Chapter IV Tactics
A problem had materialized by the time Squall made it back to the bridge. Fujin and Raijin had decided to stay and help out however they could. Predictably, Zell was not grateful for the offer. "You'd be more help in Deling," he was trying to convince them when the commander returned.
"No time," Squall said. "Nida, take off."
"Yes, sir." The pilot pulled levers and flung back the rudder, guiding the Garden into the air with hardly a jerk.
"Smooth," Raijin remarked, impressed. "Much better than last time, ya know?"
"We've practiced," Squall said tersely. The last time Raijin and Fujin had been in the Garden was when they had figured out how to become airborne. The repairs at Fisherman's Horizon and experience had greatly improved their flying.
He ordered medium speed while a pilot planted the Ragnarok in an available mountain crevice. As it was, the Garden couldn't hit full acceleration until they reached the ocean, not without doing considerable damage to the land below. Once over water they would really move.
In the meantime he turned to Raijin and Fujin before Zell could start on them again. "Why'd you stay? We won't be going back to Deling City for a while--I don't know when we'll see Seifer again."
"Oh, we will," Raijin said. "We always end up together, ya know. But we wanted to say here. To help out, and visit a bit." He looked around the office. "It's been a while, ya know? We were feeling...I dunno...like we wanted..."
"HOME," Fujin pronounced quietly.
Raijin bobbed his head in agreement. "There's no place else we're from, ya know? Except Seifer, and he's not a place. We got used to being here."
"We didn't kick you out," Zell said awkwardly. "Just Seifer."
"Yeah, but we go where he goes, ya--"
"Yeah, I know, I know! You're his posse! Geeze." Zell threw up his arms. "I don't get why you like that guy so much. He's a self-centered, obnoxious jerk--"
"SILENCE," Fujin commanded, anger flaring in her single eye.
"Shouldn't talk about Seifer that way, ya know?" Raijin didn't sound as furious as Fujin, but then few could. "You don't know him--"
"I've known him since we were this big, and he's always been a jerk! You want me to shut up? Try and make me! The training ground's right below--"
Squall uttering his name like that was the only definite way to shut Zell down. He lowered his fists and dropped his head. "Sorry."
If the apology was directed at Raijin and Fujin, they didn't seem inclined to take it. But at the commander's gesture they let Squall and Zell walk past and exit without a word.
Once in the lift, Squall folded his arms. He didn't have to wait long. "Why didn't they just stay with Seifer since they love him so much?" Zell burst out. "Why'd they come with us?"
"I told them they could."
Zell punched the lift's wall, pulling back at the last instant before denting it. He was learning. "You didn't have to. You could've just told them to go back to Seifer. Then they wouldn't be bugging us here--and they're probably up to something. Seifer wouldn't just send them for the hell of it. He's got something going. They were in the bar, too, when the fight broke out. They cause trouble--"
So can you sometimes, Squall thought, but refrained from saying aloud. Instead he tried to conceive of how Rinoa would handle this. She was so much better at dealing with people. And dealing with friends--that was hardest. "...Is something wrong?"
Zell wheeled around, then stopped in place, blinking, as if he didn't quite believe Squall had said that. He shook himself and replied, "Yeah, something's wrong, Raijin and Fujin are on our bridge..." Then he sighed, shoulders drooping. "And Irvine and Quistis and Selphie are in Deling City. Why couldn't I go, Squall? I could've handled Seifer, I would've for Rinoa's sake. I wouldn't let you guys down."
"I didn't think you would," Squall said automatically, then acknowledged it was true. He knew he could count on Zell, as he could on all of them. It was dangerous to trust others that much; he never forgot how dangerous it was. And yet it was worth the risk. He was still learning that, how much it was worth. "I could've sent any of you, but I needed--I wanted at least one of you with me. In case we have trouble with the Galbadians."
"It could've been Quistis," Zell said. "She knows more about running the Garden. Or Selphie--"
"But..." He had made the decision. It was too late to change it, and he wouldn't even if he could. "I wanted you if we have to go hand to hand against the Galbadians. You've got the best style for stopping them without killing them--the Shumi won't want bloodshed. I don't either." He paused momentarily. "Besides, we fight well together."
