Grazhir :: Crossover :: Convergence :: 03 :: Veneficus

03 • Veneficus

Squall was happy enough to reach the nearby station and obtain tickets to Deling, then embark the train. A helpful announcement confirmed for those too stupid to be let out without a leash that the train was, shockingly, headed for Deling City, and would be departing shortly.

“This is the only train bound for Deling City anyway,” Rinoa commented.

Irvine adjusted his hat again and mused, “Hm, perhaps it’s fate?” He headed into the hallway where Selphie had gone.

“So, what do we do about him?” Zell asked.

Squall arched a brow questioningly.

“We don’t know anything about him. He’s obviously a womanizer. What if he’s not serious about this mission?”

Squall entered the hallway in time to see the sniper attempting to sweet talk Selphie, but Irvine stopped when he noticed Squall and walked back to the others. Squall turned around, internally shaking his head when Irvine immediately tried the same ploy on Rinoa, who scurried over to Quistis.

“Irvine Kinneas!” Quistis said scoldingly. “You’re playing a major role in this mission. Now behave yourself!”

“No one understands me. Sharpshooters are loners by nature. We hone our instincts, pour our whole being into a single bullet. The pressure of the moment, an instant of tension, that’s what . . . I have to face alone. It’s not easy. So like, just do me a favor and let me be! You get my drift?”

Zell punched the nearest surface in disgust.

‘Squall.’

He went on alert again. ‘Yes? Are we going to finish that earlier conversation?’

‘There’s something I think I need to warn you about. General Caraway . . . he’s Rinoa’s father. Expect some conflict, okay?’

‘Grand. This is going to be so much fun, I can tell. Now what about earlier, about Laguna? What is it you’re afraid to tell me?’

‘Please don’t be angry with me. I did some checking to be sure. I mean, I have resources available to me that you don’t.’

‘I know. And?’

‘Squall, I think he’s your father.’

‘How. . . ? Those dreams are of the past, then? Okay, I’m not sure I like this, but why tell me now? Why give in?’

‘I’m really concerned. All of this is snowballing rapidly. Esthar once had a sorceress as their leader, but she disappeared, about the same time as I believe Laguna did. My sources. . . . Damn it, I can’t explain that. Look, you might actually meet the man someday, okay? Don’t judge him too harshly, not until you know what actually happened.’

‘Do you know what happened?’

‘Not really, no. My sources have peculiar limitations, that’s the most I can say about them. I can tell you that bizarre place he was in during that last dream is called Lunatic Pandora.’

‘And it was in Esthar.’

‘Estharians were there, yes, but that was Centra, not Esthar.’

‘Ah, okay.’ He wasn’t sure he could understand Griever’s insistence, but then he remembered that his friend had lost his own parents at a very young age, among others, though not all had died then. Sometimes circumstances were beyond a person’s control, and sometimes people made stupid mistakes, or were forced to make difficult choices.

He swallowed the urge to push further and turned his attention to what Irvine had said earlier, prompting him to walk over to him and murmur, “Follow me.”

“Hm?”

“Follow me,” he repeated, then headed toward the first cabin, pleased that Irvine actually obeyed. Inside he flipped the lock and turned to face the sniper. “What’s fate?”

“Eh? Nothing. I was just lost in thought. It’s not like anyone. . . .”

Squall arched a brow. “Recognizes you? Remembers you?”

Irvine’s eyes widened in shock. “You—?”

“I do,” he confirmed with a nod. “They don’t. Despite GF use, I’ve retained my memories. So what’s fate? Us being together again?”

Irvine dropped onto the sofa and tipped his hat back. “Yeah. It was a shock, seeing you all. Well, except for that girl. And none of you seemed to remember. It’s a lonely feeling. If you do remember, why haven’t you said anything to them?”

Squall shrugged. “I’m not sure, to be honest. It just never seemed that important. I was more concerned with my studies. Just, somewhere along the way they forgot, and it was easier to deal with them as they were. Even so, I have problems believing that it’s only GFs to blame. You were all adopted, taken away. It was just Seifer and me left, and we were sent to Garden.

He might be a victim of GF use, but that doesn’t explain how everyone else forgot, unless you simply accept that we were all very young when we were separated. I remember everyone, but even I have difficulty remembering the details. It’s all sort of a blur, with just certain experiences sticking out, and I think that’s probably the case for anyone trying to remember their early childhood.

“I’m not saying that GFs might not have some bearing, but I don’t think they’re entirely to blame, either. Like, I went to Garden when I was five, but Quistis didn’t arrive at Balamb until she was ten. She didn’t remember us, and she’s only a year older than I. Take a young child away from what they know, give them a new life, in a new place, with all new people and experiences. . . .” He headed for the door to flip the lock. “Look, I just wanted you to know. You’re not alone in your memories, okay?”

“Squall, thanks,” Irvine said softly.

He nodded and left the cabin to return to the others. They arrived in Deling a few minutes later and disembarked into a huge station with multiple levels. There were escalators ahead to carry them upward, to the main level of the city, where it seemed like the citizens vied against the night with bright lights everywhere, and neon, and even spotlights that tried to pierce the clouds overhead.

“Let’s head for a hotel,” he said. “We’ve delayed rest long enough.”

“We can take a bus,” Rinoa said. “Come on.”

“Sounds like you know this place pretty well,” Zell commented as they embarked.

They were shortly there, the same hotel from the dream, and set up with keys, the females taking one room, males the other. Squall took the time to check over his equipment again, and inventory his supplies. “Irvine, do you know if there’s an upgrade shop in town?”

“Uh, yeah, there is. Pretty much everything of interest is on this street, so if we need any supplies we can get those, too.”

He pulled a card out of his pocket and thumbed the scanner chip on it; a quiet beep later and he was able to double-check his credit balance. “Good. You game for a quick trip?”

“Sure.”

“Zell, is there anything you need to get in town before we turn in?”

Zell shook his head. “Nah. I’m gonna go to sleep now.”

“Fine.” As he and Irvine were walking down the street he said quietly, “You’ve not taken the SeeD exam.”

“Nah, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be one. But, I suppose, this might qualify as an incidental exam.”

“It doesn’t matter either way to me, so long as you can hold your own. In a way, it might be a good thing.”

“How so?” Irvine stopped walking.

“You’re not from Balamb, so if something goes wrong you can slip away. Also, while it isn’t your responsibility, that could also apply to you getting Rinoa to safety. She’s not your client, but she does present a complication.”

“She told me about that contract, and how she ordered you to take her to a safe place. Pretty lousy timing considering what we’re about to take on.”

“Yes, exactly. But I won’t order you to do that. I don’t think I can.”

“Nah, it’s okay. I understand where you’re coming from. If something happens and capture is imminent, I’ll do my best to get her and myself out of here.”

