Final Fantasy VII (c) Square Enix. Character design by Nomura Tetsuya. No profit is being made out of this fanwork.
The end is only the beginning.
There were no rockets in Rocket Town in this era. In fact, it didn't even go by the name of Rocket Town anymore. As Sephiroth and Zax quickly found out, Somnium City was now the world centre of education, science and technology. The city hall even had a subtitle for the place - The City Where Dreams Take Flight. Considering what it was and all that it supposedly represented, the subtitle did make quite a lot of sense. The narcissistic implications still shone through, though.
"This should be the kingdom of wishes and dreams, then," Zax was looking at the book in his hands. "So it's three down, four more to go. And we only have two more days, because my superior refuses to let me stay on longer. Woe, oh woe!"
Sephiroth pointedly ignored the backhanded complaint. He was looking at the skyscrapers that literally cut into the clouds, impressed. And they thought the Shinra Building was tall.
"There's a musuem here," Zax said, while looking at a signpost tree. "I'm curious. Let's go there first!" He was already bounding off in the direction of the building.
Sephiroth was curious as well, so he said nothing and followed.
The museum was in the shape of a semi-sphere. Mini semi-spheres surrounded the largest one, almost as if it was a parody of the solar system. Zax approached the nearest mini semi-sphere - mini in the relative sense of the word, when compared to the gargantuan sphere in the middle - and stepped through the entrance.
He was transported to an observatory on one of the highest buildings in the city. "Whoooa!" He could not stop himself from shouting, scaring the few other tourists who were also in the observatory. He ran towards the full length glass windows and pressed his face against it, taking in the sights below.
Sephiroth stepped into the area soon after. He glanced around himself first, then located Zax and walked over to join him.
What he saw was nothing short of breathtaking.
They were high enough that they could see clouds moving by at eye-level, but not quite high enough for the clouds to block their view of the ground below. At this height, any vehicle or moving object seemed like a tiny dot on a large surface. The buildings also looked different up here than down there. The most interesting part was that there were tiny carts moving around in midair, carrying passengers. If Sephiroth looked carefully, he could barely make out the translucent rail tracks the carts were moving on.
Then there were the tiny planes that flew around without rails. They weaved skillfully through the cracks between buildings, diving and rising with expert ease. All in all, it made for a surreal scene. Perhaps the city's subtitle had nothing to do with intangible dreams, after all.
"Okay, I've seen enough," Zax suddenly declared. "Now I wanna go ride on one of those carts!" With that gleeful parting shot, he scampered off towards the portal door they had come from.
Sephiroth was not quite sure where Zax ended up after that, but as for himself, he returned to the museum, visited all the other spheres, and eventually made his way back to the ship, trusting that Zax was smart enough to remember where the ship was parked.
About a couple of hours after noon, Zax finally showed up at the ship. With a ton of food and a strange looking device.
"Guess what I bought?" He asked excitedly.
Sephiroth turned away from the ship's monitor (which was displaying some sort of literature in ancient script) and stared. "Lunch, apparently," he eventually replied. "And a strange looking device."
Zax tsked. "It's a globe."
"Yes. You know, that thing that's a 3D map of the world?"
"I know what a globe is, SOLDIER. WHY did you buy a globe?"
At this, Zax shook his head in mock disbelief. "This isn't an ordinary globe!" He paused for dramatic effect. "It's supposed to point us to where we need to go next."
Sephiroth waited for the explanation.
"Oh, can't you take a hint?" Zax grumbled, when the silence stretched far longer than he was comfortable. "This is where you're supposed to be asking me, 'But how?', or 'Why are you such a genius?'!"
"I'm still waiting for the explanation," Sephiroth reminded, turning back to the literature on the screen in the meantime.
"Okay, okay," Zax strode forward and put the globe on a table that spontaneously sprouted from the deck of the cockpit. "Whoa, cool. Thanks, ship!" He pat the table. "So, apparently, you'll just have put something into this opening over here," he combed through his hair and found a loose strand. Then he dropped it into the inch wide round opening on the top of the globe, "and the globe will tell you exactly where the closest similar object is located!"
The globe started swirling around even as Zax spoke. Soon it came to a stop, and the area where Somnium City was located in lit up with a soft yellow glow.
"Of course, it's not exactly pinpoint accuracy, but we should be able to at least get the general vicinity."
"Well, I must commend you for being clever this time, I suppose," Sephiroth nodded gravely to himself. It looks like Zax could be taught after all.
