Phew! Sorry about the long gap in posting to this local people/person. The writing went on collision course with a shed load of work, a week long work trip and two other fics. Ouch. Still, it's done now! Retreats to bunker he's built while waiting for responce... any responce?
The satlink in my helmet is crackling into life again. I ignore it as the first of the skinnies begin their charge. There seems to be something odd about this lot. Unlike the suicide squad who infiltrated the bunker behind us this lot wear the miscellaneous tribal mufti of the regular PLF fighters. But they are advancing with uncanny swiftness and discipline. Small knots of them rush forwards and throw themselves to the ground, supporting in turn the advance of their fellows with spells and rocket fire. It is as steady as it is relentless. Their injured roll themselves away from our spell blasts, denying us the opportunity to fry any rescuers. Despite the open passage they don't rush wildly forwards and try to overwhelm us with numbers.
The whine of the satlink inside my helmet has reached an unbearable high screech. It sounds like someone dragging a rake over a blackboard. I can't concentrate on the Berserk spell I'm trying to cast, and smack the 'receive' button sharply.
"BENNETT! Come in, Gods damn you! BENNE-"
"WHAT IS IT NOW?!" I roar down the link. Below the rage at his stupidity in risking my life by distracting me while I'm trying to keep a lid on this deteriorating battle is a mild surprise. I've finally lost it with my superior officer with only nine days of Time left. Well, let me get out of here alive and the bastards can court-martial me to Trabia and back.
"Soldier, don't cross me! I am in command of this platoon!" crackles across the link back to my earpiece.
My lip curls, but I moderate my tone. The idiot is letting his paranoia get in the way of thirty people's safety, his own included.
"Sir, we have the skinnies back at fifty feet and closing. I'm down to twenty-seven men, and we have no fire support. I can't coordinate and talk to you. Sir."
"Well these are your new orders Bennett. Lump it. Get your ass up here to the bunker. Bring Sergeants Pollack and Troy with you. The place is clean of skinnies now. Pass command of your sections through to your best corporal. The chain gun needs a qualified crew. That's you three, soldier. Only ones in the platoon who've had a gunnery course. Now get me some fire support for this chunk of line before I come down there and tear your godsdamned head off! Merton out."
Damn him. I glance up at the skinnies. Thirty yards now. About a minute till they swamp the trench. I turn on my heel and storm down the line, seething. But I am a Galbadian solider.
Passing her, I snatch at Daytripper's shoulder and bawl into her ear "Val! You're in charge here now! We're up to man the chain-gun. Keep the grunts fighting till we can swing her roun-"
I trail off, shock flooding my system. Now I know what was bothering me about this PLF company. For an instant I am convinced I am dreaming. This should not be, but is.
"Sarge?" asks Val uncertainly, surprised by my sudden loss of speech.
"Hyne, Val" I say.
My voice is shaking. I point at a trio of figures crawling towards the trench. Twenty-five yards. My arm trembles. It feels like lead. Daytripper's eyes follow my outstretched finger to a black leather jacketed individual, almost lost in the mob of guerrillas. Her face blanches.
"No…" she moans softly "It isn't fair! Not now. Only nine days Time…"
Her voice trails away into an inaudible mutter.
I glance behind me at the bunker and cover. The ground between the trench and the bunker is a twenty-six meter marathon, striped bare of cover. The enemy barrage bursts its shells all around the bunker, and the guerrillas' Katsunyas and spells are sweeping all across that open ground. It's lethal ground to cross. What other choice is left to us? I know that even if every grunt in the trench with me where to attack Military Commander Squall Leonheart alone, and we had the Lieutenant and his 'bots backing us, he'd still kill every single soul amongst us. And there are two other Seeds with him. I reach up to my helmet and switch on the satlink to the Fuckwit.
"Bennett, where the hell are you?"
A feeling of inevitability settles on me. Did I somehow know it was going to be this way? A sergeant's duty is to her section, her regiment and her country, in that order. She doesn't figure in the picture. Shitty philosophy.
I hand-signal Val in battle-pidgin while I answer him. My eyes stay fixed on the trio of figures twenty yards away. They are standing up. Charge range.
"Daytripper, tell sergeants, flares. Everyone, interior camp. Luck."
"Sir, we've a SeeD sighting confirmed. Twenty yards. I am evacuating the trench. We can buy you some time sir-"
"Gods sakes, Bennett. Hold on there! We're coming over. Bastards try to kill my platoon will they?"
