*standard I don't own FFVIII, Squaresoft, characters, etc. applies from now until whenever I decide I'm done*

Stealth

Chapter XVI

By Yuri Nigasa

[Squall]

Early in the afternoon I was talking with Quistis when the klaxon sounded.  Immediately we scrambled up and to the terminal to see what set it off.

"Status!" I barked.

"Perimeter breached at section nineteen, Sir."

"Who's in the area?"

"Maio and Palana."

"Tell them to hold position until we get an image."

"Coming in now."

The first shot was grainy.  As precious seconds ticked away, the image renderer began to do an intuitive filter.  I scowled as it only served to make it a more well-defined blur.

"Successive frames?"

"Got one!"  Came a voice from behind me.  "Oh no.  Sir, you won't believe this.  We need to get a team out there now."

I turned and looked at the terminal.  I felt a lurch in my stomach as I was met with an image of a very disoriented, disheveled, and scared looking Alisa Case.

I hit the com button and alerted the others.  Within moments I could hear the sound of footsteps pounding across the floor.

"What is it?" asked Selphie.

I pointed to the screen.

"Alisa," whispered Seifer.

"We've got to be careful," cautioned Quistis.  "For all we know it's a trap."

"I already assumed it was," I said, "but we've got no choice.  Load up."

[Seifer]

The vehicle sped along the rough ground, bumps and dips jarring it as if it were on springs.  I held on to the roll bar with an iron grip, as did everyone else in the back.  In the front Zell had a death grip on the steering wheel and beside him Squall sat calmly as if he didn't even notice the discomfort.  We spotted the two men on patrol and pulled to a halt nearby so they could climb in, then sped off again.

As we neared the point of perimeter breach, we slowed down, pulling the vehicle to a stop and kicking up a fierce dust cloud.

"Almasy and I will take point.  Tilmett, Maio, and Kinneas flank right.  Trepe, Dincht, and Palana flank left.  Maio, I want Barrier and Reflect active on all members."

Maio nodded and I saw the faint flicker of casting from his fingertips.  My skin grew warm with the tingle of protective magic.

"At the first sign of conflict you are to retreat, is that understood?  We can't afford to lose anyone, so keep your guard up at all times.  Under no circumstances cast healing magic.  Offensive spells only.  Keep an open com link.  Now, go!"  Squall's expression was hardened in preparation for potential conflict.

We made our way forward slowly as the other groups began to fan out.

"Base," Squall called into the com unit, "I need last verified position for Alisa Case."

"Target left perimeter zone at fifteen forty-seven.  Crossed at mark sixty-three point two.  Estimated direction and speed based on data is north north-west at less than four kilometers."

"Pinpoint current position of team in relation to last known position."

"Approximately two hundred thirty meters south.  Suggested target intercept falls within one hundred seventy to two hundred meters."

We should be able to see her soon, if she was in fact out here.

"All teams, status," I called on the open channel.

"Negative," came Irvine's voice.

"Make that two," said Zell.

We continued on in silence until Zell's voice came through again.

"We've got visual," he called, giving out their position.

"On our way.  What do you see?" Squall asked.

"Target appears solo.  Obviously disoriented, movement is very haphazard."

I saw the three of them and angled my path to meet them, Squall walking beside me.  I turned to glance behind and could just make out the other team on their way.  I felt my heart pounding in anticipation, expecting an attack at any moment.

When we arrived Zell handed over his binoculars to Squall for a closer look.

"It's her," he said, handing the device to me.

I peered through the lenses and felt my stomach lurch.  She was dirty, her clothing shredded, her hair sticking out at odd angles.  She held her hands out before her as if maintaining her balance.  I saw her stumble and fall, failing to catch herself from impacting the ground hard on her knees. 

The others came up quietly and I relinquished the binoculars to Maio.

"So, what now?" I asked quietly.

"Maio, give me a Scan," Squall said.

"Human female.  She's injured though.  Whatever it is, it's got her borderlining.  I'm surprised she got up.  We need her out of there as fast as possible," he replied.

"Kinneas, Palana, I want you back here providing cover and keeping watch.  You see anything that's not one of us, kill it."

Irvine shouldered Exeter and Palana flicked off the safety on his sniper rifle.

"We've got you covered," Irvine said.  "Now get out there and get her."

"Almasy I want you to get her.  She's more comfortable with you than any of us.  The rest of us I want a circular formation, keeping an eye out as we advance."

We headed the last fifty or so meters out, heading slowly towards Alisa.  I called out to her and she turned her head toward us, but her face showed no sign of recognition whatsoever.  As I stepped closer I understood why.

