The Quest To rescue Nobou Uematsu Part 2
"Doan! Open the door! DOAN!" yelled Cid at the top of his voice. There was no answer. He couldn't even tell if Doan was still alive. Why had teh locked the door? Teh must be confused, thought Cid, suffering from HP loss, trying desperately not to limit break. But teh was a survivor. This is exactly the sort of thing teh was built for. Right now, Cid was in the most danger. He was in the middle of an alien environment in an ecological catastrophe. He had to find his chocobo and get the grat out of here. Where was his chocobo?
"Hey, you!" growled an unfriendly voice. Cid put his hand on his weapon and turned around. It was the coliseum mercenary. His dog was barking at the door of the shelter, and a Moogle was hovering overhead. "Ya seen the other contestant around here? He's not goin' nowhere without a fight!"
"Doan's..." Cid bowed his head. He couldn't betray his friend, even if teh had just locked him out of a Mako-proof bunker and a mercenary was about to kill him, "I don't know where he is."
"We have to get out of here!" exclaimed the Moogle, "The reactors are about to.."
There was a sickening rumbling sound. The whole ground seemed to be shaking with barely contained rage. Norsquall fell into a combat position, his dog growling furiously. A hemisphere of pure white light was expanding outwards from the Shinra Tower, inexorably consuming everything in its path. The sky was filled with the squawks of chocobos, flying or running away. It was surreal, like a bad dream.
"That's only a one-reactor explosion. We'll live." Cid told them, "Now RUN!!!!"
Kuopon obeyed, dragging his mercenary along behind him. The dog was barking like crazy. It was all exactly that... crazy... they should never have come to Seventh province...
"Look at the sky!" yelled the Moogle. Norsquall obeyed, and almost fell over in shock. An airship, sleek and angular, black with a picture of a flaming tiger, was descending from the clouds. They ran towards it, waving. It landed on the ground, and a plank was lowered. A small humanoid in a black suit stepped out. His head was that of a large ginger cat.
"Baron Neko to the rescue!"
"What the grat?" Norsquall looked around, bemused and slightly angry, "Who's Baron Neko, Moogle?"
"What do you mean, who's Baron Neko?" exclaimed the cat-man in indignant outrage, "How can anyone not have heard of the greatest merchant in the world? You'll have to sample my wares, boy, you'll be mystified, it'll be an experience unlike anything in your..."
"He's a rip-off merchant." Whispered Kuopon.
Leaning on the rail on the top deck of the airship, Prince Cid looked out at the clear skies ahead of them. He felt relief at having finally left Seventh Province, but he was afraid for his friend. He tried reminding himself that Doan in a bunker was like a duck in water. Teh was probably having great fun. Cid's life was becoming an exciting adventure, like one of the heroes in the Final Fantasies. He had met someone who had visions of demigods, he had crossed a wasteland and taken part in a revolution. Now they were flying in the sky. He felt the wind brushing through his hair and wondered what would happen next.
"Is there a bath in this airship?" he asked Neko, "I can't stand the smell of Mako."
"But of course! This is a luxury airship!" the cat bowed, "That'll be 100, 00 gil!"
Prince Cid grumbled and paid him. The cat gave him direction to an impressive-looking Jacuzzi with fake marble walls. He relaxed and let the bath spices heal his wounds. Soon, he fell asleep. Norsquall, meanwhile, had loped off to count his money, and the Moogle was haggling with Baron Neko. The next day, they sat down for their overpriced breakfast and considered where they were going to go next.
"I don't know where to go." Admitted Kuopon, downhearted, "I don't believe the criminal destroyed another city. I hired the mercenary to kill the criminal, but all I did was put the mercenary in danger."
"Grat, that guy should be dead." Swore Norsquall, "I counted the HP I took off him."
"I don't think Doan's the one you should be worrying about."
They turned to face the man who was talking. It was Cid.
"He's... I mean, he looks to me like he's just an ordinary nut. There are more dangerous things going on. Didn't you hear that Nobou Uematsu is missing?"
"Nobou? THE Nobou?" the mercenary looked worried, "The guy who wrote my cool theme tune?"
"Square gods above! Do you think he's been abducted?" Baron Neko's fur stood on end. He coughed, embarrassed, and combed it back down with a golden comb.
"Don't be stupid. Nobody has the power to abduct a demigod!"
"Maybe this Nagata guy?" suggested Norsquall.
"Who's Nagata?" demanded Cid. Before he could answer, a very flustered Neko ran up to them, waving his arms.
"We're under attack!"
Gripping his lance in both hands, Prince Cid looked up at their attackers. A fleet of airships were approaching them. They were painted a bright green with patterns of reptilian scales and strong green wings. A dragons head adorned the prow of the ships and green streamers like tails hung from them, giving it the appearance of a hungry beast hunting the skies for prey. Cid looked closely and his heart raced; there were real dragons among them! Their sinuous shapes, beautiful but deadly, swam through the air, their mouths full of razor sharp teeth and wisps of green smoke. As the fleet came closer, Cid spotted a man standing arrogantly on the bridge, his robes billowing out in the wind. He wore a bird mask. Norsquall jumped into the air, ready to pounce. The Moogle flew out of reach. Only Cid was left standing behind Baron Neko as the robed man began to speak. His voice boomed, magically amplified.
"I demand you return Baron Neko to us!"
"Who the grat are you?" asked Cid.
"I am Nagata of the Divine Merger. This man has defiled our sacred ceremony! We even offered him money, and he walked out of his important role!"
"They said they want to destroy the world! I'm not destroying my world!"
"Did we say that? Oh, nuts... We didn't mean it... whatever... ATTACK!"
The priest held out a hand, and several bolts of green fire narrowly missed Cid. He swung his lance around and thrust it at the cultists who had just materialised inside the ship. Something fell out of the sky and cut four of them down before he could even identify it as Norsquall. His dog chased off two more of them, and Kuopon's spear took down the last one. A dragon swooped close to the ship. Norsquall threw a blue scroll at it, which shattered on impact and turned into several giant shards of ice that speared the dragon. The beast fell in a cloud of green scales. Another took its place. It opened its huge mouth and spat out a ball of pure flame, big enough to engulf the entire ship...
...Which was extinguished in a puff of smoke several miles before it reached them by a dark purple barrier, thin as glass but made of the strongest magic. Cid gasped. Something was materialising in the sky between the airship and the dragon fleet. It looked like a circle of dark matter, a seed of deletion. White cracks appeared in it. Streams of light seeped out of it, night black and blood red. It made a ringing noise in Cid's head. And nobody could move. As they stood transfixed, it exploded totally. Inside the core of spinning negative binary, a creature grew. It was a behemoth, an enormous purple ox-like beast with claws large enough to rip a hole in the side of a Mako reactor. It stretched its giant limbs and roared, a bloodcurdling bellow. Its eyes blazed, and waves of dark matter poured towards the attackers, disintegrating airships and dragons in its hyper-magnetic touch. Roaring again, teh beast slashed at the remaining dragons with its claws, tearing them apart and sending the survivors fleeing in all directions. The fleet was no more. Satisfied, the behemoth curled up into a ball and imploded in a purple sphere of light, becoming the size of a human. Cid saw that it was a human- a tall man with long black hair, dressed in a black tunic and a crimson cape, his mouth and nose covered by a mask. His eyes were filled with darkness that transcended evil and made Cid shiver.
"My name..." he said softly, "Is Sharon the Malldancer."
Candlelight flickered in the cavern, softly illuminating the jagged rock and reflecting in beautiful orange swirls on the surface of small pools as water dripped from the stalactites on the ceiling. It was a soothing atmosphere, silent apart from the humming song of the elders' choir. The children had already fallen asleep in their mothers' laps. The adults huddled in their blue cloaks, peering out from under their oversized floppy yellow hats at the fantastic scenery. It was like a fairy tale after their hard struggle to reach this place. They were almost out of food and water, but they could eat moss and small animals in the caverns. Not much poisoned a Black Mage. They were synthetic life-forms at one point in their evolution. They took full advantage of their respite, mending their clothes and sleeping for as long as they could possibly get away with.
"What d'you think the Sacred Land will be like, mister 031?" asked a young child to one of the elders. The old man lifted his hat up.