Squall nodded. “I appreciate it.”

Irvine pivoted and pulled open the door behind him. “After you.”

A half hour later Squall had an upgraded weapon and they were browsing the other shops for likely purchases. Eventually they returned to the hotel and slept. The next morning they gathered on the street.

“Since we’re going to Caraway’s mansion we should take bus 08,” Rinoa said diffidently.

‘Laguna’s from here. Is he still here, I wonder?’ he thought as they boarded the bus and took the easy way to their destination. They disembarked when Rinoa prompted them and approached the walkway leading to the mansion. ‘Caraway is the head of the Galbadian army. Could this be a coup d’etat? No . . . I don’t think he’s out to overthrow the president, just deal with the sorceress.’

A guard halted their progress. “General Caraway’s mansion is right through this gate,” he informed them. “But . . . I can’t just let you walk in.”

“I believe he’s been informed of our arrival.”

“Yes, indeed, but I was ordered not to let you through until your skills have been tested.”

“What the hell’s he talking about?” Zell muttered.

“Test our skills?” Squall asked with an arch of his brow. “And just exactly what are we supposed to do?”

“Go to the Tomb of the Unknown King, to the northeast. Once there, you have to bring back proof that you were there. A code number.”

“We came all the way out here for some stupid test of courage?” Zell growled. “Who does he think we are?”

“There are many students like yourselves who wish to call on General Caraway. There were two students yesterday who have yet to return, for instance. Your objective is to obtain the code number from the central portion of the tomb. Of course, you may not live through this test, but should you survive, return with the code. Anyway, here’s a map for you.” The guard extended it for Squall to take. “Though, there are always other options,” he said in a suggestive tone.

Squall glanced at the map to help mask his reaction to that. “And is there anything in particular we should know before heading out, or is that a part of the test?”

“Ah, well, you might want to stay above ground, if you catch my drift. You can rent a car if you want to facilitate your journey, as well. That is all I can say.”

Squall tucked the map away. “Let’s go.” He opted not to rent a vehicle, so it took a while to reach the tomb, but they were able to stock a number of spells along the way that they did not already have, either from creatures or refining. They had just stepped within the broken outer wall surrounding the tomb when two girls ran out of the tomb itself, streaking past them. The only intelligible thing he heard was a reference to Float.

‘Those must be the ones from yesterday?’ Taking in the reaction of those girls and what the guard had said, Squall addressed the others. “Listen up. Check stock on Float and Quake.”

“What for?” Selphie asked.

“Think about it. The guard advised us to stay above ground, and those students were saying something about Float. That suggests that something in there has an earth-based attack. We need sufficient stock so we can either keep casting Float, or junction to elemental defense.”

Quistis looked gratifyingly impressed for once. The verdict came back that they weren’t sufficiently prepared so the team backtracked to do so, returning an hour later, their junctions shifted in anticipation.

The map itself was simplistic, but so was the layout of the tomb. Once inside Squall realized very quickly that it was impossible to go straight to the center, as that ‘room’ was actually surrounded by a moat and the drawbridge was up, inaccessible from their side. ‘Okay, so let’s check out the perimeter.’

He backed up to the first junction and headed right, always choosing right at junctions, and ended up in a mid-sized room. There on a pedestal was a statue of a minotaur. Squall moved to examine it, but stepped back quickly when it came to life and attacked.

It was dispatched, in part thanks to his weapon upgrade and judicious use of Aura, and the creature ran off babbling something about its brother. The pedestal shifted once the minotaur’s weight was gone, something Squall took as a potential sign that one step had been taken toward obtaining their goal.

They backtracked, and kept taking right turns, briefly pausing in two other rooms, responding to what was found, such as opening a floodgate and fiddling with a set of controls (which produced a sound . . . somewhere). Checking his map, Squall saw that the only thing left was the center, so that was where he led them.

Across the lowered drawbridge they went, into the small building, to come face to face with a different minotaur, which also attacked. After a time it was joined by the original, but that was of little consequence. Squall used his gunblade to excellent effect, backed up by Quistis and Zell, and soundly thrashed them. It was then that the minotaurs joined them as the GF Brothers.

‘No wonder why Caraway uses this place as a test. Most Garden students would have no reason to wish to subdue a GF. What would they do with it?’ he thought as he began searching the room for the code.

‘Which keeps them away from the general. Still, your team should have been an exception. You were sent to Caraway to carry out a mission, not pester him to buy Girl Guide cookies.’

‘Eh?’

Griever snorted. ‘Sorry, it would take too long to explain.’

“Found it!” Zell called out. “It’s 5-1-9!”

“Good work, Zell. Let’s get back to Caraway’s, now that we’ve passed this ridiculous test. At least we gained access to a Guardian Force because of it.”

Zell preened at the praise and shadow boxed the air for a few punches before bouncing toward the drawbridge.

Later, after another long walk, they were standing in front of the mansion guard. “Yes?”

“We have your code.”

“Ah? All right, then. It is. . . ?”

“5-1-9,” he muttered.

The guard checked the back of his rank badge and nodded. “That’s correct! Please, right this way.” He headed off down the walkway, his pace sedate.

“Um . . . is my contract . . . still in effect?”

‘What is it this time?’

“Don’t leave me in this house, okay? Want me to explain why?”

‘There isn’t enough time in the world for that, and besides, I already have a good idea.’ Squall shook his head.

“Okay. . . .”

The guard escorted them into the mansion and ushered them into what looked like an office, then left to return to his post. Squall found a handy wall to lean against while the others took seats. A good ten minutes went by before Rinoa huffed and stood up. “He always does this! So discourteous . . . making people wait. I’m gonna go complain. Everyone just wait here.” She was barely out the door when she ducked back in long enough to say, “Oh, by the way, this is my house, so don’t worry.”

“The hell?” Zell mused.

Several minutes later a middle-aged man entered the room, presumably General Caraway. He was immediately the target of a question from Quistis. “Where’s Rinoa?”

“She has not received the type of training you all have, and may become a burden. It’s for the best that she stays out of this operation.”

‘Oh, a man after my own heart.’ He could have sworn he heard Griever growl in response and did a mental double take.

“So you’re Rinoa’s father?” Selphie asked.

“I can’t remember the last time she called me that,” Caraway answered.

“So, the father’s a top military officer, and the daughter’s a member of an anti-government resistance faction? That’s bad . . . really bad,” Zell said with a grimace.

“Yes, indeed. It’s a serious problem, but it doesn’t concern you. Besides, we have far more important things to worry about.”

Squall pushed away from the wall and directly faced the general. “Even once this mission is complete, we are still contracted to our client. We have no intention of getting embroiled in a family dispute, but you need to understand that.”

