God's in His heaven; all's right with the world.
Traditional LTF joke
"Bloody hell," said Cid.
Wutai was... well, to say it was a busy town would be something of an understatement. To say it was a bustling community would also be an understatement. To say it was a chaotic mess of packed streets, with vendors bellowing out their wares along every wall and the citizens crowded so close together that they practically overlapped... would have been better, but still not quite encapsulating the atmosphere of 'How many Wutainese can we fit into a Mini?' the city had. It made Midgar look like one of those little country hamlets in the middle of nowhere with one street and two buildings, both of which are pubs.
"Wow," said Sephiroth flatly. "This place has quietened down since I came here last."
He had to admit to deriving just a little satisfaction from the stares of disbelief that followed that comment.
"Is it just me," Ess said slowly, "or is this town rather different from anywhere else?"
"Well, we are on an isolated island some distance from the major continents," Sephiroth pointed out. "Plus I gather the Wutainese haven't really socialised with anyone else since the Mako War. There's a whole lot of distrust there."
"But... none of us look Wutainese, do we?" Tifa pointed out. "What if people try to beat us up or something?"
Sephiroth twisted his body just enough to get the dwindling sunlight to glint off the Masamune.
"We'll take them... I mean, we'll take that situation as it comes," he replied pleasantly.
"Yo, I gotta ask sumthin'," Barret piped up.
"Why da hella yo' actin' like da leader now?"
"It's a matter of qualification," Sephiroth explained evenly. "I'm more suited to lead than any of you."
"He does have a point," admitted Croft.
"Yeah, well -"
Thankfully at this point Barret was interrupted by a Wutainese youth, who pushed his way through the crowd and ambled up to them. He had black spiky hair that didn't quite rival Cloud's, and his demeanour somehow managed to make his brown leather jacket and jeans combination look almost smart.
"Excuse me," he said politely. "That day it snowed... did you see some men in suits drive past in a black car?"
The group gave each other confused glances.
"Um," said Perigee eventually, elected spokesman by mute consent among the others. "We're new around here. Why don't you ask someone else?"
And with that, the stranger turned round, wandered off, and proceeded to ask another unsuspecting passer-by the exact same question.
"This town is weeery strange," Kea mused. "I like it, I do."
"Might I suggest we try and find a tavern or something?" the Author volunteered. "At least that way we can sit down while we work out what to do next."
"Sounds good to me," agreed Cid.
As things turned out, the 'Frying Dragon Inn' was only a hundred yards or so down the street. Even so, it was a good quarter of an hour or so before the group finally reached the door, having been distracted by any number of things, including but by no means limited to: various vendors trying to sell anything from fresh 'Bad Rap Sushi' to strange cartoons on CDs, a good four or five street brawls between all sorts of outrageously-garbed individuals, and a couple of young children chasing after what appeared to be an electrically-charged yellow rat.
And so the tavern, with only a half dozen other people hanging around inside it, came as a particularly pleasant respite. A few heads turned as the group barged in, but aside from that, no one seemed to pay them any notice.
"Right," said Sephiroth wearily once the majority had got inside, quickly doing a head count. "We're missing someone. Roll call. Strife?"
"Geddoff!" came a familiar voice from the crowd outside. "I told yo', I don't wanna buy no doll! An' I don't care if yo' call it an angel or a devil or wha'ever! Go away!"
Barret staggered into the inn.
"This place sucks," he announced, and flopped down on a stool.
"I'm sure you'll learn to love it," Sephiroth told him. "Come on, now we're all here, we might as well sit down and have something to drink while we plan our next move. Believe me when I say that Wutai is a tiring place. You'll appreciate the rest."
Obediently, the group settled down around a couple of large tables.
"So what -" began Ess.
"And what would you lovely people like?"
The waitress who had somehow materialised beside them with frankly worrying speed beamed pleasantly at them. She was mildly pretty, although her rather unkempt hairstyle and the crumpled apron she wore did their best to offset this.
"Hi," she said, trying again when she didn't get much of a reaction from the group. "I'm Nanami, and I'll be your waitress for today. What can I get you?"
"We're only after something to drink," Sephiroth told her. "What do you have?"
"Oh, anything!" Nanami beamed even wider, something that shouldn't have been physically possible. "We're very well stocked here at the Frying Dragon."
"Right." Sephiroth nodded sagely. "Then I shall have a sake, and... and these fine people should probably just have sodas, I would imagine."
"Actually, I'd love an orange juice if that's possible," the Author put in.
"Oh! Do you have something orange and sticky with a worm in it?" Cloud added. "I really liked that last time I had it."
"How about carrot juice?"
"Do you do coffee?"
"Lemonade! I'd like lemonade!"
This tirade lasted for a minute or two, at the end of which period Nanami had amazingly managed to take down every order without even asking anyone to repeat themselves... and, surprisingly, no one seemed to want a soda.
"I'll be right back!" she said cheerily, and glided away towards the bar.
"Nice girl," said Cid absently, watching her go. "Right, now what're we gonna do here?"
"Well," Sephiroth mused, "we can't very well use the standard tactic of talking to every villager in turn and hoping one of them drops a hint."
"So I suggest," Sephiroth continued, pointedly ignoring the interruption, "we seek out people in high-ranking positions or those with specialist knowledge. The political leaders, scientists, et cetera."
"Have you any ideas as to where we might find such people?" enquired Nanaki.
Sephiroth shrugged. "Not as such. I can fill you in on the basic political situation here to give you a few hints as to what to ask about, but as far as where to find people... no idea. It's been some time since I was last here in person." He glanced at Perigee. "You certainly shouldn't have difficulty finding scientists, though. You lot sort of home in on one another, don't you?"
"Um," said Perigee.
"Okay." Sephiroth leaned forwards in something approaching a storyteller's stance. "The history, so far as you need to know it, starts about fifty, fifty-five years ago, with Shinra's attempts to excavate the underground caverns below this island for possible Mako vents. The locals didn't take too kindly to that idea, mind you - something in the teachings of their god, Leviathan, states that -"
"Leviathan?" Perigee interrupted. "Isn't that just a..."
"...summon materia?" Sephiroth finished for him. "Yes, it is. The people of this island worship a lump of red rock. Pitiful, isn't it?"
"But what is materia if not the accumulation of spirits?" Aeris put in. "How do you know that a summon materia is not the solid form of the spirit of a dormant god?"
Sephiroth looked curiously at her.
"Aaanyway," he went on, putting the religious problem to one side for the moment, "apparently the teachings of Leviathan state that, 'thou shalt not use Mako to power thine light bulbs,' or something of the sort. So the locals said no. Shinra offered money, and they still said no. So the Powers That Be decided to send in the cavalry to 'persuade' them to say yes. Hence the Mako war."
"Yeah, yeah, we know all that," Cid replied in a particularly bored voice. "So?"
Sephiroth gave him a cold stare. "The Shogun of Wutai at that time was a man we knew only as Jhil," he went on. "He died during the conflict and was succeeded by his second-in-command at the time, a Godo Kisaragi, who as far as I'm aware is still the Shogun here. If either of the two have relatives or close friends around here, I'd wager that they would know of the existence of any superweapon Wutai might have been developing that we could... borrow."
"Wow," Ess remarked. "You really do know everything, don't you?"
"I try my best."
Nanami came happily bounding over, carrying eighteen practically overflowing glasses without spilling a single one. She planted the trays down on one of the group's tables and passed the drinks out in a matter of seconds.
"Enjoy your time here!" she added pleasantly, about-faced, and began to wander off, to be stopped only when Croft called, "Um, hang on," after her.
"Yes?" she said, coming back. "Would you like anything else?"
"Not really," Croft told her. "We were wondering, though... Do you know anyone related to... er... someone called Jhil?"
Nanami looked puzzled. "Well, there's Nausicaa, of course, everyone knows her..." She paused and gave Croft a Look. "You guys aren't from around here, are you?"
"No, we're not," Sephiroth said flatly, his tone just daring her to make anything of it.
Nanami nodded happily, completely unfazed. "Oh, good. It's always nice to have visitors around here. We don't normally -"
She was cut off at this point by a young twenty-something-year-old hurtling through the entrance, sprinting across the tavern, leaping over the bar and ducking down behind it, knocking a few glasses over as he did so. Barely a couple of seconds afterwards, a second man burst through the door and skidded to a halt in the centre of the room. He wore a long white shirt, black jacket and bright red trousers that matched his hair, and should by all accounts have looked like a complete fool.
"Come out, Yabuki!" he bellowed. "Come and face the results of your words!"
"Oh, no..." Nanami muttered under her breath, hurrying over to the newcomer. "I'm terribly sorry, Mr. Yagami, but you'll just have to -"
The man turned a venomous stare on her. Calmly he drew back his left hand, clenched into a fist, then opened it abruptly. Purple flames danced around his palm for a brief second, and then he struck Nanami and sent her flying across the room with a despondent cry of, "Oh, no, my bar's going to be trashed again..."
"I don't object to rivalry," the mysterious stranger announced to the room as a whole - and, surprisingly enough, none of the regulars seemed to be paying him any attention. Apparently this sort of event was commonplace around here. "I don't object to conflict. But I do object to," he raised his voice pointedly, "Kusanagi fanboys insulting me and then running away rather than stand up for their statements. Now COME ON OUT AND FIGHT, YABU... what?"
The Author had approached him and tapped him on the shoulder.
"I do hate to intrude," he said, doing a pretty good job of not giving away just how nervous he was about this, "but you really shouldn't hit girls, you -"
A second or so later he landed untidily on a table - or, to be more precise, through a table - a few feet from Nanami.
Resignedly, Sephiroth put down his sake and got to his feet.
"I really wish I didn't have to do this..." he muttered, but as it turned out he didn't because Tifa leaped up and planted herself firmly between him and the mysterious newcomer.
"We can't fight here!" she told him. "We don't want to break anything... um, anything else."
