Final Fantasy VII

Dead to the World

By LuckyLadybug

Notes: The characters are not mine and this story is! It's really quite dear to my heart, as the highly creepy location is based largely on a recurring location in my dreams. The basement was inspired by several others. It takes place in my Twilight and Dawn era following Dirge of Cerberus, at the latest point in said era. Newcomers need only to know that Sephiroth, and any other SOLDIERs who lost their minds, have been restored to sanity. And they're all on Earth. Many thanks to Kaze for plot help!

Sephiroth was generally irritated by the times he and the others had to journey to examine property in the city and the surrounding area. Sometimes they would make a long trip for land or buildings that were not worth their time. And other times whatever was for sale was fine, but the people they had to deal with were vexing. And then there were times when everything else seemed to go wrong, such as on the drive back.

Right now rain was coming down in sheets and they still had a long way to go before they would reach Domino City again. Traffic had been piling on the freeway for hours, and finally in disgust Sephiroth had said for Angeal to get off at the next exit. They would go through the towns until reaching home. After all, the way things had been going, stopping for traffic lights would undoubtedly not take up as much time as waiting for the vehicles on the freeway to do something.

"You know, I don't even get how traffic jams happen," Zack frowned, gripping the top of the seat in front of him as they traveled down the slick roads of a town an hour away from Domino. "I mean, why doesn't the car in the lead just go? They're on the freeway! It's not like they have lights to stop for."

"Who knows." Cloud crossed his arms in annoyance. "There couldn't always be construction work or accidents or stuff that'd make everything slow up."

"That's just my point!" Zack declared. "It doesn't make sense!"

Angeal shook his head. "It's probably cars coming onto the freeway that cause the other problems," he said. "And cars changing lanes. When there's so many, undoubtedly it ends up congested."

"It really doesn't matter what causes them," Sephiroth said. "I'm sure those at traffic control know why it happens, and knowing apparently doesn't prevent it."

Zack shrugged. "Well, imagining everybody just being lazy makes me feel better anyway," he said.

"How so?" Sephiroth asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I can feel justified in being mad that the ones in the lead won't go," Zack smirked.

"Good enough," Cloud said, leaning back in the seat. His blond spikes were flopping over his right eye, as usual, and his clothes were a rumpled mess. He looked exhausted. The others were the same, even Zack--though he tried to mask it with his half-sarcastic jokes.

Sephiroth frowned as he looked out the window at their surroundings. "Where are we?" he demanded. "This doesn't look right." Instead of the main road which was filled with lights, they were now moving down a dark street where every house was silent and cold. They also looked increasingly devoid of modern architecture. Angeal must be sending them into the historic part of town.

Angeal frowned. "No, it doesn't," he agreed. "Maybe I was supposed to turn at the next block over instead of this one."

Zack straightened up. "Who has the map?" he wondered.

"Right here." Cloud waved it above his head for a moment before bringing it to his lap and unfolding it. He squinted at the concourse of lines. Angeal flipped on the overhead light.

"Okay, so we were supposed to go down the main street until hitting Eighth West," Cloud reported, tracing the road lines with his forefinger. "And it's anybody's guess what this street is." He looked up, frowning at the darkness around them.

"I haven't seen a street sign for the last few blocks!" Zack said. "Well . . . I haven't seen much else, either," he amended.

Sephiroth sighed. "Try looking for house numbers," he directed. He had been attempting to do that ever since they had turned down this road, but even with his heightened vision he could not make out anything about the homes other than their vague and old silhouettes. And that greatly displeased him.

"House numbers?!" Zack exclaimed. "I'm still trying to see the houses! And cars, and other signs of people!" He gave a wild gesture, then suddenly yelped as the car flew around a corner. He crashed against Cloud, which in turn caused Cloud to crash against the inside of the door. The map crackled in response.

"What gives?!" Zack cried as he righted himself, gripping the top of the seat behind him and Cloud.

By now Angeal had brought the limousine to a halt. "The weather's getting worse," he said. "I couldn't control the car." He frowned, leaning forward as he tried to peer out the windshield. "We should probably stop for a while until things calm down." The rain pelted on the glass as if in agreement, not having eased its assault in the slightest.

Zack shifted. "So we'll just be sitting here? What if there's a flood and the whole car floats away?"

"I don't think the rain is that serious yet," Sephiroth said.

"It could get that bad!" Zack retorted. "It used to flood a lot in Gongaga during the rainy season, and it started out with storms like this." He squinted through the rain-covered windows. "Hey, there's actually a place lit up over there!" he announced, pointing out Angeal's window.

All other eyes focused on the sight as well. Sure enough, diagonally from where they were parked was a large mansion, its windows ablaze with light. It looked so warm and welcoming compared to the thought of staying in the car. The temperature was cooling down fast, and they had already been on a long drive. Zack wanted to get out and stretch his legs--and to remove himself from the scene of a possible flood.

"Maybe they wouldn't mind if we asked to stay for just a few minutes," Zack said. It would be impossible not to hear the hopefulness in his voice.

Sephiroth grunted. "They probably don't want to be bothered," he said. Still, he knew of Zack's phobia about floods, and that that was probably the main reason why he did not want to stay in the car. And of course, that notorious soft spot for Zack was making him want to go up to the house and inquire if it would be alright for them to linger in the parlor for a short time. The rain would probably let up enough soon that they could resume their journey.

"It wouldn't hurt to ask," Zack said. He was already undoing his seatbelt. "We could try calling the girls, too. I can't get my cellphone to work in this weather!"

Cloud nodded. "They're probably worried," he said. He did not really want to go up to the house, yet staying in the car with Zack getting agitated would not be a good thing, either.

Angeal sighed. "Alright, we'll try it," he consented, looking to Sephiroth. The silver-haired man gave a vague nod, unbuckling his seatbelt as he reached for the door handle.

"And somebody better have the umbrella," Cloud muttered.

"Right here!" Zack chirped, pulling it down from the top of the backseat. As he opened the door and leaped out of the car, he let the umbrella pop open at the same time. Cloud hurried after him.

After collecting Sephiroth and Angeal, the four men hurried to the mansion's property. Sephiroth would have preferred a brisk walk, but Zack was practically running, and everyone else had to run as well if they wanted to stay under the umbrella--which did not offer much shelter for four people as it was.

Sephiroth studied the yard and walkway with narrowed eyes as they made their way to the large porch. There were no cars or any material indications of residents, yet there were well-tended flowers around the front of the house, and more along the perimeter of the property. And of course, all the lights were on inside.

Zack was knocking on the double doors now, after having hopped up the stairs two at a time. He blinked as the left one swung open, revealing the lavish parlor beyond. "Uh, hello?" he called, peering through the opening.

"That's pretty careless, to leave the door unlocked like that," Cloud remarked.

"Maybe it means visitors are welcome," Zack suggested, stepping onto the mat inside and wiping his feet on it.

"Maybe it means 'We did something stupid and you'd better not take advantage of it, or we'll call the police,'" Cloud retorted. Nevertheless, he followed suit. Until someone told them to leave, he was fine with staying in the parlor.

