Chapter V Knight's Gambit
Quistis had been staring at the cell wall for so long she was starting to feel like a stone block herself. Every time she went over their capture in her mind it got worse. Taken down by couple Galbadian soldiers and a half-ass magus who probably couldn't draw fira from a bite bug. And they called themselves SeeDs.
Squall wouldn't have gotten caught. He would have let Irvine and Selphie deal with the toramas while he went for the magus. Or he would have had them all flee the toramas to seek out Rinoa. Or he would have taken more care, so the damn magus wouldn't have even realized they were there.
She had a dozen possible solutions, all of which depended on her having thought of them before being thrown in the brig. And she didn't have a single plan for getting out, except waiting for Squall to realize something was wrong and return to save them. Not an idea she wanted to contemplate; just the thought brought her dangerously close to tears. When had she last cried? Nine years old? Ten--leaving the orphanage to go to the Garden, that was the last time she could remember. Tears never did any good, just earned pity, or contempt, and who wanted either?
Okay. She was the leader of this party. Irvine and Selphie were counting on her, and Rinoa and Squall were counting on all of them, and if Quistis didn't come up with a way out of this cell then she just proved they'd been right to demote her last year.
And Rinoa better be all right, or the bastards would pay. Not just at Squall's hand; she was Quistis's friend, too. There was a way out of here, and she would find it. She had to handle this. For Rinoa.
With renewed resolve, Quistis stood. On cue, two guards marched into the corridor. Irvine, awake from his magic-induced nap, tried to get their attention with his broadest West Galbadian drawl. Smart thinking; the less they were suspected to be SeeDs the better. "Hey, ya plannin' on lettin' us rot? We ain't done ya no damage..."
He trailed off, seeing the man in the longcoat behind the guards. Seifer didn't spare him a glance. His emotionless eyes fell directly on Quistis.
"That's her, right, sir?"
"That's her," Seifer confirmed. She tried to hide her discomfiture under his steady gaze. Unblinking like a serpent's, and just as unreadable. "Let them go."
"Them?" the guard echoed. "Sir, I'll make an exception for her, but--"
"On my authority, granted by the President, you'll release them all," Seifer said coolly.
"I better confirm--"
As with a striking snake, one didn't see him move. Seifer was empty-handed, and then he was holding his gunblade. "Release them now."
"Sir!" The guard drew his own sword, clumsily against Seifer's swiftness. "You can't--" But he could. There was little the former knight couldn't or wouldn't do, and the soldier sensed this. Or maybe he'd wisely never trusted him. "Go, get help!" he cried to the other guard, and charged Seifer.
He didn't have time for a single stab. Seifer side-stepped the lunge and clouted his head as he passed with the butt of the gunblade. The guard went down, his sword flying from limp fingers to skitter across the corridor.
"Feh." Seifer sneered at the stunned man. "Should've learned from me." He raised his gunblade one-handed, pointing the tip unwavering at the other guard, who had gotten no farther than grasping his sword's hilt. "Where do you stand?" he demanded of the man. "With our President? Or the rebel Caraway?"
"What?" Under his visor the soldier was sweating, dripping down his chin. He looked around at the cells, and Quistis swore he met her eyes before he drew himself straight, leveling his sword. "General Caraway is my commander. I can't let you take them, sir."
"That's what I thought. Get out of here."
Seifer gestured dismissively with his blade. "Go find the general. Tell him, if he's gonna make a move, make it now. Ferdid's gone. There won't be a better time." He lowered the weapon. "Oh, and open this cell."
For several seconds the guard stood in place, his sword still held at ready, not threatening so much as frozen. While he wrestled with his confusion, the other guard groaned, "Corporal...in name of the President...arrest the knight--"
Seifer casually tossed out a sleep spell, and the man slumped once more to the ground. The casting galvanized the other guard. Crossing the corridor to the SeeDs' cell, he quickly keyed the right code. When the bolt clicked, Quistis pushed the barred door open and stepped into the hall, Irvine and Selphie behind her. "Uh, thank you, Seifer."
"Get their weapons," Seifer ordered, and the guard disappeared.
"Not that like, I have any problem with it," Irvine said to the former knight, "but what the hell are you doing?"
"None of your business. Did you idiots even make it to the council hall basement?"
Selphie smiled with false brightness. "It's so nice rank hasn't changed you, Seifer!"
"Never mind that," Quistis said. "As far as we could tell, the basement is where they've got Rinoa. We have to--"
She was interrupted by a soft tapping. In the next cell over an old man was waving. His mouth moved but the muting spell blocked his voice, so only his knocking on their cell's wall could be heard. Selphie waved back, asking Seifer, "Are you going to let everyone else go?"
The guard returned before he answered, bearing their confiscated weapons. Quistis clipped her whip to her belt and Irvine strapped on his holster. Selphie reclaimed her nunchakus, then smiled. "Never mind, Seifer. Everybody stand back!"
They did, and quickly, as she spun the Strange Vision to life and raised the whirling flails overhead. Twisting her wrists down, she simultaneously struck the old man's cell and the opposite across the corridor. The electronic bolts exploded in a flurry of sparks, the doors springing ajar. Selphie skipped forward; in a flash two more locks shattered, and the nunchakus were wheeling toward the next set.
