The Midgar Ruins Part 3
Startled, more than a little frightened, Marlene searched frantically about for the girl named Jessie. She'd disappeared, without so much as a sound, leaving no trace of ever having been there. Marlene turned her head upwards, where the sky was no longer the wounded purple, but held no color at all. Light came from somewhere nearby, but there was no sun above them that Marlene could see, nor any stars, only a deep, empty, darkness, more terrible than any night could be.
Sounds drifted to her from far away: laughter, the high, excited voices of children at play, older people reluctantly going about their daily routines. All around her, buildings had sprung up where once there had been only rubble. The harsh scent of smoke filled her senses.
Again, Loften asked, "What happened?"
"I--I think, I think--" Phaia began, but shook her head and stopped in mid-sentence.
"These people . . ." Carefully turning in circles, one hand upon his chin, Zerik shook his head.
Marlene, her breath coming short, said, "This should not be happening. These people should not be here."
"These people should be dead," Loften whispered, continuing her thought.
Despite all her efforts not to show how disturbed she was, Marlene began to tremble. She blinked rapidly, tried to calm herself, but was unable to do so. Her trembling continued, became more violent, until her whole body shook with frightened tremors.
"You'll be all right," Phaia said in a soothing tone, moving toward Marlene. Phaia placed one arm around her shoulder's, as Marlene's father had done when she was a young girl, trying to comfort her. Marlene turned toward Phaia, her eyes wide, wild-looking as those of a creature that roamed the mountains of Corel, where Marlene had been born. Instinctively, Marlene pulled away from Phaia, whirled around, and nearly collided with Loften, who had moved toward her.
"I'm all right, I'm all right, I'm all right," she chanted, closing her eyes as the wind blew across once more, beating against her eyelids like the flapping of butterfly wings.
"Get a hold of yourself," Zerik commanded harshly, his voice filled with something she could not fathom. "Now is not the time fall apart." Angry thoughts filled her head, and she had the sudden urge to kick Zerik in the shins with immense force. Biting her lower lip, hugging her arms to herself, Marlene merely nodded. She was angry with herself for showing her fears, and angry with Zerik for pointing it out to her.
"What do we do now?" asked Loften, looking directly at Zerik.
With a shrug, Zerik pointed toward a building. "I suggest we walk around, talk to people. We have been put here for a reason, and the sooner we discover what that reason is, well . . ."
"But these people--" Marlene began, but broke off, shaking her head with vigor. Her thoughts continued the sentence. These people aren't real. They aren't alive. They aren't REAL.
Phaia, a somewhat hurt look on her face, stated, "I think the most important thing right now is that we stay together, not split into groups. If we were to become separated in this place . . ." She cast her eyes downward, shrugging elegantly, and stepped toward Zerik.
A ragged sigh escaped Zerik's lips. "Well?"
"Well?" Marlene repeated, her brows pulled into a frown. The chill of the day caused her to shiver.
Nodding, Loften took Marlene's arm and pulled her gently forward. He spoke in a whisper. "I suppose Zerik is right. We should find out what our purpose here is."
Loften was the last inside the building. Upon entering, he wished he were still outside. The room was cramped, filled with the scents of smoke and sweat, making breathing difficult. The stench of old food, long ago gone bad, was mixed with the newer scent of blood and alcohol. It troubled Loften that things could be so real, when he knew that they could not be real, that what he was seeing must simply be an illusion. He could more than just feel the smoke in the air, taste it; he could feel it clinging to the air, attaching itself to his shirt. Smoke and grime stained the walls of the building yellow.
People spoke loudly, drunkenly, drowning their troubles in liquor. Ahead of him, he saw Marlene shudder suddenly.
She lived here, once. Does she remember any of this? Or was she kept from such things, being only a child?
There were children there, though, scampering about, laughing. The building was entirely too crowded. Chairs were crushed together and tables were so close that one could slide a plate across one to another without spilling or causing it to fall.