Sephiroth and Angeal entered behind them, Angeal pulling the door shut after him. The house remained silent, with no indication of its occupants being present. To their right, beyond the parlor, seemed to be a large kitchen and other rooms. Strangely, a set of double doors on their left was closed. An uneasy feeling went up Angeal's spine as he studied the sight.

"Something isn't right," he said.

"I'll say!" Zack exclaimed. "They've got a nice place like this and they go leaving the door open?!" He gestured wildly as he advanced into the parlor.

"Maybe they didn't," Sephiroth said. "We may have entered in the middle of a burglary."

Zack froze, whirling to look back at him. "A burglary?!" he repeated.

"It would make sense," Sephiroth said, crossing his arms.

"Nothing seems to be missing in here," Cloud observed. "Or turned over."

"Not all burglars vandalize," Sephiroth said. He stepped forward, attempting to keep his shoes as quiet as possible on the tiled floor.

"They're sure quiet, even for burglars," Zack commented, his hands going to his hips. "If they were gonna take stuff, there's probably a lot in this fancy kitchen that they'd like." He crossed to it, peering in the open doorway at the spacious room. A large microwave under the cupboards, a glass blender, a four-slice toaster, and many other appliances were all intact. The kitchen looked undisturbed altogether. There was not so much as a crumb on the island counter or on the table.

Sephiroth shook his head. "Of course anything to do with food would be your first thought," he said.

"Hey, we've gotta eat!" Zack said, eying the fridge with longing.

"Let's see if we can find anyone home first," Angeal said. "If there is a burglary taking place, we should try to stop it."

"So we can all be heroes?" Cloud put in.

"So we can all not be implicated ourselves," Angeal replied.

Cloud shrugged. "Good enough for me."

The rooms on the right side--from the living room to the sitting room to several bedrooms--were all luxuriously furnished. None appeared to have been disturbed by anyone, thief or resident alike. By the time they reached the staircase in the back hallway, Zack was uneasy.

"Is it just me, or is this kinda creepy?" he said. "I mean, somebody was obviously here, but now they aren't. It really gives me a weird feeling, like when we were in that Lily Valley place." He looked to Seph, who gave a slow nod of agreement.

"You think there's ghosts here?" Cloud frowned.

"I don't know!" Zack looked helpless. "The kitchen looked pretty modern, but . . ."

Angeal was peering up the staircase. Suddenly he stiffened. "We shouldn't go up there," he declared, his voice and visage completely grim and serious. He pulled his hand away from the banister as if he had been shocked.

Sephiroth narrowed his eyes. "What is it?" he asked.

Angeal shook his head. "I don't know," he said, walking away from the stairs. "There's something ominous up there. That's all I really know to say . . . but it isn't exactly what I mean." He frowned. "I had the same kind of feeling when I looked at those double doors across the parlor, but it's more intense here."

"Okay, now you're scaring me, Angeal!" Zack protested, shuddering as he looked at Angeal with wide and woebegone eyes.

"We've looked everywhere else on this floor," Sephiroth said. "Either we stop and stay in the parlor, or we venture past the double doors."

"I'd be fine with staying in the parlor," Cloud said as they walked back to the front of the house. "It doesn't look like anyone's here."

"No one visible, anyway," Angeal said.

"What if someone is here?" Zack worried. "Maybe they're hurt or something. The burglars could've already left."

"It's possible," Sephiroth consented.

Cloud sighed. "Then we'd better look," he said, walking to the doors. He grasped the handles, preparing to haul the doors open. For a moment he felt a twinge of apprehension. Angeal was not a psychic. All of them felt something odd in this house, but Angeal seemed to sense it the most acutely of them all. Still, what could there possibly be? Cloud's own explanation of ghosts could be the truth, as annoying as that was to realize. But this was not the kind of house Cloud had imagined ghosts would inhabit. And why would they only stay in certain parts?

He threw open the doors. Now he was looking at a library. It was a pleasant enough room, with books on shelves and on desks and end tables, but something did feel wrong. Cloud frowned, studying the recliner chairs and couches.

"Why do I feel like they're looking back?" he muttered.

"Probably just because of Angeal," Zack said, forcing a lighter tone into his voice as he wandered into the room. "There's nothing out of the ordinary here. Hey, there's even another staircase." He blinked, looking towards the spiral stairs right in the middle of the floor.

Sephiroth walked over, looking up at the twisting steps. This seemed perfectly normal too. At least he did not feel any sense of immediate, impending doom as he studied it. But the feeling that something was in the room with them was growing stronger. Possibly it was a security camera through which someone was watching the uninvited guests. Or it could be the other explanation, that Cloud had mentioned . . . but he really did not want to consider that yet.

By now Angeal had wandered over near the door leading into the rest of the downstairs rooms--which were mostly bedrooms. With narrowed eyes he peered down the corridor before stepping into it. There was a feeling in this wing that had not been present on the opposite side--except at the back staircase. Every room had an eerie presence. They should not be here.

"This place is almost as big as home!" Zack declared in awe from the library.

Angeal turned back, his footsteps quickening as he made his way to where the others were still gathered. "There isn't anyone in this wing," he said as he reached the doorway. "We need to move on." It would be better just to leave altogether. If it was not that someone still might be hurt somewhere, he would insist that they brave the rain and go back to the car.

Zack looked up. "You mean go up the stairs?" he said, and then stared at his old mentor's disturbed expression. Angeal was usually so calm and collected, and even though he still was, he was also clearly displaying his concerns. That worried Zack immensely. Angeal would never be this worried without a reason.

Angeal nodded. "There's supposed to be three floors," he said. "Someone could be on the other two."

"Or in the basement," Cloud noted. Having discovered a door at the far side of the room, he had opened it and was staring down another flight of steps into the near-darkness. The basement was not lit.

"We would cover more ground if we split into two groups," Sephiroth commented, walking to where Cloud was still standing.

"And then we could get out of here faster," Zack added.

"I thought you wanted to be here," Cloud said, looking back to him.

"Yeah, well, that was before we knew it was spook central!" Zack retorted. "I had enough of that with Lily Valley."

Angeal blinked in confusion. "What is this Lily Valley?" he asked.

Zack shuddered. "I'll have to tell you about it sometime," he said, "but not when we're right in the middle of anywhere that's infested by ghosts!"

"I'll go with Cloud into the basement," Sephiroth interrupted. "You and Angeal can search the upper levels. Whoever is done first will go to meet the others."

Zack saluted. "Sounds good to me!" he said. "Just as long as everybody gets done.

"Can you believe our cellphones don't work in here?" He frowned. Maybe, considering the house, it was not so strange. The landline phones that they had seen did not work, either. And their cellphones all displayed the No Signal message. It could just be because of the storm. That was certainly the most logical explanation. But on the other hand, it could be that the ghosts did not want them to communicate with the outside world.

"If we haven't all gathered within thirty minutes, then whoever is left will assume there's a problem," Sephiroth said.

