Sherry grunted as she pulled herself up one more slight rise. The light in front of her danced on the cave walls as the lantern she had tied to her pack wobbled with her movement. She was just glad it was bright enough that it didn’t have to be held in front of her. There would have been no way they could have gotten far in these circumstances otherwise. Once she was at the top she turned and knelt down, so she could help her friend, Kaylan, up the rise as well. Once they were both up her companion gave her a playful glare. “You know, when you asked me to go camping, I wasn’t expecting something like this. Even if we haven’t run into cave spiders yet, this is crazy. What possessed you to want to go spelunking?”
“You didn’t have to come if you didn’t want to.” Sherry smirked before heading deeper into the cave.
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to, just… you know how I feel about spiders.” Kaylan shuddered, and Sherry laughed at the motion.
“I don’t like them either, but I was told these caves were pretty open; at least the parts that have been explored before. If we do run into them, then they’ll be fine on the walls and not close to us. We’ll have plenty of time to see them first and don’t tell me you haven’t been looking. We got lucky to get access to this place anyway. Not a lot of people know about it, so it’s perfect.” She paused when they got to another cave offshoot. It only took her a moment to paint a small arrow on the wall pointing back the way they had come. Once it was done, she turned back to Kaylan again. “So which direction this time?”
“We’ve been going right at every turn, so right. We can take the left ones the next time.”
“Right except for the one that led us back again, then we took a left, but I suppose right is as good as any.” They moved down the right fork, chatting amiably while they continued. They had been exploring for close to three hours and knew they would be heading back soon but wanted to see if they could find something new. There had already been several breathtaking rooms filled with stalactites and such, but so far, they had only seen one small clear pool. For the region, they should have found the underground river at some point. That was what they had both been hoping to find.
They had finally decided that it was nearly time to turn back when a sudden noise caught both their attention. Kaylan looked over with scrunched brows. “What was that?”
Sherry shook her head. “It sounded like voices up ahead, but I couldn’t understand anything. It’s probably the acoustics.”
“I thought we were supposed to be the only ones down here?”
“Jon said we were the first to ask for permission in over a year. That doesn’t mean a group of kids hasn’t come here without permission. I’m surprised they’re this deep though. Most people stop after the first few rooms. Let’s see what’s going on.”
They headed forward carefully. They didn’t want to surprise whoever it was, especially as they noticed that the voices were yelling. It didn’t make matters better that they all seemed to be male. They caught sight of a low green light around the next bend, but Sherry paused and put her hand on Kaylan’s arm. She received a strange look for the movement but didn’t say anything. It had just occurred to her that if these men were down there without permission, then there was a good chance they might be doing something else illegal as well. If that was the case, then they needed to get away and let the landowner know instead.
She started to back away slowly and pulled on her friend to go as well but they were stopped by a bright light suddenly filling the tunnel they were in. They both covered their eyes but were instantly aware as they were hit with chips of stone. Sherry’s eyes widened as she heard a rumble close by. She looked back to see a blackened part of the stone crumbling and realized that the tunnel might be caving in. She quickly pushed her friend forward as she yelled out. “Move! Go, go, go!”
She knew she didn’t have time to explain so she pushed her forward until they were around the bend. Kaylan must have finally realized what was going on as she turned to run. She tripped over a rock outcropping but managed to fall into the room that opened up. She quickly turned to make sure her friend had followed but was overcome by dust and the sound of falling rock. She panicked slightly when she didn’t see Sherry. Her voice was interrupted by coughs as she tried to wave away the dust while she screamed out for her friend. “Sherry! Sherry!”
“Ugh, I’m fine. Quit yelling.” Kaylan nearly cried at the sound of her voice. She stood and tried to wave away more of the dust as her friend emerged from the tunnel. She barely noted the fact that she was covered in dust and limping before she grabbed her in a tight hug. Sherry let it go on for a minute before pushing her back and looking her over. “I’m glad you weren’t hurt, but we’re going to have to look at that fall. Give me a minute first.”
It was at that point that she looked up and saw six sets of eyes trained on the two of them. Her eyes widened as she took in the way the six men were dressed. She couldn’t find her voice at first, but she finally started laughing as she limped a couple more steps toward them. “Sorry for interrupting your larping guys.”
She tried to take another step and winced as she put pressure on her right leg. Kaylan was still by her side, but the younger girl had not yet said anything. She was looking around trying to figure out what was going on.
Sherry waited for a response and when she didn’t get one, she finally spoke again. “Uh, well, I’d love to say that we’ll just head back, but it looks like the tunnel behind us caved in. I’m sure we can find a way out, just let me rest for a moment.”
