He didn't dream.
When his mind came around – a few seconds before he regained motor control – he instinctively checked his senses to see if he could perceive danger before being able to open his eyes. He couldn't, and his mind relaxed as his eyelids began to slide open.
It was for the best that he hadn't dreamt. These days, the only dreams he had were of the past, and that voice…
His eyelids were open. Tifa slept soundly on the cot – it looked like a slab of metal, but she bore it well. She couldn't have become a martial artist without learning how to deal with sleeping on boards.
Her sensei, Cloud strained to recall him… Master Zangan, his name was. He probably had his hands full with young Tifa.
The door to the cell was open – not ajar – wide open. Cloud's eyes passed through the doorway and he checked to see if anyone was outside, coming in, or trying to exit.
When he saw no commotion his dreary mind cast on to checking the corners of the room.
Nothing in the corners. They were safe.
He realized consciously that the door was open.
He sprang to his feet and his vision bleached with dizziness. He ran out of the cell and into the hallway.
'I'm still asleep,' he believed it to the point of happiness. He wasn't dreaming about the past.
The other cell doors were closed. The hallway turned abruptly to the left after a few doors.
A dead MP was slumped in the elbow of the hallway.
Cloud landed back in his body. 'I'm not asleep.' He rushed over.
The MP wasn't just dead – he had been sliced in two by some razor-thin instrument that hadn't even tapered the edges of his clothing. Whatever had struck this blow, it was sharp and lightning quick.
Already Cloud's mind was racing to the most horrifying possible explanations – the worst of which filled him with a hot panic.
He needed to wake up Tifa.
He ran back into the room and up to her cot. He almost didn't want to do it – she looked so at peace in her sleep.
"Tifa." He could tell it was working – she frowned. It needed to be done. "Wake up. Something's happened."
She sat up and her hands curled into fists. When she looked around, they stay curled. Her eyes landed on the open doorway. "Cloud!" she shouted at it. "What's happening?"
"Something," was what Cloud had as a response. "You'd better take a look outside."
She swung her long legs off the cot and got to her feet in a single sweeping motion – she was out the door before Cloud had time to finish admiring her dexterity.
He followed her back to the corpse. She started to reach out a hand – as if she were to pull back his mask and see who was underneath.
Cloud wondered why she would do that. What good would it do?
Her hand stopped mid-air, as if Tifa had the same realization concurrently. The hand twitched again, as if going to touch the wound, but she drew it back after a moment.
She didn't mind kneeling in the blood.
"I wonder what happened," she asked.
Getting over Tifa to reach for the MP would be tricky. He advised, "He should have the key on him."
Tifa found the ring of cards at the man's hip. Among them – an old fashioned brass key matched a hole in the door to Aeris's cell.
It looked odd – her sticking an old key into a mechanized door that hissed and slid open when it unlocked.
Tifa tossed him the keys and rushed into the cell – Aeris was sitting on the floor against the wall. The cot was empty.
Cloud checked the other cells. One contained their weapons, his pauldron, and five materia orbs – one extra than he'd expected; it was a yellow stone, not green like the rest. There was also a kind of metal feather among the items – sharp like a dagger, with a slot for materia.
He equipped his armor and sword, and swept everything else up into his arms – Barret's bullet coils unfurled a bit. Cloud crossed the hallway to the next door.
Aeris knelt at the body.
The cell door across from their weaponry hissed open to reveal Barret half-drooping off of the cot. Red XIII uncurled in the corner.
"Barret," Cloud announced – his words jerked him awake. "Red XIII… come with me. Something's wrong."
"How'd you get in?" Barret grumbled. Then, more alert, "Why's the door open?"
Cloud could let them figure it out. He went back to the body.
The neat slice of the kill wasn't unnerving him any less now that the others were with him. If anything, their presence removed any doubts he had about being awake, and that wasn't helping in the slightest.
"The hell's goin' on!?" Barret bellowed. "This guy is dead!"
Red XIII's eye followed the slice through the MP – and then to the walls. Cloud recognized deductive thinking in the beast – Red XIII was working out the scene the same way Cloud had. The cut was perfectly matched on either side of the corpse. No blood on the walls meant that the wound didn't splatter.
"No human could have done this," Red XIII remarked.
