FUNKY QUOTE GOES HERE.
Quotee goes here
Where's the quote from?
The party held a council of war in the bridge of the Highwind.
"Awright!" Barret announced decisively. "So... da hell do we do now?"
"Getting away from Junon might be a good start," Sephiroth suggested, dripping quietly to himself in one corner. He'd been rescued from the ocean after the Weapon's unfortunate demise, and had been given a lovely fluffy pink towel with a picture of a dog on it to dry himself off, but even with this wrapped around him he still felt rather cold and damp. "I would think it'll only be a matter of time before the Shinra get their act together and send that Ragnarok airship off after us."
"Yeah, but we gotta go somewhere," Barret observed, rather astutely for him.
The group pondered this dilemma.
"Yo," Cid put in. "Didn't Rufus say somethin' about some tower at the crater?"
"Yeah, that's a point," Mr. Big agreed. "Seph, you didn't make that, did you?"
Sephiroth shook his head. "I do have better things to do with my time," he replied coldly.
"Then someone else did," Mr. Big commented sagely.
"Sounds like a dungeon!" said the folding chair happily. "We might find new materia and weapons and a mighty villain!"
"Or..." Perigee began, then paused. His gaze met Ess'.
"FG?" she mouthed. Perigee nodded.
"Sounds like that's where we need to go, then," he said. "Um... is everyone ready? Things might get, um, nasty in there..."
"I'faith, there do be no moment when we be not ready!" Shan cut him off. "Verily shalt we raise up th'sword o' justice an' cut down th'cur residing in yonder tower! Th'hopes o' th'Planet do rest most onerous heavy on our shoulders, nay?"
There was a slight problem at the Northern Crater.
Oh, the tower was there; there was no denying that. It was clearly visible, right in the very centre of the crater, several dozen floors reaching for the sky. It was however, on the whole, a rather boring tower. It was little more than a stone cylinder, with only one door at the base and no windows save for the upper few floors. It was not the sort of tower for which any aspiring supervillain should have been happy to settle.
More of an immediate problem was the glowing golden dome surrounding it. It encompassed the entire crater, a shimmering film of light that gave everything within it a pretty sparkly look.
This dome turned out to be more than aesthetic, though, when the Highwind hovered over it and Aeris dropped one of her old staffs off the upper deck. It hit the barrier, there was a loud whoosh, and the staff rocketed skywards on a six foot plume of flame.
This made the group quite glad that they had not taken Croft's idea of trying to fly through it and see what happened.
The party held another council of war in the bridge of the Highwind.
"Awright!" Barret announced, for the second time. "Da hell do we do now?"
This time no immediate answer presented itself.
"Guys?" Barret asked hopefully.
"We could hang around until after sunset and see if the glowing thing goes away then?" Croft suggested.
"I find that unlikely," Nanaki said.
"Well, then, what?" Ess asked.
"Maybe there's something else we need to do first...?" Perigee murmured.
"What do you mean?" Tifa enquired curiously.
"Maybe we need to advance the plo... um, I mean, perhaps there's a magical item or a special materia out there that'll give us the power we need to break down the barrier," Perigee corrected himself. "A Mega Destruct materia or something."
"Yeah, maybe there is," Mr. Big put in. "But where do we go to find that? Not like we can just go wandering all over the world and hope someone happens to mention, 'Oh, did you know the legendary Fred's Laser Rifle of Shield Penetrating is hidden in the Cave of Socks,' can we?"
"Does anyone have any leads, then?" prompted Ess.
"Hmm..." said Nanaki.
"Hmmmm..." said Tifa.
"Hmmmmmm..." said Croft.
"What?" said the Major.
"I know!" announced the folding chair. "I saw a house in the middle of nowhere on this continent last time we were here! Maybe a wise and knowledgeable sage lives there and knows how we could break through the barrier!"
"Any other suggestions?" said Ess diplomatically.
"Maybe one of those nasty stone monster things might have some powers that we could use," suggested Croft. "We could beat one of them up and it might drop a special something."
"We could breed a really special chocobo with, like, super powers!" said Kasuto, and giggled.
"We could use huge materia," Perigee proposed.
There was a brief pause.
"Huge materia?" Barret repeated. "Da helliz that?"
"They're supersized materia crystals that form under particularly high pressure," Perigee explained, "so they have a much higher spirit density and usually physical size as well. I've heard they can even be used to, um, power rocket flight. They're that powerful."
"I'm guessing we can't buy these things over the counter," Mr. Big pointed out.
"They form under pressure," Perigee repeated. "In the core of Mako reactors, for example."
"Well, old beans," the Major observed, "with all these dashed good ideas flying about, looks like we're going to have to divide and conquer, what?"
"No one has any other ideas, then?" Ess asked.
No one did.
"I'faith do we need but one fellow to o'ersee th'breeding o' th'birdbeasts," Shan mused. "Might I propose most humbly that we do split our might foremost twixt combating th'demons o' stone, an' searching for th'crystals? 'Tis mine opinion that 'tis not worth sending more than a single hero to th'house in th'wilderness... or perchance a pair, to ward 'gainst th'possibility of a clash with th'owner."
"I want to go to the shop," the folding chair put in. "They might have all sorts of fun stuff there."
"I'll go too," said Ess and Tifa in synchronisation.
"That would seem a party of correct size, then," Nanaki observed. "After all, for all of Cloud's numerous strengths, in his current form he would not be of much assistance in a fight."
"And we only need one person to do the chocobo breeding," Croft added. "Shall we draw rupees again?"
Barret's face fell.
"Thine plan do sound most reasonable," Shan remarked, already producing a small cloth bag from somewhere within his tunic. "There be one dozen less one heroes present, thus I -"
"I'll do it."
"Barret?" Tifa asked, surprised. "You want to breed chocobos?"
"Hell no!" Barret exclaimed. "But if we gonna draw da gem things again, I gonna lose again, ain't I? So we gonna save time."
"There is a certain strange logic in that," Nanaki mused.
"Indeed," agreed Shan. "Thus we must split our ten heroes betwixt th'demons an' th'crystals."
"How many places can you think of that're worth checking?" Mr. Big asked Perigee. The scientist looked thoughtful for a few moments.
"Well..." he said eventually. "There's the Corel reactor... one in Junon... the Nibelheim one was shut down five years ago for, um, obvious reasons... that strange one with the condor's nest on it... the Gongaga one exploded... oh, and all the ones in Midgar, of course."
"I don't like the idea of going back to Midgar," Aeris put in. "Won't they be guarded well?"
"Good point," Perigee concurred. "So that's... um... three reactors worth checking."
"Hey, didn't you say those huge whatsits were powerful enough to power rockets?" Cid pointed out.
"There's a rocket in Rocket Town, ya know."
"Makes sense," Mr. Big muttered.
"So why don't we send one person to each of these places?" Croft suggested. "That leaves us... er..." He did a few quick mental calculations. "...six people to fight with the monster things."
"That sounds about right," Perigee agreed. "Cid, you'd better go with the Weapon-hunting group, so you can go from one to the other easily. We should drop everyone off beforehand and then pick them all up again in a day or so, maybe."
Cid nodded. "Gotcha. So who's goin' where?"
The pain was excruciating. Not only was there a dull throbbing throughout her entire body, but her head and neck sent fairly regular twinges of pain through her. Tentatively, she tried moving her head a little. The sharp stab from her joints stopped her abruptly.
She tried to open her eyes, but the light was too bright and she shut them again.
"Hey, guys!" called a vaguely familiar voice. "Looks like she's coming to!"
"It is about time," said another, rather coldly.
"Hey, c'mon, I think she deserved the rest," the first replied defensively. "After all, you saw what shape she was in when we found her."
Elena, last of the Turks, opened her eyes once more to thin slits. The light was bearable this way.
"Where am I?" she asked. "Who are you people?"
A shadow fell over her as someone's face came into her vision, blocking out the light. Carefully, Elena opened her eyes wider. Gradually the light came to seem less painful and details settled into place.
"Tseng?" she gasped. "But you're... you're dead! I saw the reports myself!"
Tseng smiled softly. "As you can see, that's not strictly true," he said. "But it's an understandable mistake to make. After all, that's what we wanted everyone to think."
Elena tried to sit up, winced as a number of joints around her hip and waist complained, and lay back down again.
Tseng seated himself next to her on the bed and gently laid one hand on her forehead.
"You'd better lie still for a while," he said. "Looks like you took a particularly nasty fall back at Junon. Your head was bleeding, for a start."
Elena, wisely, took his advice.
"You want me to explain what's going on, I take it," Tseng said after a short while. Elena nodded. "Well, I -"
"Hey, I think you should let us help!" objected the first voice she'd heard. "It's quite a good story, and you shouldn't have all the fun."
Tseng sighed. "Reno, will you -"
Reno wandered over, waggling a finger at him in the classic 'no-no' gesture. "Come on, it's not Reno, it's Roan. Don't forget."
"Roan?" asked Elena, confused.
"Yeah," Reno, aka Roan, said happily. "We had to drop our old names, you see, because of -"
"Could I explain from the beginning?" Tseng asked coldly.
"Oh, go on, then," Roan said sulkily.
"Thank you." Tseng turned back to Elena. "Elena, we're not part of Shinra any more. The Turks as an organisation worked fairly well, in its own way, but, well, the management was flawed. And we were working towards the wrong ends. So I was... persuaded to switch camps, as were Reno and Rude after me."
As her vision began settling down, Elena noticed for the first time that Tseng had changed his suit. It was almost identical to his old Turks one, only this one was a deep, very dark red colour.
"Tell her about the name thing!" Reno pestered him.
"Yes, yes. 'Obviously,' as everyone in Shinra thinks we're dead, we can't just go by our old names in case we're overheard and someone in power realises that we're still around. So we have to take up new pseudonyms. Or so Roan here tells us."
"Well, I think it's kind of cool," objected Roan. "It makes you feel like a real spy."
"So what are your new names?" Elena asked. She knew there were more important matters here but curiosity got the better of her.
"Well, Roan you know. This mysterious and obviously unrecognisable figure," Tseng waved a hand wearily towards the tall bald man hanging around near the far wall, "is Ryudo. And I," he paused and sighed again, "am Mareg."
"Mareg?" Elena repeated. She could sort of see the logic in the other two, but this didn't really make sense. "Why Mareg?"
Tseng shrugged. "It just felt right."
"Okay." This minor distraction aside, Elena felt she could now concentrate on the salient points. "But why didn't you tell me what was happening? Why did you leave me like -"
"I couldn't tell you," Tseng snapped. "Above all, you're a Turk, and I would hope that your honour as a Turk would have compelled you to tell Heidegger and that brat Rufus about me."
Elena's face fell. "Yes sir." She hesitated. "But... what do I do now, then?"
Tseng smiled enigmatically. "Well, either you heal up, go back to your old job in the Turks, let the execs know that we're still alive, and probably spend a few months hunting us down once the whole Sephiroth business is sorted out, or," he paused for breath, "well, I think my new superior can probably explain things better than I."
