She tumbled slowly, end over end, her silken tresses drifting around her weightless body, and open hands outstretched into the warm, luminous stream. Imprisoned within a timeless current that had no beginning and no end, she passively observed the spectral images of iridescent color and ethereal sound that coursed unceasingly through her malleable mind.

Her thoughts overflowed with the knowledge imparted through the transitory visions, incomprehensible words and impressions that filled her soul with wonder, but imparted little understanding as to the meaning or purpose of all that she saw. She was an unborn infant that drifted within the cradle of the womb, seeing and hearing everything, yet knowing nothing.

For her, there was no future. No past. She existed in a single frame of reality with no perception of a physical or mental boundary. She harbored no regrets and entertained no desires. An insubstantial spirit buoyed within a current comprised of an endless stream of pristine moments, she was wholly content merely to exist, as her conscious awareness allowed the recognition of only one moment at a time. All the while, her unconscious mind absorbed and retained the knowledge that swirled all about her, drawn from a pool of billions of lifetimes, all the experiences and lore of every creature that had ever lived and died on the planet, the very essence of the Lifestream.

In this manner would she have continued, completely fulfilled, but for the fact that the next moment in that endless chain of time would engender the seeds of drastic change and reintroduce her to the chaos inherent in the nature of existence.

Wrinkles marred her serene brow as an alien sound echoed within her mind, a stone skipped across a still pond, setting the crystalline waters into motion. Curious, she listened intently for the sound again, her thoughts now actively seeking the source, the stream of musical images forgotten. She didn't even realize that the visions had immediately vanished in the face of her inattention.

Again, the sound came and this time remained, resolving into a distant stream of verbal utterances, tinny and discordant, completely undecipherable. As she mentally strained to tease out the meaning of the incoherent words, a lone voice coalesced and strengthened, finally resonating clearly in the silence of her mind. Low and urgent, the string of words whirled inside her head, a continuous and repetitive ribbon of speech that grew increasingly insistent. Discontent drew her serene face into a frown as she recognized what the intrusive voice demanded of her.

"No!" Her eyes flew open to glare fiercely into the green mist around her. The voice fell silent, and she waited. She still sensed the presence beneath her thoughts.

Abruptly, the same voice spoke again, the tone dissonant and stern. She shook her head vehemently at the command.

"No, I don't want to leave!" She cried out with all of her being. "No! Please!"

Her eyes widened as the sonorous voice swelled into a chorus of insistent voices that pressed painfully upon her mind as they tumbled one over another. She futilely pressed her hands against her ears as her relentless mental assailants implored her.

"You must return for the sake of the planet." The sibilant voices hissed. "You are the chosen one…the chosen one…the only one. You must go. You must."

The girl shuddered beneath the weight of their demand as her mind filled with confusion.

"Please...I don't know...what you want! I don't know…where you want me to go!" She cried out, her tortured words swallowed up in the radiant green swirl around her. "I don't want to leave! I won't leave!"

The lone voice spoke again, the tone firm and uncompromising. "You must return, daughter of the Cetra. The evil remains and the other cannot prevail alone. Go now."

Before she could compose another thought in protest, the buoyant stream that had cradled her in peace and comfort suddenly transformed into a rushing tide, a raging storm swell that seemed composed of a hundred skeletal hands that lifted her and bore her away.

She flailed at her unseen captors, but her hands sliced through the incorporeal tormentors who had no physical form to suffer injury. She kicked and screamed as her body shot forward, moving faster with each passing second. Her own frantic thoughts gibbered within her mind, the pitch of the words escalating into a deafening mental scream that sought egress.

Wildly, she flung her terror-filled thoughts outside herself in a desperate quest for anything that would deliver release from this horrid nightmare. Her impassioned plea traversed time and space, rocketing along an invisible connection into the receptive mind of one she knew. A beloved face flashed into her head. An intent pair of blue eyes, filled with a light that radiated great power, captured her tangled senses, and she remembered. She had seen him in the Lifestream, had almost touched him. Then he'd left her, and she had forgotten. Cloud. Overwhelmed with an intense need to touch him, she stretched her hand into the turbulent current as her mind screamed for him to help her. Her fingers trembled as she reached vainly to grasp a presence that existed only within the nebulous realm of her mind. In the next beat of her heart, his face vanished, the fragile union abruptly severed. A cry of anguish tore from her throat as dark desolation at his abandonment swept through the depths of her soul.

Left stumbling in a black void of hopelessness, blind terror bit down on her senses and awareness skittered away from her grasp. She didn't even recognize the moment the invasive hands released her until she slumped heavily to the cold, hard ground. Barely conscious, she turned painfully onto her side and drew herself into a tight ball as she wrapped her arms protectively around her body. She struggled to open her eyes as a few stray thoughts weakly filtered through the shattered landscape of her mind, but the effort was too great. A whisper of breath sighed from her lips as she slipped gently into a warm pool of blessed unconsciousness.

Myron Blackwood stirred uneasily in his sleep, the cool night air chilly against his bare face. He rolled to his side and reached for his wife, but his questing hand found only her crumpled blanket. He cracked open one bleary eye and peered across the floor of the tent. The soft illumination of the full moon that poured through the open canvas flap revealed her absence. He sighed. She was gone again.

Reluctantly, he threw the blanket aside and sat up. He knew he had to look for her. Her recent propensity to roam during the night hadn't been any cause for concern when they had been staying at the Shanghai Inn, but wandering alone in the night up here on this twisted mountain was another matter entirely.

"Nessa?" He called out in the hope that she hadn't gone far. When he received no answer, he reached for his boots.

She heard him call her name, but she could not find her voice to answer. Tears streaked her cheeks as she gazed into the heavens, the millions of diamond-bright stars pricking the black velvet sky. Although she had no idea what time it was, she knew morning wasn't far off, because the stars were always brightest just before dawn.

A fresh tear tracked wetly over her cheek as she listened to him mutter to himself while he rustled around inside the small tent. She knew it wasn't fair. She should tell him. Just get it over with and tell him. But she knew that as soon as she did, everything would change. He would look at her with different eyes, touch her with different hands. Their whole lives would be tainted by it. No, she was not ready. She would tell him once they were there, once they were settled. She would tell him then. She still had time.

Myron finally located his glasses and shoved them on his face. He scrambled through the opening on his hands and knees and climbed to his feet as he quickly searched the clearing. His worried eyes immediately located his wife, her statuesque form clearly visible in the soft moonlight that gleamed over the ridge behind their campsite. He started across the uneven ground toward her, his worn boots crunching against the scatter of tiny rocks beneath his feet.

She heard him coming and quickly rubbed away her tears with the back of her hand. She drew in a quivery breath and half-turned toward him, forcing a tremulous smile to her lips. Her smile gained strength as she watched him approach, and she stretched out her hand to him when he drew near.

"Come watch the stars with me, Myron." She softly urged.

He stopped beside her and took her hand in his as he peered into her serene face.

"Nessa? Are you alright?" He asked anxiously.

"Of course I am." She reassured him, turning her face to the heavens again. "I just wanted to look at the stars."

Myron turned to gaze into the night sky as he slipped his arm around her waist and drew her to him. His eyes automatically turned to the quadrant of the sky to the northeast, looking for the ominous ball of fire that had dominated the heavens there for days. He searched the sky more widely when he didn't find it.

"Is it gone?" He asked hesitantly, almost afraid of the answer.

"Yes." She replied softly. "I think so."

He turned to look into her face again. "Just like you said it would be." He shook his head in wonder. "You never cease to amaze me. How do you know stuff like that?"

A tiny smile touched her lips as her eyes traced the stars in a familiar constellation. "I don't know 'stuff', Myron." She admonished him, a hint of laughter in her soft voice. "I had a fifty-fifty chance of being right, and I'd much rather believe that somehow it would be gone."

"Yeah well…I know better than to buy that malarkey. You've done it to me way too many times in the past." His mouth stretched in a wide grin at the thought. "You know, I might believe that it's just female intuition if I didn't know you were such a witch sometimes." He teased.

She smiled at his taunt. "Watch it, Myron. You still have to travel down the mountain with me. Does the word 'toad' mean anything to you?"

He chuckled when she pinned him with a dark stare, the best imitation of an evil look she could conjure. "Ah, you don't scare me. You'd just kiss me and turn me back into a prince." He wiggled his eyebrows at her, and she lifted her chin and glared imperiously down her nose at him. "Sorry Myron, I only kiss frogs." He snorted, and her snobbish demeanor crumbled as barely suppressed laughter sputtered from her mouth. He smiled as she leaned her head against his.

"Oh, Myron…that joke's so old. Why do we still laugh at it?" She asked, her voice still musical with the ghost of her levity.

"I don't know." He answered softly. "Guess we can't think up any new ones."

