“Where the fuck did you go?” Zell cursed, kicking a wall angrily.
He stopped, fists clenched, and listened to the walls around him. There was no sound. Nothing…except a faint cracking noise…
“Got you,” Zell gritted his teeth and took a new turn into the maze of lower level hallways.
The yellow alarm was still on, flashing amber lights lighting the halls while the regular lights had been shut off. Bathed on and off in amber, Zell struggled to keep track of the echoing noise that was steadily growing fainter. He slowed to a walk, suddenly unsure of where he was and then his blue eyes locked on the target. Crouched down and crawling, it was moving slowly, scurrying close to the wall in the far distance.
Zell tiptoed closer, his eyes trying to find the figure in the shadows. It had moved around a round corner, disappearing from view. Zell frowned and jogged up to the same corner, easing himself around and then staggering back.
“Selphie! What the hell are ya doin’?!” Zell growled.
“Trying to catch the THING obviously. I thought it was trailing me, but I guess that was you,” Selphie looked crestfallen but she then perked, “So where did it go?”
“I have no idea,” Zell groaned, “Let’s just go back, Quistis got hurt.”
Selphie nodded with a tiny pout. She held her nunchakus in one hand and then moved to pass Zell, heading back the way she came. The halls rang with their silence around them; the only noise was visual, in the form of the yellow alarm blinking on and off. She froze.
“Zell?” Selphie asked, backing up, “Did anyone come with you?”
“Aw shit.” Zell turned and then winced, “That’s the thing.”
“It’s just standing there,” Selphie whispered, wide-eyed as she stared at the figure at the end of the hall.
“Damnit, I can’t even tell if it’s facing us!” Zell growled in a low voice.
“Let’s go this way, we don’t have any long-range weapons.” Selphie tugged on Zell’s shirt.
“For once, we agree,” Zell backed up, and then his eyes flared open, “Shit, it’s coming!”
There was no way to describe how fast the creature came at them. Limbs flailed in a flurry of black fabric as the shapeless, featureless horror skittered forth. Fascinatingly dreadful was the sound it made as it moved. Pops and cracks creaked out with every twist and bulge that appeared from under its cloak. Selphie squealed and began to run, Zell hot on her heels. Their footsteps pounded over the floor, sliding over the smooth metal surface hastily.
Her voice shattered the near-silence with a sudden shriek, as a bullet grazed the corridor siding and a spark lit the air. Zell grabbed Selphie’s hand and pulled her into one of the doors lining the hall, slamming the bolt shut.
Inside it was pitch black. Zell flicked on the light systems and they watched the dim amber Yellow Alarm lights be joined by cooling blue. Selphie breathed a sigh of relief, though her heart was beating wildly in her chest. Scuffling noises could be heard on the other side of the door making the usually cheery girl uneasy.
“And this is…?”
“Junior mech room. We’re in the science, technology and mechanics wing,” Selphie identified, “but all for juniors, I’m more familiar with the ones a floor up.”
“Any weapons in this thing?” Zell looked around the mess of machinery.
“Nail guns. Probably a blowtorch or two. Um…” Selphie picked through the toolboxes and looked around with concern, “This class must not have started real building yet. There should be a storage room somewhere back there.”
She pointed to a shadowed, dark corner nearly buried behind heaps of old ships, cars and other foreign objects. Zell swallowed. He did NOT want to go back there. But the girl was going, so Zell had to as well. They treaded quietly, both wincing every time there was a scraping sound against the door, or any unexplained noise that would jump out at them and cause both to leap. Together they found the storage room but it was locked tightly.
“So what do we do now?” Zell asked, his eyes narrowed.
“Wait?” Selphie asked, “Well. If that guy comes in here, he’ll have to fight us close, and we can both hit him then,”
“I’m more concerned with him coming in, shooting us, and then leaving,” Zell stared at Selphie and then raked his fingers through his hair, “Fuckit.”
Selphie bit her lip and then perked, “There’s an intercom in here. We can page Squall and the others, with a group that big they won’t be attacked.”
“All right!” Zell pumped his fist into the air, “Where is it?”
Selphie paled, “By the door.”
"I can't believe we're scared of this thing," Selphie laughed nervously.
"It's not exactly what we're used to fighting," Zell spat, "We don't even know what it is!"
Squall, Nida, and Xu walked down the eerily silent halls, with eyes tracing over every shadow and every crack in the walls. There had been no shots, no screams, nothing at all. Squall wanted to take that as a good sign, but there was a pool of dread settling in his stomach.
