Site Navigation

RPGClassics Main
Contact Maintainers:
Tenchimaru Draconis

Fanfic Navigation
Fanfiction Index
Updates Archive
Fanfiction Message Board!
Fanfiction Requirements

-Series/Game Specific-
Breath of Fire
Chrono Trigger
Chrono Cross
Dragon Warrior
Final Fantasy
•Final Fantasy IIj
Final Fantasy IIIj
Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy V
Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy VIII
Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy Tactics
Seiken Densetsu
Shining Force

Final Fantasy

-Fanfic Type-
Serious (Reality Based)

Author index

Interview form for authors

Reader reviews
Fanfic quotes

The Final Journey

*  *  *  *  *  *

Chapter 51: The wake-up call

Something was different.

The black shroud that had covered Clouds' eyes slowly began to lift but he knew where he was even before the darkness faded. His eyes ached protest and he blinked several times as the ocean of golden light washed over him, dazzling him and forcing him to squint while his vision sluggishly adjusted.

Everything was different this time and the intensity of the light-world rushed full on at Cloud and startled him as he leapt to his feet. During his ascent, he collided with a small cluster of the delicate thought-energy strands and reeled in surprise as a deafening cacophony of voices filled his head. As they passed, Cloud gazed around in shock and felt his mouth drop.

The last time he had stood in this almost holy world of light, he had heard just whispering. Disjointed and almost melodic in its' serenity and formless, undecipherable. The intensity of the chatter was incredible this time, transforming from a serene hiss-whisper into a frighteningly audible web of human voices that boomed in Clouds' ears like bass drums in the night.

Furthermore, the tranquillity he had associated with the light-world was shattered as he listened closer and he felt a shiver run down his back as he looked at some of the thought-energy strands and inspected them closer.

He could hear their individual voices and, more startling still, picture their faces in his mind. So clear were the images it was like looking into a human face.

Wonder and revulsion crept into Cloud as he looked closer. From some of the

strands he felt overwhelming contentment, happiness but as he gazed deeper at others, he felt fire, hate. Intense and vitriolic loathing that turned his stomach and forced him to turn away.

Then he remembered the darkness and worse still, the pain; the binary star

system burning in the gloom above his paralysed body.

“Aeris?!!” He screamed.

“Aeris, what's happened to me?!!”

The sounds of the thought-energies intensified further still in Clouds' mind. He gasped as he heard them, the whispering that turned to pity or empathy amongst some but from others he heard cold, chilling laughter that dripped with spite and depraved enjoyment and burned across the lobes of his mind like white-hot branding irons.

He clasped at his ears and tried to shut the voices out but they only grew


Cloud groaned, half in pain and half in shock, nearly ripping his ears off as he clasped harder and harder.

“Sephiroth! I saw him, please anybody, help me! What's happened to me?!!”


“AM I DEAD?! DID HE KILL ME?!! PLEASE!!!” Cloud screamed.

The laughing grew louder, drowning out the pitiful whispering. Pain raged into Clouds' skull and he dropped, screaming, to his knees.

“Please…” He hissed.

“SHUT UP!!!”

And there was silence.

The thought-energies stopped dead, their hate and pity dissolving and leaving a new and unexpected feeling, one that Cloud had never felt here before; fear.

They were afraid of him and great shoals of them swam away in alarm as he stood up.

“What the hell you shouting at and scaring the place up for?”

Cloud spun on his heels to locate the source of the one voice, the only voice that now called out from the world around him. From its' source, he sensed not fear or pity or hate, he sensed amity and a familiar warmth that both comforted and curdled into a deep knot of dread in his stomach.

“Cid?!” Cloud hissed.

Laughter trickled from a form as it emerged from a sudden and brilliant pulse of light.

There was no mistaking who it was; the clothes, the hair, the goggles perched like a crown on his head. The only thing missing was the cigarette.

Cid's' smile faded as he stepped forward and looked at Cloud a little closer.

“What the hell are you doing here Cloud? You're not dead as well are you?”

Cloud cocked his head and his mouth gaped.

“You were in a bad way when I left you but…”

“As well?!!!” Cloud spat.

“What do you mean 'as well'?! What are YOU doing here Cid?!”

Cid sighed and turned away.

“Guess you're not then.”

He turned back around.

“I got done in Cloud. Beaten, defeated, killed, slaughtered, skull-fucked.

Whatever way you say it, I aint in the union no more.”

Cid chuckled grimly.

“Could've used the company to be honest, all these fuckwits ever do is swim

around whispering like they're on Loco Weed or something!” Cid quipped, gesturing to the shoals of golden threads around them.

Nausea began to claw up the walls of Clouds' stomach and he swallowed hard to repress it.

“Oh god…How did you…?” He began.

“Sephiroth.” Cid hissed.

“The fucker showed up all uninvited and decided I might look good with a few extra holes.”

Cid turned away and chuckled again.

Cloud felt a thin and distant pang of pride ripple from Cid.

“Heh heh heh!! I got the last laugh though. Don't suppose old loony-tunes

counted on me dropping a 2 megaton farewell present on his doorstep! Bet he's sittin' somewhere right now, pissin' and moanin' and wishin' he'd put a few more extra holes in me!!”

Cid smiled heartily.

“Least I went out with a bang.” He chuckled.

“A real fuckin' big one!!”

Cloud stepped forward and opened his mouth but failed completely to untie the knot in his tongue. Cid watched and smiled understandingly.

“I know Cloud, I know. It's incredible, this place, I can hear what you're

thinking. I know what you think you want to say so I'll save you the breath and do it for you, I understand.”

Cloud shook his head and freed his writhing tongue from its' knot.

“But Cid, you're…”

“…Dead? Yeah, I know. Kinda sucks too 'cause there aint no smokes here but I'm sure I'll manage. I'll find me a nice house to haunt, that should pass an aeon or two!”

Through his shock and confusion, Cloud felt the corners of his mouth turn up. He could not help but smile at Cid. Not even death could dampen his spirits, infact, he was worse than ever.

“Seriously though Cloud, this place aint so bad. Old nut-job sure got one thing right, there is no pain, no death. Don't dread it.”

Cid's' smile had melted and Cloud felt empathy from his aura now, quite strong too.

“You know, don't you?” He whispered.

“About Sephiroth and my death?!!”

Cid nodded.

“I can read your mind remember. Besides, I bumped into Aeris. She's sorry she didn't come by the way, but she thought it would be a good idea for me to come, something about 'closure' or some shit. Anyway, I understand why you didn't tell us but the future aint set in stone. How fucking boring would the world be if it was? I never believed in all this prophecy, mysticism, destiny bullshit when I was alive and I sure as hell aint believin' it now! That's typical of Red, only tell you one side of the fuckin' story!”

Cloud nodded but his smile faded.

Cid shook his head.

“Don't bust a gut worrying about it Cloud, whatever will be will be. All I'm sayin' is I don't believe it.”

Light slowly began to grow around Cid, splattering him like fungus on a diseased tree trunk.

“Now…” He began, the fungus burgeoning into a beautiful and dazzling aura.

“…I done my bit. The Sephiroth Materia is toast so the rest is up to you,

remember? Time to leave this place and go ruin his fucking day once and for


Cloud felt lead sink into his eyelids and his mind began to slow. The more he tried to think, the slower his mind went. Like an animal caught in quicksand, the more he struggled against the growing veil of unconsciousness, the deeper into it he sank. The light world collapsed, visibly shattering like glass as the falling fragments were pulled into the aura left by Cid's' being.

Thought-energies darted into the last hole of light in the new dark-world in great convoys and finally the aura itself began to close leaving Cloud in the darkness.

His eyes closed and his thoughts collapsed like the light-world had done moments before.

“See ya 'round Mr Action Hero!”

The words churned like cement and finally evaporated as Cloud lost his struggle for consciousness.

Chapter 52: The awakening

Fresh morning air billowed in from the open window, playing teasingly with the Venetian-style blinds and sending them thrashing from the bracing touch. Blades of light slashed along the walls as the writhing blinds cut the morning sun into strips and showered them lazily around the room.

The calls of birds, refreshed from their carefree sleep chimed and danced on the backs of the winds, heralding the call of the new day. In the distance, the waves crashed and the faint sound of trees and plants swaying in the brief squall created a calm and soothing melody.

Tifa was asleep in a small padded chair next to the bed. A dull grey blanket covered her slim body and delicate laces of her chestnut hair adorned the pillow. She moved slightly and let out a mournful sigh in her sleep, clutching at one of Clouds' hands as she turned over and groaned gently as she began the long climb back to consciousness.

The sounds of the birds were the first things she heard, then the waves, then the gentle tapping of the blinds hitting the window frame as they danced in the wind. She sighed and opened her mouth daintily, letting out a short and clipped yawn before slowly opening her eyes. She blinked several times and yawned again then sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes with the back of her right hand.

For the briefest of moments she felt safe and secure. She almost smiled as she turned over in her bed and caught a glimpse of Cloud but the happiness faded and the embryonic smile died as she looked a little closer. The last tendrils of sleep slithered from her and she sat up and inspected him closely.

His eyelids were still dark but they appeared to have lightened a little. She clasped his hand tighter and felt the skin for the first time.

The clamminess was gone and the edge had been rubbed off of the coldness. The blood vessels had softened from the deep red and had settled back into his skin, the swelling almost gone now. The veins in his arm were already returning to normal with the only redness persisting in his fingers. Overall, the cadaver grey had lifted from his skin and he was slowly turning back to his normal colour, like spring was blooming all over his body and killing off the harsh grey winter of illness. She moved to speak but was cut off by the sound of the door opening.

Juxtaposing sharply with the springtime freshness of the room and the lifeless patient, the dark and sombre form of Vincent entered the room, his eyes burning like two coals from the darkness of his face. For the first time, Tifa noticed just how dark he was, malevolent, and it sent a shudder down her spine.

“Good morning.” Said Vincent in his silky smooth voice.

Tifa smiled a little forcedly and nodded.

“Morning Vincent. Doesn't Cloud look better today?” She chirped, ignoring the doctors words as they played for the millionth time in her head.

Vincent though for a moment then nodded.

“Indeed he does.”

Tifa smiled and looked back at Cloud. His eyes fluttered feverishly under his eyelids and Tifa noted his breathing seemed considerably stronger. She smiled to herself as she thought about it.

“Is Cid back yet?” She asked absently.

Vincent shook his head.

“No. He may yet be some time.”

“Suppose.” Tifa sighed.

Vincent walked silently over to the side of the bed and looked down at Cloud.

“The doctor ran a further blood test several hours ago.” Vincent said.

Tifa looked up at him, her smile pausing and receding a little.

“And?” She asked expectantly.

A faint crack of a smile lit in the corner of Vincent's' mouth. Though he was obviously pleased, the expression was profoundly menacing coming from him and Tifa found herself glancing quickly at the Osprey-950 that was holstered at its' masters' side. This is how she imagined the Angel of Death would look as he perched over a soul he was preparing to harvest.

“The Gaea Soul synthesis has terminated and the materia has successfully merged with his DNA.” Vincent smiled.

“He surprises even me.”

Tifa nodded and looked back at Cloud.

Her smile melted and she felt her heart skip several beats as she watched the tiny crimson thread of blood worm its' way from the corner of his mouth.

“Cloud?” She hissed.

He jerked and coughed, splattering blood over his bed sheets.

“Cloud!! Vincent, get someone!!”

Vincent hissed and flew for the door as Cloud began to convulse violently, blood pouring from his mouth and nostrils.

Tifa grasped at his hands and was shaken violently by the force of Clouds'


“No Cloud, hang on!!” She screamed.

“You're getting better Cloud, HANG ON!!!”

He coughed and spluttered then fell still in an instant.

Tears fell down Tifa's cheeks and she felt great claws of ice rend at her heart.

It thundered in her chest and pounded painfully against her ribs as Vincent flew back into the room with a small entourage of doctors and orderlies. He stopped next to the door and watched from a displaced position, eyeing the doctors suspiciously.

A tall, thinly built man in a white lab coat with long curtains of neat black hair and a carefully trimmed moustache ran in clutching at a file.

His razor-sharp eyes pierced Tifa then slashed across the bed to look at Cloud.

“What happened?” He asked in a thin, almost icy voice

Tifa sniffed and cleared her throat.

“We were talking and he just…”

“I see.” The doctor interrupted.

He turned to a small, petite nurse and closed the file.

“Order another series of tests and chase up the last results.”

The nurse nodded and hurried out of the room.

“You…” He ordered, pointing at another orderly.

“…Could you clean Mr Strife up a bit please.”

The orderly nodded and began to move but fell back as Cloud began to cough and splutter again. A look of alarm passed across the doctors' face and he moved to give another order when Cloud let out a loud groan.

The room fell silent and Cloud groaned again. His head moved slightly and his eyes pinched, twitching under his eyelids

His mouth fell open and a small string of blood poured down his cheek, soaking into the pillow.

