Phase VIII: Trial
Selphie always liked trains. The way they sped across the vast expanses of land so quickly that it made you wonder what was between point A and B. In Galbadia it was just fields and forests with the occasional lake. The sky had a hint of purple now, which was darker than usual. Winter was just a few short months away, and this part of the world usually got cold with snow. As for right now, the leaves were changing into reds and yellows that set the entire landscape on fire.
Her eyes were trained on the beauty of it all acting like a reminder that not all was a political mess in the world. It had been three days since they left Deling City with the occasional stop here and there at interim stations to refuel. The group had taken up board in various rooms. Selphie was currently rooming with her former SeeD companions as she did almost every night since they got tangled up in with the affairs of the resistance.
Squall and herself hadn't spoken much since the other night- hell, they weren't speaking much at all recently. Selphie was already fed up with his hostile behavior and decided to focus on something else for a change. There were three new people that they were traveling with, and since they were going to be together for a while, Selphie figured she'd try and get to know them.
They all seemed interesting enough. Riki specialized in mechanics, aliases, and alibis. Selene was Trabian coming to Galbadia to learn about medicine and healing magic. The three girls often found themselves in the dinning coach joking and talking to pass the time, while the guys were off doing god knows what.
It was a great distraction from what was really going on right now. Selphie kept trying to surround herself with people to cheer herself up over the whole Stacy thing. It was in times like these when she was alone that reminded her of her primary objective. Stacy was out there, and Selphie still needed to find her.
I don't care what Squall or the others say. We will see each other again if it's the last thing I do.
She sat at a small table in the coach that sold coffee and small packaged food. Her tea remained untouched and cold in front of her. Through the reflection of the window, Selphie could see her green eyes peering back at her. Dark circles indicated exhaustion, and small cuts on her face left over from Dollet's attack appeared to be healing well enough, but in no means did this make her look less pretty.
"Can I sit?" She heard Selene's familiar Trabian accent at the edge of the table. Selphie had learnt sometime within the last few days that Selene was from a small village in the mountains near the Trabian Crater being a true native of the north. Selphie on the other hand identified herself as a Trabian as well, but never picked up that accent as most people in Garden spoke in plain tongue.
Selphie gestured towards the other seat and smiled. She figured if she pretended that everything was okay, Selene wouldn't drill her with questions as to why Selphie sat here by herself away from everyone else. Well, she hoped it'd fool Selene.
"It's beautiful out there, is it not?" Selene's honey colored eyes glanced out the window to the landscape. Selphie nodded as she had been watching the landscape pass like a movie and wasn't nearly as interested anymore.
"You looked upset before." Selene didn't hesitate to point that out. Selphie mentally kicked herself. "Are you alright?"
Selphie faked enthusiasm that seemingly appeared out of nowhere, "Yeah! Oh, yeah! I'm great. Just thinkin' I guess."
"About your friend?" Selene was right on the money.
Fuck, she's good.
Selphie let out a sigh laced with a chuckle, "Yeah. I guess. I mean, she's still out there, and I hope she's okay."
Selphie blinked, "Pray?"
Selene nodded, "If you do, someone above will listen to you and make sure it happens. My father tells me that when I go through hardships."
She thought it over and bobbed her head thoughtfully, "Okay. I'll try that thanks."
"Anyways," Selene's face went serious. "Finish up your tea, and come with me. We have a faction meeting in Angelus' room."
When they reached the room everyone was lounging around; their laughter and loud outbursts could be heard from the hallway. The three distinct voices came from Angelus, Zell, and Riki.
Angelus and Zell sat across from each other playing a round of Triple Triad with Riki sitting off to the side. Despite nearing the end of the match, the three didn't seem to be paying that much attention judging by the conversation they were having.
"Hey, we're gonna stop off in the middle of nowhere, right?" Riki asked Angelus.
"Yeah, which means you have to get out your hiking boots." Angelus smirked, placing a weaker level card down.
"Fuck that! I ain't walking in no woods!" Riki exclaimed.
"That's the only way to get in there."
"Well, I'm gonna fly in there or somethin', I just don't wanna go in the woods!" Riki raised both palms in the air defensively.
"What are you scared of?" Angelus asked in amusement. "Bears?"
"It's probably bugs, eh? She'll start screamin' like a little girl!" Zell laughed, placing another card down to overtake his.
"Hey! Shut your trap!" She snapped at the blonde.