"'Whoever's left'?" Zack moaned. "Come on, Seph, old pal, don't scare me like that!"

Sephiroth grunted. "I don't mean that anyone will die."

At the same moment, a heavy desk shot across the floor in his direction. Glowering, he sidestepped the angry furniture as he moved to the basement door. Cloud gawked.

"Maybe we won't even be able to get back up," Cloud said, tensing as the desk started to move again. "What if the desks and chairs all get together and decide to board up the door?" He hated that he was speaking only half-sarcastic. This was ridiculous! So now the room was filled with poltergeists? He had to hope it was that, anyway--as opposed to the furniture actually being alive. Now that would be too weird, even for them.

"They don't want us in this room," Angeal said, keeping his gaze fixed on the desk as he walked to the stairs leading upward. "We've been here too long."

"So if we go away, they won't do anything more?" Zack blinked.

Angeal shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe."

"Since it has to be done, let's not waste time," Sephiroth said. By now he and Cloud were both heading down the basement stairs. The desk seemed to have settled, until Zack got the unsettling feeling that it was now eying him.

"Okay!" he exclaimed. "Onward and upward!" He leaped onto the bottom step of the spiral staircase. Angeal followed.

And the desk stayed still.

"Now that's really freaky," Zack declared, hurrying up the next round of steps to get the desk out of his sight.

A chill breeze blew right in his face as he paused on the landing of the second floor. "And so's that!" he cried. Anger was beginning to mix with his disturbed feelings. He hated when anything toyed with him and his friends, whether it was mortal or not. And it looked like they were in for a disastrous night, all because of wanting to get in out of the cold and attempting to play Good Samaritan to people who might not even exist. He really found it unfair, when trying to do a good turn resulted in so much chaos.

Angeal's frown deepened. What he had felt on the back staircase was here, too--and much stronger now that they were right here at the top. Something was very wrong with this house, and most especially this floor. He hated to think of the sheer number of abominable acts that would have needed to happen to contribute to such a dark and evil sensation.

"Let's keep going," he said. "This staircase seems to go all the way to the third floor. If we can't find anything up there, then we'll come back to this level."

Zack swallowed. "There's something really bad there, huh?" he said, definitely not going to disagree with Angeal's idea.

Angeal nodded. "I'm afraid so," he acknowledged.

Zack looked back at the second floor. Now it seemed completely normal, with no trace of the ill breeze. "Boy, I sure hope nobody's there in trouble," he said.

Angeal's eyes narrowed. Considering that reason, they should perhaps visit the second floor first. But what he was concerned about was that if they got into trouble themselves, they would not be able to search the third floor.

"I do too," he said. "Let's not add ourselves to it until we've seen what's above us."

"I'm with you there!" Zack declared. Gripping the banister, he continued the journey upward. Angeal followed, still climbing the stairs at a normal pace. Zack was racing up two at a time.

Angeal had to shake his head in slight amusement at the sight. Some things never did change.

Cloud was growing equally uneasy by the sight of the basement rooms. They were all in darkness, but from the visible light at the top of the stairs, they were also completely furnished and comfortable-looking. And vacant, at least judging by mortal eyes.

"Zack wasn't far off when he said this place is about as big as home," he said. "If the basement's like the main floor, then we could get lost down here."

"Are you afraid of that?" Sephiroth sounded slightly amused, prompting Cloud to narrow his eyes in annoyance.

"No!" he retorted. The last thing he wanted to do was to look like a scared kid in front of Sephiroth. Even though he no longer idolized the former general as someone larger than life, he still did have his pride. And after everything else they had come through, the possibility of getting lost in a house--even a haunted one--sounded stupid.

A vague smirk played on Sephiroth's lips. Reaching to his side, he flipped a light switch. There was barely any change. Now the illumination was such as it would be if light was shining from outside in an otherwise dark basement. Somehow that seemed even more creepy.

Cloud studied the effect. The hairs on his neck must be standing on end--just like all the rest of his hair did on a normal day. They were standing in what was probably a family room, complete with several couches and chairs and an entertainment center all framing the middle of the floor. It did not exactly feel like they were being watched down here, but there was the feeling that maybe they really would get lost. He did not entirely understand it, or why the panic was slowly rising in his heart at the thought.

"We want to be back upstairs on time, don't we?" he said then. "So we should do everything possible to make sure we can."

"What do you suggest?" Sephiroth asked dryly. "A trail of bread crumbs?"

Cloud rolled his eyes. "Or we could cut open a couch and leave stuffing everywhere," he said.

"I hope you're being sarcastic," Sephiroth remarked as he walked forward. "I don't think the spirits would enjoy such vandalism at all."

Cloud snorted, following his friend to the left. There were not any traditional doorways to the right side of the corridor. The only separators of rooms seemed to be the arches that they passed, as well as quilts draped up for walls. It was bizarre.

"What kind of a place is this?" Cloud muttered, peering into one bedroom. Its main theme seemed to be light blue, and the bed comforter and the walls proudly bore it. The almost cheerful color seemed so out of place here that it was more eerie than if the color had been black or dark red.

"Who knows." Sephiroth frowned. "I wouldn't particularly care at all, save for the fact that right now we are in the midst of it."

Cloud nodded. "And everything's so modern, too," he said. "I always think of haunted houses being really old."

Sephiroth shrugged. "The house itself may be," he said, "especially considering the neighborhood we're in. What interests me the most is that the modern appliances indicate someone was living here not long ago. I wonder what happened to them."

"Maybe they ran off in terror and left all their stuff." Now Cloud was looking into a bedroom adorned in yellow-green. What was the deal with these places?! And had there really been as many people living here as there were bedrooms? Even their own home had some rooms they had not done anything with yet, particularly in the basement.

"Or maybe they joined the already existing concourses of spectres," Sephiroth said.

"Let's just hope we don't, too," Cloud grumbled.

"I don't have any intention of dying again," Sephiroth said. "Not until I'm feeble and old."

Cloud allowed a slight smirk. "You'd never be feeble," he said. "You'd be one of those spry guys who's hopping around the world at ninety."

"And you," Sephiroth returned, "would be a cantankerous codger."

"I'm not that bad," Cloud retorted.

"No," Sephiroth agreed. "Only when you're having one of those days."

"And this is one of 'those' nights," Cloud said.

Enjoying their game, Sephiroth mused, "I wonder what Zack would be."

"A cheerful grandpa type, of course," Cloud said.

Sephiroth smirked. "Of course."

Cloud looked at him. "And Angeal?"

"Angeal . . ." Sephiroth hesitated, searching for the right words. "Angeal would be the wisest, and arguably the most serious."

Cloud gave a slow nod. Sephiroth deeply respected Angeal, who had always been quite at home mentoring and advising people. Sephiroth himself had been the recipient of Angeal's advice on more than one occasion.

"I don't know," he said then. "You're pretty serious too." Sephiroth's stern behavior was really quite legendary, while Angeal had been known to be more outwardly soft. Angeal still had a terrible time disciplining anyone very harshly, whereas Sephiroth would do it in an instant if he found it necessary.