In thirty seconds every cell in the jail was open, their occupants' jaws all had dropped, and Selphie was bouncing back to her friends at the end of the corridor, grinning with wicked satisfaction as she slipped the flails under her belt. "Okay, let's go save Rinoa!"
One of the prisoners had enough presence of mind to walk into freedom. "Well, girl--remind me to stay on your good side!" The old man squinted at Selphie nearsightedly. "Hmm, even younger than you sounded--and cuter to boot!"
"Hey, grandfather, think you're too experienced for her," Irvine remarked.
The geezer cackled, lines of laughter adding to the network already adorning his weathered face. "Hah! And you'd be her young man--lucky boy! A girl who swings 'em like that..." He twisted his head back to survey the damage, then clapped his gnarled hands. "Well, come on, get out here, y'all!" As the other prisoners began to emerge, he turned back to them. "You've got places to go, I gather? Saving someone, eh?"
"You all better get out fast," the guard said nervously. "I've closed off the corridor, but they're going to realize it's off-line soon."
"You go too," Seifer commanded. "Report to the general what I told you. Everyone." He raised his voice and his gunblade imperatively as he called to the freed prisoners, "Follow me. We're busting out. And we'll take this pitiful excuse for justice down as we go!"
A cheer rose from his listeners, louder than one would expect from the couple dozen voices present. For all his attitude, Seifer had never lacked in the charisma to lead. Sparing no time to consider the ramifications of his influence, Quistis said. "We have our own mission--"
"I can help you," the old man volunteered. "Know the way out of here, and if the council basement's where you're headed, I know that, too. Swept its floors enough times."
Quistis looked him over, noting his large frame, stooped with age but still powerful, then nodded.
"All right," Seifer said. "Go with him. And here." He tore something from his coat's lapel and tossed it to Quistis. She caught the badge, a gold pin embossed with the seal of Galbadia, backed by the silver knight's cross. "I don't need it now," he told her. "It'll get you into the council hall with no questions."
"Thank you," she said, folding her fingers around the emblem. "And thank you for your help, sir--"
"'Sir'!" The old man chuckled. "Just plain Thurlon Zaback, young lady. Ain't never been a gentleman. Come on, now. And good luck, sir knight!" He saluted Seifer, then ushered them the other way down the corridor, spry as a man half his years.
* * *
Once outside the jail, Thurlon proceeded to lead them through a labyrinth of side streets and back alleys, hobbling along surely without a cane. He leaned against walls a couple of times, but when Quistis suggested they take a breather he shook his head and pressed on. "Don't want to slow you young ones down!"
When there was enough space between the buildings to walk abreast, Irvine caught up with him to ask, "Zaback, you said? Know a Ward Zaback?"
Thurlon beamed. "Ward's my nephew! Haven't seen that boy in years. After his accident he worked a stretch at the desert prison, then wandered off with those crazy buddies of his--what were their names? Loony? Lay-goon?"
"Laguna Loire?" Selphie took a stab. "And Kiros Seagul?"
"Sounds right...so you know 'em!"
"You could say that," Quistis murmured, wondering how the old man would take to hearing they had all spent time inside those worthy individuals' heads.
They squeezed through a chain-link fence, and then Zaback asked, "So, who's this girl you're saving?"
"Rinoa Caraway," Quistis said. "She's--"
"The general's daughter. Told ya I worked in the council hall! You hear a lot inside those walls." Thurlon glanced them over sharply. "You're with her Timber revolutionaries? Or, no--you're SeeD, eh?"
"Yeah, we're SeeD," Irvine admitted with surprise. "How'd you--"
"Kids who break out of prisons and fight like dragonslayers? Who else would you--" He broke off, cocking his head. The shouts from the main street were difficult to miss. Panicked yells...or cheering? "Ah, this I gotta see," Thurlon decided. Scrambling over a fallen barrel, he headed for the mouth of the alley, the SeeD trailing after him.
The gathering crowd hadn't yet reached the point of riot, but it was well on its way. More people continued to stream from shops and peek out of windows to discover what had attracted the attention of the rest. Police officers were being backed a contingent of soldiers, blue-suited figures forcing through the assemblage like salmon forging upstream. All seemed to be heading back from where they had come--the prison.
"What's goin' on?" Irvine inquired of a young man shoving in front of him.
The lad was struggling to see over the heads of the crowd. "Don't know," he said. "Somethin' happened at the jail--"
"A break-out!" a middle-aged matron revealed triumphantly. "Citizens finally stormed that hole and showed the cops what for!"
"I heard it's another bombing," the lab objected.
"Nope!" sang a girl even younger. "Was the knight, he's gone nutty, got out his sword and started cutting down guards with it! Chop chop chop!" She spiced up her rumor with vivid pantomimes.
Well, he had said they would take the jail down... "Looks like we owe Seifer," Irvine murmured as they again withdrew into the alley. "We couldn't ask for a better distraction."
"I doubt he did it for Rinoa's sake, though," Quistis replied. "So what's he up to?"