“And if I choose to interfere?”

‘I can’t say that I’d mind, actually, but I am obligated to stand up for our client.’ Squall arched a brow and replied, “We’re all SeeDs here. We’ll act accordingly.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Irvine said. “Fellas . . . we’re here to knock off the sorceress, right? So let’s get down to business.”

Caraway said nothing for a minute, then, “Let me explain the plan. Please follow me.” He led them back outside the mansion, toward the city. As they walked he began, “I’m sure you know about the Galbadian government reaching an agreement with Sorceress Edea.”

‘Edea? Why is that so familiar?’ He glanced briefly at Irvine to see if there was a reaction.

“There is going to be a ceremony tonight to commemorate the event. It’ll be held at the presidential residence.” The general said nothing more until they were standing near the gates of a huge building, situated at the top of a T-junction of streets. “During the ceremony you will split up into two teams and get into position. One team will enter the gateway and be on standby. The sniper team will wait right here until the ceremony is over.”

Caraway pointed at the huge building nearby. “That’s the presidential residence. Once the ceremony ends a parade for the sorceress will begin, which is when the gate will open. Until then lay low. The parade may be cancelled if there’s a commotion, and we must avoid that at all costs. Once the gate opens the sniper team can move into position, as the parade should draw the attention of the guards in addition to the crowd.

“The sniper team will head for the roof of the residence. In a corridor by the sorceress’s room is a hatch that leads to the clock tower, which houses a carousel clock. You’ll find the sniper rifle there, and be on standby until it’s time. Now, the sorceress will be riding the parade vehicle. When it leaves the gate the vehicle will turn left and begin a circuitous route around most of the city, eventually coming back up this main strip, under that archway.

“At exactly 20:00 the clock will rise, which will allow the sniper team to act. At the same time, the parade vehicle should be passing through the archway, which is when the gateway team will act, operating a console to drop the gates, trapping the sorceress inside. And then, the sniper team will act. Take the open shot, end the mission. For now, we wait. Until then you’re free to do as you wish, just stay out of trouble. When you’re ready report to my residence so we can hold a final meeting before we proceed with the operation.” The general then took his leave, presumably back to his home.

“All right,” Squall said quietly. “If anyone has any last minute preparations to make, do so. There’s an upgrade shop in town you might want to check out, on the same street as the hotel, along with other shops. When you’re ready assemble outside Caraway’s, no later than 18:30. We’ll go in as a group. Dismissed.” He checked the time and took off in a random direction, quickly becoming aware that Irvine had caught up to him.

“So. . . .”

“Yes?”

“So like, is it true that SeeDs aren’t supposed to question their mission?”

“According to Headmaster Cid, we’re supposed to be able to think and act independently within the mission parameters, so long as the basic orders are carried out. Why do you ask?”

“So like, if you knew that your enemies were pure evil, you’d get more fired up to fight them, right?”

Squall paused for a moment, shooting a sidelong glance at the sniper. “I’m not sure such an enemy exists. Right and wrong are not what separate us from our enemies. Rather, different viewpoints and different perspectives. For example, what if you were unwittingly about to step on some creature’s nest, and the parent attacked you? To you it might seem unprovoked, but to it there’s a damn good reason.”

Another sidelong look showed that his words seemed to be of no help. “Is this specifically about this mission, Irvine? What is it?”

“I, ah. . . .”

“Is the name Edea familiar to you?” he murmured. “I keep thinking it is to me, but I can’t quite place it.” He realized after a second that Irvine was no longer beside him; turning he saw that his comrade looked frozen in place.

“If . . . someone you once knew became evil. . . ?”

Squall furrowed his brow, trying to understand what Irvine was getting at. “Someone you cared about?”

“Yes. Someone who was good.”

“Someone we know?”

Irvine nodded faintly.

“I’m not sure how to answer that,” he said honestly, wondering who Edea was to them. He had missed seeing her face in Timber by seconds. “If someone I cared about, someone who was good, turned evil, I might be tempted to believe they would be grateful for being stopped. But maybe that’s hubris speaking. Who is she?”

“I . . . I need to confirm it first, okay?”

“All right, but if this is going to be a problem, I need you to tell me,” he stressed.

“Yeah.”

They began walking again, slowly making their way back to Caraway’s mansion, but Squall paused part way there, considering other meanings of the original question. “I question this mission myself.”

“Oh? Why?”

“The setup. If all that’s necessary is a sniper shot, then why get into such elaborate details? Surely you could snipe from the top of any building along the route, and have an easier escape after the fact. But from within the presidential residence? That’s just asking for trouble. It’s almost like someone wants us to get caught. And a head on attack if the shot fails? From the top of a clock tower? Yes, the sorceress would be trapped for a while, but . . .”

“And the other three would be trapped inside the arch with her. Yeah, I see what you mean. But . . . ultimately, these are our orders. I guess we’re not required to like them. Unless you plan on going AWOL? But then, we’d still have a sorceress running around, helping Galbadia vie for world domination.”

“And that’s not the sort of thing I can ignore. But you’re right, I don’t have to like it. Not one bit.” He started off again, this time not stopping until they reached the mansion. The others were waiting for them, so he went ahead and entered, making for the office where he presumed the general would be.

“Ah, good. It’s time to form the teams. The sniper and the leader of this operation will form the sniper team. The leader’s role is vital. If the plan fails for some reason, or should the sniper miss, the leader must carry out a direct assault against the sorceress.

“The plan was devised carefully, because we intend this to be a covert operation. But our ultimate goal is to eliminate the sorceress, and we must achieve this at all costs. Even if they uncover our identities. So, who’s going to lead the operation?”

Squall arched a brow as every set of eyes landed on him. “I will.”

“Fine. Then you need to choose the leader for the gateway team.”

Zell immediately started shadow boxing, as though he felt his role was assured. Squall gave an almost imperceptible sigh and said, “In—Quistis, you’re in charge.”

“Okay,” she said as Zell drooped. “Leave it to me.”

“Excellent. Let’s get you into position, then,” Caraway said and quit the room.

They emerged from the mansion and started down the walkway, though for some reason the gateway team was delayed for a minute and didn’t catch up until they reached the street. Caraway led them back to the archway and stopped. “Gateway team, you are to drop the gate at 20:00, when the sorceress is passing underneath the arch. The control console is located on the top floor.”

Quistis, Zell, and Selphie nodded and disappeared inside, and Caraway turned and headed up the main strip toward the sniper team’s first standby position. There he said, “And you two will wait here.”

“General,” he said quietly, mindful of the many excited people crowding the area, “why has the sorceress decided to have such an extravagant parade?”

“She wants to establish her place in Galbadia Garden, since she’s chosen it to serve as her base. Ah, it’s starting. I’m returning to my residence. Good luck.” He slipped off through the crowd.