A comfortable silence fell between them as Nessa turned her attention back to the stars overhead, and Myron let his mind travel a meandering path that finally led him to disquieting thoughts of their current destination. A familiar and pervasive sense of unease crept into the back of his mind, and he struggled to regain the sense of lightness that his errant thoughts had eclipsed. Partly to chase the knot from the pit of his stomach and partly to see her smile again, he spoke impulsively.

"So…all knowing one…where will we be six months from now?"

He felt her body tense against him, and ice splintered through his veins. He knew it. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. She had been too quiet and too preoccupied lately. He had been worried, but he had pushed his concerns aside, too willing to be mollified by her reassurances. His arm unconsciously tightened around her.

"Nessa..." He began, pausing as he heard the tremble in his voice. He took a breath and tried again. "Is something...wrong?"

As though she hadn't heard his question, she raised her hand to point. "Look, Myron. Do you see Sauronis?" She moved her eyes past to the next brilliant group of stars, her hand tracking along. "...And there is Dirva on her White Dragon...and there..." She paused as the next constellation burned in her memory, bringing bittersweet echoes from the distant past, still powerful nonetheless. "...And there is the..." She swallowed hard as her throat closed and her tears threatened to spill over again. She could feel Myron's eyes on her face. "The...the Rain...dancer." She finally choked out, her voice barely above a whisper.

He dropped his arm from her waist and spun her to face him, unconsciously gripping her wrist too tightly in his fear.

"Dammit Nessa! Tell me what's wrong!" Myron demanded, his voice ringing loud in the still clearing. She winced slightly, more from the sharpness of his tone than from the painfully tight clasp of his fingers, and turned haunted eyes to his face. Still, she did not answer.

"I thought it was the meteor that had you worried, but it isn't is it? Going out at night to who knows where, I thought you were watching it, but it's something else isn't it?" Myron's words ran on like a runaway train, but he was powerless to stop them, fueled as they were by the fear that had driven sharp claws into his heart. "And the Raindancer. You’ve been thinking about him again, haven’t you? All those years of running, never staying in one place. Moving. All the time, moving. And now you want to go there. It's pointless, Nessa. You are never going to know the truth. All you will find is pain. I...I don't want you to be hurt anymore. I don't want you to...I should have...I should have..." His agitated voice stumbled to a stop. His mouth worked as he tried to pour all his nameless fears into speech, but he couldn't form the words. He knew that he wasn’t making any sense anyway. Frustrated, he jerked his head to the side before she saw the tears that burned behind his eyes.

With a sad smile, Nessa lifted her hand and lightly brushed at the stray tendrils of silver-streaked blonde hair that had escaped his ponytail and drifted across his cheek. With a shuttered gaze, he watched her quietly as she pulled the strands through her slender fingers, her eyes awash with unshed tears as she focused on the play of the moonlight in his hair. She moved her arm slightly against his painful grip, and guilt assailed him when he realized how he must have hurt her, although she had never said a word. He let his hand fall away to hang helplessly by his side.

She lifted her freed hand and captured his face between her palms. She centered her attention on his gray eyes, sad behind the thick lens of his spectacles. He wanted to look away from her dark-eyed gaze, afraid that her perceptive mind would see more of his hurt than he wanted her to, but he couldn't. He suddenly had the strangest feeling that if he looked away from her, she might just vanish into thin air. Ridiculous, but there all the same. Her smile faded, and her expression grew more somber the longer she gazed at him.

"Myron..." She finally spoke, her warm voice soft against his ears. "I want you to stop blaming yourself. None of that was your fault." He opened his mouth to protest, but she laid a stern finger against his lips. "No! Years ago, we got caught up in something that was beyond our control. What happened was not your fault. It was not my fault. It was not his fault. Unburden yourself and leave the blame where it belongs, at the front door of the Shinra Tower. There is no point fretting about it now."

"Nessa, I..." Myron started.

"No! Listen to me! You are right. We've spent our whole lives running, probably long after the necessity to do so existed, seeing villains watching from the shadows whether they were there or not, picking up what little we owned at the first twinge of uneasiness and fleeing into the night. But that's just the way things were."

She paused and took a deep breath, her dark brown eyes still locked on his. "I don't think we have to run anymore, Myron. I don't want to run anymore. The Shinras are dead. It's time to stop. Time to rest."

She finally dropped her hands from his face, and drew away from him. With measured step, she walked to the edge of their campsite, where the wide mountain shelf dropped straight down to give a clear view to the valley below. Although the town wasn’t visible at this distance, she stared down into the night-shrouded terrain, narrowed eyes fixed on the place where she knew it to be. Reluctantly, Myron followed to stand behind her.

"I already know the truth, Myron." She spoke again, her voice heavy with the weight of her sadness. "I've always known the truth. Maybe not how or why, but I've always known. That's not why I want to go there now. I just want to settle someplace quiet where we can finally have peace of mind."

He sighed tiredly. "I just think we should go someplace else, anywhere but Nibelheim. Why does it have to be Nibelheim, Nessa?"

"Why not Nibelheim, Myron?" She asked curtly.

He could think of several reasons why not, but he wisely decided to keep them to himself. Instead, he merely nodded his head.

"Okay, Nessa. We'll head there first thing in the morning." He wearily conceded to her will, his words tight with strain. He felt emotionally drained, and suddenly had no other desire than to go back to sleep and forget all this. "Just…come to bed now. It will be morning soon enough."

Nessa turned and drew him to her. He embraced her as she laid her cheek against his and hugged him close.

"I'll be there in a bit, Myron." Her breath tickled his ear as she spoke. "You go ahead. I want to watch the sky a bit longer."

He nodded his head against her cheek. He knew quite well that it would be pointless to argue. "Okay, just be careful. Don't wander too far. There could be a stray dragon around here."

She drew away and smiled. "Don’t worry. The dragons are all asleep. Besides, they will have to look out for themselves."

A reluctant smile formed on his lips in response to her mischievous tone.

"Well, I pray they are smart enough to run at first sight of you." He weakly quipped. "What hope would a poor dragon have against the sharp edge of your tongue?"

He jammed his fists into his pockets and turned away as the tenuous smile faded beneath the hollow ache in the pit of his stomach. She wasn't going to tell him. That had him worried more than anything did, because they didn't keep things from each other. What was in her mind? Was she going to leave him now? After all the years of not having a life, of running and hiding, never having a home or a family, never able to be a part of anything for very long. Had she decided to go?

He knew for a fact that she wouldn't have been with him that night all those years ago if it hadn't been for her own willfulness. She had climbed onto the back of his motorcycle out of spite, and they had roared into the starlit night and wound up in a living hell. He had been 17 years old, and she had only been fifteen. Neither of them ever made it home again. They'd been running ever since.

No, she would never have chosen to spend her life with him if not for the circumstances that kept them together, brought them close in their struggle to survive. On the other hand, he would not have hesitated for one moment to choose her. He had loved her since the very first moment he'd seen her, standing on the curb, her lustrous ebony hair flowing over her slim shoulders and down her back, slender and tall. She had caught him staring, and she had smiled, her dark brown eyes alight with mischief. She bent to climb into the sleek black sedan that waited and winked at him. Then her impatient companion had coaxed her inside as he leveled a cold look at Myron that sent an icy current swirling through his guts. Still, her disdainful escort hadn't deterred him at all. He'd sat his bike at the light and watched the sedan until it rounded the corner, totally oblivious to the honking and cursing around him.

Oh, yes. He loved her. He had always loved her, but he knew quite well that she hadn't loved him. At least, not in the beginning. She had grown to love him over all the years. Thirty-one short years for which they had nothing to show. Now his hair was streaked with strands of gray, and his joints ached at night. She had crow's feet at her eyes, years of laughter scored into her face and wings of white just starting at her temples, stark against her ebony hair. Still as beautiful as she ever was. He didn't think he was strong enough to bear the pain of her leaving him. She was his strength and always had been. His heart ached at the thought of a life without her.

Nessa's sad eyes followed him as he shuffled slowly across the clearing, his shoulders slumped and head bowed, obviously deep in thought. She dropped her gaze to the ground when he paused motionless in front of the tent, as though he'd lost his way. She had hoped he wouldn't realize anything was wrong yet, but she should have known better. She couldn’t hide something like this from him. They had been together so long that they often knew each other's thoughts before they spoke them. Just as she now knew that he was afraid. He thought she would leave him, and he was right.

She wished to return to Nibelheim for only one purpose, but she couldn't bear to tell him yet. She wasn’t even sure how to tell him, but she would. She had to, before he could see for himself. But she still had time. In a few weeks, when things calmed down, then she would tell him that the reason she had come to Nibelheim was to die.

Avian stood silently, his arms crossed against the cool morning air, just a few feet beyond the huddled group of weary rebels. After an efficient and surprisingly uneventful retreat from the unstable airship, the so-called terrorists had all regrouped in front of his Grandma's picket fence to discuss their next step. An outsider to the close-knit team, he stared at the horizon with apparent great interest, but paid little mind to the subtle changes in light and color as the sun moved inexorably toward dawn.