The doctor looked over at Tifa then back at Cloud and cleared his throat.

Clouds' head shifted slowly, stiffly and he lay against the pillow on his other cheek. Blood slithered from his nostril and he coughed quietly splattering the pillow with tiny crimson spots of blood.

“Cloud?” The doctor asked, the ice of his voice melting.

Shock glazed on his thin face as Cloud nodded creakily and groaned again.

“Get doctor Meld in here right now!” The doctor ordered.

“Pain.” Cloud hissed.

His voice was dry and cracked and his hiss was like that of a desert snake under a baking sun of pain.

The doctor looked at Tifa, his face washed with amazement, then back at Cloud.

Tifa sat on the edge of the bed and watched, not even blinking as she observed with growing joy and amazement.

“Where does it hurt Cloud?” He asked.


He groaned again and his eyes flashed open. The blue was brilliant and he turned to Tifa and looked at her as his eyes lit up, washing both his and her face with clean white light.

Clouds' eyes widened and he bolted upright in the bed, straight as an arrow and let out a shout. He tore his hand from Tifa's and clutched at his head.

He screamed again and clutched as if he were in pain.

“WHAT ARE THESE SOUNDS!!” He screamed.

His eyes fell dim but he lurched forward, feet meeting the sterile-white

linoleum tiles with a hard slap. He arched to the wall and slumped against it, clutching his head and hissing. The doctors raced to him and so did the

orderlies. Cloud snapped his head up and glared at them, his eyes flaring wildly with light and stopping them in their tracks. Vincent and Tifa watched on in shock but stayed back as they watched Cloud in his corner clutching his head.

“GET BACK!!” He screamed.


The doctor, holding his hands up, ushered his colleagues back then slowly got down on his knees.

Cloud watched him, his eyes going dim again. He clutched at his skull and hissed through gritted teeth.

“What have you done to me?!” Cloud hissed.


The doctor frowned and sat down on the floor, sighing almost dejectedly as he did so.

“We don't know what has happened to you Cloud. What do you hear?”

Cloud hissed again, digging his fists into his temples.

“Voices….I can hear voices, thoughts. Everything looks strange…..”

The doctor nodded.

“What looks strange Cloud?”

“You do, all of you.” Cloud hissed.

“Light, there are lights around you…auras…what's happened to me?!!” Cloud

hissed, the tone of his voice twisting and collapsing into desperation. There was a brief moment of silence, perforated only by the crisp squeek of the doctors' shoes as he stood up and reached for a file, retracting a slim silver pen from his pristing lab coat.

“Gaea Soul.” Vincent mewled, his voice forlorn.

“You have the gift of Gaea Soul now.”

And then there was silence.

<u>Chapter 53: The storm after the calm</u>

“WHAT?!!” Cloud screamed.

He raced to his feet and crossed the room, grabbing Vincent by the shoulders.

Clouds' eyes were wild and his hair was dishevelled as he clutched at Vincent as if he were a lifeline in a dark sea of confusion. He felt the waves lapping against him and his throat constricted as though he were on the fringes of suffocation. His head thrashed and swelled and he felt panic rising up his oesophagus, pouring into his voice as he repeated the question.


Vincent watched Cloud calmly for a moment.

“Calm down Cloud.” He whispered.

Cloud threw his hands up and backed off several steps.


Cloud turned his head to Tifa, his manic eyes losing some of their ferocity.

“This is all a dream isn't it, I'm still on the Highwind.”

Tifa shook her head.

“Don't shake your head at me Tifa!” Cloud hissed.

“I went for a rest and….this must be a dream, it has to be!!”

The rest of the party looked at each other nervously but they did not speak.

Cloud scanned each of them, his gaze passing over them like a burning search light but they shied away, remaining silent.

The tall dark-haired doctor nervously cleared his throat and caught Cloud's


“We have the results of our tests if you would like to confirm our diagnosis.”

He offered, extending his arm and offering Cloud a file.

Cloud glared at the file, recoiling his body from it like it was a poisonous serpent wrapped around the doctors' hand waiting to sink its teeth into him. The doctor shook the file as if attempting to entice an animal with a treat. Cloud took a further step backwards and shakily raised a hand.

“No. No, I don't want to see it, this isn't true…”

The doctor dropped his hands to his sides.

Cloud slowly shook his head.

“…I fell over, hit my head or something.”

The doctor shook his head and threw the file back onto the paper mountain on the bedside table.

“I can assure you, this is no minor psychotic episode you are experiencing, I have never seen anything like this and neither have my colleagues. In fact, I…”

“Save it.” Cloud hissed.

“I don't wanna know.”

The doctor, looking uncomfortable, knitted his hands together and cleared his throat again, almost embarrassed this time.

“Maybe it would be best if we left you alone for a minute.”

Cloud snorted and dropped to his knees like a stone.

“Yeah.” He hissed.


The doctor smiled uncomfortably and gathered his files, signalling for the two nurses to follow him as he turned and opened the door. Vincent glared at them emotionlessly, again with veiled mistrust as they left, the doctor eyeing Vincent almost fearfully as he nervously smiled and shut the door.

The clap of the door retreating back into the frame brought a silence to the room that rushed over those gathered like a sheet of rain clouds pouring down a mountain. Cloud slumped to the floor, sitting silently and hugging his knees.

“My head hurts.” He hissed.

“Where's Red?”

“Visitors' room.” Vincent offered.

“He is taking some rest.”

Cloud nodded and dropped his head back into his clutch of limbs.

Tifa watched him and agonised to herself as she knelt on the floor next to him.

He was barely moving, his breathing steady and unnaturally controlled given the circumstances of his visit to this place.

“What do you remember Cloud? Do you remember anything about what happened to you?”

He was silent for a long moment.

“Cloud?” She badgered.

His head snapped up and his eyes shimmered.

“Him!” He hissed.

“I saw him!”

Tifa sat back but she continued to look at Cloud.

“Is that all?” She asked.

He shook his head and dropped his arms to the floor.

“I was alone, someplace dark. He was there but I couldn't see him, I could only hear his voice from the gloom beyond, then…”

Cloud ran a hand through his loose hair, clutching the back of his head.

“…His eyes, I saw his eyes shining out from the darkness above my head…”

He clutched his head tighter, the knuckles of his hand going white from the


“…Pain. So much pain…”

Cloud was silent for a short moment, clutching at his head.

“We have to get out of here right now.”

Cloud rose slowly from the floor and rifled through the drawers of the bedside unit.

“Where have they put my things?” He asked.

Tifa shrugged and walked over to Cloud, sliding her arm around his shoulders.

“You have to rest Cloud, you've gone through a lot just now.”

He shook his head, sliding away from her grip.

“No Tifa, we have to go NOW! We can't waste any more time.”

Cloud turned on his heels and caught Vincent in his gaze. He was taken aback for a moment, the new feelings and sensations he was experiencing once again pulsing into life as he watched Vincent.

His aura was different from the other people Cloud had looked at, darker,

hanging loosely around his body like a living field of oil. It glistened like a liquid, swirling like a black and tortured sea. Cloud listened with inner ears as a whispering arose, blowing lazily to him from what could only have been Vincent's mind. He could only make a few of the words out 'Lucrecia', 'Hojo' and 'Sephiroth'.

It was a long moment before he realised he was staring at Vincent and when he came back to the real world of the hospital room around him he caught a deep look of discomfort in his shadowy friends' eyes.

“Vincent…” He sighed, rubbing at his head.

“…Go get Red, tell him to gear up.”

Vincent stood in silence for a moment, watching Cloud almost suspiciously as he tried to understand what Cloud had been doing. He knew.

Nodding obediently, Vincent grasped the door handle and thrust open the door, stepping out into the corrider quietly and shutting the door behind him. Cloud listened to his footsteps growing ever more quiet as Vincent stalked the corridor then silence as he went into another room, the click of a door closing the last sound that he heard.

Tifa watched Cloud uneasily, unaware that she had stepped back a little towards the window.

“There's no need to be scared.” Cloud sighed.

“I'm not.” Tifa lied.

“You're lying Tifa.”

Cloud turned around to face her. His face sank and his eyes burst into light.

“Does this scare you Tifa?” He asked, his eyes glowing harder.

She could lie no more and nodded quickly.

Clouds' eyes fell dim again.

“Then how do you think I feel just now? How scared do you think I'm feeling?”

She shied her gaze to the floor and dropped her arms to her side.

“I'm sorry Cloud, I didn't think of that.” She whispered.

Her aura changed, grew a little dimmer, not as dark as Vincents' but less

brilliant than it had been a moment before. Cloud sighed and walked over to

Tifa, holding her in his arms. Her aura poured over him and she felt warmer than usual. It washed over him and he felt it running across his skin like warm water currents.

“I can feel something inside me now Tifa, a power. I only ever had a feeling like that when I handled the Master Materia but this is much stronger, much much stronger. It scares me.”

She nodded and the aura swallowing her slender body changed, growing stronger again like the sun coming out from behind a fat, ugly, thunderhead.

“That's better Tifa.” He sighed.

She looked up at him with a new amazement. It cancelled out the fear that had been gripping her only moments before. Hazy red streaked through the wash of pale golden light around her, swimming in the gold in little pools. Cloud sighed as he watched. Were these emotions he was seeing? Is that what they looked like?

“Can you read my mind now Cloud?” Tifa asked.

Cloud sighed and pulled back a little bit.

“I could but I choose not to. I can see this light around you…”

“Like you told the doctor?” She asked.

He nodded.

“It changes when your feelings do. You're wondering now aren't you?”

Tifa nodded and looked at him closer. More red spilled into the gold and the whole of her aura took on the shade of autumn orange now.

Cloud smiled.

“I think wonder looks like red.” He sighed.

Tifa smiled for a moment then looked back to the door, remembering the strange moment with Vincent just before he left the room. She pulled away and looked at the door, then looked back at Cloud.

“What…what did you see in Vincent? What was his light like?” She asked.

Cloud banished his smile and turned to look out of the window.

“Nothing.” He lied.

Tifa turned back around, hands firmly on her hips.

“I can't see lights Cloud or read minds but I can tell when you're lying to me.” She scolded.

She stepped closer.

“What did you see?” She repeated.

Cloud didn't answer, just staring out of the window at the gathering rain


“Cloud?” She persisted.

“Black.” He whispered.

“Black, like thunderclouds or oil or something. I heard things too.”

He turned quickly to look at his friend.

“I didn't invade his mind or anything, it was like these words, thoughts perhaps were floating to me. I don't know if he was thinking them because they seemed to be a part of the aura.”

Tifa nodded.

“What does black mean Cloud?”

He shrugged and shook his head.

“I don't know yet, if I had to guess I would say despair.”

“Not hate?” She asked.

Cloud shook his head.

“No, I'm sure it was despair or something like that.”

Tifa nodded again and folded her arms responding to a sudden perceived drop in the temperature of the room.

“What did you hear?”

Cloud nodded nonchalantly to himself.

“Names. Hojo, Lucrecia. Sephiroth.”

Thunder rumbled overhead and a soft pattering filled the room as millions of tiny wet fingers drummed on the window. Lightning flashed and the two jumped as the door was thrust open.

The thin black-haired doctor entered the room again, closing the door behind him and standing a few feet from Cloud with his arms folded behind his back.

“How are you feeling now Cloud?” He asked.

Cloud nodded.

“Better. Where's my stuff?” He asked.

The doctor smiled.

“Your stuff? Are you planning on leaving?”

Cloud nodded, wiping the smile from the doctors' face.

“I don't think that is a very good idea at all!” He said urgently, stepping


“There is still a great deal we have to test, we have much to learn about your condition before you leave.”

Cloud shook his head.

“Look, it isn't a disease, it's not contagious. I feel fine, better than I have in a while actually. Besides, you can't keep me here against my will.”

The doctor raised his hands, trying to calm Cloud down.

“I know all that but there are other considerations, further problems in the future, probl….”

“Look!” Cloud hissed, dropping his arms to his side and glaring. Light pulsed through his eyes and startled the doctor into silence.

“I REALLY have to leave! You can't hold me here so get my stuff and let me go!”

The doctor stood for a moment, statue-still. The ferocity of Clouds' outburst startled him.

“Why the urgency?” He whispered.

Clouds' eyes went dim and he shook his head.

“Even if I told you, you wouldn't believe me.”

The doctor was still for a moment then smiled wearily at Cloud. He nodded and reached back for the door handle.

“I'll have one of the nurses bring your things in for you then.”

Cloud nodded.


Smiling dejectedly, the doctor opened the door and stepped back out into the corridor. Cloud watched him go, following him with a weary stare. Tifa watched the doctor leaving then turned her gaze back to Cloud.

Cloud sniffed and wearily ran a hand through his loose hair. He turned back

around from the door and sighed, looking at Tifa.

“I better get ready.”

She nodded.

“Are you sure you're feeling ok now Cloud you were in a real mess yesterday.”

He nodded.

“Still a bit sore, especially the arms but I feel good. Besides, we have to move fast now.”

