The sun set in the distance, casting a warm glow over the continent. A gentle wind washed over the plains. It blew past the Highwind, ruffling the flag mounted on its deck as it rested on the ground, a few hundred yards from the borders of Midgar. It blew past Cid Highwind, neatly extinguishing his lighter as he raised it to the cigarette tucked in one corner of his mouth. And it blew past Barret Wallace, making his black leather trenchcoat swirl and ripple about his legs.
Cid spat the cigarette out and crushed it into the earth with one heel. "Meant to give the things up anyhow," he muttered, returning the lighter to his jacket pocket. "Well, I brought ya here. Last one, too. I can get on with somethin' worthwhile after this."
"I still wanna know how yo' got da Shinra to jes' give you da Highwind," Barret remarked.
Cid smirked. "Well, we got Sephiroth on our side, remember? He went and, hah, 'persuaded' the guys in charge that it might be better if they pretended they'd sold the ship off to some private company."
"How'd that work?"
"Think he said somethin' about, uh, he knew everythin' that'd been happenin' in the last five years, and, 'if the truth came out about this matter then it might come out about certain other matters, too.'" Cid's smirk turned into a wide grin. "They were kinda keen to agree after that, for some reason."
Barret spat on the ground. "Corruption alla da way up," he muttered. "See, that's why I gotta keep on fightin'!"
"Yeah, but..." Cid sighed. "Very noble an' all, but you're doin' it all on your own..." He shrugged. "And I still reckon you oughta give yourself a week off or somethin'."
"There ain't no gettin' offa this train we on!" Barret exclaimed abruptly, then calmed down somewhat. "An' I got Cloud an' Tifa an' some others on board again awready!"
"Really?" Cid seemed impressed. "No one told me 'bout that."
"Yo' didn't ask," Barret replied flatly. "Hey... yo' wanna join up too?"
Cid shook his head. "Not for me, cheers. I'm gonna go for the quiet life."
"Gonna start up a transport company," Cid said happily. "Means I get to fly around all day an' have people pay me for it."
Barret thought about this.
"Yo," he said after a while, "ain't that what happened when you was a pilot for da Shinra?" He pointed accusingly. "So you been goin' nowhere!"
"You're one to talk," said Cid mildly. "At least I'm movin' house."
The two ruminated in silence for a little while.
"Well," said Cid, breaking the hush eventually, "I'm gonna get movin'. See ya around, someday."
Cid turned, then hesitated and glanced back over his shoulder.
"Oh, one thing," he said, drawing something from his pocket and tossing it to Barret. "Put those on. If you're gonna be a returnin' revolutionary, ya at least better look the part."
Barret looked down at his open palm. Then, smoothly, he raised his hand to his face and donned the sunglasses.
"Cool," he said simply, turned, and strode off towards the city.
On a small hill to the east, two figures sat, side by side, watching the sunset. A cool spring breeze whispered past them, unnoticed. There was much to be said, too much for this one solitary moment... but the moment would soon pass, as both of them knew.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Aeris Gainsborough murmured under her breath, breaking the silence. The wind gusted momentarily, blowing strands of hair into her face, and she brushed them back with one hand.
The Author nodded solemnly. Strange, he mused to himself. He was a master of words. His life had been devoted to the service of words, and language, and stories. He could stare at the sunset, and he knew that with almost no effort he could inscribe the scene, the very atmosphere, on paper, and that anyone reading his words would know precisely how he felt that moment. But somehow... he did not know what to say.
He was good at endings. In a way, that was the problem.
"When are you going?" Aeris asked. The question had to be asked, much as she dreaded the answer.
The Author sighed wearily. "Soon," he said. "You can't put a date on it, but... gradually people will start to forget how I was. They will remember what I did, and how I treated them, and a few scattered details... but within weeks I will have become nothing more than that. Just vague memories. They won't see me again, that is for certain..." He shrugged, waving one hand towards the small group clustered around a campfire a little way to the south. "That's the way it has to be to get a clean ending. That's what'll happen to all of us."
"I'll never forget you," Aeris said, her voice barely above a whisper.
Silence descended once more.
"Do you," began Aeris nervously, "do you have to go?"
"I do." The Author paused. "I'm not like the other agents; I can't leave a character avatar behind to finish what I started. There is only ever one of me, and I have to wander." He leaned back, his gaze turning skywards. "There are countless stories out there, millions upon millions of them. And some of them are not truly complete, and those are the stories that call to me."
Aeris smiled, but there was no joy in it. She thought that perhaps, just perhaps, she might have understood.
"It sounds like a very interesting life," she said.
"It is," the Author agreed. "This time next year I could be unravelling a mystery in Roman times, or fighting for my life aboard a Star Cruiser, or sitting at a piano in a restaurant somewhere just so the mood is right for a man and a woman to fall in love. I never know where my path may take me, and there is always something happening around me... but in a way, that is my curse, too." He sighed again. "Things change so fast. I carry the records around with me, of course," he tapped his dictionary with one hand, "but I can't remember everything. I can't foresee the future, and I can't hold onto the past. All I can do is live in the present."
Aeris held her breath, wanting desperately to ask, "Will you forget me?" but scared that the answer might be what she feared.
The Author's fists clenched behind his back. He had to do this now, he knew. If he didn't do it now, there was a very real chance he would not be able to, and it wasn't fair to drag things out. Not fair to her.
He got to his feet and stood staring away from her into the distance.
Okay. Don't think about it, just do it. You know you have to.
"It's not much of a life, when you think about it," he said slowly. "It's like going on a journey, only I don't know where I came from or where I'm going. All I can do is to experience the trek itself, and derive my identity from that." He glanced back over his shoulder. "Whereas you... you're tied to this world. Your part in the story here will last for the rest of your days, and I think you know as well as I that you will be surrounded by friends and those who love you until the day you pass away. And then, I can only imagine a blissful afterlife will await you."
He turned to face her. "I don't want to take that away from you. I really don't. I have no idea what repercussions there could be if I took you from this world... but my life, my journey, is not something I can give up. It is part of me, in a way that people cannot understand. It's true, it really isn't much... but it's all I have. And Aeris," he got down on one knee and took one of her hands in his, "it's a life I want to share with you."
There was a silence, marred not even by the sound of their breathing. Momentarily, the wind picked up, and a brief cluster of leaves whirled in the air past them.
Aeris looked at him, tears in the corners of her eyes.
"Then...?" she whispered, barely able to get even the single word out.
The Author nodded. "I'll deal with the consequences," he said. "I just know that I can't leave without at least asking... will you come with me?"
Again the silence, again the wind. The Author couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so tense. Even in life or death situations he was usually cool and collected.
Aeris brought one hand up to her face and wiped the tears from her eyes. She took a deep, shuddering breath.
"Let's see... loose glassware all accounted for... bunsens and stands... check... um, elements, elements... free protons, check... neutrons, check... electrons, check... hydrogen, check... helium... helium... um, where did I put it...?"
The door creaked noisily open, and Perigee looked curiously up.
"Oh, hi, Ess," he said, as she walked slowly in and closed the door behind you. "You haven't seen my, um, helium samples anywhere, have you?"
Ess shook her head. "No, sorry. Look, um..." She stopped. "What are you doing here?"
Perigee had booked his team a few rooms at Kalm for a couple of nights, to give them all time to get their affairs in order before they - the team, not the affairs - were recalled. His room was a bit of a mess at the moment. Assorted glassware covered every available surface; that is, every surface that wasn't already taken up by boxes, test-tubes, bottles, even balloons, all containing various esoteric chemical concoctions.
He appeared to be trying to cram the lot into what looked like a small, brown, rather scruffy and totally ordinary suitcase. There was no conceivable way that it would all fit - but then again, the LTF did outfit its agents with some truly special items from time to time.
"I'm just making sure I haven't forgotten anything," he said matter-of-factly. "I've accounted for all my apparatus, and now I'm checking my samples."
"Ah." Ess paused, and took a deep breath. "Look, Perigee, I..."
She stopped again.
"Is that materia?" she asked, pointing at the suitcase. A small cloth bag, with a few faintly glowing crystal fragments poking out of it, could just about be seen packed down in one corner. "That's not those bits of the huge materia, is it?"
"It's a souvenir," Perigee replied innocently.
Ess folded her arms. "So it's not that every team is going to be going around equipped with materia in a few months or anything like that, is it?"
"Oh, um, no, of course." Perigee gave her an uncharacteristically cheeky grin. "Just us."
"Oh, all right." Perigee sighed, reached into the case - burying his arm in it up to the shoulder, despite its appearing to be only half a foot or so deep - and pulled out the bag. He reverently laid it on the bed, then had a better idea and put it under the pillow as a surprise present for whoever happened to sleep in the room after him.
Ess tried again. "Perigee, I really -"
"Are you all sorted out, by the way?" Perigee asked, absent-mindedly cutting her off. "About going home, I mean. Kasuto and Kea say they don't think they need to leave an avatar behind, and I think I can probably manage with leaving one for a month or so, but, um, taking into account your relationship with Cloud, you might want to leave one for longer, mightn't you?"
Perigee went on counting his elements under his breath. He had got as far as magnesium before he realised that Ess hadn't replied yet.
"Um, Ess?" he said, putting the samples aside and turning to her. "Are you -"
"That's the thing, Perigee," Ess replied, looking him directly in the eye. "That's what I came to tell you. I'm not going back with you."
There was a rather prolonged silence, broken only by Perigee saying, "Um," at random intervals.
"Ah, you mean you're not going back until you've worked out how to program your avatar," he said eventually, realisation dawning. "I thought -"
"You thought right, Perigee. I'm not going back. I'm staying here with Cloud."
"Um," said Perigee once more. "Why?"
Ess sighed. "Because I'm in love with him."
"But you always fall in love," Perigee pointed out. "It's what you do."
Perigee's remark was, true to form, completely tactless. It didn't help that it was also perfectly true.
