The only certainty is that a dead person is dead, but even that's not certain.
Prof. G. R. Grimmett on medical probability
"Status report begins," said the metal panel directly in front of Rufus. "Our current altitude is 24,000 feet. Our current airspeed is 320 feet per second. Our current bearing is 12 degrees. Our current crew consists of 35 men, of whom 14 are women. Our current ETA..."
"It has to be said, sir, the Ragnarok really is a triumph of engineering," Heidegger said proudly. "Such improvements over the previous model of airship! And constructed in such secrecy as well! I would wager no one except us highest executives knows of its existence!"
"Good thing, too," Rufus remarked. "Otherwise that good for nothing pilot Highwind would've taken it for a joyride like he did with his namesake."
Heidegger chortled happily. "Oh, most amusing, sir! Your wit shines as always!"
Rufus raised one eyebrow at him.
"You've been practising your bootlicking again, haven't you?" he said flatly.
"Of course, sir! Your presence deserves nothing but the very best!"
Rufus sighed. "Well recovered, Heidegger."
"Thank you, sir!"
"Our predicted breakfast is sausage, egg and chips," continued the speaker, happily oblivious to the fact that no one was paying it any attention. "Our predicted breakfast time is: 09:35. Our current oven temperature is 185 degrees. Our chef's current stamina level..."
"Any idea what time we're going to get there?" Rufus enquired absently.
"Sir, the ETA is part of our automatic status report," Heidegger told him reproachfully. "Weren't you listening to it?"
"Refresh my memory, okay?"
"Oh, of course. Well, we can be flying over the Northern Crater at just past ten, and landing another five or ten minutes later. But sir, just one question?"
"How will we know for sure that they're down there? Our informer was hardly... reliable."
Their informer was, in fact, General Perigee Roberts, ex-IMPERIAL researcher. He and his cronies had been arrested the night before and placed in one of Junon's many cells awaiting such a time when someone could decide what to do with them, and as it turned out, Perigee was not averse to mumbling in his sleep. The guard on duty had overheard him muttering something about heroes at the Northern Crater; this information had been passed to his commanding officer, thence to Heidegger, and finally to Rufus, who had decided spontaneously that he felt like taking the Ragnarok up to the crater for a test flight.
Rufus tapped a screen on the desk in front of him next to the speaker, which was currently explaining that their current power consumption was 13.6 megawhats (or MWh?). The screen itself was displaying a stylised view of the ground below, rendered in somewhat limited colour depth.
"We're trying out this new radar, remember?" he said testily. "The brand new World Mapô technology. It automatically detects any people wandering around down there, and they appear on the screen roughly the same size as a town. If there are a group of terrorists down there, we can't miss them."
"Oh, yes, of course, sir. Once more your foresight astounds me!"
"...three spoons and one fork. Our current onboard chocobo rating is B rank..."
"Is there any way to shut this thing up?"
It was rather windy near the centre of the crater.
The wind was blowing so hard that Shan's hair was horizontal. Kasuto was sheltering behind Barret to avoid getting blown away. Nanaki was advancing slowly, step by step, digging his claws into the ground every time. And Mr. Big was flapping in the storm like a flag, Kasuto's firm grip on his left ear the only thing preventing him from being carried away into the distance.
This was one challenge they had not foreseen.
The group walked in silence. Conversation had proven to be something of a wasted effort, seeing as at least seven eighths of the sentences uttered consisted of, "What did you say?" or words to that effect.
And suddenly Shan took one more step and walked into an area of still air. The shock was such that he almost fell forwards before he could adjust.
"I say," said the Major, joining him, "nice to be out of the dashed wind, what? Makes a pleasant change, eh?" He paused, and looked suspicious. "Do you think those dashed Jerries are just giving us a rest so we let our guard down, hmm?"
"The calm before the storm," Mr. Big remarked flatly, letting Kasuto set him down on her shoulder.
"I would suggest the eye of the storm," Nanaki corrected him. "Look around you."
