The Twin Dagger Conspiracy
Timothy J. Horstmann
“Leaving it All Behind”
It was unusually cold in the Garden that night. Almost too cold for April, Mark thought, as he crept out of his room, trying his best to be quiet. If he was caught by the Disciplinary Committee again…well better not to think about that. He had been caught twice this month already, and he wondered why he was stupid enough to risk a third. Such stupid rules…the things for which he had been caught were silly, but that had no bearing when it came to the Committee, now that the “Three Strikes” rule was in effect. He almost laughed, thinking of the results the new rule could bring. So many potential SeeDs, dismissed for smoking a cigarette, stealing an extra hot dog from the cafeteria, or leaving the Garden without permission…what was the point of such a rule? Everybody broke the rules. For a second Mark thought, couldn’t the rules be changed? He shook his head. He didn’t have the time or patience to attempt to change the rules. And what was the point in trying anyway? What he was about to do went far beyond “breaking the rules.” He was about to shatter them. Breathing heavily, he clutched his twin knives that were strung on his belt and skulked down the hallway.
As he worked his way to the end of the hall, Mark thought about Shannon. The hardest part of leaving was not being able to tell her anything. As far as she knew, he was still going to meet her tonight under their tree. He felt a little guilty about lying to her, but he shrugged it off-it wasn’t worth the thought. Still, it would have been wonderful if she could have come with him. But he knew she would never leave the Garden. She had passed the written test, and was almost a Seed at the age of fifteen! He grew angry, thinking about his test. He had slaved away here for ten years, yet would never be a SeeD. He had failed it three times now, and now that he was eighteen could not take it again.
Mark clenched his fists in anger as he stood before the window on the second floor. He stood there, waiting for the feelings to pass, as they always did. Eventually he unclenched his fists. Opening the window, Mark climbed out and began the descent down into the training center.
Mark knew he would not be missed if anyone came looking for him. Thursday was his night to meet Shannon, so if his roommate woke up and discovered him gone, he wouldn’t wonder. He slinked down the halls of the silent Garden, watching for any of the Master’s staff. Now those were some weird bastards, he thought. He could never tell if they were male or female, not even if they were human. They gave him the creeps.
Mark jumped, cursing his bad luck, and quickly rolled under one of the benches. He breathed heavily, praying the owner of the voice wouldn’t see him. His only advantage was the inky darkness of the night sky. He looked up and saw with satisfaction that it was a new moon.
Whatever the voice was, Mark could hear it creeping closer, and he knew if he stayed under the bench he would be trapped like a rat. He shifted his pack as quietly as he could, removing a small throwing knife. He held it at the ready, his breath coming in short gasps. As the figure shuffled closer, Mark tensed his body. The fingers of his left hand twitched in anticipation. He waited. The thing walked closer. He held his breath. It took another step. His stomach shriveled. The thing was only a step away now…but then it turned, and ran away. He shivered in fear-the last thing he needed was to fight off one of the guards. He crawled out from under the bench, and took off running towards the exit. He kept the knife in his hand.
“The Residue Of Dreams”
Shannon awoke the next morning, the residue of dreams clinging to her like cobwebs. She looked at the alarm clock on the desk and realized she had slept through her morning classes-the second time in a week-and that the dorm was silent. Probably all at the cafeteria, she thought. She shivered, thinking of the scare she’d had the night previous. On her way home from the training center, she had thought she was done for-she could have sworn she’d heard a noise, most likely from one of the Master’s goons. She had run home, forgetting in the process to call Mark and demand to know why he hadn’t shown up last night.
Flouncing out of bed, she pushed the thoughts to the back of her mind, readying herself for the task at hand. The Field Exam was fast approaching, and she was lucky enough to participate. She felt bad for Mark, since he had failed the written test. She quietly undressed and headed for the bathroom. If she hurried she could still make it to afternoon classes.
“On The Road”
Mark awoke with a start, the sound of a motor bike roaring through his ears. It must be afternoon, he thought. He had spent the majority of the night walking aimlessly, not quite sure where he was going, just putting one foot in front of the other. He had eventually collapsed from exhaustion, sleeping in a ditch on the side of the road.
He stretched out painfully upon his bed a of stones and twigs and sat up, moaning as he removed the stones that stuck to the back of his shirt. He looked up at the sky and saw he had been right-it was probably mid-afternoon. Which meant he would have to hide out for a few more hours before he got moving again. He looked around for a better place to sleep, and after a few minutes’ search found a nice bed of pine needles deeper within the forest that sat along the road. He stretched out again, ready for anther nap, and dozed off into a day-dream.
