It was 5:30. Squall stared blankly at the black liquid in his cup. It had been a long night, just staring at his ceiling in the moonlit dorm room. The air had felt stale all night, and he had lain there, bound by clammy sheets. It was far too early in the morning for his tastes; the sun still not yet up. The frenetic energies of all of the cadets in the cafeteria, eating an early breakfast in preparation for the test seemed to be somewhere very far away, or maybe just an echo of an event long since past. The coffee rippled as someone sat down beside him, carelessly plopping down a tray laden with cafeteria eggs.
"Squall, are you all right?" Zell bent his face down, trying to see into Squallís eyes.
"Iím fine," he said automatically.
"Oh, címon, man! You look wasted," Zell paused, "bad nightsí sleep?"
Squall remained silent.
Zell stared at him for a moment longer, before returning to his cooling eggs.
"Now," Zell said, between bites, "since you and Rinoa broke up, youíve been retreating to-"
Squall looked up from his coffee at last, delivering a fierce glare at the man seated next to him. Zell looked back somewhat comically, a fork dangling out from between his lips.
"What are you two doing?"
Both men turned around to address the speaker. Quistis smirked.
"If I didnít know better," Quistis sat down across from Zell delicately, "I would think that something very sordid just came to pass between the two of you."
Zellís lips formed around the fork in a look of disgust.
Quistis blew into her coffee delicately, before putting her cup to her lips and taking a small draught.
Squall just shook his head and returned to staring at his coffee attentively. Quistis and Zell began a conversation, their voices fading back into background noise in Squallís mind. He just continued to stare at the black water as it slowly cooled.
It was 9:13. Squall was beginning to feel his reservations. Everyone was nervous, that much he could see, indelibly marking each of their fresh faces as they all sat in silence, awaiting orders and watching one another with a look of sick unease. Squall glanced over at Irvine, one of his cadets. He too, looked nervous, yet only a little. His battle hardened muscles would occasionally twitch under his uniform jacket. He could hardly blame him. Everything about "Battleship Island" was exactly the same as it was during their last visit. Even the air, faintly salty from the ocean, faintly stale from neglect, was the same. Squall couldnít help but feel a little apprehensive, given the circumstances in which he had last visited this place. It had been a trying battle to get to the bottom of the facility, only to find, once down there, a fearsome monster, which, for the better part of a century, had been a legend.
/And thatís only what came to the surface... what else could be down there that simply just hid from the light?/
Squad Cís part of the mission would begin at 9:15; no earlier, no later. His part of the mission should have been simple: search out and destroy any and all monsters, and retrieve anything of value. It was that which bothered him so.
/What exactly did Xu mean by "anything of value"? What do Galbadia and Esthar expect SeeD to find?/ A frown creased Squallís brow. /Myles tried the convince me to turn whatever I found over to him... What do they know that I donít? Something is very wrong about all of this./
Squall checked his watch, steeling himself up. It was only a scant few moments before the mission began. He could only wait for the signal from Zell, indicating that the cadets had secured the area and were ready for Squad C to proceed.
The crackle of static and Zellís voice suddenly shattered the silence tenuously strung among the squad caused more than a few to noticeably jump.
"Squad Bís mission complete. Squall, you read? Over."
Squall picked up his walkie-talkie, deliberately, so as not to show his apprehension and his shaking fingers to his cadets. If their Commander was afraid, then what hope did they, mere initiates, have against whatever might be down there?
"Squad C ready. Over."
He looked around, gazing into all of their prying eyes.
"Letís move out."
It had been an easy progression to the bottom of the research facility. The other Squads had done their job; no monsters in sight. Even so, Squall knew he could not afford to breathe easy. They finally reached the bottom level of the lock system, where Zell was waiting and watching. He saluted as they approached.
"Good luck, cadets," he said solemnly.
Irvine let a smile stretch across his face. It was a little too wide, a little too forced, "Thanks, Zell."
