© 2004 Stratadrake/Draconus of TWZ
(First draft: 3-07-2004)
Cloud spent the entire night looking out the window from the second floor of Serenity's inn, thinking, reviewing, and evaluating his memories of what happened five years ago at Nobleheim. He challenged Sephiroth . . . and lived? A rookie Stallion versus the greatest legend of all time, and yet Cloud was the one to walk away? No way. No way in hell. He couldn't have won. It didn't make any sense. Something was missing . . . .
Cloud gazed upwards at the starry sky. When was the last time he had seen real stars? It must have been five years ago, back during his visit to Nobleheim. No wait, he had never really looked for stars during that catastrophe. Maybe it was farther back . . . .
"When summer comes, I'm taking off for the Midnight City! ...I'm going to join Stallion!"
Huh? Where did that come from?
"Cloud, promise me this. If you do really well, and I'm ever in trouble... you'll come rescue me, right?
Oh, that's right. That promise. Lockheart was right. Five years ago. She had tried to attack Sephiroth, and for it she was nearly killed. No doubt she would have died if Cloud hadn't showed up and helped ease her wounds. Sure, she was in trouble, and Cloud had come to save her; but Cloud didn't feel like a hero. What was he thinking? He was there to kill Sephiroth. Not to save Lockheart, but to kill Sephiroth. Lockheart was simply there.
Something caught his eye from across the plaza of Serenity. Cloud looked down below across the sleeping village and spotted a pony in a black suit. Cloud wouldn't have spotted it if it hadn't moved across a lit window for one of Serenity's stores. Cloud sensed something familiar in the way it strode, ever so calmly, through the town.
Reacting almost instinctively, Cloud jumped out the window and glided down to the plaza, landing without a scratch. Quickly but quietly he approached the figure. Cloud couldn't identify it, but something about its black robe seemed familiar. For a moment, it glanced back at Cloud, a set of dim green eyes shining through what must have been a hood. But it said nothing. It began turning away, and Cloud caught sight of what looked like silver-colored hair and tail underneath its robe. Could it be? Cloud stood there, alarmed, as the dark pony left through the eastern exit of the plaza and faded into the dark wilderness beyond.
"Sephiroth . . . was here?"
"What was that, Cloud?"Cloud blinked a few times and sat up. There he was, lying on one of the beds in Serenity's Inn. Lockheart, Berett, and Spike were still asleep, and Aeris was standing near the window, looking back at him.
Cloud shook his head and looked around again. Did he fall asleep? Was the whole thing just a dream? Cloud sure didn't remember falling asleep last night. But yet there he was, waking up on one of the beds.
"You're up early . . . ," Cloud greeted, yawning.
Aeris nodded. "It's nothing. Mom and I used to get up early to mind the flowers in her garden." Aeris walked to the window, where a sliver of sun could be seen shining brightly over a hill to the southeast. "Besides, mornings are great. That's when you can hear the Land speak . . . ."
"Huh?" Cloud puzzled. What exactly did Aeris just say to him?
Aeris chuckled. "Right at sunrise, before the cities wake up for the day . . . that's when I can hear it."
"What . . . does this Land sound like?"
Aeris shrugged. "It doesn't speak in words. More like in thoughts. And feelings. It's sad. It's hurt. Injured, and it cannot heal. ...Midnight City was just one of its many wounds. But there are others."
"What kind of other . . . wounds?" Cloud asked.
"I don't know," Aeris laughed. "Some are to the east and west. Some to the north. Others, including Midnight City, to the south."
Aeris turned away from the window and walked over to Cloud. Nearby, Lockheart was stirring. "So what was it? You mentioned Sephiroth."
Cloud shook his head. "I... I don't know. I could've sworn I saw him last night. But he didn't say anything, he didn't do anything; he just left . . . to the east. Might've been a dream, I don't know. But I have a feeling, as if something bad is going to happen -- in the east."
Aeris nodded as Lockheart gradually awoke, yawned, and asked what they were going to do for the day. All this conversation soon roused Spike out of slumber as well, and Spike yawned widely, showing off his sharp teeth in the process.
Aeris walked over to the stairs. "So, now that we're up, who would like some breakfast?"
"What about Berett?" Lockheart asked.
"Some'un call me?" Berett asked, as he rolled over. "How can a fella get any sleep 'round here with you guys yakking like that?"
"Well," Aeris said. "Considering that you're awake now, we were about to leave for some breakfast at Serenity's café."
"And some information," Cloud added.
