Foreshadow Chapter 3


By Peptuck3

And boom, a fight scene! Heavy, heavy combat in this chapter. I love combat. I can write about things blowing up. I like it when stuff explodes. Heehee . . . . Okay, I'm scaring myself now. . . .

Anyway, on with the fic!

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        Foreshadow Chapter 3: Intervention

        In the darkness of the urban night, in the midst of a city of shadows, was the place where Illarra and her band were most at home. After all, their line of work involved acting from within the shadows, out of sight of those who would stop them. There were few others who operated outside the law who were not at ease in the darkness, but none matched Illarra or her shadowy band when it came to blending into the lightless depths of the urban underworld.

        Except for one, the man they were meeting tonight.

        Polz waited in the darkness cast by the lack of light in this sector of Esthar. Monsters roamed freely here, but Polz had no reason to fear them. He did, however, feel somewhat tense around the individual he was to be meeting here. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that he was always defended by exceptionally skilled and undeniably loyal bodyguards. Maybe it was the fact that the man's group was everywhere and yet nowhere all at once. Most likely, though, it was because this man, Xerret, always knew more than he should. Far more than he should. But then, that was Xerret's stock in trade, knowledge and information. That, and illegal goods which no one else seemed able to retrieve.

        Polz ran a hand through his white hair. Well, not white, just an extremely pale blonde, cut short but sticking straight up. Polz himself was also short, and wiry, but that belied surprising strength in addition to the incredible speed and toughness that he possessed. These, combined with his preffered form of combat, a free-flowing martial arts style he had dubbed "quicksilver" style, made Polz into a considerable opponent, one who had yet to be bested by any enemy, armed or otherwise. And this prowess had catapulted him forward in the ranks of Illarra's band, to the point where he was one of Illarra's personal lieutenants. Unfortunately, while that rank meant excellent pay and exquisite luxury, it meant Polz had to deal with many of Illarra's clients and associates outside the organization, one of whom was Xerret.

        The small martial artist glanced around the walkways, trying to spot Xerret, and keeping his eyes and ears open for the telltale signs the man was approaching.

        The sudden clacking of boots alerted Polz to the presence of Xerret, amazingly close. Of course, that clacking came from a direction Polz had just looked in, and Xerret was coming towards the martial artist from a spot he'd just determined was empty and to which no one should have gotten to in the two seconds since he'd checked.

        Xerret always did that.

        "Let's get this over with," Polz growled at the sight of the mercanary. Xerret's responding laughter, amused laughter, angered Polz further. Xerret was always amused, it seemed, as if he thought all life was one big game.

        "Shut up," Polz growled.

        "My, my, touchy tonight, aren't we Polz?" Xerret responded, the mercanary sounding amused as he came into full view. As always, the man was attired in his suitably outrageous clothing. (Though it fit in nicely with all the other outrageous outfits inside Esthar.)

        Xerret was a mid-sized, medium-built man, but it was there that the mediocrity ended, His hair, long, bright red hair, was drawn into a ponytail. He wore a loose, sleveless tunic, along with a long cape of some kind, whose colors shifted at Xerret's will, right now a solid black. Polz suspected that cape had something to do with Xerret's ability to hide, and was undoubtably magical. Magical items of any kind were difficult (if not damn near impossible) to come by, but Xerret seemed to have no shortage of the things. Of the items Xerret wore that Polz knew were magic were the boots, as well as the huge, wide-brimmed blue hat and the sunglasses he wore on his head, blue today, for whatever reason that meant.

        The only things Polz suspected weren't magical that Xerret wore would be the massively baggy pants, filled with numerous large pockets (undoubtably filled with weapons and other items), and the arm kotes, metallic plates fixed to gauntlets for arm protection, on his forearms. Those kotes, Polz knew, were deceptive, for while they did provide arm protection, they also served as sheaths and housing for a over dozen different and deadly weapons or useful gadgets. These all combined with the fact that Xerret was no small fighter himself to make the man among the more dangerous of people Polz ever worked with.

        "You have the money?" Polz growled, ignoring Xerret's remark. The mercanary grinned.

        "Money is one of those things I have in no small supply," he replied. "The question, my friend, is do you have what I want?"

        Polz snapped a finger and pointed at Xerret. At his command, two men emerged from the shadows, pushing the large, hovering box that Illarra herself had obtained from Odine's personal laboratory. Xerret's eyes brightened at the sight of the box, and he reached up to his sunglasses and tapped them twice, shifting the color to green, then a dark purple. He looked over the box, then nodded and tapped his sunglasses again repeatedly until they shifted back to blue.

        "Excellent. I expected as much from a group of such high caliber," the mercanary spoke. "So much so that the transfer of the one million gil, plus two hundred thousand more for your losses in obtaining it, has already been deposited in the account."

        "We told you nothing of our loss . . ." Polz began, but then reminded himself of whom he was dealing with. ". . .es. Thank you," he finished. "Your promptness and confidence in us is appreciated. Now, if you will excuse us . . ."

        With that, Polz and the two men turned and disappeared into the shadows. Xerret watched and waited, biding his time by looking over the box he had obtained. Not that he actually cared for its contents, despite the show he had put on for Polz. The brief scan with his glasses had been just to check that the contents were indeed correct. Xerret ran a finger across the emblazoned marking of the Odine Brand on the top and sides of the box.

        After several minutes, a man, one of Xerret's own, appeared beside the mercanary.

        "They're gone," the man said. "They left fast. I suppose they don't like dealing with you at all." The last part was spoken with a wide grin.

        "That one never has," Xerret responded with a laugh. "Do you have our other client on the line?"

        "Yes, he has been waiting anxiously for your response to his request."

        "Then give me the comlink," Xerret replied, taking the small communications device from his associate as soon as the man produced it.

        "Ah, yes, I apologize for the delay," the mercanary spoke to the one on the other end. "Matters had to be attended to."

        "That's understandable," came the reply on the other end. "Well?"

        "This box that you need, it was stolen from O Lab a few days ago, correct?" Xerret asked, leaning on the hovering box, glad that there was no video feed to betray the enormous smile appearing on his face. His hand, he noted to his amusement, landed right on top of the Odine Brand symbol.

        "Stolen right from my own laboratory, yes. I need it recovered, as soon as possible."

        "Who took it? Do you have any clues for me to begin searching from?"

        "A woman named Illarra. I believe you'd recognize her, you had dealings with her back when she and her group were still large and powerful."

        "Ah, yes. I understand. You know that procuring the item from Illarra's group will be costly . . ."

        "Seven million gil, half now, half on delivery," came the response. Xerret's eyes widened. Two million more than he'd expected. He'd underestimated the worth, then. What a pleasant surprise.

        "Excellent," Xerret said. "I will set my people to getting your stolen property back as soon as possible. I will have it shortly."

        "Thank you, Xerret."

        "My pleasure." With that the conversation was over, and Xerret leaned back against the container, a wide grin on the mercanary's face as he considered the delicious, and of course profitable, irony.

        * * * * *

        Squall leaned against the back wall of the Ragnorok's hangar, watching as Xu went about briefing the rest of the SeeD force on the operation. He already knew the plan, hell, he'd designed the whole tactical operation, so the SeeD commander really showed no interest in the briefing.

        "Our clients for this operation are jointly pooling their resources for a major SeeD intervention," Xu began, tapping a pointer on the holographic display showing a map of Trabia. "The clients consist of the Global Oil Association, who have extensive interests in the region, and a local Shumi encampment."