"Actually, almost every tourist buys one of these things when they come here," Zax explained. "So I guess that's probably what Cloud was aiming for as well. I mean, we're not THAT dense, guffaw!"
Sephiroth's high hopes fell, though a resigned sigh was all the evidence he showed.
"Stop doing that, boss. You'll get balder faster," Zax was already flipping through the book about rocket science. He found what he was looking for - the chocobo feather - and set the book aside after that. "Here goes nothing!"
Once the feather was inserted, the globe started its high-speed spinning. It eventually came to a stop. The area just southeast of Somnium glowed yellow.
"That's gotta be Nibelheim," Zax announced, after squinting at the globe a little.
Sephiroth took one look at the globe and disagreed. "Nibelheim's not that far southeast from here. It looks more like the halfway point between Nibelheim and the Goldsaucer."
"Hmm... now that you mention it," Zax looked closer. "I remember that area. I used to wonder why there was a ring of mountains there, and what was within the ring."
"Water, apparently," Sephiroth answered. "We've flown over it a few times before, but since it's all water and mountain, there wasn't any way to land. Not that Shinra's interested, anyway."
"Typical," Zax set the globe aside. "I guess that's our next stop then."
The ship rose to the air, and they were out of the Somnium airspace in no time.
The trip down to the "ring of mountains", as Zax had described, was short and fast. They arrived at the peaceful place in no time at all, and after finding a cliff ledge they could perch the ship on, disembarked. The water came up all the way to the mountain, so the two SOLDIERs stared at the serene scene from another ledge.
"That's a pretty sight," Zax commented. "Nice to finally see it up close and personal for myself." After a while more of staring, he asked, "So what are we supposed to be doing here?"
Sephiroth had his arms folded across his chest. "Perhaps Cloud is suggesting that you need to calm down once in a while."
"Aww, how nice of him," Zax grinned. He put a hand over his eyes. "Hey, lookie, there's a waterfall over there."
The other SOLDIER had noticed that as well. "Interesting," he commented. "There's a river flowing above these mountains."
"And a river leading out as well," Zax pointed in the direction opposite of the waterfall. Sure enough, there was a tiny, almost invisible stream of water leading out of the area, sloping gradually into the landscape below. "You know," Zax was saying, "this place would make an excellent hiding place for someone who doesn't want to be found."
Despite himself, Sephiroth found himself agreeing. "The problem is, of course, how to get here in the first place. And then there's the other problem of where the hermit would actually stay."
Zax had been staring in the direction of the waterfall as Sephiroth made his commentary. He squinted more and more, until finally, he exclaimed, "There's something flashing there!"
Looking in the same direction, Sephiroth saw what Zax had meant. There was something flashing indeed, and it wasn't the sunlight reflecting off the cascading waterfall. It was a sharp glint that occurred at irregular intervals.
"What do you think it is?" Zax asked in an excited whisper.
"We won't know for sure until we go closer," Sephiroth decided not to speculate. Slowly, the two of them made their way over to the waterfall by scaling the precarious cliff walls one ledge at a time. No one questioned the other why they weren't using the ship to fly over instead. After all, they were playing a game. No wait, a treasure hunt. No wait, they were having a guided tour of the future world!
Closer to the waterfall, there was actually a sandy strip of beach, which was where the two SOLDIERs eventually ended up on. There was nothing much on the beach, except a few pieces of seashells. Sephiroth looked up at the thundering waterfall as Zax examined the perimeter of the beach. After a while, they regrouped and shared their findings.
"Don't think any of these seashells was the cause," Zax had picked one up and was waving it around. "The shells are shiny and everything, but they don't give off a sharp glint."
Sephiroth nodded in acknowledgement. "There is a cave behind the waterfall," he said plainly.
Zax blinked. "A cave?"
"Can we access it?"
"Chances that the glinting stuff is inside?"
"All things considered, exceptionally high."
Zax grinned and chucked the seashell in his hand away. "Lead the way, boss!" He declared victoriously.
"Precautions first, SOLDIER," Sephiroth reminded, setting up a Barrier as he strode forward.
"Oh, right," Zax nodded sagely, throwing up a Barrier as well. "I forget sometimes."
"All the time," Sephiroth corrected. Without waiting for a reply, he walked into the falling streams of water, followed closely by Zax. The journey through the curtain lasted a few seconds, but the pounding water made it seem a little longer. Nevertheless, when they broke through the torrents and stepped into a quiet, tranquil cavern glowing with natural energy, it was as if the loud pounding of the water outside had faded to the back of their minds.