It was the right thing to say, as well as true. Zell didn't look convinced until Squall spoke the last; then his whole aspect brightened. "Really? You think so? I think we're a great team--man, you remember goin' against Ultimecia? Wha-bam! and she was down!" He flexed his fingers. "I hope those Galbadians jerks do give us trouble, I'm getting soft. And you've been too busy even to fight in the training hall--this'll be just like before. I can't wait!"
"You'll have to," Squall said. "If you could wait without ticking off Raijin and Fujin, that'd be better."
"Okay, okay. No sweat," Zell grinned. "But as soon as we get done with the Galbadians, I want to duel. I've got a couple moves now that could take Raijin!"
And then Fujin would blow him into the ceiling with one casting of aero. But it could be an interesting fight, if refereed so no one was permanently maimed. Raijin and Fujin probably would be more than amenable to it. When there was time. "According to Nida, we'll reach the Shumi village early tomorrow afternoon. We should rest while we can."
When Zell nodded, Squall pushed the button to return the lift to the office. "You think we'll hear from Quistis and everyone by tomorrow?" Zell asked as they entered the outside hall.
"I hope," Squall said.
He must have betrayed more in his reply than he thought, because Zell gave him an improbably shrewd look. "They're all gonna be fine. You don't need to worry. Especially about Rinoa. I mean, she knows how to take care of herself, but that's not what's getting to you, is it? I'm not Irvine, I don't know much about love, but I know Rinoa pretty well." This was starting to sound familiar... "Maybe she had a thing for Seifer, but that's over. And she only liked Seifer. She really loves you."
Squall put his head in his hand. "I know. I know!"
Deling City nights were bright and loud. Quistis, Irvine, and Selphie stuck to the darker shadows but didn't avoid the noise. In an effort to be less conspicuous, they added to it. While Quistis guided them through the same roads she had followed Squall down that morning, Irvine, not skilled in the art of silence as it were, lead the conversation. "I've never actually spent a night in Deling," he admitted. "Some of my friends in Galbadia Garden were from the city, though; they told me enough to get by. Where to take girlfriends--and not to take them--"
Selphie swatted him. "Don't even think about it."
"I'll do my best. Some of the places around here, though--talk about inspiring the imagination!" Drawn moth-like to neon lights, he peeked down a glittering sidestreet. "Oh boy--"
Selphie covered his eyes. Without slowing, Quistis shook her head and hissed, "We're not on vacation."
Falling into step beside her, Irvine nodded with a gravity that proved his act was nothing more than that. "Just trying to keep things cool."
"We're just teasing, Quisty," Selphie murmured next to him. "Irvine's not thinking about chasing girls with Rinoa in trouble."
"Are you sure?"
Selphie stopped dead in her tracks. Quistis halted with her, stiffening as if only just realizing what she had said, and grabbed the sharpshooter's arm. "I'm sorry, Irvine, I didn't mean it."
"It's all right. Like, nothing I haven't heard before." He shrugged and continued forward, calling over his shoulder, "Come on--damsel in distress, remember?"
With an uninterpretable glance at Quistis, Selphie jogged to catch up with Irvine's longer stride. She paced him, inquiring anxiously, "You're not upset, are you? She really didn't mean it, you know the way she gets when she's worried."
"I'm not upset." He kept his eyes on the sidewalk ahead. "It's true--I know, I've gotten it before."
"That doesn't mean it's true," Selphie said. "You're worried about Rinoa, too; you just show it differently than Quistis. Squall wouldn't have sent us to do this unless he believed in us--it's Rinoa. If he didn't think we were totally whole-hearted, he'd've come himself. He trusts you--so you should, too."
Irvine paused to look down at her earnest face, then took her hands in his and squeezed them. "Thanks, Sephie. I don't know how I did it..."
"Anything, after the orphanage and before we met again." He leaned forward and she raised herself on her toes, but before their lips met they both pulled away. Looking back, they saw Quistis waiting behind them, her arms crossed protectively over her chest and her gaze steady on the sidewalk.
"We need to do something for her," Selphie whispered, breaking away from Irvine to hurry back to her friend. "Quistis, come on--Irvine's not mad at you."
"I can't get angry with beautiful women," he affirmed, then put his arm over her shoulder and said, seriously, "And I don't stay mad at friends. We have a job to do, right, fearless leader? Or are we going to have to drag you there?"
"Oh, stop it," Quistis sighed, making a half-hearted effort to slip free of his arm. "You'll make Selphie jealous."