        Xu stood before an assembled group of thirty-six SeeD veterans, including some of best in the organization, all gathered in the hangar of the Ragnorok. Behind Xu was positioned a holographic projector, complete with an overhead view of Trabia, with segments highlighted to show the areas of interest.

        "The Galbadian army has set up a base approximately seventy miles south of the oil fields belonging to the GOA and sixty miles south of the Shumi colony. Since aproximately seventeen hours ago, they have been detecting Galbadian units moving steadily north towards their holdings. In accordance to this violation of their territory, SeeD was requested to intervene and drive the Galbadians out.

        "Our counterattack on behalf of our clients will be a two-pronged assault. Ground troops will deploy in the path of the advancing Galbadian forces and ambush them. At the same time, Ragnorok will perform strafing assaults on the Galbadians' base.

        "Our ambush will take place here." Xu tapped a button on the display and the map zoomed in to show a hilly, rocky area bordering one of Trabia's forests. "Galbadian ground forces are projected to be moving through this area, part of them through the forest, with the remainder moving through the rocky terrain." Red arrows, indicating the Galbadian forces, appeared, pointing through the forest and the more rugged terrain.

        "Our ground units will be split into two groups. Group One, consisting of seven squads of SeeDs, will intercept the Galbadians inside the forest, while Group Two, our five remaining squads, will attack the Galbadian units in the hilly areas." Xu went on to detail each squad's operating zones, as well as positioning for ambushes and sniper attacks. When she was finished, she looked over the assembled SeeDs. "We have about thirty minutes until arrival. Check your equipment, don your cold weather clothing, and make sure you have all your GFs junctioned. Be sure to include cold magic in your defense junctions, so the climate won't affect you as much." And with that, the briefing ended.

        The assembled SeeD force broke up and began to mill slightly, each squad assembling and talking with their captains about the coming battle, or checking their equipment. Squall noticed many of the SeeDs paused to concentrate, junctioning GFs and magic. He noted slight changes in each SeeD that did so, the noticable bulging of muscles as magic flowed throughout the body.

        One particular SeeD's muscles seemed to bulge bigger than they had any right to, and this SeeD practically bounded over to Squall.

        "Yo, Squall," Zell Dincht said, "You psyched up for this?"

        Squall nodded at the deceptively short martial artist. Zell grinned, the smile altering the shape of the frightening tattoo that adorned the left side of his face.

        "You will be wearing cold weather equipment, right?" Squall asked Zell, who still wore his regular outfit, including shorts and black shirt, hardly suited for the frosty climate or white terrain of Trabia.

        "Pssh, of course." Zell stretched, and threw a few punches into the air. "We still got plenty of time before landing. Besides, I already junctioned some Blizzagas to my defensive junctions, the cold shouldn't screw me up too much."

        Squall nodded, then looked around the hangar again. SeeDs were still getting specific orders from their squad leaders, and many were checking over their equipment. For melee fighters, that generally involved just a quick look over their particular weapon, but for ranged fighters, especially those SeeDs with firearms, the weapons check was more complex as they inspected the barrels, bullets, and mechanisms of their firearms. It was at this point that Squall noticed one particular firearm weilding SeeD, recently promoted, was not to be seen.

        "Where's Irvine?" Squall asked Zell. "I thought I saw him during the breifing."

        Zell shrugged. "Probably up in the cockpit, wooing Selphie some more," the martial artist replied with a grin. Squall nodded at his response, knowing that it was quite likely that the sharpshooter was indeed up in the cockpit applying his cowboy charm onto their current pilot. It was no secret inside Garden that the two were an item, although no one was sure whether Irvine or Selphie would end up staying together.

        "Zell!" came a call from in the midst of the assembled SeeD group. A SeeD, barely over the SeeD age limit and recently promoted from what Squall remembered, stepped out and stood before Zell. He was clad in SeeD cold- weather gear, consisting of a thick, bulky coat and pants, camoflaged with patches of white, gray, and very light blue, and a white helmet with a white ninja-mask covering the face. The outfit was thick and insulated, and combined with cold magic junctions, protecting the SeeD from the frigid temperatures of Trabia.

        "You ready?" Zell asked the SeeD, who nodded.

        "Just waiting for you to get suited up. The squad captain's waiting." Zell nodded and turned back to Squall.

        "Let's get ready to kick some ass!" the martial artist shouted, tossing a few punches. "Good luck!" With that, Zell bounded towards the outfitted SeeD and they met up with their squad leader.

        Squall watched Zell leave, before moving to don his own cold-weather gear. The martial artist, despite his considerable (if not outright amazing) martial skills, was still not suited for the command of a SeeD squad, at least not yet. But Zell wasn't complaining. He wasn't really the type to be a leader anyway, and he didn't like having to carry the burden of command.

        Squall quickly doffed his leather jacket, stuffing it inside a locker in the locker room behind the Ragnorok's main hangar, and then slipped on the camoflageing coat and pants. He pulled back his long, messy hair as he donned the white ninja-mask and then the helmet. Finally, Squall paused to focus, concentrating on his GFs and magic, shifting the powerful cold magic of his Blizzara and Blizzaga spells to defensive junctions, forming a protective shell about his body that would ward off the cold of the Trabian climate.

        Now appropriately equipped for the cold, Squall stepped back into the hangar and went back to his original leaning spot against the wall. There, his hand dropped to his hip, and Squall pulled out the magnificent and glowing blade Lionheart from its sheath.

        As with the first time Squall had obtained this weapon, perfected at an automated junk shop in Esthar a few months back, Squall took a long moment to gaze down at the perfection of this gunblade.

        The weapon was light, almost weightless really, with cool, gleaming metal forming the handle and gun parts of the weapon. The other two-thirds of the weapon were taken up by the blade itself, a blueish-white shard of crystalized energy, transparent and weightless but ultimately deadly, able to shear through metal, flesh, bone, and rock with ease. And that power could be enhanced through the unique and devastating gun technology implanted within the weapon itself.

        The gunblade's internal mechanisms were complex, belieing the simple appearance of sword married to gun. The weapon was loaded with concussive- force shells, or just "bullets" as Squall called them. Each shell contained powerful explosive force, that, whenever the trigger was pulled, would be sent down the length of the blade, with the strength to turn flesh to jelly and armored plating to shattered slag. Each "bullet," however, did not release all it's force in each shot, but rather contained multiple charges for multiple blasts. Each time the trigger was pulled, another "bullet" slid into place via the revolver system, in case something had gone wrong with this particular "bullet" and it couldn't fire anymore, and also to just keep the mechanisms inside the complex weapon as simple as possible. The revolver chambers would keep turning with each pull of the trigger, until all the shells had lost their explosive power, at which point they'd be removed and replaced. Each "bullet" in Squall's gunblade had eight charges, more than enough for the coming battle.

        Of course, the weapon had a tremendous recoil, or it would, if it weren't for compensators built into the handle to absorb the shock of the blast and to keep the gunblade in line. The compensators ultimately reduced the recoil to almost nothing, allowing the weilder to strike with amazing precision, yet hit his foes with devastating strikes.

        But, the gunblade was a difficult weapon to master. Only the most skilled and dedicated swordsmen could properly weild the exotic weapon, much less utilize it to its fullest potential.

        But Squall Leonhart, whose skills were almost unequaled the world over, could.

