Final Fantasy VII

Emerald Princess of Vernea

Chapter Forty-Five

After another minute or so of climbing up in the lift, Cloud soon heard the sounds of the Gold Saucer. First he heard the carnival-like music that came from the attractions, quiet at first but growing louder as the lift rose up, fading again as they went by. Then he heard the screams of cheerful riders from the roller coaster as it sped past, although he couldn't see it.

He and Ester didn't say anything else to one another as the lift went up. At first Cloud thought she was just being quiet, until he heard her mumbling quietly to herself. He was beginning to think she was as strange as she looked, but he could just hear her mumbling Chocobo statistics to herself, and he realised what she was doing. She was mulling over all the Chocobos and jockeys in the races, and considering which Chocobo she would give to Cloud for the race.

It was another half a minute before the lift finally came to a halt, stopping with only a slight shudder. Ester finally looked up from her mumbling and pushed the button to open the doors. A wave of cool air heavy with the scent of sugar and popcorn wafted into the lift, hitting Cloud so full on that he felt a little bit sick. Along with the smells came the sudden lift of noise and sounds, and Cloud realised just where they were.

The lift had opened up right at the entrance to the Chocobo Races, the lift quite cleverly disguised by the words 'Staff Only' painted on the door. There was no doubt that no one else knew that the lift went all the way to the bottom of the Gold Saucer, unless they broke any of Dio's rules.

Ester motioned Cloud out of the lift and quickly led him through the crowds of cheering people who were watching the races. She led him towards the back of the Square to another 'Staff Only' door, and quickly pushed him through before she turned to speak to one of the other members of staff.

The door led Cloud straight into the jockey waiting room, where all of the registered Chocobo jockeys were currently waiting for the next race to start. There were maybe a dozen registered jockeys in all, but at that moment there were only five in the waiting room. The others were all currently racing; hence the sounds of cheers and groans from outside as people either won or lost their bets.

Cloud looked around at the group of jockeys, eyeing them over. They were all professionals, dressed in smart and somewhat silly-looking tunics and riding pants, boots and helmets included. Four of them were sat at a table in the middle of the room, playing cards with one another and enjoying the odd cigarette as they waited for their races to start. There was one other jockey leaning against the nearby wall – a smart-looking jockey with neatly trimmed hair and a rather upper-class expression of smugness on his face, although he didn't look unfriendly. He was the only one who looked at Cloud when he came in, and eyed him over as well.

"You new?" he asked of Cloud. His voice also carried the tone of someone from the upper classes. He looked up over Cloud's shoulder as the door behind him opened, and Ester walked into the room, the cheerful smile still on her face.

"Hi, Joe," she greeted as she looked at the upper class jockey.

"Hey, Ester," Joe replied, tilting his riding helmet slightly in politeness. "You're looking pretty as usual."

Cloud noticed Ester's cheeks flush a little as she spoke. "Thanks," she replied. Realising that she was blushing, she quickly turned to Cloud. "Let me introduce you, Cloud. This is Joe, one of the top Chocobo Jockeys."

"Nice to meet you, Cloud," replied Joe, just as politely. He even took a bow, before he suddenly put two and two together and looked up at Cloud again. "If you're with Ester, then…"

Ester nodded, almost proudly. "Right! He's an up and coming jockey," she said enthusiastically. "He's only been down here for a day, and already he made it up here!"

That caught the attention of the entire group of jockey's in the room. The four jockeys who had been playing cards and only half-listening suddenly dropped their cards down onto the table, cigarettes dropping from their mouths and helmets clattering onto the floor.

"What?" they all exclaimed loudly, and four pairs of eyes all gazed upon Cloud. They had encountered a number of prisoners from the Desert Prison trying to get out before, but never before had a prisoner made it up to the races in just a day. Looking Cloud over, he didn't look like anything special, but he must have done something pretty good to earn such a privilege.

