A/N: I've been replaying FF8 over the past couple of months and I only just now got to the Deep Sea Research Center. It turns out Zell has a whole explanation for what it is, and it's not even close to what I've presented here. So…yeah. I probably should have done this research before I started writing so that I wouldn't get literally everything wrong. I've been face-palming so hard since I realized. Thank you to everyone who decided to just go with it and not correct me. (Obviously, no one is reading this particular story for detailed mythology, lol.)
Chapter 15: Dark Blue
Contrary to popular belief, Seifer didn't dislike book work. He'd always done well on his written assignments in class and he liked to read — even the highly technical stuff so often assigned to cadets in training. But the Deep Sea Research Center's archives were a whole new level of dry. As he browsed through yet another file full of dense, jargon-heavy scientific discussion, his eyes began to glaze over.
Beside him, at her own terminal, Quistis seemed to be struggling, too. She blinked hard and yawned, then put both hands to her lower back and arched her body in a stretch.
"How's it going?" she asked, sounding weary. "Have either of you found anything?"
Squall didn't even glance up. "No."
"How about you, Seifer?"
"Nothing that will help us tomorrow."
They'd been at it all day and still hadn't discovered anything new about the blue magic monster they were supposed to track down in the morning. Searching for direct references to the creature had gotten them nowhere, so they had switched to looking for mentions of blue magic in general. That tactic had produced the opposite problem: a glut of information, most of which was incredibly dense and too theoretical to be of any use on the battlefield.
"This is pointless," Seifer grumbled. "We could spend the next year of our lives going through all this and still not find what we need."
"I'm beginning to get that feeling, too," Quistis admitted. "There is some really interesting stuff in here though. Like, it's been an accepted theory for a long time that all magic originated on the moon. Even sorceress power is thought to have probably gotten here — somehow, at some point — through a Lunar Cry. But the scientists that were working here didn't think that was the case. They thought some magic actually had earthly origins."
Squall grunted thoughtfully. "Well, that makes sense to me. I mean…why would the moon be so special? Plus, if you believe all magic everywhere had to come down in a Lunar Cry, then how do you explain people like Ellone? She didn't acquire magic like a sorceress does, or collect and junction it like we do. She just is magical."
Seifer glanced at Quistis. "That sounds a lot like how you describe blue magic."
"Blue magic is definitely acquired," she replied. "The spells aren't intrinsic like Ellone's power. But it does seem to at least be somewhat instinctive. I see it, and I know it. Like it's a natural thing for me to do."
"If blue magic is made up of spells native to the planet, then maybe it is natural to some people," Seifer replied. "Plus that might explain why there'd be some strange forms of it deep down in a hole under the sea."
"Does that mean the blue magic monster must be terrestrial, too?" Squall asked. "If it can learn and use blue magic, then that suggests it didn't originally come from the moon."
"I think that's a solid theory," Quistis agreed. "The isolated nature of the dig site supports it, too. All monsters that carry blue magic spells might ultimately be terrestrial."
Seifer crossed his arms, thinking. "Then why does this one seem to be different? It's one thing for a malboro to be running around with a bad breath spell, but it is something else entirely for it to be able to see and then learn shockwave pulsar."
"Maybe this thing's just smarter," Squall said with a shrug.
Quistis's eyes sparkled with sudden excitement. "Or it's something more sophisticated, like a guardian force. If it is, then junctioning with it might give anyone the ability to use blue magic. Imagine what that would do for Garden."
Seifer frowned. Personally, he didn't care for the idea of risking his life so that Garden could make a hundred carbon copies of something they already had in Quistis. She could already do all of these things. Why wasn't that enough? Why risk her on the faint possibility that she could be leveraged even harder for some vague institutional benefit?
She looked so fascinated by the possibility though that he kept his misgivings to himself.
It wasn't his business to tell her what to do. If she really wanted to go after this thing, then he'd be there at her side, ready to do whatever was necessary to protect her.
And if worse came to worse, if the monster was even stronger than they thought…well, he'd killed a guardian force before.
