© 2004 Stratadrake/Draconus of TWZ
(First draft: 3-11-2004)
The sky was getting darker by the minute when they arrived at the front gate of Paradise Ranch. Ahead of them, a large fence about six feet high circled around and enclosed a field of about one hundred feet square, and in that field could be seen a gigantic yellow-feathered bird sitting on two large, claw-bearing legs, and bearing a pair of wings too small to fly with; it was a chocobo, apparently left out for the night, and it was sleeping.
"So that is what they call a chocobo...," Spike mused as they made their way around the fenced green. "They look delicious."
"Spike!!" Lockheart chided.
"--But they're a little too big," Spike compensated, eyeing Lockheart with a smile. Soon they arrived at the front door of a large building, most likely a house, and Berett knocked on the door.
The giant bird in the pasture stirred in their direction as the door opened and a beige-looking pony with striped orange hair, dressed in blue denim came out. "Hello there, what can I do for ya?"
"We're travellers," Lockheart introduced. "We were on our way to Juno in the south, but --"
"But ya can't get past the Swamp without that darn Serpent attackin', right?"
"--Yes," Lockheart nodded. "We... sorta brushed into that thing. We're wondering what you know about it."
"Yeah, I figured as much. You guys look a little burned. Well, come on in then."
The pony stepped aside and gestured for them to come on in, and they did, entering into a room with wooden walls, a table in the center, and a glowing fireplace in one corner providing warm light for the room. The resident pony sat down near the table. "Call me Texx. Father always said it was about twenty years ago when the Serpent showed up, but nobody's really sure where it came from. Back then it was a little smaller, and didn't offer up much trouble to ponies wading through. But over the years the thing grew like a weed and garnered a nasty temper to boot, and that's not even mentioning its flame-breath. Nowadays you can't even set foot in that swamp without the creature hearin' ya and come trying to make a meal out of ya."
"Isn't there any way to get around it?" Cloud asked.
"There's not much use going around the swamp; save for the Mythril Passage, solid cliffs rise up for a hundred feet along its borders. It'd be half a day's travel just finding a trail to go around. And another day's travel, even two, to get up over them mountains to Juno territory."
"But there is another way around it...." Spike said, implying something.
"Yes indeed there is. You saw ol' Nikki out front there, didn't ya?"
"Who's Nikki?" Cloud asked.
"She's the chocobo you saw out front. Never liked sleeping indoors like the others. She's a smart fellow, and faster than a pegasi in freefall. She could get ya across the swamp in a wink. But . . . ."
Everyone looked at Texx as he frowned. "First off, chocobos aren't nocturnal, so she doesn't go out riding after sundown. Second, only one of ya could ride her at a time, so even then you'd have to take turns. And third . . . ," Texx looked at Spike. "Your furry friend there wouldn't be able to ride her anyway."
Spike nodded silently, hardly surprised of the fact.
"Excuse me, did ya just say RIDE that chocobo?" Berett asked, surprised.
"Course. Didn't ya know? Chocobo Estate's the only place in this Land where you can ride chocobos. You telling me, you ain't never heard of chocobo ridin'?"
Everyone shook their heads no, and Texx laughed. "You must be City folk then -- and Lower Class, at that. No matter. Far to the west, just across the waters there's this fancy place called the Golden Saucer. And they invented the sport of chocobo racin'."
"Never heard of it," Berett said.
"Don't ya guys ever watch the telly?"
"No way!" Berett snorted. "Damn Rin Sha control their own broadcasts. Can't trust nothin' they say -- most of it's just made up."
Texx nodded. "Yeah, I don't care for the news either. But according to legend, some two years ago the previous owner of the Golden Saucer made a wager. Nobody remembers the details, but he lost the bet, and in doing so had to go rope himself a wild chocobo and ride in on it. He and a few friends got scraped a few, but they say three days later, who should come back but the owner, riding on a wild chocobo he caught himself.
"You see, up until then, everybody thought chocobo ridin' was impossible. The birds were too big, elusive, and if ya got them mad, their claws are sharp as razors and their beaks strong enough to run right through ya. But that day was when they realized that them birds weren't the monsters everyone thought they were, that they could be tamed. And not long after, the Rin Sha thought they could make some money off it -- so they proposed the idea of putting them to races while people bet on the winners. And now, the Golden Saucer's premiere attraction is none other than their Chocobo Races."
"Fascinating story," Spike commented.
"But what about that snake?" Berett asked, trying to return focus to their original question.
