The Search For Aeris Chapter 5
By Frank Verderosa
Cloud was surrounded by white light. He looked down to see the world far below his feet. He was suspended in the air far above the planet, but he felt no fear or discomfort.
He looked up and saw Aeris standing a few paces away. He reached out to her and tried to call out her name, but he heard no sound. Still, she seemed to understand, for she looked at him and smiled. Then she looked down..
He followed her gaze and saw a large island below them. He recognized it as one of the southern islands, the one that had held the Temple of the Ancients, in fact, for he could just barely make out the small clearing where it had once stood.
He looked back up at her. She looked at him expectantly, her face showing no emotion except for her calm smile. It seemed she was trying to tell him something, but he had no clue what. He tried to ask, but again no sound came out. Then she looked down again and pointed.
He looked down one more time. And then suddenly he was falling. He looked up to see her disappearing rapidly into the distance, the calm smile still on her face. He looked down and saw that he was dropping not onto the island but towards the water off it's southern shore.
He felt no impact as he hit the water, but suddenly he was below it, sinking rapidly into the depths. He sank for a long time, but he still felt no discomfort or need for breath. The sea was filled with life, but none of it paid any attention to him. He looked down and saw that the bottom was now in view, and then he saw a cave on a small rise in front of him, a faint green glow emanated from it..
He drifted down to the bottom right in front of it, and then slowly felt himself being drawn in. The glow grew brighter and sparkled in a familiar way, and suddenly he realized it was the glow of the lifestream. It filled the air all around him as he slowly drifted into the cave.
He felt the tug of the current become stronger. The cave seemed to be filled with shadows that moved around him like living things. He had felt nothing but peaceful contentment up to this point, but suddenly he felt uneasy. The current grew stronger still, and for the first time he tried to resist. He made an attempt to swim back the way he had come, but it had no effect. He felt the current grow stronger still and now he was being pulled swiftly through the tunnel. Suddenly he saw the lifestream fade away into darkness and a black vortex opened up in front of him. He desperately tried to halt his progress, for he knew that if he was sucked into the dark abyss he would never return. His efforts were useless, and even as he felt himself being swept helplessly to his doom, he heard a familiar laughter ringing in his ears.
Cloud woke up with a start. He thought he had cried out, although he could not be certain. He sat up in the bed, looking around the room for a minute, confused. In a moment he remembered he and the others had headed back to Kalm after their little excursion to Midgar, and he was now sitting up in a bed in the backroom of Tifa's bar.
The sun was shining brightly through the window, and he wondered how late it was. He got up and a short time later strolled into the bar proper. The others were gathered around one of the tables in the center of the room.
Tifa came over to him as soon as she saw him.
"We knew how exhausted you were from the battle and didn't want to disturb you, " she said. "Sleep well?"
He looked at her for a moment. It was obvious that she knew more about his dreams than he had thought, and he wondered now if she was somehow aware of his most recent one, but he could read nothing in her face.
"Well enough," he replied.
"Good," she said. "We've been waiting for you to get up so we can decide on the next step."
They walked over and the others greeted him. He and Tifa both sat down.
"Well, we've got the Crystal Materia," he said. "So I guess you're all wondering where do we go from here. Red?"
"I'm afraid we don't have much to go on," Red replied. "I've been working on translating the book but it is difficult work. From what I have deciphered so far the Crystal Materia can only be used successfully in certain locations on the planet."
"And where might that be," Barret questioned.
"There are several places mentioned," he replied, "but I have never heard of any of them, nor can I find any reference to them in any other book. I think this is because that they are not actually on the planet."
"What do you mean," Yuffie asked, puzzled.
"I don't think the locations mentioned are geographical locations on the surface of the planet, rather they appear to be locations within the lifestream."
"What exactly does that mean?" Tifa asked.
"I'm not sure," Red answered. "There are certain places within the lifestream that are places of power. They are not tied to one geographical location on the planet, but rather represent crossroads in the flow of the lifestream."
"So if they're not always in the same place, then how are we supposed to find them?" Cait asked quite reasonably.
"I said that they are not tied to one place," Red replied. "But that doesn't mean they move. It just means they could move. If I understand correctly, some do not move at all, or move only after thousands of years. If we found a reference to the location of even one on the planet, chances are it would still be there."
"But we don't know where one is," Cait pointed out.
"No," Red answered.
"It doesn't sound like we have much at all," Barret commented. "We don't even know how to get into the lifestream itself, much less find a major intersection."
"We were in the lifestream once before," Tifa pointed out, looking at Cloud.
He said nothing, but just sat there, apparently deep in thought.
"That's right, at Mideel," Barret spoke up.
"Perhaps that would be a logical starting place for us then," Red suggested.
"No," Cloud said suddenly.
They all looked at him.
"No?" Tifa said.
"No, " he repeated. "We have to go to Junon."
"Junon?" Cait and Yuffie said at once.
They waited for him to explain.
"Cloud?" Tifa prompted, a look of puzzlement and concern mixed on her face.
He hesitated a moment more, then told them about the vision he had had that morning.
"So what are you trying to tell us," Cait asked when he had finished. "That the dream was real?"
"It wasn't a dream," Cloud said sharply. "It was more than that. It was so vivid, so real. I've never had dreams like this before. I can't explain how I know, but I just know. Aeris showed me the entrance to the lifestream. It's not in Mideel, it's in an underwater cave off the coast. If we go to Mideel we'll just be wasting our time."
Some of the others looked skeptical, but none of them doubted Cloud's sincerity. Whether it was true or not, it was certain that Cloud believed what he had seen was the truth. Tifa just sat silently beside him, staring off into space.
"So, even if you are right," Barret commented slowly. "Why do you want to go to Junon?"
"In my vision," Cloud replied, "I could travel underwater with no ill effects, but I doubt if that will occur in reality. We left the submarine at Junon."
Red turned as Tifa walked up beside him. The were alone in the bar now, the others preparing for the trip to Junon.
"Do you think Cloud's visions are real?" she asked.
"I don't know," Red replied with a shrug. "As I said before, most of . what we once knew about the Ancients is lost. It is clear, however, that Cloud believes they are real."
Tifa did not respond. She sat down at the table and stared out the window.
"What's troubling you?" Red asked.
"I think he blames himself for her death," she said finally.
Red wasn't surprised.
"That's nonsense," he replied.
"I think he believes he could have stopped it, should have stopped it," she continued. "I think he feels guilty that he didn't. I think..."
She stopped. He waited patiently for her to continue.
"I'm sorry," she said suddenly. "I'm ranting. Sometimes I think he's losing his mind. Other times, I think I am."
Red looked at her with a sympathetic eye.
"You think he's having these visions because he blames himself for her death," he said slowly.
She looked at him for a moment, then looked down at the floor.
"I guess so," she said softly. "I've really tried to believe that she is trying to contact him, but I can't. She's dead, Red. Much as it hurts to say so, but that is what I really believe in my heart. Does that make me a terrible person?"
"Not at all," he answered immediately. "To tell you the truth, I had a suspicion you might feel that way. You were the only one who did not hesitate when Aeris vision appeared in the Gi cave."
"So what do I do Red?" she asked, turning to look at him once more. "What do I do?"
"I'm afraid I don't have much in the way of advice," he replied. "I would say that you should just keep on doing what you have been. I have a feeling that in the end it will all work out for you. In the meantime, the only thing I can tell you is to take your own advice."
She looked at him, puzzled.
"What do you mean?"
"There was a time in our last adventure when all of the people with Hojo's tattoos seemed to be going mad. I was afraid that it would happen to me too. Do you remember what you told me then?"
She paused for a moment in thought. Then she smiled.
"I told you to be strong," she said finally.
He placed a reassuring paw on her shoulder.
"Be strong, Tifa, be strong."
They reached the dockyard on the outskirts of Junon early the next morning. None of them had been back here since their last adventure. After all, it's not everyday you need the use of a submarine. Things didn't look much different at first, but as they neared the docks they were surprised to find that it was surrounded by a fence. In front of them at the end of the road was a large gate with two guards on either side.
"That's new," Barret commented.
They walked up to the gate. A guard came forward and held up his hand for them to halt.
"Do you have business here?" he questioned.
"We need to get into the dockyard," Cloud replied.
The guard nodded.
"Certainly, if you'll just show me your clearance."
The look they gave him made it obvious that they were lacking in that regard. The guard looked at them sternly and shook his head.
"You can't pass without clearance."
"Clearance from who?" Barret growled.
"Why, Mayor Hart, of course," the guard replied. "We've had a lot of cases of unauthorized use of government property. Mayor Hart is cracking down. You can't go onto the docks without his permission."
"Hart?" Cait said. "What happened to the old Mayor?"
