QUARTUS – Expugno
He finds himself rooted to the spot.
It does not matter…
…It does not matter what he…
As he squints his eyes to gaze out at the pitch black surroundings, Cloud takes notice that this is no normal setting.
Beads of sweat threaten to trickle as he desperately attempts to pull his feet free from the spot. Glancing down, he notices for the first time that he is standing directly in the middle of a small black square.
But that is not where the confusion lies.
The confusion lies in the fact that adjoining the black square, are a series of similar black and white squares stretching out all across the board.
It is a checkered grid. More specifically, an eight by eight checkered grid. At this sudden realization, Cloud frowns in thought, attempting to shed some sense of the situation.
"So… you've come to the playing field hmm? Title stakes."
Cloud peers up at the sound of the voice and standing directly in front of him, several tens of feet across the side of the checkered grid, is a striking, silver haired individual entrenched in leather attire. The young man slings a short, double bladed katana over his left shoulder and cocks his head.
"I asked you a question."
Cloud finds his voice and replies back. "What was the question?"
"Why have you come here?" The silver haired man grunts in amusement. "You think you're actually going to win?"
Again, Cloud frowns in confusion regarding the entire scenario. "Where is 'here'? Where am I?"
The silver haired figure's eyes widen. "Here? You are on the playing field of course. Set match. You called it."
"Match?" Cloud grimaces in thought, peering at the floor before lifting his head back up. "Who are you?"
The man smiles wickedly, an unexpected gleam reflecting off his sword, amidst the darkness and absence of light. "Who am I? I am The Pawn. But… let's shorten it to Kadaj."
"Kadaj…" Cloud whispers the name off his tongue, attempting to piece the name together with a certain face in his distorted thoughts. It is of no use. Once again, he comes up short. Glancing up, he frowns. "Kadaj, where am I?"
"My brother…" Kadaj speaks spitefully. "You are on the playing field. This is your game."
It is then for the first time that sudden realization dawns on Cloud, like light filling up the surroundings of a room. The grid itself seems to brighten and come into focus as all the pieces become visible.
Standing to the sides of Kadaj, are a row of life sized statues carved in the shapes of pawns.
Behind him, the rest of the pieces come into view gradually, all lifeless, all frozen still and painted an ethereal white with the exception of two. Two similar silver haired figures stand several grids apart.
The muscular, short silver haired man to the far left corner slowly lifts his head up, shooting Cloud a deadly smirk. "I am The Rook. Call me Loz, brother." The conclusion of his statement is met by a small, electrical discharge dancing around his left arm.
Several spaces to his right is the skinnier, but taller silver haired individual. He cocks his head to the side and unsheathes a blade in the form of a gun. "The Bishop, at your service." He takes a short bow. "For you, it's Yazoo, dear brother."
Cloud's gaze slowly travels from Yazoo, and to the right, towards an odd looking, unmoving piece. It appears grotesque in image and something out of the ordinary.
Unable to bite down on his curiosity, he calls forward with a pointed figure towards the tall piece. "Who is that?"
The three silver haired men's heads all travel towards the object in sync before turning back to face Cloud.
"That… dear brother, is The Queen, Jenova." Kadaj replies icily.
Her introduction immediately prompts a short wave of unfamiliar and unwelcome feelings to run rampant throughout Cloud's body for a moment. Shutting his eyes painfully, he grits his teeth together, attempting to will away the burning sensation as it increases at an exponential rate, suffocating his heart and ringing it with fire, threatening to force him to scream out in sheer agony.
Then, as quickly as it comes, the pain evaporates, vanishing fully into the surroundings like a wisp of vapor as if never having existed, leaving Cloud panting for air.
"Something wrong brother? Looked a little worn out right there. Nothing to do with The Queen does it?" Kadaj sneers maliciously.
Choosing to ignore the question, Cloud slowly turns his neck to the sides, and finds himself amidst a row of similar, statuesque pawns as on the other end. Further craning of the neck reveals the more prominent pieces standing inanimately behind him. All of them here however, appear to be colored black, opposite to the ones on the silver haired trio's side.