"We haven't been there for a long time." He admitted, "So we don't know much about it any more. But it's beautiful, like this. And we were all born there. Everything, not just Black Mages. Trees, rocks, chocobos... even White Mages."
"I heard that." the tribe's White Mage warned him, "What's that noise, anyway?"
Miss 046, the White Mage, looked up. The ceiling was rumbling and cracking. Stalactites were falling off and plopping in the pools. She whispered to the others, who put their hats firmly on their heads and hid the children under baskets. The rumbling was growing louder, and whole pieces of ceiling were falling off. They herded the boats to the other side of the cavern and waited. The ceiling bulged and cracked, and something began to push its way through. Black Mages hid their faces in terror. A massive worm the colour and size of a boulder shot through the hole and burrowed into the ground. The noise woke up one of the children, who started screaming in terror. Mister 031 stepped forward and addressed the tribe.
"This is called a rahvuimago. It won't hurt us unless we disturb it. Let's just move on."
"What's that?" asked one of the children, pointing to the ground. A dark shape was lying next to the hole. The old man shuffled over to examine it. He fell over in surprise, dropping his hat. It was alive! He poked the thing under the rags with his walking stick. It didn't move. He rolled it over. A grubby face looked up at him. A human face. It had matted brown hair and the beginnings of a beard. It looked like it was barely alive. The old man yelled for the White Mage.
"Who's that?" she demanded, giving him an acid look.
"That human? I don't know." He shrugged, "Let's call it Bobby Corwen."
Norsquall stared at the dark-souled stranger who perched on the railing, silhouetted in the aquamarine moonlight. He wore metal claws strapped to the back of his hands as weapons. He was talking to Baron Neko. Mercenary, beast, and cat... they all belonged to the night.
"Don't ask me who I am." The Malldancer told them, sweeping his arm dramatically. He acts like a level guardian, thought Norsquall cynically. "Or what I do, why I exist, where I came from... the answer will require a way of thinking you haven't even begun to learn yet. Just trust me that I am here to help you."
"Don't trust ya." Said Norsquall bluntly, "Weirdo."
"I've helped you so far, haven't I? Don't you learn from previous experience? Baron Neko, it was a wise decision not to associate with the Cult."
"How do you know about them?"
"I am hunting them down." Declared the Malldancer, turning around with a dramatic sweep of his cloak, "The people I seek reside in the Tower of Ultima Ozma."
"The Tower of Ultima Ozma? Wasn't your Moogle friend going there too, mister Norsquall?" said Baron Neko. The mercenary grunted.
"You after that Nagata guy?"
"I think... that Nagata will be dead soon. In fact, he won't last the night." The Malldancer walked down the stairs. Norsquall ran after him.
"Hey! The grat d'ya mean? That guy owes me money!"
"We will go to First Province next. The one called Doan is there. Then we will go to the Tower Ultima Ozma." He jumped up and began walking on the ceiling, into the pitch darkness of an abandoned store-room. He locked the door behind him. Norsquall swore and peered through the keyhole.
A shimmering pane of dark matter, like the screen-glass of a bulk deletion, floated in the middle of the dusty room. The Malldancer sat on a crate, watching it intently. He could see images in it- hazy forms of people and objects. A narrow corridor... heavy breathing... the flash of a knife blade... two narrow eyes... a circular chamber... a robed man, sat in a high-backed wooden chair that floated off the ground as he turned the pages of a huge iron-bound tome... the knife, swinging... a death cry... green feathers, everywhere... a business card, floating to the ground... SHINRA INC.
Mrs. 046 closed her eyes and concentrated. Her photographic memory meant she could visualise everyone in the cavern; the children in a circle around her, observing her curiously; the elders praying to the Square gods and the rest of the Black Mages singing a healing song. Most importantly, she visualised the human lying on the floor before her, the one whom she alone could heal. A Black Mage knew only spells to drive off enemies ad protect themselves in battle. When Mrs. 046 was born with a rare genetic glitch, the Ninth Mysidian Black Mage tribe had rejoiced; she had been given the gift of White Magic, the powers of healing. They had crafted a special white cloak and a red hat for her. The human was her biggest challenge yet. Black Mages didn't get themselves in this bad a state; how did humans manage it? She placed her hands upon teh's chest; teh's breathing was far too slow. She calculated teh's HP to be 5, critically low. A white aura formed around her hands, which tingled as they made contact on a higher-dimensional level, their life-flow intertwined. She felt a sudden rush of exultation; she loved to heal, it gave her a sense of purpose and oneness with the Square gods. With her hands, she manipulated her customers' energy field, smoothing over imbalances, filling in huge gaps with her own life energy. Teh's natural healing process activated again, teh's wounds began to heal, broken bones began to mend, and colour returned to teh's cheeks. Teh's HP was at a manageable level again. Mrs. 046 slumped back, exhausted, just as the humans eyes opened. Teh stared at the Black Mages curiously.
"Where'm I? Get outta my bunker!"
One of the elders explained to teh gently where teh was. Teh nodded in vague understanding.
"My name's Doan. Got any food?"
"But your name is Bobby Corwen!" protested one of the children.
"Now, now. We'll discuss names later. Go and fetch some food for our guest." Ordered the elder, "Whatever your name is, you are welcome to enjoy the hospitality of the Black Mages. It seems you no longer have a home to go to. Maybe you can come with us and find a home in First Province."
"But I gots a home." Doan told them. Teh took the food teh was offered, a huge bowl of bread and fruit, and wolfed it down in the usual manner of a professional apocalypse survivor. "I lives in a wasteland."
"But you must come with us! You're our guest of honour!"
"Got any more food?"
"Dear me, you must have the appetite of a Qu."
The old man laughed and hobbled off to find the leading boat. They were almost there; it was time to organise a homecoming festival.
It was a full moon, and Sharon could hear the lunatics. They were inside, talking about money. Placing such emphasis on an artificial construct of the human mind, that it became more important than the real world... they must truly be insane. He laughed as he stood upon the railing on the deck of the airship. The bats were flitting in the sky. He thought about them and projected his thoughts on their wings. Under his control, they flew to the Tower of Ultima Ozma, unnoticed among the other creatures that circled the skies there. They hovered as Sharon took a look at the twisted stone spire, designed to look like a dragon's claw, then flew through the window. They flew close to the ceiling, obscured from view by the shadows. Sharon's mind travelled with them down the corridor, searching for another mind, a strong mind. A mind as dark as his own. Someone he could have an intelligent conversation with. The beasts were restless; he spoke to them for a few minutes. They hated random encounter duty. They wanted more food. The battle theme tune was always the same. Complaints, complaints, and more complaints. Wasn't there anyone awake he could talk to?
There he was. Another human. A mind of iron... a soul as dark as the charred ground of the forest that didn't exist and hadn't caught fire when a Mako reactor exploded, because Mako reactors never explode, so shut the grat up. Who do you think you're astrally visiting anyway?
"President Rufus Shinra."
The young president put down his Mako engineering manual and peered menacingly at the apparition before him.
"This is the darkest of your nightmares, and it won't go away until you wake up, Rufus."
"You're the Malldancer, aren't you?" Rufus said, sounding slightly less confident, "How do you pronounce your name again? Is it SHA-ron or sha-RON?"
"Sha-RON." The Malldancer told him, "But that is beside the point. Do you see my hand?"
Rufus looked up. On the palm of the dark-skinned man's hand was a number, stained in non-removable Mako-based ink. It was faded, but the president could still see it.
"I've got one too." Rufus showed him.
"Then you remember... twenty-five years ago? You had the place closed down, but... I remember. And you remember."
"Those numbers don't mean anything. I could have written this one my hand myself. Just... you know... an employee identification tag."
"Just in case someone forgets who you are?"
"It's a big company."
"I know. You've already forgotten who you are." Sharon laughed and turned his back on Rufus, "You really do have a habit of killing the right people. First, your father. Then Nagata. Both evil people. If you carry on at this rate, people mistake you for a good person."
"Not likely. I'm going to perform the merger ceremony myself. I like the idea of owning two worlds."
"Well, if you do that..." Sharon stretched his arms out and turned back into a flock of bats, "I'll come for you. So don't die of overwork or anything."
"Hey, nobody has died of overwork for a LONG... Oh, grat..."