        The SeeD Commander opened the chamber of the revolver, checking to make sure the "bullets" were all loaded. He then took a moment to draw each shell and inspect it before replacing the ammunition. His check complete, Squall replaced the revolving chamber and slid the gunblade back into its scabbard, then glanced at his watch. Five minutes to deployment.

        The commander looked around, not spotting the tall, lanky form of Irvine. Even clad in cold weather gear, the sniper should have been easily spotted among the assembled SeeDs. Remembering what Zell told him, Squall hurried up to the elevator that led to the cockpit.

        * * * * *

        Selphie's brown curls bounced as she giggled at the compliment Irvine had just tossed her way.

        "No I'm not!" she said.

        "Seriously, you're an amazing pilot," Irvine continued, gesturing to the Ragnorok's control panel. "Really, you know how to pilot this thing like you've been flying it for years. Even with the autopilot, that's still amazing."

        The pair were in the Ragnorok's cockpit, along with two other SeeDs, who were currently seated at the weapons and comms stations on either side of the cockpit behind the pilot and copilot seats. Selphie was seated in the pilot's chair, while Irvine lounged in the copilot's chair. The sniper still wore his customary brown leather trenchcoat and cowboy hat.

        "Well," Selphie said, her cheeks reddening slightly. "I was always a great driver in Trabia, but still, I'm not that good of a pilot!"

        "You still haven't crashed us, so you must be pretty good," Irvine responded with a grin.

        Before the sniper could continue, a voice called from the cockpit elevator.

        "Four minutes until deployment, Irvine," Squall spoke. "You don't want your hat frozen to your head." Irvine flinched as if he'd been hit over the head with a chair, and then hopped out of his seat.

        "Yes sir!" he said, and ran over to the cockpit elevator, where Squall stood with his arms crossed. Even with the ninja-mask, Irvine could guess the look on Squall's face.

        "Selphie, make sure not to crash!" Irvine called as he reached the platform. "We don't want to have to walk all the way to Trabia Garden!"

        "Your equipment ready?" Squall asked the sniper. Irvine flashed a grin as he drew out the sleek, white multi-purpose rifle Exeter and let it rest on his shoulder. As he drew it, one could see inside Irvine's coat were nearly a dozen different types of specialized ammo for the rifle.


        * * * * *

        The cool night air of autumn brushed past, blowing against Silence's exposed cheek as he waited, crouched on the edge of the building. It was a mid-sized Estharian skyscraper, extending hundereds of feet above the surface, but at this level, the skyscraper's roof was barely twenty feet from the nearest skyway, empty of pedestrians due to the late hour.

        Silence's eyes kept following that skyway, the huge, transparent road that ran between buildings inside Esthar. His target, a mechanic, was nearby, his light hover-transport stopping at a supply depot to pick up parts. Silence intended to have a short chat with this man concerning a Corsair-class transport ship, the same one he'd encountered on the rooftop of O Lab a week previously.

        The man, Mache as he was reffered to in criminal circles, was a known dealer in illegal weaponry and equipment, especially vehicle parts. He was also an informant for the Estharian Bureau of Investigation, but there were some things his lips were too tightly sealed for even the EBI to know.

        But Silence had ways of making people talk.

        The silent infiltrator's sharp eyes spotted his target leaving his vehicle to pick up parts. The vehicle itself, a large, boxy transport that consisted of a small cockpit and a much larger rear storage compartment, and was parked in a darkened landing area some thirty feet below the level of the skyway. Silence looked around the area quickly, deducing no holocameras nearby to detect his passage, and then moved.

        Silence drew a large pistol-like device from his back. It consisted of a long tube, about three feet in length, and a pistol grip and trigger, along with a dial on the side and a claw mounted on the end of the tube. The contraption was commonly called a elastic-rope gun, due to the unusual workings of the device. The Estharians had perfected a method of producing metal that was elastic in nature, able to stretch and bend while retaining the toughness and resilience of metal. The elastic rope gun featured a three foot long cylinder of this elastic metal, attached to the claw on the end. The claw anchored to a surface, at which point the weilder could use the elastic cylinder much like a grappling hook, manipulating the dial to determine how far the elastic metal cylinder would stretch. The thing could stretch up to four hundred feet without losing its metalic hardness and durability, and up to eight hundred feet with the strength of a heavy duty rope. Beyond that, the cylinder weakened and would not extend any further than one thousand feet as a safety measure.

        Silence anchored the elastic rope gun's claw onto the edge of the building and rappeled down to the skyway, then ran down the skyway as fast as stealthiness permitted, until he was over the landing area. From there he rappeled down again, until he was on the landing platform. The infiltrator slipped along through the platform, silent as a shadow, until he'd reached the transport. Silence placed his cyborg hand to the door, letting the technology within override the door lock. Within moments, Silence was inside, quietly locking the door behind him. The infiltrator immediately moved behind the driver's seat, completely hidden in the back of the transport's cab.

        Then he waited.

        * * * * *

        "Have you found them yet?" Grask demanded, talking into the radio mounted on his Galbadian snow bike, all the while fingering the bastard sword in its sheath on his hip. Galbadian snow bikes were wonderful machines, able to reach amazing speeds despite the powdery and deep nature of the surface they rode on. The military models, one of which Grask drove, also featured long range radios and bullet-proof armor and windscreens.

        "No sir, not yet," came the reply from the captain searching the area north of Grask's zone. "We think they're inside the forests now."

        "I thought you said they were in the hills," Grask growled.

        "There's no sign of them up inside the hills, sir," the captain replied. "We thought we tracked them up there but it appears they doubled back into the woods."

        "Dammit." Grask hissed. These people they'd spotted scouting the base were very clever. But they couldn't hide forever. The Galbadians under Grask's command were very stubborn, and he had a large force, five hundred troops, searching the hills and the forest. The Trabian snow allowed for easy tracking, and Grask's men themselves were skilled soldiers. Clever or not, the intruders would not escape. Grask only hoped the Shumi and the GOA wouldn't balk at their intrusion. . .

        Grask paused for a second to scratch his exposed cheek. The soldier wore only standard Galbadian armor, minus the annoying helmet. The armor wasn't cold-proofed, but the cold magic junctions would be more than enough to protect him. Around Grask were three lances of Galbadian bike troopers. A lance was the Galbadian designation for a five-man unit of mounted soldiers, and each member of these two lances rode a Galbadian snow bike, and were equipped with slightly bulkier cold-proofed armor, including masks covering their whole faces. Grask thought it funny how each of these cold weather troopers was at least a couple of years older than himself, yet he was commanding them.

        "Okay, move out," Grask commanded his soldiers. "Find them and destroy them! Remember, we can't have any witnesses."

        The troops nodded and revved up their bikes, and with a splash of kicked up snow, began moving deeper into the woods.

        * * * * *

        Something moved.

        Private Pirgi paused, stopping his snow bike for a second to look around. He tapped his visor once to switch it to thermal vision, and scanned the area for their quarry. Nothing.

        "Bike nine-nine-seven, reporting a negative on the target in my area," Pirgi spoke into his radio. Damn, hadn't he just seen movement in this section of the woods? Something was out there, it had moved behind the trees, and to Pirgi's relief it had been too small to be anything the size of a Snow Lion. Possibly a Mesmerize, nothing to truly be afraid of . . .but something bothered the soldier. A feeling of immenent danger . . .

        A bit of snow dropped off the branch of a tree, plopping down on Pirgi's helmet. The private looked up, his hand dropping to his sword-

        -and someone was up in the tree, clad in some kind of white and gray camoflaged outfit and crouching on a thick branch. Pirgi opened his mouth, to shout to his lance of fellow snow bike troops, to get on the radio to sound an alert, but then a flash of blue came from the crouching figure in the tree branches as he dropped down towards Pirgi like a pouncing cat.