His mind and ears were wholly tuned to the conversation going on behind him, his face a mask of studied disinterest as he raptly listened to their every word. He had thought Captain Highwind the leader of the rebels, but he had noted the shift in command once the group had disembarked, deference now given to the Mako-eyed swordsman with the unruly hair. He marveled at the thought that this young Soldier, who didn't appear to be very much older than he was, could be in charge of this battle-hardened team. What he wouldn't give to be an adventurer and warrior just like him.

The voices behind him ebbed into a low drone as he unconsciously relinquished all attention on the ongoing discussion and turned his mind inward to a life that existed only in his imagination, his refuge from the everyday doldrums of his real life. Once again, he slipped into the world of Avian Wulfe, defender of the Planet and now captain of a mighty ship. Within seconds, the grassy plains around him and the hazy mountains in the distance vanished behind an endless expanse of towering waves and storm-blackened sky. Alone, he braced his legs against the violent movement of the ship’s deck and confronted the immense, silver-scaled serpent that had coiled around the mainmast and now threatened his ship. He lifted his sword as the serpent opened its jaws and lunged for him.

“Hey Kid! Avian!”

Avian visibly started when he heard his name, and the sea monster abruptly vanished back into the twisted maze of his imagination. His face flushed hotly at being caught daydreaming as he spun around to face Captain Highwind. He realized that he would not immediately find out why the Captain had called him as the pilot had already turned his attention away to lock angry glares with the mountainous black man who glowered down into his face. Avian swallowed at the size of the tightly fisted hand clenched at the big man’s side. Nervously, he shifted his feet and eyed the protagonists closely as he waited to see if the battle of wills would erupt into something physical.

"Look Barrett, the kid's house is right here! We been through the battle from Hell and one goddamn rough landing!" Cid argued loudly. Cigarette smoke spiraled from the short butt between his fingers as his hand punctuated his angry words. "Hell, I know we got to get the show on the road, but we need to take care of things first! Damn, we gotta get some rest man!”

"No dammit!" Barrett yelled as his eyes flashed with barely suppressed anger. "We have to go look for Tifa! We can't leave her out there! And I gotta know 'bout Marlene! I gotta see her! Make sure she's all right!"

Cid shook his head as he impatiently shot the cigarette to the ground with a jerk of his hand. He leaned into the Venus Gospel and ground the spark out with the toe of his boot. He looked up into Barrett's angry eyes, and his shoulders slumped beneath the weight of his glare. With a heavy sigh, he shrugged as he let his anger go. Only a sense of weary resignation remained. "Barrett, I want to find 'em too. We all have someone..." Cid paused and dropped his eyes to the ground. "...er...someplace we need to be...but it can't be helped. Our feet are our only transportation, and we aren't going to be very effective if we all drop dead from exhaustion. I'm too @#$# old for this shit!"

He shook his head again and turned his eyes to his hands as he straightened the crumpled cigarette between oil-stained fingers. "Besides, I told ya. I gotta do something about the Lady Luck and Lt. Keith."

Cloud stared off into the distance as he listened to Cid and Barrett argue. The incapacitated Cait Sith dangled by one arm from his left hand, and he idly bumped the limp, furry cybernetic cat against his leg. Unconsciously, his gloved right hand tightened into a fist around the thick leather strap of the heavy rifle that hung from his shoulder while his mind worked on two levels. At the same time that he rolled the ongoing arguments around in his mind, he replayed her hysterical voice over and over again in his memory. Had the voice been real or just a side effect of his head injury? And if it had been real...if he had really heard her scream in his mind...what did it mean? And how did he find out? In the crater...in the Lifestream...her spirit energy had swirled all around him, calm and beautiful. She had reached for him from the green mist, and he had almost touched her again...before he'd been pitched back into his world. He had known, at that moment, that he would see her again in the Promised Land...when he died, and he had been reassured that she was content. So what had happened to her in the Lifestream? She had screamed for his help, but he had no idea how to help her.

"Spike!" Barrett snapped, his deep voice a low growl of impatience. "What the hell?! Are you even listenin'?!"

Cloud turned to find several pairs of eyes locked on his face. For a moment he stared silently back as his mind worked over their next course of action. With a jerk of his shoulders, he straightened his spine when he reached a decision. A wry smile touched his lips as all those around him unconsciously mirrored his action, even the tall kid who had edged closer to the group.

"Okay, Cid is right. We have to get some rest, even if just for an hour or two. Eat, drink and catch a short nap."

Cloud locked his steady gaze on Barrett's defiant glare until Barrett looked away to the horizon with a disgruntled huff. Then Cloud swung his gaze back to each expectant face before him and continued.

"Under the circumstances, time is not really a factor. As Cid pointed out, we have no transportation to rush to anyone's aid. As far as Tifa and Marlene are concerned..." Cloud paused as a tight hand closed around his throat and choked off his voice for a moment. He drew in a slow breath and the sensation eased. "...whatever has happened to them...is done. We have no way to search for Tifa and Vincent right now, and I pray Marlene is safe with Elmyra in Kalm. If they are not...all right..." He paused to clear his throat before he continued. "...Then I can...wait...to find out."

After a moment of total silence, Cloud glanced around the group again to gauge their reactions. Cid nodded slowly as he raised a match to the bent cigarette between his lips. Barrett still stared at the Midgar Mountains in the distance. Nanaki sat quietly on his haunches, his patient eyes fixed on Cloud's face, and the kid stared at him as though he'd never seen him before. Cloud stared back, and the kid turned his eyes away. At any rate, no one seemed inclined to argue at this point, so he went on.

"We are all going to rest here for a few hours." Cloud looked at Avian again. "If it's all right with you."

Avian gaped when the Soldier's attention centered on him. Cloud tilted his head in question, and Avian quickly nodded. "S...s...sure. It's okay with me. We have f...food and a f...few extra beds." Avian stammered nervously. "Y...you c...can stay as long as you want to."

"Great." Cloud smiled at him, and Avian nervously smiled back. "We'll pay you for your trouble...Adrian is it?"

Avian nodded in agreement. "Yeah." Then he stopped and the smile fell from his face. "I mean...no. It's Avian."

"Okay, Avian. We really appreciate your help." Cloud turned back to his comrades. "Okay, we are all going to rest a bit, then I'm going to head for Kalm and see what I can find out. I'll try to dig up some transportation. Maybe I can buy some Chocobos if nothing else turns up." Cloud grinned as a collective groan rose from the group. "Hey, better than the alternative."

"I do not agree. I would rather walk." Nanaki spoke in his matter-of-fact voice.

"Well, you run faster than a chocobo anyway." Cid pointed out. "Until they notice you're around. I oughta take you to the chocobo races. I'd win every one."

Nanaki's tongue lolled over his sharp teeth as he grinned wickedly at Cid. The airship Captain rolled his eyes at the big cat's rare moment of humor and nodded to Cloud to go on.

"Cid, while I'm gone, you can do what you need to in order to stabilize and secure the Highwind, and if you want, I can help with Lt. Keith before I go."

Cid shook his head. "No, Jerol and I will take care of him. We can manage, can't we Jerol?" Cid turned to look at the haggard officer who stood unobtrusively behind him.

Lt. Jerol straightened and raised his chin a notch. "Yessir, we can." He snapped out, his confident voice that of a well-trained Shinra junior officer, now loyal only to the man who had designed the ship on which he served.

Satisfied with his answer, Cid nodded at Jerol and turned back to Cloud. "You go ahead. We got things covered here. I got Barrett and Yuffie if I need some help. Hell! The kid here would probably help if I needed him to. Wouldn't ya kid?" Cid pinned Avian with his intense blue eyes, releasing smoke from his nostrils as he waited for the kid's agreement.

Avian nodded slowly in response, totally afraid to refuse beneath the azure heat of his stare. He wondered just what he might be getting himself into. Still, he might learn a thing or two hanging out with Captain Highwind and his crew. And now that the Captain had mentioned her, where had that vicious creature called Yuffie gone? He hadn't seen a glimpse of her since she had resurrected herself from death's doorstep and disappeared from the bridge.

He tentatively touched his bruised nose at the thought of her abrupt recovery, his eyes nervously skimming over the surrounding terrain. When he found no sign of her out there, he turned slowly until his eyes came to rest on the two-story farmhouse behind him. The damage to the house and the widely scattered debris across the roof and yard were clearly visible in the bright morning light from the newly risen sun, but he saw no trace of the hellion anywhere. He then turned his regard to the crippled airship. Perhaps she had not left the ship after all.

"Well, kid?!" Cid barked, his voice sharp in the crisp morning air. Avian jerked his wide-eyed gaze back to the Captain's face, his mind floundering to recall the question he was supposed to answer. "Can I count on ya?" Cid asked, lowering his voice a bit at the total confusion on the young man's face.

Avian's face brightened as he suddenly remembered that the Captain had asked him to help with the airship. He nodded his head briskly. "Yes Captain Highwind, I'll do my best to help."

