Shadows of the Mind @lord22
The Ultimate Boon

Chapter Nine: The Ultimate Boon

Cloud woke up, and as he did, he felt his entire body aching.

His wounds were gone, he couldn't feel the pain anywhere, and he was lying in what seemed to be a spring of water. Above him, the sun was filtering through the golden leaves, many of which lay upon him. Pulling himself up, Cloud checked himself.

No pain.

Gazing around, he realized he was lying in a pool of green liquid. A little way on, he saw a spring bubbling up from the Planet. Just lying in it, he felt his strength returning. Some of the bruises that had been troubling him were gone as well.

"...A Mako spring," said Cloud. "I thought for sure that Shinra had put reactors on all of them. It... it must have healed my wounds. But why?" Hadn't Dad said that Mako energy had serious health issues? Why would this thing heal him?

And how had he gotten here?

It was all a blur. He remembered fighting viciously with a demon, thing, a voice in his mind offering him a chance to turn aside. Cloud had almost taken it but refused and fought it. Or had he hallucinated it and fallen?

Checking his clothes, Cloud realized he was still wearing his bloodstained bandages. Looking at his sword, still, in his grip, he saw it. The blade, however, was broken. It had been burned away to near the haft and was charred.

Not much good now, was it?

Even so, it proved that Cloud really had killed the fiend. And if he had, that meant he'd make SOLDIER for sure.

But whether he would or not, he still had to find his pack. A search of the surrounding area revealed to Cloud that he was in a little valley. A place that had a ridge above it, preventing anyone above from seeing down here. He also found his pack lying dry and undamaged.

Once he had that, he sheathed his broken sword and tried to scale back up.

Oddly enough, Cloud found his strength was far greater. What should have been a difficult and dangerous journey up seemed easy. He got to the top very soon and looked down at the trees below. And then he looked back toward the place he'd left.

There were still vast stretches of land blighted and consumed. Yet he had killed the monster that did it. Feeling now bold and powerful, Cloud made his way toward the Mythril Mines. The journey passed quickly, and he soon found what looked like an outpost just outside it.

A Shinra squad was waiting there, playing cards while another man was standing guard. Cloud moved toward them, a headache coming to him as he did. Falling to one knee, the men came forward. "Kid, are you alright?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, uh, did you see anything yesterday?" asked Cloud.

"Well, when darkness fell over the sun we saw some flashes and a roar," said the man. "There has been a rising of monster activity in these regions since the war escalated."

"Why is that?" asked Cloud.

"Well, the news is that the lack of maintenance on the Mako Reactors the natives hold is causing them to spawn, but uh..." the man halted. "I heard that the monsters are being spawned by all the deaths.

"Remember that mystic from Cosmo Canyon that came through here? He said that all the people being killed by the wars is spawning the monsters. See, the planet creates them as a self-defense mechanism when there is mass death."

"I think..." Cloud drew out the sword at his side. "I think I fought one of them on my way here."

The men looked at one another, murmuring. "Did you fight that thing on your way here?"

"Yes, um, kind of did," said Cloud. "It broke my sword." He decided not to tell them about the spring.

"You killed that thing?" asked the man. "Is that where you got those wounds? What happened?"

And so Cloud related his story.

Not merely the story of what he had been doing here, but the entire thing. He began with his journey from Midgar, his promise, his encounter with Sephiroth, and all the rest. Cloud told them about his mugging, and they seemed impressed, more so as he went on. The lion got some raised eyebrows, but they accepted it. When he spoke of Rufus and his offer to him, they were incredulous.

"He offered you a trip on a luxury liner, and you turned it down?" asked a man.

"Of course," said Cloud. "If I accepted it, I'd have an easier journey. But I'd only be a side character in Rufus' story. Not the hero of my own.

"I also didn't like his style."

Cloud was careful in how he described his association with Barret. He told them that he'd taken up with the man, not knowing what he was. That much was true, and he'd had no choice but to help in making munitions. He described Barret executing surrendering Shinra soldiers, and that eased their doubts.

At last, he talked of the massacred villages he found beyond.

"They didn't say anything about killing villagers on the news," said one.

"Do you think they would?" asked another. "Shinra controls the news."