They didn't find any answers at the council hall, but nor were they questioned. The guards on duty, distracted by reports of the events at the jail, waved them through the main gate with barely a cursory check. Once inside, all soldiers conceded to the authority of Seifer's knight badge. They must not yet have word of his role in the current uprising.
Quistis knew better than to expect the basement guards would be so simply cowed. Even if the President was absent, Ferdid's personal men wouldn't sway to the symbol of the knight. As they slipped down a side passage and descended a narrow servant's staircase, she reached for her whip. This time they must be ready.
Soon they were walking the same drab, dim corridors they had traveled before. Every corner they turned looked the same as the last to her eyes, but Thurlon continued to lead them surely. "Have an idea where she'd be, most likely," he remarked, before Quistis could ask. "Down that hall's the best bet."
"Then we just need a plan," Irvine said.
"Maybe one of us could sneak in?" Selphie suggested. "While you guys distract them, I'll--"
"Why you? I can sneak, too--if they catch you--"
"It won't work anyway," Quistis said. "We don't know how many guards they might have with Rinoa. Then there's the magus, wherever he's at."
"And we don't know what they've done to Rinoa," Irvine said soberly. "If they just had her tied up she'd be long gone."
"Hey! Where's Thurlon?" Selphie exclaimed. "He was right ahead of me--"
"He sure can move, for an old guy," commented Irvine.
"He'll realize he lost us and come back," Quistis said. "We should wait--"
Then they heard Zaback's cry echoing through the halls. "Intruders!"
Quistis snatched her whip. "What?"
"Guards! Over here!" Thurlon shouted.
Selphie gripped her nunchakus, her face white. "He wouldn't--"
"No, he wouldn't. Geeze, have some faith." Irvine rolled his eyes. Quistis realized Thurlon was calling from several corridors away, and getting farther. Though she would have appreciated a warning, she couldn't fault him for providing them an opportunity. She hoped he was careful. They wouldn't be too hard on an old man, would they?
As one they continued down the hall, but when they reached the corner Quistis stopped them. Couldn't make the same mistake as last time; they'd been ambushed far too easily. "Selphie, go around and see if anyone's in sight. I'm going to check the other side. Irvine, you stay here."
"Got it." They split up. While Selphie slipped down the hall, Quistis crept around the corner, then risked peeking out. Seeing no one, she strode into the hall.
"Stop right there!"
Not her. Hurrying down the hall, she found Selphie facing a guard around the corner. The man's back was to Quistis. The small SeeD had her hands stuck in the front pockets of her dress, looking shyly embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I was just looking for the restroom?"
"Huh? Yeah, right," the guard growled. "You better come with--"
Quistis's hold spell froze him mid-sentence. "That's okay, I'll find it myself," Selphie chirped, then grinned. "Thanks, Quisty. I think he was the only guard on that door--"
"He was the only soldier keeping watch," purred an oily voice behind them. "The other fools ran after the old man. But I'm still here. I wouldn't move, if I were you." He stepped in front of them, a stocky man in the long cerulean robes of a second order magus. Probably junctioning an air elemental, to tell from the silver pin on his odd hat.
"So you're the bitches who murdered my toramas," he seethed. "Do you know how hard it was even to halfway train those beasts?" Magic danced along his fingertips--ebon sparks. He had mastered more than air spells, then. And no amateur tricks, either; the black gravity magic was as difficult as it was devastating. "It was stupid of you to return."
"And it was stupid of you not to watch your back," someone remarked behind him, "but you don't see me making fun." Irvine cocked his rifle, deliberately loud. Its muzzle was pressed lightly to the back of the magus's head, beneath his cap. "You gonna be polite to the ladies, or should I just pull the trigger?"
The magus mumbled something high-pitched and entirely unintelligible. "In the words of a great man I know...whatever," Irvine said, and boxed him over the head with the gun butt. He placed a mute spell on the mage for good measure, then straightened from his limp form. "This git's out of the picture for now. Which door was the soldier guarding?"
Selphie pointed. Irvine lifted his rifle, aimed, and fired. The doorknob shot off to dent the opposite wall. Quistis shoved the door in, then stopped, suspended on the threshold as she absorbed what was within. The chamber was small, its gray walls bare. The single ceiling light starkly illuminated the single bed in the center of the room. On it, Rinoa lay bound like an unfortunate asylum inmate, her arms and legs held with metal cuffs, a broad leather strap over her stomach belting her to the cot. Her eyes were closed, but she twitched restlessly. Alive, at least.
The single guard surged to his feet at Quistis's entrance, brandishing his sword. She had her whip tangled around his arms before he could blink, and took pleasure in yanking him to the floor, hard. Selphie ran past to Rinoa's side, calling her name in unhappy surprise.
Gunfire sounded from outside the room. "Is she there?" Irvine shouted. "We've got company!"
"You girls okay?" called another. Thurlon Zaback had returned. "Drew 'em far away as I could, but I think they caught on."
Behind her, Quistis heard Selphie casting esuna. With the magus gone it might be enough to bring Rinoa around, if they hadn't hurt her too badly. "I'll help them," Quistis told Selphie, flicking her whip off the dazed guard, and joined Irvine and Thurlon. They had their hands full battling soldiers approaching from both ends of the corridors. One of the officers had the power to keep a steady protect spell on the troops, rendering Irvine's gun all but useless, and the hasty magic wall the sharpshooter had thrown up was barely holding against the assaulting swords and spells.
