|Shards of Memory - Table of Contents|
The sense of power rolling off the beast before and below them was beyond anything Terra had ever sensed before. Chaos, Cosmos, the Warring Triad, all paled in comparison. The aura Terra saw over its body was blinding, and she looked away as the dragon turned its four eyes on her. The radiance dimmed then, and the air reverberated, Shinryu's body shaking slightly in time with them. It took Terra a moment to figure out what the reverberations meant.
The divine dragon Shinryu…was laughing.
"Do I frighten you?"
Terra cautiously reached out her powers, and touched Shinryu's aura. The dragon instantly sensed her, but she wasn't repelled, rather the dragon opened its mind to her and gave her the answers she sought. Terra pulled back, learning more than she wanted to know. But she could have guessed as much. Shinryu was ancient beyond human comprehension, and was as powerful as it was old. It didn't fear her anymore than Terra would have feared an ant. It had no hesitations of letting her know, if it wished to do so, just how easily it could kill them all without any resistance. And it let her know it had no such desire, but would be willing all the same.
"Yes," Terra whispered, causing Cloud to turn to her. "You frighten me." The thoughts that came from Shinryu were unified in their amusement. It didn't help alleviate her worries.
"I have spoken to mortals throughout the worlds in the past, and made myself known to them through avatars of my flesh. Though none have seen my true visage, the mention of my name was enough to inspire terror in them. It is human nature, to fear what cannot be understood, so it comes as no surprise that you fear my power, beyond your comprehension as it is. Cosmos and Chaos seem as gods to you, but their power is only a fraction compared to mine." Cloud stepped forward and looked up.
"Shinryu. We were told you were the one responsible for the cycles of war between Cosmos and Chaos." Terra realized what he meant. Gabranth's words. It seemed years ago the two of them had faced the Judge Magister and he warned them of Shinryu's coming. "Are you?" Cloud asked.
"Then why?" Cloud asked, growing angry. "You trap all of us in a cycle of war we can't win? That endangers our worlds and revives our enemies? For what? Why are you doing this!" Cloud's last words hung in the air as he outright shouted at the divine dragon. Shinryu stared at him for a moment, and then lifted its head to look over them.
"That is why. Behold, the only power I have encountered in all existence that could compare to mine."
The Warriors of Cosmos turned to see what the dragon was looking at.
In the distance within the Void, a bubble hovered in the air. But it was different from the bubbles that contained the other spirits. They glowed blue or purple, but this bubble had no color at all. Within the bubble lay what was clearly a machine. Four metal legs ended in three-pronged feet, extending from a round central body. The front of the body was dominated by a large, pupil-less yellow eye. The machine was collapsed onto its underside within the bubble, its legs motionless and the various lights on its body unlit. Though it appeared menacing, the machine was not particularly large compared to many of the beasts they had encountered, and the main body was merely the size of a small house. Terra felt a chill as she stared at the large yellow eye on the center of the machine's body, and turned away. Shinryu turned one of its four eyes towards her.
"You sense it as well…"
"Yes," Terra whispered. A terrible power came from the machine, rivaling even the power of Shinryu itself. Even at a distance and with it inactive, its strength was undeniable. But, the machine's power was far different from Shinryu's. Shinryu's was at odds with the Void around them, lighting up the darkness with its rainbow aura. The machine sealed in the bubble took power from that darkness and made it its own. The Void itself flowed into the machine, fueling it in what seemed an attempt to activate it. Terra was thankful it wasn't working.
"That machine…" Bartz whispered, causing the others to turn to him. "I know that thing, I've seen a picture!" Bartz shouted. "That's Om–"
Shinryu's mental voice rumbled through the Void like a hurricane, and Terra and Cloud stumbled and fell, feeling like they'd be physically struck. Shinryu's eyes were wide now, what had been calm and collected now sounded manic.
"Do not dare speak the abomination's name!"
Shinryu's command was as deafening as its outcry a moment earlier. Cloud stood up, helping to pull Terra to her feet. He looked back at the machine. Shinryu had said it was the only thing whose power rivaled its.
