Flowers Grow Part 4: A Quest Begins
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Chapter 21: Another call
A sharp buzz rang out from the swirls of light on the other side of Elmyra's eyes waking her almost mercifully from the horrendous visions and dreams that plagued her.
She awoke finally, tears running from her eyes and a sob broke forth from her as she sat up in the bed, the terrible things that stabbed at her mind and clawed at her sanity losing some of their terrible potency in the morning light.
She sat in the bed and sobbed uncontrollably for a moment just as she had done the day before when she had suffered the images in her dreams. She was awake now, safe, yet the horrors of the night played over and over in her head and raged beyond all hope of control, crossing the gateway from the chaos of the night world and invading, violating the sanctity of reality.
She could not bear to think of the things that plagued her yet she did so anyway, almost as if they had wrapped themselves into her thoughts and were feeding on the nectar of her consciousness.
She recognised the object in her daughters' hands, it was the materia she had given to her. It glowed with light and power in some place far away that Elmyra did not recognise, a magical city full of great and timeless crystalline structures that clawed at the hollowed blackness of the sky and twinkled in the darkness of the sunless world like a million captured stars.
The sounds of water bubbling and shifting in currents rang out in her head as she stood on a great platform, her daughter kneeling on the ground before her praying fervently into the shining orb of materia, strands of energy pouring from it and shrouding the surrounding platform in a strange glow.
A mighty light began to shine in the blackness above.
Elmyra looked up, the light radiating to her warmth and comfort as it flashed briefly, growing and abating as a form began to emerge, dropping from the light but bathed in its' aura.
Feeling shifted and warmth gave way to the throes of ice. Her mind raced and she felt herself call out as the great black form descended from the sky like a great harbinger of death with his vicious, souless green eyes trained on the praying girl on the floor.
Twisted in the hands of this great wraith, gleaming and shining like a dark star was a sword the dimensions of which Elmyra would not have believed had she not seen it.
She screamed out loud and the attention of the praying girl was broken, her soft eyes coming up from the orb and her gentle face lighting with joy as she turned to look, a sparkle of happiness as bright as the sun twinkling in her aqua-pool eyes and banishing some of the impenetrable gloom of this buried place.
Elmyra called out, begged her daughter to move as she began to run. She sprinted towards the girl but something was touching her, unseen claws of energy latched onto her and restrained her, pulling her to a stop just short of her daughter.
All she could do was watch and shout helplessly as the great evil from the light continued its' descent towards the gentle young woman, her eyes burning with joy as though she was oblivious to her mothers' distress and the unstoppable approach of the gigantic silver tooth.
Elmyra looked up as time seemed to wane off, slow down and warp as the emerald slit-eyes of the descending man-shape erupted with a soft light. The sword pinched up the distance between them, greedily devouring the void between itself and the huddled girl.
Elmyra screamed, her heart tearing asunder and burning in fires of anguish. Agony erupted in her soul as she watched in horror at what was unfolding before her.
The soft features of the girl changed. Joy gave way to shock. Pain.
There was a strange sound as the man hit the ground, his huge boots letting out a confident thud that reverberated in the darkness of this evil forgotten world.
Elmyra cried out but could not hear her own words. A pain greater than anything she had ever felt raged within her as she looked at the girl, the soft features of her face cracking into shock and agony as she let out a soft whimper of pain. The gigantic sword pushed out from Aeris' chest, a small trickle of blood flowed from it and splashed onto the ground, each and every drop ringing out like a war gong in the darkness.
Elmyra screamed again as she watched the man rip the sword carelessly from the back of her child, her body collapsing helplessly to the floor as the twinkle in her eyes abated and her face slacked.
Death visited the dark place taking back with it the soul of the gentle young woman.
The man laughed, his evil eyes shining in the gloom.
The sword gleamed crimson in the darkness and the war-gong echoes of splattering blood riddled the nothing of this place with a tangible quilt of heart-wrenching pain.
The man smiled, the sword shining steel and blood in his hands.
On the dresser next to her bed the PHS device was buzzing and shouting to get her attention.
She cleared her throat and dried her eyes and reached over, picked the device up and answered it.
"Hello?" She said, her voice regaining some of its' strength but not all.
"Elmyra." A voice answered.
Elmyra sat for a moment as she tried to decipher the quiet voice on the other end of the line. A flood of emotions came to her, anger, confusion but primarily surprise as she realised who was speaking to her.
"Cloud?" She asked.
He did not reply.
Panic suddenly raced through her as a realisation struck home.
"Why are you calling me Cloud, has something happened to Barret?"
"Not yet no. Barret is fine."
Elmyra gave a quiet sigh of relief and then frowned as she listened to his voice. He seemed different, more quietspoken. It was as if a great pressure was bearing down upon him.
"Are you alright Cloud? You sound.....different."
There was a quiet noise on the other end of the line, not a sigh but a whisper of some sort but Elmyra could not make out what was said.
"I am fine."
Surprise was giving way to irritation now as she shifted the PHS from her left hand and into her right as she put on her dressing gown and stood up. She went over to the window and looked out on the awakening garden below.
"Then why have you called me Cloud? I don't have the time for catching up right now if that is what you want." She said, allowing a trickle of her irritation to seep into the river of her tone as she spoke.
"You must leave Midgar."
It took a few moments for the brief piece of speech to sink in and she was again taken by surprise as she heard the words.
"What? Why?" She asked.
"It is no longer safe there. Go to Kalm."
Elmyra sat back on the bed.
"Are you sure, how do you know?" She asked.
If there was one thing she had learned from Cloud it was that he could be trusted. Despite all that had happened she still had that feeling when she spoke to him.
This was as surprising a feeling to Elmyra as it would have been to anyone else given the tragedy of events that had transpired the last time that they had spoken.
He was a good man, just haunted by misfortune. He cared deeply for the welfare of others and could muster their attention when that vibe of foreboding began to throb in his head like a bass guitar to drunken ears and at this moment, he had Elmyra's undivided attention.
"You must go to Kalm. Take the child with you." He said.
'The child?' She thought.
"Marlene? Cloud what the hell is going on?"
Again the strange whisper slithered on the other end of the line as Clouds' voice returned. It was definately different this time and a feeling was imbued with the words as he spoke. Joy.
"Something terrible is going to happen in Midgar soon." He said.
Elmyra felt a cold shiver run the length of her spine as she heard the words. She sat forward, her eyes glazing with shock as she did so.
Crazed spiders of ice began to run across her skin chilling her and leaving the uncomfortable sensations of their millions of tiny frozen legs on her body as they creeped and crawled in little flurries across her.
"What is going to happen Cloud? Please tell me." She begged.
"I cannot tell you as I....do not know. You must leave the city immediately."
Elmyra stood up and looked around the room as she tried to sort her head out. She was silent for a moment as she went back over to the window and looked out onto the flower garden below.
Brilliant blooms burning fires of orange and red and yellow all began to burst from their lush green cups of life as the great burning disc of the sun gently ran its' fingers across their succulent green faces.
A million thoughts and questions burned inside her head. Over all the noise of confusion a single constant sound, a voice rang, the sound of her own inner self telling her to trust Cloud and to listen to what he had to say. It must be very important for him to have told her in such blunt, unmasked language. She sighed and listened to the voice, endorsing its' usually sound advice as she put the PHS back to her ear.
"OK Cloud, OK. We'll leave." She finally said.
The PHS let out a quiet buzz as Cloud responded.
"Good." He said.
Elmyra, still was not satisfied and deep within her, another voice began to whisper silently into the ears of her mind, begging and seducing her into pressuring Cloud for more than he had been willing to divulge up until this point.
She was about to uproot Marlene and herself and she still did not know why exactly.
She needed more to go on.
"What is going on Cloud?" Elmyra asked, hoping that she would be given the answers she needed.
Cloud did not seem to hear the question or, if he had, he had disregarded it as soon as it had touched his ears.
"Only try to contact us if something happens in Midgar. We are too busy to expend time on needless chat at the moment." He said, his voice silent and unrevealing.
Elmyra was slightly taken aback by what she had just heard Cloud say. It was not at all like him to discourage communication, of all the group Cloud was most adamant on it.
'Needless chat?' She thought.
'What the hell was that supposed to mean?'
She was almost angry at him for the wooden bluntness of his order. However, the tiny little voice inside her advised restraint and, hard as it was, she let the abrupt order pass away down the stream of the conversation.
"How will we get in contact with you then?" She asked.
She heard a sigh on the other end of the line followed by more of the barely-audible whispering before Clouds' slightly irritated voice returned.
'Irritation?' She thought.
"If anything goes wrong here I will contact you, in the mean time only call me if something happens in Midgar, understand?"
'What the hell is wrong with him today?' She wondered.
Again the little voice inside her head told her that she would be best to listen to Cloud as he always had a good reason for everything he did or told others to do for that matter. She sighed defeatedly and spoke into the PHS.
"OK Cloud." She sighed.
"Good." He replied.
She opened her mouth to reply but he had hung up on the other end before she even had a chance to speak. She listened to the empty tone of the PHS for a moment before finally clicking it off.
She sat on the bed heavily and sighed explosively as she reviewed the conversation in her head. It had been most strange, there was no denying that.
Obviously something was going on and it was obvious that the party knew what it was. It seemed as though there were far reaching implications aswell if there was a threat within Midgar.
She thought back to the recent conversation she had had with Barret, and it bore a certain resemblence to the one she had just experienced with Cloud; strange, unrevealing.
What the hell was going on? Why had Cloud told Barret not to tell her something?
'Don't' tell her Barret.' She had heard him say it. Frustration bubbled up inside.
"What? Don't tell me what?" She hissed aloud.
Her mind swirled. What was going on and was this man who Marlene had seen involved?
She held her head and groaned. So many thirsty questions and no answers to quench their thirst.
One thing was certain, she was going to follow Cloud's advice.
Whatever was going on was soon to involve her and Marlene and it was her top priority to make sure the child was safe.
She had already lost one child, she was never going to lose another.
Tiredness ripped through her, the tentacles beginning to sink into her again as she lay down and distilled her thoughts, sifting the tangled, disjointed mass of fears, doubts and questions into some kind of rudimentary order.
The prospect of sleep almost tempted her for a moment until the horrible dreams and visions began to flash in her head again like flickering candles.
The light, the great wraith with its' sword, the blood and finally, worse of all, the groan of pain and the terrible realisation of death on daughter's face. Elmyra's eyes flashed open. She could not bare to see the images again so getting up was the only option available to her.
She sat up and sighed forlornly as she thought to herself.
She banished the horrible thoughts from her head, turning to the comfort of more practical matters such as what to pack for the trip to Kalm.
'Cloud was probably just being over-cautious.' She thought. Yes, that had to be it. What could possibly happen here in Midgar?
Still, if Cloud even half thought that she and Marlene were in danger then that was incentive enough to follow his instructions and head for Kalm.
'Over-protection.' She sighed to her self.
She sighed again and stood up, making her way out of the room to bring Marlene back to the world of the conscious and begin their own little rather unexpected adventure.
Chapter 22: The journey
The comforting humm of the gigantic engines lulled the party into their storm of lethargy as they sat at various consoles on the bridge of the Highwind.
Cloud sighed as he looked around the room for what must have been the 300th time before finally bringing his eyes back to rest on the control panel infront of him. It was a mystery to him why Cid had put so many control panels on the bridge when everything could be done from the master console which, as usual was being attended to by the smoking sky pirate. Intermittently studying readouts on the control panel and gazing out of the forward observation dome, Cid sat and smoked quietly, his thoughts many miles away with the petite woman who now sat alone in Rocket Town awaiting the return of the Highwind.
Barret was asleep and Tifa was hanging in the vortex between this world and the world of slumber, tantalizingly close to symbiosis with her own private darkness.
Vincent was awake and was sat at a control panel which allowed him to view both the master console and the viewing dome, his crimson gaze flashing between the two every now and then.
Cloud was sat and Cloud was bored, his unintentional gaze flitting from one bulkhead to the next as he waited. It was at times like this that thoughts came to him. Some sad, some happy but mostly they were of Aeris; thoughts which brought both sadness and joy with each and every recollection.
Randomly though, thoughts of other people came to him provoking much more destructive emotions; thoughts which he must banish quickly lest he dwell on them.
Cloud sat back and sighed, eyes flitting to the ceiling to the cold grey of the steel. He hated having time to think.
A brief moment of excitement followed a harsh buzz from the master console. Cid placed his cigarette in his mouth and leaned forward to find the source of the noise, exhaling a phantom of blue smoke as he did so.
He clicked a few buttons and studied several readouts on a small screen, devouring the information with his eyes and digesting it in his head.
"We are holding steady at 600 miles per hour." He announced, swivelling slothfully in the big command seat to face Cloud.
"We should be arriving in Cosmo Canyon in the next 5 minutes."
"What is the flight time at just now?" He asked
Cid swivelled back and checked a small digital chronometer on the panel exhaling another wheezy ghost of smoke as he did so.
"52 minutes so far." He said quietly.
Cloud nodded but did not answer.
Cid's announcement had drawn Tifa back from the shrowd of sleep in which she had been disappearing. She yawned quietly and stood up, coming over to Cloud and standing looking out of the viewing dome.
With exaggerated interest, Cloud turned his head to gaze out of the dome.
His attention was mildly grabbed by the striking yet distant approach of the gentle curl of mountains that formed the body of Cosmo Canyon. They were wonderous formations but as yet still too far away to hold his attention for very long. It seemed that boredom from the journey had leaked into his thoughts turning them towards more boring matters and drowning the light that came from the wonder of things replacing it instead with benign things which had all the sparkle of the dull steel of the deck beneath Cloud's feet.
Cloud truly missed the days when thinking was not so dangerous and forbidding a pastime.
He often wished that he could go back to those times when his mental processes did not have to be carefully censored to make them fit for consumption by his mind. A time when the only emotion he usually associated with thinking was happiness.
Thought usually provoked deep and destructive flames of emotion now. Fury, lonliness, hatred, all smouldered in his soul awaiting the careless spark of a stray thought to ignite them into corrosive bonfires. He was not willing to allow this given the months of torment he had suffered the last time that those fires had raged. The things he had nearly done to avoid the fires forever.
How insidious thought was, a shifting, shadowy creature that permeates and spreads faster than the minds' eye can blink and before he knew it he was dwelling on thoughts again. Stewing over the things he had lost.
Snapping his attention from his inner gaze was almost painful as he forced himself to look out of the dome again. What else could he do? Wallowing would do neither him or the others any good so it was best to avoid any kind of thoughs that required more processing than the assimilation of scenery.
The curl of mountains were growing rapidly now and the structures of the settlement were beginning to pull themselves into visual focus. The gigantic telescope that hung from the proud peak of the highest building gleamed minutely in the distance.
Cloud slowly stood up and turned to look at the master console as Cid pushed a series of buttons and pushed the throttle lever up reducing the power of the engines and calming off the confident yet muffled roar they produced.
Barret shuffled and yawned loudly as he stood up and stretched. He rubbed his eyes and groggily looked around at the rest of the party.
"We there yet?" He asked.
Cloud turned to face him and nodded.
"Yeah. Better get the gear together." He said, turning back to look out of the dome.
"We'll be landing soon."
Cid clicked another set of buttons and readjusted some calculations as the canyon and its' party of mountains raced ever closer, their huge stony forms beginning to dwarf the airship as it began its' approach. There was another fall off in the humm of the engines as Cid dropped them another 5 Forces to Force 20 and entered the landing sequence into the ships' computer. He exhaled a long plume of smoke into the stale, processed air of the bridge and extinguished the cigarette with a confident clap of his boot on the steel of the deck. He swivelled in the command chair to face the party as he ran a hand through his mane of blond hair.
"OK, we'll be landing quite soon now so get all the shit together and get ready
to disembark." He said, turning back to the main console and monitoring the
steady descent of the ship.
Cloud shifted the huge form of the Ultima Weapon onto his shoulder and secured it into its' sheath as he looked out of the dome. It was strange to see the Canyon so different, so changed. Had all the world changed so much?