        The blue flash, Pirgi realized, was the blade of some kind of sword. This fact came into the private's mind as he drew his own blade and tried to bring it up to strike or block. The attacker's shining blue sword deftly twirled around the private's sword even as he dropped and stabbed into his chest, cleaving through the private's armor as if it was thin paper. The instant before Pirgi's mind was consumed by the blackness of death, he saw the unusual handle of the sword.

        A revolver. . .

        Squall extracted his blade from the chest of the snow bike trooper, and spun around behind the tree he'd attacked from, moving so fast that the other soldiers in the dead trooper's squad hadn't even seen him. A quick glance told him the other two SeeDs in his squad were standing by for their own strikes. One, a male SeeD, hefted a short halberd, while the other, a female, carried a saber.

        The soldiers shouted something, having seen their comrade fall, and drove their bikes over to their fallen comrade. A single lance of five bike troopers, minus their dead companion, Squall noted.

        Easy prey.

        The remainder of the lance moved in, two moving directly up to their companion, two more staying a bit further back, scanning the area. As the men moved up to their companion, the three SeeDs struck.

        Squall's two companions were positioned to either side of him, while Squall was in the middle. The three SeeDs emerged and closed the distance, the outer two moving in like the snapping jaws of a wolf, and Squall striking like a thrusting spear. The scanning soldiers spotted the SeeDs, but it did them little good. The axe head of the halberd sliced into one soldier's neck as the saber knocked aside the other soldier's sword, leaving him open for a pair of slices and a thrust into his chest.

        Squall's attack was even swifter and more precise. He covered the distance to the soldiers in two bounds, and before they could ready their swords, or even draw them, Lionheart slashed down, then across, a blue- white flash accompanied by spurts of blood. Two men crumpled off their bikes.

        Their swift and deadly job done, the SeeDs slipped off into the white snows of Trabia, their camoflaging outfits making them seem little more than a trick of the snow.

        And so it went, down the length of the woods, each SeeD squad quickly and quietly eliminating the leading Galbadian soldiers, completely oblivious to the fact that SeeD was present.

        * * * * *

        "Lance five-nine, report," Grask said over the radio, noticing the lance didn't call in when it was supposed to. "Five-nine, report. Report, lieutenant!" Grask waited a few more seconds, but no call came back. It was then that Grask noticed that eight other lance captains were not reporting either.

        "Alert!" he shouted over the radio. "All men to full alert! There's something out there!"

        * * * * *

        Irvine tracked the squad of Galbadian soldiers as they advanced up the hill he was positioned atop. The sniper, now clad in camoflaging cold weather gear, was crouched beside a large boulder, a near-perfect sniper's nest. A scope was attached to the top of Exeter, allowing Irvine to easily look upon the group of Galbadians working their way up the hill on foot. Of the ten man squad, only half were observing their surroundings, the others scanning the ground as if they were tracking something. Odd for an invasion force, but the Galbadians were still violating the territory of the Shumis and the GOA, and that meant SeeD was about to give them a powerful kick in the rump.

        Irvine took his eyes out of the scope, scanning for his fellow squad- mates, and spotting them in their places as well, further down the slope, also hidden behind boulders. The two other ranged specialists, one with a pair of pistols, the other with an assault rifle, lay in wait.

        Suddenly, the soldiers stopped, pausing as if listening to something on their radios. Swords slid out of their sheaths as guns were brought up, and all of the soldiers began scanning the area. Irvine caught a message on his radio.

        "We've been discovered." It was Squall. "Ragnorok picked out a transmission; they're onto the fact that there's an enemy out here, and they're on alert. All squads, engage!"

        "Copy that," Irvine said, and heard a chorus of responses from the other SeeDs. The sniper spotted a soldier in his scope.


        The man dropped, and Irvine swung his scope around, bearing another target as the Galbadians ducked and dove for cover.


        The Galbadians looked around, bewildered, as they searched out the sniper.


        Three of their men were down, all of them with holes in their helmets or chestplates, when the Galbadians finally spotted Irvine. Even as the sniper was located, he had sighted a fourth target.


        The Galbadians yelled as they leveled their rifles at Irvine and fired on full automatic setting. Bullets stitched the dirt, rocks, and snow around Irvine's position, and he rolled away behind the boulder. The sniper reached into a pocket and pulled out a trio of grenade shells, then worked a small lever on Exeter. He heard the roars of the Galbadian soldiers as they charged, two staying behind to provide bursts of covering fire from behind nearby boulders.

        Below, closer to the charging Galbadians, the other two SeeDs waited. The Galbadians passed between them in a slightly open area, with no cover, allowing for a perfect cross-fire.

        As Irvine finished modifying his rifle for the heavy-bore grenade shells and was spinning back out, the four charging Galbadians were caught in the cross-fire of the two SeeDs and cut down. The covering Galbadians ducked behind their covering boulders as the SeeDs rose from their ambush spots and fired down on them. From behind the cover the Galbadians were safe from enemy bullets, but they realized their mistake as a pair of grenade shells dropped down, the angle of fire taking them over and behind the large stones.

        "Boom," Irvine said with a grin as two blue clad forms were hurled away from their hiding spots.

        That grin faded as more gunfire stitched the area around the sniper, coming from the east, to Irvine's right. Another two squads of Galbadians were closing in on the ambush spot, rifles blazing. A bolt of lightning and a small fireball joined the barrage as a pair of Galbadians hurled magic at Irvine as well.

        Irvine rolled around to put the boulder between him and the Galbadians, cursing quietly. Then the sharpshooter smiled again, recalling he still had a grenade round inside Exeter.

        The charging Galbadians dove for cover when a hail of gunfire from the two other SeeDs cut down two of their leading soldiers, and then moved all the faster when a grenade exploded in their midst. The Irvine loaded his rifle with more grenade shells, then rose from his cover and fired. The other two SeeDs continued their fire, pinning down the Galbadians. Grenades arced over or outright destroyed the boulders the enemy was using for cover, and those that came out found themselves dodging SeeD bullets. Within two minutes, the Galbadians, their numbers cut by more than half, recognized they were outmatched and fled down the hill.

        Grenades chased them all the way down.

        * * * * *

        A lance of Galbadian bike troopers in the forest spotted a white-clad figure ducking away behind a pair of trees. They shouted an alert and radioed in that they'd found a target, then swung their bikes around the tree, kicking up snow as they pulled out light machine pistols. They did not spot the person they'd been pursuing. In fact, their target had seemingly disappeared.

        Not so, for the SeeD was perched on a low hanging branch she'd swung to while evading the Galbadians. Now, she stood in quiet concentration. Glowing energy surrounded her, catching the attention of the Galbadians. They looked up to the SeeD, weapons raised.

        Behind them, Ifrit exploded from the frozen ground, the heat of his fires instantly melting the snows.

        * * * * *

        A Galbadian lance heard the sound of the monstrous Guardian Force rising from the earth nearby, and swung around in that direction. They revved the engines and drove at high speed towards the sounds of exploding fireballs and what they guessed to be the screams of their comrades. The Galbadian lance was moving in formation, two leading, two behind and out farther to the sides, and one bringing up the rear.

        At these high speeds, they never had time to react to the small, muscular, white-clad SeeD as he dropped from the trees in their path.