It was at that time that Kaylan finally realized that her limp had become more pronounced. She looked down and her eyes widened as she saw blood streaking through the dust on Sherry’s leg. “You’re bleeding!”
Sherry gave her a confused look before her eyes followed her friends gaze. When she saw the blood running down her calf she winced again. She tried to reassure her friend though. “I’m fine. We can take a moment and bandage it, but we need to figure out how bad that cave in was.”
It was at that point that one of the men finally found his voice. He stepped forward passed the others that were frowning at him, but he ignored them and held up a hand. “My lady, it would appear that you are injured due to my negligence. Please allow me to heal you.”
She looked him over quickly and laughed again as she tried to continue ignoring the pain. “Way to keep in character. That’s a nice costume too. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so good.”
The man gave her a confused look but didn’t back away. “I am unsure why you are assuming I am wearing a costume, but I can already tell that your injury is not small. Please.” He took a few steps closer and gestured for her other hand.
She wasn’t sure what to make of the man and her confusion was showing. “You don’t even have a pack, unless you have it stashed close by. Just let me wrap it up and I’ll be fine.”
He gave her a strange look but ignored her as he bent down to get a closer look at her leg. She stiffened when he reached out and touched her ankle. When he stood and frowned at her she took a step back. “You are not fine. Your ankle is at the very least badly sprained, although it looks to be broken.”
She turned to Kaylan when she heard her gasp. She tried to reassure her. “We can wrap it tight and head back as soon as we get out of here. That should be our first priority.”
She could tell Kaylan wanted to say something, but they were interrupted when the man stepped closer. She tried to step back but he quickly knelt and picked her up with one arm behind her knees. By the time she found her breath to start yelling he had already moved to a rock outcropping and set her down. She gave him a confused look as he knelt again. She was about to ask him what he thought he was doing when his fingers probed her swollen ankle and she growled at the pain. She was getting ready to yell when her attention was caught by movement. She looked up and realized the rest of the men had shifted slightly, but they were all watching with frowns.
She tried to ignore the man and ask the rest of them what they were doing in the cave without permission, but another movement drew her gaze. She realized the only light source left was a glowing pool of greenish water behind the group. She was surprised that the phosphorus was glowing through the water, but that thought was replaced with shock when the surface of the water lifted again. Her eyes widened as a wispy tendril lifted away and started passed the group. They all jumped back quickly as they noticed it passing them. The only ones that hadn’t moved were Kaylan, Sherry and the man in front of her.
Kaylan nearly fell over when the tendril kept creeping closer, but Sherry yelled before she could move. “Stop!” At the same time, she yelled and pushed the stranger’s shoulder to get his attention. He frowned up at her, but she only had to motion behind him. He looked back and jumped up at the sight. He moved to grab her out of the path as well but as soon as he moved the tendril shot forward with enough speed to preempt him. Sherry didn’t even have a chance to wonder what the hell was going on before she was wrapped up in green.
Her vision was instantly inundated with images that made no sense to her. The only pattern she could discern was that they all involved the men that had been standing around the cave. She vaguely heard herself scream, but it was like she was seeing it from outside. The images that kept flashing were the only thing she could focus on. Finally, they slowed to a stop and an image of a blonde woman in armor filled her vision. The woman reached out to her before the image dissolved.
When the woman disappeared, Sherry’s vision cleared, and she found herself kneeling with several people surrounding her. She shakily got to her feet and tried to steady herself. She opened her mouth to speak but her attention was drawn by a sharp pain on the underside of her wrist. She flipped it over and her eyes widened as she watched a multicolor geometrical design finished filling out right in front of her eyes. She looked back up to the men that all looked on with confusion as she tried to wrap her head around what just happened. Immediately she started to deny what her subconscious was already telling her. “No! This isn’t real. I must be knocked out still. What the hell!”
The man with purple hair and feathers was the first to speak. “You have become a L’cie.”
She felt herself sway under his words and violently shook her head. The man that had originally offered to help her stepped forward and grasped her elbow before she could fall over. She ignored him as she heard Kaylan call out. “Your leg! There’s… there’s no blood!”
She looked down out of instinct and wished she hadn’t. Not only was there no more blood, but her ankle felt fine. She knew that was impossible, even though she could both see and feel the truth. She tried to jerk out of the man’s hands, but he wouldn’t let her go. He was still staring at the pattern that had appeared. She wanted to scream out her disbelief, but it came out as a whimper. She felt lightheaded, but she pinched her arm to focus. She ignored the men as a sound from Kaylan caught her attention. Her friend looked like she was going to pass out at any moment. The sight helped her to get herself together, so she could focus on her friend. “Kaylan, listen to me. Please sit down right now.”
