*standard I don't own FFVIII, Squaresoft, characters, etc. applies from now until whenever I decide I'm done*
By Yuri Nigasa
They responded as soon as the message went through - taking a transport from Balamb and arriving early the next morning. As they piled out of the train an air of mortality hung low, a palpable heaviness. I smiled grimly, welcoming them all to the hell that had become hallmark of my existence.
Seifer stood behind me, a reassuring presence. When Zell approached, I wondered how it would go. Standing a foot or so back, he wiped a hand on his pants and extended it towards Seifer in a gesture of reconciliation. Seifer grabbed his hand and pulled Zell to him in a hug.
"Chicken!" he exclaimed, ignoring Zell's expression of mild consternation. "You do love me!" Zell grinned bashfully.
The tension was broken instantly. The mood lightened. I couldn't help but smile. We made our way to the hotel and once settled in, we headed to the Command Center. We appropriated a back room for planning.
"Hey Quistis, did you bring what I asked for?" queried Seifer.
"Here," she said, handing him a disk.
"What's that?" I asked.
"My place to start," he said, smiling at me.
I quirked a brow, demanding further explanation
"All of Garden's files on Centra," he said.
"And?" I asked.
"I figure it like this. It's the only major landmass with a civilization we're largely uninformed about. If this Guardian were anywhere else, it would at least be familiar to someone. Yet, when I searched for information - even in the Shumi database - it came up with nothing. Centra is the only place that would make sense to start in."
"Yes," said Quistis, "but do we even have a range as far as time period?"
"Nothing." Seifer shook his head. "I can't predict when I'll get another one of these 'visits' and Squall doesn't remember his. And... nobody's seen Alisa Case since the last time she spoke with us."
"Hasn't anyone looked for her?" asked Selphie incredulously.
Seifer rolled his eyes at her. "What do you think?"
She stuck her tongue out at him. "Jeez! Just asking ohhhh great one!" she giggled.
"Children," mock-scolded Quistis, which earned amused glances from everyone.
"Actually," I spoke, restoring order to the discussion, "we haven't been able to expend the resources we'd like to. Primarily we've been relying on the townspeople for help in locating her."
"Is it possible," asked Zell, "that she was taken in the raid?"
"When Yenrai radioed, he said nothing about her. We haven't questioned Eckner yet. We've been monitoring him for further signs of latent magical effects," I said.
"I'll try to talk to him about it," said Seifer. "Maybe since he feels comfortable with me it will be less stressful. Plus, maybe these latent powers or ... whatever," use of that particular word earned him a smirk from me. We must be rubbing off on each other, "will enable me to monitor him for further effects."
"If she's been taken, it presents an entirely new set of problems. That means whatever it is that's been masterminding these raids is aware of things even we aren't. Like what exactly our purpose is in this," Seifer nodded toward me.
"If it is," said Irvine, "there's a definite way to draw it out."
"How?" asked Zell.
Seifer sighed heavily. "Let me guess... bait."
"Exactly," responded Irvine.
"No," I said, "Too risky."
"Squall's right," voiced Quistis.
"How about this?" asked Selphie. "Irvine, Squall, Zell, and I go out to search. Since Seifer's the only one who's really got any understanding of this he and the queen brain stay put and try to find something in the Centra files."
I had to admit it, it sounded reasonable, even if I didn't like the idea of us splitting up. There was no reason for us to stay here, cowering.
"On two conditions," I spoke. "One, I want a com line continually open and monitored by Quistis. Two, we take a vehicle. If we should come upon anything, I don't think this is a confrontation we can win at this point."
We broke from the table and readied to head out. Seifer lingered in the room until everyone else had left, then crossed the distance between us and enveloped me in his arms.
"Just watch yourself out there," he said, placing a soft kiss to my temple.
I ran my hand through his hair and traced his jaw line with my fingertip. Now wasn't the time to get upset about his being overprotective. "I will," I said simply, placing a kiss on his lips.
The last thing I wanted was for Squall to head out there. It made me nervous, especially in light of Alisa's suspicious disappearance. What else could be done, though?