Irvine had scooped up Quistis and taken her to the doctor, while the other three had decided to try and find Selphie and Zell. They had walked in several circles before finding their way in the confusing labyrinth. As they neared a T-shaped intersection the three of them stopped and looked about warily.
“AH!” Xu spun, letting a volley of bullets spray down the left hall.
“Hyne!” Nida whirled around and pointed an arrow down the left.
Squall hung his head and sighed.
“…KHHT! This is Selphie! KKT! We’re in-KHHT-mechanical room.”
“This way,” Squall pointed, beginning to run.
The week had been terrible, and it was still getting worse. Selphie struck down, Rinoa leaving, abandoning him, not even bothering to listen to rational thought or even try to work it through…Squall sighed and pushed onward. Too many bizarre events all at once. Why now?
“There’s the mech lab,” Nida announced when they slowed down.
The young man’s dark hair was unkempt from running and his eyes seemed to glow with excitement. In Squall’s depression he only wondered, dimly, how the man could be so happy that they had an unknown attacker in the Garden. Squall reached out and toggled the command keys for the door to slide open. When the doors whisked open Zell’s fist nearly collided with Squall’s head and Selphie leapt out ready to attack.
Seeing that it was Squall glowering at him and not the creature, Zell lurched back and managed not to punch the commander. Selphie stumbled, her side beginning to ache, and clumsily fell into Squal. He caught her and then swiftly up-righted her with the efficiency only someone who hated being touched could manage. Selphie smiled brightly and flashed a peace sign at him with an energetic grin.
“Did you chase it away?” She asked hopefully.
“It wasn’t here,” Xu replied for Squall as she looked around with a frown on her face.
They all looked up as one and let their eyes roll over the ceiling. Sure enough, the grate over one of the vents was swinging open seven feet away. Selphie swallowed hard and then instinctively glued herself to Squall. The rest of them fell silent and they quickly escaped the lower levels. An hour later, all junior tech classes were cancelled.
“We need to seal the vents,” Squall announced, looking down at Cid.
“But what of our airflow?”
“Fine. Don’t seal them completely, but bolt them down, make sure it can’t get out,” Squall insisted.
“Squall, if that thing can manipulate a gun who says it can’t undo whatever we try to cage it with?” Quistis asked.
Her torso was bandaged much like Selphie’s. The strange bullet had hit under her stomach, but hadn’t done any serious damage. She had been put under heavy curing spells that left her tired and feeling drained, but the blonde wasn’t about to let that stop her. It had been a day and a half, and Quistis didn’t like losing time.
“If we secure the grates down tightly I don’t think so. From the outside, put extra caging over them…” Squall closed his eyes and then shrugged helplessly, “I’m not hearing any other suggestions.”
“I don’t have any,” Quistis confessed, “Not yet anyhow.”
“Proceed with Squall’s plan then,” Cid said heavily, “have the chem. units come up with a DNA analysis of the blood yet?”
“They’re still working on it, there had been a creature-sighting near the labs so they had to evacuate for a few days.” Quistis reported stonily.
They planned on meeting again and then Cid dismissed his top Seeds. Quistis walked beside Squall in a comfortable silence. The two of them got along amazingly well, since neither had any intention of breaking the other's solitude or pensive moments. Down the halls both kept their eyes watching for anything amiss. After the second attack the students had lost their confidence and now instead of just walking in pairs there were large herds of students shuffling around, with wide eyes and nervous trigger fingers that had resulted in several injuries. Still, Cid would not have his students unarmed so they all kept their weapons.
So much had happened at Garden, Quistis reflected. After Ultimecia had worn off and the SeeDs had watched their celebrity-states fade, things had nearly returned to normal. Rinoa had come back to live with Squall, all of them were rich, horrendously so, most had donated half their money to Garden and were still rich enough to never have to work again…though they still did anyhow. Squall and Rinoa…they had been in love, Quistis was certain of it, but then when she got to Balamb, Rinoa changed. She needed the constant pampering, and Squall couldn’t look after her. He was a commander now, and Rinoa had no desire to be a SeeD, it was natural they separate. Squall, if he needed anything, he needed another SeeD, someone who would have no problem staying in Balamb, because there was no way he could leave. Rinoa was wild at heart, a rebel, but the rest of them were soldiers.
Casting a sideways glance at her companion, Quistis noticed his grey-blue eyes looked darker than normal, hardly rare being that he was so troubled though. She almost opened her mouth to say something, but then she stopped. It wouldn’t do to put him in a worse mood with promises that might not be fulfilled.
