His world was the tunnel. The tunnel swirled, dragging him onwards, a mixture of substance and thought. One moment it was light, the next dark. Spun from the streams of the galaxy. Carved from the rock of the Planet. Lifestream. He could feel it all about him, just at the edge of his thoughts. Tunnel of thin white strands. Tunnel of hazy blue energy. It all changed so quickly. Why was he here, he thought? He could feel the presence of the other, the one who was dragging him on. He could feel that dark, baleful presence pressing in on the corners of his mind like a sickness. Sephiroth. The name came unbidden, bursting from the confusion that was his mind and screaming of it's significance. Hate. Hate accompanied that name. Hate... and fear. The tunnel began to widen, falling away into thick bursts of wind. Blackness ahead. And then, suddenly, there was his opponent. The other's chilling green eyes stared upwards at him in silent challenge, a ghost of a smile on his thin, handsome face. Long white hair hung down his back, as the enemy stood stripped to the waist, his terrible sword held easily at his side. Sephiroth. The warrior's eyes narrowed. The grip of the tunnel faded. He had arrived. He floated, landed, upon the blackness. Staring across at the other in despair. It was over! They had killed this one, he and his companions. The enemy's demon-angelic body had disappeared in a flash of blinding white, leaving their party once again at the bottom of the volcano that was the Lifestream, the blood of the Planet. It was over. They had won! The challenge in his enemy's eyes, the daunting half-smile that played across his enemy's face, spoke to the falsehood of those words. Sephiroth had worn that same mysterious, mocking smile many times before. He had smiled just like that as he pulled his great sword from Aeris' frail body. Had smiled as she fell, her eyes open wide, her mouth a wide open question, not even a scream escaping her lips. His town. His mother. Aeris. His enemy had taken them all. And now Sephiroth wanted his world as well. The warrior felt his rage building, his blue eyes burning with sudden fire. No. The enemy fell into a ready stance, his legs tensing, his sword falling into a aggressive position just above his head. Waiting. Waiting to strike. No! Silently, the warrior raised his massive sword, feeling it's might coursing through his body, burning power inside his veins. The Ultima Weapon. Truly, if anything could finally destroy this evil once and for all, it was the weapon he held in his hands. His companions were gone, vanished without a trace. Had Sephiroth taken them too? He was alone, here. Facing one who would destroy the solar system with barely a thought. But it did not matter. He was the only one left to stand in the way of his enemy's conquest. So stand he would. He would stand--and fight. He felt his own body tense, waiting for the other to strike, prepared to defend against his rain of deadly blows and counter with a riposte of his own. The other remained still, ready, regarding him with quiet disdain, his green eyes burning with a million unspoken taunts. "I know you.", those eyes seemed to say, those smoldering eyes which burned into his brain. "I own you. Tell me of your pain, boy. Amuse me with the futility of your thoughts. You have felt nothing. How dare you speak to me of anger, of revenge?" He could not answer. He did not try. It appeared he was to make the first move. So be it. He would not need to strike more than once. Without warning he leapt into action, harnessed the Ultima Weapon's power inside himself as he had learned to do so well, narrowing his mind to encompass nothing beyond his target, letting all else fade away. "Omnislash!", a voice cried, a strong voice. It was his own. The blows landed, breaking past his opponent's guard with barely an effort. More than twenty blows were struck, each swift and sure, immeasurably deadly. Twenty blows in the space of a second. As the last blow landed, a giant flash of light blinding him as his soul spent the last of it's rage upon the one who had dared to defy it, he knew he had won. Nothing could have survived such an onslaught. Nothing. "Foolish boy." The sword struck without warning, the deadly tipped blade known as Masamune. It pierced the center of his heart, sliding through his body in a sharp burst of pain. His mind balked at the strangeness of the sudden turnabout, unable to comprehend what had happened. This wasn't right! This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen! The burning glow of the Mako furnace was all about them, the thin bridge on which they stood the only thing that saved them from death in it's churning depths. Sephiroth and the Shinra soldier who had dared to defy him. They struggled, wrestling, one refusing to let go his grip on the sword, the other with no choice in the matter. They stumbled dangerously close to the edge. This had happened before. The soldier remembered, suddenly. Desperately, he tried to summon the strength that he knew he possessed, deep down inside himself. Enough