Chapter 3.  "The Ghost in the Darkness"
Track 3:  "Stay and Drown", by Finger Eleven

I went through about three weeks of recovery, growing increasingly depressed.  It was apparent that I was only being sent to Nibelheim to keep me away from the Turks, the only people who cared what happened to me.  I wondered if Rufus had been lying to me, and was sending me back into Hojo’s clutches.  I couldn’t see any other reason for Hojo to remain interested in my activities and whereabouts, since I was a “failure”.  It seemed that he was always frowning as he read my charts every day, as if someone were trying to trick him.  Sometimes I heard him muttering about “her odd fancies”, and I knew he wasn’t talking about me.  He never mentioned these things to me, though, so I had to stifle my curiosity about who “she” was, and what she had to do with the experiments that had been done on me.

Finally the day came when I was sent off to Nibelheim.  Just about all that I knew about the place was that four years ago, something happened there that caused Zack, Cloud and their legendary commander Sephiroth to disappear.  I was not in a position to be asking questions of Shinra, and I learned quickly that none of the townspeople remembered anything special happening four years ago.

I discovered that evening how miserable I was going to be.  After getting settled in a room in the creepy “Shinra Mansion”, I went into town, looking for a watering hole.  Unbelievably, there was only one pub in the whole town, the Rockfall, and it closed at the unreasonable hour of midnight.

“No wonder there are no Turks here,” I muttered as I sat at the bar, nursing a pint of the local swill.  I had to admit, it was better than the beer at Lenny’s.

“Hey there, little lady,” a gruff voice said behind me in the goofy yokel accent of Corel.  “Aren’t you a little young to be sittin’ around in a bar?”

Without even turning to look at the speaker, I reached into my jacket and pulled out my standard issue handgun, and banged it down on the bartop.  “There’s my ID.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bartender making “nix” hand signals at the man behind me.  I smirked into my glass.

“Hey, now, little lady, don’t be offended.  I just undershot your age a bit, that’s all.”  I groaned internally as the yokel sat on the stool next to me.  “How ‘bouts I make it up to you with a couple rounds?”

I finally looked up at the nuisance – and tried not to gape.  The man appeared to be a few years older than me, with the broad chest and shoulders of a miner.  He had a longish ponytail of bright blonde hair and friendly green eyes, and a face like a classical god.  His accent had fooled me completely.

“Er, sure,” I mumbled, forcing myself not to stare.

“First things first, though, miss.  What can I call ya?  I’m Mick Barnaby.”  He held his hand out.

I shook with him, noting the rough calluses and strong grip.  Yes, he was a miner, all right.  “Mara D’Andrade.”

“You’re from Shinra, huh?  Must be from the East, you don’t sound like you’re from around here.”  Mick ordered a brew for himself and a second round for me.

“Yes, I’m from Shinra, but I’m originally from Gongaga, so…”

“Oh, yeah, you’ve got that funny lilt to your voice.  Just get here?  They shipped off the last Shinra guy a while back, but I haven’t seen you here before.”  He seemed friendly, if overly curious, but there wasn’t much coming and going in the sleepy town, so I couldn’t blame him for wanting some news.

“Yeah, I just got here this morning.  Hell of a little mudhole.”  No use hiding my general disgust with the assignment.

“Too slow for a city girl, huh?” Mick grinned.

“Hell yes.”

As we sat and drank, Mick told me a little about the current affairs in the town, and the personalities I should be aware of.  I had to admit, he was a useful source of information.  I decided that, at least until I integrated myself into the workings of the town, I should keep in touch with the man.

At closing time, Mick offered to walk me back to the Mansion.  I certainly didn’t need his help to get there, and I pointedly told him so.  Unoffended, he shrugged and smiled.  I figured I’d see him around later.

I have to admit, the Mansion was pretty creepy.  It was not, at that time, in ill-repair, but it still had an abandoned air to it, and I was constantly looking around for mice, rats, bats or other vermin – none of which, fortunately, I encountered.  If I had thought about that particular fact more thoroughly, I would have been worried – why would critters forsake an invitingly empty building?

I considered myself lucky when I was able to take a long, hot shower – I was worried that the hot water heater would be out of commission.  After a soothing soak, I slipped into my pjs and checked my messages.

