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Chapter VIII Attack & Defense




"We're all set here," Irvine reported. "Soon as Rinoa gives us the go, we'll do it." He snapped the receiver back on its hook and stretched his legs the best he could. The sharpshooter's lanky form was not suited to the tight confines of the shuttle-sub, especially not in a cockpit with three other people. The brim of his hat crumpled against the curved ceiling.

Selphie, who had no difficulties folding her petite figure into the pilot's seat, wriggled with barely suppressed energy. "This is gonna be so keen! She must be almost there, it's been hours--"

"It's been about forty-five minutes," Zell corrected, glancing at his watch for the fourth time that minute. "I hope Rinoa's okay. How you holding up, Sashi?"

The SeeD librarian was gazing out the window into the blue water. At the question she looked to Zell and attempted to smile. "Okay, I guess. Just a little nervous. The last time I junctioned a guardian force was last year, during the battle between the Gardens. I hope..."

Seated as she was behind Irvine's seat, Sashi couldn't see the sharpshooter gesturing to Zell. At the prompting, Zell hesitantly reached out, and finally gathered the gumption to take her hand. He was mildly surprised when she didn't pull away. "It'll...uh...it'll be fine, Sashi," he said. "It's not like that attack. Heck, if Rinoa's plan goes right, this isn't gonna be a battle at all." Which didn't entirely satisfy him. Though if the Lord Dahl and Jezikan were as sly as they were made out to be, there'd be a fight yet. And Zell was going to be damn sure he was leading that charge.

"It's not the fighting, even," Sashi admitted. "It's...everyone's depending on us. Everyone in FH, and Commander Squall..."

"I know what you mean," Irvine said quietly from the front. "Kinda feels like you're about to go onstage, and even though you know the music perfectly, with everyone watching you know you're gonna screw up--"

"So that's what happened to my band last year," Selphie mumbled, then smiled sweetly at Irvine's annoyed look.

Sashi nodded. "That's it. Like stage fright. I know I can fight, but..."

"You'll do great," Zell said. "You're not fighting alone, remember; we're all with you. And yeah, lots of people are depending on us, so we have an even better reason to fight well. Because we can't let them down. We ain't gonna."

She smiled in earnest now. "Thanks, Zell. I--"

The radio beeped and Irvine grabbed it. Rinoa spoke in a whisper, the transmission crackling like ripping paper. "Hope you're all there. Do it."

Quistis came on as soon as she went off. "Selphie, Xu, time exactly five minutes to surface and for everyone to get above deck and prepare. Starting--now!"

There was a flurry of flailing limbs as the three SeeD struggled out of their seats and dove for the portal, while Selphie guided the sub up. By the time the vessel bobbed above the waves, Zell was opening the top hatch. Climbing out, he slid down the hull and planted his boots along the rim, then steadied Sashi as she joined him. The green water splashed at their feet. On the other side, Irvine secured his position. Selphie, having put the sub on autopilot, popped out of the hatch and leaned against the ladder.

Fisherman's Horizon loomed before them, waves lapping against the massive pillar rising from the water. On either side the narrow train trestles vanished into the endless cerulean horizons. Floating on the sea in the lee of the spreading dish, Galbadia Garden looked like a snail shell nestled under a coral shelf.

Zell checked his watch and shouted, "Twenty seconds!" Sashi gripped his arm as the vessel rocked with the sea. He patted her shoulder, comfortingly he hoped. "You ready?"

She nodded, brow furrowing in concentration as she let go of his arm to raise her hands. "You're gonna do great," he assured her. "Ten seconds!" He counted them off with her. "Four - three - two - one - go!"

Then, bracing himself against the salt-slick hull, he spread his arms and reached into his mind, to summon what was junctioned there.

* * *

Cid Kramer, with his wife, had founded SeeD. He had supervised the building of the Gardens and personally judged most promotion exams. Of the soldiers heading Balamb Garden, he had known half since early childhood, had watched with paternal pride as they grew up and into themselves.

And even so, they still could surprise him.

The mayor of FH had insisted to Jezikan that the glyphs flashing on every screen were untranslatable. After the lady joined Lord Dahl upstairs, the mayor had whispered the message's true meaning to Cid, so the headmaster had known, broadly, what to expect. They would be protected; the mayor's house, originally the main control center, was fully insulated. Which meant Jezikan and Dahl would be safe, and the soldiers with them, but Cid had been confident his SeeD would find ways around that.

They had, and it was magnificent. At the first shout of alarm he had thought the dish had been activated again. But the floor was steady, and the soldiers were instead pointing to the sky, which brightened like a second sun was rising. From a mountain range inexplicably manifested on the ocean horizon, a gigantic robot lifted itself to cast brilliant lances of white light at FH.

