That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
“Welcome, Believers, to the Temple of Zarûthra!”
“The God of Benevolence and Fortitude greets you!”
“Enter and be blessed!”
“Are you sure, Petra, that this is the place?”
“You are such a wuss! Would I have instructed Decker to bring us here had I not been sure?”
“Well, he didn’t want to drive us here, remember? It was only when you threatened to fire him that he finally agreed!”
The ‘here’ was said with absolute disdain and abhorrence. One of the girls seated inside the luxurious chauffeur-driven vehicle, looked dubiously out the rolled up window. They were parked in front of a rather gaudy building that boasted a set of very imposing double doors ornamented with very strange symbols. They seemed to glow eerily, even on broad daylight. The vehicle looked completely out of place in the run down neighbourhood, one of many so characteristic of Sectors 102 to 109. Located on the northernmost part of the City, they conform the forgotten tentacle of the Estharian spider like city-grid.
During Adel’s reign, this particular section of Esthar City had somehow managed to keep its dilapidated physiognomy. It remains a mystery why Adel, an infamous aesthete, ignored the ugly decay of this ramshackle area. Even the staunchest apologists of Adel’s era have acknowledged –albeit grudgingly– that the sorceress would think nothing of razing to the ground, with the people living there included, any sector she considered to be ‘ugly’ or ‘poor’ looking; hence, Esthar’s overly sanitized appearance.
However, everyone is in tacit agreement that Sector107 is the largest, and by far, the worst of the lot. After it, and separate from Sector107 by a barrier, 108 and 109 are just a pile of waste and rubble. In fact, Sector109 almost touches the southern part of the Salts Flats Lake. According to urban legend, the last two are a monster breeding ground. No one seen entering is ever seen leaving…
Poverty, indigence, destitution are the three words that best characterize Sector 107, more commonly known as S-107. There are malicious rumours circulating around that this sector was spared from annihilation due to Dr. Odine’s efforts in that respect. Why he should go through all the trouble of protecting an area inhabited by a group of people he himself has dubbed as ‘ze failures’, is anyone’s guess. It’s totally unreachable by public transport. The only feasible access to it, is through a very old skyway that traverses the length of Sectors 102 to 105, or the wasteland they have become, that is. These four were not so lucky.
The Abadon Skyway, as the road to S-107 has been dubbed, is in such a state of disrepair that it has been known to cause aircars to malfunction, therefore stranding hapless passengers in the middle of some very unsavoury territory. It takes major effort to get there. It takes major effort to leave. No sane person is willing to trudge into this territory voluntarily. For the most part, most Estharians are happy to either forget or ignore the existence of Sector107.
Presently, Sorceress Adel has finally been put to rest. It will soon be twenty years since the institution of President Loire’s mandate. Nevertheless, this forgotten zone of Esthar’s spider-like map remains unchanged. That is, despite the efforts on the part of the present government to implement various social programs designed –in theory– to help people in the sector improve their lives. Gradual changes can be glimpsed in Sector106. Raine’s Place, a community centre, just opened its doors last year. It’s rumoured that Ellone Loire, the President’s daughter herself, chairs the committee that oversees the centre.
Nevertheless, irrespective of the improvements in Sector106, as one gets closer to S-107 the landscape changes and becomes worsened. It’s almost like it’s resistant to change, even if it means an improvement in living conditions. Ever since the ‘opening’ of Esthar, experts from various parts of the world in the areas of urban planning and community development have been brought in for consultation. None of them, either as individuals or as a collective have come up with a viable solution.
In truth, ever since Time Compression, the problems in that area of Esthar have worsened. S-107 has become the epicentre of a very lucrative drug trade which started in Centra, but has been moved –again, reasons unexplained– to this particular area in the world. As a result, Sector107 has become the worst of the worst to be found anywhere in the world. It offers a stark contrast to the rest of Esthar City which is clean, beautiful and orderly. Most of the time, S-107 is only conveniently remembered by Laguna Loire’s enemies come election time. It would be most interesting to see how President Loire’s enemies would deal with the problem… If they ever were to win.