"That's not the point, Perigee," Ess said wearily.
"Isn't it?" Perigee looked puzzled. "But, um, why is this time different to any of the others? I don't follow."
"It's not any different," Ess replied. "You really don't understand, do you?"
"No," Perigee admitted. "If it's not any different, why aren't you staying this time like every other time? That doesn't make sense." He paused, then added thoughtfully, "Unless I model your behaviour by a random process..."
"I'm not a random process, Perigee," said Ess, not altogether unkindly. "I do have reasons." She hesitated. "Look, every time we integrate, I fall in love, just like you said. And I know that in a way, part of me stays behind and lives happily ever after. But it's not real. The real me has to say goodbye and know that I'll just have to put on a brave face and get over it, and then it happens all over again. Every single time. And I don't want to have to do that any more. I want to stay in love this time."
There was an uncomfortable pause.
"Stay in love...?" Perigee repeated under his breath. He looked at Ess. "Then you weren't... you haven't been... that is... um," he concluded eventually. Ess smiled wanly and sighed again.
"You still don't understand, do you?" she said wearily. There was a surprising tenderness in her voice.
"Um, not really," admitted Perigee. "I thought... that is... well..."
"I thought you enjoyed being with... being part of the team..." Perigee cleared his throat, straightening up from the surprised hunch he seemed to have settled into. "But if you think this is best, then you'd better stay."
"You see, I..." Ess hesitated. "What?"
"You'd better, um, stay," Perigee repeated. "If you're not enjoying your work, then you shouldn't keep doing it. You won't enjoy it. Um. Do I mean that?"
Ess stared at him.
"Aren't you going to try to talk me out of this?" she asked.
Perigee looked surprised. "Um, I wasn't going to, no. You want to stay here, don't you?"
"Well, yes, but -"
"It's your decision," said Perigee reasonably. "If you want to stay then I really ought to be, um, supportive. Shouldn't I?"
"You do realise I'm effectively breaking up with you, don't you?" she asked curiously.
"Uh, you broke up with me a couple of weeks ago," Perigee reminded her. "Don't you remember?"
"Well, yes, but that was -"
"I'm your team commander," Perigee said, almost imperiously, "and I'm your friend. It would be, um, very, very wrong for me wearing both of my hats if I didn't help you do what you wanted."
"Hats?" repeated Ess.
"Um, yes. Uh, you know. My commander hat and my friend hat..." Perigee's voice trailed off uncertainly.
Perigee straightened himself up once more, his face set. "Look," he said, "have you thought about this?"
"Have you considered all possible outcomes?"
"And are you sure it's the experiment... sorry, are you sure it's what you want to do?"
Ess hesitated a moment, but she nodded. "Yes. I am."
"Then you should... you should do it." Perigee nodded wisely. "That's sound scientific practice."
"Oh. Yes." Ess paused for a while, unsure of what to say or do. "Then. Um. I, I should probably be going. You'll have packing and so on to do, won't you...?"
She backed towards the door, opening it behind her without looking.
"Goodbye, Perigee," she said, and left.
"Hey, they're back!" Mr. Big called, spotting the pair of figures approaching through the evening gloom. He waved for a little while with one ear before realising that they were probably too far away to spot him. "Oi, everyone, over here!"
The other three clustered around him. That is, Croft and the Major clustered around him. I, Caroussis ambled sedately over, but was clearly in no hurry to get any closer to such uncultured philistines.
"Well?" asked Croft impatiently as the Author and Aeris neared. "Well? What happened? She's still with you, that's a good sign, isn't it? Or has she come to say goodbye?"
"Oh, be quiet, you," Mr. Big snapped. "Listen to 'em." He turned back to the Author. "So?"
"Well..." the Author began calmly.
"I'm coming with you," she said softly.
"Woohoo!" exclaimed Croft happily, leaping into the air. "Good for you! Congratulations!"
"Oh, good show, old beans," agreed the Major, applauding cheerfully. "Nothing like seeing such a good chap and a good gal getting hitched, what?"
"Nice going, man," Mr. Big added, hopping over to the Author's shoulder and giving him a comradely pat with one ear. "You had us worried back there."
"Hey, Caroussis," Croft called over. "Aren't you going to say anything?"
Caroussis shrugged. "Why should I,? What has I, to be happy about?"
"C'mon, man," Mr. Big put in. "You've got yourself an extra minion. Be cheerful, or at least triumphant or something."
Caroussis considered this.
"True, and females are easier to manipulate than males," he mused. "Very well, Miss Gainsborough, I, accepts your presence in this group."
"I think that's all we're likely to get," Mr. Big admitted.
"Let's eat!" Croft announced suddenly. "I've been making a big meal to cheer everyone up... um, I mean, to celebrate!"
The Author gave Aeris a slightly apologetic smile.
"They're kind of a lot to take at first," he said under his breath, "but you'll learn to love them eventually."
"I heard that," said Mr. Big flatly.
"And I hope she learns to love me more than the rest of you lot."
Croft, Caroussis and the Major had already arranged themselves around the campfire, and the remaining three wandered over. There certainly was a veritable feast prepared already, with still more being cooked over the flames.
"Why so much?" the Author enquired.
"Weeell..." Mr. Big looked marginally embarrassed. "We thought you might need cheering up. To be honest, we were really expecting you to do your usual noble thing, say goodbye to her and stride away into the sunset with a few choice parting words or something. You know how good you are at doing nice atmospheric farewells."
"Usual thing?" Aeris repeated.
"There always comes a time when you have to say farewell to your friends," the Author told her. "Always. And scenes like that need a certain finality about them."
"But you didn't say goodbye to me," Aeris pointed out, reaching out and taking his hand in hers.
"Almost always," the Author admitted.
"So have there been any other people you didn't say goodbye to?"
The Author thought about this. "Quite a few," he said after a little musing. "There are several planeswalkers out there. And there are a number of people who just keep ending up in stories without meaning to. They always realise something's going on when they see me, though."
"People either greet him with, 'Hi, who are you?' or, 'Oh, no, not you again,'" Mr. Big added helpfully.
"Hey, hey, not always..." the Author replied mildly, seating himself by the fire. Aeris joined him on the ground.
"Oh, yeah, sorry." Mr. Big grinned. "Wasn't old Terr's response the last time you two bumped into one another, 'Are you stalking me or something?'"
"Okay, everyone!" Croft announced. "We've got, er, all different sorts of fried something..."
"Fried something?" enquired the Author.
"Some monster tried to attack us while you were away," Croft explained, "but, er, the Major saw it first and shot it. So we didn't get a chance to see what it was before it turned into, um, something." He waved a piece of roast meat on a stick at them. "It tastes very nice, actually."
"Okay, I'll have some of that," the Author said. "What else?"
"Oh, we've got eggs, salad, you can have some toast if you want to heat it up, er, the Major made some soup and a few cocktails..."
The Author peered across the fire at the laugh cauldron the Major had apparently acquired from somewhere. There was some kind of viscous liquid in it, certainly... but the Author wouldn't have guessed it to be soup without prompting.
"I'll... just start with some fried something," he said, accepting the skewer Croft handed him.
"Um... could I just have some salad?" Aeris asked, obviously a little taken aback at the... quality of the meal. I, Caroussis reached behind him and handed over a large wooden bowl filled with actually rather palatable looking greenery.
"Afraid you might have to get used to living like this from time to time," Mr. Big pointed out, leaning down and grabbing a carrot from the bowl. "Y'see, sometimes we have to be self-sufficient and stay out of the way of society and so on." He took a bite from the thing and chewed appreciatively. "'s no' all bad, though. We're no' tha' bad company, an' Caroussis over there," he swallowed, "he can always be persuaded to get his minions to bring us some quality food or whatever if we're desperate." He grinned. "Think he probably expects us to pay him back at some point."
"Oh, you will," Caroussis told him simply. "But not in the fashion you expect."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever."
Aeris looked around the group. On the other side of the fire, the Major was waving one of his cocktails - a tall frosted glass, dispensing a seemingly endless amount of dense white smoke - at Croft, who was leaning as far away from it as he could and eyeing it as one might a hand grenade or a ticking egg. Beside her, the Author was happily sampling the joys of fried something, while Mr. Big flung good-natured insults at Caroussis from his shoulder.
"You know," she said softly, "I don't think I've ever really felt like I was surrounded by friends before. I was always different. Always an outsider."
The Author glanced over at her.
"I don't think you'll need to worry about that from now on," he told her. "You're sitting next to a man with a talking rabbit. None of us are exactly normal."
"Yeah," agreed Mr. Big, taking a brief break from being soundly insulted by I,. "Different is good."
"You're one of us now," added Croft. "Like family."
"Hey, if she's family," Mr. Big mused, "does that mean I'm not allowed to hit on her?" He thought for a moment. "And that means Author here is..."
The Author gave him a Look.
"Pleasedon'tputmeinthatpokéballagain," said Mr. Big promptly.
"Um, Aeris?" Croft enquired. "Do you mind if I ask you something?"
Aeris turned to look at him.
"No, of course not. What?"
"That materia," Croft said, pointing at her hairband. The silvery orb attached there was plainly visible, glistening in the firelight. "You never did anything with it, and I was kind of wondering what it did."
"He wants to know if it's some kind of ultimate magic thingy," Mr. Big paraphrased. "A legendary weapon of mass destruction or something."
"Mass destruction, old boys?" interrupted the Major, drawing his sabre. "Where? I'll give the blighters what ho, so I will, turning up when we're celebrating, what? Come out and show yourselves, I say!"
"Oh, this?" Aeris touched the materia gently with one hand. "It's nothing, really. Just something my mother gave me when I was very young. She said it would make me beautiful when I grew up."
"That's a good start," Mr. Big agreed. "She didn't also say, 'Whatever you do, don't cup one hand around it and point at anyone you don't want to kill,' did she?"
Aeris giggled. "No, nothing like that. Watch."
