A Grand-idi Day Out
Taking in a huge breath of fresh air, Squall strode down the stairs of the Ragnarok. As he reached the bottom, he cast his eyes over the great knot of cliff and trees that was Grandidi Forest. His face fell into a characteristic frown.
He was nearly knocked off his feet from behind when Rinoa flew off the staircase and out from under the shadow of the huge ship. The heat bounced off her immediately, and she smiled radiantly.
"We couldn't have picked a better day for it," she said to Squall, as he appeared by her side, his eyes on the vast stretches of forest.
"We shouldn't have picked a day at all," was his stoic reply.
"Oh, come on, Squall!" Quistis said cheerily, her boots clacking against the ground. Selphie had landed the Ragnarok as close to the forests as she could, so that they wouldn't have stony cliffs to sit on while they waited for the day to run its course, but the land was still mostly rock. "The weather's beautiful!"
Zell bounced to his other side, clapping him on the shoulder. "Yeah, this'll be great! You've been working too hard anyway, and you need a break!"
"It might be working hard for you, Zell, but it's working normally for me. And this isn't what I'd call a break!"
Quistis turned and waved at the cockpit of the gleaming crimson dragon. "Okay, Irvine, send them down!"
Squall pivoted on his heel and watched with something akin to horror as thirty or forty young kids came storming down the gangplank, yelling and hooting wildly. His face fell, and he held his head in one gloved hand.
"This was such a bad idea -"
Quistis released a frustrated sigh, clenching her fists. "Squall, we had no other choice! They're bored of the training centre, and they're even bored of the forest! Were you really that surprised that so many SeeDs volunteered to come?"
She obviously hadn't meant to imply criticism of Squall's methods of running the Garden, but he visibly stiffened. Quistis was instantly repentant.
"It's not you boring them, Squall. You've trained them all to such high standards that even the T-Rexaurs don't willingly engage in battles anymore. They need something to challenge them."
"Grandidi Forest's not a 'challenge' for the uninitiated," he groaned. "It's suicide!"
"This'll show them that battles aren't all as straightforward as they look," Rinoa put in, grinning at the thought.
Squall looked around at his friends' eager faces, and sighed. They'd already won.
But there're gonna be some pretty disappointed parents when we get back, wondering how Squall Leonhart, of all people, let their little babies get eaten alive by malboros . . .
"Okay, already!" He held up his hands in surrender. "I'm just wondering how the hell you're gonna keep fifty-six junior classmen alive in a forest infested with malboros and hexadragons!"
"Oh, there will be injuries, I expect, but that's all to the greater good," Quistis said, smiling in that irritatingly patronising way.
"That's why I came along," a deep, jovial female voice boomed from behind him, and he whirled to find himself face to face with none other than . . .
"Dr. Kadowaki!" He shot a venomous look at Quistis, who was giggling incessantly. Irvine and Selphie had also descended the stairway, and were striding towards the slowly growing group of 'staff'. "Don't tell me you agree with this, too!"
"Making mistakes is the quickest way to learn, Squall, my dear. And they will learn!"
Squall let a growl of annoyance loose. "They're just kids! They can't go up against -"
"It's three SeeDs to a team of no less than six," Quistis slipped in smoothly, still smiling unnervingly. "Plenty of protection, even for the younger classmen."
"Ooooh!" Squall threw his hands up in aggravation. "Do you deliberately try to annoy me?!"
That set them all off laughing, and he frowned, inclining his body away from them slightly and folding his arms.
"Whatever . . . You realise that if anything happens, it's my head on the block?"
Quistis grinned. "But nothing will, happen. Will it, Squall?"
"I give in."
"Thought you would!" Selphie beamed at him, punching the air. Apparently she'd been looking forward to this little 'field trip' as much as the students! But he couldn't call this a field trip when it was so far from Balamb - the northeastern tip of the Eastern Continent, to be precise. He distracted himself from his anxiety by focusing on Irvine's arm, which was wrapped loosely about Selphie's shoulders . . . the two were still as inseparable as ever.
"All right," he said with a gusty sigh. He waved vaguely in the direction of the junior classmen, their throng now being penetrated by grinning SeeDs. He recognised Nida and Xu making their way towards him. "Break them in, Quistis."