Smoke began to rise from the hidden embers of thought in his mind and once again he found himself lamenting for his freedom of thought. Quickly, to avoid a bout of depression, he snapped his attention and watched Cid as he fiddled with numerous controls and levers on the console.
Cloud had never really given it much thought until now as he watched Cid but landing the Highwind really was a precision art form. Cid had lit another cigarette as the final descent began. He pushed the throttle down to Force 2 and gently began to engage a series of retro thrusters to guide the ship in for a smoothe landing.
The Canyon now outsized the ship 10 fold in the viewing dome, the huge spires of sunkissed mountain reaching up to touch the lagoon-blue of the sky. The squat buildings of the settlement were nestled in the lap of the first low plateau and became fully visible now as did the tongue of carved granite steps that poured from the buildings to welcome weary travellers to the Canyon. The highest building with its' telescopic eye stood proudly above the rest of the settlement, the glass retina of the telescope gleaming in the dusty afternoon light.
Cloud's mind raced and his body lurched. He reached for the Ultima Weapon as the soft reverberations struck him. He broke his gaze from the Canyon and looked around.
The ship had stopped moving and the rest of the party began to move and collect their items and weapons. Cid clicked several buttons and powered down the engines, taking the cigarette out of his mouth as he surveyed several readouts on the panel to review the flight.
"Not a bad time!" He announced, swivelling in the chair to face Cloud.
"58 minutes and 21 seconds! That has got to be a record!"
Cloud loosened his grasp on the Ultima Weapon as he realised that the reverberation had been the impact of the ship touching down. Behind him Tifa, Vincent and Barret were muttering to each other as they checked weapons and collected their things, the reassuring sound of the Quicksilver being cocked rang in Cloud's ears as Vincent loaded it.
The Highwind had touched down nearly 600 yards from the entrance to the settlement, more than enough ground for an ambush by something. The monsters in this area, although greatly reduced in their numbers could still be a threat in larger groups and there was no sense in taking risks.
Cid thought so too as he stood up and produced a sawn-off shotgun from a nearby locker. He broke it open, stuffed two shells into it and locked it again grinning with his cigarette perched on his lips as he did so.
Cloud frowned at him and he grinned back, silent wisps of ghostly smoke slithering from his mouth.
"What's with the shotgun, what happened to the spear?" Cloud asked.
Cid took the cigarette out of his mouth and exhaled deeply.
"I broke my arm last summer and since then I haven't been able to use a spear, well, not as good as I used to anyway and I found this little baby when I was scavenging on one of the lower decks. Some Shinra munchkin must have left it when we took the ship."
"You don't need the accuracy of a spear but it still keeps you safe!"
"I still prefer a sword though."
Vincent sighed diverting Cloud's attention towards him.
"A shotgun." He sighed.
"Does nobody care for the art of accuracy anymore?" He asked.
Cid chuckled and put the cigarette back in his mouth.
"Vince, by the time you can accurately shoot one thing I could have blown three away!"
Vincent sighed again.
"In one shot!" Cid added.
"I still maintain a single death-shot is a wonder to behold." Vincent said. Barret shook his head and cocked the gun arm.
"Automatic weapons beat death-shots and peashooters any day!"
Almost in unison, Barret and Cid broke into protest.
Cloud sighed. This conversation had happened before and it had not reached a logical conclusion that time either. Guns, swords, fists. What did it matter? They all had a single unquestionable purpose and as long as they performed that function why argue about how they did it?
Cloud sighed and spoke, raising his voice over the furore of arguing people.
"Sorry to break up this fascinating conversation but we are here for a purpose. Can I suggest we maybe get on with it?"
The three fell silent as if scolded by a parent. Cid went back over to the console and depressed a large rectangular button. There was a confident screech of greased metal as a large exit ramp opened in the well wrought steel belly of the ship followed a few seconds later by the clunk of the ramp making contact with the ground.
The group shuffled silently off of the bridge and headed for the ramp, the great hole in the ship that swirled with the sweet smell of fresh, clean air, air that had not been processed and reprocessed a hundred times by the ships' scrubbers.
Cloud smiled as he watched Cid, Barret and Vincent simmering quietly. He chuckled silently to himself as he started for the ramp.
"Besides, everyone knows that swords are the best!"
The sound of merry argument rang around the tranquility of the canyon.
Chapter 23: The wise beast
A lazy afternoon sun beat down from the heavens touching the party and wrapping them in the clean, safe warmth that only it could bestow. In the dusty air of the grasslands both pollen and little insects swirled alike creating a microcosmic maelstrom of life in the atmosphere as both insect and seed struggled the eternal struggle for survival.
The party moved single-file through the grasses which themselves were over 4 feet in height and swayed lazily in the warmth of afternoon breeze.
Cloud was beginning to wish he had not made the lighthearted remark on the Highwind as it had ignited a boisterous and argumentative sequel to the conversation that had raged only three days before, the only difference being that Cid was now a part of it and the air around the party was slowly turning blue with his outspoken opinions and constant torrent of obscenities.
"Peashooter? A fucking peashooter? Hell, what kind of peashooters have you been playing with Barret?" Cid exclaimed, cigarette rolling easily on his lips.
"Well kind of like that antique piece of shit you're playin' with." Barret answered.
Cid laughed sarcastically and turned his head to look at Barret.
"Why so defensive? All I'm saying is that a good dose of buckshot is better than either auto fire or accuracy, single-death, whatever."
Vincent looked over at Cid.
"I agree with some of that, however accuracy is clearly preferable to random or indescriminate weapon fire especially in close space battle situations."
Cid made as if to say something but snapped his attention immediately. He stopped and, being at the head of the party, the others stopped aswell. Barret was still arguing with Vincent. Cid turned and glared at him.
"Shut the fuck up!" He hissed, drawing his shotgun and holding it tight in both hands.
Cloud looked at Cid and studied his movements. His attention was focused on the patch of grass ahead of him and the shotgun swung slightly between percieved or phantom targets, things that were shaded by the event horizon between reality and fantasy and could not be seen or proved to exist in either. Instinct switched on and Cloud slowly and as silently as he could manage drew the Ultima Weapon from its' sheath and brought it to striking posture. He studied the grasses and then looked back at Cid.
"What is it?" He asked, his voice hissed.
Cid looked at Cloud briefly and then turned to the grasses once more.
They swayed and danced innocently in the wind. Still though, the sounds of a pistol being pulled from its' sheath and a gun-arm being cocked rang in Cloud's ears.
"There is something in these grasses." Cid whispered.
Cloud gazed in the direction of Cid's gaze. He squinted, banishing the glare of the sun from his eyes. The grass swayed confidently but disproportionately given the strength of the breeze that had licked it. Something had moved through it.
"Can you tell what it is?" Tifa whispered.
Cid shook his head.
"Can't be sure, something smart. It knows that we know it's there."
He turned to look at Tifa.
"It's on two legs though. I can tell from the sound it makes when it runs."
Cloud looked back at the grass. It swayed again.
Cid silently knelt down on one of his knees and brought the shotgun up. He trained it on the patch of grass ahead of him and rested his finger on the trigger.
"Little fucker..." He hissed.
Thunder roared as Cid yanked the trigger, emptying both barrels of the shotgun into the patch of grass. Stalks exploded sending multilated sprays of diced vegetation in all directions, showering the party.
Cid stood up and broke the shotgun, tossing the shells and replacing them with two fresh ones. There was a confident snap as Cid locked the shotgun again and brought it to firing position.
There was a little shriek from the bushes and the sound of tiny feet running as whatever had been there ran away in terror. The screech had not been one of pain indicating that Cid had missed the hidden assailant.
A breath of wind touched the party cooling off some of the tension as Cid turned to face his comrades.
"Any idea what it was?" Barret asked.
Cid warily surveyed the grasslands.
"Nope and I don't want to stay here and find out either." He said, eyeing the grass suspiciously one more time. Smoke slithered from the barrels of the
shotgun as he swung it in his hand.
"Let's get the fuck out of here." He said.
There was no argument. Cloud kept the Ultima Weapon in his hands and Vincent
suspiciously targetted patches of grass, searching with his crimson gaze for
anything that would indicate an attack or an ambush. Barret also surveyed the
surrounding area, his gun arm trained and ready for use in a split second. Tifa
edgily walked along behind Cloud as the party picked up the pace for the safety
of the granite concourse that rose like a stairway to heaven from the seductive
and desceptive safety of the grasslands.
Cloud walked on ahead, surprised at the lack of stamina in his comrades. Then again he was different from them, designed to withstand strenuous physical activity thanks to Shinra and in part that Jenova thing.
It was at times like that that Cloud could almost begin to have the embryonic feeling of satisfaction with his abilities. Small things like his stamina almost made the painful and de-humanising upgrade process worthwhile.
The settlement was very much unchanged as far as Cloud could tell. The various raised huts and hollows that clung to the rocks buzzed like a hive of inactivity as he watched them.
One or two people stood playing with various strange instruments as Cloud surveyed them casually. The scholarly life had never appealed to Cloud and he knew why when he looked out ont the Canyon.
It was too quiet, a funny thing for a country boy from Nibelheim to think.
Various stairs and walkways served these structures and the people who occupied them.
The great building at the crown of the settlement with its' twinkling eye stood proudly, eclipsing all but one edge of the great burning disc of the sun with its' majestic and far-reaching shadow sitting across the settlement and adding to it a strange aura of tranquility and peace.
"So peaceful isn't it?"
A rush of adrenaline jumped Cloud back to his senses, the unexpected voice ringing in his ears as he completed the mental journey.
He looked around but saw no-one. His eyes sifted again and the braided flames of hair caught his attention bringing his gaze down even further.
Red sat on his hind legs. Even after all this time it would have been easy for Cloud to mistake him for a dog or some other less evolved state of life rather than what he truly was.
Red watched with his one good eye Cloud's movements as he knelt down. Cloud looked into the red swirl of his friends' eye and saw something shine, a feeling, an emotion of some sort.
"It's good to see you again Red." Cloud sighed.
Red bowed his head and then looked back up, his movements almost human as his proud face broke into a smile. He picked one of his paws up off the ground and offered it to Cloud.
"As close to a handshake as I can manage."
Cloud smiled and took the paw, shaking it firmly and then releasing it.
Still, the feeling in Red's eye persisted. He may be smiling but whatever he was feeling was nothing even remotely related to happiness, the very presence of it was beginning to make Cloud nervous. It was dark; sadness mixed with something else, something much worse.
"Red! How ya been bud?"
Cloud turned around to see that the rest of the party had recovered enough to join him. Cid was beaming heartily as he walked over, shotgun swinging in his hand and cigarette clenched in his teeth.
Red smiled again as he shook Cid's hand also.
"I trust it was that thing I heard in the grasslands?" He asked, his gaze shifting to the shotgun.
Cid took the cigarette out of his mouth and nodded.
"Sure was. Nearly got ambushed by something."
"What happened to the spear?" He asked.
Cid put the cigarette in his mouth and puffed on it heartily exhaling a blue ribbon of smoke into the lazy afternoon air.
"Long story." He said.
Red nodded and turned his attention to Barret and Tifa.
"How have you two been? How is the rebuilding of Midgar progressing?"
Cloud watched Red. The fires of sadness burned for all to see in his blood-red eyes but it seemed he was the only one who could see them.
Maybe he was the only one who was meant to see them.
Barret and Tifa looked at each other as they tackled Red's question.
"You should see it man." Barret began.
"It's like a totally new city. Parks, streets, sunlight..."
"...an' runnin' hot water!" Barret finished.
Red nodded and smiled again.
"I would very much like to see it."
Finally his gaze fell upon the most silent member of the party, Vincent.
Of all the people in the party, however unlikely, it seemed there was a certain kinship between Red and Vincent. They understood each other more than they understood the rest of the group. Maybe their respective experiences at the hands of Shinra had played a part in it. Maybe not.
Maybe Vincent saw a reflection of his past self in Red.
Maybe Red saw what may have become of him in Vincent.
Whatever it was, they certainly seemed to be kindred spirits and spirit in itself was not something usually applicable to Vincent but here, it seemed that the word lacked the descriptive power necessary.
"It is most agreeable to see you again Red." Vincent said, a faint trace of a buried and drowned emotion seeping into the silken fabric of his voice.
Red smiled, the smile smothering the flames of sadness in his eye as he ambled over to Vincent and sat infront of him.
"It is good to see you Vincent." He said.
For an instant, too brief to stand up to scrutiny, Cloud was almost sure he saw the foetal beginnings of a smile form on Vincent's face but it was gone just as fast.
"I am afraid our visit is to herald unfortunate news." He said.
Red nodded, the fires raging in his eye again.
Cloud stood up and was about to speak when Red got up and wandered over towards the great flame of the Cosmo Candle. He flashed Cloud a look and in that instant
Cloud knew they should follow him.
'What else is about to go wrong?' Cloud thought as he began to walk after Red.
So many decades had the great flame burned.
So many travellers had sat around it and seen so many different things in its' flames and here in its' presence, more revelations were about to be made.
Chapter 24: Beginnings and endings
The party sat around the great fire, the reverberating embers and the clouds of burning pixies danced in their eyes as they watched the eternal flames burning majestically.
Red gazed as if lost into the enchanting flames, the breeze picking up braided tastles of his fiery hair and caressing them silently in their unseen hands.
"They say that each and every person sees something different in these flames. Some see happy things, some see sad. Other see things so dreadful that they have to look away."
Red turned to look at the party.
"The fire itself is alive, in harmony with the forces of life. It can interpret the wisdom of the planet and can show you the things that are to come."
Red looked silently and forlornely at each of the party.
"I believe I know why you all came here." He said, his remarkably human voice hushed and wrapped with glistening coils of sadness.
Cloud gazed over, fire dancing in his sapphire eyes as he looked at Red, a sense of wonder flowing through him as he looked at this most unlikely of wisemen.
"Why do you think we came?" He asked.
Red fixed his gaze on Cloud, the dancing pixies of light burned in his one good eye bestowing upon him a peculiar aura, a wisdom poisoned by sadness.
"Sephiroth." He said.
The party did not speak.
They exchanged glances as Cloud's gaze remained unbroken even by a blink on Red.
Red gazed back.
"How could you have known that? The flames?" Cloud asked.
Red broke his gaze, looking back into the Candle, the gentle flickering of the fire dance shining on his smooth coat.
"They tell only of the act of destruction, not the bringer of it."
He stared back at cloud with a piercing gaze, one so powerful it could see into the heart of the young warrior. Could read the patters of his soul.
"The Planet is screaming again. It is in pain once more." Red said
"A burning agony raging from the infection of an unbreakable chain of evil."
Red stared at the rest of the party.
Even they could see now what smouldered in his eye now.
"From the endless rebirths of one who would be a God."
Cloud could not find the words necessary to effectively respond to what he had just heard. None of the party spoke.
How could Red possibly know of the things he was talking about?
"How could you possibly know that?" Cloud eventually mumbled.
Red gazed back into the flames once more.
"Not from the mysticism you have come to suspect me of. The answer to that question is rooted in the realms of the ordinary."
He looked back at Cloud.
"I have the Gaea Soul project files."
The party exchanged more glances but silently agreed to leave the talking up to Cloud.
Cloud sat in amazement for a long moment as he digested the rather unexpected revelation. Having those files was almost mysticism in itself and Cloud was amazed that he even had them.
"How did you get ahold of them? Only the highest level of the Shinra hierarchy would have had access to those files." Cloud said, shock leaking into his voice and upsetting the delicate scales of reason within it.
"Not to mention that the Shinra Tower was completely levelled in the Meteor attack." Tifa added.
Red smiled mirthlessly.
"Once again I am not in full possession of the facts myself. The files were brought here two weeks ago by a man in a black hooded cloak."
"Who?" Cloud persisted, the compulsion for answers to the masses of questions in his head driving his forceful mood.
"I was not in the Canyon at the time so I am as eager for an answer to that question myself." Red sighed.
"Sephiroth?" Barret chipped in.
Red shook his head.
"I do not believe so, from what my colleagues told me he was much older and toiling under the weight of his load."
Red looked up.
"From what they told me, he appeared close to death. The hand that presented the files was weak, the skin damaged and green."