She watched him for a moment as he flexed his muscles and stretched his arms, banishing the pain that sizzled in the veins and tendons.

“The scars are healing really fast.” She cooed.

Cloud nodded.

“Yeah. Must be the materia in my blood.”

His voice wavered for a brief moment as he said the words. He spat the word

materia as though he almost hated it. She sighed and thought for a moment. He was putting a very brave face on all that was happening to him. She knew it must have been a terrible shock, equal to if not worse than being told that Sephiroth was still alive but he was being very calm about it; too calm perhaps? She breathed in sharply and banished the thoughts from her mind.

She realised in that second that her view towards her oldest and most valued friend had changed. He had already promised not to look into her mind but here she was, guarding her thoughts and questioning something that she never thought in her wildest nightmares she could question. Never in her wildest nightmares dreamed of questioning.

She was ashamed of herself.

“What are you thinking?” Cloud asked.

She looked up, startled from her thoughts.

“Your aura.” Cloud sighed.

“It's gone dim again.”

She smiled a little forcedly and shrugged.

“No Cloud, nothing. I'm ok really.”

He nodded and smiled, holding her shoulders tenderly.

“Go and get Vincent and Red ready to move out.”

She cocked her head and held onto one of his hands.

“What about Cid?”

Cloud tried hard not to change his expression but inevitably his smile faded a little.

“I'll explain later on.”

Tifa waited a moment then smiled, more forcedly this time and slipped from

Clouds' grasp.

“Ok .” She sighed.

“See you in a minute.”

She opened the door and walked out into the corridor, holding the door open as a slim young nurse came into the room with a neatly folded pile of clothes.

“Here are your things Mr Strife.” She said.

“We had to clean them up for you.”

Cloud nodded and watched her set them neatly on the bed. She propped the

sheathed Ultima Weapon against the bed and stood up, lazily brushing her uniform down.

Her aura was very dim and it was obvious to Cloud that she was not as cheery as she was outwardly pretending to be. He considered for a moment looking into her mind to the source of the rain cloud that blanketed her slender form, the misery and the…loneliness. Loneliness. Despair. That was what the black was. Grief. He pulled himself back from the brink, stopped himself from staring into that private hollow of her mind. It was not for him to see yet he felt sorrow welling up like a black winter spring pushing up from frozen, grey earth. He thought about Vincent and how destroyed and lonely he really must be inside. Cloud found himself wondering how Vincent was allowing himself to survive. He understood for the first time the motivation that had lead to Vincent burying himself alive so far beneath the frozen hell of Nibelheim.

'Oh God.' He thought.

The nurse watched him for a moment as he turned and put his hand up to his face.

“You know…” She whispered.

“…We didn't think you would be needing those again.”

Cloud sighed mournfully, forcing himself to swallow the bitter pill of sorrow, banishing it to some deep vault of his soul to be addressed later on if he allowed himself to do so.

“You've never met somebody like me before.” He murmured, unhelpfully.

The nurse shook her head and headed back to the door, smiling in that fake way as she walked. Cloud turned around just as she was leaving the room and called after her.


The door opened a little further and she looked back in at him quietly.

He watched for a long moment, trying to find the right words.

“…Things will get better you know.”

The familiar bleed of red washed into the grey mists of her aura. Wonder. She opened the door a little further and watched him, her young face full of amazement. Although she did not speak, Cloud sensed that she knew of what he spoke and a single golden thread washed momentarily through the halo around her body.

She smiled genuinely for what may have been he first time in a long while and several more strands of gold washed through the aura giving it the appearance of a cloud streaked sky fighting off the last remnants of a bitter storm. Her smile seemed to lift Clouds' spirits and he continued to smile even after she had left the room.

He sighed and went over to the pile of folded clothes on the bed, resting a hand on the hilt of the great Ultima Weapon and sitting down for a moment as he watched the breaking thunderclouds outside.

'How am I going to tell them this time?' He thought.

He sighed again and began to get dressed.

Chapter 54: Suspicion, grief and hope

“How are you Cloud?” Red asked.

Cloud nodded, crossing the last few feet of corridor that separated him from his companions and dropping the bag he was carrying on the floor.

“I'm ok Red, thanks.”

Red nodded.

“You know what happened to you?”

Cloud nodded.

“We should wait for Cid before we proceed.” Said Vincent.

Cloud shook his head and reached down for his bag.

“No, we have to go now. I know where Sephiroth is and we have to leave


Red looked up at Cloud suspiciously.

“Wont we need the airship to get there? Why are we not waiting for Cid?”

“Look Red, I'll tell you later I just need you all to trust me just now.”

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence.

Cloud watched them each in turn. Ocean green leaked into their individual auras but Cloud couldn't tell what the feeling was. Suspicion perhaps or uncertainty.

Whatever it was, Cloud didn't like it too much but kept his discomfort hidden.

“Let's just go shall we?” He continued, shouldering the bag and walking off.

The rest of the group nodded, exchanged a silent glance and followed the path set by Cloud as he left the building.

The weather had changed drastically from the glorious sun drenched morning that had given birth to the day. Black cauldron clouds hid the sun from view now, weeping ice cold rain down onto the earth and periodic angry flashes of lightning lit the sky. Wind whispered hatred into the ears of the party as the planet inhaled and exhaled angrily.

Rain sprayed headlong towards the party, forcing them to blink and clear their vision as the dusty grasslands beneath their feet quickly became clawing sheets of mud that stuck to the bottom of their shoes and weighed their feet down with each step.

They trudged onwards to the town in silence, huddling up to shield from the

incoming barrage of freezing rain. From his position at the lead of the group, Cloud felt something  touch him over the storm. He remembered back to the first time that he had left the Chocobo farm. He had thought he had felt the forces of life surging through him then but it was nothing like what was happening to him now. It wasn't as warm and secure as he had imagined, certainly not the storm anyway. It was cold, even over the rain and the wind. The storm itself was cold, like it was a seething mass of darkness and emotion bubbling and hating in the skies above him.

There had been a lot of storms over the past few weeks, a lot of pain. Cloud knew why. A disease, an infection that was hurting the planet and this was the result, the culmination of pain and fury overhead.

The storm wasn't the only thing he could feel. His unease was growing and he could sense the mistrust of his friends as they trudged along behind him, wondering privately yet publically why he was leaving a friend behind.

Their auras were completely green now, pushing the gold away to melt under the storm and the intensity of whatever the green feeling was, was aching at his head and clawing at his heart. He tried to ignore it but couldn't, it was growing louder and he was also starting to hear thoughts, random and vaporous leaking from his companions and being huffed on the wind for him to pick up.

'Why is he leaving Cid?', 'Is he ok?', 'He's acting very strange…Is he going to…betray us?'

That last one did it.

He turned around and dropped the bag, turning to face the three silent doubters and halting them in their tracks. Lightning arched through the sky, illuminating him and casting long shadows across his rain-streaked face as it cracked with disgust.

“Am I going to betray you?” He hissed over the wind.

“What the hell kind of thing is that to think about me?!”

Lightning pulsed again, illuminating him and drawing a brief shine from his


“You want to know why I'm leaving Cid behind?” He asked, taking a step towards his friends.

They were silent, their auras mixing with a pale yellow to form a mucky

turquoise. Shame perhaps?

“He's dead, that's why. He isn't coming back!”

Amber flared around them. Alarm.

He knew what they were going to say even before they spoke and he moved first, silencing them before they even had a chance to gasp.

“Sephiroth attacked him before he even got to the Materia Cave, with the last of his strength he brought the Highwind down on the mountain and destroyed it; the Sephiroth Materia. It's gone and… Cid is dead. There, satisfied now? Still think I'm going to betray you?”

He picked the bag up and began to trudge off across the grasslands. He felt

worse now than he had a moment ago, much worse. The trickle of errant thoughts dried up, replaced instead with silence.

“…Cloud?” Tifa mewled.

He stopped but didn't turn around.

“Yes, it's true Tifa. I only wish I was lying.” He sighed, the sudden burst of anger leaving his system.

He turned back around and was hit with a wall of rapidly blackening grey. Grief raged through them, with the exception of Vincent. His light was so dark that Cloud couldn't tell what he was feeling. As always, even in this dark hour, Vincent was an enigma wrapped in a mystery.

Vincent stood, rain slithering in little rivers from the tips of raven-feather fingers of hair and soaked into the red cloak that shielded his body. Despite his towering, even threatening physique, Cloud felt for the first time just how pitiful a creature Vincent was. Much as he hated realising this about his friend, his new eyes would no longer allow him not to notice or shield him from things he did not want to see.

“He's ok though.” Cloud offered.

“How do you know this?” Vincent asked, his voice uncharacteristically demanding.

Cloud looked at him and caught the full force of his red gaze.

“He visited me just before I came to in the hospital. Truth be told, he was the one who gave me the kick in the ass that woke me up.”

“Why didn't you tell us?” Tifa asked angrily.

“What gave you the right to hide this from your friends?”

Cloud sighed and winced as the lightning burst again. The rain got heavier and colder and seemed to pierce his flesh and tickle the bones beneath.

“I didn't want to burden you with any more baggage than I had to, any of you.”

Red shook off, sitting in the grass and fixing his one eye on Cloud.

“Didn't you think this would happen, that we would be suspicious? We all thought you were abandoning Cid, leaving him for some sinister reason. You should have let us know why we were leaving without him Cloud, shameful as it is, our confidence in you has been affected by what has happened to you.”

Cloud shook his head. Rain water trickled down his collar and ran down his goose bumped skin.

“I didn't think of it like that. I'm still getting used to this whole thing


Lightning erupted and the thunder screamed. So hard was the rain falling now that it was leaving stinging welts on the partys' skin. Cloud winced and the lightning thrashed several times in startlingly rapid succession.

“Look!” He shouted over the howl of the maelstrom.

“Cid gave us what we needed, it's up to us now! He died fighting for what is right, we have to carry on now!”

The party watched Cloud intently. His words seemed to file the edge off the

black, replacing it with melancholic grey instead. Bad, yes, but not as bad as before.

“We have to finish this once and for all and we can't do that standing here

moping and feeling sorry for ourselves! That wasn't Cid's way and it sure as hell isn't mine!”

The grey lightened a little further.

Cloud shouldered the bag confidently, repositioned the Ultima Weapon and

gestured with his head to the town.

“Now come on, we'll grieve later. Let's go get that son of a bitch before he can hurt us again! Lets mosey!”

He turned and began to walk, the party springing into life behind him. Grey was better than the sickly green of suspicion and he shook rain from his hair as Tifa ran to catch up with him.

“I don't get it Cloud, where are we going?” She called over the storm.

“Nibelheim.” He called back.

“This whole nightmare started there and it's end there. That's where Sephiroth is, I can feel him, I know that's where he is.”

Lightning flared, thunder rumbled and wind howled. The whole of nature seemed to scream in pain at the same instant.

“How are we going to get there without the Highwind? It'll take weeks!”

“Trust me!” Cloud called.

He reached into one of his pockets and pulled out the mastered Fire Materia that Cid had given him in Kalm. It shined brilliantly as his hand met the impossibly smooth surface of the crystal.

“I've got a plan!”

Chapter 55: How much for this?

The inside of the Materia shop was warm and inviting, offering a haven from the storm and the cold darkness of the world outside. The party stood for a moment at the entrance, dripping like drowned rats over the Welcome mat beneath their sodden feet.

Behind the counter sat a fat man with a khaki green apron and a big inviting smile. His face was dimpled at each side of his beaming expression and his cheeks were rosy, more from a lifetime of enjoying ale than from the effects of the storm or the usual sun of the Costa Del Sol. He set the book he had been reading down and stood up, brushing what were probably food crumbs from his apron and leaning forward on the counter, knitting his hands together and smiling even harder.

“Howdy folks!” He announced.

“Nasty weather today!”

His voice was deep like a bass drum but trained like that of a great actor,

quavering and inflecting making the words he had uttered roll off his tongue with a unique and refreshing charisma.

Cloud took note of his aura, a deep and warming gold. This was obviously a happy and satisfied individual. Looking at him, Cloud felt his own spirits lift a little as he watched the jovial little man behind the counter.

“You folks wantin' some Materia?” The man asked, beaming again.

Cloud shook his head, spraying the nearby display cases with tiny droplets of water and walking up to the counter.

He reached into his soaked pocket and took out the Fire Materia. It glowed with a brilliant green light as Cloud touched it. He set it on the counter and it went dim but burst into light again as Cloud stopped it rolling with one of his fingers.

“Wow!” The shopkeeper exclaimed.

“Aint seen a Materia react to a person like that before!”

He eyed Cloud and his aura slowly tinged with red.

He didn't say anything as he turned to the materia and picked it up gingerly with both hands, rolling it between them and inspecting the insanely smooth surface. It did not glow in his hands.

“This is a magnificent specimen. Mastered too. Are you selling me this?” He

asked expectantly.

