Chapter XII: The World on a Chocobo

The flat, rolling plains soon gave way to the deep, cool Kalm Valley, bordered on the north and south by a tall chain of snow capped mountains. The sun was beginning to touch the tops of the mountains, casting long shadows behind Cloud and the others. Soon, the entire valley would be bathed in a sharp red glow from the setting sun, mixed with the soft pinks and oranges that would glow from above, showing the fine line between majestic sunsets and clear, starry nights. Already in the east, the faintest hint of night could be seen, and the first few bright stars were starting to make an appearance on the horizon. Even the large, near full moon was hanging low in the sky, hiding behind the mountain range.

Our first night out of Midgar, Cloud thought with a sigh. I didn't think we'd ever come this far. I thought for sure, at one time or another, the Shinra would be the death of us all. This time, he was more than glad to be wrong.

As the mountains began to dip lower and lower, the sky was now a dark, rich red that filled almost the entire sky. Behind them, the twinkling stars were being blotted out by oncoming storm clouds. No doubt, there was a huge thunderstorm shaking Midgar to its core right now. The storm would sweep over Kalm by dawn tomorrow, and hit Cloud and the others that afternoon. Hopefully, they could find the Chocobo Ranch before the storm broke over them. A chocobo wouldn't be cheap, but it would greatly speed up travel. They might even manage to catch up to Sephiroth before he got to Junon.

Off in the distance, Cloud could hear the faint warbling of chocobos echo across the empty air. Mu holes were almost at every step, most of them full of angry mus that spat puddles of hot water. Herds of wild elfadunks lumbered across the tall, grassy plains, trumpeting loudly in the still silence of the grasslands and constantly searching for water.

"I think I see the Chocobo Ranch," Tifa said, pointing east. The very top of a large, white barn could be seen against the sun over the next hill. Nodding, Cloud started off over the hill.

Choco Bill's Chocobo Ranch was a family owned business that had prospered for generations. The large white barn with the crude chocobo painted on the front took up a large part of the farm, and the fresh smell of newly cut grass and greens wafted from the open double doors. In front of the barn was the chocobo pen, where four wild chocobos were prancing about on their tall, skinny legs, warking at each other and scratching at the ground. Off to the side was a small house, with a long trail of smoke pouring out of the chimney. A well sat in the front yard, full of clear spring water.

Cloud's memory flashed back to the chocobo training he had gotten all those years ago. Chocobos themselves were seven to eight feet tall, and covered in bright yellow feathers. Almost all of them had either sparkling blue or dark almond eyes, and made a "wark" sound whenever they spoke. Their long, skinny legs were bent backwards, making them rather large yellow birds. "Big damn chickens," Barret might have said.

Inside the small house, Cloud found a short, balding man with a black cap on, pouring over several stacks of papers. Notes were being scribbled down, and some ugly curses came from the table. When Choco Bill heard Cloud come in, though, his mood lightened almost immediately, and he greeted the strangers with a warm smile. "Well, what can I do ya for? Thinkin' about crossing the marshes?"

The ex-SOLDIER cocked his head and gave Choco Bill a confused look. "Well…yeah, I guess so. Why?"

"Cause you'll need a chocobo to outrun the Midgar Zolom!" Choco Bill said, chuckling. He shuffled over to a small cupboard and pulled out a newspaper clipping that showed a picture of what looked like an impossibly huge snake hovering over an elfadunk. Its fangs were said to be six feet long, and its bite was instant death. Even worse, the Zolom could conjure up a frighteningly large amount of flames from its hood and release it in the form of a fireball which researchers have called "Beta".

Cloud got halfway through the article before Choco Bill snatched the paper back and stuffed it into his pocket. "My son, Choco Billy, is in the barn. He'll help you find some chocobos."

Shrugging, Cloud led the others inside the large barn. The smell of fresh greens and hay were even stronger inside than outside, and the sun cast its rosy red glow in through the windows, giving the barn little light. Choco Billy and his sister, Chloe, were just starting to turn on the lanterns when Cloud came in.

"You lookin' for a chocobo?" Billy asked. "Well, you old folks are outta luck!"

Cloud blinked. Old folks?

"Those chocobos out there are for somebody else," Billy said. "If you want one, you should go out and catch 'em. I can sell you some Chocobo Lure Materia for…oh, shall we say, two thousand gil?"

"What?!" Cloud snapped. "That's insane! We'd be able to rent a boat from Bone Village and sail to Junon for cheaper than that!"