'Green.' The word tumbled in Cloud's mind, the sediment of memories muddying the waters of thought as he trawled through his brain. As suddenly as always though, realisation smashed into him releasing shock onto the stage of his consciousness.
"...Hojo?!" He exclaimed, the shock in his own voice eclipsing the quasi-amazed gasps of his companions.
"How could it have been? We killed Hojo, remember?"
Barret's tone was impatient. From his perspective, what Cloud had just suggested was proposterous.
Cloud's head snapped around, the fire dancing in the blue pools of his shock-saucer eyes.
"What if we didn't kill him? Think about it Barret he was running the project, he would have access to all the files and he did survive the Weapon attack on Midgar."
Barret rubbed his head and groaned. He did not reply as he thought it over. To him it still seemed a little far-fetched but as usual, the logic of Cloud's arguments was above reproach and could not be faulted.
So many crazy things had happened in the past few days that Barret did not really know what to believe any more.
Tifa sighed and sat forward to look at Cloud.
"I don't know Cloud, even if he did survive why would he want to help us destroy his own creation? Besides, we battled him for over an hour, what human could survive that kind of punishment?"
Cloud gazed into the flames once again.
"I can think of one..." He hissed.
Cid extinguished the cigarette he had been smoking and sat forward to look over at Cloud, trails of smoke flowing like liquidless streams from his nostrils as he did so.
"You sayin' he tried that mako, materia do-hickey on himself?" He asked. "'Cause that would be really fucking stupid!"
"Possibly. We all know that scientists can advance further through the study of mistakes than from actual breakthroughs. Besides, Vincent said that there were others." Cloud said, turning to look at Vincent. The hooded figure nodded, serpents of raven-feather hair playing in the breeze as he fixed his formidable gaze onto his companion.
"There were but they were failures." He said quietly.
Cloud sighed, the frustration that bubbled secretly within becoming visible on his face now as he fixed his sapphire stare on Vincent.
"If it was Hojo, from what Red told us I wouldn't exactly say it was a runaway success, would you?" Cloud asked.
"They were not 100 per cent successful with you either Vincent but you're still here." Tifa added.
Vincent nodded but did not answer.
Red sat forward again to look at the group, something akin to frustration riding on the back of his expression aswell now.
"It is immaterial who it was." He said
"Cloud's hypothesis is certainly not outwith the realms of possibility but it is not of pressing concern at the moment. The fact is, we have the files which will hopefully give us an advantage over a very dangerous and determined enemy."
The others fell silent as they listened to Red.
"We will ascertain the identity of the courier at a later time."
There was silence. Only the gentle crackling of the great fire played in the ears of the party like a melodious harp in the hazy light of late afternoon. Cid sighed and lit another cigarette puffing and exhaling a plume of smokey serpents.
"OK Red, we ain't getting' any younger. Let's have the script." He said.
Red looked up at the party as he decided how to tell yet more heavy revelations to an already overwhelmed bunch.
He sighed and began to talk, deciding to himself that there was no way to mellow the blow. There was no way of masking the true meaning of his words behind inuendo or verbous obesity, concluding that it was better for all concerned to simply come out and say what he had to say.
"The files were very detailed and made for the most fascinating and alarming read of my life. Much of what I am about to tell you, Vincent may have touched upon."
He looked back at the Cosmo Candle, admiring silently the flames.
"We are staring down the barrel of one of the most dangerous historical parallels I have encountered. We teeter unsteadily on an eroding ledge of stability that hangs over a deep and endless chasm of chaos. If we fall, if we fail in the task we must now undertake, destruction on a scale more terrible than anything we have ever known will follow."
A freezing chill ran down the spines of the party as they listened to Red's words. They were transfixed on him and waited silently for him to continue.
He looked up, a strange and haunting expression on his face.
"The death of this world is nigh." He said.
The silence was deathly, even the crackling of the fire seemed to hush as Red's words trailed off into the ether.
A million thoughts and fears twirled and danced in the heads of the party.
'Death.' The word was as vivid in Cloud's mind as it would have been had it been branded with an iron into his brain.
Red looked back into the great flame, his expression and his eye haunted and plagued by sadness.
Cloud sat for a moment and tried to clear his head. He watched Red as he stared solemnly into the fire.
'What does he see in these flames?' Cloud wondered.
"Do you know what will happen?" Cloud asked.
Red sighed but he did not look up from the flames.
"No I don't." He said, looking over at Cloud.
"But Sephiroth still searches for ultimate power. Power so great that it will free him from all mortal constraints."
"Lifestream..." Cloud hissed.
"The most powerful force on this world."
There was another bout of deathly silence as Red surveyed each of the party individually.
"He would have to destroy the planet to get it all and when it touched him, his materia form, the power he has would grow exponentially. Grow beyond all hope of ever stopping him."
Red looked away.
"He would truly wield the power of a God."
The silence around the great flame was so thick that it was almost smothering, the air wrapping invisible fingers around necks and choking, silently, the life from them but still no-one spoke. What could they say having just heard that?
As if possessed, Red continued to speak.
"Not a thing could survive. The world bathed in fire..." He sighed.
A frigid blast raced up the Canyon chilling the party as the planet breathed a mournful sigh. It was as doomed as those it now buffeted with its' sigh of sorrow.
Cloud cleared his head as best he could and turned to look at Red, the fire raging in his eyes.
"I wont let that happen Red, how do we stop him?" Cloud asked, conviction seeping into his murmured voice.
Despite this, even Cloud realised that it must have sounded like a very feeble attempt to boost morale.
Somehow, even if Cloud's statement fell on deaf ears elsewhere, Red was amazed by it and he looked up at Cloud with a strange expression on his face.
A curious thought swirling in his mind.
They truly were remarkable creatures these humans. Unwilling to give up no matter how dire the situation, no matter how powerful the enemy. Willing to sacrifice all for the good of others.
It was refreshing to see this trait among the very race who had created this nightmare scenario in the first place and Red could not help but smile as he looked at Cloud and the steely determination in his gaze.
"Time is of the absolute essence and it is fast running out. However, there is still a chance to stop him."
Cloud nodded adamantly as he continued the ocular standoff with Red.
"How?" He persisted.
Red sighed and looked back into the flames as he thought.
"The primary goal is to destroy his materia form, his plans will be for nought without it."
"Why is that?" Barret asked.
Red looked over at him.
"Although extremely powerful, his mind alone does not have the strength to cause such devastation, no mortal mind does. He amplifies his power through the materia thus, without it, he will be considerably weaker."
"That's what I want to hear!" Cid piped up, cigarette smouldering away in his hand.
Red looked over at him with a stern expression.
"Do not be fooled Cid, he only needs the materia form for the final act in this tragic performance. Although spiritually weaker his mind and consciousness are still capable of performing unparallelled acts of cruelty and destruction."
Cid put the smoking weed into his mouth and grunted, refraining from an intelligiable response as he puffed away.
Tifa sighed drawing attention to herself as she sat forward.
"Can we backtrack a moment Red? What did you mean when you said historical parallels?" She asked.
Red looked up at her.
The fire dancing around her gave her a remarkable aura and, even to Red, her strong but soft features and her innocent hazel-brown eyes were nothing short of beautiful. It was the first time he had noticed and it was a long moment before he spoke.
"Did you ever wonder where all the Ancients went?" He asked.
"They went extinct." Vincent offered.
Red shook his head.
"I was summoned to Bone Village over a year ago to inspect a carved tablet that had been unearthed there. The writing it bore was that of the Ancients."
"What did it say?" Cloud asked.
Sadness swallowed Red's eye once more as he thought and there was a momentary silence as he banished the ghosts and spirits that plagued his feelings.
"It was an epitaph to an entire race."
Nobody spoke as they waited for Red to continue.
"It seems a great evil spread across this world many many centuries ago. A race of creatures called the 'Chaos from the Void'"
He looked up.
"An alien race."
Anger bubbled up inside Cloud and he turned away from Red to look back into the flames.
"Jenova..." He hissed.
"They had never seen materia but they recognised its' power immediately. They attempted to augment themselves by fusing their beings with it."
"This sounds familiar." Cloud sighed.
Red nodded again.
"But something went horribly wrong. The materia did not augment them it warped them and changed them mentally and physically, mutated them into monsters."
Silence fell, broken only by another sorrowful breath from the planet.
"The monsters, wild and savage buried the last of the aliens, one called Jenova. Under its' orders they had been changed and they blamed it, despised it." Red continued.
"Jenova was their leader?" Cloud asked.
Red nodded again.
"The monsters turned on the Ancients and slaughtered them. Not even the Weapons, the guardians of the Master Orbs could stop the wave of evil and they were banished to the Northern Crater and sealed there for all eternity. In this confusion the Ancients hid something, a materia. A weapon of supreme power because they feared that the monsters in their ungodly fury would seek to destroy the world rather than exist in it as mutations."
"Black materia." Cid sighed.
"They did not find it. The last of the Ancients, save those chosen to safeguard the Black orb fled to the Last City where they quickly secumbed to disease and starvation and slowly, one by one, they died."
Above the party a growing couldron of deep grey and black had silently begun to form and a leaden sky was slowly giving birth to a violent storm. Far out across the grasslands the first rumbles of the thunder howled like dying behemoths in the gathering darkness.
Wind, fuelled by the encroaching evil of the dark world in the mirror howled blowing hair and lashing the flames into a defiant shower of sparks and burning faeries of light.
Anger suddenly raged from the planet, sorrow gave way to fury as Red's words echoed into the skies reopening painful and ancient tears in the delicate fabric of the world itself.
The party paid little attention to this sudden outpouring of worldly anger, the gravity of what they were being told crushing all tactile sense out of them.
"How awful..." Tifa whispered, the story of the Ancients dancing like a demon in her head.
"The monsters we have today..." Cid began.
"Descendents of the aliens." Red finished.
Cloud sighed and held his head with his hands as he sorted all the confusion out.
"All this time that Jenova thing was buried...it was still alive?" He asked himself.
"Yeah, then that fuckin' loony Gast found the bastard thing and started all this shit again." He hissed, anger flaring in his voice.
"Gast made the mistake of thinking Jenova was an Ancient when infact it was not." Red sighed.
"Yeah and I'll bet it gave that nutter Hojo the idea for this Gaea Soul thingy." Cid added.
Red looked at him and nodded.
"Probably. It probably thought that the human race, like its' own, would be mutated leaving the path open for it to rule the world unchallenged."
Cloud sighed. So much did not make sense in all this.
"But SOLDIER candidates have always been showered in Mako energy." He groaned.
"Yes, but only the last 5 or 6 generations of SOLDIER were infused with Jenova cells." Red added.
Thunder rumbled much closer to home drawing small measures of attention from the party.
The membrane between the evil mirror world and the darkness of reality was blurring as something began to push its' way through. Lightning forked heralding the arrival of the wind as the fight overhead intensified.
"Why did they infuse us with Jenova cells?" Cloud asked, the flames dancing in his eyes as the wind enraged them into a vicious dance of light.
"There is a very special quality in Jenova cells, something not found in the living tissue of humans or other compatable donor lifeforms, including myself."
"And that is?" Cloud asked, irritation beginning to show on his face again.
"They are charged with a previously unknown form of energy. They greatly enhance ability and amplify the power of the mind."
Cloud sighed and held his head again. It was beginning to come together in his head now and he didn't like what he was hearing.
"Is that why Sephiroth can control me?" He asked.
"On the plus side, it allows you to sense his presence. Jenova cells are extremely reactive to each other even over wide distances."
Thunder growled again and the landscape was bathed in the evil shine of lightning flashes.
Red turned to face the approaching storm, the light faded almost to blackness as the black clouds swallowed all that remained of the late afternoon light.
"Nothing more can I tell you."
He turned to face the party.
"A quest begins here."
Lightning flashed again and the thunder screamed. Wind lashed hard, invisible servants of the dark and demonic clouds above.
"We had better seek shelter from this storm." Red said, turning to face the evil gloom of the clouds once again.
With admirable grace and speed rivalling that of the lightning, Red leapt from his seat at the fireside and ambled over towards the dusky sandstone steps. He began to ascend them towards the huddled buildings, stopped and turned to look at his comrades again.
"You must be fatigued from your journey and in need of food and drink." He said as he turned and began up the steps again.
"My home is your home." He called as he melted into the shadows.
Lightning flared and the thunder screamed furiously in the darkening skies above. Wind whipped the huddled figures once more as it began another assault on the Canyon.
Despite the vicious attacks from the natural onslought above, the party remained still. The only other sounds apart from that of the wind was the crackling of the fire and the click of Cid's lighter as he lit another cigarette and inhaled on it loudly.
Before long another sound arose, the unmistakable clicking of Vincent as he drummed his steel fingers on the rock. His big crimson eyes shimmered with energy and danced flame as he looked up.
"Indeed the situation is grave." He sighed mournfully.
Heads nodded in agreement but voices remained dead.
Thunder bellowed again.
"So he is going to destroy the planet if we don't stop him."
No-one acknowledged Tifa which was fine, she hadn't expected them to. The statement was more for her own benefit to relieve some of the intense pressure in her head generated by a million and one thoughts, few of them anywhere near pleasant.
Clouds screamed in pain again as lightning singed the landscape.
Cloud held his head in his hands and groaned as the gravity of their situation truly began to bite him.
His mind raced and a thousand voices shouted a hundred thousand questions, each and every one rattling and echoing and churning until thought itself began to erode, rational process melting and breaking down until only one of the though-voices remained.
"I really am hungry. Lets get something to eat."
Cloud stood up and began towards the steps that Red had disappeared up only moments before leaving the party sat in various states of amazement and surprise. They had expected something a little more profound from Cloud, well, more profound than an expression of hunger.
"What in fuck?" Cid began, amazement chorusing with irritation in his gruff voice.
"How can you think of fucking food at a time like this?"
Cloud turned on the steps, the dancing flames burning in his radiant sapphire eyes. He disregarded Cid's question as he sighed wearily and faced the party.
"Are you coming or not?" He asked.
As if cued, the final assault started and the heavens unleashed their ground forces onto the Canyon. Freezing pellets of icy rain bombarded the group creating a wet roar as they lashed the sandstone, millions of frozen troops plummeting from the barracks of the clouds and hitting the party hard, their impacts so furious that pain began to sting across limbs and foreheads. The clouds barked orders to their troops in the form of another ferocious growl of thunder and illuminated the battlefield with another scorching sheet of lightning.
The party got up hastily and began to follow Cloud up the steps in silence, their voices unable to voice what their minds thought.
In moments the party had escaped from the attack, their forms diappearing from
view as they sought safety. Refugees from the freezing and souless onslought
that raged and roared and flashed outside.
His huge cloak billowed and a withered hand clutched at a cane as a pain-filled rasp of a voice reached out from the impenetrable darkness of his hood.
"Perhaps it is not too late..." He hissed, his unseen eyes watching the party as they dived for cover from the rain.
The crumpled shape faltered, knees heaved to keep the huddled body standing upright and the ancient hand clutched at its' stick, grasping and holding on for dear life.
A hiss of pain echoed from a hidden mouth in the hood followed once more by the serpentine voice.
"Forgive me for what I have done."
Lightning flashed again illuminating a second form behind that of the huddled man.
Silver serpents danced in the wind and a great robe billowed as a strong hand pulled the Masamune from its' sheath.
The crumpled little figure turned slowly to look as the last echo of the rasp from the Masamune poured away into the wind.
He recognised the face of the second man instantly and adrenaline began to rush through the damaged and ancient veins quickening the mind but having little effect on the worn-out frame of his being.
"Sephiroth..." He hissed, terror seeping into his pain-laced voice.
Sephiroth's eyes lit and shined with energy in the darkness, his face cracked with fury as he bowed his head a little. Lightning erupted crowning him with an evil aura of light as his evil shining eyes pierced the figure. Rain slithered down his face, glistening from the lightning and the energy of his eyes as his huge cloak flowed and writhed in the rain-flurried gusts of wind.
"You have failed me." He hissed, his voice the very sound of fury itself.
"S...S..Sephiroth..." The figure stammered, fear ringing from the darkness of the hood.