        Zell Dincht jumped up, right between the two leading Galbadians. His legs were tucked underneath his body, and then, as the Galbadians reached him, both legs shot out in a devastating spreading snap, slamming both Galbadians in their faceplates and hurling them from their bikes. The martial artist dropped back to the ground, and quickly turned his right side towards the rear Galbadian snow bike trooper, even as the two outer troopers flew past, looking on in amazement. The rear trooper sped up, hoping to run down the SeeD.

        Zell had no intentions of being run down. As the trooper closed in, Zell suddenly leaped up into the air, spinning to his right. His left leg came around and caught the Galbadian square on the side of his helmet. The soldier flew from his bike, even as Zell caught the handlebars. The momentum of his spinning left leg brought him around over the bike, depositing him neatly in the seat, legs dropping down to either side of the bike.

        In one smooth motion, Zell had dislodged (and probably killed) the Galbadian soldier and managed to commandeer his bike. At full speed.

        The other two bike troopers swung around to face the SeeD, and raised their machine pistols. They opened fire on Zell, who spun the bike away and drove behind several closely clustered trees, using them as cover. The Galbadians moved to pursue, one driving around the trees from the direction Zell went, the other going around the opposite direction.

        The Galbadian swooping around the side Zell had taken saw the SeeD driving fast towards the far end of the blocking trees. Smiling, the Galbadian leveled his machine pistol.

        Zell spotted the other soldier coming around the side he was fleeing towards. Grinning, Zell drove towards his opponent at full speed. The SeeD would have seen the Galbadian's mouth widening if he wasn't wearing a cold protection mask, as he saw Zell close in at high (and probably deadly) speed. Before the man could raise his weapon, or even shout out, Zell abruptly swung dangerously close to the soldier, turning a 90 degree angle and kicking up a wave of snow over him, like water on a jet ski. The wave of snow blinded this trooper, and also blinded the other soldier directly across from him to the fact that a comrade was in his line of fire. The Galbadian leveling his pistol fired a burst at Zell just as he turned, missing the SeeD, but hitting and dropping his comrade behind the blinding wave of kicked-up snow.

        The Galbadian's eyes widened when he saw what he'd done, then he roared at Zell as the SeeD spun around again, turning the bike to face the trooper. The SeeD accelerrated, and ducked behind the bullet-proof windscreen as the Galbadian emptied his machine pistol at Zell. When the man heard the clicking indication of the pistol being empty, he tossed his pistol aside and grabbed his sword, revving up his own engine and driving towards the SeeD. As they closed, the Galbadian jerked the handlebars slightly, sideslipping to the left so he could slice the unarmed enemy as he drove past.

        But to the Galbadian's surprise, Zell turned with him in the sideslip, angling his bike to meet the Galbadian's. Before the trooper could turn aside, stop, or even dive away, the bikes crunched together.

        Zell, with his superb SeeD reflexes, leaped up and away from the bike at the last second. The two vehicles smashed into each other, not perfectly headfirst, thus hurling each other into a spinning sideways flight, and also hurling the unfortunate snow bike trooper. The man slammed down into the soft snow, but was disoriented for a moment. He rose up, scanning for his opponent and brandishing his sword, somehow holding onto it despite the crash.

        Zell came in fast and hard, more quickly than the bike trooper had ever seen a human move. The sword was batted away before he could even begin to move it, and then his chest was thundered by a pair of rapid blows, cracking ribs and destroying his collarbone. Then the soldier felt another pair of blows, one striking his jaw and promptly shattering it, the other slamming the side of his head.

        And then the soldier felt no more.

        * * * * *

        "They're SeeDs!" Grask heard someone shout over the radio, with a signifigant degree of fear. "Garden special forces!"

        "SeeDs?" Grask said in surprise. "Repeat that, SeeDs?"

        "Yes sir! They're using Guardian Forces on us! We can't-" Grask heard an explosion of thunder on the other end of the radio, and then nothing.

        "Dammit," Grask growled, looking over his three escort lances. Judging from the reports coming in, and the lack of reports from many other units, the five hundred-man force he had brought out to locate the scouting party was being torn apart around him. Grask knew what to expect from a SeeD, and knew that he and is men were horribly overmatched, despite their larger numbers.

        "All units," Grask said into his radio. "This is Grask. All units, initiate an ummediate fall back south of the forest to regroup. I repeat, all units fall back and regroup!" Grask swung his bike around as he heard the aknowledgements of the various officers over the radio, and then began driving back with his lances to the base to the south. He listened for a short while, to the reports filtering in and the sounds of panicked soldiers as they came face to face with the enemy, the SeeDs.

        Inevitably, those soldiers didn't report back.

        Grask was so absorbed in listening to the reports from his men that he didn't notice the danger until it exploded out in front of him.

        A towering blue-scaled dragon swooped down through the trees, then stopped and loomed in the air just ahead of Grask the Galbadian bike troopers. The monster, looking like some type of mighty king of destruction, seemed as if it could swat down the tiny, pathetic humans before it with barely any effort.

        Bahamut roared, the noise deafening Grask and his comrades, mocking them with its sheer volume, and with that tremendous roar there came blasts of incadascent destruction, raining upon the hapless Galbadians.

        Grask dove aside, desperately evading the exploding balls of firey death Bahamut hurled down upon the Galbadians. His comrades weren't so lucky, and Grask could barely hear the screams of those caught in the explosions over the thunderous blasts.

        And like that, Bahamut was done, the king of Guardian Forces finished with his task and disappearing into the cold Trabian air, leaving over half of Grask's troops down, dead or seriously maimed.

        Grask looked around, getting a quick estimation of how many men still stood. Only six men from the three lances, not including Grask, had survived to be able to fight. And Grask knew a fight would soon come, from his own personal knowledge of Guardian Forces. A Guardian Force did not appear far from its summoner, after all.

        Behind a nearby tree, Bahamut's white-clad SeeD summoner crouched, his muscles prepared for a swift leap out to cut down the Galbadians, and his glowing, blue-bladed, and supremely deadly gunblade ready in his hands.

        * * * * *

        Selphie looked out the forward viewport of Ragnorok's cockpit, confirming with her eyes what the sensors told her; the Galbadian forward base was just ahead.

        "Guns ready!" she shouted, unable to contain her excitement. "Let's blow it all up, boom, boom, BOOM!" The other two SeeDs couldn't help but feel a little excited by Selphie's demeanor, and her honest desire to blow something up.

        "Target locked," the SeeD seated at the gunnery station said, the Galbadian base in his crosshairs.

        "Whoo-hoo!" Selphie shouted as Ragnorok dropped in on the Galbadian base.

        And like a fearsome dragon swooping in on helpless peasants, Ragnorok unleashed a furious barrage of devastation upon the Galbadian base. The mighty dragonlike airship dove in, its heavy machineguns spraying bullets all across the base, throwing up chunks of earth, snow, and ceramic, punching through the walls of buildings, and blowing apart vehicles, weapons and ammunition depots, and anything else even remotely explosive. Galbadian soldiers scattered like ants from a stomped hill, diving for any cover available (and some even behind explosive fuel tanks! ).

        Aiming the heavy beam cannon, the SeeD gunner locked onto his primary target: the base's command center. A bolt of destruction burst forth from the cannon, blasting into the command center. The beam tore through the command center's walls as if they were thin paper, and then a blossoming fireball erupted from within the structure. Huge chunks of the walls were hurled into the sky, some even clipping the mighty Ragnorok as it flew past.