I sat in front of a monitor with Quistis. The best estimates placed the destruction of Centra approximately seven hundred years prior with the arrival of the Lunar Cry. Several of the more radical schools of thought claimed that the two occurrences were unrelated. Several experts maintained that by the time the Lunar Cry had hit Centra, Centra had long been in ruins. It was these particular arguments that I found myself drawn to.
One expert in particular, Doctor Citan Uzuki, placed the downfall of the Centra Empire at nearly fifteen hundred years prior. I wanted to speak with him. It was no trouble locating his current whereabouts with Garden's considerable resources at my fingertips. Apparently he lived outside a small village in the mountains of Trabia, a village called Lahan. He claimed to have irrefutable proof of his claims. I would definitely find out.
I asked Quistis to put in a message to the Headmistress of Trabia Garden, requesting that two SeeD be dispatched to locate Dr. Uzuki and bring him to Trabia so that he could speak with us by videoconference, or possibly even be escorted here to the Catania site.
She came back, a look of mild surprise on her face.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Well, I was able to speak directly with Headmistress Gerri, and she said that they'd dispatch two people right away, but that's not it."
"What is it, then?"
She furrowed her brow. "Well, from what she said, a sizeable check arrived from Esthar yesterday, enough to cover the cost of repairs to Trabia Garden, with the kindest wishes of President Loire. It was sent on behalf of Selphie. She wanted me to pass along thanks to Selphie for whatever she had done."
"Well, looks like he's not a complete bastard after all," I shrugged. "You going to radio out and tell Selphie?"
"Of course!" she exclaimed. "She'll be thrilled."
The four of us had arrived at the site of the altercation. I felt the same strange sensation I had felt at the other area, although not as strong, almost like the intensity had been lowered ninety percent. I noticed the same effect, however. There was no life to be found, down to the smallest insect. Outside the area, there were ants, gnats, butterflies, and other assorted creatures in abundance. The radio crackled and Quistis' voice came through.
"Unit Zero, this is Base, over."
"It's Squall, what's up?" I replied.
"Is Selphie in range?" she asked.
"Sure, hold on." I tossed the com unit to her and she caught it deftly.
"Booyaka, Base Mama! What is it?"
"Good news, Selphie. I was talking with Headmistress Gerri from Trabia, and..."
"Ooh, how is she?"
"She's fine. She said to tell you that they received a check donated in your name."
"From Sir Laguna?" Selphie practically shrieked.
"Yes, from President Loire."
Selphie began to jump up and down, ecstatic. Irvine picked her up and swung her around grinning from ear to ear. It was much needed good news for all of us, knowing that Trabia would be restored.
I didn't ask what I wanted to, about the two other requests that I had made that had yet to be dealt with. I knew Seifer's mind would be on them as well, but I didn't want to bring the mood down. I had a feeling the situation we were in would do that soon enough. Better to enjoy the good things while we could.
It hadn't been long since Squall and the others had gone out. Their periodic updates indicated they had found nothing. Nothing being the operative word. The contact area was devoid of life, just like the others. They had found no sign of Alisa Case. I was on my way to see Elijah. They had moved him back to the hotel when the field physician had deemed him strong enough to go.
As I walked into the room he was laying on the bed, propped into a sitting position. He had one knee propped up and a saxophone in his hands. He was playing a slow, mournful melody.
"What's that called?" I asked.
He looked up, surprised to see me, and set the instrument down. "It's called Goodnight, Julia. I heard it in a music box a long time ago."
"Beautiful," I said, perching on the edge of the bed.
"Yes, that's what I thought the first time I heard it. Now it's a song full of memories for me. It's more than a beautiful melody now."
"Music does do that," I agreed.
"So, are you just here to check up on me or do you have a more sinister purpose?"
I laughed. "Me? Sinister? Surely you jest."
"Ahh, must be some other Knight I've got you confused with then. So sorry!"
"Actually, I came because I need to talk to you about the incident. Alisa Case has been missing since that night, and we need to know everything you can remember."
"Well, let me think. I had been out on perimeter watch when the call came through that the alarms had sounded. I wasn't far from the area, so I jogged on over. I met up with Asimov and we headed to Celonias' position. When we got there, we found these... things. Celonias had cast Barrier, but was still taking some heavy damage. Asimov cast Triple and Celonias followed it with a round of Barrier, giving us protection and shoring up his own flagging spell."
