Don't Touch Me

Now that he thought about it for about 5 minutes or so, going out to train at the Gongagan Forest all alone wasn't a great idea. Not a single bit at all. Although it seemed to be a great idea at that time, proving he could handle being all alone when the time came for him to leave to the biggest city in the world, Midgar, the resulting scenario he found himself in was so not worth it. And to think it was because he was being persuaded by his dad to follow his footsteps. A.K.A dropping hints every now and then and the blatant display of his workshop equipment in their living room at almost every hour of the day.

Everyone in the village knew that he doesn't want to have the same job as his dad, who was a lumberjack, and that he wanted to be more. More than being a son of a lumberjack. It wasn't cool and all. He's sick of trees and he had been around trees ever since he can remember. So when news came about a successful ' conquest' on Wutai by the brand new security personnel of ShinRa, SOLDIERs, and was led by the strongest SOLDIER – all caps because SOLDIERs are much better than normal soldiers -, Sephiroth, Zack desired to be like one of them. The heroes of the Wutai War. SOLDIERs . And the SOLDIER of the SOLDIERs was said to be 12 at most during those times.

Something Zack couldn't believe at first but soon became a goal of sorts for him to reach. If Sephiroth – which was a codename or a title since heroes don't use their real names and wasn't that a word that meant 'life' in ancient Edean? Really inspiring! could become a hero at 12, then that would mean Zack could be one as well! And he was 14, going 15! He's much older than Sephiroth at his age when he went to Wutai!

Zack's decision to leave for Midgar and join SOLDIER was made when the news of another successful takeover of a Wutai encampment was made known through the radios a few months after the first announcement and the arrival of the SOLDIER Recruiters at Gongaga by a helicopter a week after it. From what he heard from the people coming from outside Gongaga, the Western Continent is a very different and strange place for them since the monsters living there were apparently much stronger than the ones at the Eastern Continent. Which made some sort of sense because the man with a black 'suit' – his mom said it was so maybe it is complained at the small inn he usually helps around about the lack of concrete roads and how they must fly using a Gelnika .

The Gelnika, the helicopter the Recruiters used, was a very big vehicle. Vehicles were rare in the Western Continent and the only vehicle in Gongaga was a pick-up truck that was being used for bringing the lumber they have to Costa del Sol and bringing back supplies for the entire town on the return trip. And it was owned by that cranky old man who also owned the general store in Gongaga.

The Recruiters were there for about a week only, according to the old ladies that always hang at the general store, and they had brought some workers at the only Mako Reactor in the Gongagan Region to do some maintenance. After hearing that, Zack decided to join with the Recruiters when they go back to Midgar. But he doesn't want to go unprepared. No, he doesn't want to be humiliated like the time he brought back a fruit to his mom only to find it wasn't a fruit but actually a monster shaped like a fruit and pretended to be a fruit.

His mom wasn't amused at all.

So Zack trained. He went to the nearby Gongagan Forest to train himself because the monsters in the Forest were said to be stronger than the ones at the Eastern Continent. He already beaten some of the monsters before so he was sure he could train his body to the expectations of a SOLDIER. Well, of course it wouldn't be complete but his dad always says he should prepare on whatever plan he was doing so prepare he was doing. Punching, kicking, flexing his limbs, building the muscles on his arms and his 'stamina'. He did all those things by fighting the monsters at the forest.

What he didn't prepare for was to be caught by the very infamous pests in the whole world that caused Gongaga and its nearby towns to be known other than the amazing quality of their trees and tropical fruits and vegetables.

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The Recruiters were supposed to leave Gongaga to some place called Nibelheim that afternoon, which meant anyone who wanted to join SOLDIER would have until sunset to join the in the Gelnika before they leave. So when the morning dawn cracked, Zack was up and already packing his things for his planned trip to become a SOLDIER. The 15-year-old knew his parents wouldn't allow him to join SOLDIER because they wanted him to be a part of the town's business, and that is woodcarving, logging, farming, livestock production or just being a merchant at the general store.

Old Man Mario was giving him strange looks whenever he came to the store and it gave him the creeps when Old Man Mario did so, but his parents saw it as some sort of 'job reservation' when he decides to get a job in Gongaga. Basically, his parents don't want him to leave the town because 'why should he when he has lots to do here?'.

And Zack disagrees with them. Disagrees with a passion of Ifrit's Hellfire. He knew he was meant to be more than just a country boy.

So by using the reason of 'scouting out mature trees for logging' to his parents in order to be permitted to go at the Gongagan Forest, Zack managed to get the needed last minute time to train his body for the SOLDIER Exams.

That morning, way before Margery's rooster could make its annoying crow, he packed up his clothes and anything he thought would be useful in his SOLDIER journey. Zack left his house, passed by and dropped some at the inn and went to the forest nearby at the crack of dawn, at the exact time the rooster claimed to be the town's natural alarm clock, concentrated on using the leftover time he had for any last minute training.

From what he heard from the gossip made by some of the Recruiters who stayed at the inn was that they were going around the world for any potential recruits while doing maintenance to the Reactors. They were the Western Continent group so the last stop was Nibelheim, a small city/town somewhere in the mountains, and they would return to Midgar immediately. Or take a detour at Rocket Town – he was pretty sure Rocket Town wasn't its actual nameif they got some extra time. So far, they haven't got any recruits so when - not if - Zack comes to them afternoon, that would make him the only recruit they have gotten in the Western Continent that year.

Last year he missed the yearly SOLDIER Recruiters because he and his dad were the ones doing the delivering of the collected lumber and buying supplies at Corel and Costa del Sol. On that 14-day road trip (a week to collect from the towns and go to Costa del Sol and another week to bring them back) Zack and his dad went through, they had to do the actual restocking of the other general stores of the nearby towns of Dunedoo, the town near the desert region of Corel and coincidentally acts as a bridge town from Gongaga Region to the Corel Region at the Geminismi Strait; Geelong, the town near the coast of the Sea of Ramuh and has the best tasting fish ever; Howlong, the town that focused much of their land on vegetables and livestock; and Tittybong, which was basically like Gongaga except they have more swampy trees than theirs. In all, he missed the arrival of the ShinRa Recruiters and had to wait for the next year.

He could travel all the way to Midgar by himself, and it wouldn't be so hard, except his parents wouldn't allow him and would probably chain him down just like what people said about Chester's parents did to him when he went into the Reactor with the Titan Materia. Well, he would just have to bring himself to the Recruiters and he would be on his way to Midgar faster than his parents would notice. And chances were, his parents wouldn't be able to do a thing after he got to Midgar because it's Midgar, a city said to be 16 cities in one location. It could even be called a region all by itself!

He had a small pack of lunch with him, packed the night before without his parents noticing him, so he wouldn't have to go back to the town when he got hungry. His belongings were under the inn's front table, safely secured and ready to be picked up when he left and was watched by Carol – bless her and her husbandfor safekeeping.

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'I should haven't chased that Durian and Flower Prong!' Zack mentally complained. He was now lost in the Gongagan Forest, about 3 hours after he left the town for his last day at Gongaga. 'Not even sure I'm still at the Gongagan Forest. Maybe I'm already at the Ancient Forest!'

The Flower Prong must have looped around some trees in an attempt to lose him and it worked. Zack was now lost in a maze of trees and vines. 'Well, there's a river going through the town so I guess I should find a river and follow it.' He searched for a river, looking out for any signs of a clearing because rivers hate to have trees near them from what he had seen during his trips with his father around the Gongagan Region.

It was just his luck that he was correct on trusting his hunch on following a certain path through the forest; it was also his luck that there were a bunch of monsters there at the river he had found. He noticed there were a whole group of frogs fast asleep along the edges of the river.

He also noticed some animals and creatures scurrying away from the river as he approached it but he paid no attention to it at that time. Now that Zack saw the group of frogs, his blanched. One of the older men at the town brought a frog to the village once and it caused almost all of the people to be turned into frogs. The frogs were Touch Mes and they were infamous for their ability to change anyone into a frog.

A loud crack from a fallen branch was made, causing the sleeping frogs to wake up and look around. 'Crap! Why didn't I notice that branch?' Zack quickly hastened his steps, backtracking to the forest when he heard a croak. 'Oh no.' Followed by another croak and another and another…

'Odin, help me!'

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'No wonder the other creatures of the forest were running away! And here I thought they were afraid of me.'