Cloud was trying not to agree. The alternative was worse.
Red XIII twisted his head back and up to look at Cloud. "I'll go on ahead," he offered.
"I'll go on ahead with you," Cloud replied.
"Uhm…" Barret stopped them. "Go on ahead outta this building, you mean?"
Cloud paused. "Don't you want to find out who did this?"
"Did what?" Barret shoved the corpse with his foot. "Someone killed the guard an' set us free. This is strictly speakin' the best thing that could have happened to us. Let's find out who it is after we're outta here, so we can thank 'em."
Cloud shook his head. "I worked for Shinra. You don't just barge into the Shinra Headquarters."
Barret shrugged. "We did."
Cloud thought, 'Hey. We did.'
Tifa stepped out of the blood. "We got locked in a cell before we could kill anybody. Whoever… or… whatever did this isn't in a cell. Which means that whatever is happening is happening now. We can't leave."
"That," Aeris smiled. "Is just about the most reckless thing I have ever heard. I'm in."
Barret harrumphed at Red XIII. "Lead the way, then."
"Your bullets," Cloud tossed them to Barret. He gave Tifa her fire materia, and Aeris the restore materia and her staff.
"I believe you have mine as well," Red XIII posed.
Cloud plucked the spare materia out of his pouch. "Yes." He wasn't sure he believed it. The beast could use magic. "How?"
"How did I keep it hidden?" Red XIII asked. "I made it my priority during my captivity with Hojo. I'll say no more about it. That's my hairclip there."
Cloud regarded the metal feather. "Oh."
"Behind my ear, please." He presented his mane. Cloud clipped the accessory and put the yellow orb in its slot.
Red XIII began down the hallway, and Cloud paced beside him, purposefully forfeiting a subtle lead to the beast. He was distracted by his thoughts. He scanned every open door they passed – empty offices. No signs of struggles.
"A body," Red XIII said plainly. "Up ahead at the intersection."
They rushed forward. The woman was in plain office clothes, a long grey skirt and a tie. She had been cut from the left shoulder down through the heart, but the wound was so thin that only the sudden waterfall stain of blood made it apparent.
Cloud knelt by her and looked at her face for a while. The sounds of the others coming up at a dash pounded in his ears.
He looked at the corner she was crumpled on – the wall had been gashed as well.
Cloud saw a poster for a staff party stained with coffee – he'd seen it before. He tried to mentally map their position in the building.
When the others arrived at the body, a silence fell over the intersection.
"This is pretty bad…" Barret finally said. "So, where we goin' Cloud?"
He could only think of one place to go – one place to check – down the corridor leading west. He wanted desperately for Red XIII to have reasons for going down any of the other corridors.
Red XIII gave Cloud a look, and headed west with some speed.
Cloud cursed inside his head.
Some of the lights were flickering, and some were broken – they had been slashed in the same fashion. They stepped over a puddle of fluorescein.
It wasn't long before they found the next body, a bent man in a brown suit holding half of a clipboard.
They could see two more bodies from there.
The open offices weren't empty anymore – they were filled with dead workers and broken chairs. Blood screeched along the walls in thin straight lines.
Red XIII did not slow down, and neither did Cloud. They passed some boxes on the floor labeled:
Corel – Search Crown – Caps
Corel – Search Crown – Stalks
They sped up until they could no longer stop themselves and eased into a run.
They slowed near the mouth of the chamber, but Cloud entered without a pause. He only stopped when he reached Jenova's dome.
It wasn't just broken – it had been punched open. Cloud couldn't tell if someone broke in, or if…
The floor was soaked in blood, with a thick veneer of viscous oil. 'Cryogenic fluid,' Cloud assumed.
As he stepped towards the opening, the fluids around his feet mixed and swirled on the hall floor. His headache grew.
The light was off inside of the dome. Cloud made sure he could feel the weight of the Buster Sword on his back before he looked further.
Inside the black pit, there was no movement.
"Jenova Specimen," Red XIII walked gingerly over the wet floor. "I never saw Hojo do anything with this dome but look at it. He would look at it often."
Red XIII stepped up to the hole in the dome and looked inside. Cloud's eyes had adjusted.