Five minutes later, Aeris was leading their way through Serenity's plaza to a building whose bright sign clearly read "Café Serène". Along the way, something caught Cloud's eye: a wooden mockup of a blade hanging from the sign of a nearby building. Cloud mused at the simplicity of its construction. "Even my blade looks better than --"
And then Cloud remembered he had spent the last three days fighting without a weapon. Where was that blade of his? That's right: it was lost somewhere in Midnight City's Sixth District sewers during their fight with a resident giant lizard therein. "Excuse me," Cloud called to Aeris and everyone else. Cloud motioned to the shop. "I'll be in here for awhile, I'll catch up later."
Cloud pushed open the door to the nearby building as everyone else followed Aeris in the direction of the Café Serène. Inside, Cloud's attention immediately focused on the shop's display of its wares, a thick glass case with three shelves and an impressive array of warfare implements inside. There were standard weapons like laser rifles and power cells, crossbows and arrows, some lances, exotic weapons like reinforced claws and shuriken, a variety of magic gems, anything and perhaps everything a warrior could need. Cloud looked with particular interest at their variety of combat blades.
"So what do you call a warrior with an empty sheath?" One of the shopkeepers asked to Cloud. Cloud snapped to attention and looked back at the shopkeeper. "I'm here for a weapon," Cloud responded.
"Is there anything in particular I can help you find?"
Cloud pointed to one of the blades in the display, a blueish, double-edged blade with various heiroglyphics inscribed into the blade. "What's that one?"
"You've got a good eye," the shopkeeper answered. "Light and magically balanced, a sharp edge that rarely needs maintenance, three option slots, and they say it empowers the magic gems you put into it. Expensive though, priced at 150 gold."
Cloud winced at the price of the most expensive weapon he had yet to hear of. Shaking his head no, Cloud looked at a few others in the case. There was a straightforward, albeit plain-looking double-edged blade of a dark gray color with two compartments for magic gems, each compartment lined with a reflective, almost crystal-like coating. There was also a wide, gray-metal blade terminating in a squarish end, with only one cutting edge, but three compartments for magic gems, two of which were lined with a similar reflective coating as the other blade. "How much is that one?"
The shopkeeper looked at the squarish blade, identified it by name, then stated the price. "50 gold. It's rather powerful for its cost, but a little heavier and slower than most --"
"-- I'll take it," Cloud answered, thinking of how similar that blade looked to his own.
"Then it'll be 50 gold, up front," the shopkeeper answered.
Right. Cloud searched through his pack for the necessary change. There was his pay of 30 gold from Berett, a number of silvers adding up to 5 gold, and a small pouch he had long since pilfered from a Rin Sha guard, which he discovered to contain about 20 gold. Cloud presented the exact change on the counter, and the shopkeeper accepted it. Then the shopkeeper unlocked and opened the case from behind, withdrew the blade from it, picked up the blade's sheath from underneath that, then shut and locked the case. He put the blade firmly in its sheath and then handed it over to Cloud. Cloud nodded in thanks to the shopkeeper and unstrapped his current sheath from his back, then put strapped in the new one. A new weapon found, Cloud then left the shop and proceeded towards the café.
When Cloud entered the café, he immediately spotted Berett, Lockheart, Aeris and Spike sitting down at a table in the corner. Everyone save for Spike had ordered a meal (as Spike's preference of fresh meat wasn't on the menu), and Lockheart had even ordered one for Cloud. Across the room, past tables, counter, and many other patron ponies was a large television set broadcasting the Rin Sha news, currently discussing their "continuing" top story: Snowslide's break-in at the Rin Sha HQ. Cloud's attention snapped to the newscast as he sat down next to Lockheart and Aeris.
"...The rebels were too prepared for us," stated a red-uniformed Rin Sha officer on television, giving an interview for the newscast. "It's still hard to believe they shot down two of our attack choppers, and broke through our blockade."
"Thank you," the reporter on the television responded. "Sources close to the President's son say that he is not holding our military responsible for Snowslide's escape. The rebels had already caused a lot of damage -- as the following footage shows. We return, for a moment, to the top floors of the Rin Sha HQ, which they say is still off-limits to all but the most vital personnel." Then the newscast began showing camera footage of the top floors, the large claw-marks on the walls, the broken doors, and the blood-stained path that led upwards from the research labs to the President's office.
Berett fumed silently. "Damn liars, like always. They couldn't tell the truth even if it hit them like a bolt of lite'nin'!"
Indeed, Cloud thought. There was no mention of Sephiroth, or the fact that the Masamune was found next to the slain President.
"Sources say that acting president Rufio will, and we quote, 'overlook the treachery of Snowslide thus far. But, wherever they are, if they cross us again... they will be dealt with, quickly and permanently."
Cloud nodded. "That message is intended for us."