It turned out they were right - the irregular sharp glint was coming from a torchlight that had been set to go on and off at intervals. It had been placed in such a way that it would shine on the large crystal stalactite protruding out from the roof of the cavern.
On closer examination, however, they saw that it wasn't really a stalactite. It was a pillar of crystal that somehow had its bottom snapped off in a rather dramatic fashion, giving it the look of a stalactite. While Sephiroth looked over the interesting phenomenon, Zax picked the torchlight up and gave the room a cursory glance.
"The torchlight definitely show signs of recent use," Zax finally commented. "The cave, however, doesn't."
Sephiroth said nothing. He stooped down and stepped into the stalactite lookalike, which he now discovered that it not only was hollow inside, but was rather roomy as well. More than enough space to house a person standing, though any other activity would be rather dubious. He had gone inside the crystal because there was a piece of paper on the floor within.
"What did you find?" Zax sauntered over with the torch.
"A letter," was Sephiroth's slightly disturbed reply.
"Who's it for?" Zax detected the tone of voice, but didn't ask.
Now Zax was mystified. "Is it from Cloud?"
"No." And that was all Sephiroth would say. He strode out of the hollow crystal pillar, still looking at the letter. Deciding it was none of his business anyway, Zax shrugged and followed.
"Any clues as to where the chocobo feather might be?" Zax asked. "I've searched everywhere and it doesn't seem like it could be anywhere. In that case, this is probably not the place Cloud wanted to show us?"
"Check the battery compartment of the torch," Sephiroth suggested offhandedly, still reading.
Zax did. "Wow! You are a genius, boss," he exclaimed. There was a baby chocobo feather wedged on the sides where the batteries were placed.
"I prefer to call myself a man with common sense," the other SOLDIER replied. He folded the paper and put it away.
"So Cloud did want us to find this place," Zax nodded. "I can sort of imagine, though. It IS a very pretty place. And I've always wondered what was inside this area. Maybe I even mentioned it offhandedly to him way back in the past when we were still, err, eons younger. Makes me soft and mushy inside to know that he still remembered after all this time..."
"Yes, it's a very nice place," Sephiroth agreed. But his tone of voice and manner suggested that his mind was very much somewhere else. He realised it himself a few moments later, and the distant look in his eye faded away almost imperceptibly. "It feels like... home."
"A perfect hideaway. In fact, I feel like I could just stay here for the next two weeks!" Zax stretched like a cat.
"Tomorrow we return, SOLDIER," Sephiroth was back to his businesslike self. Still, he had to hold himself back from shooting Zax a glare. "And since time is short, we might as well return to the ship to find out our next destination."
Zax pouted, and actually sat down on the cave floor. "But it's so nice and cool here! We can set up camp and maybe a fire. The sound of the water falling, the rejuvenating glow of the mako crystals... What's a tour without a hotel, right? And this is just what we need."
Sephiroth gave Zax a long, but blank stare. "Do you want to go back without talking to the Cloud of this world for one last time?"
Zax blinked. "No..."
"Then we will continue this guided tour until we find him. Hopefully we can act quickly enough before your annual leave runs out," the general shook his head. "It's not that I don't understand your point of view. Since we've already bent the time rules, we might as well bend it some more, right? But there's no telling what we could change unknowingly. And we can't know for sure if the Planet, or Lifestream, or whatever we're using to get back, is really going to put us back at whatever time we wanted. We don't have enough weight to dictate that, Zax."
The pout was still on Zax' face, but he had turned aside with a pensive look. He definitely knew in his head that his superior was right (as usual), but his heart still prodded him in the other direction (as usual).
Finally, he leapt onto his feet. The pout was gone, and in its place was a wide grin. "You're right, sir!" He saluted. "And now that you mention it, I'm kinda missing my spikey friend too. Race you to the ship!" Without waiting for an answer, he took off.
Sephiroth allowed himself a small smile before following, albeit a lot more calmly. Oh, he was going to have the last laugh.
And as it turned out, he did have the last laugh. Zax had forgotten that Sephiroth controlled the ship like it was an extension of his own body. Even from a distance, he could summon the ship to him, which was what he did while Zax was scaling cliff walls. Back in the cockpit, he got an earful from Zax about cheating and the like, but after pointing out that Zax merely wanted to 'race to the ship' and had stipulated no rules, the sulking SOLDIER found a lonely corner and ruminated there until their next destination, which the globe had indicated as the Cosmo Canyon region.
