"It's a hundred and six miles to Chicago, we've got a full tank of gas, half a packet of cigarettes, it's dark, and we're wearing sunglasses. Hit it."
- Jake and Elwood
"Okay, guys," Cid said firmly. "You know what to do, right?"
"Yessir!" Vyse replied, saluting. "As soon as you've all gone in, we start the engines up and hover around the tower, just in case something goes wrong and you need rescuing!"
"Don't forget the rope ladder," Cid chided him gently.
"Sorry, sir. And we're to keep a rope ladder hanging from the deck so you can jump out of top floor windows and grab onto it."
"That's the idea." Cid nodded to his two pilots, standing side by side at the main entrance hatch to the Highwind. A few dozen yards behind him, the rest of the party was clustered around the great tower in the centre of the Northern crater. Presumably Cloud was already halfway through solving that puzzle the octopus had mentioned.
Cid sighed. He didn't have a particularly good feeling about this.
"Okay, guys," he said eventually. "Get back to the bridge. If everythin' goes well, I'll see you again later. If not... take care of the Highwind for me, okay?"
There was a brief moment of silence, before Vyse and Dyne saluted together, and disappeared into bowels of the airship. Cid stared after them for a little while, then about-faced and hurried over to the others.
"So, how's our..." he began, then took in the situation.
There was a piano - or at least, what looked like it might once have been a piano, some time ago and three floors up - on the ground a few feet from the entrance. On the other side was a pair of double doors, torn forcefully off their hinges and left lying forlornly on the grass. And there was nothing left in the actual doorway other than an inviting archway.
Cid leaned forwards and stared at the small sliding blocks puzzle attached to the wall a few feet above ground level.
"Ambs tin foc egl," he read slowly.
"Looks like someone got here before us," Sephiroth remarked casually. "And it seems it took them a little more than two minutes to get in."
"Jenova?" volunteered Croft.
"No, seriously?" said Mr. Big flatly. "Could it be?"
"All right, you two, knock it off," the Author chided them. He gave the entrance a slightly suspicious glance. "Well, looks like he... she... er... it's made things easier for us, at least. Shall we head in?"
"Well, we -" began Tifa, before Cloud announced, "Onwards!" at the top of his voice and charged happily in, being soon swallowed by the gloom.
"I guess that's a yes, then," said the Author mildly.
They caught up with Cloud at the end of the corridor, which led into a large circular room, a good forty feet in diameter or so. Four passages led off from this chamber; the route they had come, and three completely indistinguishable others.
"Er," said Cloud as they rejoined him. "Now what?"
"We could," Perigee began, before... well, before something appeared. It seemed to consist solely of a pair of hands and a face, floating in mid-air at about the height one would expect if they were attached to the rest of a body. It would have been an intensely freaky apparition, had it not been for the large spherical red nose it wore, for no apparent reason.
"Good afternood," it said, in a suitably nasal whine. "You would be the visitors the master is expectig, yes?"
"Hey! Enough questions! Who or what are you?" Cloud interrupted, because there are certain things that ought to be said when confronting any reasonably intelligent minion of Evil.
"Surely 'who or what are you?' is another question..." the Author mused absently.
"Ah, I do apologise," the apparition replied. "My name is Norstein Bekkler. I ab the master's butler."
"And this master would be called...?" Sephiroth asked hopefully.
"I ab a mere butler," Bekkler explained smoothly. "It does not do for me to refer to the master by name."
"His initials wouldn't happen to be, um, FG, would they?" Perigee enquired with uncharacteristic shrewdness.
Bekkler smiled enigmatically. "That is a distinct possibility, sir, yes."
"An' he's been expectin' us, has he?" added Barret.
"Oh yes. I ab here on his request to point you in the right diregtion. To give you a helpig, aha, a helpig hand, so to speak."
"So which way do we go, then?" Tifa asked.
"Well, this way," Bekkler explained, pointing at the far left of the three passages. "And this way," he added hurriedly as Cloud made to hurtle off, pointing at the middle one. "And this way."
"That's three ways," said Kasuto helpfully. "Like, we sort of want only one."
"The master has arraged a number of trials for your and his abusement," Bekkler elaborated. "Down each passageway is a number of these trials, and at the end is a swigch. Only when all three swigches are pressed together will the master hold an audience with you."
"So we need to split into three parties, then?" Cloud paraphrased.
"That would certainly seeb to be the case, sir, yes."
"Well, I'm going with the Author," Mr. Big said firmly. "He's got the most comfortable shoulders."
"Wow, thanks," said the Author flatly. "For a moment there I thought you were after my company or something."
"I wanna go with you too!" announced Kasuto cheerfully.
"I'll go with Cloud," said Ess simply. Tifa opened her mouth to say the same, then thought better of it.
"Wilt thou not tarry a while with me, fair maid?" enquired Shan, noticing this. "'twould be naught but a pleasure to be accompanied by one such as thee."
Tifa went a rather pleasant shade of cerise.
"I say, I'll go straight ahead, what?" the Major decided. "Stout-hearted chaps don't turn corners, eh?"
"I like the sound of that!" agreed Cloud.
They continued in this vein for a few minutes, until the final decision was reached:
The Author, Mr. Big, Kasuto, Aeris, Cid, and Kea would go left.
Sephiroth, Shan, Tifa, Croft, and Barret would go right.
Perigee, Cloud, Ess, the Major, and Nanaki would go straight ahead.
Understandably, there had been some disagreements (Croft, for example, had wanted to turn left, simply because he felt like it), but you can't please everyone.
"Okay," said Perigee once this was organised, turning back to the mysterious butler, "do you..."
His voice trailed off as he realised the butler in question wasn't there.
"I presume he said everything he was asked to," Nanaki remarked.
The group looked at the three passageways. The unsaid thought that was echoing inside all of their heads - to various extents, depending on how empty their heads were - was, simply, 'No turning back now.'
"Okay," said Sephiroth firmly. "Let's mosey."
Down the left passage, after many twists and turns, a few forks, and a couple of dead ends, was a library. It was quite a big library. None of the group could see the door on the far side, although that was primarily due to the positioning of the shelves, which were arranged without due recourse to logic or common sense. They were scattered across the room at right angles to one another, often with some bookcases blocking others and making it impossible to get certain volumes out.
Cid calmly removed a cigarette butt from the corner of his mouth, dropped it on the fine maroon carpet, and crushed it underfoot.
"Looks like we've hit a maze," he observed flatly.
The Author nodded solemnly.
"It would certainly appear so," he agreed. "Even the most disorganised librarian would not put," he glanced over to one of the shelves, "Warbreck's 'Secret of Biscuits' next to 'Seventeen Men and a White Trilby.'"
There was a brief pause while everyone else waited for someone to break the silence.
"Aaanyway..." said Mr. Big eventually, "we're not gettin' anywhere by just sitting around, are we?"
"I hasten to point out that you're the only one actually sitting down," the Author put in flatly.
"And I hasten to point out that you're not going anywhere either."
"Can ve just hurry up?" Kea suggested impatiently. "The others may be hurryink ahead vithout us!"
"And we don't want to be last!" Kasuto added.
"Should we split up again, then?" Aeris suggested. "We can shout when one of us finds the exit."
"Might be an idea." The Author glanced to either side. "Okay... everyone just go wherever you feel like it."
They did, and for the next few minutes the sound of footsteps echoed around the room, punctuated only by the Author's occasional announcements that he'd found a particularly exciting or rare book.
They all reconvened, apparently by chance, back at the entrance at the same time. This was rather more of a coincidence than any of them were prepared to accept.
"Okay," said Cid in a rather bored voice, "so we're meant to do somethin' or find somethin' in here before we get let out, right?"
"Perhaps there ees a book vith 'Handel' written on its spine or somethink," volunteered Kea helpfully.
"I think that'd probably be a little obvious," the Author admitted, ambling over to the nearest bookcase. Aeris followed and peered curiously over his shoulder. "I mean, here we have, 'The Joy of Mechs,' Mizuhara's 'The Art of Disguise,' er, 'Megalixir for the Soul'..." He sighed, picking a book at random and waving it around to illustrate his point. "It's not as if, '1001 uses for a dead Moogle,' is going to -"
The bookcase promptly fell on him, conveniently taking Aeris and Mr. Big with it.
There was a silence. A faint wave of dust floated up to the remaining three.
"Um," said Kasuto.
There was a doorway behind the bookcase... or, to be more precise, behind where the bookcase had been until recently. A small piece of paper was stuck to the wall beside it.
Kea stepped over the fallen furniture and stared at it.
"Congratulations," he read. "You haf successfully solfed the first pussle. Please do not vorry about your friends - they vill meet you soon enough. You may continue on to the next room now."
"Do you think we can?" Kasuto asked. "I mean, aren't we like meant to stick together and stuff?"
"Don't think we've got much of a choice here," Cid replied. "Look at this." He leaned down and prodded the bookcase. "Flat against the floor. Wherever those three are now, they ain't under here, that's for sure."
"You mean, like, teleportation magic?"
"Somethin' like that, I guess." Cid shrugged. "If you ask me, we shouldn't've just marched in the front door. But now we're in, about all we can do is play this guy's games."
"So let's get on with it, shall we?"
And so the three advanced onwards, none of them noticing the faint "ow!" that came from under the bookcase as they walked over it.
"I... dunno... why..." Barret panted. "Why... I gotta... push this... alla the... way... up here..."
"Because you're obviously the strongest," Sephiroth remarked casually, strolling along nonchalantly behind him. "And there's only room for one of us to push that thing, so it's best that you do it."
"Oh, just save your breath and push."
The group were working their way very slowly up a particularly long corridor, inclined at a good thirty degrees to the horizontal. The primary reason for the speed of their ascent was the huge stone block - a good metre along each side - that Barret was pushing uphill. This might on first glance seem to be a rather strange thing to do, but it was easily explained. At the end of this corridor nearest the tower's entrance had been the aforementioned stone block. At the far end was a pressure plate on the floor next to a locked door.
It hadn't taken a Sephirothic intellect to work out how to combine the two.
"Almost there now, Barret," Tifa called to him, having run on a little way ahead to guide him. "Just a few more feet and then you're onto the flat bit!"
"Gotcha..." Barret muttered.
"At least this wasn't a very complicated puzzle," Croft said happily. "It would be awfully nasty if we had to move lots of blocks like this."
Barret made a strangled sound at the thought of having to push more than one block around.
"Okay, just a little..." Tifa called. "One push more... and..."
The stone cube reached the end of the incline and thumped heavily down onto the horizontal floor. Tears of relief running from his eyes, Barret let go of the thing and wiped his brow with his hand.
"Yo, someone else push dat now," he said wearily. "I ain't doin' it no more!"
Sephiroth shrugged. "I shall do the final stretch, then," he said, striding up to the block. He calmly placed one palm against the centre of a face, exhaled sharply, and extended his arm with apparent ease.
The block slid smoothly over to the pressure plate and came to a gentle halt. With a very impressive creaking noise, the door beside it swung open.
"It's all a matter of focusing energy," he said in response to the shocked stares directed at him. "Surely you know how to control your ki?"
Four heads shook slowly.
The room beyond was dimly lit by a few torches mounted on the walls. It was also rather large, square, and seemed to contain no furniture whatsoever.
The general atmosphere was that of an arena.
As Croft, who was the last to enter, ambled through the doorway, the thing - rather predictably, to be honest - slammed shut. There was a faint click that indicated that no one was leaving the room until they'd done whatever it was they were meant to do in here.