He shuffled aside, and a new face cast a shadow over Elena. She squinted into the light at him. He seemed familiar, actually. Wasn't he one of the really important Shinra people? A director of something?
"Afternoon, Miss Elena," he said. "I, is I, Caroussis. Welcome to the Greeks."
Clang. Clang. Clang.
Footsteps echoed around the narrow metal corridors of the Shinra #9, the only surviving rocket of the Shinra Space Program - the others having blown themselves up on the ground, in mid-air, or in one particularly unfortunate case, both. At least, footsteps echoed for brief bursts, interspersed with often surprised remarks.
"Oh, they sealed the joints with, um, integral pressure alloys? No wonder the rocket never achieved orbit."
Clang. Clang. Clang.
"Oxygen at how many mega-Pascals? Wow."
Clang. Clang. Clang.
"How'd a duck get in here?"
Perigee ambled through the winding passages, relying more on intuition and luck than any real idea of where he was going. The rocket was only finitely big, he reasoned. If he kept wandering around eventually he'd get to where he was going.
It was an awfully unscientific approach, but it seemed his only option at the moment.
He pushed open a door, stepped through, and stopped. Okay, so perhaps being unscientific did have its advantages at times.
The room was... it was big, but it wasn't particularly wide. It was just tall. Very tall. Perigee couldn't see the ceiling. And in the very centre - almost exactly in the centre, but not quite, Perigee noted - was a shortish pedestal, capped by a glass case. Inside the case, predictably enough, was the Huge Materia. Upon seeing it, Perigee sort of felt it deserved the capital letters. Speaking as a scientist and someone who could appreciate perfect angles and polyhedra, it was beautiful.
He ambled over and gave the case a more detailed examination. The glass seemed to be bolted to the metal stand, and - he rapped on it a few times with one hand, then gave it a whack that turned his knuckles red - it was certainly too tough for him to break easily. Hum.
He glanced down, and spotted a small control panel built into the pedestal. There were four buttons on the thing, arranged in a diamond formation, each one bearing a different coloured shape rather than numbers or letters.
Almost automatically Perigee reached down and tapped in circle, square, cross, cross. Clouds of fine white mist puffed out of the pedestal with a quiet hissing noise, and the glass case split neatly down the middle and opened up.
Carefully, even reverently, he picked the materia up, needing both hands to lift it. His palms tingled. He could literally feel the power in the materia, and even in the air around it. Yes, this certainly should be enough to destroy all but the most potent of magical barriers. If only he could tap it in an oversized armlet loop...
A voice broke him out of his brief scientific reverie.
"Rocket launch is in one minute," said what sounded like Palmer's voice. "All personnel should be in their shelters by now."
"What?" Perigee exclaimed.
As it turned out, there must have been a microphone in the room, because Palmer sounded rather concerned when he continued. "Who's still in the rocket?" he asked. "In the materia chamber?"
"Perigee Roberts, Impe... I don't need to tell you that! What do you mean, you're launching the rocket?"
"Um..." Palmer seemed puzzled by the question. "Well, we're sending it up. You know, fire comes out of one end and the other end goes forwards. Fizz... whoosh! Like that."
"It's a rocket. That's what you do with them."
"Yes, but... why now?"
"Well, it was just sitting around not doing anything. It seemed like an awful waste."
Perigee nodded absently. He could understand the logic in that.
"Anyway, I'm terribly sorry," said Palmer, sounding not sorry in the least, "but once the final countdown has started we can't stop it. And, er, there's no way you'll be able to get out in... twenty seconds. No way at all. Sorry."
"What?" Perigee asked again, and again and again when he didn't get a reply the first time. Then he stopped, and thought. Hmm. He couldn't escape from the rocket in twenty seconds. Therefore he was either going to go up into space, or he was going to die. Unless it was somehow feasible that he might use the materia to save himself...
"Five," said Palmer happily. "Four. Three."
I can't socket it into anything... Perigee thought, oblivious to the countdown. Perhaps I could hold it in both hands and chant something...
Or maybe the rocket launch will trigger it...
"Zero." Palmer cleared his throat. "We have Mako flow at maximum, and..."
"Why don't we have ignition?"
Perigee looked around him. Then he looked at the materia in his hands, and at the pedestal it had been sitting on, and back again.
"Why isn't anything happening?" Palmer complained loudly. "What's going wrong? Why do these things always happen to me?"
Whistling innocently, Perigee took the huge materia and ambled out of the room.
"Awww, whatta I hafta do for yo' guys?" Barret complained loudly. "C'mon, I given yo' da romantic lightin'. I given yo' da soft music from da boom box. I even given yo' da funky meal. Now why ain't yo' breedin' like rabbits?"
The two chocobos, personally caught earlier by Barret himself and dubbed Burrito and Astro for reasons probably best left unsaid, gave him identical confused looks.
"What was it the manual said we had to do?" Vyse mused out loud, leafing through the small booklet they'd found lying around in the Highwind's chocobo stables. He found the right page and began checking off points. "Chocobos in close proximity to one another... check... clean straw... check... greens..." He paused. "What greens did we give them?"
Barret knelt down and sifted through the small pile of assorted leaves and stems laid before the chocobos. When that didn't help, he picked up a bit and smelled it, then tasted it tenderly.
"Dunno," he concluded eventually.
Burrito, obviously annoyed by the theft of his meal, bit Barret on the nose.
"Well, they're greens, I guess," Vyse said, mildly puzzled. "Er... oh, we need a nut."
"They ain't havin' one of mine!" Barret objected immediately.
"Er, a nut like a seed, Barret. You know, the type that fall from trees?"
"Oh." Barret scratched the back of his head thoughtfully. "We didn't give 'em one o' those, did we?"
"I don't think so."
"Hmm..." Barret considered this. "We got any in here?"
Vyse looked around. "Er... Oh, we have a packet up here," he said, spotting something on a high shelf where most of the assorted chocobo items - hoe for cleaning out the stable, cheap greens, a couple of harnesses - were stored. A few hops brought his hand up just high enough to grab the packet of small brown nuts from the shelf, and he inspected them once he landed and regained his balance. "The tag says these are 'carob nuts,'" he observed.
Barret shrugged. "I guess they'll do," he decided. "C'mon, throw 'em one."
"Okay." Vyse sliced open one end of the packet with his nail, took out a couple of carob nuts, and tossed one to each chocobo. Burrito caught his easily in midair in his beak, while Astro waited for hers to land on the straw in front of her before she snapped it up.
In synchronisation, they both turned and gave Barret and Vyse penetrating stares.
"I think they might be waiting for us to leave," Vyse remarked.
Barret hesitated for a few moments.
"Da hell they think they are?" he muttered eventually. "They're birds! They ain't got no dignity or privacy or nothin'!" He reached down, picked up the small stereo he had acquired from the Highwind's recreation room (which was, incidentally, playing the seductive 'Lady in Red' by Chris de Bird), and switched it off. "Aw, wha'ever. Let's go."
Almost the moment the door to the stables closed behind them, an excited "Wark!" sounded from the other side.
"Good luck to 'em," Barret grumbled, stomping off.
The house in the Northern snowfields looked rather less like a house when Tifa and Ess neared it. It looked more like... well, a...
"Rare Item Shop," Tifa read off the sign hammered inexpertly into the ground a few metres from the doors. "Uniques, perishables, key items, and anything that will fit in a Bag marked Bag. Exceptional prices. Proprietors: Messrs T. Blu-"
"An item shop?" Ess repeated, puzzled. "What sort of person would run an item shop in a place like this?"
"They must sell awfully rare items," Tifa's chair observed.
Ess looked confused. "How'd you work that one out?"
"Well, no one would come here otherwise, would they?"
Ess looked at the snow around them, considered pointing out that the only footprints there were theirs and that it looked like no one did come here, but didn't. "I suppose you have a point," she said. "Well, maybe they'll sell a Mysterious Potion of Resurrection or something. C'mon, let's go check."
"Hey, the proprietors here have really silly names," Tifa was saying. "One's called... hey, wait for me!"
The inside of the shop was... the nicest way to describe it would be 'cosy.' Another way would be to say that there was barely room to move. One far corner was fenced off by a counter, behind which a couple of young men were lounging in comfortable looking swivel chairs. An open door behind them led away into a darkened passage, and a sign above the door read, simply, 'Stroeroooms.'
The rest of the room was taken up entirely by an assortment of barrels, boxes and crates, with shelves covering all the walls - and it seemed as if there were actually more shelves than wall space, somehow. Countless swords, staves, suits of armour, potions, rings, items of clothing, foodstuffs, scrolls, and other less immediately identifiable items filled the room, leaving just about enough room for Ess and Tifa to fit in. Just about.
There was a small hi-fi sitting on the counter, between the two shopkeepers. It appeared to be one of those advanced ones that could hold any number of CDs at once, and it was currently playing a rather cheery accordion tune. Ess found her knees trying to bob along to the music.
The shopkeeper on the right looked pensive for a few moments, and then announced, "Final boss music, Donkey Kong Country."
The other sighed and nodded. "No getting round you, is there? Go on, then. Your turn."
The first reached over and fiddled with the hi-fi. There was silence for a few moments, before it started playing a catchy synth tune. The instruments sounded like they were supposed to be electric guitars of some sort, but it wasn't entirely clear.
"Storm Eagle stage, Megaman X," the second said immediately. "Come on, that one was kind of obvious."
"Yeah, I guess." Shopkeeper One shrugged.
Two selected a new track. This one was of a similar sound quality, only this time the instruments sounded more orchestral.
"Excuse me?" asked Tifa.
"Hmm..." One considered the music, not noticing her. "Battle 2, Chrono Trigger. Unreleased track."
"Nice. Didn't think you'd get that one."
"Excuse me?" Tifa repeated, a little more loudly.
This seemed to get their attention. Two looked up, spotted the pair, exclaimed, "Good God, customers!" and fell backwards off his chair in shock. One managed to stand up, doing his best to look roughly presentable, and hit a few buttons on the hi-fi, which promptly began playing a nice, bouncy shop-type theme.
"Ocarina of Time, shop theme," a voice from the floor said automatically.
"Um... hi?" Tifa said, advancing nervously. "We were wondering -"
"Hi!" One announced cheerfully. "Welcome to the Rare Item Shop! Uniques, perishables, and anything -"
"Key items," Two reminded him, getting back to his feet.
"Sorry. Uniques, perishables, key items, and anything that will fit in a Bag marked Bag! The name's Bacon Slicer. This here is the Blunderbuss. How may we help you?"
"Blunderbuss?" Tifa repeated. "Isn't that an awfully... er, odd name?"
The Blunderbuss shrugged. "Most people just call me TB."
"Like the disease," Bacon Slicer put in. TB rounded on him.
"Do you have to point that out every single time we meet anyone?" he snapped. "This here is Bacon Slicer, but we normally just call him Bacon. Like the meat." He sighed. "You see, it doesn't sound anywhere near as embarrassing when I say that!"