With Zax in self-exile mode, Sephiroth took the silence of his sounding board as a chance to look up the area using the ship's database. Amazingly, the ship was not only self-repairing (which they found out after they accidentally scraped the side of the ship on a mountain), but its information bank was self-updating as well. It responded to frequencies of all levels, read into radiowaves, and parsed just about every known invisible data protocol under the sun. And maybe even some unknown. This thing was truly a piece of engineering and technological masterpiece. Sephiroth would be quite upset to eventually have to leave it. Thankfully, he would never remember it. And what you couldn't remember, you wouldn't miss, right?
Maps of the Cosmo Canyon region sprung up in vibrant holographic popup screens all around Sephiroth, until he found the one he was looking for - the latest photograph of the telescope they had almost bumped in the initial part of their tour.
He wasn't a scientist, and never had a good impression of the profession, so he didn't know much about telescopes, nor did he read much about them. However he did know that the bigger the lens (and thus the bigger the telescope), the further they could see. Since they were being guided to the area, they would most definitely have an encounter with that giant telescope one way or the other. Cloud was probably even counting on it. So he pulled up information about the telescope, what it viewed, and what its opening hours were. He discreetly got the ship to send the data to Zax' corner.
Zax made a few grunts of agreement, but did not break his self-imposed silence.
Cosmo Canyon was only a short way off from where they were, so they were there in the blink of an eye. Parking the ship behind a corner in the canyon, the two SOLDIERs disembarked and made their way into the principal Cosmo Canyon town. It was only after they stepped over the entrance to town that Zax broke out of his shell. He punched both hands into the air and yelled, "Whoopie!"
"So you've finally found your voice," Sephiroth quirked an eyebrow.
"Yeah, I told myself I wasn't going to until I win you to the next town," the SOLDIER beamed wolfishly at his superior. "And I just did that! One step before you!" He pointed at the line that indicated the entrance to town.
Sephiroth found the entire thing so trivial, he did not dignify Zax with a response. Instead he said, "We should probably check the telescope."
"Hey, it's my tour!" Zax protested. "Let me do the leading! So yeah, let's check the telescope!" He declared and dashed off across the town square in the direction of the massive telescope.
It was almost evening time by now. The orange hue in the sky reflected on the canyon gave the entire landscape a warm and welcoming glow, despite its generally barren outlook on the whole. Windows of the mud houses in the canyon town started lighting up. There were a few people still ambling around the main streets, and some were quite obviously tourists. Despite the item of interest (read: telescope), it was clear to Sephiroth that the town had remained a sleepy town. Perhaps they just didn't care to promote tourism here, or perhaps not enough people cared about the outer space to visit. Whatever it was, the lack of a crowd made this place very pleasant indeed to the city-dweller.
Pushing his thoughts to the back of his mind, Sephiroth continued on his way towards the giant telescope. Zax was already nowhere to be seen, so he assumed the other SOLDIER was already inside. When he stepped into the complex holding the huge telescope, he was rather awed.
The ceiling of the first storey was built like a three-dimensional planetarium of the current known universe. There were also information boxes furnishing more information about one planet or the other. After perusing through quite a few exhibits, Sephiroth decided it was time to locate his companion. He headed off to the main attraction, located on the third floor.
True enough, Zax was there. In the middle was the gigantic telescope mounted on a sturdily built platform. It pointed up to the sky, and there was a short queue of people waiting to peer into its lens. Zax was among them, and he was quite in front, so Sephiroth didn't go over to bother him. Instead, he examined the room, which was round in shape and walled with glass curtains. There were also other telescopes of various sizes pointing in various directions all around the circumference of the room.
The other smaller telescopes around the room were labelled with place names, so Sephiroth assumed they offered a bird's eye view of the particular place from this spot here in Cosmo Canyon. And after examining a few of them, he found out that he was right.
It was quite interesting, looking at all the places in the current world through a telescope. This was probably one of the reason why Cloud had directed them here. Where else could they get a quick overview of the world all at once?
Just as Sephiroth decided he had had enough and was about to go seek Zax out again, he overheard two technicians talking.
"I don't know, it looks like a feather to me."
"Why would there be a feather on top of the lens? We're nowhere near a chocobo stable."
Of course, all things considered, this certainly deeply interested him. He went nearer to the two talking technicians and waited to hear more.