Cloud went on and finally came to his confrontation with the fiend. It was difficult to explain, and he tried to piece together exactly what happened from memory. This, inevitably, led to the description of the Mako spring.

"Oh right," said a man. "I've heard of that one.

"It's said it can heal any wounds. You were lucky to find it."

"I'm not sure I feel lucky," said Cloud. "I've walked through a lot more corpses than I was hoping for before now. And now I've got that demon thing-"

"It's not a demon, kid," said the soldier. "You were probably hearing things. I've read that monsters can have a psychological effect on people. I mean, what would something from Nibelheim be all the way over here?"

"Yeah, that's what I thought it was," said Cloud, deciding to just move on.

"You can't, you know," said Sephiroth.

But Sephiroth wasn't real, and Cloud tried to ignore him. "Can I head through the mines?"

"Well, before you go anywhere, I'm obligated to tell you what you're getting into," said the guard. "Beyond this point should be a hovercraft station that should take you across.

"It's highly recommended you take it.

"Usually, we get caravans through here, though."

"Are there any monsters in there?" asked Cloud.

"Some," said the man. "There have been ever since the coming of the Zolom. Still, they usually stay off the marked path."

"I'd rather not waste the money," said Cloud. "So, I'm walking."

"Walking?" asked one. "Do you know what is waiting beyond there? The Midgar Zolom dwells there. In ancient days, the people delved too greedily and too deep in the mines. As punishment, the Planet brought forth the Midgar Zoloms. Even if one is killed, it will respawn until you have left the marshes or have been destroyed.

"It tracks you by the vibrations of your footsteps. You can't outrun it on foot, and you can't. Unarmed like you are, and you'll be a dead man for sure."

"Great, thank you, how do I get through the mines?" asked Cloud, who'd heard proclamations of his inevitable failure.

"Oh, we've got the safe roadshow by lights," said the man, motioning in. Cloud saw the lights, sure enough. "That area is secure, stray off it, and you'll be in trouble."

Cloud nodded. "Thanks."

Cloud began his journey into the mountains. As he walked within the Mythril Mines, Cloud kept his eye. He'd often come across passages leading away from the main road. The walls here had been hacked with chisels. He wondered how many centuries of work had gone into making this honeycomb of caverns.

At least three hundred, but records went back further than that. Some said that the Mythril Mines had been several mines that met up. Some spoke of passages leading into it from other places.

It was cold, and he heard the drip-drip-drip of water wherever he went. The air was stale, and he saw a group of bats hanging from the ceiling at one point.

"Nothing seems to have happened yet," said Cloud.

"Just wait," said Sephiroth. "With your luck, you'll be eaten alive."

Cloud was beginning to get sick of Sephiroth now. His presence within Cloud's mind was... well, he strongly suspected he had just gone nuts. And talking to someone he knew wasn't really seemed like a bad idea. At the same time, however, he had no one else to talk to.

No one believed in him at all.

Not even the guards who had heard everything he'd done. Cloud wanted someone to believe in him, to think he could be someone.

But no one did.

"Nothing seems to be happening," said Cloud to himself.

"Wait for it," said Sephiroth.

But nothing did happen.

Cloud walked on in the darkness for who knew how long. Several times he had to scale down metal ramps, and there were some steep inclines. On the walked, in the darkness and felt... sad. The further he went in the mine, and broken rockfaces, the more he wondered. What had this place had been like before miners came.

Some of these caverns seemed natural, at least. Others were clearly cut by handmaid tools. And still more looked to have been delved with machines. So much had been destroyed here, as if the Planet itself was wounded.

But there were things that lived here, weren't there? Bats and insects. There were also tree branches growing through the ceiling in several places. Cloud had read about subterranean ecosystems. He wondered what other places dwelled here.

A profound sense of isolation overtook him during his journey in the dark.

Cloud realized that the whole world could vanish above him, and he'd never know until he came out of it. He wondered if just that might happen and dearly wanted someone beside him. But no one was beside him, and he dared not start talking to Sephiroth again.

On he went, feeling all the more lonely.

When at last, he saw the light at the end of the tunnel, Cloud ran for it. Soon he came out of the tunnel and saw the marshes lying out far beyond them. They were a stretch of grayish, watery turf. Bushes could be seen here or there, though there was a clear path out.