A small slip of paper fluttered down from the ceiling, and Tifa's hand lashed out and caught it between her index and middle fingers as it passed.
"Miniboss," she read out loud. "Heroes, defeat my minion to continue."
The door at the far end of the room opened.
What entered was obviously not human. It was bright red, about four feet tall, and vaguely humanoid. From its head hung long, almost dreadlock-like spikes. It wore nothing other than a pair of trainers and white gloves with spiked knuckles, but that was okay because it seemed to have nothing that decency might have required it to conceal.
"Yo," said Barret as it swaggered up to them, "why we gotta fighta red hedgehog?"
"Hey!" The creature seemed somewhat affronted by this remark. "Ah ain't no hedgepig, foo'!"
"Wha...? Who yo' callin' a foo', foo'?"
"Ah said you, foo'!"
"Er, boys...?" said Tifa, in a slightly reproachful voice.
Both Barret and... adversary... rounded on her.
"Yeah?" they said in identical irritable tones.
"Er..." Tifa backed off a little. "I was just wondering if we were getting off on the wrong foot here...?"
"Dere ain't no right foot t'get off'n!" the creature exclaimed. "We gotta fight y'all!"
"Yes, but..." Tifa paused. "Hang on, 'we'?"
"'fraid there's more of us, guys!"
The voice came from the far door as a couple of other small shapes entered. They were similar in stature and general appearance to the red one, only were apparently based on different animals. One, a bright blue specimen leading the way, was obviously some form of hedgehog demi-human, right down to the spikes down his spine. The other appeared to be a yellow fox, aside from the twin tails.
"C'mon, leave him, Knuckles," the blue one called over. "He's not worth gettin' worked up over."
"Yeah, yeah, Ah know..." the one named Knuckles muttered, backpedalling to join up with the other two.
"Prithee, creatures most curious strange," Shan said thoughtfully. "What be ye? An' why must we cross swords this day?"
"Who are we?" the blue one repeated. "The name's Sonic. Sonic the Hedgehog."
"Tails the Fox!"
"Ah'm Knuckles th' Echidna."
"We're fightin' you 'cause..." Sonic paused. "Dunno, actually. It's just what we've been told we gotta do."
"By the 'boss,' presumably?" Sephiroth put in.
"Yeah. 's about all we can do, is do what he says."
"It never crossed your mind to disobey orders?"
"Weeell, it's not like we've gotta choice in the matter." Sonic shrugged. "He said that once we've dealt with you, we can go back home. Until then we're stuck here."
"He uses some form of dimensional warping," Tails added. "He seems to be able to reach into other worlds and travel between them - and bring things, or people, from those worlds into this one." He looked rather apologetic. "Like us."
"Ah, enough talk awready!" Knuckles exclaimed. "Let's get dis outta da way!"
"Awright!" Barret agreed. "Bring it on!"
"You want some, huh?"
"Jes' yo' try!"
"Should we join in," Croft asked Tifa nervously, "or are we expected to stand back and watch for now?"
"I think we ought to join in," Tifa said slowly. "After all, even Barret might have trouble against three of them."
Tifa slipped smoothly into her sparring stance. Croft reached into his coat and produced, from somewhere, an electric guitar, which he slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. And there was a particularly menacing shhhing noise as Shan and Sephiroth unsheathed their swords in synchronisation.
There was a brief moment of tranquillity.
Sonic was the first to move, and certainly lived up to his name. He'd already taken a brief run up, hurled himself at Shan, curled up into a ball and ricocheted off the hero before any of the others had even moved. Shan simply toppled over backwards, a deep gash in his forehead.
"Wow," said Tifa in awe. "He's fast."
"Allow me," Sephiroth ordered, wandering calmly after the hedgehog. "Simple tactics like that will only work once."
"I'll go for the fox, then," said Croft happily. "He looks easier."
"Um, then -" Tifa began.
"I got this guy!" Barret exclaimed, levelling his gun-arm at Knuckles.
"I'll go help Shan," said Tifa.
Barret and Knuckles squared up against one another. It might have seemed that the former had the advantage, what with having a high-powered laser cannon attached to his arm as opposed to mere spiked knuckles. This didn't seem to faze his adversary, though - if anything, the echidna seemed to be relishing the face-off.
Knuckles moved first, feinting left and then sprinting off to the other side. Barret didn't even bother dodging - simply standing motionless and levelling his gun-arm at his adversary.
He waited until Knuckles was nearly upon him, and then fired.
Nothing much happened at first, except that his arm started making a stuttering 'oop-oop-oop-OOP-OOP-OOP' noise. Unfortunately, before it had got past the second OOP, Knuckles had already buried one fist in Barret's chest, planted one heel behind the larger man's foot, and floored him with a perfectly-aimed uppercut.
With a final 'OOP-OOP-BWAAAOOOHHH,' Barret's gun-arm discharged a burning azure beam of light ceilingwards.
"Aw, yeah, very nice," Knuckles said sardonically. "Yer aim's rubbish, though."
Meanwhile, Tifa knelt down beside Shan and inspected him. She didn't have the same medic's eye that, say, Ess did, but even so it wasn't too difficult to see that he was merely stunned and that the wound was not serious.
She rummaged around in a pocket and produced a particularly potent healing potion, one of the many Cloud had insisted they buy before leaving Wutai. She hurriedly pulled the cork stopper out of the neck and tossed it over one shoulder - not noticing the faint thoink as it bounced off Barret's nose - and upended the liquid into Shan's open mouth.
It took a bit of prodding around the stomach and throat areas before his body got the idea and swallowed, but it subsequently transpired that the potion worked quickly. The gash in Shan's forehead closed itself up as she watched, and a couple of seconds later Shan sat bolt upright.
"What?" he said, then hesitated. "Ah, verily do I see that I do owe thee my life, fair maid. Thou hath mine gratitude most fervent. Prithee, how may I ever repay such a debt?"
"Um..." said Tifa, not entirely sure how to react. "It was. Er. I mean. Don't worry. Nothing."
"I'faith, shalt I not forget this action," Shan went on happily, then sprung to his feet. "Now let us challenge th'foes once 'gain!"
Tifa went straight for Knuckles, seeing that perhaps Barret needed some help after all. A quick pivot on one foot followed by a hop took her into a powerful tornado kick that Knuckles was hard-pressed to duck underneath, even with his slightly diminutive stature.
He backed off a few paces as she landed, a sly smirk on his face.
"Well, well, the gal's got spirit, huh?" he remarked casually. "An' here Ah thought she was jus' a pretty face..."
Shan hurried over to Croft, who seemed to be having some difficulty. Namely that his adversary was using the despicable trick of using his tails to hover just out of reach, leaving Croft jumping up and down ineffectually underneath him, waving his guitar in the air.
"Can't you just pretend to lose so we can go home?" Tails was complaining. "We don't really want to fight you!"
"But you've got to!" Croft retorted. "And look, the other two are doing it properly!"
"Might I be so forthright as to offer mine aid?" Shan suggested. "I'faith do I have a thought."
"Oh, go ahead," said Croft politely.
Shan reached over his shoulder and produced a strange, almost harpoon-looking device attached to a handle. He pointed the thing at Tails and, without giving the fox time to work out what was happening, pulled a trigger hidden on the weapon.
The harpoon shot out, trailing a heavy metal chain behind it, and attached itself firmly to Tails' side - somehow without penetrating, which Croft thought was rather impressive, actually. Then, making rather a lot of noise as it did so, it retracted back in, dragging the fox back down to earth.
"Aye, verily th'hookshot do be a most mighty potent tool in th'right hands," said Shan proudly, while Croft raised his electric guitar up and brought it down smartly on Tails' head with a resounding TWOING-OING-oing-oing. The fox went out like the proverbial light.
On the far side of the room, Sephiroth and Sonic seemed to have reached an impasse. Sephiroth's skills had dulled during his lengthy absence from life, and he no longer had the speed required to catch the hedgehog with his blade. On the other hand, every time Sonic leaped at him he always found the sword placed neatly in his way, ready to parry.
The two backed away from one another to catch their breath, Sonic much more visibly tired than Sephiroth - as was only to be expected, really. His combat style was distinctly acrobatic, whereas Sephiroth appeared to do literally everything with a minimum of effort.
"You're not bad, man..." Sonic muttered in between breaths. "I'm... impressed..."
"And the same to you," Sephiroth replied evenly. "I was expecting to have you in pieces by now."
"Sorry to disappoint..."
The two lunged at one another. And, at the same moment, Croft leaped in from one side with a cry of, "Whoopee!" and brought his guitar swinging viciously down towards the hedgehog.
His aim was sadly lacking, and it was Sephiroth who reeled off after the encounter and dropped to his knees, head in his hands. Croft and Sonic, on the other hand, got off relatively lightly, but managed to trip over one another and ended up in an untidy pile.
"Ow!" said Croft indignantly. "You're sharp!"
Knuckles stabbed swiftly towards Tifa's midriff with one spiked fist, expecting it to be parried - as it was, with worrying precision. Grinning grimly, he spun round on one foot aiming for her side, only to have his fist meet with her foot as she kicked out.
The girl had more than spirit, he grudgingly admitted to himself. She had talent as well, as surprising as it may have been.
Knuckles hopped back a pace or two and eyed Tifa suspiciously. But then again, she hadn't been fighting properly, had she?
"You want to try hittin' me some time?" he suggested. "Ah mean, you might not be too bad at it, huh?"
Tifa launched herself at him, bringing both legs up in a flying kick - just as predicted, Knuckles mused smugly. He rolled underneath her, sprung up as she landed, and grabbed hold of her hair with one hand, pulling her head sharply back.
The light seemed to glint off the spikes of his knuckles as he drew his other hand back to strike... and, making a wipwipwip noise, a boomerang hurtled out of nowhere and whacked him solidly in the face.
He had barely time to stagger back a couple of steps before Tifa spun round and caught him on the side of the head with a crescent kick. The echidna was lifted gracefully off his feet, flew straight into a wall, and slumped down to the floor.
The boomerang looped back and flew unerringly into Shan's outstretched palm as he gave Tifa a wide beam. His teeth went 'ting.'
"Verily be I less greatly in thine debt, beauteous maid," he said happily. "But indeed must I defend thee still with mine life if so be."
Tifa, already rather pink from her exertions duelling with Knuckles, went a distinctly beetroot colour.
With both of his allies now downed, Sonic was looking noticeably worried. He disentangled himself from Croft and rolled away, trying to put some distance between himself and the group that was now converging upon him.
"Damnit..." he muttered. "Do I have to do this...?"
He took a pace forward and leaped straight up into the air, stopping spinning a good few feet up and extending all four limbs. And then... somehow, he stopped. It appeared that by doing this he had somehow convinced gravity to look the other way for a second.
Something began humming quietly, growing gradually louder by the second. Sonic's very body began changing, almost deforming - his limbs grew longer, his spikes extending and becoming far, far sharper. His body took on a yellowish tint before flashing gold, making an almost audible shwinnng.
He glowed. If he were not modelled after a golden hedgehog of legend, then any poet seeing him would surely create a suitable legend on the spot.
"Wow..." said Tifa in awe, her voice going unheard because the ominous humming was nigh on deafening.
Sonic stared around him, still floating in mid-air. There was a light in his eyes that suggested that the inside of his head had caught alight.
"Now I -" he began.
The beam from Barret's gun-arm neatly engulfed Sonic as he floated, lighting the entire room up for a brief second. Sonic dropped from the air and landed in a heap, reverting to his original blue hue, the creaking sound of the doors swinging open already filling the room.