Hyne help him, he'd do it again.
Quistis got up early the next morning, her anxious energy ahead of the mission too intense to allow her to sleep. She spent an overly long time preparing for the day, even pausing to inspect the entire length of Save the Queen. Despite every effort at delay, she arrived well ahead of time at Garden's main gate where she, Squall, and Seifer had agreed to meet.
She leaned against the wall to wait for them and tried to ignore the magic throbbing in her head. She was stuffed to capacity with spells, equipped with everything she thought she might need and then a little extra on top.
The buzzing exhilaration of all that concentrated power wasn't something she'd felt since the war, and she wasn't sure now if she liked it. Like a favorite scent ruined by a bad experience, the sensation reminded her forcibly of time compression and the existential horror of seeing the fabric of the universe tear apart all around her.
She cast an impatient glance around and smiled when she saw Seifer walking toward her. She'd last seen him in the middle of the night when he'd left her wholly unwound and blissfully drowsy in her bed, and he seemed to bring that ease and contentment along with him as he stopped beside her. Her pre-battle jitters slowed, replaced by gentle warmth.
"Morning," he said, his mouth quirking slightly to the side. "Sleep well?"
"Yes. Did you?"
"Well enough. Definitely in the mood to go destroy some monsters today."
He had Hyperion in his right hand, held upright so that it rested against his shoulder. The blade was polished to gleaming and his leather gloves creaked as he flexed his fingers. He was always ready to fight. But today he had a gleam in his eye she hadn't seen since before his last field exam. He looked young and sharp and driven. She wondered if he thought that today he might finally prove himself to the rest of Garden. She hoped so. He'd earned a little forgiveness, not to mention recognition of his own worth and talent.
His chest swelled as he looked down at her.
"What?" she asked, looking through her lashes at him.
"Nothing." He dropped his voice. "It's a big mission. I wish I could kiss you before we have to go."
Warmth flooded Quistis's cheeks. "A kiss for luck?"
His smile expanded, turning full and bright. "No. For fun. I don't need luck. Remember?"
Her breath caught a little and for a brief second she considered letting him. Xu had taken the news better than expected, and she was tired of keeping this secret. Why not just make it public? Why keep sneaking around like what they were doing was wrong?
Things had changed between them since she'd talked to Xu and she knew it was entirely thanks to a shift in her own thinking. Now that she wasn't fighting her own feelings, there really was only one thing holding her back.
Fear of risking her heart.
And fear of the vicious gossip that would make it all the more painful if things between them didn't work out.
She looked up at him and bit her lip, not sure…
They both jumped, startled by the unexpected voice calling out his name.
Alexandra Heller came up to him at a jog and stopped just short of crashing into him, winded. She reached out with one hand to steady herself, grasping for his arm, but he twisted smoothly away so her fingers touched only air.
"Cadet Heller." His easy smile from moments before transformed into a scowl. "Is there something I can do for you?"
"I wanted to talk to you before you headed out."
"I don't have time to chat. We're leaving on a mission in a few minutes."
"That's what I want to talk to you about."
He crossed his arms. "The details of the mission are need-to-know."
"That's fine. I don't care about the details. Just about you."
Seifer's jaw clenched in irritation. "Cadet, we talked about this—"
"And it didn't change anything about how I feel!" she replied, her voice cracking with passion. "Hyne! Am I not even allowed to worry about you? Is that forbidden, too?"
Her shouting was beginning to attract attention, so Quistis decided to step in. "I'm in charge of this mission, and I assure you there's nothing you need to worry about," she said, shifting herself partially between Seifer and the girl. "Seifer was picked precisely because he's so well suited to what we'll be doing."
Heller sent Quistis a poisonous glare. "Oh please. I'm not stupid. I know that just about everyone here thinks that you're amazing and perfect and can't do any wrong. But I'm not one of them. You've always treated him like he's totally beneath you. So what exactly am I supposed to believe you think he's 'so well suited' for? Cannon fodder?"
