The Calm After The Storm
* * * * *
Chapter 30: A child...lost?
Nothing moved in this world now.
Sobbing, agonised sobbing, the sounds of anguish, the voices of hatred and grief swirled around the place filling it with a tangiable sheet of pain.
Cloud lay on the deck, the cold sting of the metal not registering on the skin of his body any more as he lay and sobbed uncontrollably.
His head ached with pain and anguish as a thousand million questions burned, each and every one of them a burning coal that singed and seared the flesh of thought away and replaced it with raw, infected blisters of primal emotion and dark confusion.
'How could this have happened?' He thought, his mind unable to comprehend what he had seen only moments beforehand.
'How could I have failed so terribly?'
He began to sob again as the evil churning wave of creeping emotions washed over him smothering his mind and sending ripples of tortured pain through his soul.
Sobbing. The only singing in this new and shrivelled shadow of a world, this world where fear and terror writhed and slopped on its scabrous and lightless crust like an evil ocean of black slush.
Vincent was standing over the console, his gaze slithering over the crippled landscape below the ship.
A great ring of devastation had raced forth from the explosion, leveling everything in its' path. Trees, grasslands, bushes, reduced in seconds to cinders by the shockwaves.
Even the road, the great black serpent of asphalt that had slithered from the city like a welcoming tongue, ushering travellers into the lights and the delights of Midgar now sat a third of its' course as an agonised bubbling mass of melted tar. Eruptions of gasses from the oil-slick black of the destroyed highway rose, mating with the brown stench of devastated vegetation and cementing human and natural loss together as blood brothers.
Those few cars that were unlucky enough to be caught up in the blast now sat, their broken roasted shells mired into the bubbling gloop that once had been as solid as granite beneath the soft rubber of their tires, which themselves had been erased from existence by the heat and movement of the energy leaving only bald and blackened rims behind.
Paint was blown off leaving only the neglected epitaph of scorched and oxidized metal which now smouldering as molten glass from the windows of these luckless vehicles dribbled from gnarled frames and cooled into various mutated positions on the battered metal.
Vincent could not see the interiors of the cars but had he been granted the ability to pass his gaze through solid objects he would have seen human ruination sitting in symbiosis with mechanical.
Even to Vincent, it didn't bear thinking about.
The drivers of these vehicles would have suffered a much longer and considerably more painful death than the poor souls in Midgar.
Those in Midgar would have died instantly when the spell finally erupted forth whereas these unfortunate tourists would have been scorched in the heat and forced to wait those 20 or so seconds of maddening pain for the merciful angels of death in their robes of green fire to take them to a place where pain had no grip on them.
All that remained now of these unknown travellers were their bones, charred, naked, laid bare by the waves of Ultima.
Their blackened, fire-kissed skulls with their jaws hanging open and roaring silently in pain, immortalising that final scream of anguish before the blast finally, mercifully, killed them.
In the distance, several huge flashes of light burst forth again as the remnants of the city quaked under the force of secondary explosions.
Not that it mattered, not a single thing could possibly have survived the first blast.
Nothing remained alive in Midgar anymore for the new explosions to claim.
A strange sensation came over Vincent as he surveyed the devastated land and he felt his hand move up his body and rest on his face.
A soft and neglected tear slowly slipped down his cheek prompting Vincent to recoil his hand in shock.
So long had it been that he was unable to effectively articulate and process the response.
Was this an emotional response?
Vincent gently wiped the tear away, the cold nip of the steel claw chilling the greyish skin of his face as he looked back towards what had been a city.
It was a great scar on the land now, blackened and dead.
The green and the life around the revived metropolis now scorched as flurries of ash circled like ghosts in the nuclear winds that poured out from the dead place, a place where life had been not pinched out but crushed out by one who sought the power of a God.
There was a great crash.
Vincent's head snapped around and he saw that Barret was on his feet.
What burned now in his eyes was a fury so powerful and a hatred so strong that it even shocked Vincent.
He had never seen such rage, not even the beasts within his soul posessed fury that great. He had never seen a human so charged with hatred, the great form of Barret barely containing the power of the emotions he was channeling, the emotions that flowed so visibly in his eyes that they must have been flowing through his veins as blood gave way to fire.
His gaze was fixed on the ground, on the form of the fallen warrior who lay and anguished on the dull steel of the deck.
Cloud did not look round, he just knew what the noise had been. Surely he must have felt the gaze of Barret on his body, a gaze so strong it was like the rays of a cold and bitter sun, a laser of pure hate that drilled and burned into him.
"I'm so sorry..." He sobbed.
"I'm so sorry Barret..."
Barret did not answer. His breathing quickened and his eyes glazed with tears as he raced at Cloud, grabbing him and hauling him to his feet, the vessels in his huge hand bursting from the skin as he held the defeated Cloud upright.
"You're sorry...?" He hissed, his voice not a voice anymore but an audible serpent of emotion. It was hatred itself.
"YOU'RE FUCKING SORRY?!!!" He bellowed.
There was a flash as the great hand and the gun arm arched through the air, sailing as true as an arrow towards their target.
Cloud hissed as the huge metallic fist struck him square in the jaw sending him clattering to the deck again.
"YOU'RE SORRY?!! YOU'RE SORRY CLOUD?!! YOU PROMISED ME......"
The fist smashed into Cloud again, drawing blood this time and sending him sprawling out, blood pouring from the deep laceration in his lip.
"YOU PROMISED....." Barret roared as he lashed out again.
Cloud doubled up in pain as the blow smashed into him.
He let out a soft groan but made no attempt to retaliate, all he could do was shield his body as Barret smashed into him with his fist.
There was nothing Cloud could do. There was no way to combat emotion as focused as this.
There was nothing he could do to save himself from the fury that Barret was unleashing
"YOU PROMISED ME CLOUD, YOU PROMISED SHE WOULD BE OK!!!!"
The fist pounded Cloud again and he cried out.
Barret did not stop.
"I ASKED YOU, BEGGED YOU TO TELL ME IF SHE WAS IN DANGER AND YOU SAID NO!!!!! I TRUSTED YOU CLOUD!!!"
Cid swivelled in the command seat as the fist smashed into Cloud again.
Cid looked at Barret but decided against trying to intervene. Barret was going to explode at any second and Cid looked away in dread as he realised there was nothing he or the others could do to help Cloud, or Barret for that matter.
You see, fury is a double-edged blade. A gun designed to backfire and destruction leads always back to self-destruction.
Even Cid, the brazen foolhardy gambler realised there was no chance of containing the fury that Barret was being consumed by lest it consume them as well.
Tifa turned away and cried as she watched the horrible scene unfold, the horrible realisation touching her mind too.
There was nothing she could do to help Cloud, or Barret. All she could do was watch and that was much harder.
"YOU FUCKER!!!" Barret screamed as his boot smashed into Cloud's ribs, sending him along the deck, flows of tears and blood marring his face.
He smashed his head off of the bulkhead as he was knocked into a corner by the force of the impact.
Barret was hot on his tail, fury erupting within as he roared and brought the gun-arm to firing pose.
He was crying as he cocked it and aimed straight at Cloud's head.
"You killed my daughter..... I'M GONNA BLOW YOUR FUCKING HEAD OFF!" He screamed.
He cried uncontrollably and so did his target.
Whether the tears they cried were born of the same feelings could not be known.
The gun shook wildly.
* * * * * *
She could not feel the cold now.
Elmyra raced across the sands, Marlene in hand as she bolted across the beach and the grasslands towards the near distance and the safety of the inn.
All around her people screamed as they saw the maelstrom of fire erupting all those miles away.
Panic tore into those gathered on the beach as the serpents of nuclear energy raced forth from the blast and people ran in their blindness and terror, running from the sword-wielding horsemen of fire as they charged with their deafening battle cries across the lands seperating Kalm from the now ruined city.
Tears raced down Elmyra's face as she thought of what she had seen, thought of all those who had just died an awful death all those miles away.
Surely, that defiant speck in the skies above the city, even if it was the Highwind, it could not have survived that explosion.
Nothing cloud have survived that explosion, not even microbes.
Still, she had to try to reach Cloud. She needed to reach Cloud.
He had to be alive, he had to be. She could not explain why, but at that moment she needed him to be alive, not for his sake but for hers and for Marlene's.
So many thoughts raced through her head as she ran.
Confusion. How could this catastrophe happen?
Anger. If he had known, why did he not stop it or try to get some of those doomed souls to safety?
Finally, she felt a deep sense of gratitude, something she had not expected to find as the furies of flame and energy melted the city in her full view. She was grateful to Cloud at the same time as she was angry and confused towards him.
Had he not warned her, she would have died along with all those thousands of others.
Two of the voices in that cacophony of suffering, two of the screams of terror and fire-tortured agony would have belonged to herself and her tiny companion.
She would have been pinched from existance and so would the small child that now ran, very much alive, at her side.
So many things churned like wrathful riptides in her head forming a stew of emotion so dense it was not at that time possible for her to separate the ingredients.
The girl ran along with her auntie, the painful sting of fatigue not diverting her gaze as she looked at the fire, all traces of happiness washed away by the blast and carried on the disrespectful tranquility of the waves to some place deep in the ocean where dreams went when they were shattered and where happy times were buried in black sand graves.
She was spared the profound and aching empathy that Elmyra was suffering, her little head only just capable of realising the horrors of what she had seen but lacked the ability to process those feelings into anything more than sadness.
For her though, that was bad enough. Daddy had been in Midgar.
She sobbed to herself as a terrible thought came to her.
The texture under her feet changed as sand morphed itself into grass. Kalm grew ever larger ahead of the pair as Marlene wrestled with the awful thought. Tears flowed from her face as she considered the possibility of never seeing her father again.
Finally the dry crunching of grass under foot changed to the soft pattering of feet on cobbled stone as the two reached the shaky security of the town.
People had gathered outside houses, disrupted from the passage of their normal lives by the blinding flash that had swept the landscape. They watched in disbelief as the shimmering cloud of superheated gas rose like a waking giant, its' poisonous tentacles creeping across the sky turning clean sunlight into a polluted, cancerous haze.
Nobody gathered on this black day in the town uttered so much as a whimper as the terrifying scream of the blast saturated their minds and held them transfixed in time and space. They gazed, they saw, but they did not understand.
Elmyra and Marlene raced through the crowd, both of them sobbing yet driven onwards by the slim hope that someone had survived the explosion and the need to believe so.
Shocked faces turned to look, their eyes frozen with terror and bewilderment as the battering of feet on cobbles broke them from their dark hypnosis. Elmyra reached out and slammed her hand into the door of the Inn, knocking the sturdy oak gateway open as if it were nothing more than paper. There was a crash as it hit the wall but Elmyra was already half way up the
staircase by the time it rang out in the empty building.
She cleared the stairs and bolted along the corridor, the dying cloud of vapour visible across the grasslands out of a window in the corner of her eye.
She felt a sting of pain as she saw the cooling blast but ran onwards to the room she and Marlene had left their things in, throwing the door open just as she had the one downstairs and racing for the dresser.
Marlene collapsed onto a bed and began to cry as Elmyra found what she was looking for. She did not have the time to tend to the child's grief at that moment.
Hopefully she would not have to.
She wrapped her slender fingers around the sleek black device and cleared her throat and mind as she punched in the number and dialled Cloud.
Her head ached with pain and the sounds of the child sobbing as her shaking hand placed the device to her ear.
"Pick up Cloud....pick up..."
* * * * * *
The gun waved uncontrollably in Cloud's field of vision. Pain raged in his ribs and the metallic tastes of blood slithered in his mouth from the gash in his lip. Tears ran from his eyes as he looked into the barrel of the gun, waiting for the flash.
Barret began to shake, trying with all his might to keep the gun steady on Cloud. His vision impaired through burning tears, he felt something snapping in his head, a control, the last vestige of himself that did not want to shoot Cloud ripping away and melting in the acid of fury.
The tendon in his arm began to tighten.
The buzz rang out in the silence of the bridge, distracting the attention of the would-be killer as he searched for the source of the noise. He recognised it.
It buzzed again and drew all emotion from Barret's face as the tendon relaxed as quickly as it had clenched.
His arm fell to his side as a slow idea began to form.
Seconds became days.
Minutes became decades as all eyes fixed on Tifa.
Tifa turned, her tearful eyes fixing on Barret and then on Cloud as she waded into her pocket and retracted the PHS device.
It gently vibrated in her hand and buzzed again as it rang but still she stared at it, as if the buzz of its' ring were a collective hallucination.
It couldn't be, could it?
If it was ringing that could only mean one thing.
Barret's fury melted and shock began to worm its' way into the hearts of the party as they listened to the noise. It was like a beautiful tune playing in this new world, a wonderous sound full of possibility.
Tifa sniffed and shakily put the device to her ear as she answered it, half expecting to be greeted by the sounds of nothing or the soft hiss of a patch of static echoing through a connection that would never again be used.
"...hello?" She asked, her voice so stifled and damaged that it was barely recognisable.
She felt her knees giving way as the voice returned and she collapsed to the deck, sobbing with a growing joy as she realised who it was.
Joy in this place, this world. Was it possible?
An island of light in the blackness of the endless oceans of slush?
Had something of the other world survived here?
"Oh thank god...." She sobbed, some of herself returning to the destroyed hiss of her voice.
More than feeling had survived. Much more.
Clearly it was more than an island of light. It was a landmass.
Shock moved Barret like a puppet as he began to walk towards Tifa, his movements slow and cautious like those of a zombie. He felt the words form on his lips but he barely had the strength to utter them.
Those three little words would be the hardest things he would ever say, carrying possibilities and consequences that intrigued him and had the potential to wrap him in blankets of hope.
Or crush him with realisations that would destroy his soul and mind and being in ways he could not understand.
"Who is it?" He asked, the faintest glimmer of hope returning to his voice as the possibility struck him.
Tifa sobbed, the disbelief at what she was hearing squeezed tears from her eyes and sent them meandering down her face in sweet, hopeful rivers.