She reached up, removed the thing from her hairband - Mr. Big instinctively took cover on the other side of the Author's head - and gently deposited it on the ground by her side.
Nothing much happened.
"Well, that's -" began Mr. Big, starting to come out of hiding.
Aeris' hair unravelled explosively. Her single braid practically tore itself apart, her hair flowing out behind her, and right on cue, the wind picked up momentarily to let it billow out in the air for a few seconds in what was, undeniably, a very nice artistic effect.
The wind died down, and Aeris' hair floated gracefully back to the ground.
"It's 'Hairstyle Plus,'" she explained, watching the rather shocked expressions. "It keeps my hair orderly. That's all."
"Might not be my place to say this," Mr. Big said thoughtfully, returning to the Author's other shoulder, "but you look even more stunning with your hair like that, I gotta say." He nudged the Author. "Don't you agree?"
"Hmm? Oh..." The Author thought about this. "I think he's actually right for once, yes."
Aeris smiled. "Really?"
"Yeah, definitely." Mr. Big nodded sagely. "Good hair is like a good woman. Loose and free. And preferably not greasy."
"I can't say those would be my exact words..." the Author pointed out.
Aeris looked down at the materia.
"Then I guess I don't need this any more," she remarked. "So -"
"Oh, old girl!"
Aeris looked over at the Major, who was bouncing up and down and waving at her. "Um, yes?"
"I say," the Major called, "that glass ball whatsit's dashed perfect! Could you be a sport and throw the bally thing over here, eh?"
"Oh, er, of course." Aeris picked the thing up and threw it gently underarm towards the Major, who caught it inexpertly on his nose with a cry of, "Oh, dash it all!"
As the others watched with varying degrees of interest, he grabbed it with one hand, raised it above his drink, and dropped it into the glass. Plumes of smoke rose out, and there was a faint hissing noise.
A few seconds later, the materia was ejected vertically at a not inconsiderable speed with a loud fwoosh.
"It's ready!" announced the Major happily, and promptly upended the glass down his throat. The ubiquitous white smoke curled around his moustache and condensed to form little icicles on it.
"What, pray, was that?" enquired Caroussis. The Major beamed at him, distinctly glassy-eyed.
"Arctic Warfare, old chap!" he said, his teeth chattering. "Cocktail with the kick of a bally battering ram, don'tchaknow."
"Um, Major...?" said Croft, happening to glance skywards.
"One part brandy to one part, oh, what's the stuff, the cold stuff, you know, old boy, looks like water but doesn't stay where you tell it to..."
"Liquid nitrogen?" prompted the Author, who had a feeling he might have seen this particular cocktail before, which came as something of a surprise. The Major was nothing if not inventive with his drinks, and for him to have the same one on more than one occasion meant there had to be something especially noteworthy about it. Then again, he supposed drinking liquid nitrogen probably was noteworthy by most accounts.
"That's the stuff, old chap!"
"Major...?" repeated Croft, a little more insistently.
"Yes, old bean?"
"I think that materia's coming back down again..."
The Major looked up.
"Oh, don't be silly, old thing," he said dismissively. "That's a dashed sight too big to be that little ball thingy, what?"
And it was about half a second after he finished this sentence that Fishook Grysley landed on him.
The impact went rather well, actually. The Major was a portly and not exactly bony chap, and so Fishook bounced neatly off him and landed on the other side of the fire, between the Author and Croft. The Major, on the other hand, was simply forced downwards, and ended up with his legs up to the knees buried in the earth.
"I say," he said, "good thing I wear this jolly helmet, what? Haha."
The Author poked Fishook curiously. He flailed about half-heartedly with one arm, mumbled, "You have... very nice wife..." and then passed out.
"Bloody hell," Mr. Big murmured under his breath. "Was he really in orbit for five days?"
"Certainly looks like it, doesn't it?" the Author agreed. He leaned down and inspected the body cautiously. "Well, it's definitely him, and he doesn't look like he's in much of a position to argue with us, does he?" He shrugged. "Guess we'd better bring him to justice, hadn't we?"
The ubiquitous evening breeze whistled between the trees, stirring the grass around Shan as he knelt in the centre of the small grove. It was strange to have simply happened across a spot of such tranquillity in the centre of the forest, and even more so to find an ancient stone altar in the centre of it. It was almost as if it was meant to be. Nay, not even that. It was... contrived.
In one fluid motion Shan drew his sword from its scabbard, holding it vertical in front of his face with one hand on the hilt and the other flat on the blade. A gentle light seemed to emanate from the sword as he murmured faint chants under his breath, filling the air with a warm, almost peaceful aura.
Tifa watched him from the edge of the grove in silence. She really did want to know what he was up to - after all, she'd just been sitting around in Kalm with Cloud, Ess, Perigee and the others, when he'd suddenly approached her out of the blue, announced that there was a quest that needed tackling, and charged off to find a forest. Tifa had followed, primarily out of curiosity, but also partially out of something that she didn't really want to admit to herself.
Somehow, the atmosphere didn't really feel like it would be conducive to her asking questions, though. It felt like she was just meant to stand around, watch appreciatively and perhaps say, "Ooh," at appropriate moments. She could ask questions later.
Shan got back to his feet, still holding the sword in front of his face. He turned slowly to face the altar, and gazed solemnly down at it.
Tifa couldn't help but notice there were a good dozen assorted forest animals, including one particularly elderly badger apparently with some sort of throat infection, sitting around his feet nuzzling gently up to his ankles.
"An' th'Master Sword sleeps 'gain..." Shan murmured, then whirled round and slammed the sword into the stone, the blade penetrating cleanly up to the hilt. "Forever."
Calmly, he turned and strode towards Tifa.
"Verily be it done," he announced pleasantly. "I'faith, our journey be o'er, th'foe defeatéd an' th'world free to rest easy once more. Let us return to th'world o' civilisation."
Shan watched Tifa for a few moments with the eye of a tutor or perhaps an elder sibling. She was a maiden in need, still at the mercy of her emotions, fickle as they were. And as a Hero, it was his duty to look after such damsels in distress, was it not? Every maiden needed a Hero in her life, and seeing as Cloud was already tied up... Well, Shan saw no reason why he couldn't take a few months out of his work to make sure she became strong and self-sufficient. Besides, he quite liked this world. There were so many subquests out there just waiting to be discovered.
This thought made him stop in his tracks.
"What's wrong?" Tifa asked, suddenly nervous.
Shan turned away from her. "Pray, tarry thou one moment," he said, and hurried back to the altar.
When he returned, he was carrying the Master Sword through his belt once more.
"Most certain, might I need this," he said happily. "Now let us return."
"Oh, like, hi, Perigee!" Kasuto called as Perigee left the Kalm Inn, so called because it was the only one in the town, unsurprisingly. She stopped running round and round the large fountain in the centre of the town square and bounced over to him. "What did Ess want to talk to you about?"
"She came out of the inn weeery fast and hurried avay before ve could say anythink to her," Kea called down from on top of the fountain, where he was standing with his cloak drawn around him and was trying to look dark and mysterious, with some success. "Did she forget somethink in Meedgar?"
"You said something nasty to her, didn't you?" Kasuto volunteered, prodding Perigee playfully. "You're really bad at talking to people, aren't you, Perigee?"
"Vomen are weeery delicate creatures," added Kea. "You must be weeery gentle vith them, and you must say nothink that could possibly upset them... right up to the moment ven you bite them."
"Ew, Kea!" Kasuto objected, shouting up at him. "Anyway, you've never bitten anyone before!"
"I've tried," said Kea sulkily.
"You're just too nice, aren't you?"
"I am not nice!" Kea boomed. "I am an eewil wampire! I vould bite effery girl in this willage if I could!"
"So you're just incompetent, then."
"Ja!" agreed Kea happily. "That is vat... no, vait vun moment..."
"Ess isn't coming back with us," Perigee said simply.
Kasuto stopped pointing and laughing at Kea, and slowly turned to face Perigee, her giggle dying rapidly. Kea himself leaped from the fountain and swooped down, landing next to Kasuto.
"Not comink back?" he repeated. "Vhy, does she haf thinks to do but she does not vant to leaf an awatar behind? Vhy vould she do that?"
"That's not it," Perigee corrected him. "She says she wants to stay here. Actually, um, stay. You know, like a typical person."
"She's leaving the Force?" Kasuto said. "Just like that? Without even saying goodbye?"
"So it appears."
"That's, like, sooo uncool."
"Perhaps she was just worried you two would be able to talk her out of it," Perigee suggested reasonably.
"Well, we would've tried! She's one of the team! Like, why'd she go, anyway?"
"She said she was in love with Cloud and wanted to stay in love with him," Perigee said.
Kasuto thought about this.
"She's following her heart?" she said, calming down. "Oh... I suppose that's sort of okay..."
Perigee said nothing.
"Hmm," Kea hmmed, giving Perigee a thoughtful stare. "Hmmmm..."
"What is it, Kea?" Perigee enquired.
"Oh, nothink, nothink at all..." Kea paused. "Did she not listen to you ven you tried to get her to stay vith us, no?"
"Oh, I didn't try to talk her out of it."
"...ah," said Kea, a little surprised. "Vhy not?"
"She, um, didn't want to keep doing what we do," Perigee explained matter-of-factly. "If she wanted to stop and settle down, then, um, it's best that she does, isn't it? It makes her happier."
"Ah." Kea opened his mouth to ask something else, hesitated with a vaguely puzzled look on his face, and decided against it.
"Anyway, I came to ask you if you, um, were ready to leave," Perigee went on. He raised his suitcase for inspection. "I'm all done."
"I think I'm ready," said Kasuto, then suddenly pointed behind Perigee. "Oh, look, you dropped something!"
While Perigee turned round to see what it was, Kasuto hurriedly elbowed Kea in the ribs.
"Do you think he's really like okay?" she asked under her breath. "Didn't he like like Ess?"