"Too late! By now she's gonna flirt with Seifer just to get on my nerves."
"Well, Seifer's a jerk, but he is a really hot jerk," Selphie mused. "He and Squall fighting is sure something to see, right, Quistis?"
Quistis had no comment, but she smiled a little, to Selphie's relief. Convincing Squall he had a sense of humor was difficult enough; for Quistis to lose hers would be a calamity. They continued on their way in a comfortable silence, walking just slow enough that they didn't seem to be hurrying but not stopping again until they reached the right street. A block away from the barracks they paused to assess the situation.
"Two guards? Why would the officer's quarters need guards?" Irvine hissed.
"Protection? Maybe they're really unpopular commanders," Selphie hazarded. "After all, Seifer is one..."
"Or maybe the president wants to keep an eye on them," Quistis suggested, blue eyes narrowed in thought. They couldn't just walk up to the place and ask for Seifer. But without him, where could they go? Attacking the guards was out; the point was not to draw attention. But there was no easy way around them; the walls were tall and the windows surely locked. How to pass unnoticed--an invisibility spell would be ideal, but they knew none.
She looked at Irvine, frowned slightly then said, "I have an idea. Stay here. If there seems to be trouble--do whatever you think is best. I'm going in."
"What?" Selphie and Irvine both stared. "You can't just walk up and knock--"
"If you're gonna fight I can shoot from here--"
Quistis ignored them. Pulling the pins out of her bun, she shook down her long golden hair and tossed it over her shoulder, then handed her whip to Selphie. Before they realized she had left herself unarmed, she was heading toward the barracks entrance. Too late to stop her without blowing whatever plan she had invented, Selphie and Irvine watched nervously from the shadow of a bar's canopy.
She made no attempt to hide herself from the guards. On the contrary, she walked right up to them--or perhaps sauntered better described her easy stride. Out of pure concern for his teammate, Irvine focused on her rolling hips, closely enough that Selphie had to resort to more than words get his attention. Where she squeezed attained it instantly and undivided. "She hasn't lost her mind, has she?" the small SeeD asked worriedly.
Irvine rubbed his pinched flesh, wondering if there would be a mark even through his jeans. "I don't think so."
Quistis reached the barracks. She was most definitely visible, though in all likelihood Irvine and Selphie wouldn't have been to the guards had they followed her. She leaned forward, and the soldiers mirrored the motion, bending close to allow her to whisper in their ears. Both straightened when she was done, and one immediately turned on his heel and marched into the building. Quistis crossed her arms and tilted her head, waiting.
In a minute the guard returned with Seifer, his long coat bright in the streetlamp's glow. They were regrettably too far away to see his face, but listening closely they made out his voice. "Why are you here?"
Her reply was too low to hear, but they saw her step forward, and then Irvine and Selphie both choked as Quistis reached up to entwine her arms around Seifer's neck.
No need for an invisibility spell after all. Both of the guards were determinedly not seeing Quistis, as Seifer put an arm around her waist and brought her inside.
"That's brilliant!" Selphie crowed. "Way to go, Quisty!"
"Are you sure it's not more than a plan?" Irvine whispered, blinking as if to make sure his eyes were working right. "I mean--"
"No, Irvine." Quistis had never liked Seifer, a feeling decidedly mutual. Irvine knew that as well as Selphie did; they had grown up together, after all.
"But that was an awfully good acting job, you don't think--"
"They're both instructors now. And he is good looking, you said so, and Quistis, well--"
There was a long silence while they waited, watching the guards and listening for any alarm to be sounded.
"Hey, Sephie, remember what we were saying before this whole mess, about how Quistis has been lonely? You think there's any chance she and--"
"Do I want to know?" Quistis dropped down from the ledge above. Her hair was already back in its bun, and Selphie returned her whip without a word. Irvine subjected her to intense observation for two seconds, then settled back to listen without comment. "Seifer thinks there's a good chance Rinoa's being held in the council hall itself--it's got a deep basement, shielded against magic as well as missile attacks, from the last Sorceress war. He told me where to go--he said he'd come himself, but if there's soldiers they'll be loyal only to the President--or Lady Jezikan. I think he's just afraid of being caught...anyway. It's late enough there shouldn't be that many people to see us; we better get going, and see if anything Seifer said was true."