"What?! I would never—" Quistis choked on her indignation and had to start over. "Look, Seifer is here because he is one of the best soldiers Garden has ever produced and he has more than earned the chance to prove it."
"He could have proven it ages ago if people like you and let him! But you've been so busy thinking he's not worth your time that—"
"Heller!" Seifer barked, interrupting her. "Knock it off. I requested this assignment. And the fact that you're making such a big deal out of it shows a lot less confidence in me than Quistis ever has. She's the one going into battle with me and trusting me with her life. So shut up before you say something that will get you expelled."
She squared her shoulders and faced him with glossy eyes. "You think getting expelled scares me? That I wouldn't gladly fall on that sword for you?"
"I'm sure you would. But it wouldn't mean a damn thing."
She flinched. "Seifer…"
"Mr. Almasy," he reminded her firmly.
Heller sucked in a sharp breath to buoy herself back up from that blow but did not have the chance to say anything more before Squall strode up with Rinoa at his side.
"Is something going on here?" he asked, his tone quite clearly implying in a parental sort of way that whatever it was had better stop going on because he did not want to deal with it.
"Miss Heller was just wishing us well on the mission," Quistis said.
Rinoa flashed the girl a blinding smile. "That's so nice of you! I came along to do the exact same thing." Looping an arm through Squall's, she pulled him close and rubbed her cheek in the soft fur frill of his coat.
Heller made a revolted face and excused herself. Quistis would have liked to do the same but was forced to stand and casually avert her eyes as Rinoa implored Squall to stay safe and come back to her, then planted a firm kiss on his lips. As usual when she drew him into a public display of affection, Squall went stiff, but he wasn't wholly unresponsive. He put his arms around her and hugged her tight. The sight always made Quistis's insides squirm — usually with a mix of jealousy and old resentment, but today it triggered something new in her.
Because this was what she could have with Seifer if only she could bring herself to trust him. This is what she was denying them both.
The moment passed and Rinoa pushed Squall along. "You'll be back before nightfall. Right?"
"That's the plan," Squall replied.
Rinoa clasped her hands in front of her, rocked onto her toes, and looked to Seifer and Quistis. "You two be careful down there, too. Okay? Don't take any unnecessary risks."
"We'll be fine," Seifer replied, hand-waving away her concern.
"Yes," announced Cid as he walked up with Xu at his side. "I too am confident that the three of you will handle this mission without any trouble."
Xu controlled her expression at this, but the barely perceptible tightening of her jaw suggested that she was not entirely in agreement. She had a tablet in one hand, which Cid gestured toward.
"Would you cover the mission parameters, Xu?"
"Of course." Looking down at the tablet, she read off their orders in a brisk, efficient tone. "You have all been provided several reports from the Deep Sea Research Center's database. You are to locate the monster referenced in these reports, ascertain its nature and abilities, and glean any blue magic you can before reporting back here with what you have discovered. You are not to terminate the monster except as a last resort. In the event it proves particularly dangerous, retreat and return for further orders."
"Please bear that last point in mind," Cid added. "Do not hesitate to retreat. We can always come at it a second time — perhaps more successfully once we know what it's capable of."
Squall grunted and crossed his arms, while Quistis saluted with a hearty, "Yes, sir."
Seifer merely turned on his heel, his coat flaring out. "Enough talk. Let's move out."
Cid, Rinoa, and Xu all watched them go. Glancing over her shoulder, Quistis thought she spotted Cadet Heller, too, standing at a distance, her eyes trained on Seifer's back as he walked away from her and toward the abyss.
As they walked, Seifer slowed enough that Quistis came up beside him. "Do you really believe what you said back there?" he asked. "About me being one of the best soldiers in Garden?"
"Of course. I've always thought that you and Squall were in a class of your own."
"Maybe you thought it. But you've never said it before."
"Haven't I?" She frowned.
"Not in public. No."
"I guess I have some time to make up for then."