Alexander, Cid identified the guardian force, just as a panicked scream sounded on the other side of the platform. Soldiers rushed from the house to attend to the new peril, a dragon the size of a castle dive-bombing the rim of the satellite dish.

If the soldiers had been more observant, they would have noticed that Bahamut's talons left no mark on the metal. Guardian forces struck directly at foes; they had no impact on the environment outside the other-state. But that barely mattered. Soldiers were accustomed to facing one or two forces in combat. The appearance of a dozen simultaneously, out of clear and peaceful skies, was more than they could handle, especially as they had never even heard of the more exotic summoned here.

The forces did have some effects beyond mere surprise. Cid saw three soldiers lifted by Pandemonium's whirlwind and carried over the dish into the sea, and Diablo's casting was specifically aimed at an unfortunate pair of watchmen on a transport tower. But guardian forces were seldom used in major warfare for a reason; they were limited by the visibility of their targets, and even the strongest could only strike a few at once. As a signal, however, they could not be missed.

They also served well as a distraction, Cid noted. The chaos was unparalleled. Implying whoever had made it onto the city--Squall, perhaps? he wouldn't have wanted to delegate that task--whoever it was must be readying their own attack. His attention on the two remaining guards, Cid squatted on the wooden floor beside the mayor, and waited.

* * *

Near the lower hub of Fisherman's Horizon, Rinoa had no vantage point from which to watch her requested distraction. She told its effectiveness by counting the pairs of boots which marched and then ran over the walkway overhead. Pressed against the wall, far back in the shadows, she waited until all was silent.

Finally deeming it safe, she stepped back, taking the full measure of the sight before her. She faced the primary power core of the city. Strung with wires and monitoring lights, the great cylinder hummed the root note of FH's machinery chord. Beneath the translucent screen, sparks whirled and popped like trapped fireflies. When she put her hand to the warm barrier, the light congregated, outlining her fingers in a reversed shadow of glowing blue.

Rinoa pulled away, closing her eyes momentarily in concentration. She hoped as many as possible had gotten her message. She hoped as well that the engineers of FH would forgive her, given the circumstances. Gathering herself, she whispered the tripling spell. The heady rush of power was nothing like tapping a guardian force's abilities. Pure and strong, it came; without an intercessor between her and the other-state, the magic tasted sweet on her tongue, shone bright in her eyes.

Arms raised, she cast the thundaga. Three times lightning struck the power core. Enhanced by the Sorceress's gift, the energy of each bolt was more than Quetzalcoatl could produce, stronger by many times than the core's flow. Under the assault, the sparks brightened to an agonized white, power fleeing along the wires. Electricity arced between the monitors in the room, flickering madly around the overloading circuitry.

Then with a thunderous crash the cylinder cracked up and down its length, and went dark.

Hum failing like the groan of a dying man, Fisherman's Horizon went dark as well.

* * *

"She did it!" Raijin exclaimed, nearly stumbling off the top of the vessel in his excitement. Fujin grabbed his belt and glared a warning.

"Looks like," Quistis agreed from the other side of the ship, focusing her binoculars on the city. The lights blinking along the dish's rim had abruptly ceased, and she no longer made out any soldiers standing watch.

They might all be in hiding, if the guardian forces had done the trick. Quistis was halfway surprised no trace of those powers remained now, minutes later--she had almost expected the concentration of summons to rupture the other-state. But even in herself she felt no difference; Eden had retreated to whence it came as always. Fujin was still looking abnormally cheerful--she had come extraordinarily close to smiling when allowed to junction Pandemonium once again. Otherwise nothing had changed.

Excepting the darkened city, more noticeable in the growing twilight. The sun sank into the sea behind them as Quistis studied FH through the scopes. "Nothing seems to be on."

"Let me look," Kiros asked, reaching down from the hatch where he had summoned Siren. Quistis handed him the binoculars, then switched on her radio. "Selphie, Xu, come in. FH is out--that's our cue to move in."

"We're on it," Selphie said.

"One moment," Xu requested from the third vessel. "Laguna might've seen something--"

"Not sure," Laguna demurred. "Looked like a flare or somethin'. Kiros, you there?"

"Here." Kiros raised his voice as Quistis held the radio up toward him. "Everyone's behaving. Where'd you see this flare or whatever?"

"North side of the rim. But I don't see nothing there now. Maybe a warning signal to a ship that's not docked. The other ones are gonna be stuck until the power's up again. Think the back-up generator was taken out too?"

"Considering I don't see any lights, looks like. They're sitting ducks."

"Raijin, Fujin, get below," Quistis ordered. "We need to move."

* * *

"We have to go now," Cid said matter-of-factly, helping the mayor to his feet. "The guards will be returning." The two soldiers had run outside to assist at the first sign of the power overload. Cid had dragged a large bookcase before the front door after locking it, but that wouldn't hold the guards back for long. Jezikan and Dahl were still upstairs, wisely avoiding the panic and the paralyzing sparks from the shorted equipment. Now that was settling, they'd come down any minute.