"Oh, stop complaining."
Bacon returned his attention to the customers. "So what can we get you?"
Tifa and Ess went into a huddle.
"What do we want?" Ess asked in a whisper.
"I don't know!" Tifa replied.
"I wouldn't mind having a body," the chair pointed out, a little too loud.
"A body?" TB said. "We can oblige there." He waved haughtily at Bacon Slicer. "Go see what we have in the stores, would you?"
Bacon saluted and hurried through the door behind them. The gloom on the other side seemed to swallow him, somehow.
"So how would you like your body?" TB enquired politely. "We have intact, decapitated, dismembered, partially eaten, fully eaten, diseased, plague-ridden, animate, inanimate, partially decomposed, fully decomposed, cremated, possessed, and with or without a wide range of organs and appendages."
He smiled happily at them.
"Er," said Ess. "We were sort of hoping for a live body."
TB's smile faded.
"Oh," he said. "Perhaps you ought to explain the situation to me."
"Well," Tifa began, "it's sort of complicated..."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Okay... Well, a friend of ours died a couple of days ago, you see, but yesterday he came back to life. Only he didn't have a body, you see, so he's just sort of a spirit that can possess things, and we really need to find him a body so he can possess that and be back to normal again, because it's not fair to him to leave him inhabiting a chair..."
Tifa paused for breath, and TB held up a hand to prevent her from saying more.
"So you need a living clone body for him, then," he observed. "We can do that too. What's your friend's..." He hesitated, then addressed the chair. "What's your name, then?"
"Cloud," said the chair.
"Right you are. Would you like your body with or without Jenova cells?"
"Without, please," said the chair politely.
TB took a few steps back from the counter, cupped both hands around his mouth, and yelled into the doorway, "Bacon! We need one Cloud clone, PC, inanimate, hold the Jenova!"
There was a pause of a few seconds before Bacon's voice came back, sounding awfully faint, as if he were shouting from a long distance away. "Okay! Give me a minute!"
TB turned back to the group and gave them a beam. "We'll have your body ready in a few minutes. It takes a little while to fire the cloning machine up, you see." He thought for a moment. "While you're hanging around, why don't you have a look at our other merchandise? All at very reasonable prices!"
"It's okay, we really don't have that much -" Ess began.
"I know! How'd you like to buy a book?" TB suggested. "We have all sorts. Walkthroughs, strategy guides, rumour booklets... I tell you, you'd never believe how many ways people have suggested to revive Aeris and get Sephiroth in your party."
"But..." Tifa objected. "Aeris is alive, isn't she? And Sephiroth is in our party."
"Eheh." TB shrugged and moved on. "Fanfiction! New twists on your favourite characters! MST's!"
He scanned one of the shelves near him, then selected a particularly thick volume. "This one is especially popular. People just can't get enough of it, it seems. You're lucky we have a copy in stock."
Ess took it from him, figuring it was probably easier to go with the flow than keep objecting. "Writing of Wrongs," she read. "An Epic Tale of Determination, Love and Literature in Eighteen Parts."
"It's very good, that one," TB said encouragingly. "I can recommend it myself."
Ess leafed briefly through a few pages.
"Some of these characters seem familiar," she said, deadpan.
TB started to look a little nervous as she flipped to a page about three quarters through.
"Oh?" she said, mildly surprised. "He comes back, does he?"
TB hurriedly took the book from her.
"Okay, maybe I shouldn't have shown you that," he mused, putting it back in its place on the shelf. "Come back in the epilogue if you want a copy then. It'll be a good souvenir to show the family, right?"
"Food!" TB announced suddenly. He hauled open a deep drawer on his side of the counter and began removing items one by one and placing them on the counter in front of him. "We have Lon Lon Milk, Calcium, a Buxomise Pill, a few pink apples... oh, I was wondering where my copy of Akira volume 3 went..."
"Would you care to explain what any of these do?" Ess asked coldly.
"Oh, sure." TB pointed at the items in the order he'd produced them. "This one restores a bit of health. This one... er, I think it increases your strength, but I'm not sure. One of your stats, at least. This one increases your bust size by three quarters of an inch, if I remember correctly. This -"
"Why were you looking directly at me when you said that?" Ess snapped.
"Well, there are three of you here, right? There's you, a chair, and, well..." TB's eyes darted briefly sideways to Tifa.
"You're not very tactful, are you?"
"No?" TB replied defensively. "Should I be?"
Ess sighed. "Just go on."
"Sure. The apples... I think if you eat two of them, you can lay an egg with a cloud in it."
"I fail to see how that could be useful in any way whatsoever."
"No, seriously, it's good. The cloud throws coins at you."
"Again I say -"
Sadly Ess didn't get to say it again, because at that point Bacon Slicer staggered back into the shop. He looked somewhat damp, although drenched might be a better word, and a mallard was roosting on his shoulder for some unknown reason.
"I had, er, a slight problem with the machine," he admitted. "Hey, could you have a go? You're better with it than I am."
TB sighed. "Sure, sure. You look after the customers, okay?"
"Hey, I can do that."
"Really." TB wandered towards the doorway, removing the duck from Bacon's shoulder as he passed. "I'll put this back in the stores, shall I?"
"You sell ducks?" Tifa enquired as he disappeared into the gloom.
Bacon shrugged. "Why not? Someone's bound to want to buy one eventually."
"Well, look at it this way," Bacon explained. "No other shops sell ducks, do they? So if anyone wants to buy a duck, they have to come here. That's sound business practice, you know."
"Yeah... Yes, I suppose that's right."
"Anyway," Bacon leaned forwards conspiratorially, "while we're waiting, you want to buy something, don't you?"
"We really don't have that much money..." Ess tried.
"Oh, come on, you must have some. Look, TB's always going on at me, saying I can't sell anything. Can't you at least help to prove him wrong? I promise I'll give you a really good deal."
"But we -"
"How about weapons?" Bacon tried desperately. "What are you using at the moment?"
"A cheesegrater," said Ess flatly, her expression just daring him to make an unhelpful comment.
"Cheesegrater..." Bacon repeated, taking this in his stride. "Can I have a look?"
"Sure." Ess produced the thing from behind her back and handed it over. Bacon Slicer stared at it with the air of a true expert.
"This is rubbish," he said after a few seconds. "I bet you're doing, what, maybe five, six hundred damage with this?"
"About that," Ess agreed, sounding just a little embarrassed.
Bacon tutted wearily. "Come on, with your stats you could easily be doing double that with the right weapon." He tilted his head to one side slightly, sizing her up. "Maybe... a tin opener or a kettle, perhaps. Of course," he raised his voice pointedly, "if you want to spend a little more, we have the most comprehensive collection of ultimate weapons on the planet here. I can guarantee you'll strike fear into the heart of your enemies when they see you striding towards them wielding the legendary Golden Wok."
"Do you have a legendary sword?" Tifa's chair piped up hopefully. Bacon beamed.
"Oh, of course! Plenty!" he said happily. "All sorts. I'd be only too happy to -"
"We'll look at them after we've bought Cloud's new body," Ess said firmly. "We don't want to spend too much."
"Well," said Bacon, but the rest of his sentence was lost as at that moment, the entire shop started shaking and a deafening, otherworldly roar echoed around the interior.
It was followed shortly by a faint clang, and then a muffled cry of, "How many legs do you think a Cloud should have, you infernal overgrown calculator?"
"What on earth was that?" Tifa asked, already in her fighting stance.
"Oh, that'll just be TB trying to get the cloning machine working properly," Bacon told her reassuringly. "It's a little temperamental at times." He cleared his throat and, completely forgetting about the interruption, went back to where he had been before. "Well, if you're on a budget, why not try our Bargain Bucket? Every item for only one hundred Gil!"
He reached down behind the counter and hauled a rather large wooden bucket up onto it. A variety of interesting and unusual items protruded from the top.
"Have a look through there," he said happily. "There's bound to be something in there you like."
Over the course of the next minute or two Tifa and Ess went through the bucket. Their chair simply bounced up and down next to them, whining something along the lines of, "Hey, I wanna see! I wanna see!"
"What's this one?" Tifa enquired, holding up a battered pair of trousers. There were mild burn marks around where the wearer's feet should be.
Bacon inspected them. "Oh, those're Shastao's Pants of Icarian Flight," he said after a short while. "They give +1000 each to fortify acrobatics, fortify athletics, jump and slow fall. Fast long-distance travel for those on a budget," he added when Tifa looked blank. "Put them on, take a leap in the right direction, and you'll eventually land on the other side of the continent. Only one careful owner."
"Maybe... not..." Tifa replied, gently putting the things back.
"What the hell is this?" Ess exclaimed, producing a soft toy... or at least, what a soft toy might end up like if it were possessed by a particularly nasty demonic entity. It was fairly large, and dark red, and had far too many tentacles, and it squeaked when she squeezed it.
"Oh, that's a Cthulhu plushy," Bacon told her. "It's literally one of a kind. Not many were made in the first place, you see, and some people kept going around burning them, saying they were the Devil's work or something like that."
"Well, they say that to gaze upon it is madness itself."
"I can see why."
"Wasn't the Author collecting those soft toys?" the chair pointed out.
"Well, yes," Ess admitted, "but I don't think he'd really want one like that, and he's dead anyway."
"What's this one?" Tifa asked, finding another toy. This one was a greenish-grey, and much less unpleasant. It looked like a rather cute goblin of some sort, complete with horns and a wide grin.
"Oh, that's Goerge."
"No, no, Goerge. He's a Tyop Demno."
"Really?" Tifa shook the toy, and a little bell on its head jingled. "He's kindo f cuet."
"You want him?"
"Maybe... butwe migth not hav eroom foe hm, might we/"
Bacon considered that sentence.
"On second thoughts, perhaps you should leave him here with me," he said, and put Goerge firmly back in the Bagrain Buckt. "Now -"
"Gangway! Clone coming through!"
The first thing that came through the doorway was Cloud's feet. These were followed shortly by Cloud's legs, then his waist, and then TB carrying Cloud's torso over his shoulder.
He put the clone down on its feet behind the counter and gave the customers a beam.
"Here we are," he said. "One Cloud, made to order, no imperfections. The sort of quality product you can only expect to find here."
"Wow," said Tifa. "It looks just like the real thing."
"It is a clone," TB pointed out tetchily. "Of course it's like the real thing."
"Er, anyway," TB cleared his throat a few times, as if he didn't really want to bring this subject up, "this does unfortunately bring us to the unpleasant matter of, er, payment."
"How much?" Ess enquired.
"Hmm." The two shopkeepers exchanged glances. "How much do you have?"
Ess looked through her pockets. "About... thirty thousand Gil..." she said.
"Um." TB considered this. "We normally charge twenty-five for a clone," he said. "But that would leave you only five thousand to buy other stuff, which won't go very far..."
"We could... you know..." Bacon suggested cryptically. TB stared at him for a few seconds before realisation dawned.
