Final Fantasy VII
Notes: The characters are not mine,
and the story is! It's based on a short story included in the Hardy
Boys Ghost Stories, and some may also see some
similarities with a town I created called "Cooperstown",
though I've tried to make Lily Valley its own unique place. Thanks to
Lisa for her plot help! This is just a fun piece, nothing to be taken
terribly seriously. I thought it would be interesting to give Seph
and Zack a very different challenge: that of the supernatural. Also,
judging from the inscriptions on Jenova's helmet, Gaia follows the
same kind of calender as Earth does, hence why I made these dates
what I did.
Zack Fair yawned, reaching for a bottle of water with one hand while keeping the other on the steering wheel of the covered Jeep. The liquid felt cool and refreshing, especially after a long day of driving out in the wilderness. But now the sun had set and the temperatures outside were swiftly declining. He would probably need to put on the jacket he had lazily slung into the backseat.
"Hey, Seph, are we almost there?" he asked, setting the bottle back in its holder.
"It's hard to say," the man in the passenger seat grunted. He leaned over to switch on the overhead light, then fell back against the seat as he studied the map. "It's supposed to be in this immediate vicinity, but if the reports aren't exaggerated, it might have disappeared." This was said with heavy sarcasm, and it was clear that the logical, bespectacled warrior did not believe any such rumors.
"Just like those SOLDIERs, huh?" Zack shuddered.
It was so bizarre. He and Sephiroth had been sent to a wilderness area of the Eastern continent in search of several missing SOLDIERs. The SOLDIERs had been en route to Shinra headquarters when their vehicle had stalled in the desert, forcing them to have to try to make repairs. A few hours later, a static-filled message had been received at Midgar, the sender frantic as he spoke in a barely discernible tone of "people disappearing all around" him, and of the ghost town known as Lily Valley. Then he had been abruptly cut off.
"There has to be a reasonable explanation," Sephiroth answered now. "Maybe a rebel faction is using the old town as their headquarters. They would probably be able to utilize the stories of it being cursed for their own purposes."
"Yeah . . . that's true," Zack mused. "And all those creepy reports of the town looking like it's inhabited could be because of that." He shook his head slowly. "But that's so weird, Seph . . . thinking of a town that has everything looking like people were there only a few minutes ago. I mean, can you really imagine? There'd be food cooking, lights on everywhere . . ." He drove around the corner of another mountain. "If that was really true . . . and it wasn't some kinda hoax . . . then what would've happened to the people?"
Sephiroth shook his head. "Trying to find an answer will only hurt your brain," he replied. "The rumors are that they started dabbling in things they shouldn't have, and that they were cursed." He looked up, narrowing his eyes at a small cluster of lights in the distance. "That might be it," he announced, removing and folding his reading glasses.
Zack nodded. "That looks about right," he agreed.
The remainder of the drive took about five minutes. As they drew closer to the source of the beacons, they could see that the lights were coming both from kerosene lanterns hanging outside the old wooden buildings and from various glows visible through the windows. It almost looked like at least one location had a fireplace, as smoke was rising from the chimney on the roof.
Zack gave a low whistle as he parked the Jeep on a hill overlooking the town. There was definitely something forbidding about it, but was that because there were anti-Shinra rebels orchestrating the sight . . . or because it was something even more ominous? It seemed that rebels might have taken the SOLDIERs hostage and tried to contact Shinra, but on the other hand, maybe they would have opted for some speedy executions.
"Well," he announced slowly, "here we are." Turning off the engine, he reached for his jacket before starting to climb out of the vehicle. "It looks welcoming enough, but something just doesn't sit well." He frowned.
Sephiroth exited from the other side, taking out the Masamune from the backseat. "There isn't any sign of the SOLDIERs' truck," he noted. Taking the lead, he walked slowly down the hill toward the town's entrance. An old population sign was leaning to the side of it, weathered with age and half missing. What remained was not enough to decipher, other than the town's name.
"Lily Valley," Zack mused, catching up to his friend and walking alongside. "What's with a pretty name like that? Nothing even grows out here." And it was disturbing. As far as he could see, there were not even desert plants or weeds in the village limits. There were, however, several petrified trees standing in yards, forlorn and ancient, as sentries doomed to forever remain at their posts. Dead guards for a dead town, he thought morbidly.
Sephiroth did not answer Zack's question, which was rhetorical anyway. He walked ahead, stepping onto the rotting steps of the closest building's porch. Care would have to be taken that the boards did not give way under his weight. Slowly he moved to the window, peering in through the brightly lit pane.
It looked over a modest living room, furnished in the style of the frontier people of the previous century's latter half. A wooden table, probably hand-carved, was positioned underneath the glass, with five chairs around it including one partially drawn out, as if its occupant had left for a moment.
Dishes were set at each place, the ceramic bowls filled to varying degrees with some sort of stew. It was still hot, and wisps of steam rose into the air. There were also simple crystal tumblers, the contents of which appeared to be ice water. Some were nearly full to the brim, others half-gone, and one, nearly empty.
"It's just like they've said," Zack remarked uneasily, coming up behind the older man. "No one's in sight. . . ." He narrowed his eyes. "If it's a trick or a joke, it's pretty disgusting. Are we going in?"
Sephiroth nodded. "Just be ready for any possible assaults." Reaching for the doorknob, he turned it quietly and tried to ease the door open. It protested loudly, and the silver-haired man gave it a look of pure irritation as it swung aside with a whine. But if any living soul was within the walls, he or she did not bother to make themselves known. Keeping a hand tightly on the hilt of the Masamune, the warrior stepped inside.
Zack gave a low exclamation as he moved to follow. "Seph!" he hissed urgently.
The other glanced back, his green eyes filled with questions.
"The porch . . . it looks new!" Zack informed him, pointing down at it for emphasis.