“I'll give you a very good price for it!”

Cloud smiled and stood up straight.

“As a matter of fact I am interested in selling. How much are you willing to give me for it?”

“Ohhhh…” The shopkeeper bubbled, unable to look away from the crystal and

rolling it in his hands again, greedily this time.

“For a master of this quality I would be happy to offer you at least fifty

thousand Gil.”

Cloud cocked his head in surprise.

“It's worth that much?” He asked.

The shopkeeper nodded emphatically.

“Oh yes indeed, master Materias are extremely hard to come by, especially in this condition. Are you absolutely sure that you would like to part with this?”

Cloud nodded.

“Yes, I have no more use for it now.”

The shopkeeper smiled again and stood up clutching the crystal like a child

clutching a favoured toy.

“Is fifty thousand acceptable to you?” He asked.

Cloud nodded.

“Yes, a very generous sum.”

The shopkeeper nodded and smiled again, ringing through the transaction on an antiquated cash register that sat on a shelf just under the counter. He smiled gleefully to himself and began counting out 1000 Gil pieces into a small cloth pouch. He counted away quietly to himself then glanced over at Cloud.

“Don't get many folks wanting Materia these days. Get the odd person in who is looking for a Materia or two but not nearly as much trade as there used to be. I think it was all that about the ShinRa, scared them off.”

Cloud nodded and listened, not to the small-talk but to the fragments of thought that translated to him from the plump shopkeep.

'This'll make me a fortune!' he thought, confident that his mind was closed and his greed secret. Cloud smiled absently and came back to the shop just as the keeper finished counting the shining coins into the pouch. Pulling it closed with two draw strings, he smiled again and presented the pouch to Cloud who took it slowly and secreted it into a pocket in his trousers.

“Will there be anything else today sir?”

Cloud shook his head and played at the handle of the Ultima Weapon which was digging into his back.

“No thank you, that'll be all.”

The shopkeeper smiled deeply and nodded. Cloud turned around and headed back to his friends at the door.

“Fifty thousand!” Tifa whispered.

“I know.” Cloud replied.

“Not too shabby!”

Vincent glanced up at Cloud.

“What do you intend to do with that money now that you have acquired it?” He asked.

Cloud scratched the back of his head, pulling a clinging strand of wet hair from his skin.

“Well I sure as hell don't want to walk to Nibelheim, do you?” He asked.

Vincent slowly shook his head.

“I saw a small car dealership on the dockside when we came here on the ShinRa ship with Rufus.”

Vincent nodded.

Cloud huddled himself together and reached for the door.

“Hope they haven't gone out of business…”

Lightning pulsed and the wind howled ever stronger, the strength of it pushing the skin and clothes of the party back into their chests and making breathing uncomfortable.

Cloud felt spirits out here now, dark and twisted things that swam on the wind and screamed in the thunder. These were not like the energies of plants or animals or anything else that had once possessed life sensation, these were malicious and devoid of anything except wickedness. These things that danced in the wind and called for the rain and the lightning had never been alive. They were earth spirits, the essences of the storms and they were now growing in power.

Cloud huddled himself into his cloak and avoided looking at the sky. He knew that they were watching him, knew that they were aware of his new gifts but unlike with Sephiroth, did not fear him.

Just how powerful could a being have become to make the very spirits of the

world fear him? Cloud shuddered silently to himself and drew his clothes in

closer, trying to shut out the driving sheets of freezing rain that pierced him like a million razor blades in the gloom.

Storm shutters crashed and hammered into the summer-yellow buildings which

looked starkly out of place here in the near balck death world of the storm.

The party did not speak, there was no point. The wind hammered into them with such savage ferocity that breathing became difficult enough let alone talking and with each gust, the unseen things in the storm laughed. Laugh was the weakest word to describe the noise that the shadows uttered for it was like the sound of a thousand million knives rasping against parched bones. It was a horrendous sound, a cloaked and evil shriek that made Cloud shudder as he heard it. He tried to cover his ears but the awful sound shrieked unstoppably over the lobes of his mind, piercing through the hands that sheathed his ears as though they were not even there. Against this howl, there was no defence.

“Damn you Sephiroth!” Cloud hissed.

“Damn you!”

The great docking complex loomed ahead of the party, a sprawling mass of

slippery concrete that glistened like wet scales under each whiplash of the


Dark towers reached up into the sky, rending at the clouds above like great

blackened fingernails reaching up from the earth. They were sprinkled with a few points of light from the few offices that were open giving the buildings a second appearance of great brooding giants that sat and suffered under the barrage of the storm and the procession of laughing monstrosities veiled in the rain clouds above.

“Come on!” Cloud shouted.

The party picked up the pace a little, breaking into a light jog as the car lot appeared out of the mist and spray from the thrashing ocean. Beyond the concrete bastion of the sea wall, the ocean seethed and pulsed like an angry creature caught in the throes of death. The turquoise and emerald bands were killed instantly and the whole ocean was a mucky grey mixed with sand that had been kicked up from the bottom and churned into the foaming swells. Waves crashed like thunder as they impacted with the concrete of the land sending great phantoms of spray and mist into the air leaving a taste of salt on the partys' tongues and stinging at their eyes. Water washed over the concrete as though it were alive, racing to the edge of the buildings and slapping lazily against them, turning on its' tail and racing along the concourse and back towards its' mother who was thrashing and calling frantically in the bay beyond.

Lightning exploded again and the thunder growled menacingly. A huge ship

floundered in the bay as it limped out of the port. The waves were not big

enough to threaten it yet but there would doubtless be many green faces aboard it just now. The ship plunged headlong like a valiant warrior pushing onwards against the odds and Cloud watched it as he ran towards the huddled building with the party running steadily behind him. He could feel the sea as well and it comforted him. It was not as threatening as the storm, in fact it wasn't threatening at all. It was fighting with all its' might to try and protect the ship but was quietly fighting with its' anger towards the storm too and the result was the seething rage that it showed towards everything. It was writhing in pain as the storm lashed the surface of the water, pulsing and thrashing it like a golden chalice of blood.

It seemed that the earth was a middle ground at the moment between the charity of the ocean and the hatred of the maelstrom. Cloud winced as the feelings and impulses of the world around him overwhelmed his mind and he was glad to reach the manmade concrete safety of the car lot, sudden thoughts of Bugenhagen fluttering like butterflies through his mind.

A string of halogen lamps lit the tiny office but the connected showroom was daubed in a thick cloak of darkness.

Cloud banged on the door, rattling the Ultima Weapon against his back as the rest of the party caught up with him and huddled against the wall of the building, trying in vain to hide from the driving sheets of rain and freezing spray from the sea.

Through the misted window, Cloud looked in, cutting through the gloom with his superior eyesight and caught sight of a pencil-thin man sitting at a desk speaking on a telephone. He gestured to Cloud with his head and mouthed the words 'it's open' to him as he listened intently to his conversation.

Cloud pushed down on the door handle and opened the door, gasping his relief as he departed the double-decker world of love and hate outside. Warmth from the office passed through his clothing, bringing a tingling feeling to his soaked and freezing skin and his boots clicked on the delicately laid faux-marble flooring as he moved into the room and allowed the rest of the party to come into the warmth.

The door sealed itself back into its' jamb with a crash as the wind and thunder bellowed their war cries once more.

The man at the desk, obviously alone in the building laughed, issued goodbyes to whoever was on the other end of the line and hung the phone up, straightening his tie and rising from the red fabric executive chair in which he had been perched. He came over to Cloud and his smile melted so subtly that a normal person would not have noticed. Cloud saw his aura shift a little, mutating ever so slightly to a pink, rosy shade not as profound as wonder. Peaked interest perhaps?

'What happened to this guy?' He thought, looking closer at Cloud.

It was in that instant that Cloud realised just how different people were on the inside from what they outwardly portrayed. He had always known that, obviously, but it was profoundly disturbing to have it so graphically illustrated.

It was on the tip of his tongue to comment before he realised that he shouldn't have heard what he just heard, settling instead for loosening up the smile he had been forming, allowing it to resemble more of a cheery scowl. After a second, the mans' face rose again and the pink was chased from his aura.

'typical car salesman' Cloud thought privately to himself. 'Mr Car'.

At least he still had the comfort of anonymous thoughts.

“We need to buy a car.” Cloud announced.

Mr Car smiled in that plastic, car salesman kind of a way and tucked his hands neatly onto his hips.

“Well you came to the right place!” He quipped.

“What kind of a car would you be looking for.”

He looked over at the rest of the party.

'sheesh, who are these people?' He thought.

“A van if you have one.” Cloud continued, drawing the salesman to look back at him.

He nodded and went back over to the desk, rummaged in one of the drawers for a moment and pulled out a large set of keys.

“Ok then, if you would like to come with me Mr…?”


The two crossed the floor followed gingerly by the rest of the party. The

salesman pulled ahead and stopped just before a large glass-panelled door,

pressing one of the keys into the lock and opening the it with the regal click of a well oiled lock.

The air inside the next room was colder but still several degrees warmer than the world outside. It had a kind of conservative smell about it, leather, polish, lubricants and the occasional astringent whiff of petroleum spirit. It smelled well maintained, looked after and the new world of light that it blossomed into when the halogens on the ceiling burst into life emboldened the image further. Glass and marble all caught the gleam of the light and sparkled and artificial sun beams danced over the metal alloy bodies of a small group of six or seven vehicles.

“There's more out back.” The salesman sighed.

Cloud nodded and set the bag he was carrying on the floor. He caught a string of feeling from the salesman as he walked over to a large black van that was sitting in the centre of the room. Mr Car must have seen the sword strapped to Cloud's back.

“What's this one?” Cloud asked, gesturing his manacled hand to the black monster in front of him.

“Ah, that's just new in. The Cyra Striker.”

“Cyra? I thought they only did sports cars?” Cloud asked.

Mr Car shook his head and came a little closer.

“It's fast for a van. Top speed of 180mph. Now, if you wanna pop the hood I'll…”

“What's the transmission?” Cloud asked, cutting the salesman off.

Mr Car dropped his hands and sighed, disappointed that he wasn't going to get the chance to scramble Cloud's brain with a load of technical mumbo-jumbo that he had learned off by heart but understood just about as much (if not less) than those he made dizzy with it.

“This model comes in either a six-speed manual or a five speed automatic

gearbox. We only have the automatic at the moment, the manual should be in

sometime next week.”

Cloud nodded and suddenly became aware that he was being flanked by Vincent. He turned his head and caught Vincent inspecting the van.

“What do you think Vincent?” He asked.

His companion nodded.

“Agreeable, given our requirements.”

Cloud nodded, turning to the slightly shifty looking salesman and nodding.

“We'll take this one.”

Mr Car smiled emphatically, tucking his thumbs into his pockets.

“This one, you sure? Not wanna look around a bit more?”

Cloud shook his head.

“Ok then! Just got a few forms for ya then and you can pick 'er up tomorrow.”

Cloud shook his head again.

“We have to take it right now.”

The salesman stood up and smiled in a cocky manner that Cloud didn't much care for.

“I have to register the vehicle and process the forms before I let you take it. You'll have to come back tomorrow.”

Cloud reached out and grabbed the mans' arm, not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to shock him. A silver rinse washed through the aura covering his body and Cloud felt an electric buzz pass across the hand touching the man's arm.

He pressed, not physically but with some other sense, one buried deep inside his soul and reached out with a spectral, invisible hand. Mr Car's aura seemed to change again, beginning to spin around his body and the sensations of shock began to dissipate as Cloud transferred some new piece of his own mind into that of the salesman. It felt strange, like reaching out with an extremity that was not there, like some strange, ethereal third arm.

The rest of the party watched on in silence, waiting to see what would happen.

The salesman had stopped struggling against the hand and seemed to be gazing at Cloud now as if mesmerised. His body looked limp like he was on the rim of collapsing as Cloud pulled his own hand away and dropped it to his side.

“We were in yesterday to look at this van.” Cloud said, his voice returning to normal.

The salesman nodded, slowly, like he was just waking up then he blinked a couple of times, rubbing absent mindedly at the arm Cloud had been holding.

“Yesterday? Oh! Oh yes! Hello again Mr Strife.”

Cloud smiled.

“You told me that we could arrange payment today?” He asked.

The salesman nodded and scuttled over to another desk sitting in the corner of the room, rummaged a bit, then scuttled back over with a pile of papers.

“Can't seem to find the forms you filled in yesterday but I'm sure they'll be on the network somewhere. I'll check later... Payment! Right.”

He shuffled through the papers and pulled one of them to the top.

“Ok, maximum payable is forty five thousand Gil. Will you be taking the

low-interest monthly plan?”

Cloud shook his head and reached his hand into the recess in his cloak where he had hidden the money pouch. He pulled the pouch out and opened it, taking one of the thousand Gil pieces out and slipping it into his pocket. He resealed the pouch and handed it to Mr Car.

“There's forty nine thousand Gil. Keep the rest.”