The rabbit did so. Behind them was the wall of wind, stretching away in either direction. Ahead of them was a space as tranquil as the proverbial summer's day, and in the distance could be seen another visible barrier. And right in the centre...
"Wow," he said in awe.
Directly ahead was a spire of shimmering blue crystal, towering hundreds of feet straight up and appearing like a fairytale castle, complete with towers and battlements. Around it swirled a veritable tornado of aquamarine light, the pure energy of life tangible even from where the group were standing. It was, put simply, a beautiful sight.
"Awright," said Barret. "Wha' da hell is dat?"
"Verily do I knoweth not," Shan said. There were similar admissions of ignorance from the others.
"Could be where our villain's hiding," Mr. Big pointed out. "Some kind of fortress, perhaps?"
"Perchance," Shan mused. "Anyhow, 'tis our only marker o' direction, nay? Let us stride thence an' continue our search for th'villain."
"Yeah, why not?" Mr. Big glanced back and shivered. "Anything other than go back into that, anyway."
"The time approaches."
The figure seemed to materialise from the wind behind the group as they made their way towards the crystal tower, its colourful robes flapping loosely in the gale. A notably insane smile adorned its face.
"They're doing just what I planned..." it mused. "Soon they shall release the demons. And then... and then..."
It tilted its head back and laughed. "And then this area will be mine! I shall construct my tower, and I shall make them burn! All of them! I shall fry them! Grill them! Turn them into charcoal! Vweehee hee!"
There was something in the crystal.
It stood out from some distance away - pretty much from the moment the party passed through the swirling lights surrounding the tower into what was, pretty much, the eye of the eye of the storm. The rest of the spire was a pure blue, so beautiful a colour that it seemed - to Nanaki, at least, being pretty much the only member of the group to appreciate these things - almost a travesty to mar it with anything, but set into the stone at ground level was a large black object. It looked roughly man-sized and, as the party drew nearer, it began to look roughly man-shaped as well.
"Aha!" said Shan triumphantly. "Verily, be there any doubt that this do be our most cursed foul villain? Henceforth shalt I slay yonder foe an' there shalt be peace in th'land once 'gain!"
"Yo, jus' one question..." Barret asked thoughtfully.
"Aye? Ask away, dear friend."
"Ain't he the guy what we killed back in dat dead city place?"
Indeed, the man trapped within the icy tower did look rather like Sephiroth. Extraordinarily so, in fact. Not only was the sword at his waist exactly the same as the one Kasuto could have sworn she'd seen sinking into the waters around the Ancients' altar, and the cloak the same, but he even had an identical, 'Wouldn't you just love to be as cool as me?' expression as the... the other Sephiroth.
His eyes were closed at the moment, but he looked more like he was meditating than sleeping or dead. But then again, Sephiroth would probably look like he was meditating even if you cut his head off and stuck it on a big stick. He had that sort of perfectly calm grace that only really comes naturally to the best of villains.
"Thou hath killed him already?" Shan enquired.
"Then his spirit must linger here!" Shan decided. "This do be where his soul be trapped! I'faith, if we set his soul free, then he shalt trouble this world no longer an' all will be well!" He took his sword from its sheath at his waist and drew his arm back, ready to start hacking at the crystal.
"I say, hold on one dashed moment, old boy!"
The Major came hurrying up from his self-appointed position defending the rear of the group from sneak attacks and stopped alongside Shan. "What if the blighter's trapped here?"
"Pray elaborate, aged sir," Shan said politely.
The Major tapped the crystal with the edge of his battle sabre. "Looks like he's stuck, what? Maybe some noble blighters on our side put him there as a POW, eh? He might do some dashed indecent things if we let him out without thinking."
"I hate to say it, but I think he's actually got a point," Mr. Big mused. "We don't want to hack away to get at him, only to have him jump out and cut us in two, do we?"
"But 'tis our sworn duty for to destroy th'cur!" Shan objected. "We cannot simply stride onwards an' ignore him!"
"That's a good point too."