He was now a frog, a toad or whatever one would call the creature he was now. And currently he was running – more like hopping awayfrom a bird that seemed to be focused on catching him. It was a strange colored bird because it was a white bird. A white hawk to be exact, which was strange because as far as he knew, there weren't any hawks in the Gongagan Forest. Unless…

'Unless I am in the Ancient Forest! Odin, help me!' He quickened his hops and tried to hide his squishy body behind some roots of the trees in the forest. Being a frog usually ends around 3 to 4 hours after being turned into one, it was a fact everyone in Gongaga learned to follow if one doesn't have a Maiden Kiss or a Remedy ready. Also, even if Zack brought any of the 'antidotes' for being a Frog, it would only be hidden away on his human body to whatever space or place it was thrown at after being turned into a frog, so Zack would have to wait for 3 to 4 hours to change back into a human.

A screech and he found himself up in the air. 'What the…?!' He was captured by the hawk! How did it found him behind the root? 'I should have jumped into the river, at least I won't drown there!'

Making a quick prayer to whatever deity that would listen to him – oh Odin, Titan, Bahamut, Shiva, please don't let me be eaten by this hawk!, Zack hoped he could escape after the hawk landed as he slumped in defeat on the claws of the hawk. The hawk warked when it noticed his act of surrender, making its flight faster. Zack, using his two eyes – which was kinda cool because frogs could see in color –, saw that he was being brought to a cliff overlooking the forest and… wow.

'Is that…? Gongaga? Wow! I am so far away from Gongaga. Then if that's Gongaga and that's the Gongagan Forest, I must be at…!'

The hawk dropped him high up in the air to the cliff it was approaching before. In his surprise, Zack flailed his limbs, or at least the frog equivalent of limbs, in the air in an attempt to prevent his fall. 'That hawk was just playing with me! Why would it let me fall to the ground like this?! I'm gonna be flat like a tomato thrown at the wall!'

Because he saw his hometown all the way up in the air, Zack guessed that whatever cliff he was being dropped to was pretty much higher than the tallest tree in the Gongagan Forest. And the cliff would be the last thing he would see before he would be a splat on the cliff's ground.

He was only 15, or 14 according to his parents but he's always a kid to their eyes, and he have lot to do with his life. He was going to be a SOLDIER and become a hero! Everyone will be amazed at him and saw him as something more than just a son of a lumberjack in a small town in the countryside of the Western Continent.

And to make this the worst of the all, he still hasn't kissed anyone yet!

The white bird dived right beside him by making its wings come closer to its body, clearly wanting to be at the ground to see him become a flattened imitation of a frog pancake by making its descent faster than his, causing Zack to shut his eyes on the sudden gust of wind. He decided not to open his eyes afterwards because before he closed his eyes, the cliff was coming closer to him and he doesn't want to see it as he fall.

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The next thing he knew was that he was strangely on top of boy younger than him. The boy was clearly shocked, his eyes wide opened and a blush on his cheeks, but what made it strange was that Zack was on top of the boy in a very weird position. It was like he fell on the boy and the action made the two of them fall to the ground.

Zack the realized that he was back into his normal human body. " Was it already 4 hours?" he asked out loud. The blond boy, who was still below him, tried to push him off and grumbled, "No but it surely took a second for me to taste a frog!" Because Zack was sitting on the boy's stomach, the blond couldn't get out of their position.

"Ver! Get out from there and help me off this oaf! That wasn't funny!" the boy called out to someone. Zack quickly got off from the boy and noticed that he was really back to his human body, no limbs missing and his backpack on his back returned from whatever place it went to. "Sorry for falling over you, I was turned into a frog and this hawk scooped me up and then… Wait, where's the hawk?"

"Stupid little brother who couldn't understand the word wait ," the boy spat out in a low voice and stood up slowly from the ground. He dusted off the dirt on his open jacket and made weird faces, as if he was trying to vomit something from. Recognizing the action, Zack apologized, "Sorry for that. I know how a frog tastes… Wait a minute...!"

The blond grunted in affirmation. "Yes, you basically dropped on my mouth then transformed back into a human. You then fell on me after you turned back." He then sighed. "Sorry, I didn't mean to be so…"

"Grumpy?" Zack offered. Anyone would be grumpy if a frog was forced to your mouth. Just like Marian who was used as a 'guinea pig' on the 'traditional' curing method of being Frogged. She was spouting flames for almost a week at Joshua because of it, even if her little sister was cured of being toad-ed .

The blond nodded. "Yeah, grumpy. Frog, toad, whatever tastes weird on my mouth. Ugh. Where's the water? I need to take it off my mouth." He patted his body and when the boy noticed nothing on him, turned around to reach his bag.

Zack, because he's a decent and nice person, rummaged too in his backpack – thank Odin that its back – and found a water bottle first than the boy. He then handed it over to the blond and said, "Here. Take it. Frogs and toads really tastes weird. Trust me."

The blue-eyed boy – wow, they're much brighter than hisaccepted it with a small ' thanks' . "I think I already know firsthand what it really tastes like." He then used it gargle his mouth, which was silly because he didn't swallow a frog to be exact. He just 'kissed' a frog, which is still disgusting because Odin knows what kind of dirt he was in before being cured of the status effect. Nasty status effect. Ever.

After the boy finished spatting out the last of his water, he returned the bottle to Zack. "Thanks for the water. Oh, by the way I'm Cloud," the boy introduced himself, bowing his head in thanks.

"Cool. Name's Zack. Nice to meet you," Zack replied, handing out his hand. Cloud took and shook it. "So… Where's the hawk? I know I was a frog before and I was up in the air because of it."

Cloud – that hairstyle... it somehow look familiar ducked his head and looked around. "He's supposed to be here right now. Oh there he is. Come here you!" He then ran towards the tree that was behind them. The blond then grabbed something and a bird fell down from the tree. To be exact, it was the same bird that rescued him from the birds that was trying to take a snack out of him.

He now remembered clearly that the hawk was chasing the Largebills and Peach Crows away and gone to chase him afterwards. Now that Zack thought about, maybe that was what the hawk was trying to do. Rescue him from being lunch to those oversized birds. At first, the birds were wary of him, being a frog that looked like a Touch Me and they were notorious to turn anyone into a frog, something that Zack experienced quite intimately, that they desperately tried to avoid coming into his way. But then a Peach Crow, a bird much larger than a chicken which also makes its meat much delicious and a local delicacy in Gongaga, pecked at him at the back, to which Zack proceeded to scamper away; it led to the birds' discovery of him not a Touch Me at all.

Thank Odin that the hawk that saved him really had no plan to make him its snack. However, it had a terrible sense of humor. From the stunt it did to him a while ago, tricking him into believing he was falling to his demise only to be cured by having him be 'kissed' by a person, Zack had a feeling that Cloud was a frequent victim of the hawk's pranks.

"Verä! Next time let me know if you're going to drop an older guy at me, okay? Even if he's a toad!" The way he said the name was like a 'fera' but Zack had an inkling it was his accent, since Cloud doesn't appear to be a Gongagan at all, or a native of the Gongagan Subcontinent. Maybe from somewhere North? The white hawk recovered from its fall and flew to a backpack at the base of a nearby tree.

It then seemed to give Cloud a look that somehow spoke 'I did nothing wrong!'. Sighing, Cloud went to the hawk and crouched to its level. "Ich sage Verä Sie sind ein Ärgernis, das Zack. " Okay, now Zack was sure he's not from Walla Walla, which was near Cosmo Canyon and the most remote settlement in the Gongagan Subcontinent. No one in the Gongagan Subcontinent speaks with that accent or that dialect . The hawk bowed its head and made a warble, probably from shame, which made Zack smile. A hawk that could understand a person and even feel emotions much be a well-trained animal.

Though how the hawk could give any kind impressions of what it was thinking made him wonder of its intelligence as Cloud rose up from the ground and turned to him. "Sorry for the stunt Verä did to you ago. He may have the best interests in mind but it seemed he couldn't resist playing a trick on me. And you too." Verä, the white hawk, flew and landed itself on Cloud's shoulder, strangely it managed to perch itself completely on the boy's shoulders. Cloud certainly have a wide shoulder for his age. Verä then tried to play with the boy's hair, only to be stopped by a swipe from the boy. In retaliation, it pulled at the small ponytail Cloud had – that's new, never saw a boy had a small ponytail at the back of his head; certainly not from around here – and actually caused the boy to cry in surprise.

Zack laughed at the scene and waved his hands. "It's okay, It's okay. I'm fine, alright? Thanks for the save, those birds were almost this-" He then used his fingers to make a pinch. "-close to being bird chow." Cloud ducked his head and actually blushed. "Really? You don't get complimented that much?"