The salesman looked down at the pouch then back up to Cloud.

“That's four thousand Gil are you…?”

“Yes.” Cloud smiled.

The salesman smiled broadly and stood up, beaming from ear to ear and slipping the pouch into his pocket.

“Thank you very much! I'll go get your key!”

He scuttled back into the other room and searched through one of the drawers in his desk. After a few minutes, he found the one key amongst many that he needed and closed the drawer, running back through and breathlessly presenting it to Cloud.

“There ya go Mr Strife!”

Cloud took the key and handed it to Vincent, offering his other hand to the


“Nice doing business with you.”

The salesman smiled again and shook Cloud's hand warmly.

“Likewise Mr Strife! You come back anytime!”

Cloud broke the handshake and gestured for the rest of the party to come over.

The salesman readjusted his tie again, smiled nervously at Tifa as she walked past him then ambled over to the showroom door, opening the garage shutter and wincing as a cold moan of wind poured into the building from the now dying power of the storm outside. The clouds were less black now and the ferocity of the wind seemed to have lessened a little.

He smiled at the party again then shuffled back off into the office in the main foyer, removing a pen from his shirt pocket as he went. The rest of the party came over to Cloud, their auras a strange mix of gold, green and red.

“What did you do to him?” Red asked.

“I don't exactly know.” Cloud replied.

“I just grabbed his arm and…I felt that I could manipulate him.”

“I wouldn't recommend you use these powers too much Cloud, you might find

yourself…enjoying them.”

Cloud chuffed and picked the bag up from the floor, taking it to the rear of the van and dropping it again.

“Give me a break Red, I had to do something! We don't have the luxury of waiting days for transport besides, I didn't hurt him.”

“That is hardly the point! Sephiroth probably started out not hurting people either and we all know where that one ended up!”

Vincent watched uneasily as Cloud and Red entered a stand-off. Tifa gazed at Cloud too and it was only when he returned her gaze that the stand-off ended. He sighed and rubbed at his cheek.

“Ok, I wont do it again if it worries you all so much.”

Red nodded and then padded over to the passenger door.

“Good. It is for the best.”

Cloud nodded and sighed again. He looked pissed off but refused the inner

temptation to further voice his opinion.

“Who's driving?” He asked.

“I'll do it.” Said Vincent.

Cloud had given him the key but had not expected him to drive the van. He looked over at Vincent, then at Tifa.

“You sure?” He asked.

Vincent nodded.

“It's been a while but I wouldn't imagine you could forget how to do it.”

Cloud thought for a moment then shrugged, ushering Tifa towards the passenger door.

“Guess you're right.” He sighed.

“Ok then, let's get a move on.”

The interior of the van was grey fabric. It was spacious and filled with that factory-fresh, warm aroma that only new automobiles could generate. Cloud sat up front next to Vincent and Red and Tifa sat in the space usually used as a hold for cargo or tools. They had handles on the walls to hold onto if the ride got bumpy, not that they were of much use to Red. He would have to use his claws if the journey got rough.

Vincent put the key into the ignition gingerly and turned it, pressing a booted foot on the gas pedal and bringing the engine to life with a confident growl. He reached back, retrieved his seatbelt and fastened it firmly. Cloud did the same as Vincent reached up to the dash mounted shift-stick and pulled the vehicle into gear. There was a soft clunk from somewhere in the engine as the driveshaft connected with the gears and Vincent released the handbrake, pressing down easily on the gas pedal and sliding smoothly into motion.

Vincent increased the speed and flipped the wipers on as they left the dry of the showroom and pushed out into the rain and spray punished docking complex.

Water sprayed under the tyres as Vincent picked up the pace again, accelerating to just under 40mph as he strove to escape the tarmacadam clutches of the port. Cloud watched him for a moment and saw a few sprinkles of purple break through the perpetual midnight black of his aura. 'pleased with himself.' Cloud concluded, his ability to discern emotions growing more powerful as time went on.

“Not bad Vincent, not bad at all!”

Vincent nodded.

“Indeed.” He said.

“I am pleasantly impressed with my performance at present.”

Cloud smiled and turned his head to look at the approaching grassland and the one asphalt tongue that glistened across it like a great and oily serpent slicing the world in half.

'I knew that Vincent.' He thought quietly to himself.

'I knew that.'

Chapter 56: Road trip

The indicator clicked silently like the beaks of birds tapping on cold glass as Vincent signalled left and eased off the gas as he pulled into a service station. He drove past the main parking lot and pulled up next to a row of petrol pumps.

“Good call Vincent.” Cloud sighed, unfastening the safety belt.

“We'll need a full tank to cross the mountains.”

Vincent nodded.

“I think we should also purchase some spare two gallon cans and put them in the back.”

Cloud nodded.

“Good idea. I don't think they have gas stations in the Corel Mountains.”

Vincent slipped out of the drivers side door and circled the van, opening the tank and inserted the pump into it. There was a deep-voiced, continuous whine as petroleum poured from the pump and into the hungry mouth of the tank as Vincent filled it up.

Cloud turned in his seat and looked to Tifa and Red.

“I didn't know he could drive.” Tifa sighed.

Cloud yawned and stretched.

“Neither did I. I found out when we were in Junon.”

Tifa nodded.

“He's good considering he hasn't driven in 30 odd years.”

“Yeah.” Cloud sighed.

“He's doing ok. I'm going into the shop to buy some water and some snacks Either of you want anything in particular?”

They both shook their heads. Cloud nodded accordingly, stretched again and

slipped out of the van. He walked over to and stood next to Vincent as he filled the tank up in silence, watching the counter on the pump as the Gil melted away before his eyes.

“I'll buy three spare cans when I go in.” Said Cloud.

Vincent nodded as he finished filling up the tank in the van.

“That should be sufficient to get us over the Corel Mountains.”

Cloud nodded and fished the 1000 Gil coin out of his pocket.

“I'll be back in a minute.”

Vincent nodded and replaced the pump into its cradle. He wrapped his cloak

around his body and hopped back into the drivers' seat, his face ashen as


The girl behind the counter was possessed of a smoky beauty. Her shoulder length black hair was tied into neat pig tails and her deep brown eyes swirled like tiny galazies in her head, emphasized by the light covering of black mascara.

She was slender, the curves of her body perfectly proportioned beneath her black uniform. She smiled at Cloud as he came in and watched him with what he felt was more than passive interest as he hovered around the shelves, deciding what to take and what to leave behind.

He picked up several two litre bottles of water and a variety pack of

chocolates. He chose those over the heavily salted potato chips that sat

lusciously in his field of view because they contained higher energy values.

That was what counted when they had little time to spare. In addition to the chocolate and the four 2-litre bottles of water, he picked up several bags of boiled sweets and headed to the counter, arms full and aching under the weight of what he carried.

The aura of the girl -who was about 19 years of age- was brilliant golden and comforting to look upon.

Her face was so beautiful and perfectly sculpted that it looked as though she were carved from marble to the design of an artisan trying to capture the image of supreme beauty. She had a slim, well structured face and slender rose-red lips. Her skin was like powder and completely blemish less and her cheeks were rosy. She was not just the shallow, man-crafted attempt at beauty, she was overtly beautiful in her own right. The bone structure of her face immediately reminded Cloud of Aeris; commanding beauty and a delicacy that would not yield.

Beauty and power rolled into one.

Her smile trickled away a little as he approached the desk and her aura pulsed silver once or twice then returned to the wondrous autumn-evening gold that it had been when he came in.

“Are you alright?” She asked.

Her voice was perfect, just like her body. Strong yet simultaneously delicate.

Cloud laid the items he had collected on the counter and smiled.

“Sure, why?”

She smiled almost embarrassedly and began to check the items over.

“Nothing I suppose, you just look a bit pale. Sorry, none of my business


Cloud smiled. It struck him that the whole problem was people didn't care enough and here was someone apologising for something that everyone should be doing; caring. 'Funny world' he thought absently.

“Oh, we bought gas too. Pump 12 I think.” Cloud added.

“And I want to buy 3 of the three gallon reserve cans as well.”

The girl smiled and rang the items through the register, her slender fingers playing the keyboard like a magnificent musician might play a piano.

“That'll be 212 Gil altogether.” She cooed in that amazing voice.

Cloud smiled and handed her the 1000 Gil piece.

“Sorry.” He sighed.

“I have nothing smaller than that.”

She smiled revealing her perfect white teeth again and took the coin from

Cloud's gloved hand.

“That's ok.” She said.

Cloud bagged the items, double-bagging them due to the weight and lifted the load off of the desk.

There was a ringing like distant bells as the girl opened the register and

counted out Cloud's change.

“There you go. Just pick up your spare fuel cans from the shelving next to the outside door.” She said.

“Thank you.” Cloud said, slipping the collection of coins into his pocket.

He turned, hefting the bag of goods into his other hand.

“Take care of yourself.” The girl called.

Cloud turned and smiled at her. She smiled back.

“You too.” He said.

Vincent took the bags from Cloud and ferried them over the front seats to Tifa and Red in the back.

Cloud ran across the forecourt and retrieved two of the reserve cans from the storage shelves and took them back to the van. Tifa and Red secured them safely in one of the spacious compartments in the hold of the van, secreting the first pair as Cloud arrived with the final one. He jumped in and shut the door with a confident slam, buckling his seat belt and letting out a sigh.

“All set?” He asked.

Vincent nodded and turned the engine on. It purred like a satisfied kitten and let out that barely-noticeable clunk as Vincent shifted it into Drive. He popped the handbrake and pulled away as smoothly as he had from the showroom, indicating left and pulling back onto the black asphalt serpent road that slithered ever silently towards the Corel Mountains in the far and hazy distance.

“Everything alright there Cloud?” Tifa asked.

Resting a booted foot casually on the dashboard, Cloud sighed and dropped his hands into his lap.

“I didn't try to scramble her brain if that's what you mean.”

He turned in the seat and fixed her with an accusing glower.

“Are you all going to ask me that every time I interact with other people from now on?”

Tifa looked away and Red also lowered his head. Feeling a passing glance touch his cheek, Cloud looked back around just in time to catch Vincent returning his gaze to the road. He sighed and lay back in his seat, resting an arm on one of the armrests.

“Keep heading south-west Vincent, following the coast road till we get to the mountain overpass.”

Vincent nodded but did not speak. Cloud looked over to him for a moment,

studying the incessant cloud of black that invisibly enshrouded his body. Again he heard the names Lucrecia, Hojo and Sephiroth like voices crying out from the black ether storm around his metaphysical being. Several other things convulsed in that evil wind but Cloud couldn't make those out. He thought they sounded like names but they were distant, like the sound of shouting over the vastness of some dark and uncrossable gulf. Mesmerised, he watched for perhaps longer than he should until something washed through the black, a brief flash of colour. Discomfort. Shying quickly, Cloud focused on the dash mounted chronometer. It was just short of two in the afternoon now. It would take another six hours at least to reach the mountain overpass and another fifteen or so after that to cross the mountains and rejoin the road to Nibelheim on the other side. Cloud groaned inside. It was going to be a long journey and he felt that familiar wash of dread curdling into a knot inside him as he wondered what the outcome would be. After the talk Cid had given him, he wasn't sure what to think now, wasn't sure what Red's words were worth. Afterall, Red hadn't seen the fate of Cid.

Or had he?

Had he told Cid and, like with Cloud, sworn him to secrecy for the good of the party?

Why had he not seen the departure of Barret, the destruction of Midgar and the death of Junon?

Or had he?

Had he known everything in advance and kept it to himself for the sake of his friends? Did, or does, he know what the outcome of this, the final battle would be?

Cloud sighed and buried himself further into his chair, a million million

thoughts buzzing and annoying him like a persistent cloud of bees.

He closed his eyes and concentrated, tried to sort it all out into some loose kind of order and before long, without realising it, he was asleep.

Chapter 57: Things between friends

The dreams were dark, full of pain and anguish and uncertainty.

Through this all they were formless, dark and without a discernable depth.

Faces, shadows, picture echoes of things he had seen and people he had known.

His mother. Aeris. Sephiroth. They were all there as well as one final thing; a man, or at least he thought it was a man. It had no face, a human shaped doppelganger created from the very darkness of the dream itself. Whispers arose as he looked at it, scrutinising it for any detail but there was none save the indecipherable hiss of distant voices.

He wasn't sure if he had ever seen or known or met the thing of which he now dreamt but it felt familiar, like it had been with him all this time either in form or, as he know found himself suspecting, in spirit.

The other faces of the dream all crowded; Sephiroth, Aeris, his mother, around the formless thing as if they were one with it and it with them. They were all smiling, their smiles like the calls of sirens reaching across the gulf of the nothing to touch Cloud and suck him towards whatever the black-man-shape thing was. Through the black all around, Cloud saw his own arm raise and reach for the thing. It was bare, the skin pale like that of a small child. He touched it and it was cold yet simultaneously inviting. It was a ball of blackest ice with a fire burning inside it.