A smirk played on Sephiroth's lips. "But not wise?" Now they had come to the end of the corridor. Most of the rooms were in the other direction. He turned, preparing to head that way.

Cloud turned with him. "Sure, I guess," he said, smirking a bit as well. "You've made some pretty smart decisions sometimes." He was still getting to know Angeal, and when he thought about it he still went to Sephiroth for advice. When he went to anyone at all, that is. Usually he tried to solve his own problems, and Sephiroth would notice if he was having trouble doing it. Then Sephiroth would make mention of the fact and Cloud would either deny it, finally admitting it later, or else tell Sephiroth of his burdens from the start. It all depended on his mood--and on how hopeless he found it to hide his woes from Sephiroth.

"Oh really." Sephiroth was now paying closer attention to the rooms Cloud had been looking in at first. The opposite side, which Sephiroth had looked at upon their arrival, seemed to sport one big room--still part of the family room from the looks of it--as well as one bathroom and a small storage room. Neither part of the basement appeared to be very conventional.

He glanced back to the side of the hall with the odd arches. His eyes narrowed as he noticed a quilt moving slightly on what he had thought was the back wall. There was something behind it, either another room or a window. He headed inside for a better look.

"Yeah," Cloud said, frowning in confusion at Sephiroth's actions. But then he noticed the quilt as well. He hurried after the silver-haired man.

Sephiroth was lifting the cloth, frowning at the sprawling set of rooms he could see beyond it. Apparently there were at least two rows of rooms, and they had only explored the first one. "This basement seems to be a maze," he declared, and sarcasm dripped from his tones. "Maybe we'll get lost after all."

"Yay," Cloud muttered. "Well, let's get started."

Sephiroth nodded, slipping under the quilt and holding it up as Cloud passed through as well. Then he let it drop back into place.

Cloud shook his head as he surveyed the new scene. "This is really, really weird," he said. "In fact, it's beyond weird. Weird was when the front door was open and nobody was around. It just got progressively worse since then."

"I concur," Sephiroth said, walking ahead to begin the investigation.

Cloud frowned as he walked alongside the other. All of these rooms were also furnished, of course, but vacant. They had the basic things one would expect to find in such rooms, as well as personal touches such as music discs or books. Some even had plush toys. And there was still the matter of why the quilt had been blowing around. There were no open windows. Did that mean that a ghost was down here, moving the thing? As they continued down the row, other quilts ahead of them were moving, too.

Without warning the lights flickered and went out. At the same moment, something hard came down on Cloud's head. A cry of pain tore from his lips.

Sephiroth whirled in the darkness. "Cloud?!" he called. "What happened? Where are you?"

But there was no response.

Zack looked around in surprise as he stepped onto the third floor. Unlike the second floor, this level was brightly lit, initially appearing welcoming. To his left was another kitchen, open and waiting. It was missing a wall in front, allowing him and Angeal to see everything in it. Normal walls and doors encompassed the rest of the floorplan. Most doors seemed to be slightly ajar.

"Well, this doesn't look so bad," Zack declared. "Maybe we could get a quick snack to eat as we go?" He looked hopefully at Angeal.

The older man shook his head. "Any food we find here might be poisoned," he said. "Besides . . . I don't want to take one step inside that kitchen." He frowned at it as if he was staring down the most vile enemy possible. In particular he seemed to find the sight of the microwave repulsive. Zack wondered why, and if he really wanted to know.

He shivered. "How would it make any difference?" he said. "Anything in there could just walk out if it wanted."

"It could," Angeal agreed, "but it's more likely that it will stay in its domain. If we step over into its territory, then we'll have a problem." He resolutely walked past. "That's probably the case down in the library, too. The spirits there don't care what we do, as long as we don't stay in their place very long."

Zack dashed ahead to keep up with him. "How do you know so much about this stuff anyway, Angeal?" he asked. "I didn't know you were a ghost buff."

"This has nothing to do with anything like that," Angeal answered. "I'd never go deliberately looking for ghosts." Now his tone had changed. There was an almost haunted hint to it.

Zack pushed open the doors as they passed, peering into the furnished bedrooms and a fancy bathroom. All closets were standing open too, as if to show that none of them held a captive. Goosebumps were popping out on Zack's arms, and not because of any physical chill.

"What happened, Angeal?" he asked, lowering his voice as he looked to his old friend.

Angeal sighed. ". . . At Banora, there's some old caves where a lot of the village kids liked to play," he said. "I guess they're probably still there. But anyway . . . one time Genesis decided he wanted to go there. I didn't want to. There were rumors going around about how anyone who went there didn't come back unscathed. Those who returned were always hurt . . . or worse."

"There's probably someplace like that everywhere," Zack said. "There were crazy rumors about places in Gongaga, too."

"This wasn't a rumor." Angeal's serious tone made Zack stiffen. He stopped where he was in the hall, waiting to hear the rest and yet dreading it.

"Genesis and I barely made it out alive." Angeal was gripping his arms. "There was something in those caves. I've never felt anything that evil before or since . . . until tonight." He shook his head. "At first I didn't want to believe it was the same feeling. But once we were on the landing for the second floor, I couldn't deny it any longer."

Zack stared at him. "What was it?" he exclaimed at last. "What is it?!"

"I don't know." Angeal let his arms drop to his sides as he looked at the rest of the hallway. "I don't know that I want to know."

". . . Okay." Zack swallowed. "Now that you've scared me half to death, maybe I'd better tell you about Lily Valley."

Angeal looked at him. "What about it?"

"It always looked like people'd been there five minutes ago!" Zack explained. "The place was filled with the ghosts of people that'd lived there in the past. They'd all been cursed because they were doing so many bad things . . . or, well, that was the rumor, anyway. And they spent their time cooking up mean tricks to play on anyone unlucky enough to venture in." His shoulders slumped. "Some of those people disappeared too, and they never have been found."

Angeal frowned. "Why were you and Sephiroth there?" he inquired.

"We were lookin' for some SOLDIERs who'd vamoosed," Zack said. "All kinds of creepy stuff happened! Food was cooking on the stove, church bells were ringing, candles were lit for a funeral service . . ." He shook his head. "Me and Seph barely got out of that place."

A heavy sigh escaped Angeal's lips. "We have the worst luck, don't we."

"Yep." Zack looked at the rest of the doors. "Guess we'd better finish here."

Angeal nodded. Walking ahead, he pushed open the door to the last bedroom. "Everything looks in order here," he said.

Zack had discovered one closed door on the opposite side. He frowned at it. "Wonder what this is," he mused. "Another bathroom?" He pressed his ear against the wood. "I can hear water running."

Angeal blinked in surprise. "Maybe someone's in there," he suggested. Raising his fist, he gave three swift and loud knocks on the door.

Zack frowned. "No answer." Then he blinked, his eyes widening in worry. "You don't think somebody might be drowning in the bathtub, do you?!"

"It's possible." Angeal reached for the knob, wiggling it back and forth. It was not locked, but it seemed to be stuck. But at last the door slipped open, revealing the space beyond. The two men gawked. No one was inside, but both the sink and the tub were filling with water. Already it had gained the top and was spilling out onto the floor.