"Like like...?" Kea repeated. "Oh, I see, ja. I think so, ja..."
"So why isn't he more upset?"
"Maybe he is." Kea shrugged. "Perigee is a mysterious person, ja?"
"D'you think we can, like, ask him about it?"
"I do not know..." Kea admitted.
"Hey, Kasuto," Perigee called over. "Where is this thing I dropped?"
"Oh, sorry!" Kasuto shouted back. "My mistake. It was just a ladybird."
Perigee gave her a strange look.
"I think I am prepared too," said Kea. "Ve are ready to fly this place now, if that is vat you vish."
Perigee looked around him.
"I think we might as well," he said. "Ess was, um, Ess was the only one we were waiting for, really."
Kea opened his mouth, but closed it without saying anything again.
"Come on, then," Perigee announced after a while. "Let's go and find somewhere people won't notice us disappearing."
Stars, flung throughout the endless reaches of space. In the distance, one flared bright red, then collapsed into nothingness. Then another did the same. And another. Soon, the universe was filled with red, the stars seeming to dance...
Comets smashed through the sky, scarring the heavens with slashes of white and blue. Meteorites, trailing fire, hurtled past planets and stars, some falling to earth screaming. Across the universe, stars died, some violently, some barely even noticed. Entire worlds rose and fell. But behind all the destruction, behind the chaos, there was the unmistakable pulse of life. Of a universe in which every being, no matter how small or how vast, would do what it could to live.
Elder Bugenhagen floated in the centre of his stargazing dome, his hands carving gashes in space as he turned sedately. Around him, tiny planets and asteroids were dragged into the slipstream, whirling madly around him like an insect swarm.
Beneath him, he heard the creak of the door opening, and he looked down at the floor below. A smile spread across his face.
"Hoo hoo hoooo!" he announced happily, floating gracefully down to the floor. "I sensed the Planet's relief nearly a week ago. Does this mean your journey is at an end, young one?"
"Nanaki," said Nanaki, and bowed his head. "Yes, grandfather. I have done what I had to do, and now I have returned."
"And it is safe?"
Nanaki nodded. "It is. The saviours were stronger than we thought, and I did not have to use it. I believe they never even knew I had it."
"Even the young Cetra?"
"I don't think so, no."
Bugenhagen shook his head sadly. "Then they truly are weak these days," he said gloomily. "There were days when they could come whenever it called, and they could hear it from across the world." He sighed. "Poor Aeris. The last of a prestigious line... and I doubt her descendants will ever be able to speak with the Planet."
"Could it not be that her powers are simply unawakened?" Nanaki suggested.
Bugenhagen shook his head again. "She spent so long in the presence of the Holy materia that I cannot believe she has yet to awaken... No, the only possibilities are that she is either weak, or that somehow her powers have manifested in some other way..." He folded his arms in front of him. "Hoo, such a shame, such a shame. I remember her grandmother, you know. Young Fina was such a promising girl back then."
Nanaki shrugged. "But maybe the Cetra are no longer needed here any more," he volunteered. "Then -"
"I should hope not," Bugenhagen interrupted testily. "We have spent the last few generations trying to make sure that that was the case. The Planet needs to survive by itself, you know. Hoo hoooo."
"But then maybe it is drawing its power back from the Cetra," persisted Nanaki. "They can no longer speak with the Planet because it no longer needs them to."
Bugenhagen considered this. "Hoo, maybe, maybe," he conceded. "But in any case, it is no longer necessary, is it? Let us now return the Holy materia to its resting place and pray it needs never be called upon again."
Nanaki reached up to his neck with one paw and, after a certain amount of fiddling, managed to undo the clasp on his collar. He pulled it off, and as it emerged from his fur, it transpired that there was indeed a small silver orb attached to it.
Bugenhagen took it reverently. Then, whirling round, he flung it towards the ceiling dome, and it was soon lost among the swarms of tiny planets and stars.
"Hoo hoo hoooo!" he said jubilantly. "Our duty is at an end for the time being. Come, young one -"
"Nanaki," said Nanaki.
"...and let us celebrate with the other elders!" Bugenhagen finished. "I am sure you have such a story to tell, hoo hoooo?"
Nanaki smiled. "That I do, grandfather, that I do."
The two walked - well, Nanaki walked, and Bugenhagen floated - over to the door. The Elder flicked a switch on the wall, and above them, the dancing lights died away. With a faint "hoo" of exertion, he hauled the door open.
"You know," he said thoughtfully, pausing at the doorway, "young one -"
"Nanaki," said Nanaki.
"Have you ever wondered what that materia does?" Bugenhagen enquired softly. "Have you ever wanted to know just what it is we protect, with our lives if necessary?"
Nanaki looked up at him.
"Yes, grandfather, I have," he replied earnestly.
Bugenhagen nodded sagely.
"So have I..." he said.
And so time passed. It is amazing how short a period of time is required for the general populace to put events behind them and for events to become stories, then merely memories. Within mere weeks, all most people remembered was that something big happened at Junon, wasn't it some kind of explosion or something? It is amazing how little one can be aware of and still delude oneself into thinking one knows what's going on around one.
And so it might seem like the story had, in a way, come to an end. Certainly both Phi team and Omega team were never seen again in the world. But every story has loose ends, and with an epic work such as this one it is only fair that they be neatly tied up...
Headmaster Cid, of the military academy Balamb Garden, strode up and down his office imperiously. In front of him, four students stood nervously, hands clasped behind their backs, standing so straight they were practically on tip-toe. He smiled benevolently at them, all looking as if they were expecting to be examined. Where was the triumph they should be feeling?
He exchanged glances with Chief Instructor Xu, who stood to one side and slightly behind him, as was her traditional place in this ceremony. She shrugged.
"Students of Balamb," Cid said formally. "You have been tried; you have been tested; and you have been found worthy of joining the ranks of this prestigious academy's graduates, to go out into the world as fully fledged SeeD soldiers," he pronounced the word 'seedy,' "and uphold the honour of the place where you were schooled. There will be no more tests, no more exams. Whether you go forth and become freedom fighters, or mercenaries, or even just plain citizens, the decision is now yours. After this ceremony you will no longer be students. There will always be a place for you here, but your life from now on is your own. Only you will decide where your road will take you."
He reached into one of his trouser pockets and drew out a long silver rod, gazing at it fondly for a brief moment. It had once been a symbol of power for a great sorceress he had known... and while its power had faded and it was nothing more than mundane metal now, the significance was still there.
He walked to the rightmost student, closed his eyes as if in meditation, then raised the rod and brought it down sharply on the youth's shoulder.
"Seifer Almasy," he intoned, "you have proven yourself to be strong of body and strong of mind. May your path take you to where you wish it. You are officially a graduate of this academy."
Cid stepped back, and Seifer bowed with a flourish. "Thanks, Headmaster."
Cid nodded, suppressing a smile. There was something about this one's self-confidence... he would go on to great things, of that the Headmaster was sure.
He took a step to one side, and faced the next student. She blushed slightly, but held his stare.
Cid closed his eyes once more and tapped her with the rod.
"Selphie Tilmitt," he said, "you have proven yourself to be strong of body and strong of mind. May your path take you to where you wish it. You are officially a graduate of this academy."
"Gee, thanks!" Selphie stifled a giggle.
And to the next. Once more the rod fell, and Raijin Wallace officially became a graduate.
Cid moved to the final student. Ah, yes, this one. Young Leonhart. The youth still had something of an attitude problem, but he was the most naturally talented of the lot of them. Well, only the outside world could teach him his place. The Headmaster smiled serenely. Squall would surely learn a lot when he left the confines of the academy.
Cid closed his eyes one last time, raised the rod... and there was a sound like a few dozen people all inhaling sharply at once, followed by a faint 'oop.' Well, Cid reasoned, quite often students made strange noises during the ceremony. Nerves did strange things to people.
"Squall Leonhart, you have proven yourself to be strong of body and strong of mind," he said, bringing the baton down. "May your path take you to where you wish it. You are officially a graduate of this academy."
He opened his eyes.
"Hey, cheers," said the large purple octopus sitting in front of him. "What've I got myself signed up for this time?"
There was, indeed, an octopus in front of him. It was, for some reason, wearing a tall orange pointy hat with a propeller on it, and was holding some sort of crystal fragment in one of its tentacles. Behind it, slumped against the far wall and looking distinctly surprised, was Squall.
"What... are you?" he said after a little while.
The octopus saluted with one tentacle.
"Name's Ultros," it said cheerily. "Sorry to just drop in like this. It's kind of hard to aim when you're leaping from one world to another."
"You came from another world?" asked Selphie.
"Yup!" Ultros tapped his hat, and the propeller spun a few times for no apparent reason. "Found myself this crystal whatsit that turns me into a Time Mage. Thought I'd vanish/X-zone myself and see what happened."
"Vanish/X-zone?" repeated Seifer.
"Yeah, you know, X-zone? Sending people to other dimensions?" Ultros sighed. "And vanish makes physical attacks miss but you're more susceptible to magic. Hence vanish/X-zone. Don't tell me you've never heard of the trick?"
"Uh, no," Selphie admitted.
"Learn it," said Ultros flatly.
Meanwhile, Cid and Xu were having a whispered conversation in the corner. Seifer, who was listening in, picked up the odd phrase such as, "any precedent?" and, "I did hit him..."
Eventually Cid stepped forwards.
"Ultros..." He paused. "Do you have a surname?"
Ultros gave him a Look. "I'm an octopus," he said disdainfully. "I'm lucky to have a first name."
"He's got a point, ya know?" Raijin added.
"Uh... of course." Cid sighed. "'Ultros,' you have been formally dubbed a graduate of this academy... however you managed it. Should you accept it, we will have no choice but to give you the same rank and privileges as our students who have earned it by more... normal methods."
"What is this academy place, anyway?" Ultros asked.
