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Hope Estheim made his way to the City of Light under the cover of the first pre-dawn he had seen since humanity moved to the shining ark of Bhunivelze. He stopped at the boundary between hill and abandoned road to look down to where he was headed. Yellow light washed over the rough-cut stone of the corridors he was yet to walk down, making them baleful and claustrophobic. The spectre of a tree reached around the blind corner downhill from his position, bare branches finger bones clawing forward in a desperate attempt to flee. The air was cool but still, with a mist choking the air. Above it all the cathedral loomed in the sky, its attenuated spires thrusting like gilded knives into unsuspecting flesh. The cathedral’s presence was matched only by the hilt of the clock tower plunged into the heart of Luxerion.

Hope shook his head at the sentiment. His suspicions about something lying quiescent inside the foundations of this City of Light were really getting the better of him. Instead, he should focus his attentions on something more practical. While his boomerang was close to hand, he knew that he used to have a far more potent weapon at his disposal. He flexed his hand in time with his breathing, and tried to summon magical energy.

Magic had been the great equaliser for him when he had been a l’Cie. He’d never been as strong as the others, but magical energy had roared out of his l’Cie brand to his fingertips far easier than the others, as if a trade-off. As if the fal’Cie had cared whether a small, sheltered boy was able to survive long enough to complete his Focus. His brand was gone now, and whatever intentions the fal’Cie had had for Hope had died with them. However, his research made it clear that magic originated from the goddess Etro rather than the fal’Cie of Pulse or Lindzei. He didn’t need to be a l’Cie to cast magic. He just needed to remember how it was done.

By the time the sky was lightening from a dull brown-grey to a pallid lavender he had managed a small spark, quickly extinguished. His fingers tingled with the power gathered and spent, and he thought ah, this is how you do it.

It wasn’t the conflagration of magical energy he had been able to summon with ease when he was fourteen, but it was a start.

That done, he made his way through a graveyard where no corpses rested. It was a lonely, oppressive area; the path doubled back and forth and was enclosed by stone that towered overhead and set his heart pounding like a trapped animal. In the open areas there were a few trees clinging desperately to life, and in the poor light he could hear the sound of monsters underfoot. He made his way cautiously forward, eyes watching the unreliable light for signs of movement and fingers tight around his boomerang, but it seemed that most of the monsters here were as wary of a human interloper as Hope was of them. His descent into Luxerion was uneventful. That did little to ease his nerves, or the tension that coiled in his back. Ever since the expedition force had set off the previous day, the space between his shoulder blades kept pricking, waiting for a blade to be thrust into his back.

He adjusted the straps of his knapsack as he heard the sound of Noel and Snow’s voices echoing against the stone. The radio connecting him with the other leaders of the expedition lay quiet at his hip, its dense weight peculiarly reassuring. He shifted on the balls of his feet, stretching out muscles grown stiff from trying to remember how to conjure a flame. He resumed practice once his arms were limber enough to be combat ready. By the time that they had rounded the corner and saw him, he thought he had a handle on how to cast magic, but stopped before Noel and Snow drew close enough to see what he was doing. It wouldn’t do to undermine his argument of competency before he even started.

“I told you he’d be here,” Noel said, apparently settling an argument with Snow.

“Hope,” Snow said, a world of meaning in the tight, unhappy way that he said Hope’s name. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m coming with you.”

“What?”

“You need someone familiar with the fal’Cie to identify what this fal’Cie, Pandaemonium, intends with the city, and you need someone with experience with hostile situations. I’m the best candidate for the job.”

“That’s right,” Noel said. “You studied the fal’Cie, didn’t you? Along with everything else.”

“Are you sure?” Snow interjected. “We don’t know what’s out there. Could be dangerous. And what about your other responsibilities?”

“Quite sure,” Hope said, looking at both of them in turn. “I discussed it with the other team leaders and it’s far more efficient for me to go than for you two to radio descriptions to me of what you see and hear. You may not know what’s important. I do.”

Snow looked like he was about to argue the point further, the furrowing brow and set jaw a precursor to almost every argument he and Hope had had over the years.

“You need me to come with you,” Hope said firmly, cutting the argument off before it began, “and I’m completely aware of my own limits. I did this kind of work for years, Snow.”

“Yeah, we need someone who can work out what’s going on, sure,” Snow said. He folded his arms. “Maybe we need someone who knows the fal’Cie. That doesn’t mean it has to be you that goes.”

“Oh, come on! He’ll be fine.” Noel sounded as exasperated as Hope felt. “If he says he can handle it, he can handle it.”

“I’m going,” Hope said. “I’d like the two of you to come with me.”

He could see his victory in Snow’s sagging shoulders as he gave up on the argument, and the cock of Noel’s head as he looked down past graveyard to the fence. Hope assumed that past the fence would be the outer limits of Luxerion and he itched to see it despite all the unknowns. Or, if he was being honest with himself, because of them. It had been a long time since he had done any kind of field work.

“What do you think we’ll find in there?” Noel asked, jerking his thumb downhill.

“I don’t know, but probably monsters,” Hope admitted.

“All right, we’re doing this!” Snow declared. “Don’t work yourselves too hard. Don’t be afraid to take a break if you need it.” He looked pointedly at Hope as he said this.

“Don’t worry,” Hope said. “If I need a break, you’ll be the first to know.”