Something had gouged out her eyes.

She clutched a hand to her throat, opening her mouth, but no words came out.  Silence? I wondered.  Then I heard a low, guttural moan and realized that whatever had taken her eyes had taken her tongue as well.

I kept my mouth shut, knowing that I would have to watch every single word I said.  I signaled to the others to remain silent.  Our reaction would determine how she would behave.  As we approached I watched her grow skittish, backing up only to nearly fall again.

"Alisa, do you know who it is?" I called out, cursing silently, knowing there was no way she'd know since I hadn't said a damn thing to her really.

She shook her head negatively.

"It's Seifer.  I'm with Commander Leonhart and some other SeeD members.  We want to take you back where we can get you some help, okay?" I kept my tone light, friendly, positive.

Another nod, this one affirmative.

"Good.  I'm going to put your hand on my arm so you can steady yourself.  We brought a vehicle so don't panic if you hear anything.  We have eight people here.  You're safe now."

She collapsed against me, sobbing.  Hands reaching to wipe tears from eyes that no longer existed.  As if the promise of security had been enough to break the front of bravery she was wearing.

I jerked my head back in the direction of the transport.  Zell caught my look and motioned Selphie to accompany him.  There was no way I could lead her all the way back like this.  I was waiting for the proverbial other shoe, the what next.  It couldn't be this easy; it never was this easy.

As I heard the vehicle approach a while later, I breathed a sigh of relief.

For once, it had been that easy.

[Squall]

I sat outside the town's small clinic, mentally pacing a hole in the floor.  We were gathered in the hallway, all expecting the worst.

When the door opened, six pairs of eyes went to the figure in the white lab coat.

"How is she?" asked Quistis.

"I gave her a sedative," said the doctor, "She's asleep right now, which is the best thing for her.  Medically speaking, I think the damage done to her was not magically initiated.  It appears that her vocal cords are gone.  It appears that some sort of curative magic was used after they mutilated her, ensuring that there would be no possible restoration.  Blood loss from such trauma would have killed her under ordinary circumstances.  Given proper treatment she can recover, although her sight and voice are gone forever."

"Thank you for your candor," I nodded my head.

"You're quite welcome, Commander, I just wish I had better news.  If you will excuse me?" he turned and headed toward another examination room.

"Anyone care to guess the message in this?" Seifer asked bitterly.

"Take the voice, take the sight," said Quistis softly.

"And we were powerless to stop it," Seifer punched a clenched fist into his open palm.

"But why not just kill her?  Why go to all the trouble of taking her and bringing her back?" asked Zell.

"That's brutal!" exclaimed Selphie.  "Try a little more tact next time?"

"Sorry," he said sheepishly.  "But you know it's true."

"Whoever's doing this wants us to know who's got the real power right now.  Let me clue you, it's not us," Irvine said dryly.

The sound of boots on the tile floor made me look up.  Approaching us was Eckner, lugging the remote terminal with him.

"I think you should see this," he called out.

[Seifer]

We crowded around the terminal the best we could.  I was pretty sure my hand was too close to Quisty's chest and I knew for damn certain that Irvine's boot heel was grinding into my toe, but I kept quiet.

"What did you find?" asked Squall.

"Well, I asked Uzuki about this," Elijah said, bringing up an image of a large feline looking creature that could have been the result of crossbreeding a Torama with a Moomba.  "He thought that maybe it was an unidentified Guardian, but, when he left for a bit I started reading.  They were an ancient race that lived side by side with the Centrans.  The text refers to them as Sesh'Ka-ha'chi. Watchmen or...  Sentinels.  The most honored among them protected sacred sites."

"Was that with the manuscript?" Quistis asked.

"No, Uzuki was handling the manuscript scans.  I was organizing some miscellaneous things when I came across it.  I'm trying to build something of a general database for all of this information, so we could theoretically continue our study without Uzuki if we had to," Elijah replied.

"So maybe we know what this Sentinel we're looking for looks like," said Selphie.  "But honestly, how many caves do you think there are in Centra?  I mean, it's huge!"

"She's got a point.  Granted, it's a really obvious one, but it's a point," said Zell.

"Thanks for nothing Zell," Selphie retorted.

"Not only that, but there's over fifteen hundred years worth of land erosion and modification, plus the damage from the Lunar Cry.  For all we know this site we're looking for has been demolished or is even underwater," added Quistis.

"Well, I could try to access Esthar's information network.  It's possible that they've got some geographical information we don't," offered Elijah.

No Esthar.  No.  Absolutely not.

"Go ahead," said Squall.