"I had loaded my gun with those new electroexplosive rounds, so I tore into the front line with a spray of bullets. I could see them get hit, but it was almost like they just absorbed the rounds. There's this one really ugly one in the front row, and it gestures, almost like it's casting, but I don't see a glow or anything. I feel it though. Like this invisible crawling wave of plasma that goes through your body."
"Next thing I know these things are in my face and I'm taking some damage, not enough to phase me though. I manage to hit one point blank and it goes to pieces in front of me, then I see Celonias and Asimov hit another one with this split second Water and Thundaga combination that they teach in Advanced classes. It exploded into vapor."
"We're all sporting some serious scrapes when Yenrai comes up behind us and he casts Healing but something's wrong with it. It hurt. I dropped to my knees and felt that wave again... then they pounced on Yenrai. He cast healing again, and this time I could tell he felt it, too. We began to retreat as best as we could. They didn't pursue us. We didn't make it very far when we collapsed. The next thing I remember is while I was unconscious I could hear this man and woman talking, but I couldn't tell what they were talking about exactly. Then I felt a touch on my forehead, and this voice in my ear, telling me that I had been rescued for a purpose. Then I woke up and you were there."
"It wasn't until later I found out that the others had died. Why I was spared when they didn't make it, I may never know. That's not to say I'm not grateful, I just think there some guys who were maybe more deserving."
"Hey," I said, "Not in my opinion. You know you're the only person who's even treated me like a human being? The rest of them, all they care about is what they think I've done. You aren't like that. Maybe it's just my view, but I think that counts for a hell of a lot more."
He smiled up at me. "Thanks, Seifer. That means a lot to me."
"I need to ask you though, are you sure you didn't see any sign of Alisa Case out there? I feel a little silly asking this, but did you hear any chimes or bells?"
"No, I didn't. I assume that if they had taken her she would have been screaming. It was loud, but not so loud that we couldn't have heard cries for help."
Maybe, maybe not, I thought. It would depend on who they had found in the body. Alisa, or the Oracle.
"So," I said, diverting the topic, "when are they going to let you out of bed?"
"Terpischore says that if I behave she'll see about it in another forty-eight hours." He rolled his eyes. "I keep telling her I'm fine but she just keeps grumbling about 'damn combat specialists' and how we think we're above regulation."
"She's been paying good attention to Doc Kadowaki. Can't count the number of times Doc's held me overnight for training injuries."
"Yeah, but she doesn't have Kadowaki's bedside manner, not by a long shot," he laughed.
We had come into a clearing about a kilometer from the site when Zell noticed something. We stopped the vehicle and climbed out as he walked over to the tree line. Reaching out with one hand, he pulled at a wayward branch. My gut clenched as I recognized the familiar sound of chimes. He pulled off a scrap of bloodied fabric about a half meter in length. I recognized the delicate embroidery work as the unique type of design Alisa had worn frequently.
"It's hers," I said grimly.
"You sure, man?" asked Zell.
"Unfortunately." I took the fabric from his hand and stretched it out to the full length. "This doesn't bode well. The best we can hope for is that the creature that took her was wounded in the altercation. Otherwise, that leaves us in some very deep shit."
"I don't get it," said Irvine. "They haven't taken anyone before, why start now?"
"Because she's apparently important. I don't know what her exact role is, any more than I know what my role or Seifer's is." I shook my head. I hoped Seifer was having better luck on his end. The way things were going now we were getting nowhere fast.
"We've got to assume the worst," said Selphie, her voice devoid of her usual cheerfulness.
"Let's take this back," I said, carefully folding the fabric. "We can analyze it and maybe get some information... anything that will help."
The group returned, and I could tell they were disheartened. Squall handed over the fabric to one of the team's analysts.
"Did you find anything out from Eckner?" Squall asked.
"No. He didn't see anything. No way of knowing if Celonias saw anything before he and Asimov arrived. It's possible they took Alisa first, and Celonias just happened to end up in the wrong place, wrong time."
Quistis came in the room and got my attention. "Uzuki's waiting on the line. Trabia's envoys rounded him up about an hour or so ago."