"So…" Kadaj calls out, sword now extended towards Cloud. "Shall we play?"
Cloud swallows once. "Play? What are we playing?"
Kadaj's facial expression darkens considerably, a shadow creeps over his eyes. "The game for your life."
Shock plasters across the blonde haired man's face. "What?"
Kadaj smirks. "I start first. White is pure. Black is corrupt. You are black." With that, he takes two steps forward, leaving his previous white square, landing on another white square. Pausing, he acknowledges Cloud. "It's your turn. Time to make a move."
Blinking in confusion, Cloud lifts a foot and to his astonishment, finds himself free to bring it forward. Upon further thought, Cloud decides to travel to a neighboring square to the side but much to his horror, finds that he cannot do so, only capable of moving forward.
Restricted like a typical pawn of the game itself.
He glances up from his feet fearfully, pleading eyes making contact with those of Kadaj. "Wh- what is this?"
The other simply stares ahead disinterestedly. "I told you. The game for your life. Now… make a move."
Swallowing with anxiousness once more, Cloud steps forward from the black square, landing on the white colored one ahead. He stops, inspecting his surroundings once and makes another attempt at moving sideways only to be met with a failure of his body to comply. Sighing, he gives up, defeated. "Okay." He nods to Kadaj.
The short silver haired man remains still. "Is that all? Are you sure? You can take another step forward." There is great malice and a certain perverse hunger that ring throughout his words.
"I'm sure." Cloud pauses, taking notice of the fact that only a mere black square separates the two now. A nod escapes as he motions for Kadaj to make his move.
At the snap of his fingers, the young silver haired male prompts Yazoo to walk out in calculating fashion diagonally across four sets of white squares before coming to a halt. His glowing eyes penetrate those of Cloud as a cruel smirk emerges. "Cloud? Look."
The blonde haired male frowns and peers at Kadaj questioningly. "What?"
"You're dead." The words are uttered in hushed manner, barely above a whisper and with minimal emotion.
"What?" Again Cloud cannot quite bring himself to understand what is going on.
"You…" Yazoo brings his weapon up, pointing the barrel straight at him. "…are…" There is the familiar but chilling sound of a cocking of the trigger. "…dead."
Time seems to slow down and nearly stop before a thunderous echo emits throughout the board as a fair sized bullet dislodges from the chamber of the weapon and moves at a painfully slow pace in Cloud's direction.
With eyes wide of fascination, Cloud watches the bullet travel towards him at a crawl, unable to do so much as blink while the distortion of space and time take their toll behind the bullet's trajectory. The slug seems open its mouth, licking its hollow, invisible lips with a delirious sensation and a coveted appetite.
Sensing the path of the shell aimed straight for his most prized vital organ, the heart, and with time running out as the angry displacement of air pushes the cartridge further and further into its course, he helplessly peers ahead at the single dark mark on the board, the only tolerable obstacle in the way of him and Kadaj. It is the last bastion of comfort, of mitigation.
A symbol for needed proximity. Proximity that is soon breached as Cloud, with breath caught somewhere between the narrow tube of guilt and melancholy, treads forward, a heavy thundering sound emitting following the contact of hard rubber against a faceless, textureless substance.
But he is not quite sure, whether the sound is that of contact being made, or of his own sporadic heart, exercising in its own right, bent on spiraling out of control.
The gap has been closed. There lies no obstacle, the path being paved fully as he comes face to face with a sullen Kadaj.
Suddenly, there are great dark circles beneath the eyes of the young silver haired man. Eyes signaling a lack of nutrition in both being and mind. "Cloud?" The voice is unbelievably meek.
Cloud frowns at the sudden rise in the pitch of his voice. "Kadaj…?"
"Cloud…" The look given is one of pure and suffocating eternal sadness, stripping bare the lifeline in those pale cheeks. "Why don't you care about us…?"
That voice, Cloud begins to think as his eyes widen, where has he heard it before? It is the sound of a young female child.
As if on instinct, the words glide elegantly to his lips. "Marlene…?" He is not sure who that is but focuses.