‘Well, that was a lovely non-answer.’

‘Military personnel that high up aren’t much different from politicians,’ Griever observed. ‘I think they take the same classes in semantical obfuscation and dancing around the subject. My headmaster was an expert at it. I wanted to strangle him on a regular basis.’

Squall snorted in amusement, causing Irvine to look at him funny. A slight shake of his head told Irvine to let it go. He occupied his time by keeping an eye on the crowd, then shifted his attention when the people all looked to the same spot.

“Here she comes,” Irvine said.

Squall could see a fantastically-dressed woman emerge onto a balcony of the presidential residence along with Vinzer Deling. He was so caught up in the sorceress’s face that he did not notice the other person to appear.

“H-hey . . . that girl!”

Squall switched focus and squinted. “Rinoa?”

Edea stepped up to the podium and began speaking. “Lowlifes. Shameless filthy wretches. How you celebrate my ascension with such joy. Hailing the very one you have condemned for generations. Have you no shame? What happened to the evil, ruthless sorceress from your fantasies? The cold-blooded tyrant that slaughtered countless men and destroyed many nations? Where is she now? She stands before your very eyes to become your new ruler.” She erupted into maniacal laughter as Deling assumed an expression of concerned bewilderment.

“That’s. . . ?”

“A new era has just begun,” Edea proclaimed.

“Edea? Are you all right. . . ? Ede—!”

The sorceress stretched out her hand in Deling’s direction, effortlessly lifting him off the ground as a purplish haze danced around him. “This is reality. No one can help you. Sit back and enjoy the show.”

The crowd cheered as Edea tossed Deling’s body away, and she turned back to the microphone on the podium. “Rest assured, you fools, your time will come. This is only the beginning. Let us start a new reign of terror. I will let you live a fantasy beyond your imagination.” She stepped back and pivoted, retreating out of sight.

Squall was distracted from even attempting to process what he had just witnessed when two lizard-like creatures parted the crowd like a hot knife through butter, and launched themselves in a high arc to land on the balcony, where Rinoa still stood, seemingly unaware of anything.

“Hey, hey, hey, she’s in trouble big time! We’ve gotta do something.”

“The parade hasn’t started yet,” Squall pointed out. “We have no way inside.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

“I’m realistic, Irvine, not heartless. Now be ready! We have no way of knowing how she got in there, so we take what we know is a sure thing, something we need to do anyway.”

The gates opened a minute later, allowing for a mass of people in costume to dance out to music coming from Edea’s conveyance, which followed not far behind. More dancers trailed the float, but that was not what caught Squall’s attention. No, it was the sight of a smirking Seifer at Edea’s side, Hyperion tapping against his shoulder.

Irvine tugged at his sleeve. “Now’s our chance. Come on!” he hissed, then darted off through the crowd toward the gate.

An exhilarating run later they had made it through and off to the side, finding an area which contained a multitude of stacked crates. Without discussing it they began to climb, eventually coming out on the balcony Edea had been on; Deling’s burnt and smoking corpse was sprawled there.

Farther back were the two creatures, closing in on a dead or unconscious Rinoa. Irvine rushed forward, successfully distracting them, and Squall joined him a second later, tossing a phoenix down between them to land on the girl. “Careful now,” he said and drew reflexively, surprised and pleased to be able to extract a Guardian Force. “Okay, let’s do it.”

A short time later both creatures were dead, and Rinoa had recovered enough to cling to his arm when he went to check on her. “I was so scared. Really scared.”

“It’s over now,” he pointed out.

“I was scared. I was really, really scared.”

“You are not unused to battles.”

“I couldn’t. . . . I just couldn’t. I couldn’t fight alone.”

“We need to get going,” he said, mindful of the time, and pushed her off his arm.

Rinoa clung to him again, more desperately.

“I haven’t forgotten your order. Just stay close to us. We still have a mission to see through.” He detached her again and stepped back, waiting for her to stand, then pressed on into the corridor they’d been told about.

Irvine popped the hatch and gestured Rinoa in first, then followed, so Squall took the rear and closed the hatch behind him. Irvine already had the sniper rifle in his hands, so Squall half pushed-half guided Rinoa over to the nearest likely surface and said, “Sit. By the way, Seifer’s alive. He was on the parade float with the sorceress.”

She blinked slowly before saying, “What does it mean?”

“Who knows,” he said with a shrug. “I may end up killing him.”

“You’re . . . both prepared, right? That’s the kind of world you live in. You’ve had a lot of emotional training, right? But . . . of course, I’d rather it not happen.”

“That’s not up to me,” he said, then turned away to check on Irvine. The sniper seemed to be twitching or fidgeting, and Squall thought he understood why. He approached carefully and crouched down. “Hey. Edea is matron, huh? Is that what you were trying to tell me?”

“I . . . I don’t know if I can do this.”

“Irvine, I care about matron, same as you. I really don’t care that she’s a sorceress. But if she’s gone crazy, if she’s become evil. . . .”

The carousel suddenly kicked into motion, lights coming on and beginning to rise into full view of the crowd. Squall touched his forehead and sighed. “Irvine. . . .”

In plain view from their position the parade float moved under the archway; the second it cleared the back edge the gates dropped, trapping it within.

“Irvine,” he said urgently.

“I . . . I can’t, I’m sorry. I can’t do it. I can’t hurt her.”

“Irvine,” he said gently. “I understand, I really do, but you need to take that shot. I don’t care if you miss, okay? Just shoot. If the matron we knew has become evil, we need to take care of it. Out of anyone, we have the right! It didn’t even sound like her! So shoot!”

Irvine nodded and shakily positioned himself, them aimed, paused for a heartbeat, and squeezed the trigger. His aim was true, but the delay had been too long, allowing Edea to recover from any surprise she must have felt. The bullet was absorbed into a barrier that briefly flashed into visibility before her.

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. Leave the rest up to me. Just be ready with Rinoa to back me up. And, Irvine, remember what I asked of you earlier?”

“Yeah, I’ll take care of it.”

Squall clapped him on the shoulder and stepped back, then leapt, praying he wouldn’t lose his balance as he slid down the sloping roof. He spun in the air once he shot off the edge and prayed a second time that his knees could properly handle the impact with the ground.

This assault was a joke, a nightmare, but he pushed back up and took off down the street, ducking and weaving around people in the crowd, his focus entirely on reaching the sorceress, and hoping he wasn’t about to die for a stupid, badly thought out plan. He reached the float after what seemed like years, and pulled himself up onto it.

“Well, this is how it turned out,” Seifer said.

“So, you’ve become the lap dog of a sorceress?” Squall returned.