strength to wrench the sword that had pierced his body upwards with his hands, to force the one who refused to relinquish it off of the thin bridge on which they stood. But, despite his best efforts, the strength wouldn't come. Once again, his mind burned at the unfairness of it all. This wasn't the way it was supposed to happen! Sephiroth's eyes burned into his own, his face twisting in a cruel grin as he wrenched the soldier off of the bridge, drawing his sword from the other's chest and letting him fall towards the burgeoning energy below. The soldier screamed in horror as he felt the fire begin to consume him, just as the inferno that his enemy had started barely minutes earlier consumed his town and his people. He had failed. Sephiroth's eyes stayed with him even as his body burned to ash in the fire of the Mako furnace, taunting, smiling. "I own you.", those horrible eyes said, glinting wickedly of fire and evil. "I own you." And the warrior knew it was true. A scream broke his sleep, a scream of fear and agony that sent him bolt upright in his bed, his face streaked with horror, his blond, tangled hair matted with sweat. It took a second for him to recognize his surroundings. The darkened room. An inn. The town of Kalm. He tried to force the sound of it's name to soothe him. Kalm. Calm. Just a dream. It was just a dream. Far more than a dream. A nightmare. The warrior known as Cloud Strife forced his emotions back to more acceptable levels, trying in vain to push away the weakness in his limbs, the rush of fear and adrenaline still burning through his body. It had all been so real. Just like it always was. Footsteps in the hallway outside alerted him to the presence of another being, approaching his room. Without thinking, he knew who it was. A hand slowly turned the doorknob of his door, the room left unlocked. He had nothing to fear here in this town, or so he was led to believe. He was a hero to all. One of the saviors of the world. Why, then, did he suddenly feel such apprehension about the person who finished turning the knob and slowly opened his door? "Cloud?", a voice called softly, as a figure entered his room on cat feet, exquisitely beautiful despite her disheveled appearance, having risen from sleep just as recently as he. A woman who any man would have taken into their confidence without hesitation, a woman with the fighting skills of a master warrior and a heart of gold. A woman who loved him. He forced a thin smile to his lips as he reached for the switch to turn on the lamp on the dresser beside his bed. "I'm fine, Tifa.", he said, his voice not entirely convincing. He felt her hand rest on top of his, gently pushing the pair away from the lamp. Light was not necessary. They had been friends for so long that they could recognize one another without sight. "Was it the dreams again?", she asked in the same soft voice, aching to offer comfort, but fearing to offer too much. He didn't answer immediately, drawing his hand away for reasons he wasn't fully sure off, laying back in his bed and turning his blue eyes to the ceiling. He felt the weight of her body settle onto the bed beside him, could feel her eyes watching him, their concern for him almost more than he could bear. How could she love him so much? How could his soul still stubbornly balk at returning such adoration? What was wrong with him? "I had a dream.", he admitted, though that was hardly an answer to her question. She laid down beside him, not attempting to touch him again, even though every fiber in her body ached for his embrace. She joined his contemplation of the ceiling in silent mediation, considering his words. "I'm sorry.", was all she said. "Don't be.", he responded immediately, instinctively. He didn't want her to be sorry. He didn't want to hurt her. He would fight for her, die to protect her, without a thought of his own welfare. But that was just it. He would die for any of his friends. That was why it was so easy. He could care for her, protect her, just as he would care for and protect Barrett, or Red, or Cid, or Yuffie. It was almost second nature to him. A true leader fought for his soldiers as they fought for him. Why, then, could he not care for her in a deeper way? In the way that she wanted? In the way that he hadn't cared for anyone... since Aeris? "It's not your fault I can't sleep.", he said, trying to keep his tone light. "I'm just stubborn, I guess. I hated Sephiroth for so long that I just can't believe that he's finally gone." Tifa said nothing for a brief second. "Was he there?", she asked finally. "In your dream?" Cloud didn't answer. He was an open book to this woman. She had known the answer to her question before she had even asked. "He... yes.", was all he could say, his voice suddenly weak. Sephiroth's words echoed through his mind again, those green eyes glinting with evil. So real. So alive. "I own you.", echoed across the synapses of his brain. Suddenly he felt her leaning up next to him, the feeling of her closeness appealing and warm, but he still had to fight to keep from flinching