Closing her eyes, Quistis focused on the guardian forces junctioned within her, calling forth Siren from the other-state. But before the being answered the summons, a cry from the room behind broke her concentration--Selphie, she realized with a panicked gasp, she'd been intent on the spell, and Quistis had left the guard free beside her--
There was a flash, so bright that SeeDs and soldiers alike threw up their hands to shield their eyes. Quistis blinked back spots, and then stared at the figure in the doorway.
Rinoa stood erect, her eyes open and clearly, coolly surveying the hall, the battling fighters. The cuffs shone around her wrists and ankles, but the chains hung broken, intricate links fissured by cold. Ice crystals still glittered on the metal.
Behind her, a pair of wings stretched up, piercing the walls and ceiling, every white feather perfectly defined. Brilliantly visible like the forces of the other-state, there and vividly not there, the glory of an angel's shadow. Rinoa's shadow, the silhouette of the Sorceress.
She raised her slender arms and meteors rained down, a hail of fiery stone bursting from a zone of magic deeper than the other-state. Incandescent with star-fire, they battered the soldiers and scored great trenches in the metal floor, but not a cinder singed the SeeD or Thurlon beside them.
Rinoa lowered her arms, and the bombardment ceased. The vision of wings was gone, and they seemed all that had been holding her up; bereft of them, she sagged. Irvine, in certain things always alert, leapt back to throw a supportive arm around her waist. She leaned on him, and Selphie ducked under her arm to brace her other side. Around them the soldiers lay, unconscious or moaning softly. None seemed to be dead, or even seriously injured, but their defeat was total up and down the corridor, and beyond it as well, Quistis was sure.
Thurlon seemed in danger of injury himself, his breath coming in short gasps. Quistis wondered if a cure spell would help, but he seemed to have it under control. She steadied him with a hand under his elbow, knowing the rugged old man would accept no more support. After a moment he lifted his head, squinting watery eyes at Rinoa where she hung between Irvine and Selphie. "So...this is your friend."
"Yes," Quistis said, not knowing what else to say.
Rinoa stirred, shaking her head slowly. "Quistis?" she whispered, sounding drained to the very soul.
"Rinoa," the instructor carefully replied. "How do you feel?"
"...Wiped." She made an effort to stand, still leaning heavily on the others. With every syllable more alert, she asked, "Selphie? Irvine? How'd you get here?" She looked around. "Where's Squall?"
"He couldn't come," Selphie said quickly. "He really wanted to, but the Shumi needed his help--he was so upset that he couldn't, it's not that he didn't care--"
"'S'okay. Long...as long as he's okay." Rinoa drew up her slender frame, brushing her hair from her eyes. "You guys are all right?"
"Thanks to you." Irvine gave her a friendly squeeze. "Nice light show."
For a moment Quistis wondered if Rinoa had even been conscious of her sorcery. Then she saw the other girl's expression as she looked over the spell's aftermath, shades of awareness, fear, regret crossing her face before she firmed her chin. "I had to. They kept me tied there, and I couldn't fight back. Then when the magus's spell broke, and you woke me--that guard was going to hit Selphie. I couldn't let him. I couldn't let them hurt all of you."
The silence following this was broken by Thurlon's wheezing cackle. "Hah! I say you did right, my lady--I don't want this old hide hurt, myself." When she looked at him, he hesitated only an instant before thrusting out a knotty hand. "Thurlon Zaback, always at your service."
Rinoa took it and shook, firmly enough that his bushy gray eyebrows rose. "Rinoa Heartilly. Thank you--I saw you fighting with them--"
"He did more than that," Quistis began.
"And more yet," Thurlon cut her off. "You best be out of here, girls, lad. You too, my lady. That passage will take you out the servant's way. Go quick, now--these'll be waking soon," he nudged a soldier with his boot, eliciting a groan. "And they'll be sending more to find what became of this lot. I'll distract them."
"But, you--" Selphie objected.
"You don't worry 'bout me, girl. They ain't gonna hurt a poor old man; they don't even have a jail to lock me in, now. And I'll play the fool for as long as you need. Come on, now, go! You came here to save her, didn't you? Save her, then!" He made shooing motions at them. "I'll be seeing you again. Must hear about that nephew of mine. Goodbye for now--and farewell, my lady!"
"Wait," Rinoa echoed Selphie's protest, "we can't leave you--"
"He'll handle it," Irvine said. "With everything else going on, they're not gonna worry about him. Just don't provoke them," he admonished, and Thurlon grinned like a boy.
"Thank you," Quistis told him gravely, and then they started down the hall he had indicated, stepping over the bodies of the slowly reviving soldiers. Selphie and Rinoa resisted, only to be pulled along by the other two.
The few guards they encountered were easily handled, and once outside the council hall they were lost in the anarchy that was taking hold of the city. It hadn't yet escalated to mass violence, but some folk locked their doors and shuttered their windows, while others, children and adults alike, ran through the streets, shouting and laughing at the police and soldiers vainly attempting to calm them. The SeeDs avoided the turmoil, skirting the crowd forming around the council hall, and headed for the city gates.
