© 2004 Stratadrake/Draconus of TWZ
(Original Draft: 2-12-2004)
Quietly Cloud crawled back through the ducts towards the restroom grate, then climbed down. Lockheart and Berett followed shortly after. Cloud opened the restroom door and peered out, seeing only an empty hall. He led them past a corner, down the next hallway, and to the stairs.
Climbing up the stairs, they found the door to the 66th floor stuck in its open position. On a hunch, Cloud led them through the doorway to a hallway with a funny, almost chemical smell. This led to a large open room, lined wall to wall with obscure equipment, several computers, and a large vat near one corner. A glass cage was across the room, with a furry creature sleeping inside and Kojo gleefully looking at it and mumbling about its preciousness. He turned around and looked up. "Is she ready for today's experiment?"
"Yes, Professor," responded a voice from an upper level of the room.
"Good. Get ready to raize this one up there...." Kojo said, turning back to the caged, furry creature for a moment, then walking to a set of stairs at the back of the room, ascending to the upper level.
Cloud, Berett, and Lockheart, once the area was clear, began walking over. Lockheart stopped to look at the creature in the glass cage, tapping on the glass to no effect. Berett kept looking back in case trouble might show up, while Cloud looked at the large vat on the right. There was something inside.
"Precious specimen?" Lockheart asked. "What's that Kojo going to do with him?"
Lockheart looked over to Cloud. "...Cloud?"
Cloud couldn't be bothered, as he peered into the vat. He spotted something through the glowing liquid inside. Suddenly Cloud reared back. "No... Can't be.... It's here.... Sephiroth's...?"
"Wha--?" Berett asked, looking inside the vat. "What the hell is that thing? Doesn't it have a head!?"
"You don't see it?" Cloud asked fearfully, backing away from the vat and stumbling into some equipment. "It's still alive...."
Berett looked at an identification plate on the vat. Stamped out in large letters was the phrase 'J.E.N.O.V.A.'. "This? No way!"
"No... you don't understand...." Cloud shuddered. "They moved it... here?"
"Look, let's just keep moving," Lockheart consoled. "Aeris should be up there, right?"
Lockheart helped Cloud get back up onto his feet, and Cloud tried to ignore the thing in the vat nearby. "...I'll be fine," Cloud said. Lockheart led the way to the stairs in the back of the room, and the three of them climbed up to the next level. Aeris was sitting in a glass cage on this level, with Kojo watching from not too far off and an assistant of his monitoring a control panel on the side.
Cloud rushed forward without thinking. "Aeris!!"
Aeris stood up and looked at Cloud through the glass cage. Kojo noticed Cloud in the room. "Who arre you?"
"Never you mind," Lockheart said loudly. "We're taking Aeris back!"
"Outsidersz...," Kojo mumbled. "Whatever. We will begin the experiment immediately!"
A round hole in the center of Aeris's cage opened, and an elevator pad arose from below. Sleeping on it was the red furry creature they had seen just moments earlier. It woke up slowly, then eyed Aeris carefully. It walked to the other side of the cage and began pacing back and forth. "Cloud!" Aeris shouted through the glass.
"What are you doing...?" Kojo asked, focusing in the direction of Aeris and the other creature.
The creature glanced at both Cloud and Kojo, then pounced upon Aeris. Alarmed, Aeris winked out and reappeared on the other side of the cage, as the creature skidded into the glass wall.
"Berett, do something!" Cloud asked as the creature tried to pounce on Aeris again, and as Aeris winked out of the way and again reappeared elsewhere in the glass cage.
"Okay, lemme at it!" Berett said as he kneeled down, opened up his laser and fired a volley of shots all over the cage, but as his blasts mostly passed through the glass, he nearly hit Aeris inside. "Damn!!" Berett put his laser awar, rushed forward, and slammed his metal leg into the glass.
It made not even a dent. "Gimme a hand here!"
Cloud nodded and armed one of the magic stones he had. Securing it in a compartment on his leg armor, he kicked the glass while using it and a burst of flame erupted and washed all over the glass, and inside too.
"No!! Vhat are you doing??" Kojo shouted. "My precious sspecimens!"
Lockheart unleashed a spray of ice from one of her magic stones, impacting the glass cage square on. Cloud followed suit with another burst of flame from his gem, and Lockheart hit it with another burst of ice. The alternating heat and cold caused the glass to crack. Berett kicked it again and it shattered.
As soon as the steam and ice cleared, the furry creature pounced out of the cage onto Kojo, while Aeris ran out to greet Cloud and Lockheart.
"No!" Kojo shouted, trying to shake the creature off of him. To his assistant, he yelled out, "Hurry! Release the other specimen!!"
A wall-mounted cage across the room began to open, and a loud roar came from within that got everyone's attention: Cloud's, Lockheart's, Berett's, even Kojo's and the creature attacking him.
"Um, Lockheart," Cloud began. "Get Aeris out of here!"