Steel flashed in the rain, the lightning eclipsed by the quicksilver spray. The huddled little man cried out in pain, the stick detaching from the moorings of the ancient hand and tumbling uselessly to the grass.
A sickening gurgling sound slithered in the night as the hooded man began to cough and choke, blood pouring from his hood and tumbling onto the blade that now impaled his body.
Sephiroth's eyes grew dim once more and he smiled as he watched the life pour from the man like the blood that splattered from the fatal wound in his chest.
He laughed as he wrenched the blade in the gut of his prey and tore it from the man's body, blood slithering into the rain as he watched the man collapse to his knees.
A trembling hand searched for the wound as life began to slip from his grasp.
The voice, nothing more than a twisted hiss of pain warped and distorted through blood soaked lips whispered from the depths of the hood.
"They are going to kill you...."
Sephiroth smiled, madness flaring in his eyes as he brought the bloodied sword to striking posture once more.
"Never more shall you fail me again." He hissed, his voice the essence of hatred once more.
Reddened steel flashed in the rain.
Two distinct sounds of body collapsing and severed head impacting with the sodden grass were chorused by the disgusting organic solo of blood splattering onto lush vegetation in large quantities.
Crimson shined in the lightning and danced with the rainwater swirling and churning in disgusting pink puddles and streams in the muddied ground.
Sephiroth looked at the two severed parts of the man, the blood soaked sword glistened in his hand as rainwater and crimson remnants splashed down his fingertips.
He stretched forth his arms and a wicked hiss of laughter spilled from his mouth as the fractured corpse at his feet flared with red light and broke silently into lifestream, soaking into the ground and disappearing from the land of life in deathly hush.
Warmth rushed into Sephiroth's being as he sensed the absorbtion of the new lifestream into that of Planet and his eyes opened and lit with glorious power as he watched the canyon silently in the darkness.
"All the more energy." He hissed.
Warmth abated leaving a cold sensation as the sword dropped to his side, lightning crowning him once more with the ghostly, evil aura.
He could sense the presence of the party as his face cracked once more into throes of fury and hatred.
"You are all running out of time now." He hissed.
Chapter 25: Dreams
Despite what they had learned only hours before, the party had little trouble sleeping. They had eaten the meals that Red had generously had prepared for them in virtual silence and one by one melted into the various rooms and huts that
Red had given them to rest in.
Not a word had been spoken.
What could they really say that would lift so dark an atmosphere, one blacker than the storm riddled night outside?
There were no half-truths or words of comfort that could mellow the blow.
Nothing to placate them or divert their minds from the realisation of a creeping apocalypse that once again lay just around the next shrouded corner.
Sleep with its' comforting anaesthetic and symbiotic relationship with happier things seemed to be exploited as a defence mechanism by the party. A shining light in a repressive tunnel of darkness that offered an escape from the horrors of the world in which they dwelled.
For once, the darkness was welcoming rather than subversive and it was embraced by each of the group like a long lost brother. Heralded as a lightfearing angel with a holy heart to take them from all worry and fear and hatred and bathe them in the glowing rewards of pacifism and unconsciousness.
Cloud found himself in a place that was all too familiar, a place where he had been viciously attacked once before in the peace of sleep. Where his most intimate needs and wants and desires had been abused and perverted so horribly that it had left him feeling violated and deeply, deeply angry.
The darkness around him seemed to have depth. It was tangiable and possessed dimension. He could feel his feet making contact with the ground but there was no ground on which to walk just a pliable gloom all around that was bent and twisted into invisible corridors and tunnels.
He was the only thing that existed in this empty, barren universe, this place that creation forgot.
He felt his legs begin to move faster and faster. He was running. Was it towards something again? Or this time was he running away? Where was the laughter that had torn through the darkness the last time he was in this place?
Whispers began to echo and disappear. Thousands of separate voices and thoughts swirled in and out of existance as a tiny pin-prick of light began to form out of the nothing ahead.
Cloud raced through the darkness, bolted towards the light as the whispers grew louder and louder.
Cloud could not make out what was being said but it filled him with a feeling, one that he had never expected to feel in a dark place filled with strange voices. He felt...safe.
The light he was bolting towards was growing.
Warmth flowed from it as it reached out and wrapped around him engulfing him and the evil of this nothing-world in a soft amber light.
Cloud stopped running as he felt the warmth and the flows of light washing over him and turned to look at the darkness he had escaped from.
A great vortex rippled and flowed, sealing the hole in the world of light and pushing out the darkness.
Cloud gazed in wonder at the event horizon between the two worlds as it closed completing this perfect sphere of sunlight in which he found himself.
It was just like the dark-world. Featureless, empty, devoid of anything except Cloud, but there was something very different in this place. Something so parallel to the other universe that they were related only in the their featurlessness, yet the perception of this world was so radically different that there was no relationship.
The light around was not blinding. It was clean and warm, so warm. There was no fear, no doubt that Cloud could sense, even his own tormented soul mellowing and harmonising with this strange place.
It was like being inside life. The forces of it buzzed and thrived all around and warmth and safety ebbed and swayed like great unseen oceans of pure consciousness. Whispers all around echoed but did not threaten. So many thoughts and ideas swirled in this place. It was like being sucked into a huge mind and feeling the subtle workings of it, sensing the thoughts.
'Were these thoughts?' He wondered.
'They are warm....'
Soft serpents of energy laced in and out of the world and wrapped around Cloud. He felt something or rather heard something as they touched him. Each one possessing a voice of its' own and whispering things, thoughts, ideas and even emotions into his own mind and then they slithered away into the light.
Cloud looked around and he saw them for the first time. Thousands upon thousands maybe even millions of them swirling and touching and floating so peacefully in this place. Ideas and emotions, thoughts and feelings blew through this world like winds imbuing Cloud with a peace that he had only dreamed he could posess and drawing the thought-energies into a shoal as they swam benignly in the ocean of light.
His senses raced and he was aware suddenly of something else around him, a consciousness. One much stronger than the thousands of thought-energies and definitely more familiar.
Whispers echoed again swirling and churning into one definite voice, the pitch and tone raising so that the words could become audible.
Cloud looked around but saw no-one. Curiosity began to curl in his head along with a slight glimmer as he began to almost recognise the voice that slithered in the light of this other nothing-world and touched his ears.
"Who is that?" He asked.
There was a faint laugh.
"Don't you recognise me?"
He suddenly recognised the slightly distorted voice. How he had longed to hear it yet anger raged and flared within him and he felt his fists balling up as fury burned in the sapphire of his eyes.
The feel of the world suddenly altered as the thought-energies swam away from Cloud as if in panic, the strength of his fury a totally alien concept in this place leaving him with a sudden chill as he heard the voice echoing around his mind.
"Sephiroth!! You son of a bitch, not again!!" He hissed.
The laugh fluttered again and he heard footsteps behind him.
"It's not Sephiroth this time Cloud."
Cloud slowly turned. The expectation he had was a huge man in a black robe with the Masamune in striking pose but the reality was very different.
Cloud's anger melted and he felt a sudden wrench in his emotions as he saw who stood before him.
In that moment, this place, these things had to be a dream. How he had longed to see what he was seeing now but it couldn't be real, could it? How could she be here?
The balls of his fists disintegrated and he felt his eyes mellow of fury and widen as his mind began the task of processing the images and the realisations of what he was seeing.
"Aeris? Aeris is it you? Is it really you?"
Soft laces of hazel-brown hair danced around her pretty face. Kindness shone in the twinkles of her aquamarine eyes as her robes, white now instead of pink, flowed in the warm winds of energy.
The serpents of benign amber wrapped themselves around her casting a warm glow on her beautiful features as her smile beamed like a trillion suns. Even brighter than the wonderous palace of light in which Cloud found himself.
"Yes Cloud, it is really me."
Cloud felt a tear trace its' way down his face as he looked at her.
"I'm dreaming..." He stammered.
"I have to be..."
Aeris shook her head and smiled.
"No Cloud. You are not."
Cloud could not think, his mind in shock and seized up. It refused to work, capable only of one thing.
He ran towards her with his arms outstretched. She opened her arms and he fell into her embrace, his arms grasping her and locking, refusing to let go of her. He felt more tears tracing the contour of his face as he held her in his arms.
She held him back.
She felt alive and warm. She was alive and warm, no matter how improbable that had seemed to him only seconds beforehand, there was no disputing it now.
She really was here.
Cloud sobbed and looked into her eyes.
"What are you doing here? What is this place?" He asked, his voice soaked in emotion.
She smiled and rested her head on his shoulder, her eyes closing as she spoke.
"This is the afterlife Cloud." She said.
Cloud's mind was called instantly back to working order and he pulled back slightly, resting his hands on her hips as he looked at her.
"The afterlife?! Am I dead?" He asked, his big tearful eyes wide with shock.
Aeris sighed and pulled away. She turned her back and sighed again as she began to speak.
"You are not dead Cloud, not yet at least." She whispered.
Cloud's arms fell slightly to his sides as he followed Aeris with his eyes, her words echoing like explosions in his head. Suddenly, the tranquility of this world seemed damaged as her words began another loop around his brain.
"Not yet? What does that mean?" He asked.
She did not speak. She was still standing with her back to him and her shoulders began to shake as he watched her.
She still didn't answer him.
"Aeris, what is it, is something going to happen to me?"
She turned to look at Cloud.
Tears rolled from her eyes and caught the light of the world. They shined and glistened as she looked up at him, her big aquamarine eyes red with tears.
"Oh, Cloud. Red should have told you." She sobbed, walking back over to him and embracing him again.
It broke his heart to hear her sobbing and to see her so obviously distressed but his mind ached to know what he should have been told, a voice and a compulsion so powerful that even Cloud could not ignore it.
Cloud kissed her head and held her tight again, mellowing his voice to soften the blow of what was obviously a difficult question.
She sniffed and looked up at him.
"What is going to happen, what should Red have told me?"
She looked away again.
"He told you about Sephiroth?" She asked.
"He spoke of a quest to destroy him?"
Cloud nodded again and suddenly he felt as though things were better. He almost smiled.
"Is that all? He told me these things." Cloud said.
Aeris looked away again and sobbed.
Something flickered in Clouds' head. He was beginning to realise something but it remained just outwith his mental grasp. He was certain it was not something he was going to like and he also had a feeling that it was connected to the sad-eyed stares Red had been giving him all night.
"But that's not what he should have told me, is it?" He asked.
Aeris sobbed violently and shook her head slowly.
"Please Aeris, just tell me what is going on."
She sobbed again and looked up at him.
"You are going to die on this quest Cloud."
Time slowed away and fell to a stop around him.
His mind which had been racing and screaming along the road of thought only moments before broke down and fell uselessley at the roadside of his consciousness.
His mouth opened and uttered words but Cloud could not recall having told it to do so.
"What?" He whispered, his voice barely audible even in the silence of this place.
Aeris sobbed again and looked away. She did not answer.
Cloud's thoughts ground to a complete halt and he stood, barely able to comprehend what he had just heard. Only one voice repeated over and over in his head, his own voice. It asked and asked and asked the same question.
'Are you not happy? Did you not wish for death? To be in this place?'
It was not his voice but it was. The same voice that had begged with him for weeks and months to go to the yard on the Ranch, remove the Destruct materia from his pocket and chant the words.
Something peculiar was happening to Cloud, had been happening to him as he travelled. He had never expected it to happen but it had.
Now that he felt alive again, he actually dicovered something that he had forgotten all those months ago. Something that had died within as he held her lifeless body in his arms and laid her to rest in that place.
He had felt the wonders of the world again, touched the forces of life and rediscovered things he had though lost in his personal black sea of depression,a sea so deep and cold he had nearly secumbed to it.
He had felt and touched and now, as if all he had been through were of no consequence, he was not sure he was ready to come to this place.
So much more was there to feel and to see, to have it all ended seemed...wrong. He was not ready to die anymore. Aeris was obviously oblivious to the dilemma Cloud was going through as she looked up at him and continued.
"You know the one who will kill you Cloud."
He did not look at her, his huge eyes glazed with shock stared off at some unseen thing in this world of featureless light, some reference point that tied him to this thread of reality.
"Who?" He whispered, his voice still remaining outwith his ability to control it.
She watched him for a moment as he continued his mindless gaze. It was going to hurt him, this much she knew.
"Sephiroth will kill you."
What happened to Cloud as he heard those words could only really be described as pain. Great pain, as though his soul itself was injured.
Slowly, through the fog of that pain, something began to grow inside, a pressure.
Creeping silently it searched and looked and finally found what it was looking for as something trickled into his blood.
It ran the length and breadth of his being slowly imbuing every living particle of his body with emotions before slowly refining and focusing them into one very real and very tangiable feeling.
Cloud's eyes narrowed to slits as anger, confusion, hatred all surged through his veins replacing the blood within with a sizzling flow of molten emotion. It coursed and raged and screamed through him quickly locating and following the path to his voice.
"What?!!" He hissed.
She looked up and Cloud pulled back.
"Sephiroth?!! Sephiroth is going to kill me?!!"
She sniffed and nodded.
"You will die at each others hands."
Cloud's mind, tired of lethargy was a storm of action.
"I will kill him too? Truly kill him?!!"
"As far as I can sense, yes."
Cloud's mind slowed and he stood for a moment and thought. A soft tear ran from his eye as a terrible thought began to slither like a poisonous vine around his brain.
Fury gave way to fear and confusion as he looked into the delicate hazel-brown swirls of her eyes.
"But that means that you died in vain." He said.
She dried the tears from her eyes and sniffed as she shook her head.
"No. I didn't. If I hadn't cast Holy, if the lifestream had not stopped Meteor, Sephiroth would have achieved his ultimate power. If that had happened, I would have died in vain."
Cloud did not speak.
She smiled at him and wrapped her arms around him again.
"I bought you all the time you will need to stop him forever."
Clouds' mind swirled and ached from thought. He couldn't think straight as he looked down at her. He didn't know what to say but he spoke anyway.
Aeris smiled and held her finger over his lips, shushing him into silence.
"It will be alright. Trust me Cloud, it will be. There are going to be difficult times ahead, losses and heartache but you must go on. You must prevail or everone will die in vain."
Tears ran from his face as he held her. He had so much he wanted to say but he couldn't find the words to do so.
"Do not be afraid Cloud. Live for the day and when the time is here, we will be together again."
He sniffed and nodded, holding her tight in his arms.
She sighed and looked away, her robes swaying in the invisible flows of warm energy.
"It is time to go Cloud." She said.
Cloud's grasp tightened on her.
"No. No, don't go again." He pleaded.
"I have to go Cloud, and so do you."
A cool draft touched Cloud. He opened his eyes and was greeted by the horrible realisation of nothing. An empty space in front of him where she had stood only moments before.
He looked around frantically but she was gone, the warmth where she had been cooling off and fuelling the fruitless search.
"Aeris?" He called.
He barely waited before shouting again.
Darkness began to seep into the world of light, serpents of evil black nothing clawing at the wonderous amber and pinching it out like so many candles. The thought-energies bolted and swam for cover as the darkness, like a great predator chased them, devouring them like a shark in the bloodheat of a feeding frenzy.
A voice rippled through the collapsing world.
"I am with you Cloud."
He tried to run but could not move. Blackness danced and tore, the last vestiges of the light of the amber world being swallowed in the mouth of the nothing.
"Go Cloud. Talk to Red."
Cloud still tried to run but found himself slowing, his mind slowing and stopping to nothing as her voice rippled again.
"Be strong.... I love you"
Pain and panic raced through him.
He was choking. So much heat as he panted and tried desperately to calm himslef.
Air choked and strangled the life from him and his eyes darted for a way out of the smothering room. He raced for the door and flew it open, stepping out into the cooling, calming night world outside.
Peace had been reached as the storm began to slowly break up overhead, the twinkling eyes of the stars piercing the ugly black of the clouds with their cold and distant gaze and banishing them back to the world of black and demons from which they had spawned.
Cloud felt soft tears worming their way down his face as he stood and took several huge gulps of the fresh air, the smothering poison of the bedroom finally leaving his body in the form of chilled wraiths of breath in the frigid night atmosphere.
"What just happened?" He said aloud.