The three of them set off toward the security gate. There had been some exchanges of looks that presumably were meant to go over Hope’s head, but didn’t, and it shook out into Noel walking a few paces ahead, with Snow walking alongside Hope. It made sense; Noel had been a hunter all of his life and so was perfectly able to act as point. However, Hope couldn't shake the feeling that the only reason Noel had taken point was to allow Snow to act as an overly protective escort. He hoped he was wrong. He would not be a burden on the expedition, and he hoped he would not be treated as one.


 

From the graveyard, their party went south, the grass giving way to stone as they passed through the fence bordering Luxerion and into a stone corridor made from the same stone as the walls of the switchback path that had led into Luxerion. The wooden gables and trusses of the roof were several metres overhead, and Hope wondered why the fal’Cie had made the roof so high. A lower roof would have been more claustrophobic and less inviting to casual explorers, but also would have been more efficient. The fal’Cie had their own motivations for everything they did, and the building of this corridor would have been a part of it.

Hope looked up for a moment, squinting into the gloom, trying to find some sign or sigil that would give him a starting point. None was forthcoming. He reached into one of his pouches for a small circular sensor the size of a thumbnail and pressed it against the rough-hewn stone wall. It bonded to the wall with a hiss, the light at the centre of the sensor glowing a strong, reassuring green. He pulled out a small tablet and on its glowing yellow screen he registered this sensor as the first node of a network.

“What’s that?” Noel asked, nodding at the sensor.

“It checks the chaos levels in the immediate area,” Hope said. “If the chaos levels start to build up, we’ll know about it. And the more sensors we have, the more information we’ll have about whether it’s safe to live here. Chaos-wise, that is.”

“We’ll take care of the monsters,” Snow promised, punching his fists together. “You just worry about keeping track of the chaos.”

So far, the monsters had been rather unimpressive; a lone niblet whose curiosity overcame its common sense, quickly dispatched by Snow’s fists and Noel’s blades. That didn’t preclude there being more monsters inside, given that Luxerion had been undisturbed since its fal’Cie builder, Pandaemonium, had moved on to create Yusnaan, and Pandaemonium was so powerful it was possible it had never considered monsters to be a threat. A sharp turn to the right at the end of the corridor looked promising, given that the roof overhead ended, but it was impossible to see what lay around the corner.

“All right,” Hope said, meaning all right for now.

Noel took point again, leading them from the enclosed stone corridor and around the corner to the open corridor that linked to Luxerion with checkered black and white tiles. From here Hope could see houses and, with some surprise, trees. There had been trees in the graveyard, but these trees were healthy and vibrant with life. They appeared to be saplings, though Hope was no botanist. They certainly didn’t look like they had pre-dated the end of time. He had suspected that humanity alone was deathless and ageless; the trees were living proof of that.

That, and the monsters. There were a lot of monsters. They couldn’t walk a few steps without a niblet or a gremlin deciding to try its luck, only to be beaten down by Snow or cut down by Noel. It was tedious, repetitive, bloody work.

The corridor led to an open-air winding path, interspersed with stairs, with low-set buildings built along blocky lines pressed up against the path. The tallest was three storeys, and most were one level only, all made with the same stone as the corridors. Hope noticed checkered tiles again, accents on the gates that linked the precincts of Luxerion together, and thought about their significance. He had seen a lot of black and white patterns in art depicting Bhunivelze, the god of light. Luxerion was a place of light and shadows; perhaps there was an association? Hope shook his head. He simply didn’t have enough information to make any guesses. If this city was consecrated to the god of light, a supposition at best.

Noel stopped and surveyed the intersection ahead of them, before choosing to turn right, away from the gate and towards another flight of stairs. He moved through the city like a hunter stalking its prey, all sinuous grace tied to power and raw strength. His footsteps were silent against the checked tiles, his hands loose and ready, his weapons within reach. There weren’t many things to hunt in the artificial home they had made suspended above the ground, and Hope suspected that Noel rather enjoyed the change of pace. They had lived with the spectre of death overhead for years, and at least the monsters in the city were something tangible they could fight.

Walking beside Hope, Snow was not being as subtle about watching Hope as he thought he was. He was scanning their surroundings, too; on high alert he kept adjusting his gloves, stretching out his hands, and bounding up ahead to team up with Noel when a monster crossed paths with them. Hope tried to help, but Snow kept reminding him to check the networked sensors, or focus on where to place the next one. It was frustrating, but that frustration was balanced out by Snow having a purpose now. He’d been turning in on himself for the last decade, unable to protect Serah or Lightning, or anyone really. Hope told himself that he could put up with the condescending attitude, being treated fragile and as if he was unable to fight, if it meant that Snow's shoulders loosened a little more and if his stride was more like Snow's old casual confidence.

Hope kept an eye on the skyline, noting the recurring motif of a string of black and white checks as accents to the buildings. The more he saw, the more he believed that it had to be meaningful. It ran down either side of doorways, girding windows, and framing gates. Luxerion was an empty shell of a city, and the shell was marked with a god’s fingerprint everywhere Hope looked. The sunlight overhead imbued the city with a warm light that should have made the city less disconcerting to Hope, but somehow made it more so. He had an inexplicable urge to seek out the cover of darkness and hide from the light there.

Instead, Hope directed their small group onwards. After fighting their way up a set of winding stairs into what looked to be an upmarket residential area. Surrounded by blocky buildings, some as tall as four storeys, looming in their opulence, Hope directed them into a cul-de-sac under the gaze of a statue looming overhead, half again as tall as Snow. In any other circumstance, Hope would have found a wrought metal figure of a woman with wings for arms and a spiky halo leaning over him to be unsettling. In Luxerion, it became background noise. There were too many other other unsettling things that held his attention.