"It wasn't there yesterday when I checked the lens," one of the technicians was saying, with his arms crossed over his chest in a pose of defiance.
"Oh come on, I wasn't implying you didn't do your job or anything," the other technician sighed. "I just wanted to inform you so we could come up with something together..."
It seemed like they might be taking a while, so Sephiroth simply took note of which telescope they were standing in front of before moving off to find Zax after all.
Zax had evidently already finished viewing whatever the large telescope had to show, for he was standing to a side and in deep thought about something. When he sensed Sephiroth approaching, however, he put on his usual grin. "Yo!" He saluted his superior. "Whaccha find?"
"What about you?" Sephiroth nodded in the direction of the gigantic telescope.
At that, Zax shook his head and sighed in resignation. "It's awesome, of course," he remarked, "but it's aimed at the furthest planet in our universe, which would take 18 million light years to reach. I don't know about you, but I don't think it's a good idea to try to get there, even with your new toy."
"I found a feather," Sephiroth said, after Zax finished.
"Seriously! That's our clue then!" The other SOLDIER's demeanour changed and now he was visibly excited. "Where is it?"
"On a telescope."
Zax tilted his head. "Where does that telescope point to?"
"I have no idea," Sephiroth turned around and nodded in the direction of the two squabbling technicians. "They've been arguing about it since just now, and I couldn't look at it. The label says 'Ancient Forest', though."
"Hmm... probably a new place. I've never heard of it in our time before," Zax put two fingers on his chin and thought out loud. "Where could it be?"
"It's pointing southeast of here," Sephiroth was saying. "Perhaps we could cruise along that direction and land on the nearest forest. After all, how many forests can there be along a canyon?"
"Sounds like a plan," Zax beamed again. "But hey, since it's already so late, we should probably stay here for today! You know, be tourists and everything. And being the science buff or whatever you are, you might as well go take a look at that gigantic telescope before we go!" He jerked a thumb behind him, in the direction of 'that gigantic telescope'.
"Needless to say, I will do just that," Sephiroth had been intending to do that anyway. "Can I trust you to find suitable lodgings for us this time?" He asked Zax with slight suspicion in his voice.
"Aww, didn't you like the inn at Wutai?" Zax pouted.
"Not everyone likes to sleep in hammocks, Zax."
Zax actually guffawed at that. "Don't worry about anything and just leave it to me, boss!" He waved and dashed out of the observatory without turning back.
'That's why I'm worried,' thought Sephiroth to himself as he watched Zax disappear. Nevertheless, he made his way to the large telescope, intrigue winning over anxiety about where they would stay the night.
In the end, Zax found them a rather decent hotel carved out from one of the walls of the canyons. From their open windows, they could see the town's public square and surrounding buildings quite clearly. Still, it was a rather eventless night. Unlike Wutai, which was often brimming with festivities, Cosmo Canyon had always been a quiet place for relaxing meditation.
So the duo set off in search for the Ancient Forest the first thing next morning.
The morning of their last day in the future.
The Ancient Forest wasn't hard to locate. As Sephiroth had mentioned, a forest growing in the middle of hard canyon soil couldn't possibly be missed for anything in the world. Therefore, within a very short period of time, they found themselves hovering above the luxuriant canopy of trees atop a particularly high canyon.
"Looks like the only plausible spot in the whole region to suit the description of a forest," Zax pointed out.
Sephiroth nodded in agreement. He piloted the ship to land in a clearing, and after that they disembarked.
Of course, the first thing they noticed were the oversized venus flytraps and pitcher plants.
"I think," Zax had the fairytale book in his hands, so he opened it. "I think... this is the kingdom of man-eating flowers."
Sephiroth used his sword to pry open a closed venus flytrap. The flytrap gurgled and an acidic liquid began to ooze out from between its teeth.
"Uh-huh," Zax glanced at his companion dubiously. After a while more of standing on the spot, he continued, "So what was Cloud expecting us to do here?"
This time, Sephiroth swung his sword and lopped an overhanging pitcher plant off from its stem. It fell to the floor and acid oozed out from inside as well.
"I get it already, you don't have to keep destroying nature," Zax sighed at his companion.
Sephiroth shook his head. "Don't you hear something?"
Zax stared at his superior like he was crazy, but nevertheless concentrated. In order not to confuse himself too much, he tended to switch his enhancements off when not actively using them (they had an entire course dedicated to training them to do this in the SOLDIER program). Now that they were back on, all he could hear were insects, birds, a faraway monster or two, and the sound of wind blowing on the strings of a harp.