Seifer smirked and advanced. “I prefer to be called her knight. This has always been my dream.” Then he attacked. Part way through the fight Seifer shouted, “Squall, you’re mine!” And later, “Thought I was dead, eh? Not until I fulfill my dream!”

Squall simply kept at it, dodging as best he could, and taking advantage of his opponent’s weak spots or sloppy defense. He knew he was getting close when Seifer began breathing heavily, and finally, knelt down in defeat.

“You’ve lost, Seifer, and you’re losing it.”

Edea stepped forward then. “A SeeD . . . planted in a run-down Garden,” was all she said before she attacked in place of her knight.

Squall had barely begun to defend in order to assess her when Irvine and Rinoa leapt onto the float and moved into place to fight with him. After a long battle consisting of innumerable high-level elemental spells, the three of them appeared to have won.

“Impudent SeeDs!” Edea snarled.

The next thing Squall knew he was flying backward off the float, a massive shard of ice piercing his shoulder. He was unconscious even before he hit the ground.

*

‘Squall!’

He came awake slowly, cautiously opening his eyes. ‘Ugh, where am I? I . . . challenged Edea. My wound. . . ? What happened to matron?’

‘Squall?’

‘I’m fine, just kinda tired and—’ He clutched the frame of the bed he was on when everything began to vibrate. ‘The hell? Whatever. I remember seeing Laguna again. He knows Ellone?’

‘It seems so. Er, that woman. . . .’

He pulled himself up, having accustomed himself to the sensation of the room moving. ‘Raine?’

‘Yeah.’

Squall ran the dream through his head quickly, then stiffened. ‘My mother?’

‘You share the same last name.’

The room stopped moving abruptly, then shifted sideways, nearly throwing Squall off balance. ‘Where the hell am I?’ A few seconds after it stopped again, the door on the side opened and Seifer walked in.

“Squall, you’re pitiful,” Seifer said, reaching out to pull him off the bed and thrust him into the wall. “Take him away!”

Having hit his head, Squall was disoriented, and did not fight being dragged away by two red-furred creatures he could not put a name to. He was taken to another room where he was hoisted up and attached to one of the walls. From what little he had been able to see, the implications were unpleasant.

“I’m sure you can imagine what happens now,” his former sparring partner said.

“What do you want?”

“Tell me what SeeD is. Edea demands to know.”

He was understandably confused. “SeeD? Don’t you already know?”

“I’m not a SeeD. There must be some kind of secret you’re given when you become a SeeD!” Seifer insisted.

Was Seifer. . . ? “There’s nothing. Even if there were, you think I’d tell you?”

“You’re on my ‘tough nut to crack’ list,” the blond informed him. “Didn’t think you’d talk that easily.”

Squall thought better of rolling his eyes at the backhanded compliment.

“So here’s a little something for you,” Seifer continued, then snapped his fingers at a man standing near a console, who immediately pulled a lever.

Squall nearly screamed as pain flooded his body, then relaxed minutely as something, or someone, muffled the sensation.

“Even if you don’t talk, others will. The instructor, the little messenger girl, or that chicken-wuss. . . . He wouldn’t last three seconds!”

“They’re . . . all here?” he managed to say.

“Oh, you bet. But since I like you so much I thought you should go first. I was hoping you’d be here, Squall. So . . . how’d I look in my moment of triumph? My childhood dream, fulfilled! I’ve become the sorceress’s knight.”

‘Did he know . . . back then?’ He concentrated and gasped, “Triumph? I defeated you. Now you’re just . . . a torturer.” Everything went black. When he clawed his way to consciousness he was still attached to the wall, and Seifer was still right there, Hyperion tapping on his shoulder.

“Well now, Squall, I’ll ask again. What is SeeD? And why do they oppose the sorceress?”

‘He makes it sound like SeeD exists just for that purpose.’

Another man entered the room and saluted. “Sir Seifer, the missiles targeted for the Garden are ready to launch.”

“Excellent,” the blond said and waved the man away. “Balamb Garden is to be destroyed on charges of training SeeDs to oppose the sorceress. It’s a pity, really. I grew up there, too. But orders are orders, and Edea wants it destroyed.”

“What. . . ?”

“After Garden is gone the SeeD hunt will begin. I’ll be Edea’s bloodhound and hunt down every one of your kind. It’ll be fun, Squall. Don’t die on me yet.” Seifer turned to the man at the console and said, “Continue with the interrogation, warden,” then took his leave.

“Ready to talk?” the warden asked, hand on the lever.

“I . . . don’t understand . . . the question.”

“Don’t mess with me! Edea says you know something! Now spit it out! Talk! What is SeeD all about!?” the warden shouted, then pulled the lever for emphasis.

Pain exploded through him again, causing him to jerk around uncontrollably, and again, something caused the sensation to be dampened. He thought, somehow, it was Griever.

‘I will not let you die!’

He trusted that voice, with him for so many years, and fell into darkness.

“Hey!”

“Squall!” It sounded a lot like Zell.

“Wake up!” Selphie?

“Come on, Squall!” Definitely Quistis.

He cracked his eyes open and struggled to sit up. Arrayed around him were his teammates, looking horribly concerned. It was . . . rather touching, actually.

“You okay!?” Zell asked.

Squall took a deep breath and pushed himself up carefully until he was standing, then did a mental inventory of his body’s condition. Perhaps a little shaky, but. . . . “I’m fine.”

“Let’s get the hell outta here!” Zell replied and held out a gunblade.

Squall took it gratefully, feeling a lot more secure with its weight in his hands. After assuring himself his balance was steady, he nodded and left the room of his torture. ‘Thanks.’

“Did you come here as Laguna in the dream world?” Zell asked curiously.

“No.”

“So, Squall doesn’t know how to get out, either,” Quistis mused.

“Well, either way, we got here by going up and up. Maybe we better head back down?” Zell suggested.

“It’d be a pain to go down every floor. The alarm alerted monsters and security guards everywhere,” Quistis pointed out.

“By the way,” Zell said, “how the hell did they carry you up here, Squall?”

He glanced off to the side; there was a crane, what he presumed was his cell still attached to it, and just beyond, a huge pit.

Selphie skipped over to examine things, then said, “So, this big hole goes all the way to the bottom? If we jump all the way down, we’re outta here?”

“Don’t be absurd,” Quistis said. “You jump that far, expect to end up squashed like a pancake.”

Zell started bouncing excitedly. “Oh yeah! I remember now! We can move this arm by using the panel above and the control room. I remember Ward doing that. But . . . we need to operate them both at the same time. Someone needs to stay upstairs and control the panel.”

Quistis and Selphie promptly stepped up and patted him on the back.

“Me? F-fine. . . . I’ll give you instructions from upstairs. Everyone get inside.”

Squall frowned. “Hold on.”

“What?” Quistis asked.