"He retired about six months ago," the guard replied. "Hart is the Mayor now. He's started a lot of innovative programs."
"I'll bet," Barret replied. "Look, we just need to use the submarine. We're not here to mess with anything else. We're from Avalanche, and I'm sure your Mayor won't mind."
"You guys are from Avalanche?" the guard said, his eyes widening. "I heard it was you who beat Sephiroth. I didn't think anyone would be able to do that."
"Great," Cloud replied. "Now can we pass?"
The guard hesitated and looked at them, embarrassed.
"I'm afraid I really can't let you through without permission," he said hesitantly.
"Oh good grief," Barret exclaimed, obviously starting to lose his temper. "This is ridiculous. We're not thieves, and we need the sub. Now let us through."
The guard stepped back as the second guard came over slowly. They both 3 realized that they would be no match for this group if it came to a fight.
"I'm sorry," he stammered. "I'm just doing my job. I'm sure if you go see the Mayor you will have no problem getting clearance. But I can't let you through without it."
Barret just stared at them with his hands on his hips.
"It's all right," Tifa said, walking over to Barret. "We can go talk to the Mayor. C'mon, Barret. It's not their fault."
For a moment longer Barret glared at the guards, then he turned and looked at Cloud.
"Tifa's right," Cloud said finally. "C'mon, let's go pay the Mayor a visit.
They walked back down the road and turned north. In a few minutes they were in Junon proper. The city itself didn't seem to have changed much since their last visit. The cannon was gone, of course, decaying now in the ruins of Midgar, but otherwise the city appeared virtually unchanged. It turned out the Mayor had his office in the old Shinra headquarters, and Tifa shuddered for a moment as they walked by the room that held the gas chamber where she had almost perished. This was another place that she had hoped to never see again.
They reached the Mayor's office and entered. The waiting room was empty, except for a secretary at a desk in the front of the room. She looked at them as they walked up to her.
"Can I help you?"
"We need to see the Mayor," Cloud said.
"Do you have an appointment?" she asked.
"No," Cloud replied. "We need to use the submarine and we were told we had to get clearance from the Mayor first."
"I'll go see if he's available," she said, and got up.
"Tell him we're from Avalanche," Barret added.
She raised her eyebrows at this, but said nothing. She walked into the next room.
"Let's hope this doesn't take long," Barret muttered.
She came out again in a moment.
"The Mayor will see you shortly, please have a seat."
Barret grumbled, but then they all sat down and waited.
Barret fidgeted and grumbled the entire time. He kept giving the secretary glaring looks, but she did her best to ignore them. Finally even the others started to get impatient
"How much longer is this going to take?" Cloud asked.
"The Mayor is a very busy man," the secretary responded.
"Busy?" Barret exclaimed, "there's not even anyone else here!"
The secretary gave him an exasperated look.
"Considering the fact that you don't have an appointment, you're lucky that he agreed to see you at all," she answered.
"Yeah, real lucky,' Yuffie chimed in.
"Did you tell him that we were from Avalanche," Barret asked. "Remember, the people who stopped Meteor and saved the planet?"
"Yes, I told him," she answered with a sigh.
They sat back down and waited a little while longer. But then Cloud looked at Barret and without saying a word they suddenly all got up and walked toward the door to the Mayor's chambers.
The secretary stood up in surprise.
"You can't go in there!" she cried.
"Not likely you're going to stop us, sister," Yuffie exclaimed and took a menacing step toward her. The secretary stepped back.
"The Mayor isn't going to like this, " she said lamely as they filed by.
"You can say that again," Barret growled.
The Mayors office was a large well furnished room. There was a huge desk at the far end of it. Behind the desk sat the Mayor with a young woman in his lap. He looked up startled as they came in, then stood up abruptly, almost dumping the woman on the floor. She righted herself a gave him a dirty look.
"I thought I told April that I was not to be disturbed, " he said, somewhat flustered.
"I'm afraid we took the liberty of coming in on our own," Cloud replied. "And since we're here now and it doesn't look like you're all that busy after all, perhaps you could find the time to have a little discussion with Avalanche."
The Mayor looked like he would get angry for a moment, but then, seeing the look on the faces of the six well armed people in front of him, appeared to change his mind.
"Of course, " he replied with a smile. "Sorry to have kept you waiting."
He turned toward the woman. "I'll continue my dictation later on, Selene. You can go."
With a smile at the others, she turned and walked out of the room.
"So what can I do for you, my friends?" the Mayor asked.
Cloud explained the situation.
"Oh, so you need to use the submarine," Hart said when he had finished. "I see. Well, this is a very serious request. I'm afraid I just can't give you use of the submarine on a spur of the moment. We're conducting some very important research right now, and I don't know whether it can be interrupted."
"What sort of research is that, exactly?" Red questioned.
"Well, I'm afraid I can't say. It's all hush, hush, and all that. You know."
"No we don't know," Barret said sharply. "We're not going to need it for long. Besides, we were the ones who acquired the ship from Shinra, so it's basically our submarine."
"Well, " Hart responded, searching for a moment for a response. "As private citizens, you can't really own the submarine. It was property of Shinra, and once that company was dissolved it reverted to the state."
"But I'm not a private citizen, " Barret responded with a sudden smile. "I'm the Mayor of Corel And as such I believe I have the right to claim the submarine as property of that city."
Hart looked at him for a moment before responding.
"But you were not Mayor when you acquired the ship. I don't think your claim would hold up."
"Look," Cloud interrupted. He really was not interested in discussing the finer points of any legal battle they might have over the submarine. "Are you going to let us use it or not?"
The Mayor looked around his office for a moment, as if trying to think of the proper way to respond.
"All right, I may be able to swing it," he said finally. "But you have . to do something for me in return."
Barret looked at him skeptically.
"And what might that be?"
"I need you to get something for me," he said.
They did not respond, but waited for him to say more.
"I need you to get me the plans for the Mako reactor underneath Junon." he continued.
"Whatever for?" Tifa exclaimed. "Surely you're not thinking of building another Mako reactor?"
"No, not at all," Hart replied quickly. "It's just that some of my engineers believe that they can use the plans to build a conventional reactor that's more efficient."
Cloud looked at the others. They seemed as doubtful as he about this new development. Tifa in particular did not look like she liked this idea one bit. He turned back to the Mayor.
"Assuming we agree,:" he said, "just where are these plans?"
"Why, in the reactor, of course," Hart replied.
"Somehow I knew you were going to say that," Cloud said softly.
Mako created monsters had continued to haunt the city of Junon even after the fall of Shinra. Some brave people had entered the reactor itself to try to clean out this scourge, but none had ever returned. In the end it had been decided it would be better to simply seal off the reactor and let the monsters rot inside. Now Cloud and his friends found themselves standing in the underwater passageway just outside the huge steel doors that the Mayor's assistants were in the process of unbolting.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Tifa asked, not for the first time.
"No, I'm not," Cloud replied. "But it doesn't look like we have much choice. It's either this or take the submarine by force and probably have the entire city of Junon after us."
"For all we know," Yuffie said, "the city might be glad to get rid of this guy. I'm beginning to wonder how he ever got elected in the first place."
"And besides," Cait added, "how do we know he's telling the truth when he says he only wants the plans to build an improved conventional reactor? I don't trust him."
"After all that's happened," Tifa said, "the people would never let him build another Mako reactor. They'd kick him right out of office. That kind of greed almost destroyed the planet once already."
"Most people thought Shinra should have been kicked out long before it was," Barret observed, "but it took a long time for it to happen."
"I don't trust him either," Cloud said. "And I'm open to any suggestions, if anyone has got one. I think we have little choice but to take his word for it, and if we find out later on that he's lying, well, the citizens of Junon won't be the only people he has to deal with. I'm sure that you haven't forgotten that we have some experience at taking out Mako reactors."
No one had forgotten.
The assistants completed unbolting the doors and now nervously opened them just far enough for someone to pass through. They looked at Cloud and his friends anxiously,
"All right, let's get this over with," Cloud said. He walked over and slipped through the doors. The others followed. As soon as they were all inside the doors was slammed ominously behind them.
"I got a feeling they're not expecting us back," Cait commented.
They looked around. They were in a large passageway. Machinery lined the walls and a catwalk ran along the wall to their right. Except for themselves, it seemed deserted.
"Well, I don't see any sign of Mako monsters," Barret observed. "This place has been sealed up for almost a year, maybe they all turned on each other."
"Maybe, " Cloud replied, the doubt in his voice obvious.
"So where do we go from here?" Tifa asked.
Hart had told him where the plans could be found, if of course they hadn't been moved. Cloud thought that unlikely. The plans weren't something that would be of interest to anyone, or anything, for that matter.
"This way," he said, and started walking to the left.