"Hey, Quisty," Irvine asked as they walked, "Seifer didn't say anything else, did he--"
Selphie elbowed him. Quistis frowned. "What? Not really--he was irritated that it was me and not Squall, but I told him what came up. I also told him Fujin and Raijin left with the Garden, but he wasn't too surprised. Actually, what surprised me was that he didn't seem to know about the Shumi village raid--maybe he is only a teacher, not a commander." Considering his former ambitions, and the way he had always scorned Quistis for being only an instructor, this struck her as odd--not that she didn't believe it was true, but because she thought it was. He had changed.
She hoped he had changed enough, for Rinoa's sake.
The shed was right where it should be, set against the near wall of the square opposite the council hall. Once the patrolling officer passed, Irvine picked the lock and they crowded inside the dilapidated structure. Amidst dusty gardening tools, Quistis located the lever, just as Seifer had described. Pulling it opened the hidden trapdoor set in the floor. They lowered Selphie down first; she cast a simple fire spell for light as Quistis and then Irvine squeezed through and shut it behind them.
The stone-walled tunnel was narrow, and low enough that Irvine had to hunch over. Selphie had room enough to skip a bit as she lead the way down. It took one sharp turn, and after edging through a narrow section, they ended up by a blank wall. Following Seifer's instructions, Quistis found the outline of another trapdoor, which when pried swung up to reveal a ladder leading down into darkness.
"Down and down we go...We gonna end up in the sewers or the Underworld?" Irvine muttered.
"These kind of look like the sewer tunnels, actually, only smaller," Selphie remarked.
Irvine eyed her. "How do you know--"
"Let's get moving," Quistis said hastily, and they descended into the pit.
It didn't turn out to be as dire as Irvine's predictions; eight feet down they hit the floor. Selphie's magic flame illuminated a plain wooden door; when Quistis twisted the knob, it opened into a closet full of mops and brooms. "What is this, the janitor's escape hatch?" Selphie whispered.
"More like the council's," Irvine whispered back. "Revolutionaries aren't exactly new to Galbadia; people have opposed the government as far back as I can remember history class."
Quistis pressed her ear to the metal door. "It doesn't sound like anyone is out there," she murmured, "but be ready for anything." She counted to three and opened the door.
The corridor was empty up and down its dimly lit length. The ceiling lamps flickered wearily as they emerged from the closet and took their bearings. "Seifer couldn't tell me where to go," Quistis said. "He's never been here."
"How'd he even know about the tunnel?" Selphie asked.
Quistis shrugged. "I didn't ask. But it sounded like this whole basement isn't much in use. Where there are people, there's probably Rinoa. Which way should we try first?"
Selphie pointed left. Irvine pointed right.
Quistis sighed and started left. The other two fell in behind her. Their footsteps sounded dully on the thin, murky carpet. It was clean, and the gray walls polished, but there was an air of desertion about the silent hallway, as if every step stirred up invisible dust. Irvine almost sneezed, but caught his imagination in time.
They turned, and turned again, winding their way through the blank passages. Unguarded doors probably weren't important. Guarded doors might have been, but there were no guards, nor any people for what felt like hours. Quistis was about to suggest they turn back when they rounded a corner and heard distinct voices at the other end of the hall.
"It's dangerous to keep her," a bass intoned.
"President Deling," Quistis mouthed to the others.
A heavily accented baritone answered in nearly a whine, "Dangerous, but in the interests of science, she is worth it! So much I could learn, even if it doesn't help you, there still is great knowledge to gather--"
The SeeD frowned at one another. That voice was familiar, but none of them could place it.
Before they had another chance, a third man spoke in an oily tenor. "Sirs, my wards are broken--someone comes, uninvited."
"Guards!" Ferdid's sharp order sounded alarmed.
"Wait, Lord President," the tenor said. "It will be taken care of."
"I say we charge 'em now," Irvine muttered, "before--"
He was interrupted by a low growl behind them. As one the SeeD turned, grabbing for their weapons. Then they saw the enemy. "Dammit," Quistis hissed.
One of the beasts hissed back, scraping its claws against the floor. The other growled again, deeper, and more threatening when one could see its bared fangs. Like monstrous leopards they were, tentacles writhing where whiskers should spread, spotted pelts gleaming a sleek, poisonous orange. Their muscles rippled as they crouched to cast their magic.