"Oh, yes, that!" he agreed. "Good idea. Okay, what -"
"I think I should get to tell them," Bacon interrupted. "It was my idea."
"Thanks." Bacon cleared his throat. "Okay, we're going to play a game. We will make the clone move - one of four movements, say... I don't know, waving one arm, jumping up and down, turning round on the spot, and... er..."
"Waving one leg around?" TB volunteered.
"Yeah, waving a leg around. One of you will mimic the movements after we've done them. We'll keep making the sequence longer and longer, and the first time you get it wrong, you lose."
"Shall we say... fifteen right and you get to keep the clone?" TB suggested.
Bacon nodded. "That sounds about right."
"Hang on," Ess put in. "You're saying that if we win this game... we get the body for Cloud... absolutely free?"
Both shopkeepers nodded together.
"Why on earth would you want us to pay for it like that?"
Bacon shrugged. "What can I say?" he replied. "We're traditionalists."
"It's another reference," added TB helpfully.
"This minigame sounds fun!" the chair exclaimed. "I want to do it!"
"You haven't got any limbs," Ess told it, rather heartlessly.
"Oh, yeah. I forgot."
"I'll do it," said Tifa decisively. "I'll get Cloud his body back."
Ess glowered at her. She wanted to say, "No, I'll get Cloud his body back," but reckoned that might sound a little childish.
"Glad to hear it!" TB reached behind the counter, grabbed four long pieces of rope, and began attaching them to the clone's body, one to each wrist, one to each ankle. "I'll control it. Bacon, you adjudicate."
Taking the loose ends of the ropes, TB hurried over to one side of the room, clambered up a set of bookshelves, and disappeared into the rafters.
"Okay, I'm ready," he called down eventually. "Everyone down there good to go?"
"Ready," said Bacon.
"Ready," said Tifa.
One string went taut, and the clone raised its right arm. Tifa immediately did the same.
"That's one correct!" called Bacon.
The clone raised its arm again. Then it lowered it and raised its left leg.
Tifa copied it.
"That's two correct!"
This charade continued for a minute or two, until they reached fifteen. Tifa happily raised an arm, a leg, turned round twice, raised the arm again, jumped, raised her leg, jumped, raised her arm, turned round, jumped twice, turned round... and hesitated.
"Raise your arm!" said the chair helpfully.
"I thought it was your leg..." Ess objected.
The three looked at each other.
"...but I'm not sure..." said Ess and the chair in perfect synchronisation.
There was silence for a few moments. Then, tentatively, Tifa raised her right arm.
Bacon nodded encouragingly at her.
Tifa raised her left leg.
Everyone held their breath.
"Um..." said Bacon. He stared at the ceiling. "Was that right?"
"I'm not sure!" TB called down. "Hang on, I'll do the next one and check."
The clone hurriedly raised an arm, a leg, turned round twice, raised the arm again, jumped, raised its leg, jumped, raised its arm, turned round, jumped twice, turned round, raised its arm, raised its leg, and jumped.
"They were right!" Bacon exclaimed. "Yay!"
"Thank whatever deity for that," TB muttered from above. "Now we can sell them some other stuff. Hang on, I'll be right down."
"Congratulations, guys," Bacon said cheerfully to them. "I was worried you wouldn't manage that." He leaned down and addressed the chair. "You want to take up residence in your new body now?"
"I'd love to!" the chair replied as, behind it, TB hopped off the shelves and landed gracelessly on the floor. "Only... how do I get out of this chair?"
"Oh, that one's easy. You just use mechano-shock therapy."
"What's that?" the chair asked. It sounded a tad nervous.
"It's okay, I'll do that for you." Bacon held out his hand commandingly. "Mallet."
"Mallet," repeated TB, grabbing an oversized red hammer from atop a stack of cardboard boxes and handing it to him.
"Hold still," Bacon ordered, and gave the chair a hefty whack with the mallet, which made a sound almost like 'baka.' It hurtled across the room, smashed into a wall, and folded up in an unnatural heap.
"Cloud!" Tifa and Ess cried, running after it. Tifa got there first and clutched the mangled metal to her chest. "Cloud! Are you okay?"
"Ouch..." said Cloud's voice from the other side of the room. "I think I'm okay..."
"You see?" said Bacon smugly. "MS therapy never fails to dislodge spirits."
"What?" Cloud said. "Oh, wait... you're right, I'm free again! I can do what I want! I can possess anything! I know, I'll possess these trousers here!"
A few seconds of silence passed.
"Er..." said Shastao's Pants of Icarian Flight. "Could you get me out again, please?"
There was another pause, before the clone moved. Its eyes flickered briefly, then opened fully. It stared around, looking rather dazed.
Then it struck a heroic pose.
"I'm back!" said Cloud triumphantly.
"Congratulations!" said Bacon for the second time. He and TB began applauding.
Nervously, Tifa approached Cloud. There were faint tears in her eyes. "Cloud, I..." she began. "I don't know... how..."
Bacon hurriedly leaned over and hit a button on the hi-fi, which started playing a soft, romantic piano melody.
"Reminiscence ~ Unerasable Memory, Chrono Cross," murmured TB under his breath.
"Impressively quick," Bacon whispered in reply.
"I just want to say..." Tifa continued, wringing her hands. "That is, you know..."
"Hey, do you sell weapons in here?" Cloud asked. "I'm not sure where my sword is, but I think my old body might have it."
He hesitated, and gave Tifa a curious look. "Sorry, Tifa, what were you saying?"
"N-nothing..." Tifa stammered. Cloud shrugged.
"Oh, okay." Happy that this had been resolved and that he hadn't missed anything, Cloud returned his attention to the shopkeepers. "So, do you... hey, where'd you go?"
"They disappeared through that door as soon as you mentioned weapons," Ess informed him, pointing towards the storeroom doorway.
"Okay, to me!" said Bacon Slicer, walking backwards through the door with one end of an immense wooden box in his hands.
"To you!" agreed TB, coming after him holding the other end of the box.
"And up on the counter... now!"
As one, the two lifted the box and dumped it on the counter, nearly flattening the hi-fi.
"You said you wanted weapons?" TB said. "Well, you've come to the right shop! We stock the most extensive collection of ultimate weapons you'll find anywhere! So, what weapon class are you three after?"
"Swords," said Cloud instantly.
"One-handed or two-handed?"
"Right. I guess you don't want a sword possessed by evil, do you?"
"I'd rather not," said Cloud mildly.
"Didn't think so. You'd be surprised just how many two-handed swords are these days. Okay, Bacon? Get the Atma Weapon."
Bacon rummaged around inside the box for a few seconds, and then produced an... interesting sword. The hilt was relatively normal, although the polished steel did have quite a few precious gems set into it. But the blade... it didn't even appear to be physically there. It was just a beam of pure cerulean light.
"This is the most perfect example of a heart-mirror blade we've found," TB explained professionally. "The more healthy you are, the stronger - and longer - the blade is; our experiments got it up to a length of six feet when we pumped Bacon here up with all the materia and spare items we had. The hilt is custom-enhanced to hold eight standard size materia. And it looks simply too cool. Yours for only..." He turned to Bacon Slicer. "How much would you say?"
Bacon shrugged. "Two thousand?"
"Yeah, that sounds about right. Yours for only two thousand Gil!"
Cloud took the blade and tested it. It made a faint whaumm sound when he swung it gently through the air.
"I like this sword," he remarked.
Bacon Slicer and the Blunderbuss exchanged glances.
"We have a sale," they said in synchronisation.
"Okay," Bacon continued with barely a pause for breath. "Who's next?" He looked at Ess. "Oh, yes, we were definitely going to do something for you, weren't we?"
"Why?" TB asked. "What's she using?"
TB winced visibly.
Bacon stuck one hand into the box, and after a while took out a frying pan. It glittered in the light.
"The 'Pro Wan Tan' model Golden Wok," he said. "Most frying pans, you see, deliver the force to the opponent over a short period of time, because people's heads are never perfectly flat. But thanks to its four-fold alloy composition, the Golden Wok has the exact level of flexibility required to deform briefly and then deliver all the force of the blow at the exact same time, every time."
"Nice pitch," TB muttered.
"I -" said Ess.
"We'll take it!" Cloud cut her off.
"You want it, don't you?" said Cloud defensively. "It's an ultimate weapon. Of course you want it!"
"One thousand Gil?" suggested TB.
The conversation continued in a similar vein for another few minutes, at the end of which Cloud, Tifa and Ess had bought the following:
One Atma Weapon (two-handed sword class).
One Ehrgeiz (combat glove class).
One Archangel's Staff of Apocalypse (staff class, +2 to spell levels, 255 charges of Apocalypse).
One Ionic Fusion Rifle (gun-arm class).
One pair of Ruby Quartz Phase Shades (sunglasses class).
One Overdriven Guitar (musical instrument class).
One Self-Perpetuating Isotope (chemical class).
One Golden Wok (kitchen utensil class).
This had cost them twelve thousand Gil so far.
"So... what next?" Bacon enquired, slipping the Archangel's Staff into a carrier bag marked Bag. "You've still got eighteen thousand left, right?"
"Yes, but we don't need to spend it all..." Ess objected before Cloud cut her off.
"What do you have?" he asked. "Come on, Ess, why do we have money if we're not going to spend it on rare items?"
"Have we sold them any limit manuals yet?" TB prompted.
"Good point," Bacon agreed. "Okay, how many of you want to learn an ultimate weapon technique to devastate any enemies foolish enough to stand in your path?"
"I do!" said Cloud instantly.
"Good. Which move... would..." Bacon's voice trailed off. "Hang on, how do we work out which moves they can learn?"
TB considered this. "The only real way is for them to read the manuals and see which ones they understand," he mused. "But that might take some time..."
"How many do you have?" Tifa asked.
"About a hundred and twenty or so."
"Hum." TB thought about this. "Give us a moment."
He and Bacon Slicer went into a quick whispered conference.
"Okay!" said Bacon after a minute or thereabouts. "We have decided to give you the offer of a lifetime! One hundred and twenty ultimate moves for many different weapon classes, for only fifteen thousand Gil! Read through them and you, and all your friends, are bound to learn at least one!"
"A hundred and twenty?" Ess exclaimed, mildly disbelieving. "How are we going to read through all of -"
"We'll take them!" said Cloud.
"...I guess we'll find the time," Ess conceded wearily.
"So that leaves you with three thousand Gil," TB observed, producing another carrier bag marked Bag and proceeding to clear an entire shelf of books into it. "What else can we get you? Stat boosters? Rare materia? Armour? Stuff from the Bargain Bucket?"
Cloud thought about this until something struck him.
"Actually," he said, and both shopkeepers' faces fell dramatically, "we might need this money somewhere else. Can we come back later when we've got some more?"
"You're sure you don't want to buy a wall scroll?" Bacon prompted hopefully.
"Of course we do. But we might miss out on a one-off offer at another shop if we spend all our money here."
"He's got a point," TB admitted grudgingly.