Sephiroth hesitated, then nodded. "Your point is well-made. Okay, someone hand me a time materia."
"Thank you." Sephiroth pointed to the new guy. "Stop."
The newcomer looked confused.
"You seriously thiiiiii..." he began, and then ground to a halt.
Sephiroth wandered over to him and rapped one hand on his forehead. "Yes, he's out. Okay, someone carry him outside and put him somewhere where he can't hurt anyone."
"Oh, I say, old boy, that I can do, what?" the Major announced, waddling over, picking the man up and slinging him over his shoulder. "Be right back, don't you worry."
He ambled out and was rapidly swallowed by the crowd.
A brief period of silence ensued, broken only by one particularly noisy patron of the tavern slurping his drink through a straw. After a few seconds of this, something moved behind the bar, and a youth emerged. He appeared to be wearing something like a blue school uniform, accompanied by a white bandana and a pair of padded gloves with some sort of circle emblem on the backs.
"Martial artist wannabe," Cid muttered disdainfully.
"Is he gone?" the youth enquired nervously, glancing around as if he expected someone to leap at him from the side.
"Yes, Shingo, he's gone," Nanami sighed wearily, picking herself up and then helping the Author up from where he seemed to have got stuck under what had until recently been a wooden chair. "What did you do to him this time?"
"Nothing!" Shingo replied defensively. "I was just asking around if anyone had seen Kyo-sempai recently!"
"...and I might have mentioned something about Kyo being able to kick Iori's ass in a fight..." Shingo admitted.
"And you don't see anything wrong with that?"
"He could!" Shingo protested.
"Yes, but the last time you said that you decided to hide in here, and then you and Iori trashed my bar," Nanami reminded him. "If it wasn't for these nice people here you'd probably have done it again."
"Oh. Sorry." Shingo turned to the party, giving them a quick grin and putting one hand behind his head in an embarrassed way. "Thanks, guys. I guess I owe you."
"Do you know anyone related to people called Jhil or Godo?" asked Croft happily, beginning to get the hang of this questioning business and perfectly prepared to ask every single person he came across the same question until he got an answer. Sephiroth shot him a glare.
Shingo looked thoughtful. "Sort of," he admitted.
"Sort of?" Mr. Big repeated. "What, you know someone who might be related to 'em but no one admits it?"
"No, no." Shingo shook his head. "Kyo-sempai's sister works..." He hesitated. "Um, why do you need to know?"
"We're here to work with Godo," Sephiroth told him. "If I told you more I'd have to kill you."
"Oh, okay." Shingo looked just a little nervous. "Well, Kusanagi-sempai's sister is very high up in WEWHAR. You could talk to her."
"Woo-" Croft began curiously before Sephiroth trod heavily on his foot.
"That sounds good," he said firmly. "Could you take us to see her?"
"Well, I'd have to ask Kyo-sempai first..." Shingo shrugged. "Oh, I'm sure he won't mind." He raised his hands and linked his index fingers together. "We're like that, we are."
"I'm so happy for the both of you," Sephiroth replied flatly.
The Kusanagi household was located some considerable distance from the outskirts of Wutai, or at least it felt like that to the group as they trooped through the packed streets. Once one stepped more than a few dozen paces into the city, it felt as if the crowded streets went on for miles in all directions. Wutai sort of swallowed visitors.
Shingo had proven himself to be quite the martial artist during the brief - well, brief in terms of distance, anyway - trek from the Frying Dragon, and had demonstrated impressive prowess at making his way through the crowds. Mind you, a number of the party were beginning to wonder if martial arts came instinctively to the citizens of Wutai, judging from the street fights they had passed. Some of the combatants had been impossibly fast or ludicrously muscled - or both, in a few cases - and almost all had been unleashing techniques that should not have been physically possible. It was, in the words of Mr. Big, "Freaky, but just too damn cool."
But we are becoming distracted.
Shingo pushed open the front door, not even commenting on the fact that it had conveniently been left unlocked. He took a few steps inside, then stopped and held the door open for the others.
"Do come in," he said pleasantly, then turned away. "Hey! Kyo! It's me, and I've - ACK!"
At about this point someone grabbed him from behind, twisted his neck with one hand just enough to one side to be intensely painful while not quite breaking it, and simultaneously locked both his arms behind his back with the other.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" hissed a voice, loud enough for the whole group to hear. "What do you plan to accomplish by sneaking into my house unannounced?"
"Ig 'ee!" said Shingo urgently. "'Ingo!"
There was a pause, and then the grip was relaxed.
"Couldn't you at least knock?" said the voice, now reverting to a pleasant feminine monotone. "Honestly, Shingo, I thought you were a thief or an assassin or something. Looking for Kyo again, are you?"
Having relinquished her grip, Shingo's mysterious assailant came forward into view. She appeared to be in her mid-twenties, had jet black hair cropped just below her jawline, and was -
"Yow," said Mr. Big, and meant it.
...and was, even by the distinctly higher than average standards of Wutainese femininity, very attractive indeed, albeit in a rather cool and controlled way.
"Who are these guys?" she asked, a vague tinge of suspicion in her tone.
"Oh, they're friends, don't worry," said Shingo reassuringly. "They helped me out earlier when Iori was, er..."
"Again?" The girl's expression made it pretty clear that Shingo's mishaps were not isolated events.
"Well, I suppose I should trust you lot, then." Kusanagi shrugged. "Although if I befriended everyone who helped Shingo out, I'd know about half of Wutai by now."
"I'm not that bad!" Shingo objected.
"You are." The woman sighed. "And I'm sorry, but Kyo's wandered off somewhere. I don't know where, and to be honest, I'd rather I didn't know."
"Well, actually, these guys would like to talk to you," Shingo began, before there was a loud crash and a blond man in a red karate gi came flying through the window, his clothes smouldering faintly. He picked himself up, yelled, "Nice hit, Kusanagi! But can you do this?" and bounded back out again, presumably to rejoin the fray.
There was a brief psuedo-silence inside, marred by the considerable noise coming through the window.
Kusanagi sighed. "Excuse me one moment."
She wandered over to the window and stuck her head out of it.
"Do you have to screw around right outside my house?" she shouted into the commotion. "I'm trying to have a conversation in here!"
"Sorry, sis!" came the faint reply. "It's just... whoa, you almost got me there..."
"Well, Kyo's just out there, if you're after him," Kusanagi pointed out, wandering back over to the group. "He seems occupied, though."
"Don't worry about him," Sephiroth put in, stepping forward and taking his place as self-elected spokesman. "We're here to speak to you, anyway."
"Really?" The girl raised an eyebrow. "So who would you be?"
"My name's Sephiroth," said Sephiroth flatly. "We'd like to do business with Shogun Godo, and were hoping you could take us to him."
"Sephiroth?" Kusanagi smiled knowingly, holding out her hand to him. "A pleasure to meet you in person, General. Major Motoko Kusanagi."
Sephiroth gave her a slightly puzzled look. "Do I know you?"
Motoko looked offended. "I led the Wutainese forces against you at the Battle of Fuchikoma," she pointed out. "I would have thought you'd have remembered that."
"Hey, hang on a sec," Cid interrupted. "You talkin' about the Mako Wars?"
"That's correct," Sephiroth told him. "The Battle of Fuchikoma was the last major conflict of the Mako Wars, a month or so before the execs decided that it really wasn't worth the effort."
"But the Wars ended fifteen years ago!" Cid pointed out accurately. He pointed accusingly at Motoko. "An' you can't be more'n twenty-five!"
"Long story," said Motoko resignedly. "And something that I'm probably not allowed to tell you. So what exactly are you here for, then? If it's Shinra business then I'm afraid I'll have to kill you now."
"You have no worries there," Sephiroth reassured her. "I'm freelance."
"He's with us!" said Cloud happily. "We're saving the Planet."
"Uh-huh." Motoko was obviously not convinced. "Of course you are."
"No, seriously, we are," Perigee put in. "Honestly."
"Long story," added Mr. Big. "And something that we're probably not allowed to tell you."
Motoko looked at him for a while, then smiled. The rabbit's eyes lit up, obviously as he reevaluated his chances of getting to see her without her clothes.
"So..." she said thoughtfully. "You expect me to escort a Shinra general... sorry, the Shinra general into the heart of our command complex to see our Shogun, who, if you had had your way fifteen years ago, would now be languishing in one of your prisons somewhere?"
"You have no proof of that," Sephiroth objected. "The imprisonment bit, that is."
"'Command complex?'" repeated Ess quizzically.
"Um." Motoko looked momentarily embarrassed. "I probably shouldn't have said that."
"Anyway, that's pretty much the gist of it," Sephiroth admitted. "Do we have to use force?"
Motoko shook her head. "No, not at all. This sounds intriguing, and anyway, I want to see old Walrus-face's expression when I bring you lot in. One thing, though. Try anything and I will kill you. That okay?"
"Ooh! Ooh!" Mr. Big bounced up and down on the Author's shoulder. "Can I say it? Can I say it?"
The Author nodded resignedly. "Go on, then. Just this once, though."
Mr. Big cleared his throat.
"I like a girl with spirit!"
"Well, screw me," said Cid flatly. "That is one helluva big statue."
Near the north edge of Wutai was a statue. It had obviously not been chiselled from a block of marble in an afternoon. It would have taken a mountain and a veritable army of stonecutters to make this. The thing was the size of a city block, and several hundred feet high - in fact, it was a testament to just how busy Wutai's streets were that the group could only now see it.
The statue seemed to depict a monk of some description. He was sitting cross-legged in the traditional lotus position, one hand resting palm upwards on his lap, the other extended forwards at arm's length in a 'stop' gesture. His eyes were closed, and he was smiling serenely, presumably having finally seen the great cosmic joke.
"He looks, like, very smug about something, doesn't he?" Kasuto remarked, and giggled.
"Somevun should tell him that sice isn't everythink," Kea mused.