Throwing the swivel chair with a curse, he snarled viciously, watching it explode against the wall. He had failed the written test again. Now he would never become a SeeD. He was on the verge of crying. He would almost certainly be forced to leave the Garden soon, he thought. First his questionable behavior, now his third straight failure…Headmaster Cid would probably request a conference in the next few weeks. How he had looked forward to the Field Exam this year! The exam was the one chance to get away from the Garden, but now he would be forced to sit here, until they got around to kicking him out, he thought. “God damn it!” he screamed. He kicked the remnants of the sorry chair and stormed out.
Mark awoke several hours later to see that a cold damp mist had settled upon him in the early evening. He got up, shivering, and headed out once more. He had decided to stay on the old Balamb road, and just head for the town. His instincts seemed to be taking him in that direction anyway. Maybe the informant he had been promised would be there. He really had no idea why he was here, or why he had left the Garden. The other night a woman had come to him in a dream. She was frighteningly beautiful, yet strangely familiar. She spoke to him then, telling him to go to the training center the following morning. Her voice had sounded like an ill-tuned musical instrument.
When he went to the training center the following morning, he had found a note, telling him to leave Balamb Garden right away that night. So he did. Why had he left? A part of him had done it simply to get away from the place. He guessed that he probably just needed a vacation for a few days. But another part of him knew the note was important, was a summons, and that it meant something. He had been chosen.
As he walked down the old Balamb road, holding the note he had found, Mark noticed how foggy it was tonight. Not a single star could be seen in the sky. Was it still a new moon? he thought. Surely by now he would be missed. He figured that the earliest the Garden staff would start looking for him would be Tuesday, after the Field Exam. He had three whole days, more than enough time to reach Balamb and find out what the note meant. More than likely it meant nothing, and if that was the case he would just blow his money on liquor for three days before returning. But something told him that such wasn’t the case, and he quickened his pace. If he was lucky, he would reach the town by early morning.
The town of Balamb looked about the same-run-down, dirty, and depressing. The same old gas station-did it even work?-with the same owner, baring the same toothless grin behind the window. The same old flats downtown, with strips of paint peeling off everywhere. How could people live here? he thought. As he walked toward the Balamb Hotel he wondered why the owner bothered to keep it in such good shape. Hell, most of the people who lived here couldn’t even afford one night in the place. Why did the guy care so much? Mark kicked at the cobblestones in the walkway and trudged in through the door.
As he walked into the common room of the hotel Mark saw a man sitting alone at a table in the corner. Once his eyes had adjusted to the dim lighting, Mark saw that the man was rather unremarkable, even plain, in most aspects of his figure-average height, average weight. He wore a heavy cloak that masked much of his face, but that could have been due to the weather-it was unusually cold for the season. He did not stand out in any perceivable way. But after looking around the room Mark knew that this was his man-there was something about him that made the other customers, who were seated as far away from him as possible, uneasy in their attitudes. They looked at Mark briefly, but quickly averted their gazes as he began to approach the strange man.
“So I assume you’re the informant?” he asked quietly as the man motioned for Mark to join him.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” the man relied. He spoke with a deep guttural accent, and formed his words carefully, as if each word was a new challenge he had never before experienced. He abruptly stood up to leave, dropping an envelope on the table. “Read that, and you’ll know what to do. We’ll be seeing you again.”
“But,” Mark said, “who are you? Who’s hiring me?”
“You had the dream, correct?” Mark nodded. “There’s your answer.”
“But who are you? I want to know!” Mark raised his voice as he spoke, and several of the customers turned to look at him.
“That doesn’t matter,” the man replied in a hushed tone. “All that matters is you read that,” he said, pointing to the letter again.
“At least tell me your name,” Mark whispered, afraid the other customers would hear. He glanced around and saw with relief they had gone back to their morning meals. “I’d feel better if I knew if,” he added.
“Then call me…Joniah. Our last mercenary called me that. A pity his services were no longer needed. But I must be off now.” Joniah swept his cape around him and headed towards the exit. After the door had safely closed behind him, the air seemed to heave a collective sigh.
Mark sat at the table for awhile, wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into. He picked up the letter, holding it gingerly. As he slit it open with his knife, a train ticket fell out.
It was Saturday morning. As Mark read the contents of his letter, off at the Garden the SeeD candidates were having a final training session before the big exam on Tuesday. It sure was hot this morning, Shannon thought. She feared she would become ill with the constant temperature changes- every night it was winter, only to be summer again by the time the sun rose. A bad omen, she thought. Certainly strange things had been happening for the past few days--first her boyfriend disappears, and then this morning she heard he was wanted for questioning. She herself had already been dragged off to meet with the Headmaster and answer his questions. All she had gotten in return was more questions and more worries.
The pool of SeeD candidates seemed extremely small this season too, she thought. Usually there were about thirty raw recruits per Field Exam, plus the occasional second-timer, but looking around she counted only about half that number. And oddly enough, two of the most talented students, Squall Leonhart and Seifer Almasy, were not present. She thought they had both passed the written test-she knew Seifer had, because he had taken the Field Exam before.