When they reached the dorms both flinched as the yellow alarm sounded once more. Quistis cursed and Squall let out a sigh. This wasn’t scary, this wasn’t a task, this was bloody annoying. Quistis turned to go back when she realized Squall was no longer beside her. He was already running. It was then that Quistis realized the lights had turned red.
Squall bolted down the hallway. He had only seen Balamb’s red alarm once before and he had hoped he’d never see it again. As he ran he saw Irvine’s trench coat just as the man shot around a corner. He was running with another SeeD, Emily, and they both looked tired.
“There! Sector Four!” Irvine pointed at an electronic map as they passed it.
Squall hurried up and then passed the two, darting down the stairways to the training room where the alarm was actually audible. The door appeared jammed but after a few tries of his emergency access code, the commander managed to get them to slide open a bit.
Inside fallen trees greeted his view. The carcasses of dead enemies littered the ground. Fire had torched several of the walls, animals, and floral life but nothing was burning anymore. Squall gripped his gunblade tightly as he looked around and began to step over the carnage. He had to walk to the very end of the training room before he spotted the first drops of blood and then heard a voice.
Squall’s eyes flared open. He had just enough time to get out of the way before Irfit exploded into existence and suddenly fire was everywhere, filling Squall’s vision. The heat scalded his skin, making the blood rush to the surface and sweat bead across his skin. Stumbling back, and then falling down hard on the heels of his hands, Squall crawled across the smoking ground and sought shelter behind a charred stump. Who was junctioned to Ifrit? Irvine? Zell? Selphie.
Breaking his cover as soon as the majority of the flames diminished, Squall held his gunblade in two hands and ran for where the summoning had come from. A smoking form clad in black twisted unnaturally to meet his sudden appearance. Squall hissed and kept on going, gearing up for a wide slash that arced through the air. His teeth clenched together as the figure lifted up a cloaked arm. As Squall ducked, his blade came up, whistling over the glowing ember-covered ground, and at the same time red-claws stretched down to tear him to shreds. Squall’s eyes narrowed at the ghastly sight, talons, not claws, the nails were long and pointed, and a deep crimson. Blood, he then realized.
The next moment happened with such slowness that Squall was able to watch the seconds trickle past, unable to move any faster, helpless, watching it all unfold.
The nails were streaming towards him, his blade was moving sluggishly upwards, the air flowed past his cheek, and the hotness nearly blistered him. He watched the point of his sword pierce the dark fabric, his fingers, burning, pulled the trigger. There was a gunshot, a fierce pain, a flash of silver and a scream. Squall saw Selphie looking like an Amazon, glaring at the creature, her weapon out and flying towards them. The figure doubled over, and the pain receded from Squall’s face.
He stood shakily and then fell back down, dizziness washing over him. The figure screamed shrilly and then crumpled to the ground. Selphie swayed where she stood, bleeding from little slashes and cuts all over her body. Behind her was a student, either unconscious or dead. Squall watched, too tired to move, as the cloaked figure scurried along the ground on all fours, if it even had four limbs, maybe it had more, then crawled up the wall and began clawing at one of the skylights.
“It’s…getting away…” Squall growled softly, his vision slowly turning read and fuzzy.
“Squall!” Quistis had finally found him.
She didn’t hesitate for a moment. In seconds she had located the thing from quick radio communication with security and was running out of the training room to catch it as it left Garden. On her way she found Nida and Zell and ordered them to follow her. Nida ran at her side while Zell disappeared to get a quad.
Streaking out of Garden, Quistis and Nida jumped over the side of the quad Zell had found, just as he came out of the garage. He grabbed the wheel and cranked it to the side, sending the vehicle burning across the plains outside of Garden. They could see the fluttering black cape loping through the grass in a strange animalistic run. Quistis narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out just what exactly was under those swathes of dark material.
As the sun began its descent, the three SeeDs kept their eyes, following the amazingly fast dash of the strange shooter.
“…Xu…” Squall managed through a dry mouth.
He was whispering her name over and over into his communicator. Selphie had collapsed, out cold, and he was soon to join her. It was some sort of poison; he had figured out that much, and it dulled his concentration so that he couldn’t use his magic. He was baffled, wondering how Selphie, with so many marks on her, had found a way to summon Ifrit. None of that mattered much, she was down, and he was joining her.