"How about a Master Support materia?" Bacon tried.
"Later," said Cloud firmly.
"Well, in any case," said TB, handing over the carrier bags, "it's been a pleasure doing business with you. Really, it has. Make sure you come back soon, okay?"
"Oh, I will," Cloud replied firmly. "You've got so much good stuff in here I haven't even looked at yet."
"I guess we'll be going, then." Cloud seemed rather unwilling to leave. "You're not going to close down, are you?"
"Of course not."
"Good, good." Cloud sighed. "Okay, we really should go, then. Come on, you two."
"I'll be with you in a second," Ess told him. "Just need to... you know..."
"Oh, sure." Cloud nodded. "C'mon, Tifa."
He ambled slowly out of the shop, pausing at the doorway for one final, longing glance back. Tifa followed at his feet.
"So what are you after?" TB enquired of Ess, who went pink and pointed at the small red lozenge sitting on one end of the counter.
"How much for that one?" she asked.
TB considered this, unabashed. "Hmm... Well, we bought it from Mad Eddy for... how much was it again...?"
"About four thousand, I think," Bacon told him.
"Yeah, about that. So we'd have to charge you at least that."
"Oh." Ess sighed. "Okay. Never mind."
TB picked the thing up, examined it closely, and then dropped it in the Bargain Bucket.
"Oh, blast," he muttered. "Okay, looks like it's just been marked down. One hundred Gil."
"It's in the Bucket," Bacon explained. "Everything in the Bucket is 100 Gil. That's the way the Bucket works."
"You can't argue with the Bucket," agreed TB sagely.
"Oh." Ess dug one hand into a pocket, and handed over a hundred Gil piece. "Thanks."
TB looked innocent as he retrieved the pill from the Bucket and flicked it into her open palm. "Just doing business. Do come again."
Ess hurried out, closing the door gently behind her.
"Nice people," said Bacon thoughtfully. TB nodded.
"Mmm," he murmured in vague assent. "Ah well. Back to life as usual, huh?"
The two returned to their seats, TB picking his up off the floor before doing so. Then Bacon leaned over and switched tracks on the hi-fi once more.
"The Use of Meia, Alundra," said TB after a few seconds. "My go."
Ess caught up with the other two a few dozen yards from the shop. Cloud was looking forlornly back at the building, obviously reluctant to leave it behind.
"Oh, hi, Ess," he said as she hurried up. "Just waiting for you. Nothing to do with the shop at all."
"We can always come back here another time," Ess said astutely. "Come on, you can get all those items later."
"Yeah, I guess." Cloud shrugged and, with great strength of mind, turned his back on the shop. "Okay, let's find something to do until -"
The shockwave threw all three of them a good six or seven yards forwards. Instinctively, Cloud just about managed to get his arms round Ess and to land on his back, giving her a more comfortable landing than the ground alone would have afforded. The significance of this action was not lost on either of the girls, although it probably was on Cloud.
The sound of the explosion echoed around the mountains for long after they'd hit the ground.
Cloud got to his feet, and stared incredulously at the shop... or at least where it had been a moment ago. The size of the crater in its place made it pretty clear that not much could have survived that... at least, not as anything other than the fine dust now settling in the surrounding area.
"Oh well," he said bluntly. "I guess we're not coming back here, then. Onwards!"
The lone soldier guarding the elevator that led down beneath the waves to the Junon Undersea Reactor gave the new arrivals a sceptical glance.
"Who did you say you were again?" he enquired coldly.
The apparent leader - presumably seniority by merit of age - puffed his chest out even more and tried to look important.
"Why, old chap, I'm Major Sergei Ivanov," he proclaimed. "These fellows here are Dmitri Molotov and Nadia Borova."
"Bonnie mornin' to ye," said Dmitri.
"A pleasure to meet yousah!" said Nadia.
"We're Russians, don'tcha know," Sergei pointed out. "Here to inspect the dashed reactor, old comrade."
The guard raised an eyebrow.
"Russians, Turks or whoever, I'm afraid I need to see authorisation before you're allowed into the reactor," he informed them. "If you don't have it, please come back when you do."
"B-but..." Sergei objected. "You're villains, old boy. And the Russians are villains too, you know. So we must be on the same side, what?"
"Och, ah thaught the villains were the Germans," Dmitri objected.
"Of course the dashed Jerries are the villains, the cads," explained Sergei patiently. "But the Russkies are villains too!"
"I didn't know that eithersah!" Nadia added in Dmitri's defence.
"Don't you worry about it, old beans," Sergei conceded. "But don't forget, eh? Never know when the blighters might strike again!"
"Sirs?" the guard insisted. "I really can't let you in without authorisation. I'm sorry."
"Oh, eh, what?" Sergei looked pensive. "You mean to say, old boy, that there's nothing we can say to make you let us in?"
"No," the guard agreed, glad that he'd finally got his point across.
"Oh well." Sergei turned to Nadia. "Time for the jolly old secret weapon, what?"
Nadia reached behind her... his... their back and took out an... interesting secret weapon. It was about the size of a football, covered in whipped cream, and with a fair amount of jam on top.
"What on earth is that?" enquired the soldier, unable to contain his curiosity.
"Och, it's a Kalashnikov trifle the noo!" said Dmitri.
"Every Russian blighter carries one, don'tchaknow," Sergei pointed out. "Standard kit for Russkies, what?" He took a deep breath. "Boatswain Borova!"
"Let the bounder have it!"
Nadia threw the trifle...
...and there ensued the most... splat-like explosion ever heard. It was the sort of noise one might expect a custard-filled stick of dynamite to make if someone was foolhardy enough to light its licorice fuse.
When the clouds of flour settled, the corridor was white. Double cream dripped off the walls, the ceiling, and off Sergei Ivanov, Dmitri Molotov and Nadia Borova. For his part, the ex-guard of the elevator was flat on his back, strawberry jam obscuring all of his face aside from his rather inane grin.
Sergei prodded him with one brown army boot.
"You know, old beans," he mused out loud, "I've always thought a trifle was a dashed silly weapon, even for those blasted Russkies."
"Maybe they invented it as an assassination weapon for use at dinner partiessah!"
Sergei nodded thoughtfully.
"Well, no point in standing around here all bally day, what?" he announced. "Now we're behind the enemy's lines, let's go steal their materia, eh? Haha."
"Are we sure that's a Weapon?" Warbling Croft enquired, staring at the hulking grey mass a few hundred yards away in the distance.
"Of course it's a freakin' Weapon!" Cid snapped. "Look, the thing's a couple of hundred feet tall! Whattaya think it is, a bloody big mole?"
"Well, it's not moving as much as the other ones," Croft pointed out defensively. "It's just sitting there."
"He does have a point, Cid," Aeris agreed. "For something created to destroy, it's awfully quiet and still, isn't it?"
The group had spent the last few hours chasing a couple of Weapons all over the world - and those things could really move. Their first quarry had been something akin to a huge black dragon, which had hurtled around the skies at a phenomenal rate and eventually lost the Highwind in thick cloud. The second, a huge stomping golem that appeared to be made of diamond, had proceeded around at a much more leisurely pace, destroying buildings in no hurry. Unfortunately, by the time Cid had landed the ship and the group had charged out to face the thing in combat, it had already ambled into the middle of the Central Ocean, and as they watched it disappeared beneath the waves without even leaving a trail of bubbles.
This one didn't even seem to want to move. It was seated happily in the middle of a huge plain, looking almost thoughtful. It did not really look like an ultimate weapon of destruction.
For that matter, it didn't even look like it was made out of a precious or semi-precious stone. It didn't have that nice reflective sheen it should have had.
"Well," Sephiroth announced firmly, taking charge as no one else seemed to want to, "we have a Weapon to destroy. We'll split into two parties. Cid, er... singer person, you two come with me. We'll mount a front-on assault and get the thing's attention. Aeris, Shan, rabbit, you -"
"The name's Big," Mr. Big pointed out flatly. "Mr. Big."
"Right, Aeris, Shan, Mr. Big, you will sneak up behind it and search for a weak point. Understood?"
"Good." Sephiroth tested his grip on the Masamune and swung it through the air a few times. "Let's go."
Squad B, that is, the Rear Assault Squad in Sephiroth's Master Plan, left at a tangent pretty quickly, leaving Sephiroth leading the pilot and the singer-spy directly towards the Weapon. Cid held his spear in both hands, perhaps a little nervous - not that he'd admit it to anyone - and Croft had his special battle bagpipes tucked under one arm. They looked like a rather motley party.
The Weapon looked a hell of a lot bigger up close.
It also became apparent what it was made of. True, it wasn't a precious stone. It wasn't even a stone.
It was paper.
Sheet upon sheet of the stuff, stuck to one another presumably with some kind of magical glue, every single page covered with handwriting in millions of different scripts. As the group approached, it turned lethargically to face them with a noise like a newspaper press in a hurricane, and the three found a pair of deep-set eyes the colour of navy blue ink staring down at them.
Sephiroth and Cid assumed ready positions. Croft took up one that seemed more jittery than ready, but it was probably about as close as he was likely to get.
The Weapon got to its feet, all four of them, giving it an extra hundred feet height advantage. Its eyes narrowed.
"Concentrate on avoiding whatever it throws at you," Sephiroth muttered. "It doesn't really matter how much damage we deal. All that's important is holding its attention until the others take it out."
"Um?" Croft said thoughtfully. "I have an idea..."
"No problem," Cid remarked to Sephiroth, not taking his eyes off the Weapon. "But I ain't just standin' around here waitin' for it to hurt us. Ya comin'?"
He crouched down briefly and hurtled off towards the creature's feet. Sephiroth caught up with him barely a second later and matched his pace, seemingly without any exertion whatsoever.
"After you," he said generously.
Before the behemoth had even had time to raise an arm to strike them, Cid had practically run into it and launched himself vertically a good few dozen feet into the air. He reached the apex of his jump and stabbed his spear into the body of the Weapon, the paper holding him up just long enough for Sephiroth to jump up and ricochet off him. Cid flipped himself up once more, tearing his spear out harshly and soaring, together with Sephiroth, to a frankly terrifying height.
Both blades dug deep into the Weapon's body at the same time, and as the pair dropped both blades scythed downwards through the creature, the paper providing next to no resistance.
Sephiroth hit the ground marginally before Cid and rolled backwards to avoid being landed on. He got to his feet and looked up, surveying his handiwork.
As he watched, the gashes closed themselves up, new sheets of paper appearing to cover the cuts.
"Oh, abso-friggin'-lutely marvellous," Cid muttered, hitting the ground next to him. "The damn thing regenerates?"
"We're not trying to kill it, remember," Sephiroth muttered. "Just keep it busy."
"Er?" Croft called, fumbling in his pockets for something.
"Prepare for -" Sephiroth began, then abandoned the comment and barrelled into Cid as the Weapon raised a clawed leg and moved to crush the two of them beneath its heel. "Get back!"
