The Gunblade Saga Chapter 3

Chance Encounters

By Peptuck3

Heh, yeah, Fujin being related to Raijin? Yup, my story, I do with it what I will! (actually, Nique was the one who inspired that bit.)

And yes, the scene where Seifer met Squall in the Training Center was new. Like a lot of other scenes in this fic. Heck, this whole chapter is stuff you never saw! well, most of it. Just Squall and Quistis kicking butt on monsters on the way to the Fire Cavern . . .

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        "Student no. 41269? Squall Leonhart?" The Garden Faculty asked as Squall stepped out of the Training Center. Squall glanced up at him. He, like all the other Faculty, wore a heavy red robe, hood, and yellow hat that covered his whole face. "You're that problem child," the Faculty accused him, to which Squall shrugged. He got that from the sparks he and Seifer threw up from time to time. "Don't you have the final SeeD exam today? You must go to the-"

        "Fire Cavern, I know," Squall said impatiently.

        "You're making Instructor Trepe wait! What are you doing!?"

        The Faculty was standing next to the railing seperating the edge of the walkway and the water below, and Squall would have honestly loved to grab him and toss him over. Instead, Squall only shrugged and stepped past him and towards the front entrance.

        The Faculty were everywhere in Garden, and tended to be a monumental pain in the ass. They enforced the rules with an iron fist that made Seifer and the Disciplinary Committee look placid and liberal. More than one student had been expelled for lashing out at the Faculty with their fists, and in one case, a spinning kick to the jaw.

        'Even that didn't knock off his hat,' Squall thought as he recalled the incident. In fact, never once had he seen the Faculty's faces in his entire time at Garden. No one had. The Faculty was a real mystery, working directly for the Garden's mysterious Master, NORG. He was supposedly somewhere inside Balamb Garden, pulling the strings and controlling all of the Gardens through his Faculty intermediaries. No one, or at least, none of the students nor SeeDs Squall had spoken to, knew anything about the Master beyond the fact that he was Garden's owner.

        Squall passed the attendant at the front gate and headed out to the exit from the Garden grounds. He passed the wide concrete avenue leading out from the front entrance and down a short staircase, past a beautiful collection of pools, waterfalls and shrubbery, and out to the front gate where Quistis waited.

        As she said she would, Quistis was waiting for Squall there, now clad in a more casual outfit, consisting of a high-collared pink zip-up vest, a similarly colored skirt that ran down to below her knees, detached sleeves, and long black boots. A belt ran from her upper left hip down to her lower right, and hooked to it were her item pouches, backup knife, and a coiled rante, or chain whip, complete with a sharp and nasty-looking blade on the end.

        "Ready to go?" she asked as soon as Squall came into view. He nodded, and they headed off at a brisk pace. Squall took the lead as the pair crossed the Alcud plains to the east, towards the region where the Fire Cavern was located.

        They made good time, and within a half an hour the two had come into sight of the forest east of Balamb Garden, right between them and their destination. Squall stopped here and checked his watch. They still had a long time between now and the exam.

        "What?" Quitis asked as Squall stood for a moment, considering their options.

        "I think we should just avoid the forest," he remarked. "We'll lose a half an hour, maybe a whole one, if we go south and around, but at least we won't have to worry about monster attacks as much on the plains. And we won't risk an encounter with any T-Rexaurs," Squall added. Quistis agreed with his reasoning. The eastern forest was the home of many of the huge, powerful monsters, and when she was taking other students to the Cavern, she too had opted to avoid the woods. Besides, Squall was also right about avoiding other monsters. The plains had its share of creatures, but the open landscape allowed for easier sighting of them, and they weren't as densely populated out here.

        The decision made, Squall lead them southwest, skirting the edge of the woods. After about another half-hour, they could see the forest turning back east and then north. Also, this far south, Squall had seen the ocean several miles souhwest. He looked that way, and came to a stop.

        "What is it?" Quistis asked.

        "We still have about six hours before the exam, right?" he replied, to which Quistis nodded. "I was wanting to hit the beaches before we went to the Cavern." Quistis bit back a remark about how this was no time to go tanning, and considered Squall's reasoning. The beaches were dangerous, because . . .