The ceremony lasted through the night. Doan sat on a green mat made of reeds, eating as much food as he possibly could and listening to the out-of-tune version of the Final Fantasy victory theme. The Black Mages danced and sang, hanging wreaths of flowers around each others' necks. The elders stayed up until the early hours, telling the children stories about Vivi, the little Black Mage who was a hero in the Ninth Final Fantasy, and the legendary chocobo Bobby Corwen. Apparently, Black Mages called everything and everyone Bobby Corwen.
"I'll tell ya a good story." Doan put down teh's bowl of fruit and addressed the children who were suddenly in a circle around teh, staring at teh with wide eyes.
"Is it about your home land?"
"Is it about a chocobo?"
"Nah, 'sabout a big city called Seventh Province." Doan told them in a dramatic whisper, "One day the reactors were gonna blow up... an' I ran... an' the reactor spoke to me! Made me jump, it did. Almost wiped over me saved game!"
"Land ahoy!" announced the elder.
"What's a hoy?" demanded Doan. Teh decided it was probably some kind of nuclear missile and hid under a rock. It was then that teh realised; the rock was outside. There was grass underneath it, and a clear cerulean sky above it, with birds chirping and bright sunshine. They were in a verdant green field with a cool breeze that made the grass ripple. Delicate pink flowers peeked shyly out of bushes. The Black Mages climbed out of their boats and looked around in stunned amazement. They had never seen anywhere so idyllic.
"Yeuk." Doan stuck teh's tongue out.
"Don't you like it?" Mr. 038 asked teh, leaning on his staff and watching the children playing and rolling around in the grass.
"Maybe Bobby Corwen's eyes haven't become adjusted to the light difference yet. It's much brighter here than in the cave." Suggested another elder.
"Don't be silly! Then we would all go yeuk!" Mrs.046 stamped her foot, "Remember that Bobby Corwen lives in a wasteland. And he really loves ruin."
They began an organised procession across the field, each person chattering about how beautiful their Holy Land was and how glad they were to be outdoors again after so long stuck in a cave. Doan tagged along behind, wishing Lavos would come and do some serious demolition work on this rotten place. Teh normally respected the planet, but there were limits. They arrived at a collection of wooden dome-shaped huts. Other Black Mages rushed to welcome them all, including an extremely old man who pulled Doan into one of the huts and made teh sit down. Black Mage huts were comfortable and warm, and smelled of wood; Doan admitted teh quite liked them. They ignored any laws of architecture, putting furniture anywhere, including mid-air and inside smaller pieces of furniture. Strange objects teh didn't recognise at all were stood on top of the furniture. Doan lay on a bed and played a handheld game until the old man returned.
"Bobby Corwen, you've come at an interesting time."
"Me name's Doan!" objected the old survivor.
"Doan, Bobby Corwen, whatever. You said you came out of a wasteland. The old prophecy said that a hero would come out of the place that the gods have forsaken, and slay the two-headed demon Squix."
"'M not a hero."
"Oh, what a shame." The old Black Mage shook his head sadly, "That means I'll have to give the Holy White Chocobo to someone else."
"Hey, wait a froggin' minute!" teh ran out of the hut after the old man.
"Oh, good. So you'll go into the woods and retrieve the Chocobo after all! Mind the wolves!"
"Doan Demonslayer." The survivor grumbled under teh's breath as teh packed away the food that the Black Mage shopkeepers had given teh for free. Teh was anything but a hero. Teh didn't believe in one person sorting out everyone else's' problems. There was a saying in the Wasteland that went 'we don't need another hero'. Once you've survived an Apocalypse, you know you're probably strong, fast or lucky enough to do without. Teh was the kind of person who would rather put teh's trust in a well-placed nuke than a floating magic sword. Still, this had to be done. Teh shouldered teh's backpack and walked out of the gates of Former Corneria. Teh was stopped by the village elder and a small female Mage in a white tunic and large red floppy hat.
"Mrs. 048 is a White Mage. She can heal your wounds. Please take her on your quest."
"She your only healer?" asked Doan hesitantly, "Shouldn't be sendin' her off on quests. What if one of yous gets hurt?"
"Please take her." Begged the old man, "She said she'd hit me over the head with a hammer if I didn't let her go."
From underneath her tunic, the little White Mage retrieved an extremely large wooden mallet. She ran over to Doan, falling over a couple of times, and pulled teh towards the exit. Teh shrugged and followed her. A healer was never a bad thing to have hanging around. Unless they tried to hit you with a mallet... She led teh across the emerald-green fields of First Province, which sparkled as the dew glistened in the bright sun. It was too hot, so Doan ripped a piece of cloth from teh's cloak and used it as a bandanna.
"You look like a thief from a Final Fantasy One party." The White Mage told teh, laughing "I'm Mrs. 046 by the way. I healed you when we found you dying. Do you remember me?"
Doan scratched teh's head, "Funny light... corridor... reactor talkin' to me... nah, no White Mage."
"You were probably too ill. Here's the forest. I'll guide you, I know the route backwards."
Corwen Forest was a grim, foreboding kind of place, a sharp contrast to the lush green meadows all around it. Giant, gnarly trees with thorny vines blocked out the sunlight except for a few patches here and there. Wild mushrooms grew in all sizes, in strange, tempting colours. Blood-chilling howls echoed through the trees, and bats flittered in the permanent twilight. There were no paths anywhere. It was nature's answer to Shinra, and to make them even more unwelcome, it started to rain. They slowed their pace to avoid slipping in the tall grass. Doan saw something move behind a tree and dropped down to hide. Teh drew teh's can opener.
"Wolves!" whispered Mrs. 048. they tried to crawl through the grass in the opposite direction, but a wolf caught the scent of the dead rat in Doan's pocket. A low growl escaped from its throat, and it jumped. Doan lashed out with teh's can opener, catching its jaw and flinging it backwards. Another wolf bit teh on the leg. Teh roared and slashed at it, dealing it several wounds. Mrs. 048 ran up and whacked it on the head with her hammer, crushing its skull.
"Cure1, please." Requested Doan, panting. The White Mage placed her hands on teh's leg and healed teh's wound.
"There are more wolves out there. I don't think we can fend off so many wolves. We ought to run." Mrs. 048 told teh. Red eyes were peering out of the darkness. Animal fear raced through teh's brain. Teh was probably already surrounded. A wolf pack was not a good thing to get surrounded by. Unless... Was it worth it? Teh might burn the forest down, though...
"Mrs. 046... I ought ta tell ya somethin'... bout me.... When my HP gets real low..." teh whispered. Teh was interrupted by a high-pitched avian screech. Animals and birds shot out of their hiding places and ran, including the wolves, filling the whole forest with a cacophony of noises. Doan put teh's fingers in teh's ears and looked up. A blinding white aura, pure and holy, penetrated the gloom of the forest. White feathers rained down upon teh. Doan was overcome by awe.
-Human who smells like a dead rat, come forth!- a voice echoed in Doan's mind. Teh walked forwards. A beak and two kindly, intelligent eyes peered at teh. It was a chocobo- a majestic bird with angelic white feathers and swift, powerful wings. -For what purpose do you disturb the peace of the Holy Chocobo?-
"Uh..." Doan couldn't lie to this divine being, "Want a chocobo for Cid."
-Who is Cid?-
"Friend. He likes chocobos. An'... I let him down. Locked him out of my bunker. Wanna get a present to say sorry."
-The Chocobo has decided that your intention is innocent. But the Chocobo is not just a bird that can be given as a gift. It would not be good to waste the Chocobo's powers. What would your friend do with such a marvellous chocobo?-
"Uh... fly to the moon?"
-The Chocobo is curious to know why a human would want to fly to the moon.-
"'Cause..." Doan scratched teh's head, "Square-God's up there, an' we wanna save Nobou Uematsu an' stop the thingy... business thingy... hamburger?"
-Merger.- corrected the voice, -So it has begun. You may take the Chocobo, friend of Cid. I hope that one of you performs a mighty deed, and becomes known forever after as a hero.-
"Yeah?" Doan groaned, "Hope it ain't me."
"Is that for me?" he threw his arms around the beautiful bird, his face a picture of childish delight. The Chocobo nuzzled his face affectionately and chirruped. It wanted some sylkis greens. Cid sighed; those were the most expensive chocobo greens you could buy. It was worth it, though; this was the kind of chocobo Cid dreamed of. It was so swift and graceful, and it had the personality of a saint.