"Go where?" the old man demanded. "There's no ships able to leave, without power to release the grapples." He squinted dubiously at the orange alarm lights and dimmed monitors. His house had a separate emergency generator, but the machinery did little good when the rest of the city's network was disabled. "Your warriors have wrought more damage than the Galbadians--"

Cid didn't like to interrupt people, but he had little choice. "We can discuss reparations later--does your house have another exit?"

"This way." The mayor lead him to the back of the room, where he released a hidden mechanism and slid aside a console. Shiny aluminum rungs lead down into a dark passage. "You go to your people," the mayor said. "I'll stay. Someone needs to reason with these--"

"You'll reason more effectively alive," Cid told him. "And be better able to defend your people. You can do nothing for them here--Jezikan'll kill you, your wife, anyone, out of spite." There was a loud bang on the door, then another. Not all the soldiers had been rendered unconscious by the electricity, then. Slipping his glasses into his vest pocket, the headmaster grabbed the mayor's arm. "Galbadia Garden should still have power. You have the codes to enter it, correct? I'm afraid I haven't memorized them quite yet. Come on. For the sake of your citizens."

After a token resistance, the mayor allowed himself to be helped down the ladder, then lead the way through the twisting, lightless passages to the Garden's dock.

* * *

With FH's defenses down, the Galbadians were no match for the SeeD. The submarines surfaced to board alongside Galbadia Garden, which the SeeD soon discovered was tightly sealed off. The gate off where they docked had to be forced open, and once in the city, there were no citizens available to grant them passage onto their other Garden. At least it was equally secure from the Galbadians.

"Rinoa's plan must've worked," Irvine observed, tightening the cording around the wrists of the last soldier they had encountered. The man groaned. He and his comrade had apparently been half-stunned by an exploding terminal. The damage wasn't severe enough to cause fatalities, but the Galbadian forces were not at full strength.

Hopefully Cid and the others had been able to take advantage of this. A lump of ice lodged in Quistis's gut at the thought that Jezikan might attempt to carry out her threat of retribution. If she killed... No. Squall had the right idea. Some things you don't think about; you just go on with your duty.

"Xu, Sashi, the rest of you." Quistis looked over the SeeD and Raijin and Fujin, "stay here and try to get onto Galbadia Garden. Look for an FH citizen. If you meet more Galbadians, take them prisoner. And contact Balamb Garden to explain the situation; the other SeeD can begin preparing to come over.

"Laguna, Kiros..." She hesitated. Commanding Seifer's posse was one thing, but the leaders of Esthar had volunteered to come; they definitely weren't under her command. "Can you help Xu and the others? The Fishermen will listen to you."

Laguna smiled and nodded; Kiros gave a quick bow. "Yes, ma'am!"

"Thank you," Quistis said, relieved. "Irvine, Selphie, Zell, we're going to find Cid and Rinoa." And Lord Dahl, but she suspected that would be achieved by seeking Rinoa. Gesturing to her chosen party, she headed toward the closest ramp to the central stage, where the mayor's house was perched. Jezikan's communication had originated there; it was a logical base of operations for the Galbadians to run their campaign.

In the fading evening dusk, the sloping dish was cast in deep blue shadow. A single golden beacon burned in the mayoral house's highest window. Otherwise the only light came from the rising moon, giant on the horizon, the sky's single pale eye overlooking sea and stars alike with the same indifference.

With the fall of darkness, other gleams lit erratically around the dish as Galbadian soldiers activated their torches. They might not even realize their security was breached; all radios would have been shorted out, and the SeeD had captured the few who had spotted them. The soldiers' flashlights bobbed over the dish as they hurried to restore order, a chaotic dance of white points of light.

"Isn't it romantic?" Selphie sighed. "I wonder if they'll let us do another concert here, later..."

"We'll be lucky if they don't throw us into the drink," Zell muttered, "after what Rinoa did. Bet even their engineers'll have a time fixing it."

"It's better than Galbadian occupation," Irvine pointed out.

"I don't see anyone patrolling," Quistis said, silencing the others. "Let's go for it." At her signal, they all dashed down the ramp, making for the central house and whoever tended the light in its attic.

* * *

Rinoa carefully counted her steps through the tunnel, guided by a flickering magic flame. According to the city map on Odine's lab terminal, the hatch above should open in the mayor's house, where Cid might still be, and Jezikan and Dahl as well. She readied her magic before opening it. The tripled sleep spell would hopefully be enough to counter any immediate threat, and she drew her knife as an extra precaution.

After extinguishing the fire, she stealthily pushed up the panel. There was no sound from the darkness above, and she poked up her head into the shadowed house. Better than the blackness of the tunnel, but not by much; the sky outside the windows was charcoal gray, and the only shapes she could make out were the motionless machines silhouetted against them. "Cid?" she whispered, climbing out.

