Chapter 14: Red Dawn

Fort Condor could easily be described as a site any army would break against, like waves on a cliff face. The description was true; in hundreds of years of occupation by one defender or the next, never had it been taken by force. The old fort was honeycombed with thousands of feet of underground tunnels and hundreds of chambers. The mountain it stood upon was almost hollow now, every room filled with weapons and munitions and soldiers.

At least, that was what Squall had heard, but he began to doubt it as he looked upon the structure as they neared from the north. The mountain was actually little more than a steep hill, and at its top was a towering structure, a large Mako Reactor. No steam rose from it, and no power seemed to be exuded by the structure. However, what made the reactor more majestic than imaginable was not the edifice itself, but what stood atop it.

The creature was called a Condor, and it was the greatest winged beast that had ever flown in the skies of this planet. It was taller than the reactor, and its wings, folded up flush against its body as it perched atop the structure, would likely have reached so far out as to cast the entire fortress and hill into shadow. The Condor was a rare beast, a benevolent, nonviolent avian, and every generation a Condor would land on the mountain of Fort Condor and lay its eggs, which would hatch one year later. For this reason was the fortress given its legendary name.

"No wonder Shinra is here," Quistis commented. "They can't run the reactor with that Condor up there."

"Then why don't they remove it?" Zell asked.

"Likely because the people here are protecting it," she replied. "Some people are proud of the Condor, and others, like Seifer said, are opposed to Shinra. Mercenaries, people who call it their home, people who love the Condor, and people who fight Shinra . . . They all have a common reason for being at Condor, I'm guessing."

Red XIII had been scouting ahead, as usual, and he came back a short while later, as they neared the mountain, with important news.

"There is a Shinra army massing south of the mountain, apparently being reinforced by infantry and armor from Junon," he stated grimly. "All told, I estimate at least three to four thousand men, plus tanks and artillery."

"Air support?" Squall asked, and Red shook his head.

"They have helicopters, but the Shinra army appears to be lacking any fighter support. My guess is that they do not want to destroy the reactor atop the mountain."

"They'll probably launch a primarily infantry-oriented assault," Squall said with a nod. "With such a delicate target, they'll need to limit the amount of heavy firepower they bring to bear. How prepared were they?"

"They looked as if they were still readying for an assault," Red replied. "Forces were still coming in from Junon and arming themselves. I suspect we will have at least a little time before the Shinra army will attack Condor."

"Then we shouldn't wait," Rinoa added, walking past. "Let's hurry!"

Squall agreed, as did Zell and Quistis, and the party stepped up their pace to the fortress, hurrying across the plains and circling to the east, away from the Shinra army assembling west of the structure. They hurried over rough, broken ground and up the faint incline that marked the beginning of the slope that would become Fort Condor's steep hill. Red found passages that allowed his two-legged companions to easily move over the rough ground, and soon they were very close to the fortress, the hill looming up before them.

It was also Red who spotted the subtle cleft between two cliffs along the approach to the fortress, and after a moment of scoping the entrance, he hurried back to his comrades.

"There is another passage, hidden from prying eyes," he explained. "It leads close to the base of the fortress. I spotted what looked like armed guards protecting the entrance."

"I'll check it out," Squall replied. "Take me there." With that, the pair quickly moved over the rough landscape, and rapidly found the hidden gap in one of the ridges that ran, as Red had explained, all the way to the base of the towering fortress. And along that path, camped quietly within a well-disguised (or rather, well-disguised to eyes other than Squall's or Red's) cave, were a half-dozen well-armed men. Squall moved out into the open, in full view of the guards, and walked toward the entrance. He heard a single alarmed whisper, and detected the subtle whisper of weapons being raised and pointed at him.

"Relax," Squall called out. "I'm not with Shinra."

"Identify yourself!" snapped a brusque military voice.

"My name is Squall Leonhart," he answered. "Have you heard of-"

"What?" One of the guards pushed open the camouflage netting covering the entrance, and looked out, eyes wide. "Holy shit! He's right! It is Leonhart!"

"The guy who fought the President on top of his own headquarters?" asked another soldier, and the first nodded. A moment later, the entire group of guards had emerged, totaling at five wide-eyed, blatantly green young men in their early twenties, and one older, experienced man with clear military bearing. A bandana wrapped around his forehead. The older man looked over the ex-SeeD for a long moment, and nodded.

"So, it is you," he said. "We've heard a lot about you and your friends. Shinra likes to keep a lid on the media, but we can read between the lines well enough . . . and word gets around to those who know where to get the news. Heard you and yours gave Shinra a hell of a time in Midgar."

"I hope we did," Squall answered. "And that's part of the reason why we're here, now."

"I understand," the soldier answered, grinning. "In all honesty, we could use all the men we can get around here. Its looking like the next war to hit Condor's going to be pretty rough."

"We spotted the Shinra army massing to the west," Squall said, nodding. "We knew you needed all the soldiers you could get, so we're here now."

"Hell, you guys are welcome to join in," the soldier added grimly. "Get your people over here. Hope you brought a battalion, because we might just need them."

"I wish we were that lucky," Squall replied, and glanced back behind him, only to see that Red had already turned and bounded away, to fetch their comrades. Within a few moments, Rinoa, Zell, and Quistis came into view, led by Red. The soldier looked over the group, and then at Squall, and frowned.

"Is this it?" he asked, a bit disappointed. "You guys are AVALANCHE, right? From what we heard there had to be a hundred or more of you guys to do the damage you did." Zell burst out laughing at that, and shook his head.

"I guess we should take that as a compliment." he replied. "But no. Its just the five of us, hate to say."

"Well, even if it is just the five of you, you guys are more than welcome to join up," the soldier explained. He turned and led the group into the room they had been guarding, with his comrades replacing the camouflage netting over the entrance. Recessed into the cave was a rope ladder leading up a couple dozen feet toward a metal trapdoor set into the ceiling. "Right this way." They started up the ladder, and Red once more proved his incredible manual dexterity by managing to climb almost as well as his bipedal companions.

The trapdoor opened, and a dozen rifles were pointed down at them for a second. The soldiers protecting the room above quickly retracted the weapons as their guide gave them the all-clear signal, and they were all too happy to help the members of AVALANCHE into the antechamber once they realized who their guests were.

Their guide led the quintet through the passages within Fort Condor, a winding, twisting series of tunnels cut and dug out of the dirt and stone that made up the massive hill. Wooden beams supported the tunnels, and small lights were strung along some passages, while fluorescent lightbulbs and lamps lit other tunnels. Side chambers broke off from the tunnels, leading into sleeping chambers, ammunition dumps, equipment rooms, and so on.