What? That was impossible! Sephiroth lowered his gaze to the floorboards outside. His eyes widened. The wood was smooth and sanded down, as if it was merely months old. It was no longer decaying and splintered, as he knew very well it had been when he had approached it several moments ago. Was it some kind of mind trick? He felt perfectly normal.
He turned back to face the inside of the three-room house, his long hair sweeping out and then back against him. "Keep the door open," he instructed, stepping forward to check the room nearest him, to his right.
Zack grabbed one of the dining room chairs and propped it against the slab of wood. He would look in the other room, which was straight across. Probably a bedroom, he decided. Seph's was most likely some kind of a kitchen.
Purposely he strode ahead to the third doorway, drawing his sword as he entered. But there was no need for it. The room was vacant, and save for the large bed and three small cots, along with a hand-carved chest of drawers, it was devoid of furniture.
The brunet lowered his weapon, a shiver running down his back. The parents and three kids, all of them gone. Why? Where? How? All of the beds had been neatly made, save for one of the smaller cots. The covers were rumpled and half-turned back on it, as if the child had gotten up from a nap, or had been ill. A small stuffed toy was laying against the pillow, probably set there for a moment by one who intended to come back soon. This, more than anything else he had seen, pricked at his heart.
It felt wrong to cross the room and open the first drawer, as if he was intruding on someone's privacy. And yet it was something that had to be done, just in case it was an elaborate set-up to unsettle both him and Seph. But he was starting to more fully believe that it was not, that it was for real. The porch was not something that could be explained away. And there was a feeling about this house, about this entire town, that made the SOLDIER feel cold inside. Something was very wrong, but it was something that had very little to do with any mortal enemy.
He searched the drawers swiftly, but respectfully. There was nothing within them except clothes---hand-sewn shirts in one, petticoats and other underclothing in another, and socks in a third. Hanging on a lonely rod to the left were a few plain, yet attractive, dresses, as well as two or three pairs of pants. Footwear was on the floor underneath---boots, women's shoes, children's shoes. . . . And all of them were styles that had not been seen for over a hundred years.
Zack turned away. This was not a place he wanted to stay in a moment longer. Quickly he vacated the room once more.
As he walked back through the living room, he looked into the doorway on his left. He was right about it being a kitchen, he discovered, observing the coal stove with a kettle of stew upon it. Seph was over at the other side, idly testing the water pump. It squeaked, but then suddenly worked, and water shot out into the basin. The older man quickly adjusted the handle to its original position.
"Really old place, huh, Seph?" Zack announced, walking inside.
Sephiroth turned around, glancing to his comrade before walking over to the closed panel in the floor that apparently covered the cellar. "And it's all in perfect working order," he mused. "If there's anyone here, they may be waiting to ambush us in the cellar."
"Seph . . . I don't think anyone's in there."
He looked back at the younger man again. The first time, Zack had spoken lightly, but his voice had trembled. This time, his tones had become completely serious. And the distress in his lavender eyes was obvious. He had seen something else.
"What's wrong?" Sephiroth asked, his own eyes narrowing.
Zack shook his head slowly. "There were people here, Seph," he answered. "Not now, but years ago. . . . Their clothes and beds are all here, and their food's here. . . . It looks like they all just up and left without a trace . . . without expecting to be gone."
Sephiroth frowned more as he walked over to the other. It was definitely affecting Zack in a deep, cutting way. He was a very kind-hearted person, but he would not allow a possible hoax to shake him up so much. He acted as though he was instead beginning to believe in the rumored curse.
"Don't let it get to you," the green-eyed man said seriously, gripping Zack's shoulder. "Someone here wants to upset us. You're playing into their hands."
He was not certain what he himself believed. It still seemed too convenient, too meticulously planned. And yet, there was a sense of uneasiness around this place that he did not like at all, something that he never recalled feeling before. The sooner they found the SOLDIERs and left, the better.
Zack started at the older man's touch, looking up at him. Of course Seph was right. No matter whether their opponent was mortal or not, allowing himself to be rattled would not help. But it was difficult for him to ignore what he saw all around him, especially when it came to the children. For adults to be cursed was one thing, but the children would be innocent! Had their fate been the same as their parents? He did not want to think that.
Slowly Sephiroth let go of him, walking back to the trapdoor. "In any case, we have to investigate down here," he said, his tones quiet.
Zack nodded. That was true. Maybe the SOLDIERs would even be down there . . . though in what condition? They could be hurt, or worse. . . .
He walked over, drawing his sword as he watched Seph bend down and take hold of the handle. As the trapdoor was pulled back, it made a loud, mournful groan---eerily appropriate, Zack decided.
The two comrades peered down into the blackness. It was a small storage room, completely visible from where they were standing. And, just like the rest of the abode, it looked recent. Shelves of canned fruit went along one wall, and a sack of wheat lay on the floor nearby. Two barrels bordered the opposite wall, and meat hung from the ceiling between the corners of said walls.
"No one down there," Zack remarked. In one way, it was a relief. He had almost been afraid that he would see limp bodies on the floor. And on the other hand, not seeing anything only made the mystery deepen. Sure, this was only the first house they had searched, but what were the odds that any of the others would be any different? It all seemed so vacant, and in light of how it appeared to be inhabited, it only made the brunet's bad feeling increase.
Without warning, a loud and deep clanging noise began to echo from somewhere in the town. Zack started, and Sephiroth nearly let go of the cellar door's handle. What was that?! Everything had been completely still, save for the SOLDIERs' conversation and the sound of the stew bubbling on the stove!
Sephiroth came to his senses, lowering the door and straightening up. "It's probably coming from the church," he deduced, walking past Zack, out of the room, and through the open door onto the porch. Everything was still completely empty, and yet there was something different. He frowned, studying each of the buildings in sight. What was it? Wait . . . all the doors were open. They had not been, a moment earlier.