"Yo, how 'bout you cut Sephiroth loose, an' I'll stand back here an' blast him one when he comes out?" Barret suggested, absently removing his brand new Rocket Punch and screwing a machine gun attachment back on to his gun-arm. The Cetra knew where he actually kept the things when he wasn't using them.
"I can help too!" Kasuto put in, remembering that her weapon class was ranged as well.
Shan glanced sideways at Mr. Big, who nodded sagely. "Sounds good to me."
"Then let us strike for to defeat th'enemy in one swift blow, like th'army marching o'er th'plain an' devouring all in its path!" Shan said happily, taking his position in front of the spire. "Sir Elder, an' thou, Sir Canine -"
"Nanaki," said Nanaki.
"Aye, ye should stand back so as not to obscure yonder fellows' aim. An' thee, Sir Rabbit."
"Yeah, I know when I'm not wanted." Mr. Big took up position on the Major's shoulder and settled himself down. The Major had a lot of shoulder to get comfortable on.
"Ready?" Shan asked his fellows.
Shan tensed briefly, then brought his blade swinging around towards the crystal in a terrifyingly fast arc. It struck well, and shattered shards of blue diamond were hurtling past him even as he threw himself out of the way of Barret and Kasuto's hail of bullets and minidisks. A thick sapphire cloud of tiny fragments rose up, spreading until it engulfed even the Major and Nanaki.
By the time it settled, Sephiroth could be seen sprawled on the ground in front of the crystal. He appeared, surprisingly, unhurt. If he had been hurt, he should at least have had the decency to bleed a bit.
Weakly and unsteadily, he raised his head from the stone and stared blearily around. First his gaze took in Barret and Kasuto. Then, as he looked round, it passed across the Major and Nanaki, and lingered briefly upon Mr. Big. Then he saw Shan and what was left of the crystal.
"Oh, no," he breathed. "You didn't...?"
The spire exploded.
The Author and Sensei Boris were watching the four girls as they chatted about something. Neither of the men could work out exactly what they were chatting about, but it seemed to involve much gesticulating and speaking as loudly as they could, at least on the part of three of the girls. Diane seemed to be happy just to stand around and agree wholeheartedly with everything that was said.
"I suppose they've got hidden talents...?" the Author said hopefully.
"Not really," Boris replied, shaking his head sadly. He was - that is to say, he had the appearance of - a heavy-set man in his early forties. He wore nothing other than a black martial arts gi, and it was clear that at one point he had obviously been quite terrifyingly strong - presumably before he died. He was unshaven, and there was a very definite weariness in his eyes. "They have no spirit, comrade. There is no thought in their actions. No passion." He shuddered. "It is all a game to them."
"So why'd they end up with you, then? Why didn't you get a group of elite soldiers or something?"
Boris shrugged. "It is not my place to question the will of the Planet," he mused philosophically. "My purpose is to train them, and train them I have been doing. As best I can, at least."
"Best not to argue, right?"
The two of them stood in silence for a few moments.
"One question...?" the Author said eventually.
"What exactly are you training them for?"
Boris turned to stare at him, and the Author took a step back. The older man held his gaze for a few seconds, before he smiled wanly and turned back towards the girls.
"There are few who know what I will tell you, comrade," he said solemnly, "and the knowledge could if used by the wrong people destroy everything we fought for so many years ago. But I sense that you are pure of heart and not easily corrupted..." His smile grew, for just a moment, almost cynical. "And also you have friends that you can not risk losing, am I not mistaken?"
"I'm not going to try and blow the planet up, if that's what you mean."
"Sort of," Boris admitted. He took a deep breath. "Now I shall tell you the truth of the legends.
"The Cetra did indeed defeat Jenova, however many years ago that was. We were they who protected the humans from her... yes?"
"You mean, you're... er, you were... are... a Cetra?" the Author asked at length.
"Okay. Just wanted to make sure I hadn't misunderstood anything."
