"I saved you... because it didn't matter to me."

Vaan didn't feel the least bit abashed by the way he was opening up to this stranger whose name was still a mystery. Not to mention that she'd tried to attack him earlier too.

"We're people, right? And I felt it was right to help you if you were in trouble, so..." He blushes and lightly chuckles, "... I'm ranting, aren't I?"

She stares at him with curiosity and confusion. He could see it in her eyes. She had no idea what he was even talking about.

"So... She's flown the coop?"

Emperor looks down, smirking at Kefka. The Cloud of Darkness smiles to the side.

"What a funny game you play. You know you've just lost what you call your 'ace', Kefka?"

"As if!" Kefka snickers knowingly, "She'll come back to me, you'll see! She has to, and she always has..."

"Interesting that you put such faith in that creature. She looks impossibly weak," ExDeath remarks gruffly, "I should like to try and take her to the void."

"You wouldn't stand a chance!" Kefka shrugs, his fingers dangling and scuttling about like a puppeteers, "I'm telling you, have a little faith in me!"

"Chaos have you if you fail."

"Like you should speak, Kuja! I know you did something, you spindly-"

"Enough," Golbez enters grandly, "Our victory for this cycle is assured."

"You mean..."

"Yes. We have found the Empyreal Rift Paradox. And the Manikins."

The Cloud makes something of a clicking sound of disapproval with her tongue.

"Ahh!" Vaan threw his arms wide to embrace the blue sky, "Alright, now to report to Lightning!"

"What?"

"Huh, oh,"He turns, "I gotta go back to the other warriors. We're planning to mount an attack before we beat Chaos."

"... You're going to go fight..."

"..." Vaan looks down a little guiltily before turning back to the stranger, "Listen, you go hide somewhere. Then, I'll come back for you when the battles done. We'll go to Cosmos and you can become one of her warriors! Then you'll be able to get home once we beat Chaos and this stuff settles down."

She looks at him with concern. He laughs, "You won't have to fight. That's what you want, right?"

"Yeah..."

"Well then hold onto that hope," He raises a hand in farewell as he begins to turn, "I'll see you later!"

"Vaan!"

He stops, surprised. He turns apprehensively, "Yeah?"

"My name. It's Terra."

Terra. Terra. That sounded nice in his mind. He smiles.

"Alright. It's nice to meet you Terra!" He liked the sound of it on his tongue and grins.

Terra felt something genuine in his dazzling smile. She watches anxiously as he vanishes through the portal. She alone is left on the castle, pondering her next step.

"Vaan!"

"Yo, Luneth!"

The two convene before the forest setting. The little Onion Knight looks a little sideways at Vaan.

"What's up? I'm about to meet with Kain."

"..." Vaan purses his lips before speaking slowly, "Luneth, can I ask a favor of you?"

"Hmm? Uh, I guess … so long as it's not something weird..."

"There's a girl I need you to look after."

"What?" The Onion Knight is taken aback, "What now?"

"Her name's Terra. And she's, well, I told her to hide for now. But if you see her again, please don't let her get hurt. She doesn't like to fight and she was just dragged into this..."

"O...Okay..."

"Got it? Thanks. I gotta go meet Cosmos for something. See ya!"

The Knight watches Vaan run off. From the shade of the trees, Kain approaches silently.

...

Crystalline figures press forth, goaded by the power of Chaos. They are eerily broken and mechanic. Unable to stop or feel, they progress into the Empyreal Rift Paradox Portal where their sheer population cascades about like a plague.

"They go forth... to the Order's Sanctuary."

"Convenient, isn't it? No need for us to fight."

"Hmm?"

The portal fluxes and several manikins shatter in the process of crossing over.

"It seems it will be a little bit before we will fully be able to utilize the sheer numbers under our reign..."

"Bah! The number already marching forth to those clueless fools will be enough! And besides," Garland scoffs, "We have an unlimited amount of foot soldiers now."

"Good thing Cid made so many mistakes, you mean!"

"Ohh..."

Terra moans, looking about at the vast blank and grey scenery. She'd followed into the portal, only to be dumped here in this odd place with no sense of direction. The Portal had closed up behind her, and the worst part was this weird feeling she got from the little white shell structure in the apparent center of this place. It emanated holy light, and she felt repelled as a warrior of Chaos.

"What should I do...?" She considered returning to Kefka. Then a distant rumbling alerted her to the horizon line opposite the white shell. Figures … menacing and stiff, were making their way towards where she stood. She felt their aura. They wanted to fight. To destroy.

Thoughts raced through her mind. She could run. They weren't hostile to her yet, and she was reluctant to fight anyway. But despite her reluctance, she stayed rooted where she was.