He glanced over as Zack joined him on the porch. "Let's go," he directed abruptly. Clutching the hilt of the Masamune in his left hand, he went down the steps and across the dirt road. The church was located diagonally from the house they were at, on a corner and next to another small residence. When he looked up, he could clearly see the bell in the tower moving back and forth.
The spiky-haired man was right on his heels. He swallowed hard, glancing to all the open doors up and down the street. Was the bell ringing to call people to a regular service, or for some other purpose? He could not get rid of the feeling that he and Seph were being constantly watched, and that someone---mortal or not---was having a good laugh at their expense.
He turned his attention back to Seph as the other climbed the steps of the small building and entered the open doorway. Then he stiffened.
"What is it?" Zack gasped, hurrying over to him. Following the green-eyed gaze, he gasped.
At the front of the building, by the altar, rows of candles had been lit. The flames flickered brightly, all obviously new. And yet, one person such as the bellringer could not have done this. There were at least fifty, maybe even twice that number. Several people would have needed to work to light them all. But no one was there. The only indication of any other presence was the bell, still tolling up in its tower.
Below the altar, on a sturdy stand positioned on the floor, was an elongated wooden box. Atop it was a bouquet of lilies, the town's namesake.
Zack gave a low exclamation. "This . . . this is somebody's funeral," he said in disbelief.
Sephiroth strode past him now, walking deliberately to the coffin. This joke, if it even was a joke, was not humourous at all. Grabbing the lilies, he placed them on the altar and then took hold of the lid. Would it be nailed shut? It would not matter if it was; he could easily slice it open with his sword. But instead it rose easily, and he peered into the space. He did not know what he expected to see, but there was not any body. There was not anything.
This was disgusting. He let go of the wooden top, hearing it fall back into place as he headed for the stairs to the bell tower. He could hear Zack right behind him as their footsteps reverberated in the steep space.
The bell stopped ringing right before they made it to the top.
Sephiroth frowned deeply as he stepped into the bell tower. Suddenly, everything had become perfectly still. And there was not anywhere the bellringer could have gone without passing him and Zack. The attic was a square space, barely big enough for both of them and the bell. And speaking of the bell . . . something was missing. But that was impossible!
He walked over closer, staring upward into the underside of the mighty object. It was not there.
"Where's the rope?!" Zack exclaimed, voicing Sephiroth's observations as he also walked over.
"Not only isn't there a rope, but there isn't a clapper," Sephiroth said, pointing upward. "This bell is useless."
The lavender eyes widened, and this time the exclamation was louder. "But . . . we heard it!" Zack cried, peering into the bell before running to look out of the tower at the town. Everything looked exactly as it had several minutes earlier. The lights were still on, the doors were still open, and no living soul was in sight.
The sound of a dirge being played on the organ below made them both freeze in place. There was no way . . . !
Sephiroth turned, heading for the stairs. Swiftly he descended, with Zack clattering down after him. No one could possibly flee from their post before they would be cornered. It could not have been done in the bell tower, either. And the bell could not have been rung in the first place.
Again the building plunged into silence. As the silver-haired man stepped back into the chapel, he could plainly see that the organ had been vacated. Not only that, but dust coated the keys. And there were no indentions in the substance where fingers had been placed. His frown deepened, and he reached out to touch the nearest key. A dull, flat note answered him. This instrument had not been played for many years.
"Seph . . ."
He looked up, seeing Zack staring ahead as he walked down the steps from the platform. The brunet was obviously shaken, as he had been back at that house. Only now he looked possibly moreso.
Quickly his friend followed him down, looking in the direction of the altar. What in the name of . . .
The lid was back on the coffin, and the bouquet was on the lid.
The flowers were wilted.
"Seph, let's get out of here," Zack pleaded. "There's no one in here and nothing to see . . . well, nothing we want to see." He narrowed his eyes. No living person could have arranged any of what they had just witnessed in this church. They were pawns in a cruel game possibly being played by those who had once lived here. This was probably the sort of thing that had happened to the other SOLDIERS, too. Before they had started disappearing. . . .
Sephiroth did not need to be asked twice. This was challenging all possible logic. If they stayed here much longer, who knew what else might happen. They needed to get back outside and continue the search for the missing. There were plenty of other buildings to check.
He drew a shaking breath as he stepped onto the porch a moment later, and the fresh air slapped him in the face. The action seemed to bring him back to himself, as if he was awakening from a trance under which being in the church had put him. This was ridiculous. There had to be a reasonable explanation for everything that had just happened. It was a sick joke, as Zack had wondered when they had first arrived.
And yet, the problem was that any normally logical possibility had no place here. Any such feasibility sounded more ridiculous than the idea that there were ghosts roaming the town. There was not an audio system that could have made the sounds, nor any person who could have replaced the coffin lid, and the flowers.
"Man . . . I hate to think what those poor SOLDIERs must have gone through," Zack said as he also came outside. "Too much of this could make anyone go nuts."
Sephiroth walked down the steps. He would not let Zack see how much this was starting to disturb him. He had to be impassive, unmoved. Somehow he had to bring logic back to the forefront of his mind.
"We'll get this done faster if we split up," he said now.
Zack frowned, following him back onto the street. "Those other men said that they were disappearing," he pointed out. "There's probably safety in numbers."
Sephiroth nodded. "I know. Maybe they were falling into trapdoors and getting locked in. We'll be more careful than that." He looked back. "We've dealt with worse than this. We can't let ourselves be manipulated now. I don't care whether our adversaries are mortal or not, I believe the same thing either way."
He could see that Zack still looked doubtful. And it did make sense for him to be concerned. Even if the problem was nothing more than mysterious trapdoors, it would not help anyone if they both ended up imprisoned. And if their enemies were spirits, then who knew what kind of things they would be capable of doing.
"If they intend to cause us to disappear, then it will happen whether we stay together or not," Sephiroth spoke again.
Zack grinned weakly. "So, basically, you're saying we're doomed either way." He ran a hand through his spiky black hair. "Well, in that case, I'm up for doing anything to get out of here as soon as we can."