“Wake up, Shan!” shouted Kristin, her battle partner for the day. Shannon turned just in time to dodge the attack of the slimy tentacled thing they were fighting. She took a step back, and fired two slugs from her pistols into the beast.
“Sorry, Kristin. Got a lot on my mind.”
“Put it on the back-burner and let’s get back to the hunt!” Kristin shouted. Shannon nodded, and tried to forget her worries for a few hours. It was the first time she was able to take part in the SeeD candidates-only training session, and she wanted to make a good impression. Shannon brandished her pistols eagerly and got ready for the next battle.
“Timber and Beyond”
Mark lay on his bunk in the train, trying desperately to get a few hours of sleep before he reached Timber. By his estimate, it was early in the afternoon, and he had a long night ahead of him-he would be traveling to Dollet, but at least a car had been provided. He had to be there by Sunday night to meet with Joniah, and that didn’t leave him much time. He closed his eyes and tried to relax.
Suddenly, the train skidded to a halt and Mark sat up, looking through the tiny porthole. It was dark outside; he must have finally nodded off. He picked up his pack and walked off the train into the deserted Timber train station. The one Galbadian officer on duty was fast asleep, and Mark breathed a sigh of relief. Even though they wouldn’t have messed with him once he presented the letter, it would be easier this way. He tiptoed out of the station and headed for the outskirts of town. He remembered (back in my old life, he thought) studying the history of Timber, how just a few decades ago it had been a small town deep within a vibrant forest. It was all different now, he thought-the Galbadians had expanded the city limits as the town prospered under their rule, in the process cutting down much of the surrounding forest. There had been some protest to it, but not much after the deportations started happening-some of the residents talked about soldiers coming in the middle of the night and hauling off entire families to the D District Prison in the desert. He remembered reading of one girl’s account, how her entire family disappeared one night, and she was forced into prostitution as a result of it. But the Garden textbooks were notoriously biased, he thought. How much of it was actually true? He sighed.
An hour later he was on the road again. After stopping for supplies at the one store in town that was still open, he noticed with not a little guilt that he had not only spent the last of his savings, but also Shannon’s savings. He had swiped her money earlier in the afternoon of the night he left the Garden. He wondered if she knew if the money had gone missing yet. He looked at the new watch he had bought and realized he would have to hurry. It was early Sunday morning now, and he had only a little over nineteen hours to reach Dollet. The letter had said that the Seeds were scheduled to arrive sometime tomorrow in the afternoon, probably around five, to assist in the city’s resistance. The Galbadians were invading Dollet.
Dollet was about a hundred miles away, over rough terrain. A car was provided for him, but it only had only enough gasoline to take him about eighty miles, so whatever he couldn’t cover in the car he would have to cover on foot. But Galbadia did at least control all the territory between here and Dollet, Mark thought, so chances are I’ll run into a patrol. With the letter he had, they’d be more than willing to help him in any way that they could.
Would Shannon be at Dollet? Mark found himself wondering as he walked to the car. She had passed the written test, and she wasn’t the type of person to pass on such an opportunity. He wondered if he would see her, and if he did, what would he say? What would she say? Shaking his head, he climbed into the car waiting for him at the city gates, and drove off.
As Shannon slept fitfully Mark was trekking through the Timberian wilderness, having abandoned the car in the early morning hours. It was after eleven, and she showed no signs of stirring; the night before had been a long ordeal of acquaintances and past relationships at the annual SeeD Candidates’ party. Many a round of champagne had been drunk to honor the soon-to-be’s, and Shannon had drank her share, if not more.
“Shannon, wake up!” Her roommate Megan came crashing into the room. Once a loud, clumsy, and extremely messy child of twelve, in the four years since her parents had enrolled her at the Garden she had become a loud, clumsy, and somewhat messy teenager.
Shannon groaned, rolling over to look at the clock that sat on her dresser. It was almost noon. The pounding in her head felt like a million tiny hammers.
“Meg, not now! Go’way…sleep…” she buried her head in the pillow and hoped Meg would get the idea.
“Shannon, you won’t believe what I heard!”
“What?” Shannon asked as she sat up in bed, knowing it was futile to ignore her.
“Well, actually, it’s two things. One’s about Mark-
Shannon snapped to full attention, the pounding of the hammers momentarily forgotten. “What about Mark??”
He’s gone AWOL! And the Headmaster sent out his goons to find him!”
“What? You’ve got to be kidding me,” Shannon said. Mark had been missing for a few days, sure, but he was probably just pissed that he had failed the written exam again. After all, he would have to leave the Garden now. He was probably just pissing his money away on a binge in Balamb, and would be back when he was tapped out.