Even Joe seemed quite startled. "Oh, I see…" he said, sounding just a little bit nervous. "So what did you do down there? Sorry… you're not supposed to ask about the past here…" He readjusted his helmet, which had become tilted when he jumped back after realising Cloud was a prisoner and not just another jockey. "Pretty interesting…" he commented. "I have a feeling that we'll meet again. Then, until we meet again, Cloud."

With another polite bow and a smile to Ester, Joe then turned away and headed off to the stables to prepare his Chocobo for the race. Cloud watched him leave. Joe wasn't at all like he had expected from someone so clearly upper class. He was not at all snooty and stuck-up, and quite clearly liked the idea of some new competition.

"I'm going to check on the Chocobo," Ester said suddenly, breaking Cloud from his thoughts. "You just wait here for a while."

Then Ester left as well, also going into the stables to prepare the Chocobo she had chosen for Cloud. Once Ester was gone the four remaining jockeys returned to their game, ignoring Cloud for the time being. They clearly had no interest in prisoners riding in the races, although they showed no hostility towards him. Cloud felt a little awkward standing in the middle of the room by himself, so he went over to where Joe had been standing before, and leaned against the wall.

After a minute or two of waiting, the speaker above the stable door finally crackled into life, and a clear masculine voice spoke through.

"The race will start in a few moments. Will the jockeys for the next race, please proceed to the paddock. I repeat…"

Cloud watched as the other jockeys put their cards back down onto the table, put out their cigarettes, picked up their riding helmets and headed briskly towards the stables to collect their Chocobos. Cloud stayed where he was for a few moments, wondering what he was supposed to do.

While he was waiting, his arm slipped off the ledge he was leaning on, and something red and shiny was knocked off and rolled onto the floor. Cloud quickly caught it before it rolled under the table and saw that it was a piece of Materia, just lying around. He hadn't seen this piece of Materia before, although he'd heard of it. The lightning bolts that flashed very faintly inside the red sphere signified that it was Ramuh, the God of Thunder. Quickly Cloud pocketed it, feeling bad about stealing what could have been someone else's Materia, but they needed every bit of help they could get.

"Cloud," came Ester's voice suddenly, and Cloud quickly bolted upright. Ester was standing in the doorway to the stables. Cloud wondered if she had seen him, but when she carried on speaking, he relaxed with the thoughts that she hadn't. "Thanks for waiting. I registered you in the next race. This is a Chocobo I prepared myself. He won't lose easily. Oh yeah… You know how to ride one?"

Cloud nodded. "Yeah, I got it."

"Then, good luck."

It was very stuffy in the racing arena, Cloud noticed. The Square had been open since morning and had already seen many races already. The stench of Chocobos and sweat filled the air, but that was only because they were all huddled together. It would soon disperse once the race started.

Ester had certainly provided him with a good Chocobo – a yellow Chocobo named Aimee, born and raised in the Chocobo stables. She was a young but very healthy Chocobo, with a sleek coat of fur and feathers and bright brown eyes. She was also very energetic, which made Cloud wonder if she would use up all her stamina before the race could end. Still, he trusted Ester's opinion.

Joe was also in the race, and gave Cloud a wink as he entered the arena with Aimee. His Chocobo, Grey, was a white Chocobo with neatly trimmed feathers and sharp, focused eyes that eagerly looked at the racecourse, stamping its feet down impatiently. Cloud tried to ignore the intimidating looks of the other jockeys and promptly climbed onto Aimee's back, holding onto the reins as he waited for the race to start.

At that moment the lights signalling the beginning of the race began to flash, and all of the jockeys prepared to launch their Chocobos into a quick, sudden dash to get them a good position at the start. Then, when the last light turned green, the race began.

The jockeys all set off, pushing their Chocobos forward in a quick, sudden dash past the starting line and through the short tunnel that was shaped like a Mog's mouth. Cloud ran with them, startled by the sudden rush of exhilaration that came with the thrill of a race.