She switched to what Zell laughingly called 'Instructor Mode', and began to lecture the young students. While their attention was diverted, Rinoa slipped her arms around his waist, and rested her head against his chest.
"Wait till they're all off malboro hunting," she whispered, for his ears only, "and then I'll show you why I really wanted to come on this trip."
Squall coughed, and hurriedly broke away from her when Quistis pointed the rest of the staff out to the students.
"Remember what I said about the groups! If you can, avoid the hexadragons and definitely avoid the malboros unless the SeeDs you're with know what they're doing!" She pointed at the Ragnarok, and cracked her whip against the ground to emphasise her next point. "You can come back here if you get lost, separated or injured. Dr. Kadowaki will look after anyone who gets hurt, so don't try to play the hero and stay on as long as you can! Stick together, and we want you back at sunset." It was already midday, and unbearably hot. Quistis wiped sweat from her brow before she continued. "We'll set the siren off at that time so you'll know when and where to come back to. Okay, I did tell you all to sort out your groups before we left, but predictably, some of you will have forgotten to so do it now!"
There was a sort of mass hysteria as children and older SeeDs started running around in a frenzy, forcing Quistis to crack her whip again to calm them all down. Squall watched them with despair.
Discipline . . . I try so damn hard and it all comes down to . . . nothing!
Beside him, Zell was giving Nida a high-five. He glanced at them, his eyes widening as five junior classmen came running up to the pair and hovering around them protectively.
"Zell! You're taking a group out?"
"Hell, yeah! Gonna kick some malboro, uh, behind," he corrected when he realised the ages of his companions.
"Zell, you're supposed to avoid the malboros -" Squall said through gritted teeth.
"Yeah, yeah, of course we are." Zell's wink was not reassuring.
"Right, we're sorted!" Quistis shouted over the furore. She pointed in the direction of the Grandidi Forests. "Be careful around the cliff edges! Off you go! Have fun!"
"Have fun," she says! Hope she reminded them about status defence . . .
"See ya, guys!" Zell grinned, and raced off with Nida and the young students. Rinoa giggled.
"I bet he'll have loads of kids when he gets older," she said with a grin.
"Hey, wait, I thought it was three SeeDs to a -"
"Oh, have a little faith in Zell, Squall," Rinoa berated him harshly. "Him and Nida will be more than enough to beat up a few malboros."
Quistis was laughing with Xu over something. Squall ground his teeth together - it looked like everyone was happy about this except him. He called out to the pair when they started walking off towards the forest.
"Hey, where are you going?"
Quistis turned and fixed him with a challenging smile. "I'm off malboro hunting." She flexed her weapon expertly. "I need a few tentacles for a new whip. Xu's coming along, too."
Squall arched one eyebrow, plastering a cynical expression onto his face.
She's determined to push me as far as possible, isn't she? She knew I could call off this whole thing with just one word . . .
She and Xu disappeared into the greenery. Feeling physically drained by the constant battle of wills he and Quistis always seemed to share, he sighed and let his arms relax around Rinoa, who had been quick to resume the embrace that had been interrupted beforehand.
"They'll be fine, Squall," she said at her most reassuring. He averted his gaze from the forest, where he could hear quite easily the sound of happy laughter and vibrant conversation. Looking down at her, he felt himself melt into her affectionate expression. If it weren't for Rinoa . . .
I wouldn't even be here if it weren't for her.
"Please relax a little, Squall?" Her pleading look played havoc with his emotions.
Ah, come on, what's the worst that could happen? Lighten up!
Squall smiled, and buried his face in Rinoa's hair.
"Okay," he whispered.
"So, how bad are malboros, Zell?" Gina asked, hopping up and down on the spot.
"Real evil mothers, guys," Zell said, turning to face his group of kids with a grin. "Stinky breath, too!"
"But, Zell, we can't fight really tough monsters! We'll get slaughtered!"
Zell leaned back, puffing out his chest. He rapped his fist against it. "Hey, that's why I'm here. Ain't no malboro gonna eat anyone while I'm around!"