He told himself sternly that he could not feel the statue’s gaze on him, because it was an inanimate object. He kept an eye on it anyway.

“What’s going on?” Noel wanted to know.

“I thought we needed a break,” Hope explained. “There’s plenty of time to explore the city later.” He smiled wryly, and added, “We aren’t getting any older, after all.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Snow said, not responding in kind. He looked up at the sky and cracked his knuckles. “Hard to believe that it’s been ten years since we saw the sky.”

“We saw it last night,” Noel pointed out, sitting down at the statue’s feet and leaning back on his hands to look at the sky. “The colour’s wrong though. Right?“

“It used to be blue,” Hope said. At least, he thought he remembered it being blue. His memories painted it as a vivid, luminescent blue, pure in its intensity, without any purple or grey to dull its lustre. The sky overhead was a leeched grey with hints of blue, dull and oppressive. It was a empty, colourless sky. As static as humanity itself had become since Etro’s death.“Or at least that’s what I remember.”

“No, I remember it being that colour too,” Noel said. “It was hard to believe when I first went back in time, because it wasn’t like that in the timeline I was from. It was … like this.”

“The sky at the end of the world,” Snow said. It would have been better if he had sounded bitter or angry. Instead, he sounded resigned, a mere matter-of-fact statement: the world had ended and they just hadn’t died yet.

Hope didn’t engage the topic further, instead handing out ration bars. He chewed his own while affixing a sensor to the hem of the statue’s gown. He sat down next to Noel and added the sensor to the network. He ran a scan of the nodes.

“There’s no chaos in the areas we’ve travelled in,” he said.

“What does that mean?” Noel wanted to know.

“I don’t know,” Hope said, shrugging. “I don’t have enough information yet.”

“All right!” Snow said. “Let’s get that information!”

Hope shook his head in bemusement before standing up. He took a moment to look up and gaze into the face of the statue, daring his nerves to overcome him. There was something about the lines of the face that suggested anxiety rather than serenity, a scared woman with wings unfurled behind her like a shield but with no weapon to defend herself. They seemed too soft, too flimsy to guard against anything threatening. What are you? Hope wondered as he stared into the statue’s metallic face. Why did Pandaemonium make you of all things?

The statue’s metallic face reflected the sun’s light, giving it a warm glow it hadn’t had earlier. Hope gazed into the light. The light gazed back.

Who are you..? he thought dreamily.

“Hope!”

Hope’s head snapped up at Snow’s voice. He looked around, momentarily bewildered as to his surroundings, and it took him until Snow had made his way back down the stairs to his side to remember where he was. He was in Luxerion, the City of Light, built by the fal’Cie Pandaemonium, and he was one of three living people in the city. He needed to pay attention to his surroundings.

“Sorry,” he offered weakly. “I thought I saw something.”

“Uh huh,” Snow said. He slung his arm around Hope’s shoulder. “Let’s get a move on, yeah?”

Hope let Snow guide him up the stairs. He did not look back.


 

The next part of town was a gruelling gauntlet of monsters, all pressed into a narrow corridor. Gremlins and niblets weren’t the most intimidating of monsters, but even the weakest of monsters could become overwhelming in sufficient numbers. It seemed like this narrow corridor, lined with high stone walls and trees, was a monster den. As they pressed on, monster attacks came with more frequency from all sides, with Snow and Noel responding like a well-oiled machine. They alternated between shielding Hope from attacks and trading blows with the monsters, leaving no space for Hope between them. Hope knew that they could if they only trusted his abilities. That they didn’t know him, trust him, was frustrating.

It all reached a head when the narrow corridor opened into a park girded with a wrought metal fence and trees shading several park benches. There was a swirl of darkness, and then everything went strangely dark and muted. The tablet Hope carried with him started beeping an alarming tattoo as the chaos levels in the region rose. Snow and Noel bracketed him, facing outward, fists and swords at the ready.

The niblets came en masse, either drawing strength from their numbers or from the chaos around them, withstanding blows that ordinarily would have knocked them down. Everything was a blur of sound and motion; Snow striking any monster that came within reach before standing a steely guard against any monster retaliation, while Noel dodged and whipped around the monsters’ attacks. Ordinarily their approach would be effective, but these monsters seemed to be far more resilient than normal. It was a difficult fight for two people to wage.

Hope knew that he had said that he would let Snow and Noel take care of the monsters. He knew that they were skilled and capable. But he was as well, and he couldn’t stand and watch, like a helpless child, while they fought on his behalf. Throwing caution to the wind, he reached inside himself for the magical potential that lay quiescent and hurled it at the horde of niblets in a blistering conflagration of fire magic. In the darkness of the chaos, the fire spell wasn’t as bright as Hope was expecting, but it was as intense as he could have hoped for.

His suspicions were correct: niblets remained vulnerable to fire magic and defeating them dispelled the swirl of chaos that had spun up around them. The chaos faded, the reader in Hope’s pocket beeping softly and less often as the chaos levels dropped to normal levels. He clenched and unclenched his left hand, letting it hang by his side.

Snow and Noel turned to him, blinking, but it was Noel who spoke first. “Hope?”

“You don’t need to protect me from everything,” Hope said. He thought he had kept his frustration under control, but from the way that Snow’s lips twisted in rueful appreciation it seemed he hadn’t.

“Hey, it’s not like that,” Snow said, putting up his hands in surrender. “You’re doing a lot already. Let us protect you, all right? It’s what we do.”

“It’s what I do as well,” Hope said acidly. “And I’ve been doing it for longer than both of you.”