As they passed through the Mog Mouth Tunnel and onto the blue path that quickly turned into a rainbow-coloured tunnel, the jockeys finally pulled back on the reins and forced their Chocobos to slow down a little, using just enough stamina to break ahead. Now they were more spaced out and not so cramped together, and that was when the true race began.

Cloud found himself in third place when he pulled on Aimee's reins and forced her to slow down. He could feel her resistance to his commands as she tried to continue dashing forward, but Cloud could not afford to use up all her energy before they were near the end. Eventually Aimee complied and slowed down, but he could still feel her urge to run fast and move past the other racers.

He was not surprised to see Joe leading the race as they moved out of the rainbow tunnel and into the patch of grass and forest, a single red sign with a yellow arrow pointing them round to the right slightly where the rest of the racecourse was waiting for them. Joe's Chocobo had been bred specifically for riding, and with a perfect pace and speed, it looked like it was going to be a tough challenge for Cloud to pass him.

One thing Cloud noticed as they went progressed steadily through the racecourse was just how strange and different every single area was. First had been the Mog tunnel and its blue path, and then into a short rainbow tunnel with its multicoloured walls and floors, so perfectly painted they looked natural, and now they were running on grass. It was not real grass, for Cloud could see the faint signs of dark blue-black of rubber that held the artificial grass up, but it was almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

The rubber was also helping the Chocobos move along through the racecourse. With each slam of their clawed feet against the floor it seemed to propel them along, giving them extra bursts of speed that wouldn't use up their stamina. Although Cloud was unaware of the position of the other three riders, he could see Joe and the second-place jockey right ahead of him, and Aimee's desire to speed up and pass them. Cloud was having the same feeling, but he knew he had to keep the Chocobo under his control if he was going to have any chance of winning and getting out of the Gold Saucer.

Following the grassy path area came another area that was again distinctly different from the previous areas. The new area had a floor that was like a chess board, covered in black and white squares that ran on and on ahead of them before curving sharply to the right. Cloud saw Joe push his Chocobo a little harder and swerve slightly to the right as he approached the turn, wanting to get close to the wall before the Chocobo ran round and swerved towards the far wall. Cloud figured he ought to do the same, and quickly made Aimee swerve towards the near wall.

It was a lucky thing for Cloud that he did do it right then, for the jockey in front of him swerved just a little too late, so that when he reached the corner and ran round, his Chocobo moved dangerously close to the wall. The realisation of that and a quick flash of panic caused him to tug harshly on his Chocobo's reins, and the Chocobo staggered and nearly fell over. This mistake caused him to stop as Cloud sailed past on his Chocobo, and it was only after another rider passed him that he was able to start again.

Cloud didn't look back as he continued to run around the large bend, focused on keeping Aimee's agile and energetic body in check and as close to the wall as possible so that he didn't lose control of her. He knew when the bend came to an end for he saw Joe ahead of him relax his grip on the reins, and his Chocobo slowed into a less controlled run.

They were now running on an upward slope, heading towards a small wooden bridge with yellow lights shining up on it that would guide them into the next area. Joe was still steadily pulling away from Cloud, and Cloud knew he had to catch up to the rival jockey before he pulled too far ahead, otherwise there would be no way he could win.

Now running on a brown track, passed a gigantic open oyster shell with a huge shimmering pearl glistening inside, Cloud focused on using a little more of Aimee's pent up energy and speed in order to try and pass Joe and get in the lead of the race. He got the feeling that the racer behind him was getting in fairly close and would pass him if he didn't take a risk on Aimee's stamina.

As Ester had told him to do, he dug in his heels slightly and leaned slightly forward. He felt Aimee's relieved response instantly as she began to run faster, but only until Cloud tugged gently on her reins to tell her that was the speed she needed to go. The young Chocobo did as she was told and ran steadily forwards, and they gradually began to catch up on Joe.

