The wind was strong when Cid got to the northern continent. It looked like a blizzard was blowing in. No time for niceties before they hurried off then. He dropped the ladder for the two down below, certain the duo in question had heard the Highwind descending. They grabbed the ladder, and Cid took off out of the area before waiting for them to climb.
Yuffie had thankfully not yet thrown up on his ship. He didn't want to test her endurance with the kind of turbulence a storm would bring. It was odd weather though, the forecast hadn't mentioned a storm. He slid out of his seat as they left the weather behind, and lit a cigarette as he headed to the conference room, where everyone was bound to have gathered.
"So what's so important about going to check out a bunch of ruins that Ghast went to on vacation?" Barret asked. They were all gathered around the table, Vincent was leaning against the wall.
"It's something connected to Aerith, isn't that enough?" Cloud was confused by the question. Sephiroth got an odd look of contemplation on his face at Cloud's response.
"Not for this kind of rush." Barret frowned. Louis walked into the meeting room with a stack of papers that he had left briefly to retrieve.
"Ghast was a scientist in Shinra. There is no way that he didn't hide things. It was a way of life there, like drinking coffee in the morning, or taking a shower. Anything in Shinra that required money was huge on political intrigue. I wouldn't be surprised if he hid a whole laboratory somewhere." Louis flawlessly picked up the conversation as if he'd never left the room.
"I thought that was just the craziness of Hojo," Cloud's forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. Louis shook his head; Sephiroth shook his head; Cid shook his head; Vincent shook his head. Yuffie laughed as they did it in unison. Cloud glared at her for interrupting the seriousness of the conversation.
"I was actually astounded by how well he's hid his secrets. I suppose it was stupid of me to not check his drawings for clues." Louis shook his head at himself. "It was just a hobby for him, despite his skill, he rarely used it for technical or scientific reasons, which I guess on it's own was rather bizarre. I'm not sure many people knew he could draw at all.
"In all my searching of his research files to discover some missing files on the Sephiroth exp-," he trailed off, giving the silver haired man a glance, "I never found so much as a hint of a project or trip to a ruin of ancients."
"It's not that odd with Ilfana in the equation," Vincent stated calmly, "considering Shinra's history and the way they treated science resources."
"My point is," Louis iterated, "there are probably secrets there, that were part of Ghast's projects, and may have something to do with our current crisis." Barret nodded, understanding the crisis part of the equation. His very core was still steeped in the desire to better the world. In this, he was always a driven man, that and family. He was sore about the incident with Tifa, after which quite some time had already passed, but he did agree she should be with her family. Her children were as of yet young. He had promised to keep her updated, if she would keep her lid on her emotions, and give everything some time to work out.
His feeling on Sephiroth's return were mixed. He hated anything connected to Shinra, and of course the whole freak alien thing, but the bottom line was that this Sephiroth had not done anything. It was against his methods to kill innocent people. He'd come a long way from his chaotic "few for the sake of the many" days in Avalanche. The deaths caused by their terrorist acts still haunted him, even if he didn't regret them.
The ruins were massive, with very little structural damage, the tallest building reached high above the forest top, and with the size of trees on this side of Wutai, that was impressive. The color of the buildings were far more brilliant than the City of Ancients in the north, and though the architecture was similar, it was unique in both shape and building materials.
The spires of the great building in the southern edge looked like a fairy-tale castle, stairs winding around the outside of the building rather than inside. There were many high walkways that connected buildings to each other, and it gave the appearance of some great fortress compound.
This place made it's northern cousin look like a small village.
"How on earth did anyone not notice this?" Cloud puzzled.
"If you were paying attention to the terrain, Cloud, you would have noticed that the cliffs surrounding this plateau make it hard to reach any way other than by airship. Wutai doesn't have airships." Yuffie spoke the last sentence with a bitter tone. Cid looked away, afraid to catch eye contact. "Most of the population lives in central and northern Wutai. The places in the south have some superstitions against going this far. They're left over from the eras that we used to have disputes amongst the Wutai people, hundreds of years before Shinra." Cloud blinked at Yuffie.
"You've learned a lot more about Wutai in the last decade," Cloud stated.
"I've had a lot more chance for exposure." Yuffie peered blankly towards the ruins "I was pretty young back then, and picked up a lot of animosity for Wutai from the people who remembered days that had been more glorious. It wasn't strange that I was so rebellious, wanting to get as far away from it as possible. I couldn't have made a difference back then anyway, had I tried." Yuffie sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than anyone else. Vincent gave Cid a glance, but Cid was still looking away, a stern frown on his face and an unlit cigarette in his mouth.