The world shattered and rebuilt and slowed around Barret. His stomach wrenched and slacked and his eyes widened and poured with joy and relief all at once as he felt control of his body falling into nothingness.
There was a loud thud as he hit the deck knees first, the pain of his impact with the harsh cold of the steel not registering. All he felt was a tidal rush of emotions as the name swam playfully in the drums of his ears before finally soaking into his brain.
Tears began to roll down his face as he looked up from his stooped position towards Tifa, her form shining out like a delivering angel, her hand offering him a way out of the tunnel of grief which he had been mired in only minutes before.
He felt dazzled as a ray of brilliant sunshine broke through the clouds of grief and fury.
The evil of his vengence dissolved as the pure light of hope and the profoundest, holiest of all reliefs touched him.
"...Is she....is Marlene with her?"
Tifa sniffed and repeated the question into the PHS.
Barret did not take his eyes off of Tifa as he waited for the answer.
Cloud groaned in pain and stood up, allowing himself a closer look at the bizarre scene unfolding before his eyes.
He knew that the outcome of the answer would determine his fate, not that it mattered. If anything had happened to Marlene then Barret's vengence was all he deserved. Afterall, he had left Marlene in Midgar under Cloud's assurances. What did it really matter to Cloud? He was dead either way, if not at the hand of his friend then at the hand of one who was once as such. As cruel as the thought was, it dawned on Cloud that if Marlene had not survived then at least the vision Red and Aeris had shared with him would not come to pass. As awful as this realisation was it would at least be proof that fate was not predetermined.
At this moment though, Cloud found himself praying it was, not for his sake but for Barret's.
All he had ever wanted was to help people and where had it got him?
It had got him here, this wicked place in which he now found himself. This world of destruction and death and hatred.
Maybe he was better off out of it afterall. He sighed and averted his gaze, bowing his head and holding his bashed body as he waited for the reply from the other end of the line.
After the longest of times, Tifa's face broke into a relieved smile and she began to sob as she looked up at Barret.
Barret watched his angel, his saviour. She smiled magically and slowly nodded her head.
"She's OK Barret. She's OK." Tifa sobbed.
A chord of something deep within Cloud's being twitched and he thought for a moment, a little dazed by the sudden feeling.
Relief, not just for himself but for Barret who upon hearing the words had collapsed onto the deck completely, the weight of his emotion too heavy now for him to bear.
Maybe, just maybe, there was something in this world that was worth holding on to.
Cloud did not smile. He carried his relief and his other burdens silently. Barret lay and composed himself for a moment before looking up at Tifa and stretching out his big hand. His head still burned with a thousand questions and feelings but he had finally managed to focus himself onto the only thing he wanted, craved, needed to do.
"...can I talk to her?" He asked.
Tifa smiled, her big happy eyes chasing the last remnants of grief and sadness from Barret as she slowly passed him the PHS.
He composed himself and wrapped his huge fingers around the sleek black body of the device, lifting it from Tifa's hand.
His huge face broke with joy as he heard the child speaking on the other end of the line and he sat down on the deck sobbing, neither of the two speaking merely relishing in near-silence the sounds of the other, sounds which neither thought they would ever hear again.
Tifa's gaze shifted now and so did her expression as she looked up at Cloud. Joy gave way to a strange kind of anger as she regarded her friend.
A tiny semblance of normality returned to the bridge, heralded into being by the click of a lighter and the familiar smells of burning tobacco as she stared at the beaten visage of Cloud. He did not look joyous or even so much as relieved which was strange for an escapee from a death sentence.
How could he appear so unemotional so soon after the world had shattered around him?
She felt a rush of anger inside as she spoke.
"How did you know?" She asked.
Cloud's reddened eyes flitted up to Tifa as he wiped blood from his lip with the back of his hand.
"Know what?" He asked, his wavering voice strengthening and regaining some of its' stability.
Tifa shook her head.
"Come off it Cloud, Elmyra told me."
Cloud reached a shaking hand to his hair, adjusting a strand which viciously attacked his vision and swung maliciously infront of his eyes. He began to sense frustration bubbling up within himself as Tifa's questions met with his buffer of conscious thought.
"Told you what, what was I supposed to know?"
Tifa collected herself as she turned her gaze away from Cloud.
"How did you know what was going to happen in Midgar? She said you knew. Why did you not warn us?"
Irritation and outright anger began to burn in his eyes.
He winced in pain as his bruised ribs began to scream for his attention but returned his gaze to his companion.
"What are you talking about?" He hissed.
Confusion and silent rage swam in pairs in the ocean of Tifa's head as she continued to drill into Cloud with her icy gaze.
"You called her on the PHS and told her to leave Midgar. You told her something terrible was going to happen there, she just told me."
Cloud's face darkened and anger glowed in the sapphire pools of his eyes.
He fixed his knife-slit eyes on Tifa and fought to keep the maw of fury inside his head closed.
"What?" He hissed.
"I did no such thing!"
Tifa's face changed. Anger dissolved leaving only confusion.
"Why Cloud? How could you know and not tell somebody?" She asked.
Cloud felt his teeth begin to grind as a red haze began to seep silently into his field of vision. Like the boiling of water, he felt the blood in his veins warm up and bubble and pulse harder.
A throbbing arose in his ears and his fists began to ball up as he looked at Tifa.
His head ached with questions. How could Elmyra say that? He had made no such call.
Had he been his normal self he would have tried to reason it out rationally but he was not his normal self and he felt the sting of the double-edged blade, the backfiring gun in his mind as rage began to slither and choke rationality to death.
"How could you say that?!!" He hissed again, his voice and face changing. A bright aura of fury engulfed him and swallowing his eyes in fire.
Alarm touched Tifa like the chilling caress of a spectre and she took a slow step back.
She had never felt this before, never experienced what she was feeling now as she looked at Cloud, his face poisoned with an ocean of limitless anger.
She could not feel anything of the wounded child left in him and she saw, only briefly, reflections of Sephiroth in his face.
She was...afraid of him.
"YOU THINK I KNEW ABOUT THIS?!! YOU THINK I KNEW AND SAT BACK DOING NOTHING?!!" He roared.
A deathly silence descended as Cloud felt the eyes of the party settle on him.
Even Barret's frenzied chatterings with his 'resurrected' child fell to silence as the roar echoed in the steel of the Highwind's bulkheads.
Fury took the stage of Cloud's mind now as the maw was thrown open, the contained ocean draining into his mind and infecting it with the darkness and the power of the most fearful of all emotions.
"WHAT KIND OF MONSTER DO YOU THINK I AM?!!" He screamed.
Adrenaline raced and churned in the seas of rage as Cloud felt a heavy hand drop onto his shoulder. He spun around on his heel and fell into Cid's gaze, smoke tracing the contours of his face as he fixed a cool stare on the furious Cloud.
Never one for tact, even though it was vital at this moment, Cid opened his mouth as he always did and freed his brain of the responsibility of well constructed speech.
"Did you know about this?" He asked, a tiny, barely audible slither of distrust leaking into his voice.
Something snapped in Cloud's mind. He felt it, as surely as he felt pain in his broken lips.
Fury raced and he jerked violently, shaking the hand loose.
"GET YOUR FUCKING HAND OFF ME!!!" He bellowed.
Silence pierced him.
His mind raced and he felt sweat slipping down his face, his throat constricting and his breath coming in short agonised gasps as he fell backwards.
The familiar sights and sounds of the bridge warped and changed as a million shadows and claws of heat reached out and rended at Cloud knocking his reasoning and thought from his mind as the party began to close in on him.
Breath did not come as the world span and span. Invisible barriers and walls closed in on him trapping him in the dark.
Panic raced and raced as he fell against the bulkhead, the cold pinch of the metal nipping his skin.
"GET BACK!!" He shouted.
The blade had stabbed him and stabbed him hard.
He did not even hear the shot of the gun but still it fired and backfired.
His head surged. Why had Elmyra said that? Why did the party not believe him? What was happening to him?
Fury melted taking its' energy with it and filling the power-vacuum of emotions with a poisonous by-product of its' own festering destructiveness. Panic.
"I DIDN'T KNOW!! I SWEAR I DIDN'T!!"
A hand reached out in this choking world, touching Cloud's hand and sending a shock through his body. It was Tifa.
His eyes raced around before finally settling on Tifa.
Tears began to race down his cheeks as he looked into the cool hazel of her eyes.
"I didn't know....I didn't..." He sobbed.
She held his hand tight.
"It's OK Cloud...I believe you." She said.
Rage broke down and ran away like glacial meltwater from Cloud's face. Panic faltered under the strain of anguish and collapsed, finally freeing the young man from the evil of the dark airlessness of the spinning world.
"I didn't know..." He sobbed.
He fell forward and Tifa caught him in an embrace.
He sobbed pathetically into her shoulder, the warmth of her hug nursing the defeated shadow and healing the deep wounds left by his emotional tempest.
Shadows of the monster vanished completely from him as the wounded child fought back.
Tifa felt tears welling up in her eyes too as she looked alternately at Cloud and the dying furies of plasma and flame out of the viewing dome. Her head was in turmoil.
What was she to believe anymore?
All eyes were fixed on the pair.
Barret's gaze pierced them hardest, only Tifa though was aware of it as she stood and comforted the tortured young man who lay defeated in her hug.
He looked guilty and he had good reason to be Tifa thought as he continued to observe Cloud while he spoke to his daughter.
He had managed to stave off the onset of a full-blown emotional breakup as he reassured the little girl, his voice as mellow as it ever could be.
"I'm coming sweetheart, daddy's coming."
He broke his gaze and Tifa saw a tear fall from his face as he painfully deactivated the PHS and stood up, slipping the device into his pocket as he regained his full towering height over the other shushed members of the group.
They sat and watched him cautiously.
They had just seen a side of Barret Wallace that they did not know existed and nobody was eager to break the silence just yet.
On a very deep level they were afraid of him now, afraid of what he could become.
They had always respected him as a strong man, a man you would think twice about tangling with but that Barret was totally different from the Barret they had just seen. With his power there was always control, there had to be, but what they had just seen was not controlled, was not controllable.
It was wearing the mask of Barret's body but it was not him, it was an echo, a shadow.
A mirror of a great man which itself was just a twisted and evil creature.
What they had just seen was fury itself, a fury not unlike the one which drove Sephiroth and although the source of this clone was understandable, they still feared it and knew that it now lived silently within their friend.
Barret stood for a moment, his head no doubt bursting with a million thoughts and feelings. Emotions vied and jockied for power as he looked at Cloud not knowing what to think as he watched the young man, taking note of the damage he had caused to him both visibly and in the privacy of his mind. Humanity ached and Barret became aware of a feeling beginning to shine inside him like a light.
"Cloud..." He eventually stammered.
Cloud did not reply in words, his strange and haunted sobs rang like funeral bells on the bridge and spoke in volumes to Barret, giving him replies he had not wished to hear, replies that Barret knew were his doing. Pain, both physical and mental.
Tifa looked at Barret and shook her head discouraging the big man from continuing further.
She could understand Barret's reasons for what he did but she was angry and when she thought of the frenziedness of his attack and the lengths to which he nearly committed himself to, her anger burned even harder.
"Come on Cloud, let's get you cleaned up." She sighed, wrapping her arms around his waist and helping him to the hatch.
The huge doors opened gracefully with the serpent-hiss of compressed air as the two left the bridge, Cloud holding his head and sobbing brokenly.
Barret watched them leave and stood shaking his head for a moment as he considered what to do next. Either way it was going to be difficult.
The air on the bridge was uncomfortable and so was Barret. He almost felt embarrasment for his blow-out moments ago although that confused him.
Had it been any other man than Cloud, he would not even have hesitated. Still, remorse for his actions burned though and he didn't savour the idea of sitting in awkward silence under the almost fearful gaze of Cid, Red and Vincent. It seemed though his mind was made up, but then again, following Cloud was a worse feeling.
How could he even begin to apologise to Cloud now that he knew Marlene was safe? He sighed as he felt his legs carrying him off of the bridge as if they were outwith his control.
He had to follow Cloud, no matter how difficult. He had to try to seek forgiveness, it was the only way to quell the guilt which was burning steadily now as his actions replayed over and over in his head.
He had to try. Cloud was his friend.
The huge doors hissed shut flooding the sombre air of the bridge with a thick black treacle of silence.
After the longest of moments, sounds began to creep from their hiding places as the three remaining party members mulled over what they had just witnessed. A lighter clicked and ghosts of poison slithered into the clammy atmosphere once again.
"Man. He just fucking lost it." Cid sighed, exhaling plumes of grey and blue smoke from his nostrils.
Red, who had remained silent during the last few tragic minutes turned his head to look at Cid.
"Which one? I was certain Barret was going to kill him." He sighed, a sad echo of knowledge creeping into his voice.
"Extraordinary." Vincent offered.
"Never have I seen Cloud in such a rage."
Cid turned his head to face Vincent, smoke pouring from his lips as he snorted.
"Cloud? What about Barret? The pair of them just went fuckin' nuts."
There was a blackness of silence for a moment.
Cid turned his head away and smoked quietly as he spoke again.
"I don't mind tellin' you, I was shitting a solid brick." He said, looking back to his companions.
"I ain't scared of much but Barret had the old ticker going overtime just now."
Red averted his gaze as he thought his way over Cid's words.
Silence descended again.
Doubtless, the three were thinking the same thing though as they swam silently in their own private swimming pools of thought but it fell to Cid to voice the troubling collective idea.
"Do you believe Cloud?" He asked, the question unfocused and crafted as a general query to his companions.
They could not have failed to pick up on what Cid meant. It regarded Elmyra's revelation and they had managed quite successfully to avoid discussion of the subject.
Reflective silence gave birth to an awkward nothingness.
A pliable vacuum devoid even of the sounds of breathing formed as the difficult poser ached in the minds of the three.