The place was filled with voices and sounds.
But it was devoid of emotion.
As he stepped further inside, he collided with someone, and fell slightly backwards. A burly man with greasy blond hair matted to his head gave him a look somewhere between a grin and a grimace, showing his lack of several teeth. Small pieces of food clung to the man's beard, and his brown eyes looked faded, washed out; they saw Loften, but did not see. Instead, those eyes saw past him, through him.
This person is not living, he told himself. This person died. But, if he is dead, how is it that he is still here, breathing? I don't understand. Why aren't these people in the Lifestream? If this is all that death is, then--
"Whaddya want?" someone demanded roughly from nearby, causing Loften to jump slightly, startled. He nearly lost his footing, because the floor was slippery, yet also sticky, from spilled drinks.
A scrawny, pale man with beady eyes and dark hair grabbed Marlene by the shoulder and spun her around. "Don' I know ya from somewhere, girlie?"
Before Marlene could react, Zerik had pushed the man away and said, "No, you don't. You'll leave her alone if you know what's good for you."
The man glared at Zerik, looked him over, then decided it was best not to pick a fight, and not simply because Zerik would certainly win; there was something cold and frightening in Zerik's eyes that caused the man to move away.
Brushing herself off, Marlene whispered, "Thank you," to Zerik, then moved forward, past him. "We're looking for a girl named Jessie," she proclaimed, looking directly at the bartender.
The man, who wore a thick mop of red hair upon his head, gave her a lopsided grin. "You're looking for a girl named Jessie? I know of two Jessies living here in Sector Four, but I doubt that either of 'em are the one you be lookin' for, little girl."
Marlene opened her mouth to say something, but the man cut her off, shaking his head.
"What're you looking for this girl for, anyhow?"
"That's none of your concern," Zerik told the bartender, then turned to Marlene and gave her a dark look. "Let's try some other place, shall we?"
Matching his glare, Marlene nodded, then moved toward Phaia. The two turned and headed out of the building, maneuvering around tables and people.
Expecting Zerik to follow, Loften, too, turned and walked toward the exit. But something caused him to swing back, uncertain that Zerik was behind him. His intuition had served him well. Zerik stood speaking with the bartender, a concerned look upon his face, his eyes cast downward. Shaking his head, Zerik turned and headed toward Loften. Their eyes locked with a shock of suspicion.
What was he doing? What does he know that he isn't telling us?
"We go to Sector seven," Zerik told Loften as he brushed past him, out of the bar, and into the street. Loften stared after him, then he, too, left.
Phaia closed her eyes and leaned against the building. Her head was tilted back, and the rough texture of the wall hurt, biting at skin and pulling hair.
She was so glad to be out of that place, that place where people spoke and shouted, as though in anger, or in sorrow, but had no feelings. Phaia could feel nothing from them, simply a vague, yet deep, emptiness that surrounded them. That void instilled in her something far greater than fear could ever be; it sent a chill deep into her stomach, her heart, made each breath feel cold. Disoriented and somewhat dizzy, she put one hand over her forehead and breathed as deeply as she could. Her knees felt weak, her balance unsteady. Phaia concentrated on small things, like the sound of Marlene's feet touching the ground, scraping against dirt and stone.
The sound of Marlene's rapid breathing as she paced nearby drifted to Phaia's ears. Her footsteps heavy upon the ground, creating soft echoes of sound, Marlene heaved a sigh. Opening her eyes, Phaia looked at the girl. For some reason, which she could not explain, Marlene reminded Phaia of her mother. Both had the same knowing eyes, the same hidden vulnerability that lay just below the skin. She had the feeling, though, that Marlene was far stronger than even she knew. While afraid, Marlene was also determined.
Zerik, followed by Loften, exited the building, which was called the Starlight Escape. Glancing momentarily at Zerik, Loften folded his arms across his stomach.
"What now?" Marlene asked, her face turned up toward the sky.