        "BOO-YA!" Selphie shouted after their first pass. "Let's do it again!"

        Selphie swung the Ragnorok back around in an impossibly tight turn for another pass. The Galbadians were now starting to respond to the attack, with sporadic anti-air fire lancing up at them from ground-based machineguns and some soldiers firing their rifles. Still, it would take more than that to even scratch the mighty Ragnorok, and the second strafing run was just as effective as the first, the Rganorok's bullets tearing through more structures and causing more explosions, and the heavy beam cannon finding another target in the form of the base's comms center. Another massive explosion marked the Ragnorok's second passing over the base.

        The third SeeD in the cockpit, at the sensor/comms station, spotted something on sensors as Selphie came around for a third pass.

        "Galbadian aircraft, scrambling for intercept!" he shouted. "They're launching from a hangar we missed!"

        Selphie glanced at the scanners at her station and nodded, picking up the two Galbadian aircraft. They were like helicopters, utilizing the same hovering technology Galbadia Garden had in their own hovering pods. Two large pods were attached to the main chassis, one on either side and behind the cockpit. The cockpit was enclosed in a canopy reminiscent of a fighter plane. A pair of engines were mounted behind the pods, and a long stabilizing tail stretched out behind the craft, like on any other helicopter. A pair of machineguns were mounted beside the cockpit, one on either side, and a quad missile launcher was mounted beneath the cockpit. The Galbadian symbol was proudly displayed on either side of the chassis.

        Both of the helipods, as they were called, lifted off and moved to intercept the Ragnorok.

        * * * * *

        A bit of movement and the flashing thrust of a blue-edged gunblade, and one of the Galbadian bike troopers was dead, Squall having come out behind him and jabbed Lionheart into his back, the blade punching through his body and out his chest.

        A Galbadian soldier saw the strike and moved swiftly, his machine pistol rising up toward the white-clad SeeD. Squall moved fast too, extracting his blade and pushing the dead soldier's body in front of him as a shield from the burst of bullets fired his way. Even as the already dead trooper fell, Squall was completing the focusing motions of a spell. A bolt of lightning roared down and struck the firing soldier, blasting him away.

        The other Galbadians, along with Grask, whirled to face their attacker. Then two more were down, a halberd slicing into one soldier's neck and the other dropped by a well-placed saber thrust.

        Grask drew his slender-bladed bastard sword, and turned to face the nearest enemy SeeD, the halberd weilder. The saber weilding SeeD ducked behind a nearby tree to avoid machine pistol fire from another bike trooper, while the last two soldiers, too close to their enemy to use their pistols effectively, tore their swords from their sheaths and engaged Squall side by side in melee.

        Squall parried a thrust from the left soldier, then a slash from the right soldier, and then a slash from the left. The right soldier brought his sword up in a cleaving overhead stroke, aimed for Squall's head. He blocked the blow easily and then stepped to the right, dodging a thrust from the left soldier. The right soldier brought his sword across, slashing at Squall. But the SeeD stepped back, out of range of the slash, and then cameback in, thrusting Lionheart at the left soldier. The soldier weaved his own sword inside the thrust to turn it, but found to his surprise that Lionheart wasn't really thrusting after all, but was swinging around to parry another slash from the soldier on the right. However, while Squall's thrust was a feint, the snapping kick that struck the parrying sword and knocked it from the left soldier's hands was not. Before the left soldier could even comprehend how Squall had managed to disarm him, Lionheart had finished the parry of the right soldier's attack and cut across, slicing into the left soldier's chest, biting at his lungs and heart.

        Then Squall faced off evenly with the right soldier, who desperately parried Squall's powerful chops and attempted to counter. But every countering stroke by the soldier was blocked and was answered three times or more by the slashing Lionheart. After a few exchanges, the soldier found his blocks and parries coming more slowly, while the attacks of the white clad SeeD in front came faster and faster. The blue-white blade of Lionheart was now a flashing blur, moving too fast for the soldier to block.

        He raised his sword to block yet another stroke, the metal ringing against the blade of Lionheart. Then the gunblade came down on the opposite side of his sword, knocking it down, then thrust forward into the opening presented by the low sword. Lionheart sliced home, and then Squall ran past the falling Galbadian.

        Grask stood up well with the halberd-weilding SeeD, countering the thrusts and slashes of his foe with his own swift strokes. Neither the SeeD nor his foe could get through, but Grask, a cunning fighter, circled around his foe, bringing the SeeD into line, then launched a fierce attack, forcing the SeeD back. The well trained SeeD brought his halberd up to block a powerful slash, and then his back suddenly exploded in pain as a burts of machine pistol bullets struck him, courtesy of the surviving Galbadian soldier taking advantage of the SeeD's back being turned to him by the clever Grask. The bullets were not immediately lethal, due to defensive junctions that strengthened his body and hardened his skin, but they stunned him for an instant.

        An instant Grask took advantage of.

        The clever man stepped forward, close to the stunned SeeD, and disengaged his sword from the SeeD's halberd. Grask was too close to use his blade effectively, so instead he simply punched out with the crosspiece, striking the SeeD in the face and dropping him to the ground.

        Grask could have finished the prone, stunned SeeD then, but he saw the other SeeD, the saber weilder, coming up behind the remaining bike trooper. The soldier saw her coming and drew his sword to block her saber slash. He caught the slice well, but the SeeD simply disengaged her sword from his and brought it down low towards his right leg. The saber slashed across the leg, slicing and disabling it. The soldier fell forward, and the SeeD stepped past. She flipped her saber into an overhand grip and stabbed down into the falling soldier's back, finishing him.

        Grask took advantage of the SeeD's momentary occupation with the last soldier to charge, his bastard sword slashing down in a one-handed chop. She managed to flip the saber back over into a normal grip and block, but Grask brought his free hand across in a right hook that struck the SeeD in the jaw. She stumbled back, managed to block another slash, this one two- handed, and then found Grask's knee slamming into her stomach. As with the halberd weilder, Grask couldn't manuver his blade in for a kill on this SeeD either, so he opted to just slam the pommel of his sword into the side of the SeeD's helmeted head. The helmet absorbed part of the blow, but the SeeD still fell to the ground, stunned and dazed by the hit.

        Grask grinned as he twirled his sword around absently. "SeeD . . ." he said with a mocking sneer. "Pathetic." Grask's sword stopped and he spun into an overhand grip, preparing to repeat the female SeeD's earlier finishing blow. His bastard sword rose up, tip hovering over the SeeD's chest.

        And then the sword spun back over into a conventional grip, barely in time to stop the incoming slash of Lionheart.

        Grask hopped back two steps as Squall came on, the sharp and deadly edge of Lionheart slicing and thrusting, seeking an opening in Grask's defenses. Grask countered with a measured stroke, which Squall deflected and followed up with one, two, three rapid-fire slashes, forcing Grask back on his heels.

        Grask continued backing away from the ferocious assault, then came forward in a rush, his bastard sword slicing in. Squall picked off the attacks with little difficulty and countered, Lionheart slicing in around Grask's sword with what would have been a devastating slash if Grask hadn't backed off. As it was, the blade cut right through Grask's Galbadian armor with no difficulty, grazing his chest. Grask wisely backed off and circled around Squall. For the first time, Grask actually truly noticed the blue- white edge and the distinct handle of the gunblade, and connected it to the white-masked and white-clad SeeD he was facing.

        "Squall Leonhart," Grask said, his voice a mixture of surprise, respect, and anticipation. "The legendary commander of SeeD himself."