"Someone planted a music instrument in this forest," Zax concluded. "Or maybe in the future world, music instruments grow on trees?"
Sephiroth simply folded his arms across his chest and closed his eyes. After a while, he opened his eyes and turned his head to look in a particular direction. He moved towards the large tree that was there.
Zax had followed, and they both stood beneath the tree, looking up at the long, long trunk. "I can't see where it ends," Zax admitted, "but I can hear the harp and it's definitely somewhere up there."
"Do you hear any other music instruments?" Sephiroth questioned.
Zax listened to the environment for a while more. "Nope, so I guess it must've been planted there. Would've been cool if they just grew on trees, though!" He shrugged but was grinning away.
"It would have been a disaster," Sephiroth mumbled. The image of a grand piano growing on a tree and dropping down on an innocent passerby flashed through his mind.
"So the question now is, how do we get that harp down?" Zax continued. "Chop the tree?"
"We'll keep that as our last option," Sephiroth said, while digging around in his pockets. He eventually produced a summon materia, and equipped it. And summoned it.
And it was King Arthur and his knights of the round again.
"I seem to see a pattern developing here," King Arthur said, after he and his men had located the harp and brought it down to the ground to give it to the two men there. "So while I'm here, I feel there is a need for me to remind you that summons are guardians and not errand boys."
"Duly noted," Sephiroth smirked. "But tell that to the one who started this trend after you see him again."
King Arthur made an amused snort, bowed, and disappeared back to his dimension.
Left behind with the harp, the two SOLDIERs turned their attention to the harp that had been wedged up in the tree.
"Now where on earth could he be wanting us to go next?" Zax wondered out loud. "This forest looks kinda fun, but I have a feeling I'd be risking my life to explore it. And that's kinda not fun."
After silently thinking for a while more, Sephiroth finally asked, "What are the kingdoms we've already visited according to the fairytale?"
Zax tilted his head questioningly, but complied by recalling all the kingdoms. "Let's see... the underwater labyrinth thing was Midgar, this is the kingdom of man-eating flowers... There was a hidden waterfalls kingdom... and that's probably the crystal cave we saw yesterday. Five terraces is Wutai, space and dreams is Somnium, so we're left with silent reflections and undisturbed seashells. Don't think Cosmo Canyon had any seashells, so it's probably silent reflections?"
"And that leaves undisturbed seashells," Sephiroth nodded in acknowledgement. "Well done, SOLDIER. What else does the tale say about that particular kingdom?"
After considering it for a while more, Zax shook his head sheepishly and said, "I'll have to look at the book again for the details, but it mentioned something about the key to the kingdom being a beautiful song that rouses up even the forest from its sleep or something...?"
Sephiroth nodded in approval. "And does that ring any bells?"
"Oh!" Zax suddenly exclaimed after the prompting. "The Sleeping Forest! We had that even during our era, didn't we?"
"Indeed we did," Sephiroth answered. "And Shinra had never been able to go past it because all the scouts kept falling asleep in it."
"I heard there was a legend saying that the Lunar Harp is the only thing that allows you access into the area and beyond."
"And now it's time for us to test that legend," Sephiroth held the harp out to Zax. "Your game. Your move."
"Stop calling it a game already!" Zax fumed, but accepted the harp all the same.
After looking around a bit more at the thick jungle of exotic plants and animals, they departed from the Ancient Forest and headed back to the ship.
Once back, they tried to locate the nearest chocobo feather using the globe, but it kept indicating Cosmo Canyon. The technicians had probably yet to find a way to get the feather down from the telescope, although Sephiroth believed that Cloud was no longer using feathers to guide them. He had taken the trouble to plant the harp in the tree, after all.
As they flew towards the northern continent and was well out of range from the Cosmo Canyon region, Zax tried the globe again, but it still continued pointing to the same old place. "I guess you must be right," he grudgingly admitted that Sephiroth's theory about Cloud not using the feathers anymore was sound, all things considered. Still, admitting his superior was right always resulted in a smirk that made him want to stomp on something. "So how far away are we from the Sleeping Forest?"
"I'm glad you asked," Sephiroth said, "because we've just arrived."
They disembarked and stood at the entrance of an eeriely silent forest. Incidentally, some of the trunks were glowing. And the green mist the forest was cloaked in did nothing to brighten its eerie image.
"The front part of the tour was nice and exciting," Zax admitted, as they strode through the quiet, quiet forest, "but this is just creepy."