She wasn’t sure if the girl hadn’t heard her, or if she was incapable of listening at the moment, but she called out louder. “Kaylan!” The shout finally drew her attention and her gaze finally focused. “Sit down.”
When she did as she was asked Sherry spoke up again. “Now, put your head down and take deep breaths. In through your nose and out through your mouth. Count to at least four with each breath.” When she was sure that her friend was finally calming, she turned to the man that still had her arm in his grasp. She tried to keep her fear from her face when she spoke. “Could you please let me go?”
He released her elbow but didn’t move back. She ignored him as her gaze swept across the rest of the group. They all wore wary looks that shifted between the other members of their group and her. She took a deep breath before she spoke. “I don’t know what the hell that was, but it would be great if you could all explain what is going on.”
It was the purple haired man that spoke again. “I cannot say why we are all gathered, but the brand- you are a L’cie.”
She shook her head again. “L’cie aren’t real. That’s impossible.” She took a step back and bumped into the wall. It was at that point that she realized the pool that had been giving off the phosphorus green light was gone. She looked around for the new light source and had to hold back a scream as she noticed three of the men were holding fireballs in their hands, including the one right next to her. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to scream or run but she did neither. She couldn’t hold back her curse. “Fuck!”
The same man that had spoken earlier stepped closer and was looking down at her hand as he spoke again. “I have never seen a brand such as that. Where is the Fal’cie?”
She refused to acknowledge his statement. Instead she glared at him. “Alright, Caius, back up, now.” She glared at the man standing next to her as well. “You too, Genesis.”
Both men gave her shocked looks, but they moved enough for her to get passed them. She immediately moved to her friend and took her by the arm to help her stand. “Are you alright now?”
The girl gave her a nod, but she could tell she was still freaked out as she looked around at the gathered men. The redhead finally spoke up with a furrow between his brows. “You have me at a disadvantage. You know my name, but I have not had the pleasure of hearing yours.”
She scoffed at him and then pointed to each man as she spoke. “Genesis, Caius, Noel, Cloud, Zack, and Sephiroth. Just because I know who you are pretending to be doesn’t mean anything.” She tried to keep her voice from cracking as she spoke. As hard as she was trying to convince herself the men in front of her were acting, the sting on her wrist was telling her she knew she was lying to herself.
All of the men gave her looks of shock at her knowledge. The one with silver hair finally stepped forward. “Who are you and how did you bring me here, wherever here may be?”
The other three men still looked shell shocked as she backed away from them all. She tried to keep her breathing under control as she tried to deal with the weight of the three glares. Her wrist gave another sharp pang and she looked at it reflexively. It had already started to change, and she realized that as impossible as it might seem, this was really happening. She nearly dropped to her knees again, but she managed to lock them in place and face all six men. She grimaced as she spoke. “Let’s say I believe this is really happening. Even if it is, I have no idea what the hell is going on. Kaylan and I were just exploring these caves while we’re here for the week camping. I probably have less idea about what’s going on than any of you.”
Caius finally spoke up again. “You didn’t receive a focus?”
She clenched her jaw to keep from snapping at him and took a deep breath. “Ok.” She had to take another before she could speak. Her brain was still in shock at everything that had happened in the last few minutes. “I did see something, but I really don’t understand it.”
He nodded his head as if he understood. “I have heard of others that could not completely understand their focus at first. Do you know the Fal’cie that marked you? If so, you might be able to better understand.”
She shook her head as she looked around. Most of the men wore looks of disbelief and they all looked like they had something to say. She glanced at Kaylan who still looked like she was either ready to bolt or faint and she gave her friend’s arm a comforting squeeze. She finally turned back to the gathered people with a sigh. “There are no Fal’cie here. I’m nearly positive it was done by a Goddess anyway.”
Caius’ eyebrows shot up and his voice was reverent when he spoke. “You were marked by Etro directly?”
She shook her head and couldn’t stop from glancing at Genesis from the corner of her eye. “No, I’m pretty sure it was Minerva.”
Caius gave her a confused look and it was Genesis’ turn to look shocked. They both murmured the name she had just spoke. Genesis was reverent where Caius was confused. She sighed and shook her head. “I know I am confused as hell, so I imagine you are too. We can discuss this until we’re blue in the face, but can we get out of here first. I have a burning desire to see the sky right now.”
She didn’t wait to get an answer before she helped Kaylan to the rock she had been sitting on. “Stay here and yell if anyone gets close. I’m going to check the tunnel and see if it’s completely blocked.”