It seemed unfair to remain silent, the nothingness where speech once dwelled seemed to suck like a whirlpool, stripping the innocence from the character of Cloud and replacing it with suspicion and mistrust. It incriminated him, the lack of speech good or bad.
Unexpectedly, Vincent took the initiative and filled the bridge with the eerie sound of his unnaturally calm and silky voice.
"What would he gain from decieving us? We may have all perished. Why would Cloud wish such a thing?"
Cid sighed and took a final draw on the cigarette he had been smoking, placing the smouldering butt on the deck and extinguishing its' soft glow with the point of his boot. Smoke flurried from his lips and nostrils as he turned his head to look at Vincent.
"Cloud might not wish it but I know one fucking loony that does. He has controlled him before remember, recently now that I mention it."
Cid switched his gaze to Red who sat and absorbed the conversation, a theory formulating in his head.
"What do you think Red, could he have done it without actually doing it if you know what I mean."
Red made a gesture resembling a frown as he thought.
"No, I do not believe so, not this time."
There was a clatter as Cid leapt to his feet, his steely gaze fixed solely on Red as he nervously paced the command console, resting his hands on the back of his head as he did so.
"Awww come on Red, you fuckin' serious?! You think he KNEW about this, really?"
Red followed Cid with his one good eye studying his companions agitated movements.
"If you would let me finish...?" He said, not even the slightest hint of irritation in his voice.
Cid stopped and nodded slowly as he retracted a cigarette and his lighter from some hidden pocket in his bomber jacket. He lit the stinking weed and puffed philosophically as he waited for Red to continue.
Red nodded and began to speak again.
"As I was saying, I do not believe he was possessed this time, the reason being he would have reported any such incident to us as he has on other occasions. He always has a basic memory of having been possessed however this seems to be out of the blue and completely outwith character."
"What inferences can we draw from such a development?" Vincent asked.
Cid flashed him a quick glance.
'Has he always spoken in such a stupid fucking way?' He wondered, puffing on the cigarette as his train of thought sidelined for a moment providing a welcomed distraction from the new horrors of the world.
"There are two major inferences to investigate here. One, Cloud did know and for reasons unknown chose to withold the information from us, or two..."
Red's voice trailed off.
Cid was no longer in a mood to wait and he was not prepared to entertain dramatic pauses, not now. A lot may hang on what they discussed here on the threshold of this new world, a world ruled by fear.
Was the leader of their party to be trusted? The greatest question they would ever tackle and one that demanded an definate answer. Soon.
Cid had never in his wildest nightmares thought he would be asking himself that of all questions.
"Or two..." He badgered.
The flame of Red's eye fixed on him.
"Or two, Cloud did not make the call."
Silence descended again as the ramifications of Red's conclusion hit home.
"Sephiroth?" Vincent asked.
"A very distinct possibility. I for one do not believe Cloud would be capable of the act we suspect him of."
"Well there's only one way to be certain..." Cid piped up, taking his seat at the command console.
"...we must confer with Elmyra." Vincent finished.
Cid nodded and exhaled with a hiss, not waiting for approval from Red or Vincent.
"Makes sense to me. Setting course for Kalm."
He turned to face the banks of consoles and screens that sat before him. His fingers danced majestically over several arrays of buttons as he programmed the drive computer and engaged the engines.
He sighed forlornly and spoke without looking at his comrades.
"Can't speak for you two but after the shit I've just been through I have a real compulsion to get totally drunk tonight."
They did not reply but each of them understood the compulsion on a very profound level.
Engines screamed as the Highwind turned and sped off leaving the decimated crater, that grave to so many thousands behind.
There was little comfort in this place anymore. All that had once seemed good and just now had a darkened side to it. Shadows marched in the light, not the light of a sun but the light of Ultima, a light that was itself darker than any shadow ever was.
Hope clung onto its' life in the slight relief that two good and just things had survived and had yet to be touched by the creeping evil that now washed the land in blackened waters of shade and shadow.
Today was a black day.
Chapter 31: The calm after the storm
Tifa felt the shift in her stomach as the ship began to move and she swayed on her feet, more from the effects of psychology than physics as she knew deep down that the massive inertial dampers that purred in the steel beneath her feet would absorb the sudden rush from the huge engines.
If Cloud had felt it he did not show, neither did he sway from the sudden impact of the phantom rush but he winced as the cloth touched his face removing the rusty stains of blood from his skin.
He had stopped sobbing now and a semblance of his usual self was slowly beginning to grow again healing the raw and bleeding wounds that his outburst on the bridge had produced in his mind.
His head was still swimming, more now from the after effects of Barret's fist than the sudden raid of panic he had secumbed to earlier.
Barret stood behind Tifa and watched the scene sheepishly, avoiding Cloud's icy gaze as Tifa cleaned the last vestige of rust smears from his chin and gently banished a loosened strand of hair from his face.
Tifa stood back allowing the full ray of Cloud's gaze to fall upon Barret. The skin on the big mans arms seemed to burn under the ferocity of it but he could not make out the emotion that the beam carried. He suspected anger but the feather-cloud of feelings in his eyes shifted that rapidly that anger gave way to a thousand other things in less time than it took to blink an eye.
Tifa retracted the green crystal orb from a pouch once more instantly snapping Cloud's gaze as he fixed it on the Materia and then on Tifa.
"What are you doing?" He asked, his voice calm now but distant.
She clasped the orb in both hands and readied herself to cast the spell.
"You need a Cure 3 to fix you up properly."
Cloud adamantly shook his head.
"No. You want to risk another holocaust?"
The armies of Barret's courage finally broke through the defences guarding his brain and a batallion was sent to the neural pathway responsible for speech, activating his voice in a mere moment.
"It don't matter now, he knows where we are."
Boots clumped on the deck as Barret walked over to Tifa and gently took the materia out of her hand.
"I'll do it." He sighed.
Barret felt his skin prickle as he chanted the words, clutching the warm glowing crystal in his hand.
There was a warm eruption of light as the spell formed around Cloud's bruised face, restructuring fractured blood vessels and sealing the cuts that his merciless pounding had left him with. Showers of stardust abated and the warmth in the crystal gently ebbed off leaving the physically regenerated Cloud to sit and watch his companions.
It was a cliched gesture, in Barrets' mind at least but also one that could have been considered profound. He had injured Cloud and now he was healing him. He suspected though, that he would have to do more than heal to truly heal what he had done.
His ice-shard beam of a stare fixed on Barret as he handed the Materia back to Tifa, faltering his composure once more.
"Thanks." Cloud hissed.
Barret nodded and moved as if to say something but crumbled at the last second under the storm of his companions' eyes.
Cloud sneered as he watched.
"What is it Barret? Cat got your tongue?"
Barret sighed but he did not answer.
Cloud laughed quietly and stood up from the table that Tifa had seated him on, the strength visibly returning to his body as he tensed the muscles in his arms.
"Come on Barret, you were ready to kill me and now you lack the strength to even talk?"
The feather-cloud shift of feelings focused suddenly on Barret as the soft light of rage began to smoulder in Cloud's eyes.
Tifa glared at Cloud as she tried to figure out where this sudden reservoir of fury was coming from, simultaneously banishing the echoes of silver hair and black robes that invisibly shrouded Cloud's body.
As if sensing the pin-prick of her hazel gaze on him, Cloud bolted his head round to look at Tifa, the sneer plastered onto his face giving him a jocular aura. She could have believed it too had she not been drawn to look to his eyes.
Storm clouds pulsed as fire and lightning raged. Fury reared its' ugly visage once more, an emotion that had been present far to often on this dark day.
"What the hell is wrong with you Cloud?" She asked.
Cloud laughed again as he alternated his gaze between Barret and Tifa.
"What the hell is wrong with ME?" He asked.
"I'll tell you, shall I?"
He took a step back but insisted on intermittently attacking Barret and Tifa with the lancets of his gaze.
He sighed but strangely managed to avoid the emotional backdown associated with the response.
"I want to know how you two can even thing that I knew about this. How can you think that of me Tifa?"
She opened her mouth to respond but the machinegun speed of Cloud's speech cut her off mid-breath.
"I would have expected this from Cid maybe, or that brat Yuffie, but from you two? My 'friends'?"
"But Elmyra said..." Barret stammered, managing to get some words out before the machinegun opened up again.
"I HAVEN'T SPOKEN TO HER IN OVER A YEAR!!!" Cloud shouted, a vessel in his temple gorging on its' increased quota of blood and fattening as his skin blossomed with a red tint.
Tifa reached out to touch her comrade but he recoiled his arm so fast it was as if her fingers had been acid and burned his skin.
He turned the nuclear-heat of his gaze to her as his face darkened with anger.
She pulled her hand back slowly, fixing her gaze onto his. Had that been a threat?
An ocular stand-off ensued but was over momentaily when the repulsion to the fury finally swayed Tifa, breaking her gaze and shifting it to the floor.
Cloud snorted and looked at the two again. Sneering, he turned and headed for the door, slamming his fist into the button and waiting impatiently for the hatch to slide open.
"Stay the hell out of my way." He hissed, storming out of the room.
"BOTH of you."
Compressed air hissed as the hatch slithered from its' cover in the bulkhead and closed leaving Barret and Tifa to the mercies of silence and despair.
Chapter 32: Sephiroth's mercies
Cloud sat heavily on one of the great conduits that protruded from the wall.
The texture and even the appearance of the metal was different. Dirty, greasy and oxidising in patches.
Looking at the conduit, it was hard to believe that this was the same ship. The interior was more akin to the dirty submarine that they had commandeered during the persuit of the Huge Materia in the frigid waters of the Junon Sea.
It bore little resemblance to the meticulously polished and finely wrought bulkhead and deck of the bridge or its' surrounding habitable corridors.
The air in this part of the ship was stale and stank of the mechanical wear and tear of the engines. You could smell the heat.
The smell of heat, strange and ethereal. Not really a smell more like a tangiable pressure on ones' nostrils but unique enough to classify it under an olfactory sensation.
The conduit was warm, not hot, for had it been one of the conduits providing power to the engines, Cloud would have suffered severe burns after only a fraction of a second of exposure to its' dirty, greasy surface.
Conduit maintenace was not his concern though and he was not overly bothered that he was sitting on this dirty filthy thing. If anything he was thankful to this particular dirty steel pipe as it offered him a quiet place where he could sort his mind out, a place where the traitorous suspicions of his so-called friends could be banished from the lagoon of his thoughts.
"How could she say that?"
His voice echoed in this confined space, returning to his ears imbued with a very nasal quality siphoned from the surrounding claustrophobia.
A lone bead of sweat arched its' way down his face, drawn from his skin by the closeness of the air.
"Why did she...lie?"
Fury melted and passed out of him on his voice.
He sighed heavily, wiping the sweat bead from his face and standing, pacing in his tiny hiding place.
"Could I have called her? Did that bastard take me again?"
Pain swelled in his head and he collapsed back to his seat on the greasy pipe.
'A lot of people died today.' Cloud thought, the images and the horrors of the day playing inside his head in an endless circle.
'And there was nothing I could do to stop it.'
Laughter rippled in his head.
"Of course there was nothing you could do."
Surprisingly, there was not a sudden rage.
There was no gag reaction in Cloud's mind as he heard the voice, no revulsion nor did adrenaline race into his blood.
His mind was so damaged from what he had seen and said and done today that all he could do was lift his head and open his eyes, allowing once more the familiar sights of black cloak and silver hair to assault his weary vision.
Sephiroth smiled as madness painted itself onto his face.
"What could a puppet do against the power of a God."
Cloud felt a tear slip down his face as he watched Sephiroth.
His great boots clicked on the deck as he walked and sat on the conduit next to Cloud.
"You have seen my power now Cloud, you have seen the mercies I granted those in the city of sin."
The familiar racing feeling returned to Cloud as the words attacked his ears. He turned his head to look at Sephiroth.
His nemesis was staring blankly at the greasy steel of the bulkhead in front of him.
"Mercies?! You bastard, you dirty bastard!" Cloud hissed.
He stood up and walked briskly across the tiny space, the proximity to this monster alarmed Cloud and he felt the words of Red XIII pouring back into his mind like blood into the ventricles of a great heart.
Apart from this, he was sickened at his closeness to Sephiroth and the fear of infection by his madness was of greater concern to Cloud than fear of death.
"That was your mercy? A nuclear explosion?"
Rage pulsed into Cloud, a tool this time rather than a weapon, empowering him into movement and pushing him towards Sephiroth, reaching out his hand and grabbing him, hauling the smirking madman to his feet.
"WHAT MERCY DID YOU SHOW THEM?!! YOU BURNED THEM TO DEATH IN A NUCLEAR EXPLOSION!! HOW IS THAT MERCIFUL?!!!"
Sephiroth smiled, glee leaking onto his face as his eyes flashed with energy.
"In death they became one with God." He hissed.
"What could be more merciful than that?"
Cloud felt his anger eroding and melting away once more, the bonds of fury that controlled his body broke and he released Sephiroth from his grasp as he stumbled backwards into a protruding circuit box on the far wall. Not even rage, as powerful as it was, could combat madness or evil on a scale this great begging the dreadful question, could it even be combatted at all?
Were they fighting a losing battle?
Never since this new quest had begun had this dreadful idea surfaced. Until this point it had remained only a formless grey ooze of thoughtless thought that had no sway over the actions that lay ahead. For the first time it had been given shape and tangiability. It had been given power, power that it was now flexing.
"You called Elmyra, didn't you?" Cloud asked, distance leaking once more into his voice.
Sephiroth smiled and nodded his head to the question.
"Why? Why spare them and kill so many more?" Cloud asked.
Sephiroth's smile evaporated as he thought to himself.
"I have a much more deserving fate for the mother of the Ancient."
Cloud felt sick yet all he could do was watch and listen as the plans of a madman were laid bare.
"The fate she will suffer..."
Sephiroth's eyes erupted with energy as he pierced Cloud with a chilling gaze.
"...she will scream for my mercy."
His eyes grew cold again as a smile grafted over the fury on his face.
"But there is time for that."