"Sorry I locked you outta that bunker." Doan apologised, "But, trust me, ya don't wanna be in a confined space with me when I limit breaks."
"It's okay, Doan." Cid hugged his friend. "Welcome to the airship Ragnacenty. Next stop, the Tower Ultima Ozma!"
"Why we goin' there?"
"Remember that merger Nobou was talking about? They're going to merge the planet with another planet, Doan! And both planets are gonna die in the process!"
"World's gonna go boom?" Doan grinned, "Let's go make a shelter in the airship! C'mon!"
Cid laughed raucously and sang an anti-Shinra song at the top of his voice. He was so relieve that his friend was okay; he didn't think anything could kill off both of them together. The next few days were relaxed, and their morale was rising again. Cid introduced Doan to his friends: Kuopon, Norsquall, Baron Neko and the Malldancer. Doan and the mercenary remembered each other from the coliseum fight, and were impressed with each others performance. They had formed a kind of competitive friendship, spending every morning sparring and levelling-up together. The Moogle kept well out of Doan's way; she knew about teh's limit breaks. Baron Neko wasn't interested in teh in the slightest, as teh had no money. Malldancer, however, clearly didn't like teh at all, and they exchanged black looks every time they saw each other.
The third day was no different to the usual routine on the airship. Prince Cid was leaning on the railing, watching the sunrise. He got up the earliest, so he could feed the chocobo, clean its stable and fly it around for a few hours before breakfast. Doan had crept into the kitchen in order to hoard food for teh's shelter. Teh crept into the pantry...
"I thought I'd find you here."
Doan jumped and pressed the bag of biscuits teh had stolen to teh's chest. Teh stared defiantly at the stranger; teh would rather die than relinquish teh's food. It was Doan's! Sharon the Malldancer was standing in the doorway, idly throwing an orange into the air and catching it. His eyes blazed with dark fury, his mouth was a tight frown.
"I should warn you, man from the wasteland, I, too, know the future. One day, you and I shall be enemies. We shall face each other in battle."
"Hope ya lose." Doan told him, and slammed the door on his fingers.
A day later, the party woke up and looked out of the window at the daunting shadow of the Tower Ultima Ozma. It stood upon a sheer cliff face, above crashing waves and spiky rocks, with a volcanic mountain on the other side. Random encounters swarmed across the only accessible path, and wyverns with blood-red leathery skin circled overhead. The Tower itself was tall and spindly, twisted into a point at the top where the black stone was sculpted into the shape of a gigantic, demonic claw, clutching something circular, slimy, unnaturally bright stripes of blue and lime green. Its heart pulsed as it slept.
"That's an Ozma." Kuopon told the others, shivering, "It's the ultimate monster. If it wakes up, even the Malldancer wouldn't stand a chance against it."
The Moogle pointed to the snarling behemoth who was pouncing on a wyvern, about to tear it apart with his giant claws. Sharon was in his Gallian Beast form. Gallian Beast transformation was a very rare form of limit break. Cid wished he had a limit break, even if it was just an extra attack or something. An unearthly storm broke out over the Tower as the power contained within it overflowed again. The behemoth stood on his hind legs and roared.
They reached the door with no casualties. It was a huge steel double door, with no visible padlock or even a handle, only an engraving of a dragon in flight and a arch full of gargoyles. Sharon, human again, took the lead. He spoke a few words in a dire arcane language, and the door creaked open. He ordered Cid to follow him, then Norsquall, then Doan, Kuopon and finally Mrs. 048. A small army of Black Mages on black chocobos followed behind them. They crept slowly down the passageway, trying hard not to attract random encounters. Doan looked behind him. Norsquall was gone. The survivor shrugged and concentrated on the candles set in holders on the wall. The tapestries on the wall depicted famous adventurers who had won or lost battles in the Tower, and the huge monsters with three heads were indistinguishable from real monsters.
A scream made Doan jump and draw his can opener. Cid yelled at him to duck, which he did. A hideous creature appeared behind Sharon. Doan slashed at it, and it flew onto the Malldancer's head. Its mouth, lined with hundreds of razor-sharp teeth, began to move, and it whispered a single word. Mrs. 048 screamed and pointed at Doan's head. Teh looked up; there was a small white number sixty, floating in mid-air. Teh gulped.
"You have sixty seconds to live." Explained the Malldancer, flipping his legs up and sending the monster flying off the man's head. He ran after the yellow-furred flying monstrosity, claw weapons outstretched.
"Forty-eight." Muttered Doan to tehself, thrusting teh's can opener into the monster's mouth. Teh was sprayed with green ichor. "Forty... five."
"Forty." Corrected Sharon. Something fell from the roof onto the wounded monster. It was Norsquall. He stabbed it a few times before rolling away. It didn't move again.
"Number's gone." Doan reported.
"A Condemned spell goes away if you defeat the monster within the time limit." Kuopon told teh. Sharon looked disappointed. They hurried down the corridor, glad to have won the encounter. Doan tripped up. Teh looked down. Green tentacles were wrapped around teh's legs,
"If you run, you attract more random encounters." Kuopon told teh, before drawing her spear.
"Phew, I must have gone up thirty level by now!" Cid laughed. He was eating the last of his rations and watching Mrs.048 heal Doan's wounds. Since they had first entered the Tower, they had been attacked by exactly fifty-six monsters, all far too powerful, all of whom had gone for Doan and nobody else. It was as if they all had a grudge against him. This had actually improved their odds- everyone had survived an otherwise impossible series of battles by getting Doan to walk along a corridor and ambushing the monsters as soon as they attacked. Ultima Ozma wasn't a hard dungeon- it had no puzzles, no traps and only five floors. The party was now resting outside a large green door with a dragon's-head handle. Sharon opened the door. It made no sound as it swung open. He heard chanting in the distance.
The circular chamber was supernaturally dark, even though it was full of green candles. Dragons roared in the air above them, and there was a drip from the ceiling that sounded ten times as loud as it should do. An icon of a huge green-feathered bird, like an evil phoenix, stood over an altar on the far side of the room. An iron-bound book was chained to the altar between two incense burners. Like the mythical castle of the evil wizard Magus in Guardia fairy tales, the candles lit up as the party, led by Sharon, walked silently towards the chair floating in the middle of the chamber. Cid could hear a mans breathing, but the occupant of the chair did not turn around to face them. Sharon leapt up onto the ceiling and began to walk casually upside down towards him.
"Is that you, Rufus?"
The chair rotated in mid-air, and a young man in a white suit watched them in amusement. Doan gasped. Teh hid behind the mercenary.
"Everyone, this is President Rufus Shinra. He and I were childhood friends. We sat on opposite rows. Remember the Moria, Rufus?"
"Shut u... oh, you must mean Moria Business School! Yes, I graduated and he didn't." Rufus replied quickly. He smirked arrogantly at Sharon.
"Funny name for a business school." Commented Cid, "It's named after a famous..."
"Twenty-floor..." Kuopon added.
"...Up." Rufus banged his fist on the chair, "Doan, do you want a job?"
"Me?" Doan peered around. "Grat, no!"
"You'll get to eat in a huge canteen."
" Can... teen?" Doan gasped. Teh's eyes glazed over, "A real one? Where... ya can choose yer own food an' it's got trays an' stuff?'
"It's subsidized. The food is really cheap."
"But I'm allergic to Mako. Food's got Mako in it."
"With repeated exposure, you can become desensitised to Mako." Rufus smiled, "How about it? You can be a corporate mercenary! My knight!"
"Food..." Doan found that teh's limbs were no longer under teh's own control. Teh was stepping forwards... the picture was whirling around in teh's mind.... A food canteen.... With trays... and catering staff... and cheap food... and outside, an office, burning... a man in a black suit, running from it... the world, burning... and the man, running...
"Nobou... Ue... Mat... SU!" roared Doan, clutching teh's head, desperately trying to free tehself from the conflicting goals that tore apart teh's mind, "Nobou... NO! I've got to eat... food..."
"You can get food in a canteen at any job, Doan. You can get food in a canteen at..." Nobou's voice was saying in the distance...
"Square..." mumbled Rufus impatiently.