"What the heck?!" Zack burst out. With the door open, the water was rushing out onto the carpet. He leaned over, trying to reach the taps on the sink without getting his dress shoes too wet. At last he managed to grip at one, then the other, with the same result. "They're stuck!" he cried.

Angeal narrowed his eyes. He leaned in as well, trying his luck with the stubborn taps. They refused to move. Instead he nearly fell forward to crash on the floor. He was only barely able to catch the wall again in time.

He straightened up, stepping away from the door. "They'll turn it off when they want to," he said. "Let's leave it."

Zack nodded. Backing away as well, he pushed the door shut. "So now what?" he asked.

Angeal let out a sigh of dread. "We check the second floor," he said.

"Hoo boy," Zack moaned.

A light abruptly illuminated the darkness as Sephiroth clicked on his flashlight. His eyes narrowed as he shined the beam around the area where he knew Cloud had been a moment before. Now there was nothing except a rumpled rug to indicate someone had been standing there.

He gripped the flashlight, his green eyes filled with a dangerous determination. Anyone would be a fool to cross him in this mood. Someone had hurt Cloud before taking him. Otherwise Cloud would have been fighting back. The only question now was, Where had they gone? There had not been any sound of footsteps.

Could there be a trapdoor under the rug? Sephiroth bent down, pulling back the plush floor covering to look underneath. Nothing. There was only carpet. He felt around to prove it to himself.

He straightened up. Cloud had to be in one of the nearby rooms, then. He could have been pushed through one of the quilts. But there had not been any sound of a thump.

"Cloud!" he called again. "Answer me!"

But it was no use. He had heard Cloud cry out in pain before all had fallen silent. Cloud had probably been struck senseless. He refused to consider anything more than that. Cloud would not die from being hit over the head by . . . whatever it had been.

Moving to the nearest quilt, he gathered it to one side. The room was vacant. He turned away in frustration, walking to the next one. It was the same--no Cloud. A swift search revealed that all of the rooms around him were empty. This was not possible, but it was happening. Cloud was nowhere to be found. He was not on or under any of the beds, or in the standing wardrobes--some of which had clothes hanging inside, while others had boxes and still more were empty altogether.

Now, Sephiroth supposed, he had to consider the utterly ridiculous. Maybe some of the ghosts were ninjas and had silently carried Cloud away. Though really, why get so ludicrous? Maybe there were still living people here, who were ninjas, and they had managed to noiselessly remove the blond.

He looked around the sprawling labyrinth of the basement. There was still a lot of ground to cover. And he would go over every square inch until he found Cloud.

The lights overhead flickered again, their illumination restored. Sephiroth frowned, looking upward at the dim fluorescent glow. Had one of the ghosts done that, too? Or was someone else here? Maybe Zack and Angeal had come down. But as he strained to listen, there were no voices. Maybe it was Cloud. Yet there was no indication that it was him, either.

In case the party was not friendly, it would wisest to not say anything. Sephiroth stepped back, fading into the shadows. He had looked in the rooms on both rows. Was there a third row as well?

He moved as far back as possible. There was not a solid wall behind him, in spite of how it had looked at first. He turned, moving aside what he could now identify as a cloth painted to look like a wall. Another empty room greeted his eyes. Frowning, he slipped through and let the tapestry fall back behind him. After checking under the bed and in the wardrobe, he brushed aside a quilt and stepped past it.

A sound above him brought his attention upward. The top of the next covering was swaying, and there was a hollow sound as if something was being hoisted into the air. He dived out of the way, never turning his gaze from the scene. What looked like a heavy vase was being launched over the top, directly at him.

. . . Until a second vase was thrust at the first, knocking it off balance and sending it crashing to the floor. Both vases smashed into pieces.

Sephiroth shielded himself from the flying particles, throwing his arms in front of his face and neck. Then he straightened up, his eyes narrowed. What had happened? Had a second party decided to have mercy on him? Or was it Cloud? Cloud, however, would surely come over now, unless he was being restrained again.

The silver-haired man moved past the broken pottery to the entrance into the next room. Without warning he threw back the quilt, hoping to catch the occupant off guard. But the space was already vacant. The quilt for the next room over was slowly moving back and forth. Whoever had been there had departed. And somehow, for reasons not entirely clear to him, Sephiroth felt that his helper was mortal. Who else was in here besides himself and his friends?

"Who are you?" he spoke at last, loud enough that whoever it was would be able to hear from several quilt rooms away.

But there was no answer.

In growing irritation he checked the space for Cloud before marching into the following room. He would have to let his benefactor go for now. That was what he or she seemed to want, anyway.

And how much longer would this insanity go on? The first row of small rooms, opposite the family room, had been relatively normal. But the setup had grown increasingly preposterous. He had long ago ceased to feel as though he was in a real basement; now it felt more like a craft shop. Each quilt was different, and obviously hand-made. Any moment he half-expected to round a corner and find a prop room for a movie set or a theatre.

Instead he rounded a corner onto a fourth row and found a body laying lifeless on a bed. Concern and worry slipped onto his face as he hastened to the familiar form. Cloud was sprawled on his left side, his eyes closed as the spikes fell over his pained face. Sephiroth reached out, gripping the younger man's shoulder.

"Cloud!" he called. The other was motionless under his grasp, but he could feel the rise and fall of Cloud's shoulder as he breathed. He was only unconscious.

Sephiroth sighed, pushing aside the momentary and foolish fear that had sparked in his heart. He had known Cloud would not die. But for a brief moment upon seeing him laying like this, he had wondered and worried. Now he leaned over, feeling between the spikes for any sign of injury. It did not take long to discover the harsh bump on the back of Cloud's head. Cloud tensed, as if sensing Sephiroth's touch in his unnatural sleep. Sephiroth pulled his hand back, letting the spikes fall into place again.

Cloud mumbled something unintelligible, gripping a handful of quilt.

Sephiroth straightened, crossing his arms over his chest. "Can you hear me?" he asked.

A silence. ". . . Yeah," Cloud grunted at last. "And I wish I couldn't." He winced, raising a hand to gingerly rub at his head. "Too much noise. . . ."

Sephiroth grunted. Cloud's headache might persist for some time. And they really did need to be on their way before anything else went wrong. By now the thirty minutes had surely passed. Zack and Angeal would probably be coming for them, unless they had gotten into trouble too.

"Be grateful it's only temporary," he said. "Can you get up?"

". . . Ask me in a year," Cloud retorted, half-burrowing into the pillow.

"I'll wait five minutes," Sephiroth responded.

"Great. You're really understanding." Cloud closed his eyes again. He wanted to go back to sleep, yet somewhere in his mind he knew he could not. He had to stay awake. They were still in danger.

"Do you remember what happened?" Sephiroth asked after a moment. He was staying on the alert for anything else that might go wrong--or for any glimpse of his rescuer. If the person was an ally, then he or she should come with them and get out of here. It would be beyond foolish to linger.