"Don't worry, that Serpent ain't going nowhere. In case ya didn't notice, it's a water serpent; it can't travel real well on land, so it never leaves the swamp. Besides, you fellas look like you could use a place to stay tonight. Am I right?"
Cloud and Lockheart nodded in response.
"I thought so. Ten gold and ya'all can have the guest room to yourselves; there's plenty of beds. Sorry to spring something like this up on ya, but it's part of business."
Lockheart paid Texx ten gold from her pocket, and they proceeded to stay the night. They could figure out what to do next in he morning.
Next morning, after Texx fixed them some breakfast, they took a walk outside to take another look at the swamp and consider what to do next. Texx accompanied them as well, dressed for a warm day in high shoes and a leather hat, and riding on the chocobo he called Nikki. He led them to the edge of the swamp and took a look around.
"So where's the snake?" Cloud asked.
Texx shook his head. "The Serpent always waits for someone to make splashes in the water before approaching. When it does, you can easily tell where it is, just watch for its ripples."
Texx looked south across the swamp's murky water. "I'll scout out where the Serpent's hiding. Even with a fast bird like Nikki you could still run head-on into the Serpent if you don't know where it is. You stay put; I'll be back in a few . . . ."
Texx pulled on the reins to the chocobo and shouted "Hyah!" Responding obediently yet eagerly, the chocobo hopped a few steps into the swamp water, then began wading quickly through it. The bird picked up speed quickly and impressively as it began striding through the water. Soon it broke out into a running-like gait, splashing one foot after the other through the swamp, as it carried Texx southwards across the swamp, leaving a trail of splashes and ripples in its wake. While the rest of them waited, Texx rode to the southern edge of the swamp, barely visible from their position, stopped for a minute or two, then proceeded to return just as quickly as he had left. He slowed down and halted his chocobo at a distance of about fifteen feet, his chocobo still standing in the water. "I ... uh, I found the Serpent, all right," Texx said solemnly.
"What's wrong?" Spike asked.
Texx shook his head. "You're not gonna believe this -- it's dead!"
Everyone looked at each other in confusion. Cloud looked back at Texx. "What do you mean, it's dead?"
Texx produced a thin white object almost as large as Cloud's sword and tossed it their direction. It was one of the Serpent's fangs, broken at the root and stained slightly in blood. "I found that lying on the other side right next to the Serpent. Dun know who did it, but ... it's dead all right. Come on, I'll show ya!"
Cloud and everyong stood there, looking at the broken fang lying on the ground, and unsure what was up. Then Spike took a few steps forward, into the water, and looked back. "I believe him," Spike said. "We should all investigate this."
Cloud followed Spike as well. "That's good enough for me. Lockheart, Aeris, Berett, are you coming?"
Berett shrugged, while Aeris followed Cloud. Lockheart looked at Berett. "If they're going, I'm going!" And Lockheart ran towards the others as well. As Texx began leading them through the shallower spots of the swamp, Berett stayed behind examining the broken fang, unable to determine whether this was some sort of bad farm joke or something. He didn't care much of what Cloud or Spike thought, but on the other hand, he came to realize that if the snake were to attack him, he wouldn't stand much of a chance against it alone. So, a bit reluctantly, Berett began chasing after them as fast as the swamp mire would allow.
It took about three minutes to cross the waters of the swamp, and they saw nothing. No ripples or waves except their own, and definitely no giant snake either. But they did smell something, something repulsive. It seemed to grow in strength, whatever it was, as they proceeded onwards. Then, as they disembarked on the swamp's southern edge, they saw the giant Serpent. Texx halted right on the edge of the swamp and pointed to the left. About twenty feet away, there was none other than the Serpent of the swamp. Dead. Many burn-marks, slashes, and other injuries decorated its dismembered, black-scaled hide, its detached head displaying prominently on top of a thin vertical spire of rock upon which it was impaled, with its broken and chipped fangs scattered across the area. Small trickles of snake-blood filled the air with a putrid odor, though by now the corpse was bleeding no more, and several of the smaller trails and spatters of blood had long dried up.
Cloud looked upwards at its detached and defanged face, at its vacant green eyes; at its sharply-edged scales plating its head, brow, and spine; at its tongue hanging from its open maw; and at the various wounds and injuries decorating its head. Looking at the snake's corpse, Cloud felt an unnerving suspicion of who had slain it.
"He did this. Sephiroth did this . . . ."