"In related news," the reporter added, "Rufio has announced that his father's burial ceremony will occur sometime this week in the city of Juno, where his father was born. Rufio will also hold his new inauguration ceremony in Juno as he prepares to take up the reins his father once held."
"Juno, eh?" Berett muttered. One of the cafe's waitresses came over, wearing a large tray with several plates and varied breakfasts on them. One by one, she sat each one down on the table. When she was done, Cloud asked her a question. "How do we get to Juno?"
"Oh, you want to see the new President's inauguration, don't you?" The waitress answered. "But it's far to the south on the other side of Rainbow Gulf. You could make it in a day, that is, if you don't mind swimming across the Gulf to get there. Or you could head to the east. A small farm caled Paradise Ranch is out there, right next to the Serpent's Swamp and the Mythril Passage. The passage leads through the mountains and emerges on the other side. Then it's just a few hops south and a jump west, and you're in Juno. It's impossible to miss -- you can see the Marie Sue can from miles away!"
"The what?" Cloud asked. Boy, could that pony talk! Cloud's head was swimming in all the words -- not that Cloud cared much for swimming; all he could remember hearing were the words "swim" in conjunction with "south", and the word "east". East it would have to be.
"Isn't there an' easier way?" Berett asked. "We gotta pay our respects to the new prez...."
Lockheart tried, almost unsuccessfully, to keep from laughing aloud at Berett's remark.
"Well, you could always try climbing over the mountains themselves. But there are very few trails going up and over them, and it's dangerous besides. And not just because of the predatory monsters that live up in those heights. They say the trails themselves are narrow and fragile, and with steep chasms between the mountains, one slip and you'd be history. You'd be better off heading east."
Berett steamed silently. "Thanks," Cloud said, and the waitress walked back to the kitchen.
Cloud looked at Berett. "We'll go east. Besides...," Cloud quieted his voice to almost a whisper. "I think Sephiroth's headed that way."
"Wha?" Berett asked loudly, then realizing that they probably shouldn't go mentioning a name like Sephiroth very loud. "...what makes ya think that?"
"I don't know," Cloud answered. "I think I saw him last night, and he was headed to the east. We've got to follow him."
"After we finish breakfast," Aeris insisted. Lockheart agreed, and for the next few minutes all of them attended to their breakfasts (save for Spike, who said he could find something to eat on the way) so they would be ready to head out.
At about noon, Cloud, Berett, Lockheart, Aeris, and Spike regrouped around Serenity's plaza. Aeris left to gather some last-minute supplies for their trip (including a few magic gems), and afterwards they headed east. Neither road nor trail directed the path eastward, so they followed their afternoon shadows across green meadows and light brush to the east of Serenity, past the bleak landscape surrounding Serenity's local Refractor, and keeping the impassable mountains to their south side. Spike had little trouble hunting down meals from the local wildlife, and he brushed off the strange, horrified looks that Aeris and Lockheart gave him when he sat down to eat. Even including these and other rest stops, they had travelled a significant distance when evening arrived, perhaps one hundred miles or so. Seeing an ocean in the northeastern direction, they travelled south from here. Lights from the west indicated a settlement, probably the place called Paradise Ranch. And, therefore, to the south must be the Mythril Passage through the mountains.
And the Serpent's Swamp. Splash went Cloud's foot into the first step of swamp mire. He looked southwards. Light from the waning sun, the dimming sky, and the rising moon reflected clearly off of the swamp's water, and the darkest patches indicated plants or other high ground that they could walk on. Carefully, Cloud volunteered to lead the way, taking careful steps through the almost waist-deep water. Thankfully, though the swamp's water was muddy and murky, it was neither very deep, nor was the mud underneath soft enough to sink in. The going would be a little slow, but steady.
Cloud had proceed only a distance of about ten feet into the swamp when Spike called after him. "Cloud! We are not safe here!"
Cloud looked back to Spike and the others. "What, are you worried about a little swamp water?" Indeed, Spike was eyeing the swamp water with caution, almost fear.
Cloud turned around to head forwards again, then suddenly it happened. A wave of water splashed out of nowhere, knocking Cloud down. Cloud almost disappeared below the surface as he quickly regained his footing and instinctively drew his weapon. Shaking the water out of his eyes, Cloud looked around quickly and spotted a large black shape in front of him, emerging out of the water. Slowly the creature coiled up, dusk light reflecting off its water-dripping scales as it rose its head far above Cloud. It filled the air with a large hiss, brandishing a set of very large teeth, each fang itself about the same size as Cloud's blade, and two large eyes glinted blackly in the moonlight in Cloud's direction.