“Well that’s what I heard, Shan. Do you think he’s in trouble?”
“I don’t know,” she said. The more she thought about it, the stranger it seemed--three days seemed an awfully long time for a drinking binge.
“And guess what else!” Meg continued, oblivious to whether or not Shannon wanted to hear the news. She prattled on and on about some kind of training accident--Shannon didn’t catch the names, but apparently both had been wounded with their gun blades.
After Meg was finished she ran out of the room, knocking over a chair on the way out. Shannon laid back on the bed, closing her eyes in the hopes of getting a few more hours to quell the hammers. But it was useless. “Screw it,” she said as she jumped from the bed. There was no way she could sleep now. What had Mark done? He had never been what you would call a “model student,” but he went about his business in a quiet manner, never drawing attention to himself, hiding in the shadow of his own mediocrity.
Shannon yawned, stretching her arms out in front of her. This was a nut she wasn’t going to crack. “Maybe I’ll go shopping,” she said, thinking of how she would spend her last day before the Exam. She got dressed and headed for the Quad.
“Heading For Dollet”
It was past noon-- Mark had been walking for seven hours and his legs were as lead. He lay atop a boulder, his face scarlet from exposure, his shirt drenched in sweat. The heat was unbearable. He closed his eyes against the sunlight, waiting patiently for the darkness to envelop him.
“Giving up already, Mark?”
Mark sat up with not a little effort, blinking his eyes painfully in the light. Through a cloudy haze he could make out the vague shadow that was Joniah.
“Where did you…how did you get here?”
“Never mind that Mark. Now get up. We have many miles left before the gates of Dollet welcome us.” Mark winced as Joniah’s abnormally strong grip pinched the flesh of his shoulders, forcing him to his feet. They continued the trek northward, emerging from the scrub forest and into the Valley of Death. Before the Galbadian invasion the valley had been an expanse of forest as far as the eye could see. The sun-bleached bones, some human (the remains of the futile resistance the Timberians had mounted against the Empire), still littered the parched plain, picked clean by the vultures long ago.
They continued along for another two miles, walking aimlessly through the desert. The heat, oppressive even in the forest, was now unbearable. Mark’s feet, driven on for far too long, finally revolted, buckling under him as he collapsed again. Joniah waited patiently, picking at his nails with a barbed knife as Mark fought to bring his feet under control. Eventually he would need some encouragement, Joniah thought--but for now he could do it on his own.
They walked on for another few hours. By the time the sun was sinking Mark was swimming in a dream. He could see Shannon, the Discipline Committee, even the Headmaster. They all seemed to float before him, mingling and passing through each other like water molecules.
“Please, no more…I…I can’t do it. Please stop…” He could vaguely feel the prick of the knife Joniah was wielding as it pierced his side. But it didn’t matter. The images floated before him, slowly merging together in a dance. As he lay on the ground, quickly losing consciousness, they finally combined, and in his fevered vision he saw her again, her long raven-black hair floating on the breeze. She came to him then, enveloping him, her hair closing about him as he embraced her darkness.
Cold water splashed his face and Mark jerked out of blissful non-existence. He clenched his eyes shut, trying desperately to return to that place, where pain did not exist. “Open your eyes, Mark.”
He cracked an eyelid, and white hot light blinded him. As he blinked painfully he saw he was in some kind of building, and suddenly realized he was cold. Very cold. He was lying on a gurney…perhaps he was in a hospital? He sat up and saw that a woman was standing over him.
“What-what’s going on?” It was her, the woman from the dark. What was going on?
“Glad to see me?” Her eyes mocked him, enjoying the confusion they saw.
“Oh, of course, I-I was just surprised, that’s all.” He managed a weak smile. Who was she? But before he even thought the question he knew the answer: she was the Sorceress.
“Enough formality. Much work remains to be done.”
“Yes,” Mark said. He was still unsure of what work was to be done, but it seemed something was about to happen. He could feel it in his blood. It was time to go. He swung his legs off the gurney, hopping down onto the floor. Pain shot through his body, and his legs gave way, sending him sprawling to the ground. White-hot heat ran up and down the length of his body, sending him back to the darkness. He welcomed it, eager to return. He heard her whisper in his ear, telling him, “Sleep, Mark, but get ready, for time is running out…”
“The Briefing, Part 1”
It was almost time. Shannon looked at her watch again as she stood in the Garden lobby, shifting from side to side. She tugged at a piece of hair that had fallen loose from her ponytail, then flicked it aside. She sat down upon a bench (the very same one under which Mark had concealed himself four days ago) then changed her mind and stood up again. She looked at her watch again, shaking it to see if it worked.
“Shannon!” A girl who’s name she didn’t know…a transfer student, from Trabia? approached her. She watched as the girl ran towards the front of the Garden to meet her.