A slight smile touched Cid's lips at the kid's enthusiastic reply. "Yeah, well don't call me Captain Highwind. You can call me Captain or you can call me Highwind, but not Captain Highwind."

Avian's brows drew into a frown as he puzzled over the strange request, but the Captain enlightened him before he could find a polite way to ask.

"Feel like I'm back in *@$*# Shinra again when I hear that."

"Can we get this show on the road if we're gonna? We're wastin' time." Barrett growled irritably.

Cloud nodded. "So, everyone's in agreement then?" He locked eyes with Barrett first and waited quietly for the big man's reply. Barrett wanted to tell him to forget it. That he was gonna go to Kalm himself, but he knew Cloud could get there pretty damn fast afoot. His Jenova and Mako-enhanced body provided him with a fast recovery time and an unbelievable amount of stamina, and he felt like a train had hit him. His body ached with exhaustion. He knew that if he didn't rest, he would keel over. Finally, Barrett reluctantly nodded. "Yeah, you're right Cloud. We need to rest and find out what's what."

Cloud turned to Nanaki who yawned widely, then gave him a silent nod. All he wanted to do was curl up on a rug somewhere and sleep.

Although Cid had already agreed to the plan, Cloud glanced at him and received a slight nod of assent from him as well as a short salute from Jerol.

Cloud scanned the faces before him once again and realized that one was missing.

"Where's Yuffie?"

Still wondering the same thing himself, Avian held his breath as he waited for someone to clear up this little mystery. He would really like to know where that girl had gotten to.

"I imagine she's already made herself at home." Cid waved his cigarette toward the house. "You know how she is. Whatever is hers is hers and whatever is yours is hers."

Avian's eyes flew wide in alarm, and he spun toward the house, his mind wildly racing with vivid images of what that hateful girl could be doing inside. He'd forgotten about Grandma too, in all the excitement. He should at least warn these people about her before they came in, but the thought of Yuffie inside the house with his poor nutty Grandma overcame him. Driven by a sense of impending doom, he sprang into motion.

The members of Avalanche stared in awe as the lanky youth raced toward the house, vaulted the wooden gate, dodged frantically through the junk in the front yard and flung himself through the door, barely turning the old knob in time to save himself from serious injury.

Cloud scratched his head at the kid's unannounced and frenetic departure. With a shrug, he walked up to the gate and unlatched it, turning back to the group behind him as the gate swung open with a loud creak.

"Well, there's no point in staying out here." He stepped through the gate and turned toward the front door as the rest of the group fell wearily in behind.

"Look's like the door's open. Let's go."

Her empty eyes stared widely and unblinking into the darkness, as void of thought or emotion as the interior of her dead mind. The limp girl seemed as lifeless as the cold ground beneath her. Yet somewhere in the depths of her buried imagination, somewhere deep below all the frozen thoughts and seized emotions and locked memory, she danced.

She danced in the arms of a man with vibrant blue eyes and a gentle smile. Her waist-length, auburn-colored hair floated around them as he whirled her across the luminous green dance floor. Joy sang in her heart. Here she would forever stay, dancing until the end of time.

Her blind eyes stared as a spiral of verdant light swirled from the mako pool beside her still body. As the seconds passed, more and more tendrils of bright green swirled into existence and twined together, weaving and shaping until a figure stood before her. Still, she danced deep within her psyche, her inert mind oblivious to the luminous presence reflected in the mirror of her frozen pupils.

The entity knelt before her and smiled sadly at the vacant stare of the beautiful green eyes. A hand, only slightly transparent, reached to stroke the soft coils of hair that fell all about the crumpled form. Delicate fingers traced the girl's soft cheek and finally came to rest on her still brow.

At the soft contact, the girl blinked, her mental processes slowly reactivating in response to a soft voice that touched her mind through a fragile psychic connection.

"My beautiful child..." the voice breathed within her senses. "My beautiful baby." Anxiety welled within the girl's mind at the mental intrusion, despite the gentle tone of the words. She struggled to move her limbs, to run away, but she could not stir any part of her body.

"No, child. Please do not be afraid. I would never hurt you." The soft voice reassured as gentle fingers stroked her cheek. The girl blinked again and a warm, beautiful face floated blearily in her vision as her eyes labored to focus. Inexorably, awareness and thought coalesced in her mind until she gradually regained full possession of her senses. Her eyes widened in wonder as a pale face, framed by a fall of thick auburn hair, finally jumped into focus. Her thoughts stilled as she gazed into the tranquil visage, drawn to the sweet smile and ethereal green eyes that glowed with warmth and wisdom.

The girl's distress completely vanished beneath the woman's serene, loving gaze, and her heart filled with peace as the voice spoke softly within her mind again.

"My sweet daughter…how I've missed you."

"A...Are you my...mother?" She whispered, not even daring to hope that it might be true.

The smile widened. "Yes, I am. Do you remember me?"

Moments passed as the girl stared at the unfamiliar face and searched her memory until she finally realized that she could not recall a single thing about a mother.

She closed her eyes. "No, I...I'm sorry. I don't. I...I don't remember you." She whispered hesitantly as apprehension crept back into her mind. "I don't even know where I am."

Sorrow filled the woman's eyes as she murmured wistfully within the girl’s thoughts. "I'm sorry. I wish I could stay and help you, but I was allowed this contact only to give you a message. Then I must go."

"No! I don't want you to go. I don't want to be alone." The girl replied aloud, her hoarse voice ripe with unshed tears.

"I know...I don't want to go, but I have no choice and neither do you. You were chosen to return because the Planet is still in danger, and you had not yet crossed over." The melodious voice grew soft as she spoke.

"I...I don't understand! What danger?! What can I do?!" The girl cried out. "I don't know what to do!"

"In time, you will understand." Her mother soothed. "The danger is not yet clear. Just remember this."

The girl gasped as a vivid image filled her mind, an image of a wall of...eyes? Yes, hundreds of eyes stared coldly from a vertical stone palisade that rose precipitously from the edge of a glassine sea. She focused her mind on the vision as it began to fade.

"What is this place?" She asked anxiously as the image vanished completely.

To her dismay, she realized that the face of her mother had not returned after the wall of eyes disappeared.

"Mother?!" Although the face had been that of a stranger, the woman exuded such love and protectiveness that the girl felt safe and wanted. Now she was gone. Had she even been real? The girl's heart ached in the empty void left behind her. Hot tears sprang to her eyes and ran silently over her face.

"Don't cry...." The soft voice spoke distantly in her mind. Immediately, the girl sent her thoughts in search of the beautiful face, but the woman...her mother...was nowhere to be found. "Sleep, child. Rest. Someone will come." The voice grew further away with each syllable uttered.

"Please come back." The girl begged within her mind.

"I can't, but I will be with you...always. Jusssst...remembbbbeeeerrrr... Zafallaaaaahhhh......" The voice drew out as though the words were spoken from deep within a bottomless abyss, then died completely away.

Zafallah? Was that what her mother had said? Was that the place of stark eyes she had shown her? Suddenly, she decided she didn't want to think about it anymore. She just wanted to slip into the mindless oblivion of sleep and forget.

She closed her eyes and waited, but she soon realized that sleep wasn't going to come easily. Too many questions teased her mind. A distant night bird called out, a mournful cry that resonated deep in her soul. Opening her eyes again, she stared into the soft glow from the Mako pool and blinked back her tears as the empty darkness pressed in from all sides.

The bird cried out again, much closer this time, and the girl turned her head to stare into the star-filled sky as a strong feeling of vulnerability assailed her. Abruptly, she rolled to her stomach and tried to push herself up. Laboriously, she rose to her hands and knees and froze as her arms began to tremble weakly beneath her weight. Moments passed as she marshaled what little energy she could find until she felt strong enough to forge ahead. Carefully, she crawled away from the edge of the glowing pool and slipped into the darkness, pausing only to rest momentarily when she felt herself falter. By slow degrees, she inched across the cold stone ground and twisted roots until her palms touched a patch of dead grass near the cliff wall. With a sigh of relief, she collapsed onto her stomach, all her strength spent in her endless journey. She turned her face into the luxurious bed of dried vegetation and drew her body into a tight fetal position once again. Now truly exhausted, her eyes drooped closed of their own accord and a pleasant buzz grew in her head. Seconds later, she fell into a sound, dreamless sleep.

Nessa drew her shawl more tightly around her thin shoulders and stepped out onto the beaten trail that wound sinuously through the spiny mountain terrain. She paused for a moment and glanced back toward the tent. She hoped Myron had fallen asleep again and wouldn't miss her. She knew quite well that he would object to her leaving the campsite, but she also knew that sleep would evade her. Most nights, she stayed awake staring wide-eyed into the darkness as the pain twisted viciously through her guts, and Nessa knew that tonight would be no different. Besides, she wanted to go back down the trail and revisit the enclosed clearing they'd passed through just before dusk. She didn't expect to ever come into the Nibel Mountains again, and she was curious about the strange place, trapped as it was, in the middle of a ridge.