Billy shrugged. "Well, if that's how you feel…"

"No, wait!" Tifa said suddenly.

"I can't believe you actually shelled out money for this rock," Cloud grumbled. His legs were burning and cramped from squatting down in the wet grass for so long, but he refused to go anywhere if the seat of his pants were wet. The purple Chocobo Lure Materia had barely managed to flicker once in the several hours they had bought it, and no chocobos had even come close to where they were waiting. Tifa was kneeling down next to Cloud, there was no chance she was going to squat in that miniskirt when he was around, and holding onto a long rope attached to a bundle of Mimet Greens, a delicacy even for chocobos in captivity. She shrugged, and nudged Aerith, who was next to her and almost asleep on her feet. Maybe Cloud and Tifa were used to long, sleepless nights, but then again, not everybody could be an ex-SOLIDER or in AVALANCHE, she thought bitterly, though it was hard to get the words together through the thick fog that clouded her thoughts.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Tifa said softly. "Besides, I got the best greens money could buy. Just give it some more time.

Several long, painfully boring hours later, Aerith was snoozing peacefully on the grass. Tifa was close to joining her, but Cloud sat with his face buried in his knees, muttering to himself. So much for fast travel, he thought bitterly. He could almost see Sephiroth roaring with laughter at him.

A low rustling brought Cloud's head back down to earth. Snapping his head up, the ex-SOLDIER saw a tall, gangly shape roaming around in the darkness. The feathery shadow bobbed up to the greens at the end of the rope and sniffed curiously. It pecked at the rope, but eventually gave up and swallowed the greens whole, rope and all.

Cloud sprang to his feet and grabbed a hold of the other end of the rope. The chocobo warbled in surprise and jumped back, still munching. As Cloud drew closer, though, the chocobo backed up a few steps, and eventually broke into a full-out run. Cloud yelped in surprise and followed, still holding onto the rope. Had he been any closer, the chocobo might have just ripped his arms from their sockets.

Through the chill night, the chocobo tried to chew the tough rope that Cloud was barely managing to hold on to. Snarling, the ex-SOLDIER shook his huge sword off his back and managed to get his second wind. Mu holes seemed to spring up under his feet, and more than once, Cloud tumbled to the ground in a cloud of dust. Dragged across the plains by the chocobo, Cloud tried to turn over onto his back so he could get a good look at the bird.

Instead, he looked up and saw an unusually large mu pop out of its hole and squawk at him. The mu reared back and spat steaming hot water at Cloud, causing the ex-SOLDIER to duck his head and let the water splash on his hair and run down his back. When he looked up again, he saw the look of terror on the mu as the ex-SOLDIER plowed through the mu hole and picked up the tiny beast.

Still being dragged by the chocobo, Cloud slowly began to pull himself up the rope and gain some ground on the fleeing bird. When he had gotten halfway up the rope, the ex-SOLDIER used his hips to bounce himself back up and start skidding across the damp grass on his knees. Closing his eyes and swallowing hard, Cloud pulled on the rope and used the chocobo for leverage as he pulled himself back to his feet.

Battered and bleeding, Cloud continued the not so merry chase through the darkness with a screaming mu clinging to his shoulders and spitting hot water everywhere. Though his knees were shredded and his legs were burning, Cloud gritted his teeth and dug his heels into the ground. The chocobo warked a screech and pumped its legs faster, lowering its head and hanging its tongue out of its beak.

Still, Cloud refused to give up. He pulled back on the rope that was still inside the chocobo's mouth, causing the bird's neck to snap backwards. Warking furiously, the bird tumbled backwards and crashed into a still speeding Cloud. Both bird and ex-SOLDIER went flying head over heels back the way they had come a good fifteen feet before losing momentum and landing in a tangled heap. With one final spray of water, the mu fled back to its hole and vanished.

Groaning, Cloud pushed the bird off him and crawled to his feet. Warbling happily, the chocobo jumped to its feet and nuzzled Cloud lovingly. The ex-SOLDIER made a choked curse and tried to push the huge bird away, but it was no use. The chocobo seemed to be enamored with him.

"Let's get back to the others," Cloud muttered, jumping onto the chocobo's back. Warking, the chocobo hopped back to where Tifa and Aerith were sleeping in a pile, totally unaware of what had just happened. Cloud nudged the chocobo, which bent down and nipped at Tifa's ear.