Nida rolled his eyes, grinning. Zell was positively lapping the attention up. And all the students had fixed him with an admiring gaze as he once again repeated the story of his battle against the sorceress. Nida had heard it so many times that he sighed and kept a vigilant watch on the rear of the party. It was strange how Zell's role in saving the world seemed to increase with each re-telling of the tale. Although he'd trust Zell with his life, the guy wasn't known for his common sense. Better to stick to mesmerize monsters if they could - easy enough to kill, and with useful curative magic to be drawn. Nida was running low on that, and hoped to stock up.
"How powerful?" one of the kids piped up, startling Nida back into the present.
"Oh, only the most powerful spell known so far on the planet," Zell said, staring at his fingernails unconcernedly. "Apocalypse is even stronger than Ultima or Holy! But see, we SeeDs got the better of her easily enough. We just drew and cast the spell on her!"
"I bet she was miffed," David grinned, clenching his fists. He was the youngest of their party, and absolutely besotted with Zell. "Serves her right for messing with SeeDs!"
"That's right!" Zell nodded furiously, swatting at an absolutely huge insect with one fist. "Ah, this reminds me of the time before the sorceress, when us six had to come through here to get materials for new weapons."
Nida hid his smile with one hand.
He's only nineteen, but he acts as if he's ninety! Recounting tales of past glory . . . sheesh!
But the kids were lapping it up. Suddenly, Nida heard a low-pitched muttering.
"Hey, stop!" he hissed. The kids turned and looked at him inquisitively. Zell continued talking for a few minutes before he realised no one was listening to him, and finally looked at what Nida had spotted.
Two mesmerizes were grazing in a clearing to the left, swaying their large horns left and right as they nickered softly to themselves. The kids gasped and grinned at each other.
"Go on then," Zell whispered. "We'll watch you beat 'em!"
The students drew their weapons and charged with a fierce battle cry, assaulting the two monsters with more vigour than Nida had ever seen in such young SeeD candidates. He leaned back against a tree, grinning at Zell as he approached.
"They're pretty good!" Zell said enthusiastically, watching as the first of the mesmerizes was felled.
"SeeD standards have improved since Cid retired."
"You mean, since Squall became leader?" Zell nudged him, smiling slyly.
Nida blushed. "Uh, yeah." He held a great deal of respect for Squall . . . he just wished the stoic leader would notice him more.
"Has he started noticing you yet?"
"A little more than he used to. I'm just one of those guys who doesn't really stand out much."
Zell sat down on a rotting tree stump. "Squall and Rinoa are besotted with each other. She balances him out. Otherwise his seriousness would be unbearable."
Nida stared at Zell, surprised by how serious he was being. He would never admit it, but he liked Squall's cynical attitude. He'd never met anyone like the young gunblade-specialist before.
"Look, look!" And the SeeD candidates came charging back into the trees, carrying two large, curved horns with them - prizes from their defeated opponents.
"Hey, mesmerize blades!" Zell greeted them heartily, ruffling hair and patting shoulders left, right and centre. "You can make pretty good weapons with those, you know."
They continued on into the forest. Nida could tell that Zell was anxious to show the students how good a fighter he was, but so far, they hadn't seen any hexadragons or malboros.
Damn, it's hot! Nida pulled off his SeeD jacket and swung it over his shoulder. He couldn't remember it being this warm in a long while. Quistis had received a reply from Laguna himself about the weather in this part of world, and he'd confirmed that it would be warm, but Nida hadn't expected it to be this hot!
It was sweaty work, clambering through the dense jungle. There was a strange lack of monsters that both Zell and Nida had noticed, and exchanged puzzled glances over. While they refreshed themselves by a small stream, Zell said to him:
"Hey, where the hell are all the monsters?"
"I've no idea. Not even a hexadragon. The junior classmen are gonna be pretty disappointed if they can't find anything to fight!"
Zell pursed his lips, his boyish face contorting with the effort of trying to figure out where all the creatures of the forest had gotten to. "Could the heat make them hide?"
"I doubt it. Laguna said in his reply that it's hot for most of the year in this part of the world."
"We should go visit Esthar later. And Ellone, too. Haven't seen her in a while."
Nida was about to reply an affirmative, but breathed through his nose and almost gagged on the putrid stench that had suddenly appeared. His eyes watered, but his hearing was fine and he could hear the alarmed shouts of the junior classmen.