The boy avoided his gaze and said, "Well, people hate our family back at our place so…" He then shook his head. "Not really." Cloud stepped back and went to the shade of the tree where the bag was at. "It's lunchtime now, you hungry or what?"

The black haired boy wanted to deny that he was hungry but his stomach replied for him instead by making a loud growl . "If you insist."

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Zack learned a lot from the blond and his hawk, which he treated like a sibling by making notions of it acting like a person on certain situations. As they ate their packed lunches, Zack with his own lunch inside his just-returned-backpack-from-wherever-it-was-kept-at and Cloud with something he apparently made when he was camping, Zack learned that the boy was travelling all the way to the Eastern Continent from some place called Nibelheim.

"Hey, it's a nice town. We got a lot of snow which makes it great. I love the cold but for some reason my body got used to it that I have to, you know, cast lots of Blizzards to keep the heat away in this place! It's weird but it isn't strange ," Cloud said after Zack commented on how strange 'Nibelheim' as a name. "Besides, what kind of name is Gongaga anyway?!"

"Okay, I surrender! Both of our hometowns have strange names! Well, to be honest, almost all of the towns and cities in the world sound strange at first."

The boy scoffed at it. "You just don't want to admit that Gongaga is the strangest name of them all." Zack responded it with a light flick to the boy's forehead. Cloud retorted by sticking out his tongue.

When he asked why Cloud didn't just rode a bus or a train to the Eastern Continent, Zack was met with a weird look.

"Zack, The Western Continent have a huge mountain range in the middle which have lots of snowstorms at almost all the time. There aren't any roads going through there and the only way to get to Costa del Sol was to go through here."

"Spike, you're not answering my question."

"Hey, why are you calling me that?!"

"You have spikes for hair."

"So do you!"

"You tell me it's all natural like mine? They say I have been using gels for shampoo which isn't true 'cause hair gels are sticky and doesn't really feels good on the head afterwards."

"Uhuh. And, uh," Cloud paused momentarily, picking his lunch of some sort of sandwich with some good-looking meat in it. Looks like cured Bandersnatch meat. "Mom doesn't really have a lot of money before she died and, uh, all that was left was enough for food and other things."

Zack went silent after he heard the boy mentioned his late mother. "If I used it for a ride, then I would be left with nothing. So I decided to travel by foot." Cloud then smiled slightly. "Besides, there weren't any vehicles at that time and if there were, well… they would just cost us more than what it should be. The people there hated our guts for no reason at all."

His face turned sour after saying that. "Why am I even speaking these things to you anyway? We just met and spent only a few minutes together, but you- " he said then pointed to Zack, whose mind was still working on the fact that Cloud, the blond kid in front of him, was travelling all alone by himself to the Eastern Continent on foot . "You… you seem to be a nice guy. I think I can trust you, right?"

Zack nodded at Cloud and gave him a hug, his own lunch of chicken sandwiches all set aside before moving. "It's alright Spike! Those people who hated your guts don't know how great you are. Why, you are practically living on your own ever since you left your hometown right? That's amazing! I bet those old misers at Nibelheme can't even make their way out of the town proper!"

Cloud chuckled at Zack's small speech, laugh muffled by the shirt he was tucked in by the hug. He patted Zack's back, signaling to stop hugging him for now, and Zack did so, sitting back to his position underneath the tree's shade. "Cut it out, will ya? And its Ni-Bel-Heim. Not Ni-bel-HE-MEH. It's ha-aiym. Say it with me. Ni-bel-heim."

"Nebel-shemer. Whatever. Anyhow…" Zack stopped, turning his head around at the vast forest below their position. Since Zack, Cloud and his hawk, who was off somewhere after the kid scolded it, were so high up on the cliff, Zack could see a small speck of something flying off from the direction of Gongaga and was on its way to him. More specifically, towards their direction. Zack stood up, eyes wide open in shock, recognizing the black blur that flew past them.

The Gelnika proved why it was one of the fastest vehicles ShinRa had made when in only a matter of a couple of minutes it flew from Gongaga and passed by the cliff Zack was on. His companion gasped as the Gelnika caused the trees on the cliff to scatter their leaves and made a mess, judging from the cries of complaints he was making.

"…Ah." That was all Zack could muster. His plan of riding the helicopter to Midgar was done for. He would be stuck another year or so before the Recruiters would return or until he could convince his parents to let him go. "There goes my ride."

"I'm not a fan of vehicles but really, I know for sure that wasn't yours." Zack gave Cloud a face of disappointment when turned around to the blond. Cloud looked away. "Sorry."

"It's fine. It's fine. I could wait another year before they would come back and I'm off to Midgar. Be a SOLDIER. Be a hero!" he said, smiling. "You know why I'm out in the forest, right?"

His companion shook his head. "Nope." That was cold. Frigid.

"Come on, humor me for a moment," Zack groaned out. With a smile, he continued, "Anyway, I'm off fighting monsters here, training, for SOLDIER! I heard they are super soldiers that could beat any monster in the world and they are off being heroes at Wutai!" He sat down beside Cloud, head down with a sad expression on his face, replacing his previous happiness. "But I won't be a SOLDIER if I couldn't make it to Midgar. My parents won't allow me to go and I couldn't think of running away."

"Why?" Cloud asked. "Why couldn't you?"

"The people here know me and my family personally that even if I tried to ride a truck to Dunedoo, they would stop me and call my parents to fetch me. I tried it a month ago and I was grounded after they caught me at the highway."

Cloud hummed, which caught Zack's attention. He looked at the blond and saw his eyes were focused. He had a serious expression on his face and Zack would bet he was contemplating something.

"Maybe, hmm… Maybe you could join us?" Cloud asked after a minute of silence.

"…What? Really…? I mean, seriously? You would do that?!"

Cloud smirked. "Me and Ver are travelling already for quite some time so we aren't strangers on the road. We really could use some help to be honest. And besides, you are planning to join this… what do you call it again?"

"SOLDIER."

"Yeah, soldier. Whatever it is, it's at Midgar, right? I'm going to Midgar too. Going to find the relatives of my mother out there. She used to tell us stories of how she had a very large family at Kalm." Cloud stood up, patting his clothes off of any dust and leaves. "It's a city past beyond Midgar so we would pass by it anyway. Last I heard, you have to ride a train to Kalm because the monsters between the two cities are so vicious you would be dead just by looking at them. Which is kinda silly, if you ask me."

Zack shook his head. "I… You lost me back there. But meh. Spike! You're the best!" He stood up and launched himself on the shorter teen. Cloud's spiky hair nuzzled his face, burying his nose on his hair, but Zack wasn't perturbed about it. "You really made the best alibi for me to get out of Gongaga."

"Huh…? But I thought you were running away?" Cloud asked after he dislodged himself off Zack by pushing the taller teen off of him. He straightened his clothes before continuing, "I mean, what alibi ?"

"That you were separated from your parents and had to be brought to Dunedoo, which was the last place your parents are said to be going. I don't know what should I say afterwards but I would say that you latched on to me, seeing me as a big brother, so I had to accompany you to Dunedoo!" His grin just became more animated. "Then you and I will cross the bridge and ran away before the others will notice! Maybe they will even help us in the name of kindness!"

A screech was then heard by Zack from a tree above him, which caused him to remember the white hawk. "Oh yeah, you, me and your hawk. Sorry." The white hawk dropped from the branch he was in, along with a pouch it was apparently holding on, and threw it towards Cloud; he caught it with his eyes shining bright and a smile on his face.

"Took you long." The bird cried back in reply, though Zack wondered how the two managed to understand each other when one is a bird. Probably got used to it as time passed by. "Hm… Remedies and some Potions. Huh, you got a spray type? Wonder how you got that."

The bird flew off to Titan knows where as Cloud finished rummaging through the pouch it had brought at him. "So… Your bird knows how to buy stuff? And they actually treated it as a customer? Neat." His comment was received well by Cloud, with how the kid smiled faintly as they cleaned up the stuff scattered around. Zack saw Cloud took its contents and placed it on the various pockets and clasps he had around his belt and it made Zack wonder how in Gaia did the kid learned how to be that… handy .

"You really look like a proper adventurer now," he commented, smiling. "That jacket with pockets in it, a tool-belt used as a handy Potion-holder, and clasps for that… wait, you even got a sword?!"

Cloud pushed him off him after Zack rushed towards the blond, goal in mind to inspect the strangely designed sword Cloud had. "Where did you hid that and how? I never saw it before when I, uh, got back."