"He's gone," purred a low alto, and Rinoa heard the click of a cocked hammer. She blinked as with another click a dim yellow light came on, revealing Jezikan Deling only a few feet away. The pistol in her delicate hands was pointed unwaveringly at Rinoa's temple. "Though I suspected someone might come for him. Put the knife down, dear."

Rinoa nodded jerkily and bent to lay it on the ground. As she did, she prepared a shield spell, readying herself to rush the other woman. She was lifting her hand to cast when she felt Jezikan touch her arm, a brush of icy metal--

And the magic was gone, as surely as if she were muted, or had been junctioning a guardian force suddenly murdered. Gasping, she jerked up, grabbing for the cold chain latched around her forearm.

"Don't touch it, girl," Jezikan snapped. "I will shoot you, if I need to."

Rinoa lowered her hand, arching her neck to stare down at the armlet. The twisting metal and gemstone mocked her with its familiarity. Only a year ago, she had failed to use this very bauble as Jezikan had succeeded with it now. Dr. Odine's bangle. It was indeed effective against Sorceresses...

"I knew it would be you," the lady said. She didn't lower the pistol, but she was smiling now, her face as cruel as it was beautiful. "The foolish doctor wouldn't betray us for just anyone. But you're a key to him. A marvelous mystery. Lord Dahl's with him now, to make sure he completes his work in time. Without distractions." Her smile broadened. "You know, I believe Dahl himself is the doctor's greatest fear. His own creation, whom he can neither control nor understand.

"That's why you came here, isn't it." Jezikan stepped closer, so that through the dimness Rinoa could see each of her long lashes, like finest copper wire curving up from her shaded eyelids. "For Dahl. For the sake of the SeeD commander. Ah, what rash lengths love drives the young to. You should have taken more care. You have power, girl. But it doesn't do any good if you don't know how to use it."

Rinoa stood still, her hands in fists at her side, gazing straight forward rather than raise her eyes to Jezikan's. The lady laughed, a low, courtly trill. "You needn't be so silent; this isn't an interrogation. You're not a soldier, or a SeeD. You're a Sorceress. You're a danger to me, a grave one, but you aren't my enemy. I admire your strength more than I hate it. Far more. Your gift--"

"It isn't a gift," Rinoa said.

"It's a curse I'd have gladly taken on myself," Jezikan replied. "Even with its disadvantages." She glanced pointedly at the bangle. "I should bring you to Odine, shouldn't I. But he'll only want to use you."

"Like you don't."

"Not in the same way," the lady demurred. "To him, you're a device, as fascinating as one of the ancients' gadgets. Just as you're a weapon to the SeeD. Just a tool, a powerful tool. Do you think they care about you? They only care about what you can do for them. I've met your beloved commander. Do you really believe he feels anything for you? All he sees is the Sorceress.

"I see the power--I want the power, I'll admit that--but I see you within it. The Sorceress, and the girl who is the Sorceress--they're different, aren't they? And yet the same. Bind one, and the other is tied as well. Free one, to everything she might dream of reaching, and the other is also freed..."

She reached one elegant hand toward the bangle, when the outside door rattled under a resounding blow. The lock creaked ominously. "What?" Jezikan cried, whirling to bring the gun to bear at the new threat.

The half-second she took her eyes off her prey was more than enough. Rinoa didn't attempt to tear off Odine's bangle. She simply swung her fist, throwing her entire weight into the blow, augmented by her rising anger and even stronger fear.

Jezikan turned back just in time for the punch to catch her square in her graceful jaw. The lady went down as the door burst inward, Zell almost falling after it with the force of his kick. Quistis, Selphie, and Irvine pushed in behind him.

Rinoa, shaking her hand and trying not to wince, crouched by Jezikan to verify the lady's faint was not act. When she was certain she finally looked up at her friends. "I didn't ask--"

"Like we'd let you have all the fun," Zell said. But he wasn't smiling. "Where's Dahl?"

"Not here. He's with Dr. Odine, she said." Rinoa yanked at the chain around her arm, but the links wouldn't snap. "She must've got this from him--"

"Let me see that." Irvine bent over her. "The bangle, huh? Does it work?"

"Like a charm." Rinoa sighed. "I didn't see her until it was too late--I thought I had it covered, with the magic, but..."

With deft fingers, Irvine pried apart the locked clasp and drew off the armlet. Rinoa exhaled at the rush of her restored power, almost tangible in its return, as if it had been heightened by the suppression. She straightened, then turned to Zell, who with Selphie had already bound Jezikan's wrists and was about to tie a cord around her ankles. "Don't. We'll take her to Odine's lab--maybe Lord Dahl will give in when he sees her."