“If all of us go, Zell is left here alone. If the exit really is down there, he’ll have to walk the entire way by himself. That’s not something I’m willing to accept. We don’t leave a team member unsupported if we can help it.”

Quistis gaped for a moment, then nodded. “You’re absolutely right. Zell, I’ll stay with you. Squall, once you and Selphie get down there, check it out. Let us know if we should follow, or bring you two back up.”

“Sounds good.” He stalked off into the cell—which turned out not to be one at all. He idly wondered where it had gone, but he had no idea for how long he’d been in that damn room.

A speaker inside crackled. “Yo, can you guys hear me?”

“Hiya, Zell, loud and clear.”

“Okay! Press the red button on the panel. . . .”

Squall did so.

“Okay, I’ll take care of the rest. There!”

The carrier started moving, first sideways, then down, coming to stop several minutes later. Squall peered out cautiously, then motioned to Selphie and exited. The only thing in sight was a door. “Let’s check it out.”

Through that there was nothing aside from a huge door which took up the entire wall opposite, which Squall listened against, then opened, leaping back when torrents of sand flooded in. They quickly retreated back through the first door and closed it.

“Are we buried?” Selphie mused. “Underground? Well, we can’t—” She broke off at the sound of shots being fired somewhere above. “What was that?”

Squall dashed back into the carrier and said, “Zell?”

“Yeah! Gunfire, baby! Dunno what’s going on!”

“Whatever. Bring us back up. There’s nothing down here.”

“Okay, man!”

There were halfway back up when Squall noticed two people over by a stairway, and they weren’t guards. “Zell! Stop!”

“What’s going on?” came Quistis’s voice.

“No time. Just stop this thing. Stay put! That’s an order!” He then called out, “Hey, cowboy! Princess! Get your asses in here!”

“What the hell are they doing here?” Selphie muttered, then waved cheerfully.

Irvine provided cover as he and Rinoa dashed over and jumped in. “The cavalry is here!” Irvine announced saucily.

Squall touched his forehead and sighed. “Zell, bring us up!”

As the carrier began trundling upward again Selphie said, “Heeey, what gives?”

“We came to get you all out, of course!” Rinoa declared.

Squall eyed Irvine, who nodded, then said, “The basement door is buried in sand.”

Irvine nodded. “This place is buried underground. Up is the only way.”

“But. . . ?”

“Trust me.”

When they reached the top Irvine took the lead, heading up toward where Zell and Quistis had gone. He did a double take when they were there waiting. “How’d we miss you two on the way in?”

Zell pointed to a door off to the side.

“Whatever. Let’s go.”

Irvine nodded and dashed off, bringing them to the outside through a dizzying array of passages and rooms.

“We’re outside!” Selphie squealed. “We escaped! We escaped!”

They all jerked at the sound of a mechanical voice booming out from overhead. “Prisoners may not go beyond this point. You will be terminated.”

‘Ah, hell.’ Squall got his gunblade ready as a soldier and two mechanicals rushed into view. They presented an actual challenge, but were eventually defeated. He was grateful, as he still felt a bit shaky from the effects of his torture.

“Uh, wait a minute!” Irvine looked around with a puzzled expression.

“No way!” Rinoa said. “It wasn’t like this before.”

Squall realized that they were incredibly high up when they should have been near ground level. There were three structures, threaded like screws, one of which they stood on, and connecting them in a triangle were metal walkways. “It . . . must have surfaced while we were inside. . . ?”

“We left a transport over there”—Rinoa pointed toward an open bay door—“but. . . .”

“What goes up, must come down?” Selphie asked, scratching her head. The words were barely out of her mouth when the structure started vibrating, causing them to hang on to whatever was handy. “All right!”

Several minutes and a massive sand storm later, they were flush with the desert surface again. Rinoa dashed over to the bay and stood by one of the cars. “We gotta go!”

“I wanna ride the yellow one!” Selphie declared.

“I’ll take that one, too,” Quistis said.

“Me, too!” said Rinoa.

“Hey, hey, hey!” Irvine grumbled. “Ladies?”

“Let’s go, Irvine,” Zell said, and tugged on the sleeve of his coat.

Squall simply headed for the other car and got in, taking the wheel, and drove out of the bay the moment they were situated. He followed the road away from the prison until he hit a junction, then pulled off to the side and stopped. He got out and jogged over to climb a slight rise, then scanned the horizon. The other car screeched to a halt a few seconds later.

“Squall, what gives?” Selphie yelled.

“I’m looking for a missile base.”

Quistis gasped. “That was true!? Rinoa heard from Irvine that the sorceress is going to launch missiles against Garden.”

“Yes. I heard it while I was being interrogated. Balamb Garden is in danger. There.” He pointed down one of the roads.

“It’s not just Balamb. They plan to attack Trabia as well!” Irvine said.

“We have to interfere with the launch! We have to stop the missiles!” Selphie insisted. “I just transferred from Trabia Garden. I can’t just sit around knowing that it’s in danger! Squall, please, let me go to the base, before it’s too late!”

He planted a hand on his hip, trying to decide what to do. “All right, but not alone. And someone must go to try to give warning in case. . . .”

“Okay, fine! Choose who goes with me!”

Squall opened his mouth to respond when they were all distracted by the sight of a volley of missiles shooting upward from the distant base. So much for sending people off in groups of two.

“I . . . I heard they were hitting Trabia first, and then Balamb,” Irvine said.

“Trabia,” Selphie whispered. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t stop it. Please let everybody be all right. Please. That was a miss . . . right?” She shook her head violently and stared at Squall. “Who!?”

“Selphie, you’re in charge of the missile base team. Quistis, go with her. You have a cool head and I’m counting on you. Rinoa, with them. It’s the less dangerous of options, so you should be safer there. Irvine, Zell, you’re with me. Selphie, do you have some kind of plan?”

She promptly responded, “I think if we take this Galbadian army vehicle we should be able to make it inside the base. But . . . that’s about it. I’ll have to think of the rest once we’re inside, after we’ve had a chance to check things out. Okay? I mean—thanks. There isn’t much time! You better hurry to Balamb Garden!”

Squall nodded. “See you there.”

Both teams scattered for their respective cars, and Selphie pulled out in a cloud of dust, heading off toward the base. Squall took the other road, intent on reaching a station he had seen in the distance. On arrival he slammed the car to a stop and jumped out, then crept around the side of the building that had covered their approach.

He motioned toward the train as an engineer disembarked and began to walk away, then the three of them dashed toward it and hopped in, with Irvine setting the thing in motion. As the train pulled away from the station soldiers appeared and gave chase, yelling for it to stop, but they fell back in futile exhaustion.

“I wonder whose train we just stole?” Zell wondered out loud.

