The Phoenix Cave
by Mike Thomas

The trip had been a long and arduous one. It seemed as though years had passed since the planet was nearly ripped to its foundations. And still, the "madman" wasn't content to let the world struggle back to life. He desired only to sit in his tower and choke the remaining bits of hope out of the few who still lived. This precious hope was slowly ebbing away from Locke as he entered the fifth cave in this mountain range in as many days. Since he had lost all of his friends during the "Day of Kefka", he had returned to Kohlingen to try and start again. It was no small task to find the city after the landscape had been so drastically changed. He was surprised when he stumbled across the village, and even more surprised to find that the herbalist was still holding Rachel in suspended animation!

With no one else to turn to, Locke knew that his last shred of sanity could be held in tact if he could complete the quest he once started. He had to find the Phoenix. Only by bringing Rachel back could he ever have a connection to anything from his past that was worth living for and freedom from the guilt of having been responsible for her condition. But now the task was starting to seem impossible to complete. He was almost out of rations, and if this cave proved unfruitful, he would have to return to town for more supplies. In this cold winter weather, it would cut almost a full week of valuable time. He was tired, but at least he was busy. In his last trip to restock, he had taken note of the vast amount of people who seemed to have given up. They sat, all day long, staring at the sky with dead eyes waiting for Kefka's "Light of Judgment" to end the task. He could tell from their gaunt frames that if Kefka did not kill them, they would probably waste away on their own. After a futile attempt to offer food to a young man in this condition, Locke could only shake his head, walk away, and wonder if he might somday slip into such a state. This was another reason he was in no hurry to head back to town.

He shook the snow off his cloak and trudged deeper into the cave before noticing that there was something different. Only a thief, with his finely honed skills, would notice this but by now he would have expected to hear the leathery wings of a bat flit by him, or maybe the scurrying little feet of a mouse. At the very least he should be hearing the drip drop of water from some distant source echoing through the cave. But there was silence in the darkness. A silence so loud that it rang in his ears. He was afraid to move, afraid to breath. Doing anything to break the perfect silence seemed sacrilegious. He waited for what seemed like an eternity, and then slowly took in a deep breath of the dry air. "This has to be it," he whispered to himself. "It has to be."

His suspicions about the cave were only confirmed when he walked around the first corner and came face to face with a massive iron door. Locke's mirth at finding proof of the importance of this cave quickly vanished when he realized that there was not a lock for him to ply his trade on. Not to be deterred, Locke made a quick search of the area before finding the trigger switch. After checking to see if it was trapped, Locke stepped on the switch and heard the satisfying clack of the bolt withdrawing from the door. He stepped off the switch to begin exploration of the newly open passage and instantly heard a loud noise. It took only seconds to realize that the pressure sensitive switch was rigged to require one person to stay on it while the others went through the door. That sickening thud he heard was the bolt slamming home and blocking his path. In frustration, Locke kicked at the dirt and began to think about what he would need to do to get in. He could use a large rock to weight the switch, but that would leave the door open for any explorers that might come in behind him. He wanted to leave the cave virtually untouched, so a rock wouldn't do. Locke decided to head back outside and up stream to where he had filled his canteens. He remembered seeing some large chunks of ice close to shore. Using the ice to weight the switch ought to give him enough time to get inside before it melted away and latched the door again. This would, of course, trap him inside, but Locke had never seen a trick door that didn't work from both sides. It was a risk worth taking since he didn't want any nasty surprises following him in. There was a fine line between treasure hunters and thieves. Locke knew this better than anyone.

Upon reaching the other side of the door, Locke fitted himself for the work that was ahead. He pulled his hair back with his new bandana and nearly cursed himself for losing his old one. There were so many memories tied up in that old thing. Some good, and some bad. He then checked his weapons to make sure they were clear in their scabbards. They needed to be in his hands at a moments notice, but he also didn't want them falling out while he crawled along a passageway. There was no one to back him up this time. He had to do this right. Satisfied with his preparations Locke began to slink down the passageway like a panther hunting for its prey. The denizens were small and harmless at first. Many of them were dispatched on sight using the Rising Sun weapon, but in tight places he had to turn to stealth and the Air Lancet to take care of confrontations before they ever got started.

It was after a particularly nasty confrontation that Locke was healing himself and noticed his first treasure chest. A wave of nausea mixed with terror gripped at his stomach. He knew that this would be a true test in knowing if scavenging treasure hunters had made it this far into the cavern. An item in the chest increased the odds that Locke was the first to come here in a long time. This, consequently, increased the odds that the Phoenix lay untouched somewhere in these depths. "What would Setzer think of me now", thought Locke. "I've never gotten this bent out of shape over the odds of something before. I bet he'd love it."