        "Fasticolans?" she asked, knowing that was the reasoning in Squall's mind. He nodded.

        "If I can harvest the fins from the Fasticolans, I can use Shiva's ice magic refining ability to get some Waters," Squall explained. That was reason enough. Water magic was good against fire, though not as powerful as ice, and it was also a powerful junctioning magic.

        Another forty minutes later, the pair had reached the sandy white beaches of Balamb. The large island was well known for its lovely, peaceful beaches, and the only thing keeping it from becoming a tourist destination was the simple fact that the shores were very, very dangerous.

        Though one couldn't tell that from just looking at them. Right now, there were no other people, nor any other creatures, on the shoreline for as far as the eye could see.

        "Beautiful, isn't it?" Quistis asked as they trudged down the sands, though her remark was kind of diminished considering that both she and Squall were walking with weapons up and senses primed. Squall shrugged and continued his scan. A few minutes later, they found what the were looking for.

        A pair of large, red and yellow fins potruded from the sands, two hundred feet away, but rapidly growing larger as the Fasticolans approached. Both the cadet and the Instructor readied their weapons. Quistis checked her magic quickly, and selected a spell she would use if one of the creatures surfaced.

        Fasticolans were often called "sand sharks" because that was what they were: a variety of large predatory fish that tunnelled under the sands, swimming through the thin soil of the beaches as if they were water. The monsters would often "swim" right past a surface target and bite it while in motion, attacking in groups until the prey had been weakened, at which point the monsters would surface to finish the prey off.

        The two fins drew closer, now within fifty feet. Quistis uncoiled her whip and twirled it in the air. The rante snapped forward at the rightmost Fasticolan as it closed in, its steel blade driving under the sands and striking a glancing blow to the creature. The monster veered away slightly, somewhat deterred by a foe that could hit it underground, and swam past her.

        The other Fasticolan went for Squall. As the monster came close, Squall slashed his gunblade down through the sands at it. Like Quistis's rante, the blade of the revolver cleaved through the sands, though more effectively, doing some damage to the Fasticolan below. But this sand shark wasn't going to back down, and even as Squall was cutting it, the creature rose from its sheilding sands and bit at his leg. The cadet, though, was too experienced, pulling his legs back from the fin, and the Fasticolan's rising bite caught only air.

        Quistis's monster swung back around towards her and surfaced. Fasticolans were only slightly longer than the huge fins on top of their bodies, the distance from head to tail being only three feet. Two slender but long red fins poked out to either side of their bodies, and another large fin, not as large or as long as the top fin, was located on its underbelly. Like its fins, the Fasticolan's body was red and yellow. This one was a female; males were decidedly rarer and much larger.

        The Fasticolan burst from the sands and veritably flew towards Quistis. In fact, it did fly towards her; aside from being able to swim through sand as if it were water, Fasticolans could hover over the sands for short periods, swimming through air like water or sand.

        The creature opened its mouth to take a chunk out of the instructor, who responded by focusing and gesturing powerfully towards the monster with both hands. A flash of brilliant lightning roared down from nowhere on the sand shark, the electricity shocking and sparking the monster. It tumbled to the ground, dead and twitching from the powerful Thundara spell Quistis had cast on it.

        Squall's enemy closed in again, but this time, Squall intended to finish the monster. The cadet waited for his target to attempt another passing bite. The red fin came in again, and again, it went straight for the cadet. And again, Squall slashed his gunblade down through the sands at the Fasticolan. But this time, he pulled the trigger on his gunblade.

        Even as the blade sliced into the monster and it was rising to bite at Squall again, an explosive blast erupted down the gunblade, the shockwaves tearing into the monster and blasting apart its face. The Fasticolan died in mid-surface, and actually flew up slightly, carried on by its momentum, and hit the sands a few feet away.

        Returning his gunblade to its sheath, Squall knelt down next to the dead monster and drew his knife. After a couple of minutes, he had finished removing the Fasticolan's fins. A quick glance at Quistis showed she was alright, and she too had harvested a few of the fins from her target as well.