They emerged into the morning, Squall leading the way. A sea breeze blew cutting and cold across the ramp that extended down to the Deep Sea Research Center's main platform. Quistis shivered and Seifer's long coat snapped around his legs as they descended the walkway.
A few SeeD teams were already at work in the upper levels. None said anything as Quistis, Seifer, and Squall passed by on their way down, taking stairway after stairway, the ocean out the huge Research Center windows growing darker and stranger as they descended.
At length, they came to a metal elevator platform.
"I guess this is it?" Seifer asked, tapping the platform with the toe of his boot.
"The elevator will put us into a kind of airlock, with bulkheads on either side," Quistis told him. "From there, we'll enter the Deep Sea Deposit. The entire thing is monster infested. You'll need to be ready to fight at all times. Don't let your guard down even for a second."
"Got it." He dropped Hyperion off his shoulder, holding it at the ready. "Let's go."
Squall started the elevator and they rode down in silence.
The chamber the elevator emerged into had no windows and was strictly utilitarian — bare metal walls and steam pipes everywhere. When the elevator stopped at the bottom, Squall walked over to a set of controls and pulled a lever. Hot steam gushed out around his gloves and the huge bolts holding the door to the dig site slid open with a clang.
Seifer kept close at Quistis's side as they approached the door and stepped through, into the strange world beyond.
"Holy shit," Seifer murmured in amazement. "This place is incredible."
Stone paths and stairs led inexorably down into the dark, twisting around a large cable that powered the machinery all the way down at the bottom. A faint blue-green glow illuminated everything, coming from chunks of crystal imbedded in the stone. The air smelled damp and heavy with some scent Quistis didn't have a name for but which put her immediately on edge.
"I guess we go down?" Seifer asked, peering over the edge of the path.
Squall nodded. "Until we reach the bottom."
"Then the real exploration begins," Quistis replied. "We never went beyond the excavation site during the war."
Seifer straightened. "Why not?"
"Ultima Weapon," Squall said simply.
"I'm assuming from the name that's some kind of nightmare monster?" Seifer asked blandly.
"Great. Fantastic place. Can't wait to see more of it."
They walked with Squall in the lead, Quistis second, and Seifer bringing up the rear. That he was willing to be last surprised her until she peeked over her shoulder and saw how close he kept behind her while keeping an eye on their back. Being surprised by something nasty was a real risk down here and it comforted her to know that he was on top of it, allowing the glory of leadership to go to Squall.
The stone steps leading down were slippery with damp and a thick growth of algae. It made for perilous footing when they came upon their first adversary: a tri-face — the least of what they could expect to face as they descended. Grinding their way ever deeper, they encountered a steady stream of ever more difficult adversaries.
When they finally arrived at the bottom, the abandoned machinery stood exactly how Quistis, Zell, and Squall had left it years before when they'd fled after beating Ultima Weapon. All was quiet. Nothing stirred in the deep, darkness surrounding them except for water dripping somewhere with a steady plop-plop-plop.
"So, it was down here somewhere the researchers saw our monster?" Seifer whispered.
"Any idea what direction?"
"There's no path from here on. I guess we'll have to take whatever route looks passable and try not to get lost."
As they stepped off the flat walkway and onto rough rock, Quistis reached out behind her and took Seifer's hand, not particularly caring if Squall saw. Of everyone in Garden, she thought he would be the least likely to judge. His lack of concern for other people's affairs was one of his many graces and over the years had become one of Quistis's favorite things about him.
Seifer gave her hand a firm, reassuring squeeze, then let go so they could both balance as they made their way across the uneven rocks.
The bottom of the huge, main shaft had filled with water, creating a vast underground lake. The impenetrably dark surface lay smooth as glass. They would have to skirt around it to reach the other side. As they hiked, they came across old digging machinery everywhere, much of it rusted beyond any hope of ever being operational again.
Squall paused before the mangled skeleton of a ruby dragon lying half in, half out of the water. Some of the bones looked crushed and blackened, and the skull had been broken in half — cracked like an egg.