"Guys?" Croft went on as Cid and Sephiroth hit the ground hard, narrowly avoiding Death by Paperweight.
"What?" Cid yelled back. "You actually want to help?"
"I've had an idea!"
"Well, be my guest!"
Croft held his hands out in front of him, left fist clenched, right hand around the left. He stared intently at the Weapon for a few seconds, before he spoke.
For a brief moment crimson light spilled out from between his fingers, before he yelped and dropped the materia he was holding with a cry of, "Ow! Hot!" Thankfully, this minor slip-up in casting didn't seem to provide a problem, as a few seconds later there was a faint 'poof' and smoke began rising from one of the Weapon's feet.
It seemed a little agitated by this. As the fire began to grow higher and the smoke billowed forth in more copious quantities, it began to seem rather more agitated. Indeed, by the time its leg was completely engulfed, it was bouncing around, waving its arms in the air and looked veritably frantic.
Sephiroth and Cid managed to hurry back to Croft at about the time the Weapon's head erupted into flames.
"How the hell," Cid muttered breathlessly, "did you do that?"
Croft pointed at the materia lying on the ground at his feet. "I just cast that little fire spell on it."
Sephiroth and Cid looked at the innocent orb.
"We should have thought of that, really," Sephiroth mused. "But that's... quite impressive for a basic fire spell."
"Perhaps it's weak against fire?" Croft suggested.
"Of course it's weak against fire, you moron!" Cid exclaimed. "It's made of paper!"
Croft looked taken aback. "You sound on edge," he observed. "I know!" He paused for a moment. "Add a dab of lavender to milk. Leave town with an orange, and pretend you're laughing at it."
"You..." Cid paused. "What the hell was that?"
"It's from the Little Book of Calm," explained Croft. "I think."
"Excuse me for asking what is most likely a stupid question," Sephiroth put in, "but why are you quoting that?"
"Well, everyone seems awfully nervous," Croft elaborated. "I though we should try being calm."
"Why should we be calm?" Cid snapped, waving an arm towards the Weapon. "We're tryin' to keep a huge golem thing occupied without gettin' flattened! Calm is... not..." He hesitated, then turned to look at where the Weapon had been. "Hey, where the hell'd it go?"
A minute ago there had been a huge paper golem created by the Planet to do its bidding and destroy evil. Now there was just... a very large pile of ash. A very large pile of ash.
"Okay," said Cid happily. "Now I'm calm."
The three wandered over to the heap and inspected it. They were joined shortly by Squad B, who looked somewhat disheartened at the way their intended target had been destroyed even before they'd arrived.
"I'faith, what hath befallen yonder mound?" Shan enquired. "Be it a demon most foul in disguise?"
"It's quite a good disguise, isn't it?" Mr. Big observed. "Although you could hide pretty much anything under there."
"I did that," said Croft happily. "I'm a mighty spellcaster! Everyone fears my fire spells!"
"Wow," Mr. Big remarked, obviously disbelieving. "What, was the thing made of paper or something?"
"Yeah," Cid backed Croft up.
"So th'creature didst carry no objects o' great power that we might use, nay?" Shan mused gloomily. "That do be most -"
He stopped. Deep within the very bowels of the heap, something was moving. The ashes shifted, almost imperceptibly at first, but growing more and more violent worryingly quickly.
As one, everyone around the pile took a couple of steps back and slipped into their respective combat stances - except Mr. Big, who was sitting on Shan's shoulder and didn't need to step anywhere.
As the ash moved, a low rumble began to reverberate around the plain, shaking the whole heap. It grew progressively louder... and louder... and louder...
The group took another couple of paces backwards.
The roar stopped.
Then the shaking stopped.
And then a head popped up from the centre of the heap. It looked around, blinked a few times, and then tried to brush the dust and ash off it. It coughed a couple of times.
"Oh, hi," it said eventually. "Nice to see you all again."
There was a pause.
"The hell -" Cid began.
"Author?" Mr. Big exclaimed. "That you?"
The Author - or rather the Author's head, as there was still no proof that any more of him existed - nodded happily.
"It takes more than death to keep me down," he said cheerfully. "You see, I've told you time and time again. There's always a way around these little problems, if you just look in the right places." He happened to spot Sephiroth and waved. "Hi. You made it back too, I see."
"Of course," Sephiroth replied, as nonchalantly as he could manage. "I presume you'd like us to dig you out?"
"If you wouldn't mind."
"Sure." Sephiroth beckoned to the others. "Okay, everyone, help me..." He paused briefly. "Correction. Cid, Croft, Shan, rabbit... Mr. Big, sorry, you four help me work out the best way to dig our comrade out." He gave Aeris a brief smile. "Girl, you have other things you want to do, right?"
Aeris nodded. Slowly, hesitantly, she clambered up the heap towards the Author, ignoring the ash that stuck to her dress.
"Hey," he said softly as she approached. "It's very good to see you."
Aeris dropped down to her knees. Without a word she leaned forwards, drew her head to the Author's and kissed him.
"Wh-" Mr. Big began jubilantly, only to have Sephiroth's hand clamped over his mouth. "Mmmf?"
"Don't spoil the moment, now," he murmured. "Come on, let's formulate our plans a little further away."
Mr. Big nodded, and the hand was removed.
"I'm guessing someone's really glad to be back," he remarked, keeping his voice low. "Betcha can't get girls to do that in the Lifestream whatsit."
"It's easier than you'd think," Sephiroth replied absently.
"Ladies of loose virtue die all the time."
Author's note: At this point there was originally intended to be a scene where Nanaki travelled to Corel and, after much discourse with the town's inhabitants, acquired the huge materia formed in the nearby reactor. However, Nanaki assures me that it was long-winded and not particularly interesting, and so we decided to omit it.
"I say we left 'em long 'nough awready," Barret announced decisively, striding towards the doors to the Highwind's chocobo stables. "C'mon, we gotta see if we got somethin' to do that barrier thing."
"I really don't think..." Vyse replied, trailing ineffectually behind him. "It's only been a few hours..."
"Thass right!" Barret agreed. "Plentya time. An' we can't leave 'em longer, 'cause we might gotta do it again to get a good chocobo." He beamed proudly. "That's plannin', that is."
He pushed open the door and marched into the stables. The vast majority of the floor was now covered in a thin layer of straw, with a large nest-like heap in one corner. Both birds were seated side-by-side atop this heap, staring absently in the vague direction of the visitors. There was a faint smell of cigarette smoke in the air.
Barret smelled the air.
"Yo, has Cid been in here?" he enquired. Vyse shook his head.
"He's been out with the others fighting that big grey monster we passed a while back," he explained. "Remember, the one just east of Kalm?"
"Aw, yeah." Barret shrugged the matter off. "Wha'ever."
He looked around the stables. They weren't particularly noteworthy, as far as chocobo stables went. Straw, greens, a small rack of cleaning tools against one wall... The only really notable thing, as far as Barret was concerned, was the chocobos.
There were two of them.
This was a smaller figure than he'd been expecting. Smaller by one chocobo, in fact.
"Where's da little one?" he asked.
"It's not here, is it?" Vyse pointed out wearily. "That's what I was trying to -"
"Why not? We did ev'rythin' we was meant to!"
"Er..." Vyse obviously wasn't sure how delicately to put this. "Some things take time, Barret."
"But we gave 'em three hours!" Barret objected.
"Yes, but... I was thinking perhaps a little more than that."
"Yo' mean another three hours?"
"Even more than that." Vyse took out his chocobo breeding brochure and leafed quickly through it. "Er... it says here, 'the average gestation time for the common plains chocobo is three months.'"
Barret looked puzzled.
"We gotta wait months?" he said after a while.
"Well, tha'... we... aw, screw this!" Barret stamped one foot heavily on the metal floor, the two chocobos paying him next to no attention. "C'mon! We gonna go to da kitchen an' whip up some stuffin'."
"Stuffing?" Vyse repeated. He searched through his mind. "But we don't have any meat in the ship's stores to go with stuffing..."
Barret turned round. The light glinted briefly off one of his eyes.
"We don't need stuff in da stores," he replied darkly.
"So, uh, can I just check what's going on?" Kasuto asked. "There's one of these huge materia things up on top of this reactor, right? And there's a big birdy thing on top of it. And all these, like, really evil Shinra people are coming to take the bird away, and they'll take the materia too, but if I can help save the bird from them then I can have the materia, so you want me to like command all your people and tell them what to do and fight the Shinra people off as they try to climb up the outside of the reactor, right?"
She paused, not even out of breath, and eagerly watched the faces of those around her.
The Mako reactor at Fort Condor was situated in the middle of a huge plain on the Junon subcontinent and had been named, seemingly, after the huge bird that had decided it would be wise to build a nest on top of an exploding power plant. Clearly a creature that would willingly do such a thing needed aid to make sure it didn't get itself killed in some stupid and certainly embarrassing manner, and so the interior of the reactor had become a home for a number of animal lovers, activists, and people who just wanted to annoy the Shinra. And, for the moment, Kasuto.
Why, precisely, the experienced activists wanted her, a teenage girl they'd only just met, to oversee their efforts to stymie the Shinra troops' ascent up the reactor was not entirely clear.
The lips of the elder reactor occupant moved silently as he ran through Kasuto's monologue, checking it for flaws. Eventually, satisfied, he smiled and nodded to her. "That is what we are asking, yes."
Kasuto considered this.
"This sounds just too cool," she announced. "I can do it! So, er... what do I do?"
"Well." Elder Marcus, the most senior rebel present, cleared his throat. "First I shall introduce you to our forces..."
He spent a couple of minutes detailing to their new general the strengths and weaknesses of every individual member of their small pseudo-clan; what they could do well, what they struggled with, who they got on well with, who they disliked. Then he showed her their arsenal, and explained the particular fortes of each weapon type, making sure to remind her who was proficient with what. Finally, he unrolled a map of the surface of the reactor and traced out the various paths up the outside, pointing out any pitfalls along the route.
Eventually he rolled the map up, handed it to one of his subordinates, and turned to Kasuto.
"So, my dear," he said pleasantly, "do you have any plans yet?"
"Buuuh..." said Kasuto.
"I think you shut her brain down, boss," one of the lesser activists piped up. "Just like the last guy."
"Oh... drat," the elder muttered. "But... I didn't teach her that much, did I? I was careful to leave out all the complicated stuff."
"You've been talking for half an hour, boss."
Kasuto blinked a couple of times. Then, almost as if she'd been freeze-framed briefly, she suddenly burst back into life.
"I got all that," she said happily.
"That's a shame, because... what?"
"I got everything you said."
"Really?" Marcus was obviously a little sceptical.
"Yep." Kasuto looked around for a second, then chose a rebel at random and pointed at him. "You! You're... Ashton, aren't you?"
The man nodded, more than a little impressed.
"And you're good with... bows!"
"I'm a swordsman, actually," Ashton informed her.
"And you get on well with... Boise!"
"Borland, actually," Ashton interrupted. "I can't stand Boise."