Riki felt a hand ruffle her dark hair affectionately. Her eyes peered up between her bangs to see Angelus' grin, "We're only kidding, kid. Don't take it seriously."
"I'm not a kid!" Riki protested.
Selphie and Selene joined in on the laughter and sat down on the couch. She looked around the room and found Squall lying on the bottom bunk looking like he was trying to sleep. It was just like him to not partake in the fun. He always wanted to be alone.
Her attention turned back to Angelus moments later to him raising a triumphant fist. "I'm taking your Shiva card!"
"No! Man, you can have any other card." Zell begged. "Just not that one!"
"It's mine, Blondie." Angelus plucked it from the selection of cards and slid it into his desk. "Don't be a sore loser."
Angelus noted everyone's attendance just then and got right to it. "Good. Shall we begin?"
"Finally." Squall muttered sitting up from his position on the bed. "Couldn't stand hearing anymore of your nonsense."
"Squall's just a party pooper." Riki waved him off, "Anyways, the mission is to meet up with this Jenkins guy, right?"
"Jenkins lives in a shack?" Selphie asked, "What significance does he have to the mission?"
"He's a scout." Angelus explained, "He looks after the Timber Forest. The resistance movement in Timber is still quite active. Some strange things have been happening there lately."
"Aside from Galbadia's takeover of Timber?" Zell added, "That's not so strange since it's been goin' on for a while now."
Angelus leaned back in his chair, "I used to run with the factions there. This time passenger trains have been redirected to another stop west of there. Galbadia station hasn't had trains depart directly to Timber for a few months now."
"So, we're gonna find out why." Squall said, raising a brow.
Angelus locked eyes with him from across the room, "More like we need to find out what's going on in that city. Jenkins reported that he found bodies in the forest, remember?"
"How we gonna do this then?" Riki seemed excited to get this underway.
Angelus stood up and regarded the whole group, "We go in as a group, but when we meet with Jenkins, we only need three of us. The rest stand outside and keep watch."
A small smirk tugged at Riki's lips, and her amethyst peered around the room to everyone else, "Who gets to go?"
"It's going to be me," Angelus announced, his eyes shot towards Squall like it was an obvious decision, "Scarface and…" An affectionate smile crossed his lips towards Selphie, "…the cutie."
Selphie blinked and noticed Riki roll her eyes in disappointment. She wasn't sure if it was because Riki wanted to go in or if she had a problem with Selphie's new nickname. The way Angelus called her that, and the way he was looking at her right now made her face go hot. Selphie also couldn't explain why she'd quickly checked to see Squall's reaction. He looked unimpressed and bored as usual. It didn't even appear to faze him.
Why do I even care what he thinks, anyways?
"After we meet with Jenkins, we will head to Timber to rendezvous with the Forest Fox. They will fill us in on what's been going on."
The Forest Fox? Squall recalled the name from his first mission as a SeeD. If these guys have connections with factions in Timber then maybe…
"I thought the Underground was a network. How do you guys not know what's been happening there?" Squall asked.
"Because for some reason communications in the part of the world are down. We've been trying to get in touch with them for a while now. Jenkins sent his message, and we haven't heard from him since. That was almost two weeks ago." Angelus said. "Timber's in the dark right now, and we need to find out why."
Their footsteps thudded against the wet earth through the forest that surrounded Timber. The sounds of the night accompanied them. The tall trees blocked out the moonlight that hung in the sky. Twigs broke under their boots and the sounds of crickets and wildlife buzzed in the air. It was chilly here- approximately closer to zero. Squall's breath came out in puffs of smoke, and the cold harshly bit at the skin of his bare arms and collarbone. He stepped over a log and moved a thin branch out of the way with his blade. Angelus and himself manned the front of the pack cutting away at any branches or plants to carve a path for the rest.
"You said you worked with the Timber resistance." Squall spoke when they were farther up ahead. Angelus raised his brows at the rare occurrence of Squall initiating a conversation.
"Yeah, I did." Angelus answered, chopping down another branch. "I was with the Forest Owls for a while before I went to Deling City."
So, he knows Rinoa. Squall was slightly taken aback, but kind of half expected this.
"A friend of mine recruited me. She was pretty much the one who ran the show, too. Funny enough, her dad's actually the general of the army." He laughed, "She doesn't do it anymore. She got involved with SeeD and forgot about the rest I guess."
Sounds like Rinoa. She came to Garden and never talked about Timber after that. Squall thought. I always thought that it was because she was more concerned about being a sorceress or because of me.