His eyes slid shut, and a fever broke out across his forehead. After what seemed like eons he heard the training room door be blasted open. Yells, curses and commands were issued but they sounded swampy, and slurred to Squall’s ears. He was being lifted up, and nausea took over. Silently he was aware of purging his stomach, someone rubbing his back, someone else touching his cheeks. Then the blood rushed away and he fainted in a soothing redness.
“…Stats are fine, now that the curing magic has taken hold and we’ve gotten the poison out both should be doing fine. I’m worried about Selphie, get a blood test for me, she’s paler than she should be. Squall is waking up, someone get him a cool cloth for his forehead,” Kadowaki looked around at her three patients wearily.
Squall’s eyes opened and he looked at the white walls of the doctor’s office. On the table beside him was Selphie. She was on her back looking unsettlingly serious and across from her was the other student, bags of blood were hanging from tall poles, disappearing into their arms. Selphie had two I.V.s and the other student had too many needles going into him to count.
Kadowaki leaned over him and smiled gently. Blearily Squall tried to wipe sleep from his eyes but his arm was tied down. He frowned.
“You were thrashing, a nightmare I believe,” Kadowaki told him, untying his bonds, “Sit up slowly now, slowly, Squall!”
Squall felt a head rush course through him and he hung his head, closed his eyes and then took a deep breath. He felt his cheeks gingerly. One had three scratch marks but the scalding from the other had disappeared from the curing magic given to him earlier.
“She’ll be fine, if we can wake her up. She’s in a state of exhaustion right now,” Kadowaki looked concerned.
“The poison…it impedes casting magic, somehow she still summoned her Guardian Force,” Squall said quietly watching the girl sleep.
“What? Guardian force’s take up more energy than normal spells, if the poison knocks out magic she should never have been able to cast anything, she had three times the amount of poison in her system than you did Squall,” Kadowaki’s eyes widened and she looked at Selphie.
“I don’t know how she did it,” Squall shook his head and then his shoulders dropped, “Where’s Quistis?”
“She left, following the creature. She contacted Cid earlier to tell him that Nida, Zell and her would be gone for a few days, it was heading towards an old farming town.”
Squall nodded and then realized how tired he was. Sensing this, Kadowaki gently pushed him back down on the bed. He fell asleep immediately, and didn’t wake up for another eight hours.
Quistis narrowed her eyes. Nida, Zell and she had searched three farms and still there was no sight of the creature. They had tracked it to an old town, population seventy-five people, all retired and living out the last of their days. Standing in front of an old weathered barn, Quistis watched as Zell came out shaking his head, empty-handed and looking surly. In a dark silence they trudged over the old grass and hay to the next barn, finding Nida sitting in the shade looking frustrated.
“We’ve checked every barn,” Nida said in disappointed tones, “What now?”
“We check the houses,” Quistis said, her voice low, “It’s here. We would have seen it leave. Or heard one of the residents scream, or something,”
“Wouldn’t we hear the same thing if it were in one of their houses?” Zell argued irritably,
“It’s here,” Quistis insisted, “We haven’t checked sheds, come on.”
The tired trio began searching sheds, greenhouses, and some of the houses. They were growing increasingly bitter about the failed mission when a loud gunshot rang out. Zell pushed past Quistis and out into the open road between the shed they were looking in and the rest of the houses. Nida ran out after him with Quistis right behind and they stopped, puzzled.
“Where did it come from?” Quistis demanded.
“There!” Nida pointed as sounds of a fight broke out.
It was an old barn house, built right beside old stables that weren’t being used. In the space between them they could hear shuffles, banging noises, and soft grunts. Quistis took off, her whip uncoiling and ready to strike out. As she ran around the corner she saw a scrap of grey flutter around the next side of the barn. Gritting her teeth she kept chasing, wondering where the hell the creature in black had disappeared to.
Around that corner she saw a field of gold, a shed, and a house in the near distance. Quistis had to fight to not stamp her foot and scream in rage. Zell slowed down, breathing heavily, and looked around blankly,
“Where did they go?” He panted.
“I don’t know, look in the house, I’ll take the shed, Nida…?” Quistis turned around.
“There’s blood on the wall, I’m getting samples,” Nida said carefully as he scrapped the red droplets into little glass tubes he had stored in his utility belt.
Quistis nodded and stalked over to the shed. Her temper was near breaking point, and her patience had worn thin. With complete disregard to whomever owned the shed, she kicked out, smashing the door in. A loud curse greeted her actions and Quistis stepped in with blue fire in her eyes.
This was replaced by blank fear. Her whip clattered to the ground. Seconds later her hands found her gun.