"Oh." Kasuto thought about this. "I got most of it right, though."
"Yes..." Elder Marcus considered this. "I think... perhaps we should wait for a more suitable cand-"
A younger rebel came hurtling down one of the passages that pervaded the reactor, clearly agitated. From the way Ashton tensed and looked visibly irritated as he turned up, Kasuto guessed that it was probably Boise... or was it Borland...? Actually, it might have been Fenwick...
"They're finally here, boss!" he, whoever he was, exclaimed. "The Shinra! They're attacking at last!"
Marcus froze. Then, wearily, he turned to Kasuto.
"Will you lead us?" he asked. His tone almost suggested he hoped the answer would be no.
"Well, duh!" Kasuto beamed. "I'd, like, sooo love to! C'mon! Let's go stop them!"
"Well, this brings back memories," Sephiroth remarked. "Nice town."
Nibelheim had never been the most exciting village, with the possible exception of one notable day five years back. There had only ever been one or two children at most in the streets, with most of the adults either preferring to simply sit around at home, or to meet and talk in the village tavern. Today, not only were there no children around, but there weren't even any birds or other creatures. The air was perfectly still. It felt like a ghost town... which was probably a remarkably appropriate way to describe it.
Sephiroth led his party, which currently consisted of Perigee and Croft, into the town square. Sephiroth himself held the Masamune loosely in one hand, ready to strike if need be, while Croft seemed to be concealing something bulky within his trenchcoat, and Perigee dragged one end of what appeared to be a very long power cable behind him.
"I still think you coming here was a bad idea," Perigee muttered. By his tone it seemed he'd been making this point for a good half hour at least.
"And I still don't see a problem," Sephiroth replied, mildly irritated.
"Well, what if the people here recognise you?"
Sephiroth considered this. "I would imagine it'll be something like, 'Aaaah! You! How dare you come back here!'"
"And you don't see anything wrong with that?"
"Not really. If they get uppity we can just kill them."
Perigee sighed. "But then they won't let us use their power supplies, will they?"
"They won't be in much of a position to object. Besides, you need my expertise in case a giant mutant locust or something attacks."
"Er, there's something I don't understand..." Croft put in.
"Um..." Croft looked around. "Didn't you burn down this town a few years ago?"
"But it's, er... still here..."
Their brief subquest to defeat the Weapons over, the crew of the Highwind had, a couple of hours previously, set about picking up all those who had gone off to do other things, in the hope that they had found more success. From the plains of the Midgar subcontinent they had travelled south and rescued Kasuto from where she was being beseiged atop a Mako reactor by a good few dozen Shinra soldiers, then east to Rocket Town and Perigee. As it turned out, both had managed to locate a large chunk of appropriately named Huge Materia, which were now sitting in one corner of the bridge.
Unfortunately, things had taken a downward - literally - turn shortly afterwards. It transpired that, during his brief stint as assistant chocobo breeder, Vyse had neglected his duties as battery level watcher, and the Highwind's batteries had run down unnoticed. Cid had made an emergency landing, and a small group had been sent out to the nearest village - which later turned out to be Nibelheim - to see if they could find a generous soul who wouldn't mind having an airship plugged into his wall socket for a few hours.
"Well..." Sephiroth thought for a moment. "Either people have rebuilt this place, or my memories of the events of five years ago are entirely false, nothing more than figments of my own deranged psyche. Which do we think is more likely?"
"I'd have to go for the first one," said Croft innocently.
"I'm glad to hear that." Sephiroth looked briefly pensive. "Doesn't take a genius to work out why they rebuilt it to look exactly like it used to, does it?"
"Hardly," agreed Perigee.
"Not at all," added Croft.
There was a brief silence.
"I don't mean to look stupid," said Croft eventually, feeling he was speaking for the both of them, "but why do you think it was rebuilt like this?"
Sephiroth sighed. "It's a cover up," he said tetchily. "Obviously the higher-ups are trying to pretend that the whole Nibelheim Incident didn't happen. They'll have had everyone who survived... eliminated, and I would imagine they'll have planted their own people in here. Talk to anyone and they'll undoubtedly say they've lived here for more than five years. I doubt many of them - if any - will even recognise me."
"Wow," said Croft in awe. "How do you think like that?"
"It's a gift."
"Anyway, shall we start looking?" Perigee interrupted. "We, er, don't really want to be here any longer than necessary."
"I seem to recall there being a number of sockets in the mansion at the far end of town," Sephiroth pointed out. "We could use those. What voltage is your airship?"
"230," Perigee replied automatically.
Sephiroth nodded. "That sounds about right. Come on, let's head over there."
They trooped through the town square, catching a few suspicious glances from windows on either side. Strangely enough, though, there was not one cry of, "Aaaah! You! How dare you come back here!"
There was a man sunbathing in the front garden of the old Shinra mansion. At least, he looked like he was sunbathing. He was lying on a cheap plastic lounger with a book on his face and his arms folded behind his head, but for some unknown reason he was doing so while wearing full evening dress.
Perigee stared at him for a few moments.
"Er, perhaps he lives here?" he suggested after a while. "I'll go and ask him if he, um, minds us using the mansion for a while, shall I? You two can wait here."
He handed the Highwind's power cable to Croft and advanced on the mysterious individual.
"Um, excuse me?" he called, with no obvious response. He advanced closer, and tried again. "Excuse me?"
Still no response. Perigee sighed, and cleared his throat.
"Excuse -" he began, before the man leaped up onto his sunbed, raised both hands above his head, and shouted something best transcribed as, "BLUUUH!"
Perigee leaped back a couple of yards in shock, while the man lowered his arms and chuckled.
"Eet vas weeery spooooky, ja?" he said happily.
Perigee sighed and relaxed, or at least relaxed as much as he ever did.
"Kea?" he enquired. "What, er, what are you doing here?"
"Vaitink for you; vat else ees there to do around here?" Kea replied, a touch bitterly. "I vas expectink to be made part of your party aaages ago. Haf I missed much?"
"Er, quite a lot, yes," Perigee said. "Keep your voice down, though. How long have you been here?"
"Four years," Kea muttered gloomily.
"Wow. That's a long time."
"You think I hafn't realiced?"
"Oh. Yeah. Sorry."
"So," Kea went on enthusiastically, "eet is time for me to join you now, ja?"
Perigee thought about this.
"Well, I guess..." he admitted. "But we are a long way in, you know, and we've already got lots of characters. Adding you might seem a little..."
"You mean I'fe been vaitink here for four years for nothink?" Kea retorted coldly.
"I'm sorry," Perigee told him, and meant it. "If we'd come here earlier... and, er, we should have come here earlier if the plot had been on track..."
"Vat a vaste..." Kea muttered. "And I could haf been lurkink at home all these years..." He shook his head sadly. "Are you sure?"
"Well, I... oh, why not?" Perigee shrugged. "You can come along. Do you -"
"Oh, I haf a vay to meet you all organiced!" Kea said happily. "Come down to my fault in five minutes, ja?"
He leaped up, picked up his book, and stalked away into the house at top speed. Perigee watched him go, sighed again, then turned and wandered back to where Sephiroth and Croft had cornered a rather timid-looking woman.
"I've lived here for as long as I can remember," she was saying. "Nothing ever happens here."
"Um, that's very interesting..." Croft replied uncertainly. "But what I was asking was if you knew anywhere where I could get something to eat?"
The woman looked worried. She hadn't been briefed on how to deal with situations like this.
"I've lived here for as long as I can remember..." she said, falling back on what she knew. "Nothing ever..."
"He says we can come in and use his wall sockets," Perigee adlibbed. "Only, er, the ones above ground aren't working, so we have to use the ones in the vault. Basement. I mean basement."
Sephiroth nodded. "Then let us go there." He nodded to the woman. "You may go. Thank you for your help."
"I've lived here for -"
"Yes, yes, yes, we get the point. Go on, shoo."
The air inside the mansion was dank and musty, to the extent that it seemed almost deliberately so - and Perigee could easily imagine Kea calling in experts and telling them, "I vant everythink dark. Veeery dark and spooooky, ja?"
The group made their way up the stairs in the great hall, and Sephiroth led the way into a small side room on the first floor. It was small, filled with ancient furniture and cobwebs, and made even smaller by one of the corners being bricked off, presumably for a chimney or something.
"I can imagine a ghost haunting this place," Croft remarked casually. He pushed a rotting rocking chair by one wall, and the thing creaked back and forth for a few seconds. "It's very spooky, isn't it?"
Sephiroth nodded, then paused. "Hang on, I just need to try something."
He walked over to one corner of the room and tapped a floorboard with his foot. Nothing happened.
"Proof that this place has been rebuilt," he explained. "I distinctly remember that board creaking, five years ago."
"Oooh?" Croft ambled over, one of the floorboards on his way creaking as he stepped on it.
"...or it might have been that one," Sephiroth admitted. "Okay, so it's been rebuilt well."
"But where do we go now?" Croft asked. "There aren't any other doors or anything..."
"Watch." Sephiroth ambled over to the brick wall in one corner, ran his hand over the stones, and then applied pressure to one particular brick. A section of the wall slid aside, creaking rather predictably as it did so, to reveal a tight spiral staircase leading down into the gloom. A lone moth fluttered up from the depths, circled the room a couple of times, and then made its exit through the window.
"How atmospheric," he remarked flatly.
The staircase led down eventually to a wide tunnel, seemingly carved from the rock under the mansion. At the far end of the passage was a rotting wooden door, which as Sephiroth pointed out led to the underground library.
Halfway down the tunnel was a door set into the side. This had obviously been put in much more recently, and was made of mahogany so dark it was practically black. A bat motif had been etched into the wood and highlighted in gold.
Sephiroth paused in front of the door.
"...is that organ music?" he asked curiously.
Croft listened closely.
"It's Bach's lost Fugue in Six Minor Keys At Once!" he exclaimed. "It was thought the original sheet music was last in a freak storm of ravens! I've never heard it before!"
Perigee wondered whether he should ask just how Croft recognised it, in that case, but thought better of it.
"Perhaps we should see what's happening in here?" he suggested, and pushed the door open before anyone could object.
The organ music reached a sudden climax, then died away, leaving nothing but a low, tense chord. The organ itself was still nowhere to be seen, the only object of any interest in the rather bleak room on the other side of the door being an open coffin.
"I get the feeling we are being toyed with," Sephiroth observed coldly, advancing slowly through the door, Masamune at the ready. He glanced briefly back over his shoulder. "Don't let your guards down, no matter -"
Sephiroth leaped back with a surprised grunt as a black-clad figure dropped from the ceiling and landed barely a foot in front of him. It bared its fangs, raised its arms, and tried to look imposing.
"Bwuh huh!" it laughed at him. "I scared you, ja?"
Sephiroth lowered his sword.
"What... the hell... are you?" he intoned coldly.
The figure lowered its arms and took up a more relaxed pose.
"I am Kea!" it annnounced. "I am a wampire!"
On cue, the invisible organ hit a different discord.