"Are you all right, Rinoa?" Quistis asked, as Zell and Selphie less than gently yanked the stunned lady to her feet. "Did she try anything--"

"She didn't get a chance." Rinoa picked up the gun that had fallen from Jezikan's grasp, then retrieved her knife. "I'm all right. I'll be better when we find Dahl." She heard her voice waver, ignored it. "Come on. "

A small army was waiting for them outside the Mayor's house. Zell clapped his hand over Jezikan's mouth before she could issue an order, while Selphie and Irvine shrugged and summoned Ifrit and Shiva. Fire and ice whipped through the gathered ranks, and they hurried by in the forces' wake. The few soldiers who recovered quickly enough to bar their path encountered Quistis's whip, Zell's fists, and a variety of spells from Rinoa. She was barely conscious of their casting; the magic flew from her fingers as she waved them, hardly seeming to deplete her stores. Blinded, burned, shocked, stunned, her enemies staggered back. Somewhere inside her a little voice stammered, I did that? but she didn't have time to listen.

The reflect spell took her off-guard; when the blizzaga turned back on her, she barely dispelled the miniature ice storm in time. The bitter cold whipped through her thin shirt, but she narrowed her eyes against the wind and flung a second dispel at the magus, a tall figure strategically positioned behind the troops. The reflective shell blasted apart.

Realizing his protection was gone, the magus hastily retreated as he recast. So intent was he on his magic that he failed to realize the presence behind him until it was too late. The massive staff descending on his skull effectively silenced him.

"Thanks, Ward!" Selphie cried, beaming as she bounced over the felled soldiers to greet the Esthar minister. The huge man nodded a greeting while the others walked up the ramp after Selphie, Zell shoving Jezikan along in front of him.

"When did you come?" Quistis asked of Ward. "You weren't on the ships--"

"He came with me." Ellone stepped out from behind the minister, dwarfed in his shadow. "Laguna asked Ward to bring me over. If I can meet this Lord Dahl, I might be able to learn what he's doing to Squall. How he's doing it."

"I dunno," Irvine murmured. "This Dahl sounds like a dangerous characterů"

Rinoa glanced pointedly at the unconscious magus, at the troops crumpled around them. "So are we." She started up the ramp again, Ward, Ellone, and the SeeD dragging Jezikan behind her.

* * *

Kiros could tell Laguna was trying not to fidget. Esthar's president stood quietly as they rode the lift, his hands casually stuck in his pockets. Only his tapping boot betrayed his tension, and the alacrity with which he shot through the doors when they slid open. Kiros, Cid, and the Mayor of FH were right behind him entering Galbadia Garden's central office and bridge.

The SeeD headmaster had arrived with the mayor minutes after Quistis and the others departed. With the mayor's assistance, they had all boarded Galbadia Garden, along with several citizens of Fisherman's Horizon. With a little luck, the Galbadian soldiers wouldn't realize the Garden was functional until it was too late.

Cid headed to the com behind the main desk, activating the computer per the mayor's instructions. Laguna paced around the room--smaller than the office in Balamb Garden, Kiros noted, but more lavishly decorated, the knobs on desk and drawer leafed with gold and the walls hung with framed portraits. A pair of crossed silver swords mounted behind the desk bore witness to the military nature of the Garden.

Machinery whirred to life as Cid worked and the president of Esthar wore out the thick carpet. Kiros fingered his communicator, wondering if he should risk contacting Quistis.

"Hey? Um, excuse us..."

Laguna snapped around to face Raijin hovering the doorway, Fujin behind him. "Yes?"

The two had been put on guard duty with Xu. "Ward's in FH, right outside the Garden," Raijin reported. "Think he wants in, ya know? Only he's got a guy with him."

"A guy?" Kiros raised a questioning eyebrow. "Wasn't Ward supposed to come with Ellone? Who is it?"

Raijin shook his head. "Ward won't let him talk. And he couldn't really tell us the guy's name himself, ya know."

"I'll check it out," Kiros volunteered, accompanying Raijin and Fujin down.

In a few minutes he returned with the two new arrivals. Ward had one broad hand locked over the other man's mouth, and didn't release him until they were standing in the office. His scrawny captive staggered, then straightened, adjusting his collar while he gaped at them.

Laguna's mouth twisted in a smile much closer to an evil grin than most would have thought him capable of. "Dr. Odine. Nice to see you again."

"Uh--ah! My lord President!" The doctor dipped in a bow so deep he nearly off-balanced himself. "I, ehm, was not expecting, that is to say, I did not think--"

"What are you doing here?" Kiros snapped. "Rinoa already told us you're working for the Galbadians--why?" He turned to Laguna. "Ward says Quistis and the others found Rinoa. They've captured Jezikan and now they're with Ellone, searching for Lord Dahl. They tried asking the doc here, but he wasn't much help. To keep him from causing trouble they had Ward bring him to us while they kept hunting." He shoved Odine none too gently, making him stumble. "C'mon, doc, we're waiting. Talk to us."