Sephiroth stood up and slowly began to move off, his gaze fixed on Cloud as he walked through the steam and the emanations of the ship towards some hidden destination.
"You cannot stop me Cloud, you cannot stop a god and I intend to prove it once more to you."
Cloud turned to drop his gaze fully onto the disappearing form of his nemesis.
"What more could you possibly do? You have proved yourself to me."
Cloud did not believe his words and he was half-sure that Sephiroth didn't either but he was desperate for anything to buy time, even if it meant pandering to the ego of this monster. He knew all too well that the next salvo may hit a lot closer to home and that was a possibility he couldn't even bear to entertain.
Sephiroth smiled. In that moment Cloud knew his words had failed to reach a psychological depth strong enough to stop Sephiroth from executing whatever evil he was scheming now.
Cloud felt his skin crawl and his blood run cold as his palms began to sweat.
There was a ceasation of the pounding of boots on steel as the great robed figured turned to face Cloud again. His hair waved and danced almost majestically like a play of serpents in the steam that raced from micro-fissures in the pipes and bulkheads next to him. Light from the other side of the tunnel washed through the steam, crowning Sephiroth in a haze of distorted light that briefly lent him the appearance of a heavenly figure. Briefly; the image faded in the eye of Cloud's mind in almost the same moment as it had appeared. His eyes glowed softly, not ferociously as they more often than not did, shining out of the gloom and piercing into Cloud, bathing his heart in the ice of fear as he waited for the sentence of death, waited for the pendulum to stop swinging.
"The city of Junon will soon feel the joys of my mercy."
Faintness came rushing into Cloud as his ears rang with the imagined sound of every ventricle of his heart sealing simultaneously. The skin of his forehead tensed and he felt a gasp of pain break his lips. Cold leeches of sweat slithered down the nape of his neck and burrowed into his skin.
"You can't!" He hissed.
The eyes in the gloom fell dim once again and Cloud thought he caught a smile break acoss Sephiroth's face.
"You monster, you can't do that!"
Laughter trickled through the steams and the winds of the corridor as boots clicked once more on the deck.
"You don't understand Cloud, I have to grant my mercy, I must. Soon though, it will be clear to you. When you and the mother of the Ancient stand alone on the Day of Judgement, you will understand."
He began to walk away again but stopped just before his form was swallowed into the steam.
"Until that day, you will have the pleasure of watching my mercies being granted."
The corridor was empty except for Cloud and the swirls of ghosts and vapour that churned and thrashed in agony amongst the wrought steel blood vessels of the great ship.
Pain raged into Cloud both in his head and across his back as the oxidizing corner of the circuit box dug into his skin.
Cloud's mind raced.
The racing of his thoughts and uncontrollable acceleration of his neural functions were becoming familiar occurances to Cloud now.
Maybe it was a defence mechanism, by accelerating his thoughts to a speed that rendered effective assimilation impossible, perhaps his mind was sparing his soul the terrible burden that some of these thoughts carried.
Consciousness sacrificing itself for the greater good of sanity. After a long moment, the racing began to subside as thoughts began to slowly grow once more in the acidic soils of confusion and mental turmoil.
Chapter 33: Hope
The party had gathered on the bridge following the withdrawn-voiced announcement over the ships' tannoy that arrival in Kalm was imminent. Outside the air, that only a few minutes before had been clean and fresh with the scents and currents of springtime, had been transmuted into a poisonous blanket of cancer that clung and strangled the life out of the sky formed from the miles upon miles of raging flames that screamed and devoured the landscape below.
Heads turned as the great doors hissed open admitting the last of the party to the bridge.
Exhaling ghostly serpents of smoke from his lungs with each word, Cid swiveled in the command seat to look at Cloud.
"Where did you go?" He asked.
Something clicked and Cid felt his eyes racing in slow-motion towards the cool sapphire gaze of his friend. Something in Clouds' eyes pulled Cid up and he felt a strange aura leak from Cloud and infect himself.
His eyes were haunted and the brilliant mako blue was visibly dimmer.
The cigarette fell from Cid's mouth in his fingers and he exhaled slowly as he concentrated on the haunting beams of eyeshine that poured from his comrade.
"What is it?" Cid asked.
Heads turned to face Cloud as a gentle tear rolled down his face.
"Junon's next." He said.
There were several gasps as the rest of the group turned to face each other in turn.
Vincent stood up from his seat at this point and ambled slowly towards Cloud, his eyes glowing like red galaxies shining with blood. His eyes were placid and his demeanour was calm but inside, even Vincent felt turmoil.
"How do you know this?"
Cloud looked away. The unnerving serenity of his companions' eyes was disturbing on a very profound level. It was at moments like this that Cloud wondered if there was anything human left inside Vincent's soul for nothing human could have heard those words and understood the meaning of them without having broken up emotionally.
"Sephiroth came to me again and told me."
He looked up.
"He's going to destroy Junon next."
There was a long moment of silence so deep that it was as an ocean of soundlessness in a world of noise. A churning maelstrom of nothingness where once the most moving of all human accomplishments had dwelled. Eventually a mutant was born into this world of mutes and it spoke with a clear if distant voice that was undeniably human in its' origin.
"When?" Tifa asked, her voice broken by the lump that choked her throat closed.
Cloud sniffed and shook his head, shifting from the demonic stillness of Vincents' expression to look at Tifa.
"I don't know. Very soon."
Tifa sobbed and dropped her reddening eyes to Red XIII who sat dejectedly on the deck with his cycloptic gaze fixed on the quilts of brown and black that hung across the sky.
"Why is he doing this? Why is he killing all these people now?" She asked.
Red did not look up but sensed that the question had been thrown like a lance in his direction.
"He has to, it is the first part of his plan."
He sighed sorrowfully.
"He needs more energy and the only way he can accumulate it is by releasing more souls into the lifestream."
Vincent sighed and broke off his gaze from the dejected Cloud.
"That can only mean one thing." He hissed, his voice a river of silk in a landscape of darkness and thorns.
"The end of the world is coming soon."
He looked at Cloud.
"We may have already run out of time."
Silence fell once more bringing with it darkness and desolation like great horsemen heralding the end of all things.
How the world and the characters within it had changed in so short a time.
Victory had been inevitable as had the fall of this gathering wave of darkness.
The new dawn and the rebirth of all things pure had seemed within grasp as had the consignment to history of the name Sephiroth.
But now, only short minutes later, the world was gone, it may as well already be buried in the shifting sands of eternity as apocalypse was just across the unforseeable horizon.
The name Sephiroth would soon be all that remained of a world pinched out of existence.
Like the bang of some angry Gods' hammer on the forge of the sky, the clap of gloved fist rapping off of a console chased away the gathering clouds of despair and anguish like the last Angel of heaven vanquishing hordes of demons after all its' brethern had been slain.
"What the hell kind of talk is that?!" Cid fumed, the anger in his words pulling the party up from their collective pit of hoplessness.
Tifas' sobbing fell off and she turned her reddened eyes to look at him.
Cid spat the cigarette out and rose to his feet, the look on his face almost one of disgust as he turned his burning eyes on each of the party in turn.
"What the fuck is wrong with you all? Did we come all this way just to give up?!"
None of the group was willing to put an answer to Cids' question.
"It don't matter if we only have days or hours, hell, even minutes!! I sure as hell am not giving up, no fucking way!!"
As if angelic in its' nature, a lone spear of light broke its' way through the clouds of ruination that laid shrouds of smog across the sky. Although only seconds in its' duration before being consumed once more into the maw of the polluted haze, that one pillar of sun put a meaning into Cids' words that had been forgotten in the aeons that had passed in the last few seconds. His eyes burned not just with fury but with hope, a hope so strong and so profoundly entrusted that it burned through the party and they fell silent as they looked up at Cid who now towered above them like some great prophet returning triumphantly with a vision of light to tell.
"If that son of a bitch wants this world, he has to go through me first!!" He said, the passion of his words lifting his voice by several decibels not to a shout but to a war-cry.
He looked at his comrades, his brothers-in-arms and waited for them to heed the call.
Barret met his gaze.
"He's right you know." Barret said, turning to look at the rest of the party.
"We have to try. If we are destined to fail, we may aswell go out with a bang."
Cid nodded, lighting another cigarette and summoning forth more minions of smoke and vapour.
"A big bang."
All eyes turned to Tifa as she sat huddled in one of the seats that crowned banks of twinkling consoles.
"A very big one." She said, her voice finally exiting its' emotional rollercoaster and crystallising into a silken floe of determination.
It was at times like this that cold comfort was preferable to none at all.
Red nodded his agreement, bravado and over-inflated statements not his strong point, instead sounding rather false coming from him. His friends knew straight away what the nod meant and they nodded back.
The hive of buzzing eyes fell next upon Vincent, who's demeanour startled not only Cloud but the others aswell. To 'normal' people, he was simply too calm and collected given the horrors that had passed on this day and they half expected him to shake his head and disappear into the bowels of the ship on one of his strange wanderings.
His eyes lit and burned with a furious crimson aura that partially illuminated his face, the strange light lasting only moments before his eyes fell dim once again.
"It is our duty to try." He finally said.
"We owe it not to ourselves but to the thousands who have fallen on this day and to the thousands who shall fall in the days to come."
The party nodded but Vincents' words had returned that note of sombreness to the air that the rising phoenix of hope had tried so hard to banish. Eyes fell to Cloud.
Cloud felt the different heats and sensations of the eyes washing over his skin but was not as quick to cave in to this artificial hope as his comrades had been. For one, it did not matter whether they failed or not, not to him, his fate was set in stone already and even in victory, Cloud would fall.
It is a terrible thing for a person to know, the way in which death will take them, but for Cloud it was even worse and he kept praying and hoping that the dire prophecy would somehow unwork itself.
However, the more that Sephiroth came to him, the less likely that seemed. Somewhere in this private sea of desolation, this nightime world behind the shields of sapphire and ice lay the strength that Cloud needed, the strength that he was reaching out to in the darkness, some tiny seed that would lift him from the darkness and into the light.
Even through the fallout of this struggle, Cloud knew one thing; Sephiroth would be made to pay for what he had done both to Cloud and to the thousands who had been incinerated and scorched from this world in the ruins below his feet.
Strength or not, Cloud would fight. Cloud had to fight as he was beginning to suspect that this seed of strength may lie at the end of the journey. The end of all journeys.
Like the others, Cloud slowly seccumbed to the astringent vapours of hope and slowly, they infected his brain and soothed the raging waters of confusion and fear into little more than a gentle stream inside the twisting path of his head. Until strength could find him, hope would have to be an ample substitute.
"We have to try. We must try." Cloud eventually sighed.
He turned the ice of his gaze to his friends.
"We have to make him pay for what he has done."
There was a silence again as the group digested Cloud's words.
The collective mind was made up, they had to give it their all. Vincent was correct, beyond all reasoning his words were the most poignant and still rattled around individual heads as they awaited for haunted minds to assimilate them.
They did owe it to the dead and they owed it to those who were left who now had the sword hanging over their heads.
They were too late to save Midgar and it seemed too late to save Junon. However, there were millions of others who awaited the arrival of a saviour.
The party may not be the mythical figures that the peoples expected but they were better than the alternative.
Cloud slowly rose to his feet and crossed the short distance of finely polished steel to the master console.
"Are we over Kalm yet?" He asked.
Cid checked an array of instruments and confirmed what he suspected.
"Yeah. Yeah, we could begin the landing sequence now."
"Good. Do it, we'll get ready."
Cid nodded and turned in the seat to begin the landing sequence. Cloud looked up and nodded at the rest of the party, signalling them to gather their equipment and prepare for disembarkation.
Weapons were essential now, the clouds of poison that plagued the landscape no doubt held legions of monsters just bristling at the opportunity to clandestinely dispose of a group of impudent humans.
The bridge rang with the sounds of guns loading and being cocked and the confident screech of a sword being placed into its' sheath.
Awed eyes intermittently fell upon Cloud but shifted away before drawing his attention.
The question had been answered.
Chapter 34: Not so happy a reunion
There was a bone-rattling thud as the great landing gear of the Highwind finally made contact with the contoured lands around Kalm. As before, for reasons of safety, Cid had brought the ship down around 600 yards from the town itself.
Safe for the town maybe, but it left the party open to attack by the hordes of monsters that infested the deceptive tranquility of the gently rolling landscape.
The party walked in silence down a long corridor towards the exit ramp which Cid had lowered whilst he was still on the bridge.
A huge pair of doors sat at the end of the corridors and a large red button glowed on the wall, the light piercing through the sticky gloom that reigned over this part of the ship, trying to banish the clawing darkness.
Cid noisily stuffed two shells into his shotgun and snapped the barrel closed as he reached the door. He stopped and turned to face the party, his fist hanging over the button as they came to a stop behind him and pierced him with their eyes.
He chewed on the butt of his cigarette and exhaled slowly.
"We got a little walk ahead of us people and the weather ain't that nice. Watch yer asses, OK?"
The party nodded.
Cid's gaze fixed on Cloud, fixed on the frozen sapphires as he waited for the unofficial leader of the party to nod his consent which he promptly did.
Cid depressed the button and the great doors slid open allowing the first whiff of the air to touch the noses of the party. They descended slowly, the doors sliding closed and sealing electronically behind them.
"Everybody remember where we parked." Cid called, his attempt to lift the mood falling onto a limited acceptance.
The air was considerably more poisonous than its' appearance had shown, not merely pollution but a living cloud of toxin that slipped and slithered through the death of the air pushing ropey tentacles of treacle thick smog down throats and nostrils alike. Eyes screamed and reddened at the touch of this liquidless acid as they poured saline in a desperate attempt to restore full vision and ease the stinging pain.
Great claps of thunder sang duets with the agonised screaming of the wind as the body of the storm lashed at the squat buildings of the town, trying in desperation in this moment of destructive fury to tear the buildings away from their foundations and smash them into rubble. All around, the maelstrom erupted with blinding bursts of electric blue as lightning tore through clouds followed by its' entourage of thunder and wind.