        "That's right," Squall replied, no emotion in his voice save for the hardened edge of a warrior determined to win. "And you?"

        "Grask," Squall's opponent said. "Commander of the Galbadians here." Grask paused, a thoughtful look on his face. "I wonder . . . are you as good as they say you are?"

        Squall shrugged. He didn't really care about the many stories going around about his supposed skill, though most of them said he was possibly the best swordsman on the face of the planet. Squall wasn't so certian about the truth in those stories, but he did know he was an exceptionally good fighter. That he was good enough to survive was all that mattered.

        "Well," Grask said at Squall's shrug, "I suppose there's only one way to find out." Even as the last words left Grask's lips, he came on, bastard sword swinging in powerful and cunning strikes. Squall blocked the blows easily and loosed counters, forcing Grask back again. Squall took up the offensive, Lionheart cutting in at Grask in a powerful slash starting from Squall's lower left and sweeping up to the right. Grask leaped back behind the slice and came in low, his bastard sword slicing for Squall's ankles.

        But Squall saw the attack coming and was already in the air, leaping up and forward, bringing his gunblade down at Grask's ducking head. Grask barely managed to snap his own blade up to block and get a counter in, which was easily deflected by Squall as he came back down to his feet beside his foe. Grask hastily backed off even as Lionheart cut in again, nearly cleaving through his skull.

        "You are good," Grask hissed.

        "So are you," Squall replied. Indeed, Squall thought, Grask was very good. He had never encountered anyone this good inside the regular Galbadian army. Something told the SeeD commander that Grask was not an ordinary soldier, or even special forces. Then, as Grask came in with another series of slices that Squall picked off, it clicked.

        Garden. Grask was Garden-trained.

        Grask took advantage of the fact that Squall paused momentarily when he figured out Grask's skill, and came in again with a speedy routine, his sword striking from opposite angles as he tried to get past Squall's defenses. But the SeeD commander was still alert, and he deflected each slice with ease, and came in right behind Grask's attack with a flurry of blue slashes from Lionheart, many of which Squall's foe had to scramble and hop back to avoid.

        It was then that Grask realized he was in fact severly overmatched. Every offensive routine he tossed at Squall was evaded or blocked and then countered, and Grask himself could barely keep up with the SeeD's own offensive strikes.

        But rather than give up, Grask growled away any fear and came on at Squall in another fierce series of slashes and cuts, deft blows that came in from multiple angles, testing the SeeD's defenses. The blueish blade of Lionheart flashed before each slice and thrust, neatly blocking Grask's attacks and often finding enough time to sneak in a quick counter that forced the man back on his heels for an instant. Inevitably, Grask's attacks slowed as Squall struck more often with counters, diverting Grask's attention to defense rather than offense. Within a short time, Grask found himself on the defensive, moving to block and parry Squall's strikes, which kept coming faster and faster.

        Then, all of a sudden, Grask spotted a moment of weakness in Squall's offensive routine. The SeeD pulled his gunblade back for a mighty slash and came across, to which Grask grinned and hopped back, avoiding the powerful but slow and futile blow. Squall managed to stop the side-arcing swing just after it passed Grask, the gunblade extended outward and presented as a perfect target for Squall's foe to take it out.

        Grask saw the oppurtunity and took it, his bastard sword slamming down on top of Lionheart, forcing the gunblade down and leaving an opening in Squall's defenses. A smile appeared on Grask's face as he realized he would defeat the legendary SeeD Commander himself!

        That smile lasted only as long as it took Squall to step forward as his weapon was being forced down, his right arm rising up into the hole Grask had left in his own defenses, the elbow of Squall's arm slamming into his opponent's face. Grask then realized that the exposed sword, the weakness in Squall's defenses, was just a clever ruse, a false opening that had led him straight into Squall's trap.

        The blow sent Grask stumbling back, and he realized he was dead a full second before Lionheart slashed across into his chest.

        * * * * *

        The Galbadians had been thoroughly routed in the hills, and were now fleeing back into the forest in an attempt to hook up with their comrades and put together some semblance of defense. The individual, uncoordinated, and off-guard Galbadian units had stood no chance against the stronger, more skilled, and more coordinated SeeD, who often struck faster than the Galbadians could react, and who were also often underestimated by the Galbadian soldiers who had never really experienced battle against SeeDs before. The only hope for the Galbadians to win the day would be to regroup as Grask had ordered.

        Of course, the SeeDs weren't going to allow that.

        Irvine crouched behind a tree, calmly reloading while waiting for the Galbadians to come just a little closer. The other members of his squad also waited, their guns ready, as the Galbadians, three whole squads, moved through the clearing, obviously seeking to link up with their comrades. Their weapons were up and they were scanning the trees, an obvious sign they were watching for trouble.

        The sharpshooter slid one last round of AP ammunition into his rifle, and grinned as he thought of how much trouble these men had just found.

        One of the Galbadians, a red suited officer who was commanding the three squads, was suddenly hurled backward a dozen feet. A line of four other soldiers, right behind the officer, joined him in his flight as the AP shell ripped through their lines. Before the Galbadians could react in any way, bullets exploded around the soldiers, tearing through their ranks. Another line of soldiers went flying as Irvine sent another shot into their ranks. By the time the enemy soldiers had begun to scatter, take cover, or return fire, an entire squadron and more than a half of another were down.

        Irvine fired one more AP shell, dropping two Galbadians, before ejecting the remaining shots and switching his fire mode to regular ammunition. Several bullets struck the tree Irvine hid behind, but Irvine simply tracked the bullets to the muzzle flashes of a pair of firing Galbadians crouched behind a tree. The sharpshooter leaned out from behind his cover, pointing Exeter like a pistol, and fired two shots. One Galbadian dropped, the other ducked behind the tree, clawing at his face behind the cold mask where chunks of wood sent flying by the shot blasting into the bark inches from his head.

        The sharpshooter heard over the bullets the sound of someone running through the snow on the other side of the tree. Irvine rolled around the other side, Exeter rising up. A lone Galbadian soldier, thinking he could sneak up on the sharpshooter, was caught dead in Irvine's sights.

        One shot later, Irvine spun back around. The Galbadian who had taken wood to his face was back out, pointing his rifle Irvine's way. He fired a burst at the sharpshooter, one bullet actually catching Irvine in the stomach. The sharpshooter grimaced in pain, but returned the shot. The Galbadian, with no defensive junctions to toughen his body or harden his skin, did not fare so well against the high-powered blast from Exeter.

        * * * * *

        It was a simple case of underestimation, one on the part of the pilots of the two helipods rising up after Ragnorok. The airship was easily eight times the size of one of their craft, which obviously meant it was much slower and less agile than t

eirs. The pilots had no doubt they could nip and scratch the slower aircraft to pieces.

        Imagine their surprise when the Ragnorok pulled a turn around towards them as tight as their smaller and seemingly more agile aircraft could pull off!

        Selphie banked the Ragnorok hard to the right, or in other words to port...or was it starboard? The brunnette had a hard time remembering all the naval jargon the Estharians used with their airships! But then the pods were in front, Ragnorok bearing down on them, and the gunner wasted no time firing. He didn't actually hit the helipods, but they turned hard away in response, dodging the huge airship bearing down on them and turning around to come after the ship as it passed.