The light winked out, and there was an almost reverent silence for a moment.
Barret cleared his throat.
"I pity da foo' what don't got no rings!"
The Author sat up wearily, rubbing his forehead with one hand. His head was complaining quite vehemently at him, as he supposedly it was entitled to, really. It had just had a bookcase fall on it, after all.
Hmm... speaking of the bookcase, where was it? More to the point, where was he?
It was dark, as is so often the case when one wakes up in an unfamiliar place, and he could see literally nothing. It was clear that he wasn't still in the library, however. For one thing, he could feel the floor beneath him was stone, and not the pleasant carpet of before. For another, there wasn't a bookcase on top of him. One notices these things.
His right hand searched the floor near him, apparently of its own accord, until it found his dictionary. Meanwhile, his left checked behind his ear for his fountain pen. Both were present and correct, or so it seemed. This was something of a relief.
Satisfied that he was properly equipped and had not lost anything - aside from his companions - he got to his feet and tried to decide what to do next.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it, my dear Author?"
Light flooded the area abruptly, illuminating a smallish square room. The walls and floor were all unforgiving stone, with a few pleasant tapestries hung to lighten the mood a bit. A single door in the middle of the far wall seemed to be the only exit. One window allowed the morning light into the chamber, and the Author found himself appreciating the literary forces in effect that had allowed the room, despite this, to be pitch black beforehand.
There was a man standing before him. He was rather tall, and his body seemed to have considerably more angles than is strictly normal. His hair was immaculate, and smoothed down with so much gel that it practically glistened. His expression was currently that of a disdainful leer.
In his left hand he held a book, of similar proportions to the Author's dictionary. On the front cover, partially obscured from view by his fingers, was the title, "1001 Things to do with a Dead Butterfly."
"At last we meet again," the stranger said smugly, triumph and distaste mixing in his voice. "I've been looking forward to this day. Tell me, how does it feel to have your past come back to haunt you?"
The Author thought for a good few seconds.
"I'm sorry," he replied mildly, "but... who are you?"
There was a pause.
"You... you don't mean..." The man was obviously not pleased by this. "You don't mean to say you've forgotten about me?"
The Author tried his best to look suitably embarrassed. "I think I might have."
"Well, let me enlighten you." The Author could literally feel the venom in the words. "Do you remember the story of a certain Writer," the capital letter was enunciated with flawless precision, "who abused his position? And do you recall, perchance, what happened to him?"
The Author considered this.
"Ah, yes," he said happily, memory flooding back. "He was rubbed out, wasn't he? Turned into subtext?"
"I'm guessing that Writer's probably you, then," he remarked.
"Correct, my dear Author. I am Fishook Grysley."
"I'm very pleased to meet you."
"And do you, perhaps, recall who was responsible for leading the team that unearthed my wrongdoings and brought me to justice?" Fishook asked coldly.
"I'm guessing that would be me," the Author replied, beginning to see how things might perhaps fit together.
Fishook sighed wearily.
"You seriously don't remember?"
"It was quite a long time ago."
"Not for me, Author. I remember it only too well." Fishook took a deep breath, and added, with rather more emphasis than was perhaps necessary, "Do you want me to tell you what I've been doing during the long years since then?"
"Do you want to tell me?"
The two stared at one another for a little while. The unspoken subtext was, as both of them knew, 'Tradition dictates that you tell me so the readers know what's going on.' They were experienced. They knew the rules.
"I shall tell you," said Fishook firmly.
"You all believed that when someone is written out of the Book of Life that they are effectively incapacitated, didn't you? That when one is rubbed out, as you put it, they will never interact with the world again?"
"That was the plan, I think," the Author agreed. "I never really thought it would work, myself."
"Well, you..." Fishook hesitated. "What?"
"Well, it sort of assumes that no one has any literary abilities other than us, doesn't it?" the Author pointed out. "Which is inherently silly. After all, we're... er, sorry, we were... just normal people who happened to be particularly talented. At least I think we were. It's been quite a while since then and I forget things."
"Ah." Fishook nodded, and tried to remember where he had been to get his monologue back on track. "As you seem well aware, there are people who are naturally attuned to literature; people who can read between the lines. And with people like that around, well, even someone who has been erased is far from helpless, wouldn't you agree?"
"And, with gentle persuasion..." Fishook's dark smile widened slightly. "They came to aid me in whatever way they could. I taught them to use whatever abilities were at their disposal. I taught them to serve me. And soon they grew strong enough, and I took them with me as they led me to another world."
The Author tried to work out just how you took with you someone who was already leading you, then gave up and decided to listen politely.
"I've been through more worlds than I can remember," Fishook went on, and for a brief moment there was a touch of weariness in his voice. "And I have, willing to follow my every order, more apprentice Writers than I can count. Individually they are weak, barely able to influence the roll of a die. But together, with me binding them... they can force my existence back into the great Book itself. They can keep me in the world for as long as I need."
"Egad," said the Author, who felt it was about time for an egad. "You'll never get away with it!"
Fishook gave him a nod, from one professional to another. "I don't need to get away with it for very long," he said smugly. "My journey is almost at an end now."
"You don't mean..." The Author was almost genuinely worried now. "Aeris?"
"Oh, but I do. I came to this world by chance, but I believe it will be the last I need to visit. Do you not realise the incredible potential within that girl?"
"Not really," the Author admitted. "She's good at magic, and she's without a doubt the most wonderful girl I've met, but she never struck me as a real natural."
"That's because, my dear Author, you're not looking properly. You only ever read between the lines... but have you ever read another book?"
"I don't really follow you."
"Of course you don't." Fishook smirked. "In another world, another version of this tale, if you will, you and your friends never arrived here. It was left up to that Strife person and his group to protect the world - and, of course, they were incompetent. They let Aeris die. And this was the single best thing that ever happened to her."
"Um," said the Author.
"Across the worlds, thousands, nay, more... perchance millions of people than we can count read of her death. They were shocked. Some of them cried. But the thought that passed through their heads afterwards was, 'I can write. I can bring her back. I can give her a happy ending.'" Fishook winked. "That one girl commands them. Through her I can reach out to them and use them. And with their power behind me... I shall challenge the Lord himself and make him pay for what he did to me! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi! Hi!"
"You can't..." The Author paused. "What on earth was that?"
"I thought it was about time for an evil laugh," Fishook explained.
"That was a laugh?"
"Oh, be quiet and pay attention to the important points. I'm going to be a God, for grammar's sake!"
"But where do I come into this...?" the Author asked, puzzled.
"Oh, you don't. But when I thought of sending the letter to the Lord Himself - oh, the irony of having Him contribute to His own downfall is too sweet - I realised that this would be the last world through which I passed. And I did want to see you one last time. To reminisce and settle old affairs. Your falling for the girl was just an amusing added bonus."
The Author gave this whole affair due consideration.
"I can't help but think," he said thoughtfully, "that all this just seems like a rather contrived excuse to bring some form of reason to this story, and explain what we're all doing here."
"Well," the Author sighed, "I'm afraid I don't really think I'm allowed to just stand back and let you do this, am I? After all, I am good friends with God... and sinister plot to take over control of the universe or no plot, I won't let you use Aeris."
Fishook laughed once more, and this time the Author refrained from comment. "I somehow thought you might see things this way. And I was looking forward to fighting with you over it." He grinned widely. "Oh, how I'm going to enjoy making you watch me use your girl, and knowing that your last thoughts are going to be anguish and concern over what other things I might make her do..."
The Author's knuckles whitened round the spine of his dictionary.
"Don't you even dare..." he spat. "I'll write you into a pulp for even suggesting that..."
His hand reached for where his fountain pen sat behind his ear - and then stopped halfway there. Fishook had, almost absent-mindedly, brushed his hair away from his ear, revealing an uncapped biro.
"What's the matter, my dear Author?" he asked jovially. "You weren't planning to go for me when I couldn't defend myself, were you? And you can't seriously be suggesting we both write at the same time? Co-authoring is hard enough at the best of times, let alone when both authors are writing the same scene at the same time and at cross purposes, you know."
The Author's eyes narrowed.
"I'll take what comes," he said, and went for his weapon.
Two pens touched blank pages at the same time.
Fishook's hand cramped up, causing him to lose his grip on his pen... wrote the Author.
...but he switched hands seamlessly, continuing writing with his left and taking the opportunity to hurl a fist-sized fireball at his adversary... Fishook scrawled, swapping hands the moment he felt the twinge in his fingers.
...who didn't even need to dodge as the thing hurtled past his shoulder...
...then curled round, homing in on the nearest enemy to target...
...before colliding with and annihilating itself on a handful of pages the Author ripped from his dictionary and threw in the air.
Both men paused briefly for breath as the ashes rained down around the Author. Such a waste of good paper... but you took what you got in situations like this. The slightest pause for thought, the barest lapse in writing style or deviation from what was feasible, and Fishook would wrest full control of the story from him, and then it would be the end. There was, and could be, no quarter given in a literary duel.
Fishook's pen touched the page first this time.
Triggered by the activity above it, the pit trap beneath the Author's feet opened up...
...and it was only thanks to the adrenaline high that he managed to step aside in time...
Fishook cursed inwardly. He'd known the Author would be good, but not this good - to brush aside his attack and pump himself up at the same time so easily... Even now he could see the man's hand moving notably faster as the adrenaline took effect...
...but with the added speed came instability, and his grip on his pen began to slip...
...he wrote, already feeling the strain on his own talents as the Author's writing grew more rapid and more powerful...
...but regardless, the man could only keep this up for a few seconds longer...
...which was still enough to launch an offensive. Lightning forked from his fingers, originating from the materia secreted in his pocket...
No break after this sentence. Both men ploughed on, the pace of the story exhausting.
...homing in unerringly on Fishook's gloved palm. He clenched his fist tight, trapping the energy there...
...but the brief respite had been all the Author needed to steady his shaking fingers and regain his hold on his pen...
...yet he was not expecting to find his thunderbolt coming straight back at him...
...and earthing itself neatly on the materia from whence it originated.
The Author paused briefly at the end of the sentence, Fishook wrote, not expecting his adversary to have the stamina to continue seamlessly...
...but the Author brought pen to paper immediately upon sensing this, countering smoothly...
...too smoothly, in fact. His pen nib hit the paper too fast, knocking it sharply and distorting it.
The Author stared in horror as ink ran, and his handwriting collapsed...
...and with it his control on the story...
...leaving him incapable of finding an escape as Fishook summoned a small boulder and hurled it at him...
...striking him painfully and accurately on the wrist.
The Author's pen, released from his grasp, flew gracefully across the room and smashed into the wall. Ink rained down in a small navy blue fountain.
Fishook chuckled triumphantly, his hand still moving across the page as he wrote down the events taking place - or, perhaps, as events took place according to his writing. "I commend you on a battle well fought, my dear Author. I do admire your spirit, as well as your obvious concern for the lovely Aeris. But I think what you really need to remember is that I am a Writer, whereas you will never be anything more than a lowly agent."
The stones under the Author's feet shifted, according to the whim of Fishook, throwing him off his feet and bringing him painfully to the floor.
"Now I have a few other worms infesting my tower to deal with," Fishook said smugly as the Author staggered back to his feet, his expression the very epitome of impotent rage. "All I need to do is secure you for a few minutes, and then I can return and deal with you at my pleasure. Or perhaps," he gave the other man a suggestive wink, "I can deal with Aeris at my pleasure."
