III

CHAPTER THREE

THE PROMISED LAND

"Godsdammit, Kai, what y'all even put in these things?" Barret called to the balding barman of the Starlet Tavern. The grizzly giant swayed precariously on the edge of his stool, slurping the last of the cocktail from his pewter goblet. Stifling a hiccup, he gestured to the row of bottles on the counter. "I'll have another, if ya don't mind."

"One more Cosmo Candle comin' right up," their host replied amiably, grabbing a decanter of the golden brew. "It'll relax you a bit; help you dream under the stars, and listen to their whispers."

Not if he doesn't slow down, Cloud mused irritably.

The party had gathered for the evening in the pub that adjoined the Shildra Inn, attended none other by the owner of the establishment. It was a large and cosy grotto, bedecked with tables and benches of smooth oak, as well as the occasional keg. Dimmed electric lamps gave the room a soft ambience, aided by the hushed melody of drums and sitars playing through dated speakers. As quaint as the cavern seemed, there was something unsettling about its red sandstone walls, draped in shadows and history.

Insisting the group make an effort to celebrate Aerith's twenty-third birthday, Tifa had arranged a candlelit meal for them at the Starlet. Afterwards, she had presented her friend with a small vial of Maiden's Kiss perfume and a cornucopia of flowers purchased from the trinket stalls, while the rest fumbled through a verse of the traditional birthday song. As appreciative of the gifts as Aerith was, there was no mistaking the twinkle of sadness that lurked behind her smile.

Something about Cosmo Canyon was haunting her.

As such, a sombre mood had descended upon the travellers; whether caused by exhaustion or the grim revelations of Bugenhagen's seminar, though, Cloud could not say. Despite Tifa's arguments, Nanaki had already retired to the cavity at the rear of the inn where he had assumed temporary residence. The conversation itself had been sparse and varied: Cait Sith lamenting his former employment at the Gold Saucer amusement park; Yuffie's distaste at the Turtle's Paradise flyers she had found, and how the bar chain dishonoured its Wusheng heritage; Barret recounting personal anecdotes from he and Dyne's youth.

All but the hulk from Corel had barely touched their drinks, increasingly lost in the sanctuary of their own thoughts. He spoke of his deceased wife, of his destroyed hometown, of the adopted daughter he missed so dearly, and of those who had fought bravely on the Sector7 Pillar. Staring ruefully at his amputated arm, he had swigged his cocktails as he used to at Seventh Heaven; in his own way, Barret was toasting the memories of their fallen comrades.

The local and tourist patrons had gradually trickled out until, save for one, only the party remained. The last customer was an older man dressed in a stylish grey suit – out of place in the mountain hamlet – with dark, wavy hair and a fierce scar down his left cheek. There was an eerie familiarity about him, like a ghost or a distant acquaintance. He had kept to the gloom of the far corner, stealing glimpses of Cloud and Cait Sith in particular as he sipped his wine, but the robotic feline had dismissed him as a curious drunk.

Now, as Kai set another goblet in front of Barret, there was a faint jingle of bells from atop the doorway, and two elders entered the tavern. Both were clad in similar beige tunics and slacks, with the swarthy skin of the canyon natives, and long, salt-and-pepper locks that were thick with ornamental beads. Cloud recognised the shorter of the pair as Elder Hargo, the scholar lecturing at the Cosmo Candle when they had first arrived at the village.

"Good evening," declared Hargo's associate, his voice deep and booming. "Kai, the usual please."

The barman gave a quick bow. "Of course, Elder Bugah."

As they approached the table, Hargo spotted Aerith wedged between Cloud and Tifa, and grinned broadly. "Ah, Miss Gainsborough, how lovely to see you again. Would it be alright if we joined you?"

"Not at all," said the flower girl, simultaneously urging Cloud to shift onto an adjacent barrel and offering his vacant space on the bench. "We'd be delighted."