“Oh hey, what’s up?” She smiled at her. She was probably her age, maybe a year older.
“Nothin, you waiting for the SeeD field test briefing?”
So that’s how she knows me, Shannon thought. Looking at her again she vaguely remembered talking to her at the party last night. She had been so drunk she couldn’t remember the conversation they had had. “Yeah,” she said, “the Headmaster should be here soon, right?”
“I think so. The order was to assemble at the front gate at four sharp. Where is everybody?” The girl giggled slightly, sticking her hands in the pockets of her yellow jumper.
“Well, its only quarter til,” Shannon said, looking at her watch. “But I wish they would hurry. I’m so ready to get this going.”
“Wait, so it’s only three-forty five?” the girl asked. “Sweet! That means I can run to the cafeteria real quick. I’ll be back, so don’t leave without me!”
“Ok, bye,” Shannon said as the girl ran off. She looked at her watch again, and found herself thinking of Mark. He was still missing. Ever since Meg had told her of the rumors circulating around the Garden, she had been thinking about him a lot, and even had dreamed of him last night. She saw him from a distance, like she was a bird. He was walking through a wasteland, a desert. And he wasn’t alone. Someone was with him, that was…not guiding…but pushing him on. Like a slave driver. Then, the scene melted away, like rain, only to be replaced by a village square. She saw herself fighting Galbadian soldiers, and Mark was standing next to her, protecting her. He fought them all off, killing them to a man. She saw herself yell out his name, embracing him. But then, his face…changed…it was no longer him. His features were distorted, elongated…he looked like a devil. She watched as he drew a knife, and as he stabbed the dream-Shannon she yelled out, trying to warn her, but it was too late. She watched as her screams were drowned in her own blood, and she saw herself falling, falling, into an impenetrable darkness.
A bell sounded, jolting Shannon out of her thoughts. She looked at her watch. It was four o’clock. She looked up and saw that the rest of the candidates had arrived. The girl in the yellow jumper stood at the far end of the hall, waving to her. She waved back.
“Ok people, let’s get started.” Shannon turned and saw that Quistis had just gotten off the elevator. Shannon had never spoken to her before. She sat and watched as she walked over to the group of candidates, talking while she walked. They were going to Dollet, she said-- the Galbadian army had attacked the small principality over night and Dollet had sent a distress signal for SeeD help. They were to be the first wave of support sent in, with SeeDs following to clean up.
Shannon waited for her name and assignment to be called. She was on the last. Squad D, reconnaissance duty. They would be deployed separately from the others, along the northern cliffs. Intelligence showed the majority of the Enemy‘s troops to be along the southern shore, while the northern gates were virtually deserted. After securing the gates they were to head for the town-square and launch a surprise attack on any remaining enemy troops, presumably preoccupied with fighting off the Seed naval invasion. More than likely though, they wouldn’t arrive until all the Galbadians were dead anyway--they would only get leftovers. They were doing the bitch work of the invasion, but if they did it well they would still be SeeDs. Shannon glanced at her watch one last time and saw it was almost four-thirty. If everything went as planned, she would be in Dollet by seven, withdrawing by midnight, and a SeeD by morning.
“The Briefing, Part 2”
It was so much colder here than in Balamb. Mark looked out the window and took in the sights of Dollet, though there really wasn’t much to see. He was sitting on a bench in the mayor’s house, which the Galbadians had appropriated for their base of operations. He had arrived in the town that morning, or so he was told-- he had no recollection of it, in fact he couldn’t seem to remember anything of the past twenty-four hours or so. He had awoken to find himself lying in a strange bed, and shortly afterwards a nurse had gotten him up and out of bed. The last thing he remembered before that was the trek through the Valley of Death.
As he sat there, resplendent in his Galbadian uniform, noticing, with not a little pride, the star designating the rank of sergeant on his shoulder, he listened to the sound of the seagulls, and the distant echo of the waves beyond the cliffs. He could almost picture the waves, crashing gently against the beach, leaving a residue of foam in their wake. Dollet was by now safely in the hands of the Empire, with only a few guerrillas hiding out in the surrounding mountains. The town’s main forces had been destroyed almost to a man.
As the sun began to set on the horizon, giving way to early evening, Mark left the mayor’s house. The SeeDs were coming. They were on their way now…he looked at his watch and saw that it was almost six. Intelligence reports indicated that the first detachment would arrive by seven. He had plenty of time to get to the town-square. He had received his orders from the commanding officer that afternoon, as well as a mission briefing. Galbadia wasn’t here to occupy the town, but to get the communication tower in the outskirts up and running again. They were still waiting for the tech experts to arrive.
When he was finished explaining the operation, the commander had handed Mark a scroll sealed in wax. “What’s this?” he had asked him.