"SeeDs, Blue. Yah, I know. Getting the grunts out of here now. Get your ass out of here soon as our flares go. On my mark?"
"We're running now, sir. We need covering fire from your 'bots. You must run. That's Squall Leonheart there. Command needs to know! Wish us luck."
I cut the link.
Tendrils of pink mist float down from the sky, expanding. They will form cloud banks in a few seconds, but I no longer look. Instead I am hammering the backsides of my seven surviving section members with Heartbreaker as they clatter one by one up the trench's sole wooden trench ladder. Panicky shouts of alarm in Malisian reach me, oddly muffled.
"Qu'est-ce que c'est?!"
A smile slips across my lips. It is more of a snarl.
"Move it! Move it! Move it!" I yell.
Either side of me Blue's and Lucky Guy's sections are scrambling up the sides of the trench. Behind me I hear the guerrillas' panicky cries give way to ones of triumph. A bearded man, short spear in hand, stands at the opposite lip of our trench, shouting back our flight to his comrades. Six gun shots strike him down, but it is too late. Half-pint, my last grunt turns and sticks her hand down to me.
"Come on sarge!" she calls.
I grab her hand and am hauled bodily upwards. In front of me the ground is alight as the guerrillas rake it with rockets. A blast pitches two of Caster's grunts aside, leaving them to land brokenly on the stony earth. Ahead of me, my grunts are falling left and right. Behind, shadowy fighters are running through the fumes, spells leaping from hip levelled spears. Some fall, as the Command section blasts them back, from the shelter of the bunker.
"GET GOING!" I scream into Rikka's ear.
Hunched over together, we scramble towards cover, her leading. One step. Two steps. I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and turn. Thirty metres to my left Blue is kneeling at the lip of the trench, arms extended. My big friend is trying to lift Caster out of it. They are the last ones in there. Already PLF fighters have jumped in the trench to their right. And one is coming straight through the mist towards them.
I have frozen in mid-step. My posse is in danger. He has stepped out of the mist.
He is clad from head to toe in black. Black boots. Black gloves. Black pants, and zipped up black jacket. The white fur that loops around his jacket's neck is in shocking contrast to the rest of the outfit. A glowing blade trails loosely behind him in his gloved right hand. An eight pound butcher knife.
His brown bangs frame a narrow, oval face. Hawk-like features are stamped onto that, all planes and sharp angles. His eyes, warm brown in the pictures I have seen of him, have turned coal-black. In them, I can see an utter lack of any kind of emotion. Except…concentration?
Like a targeter locking on, my view focuses narrowly down to the little scene taking place in front of me. The battlefield retreats from view. The face-off encompasses almost all of my attention. For some reason I feel detached from this reality, like an observer. This isn't really happening. Not to me. A small part of me notes with mild surprise that I have managed to start sprinting.
Caster is kneeling by the lip of the trench. He has seen the SeeD on the far lip and his torso is twisted, arm outstretched as he tries to cast. Blue is standing behind him, aiming her gunblade straight at their enemy. Beyond the chasm of the trench, he is bending his left leg forward. His left arm rises up, palm outward. His left limbs stretch behind him, his blade still clenched in his right hand. Blue's shot flies past him as he bows his head, his bangs falling forwards. He seems almost to be pushing against some invisible barrier.
And then he disappears.
Now I really am just a helpless observer. In this timeless moment my pumping muscles are clamped into place. My senses still function though. He has vanished off into some extra-dimensional space. In his place, a giantess is rising seamlessly through the shattered ground. She spins vertically upwards, through ground and air, and hangs majestically over Blue and Caster, her arms outstretched to her sides. Her pose reminds me of a diver's just before they arc themselves from the board.
The Guardian Force known as Shiva is a striking sight. Tall and slender as a marble column, she hangs as a woman might in space. But the elemental's body is human only in outline. The Guardian Force is made of ice. Not only white surface ice, but deep ice. The kind found in deep caverns, or under the ice sheet. She glitters in the light, a kaleidoscope of blues and whites.
Her body's skin is not smooth though, but rough. It looks as if it had been chipped into being by a poor sculptor. Her feet are unfinished. Sharp blades of ice rise symmetrically from her arms and calves. Even her hair isn't humanlike. Twin blonde braids flow nearly the length of her body, and the rest arches weirdly behind her elfin features, the ears pointed and set far back on the head. The expression on her narrow face is deadly. She is looking down on Blue and Caster with simple distaste.