away, as her hand closed over his own once more and her arm stretched across his chest, as her lips whispered close to his ear. "He's dead, Cloud.", she whispered, trying to reassure him. Trying to banish those glinting eyes from his conscience. "We killed him. You and I, and the others. We stopped him. We saved the Planet." She was right. Wasn't she? Sephiroth had died. The Lifestream had burst forth from it's containment, and those who had given everything for the Planet had barely escaped it's wrath. The Highwind had been reborn once again, bursting like a phoenix from the ashes of it's buffeting in the Lifestream. They had barely escaped. Meteor had come, and Holy had come to stop it. And Holy had failed. They had watched from the new Highwind, helpless to do anything further, as Meteor's twisting tendrils of energy tore the city of Midgar apart. As Holy, far too close to the planet to do any good, added to the destruction. "Forget Midgar.", Red had said darkly as they stared in disbelief at the carnage. "We've got to worry about the Planet." But they hadn't. The Planet had worried about them. The Lifestream had come, from everywhere, from everything. It had surrounded the locked forms of Meteor and Holy. It had merged with the terrible energy, an eerily beautiful mixture of red and white and green. The storm assaulting Midgar had begun to wane. And the Lifestream had saved them all. As it had touched the locked forms of Holy and Meteor for the first time, everyone aboard the airship had suddenly realized that it would be alright. Some force larger than themselves had come to tell them. To save them. He saw her face again in his mind's eye, her beautiful visage doing what Tifa's words could not, momentarily destroying the glinting green eyes of his dead enemy. Aeris. The savior of the world, it's guardian even in death. Why couldn't he love Tifa? Why couldn't he care for her more than he did? Deep down inside, hidden beneath his layers of armored, protected emotions, he knew the answer. He was in love with the Planet.
Barrett Wallace was not sure, for a second, what had woken him. He stared at the ceiling of his small room, sleep still slowing his thoughts, wondering briefly what it was that had startled him. Then he heard it again. The barely perceptible creak of the wooden floor in the hall outside his room. Instantly, his drowsiness vanished as he rose to a sitting position in his bed, listening intently. Nothing else. Just the wind, surely. These old wooden houses tended to creak a lot, especially now, after being buffeted by the storm that Meteor had unleashed on Midgar. The outskirts of Midgar, the slums farther outside it's borders, hadn't suffered as heavily from the onslaught, but even so the devastating storm had taken it's toll. The sound of the wood creaking outside replayed over and over in his mind. Surely, as he thought, just the wind. But it wouldn't hurt to be sure. No use in letting his old instincts rot away, right? He slid his legs off the bed and got to his feet as quietly as a towering man of 6'4, 259 pounds could do. Then he heard the sound of the door of the room next to him creaking open. The door to Marlene's room. Forgetting all thoughts of stealth, he rushed to the door that adjoined his room and Marlene's and tore it open. He took in the entire room in the space of an instant. Marlene's bed, with Marlene in it, sleeping softly, unaware that anything was amiss. The open door from the hallway, and the soldier standing halfway inside the room, clad in black cloth and armor, a pair of night-vision goggles affixed to his eyes. Barrett recognized the uniform immediately, and felt hatred burning inside him. A Shinra Commando. Here, standing in the room of his only daughter, with a gun in his right hand, and a knife in his left. How dare he! But Shinra Commandos never worked alone, and his instincts told him that at least two more men waited outside the door to Marlene's room. So they had come to take his daughter, had they? Well, he'd make them regret even thinking of attacking the daughter of the leader of Avalanche. His gun arm came up and fired, but upwards. The bursts from his arm hit the light affixed to the ceiling and shattered it, but not before the room was momentarily illuminated in a blinding flash as the light-rods inside exploded. As it was, the flash totally destroyed Barrett's night-vision. That was why he could be all but sure that the Shinra Commandos, wearing their highly sensitive night-vision goggles, had been completely blinded. The first Commando's rifle came up, and then Barrett was moving, his gun arm tearing into the man and riddling him with bullets as he rushed for Marlene's bed. She awoke at the sound of gunfire, screaming shrilly, and then Barrett had her, flinging himself away from the bed as the guns of the other two Commandos fired blindly into the room, stitching gaping holes into the bed and walls of the room. He rolled, keeping his body in between Marlene and the enemy gunfire, and returned an unaimed barrage at the two men outside the door. A tortured