"A wampire?" Sephiroth repeated.
"Ja!" The figure laughed evilly. "I haf been kept locked up in here for many, many years! But now you haf released me! I may fly and torment the vorld vunce more! Bwuh huh huh!"
"We've found an idiot," Sephiroth remarked flatly. Behind him Croft cleared his throat pointedly, and he corrected himself. "Another idiot."
"I am not an eediot!" Kea objected. "I am a -"
"Yes, yes, a wampire, we heard you," Sephiroth said wearily. "Look, we need to plug an airship into one of your wall sockets for a few hours. If you would just let us do that then we can leave you to your... bloodsucking or whatever you wampires get up to when no one's watching."
"And do you know anywhere we could get something to eat while we're waiting?" Croft piped up.
Kea considered this.
"You haf an airsheep?" he asked suspiciously. "Are you... vith the Sheenra?"
"We're fighting them, actually," Perigee put in, feeling he ought to help things along. "We stole their airship."
"Bwuh huh!" Kea's eyes gleamed. "I vas trapped in here by the Sheenra for darink to feed off vun of their men! I must haf my rewenge! I vill join you!"
"It's all right, really, we don't need any -" Sephiroth tried.
"I vill join you!"
"I vill join you!"
Sephiroth gave in.
"Oh, fine," he muttered. "Come along. But I don't see why we need anyone else."
"The more the merrier," Croft pointed out.
"I really wish I could believe you there."
And so it came to pass that the Highwind hovered once more by the shimmering barrier encasing the Northern Crater. Everyone had been picked up one by one, and relieved reunions with Cloud and the Author had been both heartwarming and numerous... as had been the rather confused meetings with Kea. Numerous, that is. For all the adjectives one could use to describe Kea, such as 'extravagant,' 'surprising,' and, of course, 'spooky,' 'heartwarming' was not one that leaped immediately to mind.
"Okay, everyone," Perigee was saying as, showing minimal queuing ability, the group filtered into the bridge of the airship. "Let's see, um, what we have, shall we?" He cleared his throat. "I found one piece of huge materia in the rocket at, er, Rocket Town. Next?"
"We found him," explained Sephiroth, waving one hand dismissively at the Author, who waved back, "and then we found him," he waved towards Kea this time. "Sorry."
"I found a bit of your materia stuff!" Kasuto said happily. "Oh... but you know that already, don't you, Perigee?"
"Yes," agreed Perigee wearily. He'd been there when they'd collected Kasuto from Fort Condor. To be more precise, they'd collected her from the very top of the reactor, surrounded completely by advancing Shinra troops and desperately clutching the materia to her chest as if to protect it. Still, he'd never forget the expression on the soldiers' faces as Sephiroth leaped down off the Highwind's deck, grabbed Kasuto, and clambered back up a rope ladder to the airship.
"I got nuthin'!" Barret announced, almost proudly. "Them damn chocowhatsits don't breed fast 'nough. But," he held up a pair of oven gloves for inspection, "we gonna have one helluva barbecue later."
"I also acquired a fragment in Corel," Nanaki added helpfully.
"Oh, I say, I found one too, what?" the Major joined in.
Everyone knew about the Major's quest to Junon's underwater reactor. The technicians down there were going to be scraping jam off the walls for weeks.
"Er, we didn't find any materia," Cloud said sadly. "But," he perked up noticeably, producing their carrier bags marked Bag of assorted Stuff, "we did buy all these cool weapons and limit manuals!"
"And we got you a new body," Ess reminded him.
"Oh, yeah. I forgot about that."
Perigee inspected the collection critically.
"Hmm," he hmmed thoughtfully. "It's very impressive, but I, er, don't think we can use them to destroy the barrier, can we?"
"...probably not," Cloud conceded.
"I guess we'll have to try to do something with the huge materia, then," Perigee mused. "Barret, bring in the trolley."
"Why I gotta..." Barret began, then decided not to object after catching the stares from the others. "Yeah, sure, sure, I'm goin'..."
He trudged out and, in the brief pause that followed, everyone else clustered round Cloud and pestered him for a weapon and a limit manual or two. Everyone, that is, except the Author, who managed to collar the Major and pull him over to one corner of the bridge.
"By Jove, what's the matter, old boy?" the officer enquired, concern evident in his voice. "Why so hush-hush, eh?"
The Author reached behind his back and produced, from nowhere in particular, a rather hefty rifle. The Major's eyes lit up as he took in the almost completely rusted barrel and faded wood of its stock.
"Why, old bean, old chap, old thing..." he murmured. "It's the Blunderbuss! Dash it all, this is the news to make old Jerry quake in his boots, what?"
"Quite," the Author agreed. "Look, Major, this is yours, so you're to look after it, right? But whatever you do, don't - please don't - fire it unless I say so, okay?"
"Oh, not a problem, old chap." The Major happily took the weapon and slung it over his shoulder. "I'll be sure to check with the CO before firing, don't you worry."
"I'm that CO, right?" The Author felt he should just make sure.
"Oh, yes, of course, old boy. Haha."
"Here... ya go..." Barret panted, staggering back onto the bridge and pushing a large metal trolley ahead of him. By the look of it this trolley would have been heavy enough on its own, even without the four impressive chunks of materia currently resting loosely atop it. The sweat on Barret's forehead made it clear that these did not aid matters.
The four huge materia were, conveniently enough, all different colours - one yellow, one red, one blue and one green. They did strange things to the light - it seemed almost as if inside each one was some living creature, moving around and trying to escape. The very air seemed to become heavier as Barret pushed the trolley towards the centre of the room...
...and tripped on a loose floor panel.
Barret hit one end of the trolley face first. The other end of the trolley promptly shot up, sending the four fragments of materia hurtling across the room towards the rear wall.
Cloud was the first into the air, sailing towards the blue materia until Nanaki accidentally leaped into his legs and sent him flying off course. Tifa jumped for the red one, but fell short and landed on Kasuto. The Author backpedalled hurriedly in an attempt to catch the yellow one, then put one foot on Barret and fell over. And Mr. Big actually managed to get to the green one, but sadly the laws of physics did not take kindly to this and he ended up being knocked aside by it rather than catching it.
All four huge materia hit the wall at pretty much the same time with an impressive crash, and suddenly the air was filled with twinkling multicoloured confetti.
Perigee untangled himself from Ess, got back to his feet, fell over, untangled himself from Cid too, and stood up again. Then he looked around.
"Um," he said, and stopped, obviously feeling that there wasn't much more that he could add.
Barret wormed his way out from under the Author and stood up.
"Uh," he added to Perigee's insight. "Crap."
"'at'f wha' I waf 'inking," said Mr. Big's voice. "Hey, I fink I'fe done fomefing to my teef!"
Perigee reached down and picked up one of the larger crimson fragments that had landed near his feet. He stared sadly at it for a few seconds.
"I think we'll need to think of another plan now," he said weakly. "After all -"
In no more than a second, the air around him swirled, then somehow congealed into a black cloak that shrouded most of his body. Almost as an afterthought, a large straw hat materialised above his head and landed on it at quite a rakish angle.
"Um," he said again.
"Wow!" observed Cloud happily. "You're a Black Mage! Cool!"
Perigee opened his mouth to ask just how Cloud knew what a Black Mage was, then changed his mind and closed it again. After all, this was the person who knew instinctively that you could find weapons, armour and other items inside nondescript barrels dotted around towns. He was practically an RPG guru in character form.
"Perigee," Ess asked, slowly and deliberately, "why have you changed class?"
Nervously, Perigee deposited the shard on the floor at his feet. Almost instantly the cloak and hat faded away and disappeared back to the great Costume Trunk in the sky.
He took a more critical look at what was left of the huge materias. They had been reduced pretty much completely to a fine, almost sandy dust now covering the floor, but dotted around the bridge were a dozen or so larger fragments that had somehow survived.
"I think..." he said uncertainly. "I think that the, um, huge materia did that."
"Huh?" Cid put in. "Ya mean these tiny things," he picked a deep blue fragment and waved it around to illustrate his point, "are some kinda magical wardrobe? Well, I don't -"
His clothes disappeared. Thankfully, preserving his dignity, a hefty fur of some ferocious looking ex-beast with the head still attached formed itself and draped itself over him.
"...all right, so maybe I do believe that," he conceded. "So what the hell's goin' on?"
Perigee thought for a moment.
"It could be," he ventured eventually, "that these fragments somehow contain the spirits of long-dead Cetra warriors, and that by holding the shards their, um, latent abilities are channelled through us, allowing us to change... er... class," he finished, not overly fond of the terminology but figuring it would have to do.
"Fo you're faying 'at Barret here couldf become a legendary fcholar?" Mr. Big asked, clearly amused.
"If one of the shards contains the right essence, then yes, I suppose so," Perigee admitted.
"Now 'at I'd 'ike to fee."
Aeris giggled a little at the comment, then knelt down next to the rabbit, leaned over him and placed one hand gently on his forehead, murmuring something under her breath. Mr. Big, apparently satisfied with the view of her chest this position afforded him, obediently sat still.
"Well, I don't like 'em," Cid announced, dropping his crystal fragment and promptly regaining his old clothes. "I say we put 'em in a bag an' dump 'em overboard."
"I beg to differ there," Nanaki objected. "They could be most helpful to us if used correctly."
"Might one of them be powerful enough to help us get to the tower?" Croft suggested. "You know, like a 'demolitions expert' crystal or something."
"It's... possible," Perigee agreed.
"Better try the dashed things out then, what?" the Major pointed out helpfully.
Over the course of the next few minutes the group rounded up all the materia shards they could find and investigated their effects. Highlights included Barret as a White Mage, Ess finally getting her wish and becoming a samurai, a beturbaned Nanaki as a Mystic Knight, and, for the male members of the party at least, Tifa's all too brief stint as a dancer.
Sadly, it seemed that none of the fragments contained the legendary 'god' or 'elite armed forces' character classes, and the closest any of them got to breaking through the barrier around the crater was when Kea, in Black Mage form, hurled an, "extra spooky shadow flare," at it. The impact made a hole in the shield that lasted for a good second or so before sealing itself up again.
Perigee was given charge of the newly bagged shards, seeing as he was pretty much the only person who seemed to know what they actually did. Having sorted this out, the group reconvened.
"Any other ideas?" Perigee asked hopefully.
"Did we check everywhere?" Cloud enquired. "I wasn't really paying attention at the time, but there must be somewhere we didn't go, mustn't there? There's no barrier so strong that nothing can break it down!"
"That's not strictly true..." Perigee started to object before Ess shushed him.
"Well, where is there that we haven't been?" Sephiroth pointed out. "We spent quite some time in Junon, remember. You lot have been all around Midgar. Corel, yes, Nibelheim, yes, Rocket Town, yes... ah." He grimaced. "No. Not there. Anywhere but there."
"Vhere?" asked Kea on cue.
Sephiroth sighed. "Have you ever heard the saying, 'Only in Wutai'?"
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