It is said that only the extremely poor and destitute live in S-107, for they have no choice. And that the very rich and powerful visit there, for it’s the only place in Esthar that has an unending supply of BLISS, and its cheaper more lethal counterpart, BLAST. But Petra and her friend are no drug addicts. They have ‘travelled’ all the way to this area, because they’ve been lured by the Temple of Zarûthra. Suddenly, although the Temple predates even the crashing of Lunatic Pandora into the Centra continent, it has become a very hip and trendy location for young and rich Estharians to see and be seen…
“Look!” One of the girls grabbed the arm of the other. “Isn’t that Isil-Dhu, the lead singer from the Heideggerians? Wow! I just bought ‘Alter States’ his latest holodisk!”
“He looks more amazing in person!”
“Oh My Hyne!… That guy just leaving… He-he’s Kain Baron!! He’s so hot!”
“Isn’t he one of the leads in that new show ‘Superheroes’?
“Okay! What are we waiting for? Let’s go inside!”
“Who was having doubts?”
“Oh, shush, Petra!”
§ ~ § ~ §
“Arriving at sublevel 128, Crystal Hall 08J”
“Please be careful with your step…”
Pete Tarkin lifted his eyes, curious to see who the new arrivals would be. According to his own calibrations, they should be getting closer to the core. The monsters had also become increasingly more powerful. The engineering teams were given even more protection now than before. ‘…Well, well, well… If it isn’t the lovely Quistis… Heh! Almasy must be close-by…’ Sure enough, Seifer stepped out of the lift following ‘Instructor Trepe’, as she was called by everyone. ‘Except for Kia who calls her MSB, short for Man-Stealing-Bitch…’ He shook his head in unconscious disapproval. To be fair, he didn’t think the Instructor deserved such an appellative. ‘Ah, shit! Kia has noticed them!’
Pete watched Kia plaster a false smile on her face as she greeted the Instructor, while she gave Seifer a very ‘friendly’ kiss on the lips. They exchanged some pleasantries before Kiara left them so they could speak with Dr. Preston. Pete sighed. It was just as well that Kia had her back on them as she came towards where he was standing, or the scowl she sported now on her face would get worse… Almasy was standing protectively close to the Instructor, or he was no judge of body language…!
“I don’t see what’s so special about her!” Kiara hissed once she came within his hearing, “She’s just some blonde with an okay complexion.”
Pete decided that it was wiser not to say anything. Kia had called him crying the night Seifer had broken up with her, and had kept him on the comm for hours! He hadn’t had the heart to tell her at the time, a much needed, ‘I told you so.’ He didn’t have the heart now to correct her either. It would not go down well if he were to tell Kia that quite a few people, himself included, thought Quistis Trepe real hot-looking, especially when she was clad in her Gesperthane bodysuit! However, everyone knew that the lovely Instructor was also extremely off-limits, unless one disregarded personal safety… Instead, he said very carefully.
“I thought you said you were over him.”
Of course, he hadn’t believed that, not even for a nanosecond! After all, the relationship had only ended a few weeks ago. It was not enough time, no matter what Kia said.
“I am! But it doesn’t make me blind!” And in the same peevish mood, Kiara continued, “Look at her! …She’s just an insipid blonde!”
“Kia… It’s not her fault. You shouldn’t take it out on her.”
“Oh! And now you take her side!”
“Kia, I’m not taking any sides. If anything, you should blame Almasy. Didn’t you tell me he kept leading you on?”
Suddenly, to his surprise, Kiara blushed and said, “I don’t wanna talk about it!”
Quistis was only half listening as Seifer conferred with Dr. Preston –again– over the security measures they’ve implemented to ensure the safety of the non-fighting personnel. As they got closer to Lunatic Pandora’s core, the monsters prowling the new areas were stronger, faster, meaner. She tried not to grimace at the doctor’s blatant come-on look in Seifer’s direction, before throwing a surreptitious glance Kiara’s way. When Kiara ‘greeted’ Seifer, she’d deviated her gaze from them. For reasons she refused to acknowledge, she didn’t want to watch as Seifer’s ex-girlfriend blatantly fused her lips with his …‘I didn’t think she would be working on this run…’ She’d only found out recently that Seifer and the beautiful engineer were no longer together…
She was seated at one of the many tables in the compound’s cafeteria sharing her lunch with Lukka, a member of the LP SeeD team, and some of the engineering staff. Natasha, one of the technicians suddenly turned to Lukka to ask her a very pointed question.