"Malboro," Zell spluttered, holding his gloved hand up to his mouth, tears streaming down his face. "But . . . where?!"
The stream area was devoid of malboro life! So where was the smell coming from?
Something suddenly burst up from the ground where the two young SeeDs were standing. Nida was thrown forward, but deftly leapt to his feet, drawing his sword instantly.
It was definitely a malboro. The great, green, tentacular mass with teeth couldn't be mistaken for anything else. And yet . . .
It looked darker, bigger even, than any malboro Nida had ever seen. And its stench was nauseating! Malboros didn't usually smell this bad until after they'd let off a Bad Breath attack!
"Zell! What's up with this one?"
"Beats me, Nida! Make sure you've -"
Nida had a feeling Zell had been about to remind him to check his status defence, but he never got the chance because more soil was exploding from the floor, and another two malboros were writhing their way to the surface. The junior classmen were screaming now, the youngest of them cowering in the middle of the stream, for yet another tentacular monster had appeared on the other bank. These looked more grey than green, Nida thought distractedly, as he bounded down to the stream and in front of the kids. Zell was hovering at the other end of the tightly knit group of terrified students, fists clenched and ready for action.
The stench of so many malboros was almost more than he could bear. Nida found himself getting dizzy, but ignored the feeling as much as he could in favour of protecting the trainee SeeDs.
"Uh, Nida, I hate to say it, but this was not what I had in mind when I said I wanted to a fight malboros!"
"I hope you're packing a decent GF -"
"Quezacotl! No good against them! You?"
It was difficult for Nida to decimate the hope in Zell's question, but he shook his head. "I brought Leviathan along for the hexadragons, but . . ."
"What are you gonna do?!" the kids were screaming frantically.
"Chill, guys! Everything's under control!" Zell yelled.
"Really?" Gina's small voice was tremulous.
"Uh," Zell hesitated only briefly as the strange malboros began to descend the slope of the bank, "really!"
Nida called on some magic and cast Firaga on the nearest malboro. It shrieked with pain, but didn't go down. Nida hadn't really expected it to after just one spell, but it never hurt to hope.
"Junior classmen! Tell me you brought magic along!"
"We only have the lowest levels!"
Malboros didn't usually attack in packs. The one he'd hit with the spell seemed to giving off an even worse odour than before. If they didn't get away soon, Nida was going to lose his lunch. A desperate look back at Zell's pale face told him his friend was in the same situation. Even breathing through his mouth didn't make it any easier - then he could taste it.
The malboro nearest Zell was aflame, hit by a Firaga spell. The kids were frantically blasting the monsters with Fire spells, but they were too inexperienced and weren't causing nearly enough damage. One of them grabbed his arm and pointed at the malboro furthest from the fight. It was trembling violently.
"Oh shit! Zell!"
The SeeD looked, and his face fell, just as the malboro unleashed a violent Bad Breath attack, flooding the stream area with poisonous gas. Most of the younger students were knocked unconscious immediately. Some got confused and attacked themselves and each other, but they were also blinded and couldn't see to strike. Nida tried to call on some curative magic, but was silenced and couldn't break the mental block to reach his supply of spells. He'd protected himself against as many status ailments as he possibly could, but it wasn't enough. Half of his defences had been shattered! He'd been silence-proof! How could this have happened?
He looked up. Zell was staggering left and right, hand over his eyes. Surely Zell would have protected himself against being blinded? Of course he would! But somehow, these malboros were able to overcome the defences the SeeDs had set up.
Nida tried to straighten up, but blinding pain coursed through his body, forcing him back down. Poison? Impossible!
He fell into the stream, his ribcage connecting solidly with the sharp and rocky bed.
"Zell, the gun!" he cried, winded from the fall.
All parties had taken a flare gun with them, just in case. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zell struggling to find it in the carry sack they'd brought along, blinded as he was. He couldn't see the malboro scrabbling its way towards him.
"Zell, behind you, you fool!"
Too late. Zell whirled, but was struck down by a huge tentacle. He fell down the bank, not stopping until he hit the stream, and didn't move again.
"Zell! Zell! Get up!"
Another Bad Breath attack blasted into the clearing. This time, it overcame his sleep defence.