scream and the thud of a body hitting the floor told him that at least one of his shots had hit. He rolled towards the door back to his room, desperately pushing himself to his feet as best he could with his gun arm, holding Marlene close in his other. His world was in slow motion. He saw the third Commando, already inside the room, saw the glint of moonlight on the other's rifle, already swinging into line with his chest. It was much too late to bring up his gun arm and fire at the man before he opened up, so Barrett held Marlene as close as he could and prayed that his body would be strong enough to stop the bullets from hitting her. The man never fired. A shrill scream of pain escaped his lips as a long, wicked pike was jammed through the hand holding the gun, knocking it from his fingers. The man's knife swung into action as he twisted to face this new threat, but then the butt-end of the pike swung around and smashed into his face, the business end ripping out of his hand in a shower of blood. Then the pike struck once more and the last Commando slumped to the ground, dead. "Shit Barrett, you okay?", Cid cursed as he kicked the Commando's dead body out of his way, glancing back out the door. "Shit!", he cursed again, and leapt back into the hallway. Barrett heard a loud scuffle, and the sound of a gun clattering to the floor of the hallway. "Got 'em!", Cid yelled in triumph. "Look's like you just winged this one, Barrett. Want me to finish 'em off?" "Hold 'em!", Barrett yelled loudly, as he turned his attention to Marlene. She was sobbing, but otherwise seemed unharmed. He reached to embrace her, whispering in her ear. "Shhhhh, shhhhh.", he whispered. "It'll be alright, baby. Shhhhhh. The bad men are gone." "Daddy...", Marlene sobbed against his shoulder. "Shhhhhh, baby, sshhhhhh.", he repeated, trying to keep his livid anger from his tone. Shinra Commandos, here? If he hadn't woken up, they would have killed his daughter! Death--death was too good for them. For a moment, Barrett contemplated telling Marlene to go downstairs to the innkeeper, but balked at the last moment. No telling how many other hostiles were in the area. Better to keep her close. "Baby, I want you to get back in bed, okay?", he said softly, keeping his tone gentle. "Daddy has to go outside for a minute. I'll be just outside the door, okay? Can you do that, baby? Can you be strong for Daddy?" "I'll... I'll try, Daddy.", Marlene said through her sobs, wiping her tears away with one upstretched hand. "Good, good.", Barrett murmured. "Daddy will be right back, honey. You just sit in your bed and think about the Saucer, okay?" Marlene nodded, sniffing once more, and then Barrett was rushing for the door, joining Cid in the hallway outside. Cid was straddling the downed Commando, holding him still, pinning his arms to his sides. A large wound in the thigh of his left leg was the reason that the Commando hadn't gotten away. It had been a shot in the dark, but it had worked. "Friggin' loser was tryin' ta pull a gun on me when I saw 'em, Barrett.", Cid growled, impaling the man with the glare of his eyes. "What'd ya want me to hold 'em for?" "I wanna' know what these bastards are doin' here attackin' my daughter.", Barrett spit, kneeling at the side of the Commando and grabbing his neck roughly with one massive hand, slowly strangling the man. "What about it, soldier?", he said, his voice low, rumbling death. "Why'd you come after my daughter, huh?" The soldier gasped, trying to say something, and Barrett released his grip on the man's neck just enough to allow him to speak. "For... the... Messiah...", the man sputtered. Suddenly, his eyes lit up with bolts of electricity, and Barrett yelped as a strong shock tore up his arm, throwing him backwards. As his vision cleared, he desperately brought up his gun arm to finish the man off, but then he saw it wasn't necessary. "Sweet mother a mercy...", he whispered. The Commando's face was a contorted mask of pain, his eyes open, lifeless. The smell of charred flesh began to fill the hallway. Cid slowly got to his feet, rubbing his head. "Holy shit!", Cid guffawed, leaning closer to the dead Commando, wide-eyed. "That freak just 'lectrocuted himself!" Barrett got to his feet and looked down at the still form of the Commando, his rage building. Three dead men, all sent after his daughter, and no one to blame for it. "Somebody's gonna' have ta pay for this, Cid.", Barrett said darkly. "You just be glad I woke up when I did.", Cid retorted, grinning evilly as he rose to his feet. "That last one woulda' pasted you." "Thanks.", Barrett returned, meaning it. "So what now?", Cid asked, eyeing the dead Commando cautiously. "Think we should call Cloud?" Barrett brought one hand up in contemplation, stroking the beard under his chin in contemplation. "Not yet.", he said, making his decision. "That spiky-haired freak's got enough problems without us botherin' him every time something goes wrong. Les look into this tomorrow, see if we can figure out who hired these guys. If we do, and it's something big, we