His mind was burning and a hurricane of pain and wonder and hatred all churned. No amount of trying was going to silence his thoughts now as they shifted into overdrive to make up for lost time.
'Surely it was a dream?' He thought, wiping the stray tears from his face. 'It had to be a dream.'
No reassurance came.
'It must be...it must be...'
Who was he trying to convince except himself?
He sighed and swore quietly under his breath.
Cold night air finally returned his breathing pattern and his body heat to a tolerable level but still he stood under the watchings of distant eyes as he tried to summon rational thought back.
He looked around and the sudden flare of braided red hair caught his attention and he squinted for a second as he confirmed what he was looking at.
'Red...' He thought.
Cloud rubbed his head and began to descend the sandstore concourse towards the Cosmo Candle, the flames echoing on the rock and causing the fallen rainwater to glisten with a slight haze of sparks. Swirls of fire reverberated on the water that splashed in little puddles under Cloud's feet, the harsh sting of the cold liquid nipping his naked skin.
Red sat with his head bowed, the aura of his being was one of a crushing sorrow.
He looked up slowly as he heard Cloud approach, a tear worming its' way through the fur as it escaped from his eye.
"She came to you, didn't she?" He asked.
Cloud collapsed into one of the carved seats around the great flame, the rainwater dried from the heat.
Bitter tears flowed from his eyes as he gazed into the flames.
Red nodded understandingly and looked into the flames also, his eye pinched with sadness.
"I knew she was going to. I have seen her also."
Cloud did not look over as he fought hard to hold back a torrent of anguished tears.
"What she said, it was all true, every word of it?" He asked.
"Yes. It was."
Cloud held back a bitter sob and composed himself for a moment. He looked at Red, anger flared in the pools of sapphire and his words came entwined with a subtle yet burning fury.
"Sephiroth...Sephiroth is going to kill me?"
Cloud sobbed with rage and looked away, back into the flames.
"I am sorry Cloud, it is your destiny to fall on this quest."
Cloud sniffed and rubbed his eyes with his hands.
"She said I will kill him, right? Please Red, tell me that is true at least."
"All we know is that you die trying to kill him. Whether you succeed or not is outwith our ability to see."
"Oh, I'll succeed. If I am to die then I WILL kill that son of a bitch!" Cloud hissed, his eyes flaring with rage.
"No more innocent blood will he shed. I promise you that."
Cloud looked away and sobbed angrily as he watched the flames dance and twirl convulsively.
Red sighed again and ambled over to Cloud, sitting down next to him and fixing his eye on him.
"This is a terrible burden for anyone to have to carry but the others must not know about this Cloud."
Cloud cleared his throat and looked back at Red, catching the gaze from his powerful eye.
"I know." He said.
"They have gone through a lot, they don't need this aswell."
Cloud looked away from Red. Thoughts and voices called in his head and he was ashamed at the voice that called the loudest.
Cloud stood up, holding his head and trying not to think but the tidal wave overwhelmed his defence and he was flooded by emotion and though as he turned to look at Red, tears of anger and hatred burned on his cheek and Red caught sight of something else. Fear.
"What is it?" He asked.
Cloud turned away, the flames flickering on his skin.
"I...I don't want to die Red."
Wind from the night howled, invisible spirits of breath from the furthest reaches of the world touched the pair, chilling them and drawing Cloud back to the warmth of the fire.
He sat and bowed his head in his hands, averting his gaze from Red. He felt ashamed of what he was feeling, he was betraying her memory by even uttering such things.
She had fallen selflessley without a second thought and here he was deperate for a way to save his own life even at the potential expense of millions of others.
But that was different, wasn't it? Did Aeris actually know she was going to die? Maybe she did, maybe she didn't.
Cloud did know.
Red placed a paw on Cloud and fixed on him with a peculiar gaze.
"None of us wants to die Cloud. I certainly do not but you need perspective. One man dies or everyone dies. Unfortunately, it is as simple as that."
Red moved away slightly.
"Sorry if that was a little cold-hearted."
Cloud looked over at Red and thought for a moment.
Red sighed and walked away.
"Our futures are no more certain than yours is. I can sense that something terrible is building."
Red stared at Cloud.
"By the time that death comes to you, we may have already been consumed by it."
Cloud looked at Red and sighed as another blast of freezing wind touched him sending another chill down his spine in unison with the one that Red's speech had produced. He looked away and allowed the flames to soothe some of the fears in his heart.
"I always knew that it might happen on this quest, you know? In the back of my mind I knew it was more than possible, given what we faced." He said.
"But this is different, isn't it?" Red asked.
Cloud's head slowly nodded and he gazed at the wise beast.
"Knowing for certain is worse than not knowing at all."
Red smiled and nodded.
"I know, but remember this Cloud, there are no certainties in this world anymore least of all the realisations of life or death."
Cloud looked away but did not speak.
"We are all at your side but the others look to you for their strength. You must remain strong if not for yourself, then for them."
"I will Red."
Red smiled again.
"You may have weeks, perhaps even months before anything happens to you. Try to live them to the fullest, well as full as possible given what we must face and when the time comes, so be it."
Red looked back at the fire.
"When the end comes for you Cloud, you will not have any fear. We know this for certain."
There was a long silence. Cloud eventually rose slowly to his feet and looked back down at the diminuative form of his friend. He smiled as he began to move away.
"I am going to try and get some rest." He said quietly.
Red smiled up at Cloud but was not wholly convinced of this sudden show of strength from him.
"You can try I suppose."
"Thanks Red, for everything."
"It was no problem. Just remember what I said and you will have no fear."
Cloud nodded again and turned forlornly towards the sandstone concourse.
Red watched him ascend the steps slowly and disappear into the hut, closing the
door behind him silently.
He shivered as he looked back into the flames, strange and repressed thoughts echoing in his head as the light danced in his eye.
He believed he was feeling empathy for Cloud, a strange emotion that rarely came to him.
He knew all too well that it was going to be a very trying time for Cloud but he also knew that Cloud was strong enough to carry the burden without letting it affect him.
In a way, Red was glad it was not his burden but then again, in a strange way it was a close parallel to his own life.
Had his father Seto known what was to happen when he descended into the cave, did he know he would never again see the lights of home?
He did not know but the possibility of an answer to his question lay very close by, burning in a pit at his feet.
'Perhaps the flames will tell me.' He sighed, his gaze lost deep within the burning of the embers and the hypnotic crackle of the Candle.
Icy fingers raked Red's coat once more as he huddled to stare into the burning prophet.
Whether or not his answer swirled and whispered in the burning flames did not matter. He needed to look anyway.
Chapter 26: The fight
Elmyra looked out of the window and across the huge plains and the curl of rolling hills that broke the featurlessness of the land between Kalm and the great metropolis of Midgar.
She and Marlene had arrived at the inn in Kalm only yesterday afternoon but already Elmyra yearned to return to Midgar. It was not that the inn was unpleasant, far from it infact. It was a lovely building with a squat design and sturdy timber inner beams that gave the entire place a rustic feeling that reminded Elmyra of times past.
No matter how nice it was though, it was not home and she missed the simple comforts of her house, like wandering in the garden or sitting in the bench and watching the sun arch its' way across the sky.
She picked her coffee mug up and took a long mouthful. The coffee was excellent and the strong acidity of the black fluid warmed her and enriched her senses as she swallowed contentedly and replaced the mug on the breakfast counter.
Marlene was fast asleep still in the bedroom. She had looked so peaceful and happy in her own little dreams that Elmyra couldn't bring herself to wake the child.
She looked a little like Aeris had and her little face even scrunched up the same way when she slept giving her the adopted appearance of a tiny little mouse slumbering away in a safe nest of warmth and security.
She smiled as she thought of Marlene. She was a lovely child and a credit to Barret and her late mother and it made Elmyra sad to think that Barret had to spend so much time away from her. It must have been as difficult on him as it was on his daughter but they had both gotten so used to hiding their disappointment that you couldn't really tell the depth of the childs' lonliness or Barret's for that matter.
She and Barret were so alike, apart from the blue tongue and the vicious temper and it made Elmyra wonder what Barret was like at Marlene's age, a little hellraiser no doubt.
She sat back and took another rejuvenating mouthful of the coffee, taking her time to savour the subtle and the obvious tastes of the beverage as she decided what to do with Marlene today.
They were quite close to Kalm Shore, a beautiful beach of soft golden sand and warm ocean water.
'Yes.' She thought.
'We'll go to the beach today I think.'
She finished the coffee and stood up slowly, stretching and allowing the strong black life-water to pulse into her and prepare her for the day ahead. She looked out on Midgar and sighed. Its' glass spires and buildings sweating a soft gleam of light where the morning sun beamed down upon them.
'There's nothing going to happen in Midgar.' She thought.
'What was he thinking?'
There was no point in moaning about it. If Cloud thought there was going to be trouble, he had a good reason for thinking so. Better to be safe than sorry.
She sighed and handed 3 Gil over to the waiter for the coffee and headed back to her room to wake Marlene for their trip to the beach.
* * * * * *
Shaking early-morning drowsiness from their eyes and spirits, the party appeared around the Candle one at a time, each of them yawning and stretching and generally just waking up.
The eternal majesty of the flames helped to ward of some off the morning shivers but not all.
Cloud did not appear.
Cid yawned loudly and adjusted his goggles on his head as he reached into his pocket and located his cigarettes and lighter. He lit one of them and inhaled deeply, blowing a gust of bluey grey smoke into the air, he sighed contentedly.
"That bed was fucking excellent Red!" He announced.
The party nodded and agreed in unison.
Red nodded his head and looked around. One of the party was missing.
"Where is Cloud this morning?" He asked.
Most of the party shrugged as they sat and watched the great flame.
Tifa got a strange buzz and she quietly took note of smouldering traces of concern in the voice of her comrade. She frowned and looked around.
"He is just coming I think. Why?"
Red clammed up, his mind beginning to quicken as he realising he may have given away a little too much in the tone of his voice.
Obviously some humans were more perceptive than he was giving them credirt for.
He stood up and circled the Candle to get a better look at the sandstone concourse.
"I wondered, that's all."
Tifa nodded and warily sat back.
Barret yawned proudly and scratched his head with his hand as he sat forward to look at his friends.
"Say, did any of you hear a scream or somethin' last night?" He asked.
The rest of the group looked at each other and then back at Barret.
"What kind of scream?" Vincent asked.
"I dunno man, kinda human like."
Red surveyed Barret cautiously.
"When did you hear this scream?"
Barret frowned as he thought.
"Just as we came inside from the rain."
Cid stood up, his big boots stomping on the sandstone as he walked around stretching.
"Didn't hear fuck all, but if something did scream, I hope it was that little bastard that tried to do us in yesterday."
"My sentiments exactly."
Cloud's boots thudded confidently as he walked down the concourse, jumping the last two steps and walking over to the party. The Ultima Weapon was unsheathed and swinging in his right hand as he walked.
"That's why I'm carrying this. I'm taking no risks."
The party nodded in unison and began to pull weapons from sheaths. Vincent cocked the Quicksilver while Cid stuffed two shells into the shotgun.
Barret put several rounds into his gun arm and cocked it.
"We all set?" He asked.
Heads nodded as one signalling that they were ready to move out.
"Good." Said Cloud.
They walked in single-file through the waiste-high grasses, senses on high alert for the presence of anything untoward.
There was little to no wind today so it would be easier to spot an ambush. It was not long before the first signs of trouble began to emerge.
Again it was Cid who first sensed that something was wrong. His eyes darted from bush to clump to shrub and he held up his hand, stopping the party in their tracks.
Bushes on either side began to quiver prompting the party to collectively ready their weapons.
The bushes on each side shook again and there was a quiet exchange of excited chatter in some primitive language, alerting Cloud and the others to the presence of at least three Goblins.
"We must have pissed them off yesterday because it sounds like there are lots of them this time." Cloud hissed.
More tiny voices began to gibber in the grasses. There were more than three of them anyway.
There was a sudden flash, as quick as lightning as the first diminuative form leapt from a bush to their collective right flank.
Cloud cursed and began to move but Vincent was first into action, withdrawing the Quicksilver from its' holster and firing off a single deadly-accurate shot. The leaping hissing thing jerked and fell silent as the momentum of the shot knocked its' puny body backwards through the air. There was a crack of blood down its' ugly little face as the shot ripped through its' skull spraying blood and particles of matter onto the surrounding vegetation.
The body, devoid of life tumbled to the ground, landing with a thud and twitching convulsively as the destroyed brain sent garbled death commands to the useless body. In moments, the twitching ceased as Death asserted himself fully over the body and claimed it for himself.
The frenzied chattering started again and, undeterred by the violent death of a brother, another goblin leapt from the undergrowth, saliva dripping from its' teeth and its' eyes aflame with mindless primitive rage.
It sailed as if carried gracefully on the winds towards its' target. It lunged through the air as it continued on its' course for Tifa's neck.
Panic raced through Cloud and he darted, holding the sword in one hand he jumped for Tifa and caught the hissing little thing with only moments to spare before it sank its' claws and teeth into the soft flesh of her throat.
It squealed in surprise and hissed angrily as Cloud wrapped his fingers around its' throat and in one quick, painless motion jerked his hand and snapped its' neck, killing the tiny monster instantly.
As the lifeless form of the second goblin hit the ground, there was a brief moment of silence.
The two dead creatures shined as their bodies broke into flares of red lifestream and vanished.
Nothing moved as eyes shifted uneasily. The assault seemed to be over.
Cloud lowered his sword and turned.
Without so much as a murmur, a third goblin jumped from the grass and smashed Cloud in the face with its' fist.
He fell backwards as his nose began to bleed profusely.
Barret leapt forward and lashed out with a growl of rage, the heavy metal of the gun-arm impacting with the pint-sized martial artist and sending it tumbling to the floor knocked out cold.
Thunder rumbled simultaneously as Cid blew out both barrels of his shotgun into the bush infront of him and, judging from the disgusting sounds that followed, killed at least two more hidden attackers.
Cloud hissed in agony and collapsed heavily, nursing his nose. Blood poured from his face and ran down his arm, splattering onto the wet grass as he fell.
"I think it's broken." He hissed, pain flaring wildly in his voice.
The party gathered around him as Tifa knelt next to her fallen friend, fishing around in her pocket for the one item that could help him at this time; the
"Hold on Cloud, Cure 3 coming right up." She said, locating the orb and pulling it out.
A tear of pain fell from Cloud's eye as he looked up.
"No. Sephiroth will sense us is we use materia." He hissed, tiny rivers of blood meandering their way down his face.
Tifa nodded as she grasped the orb.
"I know that but we have no choice. You could bleed to death without the cure spell."
His mind hazed with the fog of pain, Cloud just made out the irony of what Tifa had said.
'I'm dead anyway.' He thought.
He hissed in agony as the pain bit him hard and burned stronger than ever. He winced as he looked at her.
'I'm not going out like this!' He thought.
"Do it." He said, his voice warped and distorted from the injury and hissed as he battled with the pain that burned like a fire in the fractured bone. Tifa nodded and knelt down.
He was bleeding very badly by this point. The Ultima Weapon fell from his hand and he collapsed back onto one of his elbows as his head began to swim with pain and a growing feeling of dizziness and nausea.
The party watched nervously as Tifa began to chant, begging the spirit of the materia to help her.
Barret, Cid and Red watched as the warm waves of green energy began to flow away from Tifa in hazing rings, her form bathed in the emerald glow of the materia as the orb mercifully responded to her chanting and the spell began to form around the fallen warrior.
Vincent, unenthralled by the wonder of magic, circled almost nervously as he patrolled the area for signs of monster activity, goblin or otherwise.
An eruption of glorious rainbow colour touched Cloud. Sprinkles of purple, yellow, green and red washed his body accompanied by a soft blue light as the cure spell began to soothe the raging pain and heal the tortured bone. Light rained down his body, washing it in an amber light.
Colours flared like a shower of phoenix feathers and his body glowed radiantly as his injuries began to heal.
His mind began to clear of pain-haze and he let out a sigh of relief as the light of the spell began to dry up around him. He reached up to survey his nose and his cautious fingers were greeted with a strong bone and a painless sensation of finger touching unbroken skin.