"Ah, man," sighed Irvine. "I saw enough of these at Ultimecia's castle!"
"How'd they get toramas down here?" Selphie asked rhetorically, gripping her nunchakus.
"I dunno, but they're doing a number on the carpet." Irvine raised his rifle and sighted along the barrel.
Quistis flung out her whip as one torama completed its thundaga spell. The chain struck a sensitive tendril and wrapped around its legs; she pulled it taut as lightning crackled over her, gritting her teeth against the energy's fierce burn. The torama yowled as its paws were yanked out from under it.
Its mate answered with another spell. Quistis felt a brush of cold, freezing like Death itself. Then she heard the thunder of Irvine's shot, and the icy touch vanished as a blossom of scarlet appeared between the beast's eyes. It dropped, lifeless, to the floor.
Selphie lifted her nunchakus, and then her aspect seemed to fade, as if she were too dim to shine through the brightening world. Flames erupted where she had stood, and from the pyre roared a horned beast more monstrous than the toramas, wilder than a volcano. Too large to fit in the corridor, it burst through the walls--
Quistis shook her head, forcing herself to see past the other-state to the reality remaining behind the guardian force's power. Ifrit bellowed as he flung his fire, burning through the torama but leaving the walls untouched. The phantom flame died quickly as Ifrit returned to his rest, pulling the trappings of the other-state away with him and leaving only the true world, with Selphie standing ready in the hole of his absence.
The torama feebly waved its scorched tentacles, and the small SeeD collapsed as its spell struck. With a cry, Irvine lunged for her, while Quistis snapped her whip around the beast's neck and wrenched back. Its snarl faltered to a gargled cough as the chain crushed its windpipe, and then it fell.
She looked to Irvine, only to see him slump over, Selphie crumpled beside him.
Quistis dodged for him, then heard an unfamiliar voice behind her. "Thanks, Magus, that made it a lot easier."
She twisted around, but not in time to avoid the soldier's sword hilt slamming down. It cracked against her temple with a burst of color, a burst of pain, and then nothing at all.
In his dream he was swimming, but the current was stronger than his strokes. The river whipped him along, so that he had to struggle to keep his head above water.
Rinoa was watching. She reached out her hand as he was swept past, but though their fingers brushed there was no time for them to clasp before he was torn away. The waters grew choppier, white surge splashing in his face. It was warmer than he thought it would be, and he had no trouble breathing. Petals caught in the wind twirled by, pale, like the flowers in the field where he had told her he would wait for her. But the river flowed away from the field. He couldn't fight against it, though he tried.
In his dream he saw Balamb Garden, its reflection shimmering on the flowing water, moving with it, as if it too were caught in the current. Cid was in the Garden. He shouted to the headmaster that there was a waterfall ahead, that the Garden would fall with the water and be dashed on the rocks.
Cid did nothing. Maybe he couldn't hear. Squall tried to swim to the Garden, but it was too high, the river too fast. Then the water foamed as it arced over the falls, an ever-shifting, translucent curtain drawn over the silvery rocks and pulled into the gathering sea below. He was carried with the water, plunging down and down and down...
Squall did not awake relaxed. By the time the Garden was in radar range of Shumi Village, he had paced his office, gone up to the bridge, and come down again half a dozen times. Even Raijin and Fujin were silent as they stood by, waiting for orders, or conversation, or something else Squall didn't know how to give. The SeeD present watched mutely, offering little except reports on their progress.
"We're not detecting anything at the village yet," Xu said as they approached. "But there's a nearby storm that might be interfering. We'll be in visual contact shortly, and we'll know better then."
"Fine," Squall said, and rode down to the office.
Zell followed him down once the lift returned to the bridge. "Hey, what gives? The Galbadians aren't gonna be any trouble. What are you worried about? What's the matter?"
The Garden is about to go off the waterfall and I can't do anything about it. Cid can't do anything. No one can, because that's the way the river's running and you can't stop the river. You can't do anything but flow along with it, go with the times, because they're going with you. Leadership is all about making decisions, but there aren't any choices, really; they're all made, they're already made. The past can't be changed, and neither can the future.
And Rinoa still was gone. "...Nothing."
"Oh, yeah, right, nothing." Zell came close to glaring at him. "Quistis and Rinoa and all are gonna call in later, you know. They're probably hiding out in the city until tonight."
"It's only dawn there," Squall said.