"Sephiroth, you say?" Texx asked, turning his eyes awy from the deceased reptile for but a moment. "Couldn't be. Sephie died many years ago."
Cloud shook his head. "No . . . he didn't."
"Yeah, right," Texx objected. "Had to be someone else, probably a group."
"Is there anyone else with such a power to slay this large Serpent?" Spike asked.
"It was him," Cloud insisted. "You know the stories. He slew a Midnight dragon in two blows. He could have skinned this snake blindfolded."
Texx shuddered for a moment. "Whatever. I mean, it makes sense a top-rate Stallion like Sephie could take down this snake in a heartbeat . . . but face it, he's dead. Ain't coming back."
But yes he is, Cloud thought to himself. "We've got to go. Thanks for your help."
"Going . . . where?" Texx inquired.
"Whatever you say," Texx mocked softly. "Just watch yourselves. I sure wouldn't want to meet whatever did this Serpent in.... Have a safe journey."
Texx turned around and rode back northwards across the swamp. Cloud and everyone else continued for a minute to stare at the slain reptile, horrified not just by the sight and smell of it, but at the fact that Sephiroth or someone could have done it by themselves. Spike was the first one to begin walking south. "Let's go."
"Not yet you won't," announced a semi-familiar voice from somewhere. Everyone looked around bewilderedly trying to locate the source, as three ponies, each in a black suit, appeared overhead, on a rock ledge right next to the Serpent's detached head.
"What are you Lurks doing here?" Cloud demanded, spotting them.
"I'll tell you," one of the Lurks, an unfamiliar mare with yellow hair said, stepping forward from the others. "We heard Sephiroth was here last night and terminated Kojo's Midnight Serpent. The shame; first the President, now this. We're guessing Sephiroth's headed for Juno. We didn't expect to be finding you here as well . . . ."
"Quiet," reprimanded one of the other Lurks as he pushed the mare back. Cloud recognized him as Tsing. "Pay no attention to Sienna here. She's our new recruit, and doesn't fully comprehend the meaning of the phrase, classified information." Tsing turned to Cloud and the others. "We came here to investigate this Serpent, and our job here is now finished. You don't need to know any more."
"Roger that, Tsing!" The mare, Sienna, responded. "We'll resume looking for von Borneo, right?"
Tsing sighed. "Not another word. We're leaving. Have them fire up the helicopter."
Sienna nodded, and was the first to walk out of sight, presumably towards a waiting helicopter for them. Tsing followed shortly, leaving the other, a brown pony with shaved hair that they had seen only once before. This Lurk simply looked them over, then nodded. "I hope you'll put up a decent fight the next time you see Vegas," was all he said before he, too, walked off.
After they were gone, Berett impetuously led the way southwards into the tunnel known as the Mythril passage. Cloud and Lockheart followed second, Aeris next, and Spike in the rear. Soon they were under the mountains in the long but not dark series of tunnels. A very long time ago, ponies say, the Passage was famous as the prime source of mythril ore. Lightweight, yet sturdy and easy to modify, mythril ore was excellent source material for weapons and armor. Too bad, then, that the Passage ran dry ten years ago. All the mythril mined and put to use in both its pure form and in alloys, the mining equipment long removed and tracks taken out, the only distinction left for the Mythril Passage was it being the easiest route through the mountains into and out of Juno territory, as well as the few creatures that might still live therein. Berett led the group through its gem- and crystal- illuminated tunnels, past intersection after intersection, as they headed in the general southern direction. Silence echoed off of the gem-lined walls, transmitting their footsteps around the tunnels and occasionally back at them. At a few points they encountered a dead-end, having to turn around and take another way. Berett, frustrated at the maze-like structure of these tunnels, relinquished the lead to Cloud, who accepted it and led them more to the south. Upwards and downwards, right and left, past bend and intersection they travelled, starting to regret not having asked just how long the Passage was. Maybe the end was just around the next corner. Maybe they wouldn't arrive for another hour. Or perhaps another day. Hopefully not much longer than that.
Boredom grew as Cloud continued leading them in the southern direction. Was there anything else to this forsaken Passage than mere tunnels? Were they travelling in circles? Where was the end? Then, hearing echoes from ahead of them, they entered into a large subterranean open space, presumably a work station for the miners of ages past. Remains of some wooden structure lay next to a deep chasm, and various other year-old debris and metal scrap formed a railing around its side. This would be an excellent place to take a rest and catch their breath before continuing onwards to Juno territory.