"Soft!" yelled Norsquall, throwing something at Doan. It hit teh on the head. Teh cried out and chased Norsquall around the room.
"I told you he wasn't petrified. Idiot mercenary." Muttered Kuopon.
"I must go now." Rufus said casually, floating up in his chair to avoid another bolt of dark matter from the Malldancer, "I appear to be late for a business meeting on the moon!"
The ceiling began to rumble. Sharon fell off it with a thud, landing on Norsquall. Doan looked up; the roof was opening up. Teh could see the night sky, the dragons roosting, the moon a pool of cyan. A helicopter flew down, a ladder trailing out of the door. Rufus caught hold of the ladder and ascended slowly into the clouds.
Sharon realised to his horror where he was going.
"The grat?" demanded Norsquall, swearing. He was being lifted physically upwards by Sharon, and was trying to fight off vertigo. Mercenaries weren't built to fly. Cid's Holy Chocobo had flown in to meet him, and had managed to bear Doan as well as the Prince on its back. Kuopon was trying to fly with the relatively light Mrs. 048, who could cast spells to make herself more aerodynamic. The Malldancer was demanding that they go as fast as possible, afraid for his life about something. Norsquall wanted to know what that something was.
"Don't you understand? He's going to perform the merger with Square!"
"Square's a planet, not a business!" yelled Kuopon.
"But they make money from selling the Final Fantasy computer games... I'm an idiot! I could have prevented this!"
"THEY SELLS 'EM?" roared Doan, "WHO SELLS 'EM? I'LL KILL 'EM!"
"Doan..." Cid handed teh some pills, but teh gave them back.
"Don' worry, me crisis meter's low. But... I ain't bein' ripped off no more! This world ain't gonna die 'cause of no merger! Norsquall..."
"Here's some gil I won from chocobo racin'. I ain't told nobody 'bout it, but now I gots to spend this money. I want those guys to die. I don' wanna ever be ripped off no more!"
"I hear ya!" Norsquall held out a hand and caught the wad of fifty-gil notes thrown to him. He pocketed it quickly. Cid glared at Doan.
In a spiral of white feathers, the Chocobo rose higher and higher, impervious to the effects of gravity, protecting others with its holy aura. The sky weaved itself around them, a fragile layer of frosted window, and the blackness of outer space poured in. Time and distance bended in a tunnel, and the moon was suddenly only a few miles away. Doan watched the crystalline cyan ball of rock become larger, watched the reflection of pale light in thousands of facets of dazzling lunar gems. It was a place of administrative life-forms, of gods, not humans. A place where games ended. A place where random encounters lost all pretence of being possible.
-Halt! You are trespassing upon Square property!- the voice boomed across the heavens. Doan looked up and saw a ferocious black horse-like creature the size of an airship, with blazing red eyes. It radiated a field of sheer statistical strength that pulled down on Doan like a weight. Upon its back was a man clad in black plate armour that emitted some kind of red light. He looked infinitely old and infinitely powerful.
"'Zat the manager?" asked Doan.
"No, this is Garland. He is merely a security guard." Replied Malldancer, spreading out his arms and flipping through the air to and in front of the horseman.
-I heard that.- warned Garland. The horse whinnied and charged at Sharon, who melted into the blackness of space. A triangle of dark matter fell upon Garland, making a splintering sound. The horse couldn't move. The Malldancer materialised above it, black energy pouring from his hands.
Cid seemed to know instinctively what he had to do. He patted the Chocobo on the beak. It whistled a battle cry and ran straight at the horseman, feathers flying everywhere, its feet actually creating blue sparks where it stirred up sub-atomic particles in space. It speeded up even more, until the bird and Cid could only be seen as a white fireball, slamming into the triangle, shattering it like glass and colliding with Garland at 500 times the speed of a bullet. Holy lightning crackled around them, shaking the surface of the moon and obliterating a local asteroid field. When Cid rejoined the party, Garland did not follow him.
"There! The manager!" Sharon pointed to something in the distance. It was the Shinra helicopter. Rufus was inside it, now, and another man was stood on the ladder. He was tall and oriental-looking, and wore some kind of black silk robes, with different colour squares embroidered on the belt. His long black hair was tied back in an intricate plait. He watched them impassively, not even bothering to move. The golden chocobo sped towards him. He raised a hand, and...
"Uninstall!" he yelled. A sickeningly bright yellow light blinded Doan, and the last thing he saw was Sharon accidentally drop Norsquall before he fell into oblivion...
The wind howled mournfully, stirring up the fine sand that covered everything, a clean, undisturbed yellow sheet. Blue astral fields hung in the sky, the interference at the edge of the screen, where processes could happen that took millennia, generations of planets. There was no end to the desert, no beginning. It was impossible to remember where you had come from, how long it had taken, why. The planets' abandoned hard disk partition spirited away all thoughts, a gods disconnected dream, never saved. Natural formations poked out of sand dunes, or simply lay flat on top of them, that could never be found on another realm of existence. Screen-dust glass in the shape of stars, and rainbow shells. It dazzled the eye, explained creation in an instant, like no religion ever could. Blue jellyfish-like creatures, ageless and immune to deletion itself, swam lazily as a screensaver in the sky. It was across this desert that Baron Neko, Cid, Norsquall and Mrs. 048 were currently walking.
"Is this really where you live?" Mrs. 048 gasped, "It's beautiful!"
Baron Neko blushed. "Well, not here, in this desert. This region of Outer Squareland is a big place."
"I still don't believe we were thrown all the way to Outer Squareland. What the grat was that spell he used?" Cid groaned. His head hurt.
"My beloved airship is ruined." Baron Neko licked his fur sorrowfully, "You'd better help me cover the damage expenses!"
"I'll fix it." Promised Norsquall, "I'm good at liftin' planks."
"More importantly, how are we going to win against the manager of Square?" said Cid, "He's a god! You saw what he did..."
"I didn't. My hat fell over my eyes." Admitted Mrs. 048.
"Well, he..." Cid scratched his head, "Okay, so I don't actually know what it was he did. But we can't beat him in combat. Especially now we've lost Sharon."
"Hey, Cid..." began Norsquall.
"Why's all the monsters attackin' Doan always? The grat's so dangerous about that kid?"
"Well, it's teh's limit break..." Cid's face went pale, "Hey, that's Doan! White Mage, get over here!"
Cid ran over to a bundle of rags lying in the sand and knelt over it. It was definitely Doan. Teh's eyes were closed, and teh wasn't breathing, "WHITE MAGE!"
Mrs. O48 examined the young survivor. "Teh's still alive. Teh's just in a state of shock. No status effects, but..."
"What's up?" Mrs. 048's expression was one of confusion bordering upon horror.
"Something is very wrong." Mrs. 048 said weakly. "Doan's stats aren't reading on a scan spell. Nothing reads. According to my scan spell... Doan doesn't exist."
"THE GRAT?" demanded Norsquall.
"Doan! Wake up! it's Cid!" the Prince began shaking his friend vigorously. One eye opened. There was a blankness in the look that made Cid shiver. It was like an erased disk, an empty recycle bin...
"Food?" said Doan weakly. Cid reached into his rucksack and found some food for Doan. He helped his friend eat it; Doan didn't seem to be capable of moving.
"How high is your HP, Doan? Do you understand me? Are you going to... limit break?"
Cid gave teh some water. He also gave teh some pills, which teh ate.
"Ya WHAT?" the mercenary pushed past Cid and looked down at his customer. Doan's face was contorted with pain. Teh was trying to do... something... find something? Teh opened teh's mouth.
"Yeah, I get paid a lot. Thanks for asking. Square... bad. Plot... boring... plot... broken... Professor, what number am I? Please give me a number! Uninstall. Uninstall. Uninstall. I'm hungry... Naughty boy, Rufus, you faked your age, didn't you? Well, I'm froggin' well gonna... I'm gonna throw you in the reactor, that's what I'm gonna do! I'm hungry... bright lights... why do I work here? I'm really really hungry..."
Teh gasped and fell unconscious again. Mrs. 048 grabbed Cid fearfully.
"The ultimate status effect." She whispered, "Uninstalled. Doan shouldn't even be alive. This is absolute madness..."
"The grat?" Norsquall asked again, trying to revive Doan with the little experience he had as a battlefield medic.