Odine blinked rapidly, pasty face paling further. "You sent--Ellone--after Dahl?" he demanded in a strangled voice. "I didn't see her--you'll have her killed as well? Bad enough the Sorceress might die--"

"Die?"

"Relax, Laguna. Quistis and Rinoa know what they're doing." Kiros hoped, anyway. Ellone had trouble using her powers with more than a few people at a time; with luck Dahl had the same limitations. How dangerous could the man possibly be, after Ultimecia... "We're talking about you, doc. What's your scheme?"

Cid had been watching silently, still busy with the com. Now he raised his head, announced, "I think I know." And the back of Kiros's neck prickled at his too-calm tone. The headmaster mounted the lift to the bridge. "I need to make sure," he said, pulling a small pair of binoculars from his pocket.

Odine's eyes widened to bulging domes. "It's come?" he whispered, than nearly shouted it. "It's come!" Hard to say if his fervor was exhilaration or abject terror. "I must see--you must return me to my lab! If it is here, I must have my equipment ready!"

"If what's here?" Laguna took the words out of Kiros's mouth. "Jezikan's called in the cavalry? What's coming?" He sounded lightly curious, but to judge from his expression, the president had the same sinking feeling as his minister, one that said they might be better off not knowing.

* * *

"Sis should've gone back with Ward," Zell whispered to Quistis, glancing worriedly back at Ellone as she followed the SeeD through the bowels of Fisherman's Horizon. "She doesn't know how to fight. If Dahl's got soldiers guarding him, or if more come after us..."

"We'll protect her," Quistis murmured back. "She wanted to come--"

They both jumped as a distant klaxon began wailing, echoing through the metal corridors. "What is that?" Zell hissed.

"Ship's alert," Rinoa said from where she walked in front. "Galbadian vessels, several of them." She stopped and looked back to glare at Jezikan, still bound and escorted by Irvine and Selphie. "What's going on?"

The lady arched an eyebrow. "I should know? You're the ones who captured me."

"Damn straight, you should know," Zell growled, taking a step toward her. She didn't shy back. "They're your ships, and you attacked FH."

Jezikan shrugged. "Maybe they've sounded the alarm to go after you."

"No," Rinoa disagreed. "You're lying. It's in your face. What are they signaling?"

"Tell her," Irvine commanded, shoving the lady. "Or--" Mid-phrase he broke off, jerking up his head as if detecting a sudden noise.

"Irvine?" Selphie asked. Instead of answering her, the sharpshooter clapped his hands over his ears. His mouth opened as if he were screaming, but he made no sound, his face contorting with brief agony before going slack. Then he dropped like a stone, falling heavily on the metal floor and making no effort to rise.

"Irvine!" Selphie cried, releasing Jezikan to lunge for him. Before she reached him she lurched as if ramming an invisible barrier. With a gasp she stumbled to her knees, then pitched forward. Zell cursed, but before he could take more than a step toward his fallen friends he too choked and crumpled.

Quistis stared, momentarily frozen by both the suddenness of their reactions, and the unmistakable terror that had flashed in their eyes. What spell could--

It took her in that instant, and she fell before she comprehended what had seized her.

Rinoa needed no time to understand. "Stop it!" she shouted, raising her dagger as she grabbed Jezikan's arm. "Tell Dahl to let them go, or I'll..." She pressed the blade to the lady's throat.

Jezikan laughed as loudly as she dared without risking a cut. "And why do you think he'd care?"

"Because--"

A door to her left slid open. Through it she glimpsed a man, transparently fair but for his intense black eyes, fixed on her as if to scorch her with ebon fire.

"Dahl," she began.

And was struck by a rising dark she recognized too well. Before she had witnessed Squall dragged into its depths. Now she was drawn down, and however she fought with strength or magic, it was a useless defense. Before she could draw a breath she was swallowed by the whirling blackness.

Rinoa collapsed, the knife clattering from her lax fingers. Jezikan stooped to retrieve the blade, swiftly slicing through the cord around her wrists. She stood, rubbing the chafed skin--the boy needn't have tied her so tightly. She kicked his limp body in the ribs, then looked around. The meek young woman following them had disappeared. No matter; even if Dahl hadn't noticed her, she was of little consequence.

The lord was slumped in a chair, narrow chest heaving and his eyes still locked on the Sorceress girl. Jezikan considered waiting for him to come to his senses, then listened to the distant wail of the alarms. Only one thing could account for that level of alert. The knowledge of its arrival drew her, siren-like. Leaving Dahl presiding over the felled SeeD, she lifted her skirts and hurried down the corridor. First back to Odine's lab, then to a ship and what awaited her outside.