"We go to Sector seven," Zerik informed them, shrugging nonchalantly.
Phaia could tell by the way Marlene turned suddenly back to Loften and Zerik that the question had not been directed toward anyone.
"That sector was destroyed," she said instantly, shaking her head. "We can't go to that sector."
Raising his eyebrows at her, Zerik stated, "Everything here was destroyed."
Still shaking her head, Marlene turned away from them. "Sector seven was destroyed before the rest of Midgar. I know. I lived there."
"But you don't remember," Loften told her.
"I didn't. I do now."
"I remember the day it happened," she whispered. The wind pulled her hair into strands and tangled it behind her, but Marlene made no move to unsnarl it. They had moved a short distance from the Starlight Escape, and the four stood facing each other. Zerik, his face an emotionless mask, kept his arms across his stomach, leaning against the side of a house.
Tucking her hair behind her ears, Phaia said, "You don't have to tell us this."
She shrugged. "I suppose it should be told. I didn't remember it--any of it--until just now. And now, I remember everything." Closing her eyes, Marlene continued. "I was very young then. I was alone in the Seventh Heaven; Jessie, Biggs, Wedge, and my father had gone to fight the Shinra, and they'd left me with a girl from the sector. She left as soon as they did, though, and so I hid behind the bar, making a game for myself. I'd always been pretty solitary, and there weren't many children my age to play with, so I made up games for myself. I pretended I was with my father, helping him fight. But, something was wrong that day. I knew something was wrong. Outside, there were no voices, only the slight, popping sound of distant gunfire. So I stopped playing my game, and simply huddled there, waiting for everyone to return."
She tilted her head back and took a deep breath of air, trying to calm herself. Marlene felt nervous and uncomfortable; a strange sensation had worked its way from her toes into her stomach, making her feel slightly nauseous. Vaguely, she wondered whether or not she should have left the memories where they were, buried so far that she'd thought she could never reach them.
"They didn't return, though," Marlene continued. "Instead, a woman--the flower lady!--came into the building. She knew right how to find me; without saying anything, she went to where I was hiding and told me she was there to help me. I could trust her, and I didn't trust many people back then. I went with her, and we ran through to her mother's house. I don't know how we ran that fast. Someone-someone came after us though, and took her away. Not long after, there was a noise, a horrible, loud, crushing sound. And Sector seven was gone." Her thoughts continued after her speaking had stopped. Fire, burning, it was everywhere. I couldn't see it, but I could feel it. There was fire everywhere-in the playground. The playground.
Shaking his head, Zerik moved toward Marlene. "Regardless of what happened, we still need to go there. It doesn't matter when the place was destroyed. It will be there now."
"We have to go there?" Marlene asked, an apprehensive look upon her face, her mouth slightly open.
His voice steady, firm, Zerik nodded and told her, "We have to go there."
For the most part, they were ignored. As they roamed through the streets, through the sectors, people barely glanced at them, though one little girl stopped playing with her ball to watch them with cold, unseeing eyes.
Shivering, Phaia walked briskly past the child, so that she was almost even with Zerik, who hadn't even looked at the little girl. Behind her, Marlene had stopped; Phaia could tell by the sudden loss of the sound Marlene's footsteps made, by the way Loften's footsteps, too, had paused, and a spray of dust clouded around her. Zerik, too, had noticed it, because he suddenly stopped, turned, waiting for Marlene and Loften to reach them.
While Phaia couldn't stand that the girl had stopped to look at them, Marlene seemed fascinated by her. Her face had drained of color, and her mouth hung slightly open, her lips parted in wonder or fear; for once, Phaia could not tell which.
Whirling suddenly around, Phaia demanded of Zerik, "What do you know that you aren't telling us? We're all in this together, aren't we? We have a right to know."