“Mara, hope you’re getting settled in okay.  I imagine you found your way to the Rockfall.  Take care.”  I rolled my eyes at Rufus’ chummy tone.  He had been trying to get in my good graces since I had gotten out of Hojo’s lab, and failing.  There was another message from Heidegger, asking for a report the next day, but that was all.

I flopped onto my bed and rummaged through the half-unpacked box on the floor, digging out a novel I had been reading.  I was beginning to think there was something good about this relaxation thing after all as I turned out the lamp later to go to sleep.

I awoke with a shriek, clutching the blankets around me.  After several weeks of being out of Hojo’s fishtank, I had forced away the memories from the coffin and tried to get on with things.  But that night I felt the touch of the dungeon “ghost”, giving me his nightmares – or were they true memories?

Shuddering, I raised the window shade and looked out at the dawn.  Why had “he” finally touched me again?  Was there something about Nibelheim?  As I drank a cup of coffee to steady my nerves, I added more questions to my long list about the “ghost”.  First and foremost were still “who or what is he?” and “what does he want?”  I had the sinking feeling that I was going to have plenty of time to find out while I was in Nibelheim.

My days were hellishly boring, but my nights were just hellish.  After the terrible visions, often what I wanted most, besides freedom from the nightmares, was to find this poor soul and try to give him comfort.  Right after that, I wanted very much to see him, to see what Hojo’s tortures had done to him besides giving him a metal arm.  But since the dreams were always through his eyes, I never saw much of him from the outside.

Every once in a while I could feel a little bit of his personality.  He seemed to be (or have been) a conscientious fellow, with a firm set of morals – unusual, at least in my eyes, for a Turk, for that is what he seemed to have been.  It was incredibly saddening to feel his memories of his morals and beliefs coming near to breaking under Hojo’s tortures, both physical and mental.

It seemed that Hojo’s treatment of the ghost was fueled by a personal vendetta against him.  I shuffled things around and came to the conclusion that the man’s morals had brought him up against Hojo, and like Hojo had threatened me before, the doctor was too secure in Shinra’s hierarchy, even at a younger age, to be dislodged by a Turk.  And then Hojo had taken him, and tried to break him.

While it was evident that Hojo had destroyed the man’s life and had come within a breath of shattering his sanity, the ghost had still managed to cling to enough shreds of his former self to remain the same person at the core.  It was that person who I wanted desperately to meet.

He seemed to have been the aloof outsider of his team, the one who was never quite comfortable with his work, or who never went out with the others.  The only Turk he seemed to be close to was a young man who had rather dark skin but vividly white hair – not silver like Sephiroth’s had been, but pure white.  The man was almost as cool in demeanor as the ghost, which was probably why they got along well.  There were many memories of the two of them sitting in quiet places enjoying a comradely drink.

His weapon of choice was a gun, which I found to be yet another unusual trait.  Most of the Turks carried a gun but preferred a different weapon.  My preferences lie with throwing blades, of which I had many varieties.  I got in a lot of practice while I was in Nibelheim.  My ghost, however, seemed to have been a remarkable sharpshooter.  I could pick up faint memory traces of his actual thoughts while shooting – his entire concept of aim eluded me, it was so alien.  It apparently worked quite well, however.

The Turks of his time, as a team, seemed different from the Turks I knew.  They were, as a rule, more physically powerful, but less magically inclined.  It seemed as if they did much dirtier dirty work than we did – a lot of our work involved espionage, and that required subtlety over brute force.  I found that to be an interesting contrast, and I wondered what had changed in Shinra’s operations since then to bring about this change.

There were many memories of a science lab, often accompanied by visions of the beautiful brown-haired woman.  She habitually wore a lab coat, and she had sad eyes.  Apparently, she had been the ghost’s lover, but they had separated angrily, and it seemed that she had gone to Hojo, of all people.  That in itself made me ponder what Hojo could have possibly been like back then, to have been attractive to anyone.  Then again, maybe the woman had wanted something and someone completely different after her quarrel with the ghost…  It was easy to guess that part of the bad blood between the two men was rooted in this woman.

I considered myself endlessly lucky that Hojo’s interest in me was not personal.  As more dreams became clear to me, I saw the truly horrifying way that Hojo had tried to break this man.  The doctor had undertaken a long, patient campaign to reprogram his victim, twisting him into a complete masochist, to the point where certain sensations of pain actually aroused him.  Hojo had been a lot younger then, and he had obviously enjoyed his game – and his toy – greatly.