Tifa cursed under her breath and sat up, blinking and rubbing her eyes. "Cloud?" she yawned. "What was that for?" After stretching, she looked up into the bright beady eyes of the chocobo, which warked happily and smiled. Tifa started and scrambled back, now fully awake and breathing heavily. Cloud couldn't help but laugh.

The ex-SOLDIER's chuckles awoke a sleeping Aerith, who stirred for a moment before pushing herself up to her elbows and yawning. She popped her eyes open when she heard the chocobo wark down at her, and broke out into a grin. Aerith sprang to her feet and wrapped her arms around the chocobo's neck, giggling non stop as the chocobo warked and warbled.

"I'm glad somebody is having such a good time," Tifa muttered bitterly as she crawled to her feet. She then noticed the bright purple Chocobo Lure Cloud was carrying, which was now flaring almost to a whitish pink in the dim light of near dawn. "Is that the chocobo we're going to use to cross the marshes?"

Cloud shrugged. "I'm not gonna go through all that again," he said. "If we don't use this one to cross the marshes, we might as well just go around."

Sighing, Tifa grabbed a hold of Cloud's arm and pulled herself up behind him. Aerith jumped up behind Tifa and set her staff lengthwise across her knees. Cloud grabbed a hold of the chocobo's shoulder and gave it a sharp kick with his heels. Warking happily, the chocobo sped off into the gloom.

It was well into the morning when the steady beat of the chocobo's hard feet against the soft grass turned into a sickening squelch when it hit the marshes. Clumps of weeds reaching Cloud's knees sprouted up out of the ground, and the marsh was littered with dead trees, most of them toppled over with deep grooves in the trunks. Tifa had fallen asleep on Cloud's shoulder, and Aerith had nodded off shortly after that. Both of them were snoozing peacefully and ignoring the weeds as they tickled their legs.

Cloud blinked and shook his head, keeping the fuzzy feeling in his eyes out of mind. He was due for a long rest himself, and it seemed like every moment had to be carefully thought out. Thinking was also blocked by a thick fog, and he seemed distant from himself; separated, as if moving his hands were the result of somebody else moving them for him. He had to sleep before he passed out on the chocobo, and steer them to who knows where.

From the north, the storm rolled lazily around the mountains surrounding the marsh and began to close in on the swamp. Thunder boomed ominously behind Cloud, and silvery forks of lightning shot down from the sky, striking the marsh and setting dead, dry trees alight with tongues of red and orange flames. Looking up, Cloud saw the thick gray clouds gather overhead, and with a massive crash of thunder, the sky opened up and let the rain come in cold, gray sheets. The chocobo skittered nervously at the sound of the pouring rain and booming thunder, but warbled softly and kept running.

As the marshes slowly receded, the storm seemed to increase in its intensity. No wonder; the mountains curved around to the far west shore of the continent and come to a bowl where the Mythril Caves were. No doubt, the storm had gathered here, blocked by the mountains, and was now settled here. It might rain here for days.

Cloud gently shook Tifa, who awoke with a groan and looked around, blinking. Giving a jaw cracking yawn and a stretch, she roused Aerith and hopped off the chocobo. "Where are we?" she asked, rubbing her eyes.

"The Mythril Caves," Cloud said flatly, dismounting. He gave Aerith a hand off the large bird, then gave it a final pat on the head before setting it loose. Warking happily and nipping Cloud's ear, the chocobo ran off back into the storm.

A sudden scream from Aerith made Cloud whirl around in the soft grass and pull his sword free in one fluid motion. He took two great strides to plant himself in front of Aerith and gripped the hilt of his sword tightly. Looking around, he saw nothing but the storm and the edge of the marshes, until Aerith pointed and stifled another scream.

Impaled at the throat on a tall, dead tree was a huge, black snake. Its smooth scales shimmered in the flashes of lightning behind it, and the rainwater caused a trickle of blood tainted mud to pool into several puddles at the roots of the tree. The Midgar Zolom's mouth was dangling open uselessly, both fangs snapped in half and lying on the ground, half buried in the mud. Green venom was still spraying from the hollow tubes inside the teeth, making a sizzling sound when the liquid hit the ground, sending a strong, sulfurous stink into the air.

"Did Sephiroth…do this?" Tifa gasped.

Cloud scowled and sheathed his sword. "Only Sephiroth is that strong," he said bitterly. He stared up at the grizzly sight for a long moment before taking Aerith by the shoulder and helping her into the Mythril Caves.

Shuddering, Tifa followed Cloud into the caves and did not look back.