"But humans and Cetra alone could not defeat a being of such power," Boris continued. "The Planet itself intervened and created for us a number of holy weapons, with which we might strike down the invader and seal it away."
"Ah, you mean like an Excalibur and an Illumina and so on?"
"Not entirely. These weapons were... what is the word... golems. Monstrous creations of stone, infused with life and set to battle the Cataclysm. The Cetra themselves gave up their souls to provide these creatures with minds, and thus was Jenova defeated." He sighed. "But these weapons were more than tools. They had spirits of their own, and could not be controlled after the battle. So..." He paused. "Am I going too quickly for you, comrade?"
"No, no, I'm managing," the Author replied, scribbling furiously in his dictionary. "Go on, I'll keep up."
"As you wish. So the Planet tore the minds from these weapons, and hid their bodies away in the earth in two mighty underground caverns, sealed by magical crystal locks. The plan was that, if Jenova should ever return, she would be drawn to break the seals and the weapons released to do battle with her once more." He sighed. "I was the Cetra charged with training pilots to use the Northern arsenal, but I doubt any of these girls have the mental strength to successfully control the weapons in action. For that matter, I doubt even I may be able to fight the overwhelming rage pent up inside those things."
"I think I follow," the Author said. "So, basically, these weapons are huge stone giant things, which can be released to fight Jenova but really only as a last resort. Is that about right?"
"You pick things up quickly, comrade."
"So how would they be released if someone wanted to?"
"Crystal seals," Boris explained. "Smash the crystal, and the weapons are released. And when that happens, it is time for myself and my students to..." His voice trailed off.
"To...?" repeated the Author, hoping to prod him into finishing the sentence. Boris simply stood there with an agonised expression on his face.
It didn't take the Author, with his considerable experience of how these things went, to work out what had happened.
"Someone's broken the seal, haven't they?" he said. It wasn't really a question.
Boris nodded. "And there will be many deaths by the time this is over, if our minds are not strong enough."
He turned desolately away, and for the first time the Author caught sight of something he carried strapped to his back. It was about four feet long, and old, and rusted. It was also worryingly familiar.
"Is that...?" he breathed, half in awe, half in terror.
Boris turned back. "Sorry?"
"That's the Blunderbuss!"
"What? Oh, this?" Boris unslung the aged weapon and looked curiously at it. "I came across this a few days ago, comrade. If you want it, you may have it."
"Really?" The Author nodded in thanks as he accepted - gratefully but nervously - the weapon. "I'm sure its owner will be very glad to have it back." He paused. "Er, that is, if I ever actually see him again."
"All life on the Planet comes here in due course, comrade," Boris reminded him.
The Author smiled knowingly. "Not quite all, comrade. Not quite all."
Boris raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Instead, he glanced over at the girls, who didn't seem to have noticed anything was up yet.
"Students!" he barked harshly. "Yoi!"
The four continued talking - that is, three continued talking and Diane continued listening.
"YOI!" Boris repeated, giving the Author a 'you see what I have to work with?' look. This time the girls got the idea and rushed over, lining up inexpertly and standing nervously in front of their master.
"Training is now at an end," Boris said solemnly. "We are to go out onto the world and confront our foe. You must be strong. Do not let your minds wander from the task at hand. Do not let the spirit of the weapons overwhelm you. You must wield them, not they you. Do you understand?"
"Er, yeah," said Emma, "but..."
Boris shot her a cold stare. "Do you understand?"
Shocked, the four girls bowed in perfect synchronisation. "Sensei," they said together, their voices barely more than whispers.
"Good." Boris returned their bow. "HAJIME!"
The Author's knowledge of Japanese was limited to knowing roughly what it sounded like when spoken, but he could tell from the air of finality in Boris' last command that it meant, "Go," or, "Begin," or something like that. And suddenly an idea struck him. If... if only...
Well, as they saying went, it was now or never...
"Could I just ask one favour?" he said.
The blast from the exploding spire knocked everyone off their feet - everyone except Nanaki, that is. Even Mr. Big was lifted off his perch on the Major's shoulder and landed on his back a few feet away with a surprised, "Umph!"