So much for my telepathic potential.

"Don't we need to request access?" asked Quistis.

"Need to?  Yes.  Will we?  No."  Squall smirked.  "It's easier to apologize than to get permission."

I stared at him in mild shock, although I'm sure it floored me less than it did the others.

"Seifer, you're being a bad influence on Squall," scolded Selphie.  "Either that or the two of you have worked out some really good ventriloquism."

I rolled my eyes as if I refused to lower myself to her level.

"Ha!  Pets really do resemble their owners I guess!" she laughed.  "That's a Squall expression if I ever saw one!"

I took a halfhearted swipe at her and grinned.  "Shut up already!"

Squall waited for us to settle down before he spoke again.  "Zell, I want you to contact Balamb and request that Cadet Francois assist Elijah."

When had Squall decided to go on a first name basis?  He must be feeling pretty comfortable around Elijah to do that.  I had to admit, though, Elijah's presence in our 'association' had gone over far better than I heard Rinoa's had.  At least Elijah was competent.

"Just tell Cadet Francois that he's going to need access to Esthar's database and Esthar doesn't need to know about it," Squall finished.

"Nice," said Irvine, "gives us plausible deniability."

Squall nodded.  "Cadets do get bored."  He shrugged.

"Okay, where is Squall and what's in his body?" Selphie demanded.

Squall fixed an impassive gaze on Selphie and quirked his eyebrow.

"Oh, phew, that's better," she giggled.  "You had me worried."

"Wait a minute," said Quistis.  "Where exactly did Uzuki find these artifacts?"

"I'm not exactly sure," I said.  "Why?"

"It might give us a place to start looking.  Think about it.  The manuscript and other things are fairly well preserved.  We've seen what Centra looks like.  Things don't just survive like this.  Not in this condition," she said.

Why hadn't I thought of that?  "So you're saying that maybe they were intentionally placed where they would be found intact?"

"Precisely."  She nodded.

"Couldn't hurt to ask.  It's as good an idea as any of them.  Maybe even a little better at this point," said Zell.

[Squall]

I decided Quistis would be the one to approach Uzuki.  She was intelligent as well as beautiful, and I felt certain that this wouldn't be lost on the dear Doctor.  It might also help distract him from our real purpose.  It was later that evening when we made our way from the clinic to the Command Center.  As she struck up a conversation with him, I eavesdropped from my seat by Seifer.

"These are quite fascinating, Doctor," she began.

"Oh, thank you...  Quistis, isn't it?" he asked.

She nodded demurely.  "I find the images especially amazing.  The artistic styling is so unique.  It's a pity we don't know more about the culture."

Never send a man to do a woman's job.  Uzuki was looking flustered with all the attention.  I gathered he probably didn't have many young females flocking around him asking about his research.

"Yes, yes it is."  He fumbled, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.

"So how many times have you been to Centra?"

"I've accompanied a half-dozen expeditions, mostly concentrating in the northwest."

"Exciting.  I've actually been to Centra once, myself, although we weren't there for archaeological or historical reasons."  She shrugged a little, as if her involvement in the Ultimecia incident had been a minor inconvenience.

"You're one of the few.  Then again," he gestured toward her weapon, "you're quite able to handle yourself I would imagine.  When I visit, a small brute squad generally accompanies us.  They take care of all that for us."

"So where were you when you discovered that wonderful manuscript?"

"We were in one of the more minor northeastern regions that we call Nadi."

"It sounds fascinating.  What was it like there?"

Uzuki chuckled.  "Dry, hot, dusty.  It was a bit cooler inside though."

"Inside?  Did you discover some more ruins?" she paused to blush.

"No, we discovered some caves during some exploration of a canyon.  The temperature, of course, was remarkably cool once we got far enough back.  There was little humidity, although there was some, well you wouldn't call it structural damage, would you?  There were some minor cave-ins and such that made the going slow in places.  Unfortunately we didn't get as far back as we would have liked.  There was simply too much debris to move when we reached a certain point."

"I didn't know Centra was known for caves."

I smiled.  Quistis was doing great.  I could tell by looking at Seifer that he wanted to vault out of his chair and run for Centra right then.

"Well, normally it isn't.  It's desert and rock now, for the most part.  Perhaps at one point in time there were rivers and such that would have contributed to the formation of caverns.  It's just a shame that we didn't get to go further in."  Uzukiís face looked resigned.

"So you think you'll go back then, eventually?"

"Yes, it's all a matter of raising the funds to do so.  My area of study isn't exactly the most in vogue right now."

I had heard enough.  I motioned discreetly to Seifer and we headed outside

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