Exploring a local terror spot in the wee hours of the night was not what Cloud had signed up for when he joined the army. Facing vicious monsters? Sure. Oncoming hordes of angry Wutiains? No big. But this, for reasons he could not explain, was far beyond the pale. His one consolation was that the thick- and now badly rusted- chain and deadbolt still held the front doors firmly shut. Sephiroth, however, gave it one look and pointed at it, the flicker of the spell visible in the darkness. A small explosion of rust particles, a whiff of ozone, and the chain fell to the ground with a deafening crash. Inwardly, Cloud sighed and prepared to take point.
“What are you doing?” Sephiroth asked him.
“I...you said...I should lead you…?” Cloud stammered.
“Do you know your way around this house?” The question was polite, even friendly. Cloud blinked, experiencing the queer feeling that he was not actually in trouble.
“Then there is no reason for you to go first.”
Cloud was not about to argue. Pushing the door open required the general to put his shoulder against it, the rusted hinges emitting a dry shriek so shrill it made all three of them cringe and wince. Inside it was pitch dark, and Cloud swallowed hard, steeling himself as he readied his weapon in one hand, and flashlight in the other. Zack and the general might not need ambient light to see where they were going, but Cloud wanted to see what was trying to bite his face off so he could at least have a chance to either fight or get the hell out of the way.
The flashlight’s yellow light illuminated what once must have been a very grand entryway. A sweeping staircase curved up the righthand wall to a gallery of sorts. The stars shone weakly through leaded glass windows encrusted with a layer of dirt and dust so thick that it was nearly impenetrable. Their footsteps echoed menacingly, magnified in the darkness as they crossed the intricately patterned parquet floor. Spiderwebs crowded the corners, and hung so thickly on the chandelier that it looked like an enormous ball of moldy, gray, cotton candy. Sweeping the beam of his flashlight back and forth, Cloud squinted in the dark for the telltale gleam of eyes watching them from the shadows.
“Now what?” Zack whispered, the heavy silence making talking at full volume seem like a bad idea.
Sephiroth tilted his chin up, green eyes glowing as he cast about the foyer for something that might catch his attention. He reminded Zack of an animal scenting the wind, testing the air for scent and sound that told of danger.
“This way.” Turning, he wandered toward one of the yawning holes of darkness and into the cavern of a side room. There wasn’t much inside, just some old furniture with a collection of vials and books and a lot of dust on top. Their footsteps muffled by the dust coating the floor, the crackle of paper seemed deafening. Stooping, Sephiroth picked up the folded bit of paper.
“/I must get rid of all those who stand in the way of my research, /” he read. “ Even that one from the Turks. I scientifically altered him, and put him to sleep in the basement. If you want to find him, then search the area.
But...this is merely a game I thought of.
There is no need for you to participate if you don’t want to.
The lid of the box with the most oxygen.
Behind the Ivory's short of tea and ray.
The creek in the floor near the chair on the second floor... then to the left five steps, up nine steps, left two steps, and up six steps.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Zack asked.
“Experiments,” Cloud supplied. “The scientists left an experiment in the basement.”
Sephiroth nodded. “Then we must see if he is still there.”
Zack craned his neck, trying to read the note for himself, but it was too dark. “Those sound like clues, but to what?”
“Maybe the answers are hidden in different parts of the house?” Cloud suggested. Sephiroth nodded in agreement.
“Then let’s get started.”
They began on that side of the house, but there didn’t prove to be much else to discover. Crossing the foyer led them to an empty parlour. As the lightest, Cloud volunteered to test the stairs, and made it to the top without incident before waving Zack and Sephiroth forward. The gallery proved remarkably solid if horribly unkempt, like the rest of the building. Unsure what exactly they were looking for, at first the boys found little else but vermin made curious by the presence of visitors.
Sephiroth- perhaps predictably- identified the answer to the first clue in an empty tool chest in what was once the conservatory. A few hardy plants were still alive and growing out of a broken window. Inside the lid of the tool chest someone had written “R36” in black marker.
After fruitless searching for a tea set, it was Cloud who spotted the piano in the corner of the vacant ballroom. Sitting down on the bench, his fingers rippled over the keys in a basic C-major scale. Zack and Sephiroth cringed, and a number of creatures went scurrying away to darker corners a the noise. The instrument was atrociously out of tune, each jangling note vibrating bizarrely as it was struck. Several of the keys did not work at all. It was these Cloud was interested in.
“Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do,” he sang out with each note, and then back again as his right hand traveled back down the keys. “Do, ti, la, so…” The G key made no sound when pressed. Indeed, it did not want to go down at all. Something was wedged in between it and the next key. With a triumphant grin, Cloud wiggled a small piece of folded paper loose.
“L10,” he read, holding the paper up to his flashlight.
“How’d you know that?” Zack asked, impressed. Cloud shrugged modestly.
“I took piano as a kid. ‘Ti’ and ‘re’ are part of the musical scale, but whoever wrote that note spelled them phonetically.”
Sephiroth nodded approvingly and then turned to continue the search. Locating the creak in the floor was a bit of a group effort, but in the end, Cloud shone his flashlight’s beam on “R59” scratched into the wooden floorboard.
The last clue, strangely enough, was blank. Sephiroth frowned at it with such intensity that Cloud was half convinced the aged paper would burst into flames.
“There’s writing there,” he said at length, frustrated, “but I can’t make it out.”
A mental lightbulb went off in Zack’s head and he grabbed the paper from Sephiroth and the flashlight from Cloud’s hand. Instead of shining the light down on the paper, he held the light beneath it. Translucent ghosts of letters appeared spelling out: “R97”.
“Nice work,” Sephiroth told him, giving credit where credit was due. “R36, L10, R59, R97...” he mused. “Sounds like a combination lock.”
“We passed a safe upstairs,” Zack said, remembering. “Let’s go see what’s in it.”
It took a few tries to get the safe open. Once they did, however, Cloud got the distinct impression that they really should have seen that one coming.
The thing that emerged could not have possibly fit in there, yet it came toward them all the same. Zack would accuse Cloud of shrieking later, but Sephiroth would insist that he had not heard any such thing. Half muscle and half plasma, it did not seem to appreciate being disturbed. Automatically Zack and Cloud fell back as Sephiroth stepped forward to take point between them. Light flared as the creature rushed toward them.
“Cloud, don’t be a hero! Stay back!” Zack warned. However, when one of the thing’s tentacles wiggled his way, Cloud sidestepped and swiped at it with his Hardedge. The strike did little more than anger the thing even further, but Zack had to admit the kid had guts. Deciding to finish this quickly, Sephiroth drew Masamune and lunged. The creature let out a hideous noise that was somewhere between a roar and a shriek as the bulging purple muscle of its right side shriveled and vanished, leaving only the ball of neon plasma. The general’s eyes narrowed at it and he took a step back.
“Cover me!” he ordered. Light flared around him as he muttered a chant to cast the spell.
For an incredibly tense twenty-three seconds, Cloud and Zack kept the thing at bay. Cloud only narrowly dodged a powerful ice spell that left a hole in the floor, and Zack caught the stench of burning acrylic when it hurled a fireball at him. At last the general looked up, eyes alight with green fire as he opened his hand and let the spell fly. The creature shrieked again, the sound sharp and drawn out like nails dragged across a blackboard. The sudden descent of the velvet darkness and downy silence of the empty house felt welcoming after the controlled chaos of battle.
“Good job, Cloud-o,” Zack congratulated, giving the kid a thumbs up. He might not have gotten any big hits in, but he hadn’t run from the fight either. If anything, he was a little too eager to rush into danger. That might be because the general was watching, or because the guy was naturally a little reckless. Either way, he’d done his share, and that merited thanks in Zack’s book.
“Thanks,” Cloud gasped, hastily swallowing the last bits of a potion. Zack hadn’t even realized the younger man had taken a hit. Only then did he notice a long red gash on Cloud’s forearm slowly pulling itself back together. A soft, makou-green light enveloped them both, and Zack felt the warm-rain sensation of a cure spell chasing over his skin. The static electricity generated by magic always tickled his nose and he sneezed as the spell faded.
“Everyone alright?” Sephiroth asked, lowering the hand that had cast the spell.
“Fine,” Zack replied. “Was there anything in there besides a face-eating monster?”
“Yes, actually.” Holding up his hand, Sephiroth displayed an iron ring with a number of elaborate, antique keys dangling from it. “I should imagine one of these leads to the basement.”
Sign up to rate and review this story