Heat, working as an agent of the toxic atmosphere, reached out with its' invisible hands and engulfed the emerging heroes in thick robes of strangling heat. Together with the almost unbreathable air, this made for a tremendously uncomfortable journey to the town. The air was thick with a thousand smells; bubbling tar, burning vegetation and the astringent whiff of burning flesh, both animal and human, each working in partnership with the rest to form a disgusting, clawing reek that clung like glue to the insides of nostrils, refreshing the gag reaction with each tainted breath.
600 yards was a long way and the prospect of walking that distance through this blinding, stinking poison was not simply unwise, it was lunacy.
The only comfort to be drawn upon was that the monsters would be as bewildered and blinded in this rancid storm as the party were, thus rendering any battle situation equally handicapped.
Comfort only ever seemed to be ice-cold these days, still it was better than a void of nothing.
The only monster that gave Cloud particular cause for concern were those Custom Sweeper things. They were second-generation Shinra patrol machines. War-bots, relics of the Wutai-Shinra war that had been tossed out of the factories in Midgar when newer models became available and left to rot in the fields and lands surrounding the city. If only that had been the case, unfortunately, it had not been.
They still prowled the areas around Midgar and Kalm, still killing long after their masters had fallen and the war that gave birth to them was concluded. They were equipped with various kinds of thermal vision that lent to them clarity of sight even in such freak conditions as those which now existed. Given the sheer volume of them produced in the war, it was a foregone conclusion that they circled and hunted in droves on this night especially when they would have the decided advantage to fulfil their programmed psychosis with sniper-like efficiency.
They were heavily armoured and boasted twin 10mm vulcan cannons, one on each arm and a small rocket launcher. Needless to say, they were a very dangerous foe indeed and they undoubtedly had the upper hand in these conditions as they could see perfectly, were armed to the teeth and were not bound under such tiresome mortal habits like breathing. On this point, Cloud envied them. At this moment, he wished he could manage without having to take in air just now.
He considered the possibility of walking the next 500 yards without inhaling but fell dejected when he realised that it was probably impossible, even for somebody with organs enhanced with JENOVA cells.
He braced himself and opened his mouth, sucking in another searing lungfull of smokey poison.
He almost choked on the disgusting vapour as it rended at his lungs and, for the first time, found himself wondering if this was anything like what Cid voluntarily put himself through when he was chewing on those smouldering weeds.
Cid was probably not as sensitive to the rotten air as the rest of the group were, if anything, it was probably saving him money.
Muffled by the distance and the foul blanket of pollutants, the lights of Kalm blinked and twinkled invitingly, offering a refuge from the ruination of the landscape and the reek of the air. That in mind, Cloud picked up the pace.
"Man this shit reeks!" Barret moaned from somewhere behind Cloud.
"You can say that again." Tifa added.
"We had to expect this after a blast that size." Red added, the air only slightly less foul down at his level.
"The explosion and the resulting pollution has created some kind of ion storm. It should not last too long, hopefully." He said.
"Yeah..." Cloud sighed mournfully.
"Who would have thought a nuclear blast could do this."
The party fell silent once again as they continued their death-march through the wind and the smog.
Lightning pulsed again wringing from the landscapes hidden in the fog a cocophony of screams and shouts, organic this time rather than natural.
Weapons found hands instantly and the party fell to a dead stop as the screaming intensified. Claws reached out of the clouds of smog and disintegrated into brown wisps as great gnashing teeth formed in the air and fell apart as if the clouds themselves were screaming in pain.
Panic raced into Barret and he let rip with the machine gun, firing in all directions promptly followed by Cid tearing into the agonised clouds with his shotgun. After the incident in Cosmo Canyon, they were unwilling to take any chances. Finally, the clip in Barrets' gun emptied and the deafening roar of weapons fire fell silent.
The screams did not.
"What the HELL is that?" Barret hollared over the rising shouts.
"The monsters!" Red replied.
"Well what the fuck is wrong with them?" Cid asked as he hastily reloaded the shotgun.
"They're scared!" Cloud shouted.
"What of?" Tifa asked.
"Who cares? Let's get the hell out of here before we find out!" Barret shouted.
The party picked up the pace again from an alert amble to an all out sprint. Thunder growled and mixed now with a sound that was anything but natural.
Electric blue met smokey brown as the heavens lashed their whips of lightning once more. Clouds screamed in pain in their voices of thunder and wind and exhaled violently, buffeting the party and pushing needles of blinding poison into their eyes as they ran.
Clouds roared once again, a third noise joining the tortured cries of wind and thunder now; the unmistakable rattle of machinegun fire.
Without slowing down, Cloud turned his head to find Barret. The big man, barely
visible through inflamed and reddened eyes shined with an aura as vision poured lazily through gates of tears. Both arms swung purposefully at his side as he ran and caught Clouds' gaze, cutting him off before he even had a chance to speak.
"Nothin' to do with me." He hissed.
Another train of machinegun fire ripped through the tunnel of the air followed by a bloodcurdling scream, born not solely of terror but of terror and agony; not just agony though, but death agony a very disturbing and unique kind of pain that draws a very unique and bloodfreezing sound.
A sound that a creature can only make when it knows it is about to die.
Cid stopped in mid run and turned the shotgun on the percieved direction of the assault. Muffled by the fog but still fearful in the power of its' voice, the shotgun flared light at the tip of its' barrels and there was a roar as they were emptied onto a hidden assailant.
A fierce barrage of machinegun fire screamed in response to this attack. Cid dived for cover, simultaneously reloading the shotgun and letting rip with it once more.
The screech of metal being hammered by a rain of tiny pellets rang out through the air, dancing with a new sound, a strange and ethereal whizz as an object cut like a lance through the air and flew past the party, landing with a thud into the ground just ahead of Cloud.
Light erupted and Cloud found the ground with a frightening pace as an invisible ring of pressure smashed into him and knocked the ground from his feet. Pain raced into his shoulder and he groaned as he rolled onto his back.
His eyes began to flare and he almost felt the squirt of glands releasing raging serpents of adrenaline into his blood as a shape began to emerge from the poisonous mist followed in quick succession by another.
Two huge mechanised arms sat deathly still at the sides of the squat body. Steel gleamed in the light of the fire from what could only have been the impact of a small missile. Well oiled pistons gleamed and moved in their programmed way as they conveyed the huge body of the armour across the contours and cracks of the landscape. A red eye gleamed soulessly in the ergonomic contours of the face conveying not emotion but a mindless dependence on a piece of software that drove the two emerging machines towards a singular purpose.
Huge claws gleamed at the tip of the gigantic yet muscleless legs and shimmered with a faint trace of red leaving no doubt in Cloud's mind as to what it was.
A third machine began to emerge from the mist to the left flank of the middle one which seemed to take on the aura of a leader. In reality, they did not have a command structure but in this situation, the other two seemed to be following the first one.
The attention of this third companion changed though and it swivelled itself and opened out the two machineguns into the fog drawing a disgusting and horrific scream from them as bullets made contact with a target.
Cloud found his feet instantly as the third machine turned and continued on its' programmed march towards the party.
He began to run, ignoring the pain in his shoulder which truthfully had begun to really burn at him now as his worst fears on this night came true before his eyes, marching out of the fog.
"Custom Sweepers!" He shouted.
The new increase in speed was not an orderly picking up of the pace, the party were running for their lives now. Machinegun fire rattled again prompting the fleeing figures to weave in and out. It might not have made much difference, at the most it could only slow the Custom Sweepers down until they effectively readjusted their targetting vectors, something that they could do quite quickly.
They were machines after all, they were made for efficiency.
There was a fierce exchange of fire and a violent flash of light as the face of the lead machine was blown apart by a volley of shotgun and gun-arm fire. As the remains of the Custom Sweeper hit the ground, the other two machines hastened their advance, opening up both of their machineguns simultaneously and letting a violent strand of fire loose into the gathering night.
The lights of the town, looking more inviting than ever now, must only have been a hundred yards or so. Guns cracked all around leaving Cloud feeling quite useless with the dead-weight of the sword vibrating across his back and pumping fresh squirts of pain from whatever damage he had suffered to his shoulder. He winced and nursed the wound with his hand as the firefight erupted behind him.
As abruptly as it had begun, the fight was over leaving only wind and the occasional crack of thunder to fill the hole that the incessant machineguns had created.
Fear raced into Cloud and he turned his head.
To his immense relief, the smudged faces of his comrades met his troubled eyes and he let out an audible sigh of relief.
"What happened?" He called.
"We iced two of the bastards and the third one broke off the attack!" Cid called.
Nodding and turning his head simultaneously, Cloud was suddenly engulfed by the outer reaches of the town, the change in the landscape being heralded into being by the metamorphosis of grass into cobbled stone.
He recalled with dreadful accuracy the path to the inn, the same path he had been on, albeit under different circumstances, two years ago.
More bad news.
Despite its' pretty appearance to the outside world with its' dumpy little houses and neatly trimmed cobbled streets, Cloud really held no liking for this town at all.
On the warmest of days in summer, much like today had been before its' premature demise, this was one of the most picturesque places on the entire continent.
Seagulls screeched overhead and the warm eastern winds gently capped the tops of rolling golden sandunes on the nearby Kalm Shore. A beautiful place where azure blue met crisp green, where the tranquility of the ocean met the laziness of unspoiled land. The town itself was famed for its' hospitality, a reminiscent mirror of past times before the evils of new and darkened hubs of civillisation like Midgar or Junon.
Despite all this, Cloud honestly could say that he hated this place and that the veil of clinging, choking poison that now wrapped it and smothered its' beauty was more fitting than sun sea and sand.
Each visit to this town brought new and fresh woes to the mounting pile he already had to contend with. In truth, this is where it all started and now, as he ran once more up this path, he could only help but wonder what else this town was going to take from him or from those around him.
* * * * * *
The great oak door creaked like the rickety old bones of some forgotten warlock as Cloud pushed against it. The volume of the creaking would have fooled those who entered that this place had not been inhabited for decades, centuries and that once over the threshold, unsuspecting travellers would find a silent and dead world where eternities would be spent feasting on the flesh of strangers who dared to enter this graveyard of amnesia, this place that life had forsaken and left to the prowlings of the dead.
The reality was quite different and much more welcoming as the party finally hustled in and escaped from the chaos of a world in pain on the other side of the door which slammed shut with the confidence of a bold knight, confusing and warping the arthritic sounds it had uttered upon opening. Cloud was half expecting the cheery décor to morph to shades of grey and black and the huddled figures in the small dining area to change into vampires and blood-toothed zombies. The aforementioned transformation failed to take place but still clung to the drapes of Cloud's mind.
The dead-weight of the sword was more a comfort now than it had previously been.
The gentle rest of a hand on his shoulder diverted Cloud's attention from the horrors of this imagined phantom world and he turned his head to find Tifa gazing in horror at his arm.
"Cloud, what happened to your shoulder?!" She gasped.
Cloud's eyes shifted to the source of the pain that had been plaguing him since his tumble and he found himself calmly gazing at a gaping wound at the point where shoulder transformed into left arm.
A tiny tip of shredded metal protruded from the wound but the blood-oozing hole had swallowed much more of this foreign object than eyes allowed Cloud to see. Skin was already beginning to inflame as slithering dribbles of blood meandered from the torn flesh, soaking into the blue of Cloud's clothes.
"Shrapnel." He hissed, flexing the arm and wincing at the sudden bite of fire. "Must be from the missile that Custom Sweeper launched."
Cloud suddenly felt a rush inside his head and his thoughts focused towards a new idea.
"Is everyone else alright?" He asked, the evident worry in his voice drawing
Tifa to look around at the rest of the party.
Suffering from severe breathlessness and recovering from massive overdoses of adrenaline coursing through their fattened veins, the rest of the party was visibly fine.
Still checking, twice, three times to make totally sure, Tifa nodded her head cautiously.
"Yeah. Yeah they're fine."
She flashed her eyes to look at Cloud, her gaze permeated with worry.
"Are you ok, can you take that out?" She asked.
Cloud shook his head.
"Later. We have more important things to worry about just now."
Cloud's eyes intensified in their shine, cutting Tifa off.
"Later Tifa, don't worry, I'll be fine."
Wincing once more, Cloud turned and scanned the room, finally dropping his gaze onto the tiny desk in the corner huddled next to two dreamy draped plants that served as a reception area.
Light from two small electric lamps mounted on the wall filtered through the plants lending to the tiny room the image of sun dancing in the canopies of trees in a mystic forest or light-starved glade.
A gaunt figure was sitting in this little corner of forest, this intersection between parallel worlds. Something about her face and the curtains of stringy grey hair that orbited it sparked a glimmer of recognition in Cloud's head. He squinted a little closer and he saw the same face he had seen the last time he had set foot in the forest of the inn. She had not looked as gaunt the last time, the hair had been black and the face more fully fleshed out but it was the
same woman, even if she had now become a shadow. Maybe this inn did hold ties with that land of ghosts it had seemed to be only moments before, a place where life was not pinched out but instead slowly sucked out.
Boots drew heavy claps on the well-tread boards of the floor as Cloud approached the desk, rousing the womans' attention. Despite her withered appearance, her soul obviously still had not seccumbed to the tarnish that had frayed her body and she smiled, the radiance lifting the darkness from her face and lifting her to full height.
"What can I do for you sir?" She asked.
Her voice was not fitting the withered frame from which it came, confident, even young at times.
Obviously she had not recognised Cloud but given the number of people that travelled through this way, it was not surprising.
"I am looking for a woman named Elmyra, she came here yesterday with a young girl?"
The woman smiled and nodded.
"She's waiting for you and your party in the dining area, Mr strife. Just through there."
She pointed towards a small room adjoining the reception area.
Cloud nodded his thanks and turned back to his companions.
The strange little woman retreated back into the forest and her saddened, almost terminal expression reasserted itself onto her life-worn face.