"This is Balamb Garden, a training ground for soldiers," explained Cid. "Our graduates are among the most honourable and disciplined warriors in the world."
"Ahhh." Ultros nodded sagely. "So you're sayin' that I'll get to tag along with parties of heroes and go beat up monsters and evil guys, right?"
"I suppose," Cid admitted, "but -"
"Sounds good to me." Ultros saluted. "Count me in."
There was a knock on God's office door.
"Hmm?" He hmmed, looking up from the sheaf of papers He was reading through. "Come in!"
The door swung open, and three men marched in. Well, two men marched in. The third was bound hand and foot, gagged, and was hauled bodily in by the other two. He was dishevelled, covered in dirt, and looked like he'd literally been dragged in from a gutter somewhere. The two on either side of him, in complete contrast, were wearing the immaculate suits and traditional bowler hats of the LTF Porters.
"We found him in Your In tray, Lord," Porter Artichoke said formally. "One of the agents must have left him there."
God's In tray took up a good five large rooms down in the basement of Heaven. After all, He received a lot of correspondence.
"There is an envelope around his neck, Lord," added Porter Aubergine. "Would You like to read it?"
God put the paper down on His desk and leaned forwards to inspect the man more closely.
"Yes, I think I shall," He said thoughtfully. "Would You... sorry, would you mind passing it over here?"
Porter Artichoke reached around the man's neck, where a small envelope was indeed tied there by means of a piece of string. He ripped the thing off, ignoring the man's brief grunt of pain, and handed the letter to the Lord.
"Thanks," God said pleasantly. "Now, would you two mind leaving Us alone for a little while?"
"As You wish, sir."
"Oh, just one thing!" God called as both Porters bowed and began backing out of the room. "Would you mind just removing that gag round his mouth? I'd quite like to be able to talk to him."
"With pleasure, sir."
Aubergine stepped forwards and pulled the gag down so it hung around the man's neck, then bowed once more and removed himself from the room, closing the door behind himself and Artichoke.
God rested His elbows on the desk and steepled His fingers in front of His face.
"It's been a long time, hasn't it?" He said slowly. "Fishook Grysley."
Fishook smiled darkly. "Well, I'm glad someone recognises me," he replied coldly. "Although I suppose You are omniscient, aren't You?"
God shrugged. "It's not that great a boon, you know. When one knows everything, it's awfully difficult to pick out individual facts. But We had worked out it was you a while back."
"I would have been surprised if You hadn't," Fishook admitted. "Still, didn't do You any good, did it? I would've got away with it, too, if it weren't for those pesky agents."
"You underestimate My minions," God replied evenly. "Now, let's see what your captor had to say about you, shall We?"
He slit open the envelope with one finger and extracted the letter from within.
"Shall I read it to you?" He asked, unfolding it.
Fishook shrugged. "If it pleases You."
"Dear God," read God. "Please find attached one (1) Fishook Grysley, ex-writer and perpetrator of the Evil Deeds taking place recently. I'm sorry about the delay in delivering him to you, but it took Me a little while to extricate Myself from such a complex story..."
"You're capitalising the wrong pronouns," said Fishook helpfully, and not without a certain degree of smugness.
God thought back. "Oh, so I am," He said. "Force of habit to capitalise Me and My, I guess." He cleared his throat. "Where was I? Oh, yes. I'm also sorry I couldn't deliver him to You in person, but I thought it might be a little tactless if I came striding into Heaven with him in tow. People might realise."
"What's all that about?" Fishook asked curiously.
God looked up. "Oh, er, there was a little fuss over the Author a while back - after you left, of course. The Writers went on strike until I got rid of him and agreed never to have him back here again."
Fishook smirked. "So, if I were to let on that he was the one to catch me, and under Your orders..."
"Then I'd smite thee with a thunderbolt before you uttered more than a couple of words," God said matter-of-factly.
"Fair enough. Do go on."
God returned His gaze to the letter. "The ex-Writer You see before You was planning to usurp Your seat using the combined abilities of countless innocents," He read, His expression hardening. "I would like to suggest this is proof that simple erasure is not a satisfactory punishment for anyone with knowledge on how the world works, and also that You find a more... permanent way of dealing with this miscreant this time round." He paused. "Is this true?"
"All of it," said Fishook happily. "You never thought I'd be able to siphon the latent abilities of normal people, did You?"
"Never," said God flatly. "But I am glad to find out when I am wrong."
"Not according to that Bible book of Yours, You aren't."
God thought for a moment, then shrugged and went back to the letter. "Also, I am glad to inform You that any debt You may feel You owe me has been more than cancelled out by that which I owe You. Had I not entered into this story to help You, I would not have met Aeris, and for that I would be far worse off. Perhaps when this affair is forgotten We could arrange another time and place to meet up. I would love for You to meet her."
"He fell in love?" He said, disbelieving.
Fishook nodded. "Yup. I did my best to exploit it, too."
"But... he's the Author!" God went on. "He can't fall in love! He's a complete incompetent when it comes to romance!"
"I think she probably helped things along quite a bit," Fishook pointed out. "But still, I agree, it's totally out of character for him. It'll never last," he added with a particularly vindictive air. "He'll get his heart broken soon enough."
"I don't think you need to worry about that, do you?" God retorted coldly. "It's his business now, isn't it? I wish the best of luck to him. Ah, but as for you..." He paused, thinking. "I don't want to just destroy you - after all, you deserve more than that, don't you?" He lapsed into silence for a few moments. "Ahhh, yes. I think I might have thought of a suitable fate for you."
"Oh, I can hardly wait."
"It vas a dark and stormy night. Outside my vindow, the rain sluiced down the gutters like cheap gin from an empty bottle. Eet vas strong enough to clear your sinuses, and you might find a drowned vorm in it. Through the pane, I could see a street light as it flickered, on and off, off and on, numbink my mind vith its desperate cracklink."
The rather cramped office was on the first floor. It was obviously not cleaned often. The walls were crusted in places with mould, and the window so brown with dirt one could barely see through it. The single, shadeless bulb that hung from the ceiling served only to highlight the shadows and pick out the dirt. In the silence, the tiny patter of feet indicated that there was something living under the floorboards.
Two desks occupied most of the room, covered in papers that spilled onto the floor around them. A single wooden chair was positioned behind each, both occupied; one by a large man who was leaning back on two of his chair legs, feet up on the desk. A smaller individual occupied the other chair, leaning forward on the other desk and snoring loudly. Both wore huge overcoats that practically enveloped them.
"This case vas an interestink one. Two younk girls dead, both tall, both dark-haired, both found in the same alley vith the same cross-shaped cuts on their necks. Vat sort of person vould do that? Vat vould drife a man to kill vithout reason, vithout cause... Vas it madness? Vas it rewenge for somethink? Vas it, perhaps, a sacrifice for a cult?
"Vateffer it vas, I vould find out."
The single door to the office was wooden and rotting slightly. A single large pane of once frosted, now merely dulled glass took up the majority of it, and visible in reverse letting from the inside was, 'Mora & Gimlar: Priwate Inwestigators.' An elderly hatstand stood by one side, bearing, for some reason, three hats.
"I thought back to vat had happened yesterday. Vat clues had there been that I had meesed? Vat could there haf been, obscured by the rain and the dark, that vould haf -"
"Ohhh, be quiet, Kea," muttered the smaller figure. "I'm trying to sleep over here..."
"I am recappink the plot," Kea said darkly at her. "There must be somethink ve haf missed..."
"Can't we just, like, wait for him to strike again or something?"
"No! Ve must act now! Ve must strike in the night and catch heem in the act!"
"Oh..." Kasuto Gimlar sighed, shifted to try and rest her head more comfortably on her arms, and dislodged a large bundle of papers onto the floor. "Could you do it in your head, please..."
Kea crossed his legs on the desk, and continued his internal monologue.
"I let her sleep; it had been sefferal days since ve last had a full night. This case, like a gutter drunkard, would not leaf us be until it had had its fill. And it vas dirty. Weeery dirty..."
Kea didn't have a chance to start up again. The door swung open, rattling the hatstand like the bones in a broken joint, revealing a young-ish lady. She wore a red dress that had seen better days; time had turned the crimson to maroon.
"Mr. Mora!" she exclaimed, breathing heavily. "It's... it's happened again!"
Kea's feet retracted abruptly and stamped down upon the aging floorboards, raising a cloud of dust and causing whatever lived underfoot to scuttle away towards one corner of the room. He straightened up to his full height, pulling his coat around him with one hand.
"Kasuto!" he said sharply. "Vake up!"
"Whuh...?" Kasuto replied sleepily. "Whassat?"
"Ve must strike now!"
"Oh, right!" Kasuto leaped to her feet and vaulted over her desk. "After you!"
"Ve left the office at a run, tearing our hats from the stand as ve passed," Kea observed, lifting the single deerstalker from the hatstand on his way out of the door. Behind him, Kasuto grabbed one of the two bowler hats and planted it firmly on her head, following hurriedly in his footsteps. "The door to the stairs loomed ahead, and like a brothel gate, it engulfed us eassily.
"The night air hit me like a vave of nausea, the varmth and veight of my hat on my head reassurink. The street vas my home. Like a moth to a street lamp, I could not help but return... and I felt at ease, out here. Eefen though ve vere runnink, I felt... relaxed."
Maybe five minutes' brisk run took them to a back alley. The light from the street barely penetrated here; only a single bulb hanging above a locked door cast its dismal glow along the walls. A single officer in plain clothes stood at the end of the alley, gently pressuring the public to move along.
"Please move along," he said politely as the three of them hurried up. "This is a police crime scene, so -"
"I told him, in no uncertain terms, that I vas a priwate inwestigator, as vere my companions, and he reluctantly let us through," said Kea, as they strode past the man into the alley. "Yes, the scene vas just as the last one. Against the doorvay, her head staring tovards the heaffens as if prayink for aid from the diwine, sat the girl. There vas no doubt; this vas the vork off our murderer...