"Cloud… look…" The young female voice coursing from Kadaj's lips continues. "Watch me shine Cloud. Aren't I amazing too?"
The look of bewilderment switches to that of frozen horror as Cloud witnesses a sudden fury of golden flames erupting and encompassing Kadaj, melting the previously flawless texture of his flesh off his bones. His sagging skin begins to take on the form of a deteriorating wax figure as his appearance gradually melts away into the nonexistent air.
He turns to his side and notices Loz on the far end of the board, tiles matching up to his position. He violently turns forward and recognizes Yazoo away, a series of diagonal squares lining up their paths. He begins panicking as the two silver haired men begin to move very slowly from their respective positions and towards him.
Sweat greets his face once more as he surveys his surroundings helplessly. He desperately attempts to lift his feet away from the grid but by some unknown force, still finds himself unable to do so.
To his horror, the two men begin gaining astonishing speed at an exponential rate and they no longer appear to be moving, but rather, they now seem rooted to their spots as the entire board takes the illusion of expanding proportionally. Their figures approach Cloud as the board squares extend out from underneath their feet.
Quickly, they make their way closer. Time seems infinite and surrounding objects float by rapidly, while others appear frozen in time, similar to an event horizon.
Now both frozen still in their poses, Loz and Yazoo are shooting towards him, changing as they do so, melting of their old form and growing more grotesque by the second.
With one final look of fear, Cloud swallows worriedly as the two now menacing silver haired caricatures reach into his square and encompass him. He brings his arms up to shield himself from the menace as the darkness and them immediately engulf him.
He shoots wide awake, drenched in a thick layer of perspiration. His body convulses and his teeth clatter together for several moments, blue eyes wide open as the pupils dilate from the abundance of moonlight seeping in through the bedroom window.
Cloud opens his mouth to scream but a haunting sensation, as if some unnatural force presiding within the walls of his rooms urges him not to do so. The hairs on the back of his neck immediately lengthen up once more and he pauses, taking a moment to gaze upon the room while his mouth seals slowly.
The door to his room opens gently and a concerned Aeris appears, visible relief now on her face. "You're awake." She sits down by the side of his bed, gently taking in his form.
"Yes." He turns to look outside the window and squints as his sights set on the house on top of the hill. Immediately, he feels a soft hand caressing his cheek as it pulls him away from the window and face to face with Aeris' dimly lit features.
"How do you feel?" She asks wistfully, her eyes flutter wistfully.
His eyes uncomfortably scan the room as his face remains held in between her fingers. He gently brings a hand and pulls hers away. "Fine. What happened?" He leaves the bed and takes note of his sweat stained shirt.
As if clueing in on his thoughts, Aeris stands and walks towards the dresser. "You should put on a new shirt Cloud."
"Tell me what happened." His voice is adamant and brimming with impatience. She turns gently and approaches with a clean sweater, handing it to him. He slowly looks down at her extended arm and remains still. Shaking his head extremely slowly, he takes a step back. "Tell me what happened Aeris."
Her eyes began to sparkle in the moonlight, a fresh set of tears rising up inside before gently trickling down her flawless face, just like an angel.
A painful flash of light erupts within Cloud's head as he falls further back. A brief image of a beautiful but faceless young woman appears, extending a delicate hand as surrounding blue energy engulfs him. As quickly as the image comes, it fades into oblivion, leaving him in a state of shock as he falls to his knee and clutches the bed for support.
"Cloud!' Aeris cries out, rushing to his side. "Are you okay?"
"No…" He whispers quietly for a moment before his eyes go wide open. He jumps up abruptly and rushes out the door without warning, leaving a shocked Aeris behind.
"Cloud, no! Please don't run! Come back!" Her pleading cries gradually wane as he descends down the stairs, a prickling numbing sensation immediately overriding his body.
His steps become infinitely heavier until he is unable to lift himself off the final step below, now rooted to his spot. His entire body rigid, he feels that familiar haunting air emanate throughout as a silent figure makes his presence felt atop the stairs.
"You will not succeed in making it to the hill. Your temperament is not quite satisfactory." Vincent's familiar hollow and mechanical voice courses through the air.