"That's a statue of Wutai's legendary guardian," Motoko explained, looking back over her shoulder at the rest of the group trailing behind her. "Da-Chao."
"Bless you," said Tifa politely.
"No, that's its name. 'Da-Chao.'"
"Bless you again," said Cloud.
"The statue's name is spelled dee-ay-hyphen-see-aich-ay-oh," Sephiroth elaborated patiently, having a better grasp of how to explain things to the group than Motoko did.
"Oh, I see," Tifa said, nodding in understanding. "Da-Chao."
"Bless you," said Cloud.
"Legends say that Da-Chao was the personification of the Planet during the battle with the Sacred Demon, thousands of years ago," Motoko went on conversationally, trying to ignore those behind her and direct her remarks towards Sephiroth, who seemed to be the only person capable of keeping up with what she was saying. "He subdued the demon and took away its will to fight, and then the lesser gods were able to imprison it within the earth. Afterwards, tired from his exertions, Da-Chao rested here, and his body turned to stone so that future generations would not forget what had passed."
"And you lot actually believe that?" Sephiroth enquired, not entirely unkindly.
Motoko shrugged. "Some do. Personally, I just think it's a useful story to tell to raise morale among the troops."
"Can I just say," Mr. Big observed from her shoulder, having decided that she was the hottest non-attached babe around right now and taken up residence there as soon as he had been able to, "that if your top secret hideout is inside there, it's sort of an awfully obvious place to put it."
"It's not in there," Motoko told him. "Not... exactly."
Mr. Big grinned. "Ooh, you mysterious woman, you."
There was a brief pause where Motoko was silent, and it wasn't clear whether she was going to laugh or burn his eyes out with a Glare. Then, eventually, she smiled, and the rabbit exhaled in relief.
The group turned a corner and walked through a large open iron gate, passing a burly woman lounging against the wall with what appeared to be a small rocket slung carelessly over one shoulder, and found themselves on an empty street. It came as such a shock that about half the party stopped abruptly in surprise, and the other half promptly walked into them.
"What... happened?" asked Ess eventually. "Where'd the people go? Why aren't they here?"
"We're now on private ground," Motoko explained casually. "The Shogun owns the area around Da-Chao. We don't want innocent people around here if... something happens." She turned to the guard. "Chiyoko, is the Shogun downstairs at the moment?"
The woman nodded wordlessly.
"See, there's that mysterious pause again," Mr. Big put in. "What is this 'something' you mention?"
"I'll leave the Shogun to decide whether to let you in on that," Motoko replied, leading the way down a gravel path directly towards the base of the statue. "It's not exactly public information."
There turned out to be a steel door set into the base of the statue. It appeared to be a later addition; presumably the great Da-Chao, in his original form as defender of the Planet, had not had a reinforced door built into the sole of his foot.
Motoko knocked on it, three times, and a thin hatch slid open at eye height.
"Chhk... ith yhhh nchng?" gurgled a voice from the other side.
"Major Motoko Kusanagi," said Motoko calmly.
"Chhk... ith yhhh fhkhhkrtk chklrhh?"
"What is that noise?" Perigee enquired under his breath.
"It's a demon," the Author replied. "It's saying, 'What... is your favourite colour?'"
"How'd you know that?"
"I speak fluent Netherworld."
"Navy blue," Motoko told the door, ignoring the whispered discussion behind her.
"Ith thith," there came a noise something like floop, "ith fhhhfh, nngh thith," a squeaky eep, "ith thkeehh, thnng hhhk ith thith?"
"If this is five," the Author translated, "and this is three, then what is this?"
The sound that followed can only really by transcribed as hhknggrahkflhrtt.
"Fifteen," said the Author automatically.
Motoko gave him a sideways glance and sighed. "Close," she said. "Sixteen."
"Hhhkthtiiiiinnh ith khrrkt," the door announced.
"No, it's not correct," the Author interrupted testily. "Hhknggrahkflhrt is only spelled with one 't'."
There was a brief, confused silence.
"You're good," Motoko told him eventually.
Regardless of whether it was spelled with one 't' or two, the being behind the door obviously decided that they were allowed to enter and opened it. On the other side...
Well, the room was a fairly large, nondescript metal room, maybe nine feet square - a large lift, perhaps. One corner, however, was taken up by an interesting entity. It looked like someone had taken an oversized elephant's head and given it far too many trunks.
"Hey, wait a second," Mr. Big muttered. "Isn't that..."
"Cthulhu!" said Kea joyously, rushing forwards and shaking the beast by one of its tentacles. "I haf not seen you in so many years!"
Cthulhu made a sound rather like vomiting, which was presumably its way of returning the greeting.
"Everyone in here," Motoko announced, ambling calmly into the lift almost as if she were completely unaware that she was about to share a small enclosed space with the Devourer of Worlds. The rest of the group followed her, with varying degrees of trepidation - from complete blissful ignorance on the Major's part to extreme nervousness and distrust on Tifa's.
"Ghhhhngh dhhhng," rumbled Cthulhu, pressing a button with one tentacle.
"Hey," Mr. Big muttered in the Author's ear, "what'd it just say?"
The last words heard, as the lift doors slid shut, were, "Actually, I think I'll take the st-"
The group bundled out of the elevator, in an even less orderly fashion than usual. It seemed that being forced to remain in the presence of the great Cthulhu did not do one's sanity any good, judging by the way Kasuto tried to walk up a wall the moment she left the lift, and Mr. Big's despondent bemoaning of, "Oh, the spoons! The spoons!"
Sephiroth, unsurprisingly, didn't appear to be affected. It took a lot to faze Sephiroth, and aside from Motoko he had been the only member of the group who had emerged mentally unscathed... well, except the Major, who hadn't seemed to realise just what Cthulhu was and had spent the whole journey down explaining the intricacies of trench warfare to the distinctly bored looking Devourer of Worlds. Then again, the Major could have been driven completely mad and it was just that no one had noticed.
"You sort of get used to it," Motoko explained apologetically as, one by one, the party regained their senses, most looking rather embarrassed.
"Perhaps I'm missing something incredibly obvious," the Author mused, wandering over the moment he stopped trying to push his foot through his ear to see if it came out of the other one, "but why exactly do you employ a demon from another world as a lift attendant?"
Motoko shrugged. "Well, it works for free," she said. "We think it just enjoys going up and down all the time. Oh, but we do feed it a soul or two every week for its trouble. That was a joke, by the way," she added hurriedly, catching a number of rather odd glances from the group.
"Well, anyway," she continued, trying to put the comment behind her, "welcome to Central Da-Chao."
The lift had led into quite simply the largest room any of them had ever seen. The walls simply stretched away into the distance, and the roof was barely visible through the very thin mist that filled most of the space. A considerable number of people were wandering around in all directions, with several also riding around on the rather cute little train service that went round and round the room.
At the far end... well, there were a number of very large shapes just about visible at the other end of the cavern. They were far too large to be mere people. In any other city they'd be too large to be buildings.
"Pray tell, what be they?" enquired Shan, pointing at them.
Motoko smiled enigmatically. "That's where we're headed."
A middle-aged man bearing a rather dirty cleaner's outfit and an impressive beard was happily and industriously sweeping away nearby. He glanced up from his work, adjusted his glasses, and gave Motoko a genial wave once he recognised her.
"Evenin', Miss Kusanagi," he said pleasantly, touching his forelock in respect. "Here to see the Shogun, is you?"
"Evening, Gendo," Motoko replied. "I have some guests to see the Great One himself. Any idea when the next train is?"
"Well, the last 'un went past just this moment, ma'am," Gendo informed her cheerily. "You gots another three minutes before the next 'un."
"Oh, okay. Thanks." Motoko nodded, and Gendo happily went back to his sweeping. "Anyone hungry? Might as well have something to eat while we wait."
There was a chorus of polite refusals, except from Warbling Croft and Kasuto, who both chimed in together with, "Ooh, what do you..."
They both stopped and waited for the other to continue.
"After you," said Croft eventually.
"Oh, thanks." Kasuto practically bounced up to their guide. "Do you have pizza?"
"Er..." Motoko almost visibly sweatdropped. "I'll ask."
She wandered over to a large metal hatch, maybe six feet by three, set into one of the walls, and knocked on it a couple of times.
"Oh!" said a surprised and rather young-sounding voice from the other side. "Um... if this is four..."
Something from the other side of the hatch went clang.
"That's five, Sakura," said Motoko wearily. "And I don't want to come through, I just want to get something to eat before the next train gets here."
"Oh!" said the voice again. "So I don't need to do all that?"
"That's good. I'm no good at it anyway."
The hatch slid aside, revealing a large kitchen behind it. A couple of pre-teen Wutainese girls could be seen hanging around by the assorted appliances further in, while an auburn-haired lass manned what appeared to be the front desk.
"Hi!" she said cheerfully. "What can I get you?"
"Anything you've got lying around for me," Motoko replied curtly. "I just need something to fill me up - looks like it could be a long night tonight. But -"
"Do you have pizza?"
"Do we have what?" Sakura asked, looking rather worried already.
"Pizza! You know, it's a big circular thing with lots of cool toppings on... it..." Kasuto's voice trailed off as realisation consistently failed to dawn on the young chef's face. "Don't you know?"
"I'll show you!" announced Kasuto, in that firm 'go against me at your peril' tone of voice, and vaulted through the window into the kitchen. "I mean, like, how can you not know pizza?"
The Author sidled up to Perigee.
"I don't suppose she happens to be a brilliant cook, does she?" he enquired tentatively under his breath.
"She can boil an egg," admitted Perigee. "And she makes a pretty good sandwich."
"And let's just be thankful that she's only staying in that kitchen for a few minutes," Ess added.
Motoko wandered back, looking a little weary. Presumably she had not been expecting Kasuto to join in the culinary fun.
"You have... interesting friends," she said eventually.