He regretted saying that immediately after the words came out of his mouth. He winced, and offered, “I’m sorry. That was unfair.”

“Let’s take five,” Snow proposed, making his way to a park bench and sitting down on it, sprawling his legs out in front of him. “Noel, you wanna go scout?”

“Sure,” Noel said, looking at each of them in turn. Hope wondered what it was that he saw. He stalked off ahead, back into the long, narrow corridor past the park.

Snow gestured for Hope to sit. Hope stood. He was far too wound up to sit.

“If you need a break, say so. You don’t have to push yourself.”

“You’ve said.” The words came out more tense than Hope had intended, and he tried to soften their impact with a smile. It didn’t work; his words struck as true as any other weapon he wielded. Snow blinked in surprise, expression open and hurt, before he smiled. Snow’s smile was a far better effort than Hope suspected his was.

“All right, all right,” Snow said, putting his hands up in surrender. “I can take a hint. It’s just that even when we do take a break, you’re still working. Walking around putting those little machines everywhere, reading them, using the radio …”

“It’s not difficult,” Hope insisted. “The fights are the hard part. And they’d be easier if you let me pull my own weight. You can’t tell me that the monsters aren’t getting tougher.”

Snow shook his head, waving his hand in dismissal. “Okay, maybe you’re right. Maybe I am being overprotective. But you’re the linchpin of everything. If something happens to you … who even knows what might happen.”

“That’s not true,” Hope insisted, startled. He hadn’t realised that this was what had been weighing on Snow’s mind, not in the least because it simply wasn’t correct. There was some residual good-will towards him, he would concede, but that was more to do with the Academy than anything Hope himself had done. “The Conseil de Renaissance is more than just one man.”

Snow snorted. “Yeah, right. Noel and me, we hit things. We’re good at hitting things. But the big picture stuff? That’s all you. If it’d been left to us, everyone would’ve been dead in a year.”

Hope winced at the thread of self-derision woven into Snow’s words. He’d taken Serah’s death hard. They all had. “I don’t think that’s true.”

“Anyway,” Snow said, clearly not conceding the argument but letting it go for the time being. “Lose your temper. Freak out. I can take it.”

Hope raised his eyebrows skeptically. “What brought this on?”

“That fire spell?” Snow gestured, as if to encompass the radius of the fire storm Hope had summoned. “Your magic always gets bigger when something’s bothering you. There’s no one here you have to pretend you have all the answers for, it’s just you and me right now. So spit it out!”

Hope didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t realised that Snow knew him so well. He supposed that it had been ten years since Etro died and the world ended, and that was enough time for Snow to recalibrate what he knew about Hope as a fourteen year old boy to the man he had grown into. It was still quite surprising.

Snow looked at him expectantly.

“It’s this place,” he said awkwardly. “There’s something wrong about it.”

“It’s an empty city built by the fal’Cie,” Snow said reasonably. “It’d be weirder if you weren’t creeped out by it.”

“That’s part of it,” Hope conceded. “I’d be more comfortable with it if it were a ruin. An intact city, built for us …”

“About that,” Snow said, finger pointed to the heavens. “Why are there so many clocks? They all work too, which is weird. It’s not like we have appointments at six o’clock to keep anymore, you know?”

Hope laughed helplessly. It wasn’t the question he was expecting. “You might as well ask why there are black and white checks on everything.”

“What?”

“It’s on the gates and some of the doors and window frames,” Hope explained. “I assumed it was because Pandaemonium was created by Bhunivelze.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” Snow said, to Hope’s surprise. “But I’ll keep an eye out.” He stood up and cracked his knuckles. “So you’re feeling unsettled about this place being creepy? I’m creeped out too. We just gotta keep going, yeah?”

“That’s … not what I mean,” Hope said. He gestured aimlessly with his hands, trying to express his inarticulate frustration and anxiety that way. From Snow’s pleasantly blank expression, it didn’t make sense to him.

“What do you mean?”

Hope sighed. “I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I do.”

“All right.” Snow looked up at the sky. “Ready to move on?”

“Yeah,” Hope said. “If we’re to set up base camp at the cathedral, we should get there before nightfall. Our experiences here demonstrate that we should be prepared for anything.”


 

The corridor opened into an open-air square, complete with tables, chairs, abandoned stores, and the ever-present clock tower jutting out from the centre of the city. The square was strangely devoid of monsters, but Hope scanned the tops of the buildings regardless as he walked quickly through it, looking for the ubiquitous check pattern of Bhunivelze. He saw it running the lengths of the rubbish bins, as decorative frescos on walls of buildings far above eye level; the pattern of the tiles that connected short flights of stairs leading toward the attenuated spires of the Cathedral. From here, the clock tower loomed overhead as it ticked the passing of time, a potent reminder that time was an irrelevant consideration for humanity now, and all the more inexplicable for it. Under the dull grey sky they seemed to possess a pearlescent glow, imbued with light from within.

Hope turned his gaze away from the Cathedral and the black and white tiles both, disquieted by the view. It felt like someone was watching him, but when he looked around there was no one to be seen. Snow and Noel didn’t seem troubled by it, and that set him more on edge. He tapped a nervous tattoo with his finger against the pouch at his hip, the sound loud in the quiet stillness, as he walked further into the square.