“Hey, Luk! You’re in Seifer’s team! What’s the story?”
“Huh? Whadd’ya mean?” Lukka was truly perplexed.
“Luk! We thought that you knew everything ‘bout that hot leader of yours!”
Their attention shifted to Quistis.
“Hey, Instructor Trepe! Give us the insider’s scoop! What happened to make that hot roomie of yours break-up with sex-goddess Kiara?”
“She’s circulating the rumour that she’s the one who broke it off, but c’mon…! Like we’re really gonna believe that!
“Yeah! We kinda find it hard to believe… Look at him!”
In spite of herself and her extreme annoyance at his latest high handed action, Quistis turned her head with the rest to look at Seifer. He was talking with someone while waiting in line to get their meal, after he’d ‘ordered’ her to ‘save’ him a place. She was glad for the momentary distraction, even if it was by him. She wasn’t sure if she’d managed to hide her surprise at such unexpected news. ‘Oh, well! This would explain why she’s been calling him at home so often…’ She stared ruefully at the two girls seated in front of her, and tried very hard not to be cynical about the whole thing, ‘It also explains why I’ve become suddenly so popular…’
“As if anyone would willingly break off with him…”
“So, Instructor Trepe… Are you gonna have a go at it?”
Lukka’s seemingly innocent question threw her off, but this time she was prepared and managed to mask her reaction. Being an instructor did have its perks. Forcing herself to smile, Quistis replied.
“He and I don’t have that sort of relationship…”
“What kinda relationship, Instructor?… And who with?”
Seifer had appeared out of nowhere, and plunked a tray filled to the brim in front of her.
“Seifer! I can’t eat all this!”
“Meh! Just eat what you can, and I’ll finish the rest…” Sea green eyes travelled down her figure, “But… I’ll say you need to pack in some extra weight, Instructor.”
Glad that she’d managed to evade answering his question, and annoyed that he knew by the glint in his eyes, she shoved a fork of food inside her mouth to stop herself from making a retort she knew she would regret later…
“So Seifer, what are your plans for the weekend?”
Quistis took a look at the girl’s eager face as she asked the question, thinking to herself, ‘She certainly doesn’t believe in wasting time…’
It so happened that Natasha was wasting her time, because Seifer declined her invitation to go out. But his break-up with Kiara had truly caught her by surprise… ‘I thought he was staying away from her as a precaution… To protect her… But those attackers have not returned…’ Quistis shuddered every time she recalled their close shave with the shadow fighters, as she’d come to name them. It wasn’t the case that she’d never battled undead creatures before… That huge Abadon monster they’d fought at the entrance of the then hidden City of Esthar, had been pretty bad! Or more recently, the skirmish against a small army of Forbidden during the Centra mission. But nothing in her previous experience, absolutely nothing, would’ve prepared her for the deep sensation of dread these strange undead fighters awoke in her!
Also, the way that masked leader kept on addressing Seifer as ‘knight’ bothered her the most! Judging from his reaction in the parking lot, and following Irvine’s account of their escape in Centra, Seifer had fought a similar enemy. She’d asked him about that in the aftermath of the fight…
“What the fuck!”
“Hah! Hah! Hah! Until the next encounter, Knight!”
After those parting words, the strangely masked figured vanished into the thin air along with the rest of their attackers! She could’ve sworn she’d seen the symbols tattooed on their hands somewhere before, but her curiosity was more focused on how the leader had addressed Seifer. That was the third time!
“Seifer…Why did he call you ‘knight’?”
He clamped Hyperion back into one, and strolled to that monstrous looking vehicle he called ‘bike’. Frustrated by his lack of response, she followed him and prompted him again.
Seifer re-sheathed his gunblade before answering, “What’s the big deal, Trepe? It’s not exactly a secret I was a sorceress’s knight. Those trials were broadcast worldwide, remember?”
There was a slight tinge of bitterness in his tone, but she ignored it. She wouldn’t have believed this of him, but… was he avoiding giving her a direct answer?
“The masked leader… You recogni…?”
He interrupted her to say abruptly, “At Centra.”