"I dunno if that's a good sign or a bad one," Seifer whispered. "Anything that could do that to a ruby dragon is..."
"Not something we want to meet unprepared," Squall finished for him. "Keep your eyes open."
Stepping gingerly around the skeleton, they continued on. The lake stretched deeper and deeper into the cavern, far larger than Quistis had thought. After a while, she glanced over her shoulder to find that she could not see the path they had taken or the shaft spiraling up to the surface anymore, just rock, algae, and the mirror surface of the water.
For some reason, it made her shudder.
"I expected more monsters," Seifer said after a while.
They hadn't seen any around the lake, only odd skittering crab-like creatures that dashed into the shallow edge of the water when they walked by. The desolation struck Quistis as incredibly foreboding. To be in a place that even iron giants feared to tread…
Quistis gripped her whip a little tighter. "I sure hope we find something to make this trip worthwhile."
She didn't want to come back to Cid empty handed, the whole mission a failure. If they could at least find the monster and figure out what it was…
Part of her had firmly latched onto the idea that it might be a guardian force. They'd already found two others here, after all. Plus, Bahamut and Eden were among the most powerful guardian forces ever discovered. Anything deeper in the pit, able to have survived the years sharing space with the likes of Ultima Weapon, had to be on that same scale.
Granted, Garden was trying to scale back the use of guardian forces. But a new one — one that might grant all sorts of new abilities to whomever junctioned with it — could be invaluable and would make her mission a huge success. For having taken part in it, Seifer would reap the rewards, too. And then all would be well. They both both be assured a stable home and, perhaps, an environment where their relationship could grow.
She liked how that future sounded.
The slosh of something moving in the water brought her back out of her thoughts.
All three of them stopped dead in their tracks to turn and face the lake. Whatever had made the sound was already gone, but the ripples it had left remained, marring the pristine surface. The ripples washed against the shore at their feet with ominous little gurgles.
"Did you see it?" Squall whispered.
"No," Quistis replied, just as quiet. "Did you, Seifer?"
He shook his head. "I saw movement out of the corner of my eye, but I couldn't tell you what it was…"
As they stood watching, wary, Quistis slowly unfurled Save the Queen. Magic buzzed in her brain as she squinted into the dim, crystalline light. Nothing moved. An oppressive silence filled the space. Quistis caught and held her breath.
Her nerves had stretched near to snapping when the water exploded, something erupting out of it right in front of her. She caught the barest glimpse of pale scales before her legs were knocked out from underneath her. She crashed onto her side, her hip striking the rocks with a sharp pain. Something wrapped around her leg, squeezed hard, and gave a powerful tug that dragged her half into the water.
And then Seifer was there, Hyperion flashing. He let out a savage cry as he swung at whatever had her. It released her before he could complete the blow and his gun blade struck hard rock.
Unfazed, he scooped Quistis up and urged her back away from the water's edge. She went, dazed, aware of the sounds of battle raging behind her as Squall drove the creature back.
Drenched, her side aching, she turned to see what it was that had grabbed her.
It sat half in and half out of the lake. Quick, slashing tentacles turned the water into a violent froth, but through the spray Quistis could make out the creamy yellow coloring of its body. Along the back of its tentacles and up the back of its long, serpentine neck to the top of its broad and surprisingly dragon-like head, it had markings of blue and black rings. Nobby, spikes protruded from it everywhere and it gripped the shore with two splayed hands.
Yellow, intelligent eyes followed Squall as he slashed at it, its incredible speed allowing it to evade most of his strikes.
"We've got to help him," Quistis said, grabbing for Seifer's arm.
But he was already on his way, five steps ahead of her, racing down the lake shore straight toward the creature.
Its gaze flashed to Seifer, noting his approach, and all the spikes going down the back of its neck began to glow with magic.
Quistis encircled herself with a shell spell right as the cavern filled with a shower of bright, flashing pinpricks of light.