"See? They're holed up at Lank's or something. And it'll be a long hike to the Ragnarok, unless they hotwire a car--Rinoa knows how, I showed her."
Squall raised an eyebrow at that. Zell grinned, pleased to get a rare reaction out of him. "She asked me to. C'mon, we better get up to the bridge, see what those Galbadian jerks are really doing."
On the bridge's vantage point, so high above the ocean, it was nearly impossible to tell they were moving at all. But the gray-green shore was fast approaching, and then they were upon it, rushing high over bramble and dirt paths. The domes of the Shumi village soon were visible in the distance.
The expected Galbadian vessels were not. "I don't get it," Nida said, handing Squall the binoculars. "I only see one ship. That shouldn't be enough to get through the Shumi's defenses." The Shumi had only one major defense, but it was a solid one: the three hundred meters of earth their village was buried beneath. The main entrance was small enough that only a few guards were needed to protect it against most attackers.
But when Squall looked, he only counted the one Galbadian ship, a standard assault vehicle. Large enough to carry a couple platoons and maybe a few missiles or war machines, but not a major threat.
"We can handle that easy," Zell remarked, but without the expected confidence. That the threat looked so minor only meant one thing--it wasn't as simple as it seemed. It couldn't be. They would just be able to sweep down and take the vessel, save the Shumi without risking a single SeeD.
From this distance Squall couldn't see any obvious problem. But he could hear the waterfall, pounding in his ears as the river flowed relentlessly toward it.
The atmosphere of prison was not conducive to headaches. Quistis awoke grouchy, and the stabbing pain which struck through her temples as she sat up made it worse. The rock-hard pallet where a bed, or at least a cot, should be, and the sorry excuse for bread they offered as breakfast didn't help. Irvine and Selphie stayed as far from her as the small cell would allow.
There were no guards present, but with the thick iron bars and thicker stone walls, they would have been redundant. The anti-magic field prevented them from even casting a cure to relieve Quistis of the lingering effects of concussion. Selphie halfway wished she herself had been left unconscious from the torama's magic attack, but they had revived her before jailing them. Fortunately, at that; the torama's spell often had an unpleasant habit of stopping breathing along with everything else. Apparently they were wanted alive. Dead probably would have raised too many questions.
They weren't the only ones jailed. The cell visible across the corridor was occupied, but the man inside was sound asleep. Maybe drunk. While Irvine caught up on his rest and Quistis glared at the walls, Selphie tried calling to him, to no response.
She had more luck when she approached a wall to closer examine the graffiti and seek any weak spots. "Hey, you, girl."
Hearing the whisper, Selphie searched until she found a small hole in the wall. A firecracker inserted in it might bring down the wall...if she had a firecracker. "Yes?" she whispered through the gap.
"Heard you shouting before--it's no good. They got a spell in the walls muting the cells. Lucky we carved this chink."
"'We'?" Selphie asked.
"The rebels," the voice said. "That's why you be here, right?"
"Uh...in a way, I guess."
The speaker chuckled hoarsely. "Ain't no crime but the big one in Galbadia anymore. Treason's the leading cause of death, these days."
"Death?" She wasn't that frightened; she had risked her life before. But an executioner's axe or noose was so final...
"Don't worry, girl, they don't kill the small fry. Only a couple leaders a year, truly, just for show. If they caught the ones behind the circles now...they'd do worse than kill them."
"Who is behind the circles?"
Another dry laugh. "If I knew that, I wouldn't be here!"
"How long have you--"
"Me, few months now. Too old to bother shipping me. You they'll likely send with the rest, out to the Desert Prison."
"Oh, there." It was for political prisoners, she recalled. "We got out of there easy, last time."
"When will they transfer us?" Selphie asked. They didn't have time for this. Rinoa was still captured, and Squall wouldn't be very happy with them getting caught like this. "Will there be a trial soon?"
"A trial?" The crackling chuckle gave way to a full-bodied guffaw. "You ain't from here, are you, girl? A trial for treason? In Galbadia?" He was chortling too hard to speak. Selphie hoped his aged heart wouldn't give out in his mirth.
Quistis scowled at the audible laughter. "At least somebody's having a good time."
In another part of the city, Quistis might have been cheered to find someone in a worse mood than she. For all her own tempers, Jezikan rarely saw her husband in such a rage. It was all the more disturbing because it was so cold. The set of his heavy brow and his balled fists were the only outward signs of his anger.