"I find it educating," Sephiroth said. "Shinra never managed to find the Lunar Harp - or they never believed it existed. Either ways, this will probably be the first and last time we step foot into this enigma. Cherish it while you can, SOLDIER."
"Can't see why Shinra would be so interested in it, though," Zax swat away a low-hanging branch.
"Mako, what else?" Sephiroth almost snorted. "And to be honest, the northern continent has always thrummed with the beat of the Planet. It's not surprising they might want to check out possible new energy sources. Thankfully, this serene forest is being protected by something far greater than corporate greed."
"Like, the Planet?" Zax joked.
"Like the Planet," Sephiroth simply replied. The light was getting brighter as they walked, indicating that they were nearing the end of the forest. A few silent moments of steady walking later, they were out, and standing before a makeshift log-bridge of sorts over a thin strip of calm, unmoving waters.
Sephiroth paused and took a long look around himself. The forest had led them to a mountainous enclave of sorts. Within the enclave were paths leading towards and around what he could only deduce was a city. There were houses, strangely-shaped though they were, surrounding a large structure of protruding tree trunks that twisted around each other before eventually fanning out to cover almost the entire canopy of the enclave. At the lower portion of the trunks were leaf-like structures, sheltering the houses at the edge of the city.
Obviously, there used to be people staying here. And from the looks of things, a very long time ago. Where they went to or what happened to them, Sephiroth had no idea. Although, if he didn't know about them, it was likely they weren't in his era. Then again, there were so many things the world still didn't know about. There was really no telling.
He walked across the bridge, towards the city, quietly followed by Zax.
Together they briefly toured the empty city. True to its moniker in the fairytale, there were seashells all right. Gigantic ones, serving as houses. Though all of them were devoid of life, the place was at the same time devoid of any kind of sadness. Somehow, the bright light shining through the canopy of the twisted branches dispelled all such feelings. Nevertheless, as it didn't particularly seem appropriate for reasons unknown to the both of them, neither spoke.
That is, until they saw Cloud.
He was sitting on a ledge of sorts, staring into space when his gaze inadvertently fell on the two approaching SOLDIERs. He froze, genuinely surprised to see them, although it was only detectable by the slight widening of his eyes. He hopped down from the protrusion in the wall that looked like either a bed or a very uncomfortable sofa. "You made it to the end of the tour! But the end is only the beginning. Welcome to the Forgotten Capital," was his simple yet confusing introduction. After a questioning silence, he added, "I stay here once in a while because it's... nostalgic. Interestingly, it's also one of the few places on the Planet where you can get away from the Planet."
"Now hold it right there, buster!" Zax stormed up and caught the surprised Cloud in a headlock. "You disappeared and led us on a wild goose chase all around the Planet and when we finally meet again, this is all you have to say?"
"Ow, ow!" Was all Cloud had to say at the moment.
"Allow me to explain," Vincent suddenly materialised from a shadow in the room, causing Zax to yelp in surprise. "Although, there really isn't anything much to explain. We just thought you might enjoy the slight respite before going home."
"It was an enlightening tour," Sephiroth concurred.
"But without a guide," Zax complained, letting go of Cloud as he did. The latter very quickly retreated out of arm's reach.
"To be honest, the world right now is much too complex to be covered within three days," Vincent continued. "The population has grown since your era, and there are more places to go. Nevertheless, you've been to both cities and nature reserves. Surely it was a fulfilling tour, all things considered."
Sephiroth had been digging around his pockets, and took out the summon materia. "King Arthur sends his regards," he threw the orb towards Cloud, who caught it. "And he wants you to stop using him as an errand boy."
"What? I never ask him to run errands!" Cloud scoffed, tucking the materia away. "Though, I do ask him for favours," he got into a thoughtful pose. "I guess that means I should be careful the next time I see him..."
Zax had deflated by now, and had sat himself on the ledge Cloud had previously been on. "I guess you're right," he was addressing Vincent. "It was kinda fun - without a guide and everything. Discovering everything by ourselves..." He paused and glanced around himself. "But what is this place? Forgotten Capital? Of which country?"
Cloud and Vincent exchanged glances. "The Ancients used to stay here," Cloud eventually said, without fanfare.
"The Ancients?" It was Sephiroth. He frowned. "What are we doing here, then?