It was the sight of the train station that made Hope’s footsteps slow. The chaos wore down everything, given time. Everything was constantly breaking down and making temporary fixes had become an everyday occurrence while living on the artificial Cocoon, Bhunivelze. It had occupied the days and nights of the last decade, for those left behind. Memories of a time before were soft-edged and wistful; a time when resources were plentiful, when energy was free for the taking, when there was no threat of the chaos seeping in and killing the last of humanity. An operational train station, presumably with a functioning automotive train inside, took his breath away. The artificial Cocoon had not had a functional light rail line in five years, the internal workings of vehicles proving peculiarly sensitive to the corrosive effects of the chaos.

How did Pandaemonium do that? Hope wondered as he stared at the sign reading ‘South Luxerion Train Station’, and his throat tightened at the implications of a functional railway line that led out of the city. If he could unravel the secrets of the train, then perhaps they could claw back some of what had been lost to humanity. Hope didn’t dare to dream that understanding the secret to the train’s operation would mean they would be able to survive in a world of chaos, but it could be the first step.

Assuming that the train’s functionality wasn’t due to divine intervention.

Hope wasn't sure why Bhunivelze was running a train line. He thought it must be a sign Bhunivelze had plans for those still living, but why Luxerion, and why a train? Or was the train just a symptom of something different about the chaos in this place?

“Hey, Hope! We can ride the train later.” Snow called. He was squatting in front the statue directly in front of the entrance to the station. The statue was identical to the one that they had found earlier, and now that Hope was looking for them he saw them everywhere. They caught the light of the sun, glowing like beacons and drawing his eye.

“Something on my face?” Snow was saying, concerned frown on his face.

Hope must have been staring. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to slow us down.”

Snow cocked his head at something in Hope’s voice, then pushed himself to his feet. “Eh, we got time. Wait here!” He bounced up the shallow black and white steps leading to the train station and plunged inside.

“Wait—!” Hope called out, stretching his hand out uselessly to stop Snow. He shook his head in frustrated disbelief that Snow would decide to separate off from them now, when they had no idea what was in the train station.

“It’s okay!” he heard Snow call from inside. “This place is empty. Not even a train here.”

Hope looked up at the sign hanging down from the entrance of the train station and noted, with some baffled bemusement, that a train was scheduled to arrive in thirty minutes. Considering that Luxerion was entirely uninhabited it seemed truly surreal that there was a regular train line here. He wasn’t sure whether Bhunivelze had directed Pandaemonium to put it there to lure in residents or to utterly confuse researchers. It could be both.

“Hey,” Noel said, resting a hand on his shoulder. Hope looked over at him. “You okay now?”

“I’m fine,” Hope said firmly.

“If you say so.” Noel did not sound convinced. He looked even less convinced. “You’ve been on edge ever since we arrived in Luxerion. I mean, I get it, you’re from a time where there are people everywhere. But you’re more nervous than you should be, and you know it.”

Hope folded his arms and thought about his answer. “This city is too perfect. It’s everything we need, and it’s been built right now, when our home is dying. And everywhere I look there’s these check patterns.”

“What patterns?”

Hope pointed up and to the left to a house which had a tiled fresco on the second storey. “That,” he said simply. “It’s everywhere.”

“Huh,” Noel said. He looked around. “It is everywhere. What’s that about?”

Hope shook his head. “I assume that the pattern is to honour Bhunivelze, or the god of light.”

“I know who Bhunivelze is,” Noel said. “The stories say that he exiled the goddess Etro because she looked too much like her mother.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“So you’re saying that a god’s special pattern is everywhere you look?”

“It’s very prominent,” Hope agreed.

Noel looked around them again, gaze lingering on the cathedral and the clock tower that loomed overhead. He didn’t seem to be perturbed by the sight of either of them, which did little to ease Hope’s nerves. He’d been half-afraid that he was just jumping at shadows as it was, and Noel’s controlled reaction did little to assuage that fear.

“You tell Snow this?” Noel said finally, cocking his head.

“Not in this much detail,” Hope said. “Though really, there’s nothing concrete for him or you to believe. It’s a feeling. A hunch at best.”

Noel shook his head. “I know you. If you say it’s weird, it’s weird,” He gestured to emphasise his point, finger pointed to the sky. “You’ll work out what it is and we’ll deal with it then.”

Hope was aware that both Noel and Snow were, in their own way, trying to help. That was flattering. But he also knew that they had not wanted him to come on this expedition. It felt like telling them about the threat he felt lurked in every part of Luxerion, a threat they did not see, would only support Noel and Snow’s view that he shouldn’t be here with them.

They won’t believe you, was the thought that occupied his mind, drowning out everything else. They’ll send you back, and you’ll be trapped in the artificial Cocoon, unable to do anything to secure a future for humanity. You need to be here. You need to see. You can’t let them send you back.

“I’ll keep working on it,” Hope promised. “In the meantime, let’s go check this train station out.”

“Right,” Noel agreed. “Can’t let Snow have all the fun.”

The train station was unsettling because of how much it reminded Hope of the light rail in Academia. The plans he had left were modelled from his memories of Palompolum’s railway stations and he knew without needing to check where the ticket vendor’s office would be. He knew how many vacant store fronts would be on the left and right of the main corridor. He checked anyway, and wondered if he should tell Noel or Snow. He decided it was a coincidence.

They reached the back, where the train platform was, at about the same time that the train drew into the station with a bone-deep rumbling.

“Do you want to ride it?” Snow asked, jerking a thumb at the train. “See where it goes?”

“No, we should leave that for later,” Hope said. “We don’t know where it goes. It could lead anywhere.”

“Yeah, better to do it tomorrow when we’re fresh,” Noel said, which wasn’t quite where Hope was leading with his argument.