Squall was caught off-guard by the level of awe and attention he and his comrades received as they walked through the lower tunnels of Fort Condor. A motley assemblage of soldiers and civilians, many wearing bandanas like the troops that had greeted them, stared at them as they passed, as if watching legendary heroes walk in their midst. Squall considered asking their guide just what the nature was regarding the stories they'd received involving AVALANCHE's exploits. He would have to admit, what they had done inside Midgar had to have shocked the world; attacking the Shinra Building, fighting Rufus on top of the structure, and then escaping the entire combined Shinra military would certainly catch anyone's attention.

"Command center's up through here," their guide explained as they ascended into larger, wider tunnels and passages further up the side of the mountain. They passed through a doorway into a room barely larger than AVALANCHE's former bunker underneath the slums, though this one was decidedly less well-furnished. A wide wooden table, a white-board, and some maps hung up on the wall defined the furnishings in the room, and a wide, narrow slit in the wall that opened into fresh air provided them a good view of the fortress' western approach, and the massed Shinra army gathered there.

A single blonde man was standing over the wooden table, clad in faded and worn brown and tan camouflage fatigues, a gray bandana wrapped around his head as he looked over a map spread over the table. Another soldier was standing at the narrow window in the wall, using a pair of binoculars to scan the approach and watch the Shinra forces.

"This is General Randolph, commander of Fort Condor's forces," the soldier introduced the man at the table, who looked up. The officer nodded as he saw the newcomers, and rounded the table, extending a hand toward them and offering them a small smile.

"Well, not really 'general' mind you," he explained as he moved among the quartet of humans and shaking their hands, and nodding toward Red. "That's just a title they gave me, since I've volunteered to lead the troops here." He shrugged. "But anyway. I've heard about you people. The five of you caused quite a stir among the Shinra forces in Midgar, enough for them to apparently send agents of the Turks after you. I'm impressed."

"If only that wasn't getting Shinra following us a third of the way across the continent," Quistis remarked, and Rinoa chuckled.

"Well, if you're trying to dodge Shinra, you chose the wrong place to be," Randolph explained. "We've got close to three thousand enemy troops assembled out there, and it looks like they'll be launching an attack in the next few hours. That's a lot more than we've fought before . . . I'm not sure if we'll be able to hold them off this time."

"What's your force disposition?" Squall asked, walking around the table and looking at the map.

"Ah, we've got about a thousand combat-ready troops," Randolph explained, shaking his head. "Unfortunately, while we've got spirit, training and weaponry is something we're bit short on."

"Give me a run-down," Squall asked, noting several important locations on the map, including choke points along the western approach and good locations for ambushes and counter-strikes.

"Of our forces, most of them have firearms," Randolph explained. "A lot of them are older models, cheap weapons available on the black market. Some automatic rifles, sub-machineguns, bolt-action rifles."

"What about artillery?" Squall asked, looking up at Randolph. "Heavy weaponry? Machineguns? Armor support?"

"A few anti-tank rifles," Randolph explained. "Some missile launchers and mortars. We're running low on ammunition, though, as we've been using them pretty heavily. Shinra can't use their heavy weapons on us because they want the reactor intact, but that hasn't stopped us from using ours right back."

"I'm guessing that they're camped outside of maximum range," Squall commented, and Randolph nodded.

"Otherwise we'd be dropping bombs on their heads while they're napping," he replied.

"It looks like the only safe ground to attack from is the west," Squall commented, and Randolph nodded. He tapped several spots on the map.

"All these other approaches are sheer cliff faces or steep, open approaches. Not even Shinra is stupid enough to attack through them. But the western slope is level and there's a lot of ridges; it'll provide them plenty of cover as they advance. That's where most of the fighting has taken place. We've also been spending the time since the last attack readying the approaches with rock slides to trap the Shinra forces as they advance."

"Any chance they'll try to air-drop troops on top of the reactor?" Squall asked, and Randolph shook his head.

"They tried that the first time, but the Condor didn't take too well to helicopters buzzing around over its head. It took to the sky and tore four of them apart before they realized their mistake. They're not going to try to hit it with missiles or snipers, either; that might result in it falling down atop the reactor, or the missiles destroying the reactor. Ground assault with infantry is their only recourse."

"That makes things simpler for us," Squall remarked. "Okay, I've got some ideas. I've fought against and alongside Shinra forces before, so I know how they operate. If they think they're winning, they'll charge headlong into an ambush. I've seen it happen before, and it'll happen again."

"I understand," Randolph said with a nod. "What are you proposing?"

"An initial sortie," Squall replied. He tapped a ridgeline halfway down the mountain slope. "The only thing is, we'll have to make it look like its not a sortie. I propose taking about half of our forces and positioning them on this ridge. When Shinra advances, we'll open fire, and engage them with as much ferocity as we can muster. Make them think that this is where we chose to make our last stand. Then, when it looks like we're about to be overwhelmed, we retreat."

Squall traced his finger up the map, threading between two ridgelines.

"And here is where we spring the trap. The remainder of our troops will be positioned along these two ridges. We'll wait until the majority of the Shinra pursuit is between the two ridges, and then slam them from both sides." Randolph considered his words for a few moments, looking over the terrain, before finally nodding.

"I like it. I'd also suggest that we have troops covering the remaining approaches up the mountain as well; at the very least we'll know if Shinra sends a force to flank our positions when we retreat."

"Good idea," Squall answered. "You said you had rock-slides ready to drop along the upper approaches?"

"Yes," Randolph answered, nodding.

"Good," Squall said. "We should have men ready to trip them in case they do attempt to flank us."

As Squall was speaking, the door leading outside slid open. He and Randolph glanced up, to see a familiar figure enter the briefing room. Squall had been expecting to see him before now, actually, and was surprised he had just appeared.

"Squall," Seifer remarked. "Glad you made it. I just got finished scouting the approach. They're going to move in the next couple of hours. Looks like they're getting mortars ready to shell the approach, too."

"They've never done that before," Randolph remarked, and Squall glanced back over the map. The hastily conceived he'd come up with based on what he knew didn't take enemy artillery - even light mortars - into effect. He frowned. Their strategy relied on holding a few fixed positions, but enemy artillery could quickly ruin that plan. Even light mortars would cause them trouble.

"We'll need a strike team to take out the mortars," Squall said, and Seifer grunted.

"Someone stealthy, yeah," he replied. "I overheard part of the plan when I was outside. Looks like you'll have to be the one leading the defense on the ridge, Squall, if we want to make this look legitimate. That means we'll need someone else."