The auto garage was open, but the man behind the desk was reluctant to lease them a vehicle. Quistis displayed the knight's badge, to no avail. He blinked at her slowly, like a sunning lizard, his elbows on the counter with his fists propping up his fleshy cheeks. "Soldiers tol' me not to rent to anyone."
Impatiently, Rinoa reached into Irvine's pocket, snatched his credit chit, and dropped it onto the desk. "Whatever you can withdraw in the next minute's yours. Which car can we take?"
The man's heavy lids raised to half-mast. He thrust the card into the transfer-scan, pudgy fingers flying over the keys. The machine beeped, and his mouth widened into an 'o.'
"Which car?" Rinoa repeated.
"Whatever one you want..." The man's eyes didn't leave the screen as he handed back the chit.
"Thanks," she said, and herded them toward a sleek, fast, jet black number. Climbing into the driver's seat, she returned Irvine's card.
He regarded it mournfully as he got inside. "How much--"
"You don't want to know." Once he and Selphie were seated in the back, and Quistis slammed the passenger door, Rinoa hit the gas. They roared out of the garage and into the wilderness.
* * *
With Rinoa behind the wheel, and her passengers with white-knuckled grips on their seatbelts, it only took a couple of hours to follow Quistis's tracer to the concealed Ragnarok. While its shielding prevented radar detection, the spaceship was visible in the coming twilight. Perched in a mountain crevice, the points of its metal pinions thrusting above the treetops could have been mistaken for a living dragon, or a temple to forgotten gods. At a signal from Quistis's device, its rim lights glowed to life, illuminating its scarlet length.
They gratefully disembarked from the car, Irvine under his breath expressing disbelief of their survival, and climbed aboard the ship. Ragnarok's cockpit was a field of colorful, blinking stars. Undaunted by the array, Selphie settled herself before the controls, ran through the basic checks and took note of a particular beacon. "Hey, there's a message from the Garden." She hit the button to play it.
Zell's voice came on over the speakers, his words clear, but he sounded far too restrained. And scared. "Hi. Um, I hope everything went well--is Rinoa all right? I'm leaving this recording because we might be out of radio contact when you get back. We're going to Esthar. Something--something really bad's come up," he said in a rush. "The Garden's on its way there now. Meet us there whenever you get back. Uh, that's all. I hope you're all okay, and you come soon. We need you here. Over and out."
A momentary silence reigned. Quistis knew, without a word spoken, that all their thoughts were the same. Zell's tone, worried the way he never was, unsure. And Zell, not Squall. He hadn't said what was wrong; he hadn't needed to. Only that it was bad enough they had decided to go to Esthar. Esthar, most powerful nation of the world; Esthar, where Squall's only family lived. It couldn't be that bad...
Quistis found that she was looking at Rinoa. That Selphie and Irvine were as well, silently holding hands. Waiting for her to speak before they said anything themselves, allowing her to assimilate this alone before they dealt with it together.
She was pale, even paler than usual, her face stark white against her dark hair. One hand tightly gripped the back of Selphie's chair. But she stood straight, and the energy that had taken her this far hadn't faded from her eyes. "Set a course for Esthar," she said quietly. "You heard Zell. They need us."
And we need them, Quistis added in her mind. Be all right, Squall. He had to be. After Griever, after Ultimecia, after all the horrors they had conquered, what could the Galbadians possibly have done? Whatever it was, he could survive it. He had to.
Rinoa's face was a mask of composure, but her lips were shaping a single word. A prayer from the core of her being, echoing Quistis's own. Please.
* * *
The wind was dying, no longer a hurricane but a light breeze, a breath so faint it barely stirred the leaves. They rustled in the current, blowing aside to allow dappled sunlight to pass, then falling back into shadows.
He blinked at the shifting pattern of green and bright gold. Slowly the patches of dark and light resolved into leaves and sun, and he became aware of the cool, moist earth beneath him. He pushed himself up, the ground giving under his gloved fingers, clumps of dirt and brown leaves.
Absently brushing a twig from his jacket's collar, Squall stood. Where am I? He didn't ask it aloud, not when there was no one to answer. The forest glade was silent, except for the whisper of wind through the branches. No birds or buzzing insects broke the peace.
Disturbing, how tranquil it was here. The sun was high, shafting through the canopy of leaves, warm where its rays penetrated, cool in the shadows. The fresh scent of sap and green growth drifted through the glade.
Only the silence betrayed the wrongness at first. When he looked closer, he saw other hints of destruction. The broken branch, ripped off at its base. The brown leafs at the top of a tree of emerald foliage. He followed the signs like a hunter tracking a grendel, each indication leading to another closer to the quarry. More torn branches, more burnt leaves. As he moved through the wood the damage increased, until he walked from paradise into a wasteland. The thick underbrush here was ash, and the tall trees fallen, trunks scorched black.
It was here, in the seared and broken forest, that he found their bodies. He came upon Selphie first. She was curled her side by a shattered sapling, her legs crushed and bloody, her neck twisted at an impossible angle. Her eyes stared like glass marbles in her sockets, widened, as if death amazed her. The familiar expression of fascination was intensely, mockingly lively, permanently frozen on her features by a shock too great for even her vital spirit.