The entire group (sans Louis) descended into the ruins. The lower levels were shrouded in shadows, cast by the towering tropical trees. Miraculously the ruins themselves were untouched by expected overgrowth. In fact, on closer inspection, it seemed that the ruins were completely undamaged by the erosion of time you would usually expect from any stone structure. It looked like a bizarre time capsule amidst the foliage surrounding it, towering above the horizon of green.
The shadows stirred, lengthening unnaturally for the time of day. They went unnoticed, the eeriness of dead and empty ruins keeping people's attention focused on the task at hand rather than the atmosphere. Everything was filled with shadows, from the intricate reliefs carved in geometric precision along the sides of the structures to the stone roads. The shadows were multileveled from the smattering of sunlight that filtered in through the trees.
Vincent glanced to the sides, his turk instincts tingling, but he saw nothing. They arrived at a great town square, a huge opening with stairways leading to the higher walkways in every direction, like a rectangular spiral. An empty fountain graced the middle with abrupt angles and geometric artistry.
"It's really different from the other place, isn't it? All square and angular." Yuffie said, awed by the picture from the middle. From inside the ruins, it seemed even more fantastic than the arial view.
"The other one always kind of reminded me of the ocean, all those seashells and shit. Funny that this one, though overlooking the sea, is nothing like it," Cid said, chewing on the end of a matchstick.
"The climates are vastly different," Vincent responded calmly.
"Yeah, and these buildings certainly don't look air conditioned," Cid drawled laconically. Vincent said nothing.
"Lets split up, cover more ground." Cloud said, the first sign Sephiroth had seen of the leader hiding inside. It was a small thing to notice, but Sephiroth was very intrigued by the different facets of Cloud.
"I'll take Vincent," Yuffie spoke up grabbing his arm and taking off to the north. Vincent looked startled, but went with it. "We can cover twice as much ground as you slowpokes." Cid placed his hand behind his head and ran it down the back his hair, shifting his weight to his other leg as he looked over at Barret.
"Shit. I think that was an insult." Barret nodded
"Sephiroth and I are going towards that large building to the south," Cloud said, nodding his head in that direction.
"Fuck Cloud, I have no idea what I'm even looking for."
"Anything interesting," said a voice from Cid's feet.
"Fuuuu..!" Cid jumped a foot to the left. "Holy Airships, Nanaki, I forgot you were even here.
"We don't really know what we're looking for either. Just call if you find anything," Nanaki continued. I'll take the west path, I think I can sense some latent energy fluctuations over there." Nanaki sprung off in a feline gait. Cid looked over towards Cloud, to find he and Sephiroth had already left.
"I guess that leaves us with that stairway over there" Barret said to the airship captain. Cid just nodded, lit a cigarette, and plodded in a relaxed manner towards the stair.
"Don't really matter much, we're just burning time while we wait for more shit to hit the propellers."
"I have no clue about this shit either, Cid." Barret shook his head. "Give me a pick and a shovel any day. Fucking academic types."
Sephiroth was uncomfortable with the feeling of nostalgia these ruins brought. There were multiple reasons for that discomfort, the major being his campaign in Wutai. The other reason was that it felt like returning home. That made very little sense, seeing as Sephiroth had no place he considered such, and it was a sensation he was unfamiliar with. The warmth was discomforting.
He was lost in contemplation when a sound like a gasp came from Cloud. Sephiroth glanced up to see Cloud staring at what looked like a statue replica of Aerith. Only it wasn't. It couldn't have been. It looked to have been built here with the rest of the architecture, a larger than life tribute.
The clothing was foreign, vaguely reminiscent of ancient Wutai ceremonial garb. The figure held what looked like a small round gem, or perhaps a materia. Cloud looked really pale, but mesmerized. He circled the statue observing every intimate detail of the piece under Sephiroth's intense gaze. Sephiroth felt a surge of jealousy envelop him. How close had they been? He turned towards the building just ahead of Cloud and the statue.
"I'm going to go look in the building, take your time," He barely bit out without sounding too irritated. He saw Cloud nod at him without taking his eyes off the statue. Sephiroth stalked off.
When he entered the building it was his turn to be mesmerized. Walls upon walls of books under a great domed roof. There was some kind of intricate mural at the top, but with it at about seven floors up, he couldn't fully appreciate the details. He glanced around to see stairs winding in a slow spiral around the entirety of the building, interrupted only by the balcony-like floors at uniform divisions.