call Cloud." "Sure.", Cid agreed. "Think there's any chance of more of these losers hangin' out around here?" "You read my mind, Cid.", Barrett said without smiling. "Stay here with Marlene. I'm gonna' check around. Coo?" "Cool.", Cid responded with a nod. "Mind if I have a smoke?" "You know I don't like you doin' that shit around Marlene, Cid!", Barrett protested angrily. "It shouldn't take me more than a few minutes ta scout around. You can hold off yo nicotine cravings till I get back." "Shiiiiiit...", the other responded, but didn't protest. "Alright, but make it quick. I don't like wakin' up without a cig." "I'll be quick.", Barrett agreed, as he headed down the stairs, just in time to run into a disheveled looking innkeeper, his eyes wide with worry." "Mr. Wallace!", he exclaimed. "I heard gunfire! Is everything alright?" "Hell no.", Barrett spit. "Three guys with guns just tried to wack my daughter!" "Oh dear...", the frail innkeeper said, his voice growing soft. His eyes fluttered, and he collapsed to the floor in a faint. "Sweet mother a mercy...", Barrett cursed. As he reached down to pick up the collapsed innkeeper, he wondered angrily if this night could get much worse.
As she leapt off of the rocky overhang more than 500 feet above the sharply grooved ground below, the materia hunter wondered suddenly if this was such a good idea. It had seemed good a minute ago, when the swarm of large men wearing scary masks and waving large pointy sticks had come rushing towards her, shouting "Madda zullu!", in that strange tongue of theirs. She probably could have taken all of them, of course, but that wasn't her purpose. She didn't want to hurt them, she just wanted their materia. Only problem was they didn't seem that eager to part with it, even though she had generously left a pouch of 1200 gil on the altar from which she had snatched the glistening green shard of materia that was now resting comfortably in her thick backpack. Leaving the money behind wouldn't even have occurred to her a year ago. Unfortunately, hanging out with Cloud, Tifa and the rest of that bunch seemed to have rubbed off on her, and she'd picked up several bad habits in addition to the beginning of something rapidly approaching a conscience. Still, that didn't mean she was going to put up with a tribe of unwashed primitives chasing her around with their pointy sticks for one minute longer than was necessary. As the rocky ground rushed toward her, she fumbled open her backpack and reached inside for the shard of Materia she had stole- -er, bought, and pulled it out triumphantly. It flashed brightly, further assuring her that rumors of it's worth were not exaggerated. Summoning her considerable magical power, she concentrated and sent her magic snaking into the Materia in her hand. "Flight!", she cried triumphantly. The materia flashed, and she opened her eyes, expecting to see herself soaring gracefully into the sky. Oops. Still falling. "Flight!", she cried again, more desperately, but this time nothing happened. The ground was VERY close now. She reached back for her grappling hook, intent on throwing it at something and aborting her fall, but then her fall was over, and it was too late. She winced, expecting to be squished. After a second, she was still alive, and she found herself wondering why she hadn't gone splat yet. Slowly opening one eye, she found herself hovering about eight feet off of the ground, bobbing up and down slowly. "Ah hah!", she exclaimed shakily, returning the shard of materia to her backpack, her confidence slowly returning. "I knew it would work!" Just not like she had thought. She had thought that the Flight materia that the natives of this small island had been worshipping for the past couple of hundred years would allow her to soar like a bird through the skies, or at least net her a considerably large sum of money. Didn't look like it, though. It appeared that hovering about eight feet above the ground was about all that it was capable off. Still, it had saved her from becoming a bloody stain on the rocks, and that was enough to satisfy her for now. She stared upwards at the cliff from which she had jumped, and with her keen vision could just barely make out the swarm of natives clustered at it's edge, gawking at her with their pointy sticks raised in the air. "Ha!", she exclaimed, waving her arms and legs drunkenly in an attempt to move forward, slowly turning in mid-air as she drifted to the side a couple of feet. "That'll teach 'em to miss with Yuffie Kisaragi!" Hovering, however, was not as great as it was cracked up to be, and after a few minutes of flailing about in the air trying to go in the direction that she wanted, Yuffie cursed in exasperation and reached back to pull the materia from her pack once more. She spoke a few quick words to null the flight spell and was dumped unceremoniously to the ground. She landed, rolled, and came to her feet in a second, pausing to replace the materia shard in her backpack and setting out at a brisk jog towards her ship. Threading her way through the thin forest