Squall cleared his throat quietly, "cadets will board the elevator three at a time, and wait until the whole Squad is assembled, minus myself. Irvine, you will lead the Squad down. I will follow behind. You stop at the well and wait for my further instructions."
"Yes, sir," he said, looking serious.
Three by three, the Squad began to fill the elevator, going down into the depths. Squall pulled Zell aside, while keeping one eye on the remaining soldiers.
"How was it?"
"Huh?" Zell looked blank for a moment, "Oh! There was nothing to worry about. Squad B pulled though pretty well. I think that at least a couple of people are going to pass. Rinoa certainly did, if that was what you were worried about," Zell looked over in her direction. She was currently keeping a doorway secured, looking serious and sullen.
"No. I wasnít worried about that. I was just wondering if youíve seen a change in the monsters from last time."
"Well..." Zell looked up at the ceiling, and put one hand under his chin thoughtfully, "there seemed to be fewer of them, but thatís probably because we killed so many the first time around. Other than that, no. Why?"
Squall shook his head, "Iíll explain later," he turned his back on Zell and entered into the elevator, saluting as the doors closed shut on a puff of pneumatic air.
The trip down the basement stairs Squall found to be nerve-wracking. He was expecting anything, anything at all except for what he encountered. Which was nothing. Nothing at all. Not even the corpse of a monster. Even though the corpses of monsters decomposed quickly, a carcass would not have disappeared in the time it took him to get down there. All of the other tell-tale signs of battle were missing as well. There was no smell of gunpowder, no fresh marks in the stone, no blood, nothing. Squall didnít have much time to ruminate on this, however. Now was the time to do or die. He saw all of the cadets milling about on the bottom floor, as far away from the well as they could be.
"Report," Squall commanded.
One of the other cadets, a little blond girl named Raye, spoke up, her voice steady, her red eyes firm, "We have all successfully made it to the bottom, Commander, and we await your command."
"Who is our technician?"
"I am, Commander sir," this time it was an older boy named Morris, who spoke up. He sounded much less confidant. He scratched his shaved head behind one of his ears as he did so. Even though he was still a cadet, he was probably Seiferís age, and had a similar build, though not quite the height that he had.
"You may hook up the generator now. You are to stay up here with the generator you have brought with you to make certain that it does not malfunction. Cadets Maxim and Raye will be your support. All others are to accompany me into the sub-basement."
Squall looked out at the remaining cadets. They were all still experiencing varying degrees of nervousness. Irvine stood in the center of the throng, looking placid.
The elevator to the subbasement was slow, and made a thunderous racket, as the clanking of the old chains bounced off the smooth stone walls and back again. Squall looked up, and watched briefly, the field of white light pouring into the black hole grow smaller and smaller, and the encroaching blackness on the walls become darker and darker. Squall watched, even after the light had faded, and the darkness swallowed everything, and the cadets had each begun to turn on their flashlights.
The platform crashed into the bottom of the shaft, causing long waves of sound to reverberate through the cavernous subbasement. Some of the smaller cadets fell down, the force too great for their legs to support them. Squall himself almost pitched over one of the sides, but caught himself right before he could have embarrassed himself. It was terrifyingly dark, with no light but the small circles of flashlights bouncing around on the walls. It was eerily silent, as the reverberations died down and faded into the blackness. The cadets began to whisper amongst themselves, their faces faintly illuminated by the glow. They each took tentative steps off the platform as their eyes grew adjusted to the darkness. Squall stood on the platform a moment longer before stepping off to join the cadets. Briefly, he considered radioing Zell for backup, before discarding it. All of the cadets had assembled themselves on an island of hard packed dirt, in a murky sea. It seemed that distantly, there were ruins of old pillars; a style that Squall recognized from his orphanage, from when it had been still intact.
"What do we do? Thereís water all around us," one of the cadets quavered." So like, weíre just going to have to go in," said Irvine, sitting down on the ground to roll up his pant legs.
"Is it really wise to go in, without knowing what is in the water?"