"The lights went out and the roof fell in." Cloud sounded both irritable and sarcastic.

"Then you don't know how you got here," Sephiroth said, watching his friend. Cloud had not moved from his position, but he looked as though he might try to in a moment. A hand had moved over a bit, closer to the edge of the bed.

"No." At last Cloud placed his hands firmly on the mattress. Then he pushed, arching his back as he forced himself into a sitting position. Immediately he winced, a hand flying to his head again.

Sephiroth frowned in concern. "Look at me," he directed.

"Why?" Cloud grumbled.

"So I can see if your pupils are dilated," Sephiroth said.

"Just don't shine a flashlight at me," Cloud said, finally looking up at the older man.

Sephiroth studied Cloud's eyes for a moment before leaning back and looking satisfied. "They're normal," he reported. While dilated pupils were not the only sign of a concussion, it was satisfying to see that Cloud did not have them. Maybe it was just a bump that was an irritation, but not a danger.

"Thanks, Doctor Sephiroth." Cloud pushed himself off the bed. "So what now?"

Sephiroth gave a weary sigh. "We keep looking," he said. "A few moments ago, someone made sure that a vase didn't hit me and then vanished. If whoever it was is alive and friendly, we should take them with us."

"Maybe it was Casper the friendly ghost," Cloud snarked. "I wish he would've done the same thing for me."

"He may have only came when the lights came on again," Sephiroth said, ignoring Cloud's ghost comment. "I didn't go back to the beginning of this nonsense and turn them on." That was another odd thing--the one light switch seemed to control everything for the basement. At any rate, if there were switches for individual rooms, he had not found them yet.

"How far away are we now?" Cloud asked.

"You disappeared on the second row," Sephiroth said. "We're now at the beginning of a fourth."

"I wish you were kidding," Cloud groaned.

"So do I," Sephiroth declared. "We should get started."

Cloud nodded, shuffling ahead to the next quilt over. "So . . . if somebody living really did save you, why didn't they want to stick around?" he wondered.

Sephiroth followed. "I don't have any idea," he said, pulling aside the cloth as they walked through.

As soon as Zack stepped onto the second floor from the landing, he blinked in surprise. When he had passed the floor a few minutes ago, there had been cold breezes and eerie sensations--until he and Angeal had been going to leave. Then it had not felt dangerous. And that was still the case now; everything felt entirely normal. But instead of that relaxing him, as the ghosts may have wanted, it only made him all the more on edge.

"So what's going on here now?!" he burst out, anger and worry mixing together as he looked to Angeal.

The other man narrowed his eyes. "I don't know," he admitted. "They could be trying to give us a false sense of security, but on the other hand maybe they know it won't work and they want us to be even more disturbed."

"Well, that's disgusting!" Zack cried. He stormed forward to the nearest open door, peering inside. It was a very pleasant bedroom, with the bed situated so that one could lay on it and look towards the window on the left. The rain could be seen pounding on the glass panes with such force that it was a wonder they stayed intact.

Zack frowned, walking inside the room and crossing to the window. "Storm's still going strong," he commented. "But I'm starting to think we'd be safer out in it."

Angeal nodded, crossing his arms as he came to the doorway. "Can you feel it?" he asked.

Zack turned back to face him. "Something's watching us," he said. "That's all I can feel right now. But it's not good." In fact, the longer he lingered, the stronger the feeling got that he had to leave right now. He could not explain what would happen if he did not go, and he did not want to find out. But it was filling his heart and soul to the point of almost bursting. It was suffocating him, constricting his throat and making his blood race. They had to go. They could not stay another moment! Quickly he walked back to the doorway and into the hall.

He let out a deep breath. The air in the corridor was not quite as toxic, but it was growing moreso by the minute. "Let's get the rest of the floor searched," he said, "and make it snappy!" He raised a hand to his throat. "It feels like a vise closing in on me!"

Angeal's eyes flickered. "That's how it was in those caves," he said. "It only gets worse from here."

Zack shook his head. "We've gotta find anyone trapped here!" he exclaimed. "We've gotta!" With that he ran ahead, throwing open every door he came to in his rising panic. There was no time to waste! This was a horrible place! They could not leave anyone here. They would die! They would suffer fates worse than death! His heart pounded in his ears as he ran in and out of the rooms, the doors crashing into the walls behind him.

Angeal chased after him. "Zack!" he cried, trying to grab for his former pupil. "This is what they want! You have to calm down!"

Zack barreled on ahead, flinging open the next door. He stood in the doorway, looking wildly over the furniture and everything present.

At last Angeal caught up to him. "Do you hear me?!" he demanded, taking hold of the younger man's shoulders. He forced Zack to turn around. "This isn't helping."

Zack struggled to pull free. "No!" he yelled. "We have to help them! Don't you get it?! They're gonna suffer if we don't do something!"

Angeal gritted his teeth. Genesis had started behaving like this in the past, at the caves. It had nearly killed him. He would not see a repeat of that incident, with a possibly less benign conclusion. He would not!

"There isn't anyone here!" Angeal screamed. "They've been dead for ages. They want us to join them!" But nothing was getting through to him. Zack was still trying to pull away. And then what would happen to him? Out of sheer impulse and frustrated worry, Angeal gave Zack a violent shake.

Zack froze, staring at his friend. It was not the words, but the actions, that stunned him back to his senses. He reached up, gripping the muscular arms.

"Angeal . . ." He swallowed hard, his shoulders slumping. "What the heck came over me?"

Angeal sighed in relief, releasing Zack from his grasp. "It's their influence," he said. "Genesis fell under their spell too. They take whatever is your main motivation for being here and twist it enough so that they hope you'll go out of control and do something stupid." The memories were still flashing through his mind--Genesis trying to help the non-existent people, him falling almost to his death, Angeal finding him laying so still. . . . Angeal had not been able to prevent any of that from happening. Now, Zack had almost started down the same path.

Zack ran a hand through his hair. "Well . . . what do we do now?" he asked, feeling helpless. Where were Cloud and Seph right now? Were they in big trouble too? Would they all be able to meet up again and leave before anything irreversible happened? What if something had already happened?

No, he could not let his panic take control. Seph and Cloud were fine. They had to be.

"We'll finish looking," Angeal was saying now. "But we'll stay calm. Then we'll go meet Sephiroth and Cloud and get out of here."

Zack gave a shaking nod.

Together they continued investigating the rooms, struggling to stave off the feeling of impending horrors. The longer they remained, the more the sensation increased for both of them. Zack, now knowing what it was, was determined to not give in. And Angeal, despite having experienced it before, had to fight against the urge to grab Zack's wrist and flee. Because he had been in this situation before, and had seen how strong these dark forces were, he wanted most of all to collect his friends and escape. The drive was stifling. He drew a deep intake of breath.

Now they were at the end of the corridor after their fruitless search. Zack bit his lip, staring at the last, closed door. "Well, this is it," he said. "After this door, we can find Cloud and Seph and go." He reached for the knob.