She said that a little testily…but really, of all the times to imitate Squall!
“The mask is the same, but I’m pretty sure this is a different fucker.”
“Could you tell?”
“Did the first one address you the same way?” She’d wanted to add ‘Just like Sasha Tavares did’, but refrained from doing so.
He wasn’t going to answer her! Glaring at the rigid cast of his broad back, she decided on another tackle.
“You know, I got Irvine’s account of the escape, but I haven’t heard your take on… …Seifer! You’re not listening!”
Completely ignoring her, Seifer mounted the bike and tossed her a helmet, which she caught out of pure reflex. She noticed that he’d even strapped her poor dilapidated shopping bags to it as well!
“Get on, Trepe!”
He fired up the bike’s powerful motor, before looking at her, more specifically at the ripped shirtsleeve where she’d been slashed by one of the shadow fighters. Her curative spell had stemmed the flow of blood, but it was still soaked. And she was feeling a bit light-headed… Not that she would ever admit it to him!
“Don’t make me do it for you. You wouldn’t like it.”
She scowled, remembering a similar confrontation. With an incredible lack of grace, she did as instructed. And not a moment too soon. Her legs felt a bit wobbly…
“Seifer…Why can’t you give me a straight answer?”
“Put the fucking helmet on, Instructor.”
Silently, she complied. For some reason, now that the flow of adrenaline had receded, the light wound she’d sustained drained her of energy… It was so weird. She did feel a tad weak… She wrapped her arms around his waist, and sighing rested her suddenly heavy head on his back. She closed her eyes. The world seemed to be spinning around, and around…
When she came into being, she found to her utter surprise that she was lying on bed. But not her bed. Not her room… She got up with a sudden move that left her feeling slightly dizzy.
“Quisty, please! You have to take it easy…”
She allowed herself to be pulled back onto the pillows, and gazed into Ellone’s kind brown eyes, full of unasked questions. Sis fluffed up her pillows before answering.
“You’re in the hospital. Seifer brought you.”
Quistis’s eyes went involuntarily around the pristine hospital room… There was a huge vase of flowers resting on a table by the window. Bright sunlight streamed into the room.
“He’s outside with Johan. Want me to get him?”
“N-no! I mean… It’s not necessary.”
“Don’t worry, Seify already got in touch with the Headmaster and with Squall. He also notified Uncle Laguna of the situation…”
“Imagine getting a call in the middle of the night! Not only from Matron, but from Uncle Laguna as well! We rushed over here!”
Quistis realized that Sis was only wearing a very light coat over what looked like… a pink nightie? She blushed profusely.
“Sis! I’m so sorry for causing so much trou…”
Ellone interrupted her. “Oh, nonsense! We’re just glad that you’re alright!”
Blinking, Quistis looked around again. This time searching for her clothes. When her eyes landed on a pair of rather decrepit looking bags, she had the grace to blush…
“Sis, I’m so sorry about your…”
It seemed that Ellone had followed the path of Quistis’s gaze because she said good-humouredly.
“Will you stop apologizing already? My dress was absolutely intact!”
Quistis smiled for the first time, at least that was something. She was feeling like such a wimp!
“I’m so glad!… You have no idea how they got that way…!”
“I know. Seifer told us! He used the bags like a weapon! I’ll have to remember that one, next time Johan complains that I like shopping too much!”
The door swung open and two tall figures strolled inside.
“I see you’re awake, Trepe.”
“Hi, Quisty. How’re you feeling?”
Johan Piet’s usually serious face was completely transformed by his charming smile.
“I’m feeling fine, thank you… When do you think I’ll be discharged?”
She’d directed her question at Seifer who was eyeing her closely, but it was Ellone who replied.
“Soon! I’ve brought you some of my clothes…”
She sighed silently at the memory… That was the second time in a row she ended up in a hospital bed from sustaining an extremely minor wound! What was it about those masked figures? Every confrontation with them seemed to have such a draining effect on her…
“Let’s go, Instructor.”
The way Seifer said ‘instructor’ always had a grating effect on her nerves! He knew it too, that’s why he did it! Quistis nodded briefly at Dr. Preston, and made to follow Seifer to the lift. Once the doors slid shut, Seifer keyed in the sequence that would take them back to where their shuttle was parked in Lunatic Pandora’s docking bay. After three gruelling days spent inside the huge complex, she was more than ready to go home!