Irvine sighed and tugged on his pant leg, "does it matter? We have a mission to complete, and we wonít always know whether or not places are safe, so like, letís go." When none of the other cadets seemed greatly heartened by his speech, Irvine sighed in disgust, and stepped off of the island, and into the water.
"See, itís not so bad," he said in a slightly forced tone, "just cold."
Irvine took another step and suddenly vanished from sight, leaving a trail of bubbles, and his cowboy hat, floating lazily on the surface. Squall started, ready to dive in the water and save Irvine, when he appeared again, spluttering and splashing angrily, wet as a dog, "The floor just dropped off all of a sudden!"
Irvine swam off to another patch of unearthed dirt. Hesitantly, each cadet followed. When the last cadet had gotten off the island, Squall himself followed. The water was indeed cold. Squall could feel his muscles tighten, his body slow. It felt relaxing, despite the situation he was in. He butterfly stroked his way over to the island slowly, following the light from the cadetís flashlights. Across the rippling water, he could see the lights break up into glimmering diamonds of light, yellow and a faint blue tinge that seemed to only be getting brighter. Faintly he could hear a musical tone, which only meant one thing to him as the blue light grew stronger and began to illuminate the cavern.
/The crystals are... resonating?
Squall began to speed up. The light was becoming bright enough to see the faces of the cadets. Their looks could only be described as mute horror. Irvine pointed frantically towards Squall.
Squall looked over his shoulder without slowing down, to see that the surface of the water was beginning to break. For the second time in as many field exams, he was being chased for his life.
/If I live though this, Iíll never participate in another field exam againÖ/ he was almost in reach of the island when a pair of thin, ropy tentacles broke the surface and started groping at him. Squall suddenly felt more tired than he had for a long time. He still thought being held prisoner in D-District and being interrogated by Seifer was still more grueling, but this experience was shaping up to be close. Strong arms helped drag him up onto the island. Squall staggered to his feet and drew his sword. The pair of tentacles, cast in with a greenish-blue pall was joined by eight more rising out of the water, groping, feeling. As they continued to break the surface, Squall noticed to his horror, that each pair of tentacles grew from the same stump, almost as if the smaller tentacles were like opposable thumbs and fingers attached to a wrist without a palm. As the main body broke the surface, Squall faintly heard a cadet scream in terror. It had a soft, pulpy body, not unlike an octopus, but only turned on itís side, so that the evil, heavy-lidded, mucous slimed eyes were on the bottom of the body with the tentacles. There were five of them, and in each, a hungry gleam glowed under blue lights, occasionally blinking; the eyelid sliding shut easily over a slick surface of mucous and opening again with the same slimy ease. The pulpy body continued to rise from the water, and unmistakably, the giant, gaping black hole that opened within the center of the body was itís maw. The monsterís mouth was open wide, allowing water to trickle out of the parts that had been pulled from the water. The edges quivered, with no set bones to support the thick lips, though deep within the recesses of itís mouth, thick curved teeth gleamed with the patina of water. It gurgled, and each of the monsterís eyes settled on the party. It reached out with slimed tentacles, trying to reach the creatures that had disturbed itís slumber under the cold water. A bright flash of light and a bang filled the cavern for a instant, and the tentacle drew back momentarily. Blood spurted out of a gaping wound just below where the two opposable tentacles branched off. It gurgled in angry pain, the other tentacles splashing the water, like an angry child pounding his fists on a table. Irvine shook off the recoil from the Exeter, and lined up to take another shot. All of the cadets began to line up, taking swipes and slashes at any of the appendages that got too close. The monster didnít make a hasty retreat, but rather, moved closer still, flailing and gnashing the teeth set deep within itís pulpy gullet. There were five people, standing on that island, himself included, but he felt vastly undermanned standing in the face of that thing. The cadets, more or less getting over their paralysis caused by their shock, began to take position around the monster, slashing, hacking, bludgeoning and shooting at it.