"I knelt beside her, placink one hand on her cheek to steady her head... and then I hessitated. As I vatched, a sinkle drop of blood fell from the vound on her neck to her lap, seemink as it fell like a solitary tear. I looked closer."
Kea got to his feet. "Kasuto, Miss Belmont!" he exclaimed. "Our killer cannot haf gone far! He must still be somevere close by!"
"How'd you work that one out?" Kasuto enquired, hurrying over.
"Elementary, my dear Kasuto," Kea said haughtily. "The vound is still fresh! Belief me, I know my neck vounds, and this is not more than a couple of minutes old! Quick, ve must -"
He was cut off abruptly as something stirred in the back of the alley. A catlike figure sprung up from the shadows and bolted for the street, pushing past Kea, Kasuto and the young policeman with ease.
Kea sprung back to his feet with almost inhuman agility.
"Come, Kasuto!" he shouted, hurtling off. "The game is afoot!"
'Dear Sir,' wrote Don Corneo. 'I present to you the events of late, this 15th of June, 2050. There has been much activity in this region recently. I have heard the people muttering dark threats against the Company, most likely urged on by some shadowy organisation intent on the downfall of the Company.'
He thought for a few moments before continuing.
'I have heard mention of a group named 'Landslide,'' he continued, 'but this, as everything else I hear, may be just rumour. The people are nervous, and will believe anything. Already I have heard people speak of a mysterious man in a black coat, and some even believe that the sorely missed Mr. Caroussis has turned on the Company. The people need a display of strength to show them that they are safe under the wing of the Company.'
Don sighed wearily. It was late in the evening, and to be honest, there were quite a few things he would much rather be doing right now. But his position as an official Shinra Informant carried a number of responsibilities together with its privileges, and one of those was to actually inform the higher-ups if anything did happen. Really, it was most tiresome.
'The weather,' he wrote, 'continues fine, and we are grateful for that. However, and while I do not wish to put myself above my station, might I be so bold as to request that we have a few odd showers on occasion, timed if possible for about six o'clock to maybe half past six? The flowers here would appreciate that, I feel.
'I am, Sir, your humble servant.
Corneo got to his feet and stretched, wondering if the officials in charge of regulating the lower plate weather would be willing to grant his request. It was, after all, for the flowers, and Don knew only too well that there was nothing like a quick douse in the rain to make one of the local flowers more enthusiastic about getting her clothes off.
He folded the letter up, slipped it into an envelope, and sealed it before dropping it into a desk drawer. He could post it tomorrow. For now, there were more important matters to attend to...
There were two guards waiting outside the door to his personal quarters, from the traditional 'not even a suit and sunglasses can make this guy look smart' school of guard. Since becoming an Informant, Don had felt that it wouldn't do any harm to make sure he kept himself safe. There were dangerous elements about these days, and if they found him... Don shuddered just thinking about it. They might just want to find out what he knew about them, or what he knew about the Company. Or they might see him as a threat, or hold a grudge, or... So many terrifying possibilities...
"Is sir ready for his evening entertainment?" enquired Samwise the butler, bowing slightly as Corneo entered. Don nodded enthusiastically.
"Bring them in!" he said happily. "I need to drum up an appetite for dinner!"
"Very good, sir." Samwise bowed again and began striding sedately towards the huge double doors that led to the main hall of Don's mansion, glancing cursorily out of a window on his way. "I see it's another fine day, sir. My condolences."
"Oh, um, thank you." Don beamed. "Oh, Samwise?"
"Yes, sir?" Samwise paused, his hand on the door handle.
"Could you make me up one of your special cocktails after you've let the ladies in? You know how much I like them."
Samwise hauled the door open, stuck his head out into the hall, and beckoned to the three flowers waiting around the corner. One by one, they filed demurely into the room and arranged themselves in a line, facing Corneo.
"May I present, sir," Samwise said formally, "the ladies Tessa, Clara, and, ahem, Gertrude, sir."
"That you may, that you may," Don replied impatiently. "Now hurry off, Samwise, and fetch me something to drink."
"As you wish, sir."
As the door swung shut behind his butler, Don inspected the three specimens of femininity he had been presented with tonight. He was pleased. Even compared to the high standards he expected - and received, too; after all, Don was, well, the Don around here, and lots of girls wanted to get to know him better (or so he told himself) - these three were beautiful.
He started from the left, with Tessa. There was a very pleasant quiet, unassuming dignity about her. She was slim, lithe, and bore herself with a confidence that told Corneo that she was used to standing on her own and facing down adversaries. He wondered how she would perform tonight.
Then to Clara. Rather unruly blonde hair stuck up in all directions and fell down to her shoulders by the sides. There was the hint of muscle tone beneath her violet dress, and her figure was exquisite. Many men must have gone after her, Don decided.
And then to...
The third girl... Gertrude, wasn't it... was huge. She towered over the other two, and Corneo himself. She almost towered over Don's two guards. And her bosom was simply enormous... Don found his gaze gravitating inexorably towards it. If only the neckline of that satin number wasn't quite so high...
Gertrude caught his gaze, and shook her chest seductively. It jingled noisily, with a noise more like two plates crashing together than that of subtle jewellery.
Don decided he had to see more of that.
"I have made my decision!" he announced. "I choose... you!"
Gertrude took one hand from behind her back and punched the air in victory. Her torso made the sound of breaking glass.
"Awright!" she exclaimed.
There was consternation among the other two, though.
"What?" Clara complained. "After we went to all this effort, too..."
"It's going to be another cold night in the open..." added Tessa.
"With no one there to comfort us..." Clara agreed solemnly.
Corneo listened to them. It would be an affront to him to call him single-minded, but nevertheless the thoughts running through his head at the moment were somewhat predictable.
"Ladies!" he announced magnanimously. "Don't get so worked up! If it really means so much to you... I am only too glad to help you out." He beamed. "As long as you don't hate each other or anything...?"
The girls exchanged glances.
"We're good," said Clara.
"Yo, no problems here!"
"Well, then..." Don bounced up and down happily. "Shall we get started?"
Clara brought her hands together in front of her, as if to crack her knuckles, but on receiving a sharp glare from Tessa hurriedly tucked them modestly into her sleeves instead.
"Yes, let's get started," she said, a strange, enigmatic undertone to her voice. Don liked it.
"Awright, let's get dis party goin'!" concurred Gertrude.
"Good, good, good!" Don waddled over to the door to his chambers, and held it open with one pudgy hand. "This way, please, ladies!"
One by one, the three filed through the door, with Gertrude needing quite a push when she got stuck. But the door swung closed, as it did every night, and the two guards returned resolutely to their duty, as did they.
Maybe a minute or so later it opened again and Gertrude's head and shoulders appeared.
"Yo," she said. "We gotta question in here. Da other two is kinda shy 'bout this sorta stuff, an' da Don can be kinda loud, yo' know? Can yo' go away fo' a bit?"
The guards exchanged glances.
"Can't do dat," said one.
"'gainst da rules," said the other.
"Gotta stan' here."
"But dey say -"
"'Scuse me, guys?" Tessa's head joined Gertrude's. "Sorry to try that one on you, but the Don asked if you could wander off for a while. There might be some things going on in here tonight he'd rather you didn't hear about."
She nudged the larger girl's chest, and there was a metallic clinking noise from under her dress. Both guards turned to one another, stared thoughtfully for a good few seconds, and then grinned together as the thought, 'handcuffs' struck them in perfect synchronisation.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on point of view and personal taste), while they were doing this, they missed the sight of a part of Gertrude's bustline apparently detaching itself from the rest and descending down the inside of her dress. It hit the floor with a faint 'plink', where it transpired that it was, in fact, a shotgun shell.
Tessa hurriedly brushed it into one of the corners of the room with her foot.
"So?" she asked softly as the guards' gazes came slowly back to her. "Would you mind?"
"Hur hur hur," said one by way of an answer.
"Hur," agreed the second.
"Hur hur," added the first.
"Yo, is dat a yes?" enquired Gertrude suspiciously.
The two guards turned and wandered off, uttering sporadic 'hur's at irregular intervals. Behind their backs, Gertrude and Tessa exchanged satisfied glances, then disappeared back into the bedroom, the door swinging closed after them.
There was the faint click of a lock turning.
And in another world, another reality, there was another Nibelheim. The past was the same, for backstories have a certain inertia and do not take easily to being altered. Five years before, the town had been destroyed by Sephiroth in an insane rage. It had been rebuilt by the Shinra and repopulated with willing stooges in an attempt to cover up what had happened that fateful day. And, in the Secret Lab beneath the Shinra-owned mansion on the edge of town, for years Dr. Melchior Hojo had conducted his research into the resurrection... no, the duplication of the Great Sephiroth.
The black-clad figures that lurked in the village were his legacy. There were dozens of them, once normal men, their minds now destroyed by the Mako and the Jenova cells and the heartless physical damage exacted upon their brains in the name of science. They huddled in corners, alone or occasionally in pairs; some seeking to spend the lonely eternity in some form of company, some just wishing to deprive themselves of all worldly comforts until their blissful end came.
There were three of them in this particular attic. They were seated around a small packing chest, staring intently at it as if, perhaps, they were playing a game with imaginary cards for imaginary stakes.
And then, suddenly, there were three more people in the attic. That is to say, suddenly the three travellers had arrived in town a few minutes before, had explored a little, and finally wandered up the stairs into the attic just now. They hadn't just appeared out of thin air, even though a few moments beforehand they hadn't even been on the same world.
Two of the travellers wore particularly noteworthy garments - one, a tall girl with ash-blonde hair reaching down to her waist, bore a simple white robe, such as maybe a priestess would wear. The other, a teenage guy with particularly wild hair and a just slightly mad expression, wore dirt-covered garments, ripped and torn almost to the point of falling off him whenever he moved. The third traveller, on the other hand, wore the exact same black cowl as the three failed experiments already in the room. The other two held him up by one arm each, as if he were incapable of standing up on his own.