"What is it?" he asked. Shinryu let out a low murmur, considering the request.
"Long ago, in the progenitor world, the first world, two great nations were at war. The enemy nation, seeking conquest, called monsters to serve their whims. Combining forbidden magic with mechanical ingenuity, they bound the souls of those monsters to a war machine, designed for mass destruction. This machine was given the sole purpose of annihilating all other beings on the planet. The other nation lacked the mechanical skill of their enemies, so they sought out an ancient tribe skilled in the ways of magic. The tribe took a child from their ranks, and infused him with the memories of centuries of warriors and hunters. Imbued with their knowledge and power, he was to be their counter-weapon. The child was named Garland by his caretakers."
"Garland…" Terra whispered.
"The child grew strong, and was eventually sent to fight the enemy's war machine. Their battle lasted three days and three nights. In the end, he called upon the ancient magics that had been taught him as a last resort, and cast the war machine into the Void. The war ended, and Garland returned to his homeland as a hero, a savior. But it was only the beginning of a far greater threat…" Shinryu looked at the war machine again. "The nation that had taken him began to abuse Garland's power. Having seen the power of the Void he wielded they sent him to fight over and over, until their dominance of the world was secured. Realizing their allies had gone too far, Garland's caretakers tried to confront him, but the dangerous magic he was abusing had seeded a deep darkness in his heart. He cast them into the Void as well. His rampage would go on, until the day the darkness consumed him and he turned on his kingdom."
"He became Chaos," Cloud interrupted. "He used the Crystal of Darkness and the Void to try and create a time paradox where he could become immortal."
"Yes. Hikari and his three comrades went back in time, and banished Chaos into the Void. But that was not the end. In the rifts of the Void, Chaos endured, such was his power, or rather the power of the Crystal of Darkness he seized before he was banished. In time he crafted a new realm for himself out of the remnants of other worlds that had been consumed by the Void, and so the Edge of Madness was birthed. Within his new seat of power, Chaos was found by the lingering spirits of his caretakers. The three of them realized they had been manipulated by the nations of their world, and that they now shared a common hatred for them. And so out of mutual hatred was birthed a common goal – vengeance."
"I have been wandering the Void for eons, long before the cycles of war began. Seeing the creation of this new realm I came to investigate it, and found Chaos and his caretakers. They sought to return home, and to claim revenge on those that had caused them to be trapped here. When I visited them, they asked me to assist them, promising me power if I agreed."
"And you did," Cecil said, stating it as a fact and not a question.
"Why not?" Shinryu replied, a hint of challenge in it voice. "When one is free to wander between realms at their whim and is strong enough to unmake them if they so choose, what else is there but to strengthen one's self further? I have crafted and uncrafted hundreds of worlds to rule over as diversions from an eternity of tedium. They only entertain me for so long, though, and in the end my travels resume. The purpose of my existence is utter freedom, the power to do almost anything I wish unchallenged. My masters and creators are long dead, so long even I cannot remember my origins. This bargain was a new amusement, and unlike any other situation I had encountered when before I had shown myself to lesser beings. So yes, I agreed to assist them."
"That's your excuse? You were bored?" Firion asked in disbelief. "Do you have any idea how many lives have been destroyed by these wars?"
"I apologize," Shinryu said, obviously talking down to the rebel. "I did not realize you too are one who has the capacity to crush a world into oblivion with one hand. And if you are not, then do not presume to pass judgment upon me. Have I condemned many to die with my actions? Yes, but you do not yet comprehend that inaction on my part would have invited a far worse catastrophe. No doubt from your limited scope I must seem quite wicked, but you are simply too ignorant and naïve to know better. Such is the way of mortal man. Be grateful that I am merciful enough to enlighten you, when once in my less-patient years I would have eradicated you for your ignorance."
"So you agreed," Cloud said, not wanting any of them to antagonize Shinryu further. "Then what?" Shinryu turned its attention back to Cloud, and after a moment began to speak again.