Instead the door swung open on its own. An old doll fell from seemingly nowhere, clattering on the floor as its limbs splayed in all directions. For a moment it lay still. But suddenly its head turned to face the two men. Zack yelped, leaping back in stunned surprise. Angeal narrowed his eyes, looking first at the doll and then into the room. The evil was almost tangible. It wanted to draw them inside and never let go. This was the most deadly room in the house.

"What if someone's in there?!" Zack burst out. He clenched his fists at his sides, the fingernails digging into his skin.

Angeal shook his head. "No one's in there, Zack." But what if someone was? What if they were being tortured in this room, where the diabolical presences had all gathered? In good conscience, how could they leave without knowing for certain?

I need to know what to do. Please, help me know what to do. . . .

His silent request for help was broken by a horrifying, heart-wrenching scream of pain.

Zack jumped a mile. "Who was that?!" he cried.

Angeal shook his head. "I don't know," he said, his heart gathering speed. "I couldn't tell. But it wasn't here." As far as he was concerned, he had his answer. Whoever needed help was back in the other direction. He turned to go back the way they had come. "Let's go!"

Zack did not need any pressuring. He turned as well, tearing after Angeal as his spikes slapped against his head and neck.

Something cold and wet splashed onto his face.

He blinked, pausing to stare upward. Many drops were coming down from the ceiling, landing on him, Angeal, and the floor. And there did not seem to be any end in sight.

"It's the water from the bathroom upstairs!" he yelped. "They never did turn it off!"

Angeal stared up at it, his eyes narrowing. Now he understood. And the panic surged through his veins again.

"They're going to flood the house!" he cried. "By now they probably have water running in every bathroom and in both kitchens. And they're probably going to break the pipes altogether. We have to find the others right now!"

He took off running down the hall again. Zack ran alongside him, sickened to notice that the carpet was already squishy in some places.

"Why are they doing this?!" he demanded. "What did we do to them?!"

Angeal shook his head. "We're alive," he said. "They wish they were alive."

"So they're jealous?!" Zack said in indignation.

"Envious might describe it better." Angeal sighed, brushing the water away from his face as it dripped down his cheeks. "And I don't know for sure; I'm just guessing."

Zack let out a horrified gasp, coming to a halt near the stairs. But he was no longer listening to Angeal. He had found something else alarming.

"There's blood here!" he said, pointing at some of the crimson substance staining the bottom stairs. "And a spear thing!"

Angeal's eyes narrowed. Was whoever had been injured here the source of the scream? But if Sephiroth or Cloud had been hurt, why weren't they anywhere in sight? They would not disappear and make the others worry. Could it be someone else? Did they need to go back and check the rooms again? Still, how could someone have gotten past them? They had turned the moment they had heard the scream. Maybe the person had fled down the stairs . . . or up.

They would not have the chance to find out. An ominous rumble and a roar was coming from both the third floor and from the bathroom on the second. Water burst forth, sweeping down the hall at them.

Zack leaped onto the stairs. "Come on!" he exclaimed. "We've gotta get out of here!"

But they could not escape the furious currents. A wave swerved down the stairs, taking Zack with it as it reached the second floor. The water from the second floor came at Angeal, forcing him into the path of the wave as well.

By now Sephiroth and Cloud had traveled over several more rows of small rooms and had come to the end of another. They were faced with the back wall, which looked exactly the same as the other supposed walls. Cloud reached out, sighing in frustration as he placed his hand on what he imagined would be another disguised quilt.

Instead he fell hard against it. "Sephiroth!" he exclaimed. "This is it. This is where it ends!"

Sephiroth whirled, his eyes widening slightly to see Cloud slapping what was obviously the real wall. "And now what?" he mused. "Do we travel all the way back, or is there another escape from this side?"

Cloud shook his head. "Let's find out," he said.

But Sephiroth froze, his eyes narrowing. "Do you hear running water?" he said.

Cloud stopped as well. "Yeah," he confirmed, and frowned. "I think it's coming from the other side of this thing." He placed both hands on it as he stared at the cold plaster covering the cement.

Sephiroth looked down at the floor. "And it's coming onto this side," he observed. The carpet was soaked through. His shoes were sinking into the soggy mess.

Cloud stared. "What is it?!" he cried.

Sephiroth shook his head. "I'm not crazy about finding a door in this wall to see," he said. "Who knows how much water is gathering back there. It sounds like something is breaking, too." His eyes narrowed. "We should find the others and leave, right now."

That was perfectly fine with Cloud. "Back the way we came then?" he said, turning to do exactly that.

A nod. "And now that we know the layout, we'll hurry back as quickly as possible," Sephiroth said. "We can cut across rows."

They began to do exactly that. But the carpet was not getting drier as they went. If anything, the amount of water was increasing, coming from the opposite direction to meet them where they were hurrying along.

"Was there a bathroom down here?" Cloud frowned.

"Near the entertainment center, yes," Sephiroth nodded. "It's one of the only normal rooms down here. Or so I had hoped."

They were both coming to the same conclusion--the bathroom was flooding over. But as they continued to make their way through the rows, strange sounds were beginning to echo all around them.

"That groaning sounds awful," Cloud yelled, "like the pipes in Seventh Heaven when we needed to call the plumber!"

Of course. Sephiroth looked to Cloud, his eyes flashing with seriousness and urgency. "Run!" he commanded.

Cloud's eyes widened.

As he and Sephiroth tore past, flinging the quilts aside, the groaning morphed into a sickening cracking. Something popped. And the water level was suddenly rising. The liquid rushed to greet them, swirling around their ankles.

"They're trying to drown us in here!" Cloud screamed. Water was coming from overhead, too. He threw his arms above him as he ran.

Sephiroth took the lead. It was bad enough that the pipes had broken and water was pouring in on them. The basement would fill much too soon even without being commandeered by whatever was in the house. But considering that the home's occupants likely were spirits, that made it even worse. Would they be able to get the water to come in as fast as they desired?

It was ridiculous that he even needed to think about such a possibility. Logic said No. But nothing about this experience had been logical. There was no reason why it would start now. Thinking this would begin to make sense was in itself illogical.

At last they were arriving at the first row. The family room loomed before them. But something was wrong. Water was cascading down the steps that they had descended earlier.

Cloud gawked. "It's already on the first floor!" he said. In the basement it was already at knee level and then to their waists as they hurried forward.

Sephiroth glared at the torrents in irritation. "If necessary, we'll have to swim," he said. Surely there was not a problem on the higher levels. Zack and Angeal would be safe. Or were they? In this wretched place, who could tell?

Cloud waded to the stairs and placed his foot on the first one. "How can it be coming in like this?!" he exclaimed, gripping the end of the banister. The water was coming with such force that just walking up was going to be difficult, perhaps almost impossible. He took another step. The water pouring in swept him backwards to crash into Sephiroth.

"How can any of what's happened have taken place?" Sephiroth retorted, reaching to steady the blond. "We'll worry about the how later." He glared at the waterfall coming down the steps. They had to make it up, even if the pressure continued to repel them. The way it was now, up to their chests, they did not have much time left. If the water completely covered them, it would be even harder to get out.