Only a few feet beyond her, Irvine Kinneas had fallen. Two long slashes across his chest had poured his life's blood onto the forest floor. His hat was gone, and his rifle, still gripped in one cold hand, was beyond repair, the muzzle bent back like a straw. His other hand was stretched out toward Selphie, the fingers curling in a little and the nails gray, but his arm extended as far as he could reach.
One of her arms was cast out toward his, but their fingers didn't quite touch. An inch of ash separated their hands, and it seemed to Squall, seeing them, that this was worst of all. He didn't know how they had gotten here, nor what had killed them. How he came here himself was as great a mystery, and it occurred to him that as recent as their deaths were, he almost certainly must be in danger as well. But no thought was as powerful as this too certain truth, that these were his friends, and that they were dead. Not sleeping, not unconscious; no magic could heal them, no spell revive them. Terrible, that they should be dead, and more terrible, that he had not been there, to save them, at least to see them again when they were still alive. And most terrible that they had died apart, alone. Their hands never to clasp now.
For a long time he stood in the devastated glade of that too-quiet forest, his hand against his scarred forehead, trying not to look at them, though their bodies were all he could see, trying not to think of them, though their lives were all he could remember. The guardian forces ate away at memory, but in this silent wood, with their blood on the blackened earth, every recollection was as sharp as a blade. The orphanage, and then meeting them again, after their childhood together passed. Selphie on the mission in Dollet, waiting for him on the beach, shouting for him to run. Irvine, in Deling City, told to do what he said he could not, and he did it. Then Ultimecia, and falling with them through time, and they won, all of them, together. Never such a victory again.
It was this he had tried to hide from, the injury he had tried to avoid above all else. To have was to lose--one could not lose what one did not have. But he had gathered it, unwillingly and unawares, become a friend and taken friendship. And now two friends were dead. A wound to leave a scar deeper than Seifer's cut.
Then he raised his head, and through the scorched trees he saw his Garden, dashed from the sky, and something in him tore that could never heal.
* * *
Far faster, the Ragnarok caught up with Balamb Garden miles off Esthar's coast. Since the country's shield jammed the radios, they signaled with lights to arrange a midair landing. Selphie skillfully piloted them in without losing speed.
Zell was waiting for them in the Garden's garage, the Ragnarok's informal docking bay, and barely waited for the retro-engines to cool before approaching. When he saw Rinoa he gave a fleeting smile, but otherwise his aspect was much too serious. Uncharacteristically calm, he lead the way to the medical bay, talking as they walked. "We don't know what happened--I mean, I was right there, I saw it, but I didn't get it. Squall was talking to Raijin, and then he just...keeled over. He grabbed his head like he, I don't know, like he'd been hit or something. I asked what was wrong but I don't think he heard me. Then he fell. Xu called Dr. Kodawaki, but she didn't, she couldn't do anything..." He faltered. Selphie took his hand and squeezed comfortingly.
The hall outside the infirmary was informally guarded by a dozen SeeD and cadets, playing cards and conversing quietly. The whispers died as Dr. Kodawaki came out to meet them. "Did he..?" Zell began hopefully.
The doctor gravely shook her head. A muted sigh passed through all present; then they waited in respectful silence for Rinoa, Zell, and the others to enter before resuming their somber discussions.
Their commander lay on the bed in the furthest cubicle, on his back on top of the covers, still dressed. Only his jacket had been removed, draped over the back of a chair beside him. His eyes were closed, and his chest rose and fell evenly.
Rinoa slid into the chair and curled her fingers around his hand. It was warm, which heartened her, but he didn't respond when she tightened her grip. "Squall? We're here. Quistis and Irvine and Selphie and me. They rescued me. I'm okay. We all are. Are you...can you hear me?"
He remained motionless. Zell's whole countenance drooped. "I was really hoping that you being here would...you know, wake him up."
"He's not just asleep," Dr. Kodawaki told them quietly. "I've tried several techniques, medical and magical, without response. But his brain functions aren't depressed enough to term it a coma. The closest comparison I can give is...you, Rinoa."
She didn't release his hand yet, her fingers twined in his limp ones. "After we fought Edea."
"There are parallels, especially in the complete lack of response."
"He's not cold like Rinoa was," Zell said quietly.
"It's not precisely the same," Dr. Kodowaki agreed. "The brain activity is far higher than yours was, Rinoa. It's almost as if he's awake, but his mind is elsewhere."
"Like dreaming," Selphie murmured. She rested a hand on Rinoa's shoulder as she gazed down at him, the trace of tears glistening unashamedly her eye.
"Dreaming elsewhere--like Ellone's 'dreams'," Quistis realized. "That's why we're going to Esthar."
Zell nodded unhappily. "I don't think she'd--I mean, Sis wouldn't send him into the past without asking. But maybe..."
"I don't believe this is Ellone's doing," Dr. Kodawaki said. "I've never witnessed someone in one of her visions, but if he were experiencing the past through her, there should be certain signs. Her psychic trace. I didn't find that."