"The report is no hoax," he growled. "The Garden's already at the Shumi village. It appears we've seriously underestimated their speed, wife."
She understood the implications. There was now no certainty that they wouldn't be able to prevent the planned attack on Fisherman's Horizon. Moreover, what else might they not know, if they were so wrong about even that? What defenses and assaults might the Garden be capable of? Great Shiva, its size alone awed people; what damage could such a massive structure wreak? And that wasn't considering the SeeD it carried, the most elite soldiers in the world, with their boy commander. They could not afford to underestimate the SeeD. But they had.
"I've ordered the ship there to pull out and return to the city. I'm leaving immediately," Ferdid cut through her thoughts.
"Leaving? For where?"
"Fisherman's Horizon, with the doctor. We will get what we need, whether the SeeD in their Garden approve. My leadership may be necessary to win this fight."
She nodded. He was a good general; the soldiers would do better for his strategy. Whether he and his forces could prevail against they who had defeated the Sorceress was another matter altogether, but there would be no convincing him of those odds. Instead she wished him luck, and saw him to his ship as a dutiful wife should.
As soon as the vessel had left the dock, she hurried back to her chambers. Dahl was waiting. She wasted no time explaining to him this newest, unfortunate development.
"And still, brave Ferdid sallies forth against the dragon," he remarked sardonically.
"'Brave Ferdid' has to defeat them," Jezikan said. "We must take Fisherman's Horizon, Dahl. We must be assured of that."
He knew, yet still he asked. "How?" he murmured, so low it thrummed through her like the beat of a bass drum.
She locked the door and shuttered the window before she faced him, stared directly into the unreachable blackness of the warlock's eyes. "You will stop the SeeD commander. Now, this moment. And we shall see how the dragon fares after we've severed its head."
By the time Balamb Garden was in striking range, the Galbadian vessel had risen to flee. Refusing radio contact, the single ship soared past them, flying toward the sea. Squall decided it wasn't worth the effort to chase them, and ordered Xu to raise the Shumi.
After a minute he was in conversation with the village elder, a tall, sad-eyed being, strangely graceful despite its inhuman proportions and vaguely frog-like aspect. "Rushushu," it burbled. "We thank you for coming to our aid, even if it did prove unnecessary--they must have realized we were less helpless than we seemed."
"It wasn't only the one ship, was it?" Squall asked.
The Shumi gave a bubbling laugh. "Woe on them if it had been! The disrespect they show the moomba earns our anger. No, the assault was many--more than we've ever fought before. They stole several moomba before we could prevent it, though we saved most."
"Good. Did they do much damage?"
The elder fluttered its long fingers, the Shumi equivalent of shaking one's head. "No, and we have already begun repairs. Their object was not to destroy--though they sought more than the moomba. Several of us witnessed them using various devices, scanners of some kind. From that and their questions, we believe they were searching--for what we do not know. A technology, or perhaps a magic. I do not think they found it here, however."
Squall thanked the elder, and accepted its gratitude on behalf of SeeD. Upon ending the communication, he turned to Fujin and Raijin. "Do you know what the Galbadians were looking for?"
Raijin shook his head. Fujin offered nothing.
"Last time Galbadia invaded everywhere, they wanted Ellone," Zell remarked.
"That was Ultimecia's order," Squall said. "And they're searching for some thing now, not a person." This was important, he sensed. An object--magic or technology, the Shumi had said. Perhaps a weapon, or something worse. Something that might be dangerous in the hands of those ruling Galbadia, Ferdid and Jezikan and the lord with the disturbing opaque eyes. If they hadn't found it at the Shumi village, they would keep looking..."Xu, can we still track the Galbadian ship?"
"The one that ran? I think so, yes."
"Find where it's going--Nida, set a course after them. To follow, not to catch up"
"Aye aye, sir."
"You sure you don't know what they're doing?" Zell was regarding Raijin and Fujin with some suspicion.
"We're not the President's buds, ya know?" Raijin protested. "They don't give us the time of day there."
"Then why stay in Galbadia?" demanded Zell.
"'Cause Seifer's there." Raijin shrugged his broad shoulders. "That's why we're anywhere, ya know? Like that bar."
Lank's tavern? Squall looked over. "Seifer told you to go there?"