“And where we’ll end up?” Irvine said dryly.

*

“All right, baby! Garden is safe!”

“For now,” Squall said. “We can’t be certain of that. We have to report to the headmaster. Come on.” He set off at a jog through the gates, faltering as he noticed that students were running around aimlessly as a faculty member shouted orders.

“Find the headmaster!”

‘Were they warned already? What’s going on?’ He picked up his pace and crossed the front quad. He faltered again at the orders of another faculty member, this one even more confusing.

“Seize him! Kill him if you have to! Go!”

They finally made it past the turnstiles, still seeing the same aimless running around, and were stopped by one of the faculty. “You three, what side are you on?”

‘Huh?’

“Answer the question! Are you with the garden master, or are you with Cid!?”

He shook his head. “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“Do you swear your allegiance to Garden Master Norg?”

‘Who the hell is Norg?’ He shook his head again. “Can you tell me what’s going on?”

“I’m the one asking the questions! You’re just supposed to follow orders. Hey! What kind of attitude is that? You’re with Cid, aren’t you!” The faculty member whistled, summoning monsters, then set them on Squall and his teammates. “Norg is the true ruler of Garden!”

‘Ruler!?’ he thought as he attacked. After dispatching the beasts they pressed on, sliding to a stop near the directory, where Fujin and Raijin were standing.

“Hey, you’re back!”

“What’s going on here?”

“I dunno. At first, they were sayin’ somethin’ ‘bout roundin’ up the SeeDs, you know? Now, everyone’s either sidin’ with the garden master or the headmaster and fightin’ everywhere, you know?”

“Disturbing,” Fujin added.

“Disappointin’ for the disciplinary committee. All our work for nothin’, you know?”

“Why are SeeDs being targeted? And where’s the headmaster? Is he safe?”

Raijin shrugged. “We got no clue.”

“We need to see him right away. It’s important. Galbadian missiles may be heading this way.”

“What!? We gotta get outta here!” He yelped when Fujin kicked him and said, “Geez, all right! We’ll warn everyone about the missiles! Man, this is no time to be fightin’, you know?”

“We’ll go look for the headmaster.”

“Caution!”

“Yeah, the fightin’ is intense everywhere! And watch out for those garden master goons! But after this, we’re goin’ to join Seifer!” Raijin ran off with Fujin.

‘Even as he is now?’ “Right, let’s start looking.”

“His office?” Irvine questioned.

“That’s almost too obvious,” Squall replied, a hand firmly on his hip. “Besides, we don’t have access to that. If he was there the faculty wouldn’t have the students running ragged down here. Let’s go.” He randomly picked right and headed toward the library.

After a fight forced on them by one of the faculty they checked it out and found nothing, so Squall backtracked and tried the training center, only to get the same results. En route to the parking garage they dispatched more summoned monsters before entering, and spotted Cid.

Squall snapped off a salute. “Sir!” He blinked when the headmaster wavered and vanished. “What the—?”

“It was just a hologram,” a voice said, followed by a SeeD revealing himself. “Pretty cool, huh? The headmaster isn’t here. We’re just here to make them believe that he’s in here.”

A second SeeD said, “If those bastards attack us all at once we won’t stand a chance, even if we are SeeDs.”

“Basically, we’re cutting them off and fighting them in small groups. Brilliant, huh? It wasn’t our idea, though. Xu came up with it.”

The second SeeD added, “She took charge immediately when this whole thing began.”

Squall nodded and backtracked, this time headed for the dorms. Another fight, another fruitless search. It wasn’t until they reached the infirmary that they learned anything else at all. After dispatching both monsters and SeeDs siding with Norg they continued on in to see Kadowaki hovering over a SeeD.

“Oh my, can you stand up?”

“Why are you helping me? I’m with the garden master.”

“Stop being ridiculous,” Kadowaki snapped. “I don’t care whose side you’re on. We need to take care of those wounds!” She turned to Squall and said, “Don’t just stand there, give me a hand.”

He followed her into her office as she said, “What is all this faction mumbo jumbo? It’s ridiculous. Are you looking for Cid? As you can see, he’s not here.”

“Do you have any idea?”

She tapped a finger against her lips. “Hm, Xu might know. I have no idea where she is, though, either. Why are you looking for him, anyway?”

“I need to inform him that there may be missiles heading this way. You should get out of here, too.”

“Are you serious!? I’m definitely going to have to stay. If anyone gets hurt, who’s going to look after them?”

Squall shook his head. “Okay, thanks.” Maybe Cid being in his office wasn’t such a crazy idea after all? He motioned to Irvine and Zell and backtracked again, saying as he went, “I guess we try the second floor next.” As they neared the directory he spotted Xu, and gave chase. She ran toward the elevator, but by the time they reached it she was nowhere to be seen.

“She went up?” Zell asked.

Squall took a deep breath to help control his frustration, then said, “Zell, circle the lift. Make sure she hasn’t gone back there. Then we go up.”

“I’m on it!” Zell dashed off and was back less than a minute later from the other direction. “All clear!”

At the second floor they jogged down the walkway to the classroom corridor, and spotted Xu again. This time she held her ground. “Whose side are you on!?”

“Neither! We have urgent news. We need to see the headmaster, now. Where is he?”

“I’m listening. . . .”

He took another deep breath against the delay and said, “Galbadian missiles may be heading this way. Our second team went to try to stop them, but we can’t simply assume that they succeeded.”

“Here!? All right, I’ll inform him immediately.”

“Where is he?”

“In his office,” she admitted. “We made it look like he’s hiding, but he’s been there all along. Follow me.”

Squall managed to do so without screaming, showing admirable restraint as Xu told them to wait for a moment. She disappeared into the office and was back out shortly. “He’s waiting for you. I’ll go tell everyone to evacuate.”

Squall gave her a nod and entered the office. “Sir.”

“Xu has told me about the missiles. The intercom is down so we can’t announce the order to evacuate.”

“Xu, Raijin, and Fujin are taking care of that,” Squall replied.

“I want you to assist them and then evacuate.”

“I have a lot to report.”

Cid gestured vaguely. “You can tell me later.” When Squall failed to leave he asked, “Do you have a problem with that?”

‘You’re damn right I do.’ Squall licked his lips before saying, “Sir, what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to stay here and see this through to the end. After all, this place is like my home.”

‘And it’s not ours?’

“You’re plannin’ on dying here!?” Zell punched the air for emphasis.

“You can rest assured. I’m just going to try something. There still may be a way to save Garden,” he said as he started to walk away. He managed only a few steps before he sank to one knee, clearly in pain. “Heh heh, I’m too old for this,” he murmured.

“Sir, I’d like to handle whatever it is you’ve got planned.”

Cid shifted so he could look at Squall directly. “And why is that?”