“Your orders, for your eyes only. It must be pretty important, considering where it came from,” he said vaguely. Mark thought to question him but then saw the mark the scroll bore-- two black wings, encircled by some arcane symbol. He had no doubts who the author was.
As he walked towards the square, idly caressing a dagger in his belt, he glanced over the scroll again. He read it slowly, pronouncing each word like it was a delicacy:
Yours is a mission of great importance for the future of this empire. These eyes have been privy to the future, and they are not pleased. A former classmate of yours, one Squall Leonhart, will attempt to overthrow me. Spies tell us this boy takes the SeeD Field Exam today, and has orders to secure the town-square. He must not be allowed to leave here alive! I have instructed associates of mine to place for you, in the town-square, a package with further instructions. I trust you will not fail.
It was short, to the point. Unsigned, but he knew from whom it was written-- he remembered well the wax seal the scroll bore, of the two black wings.
Mark looked at the letter one last time, then rolled it up and thrust it in his belt. As he hurried to the square the sun quietly disappeared into the now-darkened sky.
Mark sat down on the stone edging of the fountain, listening to the water. Not far away he could hear a dog barking. He looked at the package that had been placed nonchalantly on the ground, as if the deliverer knew it would be undisturbed. He picked it up then, surprised at how heavy it was-- probably close to ten pounds.
He unwrapped it, gingerly removing the layers of paper. He tossed them aside, the wind catching the crumpled sheets, blowing them away towards the shore.
There was an envelope inside. “READ ME FIRST” shouted out at him in a bold flowing script. He slit it open with his knife. The note was only a few lines, as brief as it was before. He glanced over the note quickly, then re-read it slowly: IN YOUR HANDS YOU HOLD A BOMB. YOU WILL PLACE IT ON THE STATUE IN THE POOL. TO ACTIVATE IT USE THE REMOTE DETONATER FOUND ON THE TOP OF THE PACKAGE. (Mark stopped briefly to pick up the remote, examining it thoroughly.) The note ended with a warning not to detonate the explosive until the target was in the vicinity and he was out of it.
It was a limited-range proximity bomb, Mark thought. He vaguely remembered hearing about them in a class. They had a short range (only about fifty yards) but were moderately powerful-- powerful enough, at any rate, to kill any living creature that walked into the area. Once the bomb was armed, the first thing to come within five yards of it would set it off. All Mark had to do was find a suitable spot, a spot where he could watch the southern end of the square (from where Squall would presumably enter) yet be hidden from sight. He scanned the northern end of the square, seeing the North gates about a hundred yards in the distance. About halfway between the gates and the square was a lone house on the side of the road. Perfect, he thought. There was a large window in the main foyer, from which he could surely watch the southern end under cover. He walked over to the fountain, placed the bomb in position, and headed towards the house.
“Five minutes people,” the instructor Ariandel announced. Shannon picked at her nails, anxious to get to Dollet and begin the mission. She had been cramped on this transport for nearly an hour. She looked down at her watch and saw it was only six-thirty. They were going to be early. All she could think about was getting out of the smelly transport, and getting started with the Field exam. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to picture what Dollet would look like. She had studied up on the city for a geography class the previous year, and she could still recall some of the pictures the textbook had. The only one she could remember vividly was the fountain in the town-square. The photos of it were magnificent, with the main fountain standing about ten feet tall, with several lesser fountains in a ring surrounding it. Maybe I’ll get lucky, and we’ll get to see it, she thought. Their mission required them to pass through that area after all.
“Ok, here we go people! Out, out, out! Move!”
Shannon’s eyes popped open and she jumped from her seat. She stood there, waiting impatiently as the five candidates in front of her made their way out of the transport. She finally got out, greedily gulping down draughts of the sweet salty air. Ariandel was leading them quickly towards the gates, approximately half a mile from the beachhead. Gunfire sprang out over head, and for a second she panicked, until she realized it was the cover fire from the transport. She angrily got herself back under control, scolding herself silently for forgetting.
As they approached the gate she saw them. Galbadian troops. There were only supposed to be a couple guards. But something was wrong, something was dreadfully wrong. Standing at the gates were at least thirty Galbadian soldiers. They hooted and hollered lustily, some even waved. They had been waiting there for a while, Shannon thought. Waiting for us.
Mark had been in his position for no more than ten minutes when he heard the faint sound of gunshots wafting in through the thin walls of the house. He walked outside and the shots, though intermittent, were much louder. They sound like they were coming from the north gates, he thought. He walked down to the road, hoping to get a glimpse of whatever was happening. But it was futile, the road veering sharply to the right blocking any view. He would have to walk down the road at least another twenty yards to see anything. He looked at his watch-- it was twenty of seven. Could the SeeDs have arrived early? From the sound of it, the gunfire was probably only the work of a few individuals. “Probably a couple bored soldiers trying to kill a seagull,” Mark said to himself. He thought briefly about going to check it out to make sure, but decided against it-- if he left his post, and ended up missing his target…well, he didn’t want to consider the consequences (and punishments) for such a mistake. He started to walk back towards the house, when the gunfire suddenly grew much more constant. Whatever was going on, it was most definitely not a couple of raw recruits trying to bag a bird.