He opened his mouth to speak, blue eyes shocked and haunted. "I, there, I--occasionally, I have times when I know, I know. I know everything, what we are doing here and why." Shaking his head, Zerik broke off and closed his eyes. "I see things differently, I think. That girl, she doesn't exist-you know that, I know you know that. Marlene seems to be caught in the illusion, and Loften pretends to be, but that's not how I see this place. It is the beginning of a storm, this land, these ruins, and we are helping build this storm, bringing in the clouds. I, I don't know how to explain it."
Nodding, Phaia somehow understood. She didn't understand exactly what he was trying to say, but she could comprehend that, while he knew more than they did, his knowledge merely confused him, did not help him.
Looking at him, she saw more than she previously had within those eyes of his. Before, they'd simply cold, like ice, newly frozen, shimmering over a lake. Phaia saw now, though, that he was just like the rest of them, vulnerable, frightened; he simply did a better job of hiding it. The fact that she yet could not sense his emotions bothered her still, but not as much as it previously had.
Something screeched overhead, causing her to break from his gaze and look upwards. At first, she could not see it; the creature flew too far above them to be seen. But it swooped lower, moving in circles, crying a haunting, frightening shout of anger, or pain. It was bird; they could see that as it circled closer and closer to them, but birds did not belong in Midgar.
No more than ghosts do. Her thoughts made her uncomfortable. Phaia took a deep breath.
Though it was still very far away, somehow, Phaia could see it clearly. It's eyes were gold, like the sunset, and its feathers were brown, white. She was there with it, flying with it; could feel the world beneath her, the wind upon her, the sky so empty that she filled herself with it.
Whatever that is, it isn't a bird, she thought, captured in some web it had spun around her mind. It isn't a bird, but it wants us to think it is.
The others, too, stood watching it, transfixed.
Zerik whispered from beside her, "That bird is made of fire."
But it isn't. Its feathers are brown and white. But it isn't a bird. It isn't--
"There are ashes in its eyes," whispered Marlene, her voice flat, toneless, emotionless. Loften said nothing.
As though it had never been there, the bird was suddenly gone, leaving no trace in the sky; no feather came floating down from the heavens. The little girl, too, had vanished, likely returned to whatever she'd been doing before they passed her.
Or maybe Phaia had been wrong.
Maybe her intuition was beginning to fail her.
And maybe that girl had not been a ghost at all.
They continued toward Sector seven.
Loften closed his eyes. If he tried, he could still see that young girl, standing there, her eyes locked with Marlene's. He wasn't certain, but he'd thought, for a moment, that something had flashed in the young girl's eyes. Like lightning, staining blue eyes gold. Then, faintly, he'd heard a whisper. "Why did you leave us, Marlene? Oh why did you leave us?" He admitted to himself that it was likely only his imagination; the girl's lips had not moved. Marlene had not answered.
Then, they'd turned to look at the bird, circling above them, and the girl had disappeared, and they'd continued on their way.
He wasn't certain why the bird had bothered him so much. The sight of it had sent a chill down his back, like an icy snake creeping across his skin, biting into his shoulders. Its effects were slow to dissipate, and with each step Loften took, it felt as though a shadow took a step with him, covering him, hovering over him.
"That girl," Marlene said to him, shaking her head, one hand brushing through her brown hair. "It was so strange. She was looking at me like-like she knew me. You know?"
He nodded, but Loften didn't know. He could not quite understand how Marlene felt, how strange it must have been for her to be in a place that she'd known, a place that belonged only in her past. "Do you know who she was? The little girl, I mean?"
She shook her head. "No. At least, I don't think so. But, I thought she'd said something to me. No, I was just imagining that. Everything has been so strange lately. Why is this happening, Loften?"
He gave her a slight smile, though his thoughts were still otherwise occupied. "If I knew, Marlene, I'd tell you."
A frown flashed across her face, momentarily darkening her eyes. Nodding, Marlene bit down lightly upon her lower lip, moving her jaw from the left to the right, eyes downward, as though deep in thought. She gave him another nod, then quickened her pace. Loften followed suit.