Out of the multitude of reasons he could have given, he merely said, “My feelings have nothing to do with it, sir.”

The headmaster laughed quietly. “Quistis was right. You do have a hard time expressing yourself.”

“Sir! Is this really the time? Please just tell us your plan.”

Cid nodded slowly. “This building used to be a shelter, long before it was remodeled into Garden as we know it.” He reached into a pocket and withdrew a key, which he tossed to Squall. “Use that key to open the lock on the elevator. That’ll allow you access to the MD level. Rumor has it that farther below the MD level is some kind of control system. It was used when this place was a shelter, so I’ve never seen it, and I have no idea what it does. All I know is that it was used for the shelter, so it might prove effective against the missiles. That’s what I’m betting on.”

“Understood. We’ll find the control system and check it out.”

“Good luck to you.”

Squall saluted and left. In the elevator he used the key, but before it finished its descent the power failed, the lift jerking to a stop.

‘Bloody brilliant.’

‘Where have you been!?’ he asked as he jabbed one of the buttons hopefully.

‘I’m sorry. It was unavoidable.’

Irvine stared at the ceiling for a few moments, then crouched down and examined the floor. “Ah.” He twisted something, then pulled, opening a hatch.

“All right!”

“Let’s be careful,” Squall said before going through. He spotted a tunnel off to one side and edged into it, awkwardly moving sideways to make room for the others. Another hatch was located and opened, then used, dropping them into another tunnel, this one large enough to stand up in properly.

At the end was a ladder, which they took, ending up in a circular room. Being blocked from descending further, Squall opted to check out the only door. Inside was a valve, which Zell grabbed hold of and began turning. A grinding noise could be heard beyond the door; when checked they could see not only had the floor retracted, but a ladder had been revealed.

“How deep does this place go?” Irvine questioned wearily.

Down the ladder, and then down a catwalk, they stopped near a giant central pillar and looked for what to do next. It looked to be a disappointing dead end until Zell let out a shout and pointed. “Man, another ladder.”

“I wonder where this one goes?” Irvine mused, then said, “Oh, over there.” He pointed toward a glassed-in area, possibly a control room.

Squall eyed the ladder with trepidation, not liking how rusty it was. “I’m . . . the lightest. I’ll check it out.” He started climbing, and part way up the ladder pulled loose from its moorings and fell toward the nearby room. The impact of his body shattered the glass and he dropped unceremoniously to the floor. ‘Maybe I should have stayed in bed this morning, too?’ he asked as he hauled himself up and brushed away the debris.

‘Don’t be silly. I can’t talk to you when you’re asleep, and then I’d be terribly bored. Not much of a control room, but I do spy a switch.’

Squall walked over and pressed it, then watched as part of the floor below moved out of position, opening up a route to a new ladder. And with no other viable way out of the room, he carefully climbed back down.

“Squall, that was close! You all right!?” Zell asked.

“I’m fine. Let’s proceed.” He headed toward the edge of the platform and thumbed a glowing switch, nodded when a barrier slid out of the way, then started climbing again. At the bottom was a walkway capped by a door, and nearby a switch.

Zell hit it as they moved forward. They dispatched a set of monsters halfway to the door that had emerged from the sludge below them, then proceeded through, only to find another ladder.

Squall groaned and glared at the ladder. “The headmaster could never have managed this,” he said before climbing down again, then nearly kissed someone when he realized there was a console just ahead, even though he had no idea what that massive thing was off to the side. It looked like an unfortunate meeting of a pillar, cylindrical gears, and a grooved sphere. “Looks like we’re here. . . ?”

“Oh, man, what the hell do we do now?”

Squall spared Zell a glance and started examining the console. He recognized nothing he saw, but gamely started pushing buttons at random, hoping for some sort of reaction, preferably positive.

“What the heck are you doing?” Zell asked as Irvine also began examining the controls.

“I have no idea,” Squall admitted as he pushed a few more things. “But what else can we do?” His head jerked up as the room began to shake; he stared at the construct as blue arcs of electricity or some energy began to appear and crawl over it, and parts of it started to spin and rotate.

The console platform they were standing on started to rise rapidly, like an elevator. As they shot upward they reached the level of headmaster’s office, picking up Cid as well, then smoothly came to a stop, giving them a 360° view of the area around Garden.

As Squall tried to regain his equilibrium and adjust to the sudden change in circumstance, the ‘halo’ above Garden began to spin, and actually descend as though it was illusionary and not solid. Blue light sprang up, perhaps some magical aid, and as the ‘halo’ reached terrain level the Garden structure wrenched free from the ground and kicked up an enormous cloud of dust and dirt.

“Missiles incoming!” Squall shouted, having spotted them.

“No!”

He watched helplessly as they approached and arced up, then plummeted toward them. But Garden was already moving due to their displacement, causing the missiles to miss and impact against the terrain, exploding with a relative lack of harm.

“We’re moving!?”

“I see . . . so this is the secret. I wonder what is happening outside?” Cid said with admirable calmness.

“Squall, let’s go check it out!” Zell said and joined him on what looked like a small lift. Irvine quickly moved over as well, and they descended a moment later to the normal level of Cid’s office.

“The balcony!” Squall ran for the elevator, hoping it was working again, and was pleased to see that it was. He headed for the second floor balcony the moment the doors opened and nearly gasped at what he saw. The ‘halo’ rotated smoothly around the base of Garden, acting almost like Zell’s confiscated T-board as the entire structure floated along.

Back inside they were hailed by Xu. “Squall! It’s the headmaster! Get back to the bridge on the double!”

When they arrived Cid was all in a pother. “Squall, the controls aren’t responding! I don’t know what to do. We’re going to crash into the town of Balamb if we don’t do something! Can you think of anything?”

‘Not really.’ He ignored the panicking of his teammates and even the flustered gesturing of Cid to examine the console again. It still made no sense, so he did what he had before—randomly play with the controls. Why Cid seemed to think he held the answer to everything, though. . . .

“Whoa! What was that!?” Zell shouted as the structure shuddered.

“Yes!” Cid cried. “We’re turning!”

“All right, Squall!” Irvine cheered as Garden missed the town. “You did it!”

“Aaaah! We’re gonna crash into the sea!” Zell wailed.

“Everybody hold on to something,” Cid warned. Once things settled down again and they were in no danger of toppling off the platform he said, “Phew. Squall, everyone, a job well done. I think the worst is behind us for now.”

“Where are we heading?”

The headmaster shrugged. “We’ll drift along for the time being, I suppose, until we can figure out how to maneuver Garden. So, it looks like we can finally relax for a while, and spend some time considering what to do next.” He glanced around and frowned faintly. “So much for my room. Where am I going to change now?”

Even Squall was moved to chuckle.