* * *

Once there was a people compared to whom Esthar seemed primitive, who made the grand technology of the Country of the Shield obsolete. So long past that the volumes of their histories had disintegrated eons ago, they had left for the stars, to be remembered in narratives, then only as myth. They hardly seemed real, these ancients, and they left but two legacies. The first was that mythology, hundreds of stories spread among dozens of peoples, all corroborating some details and contradicting others. Legends, and they would seem nothing more, were it not for their other relic.

They had built it with all their skill, to harness the living magic energy even those ancients with all their wisdom hadn't entirely understood. Within its frame a Sorceress's powers were assimilated, conserved and magnified a thousand times over. So great was this energy that it took a price from the heavens, invoking a magnetic pull on the monsters of the moon and drawing them down on the world to wreak destruction, an immutable, irrevocable force. Once activated, even the ancients could not control the awesome potential of their creation.

The Lunatic Pandora, legend christened it. An insane gift from demented, banished gods. The greatest weapon the greatest of civilizations had ever constructed.

Now from the sea the Lunatic Pandora had risen again. Obedient to the signal sent, it swept over land and ocean until it reached its destination, casting a long shadow over Fisherman's Horizon.

From the bridge of Galbadia Garden, Kiros craned his neck up at the massive, featureless, black tower blotting out the stars. Hoping his hands weren't shaking visibly, he handed Cid's binoculars to his president, and muttered, "I think the cavalry's here."

* * *

In the deep warren of FH, Lord Dahl sat in the low-backed frame chair, panting as he gripped the aluminum arms. Sweat darkened his fair hair, beaded on his forehead and trickled down his blanched cheeks. Never had he reached so many at once, and none well-known to him. His few previous encounters had given him enough leverage to touch the SeeD, but it was a great strain. Unlike his attack on Squall, he struck with the intent to kill immediately, strengthening and hastening the grip of their horrors. He had not been able to drive any of them immediately to death, but it was inevitable now that they were down.

He had noticed the other girl with the SeeD, but he ignored her for now. Ensnaring the Sorceress proved even more difficult than he had guessed, harder to conquer than even the willful SeeD commander. With concentrated effort he used what knowledge he had of the girl to force her completely into herself, her own dread unlocking the nightmares. Once they set upon her he pulled back, the visions vivid even from his detached perspective. Pallid with both the effort and the thrill of exerting his power, he reveled in the raw intensity of her fears.

Mere paces away, her body sprawled in the corridor outside Dahl's chamber, Rinoa walked a dark path thousands of miles distant. She stood in Deling City, the gate of her father's estate closed before her, driven by a panic borne of sure knowledge of danger.

She knew the gateway's code, but the lock wouldn't clear. "I need my father," she gasped into the square voder behind the metal bars. "It's important. Please, get General Caraway!"

She almost sobbed with relief when the straight-backed figure emerged from the manor. "Dad, let me in, we need help--"

"You're not my daughter." There were a stranger's eyes in her father's familiar face. "I have no daughter."

"Father," she begged, "please, we're in trouble--"

"Go away or I will have you arrested," he told her coldly.

"No--no, please! Daddy, help me, please!"

But he turned his back to her, unhearing, and marched away without a single glance behind him.

Backing from the gate slowly, shaking her head in tearful denial, she stumbled into someone behind her.

"Hey, look where you're going!"

She recognized the voice, whirled with a sudden smile. "Zone! Watt!"

All that greeted her was an anomalous frown. "Do we know--"

"It's me. Listen, you have to come with me, I need to save them--" She saw no recognition in their faces. "You know me, it's Rinoa--"

Zone's brow darkened unnaturally. "Oh, yeah, you're that girl. The one who called herself a princess. We're better off without your help."

"What should we do with her, sir?" Watt seized her by the arm. Before the other boy grabbed her she tore away, staring at them. Their mouths twisted in ugly lines, they advanced on her.

With no will to fight her old compatriots, she ran. She knew the city's streets, but all the faces she saw were unfamiliar, watching her with bitter suspicion.

On the outskirts of the city she found Balamb Garden. Every entrance was closed off. She beat her fists against the unyielding wall. Behind it the SeeD guards watched her in blank confusion. "Who are you? Why are you trying to get in?"

"I'm Rinoa Heartilly!" she cried. "I live here! We were on a mission--we need help. I need to find help, Quistis and the others--" Her voice grew hoarse and her eyes burned. "Please let me in, I--" They were turning away, as her father had, deaf to her appeal. "Please!" she cried desperately.

"Why are you shouting?"

She spun around. "Squall?"

He was standing beside her, awake, alive, watching her. She flung herself at him, half-sure he would melt away under her arms, but he remained solid. She pressed her face against the soft fur ruff of his jacket, fighting sobs. "Squall, oh please--"

He took her by the wrists, wrenching her hands off his shoulders. She stared up at him, dazed. "Squall?"

"Why are you shouting?" he repeated. "They don't hear you. No one is listening."