that separated her from the shore, Yuffie wondered belatedly if the natives on this island even used gil. What else was she supposed to leave them, though? A fruit basket? Maybe they could glue the gil all over the altar to make it nice and shiny and start to worship the gil god. Yuffie didn't care. She had her materia, and that was all that mattered. It took her only a few minutes to reach the beach, but instead of walking outward to greet the two crewmen that should have been waiting for her, she crouched back into the forest without a sound, staring at the thin beach ahead in shock. The small rowboat that had brought her and two of her men to shore was where she had left it, but her men were nowhere to be found. That was strange. Roan and Pace were both loyal, if not intelligent sailors, and Yuffie could think of no reason that both of them would have wandered off. They should at least have left a message in the sand of the beach to tell her where they had gone, but there was nothing. The beach was smooth, even the footprints that Yuffie and her two men had left when they had first come ashore missing. That was what alarmed Yuffie the most. It was as if something had come by, snatched her men, and then erased any traces of it's passage and the struggle from the sands of the beach. This was bad. Very bad. Of course, there was the chance that Roan and Pace could have been overpowered by a swarm of natives and carried off. Still, they were both big, strong men, almost as powerful as Barrett, and besides, she doubted that natives would have been so careful to cover their tracks. No, something else was amiss here. And she had to figure out what it was, quickly, before not knowing got her killed. She melted back into the forest, doing a quick, silent search to the left of her landing point, looking for any trace of a struggle or the passage of a large body of men or beasts. Nothing. The forest was still, undisturbed. It was eerie. She was just finishing her sweep of the left side and heading back to do the right when her innate sixth sense warned her of danger, almost too late. She jumped to the side, narrowly avoiding the descending form of a black clad soldier as he dropped onto her from the trees, a wicked sword clasped in his hands. The tip of it still nicked Yuffie's shoulder, but it had originally been intended to take her head off, so this was an acceptable alternative. Silently, she brought her Crystal Cross slicing across the soldier's neck and neatly removed his head from his body. She caught his corpse as it fell to the ground, lowering it to the forest floor without a sound. Then she was off, heading deeper into the forest, alert for any other threats. She had recognized the clothes of the soldier who had just tried to ambush her. He was Shinra. What Shinra Commandos would be doing on this island was a complete mystery to her, but it was obvious that they had done something with her men, most likely killed them, and they were going to take her out next. "Not in this lifetime.", she vowed angrily. She sensed another soldier in the woods to her right, heading towards her stealthily, assured that she had not yet detected him. He hadn't counted on facing a 16 year old girl with top-level ninja training. She blocked the swing of his sword with her Cross in an eye- blink as he leapt for her, and launched a hard jab to his stomach, knocking the wind out of the poor man and neatly disarming him with a quick flourish of her wrist. Her hands grabbed the collar of his tunic and pulled him toward her, her face livid. "What do you want with me?", she hissed, angrily. The man replied by breaking free of her hold and launching a swift kick towards her midsection. She blocked it with her right forearm and swept the man's legs, sending him crashing to the ground with the loud sound of breaking undergrowth. The rest of the Commandos surely knew where she was by now. One leapt from behind the tree to her left. She ducked under the arc of his sword and sliced her Cross through his midsection, cutting him clean in half. She was off and moving before his torso finished it's slow slide off of his waist, heading for the beach and escape in any way possible. She could hear the nearly silent footfalls of the rest of the Commando group, racing along behind her in pursuit. She could almost admire the training that allowed the men to move so quickly and silently through the forest behind her, if not for the fact that she was quicker and quieter than all of them and could take any of them in a straight up fight without breaking a sweat. Still, twelve on one was not a straight up fight. Flight was her best alternative. She broke from the cover of the forest and ran out onto the beach. A Shinra Commando had just finished demolishing her boat. He turned, his eyes opening in surprise as Yuffie's weapon cut the sight from them forever. The boat was a wreck. There was no way it would ever be seaworthy again. But it didn't matter. About a half a mile offshore, she could see the flames leaping from the deck of The Kisaragi Wind, the