Ahead of her, Seifer skidded to a stop as the magic rained down on him, smoldering against the shoulders of his coat. Even within her shell, Quistis could sense half a dozen different kinds of status magic — enough to thoroughly disable anything within the halo of its reach. To her dismay, some of it began to leak through. As it brushed past her senses, she recognized it as no normal spell. This was different. Unique.
Seifer fell to his knees, his body gone rigid.
Her head spinning, all sense of up and down swiftly leaving her, Quistis cast an esuna spell on him and then crumpled onto her knees. Fear came next. Debilitating, sickening terror that left her curled in a trembling ball. She didn't see what happened after that, the whole world dissolving into a cloud of nightmares, but she heard Seifer shout.
A hand touched her shoulder.
And then, with a blue pulsing light, reason came back to her.
"Get up!" Seifer urged her, his hand tightening around her arm. "Quick!"
She struggled back to her feet and cast about, trying to put sense to what had just happened.
Vertigo and fear.
Two new magical states she hadn't even known existed. And already her mind was working out how to do it for herself.
A thrill of excitement made her shiver, eclipsing any sense of danger. This was it. They'd found the monster, and she was learning its spells. Now if only she could determine whether it was a guardian force…
Standing back, she assessed the creature. It's yellow eyes shone with otherworldly intelligence, but it made no effort to speak. Was that because it couldn't? Or because it chose not to? Down here in the depths, it probably didn't have much opportunity to converse. Though that hadn't stopped Bahamut or Odin or any the other guardians they had found in old, abandoned locations from communicating their demands and their challenges.
This thing hadn't issued a challenge. It just seemed to want them dead.
Quistis snapped her whip at the thing's tentacles as they grabbed at her, driving them back.
Off to her right, Seifer dodged the swipe of its arms to get in close, only to have it draw in a deep breath. Light filled its chest cavity, illuminating its ribs from within. Quistis got off a quick protect spell, aimed at Seifer, before it unleashed a breath attack that knocked her flat onto her back. The shell guarding her shattered with a burst of pink and purple energy.
The very air burned in her lungs. Her eyes ached. And every inch of exposed skin felt like the crust on a toasted marshmallow, the pain so sharp that she didn't even recognize the sensation at first.
Damn. This thing hits hard.
She heard a grunt and a thump as Squall landed near her, tossed in a smoldering heap. Blood soaked the white ruff of his coat.
Quistis rolled onto her side and, without thinking, cast her strongest recovery magic. A cool, healing breeze brushed against her aching limbs and face, bringing with it sweet relief. Squall shifted and groaned as it worked on him, too.
A flurry of movement brought her gaze to Seifer, who had recovered from the breath attack and now moved with incredible speed to unleash a devastating series of blows upon the monster. Thick, dark blood oozed out of the wounds he left, splattering his coat and the rocks at the lake shore.
"Don't kill it!" she called out, alarmed at the sheer amount of damage he was managing.
He pulled himself back, leaving the monster staggered. It writhed in the water and made a low, mournful sound.
Then, eyes narrowing, its spikes glowed blue-green and it cast white wind upon itself.
Quistis watched in amazement as the magic stitched the monster back together.
"It learned that from me," she murmured, astounded.
Hearing about its talent for learning blue magic and actually seeing it were two different things.
Healed, the monster recollected itself and slunk back a bit in the water, putting some distance between them.
"What's it doing?" Squall asked. "Running?"
It didn't swim away, though there was plenty of black lake water to retreat to. Instead, it paused just out of reach and cast an assessing glance over them. Its broad, dragon-like head swung side to side as it sat there, apparently weighing its options.
Smarter than the average monster.
Maybe that was why it had learned to use blue magic while other monsters hadn't.
The talent would certainly come in handy down here.
Surrounded by creatures that were in many cases bigger and tougher, this thing had figured out a way to gain an edge. It had fought its way to the top of the heap and survived by paying closer attention, by working harder, by learning every damn thing that it could to make up for the fact that it wasn't a walking tank like an iron giant or graced with massive teeth and fangs and claws like a ruby dragon.