There was no pain or blood and he smiled as he found strength again and stood up, picking the Ultima Weapon up as he came proudly back to his feet.
Tifa stood up aswell, the light in the Restore orb cooling and gently ebbing away.
"How is it?" She asked.
Cloud smiled again.
"It's fine, healed completely."
Cid and Barret exchanged glances as Tifa shoved the orb back into her pocket. Cloud took several energetic sniffs as he tested his nose, divering the attention of his comrades from the sound of a gun hammer clicking.
The party gave a collective jump and scrambled frantically for their weapons as the loud crack of gunfire rang out across the grasslands. They turned and shifted to look at Vincent.
He had shot the unconscious goblin and killed it, the smoking Quicksilver still trained on the dead monster.
"Why the hell did you do that Vincent?" Cloud asked, his grasp on the Ultima Weapon slacking as he realised nothing was attacking them.
Vincent glared at Cloud and then back at the dead monster, kneeling down and prising something from its' dead hand.
With two of his metallic fingers, he picked up a wicked barbed-bladed dagger and walked over to Cloud to allow him to inspect it, holstering the Quicksilver as he did so.
His eyes glowed softly as he spoke to his friend.
"But a moment longer and a mere fractured nose would have been the least of your problems."
Cloud surveyed the weapon.
The blade was razor sharp and serrated with wicked barbs. Vincent was correct, this knife would deliver a fatal wound with ease and given the disproportionate strength of a goblin it is likely Cloud would have been dead before he knew what had even happened.
It seemed to Cloud that he was having more and more brushes with Death, or was it that he was just more aware of them now? Either way, it was not a pleasant feeling nor was the sensation of the knowledge burning like a fire in the back of his mind as he tried desperately to avert his inner gaze from it.
Cloud snorted and tossed the dagger away, hefting the Ultima Weapon into his stronger right hand.
Cloud glared at the horrible little thing lying dead in the grass, a small splatter of blood seeping from the gunshot wound in its' chest, a muscle spasm twitching its' lifeless arm and rending its' horrid claws on the smoothe blades of the grass.
"Little bastard." He hissed as it flared with energy and broke into lifestream, disappearing from the world of life.
"Nice shooting Vincent." He said, turning to face the rest of the party.
"We had better get out of here, no doubt Sephiroth sensed the use of that materia."
The group nodded, Cid taking point and clutching the shotgun as they resumed their journey.
"Better get that gun of yours out again Vince, who knows how many more of those little fuckers are out there." Cid said, lighting another cigarette and resting the shotgun on is shoulder.
They were no more than a hundred or so yards from the Highwind but Cid surveyed the surrounding grass with hightened suspicion as he walked along and smoked quietly.
He actually had not expected to be ambushed, not after the show of force with the shotgun the previous day.
'Must have more fingers than braincells!' Cid thought.
Vincent duly withdrew the Quicksilver from its' holster and grasped it confidently in his steely fingers, swaying it as he tracked unseen targets.
Cloud was a little less cautious despite having been the only one to have suffered injury as he hefted the Ultima Weapon onto his shoulder. Having suffered such heavy losses, it seemed highly unlikely to Cloud that the goblins would attack them again. Doubtless the other unseen assailants would have witnessed the violent dispatch of their comrades and scarpered off to warn their tribes and groups to give the party a very wide berth.
Nibel Wolves worried Cloud more. They were a much more primitive species and far more vicious than goblins. Bigger teeth too.
They attack in groups of three or four and even with the undeniably impressive sharpshooting of Vincent, the likeliness of a serious injury being inflicted before an attacking group could be decisively neutralised was very high.
That would be disasterous as it was now definitely too dangerous to use a materia orb again without alerting the attention of a monster far worse than any goblin or Nibel wolf ever could be.
Grasses and shrubs swayed menacingly all around as Cloud's eyes darted cautiously.
"Watch out for Nibel Wolves." He called.
"And Mithril Dragons!" Cid added.
"Those fuckers are poisonous!"
Chapter 27: The beginning of the search
The gigantic superstructure of the airship hummed, the steel reverberating as the huge engines pulled the leviathan off of the ground, its' hull vibrating confidently with the small shockwaves of its' own massive power.
The party sat at various consoles as Cid monitored the take-off from the padded comfort of the master console chair. His eyes glided over the small outcrop of digitised readouts that grew from various screens on the console, a cigarette smouldering away to nothing on his lips and sending tiny flurries of ash around his face, creating an aura like a microscopic forest-fire in the otherwise clean air of the ships' bridge.
The roar of the engines died down as the ship reached a designated point in its' ascension and Cid extinguished the cigarette and turned to face the party, stormy exhalations of smoke slithering like phantom serpents from his nostrils.
"We're holding at fifteen hundred feet." He announced.
"So, where now?" He asked, looking at both Cloud and Red.
Red, who had been lying down for the duration of the take-off, gracefully slipped his paws under himself and lifted his body off of the ground, settling again on his hind legs as he looked at Cid.
"We should go to the two major sources of Materia that we know of. Mount Nibel and the Northern Crater." He said.
"An' go in and kick some ass!" Barret piped up, excitement swimming in his big gruff voice.
Red looked at him and shook his head.
"We will not need to leave the ship."
"How?" Tifa asked.
Red turned to look at her.
"Cloud will be able to sense the presence of other Jenova cells. All we have to do is orbit the two points and if he feels something then we can take action."
Red turned to look at Cid.
"Normally, I would never say such a thing, being an adamant believer in conservation but under these circumstances I would suggest a prolonged bombing campaign on the site in question."
He looked at Cloud.
"It will ensure that the Sephiroth Materia is destroyed."
"This thing equipped with some ordnance?" He asked, looking up at Cid.
The sky pirate lit another cigarette and smiled.
"Sure is. Managed to salvage ten or twelve Mako bombs from the Shinra armory that was on this ship."
Barret and Tifa looked at each other and Barret gave a delighted little chuckle.
"Those puppies will really fuck his day up!"
Red nodded, the mirth lost on him.
The very idea of using a substance derived from Lifestream as a weapon was repulsive to him and was as immoral as desecrating a grave. They had no morals, Shinra, and he was quite glad that they had been defeated. Weapons from the very essence of life?
In Red's mind they were nothing short of...wicked.
However, Mako bombs, being derived from Lifestream, the most incredible source of energy known to man, were the most powerful ordnance available.
"They are, shall we say, suitably powerful for the task at hand." He said.
Vincent sighed and stood up. He turned to look out of the viewing dome and then back at Red. Something shimmered in his big crimson eyes.
"Do we have a reserve course of action should our primary plan fail?" He asked.
Red looked away while he thought.
Cid put the cigarette into his mouth and puffed on it several times before inhaling and banishing a spirit of pollutants into the atmosphere with a loud sigh.
"In that case we'd bomb the shit out of him again, besides, have you ever seen the power of one of these Mako bombs? If it fails then the things must have been fucking dud or something to start with! Trust me Vince, whatever you drop these bitches on will be absolutely fucked!"
Vincent nodded but turned to look at Cloud.
Cloud nodded slowly.
"He's right you know. These weapons are incredibly powerful, they'll have no problem blowing rock up."
Cloud looked at Cid.
"I think the primary plan should work unless something goes really wrong and if it does, we'll just come up with a new plan."
Cid nodded and the two men looked at Vincent.
There was a brief pulse of energy in his eyes as he looked back but eventually he nodded his agreement aswell.
"Settled then. Where to now?" Cid asked.
"Well it makes sense to check this continent first so I think we should head for Mount Nibel."
Cloud nodded and so did Red.
"Makes sense." Barret sighed.
All eyes turned on Vincent and he nodded too.
"Settled then." Cid said, turning back to the master console.
He cracked his fingers and they danced with a graceful purposefulness over the keyboard as he entered the destination into the Drive computer. He pressed a big rectangular button, confirming the destination and reached for the drive throttle.
"Here we go!" He said, pulling the lever back to Force 20.
There was a jerking sensation in the pits of the groups' stomachs as the gigantic engines burst into activity and the huge ship began to move off.
In seconds Cosmo Canyon was disappearing fast behind them leaving Red with the same churning pot of emotion as Cid had felt when Rocket Town fell behind him in the distance.
It was natural for one to miss home, especially when embarking on such a perilous undertaking but it was something that had to be done so Cid and Red would have to live with the heartache for a while.
It was infinitely better than going nowhere and watching those same homes burn under the apocalypse sent by a madman, the very madman they were endevouring now to stop.
Nothing was certain though and homes may yet burn.
Chapter 28: Visions
A gentle easterly breeze blew across the easily rolling sandunes as Elmyra and Marlene walked towards their chosen spot on the beach.
The gentle sound of easy waves breaking on the shore was almost melodious on this most beautiful of days. The great warm golden discus of the sun beamed in the cloudless ocean of the sky as the two walked.
The child was running and playing slightly ahead of Elmyra as she strode casually carrying a picnic basket and a folded towel.
It was only just after eleven in the morning but already the sun was warm enough to coax out the first little traces of perspiration on Elmyra's forehead.
They finally arrived at their chosen spot next to a small wind-smoothed outcrop of black rock; one of the only features on the otherwise plain beach.
Seagulls called and chattered overhead as they nosily spied the picnic basket which was filled with various delicious snacks and foods that Elmyra had purchased from the item shop in Kalm.
She sat down on the towel and placed the basket next to her. Marlene came running up with a delighted little smile on her face.
"Its' such a lovely day!" She chirped.
Elmyra smiled at the child and nodded. v"Yes, it is. What do you want to do first, eat or swim?" She asked.
The child pondered for a moment.
Either option was equally tempting to her but after a long moment, she made her mind up.
"Swim!" She said, her innocent little face shining with excitement.
Elmyra smiled and stood up, removing the sarong she had been wearing leaving only her swimming suit.
"OK, but make sure the Emerald Weapon doesn't get you!" She teased.
Marlene gave Elmyra a funny look and her little face broke into a mischievous smile.
"Please Auntie, that big meanie doesn't scare me!"
Elmyra took the childs' hand as they began to slowly walk towards the sea.
"Oh? And why not? It's his job to scare people and gobble them up!"
The child vigorously shook her head and smiled again.
"He knows that daddy would beat him up if he touched me."
She looked at Elmyra.
"He should be scared of me!"
Elmyra laughed and the two picked up the pace slightly.
Water washed over their toes sending a magical buzz through their bodies. The water was not exactly cold but it would take a little acclimatising to before it could be accused of being warm.
The water around these areas was slightly warmer than the waters elsewhere on the continent as this stretch of coast was in the path of the Midgar Currents, great underwater serpents of warmer water that slithered up from more equatorial seas and warmed the ocean on the Midgar peninsula.
The fact that Kalm Shores was more of a cove, shielded from the open ocean by a protecting arm of land also warmed the climate, sparing this particular stretch of beach from the harsh winds that blasted down from the arctic and chilled the waters beyond the grasp of the landscape.
All in all the beach, although the water was a little frigid was a glorious little suntrap and it was a very good distraction for the child who was almost certainly starting to wonder when her father was coming home.
Elmyra looked at Marlene and Marlene looked back.
"Let's eat first and swim later?" Elmyra asked.
"Too cold jus' now." She sighed.
Elmyra smiled at her little friend.
"You run on ahead and get the food out, OK?"
Marlene smiled and giggled in excitement as she ran off towards the hamper which sat alone, guarding the little shelf of rock in the distance.
Elmyra felt her heart lifting as she watched the child running off towards the hamper.
Aeris had never been that energetic as a child. She had been a quiet, much more thoughtful person even when she was only Marlene's age.
She had never taken things quite as they were, always asked questions about things, what they were, how they worked. She was very much in tune with things, the world and the energies that flow through it.
She was such a lovely caring child and that quality had remained with her throughout her life, right up to the end. It was the very reason that the end came when it did.
Elmyra sighed and she almost felt a tear on her cheek.
The horrible visions had come to her again and they were so terrible now that she now feared sleep.
She was so tired, tired enough to sleep for a hundred days and nights but she was unwilling to close her eyes though lest the evil visions come to her again to torment and to pain her soul and heart.
'No.' She thought.
She struggled to put all her darkness to the back of her mind, turning her face to look up at the sky and allowing the glorious light of the sun to push all the evil thoughts and sights from her mind.
She wanted to be strong for the childs' sake.
She had to be. There would be more than enough time for depression and suffering once Barret came home.
She looked over at the girl as she playfully lifted food out of the basket, placing it daintily on the towel.
She smiled and began to walk over slowly as the sun beat down and a playful
breeze kissed her cheek.
* * * * * *
Cloud's mind raced and sang and danced with only one thought as he sat on the bridge of the Highwind.
Far below the ship, lands raced past as they sped onwards to a distant place and, for Cloud, a destiny that was mapped out for him.
He sighed and lay his head back on the padded headrest of the chair as he waited for the ship to arrive at the mountain. He was not bored this time and he was filled with a sense of guilt laced with dread as the words of Red and Aeris raced through his mind.
None of his comrades with the exception of one seemed to notice the sudden change in Cloud's mood. They didn't register his sudden depressive and deathly silence or the constant look in his eye of impending tears.
Tifa watched him silently from the console behind the one that he was seated at, the sudden swing in his behaviour and attitude was worrying to her.
It was not pining for Aeris, not this time. It was something else, something which she sensed was much worse.
She wished she could see into his mind, see what it was that was plaguing him again.
It didn't seem right to her that so many awful things had happened to Cloud when all he had ever wanted was to help people and to fit in.
When she looked at him, occasionally, she still saw the same anguished child she had come to befriend back in Nibelheim. The same child who had not a soul in the world back then.
He was her closest friend now, in many ways more than a friend. They had come to know each other so well, grown so accustomed to the others' presence even if that presence was not physical that they were far more than friends could be.
In Tifa's mind, she and Cloud were lovers without the love.
To have felt the forces of life again and then to have that ripped from his grasp was intolerable, but by Sephiroth of all things.
It seemed to Cloud that there was something fatally wrong with a world that would allow such terrible irony.
For a brief moment, too brief to pay any real attention to, Cloud almost saw the destruction of such a world as befitting its' cruelty.
His thoughts suddenly shifted to Tifa. Of all the party, his death would be the hardest on her and may deal her a blow from which she may never recover.
Wherever he had been, he had been there for Tifa and vice versa and Cloud knew that to have that net of safety slashed away would hurt her in a way he could only just have the foetal beginnings of understanding of.
Still, he had to be strong. He had to go on. If he was to die then it would be to ensure that she was safe. If that was what lay ahead of him then it was his sacred duty to do all his unseen protecting of her in one huge go.
His rewards were waiting for him in the life beyond and that was the only thing from which Cloud was drawing his strength now.
Aeris was the only thing from which his resolve now flowed.
He sighed aloud.
For Tifa it was the final straw and she sighed too, placing her hand gently on his shoulder and swivelling the seat to make him face her.
His face was passive but his eyes burned with a troubling emotion that drew Tifa into a storm of concern as she tried to smile at him without allowing her worries to leak onto her face.
"What is it Cloud, what's wrong?" She asked.
The troubled emotion mellowed off and the wonderful shining blue of his Mako tinted sapphire eyes reasserted itself. He smiled, albeit rather forcedly and sat up as he looked at Tifa.
"Nothing, really I'm fine." He said.
She frowned and was not convinced by his response.
"Then why have you been so strange today?"
He looked to the floor and shook his head, one of his hands reaching up to straighten a straying spike of blonde hair.
He looked back and Tifa half expected to find his eyes aflame with emotion again but they were not, they remained cool and shining with faint traces of Mako energy.
"I'm just worried about the whole situation. Don't worry, it'll pass soon enough."
'More ironic words.' He thought to himself.
"I know. I'm on edge too, we all are. Don't worry about it."
Tifa smiled. Her smile was like a thousand radiant stars in a peaceful night sky and warmed the fear out of any heart. Cloud felt a smile forming on his lips but it was washed away by a sudden and violent stab of pain in his head, so quick and powerful was the pain that Cloud hissed and pinched his eyes shut.
Cloud's head began to throb hard. The pain began to gently pulse in his temples and he reached a hand up to rub them, hoping that it would kill the growing burn. He sat back in the chair and rubbed his head as Tifa watched him.