"I showed the three the war machine that Garland had cast into the Void. Its power was unlike any other entity I had ever encountered. While others gradually faded into the Void, this machine took power from it and grew stronger. In time, its power would come to rival my own, as it very nearly does now. Having been programmed for utter destruction and with no other objective, its aim extended to all the worlds it could see now, all the worlds of the Void. I sealed it away here and observed it as it tried to break free, sending pale shades of itself to other worlds to sow destruction where it could not. I wish now I had destroyed it then when I first found it, for now it has grown too strong to be destroyed, only sealed. Were it to be released our battle would tear the fabric of the universe to shreds, and I could not say with certainty that I would ultimately win. But, all four of us were fools back then."'
"We entered into a pact, myself, Chaos, and his caretakers. The female of them would be given a sample of my power, to become Chaos's equal. She would take the name Cosmos. The male of them, Cid, would stand at my side and watch the proceedings, I guiding the Champion of Light and Cid guiding the Champion of Darkness. We crafted a new world, in the image of all other worlds, in the center of the Void. This would be the battlefield for what was to come."
"Chaos would select ten warriors attuned to darkness from across time and space and I would deliver them to him. They would steal the Crystals, the life sources of their worlds, and Cosmos would then select ten warriors attuned to light from these same worlds. These warriors would be brought to our world, where those serving the light would fight to reclaim their Crystals from those serving the darkness. At the end of the war, whichever of the ten held their Crystal would return home, while the ten who failed, be they warriors of light or darkness, would remain in this world as lingering specters. Over time their spirits would give up their strength to the war machine, to fuel it and power it. Eventually the machine would become strong enough to activate, and Cosmos, Cid and Chaos would use it to return home and conquer their world. At the same time I would absorb from the warriors the energy they exerted in their battles, taking their power for my own. So it was that Cosmos, Cid and Chaos created the cycles of war, me and the war machine gaining ever more power from the battles they arranged."
"You're lying!" Tidus said suddenly. "Cosmos summoned us to save our worlds, not to power some machine!"
"He's right!" Luneth nodded. "We were brought here to save the Crystals!"
"Needed but unfortunate lies," Shinryu said. "Your worlds are in stasis, with their Crystals taken they have been frozen in time. The world you have traveled through is our construct, choice pieces of it manipulated by your memories to grant the illusion that your home worlds have been joined as one. The Crystelle are likewise, artificial beings made from fragments of my own flesh and given form by the faces of those in other worlds. I am afraid all you were told by the goddess were lies. Well-crafted and articulated lies, but they are lies all the same. Even their titles are a farce. Cosmos and Chaos are no gods. Particularly powerful mortals, perhaps. But not gods."
"No…" Cloud took a step back. "She wouldn't do that!"
"Do not judge her too harshly. When Cosmos first came to this world, she was as hateful and vengeful as Chaos and her husband, but the long cycles of war calmed her turbulent heart. I came to a similar realization. It troubled me that they were condemning many innocent lives to oblivion just to fuel their need for revenge, but by the time I came to think such I could not stop them. If I removed myself from their pact, the sealing on the war machine would be broken. I allowed them to create a machine that could perhaps surpass my power and destroy me, and I could only watch as they were unsatisfied with it and tried to make it stronger. Indeed, I have oft wondered if this was their true intent all along, to use it to eradicate me and then conquer all worlds, not just their own. I tried to end it many times by killing Chaos myself when the cycles concluded, but he had enacted a time paradox with his Crystal of Darkness to be eternally reborn through Garland. Chaos was immortal, and killing Cosmos would end the cycles but leave Chaos and his warriors unchecked to rampage through the dimensions. They had foreseen my potential for treachery and outwitted me by exploiting the laws of the foundations of the universe, laws even I could not defy. I had allowed myself to become an unwitting pawn in the schemes of mortals, and I had only myself to blame."
"You were a prisoner of their cycle too," Terra whispered. "You were manipulated and trapped just like the rest of us."