"Like you?' Squall asked, and Seifer chuckled.

"Stealth ain't my game, Squall, you know that." Seifer turned and started out of the room suddenly, descending into the fortress.

"Where are you going?" Squall called.

"Chow," Seifer grunted, and closed the door behind him.

"So, I noticed something odd about this place," Zell remarked as he sat back in one of the creaky old wooden chairs in one of Condor's living chambers. Quistis had flopped down on one of the cots, exhausted from the long trek to Condor, but she looked up as Red XIII settled onto a thick rug in the corner of the room.

"What's that?"

"Everyone here wears bandanas," Zell explained. "And not just on their heads. I've seen guys with them wrapped around their arms and legs too. Some of them have a whole bunch of them. I haven't seen anyone here who doesn't wear at least one. What gives?"

Quistis stared up at the ceiling for a moment, remembering something regarding the custom of military forces wearing bandanas, and trying to isolate it.

"I think it started a few decades back, among Shinra guerillas and commandoes," she said, thinking. "After a long time and a lot of fighting in harsh environments, they would start making and wrapping themselves in bandanas. They usually did it to mark major battles they'd fought in, or to remember comrades that they lost in combat. I suppose that these guys are using the same idea."

"Y'know, that sounds . . . Kind of appropriate," Zell said, sitting up. He paused, eyes going distant for a moment, and then slowly nodded. "I think we should join them. Get some bandanas for ever person we've lost and every battle we survived." Quistis gazed at Zell for a second, curious.

"Would there be enough bandanas for all of us?" she asked with a sudden smile, and Zell shrugged. He started counting off on his fingers, and frowned.

"Wow, we've been through a lot. Between the reactors, the train battle, the assault on Shinra HQ, Sector Seven, Kalm . . . ." Zell shook his head slowly. "And that's not counting all the people Shinra took from us."

"The rest of AVALANCHE is still intact," Quistis said, but Zell shook his head again.

"Not AVALANCHE," he replied. " . . . other people Shinra killed. The people on the train, the people in Sector Seven, Rinoa's mom, and a lot of others, too . . . ." Quistis watched the brawler speak, and she detected something in his voice, something darker.

"You never told me why you wanted to stop Shinra," she said cautiously. Zell blinked, and then closed his eyes.

"Yeah, well, aside from stopping them from destroying the planet, I've got my own reasons," he admitted. "But I'm not talking about them right now, okay? We've got a battle coming up, and Squall's getting everything ready." Zell rose to his feet, clenching his fists.

"And if we're going to get ready too, the first thing we'll need is cloth. Lots of cloth for bandanas, if we're gonna show just how much those bastards have hurt us, and how much we're going to pay them back."

Fort Condor didn't have much in the way of fine dining,but the rations they did have were better than protein rope. Seifer settled back in a chair in a chamber somewhere deep inside the hill, where he wasn't being bothered by anyone, and absently chewed on the rations he'd gotten from the fort's galley.

Well, they're here, now, he mused. Have to keep an eye out. Suppose its my job to keep them from getting-

There was movement in the passage outside, and he looked up, to see Rinoa standing at the portal tunneled in the rock, seeming a little hesitant to enter the room, but definitely having something to say.

"Seifer?" she called, and he grunted.

"Hey, come in," he replied after a half-second's delay. She stepped into his room, and he watched her move, still amazed at her poise and beauty. That was what had caught his eye back when he'd first met her in the first place . . . .

"I'm glad to see you again," she said after a couple of seconds, and he nodded.

"Same here," he replied. "How long has it been? About a year since I went on that mission, right?"

"That's right," Rinoa replied. "Though . . . I was a bit surprised when you came out of nowhere in the forest. I don't think anyone was expecting to run into someone like you." Seifer nodded, chuckling to himself.

"But, y'know, I was expecting you guys, actually," he replied. "I'd heard what happened in Midgar, and I followed the chatter on Shinra radios to figure out where you guys were."

"You were listening in to Shinra?" Rinoa asked, surprised. "I thought . . . My father said that Shinra encrypts their radio transmissions."

"Well," Seifer answered quickly, "They don't do a good enough job. But it's a moot point, as my radio stopped working a little bit into the forest. But I was able to figure out that you guys had made it to the swamps, and following that I was able to guess what direction you guys would be headed. Turns out I was right."

Rinoa nodded as he finished talking, and after a second managed a wistful smile.

"I wish we'd met again under different circumstances," she said. "There's a whole lot we need to catch up on. And . . .there's a lot I need to tell you."

"You're Cetra, I know," Seifer said bluntly, and Rinoa blinked.

"How did you . . . ?"

"Little things I picked up," he explained. "Like how you always seemed distracted in the church, or how plants seemed to grow around you so easily, and how Shinra troops kept screaming "Find the Ancient!" all the time on their radios. Stuff like that." He shrugged. "Still, doesn't change anything. You're still who you are, just now you've got a price on your head."

"Shinra put a bounty on us?"

"Oh, yeah," Seifer replied, nodding grimly. "They want the rest of your bunch dead, but you're wanted alive, naturally. You all should watch your back . . . ." Rinoa nodded.

'Thank you for the warning," she said, to which he shrugged and waved his hand in the air.

"Nothing," he grunted. Finishing his rations, he stood up. "Well, I have stuff to do around here, like making sure your boyfriend's plans don't explode in our faces."

"My what?" she answered in surprise, and Seifer burst out laughing.

"Just checking," he replied with a smile. "Seeing if you were still available." Rinoa put her hands on her hips and frowned at Seifer as he stepped past her, and put a gloved hand on her shoulder. He gauged her reaction, and was not at all surprised to see her flinch slightly at the touch, as if she was uncertain what to do.

"We'll catch up later," he finished, and stepped out of the room and walked down the hallway, leaving Rinoa by herself, pondering what he meant with his last words. After a couple of moments, she stepped back out into the corridor beyond and looked up and down for Seifer. She didn't see him, and with a tired sigh, she picked a direction and started walking. Several moments passed in silence.

"He's hiding something," came a voice behind her, and Rinoa jumped. She turned around, he remind catching up with her perceptions, and identifying the speaker.

"Red, you need to stop doing that," she hissed. "I nearly jumped out of my skin."

"My apologies," answered the crimson beast as he settled back on his haunches in the corridor. "But you heard him, correct? Everything he said?" She nodded, remembering Seifer's short, quick responses.

"He was defensive," she said, and Red closed his good eye and nodded.

"There were other inflections inn his voice, indicators that he was not being entirely sincere," he continued. "You should be wary around him. He is a self-defined mercenary, after all. What if he decides the bounty that is on our heads is too good to pass up?"