The moon had finally descended behind the horned mountain rim, but the eastern sky had lightened enough that she could still make out the path. Quickly, she retraced her steps, meticulously watching the path beneath her feet as she moved over the smoothly worn ground, passing through the twisted shadows cast by the peculiar spiky horns that marked the Nibel Mountain terrain.

Nessa paused when she came to the first bend in the trail where the path curved between an immense boulder and the dark shoulder of the mountainside. The murky gloom swallowed the path completely, and she stared uncertainly into the dim corridor as doubts assailed her. For a moment, she stood frozen in indecision as her desire to see the extraordinary pool again warred with her strong compulsion to turn tail and race back to her bed. She glanced back down the trail toward the campsite and considered going back for the lantern, but she decided against the idea when she realized that she would probably wake Myron when she entered the tent. Instead, she squared her shoulders and stepped into the darkness.

Choosing her steps carefully, Nessa let her hand slide along the cool stone wall to guide her way as she stubbornly focused her mind on the feel of her boots against the ground. As she crept along, she chided herself for her silly fear of dark, close places. She could face down a muscle bound bully in a tavern, but the prospect of entering a dark room alone turned her legs to rubber. Even now, she felt as though the black walls were moving in to bury her, and she fought the sharp edge of panic that threatened to overwhelm her as her heart pounded in her chest.

Just when she thought her unreasonable fear would overcome her good sense and send her racing mindlessly back to camp, the trail curved again, and she finally emerged into the pre-dawn light, a sigh of relief slipping unheeded over her lips.

From that point, she wasted no time. The path described a fairly straight line up the mountain from there, and she took advantage of it, setting a rapid pace just short of a trot, although her bad knee protested as the slope rose precipitously. Moments later, she stood before the cave opening, the eerie illumination from within staining her face and hands a pale shade of green.

Without hesitation, she crossed the threshold and entered the labyrinthine passage within. The trail now meandered and twisted through the crystalline cavern, but she was not worried about losing her way in one of the many side tunnels. The path was well worn from the footsteps of many travelers and generously lit from the eerie glow that radiated from all around her, a product of the Mako deposits buried within the stone.

On the other hand, she did have to worry about a chance encounter with a Nibel Dragon. The beasts were known to inhabit the deep recesses of the honeycombed tunnels, and she prayed that all the dragons still slept. Although she had made light of Myron's warning earlier, she did not want to see one. She had no way to fight off a Nibel dragon if one should appear. Still, the thought of seeing one did little to deter her. In the first place, she was already dying, and the prospect of a more sudden death did not frighten her too much, especially since a strong feeling that she needed to reach her destination possessed her and drove her onward. Her steps quickened the further she traversed the twisted footpath until she finally spotted the exit of the cavern, the opening darkly silhouetted against the soft morning light from outside.

She paused beneath the stone arch and carefully examined the clearing, her eyes tracing every rock and twisted tree. Thick roots covered the silt-covered floor of the hidden basin, and dried vegetation decorated the spaces in between. With bated breath, she closed her eyes and listened to the silence, turning her face into the soft breeze that slipped over the ridge above. Eventually, she opened her eyes again and lifted her gaze to the sharp edge of the rim against the pink sky where a few stubborn stars still sparkled bravely in the soft light overhead. Nessa sighed then and focused her attention on the small pool of Mako in the center of the natural enclosure, the substance emitting a soft glow in the dimness of the lingering night shadows. This was the reason she had returned.

Slowly, she walked to the edge of the pool and knelt. Sitting back on her heels, she peered into the swirling depths of the misty liquid. Her eyes narrowed as she strained to see deep within, searching for...something. What? What did she hope to find here? She yearned for something that seemed beyond her reach. Reverently, she reached out and tentatively touched the surface of the pool. A vapor rose from the luminous fluid as she drew her finger towards her, marveling at the strange feel of the Mako, a liquid that seemed without moisture, a sensation that made her skin tingle, but nothing else. She pulled her hand from the pool and wiped her fingers against her skirt even though they were still clean. She felt restive and empty.

Nessa leaned back again and turned her thoughts inward, her vision filled with the soft, misty green of the Mako. What had she hoped to find here? What did she seek? Peace? Absolution? Salvation? Time?

Yes, all of those things and none of them. At this moment in time, if she could have one wish fulfilled...then all she really wanted was to go back and undo the past, the long ago past, that one stupid decision that had changed everything. That was all she wanted, and something she could never have. Her actions had been disastrous and irrevocable. She may not have wielded the blow, but he was dead because of her. They killed him because of her stubborn and selfish behavior, and she could never bring him back.

Nessa bowed her head and searched her memory for his face. Hot tears burned in her eyes when she failed to bring his image to her mind. How could she have forgotten how he looked? Bitter regret welled within her, squeezing vengeful fingers around her heart until she thought that beleaguered organ would shatter. Blind with pain, she fell to her hands and knees as the aching sorrow inside burst forth in soul-wrenching sobs. Her long braid tumbled limply over her shoulder to coil in the dirt beside her as she rocked back and forth, her head so low that her face nearly brushed the ground. The tears streamed down her cheeks to splatter against the earth as her grief echoed around her walled refuge, the sound of her throat-searing wails harsh against her own ears.

She clenched her teeth in an attempt to choke off her sobs; clenched them until her jaw ached, but they breached that feeble barricade and welled from her raw throat again. Eventually, she sat back on her heels and huddled into her crossed arms, raising her blurred eyes to the sky as the emotional tempest that had taken her unaware ebbed away to leave her trembling and weak in its wake.

Time passed as her mind drifted aimlessly, the tomblike silence around her broken only by an occasional spasmodic hiccup until even that last vestige of sorrow ceased, and she grew still, a quiescent figure in a place of tranquility. Finally, she raised her head and drew in a shuddering breath. She felt drained but peaceful. So many years had passed since she'd cried for his pain...for her loss. She had kept too much bottled up inside, keeping her emotions at bay, always being strong. Now it seemed that her knowledge that she would die seemed to have drawn all the pain to the surface, brought him nearer to her, even though she still could not conjure his face in her mind.

A faint sound intruded on her thoughts, and she lifted her head sharply, attuned to her surroundings once again. She realized with surprise that quite a bit of time had passed. The sunlight liberally bathed the isolated clearing with warm light, setting the Mako pool aglitter with dancing sparkles. All the resistant nighttime shadows had fled before the invasion of day.

Again, the sound came and she recognized her name, a faint echo that seemed to have been called from the bottom of a well. Myron. He had missed her and now he was looking for her. And, no wonder. She had been here for a long time. It was time to leave. Slowly, she stood and stretched her stiff limbs as she glanced around one last time. She didn't expect to ever see this place again. She smiled sadly. At least she had regained some peace of mind here.

She turned toward the cave opening and froze when her eyes fell on a shapeless form, partially obscured between the great twisted roots that covered the whole area. She took several hesitant steps until she reached an angle where she could see and gasped aloud when she realized that the crumpled form was that of a girl. She ran forward and dropped to her knees beside her. Carefully, Nessa pulled away the thick hair that had fallen over the girl's face, and found herself looking into a glazed pair of vivid green eyes.

Nessa's heart fell as she reached to touch her cheek, expecting the skin to be cold beneath her fingers, but was pleasantly surprised to find the girl warm and alive. She leaned over her and patted a pale cheek, and the girl blinked.

Drawn from her deep reverie by the soft touch, the girl peered into the face above her. Slowly she let her eyes travel over the high cheekbones, still streaked with tears, to the gentle curve of a reassuring smile. She took in the glossy ebony braid that fell over the woman's shoulder and the bright threads of silver at the temple that framed her face. Warm brown eyes, full of gentle concern, gazed curiously at her. The girl sensed nothing about the woman that was familiar, yet knew there was nothing to fear from her.

"Who are you?" The girl whispered hoarsely. "Do I know you?"

"No. You don't know me." Nessa answered uncertainly, a bit puzzled by the question. "Are you hurt?"

The girl lowered her eyes as she turned her attention within, using her mind to undertake a mental scan of her physical state. After a moment, she returned her gaze to the woman's anxious face and smiled.

"Yes, I'm fine...just a bit weak. I think I just need to rest and regain my strength."

Nessa glanced around nervously. She realized that finding this girl here in such an isolated place was very unusual, and she was naturally paranoid.

"Are you alone here?" Nessa queried.

The girl's eyes clouded with sadness, and she nodded slowly. "Yes, I'm all alone."

"What happened? How did you come to be here?" Nessa questioned further, wincing at the sharpness in her own voice.

"I...I don't...know." The girl whispered, a flicker of fear moving behind her eyes. "I don't even...know where...this is!" She cried out, her distress evident in her voice.

"Ssssh, child." Nessa soothed, careful to keep her tone calm this time. "Whatever's happened to you, we'll figure it out. Can you tell me your name?"