The gloom slowly began to lift from the body as Cloud made contact with its' form, a face beginning to emerge from the sculpted nothing, a smile…

Cloud awoke with a start, the heavy weight of a hand on his shoulder startling him and his panicked eyes darted for a moment before pulling into focus and revealing Vincent. His thin face was barely lit by the humble green of the instruments on the dashboard and it glistened wetly on the steel of the hand that had called Cloud back from the land beyond the conscious. He calmed down quickly and sat back in the seat, scrawping his hands through his hair and sighing explosively.

Vincent gingerly placed his arm back on the armrest and looked back out to the road. It glistened like wet leather under the piercing flame of two halogen headlamps and the whole world was awash with black beyond the reach of the light.

“You were having a nightmare.” Vincent said.

Cloud rummaged through a bag that had found its' way into the front of the van and pulled out one of the bottles of water, opened it and swallowed several gulps of the cold fluid before replacing the cap and dropping the bottle into his lap. The time was now 8:30 in the evening. Winter gripped the western continent, silencing the glory of the day a little after 5:30 in the afternoon.

Cloud had been asleep for just about 7 hours.

He put his head back on the headrest and blinked several times, trying to banish the nightmare from his mind. He had not seen the whole of the emerging face and, as much as it scared him, he found himself wishing Vincent had held off waking him for a few seconds more. Cloud looked through to the back of the van. Tifa and Red lay asleep, barely moving and breathing serenely. No nightmares plagued them it seemed and Cloud sighed as he turned back around and gazed out into the darkness.

“Are you still ok with the driving Vincent? Want me to take over?”

Vincent shook his head.

“I'm fine.” He whispered.

Cloud nodded and looked back at the road.

“Who are Jansen and Hobby?” He asked, the final undecipherable names from

Vincent's aura suddenly coming to him like a flash of psychic lightning.

Vincent's head snapped around from the road and he glared at Cloud more with amazement than anger.

“What did you ask me?” He whispered, his voice almost inaudible over the fine tuned roar of the engine.

“Who are Jansen and Hobby? You don't have to tell me if you don't want to.”

Vincent nodded and turned back to the road. He was silent for the longest of moments and Cloud was about to apologise for asking him when Vincent suddenly began to talk.

“They were two troopers assigned to guard the ShinRa mansion with me at the time when they first began to use the Jenova creature.”

Cloud nodded and took note of the sudden lift in Vincent's seemingly impermeable bleakness. It was only partially banished, the strangeness of the man remaining but allowing a brief firefly of humanity to return.

“What happened to them?”

Vincent sighed and placed his other hand back on the steering wheel with a click of steel.

“They were killed by Hojo just after he shot me.”

Cloud looked over at Vincent. The green glow of the instruments was caught in the red pools of his eyes. Cloud looked back at the road.

“I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry.”

Vincent did not respond. Cloud sighed to himself and crossed his arms as a

sudden and inexplicable spike of cold drove its' way into the soft flesh of his body, chilling his bones and clenching his gut into a tight knot.

“I awoke alone in one of the rooms.” Vincent whispered.

Clouds' gaze danced back to Vincent. He watched almost in awe as he spoke again.

“I am not aware of how long I had lain there before coming to. The last thing I remember was Hojo, sneering and leaning over me as I lost consciousness then I awoke with this.”

He took the artificial appendage off of the steering wheel and flexed it a few times. The steel made a dry rasp as it was tensed and released and the light reflected off of it like a thousand faceted blade.

“I felt different. He had done something to me, something awful, then I

realised. He had used the cells of the Jenova creature on me.”

Cloud listened on in amazement as Vincent talked. It seemed that what was left of his soul was being laid bare before him. The thousand faceted blade clicked back around the steering wheel and Vincent took on another aura now, more human.

For the first time since Cloud had been able to see them, Vincent's aura lifted ever so slightly from the oil-black, becoming an impossibly dark shade of grey.

Vincent gazed out into the road, the tongue emerging beneath the headlights. He looked as though he were seeing something in the black of the night, something that Cloud, even with his new abilities could not see.

“I no longer felt human and I had an urge within me to hurt and to kill and to destroy. Over time I noted that parts of my body began to change when these emotions became too difficult to control and several times I blacked out completely, awaking to find myself in a room that had been utterly and

thoroughly destroyed. There was something inside me aching to get out, something that a person was not meant to unleash.”

He looked over at Cloud.

“You know of what I speak.”

“I do?” Cloud asked.

Vincent nodded and looked back at the road.

“It's name is Chaos.”

Cloud looked over, arms crossed and eyes wide.

“That thing is alive inside you?!” He asked.

Vincent nodded.

“It calls to me even now. It is separate from my own soul yet feeding off of it like a parasite drawing blood.”

A short silence fell over the two men and only the wet drone of rubber meeting asphalt could be heard over the self-imposed nothing. In the back of the van, Tifa sighed in her sleep and shifted over without waking either herself or Red who was curled on the floor next to her like a faithful companion. Cloud watched her for a moment then turned back in the seat and looked out of the windshield into the black of the night beyond.

The rainstorm that had plagued the world only hours before was all but gone now and a rich tapestry of stars twinkled like distant eyes in the heavens above.

Cloud watched the world calmly, a new feeling washing over him from it now.

Tranquillity. The warm and comforting feeling that he felt in his own being

after waking from a nightmare and realising that he was warm and safe. It felt like the world was waking to find its' own warmth and comfort after the black terror of the storm.

“Why are you telling me these things Vincent?” Cloud asked.

Vincent sighed and shifted his fingers on the steering wheel as he concentrated on the winding road before him. His aura was much lighter now, grey rather than black, as though a tremendous weight had been lifted from his soul.

“Something occurred to me in the weeks and the months following the first defeat of Sephiroth at our hands. After the final battle, we all split up as you well know…”

Cloud nodded.

“Yeah. Yeah I know.” He sighed.

Vincent looked over at Cloud and there was a slight shift in Cloud's stomach as Vincent pressed down further on the gas and accelerated onwards. The illuminated speedometer needle slipped gracefully from 70 to 75 mph then sat on the new readout with almost surgical accuracy.

“I have been making new discoveries within myself all the time, finding things that my battle against Chaos had stolen from me. I will never, can never be again that which I once was, what I have to do is learn as much about the new me as I can and try to adjust to that accordingly. I discovered that I too can feed off of him as he feeds off of me, draw his strength and use that to reinforce myself.”

Cloud nodded and folded his arms, resting a booted foot on the dashboard.

“Makes good sense.”

Vincent nodded to himself and concentrated on the road.

“Indeed it does. You now have to do the same as I, now that Sephiroth has given you the power of the Gaea Soul. You are different from that which you were and now you find yourself in a dilemma.”

Cloud nodded again as he absorbed Vincents words. They made perfect sense and though a million questions burned in his head, he went back to the one statement that had started this whole revelation in the first instance. It also made sense to deal with these things methodically as confusion was the last thing that Cloud felt like dealing with right now.

“What was it that occurred to you Vincent?” He asked.

Vincent, in the near darkness of the van smiled, like he had been expecting Cloud to ask that question.

“What occurred to me was that we are stronger together than we can ever be as individuals. That is why I came across the world to tell you and Tifa and Barret of what I had learned of the Gaea Soul Project. It was not insensitivity, it was the knowledge that as a unit we would be better equipped to deal with the new threat than we could through individual effort.”

Cloud nodded and looked away. He was silent for a long moment as he thought and lined the jumble of thoughts up into some kind of order in his head. Tifa stirred again in the back and Cloud made sure she and Red were still asleep before he continued.

“It sure doesn't feel that way just now though.”

Vincent nodded and decelerated as he negotiated a slight s-bend in the otherwise arrow-straight road. His concentration was side-tracked for less than a second as he completed the manoeuvre and picked up speed once again.

“You are referring to the death of Cid are you not?”

Cloud nodded.

“I can't put it out of my head Vincent, I mean, I dragged him into this. It

feels like he is dead because of me.”

Vincent shook his head.

“Your guilt is understandable but misplaced. He came with us for the same

reasons that we have also chosen to go, he wanted to safeguard that which he cared about. You should remember that.”

Cloud nodded and he felt a little better but not much. As he looked down into his folded arms, he realised for the first time that he couldn't see his own aura. He puzzled over that for the longest of moments, listening to the slicking of the tires over the blacktop below.

“I guess this is it then, the final battle.”

Vincent nodded and accelerated a little further sitting at 80mph. Under other circumstances, that might be considered dangerous but it was a wide clear road and as straight as any highway ever could be.

“Indeed.” He sighed.

Cloud turned again in his seat and looked at Vincent who did not return the look as he remained focused on the road ahead.

“How do you feel about that Vincent? I mean we have come through so much and it could all be over in a few short hours.”

“Or it could not.”

Cloud sat back and sighed explosively. He wasn't frustrated at Vincent, more at the fact that Vincent had just voiced what he had been silently thinking. Cloud knew as well as anyone that final battles were indeed final, only one outcome; only one side could win (not including the last battle with Sephiroth. That didn't count in view of recent developments.)

“I grow fatigued now.” Vincent sighed.

“Want me to take over?” Cloud offered, banishing his thoughts back into their mental files.

Vincent nodded and pressed slowly down on the brake, signalling into the side of the road and stopping gently. He shifted the van into Park and unfastened his seatbelt.

“I had forgotten how draining it could be to drive a vehicle.”

Cloud nodded and unfastened his seatbelt and the two men opened their doors

almost in unison and swapped sides. The slam of the two doors, though it sounded like a cannon on a silent night to Cloud, was insufficient to wake either Red or Tifa who carried on dreaming serenely in the hold of the van.

Vincent clasped the seatbelt firmly and sat with his arm on the armrest. Cloud surveyed the instruments cooly as he fastened his. Gas was ok, temperature was ok. He shifted the air conditioning a little, chasing of a single spike of cold that rasped up and down his skin with annoying persistence. He signalled right, shifted the van into Drive and pulled away, pressing on the gas pedal firmly and reaching a speed of 75 miles per hour in about 10 or 12 seconds.

“We're about an hour and a half from the Mountain Overpass road. I'll stop and top up the gas with one of those spare drums that we bought.”

Vincent nodded.

“I agree. It would be unwise to enter the mountains unprepared.”

“Expecting trouble?” Cloud asked, noticing that the Osprey 950 was unholstered and sitting on Vincent's lap.

Vincent shook his head and rapidly disassembled the barrel.

“No, I am merely inspecting it. Maintenance.”

Cloud nodded again and turned back to the road.

They drove in silence for a while, the parts of the gun occasionally clicking and clinking as they were rigorously checked over by their master. Satisfied, Vincent reassembled the gun with the speed of a master craftsman and fed the clip back into it. He chambered a round with an ominous clack of metal, applied the safety catch and tucked the huge weapon back into the holster at his side. That done, he lay back in his seat and closed his eyes. Cloud watched him for a moment and realised that he wasn't asleep, just resting.

Cloud sighed, made himself comfortable in the drivers seat and then let the

reservoir of his own thoughts overflow his mental dam as he drove in silence along the uncertain highway below.

Chapter 58: A voice across the world

After a long moment of fondling in the darkness for the petrol cap Cloud found it and unscrewed it, thrusting the nozzle of the spare can into it and upturning the petroleum into the van.

Vincent circled the vehicle wearily, gun firmly gripped in his hand.

“Bagnarada live in these foothills.” He hissed.

“Even with all our strength, their venom is extremely dangerous.”

Cloud nodded and went back to the tank and the task at hand. He felt uneasy yet couldn't place his finger on the source of his discomfort. He was sure that nothing was stalking them from the undergrowth that hemmed the road like a skirt. It was already starting to elevate, lifting into the igneous maw of the mountains ahead and there was light smattering of forest and deep grassland on either side now.

Night smothered the landscape like a black quilt and although it was only 10:45 in the evening, it felt much later than that. Night-time was more of a concern as the covering of gloom gave the shrill hearts of monsters a new and savage boldness as they slithered like snakes from their haunts deep in the forest to hunt. Cloud's uneasiness grew until it was almost curdled, physically inside him yet he still couldn't determine what was causing it. A vaporous and unfathomable sixth sense twanged inside his being like a hidden guitar string, peaking both interest and sharpening the slender blade of fear into a razor point ready to dig into him and infect him with terror at the slightest movement or sound.

He glanced up from the gurgling tank and caught the ethereal shift of something darting across the road. The slender blade inside moved into striking pose.

Obviously trained on it too, Vincent let of a shot from the Osprey 950, the

muzzle flash illuminating the blacktop and the contours of the landscape for many meters. The spray of flame from the barrel of the gun must have been at least a foot long and the shot was thin and deep, more of a thud than an explosion yet Cloud winced and jumped, even though he had known it was coming.

Mercifully, Tifa and Red had already awoken inside the van.

“What was it?” Cloud asked, his ears ringing from the sound.