"It's not Ellone," Rinoa said quietly, his hand still in hers. Her eyes were on his face, on his sealed eyelids, the clamped set of his chin, the faintly drawn brow. In repose his expression revealed more than it did awake. "Look at his expression. It's hurting..." She didn't want to think of him trapped in pain like that. Lying helpless--that wasn't Squall. He was quiet, thoughtful, even pensive, but when action was required he acted, with regret perhaps but without hesitation. Doubt might haunt him, but didn't paralyze him. He would not lie here by choice. Something had done this. Someone...
"He's still out? That's a damn shame, ya know..."
Rinoa turned to the doorway and blinked, surprised, though she had recognized the voice. "Raijin?" And of course Fujin beside him. "How'd you--"
"They came on board back at Galbadia," Irvine said. "We told you Seifer helped us--well, he sent them for an extra assist." He glanced at them, then looked harder at Raijin. "Hey, who gave you the shiner?"
That got Quistis and Selphie's attention off Squall long enough to check out the black eye, colorful even through Raijin's swarthy complexion. Zell colored as well, the tips of his ears going bright red. "I, uh, me. When Squall went down, I didn't know--he and Fujin were standing right there, and I kind of accused them..."
"With his fists," Dr. Kodowaki said tartly. "Before giving them a chance to defend themselves, verbally or physically."
"'S'okay," Raijin said with surprising understanding. "Get where he was coming from, ya know? If Seifer went over like that, I'd be ticked too. And Fujin, you know what she'd be like--"
"DEFEND," Fujin agreed.
"Besides, it shook us too. Didn't expect it. Can't see Squall just going down like that, ya know?" Raijin looked at the commander's still figure with genuine sympathy. "Would surprise even Seifer, I bet. He won't like this. He's used to Squall being there, ya know?"
"He wouldn't try something like this," Quistis said. "He wants to defeat Squall in battle--"
"I know," Zell said. "I just couldn't think it through right away. I was so...it was so fast, he was fine, and then he was..." He dropped his head to study his sneakers, mumbling, "I couldn't even tell if he was breathing at first, and I was thinkin' about my grandfather, he had a heart attack and died..."
Rinoa closed her eyes. No. Not a heart attack, and he was alive. Not even a coma, Dr. Kodawaki had said. He would awaken--he might at any time. She focused on the steady rhythm of his breathing and tried to ignore the paleness of his skin, the violet tinge to the shadows over his closed lids.
In the background she heard the office comm chime and Dr. Kodowaki answer the summons. She returned in a moment. "Xu says Esthar has contacted us."
"We better go talk with them, then," Zell said, running his hand nervously through his spiky hair. "Uh, Quistis, do you want to...or Rinoa?"
"I'd...like to stay here," Rinoa said, knowing it was selfish, but unwilling to leave. Not when there was any chance those storm-gray eyes might open.
"We'll go," Quistis agreed. "You stay with him." She clasped Rinoa's shoulder for an instant before striding from the room. With a final glance back at Squall, Zell followed, Irvine and Selphie trailing after him.
"Hope he'll be okay. It ain't right, ya know?" Raijin muttered.
"Hope," Fujin echoed, without her usual curt diction. Rinoa met her gaze, and saw an understanding in the other woman's one eye that she did not expect. Then they were gone, the door closing behind them to leave her alone with Squall.
She knew they all, consciously or not, expected something of her. Zell's expectancy. A miracle from their friend, from the Sorceress, from the one person who meant anything to Squall. It wasn't true, she knew; they all meant much to him, though he was uneasy admitting it and even more unwilling to express it. Even to her, at times, though he was changing, growing. Maybe because of her. Maybe because of himself, because of the heart he barely knew he had, bright and great as it was.
She knew their love was real, as real as her Sorceress's powers. But all her uncertain magic could do no good here, and as for the other, there was no special power in it, no matter what they might wish.
Fujin was right. There was hope. Love ensured that that, if nothing else.
* * *
Esthar's energy shields were such that radio communication was impossible unless they wished it, and opened a directed line of transmission via technologies other nations were barely in a position to understand, let alone use. The Garden had the capabilities to send as well as receive, but the SeeD had not quite mastered the equipment, and besides Esthar generally refused contact unless they initiated it.
When Quistis and the others arrived on the bridge, Xu was trying to convince the Esthar official to allow them free passage on the grounds of an emergency. He was far from convinced. "We have an emergency ourselves," he was saying as they entered. "One I believe you know of--your people were in contact with the Lunatic Pandora, were you not? Esthar may have a reputation for invulnerability, but I assure you the Lunar Cry last year was no small catastrophe, even for us. If you saw the monsters that infested our city--"
"We did," Quistis broke in. "We fought quite a few of them. We sympathize with your problems, but all we want is to enter--"
"We can't lower our shields," the official protested. "If we drop them far enough to let your Garden through, we'd be up to our collars in monsters all over again."
"Not that you could see them anyway, over those collars," Irvine muttered. Selphie's elbow in his ribs advised him to save the fashion critique for a more suitable occasion.
"How about just a small ship?" Quistis suggested.
"I'm afraid not."
"But..." She sighed. "Can I speak to your president?"