"Yes, it's...it's..." The girl's voice faded as she searched her mind for her name. Her brows drew together as she struggled to remember until a word finally flew into her mind. Zafallah. Her name? No, that wasn't it. That was a...place. A place of staring eyes. What was her name? She didn't even know who she was. A sense of utter despair swooped in upon her, and she buried her face in her hands as sudden tears burned from her eyes.

"I don't know! I don't know who I am!" She cried out brokenly.

Nessa drew the weeping girl into her arms and cradled her, gently rocking her until the torrential tears gave way to an occasional sniffle. She drew away as the girl stirred, turning her wet face upward to stare at the sky overhead.

"I'm no one." She whispered.

Nessa realized that whatever had happened to this poor girl, she must have developed amnesia, possibly to forget some horrible thing that had befallen her. She reached for the girl's hand that had fallen limply into her lap, resting against the sodden and stained pink dress she wore. She lifted the cool fingers and clasped them tightly within her own hand, and the girl turned her pain-filled eyes back to look into Nessa's face.

"You are somebody." Nessa tried to reassure her. "You just don't remember who you are, that's all. But you will."

The girl stared at her uncertainly. "Do you think so?" She asked, her voice tiny in the quiet clearing, as though she were afraid that if she spoke too loudly, all hope would vanish into thin air.

"Yes, I believe you will." Nessa spoke, letting confidence fill her voice even though she had no way of knowing if the child would ever regain her memory. "Until then, you can come with me to Nibelheim, if you want to."

"Nibel...heim?" The girl questioned, an edge of fear slipping into her small voice.

Nessa raised one questioning eyebrow. "Yes, do you know of Nibelheim?"

The girl was silent for so long that Nessa thought she wasn't going to answer her, but finally she shook her head slowly.

"No, I don't know it." She replied vaguely. Then she smiled. "But I would like to go with you, if I won't be too much trouble."

Nessa's heart warmed to see the girl smile, and she returned the smile as she squeezed the girl's hand. "No. I would love for you to come. We should be going though. My husband is probably worried about me, and we need to get on down the mountain before the wildlife around here decides to wake up. Do you think you can walk?"

At her question, the girl nodded her head, and Nessa rose to stand as the girl turned her hand in Nessa's and gripped her fingers, rising to stand shakily beside her.


Both Nessa and the girl turned when Myron burst into the clearing, out of breath and red-faced, loose tendrils of hair falling every which way. He stopped in his tracks to gape at the two women.

Before he could catch his breath to speak, Nessa started toward him with the girl firmly in tow. She stopped when the girl stumbled against her, and Myron quickly crossed the space to reach them. He pinned Nessa with a look that contained at least a hundred questions, but he remained silent at a warning shake of his wife's head.

"Myron, this is...." Nessa stopped. The girl could not remember her name, but they had to call her something. Myron watched her closely as she shuffled through a mental catalogue of names, searching for just the right one. Unconsciously, Nessa turned and gazed at the girl's face. The one thing that struck Nessa about her was the fact that although she seemed a helpless waif, the girl exuded an aura of strength and serenity that belied that impression, qualities that reminded her of a beloved presence from long, long ago.

"...Maya." Nessa turned to look at the girl as she spoke, and the girl gave her a brilliant smile. "And Maya, this is my husband, Myron."

"Maya!?" Myron blurted out before he managed to clamp his mouth shut. "Er...yes...Maya. I'm pleased to meet you." He turned to Nessa and spoke more urgently. "We need to get going. I heard something large moving around in the caverns, but I couldn't tell where. That twisted maze of tunnels makes sound travel in weird directions. I have everything packed up. We just have to move."

Nessa nodded as she glanced around nervously. She wanted to get this poor girl off the mountain as soon as possible, certainly before a dragon decided to turn them into breakfast.

"Okay, Myron. Let's go." Nessa turned toward the cave, leading the girl she had named Maya alongside her. Maya took a few wobbly steps and stumbled again, nearly going down to one knee until Myron grabbed her elbow and pulled her up. He looked at Nessa over the girl's head, then wrapped an arm around Maya's waist. He felt a strong compulsion to get the hell out of this place, and he would carry the girl if he had to.

Myron's anxiety was either infectious or Nessa sensed the same thing he did. She quickly draped her arm around Maya's waist as well, and the girl instinctively raised her hand to each one's shoulder as they started toward the cave entrance. Maya shambled along between them with their support.

In this manner, they entered the serpentine passageway and progressed quickly through the madly twisted green tunnel, merely lifting Maya to her feet when she stumbled. As they traveled Nessa glanced at the girl occasionally, only to find her bright green eyes focused in awe on the luminous stone walls as they passed through. Although the girl seemed oblivious to the potential danger around them, Nessa's anxiety level rose the deeper into the cave they moved. She glanced nervously at the dark opening of each tunnel branch they passed.

They moved silently except for an occasional giggle from Maya when they would lift her off her feet as they hurried. Nessa had about decided that they'd somehow taken a wrong turn when she finally caught a glimpse of daylight. She should feel relieved that they were nearly there, but a chill crawled up her spine instead. She glanced back over her shoulder, but nothing was there. She wanted to laugh at her silliness, but couldn't bring herself to. Something was back there.

"Myron?" He looked into her implacable eyes and his blood froze. "Let's run." She spoke with quiet authority, and he didn't pause to question. Together, they lifted the girl off her feet and broke into an awkward run. Maya dug her fingers into each shoulder and closed her eyes tightly, any urge to giggle long gone.

They were only a few steps from the exit when the tremendous roar came from behind, a deafening challenge to their presence that seemed to make the walls around them tremble. Nessa knew the trembling came from inside her. The beast roared again, a battle cry that ripped the air apart around them. The girl screamed in terror.

"Good heavens, run Myron!" Nessa yelled as she poured on steam. She had never seen a Nibel Mountain Dragon, and she really had no desire to see one now.

They burst from the cave opening, and hurried down the trail, their pace slowed to a stumbling run as they carried Maya between them. Nessa prayed the dragon would be too lazy to follow them out of the cave, but the maddened cry close behind proved her silent entreaty to be in vain. She knew now that they wouldn't make it. She was nearly done in. Her lungs burned as she tried to drag enough oxygen in, and her legs ached from the unaccustomed exertion. A quick glance at Myron told her that he was worse. His glasses had slid down until they were barely balanced on the end of his nose and his face had turned beet red. Each time his foot hit the ground, his back bent a little lower.

Then the inevitable happened. He stumbled and went down, taking the girl with him. Nessa let go and whirled in the trail to face the beast that she had hoped never to see. She had nothing to fight with. She had even left her walking stick back at the campsite. Her mouth dropped as she stared in awe at the magnificent creature as it moved smoothly and rapidly toward her, sleek and fluid for such a huge animal. Its bright scales glittered with rainbow iridescence in the morning light and smoke puffed from its nostrils with each snort of its breath. The creature held a pair of great wings aloft over its serrate spine, as though it might lift itself into the air and pounce. Her breath still ragged in her throat, Nessa took a step toward the dragon and drew in a long breath to steady her voice. Then she spoke without a glance back.

"Run, Myron. Take Maya and run." She commanded, her hard voice leaving no room for argument. She took another step toward the creature, and the beast slowed as she came nearer. Her plan was simple. She would distract the dragon, and they could get away. Of course, she realized that she would probably wind up in its belly, but she would die anyway. This was quicker, and maybe Myron could deal with it better. At least this way, her death would mean something.

She took another step, and flinched when the dragon's roar tore through the morning air, rending everything silent in its wake.

"Nessa!" Myron yelled, his voice as hard as hers had been. "I will not leave you!" He pushed himself to his feet and stumbled toward her, clutching a fist tightly against his chest. She whirled on him, her eyes almost black with her anger. "GO! Take the girl and get her off the mountain!" She raised her hand to shove him away, but he grabbed her wrist and yanked her toward him, using her momentum to fling her behind. Nessa landed on her hands and knees beside Maya. Myron shoved his glasses up his nose and straightened, letting his empty and trembling hands fall to his side. He lifted his shoulders and resolutely stood in the middle of the trail.

"Damn you, Myron!" Nessa yelled. This was not his time, and she was not going to allow him to commit suicide. She wanted him to live. She leapt to her feet. Adrenaline, fueled by desperation, pumped new life through her body. She jumped forward and reached out with the intention of snatching him from harm's way, but a firm hand on her arm stayed her. She swung a dark look at the face of the girl beside her, a sharp reprimand on the tip of her tongue, but froze speechless as the girl's serene gaze captured her. Nessa stared as the girl brushed by her and slowly walked forward, her steps careful and measured.

Without a word, Maya walked around Myron, who turned to stare owlishly at her from behind his glasses, and halted directly in front of him on the trail. She tilted her chin as though to stare the dragon down and calmly waited, a tranquil figure in sharp contrast to the confused, frightened girl Nessa had found.