"Thank you," replied Cloud, Sephiroth, Perigee, and the Author simultaneously.
From the kitchen came a cry of, "And then you do this!" followed shortly by a dull splat.
"Not feelin' so hungry any more?" Cid enquired, leering.
"I can wait."
"So..." Croft said thoughtfully to Motoko, above the noise of what sounded like a few dozen spoons being hurled across a room, "lovely weather you've got here."
There was a cry of, "No, Shinobu, don't pour that on there!" moments before something went whoosh, in a particularly pyrotechnic way.
"Isn't it?" Motoko agreed. "I think it's because we're on very flat land."
With a loud sproing, something leaped out of the kitchen and hurled itself several dozen metres into the distance. No one really caught a good enough glimpse of it to work out what it was, but Cloud was pretty certain it had at least three wings.
"It's certainly most clement for this time of year," Nanaki added.
From the kitchen came a questioning, "Misaki fhtagn?"
"Cthulhu, what are you doing in here?"
"'scuse me," Cid muttered. "I gotta go see what the hell's goin' on in -"
A train pulled up. It was a very small train, with carriages no more than perhaps a couple of feet high, but that was okay because it was manned by a very small driver. She couldn't have been more than perhaps seven or eight, and wore a fancy blue outfit and an absolutely insanely wide grin.
"We're here!" she called. "The train's here! Everyone hurry up!"
"Thank the Cetra for that," Sephiroth murmured under his breath. "I'll go fetch our friend before she prepares something... regrettable."
He hurried over to the kitchen window, turned to look in, and exclaimed, "What on earth is that?"
"Oh, it's a -"
"Hi, Walküre," Motoko said pleasantly. "Is Godo around?"
"Oh, yeah! He's all the way over there!" The girl pointed over towards the vague shapes at the far end of the cavern. "He's playing with the big robots!"
"Good. Okay, we'll all be going there."
"Sure, big sis!"
"Big sis?" the Author repeated quizzically as Sephiroth returned, leading a rather reluctant Kasuto.
Motoko shrugged. "She calls everyone that," she replied, quietly so the girl didn't overhear. "Anyway, don't mind that. If you're here to see the Shogun, climb aboard."
The train pulled into the station rather abruptly. So abruptly, in fact, that Sephiroth went pitching forwards into the Major, Tifa went into Cloud, Perigee just headbutted the carriage in front of him, and Mr. Big went sailing gracefully above everybody and hit the wall nearby with a splat.
"Heeere we are!" announced Walküre at the top of her voice. She was surprisingly loud for such a small girl. "The place where we keep all the big scary robot thingies!"
"Big scary robot thingies?" Cid repeated, hauling himself off the diminutive train. "What d'you... bloody hell..."
"Excuse me," Sephiroth put in. "Those aren't robots, they're -"
"...giant mechs," said Kasuto, going almost swirly-eyed with excitement.
"...Weapons..." Aeris finished.
The... whatever they were... must have been a good hundred feet tall, at least. Aeris was right, they had to be Weapons - only the Planet could have been capable of creating beings that size out of solid rock and gemstone. They were lined up against a wall, almost as if standing to attention, and dwarfed the dozens of people clustered around their feet or standing in a large group nearby.
"I'm gooooooing!" announced Walküre happily, and hurtled off. Kea, who had been in the process of disembarking at the time, got his cloak caught around one of the train's wheels and was dragged along on his back for a dozen yards or so before disentangling himself.
"How do you have Weapons here?" Aeris asked, sounding as if she wasn't sure she really wanted to know the answer.
Motoko smiled, and there was a very definite trace of pride in her expression. "General Sephiroth, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you... the Planet Instrumentality Project. Follow me."
She led the way towards the group a short distance away from the creatures, if indeed that word could be used to describe them. As they walked, Sephiroth made his way rapidly to her side, followed by both Perigee and the Author, who had decided that they weren't going to miss out on hearing the explanation for all this.
"Would you care to enlighten me," Sephiroth enquired, a little coldly, "just what you think you're doing trying to control Weapons?"
"They were unearthed beneath Wutai fifteen years ago, still dormant," Motoko told him, rather smugly. "We keep them almost inactive using the suppressor collars around their necks, allowing them just enough consciousness to do what their pilots tell them to."
"Even to me that seems a little unethical," Sephiroth remarked flatly.
"They're just golems," Motoko pointed out. "Automatons, nothing more. Only now instead of destroying mindlessly in the name of the Planet, they're ready to fight to defend our city, should the need arise."
They approached the group, and Motoko increased her pace to pull a few steps ahead of the others. She strode up to a distinctly overweight man dressed in particularly ornate robes, and dropped to one knee before him, bowing her head in respect.
"Shogun, you have visitors," she said politely. "Some people from outside Wutai."
The man turned, a perplexed expression on his face. This lasted for a good half second before he saw Sephiroth.
"You!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here? Guards!"
It took no more than a couple of seconds for a good couple of dozen guards to form a ring around the party. Some hefted impressive looking rifles, some held faintly glowing staffs or wands, some were unarmed and just waited in rigid martial arts poses. All looked dangerous.
"I'm impressed," said Sephiroth mildly. "Even SOLDIER never had discipline like that."
"What are you doing here?" the Shogun thundered. He glanced at Motoko. "And you, Miss Kusanagi. I hope you have a good explanation as to why you brought Shinra soldiers into our headquarters?"
"But we're not -" Cloud started to say.
"And not just any Shinra soldiers!" Godo went on. "You brought General Sephiroth here? I should have you shot as a traitor on the spot!"
"Could I just clear up a misconception?" Sephiroth asked, raising his voice a little.
"Silence, you! What do the Shinra think they're doing, sending you into our city without so much as a formal announcement? Spying is a crime!"
"Look, we -" Sephiroth tried again, louder this time.
"No more of your words! You shall all be escorted outside..."
"Looks like he's gone into a rant," Sephiroth observed, turning to the rest of the group. "Does anyone have some way of distracting him so we can get a word in edgeways?"
"Oh, ja, that ees veeery easy!" Kea replied immediately. "I shall scare heem und stop heem from talkink, ja? Vatch!"
He somehow seemed to melt into the shadows without moving his body, which was quite an achievement as there were no shadows in the harsh artificial light down here. Sephiroth blinked a few times.
"Where did he -" he began, before Kea suddenly reappeared a foot or so in front of Godo, drew himself up to his full height, and yelled at the top of his voice, "BLUUUH!"
The Shogun jumped back a pace, said, "I, I, I," a few times, rather nervously, and sat down abruptly. Kea chortled.
"Eet vas veeery spooooky, ja?" he said happily. "The vay of the wampire is weeery surpricink!"
In the shocked silence that followed, Sephiroth cleared his throat pointedly and announced, at the top of his voice, "Now, listen to me, Godo Kisaragi: We. Are. Not. Shinra."
The Shogun got back to his feet. "Why should I believe that?" he boomed. "What proof have you?"
"Would the Shinra employ someone like him?" Sephiroth asked, pointing at Kea.
Godo thought for a bit.
"Okay, so maybe you aren't from the Shinra," he said eventually. "But then what are you doing here?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Mr. Big noticed something moving, and glanced over to see what it was. Sometimes there were very definite advantages to the peripheral vision afforded by having one's eyes on the sides of one's head.
He sidled along the Author's shoulder until he was right next to the man's ear.
"Maybe I'm just being paranoid here," he muttered, "but after all the hot oriental chick was saying about those Weapon things being asleep... should that purple one over there be moving?"
The Author looked, surreptitiously.
"Er," he said thoughtfully.
"When was the last time you left your city, Shogun?" Sephiroth was saying in the meantime, unaware of the conversation going on behind him.
"I travelled to train in the mountains for a month," Godo announced proudly. "I returned a week ago."
"I see." Sephiroth was clearly unimpressed. "Would you like me to tell you what's going on in the rest of the world?"
"Yes?" Godo replied uncertainly.
"That's the right answer. We have four Weapons marching or flying all over the place, destroying towns at random in the search for Jenova. It appears that these Weapons have been awakened by someone - or something - at the Northern Crater, where a tower has mysteriously appeared and protected itself with a magical barrier. And the Shinra want nothing more than to blame us for this state of affairs and have us executed."
"So... what do you want with us?" Godo enquired coldly.
"We want to find something powerful so we can break the barrier!" Cloud announced, while the Author hurried up to Sephiroth and whispered something to him. "Then we can go and kill whoever's doing this and then save the world!"
"And what makes you think we can help you?" the Shogun snapped.
Cloud pointed in the direction of the Weapons without even looking at them.
"You've got those!"
"Okay, so what makes you think we will help you?"
Sephiroth cleared his throat.
"Could I just check to see -" he began.
He was cut off as the purple Weapon that had already caused the Author and Mr. Big consternation reached calmly up with one colossal hand and, almost effortlessly, tore off its metal collar, before hurling it several hundred metres across the chamber. It stared at the group, opened its mouth, and a faint light began to glow at the back of its throat.
Sephiroth cleared his throat a second time.
Cloud threw himself on Ess and bore her to the ground. Shan threw himself on Tifa, Sephiroth threw himself on Motoko, Croft threw himself on Kasuto who threw herself on Mr. Big. Barrett threw himself on Nanaki, Cid threw himself on Aeris, Perigee tried to throw himself somewhere but ended up just tripping over his own feet. Kea jumped on him and proclaimed, "Bwuh huh! I am inwincible!" while the Author and the Major threw themselves on one another and landed in an uncomfortable heap that appeared to have far too many legs.
The beam of burning violet light passed so close to the floor that it set fire to Sephiroth's hair. If it hadn't been for the quick reactions of the assorted Wutai soldiers, who promptly hurled themselves in all directions, it would most likely have set fire to them too.
Then, a few seconds later, the beam winked out. There was a very brief silence, and then the noise of rushing air... almost as if something very large were inhaling.
Godo was the first to react, probably because he was the only one still on his feet.