Quistis knew what that was like, and she felt a sudden and inexplicable kinship with the thing.
Meeting its gaze, she held out a hand.
"Do you understand me?" she asked it.
The monster simply stared at her.
"I really don't think it does," Seifer said.
"It might. It's smart. I have to try." She took a step closer, coming up to the edge of the water where black blood still made the footing slippery. As she advanced on it, the monster reared its head and its tentacles splashed uneasily in the water.
"Quistis…" Seifer's voice sounded fraught with concern.
She ignored him, keeping her focus on the monster. "I'm a blue mage, too. Just like you. We can learn from each other if we stop fighting. We can be friends. See?"
Hooking her whip back onto her belt, she held up both hands, signaling for peace.
It reared its head and lit up with magic. One word roared from its mouth, a single, deadly intonation: "NO."
Quistis cast a quick defensive spell that barely managed to close over her in time. Though the haze of her own spell, she saw glowing balls of light form around her in a ring. They began to spin, moving faster and faster, and Quistis had the briefest moment to wonder at the nature of the magic when the streaking orbs created a solid band and burst into a column of energy that rushed in, consuming her.
Behind her closed eyes, she could see every color of the rainbow. All of them hitting her with different shades of pure, crushing force.
The spell faded, leaving her eyes dazzled, her ears ringing, and her consciousness barely hanging on. When vision returned, she saw that the rock around her had all been pulverized. Chunks rained down from the ceiling, pelting her shoulders, and the water at her feet steamed.
She wavered on her feet, her mind overwhelmed with the complexity of the spell even as her ravaged body threatened to fail.
Pitching forward, she crashed onto her knees in the water. It lapped warm against her thighs.
A fat, cold tentacle snatched her around the waist and pulled her in deeper.
She heard Seifer's angry bellow a second before it dragged her under. A pervasive, black cold enveloped her. With her good arm, she beat and clawed at the tentacle holding her, but it seemed impervious. For her trouble, a second arm found her and tightened around her chest, squeezing hard. Air bubbled out between her lips.
Panic began to set in.
Her lungs burned for air.
Kicking hard, she tried to work free. But it had her fast.
Through the insulation of the water, she thought she heard the fighting going on above, but it might have only been the savage pounding of her heart and the rushing of the water as the creature thrashed her side to side. The sharp pain it caused in her battered body made her see stars.
She couldn't cast underwater.
Couldn't do anything to save herself.
In the cold, oppressive dark, she could only struggle and hope it didn't flee and drag her down to the bottom of the lake where no one would ever see her again.
Seifer tore off his coat, tossed it onto the rocks, and dove headlong into the water. He didn't care that the monster had a dozen tentacles it could grab him with. Didn't even think about the possibility he might make matters worse by rushing into action. All he knew was the stark, gut churning terror of seeing Quistis get dragged into the blackness, her head vanishing beneath the water. And against that backdrop, nothing else mattered. Not his life. Not anything except pulling her back out again.
The spell that the monster had cast on her had left a warm patch of water near the shore, but he quickly splashed past it into breathtaking cold.
A tentacle swiped at him. He ducked, knocked it aside with Hyperion, and lunged deeper into the water — up to his waist, then his ribs.
Behind him, Squall called out a challenge to the beast and dove knee deep into the water himself to hack and slash at it. A protective barrage of spells rose up around the monster — ones Seifer recognized only too clearly. Mighty guard. Blue magic that he thought of as belonging to Quistis.
Squall's blows bounced off the hard barrier, but it was enough to draw the monster's attention.
Diving deeper, up to his armpits, Seifer searched desperately for Quistis.
She had to be running out of air by now.
Goddamn it! Fuck! Come on!
Real panic began to fill him now, desperation growing sharp in his chest. He glanced at the monster, trying to make sense of the writhing mass it presented, trying to pin down which of its many arms might be holding her.
Somehow, amongst the chaos of Squall's flashing gunblade and its attempts to grab him, Seifer spotted two unmoving arms, drawn taut as they plunged into the water.