"Zell tells me you guys were SeeD." Angelus said after a few moments of clearing the path, "Did you guys know her?"
Squall paused for a moment to consider his answer. He wished he didn't. She came into his life and promised him all the things he deprived himself of for years. When she was done with him, she tossed him on way the wayside like everything he did for her during the war didn't matter anymore.
"No, I didn't." He lied, trying to control his anger. He kept a straight face, and relaxed the tension in his shoulders swinging the Lionheart again.
Angelus shrugged, "Oh well. I guess there were a lot of you then."
"Guys!" Selphie's voice came up from behind them, "Stop for a second."
The two looked at her in question. Her voice lowered a few octaves to a whisper. The sound of trees being rustled could be heard nearby, and the two men diverted their concerned eyes towards each other. "I don't think we're alone."
Zell was next to run out of the bush towards them. He was panting hard and looking behind himself frantically. Selene was on his toes with Riki not too far behind.
"Don't leave me behind!" Riki screamed, which resulted in Angelus glaring at her carelessness.
She pointed in the direction they all came, "I-I don't know what that was, but it didn't look friendly."
Angelus moved past them to investigate further, frustrated by everyone's odd behavior. He walked between the trees that Squall and himself hadn't cut down finding nothing. He sighed turning around to the group and froze.
Selphie looked perplexed at the concerned expressions on everyone's faces, and heard a gunshot go off near her. She ducked instinctively and felt something graze her shoulder as pain set in. She bit down on her lower lip, and her body was pushed forwards onto the ground. When she finally looked up, she saw Squall's blue eyes lock deep into hers. They were both on their stomachs, and his glare silently begged her to keep quiet.
The gunshots kept going off one after another now, and the birds sleeping in the trees were just silhouettes in the sky above them flapping their wings to get away from the scene. Selphie's breath felt like it was scraping against the inside of her throat.
Squall's hand pressed between her shoulder blades leveraging him to his feet. Before she could call his name, Selphie could see the Lionheart glow brightly against the darkness swinging into an arc and hitting something hard. Whatever it was, it dropped to the ground instantly with a mangled gargling cry.
The sounds of her friends shouting overcame the sounds of the forest now. Weapons hitting weapons and bullets firing from guns could be heard around her. Selphie determinedly pushed herself to her feet feeling the wound burn her shoulder. SeeD training taught her how to disregard this temporarily. Her feet quickened and stopped when her Nunchaku came flying at a black clad soldier with a rifle in his hand.
She threw the right one, and the chain between the two nunchucks caught the barrel of the gun. Selphie tugged at it hard pulling it right out of the man's grasp. The gun clattered against the ground and lost itself in the darkness. There stood a man right in her sights, unarmed and desperately resorting to the next best thing.
His fist engulfed into a flame that lit up the area around them as he came at her with renewed motivation. He was bigger than she was, which could have been a huge advantage on his part, but she was small, clever, and fast.
He went for a fiery punch, but hit the ground when she jumped out of the way. The grass and twigs in that spot cracked into a small bonfire. And as he remained crouched, he turned his head to a flash of light that sent lightening bolts into his body. When the man dropped, Selphie went after her next target.
Riki's clutched her gun close to her body hiding behind a thicker tree trunk. Her enemy's boots carelessly crunched the ground underneath him while cocking his own gun. When he got within her vision, she swiftly shot a few bullets in his general direction.
The man ducked behind his own tree that resulted in a standoff. The only thing that they could hear was the battle raging on nearby between their respective parties.
"Come on out, UA scum!" The man shouted out from his position. "Just surrender, and I wont kill you!"
"Fuck off." Riki whispered, not stupid enough to give herself away like that. Her amethyst eyes looked around trying to cut through the blanket of darkness that shrouded her. She had to trust her ears on this one. His voice was clearer from her left side.
She turned herself slightly to point in that direction. Riki's body slowly sank closer to the earth. Suddenly, she wasn't so scared of the forest anymore, but one with it instead. The wind blew in from the eastern sea. She inhaled and focused. Just ahead, hidden in the bush was something pure black that shifted. The buckle of his boot shimmered in the light ever so slightly. Positioning her gun, Riki peered through the scope and zoomed onto the target. She was gunning for just half an inch higher than the buckle for the guy's anklebone.