Sephiroth gave him a look of approval before turning back to gaze up and down the street. "I'll take the schoolhouse," he directed. "You try the town hall. Maybe there will be some records there detailing what happened to these people. We'll meet back in the street in thirty minutes."
"Okay. Got it."
The silver-haired man started to walk away. He had not made his decision lightly. He had purposely chosen the schoolhouse for his investigation, as he was certain it would disturb Zack too much to see that location. If it was the same as these other buildings, then chances were that books, paper, and children's other items would be on the desks. Maybe the day's assignment would be printed on the blackboard. It would be eerie, granted, but Sephiroth could handle it. Of course, Zack could as well, but why deliberately give his friend a task that he knew could be wounding? That would not help anything.
A pronounced gasp caused him to turn back with narrowed eyes. "What is it?" he demanded.
Zack shook his head, pointing to the side of the church that was facing the adjoining road. "Seph . . . I know nothing moved while we've been here talking." And yet now, a black carriage had suddenly positioned itself near the side doors. Nestled within it was a plain wooden coffin.
Sephiroth's eyes widened. Immediately he came back, going up the steps again and looking in the doorway of the church.
The casket was no longer in front of the altar.
This was not frightening. This was infuriating! How dare these phantoms toy with their guests, as if they were children who could be easily scared by any strange thing that came along? Neither he or Zack were juveniles any longer. This was not the way to go about trying to make them leave, if that was the intention. Nor would it make them break down into madness.
Again he came down the stairs, with renewed purpose. "Ignore it," he instructed the brunet. "It's a funeral that isn't really happening, in a town that shouldn't even exist. It's not our concern. The only thing that's important right now is finding those men."
Zack nodded. "Right!" he agreed, watching the other walk past. He would not deny that these things uneased him. And they probably always would, since there was not a way that the explanation could be anything other than the visitation of unwelcoming spirits. But the last thing that he should do would be to give in to those feelings, to allow himself to become afraid---not that he ever would. He could see Seph's indignation burning in his green eyes. And the brunet felt the same. It really was outrageous, to be treated in this way---especially when it was likely all a game to the perpetrators. No wonder the townspeople had been cursed, if they had acted like this when they were alive.
Shaking his head, he set off for the town hall across the street.
The schoolhouse was on the next block up from the church, and to get there, Sephiroth had to walk by the hearse. But he did not even glance at it. What would be the point? That was what they wanted. He would show them, whoever they were, that he would not be a pawn for their amusement.
As with the other buildings, the lights were on when he reached the small academy. The door was ajar as well, and he pushed it open without regard as to whether it would creak and moan. If their enemies were truly otherworldly, then it really did not matter how much noise the door made. They would know Sephiroth was entering the building.
The scene was about as he had envisioned, with the books and lessonwork on the children's desks, as well as inkwells and pens. There was an apple on the teacher's desk, as well as some jacks that she or he had apparently confiscated from some mischievous student. Behind the chair, which was pushed back, the blackboard had indeed been written on, with both vocabulary words and mathematical problems. One pupil had come up and had been in the middle of figuring out the latter, and the large and childish handwriting was a sharp contrast to the teacher's smooth cursive.
The chalk was still sitting on the board's ledge. He reached for it idly, picking it up between his fingers. It responded by disintegrating. In irritation he rubbed his gloved hands with vigor to remove the particles.
He turned back, casting a cursory gaze around the room. Heh . . . his own lessons had been gained from tutors in the Shinra Manor. He had been his father's pet project, enduring whatever painful experiences the mad scientist had found appropriate to inflict upon him. The man seemed to think that there was something different about his son, something that made him more special than his other guinea pigs. Some of it was because of his strong level of endurance.
In any case, his childhood had been anything but normal. Could he even really say that he had experienced a childhood at all? It was more as if, from the time he had really begun to process intelligent thoughts, he had been forced into an adult world, and had experienced things that most adults never did in their entire lifetimes.
He smirked grimly. And what had become of these children? Had the sins of their parents cursed them as well? Had they been forced to accept an adult world before they should have had to? Maybe he actually had something in common with these unfortunate souls.
A movement out of the corner of his eye brought him fully back to the present. What was that? Another human? He whirled, his hand on the hilt of the Masamune. Nothing was there now. But he could hear footsteps. They were retreating to the back door of the building. Quickly he followed, arriving at the door just as it was flung open by an unseen force. Again the cold desert air hit his face, and he squinted his eyes against its force.
Now the light was going on in the back room of the general store, which he could see was on the other side of the block. More spirits, probably---though there was always the chance that it was some of the SOLDIERs. He would have to investigate.
He swept out of the room and into the yard, not looking to the playground on either side of him. But out of the corner of his eye, he could see a swing being pushed back and forth ever so slowly, yet still faster than the wind alone could do it right now.
Perhaps a symbol of innocence lost.
Zack narrowed his eyes as he entered the town hall a short while later. It was a small building that included the courthouse, as well as the offices of the mayor and other town officials. The doors were all open, as seemed to be the custom, and a half-eaten sandwich was on the receptionist's desk. Of course, it looked fresh and new, as if it had been set down only moments earlier.
He wandered to the left, peering into the courtroom. It was modest, with a simple wooden desk as the judge's stand, one chair beside it for the witness, twelve chairs along the wall for the jury, and several carved benches for the spectators. There was nothing of particular interest about the room, and yet at the same time the brunet shivered as he gazed at it. Maybe court had been in session when the curse had been set.
He turned away, crossing the hall to the mayor's office. The floorboards creaked as he walked over them, as if protesting his actions. It was a mournful sound, just as everything about this place seemed bleak and devoid of hope.
A slight smirk of amusement came over his features when he saw the cluttered condition of the mayor's desk. Papers were everywhere, sliding down from a too-tall stack across the length of the surface and drowning everything in their path. Several long envelopes peeped out from the mass of sheets, as if flailing about and crying for help.