"My little brother found it back at Nibelheim at some Materia Cave and I used magic to make it smaller. Easier to hide, you know. And easier to carry. It has these runes that allowed magic to affect it easier. See?" Cloud raised it and the Materia equipped at its slots started to glow. The rune sword then began to blaze and Zack had to back off from the sudden surge of heat.

"Cool. You only have one?" Cloud gave him a sad smile and Zack took it as an answer. "It's alright. I bet I could find one here, since we're here already in the Ancient Forest." The blond tilted his head in confusion before it changed to straightened up, eyes and mouth wide open.

"You knew about it too?!" Cloud asked. "Well, I guess you would know it since you're a Gongagan after all."

"Hmm…? And how did you found about the Legend of the Ancient Forest Temple?" He teasingly asked. The chance of finding a magic sword in the Ancient Forest was too small than it was to find a concrete road. The Legend of the Ancient Forest Temple was practically an ancient fairytale in the Gongagan Subcontinent: about how an ancient city built at where the Ancient Forest now is found and how it was said to be full of treasures hidden from the public. It was said to be a treasure city of the Ancients, part of an empire that used to rule the world before the calendar was even made! Though for some strange reason, they all disappeared.

"I heard it from Cosmo Canyon and at the store in Walla Walla. I believe the legend is true because hey, I have a magic sword here!" Cloud showed off his rune sword and threw a wave of fire from it, hitting a patch of grass before it died out instantly. "And of course, there's a reason why it's called the Ancient Forest, right?"

"Uhuh, you sure about that?" Well, okay, the kid had a point. There must be a reason why everyone called it the Ancient Forest. "You're sure on tackling the Ancient Forest? I got turned into a toad for Titan's sake! The monsters here are much... wait a minute, we are in the Ancient Forest already."

Cloud stuck out his tongue. "We're still going to go through the forest on the way out so a little exploration wouldn't be a big deal in the end, right? Besides, you need a partner because you just said so. You got turned into a toad . You need someone to fix you if you got turned into one, again. And…" Zack saw Cloud turned around and heard him speak in a low voice, "We could use some help."

The Nibel native twisted around and marched off towards a beaten path off the cliff. "So, you in or not?"

Zack smiled. "Come on. Don't be shy. Of course, I'll be coming with you. You said it yourself, we're in the Ancient Forest so it wouldn't hurt if we tried to search for the temple while making our way out. And I need you as my alibi, by the way, so no running away from me, okay?" he said, finger pointing towards Cloud and posing in his mother's 'scolding position'.

"Whatever. You better pick up the pace then," Cloud replied before skipping down the beaten path. Zack followed suit quickly, backpack at his back.

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Much to both of their expectations, the monsters they encountered in the Ancient Forest were different than what they were used to. Zack got used to fighting bird-type and some bug-type monsters near the Gongaga Forest, which was his mostly used training ground, while Cloud was used to fighting the lizard-type monsters of Cosmo Canyon, wolves of the Nibel Area, and some fish-type monsters that, according to him, could live on the ground as well in water. The Ancient Forest monsters were different.

They were plant-based monsters and Cloud complained they weren't fighting monsters but plants instead. Zack agreed with all of his heart because they just burned a couple of walking flowers with sharp teeth at their centers. They had a mouth and Zack shivered thinking about the poor animals that might have been its dinner earlier.

Sure, there were some of the bug-type monsters, most if not all, that liked to throw out poisonous attacks that caused both of the boys to cough like no tomorrow and paralyzing spores that made their limbs stiff like a rock, but fighting plants was a strange experience for Zack. He had no idea if Cloud himself have encountered their types before but with the way the blond was muttering 'burn to ashes, rocks will fall', Zack was sure he hasn't.

Nevertheless, they breezed past through them with magic. Cloud had given him some of his spare Elemental Materias and Zack gleefully used the bunch against the pesky bug and plant-type monsters. Materia was expensive, very expensive, and Zack was so grateful for the gift Cloud had given to him. His companion gave him a confused look when he thanked the kid but then again, Cloud had a bag full of Materia that Zack wondered if the kid sold Materia to the towns he passed through.

As they went further in the forest, they began to encounter some pretty weird monsters. No more bugs and animal-eating flowers. The monsters they encountered were now birds and a strange plant-type monster, a tall stalk with a leaf on its top that had an eye and had a lot of thorns on top of its own thorns. Much like their previous counterparts at the outer parts of the forest, the two types of monsters liked to throw some pretty weird attacks. Like the bird that prefer to throw some liquid that hurt both of them like they had eaten rotten food; they had to prepare several Remedies and Antidotes after that just in case they encounter them again: their attacks were so poisonous that it worked almost instantly. Despite it being a different type of poison attack, it still belonged to the same category Remedies and Antidotes can cure.

But it wasn't that problematic compared to the stuff the one-eyed leaf brought to the them. The plant-type monster has the weird ability to cause several leaves in the forest to target them and always managed to kick some dust at their eyes. No matter they tried to cover their eyes when it began to call the leaves, both of them always got blinded. Cloud mused it was some sort of magic attack which Zack countered that they were just unlucky.

"What did we do to anger it?! That leaf monster must be pissed at us or something. Its eyes were bulging out Spike. Bulging. Out," Zack cried out as he and Cloud stopped by a huge flower that has thorns and spikes on its petals. Good thing it wasn't moving or else Zack would gladly burn it to a crisp. Maybe it was the parent or a relative of the walking flowers?

"Maybe that's why they liked to blind us? Because they only got one eye and they always got blinded?" Cloud threw a toad he had caught at a nearby stream at the large flower and immediately closed when the toad landed on its center. Zack wished it was a Touch Me though. It would be the perfect payback to those buggers. "Sorry, little guy. But it has to be done," Cloud said with regret and sorrow in his voice. Zack would have been sorry for the toad but… he got turned into a toad and chased by Largebills. Toads aren't on his 'saving list' anymore. Regardless if it's a normal toad.

Touch Me evolved from normal toads and such, it was necessary to kill all toads. For the future generations of Gongagans.

The two then passed through the path the large flower was blocking. It had closed up immediately after Cloud threw the toad at it. It was… pleasing to see the toad be stunned at the realization it was thrown on a flower with thorns. With how it shut tightly and the toad made noises of protest and fear, it made Zack grin. Too bad Cloud caught those buggers before him; it would be an amazing way to release his frustrations.

Zack and Cloud then entered an area where the trees surrounding them seemed to be more congested and packed together. They were now near at some caves, making Zack wonder if there were any monsters living inside them. "Hey! Look. What's that?" Cloud said, pointing to an armlet stuck at a crevice of the stone wall. Cloud went to it and tried to pry it off the wall, but to no avail.

"It's an… armlet. A bangle." Zack gripped the bangle where his given Materia was equipped at. "Maybe a lightning strike will help it loosen it up," he said, charging up the Thunder in his hand. He let it reach to a certain level of strength and released it, a lightning bolt forming from his extended palm towards the area surrounding the armlet. Cloud had already backed up and moved away from it, ensuring his own safety though he still readied a Wall, translucent glass-like wall made out of magic appearing at Cloud's command.

The blast was loud and booming that it caused a lot of stones to explode, hitting the Wall erected beforehand. Good thing he was behind the Wall Cloud had casted because the chunks of rock were enormous, which were soon all lying in front of the casted magic shield. The armlet was on the ground, just a meter away from them and complete intact and no scratch at all.

"…If this doesn't prove the legend was true, then nothing will," Cloud remarked as he knelt down and picked up the armlet, appraising it front of Zack who was looming overhead. It had six slots for Materia, had designs of some sort of spectral being on its underside while having a plain black color on its front, and were gold on its edges. "It's beautiful." Zack noticed after he leaned closely that there were red highlights on its black façade, making it a bit…

"Seems too girlish to me," Zack commented. "Too small and, to be honest, I doubt it would fit right on your arm."

"Yeah, wonder if I could try and have you wear it, hmm?" Cloud quipped back. "I should keep it and save it. Who knows. Maybe we would meet someone who would be perfect for this bangle."

Cloud stored it in a pocket on his tool-belt and stood up, dusting off the rubble that went over the Wall while Zack went towards the brand-new tunnel he had made with his charged Thunder. He peeked in and saw the interior of the cave was large. Larger than the Town Hall in Gongaga and it was, for some reason, lit with a green hue. He also took notice that there were two openings at the distance, probably connecting to the other parts of the forest or the actual entrance to the cave.