Cloud caught her out of the corner of his eye as the party moved into the dining area. It was folly to think that the days' events had subdued the woman, it was something more, something worse. A feeling that only Cloud could relate to at this time, the feeling of watching the last few grains of sand fall through the hourglass in Death's hand and the realisation that there is nothing within your power to stop the sand falling or the waters of time slipping through your
At that second, he felt he was going to see her again, if fate was destined to be fate.
He sighed and she disappeared from his view.
Hazy light painted the cheery primrose walls of the dining area complemented by the graceful flickering of tiny votive candles set in amber glass beakers on each of the tables. Lazy spirits of golden flame washed the walls bringing the image of the thought-energies from his vision back to the stage in Cloud's mind.
These strands of golden luminescence held little in common with what they mimicked and when they touched his skin there was no tingle of buzzing consciousness, no warmth of life distilled to its' purest form.
Despite their beauty, the flickers of colour had no life and were as cold as the pin-prick stars that burned so far away in the cosmos and shed their warmth over the uncrossable expanse of the nothing between worlds.
The dining area was capable of holding at least thirty or so people over five or six tables but only three of them were occupied. In the far corner under the protective canopy of a tall potted plant sat the familiar form of a woman. Like the rest of the inhabitants of the inn, she wore a dire expression that was a window onto the rivers of conflicting and choking emotions that raged and fell in black waterfalls in her mind.
She was wearing a blue dress and her brown hair was tied into a ponytail.
Marlene was nowhere to be seen.
Sensing the approach of somebody, Elmyra looked up from the remains of a meal which Cloud suspected had been purchased more from a need to fuel the body than for the enjoyment of simply eating. Her eyes fixed directly on his and froze him in his tracks, the cool hazel green again windows onto something much stronger that did not shine but burned and raged inside her. An anger worse than anything Cloud had ever known reigned only by a flicker of relief, even gratitude to seen him.
Was the anger even directed at him? he could not tell, all he knew was that it was there and that it was very powerful, more powerful than he would have thought her small frame to effectively hold inside. She was sat at one of the larger tables, anticipating that Cloud would have company. One by one the group shuffled around, pulled up seats and sat down.
Cloud, eyes still fixed on Elmyra took the seat facing her and sat down, unclipping the Ultima Weapon and propping it against the wall.
Cold amber caught the crystalline tiers of the weapon and sprayed painted rainbows onto the wall.
Elmyra sighed and broke her gaze, turning to look at Barret first of all. A huge smile broke her lips and she reached out, touching his big hand.
"Thank god you're alright, Marlene was so upset."
"Where is the little monster?" He asked.
"She's up in our room having a nap. Why don't you go up and see her?"
Barret stood up and without seeking the approval of the party broke into a single-minded run for the stairs.
"Room 35." Elmyra called after him.
Boots stomped on the well worn oak of the stairs and continued along the corridors above them.
Elmyra's smile disintegrated as she turned the flames back onto Cloud.
"What the hell is going on Cloud? Are we at war or something?"
Cloud winced and sat forward, clasping his hands on the table infront of him.
"Not in the way you think we are."
She laughed but the sound was as dry of humour as deserts were of water.
"Not in the way I think we are? What else could explain an explosion of that size Cloud?" She asked, the tone of her voice becoming more and more bitter as she spoke.
The rest of the party remained silent and Cloud did not appreciate that as this would be the second time it was left up to to tell this dire story to somebody. Elmyra was not Cid though, she would certainly not take the shock as well as he had and the repercussions of this revelation might haunt her for the rest of her life.
"It was a magical attack." Cloud whispered.
"Launched by whom? A city? A country? How did you know about it?" She snapped, the anger slowly beginning to seep a little further into her voice.
"It was launched by a single man and I didn't know about it." Cloud said, his voice once more was shrivelled to a whisper.
Elmyra was the only person he had met that could do that to him and he felt he knew why.
She had lost so much and everytime a loss landed, Cloud was at the epicentre of it. Her anger towards him was something he could understand and was entirely different from the situational anger that Barret had showered him with on the Highwind.
"A single man? Did you see the size of the blast Cloud? how could a single man have the power to do that?" She asked, the edge in her voice blunting slightly.
Cloud sighed and reached out with his frozen sapphire stare.
This time it was Elmyra who felt something harden as she looked into his eyes, as if the icy blue shine reached into her and froze something in her mind, crystallised something in her being.
What she saw in his gaze, she did not like and on a deep, near sub-conscious level, it frightened her and frightened her deeply. At that instant, she could almost feel his mind and wrap herself in his thoughts and she did not like what she saw one bit. A world inside his head where the lands were grey and frozen and flakes of razor-sharp ice fell from the ashen sky. A place where nothing moved and what was alive soon would not be as great oceans of sorrow welled and lapped against the frozen, dying landscape.
In places, the frozen corpse-grey gave way to black and ash where the nuclear fires of a deep and apocalyptic fury had raged, a fury against the self that had turned green and pleasant mental lands into the rotting mass of bleakness and devastation that now existed behind the clouded windows of his eyes.
Having seen this world, this realm that was his mind, she felt the anger inside her mind diminish and slip away into the backgrounds, into the darkest caves and crevices inside her from which it had welled like white-hot lava. The experience she had just felt seemed too real to be made up and she gazed into the sapphire ice crystals of his eyes and saw them shine brighter for that moment that the ice-world appeared inside her head. Was this place real? Was this a visual representaion of his mind and if it was, how was he allowing her
to see it? She had never taken into account what the death of her daughter had done to this
man who to her, was still a child.
She had never thought how her passing had affected him until now and she sensed that the death of Aeris had something to do, if only in part with what she was about to be told.
The rest of the party gazed in silent wonder at the surreal ocular standoff that was being fought before them. Tifa, gazing at Cloud saw the blue of his eyes burn harder for that instant too and she cocked her head in amazement as she watched the change in Elmyra.
'What just happened?' She wondered, knowing that she would probably never get
Elmyra felt a lump clutch at her throat with its' evil little claws and she cleared her head and averted her gaze towards the plate of cooling food scraps as she readied herself.
She knew what was about to be said would be hard and that it would open the wounds of something much much worse once more.
"When you say man, Cloud, what are you talking about?" She eventually asked.
"I called him a man because he posesses the form of a man. The mind however is not of a man, it is not even human."
"What is it then?" Elmyra hissed, the fear in her voice rippling the soft stream of her speech like pebbles in water.
Cloud looked at her once more but she did not look back. A revulsion towards that world in his eyes kept her head down as she spoke and as she waited for her answer.
This made it much harder for him.
He had looked Cid in the eyes and Vincent had looked him in the eyes. Somehow, it softened a blow that could not be softened. Without that security, what would happen? He could harldy not tell her so he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, silencing the doubting choir of voices that sang within the church of his head as he began to speak.
The silence that followed could have confused anyone into thinking that the world had fallen foul of a warlock and that in his rage he had muted and deafened everything, cursing the world to an eternity of silence and a muffled land where nothing could hear and nothing could utter sound.
Only the alien and artificial sounds of a wine bottle tapping gently on the rim of a glass filled the ears of the party as they sat and observed the blood-red liquid pour from the hole in the neck of a green bottle and into a plain and rather boring looking glass that sat next to the half-eaten meal on the table.
Putting glass to lip, Elmyra emptied the dark and dry-smelling contents in one go bringing to mind the image of a great paladin drinking the shed blood of a deity from a divine crystal chalice thus granting her everlasting life. In reality it was merely an understandable reaction to what must have been a crushing blow and a terrible shock.
She refilled the glass, emptying the bottle and drained half of the wine this time, setting the bottle onto the table with a quite yet disturbingly confident rap.
She sipped the bloodied red of the beverage once more, bowing her head as she did so, swirls of hair masking her face as her already slight form seemed to shrink even further.
"Somehow..." She whispered, clutching the glass as if it were an anchor that bound soul to body.
"I knew that this wasn't over. Sensed that something was still wrong."
Cloud leaned forward in his seat, the rest of the party still muted, just watched what was transpiring.
"How did you know?" He asked.
She shrugged, shook her head but did not look up.
"I didn't know, I felt. There's a difference." She hissed, her voice a choir of voices, hundreds perhaps thousands of suffering, saddened souls crying out in unison and merging to form one collective voice. Hers.
"Ever since that day that you came here, Cloud, brought me...the news, I've sensed things, even experienced things that should not be possible. Things reaching to me from a place that I cannot see, from somebody I know cannot be speaking to me yet is..."
"Things?" Red asked, finally locating his voice in the sea of silence that now drowned them.
She looked up, her eyes dead pools of water in a marsh that was her face. In those seconds, she had physically grown more gaunt, haggard. Maybe it was the wine or the effect of amber pixies dancing upon her face but the illusion of an old woman that was created was startlingly real.
"I...I wake in the night sometimes, hear...things, voices sometimes."
"What things, what voices?" Cloud asked, a note of impatient urgency in his voice turning this discussion into more of an interrogation.
He reigned it in.
"Laughter. I hear laughter."
"Marlene perhaps?" Tifa chirped
Elmyra shook her head and looked down again, cradling the wine glass with both hands this time.
"It sounds strange, quiet. Half the time I cannot even be sure I'm not dreaming it. It's like two or even three different things laughing at once; there is one laugh with shadows of others in it. The voice is the same, one yet many and it...it...calls my name, wakes me up. It scares me so bad I can't sleep again."
"And this happens each night?" Red asked.
She shook her head again.
"No. Not that often. Once perhaps twice a week."
"Is that all? Laughter and voices?" Vincent asked.
She shook her head again, her gaze falling even further down towards the floor.
"I only wish it were."
Thunder rumbled overhead, louder than before momentarily distracting the attentions of the group as though a great evil in the sky was attempting to make the party disregard what Elmyra was saying, force their attention elsewhere to protect itself from being discovered.
Elmyra didn't look up as she set the glass to her lips once more.
"What else has happened?" Cloud asked, returning his gaze to her.
She sniffed and uttered a second sound. Almost silent and hidden well, it was the sound of a muffled sob.
"In...in my dreams I see......I see..." She broke off again, sobbing more mournfully than before.
Cloud's hand rested upon hers and clasped around it as if he were trying to imbue her with some of his new-found strength.
Rather than recoil, as she would have done only hours before, she accepted the warmth and the stability of the embrace of hands and took some of the strength that was being silently offered to her.
Her sad-eyed gaze pulled up from the floor, from the wine glass and fixed onto Cloud's gaze, the evil world of ice and grey no longer haunting his eyes as she felt his look touch her, sure her up.
Where ice and death had played in fields devoid of flowers, Elmyra now found a new world, a place she could not explain but could connect to in a very private way, a place where both daughter and love of a life could be percieved as passed and understood as one in the same.
"I see Aeris dying in my dreams." She sobbed, not distorting her ocular connection with Cloud by so much as the batting of an eyelid.
"Oh god..."Cloud whispered, retracting the hand.
Elmyra suddenly felt very alone. She could see and feel other people, could recognise their proximity to her but it felt as if they were mere shadows, stencilled sketches in some darkened corner of the art gallery of reality; things that looked and felt real that had no more depth than a two-dimensional image, an idea formed in the mind of an artisan in a world far removed from her own.
She watched the stencil that was Cloud, the finely pencilled features of his face erasing steely conviction and rendering onto his blank features the bleakness and the crushing pains of self-recrimination and hatred. Pity and fury, directed not outwards but inwards now possesed the crafted clay of his face and took away any little glimmer of hope or happiness that had remained buried so deep within him and that had shined briefly like a candle in the night
only moments beforehand.
It was Cloud now who shrivelled, the sapphire majesty of ice-blue eyes melting and dulling under the crushing agony of images that haunted his mind and things he had been forced into witnessing that hunted with their venom amongst the forests of his consciousness.
Despite the deep and bleeding wound that poured fire into the nerves and flesh of his shoulder, the pain that now carved itself onto the youthful features of his face was not one born of the body but of a mind that had too long blamed itself for the loss of a love that could never again be felt.
A gleaming tear traced its way gently from Cloud's eye and ran the short distance from reddened tear-duct to chin as his mind replayed for him the moment when his life had changed forever.
"I see the blood..." Elmyra sobbed quietly.
Cloud winced and shut his eyes, tears bleeding from both of them now.
"...I hear her sob from the pain." Elmyra continued, each word plucking great strings in her heart and sending the waves of mournfull sorrow across the short distance of the table where they lapped like waves of blood against Cloud, sending him hurtling back across time and space to that platform suspended in the forgotten city of crystal.
"And then she dies." Cloud finished, his voice wavering as he spoke.
Elmyra sobbed again and nodded.
"And he stands and smiles over her body." Elmyra hissed, the raging inferno of hate masking itself masterfully in the weakened and quivering voice it was using to carry itself to the ears of the others.
"His eyes burn like great fires." Cloud whispered.
Elmyra nodded and watched him again.
"I thought it was just a nightmare, the first time but when it happened again, and again last night I...I knew that...that it was real. Is that what happened to my daughter Cloud? Did she die alone in the darkness somewhere in this world?"
Cloud sniffed and wiped tears from his eyes and fixed his gaze not onto Elmyra but onto the smokey emerald of the wine bottle that sat dejectedly on the table, its' lifeforce drained and drunk from a crystal chalice.
"She was not alone."
He looked up.
"She turns and smiles at you, in your dreams, doesn't she?" Cloud asked.
Elmyra sat silently for a long second focusing her attention onto Cloud.
Eventually, she cleared her throat and leaned forward in her seat.
"Yes. How did you know that?"
"He is showing you exactly what he did to your daughter, through my eyes." Cloud
"Your eyes?" Elmyra asked.
"What does that mean?" She pushed, forcing Cloud to meet her gaze.
"She smiled at me and then....he ran her through. She didn't even know he was there, I think."
Despite the sturdy protection of four thick-set old-style stone walls and the many coverings of plaster and paint that sealed them and their cracks, a cold chill somehow found its' way into the dining area, playing and dancing amongst the party and running its' icicle fingers along the length of their spines from the base of the neck to the furthest peninsula of the pelvis.
