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22 September 2011 @ 12:44 am
Chapter 7 version 1 and version 2  
Yet another disgarded chapter:

Title: Journey Chapter 7 v. 1
Pages: 7



Journey




//

They approached the rope bridge as one, their feet seeming to take them forward before their brains could order them. Aerith’s large green eyes stared at the Temple as she walked, apparently hypnotized, or else listening to something very intently. Something they couldn’t hear. She paused at the start of the bridge, halting the team behind her. Birds chirped in the distance, the only sound audible beyond Cid’s own breathing. His blue eyes watched her carefully, feeling strangely tense around the Temple, and unable to explain why. Slightly behind him, Vincent appeared to sense something, watching the space around them in a similar fashion to Aerith. Cid wondered if, perhaps with his strange senses, he could detect the phenomenon she had been following. He looked distracted enough...

Before them, Aerith fell to her knees, clutching her head. “I… I know… I feel it…” She started, talking to no one. “…The knowledge of the Ancients… floating…” She looked about her, as though seeing things in the air. “You could become one with the Planet, but you’re stopping it with the strength of will.” She paused. “For the future? For us?”

Cloud knelt by her side, watching her with his attentive blue eyes. “What are you saying?” He asked gently. “Do you understand them?”

She didn’t seem to hear him. Her pink dress ruffled in the breeze as she rose to her feet again, and started to jog across the bridge. It wobbled dangerous, creaking threateningly, forcing the rest of the team to grab the two ends, for fear it would snap.

“Aerith,” Cloud called, watching her run. He dashed after her, more concerned for her safety than the danger of the seemingly fragile bridge. It held his weight, though, groaning unhappily.

“She couldn’t seem to hear Cloud,” Red said softly. Cid glanced down at him.

The rest of them made their way carefully, in single file, across the creaking bridge. The drop below them was a considerable way down, and the water that had once filled the moat had dried up long ago. Aerith was talking to the sky, and when they crossed the rickety bridge, she turned and ran back to Cloud, a swirl of emotions flashing across her expressive eyes.

“Someone’s there,” Vincent said suddenly, his voice hushed.

Cid followed his gaze to the top of the Temple. He thought he saw a flash of something black, and then there was nothing. He passed a glance at his silent companion and followed Barret onto study land, keeping a watchful eye on the temple steps.

“I want to go inside,” Aerith insisted, gazing at Cloud with an almost pleading quality in her eyes.

Cloud nodded, turning back to find the rest of his team right behind him. They followed as he and Aerith began ascending the stairs, treading quietly. Only Yuffie broke the silence with a few grumbling complaints. When they reached the top, Cid’s calves were burning.

“Hey – look,” Yuffie said, with no need for her to point.

Stood before the entrance of the Temple was a black-cloaked figure; his face hidden amongst the fabric of his attire. Cid glanced at Vincent. He was right, there was someone there.

“Black… materia…” the man under the cloak muttered, his voice distant and emotionless, raspy and dry. He collapsed to the floor suddenly.

Aerith moved over to him and knelt by his side cautiously. She shifted a part of the cloak. “Look…”

Tifa bent down to see what had caught the flower girl’s attention. “Number 9… Another man with a tattoo.” She exchanged looks with Aerith, but before she could say anything else, she gasped and stepped back as a white glow began to envelope the man. Cid watched, transfixed as the shape of a man floated from beneath the cape, ghostly in appearance, raising above the body on the floor. It disappeared, almost peacefully... Cid found himself exchanging a hard frown with Barret.

“He returned to the Planet,” Aerith said quietly, slowly rising to her feet, her expressive green eyes lingering on the limp material of the cape. She seemed vaguely sad and distant, but when she turned her gaze on Cloud, her features had gained her original excitement. “Let’s go.”

They followed her through the high arched door, stepping from the sunlight into a cool, musty shade. The smell of thousands of years greeted Cid’s nostrils, and he wrinkled his nose in reaction, panning his eyes across the walls. They were plain, not a single hieroglyph or mark decorated the entrance, as he had been expecting. They were, however, encrusted with dirt and dust. Back in their day, they would have been smooth and clean.

A light caught his attention, and beyond Cloud’s spiky hair Cid caught sight of a small chamber, illuminated by the glow of two fire-lit torches, bracketed to the opposite wall. Dark shadows danced around the reach of their lights. In the center of the chamber stood a small pedestal on a low mezzanine, and slumped against that was a suited man Cid had seen once before…

“Tseng!” Aerith called, stepping forward as though hesitant to go to his side.

The man on the pedestal, clutching his torso in obvious pain, climbed to his feet with careful movements. His face was smooth and ageless, but creased in discomfort. His long slicked hair, Cid noticed, seemed even longer than when he last saw it.

“Tseng?” Cloud repeated, though his tone was loud enough for just those around him to hear. “Of the Turks?”