“Yeah, that makes sense,” Snow said. “Let’s finish exploring the city today, and get out tomorrow. That all right with you, Hope?”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Hope said. “For now, we need to pick up the pace if we want to get to the cathedral to set up base camp.”

Despite his words, Hope looked back at the train as they started to head out, and wondered whether it would be so bad if they went on the train now, and saw where it went. He dismissed the thought; of course it would be. They had to reach the cathedral tonight and they couldn’t dally doing unrelated things.


 

It was dusk by the time Hope, Noel, and Snow found their way to the cathedral.

The cathedral was gated like a garrison, with a high wall surrounding it and two narrow portcullis. The black and white checks that ran the length of the gate were mirrored by the tiles on the ground below, and the clock set between the two gates was the same as many of the other clocks they had seen around Luxerion. Hope had seen sentry posts like the one outside the cathedral around the city, but when coupled with the gate and high wall, the outside of the Cathedral looked like a military checkpoint rather than a place of worship. It jarred with the image of a cathedral on Cocoon, a last place of sanctuary for civilians; somewhere to pray for divine intervention in a time of crisis.

Hope's experience of divine intervention was not worth praying for.

“What’s with the walls?” Snow wanted to know. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, looking around him warily. “Is this a cathedral or what?”

Hope shook his head. “Let’s go inside. Maybe we’ll find our answers there.”

“At least we know once we shut the gate, it’ll be a safe place to stay the night.” Noel stretched out muscles worn out from a day’s fighting, rotating one arm, then the other. He stretched both arms up above his head, interlinking his hands to extend his spine. “Let’s go check it out.”

Hope crossed the threshold of the gate and shuddered. It was an incongruous reaction given that all that was on the other side of the gate was a small, pleasant courtyard. A tree grew carefully tended and surrounded by black and white tiles in a gap that left enough space for its roots. Neat flower beds were arranged at even spaces around the tree. A park bench sat up against the back of the wall, and they could see straight to the main door of the cathedral. The quiet peacefulness of the court yard should have been reassuring.

Instead, Hope’s heart fluttered in his chest. His fingers itched for a weapon and he gripped his left arm with his right hand, hand over the bandanna that wrapped around his wrist. He wanted to summon Alexander and crush the cathedral to the ground, even knowing that it would be the death of him to summon his Eidolon now that he was not a l’Cie. That would be better because that would be better than going one step further and meeting whatever it was that lurked in the depths of the cathedral. The spiral of Bhunivelze’s pattern in the city started here, at this cathedral. This was the core of everything that was wrong, the dark canker at the heart of the City of Light.

He opened his mouth to tell Noel and Snow. Nothing came out. Fingers grasped at his mind, snatching at whatever they could. The only sound Hope could make was a strangled desperate sound in the back of his throat. It was a terrible violation, and he was helpless before it. It weighed up what it found, and seemed satisfied by it.

Then, like the moment had never been there, he was calm. He blinked, baffled. He was still nervous, as anyone would be going into an unexplored area, but the wave of panic that had been about to overwhelm him was gone entirely. It was very strange, and all the more so by his calm acceptance of it. He took another breath and everything settled back to how it had been before he had crossed the threshold.

“Hey,” Snow said, hand heavy on his shoulder. “You all right?”

Noel, who had been studying the tree in fascination, turned around. He took a few steps forward toward them. “What is it?”

Hope shook his head ruefully. “Nerves getting the better of me,” he offered in way of explanation.

Snow raised an eyebrow. “You’re not that high strung,” he pointed out. “Seriously, Hope, what was that?”

“I …” Hope trailed off. He shook his head. “I really don’t know. I keep thinking that the fal’Cie isn’t gone, or something like that. That’s absurd, because we know that Pandaemonium is building Yusnaan right now. But I keep thinking something is there.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Noel said. “This place would give anyone the creeps, especially someone who knows all the stories about the gods as well as you do.” He looked around, hands reaching up to his shoulder to grasp the hilts of his weapons. “Is the monster kind of nerves or something else?”

Hope shrugged helplessly. “I’d be surprised if there were monsters here,” he said. “The monsters seem to congregate where the chaos is strongest. Chaos is antithetical — or perhaps even heretical — to Bhunivelze, so I’d be surprised if Pandaemonium had allowed monsters into a cathedral for him.”

“You think the god might get pissed off if there were monsters in its cathedral?” Snow tossed out.

“Yes,” Hope said confidently. “I do.”

“Well, you’re the expert,” Snow said as they made their way down the long corridor towards the cathedral. It opened into a long open-aired space, with trees neatly spaced along the right hand side leading up to the stairs to the cathedral itself. Hope stopped and craned his head back to take in the cathedral.

The whole building appeared to be made out of attenuated lines and points, cutting into the darkening sky like a set of faintly glimmering knives. It was staggeringly large, with the smallest part of it, the doorway, being several metres high. The doorway was set into a carved triangular plate with inlaid glass that extended up another several metres before coming to a point. This plate was bracketed by two smaller, narrower triangular plates, also with glass panels inlaid into them, and next to each of those panels were two wider plates, intricately carved with geometric patterns made of squares and circles. Above that rose a number of long narrow columns, carved with long narrow lines. Set near the top of the centre spire, which plunged into the heart of the sky, was a clock face, similar to the one on the wall outside and everywhere else in Luxerion.

“Is that another clock?” Snow complained. “They’re everywhere.”

Noel squinted. “Sure looks that way. Is it some kind of fal’Cie joke?”

“Perhaps,” Hope said. “If it is, it’s a very dark one.”