Still unable to turn his head, Cloud moves his mouth with difficulty. "I have to try."
A faint but cold breeze passes by as his body is released from paralysis and he leaps towards the door. Without further hesitation, he opens the door and exits in the cool night, his legs working arduously to carry him further towards the path of the hill.
"Stop Cloud!" Cid's rough voice is unmistakable amidst the silent air from behind. "Cloud!"
He continues running, fatigue a mere afterthought in his quest to arrive at his desired destination. The wretched dark woods now come into focus as he breaches the outskirts of the town. With mild jubilation, he affords himself the lightest of serene smiles as he approaches the black forest.
The temporary feeling of relief that encompasses his frame earlier washes away to that of dread and fear as he slows to a stop at the entrance to the dark path, his passage blocked by a disappointed looking Barret and a group of faceless followers.
Cloud squints to register their faces but is unable to do so, as if they exist simply outside his peripheral vision.
"I need to get through Barret." The larger man remains rooted in his spot, unwavering. "It's important, I have to find out what's inside that house." Again, the larger man makes no move whatsoever, eager to remain his ground. "Please."
Barret shakes his head ever so slowly, his lips pursed as cautious eyes look out through narrowed slits. "I'm sorry, but I can't allow you to pass."
Cloud begins to experience an overriding sense of urgency and fear grip him as he swallows in trepidation. "I'm going in."
Once more, a very slow and methodical shake of the head follows those words. "No."
"Cloud!" Aeris' strained voice contains immense worry as she approaches from behind.
He turns to face her, his eyes wide open with confusion and helplessness. "Aeris, can't you see something is wrong? I don't belong here."
She allows the tears to freely stream down her face. "No Cloud. No. We're going to help you get better. I promise."
He furrows his brows in anger now. "I need to get to that house!"
His cries are immediately met with physical confrontation as a pair of powerful arms wrap themselves around him, prompting the young blonde haired man to lash out violently, kicking in every which direction in a vain effort to free himself.
"Give him the shot." Barret's unusually calm voice betrays his demeanor as he struggles silently to hold Cloud, several other faceless bodies coming in to grab his thrashing legs.
"No! Let go!" He screams, truly fearful now, his breaths more sporadic by the second as he heaves uncontrollably.
"The shot. Give it to him now!"
A faint pinch is felt on his right bicep as Cloud drowsily turns his head, noticing Yuffie momentarily outside his field of vision. She begins blurring, her face disappearing amongst the rest of the faceless as his world begins rapidly spiraling out of control, a mixture of shapes and colors coming together in circular fashion.
Amidst all the chaos, he hears a faint echo penetrate his thoughts. "Don't forget" it seems to whisper. It is then that his head falls limp as his world blacks out.
His eyes flutter open every so gracefully, blinking several times as they adjust to the morning light entering his bedroom. Slowly, he climbs out of bed and approaches the window, surveying the tranquil grey sky.
The town outside his window appears peaceful. Subdued even. Very much in order as citizens make their daily rounds. He studies the scene with a delicate sense of fascination and begins to think. Staring at the floor momentarily, he attempts to conjure up the night earlier but as great a length he goes to in his quest to do so, the events of prior evening come blank to him.
Again, he gives the thought an attempt and is greeted by a harsh slice of pain within his temporal lobes. He clutches the right side of his head momentarily as the discomfort vanishes.
He shakes his head and pauses, breathing out slowly in thought. He clears himself of his thoughts as the smell of breakfast draws him downstairs.
"So, what would you like to do today?" Aeris asks him, her arms carefully wrapped in between his as they peacefully make their way through town.
Cloud stares up calmly at the sky and back down, surveying everything within his vicinity. He turns to face Aeris. "Do you remember what I did yesterday?"
She appears to turn rigid for a moment as she tenses up. "You were pretty tired from your meeting with Yuffie so you came home and slept."
He stops, forcing her to do the same. Grabbing her face gently with a palm, he peers deeply into her green irises, studying them intensely. "Are you sure?"
Her mesmerizing eyes are now moving back and forth to study his. "Yes."