Yet still Mark hesitated, unwilling to leave his post. He took another step towards the house, when the shouts started. Battle-cries. That settled it. He looked at the fountain again, then looked at his watch. He still had time. He took off running, heading towards the pitched sounds of a battle.
“Against the Odds”
They were vastly outnumbered. Shannon looked to her left and right, brandishing her two pistols, firing off round after round. She grinned smugly as two more Galbadian soldiers dropped-- her fifth and sixth of the day. She surveyed the area, counting the number of soldiers left. Any advantage the Enemy had was quickly evaporating, as Shannon and her twin pistols were quickly leveling the playing field. She counted only fifteen of the Enemy left. Not bad, she thought. They had taken down half the Enemy force, only losing one of their candidates in the process-- a young boy by the name of Jonathan, the youngest student to take the test this year (he had beaten out Shannon by only two months). Half of his left foot had been blown off, and his stomach had been sliced open in close combat, spilling much of his intestines. He lay in the rear of their skirmish line now, presumably dead.
The four remaining candidates, plus Ariandel, formed a skirmish line around the body of their comrade, advancing slowly upon the remaining soldiers. Shannon stood in the middle of the line, firing again and again into the crowd of soldiers, their morale imploding in the massive confusion. Her classmates used her fire as cover, advancing into close combat to attack with their swords and knives. It seemed like they would have no problem finishing off the remainder of the troops, who were on the brink of fleeing the battle anyway. Shannon exulted in her victory, thinking of her great future as a SeeD, when suddenly the odds changed.
A detachment of Galbadian soldiers had left the North Gate approximately two hours previous on reconnaissance duties--they were checking the northern bluffs for possible guerrilla activity. They had bagged a few dissidents, nothing big, and were eager to return home. They knew of the SeeD mission, but were unaware--as was the rest of the Galbadian leadership--of the planned assault on the North Gate. So it was undoubtedly a surprise when they saw the approach of a lone SeeD transport vessel further along the coast. They hurried back home to meet the threat.
Shannon turned around to see the arrival of this detachment, one hundred strong, with what looked like about twenty gunners. Things didn’t look so good anymore.
Mark ran towards the gates, quickly covering the fifty yards’ distance. As he turned the corner he saw the detachment. They had both arrived simultaneously and as Mark stood behind the gate, his sides aching, he watched wave after wave of troops swarm into the tiny space along the bluffs. He then saw the SeeDs, effectively cut off from escape, their transport located further down at the lone beachhead along the coast.
“Hey, you!” One of the few remaining soldiers, by the looks of it an officer, was calling to him. He approached him, for the moment his mission completely forgotten. “What’s going on here, sir?” he asked.
“Surprise attack, the spies fucked up. Damn SeeDs came in right under our noses.”
Mark looked around at the carnage-- the bodies of probably twenty soldiers lay in a gruesome semicircle in front of the gate. He looked back to the officer, and was about to tell him he had to report back to the square, when a bullet whizzed through the air, striking the man in the shoulder.
“Here they come!” the officer yelled, gritting his teeth. Mark watched as the SeeDs charged the gate, desperately trying to break through and scatter through the town to save their own lives. “Don’t let them through, Sergeant, “ the man said as he fell to his knees.
Mark rallied the remaining soldiers and prepared for a last-ditch attack. If they could just hold out for a minute or two, he thought. Already he saw some of the reinforcements charging the SeeDs’ rear. A few gunners were present, but most had been in the rear of the detachment, protecting its march home. There were probably about a half dozen SeeDs still on their feet. The odds were overwhelmingly in their favor, but Mark knew SeeDs fought like caged rats when it came down to the wire, and if they pushed through the gate they could easily scatter and pick them off easily using guerrilla tactics. Better to stop them now, he thought. And if they wouldn’t surrender, they would die.
Mark yelled for a counter-strike, his men springing forward in a last offensive. They met the SeeDs in close combat, with Mark at the front of the line. He quickly took down a large, lumbering boy no more than seventeen, slicing into him with his twin knives like he was butter. As the boy fell, Mark suddenly found himself thinking, Wasn’t he in my Weapons of War class last year? It was an unwelcome thought, and he quickly shrugged it off, pushing the past back down to where it belonged. He jumped after a second, slashing at a short girl in a yellow jumper, but she dodged him and slipped past. “You two, after her!” he shouted at two men in the rear of the line. They took off after her as she slipped nimbly through the gates and into the town. Mark turned back, forgetting the girl, noticing that the detachment had surrounded the SeeDs. They had nowhere to go now.
