the wall in hopes of escaping their attention.
She counted down past fifty, waiting for her heartbeat to recover and the beasts to grow complacent. Then she ran, bolting past the two Managarmrs in a feint towards the stairwell. As the beasts tried to flank her, their powerful sprints driving them forward, she springboarded against the rail, pushed herself into a backwards arch, and lined her gunblade's sights directly on them.
Their lithe bodies twisted like fish in a midnight pool. She used her gunblade to alternate between them, taking advantage whenever they were grouped together. The battle was faster than the Gladiators, more vicious; she was bleeding heavily by the time she was through, and switched back to restorative magic with relief.
After she recovered, she gave the room a perfunctory search, checking for any crevices she might have missed. Anything large enough for an animal to get through would be enough for all of them. Nothing showed; that left only the stairwell. If the Third Tier held no answers, the path down to the Second might.
Fortified by determination, she vaulted over the arm of the stairwell, hooking her weight around the bend -- and skidded to a halt as five Pulsework Gladiators came into view, and her heart sank.
- - - - -
She lost count of how long she lingered there, torn between trying to push her advantage and not wanting to be cut off in case more Gladiators deployed behind her. Two Gladiators had taken long enough. Five would likely kill her. If not, the battle would take long enough that the Tower would have more than adequate time to deploy fresh defenses, leaving her trapped among enemy reinforcements.
Her boots creaked as she shifted her weight. She was penned up all over again. Intolerable.
She didn't know what she'd do if Dahaka returned -- if it would see her situation and choose to smash the elevators back into cooperation, or simply crush her for being separated from the pack. She didn't know what orders it followed. The fal'Cie were maddening in their actions: fighting and encouragement were one and the same to them, except for the number that simply didn't seem to care. Dahaka was a Pulse fal'Cie; those all seemed to waver between wanting Cocoon destroyed, and annoyance that their gardening plans were being disturbed.
Back to the basics, then. The facts she did know sorted themselves out in clear, linear row, corralled into place through willpower. Fang and Hope were on the Fourth Tier, which could reach the Sixth and Fifth only by elevator; she herself could access the Second and Third through the stairs. The Second, from what she remembered, didn't connect with anything else, but it did provide a safe distance to descend from.
If they couldn't use the elevators, they'd have to ascend directly. The platforms might be able to help them, if they had rope or a chain that they could use -- and never mind if Fang would say I told you so about that -- and if Lightning met with Snow's team, she could work with them to get that rope back up with a good jump and throw. From there, it would be possible to scale up the balconies. It would work.
Two problems instantly came to mind, tallied up like shooting targets. Climbing so openly would almost certainly attract Dahaka's attention. Secondly, they'd need rope. But Vanille was from Pulse; she'd have the local survival knowledge for what plants or animals might give them. If it came to it, they could even try to lure Dahaka out this way, baiting out the fal'Cie and using the hallways for cover while they fought.
Everything lined up; everything was clear again. The frustration that was clawing in Lightning's chest finally started to subside once more, channeled into the glory of action.
Right. She just had to get past the Gladiators, make it to the hall, and then calculate the best descent down to ground level. If not, she'd make the jump from the Third.
She had just started to pick apart a few strategies -- dodging would work, unless she ran into another pack just beyond them, meaning that she'd have to plan for a hasty reverse -- when the music of the elevator rippled through the tower in a series of plucked notes, sighing its crystalline melody to the ruins.
Immediately, she bolted upright. Throwing a quick glance at the Gladiators that blocked her way, she abandoned the stairwell and backtracked up to the Third Tier. If any monsters had slunk back into the crevices of the Tower, she'd have to deal with them again -- but luck favored her, for once. The rooms were empty.
She skirted through them carefully anyway, and found the elevator stationed meekly in place at the dock, the brilliance of its lights restored as if they had never gone out.
"Light!" Hope scrambled forward as she emerged from the halls, nearly stumbling as he grabbed at her arm. "I can't believe you made it all the way down here! We called for you, you didn't answer -- "
"Sorry," she muttered, and meant it. It must have happened during combat, or else the stairwell had insulated her from any echoes. She'd been too focused to hear anything else. She'd been too focused to spare the attention. "I'm fine."
Fang took her time descending the ramp, the end of her sari flicking with each saunter. "I, for one, am glad you made it this far," she announced, grinning. "Otherwise, we were wondering if we'd have to ride the elevator around until you wised up and jumped on top of it. Now, if we could get you to slow down just a bit, we might even have a chance of making some progress before everyone else gets back. You think you can put up with that for a little?"
Lightning exhaled slowly, feeling the air hiss between her teeth. "Yes."
- - - - -
The elevator sang in a near-constant melody as Hope sent it to every available Tier to check for integrity. Colors rippled up and down the ribbon band. The Tower had been transformed into a giant music box; perhaps, Lightning thought sourly, that's all it ever was to begin with.
Forced to wait for the diagnostics to finish, Lightning sat with her back propped against the shallow railing, checking her gunblade with the meticulous care of someone who wanted to put it to active use. If anything happened to the elevator that locked him inside, Hope wanted someone outside who could help, which was logical enough. After that, they could check the other two elevators, retracing the steps they'd already covered before they moving forward in assurance that the path would be clear
Assuming, of course, that opening the top of the tower really didn't shut off the bottom.
"So," she said aloud, staring at the ridged grip of her gunblade, "are you going to criticize me for going off on my own?"
Beside her, Fang drummed her fingers on the floor, a soft staccato of flesh against metal. "Your name is Lightning, right?" Over the noise of Lightning's half-hearted scoff, she continued merrily, "That's a force that has to stay in motion. And the worse the storm, the stronger it becomes. Can't keep a thing like that roped down and not expect it to fight."
The reminder dug into Lightning's nerves. As gratifying as it was to have Fang's understanding, it didn't change the fact that they still hadn't finished making it through the building, let alone all the way to Oerba. "How can you stand this?" she demanded, lifting her head to frown at the other woman. "Oerba's so close. Don't you want to see it? Aren't you eager to get moving?"
"Reckon I am," Fang admitted. As if in deliberate contrast to her words, she stretched out her legs, wiggling her toes like pale minnows against her sandals. "But if I want to go anywhere fast, I figure all I'd have to do is hitch a line to you, and I'd be dragged along as quick as I want."
"And that's such a bad thing?"
Fang's wink was jaunty, but it eased out into an honest smile, one that was rich with sympathy. "Some things don't need explanations," she repeated. "They simply are the way they are -- just like you."