"He wouldn't betray us," Rinoa answered. Red didn't immediately reply, instead using one of his rear legs to scratch behind an ear.

"Are you certain?" Red asked as he finished. "Squall was loyal to Shinra a year ago, and yet he has changed. Can you be so certain the Seifer who you have just spoken to is so like the Seifer that you knew a year previous?" Rinoa didn't answer, and Red rose, his glowing tail flicking about the corridor.

"You should take care, Rinoa," Red advised her as he turned away and started walking up the corridor. "Watch that one closely."

"Okay, everyone ready?" Squall asked, about an hour after he had finished devising the battle plan. He glanced around the makeshift briefing room, which had a few minutes before been just another storage chamber deep within the mountain. A wide table, some folding chairs, and a map of the area around Condor had changed things, and seated around the room were the principle members of Condor's resistance: all of the remaining members of AVALANCHE, General Randolph, a dozen of his officers, and, leaning against the back wall, Seifer. Zell was looking over the map intently, even as he was tying yet another of a dozen bandanas around his biceps for some odd reason, Quistis and Rinoa were giving the placement of troops scrutinizing glances, and even Red XIII was paying attention.

"Since Shinra troops can only advance up these particular corridors," Squall was explaining, mapping out a quartet of approaches leading up to the mountain, "Their paths will have to intersect at this central point. This ridgeline right here is where we hit them.

"I've divided our forces into three companies. Alpha Company consists of about half of our forces. That unit will be led my myself, Seifer, and Zell. Alpha Company will wait here, on the ridge, and will engage Shinra forces as they advance. Once it looks like we're about to be overwhelmed, Alpha will fall back up the central passage running up the side of the mountain."

"And that's where we trap them," Randolph added, and Squall nodded.

"Bravo Company will wait on the ridges flanking the approach, and once Shinra troops have filled the passage, they will fire down onto them from elevated positions. General, you'll have command of those troops." Randolph nodded. Squall then tapped the top of the hill on the map.

"Charlie Company is our backup. They'll cover the other two routes up the mountain and will be manning the rockslide traps. If Shinra tries to flank, we'll crush them."

"What about artillery?" asked one of the Condor officers. Squall pointed toward the base of the hill.

"Before the battle begins, we'll have a small unit of skirmishers descend through the rear passages and slip through the ravines along the south side of the hill. They'll flank the artillery, and once the main force moves up the mountain, they'll attack the artillery crews and disable them." Squall looked up to Quistis. "Quistis, can you handle this?" She nodded immediately, agreeing.

"I'll handle it," she replied. She glanced over the map. "But I'm not sure how fast we'll move with the terrain like this."

"I can assist with that," answered Red XIII suddenly. The beast turned his good eye toward Squall. "If you do not have any objections, of course."

"No, none at all," Squall replied quickly, covering up his surprise that Red had actually volunteered to help, and his even greater surprise that the crimson-haired creature was deferring to him.

"Once the pincher attack is engaged, Alpha Company will counterattack down the main passage," Squall continued. "At this point, we will attempt to push the enemy down the hill. Between the pincher attack and the turned advance, we should throw the Shinra regulars into enough disarray to give us the advantage and drive them off."

"Sounds good," Randolph finished, nodding. "An excellent plan, Squall."

"Let's just hope it doesn't get us all killed," Seifer added.

"Your confidence is underwhelming, Seifer," Squall muttered, and the mercenary grinned and shrugged.

"That's what I'm here for. Disappointing comrades and gutting people I don't like."

Fifteen minutes after the briefing had been finished, Squall has located a side chamber that was relatively unoccupied, and had settled down into a chair. His gunblade was held before him, the revolver chambers open. He removed each loaded shell by hand and checked their individual charges, and then visually inspected the components to make sure that everything was in working order. His hands moved with practiced ease as he cleaned and inspected his weapon.

The simple, basic and repetitive exercise had one other benefit: it was calming down his anxiety. Squall didn't admit it, but he was a little nervous about this battle; the plan was hastily conceived and wasn't perfect. A lot could go wrong with such an intricate plan. The last time he'd been in a serious, large-scale battle like this was when they had retaken Costa Del Sol over a year previously . . . .

Squall banished his pre-battle jitters as he reloaded and snapped the revolver chambers shut. He paused to check his knives, to make sure they were still sharp, and heard motion outside his room. He glanced up, and saw Rinoa standing at the entrance, uncertainty on her face, as if she wasn't sure if she was interrupting anything.

"Something wrong?" he asked her after a second, getting concerned. She hesitated, and then shrugged.

"You . . . You didn't give me any place in the battle, like you did the others," she explained. "I wasn't sure what you wanted me to do." Squall was silent for a moment, and sheathed his knives.

"You're not hardened like the rest of us," he explained after a second. "I didn't want to put anyone green in the line of combat."

"Green?" Rinoa remarked, frowning, putting her hands on her hips. "I've helped out plenty so far!" Squall held up a hand.

"Wait, listen," he said quickly. "Yes, you've helped us fight Shinra, but this is different. This is going to be a full-scale battle. Its not going to be like our little skirmishes. People will be dying all around you. Its going to be hell out there, and you haven't been trained to deal with that kind of chaos."

"I'm not going to let you fight this without me," she replied firmly, and Squall sighed again. After a moment's thought, he glanced back up to her, and nodded.

"I don't want you fighting on the front, but I can think of a good place for you . . . ."

Forty-five minutes later, Squall peered through binoculars as he lay prone, watching the Shinra camp below. The ex-SeeD was outside Fort Condor's protective tunnels, atop the ridge that Alpha Company was rapidly taking positions at all around him. The soldiers moved as quietly as five hundred of their number could, remaining out of sight of the blue-armored Shinra troops below as they took to cover, readying for the onslaught. Behind him, Zell and Seifer moved up behind the ex-SeeD, peering out as well.

"How are we looking?" asked Zell as he prepared to move to the opposite end of the ridge to anchor it. Squall scanned over the Shinra forces, before answering.

"They're positioning mortars to cover their advance," he answered. "Most of the army is moving forward, though," he added, watching as the initial scout units ran ahead of the main advance, the rest of the Shinra army filtering up along the routes leading to the central ridgeline. They advanced cautiously, ready for booby traps or ambushes. Getting the drop on them would be difficult for the troops on the ridge, but that wasn't their intent in the first place anyway.

"I estimate we've got ten minutes before we can spring the ambush on them," Squall finished, looking back as the last of his troops slid into place across the ridge. He noticed a group of raw, inexperienced soldiers gathered together in a close-knit group, and he waved at them, ordering them to scatter. He wasn't going to let a single grenade to wipe out a whole squad of his men at a time.