Raijin grinned. "Love a good brawl, ya know! Yeah, he wanted us to make a distraction. 'Cause he'd heard about the arrest, ya know. We've done that before. Just trip the soldiers up, so the guys can get away."
"You stop arrests?" Zell seemed to have trouble swallowing that one.
Raijin's grin broadened, at least until he noticed Fujin's one eye looking daggers at him. He swallowed. "Uh, yeah, we've stopped them a couple times," he mumbled. "When it's not too suspicious, ya know."
Squall considered this, surprised himself even if his mouth wasn't gaping like Zell's. Seifer was helping the revolutionaries? Small wonder he wasn't popular with the President. Did the council know? They couldn't, or they wouldn't have hired him. But maybe they suspected, or maybe Seifer feared they would discover his secret.
Why, though? Why would he risk it at all for those rebels? He had no stake in Galbadia. If it were any of his friends, Squall would have no trouble understanding. Rinoa was a revolutionary already and Galbadian by birth, as was Irvine. Selphie and Zell both liked a good fight, and helping people. Quistis did what she thought was right. But Seifer--he didn't care, not about anyone except himself. How was this helping him?
Maybe it wasn't what it seemed at all. Maybe even Raijin and Fujin didn't know what he was doing; Seifer could be playing them along with everyone else. Even President Deling and his wife, perhaps. Maybe he knew where Rinoa was--maybe he had taken her.
Something inside Squall went very cold. Quistis, Irvine, Selphie--they didn't know that possibility. Out of contact, no way to warn them...
It might all be paranoia. Rinoa always told him he thought about things too much. But Zell advised him to trust his gut, and right now every instinct he had shouted there was more here than the obvious. A threat unnoticed. The waterfall on the horizon.
"Squall? Hey, you there?" Zell, slightly worried.
Squall realized he'd been quiet for too long, shook himself out of his reflections. They had been talking without him, Zell pressing Raijin about their unorthodox missions and Raijin trying not to let too many details slip under Fujin's watchful eye. He had avoided getting kicked thus far. "Yeah," Squall said. "I'm listening. Raijin. Would Seifer--"
He faltered, caught himself and continued. "--Would Seifer know more about this raid?"
"Probably not. Not if it's a secret, ya know?"
"But if he--"
//Can you hear me?//
It was so far away he nearly didn't. Like a shout from deep underground, echoing through countless caverns until the last reverberation reached him. //Rinoa?//
Raijin was looking at him oddly. Squall attempted to retrieve his lost line of thought. "Seifer has contact with Galbadian soldiers, since he's training them, right? Maybe they talk."
"Yeah, they do," Raijin agreed readily. "It's how he knows about the arrests, ya know? But he doesn't train all of them, and lately there's been a lot gone anyway."
//Squall, it's me.//
"A--a lot gone?" He couldn't pay attention to Raijin, not with Rinoa's voice whispering on the edge of his consciousness, like a dream or a ghost. His imagination? He couldn't be hallucinating, wouldn't he know it if he were, couldn't he tell what was real and what wasn't? And still she spoke. //I need to know--//
Raijin was answering. He tried to listen. "--gathering somewhere, ya know? No one says anything--"
And then it was no dream, and no whisper. A howl filled his mind, drowning out voices and visions alike. He clutched his head, but the cry came from beyond his ears, penetrating every layer of thought and memory, shredding them like paper against a torrent.
//Squall?// He barely heard her voice, only the piercing worry.
From outside as well as in. "Sir?" "Commander? "--look so good, ya know?" All overlapping, adding to the chaos, and still the howl shrieked, louder and louder, a rising hurricane wind.
Distantly he felt himself fall to his knees. Couldn't feel the floor to stand upon it. Lionheart was useless in its sheath at his side; no weapon could battle a tempest.
Hands, grabbing his shoulders. "Squall?" Zell's voice, sharpened by fear, cut through the maelstrom.
He didn't have the breath to reply. Desperately he tried to look to his friend, but he couldn't see past the storm. A blizzard of black snow blotted out everything, suffocating him as the wind deafened his ears and forced his eyes closed.
He couldn't tell whose voice it was, out loud or in his mind, real or imagination, and he couldn't answer. But at least he wasn't alone. The snow piled deeper, crystallized water flowing higher. He was almost buried. Almost drowned.