"Yes," Shinryu confirmed. "In a way we were all prisoners, prisoners of ourselves, Chaos and Cosmos and myself all bound by our pact and unable to defy it. Over time, Cosmos and Chaos too came to realize the folly of their actions, yet they came to different conclusions. Chaos decided to forego their plan and conquer the worlds on his own without them or the war machine, and so sought a way to escape our pact by breaking the cycle and killing Cosmos. At the same time, Cosmos sought to end the cycle herself, realizing the harm being done to innocents with their manipulations. It was by mere chance their schemes were compatible. Thus, this cycle, it was done. Cosmos was slain due to the manipulations of Emperor Mateus and Golbez. With her dead Chaos's plot to escape and travel the worlds on his own would have succeeded, once he saw this cycle to fruition. But he failed to win this final time, the only time it truly mattered, and so the cycles of war are over." Shinryu lowered his head. "And I thank you. You have freed yourselves, and me as well, and stopped an unprecedented apocalypse by depriving the machine of further power."
"You're serious? It's all over?" Squall asked.
"Yes. The Crystal of Darkness of Chaos's world is shattered, and he can no longer revive himself. Cosmos is dead and cannot be revived even if she wished it. Cid, our pact broken, will eventually into nothingness without the power of Chaos's Crystal of Darkness to sustain his spirit. He has no further power over the machine or myself. The Crystal of Light of Chaos's world, the Axis Crystal, has been returned, and yours await their returns when you take them home. All is as it must be now."
"For real? No more hidden surprises?" Bartz repeated.
"Have I not been clear on this already?" Shinryu said, slightly amused. Bartz and Zidane leapt up, slapping a high five. Sighs of relief and cheers came from the various members.
"What about the war machine?" Luneth asked.
"As I said, it has grown too strong to be destroyed, but not to be sealed. By the rules of the pact, those slain in the cycles grant me their fighting experience. With their deaths in this cycle, the fragments of my power I gifted to Cosmos and Chaos have returned to me stronger than before with their accumulated knowledge. I will be able to strengthen the seal to prevent it from gaining more power. Do not fear. The Weapon will be contained securely."
"Just one last thing then," Cloud said. "What happens to us?"
"This cycle is not yet fully complete. You must still return home to your worlds with your Crystals, and with their Crystals returned your worlds will be restored. I can send you home now, if you wish. I drew you to this place to save you when the world of Chaos's design began to collapse upon his death. Now I have nothing more to say, but to again extend my gratitude."
"We go home…what about Golbez and Jecht?" Cecil asked. "What has become of my brother?" Cloud turned to him.
"When I entered the Edge of Madness, they stayed behind. They couldn't enter the portal, so they elected to fight off the Crystelle to keep them from interfering with the battle," he said. Cecil looked disheartened, and Tidus let out a frustrated grunt. "I don't know what happened to them once I left. Sorry," Cloud finished. Shinryu looked at Cecil and Tidus.
"Your kin are an irregularity in the cycle's order. None before have been cast aside by Chaos, nor sought to betray him and side with Cosmos. Traitors with hearts of light in bodies of darkness, I cannot say with certainty their fates. The world of our construct has collapsed, but their spirits have vanished from my sight. Perhaps they have already returned home, or perhaps they have sunk back into death. I do not know."
"…sucks," Tidus muttered, looking at the ground. Cecil didn't say a word.
"I have something to say as well," Terra said, stepping forward. Cloud looked down to see her hand slip into his. "I don't want to return to my world," she said. She looked over at Cloud and smiled. "Send my Crystal home, make sure they're okay. But I want to go with Cloud to his world."
"Lucky bastard," Zidane muttered from somewhere behind Cloud. Shinryu turned its eyes towards Terra.
"What?" Terra turned back to Shinryu, confused.