Stones in the walls slid back, and from the recesses behind them manacles attached to chains launched themselves at the Author's limbs. They clamped themselves firmly and inescapably round the man's wrists and ankles... or at least, they would have done had they not missed by a good few feet.
Fishook's smile faded.
"What?" he exclaimed, staring at the page in front of him. "Stones in the walls..." he read out. "Manacles... clamped themselves firmly... or at least, they would have done...?"
He raised his glare to the Author, who was breathing heavily and sweating profusely, his eyes closed in what appeared to be meditation. "H-how are you doing this?"
"I'm not," the Author said serenely. "You're the one writing. You're doing it."
Fishook looked back down at his book. Yes, he was writing it, his hand still putting down on paper the record of his thwarted victory. Even as he watched, his biro wrote, 'Even as he watched, his biro wrote...'
"I think what you really need to remember," the Author added, his voice so soft it was barely inaudible, "is that I am the Author. I have been both penning and partaking in stories since before you were even a vague concept germinating in someone's imagination. You may be a great Writer and second-to-none at manipulating stories, but I am part of them in a way that you can never be."
Fishook felt his body tense. He didn't mean it to, but the stress... the sheer stress of being so close, and having victory torn from him like this... It was too much to bear...
"I'm not writing this!" he shrieked.
But he was. And with every word he wrote, the tension grew greater. Pain flowed over him, right up to the point where his muscles spasmed one final time and, with a truly sickening crunch, his elbow and knuckles, unable to withstand the force, collapsed in on themselves.
His biro fell to the floor and bounced away across the room. Forlorn, his book landed, cover upwards, at his feet as he ineffectually clutched his broken hand with the other. There was the sound of tearing paper.
The Author opened his eyes.
"I will not allow you to bring down the system the Lord has created purely out of vengeance," he said quietly. "And I shall not allow you to use innocent people."
He sighed wearily. He may have brought an adrenaline high upon himself, but it was already fading - and combined with the mental exertions of the past minute or so, about all he wanted to do now was to curl up somewhere and sleep.
"And I would quite appreciate it if you would return Aeris and Mr. Big to me," he added.
For a moment Fishook's expression seemed almost victorious.
"Oh, yes, I'm sorry," he said, smugness evident in his voice. The Author tensed, expecting the worst. "Allow me to bring them in here."
He reached with his good hand into his trouser pocket and took out a small radio control. At the press of a button, two flagstones in the corners of the room dropped away, and from the holes beneath them rose two wire cages - one housing Aeris, one housing Mr. Big. Understandably, the latter was a little bigger than the former, but both were barely large enough to hold their occupants.
"You kept her caged up like that...?" the Author said coldly.
"Now, now, keep that temper of yours in check," Fishook replied cheerily. "I think you ought to know that at the press of a button, the floors of both those cages will drop away, and your familiar and lover will both be sent tumbling down into a pool of burning magma. You can rest assured that I can press this button faster than you can write them a safe escape." He smiled. "And, by the way, you won't believe the lengths I had to go to to get my very own pool of burning magma."
The Author froze.
"Good, good." Fishook beamed at him. "Now, because I'm a sporting chap and, after all, you did beat me, I'll strike a compromise with you. One of these two, and only one, I shall allow to leave with you, on the proviso of course that you do, in fact, leave, and never trouble me again. The other will remain with me, to be either my minion or my..." He grinned. "I think you get the picture, do you not?"
The Author's fists clenched.
"Oh, and please don't try anything silly," Fishook went on. "I am perfectly happy to kill whoever I can, should you turn on me suddenly and try to rescue both your friends or something similarly heroic."
"Marvellously clichéd, isn't it?" Mr. Big called over from his cage.
"But didn't you say that you needed Aeris?" the Author enquired, ignoring him. "You wouldn't kill her, would you?"
"I would like her alive, yes." Fishook's eyes narrowed. "But bear in mind that I have harboured a grudge against you for millennia. I am prepared to sacrifice her in order to crush you."
"Care to try me?"
The Author flinched visibly, his gaze darting from Aeris to Mr. Big. Of course, he didn't really think Fishook would have the gall to lose Aeris, but could he really be sure? And then, could he, the Author, really just let Mr. Big go after the countless years they had been together? There had to be some way out of this... some way...
"I'm sorry, Aeris," he said under his breath, then raised his voice. "Give me Mr. Big back."
"Whoa, Author..." Mr. Big murmured, staring at the Author in surprise. Their gazes locked for a moment, a look that said more than words ever could.
Fishook, too, was a little shocked. "Well, well... so friendship is strong, after all," he mused. A tap of a button caused Mr. Big's cage to simply fall apart. "I can't say you don't surprise me, my dear Author. Especially after I made it clear just how useful to me Aeris is." He shrugged. "Ah well. I made you an offer, and I have kept my end. Now get out."
Mr. Big waddled slowly across the floor back towards the Author, a certain weariness in his movements. His route took him past Fishook's feet, and he took the time to stop and glare up at the man.
"Y'know," he said thoughtfully, "I think you ought to know something before we go."
"And what would that be, pray?" Fishook laughed curtly. "That you'll never forgive me? That you'll pursue me to the ends of the world to get her back?"
"Not really," Mr. Big conceded, "although those would be good too."
A rabbit can move fast.
An angered or excited rabbit can move faster.
Mr. Big could move still faster.
Fishook didn't even see him move. One moment he was at his feet, the next there was a rabbit attached to his hand by its teeth and scrabbling at his wrist with all four claws. He dropped the device and flailed ineffectually, even as the Author, who had known Mr. Big for long enough for each to know how the other thought, broke into a sprint towards him.
"You... jumped up talking rat!" Fishook spat, driving his fist into the floor. Something went crunch as his knuckles hit the stone, but Mr. Big took the full force of the impact and lay still with a surprised squeak.
His book was still at his feet, and Fishook scooped it up in his palm as he straightened up, swivelling on one heel. He stood tall, extended his arm fully, and let the volume fly, at great speed, towards the Author's face.
The man didn't even have time to see it coming. The spine hit him full across the eyes, literally picking him off his feet and hurling him into the wall head first. There was a crack as he hit it, and then he slumped down, his head leaving a crimson trail on the stone as it slid.
"Author!" Aeris cried. "Author!"
Fishook stood still and breathed deep for a few seconds.
"It is done," he said eventually under his breath. "Finally, after all these years..."
His gaze fell on Aeris, who was close to tears. "Now, now, my dear. Remain calm. All there is left to do now is to dispose of the others who are lurking in my tower where they do not belong, and then... Why, then you and I shall be as gods..."
He glanced down at himself. "Hmm, but this outfit doesn't really fit, does it? I need something more... suitable."
His clothes, a conservative shirt and trousers combination, billowed outwards. They changed colour, from a subdued blue and black to a garish mix of reds and greens. Their shape became that of a robe, while threads spun themselves from the air itself around his head into something resembling a jester's cap.
The transformation took no more than a couple of seconds, but at the end the man standing there looked the archetype of a medieval fool. Except, however, that no fool ever wore a mocking grin that said, 'I know who you are. I know your hobbies; I know your likes and dislikes. I know where you live, and I know where your friends and family live. You are nothing compared to me.'
Fishook looked down at himself.
"I do say, I really quite like this form," he mused out loud. "It's so cheery... and what am I if not cheery, hmm?" He broke into a short laugh. "Vwee hee hee!"
The room that Perigee had found was a pleasant change from the dull square arenas that seemed to have been the setting for most of the chapter. Those had been little more than four walls, a floor and ceiling, and a door or two to liven up the affair. This one... well...
"This feels, um, like I'm standing in an Escher drawing," Perigee remarked, awe evident in his voice.
The floor - well, it had to be the floor, as they were standing on it, but that was about all that gave it away - seemed to be made up of a network of stairs and plateaux, with each step being perhaps a foot high. Many of the stairs had deep grooves cut into them, forming a complicated network around the room, and a number of cubic stone blocks were scattered around the chamber and positioned on the grooves. Looking up revealed that the ceiling looked pretty similar, but it wasn't a pleasant experience as the disorientating effect was not inconsiderable. There was no real sense of direction of or shape; just of stairs. And blocks. There were lots of blocks.
Down one wall was a long ramp, with a number of sections missing. There seemed to be some sort of pressure plate built into the wall where it terminated.
Aside from the way they had entered, there was no obvious way out.
"This is seriously surreal," said Ess, speaking for all of them - well, all of them except the Major, who didn't seem to have noticed that anything was amiss.
"I am of the impression that this is yet another puzzle," Nanaki observed, a little unnecessarily. "Yet I must admit that I am at a loss as to what exactly we are expected to do."
"We could push the blocks around?" Cloud suggested.
"Yes, but to what purpose?"
"What do you mean?" he asked after a little while. "There has to be a reason?"
"Well, that would seem more profitable than simply moving them around at random, hmm?"
"Hey, guys," Ess called over. "I've found something here."
There was some sort of control panel built into the wall by the entrance. It seemed to consist of a large red lever, a small slot such as might fit coins, a slit next to it, presumably for notes, and a digital display.
There was a piece of paper glued to the wall next to it with handwritten instructions on it.
"Pull lever A to load boulder, lever B to release boulder," Ess read out loud as the others clustered round her. "Collide boulder with pressure plate at end of ramp to advance. For hints, please insert correct change below. Hints provided by Ex-Box Services." She looked up. "Oh, there's a price list here.
"One hint: 2,000 Gil.
"Two hints: 4,000 Gil.
"Three hints: SPECIAL OFFER! 5,000 Gil!"
"That's not particularly helpful, is it?" Nanaki mused. "I would say -"
"Got it!" Cloud announced suddenly.
"We find the boulder and load it using that lever," Cloud said knowledgeably. "Then we push blocks into those gaps in the ramp over there. Then we find the other lever, pull it, and the boulder goes rolling down, hits the switch at the end of the ramp, and we all go to the next room."
"That, um, sounds logical," Perigee agreed. "So we just need to find the boulder first..."
They looked around for a little while.
"I see no boulder," Nanaki pointed out.
"Hey, what happens if we pull the lever?" Cloud volunteered, reaching for it. "Maybe that's how we get it to give us the boulder."
He pulled the thing downwards, and a trapdoor opened up underneath the Major, who promptly plummeted and disappeared from view.
The trapdoor closed up after him.
"Um," said Cloud. "Whoops."
There was a brief, stunned silence.
"Cloud," said Ess slowly and deliberately, "did you just make the Major vanish?"
Cloud put one hand behind his head, smiled nervously and sweatdropped.
"Eheh," he said. "Looks like you found me out."
"Might I suggest that our friend has not, in fact, vanished," Nanaki volunteered, "but has merely been loaded?"
Cloud looked at him.
"Oh, I see," he said. "So if we find lever B and pull that, we get him back again."
"One would certainly hope that to be the case."
"Well," said Ess firmly, "we'd better go find that lever before we do anything else, then. Everyone go different ways and we'll meet back here in a few minutes if we don't find anything."
The four remaining members of the group split up and set off, soon disappearing from each other's view as the distinctly confusing structure of the room came into play. For minutes the sound of footsteps and the occasional puzzled, "Hmm?" echoed throughout the room, before the group - or at least Ess, Perigee and Nanaki - found their way back to the lever.
"Nothing," Perigee admitted.
"The same," Nanaki added.
Ess sighed. "Yeah, me neither... hey, what happened to Cloud?"
"Hey, guys!" Cloud's voice called. "I think I've found it!"
The group stared around, but Cloud was certainly nowhere within sight.