small but sleek sailboat that she had bought a few weeks after their final fight with Sephiroth, being that Cid had started reserving the Airship for other purposes after that and wasn't about to cart her all around the world in her search for new materia. Besides, working by herself meant none of the others would get their hands on her materia, which was good. Though she'd let them use it if they asked. The rowboat was in splinters. Her ship was on fire, slowly sinking into the ocean. Her five man crew had disappeared, most likely dead. And now the twelve men remaining out of the Shinra Commando group were bursting from the forest behind her, shouting battle cries. Tonight was going very badly. As they rushed her, a desperate chance for survival suddenly came to her, and she threw the Crystal Cross into her backpack, dashing into the ocean and quickly diving into a swim, as the Shinra Commando group behind her halted at the water's edge, curses flying from their lips. Only someone decidedly suicidal would swim the waters off of the coast of this island. The waters were teaming with monsters, some big enough to devour a man in one crunch of their enormous jaws, others attacking in small hordes which could rip a swimmer apart in a manner of seconds. Yuffie didn't want to deal with any of them, and wasn't going to do so any longer than necessary. She had other plans. She felt the rush of something big sliding past her, and heard one of the Commandos who had been brave enough to swim out after her let out a gurgling cry, as his scream was cut off by seawater and an enormous beast dragged him underneath the waves. The others tore into the creature with their swords, desperately trying to save their drowning comrade. None of them noticed Yuffie, who grabbed the Flight materia from her backpack and cast it's spell, praying that it worked the same above water as it did above land. With a splash she flew out of the water and found herself hovering about eight feet above the waves, and had to resist letting out a loud yell of triumph. It had worked! The Commandos splashing about in the water were too busy to take much notice of her, but the three who had remained on the beach were drawing large rifles. Why they hadn't used them on her before now was a mystery to Yuffie, but she didn't plan on letting them shoot her out of the air that easily. She reached for her cross, her fingers sliding across the eight gems of materia embedded in it's surface, and stretched her power into one of the green ones, feeling it bolstered by the power of a nearby blue. "Bolt 3!", she cried out, aiming her wrath at the Commandos clustered upon the beach. With absolutely no warning, not a cloud in the sky, a massive storm of lighting burst from the air and tore into the unfortunate soldiers, ripping them to shreds in a shower of electricity and sparks. The power of the discharge made Yuffie's hair stand on end even at this considerable distance. The rest of the Commandos had disappeared, dragged beneath the waves by companions of the large monster which had taken the first of them. The water below was literally teaming with monsters, each fighting for their own piece of Commando meat, and even in the darkness Yuffie could see that the water was colored with blood. "Well, that'll teach 'em to mess with Yuffie Kisaragi.", she thought, darkly. Slowly, she began her arduous float back to shore, satisfied that all of the men who had been sent after her had been taken care off. Behind her, she heard the sharp hissing sound of the last of the air in The Kisaragi Wind's hull escaping, as the burning ship sunk beneath the waves with a crackle of drowning wood and fire. 80,000 gil on that ship, plus at least 10 materia shards. She'd have to get Cloud to bring the submarine back over here to retrieve her stuff after she got back. If she got back. With her boat destroyed, her crew dead, and nobody on the island besides a group of primitive natives who probably wanted to skewer her with their pointy sticks, prospects for escape weren't good. Still, as she whistled softly and neared the shore, Yuffie never doubted that she would find a way home.
A figure clothed in a torn red cloak stumbled from the snow to the steps of the large wooden house set in the middle of a large ring of mountains, the snowstorm that was raging all around him curiously warm. He could feel the breath of the beast inside him, dormant for now, but so recently unleashed. He remembered nothing of what had transpired after he had let the beast take him over, as it always seemed to be, but all he knew is that the squad of unidentified soldiers who had surrounded him, clothed in white and blue winter camouflage fatigues, had been alive before he transformed, and dead when he had reverted. He stumbled to the door of the house and knocked once, falteringly, slumping to the ground. A second later, the door opened, and the portly man inside cursed at seeing the figure crouched on his doorstep. "Vincent Valentine!", the man exclaimed, his white beard twisting in the snowstorm. "What in the hell