"Right then," Seifer answered, nodding, hand on his gunblade. "Let's set the table." He moved off toward his end of the line, and the remaining troops readied their weapons, checking and loading their rifles. Zell did so as well a moment later, toward the other side of the line. The motley assortment of troops laid down or ducked behind rocks, a few enterprising troops taking a moment to pull and drop mid-sized rocks in quick, makeshift fortifications.

Silence cut across the ridge as the last of the troops was in place, a still, expectant void of sound, populated only by the faint rustling wind and the quiet breathing of the men all around them. Squall waited, touching the Guardian Forces in his mind, preparing to summon one of them at the opportune moment, the signal to begin the assault. Below, the Shinra army continued to move up, scout units advancing ahead of the main strike forces, securing the approaches. Hundreds of men advanced up the hill, a swarm of blue-armored ants led by red-armored elite troops and a number of green-armored officers. They charged up the hill as quickly as they were able, their metal rifles gleaming in the sunlight.

Squall waited with baited breath, ready to issue his signal as the enemy advanced, and the troops awaited his command with equal anxiety, fear, and anticipation.

Ernst Heidegger was not a patient man, but he knew when to be cautious. The President was adamant that they take Condor, which had been a thorn in the side of the Shinra military for years now. The Condor's presence alone was bad enough, but the fact that there was a solid bastion of resistance this close to Shinra's doorstep, and right between two of their core strongholds - Midgar and Junon - was a monumental embarrassment to the attempts by the Shinra-controlled media to assert their dominance. It was bad enough that far-off places such as Wutai or Cosmo Canyon were still free of Shinra control, but to have one so close to their own heavily-controlled territory was even worse. Not to mention that Rufus wanted no havens for AVALANCE on this continent, and Condor would have shone out as a beacon for the rebels if they escaped the mines. They had to crush the resistance, and now.

Heidegger refused to wait for another additional three battalions to arrive at Condor from Junon - he had more than enough troops to wipe out the remaining resistance now, fortified or not. He didn't care about losses, either, and was determined to prove to Rufus that he could get the job done. His army was larger and better armed than these rebels, and had the full weight of Shinra's military might behind them. These fools had no chance to stand against him.

Thus, Ernst Heidegger stood at the entrance to his command tent as he watched the troops advance up the mountain, a tidal wave of unstoppable forces, the testament to Shinra's military might walking headlong into the enemy's territory to crush them beneath their bootheels. He chomped on a cigar, chuckled to himself, and waited for the inevitable victory.

The scouts had their weapons trained on the ridge, well within range of the first assault. Squall watched them as they advanced cautiously, aware of their vulnerable position, even as the main Shinra force began to exit the channels in the rock and gather before the ambush position. The ex-SeeD peered out over the enemy force, and sighted a pair of green-armored officers directing the army's advance. He marked them, and waited for the officers to move into range.

"Standby," he whispered, and the troops around him tensed up and relayed the command down the line. Squall kept his eyes on the officers as they and the main contingent neared to within a few hundred feet. He touched his Guardian Forces again, and waited, patiently, anxiously, for the moment to strike-

They entered the killzone.

Beneath Squall's sleeve, the red materia flared, and a crack of lightning filled the air, rain suddenly pouring out of the clear sky down onto the Shinra soldiers. They froze, surprised by the sudden shift in the weather, and then lightning slammed into the ground before them. Several men shouted in shock at the flash of electricity, and then the bolt of light transformed into an eyeless winged snake-like being, lights flashing across its body. There was only a moment's time to realize what they faced before the Shinra soldiers were covered by a torrent of lightning, blasting through their formations and over the two commanding officers. A hundred men were hurled off their feet as the lightning crashed and danced among them, and the specter of Queztocotl withdrew in a flash of static electricity.

The Guardian Force had barely ended its attack when five hundred rifles and sub-machineguns erupted along the top of the ridgeline. A torrent of steel, a rain of bullet casings, and a tidal wave of roaring reports echoed across the ridgeline as the Condor soldiers let loose into the Shinra troops below them. Hundreds of men fell instantly as the ambush went off, some Condor troops recklessly emptying their entire magazines into the enemy. Squall focused once more and called forth the raging demon of Ifrit, which burst from a fiery orb over the field of battle and cast its glowing golden eyes on the troops below. A cascade of fire flew from the demon's arms and into a portion of the field, burning blue-armored troops to the bone and melting their armor and weapons in their hands in a cataclysm of reddish-yellow hell.

But the Shinra soldiers, while off-guard, were disciplined and did not break ranks under the onslaught. Across the field, as they dove for cover and dropped to their knees or stomachs, they raised their rifles and returned fire. A storm of gunfire to match and exceed that of the Condor soldiers erupted from below, over a thousand men returning fire all around the ridgeline. Dozens of Condor troops fell in an instant, riddled with bullets. Squall ducked behind the ridgeline even as a young soldier fell to the dirt beside him, his chest shredded by dozens of bullets. All around him, the less-experienced Condor soldiers fell back behind cover under the intense gunfire surging up from below.

"Hold position!" Squall ordered as he focused and stepped out, firing a blast of lightning into the enemy ranks below, striking down two foes. "Hold the line! Return fire!" At his command, several troops did manage to lean out to return fore, the more seasoned and experienced soldiers among them leading them in the exchange of ripping metal bullets.

Then a storm of explosions filled the air around Squall as enemy mortar rounds fell on his position, dozens more of the Condor soldiers were blasted part or hurled away by the artillery rounds. Men scattered, some out into the open where they were cut down by the enemy below, and there were shouts and calls for retreat as a second volley slammed into the ridge. Squall shouted at the top of his lungs, keeping the soldiers organized and engaged as he fought on.

Smoke, roaring weapons, screams and shouts, brass casings, and bullets filled the air around the ex-SeeD as he continued to rally his troops and launched spells down into the enemy, even as the ridgeline seemed to tear itself apart all around him.

Quistis could hear the dull, hollow whoomphs of firing mortars and the distant clash of combat up on the hillside as Squall, Zell, and Seifer's forces fought on, under the rain of destruction. She crouched low to the ground, behind a boulder, and advanced slowly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mortar teams. Behind her, two dozen soldiers advanced with her, the extent of the skirmishing team Squall had given her to strike the mortar positions.

There was movement beside her, and she looked up to see Red slink back around behind the boulder, returning from his scouting trek.