Curiously Zack reached for the one nearest to him, extracting it from the river of white and flipping it open. The paper inside seemed to be the record of the population, and statistics on the causes of death over the last five years, beginning with eighteen seventy-one. Over a hundred years ago now. He shook his head slowly. Such a morbid document was the last thing he wanted to be reading right now, but maybe it would offer some kind of clue.
He sighed after a moment. There was nothing out of the ordinary. The deaths seemed fairly even between old age, accidents, illnesses, and criminal executions. There was nothing to indicate the truth of the town's fate. Closing the file again, he set it back on the precarious stack and took up one of the loose sheets of paper.
A copy of a death certificate? He raised an eyebrow. What had been going on here? It almost seemed like there was far too much of an obsession with people's demises. A quick glance at the other papers revealed that they were also death certificates, at least the ones near the top.
Setting it aside, he pulled out a second envelope and opened it. A list of properties owned by the town, including an old mine in the nearby canyons. He frowned thoughtfully. He did remember hearing that Lily Valley was near a mountain with a mine deep in its side. As far as he knew, that place had been condemned now due to safety hazards. Could a lot of the townspeople have been killed in a mining accident? Still, that would not account for everyone. He laid it down thoughtfully.
He was pulling out a third envelope when something came down hard on his head. Stars exploded in front of his vision as he slumped to the floor, all sensation abandoning him.
Regaining consciousness was a strange experience at first. What was he doing on the floor? Had he fallen asleep there? No . . . that was ridiculous. Of course that had not happened. But then . . . why was he there? Had he fainted? No . . . that was not it either.
A weak moan escaped his lips as his eyes slowly opened. Why was it dark? It had been light before, he remembered that much. . . . And why was his head throbbing? Had something struck him?
Everything rushed back then, bombarding him with a whirlwind of thoughts as he struggled to sit up. He was still in the mayor's office. There was the desk above him. The moonlight from the window illuminated it, as well as the absence of all papers and envelopes.
He frowned deeply. What was the reason for this? Had he not been supposed to read the contents of those documents? And if so, why? Were the secrets of Lily Valley not meant to be revealed, or even guessed about? And why was the light out? All of the lights had been on before. . . . Was everything disappearing?!
That was an odd thing to think all of a sudden. But with his and Seph's luck, maybe it was true. Seph . . . where was he? Had the thirty minutes come and gone? If Zack had not showed up at the scheduled meeting place, Seph would have started to look for him. But he would surely begin with the town hall, since he had known that Zack was going there. . . .
Shakily the brunet gripped the edge of the desk, using his other hand to rub against the offending spot on the back of his head. "Oww," he groaned. "Forget tomorrow---I'm feeling this right now!" He stumbled, but managed to get his footing. At least he did not feel nauseous, or like he might pass out again. Hopefully that meant that he had not sustained a concussion.
And what had hit him anyway? When he dared to glance downward, nothing was in sight. He gave a low whistle. So he had been clobbered by a mysterious phantom that had not left any trace of the weapon. Seph would not be happy to hear about that. Heck, Zack was not happy to see it. Nor was he particularly overjoyed to feel it.
He smirked to himself, rubbing the forming bump as he limped out of the office. It could have been a lot worse. Getting off with a headache was relatively light.
Just as he reached the doorway to the front steps, the church bell began to peal once more. A cold chill ran down his spine. Another nameless funeral. . . . And it almost seemed as though he could hear the creaking wheels of the hearse as it pulled up to the building. He swallowed hard. No, he would not look back. The schoolhouse was straight ahead, if he walked on the right side of the road. He would not let the ghosts torment him any more. He was going to go find Seph, and when he did, they were absolutely not going to split up again, even if that meant it would take all night to search the town!
He found himself running down the dirt street as he headed for the red building. But he was not running from the ghosts. That would be pretty pointless. No, he was running to find Seph. A sudden, maybe irrational, fear had pricked his heart as soon as the bell had started to ring again.
"Seph!" he yelled, bursting into the schoolhouse a moment later.
It was empty. He stood there, breathing heavily as he desperately scanned the one room. The only thing that had happened was that the pages of one student's reader had blown about when the brunet had rushed inside. Everything else was completely, eerily still---from the other pupils' books to the small potted plant on the teacher's desk.
He shook his head at the sight. It was indeed unsettling in and of itself, but right now what worried him more was where Seph had gone. The bell was still tolling incessantly, until he felt that he would go absolutely mad. He wanted to clap his ears over his hands and run. But he would still be able to hear it.
"Seph!" he screamed again, dashing through the building and through the open back door. The playground was mostly quiet, save for a swing that was slowly moving back and forth. Zack stared at it. Was there a child's ghost in it? Or was it just an adult spirit trying to give him a start? Either way, he did not want to look. He quickly went past it, looking ahead to the general store.
The door there was standing open, or at least, what must be the back door. And . . . was that . . . it almost looked like a black boot laying in the doorway. . . . Once more he broke into a run.
Seconds later he burst through the back door and into the small storage room. It was as he had feared. His heart leaped into his throat at the sight of his best friend sprawled, lifeless, on the floor. Seph was laying mostly on his stomach and partially on his left side, his long hair flying out around him and concealing his face.
Immediately Zack dropped to his knees, gripping the other's upper arm more tightly than he intended. "Seph!" he pleaded, his voice rising as the panic increased. "Seph, get up! You've gotta get up!" It was impossible not to think of when he had found Seph laying like this back in Dismal. He had been gravely wounded then, and nearly dead. But no . . . it was not like that this time. The bell was not tolling for him. Zack had been merely unconscious. It was probably the same for Seph. . . .
Gently the brunet rolled the other onto his back, and he fell into place limply with a groan. His eyes opened weakly, blinking as he tried to focus. He looked otherwise unharmed.