did you run into, boy?" "Attack squad.", Vincent said quietly through chattering teeth. "Don't know... who sent them." "Quickly, inside.", the man commanded, ushering him into the warmth of his small two story home. Rocky, the green Chocobo resting in the stable to his left, chirped piteously, as if recognizing that something was wrong. "Sit down, sit down.", the Chocobo Sage urged, locking the door and rummaging around the room with no clear purpose. "Where'd I put those Cure potions? Blast! Can't remember for the life of me..." But the absent-minded old man found his potions without too much trouble, and soon Vincent's wounds, which he couldn't even recall receiving, were slowly healing under the curative effects of the liquid from the Chocobo Sage's stash of Cure potions. He slumped into the seat he had been given, letting the warmth of the Chocobo Sage's home slowly eat away the cold gnawing at his bones. "Can't say as I've been much help to you youngins in the past, as far as combat is concerned.", the Sage commented curiously, sitting in a chair opposite Vincent and steeping his fingers thoughtfully, resting his chin on their upstretched tips. "But I've been in my share of brawls in my day. Ol' Rocky over there, he can tell you about some of 'em. Back in my racin' days, there was this jockey who had it in his head to slow me down by takin' a bat to ol' Rocky's legs, and I tell you, I whupped that boy..." "Please.", Vincent said softly, trying to force away the pain throbbing in his head through will alone. "Save the story for later." The Chocobo Sage shook his head, miffed. "Sorry, sorry. You know I get to ramblin' sometimes. Please, make yourself at home. You can stay here for as long as you like." "I can't.", Vincent said, shaking his head and slowly pushing himself to his feet. "I have to keep moving." "Why?", the Sage asked, his eyes curious. "There more of those boys that you tangled with earlier out there huntin' for you?" "I don't know.", Vincent said with a shake of his head. "But if there are, I don't want to bring them into your house. Give me a few more minutes to rest, and then I'll be moving on." "Nonsense.", the Sage scoffed. "You're tired, boy. Least you can do is rest here tonight." "No can do.", Vincent answered. "They could be right on my tail." "They won't be getting in here, anyways!", the Sage commented angrily. "This house has stood for nigh eighty years. My grandpappy was birthed here, and ain't no young upstarts gonna' come rushin' in here and take it from me. Me and Rocky will take the whole lot of 'em if it comes to that." "I appreciate the offer.", Vincent said, a ghost of smile tugging at his grim features. Somehow, he knew that the old man wasn't kidding, despite his advanced age. "But I can't get you involved." "You dead set on goin' then, sonny?", the Sage asked, eyeing him thoughtfully. "Ain't nothin' I can say to change your mind?" "Sorry, nope.", Vincent said, shaking his head. "I'm grateful for your hospitality, but I'd best get moving as soon as possible." "Well, if that's what you're gonna' do, that's what you're gonna do.", the Sage said, disapproval evident in his eyes. "But you won't get anywhere very fast on foot. Take Rocky there. He's old, but spry enough. He'll get you through these mountains in no time flat, ol' Rocky will. Knows these mountains like the back of his nest. If anyone's still trackin' ya, there's no way they'll be able to keep up." "I couldn't do that...", Vincent began, but the Sage shushed him with a quick hiss. "Don't be knockin' a good offer, boy.", he said. "I don't let jus' anybody ride my Chocobos. This is a special case, it is. Rocky knows the way home. After he gets you to where yere goin', slap him on the rump twice and he'll head on back here. You'd be silly not to take him, 'specially with the storm going like it is." "Thanks.", Vincent said, unable to argue with the old man's words. A mountain Chocobo would certainly get him to a town a lot quicker than walking would. "I won't forget this, old man. I owe you one." "Shucks, ain't nothin'.", the Sage commented gruffly. "Just treat Rocky good and he'll get you on through to where you're goin'. He was the best in S-Class in his time, ya know." "I know.", Vincent said with a wry grin. It should only take a few minutes to get saddled up and on his way. And from there, well--he didn't know what he'd do. Getting in touch with Cloud was his best bet. Somehow, he knew that the encounter with those soldiers out in the middle of the snowfield hadn't been random. They had come gunning for him. And if there were armed men after him, there was a chance that they would be after the other group members as well. Best to warn them as soon as possible. "Stay warm, old man, and take care of yourself.", Vincent said before he rode off into the storm. The Chocobo Sage watched him until he and Rocky were lost in the swirling snow, and then headed back into his home, muttering about something or other.
Copyright November 1997
by Eric 'StarFury' Bakutis
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