"Hey! Let me in, will you? Can't squeeze my way," Cloud said behind him, looking around the area they were in. Zack moved, allowing the shorter kid to enter, and gained a smirk on his face at the expression Cloud had on his face after he saw the cave interior. "Wow. Hey, look at that! Mako Crystals!"

Cloud then sprinted towards a green crystal that was lodged on the wall of the cave interior. Now that the blond had mentioned it, the cave was littered with the green crystals and were responsible for the lighting the otherwise dark location. "You say they're Mako Crystals?" Zack asked, picking up the comment Cloud made.

"Uhuh." His companion was taking in the sight of the crystals were making on the cave ceiling with a grin on his face. "Mako naturally crystallizes when they're outside the Mako Springs or out of the Mako Pools. According to the books I read, they were used as some sort of energy source by the Ancients before they disappeared and I know it's kinda true because I heard the Mako Reactors constantly have Crystals forming outside the place," Cloud spoke as he ran towards the entrance they just went through. "Hey, Ver! Take a look at this!"

A few moments after Cloud shouted, the white hawk swooped it through the large hole and perched on the kid's shoulder. "Aren't they beautiful?" A chirp from the hawk and Cloud's grin grew wider. "Bet that there's some hidden tunnel right around the corner, just like in Cosmo Canyon?"

Zack was about to ask what Cloud had meant about 'just like in Cosmo Canyon' but Cloud ran off with his pet white hawk, leaving him to chase them afterwards. Well, Cloud said he came from Nibelheim so he must have passed through Cosmo Canyon before coming to the area around Gongaga. And there was also how he had 'read' about Mako Crystals from a book. Rumors said that Cosmo Canyon was a place for some research about the Planet so if Cloud had read something about the crystals formed from the Mako Reactors, he must have gone to Cosmo Canyon and read. Though how did they come up with the idea of the crystals as some sort source of energy was something Zack didn't give any serious thought. It wasn't that important for now.

What was important was to chase the boy and his bird to whatever part of the vast cavern they were in before the monsters that could have been hiding attack them. Zack knew that Cloud could handle them on his own, with his rune sword and the magic he could cast with Materia, but it would be bad if he got outnumbered or got blinded or paralyzed. Sure, Zack's punches and kicks were strong against the large birds that keeps on throwing poisonous water attacks and his magic was apparently strong enough to burn the leaf monsters to a crisp while Cloud could have his rune sword be engulfed in flames, doing damage and burning them at the same time, but that was not the point why he should accompany the kid. When – not if because it will happen – Cloud got paralyzed or blinded, he would be open to attacks as he went to search for the appropriate cure.

In the Ancient Forest, Zack needed Cloud to watch his back and the same for him as well. Not leaving Zack while he goes to do some spelunking, alone. He has his hawk but still… It's better to be safe, right? It's better to have a decent chance not be toad-ed again.

Zack doesn't know how or when it happened but he has an idea the two may have done something as he was chasing them because he came across a strange looking tunnel on one on of the cave walls. It was strange because the tunnel seemed to have been blocked by a large boulder or some sort of wall, which was the exact case for Zack had noticed there was a large, rectangle block of stone leaning on one of the cave walls inside the tunnel. He went through and let out a sigh, relieved that there was still lighting from the crystals scattered throughout the cave's ceilings that Cloud claimed to be Mako Crystals.

They certainly had the color of Mako, smoky green, which painted the entire cave with a green hue. Not like the grass and leaves outside, which were bright green, but it was like a result of green and white mixed together.

"…so that means the entire place was hidden because of a super-charged Quake!" He can hear Cloud rambling, which means he was getting near. Making his way down through the tunnel, because he was sure he was getting deeper since the ground appears to be a slope after a certain distance from the entrance, Zack arrived at clearing. A wide clearing on top of a platform.

He made a gasp. He was expecting some sort of a hidden altar just like at Gongaga for Titan but he didn't expect to find a hidden village under the forest. Zack could see buildings made out of stone at the distance while there was some sort of pathway made out of some sort of glass towards the buildings. There were some coming from the platform he came to and Cloud was on top of one, inspecting the glass-like bridge, while his hawk was on a stone pillar, watching the blond.

"H-Hey! You left me back there!" Zack exclaimed. "What if you got paralyzed or blinded on the way here?"

"But I didn't. And I got Ver with me, see? You seem to be fine so I think there's nothing wrong in the end," Cloud replied, not turning back at him while inspecting the bridge. "Wow, it is a crystal bridge, not an ice one."

Cloud stood up and slowly made steps on the bridge. He was apparently just testing if it could handle his weight by jumping a couple of times before he stepped back to solid ground. "Ver, you go ahead and look for something," he said without looking at the hawk while he went to the other side of the platform. There was some sort of stone fences on the platform with stone pillars at the corners, making the platform look like a balcony of sorts. Like the large one Zack saw once at Walla Walla's Town Hall when he and his father bought some coconuts and Wutain goods.

"Can you believe this Zack?! A hidden city under the Ancient Forest!" Cloud turned around to him with eyes wide open in glee. He then frowned, saying, "Wait, maybe this is just an outpost or a village. Not too large for a village honestly. A settle… ment? Perhaps...?"

"Hey, slow down for a while, okay?" Zack said, uneasiness apparent on his face. "I'm still working on the fact that there's something here so please, calm down Cloud." He breathed in deeply and did some squats, working off the tension he had made when the kid ran off previously. Sure, Cloud had travelled all by himself but Zack could now attest that he now understood why his parents were so worked up everytime he ran off by himself. It was not a very nice feeling.

Zack stepped closer to Cloud and put his arms on the kid's shoulders. "Hey, listen," he spoke in a low voice, making Cloud look up to him. "Don't run off without me, okay. I was worried." Cloud looked away. "Seriously. I know you are on your own for a while but please, you scared me when you ran off by yourself." Cloud tried to protest but Zack didn't let him. "I know we just met but I'm genuinely concerned about you. So please." Cloud dropped his head.

He released his hold on Cloud's shoulders, at which Cloud placed his hand on where Zack's was moments earlier and wrapped an arm around his waist, still not facing the taller boy. "…Sorry," he said after a few moments. "Sorry if I ran off. I thought you were following us and I… Sorry."

Zack pushed Cloud lightly. "Well, it's okay Spike. You're fine. I'm fine. Your pet hawk- "

"His name's Ver and he's not my pet. He's my little brother."

"Okay, okay, your brother is fine so there's nothing to worry about now." Grabbing Cloud's free arm, Zack dragged the kid towards the bridge he was inspecting before. "What's left is checking this place out, grab some… What's your plan anyway? After searching the lost temple, that is."

Cloud scrunched up his nose and squinted at the distant balcony the bridge was connected to. "We were planning to check and find some Materia, we sell them after making them multiply because they're actually so valuable at stores. Hm... then find some lost weapon or item? This sword I have is ancient, you know that, right? Then for sure there are more of them." He then patted the pocket where the bangle they found earlier was stored before slowly walking on the bridge, arms extended on both sides. "And I want to find more of this. It could be worth something big."

"Planning to sell them at the first chance at Gongaga?" Zack asked, following the blond on the glass-like bridge. The drop below was deep judging from the lack of lighting, even with the slight glow of the green crystals on the cave's walls and ceiling. Now that he saw what was below them, Zack noticed the buildings were made out of some sort of stone or cement. Although he couldn't see what were their designs looked like, Zack clearly saw that it was beautiful, making him frown at the idea the place was abandoned for quite a long time.

He and Cloud walked slowly on the long glass-like bride, both admiring the abandoned place at their own pace. Cloud constantly paused and inspect a part of the city they would come across on the bridge, which Zack would use the time to watch and search for any monsters that might be lurking. He wasn't careful before and it got him toad-ed .

As they made their way through the bridge, it began to have railings; both them sighed in relief at the sight of it, prompting them to place their hands on it and take a breather. Strangely, it seemed the air was fresher than before, which was a bit stuffy due to the lack of flowing wind. Zack focused on his surroundings, something he didn't beforehand because of his concentration on balancing and possibility of surprise attacks, and noticed the subtle change in lighting. It was now brighter, as if someone broke a part of the cave's ceiling and let sunlight through. He looked up and smiled faintly. A part of the cave's ceiling was broken at the distance and Zack was sure it would lead them out of the Ancient Forest.

He focused on the wind. Before, it was still which was a given because they're inside a cave, but now, it was moving. Zack grinned. "Seems we found our exit. Do you think there's a chance there is a hidden pathway out here?" His companion ahead just grunted.