"A large number of men, more than forty, one hundred feet ahead, just beyond the ridgeline," he explained. "They have set their mortar position there to bomb our forces."

"Any other mortar positions elsewhere?" Quistis asked, and Red shook his head.

"Their current position gives them the ability to fire at any point along the cliffs or hillside. They need to take no other positions to fire on our troops," he added. Quistis began to wonder how Red had figured all of this out, but decided not to question his judgment. He had already shown remarkable mental ability already . . . .

"Let's move," she said, nodding toward him. "Lead the way."

Red started off, and Quistis and her skirmisher unit followed as he threaded his way through a series of boulders and broken ridgelines, until they reached the base of a small hill. Atop the hill they could see well over a full platoon of men clustered around a dozen metal tubes atop bipods, angled toward the hillside. The Shinra soldiers loaded the mortar launchers, carefully adjusting their angles, and let fly with another volley of shells over the hill and toward the ridgeline. Two men manned each mortar, one aiming while the other loaded, and the remaining dozen troops stood guard around the top of the hill.

Quistis knew that they didn't have time to wait around and get into position; they had to strike now, for every shell that was fired was another group of their soldiers or possibly friends that would die. She glanced to Red, who nodded, clearly thinking the same thing, and gestured to her troops to launch a full-on attack. She raised her hand toward the enemy and fired a blast of ice magic, and they raised their rifles. The storm of deadly-accurate gunfire tore into the sentries on their side of the hill, eliminating them in moments, and the Condor warriors rushed up the hill even as the sentries fell. Shouts of alarm and surprise filled the air, and gunnery crews abandoned their mortars as the skirmishers burst over the top of the hill, Red XIII leaping into the midst of the enemy. His claws flashed out, ripping the life from one man as he landed in their midst and sprang on the offensive.

Quistis was right behind him, her rante snapping up and into a man's chest in a quick swing of her chain, and the skirmishers with her opened fire. The mortar crews were still going for their weapons as they were cut down. Red fell upon another sentry as he rushed toward the battle, and Quistis cast another spell, an arcing bolt of lightning that cut down two more of the enemy. The remaining Condor troops continued to fire as the few Shinra survivors rushed to engage them, taken completely by surprise.

Within seconds, the remaining sentries were down and the mortars were silenced. The skirmishing unit moved quickly to set demolitions around the mortars and then retreated as quickly as they came, before any other enemy troops could rush to the scene of the battle. The bombs planted, the Condor warriors retreated, setting off the explosives as they abandoned the hill and disappeared into the ravines beyond, leaving nothing but explosive flames and corpses in their place.

Hidden atop the cliffs on either side of the channels leading up to the top of the hill, the remaining troops of Fort Condor could only watch helplessly as their comrades weathered the storm of artillery and gunfire. General Randolph stared grimly as he crouched behind a boulder, scanning the battlefield with his binoculars.

Rinoa watched the explosions cover the top of the ridgeline, and horror swept through her at the sight. She lost track of Squall, Zell, and Seifer in the roiling clouds of smoke, but moments later, magic burst from the swirls of dust and debris, striking down more Shinra soldiers. She watched in helpless fear as the ridgeline took a second barrage, and then a third, and then a fourth, the Shinra artillery pounding away at their defensive positions with ruthless lethality.

But as the bombardments continued, Squall fought on, firing blasts of magic. On either end of the ridge came more blasts of ice and lightning and fire, as Zell and Seifer anchored either end of the defensive position as best they could, enduring the bombardments with stubborn tenacity. None of them wielded firearms like the other troops did, meaning they had to rely on magic to strike at their foes, but that could also be a hindrance; bolts of lightning stood out on the battlefield, and that would draw attention from the enemy below, which would in turn draw gunfire.

Rinoa watched the battle unfold, and saw the explosions cease after the fourth bombardment, which heartened her, but only a little. The enemy below was swarming around the ridgeline, moving to flank and envelop the defenders even as their comrades below the ridge kept them pinned down behind cover. Already some of the Shinra troops had mounted the ridgeline and were fighting the Condor troops in close quarters with rifles, knives, and tonfas.

She forced herself to focus, and closed her eyes, tearing her vision away from the battlefield below. She had to help her comrades, and in order to do that, she filtered out the roar and screams of the battlefield before her, and focused on a deeper sound, an intrinsic and flowing melody that thrummed beneath her feet and hands as they touched the stone: the song of the planet itself.

A gloved hand slapped down over an enemy rifle, knocking the weapon down and away from Zell's stomach. The Shinra soldier squeezed the trigger, and a burst of gunfire slammed into the ground behind the brawler as he planted a swift right cross over the soldier's faceplate. The helmet crumpled inward, and the soldier was hurled backward, dead or unconscious. Another soldier came in right beside the fallen one, and Zell's left hand slammed down over the rifle once more, knocking it down with such force that it was torn out of its wielder's hands, breaking a finger as it went. The brawler caught sight of another soldier raising a rifle toward him out the corner of his eye, and clamped his right hand over the disarmed trooper's throat and lifted him up. He moved the seized soldier in the path of his comrade, and the soldier's body shook under the impact of bullets, even as Zell called up a bolt of flame from his materia and sent it crashing into the shooter. He then spun and flung the body of the grabbed soldier into a cluster of enemy soldiers clambering up onto the ridge.

On either side of the line of Condor troops, Shinra soldiers had mounted the ridge and were attacking in close quarters. Condor troops met them, but undisciplined as they were, many were falling to the better trained Shinra regulars. With heavy gunfire coming from below, the Condor troops couldn't keep the enemy from streaming over the rocks and ridgeline to attack them. In the swirling chaos of the artillery bombardment and the flying dust and debris and bullets, the troops were disoriented and unable to mount an effective resistance.

Naturally, though, that was where Zell came in on his end of the line. An uppercut slammed into another Shinra soldier, doubling him over and rupturing armor and organs, and launched him into the air. Zell then stepped forward into a rising side kick that smashed into another soldier's chin, snapping his head back and cracking the man's neck as he was flipped backward through the air. A tonfa crashed into the side of Zell's head, shaking him for half a second, until he grabbed the Shinra soldier's wrist and flipped him over into the air, before smashing a boot down into the man's chest with bone-crushing force. Even as he was finishing off that foe, Zell sent a bolt of magic into the enemy's midst, a blast of ice that struck down a pair of Shinra soldiers. He leapt over the fallen enemy as more Condor soldiers, inspired by his fierce example, fired upon the enemy trying to surround the brawler. With fellow soldiers covering his flanks, Zell fought viciously to anchor his end of the line and keep the Shinra advantage of numbers from crushing their defense.