        Squall held up the fins in his hand, focused on them, and mentally reached out and touched Shiva. He felt her in the back of his mind, the Guardian Force responding to his request. The dead fins in his hand glowed, then seemed to form a melting light that seeped down into his hand, through the intervening fabric of his glove. He felt the power of Water magic in his mind and body, and then focused, shifting the magical energies around. The Water spells he focused on his ability to utilize magic; magic would be more effective in the coming battle with Ifrit.

        Fasticolan fins were but one of many types of magical stones or items. Each of these items contained the essence of magical energy. All it took to extract the magic was the right tool. In the case of a SeeD, or anyone else with a Guardian Force, all it took was that Guardian Force having the ability to refine the item and its magical power into spells.

        Their purpose on the beach done, the instructor and cadet headed northeast again, directly for the Fire Cavern. Within half an hour they were back in sight of the forest, now to their west.

        "I'm surprised we haven't had to fight any Bite Bugs," Quistis remarked. Squall nodded. Throughout the trip they had occasionally spotted flying specks in the distance, but the most common, and weakest, monster of the Alcud plains had never come closer. Another half-hour passed when Squall spotted something ahead, moving generally in their direction, and much closer than the distant creatures from earlier. It was about time; they had been wondering if they were somehow repelling the all-too-common monsters.

        "Bite Bugs," he remarked, drawing his gunblade. Quistis uncoiled her rante and held it ready as she moved up beside him. The monsters, four total, were about a hundred feet away, and had flown out from behind a small hill. They veered in closer towards the duo, but apparently had not yet spotted them.

        "Attack or avoid?" Quistis asked, leaving the decision up to Squall. He shrugged.

        "Depends on them," he said. "If they pass us, we go on. But if they turn towards us, we take them out." Again, Quistis agreed with his reasoning.

        As they had been talking, the Bugs drew near, and one could see the three-foot long creatures more clearly. Bite Bugs were large, blue mosquito- like insects defined by their huge, split jaws that took up a third of their body length. They also featured six legs, the first two of which were larger than the last four, and also a large, oversized stinger on their abdomen. Two pairs of dragonfly-like wings supported the monsters as they flew.

        The quartet of Bugs apparently had spotted the two humans, and must have been either hungry or territorial, as they turned directly toards the pair and attacked. Squall immediatey advanced, gunblade ready, and moved protectively in front of Quistis.

        Quistis nodded, agreeing with Squall's role in the battle. He would engage the monsters in melee, while Quistis would hang back and put her whip's longer range to better use and used her stronger magic as well.

        Quistis focused, and again called forth magic. A ball of flame erupted and shot out at the leading Bug, blasting it and turning it into a smoking cinder. The remaining three came on, heedless of the firey death of their comrade. One dove in at Squall while the other two circled around, one going for Quistis, the other coming in behind the cadet.

        "Bite Bug" described the creature's preffered form of attack, which was what the leading Bug attempted to use on Squall. The blue insect came in, jaws wide open, hoping to tear a chunk out of the human in front of it.

        The open jaws provided Squall with an excellent place to stick his gunblade.

        The Bug headed for Quistis also came in with a straightforward attack, to which her snapping rante's blade convinced it otherwise. A gash was torn along the Bug's exoskeleton, and the monster dove down low, rising up and biting at Quistis's face. The instructor leaned back out of range and punched the Bug in its insectile face as it opened its jaws to bite her again. The monster fluttered back, and Quistis's whip snapped up, the blade burying into the Bug's underside, killing it.

        Squall noticed the other Bug swooping in behind him as the first was still squirming on the end of his blade. In one smooth motion he turned to face his next opponent, raised his gunbade, and pulled the trigger, blasting the dying Bug off its end. The second Bug closed, and Squall brought his gunblade down on top of it, pulling the trigger a second time as he did. The monster blew in half like an overripe melon with a grenade planted inside.

        Squall bent down and wiped the black ichor from the Bugs away on the grass, then checked the dead corpses. He wasn't surprised to find a couple of small stones imbedded in their bodies that resonated with magic.

        "Magic stones," he muttered, prying them loose with his knife. He examiened them, dissappointed that these were only fragments and not complete stones. The Bugs must not have been that mature if they had only fragments in their exoskeletons. Older and stronger Bugs often had larger magic stones, and the strongest had stones with powerful magic imbedded within them.