“Hah,” Snow said ironically. “Maybe they find the whole ‘City of Light’ thing as creepy as we do.”

“We should get inside,” Hope suggested.

Indoors, the cathedral was cavernous, the black and white tiles now set in geometric square patterns rather than simply alternating. Unexpectedly, they were confronted with a long, narrow bridge, though as Hope stepped onto it he realised that it was really not that narrow at all. It simply looked that way in comparison to everything else in the cathedral. He looked over the side, puzzled at the sound of water, and was surprised to see that there was, in fact, water flowing under the bridge. They had walked along a riverside to reach the cathedral, but he hadn’t expected that Pandaemonium would have incorporated the watercourse when it designed and built the cathedral.

“How deep do you think that is?” Snow asked, leaning over the railing to peer into the water’s depths.

“Why? Do you want to jump in?” Noel asked.

“No,” Snow retorted. “But if we know how deep it goes, we know how many levels of building are below us.”

“…Huh,” Noel said. “That actually kinda makes sense.”

Hope listened to their discussion with half an ear, most of his attention caught up in studying the building. He still felt anxious and apprehensive, but he could chalk that up to the excitement of a new discovery or simply the result of a long day spent fighting for his life in a monster den. Finally, Noel and Snow stopped talking. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the stillness of early twilight and the empty spaces of the cathedral.

“Those look all right to sleep on,” Noel said once they had arrived on the other side, gesturing at the pews. “Better than the floor, anyway.”

“Oh, while I remember,” Hope said, turning to Snow. “Can I see your arm?” He nodded to where the angular legs of his l’Cie brand extended from the hem of his jacket sleeve. Snow followed his gaze and grimaced.

“Aw, man, really? It’s fine, promise!”

Hope waited. He didn’t have to wait long.

“All right, all right!” Snow held his hands up in surrender, before rolling up the sleeve of his jacket and allowing Hope to step closer and inspect his brand.

Snow’s l’Cie brand looked like it did in Hope’s memories as a child: the length of his hand; long narrow lines coming to arrowheads; a sleeping eye in the centre. He studied it carefully for any sign of change, especially given that Snow had been using his l’Cie powers to fight today, but he was unable to see any. There were fewer lines than Hope had expected, given the passage of time, and the eye at the centre of the brand remained resolutely shut. If he didn’t know any better, Snow had only been branded recently.

He stepped away from Snow, and Snow rolled his jacket sleeve down.

“See? Nothing to worry about!”

Hope smiled crookedly at Snow in way of apology. “I suppose I am worrying over nothing. I just don’t understand why your mark hasn’t progressed.”

“That’s not a bad thing, you know,” Snow said reasonably.

“The thing is, we don’t know what kind of thing it is. I know,” Hope said, waving off Snow’s unspoken protest, “you think it’s because most of the fal’Cie are dead, but I’m not convinced. The fal’Cie Cactaur marked you, but it got that power from the gods.”

“And…?”

Hope started pacing, trying to sort his own thoughts out. “We know that Etro is dead. We were there when she died. But there are three other gods, their locations unknown: Pulse, Lindzei, Bhunivelze. We know that there is at least one active fal’Cie, Pandaemonium, and it’s building cities. We’ve searched the city and although Pandaemonium is gone, it seems reasonable to assume that Pandaemonium left to — to complete its task elsewhere.”

Hope didn’t want to say ‘Focus’. From the tight line of Snow’s mouth, he didn’t need to.

“The city’s built for a purpose,” Hope continued. “I’m certain of that. A city, fit for humanity’s purposes, built after time stopped for us. It’s got everything we need: accommodation, transport.” He shook his head. “It even has empty storefronts for people to claim.”

“Also, there’s clocks everywhere,” Noel chimed in. “Which is weird. I haven’t heard anyone mention time in … a while. No one really pays attention to time when they’re not aging.”

“Exactly,” Hope said, turning and pointing at Noel. “Clocks mark the passage of time. It’s something that we don’t pay attention to, because we aren’t affected by time. That doesn’t mean that time itself isn’t passing. It’s a countdown that we need to be here for — but for what and when?”

It was a question that hung in the air.

“You have an answer for us?” Snow asked.

Hope breathed a laugh. “Not yet. I don’t have any idea, let alone a theory for this. I was simply thinking aloud.”

“Hey,” Snow said, punching his shoulder lightly. “Don’t sweat it. You’ll work it out. You always do.”

“In the meantime, we should probably eat something and get some rest,” Noel suggested. “It’s the first thing you learn as a hunter: eat and sleep where and when you can.”

“You do that,” Hope said. He rested his hand on the radio. “I have some calls to make outside.”

“Right, you should let them know about the monsters,” Noel said. “We could use this place as a main base. It’s big enough to fit us all into.”

“Definitely,” Snow added. “This place is also a good landmark; you can see it from practically anywhere.”

“I’ll propose it,” Hope promised, though he would rather set up their main base of operations literally anywhere else. He nodded in farewell and walked quickly across the bridge towards the courtyard outside, the space between his shoulder blades prickling uncomfortably, as if a knife was already resting its point against his bare skin.


 

It was true darkness by the time Hope had finished updating the other expedition leaders about what they had found in Luxerion, and confirming the need for investigators to have a military escort until the monster threat could be contained. Given that most of the leaders were ex-Academia staff, used to working hand in hand with the military to explore areas where the risks were unknown, it was standard protocol for most of them. He kept the discussion to the facts: what kind of monsters they could expect to see, the layout of the city that they had seen to-date, the interaction between chaos and monsters. Finally, he transmitted the network key for his chaos monitoring nodes, so that it could be added to by other researchers.