"I cannot. There are laws in this universe even I must obey. The Crystals must be taken home by their chosen holders, no one else. It would be another matter if you found a way to travel between worlds on your own, but not so with the cycles. If you do not return to your world it will remain in stasis forever," Shinryu explained. "You may go with him if you wish, but your world will never be restored. The decision is yours." Terra looked down.
"When you put it that way, there's really no decision at all, is there?" she whispered sadly. Cloud reached over to tilt her head up.
"Hey. We knew it was a long shot anyway, right?" he said.
"Yes," Terra agreed, forcing a smile. Cloud returned the gesture.
"There's really no way?" he asked, looking up at Shinryu.
"Nay. Some find ways to travel between worlds on their own, and they are free to travel as they please. But your travels now are governed by the laws of the cycle, and they must be upheld. If Terra wishes to not return to her world, her Crystal cannot go without her."
Cloud looked back at shifted his hand to cup her cheek.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"I won't forget you," she whispered.
"Same here," he replied. He let go and turned to the group to see them all watching, a few grins showing. "You could have looked away," he grumbled.
"And miss that look you're sporting right now?" Tidus teased. A couple of them chuckled, and then fell silent.
"So…this is really it…we're finally going home," Luneth said.
"It's what we've been fighting for from the start, but it still doesn't seem real," Firion sighed. "I guess all that's left to say is goodbye."
"Indeed," Cecil said. "It has been an honor to fight alongside you all."
"Same here, been a real blast," Zidane agreed. Bartz nodded, then looked up at Squall.
"I see you looking all quiet up there," he said. "C'mon, you're gonna miss us, say it!" Squall rolled his eyes and turned away.
"…I'll never forget you guys," he muttered. "No matter how hard I try."
"That's the sprit!" Bartz laughed, throwing his arms over Squall's shoulders. Squall grimaced and shrugged him away.
"We ready?" Cloud asked. The other eight nodded, and the final Champion of Light turned around and looked up at Shinryu. "Shinryu. Send us home," he said. Shinryu gave Cloud a very human nod, and the Crystals lit up in flashes of light.
"Then it is with sincere thanks and genuine congratulations that I bid you farewell, Warriors of Cosmos," the dragon said, floating away. "I return to my eternal journey, free again. As do we all." With that, Shinryu turned, flapped its wings and flew into the depths of the Void, vanishing in an instant. The warriors lit up in the same color of their Crystals, and began to fade away, sparkles of light drifting up from their bodies.
"See ya around!" Luneth waved, dispersing.
"It's been fun," Bartz grinned, following. One by one they faded away, Cloud turning to Terra and noticing he could see through her body. He leaned forward, but she vanished shortly after turning her eyes his direction. Cloud's hand passed through where her face had been, and he had only a second to sigh in disappointment before he too vanished.
Nine shining Crystals hovered in the air, shining in place for a moment, before flying off into the Void, vanishing in specks of light.
Terra opened her eyes to feel a small pair of hands shaking her by the hip. She turned her head.
"Thomas?" she said. The blond-haired boy smiled.
"Come on, today's the day! You said the flying ship was gonna come today right?" he said enthusiastically. "I can come this time right?"
"Flying…" Terra looked around. Her home in Mobliz. Her bed. Her nightstand. Her hair ribbon nearly folded on top of it with her boots at the bottom.
"Yeah, you said I'm old enough now!" Thomas cheered. Then his face dropped. "Aaaaaw, don't tell me I can't, I've been waiting ever since it first came to go on it!"
"Setzer…" Terra took a moment to think. Thomas was talking about Setzer's airship coming. She stood up and crossed to the window to see the village aglow in the golden light of the rising sun.
"It's morning…the morning of that day…" she realized. Shinryu had returned them home, the same morning as the day it had all began. Setzer was going to arrive in the Falcon within the hour, to fly her to Figaro to see Celes and Edgar in South Figaro.
Staring out at Mobliz, not yet woken up in this early light, Terra felt herself begin to cry even as she broken into a wide smile.
"Home…it's true. We really went home…"
"Mama? What's wrong?" Thomas asked. Terra knelt down and hugged him. She'd have picked him up if she didn't remember he was too old.