"This city was already in ruins during your era," Cloud explained. "The natural barriers around this place meant that it was hardly ever disturbed, and that continued down to today. As for what we're doing here..." He turned and started walking towards a ramp heading downwards. "Follow me," he simply said.
Lower and lower they went, until the only light that reached them was the the whitish-blue glow of the barren trunks that shielded the city from view overhead. Finally, they arrived at a cavern of shimmering, blue water. The ramp widened out into a road, which led to a large seashell-shaped structure that had obviously seen better days. Light rays glared down at the structure, contrasting it with the dim surroundings.
Within the structure was pitch darkness, and a winding staircase of light. As they carefully made their way down the stairs, they eventually came to see that it led to yet another hidden structure in the bowels of the earth, surrounded by light crystals. This particular structure was not in as bad a state as the village houses above, but obvious signs of age were there. Besides the main buildings, there was an outbuilding that looked like an elaborate observatory at first, but was actually an altar.
It was to this altar that Cloud led them.
Taking in the sights took a while, but the silence stretched on for much longer than it was necessary to simply take in the sights.
Eventually, Zax had to ask, "Again, why are we here? Don't get me wrong, it's really beautiful and everything, but I have this strange feeling we're intruding on a space we really shouldn't be."
Zax' sharp senses never failed to amaze Cloud, even now. He smiled wryly. "Well," he tested his voice first, and after making sure it was steady, continued, "this is the place closest to the Planet, and also the place the white materia responds best to. To ensure a higher rate of success when you return, you know? Can't have you landing in yet another time stream and messing things up."
Sephiroth was not convinced. "You just said a while ago this is one of the few places on the Planet where you can get away from the Planet."
"Yeah," Cloud nodded. "It's complicated," he tried not to twist his facial expressions too much. "But trust me on this - the white materia will be a lot easier to activate here. I'm not sure about the black materia, though, but considering the close proximity to the crater, I should think the effect is about the same."
The weight of the situation began to truly sink into the two time-travellers for the first time in the three days of their mundane touring. The fact that they were outsiders to this time stream; the fact that they were standing at the threshold of the door home, so to speak - it was only starting to sink in now, as they discussed their method of return and the best way to go about doing it.
Cloud had moved to join Vincent near the staircase leading up to the altar. The line was thus clearly drawn.
"I wanted to talk to you more, kiddo," Zax protested feebly from where he stood on the altar platform. But he made no move to go closer to where Cloud was. "You let us go on the tour by ourselves partly because you didn't want to talk to me, didn't you?"
In reply, Cloud gaped a little.
"You don't have to hide it, I had a feeling," Zax shrugged. "It's okay, Cloud. I understand," he smiled.
And Cloud knew he really did. "I'm sorry," he apologised, his eyes downcast.
"It's fine!" Zax flashed him a thumbs-up sign. Turning to Sephiroth, he asked, "So, you ready to go back home, sir?"
Sephiroth eyed him accusingly. "I was ready three days ago, SOLDIER."
Zax just laughed.
All of a sudden, a flash of light struck the platform, blinding everyone present momentarily. When they managed to open their eyes again, the light had faded away. In turn, however, the black and white materia had been pulled out from where they had been kept, and were now floating in the air, each glowing softly.
Lifestream was starting to crawl out from the cracks in the platform. "And I think the Planet is ready to boot us back to where we belong," Sephiroth said, and he sounded amused.
"Gee, why am I not surprised, the little spoilsport," Zax sulked a little, and received a gentle jab from a tendril of Lifestream. "Ouch! I was joking!" He protested. Above the two SOLDIERs, the light from the two materia kept getting brighter and brighter. Below them, the Lifestream slowly weaved itself into a cocoon of meshes.
"Farewell, sojourners," was Sephiroth's simple salutation. "Our minds may never remember your hospitality, but our hearts always will."
Cloud actually smiled at that. "Hey," he said, when the light was so bright, he could no longer see ahead properly. "Do you believe in happily-ever-afters?"
The reply was a light chuckle. "I don't know, Cloud.
"That depends on you."
And then green light engulfed everything.
From 17 October 2005 to 2 April 2012.
Are any of you who were there in the beginning still with the fic at this point of time? XD
Whether or not you were, thanks for sticking around! Sorry for any plotholes or plot details I may have forgotten despite my best efforts, and if possible, please just gloss through them! This is the final chapter of Sojourners. Hope you've enjoyed it as much as I did writing it.
And as to whether they had their happily-ever-afters, that really does depend on you(r hyperactive imaginations)!
Thank you very very much for reading!