There was a corridor off in that direction and Cloud led them down it. This led into another room filled with machinery. Tifa kept her eyes open as they walked, but she saw no hint that the place was occupied. Nor did she sense that they were being watched or followed. She felt that they were completely alone down here.
Cloud led them down two more levels, and still they met no opposition. Tifa was beginning to believe that maybe Barret was right, and the only thing they had to worry about was getting lost. They had made a dozen turns already, and without the others she would have no clue where she was going, but Cloud seemed to know the way and he led them unhesitantly.
They entered the largest room they had seen yet. They stood on a metal grating about six feet wide that ran along the wall on this side of the room. Below them the rest of the room was filled with a clear green liquid. A metal stairway led up to a catwalk that ran above the pool across the room and into another corridor twenty feet above the pool on the opposite wall.
"Must be coolant for the reactor," Red observed, looking at the liquid.
Cloud nodded and led them single file up the stairway and onto the catwalk. They had still seen no sign of an enemy, and he had unconsciously begun to relax a little. Even if he had been alert, he was looking for some enemy, and not at the structure on which they walked. The reactor had had no maintenance done on it in almost a year, and if anyone had looked closely they might have been concerned by the rust covering the metal struts supporting the catwalk.
But no one did notice, and the first hint they had was the grating sound of metal on metal and a sudden shudder as one of the supports gave way.
"Get back!" Cloud shouted in the instant he had before the section they were standing on collapsed.
The catwalk gave way at one end and swung down like a trapdoor opening. Yuffie, who was last in line, scrambled back madly and managed to make it to an undamaged section. Red, who was next, made a tremendous leap as the walk gave way and landed halfway on the undamaged part. For a moment he balanced there, his paws flailing wildly to gain a grip, then Yuffie grabbed hold of him and hauled him up.
The others were too far along to jump back. Cloud grabbed Tifa's arm with one hand, then lunged and managed to grasp the swinging handrail. Barret and Cait slid down, desperately reaching for the railing as they fell. Barret managed to grab it and hold on at the last moment. He hung there slowly swinging back and forth above the coolant. Cait scrambled to get a handhold as well, but couldn't quite manage it. He fell into the coolant below with a loud splash.
He came up gasping.
"Is this stuff poisonous?" he yelled anxiously.
"I don't think so," Red replied. "Just swim back to the platform and you'll be fine."
Cait paddled back toward the metal grating. Cloud hauled himself up the handrail, thinking at any moment the rest of the catwalk would give way and they would all end up in the drink. But he climbed up without incident, then turned and helped Tifa and Barret.
They stood up and looked back at Yuffie and Red. A good fifteen feet now separated them.
"So what do we do now?" Yuffie asked.
"I guess we'll go on," he answered. "I don't see how you can get across, so wait here until we get back."
She held out her arms and gave him a look of exasperation.
"So I'm just supposed to wait here with the furballs?" she said.
Cloud just shook his head.
"Let's get going, " he said to Tifa and Barret.
They move forward cautiously, but they reached the end of the catwalk without further incident. They disappeared into the corridor beyond.
Yuffie and Red walked back down to the platform and helped Cait climb out of the coolant. He shook his huge Mog body, and Yuffie cried in protest as he showered them with water.
"Cut it out," she exclaimed. "If you weren't such a big lug the catwalk probably wouldn't have fallen in the first place."
"Hey, don't try to blame it on me," Cait answered defensively. "This body is big but it's very light. I bet it doesn't weigh much more than you do."
Yuffie said nothing but looked at him skeptically. Then she turned and walked back toward the doorway.
"Cloud told us to wait here," Red said.
"Well, I'm not going to just stand around here waiting for them," she replied. "Suppose they get in trouble and need our help? I'm going to see if.3 there is another way through."
"You're more likely to just get yourself hopelessly lost," Red said.
"You're welcome to come if you want," she said sharply. "But I'm going, regardless."
Red and Cait looked at each other, then turned and started after her.
"I've got a feeling we're going to regret this," Red said resignedly.
Cloud led them through two more rooms and down a flight of steps which led into yet another large room. He stopped for a moment to get his bearings. Then he pointed to the right.
"The reactor core is right in there," he said. "The plans are in an office above them. C'mon, we're almost there."
They took a few steps but then stopped. A sound came from their left. A rapping sound, as if someone was banging on metal. It was not loud, and seemed to be coming from a corridor that led off to their left. It went on for a minute and paused, then started up again. ` Barret looked at Cloud.
"Should we go check it out?" he asked softly.
Cloud stood listening for a few more minutes. The sound faded away, and this time did not return.
He shook his head.
"I think in this case we'd be better off leaving well enough alone," he said. "Let's just get the plans and get out of here."
He led them to the right and into the next room. The opposite wall in the room was a convex semicircle. A large metal door stood on the wall with the words 'CAUTION: REACTOR CORE' in red above it. A metal stairway led up to another catwalk that ran along the wall above them. The upper portion of the wall was covered with windows of offices that lined the area above them. The glass in all the windows was smashed and scattered across the floor. The metal stair was bent and twisted, although it still looked serviceable. The dozens of machines that stood in the room were broken and in some cases torn to pieces. The door below the sign was dented and appeared to have large claw marks across it. The entire room was filled with debris. They looked at it for a few moments in shocked silence.
"Whatever it was that came through here was real angry," Barret finally stated.
"Yeah," Cloud agreed, looking around carefully. "But it doesn't seem to be around anymore. Let's get those plans and get out of here before it decides to come back."
They made their way carefully up the stairs. Cloud was worried now that the plans would not be there. If whatever had come through had destroyed the offices the plans might be nothing more than twisted fragments of paper scattered on the floor. But when they got to the top of the catwalk he saw that the offices were relatively undamaged.
They walked over to the third office and entered. Cloud quickly went over to the desk and started to rummage through it as the others kept an eye out for any visitors. With a grunt of satisfaction Cloud stood up, the plans in his hands. They quickly strode back along the catwalk and down the stair. He was sure that something would happen before they got out of the room, but they made it without incident. Cloud wasn't about to say so out loud, and they still had a long way to go, but in spite of that he was thinking that maybe for just this once their little mission would go off without a hitch.
Red was trying his hardest to keep track of the way back, but it was difficult. There seemed to be no pattern to Yuffie's meandering. She appeared to turn right or left as the mood took her. They reached another intersection and Yuffie turned left.
"I think we're going in the wrong direction," Red said.
Yuffie did not respond, but just kept walking.
"Maybe we should just let her go on by herself," Cait suggested.
"No," Red replied. "We better stay with her. I just wish she wasn't so stubborn."
They entered another room that appeared to have no other exit. Red and Cait waited by the door while Yuffie wandered around. Maybe now they would turn around, Red thought, but his thinking was premature.
Yuffie was at the far end of the room looking at a large piece of machinery.
"It's looks like there's a door behind here," she said. "Give me a hand with this."
Red walked over, followed by Cait. He could see the partial outline of a door behind the machine. Red looked around. There was a trail of scrape marks on the floor leading from the wall on their left over to the machine.
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Yuffie questioned impatiently. "Help me move this."
"Can't we just go back," Cait finally asked. "This seems like an awful lot of work just to get lost."
"Nobody is stopping you from going back," Yuffie replied sharply. "But you sure aren't going to help the others that way."
"It looks like somebody dragged this machine over here from the far wall," Red observed. "Why would they do that?"
"How should I know," Yuffie replied. "And I don't really care. Now, are you going to give me a hand or not?"
The three of them together moved the machinery with little difficulty, even though Red had a feeling that this was an extremely bad idea. He could only think that the machinery had been put there so that no one could get in or out of the door behind it.
Once the machinery was out of the way they saw a solid barred metal door. Yuffie walked up and lifted off the bar.
"I really don't think we should go in there," Red tried again, even though he knew it was hopeless.
Yuffie opened the door and walked in. The others waited a moment and followed. There was a large room inside. Yuffie stood a few steps in. She turned around and looked at them.
"See," she said, "there's nothing to be afraid of. Now C'mon, you scardycats, lets go find the..."
She stopped as she saw the look on their faces. Their eyes were wide, and they were looking up. She turned and saw...
She looked up.
Then she looked up higher.
"Oh boy," she said softly.
Cloud led them back as fast as he dared. With each step he expected something to leap out of the shadows at them, but they made it back to the coolant room undisturbed.
"Looks like the place might be deserted after all," Barret finally said.
"We're not out of here yet," Tifa said quickly, even though she had been thinking the same thing.
They walked along the catwalk above the pool until they reached the point where it had collapsed.
"Where are the others?" Tifa asked with some concern.
"I don't know," Cloud replied. He had expected them to be waiting here. "I hope they haven't gotten themselves in some kind of trouble."
No one spoke for a moment as they look across at the other end of the catwalk. They all knew the only way across was into the pool.
"Well, we won't find out by standing here," Barret said finally and launched himself off the catwalk. He hit the water with a tremendous splash and headed for the platform.
Cloud looked at Tifa, who was looking down at the water. It was a good fifteen foot drop.
"Barret's right," he said. He grabbed hold of her.
"No, wait, I'm..." she began, but then they were plunging downward. They hit the water and it was cold! She came up sputtering.
"I wasn't ready!" she cried, but he was already swimming for the platform. She followed and Cloud and Barret hauled her up.
"Now where the hell did they go?" Cloud muttered, walking out into the hall. He looked both ways as the others came out behind him. He was just about to complain about the fact that they hadn't stayed put when they heard sounds down the hallway to the left.
Cloud felt relief when he saw Yuffie come around the corner, with Red and Cait not far behind.
"Good, you're back, " Yuffie said, rushing right past them. "C'mon, lets get out of here. We don't have all day, you know."
They looked at her for a moment, then turned as Red and Cait came up.
"You have the plans?" Red questioned.
"Yes," Cloud responded. "What's going on?"
A deep growl echoed down the hallway from the direction they had just come.
"I'm afraid something followed us home," Red said.
Cloud had his sword out in an instant. A moment later he saw a huge clawed hand at the end of the hallway. It was attached to a gorilla like beast that growled again as soon as it saw them.
Cloud took a step forward.
"It's big, but it doesn't seem to be very fast," Red suggested from behind him. "Perhaps it might be wise to retreat."
Cloud did not respond but stopped his advance.
"Red's right, Cloud," Tifa said. "We've got the plans, let's just get out of here."
He glanced at them, then turned to look at the beast. It was still a good twenty feet away. He took a step backwards, then turned and they ran down the hall after the others.
"Yuffie, the next time we need directions somewhere, remind me not to ask you, " Barret said with a smile.
"Very funny," she answered sharply. "I'm sure if it had been you leading the group we'd still be lost down there."
"You may be right," Barret answered, refusing to be baited. "But I gotta take my hat off to you. I don't think anyone else could have led us straight to what was probably the only monster left alive down in that maze."
Yuffie gave him a dark look, but said nothing more.
"Well, no harm done," Cloud said philosophically. "I just hope that the next time I tell you to wait you'll do just that."
"Yes sir, General Cloud," Yuffie muttered with a quick salute.
They had been walking down the road to the dockyards, and now they stopped as they once more stood in front of the gates. A guard came over to them, different from the last one. They showed him their clearance from the Mayor and the guards swung open the gates.
"That's more like it," Barret said with satisfaction.
They walked out onto the docks. The sub was tied up at the second dock. The area was completely deserted.
"Cloud, do you think you still remember how to run this thing?" Cait asked as they walked aboard.
"We'll find out soon enough," he replied. He pulled on the main hatch and it opened with a grating sound.
"Doesn't sound good," Barret remarked. "You know, it looks like this thing hasn't been used since the last time we used it. Must of been some interesting research they were conducting."
"Yeah, I'm sure," Cloud muttered.
They entered the sub and Cloud had to agree with Barret's assessment. The place looked completely unused. There were even cobwebs covering some of the instrument panels. A minor nuisance, but a short time later he discovered a real problem. The engines wouldn't start.
He related that information to the others, and then he and Red went back to the engine room to take a look around.
Barret sat down unhappily in the helmsman's seat.
"I'll bet that lousy excuse for a Mayor knew the sub wasn't working all the time," he said angrily. "I think we should go back there and kick his ass."
"Satisfying as that may be," Tifa replied, "it's not going to get us a working submarine. But let's not jump to conclusions. Maybe it's something simple and Cloud and Red can fix it."
"Even if they can," Barret answered, "I'd still like to kick his ass."
It was quite a while before Cloud and Red returned, and when they did they did not have good news.
"I'm afraid it's beyond our expertise to fix it," Red said. "We just don't know that much about submarine engines."
"So what do we do now?" Yuffie asked. It seemed they had come an awful long way to get stuck.
"We need someone to help us," Red replied. "Someone who knows about engines."
They all looked at each other for a moment.
"Cid," Cloud, Barret and Yuffie all said at once.
They reached Rocket Town the next day. Like Wutai, it had grown, but not nearly as much. As they walked down the street they saw perhaps a dozen new houses. As they passed between two of them Cait stopped and pointed to the north.
"Hey, look at that."
They saw the top of a rocket poking out of the treetops.
"He must be building a new one," Tifa said. "Let's go take a look."
They turned and hurried north. As they came out of the trees they saw the new rocket in front of them. It looked quite similar to the old one, but was obviously still under construction and a long way from completion. There were still gaping holes in the hull, and they could see a dozen technicians working on the interior.
The launch pad was covered with pipes, electrical lines and construction equipment. They worked their way trough the maze until they saw Cid talking to two other men at the base of the rocket.
"Cid!" Cloud called.
He turned and waved. They walked over to him.
"So, how do you like it?" he said as the approached, waving his hand at the ship. "It's going to be a beauty! Twice as powerful as the old one. If all goes well we should be done with her sometime next year. You guys up for another trip into space?"
"I'm not sure we're quite ready for that," Cloud replied. "Looks like you've been working hard. I guess one trip into space wasn't enough for you."
"Ha!" Cid spate out. "That was nothing. That just gave me a taste and now I'm anxious for more. Who knows, with this baby, we might even be able to reach another planet!"
"Where did you get the funding?" Red asked.
"Well, we're still a little tight there," Cid admitted. "But I got a lot of investors once they saw that the first rocket actually worked. Plus, we're cutting expenses as much as possible. I've even used a lot of parts from the Highwind."
"You took apart the Highwind?" Barret said in surprise.
"Yeah, we needed the parts. Anyway, who needs an airship when you can have a spaceship. Besides, I've still got the Tiny Bronco."
"But the Tiny Bronco can't fly," Cait said.
"It can now," Cid replied.
"Sounds like you've been keeping busy," Red observed.
"Things couldn t be better, actually," Cid said. "So what have you guys been up to. I hardly expected to see you all back here together. Are we having some sort of reunion?"
"Kind of," Cloud replied. He explained the situation.
Cid nodded when Cloud had finished.
"I see. Well, it s kind of busy here but I'm sure I can find the time to give you a hand. It shouldn't take too long. How about if we leave tomorrow morning?"
"That would be fine," Cloud agreed.
"Okay, then why don't you guys head over to my place. No sense in staying at the Inn. Just tell Shera to break out some extra cots. I'll be back as soon as I can finish up here, but it'll probably not be till late."
Just then a man came running up, he seemed very agitated and was shouting Cid s name. Cid called and waved him over.
"What s all this about?" he demanded.
"Captain, you've got to come quick," he shouted as soon as he saw them. "The Turks have got Shera!"
"Why the hell didn't she have the sense to duck out of here when she saw them coming?" Cid said angrily. The were all standing in the living room of his house.
"I'm sure she would have if she had the opportunity," Tifa said.
"Don't count on it," Cid replied. "She never did have much sense. I've half a mind to just let them have her."
"You can't be serious," Tifa cried.
"No, I suppose not," he replied grudgingly. "But we know it's not her they want. What do you think they'll do it we don't show up?"
The Turks had left a message to meet them at the foot of the nearby mountains if they ever wanted to see Shera again.
"It's the Crystal Materia they want," Cloud said. "And they obviously have either a trade or a trap in mind. Shera is just a means to an end to them, but that doesn't mean they would just let her go if we don't fall for it. They can be ruthless if they have to. Remember, it was Reno who set off the bomb that destroyed the Sector 7 slums."
"We haven't forgotten," Barret said grimly.
"So what are we going to do then?" Cid asked.
They all looked at Cloud.
"We'll have to go see what they have to say, at least," he said after a minute. "But not all of us. Cid and Red, you two come with me. The rest of you stay here. This way, if it's a trap, they won't get all of us, and you'll have an opportunity to try to get us out of it if we have problems."
He walked over to Tifa, who did not look pleased with the plan, and took out the Crystal Materia.
"Here," he said. "You better hold on to this. If we do fall into a trap we have to be sure this doesn't fall into their hands."
She hesitantly reached out and took the materia from him. He turned and motioned for Cid and Red to follow him.
"Cloud," Tifa said as he walked toward the door.
He turned to look at her, and for a moment he thought she was going to protest.
"Be careful," she said finally.
"Later," he replied and led the others out the door.
They headed south out of town. The mountains loomed in front of them, and it wasn't long before they were walking up a steep path that wound into the foothills. They came around a narrow turn and saw the Turks standing idly on the path in front of them.
Cloud drew his weapon as the Turks turned to face them.
"I told you they'd show up," Reno muttered to Elena.
"Where's Shera?" Cloud asked grimly.
"Give us the Crystal Materia and we'll let her go," Reno suggested.
"I'm afraid my answer is the same as it was last time you asked," Cloud replied immediately. "Not likely."
"Where's the rest of your little party," he asked. "Sneaking around behind us?"
"We leave the sneaking to you Turks," Cloud answered. "They're not here. We don't need their help to take on the likes of you."
"Very arrogant of you," Reno replied. "Still, I think you may come to regret that. Shera is in a cave just down the path behind us. She's there for the taking if you can get past us. On the other hand, when we defeat you, the Crystal Materia will be ours."
"Apparently I'm not the only one who suffers from a touch of arrogance," Cloud replied. "Shall we have at it then?"
Cid and Red came up beside Cloud. This time Reno and Rude closed in immediately to battle Cloud and Cid, while Elena and Red stayed in the back and started out casting defensive spells. Reno knew Cloud's fighting skills well, and did not stand toe to toe with him, but instead dodged quickly in and back out, never giving Cloud a clear target. Most of the time Cloud's sword, fast as it was, cut only air. Even when he did get a hit, it was softened by the magical barriers, and Rude was quick to cast cure spells whenever one of his partners was injured. Still, Reno was spending so much time dodging Cloud's blows that he had little time to try to cause any damage himself.
The others seemed pretty evenly matched as well. Cid and Rude were trading blows to Cloud's left, but neither one seemed to be getting the better of the other. Occasionally Red or Elena would attack one of the others, or the whole group, with a materia spell, but each time the other would counter with a defensive spell or a cure.
They fought for some time, neither team seeming to get the upper hand. After a while they all were beginning to tire, with neither side seeming to gain an advantage. Cloud was just beginning to think that maybe he should have brought some of the others, when, as if by mutual consent, the Turks suddenly broke off the attack and turned and fled up the path.
Cloud hesitated for a moment, surprised by the suddenness of the retreat, Then he was after them. Not even looking to see if the others were following, he ran up the path and around the turn the Turks had just disappeared beyond.
Cid was right behind him. Red trailed a little behind.
"That seemed awfully easy," he commented, but the others did not appear to hear.
They came around the turn. There was no sign of the Turks, but a cave mouth loomed on the left ahead.
"That must be the cave," Cloud said. "C'mon."
He ran for the cave, the others following not far behind. About twenty yards in front of the cave mouth the ground suddenly opened up below them and they plunged down into darkness.
Cloud hit the water with a splash. The others almost landing on top of him. He came up to the surface immediately.
Not more water, he thought.
He looked around. They had fallen into a pool of dark water in what appeared to be some sort of deep shaft. The was a rotting wooden platform to their left, and beyond it a tunnel that led into the darkness. He looked up to see a square of light perhaps thirty feet above them.
Reno, Rude and Elena stepped out from behind some nearby rocks and walked over to the mine entrance they had so cleverly concealed. They looked in to see Cloud and the others looking up at them.
"I guess I forgot to tell you to watch that first step," Reno said with a smile.
"Cowards," Cid shouted. "You knew we were going to kick your ass. And I guarantee you we will as soon as we get out of here."
"I don't think you're in any position to make threats," he replied calmly. "We'd be happy to supply you with a rope, in exchange for the Crystal Materia, of course."
"Still trying to negotiate?" Cloud answered. "We don't need your rope. We'll find a way out ourselves."
Elena looked at them skeptically.
"Not likely," she stated.
"Have it your way," Reno said. "I didn't think for a minute that you would listen to reason. That mineshaft goes on for miles, but there is no other way out. If you go into those tunnels all you'll do is get yourselves hopelessly lost. You won't get far in any case. There's some very nasty creatures down there who don't like visitors. Say hello to them for us when you see them."
Reno laughed again and the they turned and walked away down the path. As soon as they were away from the mineshaft he turned to the others.
"We'll let them rot in there for awhile. It's likely that something down there will kill them all and save us the trouble. Then we can just go down and help ourselves to the Crystal Materia. In the meantime I think we might want to head back to Rocket Town. Cloud is no fool. It just might be that he left the materia with the others."
"I'm sure they're fine," Barret said.
Tifa did not reply, but continued pacing nervously around the room. She would have felt better if she had gone with Cloud. And she would have felt much better if he hadn't given her the Crystal Materia. For some reason just knowing that she had it filled her with foreboding. She wished he had given it to someone else. She had almost asked Barret to take it a several times, but had changed her mind each time.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. They all looked at each other.
No one had any suggestions as to who it might be.
Barret shrugged and walked over to the door. Cait and Yuffie went to either side as Barret opened it.
"Well, I'll be damned," Barret said, suddenly breaking into a grin. "This really is turning out to be just like old times."
He stepped out of the way as Vincent Valentine walked in.
"Vincent," Cait and Tifa both said in surprise.
Vincent smiled at them as he came in.
"It is good to see you all again," he said. "But I am afraid this is more than a social visit. It appears we both need each other."
"What do you mean?" Barret asked. They walked over and all sat down around a table in the living room.
"Cloud is walking into a trap. The Turks are going to lure him into an abandoned mine, then either finish him off or let the creatures in the mine do it. Then they'll take the Crystal Materia for themselves."
Tifa shook her head. .
"They can't get the materia from him."
"Why not?" Vincent asked.
"Because he doesn't have it," Tifa replied.
"I see," Vincent said. "Then he'll have nothing to negotiate with. In any case, if he ends up in the mine he'll never get out by himself. The mine is a huge maze. There are ways out, but you have to know the way. I can get him out, but it's too dangerous to go by myself. I also know where they're holding Shera. If you come with me, I think we can get them all back safely."
Barret was looking at Vincent with a strange expression on his face.
"That's all well and good," he said, "but how do you know all this?"
Vincent returned his gaze evenly.
"I know because I know who hired the Turks. I know because it's someone I'm very close to, or was. I know because it's..."
He paused, and for a moment Barret thought he saw a great sadness in Vincent's eyes.
"Lucrecia," he said finally. "Lucrecia hired them."
Yuffie looked at him with both puzzlement and shock on her face.
"But why would Lucrecia hire the Turks to fight us?" she asked.
"She didn't hire them to fight you," Vincent replied. "She hired them to get the Crystal Materia."
"But why?" Tifa asked.
Again he did not respond at first. At last he spoke the words as if it pained him to say them.
"You want to use the materia to bring back Aeris. But if it works it can bring back any of the Ancients, including her son."
The others looked at him in shocked silence.
"Sephiroth?" Yuffie exclaimed finally. "She wants to bring back Sephiroth?"
"I'm afraid she's not thinking clearly," he said sadly. "In fact, it may be that she is not in her right mind at all. She doesn't seem to realize that Sephiroth nearly destroyed the planet, and was only out for his own gain and would have killed her along with all the rest of us. She's obsessed with the idea of bringing him back. She told me of her plans, she told me all about it. That's how I know so much, you see. But she turned against me when I opposed the idea. She called me a traitor, said I didn't really care about her at all. I wanted her to stop, I begged and pleaded with her to stop, but I couldn't get through to her. She's even attacked you, my friends, to get what she wants. I can't just stand by and watch her do it, I have to try to stop her, no matter how I may feel about it."
He ended lamely. The others looked at him sympathetically. All except Tifa, who was thinking about the Crystal Materia. She had never thought about the possibility that it could be used to bring back anyone but Aeris. It seemed to her now that obtaining it had been a foolish and dangerous thing to do, and their innocent quest to save her could turn into something dark and deadly, not just for them but for everyone on the planet. It would have been better if they had never found the materia, or if they just destroyed it. They would not be able to use it then, but no one else would either. She took it out and held it in her hand. It might be better for them all if she just smashed it right now.
She knew she couldn't do that. Whatever might happen, she couldn't destroy their last hope of resurrecting Aeris. At least not without Cloud's consent. She would just have to make sure the materia didn't fall into the wrong hands, but now the burden felt twice as heavy.
"So what can we do?" Barret asked.
"Come with me into the mines. I know them well. We can rescue both Shera and Cloud that way, but it is too dangerous to try by myself. It will still be dangerous, but we may be able to make it together. In any case, we should leave right away. The others are in grave danger."
"Good," Barret agreed. "But I don't think we should all go. Cloud wanted the Crystal Materia to remain here, and I don't see any reason to change that. Yuffie, you come with Vincent and me."
He turned to Tifa.
"You and Cait stay here. This way the materia is safe and someone is here to tell Cloud where we went, on the chance that he escaped the trap and comes back."
"I don't want to stay," Tifa protested.
"Don't argue with me," Barret retorted. "You know as well as I do that the materia has to be protected now more than ever. We just can't chance it."
Tifa sighed but said nothing. She did not like this latest development one bit, however.
"Okay, lets get going," Barret said.
They got up and started out the door.
"Take good care of things while we're gone," Barret said to Cait.
"Don't worry," Cait replied. "We'll make sure nothing happens to the materia."
Tifa said nothing, but just watched them walk out the door, more worried than ever.
"Well, it looks like we're not getting back out that way," Cloud said, looking up.
They were standing on the wooden platform next to the water. Red looked down the tunnel which was the only other way out. Cid sat on the edge of the platform smoking a cigarette.
"Do you think the others can find us here?" he asked.
"I suppose," Cloud replied. "But it might be hours before they get here. I don't think we have the time to waste. We've got to try to get ourselves out of this."
"So into the tunnels it is then?" Red asked.
"Into the tunnels it is," Cloud agreed.
The tunnel sloped slightly upward as they walked into it. Cloud was in the lead, his sword ready, Red behind him and Cid in the rear. Cloud didn't know whether the Turks had been bluffing about the creatures down here, but he thought it wise to be prepared for anything. It seemed unlikely that Reno would trap them down here without some sort of nasty surprise waiting.
The tunnel turned sharply and then divided in two. The right hand side plunged downward while the left seemed to remain level.
"So which way do we go?" Red said.
Cloud peered down each tunnel, listening carefully. Finally he shook his head.
"I guess we'll just have to pick one at random. We'll just keep making lefts," he decided. "This way at least we'll be able to find our way back."
He led them down the left hand passage. It was narrow and twisted, so they could not see very far ahead. They passed side tunnels half a dozen times, and each time chose the left hand passage. They went on for quite some time this way, always on guard but seeing nothing threatening. Time seemed to crawl by. Cloud wasn't sure how long they had been down here, but it seemed like hours. He was just thinking that maybe they would have been better off waiting for the others when they came around a turn and saw a flickering light ahead.
Cloud moved forward cautiously. He could see a large chamber ahead of them. It flickered with light that was obviously cast by fire. He edged up to the end of the passage and peered out. He could see fires burning brightly at either end of the chamber. In the center of the cavern stood a square wooden cage. Shera sat in one corner of the it, unmoving. At first he thought that, except for her, the room was deserted, but then a shadow flickered though the air. He looked up and saw that the ceiling was crowded with dark figures. He retreated back to the others.
"We've found Shera. But she s being guarded by giant bat like creatures."
He motioned for them to follow and led them back to the entrance so they could see for themselves, then they retreated again.
"There must be dozens of them," Cid said. "I don't think we can take them all on."
"If we can get Shera and get back into this tunnel we might be okay," Cloud said thoughtfully. "It s too narrow for them to use their numbers against us. They could only come at us one or two at a time. We could hold out a long time."
"A long time," Red agreed, "but not forever. It's not going to do us much good if we get Shera and can't find our way out. We have to find an exit first."
"We could spend hours looking for an exit," Cid countered. "And even then there s no guarantee that we'll be able to find our way back here, or that Shera will still be here when we do. I say we get her now while we have the chance and trust to luck to find the way out."
"It'll be twice as hard to search for an exit once we have alerted these creatures to our presence," Red retorted. "And it doesn't look like Shera will be going anywhere anytime soon. The prudent thing to do would be to find the exit first."
They both turned to look at Cloud.
He looked back down the passageway. It would make sense to find the exit first, but he felt pressed for time. He wondered what the Turks were up to while they were trapped down here. It seemed in hindsight that perhaps it hadn't been such a good idea to split up the group. He had a feeling they had to get out of here as soon as possible.
"We'll get her now and trust to luck," he said. "But there are too many of them to just run out there. We need some kind of diversion."
They edged back to the entrance and looked out carefully. A narrow path led down from the tunnel they were in onto the main chamber floor. Shera's cage was perhaps thirty yards away, in the middle of the room with nothing around it.
"If one of us ran out there and attracted their attention," Cloud whispered," the others may have time to get Shera out."
"That's fine for everyone except the person who attracts their attention," Cid replied. "It won't do us any good to exchange one prisoner for another."
"If he could keep moving, he might be able to get back to the tunnel after we get Shera out," Cloud said. "It s risky, but I don't see what else we can do."
"So who s the poor fool who gets to go out there?" Cid asked.
"It's my idea," Cloud replied. "I'll go. As soon as you see them come after me, get Shera, then get back in the tunnel. I'll circle around the chamber and join you here."
"No," Red cut in. "I'll go. The job requires speed and agility more than strength. With my four legs I'm more than twice as fast as you. I'm the logical choice."
Cloud hesitated. He had not expected anyone to object, but he had to admit that Red had a point.
Finally he nodded.
"Okay," he said. "You just have to keep their attention for a minute or two. As soon as you see us get Shera, get back here as fast as possible."
"Right," Red replied. He crept up closer to the entrance and crouched down. He remained still, staring out into the chamber for a moment, only his tail twitching occasionally. Suddenly he leapt out as one of the bats flew by. He caught hold of it with his claws and they both tumbled to the floor together. Then he was up and dashing across the room. There was a flurry of activity above their heads and suddenly shadow began swooping down all around him.
Cloud waited a moment to give Red time to get far enough away from the tunnel entrance.
"Now!" he said, and ran out of the tunnel straight toward the cage, with Cid close at his heels. Shera had looked up at the commotion when Red had run out, now she stood and turned toward them as she saw them coming.
Two bats swooped down out the sky, but with a flash of sword and spear they fell to the ground. Cloud and Cid ran on until they were next to the cage.
"Get back," Cloud said.
Shera stepped back and Cloud swung his sword. The wooden poles of the cage where no match for hardened steel In seconds the poles were kindling and Shera was free.
"Now quickly, back to the tunnel," Cloud shouted.
They turned and ran back. Cloud chanced a look over to see how Red was doing. He could barely make him out in the tangle of shadows across the room, but he could see he was still on his feet. Some of the bats saw them and came back to attack, but most of them still clustered around Red. The few that got in their way were quickly dispatched. They reached the tunnel and stopped safely inside. Cid and Cloud turned to see Red fighting for his life against more than a dozen bats at the far end of the chamber. They both pulled out materia orbs.
Red scrambled along the wall, desperately trying to keep from being trapped. He knew the bats would overwhelm him if he had to stand and fight. He was quicker than they were, but their flying ability made up for that to a great extent. In spite of his speed he eventually found himself cornered.
Just then a double flash of fire and ice blasted the bats that had blocked him in to the left. Clawing ferociously at the bats nearby he broke free in that direction, then dashed back to the relative safety of the tunnel, where he paused with the others, panting.
"That wasn't as easy as I thought," he said.
"It s not over yet," Cloud replied. "Shera, are you okay?"
"Yes," she said. "I'm unhurt. Thank you."
"Save the thanks for later," Cid said. "Right now We've got to get out of here. Whichway?"
"Like we said before, we have to trust to luck," Cloud replied. "Let's go."
He led them back the way they had come as fast as Red and Shera could go. At the first turn off he headed in a different direction. At each turn thereafter he picked a tunnel at random. He tried to keep track of all their twists and turns, but it was just about impossible. Every once in a while a bat, or a group of them, would block their path, or come up behind them, and each time they had to stop and fight. Soon Cloud was acutely aware that they were completely lost.
Even if they were lost, he knew the bats were keeping track of them. Though they no longer attacked, he could hear the rustle of their wings behind them whenever they paused, and occasionally saw the red glint of their eyes. He knew the bats could not take them in the narrow tunnel, but how long would that last? They couldn t run around down here forever. `
He turned into another tunnel which led down a steep set of steps. At the bottom they stopped at the entrance to a large chamber, so dimly lit that they could not see the other side. Cloud stopped them and turned to look back up the stairs. He could see dark forms coming down the steps. He hesitated for a moment, unsure. The steps were safer, but they would have to fight there way all the way back. He looked around the chamber. It appeared empty. Perhaps they could get across quickly.
"C mon" he said, and ran out into the room. The others swiftly followed. As they neared the center of the room he saw the dark outline of another tunnel ahead of them, but before they reached it a figure stepped out of the tunnel as raised it s hands.
Instantly the cavern was filled with light as fires flared up to their left and right. They looked up to see that the ceiling above was literally crawling with bats. They halted and looked at the figure who stood in their way. In the firelight they could easily make out her features.
"Lucrecia," Cloud said.
"Would you sit down and relax," Cait said. "You're driving me crazy. I thought Barret was bad."
"I'm sorry," Tifa replied, but she did not sit down. "I can't help but worry. It's so frustrating to be sitting here when I know the others are in danger."
"I know how you feel," Cait replied. "But there s nothing we can do about it. I'm sure they'll all be fine."
"I know," she said. "It's just that it seems like hours that they've been gone. Don't you think they should have been back already? How long do we have to sit here and wait?"
"I don't know," he replied. "Even if they get into trouble, I'm sure one of them will be able to get back here. It could take them a long time. They weren't going on a picnic, you know. At any rate, I don't think it would help if we ran off as well."
Tifa shook her head. What Cait was saying was true, but that didn't mean she had to like it. She just wished they'd get back!
Cait was concerned as well. Even though he had confidence in his friends abilities, it had been a long time that they had been gone.
"I'm worried too," he said. "But it s not going to help. Come and sit down and have a drink. Your nerves are shot, and it'll help you relax."
Tifa didn't think it would do much good, but she was about to accept his offer when they heard footsteps outside the door.
"Finally," she said. She started over to the door but stopped when it opened to reveal Reno and Rude.
Cait jumped up out of his seat.
"Run, Tifa," he cried. "I'll hold them off!"
Tifa turned to run for the back door, only to see Elena coming from the kitchen behind them, cutting her off.
Reno stood in the doorway and folded his arms across his chest.
"You sure know how to make a person feel unwanted," he said casually.
"What do you want?" Tifa questioned fiercely.
"I think you already know that," Elena responded.
"You're not getting the Crystal Materia," Cait said angrily.
Reno looked at Rude.
"I told you Cloud wouldn't bring it with him," he said smugly. Then he looked at Cait.
"Thank you for verifying that for us," he said. "I'm afraid that you don't have much choice. You're no match for us without your friends. Hand it over and we won't be forced to hurt you."
Tifa looked around desperately. Now that she realized what they were planning she knew she could not let the materia fall into their hands, but she also knew that they were probably right. She and Cait couldn't defeat them alone.
Still, she knew she had no choice but to defend the Crystal at all costs.
Without a word she slowly walked over to Reno, head bowed. A smile spread across his lips, but it disappeared as she suddenly launched a vicious kick at his groin. He dodged enough to take it on the hip instead, but it still knocked him off his feet. He stumbled back and fell to the floor.
"We're more than a match for the likes of you," she said defiantly.
For an instant he did not move, then he turned and slowly got up. He looked at her furiously.
"You're going to pay dearly for that," he said.
"I wouldn't be too sure about that," said a strange voice.
They all turned to see a someone standing in the doorway. He wore a black cloak and was carrying a long sword, and for a moment Tifa almost gasped in shock because she thought it was Sephiroth. But looking at his face she saw it was not. The man had short dark brown hair and darker features than Sephiroth, though the same green eyes that glowed as the mark of SOLDIER.
"Who the hell are you?" Rude questioned.
"That's not really important," Tarkin replied, looking at Reno. "What is important is that you are interfering in something you do not understand. Things you cannot understand. None of your small minds can comprehend what you are really dealing with here. You are like children playing with a deadly weapon, and it's just a matter of time before you do something that will destroy you all."
"What kind of nonsense is that?" Elena demanded.
"It is not nonsense, " Tarkin countered. "It is deadly serious. It is also unimportant. It doesn't really concern me whether you destroy yourselves or not. What does concern me is the Crystal Materia. I am afraid I cannot let you take it. In fact, I can assure you that it would be in your best interests to just walk out the door right now and never bother these people again."
"C'mon Reno," Elena said, "let's just kick his butt too..."
She stopped as Tarkin turned and looked at her sharply. Tifa could almost feel the power emanating from him. She had felt the same feeling from Sephiroth, and she shuddered inwardly. Even though he didn't look like him, they way he spoke, the way he acted and moved, all reminded her vividly of their former foe.
"I don't know who you are, but we don't need any help," she found herself saying, even though she knew it was not true.
"Be silent," he said and turned to stare at her. The look hit her like a physical blow.
He turned back to look at Reno. For a long time they just stood there, staring at each other, and Tifa could feel the power flowing between them. Finally Reno looked away.
"Maybe this isn't the right time," he said slowly. He looked at the other two.
"C'mon, let's get out of here."
Elena seemed about to protest, but Tarkin looked at her again and she said nothing. The Turks turned and walked slowly out of the room without another word.
Tifa felt totally lost. Who was this guy and where did he come from? How did he know so much about what they were doing? She wanted to thank him for helping them, but she had the distinct feeling that he hadn't done it for their benefit. In fact, she felt that she was in greater danger now than they had been when confronted by the Turks. She suddenly realized that she was slowly backing away from the man.
He turned to look at her again, and laughed coldly. Even that reminded her of Sephiroth.
"You have no need to fear me," he said softly. "At least, not yet."
He looked over at Cait for a moment, then, still chuckling, turned and strode deliberately out the door.
Tifa looked at Cait, but he said nothing. She quickly walked over to the door. She could see the man walking away. She closed the door, turned, and leaned up against it.
"Now that was really weird," she muttered.
Tarkin continued down the road, still laughing to himself. The irony of actually helping Cloud and his friends was just too much, he thought, shaking his head. Lucrecia was such a fool sending the Turks to interfere. She could have ruined everything without even realizing it. As it was she had forced him to reveal himself. He really didn't think that would matter now, but one never knew. The funny thing was that they were both working for the same goal. It wasn't enough to bring Sephiroth back, Cloud also had to pay for what he had done. But she was so shortsighted! Let them keep the materia, let them do the dirty work. She didn't see that in order for the revenge to be perfect, Cloud had to be the one to bring the materia into the lifestream. Cloud had to be the one to bring back Sephiroth!
Lucrecia looked at them darkly.
"You have slain my son," she said. She spoke evenly, neither angrily nor sadly. "But you have also obtained the means to bring him back to me. You can redeem yourselves. You can right your wrong. Give me the Crystal Materia so I can have my son back."
Cloud glanced up. There seemed to be hundreds of bats in this room. Many more than had been in the previous chamber, and they were out in the open, exposed.
"Lucrecia," he said slowly. "We didn't want to hurt your son. But don't you see what he was doing. He was going to destroy the planet. He was going to destroy all of us. We had no choice."
"He would not have done it," she answered sharply. "I know he did some things he shouldn't have. I know he had his problems. But they weren't his fault, and he could not have done all these things he was accused of. Now give me the Materia. I know you didn't mean to hurt him. I do not wish to hurt you, I do not wish to see any further death. But you must give me the Materia."
Cloud looked at the others.
"Should I tell her we don't have it?" he whispered.
"I don't think she'll be too happy to hear that," Cid observed.
"I suppose not,'"Red agreed, "but she's going to find out eventually."
Cloud glanced around one more time, but there was no where to run. He decided to tell her the truth.
"We don't have it," he said.
"What do you mean?" she questioned.
"We didn't bring it with us," he replied. "We thought it would be too risky. We left it with the others."
Lucrecia stared at them, and Cloud saw a look of anger pass across her face.
"I should slay you all," she said sternly. "But I will not kill you needlessly. You shall remain here as my prisoners. You shall never see the light of day again unless the Crystal Materia is delivered into my hands."
"Lucrecia, stop this."
They all turned to see Vincent, Barret and Yuffie walk into the cavern from a tunnel off to the right. Lucrecia stared at them, anger plain on her face.
"I told you never to come back here!" she said sharply.
"I'm only here to help my friends," Vincent replied. He walked over to Cloud, seemingly unconcerned by Lucrecia's anger or the bats flew restlessly above their heads.
"Is everyone all right?" he asked.
"We're fine," Cloud replied.
"Good," he said. "C'mon, let's get out of here."
"They must give me the Crystal Materia!" Lucrecia shouted.
Vince turned and looked at her angrily.
"Leave them alone," he said. "They did nothing wrong. Sephiroth would have killed them if they hadn't killed him first. Just like he killed all those other people."
"I won't listen to you!" she cried angrily. "They must stay here. If you try to leave I will have my bats destroy you all!"
"Your bats will not attack me," Vince replied evenly. "I have just as much power over them as you. They will not harm my friends while I am here."
He motioned for them to follow and walked back over to Barret and Yuffie.
"Vincent!" Lucrecia said. "Do not defy me. Help me. You cared for me once. Those feelings can't be all gone. You couldn't help me then, but do so now. Help me get my son back!"
Vincent stopped and looked down at the floor. Slowly he shook his head.
"Give up this foolish quest before it destroys you," he finally said.
"I cannot," she replied. "It is all I have left."
"If you believe that than you are already dead," he replied. "But I . don't believe that. My friends and I are leaving. The only way to stop us is to kill us. Do you wish to add more blood to your son's legacy?"
He motioned for the others to head back to the tunnel he had first emerged from.
"Please don't do this," Lucrecia said, and now there was no anger in her voice, only sadness.
They walked into the tunnel. Vincent last. He turned and looked back at her one more time. She stood unmoving in the firelight, no longer looking foreboding or evil, just very much alone.
"It doesn't have to be like this ," Vincent said. "Come with us. Help us attempt to heal some of the damage Sephiroth did. In the end you might heal yourself as well."
"My wounds are too deep for that," she answered.
For a moment more he looked at her, then he turned and followed the others into the darkness.
"So this guy just walked in and scared the Turks off without any explanation?" Barret asked.
Night had fallen by the time the others returned. Now they were all gathered in Cid's living room.
"That's right," Tifa replied. "It was the strangest thing."
"And you have no idea who he was," Cloud said.
"No, I've never seen him before. Have you, Cait?" Tifa said, looking at him closely.
Cait shook his head.
"Well if that don't beat all," Barret said. "Looks like we've got a mysterious benefactor on top of everything else."
"Whoever he was, he was not our friend," Tifa replied quickly. "I'm sure of that. There was an unmistakable feeling of coldness about him. It seemed to me he wouldn't have thought twice about slitting our throats if he thought it necessary."
"So then why did he help you?" Cid questioned.
"I don't know," Tifa said. "I don't think he did it for us. For some reason, he did not want the Crystal Materia to fall into the Turk's hands. I think he has his own plans for the Materia, but what that might be, I have no idea."
"If that were true, then why didn't he take it from you himself?" Cloud asked.
"I don't know," Tifa said emphatically. "The whole thing just doesn't make any sense to me. I had the feeling that if he had wanted the materia, he could have taken it from us. I don't know what stopped him. I don't know what his plan is, but one thing I know for sure, he doesn't have our best interests in mind."
They all fell silent, digesting this newest information. Cloud did not like this latest twist in their adventure. He had thought things were becoming clearer now that they knew who the Turks were working for, and what they wanted, but now this. What was he supposed to make of this? Who was this person? What was he after? Was he friend of foe? Tifa obviously thought he was a foe, and he had no reason to distrust her judgement. But if so what did he want, and how did he know so much about them? It disturbed him that he had no answers to these questions, but even with these new developments their mission was unchanged.
"Irregardless of whether this person is working for or against us, we still have a mission to complete," he said. "Cid, you didn't get to tie up the loose ends on the rocket today as you had planned. Can we still leave tomorrow morning, or will we have to postpone it?"
"We can go," he said. "I was just being a mother hen. The rocket is in good hands, and they can live without me for a few days. If we take the Bronco it shouldn't take much longer than that. Tomorrow morning will be fine."
"Good," Cloud replied. "Well, I suggest we all relax for a while and then get a good night's rest. Whoever this mysterious person is, I'm sure we haven't seen the last of him. I've a feeling what he is up to will be apparent soon enough."
Cid grunted in agreement and the gathering broke up. Most of the others went off into the rooms where they were going to be sleeping. Cid turned to look at Shera, who was cleaning up in the kitchen.
"Shera, what the hell are you doing?" he asked .
She looked at him questioningly.
"Cleaning up," she responded. "Sorry I didn't have time earlier."
"You've had a tough day," he said. "Go get some rest. You can clean up tomorrow."
She put the cup she was holding down on the counter.
"Okay," she said. "Thank you, for everything."
"There's no need to thank me," he said quickly. "Now go on."
She walked out of the room. Cid watched her go, shaking his head.
"You're lucky to have her."
Cid jumped. He turned and saw Vincent sitting in a darkened corner of the room. He had thought he and Shera were alone.
"Her? What are you crazy?" he responded. "She's caused me nothing but trouble almost since the first day I met her."
"She is devoted to you, and it is obvious you care for her more than you let on. Don't make the mistake of taking her for granted."
"Oh please." Cid began, then "...is it really that obvious?"
"Man, I must be losing my touch," Cid muttered.
"I envy you, my friend," Vincent said slowly.
"Oh stop it," Cid said. "My life ain't so great. And things could get better for you too. I'm sure Lucrecia will come around."
Vincent shook his head.
"I have little hope of that," he said sadly. "All I've ever wanted to do was please her, and something has always prevented it from happening. If anything the rift between us has grown, and now the gap is so wide that I am afraid no bridge can span it. She has been poisoned by life's bitterness, and the flower I once knew has grown withered and dry. Even if I were to grasp it in my hand now, it would merely turn to dust."
Cid didn't know what to say. He never considered himself what you would call a deep thinker, and Vincent's philosophical bent usually went right over his head. This was way too heavy for him. Still, it didn't take a genius to see that his friend was in a darker mood than was usual, even for him.
"I think you need to relax for a while and forget about your troubles" he said, walking into the kitchen. " And there's nothing better at helping you do that than a stiff drink."
He turned as he was about to enter his room and saw Tifa coming up to him.
"What's up?" he asked.
"I wonder if you can do something for me," she said.
"Name it," he replied.
"It s probably nothing," she said finally. "Just kind of a feeling I got. I wouldn't want to bother the others with it. And I certainly wouldn't want to spread any unfounded rumors."
She stopped again, as if not sure how to continue.
"Just spit it out," he prompted.
"I want you to keep an eye on Cait."
"What makes you say that?" he questioned.
"Like I said, just a feeling," she replied. "He hasn t done anything to make me suspicious, not really. But he deceived us once when he was spying for Shinra. I would hardly say it s a stretch to think that he might do it again."
Barret looked at her like he thought there was more to this than she was letting on, and indeed, that was exactly what he thought. If she had suspicions about Cait, why had she waited until now to broach them to him? In spite of her statement to the contrary, he must have done something.
"Sure, I'll keep an eye on him if you want me to. I have to admit it's difficult to trust Cait after what he did in our last adventure," he said bluntly. "But in the end he helped us fight against Sephiroth and Shinra. Not to mention that he helped us find the vault at Shinra headquarters just recently. You didn t seem to harbor any suspicions then. Did something happen while we were gone?"
She hesitated again, which made him sure he was right. The only question was whether she was going to share the information with him or not.
"Like I said, she replied. "I don't want to spread any rumors. Especially since I could be reading this completely wrong. It's just that before our mystery man left, he and Cait looked at each other and I thought I saw something in the way Cait looked at him. There was something in his eyes. Something like..."
Barret looked at her impatiently.
"Like what?" he blurted out.
"Recognition," she replied slowly.
Aeris' voice. He heard her as clearly as if she were standing in the room right next to him, and for a moment he almost opened his eyes to look. But he didn't. He knew the voice was in his head, yet he also knew that it was not from his own mind that the voice came. He had no doubt that the voice was hers, and hers alone, even though she might not be in the room with him but someplace far away.
"Aeris," he said without speaking. "Aeris, we're coming for you."
For a long time there was no answer, and he sensed some kind of hesitation or perhaps confusion. But her voice was calm and even when she spoke again.
"It is not necessary."
Now he felt confused himself.
"Don t you understand?" he said. "We want you to come back."
He sensed amusement.
"But I haven't gone away," she replied. "I've been there with you all along, just as you have been with me. We are all part of the planet, no matter what form we take. You have no need to feel sorry for me, or for what happened."
Cloud shook his head.
"But I don't just want you to be here in spirit," he replied. "I want you here for real. I want to see you standing before me. I want to see you and touch you. I want to bring you back to this life and I think we may have found a way. Are you telling me you don't want to come back?"
"Being there in spirit is real," she replied softly but emphatically. "Your senses tell you that is not true, but your senses can be deceived. But no, I do not begrudge you your quest. I just want you to be sure of your motives. You owe me nothing. What happened was my fault, if anyone's, but I chose freely, and I accept my fate. You must decide if you are searching for me or yourself."
"I don't understand," he said.
"Let go of your anger and your guilt," she replied, "and then do as your heart tells you."
"My heart tells me to go on," he said immediately.
"But your heart is troubled," he said. "and that prevents you from seeing things clearly. You do not see the road ahead, it is dark and dangerous, and going down the wrong path will lead you swiftly to disaster. You may find that it demands sacrifices you are not prepared to make. You must be sure of yourself."
"We've been down many a dark and dangerous road before," he said.
"Indeed, but this time..."
Then there was silence.
Cloud waited, but he got no response, and suddenly he felt deeply troubled. He thought something had happened to her. Someone, or something, had abruptly cut her off, even as she had been in the middle of trying to tell him something important. What had happened?
He called to her for some time, but there was only silence. Try as he might, he could not reestablish contact. Eventually, and inevitably, he fell into a fitful sleep.
Go To Chapter 6
Return To FF7 Fanfic