Sephiroth was the first to his feet. As he had been closest to the crystal, he had been thrown the farthest, but somehow there was a noticeable absence of the flak wounds or blood one might have expected. In fact, apart from his rather weary expression he looked to be in perfect health.
A sudden wind had sprung up, blowing towards where the crystal had been, and where now there was nothing but a hole so deep the bottom could not be seen. Sephiroth's cloak and hair billowed out behind him, adding a very definite stylish air to his movements as he stared around the group.
"Which one of you idiots broke the seal?" he asked coldly.
Shan sprung to his feet, holding his sword aloft. "'Twas I, most foul fiend! And now thou be free, verily shalt I slay thee in th'name o' all that be Holy!"
Sephiroth sighed. "If we don't get out of here quickly you won't need to," he replied. "Have you heard of the term, 'Armageddon?'"
"Well, that's what's going to happen here in a few minutes."
"Yo!" Barret piped up. "Yo' sayin' yo' want us to jes' turn an' run away from yo'?"
"No." Sephiroth shook his head. "I'm saying I want to run away with you."
Briefly the wind surged, and something roared from below ground level. It was an impressive roar, to put it lightly.
"Okay," Mr. Big spoke up, "I'm with you on that one. How far've we gotta go?"
"As far as we -"
"Well, well, well." The voice came from a good few metres behind the group. "Sephiroth. What a surprising... er... surprise."
Sephiroth raised an eyebrow, being the only one facing the right way to see who had come to join the fun. "Rufus Shinra. How you've grown in the last five years."
"Rufus?" Barret repeated, spinning round on one foot so fast he almost fell over. "How the hell'd yo' get here?"
Rufus smirked. "I have an airship too, you know."
Silence followed this remark, broken eventually by a second roar and the ground shaking.
"An airship?" repeated Kasuto.
Parts of the ground started collapsing.
The group exchanged glances.
"To th'ship!" Shan bellowed, and hurtled off past Rufus. The others followed suit pretty quickly, while Rufus gesticulated madly and helplessly at them.
"Hey!" he shouted after them. "You can't just run away from a confrontation! You're only meant to leave when I say I'm done with you! Now you..." His voice trailed off, and he glanced down at the cracks scything through the earth before sprinting off after the group. "Oi, wait up!"
From the slopes of one of the nearby mountains, a figure watched the spectacle. It watched the Ragnarok take off and start heading south. It watched the light suddenly burst forth from the ground, and it watched the shock wave chase the airship as it fled.
And then it watched with glee as the six monstrous shapes emerged from the hole in the centre of the newly formed crater. Twelve glowing eyes scoured the landscape as the creatures took up positions around the pit, an assortment of wings beating roughly in time with each other to keep them steady.
The figure laughed.
"Go, my lovelies!" it chortled. "Go! Squash them! Crush them! Make them scream!"
Its gaze fell once more to the centre of the crater. "And while you do that... I will just make myself feel right at home here. Hee hee!"
Prologue: Writing of Wrongs
Part 1: For What We Are About to Receive
Chapter I: Editorial Changes
Chapter II: Insert Chapter Title Here
Chapter III: Biohazard
Part 2: Present Imperfect
Chapter IV: Ahead on our Way
Chapter V: On That Day, Five Years Ago...
Chapter VI: Feather in the Wind (reprise)
Part 3: World Travel
Chapter VII: Twelve Good Men on a Dead Man's Chest
Chapter VIII: Music of the Night
Chapter IX: Drawing Inexorably
Part 4: Crossroads
Chapter X: The Trousers of Time
Part 5: Calculus
Chapter XI: Differentiation & Integration
Chapter XII: The Sunrise and I
Chapter XIII: The Best Is Yet To Come
Part 6: Introduction to Destruction
Chapter XIV: Makes No Difference
Chapter XV: Second Impact
Chapter XVI: Judgment Day
Epilogue: Loose Ends
Return to index