Zack slumped back in relief. "Hey," he scolded lightly, a shaky smile coming across his features, "we were supposed to meet out by the church."
Sephiroth grunted as the other's words registered. "I was unavoidably delayed," he returned in a half-mumble.
"Well, that's one way to put it," Zack chuckled weakly, watching as the other began to push himself up. "What happened?!"
A hand instantly flew to the back of Sephiroth's head as he hissed in pain. "I came in here to look around when I saw a light come on," he answered, massaging the injury. "As soon as I stepped inside, something struck me from behind." He frowned, glancing around the area. "I don't know what it was."
Zack shuddered. "Same thing happened to me in the mayor's office," he announced, "after I'd read some stuff about deaths and property from the envelopes he had laying around. When I came to, they were all gone." He narrowed his eyes. "I think someone wants us out of here."
"Why not just make us disappear like the rest?" Sephiroth said, looking irritated.
Zack shrugged helplessly. "In any case, Seph, I'm saying No to any more splitting up," he said firmly.
Sephiroth watched him, lowering his hand from the bump that had formed. This was also infuriating. He had not been able to do anything to stop someone---or something---from rendering him senseless. It made him feel so powerless, so weak. And that was naturally what they wanted. They were taunting him, and Zack.
"Fine," he muttered now, in response to Zack's statement.
Further conversation was suddenly cut short by a strange sound that was taking the place of the quieting bell. It sounded like something coming down on something else, slicing it. . . . An axe! But . . . what could it be cutting? There were no trees. Sephiroth and Zack slowly turned to look at each other, the questions passing silently between them. Where was it coming from? It almost sounded like it was at the next building over, which had belonged to the local carpenter. Did they dare to even look?
Other sounds joined in, first that of sawing, and then nails being pounded down. It all took place in a matter of moments, but to the SOLDIERs, it was more of an eternity. Slowly Sephiroth got to his feet, grabbing the doorframe for assistance. Zack rose as well, ready to help but knowing that the other wanted to stand by himself if he at all could.
Both of them peered around the corner of the door.
"Do you see anything?" Sephiroth grunted.
"Nope." Zack frowned.
The brunet advanced into the yard, Sephiroth following right behind. As they walked to the backyard of the building next door, around a petrified tree, Zack froze again.
Freshly cut wood had been laid in several stacks, right up against the stone. The axe was in the top log.
Zack glowered at it. "Where did this come from?" he murmured. And yet, where did any of these things come from? Some ghostly dimension, where they could be produced at a moment's notice?
Sephiroth walked past it. "It doesn't account for the other sounds we heard," he said, going over to the doorway and looking inside.
Zack quickly followed. "Does anything here explain it?" he asked, but no sooner had he said it than he saw the answer.
Leaning against the wall were two new coffins. The message was clear.
"Oh, that's really not funny," Zack said when the initial shock wore off.
Sephiroth glanced around the one room of the building, from the other completed and in-progress projects to the workbench with its tools to the front counter. The SOLDIERs were obviously not there, and somehow it seemed unwise to tempt the ghosts by advancing further inside. He and Zack might end up shoved into the caskets, and then the lids would be nailed down. So instead he turned away and walked back into the yard.
"We still have other buildings to search," he said to Zack. "Come on."
The brunet was only too happy to comply.
Most of what was left consisted of the private residences. And the majority of those were the same as the first, with food on the tables or on the stoves, clothes hanging in the closets, and the beds ready to sleep in. Some, however, had other unsettling features as well. One had a table hosting all of the house's sewing equipment, including the current project of a spring dress for a child. Another held a half-carved chair, and a third, a completed rocking chair that was slowly moving by itself.
None held any clues as to the missing SOLDIERs. It was as if they had never existed, or as if their existence had been entirely erased. Both Sephiroth and Zack were frustrated by this, as well as bewildered. Half a dozen strong men could not vanish into thin air. If they were not in Lily Valley, then where had they gone? Could they have gone to the mine and ended up plunging through a faulty platform or caught in a cave-in? That did not explain their equally missing truck, however, or their equipment.
Zack ran a hand through his spiky hair as they walked back along the now-silent street. "They aren't anywhere!" he burst out. By now his temper had run very thin, his cheerfulness long ago giving way to his indignation over how they were being treated and over what may have happened to the men for whom they were searching. Toying with peoples' lives was never something that he could witness in good humor. It outraged and disgusted him, and even if he was playing into the ghosts' hands by getting upset, he could not control himself.
Sephiroth was still angry himself, though he remained better at controlling it. "There's still one location we haven't checked yet," he said as they passed the church. It was deserted, the doors shut, with no sign of the hearse.
"What's that?" Zack asked, looking to him.
"The jailhouse," Sephiroth answered, nodding toward the building in question as he began to walk over to it.
"The lights are off," Zack observed as he followed. In fact, all over the town, the glows had been being extinguished. He was not sure what that signified, only that he knew he did not like it. Maybe, if they were still in the town's boundaries when the last light went off, they would end up trapped by the curse. If it existed. Something certainly did.
Sephiroth pushed open the door, allowing the light from outside to stream in. On the sheriff's desk was a kerosene lamp, still half full. As he stepped inside, he reached over and turned the knob, sending a soft glow around the room. It was sparsely furnished, with only pigeon-holes near the desk for file storage, and three cells on the opposite wall.
Idly he stuck his hand into the nearest hole, pulling out a crisp, new envelope. Lifting the flap, he extracted the sheet of paper inside and unfolded it. It was not much more than he had expected---a record of an arrest made in eighteen seventy-four, when someone had stolen money from the owner of the general store.
He raised an eyebrow when he saw that the thief had been executed the following day. Frontier towns sometimes had strict laws, when they had law at all, but even so, it seemed extreme.
Zack was investigating another of the makeshift files. Judging from his narrowed eyes, he did not like what he had discovered.