The Turk grunted, raising his dark eyes to observe his audience. “…I’ve been had…” He muttered, more to himself than Avalanche. The mark on his forehead creased as he winced, and he slumped back down, unable to stand. Dark blood stains marred his once immaculate suit, and rips adorned the shoulder pads and sleeves. He was breathing hard.

“It’s not the Promised Land,” he groaned. “Sephiroth’s searching for…” He trailed off as another stab of pain wracked his body.

“Sephiroth?” Cloud demanded, staring hard at the Turk. “He’s inside?”

Tseng gestured to the altar. “Look for yourself.” He coughed, and subsequently winced. He gained his composure again and looked at them, his dark eyes intense. “The President…was wrong…”

Aerith stepped closer to the man, her hands that had been at her heart in concern lowered them to her sides as she adopted a stricter demeanor. “Shinra’s all wrong… The Promised Land isn’t like what you imagined.” She turned away from them all, lowering her eyes to the dusty floor. “And I’m not going to help them find it…”

Getting bored of the conversation he had no clue of, Cid rolled his eyes irritable and pulled out a new cigarette. He had four left, but he really needed one. Aerith was saying something more as he lit it, and he was only half listening as Tseng replied. They spoke to each other in a… familiar sort of way, leading Cid to believe they might have known each other before this encounter.

When Tseng painfully climbed back to his feet a few seconds later, he approached Cloud and handed the young blond something small, gaining Cid’s full attention.

“The Keystone,” Tseng said, lowering his bloodied hand from Cloud’s. “Place it… on… the altar,” he wheezed. He coughed again, producing flecks of blood on his lips. He had been beaten pretty badly. Cid wondered if anyone was going to help him. But Tseng retreated to a dark corner, collapsing to the ground slowly against the wall assuming no one would aid their foe. Red glanced at Aerith, who had turned her back on them all, before padding over to the fallen Turk. Whereas the other members of Avalanche were hesitant to assist the enemy, he was not.

“Yuffie…” Red called. “Your cure.”

The ninja made a quiet noise of vexation, but complied and carried over her assortment of materia. While they were tending to Tseng’s injuries, Cloud was conversing quietly with Aerith. Cid glanced around at them all. Vincent was watching Tseng with a strange, distant look in his crimson eyes. Maybe he carried some resentful feelings towards the Turks, being a former one himself; maybe he left on bad terms. Or maybe he missed those days. How long had it been since he was a member? Perhaps he knew Tseng.

Cloud stepped onto the mezzanine and up to the altar, studying it carefully as though it could have been a trap. “Maybe some of us should wait here. Just in case something happens in there.” He turned his large blue eyes on the rest of the group. They were swirling with energy that he contained expertly.

“I’m definitely going in,” Aerith told them, her pretty face set firm in her decision. No one was going to tell her otherwise.

“Me, too,” Tifa said almost immediately, fixing Cloud with a gaze that would be hard to dissuade.

“I ain’t bothered,” Barret announced, shaking his head indifferently, crossing his powerful arms. “But… how the hell long do we wait for you to come out?”

Cloud patted his pocket. “We’ll keep in touch, via phone.” He looked over at Red and Yuffie. “You guys… can you stay here and take care of Tseng?”

Red nodded as Yuffie crossed her arms, looking disgruntled. But she, too, nodded.

“I would like to go,” Cait Sith said, jumping once on the top of his mog transport. His long tail flickered in programmed excitement.

“I think you should stay,” Cloud told him, his voice firm but soft. Cait’s tail drooped. “I would rather Shinra wait out here.”

The cat looked as if he would say something more, to argue. But he seemed to accept Cloud’s choice, and nodded silently, no longer bounding about.

Cloud turned his vibrant eyes on Cid’s darker blue ones. “Cid, I’d appreciate if you joined us. We don’t know what we’re facing in there.”

“Try and stop me,” Cid said, sounding relatively bored as he inhaled his cigarette. Inwardly, he was looking forward to exploring the Temple. It was unknown territory, and he loved exploring. He wasn’t surprised Cloud wanted to take him. The younger blond may be the leader of their mismatched band of weirdos, but he noticeable admired Cid for his reputation in Rocket Town. The pilot was his backup if ever he needed expertise.

Exhaling, Cid clapped a hand on Vincent’s shoulder, who started just slightly at the action. “Vincent should join us, that’ll make out numbers kinda even. And with his senses, we’ll be a lot safer.”

Cloud nodded, shifting his large eyes to Vincent’s sharp ones. “Agreed.” He turned back to the pedestal as his companions joined him on the step, and raised the Keystone in his hand, eyeing it briefly before lowering into the grooved slots on top of the pedestal. It sunk into the hole with a heavy sound, and a second later the slot glowed magically; a strange, blue light that intensified for a moment…

And then the entire chamber flashed, startling Tifa and causing Vincent’s eyes to shy under his bangs. A second later the very floor below them seemed to give, and they began to sink into the deceptively solid ground.

“Whoa,” Cid breathed, expanding his palms for balance as the two girls gasped; his cigarette fell to the floor. The sensation was strange as they disappeared below the chamber. Cid’s body tingled as it passed through, and he automatically held his breath and closed his eyes as the floor reached his face. There was an incredible feeling of floating, and then falling. His stomach tingled.

No more than a few seconds later Cid felt a solid surface beneath him. He opened his eyes to a light brighter than that of the two torches, finding himself sprawled on the ground. Something red caught his attention from the corner of his eye, and for a split second thought that his shoulder had been injured. But it wasn’t blood. It was a ragged corner of Vincent’s cape. Cid glanced at the man, who was recollecting himself, taking in his surroundings. The pilot flicked the material off his shoulder and climbed to his feet beside Cloud.

The sight before him was astounding. It seemed practically impossible. Stretched all around them was a vast, disorientating maze. Walkways collided into each other, producing mind-boggling illusions, pathways disappeared into tunneled stone, staircases rose and fell at curious angles. Cid’s eyes traversed the mysterious maze in awe. He glanced up at the ceiling, baffled to find there was no ceiling, and around them there were no walls. Just… white.

“Wow…” Aerith gushed, rushing forward as though a few steps ahead would give her a better view of their location. She beamed around at the stairs and walkways, soaking in their current surroundings.

“Shit,” Cid marveled, stepping to the edge of their platform to glance down at the long distance. “What’s up with this place?”

“Words…” Aerith breathed, her attention everywhere and no where. “Feelings… So many,” she whispered.

Cid looked at her, but his focus shifted behind to Vincent, who had quite clearly sensed something. His red eyes seemed impossibly dilated and alert, and Cid was reminded of something inhuman once again. A predator.

“What is it?” Cid questioned.

“… A presence,” the gunman answered, his gaze still fixated on the distance ahead of them, as though he could see what he could sense. Cid wondered just what senses he possessed that everyone else didn’t…

“Someone’s here?” Cloud turned and faced him, vague alarm on his features. His skin, always fair, seemed even more so in the brightness of the magical light. (Though, he looked positively tanned next to Vincent).

“Not someone…” Aerith answered, her focus in the same direction. She didn’t elaborate any more on her statement, leaving the other four – or most likely, Cid mused, other three – to ponder her meaning.

“Let’s get going,” Cloud said finally, ready to move and explore the wonders of the Temple.

He took lead with Aerith on his heels and Tifa behind her, leaving Cid and Vincent to trail behind, casting curious and cautious looks around them. The ground below them was rough with centuries of no use, dirty and dusty.

“The presence is stronger,” Vincent warned as they approached the edge of the walkway, his deep voice whispery.

They cast their eyes over the edge of the platform to the maze. Below, on a wider walkway, was a strange figure, watching them back.

“He belongs here…” Aerith said, her voice distant.

Who the fuck is he?” Cid asked softly, his focus on the figure as it turned and disappeared into the maze. It was smaller than they, and bounded away in a distinctly non-human manner.

Aerith, however, had already rushed off along the pathway they were traveling, taking his answer with her. Tifa followed her, unwilling to separate in this strange place.

“She’s gotta stop runnin’ off like that,” Cid murmured as he, Cloud and Vincent began to follow, too, breaking into a brisk walk as the girls disappeared from view down an incline. They passed a set of aging, blunt steps leading onto a higher walkway, though they couldn’t see where it led. Cid began to create a mental map in his head – he could foresee some future situations occurring…

They chased the girls around a stone corner, disturbing some curious ivy-type leaves clinging to the walls. It was strange for plant life to flourish without sunlight… Cid glanced up again, where the ceiling should have been. Maybe the strange light emanating from nowhere sustained them.

The three men found themselves descending a flight of stairs, where at the bottom stood Tifa and Aerith, waiting for them to catch up. The martial artist turned to watch them approach.

“It could get confusing in here,” Tifa said as Cloud came to a halt beside her, eyeing the direction Aerith appeared to be watching. There was nothing there. “We should make a map of our route taken.”

Cid tapped his temple. “Recording.”

“I hope it’s reliable…” Vincent said in a low voice behind him as the others began to move off. Cid turned to shoot him a look, but found his crimson eyes twinkling with humor. It was a rare occasional, so the pilot let it slide.

“Don’t like to brag, but it’s probably better than yours,” he challenged as they followed behind the trio.

Vincent didn’t react verbally, but his expression was response enough. Cid grinned.

The group followed their platform around to an archway, stepping from the direct glow of the artificial (or natural?) lighting. More ivy grew along the aging stone, entwining the archway’s right pillar. The platform ended with a drop, but the plant life had gathered in strength down the edge, providing a crude ladder to the walkway below. Aerith swung herself over the end, testing the ivy. When she’d deemed it sturdy enough, she climbed down to the bottom and stepped back, waiting for the rest of them. Tifa followed second, leaping to the floor halfway, landing nimbly.

“After you, blondie,” Cid muttered, gesturing for Cloud.

The younger man huffed in a quiet amusement. “…Thanks, blondie.”

Cid smirked as the swordsmen leapt from view – but his smile was wiped from his face as the sound of something inhuman thundered from around the corner. Cloud had barely landed below when something bowled into Vincent, subsequently knocking over Cid. His head slammed hard into the wall, and he lost all sense of being. His eyesight blackened, and he was only aware his hearing had dulled when it started to return. Muffled sounds of a fight brought him back to reality and his vision cleared, allowing him to squint at the figure in front of him. Cloud had leapt back up again, but dashed away into the fuzziness.

Something roared in pain or finality, and then everything was quiet again. Cid blinked against the dull throbbing of a painful headache, watching someone approach and crouch before him.

“Are you alright?”

Having been expecting Cloud’s soft tone, Cid was surprised to hear Vincent’s instead. His gauntlet swam into view before anything else, reflecting the light behind him, and then his eyes; watching him regaining his full senses with a patient gleam.

“One hell of a fuckin’ headache,” Cid griped, raising a hand to the back of his head. He winced. “Big fuckin’ bump, too…” He groped for Vincent’s arm to aid him to his feet without thinking, and only when he’d grabbed the man’s right one and it tensed did he remember such an act was forbidden. He released it in the act of rising to his feet, but faltered on his balance – however before he could fall, Vincent grabbed his arm openly, supporting him. Out of guilt or some newfound heart, Cid didn’t know. He raised his blue eyes and smiled appreciatively. What he found in the gunman’s gaze was new… as though experiencing something he hadn’t before. Maybe Cid had just broken through a mental barrier in that traumatized mind of his…

“Cid, you alright?” Cloud’s voice broke their gaze.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Cid said, although he didn’t quite feel a hundred percent at that minute. The throbbing increased almost to the point of lost vision again, and he had to lean heavily against the wall. Vincent still had a hold of his arm; thankfully with his non-clawed one.

Aerith was by his side a second later, having climbed back up the ivy ladder to inspect his head injury. Despite his futile attempts to swat her away, she wouldn’t have it.

“You must have hit the wall very hard,” she said. “There’s a shallow cut, but the swelling will have to heal itself.”

“Whatever,” Cid mumbled, disliking the fuss he was receiving. It was just a fucking bump!

Vincent had let go of his arm to allow Aerith space. He watched carefully as she brushed back the pilot’s hair, revealing the cut. Cid wondered if he felt guilty for slamming him into the wall, even though the fault wasn’t his. He seemed big on taking blame where it didn’t belong, so that was probably the case…

“What the fuck hit yer, Vincent?”

The gunman cast a half-hearted glance over his shoulder where the beast had been felled. “Something big,” was all he said.

When Cid’s injury had been healed, they finally descended the ivy ladder to the walkway below. Aerith had gained a few meters lead, but stopped.

“Which way?” She asked, looking ahead to the route forking off straight and left. However, Cid looked to his right where another pathway meandered around the corner. They had three options.

“You choose,” Tifa told her, tilting her head in waiting.

The flower girl looked on ahead. “I think he went this way…” She said to herself, before taking off at a leisurely walk down the pathway directly before them. The rest of the group followed her obediently. Cloud paced a little faster to step inline with her, and Vincent, Cid noticed, had claimed position at the back of them. Both mako men were obviously taking tactical positions in case they were attacked again.

They continued on their pathway for fifteen minutes before Aerith stopped by a leaf-coated, high wall lining the left side of their path. Her green eyes turned to Vincent expectantly, and Cid found himself looking back at the man curiously, too. Those red eyes gazed at the top of the wall, considering something before meeting Aerith’s. He nodded. Cid wondered if the man was fucking telepathic.

“We’ll climb up here,” Aerith told them all, already making her way along the vines leading up.

“Why don’t we just continue along the path?” Tifa questioned, gazing at the winding route before them.

“Because he’s not that way, he’s this way,” Aerith answered simply.

Cid chuckled. That was all the answer they needed. When they reached the top a few minutes later, his headache had returned, persisting as a dull throb. He grumbled irritably to himself as the last of them climbed over the edge, ignoring a concerned glance from Tifa.

“Through there?” Cloud asked.

Drawing Cid’s divided attention, he turned his eyes to the large arched doorway before them. It was too dark inside to see any further than the threshold, emanating an ominous feeling.

Aerith shook her head slowly, eyeing the blackness. “I don’t think so…”

“Look!” Tifa exclaimed, pointing to their left.

Beyond the corner of the door structure and between the walls further ahead, the strange figure scuttled into view as it ran up a set of stairs, disappearing as it reached higher levels.

“Let’s go!” Aerith said, breaking into a jog.

“Wait – Aerith!”

Cloud and Tifa started after her; however Cid simply waved a hand dismissively and followed along at his own pace. He wasn’t going to run and risk another throbbing headache.


And version 2:


Title: Journey Chapter 7 v. 2
Pages: 7






Cid’s blue eyes traveled the height of the ancient building before them, experiencing brief, probable visions of the Temple in its Prime. It would have been immaculate, well kept by its once thriving civilization, and visited often by the ancient race. Cid didn’t know much in the way of the Planet’s history, it hadn’t been on his chosen curriculum at the Shinra academy (well, it didn’t involve airship mechanics, did it?) so he didn’t know just how long ago it was the Cetra supposedly lived. But he didn’t need to remember history eras to know the Temple had been hidden away and unvisited for a very, very long time.

Aerith said something in front of him, drawing his attention back to the forefront of his mind. Birds chirped in the distance following her sentence – the only sound audible beyond Cid’s own breathing. His blue eyes watched her carefully, feeling strangely tense around the Temple, and unable to explain why. Slightly behind him, Vincent appeared to sense something, watching the space around them in a similar fashion to Aerith. Cid wondered if, perhaps with his strange senses, he could detect the phenomenon she had been following. He looked distracted enough...

A rickety rope bridge provided the only access to the temple across what would have been a deep moat of water. It creaked under their weight, groaning threateningly. Aerith was muttering strange things again.

“Someone’s there,” Vincent said quite suddenly beside him, his voice hushed. Cid followed the focus of his crimson eyes to the top of the Temple, yet he saw nothing.

“What’d’yer sense?” Cid asked curiously as the team began ascending the long stone stairs.

“…A shell.”

Informative answer…

They followed the group up the many steps quietly, though various questions ran through Cid’s head unvoiced. When they reached the top Yuffie’s call of exclamation brought both of their attentions to the front.

Stood before the entrance of the Temple was a black-cloaked figure; his face hidden amongst the fabric of his attire. Cid glanced at Vincent. He was right, there was someone there. How did he do that?

In his wonderment he failed to hear the short exchange of words between Aerith and Tifa, who were currently bent over the collapsed caped figure. Or more accurately, bent over the empty cape as what looked like his ghostly form floated from the crumpled material, rose into the air and vanished eerily. Cid shared a hard frown with Barret.

“He’s returned to the Planet,” Aerith spoke distantly, her gaze lingering where the form had vanished.

Behind, Vincent drew attention by turning sharply, hand lowering to the gun on his thigh. His gaze was on the forest around them, and as Cid listened, he, too, could now hear the sounds of rustling, shrieking and chattering. Those huge insects were returning…

“Let’s get goin’,” Cid said to them all. They heeded his suggestion, and followed Aerith inside the only arched doorway into the Temple, leaving the warm air to step into a cold, dank atmosphere. Cid’s skin grew goose bumps, but his attention was elsewhere, trying to glimpse anything within the archway of interest. There was none. No hieroglyphs, so marking, no nothing.

A light caught his attention, and beyond Cloud’s spiky hair Cid caught sight of a small chamber, illuminated by the glow of two fire-lit torches, bracketed to the opposite wall. Dark shadows danced around the reach of their lights. In the center of the chamber stood a small pedestal on a low mezzanine, and slumped against that was a suited man Cid had seen once before…

Tseng!” Aerith called, stepping forward as though hesitant to go to his side.

The man on the pedestal, clutching his torso in obvious pain, climbed to his feet with careful movements. His face was smooth and ageless, but creased in discomfort. His long slicked hair, Cid noticed, seemed even longer than when he last saw it. He had taken a beating – one hell of a beating. And if Cid remembered correctly, Tseng was a damn good fighter… who the hell could do that to one of the Turks?

More importantly, where was his attacker?

As the Turk began muttering something – obviously in a lot of pain doing it – Cid sneaked a glance at their own (ex) Turk. Vincent didn’t seem to sense any strong presence (if his blank expression and usual stoic demeanor were anything to go by), but he was staring hard at Tseng, and Cid had to wonder if they had known each other. Maybe Vincent’s resignation from the Turks had left resentful feelings for both sides.

Listening with only half an ear to the conversations between Tseng, Aerith and Cloud and the other half on the entrance in case those insect creatures attempted to follow the team inside, Cid bypassed most of the exchange until the name Sephiroth met his attention.

“Sephiroth?” Cloud demanded, staring hard at the Turk. “He’s inside?”

Tseng, still bleeding and crouched by the altar in the middle of the chamber, nodded once. His dark eyes glinted in the light of the fire torches, as did his blood. It stained his once crisp suit, bordering the slashes and tears in the material, trickling slowly from various visible wounds. Cid gave him five minutes of consciousness left. If no one rushed forward to help him, anyway.

“Look for yourself,” the Turk said, gesturing to the altar he was leaning heavily on.

It occurred to Cid that there were no other exits in the chamber, and he was pretty certain he had seen no blood leading in from the steps. Tseng had either been attacked in the very room they were standing, or elsewhere that wasn’t evident… Come to think of it – where the hell was the rest of the Temple?

It was a minute later when Tseng hobbled to Cloud and handed him the very Keystone Cait Sith had stolen from them did he instruct the young leader to place it in the altar. Cid’s attention had strayed from the entrance now.

Tseng retreated to a corner of the chamber where he collapsed to the floor and bled silently, his deed done.

Red, who was stood by Cid’s left side, glanced up at Aerith – who was giving Tseng the cold-shoulder treatment (apparently she wasn’t pleased with him for some reason) – before padding over to the fallen Turk and examining his injuries.

“Yuffie,” he called, turning his muzzle on the youngest of them. “Your cure.”

The ninja made a quiet noise of vexation, but complied and carried over her assortment of materia, aiding Red as they made the injured man a little more comfortable.

Cloud stepped onto the mezzanine and up to the altar, studying it carefully as though it could have been a trap. “Maybe some of us should wait here. Just in case something happens in there.” He turned his large blue eyes on the rest of the group. They were swirling with energy.

“I’m definitely going in,” Aerith told them as she turned around, her pretty face set firm in her decision. No one was going to tell her otherwise.

“Me, too,” Tifa said almost immediately, fixing Cloud with a gaze that would be hard to dissuade.

“I ain’t bothered,” Barret announced, shaking his head indifferently, crossing his powerful arms. “But… how the hell long do we wait for you to come out?”

Cloud patted his pocket. “We’ll keep in touch, via phone.” He looked over at Red and Yuffie. “You guys… can you stay here and take care of Tseng?”

Red nodded as Yuffie crossed her arms, looking disgruntled. But she, too, nodded. Maybe she wanted to stay and pinch whatever materia Tseng happened to have…

“I would like to go,” Cait Sith said, jumping once on the top of his mog transport. His long tail flickered in programmed excitement.

“I think you should stay,” Cloud told him, his voice firm but soft. Cait’s tail drooped. “I would rather Shinra wait out here.”

The cat looked as if he would say something more, to argue. But he seemed to accept Cloud’s choice, and nodded silently.

Cloud turned his vibrant eyes on Cid’s darker blue ones. “Cid, I’d appreciate if you joined us. We don’t know what we’re facing in there.”

“Try and stop me,” Cid said, sounding relatively bored as he inhaled his cigarette. Inwardly, he was looking forward to traveling through the Temple. It was unknown territory, and he loved exploring. He wasn’t surprised Cloud wanted to take him, either. The younger blond may be the leader of their mismatched band of weirdos, but he noticeable admired Cid for his reputation in Rocket Town. The pilot was his backup if ever he needed expertise.

Exhaling, Cid clapped a hand on Vincent’s shoulder, who started just slightly at the action. “Vincent should join us, that’ll make out numbers kinda even. And with his senses, we’ll be a lot safer.”

Cloud nodded, shifting his large eyes to Vincent’s sharp ones. “Agreed.” He turned back to the pedestal as his companions joined him on the step, and raised the Keystone in his hand, eyeing it briefly before lowering into the grooved slots on top of the pedestal. It sunk into the hole with a heavy sound, and a second later the slot glowed magically; a strange, blue light that intensified for a moment…

And then the entire chamber flashed, startling Tifa and causing Vincent’s eyes to shy under his bangs. A second later the very floor below them seemed to give, and they began to sink into the deceptively solid ground like it was nothing more than quicksand.

“Whoa,” Cid breathed, expanding his palms for balance as the two girls gasped; his cigarette fell to the floor. The sensation was strange as they disappeared below the chamber. Cid’s body tingled as it passed through, and he automatically held his breath and closed his eyes as the floor reached his face. There was an incredible feeling of floating, and then falling. His stomach tingled.

No more than a few seconds later Cid felt a solid surface beneath him. He opened his eyes to a light brighter than that of the two torches, finding himself sprawled on the ground. Something red caught his attention from the corner of his eye, and for a split second thought that his shoulder had been injured. But it wasn’t blood. It was a ragged corner of Vincent’s cape. Cid glanced at the man, who was recollecting himself, taking in his surroundings. The pilot flicked the material off his shoulder and climbed to his feet beside Cloud.

The sight before him was astounding. It seemed practically impossible. Stretched all around them was a vast, disorientating maze. Walkways collided into each other, producing mind-boggling illusions, pathways disappeared into tunneled stone, staircases rose and fell at curious angles. Cid’s eyes traversed the mysterious maze in awe. He glanced up at the ceiling, baffled to find there was no ceiling, and around them there were no walls. Just… white.

“Wow…” Aerith gushed, rushing forward as though a few steps ahead would give her a better view of their location. She beamed around at the stairs and walkways, soaking in their current surroundings.

“Shit,” Cid marveled, stepping to the edge of their platform to glance down at the long distance. “What’s up with this place?”

“Words…” Aerith breathed, her attention everywhere and no where. “Feelings… So many,” she whispered.

Cid looked at her, but his focus shifted behind to Vincent, who had quite clearly sensed something. His red eyes seemed impossibly dilated and alert, and Cid was reminded of something inhuman once again. A predator.

“What is it?” Cid questioned.

“… A presence,” the gunman answered, his gaze still fixated on the distance ahead of them, as though he could see what he could sense. Cid wondered just what senses he possessed that everyone else didn’t…

“Someone’s here?” Cloud turned and faced him, vague alarm on his features. His skin, always fair, seemed even more so in the brightness of the magical light. (Though, he looked positively tanned next to Vincent).

“Not someone…” Aerith answered, her focus in the same direction. She didn’t elaborate any more on her statement, leaving the other four – or most likely, Cid mused, other three – to ponder her meaning.

“Let’s get going,” Cloud said finally, ready to move and explore the wonders of the Temple.

He took lead with Aerith on his heels and Tifa behind her, leaving Cid and Vincent to trail behind, casting curious and cautious looks around them. The ground below them was rough with centuries of no use, dirty and dusty.

“The presence is stronger,” Vincent warned as they approached the edge of the walkway, his deep voice whispery.

They cast their eyes over the edge of the platform to the maze. Below, on a wider walkway, was a strange figure, watching them back.

“He belongs here…” Aerith said, her voice distant.

“Who the fuck is he?” Cid asked, his focus on the figure as it turned and disappeared into the maze. It was smaller than they, and bounded away in a distinctly non-human manner. Creepy.

Aerith, however, had already rushed off along the pathway they were traveling, taking his answer with her. Tifa followed her, unwilling to separate in this strange place.

“She’s gotta stop runnin’ off like that,” Cid murmured as he, Cloud and Vincent began to follow, too, breaking into a brisk walk as the girls disappeared from view down an incline. They passed a set of aging, blunt steps leading onto a higher walkway, though they couldn’t see where it led. Cid began to create a mental map in his head – he could foresee some future situations occurring in which they would all get lost…

They chased the girls around a stone corner, disturbing some curious ivy-type leaves clinging to the walls. It was strange for plant life to flourish without sunlight… Cid glanced up again, where the ceiling should have been. Maybe the strange light emanating from nowhere sustained them.

The three men found themselves descending a flight of stairs, where at the bottom stood Tifa and Aerith, waiting for them to catch up. The martial artist turned to watch them approach.

“It could get confusing in here,” Tifa said as Cloud came to a halt beside her, eyeing the direction Aerith appeared to be watching. There was nothing there. “We should make a map of our route taken.”

Cid tapped his temple. “Recording.”

“I hope it’s reliable…” Vincent said in a low voice behind him as the others began to move off. Cid turned to shoot him a look, but found his crimson eyes twinkling with humor. It was a rare occasional, so the pilot let it slide.

“Don’t like to brag, but it’s probably better than yours,” he challenged as they followed behind the trio.

Vincent didn’t react verbally, but his expression was response enough. Cid grinned, shaking his head.

The group followed their platform around to an archway, stepping from the direct glow of the artificial (or natural?) lighting. More ivy grew along the aging stone, entwining the archway’s right pillar. The platform ended with a drop, but the plant life had gathered in strength down the edge, providing a crude ladder to the walkway below. Aerith swung herself over the end, testing the ivy. When she’d deemed it sturdy enough, she climbed down to the bottom and stepped back, waiting for the rest of them. Tifa followed second, leaping to the floor halfway, landing nimbly.

“After you, blondie,” Cid muttered, gesturing for Cloud.

The younger man huffed in a quiet amusement. “…Thanks, blondie.”

Cid smirked as the swordsmen leapt from view – but his smile was wiped from his face as the sound of something inhuman thundered from around the corner. Cloud had barely landed below when something bowled into Vincent, subsequently knocking over Cid. His head slammed hard into the wall, and he lost all sense of being. His eyesight blackened, and he was only aware his hearing had dulled when it started to return. Muffled sounds of a fight brought him back to reality and his vision cleared, allowing him to squint at the figure in front of him. Cloud had leapt back up again, but dashed away into the fuzziness. Something roared in pain or finality, and then everything was quiet again. Cid blinked against the dull throbbing of a painful headache, watching someone approach and crouch before him.

“Are you alright?”

Having been expecting Cloud’s soft tone, Cid was surprised to hear Vincent’s instead. His gauntlet swam into view before anything else, reflecting the light; and then his eyes appeared, watching him regaining his full senses with a patient gleam. In a state of semi-focus, they shimmered brighter than anything else he could see.

“One hell of a fuckin’ headache,” Cid griped, raising a hand to the back of his head. He winced. “Big fuckin’ bump, too…” He groped for Vincent’s arm to aid him to his feet without thinking, and only when he’d grabbed the man’s right one and it tensed did he remember such an act was forbidden. He released it in the middle of rising to his feet, but faltered on his balance. However, before he could fall Vincent grabbed his arm openly, supporting him - out of guilt or some newfound heart, Cid didn’t know. He raised his blue eyes and nodded appreciatively, catching a brief glimpse of a new expression on the man’s usually passive features.

“Cid, you alright?” Cloud’s voice broke their gaze.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Cid said, although he didn’t quite feel a hundred percent at that minute. The throbbing increased almost to the point of lost vision again, and he had to lean heavily against the wall. Vincent still had a hold of his arm; thankfully with his non-clawed one. His grip was strong.

Aerith was by his side a second later, having climbed back up the ivy ladder to inspect his head injury. Despite his futile attempts to swat her away, she wouldn’t have it.

“You must have hit the wall very hard,” she said. “There’s a shallow cut, but the swelling will have to heal itself.”

“Whatever,” Cid mumbled, disliking the fuss he was receiving. It was just a fucking bump!

Vincent had let go of his arm to allow Aerith space. He watched carefully as she brushed back the pilot’s hair, revealing the cut. Cid wondered if he felt guilty for slamming him into the wall, even though the fault wasn’t his. He seemed big on taking blame where it didn’t belong.

“What the fuck hit yer, Vincent?”

The gunman cast a half-hearted glance over his shoulder where the beast had been felled. “Something big,” was all he said.

When Cid’s injury had been healed, they finally descended the ivy ladder to the walkway below. Aerith had gained a few meters lead, but stopped.

“Which way?” She asked, looking ahead to the route forking off straight and left. However, Cid looked to his right where another pathway meandered around the corner. They had three options.

“You choose,” Tifa told her, tilting her head in waiting.

The flower girl looked on ahead. “I think he went this way…” She said to herself, before taking off at a leisurely walk down the pathway directly before them. The rest of the group followed her obediently. Cloud paced a little faster to step inline with her, and Vincent, Cid noticed, had claimed position at the back of them. Both mako men were obviously taking tactical positions in case they were attacked again.

They continued on their pathway for fifteen minutes before Aerith stopped by a leaf-coated, high wall lining the left side of their path. Her green eyes turned to Vincent expectantly, and Cid found himself looking back at the man curiously, too. Those red eyes gazed at the top of the wall, considering something before meeting Aerith’s. He nodded. Cid wondered if the man was fucking telepathic.

“We’ll climb up here,” Aerith told them all, already making her way along the vines leading up.

“Why don’t we just continue along the path?” Tifa questioned, gazing at the winding route before them.

“Because he’s not that way, he’s this way,” Aerith answered simply.

Cid chuckled. That was all the answer they needed. When they reached the top a few minutes later, his headache had returned, persisting as a dull throb. He grumbled irritably to himself as the last of them climbed over the edge, ignoring a concerned glance from Tifa.

“Through there?” Cloud asked.

Drawing Cid’s fuzzy attention, he turned his eyes to the large arched doorway before them. It was too dark inside to see any further than the threshold, emanating an ominous feeling.

Aerith shook her head slowly, eyeing the blackness. “I don’t think so…”

“Look!” Tifa exclaimed, pointing to their left.

Beyond the corner of the door structure and between the walls further ahead, the strange figure scuttled into view as it ran up a set of stairs, disappearing as it reached higher levels.

“Let’s go!” Aerith said, breaking into a jog.

“Wait – Aerith!”

Cloud and Tifa started after her; however Cid simply waved a hand dismissively and followed along at his own pace. His head was throbbing so hard he was sure it was visible to see.

“Do you want to rest?” Asked Vincent, who had remained by Cid’s side as the others rushed off.

“No,” Cid muttered irritably, trying not to wince. He broke into a fast walk just to prove he could, despite his vision wavering a little. Vincent followed behind, his metal boots clinking. Cid could feel his eyes on him.

They pursued the others, catching glimpses as they rounded corners and descended a flight of crumbling steps before losing sight altogether as they disappeared over the top of a large wall. Cid and Vincent approached the wall at a jog, eyeing its height. More climbing ivy leaves provided them with the means to reach the top. As they went, Cid noticed the sound of metal clinking against the solid wall.

“How the fuck do yer manage with them boots?” He asked, glancing down at Vincent’s gold-armored shoes.

Vincent didn’t look at him. “I have nothing else.”

“Shit, Vincent, yer’ve had plenty of opportunities to change ‘em. But then I guess we ain’t been to that many places that cater to your fashion.”

Vincent gave him a look and continued to climb. Cid tried hard not to take notice of his long legs as they worked. Damn they were long.

When they reached the top Cid’s head was still hurting, but by now he was used to it. They jogged along the walkway until they descended another flight of old steps leading onto a platform. Here there was another archway, leading into the darkness of the stone.


Onward with more versions...