"Maybe. If it was the same as before then my sword would be a big help on getting us out here." Cloud took a deep breath and exhaled. "Okay, let's go. I can feel it. That's an altar there and I bet there's something on it."

"…I swear I'm in an episode of Laguna and the Hidden Temples. This is too amazing."

Cloud laughed. "Maybe it's because they used the stories of the temples and cities of the Ancients? Watched it once at Walla Walla and I'm surprised they got Cosmo Canyon right."

"What?! You mean Cosmo Canyon has a hidden stable for Chocobos? Underground?!" He leaped on the platform, following Cloud who did before him. They reached the end of the bridge and Cloud was correct. There was an altar, just like in Gongaga, and the hole above them was letting in the sunlight. Zack squinted and saw plants were growing on the edges of the hole, vines creeping down from above and birds chirping at the distance.

"They also have an underground river where they get water. It's quite new really because they just found it by the time we got to Cosmo Canyon," Cloud said, walking towards the altar. "Cool. Maybe we'll check the rest after I get this." Zack saw the object Cloud was referring to on the altar was a strange sword. It was a weirdly designed sword, in fact Zack wasn't sure it was even a sword at all.

Cloud grabbed it off its pedestal and brought it to Zack. He gaped at its size and the fact Cloud picked it up like it weighed nothing. "Hm… It's too light. Check it out Zack," Cloud said as he practically dropped the sword's hilt on Zack's hands. Zack immediately fumbled with it, afraid of its supposed weight, but found it lighter than he expected.

It was too light . "…It weighs like nothing. Is it because of its design?" He had seen countless of swords before and Zack knew it use depends on the blade used. The sword on his hand was a jumbled piece of steel that made up its 'sword' shape and judging from the flick he made with his finger, it was also hollow. "Maybe it's a… magic sword too?"

"Probably. Look," Cloud stated, pointing to it hilt. There were three small hole slots, most likely for Materia, and one was already occupied with a yellow Materia. Cloud placed his finger on it and closed his eyes. "It's… Hm… It's a 'Slash-All' Materia. Wow, it's different from mine. Maybe its yellow?"

He knew there are different types of Materia, they all have different colors, but all he knew was the Magic Materias and he never saw other colored Materias aside from the green Magic Materias. Cloud pulled out a pouch from his backpack and brought out a purple colored Materia. He focused on it before he gave it to Zack and returned rummaging. "That's a, uh, 'Long Range' Materia. With it, you can magically hit the monsters that are so far away from you if you focused on them. Well, if you focused because it doesn't work unless you gave it a thought."

"Uhuh," Zack said, taking the purple Materia and placing it inside a slot. Cloud handed him another Materia. This time it was green Materia, though it seemed to be darker than the one he had on his bangle. "I got one already."

"Just hold it for a while." Zack took the Materia and he lightly twirled it with his fingers. Finding no harm to check what type of Magic was inside the Materia, Zack focused his mind on the Materia. Inside Zack found too many types of Magic inside that he cut off his focus and stared at the orb on his hand. Cloud took it from his hand and replaced it with a lighter green Materia. He must have noticed Zack's shocked expression because he said, "Oh right, that was a Master Magic Materia. All Magic spells in one Materia. Pretty neat, huh?"

Zack just gaped at the kid's nonchalant attitude at the strange Materia. It was already hard to concentrate and charge up a Thundera from his Thunder Materia, how could he search and charge up a magic spell from various types inside that Materia? "It was hard at first but I got the hang of it. Anyway," Cloud continued, pointing his now free hand to the Magic Materia on his palm. "That's a Fire Materia. You keep on complaining on wanting to burn those critters personally and I remembered I have one on hand. Sorry if I forgot to give it to you earlier."

"No no, it's okay. It's okay. Thanks," Zack replied, placing the Fire Materia on the last slot. The moment he placed the last Materia, the sword began to weigh heavier than before until he couldn't handle it with one hand. "Oh. So, that's how it works."

Cloud looked jealous at first but he shook his head and made a smile. Zack tried to ask the blond but it seemed Cloud had anticipated him. "Nah, I got my own rune sword so it's yours. Make sense since it came here and you're a Gongagan native. Besides, I can't handle that large and heavy sword, especially if it became heavier as more Materia is place in it." He brought out his sword and pointed towards the three occupied Materia slots and one unoccupied one. Cloud then slotted the Materia he had on one and the sword briefly glowed. "I like using magic, just like Ver, so it's easier for me to have many magic options. I bet it gets heavier as more Magic spells are found inside the Materia."

"...You noticed it too huh." Cloud was right. The yellow Materia was already in it but it weighed nothing. He added the Long Range and it still weighed nothing. But when he added the Fire Materia, it felt heavier than before. And Zack was sure that the Fire Materia Cloud had given to him have reached peaked condition already, making it 3 Fire spells in it. "It slowly went heavier until I have to place it on the ground." Zack grunted before he heaved the sword from the ground. It wasn't that heavy and his father's logs were much heavier than the sword. "Hm… Seems like a perfect match for me, right?" he stated, hefting the strange looking sword over his shoulder with a grin on his face.

Cloud grinned back. He was about to comment where the hawk was before everything went dark all of a sudden. Both of them looked up and saw something looming over the hole at the cave's ceiling. The large green something jumped and almost didn't fit in the hole. It squeezed itself in, causing tremors throughout the entire underground space.

Cloud had to kneel and use his sword as a stand while Zack did the same because the tremors the large green monster was making was strong that it almost made them fall over. After a few shifts the monster fell from the hole and roared as it caused several chunks of rock to fall from the cave's ceiling.

It was a green plant like monster but for some reason it had a pink skirt-like thing around its waist, like it was some sort of monster impersonating a person. It had two limbs that were full of thorns and a large mouth with lots of teeth. Its legs also seemed to be legs of a normal monster but apparently, it was a combination of vines that shaped to look like a leg. The monster lacked eyes but Zack felt it didn't need one because the monster had two large holes where one could expect a nose to be found.

He knew some monsters use the sense of smell to track their enemies, just like dogs who can track down their owners just by smelling their clothes, so the large skirt-wearing monster must be using the sense of smell as a way to find its prey. The monster swung its large limbs at the direction, making him and Cloud to ran away just to avoid it.

It must have sensed its attack didn't hit them because it roared and spewed yellow colored dust from its 'mouth' upwards. The dust seemed to be some sort of pollen and its dust cloud slowly descended to the ground. Cloud was unlucky because he accidentally found himself in the dust cloud as he hopped back to avoid the monster's limb. Zack then knew it was a paralyzing dust cloud because Cloud couldn't move and his eyes were wide open in shock.

Zack fumbled with his sword and swiped it, focusing on the Long-Range Materia to activate. He knew he doesn't have much time to reach Cloud nor the limb that was fast approaching his friend so Zack decided to trust Cloud's instructions, using the Long-Range Materia's magic. A phantom slash then appeared on the monster's limb, a deep slash with some parts of it glowing red and charred , causing the monster's attack to miss Cloud completely and it to roar from the sudden attack.

Good thing the platform they were on was nowhere near the bridge nor the chasm because it would spell bad news if they tumbled down accidentally. Zack sprinted towards Cloud, fumbling his pockets for a Remedy to remove the paralysis while watching the monster's action. It was still roaring from the pain it must be feeling, making a grin appear on Zack's face. Serves it right.

Remedy on hand, he pushed them through Cloud's mouth and saw Cloud swallow it. Remedies work like magic because as soon as it was ingested, it worked fast to remove the status effect one was suffering. In Cloud's case, he immediately stopped from being paralyzed and quickly placed his hand around his sword's hilt. The green Materia on the hilt glowed for a moment and the two of them were briefly engulfed in a bright white light. It disappeared quickly and Zack saw a translucent barrier around him and Cloud that resembled a shield.

"Resist. That should take care of the paralyzing dust cloud," Cloud stated, after making a slash with his sword and a wound appear on the monster's body. "Sorry if I didn't use it before, my Heal Materia was with Ver and the only Resist spell I have was in my Master Magic. And I was making my other Materia to multiply. Sorry."

Zack could understand that. Besides, paralysis was different than blindness and poison because they could still grab a Remedy and remove it as soon as possible while paralysis completely makes one immobile. He focused a Fire from the Fire Materia on his sword and the sword became engulfed temporarily in flames. Zack then threw the fire on his sword towards the monster and it screamed.