"Um, hey," his voice called after a little while, sounding rather confused. "What're you all doing up there?"
"Up there?" Ess repeated, and started looking at the floor, trying to find a gap in it. Perigee, however, was beginning to get an idea, and looked upwards instead.
"Cloud?" he called. "How did you get onto the ceiling?"
"Me?" Cloud asked. "You're the ones up there!"
There was a slight pause.
"This room is indeed curious," Nanaki mused.
"Well, never mind about how you got there," Ess called up. "Just pull that lever, then!"
"Oh, okay!" Cloud called down, reached to the lever next to him, and hauled down - or possibly up - on it.
From somewhere within the walls came a low rumbling noise, followed shortly by a loud clunk. With a cry of, "Oh, I say!" the Major dropped from a trapdoor in the ceiling, such as it was, landed at the raised end of the large ramp, and bounced down it until he fell into one of the gaps. He sufficed rather well as a boulder, actually. Being distinctly portly, he was pretty close to the right shape.
Something went made a negative-sounding 'ih-aaaah.' It was not a sound that transliterates well.
"Okaaay..." said Ess slowly. "Well, looks like we ought to start moving some blocks around now. I don't suppose anyone has already worked out how to do it?"
"Well, I'm putting together a basic algorithm," Perigee volunteered. "But the topology of the problem is, um, a little complex..."
"That's a no, then," paraphrased Ess, who had had time in the past to learn just how long it could take Perigee to produce a solution that satisfied him. "All right. Everyone just push blocks around and see if we can get them into the gaps."
And so began the Great Push of 2050 AI. It was quite an interesting event, really. The blocks only seemed to want to move along the grooves in which they were set, but they had no problems about moving up walls - if indeed the walls were walls, and not merely extensions of the floor. Nevertheless, there were enough of the grooves to enable the group to move blocks to pretty much wherever they wanted, given some degree of lateral thinking.
Cloud managed to find his way down from the ceiling eventually, hauling a stone cube behind him, but by this time Ess, Perigee and Nanaki had all found their way up there. The Major was working surprisingly well, however, and had marshalled a little army of six blocks, which he was pushing around as one unit and chiding whenever they broke formation.
Gradually, one by one, the gaps in the ramp were filled. Cloud and the Major filled the lower parts of each gap, leaving the other three to push more cubes down the walls to make up the numbers. It was quite an impressive demonstration of impromptu teamwork, especially considering that at any time any one individual was lucky to know where more than one or two of the others were, let alone what they were doing.
Nanaki gave one last block a shove with his hind legs, and the thing slid down the wall, which seamlessly became the ceiling and then the floor, and slid to a halt in the last gap.
"It's not bad, is it?" Perigee remarked from above, observing their handiwork.
"Not at all," agreed Ess, who had by now found her way back down to the floor again. "Okay, you two hang around up there. Er, Major, would you mind being our boulder again?"
"Oh, not at all, old girl! Glad to help the side out, what?"
The Major ambled cheerily over to the lever and tried to remember where he'd been standing. Cloud and Ess joined him, while Perigee and Nanaki gradually worked their way across the ceiling to lever B.
"Okay, here goes," said Cloud, and pulled the lever. Predictably, the Major dropped away from view, and the floor sealed up above him.
"Boulders away!" Perigee called down, pulling lever B.
Once more the Major plummeted and landed on the ramp in an untidy heap. Gravity took over, and he rolled slowly down it, picking up speed as he went and exclaiming, "Tally ho!" every time he went over a bump.
He hit the pressure plate at the lower end going at quite some speed.
There was a loud 'ding,' and a hole in the wall opened up.
"Oh, jolly good whatsit, I say, old boulder, eh, who?" said the Major, getting unsteadily to his feet, his eyes rolling in the traditional cartoony effect.
"It actually worked..." Perigee said, a little pointlessly. "Wow."
"Well, let's not complain," Ess remarked. "C'mon, everyone. Hurry up off the ceiling, you two."
Shan stood above a precipice. Before him the path dropped away abruptly, without even the courtesy of a barrier or handrail to prevent an overenthusiastic hero hurtling over the edge. He peered down into the murky blackness below, seeing nothing but very faint clouds of smoke in the distance. He was sorely tempted to leap over the edge just to see what was below, but he got the impression that this was not a world where he would simply reappear at the entrance to this room if the fall would be, as he feared, fatal.
"Ooh," said Croft appreciatively. "It's a long way down, isn't it?"
This room was large. That wasn't to say it was particularly long - maybe twenty metres or so - or particularly wide - no more than a dozen metres - but it was deep. The ceiling was a good half dozen metres up from where the group now stood, and as Croft had observed, it was a very long way down indeed.
Along one side wall, evenly spaced, were three doors, each leading to a small platform, and it was on the rightmost one of these that the group now stood. Opposite these platforms were another three on the far wall, with a small switch set into the wall just above each - the six being arranged like the spots on a die. There was a door alongside the centre switch, but as far as the group could see, there was no way to get from where they were now to any of the other platforms without being able to jump at least four metres.
"Is this another puzzle?" enquired Tifa wearily. "I hope it's not like that stepping stone one. That was tiring."
Surreptitiously, Croft reached into the menu screen and checked his stamina level while no one was looking.
"I would say that if it is a puzzle, it's not a hugely taxing one," Sephiroth remarked. "Presumably there is some way to hit those three switches over there. Once we've done that, I would presume that the path will open up."
"Dunno how we meant to hit those switches alla da way over there," Barret muttered sulkily. He was not in a particularly good mood at the moment; the last puzzle had involved everyone trying to spell out their names using a letter grid on the floor, and he'd been the only one who hadn't got it right first go.
"Anyone have any ideas?" Sephiroth prompted. "Afraid this seems like one area in which my talents are no use."
"I don't think I can help," Tifa admitted.
"I could try using a cunning and surprising wind tech and throwing one of you over to the platforms," Croft volunteered. "But I haven't tried it before, so I don't know if it'd work."
Sephiroth thought this over.
"So you're suggesting that you hurl one of us over a potentially bottomless chasm using a technique you've never tried before?" he paraphrased.
"We'll get back to you on that one." Sephiroth sighed. "Barret?"
"Yo, I could shoot dat switch," Barret said smugly.
Sephiroth shook his head. "Sadly, we would rather just hit the switch, not obliterate it completely. But thanks for the offer." He turned to Shan. "And do you... good lord..."
From somewhere about his person, Shan had produced a veritable mountain of items, which he had placed in a heap on the ground in front of him and was currently sorting industriously through them.
"Boomerang... nay..." he mused out loud. "Lantern... nay... hookshot... nay, th'length be not sufficient... bow an' arrows, hmm, mayhap..."
"Shan?" said Sephiroth dully.
"Aye, noble sir?"
"Where did you get all that from?"
Shan looked a little puzzled. "'Tis mine equip. I do carry it with me - 'twould be knavish to do otherwise, nay?"
Sephiroth shrugged. Wasn't there a saying about not looking a gift chocobo in the beak or something like that?
"Well... good for you..." he said after a little while. "Found anything there?"
"Oh, hi, guys!"
As one, the group looked away from Shan and his item stash, to where Kasuto was standing on the far platform, jumping up and down and waving at them. Behind her, Kea and Cid wandered aimlessly through the door, looking distinctly lost.
"Hi!" called Croft happily, waving back. "What are you doing over there?"
"Well, we just finished beating up two strange snake women thingies!" Kasuto replied. "And then a door opened, and now we're here!"
"The groups reconvene," Sephiroth observed, primarily to himself. "So soon enough we should see..."
His voice trailed off as the sound of enthusiastic footsteps (and it takes some effort for mere footsteps to sound enthusiastic) echoed around the room.
"Oh, look, old beans!" said a familiar voice. "Another room! Let's go give the blighters what ho!"
Predictably, the Major thundered into the room a few seconds later, followed rather ineffectually by Perigee, Cloud, Ess, and Nanaki.
"Oh, I say," he said after a second, slowing to a halt just in time to avoid thundering happily into the abyss. "Afternoon, old chaps! Good to see you haven't kicked it just yet, what? Haha."
"And so we're all back in one place again," Sephiroth remarked, doing a quick mental headcount. "Hang on... we're missing a couple..."
"Aeris, the Author an' his rabbit got separated from us!" Cid shouted back. "Guess they'll be joinin' us soon enough!"
"Makes sense." Sephiroth shrugged. "Okay! Looks like the plan here is that each group is supposed to hit their respective switch, however they can! See what you can do!"
There was a slightly half-hearted chorus of, "Right!"
"Any thoughts, Shan?" Tifa enquired of the Hero.
"Aye!" Shan got to his feet, brandishing a small wand. It was perhaps two feet long, made of a dark gnarled wood that looked like it might have been mahogany at some point, and was tipped with an impressive blood-red gemstone. Tifa's face stared back at her from every facet.
"This be th'Rod o' Fire," Shan explained. "At mine command 'twill issue forth a globe o' flame most intense an' forthright, an' th'fire shalt impact on yonder switch an' trip't."
"Sounds reasonable to me," said Sephiroth. "Fire, aha, away."
"Hey, how's that not da same as me shootin' da switch?" Barret complained.
"The last time you fired your weapon you brought down a wall," Sephiroth pointed out simply. "I think it's fair to say that your weapon is of somewhat greater power than that rod."
"Then let me begin th'casting," Shan announced, turning to face the switch. He held out the rod at arm's length in both hands, muttered something under his breath, then raised the wand above his head and lowered it sharply again.
It did, indeed, issue forth a globe of flame, perhaps a foot in diameter. The thing hurtled forwards, impacted with the switch on the far wall, and exploded gently with a fwooph.
Something went click.
"One down!" announced Croft triumphantly.
Above Shan's head, unnoticed by the group, a little red "-10 MP" flickered into being and hovered there for a second or two before fading unobtrusively away.
On the other side of the room, Kea, Kasuto and Cid were discussing their options.
"I could throw something," Kasuto was saying. "Do we have one of those cool grappling hook things?"
"Y'know, I think we forgot to bring those," Cid replied dryly. "Don't suppose ya could throw somethin' at the switch, could ya?"
"I could try," Kasuto volunteered. "What shall I throw?"
Cid handed her a potion.
"This way it don't matter if ya screw up," he remarked.
"I won't mess up!" Kasuto objected. "I'm a ninja! Watch!"
She hopped back a few steps, took a brief run up, and hurled the small vial at the far wall.
It fell a good two or three metres short and disappeared into the depths. A few seconds later, a faint 'tink' echoed up as it ricocheted off a wall on its descent.
"That worked well," said Cid flatly.
"It was way too heavy!" Kasuto objected. "Give me something lighter, like, uh, like a materia or something."
"No freakin' way."
"Freakink?" Kea repeated.
Cid nodded towards Kasuto. "Hey, gotta keep it clean for the kid."
Cid shrugged. "I don't suppose you've got any ideas, have ya?"
"Oh, certainly." Kea swept his cape around him and did his best to look spooky. "I am a wampire! I vill fly, like a meenion of the night, and touch the sveetch myself!"
"Go Kea!" cheered Kasuto happily.
"Certainly, I vill."
Kea strode smartly to the edge of the platform, spread his arms wide, and hurled himself forwards into the air.
He plummeted. A cry of, "Wuuuuuuhhh..." drifted up from the depths.
Cid and Kasuto stared after him.
"Yo," said Cid after a second. "He didn't... did he?"
"Um," said Kasuto. "I think he, yeah, um, he, like, did..."