There is an unbearable sense of overriding uneasiness permeating within his body. He swallows and is now still, attempting to decipher any hidden meaning behind her visage. Finally unable to do so, he sighs and loosens his hold. "But why can't I remember?"
She carefully pries herself away at the sight of her brother. "Cid." She moves to greet him warmly, enveloping him in a hug. She turns to face Cloud as he watches intently. "Come over." She gestures to him.
He takes a step forward but stops at the sound of something to the adjacent building. He turns to witness the bartender from the day before walk outside, quickly disposing a large bag of garbage inside a can. She halts momentarily, making quick eye contact with Cloud before entering the bar once more.
"Cloud." Cid shouts over to him.
"Cloud?" Aeris questions. "Are you coming?"
He now turns to them sullenly. "I'll be right back." Without further explanation, he proceeds towards the bar, entering the somewhat familiar dimly lit environment once more. The air immediately makes a transformation from brisk to musty and his eyes take a moment to adjust to the darker setting.
She is spotted serving up a drink to a well dressed man seated by the bar. Nodding to him as he hands her payment, she watches the man quickly drink the shot, immediately requesting another.
Cloud makes way over to the two, seating himself several stools to the left side of the man. The man is clean shaven, possibly in his mid thirties and possesses a certain air of professionalism not seen in many others to Cloud's recollection.
"You again?" The bartender's thoughts intrude his as he turns his attention to her. "What'll it be?"
"Something hard." He echoes the words from days before.
She nods seriously, eyes never leaving his. "Of course. What else would it be?" She pours the drink into the small glass as it is instantly consumed. She watches him carefully as his face contorts briefly, allowing the alcohol to enter his system. "Another?"
He nods, now taking notice of a mesmerizing ring with a wolf head resting on her finger. Her eyes seem to pick up the trail of his as she sets her sights on the ring. He watches with fascination. "Where did you get that?"
"This?" She brings her hand up, the close proximity of the ring immediately induces a painful flash of light as a blinding image of a brunette haired female sitting atop a bed appears to argue with someone.
The vision instantly dissipates, leaving Cloud clutching the side of his head with great distress. "Migraines." He mutters. The comment is immediately followed by a quick consumption of a second shot of alcohol.
"Good?" She asks, drying a mug.
"It's excellent." He replies quickly, his voice bitter, perfectly matching the taste in his throat. "Better than this hell."
The man to his right now looks up slowly and turns towards him. He possesses sharp facial features and a penetrating glare. He studies Cloud for a minute, escalating the tension between the two until the silence is finally broken. He begins to smile ruefully and tips his hat forward. "I know what you mean. Another drink? On me."
Cloud pauses and takes the man in. "Who are you?"
The man's smile extends slightly further. "I am The Businessman. You may call me Rufus."
"Rufus…" Cloud lets the name linger on his tongue as a brief image of a fiery explosion fills his thoughts, a man trapped inside a tall office tower subjected to the carnage. He blinks violently several times as the brief picture now becomes an afterthought. "So what exactly is your business here?"
The well groomed man stands up slowly and tips his hat once more as he gathers his belongings. "I'm trying to make the world a better place. But…" He begins walking towards the exit, a hint of remorse now present. "They won't let me." He pauses at the door, eyes fixated on Tifa and then Cloud. "Sins of our fathers..." He whispers chillingly.
With one curt nod, he disappears out through the door, appearing to be consumed by the grey light.
Cloud turns his attention to Tifa, the two momentarily lock eyes in a very penetrating gaze. He blinks once as she watches him, now unwilling to look away. Her lips open as she clears her throat. "Had enough?"
He peers down at his empty shot glass and back up at her. "When was the last time the sun actually came out here through the clouds?"
She gazes at him as if thousands of thoughts are waiting to be shared between them. Finally, she shakes her head slowly and leans forward, inching her face closer to his. "It's time for you to go."
The door behind them opens as Aeris walks in. She spots Cloud and smiles politely. "Cloud, it's time to go."
A/N: I'm back to complete this story. Something I should have never left hanging in limbo for so long. Hopefully, there are still people out there who haven't lost interest in this piece.