"Laguna's gone active!" he yelled at the top of his voice - and Godo's yell would have been very loud indeed, even without the added acoustics of the metal chamber. "Air squadrons, hold its attention! Ground troops, get those who can't fight away from it! Major Kusanagi, go into its mind, find out why it's active! And someone get me the pilots for Kiros and Ward!"
"We can't, sir!" someone shouted back. "You gave them the day off while we performed the stress tests!"
"Why did I do that?"
"Because you're kind and responsible, sir!"
The purple weapon - 'Laguna,' presumably - advanced calmly, completely ignoring the people around it. Godo couldn't help but notice that it seemed to be making a beeline for Sephiroth.
THE SPAWN OF THE INTRUDER HAS COME TO US! boomed a simply deafening voice. AWAKEN, MY SISTERS! LET US CRUSH HIM LIKE THE MAGGOT HE IS!
Sephiroth sighed weakly.
"Not again..." he muttered under his breath. "Honestly, you'd think I was the villain here..."
He noted with some consternation that the other two Weapons had started moving also. Suddenly the situation seemed to be going steadily downhill.
He noticed Motoko seemed to be standing still, in stark contrast to just about everyone else around her. She was muttering something under her breath, obviously lost in concentration.
He sidled over, never taking his eyes off the Weapon.
"You might want to think about running," he muttered.
"Be quiet!" Motoko hissed back, apparently unaware of the background clamour. "I'm trying to read it..."
"Yes! Get inside its head! See why it's become active!"
"You can do that?" Sephiroth asked conversationally.
"Yes! That's why they call me the Ghost Whisperer!"
"Lovely," said Sephiroth, deadpan. "I think I can answer your question for you, though."
For the first time, Motoko took her eyes off the advancing stone juggernaut and looked at him.
"I know why it's become active," said Sephiroth flatly.
Motoko's eyes widened...
"You did this?" she gasped.
"Well, yes, sort of," Sephiroth admitted. "Although in my defense it wasn't exactly intentional."
Motoko's fists clenched.
"YOU..." she snarled.
"Quite." Sephiroth turned away. "Just hold on a second, and I'll see if I can straighten things out."
He strode a few dozen yards away from her, planted both feet firmly on the metal floor at shoulder width, and folded his arms across his chest.
"COULD I HAVE EVERYONE'S ATTENTION, PLEASE?" he shouted. Strangely enough, this actually had an effect. Literally everyone - including the three Weapons - stopped and stared at him.
AH, SO YOU COME TO US, SPAWN OF THE INTRUDER, Laguna boomed at him. YOU ARE READY TO FACE YOUR FATE AND TO BE DESTROYED BY THE HAND OF THE PLANET?
"Shut up," Sephiroth replied curtly. "Look, I'd like to get a sensible answer here. Why do you want to kill me?"
BECAUSE YOU ARE THE SPAWN OF THE INTRUDER! THAT FOUL HELLSPAWN THAT CRASHED TO OUR PLANET COUNTLESS YEARS AGO! WITHIN YOUR BODY LIES HER SEED, TAINTING YOU AND OUR WORLD ALIKE!
Sephiroth digested this.
"I hate to point this out," he said eventually, "but I don't actually have any remnants of Jenova inside me any more."
There was a pause.
Laguna bent down, leaning forwards until its immense glowing eyes were so close that Sephiroth had to shield his face with one arm.
SO YOU ARE, it said eventually. HOW IN THE NAME OF THE PLANET DID YOU MANAGE THAT?
"I died," said Sephiroth, sounding slightly embarrassed. "Jenova jumped ship."
SO WHAT DO WE DO NOW, THEN? enquired the orange weapon - 'Ward,' incidentally - to Laguna's left.
I DON'T KNOW, admitted the dark crimson one on the other side, which, by virtue of being the only one left unnamed, must have been Kiros. OUR PURPOSE IS TO DESTROY THE SPAWN OF THE INTRUDER... BUT THAT SEEMS A LITTLE POINTLESS.
AND LOOK WHAT A MESS WE'VE MADE... added Laguna gloomily.
SPEAK FOR YOURSELF, Kiros replied mildly. YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO THROW THAT COLLAR ALL THE WAY ACROSS THE ROOM, YOU KNOW.
IT DID LOOK GOOD, THOUGH, Ward pointed out. IT WAS VERY IMPRESSIVE.
SO ARE WE GOING TO KILL HIM OR NOT? enquired Ward.
I DON'T SEE IT WOULD ACCOMPLISH ANYTHING, Kiros put in.
BUT IT WOULD BE AN AWFUL ANTICLIMAX IF WE DIDN'T, Laguna pointed out.
AND WHAT WOULD WE DO AFTER THAT? enquired Kiros flatly.
WELL, I FEEL LIKE WE COULD... LIKE WE COULD... Laguna faltered.
TAKE ON THE WORLD! said Ward happily.
They thought about this.
...NO, said Kiros and Laguna together.
At this point the floor shook. It wasn't much of a tremor, but it was enough to cause a few of the more excitable and highly-strung Wutai soldiers and technicians to lose their balance.
Kiros and Laguna both turned to stare at Ward, who said, WHAT? indignantly and tried to look innocent.
The floor shook again, dislodging another few people.
IT WASN'T ME! said Ward.
NOR ME, added Kiros.
AND IT CERTAINLY WASN'T ME, said Laguna.
They looked at one another, and the floor shook once more. This time the shock was enough to knock even Cloud off his feet.
Laguna looked down at Sephiroth.
I THINK THERE'S SOMEONE OUTSIDE TO SEE YOU, it said.
Sephiroth nodded wearily, and turned to Motoko, who caught his intention and was hurrying away even before he opened his mouth.
"I guess I'll just go and summon Cthulhu, then," she said resignedly.
The doors to the lift opened once more, this time to ground level and the outside world. The journey up had been considerably less cramped than that going down, seeing as most people had elected to stay down in Central Da-Chao to reduce the risk of being trodden upon by an oversized semi-precious golem. So Sephiroth had elected to go alone, with the promise that the others would rush up to support him if he needed help.
Well, that wasn't quite the whole picture. Cloud had been adamant about coming up too, for fear that he might miss out on the opportunity to get some experience and/or a rare item. Kasuto had tagged along to see the, quote, "sooo cool giant mechs," and Croft had just felt like some fresh air. Or so he said, at least.
And so it was that the legendary Sephiroth stepped out of the lift into the fading sunlight on the edge of town, flanked by a blond swordsman/hero/twit with an expectant look on his face and a bouncing teenage ninja. Croft left the lift after the three of them, pausing to turn, bow, and announce happily, "Thank you for bringing us back up again, oh Great Cthulhu."
This formality concluded, he returned his attention to the rest of the group, the lift doors closing softly behind him.
"So where are... ah," he said.
It wasn't difficult to spot the Weapon. It must've been twice as tall as the ones currently waiting downstairs arguing over who should take the blame for damaging the walls, and, well... the thing glittered. It wasn't made merely of some colourful rock like the Wutainese ones; every single facet of its surface shone. It would have been beautiful... but it is difficult for something to be beautiful when one knows it wants nothing more than to squish one.
Croft's gaze travelled up it, reached its head, and then kept going until it reached the second Weapon.
This one wasn't quite so vast, but it was flying, which sort of made up for it. It had a very definite 'dragon' air about it, which was probably something to do with the snout, the wings, and the tail. It somehow contrived to look even more impressive than the one beneath it.
"Um," said Croft after a few seconds. "Are we in trouble now?"
"Of course not!" Cloud replied happily. "We'll just attack the big one's legs!"
The large Weapon appeared to be doing something. As the four of them watched, it raised one hand to its shoulder, picked up something from there, and then leaned down to bring the hand down to ground level, palm facing skywards.
There was a large purple octopus on it.
"You can't fool me," said Sephiroth flatly. "You're not a Weapon."
"Nope!" said the octopus happily. "The name's Ultros. Pleased t' meetcha."
"Ultros?" Sephiroth repeated quizzically.
"Ultros?" Croft added, for the benefit of the miniature microphone in the collar of his coat. Being a Shinra spy - well, an ex-Shinra spy, really - gave him access to some quite cool stuff, really.
"Ushtrozh?" Perigee's voice crackled through his earpiece. "Whazh he doon they?"
"Ultros!" agreed Ultros. "I'm an octopus with attitude."
"Hey, weren't you like working at the Gold Saucer?" Kasuto asked, pointing an accusing finger at him.
"Yeah, well... I paid off my debts," Ultros muttered. "We don't talk about that any more."
"I do hope you're not going to tell us you're controlling these things," Sephiroth interrupted, changing the subject back to what he saw as the important matter. "I somehow find that thought hard to stomach."
"Don't be daft!" Ultros replied, grinning widely. "I'm just a henchpus. The boss sent me along to make sure these guys don't screw up. He's the one giving 'em orders, not me."
"The boss?" Sephiroth repeated hopefully. "Does he, perchance, have a name?"
"Probably." Ultros shrugged. "I dunno. I just call him 'boss.'"
"Ah. Well, worth a try."
"So what are you guys doing here?" Kasuto piped up.
Ultros looked briefly puzzled. "Hey, that's a good point, what are we... oh, yeah. We're here to kill you."
"Gasp, shock, horror," said Sephiroth, deadpan.
"Hey, c'mon, at least take it seriously," Ultros snapped.
"AAAH!" exclaimed Croft suddenly, causing all four others to jump visibly.
"What?" Ultros enquired edgily. "What's going on?"
"Sorry," Croft apologised, calming down in an instant. "I was just trying to be surprised and scared."
"Well, you certainly got the rest of us freaked out," Ultros grumbled. "Couldn't you just've gone, "Oh, woe is me, for I shall die this day!" or somethin'?"
"Oh, woe is me, for I shall die this day!" said Cloud helpfully.
"Yeah, Hero boy's got the right idea."