As he made his way up the first stairs, he noted that something was off. He glanced at the empty floors, the ladder grooves carved in the walls between sets of books, and the stone shelves. There was no furniture. It seemed as though there should be tables and chairs, or something to that effect. It was an eerie ghost town and the books shouldn't have been there, he carefully ran a finger down one on the shelves, and was surprised to find that the books were firm and well preserved.
He felt drawn to the upper levels, and slowly wandered up the stairs towards the top floor. The mural on the ceiling came into view and it was an intricate work of art and symbolism. The style was not photorealistic, and it spoke volumes of the culture of the city, many lines were simplified, but the colors were intricate and vibrant. In the center of what seemed like a world of meaning and method stood a female figure in prayer with a round glowing object above her head. Around her was darkness that separated her from the rest of the mural. It seemed to threaten to consume everything.
Sephiroth's eyes were drawn to another edge of the ceiling as he thought he saw the whisper of some shadowy movement. It was a trick of the light, but the figure he saw there drew some interest. A depiction of a man in a black robe, silvered hair, seemed to be preaching to a mass, his eyes followed the events as he could only assume they progressed, and the same man seemed to lurk in the background of every scene. He might be self centered to think so, but the man had a disturbing resemblance to himself. He tore his gaze away.
He pulled a book off the shelf and started thumbing through it when he was startled by a loud shattering of stone, the sound coming from outside. He dropped the book and jumped over the railing in his hurry, forgoing the stairs altogether.
He arrived outside of the building only to find the statue that Cloud had been staring at shattered to pieces, and Cloud nowhere in sight. He looked around for any sign of him, and noticed the great trail of torn up stone winding back towards the center of the city. He ran after it, hearing the faint crashing of stone growing louder for moments, then silencing altogether, before starting up again.
Cloud's head throbbed. He was having a difficult time dispatching with a threat that would usually only take him moments. He felt dizzy, disoriented, and this was also the first time he'd ever seen in person the anti-SOLDIER monsters that Wutai had engineered in the war.
He didn't have time to wonder what it was doing here as the huge maul it wielded crashed into the stone road where he had been standing a moment before. He oriented himself as best he could through the overpowering dizziness, only to gain enough time to dodge the next blow.
He could smell the faintly sweet stench of mako, something he had only learned to detect after the first occasion of his poisoning. It smelled like dreams and nightmares carried on the pollinated wind of night blooms. It smelled of secrets that were only revealed in moonlight. It smelled of hallucination.
A piece of stone shrapnel hit Cloud in the temple, near his eye, and he snapped out of his daze to move from another blow, this one much closer. This one drew a thin bleeding proof of negligence down the side of his face.
He had no choice but to wait for the next strike and then run. He needed a tactical advantage, he needed to clear the fuzz from his head. He focused on the warm feel of blood dripping down towards his eye as he bolted towards the center of the city, where he wouldn't be cornered by the size of the beast.
A part of him couldn't help but wonder how far away Sephiroth had gotten to, and how long it would take him to come assist. He didn't want to be handicapped this way. The whole city was hazed with the stench of lifestream, maybe he should have mentioned it earlier but as no one else noticed it, he didn't want Sephiroth to worry, especially after that last time.
The stench was only getting stronger as he ran towards the center of the city, like a thickening fog rolling in from the sea. Cloud wanted to turn the opposite direction and run away from the cloying aroma, but he was forced by death at his back to go on. The crashing and grunting was incessant, but the sound was becoming more muffled, like he was hearing it through water. When he got to the center of the town, it stopped altogether. He looked behind, only to see that the monstrosity had stopped chasing him, and merely circled the center slowly, as if to block all exit.
Cloud tried to think. The harder he tried, the more like syrup his mind became. It was sticky, and he was melting. Or was the landscape melting? He looked around in a daze, the shadows seemed to grow out of the ground as the colors of the city bleed into them, and everything started looking washed out, devoid of brilliance and detail of daylight.
A tall figure stood in front of the fountain, which was spouting mako in this hallucinogenic haze. He looked upon the figure and slowly his mind started to clear up, as if he was a camera newly focusing in a sudden change of light.
"I know you." Cloud said, "but you're not you anymore." He trailed off with confusion as he spoke. "You have the same look in your eyes, the same that he did when he tried to kill me."
The figure smiled sinisterly, and his face seemed to be alive with darkness.
"You may believe me as whatever you'd like" it spoke in a sickly familiar voice, "But I will have you call me Master."