The picture burned in Nessa's brain, the inane scene crystallized in a single moment. She couldn't seem to shake off her stupor to move or speak. Myron stood behind the girl, a statue with hand half-raised to drag her back. Maya stood tall and silent, just a slip of a girl in a sodden dress with thick curls of auburn-colored hair tumbling down her back. Even the dragon paused in its tracks, the formidable looking beast seemingly bemused by the strange behavior of the humans before it.

Whatever the dragon thought, it didn't tarry long. With a snap of its massive tail, it threw out its head and roared, the din shaking Nessa to her very core and giving her the impetus she needed to move. "No!" She cried out. She sprang forward even as the immense beast charged. She intended to stop this child from throwing her life away even though she recognized that none of them would survive now. It was too late.

In the blink of an eye, she stood beside Maya, but the dragon was nearly upon them. There was no where to go. Myron's hand fell on her shoulder, and she reached up and laid her fingers over his, knowing this was the last time she would ever touch him. Her heart slammed into her throat at the sight of the dragon's maw gaped wide open to devour them. How could she ever have thought she would rather die this way? She averted her face, and her anxious eyes locked on the serene face of the girl beside her.

Maya had bowed her head, as though in prayer to a higher power or perhaps supplication to the hungry beast that would kill her. The dragon snorted and a blast of fetid air hit her in the face. Clinching her jaw to keep from gagging, Nessa squeezed her eyes shut and bowed her own head as she felt Myron's fingers dig painfully into her shoulder.

In the next second, when Nessa was positive they would die, a brilliant light flared, visible against her pupils even though her eyelids were tightly closed. She squinted into the painfully bright aura that completely surrounded them and lifted her stunned gaze to the dragon that stood before them, it's gaping mouth so close that Nessa could see the small bones of some unfortunate animal stuck between its slavering fangs. The dragon roared and lowered its head. Nessa stumbled backward against Myron as the dragon spewed twin plumes of fiery flame from its nostrils at point blank range. His arms closed around her waist and held her close as she stared, unscathed, into the inferno.

Nessa whipped her head to gaze at the girl as she realized that the flames could not touch them. In fact, she could not even feel the heat, and she knew it was because of the shimmering light that held them within. Maya still stood with her head bowed and her hands clasped before her, seemingly oblivious to all the chaos around her. Nessa heard Myron gasp behind her as the dragon spun and whipped the long, thick tail against them in an attempt to sweep them off their feet. Still, she didn't take her eyes off the girl, confident that the shield Maya had somehow erected around them would hold. For she had absolutely no doubt that this young girl had created this miracle.

Its tail brought up short by the translucent but impenetrable wall, the dragon roared in anger, and swept them with another harmless flame attack. Then he charged, only to slam ineffectively into the barrier of light. Enraged, the dragon reared and slashed futilely at the impudent creatures, even his vociferous protest muted by their sparkling fortress. Nessa noticed with alarm that the girl had begun to tremble, and she realized then that maintaining the shield must strain her mental and physical resources. She feared that the girl would falter before the dragon would. She wanted to touch her, to reassure her that she was not alone, but she was afraid the contact would break the girl's concentration.

Suddenly, Maya raised her head and her eyes flew wide, her emerald irises aglow as she sharply brought her clasped hands down before her. Nessa cried out as a searing bolt of lightning shot through the barrier to strike the dragon squarely on its snout. The dragon roared in pain, and retaliated, biting viciously at them, but its hungry fangs found no purchase. Again, Maya jerked her clasped hands downward, and another lightning bolt flashed out, burning a path into the dragon's mouth. The dragon bellowed in pain and rage as it wildly tossed its head, stumbling backwards in the trail.

“Leave Dragon…leave…please just leave…go away…scram…” Nessa’s lips moved as she silently pleaded with the great beast, but her thoughts froze when the dragon gathered its scattered senses and lowered its head, fiery red eyes locked on target. Then the beast spread its wings and charged, moving quickly despite its bulk, powerful muscles rippling beneath the leathery hide. Nessa gasped aloud when the heavy body slammed into the barrier full force, and their shield of light flickered wildly, but held. Due to the force of its impact, the dragon rebounded backwards several feet and fell to its haunches.

“It won’t hold again.” Myron whispered behind her. She drew in a shaky breath and nodded her head in agreement as she watched the dragon lumber to its clawed feet and back away.

The stubborn beast raised its snout and snorted acrid smoke in their direction, then lowered its head again. Nessa’s throat tightened as she waited for the dragon to charge, but the dragon suddenly turned in the trail. With one last baleful look at this invincible enemy, it moved off, obviously deciding they were not worth any more of its time or trouble. Nessa let out the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding as the dragon folded its wings and lumbered away, its limp tail scoring a track in the dirt behind it as it retreated.

Her legs nearly buckled with relief, and she slumped against Myron as she turned her eyes to Maya. The girl trembled like a leaf in a strong wind now, though the barrier still shone as brightly. Not until the dragon disappeared into the cavern did Maya relinquish the spell. She dropped her hands and sagged into Nessa's arms. Digging her nails into Nessa’s shoulder, the girl struggled to push herself back, determined to stand on her own.

Finally achieving her goal, the girl drew away, a bit wobbly but on her feet. Nessa turned appraising eyes on Myron, who had not spoken a word since the dragon had retreated, only to discover him standing slump-shouldered behind her, nervous eyes fixed on the girl's haggard face. She suspected he probably felt as she did, that they had just been thrown into a strange dream or some other dimension in time or space. Obviously, there was a lot more to this lost girl than was immediately apparent. Nessa swallowed hard as a chill shot up her spine. What had she gotten them into here? Myron's eyes reflected what she felt, relief and fear.

"How in hell did you do that?!" Myron finally blurted out, his hard stare still fixed on the girl's face. Nessa shook her head in warning as the girl dropped her head to stare at her scuffed boots. Myron pointedly ignored his wife, and she remained silent. She too was curious as to what the girl would say.

“Well?” Myron prompted, his voice taut with suspicion. “What was that...light thing that you did?”

The girl shook her head sadly, her face shadowed by her loose tresses. "I don't...know how I did...that." She finally answered, her voice so small that Nessa had to strain to hear her words. "I just...just..." She looked up to meet Myron's stare, her own eyes full of fear and a plea of understanding. "It just came to me...that I could.” Maya feared her new friends would no longer want her with them. She could not remember who she was or why she was here, but she knew that what she had just done was unusual. Their reactions told her that.

"Please don't be angry with me." She pleaded. Her stomach twisted in a tight knot at the thought of being alone.

Impulsively, Nessa hugged the girl to her. "We aren't angry with you. You just saved our lives, child." The girl turned watery eyes upward to fasten on Nessa's gentle smile. "We were just…startled. That's all. We've never seen anyone do that before. Do you understand?" Maya nodded her head slowly. Then a brilliant smile lit up her face in response to Nessa’s words, chasing the anxiety from her green eyes. Nessa mentally berated herself for ever thinking this young woman a person to fear, concerns that Maya had definitely sensed. A glance at Myron's dubious face told her that he had not reached the same conclusion, but any more discussion would have to wait.

"Myron." Nessa's firm voice brought his attention back to her. "We better get off this mountain before that dragon decides he's hungry enough to try again."

Myron shot a quick glance back up the trail, then nodded. "I think that's an excellent suggestion. Let's go." Putting aside his reservations for now, he returned to Maya's side and together, he and Nessa supported her as they hurried back to the campsite.

True to his word, Myron had their tent and the few meager belongings they owned already packed. The couple shouldered the bulky packs, and Nessa retrieved her walking stick from the ground and handed it to Maya. Without a backward glance, they set off down the mountain, moving quickly to put the dragon and any other would-be predator behind them. Maya had regained enough strength to walk alone with the support of the tall, hand carved stick, although her face grew more drawn with the effort the further they traveled. Nessa led the way over the twisted and often treacherous trail, her mind unconsciously slipping into a faraway place as she watched the path pass under her feet. Myron brought up the rear, his eyes ceaselessly examining every rock and cranny around them, ever watchful of any further threat. He wanted to spot any dangerous creature while they still had time to get away. Maya gazed all around in wonder as they moved over the terrain, ever descending, until finally they reached the grassy floor of the narrow gorge that led to a jumble of hazy structures in the distance.

Minutes later, almost three hours after their miraculous escape from the hungry dragon, the three weary travelers finally set foot on the cobbled pavement of the small village of Nibelheim. Exhausted, they slowly made their way toward the center of town. A cold chill fell over Nessa as they walked past the decrepit Shinra Mansion, and she shivered despite the relative warmth of the valley air. A quick glance across the empty grime-encrusted windows only filled her with unease. She could well imagine a pair of malevolent eyes observing their progress from behind the nearly opaque panes. She pulled her eyes away, only to jerk them back at a sudden movement in the periphery of her vision. She anxiously searched for the source as her heart pounded in her chest, and bit back a laugh when she found the ragged curtain that fluttered in the breeze from a broken window on the second floor. She lifted her chin and decided to ignore the Mansion's attempts to frighten her, moving up to walk beside Maya who gave her a nervous smile as she came alongside her. Well, who wouldn't be affected by the dark, deserted building?