"These people were nuts," he cried, looking up at his friend as he waved the leaf in emphasis. "They killed a guy for accidentally crashing a carriage he was driving! They said that it wouldn't have happened if he'd been more careful, and that he could've killed someone else."
Sephiroth grunted, refolding the paper he was looking at and placing it in the envelope before putting it back into the pigeon-hole. "It must have been a very tightly knit community," he commented. "I'm guessing they never were particularly fond of visitors."
Zack swore under his breath. "Seph . . ."
The silver-haired man looked up, his eyes narrowed. Zack rarely cursed, unless he was pushed to his absolute limit. Now he was staring ahead at one of the cells. Sephiroth quickly followed his gaze.
A noose was suspended from the ceiling, swinging back and forth very slowly. There was nothing in it, yet on the wall was cast the shadow of a limp body.
Zack clenched a fist. "That is it!" he said furiously. "There's nothing to see here. Those SOLDIERs probably cleared out, unless they ended up part of this curse. And that's probably what the ghosts want to see happen to us, too! Or else they want to drive us out of our minds."
Sephiroth laid a hand gently, yet firmly on the other's shoulder. "They probably want us to go," he said. "And we will---after we finish looking through these documents." He agreed that the SOLDIERs were not here. But on the off-chance that one of them might have left a message in one of the pigeon-holes, the compartments' contents should be thoroughly examined.
And if nothing was there, then what? Maybe when it was morning, he and Zack should go up to that old mine and look around. Surely the SOLDIERs would not have been so foolish as to explore such a potentially dangerous place, but maybe if they were in a frenzy from the spirits' actions they would have ran there blindly to get away.
Zack took a deep breath. He had to calm himself. Even if he did not care what the ghosts thought, he did care about doing the best job that he could, under the circumstances. And if he was so angry, he would not be able to do that.
"Thanks, Seph," he said quietly, taking out another envelope from the wall.
Sephiroth nodded slowly, letting go as he busied himself with the task as well.
Nothing useful was gleaned from reading over the old files, and Sephiroth felt both irritation and relief as he shoved the final paper back into its envelope. All they had really learned was further confirmation that these people had let their power go to their heads. Maybe that was part of why they had been cursed.
He sighed, turning to head for the still-open door. "Let's go," he directed.
Zack switched off the lamp and was quickly at his side, only too happy to depart. "Can you believe these people, though?" he said, shaking his head. "I mean . . . some of the things they were doing. . . ." He shook his head helplessly. "They must've been crazy."
Sephiroth stepped onto the street outside. "When you give someone a little bit of power, they always want more, until they have it all or die trying," he remarked.
He narrowed his eyes as he glanced up and down the street. Almost all of the lights had been extinguished now. The town was deathly silent, becoming more as the normal ghost town that it was supposed to be. But that was not a comfort, as some might think. It only added to the ominous feeling surrounding each building and road. It seemed to be another trick, something else being done to unnerve the unwelcome guests.
Zack felt the same. "The only light still on is at the first place we checked out," he said. "What happens if it goes?"
"It's probably better not to think about it," Sephiroth grunted. Maybe nothing at all would happen. Maybe the ghosts were hoping to drive them mad with the fear that something would happen, even if it would not.
"Kinda hard not to," Zack answered in a low tone, as they began to walk back to where they had left their Jeep.
Halfway there, the last light went out.
A very real, icy breeze swept over the two SOLDIERs, as if it had been the culprit behind the glow being eliminated and now was going after the two intruders. Zack shivered, his lavender eyes narrowing. Sephiroth continued to look ahead, feeling his bangs slap against his face.
"Keep walking," he urged. "Don't look behind you, or to the side. We know we're parked just ahead." The light from the moon was still shining down. No matter what the ghosts tried, they would not be able to cover that, unless they tried to blind their victims.
Zack nodded. "No way am I going to look back there!" he declared. There was a certain morbid curiosity, wondering what would happen if he did glance away from their goal, but it would be foolish to test it. He would not be surprised if it was something that the ghosts wanted him and Seph to do. Anything to shake them up more.
In this way they proceeded safely out of Lily Valley and back up the hill, where the frosty sensation finally left them alone. When they arrived at their vehicle, the brunet finally dared to glance back at the town. It was as they had left it, completely dark and gloomy and vacant. Now it appeared as uninhabited and decrepit as a ghost town should. It looked as if it had not been touched in over a hundred years.
Zack shook his head, climbing into the driver's side and slumping against the seat. "What an awful place," he murmured, hearing Seph get in beside him.
He glanced over at the silver-haired man. "So, what's the plan now?" he asked.
Sephiroth sighed, brushing his bangs away from his eyes. "I know this won't sound pleasant, but I think we should stay here tonight," he determined. "We still haven't found those SOLDIERs, or even any clue as to what happened. When it's light, I'm thinking that we should drive over to that mine." He nodded in its general direction. "They may have gone there to escape the phantoms, and met with misfortune."
Zack nodded slowly. "I was kinda thinking the same thing," he agreed. "But do you think we'll be left alone here?"
"Judging from the fact that the breeze is gone, I think we will be," Sephiroth mused. "It's possible that their curse makes it so that they cannot leave the boundaries of their town. And if not, they at least seem disinterested, as long as we're not there." He massaged the bridge of his nose. "We should probably take turns getting sleep and keeping watch, just in case."
Zack grinned weakly. "I dunno if I can sleep here, with that place right below us," he said. "It just gives me a really bad feeling, you know?"
Sephiroth nodded as well. "But if we don't try, we'll be too exhausted to do anything come morning."
"Yep." Zack winced, feeling the bump start to throb again. "Hey, Seph, you don't think you have a concussion, do you?" he asked.
"No," Sephiroth said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Do you think you do?"
"I don't think so. . . ." The brunet smirked. "But they say you shouldn't sleep for twenty-four hours after being conked, if you do have one, or if you're not sure if you do."