They released him, and he slumped to the floor with a faint, disheartened, "...nyum..."
"Well, that's our job done," announced Amyrssyra Kae of Sigma Team. "Shall we head back?"
"Nah, I'm kinda curious now," the teenager replied, kneeling down and staring the man in the face. "Who is 'e, anyway?"
Amyrssyra shrugged, and within her robe there was a suggestion of movement behind her shoulderblades, almost as if there were something attached to her shoulders. Barely noticeable, a single white feather drifted down through her robe and landed at her feet. "I'm not really sure. Someone who really annoyed the Lord, I think."
The youth waved one hand in front of their charge's face. "He don't look exactly terrifyin' right now, though, does 'e?"
"That's the thing, Tetsuo," Amyrssyra replied evenly. "I heard from Agmar that he was actually someone really important, who annoyed the Lord so much that He sealed his mind inside his body."
"Well, that sounds just terrible," Tetsuo replied sarcastically. "Havin' your mind stuck inside your own body? Gee, who thought that one up?"
"Sealed inside, that is," Amyrssyra explained patiently, "so that while he's aware of what's going on around him, he can't control his actions. His body just sits there and looks stupid."
"Whatever you say, Amy, whatever you say." Tetsuo shrugged. "I s'pose bein' stuck with nothin' to do but think 'til ya die ain't exactly a cheery ride, yeah..." He paused. "Hey, why're we leavin' him here, anyway?"
"I have no idea." Amy thought for a moment. "Perhaps it's particularly appropriate, given what he did. Maybe if he stays here he'll get to watch his enemies grow rich around him or something. I don't know."
"Heh." Tetsuo smirked. "The great He can be really quite evil at times, can't 'e?"
"I'm sure it's well-deserved."
Tetsuo laughed. "Awww, Amy, you're so cute when you do that."
"Do what?" Amyrssyra looked puzzled.
"Show such blind devotion to the boss." Tetsuo grinned. "C'mon, let's go find somewhere more interestin' to be. This place ain't exactly a rave."
He leaned down and beamed at their charge. "See ya around, then, mate. Enjoy the rest of your life an' all."
Tetsuo actually took a step back. Okay, so the man's single word had hardly been fear-inspiring, and the tone of voice was no different to the vacant slurring used by all the other cloaked empty shells around here, but... There was something in those eyes. The very definite light of impotent rage. Tetsuo had seen it many times before, usually before he turned his back on his adversaries and walked away, knowing as they did that they were soundly beaten.
"Whoa, we've got a live one here," he said, laughing harshly. "He's certainly not gonna take bein' stuck like this lyin' down if 'e can help it."
"I'm sure the Lord wouldn't have sealed him away like this if He weren't sure it would be permanent," Amyrssyra said, only the barest hint of uncertainty in her voice.
Tetsuo patted their charge cheerily on the top of his head, and found himself almost expecting the man's arm to shoot out and grab him. "Y'know, Amy, after the way I've just pissed 'im off, I really hope you're right."
"I'm very impressed that you managed to get us a table," Major Motoko Kusanagi remarked casually, looking curiously around her at the Wutai town square. Normally packed with people going about their business, even at this late hour, it was practically empty, the space taken up by no more than a few dozen tables, ranging in size from small square ones for two, to those large enough to seat ten or twelve. A few couples and small groups made their way between the tables, searching for their seats. "I tried to pull my rank to get one, and even that wasn't good enough."
Sephiroth smiled knowingly. "I've always been good at pulling strings," he replied casually. "Besides, you've been waxing lyrical about this display for days, so it seemed only fair that you got to see it from a nice place."
No one knew why, traditionally, there was a firework display on the 7th of July every year in Wutai. It was one of those traditions that had gone on for so long, as traditions do, that no one had the faintest idea why it took place. But it did, and on this day every year, the people of Wutai launched enough assorted explosives, in the form of fireworks, into the air to level half their city. It was about the only night of the year when everyone in Wutai stopped hurrying all over the place and just stood still, however briefly.
The restaurants made an absolute killing on the night of the festival. Most of the larger ones managed to stake out some area of the streets or squares for themselves, set tables and chairs out and charged an absolute fortune for people to watch the display while sitting down and enjoying a passable meal. This year, the Frying Dragon Inn had been the one to occupy the prime position in the town square, which given the overall high quality of its food could only be a Good Thing.
They had also apparently hired a cabaret act for after the fireworks, which promised to be interesting. A makeshift stage had already been set up at one end of the square.
Motoko gave Sephiroth a quizzical look across the table, then smiled. "Well, however you did it, it doesn't bother me. Thanks."
Sephiroth gave her an enigmatic smirk. "Believe me, it was nothing. You know, I..."
He stopped, staring over her shoulder. Motoko waited patiently for a few seconds, then turned and followed his gaze. Behind her, at one of the single tables, a young - very young - boy was climbing up into one of the chairs and reaching for the menu.
"Isn't that the boy who came here with you?" she asked softly.
Sephiroth nodded. "Hoi! Roch!"
Roch turned curiously, spotted the two of them, and gave them a half-hearted wave. "Oh, hi, you two." He gave them a leer quite unbecoming of his mere five years. "You on a date?"
After the events that had transpired months previously, Roch had decided that he would rather not stay with his parents in Midgar, for reasons that he never made entirely clear. He'd travelled to Wutai with Sephiroth, presumably wanting to start a new life away from any memories of the past or something like that, and the two had become surprisingly good friends. Maybe it was partially natural, maybe solely a by-product of his experiences with Jenova, but Roch had both the intelligence and the at times not entirely amiable attitude of an average teenager. He and Sephiroth had unofficially formed the society Souls Possessed by an Evil World-Eating Demon, or SPEWED, which consisted of the two of them getting together on a fairly regular basis and having a drink or two.
Sephiroth and Motoko exchanged glances for a few moments.
"Yes, I suppose we are," Motoko said after the pause. "Are you here with anyone?"
Roch shook his head. "No, just me. Good for you two, though. Thought you'd never do it."
"Thanks... I think." Motoko looked puzzled. "Hang on, how did you manage to get a table here? And especially when you're on your own...?"
"I'm good at pulling strings," said Roch smugly.
"Is this some after-effect of being possessed or something?" she enquired. "You can make people do whatever you want them to?"
"Something like that, maybe," Sephiroth admitted. "Jenova always was big on the whole manipulation thing. I guess some tricks rub off on you."
"Excuse me, gentlemen and madam," said a polite voice from behind Motoko. "Could I get your orders, ple..." The man's voice trailed off as Sephiroth turned, and the two stares locked. "General Sephiroth?"
Sephiroth looked puzzled.
"Reno, isn't it?" he said after a little while. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm waiting on you," Reno replied cheerily. "Anything to drink? Oh, and who's the lady?"
"That's not answering my question," Sephiroth said tetchily. There was a slightly suspicious tone in his voice, and his hand crept automatically towards the hilt of the Masamune at his waist. "What are you doing in Wutai?"
"Hey, hey!" Reno backed off a few paces, holding a menu out defensively in front of him. "We're here because we needed to find somewhere to come away from the Shinra."
"We?" Sephiroth repeated, relaxing slightly.
"Yeah, Tseng, Rude, Elena, and me." Reno took a tentative step back towards the table. "The Shinra think we're all dead, so we needed to come somewhere where they wouldn't find us. So here we are. We got Highwind Exports to ship us here discretely a few days ago."
"And you're a waiter now," Sephiroth remarked. "So I presume the other three are...?"
"Oh, Tseng and Elena are working in the kitchens, and Rude's waiting on people like me." Reno beamed and waved over towards the far end of the square, where Rude was, by means of a game of charades, attempting to enquire of a couple of Wutainese what they would like to eat. "Turns out Miss Jinnai was hiring extra staff for tonight, so we found ourselves jobs, at least for the moment." He smirked. "Anyway, would you like anything to drink? And I still don't know this gorgeous beauty's name...?"
"Her name's Motoko," said Sephiroth simply. "And I'll have a Black Lotus."
"A Black, er, what, sorry?" Reno looked thoroughly confused.
"It's a cocktail," Sephiroth explained wearily. "They'll know what I mean."
"Oh, sure." Reno leaned down, flashing Motoko his most winning smile - which even Sephiroth had to admit was one he wouldn't mind perfecting himself. "And for you, miss?"
"Just a water for me, thanks."
"Really?" Sephiroth gave her a strange look. "Nothing interesting to drink?"
"I'm fine, don't worry." Motoko smiled, slightly apologetically. "Alcohol goes to my head."
"As you say."
"Goes to your head?" Reno repeated. "Really?"
Reno beamed. "Right, so that's one, er, Black Lotus, and one 'water.' Gotcha."
He gave Sephiroth a leer and a broad wink, and strode off towards the restaurant itself.
"I wonder how long 'til the display starts," Motoko mused idly as he departed. "It shouldn't be... oh, there they go."
The ground shook gently as, easily visible above the houses, Tourmaline Weapon stomped towards the designated firing grounds. There were some truly dangerous fireworks to be let off tonight, so it made sense to delegate the task of setting them off to a firelighter who was pretty much indestructible.
IS EVERYONE READY? it boomed, its voice clearly audible throughout the whole city. SIT TIGHT!
It leaned down to the ground, and was obscured by the houses for a little while. Then, abruptly, there was an intense WHOOSH, followed immediately by a shouted, WHOA! and the town shook, as if maybe a certain firelighter had been surprised by one of the fireworks and had landed heavily on the ground.
A faint black shape hurtled heavenwards, then exploded. For a few moments, however brief, the entire sky was filled with wave upon wave of iridescent blue and green auras, hurtling outwards as if determined to encircle the planet before they died away.
A chorus of, "OooOOOooohs," went up, on cue.
THAT WAS FUN! announced Tourmaline's voice. LET'S DO IT AGAIN!