They steadily pushed them back, towards the bluffs, fighting them back slowly but steadily. Casualties were high, mostly from a SeeD in the back of the line, who was picking off Mark’s men left and right. He couldn’t get a clear look at the guy, and he wondered if he knew him.
Shannon stood at the rear of the line, taking down as many soldiers as she could. But for every one she killed it seemed like another dozen appeared. There must have been over forty men attacking them from all sides now, with the number increasing every second. If they didn’t think of something quickly, the battle would soon become a massacre.
Looking behind her, Shannon saw the bluffs. “Instructor, we’re going to have to jump!” she yelled to Ariandel. Exhausted and bloody from a knife wound in her upper arm, she simply nodded. “Fall back!” Shannon yelled. “To the bluffs!”
Mark pressed the men forward. He had almost killed the SeeD instructor that was leading this pitiful brigade, but had been thwarted when two of her students had jumped in front of her. He was about to charged them when he heard the order. “Fall back! To the bluffs!” it yelled. He knew that voice…in a daze, he took a few steps back, then stumbled, tripping over something. He winced as cold steel sliced into his back. He pushed himself up, wincing in pain, and acutely felt something sticky oozing down his back.. He placed his hand upon his back and it closed around the hilt of a knife. He pulled it out, feeling warm blood gush out over his hand. He stared at the red liquid as his eyelids grew heavy, the world quickly losing its definition.
“Sir are you alright?” The soldier poked and prodded at him, knocking Mark back into reality. He sat up, wincing in pain, and remembered the wound from the knife. He felt his back, and could feel the blood still flowing out of his body. H tore off his shirt, making a bandage and tying it about his waist. He stood up and his vision grew cloudy once more, and he suddenly felt strong arms holding him up. “Take it easy, sir. You’ve lost a lot of blood.” The man guided him to a boulder near the cliffs, and Mark sat down, unsure of where he was or what he was to be doing. He had to be somewhere, a nagging voice in his mind kept telling him. He turned to the soldier, asking him, “Do you know what time it is?”
“Yes sir, its five of seven, sir.” The soldier saluted him, then ran off to rejoin the fight.
Seven o’clock! he thought. He remembered now where he had to be. He had to get to the town-square! He stood up to go, and suddenly, he was face to face with Shannon.
Shannon stood upon the ledge of the bluffs, the last of the SeeD detachment remaining. She had covered the escape of Ariandel and the three remaining candidates, and now was preparing to make good on her own escape. Three soldiers were advancing upon her now, but her pistols could hold them off long enough for her to get the hell out of here. After that she would just have to hope that she would survive the fall to the sea below. She shot wildly now, too scared to aim properly. They were moving in, swarming from every angle. But her fire still held them off, for the meantime. She fired a few more shots and turned to jump.
As she turned, time…stopped…she could hear the yells of the soldiers, thirsty for blood. She sound of gun shots in the distance dragged on for millennia. The sea breeze stopped, and the air was heavy with noise.
She looked at him. It had only been a few days since she had seen him last but he was different. It was not the same Mark she had known only a few days before. She looked at him, at the beads of sweat that glistened on his chest like dew in the early morning, at the caked blood that covered his body. She opened her mouth to speak, unsure of what would come out. She heard her lips forming the words, “Hi, Mark.” It was the only appropriate thing to say.
Mark looked upon her, at the girl he had left in the Garden, looking as it was upon his former life. Everything about her that reminded him of himself was dead now. The Mark that was Shannon’s Mark was dead. He watched as she pursed her lips to speak again, her brow wrinkling as she considered each word individually. She leaned forward slowly, the words forming first in her mind, then moving slowly down to her tongue, where they waited patiently to be voiced. She opened her mouth, “Mark,” she whispered, “I-
Her words were cut off as blood rushed forth from her mouth. A sword protruded from her side, as a Galbadian soldier grinned in glee behind her. Shannon’s dull eyes looked at Mark for a brief second, then she fell forward, collapsing at Mark’s feet.
“No! Shannon!” Mark screamed in agony. What was she to say? He suddenly was jolted back to the real world. He picked up her lifeless body, unsure of what he was to do. He rocked her in his arms, cradling her lifeless head, talking to her, whispering to her. “No,” he said, “No no no!” He looked at her face, forever locked in surprise. He laid her down upon the rock then, sitting down on its cool surface next to her. He looked at his watch unconsciously- it was after seven. Then he realized he was holding the remote in his hands. He looked at it, then tossed the remote into the darkness of the ocean. He could feel the anger of the Sorceress beat down upon him now, but it didn’t matter anymore. He knelt down in front of her, drawing his two daggers, and slit his throat, bathing her feet in the warmth of his own blood.