"I'm a fast learner," Cloud added happily.
"If I might intrude..." Sephiroth put in wearily. "I don't suppose there's any particular reason why you want to kill us, is there?"
"I'm probably not the best 'pus to ask," Ultros replied, shrugging with four tentacles. "It's the boss who wants you dead, not me." He thought for a moment. "If it helps, I think his exact words were, "Now all I need to do is have those pesky little heroes destroyed and then I shall be able to leave this world... vwee hee hee...""
"Whog?" enquired Perigee's voice, courtesy of Croft's ear. "Whazzizh aboung leafinn *crrrrk* whirl?"
"Huh?" said Ultros, giving Croft a Stare. "What're you up to?"
"Oh, it's just my earpiece," Croft replied innocently. "They can make them so small nowadays, can't they?" He paused. "Er, the others would like to know what you mean by 'leaving this world.'"
"Don't ask me," Ultros said. "I'm not the one who said it."
"Anyway," Ultros went on, with an air of finality in his voice, "I'm gonna have Diamond and Ultima kill you now, okay? Can't talk all day. It's getting late already, and I've gotta stop off and buy dinner on the way back." He turned, waved one tentacle at the Weapon's face, and pointed upwards. "Okay, take me back up!"
"Hey, Ultima?" Kasuto repeated. "Like, why's that one called Ultima when all the others have boring rock names?"
Ultros shrugged as Diamond Weapon straightened up and he began to ascend.
"Guess it just sounds better than Pumice Weapon," he suggested. "Ah well. Have fun."
He disappeared from view.
"Um," said Croft for the second time. "We're going to get squished, aren't we?"
Diamond Weapon raised its leg.
"That certainly seems likely," Sephiroth admitted. "I would say it's a very distinct possibility if we don't get our act together."
The Weapon's foot hovered ominously over the four of them.
"So...?" said Kasuto slowly.
The foot descended.
"Run for it!"
By the time the ground had stopped shaking violently and the dust had settled, the group had taken up position a few dozen yards away, all four with weapons drawn - Sephiroth with the Masamune, Cloud with his lightsa... er... Atma weapon, Kasuto with her hands in her pockets ready to send shurikens hurtling in all directions, and Croft with... an electric guitar...
The other three looked at him.
"That's a cool weapon!" Kasuto exclaimed. "Do you play special tunes to put the enemies to sleep and stuff?"
Croft looked puzzled.
"No..." he said eventually. "You just hit them with it."
"Really? Well, that's cool too!"
"Yeah," agreed Cloud, bearer of possibly the world's only glowing blue sword.
"If I might interrupt," Sephiroth did interrupt, "could we actually try to work out just what can do to get out of this in, if at all possible, one piece?"
"We can attack its legs!" Cloud volunteered once more.
Sephiroth thought about this.
"Hard as it may be to say this, I think you may have a point," he said after a little while. "If only because that's the only part of the damn thing we can actually reach." He glanced over to the thing, sizing it up. "I don't suppose any of you have a technique that might allow you to reach its knee joints or anything?"
"I think I might have wind-elemental techniques for some of my special moves," Croft said uncertainly. "I might be able to help someone fly up there, perhaps."
"What do you mean, you think you might have techniques?" Sephiroth snapped. "Don't you know?"
"Well, I've never used them!" replied Croft defensively. "I'm not sure what my special moves are yet!"
"I think we're going to have to give it a shot regardless," he muttered. "Okay, if you could -"
"Guyzh?" said Croft's ear. It sounded rather urgent. "Done *crrrk* too clothezh toothsta shoe!"
There was a pause.
"Sorry, what was that?" Croft asked.
"Eyes *crrrk*, guest wafer the -"
Slowly, and with the creaking sound that only thousands of tons of stone can make, the statue's eyes opened. A second later, a slit in its forehead - the third eye, presumably - slid open too.
Behind each eye was a picture of a cherry.
Ponderously, Da-Chao raised its arm above its head. Then, in one fluid motion, it dropped its hand to its side, and the images behind its eyes began spinning, in a manner reminiscent of a fruit machine.
The left eye stopped on a picture of a '7.'
The right eye did the same.
The third eye kept on spinning.
"Isn't this exciting?" said Cloud happily. "Who knows where it'll stop?"
"Indeed," muttered Sephiroth under his breath, not taking his eyes off the Weapons. Interestingly enough, they both seemed to be entranced by the trippy swirly thingy, too.
The third eye stopped on a picture of an orange.
"Oh well," said Croft. "What now?"
With a loud clunk, the wheel rotated by one notch, replacing the orange with another seven.
"Woohoo!" Kasuto cheered. "So, like, what do we win?"
Da-Chao's head slid back.
"Um," Croft observed. "Should it do that?"
All six gazes shot skywards as Laguna soared into the air, ejected at some speed from the neck of the great statue and followed shortly by Kiros and Ward. The three landed no more than a dozen yards from the small group, and the shockwave levelled a couple of houses in the distance.
"Gett'n *crrrk* 'puns!" said Motoko's voice through Croft's earpiece. "You comfy teeth otherzh with'm!"
"What was that?" Cloud asked curiously.
Laguna knelt down next to the group, bringing the base of its chest to within a few feet of Cloud. Some unidentified part of its innards made a loud hissing sound, and a hatch swung open, revealing a small chamber beyond.
ONE OF YOU, CLIMB IN, it said firmly. WE SHALL PROTECT YOU AND AID YOU IN THIS BATTLE.
IT'S THE LEAST WE CAN DO FOR MESSING UP YOUR ROOM DOWNSTAIRS, Kiros agreed, doing the same. On Laguna's other side, Ward too dropped to its knees and opened up.
"But there's only three of you..." Croft observed astutely. "And there are four of us."
"I want to go in one!" Cloud put in hurriedly.
"Me too!" agreed Kasuto.
Sephiroth and Croft exchanged glances.
"I'll sit this one out," Sephiroth decided. "Weapons and I don't get on very well, it seems."
"You sure you'll be okay?" Croft asked, concerned.
Sephiroth smiled enigmatically. "I tend to get by."
"Okay." Croft looked up nervously at the Weapons. "So, er -"
"I want the purple one!" said Cloud.
"I want the red one!" added Kasuto.
"I guess I'd better want the orange one, then," Croft finished diplomatically.
They walked in, and the Weapons closed up after them.
Croft found himself plunged abruptly into pitch darkness. The hatch was very tightly shut indeed, and to make matters worse, the tiny cavern he was now standing in was not exactly spacious, being not quite large enough to fit one person. He reflected for a moment on how fortunate it was that he wasn't claustrophobic, and then wondered if, in fact, he was claustrophobic and just hadn't noticed it before. After all, here he was in an enclosed space and not only was he uncomfortable, but there was a very strange sensation in the pit of his stomach, getting worse with every second...
He shifted, and the thin metal spike that had been digging into his side ended up in a less awkward position. That was a relief.
"Um, so what do we do now?" he asked his collar, while the feeling of movement around him indicated that Kiros was standing up. "I can't see anything!"
"Wheel notcher," came the reply in Godo's voice. "Only *crrrk* steady worm..."
"He said that we're not sure," the Author's voice said. Perhaps it was just a quirk of his accent or a consequence of his inherent affinity with language, but his words were perfectly comprehensible, in stark contrast with those of the others. "The Weapons said that they'd be able to help you out, so Godo launched them up to you. We were sort of hoping that they'd explain what to do themselves."
"They haven't done that yet," Croft replied uncertainly, "and I'm still in the dark..."
And the light dawned.
Mere words simply cannot express fully the sensation of suddenly being a hundred feet tall. One can talk about seeing for miles from a vantage point far higher than is normal, and of the world appearing small, but nothing can really describe the knowledge that one could crush a house with one step. Not merely knowing that one is the size one is, but that this is the way it should always have been. That one has, in a sense, returned home.
Simultaneous cries of, "Oh, cool!" in both ears told Croft that the same thing had happened to Cloud and Kasuto in their Weapons.
"Er, I think it's working now..." he said into his collar microphone... into his...
Where was his collar?
WELCOME, PILOT, said Kiros' voice from all around him. I SHALL BE YOUR HOST FOR THIS BATTLE. MY FORMAL DESIGNATION IS TOURMALINE, BUT YOU, LIKE ALL THE OTHERS, MAY CALL ME KIROS.
"Um, thank you," said Croft. "Er, what's going on?"
YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN COMMAND OVER MY BODY FOR THE TIME BEING. WE FEEL THAT YOU THREE WILL BE BETTER SUITED TO BATTLING OUR KIN THAN WE WOULD. FEWER QUALMS. MORE, and somehow Kiros contrived without words to indicate Laguna and his new pilot, ENTHUSIASM.
It had taken them a while, but by this stage the two invading Weapons seemed to have realised that something was amiss and that, perhaps, they really should not have allowed these other Weapons to join the fight. Still, they - or at least Diamond Weapon - moved with the traditional swagger of a playground bully about to extract his daily tithe. Ultima probably would have done, but it's hard to swagger while airborne.
"I'm very impressed!" Ultros shouted into a megaphone he had been secreting the-Cetra-knew-where. "Looks like this'll be more interesting than I thought!"
IT'S JUST LIKE A MINIGAME! boomed Laguna. It took Croft a few seconds to realise that that had to be Cloud speaking.
HEY, Ward interjected, HOW DID YOU MAKE YOURS TALK LIKE... LIKE, AWESOME!
"Very nice," said Ultros, sounding distinctly unconvinced. He waved one tentacle dismissively. "Oi, Ultima, you get up there and start firing stuff at 'em. Diamond, soak up damage."
With a deafening rumble, the two Weapons nodded their assent and took up positions - Diamond directly in front of the three smaller Weapons, Ultima beating its wings frantically and rising until it was practically invisible in the gloom of the evening sky.