The display lasted a good ten minutes, costing probably about as much as a small war and with about the same number of rockets being launched. There were simple starburst rockets. There were fireworks that hurtled erratically through the air, spelling out messages with the glittering trails they left behind them. There was even one that, upon reaching a suitable height, turned into a large flaming dragon which roared once, then hiccupped and blew itself to bits.
When it ended, as, sadly, it had to, a satisfied hush fell over the town. This lasted for maybe two or three seconds before everyone started talking at the top of their voices about which one they'd liked the best, or who'd got a bit of dragon in their hair or whatever. Gradually, the town came to life again.
Motoko turned back to Sephiroth. In the square, without the throng of people surrounding them as there would have been anywhere else, they had had an unrivalled view.
"Thanks for that," she said, giving him a gentle smile. "Means a lot to me."
Sephiroth shrugged, unconcerned. "It was nothing," he replied. "Glad you enjoyed it."
Reno bowed low, holding out a tray with two glasses one it. One contained just water, the other a viscous black liquid that appeared to be trying to climb up the sides of the glass to freedom. "One Black Lotus for sir, one, ahem, water for madam."
He set the tray down on the table and, with a flourish, produced two menus. "And might I -"
He was cut off as, from the direction of the stage, the sound of footsteps echoing on the unstable wooden floor signalled the commencement of the dinner entertainment. All heads swivelled to face the performance, Reno's included.
"Who in the name of the Cetra are they?" Sephiroth enquired flatly.
Reno shrugged. "They call themselves the Chortle Brothers, I think," he said uncertainly. "I haven't really had a chance to talk to them in person, yes... and I think I'm happy like that, too..."
The two Brothers wore identical outfits - baggy trousers and shirts with sleeves a good half dozen inches too long, bow ties, and bowler hats. One - the one standing on the left, for all the difference it made - wore a sky blue shirt, deep red trousers, red tie, and a blue hat. The other wore, predictably enough, a red shirt and hat and a blue tie and trousers.
The overall impression was that they were both colour-blind.
"I say, I say, I say, Mr. Smith," began one of them.
"What is it, Mr. Smith?"
"What is it that has two legs, no arms, no head, and flies, Mr. Smith?"
"Did you say, what is it that has two legs, no arms, no head, and flies, Mr. Smith?"
"Yes, what is it that has two legs, no arms, no head, and flies, Mr. Smith?"
"I don't know, what is it that has two legs, no arms, no head, and flies, Mr. Smith?"
"Half a dead buffalo, Mr. Smith."
Sephiroth stared at them for a second in mild disbelief, then turned back to his menu with a "tch."
And finally, in other news...
Sephiroth was found not guilty of the charges levelled against him by the Shinra Prosecution Service. The charges were later redirected to Jenova, who was found guilty but let off on account of being dead.
The Author and his newly expanded group decided by unanimous vote to take a holiday in a pleasant sun, sea and sand romance story based in the Caribbean, from which they were subsequently kicked out after the Major built a sand fort and shot down a few seagulls.
Perigee, Kea and Kasuto were promoted to Tau team. Perigee is advancing up the ranks of the LTF's experimental weapons division. They are expected to return for a sequel to Writing of Wrongs if the reaction is positive enough. Email the authors for instructions on how to become a sponsor.
Hans Niesentose moved on from the Gold Saucer and started up his own theatre company, Ye Wandering Minstrels. For their most recent performance they returned to the Gold Saucer, where in keeping with tradition the leads were given to a couple from the audience. Shinji and Asuka are considering taking up acting for a living.
After the destruction of Junon, Biggs Vicks was rescued from drowning by the crew of the HMS Inflatable. Under the supervision of Boatswain Sausages and First Mate Pugwash, he, Wedge Wedge and Jessie Sazanami (who has since dropped her AVALANCHE pseudonym and has returned to her birth name of Fujin), are being formed into a crack fighting squad in preparation for their next appearance.
The citizens of Wutai returned to their previous lives, each having made many new friends and rivals. Several crossovers are planned.
DJ Smooth Brothah Hojo is currently touring the world on a brief departure from his usual hangout in Costa del Sol. He's running things in the Cloud Nine in Midgar's Sector Four, and word up, homies, he's here 'til Friday.
Exdeath's Hint Shop grows in popularity, and he has already opened up subsidiary branches in Final Fantasies V, VI, VIII, and IX. He hopes to expand to the Xenogears series soon.
And there it might seem to end. All loose ends tied up or at least left on suitable cliffhangers, all major characters accounted for. And indeed here would be a suitable place to end the story.
But there is one small thing...
"Ah, there you are! I was wondering when you'd turn up. Do come in, please."
God held the door to His gaming room open and, fire springing up under his cloven feet and the stench of the eternally damned trailing behind him, Satan entered. He towered over even the Lord, even without taking into account his horns, and was, put simply, a terrifying sight.
"You can leave your trident in the umbrella stand if you'd like," God said politely.
"Ah, thank you," Satan replied. He strode into the room, and God waited until his tail was fully through the door before closing it.
The gaming room was rather spacious. Along three of the walls ran a long desk, upon which three computers rested - these were dubbed, owing to the Lord's mildly ironic sense of humour, Father, Son, and Spook. The somewhat limited remainder of the desk not occupied by assorted PC components was taken up by a large tray, bearing sandwiches, biscuits, and a teapot and cups.
"So how's life down there, anyway?" God enquired, as both entities pulled out chairs and seated Themselves in front of two of the computers - God in front of Father, Satan in front of Son. "I haven't heard from you for some time. Anything interesting happen?"
"Not really," Satan sighed. "It's just that we've had quite an influx of sinners recently. No idea why, just one of those fluctuations, I guess. Anyway, we've been swept off our feet just trying to tag 'em and allocate suitable eternities to 'em." He shrugged. "Either You need to be more forgiving, or You need to let me hire more staff. A few dozen of us really isn't enough."
"I can't really let you have too many minions," God replied mildly. "Otherwise you might start getting ideas."
"You mean about invading Heaven and taking over and so on?" Satan snorted flame derisively. "Nah, it's okay, we're quite happy down there. It's so much more interesting in the Pits. I tell You, You haven't lived - figuratively speaking - until You've seen Vryn'hic, the Two-headed Hound of Abdominal Mutilation, try to chase after two people at once and almost pull itself in two." He laughed at the memory. "Whereas all You get are Your angels and those Writer folk, who I'm sure are very nice people but aren't all that amusing."
"I suppose it is a little boring up here at times," God admitted, "but it's not all that bad. At least I keep My afterlife clean."
"Yeah, it is a tad smoky down there, I guess," Satan mused. "Old Asptha'Tyr suffers from awful asthma at times. Sometimes she can't even spin her webs properly, and you end up with all sorts of strange patterns when she's done." He shrugged again. "But hey, enough about the Pits of Eternal Damnation. What's been happening up here? I hear there's been some trouble with the Mako Wars world."
"How'd you find out about that?" God asked suspiciously.
"Your Kyrael dropped in for tea and crumpets a few days back on her way back from giving salvation to a few people on Earth," Satan replied. "She said there were rumours going around that one of the lesser worlds had rebelled or something." The Devil paused. "Nice girl, she is. Thinks the world of You. You ought to pay a little more attention to her. It'd make her so happy."
"Really? Thanks. I'll remember that." God nodded. "She's very good at saving people and so on, and she's still so young, too. She'll grow up to be a great Archangel some day."
"Yeah." Satan nodded sagely. He winked. "But about that world...?"
"Long story," replied God automatically. "Do you remember Fishook Grysley?"
"The Fallen Writer chap? Of course." Satan nodded emphatically, and his tail bobbed up and down, apparently unintentionally. "I had a special Hell reserved just for him, You know. It really surprised us when You didn't send him down to us. Threw Kzhryyn for a complete loop. He'd already processed half the paperwork, and it took him weeks to track it down and clean up the mess."
"Sorry about that," said God, not entirely sure what He was apologising for. "Anyway, he came back. I think he was trying to use the Mako Wars world to gather power or something so he could force his way back into Heaven. Something like that, anyway."
Satan glanced towards Spook's monitor, where a picture of the Planet could be seen. "I can't help but notice You've still got that world running," he remarked casually.
God nodded. "It was a request from one of the agents who helped apprehend Fishook," He explained. "He asked Me if I could leave it running, just for a few generations. Something about owing it to a colleague, I think." He shrugged noncommittally. "Doesn't really bother Me to keep it going. After all, My PCs are omnipotent anyway so it's not slowing the other worlds down or anything."
"So what happened to Fishook, then?" Satan asked curiously.
"Oh, he won't be troubling Us any more," the Lord replied enigmatically. "Actually, he might die fairly soon so you could well be seeing him shortly."
"Jolly good." Satan rubbed his hands together in glee, and fire spurted briefly from between his fingers. "I'll get the whole team together. We'll come up with a really imaginative eternity for him."
"Have fun," the Lord said pleasantly.
"Oh, we will." The Devil beamed contentedly and settled back in his chair. "Anyway, to business. What do You have lined up for Us today, then?"
"Well, I was thinking it might be a pleasant change for Us to work together for once," the Lord explained. "After all, We're always going up against one another, so I reckoned this time We could do a cooperative RPG, and I'll have Spook over there generate all the enemies."
"Sounds good to me." Satan hesitated. "You haven't gone too overboard with the AI, have You?"
"It's not too complex, no. Why?"
"Well, the last thing We want is for ol' Spook to become self-aware again. Especially as it's omnipotent now. I think We both remember where that got Us last time."
"Yes, yes, the whole 'Messiah' business," God replied testily. "I don't make mistakes twice."
"Just checking." Satan pulled his chair closer to the desk and positioned himself facing Son's monitor. "What did You call this one, anyway?"
"'Legend of the Holy Sword.'"
"Nice." Satan cracked his knuckles, with a sound like the crushing of a thousand bones. "Game on."
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