        The cadet took a moment to focus and refine the fragments, using Shiva's power to transform their magic into more of the Blizzards he would need to defeat Ifrit. That done, he rejoined Quistis and they continued on to the Cavern.

        Twenty minutes later they had reached the Fire Cavern, its tall cliffs looming up above the instructor and Cadet. At the base of the cliffs, in front of a a yawning black cave entrance, stood a pair of Faculty, obscuring yellow hats and all.

        "Okay, we're here," Quistis said. "You ready?" Squall nodded and led the way to the sentry-like Faculty.

        This was it. The Fire Cavern test. One of, if not the, most important tests a SeeD cadet would take. Nothing proved a man's mettle as much as fighting, defeating, and obtaining a legendary Guardian Force.

        Ifrit was an entity of pure fire, existing in the heart of the Fire Cavern. There, he rested in peace, like most other Guardian Forces, unless angered or disturbed, at which point he would emerge and unleash his wrath upon the foolish mortal who had dared challenge him. All SeeD cadets had to tempt that wrath, though Ifrit, while a furious enemy, was also an honorable opponent. The Guardian Force had never attacked a SeeD cadet who had challenged him with truly lethal force. In situations where the cadet had been severely injured, Ifrit even would lighten up its attack until the supporting SeeD had healed them. If a cadet was ever defeated, Ifrit never moved in for the kill.

        "Student no. 41269, Squall Leonhart, ready to take the Fire Cavern test," Squall spoke as he stood at attention in front of the Faculty. One of the two stepped forward.

        "Your objective: To obtain a low-level Guardian Force," the faculty said. "A SeeD member must support."

        "I'm his support," Quistis replied, standing at attention as well and snapping off a salute. "Instructor no. 14, Quistis Trepe."

        The Faculty turned back to Squall.

        "Select a time limit," he ordered. "Challenging, yet reasonable." As with any other cadet, Squall was given the option to choose his own time limit.

        Squall mulled over the objective. The battle with Ifrit would take some time, and he also would need time to make his way there. Other cadets had said that the path, if one avoided monsters, could be navigated in about five to eight minutes, and aside from the Bombs, the monsters didn't take long to fight past even if one stopped to face them. Ifrit, however, was a fearsome opponent that took a lot to bring down, and many students who had taken a shorter time limit to face it had failed due to running out of time. The SeeD member wouldn't help them; they were there only to support and heal, not to fight Ifrit for the cadet.

        Furthermore, there was the issue of the time limit itself. The time limit the cadet chose was considered in that cadet's final ranking. A short time limit indicated bravery and confidence, while a longer limit meant caution, all of which were valuable assests for any SeeD. But, a too short limit would indicate unnecassary cockiness or recklessness, while too long a limit would mean uncertianty, any of which were unsuitable for a SeeD.

        "Twenty minutes," Squall said after a few more moments of consideration. Short, but not recklessly so, and it still gave him time to handle any monsters on the way in and also to take his time fighting Ifrit.

        "Very well," the Faculty said in response, while the other took out a small stopwatch. The first Faculty stepped aside, allowing Squall and Quistis inside. "Good luck."

        * * * * *

        Outside, the air had been moist and warm. Inside, it was dry. And hot. Squall immediately considered doffing his jacket.

        'Only if it gets too hot,' he determined, and advanced deeper into the Cavern.

        "My job is to support you in battle," Quistis remarked as the light from outside faded to darkness. "Everything else is up to you."

        Squall nodded and said nothing, advancing deeper into the cave. Up ahead, the darkness gave way to a harsh red and orange light, that of the lava flowing throughout the Cavern. Soon, they were on a long, winding stone walkway that descended deep into the center of the Cavern. Beneath them, the flowing lake of molten stone emmited intense heat. Squall could see monsters down below in the inferno, ignoring, even reveling in the heat. He figured a few more would be on the stone trail leading down to Ifrit, but nothing that would seriously slow him down.

        "You know, the boys often choke on this test when I come with them," Quistis remarked. "I guess my charm makes them nervous."

        ' . . . Whatever,' Squall thought at that. He wasn't impressed, and his cool demeanor let Quistis know that.

        "I'm just kidding!" she said a moment later when Squall didn't reply. "I'm just trying to keep you relaxed, that's all."