Cloud nodded. Narrowing his eyes in determination, he clutched at the banister again. "Okay," he said. "We're going to run up there. Ready?"

Sephiroth grunted.

"Yeah, of course you're ready," Cloud muttered. He dashed ahead, Sephiroth right on his heels.

The water leaped over their heads as it spurted in every direction. Cloud growled as the furious drops pelted him in the face. He turned away in desperation to keep any from hitting his eyes. Sephiroth was doing the same.

The situation was not much better at the top of the stairs. The library was half-submerged. Books and tables and couch cushions were floating in the madness. And more water was pouring down from the spiral staircase. Sephiroth trudged forward, brushing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare aside as he peered up the stairs. Then his eyes widened in disbelief.

With a yelp of alarm, Zack was tumbling down the stairs riding on a wave. Angeal unwittingly followed. Before Sephiroth or Cloud could get out of the way, they were being caught in the wave too. It pushed the four men along, as determined as if it was a giant hand shoving them to the door.

"Fancy meeting up with you guys like this," Zack said with a weak grin.

"At least we're meeting up!" Cloud called back.

The front doors popped open. The ocean spilled out into the yard, depositing the quartet and the furniture wherever it saw fit. On all sides of the house, water was pouring out the windows. It was a bizarre sight.

Then, as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Silence reigned, the only sound being that of the men coughing up the water that they had inadvertently swallowed.

Finally Cloud slumped back, brushing a soaked spike out of his eyes. "Cowabunga," he muttered, his voice dripping sarcasm.

Zack sat up. "That was really, really crazy!" he burst out. A weak grin slipped onto his features. "But hey, it wasn't so bad as all that. Not like a real flood at all. Maybe I'll take up surfing."

"I won't come with you," Sephiroth said flatly. He was eying his hair in annoyance. He would most definitely want to wash it when he got home. And they were still an hour away.

Angeal sighed, running a hand through his own wet hair. "I'm not even going to try to explain how this happened," he said.

"Good," Sephiroth interjected.

Angeal shook his head. ". . . But I do want to know who screamed," he continued.

Cloud blinked. "Screamed?" he repeated.

Zack nodded, alarm and worry coming over his features. "Somebody got hurt pretty bad!" he said. "We were afraid it was you or Seph. Then we saw the blood. . . ."

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed. "What blood?"

"It was on the stairs at the second floor landing," Angeal frowned. "We saw it right before that wave came through."

"And there was a spear thing, too!" Zack added. "There was blood all over it!"

Cloud shook his head. "It wasn't us," he said. "We were in the basement the whole time. And neither of us got bleeding anyway." There was no need to mention the bump on his head. He would rather not say anything about it, but of course Zack would end up learning of it somehow.

"I would be inclined to say that it was just part of the ghosts' tricks," Sephiroth said, "except for the fact that someone helped me in the basement." He started to get up, gathering his hair to wring it out. The water splashed onto the grass at his feet.

Zack leaped up. "Then someone's still in there?!" he gasped.

"I doubt it," Cloud said. "They probably got washed out in the flood, like us."

"Then they should be in the yard!" Zack declared. "Let's look!" Before anyone could reply, he was tearing around the corner. Cloud scrambled up to follow. Sephiroth and Angeal took the opposite direction.

But a thorough search of the yard revealed that no one else was there. The four friends met on the walkway, bewildered.

"Maybe it was a nice ghost that helped you, Seph," Zack suggested. "And maybe the blood really was a bad ghost's trick."

Sephiroth frowned. "Maybe," he agreed. "Or maybe the person doesn't want to be found."

"Well, they couldn't still be inside," Cloud said. "The fake flood washed out the whole place. And the rain's stopped. Let's get out of here. We can drive around the block or something and see if anyone's around. If not, we can go home."

Zack nodded but looked hesitant. "Okay," he agreed. "I hope no one really is in there. . . ." He turned to look back at the house. Nothing was different. It appeared as calm and blasé as if it had never received guests tonight--except for the fact that furniture was all over the yard.

"If they are, they'd better learn their lesson quick," Cloud muttered, heading for the gate. It was a relief to cross over onto the public sidewalk. Weird, how that small action made it feel like a curse had just been lifted.

Zack hopped out after him. His mouth dropped open in disbelief. "Cloud, you're all dry!" he gasped.

Cloud's eyes widened. But instead of protesting this craziness, he stared at Zack. "So are you!" he said.

Zack pulled his dress shirt away from his body. It had been clinging to his skin before. Now it looked freshly dry-cleaned. A low whistle escaped his lips.

Sephiroth looked down at himself. He was still soaking wet. But he was also still on the property. With precision he stepped through the gate, immediately reaching for his hair when he did. Now it was smooth and silky and dry, as if nothing unwelcome had happened to it. And his clothes were dry as well. It was impossible, but it was true.

"So that's it," Angeal mused as he followed the others. "The flood was an illusion."

"It didn't really happen?!" Zack cried. He gave a wild gesture. "Something sure happened!"

"I don't know how we got out," Angeal said, shaking his head, "but it wasn't through a flood." He looked back at the house, a suspicion having been planted in his mind. And sure enough, now there was no furniture on the grass or on the walkway. It was safely back inside--if it had ever been outside in the first place.

Cloud brought a hand to his head. "Well, this bump is real," he grumbled, grimacing as it ached in protest.

Zack looked to Cloud in alarm. "You've got a bump?!" he exclaimed. "How'd it happen? Let me see!"

Sephiroth and Angeal smirked in amusement as Zack began to fuss over the protesting Cloud. Then Sephiroth began to walk ahead of them to the car. He had had enough of this place. He wanted to go home. He would still take a nice, hot shower, and then he would get to bed. Tifa would see to it that Cloud would lay down, too. In fact, she and Aerith and Zack would probably all see to it.

The others were following now, getting into the car as he unlocked it. But for a moment he hesitated, looking out over the quiet street.

Hopefully whoever had assisted him was getting away as well, and had somewhere to go. He still believed the person was mortal. And maybe whoever it was actually had been injured. But there was not much they could do now, when he or she was nowhere to be found.

He slid into the car, pulling the door shut after him.

The figure watched from the shadows, observing as the quartet finally got into their car. A slight smile crossed his features as the engine was started. Now they would get away from this cursed place, which was something he should be doing too.

Especially considering his bothersome injury. The ghosts had gotten so furious when he had dropped the doll through a hole on the third floor to keep Zack and Angeal out of that last room. The spectres had already been fit to be tied after he had stopped them from hitting Sephiroth with that vase.

He looked to his right arm. Blood was still seeping through his fingers. He would have to see about that when he got back to his motel room. It was nothing some rest could not cure. Though he would not be able to do anything strenuous with that arm for a while, and that could prove to be a problem, since his right hand was dominant. But what he had accomplished was worth the wound. He would manage.

"'There is no hate'," he mused, watching the car drive away. "'Only joy'."

He turned, beginning his journey in the opposite direction.