"I was transfixed, he was using the Jenova cells inside me to stop me, to hold me back. That's why in your dreams, you cannot reach her...cannot stop that blade from finding her back."
Icy fingers crystallised into great glaciers as bone transmuted into glistening blocks of ice, held in place not by a cord but by a frozen river.
"So now you know what really happened. Now you know just how terribly I failed her." Cloud hissed, the bitterness of his voice was like poison, clinging to hisevery word and infecting it.
Silence reigned for a moment before the hostile screech of a chair rattling along a tiled floor broke the sheet of mutedness that choked life from voices.
"Excuse me." Cloud hissed, more bitter than before as he battled to hold in an explosive sob.
His boots clicked on the floor as he crossed the lounge and went into a small room marked 'Gentlemen' on the door. There was a quiet click as a lock was engaged.
Chapter 35: More to come
The party sat awkwardly as they waited for the young waiter to finish clearing the table of the remnants of food. Cid and Vincent ordered drinks, beer and coffee respectively and Tifa, Red and Elmyra declined the offer of refreshments either because they were not in need of them or because they were not in the mood for them at the moment.
The waiter did not smile as he took the order and shuffled off with plates and glasses, come to mention it, upon inspection of the room, nobody was smiling.
Nobody was even talking except for sporadic patches of chat usually clipped, forced sentiments about how tasty the food was or how good the wine was. As soon as somebody mentioned the weather however, the conversation bit the metaphorical poisoned apple and descended into a drug induced sleep.
Much less frequently than before, the windows pulsed with a great neon-blue flash as lightning arched over the landscape, revealing the great form of the Highwind sleeping in the meadow like a giant Phoenix. Even seeing the ship was now partially visible gave the party cause for relief as the great cancer-tinged cloud overhead must finally be beginning to break up and go back to the world of ghosts and zombies, the lands of creeping nightmares from whence it came, taking with it spirits and souls of those fallen to ashes on this day.
Boots clicked again and the party looked up, hoping to see Cloud returning in a slightly improved mood but hopes were dashed as the youthful-looking waiter crossed the floor again with a glass of beer and a mug of black coffee in one hand, a small dish of sugar and milk in the other.
He set the items on the table and stood straight again.
His tone was not impatient, more dispondant. Each flash of lightning brought a mournful glimpse from the corner of his eye to the window.
"That will be all, thank you." Elmyra said, her voice strengthened slightly.
The waiter nodded and glanced over towards the men's room.
"If the other members of your party would like a drink, the bar will be open for a further hour yet."
Elmyra smiled and handed the waiter a 5 Gil piece.
He smiled again, less forcedly this time as he gratefully took the tip and clicked off again towards the kitchen.
Elmyra's smile melted as soon as he was out of sight, likewise the elevated expression of the waiter probably banished itself from his face as he disappeared into a room marked 'Staff Only'.
It was not a night for unbridled good humour and had there been any, after the events of the day, it would not only have been vulgar and in extreme bad taste but on this evening, laughter and high spirits would have taken on a very malefic affinity. A choir of devils rejoicing at the deaths of millions of innocnets and the subsequent feast on their souls.
Even at this moment, somewhere in a dark and hidden cave deep beneath the world, a single devil was gorging on the life-energies of those he had just slain.
The resonant harmonics of a fingernail tapping on cold glass chimed like distant church bells as Cid lifted the beer to his mouth and took a long, much-needed swill of the intoxicating amber inside the glass.
Draining half of the drink in one mighty go, Cid set the glass back onto the table with a sharp crack, passed wind and excused himself and wiped froth from his lips with the back of one of his gloved hands as he sat back contentedly in his chair.
Elmyra looked shyly over towards the door of the mens room, the bolt on the sturdy oak door was still engaged hiding Cloud from view of the world.
"I had no idea." She sighed, her voice bitter not from hate but from remorse as her sad gaze burned into the finely polished surface of the door.
"About what?" Tifa asked.
Elmyra turned her head but did not take up Tifa's gaze, instead she focused her attention onto the swirling pond of steaming black coffee in Vincent's mug.
"I didn't know that...he saw what happened. I...I always thought it happened...alone."
Tifa sighed, banishing the sour aroma of the coffee from her nose as she clasped her hands on the table, focusing her gaze onto them.
"He had heard a voice, told me that something had invaded his mind. He could feel the fingers of something wrapping around him and forcing him to move against his will as he descended into the city." Tifa whsipered.
"What do you mean?" Elmyra asked.
The two womens' eyes locked.
"Sephiroth. It was Sephiroth. He was manipulating the fragments of Jenova that were inside Cloud, he was trying to make Cloud kill Aeris. She saw him on the platform with his sword in his hands and she smiled, thinking he had come to help her, save her."
Elmyra fell silent and the colour drained from her face.
"It must have been so hard to resist, the sheer enormity of the power that Sephiroth was focusing onto Cloud. I cannot understand how he was able to resist it, to fight it but he did, to an extent, the power was not truly broken, he was suspended and unable to move. Forced to watch." Tifa sighed, trying to banish the images that now came back to her.
A lighter clicked and the dancing of a small flame brought wisps of phantom smoke to the room along with the warm odour of roasted tobacco burning in its' bed of bleached paper.
"Sephiroth was all too happy to do his own dirty work though, the sick fucker even laughed as he made us watch too." Cid growled, inhaling a long plume of smoke and pouring beer down his throat.
"And to make sure we couldn't reach her in time to save her, he left one of those bastard Jenova things for us to fight." Vincent added.
A little tint of peach found its' way back onto Elmyra's face but her expression remained grim as she took in and tried to assimilate the words.
"You all saw this?" She asked.
The group nodded.
"We arrived too late to stop Sephiroth, I'm sure he planned it that way. By the time we got to the ledge, she was already dead."
Elmyra balled up her fists and held them to her head.
The party sat back as a silence once more descended from the rafters and cloaked them with its' oil thick tentacles. Cid smoked patiently and took another swallow of beer as Vincent put his coffee to his lips and took a small mouthful of the liquid into his body. He kept his enjoyment of the beverage to himself as tonight was not a time for wonderous emotional or physical discovery. At least if it was, he would have to revel in it privately.
"How could I have been so selfish?" Elmyra asked anger flexing hot muscles in her voice as it stirred once more.
She took her hands down and revealed her worn out, almost withered face.
"How could I have treated him so awfully especially now that I know how much he tried to do for her? How arrogant was I to believe I was the only one entitled to grieve for her?"
Tifa sighed as she fought off the ropes of silence that hung around her body.
"He has never told me this Elmyra, I just know that he understands your reaction. He blames himself for what happened, she died under his protection, he blames himself for the death of your daughter."
"To him, even what he did is never going to be enough. He still failed." Red added from his sitting position on the floor.
Emlyra shook her head.
"She was only my adoptive daughter, loved as the child I never had myself but to Cloud, she could have been so much more. She WAS so much more. She could have given him so much more than she gave me, love, a family...."
Uneasy silence descended as Elmyra's words faded like the ascending plumes of smoke that escaped from the inferno of the cigarette.
"...He saved our lives yesterday when he told us to leave Midgar but still I felt rage because he let so many die."
Cid paused with the beer glass half way to his mouth as he, Red, Vincent and Tifa flashed each other troubled glances. They knew Cloud himself should tell Elmyra the rest of the story but it was impossible to tell what state he was in or when he would be back.
"The man you spoke to on the PHS yesterday..." Tifa started.
"...Wasn't Cloud." Red finished.
Elmyra almost smiled as she looked at each of the party in turn.
"But it was his voice, I recognised it."
"Indeed it may have been his voice, but it was not he who spoke in it." Vincent said, the fabric of his voice still unwrinkled by emotion of any sort.
The half-smile dissolved as Elmyra's mind sprayed it with the acid of realisation. Still though, a defiant chink of light in her eyes refused to accept what she was slowly waking up to.
"He sounded a little tired, worn out maybe but it was definitely..."
The voice startled the group and Cid exhaled explosively as they looked up and saw Cloud standing at the doorway where reception met dining room. He had cleaned up a little and a large dressing covered the gaping hole where the hrapnel had torn into his shoulder.
His eyes were still dull and he looked much older, worn and tired as he sat back in his recently vacated seat and fixed his gaze first onto Tifa.
His mood seemed to have stabilised but it was still far from improved.
"Could you four please excuse us, I think Elmyra deserves to know what is going on."
The group nodded and stood up.
"I took the liberty of booking you some rooms, I thought you would want to stay tonight. Just ask at Reception." Elmyra said, her voice cowed and withdrawn.
The party nodded again and slowly filed out of the room.
Elmyra and Cloud locked gazes as amber votive candle light licked their skin and played on the table before them.
"So, what is going on Cloud?" She asked.
He sighed and sat forward in his seat as he concentrated things in his head.
"OK..." He sighed.
"It's like this..."
* * * * * *
The muffled sound of the two speaking toyed at the ears of the party as they stood in the reception area.
There was a moment of reflective silence as the four regarded each other, a million things to say but nothing to talk about. Red was first to break this silence, his big canine-like face cracking into a proud yawn before he spoke.
"I think I will retire for the evening. I will be glad to put this day behind me." Red announced.
Tifa, Cid and Vincent nodded.
Picking the key up in his teeth and walking casually up a small flight of stairs, Red disappeared into the shadows of the upper hallway followed by the ill-looking woman from the front desk who was required to open the bedroom door for Red who did not posess the advance digitals on his paws necessary to open the door.
Cid sighed heavily, expressing much more feeling than he usually did. He was tired and he knew it but still he followed his feet in the direction of the Bar, which was hidden in a sideroom from reception behind an arched doorway.
"I don't know about you two, but I'm gonna need a few more before I even think about trying to sleep."
Tifa nodded and started walking.
"I'll come with you I think. What about you Vincent?" She asked.
His eyes shimmered light briefly as he shook his head.
"No. I think I will go for a walk now that the storm is beginning to clear a little."
Cid put his cigarette in his mouth and nodded.
"Suit yerself. See you in the morning then."
"Goodnight both of you."
That said, he walked briskly for the front door, opening it with machine-like confidence and stepping back out into the tortured winds and the swirls of falling ashes that clung to the world and choked it.
Chapter 36: The plans of God
The reek of smoke was still thick in the air although probably more pronounced for Vincent, more so than it actually was.
Like Cloud he had undergone enhancement at the hands of Shinra. Although not as extensive as the experiments performed on Sephiroth or Cloud, Vincent still enjoyed the double-edged benefits of enhanced senses and perceptions without the obvious problems of dillusional madness. The loss, or more accurately, the subversion of his emotions did not overly bother him. They served only to impede efficiency, something that Vincent cherished almost religiously. Still though, a curiosity about those lost mental actors persisted to tantalise him and it was becoming ever harder to silence his wonder.
Despite the smoke tint of the air, the storm had visibly begun to fade to black, to rot and disintegrate leaving only the prying, peeping eyes of the stars in broken patches of cloud that still spread their cloaks across the sky.
Far to the west, the battle was not so easily won as lightning pulsed and lashed from evil black, whipping the furies of flame amongst the ruins into a dance of devils against the sky.
The air was much crisper than it had previously been now that the sheets of poisonous smog had been stripped away and the great sleeping phoenix in the meadow beyond was withing full view of the inn now.
Across the ambling sheets of green between Vincent and the Highwind, about 50 or so yards away lay the crumpled remains of two of the Custom Sweepers that had hunted and stalked in the mist, their defunct mechanised bodies spewing showers of sparks from destroyed motors and gears into the air.
The remains of the lead machine twitched as the bulk of the body tried to rise like a fallen legionnaire from the grass and continue on its' programmed journey. The head, the command centre with its' programmed software and artificial mind was detatched from the body, blown off by a spray of shimmering projectiles thus rendering the tireless efforts of the body to stand itself up futile.
The scene was grim, truth be told. Death and carnage as far as the eye could see.
Even the air still held the clawing tang of it as Vincent turned on his heel to regard the play of flames that stood as ruin to civilisation in the lightning-tortured lands to the west.
"Magnificent, don't you think?"
It took a great deal to squeeze an emotional response from Vincent and when one was forthcoming, it was a casual glance or flicker of fire in his eyes, nothing more or less. That was about as profound as he was capable of and a voice, no matter how unexpected, would not shake Vincent to shout or gasp or perform any of the other over-the-top responses he frequently witnessed amongst his companions.
His hand did move as he turned though, resting on the leather lid of his holster.
"Sephiroth." He said.
"Why have you come before me?"
From the formless murk, a smile appeared as Sephiroth moved towards his quarry, his movements almost majestic, regal even, as he took the bold step closer.
"As I recall, you were not amongst the party that defeated me, were you Vincent?" He asked.
"I was not."
Steely fingers like snakes slipped under the lip of the holster and opened it coming to rest on the smooth grip of the Quicksilver but falling short of withdrawing it.
"I ask you again, why have you come before me?"
Sephiroth passed a cursory glance over the weapon in Vincent's hand and smiled, the deterrent intended providing him only with amusement.
"We have much in common, you and I." He said, fixing his eyes onto Vincent once more.
Vincent shook his head.
"We are common in as much as we were changed against our will by those who were our masters. Saving that, you and I are as alien as fire is to ice."
Disregarding Vincent's words, Sephiroth turned to gaze at the ruins of Midgar.
A childlike glee lit in his eyes and his face beamed not with madness but with joy so profound that a gentle tear briefly slipped from Sephiroth's eye before being banished by a gloved hand.
"I am so close now!" He gasped.
"Junon, Midgar both nestled safely under my mercy. I am on the brink of a wonderous thing!"
Vincent felt his heart sink a little as the words met him.
"You have destroyed Junon aswell then." He asked.
Sephiroth turned, his smile melting and his face refreezing into a deeply hurt expression.
"Destroyed? I have shown love to my people, showered them with the glory of my mercy and granted them the supreme gift. I have destroyed nothing."