Turning around into the next area Cloud was awestruck by the high stone pillars that lined their path, each one tipped with a ball of holographic flames. Even though they were only holograms Cloud could feel the artificial heat against his skin, but Aimee didn't seem to mind it at all. So Cloud kept on leaning forward and pushed her onwards.

A flash of light suddenly zipped past Cloud and made him jump. Aimee squawked loudly and fluttered her wings a little, just as a second wave of eerie green light fell over her and Cloud.

Cloud looked up and saw more holograms floating above the racecourse. Holograms shaped like spaceships – at least two of them – with a number of pointy aerials and domed tops flew overhead, the light coming from the centre like some sort of beam that was scanning them over. Cloud kept his hold on the reins as they ran through that area, trying his hardest to keep Aimee under control.

He was immensely relieved once they passed through into the crystal area, where clumps of blue-shaded crystals bordered the path, and Cloud once again focused on catching up with Joe. Thankfully Joe's Chocobo had also been startled by the holographic UFOs and had fallen back a foot or two, making Cloud a little closer to him.

Cloud used this to his advantage and began to push Aimee in his direction, hoping to pass him on the right before the course swerved around again past a series of showcases containing small black globules. Slowly but surely Aimee gained speed and eventually reached the tail end of Joe's Chocobo, and was steadily getting closer to being level with them.

Joe finally noticed Cloud running up next to him as they passed the showcases and onto a second grassy path, with a log bridge just ahead of them. He smiled at Cloud and gave him a wave as Cloud ran up beside him, clearly enjoying the race more than anything else, and he seemed very impressed that Cloud had managed to catch up with him.

Cloud waved back, before something else caught his eye and he turned the other way. They were now crossing the log bridge, and to their right was a holographic waterfall, with the hologram continuing its realism way below them. There was a holographic rider on the waterfall, sitting in a canoe right on the edge. As Cloud ran past he saw the canoeist turn around sharply and quicken his strokes, trying to break away from the edge before he fell. He failed, however, and he tumbled over the edge and down towards the water. Again Cloud wondered who had designed such a racecourse, with its different areas and strange designs.

He had little time to ponder that for he and Joe were now coming up to what was most likely one of the final areas of the racecourse. The ground beneath them seemed to disappear until it was just a semi-transparent blue path, and, looking around, it looked as though they were running through space itself.

The air around them seemed very dense and Cloud felt as though it was much harder to move. Aimee had ducked her head low and was running almost at an automatic sprint as she ran alongside Joe's Chocobo, almost neck and neck, leaving Cloud to gaze at the scenery.

Below them was a large moon, obviously not life-size but very realistic. Floating above the path was a huge satellite, and Cloud nearly fell off as he craned his neck back to look at it. He didn't take too long to look around, for they were already coming to the end of the space area, and with Aimee pulling just slightly ahead of Joe's Chocobo, he had to be prepared for what would be the final sprint.

As they passed through the final turn of the space area and broke free they rapidly picked up speed again, and Cloud realised that Aimee was now running full tilt, completely out of his control, towards the finish line ahead.

Joe was just a split second behind but was steadily falling back. A quick glance back at his face made Cloud think that he was holding back a little on purpose, which surprised him a little. Still, it made him glad, for now they were in first place and so close to the finish line.

The finish line – a beam of green light that ran horizontally from end to end of the racecourse, flashed brightly as Aimee passed through it. The echo of loud and happy cheers came through the walls of the racecourse as Cloud pulled harshly on the reins and made Aimee skid into a sharp stop.

Joe stopped just a second later and instantly jumped off his Chocobo, pulling off his helmet as he did. He went straight over to Cloud and shook his hand firmly, just as the last of the racers finally pulled into the finishing area.

"Congratulations!" Ester cried happily. She ran over to Cloud as he entered the waiting room and threw her arms around him cheerfully, despite the fact that he was still hot and flustered from the race. "Now you're home free!" She gave Cloud a tight squeeze before she released him and quickly held out an envelope. "Oh yeah, the owner told me to give this letter to you when you won."