Cloud stood there almost paralyzed in fear. This wasn't any sort of fear, either. Cloud had been a Stallion; fighting opponents and slaying monsters was all in a day's work. But there was something menacing about the large snake-like creature in front of him; something recalling that night five years ago when a giant black dragon attacked his group on their way to Nobleheim. That same dragon that Sephiroth fearlessly engaged and slew in two strokes. Cloud took a step backwards through the water, looking up at what his imagination rendered like that giant black dragon, only this time with no Sephiroth around to slay it.
Then Cloud could hear Berett shouting something. Light... ning? Suddenly Cloud remembered his Stallion training1 and ducked underneath the water just before a bolt of lightning unleashed itself from Berett's dirction, arcing just above the water and hitting the snake-like creature in its neck, stunning it for just a moment. Cloud reappeared from the water as the creature turned its attention in their direction again, then quickly galloped back out of the water as the snake lunged his direction, fangs first. It missed Cloud by only the length of his tail as Cloud regrouped with the others on solid ground, then it began slithering forwards.
Cloud couldn't think of anything except for that giant black dragon five years ago. Spike eyed the creature carefully, then began concentrating for a second, before unleashing a sizable ball of fire in the direction of the giant snake. The creature slithered to the side, evading it, as Berett unsheathed his laser cannon and fired a few shots for cover fire.
Aeris tossed a gem from her collection towards Cloud, and though Cloud failed to catch it, he picked it up off of the ground as quickly as he could and secured it in one of the compartments of his weapon. Cloud thought about the gem, mentally analyzing it. But that's strange, it didn't seem like it could do anything. A quick glance, and Cloud noticed a slight reflection of yellow. Damn! The rare yellow gems he could remember once being told about, the ones that couldn't be used until properly conditioned. And exactly how to condition them, Cloud forgot.
The giant snake-creature began to glow, first from its eyes, then spreading across its entire length. Spike ordered everyone to evacuate, and they did. Berett to one side, Aeris and Lockheart to the other; Cloud and Spike straight backwards. In another moment the snake-lizard exhaled a ball of a brightly glowing substance, a gel, perhaps. As soon as the glob struck the ground, it exploded in an extremely powerful wave of flame, one that must have been at least thirty feet in diameter. Aeris helped Lockheart escape harm, and Berett was singed somewhat by it. Spike took the highest impact from the attack, yet his thick red fur protected him somewhat; and in doing so, it helped protect Cloud behind him. Even so, the force of impact from the fiery explosion still knocked Cloud and Berett off their feet and a fair distance backwards. Spike retaliated by unleashing a flame attack from one of the gems in his posession, which seemed to injure the giant reptile somewhat. It filled the air with a loud hiss, then dove under the swampwater. A wake of rippling water led off in a distant direction as it disappeared underneath the surface of the swamp.
"Can everyone move?" Spike was the first one to ask.
Berett groaned as he carefully stood back up onto his feet; as Aeris and Lockheart walked over, scared but unhurt; and as Cloud, a bit singed and his hair steaming, carefully got up himself.
"What... the hell was that?" Berett asked belatedly.
"Clearly that is why they call it the Serpent's Swamp," Spike chuckled.
"Ya think that's funny!?" Verett exclaimed. "I ain't never seen' nothing bigger than that lizard! What was it?"
Cloud tried to think about the snake, but doing so only rehashed his memories of the giant black dragon from five years ago and Sephiroth slaying it. "Black... dragon . . . ."
"Ya need to get yer eyes checked or somethin'?" Berett yelled back. "That ain't no dragon! More like a snake if ya ask me!"
Cloud shook his head. "No... that's not it. There was something... about that snake. I don't know what . . . ."
"You mean, besides the napalm it hit us with," Spike nodded. "I agree. No normal predator has magical skills like that snake's napalm. It is something... different."
"Well, what do we do now?" Berett asked. "It's kinda blocking our way south, ya know . . . ."
"Isn't there supposed to be a ranch nearby?" Lockheart asked. "They've got to know something about that monster. Maybe a way we can sneak by it."
Cloud looked to the northwest, spotting lights some distance away.
"Sounds good to me," Berett said. "C'mon slowpokes! Let's go over there and get us some info!"
Berett led the way northwards towards the place called Paradise Ranch; a long-standing farm as well as a reputable place for raising the giant yellow birds called Chocobos, so well-known in fact that it was often referred to as the Chocobo Estates. Indeed, they would find a place to spend the night, as well as locals who knew the swamp -- and its fearsome resident -- very well.
1 - In Stallion, it is common practice that when teaching a pony how to use magic gems in battle, to have the pony shout out the name of a magical attack immediately prior to unleashing it. Though not required, it teaches them how to focus on unleashing a spell, and it also serves as advance warning that a spell is being launched -- so that allies can clear its line of fire. (back)