As if that wasn’t horrifying enough, there were odd, fragmented memories of sensations of changing shape: limbs stretching painfully, muscles realigning, facial features warping, even horns sprouting.  Before I could ever get a grasp on what the new form was, though, it seemed as if the man blacked out.  I figured that either he couldn’t handle the transformation, or he was not truly conscious when he was in a different form.  Horribly, these transformations were often accompanied by the sound of Hojo’s laughter.

It was all incredibly disturbing, and incredibly frightening, and incredibly cruel; sometimes I woke crying instead of screaming.

It took many more glimpses of the silver-haired baby I had seen in the very first dreams for me to realize that it must have been Sephiroth.  He had had silver hair for his entire career in SOLDIER; what better explanation than that he had been born with it?  With a little math, that placed at least some of the dreams as almost 30 years ago.  Hojo had been truthful about that, at least – it was a long time ago.  I constantly wondered about the fate of the ghost.  Did he die, and truly remain as a ghost?  That would explain why there were no newer memories.  Or was it simply that when this man dreamed, he himself would only remember these scenes of horror?  That was almost a worse thought than if he were dead.

On the whole, my entire time at Nibelheim was overshadowed by the inevitable depression that the dreams brought on.  Mick, who became my usual drinking buddy, tried to cheer me up, usually in vain.  After a while, too, it was ridiculously obvious that he was attracted to me, and I didn’t want a thing to do with him, so I began to avoid him.  I went to work, which often was nothing more than a chance for me to practice with my sharp pointy objects, and then I went “home” to the empty Mansion and the ghost.

It was during this time, too, that I started to feel the real effects of Hojo’s tinkering.  I seemed to be quite a bit stronger, physically, and my reflexes were heightened.  My throwing aim was also greatly improved, for reasons that I didn’t understand at first.  I finally realized that if Hojo had done things to me that he had done to SOLDIERs, the goal had probably been to create a superior fighter.  It was shocking, to me, how I could pin a fly to the wall with a simple bar dart from ten yards away, and honestly, a little frightening.  No one should have been able to do that.  It certainly kept people from picking fights with me.  Some of the regulars at the Rockfall took to calling me “Sharp”, which was a nickname I accepted with good humor.  It fit me and my weapons, after all.

I didn’t seem any outwardly different.  I certainly didn’t have the eerie “makou eyes” that the SOLDIERs, and others subjected to heavy amounts of makou, developed, and that made me even more curious about what exactly Hojo had done – and what he had tried to do, and failed.  He had said that things hadn’t turned out correctly, that they had had unforeseen results; which results were those, and what were they supposed to have been?  It was maddening to think about.  I had lost a year of my life, and now I was irreversibly changed into something more than I was before – and I knew nothing about any of it.  It made me very nervous.  I was afraid that Hojo still had some hold over me, and that if he really wanted to, he could take me back and continue his experiments until he got what he wanted, or until he killed me.  Was that what he had done to the ghost?

For a while, I thought I might go very subtly mad, and then I wondered if Hojo had planned such a thing.  I honestly could imagine him creating all of these memories as a weird experiment.  Whether the dreams were from him or the ghost, however, Hojo was, for the most part, their author, and the fact that he could think of such demented things to do to people scared me terribly.


Poor Mr. Ghost. ;_;  This is part of my "what's Hojo?" problem; you can start to see his nasty side here.

If you're wondering about my characterization of accents, I'm kind of making the Western Continent an analog for our Western Hemisphere (so Corel, Gold Saucer, and Nibelheim would be in the U.S.; Rocket Town would be in Canada; Cosmo Canyon would be in South America somewhere); Wutai and the western islands are obviously Japan; and the Eastern Continent is the Old World.  For your amusement, here are my analogs there (and they aren't strictly geographical): Midgar = England; Kalm = Scotland/Ireland (in other words, a kind of satellite of Midgar.  Hehe, wait til you see who's from Kalm); Gongaga = the Mediterranean; Junon = France; Chocobo Farm area = Russia (ooh, Russian Chocobos..O.o;); Fort Condor = somewhere in Africa; Mideel = Australia.

Wonder why Mara's not having any effects...hmm...

Next episode:  Elena's not so bad!  Mara's in the closet!  Who goes Super Saiyajin?!

Chapter 2