"Wait--!" Aeris said. She withdrew another magic stone from her posession and tossed it to Cloud. "You'll need one of these."
Cloud identified the kind of gem it was in short order. "Thanks. Now go!"
"Meet you back at the cafeteria!" Lockheart shouted as she quickly escorted Aeris out of the lab.
The furry creature ran next to Cloud, and to their surprise, began talking. "It's coming!"
"HahaHAHaha...," Kojo laughed wildly. "THAT is no ordinary specimen! It'sz a very Dangerous sspecimen!" Then Kojo, scratched and bruised, ran for his own safety.
Out from its cage emerged a sickly-green creature walking on four spindly legs. Rows of spikes protruded from both its shoulders andran the length of its flank. The creature stared at them through a head seemingly bereft of eyes.
The monster reared back, then exhaled upon them a nasty, foul breath which sent them scattering for cover. Once at a safe distance Berett opened his laser and unleashed a few blasts.
The red creature paced to the left as Cloud prepared to launch an attack with one of his magic stones. "Do you have any ice attacks?"
"No," Cloud answered quickly.
"Then use fire. Lightning won't even faze it."
The red creature howled as the monster approached their direction. Suddenly the floor around the creature erupted in a large burst of flame, one larger and more intense than Cloud could have produced with his magic stones.
Berett fired another volley of laser blasts into the monster, but to no effect as it approached Cloud and the red creature. It waved one of its front legs forwards, knocking Cloud clear across the room to the other wall, while the red creature charged underneath and dug its claws into the monster's tail.
Cloud shook his head to clear up as Berett tried firing some shots into the monster's head, and as the red creature began climbing up onto the back of the monster. The monster, not feeling the furry thing climbing its back, approached Cloud and Berett's direction.
Approaching within striking distance, the monster roared again, filling the area with its putrid odor. Cloud and Berett ran underneath for fresher air, Cloud on the left and Berett on the right. Cloud noticed the red creature clawing its way to the monster's neck as the monster turned around.
"What are you doing?" Cloud shouted to the red creature as it sank its claws into the monster's head. Strangely, the armored beast still did not notice.
"Just buy me some time!" The creature shouted back as it began trying to dig into the monster's head. Cloud looked at Berett and Berett nodded. He charged up his laser to maximum power and then fired it at the monster's body, which left a visible burn mark. Cloud followed it by unleashing a small burst of fire from one of his gems into the same spot. The monster hissed and roared, then the red creature on it sank its teeth into the creature's head and ripped off a portion of its scales, quickly tossing it aside as their taste must have been worse than the monster's breath. Then the red creature began clawing at the exposed area.
The monster screamed for what it could as Berett hit it with another charged burst from his laser, and Cloud unleashed another fire attack from his gem, again aimed at the creature's chest. The monster tried swiping at the red creature digging into its skull, but soon it was too late: suddenly the monster blacked out and fell to the ground, twitching slightly. The red creature dealt a fiery finishing blow to the monster's head wound, and jumped off, landing on all fours like a cat and letting out a vigorous howl.
"What... are you?" Cloud asked the red creature as both he and Berett gave it a good look.
"An easy question," the creature responded. "But there's more to the answer. For starters, am I not what I look like?" It began cleaning its paws. It was shaped like a lion, its deep red color giving way to a spine of orange-and-yellow fur, and a long tail tufted with orange and yellow fur in such a way to make one think that the tip of its tail was an actual fireball. The creature was decorated with some clips in its mane, and an anklet around each of its four legs, each anklet having a compartment for magic stones, and there were two magic stones currently stored in the creature's front anklets. It looked at them through its left eye only; a closed eyelid and scar indicated all that remained of its other eye. A number was tattooed on its flank, reading, in numerals, XIII.
"Kojo just calls me specimen 13-R," the creature volunteered. "Such a title means nothing. You may call me whatever you wish."
Cloud thought about it for a moment. What would be a fitting name for a talking lion-creature? Soon he had an answer. "Do you mind if we call you Spike?"
"Not at all. 'Spike' it is, then," the creature nodded. "It has a nice sound to it. Don't you agree?"
"Some personality you have. Whatever. We must get out of here before someone finds us."
"Took th' words right outta my mouth..." Berett said. "Let's take the elevator!"
Cloud and Berett led the way, followed closely behind by 'Spike' as they located and made their way to one of the glass elevators. Cloud inserted their keycard into the elevator's control panel then hit the button next to the number "61". And they felt the elevator begin descending.
After a few floors, the elevator stopped and its door slid open. An orange pony in a black suit, with shaved brown hair and dark sunglasses, was waiting for them. "Excuse me, could you make room?"
Cloud and Berett tried to pretend they were invisible as the man entered the elevator, slid his keycard through the elevator's card slot, then punched the number '69' from the list that appeared.
"...Snowslide, wasn't it?" the pony asked.
"You're one of the Lurks, aren't you?" Cloud countered. He could sense a trap.
The pony nodded. "You are full of surprises. We thought you had been crushed along with the rest of Seventh District. Especially since Vegas beat you so easily."