"Thought he did."
There was a pause, punctuated and broken eventually by a loud poof from the far side of the room. Next to the switch, in a gradually dispersing cloud of smoke, stood Kea, chortling happily.
"Bwuh huh huh!" he laughed. "I fly like the vind, and ven no one is vatchink I strike!"
And thus he struck the switch.
With two switches down and only one remaining, Perigee found his group sadly lacking in ways to trigger it. He had suggested throwing one of his many explosive test tubes at it, but as it turned out, his reach was even shorter than Kasuto's. The Major too had joined in, offering to let the jolly old Blunderbuss off and show that bally switch not to trifle with the old party, but Croft had overheard this offer from his platform and had got so agitated about the whole idea that they'd dropped it.
This left them a little stumped.
"Are you lot not done yet?" Sephiroth called over. "Hurry up, we'd like to head on some time today."
"We don't know what to do!" Ess shouted back. "We haven't got any way to hit it!"
"Don't you have any suitable materia or anything?"
"I don't think -"
"Wait!" Cloud exclaimed abruptly, digging in his trouser pocket with one hand. After a few seconds' rummaging, he produced a small lavender materia, and beamed happily.
"We got this one for beating that sorceress person!" he pointed out. "Terry or whatever she called herself."
"Um, what is that one, then?" Perigee enquired.
"Long Range," said Cloud smugly, drawing his Atma Weapon and fitting the materia into one of the slots on its hilt.
"...and you didn't think of using that one before?" Ess asked exasperatedly.
"Well, I forgot we had it."
Cloud gave his sword a few experimental swings to make sure the materia wasn't going to suddenly come loose and go flying into the distance. Satisfied that it was securely fastened, he squared his shoulders facing the switch, drew back his blade, and swung it aimlessly in the air.
"Yeah," Cid began resignedly, "like that'll do any -"
There was a pause.
"Well, we've activated all three switches," Nanaki mused. "Unless there's a fourth, something should happen about now..."
And it did. From underneath the platforms, a cascade of stone tiles slid smoothly out and affixed themselves to the edges of the floors, gradually connecting all three switches to all three entrances and, after a little while, to what was presumably the exit.
The group convened in the centre of the newly laid floor.
"Well, it's nice to be back together, isn't it?" said Croft pleasantly.
"Yeees," Sephiroth replied half-heartedly. "Anyway, do we want to wait for our two... sorry, three stragglers, or do we assume they can catch up?"
"I say we gotta keep movin'," Barret decided. "Dey can find us later, no problem."
"I second that," Perigee agreed. He had to admit, however grudgingly, that despite the Author's many flaws he did seem to have a strange talent for staying alive.
"Then onwards!" announced Cloud, waving his sword in the air and already hurtling joyfully for the next door.
"Y'know," muttered Cid as the group trailed wearily after him, "I gotta wonder jus' how much further we gotta go through here before his Mightiness up there decides he's had enough."
"Too much longer, most likely," Nanaki commented. "Too much longer, my friend."
To the surprise of no one, the next room was fairly small, square, and next to featureless. The only things of interest were a large wooden throne in the very centre, padded with what looked like very comfortable cushions, and the windows set into the walls. They were the first windows the group had seen since entering the tower, however long ago that had been - and however long it might have been, it seemed like longer.
"Wow, windows!" Kasuto exclaimed excitedly, and rushed over to the nearest one. "Oh, guys, you like, sooo have to see this. We're, like, miles up!"
Before anyone could say anything or join her at the window, however, a soft chuckle echoed around the chamber. From behind the throne stepped a familiar, slightly diminutive figure, his eyes alight.
"Well, so finally you've decided to grace me with your presence, Mr..." Roch's voice trailed off as he saw the group. "What are you lot doing here?" His gaze fell on Sephiroth. "Son?"
"Eh?" Sephiroth was understandably puzzled at the revelation that this five year old boy was, in fact, his parent. "...father?" he hazarded hopefully.
"Father?" Roch was indignant. "I am your mother!"
Sephiroth shrugged. "Whatever you say, kid, whatever you say."
"Kid? Oh, yes." Roch remembered. "Trust me, I am no kid. I am Jenova, destroyer of worlds, and I am merely -"
A broad grin suddenly spread across Sephiroth's face.
"And you're inhabiting the body of a child?" he remarked, beaming. "You really have come down in the world, haven't you, dear mother? You have no idea how pleased this makes me."
Roch, or Jenova, returned his smile evenly.
"This body is more powerful than you might think, my son," he, or she, said smugly. "It was conceived near my body on the night of my awakening. I would wager it is greater than even yours."
"Conceived on the night of..." Sephiroth repeated curiously. He turned to look at Ess, who blushed, then tried not to and put on a defiant expression. "So you're my grand-mother now, are you?" he remarked pleasantly. Then a thought struck him, and he stared at Cloud. "Oh, no. Now that's just insulting."
"Hey, family reunions aside," Cid put in, "what the hell are ya doin' here?"
"I'm here to claim the tower," Roch replied simply. "After someone," he shot Shan a venomous glare, "destroyed the energy source I was going to use to destroy the world, I had to go to the next best thing. Here. Besides, I've wanted to destroy this world for thousands of years. I'm not about to let some upstart villain do it now."
"There's something here that can destroy the whole world?" Tifa repeated.
Roch sighed. "Oh, come on. Don't tell me you haven't heard of the Light of Judgment?"
There was a collective shaking of heads.
"You fools," Roch spat. "It goes with the tower. Atop the roof are three statues, containing within them the power to summon an energy beam far more potent than anything those meagre Weapons could conjure up. With that Light I could drill straight to the heart of the Planet and burn it from within... but first I need to wrest control of the Light from this tower's current master. I was hoping he'd turn up here."
"How come no one's mentioned this Light before?" Ess enquired.
"Well, I..." Roch looked marginally embarrassed. "I have dealt with a tower just like this one in another world. So I know these things."
"It vould haf been nice for somevun to tell us," said Kea sulkily.
"So what are you doing here, then, if you didn't know about the Light?" Roch asked curiously.
"Why, we be here for to slay th'Evil Master an' return much needed peace to th'land!" Shan replied. One got the impression it was a line he'd said many, many times in the past.
"Ah. So not exactly compatible with my intentions, then." Roch shrugged, drawing his sword. It was no more than three feet long, with a simple steel blade and fire-hardened wooden hilt. All in all, to those who might have been expecting a legendary magical blade or some such, it was a bit of a disappointment, really. "Well, I guess I shall amuse myself by killing you all now, then."
"Yo, wait up," Barret interrupted. "Yo' think yo' can beat alla us at once? Dat's priceless!"
"True, this body may not be hugely strong," Roch admitted with a shrug, "and its potential for assault magic is not the greatest either... but there are other, more... insidious ways to win a fight. I would not get too confident just yet, large person."
"An' jes' what would yo' do to me?" Barret replied disdainfully.
Roch smiled knowingly, folding his arms across his chest, while around his body a cascade of faint blue sparks crystallised out of the air and whirled around him. "This."
Barret gave off a sharp hiss of surprise as yellow swathes of light suddenly embraced him, intertwining themselves and obscuring him from view for a few seconds, until they dispersed as quickly as they had appeared.
"I call this technique, 'Chibi,'" explained Roch smugly. "You see, status ailments can be quite effective, can't they?"
"Da hell?" Barret squeaked, staring down at himself. He had shrunk to about three feet tall, with his head staying almost the same size to give him a strange, super-deformed appearance. To add further insult to this, his eyes had grown considerably, and his voice was a good two octaves higher than it had been.
"Awww!" Kasuto exclaimed. "He's, like, sooo cute!"
"I ain't cute!" Barret piped up, in complete defiance of the facts. "I'll take yo' on my own!"
He waddled up to Roch and gave the boy a vicious kick on the shins, which in his current, somewhat diminutive state, was about all he could manage.
Roch smiled pleasantly at him, picked him up with one hand, and hurled him across the room into the far wall.
"You see?" he said. "There are more amusing ways to win a fight than mere brute force."
"Really?" said Cid coldly, advancing with his spear at the ready. "It's not cool to be so arrogant, kid, really it -"
He cut his sentence off as he came within range and lunged forwards with what Roch felt was a particularly predictable attack. The boy leaned calmly to the side, grasped the shaft of the spear as it slid past his shoulder, and pulled sharply. Cid's face came close to Roch's for just enough for the younger to plant one finger gently on his forehead and say, cheerily, "Hot Rod."
Shaking his head in surprise, Cid took a step backwards... and found himself rocketing into a wall. He bounced off it, tried to steady himself, and ran at full pelt into the opposite one, which he proceeded to hit at great speed and knock himself flat onto his back.
Roch indicated him with a casual wave of one hand.
"Now isn't this so much more fun than me simply cutting you to pieces?" he asked calmly. "I can make you all completely ineffectual, one at a time, with no effort at all! It's ingenious!" He waved apathetically towards Shan. "Indigestion."
With a loud gurgling noise from his abdomen, the Hero promptly clutched at his stomach and dropped to his knees, curling up into a very despondent ball.
"And there's nothing at all you can do about it." Roch nodded to Ess and Tifa in turn. "Gravity From Jupiter. Hay Fever."
Ess' knees suddenly gave way underneath her and she collapsed to the floor. Tifa, meanwhile, seemed unaffected.
"Hah!" said Cloud triumphantly. "You must be running out of energy now! Bet you can't cast any more spells!"
Roch shrugged, an expression of mild puzzlement on his face. "No, no, I'm still going strong, honestly." He illustrated this point by afflicting Nanaki with a bad case of Zero Gravity and grinned widely as the beast floated gracefully ceilingwards, all four legs scrabbling helplessly in the air. "Perhaps... ah, must be one that takes effect on certain triggers. Let's try... this..."
He spun his sword in one hand, faint green waves floating in towards him. Then, after a second of this, he extended the blade towards Tifa and announced, "Razor Leaf!"
The light focused into a multitude of tiny specks around him, each turning out to be a diminutive leaf - which in retrospect should not have been much of a surprise, given the spell's name. They hovered around the boy for a moment, then launched themselves at Tifa, rushing past her and tearing hundreds of tiny gashes in her exposed skin.
"What did that do, then?" said Cloud curiously.
Tifa gave him a strangely pleading look, her eyes suddenly streaming.
"Ahhh..." she said, while over in the corner Roch took the opportunity to cast Greased Shoes on Croft.
"I say, what was that, old girl?" enquired the Major concernedly.
"Ahhh..." Tifa repeated, with a little more urgency this time.
"I'd stand back if I were you," advised Roch happily.
Tifa sneezed once, and almost immediately dissolved into a violent fit. Most of the others had taken a few steps back on Roch's advice, except Croft, who had not felt up to moving with his shoes in their somewhat frictionless state, and who now started visibly, his legs shooting out from underneath him. He hit the floor hard.
"It's like Final Fantasy VI all over again..." Perigee muttered under his breath.
"Ve are beink trampled here," Kea pointed out, "vile ve stand around doink nothink. Should ve not -"
"Hiccups," said Roch in an almost bored voice.
"...attack heem *hic* before he *hic* stops all of *hic* us from do*hic*ink anythink?"
"He has a point," agreed Sephiroth, while Kea started oscillating visibly with his newly erratic breathing. "Unless we attack, all that'll happen is he... excuse me, she... whatever... will pick us off one by one. Like he is doing."
"Then tally ho, old beans!" announced the Major, already hurtling towards Roch. "For the old country, what?"