‘I don’t understand why he had to drag me here. I really should be with the E-Garden team… It’s true that the monsters around here have become increasingly more difficult… But surely one of us, is more than enough to deal with the situation… So, why are we –both– here? Is this really necessary?’ Not that she really minded… She suppressed the desire to snort at herself. ‘I’m being contradictory!’ Ever since she spotted Sasha Tavares at the airtram stop, her sense of unease had grown steadily. She darted a fleeting look at Seifer’s impatient figure, and gulped. He was looking straight at her in that smirky way of his! She absolutely refused to analyse her feelings for this… this arrogant jerk!
“So, Instructor… I’m amazed you haven’t asked for leave to visit Timber.”
Quistis could only stare at him, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’, but chose to ignore it by replying with a question.
“Seifer, why am I here? You know very well that poor Stevenson has absolutely no protection against a Malboro’s bad breath attack… ”
She asked this question in a neutral tone, without any heat. No matter what, she was worried, and was actually glad for any excuse that would allow her to keep an eye on him. But acting as his aide, Quistis felt it incumbent to her position to remind him of the poor choice he made by sending someone less experienced to lead the E-Garden team.
At the clipped tones in her oh-so-proper voice, Seifer ruthlessly suppressed a strong desire to do something…provoking. Sea-green eyes ran slowly over her body, every curve lovingly revealed by the charcoal grey Gesperthane suit she was wearing, courtesy of that interfering ass, Laguna Loire. He knew the garment provided her with greater protection than any other fighting gear, but… He wished they’d designed it to be less clingy! It was fucking distracting! It also pissed him majorly to think that others might be distracted by it too!
“You’re needed here, Trepe. And besides, it’ll be a good experience for that jackass… He wanted to be team leader. I gave him the opportunity to be one.”
Azure eyes stared at his stubborn profile incredulously, “So you sent him to fight Malboros? Don’t you think that I would be more suitable for the job?”
“All in due time, Instructor. All in due time.”
The construction of E-Garden had yet to begin, because the site’s perimeter was not deemed safe enough from the usual crop of lunar cry monsters. In Quistis’s estimate, her presence in Lunatic Pandora, from an administrative point of view, was a sheer waste of resources. But for purely personal reasons, she didn’t insist too much on it… She was just feeling a bit sorry for poor Darryl Stevenson.
Not that Stevenson was a bad fighter or anything… Indeed, Darryl had more than redeemed himself these past few months, but still, he had very limited experience fighting Malboros and the like. Also, he didn’t have the protection of a GF as she did, since Shiva would not allow Stevenson to draw her out! What she found even more incredible, was the fact that the finicky GF had no trouble going to Seifer! She’d asked him to do it, as a sort of test… Then she tried to draw Tiamat from him, but she was not even able to sense that particular GF at all! It was as if Tiamat was… ignoring her? Could that be possible? The whole experience had left her feeling extremely baffled! She would have to ask Dr. Odine about it, if she ever could find the time.
In the past, it was not easy to pass GFs around from person to person, but even if affinity was as low as zero, it could still be done… However, since Time Compression all GFs were behaving in incredibly unexpected and erratic ways! On a more positive front, she had suffered no more memory loss… ‘Apart from the rare entry, I’ve stopped writing my journal… I know I cannot recover what I’ve already lost…but at least… at least I can look forward!’ For example, she knew Hephaestus had taken up residence somewhere in her psyche, but he was so unobtrusive as to be almost imperceptible. Except for the extremely rare occasion in which she could sense his faint presence. As if he was waiting… waiting… Waiting for what?
So unlike Shiva! Not only could she sense her, but she had also developed quite a distinct personality! It was so hard to explain. For some reason, her affinity with this particular GF had grown to the point that to junction her was almost done as an automatic reflex, something completely seamless… For all that, it freaked her out sometimes how she could sense Shiva’s predilection for Seifer! ‘Wait…wait a minute! Shiva, are you laughing at me!?’
“What’s the matter, Trepe? All of a sudden you look like you swallowed somethin’ real acid?”