On the opposite end of the line was a similar story, though it was told through a slender, whipping gunblade, as opposed to the fists and feet of a raging brawler. Seifer Almasy flowed among is enemies, his light-weight weapon striking and stabbing with deft precision. A Shinra soldier swung a tonfa at him, to have it batted away and countered with a swift and lethal cut to the throat, severing his arteries. Another raised his rifle at the mercenary, to which Seifer shot toward him in a quick leap, knocking the rifle aside with a quick parry and spinning around, gunblade slashing into the man's neck and severing his head. Gunfire slashed at the mercenary, and he leapt backward, magic crackling down his fingers as he pumped a fire spell into the firing foe, burning away his armor and the flesh beneath it.

The mercenary ducked forward into a roll without missing a beat as two more soldiers opened fire on him, and came up before them with gunblade cutting viciously. Hyperion slashed through one man's throat before flying backward, stabbing into the second soldier's gut. The mercenary squeezed the trigger, and a flash of sonic destruction sent the remains of the unfortunate soldier flying backward off the weapon. Magic chased the flying soldier, a flash of flame that crashed into another soldier and tossed him away. More Shinra soldiers swarmed up around the rocks and the ridgeline, trying to overwhelm Seifer's position, and he dove into the enemy horde heedlessly, gunblade rending brutally into the Shinra troops.

But while Seifer and Zell were tearing into the enemy and anchoring either end of the defensive line, it was Squall, at the center of the ridge, who kept the Condor troops rallied. He was constantly moving and shouting, directing fire at enemy concentrations, heartening his troops, and launching bolts of magical energy into the enemy forces below. Soldiers who were cowering behind cover took heart as he neared, and emerged to return fire even in the face of overwhelming enemy gunfire.

Amid the smoke and swirling dust and chaos, Squall was the central rallying point for the Condor troops, and he called forth Quetzocotl once more, unleashing the Guardian Force on his enemies below in a storm of crackling white lightning that tore into the Shinra soldiers. Rock shattered, men flew into the air, and the gunfire below was momentarily silenced, allowing the Condor soldiers to take momentary control of the situation with a renewed barrage of gunfire that ripped into the enemy, laying low scores more Shinra troops in a matter of seconds.

Though they had regained a momentary advantage, however, Squall knew that they could not hold. The troops on the flanks would only be able to beat back the troops flanking their position for so long, and Zell and Seifer couldn't be expected to fend off hundreds of Shinra troops. Though more then eight hundred of the enemy was wounded or dead below, nearly a third of Squall's own force had fallen to the Shinra soldiers and their artillery. Many more were wounded and some were running low on ammunition. If they held their position, then they would be destroyed completely. They couldn't stand here any longer.

"Begin retreat!" Squall ordered as he launched another spell into the enemy below. He grimaced as he fired the spell; he was running low on magic, and could only afford a few more powerful spells before drawing fresh magic. He drew his gunblade as he shouted, ordering his troops to retreat again, even as his gauntlet flared with summoning magic once more. Up and down the line, Condor troops relayed the command, and men began to pull back, starting from the center of the ridgeline and hurrying up the channel in the rocks directly to their north. The troops along their flanks held their positions, guns blazing as they worked to keep the enemy from swarming upon them. On either side, Zell and Seifer redoubled their own attacks, seeming to hold either flank almost single-handedly. Shinra troops fell before them, but pressed their attack, and men on both sides were slain by the score in those few moments of hellish combat.

Squall finished his summons as the centerline troops finished disengaging and fled up the channel. Even as he was finishing, though, he had to choose where to direct the attack, as both flanks were being overrun, and then made a snap decision.

Zell was not the kind to give ground in a fight, but he had no choice at this point; the Condor troops along the flanks were suffering badly and were falling back, and he did so as well. The brawler caught a tonfa with one hand and spun the weapon's swinger around, slamming him into a boulder, and planted a kick to the man's gut that shattered his lower torso and cracked the boulder beyond. He ducked back, giving ground as he deflected another club with a left elbow and planted a solid right hook to the attacker's jaw, smashing it and launching him away.

More troops swarmed toward Zell, however, and as he backed away, they leveled their rifles at him. He dove for cover behind a boulder as a rain of steel etched across the ground in front of him and over the boulder. Covering fire from the remaining Condor troops forced the enemy into cover, and Zell emerged, leading with a blast of lightning, and dashed for the secure channel that the rest of the army was retreating to. Several Shinra troops, however, seeing their chance, stepped out of hiding and pointed their weapons at Zell, sighting on his back.

Then a torrent of hellfire cascaded over them as Squall called Ifrit down atop the enemy pursuing Zell. As the Shinra soldiers burned away into ash and molten metal and armor, the surviving troops dashed for cover, making it to the channel before the Shinra troops could recover.

Squall wasted no time observing his comrade's escape, instead turning toward the ridge where Seifer was making his stand, readying another summon to cover his retreat. However, as his eyes fell on the defenders, he realized it almost didn't matter.

Seifer was battling ferociously, gunblade cutting and slicing in the air before him in a dazzling display of violence; every cut sent another Shinra soldier to the ground. However, with the exception of barely a dozen Condor troops who were beating a hasty retreat, none of the flank Seifer had been anchoring was intact; the Shinra forces had wiped out nearly the entire force on that side of the ridge. Squall quickly focused and began to summon Shiva even as Seifer and the few surviving soldiers retreated before the hordes of Shinra soldiers pursuing them.

Shiva burst into the air as the few remaining troops rushed for the channel, and sent out a powerful wave of frigid cold that swept over the Shinra soldiers foolish enough to pursue the retreating troops. The magic stopped their advance cold - quite literally - freezing the soldiers in place. As Shiva vanished, Seifer and the ragged remains of his force rushed to relative safety, and Squall followed with the last of the surviving troops. Behind him, bullets slammed into walls and boulders, chasing the fleeing troops as they fell back.

"Inside inside inside!" Squall shouted as he cast another spell, and a barrage of ice took another enemy soldier off his feet as he lined up a shot at the fleeing troops. The last of the Condor soldiers rushed past Squall, Seifer hot on their heels, and the two mercenaries met an instant later. Both men broke and ran up the channel as bullets filled the air behind them, the Shinra troops firing on the run. Stone and dust screamed through the air, but both men made it inside the channel without taking more than a few near-misses that nicked their clothes.