"Excuse me?" The official blinked down his nose at the outrageous request.
"Contact Minister Kiros. Tell him it's Instructor Quistis Trepe of Balamb Garden, and I need to speak to Lagu--I mean, President Loire."
Frowning doubtfully, the official did as she asked. He returned a moment later, clearly surprised. "I'm to put you through immediately."
There was barely a pause; the screen flickered and Laguna appeared. "Quistis! Hello!"
She managed a near smile to answer his bright one. "Hello, Laguna." She knew she should show more formality to someone both older and of a higher rank, but after 'meeting' him first as a friend--as Kiros, to be exact--much in his past, it was hard to think of him as who he was now. Besides, Laguna's entire self invited informality.
He cocked his head at her now, his smile fading as his sharp eyes took in her face, and those behind her. "Hello, guys. What's the matter? Where's Squall?"
"Got it in one," Irvine muttered.
"That's--that's why we're coming," Quistis said, bracing herself as shock rippled across Laguna's usually laid-back features. "Is Ellone around?"
"I was just talking with her. She's in the other room now," he said. "Why? Does she have something to do with this?"
"Maybe," Quistis said. "She might be able to help." And she explained.
* * *
Balamb Garden was fallen, like the cities of the ancients, smashed to the earth. The great field-wheel which once powered its levitation was split in two, broken wings of a murdered bird. The central spire listed, delicate-seeming glass and metal cruelly crushed, like a child's top stamped by a giant's boot.
Squall skidded down the blackened slope, kicking up clouds of ash that powdered his hair and jacket gray and made his eyes tear. The closer he came, the more damage was evident. Not a single pane of glass was intact, nor a brace still straight.
He coughed to clear his throat of the pervasive ash, then shouted. "Can anyone hear me?" His voice echoed across the valley, resonating through the shattered Garden. Wind whistled between the points of the fractured spire.
There was no answer. Wiping the dust from his eyes, he lowered his head and trudged forward. The breeze seemed colder and sharper, driving the gritty cinders against his mouth and nose, a bitter taste on his tongue. He drew his collar close to screen what he could and kept walking.
The main gates were twisted aside, as if a missile had been fired through them. Here he found SeeDs, guarding the entrance.
Dead. All dead.
They lay scattered across the path like threshed grain, uniforms and civilian clothes spattered with scarlet, swords, knives, and guns clutched in their cooling hands. Their eyes were wide and their mouths open, leaking trickles of blood.
He couldn't put name to all of them, but he recognized every face, and he recalled more names than he forgot. SeeDs, instructors, cadets. The boy Mikal, a full-sized flail in his small hands. Selphie had been training him to fight. He was back-to-back with his friend Janare, wielding her knife. Neither their united defense nor their youth had been enough to save them. A few yards away their teacher was sprawled on her stomach.
The farther he walked, the more he saw. A cadet from another squad during his SeeD test. A leader of the Card Club, whom he had played against and won, and lost, several times. SeeD transferred from Trabia and Galbadia; a Galbadian who had assisted them in the battle between the Gardens.
At the entryway, Xu had fallen in her tracks, one arm raised over her head. She had been giving orders when she died, commanding the SeeD in their hopeless defense. Had she lived long enough to see their fight become a massacre?
Or had it never been a battle at all, but only murder. There was no sign of the enemy, not a single corpse, though the SeeD were of the best warriors in the world. He didn't know of any force, military or magical, that could wreak this havoc. Except in Ultimecia's dark future, where SeeDs fought on, and died in the shadow of her castle.
But for the wind, the echoes of which he still could hear through the wrecked walls, everything was silent. The chain of his lion pendant jangled faintly with each step; if not for that ringing he would have thought himself deaf. He almost wished for blindness as well.
The central hub was mostly empty, save for debris. It was slow going, working around the felled struts and blasted terminals. Not expecting an answer, he called out for one anyway, praying, fighting the nausea churning his stomach. He tried to avoid the bodies he noticed, but he couldn't miss Dr. Kodowaki. She slumped against the low wall by the medical bay, partially upright, her glassy eyes staring forward. Her brow was lowered, so her expression was not surprise or shock but a kind of resolute anger.
To Squall, she looked accusing, and he could not hide from her indictment, as clear in his mind as her voice had been in life. Where were you? You're the commander. You had a responsibility to your people. You had a responsibility to us.
Unable to answer, he finally turned from her dark stare and stumbled away. The sickness that had risen in his gorge faded; he felt like one of the dead, still moving but numb. He tripped on an angled beam and scraped his hand on the metal edge, but though blood welled up through his torn glove there was barely any pain, and he only stared at it dumbly until the cut stopped bleeding.
By the time he found Nida, it no longer seemed he was seeing a corpse, only a thing. Not the remains of a man once alive, but an object, a symbol which had lost meaning through too much repetition.
It only belatedly occurred to Squall that the pilot was positioned with others to protect the bridge. Of course they had failed. They had had no other successes. Yet he was unable to prevent a small moment of hope. There were some few he hadn't seen. Zell, Quistis. Rinoa. Of them all, the best fighters. If there were any chance...
He climbed to the bridge. And there he found them, and every prayer was ashes.