She frowned again as she saw the look of discomfort on his face.
"What's wrong Cloud?"
He winced again and his hand fell to his side. He opened his eyes and looked at Tifa but did not answer her question.
"Cloud? What is it?"
Again he did not answer and a strange and distant glaze began icing over in his eyes, the brilliant sapphire dimming visibly.
Tifa's smile melted away to nothing and her deep hazel-brown eyes narrowed as they began to burn intensely with worry.
He wasn't even blinking now, his eyes and expression fixed and dead, devoid of anything resembling consciouness.
Panic began to race through Tifa's blood as she looked at her friend.
"Cloud, Cloud can you hear me? Answer me Cloud, what's wrong?"
The pain was gone now but there was something wrong, his mind and senses were detached and lagging behind his consciousness. Tifa's words were muffled, he could hear them but he was confused and could not understand what she was saying.
He tried to speak but couldn't think how to form the words as whispering and voices began to flood his mind.
Around him, the world began to phase in and out of existence.
He could just barely feel his body lurching forward and hear Tifa's scream.
It echoed around him in the phasing darkness as he began to fall, whispers and a silvery laughter pulsing as the world began to fade and shatter, collapsing into nothing.
The terrified scream echoed without end, gradually fading and getting weaker
eventually being devoured by silence as blackness descended around him.
Cloud opened his eyes and his mind rushed as panic flared. He lurched backwards, a shocked gasp slithering from his mouth as he saw what lay at his feet.
A man, older than Cloud lay dead, his skin charred and his thinning grey hair dishevelled and singed.
His eyes sat as dead beads of glass in his head, the realisation of a burning death fresh in the dry, souless, lifeless orbs of obsidian.
His face was creased in pain and terror and little wisps of smoke and a stench of charred flesh rose from his burned hands, doubtless from where he had tried to shield his face from the flames.
His mouth cracked open, the scream it was uttering vanished now.
Cloud turned away from the corpse. Nausea raged uncontrollably and he wretched a few times as the disgusting smells of burning human flesh assaulted his nostrils.
Smoke stung his eyes forcing blackened soot laden tears to drip down his face as he looked at the flames raging all around him.
'What the hell?' He thought, twirling to try to find out where he was.
Through the flames and the smoke he made out a single shape, the only thing he could recognise in the inferno which raged all around. A water tower.
His heart ached and his soul cried out as he realised what the symbol was, what it represented.
"Nibelheim!" He hissed.
Laughter slithered through the air.
"I see you still recognise the sights and sounds of home then!"
Cloud spun around on his heels as fury began to pulse through him.
Sephiroth's hair waved in the ghostly wind that blew and fanned the flames, his vicious, inhuman emerald eyes piercing the smoke-infected gloom. Behind him the serpents of fire danced in and out of the houses, everything was ablaze with an evil light which glowed and shrouded the robed monster with a cruel aura of depraved firelight.
Anger bubbled up almost uncontrollably inside Cloud as he watched Sephiroth, his twinkling emerald eyes shining with child-like joy at the destruction that raged all around him.
His gaze returned to Cloud , eyes shining wildly with delight.
"Beautiful, isn't it?!"
Anger became rage and Cloud sensed his slim grasp on self-control slipping away like a dying tide as he took a step closer to Sephiroth.
"What am I doing here?!" He asked, his voice hissing like a crazed snake.
"I brought you here."
Cloud cursed, his fists balling up in anger.
"You?! You used the Jenova cells in my body didn't you?!"
Sephiroths' crazed laughter rang over the destruction.
"The power of a God." He hissed.
Cloud felt himself moving, running at the black robed thing that stood before him.
His fist pierced the gloom smashing into Sephiroth with more force than Cloud thought he could have given sending the sneering monstrocity collapsing to the ground with a thud that satisfied Cloud on a very deep level but did little to appease the anger he was battling.
Cloud stood over the crumpled shape, his fist aching and his eyes burning with fury.
Sephiroth looked around, blood slithering from his nostrils and mouth as his eyes flared with burning energy.
"Filthy bastard!" Cloud hissed.
His nemesis sneered and slowly, confidently, rose to his feet, the raging glow in his eyes fading away.
"I sense great fury within you, or, is it ...jealosy?"
Cloud raged and gave serious consideration to hitting him again but decided against it, more for his sake than Sephiroths'.
Was it all to end here? He didn't see the Masamune but that was not evidence enough to warrant provoking this monster further.
Sephiroth laughed again.
"You have seen and felt my power and now, you want it, don't you?"
Cloud could not speak as he heard the words. The hatred and revulsion he was feeling for this thing at the moment was beyond the capacity of mere words to express.
Sephiroth circled him calmly.
"Such great potential trapped by a weak mind..."
Cloud's teeth began to grind as he felt Sephiroths' presence. If he could read Cloud's mind, as he suspected was the case he would be senseing terrible emotion towards him just now. Hatred in the most pure of forms.
"I hate you!" Cloud hissed, the pain of his grinding teeth aching hard now.
Sephiroth completed his orbit and the burning world around them melted away to blackness.
Heat and smoke vanishing leaving Sephiroth as the only thing to be seen in this featureless world.
It bore much resemblence to the darkness world of Clouds' dreams and he was beginning to wonder if this world of nothing was actually a real place. Some evil little corner of the planet that was starved of creation during the birth of the world.
"You have no idea what it is like." Sephiroth hissed, a strange new emotion flooding into his voice.
"Nor do I want to." Cloud hissed.
The robed monster did not seem to hear Cloud or his protests as he continued.
"No pain, no death..."
He stepped closer, eyes lighting with fire again.
"...power. Limitless power."
Cloud backed off, panic replacing fury as the Masamune appeared in Sephiroth's hand, spawning from the fabric of nothing around him.
"A SHINING LIGHT IN THE VOID! A GOD BORN FROM THE ASHES OF A MORTAL!!" He screamed, the sword swinging furiously in his hand.
His gaze fell on Cloud, his mad smile fading away as the great sword fell dejectedly to his side.
"But still you don't want it, do you?" He asked.
Cloud shook his head and sneered, fear for his safety being supressed by his hatred for Sephiroth.
Besides, he felt, in some deep corner of his being that he was in little danger from Sephiroth, for the moment at least.
"Never. It would mean ending up like you." He hissed.
"You would become a God..."
Cloud laughed mockingly.
"You are not a God. You are a pathetic, demented monster, a shadow of a God. A twisted and evil thing loved by none and despised by all. Would I want that for myself? Never."
Sephiroth's face broke into anger and his eyes lit again as he lifted the wicked sword to striking position.
"You are in need of a demonstration I think. You shall witness what I have become and see the true light of my power."
Sephiroth was gone.
Cloud felt his mind beginning to slow off again and the sensation of falling started to swirl once more around him. He closed his eyes and a different darkness, a cold darkness sown together with fear engulfed him as sensations and senses were torn away.
Here, in the black,a voice ripped through his mind.
"You shall go to Midgar. Disobey me and I shall kill one of your companions, the woman I think."
The call echoed, slowly gaining volume and becoming clearer as the last of the haze cleared in Cloud's mind.
He winced and groggily opened his eyes.
The rest of the party were gathered around him, various concerned looks plastered onto their faces.
Cid was smoking and Tifa looked close to tears. Red and Barret were in the background just looking onwards. Vincent was still sitting at his seat but looked just about as concerned as he could be.
Relief flared in the soft brown of Tifa's eyes as she saw Cloud begin to stir and move. She nearly sobbed when she saw him open his eyes.
Cloud groaned and moved uneasily as he realised he had collapsed to the floor and was laid out on the deck.
"What the fuck happened there?" Cid asked, smoking away and flashing Cloud a puzzled look.
"You OK?" Barret added.
"It was Sephiroth again, wasn't it?" He asked.
Cloud nodded, pain flaring in his head from where his skull had impacted with the deck.
"Yes." He hissed.
Tifa's look changed, relief giving way to confusion.
"How?" She asked.
Cloud groaned again as he sat up. Pain smouldered in the back of his head. He must have hit his head pretty hard when he landed.
He winced and looked up at Tifa as he rubbed the back of his head.
"He used the Jenova cells in my body to manipulate me again."
"What did that dirty snake want this time?" He asked.
Cloud shakily rose from the floor to his feet, flexing his muscles a couple of times as he groggily looked around. He disregarded Barrets' question, for the moment at least.
"Cid where are we now?" He asked.
Cid swivelled to the master console and checked a destination readout.
"Just crossing the Nibel Sea now."
Cloud nodded and rubbed his head again.
"Bring us about. Set course for Midgar, full speed."
Cid took another draw on the cigarette and exhaled quietly as he looked at Cloud.
"Why?" He asked.
Cloud shrugged as the pain in his head began to wear off.
"To witness his power or something."
Cid snorted and extinguished the cigarette.
"Ahhh fuck off." He hissed.
Cloud sighed forlornly.
"We have no choice this time Cid, we have to do as he says."
Cloud's gaze fell sadly to Tifa.
"He's going to kill Tifa if we don't comply with his wishes."
All eyes turned to look at Tifa.
Her soft face fell and her gaze iced over with shock as she absorbed the words. Her big brown eyes darted to Cloud and pierced him, the look they contained begging him to tell her it was not true but she saw in the returning stream of saddened sapphire that his words were as solid as stone and as truthful as a comandment from a God.
"I won't let him do that." Cloud said, his statement an open one but giving Tifa a slight island of comfort on which to stand in this churning ocean of shock and uncertainty.
Heads turned fuelled with small rushes of adrenaline as Barret rattled a nearby console with his big fist. He cursed explosively and stood up.
"That fucking dirty son of a bitch!" He growled.
Cid's lighter clicked followed by a rasp of flint meeting metal as he lit another cigarette and sighed, exhaling ghosts as he spoke.
"I am gettin' real tired of these stupid games. Why the fuck does he not come out and fight like a real man? If he's got the power he says he has, why not face us mano a mano and fucking show us?"
"Fuckin' pussy." Cid hissed, turning to face the master console again.
Cloud sighed and sat back heavily in his seat, his sad-eyed stare remaining fixed on Tifa as she stood and digested, silently, what she had been told.
"He was always like that Cid. His battle stategies were all just one big game to him, that's why he was feared so much in the war. People expected one thing and he did the exact opposite."
Cloud sat back and held his head in his hands.
"He loved that, the power he controlled, the fear he resonated. He wiped out whole platoons of Wutai soldiers with a big smile on his face."
Barret stamped his big feet as he wandered around the bridge.
"That guy is a fucking loon!" He said, his voice overflowing with anger as he looked at Tifa.
She was close to tears again.
"And now he is in a position of near-ultimate power." Red sighed.
"Which he is not afraid to turn on the peoples of this world." Vincent added.
"Yeah, well that is not going to happen." Cloud said as he stood up.
He walked over to Tifa and wrapped his arms around her, shielding her in his protective embrace. She sobbed silently into his shoulder but felt the wonderful brush of safety in the arms of her friend.
"I wont let him touch you Tifa, he'll have to go through me first."
She sobbed and pulled a shaky voice together as she looked into the calming pools of blue in Cloud's eyes.
"Thanks Cloud, you've always been there for me..."
The bridge echoed with the muffled sobs.
Cloud pondered on what to do next although he knew there was only one viable course of action open to him. He cursed in his head.
What other choice did he have?
"Cid..." He sighed.
Cid already knew what Cloud was going to say as he swivelled in the seat to face his friend.
He was caught in the riptides of sapphire as Cloud gazed at him, his mournful stare fixed on Cid as the gravity of his decision crushed the dying sparkle from his eyes.
"...set course for Midgar."
The engines roared as Cid took them to maximum velocity, Force 30.
Cloud held Tifa tight as the landscape screamed past underneath the ship, her embrace bitter in the knowledge they shared.
Unheard laughter rippled in Cloud's head and a voice like the hiss of a dying dragon followed in its' wake.
"Good puppet!" It hissed.
"Heed thine masters order!"
Laughter rippled again.
Chapter 29: Shattered glass
Marlene squealed excitedly as wind tore at the delicate spires and towers of her sandcastle, the unseen tentacles of force picking up the delicate golden sand of the structure and redistributing it to the beach.
The child defiantly wet the soft golden particles and cemented them back on, leaving the wind to try again upon its' next gust to reduced the proud castle to ruins.
Elmyra smiled as she watched the girl at play, memories of her own daughter dancing through her head.
It was mid-afternoon now and the climate was very warm, lulling the older woman into a drowsy state as she watched the hazy dunes flow and shed particles of golden angel-dust in the soft puffs of wind that intermittently touched her.
She turned again to look at the city in the distance and again she saw the tiny little speck orbiting it far above.
What could it be? It had been there for well over 2 hours now.
Cloud's words came to her and she shuddered even in the warmth of the afternoon sun as the chiling substance of the conversation wrapped her in a cloak of ice. Surely if that orbiting shape meant harm to the city, it would have done something by now?
Was it harmful or was it a protector of some sort?
'The Highwind?' She thought.
She sighed as she looked back at the speck in the skies.
'Is that you Cloud?' She wondered.
Either way, nothing had happened. Yet.
There was little point in sitting like a zombie watching something so far away that she couldn't even tell what it was, besides, they were here to have fun.
She smiled at the girl again as one of the proud steeples of sand on her castle secumbed to the wind and finally collapsed. Marlene frowned angrily and levelled the structure with her spade.
"Stupid sand." She said.
Elmyra gave a faint chuckle.
"The water should be warmer by now, want to try swimming again?"
The girl giggled and nodded vigorously.
Elmyra smiled and stood up, taking the girl by the hand as the two walked across the warm sands to the gently lapping ocean.
Elmyra looked over towards the city again, at the circling vulture above it.
'What are you doing up there Cloud?'
Wind puffed again as the two women walked casually.
They had been circling the gleaming punch bowl of Midgar for hours now and the party were beginning to get really really bored.
What else could they do though? If they did leave, they risked incurring the wrath of Sephiroth and that carried far too high a price to make the risk worthwhile.
Cid clicked a series of buttons as he engaged the autopilot and stepped away from the console.
He was alone on the bridge, the rest of the party had retreated to a tiny storage room down the corridor that Cid had transformed into a kind of lounge like room where passengers could relax during their journey.
Cid looked out of the viewing dome, the great glass spires of the buildings below reaching up as it to slit the belly of the airship and disembowel it.
He lit a cigarette, inhaling silently, savouring the smokey flurries for a moment and then exhaled with an irritated blast as he went to the doors and hit the button that sat and flashed on the wall.
The huge doors slid open and Cid left the bridge, his big boots clumping on the finely wrought steel of the deck as he walked down the service corridor to the tiny room. He hit another button on the wall and the hatch popped open with a hiss of compressed air.
Heads turned as he entered the and sat down heavily in one of the seats. The hatch hissed shut behind him.
It was a small room and sparsely decorated.
A beat up old coffee table sat in the centre of the room surrounded by six padded chairs.
It was not the most tastefully decorated room ever seen and it sure wouldn't win any awards but it was ample for the purpose it was created for which was distracting attention from the monotony of endlessly circling a city where nothing seemed to be happening.
Cid lay back in the seat and sighed, flurries of used smoke hitching a lift on the exasperated sigh that flowed like wind from his mouth.
Cloud Barret and Tifa had found a deck of playing cards and were playing some game, probably Blackjack from what Cid could tell but he wasn't really bothered. He hated cards.
Cloud spoke without diverting his gaze from the game at hand, his voice sparkling with agitated boredom and a deep vein of frustration.
"Still nothing?" He asked.
Cid sat forward and took a long draw on his cigarette, flicking ash from the burning tip and exhaling with another loud sigh as he rubbed his forehead with his gloved hand.
"Fuck all." He said, his voice drawn out and stretched with boredom.
Barret sat back and threw his cards onto the table as he sighed explosively. Barret was not one for masking his emotions and it was obvious to all that he was really pissed off.
"That fucking little turd has to be cookin' somethin' up and we have to wait here like morons to find out what it is." He growled.
Cid chewed on his cigarette and Tifa gave a forlorn little sigh as she laid her cards down and sat back.