The girl gave her a frightened look, but she squeezed her hand and gave her a smile before she headed back to the tunnel they had come in from. Her back was stiff as she walked passed the men and ignored their gazes. It was Cloud that moved first. He stepped up beside her and his voice was quiet when he spoke. “I’m not sure what is going on, but I’ll help.” He looked back over his shoulder with a glare at the silver haired man she was still trying to ignore.
She gave him a small smile and finally glanced back as well. The others had started to move toward her, but they were giving each other wary looks and weren’t making much progress. Finally, she stopped and looked back at them a little more closely. Sephiroth was the first she looked over and his brow raised at her evaluating look. Before he could speak, she realized there was something important about all of them. She held up her hand as she quickly looked around.
Genesis didn’t show any signs of degradation and Sephiroth, while glaring, did not have an evil smirk. Zack was wearing his First Class uniform and she also noticed that Cloud was wearing an outfit that was not a Soldier or infantry uniform. As for Noel and Caius, they both wore outfits made of leather, fur, feathers and beads. It was most noteworthy on Caius since he wasn’t wearing his black body armor.
Her own shock was hard to modulate as she realized that it was probable that none of these men were from the same time. Finally, she spoke up, looking to Sephiroth first. “What was the last thing you remember before you got here?” His scowl deepened, and she shook her head. “Please. I know you want answers, but I need to know what was going on. I have a feeling I will be just as affected by all this as any of you.”
His scowl didn’t go away, but he finally answered. “I was on a mission when our transport was attacked by a dragon. We defeated it easily, but I was separated from the others. The ground opened up underneath me and before I could jump out of the way, I found myself here.”
She gave him a nod but paused before speaking. “Were you on the way to… Nibelheim?”
The man next to her stiffened and she grabbed his arm. Sephiroth gave her a shocked look. “That is classified, how did you know?”
She shook her head and didn’t answer. Instead she turned to the blond next to her. “Think. Think about what that means.”
His brow furrowed before his eyes widened in shock. “That’s impossible!”
She shook her head again and looked to Zack. The youngest First was looking at the man next to her as if he were not sure what he was seeing. She waved her hand in front of him and got his attention. “I imagine you remember the mission Sephiroth was just talking about as well, don’t you?”
He looked at her briefly before he looked around again. It seemed as if he were seeing all of the others for the first time. Cloud wore the same shocked look as he walked over to Zack. “Zack, you’re alive.”
The tall boy in front of Cloud gave him a funny look before he gave him a bright smile. “Of course I am!” He finally looked at what Cloud was wearing and confusion covered his face again before he looked back at Sherry. “What is going on here?”
She gave him a sad look before she turned to address all of them. “I don’t really know what is going on, but it looks like you all come from different points in time, not just different planets.”
Noel finally spoke up for the first time. “Different times I might be able to understand, but different planets? That’s too weird.”
She nodded. “I understand, but you have to realize that this isn’t Pulse.” She turned to the other four. “It isn’t Gaia either. You’re on Earth. I know that doesn’t mean anything to any of you but trust me. If I could become a L’cie, then the rest is feasible as well.” She glanced down at her brand once again with a grimace.
At that point several of them tried to speak at once. She held up a hand and raised her voice to try and be heard above the din. “Enough!” When most of them looked back to her with shocked faces she continued. “I know it’s hard to believe. I’m barely keeping my own mind in check, but we can’t figure anything out until we get out of here. Can we all please just table our differences and questions until we can accomplish that much. Once we get out, I will do my best to answer questions, so we can all figure this out.”
There was silence for several moments before Genesis broke it. “Infinite in mystery is the gift of the Goddess. It would seem we have no choice but to comply for the moment. We are getting nowhere as it is.”
She gave him a nod and moved to help Kaylan. She whispered reassurances to her younger friend as she moved them both to stand in front of the cave in. She grimaced at the sight of it now that she could see it better. It was a wall of rubble. She couldn’t see over the top and she was hesitant to try and dig through it. The last thing they needed was to make their situation worse. She turned to the rest and tried to hide her grim look. “We can’t go back the way we came, but these caves are all interconnected. I’m pretty sure I saw another tunnel on the other side of this cavern. Let’s see where it leads.”
No one looked happy about their options, but there was very little speaking as they all moved to cross to a darker patch across the towering cavern. When they reached it and confirmed it was a tunnel, she had to bite back on her relief. There was still no guarantee that this would lead to a way out. She still had Kaylan’s hand in hers and she faked a smile as she pulled her forward. “It may take us a while, but I’m sure this will connect to one of the tunnels we’ve already been in.” She could tell her false cheer did little to assuage her friend’s doubts, but no one said anything else as they all followed her into the blackness.