        'You're not doing a good job,' Squall thought in reply. 'I'm going up against a legendary Guardian Force, and you try to keep me relaxed with little jokes?' He shook his head at the silliness of that notion, and at Quistis's attempts to lighten things up.

        The cadet and instructor descended deeper into the heart of the cavern, keeping their eyes on the trail ahead for any threats. Up ahead, a creature floated around a stalgmite mound on edge of the stone walkway. It was large, about human-sized, and spherical. It featured short arms and flames on top of its round body, and diabolic, grinning face on the front.

        "Bomb," Squall remarked as soon as the monster became clear in the red haze. Not hesitating, he focused and cast a spell at the monster. A chunk of ice appeared overhead and then hurtled forward at the monster. It slammed into the Bomb's smiling face and shattered into a million pieces of tiny ice fragments, the cold magic exploding outwards and turning the raging heat of the Bomb's fires into dead cold. The Bomb dropped back onto the ground and rolled a few feet away before lieing still, killed by Squall's Blizzard spell.

        'Not bad,' he thought, considering the Waters he had junctioned earlier to his magical power.

        With the Bomb dead before it could threaten them, the pair advanced deeper into the Cavern. The stone path began to wind and branch out from here, and the light only got brighter. Squall could clearly tell that the center of the Cavern was ahead, or at least their destination, since the walkway was only a short distance above the flowing lake of molten stone now.

        Squall's trained senses warned him as another Bomb suddenly hovered up from the lava below and flew towards them. At the same time, a second Bomb swooped out from around another stalagmite mound. The first bomb hurled a magical burst of flame at Squall. The fireball exploded and knocked him on his rear, conjuring up memories of Seifer's trick earlier that day. The other Bomb flew at Squall head on, only to be stopped by a cracking chain whip. The spherical monster turned its anger towards Quistis, who put her whip into its ugly face again.

        Squall stood up and replied to the first Bomb's Fire spell with his own Blizzard. As with the Bomb earlier in the Cavern, this one too took a large chunk of ice in the face, the cold magic dousing its fires and its life. The dead Bomb dropped down into the lava below.

        Qusitis's whip had gouged a few nasty holes into the remaining Bomb's hide, but the monster seemed only angrier. It prepared to cast a spell at her, when Quistis's whip wrapped around one of its stubby arms and yanked. Surprised, the Bomb stopped casting its spell long enough for Squall to arrive and bury the Revolver in its backside.

        "Ten minutes," Quistis said as they continued down the walkway a few moments later. By now the lava was so close to the stone path that they could have reached down and touched it - not that they would want to! Up ahead, the center of the Cavern and the source of the vast chamber's heat was near.

        "I guess I was right," Quistis admitted as they drew closer to Ifrit's firey home. "Both you and Seifer are in a class of your own. You both have amazing strength and potential." Squall didn't reply to the compliment, focusing instead on the center of the Cavern. It seemed obvious that this was Ifrit's lair; a central area of stone with jagged stalagmite mounds rising up around a wide hole in the ground, which glowed with the sheer heat from deep below. The lava in the Cavern seemed to form from around the Guardian Force's home, flowing outwards like a hellish fountain. The whole place seemed eerie, as if the entire Cavern had been crafted by something, or someone, specifically for this challenge.

        "This is it," Quistis said from behind Squall. He glanced back at her, to see the instructor standing a safe distance away from the firey hole. Her whip was coiled at her side, and she stood waiting. Squall nodded, knowing that she would not be actively participating in this battle, only being there to ensure that Ifrit would not inadvertendly kill him. Squall turned back to the hole, and threw his left hand up behind him, signaling to Quistis he would be alright even as his right hand drew out the Revolver.

        "You seem confident enough," she said with a grin, but the words fell dead a moment later, as the ground began shaking. Jets of yellow energy, firey magic, shot out from the hole. Squall grasped his gunblade tightly. This was it!

        Chunks of rock and molten stone flew up from the hole, accompanied by more bursts of magic and a titantic roar. Then, something else rose out of the firey gap, a massive and mighty creature, an entity of flame and wrath and destruction, poised to annihilate the tiny mortal below.

        Ifrit had come.

Chapter 4

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