Jenova was gone – snapped wires hung loosely from the ceiling. The bottom of the sphere was coated in blood and mako – the dim source of the light that allowed Cloud to survey the scene.
"It's gone," Cloud shook his head.
Red XIII remarked, "You have the finest eyesight of any creature I have encountered besides myself."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
The blood trailed out of the oily spill from the Jenova dome. A long, drying river led through the stacks of boxes towards the personnel lift.
"It looks like it went up," Cloud pointed at the lift. He felt stupid saying it to the beast.
Upstairs, a red-drenched trail led them through the exit at the back of the amphitheater – the door was no longer locked. The body near the door was missing its arms – Hojo's assistant; Aeris whispered his name as they passed. Cloud had a hard time hearing anything but the pounding of his heart.
Tifa kept a closer heel as they continued down the hallway. They passed a corpse every few seconds.
A scorch mark marred the doorway to the staircase. The blood led up. Cloud followed.
In the staircase, a robotic voice shouted, "Warning! Warning!" An automatic turret hung slashed and sparking out of a hidden panel in the wall. The warning klaxon faded beneath them on the climb.
The receptionist on the 69th floor had been cut at the waist. Scattered around the floor were pieces of roboguards and the bodies of countless MPs. Jagged black lines on the floor were evidence of a lightning spell.
The powerful displays of swordplay and magic implied a party of capable killers – or one person with many talents. Cloud tried to quell his suspicions by swallowing, not daring to meet Tifa's knowing gaze.
The blood led up one of the staircases to the 70th Floor.
They all shared the impulse. The five of them broke into a sprint.
The stairs were slippery under Cloud's boots – the blood here was still fresh. Ahead, Red XIII bounded over a body splayed on the staircase.
Cloud leapt over it with the same ease, and arrived at the top.
President Shinra was leaning forward in his chair so that his arms and head were sprawled upon his desk. The sword pinned him there – it rose from his back like a flagpole.
"He's dead," Barret was eerily calm. "The leader of Shinra Inc. is dead."
Tifa walked around the desk. "This sword…" she said, recognition flickering in her eyes. "This sword…"
"Sephiroth's!" Cloud confirmed.
The longest silence yet swallowed the next moment.
"…Sephiroth is alive?" Tifa's voice was frozen over.
Cloud steeled himself to speak again. "…Looks like it. Only Sephiroth can use that sword."
"Who cares who did it!?" Barret broke the quiet solemnity. "This is the end of the Shinra! This is huge!"
Something shuffled behind one of the columns near the desk. There was something alive on this floor.
Cloud's hands ripped the Buster Sword from his back with a force that snapped the magnet painfully.
"Show yourself!" Cloud shouted at the column.
A squat man in a thatched suit peered out – he had a dollop of white hair on his head. "Uh!" he cried when he saw them. He tried to flee.
Cloud remembered him – he was another bigwig. Palmer. He had seen his picture in the papers years ago. Something to do with space.
Barret and Cloud pounced on him. He squirmed. Barret pressed his gun-arm against the side of Palmer's round belly.
"P-p-please, don't kill me!" Palmer wept.
"What happened?" Cloud grabbed him by the upper arm.
"Se…" he started. "Sephiroth. Sephiroth came."
Cloud's heart skipped, but that didn't slow him down. "Did you see him? Did you see Sephiroth?"
"Yeah, I saw him! I saw him with my own eyes!"
There was no way to be sure Palmer was telling the truth. Cloud didn't have the right materia for it.
"Did you hear his voice?" Cloud asked.
Palmer nodded violently, and tears bubbled out of his eyes. "He spoke to Shinra before he… something about not letting us have the Promised Land."
"So," Tifa thought. "Does that mean that the Promised Land really exists, and that Sephiroth's here to save it from Shinra?"
Barret smiled. "So he's a good guy after all!"
"Save the Promised Land?" Cloud asked. "A good guy? It's not that simple. I know him. Sephiroth's mission is different." The trail of blood ended at Shinra. 'Where did he go?'
Palmer wrenched himself out of Barret's grip and bolted for the door that led to the helipad. Cloud chased him through the door – the wind whipped his clothes and hair.
It was deafeningly loud outside. A helicopter was easing down onto the tarmac.