Even if she didn't want to fight, even of she was on the side of Chaos... She had a strong feeling that this place … Vaan would've protected it if he were here. This place was … special. So, she'll protect it too. Vaan was so kind to her... She felt the warmth from his hand as he pulled her away from Kefka. He told her... promised her she'd not have to fight if she didn't want to.

"Vaan..." She draws her sword and tenses as magic flows about her blade. The Manikins are indifferent at the one not their target and a Phantasmal Girl leaps at her.

Concentrating a strong blast of magic, Terra shatters it. An Imaginary Soldier and Delusory Warlock pounce before the shards even touch ground. Terra grapples with each of their swords, being pushed back repeatedly. A Transient Lion lands a shallow slash to her midriff.

I …

The Capricious Thieves leer hungrily at the sight of blood and charge altogether.

I won't lose!

A burst of magic blows away the front line attacking. Despite the onslaught of a seemingly endless stream of enemies, Terra continues to hold off their advance to the lake center. Slowly, however, she is backed to the shell.

Protect it... Protect it … I have to …

"I have to protect it!"

Drawing into her magic blood, a surge of magic races across her fingertips. She lets loose a savage barrage of fireballs, instantly shattering the crystalline army.

As their pieces shimmer, falling, Terra struggles to stay standing. Her blue cape is in shreds and her vision is beginning to blur. Blood is running freely from her wound and she can't feel her magic anymore.

Slowly, painfully, she turns to look at what she had protected. Despite the exhaustion and weakness, she saw that this was actually a throne of sorts. Dragging her feet, she makes it to the steps and looks up at the light in the clouds.

This is Cosmos' Order Sanctuary... I'm sure of it...

She breathes a little sigh of both relief and happiness before falling to her knees. Overcome by the taxing effort, she collapses on the white steps. The glowing Cosmos materializes with her faithful Warrior of Light. They look down at the girl.

"She is greatly weakened."

"Yes... And she fought to protect this place even though she if from the opposing side..."

"Has she the energy to be bought back in the next Cycle?"

"She wishes not to fight... I feel her hesitation, but she is also willing to protect what she holds dear..." Cosmos' hand twinkles with a cluster of small lights, "Let her come to our side. You will be her Witness."

"... Alright."

The warrior looks on as the girl's body suddenly glows like a star, then vanishes into golden dust.

...

"We all knew this was more or less how it'd end. Well, maybe except for Vaan. But, hey, he still stuck around"

"None of what we do... will be in vain. The next cycle... we will have made a difference. Here and now."

The words rang over the rancor of battle. They echoed in Lightning's ear over and over again as she thought silently, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry...

"Ahh!" She heard Tifa cry in pain.

"Dammit!"

Lightning's Blaze Edge split as Zantetsuken was summoned. Lightning charged deeper into the fray. Manikins shatter everywhere, littering the Paradox with broken crystal.

A Fallacious Giant shatters before her from Laguna's bullets. They were almost there...

A sudden surge in the number flow of Manikins burst forth. Vaan's eyes widen at the monstrosities' infallibility. Looking about, he can see that they were already spent. And they'd yet to close the Portal. But... If these Manikins get to Cosmos...

"AAAAGH! To Hell with it!" He throws his head back.

"Lightning! You've got to close it!"

"Va-"

Roaring, Vaan runs straight into the oncoming Manikins. Don't think, don't think...

To not want to fight... That sort of a thought... It doesn't belong in this world... That's why... I wanted to protect her.

Terra's plea flashes in his head.

Please... Kill me! I, I don't want to fight... I don't want to hurt anyone anymore!

Ah, sorry, Terra. Looks like I can't take you to see Cosmos after all...

"They're finished."

"Hmm? What makes you say that, Garland?" Asks Ultimecia, even though she knew the answer, "You're really obvious."

"Still, it's troubling. Even if we should win this cycle..."

"Kain rescued a good handful of them by sparing them of their misery. But we'll start the next one with a good advantage at least."

"Indeed. And even if they close the Portal, we still have a good handful of them wandering about."

Garland laughs a deep, foreboding chortle as the new hordes of crystalline manikins make their way to the Order's Sanctuary.

"Ugh..."

Vaan falls, utterly drained. His body begins to sparkle. So do Yuna, Laguna and Tifa.

Lightning teeters precariously between unconsciousness and concentrating on staying awake. The Rift was a good distance away. If she could just move...

No. No time for that. She had to do it now.

Using the last of her strength, Lightning hurls Zantetsuken. She watches as it falls and stabs the portal, breaking it. The Manikins remaining don't even notice that their flow has been stemmed.

Blearily, Lightning manages a small smile. This was it. And collapses.