Vincent glanced over, his eyes shimmering briefly in the darkness of his face and bringing to his features a rippling of luminescence like sunlight over gentle waves.

“I am not certain.”

“Did you kill it?”

Vincent shook his head and glanced back to the patch of scrub brush into which the would-be assailant had dived.

“It was too fast.”

The bushes next to Cloud rustled again and he shifted his attention from the tank. Something shrieked, and the vegetation parted. The slender blade struck him deep.

“Shit!” Cloud screeched, dropping the tank as something sailed from the bush and flew towards him with frightening velocity.

Vincent's head snapped around and he darted over the blacktop, reacting almost instantly to the commotion. He ran almost silently, rounding the van just in time to be dazzled by a huge and brilliant flash. He hissed in pain and clawed at his eyes with his one human hand as spectres and shadows of the flash danced jigs across his vision. He dropped the gun to his side and hissed again as his eyes slowly pulled back into focus.

Cloud stood, hand outstretched breathing calmly as he looked at something on the ground, no more than five feet from him.

Vincent dropped his wounded gaze to the road and saw a tiny, shrivelled thing twitching in its' death throes on the tarmac. It uttered a futile and windless shriek of pain and anguish as it convulsed onto its' side and fell still and silent as it died there in the dark. The stench of singeing hair and flesh travelled up from the dead creature and Cloud dropped his hand back to his side as he knelt down and picked the tank up. He raised up again and stood, tank in hand, watching the tiny defeated monster.

“What was that?” Vincent hissed.

“I think it was a Grimguard. Nasty little bastards.”

Vincent stepped a little closer.

“I mean what did you do to it?”

Cloud looked over at him, moonlight washing strangely over his face.

“Flare.” Cloud said, his voice almost hushed to nothing.

“It was him or me Vincent and my sword is in the van. I had to use the Gaea


Vincent nodded and his aura did not change. Obviously he understood why Cloud

had broken the promise to Tifa and Red not to use it again. That was a slight yet cold comfort to Cloud.

“We should hurry.” He hissed, circling back around the van with the Osprey 950 in striking position.

“Magic probably wont scare them for very long.”

Cloud nodded and turned back to the petrol cap. It hung open like a hungry mouth and he sighed wearily to himself as he put the nozzle of the spare can back into it, sating its' hunger a little more. Fortunately the can had landed on its bottom when Cloud had dropped it. Losing reserve fuel was the last thing they needed at the moment not to mention the deadly fireball that would have ensued had the Flare spell made contact with the drum. Cloud upturned the can higher, emptying the astringent smelling liquid into the tank with an increased sense of urgency. The smell of the fried moster and the smell of the petrol clawed together creating a disgusting ozone that seemed not to pass through the air but to hang in it like lead. It was thick and heavy and smelled foul.

As the last few drops of petrol fell from the can, Cloud felt a short wisp of wind slither wetly across his body and on it he heard faint laughter. It was distant, very distant yet felt so close and he looked over at Vincent who was circling the general area where the first monster had fled to.

“Can you hear something?” Cloud asked, closing the fuel cap and circling round to Vincent.

Vincent listened for a moment then shook his head.

“They seem to have retreated for the moment.”

“No, that's not what I meant. Can you hear…laughter?”

Vincent scanned the road. There were no other cars and no settlements for many miles around. It was unlikely that someone would choose to hitchhike this particular stretch of road due entirely to its  extreme remoteness. Anyone encountering trouble out here was in a very grave situation indeed and there was noone to help for many many miles.

“I hear nothing.” He hissed, clutching the gun tighter.

The wind passed away on its' journey across the world leaving the two wrapped in a sudden sheet of clamminess. The night air was quite chill but there was something about it that just didn't sit right.

Cloud listened in closer. He was sure that the laughter was still there but it was so far removed now that he couldn't be sure he was not imagining it. He half knew he wasn't yet was half sure he was.

Surveying the black nightscape one last time he tapped Vincent on the shoulder and captured his attention.

“Let's get the hell out of here.”

Vincent nodded, offering no protest and broke into a purposeful jog for the

passenger side, opening the door and getting in in what looked like one smooth, almost graceful movement. Cloud followed equally as quick and shut the door with a solemn slam. He fastened his seatbelt with a growing urgency to get away from this evil lay-by and turned the ignition and headlights on, shifted into Drive and planted his boot hard on the accelerator. The wheels screeched for a second, spinning wildly and kicking up gravel before finding their footing and speeding the van away.

Tifa leaned in from the back as Cloud reached 85 miles per hour. It seemed to be logical to make the most of speed because they would be limited to 30 or 40 at the most on the mountain trail ahead. Cloud had every intention of using the last few miles of arrow-straight blacktop to best advantage.

“What happened out there?” She asked.

“Trouble.” Cloud replied.


“Yeah. Grimguards. Vincent wasted one of them.”

Vincent, privy to the actual course of events, remained silent. He understood alright.

Tifa watched Cloud almost suspiciously for a moment then turned her gaze to the speedometer.

“Is that not a bit fast?” She asked.

Cloud looked down at it and shrugged, gently applying the brake and slowing to around 70mph.

“Maybe a little. Wanted to get away from that lay-by though.” He said.

Tifa nodded and retreated back into the hold.

“Give me a call when you want a break.” She sighed, rummaging through one of the bags and pulling out one of the bars of chocolate that Cloud had bought at the gas station.

“I will.”

He pressed gently on the accelerator, speeding up without bringing the attention of either Tifa or Red as they ate in the back. 85mph actually didn't feel to fast at the moment, in fact, it didn't feel nearly fast enough.

Vincent watched Cloud but Cloud remained focused solely on the road ahead.

Although Vincent was sure that Cloud knew he was watching him, he neither

glanced or struck up converstaion as he sat and thought quietly to himself, his face solemn in the glow of the instruments.

Chapter 59: Homecoming

The party looked out across the rolling vistas of the mountains as the Corel Range joined the Nibel Range. They were gripped by an almost reverent silence, the wind playing easily through their hair and the mid-afternoon sun chasing the chill away that each was feeling as they gazed towards the granite spire of Mt Nibel across a valley of smaller mountains.

The once proud finger reaching up from the earth to touch the sky was mutilated almost beyond recognition and it appeared as though a substantial amount of rock had fallen, lowering the summit and half-concealing the huge and terrible scar in the side of the mountain. The high-valleys and clefts that held vegetation were black like death and the greenery for miles around was scorched and completely destroyed. The wave sent out by the blast not only killed the life for many miles but had tarnished the faces of the mountains it had touched. The usual colour of the rock was a light grey, steely from the granite that formed it. Now though, the mountains around that warped and mutilated landmark were black and rended at the sky not like wonderous fingers but like black teeth that snapped and clawed and tried to devour the calm blue of the mid-afternoon sky.

Far below, in the cradling valley that had once supported the great mountain, steam arose where melt-water came into contact with the liquefied rock that the sub-nuclear explosion had generated. It rose from the dim of the mountain pathways almost as if the soul of the now dead mountain were rising to some better place and escaping the horror of what had befallen it. Cloud sensed pain here, great pain. The Planet was suffering and it made Cloud feel a new and very profound, almost personal guilt. It seemed wrong to him that they would have to hurt the Planet in order to save it. He sensed that it knew why Cid had done what he did but still, that did not lessen the guilt.

The mountain was now less than half the size it had been before, mangled,

scorched and dead. Something had been taken that could never be put back.

Something as timeless and ancient and wondrous as the Planet itself was gone.

Cloud hated Sephiroth more than ever now as he looked out and thought of

something else that he had taken that could never be put back, someone who was as wondrous as once this mountain had been.

“It must have been some explosion.” Tifa sighed. Her voice was hushed,

respectful, like it might have been if they were stood over Cids' grave and not just the last place he had been while he was alive.

“Indeed.” Vincent added. His voice was the same.

Cloud nodded, banishing his thoughts once more.

“He told us he was going to get the bastard. He sure as hell wasn't lying.”

The others nodded and silence fell again. They watched for a moment then Cloud sighed hard and turned back to them.

“We best get moving, we're only a couple of hours away now.”

They nodded slowly and headed back to the van, each taking one final look at Cid's final resting place.

Tifa tossed Cloud the keys and he hopped into the driver's side with Tifa

sitting next to him. Vincent and Red sat in silence in the back as Cloud brought the engine to life and shifted into Drive. They departed without speaking, gazing at the mortal remains of the mountain and saying farewell without speaking.

*  *  *  *  *  *

“Are you sure you want to drive the last stretch to Nibelheim?” Tifa asked.

Cloud nodded.

“You drove us all the way over the mountains, you deserve a rest.”

Tifa shook her head.

“You didn't get much sleep Cloud, I…”

“I'm fine….” He interjected.


She watched him for a moment then slowly nodded like she was less than half

convinced by what he had just said. In truth, she was considerably less than half convinced but was too tired to argue with Cloud.

“Ok Cloud, if you're sure.”

“I am.”

She sat back in her seat and made herself comfortable.

“How are we for gas?” She asked.

Cloud checked the guage and looked back to the road.

“We've got a little over half a tank. I'll put the last reserve can into it when it goes below a quarter.”

Tifa nodded and went quiet as she watched over the snaking mountain road. Cloud was down at 25 miles per hour now as he negotiated the road, spiralling and s-bending around the mountain as if it were trying to devour its' own tail.

Great vistas encircled the van on either side of the two lane blacktop giving the mountain pass an alien and claustrophobic feeling, like the great granite spires were crushing in, trying to swallow up the road and deny any clue that it had ever existed in the first place. Cloud seemed oblivious to this as he skilfully and competently negotiated the winding tongue but Tifa felt her mind giving more and more attention to the strange and unsettling thought.

“How do you feel?” She suddenly asked, turning in the seat to look at Cloud.

He didn't turn his attention from the road but sensed she was addressing him and not the others in the hold.

“What do you mean?” He asked.

She sighed and sat up a little in the seat.

“Do you not feel a little…funny?”

“Why should I?” He asked. His voice was not exactly irritated but it displayed a note of impatience that had not previously been there.

“We're going home.” Tifa sighed.

Cloud looked up from the road and pierced her with a strange and distant stare for a moment. She didn't exactly feel uncomfortable as he looked at her but his gaze was strange, alien. It didn't feel like Cloud. It was like seeing through the curtain of his being and observing the metaphysical Cloud beneath and the twisting shroud of thoughts that were wrapped around him inside.

He looked back at the winding trail and sighed, dropping a hand from the

steering wheel and taking advantage of a short straight in the otherwise spiralling blacktop.

“We're not going home.” He eventually said.

“We're going to Nibelheim.”

Tifa watched him for a moment as he concentrated on the world around him.

“You really mean that?” She asked.

He nodded.

“Yeah, I mean it. I hated the place when I was growing up, then ShinRa burned it down. Even when I came back with Zack and Sephiroth it didn't felt like home…”

He sighed forlornly.

“…guess it never has.”

Tifa felt a little pang in her heart as she listened to Cloud revealing his

private thoughts to her. It was strange, they had been through so much so many times and yet she had never known this of her friend.

“Why is that?” She whispered.

He shrugged and negotiated the road again as the brief moment of straightness ironed itself from the tarmac.

“It's a bad place. That is what Nibelheim means to me, bad things. The kids who used to kick my ass when we were young, the ShinRa's Mako Reactor, the Mansion and all the atrocities that went on in it. It's just an awful place.”

Tifa sighed.

“Surely you have some good memories of Nibelheim?”

He nodded distantly.

“Sure. My good memory of Nibelheim is the day that I left it.”

The wet sound of the rubber slipping along the gleaming tarmac replaced the

utterances of human conversation as the two fell silent. Tifa folded her arms and faced back out of the windshield.

“We're about one and three quarter hours away now.” Cloud announced generally.

Vincent and Red nodded in the hold and Tifa remained silent and still as she went on digesting the preceding conversation.

“Listen…” Cloud sighed, turning back to Tifa.

She looked around.

“Why don't you get some sleep Tifa, that was a long drive over the mountains.”

She nodded and smiled weakly.

“Yeah, you're probably right.”

Cloud nodded and glanced over as she settled into the seat and closed her eyes.

She was still for a long moment, appearing to be sleeping and if Cloud had not been able to see the shift in her aura, he would have believed that she really was asleep. It pulsed several colours and belied the feelings of turmoil that she was privately hiding within. He sighed to himself and wondered what the others were thinking in the privacy of their own worlds.

The road shifted and forked along under the van as Cloud concentrated on it as best he could. He could not see his own aura and he didn't need to; he knew exactly how he felt and it was just the same as the others. Uncertain, anxious, worried. They were on the eve of the final battle, not only were these feelings natural but something would have been extremely wrong if they had been missing.

Coupled with that was the fang of grief that dug into the hearts of the party and sucked at their spirits like a vampire as they mourned the loss of a friend.