Nida blacked out.
"Did you hear something?"
Xu looked at Quistis. "No, nothing. Why?"
"Just thought I heard someone yell."
"This forest has become a battle ground, Quistis," Xu said with a smile. Quistis rolled her eyes.
"You seem overly anxious today." Xu caught her friend's shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. "Why?"
"Because Squall has a habit of being right."
"You've thought of everything for this field trip." She grinned and waved off Squall's cynicism. "Squall will never change. He's naturally moody and suspicious of everything."
Quistis let out a flustered breath. Sweat had beaded her upper lip, and she wiped it away. "Did Laguna say it would be this hot?"
"You read the reply, not me."
They walked on a little further.
"At this rate, I'll never get a new whip," Quistis said bitterly. They'd been wandering, at a slow pace, for an hour now, and hadn't seen a single monster, let alone a malboro.
"Don't worry, we've got all day." Xu smiled and tossed her head back, flicking her hair out. It was damp with sweat. "We all needed a break, I think. The Garden can be like a prison at times."
"I agree. All those training syllabuses and new induction candidates . . . they were getting me down for a while back there."
"You like being an instructor again?"
Quistis smiled fondly. "Zell says I have natural talent for teaching. And I do enjoy it. Besides, with the normal SeeDs' current lack of variety in the workspace . . ."
"Yes, Squall is getting pretty annoyed at that." Xu flashed a grin at her friend. She seemed to gain unnatural pleasure from seeing Squall irritated. "He told me the other day he might start a war to make things more interesting!"
"Squall wouldn't do that," Quistis said, but couldn't suppress her amused chuckle. "He avoids anything that lands him on the bad side of Rinoa, and she despises wars after the last one this planet had."
"They make a cute couple."
Quistis didn't reply to that. The last thing she wanted to talk about was Squall and Rinoa's seemingly 'perfect' relationship when she couldn't even find someone she liked. She was the only person in their little posse who still hadn't found love in some way, shape or form. Even Zell had managed to become more involved, with that librarian girl (Quistis never had found out her name - Zell continued to refer to her as 'my girl'). Selphie had Irvine, Squall had Rinoa, Zell had his girl, and Quistis . . . had no one. True, there were many SeeDs who'd be willing, but she didn't feel attracted to any of them. Before she could stop herself, she sighed.
"So that's a nothing as in 'something', or a nothing as in 'nothing'?"
Quistis pulled a face at Xu. "You know which."
"Yes, I do!"
Xu sniffed suddenly, and grimaced. "Pi-yew! That stinks! I think we've found you a malboro, Quisty."
"About time!" Quistis looked across at where the smell seemed to be coming from. They were near the cliff edge, and far below them was a vast sea of vibrant emerald. They were in only a small segment of the full entirety of Grandidi Forest, which was big enough, but Quistis couldn't even begin to contemplate the real size of the place.
The edge of the cliff was partly split. She thought it was a crack at first, but as she and Xu approached it, they found that it was a treacherous natural path, leading down to the forest below. Quistis hoped none of the SeeDs-in-training had gone down there. They were under orders to remain strictly in this part of the forest!
Quistis peered down the trail. It was barely walkable, but anyone with some agility would be able to descend if they were very careful. Halfway down, the path widened considerably into a shadowy, overgrown area. The smell seemed to be emanating from there.
"A malboro nest?" Xu breathed, but didn't sound too sure of herself.
"No, malboros don't breed at this time of the year. That's why I deemed it safe to come here. There wouldn't be too many about at the moment for our SeeDlings to handle."
Xu regarded her solemnly. "For once, I think you're mistaken." She pointed directly at the tangled darkness below. "Quistis, look closely."
She did, pulling her glasses out of her front pocket and slipping them on. The grass down there . . . it seemed to be . . . moving? The shadowy growth pulsed sickeningly as she watched. And those discoloured grey ovoids . . . what were they?
It hit her.
"Malboro eggs," she gasped. "But, but how?"
"I don't know," Xu said, her lips pressed into a thin line. "But they're the wrong colour and out of season. I think we'd better get back and tell Squall."
Quistis nodded tightly. "Let's go!"
***End of Part 1***
All characters, bar a few of my own, owned by Squaresoft.