Those two! It had to be.
He fought through the water and grabbed hold of the nearest one. It jerked under his grip and the monster turned to snap at him, its teeth barely missing the back of his head as he ducked, plunging under water to escape.
He didn't need to follow the arm far before he came to where it had twined tightly around something.
And she was moving. Her legs kicked and her body heaved, still fighting. A surge of intense relief left Seifer dizzy. He groped blindly at her, wanting to let her know that he was there, that he would somehow save her, though in truth he had no idea how.
Magic was out. His specialty was fire, and it would do fuck-all under the surface of the lake.
The monster's barrier spells complicated the matter as well. Tempting as it was to try and simply lob the damn thing's arm straight off, too hard a thrust, and it would activate the barrier spell, making his blade bounce right back.
Not to mention, he might hit Quistis.
Growling with frustration, he sheathed Hyperion and looped both arms around her. Feet planted, he tried to at least drag her up to the surface.
"I've got a hold of her!" he bellowed to Squall. "Don't let it run!"
A hot blast of light was Squall's only response.
Seifer dug his fingers hard into the monster's slippery flesh and pulled with all the strength he possessed. He'd save her, goddamn it. He wouldn't let her die down here.
Straining, growling, he heaved her up until her face broke through the water with a ragged gasp that set his heart on fire.
She went back under as the monster turned, bringing its attention back to them, but Squall took quick advantage of its lack of focus. He moved incredibly fast, Lion Heart burning in his grip, such a powerhouse of danger and violence that the creature could not afford to ignore him.
A terrible volley of blows, and the barrier spell shattered.
Seifer drew Hyperion and, with a wide swing of his arm, brought it down in a clean arc through the water — far clear of Quistis.
It connected with hard, sinewy flesh and caught, digging deep and then wedging itself, like an axe thrown at a tree.
A cry, and the monster recoiled, both of its arms releasing at once to jerk back toward its body. Hyperion pulled free with a spray of black blood.
Seifer didn't watch what the monster did next. He didn't care. All his energy and attention turned toward grasping for Quistis under the water.
Finding her, he brought her up, into the protective circle of his arms.
For a second, Quistis was aware of nothing except air entering her lungs. She sucked in great gasps, coughed, and then sucked in more. Sweet, knee-melting relief washed over her. And as the black spots cleared from her vision, she saw Seifer's face near her own, his green eyes wide with worry and fear.
"That's it," he encouraged her. "Breathe, honey. Breathe."
His arms held her tight under the water, crushing her to his chest.
"It's okay." His voice sounded raw. "I'm going to get you out of here."
Quistis looped her arms around his shoulders and tried to find her footing as he started back toward shore. Looking over his shoulder, she saw the blue magic monster bleeding in the water, its body cut in a dozen different places and one of its eyes slashed clean through. A wild, mortal fear filled the other one as it rolled, looking for a target.
A flailing arm managed to bat Squall out of the way. He fell onto his back amongst the rocks, and the beast's gaze flicked to Seifer.
Magic gathered. Its spikes glowed.
The familiar scent of the spell made Quistis's heart quaver.
She knew what was coming. Knew that if the same devastating light spell that had nearly taken her out hit Seifer now, from behind with all his defenses down, he would not survive.
Her own magic welled up inside, driven higher than any aura spell had ever managed to spike it, and tore out of her without warning.
Blinding, flashing light enveloped the monster, and for a brief, breathless second the universe contracted around it.
It might not work, she realized with a terrible sense of apprehension. Degenerator sometimes didn't on things of great power, like guardian forces. And if that happened, then the monster would know the spell, too. One of her own most fell and terrible forces would be turned back upon them.
She clenched her teeth, the magic still streaming out of her, and pushed it even harder, as hard as she could, every magical fiber of her being straining.
The monster bellowed.
Then, mercifully, it vanished — winking out of existence to God knows where.
And Quistis, drawn beyond all of her strength and stamina, fainted dead away.