Muttering under his breath, Cloud did as was bade, and the duo took their place among the six. A smoky aroma followed them, a lingering residue of the forum's sacred pyre. Groaning as if his body protested his every move, Elder Bugah reached into his tunic and pulled out a purple napkin, a threadbare tobacco pouch, and a deck of playing cards with the brand 'Crimson Sun' written across them.

"We're thrilled to welcome you all here as guests," he began sincerely, picking the lint from his tobacco pipe. "We have thousands of visitors every year, but few as intriguing."

"Your hospitality has been really generous," Tifa thanked them.

"Not at all," contended Hargo, gesturing towards Aerith. "It is our privilege to be in the company of a survivor of the Cetra."

"Bugenhagen tells us you're interested to learn more about your ancestors," added Elder Bugah. "Specifically, you want to know about the Promised Land, yes?"

The very mention of the term sent a cold shiver down Cloud's spine. In his mind's eye he saw Sephiroth wandering the basement laboratory at Shinra Manor, reading the dusty research tomes, his sanity slowly waning. Then he was seated at the library desk, his features ominous in the lamplight as he leered at the teenage SOLDIER.

"In my veins courses the blood of the Ancients," his hero had snarled. "I am one of the rightful heirs to the Planet."

"Does it exist?" Cloud asked Bugah, casting aside the flashback.

The old man scratched his chin ponderously, and motioned to his colleague. "Elder Hargo is better equipped to answer that."

"There is no one place called the Promised Land," Hargo said vaguely, clearing his throat and gazing around the table. "That's what I believe."

Yuffie scoffed. "So…'no', then?"

"Hmm, you could argue it does exist, perhaps just in a different manner," he clarified, folding his hands on his lap. The scholar seemed more haggard up close, the candles illuminating the mottled skin and wrinkles of his face. "In other words, it doesn't exist for us, but it did for the Ancients."

"Whit d'ye mean?" Cait Sith squeaked.

"The Promised Land is a Cetra's spiritual resting place. Millennia ago, the Planet was home to countless Cetran tribes, a nomadic people who settled the land from the Southern Isles to the Knowlespole – their name for the Permafrost Glaciers of the Northern Continent. They were a race of Geomancers, and Planet reading was among their many gifts, as was the ability to wield magic without Materia.

"The lives of the Cetra were one continuous journey: a journey to grow crops, to plant forests, to rear entire herds, and to ensure the perpetual flow of the Lifestream. The Planet communicated to them where it needed to be healed, and the clans would cultivate whole ecosystems until they became self-sufficient. These gruelling migrations took them far and wide, guided by the call of the Planet, and would last a lifetime. This much we can cite from the Chronicles of Yore.

"Then, when their long journeys were at an end, the Cetra would return to the Planet…to their Promised Land."

"'A land of supreme happiness…'" Cloud recalled aloud, surprised as everyone turned to gape at him. He mumbled a hasty explanation, "It was something Sephiroth told me."

Hargo shrugged. "He wasn't wrong: according to the author of the Chronicles – a woman named as Laura – the Ancients gained their 'supreme happiness' at the moment they were released from their fate, and were finally able to return to the Planet."

"Laura?" Aerith frowned. "As in Operation: Laura?"

"Yes, that…that's correct," spluttered Bugah, narrowing his eyes. "How do you know of it?"

"The old AVALANCHE tried to recruit me once." She snorted as if the idea still amused her. Cloud noted the suited gentleman in the corner now appeared to be listening to the conversation.

Elder Bugah was taken aback by her flippancy, but soon composed himself as Kai handed him a cocktail. "Operation: Laura was what the militant wing of AVALANCHE called their mission to safeguard the Lifestream, and by extension the Promised Land, from Mako extraction. A blasphemous tribute if you ask me."

"A blight on our principals, I'm sure we'll all agree," empathised Hargo, risking a peek at Barret; he was undoubtedly an extremist in their view. If the comment bothered Barret, he showed no sign of it. "AVALANCHE's misuse aside, I have faith in Laura's transcripts, though we can never be certain that what she wrote is the truth. It's open to interpretation."

"I think she's right…" Aerith said quietly, trailing off as she prepared to recite the poem she had shared with Cloud and Tifa the night President Shinra was murdered. "I learned this when I was a little girl:

Cetran children,

The Planet's from birth,

Speak with the Planet

And unlock its worth.

Cetran children,

The Promised Land waits,

With bliss never-ending

Beyond secret gates.

"My mother always told me I'd one day leave Midgar, and follow the Planet's direction to find my Promised Land. I guess I've somehow known this whole time that she meant spiritual peace."

Elder Hargo smiled warmly at her. "Not all of what we teach is hearsay and old wives' tales; we have numerous sources to draw from."

"What other sources?" queried Tifa.

"Well, to compliment such tomes as the Chronicles of Yore and the Great Gospel, we have detailed maps of a fabled temple labyrinth, and…" he paused, exchanging a hesitant glance with his associate. "And the Farplane Scrolls."

"The…what?" stammered Barret.

"Hmm, this is where things get tricky…" Bugah puffed out his swarthy cheeks.

Accepting the cue, Hargo proceeded to expand on the topic. "The Farplane Scrolls is the collective term for a number of obscure documents discovered more than fifty years ago. They were found in a remote Materia Cave, buried amongst the shell of an unidentified airship."

"Airships didn't exist fifty years ago," Cloud challenged him bluntly.

"Exactly," was the aged man's response: he was clearly no stranger to the mysterious paradox. "So, where did it come from?"

"You're not suggestin'…?" Yuffie gasped, lifting her gaze to the ceiling.

"The craft allegedly possessed advanced technology and a holographic star-map. A lot of the scrolls' content supports the claim: it resembles complex mathematical equations."

"So, where is it?" posed Cloud.

"Nobody knows," Hargo said with another nonchalant shrug. "The lad who explored the cave brought the scrolls here to Elder Mon Mos, the founder of the Study of Planetary Life. They decided the location of the ship should remain a secret, and both took it to their graves.

"All we have now are a few words we've been able to decipher such as 'Farplane', 'pyreflies', and 'Spira', matching them to phrases in the Chronicles of Yore. The scholars who haven't disregarded the validity of the texts generally agree the Farplane's description bears similar qualities to the Promised Land. However, it seems to refer to a tangible place. It's one of the reasons so many consider the Promised Land to be a destination rather than a concept."

"How much of this are the Shinra actually aware of?" asked Tifa. Her voice was tainted by worry.

"It's difficult to say," Hargo conceded, his bushy brows furrowing. "When the scrolls were unearthed, Shinra was still just an arms manufacturer. But Elder Mon Mos had the foresight even then to recognise how dangerous the technology might be if it fell into their hands."

"A smart move," remarked Cloud. "The Company hardly has a history of respecting rare discoveries. Their Ancients Project was intended as a breakthrough in genetics, but all they did was weaponise it. That's how SOLDIER was eventually formed."

"So, you're familiar with the Ancients Project?" deduced Bugah, wearing a dubious expression behind the thin veil of his pipe smoke. "And Professor Gast, yes?"

Cloud only knew what little Sephiroth had divulged; that and he had glimpsed an archived file at Shinra Headquarters which labelled Gast as "deceased". "Why do you ask?"

"It was he who initiated the Ancients Project," answered Elder Bugah. "He was once the leading authority on the subject. You can't talk of the Cetra or the Promised Land without quoting his name."

"Y'all were friends?" Barret's words were less slurred than before.

"He used to come here sometimes: he was Bugenhagen's student from back when the old man was a Shinra scientist."

The drunken giant was horrified. "Bugenhagen was a Shinra employee?"

"A pretty handy one, too, apparently," chuckled Hargo, tickled by the reaction. "Though, that was in a bygone era. He quit in protest of their Mako Excavation Test Sites. Yet he always made time for those willing to broaden their minds about the workings of the Planet. Gast Faremis was a brilliant biologist but, more than that, he was an academic genius. He also donated a lot to our cause; it's ironic to think our Research Centre is a place of cosmic enlightenment, surrounded by Shinra-built machines."