Squall back foot jumped forward, lightly touching the heel of his front foot, then slid his front foot forward, and took his gunblade into one hand, while letting the other hand brace his wrist, and threw his arm into an upward arc, slicing off the last six inches or so off of the nearest tentacle. It seemed the monster had much more to spare. Each tentacle from the base to the double tip appeared to be longer then ten fathoms, and the part of the body that was visible, seemed more than capable of swallowing him whole. Black blood spurted out of the cut as the monster waved it around, enraged. It reminded Squall of a berserk fire hose, spiraling off into the air without anyone to stop it. He had to force himself back from the fight, she skipped back in time to miss the tentacle trying to bring itself back down upon him. It wasnít his fight. He needed to watch the others. If things got really bad, then he could step in, but as of yet, he had to wait for that moment to arrive.
The monster let out a gurgled bellow and groped around the attacking students, intent upon dragging one of them down into the freezing depths with it. The cadets hacked at as many as they could, but they seemed to just keep coming, and the body was drawing inexorably closer. Soon, the slimy bottom lip would be touching the dirt upon which they were standing, and if that were to happen... who knows what it could do? Itís blood poured everywhere from the myriad of cuts that it bore upon itís body, showering the party in putrid, watery blood. Slowly, as the assaults of small weapons from the smaller creatures continued, the monster lowered itís tentacles, and eventually slid partially back under the water, releasing bubbles as gasses slipped free.
Everyone moved cautiously after that; there was no need to fight another monster like that. Everyone had taken at least a few hits, and all were freezing in the air of a place that was unlikely to have seen sunlight in decades, soaked in itís freezing black waters. Searching the subbasement with only their flashlights was a lesson in patience and intuition. Early into their search, the party had found hollow, wooden objects, which they had used as bridges whenever possible before realizing, that they were really bookshelves that been toppled over at some point. After what seemed to be like hours of groping in the dark, they found the safe.
It was half buried in the mud on the edge of another island, and would have remained so, had one of the cadets not tripped over it. It took the combined efforts of everyone to dig it out of the sludge in which it had been entrenched for so long. It was near a cavern wall, and had appeared to have slid out of it. Half-caked with mud, there was an opening in the wall where the safe must have once sat. It took the combined efforts of three of the cadets to carry it through the water, until their search had ended, and had arrived, full circle, to the entrance. On the ride up, everyone seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. Even though the SeeD exam was over, how could anything possibly be worse?
"This monster," Xu gestured towards a projection screen, "is called a Fumadiden. It has been rumored by anthropologists to have been extinct for the better part of a century. It was found in the bottom of the Subbasement in the Deep Sea Deposit under the Deep Sea Research Center by Commander Leonheart and the squad of cadets that he was overseeing for the SeeD field exam."
She pointed at a pair of tentacles, "here, you can see two distinct tentacles spreading out of one base. It enables the Fumadiden to reach for and grab itís prey with ease."
"So, itís like having opposable thumbs, right?" Zell asked. He was leaning forward in his seat, clearly fascinated. Squall stole a quick glance around the room to see that everyone was at least a little interested. Squall himself couldnít have cared less; or at least not at the moment. Having faced the creature, he simply couldnít muster the desire to listen to someone explain itís habits.
"Yes, that is what I have been told," she returned her attention to the screen, "the monster would ensnare prey and craw them towards itís mouth, where it would release itís victim. Then," she said, moving a finger down to gesture towards itís mouth, "it would draw water, and anything that happened to be occupying that space into itís gullet, where razor sharp teeth towards the back of itís throat chew any animal to pieces. It was a marinerís nightmare. The tentacles tend to grow from about thirty feet to about two hundred, with the body being a third of the size in diameter. The one that Squad C had in encountered was in the smallish side, having tentacles that were about fifty-five feet long."
Murmurs began about the room. Squall slid back slightly in his seat, hoping no one would talk to him about it. He was saved from speaking to anyone when Headmaster Cid spoke up from his seat.