"Marlene-do you remember much about this place? I mean, I know you told me before that you couldn't remember Midgar at all, but, then you remembered what happened . . ."
She sighed. "A little, now. Small things about it. I remember where I lived, how I used to ride around on my father's shoulders. I can recall children I used to play with, and stories people told me. Mostly, though, mostly, I remember the noises. Shouts, gunfire, the crash of metal upon metal and stone upon stone. Crying, very little laughter, and noises I couldn't name, sort of like rats scuttling across wood, but louder, more terrifying. The sounds kept me up at night." Hugging her arms to her, Marlene shook her head. "That's it," she told him, though Loften had the feeling that it wasn't.
Though he'd never considered himself very observant, Loften knew by watching Marlene that she was keeping something in, trying to hide it, but with little success.
He opened his mouth to speak, but Marlene cut him off, saying, "We're going to a place I once knew well. I knew my way around it in the dark. I used to be able to know my father was coming simply by the sound of his footsteps, even when he wasn't shouting, which I'll admit was rare. I knew though, because I'd spent so much time standing by the door, afraid to go outside, waiting for him to return."
"Your father left you alone often?"
Anger flamed in Marlene's eyes. "He had to! It wasn't because he wanted to! Things were difficult. If he could have, he would have stayed home with me. It wasn't his fault!" Colored by rage, her cheeks, then her neck, had flushed slightly red.
"I wasn't trying to imply anything," Loften told her quietly, shocked by her sudden outburst.
For a moment, she simply looked at him, then cast her eyes downward, flustered, or ashamed; he could not tell which. Marlene whispered, "I'm sorry," then quickened her pace again, and walked next to Phaia, saying nothing.
When they stopped at night, after eating food Phaia had once again somehow procured, sleep fell over him, and dreams overtook him, washing over him and swallowing him in their waves.
"I will place you high on my council."
He was in the room again, the room made of gold, but it was different. A strange, smoothly flowing river cut across it, shimmering first the incredibly clear blue of a mountain lake, then a dark, deep, deadly red. Then blue cut through red, and faded into it, so that the two colors ran together, impossible to separate. He gazed at the water, let it hypnotize him.
"Who are you?"
"You will know. Soon, you will know. If you choose the correct path. If you choose my path."
"Which is the correct path?"
"You must find the path on your own. Do not worry. I have faith in you."
Darkness swam across his vision, flooding his senses. First, it was cold, ice upon bare skin. Then, slowly, warmth spread across him. All he could smell was the tangy scent of blood. Strange, bitter thoughts flew into his head, whispers of dark things, of dangerous things that made his heart jump.
"I will place you high on my council. If--"
They reached Sector seven early the next morning. Saying little, Marlene led the others through it. She remembered many of the people, friends she'd had, and soldiers with their horrible blue Shinra outfits, glaring out, unknowing.
I wonder, she thought, trying to keep herself calm, do they know that they are dead? Are they truly dead? And if so, why are they still so--alive?
It surprised her that she was so clearly able to remember details from when she was younger, just a child; some how, a chasm of lost memory had suddenly been filled. Marlene did not know whether to be frightened by it, or glad to remember.
"We go the bar," was all she said, and they nodded, following her. No one spoke. They let silence cover them, because it was easier than delving into memories best forgotten.
It was just as she remembered it. Except, it wasn't; she was no longer looking at it from a child's point of view. She saw things as much smaller, much less complicated and filled with unknown power. Marlene unexpectedly found a world within a world she'd known.
She did not stop to examine everything, though, as she longed to. Instead, she moved up the few steps, and touched the door with the palm of her hand. The roughness bit her skin, scratched; it was cold and it was scarred from its many years.
She placed more pressure upon it, and the door moved inward, pushed harder still, and it swung open, and soft light spilled out upon them.
"This is it," she told them. "Tifa's Seventh Heaven."
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