"...we should attack all together!" Sephiroth called after him, but the warning came too late. Roch ducked easily under the campaigner's inexpert swipe, and as he blundered heavily into the wall the boy tapped him gently on the shoulder and spoke, "Saturday Night Fever."
The Major immediately dropped his sword, swivelled on one heel, and began boogieing on the spot to some funky disco beat that only he could hear.
"That's just... wrong..." said Ess from floor level.
"How are you doing all this, anyway?" Cloud enquired of Roch. "I thought people could only use magic that materia gave them!"
Roch beamed. "Materia is just a tool to allow one to manipulate the currents of magic," he said simply. "But its limitations outweigh its advantages... and I have other ways of using magic. This body's heritage is privileged."
"What do you mean?"
"Well..." Roch laughed shortly. "You see, Cloud, although you may not know it... you are a Cetra..."
Roch stared at Cloud's amazed expression for a few seconds, before he gave in and started laughing. "Only kidding, only kidding. I'm just playing with you. Guess it's just that I'm naturally good at this stuff."
"Oh, right." Cloud wiped his brow nervously. "You had me worried for a bit there."
"I know." Roch waved a hand at Kasuto, one of the few - along with Perigee, Cloud and Sephiroth - still standing and still capable of doing anything useful. "Pinball."
"Could you please stop doing that?" Sephiroth asked tetchily. "We're trying to work out how we can defeat you, and it's rather difficult when you keep casting spells on us."
"And, like, what does Pinball do, anyway?" Kasuto asked, looking worriedly down at herself.
"Try jumping," said Roch helpfully.
Kasuto hopped. Everything was going well until she hit the floor again, at which point there was a loud ping and she hurtled back towards the ceiling. She bounced off this with another ping, and started ricocheting violently off all four walls. Perigee, who watched her progress curiously, was sure that areas of the stone lit up momentarily in pastel colours as she hit them.
"That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about," said Sephiroth.
"You mean... like this?" Roch replied happily, pointing at Cloud. "Inebriation."
A faint 'miss' appeared above Cloud's head for a second.
"'Miss?'" repeated Roch. "Why 'miss?'"
"I'm wearing a ribbon," said Cloud cheerily.
"Ah." Roch shrugged, and tried again, this time with Sephiroth. "Jelly Arms."
Again a 'miss.'
"Don't tell me you're wearing one as well?" he said wearily.
Sephiroth shrugged. "No, not me," he replied. "Perhaps I'm just naturally resistant?"
"You can't be resistant!" Roch objected. "These are my special, unique techniques! You can't be resistant to my special, unique techniques! That's not fair!"
"Because it gives you an unfair advantage!"
Sephiroth and Cloud exchanged glances. Then, with a certain slow, somehow unstoppable gait, they began advancing on the boy, swords pointed at him.
Roch swallowed nervously.
"Let's be reasonable, shall we?" he asked worriedly. "You see... aha."
"What?" Cloud enquired.
Roch pointed at Perigee. Faint sparks clustered briefly around his hand.
"Magnetism," he said.
"What?" asked Perigee. "Electromagnetic fields aren't harmful to humans except at extremely high -"
"Whoa!" Cloud exclaimed suddenly. The muscles in his arms were bulging visibly, and his sword seemed to be wavering as if it had a mind of its own. It looked almost like it was straining to attack Perigee.
"What the...?" Sephiroth asked in shock as the Masamune promptly started doing the same. Roch smiled knowingly.
"Ack!" Cloud shouted as his sword tore itself from his grip and hurtled towards Perigee, point first, heading straight for his neck. Perigee ducked, with the lightning-fast reflexes that only come from being about to die in a particularly messy way, and the blade shot gracefully over him.
He had to duck again as it swung round and came back after him, and then hopped up as the Masamune leaped from Sephiroth's hands and lunged for his knees.
"You see, status effects can be awfully useful if used properly," Roch pointed out smugly. He tested his grip on his own weapon. "Now, where were we?"
"Er," said Cloud, while behind him Perigee threw himself to one side to avoid Cloud's Atma Weapon, then leaped up as the Masamune made another spirited attempt to cut off his ankles. "You were just saying that we should all be reasonable..."
"Ah, right," said Roch, and lunged at him.
The tip of his blade was no more than a couple of feet from Cloud's chest when Sephiroth threw himself bodily between the two of them.
"Sephiroth!" exclaimed Cloud.
"Ow!" exclaimed Roch.
The three recoiled from one another, Cloud unscathed, Sephiroth with a mild cut on his chest, Roch clutching his broken fingers in his good hand after their collision with Sephiroth's elbow. His sword went skittering across the floor, then changed its mind and went after Perigee.
"Right," said Sephiroth, cracking his knuckles pointedly. "Get him."
He leaped for Roch, digging a fist sharply into his midriff and following it with an uppercut that launched the boy smoothly into the air. Perhaps half a second into his flight he was struck by a flying Kasuto, who launched him into a wall with enough force for him to ricochet off and sail gracefully across the room. He passed sufficiently close to Nanaki to get a good clawing, landed badly, staggered to get his balance, almost tripped over Ess, nearly regained his balance, successfully tripped over Shan, and had one of the Major's arms strike him by pure coincidence in the face as he fell.
"Very nice!" said Perigee appreciatively, applauding. He'd somehow managed to get the three swords circling him in relatively stable orbits, which meant that he was safe for the moment as long as he didn't try to do anything stupid, like move anywhere or do anything.
Roch got unsteadily back to his feet. Blood ran freely from a gash above his eye, and from the way one arm hung limply by his side it was obvious that something inside it had twisted in a way it wasn't supposed to. But the worst thing about him was his expression. Maybe his cheek or jaw had been damaged or broken in the fall, but that unfathomable, somehow triumphant leer did not look human.
"You would strike your own mother?" he hissed. "You disappoint me, young -"
Sephiroth's foot made contact with his stomach at pretty much the precise moment Cloud, who had just realised that he didn't really need his sword at the moment, leaped in with a flying punch to the face. Roch went hurtling back, smashed heavily into the wall, and collapsed to the floor.
At least, in a way, he did. He also didn't even flinch as the two blows struck him, and simply stood there, grinning maniacally.
Cloud looked from the boy up against the wall to the boy in front of him.
"How did you do that?" he asked. "There are two of you!"
The standing Roch laughed, a harsh, almost screeching sound. He uttered a single incomprehensible syllable, and both Cloud and Sephiroth suddenly found themselves forced back against the far wall. It felt like the air itself was siding against them.
Perigee joined them there a second or so later, the three swords clattering to the floor by his feet.
"...that body is susceptible to physical force..." Roch said. Something about his voice had changed - it was almost as if all the words ran somehow into one another. "...i shall make do without it for now..."
His face flickered. For a very brief moment his features disappeared, leaving him with nothing but a blank expanse of skin.
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed.
"Having difficulty maintaining a form?" he asked coldly. "You're still not strong enough to manage without a physical body, are you?"
"...i am strong enough to destroy you..."
"When you can't even hold yourself together?" Sephiroth smiled mirthlessly. "You can't hold us here forever, you know. You'll tire soon enough, and then you'll have no way of stopping us as we shatter your skull and put you to rest once and for all. How does -"
Roch's eyes were cold.
"...i do not need to hold you for long!..." he said. "...i shall tear you apart, and i shall feast on your spirits, and you shall know that you were the ones to return me to my full power!..."
A hand tapped him on the shoulder.
"Er, hi?" said a young blonde girl in a blood red business suit and sunglasses. Faint blue sparks were gently circling her wrists. "We'd like a word with you, please?"
Roch turned in surprise. "...and you are?..."
Behind the girl stood four men. Three wore the same suits as her, while the fourth sported a plain black suit. All four wore sunglasses too.
"Her name is Elena of the Greeks," said the dark-suited man calmly. He seemed totally unfazed by the way Roch's features disappeared and moved around on occasion. "These men are Ryudo, Roan, Mareg, and Caroussis, also of the Greeks." He smiled, and it was the smile of a predator toying with its lunch. "They have it on good authority that you are guilty of breaking into and entering this tower without permission. You are to be punished."
"Can we do it now? Can we do it now?" asked Roan, bouncing up and down.
"...is this some kind of a joke?..." Roch enquired humourlessly.
"It is not good business sense to joke," said Caroussis simply. He glanced back at the other three. "Let the technique begin." He cleared his throat. "Massacre."
Five sets of sapphire sparks cascaded outwards into the room.
Elena launched herself into the air and brought her heel swinging round into Roch's face. He staggered back a single step, and then Ryudo punched him in the back of the neck, sending him right back into Elena's feet.
"Here we go!" exclaimed Roan, twirling his now trademark lightning rod between his fingers. He pointed the thing at Roch, flicked a switch on it, and boy and both Greeks were encased inside a shimmering golden pyramid.
A number of sound effects filtered out through the pyramid, ranging from the traditional 'bang' and 'pow' ones to one that sounded rather like a surprised duck. This lasted for a good few seconds before, with the noise of falling chandeliers, Roch was blasted out through one side of the golden prison, which promptly shattered in a truly beautiful special effect.
While attention was focused elsewhere, Roan cheerily planted his rod on the floor, digging one end between the stones to keep it vertical.
The boy hurtled gracefully into Mareg's arms as he sprinted towards the wall. Carrying him by the neck, the Greek planted one foot on the wall and somehow ran up it, waiting until he was nearly at ceiling level before throwing him down towards the ground.
Straight towards Roan's lightning rod.
Roch might have survived. He twisted as he fell, and could probably have brought his head away from the rod to avoid being impaled. Probably, that is, if Caroussis hadn't absently lifted one leg and brought it down in an axe kick too fast to see.
Roch's head hit the floor so hard the stone shattered.
A few minutes later, the effects of the various status ailments were starting to wear off. Ess' personal gravity was weakening, and she was just about able to stagger around without being dragged back to her knees. Shan too was up and about again, although he was still complaining of the odd stomach cramp. And Barret was inflating gradually, and was back up to about four feet tall with his voice at about the same pitch as Kasuto's.
The Major had, at least, stopped gyrating, but appeared to be experiencing some aftereffects. He was currently helping Tifa back to her feet and explaining enthusiastically, "Well, old thing, you can tell by the way I use my walk that I'm a gal's chap, no time to talk, what?"
Tifa just smiled and nodded.
Over by the wall, Ess and Nanaki were checking over the two Rochs. One of them seemed to be relatively intact; a few bones broken here and there, but he was breathing, at least. The other... well, suffice to say that the stone hadn't been the only thing to shatter when his head hit the floor. Ess had put him face down against the wall, not sure she could stomach looking at what was left of that face a second time.
He seemed to be fading away, somehow. It was as if gradually all the details of his body were dispersing. Already Nanaki had noticed a distinct absence of fingernails or, for that matter, finger joints on both hands. Whatever mind had been holding the body together beforehand was obviously no longer doing so.
"That was really very impressive, what you did back there," Cloud was saying to Caroussis and his band of merry Greeks. "How did you time it so that you all did your techs at the same time? I've only ever done it with one person at once!"
Caroussis gave him a cold stare.
"If you are truly incapable of bending more than one person to your will at any one time," he said flatly, "then to attempt to explain anything to you would be a distinctly unprofitable endeavour."
"Ooh," said Cloud appreciatively, having not really followed all the long words there.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Croft enquired, sliding over and skidding to a halt beside them. "I mean, it was very nice of you to come over and rescue us and everything, but... why?"