"Currently, weíre trying to facilitate a deal with the Esthar Zoological Institute in order to get rid of the thing," he smiled, "for obvious reasons, I doubt that anyone, most of all Commander Leonheart, wants to keep it around, and the Institute is very intent upon having it, as a Fumadiden is an incredibly rare creature. The only problem is shipping. Very soon, I shall send out a SeeD or two to escort the thing in a refrigerated train car to Esthar, by way of Horizon bridge." Cid looked around the room, still smiling. "Therein lies another problem. We are going to commandeer the bridge for as long as the train ride lasts. All that needs to be done is simply iron out the details and pick the lucky few."
"Which," Xu said pleasantly, "brings us to our next order of business. Have all SeeDs present on the field exam turned in their lists?"
"Theyíre on your desk, Xu," Quistis said quietly.
"All right, then. Weíll address the students in an hour, where ranks will be presented. The SeeD ball will start at seven. Selphie, how is everything shaping up?"
Selphie was practically ready to jump out of her seat, "everything is great! Itís going to be a super-cool party!"
"Great. If there is no other business at hand, then everyone is dismissed."
Selphie bolted from her seat and ran out the door. Her boots clomped all the way down the hall from the second floor classroom and towards the elevator.
"Whatís she so excited about?" Zell asked.
"She the president of the Garden Festival Committee. They plan all the parties," said Quistis, sidling up next to Zell, "she probably wants to oversee decoration."
Zell shook his head and laughed, "now this I gottaí see."
As Zell left the room, Quistis turned her attention to Squall.
"You _are_ going, arenít you?"
Squall looked up at her. He hands were on her hips, and she was giving him a decidedly _motherly_ look.
"I guess I have to, donít I? I donít want to stay all night though. Iím really exhausted."
"I suppose you would be, wouldnít you? You should take a shower too, while youíre at it."
Squall gave her an indignant glare, "I _did_ shower."
Quistis waved a hand in front of her face dramatically, "you still smell terrible. It must have seeped into your pores."
Squall stood up and stormed out, followed by Quistisí tinkling laughter.
After taking another shower, Squall headed off for his dorm room. He was too tired to want to congratulate the newest SeeD members, and as he was to see them all at the ball, it wasnít like he was shirking on his duties to his fellow SeeDs. Squall crawled into bed, not bothering to change back into his clothes, or even to crawl under the covers. It felt good to have the water evaporate off of his hot skin, anyway. Before long, he was fast asleep.
Squallís reflexes, sharpened to a battle hardened edge, jumped. Something was moving in his room. There was the almost imperceptible scrape of a hard-soled shoe against the tile, a puff of air like a quiet sigh, the faint rustling of thick cloth. Squall feigned sleep. His gunblade was out of reach, locked away in itís case. He would have to wait for the right moment. The intruder cleared his throat. Squall sat up violently, not knowing what to expect. X. Myles Krystalhart was standing at the foot of his bed, looking as natty as ever. His hands were clasped behind his back at ease. The room as dark, except for the fluorescent light from the hallway, causing him to be backlit, the light picking up the highlights of his red hair.
Squall rubbed his eyes. /How in Hell did he get into my room?/
"Your door was unlocked."
"What do you want?" Squall knew he was being too blunt, but in all fairness, the man had been watching him _sleep_. It bothered him on some poorly-defined level.
"The SeeD ball is starting. I was wondering if you would be so kind as to escort me."
Squall stared at him blankly.
Myles put his hands up in front of him, shaping the air. "I do not like _that_," He sounded slightly embarrassed. "It is just that I have been staying here for the past night or so, but you are the only person I know. I still get lost. I was just asking because I wanted to be with someone I was familiar with. Besides that," he said, his voice silky, "youíre expected at the ball. Come with me. I have much to discuss with you."
Squall rubbed the bridge of his nose, "all right, just allow me a moment to change, Mr.-"
"Please, call me Myles."
"But of course." Myles stepped out the door, looking over his shoulder briefly, before closing it, leaving Squall a moment of uneasy privacy.
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