It countered their attacks by having leg-like vines tunnel through the ground and shot up below. Both of them tried to run away from the sudden change but they got caught by the fast attack. Their legs got entwined by the vines, making them incapable of moving. Cloud tried to cut them and Zack tried to burn them too but more vines immediately replaced what was removed.

"Why this little…" Cloud closed his eyes and focused on charging an attack. Zack saw his friend did it and focused on protecting him from the vines that tried to attack by throwing fireballs at it and cutting with his Long-Range Materia. The monster must have noticed Cloud charging because it focused all of its vines to strike Cloud. "Take this you oversized bulb!" Cloud shouted as he swung his sword and small fireball flew from it.

It hit the monster directly at its skirt and it exploded, flames dancing on its weird dress. The vines on their legs retreated to its owner, enabling them to move again. Clearly angered, the monster turned its vines into legs again and jumped towards them. Cloud and Zack scrambled away and the monster landed on their previous location. It turned around while swinging its limbs in a flailing motion, hitting Zack from behind.

"Zack!" He could hear Cloud cry out as he flew from the hit. He almost hit a wall before something hit him. It felt he was stuck or hit by a paralysis temporarily but he was still above the air. He then fell to ground as fast as he stopped but he was caught by a sudden patch of swirling air, cushioning his fall until he was safe on the ground.

"Phew, that was close," a young voice said. Zack turned towards where the voice came from and saw a kid. The kid had a cap on his head and was wearing the same type of clothes Cloud was wearing. He was tempted to call the kid as Cloud's twin but he saw Cloud was across the other side and running towards him. "Hey, get up. You guys should have waited for me, you know."

"Thanks for the save," Zack hastily spoke, gasping from the shock he received from the attack earlier. "Who are you?" He noticed the kid had green eyes with same brightness as Cloud's and had two bangles on his arms with Materias on it.

"Hmm…? Oh, sorry, forgot to introduce myself. I'm Ver!" the kid said, grabbing his hand and shaking it. As soon as the kid grabbed him, he dropped it and ran towards Cloud. "Cloud! You should have stopped for me!"

"Where were you anyway?!" Cloud shouted, ducking from a swipe of the monster's vines. "Did you saw this from above?!"

"Yeah, the town's pretty close but I saw the monster slowly making its way back to the hole. Sorry if I'm late." The kid whose name sounded so close to the white hawk threw two fireballs. "Hey, what's wrong with you?" he asked, turning towards Zack.

"Where did you came from?! And how did you know Cloud!? And why is your name sound so close to his hawk!?" Zack asked incredulously, making phantom slashes at the monster while cutting any vines that tried to come closer to them. The flames Cloud had made on its pink colored skirt were gone and didn't seem to have happened at all, making Zack frown from the wasted charged attack. He heard Cloud groaned out a moment later, signaling the same idea had gone through his friend's mind. The monster went to a squatting position and Zack recognized what it was planning to do.

"I'm the hawk, stupid. Did you forget the kid that tried to save you before from the big birds?" The three of them scampered away before the monster landed, with Cloud going towards the west side of the large altar platform while he and the kid with a cap on his head to the other. "Wait, maybe you didn't saw me…?"

"There was no kid! It was only a hawk! A white hawk!" Cloud swiped a vine that came close with a slash and threw another fireball. "Don't tell me you're the hawk?!"

"I. Am. The. Hawk." Then the kid turned into a bird, swooping towards the monster's head and changed into a person again in an instant. There were no sparkles like the one he saw on Saturday TV shows but just instant change, like in a blink of an eye. He landed on top of the monster's head and placed both his hands at where its eyes supposed to be at. "I guess I didn't, huh." The kid's wrists flashed a green glow and ice began to form from his hands, encasing the head of the monster momentarily. Its limbs immediately went to its head, clearly to swipe the ice or the one who made the ice off, and he transformed back into the hawk, flying off back to Zack's side.

"…Oh." Now that he knew the hawk was a kid, Cloud's words now made sense. Why he referred the hawk as his brother and why he was so flustered at Zack calling it a pet. He must have thought Zack was making a joke or something. "Wait, did Cloud thought I knew about… you?"

The kid seemed to mull it over, taking off the cap on his head and ruffled his black hair underneath it. "I think? Maybe? You're taking this way too easy," he said, releasing three consecutive fireballs at the fumbling monster with its ice-cased head. Cloud was busy trying to burn it with cries of ' turn brown you big leaf!' and explosions of flames. "Cloud seemed to be enjoying this."

"…Yeah," Zack admitted after witnessing Cloud went all full terror at the vines the monster kept on throwing at him by cutting them with the currently blazing rune sword he has on his hands. "Well, I got turned into a toad. If a toad could turn someone into another toad, why not a person into another animal ? Right? I think Cloud said something about this…"

The kid chuckled. "Something along like ' I believe it's true because I got a magic sword!' ? Ever since I found that sword at some cave in Nibelheim, he became a believer of various ancient legends. Me too, by the way, because hey! I can turn into animals and some monsters at will!" he stated with his chin raised up and hands position on his hips. Zack turned to Cloud and saw he was still on chopping the vines the monster had for legs while the limbs it had for arms were frozen solid. "Huh. The parts where it all plant got frozen but it doesn't seem to stick."

Zack looked up and saw the ice at the monster's head began to disappear, not melting but disintegrating . Like dust in the wind type. "That looks bad," he said, readying his sword. The kid beside him nodded and clenched his fists, bracelets glowing. "Name's Zack Fair. You're…?"

"Veränderung Strife, Ver for short. It's spelled with a ' V ', okay, though it is pronounced as an ' f' , okay?" A yellow glow engulfed him, the kid and Cloud briefly before it was followed by a sudden gust of wind circling around the monster. "Nice to meet you, Zack! Let's get along!" Cloud noticed the changes and made his way back to them.

"Took you two long enough to introduce each other," Cloud started as the monster got caught up in the small tornado the kid was apparently making. Ver had his arm held out and eyes focused on the monster and the almost visible tornado he was making. "Fire gets to it but burns don't. Maybe it has some kind of resistance to Fire?"

"Nah, I saw some of the vines you cut burned to ashes so no, it's not resistant to flames. Not even burns," Zack commented, making more gashes appear on the monster's body using his sword. "Ugh, what is it wearing? Is there some strap we could remove it? It's like it's wearing some sort of skirt!"

"Then let's cut it! Maybe it's special like that one ring we bought at Walla Walla! The one from that weird guy with coconuts? It…" Ver closed his eyes momentarily before opening them again. "It repels status effects, Cloud! No wonder we couldn't burn it!"

Zack paused momentarily. "...Status effects? Oh, like poison and paralyzed." He then quickly berated himself from forgetting, considering he was under a very annoying status effect recently.

"Hey, you're right! That skirt's cloth is like that Fire Ring! Zack! Help me find its straps and Ver could take it off the ground and inflict some burns!" Cloud then ran off to the back of the still immobilized monster, with the kid now creating small shards of ice to the tornado he was making. Zack followed Cloud on getting near the monster and noticed the monster was really wearing a skirt.

It looked it was originally a small and extravagant looking skirt but the monster must have squeezed itself into wearing it, causing the skirt to stretch like mad. Cloud and Zack worked on cutting the skirt at a certain part of it that looked like it would rip off if given the chance. After a couple of slashes with their sword equipped with Long Range Materia, the skirt fell off and flew off with the wind. The monster noticed it and tried to get it back using its vine arms but the cloth disappeared when something hit it.

A flash and Zack saw it appear at Cloud's hands with a small dagger through it. "Phew. Never knew I would use it like that," Cloud said, rolling the quite long pink used-to-be-a-skirt cloth and placing it inside his backpack. Zack inspected the small knife and saw the dagger had two slots for Materia which had a single green Materia and a light blue Materia. Cloud placed it back to a small sheath on his belt and secured it tightly. "Now…"

Zack wanted to ask what just Cloud did but he decided to ask later. Cloud had a grin on his face and his hand was twitching. He backed off and let Cloud walk a bit closer to the large monster that was now had its leg-shaped vines all frozen. It spewed out its paralyzing dust cloud but the magic barrier Cloud had cast beforehand glowed, preventing any of the dust to come closer to Cloud and Zack.

"You oversized weed! Listen! You need to be trimmed and burned to ashes! And guess what?! I'm going to do it! BY! MYSELF!" Cloud clenched his fists, sword sheathed at his side, and charged towards it. The monster noticed his action and tried to retaliate by swinging its limbs to his friend, but both Zack and Ver evidently stopped it with their respective attacks, a lightning bolt from Zack and a large ice shard from Ver. With its attack countered, Cloud managed to get a solid hit on the monster, creating a deep gash on its body that was somewhat fleshy despite its plant-like appearance. Red burns were left on its body as Cloud's flaming sword sliced through its leafy outer skin.