The lid creaked and groaned as Locke shoved it upward. Light glinted across something underneath. Locke cautiously pulled the object out of the chest and let out a low whistle as he turned the object over in his hands. His knowledge of relics, armour, and weapons came in handy at many points in their journey, and this moment would be no different. This ornate shield was apparently one of great value. The red tint and finely gilded carvings triggered something in Locke's memory. This was, without a doubt, the Flame Shield. It was no small wonder that it was in the Phoenix Cave. Legend had it that the Phoenix was a bird that would be reborn out of the flames that occurred when it passed away. Hopefully, he would never have cause to test the true limits of this shield.

After a quick sip of the ice-cold water in his canteen, Locke heaved the shield on to his back, carefully closed the treasure chest lid, and headed off down the passage. The air was warmer down here, and that gave him cause to be suspicious of his surroundings. Caves tend to have a regulated temperature year round. This rising temperature was no good. All manner of unholy beasts had been unleashed when Kefka moved the statues out of alignment. This allowed seals to be broken that should have been left unbroken 'til the end of time. Hopefully, it was only a fissure venting steam and not a fire demon of some sort. Whatever the case, Locke felt a little better about having that fire shield strapped to his back.

Five treasure chests later, Locke was beginning to remember what he loved about his treasure hunting occupation. He had picked up a wicked knife that had already proven itself well in combat. As a tactical manoeuvre, he had closed all of the treasure chests and made them look untouched. That should help thwart any explorers looking for goodies in this cave. Hopefully they would find the first few chests closed and empty and decide that this cave had been stripped of its treasures long ago. They would move on to more fertile hunting grounds. They would be missing out on a bounty that, thus far, had been a fruitful one. If he had to go back to town for supplies, he would at least have some new valuables to bolster his supply of gold. But turning his mind back to the task at hand, the lithe treasure hunter began to notice an urgent sense of danger fighting its way to the forefront of his mind. Locke stopped. And waited. And listened.

A high pitch whine began to get louder as it careened down the passageway toward him. When the blast of heat hit, Locke quickly dropped to a knee while bringing the shield around. He braced himself as a wall of flame erupted from the other end of the tunnel and screamed past where he was huddled. He noticed that his jacket had caught flame, but he didn't dare to let go of the shield for fear that the flame would knock it loose, and he would be left unprotected against the fury of the fire. But, the flame died out almost as quickly as it came leaving only the acrid stench of burning cloth and singed hair, which Locke quickly extinguished. "Very impressive", came a booming voice. "You must be strong to make it this far, but you are alone. I can smell it." Locke's eyes flew wide with terror and he scampered up the face of the rock wall beside him, heading for a higher passage.

Upon reaching the entrance to the tunnel on the higher ledge, Locke froze. No more than 40 feet away, a wisp of smoke curled upwards in front of a large, unblinking eye. The voice came again. "Human, have you chosen to come seeking life, or seeking death? For you have found a place where both reside." Locke could only stare in amazement realizing that the voice and the eye were both part of the same being. "ANSWER ME! And be quick about it lest I decide for you." In a trembling voice, Locke replied, "I have come to seek the aid of the life giver." The searing gaze of the eye seemed to weigh and measure the man standing before it, and then the voice spoke again. "Come forward little man, and I will tell you things that you must know."

The being stepped away from the hole and the adventurer stumbled forward to the opening. As he looked into the expanse of the cavernous room, he saw that his conversation partner was the Red Dragon. "Listen closely, little one. The thing that you seek can only be obtained by going through me, and though I smell the taint of magic upon you, I assure you that you do not posses the power to defeat me and claim the treasure." Locke's hope began to drain away from him. The creature was covered from head to foot in impenetrable scales. Even if he had Shiva, this task would be too great. "You may choose life, turn around, and leave the way you came, or you can embrace death and face me."

What choice did he have? Life seemed unbearable without his friends, without Celes. Rachel was the last bastion of hope that he had to live for. His shoulders sagged under the weight of the decision, but before he could speak, the dragon turned full face towards him and spoke. "You seem to be but the first of many to disturb me today. It seems that others have come by a different passage, and they are more in number. I will attend to them, first, and if you are not gone when I return, I will attend to you." Locke's mouth dropped open in disbelief as the dragon turned to deal with the intruders. It was leaving the passage to the treasured prize unguarded! Over it's shoulder, the dragon warned, "I won't be away long enough for you to get it. If I come back and catch you trying, you know your fate."

Locke's heart was racing. This was his only chance. He made to leave, but when the dragon was out of sight, he quickly clambered down the inside of the cavernous room. Shooting down the passage like an arrow, he came upon the treasure box. It was huge and made of some ornate metal. There was no way he could carry it. He now knew why the dragon wasn't worried. Already committed to his fate, Locke pulled out his tools and set to opening the locked box. The sounds of a horrible battle were echoing throughout the cave as he tried to calm his shaking hands and work the lock. Another loud bellow erupted through the air, and then there was once again silence in the darkness. The latch clicked, the lid opened, and Locke turned to meet his fate. There before him was a blond haired, blue eyed angel. She was wearing his lost headband around her right arm, and a look of relief on her face. And for the first time since that fateful day, Locke smiled at the faces of his long lost friends.

The End