Cloud sighed to himself again and gripped the steering wheel of the van tighter as he carefully monitored the speed and course of the vehicle over the mountain pass. All the thoughts and concerns he had held over that which was coming in the hours ahead began to fade now, replaced by a growing need for the uncertainty and the fear to be over, no matter what the final act of this play might be. He was beginning to understand what condemned people felt like in the hours before their death; 11th hour reprieve or gallows? What was awaiting them on this twisting mountain road?

Either way, he wanted it to be over now, either way.

*  *  *  *  *  *

A mist hung over the lower valleys of the Nibel Foothills, Cloud had watched it grow from the descending mountain trail. It was like climbing down into a sea, a sea where the gleaming surface was obscured. It was thick and hung over the valley like a grey sheet, a mist of limbo where the souls of the damned were held fast for all eternity between worlds. The van plunged cautiously into it as the curves of the mountain road finally ironed back into that single black arrow-straight strand that cleaved the landscape in two like a shining black tongue. Cloud applied the dipped headlights and accelerated into the limbo of the Nibel Plateau. They were approaching the town from the Southern road, the longer route where the highway had curved for many miles around the mountains and touched the landscape again about 5 miles south of the town itself.

The light of the headlamp beams cut poorly through the mist which was much

thicker on the ground than it had seemed from the last whisker of the Mountain Overpass. Ahead, somewhere in the mist loomed the final destination; the town of Nibelheim. It seemed now, on this final tiny stretch of road that Nibelheim was merely a dream. They had been heading to it for so long that this last tiny stretch seemed like a dream, like something was going to reach out and snatch it at the last second and keep it that one step ahead that could never be bridged.

Keep the party held fast and forever chasing a spectre.

The trek over the mountains had served only to reinforce this feeling. The

remnants of the mountain hung over the town, visible even through the cadaver grey cloak that shrouded the vistas. The Mountain Overpass had taken not just the long way through the mountain range it seemed as if it had circumnavigated the entire Planet several times over before depositing them here in this place that was denied paradise yet somehow redeemable enough to be spared eternal suffering.

Suffering was relative however and this valley had seen and caused more that its' fair share of it.

The whole party was wide awake now and focused with an almost inhuman attention on the impenetrable cloy of the mist ahead. They were silent, fixed, focused.

Each thinking the same like a hive mind and waiting for the first sign to emerge from the limbo nothing ahead.

And emerge it did.

“There!” Cloud hissed, pointing through the windshield and penetrating the murk with his finger.

“You see that?”

The first image hung in the mist like a brooding giant slumped and sobbing under the ashen sky. It was a building, squat, sagging and pathetic. Abandoned and mourning those who had fallen there.

It was still a way off, the gap between the ghost town and the party closing with each passing second as Cloud pressed hard on the gas and pushed the van effortlessly to 90 miles per hour.

More emerged from the murk, another building then a third and finally the symbol that had been branded into Cloud and Tifa's minds like scars; the water tower.

Less than half a kilometer from the town now, Cloud pressed easily on the brake, decelerating smoothly as the vehicle glided like a wraith into the outer reaches of the town. It passed the first gloomy, brooding building, the dim windows watching like weeping eyes from rotting frames then onwards into the deeper bowels of the town.

Cloud looked out from the windshield, a sudden chill sweeping down his spine as he saw the familiar sights around him. Familiar yet so alien they may as well have been from another time or place or world.

A buzzer cried out from somewhere, startling Cloud from the extraterrestrial landscape and bringing his attention back to focus. It cried again and the van lurched, numerous warning lights and signals bursting into life on the dashboard simultaneously. The van lurched again.

Cloud slammed on the gas but could only watch helplessly as the speedo needle dropped quickly to nothing, the only audible sound being the incessant howl of a warning buzzer.

“What the hell?!” He hissed, slamming on the gas again as the van came to a

complete halt.

“What?” Tifa asked.

Cloud shifted the gear selector from Drive to Neutral then turned the key in the ignition. The engine whined, choked, spluttered but didn't catch. Irritated, Cloud tried again, slamming the gear selector into Park and flooring the gas as he turned the ignition. Nothing.

“Shit!” Cloud hissed.

“Are we out of gas?” Tifa asked.

Cloud shook his head as he tried the engine again. Again, it refused to come to life and his anger silently grew.

“No! I put the last can in only an hour ago, it was over a quarter tank, well over!”

Warning lights winked on the dashboard and the engine refused all attempts made to give it life once again, groaning and sighing like a dying creature taking its' last breath as Cloud turned and turned at the ignition to no avail.

“God damn it!” Cloud hissed, slamming the steering wheel with a balled up fist.

“I take it we are on foot from here on in?” Vincent asked, leaning in from the hold.

“Forty five thousand gil for a van and the piece of shit gives up after 2 days!”

Cloud hissed, though he suspected deep down that the van was not the cause of its' own problems. From the feeling of the others' auras, they were not entirely convinced of his explanation either.

The atmosphere was tense now, very tense. Mist swirled outside the van, twisting and snaking like some plane of existence. Ghostly strands of vapour moved and slinked, revealing brief glimpses of the buildings beyond. The water tower sat no more than 200 feet from the stalled out van now, hanging over the town and poking through the mist like a dark spire rending at a sky that could not be seen.

Cloud looked uneasily at the atmosphere around the van. It seemed to be drawing in around them and he strained, strained hard and heard something new in the mists around the van, not entirely unlike the sounds that whispered from the aura of Vincent. It was not a voice, not anything; like laughter but shushed, shushed like sniggering in the darkness.

“He's here.”

“Sephiroth?” Red asked from the back.

Cloud nodded.

“He draws near?!” Vincent hissed, the sound of the Osprey 950 being cocked

crashing like thunder from the hold of the van.

“No.” Cloud hissed.

“No, but he's close.”

The sound changed, suddenly, abruptly. Weeping. It was a silent weeping, an

outpouring of grief reigned in only by pride and hushed only by a superhuman restraint.

“Can you hear that?” Tifa hissed.

Cloud snapped his gaze over to her, watching her with a near fanatical interest.

“You mean that you can hear that?!”

She nodded.

“It sounds like…”

“…weeping.” Red finished.

“Indeed.” Vincent added, pulling the Osprey 950 close to his being.

Cloud listened for a further few seconds then unfastened the seatbelt and turned in the drivers seat to face Red and Vincent. His gaze was calm but they both sensed a note of urgency in his eyes filtering weakly through the visage of tranquillity he was forcing into them.

“Are you two ready?” He asked.

They both nodded, Vincent drawing the weapon closer to his chest.

Cloud turned back to Tifa and she nodded before he had a chance to ask her. He nodded back and opened the drivers side door, stepping out into the cold air of the town.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The air was near freezing and the thin strands of mist that curled around the emerging party still held a distant tinge of wood smoke on their backs. Though the town had been rebuilt by the ShinRa as part of an elaborate ruse, it sat abandoned again now, the staff employed to mimic those lost in the fire reassigned or drifted away. Cloud hissed breath through his teeth as he clasped the Ultima Weapon around his body. The aura of the town was even worse now that they had left the van. It was like a ghost town without the ghosts, the empty sad-eyed buildings holding the promise of the evil undead but lacking the evil undead themselves. The air was thick with sorrow, sadness; the enduring spirit of the town as dark as tar and as final as death itself. It was a sad and forgotten world that seemed to smart with pain as the touch of human life coursed once more through its decrepifying streets.

Cloud pulled his collar further in around his neck, cutting off the thin fingers of vapour that had crept into his clothes and begun to tickle the base of his neck. His feet produced harsh clicks on the uneven cobbles underfoot that sounded more like bones snapping as the fog distorted the sounds. Cloud reached back and pulled the Ultima Weapon from its sheath, holding it firmly in his right hand.

“Stay close, something feels very wrong here.”

The others nodded. The death-knell ringing of a round being chambered into the Osprey 950 brought the chill back to the nape of Cloud's neck and he gripped tighter around the sword.

The watertower hung over them as they passed it, the once proud structure

wrapped in a scarf of despair like the rest of the town. For some reason, Cloud was unable to take his gaze from it as they passed, following it with his eyes.

He turned over his shoulder and caught Tifa watching it with the same

smouldering interest. She sighed and turned, catching Cloud's gaze and holding it for a long moment.

She was thinking the same as he, that the tower they had passed was the only thing in Nibelheim that had ever meant anything. Cloud shrugged, sighed to himself and turned back around, grasping the sword and thinking to himself. He had lied, he had two good memories of this place and the tower was one of them.

He had forgotten that.

The weeping arose again, filtering through the mist like smoke coupled at the same with another burst of the hushed sniggering that had arisen when they had been in the van although Cloud was not the only one who heard it this time.

“What the hell is that?” Tifa hissed, her voice muffled through the fog.

“Sephiroth.” Cloud replied.

“Yeah, I knew that Cloud but what the hell is he doing?”

Cloud shrugged.

“I have no idea. How can you all hear this anyway?”

“His energy is strongest here. Remember what I told you all in Cosmo Canyon, though his link to the power of Planet is severed, his consciousness still has the strength to cause us extreme harm.” Red interjected, his tone flat and tainted with tension.

Cloud shook his head.

“I've said it before and I'll say it again; if he wanted us dead, he could have done it already. He could have blown the van up and turned us all into a barbeque but he didn't. He wants something.”

“I do not wish to find out what that something might be.” Vincent hissed.

Cloud sighed and nodded to himself.

'You and me both Vincent, you and me both.' He thought.

Chapter 60: The root of it all

The rusty chime of corroded steel clanging filled the air, smothering out the aura of sorrow and sadness that sheathed the body of the town. It got louder, chiming and clanging like funeral bells through the town as the party cleared the short flight of steps that elevated them from the first tier of the town to the second. Through the seemingly endless folds of mist, Cloud had caught a fleeting glimpse of the house he had lived in as a child. It was strange, there and not. He knew what it had been then and what it was now; a mock-up, a replication of something that should not have been replicated. Cloud felt his skin crawl as the vapour swallowed up the house, reclaiming it back into the world of death and shadow from which it had been spawned.

He forced his attention away from the ghost dwelling, back onto the nonchalant twang of metal that played out like a sombre piano note amongst the abandoned buildings. The party had stopped, holding almost in awe ahead of the largest structure in the valley, the one building that struck a quiet note of dread into their collective hearts. They watched as it appeared and disappeared amongst the mists like something fazing in and out of existence.

“The Mansion.” Tifa whispered.

“Indeed.” Vincent hissed.

Cloud shifted the Ultima Weapon in his hands, clasping his left hand around the hilt of the great sword. He felt something shifting inside him, then the sensation shifted from inside to out, rippling over his skin like a soft, warm wind and flowing away from him like a pulse of energy.

“He's inside the mansion.” Cloud hissed.

“He's somewhere in there.”

A chill breath of wind slicked down the valley and poured over the party like an unseen river, goose bumping their flesh and feeding that little spark of dread in their hearts.

“I had very much wished never to see this place again.” Vincent said, stepping closer and dropping his hand to his side.

“You and me both.” Cloud replied, stepping a little closer.

“But here we are again.”

Wind slicked again, chilling their skin and bringing to it a blue lustre. Cloud turned back around, his eyes shimmering for a brief moment as he stared at his friends. They all saw the light in his eyes but this time they did change and neither did their auras.

“Sephiroth is in there, this is it. We've come a long long way and we have lost a lot, right?”

They all nodded.

Cloud nodded too.

“This ends here. This ends now.”

They all took a step closer but stopped as Cloud's eyes lit up again, brighter this time.

“Listen…” He whispered, his voice little over the wind.

“…Whatever happens, there is far more at stake here than our own lives. This has got to end here, on this day, no matter what the cost. Agreed?”

To Cloud's surprise, they all nodded in unison as soon as the words had left his mouth. He didn't know why that surprised him, it shouldn't have. He smiled, weakly, pushing the thought from his head and nodded too.

He turned back to the fazing building and reached out with his right hand,

silencing the church bell ringing and shoving the rusting, decaying gates open.

“Right, let's go.”

The gate swung open slowly like a great joint riddled with arthritis. It groaned and twanged its' discontent then yielded and pushed into the garden.

The fetid stench of rotting vegetation was wafted on the chill breeze and

several small rodents and other such tiny denizens ran in fear from the

unexpected intrusion of human footsteps into this forgotten outpost. The gate clanged again, stronger this time as it doubled back on its joint and struck the rusting length that hemmed out the world beyond.

Untold scores of dead leaves washed like tidal spray over the path. Weeds, dead and brown poked up from in between the crazy paving cobbles like dead fingers poking up from desecrated graves.

For some reason, the mist did not seem to hang in the garden, more like it

emanated from it like a wave of blindness washing out from the mansion to cover the earth. The town and the valley beyond were whitewashed out now but the garden was sitting in existence in crystal clarity like a perfect reflection of a nightmare screaming out from a haunted mirror.

Weapons were grasped tighter still as the sagging, decrepit building loomed

overhead like a ravenous maw spitting out fog and devouring the hazy sun above…

Maintained by: