Cloud heard the sound of rain and, for a moment, forgot where he was. His eyes shot open, hating the feeling of not remembering where he fell asleep – especially if it turned out to be a prison. His eyes met a rocky shelter and he immediately recognised the place as Mount Nibel. His delayed senses made him realise how uncomfortable he was feeling after lying on a rocky surface and sat up slowly. Recent events started to come back to him – they were going to the Mako reactor to travel to Squall's world, but it didn't work ... he and his friends then faced off with a possessed Rinoa … but then what…?
"You're awake," said a gentle female voice.
Cloud turned around with a start to find Quistis and Seifer sitting not too far away from where he was lying down. It seemed like they had been sitting there in silence, just watching over him.
"What happened?" asked Cloud, rubbing his temples. "I don't remember at all…"
"Rinoa became possessed by Ultimecia," said Quistis. "And then Ultimecia somehow started controlling you. You weren't yourself and turned against us."
"What?" said Cloud in surprise. "Again…"
"This has happened before?" asked Quistis, concerned.
Cloud nodded slowly. "Yeah. A few years ago, Jenova took control of me and made me give the Black Materia to Sephiroth. I couldn't control my actions … I had no idea what I was doing … I thought it would never happen again, but…"
"It's okay," said Quistis after Cloud trailed off mid-sentence. "You don't have to talk about it."
"Where's everyone else?" asked Cloud. "Is everyone else all right? Why are we here?"
"We're here because we need to keep Seifer away from Ultimecia's sight," replied Quistis. "Squall and Yuffie coincidentally ran into us here while they were trying to carry you to safety, so they left you with us. Everyone's gone to take care of Rinoa. What that involves exactly, I'm not too sure…"
"Damn … Rinoa…" Cloud sighed heavily.
"This isn't Rinoa's fault," yelled Seifer, breaking his silence.
"Relax, I wasn't blaming her," said Cloud. "I'm just—"
"Worried about her," said Quistis, finishing off Cloud's sentence. "We all are…"
"Then why are we still sitting around here?" shouted Seifer. "I can't take it anymore! You expect me to sit around here quietly like a good kid while Rinoa's out there like that? I don't care if I'm in danger – when the hell have I ever cared? Let's just go!"
"Seifer…" It appeared Quistis's patience was also running thin, but it was clear to Cloud she still wanted to keep the risks to a minimum.
Cloud's attention perked at the sound of Tifa's voice calling in the distance. He suddenly stopped caring about Quistis and Seifer's argument and rushed out into the open, carrying his sword with him. The cold rain danced on his skin and the mist combined with the downpour clouded his long-range vision, but he was able to barely recognise the faint outline of Tifa's body approaching.
"Tifa!" called out Cloud.
Tifa heard Cloud's call and came rushing into his general direction. It also seemed that Seifer and Quistis had abandoned their hiding spot and joined Cloud in his rendezvous with Tifa.
"Cloud!" cried Tifa, as she came closer. "Cloud, you're all right!"
"I'm fine," said Cloud as he approached her. "Are you all right?" He observed Tifa's poor condition, even though he had seen her in a much worse state before. She had magical wounds all over her body, but she didn't seem to care at all.
"I'm okay," said Tifa. "I'm looking for Vincent, but he's disappeared. Please, you have to come quick – I'm out of mana and Rinoa's in a critical condition—"
"What?" exclaimed Seifer.
"I – I don't know," said Tifa weakly. "I found Rinoa in Squall's arms, pretty much bleeding to death. Squall can't heal her because he can't use magic here, and Vincent's gone–"
"Calm down," said Quistis. "Is she still Ultimecia?"
Tifa shook her head.
"Squall! That bastard!" roared Seifer. "Come on, we don't have time to waste!"
"Take us to them, Tifa," said Cloud.
Tifa nodded and ran back into the direction that she came from, the others following her closely.
Ultimecia's eyes fluttered open, her body tingling as if she was experiencing a severe case of pins and needles. Her senses picked up the smell, feel and sight of Odine's laboratory almost immediately. She then remembered Odine's betrayal and stood up in a flurry, her blood boiling.
"ODINE!" roared Ultimecia fiercely.
The room was void of movement and life, and she realised that Odine, Laguna and Ellone must have taken her unconsciousness as a chance to escape. Her temper hit the roof and she screamed in frustration, her voice piercing the atmosphere.
"DAMN YOU ALL!" the Sorceress Queen shouted. She spread out her hand and began magically conjuring up miscellaneous spells for the sole purpose of destroying the objects around the room haphazardly. Furniture and files burst into flames and test tubes shattered into tiny shards of glass, all while she screamed in burning frustration. She grabbed objects within her reach and threw them at the wall furiously, her temper boiling.
They've gone … and they've taken the Machine with them. Time and space compression has slipped out of my hands…
She cursed at her foes in her head, fantasising of cruel and painful punishments she could deliver to them if she were ever to find them. She was too blind with rage to think clearly and find a way to actually track them down, but she then remembered something vital.
Rinoa was killed on The Planet, thought Ultimecia. That means she has returned to the Lifestream in this world somewhere…
Ultimecia's lips formed a twisted smile. She knew exactly how she would find her traitors now … she just needed to lure them back with some bait.
Ultimecia abandoned Odine's laboratory, burning down the entire building to a crisp after she left so that Ellone, Odine and Laguna could have nothing to return to. She teleported away from the area and appeared back at Ultimecia Castle in a cloud of purple smoke, then headed for the Rank A Sorceress Knights' barracks. She walked through the doors to find some knights chatting with each other whilst off duty and others doing paperwork. She walked in, her heels clicking on the floor, and every knight stopped to look and bow down to her.
"Knights," said Ultimecia calmly.
"Your Highness!" they all barked stiffly, bowing.
"All of you are the top knights of the Order," said Ultimecia. "Has it come to your attention that there are supposedly people mysteriously turning up in parts of the world who claim to have no feasible recollection of where they are and what's going on?" She was of course referring to the souls from The Planet who had travelled through the leaked Lifestream to get to her world, just as Sephiroth had.
A blonde female Knight who was sitting at a desk doing paperwork stood up when a soft chatter broke out without anyone actually answering Ultimecia. "Yes, there have been some local civilians reporting that such a situation is occurring in certain places."
"And how have you responded to this situation?" snarled Ultimecia, causing the quiet chatter to cease immediately.
"Erm … well, we haven't taken any drastic action," said the blonde female Knight. "They were taken to medical clinics and whatnot to have their health checked, but the knights would usually leave once they were taken there."
"And none of you deemed this to be suspicious or problematic at all?" said Ultimecia, raising her voice. "Nobody bothered to report this to me, or to make further investigations into it?"
"Well … we thought it was a harmless situation, Your Majesty," murmured the blonde knight, averting her gaze shyly.
"Well I'll tell you it certainly is not a harmless situation," said Ultimecia. "I'll tell you what happened and you all better take note." She cleared her throat. "A team of my scientists had been secretly conducting experiments on wild monsters without my knowledge. They were attempting to genetically modify the monsters to make them human-like and more intelligent so that the scientists could create an army to start a rebellion against the sorceresses and the Sorceress Knights. However, I was able to find out about this heinous crime before the scientists could finish the experiments."
The air in the room grew dense and uncomfortable as Ultimecia explained this to them.
"Apologies, my Queen … we had no idea," said another young male knight.
"The scientists frantically released all of their test subjects before fleeing once they had been discovered," said Ultimecia, ignoring the remark. "Those 'people' you see wandering around, oblivious to their surroundings and confused about who they are – they are in fact humanoid monsters and are potentially very dangerous. The reason why they are disoriented is because the experiments were never complete, so their brains are not fully developed and they have no recollection of this world as we know it."
"And how do you wish the situation to be handled?" asked the blonde female knight.
"They are potentially very dangerous," repeated Ultimecia. "We must proceed with caution, as we do not know if their monstrosity will return to them. To protect the civilians, sorceresses and knights, you are to detain any such person who appears suspicious or perplexed about who they are or their surroundings. To identify such people, you must ask for their names and search for them on the Worldwide Registry of Citizens – if their name does not appear, detain them. You should know that all citizens should be registered. You can also ask them questions that every person should be able to know, for example, who is the Sorceress Queen? Where is the Order's headquarters situated? If they cannot answer such simple questions, you detain them."
"Detain them in the prisons?" asked another male knight.
"Yes, for the time being, until a correctional centre of some sort is established and I can find trustworthy scientists to observe them," said Ultimecia.
I should be able to make some use of those nobodies from that pathetic planet, thought Ultimecia.
"Understood," said the male knight.
"Also, have an arrest warrant issued for a Doctor Odine and Laguna Loire," said Ultimecia. "They are the escaped scientists who developed these hideous experiments. They are registered on the Worldwide Registry of Citizens – look at their faces on the system and keep an eye out for them. Unfortunately they destroyed their lab, so there is nothing left there for you to investigate. I want them alive and their capture is to be reported to me immediately."
"Yes, Your Highness," said the two knights in unison.
"And one more matter of absolute importance," said Ultimecia. "You are all to be on the lookout for a girl by the name of Rinoa Heartilly. If she does not give you her true name, this is what she looks like." The Sorceress Queen spread out the palm of her hand and a holographic image of Rinoa's face appeared in the air, the same holographic image she had shown in Ellone's interrogation.
"She is not one of the monsters," said Ultimecia. "She is actually a sorceress. In fact, she is my daughter that I had kept hidden from the world for a long time in fear of her safety, but the scientists kidnapped her and performed some sort of experiment on her to find ways to destroy sorceresses. She therefore may appear to be disoriented and unknowing of the world around her, and she will not be registered on the database of citizens. It might be possible that she would say ridiculous and possibly seditious things, but it is safe to assume that it was because of the experiments. It is absolutely crucial that you deliver her to me alive so that I can rehabilitate her."
A murmur of concerned chatter began to rise in the room. Amongst the comments were, "Who knew Her Highness had secret children?" and "Those scummy scientists … we'll get them!"
"Rinoa's safe return to me should be every knight's first priority," said Ultimecia, causing the chatter to cease. "That is all. Inform all knights of this policy and upload Rinoa's picture to the database. Then arrange for this news to be broadcast to the public so that they may report any suspicious characters or any sign of Rinoa to the knights."
"Yes, Your Highness!"
Squall sat with his palms firm on the ground behind him, his legs stretched out and his head looking up to the grey sky. The heavy splashes of rain from the angry clouds above drenched him to the bone, and all he could do was stare back at the sky, as if Rinoa's spirit was floating somewhere up there. He was soaked through, but the chill biting at his body was nothing like the coldness that enveloped his heart.
I killed her … I killed Rinoa…
The thought was so surreal yet all the more painful. He repeated it over and over in his head, unable to replace the memory with anything else. It was of no comfort to him that there was a high possibility of her reincarnation back on his home planet – there was nothing other than Rinoa's forgiveness that would wash away his guilt.
Squall couldn't care to glance ahead, but he recognised Quistis's voice calling him. He must have looked pathetic just sitting there, staring at the rain spitting on him…
And then it hit him. His cool, calm, collected self took over his senses. He couldn't sit there sulking and looking pathetic – none of his problems were going to fix themselves. He was a leader and he had a task to do. It was weak to let emotions get in the way of his work. He promised Rinoa that he would find her again – and that was what he would do. His mission and getting back to his world were only incidental to that promise.
Squall picked himself up off the ground and composed himself as Cloud, Quistis, Yuffie, Seifer and Tifa approached him, each looking more worried than the last. He noticed that Vincent wasn't with them, but would ask about that later.
"Squall! Are you all right?" asked Tifa. "Where's … Rinoa…?"
Squall cleared his throat, trying to force the most neutral voice he could muster. "She's gone."
"Whaddaya mean 'she's gone'?" asked Yuffie. "Where'd she go?"
"Away … into the Lifestream…" murmured Squall.
"Th-the Lifestream?" said Tifa, slightly horrified. "Squall … you don't mean…"
Squall didn't respond. The rain began to lighten to a drizzle, the sun barely reappearing behind the grey clouds.
"Squall…" began Quistis, clearly at a loss for words.
"You BASTARD!" shouted Seifer.
Squall suddenly felt a blunt force overwhelm his right cheek, causing him to stagger back a bit. Seifer packed a hard punch and Squall didn't even notice that his rival had thrown it directly at his face until it actually hit him. But Squall didn't wince or react in any way. He could understand Seifer's anger … he didn't blame him at all. Someone had to say it to him, and everyone else there was just far too diplomatic to do it.
"You … scum!" shouted Seifer, his face frothing with rage. "How could you betray her? You were her damn knight, Leonhart! Don't you even know what that means?! You were supposed to protect her, but you stabbed her in the back! How is it that you're living with yourself right now?!"
Squall rubbed the dull pain in his cheek and regained his balance. He couldn't even answer Seifer – he had no right to answer. He could easily defend himself with his own rationality and how it was the only way to stop Ultimecia, but it wasn't like Seifer would listen to him. Besides, Squall couldn't even bring himself to make up excuses for his behaviour…
"There were a million ways you could've handled this situation and you decided to go with the worst option," snarled Seifer. "You disgust me."
"Are you done?" asked Squall shortly.
Seifer swore loudly. "And you just gotta continue with that pathetic cool guy façade. Don't you have any feelings?! Don't you even care about what you've just done?!"
"This is rich, coming from someone who tried to kill and endanger Rinoa multiple times," snapped Squall, unable to restrain himself from remarking on Seifer's hypocrisy.
"Unlike you, I was brainwashed!" Seifer argued back. "You did this all of your own will, you asshole!"
"Enough," said Cloud, who up until now had appeared emotionless and indifferent. "Arguing isn't going to bring anyone back. Squall did what he thought was necessary and it clearly saved us all from having our Planet burnt to a crisp."
"Arguing isn't going to get us anywhere yet you take sides with this scumbag, huh?" spat Seifer, glaring at Cloud.
"Let's go back to the ship," murmured Squall, not wanting to talk anymore about the subject. "Our mission was to find out how to get back to my world, and we've found out that we've got to get to Lucrecia's Waterfall. We should hurry back." He began to walk away from the group and back towards Cid's airship, but he could still hear their comments from ahead.
"He sure is calm," remarked Yuffie.
"He's always calm," said Quistis.
"Calm … pssh, more like uncaring," growled Seifer.
"Seifer … you've got no idea," said Quistis heavily.
"Hey, we have to look for Vincent, guys!" said Tifa.
"Oh yeah … I wonder where he's gone off to?" asked Yuffie. "I'll give him a call!"
Squall didn't care to hear about what his comrades thought about him, nor was he particularly worried about Vincent. He blocked their conversation out and continued to head back to the airship alone. He was set on returning to his world and finding Rinoa no matter what.
By the sea on the Estharian continent was a villa which was nearly the size of a football field. It stretched across the landscape with beautiful architecture and gardens; however it was void of any human life, making it seem very empty and dead. The villa was at least half an hour away from the central business districtof Esthar City, making it seem more devoid of life and activity, since it was isolated from any other.
A taxi dropped off Lynette and Aerith by the entrance of the villa under the pretence of travelling back with their 'servants', Selphie and Zack.
"Holy moly … you live here?" asked Zack as the taxi sped off.
"Yes, I suppose you could say that," said Lynette, leading them to the large pearly white gates which were left wide open. "I used to live here with my sisters, however they've all moved away and live in different parts of the world now. I don't stay here much since I like to visit them often."
"So this place is empty most of the time?" asked Aerith.
"Yes," said Lynette, nodding.
"But why would you leave the gates open like this?" asked Zack. "Won't people come in and steal your stuff?"
Lynette shook her head. "Try to go inside and steal something."
Zack looked confused but did as Lynette said. He tried to walk through the gates, only to be knocked back violently by some sort of magical force field. He was clumsily flung backwards before landing squarely on his backside.
"Ouch," growled Zack.
Aerith rushed over to Zack and helped him up as Selphie burst into a fit of giggles
"I guess you deserved that for asking such a dumb question!" said Selphie.
Zack grumbled under his breath as he stood up, holding a sour expression on his face.
"I placed a seal on the entrance so no intruders can pass," said Lynette. "There used to be servants living here to look after the place while my sisters and I all lived here together, but now that we're hardly here, it's too much of a hassle to keep the servants. That's why we just use a magic seal now."
"I guess this place is pretty much abandoned," said Aerith.
Lynette shrugged. "I wouldn't say that. I'd just say … unused most of the time."
"So um … how are going to get in?" asked Selphie. "You don't have magic right now, right? How are you going to unseal the entrance?"
"It doesn't need magic to be unsealed," said Lynette. "I just have to stand in the gateway and it will open. The magic recognises anyone of my bloodline and it will open up. But we have to wait for the others to arrive, otherwise they won't be able to get in and we won't know they've arrived."
"Are you serious?" groaned Selphie. "You need to install a doorbell!"
"They should be arriving soon, shouldn't they?" asked Aerith. "They would have left a little while after us."
"Hey, do you think that's them over there?" asked Zack, pointing out into the distance.
Everyone turned to where Zack was pointing and watched as a lone black car came driving on the empty road up towards the villa. It had a sword and shield painted in gold on the bonnet, and looked quite magnificent.
"That's not them … that's a Sorceress Knight's car," said Lynette.
"Oh no!" squealed Selphie. "Are they onto us…?"
"Relax ... Odine and the others haven't arrived yet," said Zack. "We've got nothing to worry about. They're probably just going to drive right past us."
"Doesn't look like it, Zack," said Aerith worriedly, as the marked car approached them and appeared to slow down.
"Let me handle it," said Lynette.
The black car came to a halt at the gates of Lynette's villa. The front door swung open, and a buff, dark-skinned male in a Sorceress Knight uniform exited from the driver's side. The knight strode towards the party confidently, while holding an emotionless expression on his face.
"Is there a reason why you're loitering around a sorceress's home?" asked the knight.
"It's because I live here," said Lynette curtly. "I'm Sorceress Lynette."
The knight looked only slightly surprised. He pulled out a small electronic device that resembled a smart phone and typed something into it, examining it, then examining Lynette's face.
"You dare not take my word for my identity?" said Lynette, frowning.
"My apologies," said the knight. "There has been suspicious activity in these parts and it's necessary for me to cross-reference the identities of those whom I investigate. It's all right, your face matches the directory's file. Are these your servants?"
"Such arrogance," murmured Lynette. "Yes, these are my servants. Is there is anything in particular you want from me?"
"No … I saw you hanging about here and needed to check you weren't intruders," said the knight. "If you haven't heard yet, there has been talk of some rebels on the run. Queen Ultimecia has made it the knights' priority to find these individuals. Here's what they look like."
The knight showed the screen of his device to Lynette, which bore digital photographs of Odine and Laguna's faces. Beneath the photographs was a chunk of text outlining the various crimes of the pair.
"I see," said Lynette. "Well, good luck in finding them."
"Thank you, my lady," said the knight. He gave a quick salute and walked back to the black car, speeding off into the distance.
"This is bad!" said Selphie when the car was out of sight. "I hope the others can get here without running into any knights!"
"It will be problematic," murmured Lynette, scrunching her face. "If Odine is captured before he gets here, I'll never get my powers back."
"All we can do is wait and hope for the best," said Aerith nervously.
Beautiful green lights and the sensation of a light breeze lifted Vincent's spirits. He couldn't remember anything prior to this sensation, and could only concentrate on the endless black abyss surrounding him. The only thing that gave him comfort was the entrancing particles green of lights around him. He felt lightheaded and tried to look down at his own body, only to find that his being was not present.
The Lifestream? How did I get here? he wondered, trying not to panic.
"Laguna, are you going the right way?" a familiar female voice said.
Vincent tried to find the source of the voice, but there was absolutely nothing around.
"If I remember right, I'm sure this is the way to Lynette's," said a male voice. "Trust me, Lucrecia!"
Lucrecia!? Vincent desperately tried to advance his 'position' – but he had no control of himself or anything around him…
Slowly, a faint outline of what seemed to be a few people walking down a road eventuated in Vincent's senses. He tried his best to get closer, to make sense of it all, to make something happen, but it was futile.
"Vincent!" echoed Yuffie's voice, which sounded very far away. "Vincent! He's here, everyone!"
The way to Lynette's... the way to Lynette's... Vincent tried to etch that phrase into his memory...
"Quick, use your Phoenix Down!" said Tifa's voice, equally as distant.
The mysterious lights around Vincent began to slowly fade into nothingness, and once again blackness enveloped him…
The way to Lynette's...
"Vincent!" cried Yuffie, her voice much more within reaching distance than before.
Vincent's eyes sprung open and he was immediately met with fatigue. His senses returned to him, and the familiar sight of Mount Nibel surrounded him. Tifa, Cloud, Yuffie and Quistis were all standing around him in a pile of rocks and rubble. He then remembered that Rinoa had cast a powerful earthquake spell on him, which resulted in his being crushed into oblivion by the rocks and earth.
"Thank goodness we found you in time," breathed Tifa.
Vincent got up on his feet weakly. "Thank you, everyone," he murmured.
"Let's get back to the airship," said Cloud. "We need to go."
Vincent nodded and allowed his companions to lead the way, trailing behind quietly. His mind wandered back to the sensation he had felt before. He had been knocked out in battle before many times, but he supposed that really was a near-death knockout since nobody was around to heal him … but what was the hallucination he felt? Was it really just a hallucination, or was it the sensation of the Lifestream pulling him into the other world…?
The thought disappeared when he felt a snap of pain in his arm. His Geostigma was playing up again … but it was the least of his concerns now. He pulled his sleeve over the visibly infected area hastily before any of his friends could see his pain, and continued walking along with them back to the airship.
Author's note: apologies for my super long hiatus (wow, has it really been 2 years?) Hopefully I can update regularly again!