Cloud took the envelope and ripped it open, wondering what Dio had written. As he slowly unfolded the letter and looked at the hasty joined-up writing, he hoped that Ester had managed to do what she said she would, and they would all be free. He could feel Ester's eager gaze on him, and so he read the letter aloud.

Boy, if you're reading this letter, then you must've won. And won a victory I'm sure you earned. I heard about Dyne from Ester. Now that you are victorious, I promise that you and all your friends will get a full pardon, and you all will be set free. And also, by way of apology, I prepared a little gift for you to use on your journey. Sorry I couldn't be there to tell you this in person, but I am a very busy man. Sincerely, Dio.

"A gift?" Cloud asked, looking over at Ester. She didn't reply, but there was a smug smile on her face that made him figure she had something to do with it. He never had the chance to ask her, for a buzzing sound in his pocket made him jump. He quickly pulled out the PHS, which Barret had returned to him before they disembarked from the Shinra ship, and turned it on. Aeris's voice came sailing in through the phone, heavy with feelings of excitement and wonder.

"Cloud, isn't this great!" came her voice. "The assistant manager just stopped by and dropped off a 'buggy' for you! Now you can go over 'deserts' and 'rivers' no problem. Okay, Cloud. I'll be waiting outside."

The phone then clicked off, and Cloud could just picture Aeris running towards the buggy in her usual state of happiness, eager to take the wheel. Just thinking of that made him shake his head pitifully, his blond hair shaking in front of his eyes. He looked down at the letter and saw faint marks of writing on the other side.

Hmm? The letter continues… he thought, and turned it over to continue reading.

P.S: I just recently met Sephiroth. He must have a lot of fans with boys your age. Why don't you get his autograph? It seems he's headed towards the South of the river, towards Gongaga.

"Sephiroth…" Cloud whispered softly. He folded up the letter and placed it carefully back in the envelope.

So Sephiroth had been at the Gold Saucer after all. Cloud did wonder how Dio had come to meet him, and even more, how he had got out of it without being killed. But then, from the look of Dio as Cloud remembered, he figured that even Sephiroth would have a hard time getting his sword through those muscles.

"I guess this is goodbye," said Ester, and Cloud looked at her. "Yeah. Well, if you ever get your own Race Chocobo, come back again. I'll take care of your registration and everything. I'll see you again."

The buggy sure was something, and, as Cloud had expected, Aeris was sitting at the wheel with an excited look on her face. She, Tifa and Cait cheered as Cloud walked up, and he tried to ignore their cheers as he climbed up into the back of the buggy, sitting with Cait and Red XIII, as Barret had taken the seat next to Aeris.

Cloud was also relieved when Tifa handed his sword back to him. Feeling its familiar weight in his hands and the smoothness of the wide, flat blade, it beat holding Chocobo reins any day. He put it back where it should be – on the strap behind his back, and sat back in the car.

"Where to?" asked Aeris from the driver's seat.

Everyone slowly turned to Cloud, waiting for his answer. Cloud stayed silent for a moment, before he finally looked up and said just one word.


End of Part Four

You have now reached the end of Final Fantasy 7: The Story 1st Instalment. The story will continue on a separate file titled Final Fantasy 7: The Story 2nd Instalment. Thank you to all of those who have reviewed this first instalment and made it a success. I hope you will continue to read as we continue this fic soon.

Coming soon:

Final Fantasy 7: The Story 2nd Instalment

Part Five: Study of the Planet


Thank you all so much for reviewing this fic – your opinions are greatly appreciated! I know I said Part Four finishes in Cosmo Canyon, but I decided to end it here so that we can begin in Gongaga in the second instalment! I hope you will all continue reading and reviewing my work!

I will be putting my fic onto my Final Fantasy website soon, so that if it was ever deleted from here, you can find it there.

Again, thank you all so much, and I hope to see you all in the 2nd Instalment!

Sincerely, Emerald Princess of Vernea