"Don't you understand? We're player characters. We... have roles. A big plot/ Imagine us as characters in a computer game. Doan... doesn't believe in the computer any more. Teh shouldn't even believe that teh exists. Teh's body should have stopped supporting teh's own life. But... Doan's still alive. Teh's survival instinct... it isn't human."
"What are you saying? Can't you heal Doan?" Cid picked his friend up.
"There is no cure." Mrs. 048 bowed her head sadly, "I'm sorry... we went to this place. We can't do anything. Any more. We can't go on with our quest and leave our friend behind. But we can't just stand here for the rest of our lives..."
"HELP!" Baron Neko came running up to them. Arms flapping, "The Malldancer's just been found. He's gone on an insane killing spree!"
"We've got to go." Mrs. 048 decided.
"But Doan..." protested Cid.
"Don't argue! Do you think this is any easier for me because I'm the party leader?" yelled Cid, tears streaming down her face, "Sharon is a dangerously powerful man. I can't let him kill everyone we've fought so hard to save!"
"So many human lives... wasted." Cid laid Doan on the ground again and knelt next to teh, "Doan many never laugh or cry again. Teh'll never raid a shop or lock me out of a nuclear bunker. Why? Because of a merger! They're going to die. I swear it."
"You lots go." Said Norsquall, patting his dog on the head, "I'm stayin' here. I'm a merc. I gots a contract, Don' argue or I'll kill ya."
"Oh great, we lost the best fighter!" Cid swore, "And you're in the middle of a desert! You'll die!"
"But at least someone will be looking after Doan." Mrs. 048 reminded him, "And Norsquall's a trained mercenary. He knows about deserts. Let's go. We might meet Kuopon again."
Norsquall watched the rest of the party walk off through the desert. Him and his dog were left sitting on a glass star, looking up at the jellyfish and wondering what to do next.
"Guess I'm not the one ya want to be left alone with, huh?" he laughed, "Nah. Ya probably don't care. Yo' dyin'. But while yo' still alive, I'm guardin' yo' life. Keep to my word, see. I ain't gonna let no-one rip yo' off. Never. Norsquall gonna show ya... some people, they really is the worth the gil ya pays 'em. Norsquall gonna kill them just like yo' tells him to, but first, yo' gotta be alive to see. To make sure I ain't rippin' ya off."
At that moment, he realised that there was something fishy about the music playing in the background. It wasn't just pre-recorded background music.
Someone was playing a musical instrument. Here. Now.
Norsquall spun around, dagger in hand. He couldn't see anybody. Yet the music was definitely real- it swept over the desert like a healing rain, filling even his mercenary heart with joy. The jellyfish were dancing to it- they floated together in a double helix, starting from where Doan lay and ending somewhere in the distance, where the vacuum of the edge began.
-Follow the marmablues. Take Doan.-
"Who the grat d'yo think yo' bossin' around, huh?"
-I can heal teh.-
The mercenary shrugged. He picked up Doan in both arms ad walked slowly towards the eternal creatures- the survivor tehself wasn't heavy, but the food, water, torch, CD player, game Gear, spare batteries, can opener and Geiger counter in teh's cloak was. Teh was still breathing. Norsquall shut his eyes and followed the music. The sand felt warm under his feet. He felt a sickening lurch as gravity said goodbye and he fell offscreen. But he was still standing on solid ground... close your eyes, he told himself, don't fall off, or you'll float forever...
Time passed. He felt stone under his feet. He opened his eyes again. It felt like awakening from a long dream? The music... how could any of this be happening? Don't think, he told himself. You're a merc. Just hang around and look threatening. He stood in front of some sort of tower, with straight walls made of the same glass as the star-things. The door opened automatically, letting in the marmablues. He followed them.
Time was nullified in a sudden wave of administrative calm. Computer equipment filled every square centimetre of the strange glass utopia. Norsquall scratched hid head as he looked at the black magnetic rotating disk, glass tubes of blue sparks and metal rails that pulled down to activate switches. Some of it looked vaguely familiar, some of it looked completely beyond the scope of human science. It was all so huge, and all connected together... the glass stars were batteries, or amplified its power, or something. One wall was a sponge-like organic mesh swarming with tiny purple fly-like lights. Rotating things that went 'ping' noises were stuck to the ceiling. In the middle of the room was a flight of stairs that seemed to be just blue squares of light. The marmablues led him up them. The stairs went to a corridor. Where more marmablues rested on top of huge red globes. Were they part of the computers too? He kept a tight grip on Doan and walked on. There was another door at the end of the door, covered in keyboard buttons from ancient computers. It opened automatically.
-Thank you for coming. I realise that this place must look extremely strange to you.-
"The grat? You can't be..." Norsquall almost dropped Doan.
A man in a black suit was stood in the chamber, looking out at the stars from an observation panel. More machines lined the walls, but Norsquall understood it all now. They were synthesisers, recording equipment, amplifiers, a computer running an MP3 player and two very big speakers. The man looked up at Norsquall and smiled gently. He was small and dark-haired, with oriental features. The mercenary felt no threat from him at all.
"Ue... mat... su?" Doan said weakly.
"That's right. I'm Nobou Uematsu. You finished your quest. Uh... thankyou for taking care of Doan for me, mister mercenary, sir."
"Hey, you outrank me!" complained Norsquall.
"I know, but..." he frowned, "I've had some bad experiences with corporate mercenaries. My boss doesn't like me... Square gods, did he do that to you?"
The small man inspected Doan closely. His face went white. "He knows we must never ever use that power! I can't believe he would... Mister mercenary, we have to be quick. From now on... where we tread... we leave the plot behind!"
Nobou raised a hand, and Doan began to levitate, teh's arms and legs limp as teh's body rose up. Teh's hair floated randomly around. A hidden trapdoor in the floor slid away, revealing some kind of circular panel. It glowed bright blue, the same colour as the jellyfish, and blue sparks of energy were emitted from it, forming a pillar of cyan light. Doan floated into the light, and marmablues everywhere came down and floated around teh as if magnetically attracted.
"Doan... is not all Square." Announced Uematsu.
"The grat ya mean? Doan's an alien?" Norsquall swept his arm in a gesture of disbelief. He looked up at the young survivor, who looked as if teh had been switched off.
"No, not an alien. What I mean to say, is that all of the data in Squareland is installed on a big computer. Think of it as the place where Mognet Moogles put all that information when they save your data." He waited for Norsquall to nod, "There was... a prototype computer. Doan has data on it. That is why Doan is not dead."
"Doan's got backup copies?"
"When Project Flying Battery was cancelled, all the data should have been wiped off it, and transferred to the lunar computer." Nobou shook his head, "But Doan must have found a technician somewhere outside Squareland who restored teh's old files. No technician would do it. They would be too scared of... him."
"My boss." Uematsu said nervously, "I don't want to talk about him. Let's continue with the story. There was a reason why the Flying Battery was not used. There was... a glitch. The few people whose data ran on it, started breaking the Viltgance and Namingway Barriers, the statistical laws that put limits on how powerful a person can be. They might have gained illegally high stats, or forbidden spells. Doan was one- teh's endurance is off the scale, and teh's' limit break..."
"I can't tell you. You'll panic and kill teh." Uematsu shook his head, "The Flying Battery anomalies could have been statistically neutralised, but... the old President Shinra stole them. He wanted to turn them into the perfect employees, so he... he put them in the Moria. You could say it was a twenty-five year intensive course in general heavy Mako work for some very bright students. It was the perfect plan... nobody knew the Moria existed, it was just a place they could be taught how to work under conditions that required extreme stats. But Rufus found out, and tried to persuade his father to have it closed because it was too dangerous. So the President just threw Rufus in the Moria too."
"Evil froggin'..." Norsquall had to resist the urge to slice something to pieces with his claws. His dog started barking as well. "Hey... wait a minute... ain't that Sharon guy..."
"You've met Sharon the Malldancer?" gasped Nobou, "I thought he would be killed after the Sephiroth incident... he's just as powerful as his brother... and he's completely convinced that the Moria is some kind of sweat shop. He's on some kind of weird revenge mission... I would stop him myself, but I don't even know who he thinks he has to kill."
"Don' even think he knows that." Norsquall shrugged.
"Never mind, we can solve that problem when we come to it. Now... oh dear, I feel sick... I'm going to get the sack for this... I'm going to have to switch on the Flying Battery again."
There was a whining noise, and four small square sections of the floor disconnected from it and moved upwards. Two of them were being stood on by Nobou and a terrified mercenary. He hugged himself, clenching his teeth and trying not to look down. Doan was also being pulled up the column of sparks by a tractor beam. The three people were lifted out into the sky, towards the Flying Battery. It was making twinkling sounds as the lights played across it, as if welcoming them. The platforms hovered just below it, but Doan continued to rise. The computer made a sound like a tape rewinding.
"It recognises him." Nobou told the mercenary. A panel slid away to allow Doan to be lifted inside a mesh of wires and circuit boards. "Teh's going to be physically wired to the computer. It may take a while- Doan's data has been wrenched about a lot, it'll need repairing. Don't worry, the life-support systems on the Flying Battery are the third best in the Universe."
Norsquall sat down and waited. He ate his lunch, listening to the strange noises coming from the machine. There were beeps, whirrs, drones, frantic sirens, the sounds of parts switching on and off, clicks, the tape-rewinding noise, a boing, and something else that sounded a bit like water running down a plughole.
"The sound quality is excellent on the Flying Battery's speakers." Commented Nobou, "I'm going to play a song. You sing the words."
Norsquall shrugged. He watched the musician retrieve a small black box from his jacket pocket. His hands ran over the tiny buttons, and it made a series of noises that developed into a familiar tune. It was the Odeka de Chocobo.
"It doesn't matter if your HP's low/ when you're on a chocobo/ when you're on a chocobo/ You can go anywhere you want to go/ When you're on a chocobo/ When you're on a chocobo/ My chocobo can go anywhere/ It runs through the mountains/ and it flies through the air/ My chocobo can go anywhere/ And all of the world is square/ And all of the world is square/ OH it doesn't matter if your HP's..."
"Watch!" ordered Nobou, switching off the sound machine and pointing at the Flying Battery. Rays of light were shooting out of it, and the marmablues were spinning around it at a crazy speed, as though they were being sucked into a whirlpool. The four segments of the diamond-shaped machine opened up like the petals of a flower, exposing a spherical core of pure cyan light. A human was sat in the middle of the light, totally naked (and, Norsquall noted, genderless), teh's hair streaming upwards. Teh was still wired to the computer; it was perfect computer-user synthesis, as though they understood perfectly each other's every thought, a relationship purer than any kind of human-human love. Nobou and the mercenary watched, awestruck, until the man's eyes opened, and teh looked straight at...
"I'm 'ungry." Teh said. Teh reached for the banana in teh's cloak pocket, 'Who took me clothes?"
A hatch opened in the side of the computer, and Doan's clothes landed in a pile before teh's feet. Teh put them on. They had been washed and ironed; they smelt funny. Teh checked teh's pockets; the can opener was rust-free, the Geiger counter had been replaced with one with a much higher range, and the rats were alive again. They scampered out of teh's pockets.
"Doan! Yo' alive!" yelled Norsquall, jumping up and down and waving like an idiot. Doan waved back. Teh's face lit up with an almost child-like joy when teh saw the musician.
"Like I said... you found me." Nobou smiled. "I'm fine. I was just hiding from the mercenaries. They burned my office down. And set fire to my car... all because I accidentally broke the coffee machine. What do you expect from a guy who would merge with another planet? Sanity? But you're alive now. That's the most important thing."
"Merc." Doan grinned, "Thanks for savin' me life!"
"'Sokay. I won't charge ya extra." Norsquall teased him, "What's it like bein' hooked up to machine?"
"That machine..." Doan gasped. Teh's eyes were in some faraway place, teh's private heaven, "That machine... is free."
"Free to use. As in, don't cost nothin'. None of the software, nothin'. 'S even free to get online."
"Totally... free?' Nobou gasped, "Why did nobody tell me?"
Exhausted, Doan and Norsquall slept a long, dreamless sleep. The survivor woke up first, disturbed by the music. Teh got out of bed, ate everything in the fridge and went over to listen to Nobou playing a large electronic keyboard. Teh recognised the tune.
"Don' play that. 'S a Game Over tune." Ordered Doan.
"Its for the world. The world is going to die." Said Nobou sadly.
"No it ain't. I gots a plan, see. All we need's a big nuclear missile..."
"I don't have a big nuclear missile!"
"Why not?" Doan gave him a look as though the bard had just said he didn't have a toilet.
"Hey, I've got a plan too." They turned around to look at Norsquall, who was leaning on the door, arms folded. "You say that the world runs on Square's big computer on the moon, right? And we've got a big computer. So, why don't we put the world on our big computer?"
"You're a genius!" Nobou shook the surprised mercenary's hand, "If it isn't where it's supposed to be, any operations performed on the world won't work! It would totally ruin the calculations! Plus, I think the world would run better on the Flying Battery, once I've ironed out the glitches."
Doan and Norsquall wandered off to find the spanners. Nobou rummaged through his disk collection until he found the right boot disks, and began the process of installation. It took many hours of swapping over disks, waiting for files to transfer and welding computer parts together when they broke. Doan did the manual work, Nobou handled the technical details and Norsquall tried to contact the rest of the party via a radio he had given to Kuopon. He was having no success, and was wondering whether the signals wouldn't reach this bizarre place, or if Kuopon was even alive.
"I've finished the work at this end, but I need to connect the Flying Battery to the Square computers. We have to go to the moon. The warriors can provide a distraction for the security while I finish the job. We should have a talk while we're waiting for contact. Doan, do you know about something called the Moria?"
"Maria? She's an opera singer."
"Did you work in a place with black walls?"
"Work? Me?" Doan laughed out loud.
"Do you know anything about a big iron building with black walls?"
"Yeah. One got built in '99. But Lavos got it. KA-BOOM! No survivors."
"I... see." Nobou groaned. His head was beginning to hurt. Everyone was telling him different things about the Moria. Why? Why did people lie to him all the time? Norsquall ran into the room, waving his arms.
"I got through to them! They're comin' right over! That Malldancer, ya wouldn't believe what they caught him tryin' to do..."
"This looks to be our final battle." Said Nobou, ignoring Norsquall's long account of Sharon's attempt the wake up the Ozma, "Does everyone know what they're fighting for?"
"Me own survival." Said Doan.
"'Cause Doan paid me to!" said Norsquall, "What 'bout you, mister Nobou?"
"Me? I'm fighting for..." his hands shook nervously, "I'm still fighting for Square. It doesn't matter about the people who have abused it... the spirit of Square must never die. I don't want the word 'Oenix' in front of my entire future! And... most of all... more than anything... I do NOT want to have to move into a new office!"
Pale blue mist bathed the moon's surface. Unnamed creatures scuttled back into their Lunarian caves, disturbed by the chanting. Thousands of green-robed monks pressed their foreheads to the barren rock and repeated their alien, whispering in quiet religious ecstasy. Green candles burned in a circle around them, no wind to blow them out. Stood upon a ledge twenty feet above them, his back to them and his arms folded behind him, the silent manager of Square made no movement. Beside him, on another ledge, President Rufus Shinra crouched, surveying the land around him, a power-mad gloat on his face. He slowly recited the ancient forbidden words that would make him immortal master of all this.
"Alfa, Nueger, Zieber, Zom/ Now the time has come/ Exchange this world for lots of gil/ May Square and Oenix be one."
"Hello, President. Have I interrupted an important meeting?" a dark sphere dropped from the sky, pulsating like a black hole. The blackness streamed outwards, engulfing the entire congregation and the Square manager, so only Rufus was visible. The green monks ran away. A man stepped out of the darkness- a man with long black hair and eyes like a behemoth. Rufus snapped his fingers, and black-suited security guards swarmed in to intercept him. They smacked into a solid wall of dark matter. Sharon threw a few dark lightning bolts at them for fun.
"Rufus, it took me a long time to work it out. I know, now. Why you don't remember the Moria as I do." The Malldancer said softly, advancing towards the President. "You were the overseer."
"You've still got it wrong." Said Rufus calmly, "The Moria doesn't exist, Sharon. It only exists in your mind. It's some kind of twisted work motivation. You've been playing this game with the rest of us for twenty-five years, trying to convince us we've been working there. Why? Why is it so important to you?"
"I'm still there, Rufus. I cannot leave the Moria. Not until I get the key." Sharon swept his arms back and floated forwards, right next to the President, "You said so yourself... the day you put me in that mental prison."
"You say I put you in there?" Rufus frowned and scratched his head, "Maybe I did. I can't remember any more. But you're right, you can't leave the Moria. You can only get a room with a view. Come on, try and grab my briefcase."
Sharon folded his arms, and power began to collect around him, covering him in particles of dark matter that made a hollow clang as they clashed with positive life. He flew at the President, moving with the speed of a program loading on a G4 Cube. He knocked Rufus off the platform, and they began an aerial battle, ducking and weaving and hitting each other with claws and briefcases. Meanwhile, unobserved, the manager of Square was chanting under his breath.
"...For lots of gil/May Square and Oenix be one!"
The ground began to rumble. Sharon looked up at Squareland in horror. A sickly green light was engulfing it. Another planet, also glowing green, moved towards it , as slowly and inevitably as a huge celestial bulldozer. He closed his eyes and roared. Rufus began to laugh manically. The planets eclipsed each other...
-ERROR AT LINE 20-
"Pardon?" asked Rufus stupidly.
-FILE IS A FLYING BATTERY FILE, AND NOT COMPATIBLE WITH THE CURRENT SETTINGS. MERGER ABORTED.-
"Ha! You lose!" Sharon heard a familiar voice, a slow drawl. An airship and... a chocobo?... was flying towards them.
"Norsquall! Kuopon! Doan!" he yelled.
"D... D... Doan?" gasped the manager of Square. Fear made his eyes glow red.
"Get yo' ass in the airship, crazy man!" barked Norsquall.
-NOT SO FAST-
"The grat?" the voice was inside their heads. It was vile, malevolent, it hated life.
-I AM THE DIVINE MERGER. I HAVE WORKED LONG AND HARD TO SET THESE EVENTS IN MOTION... I WILL NOT BE DENIED LIFE. YOU WILL ALL DIE HERE AND NOW. WITNESS MY TRUE FORM!-
Rufus gasped with pain and clamped his hands over his era; the manager of Square fell to his knees. They began to move involuntarily, like limp puppets, until they were close together. They were engulfed in a terrible light, and...
"FROGGIN' GRAT, IT'S A FROGGIN' DEMON!" yelled Doan, running as fast as teh's legs could carry teh in the opposite direction. The thing was enormous, twice the size of an entire Mako reactor plant. It had four arms, each ending in wickedly clawed hands, and two heads. One head was like that of a bull, with massive horns, and the other was like that of a bird, with a hooked beak and glowing green feathers. It bellowed and loped off after the fleeing figure of Doan, smashing cliffs to pieces and leaving rubble in its path. Doan put teh's hands over teh's head to protect tehself from falling rocks.
-SACRIFICE YOUR HP TO THE ULTIMATE GOD OF PROGRESS NOW! YOU CANNOT FLEE FROM ARMAGEDDON!-
"YES I CAN!" yelled Doan, speeding up to prove it. Sharon flew after them. He perched on a rock and pointed both his arms at the creature. A web of dark energy shot out, crackling, and wrapped itself around the monster. Its roared in pain as its fur smoked. A giant paw came crashing down removing the ledge. Sharon flung himself out of the way. He threw small triangles of dark matter at it, which stuck into its skin. It pawed at itself, trying to remove them. The Malldancer drew upon his deepest reserves of power...
"DOAN!" screamed Cid. Sharon whirled around. The old survivor was running out of a cave, straight towards the monster. Seconds later, that whole rock formation spontaneously collapsed.
The monster turned towards Doan. Teh bared teh's can opener, eyes defiant of the plot, just as teh was impaled through the chest on a huge claw.
"NO!" the Malldancer threw a lance of dark matter at the maddened creature and scanned Doan for signs of life. There was a little HP there, rapidly decreasing... and something else...
"Doan's limit breaking?" Norsquall looked at Nobou uematsu questioningly.
"I have to get teh's pills to teh!" yelled Cid, pushing the mercenary away. Nobou stood on his foot.
"It's too late. Doan's been critically wounded. When someone loses that much HP that fast, their crisis meter just fills up in an instant. We have to leave this place before..."
"NOW!" Kuopon grabbed the controls of the airship and pulled Norsquall inside. Nobou jumped in too. The Chocobo lifted a protesting Cid off the ground and flew off.
"'Least I gets to see what Doan's limit break look l...."
A piercing red light surrounded the moon. The ball of rock shook violently, almost wrenched from its axis. Everything went deathly silent for a split second. Then there was an enormous, deafeningly loud explosion and a mushroom cloud. The moon was vaporised in a vast pillar of fire that tore it apart, flinging the shattered debris into space. Norsquall gasped.
"That could've been our planet."
"Now you know why it's called a Megido Flare." Kuopon told him, shivering.
"Doan..." Cid stared out of the window as the last motes of dust floated away from the former site of the moon.
"Doan sacrificed tehself to save us all." Nobou Uematsu put a hand on Cid's shoulder, "You were lucky to have such a brave friend. Teh will probably never be remembered in a Final Fantasy- we have strict rules about people who kill our managers- but teh will inspire the people like they've never been inspired before. People down there have had their heroes killed, their faith destroyed, their moon demolished. I'm afraid I'm going home to a global revolution. I hope they don't mistake me for a Shinra executive..."
"Talking of Shinra..." Cid tapped Nobou and pointed out of the window.
"Wha... NO WAY!!!" yelled Norsquall. Flying towards them was a man in a white suit with a Shinra logo on it, carrying a briefcase in one hand and Doan in the other. It was Sharon. The party rushed up to the deck to meet him.
"I got a room with a view." He said softly, throwing Doan to the ground. Mrs. 048 immediately ran up to teh and began performing some complex healing spell.
"You rescued my friend..."
"It was a nuclear explosion. A nuclear... and Doan was standing right in the middle of it. With 1 HP. And Doan... survived? I don't..." the Malldancer scratched his head. Cid ran up and hugged him.
"Don't think about it. Thankyou, Sharon."
"That's President Sharon Shinra to you! Now get out of my sight before I put you all in the Moria!"
"Oh great, another insane management guy." Muttered Nobou as he watched Sharon fly down to Seventh Province, "Airship... full steam ahead!"
"Sorry, guys, we're all out of hotdogs." Said the fat catering woman behind the counter. The trainee looked at her in utter heartbroken disbelief. He slapped himself on the forehead and stamped his foot. After using all the swear-words he could remember, he sat in a corner and held his head in his hands.
"Why?" he asked.
"As a matter of fact, we're all of food, full stop. This guy keeps eating it all."
"Guy? What guy?"
"An exchange student from Galbadia Garden." The woman told him, "He's weird. Obsessed with canteens. I mean, seriously obsessed. But he never gets fat, no matter how much he eats. And he smells like a dead rat."
"Whatever, man." Zell groaned and left the canteen to find the sports hall. He could let off a little steam practising his baseball shots.
"Hey, cry-baby Zell!"
The trainee looked behind him. Walking slowly down the gleaming hallway of Balamb Garden, with its peaceful background music, was Seifer, Zell's least favourite person in the world. He was tall and imposing, with pure blonde hair swept back from his forehead, and an expensive battle coat with matching steel-capped boots. He fancied himself some kind of ace, or something. His 'bodyguards', Fuujin and Raijin, followed him closely, arguing between themselves.
"What do you want, man?"
"TRAINING!" barked Fuujin, a young woman with a slight figure and a very loud voice, who fought like a wildcat.
"Yeah, ya know, the Principal wants us all for, ya know, special training." Said Raijin, a huge man who carried a big plank at all times, just in case he got attacked. Zell shrugged and followed the gang to the training hall.
"And now, we have a visitor from Galbadia Garden... a young SEED mercenary who has just passed teh's exams. Doan plans to become a corporate mercenary for a mister Nobou Uematsu. Doan's speciality is surviving apocalyptic situations. Along with teh's co-worker, mister Cloud Norsquall, teh will show you what to do in the case of a nuclear explosion. Over to you, Doan."
"First, ya gotta remember the first law of crisis situations... there's only a plank between one and perdition."