Seeing a village down below, Cloud headed out. As he did, he munched on some of his few remaining rations on the way down. He had enough money to purchase passage on the skiff, he thought, and ran for it. The skiff he saw was a huge, white ship standing tall before them.

"Attention please!" said a man. "All passengers, please put your baggage here and board the hovercar. We will be moving out in an hour."

Coming to a halt, Cloud counted out his remaining money. He'd had to use a lot of what he had to purchase supplies. That had been when he was journeying with Barret and Jessie, but he had fifty left.

"Excuse me," said Cloud. "How much for a ticket across the marshes?"

"Twenty-five gil," said the man.

Cloud halted. "And how far is it to there on foot from Midgar?"

"At least two weeks," said the man. "Why do you ask?"

"Do you think I could make it on twenty-five dollars?" asked Cloud.

"Not across the Midgar Wastes," said the man. "On foot, you need a full pack of provisions."

"Midgar Wastes?" asked Cloud.

"Well, that's what they're calling them now," said the man. "The entire region around the city of Midgar is decaying. Farms are failing, so a lot of people have to head into the city or leave the area entirely. The eastern farmlands have become much more important; without them, no one would eat."

"Is that because of the Mako Reactors?" asked Cloud.

"Well, there are a lot of theories about Mako reactors," said the man. "And I'm not in the habit of talking about them. I work for Shinra, after all."

"Right," said Cloud. "Hey um, do you charge to ride in the baggage compartment?"

"No," said the man. "We do seem to have some space. You realize it's a day's journey across the marshes, don't you? We don't stop for anything, and it's not going to be comfortable."

"I'm out of options," admitted Cloud. "And I walked all the way here from Nibelheim, so I should be alright."

"You walked here from Nibelheim?" asked the man. "How?"

So Cloud told him the story, in as brief an explanation as he could. The man frowned. "I remember hearing about this. You're the boy that killed a lion with his bare hands, right? And you got through a warzone on foot while held captive by terrorists?"

"Yes," said Cloud. "Though Barret never actually knew who I was."

"Take the place in the baggage compartment," said the man. "Wait till I tell the others about this."

Cloud quickly made his way toward the compartment and pulled himself in. As he did, he remembered that money he had stolen to stay alive. Mentally, he reminded himself to send a check to Dad as soon as he could. He had to pay that money back.

For now, he quickly used the public bathroom and bought some more rations. Then he went straight back to the hovercraft.

Pulling himself into the cargo hold, he got to the back of it so it wouldn't bump him off. There he looked at the baggage and realized many of it was held by tourists. Laying out his bedroll to help against vibrations, Cloud lay down. Then the hovercraft set off, and Cloud lay back to wait.

The hovercraft vibrated only a little and had a very smooth ride. Out the door, Cloud could see a view of the marshes flowing out beneath him. It was quite interesting to see, and he wondered if he could have made it this far.

Some hours into the journey, Cloud saw some distant figures trying to walk. As they did, however, he saw the Zolom. It rose out of the marshes in the distance, a massive worm with the head of a cobra. It slithered after the travelers, who picked up the pace in vain.

As they ran, Cloud watched, praying they'd escape. Yet the Zolom moved so quickly he knew it was a lost cause. As it surged close, it rose above them. Cloud heard the sound of gunfire, and sparks appeared on the worms scales. It turned slightly and then descended toward the travelers.

A vast wave of dirt and water splashed into the air, and both were gone.

So that was one of the Zoloms that the Planet had called into being to save the mountains. Cloud now saw why no one worked these mines anymore.

Finally, when it was getting late in the day, the hovercraft pulled into a nice, prosperous little town. Sitting up, Cloud rolled up his bedroll, got his pack, and stepped off. Coming out, he saw people stepping off of it.

Some of them looked at him.

"Look," said one. "there's that boy from Nibeilheim who killed a lion with his bare hands and slew a demon."

"Are you sure that story is true?" asked another.

"Well, look at those bandages and the burns on his clothes and the sword," said another. "He must have seen a lot of things to get through."

"All that to join SOLDIER?" asked another.

"If he does get in, he'll probably be a real hero."

Cloud smiled.

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