        The two helipods followed Ragnorok tightly, staying on Selphie's heels as they opened fire with their machineguns. The bullets struck Ragnorok's rear, but did minimal damage due to the heavy armored plating. Selphie put the large but far from ungaily airship through a series of jukes and dodges, evading further fire from the two helipods, who stayed stubbornly on her tail. The SeeD then took the airship through a tight twisting loop to the left. The helipods, despite the fact that they were only an eigth of the size of the huge airship, didn't have the agility to follow through that amazingly (for the sheer size of the ship) agile manuver. They tried, though, their pilots as stubborn as any other Galbadian, and the helipods followed the Ragnorok into the loop.

        Only to their surprise they found the Ragnorok did not complete the loop, but had rather come to a complete stop in the midst of the maneuver, its hovering engines online and the thrusting ones off, and had spun around in place to face the helipods as they followed the airship's loop. The two Galbadian aircraft flew right into the Ragnorok's sights.

        Machinegun fire ripped into the helipods. One of the craft exploded, chunks of it flying everywhere as the shots destroyed the engines and detonated the fuel. The other helipod just dropped, its engines and hovering pods decimated by the shots. The helipod slammed into the ground and detonated into a fireball upon impact.

        "Whoo-hoo!" Selphie shouted at her brilliant and clever manuver. She swung the Ragnorok back around towards the Galbadian base. There were still plenty of things there to blow up, after all!

        As Ragnorok swooped in, the comms/sensor SeeD spoke up.

        "Hey, Selphie, I'm intercepting some transmissions from the Galbadians. They're running south, and I've got scattered messages stating the Galbadians commander is dead. I've also got reports of Galbadian troops surrendering. Looks like we won."

        "Of course we won!" Selphie shouted, punching a fist in the air. "We're SeeD! We always get the job done!"

        * * * * *

        An hour later, just after the evacuation order was issued as per the contract, Squall was back on board Ragnorok, along with the rest of his team. Unsurprisingly, there were no truly serious injuries to any of Squall's troops. Many had taken gunshot wounds or sword slashes, but while on any regular soldiers these wounds would have been serious, SeeDs, with their defensive junctions, could take a lot more punishment than any ordinary human.

        So, aside from some painful scratches, burns, and punctures, and plenty of bruises that would smart in the morning, the SeeDs were unharmed. The worst injury suffered was that of the SeeD who had been shot in the back while dueling with Grask, and even that was healed by a single Cura. The same couldn't be said of the Galbadians, on the other hand. The Galbadian army had been shattered and scattered, many captured by the SeeDs and turned over to the Shumi and the GOA, and many more killed. The Galbadians had been completely caught off-guard by the SeeD attack; they'd never stood a chance.

        However, the ease by which the Galbadians had been defeated was prompting some suspicions among the SeeDs as Ragnorok flew them home.

        "Look, I'm telling you, those soldiers were looking for something out there," Irvine said to Squall and Zell in the locker room as they doffed their cold-weather gear. "This wasn't an invasion."

        Neither of the other two SeeDs could disagree with that assessment. Reports from the other SeeD squads had said similar things, that the Galbadians had been acting as if they were tracking something, not invading territory.

        "So, then what were they looking for?" Zell asked, throwing on his regular jacket. "Its not like there's much out there in Trabia except snow, ice, oil, and ore."

        "Whatever it was is important," Squall said, also putting on his leather jacket. "It could be connected to those ruins near the base."

        Squall had a point. When they'd been planning the assault, both Squall and Xu had noted the existance of the ruins of an old Centra shelter near the base's position. Neither the Shumi nor the GOA could say whether there had been any activity around the shelter, and the SeeDs hadn't bothered to check.

        Irvine's cowboy hat plopped onto the sharpshooter's head. "Might be. Maybe the Galbadians were looking for some tech from the ruins out there?"

        Both of the other SeeDs considered that. Finally Squall shrugged.

        "Its not like it matters now," the commander said as they reentered Ragnorok's hangar. "Galbadia's gone and we didn't lose anybody, that's what's important. We'll let the Shumi and the GOA figure out what the Galbadians were up to."

        Xu met the trio as they came out, snapping off a salute to Squall (more to just rib the commander than because of rank, since Xu was considered to be at the same level as Squall in Garden's heirarchy).

        Squall sighed, to the grins of the other three SeeDs, and replied the salute.

        "We've gotten word from Cid," Xu began. "We've recieved payment, and the GOA and the Shumi were quite pleased with our intervention."

        "Just let them know to hire us again if the Galbadians come knocking anymore!" Zell said, pumping his fists. Xu grinned before continuing.

        "Cid also wanted you to know that the party will begin at 21:00 hours, so you'll all have time to prepare."

        Everyone nodded, and Zell clapped Irvine hard on the back of his shoulder, early congragulations on his qualification for SeeD. Aparently, Zell had forgotten to unjunction the magic from his physical strength, as his good-natured clap sent Irvine straight to the floor, his hat fluttering down.

        "Damn it, Zell, watch it with those junctions . . ." the sharpshooter muttered from his facedown position on the floor.

        * * * * *

        "It is done," Captain Vellius whispered to his superior through the comlink as he watched the last of the Galbadian prisoners being carted off by the GOA security forces.

        "Excellent. Return to your post, Commander Vellius." Emphasis was put on "Commander."

        Velius smiled at his generous leader's gift of promotion. "Thank you, sir. I am sure the doctor will be happy his research will continue uninterrupted."

        "And that research will expand as soon as Xerret delivers the samples back to me."

        "Are you sure you can trust that mercanary?" Vellius asked, sounding suspicious.

        "Of course not. But, he does get the job done . . . for the right price. Now, return to the facility. I will contact the former base commander about the change of command, and I'll send you a new commander's uniform with the next transport."

        "Again, sir, I thank you. Vellius out." Vellius cut the transmission and smiled. His superior was indeed generous. He understood the value of his people, and knew how honestly superior Estharians were to the stupid, lesser peoples from the west.

        Vellius climbed onto his snow bike, gave one final look at the Galbadian prisoners, and then drove south, towards the Trabian Crater.

        * * * * *

        Mache unlocked his door and climbed into the cab of his transport, muttering about how high-priced the parts were around here. He sat down in the seat, slammed the door, and then gurgled something as a hand came around from behind his seat and grasped his throat. Another hand closed over Mache's chin, twisting his neck slightly and painfully.

        "Hi there. Stay quiet. You don't want to die in the immediate future now, do you? I want to ask you some questions." Silence put emphasis on "questions."

        Mache shut up, understanding the threat ingrained in Silencer's words. That single, hissing order had been spoken with utter power and confidence. The man knew, without a doubt, that if he did move or shout, his life would indeed end right there.

        "Now, tell me about the Corsair transport you serviced three hours ago."


        "The Corsair," Silence hissed, tightening his grip slightly, a subtle threat. "Tell me about it."

        "I don't know-"

        "Wrong answer." Silence squeezed a bit more and twisted the neck slightly. "Tell me."

        "I service a bunch of Corsairs!" the mechanic spouted. "I don't remember the specifications of them all and I don't remember that one's!"

        "Bullshit. There aren't many Corsairs with highly illegal 35mm pulse machineguns hidden inside compartments under their hulls. And you were the one who repaired that very illegal gun, and you spoke to the owner, a woman named Illarra, as if you were an quite familiar terms with her. Now, are you going to give me some answers or is the last sound you ever hear going to be me snapping your neck?"

        An hour later, Mache was found unconcious in the back of his transport by Estharian police, and Silence was long gone, with a new lead as to Illarra's whereabouts.

Chapter 4

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