WELL, I'M HAVING THE FIRST GO! Cloud announced, and bounded towards Diamond. He landed next to it, drew back a fist, and swung directly towards the larger Weapon's stomach, which was about all he could reach.
His attack was caught, seemingly effortlessly, and the Weapon delivered a punch to his chest. It lifted him clean off the ground and sent him hurtling back, and it was only the blinding crimson beam that speared down from Ultima Weapon that brought him crashing back to the ground again, head first.
OUCH, said Croft, wincing.
"Next!" Ultros announced happily.
Croft and Kasuto exchanged glances. Then, in one moment, they both burst into a sprint towards the Weapon. Croft threw himself into a sliding tackle aimed at its right leg, while Kasuto hurled herself into the air and spun round in a really rather stylish tornado kick.
Diamond Weapon caught her by the leg, whirled her round and threw her off into the distance, while Croft's attack hit it firmly but completely ineffectually on its ankle. The Weapon looked down disdainfully, then drew back its leg and kicked him.
Croft hit the ground again head first a few dozen yards from Sephiroth, who was half-heartedly waving a pair of fluffy blue pom-poms around and muttering, "Give us a C. Give us an L. Give us an O..." for want of anything better to do. Meanwhile, Kasuto hit the surface of the ocean , skimmed a few times, and finally sunk out of sight near the horizon.
"You're not really doing that well, are you?" observed the Author's voice in Croft's ear.
"It's bigger than us!" Croft objected.
"Well, use cunning tactics or something," the Author replied flatly. "Gang up on it. Sneak round behind it. Anything!"
"I just remembered something, guys, and I've had, like, a totally good idea!" Kasuto's voice said in an aqueous tone in his other ear. "I'll be, like, right back!"
Cloud got slowly back to his feet.
WE NEED TO THINK OF SOME CUNNING - he began, moments before a bolt of jet black energy smashed into the ground at his feet, sending large fragments of earth and stone flying up into where Laguna's, er, intimate regions would have been, had the Planet seen fit to imbue its warriors of mass destruction with such regions.
I THINK WE SHOULD TRY TO WORK OUT WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE FLYING ONE, Croft volunteered.
BUT WHAT? Cloud enquired. WE CAN'T REACH IT, AND I CAN'T DO ANY OF MY TECHS OR LIMITS IN THIS THING!
Croft pondered this. It was certainly a dilemma - without being able to pull off any of his stylish wind-elemental techniques, he didn't think he would be able to reach the flying one either. It was certainly too high to be hit by anything less than a high level limit or a particularly nice spell, that was for sure...
I MAY BE ABLE TO HELP YOU THERE, said Kiros' voice in his mind.
I HAVE WITHIN ME A NATURAL ETHER MACHINE, Kiros explained patiently. I AM CAPABLE OF MAGNIFYING YOUR NATURAL ABILITIES TO TAKE EFFECT ON A MUCH LARGER SCALE.
"So if I..."
SO IF YOU ARE CAPABLE OF POWERFUL WIND TECHNIQUES, THEN I MAY WELL BE ABLE TO MAGNIFY THEM TO SUCH A SCALE AS TO ALLOW YOU TO LIFT YOUR FRIEND THERE SOME DISTANCE INTO THE AIR.
"Wow," said Croft, impressed. "That's... wow."
Croft cleared his throat.
CLOUD, HURRY OVER HERE! he called, and Cloud did so obligingly. I'M GOING TO TRY SOMETHING VERY CLEVER INDEED!
WHAT? Cloud asked. DOES IT INVOLVE SPECIAL MOVES?
I THINK SO.
Croft - well, Kiros, really - placed his palms together in front of him, closed his eyes, and began to hum under his breath. He had no idea how this went - magic was by no means his forte, much less so when he was trying to cast it on a scale fifteen times greater than usual. Still, this was a fantasy world, and under such circumstances magic often comes naturally to people.
The air around Kiros began to swirl, moving in a circle around his body. Gradually, its speed increased, and it began to pick up dust, dirt and a distinctly surprised cat from the ground at his feet, until he was the centre of a rather powerful localised tornado.
COOL, said Cloud, and meant it.
HA! said Croft suddenly, thrusting both hands forwards, index and middle fingers extended and crossing in a perfect X shape. He didn't know why he did that, to be honest; it just felt like the right thing at the time.
THAT'S... gasped Kiros' voice in his head. ...THE FORM OF THE SWALLOW!
The winds around Croft stilled abruptly, before erupting underneath Cloud in the form of an intense updraft. He was borne skywards at a frankly scary rate, such that by the time he realised what was going on he was already at the level of Ultima Weapon, and still rising.
The colossal stone dragon watched him as he rose higher and higher. Through the mists of its forced devotion to its current master, its sluggish thought processes went something like this:
I AM SAFE UP HERE FROM THE LAND WEAPONS.
ONE OF THE LAND WEAPONS IS APPROACHING ME.
IT IS ABOVE ME.
THUS IT IS NO LONGER ON THE GROUND.
WITH NO GROUND TO SUPPORT IT, IT WILL SOON START TO COME DOWN AGAIN.
IT WILL COME DOWN, AND IT IS ABOVE ME.
THIS MEANS -
At about this point, Cloud, aka Laguna, landed on Ultima Weapon's head, disrupting its thoughts quite considerably. To add injury to insult, it promptly transpired that the Weapon's wings were not powerful enough to keep twice its body mass airborne. And so it started to descend.
By the time it hit the ground the descent had turned into a fully-fledged plummet.
The ground successfully turned this situation around.
There was a crunch.
A loud one.
A minute or so later, after the high-velocity fragments had settled and the dust was beginning to clear, it became apparent that in the three-way argument between Laguna, Ultima and the ground, Laguna had escaped relatively unscathed. The ground itself had not fared quite as well as it might have hoped, but that was certainly compensated for by the damage it had exacted upon Ultima, which, suffice to say, would never fly again.
"Cloud, Cloud, he's our man," said Sephiroth in a rather bored voice. "If he can't do it..."
Diamond Weapon looked distinctly less than pleased by this turn of events.
"Hey!" Ultros shouted into his megaphone. "What d'you think you're doin', killing off one of our Weapons like that? You're not allowed to do that!"
Cloud straightened up. His eyes glowed.
"And, um... that is..." Ultros faltered. "Diamond, get them!"
Rumbling in agreement, the Weapon stepped forwards... and stopped.
Something was rising from the ocean. It was... well, it looked like a very, very long hollow cylinder, perhaps half a dozen metres in diameter. It kept on emerging from the sea, for a good twenty seconds, until it finally transpired that it was, in fact, the barrel of a gun. A very, very long-barrelled gun, a good fifty feet long or so, currently resting on the shoulder of a certain crimson Weapon. Down the sleek barrel was painted, in untidy lettering, "SISTR RAY."
Kasuto swung the thing round to face Diamond Weapon's torso, and pulled the trigger.
The beam of energy passed through the Weapon, seemingly effortlessly punching a hole through solid crystal and sending a cascade of glittering shards tumbling to the ground below. Undaunted, it hurtled onwards, picking up speed as it crossed the continent. The air should have caused its power to disperse, but no, it somehow seemed to absorb the energy from the air, growing wider, brighter, faster. It passed the shore and sped over the ocean, and its light reflected off the rippling waves could be seen even from Junon.
The beam crossed the ice fields of the Northern continent, bursting through a glacier or two without even slowing - indeed, perhaps even accelerating a little more - until it crashed into the translucent dome around the Northern crater.
With a cataclysmic explosion that could be heard throughout the world, both barrier and beam vanished. And there was calm once more.
The group, plus Godo and Motoko, reconvened in the grounds surrounding Da-Chao. The city had managed pretty well throughout the battle, actually. The majority of the clash had taken place on the outskirts, and the only collateral damage was that a few houses had fallen down, apparently in sympathy, whenever a Weapon had fallen over. Da-Chao himself had apparently not even been disturbed from his meditation during the clash, although unfortunately his aura of serenity might have been compromised now because the victorious Weapons had removed his head and were playing football with it a few hundred yards away.
The misspelled Sister Ray had been laid to rest in his arms, the barrel over his shoulder, making him look like an anti-war monument or something of that ilk. Meanwhile, the citizens of Wutai were clustering around the bodies - if indeed such a word could be used for them - of Diamond and Ultima Weapon. The rush would last for a day or so, perhaps, and then in maybe a week's time there'd be a lot of cheap, high-quality jewelry around.
"Where did you get that gun, anyway?" Motoko was enquiring of Kasuto curiously, while Godo inspected the aftermath and generally dispensed congratulations in all directions. "I'm pretty certain it's not one of ours..."
"I found it in... uh, that place over all the way on the other side of the sea... Junon, that's it!" Kasuto replied happily. "They'd like just left it lying on the edge of the city sticking out, so they wouldn't mind if I borrowed it just for a bit, right?"
"Er... right..." Motoko agreed half-heartedly, glancing nervously at the weapon. She was pretty certain the Shinra hadn't developed anything that powerful recently - Agent Icchan would have told them about it. Maybe it was reacting to the presence of the Weapons, or even...
She glanced at Sephiroth. No, couldn't be... Well, regardless, she'd have to make sure that thing was dismantled as soon as possible. She dreaded to think what could happen if someone fired it and there wasn't a convenient magical barrier in the way for it to blow to bits.
"I still reckon blamin' me for all of this is kinda unfair," Ultros muttered sulkily, sitting in an untidy heap with all eight tentacles knotted firmly together behind his back.
"So who would you have us blame, hmm?" Godo snapped at him.
"Well, the boss, obviously," Ultros replied. "I mean, he's the one who wanted you guys dead. I kinda like you, myself. That play thing you did at the Gold Saucer? Great!"
"Aw, yeah..." Barret said, remembering. "Yo' was da one what dropped dat weight on us, wasn't yo'?"