Berett steamed. "He only got th' jump on us, nothin' more!"
"I hope so," the pony mused. "He was hoping for more of a fight than what you guys gave him. I only hope you'll do better the next time you see him.
"Much better...," the pony said as the elevator arrived at its top floor.
A minute later, on the very top floor of the Rin Sha HQ, the 70th level, two Lurks entered from two red-carpeted staircases leading down. Behind them followed Cloud, Lockheart, Berett, and their new friend Spike, all four of them cuffed and leashed to prevent escape.
"Well done, Tsing," came a voice behind the largest and only desk on this floor, from a pony in a red suit.
"Mr. President...," Cloud muttered.
"Well, well. What do we have here? The three remaining members of Snowslide, and...," The president paused when he looked at Spike. "...And some creature escaped from the labs. So, tell me, how did you escape the Seventh District?"
"Ain't none of yer business, old man!" Berett shouted back.
"And you not only survived, but you found a means to infiltrate this building. You interfered with Kojo's research, and that resulted in the death of a prototype specimen. You even rescued that unicorn in the process."
"What have you done with Aeris?" Lockheart demanded.
"Don't worry, she's in a safe place," the president said back. "You see, she's one of the Ancient Ponies--"
"We already know that!" Berett yelled.
"Did you say the Ancient Ponies? That unicorn was one of them?" Spike asked, interested.
"Yes, and maybe you've heard. We have high expectations for that unicorn. You see, the ancient ponies knew of a place teeming with nature's bounty. A land so fertile, so perfect... think of the possibilities...."
"Yer out of your damn mind!" Berett objected. "All you'd do with it is plop down more Refractors and drain it dry! You'd kill that land jus' like yer killin' this one!"
"I grow tired of your prattle," the president yawned. "That promised Land would be an ideal place Once we find where that Land is, we can begin construction of the ideal city."
"Like hell ya would! You don' care nothin' for the ponies livin' under your feet! All you's interested in is the silver!"
"Isn't that everyone's dream? All you need for it is power, and silver. Wouldn't you agree?"
"Why you son of a--"
"Take them away," the president waved to the two Lurks, who began tugging on the leashes to haul Cloud and his group away.
"Hey!! I wasn't finished with ya!" Berett yelled, resisting. While Cloud and Lockheart follwed silently, as well as Spike, Tsing practically had to drag Berett away from the president.
SLAM! went the door to one of the prison cells after Cloud and Lockheart were thrown in. Looking out, Cloud could see Berett and Spike lying down in a cell opposite them.
"Well, what do we do now? Think we can get out of here?" Lockheart asked.
Cloud kicked the door a few times, but to no avail. "I don't know. I don't know...."
"Cloud?" Came a familiar voice from across the hall, in a cell adjacent to Berett and Spike's. Aeris appeared through the window of that door. "Cloud, you're okay!"
"Yeah," Cloud voiced back through the cell door. "But it looks like we're in a bit of a jam."
"That's okay. The date can wait until later." Aeris laughed.
"Oh, I get it," Lockheart mused. "You save Aeris once, and in return you wanted a date with her?"
"No, that's not --" Cloud tried rebutting.
"Lockheart!? You're in there too?"
"Yeah. But we're doing fine. ...at least for now."
"Hey, don't forget about me!" Berett yelled from his cell. "I'm here too ya know! Hey Aeris, what's this deal about some promised Land them Rin Sha are after?"
Aeris paused. "It's a long story. And the Rin Sha will never find it, either...."
"Yeah!" Berett piped back. "Because WE're gonna be the ones to bust 'em up! You hear that Mr. President? We've got yer number!!"
Berett's words echoed throughout the prison hall.
"Will you keep it down|?" A guard at the end of the hall asked. "It's 4:00 and I'm trying to get some shut-eye here."
"Suit yerself," Berett yelled back. He then turned to Spike next to him. "Hey, Spike, you've heard of that promised Land thing, right? What do you know about it?"
Spike didn't respond. He was spending his time trying to get some sleep, and only mumbled something about a grandpa.
"Yer no fun," Berett retorted.
"Well, I don't know how much this helps, but...," Aeris began. "All I really know is that the Ancient Ponies were born in this Land. They would speak to it, and unlock its powers. And when the time came, they would leave for a land of paradise. At least that's what Mom always told me... my real Mom, that is...."
"Speak with the Land?" Berett laughed. "What does it say?"
Aeris shook her head. "It's not something you can put in words. Besides, you really can't hear it from inside the City. The Fifth District Church was really the only place I could hear anything. Everywhere else, it's muffled by this... great cloud...."
"Yes?" Cloud asked, not entirely listening to the conversation.
"No," Aeris laughed. "Not you."
"So, what do we do then?" Berett asked. "L'il Spike here's already asleep."
"I think I'll join him," Cloud said.
"Y-yeah...," Lockheart yawned. "It's been quite a day. Let's get some sleep."