"Rufus!" Barret burst out of the building. "Shit! I forgot about him!"
Cloud hadn't – it was one of the reasons he wasn't celebrating Shinra's death. Rufus Shinra was the son of the late President, the acting Vice President, and as of now the highest shareholder in the company.
Everything was effectively his.
Tseng slid open the helicopter door from the inside. Rufus strode out before it was open, touching down before the helicopter. He was a lean, long-legged man with a sweep of orange hair. While the President seemed to lean and gesture over his stout body everywhere he went, Rufus's steps were trim and precise, as if everything were timed. He had his father's hardened eyes, otherwise Cloud would never have guessed the relation.
Following Rufus out of the helicopter was a huge black feline – waist-high at least, and with a whip-like tentacle slithering out behind its head. A guard hound, the color of midnight.
Palmer shrieked something to Rufus – Cloud couldn't hear it over the propeller. Rufus's double-breasted white coat flapped at his calves. When the wind drew it aside, Cloud saw a shotgun hanging from Rufus's waist.
Rufus nodded at Palmer and Tseng helped the executive into the helicopter.
Rufus made a circle motion with his hands, and the helicopter took off, leaving Shinra's son on the tarmac with AVALANCHE. Cloud watched the chopper lift above the top of the building and fly in a slow, curving arc – encircling them by a wide radius.
It was quiet enough now for Rufus to be heard. "It's a little hard to believe, isn't it?" he asked. "Sephiroth. Really?"
The guard hound stood dutifully by Rufus's side. Rufus kept his eyes on them. "Who are you?"
He took his time replying – there was subtlety needed, here, for he spoke to a King. He went with the truth. "I'm Cloud. Ex-SOLDIER, First Class."
"I'm from AVALANCHE!" Barret announced happily.
"Me too," Tifa confirmed.
Aeris simply said, "A flower seller."
Red XIII simply said, "A research specimen."
"What a crew," Rufus shrugged. Cloud smiled inside – in that moment, he'd been thinking the same thing.
Rufus paused a moment to scratch the head of his guard hound and introduced himself. "I'm Rufus Shinra. The President of Shinra Incorporated."
Barret bounced on his heels. "You only President 'cause yer old man died!"
Rufus paused, looked thoughtfully at Barret, and nodded. "That's right. I'll let you hear my new appointment speech."
The helicopter was out of sight, it set Cloud's teeth on edge.
President Rufus began pacing back and forth on the helipad. "Old man tried to control the world with money. It seems to have been working. The population thought that Shinra would protect them. Work at Shinra, get your pay. If a terrorist attacks," he shot a glance at Barret, "the Shinra army will help you. It looks perfect on the outside. But…" He swept his hair back. "I do things differently. I'll control the world with fear. It takes too much to do it like my old man. A little fear will control the minds of the common people. There's no reason to waste good money on them."
Tifa sneered. "He likes to make speeches just like his father."
That stopped Rufus's pacing. The helicopter made a swooping pass, but he signaled again and it began another circle.
The propellers created a temporary barrier of sound between Rufus and them.
Cloud was worried about Aeris – if Rufus learned her true nature, things would start to go very differently. He needed it to go exactly one way for them all to make it out alive.
Cloud put a hand on Barret's shoulder. He spoke lowly. "Get outta this building with Aeris."
"I'll explain later. Barret, this is the real crisis for the Planet."
"The hell's that supposed to mean?"
"I'll tell you later, just take my word for it. Now. I'll follow after I take care of him."
The sound of the helicopter faded and the wind rose above it. Cloud took his hand off of Barret and stepped away.
Rufus looked at them as if their conversation were about to continue.
Barret took a quick inhale.
Tifa twitched in realization.
Barret launched in front of Aeris and brought his gun-arm up. Tifa sprang forward and twin flames ignited the air above her open hands. She threw the fire onto the ground and a wall of flame burst from the asphalt and shielded them from sight.
Cloud dodged away from the wall, but the light hurt his eyes. 'Fire… How does Tifa bear it?'
Everyone but Cloud ran back towards the building. He took a step forward. Rufus watched their activities with a surprising calm.
Cloud didn't reach for the sword just yet.
When the last flames curled into ash, Rufus dusted off his coat. "Was that necessary?"