I stare up at her, gripped by dumb animal panic. If I could move, I would press myself into the ground, like some rodent trying to avoid the attention of a passing human. I forget everything: who I am, my friends, the battle… The ice elemental radiates a cold chill that pierces me to my bones. I have never felt so insignificant. I am a mortal seeing the full power of the glacier for the first time. It is a vast and patient might, which has worn down mountains.
Still wearing her expression of distaste, Shiva effortlessly raises one arm, a claw-like hand pointing at the trapped Blue and Caster. My world spins at the magical discharge that brief gesture causes. My view of Blue and Caster grows distant. They seem far below me now, two little armour-blue figures who seem to have fallen through the ground onto an ice plain the vanished GF has cast them into.
For an instant I am given a view of a sweeping field of glittering ice. Then the otherworld plain cracks. It shatters into a million shards, and the twin figures on the plain jerk and twitch as the shards fall past them and through the normal brown earth that two perfectly normal sized bodies are now sprawled brokenly across.
I am staring at their battered forms. So still in death. Frost coats their armour and covers their visors. Their faces, the little I can see of them, are pale and blue. I feel a breeze touch my cheeks, stir my hair. My helmet is off then. I fall to my knees next to them. Gently, I touch one still form. So cold. A hurricane is roaring through my mind. I cradle her head. They are dead. Dead, dead, dead…
He is walking towards me, across the frozen mud. It cracks under his boots. Come to see his handiwork. Hatred burns my heart. My mouth spasms. Feral. The hand gripping Heartbreaker clenches. I slide Blue gently off my lap. Goodbye my friend, my sister. I am standing now, going now.
The man stands in front of me. His lips are moving, mouthing meaninglessly. Leonheart is pointed at me.
"Murderer!" is torn from me.
Jumping. Heartbreaker swinging down towards him. Even as I leap I know its no use. No fucking use at all. He is side stepping. Torso twisting, Leonheart pointing. Light –pain - Blackness.
Squall stood panting on the battlefield, unable to believe what just happened. In his mind's eye he saw again, like an ancient film reel. The woman dashes off her helmet, showing a stricken face. She falls to her knees, clutching at one of the bodies. He leaps the trench as another flight of ornithopters roars overhead, blasting the ground abandoned by the fleeing Galbadians. She is crouched over the body as he approaches her. She has seen him. Her face…becomes animal. A snarl. She stands up with her gunblade ready. Instantly his reflexes pull him into a firing stance. He curses his subconscious. This is not what he wants.
Squall shakes his head vigorously. He remembers calling to her to lay her weapon down. She doesn't show any sign of hearing him. Perhaps the shellfire has deafened her. He will never know. Before him she again flings the accusation in his face, leaps, sword raised. Ridiculously open for a counter-stroke, but there is a safer way, and his body is moving, again before his conscious mind quite catches up. The laser bolt takes her at the peak of her jump, passing through her body and pitching her to the side.
Squall stands over the injured solider, blade in hand. The shot struck her in the pelvis and passed through the lower back. Twin fountains of blood gush from the holes rent in her armour. She spasms again as the Military Commander of Balamb Gardens stands over her, for once indecisive. A man who has made a career of making the tough decisions in mini-seconds now doesn't know what to do.
"Squall!" Nida calls urgently "Ishmal says three SAM 08Gs headed their way. They need help."
Squall starts away. Below him the woman stirs. Her eyes flicker briefly open and meet his startled glance. There is pain in that gaze, and a plea. Squall hesitates as he wrestles with the unspoken request.
The tone is pleading him to hurry now. On the battlefield life and death decisions have to be taken quickly. All his life Squall has had to make the tough choices. It was what he was created for. He waits only a few more seconds, until the soldier's eyes have closed again. Leonheart's blade flashes once in the light as it sweeps down.
[Author's note; the tale continues in the next fiction, Storm in the Sword Soul, the first few lines of which are published below: The man lay face down on the frozen mountainside, the snow crushed by his impact. Around him the full fury of the blizzard continued unabated. The man was thinly clad and the ice seared his skin. A lesser being would have been dead in minutes, frozen, or buried alive. But then a lesser man wouldn't have survived the plunge through the concealed crevice, nor the titantic energies that had been unleashed upon him. But he had survived.]