"You heard me," she said, her mouth dry. "You're listening..."

He shrugged diffidently, releasing her wrists with a sharp twist that shoved her back. "I'm not paying attention. Why should I? I'm tired of you. You think you're so special and talented, but you're no one. What have you done, that you could mean anything to me? I don't care about people. Why would I care about you?" His stare was frozen gray, as biting as snow on her bare skin.

"No." She took a step toward him. "No, that's wrong, that's not what you're really like. This is a trick. A spell. It must be." She took another step, reaching toward him. "Please, Squall, listen to me--"

"I told you. No one hears you. No one cares." He drew Lionheart from its sheath. "Get out of here."

"I can't." She shook her head, her hair lashing her cheeks. "It's too important--I won't go. You have to hear me--whatever's wrong, you know me." She put her hand on his arm. "I love--"

The gunblade slashed across her stomach almost without pain, so sharp it took a moment before the wound began to bleed, as if the flesh were unaware of being parted. Then it poured from her, scarlet flooding down and staining her coat. He watched her unperturbed, methodically wiping clean the glimmering blade.

She clasped her abdomen tightly, but the cut was too long and deep to staunch. She couldn't dam back the blood, and he wouldn't help her, didn't move as she stumbled to her knees, dizzy with more than pain. And even so she didn't, couldn't hate him, even as her sight darkened and shrank until all she saw were his eyes, still watching, calm and cold...

She was lying on hard metal grating, her arms crossed over her whole stomach. There was no pain, no blood. With the gasp of a nightmare broken, Rinoa opened her eyes.

Beside her, Zell sat straight up and stared down at his arms as if astonished to find them there. Rinoa looked past him to Selphie, curled in fetal position, knees tucked under her chin. A couple feet away, Irvine struggled up. Spotting Selphie, he gave an inarticulate cry and half-lunged, half-crawled to her side. The urgency with which he embraced her left little doubt to the content of his nightmare. The way Selphie jerked, then latched onto him in turn, gave equal testament of her own vision. Quistis, her whip discarded at her side, blinked slowly as she rose, two narrow tracks of tears running down her cheeks from her blue eyes.

Kneeling in the corridor on the open door's threshold, Ellone sobbed uncontrollably.

Rinoa crossed to her, balancing with effort like one drunk or walking in dreams. Ellone's head was bowed, her green sweater wrapped around herself. "I had to," she wept. "Quisty, Zell...he was killing all of you. I had to."

In the room through the door, Dahl was draped over a chair like a broken marionette, limbs sprawled awkwardly and his neck arched back. He was breathing, very slow but even. When Rinoa tilted his head forward, his eyes were open, their fathomless black staring at a nothing too terrible to comprehend.

"What'd you do?" Rinoa asked quietly.

Ellone's hands were twisting her cardigan so tightly the seams were strained. "I knew he was there," she whispered. "I felt him groping for me--for us. After Jezikan left, he noticed me. It was the only thing I could do...when he touched me, I sent him into himself. Into the moment he reached for me, and he took himself instead."

"So he put himself into his own nightmares." Zell sounded too solemn to be himself as he surveyed the shattered man. "Is he going to get out of them?"

Ellone shook her head, her breath hitching in her throat.

"You did right, Sis," Irvine said. "You had to do it, to save us. Thank you." He helped Ellone to her feet. As he did so, the floor thrummed, and lemon-yellow lights glowed to life up and down the hall.

"They must have gotten emergency power working--" Selphie exclaimed, and then an alarm began wailing, much louder than the distant klaxons on the Galbadian vessels.

"Is that a good sign or a bad one?" Irvine wondered aloud, wincing at the siren's shrieks.

"Depends on what the alert's for," Quistis answered. "Jezikan's gone--I guess she had plenty of opportunity to escape. If she set it off we might be in for a battle."

"We're going to be in for one anyway," Rinoa said grimly. She couldn't identify the power prickling her spine, but it was oddly familiar, and unmistakably dangerous. "We better regroup with the others and find out what's happened."

"Hey, maybe Squall's snapped out of it, like we did," Zell suggested.

"I hope so," Rinoa replied, ignoring Ellone's negative shake of the head. Then she pushed both the wish and its denial to the back of her mind, alone with any thought of the nightmare Dahl had thrust her within. Of her questions, some might be answered upon returning to the Garden. The rest were better unasked.

* * *

In the darkness of night, the Pandora eclipsing the moon, and amid the transports coming and leaving Fisherman's Horizon and the Gardens, no one noticed the small, single-man vessel which detached from one of FH's side ports. It sent no charted itinerary to the central computer on the Galbadian fleet ship, and had anyone been watching, they would not have believed its destination. No one was mad enough to fly undefended into the mouth of the beast. Yet the vessel did not swerve in its course, directly toward the giant, inky silhouette of the Lunatic Pandora.

Chapter IX


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