Riki wasn't going to let this chance slip away when her finger pulled the trigger. Between the shot ringing out and the scream of agony, Riki jumped out and began her assault. Her finger squeezed the gun's trigger again and again, sinking bullets into the man's chest and side. He collapsed against the tree in a lifeless bloody pulp by the time she got close.
"Little bitch." She spat, and made her way towards the battle again.
Squall had leapt into the air and knocked another guy down with the edge of his gunblade. From behind him another came swinging his army issued board sword into the air coming right down on him. Squall twisted his body to block the attack and pushed the blade away using his own.
With his free hand, he mustered up a spell that made the air around them drop in temperature rapidly. A cold mist circulated into his palm and spiraled outwards until it grew strong enough to cast.
"What the-" the man couldn't even let out because Squall had knocked his blade to the side and pushed his hand into the guys face. His features froze as if he spent hours atop the highest peak of the Trabian Mountains. His body just tipped over onto the ground like an iron statue knocked off its pedestal.
Panting, Squall looked around seeing the bodies of at least ten soldiers scattered around them in trees or on the ground. The rest had been finishing up their opponents or stood up recovering from their minor injuries.
Selphie, who had been coming down from her own adrenaline rush, finally looked at her injured shoulder. Thankfully it was just a scrap and not a hole with a bullet in it. She winced when she forced her shoulder to move, looking around for Selene who was finishing off Zell's injuries.
"That looks painful." Angelus commented, walking right up to her with a relieved smile. "You okay, cutie?"
She returned a smile through another wince, "Yeah…hurts, but I think I'll be okay."
He nodded and turned to call Selene over, "No big. It doesn't look life threatening anyways. Selene, do your thing, will you?"
The blonde Trabian nodded and got right to it. A green light illuminated between them as her fingers pressed the wound. If it weren't for the Cura spell, Selphie would have been bandaged up and forced to endure the burning pain for a while longer.
Within a few moments, she looked down at it again and saw a small fresh scar in place of the bloodied mess it was before. Selphie smiled her gratitude, and Selene gave her welcomes. The small brunette was beginning to appreciate the other girl's acceptance of her. Maybe this time her new friend would stick around for a while. In the past few years Selphie had lost a lot of her close friends to war, and she sincerely hoped it wouldn't come to that with Selene as well.
Angelus called to them all, "We aren't too much farther from where we have to be. Keep note of anything you noticed during the fight, and we will report it to the Forest Fox when we see them. Move out."
When they had warily made their way through the forest, Angelus busied himself with a small map of the trail when he smelt something foul. The sound of buzzing black flies was undeniable.
He let out a disgusted cough knowing what just they were just walking into. It was a clearing of rotting corpses, which only confirmed Cesar's claim.
Judging by the scene of carnage, these had to be the bodies of the men found by Jenkins. There was no doubt that they had been here for at least few weeks now, but investigating their corpses would prove to get them nowhere.
"This is so fuckin' gross!" Riki complained covering her nose and mouth with her hands while trying to get away from the bodies.
"Oh my Hyne." Zell gagged, "Get me the hell outta here!"
"Are we close?" Squall asked the black haired man.
He nodded, "Yeah, you and Selphie come with me. It can't be too far away." He turned to the rest of them, "You three trail us from behind. Keep watch."
"As long as it ain't anywhere near here." Riki mumbled past Zell breaking into a jog again.
"Shall we?" Selene smiled, despite the uneasiness she felt in her stomach.
"Ladies first." Zell joked, letting her pass him. Even under these circumstances, he couldn't help but notice the curve of her hips as she walked ahead of him now.
Squall cut down the last of the bush that lead to another clearing. According to the small map the Naperic leader currently held, this was it. But the stench never went away, and Squall hoped it wasn't just stuck in his nose.
In the middle of the clearing stood a small old wooden cottage made of logs and plywood. Its walls were littered in holes and splinters, and the windows had been blown out or broken into shards still stuck in the windowpanes. There were men in black uniforms scattered all over the place with bullets in them clearly dead.
As discussed, Squall and Selphie followed Angelus further into the clearing with all weapons drawn. They soundlessly stepped closer to the door of the shack with Angelus prying it open slightly with the hilt of his blade. The wooden door creaked open with no answer from the old man. Upon entering, the three noticed that the interior had been completely ransacked with many objects littering the floor and furniture knocked over away from the walls.