Towering cliff faces and ridges rose up on either side of the two ex-SeeDs, and they followed the remaining Condor troops - les than two hundred and fifty out of the five hundred they had started with - as they closed in on a series of sandbag and concrete bunkers directly ahead, where the channel opened up to the top of the hill. Behind them, they could hear Shinra soldiers shouting and calling for pursuit, chasing the clearly routed enemy. The two mercenaries barely managed to jump over a sandbag barrier, where Zell was crouched behind, when rivers of gunfire shot toward them, slamming into their defensive emplacements.

"Wait for it," Squall hissed as the surviving men frantically reloaded and tightened bandages. The Shinra forces closed in, continuing to fire, believing they had the enemy pinned down. They advanced, clogging the channel with hundreds of men, as hundreds more moved around the passage and tried to envelop the defensive position via other routes.

"Wait for it," Squall whispered. More bullets slammed into their position, the enemy drawing closer, almost into grenade throwing range. Squall touched his Guardian Forces, readying them for another strike. Seifer clenched his gunblade in his hands, and Zell's fingers twitched nervously.


At that moment the entire remaining Condor military rose from their hiding places along the channel, shouldered their weapons, and took sight at the enemy below, clogged tightly together and with no cover. Grenade pins were popped, and the few missiles that the Condor soldiers had were launched on trails of burning rocket exhaust. Explosions shot up and down the channel, amid the tightest concentration of the enemy, shredding through the blue-armored soldiers like scythes cutting wheat. Hundreds of rifles blazed, and gunfire stormed down upon the Shinra soldiers amid the explosions, felling hundreds more in a matter of moments.

Squall, Seifer, and Zell, and their surviving troops arose as the Shinra advance faltered, the men firing at them turning their eyes upward at the ambush. The Shinra troops, frozen in split-second indecision, were prefect targets, and the survivors of Alpha Company emptied their magazines into the enemy in a storm of righteous vengeance. The three leaders of the force dropped storms of magic upon the enemy, and lightning and fire cut through the hapless enemy soldiers even as they turned to face the new threat.

The survivors felt rain strike their helmets and armor, an instant before Queztocotl emerged once more. The hurricane of wind and the roar of lightning coursed through their ranks, and what few men remained standing from the gunfire and magic were hurled off their feet by the wrath of the Guardian Force of thunder.

The soldiers flanking the channel heard the screams of their comrades and the roar of explosions and gunfire, and rushed up toward the top of the hill to dislodge the enemy and pull victory from the jaws of adversity. They rushed as fast as they could, weapons ready for any ambush.

However, they found not enemy troops waiting for them, but the forces of natural rock and gravity. The ground beneath their feet began to vibrate slightly, and then grew in intensity over the next few moments, and the roar of tumbling boulders drowned out the blazing gunfire and screams of the dying. They looked up, in time to see a literal avalanche of bouncing boulders, sliding gravel, and every kind of stone in between sweeping down the passages toward them. Either side of the approach to the top of the hill was suddenly inundated with the descending stones. The lead troops stood transfixed in shock and understanding of their doom, while the middle troops turned in fear and desperation to escape. The rear soldiers, not immediately grasping the threat, served only to slow their own allies down as they fled. The rocks crashed into the lead Shinra soldiers, ran down the middle of the columns, and plowed under the shocked rear soldiers that did not break and run instantly.

The flanks were thrown into disarray as the mountain crashed atop them, and the troops in the central channel were ambushed and under fire from all directions. Officers tried to rally resistance, but they were unable to gain order amidst the chaos and the dying, and near panic took the Shinra force. Many men broke off in impromptu retreats, rushing back down the channel and to open ground where they had a fighting chance. Those who did not flee were rapidly being gunned down, and the truly unlucky ones found themselves facing the gunblades and fists of the frontline leaders of the battle as Squall, Zell, and Seifer drove into the scattered remnants near their defensive position. Arms were severed, heads and helms were cloven, and broken corpses were hurled backward amidst the chaotic gun battle.

The enemy made to flee, but Rinoa, who had been sitting silently atop the cliffs, had finished listening to the planet's earthly song, and had quietly inserted her own faint twang and chords into the order of the land. Between the ridge where Alpha Company had made its stand and the channel that was filling with enemy dead, the earth shifted, twisted and shot up in an explosion of jagged stones. Dozens of men were torn apart by the riding earth, and those that were trying to flee found themselves trapped between the rising stone and the raining gunfire. Even as they sought an escape or turned to fight back, the warriors of Fort Condor fell upon them, gunning them down in a torrent of raging rifle reports and explosions.

Those soldiers who did not throw down their weapons or were not outside the rising rock formation Rinoa had conjured were methodically cut down and sent to the cold, blood-stained stone. Less than three minutes later, the last Shinra soldier who fought on fell to the ground at the end of Squall Leonhart's gunblade, and silence filled the field.

Ernst Heidegger stared in abject terror as his men - the eight hundred or so men who were still alive - fled down the mountain, gunfire chasing them as Condor snipers harassed the routed Shinra army.

"Re . . . retreat," Heidegger whispered, realizing the magnitude of his failure. He spun toward his officers and assistants. "Retreat! Get them out of there! Get our vehicles ready to move! Before those Condor bastards come after us! Retreat, dammit!"

President Rufus was going to be furious, and Heidegger was honestly terrified.

The total tally of the dead: far too many.

Squall stared out over the piles of dead, and at the parts of men that were barely recognizable. He looked over the Condor troops who had struggled through the ordeal, at the brave men who had stood on that ridge and weathered hell and fought on, now waling dumbfounded across the field and looking for their fallen brethren. He looked over the jagged stones Rinoa had called and the settled boulders, and the pieces of men still visible beneath them.

How many Shinra troops died for that reactor? How many of this own fortress' for that Condor?

Squall didn't know, and as he looked over the carnage, carnage that he had wrought, he felt a hand touch his shoulder. He glanced over its slender fingers, and into Rinoa's face, and put his own hand over hers. She steppe dup beside him, and he nodded, as if to answer her unspoken question.

They were alive, and had survived that hell, unlike so many others. They would live to see another day, at least.

"No, no, no," he muttered quietly into the radio. "You think I could do a damn thing in that mess? I was lucky, too. I could have gotten killed out there, you know that."

The sniper looked over the battlefield below, and sighed.

"No, I didn't get a shot at Heidegger either, Mr. President," he muttered. "I did get a few Shinra troops, though. No. No sir, they don't know about me, not yet . . . But I think they've got suspicions."

He paused, and nodded.

"Yes sir, I understand. I'll keep an eye open, sir. Goodbye."

Yes, I know its been way too long since I updated this fic. The large-scale battle here was very difficult to write and develop for me, but I'm glad I managed to pull it off. Hopefully updates will be a little more frequent.

Until next chapter . . . .