He didn’t tell them about the iconography of Bhunivelze that he saw everywhere, the tentative theory he had about the clocks, or that something about the city seemed subtly off. He didn’t tell them about his reaction upon crossing the threshold to the cathedral, other than to say that the cathedral’s risks remained undetermined. He considered warning them to stay on their guard, but he trusted that they would anyway. The expedition was made up of the best and brightest humanity had left to offer after the world ended, and they didn’t need him to hold their hands and tell them what they already knew.

He turned the radio off and sighed heavily, sitting down into a nearby bench. He was caught between physical exhaustion and intense mental focus. It was a state that had become all too familiar since he'd started chasing the solutions to humanity’s current fate. Though, if he was being honest, it was a state of being he had flirted with since Lightning had first disappeared. He’d been chasing after a dream for most of his life, the dream getting larger and more complicated as he learned more about the forces he was chasing after. And yet, even as he’d narrowed his goals down, learned more, he had come no closer to achieving anything. Perhaps saving humanity was too large for one person’s dream, an impossibility.

Hope snorted derisively at his own self-pity. He was tired, that was all.

There was a brushing of something against his mind. It was a sensation eerily similar to the time that Etro wiped his brand away. He unwrapped the bandanna he wore around his wrist, half expecting to see his old l’Cie brand stark against his skin, and was momentarily surprised to see that it was bare skin, the l’Cie brand lying dormant and invisible to the naked eye. The presence in his mind was still there, lingering like a cold finger running the length of his spine. He stood, warily reaching for his boomerang and tapping a nervous tattoo with his finger. The lowered portcullis might have been designed to trap people inside, as much as to keep monsters out, and he wondered why he had ever thought staying in a cathedral was a good idea. He turned around slowly, breath caught in his throat, knowing what would be there.

Hope Estheim turned and came to face the god of light under the pitiless darkness of the night sky at the end of the world.

He couldn’t make out Bhunivelze’s form, his mind struggling to comprehend it. There was the suggestion of wings, arms, a mask-like face that looked down at him impassively and weighed up his soul. In a flood of fury and terror he realised that this was not his first encounter with Bhunivelze.

His first encounter with Bhunivelze was under the gaze of the blank-faced statue, where he had asked who was there. Since that moment, every time he saw the decorative black and white check patterns on buildings, Bhunivelze had been staring back. The pricking feeling in his back as he passed under the blank-eyed gaze of the armless winged statues was due to Bhunivelze brushing his fingers against his mind. The way that light seemed to bend around him, so subtly that he hadn’t even paid it conscious attention, was Bhunivelze tracking his steps and luring him into a trap. That moment of panic when crossing the threshold of Bhunivelze’s cathedral had been Bhunivelze judging his soul and finding it satisfactory. No, he realised with horror, fit for purpose.

Bhunivelze took his consciousness from the consecrated courtyard to a empty space marked only by black and white checked tiles on the floor. Hope took some bitter pleasure in knowing that he was right about the importance of that to Bhunivelze, at least. He responded in a way that would have made Lightning proud. He raised his head, gazing defiantly into Bhunivelze’s inhuman visage, and flung magic into the face of a god.

It didn’t work.

He didn’t expect it to.

Once, six l’Cie stood and defeated a fal’Cie, but a god was beyond any fal’Cie and Hope was only one person. He didn’t have the full strength of his powers anymore. He knew this and fought anyway, magic glittering from his fingertips as he flung it at Bhunivelze. He knew that it would end in his defeat.

The best he could hope for was to change the rules of the game. Bhunivelze needed his body and soul to lead humanity to the slaughterhouse, so Hope would deny Bhunivelze them. He fought recklessly, ferociously, unheeding of his own limits. Bhunivelze was a proud god, and insecure because of his pride. Hope knew that and planned to exploit it. Hoped to be killed because of it, to burn himself and leave nothing that the god could use.

It would be a pity that he couldn’t see Lightning, Vanille, and Fang again. Here, at the end, he wanted to see everyone again, one last time, and tell them how much they had meant to him.

He hoped that his death would be enough to save everyone he loved.

It wasn’t. In the end, even the choice of destroying himself to stop Bhunivelze was taken from him in a flash of radiant, holy, awful light radiating from Bhunivelze.

Hope screwed his eyes closed, covering his face with his forearm, in a futile attempt to block Bhunivelze’s light. It terrified him. He couldn’t escape it, despite his frantic efforts. You are a suitable vessel, Bhunivelze said, and Hope recognised the voice as the one that had told him that he needed to stay in Luxerion. He felt sick at Bhunivelze’s approval, and tried desperately to try and remember what had remember what had happened even while Bhunivelze was unravelling his memories.

Remember this, at the end of days, he told himself. You must…

Hope blinked rapidly, trying to adjust his eyesight to the dim light of the stars at night in Luxerion. He was in the courtyard in Bhunivelze’s cathedral, he reminded himself. His heart hammered in his chest, and his fingers ached, as if he had been casting high level magic without pause, magic that he ordinarily would have no cause to cast. He wondered about that for a moment, before shaking his head. He had been casting magic all day as it was, and it was likely that he was just exhausted and imagining things. He must have fallen asleep standing up, and somehow managed to dream in the short time he was asleep. In light of how briefly he had slept, it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t remember his dream, though he did retain that terror.

It was time to go back inside the cathedral where he would be safe to rest and prepare for another day. They had a city to explore and reclaim.