Squall looked at me in puzzlement. "Come on," I said, nodding my head toward the back. "You can listen in, then I'll explain."
I opened the call, and found myself greeted with the face of a man in his mid-thirties. Like Squall's father he'd been blessed with the ability to hold his age well, not looking a day over his late twenties. He had black hair and wore curious gold spectacles. I could see gold trim on a mandarin collar around his neck.
"Doctor Uzuki, thank you for getting to me so quickly," I began.
"Oh, not a problem at all," he said. "These fine SeeD were most insistent that I get in touch as soon as possible. They said you needed to speak to me about my Centra research? Why on earth would Garden be interested in such an esoteric subject?"
"Well, it's true that it isn't normally within the normal scope of Garden's interests, but I'm afraid that it's become somewhat of a necessity that it become so. I'm interested in your theories, Doctor. Especially the one by which you claim that the demise of Centra occurred much earlier than thought."
"Yes. I'm afraid that's made me quite unpopular in some circles, but I've done plenty of research in the area, and found some startling artifacts."
"What do you have to support your claim? I apologize for my ignorance, but the information I have is by no means complete, and I'm afraid I haven't been able to research in depth at this time."
"Not a problem, young man. Let me start with a brief overview. I believe that the peoples of the Centra region were actually quite advanced at the time their civilization fell to ruin. They lived in harmony with nature, but also took advantage of the types of technological resources we're just beginning to access today. In many ways they may have even been beyond the scope of Esthar in their knowledge."
Beyond Esthar? That was amazing.
"I have done a lot of excavation work and have seen some very interesting ruins. We've found some old texts, which most will try to date at approximately seven hundred years of age. However, given the evolution of linguistics, and the slow pace at which written language is altered, I believe it would have taken much longer. We've been able to identify patterns, but the language largely remains indecipherable. I'm sure if we had the ability to translate what we have, it would no doubt confirm what I believe. The illustrations we've uncovered with the manuscripts seem to depict a large-scale battle. It is possible that these texts are simply for entertainment value, but the way in which they were found... as if they had been intentionally placed so as to preserve them in the best way possible... it doesn't seem like it."
"I'm sending through some of the images and files that we've compiled. It's a great deal more specific than I am. I have a horrible habit of rambling on, I'm afraid."
"Thank you, doctor," I said. "Sir, if possible, I'd like for you to join us here in Galbadia. We're in the Catania province currently, although we may move depending on the direction your research leads us."
"Galbadia? What ever could you have found there that would connect you to the ancient Centra?"
"I'll be glad to enlighten you when you arrive sir. Needless to say you'd officially be a guest of Garden during your stay, and would be fully compensated." I glanced at Squall for an approving nod. He willingly gave it. The file transfer from Doctor Uzuki came through and I placed it on disk for future perusal.
"Oh certainly. I understand how those things are. I'm sure that I can make myself available to you. Should I arrange my own transportation?"
"No sir. We will speak directly with Trabia Garden and they can oversee your arrangements. Often Garden has options that aren't open to civilians."
"Wonderful. I'll look forward to it, then. I trust we'll speak again soon. Now, if I may I am quite tired from the trip. I hate to cut this short, but..."
"No problem. I understand completely. I will speak with you soon, Doctor. Have a pleasant evening."
I called over to Selphie and asked for her to make arrangements with Trabia to get Doctor Uzuki here. I nodded to Squall and we headed out of the room.
"Doctor Uzuki is an expert on Centra. He's considered on the fringe of current theories, but I think he may be more right than he's getting credit for. At the very least, his extensive knowledge of the area could prove useful in the event we head to the area."
He nodded at me. "Glad to know you got somewhere today," he said.
"Not really," I replied. "I'm honestly grasping at straws here. Unless she shows up again, there's not much I can do. Especially now that it looks like Alisa..." I let the statement drop off.
Squall shook his head affirmatively. "I know. Listen, it's getting late and I don't think we're going to get much else done today. We should call it a day."
"Sounds good to me. Let's round everyone up and get some dinner, then we can get some sleep. Sound alright?"
"Yeah," he agreed, sounding almost compliant. "It does."
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