"There was a significant chance of your imminent demise," Caroussis explained, with as much innocence as he could muster. "Do you suggest that that was insufficient reason to bring support?"
Croft looked unconvinced.
"You've never helped us before unless we asked you explicitly," he said. "I'm no fool."
Caroussis gave him a Look.
"Okay, maybe I am," Croft conceded. "But I still think you're up to something."
I, Caroussis sighed and leaned closer.
"I,'s precise reasons are impossible for one such as you to contemplate," he muttered under his breath. "It is sufficient for you to understand that I, wished to make one final appearance before the story draws to its conclusion." He raised his voice. "And it is sufficient for everyone else to understand that the Greeks and I, realised the error of their ways and wished to make amends in whatever small way."
"Very noble of you," remarked Sephiroth. "Purely out of interest, do you two happen to know one another?"
"Oh, yes, we..." Croft trailed off as Caroussis gently but forcefully applied pressure to his foot with his heel. "Er. That is. No. Um. You see. Well. Er. Everyone knows Caroussis, don't they?"
"I do," agreed Cloud happily. "You're the scary clever person who looks after the Shinra's money, aren't you?"
"I, is." Caroussis nodded solemnly. "For the time being. His resignation is imminent."
"Really?" enquired Reno (aka Roan) from behind him. "Why?"
"The position is no longer of interest to him. It has been mildly amusing, but the appeal has gone."
"Aah." Reno nodded sagely. "You staying with us, then?"
"I, has no misconceptions that you are incapable of managing yourself." I, glanced towards Tseng. "I,'s talents are desirable but by no means necessary."
"He speaks really like classy, doesn't he?" Kasuto whispered to Perigee.
"Oh, yes!" Croft exclaimed suddenly, digging around industriously in one pocket of his coat. "Remember when you helped us with that big musical play thing a few days ago?"
"It will take I, many months to forget," said Caroussis flatly.
"Ah, good. Well, the man in charge of it was so pleased with your performance that he asked us to give you something if we saw you again."
With a grin of triumph Croft located the item he was after, produced it and pressed it firmly into I,'s outstretched palm. Caroussis inspected it curiously. It was about the size of a large apple or thereabouts, was painted dark green, and had a small hole at one end where, perhaps, a pin might have been inserted.
"And this is...?" he enquired.
"Oh, it's a gre-"
"...-nade," Croft concluded as the wave of dense black smoke rolled over him and a fragment of casing pinged noisily off his forehead. "Um. I wonder if it was meant to do that?"
"Excuse me for asking, my dear Master Croft," said Sephiroth's voice from somewhere in the smog, the smoke now happily filling the entire room, "but did you just give our rescuers a grenade?"
"Then yes, I think it probably was meant to do that," he said wearily. "Please don't tell me that a grenade exploding came as a surprise."
"Well, a grenade is a very strange present," said Croft defensively. "I thought perhaps a flower might pop out or something."
"..." said Sephiroth, completely at a loss.
"Hell of a lotta smoke now," Cid muttered. "That sure wasn't a proper grenade."
"Are you okay, Mr. Caroussis?" Tifa asked from somewhere in the gloom. "You're not hurt too much, are you?"
Caroussis notably did not reply.
"Mr. Caroussis?" Tifa repeated hopefully.
"Whoops," said Croft after a little while. "I think I might have exploded him."
"Reno?" Tifa tried again. "Rude? Tseng? Elena?"
"And them too," Croft added.
"Dey was Turks anyhow!" Barret put in. "Who cares 'bout -"
He stopped. Echoing around the room was an insane laugh, halfway between a giggle and a cackle. The laugh continued as footsteps approached, then faltered and turned into a cough, presumably as the smoke took hold of the unsuspecting laugher.
The mystery individual cleared his throat, and tried again.
"Vwee hee heh hach..." he managed, and then gave up. "What have you horrible people done with my throne room? How dare you spoil my grand entrance?"
"Sorry!" Croft called to the room in general, hoping he was facing the right way. "I accidentally blew some of our friends up, and the grenade made an awful mess."
"You... you nincompoop!"
"People still use that word?" Cid enquired, mildly surprised.
"Be quiet!" The voice took a deep breath. "Aero!"
There was a sudden whooosh, the noise made by gusts of wind everywhere except the real world, and the smoke was forced firmly towards the walls and out of the windows, leaving the air clean and, thankfully, transparent again.
The first thing that Croft noticed was that not only had Caroussis and his group exploded, they had done so awfully tidily, leaving not even a drop of blood or a shred of clothing. Admittedly, Caroussis was a very tidy person indeed, but even so the situation sort of suggested that they'd simply vanished rather than being blown up, which was a Good Thing.
The second thing he noticed was that someone was standing in their place. He looked rather like a medieval fool, dressed in reds and greens, and with the traditional silly floppy hat. There was something in his eyes, though. It might have been the fire of insanity... or then again it might just have been the light.
"So who are you, then?" Cid asked resignedly. "You on our side or someone else's?"
"Vwee hee hee!" laughed the stranger. He seemed rather fond of that laugh. "I am Kefka, and this is my tower! This is my personal space you have invaded!"
"Kefka?" repeated Perigee glumly.
"Your initials aren't FG, then?"
"I have many names," said Kefka kindly. "One of them may have initials FG."
"Ah." Perigee brightened up. "That's, um, good."
"So ve can fight you, then!" added Kea cheerily.
"Oh, not another battle," said Ess wearily. "Can't we just talk this out like normal people? We're kind of tired after all the pointless puzzles and fights you've put us through, not to mention fighting Roch... er... Jenova... just now."
"And you expect me to care... why?" Kefka spat on the floor at his feet. "You are infesting my tower. You must be punished, and I shall hereby slaughter you on the spot."
Sephiroth sighed. "And how do you expect to do that?" he asked. "What legendary technique are you going to unleash on us?"
"I'm glad you asked that question!" said Kefka triumphantly, sticking one arm in the air and striking a vaguely heroic pose. "I shall unleash my mighty Archangel power on you! I shall sprout wings, rise into the sky and rain firey death down upon you from the Heavens!"
"Oh, that." Sephiroth waved a hand dismissively. "I think I can do that too."
"What?" Kefka seemed somewhat irate about this. "You can't do that! It's mine! My technique! All mine!"
Sephiroth reached into his cloak and produced a small leaflet.
"I read it in a limit manual," he explained. "It's called 'Dancing Mad.'"
"But I am stronger!" Kefka annoucned. "My Archangel power is greater than yours! I shall crush you in the air, vwee hee! I shall - what, what is it?"
He turned round as someone tapped him on the shoulder from behind, and found himself face to face with a familiar person. Three familiar people, in fact. One male, one female, and one rabbit.
"You!" he exclaimed. "How did you get here? I left you for dead!"
"Y'know, you missed two things," said Mr. Big smugly. "First off, you do not leave this guy here," he tapped one paw on the Author's shoulder, "in the same place as a pen and a book, even when he's broken. Secondly, when he's injured you certainly don't go leaving him alone with a healer who's got the hots for him, do you?"
Kefka's mouth opened soundlessly once or twice.
"Go away!" he screeched after a few seconds. "I hate you all! I'll blow you all away!" He took a deep breath. "Danci-"
The Major had, at his disposal, two weapons; the battle sabre, and the Blunderbuss. Neither looked particularly impressive to the untrained - or, for that matter, the trained - eye. Both were dulled from years of use, covered in rust, and were probably about as useful in the right hands as a well sharpened piece of styrofoam.
Nevertheless, as Perigee picked up the fallen firearm from where it lay at the Major's feet and swung it down sharply towards the back of Kefka's head, it looked like it might actually do something worthwhile for once.
That is, until Kefka swivelled smoothly and caught the barrel by one hand, barely an inch from his head.
"Um," said Perigee as the Blunderbuss was easily wrested from his grasp. Kefka spun the thing round and caught it with his other hand, his finger resting gently on the trigger.
"You..." he hissed. "You tried to hit me! You tried to hit! Me! Me! Me!"
"Whoops," murmured Perigee under his breath.
"I won't kill you with my super powers!" Kefka went on, the words beginning to tumble out in a rush. "I'll destroy you with your own weapon! I'll shoot you all one by one! And then I'll use my super powers to obliterate your bodies! Vwee hee hee!"
He levelled the weapon at Perigee, who went pale.
"I'll destroy you first!" he announced.
"Um," the Author said from behind him. "Please don't do that."
Kefka turned curiously.
"Why not?" he asked, the gun's aim never straying from Perigee's torso. "Shall I shoot you first instead?"
"That would be much better for me, yes," the Author said pleasantly. "But I'd really much rather you didn't fire that at all."
"A coward, are you?"
"Yes. Don't fire that Blunderbuss."
"He's serious, man," said Mr. Big solemnly. "Don't do it. Don't throw your life away like that."
"My life?" Kefka chortled briefly. "No, no, no, I think I shall throw your life away first!"
He spun round and pointed the gun at the Author's head in one slick movement. "Now how do you feel? Well? Are you scared yet?"
"Petrified," the Author replied flatly. "Look, kill us however you like. But don't. Ever. Fire. That. Blunderbuss. Ever."
"Please," added Croft imploringly.
"Oh, shut up!" shouted Kefka, and pulled the trigger.
The noise that sprung forth from the Blunderbuss sounded like what one might expect the brass section of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to sound like if it were suddenly thrown off a high cliff onto a sheet of corrugated iron. It simply could not be transcribed. There was reverb in there that could have started a solo career in the music business. And the echoes sounded like a thundercloud with stomachache.
One of the walls fell down, fragments of stone plummeting towards an imminent argument with the ground. The shockwave knocked Kasuto off her feet and hurled her into Barret, while the Author grimaced as Mr. Big dug his claws into his shoulder to steady himself. And Kefka himself was blasted straight through the ceiling with a forlorn cry of, "Don't think you've heard the last of meeeeee..."
His trajectory took him in front of the sun, and with a final 'tweeng' and glimmer, he was gone.
The Blunderbuss clattered to the floor.
"We did warn him," said Croft sadly, as the Major stepped forward and picked his weapon up again. A small fragment of ceiling descended and bounced off the elderly officer's nose before getting tangled up in his moustache.
Something rumbled. It was faint, but easily noticeable.
Suddenly all gazes that hadn't already been fixed on the Blunderbuss locked onto it.
"What was that?" asked Aeris nervously.
"Mine apologies," said Shan, going a faint pink. "Mine inner regions do seem most uncomfortable in th'aftermath o' th'battle 'twixt boy an' men."
His stomach made another pained noise.
"Oh." There was a collective sigh of relief.
"So we're done?" Cloud observed hopefully, looking up at the hole in the ceiling. "Have we saved the world now?"
"You know what," the Author remarked, also staring up at the sky and shading his eyes with one hand. "I think we just might have done."
"Woohoo!" exclaimed Cloud exuberantly. "Let's all celebrate!"
"Oh, good show, old boy!" said the Major cheerfully, and proceeded to pat Shan on the back with one hand. The Major never did anything by halves, though, and what passed as a pat for him would have sent lesser men sprawling.
The sound issued forth from his stomach with the inevitability of a tidal wave and the unstoppability of a Roman legion. It had undertones, overtones, and even throughtones. Its bass rumble shook the floor, while its high pitched tremolo shattered the remaining windows. And it brought with it all the force of a meteor. All the force of a legendary materia that had been tossed about, left unused, and finally been eaten, and now wanted vengeance.
The last words spoken, before ceiling, walls and floor all collapsed inwards at once, were Cid's yell of, "Holy sh-"
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