The hat wearing kid then made the tornado whirling around them to intensify, concentrating on the monster instead of them. It seemed to be stunned when the wind began to pick up, its vine-like legs losing its grip on the ground. Ver's tornado then burst into flames, burning and scorching its legs, arms and body at the same time as it went up in the air due to the strong wind currents. Zack then heard something hit the ground, making him turn his head towards the noise and saw Ver kneeling on leg with a grin on his face, bullets of sweat dripping from his forehead. He motioned to help the younger boy up but he stopped when the said kid stood up and tried to cast another magic spell, based on the dim glow from the bracer on his arm. Keyword: tried.

Ver managed only to create a shoddy looking ice pillar near Cloud that Zack thought the kid had misaimed his spell. He tried to ask the kid when Ver turned around and grinned, gesturing him to look at Cloud instead. Zack did and what he saw made him grin as well.

The blond jumped on the ledges of the evidently stable and sturdy ice pillar all the way to the top. His bracer then glowed a green glow, signaling a magic spell was in action.

"What's he doing?" Zack asked. "Is he going to throw another fireball?"

"Nah, he's gonna try something else. We have been playing around with our Magic Materias and Cloud discovered he has an affinity with Comet spells."

"…Comet? Affinity?"

"Ah… Affinity is like what you're good at or something you excel at? Like I'm much better with magic than Cloud but he counters it with him being good with his sword. You get that?"

Now that he understood. It was like a preference or specialty. Like his mother was good in cooking those Large Bills while his dad was only good with vegetables.

"And Comet? What's that? Never heard of it before." In all honesty, all he knew was the 4 basic Elemental spells that he saw being performed on television or by the various people he met at the other villages in the Gongagan Subcontinent.

"Think of a rock. A rock that falls down so fast from the sky to the ground. That's Comet."

"…A rock. Really?" What could a rock do? Aside from making a very big bump on someone's head and ensuring a very long time with a block of ice on their head.

Ver rolled his eyes. "Just watch."

And they were just on time to see Cloud jump from his position on the ice pillar, slashing the air in front of him and creating a strange tear in the air, as if he just cut space. He couldn't see what actually was inside the tear but it began to expand and out came several rocks that then burst into flames. The flaming rocks then began to bombard on the monster, earning a very loud screech from it before it was toppled over by Cloud's attack.

"Oh." He felt something click in his head and his body shivered from the scene. Zack was still seeing the worn down rocks and their flames even when there wasn't anything left, all because it was so cool.

The kid beside him punched his side, making him look down and saw his grin grew wider. "Told 'ya."

He returned his attention to the monster and saw it fall down at the edge of their platform. Before it fell, Zack was sure that it wouldn't survive even if it found itself safe from the fall. The burns from the blazing tornado Ver had made, the deep wound from Cloud's sword, the various cut 'limbs' from his and their attacks, and the finishing blows of Cloud's Comet spell ensured that it won't come back anytime soon. But he was curious of what would happen to it that he sprinted off towards the edge, the exact place where it fell as soon it disappeared from his sight.

Unsurprisingly, the two obviously adopted brothers followed him, with Cloud hopping down from the quickly collapsing ice pillar and Ver running as fast as he could. There they looked over the edge and saw the monster hitting a couple of stone pillars and probably some old buildings below. Cloud groaned out loud while Ver sighed.

"Huh? Why are you- "

"So many old and possibly ancient artifacts lost to that flailing monster!" Cloud exclaimed, stomping the stone platform they were on with his foot and making pained expressions on his face. "And it's still alive!"

"Well, not anymore," the younger boy chirped, pointing down towards the dark valley. "The last building it struck finished it off."

Zack looked back and saw the monster down on the ground, its parts slowly dissipating into green mist. "Oh boy, there it goes."

"Good riddance to it," their 'victimized' companion spat out, a term Zack mentally tagged after witnessing his aghast expression on the cliff . "Thanks to it, the things we could have sold at the next town are now lessened or damaged."

"Come on Cloud, the underground village is quite large." Ver waved his hands and couple of glowing orbs of light appeared. He then motioned some to move below and the orbs followed suit, lighting various areas of the dark area. "I'm pretty sure we can find more."

"Um, what did you just do?" Zack asked. "You made those light orbs appear like it was nothing!"

"That's a Flash. I just played with it and made it become balls," the kid replied, waving his hand in a dismissive manner. He then turned his back at Zack and went towards his brother, poking in his side. "Oh, now that you reminded me, what were you thinking Cloud? You didn't introduce me to Zack?!"

"W-What?!"

"He didn't know I was the hawk! And you told me he already knows!"

"But I told him you were my brother countless of times! Right, Zack?"

The two brothers then turned to him, Cloud with a pleading expression while Ver with a challenging one.

"Uh, Cloud keep on repeating that you're his brother."

"See!?"

"But he didn't tell me the bird wasn't a bird at all! I thought he was crazy when he kept on saying the bird's his brother."

"What the-? You didn't saw him as a person before he scooped you up?"

It was Zack's turn to send Cloud a questioning look. "No. What made you think that?"

"…Oh."

"Now that we all know why Zack was surprised at seeing me and why this blockhead assumed you know things already, can we all now discuss how we can get out from this place?"

Zack and Cloud looked up at the large hole above them. As Zack pondered on whether they should trace their steps back to the entrance of the cave and find a different route out of the Forest, Cloud perked up and voiced, "Escape? Exit? Teleport?"

"Hah. Funny, Cloud. Have you forgotten we just sold them at Walla Walla and currently, our Exit Materias only have the Escape spell in them. I'm not that good yet with the Teleport spell."

"Aw. Then what about any exits topside? You saw some?"

"Yeah but I have to check if they do connect here. Maybe they're duds like the ones at Cosmo Canyon."

Zack then decided to join in. "What about retracing our steps?"

Both brothers turned towards him, deep in thought, before simultaneously shaking their heads. "Too far for us and by the time we got out, maybe it's already dark," Cloud said. Ver nodded, adding his own opinion, "And if we do get out in time before the sun set, the nearest town to far away from. In fact, we are much closer to Gongaga here than at the entrance."

"How?" Zack asked.

"Just above that hole and a few meters away, there's a shed I stumbled near a house where a man and a woman lived. The shed looked kinda used, with lots of logs and woodcrafts in it that- "

"Hey! That's our house! You mean we are that close to Gongaga?!"

Ver let out a sigh, taking off his cap again to scratch his head. "Yeah, we are too close. Made me wonder how come no one discovered this extra large hole above us. I mean, it is so big. For sure someone must have noticed there's this large hole in the ground, right?"

"Honestly, we kinda know about this hole," Zack started, walking towards the partially destroyed altar in the center of the platform they were at. "But we thought it was like those sinkholes at the desert and we just never bothered to investigate it much. Not to mention that we really care about this part of our forest since it is Gongaga's main source of income, aside from the Mako Reactor nearby. We like our forest to stay the same, thank you very much" He turned around towards the two, noting Cloud had made his way over to a small corridor at the corner and Ver following him with his focus up at the sky beyond the large hole in the cave. "I think I remember a story how our village was originally established to protect something. Maybe it has some truth in it?"

"Well, I found a magic sword for Cloud, you two found another magic sword, we three fought a sneaky magical and oversized plant monster and there's a ruin of a settlement underneath Gongaga that is connected to the Ancient Forest. I dunno, Zack. Cloud and I pretty much broke a lot of bedtime stories for the past years. Can't say much about yours, though."

"You're really something, aren't 'ya?"

"Hey! You two! I found a passage here! Seems to be connected to somewhere? You guys wanna follow me or not?!"

"Should I go ahead and search above?"

"Hm… Nah, you'll probably get lost finding the secret passageway. Besides, your orbs of lights maybe handy right now."

"Hey! You two coming or what?!"

Both Zack and Ver shook their heads and ran to the corridor Cloud went into earlier. "We're coming!"


A.N.

The names used for the Gongagan Subcontinent towns are all from real world locations, found in the list of weird and unique names for towns and cities all over the world.

Also I made an attempt to make heads and tails about that certain mob exclusive only at the arena, where according to the beta files, it should have been a mob at the Ancient Forest. Huh...


Next Chapter:

Cloud: Deal with the aftermath. And pick up your bet winnings from Reno.