Vincent's eyes lit and burned with crimson flame in the pits of his eyesockets.
"At your hand, millions have died on this day. The horrors you granted them are beyond my imagining."
Anger cracked the ice.
"The generosity and the love I showed are far beyond the understandings of mortals!"
Vincent sighed. He was beginning to understand why Cloud hated Sephiroth so much and why each encounter drove him further towards maddening frustration and boundless fury.
Sensing he was in no danger as of yet, Vincent released the weapon from his grasp and dropped his hand to his side, sighing again as he did so.
Inflicting death was an artform Sephiroth had become adept in long ago and if he had wanted to graciously end Vincent's life, it was certain he would have done so by now probably without even making his presence know to Vincent.
"I do not understand." He sighed.
Sephiroth cooled the anger in his face and it crystallised once more into a joyous smile, not quite so profound this time.
"It is so simple Vincent. Death is an illusion, it is but a doorway to be passed through, a nexus between life and Lifestream. Those who went through that door on this day have become one with me now, empowering me, pushing me towards the realisation of Deitous power."
Vincent pulled his cloak around his body, hiding the holster as he took a step closer.
"And when there are no more mercies to be granted on this world?" He asked.
Sephiroth's expression changed again, this time the glacier shaped itself into wonder as he stretched out his hand and in one sweeping motion, swept aside the great pillows of soot-blackened cloud from the sky to reveal the rich quilt of stars in the heavens above.
Surprise even touched Vincent now as he considered just how much Sephiroth's power had grown.
He realised now, in the dark pools of his mind that this was probably but a cheap parlour trick, that the amount of Life energy Sephiroth had absorbed on this day would have given him powers even greater than the ability to manipulate mere water vapour.
"Have you ever considered what may live on planets other than this one Vincent?"
Sephiroth asked, turning and fixing Vincent with his amazed stare.
"I have not." Vincent sighed.
Sephiroth smiled, his amazement igniting the spark of child-likeness on his face once again.
"Such great changes have I gone through on this day, such greatness am I close to. I look up..." He said, turning and gesturing to the stars.
"...and I FEEL the life out there."
Vincent felt his serpentine fingers reaching for the holster again.
"The life-force of this world reverberates in my very being and it alone is the key to the holiest of ALL dreams!"
"What do you mean by that?" Vincent asked.
Sephiroth turned, his eyes shining with energy, a light much brighter than they had previously displayed.
"Materia, Lifestream. They exist somewhere on all of these worlds, they have to for it is they who keep planets alive. By melding with the life-forces of all of these planets I will become one with everything, my mind shall be the beaker into which supreme knowledge pours and the power to recreate the very UNIVERSE shall flow into my being."
Vincent did not answer.
The light in Sephiroth's eyes burned harder still igniting his joyous face into a sun of piercing white light.
"All those who have sacrificed themselves and all those who shall sacrifice themselves for me will never die, they shall receive their reward in the haven that I shall build. A universe free of hatred, anger and suffering. A place where chaos has no meaning, where order and perfection will be realised in the perfect being, in God. In me."
Something slopped in the pit of Vincent's stomach and greasily clawed at the walls of his gut, creasing his face into a strange expression. It was a long and startling moment before he realised he was experiencing an emotional response.
He relaxed the alarmed muscles of his face and they settled into a look of amazement in symbiosis with disgust.
Sephiroth, face still ablaze with energy, smiled.
"How ironic, that Shinra enhanced me to be the perfect soldier, the milestone by which all other engineered agents of death would be measured. How wonderful that in creating the perfect reaper, they created the perfect life-form!"
Quick as lightning, Vincent withdrew the Quicksilver from its' holster bringing the weapon to bear and focusing his aim squarely on Sephiroth's forehead in less time than the thud of a heartbeat.
Anger fell into line behind his eyes and kept his grasp iron-tight on the gun.
"In creating your Haven, you will murder thousands of trillions of living beings!"
In Vincent's hand, weapons did not shake and he kept his statuesque aim rigid as he cooled the sudden torrent of rage within. It seemed that lost actors were finding themselves once more.
"Knowing we will try to stop you, why have you told me of your plans?" Vincent asked.
The sun-flare of Sephiroths' face cooled away to a wispy glow in his eyes as a strange quizzical expression came over him, possessing his features and taking the edge off of his menacing aura.
"I must try to persuade you to lay down your arms and accept the glory of my gift. Opposing me will lead you to the same fate as that meddling Ancient. I do not want to make you suffer but if you get in my way, you will die slowly and horribly like she did. Had she accepted the inevitable..." He said, facing shifting again and settling into a formlessness devoid of any expression whatsoever.
"...she would not have suffered the pain that she did."
A stark flash of light stung at Vincent's eyes, the pain pinching them shut.
Summoned forth from the cloudless heavens by powers unknown, a solitary lightning bolt found the hand of its' master and writhed, warped and convulsed until electrical shine gave birth to the gleam of steel being clothed by moonlight.
With all the skill of a master samuri, even faster than Vincent could see, Sephiroth swung the great Masamune, bringing the razor-sharp edge to rest on the pale skin of Vincent's throat and knocking the Quicksilver from his glistening steel fingers.
Vincent could only watch as the handgun, the only means of his protection swam and arced gracefuly through the air landing on the dry grasses with a dejected thud.
Anger crystallised on Sephiroth's face once more as his eyes ignited again.
"You are not strong enough, none of you are, to challenge me and win. I warn you, oppose me and you shall die, suffering terribly as you do so!"
Vincent felt a strange feeling grow within him, one that fizzed and effervesced inside his head. He caught the flash of his eyes on the steel and realised he was feeling panic as adrenaline coursed through his veins drawing the weight from his legs and transferring it to his head.
He drew a sharp breath as the pressure on the blade increased.
"If you believe that threatening our lives will weaken our resolve, you are gravely mistaken."
Like mud from a landslide, Sephiroth's knife-eyed rictus of rage poured like an avalanche from his face, settling his features into a wicked sneer. His eyes burned harder still sending tiny nerves inside Vincent's own eyes popping from the intensity of the light they gazed upon.
A serpentine hiss escaped from Vincent as Sephiroth applied further pressure to the blade. Adrenaline raced around his body and numbed him to the world as reality concentrated on the face of his enemy.
A single object focused together in this concentrated realness, the lonely silver of the gun as it sat on the ground wishing the hand of its' master to come to it and thrust it into action.
"I threathen not, I command. You have no conception of what I am now or what I will become in the days ahead. Struggling against me will only make your defeat all the more delightful."
The blade pressed harder still and a razor-edged nip of pain ran along the length of skin that the steel pressed against, breaking through the tunnel of reality in which Vincent now found himself as panicked nerves screamed for attention. He hissed again as his nemesis drew closer still, eyes and teeth glistening and burning in the delicate pool of tempered steel at his throat like torches clutched in the hands of nightmares.
"We will resist you." Vincent hissed, the presure of the sword against his jugular increasing and dipping as his throat pushed out the words.
"Very well then." Sephiroth sneered.
"Then let this folly be thine final fantasy!"
Expecting death, Vincent almost choked as the pressure of the steel against his neck was removed.
Twisting and arcing through the air like a tempered ballerina, the Masamune danced and swung as it was withdrawn and placed firmly into a holster at its' masters' side.
Eyes cooling and growing dim, Sephiroth turned on his heel and began to walk away.
"You forget, Sephiroth..." Vincent called.
"...fantasies favour the righteous."
Sephiroth fell dead in his tracks, hair dancing in the wind like a waterfall of moonlight. He spun round, light rippling, not glowing, in his eyes.
His hand fell from the delicately carved hilt of the great sword and he stepped gracefully towards Vincent, his robes flowing around him in an almost organic fashion as though a skin of night were covering his form, wavering in the winds it commanded.
The look on his face suggested not anger or rage or surprise but disgust as he stopped, eyes narrowing to slits as he stared Vincent out.
"The beauty of what I am doing, the supreme justice of that which I shall soon accomplish makes 'righteous' a shallow, impotent, almost blasphemous way to describe me."
He took another step forward.
"I shall create a universe of perfect reason where everything shall bow to that which is the embodiment of perfection and order. Chaos shall cease to be and when they look to me, they will see the very essence of the universe that surrounds them, a god who walks amongst them and is one with everything. To adopt your woefully crude terminology, what could be more righteous than that, Vincent?"
Another long-buried player wandering ceaselessly through the darkened corridor of Vincent's consciousness suddenly found illumination, a way home to the great theatre of the mind. Clearing its' throat and brushing the tarnish of amnesia from its' costume as it stepped onto the stage, it played out its' part and the forgotten thespian suddenly found life once more. That thespian was outrage.
"There is no righteousness in what you seek! You would aim to do to all life what Shinra did to us, condition obedience to false idols and punish those who deviate with death. An entire universe not aspiring to or living individual dreams merely existing like marionettes to realise your own! That is not life, that is not a perfect universe..."
Vincent took a step closer, bringing himself boldly face-to-face with Sephiroth.
"...your 'Promised Land' is merely a flimsy masquerade for despotism on an incomprehesible scale."
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed to slits and burned fire.
His mouth cracked open and his teeth glistened like fangs as the Masamune was wrenched from its' sheath, the whole change in his demeanour giving him the apperance of a rabid animal whose mind was shattered that was about to strike out in its' throes of madness.
"I should have know better than to expect you to understand!" Sephiroth hissed. "You and that pathetic group of insects you travel with, so inferior to me that it is like an amoeba trying to understand the complexity of the micro world in which it lives, oblivious in its' mindlessness to the macro world outwith its' own. You look upon me, you can see me but you have not the understanding to comprehend what I am. Then again how could you? What right do mortals have to understand the mind of God?"
Vincent was silent as he watched the Masamune swinging dangerously before him.
This tirade was different, the words rattled off like crazed machinegun fire, much more violently pronounced than before and he felt himself fearing that this was the confrontation that had truly numbered his days, maybe even his minutes.
The Quicksilver gleamed invitingly on the ground but was just outwith Vincent's range to retrieve it, no matter how quick he was.
Sephiroth growled and his eyes pulsed much brighter for a second.
"You disgust me most of all Valentine! Within you are the mechanisms by which evolution is possible yet you shun them, curse them and hide them away. You could taste the essence of everything, clothe yourself in the fabric of reality itself and shape it into anything you desired. But what do you do? You lower yourself to the level of microbes fighting against a power that they can seldom comprehend let alone defeat. Why? I do not understand. Why choose to fight me and chance a death worse than any your imagination could create when you could embrace that which lies within you and ascend to the level of a supreme being?"
Sephiroth let the great blade fall to his side as his eyes fell cold, melting into the darkness of his face.
"Why would a god choose to be a mortal?" He asked, a strident note of confusion leaking into the oil slick of his anger.
Vincent knelt down and picked the gun up, sensing from Sephiroth's aura that he was not here to commit another murder. Spinning it on his finger before holstering it, he watched Sephiroth as the wind played games with his hair and cloak. He stood like a statue, the great masamune not so much as flinching in his hand as he watched Vincent. A god trying to comprehend a mortal.
The irony was lost on Vincent though.
"I choose my path as it is...the human thing to do." He said, clipping the holster shut, the snap of the catch emphasising his words.
The deafening echo-chant of Sephiroth's enraged roar screamed across the grasslands of the Kalm plateau.
Simultaneously, over the ruins of Midgar, the lightning strikes increased ten fold, hammering the city with thousands of strikes per minute until only a great electrical blue aura was visible in the distance, the frequency of the bolts merging into one huge crescendo of light.
The heavens above opened sending scorching ripples of green fire racing to the ground as Sephiroth roared again. Nightmares pushed at the membranes of reality as the green snakes of light fought and lashed at the ground and whipped the sky with their raging bodies.
There was a stunning eruption of light, the intensity of the glare so brilliant that it dazzled Vincent and forced his eyes closed as he groaned in pain, nerves not popping but exploding with alarm.
Thunder screamed and roared for the longest of times before the light and its' voice fell away, blown to the land of nightmares far away by a violent blast of wind, a wind so cold it was like a blizzard of ice crystals bombarding Vincent and showering the exposed areas of his form in a violent burning pain.
Moments later, it too passed and the landscape fell still and silent.
Vincent cautiously opened his eyes, blinking several times to banish the pixies of green and yellow that the blinding flash had summoned before the court of his visual spectrum. Once his vision was cleared, he scanned his immediate surroundings. Sephiroth was gone and the clouds he had banished now veiled the sky once again as if the heavens had gone into relapse, allowing the cancers of death to regrow once more and obscure the beauty of nature.
Thunder rumbled carrying with it on its' bass drum back a faint and echoed voice, a voice that sounded two or three different voices speaking in unison.
"Your words mean nothing now Valentine. The fall of the human race is nigh and if you wish to be counted amongst those I destroy in my wrath then so be it."
"And what of your mercy?" Vincent called.
Thunder growled again carrying a dreamlike laughter possessed with its' own echo that rippled along the skies in invisible waves.
"The mercies of god extend not to heretics such as thineself. For your sins, your part in my ascension will be played through the suffering of a divine pain and a death that only a vengeful god may bestow."
As the last of the words trickled away into the night, the clouds cracked, twisted under their own weight and began to weep blackened soot laced tears that touched the skin and marred it in greasy wakes. Thunder groaned almost as if it were in pain as the filthy rain poured from the wounded sky, the once proud rumbles heralding the arrival of lightning that refused to come.
As the last of the adrenaline poured away into the darkest reaches of Vincent's being, he wrapped the great sheet of fine red around his body, shielding himself from the poison that now flowed from cancerous sky.
His great steel tipped boots crunched on the stalks of succulents and grasses underfoot as he made for the inn, his hand resting warily on the grip of the pistol in its' holster. Shadows danced all around, flooding into his mind through Jenova-enhanced eyes as a wicked yet almost inaudible laughter swirled inside him.
Hidden eyes watched from far above...