"Heh." Sephiroth leaned back, studying the younger man out of the corner of his eye. "If it bothers you that badly, I'll tell you what. Whoever's awake will wake up the other every hour, to make sure he still remembers everything."
Zack yawned. "Sounds good to me," he said, reaching for the lever to push his seat back. "Just hope both of us don't fall asleep at once."
"Don't worry," Sephiroth answered. "We'll manage."
As it turned out, neither of them could even stay asleep for a full hour at a time. The slightest sound would start them back to awareness, and when they'd try again to sleep, it would take a long time before their eyes would finally grow heavy enough and their minds would blank. And then the whole process would start all over again. By morning, needless to say, they were both utterly exhausted, as Sephiroth had predicted.
Zack yawned again, slumping forward on the steering wheel as he watched the first rays of the sun pierce the horizon. "You know, I think I'd be less tired if I hadn't slept at all, as weird as that sounds," he said with a weak smirk.
"I understand completely," Sephiroth returned, pulling off his gloves to rub at his eyes with his bare hands.
Lily Valley almost looked normal as the sun rose, highlighting first one building and then the next with its light. It was possible, Sephiroth supposed, that the ghosts only came out at night. But they were certainly not going to chance it by making another visit. They were going straight to the mine, and if nothing was there, they were going to continue their search at the next abandoned town, which was five miles straight ahead to the south.
He glanced back at Zack. The spiky-haired SOLDIER looked completely give-in, as if he was too tired to fall asleep. It seemed cruel to make him take the wheel.
"Let's trade places," Sephiroth directed. "I'll drive."
Zack looked up at him, hopefulness as well as hesitation in his eyes. "We're both really worn out, Seph," he replied slowly. "I can do it. . . ." But he honestly did not know that he could. Seph certainly looked more awake than Zack felt right now, but that could just be an act, knowing him. Zack did not know how his friend could put on half the facades that he did.
"Maybe," Sephiroth answered, "or maybe you'd fall asleep, and where would that leave us?" He looked at the other compassionately. "I'll drive us to the mine and we'll look around there quickly. Chances are, we might not even be able to get inside. But whether we can or not, once we're done I'll see that we get away from this place. Then I'm going to pull over to the side of the road and we'll both try to get some proper sleep before we resume the search." He had the feeling that once they could no longer see this disturbing place, they would both be able to relax enough to rest.
Zack's expression turned grateful and relieved. "Sounds great to me!" he declared, as he started to climb out of the Jeep.
It did not take long to drive up the mountain to the mouth of the mine. Sephiroth parked then, getting out and taking up the Masamune as he went. He could hear Zack following him, and as they got closer, the rusted, heavy chain came into view. It was stretched from one side of the entrance to the other, and a faded sign was across it that proclaimed as best as it could that all beyond this point was condemned. It did not look as though it had been disturbed.
Sephiroth stepped over it carefully, walking to the yawning entrance. He could see that everything within was entirely dark. Not even the Eastern light could illuminate the contents. He reached into his pocket, withdrawing a small flashlight. As he clicked it on and shined it into the cavern, his eyes narrowed. One would have to hope that the SOLDIERs had not blindly run inside.
Next to him, Zack gave a low exclamation. "There's no floor in there!" he gasped.
Sephiroth nodded grimly. Obviously there was a good reason why the mine had been condemned. He had heard that there had been cave-ins in the past, and if the floor by the entrance had not already collapsed, maybe it had even happened if the SOLDIERs had gone there.
He leaned in slightly. "Is anyone down there?" he called. His voice echoed eerily as it traveled down into the abyss. No one answered, and as he shined his flashlight into the hole, he could not even see the bottom.
Zack leaned over as well, placing his hands on his knees. "No one could have survived that fall," he breathed. Somehow, even though they did not know that any of the missing men had plunged down there, it seemed only respectful to speak quietly except in the case of attempting to elicit a response from any poor victims.
Sephiroth straightened up slowly, casting the beam up and down the floorless corridor ahead. He could see part of the old track that the mining cars had run on, suspended as it were in midair, with an absence of floor on all sides. He shook his head. "When we get back to headquarters, we'll explain the situation. They may want to send a specialized team to investigate the mine." He sighed, starting to turn away. "There's little more we can do here."
Zack nodded, disturbed, as he turned to follow the other. What could have happened to the SOLDIERs? With their vehicle broken, it did not seem likely that they could have made it to the next town over. And there was still no trace of anything---not even the equipment they had used to communicate.
"Seph," he said, as they drove back down the mountain, "do you think that maybe . . . maybe they got stuck in Lily Valley and ended up part of the curse?"
"I would really like to say No," Sephiroth grunted. "I would like to say that there isn't any such thing as a curse and that everything that happened last night was a hoax. But very little of it, if anything, is explainable. And we know it happened. It wasn't some sort of shared hallucination. These bumps prove that quite well."
He gave Lily Valley a cursory glare as they drove past it. In the daylight it still looked completely unassuming. But he and Zack knew better.
Abruptly he stopped, his green eyes narrowing as he tightly gripped the steering wheel. "It looks like we missed one other place last night," he muttered. In fact, he was certain it had not been there then. Surely, had he seen it, he would have tried to explore.
Zack frowned, leaning forward to look around him. "The cemetery!" he said in disbelief. A chill went down his spine as he gazed at its contents.
The graveyard was the only location in Lily Valley or nearby that had evidence of plant life. Thick, luscious green grass was growing within the boundaries of the burial place, and on every tomb was one or more lilies. In one corner, they grew in clusters.
The cemetery's markers were all made of old and cracked wood, save for two freshly carved additions that were leaning in wait against a tree. Nearby were two raised up plots of dirt, where recent coffins had apparently been buried. More lilies, freshly picked, were laying atop the new graves.
Zack slumped back against the seat. "Well . . . I guess now we know how the place got its name," he said feebly.
Sephiroth shook his head slowly as he revved the engine and drove past, leaving Lily Valley far behind them.