"Heh heh heh..." Ultros chuckled nervously. "Er, forget I said anything, eh? Let bygones be bygones. Water under the bridge. We're all friends here, right?"
"The chef at the Frying Dragon Inn could turn him into a wonderful serving of takoyaki, Shogun," Motoko observed innocently. "He'd feed all of us."
"No!" Ultros exclaimed desperately. "Look, I'll tell you all I know, okay? And then you can just let me swim back off into the ocean, and I'll live out the rest of my days in peace on the sea bed and never bother you again, okay? Okay? Please?"
"Hmm..." Motoko struck a particularly theatrical pose as she hummed thoughtfully. "What do you guys think?"
"I say we fry 'im," Cid announced immediately. "I'm kinda hungry already."
"I think we should hear what he has to say first," Nanaki pointed out. "The information might come in useful."
"Good thinking that man... er... lion... thing!" Ultros agreed frantically.
"Nanaki," said Nanaki.
"Although he did try to kill us, remember..." Ess pointed out, quite enjoying watching Ultros' expression squirm.
"And I never got that pizza I wanted!" Kasuto added. "I'm hungry as well!"
Ultros made a sort of terrified squeaking noise from somewhere in the back of his throat.
"I think we ought to at least give him a chance to say what he wants to," the Author volunteered, content to play the Good Cop in this interrogation.
"Fine, fine." Ess took the lead and leaned forwards. "Tell us, then. Who exactly is this 'boss' person? Talk! If you don't tell us..."
Sephiroth nodded towards the octopus' tentacles and let his hand rest on the hilt of the Masamune. "...I'll chop them off."
Ultros 'eeped,' very quietly.
"I don't really know -" he began.
"Anyone got a knife?" Motoko enquired casually.
Sephiroth tossed her the Masamune.
"...BUT!" Ultros exclaimed. "But I know that he's not from around here! He keeps talking about 'going home' and 'leaving the world' and that sorta thing."
"And why, precisely, does he want to kill us?"
"I'm not sure if -"
"Talk!" Ess exclaimed again, a sly smile creeping across her lips. "If you don't tell us..."
"...I'll rip dem off!" Barret finished.
"Okayokayokay," Ultros stammered, doing his best to point at the Author and Aeris without the use of his tentacles. "He knows somethin' about you, seems to have a grudge or something. No real idea why."
All eyes turned to face the Author, who shrugged.
"No idea," he said. "Can't think of anyone who'd want to kill me off the top of my head."
"He keeps going on about how you foiled all his plans some time ago or something," Ultros added helpfully.
The Author considered this for a little while.
"Still doesn't ring a bell, I'm afraid," he said after a pause. "Sorry."
"Well, I'm sure you'll want to hunt him down and find out, won't you?" Ultros prompted. "So you'll need all sorts of handy information about where he is and how to get to him and so on, right?"
"That vould be veeery useful, ja," agreed Kea.
"Good, because I can help you there!" Ultros beamed.
"Then talk!" said Ess once more, who was really getting into this. "If you don't tell us..."
Ultros closed his eyes in fear of what was going to happen to him this time.
"...I'll gnaw 'em off," Mr. Big put in cheerfully.
"Look," Ultros said wearily, beginning to wonder if there was any way he was going to make it out of this situation intact, "you know that tower up in the Northern crater, right? That's his hideout."
"Well, um, that's good, because we hadn't realised that," said Perigee coldly.
"Hey, hey, let me finish. His rooms are on the top floor, and there's all sorts of traps and mazes and stuff on the way up. I never had to go through 'em, 'cause the boss knew the code for the lift and sent me up and down in that, so I don't know much about 'em. But they're there."
"Traps?" said the Major, indignant. "The blighter!"
"I can tell you how to get through the front door, though," Ultros went on. "There's a small panel on the outside with a sliding block puzzle on it. Fifteen blocks, and thirteen of 'em've got a letter on 'em. You've gotta spell out 'come in' on the middle two rows, and you have to do that within two minutes of sliding the first block. Otherwise a grand piano comes flying out of a third floor window and flattens you."
A brief silence settled over the group.
"We're dealin' with a lunatic," said Cid eventually.
"But deal with him we must," Sephiroth added matter-of-factly. "So that information is actually useful, surprisingly enough."
"So you're gonna let me go, then?"
"Oh, c'mon!" Ultros wailed. "Look, I'm being nice! I could've just kept my mouth shut and been obstructive, you know!"
Motoko raised the Masamune thoughtfully.
"Butididn't!" Ultros blurted out.
"Oh, stop teasing him," Aeris sighed. "We're not going to hurt him, are we?"
"Aren't we?" Mr. Big asked. "Boring."
"Fine, fine," Ess sighed. She leaned a little closer, so that her eyes were perfectly level with Ultros'. "But if you get in our way once more..."
A slight smile tweaked the corner of her mouth as she reached behind her back and produced one of her old weapons. Ultros' eyes widened even more.
"...I'll grate them."
"Okay, someone untie him," Ess said with an air of smug finality.
"And let's all go and eat pizza!" agreed Kasuto.
Night fell. It had been falling gradually for a number of scenes - pretty much since the start of the chapter - and so it didn't have too much farther to go. Thus sunset was a nice gentle process, marking the transition from a hectic and rather chaotic day to the peace of nighttime.
Wutai was a different place at night. The streets were still packed, but there was none of the urgency of before. People moved with a slow purpose, making their way firmly from one place to another, in no particular hurry to reach their destination, in sharp contrast to the turbulent throng of the daytime. Small lanterns were hung from many roofs and ceilings, and the soft light made the city seem somehow peaceful.
The party were gathered around a small campfire on the edge of town. They had held a vote and concluded by an almost unanimous decision that they were tired, and going to the mysterious tower to tackle the evil presence manipulating events from the shadows could wait 'til the morning. So they were enjoying the night air, roasting food on the flames, with the promise of free board and breakfast at the Frying Dragon later.
Figuring that they might as well do something useful, Perigee had handed round the vast collection of limit manuals Cloud had bought earlier, and those who could be bothered were leafing through them to see if they could follow what was written within.
"I think," the Author was saying thoughtfully to the Major, as the two of them stood a little distance away from the others, "that I'm meant to grab your head like this..."
He glanced down to the book open on the ground next to him, then reached round and grabbed the Major's neck from behind.
"I say, that tickles, old bean," said the Major cheerily.
"Sorry... Okay, so then I have to push your chest here, and bring my foot round behind your leg this way..."
As he attempted a particularly complicated sweep, the Author's foot slipped out from under him, and he hit the ground heavily on his back. Sadly, he didn't remember to release his grip on the Major's neck, and so the officer went down with him and landed on top of him.
The Major was a rather portly chap, to say the least.
"I..." the Author wheezed after a few seconds. "I think... that... maybe I... did some... thing... wrong... there..."
Meanwhile, by the campfire, Shan was industriously creating a sandwich of epic proportions. Most of the others had gathered to watch him.
"I've been thinking," said Croft pensively.
"Hmm?" hmmed Ess absently.
"What happened to Roch?"
There was a brief pause while everyone waited to see if Ess was going to say something nasty or get upset over the question. When it became clear that she wasn't worried about it, Cid decided to reply.
"Kid vanished after that affair back at Junon, didn't he?" he remarked.
Croft thought for a moment, then produced the Black materia from one of the many pockets of his coat.
"Didn't he want this?" he enquired. "I thought he needed to take this so that he could blow the world up or something."
Perigee thought about this.
"He did say he wanted to use its power, didn't he?" he recalled. "Mind if I have a look?"
"Most likely he'll want to pursue us, then," Sephiroth observed as Croft drew back his arm and threw the orb to Perigee. "That is, unless he's found himself a new and more potent source of..."
For all the good things one could say about Croft, he wasn't a particularly good thrower. The Black materia fell pitifully short of Perigee, bounced a few times, and rolled, rather predictably, into Shan's sandwich as he happily applied the final slice of bread to the top.
All gazes followed the sandwich as it rose to his mouth.
"Um...?" said Perigee eventually, feeling someone ought to say something.
Shan took a bite from the sandwich.
There was a shocked silence, and it was only after munching enthusiastically for a good ten seconds that Shan noticed the gazes directed at him.
"Prithee, what?" he asked innocently, swallowing hurriedly.
"Er, Shan...?" said Aeris hesitantly.
"You haf just eaten the greatest source of destructive power in the whole vorld," Kea explained matter-of-factly.
Shan nodded, taking another bite. "Then surely it be now out of th'hands o' Evil, nay, an' th'world be safe once 'gain?"
"That's actually a surprisingly good point," Sephiroth mused. "If the Black materia is no longer... er, intact, then Jenova will obviously be unable to use it. So she'll have to find some other source of power."
"Anyone think of a place where we might find a source of power?" Mr. Big prompted drily. "Guess what, there just might be something in that tower!"
"It's, like, all coming together!" Kasuto exclaimed. "We're all going to the same place to decide the fate of the whole wide world!"
"What 'lse w'ldst thou 'spect?" Shan asked through a mouthful of sandwich.
"Hey, someone wanna look at this?" Barret enquired, waving a limit manual in one hand. "I don't gotta clue what it's 'bout."
Sephiroth raised a hand, and Barret flung it at him. His aim was better than Croft's, but only just and the pages of the manual got a little singed as it flew rather too close to the fire.
"Supernova," Sephiroth read aloud, looking at the cover. "Impressive sounding name." He flipped the book open and began skimming through. "This one doesn't look too complicated..." He paused. "Huh, it says, 'one must be burning inside with violent anger before attempting this technique...'"
From Shan's direction came a loud splintering crunch. It was the sort of sound one might expect a very small glass chandelier to make if someone trod on it.
All gazes turned to rest on him as he finished the last mouthful of his meal and, apparently oblivious to the stares directed at him, sat back, rubbing his stomach with a particularly satisfied expression on his face.
"Ah," he said after a little while, "verily 'twas a feast fit for a king!"
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
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