As they strolled past the wooden frame of the water tower, a structure that stood in the center of the square, Nessa once again felt a pervasive sense of uneasiness crawl into her mind. Something was wrong here. She stopped in her tracks as Myron and Maya moved on. Apprehensively, she examined the closely set houses and businesses that circled the square as the silence of the sleepy village pressed heavily against her ears.

"Myron!" Her own voice jarred discordantly in the silence.

Myron turned back, his brow knitted in a puzzled frown at the edge of sharp urgency he heard in her tone. Maya turned back too, and her eyes grew worried at the troubled expression she saw on Nessa's face.

"What is it, Nessa?" Myron asked anxiously, quickly walking back to stand beside her.

"Look around Myron. Listen." He did as she asked, turning slowly in a circle as he scanned all the buildings around the town square until he returned his gaze to her face. The atmosphere of the place set his nerve endings tingling, but he wasn't quite sure why.

"What am I looking for?" He turned puzzled gray eyes on his wife's face.

"Anything Myron. People, dogs, cats, kids, cooking fires, talking, something. It’s close to midday and I have yet to see one soul. I don't think there is anyone in this town."

Myron looked around with new eyes, searching for even one thing that would prove Nessa's assertion false. He didn't find it. Yet, he refused to accept it. He could not believe that there was no one in a village this size.

"There has to be someone here." He scoffed. "I'll show you."

Nessa watched as he strode purposefully across the cobbled square towards the closest building, a rustic cottage with a sign that said "General Store". He jumped onto the stoop and grabbed the doorknob. He smiled as it opened beneath his fingers. The store was obviously open as would any business be at this time of day. He stepped through the door, and his smile fell away. Dusty products lined the shelves of the front room, and the cash register stood on the counter with the drawer standing open. Myron quickly walked across the room and looked inside to find the till completely empty but for a tarnished brass key. He turned to the stairway that he figured most likely led to the merchant's living quarters. He climbed the stairs and stepped onto the open landing of a large one-room apartment. His heart sank as he viewed the jumbled disarray before him. Sturdy furniture stood about the room, but things had been shoved about. The room was bereft of anything of value, and what was left had been tossed. If anyone had lived here, they were long gone.

Myron ran down the stairs and out the door. He paused on the stoop to stare wildly at Nessa, who still stood beside Maya in the shadow of the water tower, her arms crossed over her chest. He shook his head at her, and turned his attention to a large house across the way. Without a word, he strode over to the front door and knocked. He waited, but received no answer. He knocked louder, then closed his hand around the burnished doorknob. The door swung open at his touch. He winced as the hinges creaked loudly in the dead quiet of the room. He took two steps into the warmly decorated front room of someone's home. He could bring himself to intrude no further.

"Hello!" He yelled. "Is anyone home here? Hello?"

The words resonated in the empty house. He turned and walked out the door, drawing it closed behind him with a soft click.

Nessa watched as Myron trudged from house to house, determined to investigate every nook and cranny of the small village. At some point, Maya nervously gripped her arm, and Nessa patted her fingers absently, her eyes stubbornly watching each doorway until Myron reappeared.

Finally, Myron surrendered. He closed the last door and scuffled tiredly across the cobblestones to stop in front of the two women. He jammed his hands into his pockets and slumped in defeat.

"Looks like you are right, Nessa." He brought his eyes up to meet hers. "There is no one in this town unless they are in the Shinra Mansion, and I'm not going in there."

Nessa swung her gaze to the stately, rundown mansion that seemed to jut from the dark cliff behind it. Tall pine trees edged the weedy grounds beyond the crumbling stone fence, broken only by an ornate wrought iron gate. The whole place seemed wrapped in shadow despite the bright sunlight that bathed the entire village. Suddenly, a chill ran through her whole body, as though the mansion had somehow leached the warmth from the very air around them.

"You aren't going in there either." Myron added sharply at the measured appraisal in his wife's eyes.

"I wouldn't dream of it, Myron. I never want to set foot in that place again." Nessa shook her head and turned her gaze to his face. "I just pray that no one is in that dreadful place."

"Where do you think everybody went?" Maya asked anxiously.

She looked back and forth, from Myron to Nessa, as minutes passed without an answer. Finally, Nessa broke the silence.

"I don’t know. Maybe everyone left because of the meteor, but I don't know why. There would have been no place to escape if the disaster had not been averted."

"The meteor?" Maya asked curiously. "What's that?"

"You don't remember the meteor?!" Nessa asked sharply, the surprise evident in her face.

Maya merely shook her head. "What is it?" She asked again.

"Don't worry about it." Nessa flatly replied. "The meteor is gone now. I'm not sure how or why, but it's gone."

Maya opened her mouth to press her query, her eyes alive with curiosity, but Myron interrupted her.

"Hey, I bet I know where everyone went!" He exclaimed. "Remember that Shinra executive guy that got drunk at the Turtle's Paradise when we worked there? Remember what he said about Nibelheim?"

Nessa cast her mind back to their brief stint at Wutai’s premiere tavern. She had no idea who Myron was referring to since they had seen quite a few Shinra employees there. In fact, they had quickly discovered that the Turtle's Paradise seemed to be one of the Turks’ favorite watering holes, the reason they had mutually agreed to seek employment elsewhere and wound up in Mideel, a sultry tropical backwater that Shinra virtually ignored.

She shook her head. “Which one, Myron? A lot of Shinra suits drank there, remember?”

Myron grinned. “The one that tried to kiss you every time you served him another beer.”

“Oh yes...I remember now...” Nessa reflected back to that night and realized that what the obnoxious man had bragged about did have a direct bearing on this situation. "And we thought that guy was completely full of it." She spoke, wonder in her voice.

"Yeah, if what he said was true, that everyone in Nibelheim lived here because Shinra paid them to..." Myron started.

"Then maybe they left when Shinra fell apart." Nessa finished. "Took everything they owned and left."

"Yeah." Myron agreed.

"Yeah." Nessa reiterated.

They all smiled at each other with relief. They had found a simple explanation for the total absence of people in Nibelheim, a reason much more mundane than any one they might have imagined. Nessa felt her tension drain away. If this town had belonged to Shinra, then no one would be bothering with it for awhile, if ever. Shinra, Inc. was a company in ruin, its President dead and its executive management in a tailspin. They might even be able to reside here as long as she needed to without being ousted. She smiled and slipped her hand into Myron's.

"Well, I'm tired. Maya's tired. Let's pick a place and rest." She suggested lightly as she looked around the square. "Where shall we hang our hats?"

A grin swept over Myron's face as he turned to face the tall building just inside the wrought iron arch of the entrance gate. "Well, I have it on good authority that there are a couple of vacancies at the inn. How about that?" He turned mischievous eyes on his wife’s face.

"What a great idea!" She agreed, a bright smile lighting her own face. "I always wanted to be an innkeeper."

"Well, let's go then!" Myron tightened his hand around Nessa’s fingers and pulled her across the square. "What I want to know is…what's for lunch?" He inquired innocently as he stepped up to the front door of the inn.

Nessa stubbornly planted her feet and chuckled as he slammed to a stop, whipping his head back with an exaggerated jerk.

"I don't know what's for lunch, Myron. You're cooking." Nessa proclaimed, a smile struggling to break through the stern look she'd pasted on her face.

"NOT!" Myron retorted as he flung the door open. He shoved his smiling wife through the door, then held it open for Maya who waited at the foot of the doorstep, leaning tiredly against Nessa's walkingstick and giggling at their banter. "Come on, Maya. We're home." A broad smile on her face, Maya climbed the steps and walked through the door as Myron tipped an imaginary hat at her passage. She burst into another spate of giggles as he stepped in behind her and closed the door.

The bird perched on the rim of the wooden water tank, its sleek head cocked as it watched. The lustrous white feathers glowed in the bright morning sunlight, and the long silver tail plumes fluttered gently in a slight breeze. Obsidian eyes, sharp with intelligence, relentlessly followed the movements of the people in the square below, blinking at their antics on the front step of the inn. When the three companions abruptly vanished inside and shut the door, the bird opened a hooked beak and called out, its cry a strange cross between that of a predatory hawk and the lonesome call of a whippoorwill.

For awhile, the bird was content to preen its feathers, always keeping one bright eye focused on the closed door. Time passed and no one reappeared. Finally, the bird cried out again and opened its wings into the wind. Lifting itself high into the sky, it settled in to ride the thermals, circling overhead as the sun passed its zenith and slipped lower in the sky. Eventually the bird grew bored and suddenly fell from the sky to land on the wrought iron entrance that stood adjacent to the inn. The bird curved its sharp talons around the fancy metalwork at the very center of the arch as though to disguise itself as part of the ornamentation. With a cock of its head, the exotic creature examined the building closely and still detected no movement. Finally, the great white bird huddled into its wings and settled down to wait.

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