Someone must have thought he was hiding something, Selphie thought, stepping over a small morose code kit on the floor. She looked to Angelus who had been carefully picking at some old books sitting on the only table that wasn't knocked over- the desk. She searched for Squall whom had ventured off into the kitchen ahead of them.
"Shit!" She heard him yell and a loud thud followed. When she came running into the small kitchen with Angelus in toe, they found Squall sitting on the floor next to the body of old man Jenkins. The petite girl coughed and tears stung her eyes from the strong odor. Squall coughed into a gloved hand trying to also hold down the bile at the back of his throat.
"What could have done all this?" Selphie asked.
Angelus crouched down to the dead body of the old man. Squall and himself examined the wounds inflicted on him and exchanged solemn glances. "That does not look like a normal sword would."
Squall leaned in closer finding a large burn mark around the long gash on the man's side. In the middle of the wound was a hole the same diameter as the bullets he used in his own gunblade.
"Gunblade…" Squall muttered.
"Come again, Scarface?" Angelus replied getting to his feet.
His blue eyes peered up to his comrades, "This wasn't a regular blade. Only a Gunblade can inflict wounds like that. It has a burn mark, which means that whoever did this specializes with fire spells junctioned to their attack as I thought. They also fired a bullet in the gash, which would take too much effort and time to shoot them with a gun after slicing them practically in half with a blade. The diameter of the bullet hole is the same diameter as the ones I use. This could only mean-"
"Seifer!?" Selphie finished for him, and he nodded getting to his feet as well.
"There's a directory of all weapons licensed to specific individuals who are categorized by class. Last time I checked in the gunblade section, there were two names: mine and his."
The leader shook his head dismissing all the thoughts running through his mind. He angrily stepped past Selphie and called after them, "Let's just get the hell out of here."
Squall stared at Selphie who offered him a shrug before turning her heel and following Angelus out the door. Squall glanced at the body one last time and sighed warily, "Seifer, what are you up to now?"
The rest of the group hung around the opening of the clearing standing guard when Angelus walked towards them with Selphie and Squall not far behind.
"Hey, what did that Jenkins dude say?" Zell approached them.
"Nothing. He's dead, too." Angelus replied, dryly. This sparked questions and remarks from them all, but he just shouted in reply instead, "All you guys shut up! We don't know what's exactly happened, but Leonhart has a theory."
The group looked at him in question, "I think it was another gunblade user who did it. I examined the wound, and it's not a typical blade wound."
"Wait!" Zell exclaimed knowing where this was going, "You don't mean…"
"Zell, he thinks its Seifer." Selphie replied for Squall with concern.
The brawler's body trembled in anger to the sound of his name. Zell's fist clenched tightly at his side. "So, that bastards up to his old tricks again, eh?"
"Do you think this guy has anything to do with the bombins'?" Riki asked Squall.
Squall shrugged, "It's too early to say."
"Well, we might as well head to Timber and discuss this there instead of a field full of dead bodies." Riki suggested. "Besides, Timber is like a mile away from here, and I'm fucking exhausted playin' in the woods."
"Probably because you hate bugs." Zell snickered.
He received a dirty look from her, "Shut up, Chicken-wuss!" This hit a nerve, and Zell almost went ballistic as the group started to walk away.
Squall offered him a pat on the shoulder and a frown before following suit. "Calm down, Zell."
As the group got closer to Timber, Selphie noticed something was off. There were strange dark clouds over the city. Normally Timber would be bustling with life and the sounds of trains pulling into the station could always be heard. It had been unusually dark and quiet for such a lively city. She moved the branches that blocked her view and was shocked to find what lay behind them. Zell walked up next, and his jaw dropped at the sight of it. The reactions of everyone else seemed to mirror his in absolute horror.
Timber looked just like Dollet now. All the buildings were rubble, cars were destroyed or flipped over onto their roofs, and black smoke left the air thick with ash. The TV station's monitor that overlooked the whole city was cracked and hanging off the building threatening to crash to the streets below. As for the people, strangely enough there was no one in sight. Selphie really hoped they made it out alive. She did just as Selene had told her to do earlier. She prayed silently for them all.
Angelus on the other hand looked jaded when he called everyone's attention standing before the group. He seemed to recollect his thoughts after a few moments, and the anger he had displayed back inside Jenkins' house resurfaced.
"Listen up! We are to excavate the area and look for survivors or any clues to back up Leonhart's theory. If you find anything, report to me immediately. Move out!" Angelus barked before he stormed into the city that was now a complete ghost town.