“Arriving at level 0, Crystal Hall A”
“SeeD Leader Almasy, SeeD Trepe”
“Your shuttle, Aegis1, is waiting at Docking Bay 8”
Seifer smirked when he saw her exit the elevator with alacrity. His question unanswered. He followed her closely behind. He was actually surprised that she’d not insisted on swapping places with Stevenson! But left it at that. She wasn’t going anywhere without him. Not to fucking Timber, not to E-Garden’s site! The events in that parking lot a few weeks ago were still etched freshly in his mind. That was the second time those fuckers had referred to Quistis as ‘blue witch’. They’ve also called him ‘knight’, but that little fact was pretty well known.
He’d be willing to bet his entire yearly SeeD stipend on the fact that only a very, very select few, knew that Quistis was a blue magic user. If nothing else, being a Sorceress Knight had taught him that her branch of magic was quite unique in today’s world, because blue mages have been extinct for a long time. Although from what he knew, blue mages were supposed to be able to summon those powers at will, but Quistis’s only came during her limit break, when she was under extreme duress…
He watched as Quistis made her way to their sleek little shuttle, the Aegis1. It bothered him a great deal that at Centra, that first masked fucker had called Quistis ‘blue witch’ before she ever got to cast Mighty Guard. There was something very funny going on! And that night, when they were attacked at the mall’s parking lot, he’d felt like they were under observation… Quistis pressed her palm against a sensor plate, and enter her code on the touch pad. The hatched door glided open. Sea green eyes watched until she disappeared inside. ‘Until I get to the bottom of this, my dear Instructor… I’m gonna be sticking real close…’ Somehow this decision put him into a better mindset!
Busy as she performed her pre-flight prep work as co-pilot, Quistis felt more than saw, Seifer sit next to her in the narrow confines of the aircraft. It never ceased to amaze her at how quickly he’d learnt to fly this thing.
“So… You wanna attend Nida’s wedding?”
She was caught completely off guard by his question! That invitation had been sitting in their inbox for over a week now… She stared at his handsome profile, and tried not to blink. He knew she was very disappointed at having missed Irvine’s birthday! Being inside Lunatic Pandora she hadn’t been able to reach their sniper friend to even wish him a simple ‘Happy Birthday’. Sometimes Seifer would completely disarmed her with these sudden bouts of niceness from his part…
“Uh, I… Of course I want to be there! But…can we get the time off?”
She completed her own tasks. She watched him key in their flight sequence back to Esthar Airstation.
“We can if we fly in and out the same day.”
“We can do that?”
He turned to her, and flashed her cocky smile.
“Watch this, Trepe!”
The shuttle lifted and in a burst of forward thrusters, shot out of Lunatic Pandora…
“Eeek!… Seifer! Why are you so reckless?”
“I’ll take that to mean yes…”
§ ~ § ~ §
The body is but a vessel for the soul
Humans are such fragile creatures…
(Bring the chalice for the initiate)
A puppet which bends to the soul’s tyranny
(All is ready, Doma)
Humans are easy to seduce, and very easy to corrupt…
(As you wish, Great One)
And lo, the body is not eternal
Their lifespan is but a mere breath. A mere blink. Perhaps because of it, they are eager to betray one another…
Their life-force is so easily snuffed…
For it must feed on the flesh of others
(It is done, Doma)
(Let the Chalice have its way…)
Lest it return to the dust whence it came
Humans… Why do they exist?
(It shall be as you say, Doma)
That one such as I… To be confined in a prison of the ages… It cannot have been the work of mere mortals. No. This must be the work of other gods. They, too, shall pay for this outrage…
(It is done)
(Doma… Why did we let the Blue Witch and her Knight go?)
(Are you questioning my orders?)
(No!… Of course not, Great One!)
(They are not needed… Not yet)
(Doma. Please forgive my temerity!)
Gods no longer mingle with mortals. They have become oblivious to each other’s existence… This will be to my advantage.
(Doma. Could it be that this Ultimecia creature has done us a great favour?)
(She was merely another tool. Just like you and I)
Therefore must the soul
Deceive, despise, and murder men
I have waited for almost an eternity to escape my prison. Soon, I will be free. Soon I will reclaim what belongs to me.
§ ~ § ~ §
To be continued…