"Nothing's wrong, nothing at all," she whispered. "Of course you can come." Thomas cheered again and ran out of the home. Terra turned back to the window to watch him enter the common house where the rest of the children aside from Katarin and Duane slept.
"Mobliz…" It looked just like the day she had woken up. Then somehow she'd gone back in time, if only a few hours. She reached for her hair ribbon and turned to the small mirror she had hung on the wall. Terra tied her hair into a ponytail, noting the pale blond color. Holding up an arm, Terra concentrated. Nothing happened. Putting the same hand on her necklace, she failed to sense anything. She sighed slightly. The world was once again closed off to her. Her powers had left her again, just as she'd feared. She looked back at the window.
"Cloud…did you make it too?"
Cloud turned over, eyes closed. Something bright shone through his eyelids, and with a groan of irritation he lifted a hand to block it. A small giggle got him to open his eyes to see a young girl holding a small hand mirror, reflecting the light coming through the window blinds into his face.
"Good morning Cloud. Tifa said you had slept in," she said sweetly.
"Marlene!" Cloud muttered, throwing back the blanket, clad only in his pants. Marlene dropped the mirror and ran out of the room laughing. Cloud stopped, feet over the edge of the bed, as he realized what had happened. "Marlene?" he called, looking at the door to his room. There was no response, so he stood and walked to the blinds, pulling them up. Bright sunlight streamed in and he had to shield his eyes. Beyond the window the city of Edge sprawled, a few early risers already going about their daily routines.
"Hey, sorry about that." Cloud turned as Tifa leaned against the doorway, wiping off her hands with a rag. "I told Marlene to wake you up but I didn't think she'd do it like that," she finished.
"Tifa!" Cloud reached her in three long steps and pulled her into a tight hug.
"Cloud?" Tifa gasped. "Are you okay?"
"We did it…I'm home," he whispered.
"Um, did you go somewhere?" Tifa asked, getting embarrassed. Cloud pulled back. "Are you okay?" Tifa repeated.
"I'm great," Cloud said, giving her a rare smile. "Where's Denzel?"
"He went off with Barret to see Reeve, something came up with them. Anyway, I told Marlene to wake you because we've got an order from Mideel." Tifa produced a piece of paper with some hastily scribbled writing on it. "The bar down there wants some of our liquor delivered to them, I figured you might want to get an early start on it."
"Delivery…" Cloud whispered, taking the note. He looked over at his desk. It was replaying itself. The same day as the Crystelle had attacked. The memories were coming back to him now. Of course, the Mideel delivery, Denzel with Barret, Marlene's wake-up call. "It's all the same…"
"You sure are acting weird. You didn't roll out of bed and hit your head did you?" Tifa asked, peering at him curiously.
"No, I'm fine, fine," Cloud replied, blinking a few times. "Just had a weird dream." "Was it all a dream? No, can't be…unless…"
"Okay then, get dressed and come downstairs, breakfast is still warm," Tifa said, leaving. Cloud looked back down at the note and set it on the desk. Taking his hand back, he looked at his bare arm and thought for a moment. Cloud walked to his closet and opened the door. His riding outfit hung up, and he remembered why, that day that he was now reliving and yet was so long ago, he had worn his SOLDIER uniform, his riding outfit had been torn along the hip in a monster attack and needed stitching. Cloud fingered the tear and wondered if it had been there when he had donned the outfit back when he had come to the city with Terra and Zidane.
Was everything really all as it was before? Had it never changed as Shinryu said, the fragments of worlds he had seen truly just replications of their homes? Was it all really over, now that he was back? And had the others gone home as well? Too many questions he couldn't answer, even now that it was all settled his mind raced as the finer details of his quest eluded him. The others…
"Terra…" remembering the half-Esper hadn't been allowed to accompany him, Cloud unhooked the dark purple top from the rack and pulled it over his head.
"Was that really goodbye?"
|Shards of Memory - Table of Contents|