"Anyway," Bugah continued, "Professor Gast dedicated his career to studying the Cetra. He was quite a serious chap, but his interests lay in the spiritual world as much as the physical one. You'd never have figured he'd be with the Shinra: he knew they only perceived the Promised Land as some utopia they could suck dry for profit. I suppose he was conflicted by his role. When he took charge of the organisation's Science Department in [μ]-εγλ 1970, he removed most of the original Cetran scripture from Shinra's libraries and left it in our care. The Chronicles of Yore was his greatest gift to us."

"So, what happened to him?" Aerith enquired, absently checking her White Materia orb was still clipped beneath her pink hair ribbon.

"Well, following his promotion, he couldn't visit Cosmo Canyon as often, but he kept in contact. In [μ]-εγλ 1976, he led an expedition to the Northern Crater, and returned with the mummified body of what he believed to be a two-thousand-year-old Cetran female."

"Jenova," Cloud affirmed through gritted teeth, grimacing as he visualised the cold mists of her storage chamber, concealed deep within the bowels of the Mount Nibel Reactor.

"Precisely," said Bugah, nodding fervently. "Gast was elated. After extensive testing, President Shinra insisted his laboratories commence the Ancients Project using the cells of Jenova. The Company wanted to artificially engineer a race of humans comparable to the Cetra. The primary objective was for these Geomancers to reduce costs and boost the efficiency of Mako extraction. Professor Gast was given the freedom to raise and study the individuals. He saw it as a unique opportunity to tap into their instincts and learn about the Promised Land, while simultaneously protecting them.

"Then, one evening in the early [μ]-εγλ 1980s, he showed up here in a bit of distress. He went on and on about Jenova not being an Ancient, mumbling that he'd done something terrible and resigned from Shinra. The poor fellow was racked with guilt over misguided presumptions, cursing the recklessness of he and his colleagues, and the children's lives they'd ruined. He vanished that same night, and has been missing ever since. Last we heard, he travelled back north..."

Cloud felt a knot in his stomach as the elder spoke. "Did he explain what he meant about Jenova's origins?"

"No," Hargo sighed, and pointed to his half-finished cocktail. "He became incoherent after a few of these. I've pondered on it for years."

"It would appear to be true."

This piqued Bugah's curiosity. "How so?"

"When we encountered Sephiroth in Gehenna," Cloud revealed amid the nervous silence of his comrades, "he too mentioned that Jenova wasn't an Ancient. He called her the 'Calamity from the Skies'. Does that mean anything to you?"

Bugah shook his head. "I'm afraid not."

"Did Gast ever refer to some kind of Reunion?"

"Not that I remember."

"It's all connected…" Cloud hissed in frustration, reflecting aloud as if trying to solve a puzzle whose pieces were constantly changing. "Sephiroth was produced by Project Jenova, a branch of the Ancients Project; Gast was responsible for the Ancients Project, and was Sephiroth's childhood idol; Sephiroth thinks of Jenova as his biological mother, but has somehow discovered she wasn't an Ancient – a fact that made Gast abandon Shinra almost thirty years ago."

"If he no longer considers himself to be descended from the Cetra, why is Sephiroth searching for the Promised Land?" posed Tifa, confused by the contradiction. "Assuming Elder Hargo's theory is correct, he'll never find it."

"I'm not sure what he's planning," Cloud admitted grimly, "but Sephiroth is calculating. Everything he does has a purpose."

"Sometimes it's best not knowing," offered Hargo, his words contrasted by a look that captured just how high a price the burden of duty demanded.

Cloud slowly climbed down from the barrel on which he had been seated, and gazed around the group, meeting the eyes of those who had lost so much. "Sometimes you don't have a choice."

"Well, if you ever happen upon Professor Gast Faremis on your journey," said Bugah, managing a smile as he gulped the remnants of his goblet, "tell him the old men who like to drink in the Starlet Tavern want to hear more about his research."

Cloud did not have the heart to inform the elders that their friend had already returned to his Promised Land.

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