She was certainly not in the mood to play games and the gravity of her immediate situation drew her pretty face into a contorted still-life of powerless terror.
Cid looked over at Cloud, who was gathering the cards and shuffling them nervously.
Cloud had no intention of dealing another round, he just felt he needed to do something to prevent the rabid hydra of anger-laced lethargy from swallowing him up.
"What exactly did loony-tunes say to you Cloud?" Cid asked.
Cloud's gaze flashed to Cid and then back to the cards. He sighed as he thought.
"He said we had to come here to witness the power of god, or something to that effect."
Cid drew on the cigarette again and chuckled humourlessly as he stood up and circled the tiny room, running a hand through his untamed crop of dirty-blonde hair as he shuffled uneasily.
"He really has gone off the fucking deep end." He sighed.
Cloud sighed also as he felt the hydra bite him.
He put the cards back into their packet and dropped it with a thud on the table, stirring Red who was lying out on the floor.
He lay back in his seat and looked at Cid.
"I have a bad feeling about this. Either way we are in trouble, we leave and he kills Tifa or we stay and see his power."
"Yeah..." Barret growled.
"An' I doubt it is the power to grant us eternal happiness either, fuckin' loony..." He continued, eddies of anger rippling like black salmon through the stream of his voice.
Cid collapsed back into the seat, holding his head in his hands and puffing philosophically on his cigarette as he thought.
Cloud was right.
Wherever Sephiroth showed up, trouble followed in his wake like some evil shadow serpenting its' way across the land at the heel of its' master.
Cloud was too right, Cid thought.
'Either way we're fucked...'
Vincent sat silently in his seat, the concepts of boredom and foreboding having no effect on him as they washed across his mind like showers of rain across a mountain.
He was however tuned into the substance of the conversation and to mistake his placid appearance for indifference on his part would be a mistake.
"I believe Sephiroth has decieved us." He said, the strange silk of his voice burning with only a very limited emotional capacity.
His comments drew the attention of Red, who had been fighting his own battle against the hydra at Vincent's feet.
He lifted his canine-like head to look at his friend, his disagreement with Vincent's statement burning in his eye.
"I do not believe he has. I agree with Barret and Cloud that it is more likely he is plotting something."
Barret slammed his fist off of the table, startling Red who had not seen it coming.
"But what?! I'm sick of this fucking mind-games shit!!" He shouted. "Why does that son of a bitch not come out here and fight like a real man instead of sneakin' around and threatenin' us?! Why all this cloak and dagger crap?!"
Cid placed the cigarette on the deck and extinguised it with his foot.
He blew smokey tempests as he looked at Barret and Cloud.
"He keeps carping on about the power he has, why has he not used it yet?"
Cid stood up again and sneered, adressing the ether around the party.
"Come out here you fucker, I'll show you power!" Cid taunted.
Laughter rippled from nowhere and the party were instantly called back to their senses, the hydra banished, as the voice followed in the wake of the crazed outburst sending an electric shock down the spines of the party.
Emotion raged and the group came to their feet in unison bringing weapons to the ready.
"Sephiroth!" Cloud hissed.
Fury raged inside Barret. His arm flailed out and his enormous fist rattled a nearby bulkhead as he cocked his gun arm.
Despite his best efforts, the bulkhead remained unscathed and he looked around, his eyes flaring with anger as he did so.
"Where are you you son of a bitch?!!"
"Wallace...." Sephiroth hissed.
If they could have seen his face, he would have been sneering.
"....eloquent as ever."
Cloud looked around edgily, his grip on the Ultima Weapon remaining tight. Not only was Tifa in trouble here but so was he.
Each and every encounter with Sephiroth bringing the realisation of Red's prophecy tantalisingly closer; a scorpion of uncertainty that sat in striking pose, ready to lash out with its' sting of death.
"What do you want Sephiroth? Stop playing these stupid games with us."
Laughter ebbed and recinded once more but still he remained outwith sight.
"What is it Cloud? Do you not like games?" He asked.
Cloud did not reply.
Laughter, tinted with madness and chorused by other sounds rumbled like thunder once more.
"I enjoy games, I especially relished that game we played in the City of the Ancients, didn't you Cloud?"
Cloud felt his fists ball up with rage. Murderous fury pulsed in his veins as the party looked on in silence.
"YOU BASTARD!!" He roared.
Sephiroth laughed again.
"But now it is time for another game and it is my move."
Cid's patience snapped and he leapt to his feet. He pulled the shotgun from its' makeshift holster at his side and swung it, his eyes aflame with fury.
"Come out here you chicken-shit, I'll show you a fucking..."
"BE SILENT HIGHWIND!!!"
The vicious ferocity of the roar knocked Cid aback, melting the fury and replacing it with a feeling bordering almost on fear. Cid fell silent and looked around nervously.
Sephiroth's demenour was changed now, his strange happiness only moments before was burning and wrapped in tentacles of mindless rage and the unreined potential for limitless violence.
"I CALLED YOU HERE TO BEAR WITNESS TO MY POWER AND NOW YOU SHALL SEE IT!!"
Heads turned edgily as silence descended.
Weapons clicked as they shifted in hands. There was nothing. No laughter, no voice.
Red sighed as a sudden and violent pain began to rage in his head. His low growl began to draw the attention of the others and they turned their heads to look at him.
He pinched his eye shut and bowed his head, growling viciously as they pain began to intensify.
Tifa's eyes darted to him and she fell to her knees, placing a hand gingerly on his shoulder as he began to shake from the pain.
"Red, what's wrong? What is it?"
Red hissed, his voice was shrivelled with agony as he bowed his head even further.
"A tremendous power is building..." He hissed.
"I can sense it."
Eyes danced around the room settling on a red beacon light that was mounted on the wall. It showered the tiny room with a red light as a klaxon began to scream.
Cid glared at the light and he leapt to his feet as another ship-wide alert began to rumble.
"Fuck!!" He hissed as he raced for the door.
Cloud, Barret and Vincent jumped to their feet and ran after Cid, each asking the other what was going on.
Tifa could not bring herself to leave Red and she remained huddled on the floor next him as he continued to growl from the pain of whatever he was sensing.
Truly, its' power must have been beyond all comprehension as Red sat and battled
to suppress the pain that its' formation now caused him.
Cloud leaned over the console and watched as readouts and numbers flashed onto the screens.
"What is it Cid?" He asked, the alarm in his voice startling even him.
Cid stared at Cloud, the cigarette clenched in his teeth, eyes flaring with panic.
"The exterior of the ship is heating up!"
Cloud stared at the console, a tiny guage confirming Cid's statement.
He flashed his gaze back to Cid.
"How?" He asked.
"I don't fucking know!" Cid shouted.
A terrified roar of agony broke the attention of the men, heads turning in unison as it reverberated down the corridors of the ship, Red's voice following in its' wake. It was not the usual voice of their companion, it was as if terror itself was shouting from within his body.
"GET US OUT OF HERE CID, QUICKLY!"
Cid gazed back at the console, his mouth gaping with shock and his eyes flaring as he saw the readout on the temperature guage.
He did not argue. He did not reply or even so much as warn the party to brace themselves as he reached for the throttle lever and pushed it to Force 30. The three standing men were knocked to the floor by invisible fists of pressure as the engines roared furiously and pulled the huge ship into motion.
Cid's gaze out of the dome was unbreakable as the Highwind raced away from the city.
They had to risk leaving now or they would all die.
Whatever was happening was abviously tremendously powerful, the heat it was radiating enough to send warning lights into blizzards of panic, disrupting the usually cool logic of machines.
Cloud slowly got up rubbing his elbow and wincing. Barret sat on the floor for a moment before pulling himself to his feet.
Vincent was up in one swift motion, eyes shimmering with energy.
"What just happened?" Cloud asked, rubbing away the burning coals of pain that singed at his elbow.
Cid chewed on his cigarette but did not turn his head.
"I told you, I don't know. The ship was heating up but I don't know how."
His eyes flitted gracefully between a bank of screens and pixellised information on the console.
"Whatever was doing it must have stopped now, temperature is returning to normal." He announced.
He gently eased off of the drive throttle, dropping twenty forces to Force 10 and bringing the ship about to take it back to Midgar, the very real threat against Tifa even worrying Cid too much for him to fake indifference.
In the brief few moments of speed, they had covered almost 20 miles and Cid's gaze finally left the instrumentation as he looked out of the dome in order to navigate the ship.
His eyes flickered in slow motion to the dome and there was a brief moment of pain as his stomach wrenched and contracted into a tight ball of steel in his chest.
Time raced past him, leaving him transfixed like an insect trapped in amber in its' wake; paralysed in an ageless limbo between worlds.
His body failed to respond to the commands of his brain and he sat unable to move as the rivers of time dried up around him.
Free now of the despotic commands of his brain, Cid's mouth gaped open and the cigarette tumbled and fell for many long centuries, finally impacting with the dull steel of the deck and exploding slothfully into a shower of sparks.
Conscious thought dissolved, slipped away and was consumed by a flood of primal instinct and conflicting emotional whirlpools as Cid gazed as if in a concussion out of the dome.
A voice, strange and shocked pierced through this strange and injured world in which Cid was trapped, warped and strange he could just hear and understand the words.
"Oh my god..."
Mind and thoughts and feelings rushed and blew apart like flurries of snow in a frozen nightmare as Cid raced back to his senses, the concussed haze lifting like ocean fog and body falling back under the sway of the mind as feeling returned.
He slammed the throttle to 0 and brought the ship to a full stop, almost knocking his companions to the floor again.
Displaced still from the normal flow of time, Cid looked over at Cloud who had steadied himself and was eagerly studying the arrays of instrumentaion along with Barret and Vincent.
"Cloud..." He hissed, his hand stretching out as he pointed out of the dome towards the city in the distance, his arm shaking uncontrollably.
Cloud flashed Cid a brief look and something flashed in his eyes as he followed the line of Cid's arm out of the dome.
Just like what happened with Cid, the oceans of hours and minutes and seconds evaporated away as time dried up.
Unlike with Cid,Cloud managed a glimmer of recovery faster than his comrade and his shaking hand reached out druggedly and touched Barret, diverting him from the console and basking him also in this horrible warped and slowed-down world. Being unclouded with delusions of emotion, Vincent recovered much faster than the rest of the party.
His eyes flared with energy and his voice slithered down the corridors of the ship as he called for the rest of the group to come to the bridge.
"Tifa, Red, please come quickly."
The two were on the bridge before the echo of the words had even faded. Each felt the same searing wave of shock and emotion that the others had felt as they looked out of the dome.
Profound sadness tore into Red's eye and he sat down on the deck and bowed his head.
Tifa raised her hands to her face and gasped as tears welled up and began to pour down her cheeks as she stepped a little closer to the dome, unable to process what she was seeing.
Cloud collapsed to the deck with a loud thud, unable to support the incredible weight of both body and emotion as he watched the terrible events unfolding many miles away. Tears rolled down his face as he stared out in horrified disbelief. Tears flowed uncontrollably down Barret's face as he felt the fullest of implications of what he was seeing. Tremendous shockwaves of emotion smashed into him, bowling him back and crashing into his mind like runaway locomotives.
Far across the plains, the city shined and gleamed with flurries of energy waves. An incessant and wicked string of flames like glowing phantoms raced, screaming through the streets ripping at the buildings as a gigantic orb of blinding green energy began to pulse and grow above the buildings.
Towers and proud structures began to groan and crumble to their concrete knees as an ungodly heat and ripples of fire-laced energy lashed at them, licking them like venomous tongues from demented dragons.
Masonry and smaller buildings began to fall, exploding into clouds of concrete dust and burning cinders of flame.
Hundreds of voices screamed in unison, chorused with the sound of buildings shattering.
Molten glass from the gigantic spires rained down as energy ate both concrete and flesh alike.
Finally, mercifully, the unbearable crescendo of destruction and tortured, agonised screaming were overshadowed by the deafening roar and blinding flash as the gigantic spell was finally cast on the crumbling ruin of the city.
None of those assembled on the bridge could bring themselves to avert their gaze as the blinding flash shined out.
Waves of immesurable power raced forth from the star of destruction levelling everything in their path.
The agonised screams were silenced as the flesh of hundreds was stripped from bones by the unstoppable waves of the near-nuclear blast.
There was another flash of light as the mushroom cloud followed by its' horsemen of superheated gas and fallout raced out from the epicentre of the blast and galloped towards the Highwind, the ship dwarfed by the goliath scale of the shock wave.
Cid sat and watched the tidal waves of fire and energy canting towards the ship but his mind and body were poisoned and paralysed by shock and refused to budge, mind crystallising into lethargy and refusing to work. Fire pulsed briefly in Vincent's eyes and his steel clawed hand reached over for the throttle.
He pulled hard and there was a bone-snapping thud as the engines roared into life and reversed away.
The wave, as though laughing at the effort of the ship to escape seemed to gain momentum.
A thousand sets of hungry teeth, each wanting to touch the airship and feast on it, ripping it apart with teeth of fire formed and gnashed fanatically in the wave.
Vincent's eyes flashed again as he put the engines into maximum reverse speed, Negative 25.
There was a roar of angry mechanics and a warning light lit on the console.
'DANGER: DRIVE REACTION REACHING MAXIMUM SAFE TEMPERATURE'
The wave of energy leapt, soared, flew, eating the distance between itself and the Highwind as though the efforts of the ship to escape were nothing. The engines screamed in agony as they were pushed to the very limit of their ability, the wave sensing this sudden weakening of its' quarry raced again, trying desperately to sustain itself by reaching out with burning to fingers to grab the ship and feed on it.
Vincent disregarded the warning.
Ahead of the ship, the first signs of the wave faltering began to show as the throngs of screaming mouths and salivating teeth of fire began to loose their power, making one last gnashing screaming effort to reach the ship.
Their sustenance was not going to come and, with all starved things, the proud wave of light began to wither and die off.
Energy glared and explosions roared as the wave began to disspiate and die.
Nobody on the bridge moved. No-one could speak.
They had all seen the wave and the violence of the destruction it had been born from.
Save Vincent, nobody on the bridge could muster the strength to move as the crushing sounds of Tifa sobbing in her shocked and muffled world became the most dominant noise over the dying screaming of the energy wave.
Had Vincent been susceptible to those same throes of emotional destruction that the others were in the grip of right now, the Highwind would have been destroyed and the quest would have met its' end in the raging maw of the nuclear blast.
At last, the final break-up of the shockwaves took hold and the burning wraiths of fire fell to their knees and collapsed, bathing the surrounding areas of what was once the city in a burning ring of flames, the agonised screaming of their deaths ringing out over the haunted plains.
Vincent, his eyes poisoned with saddened auras reached his hand over to the throttle and reduced the engines slowly, bringing the massive body of the Highwind to a stop as the warning flashed again on the console, the engines breathing a sigh of relief as their punishment was halted.
They had escaped. Just.
He turned slowly to look at the party.
Not a thing was moving on the bridge.
Cloud lay sprawled on the deck, his gaze piercing the ceiling with their shock-glazed saucer eyes.
Vincent watched him intently, tears fell from the limp sapphire of his eyes and splattered onto the deck but he did not make a sound, nor could he find within his body the strength to move.
What was he thinking? Vincent wondered to himself as he watched the shifting sands of horror and agonised amazement wash over the face of the young warrior, dimming the radiant blue flames of sapphire in his eyes and replacing them with the smouldering embers of a profound and agonising emotion.
A heavy thud distracted Vincent from his study of Cloud and he turned to find the source of the insultingly confident noise.
Barrets' legs gave way and he collapsed onto the mournful steel of the deck, tears, rung from his soul by the grey and dying fingers of the worst of all pains poured from his eyes.
The proud figure was no more, his confidence and massively built demenour crumbling and dissolving in the acid of what he was seeing as he gave way further and collapsed fully onto the mortuary slab of the deck, curling his tortured body and mutilated soul up into a foetal position as he fought the loosing battle against the quicksand of anguish into which he was sinking. A place of black and ghosts from which there could be no hope of ever escaping.
"....Marlene...." He sobbed.
His eyes squeezed shut, his voice was the embodiment of grief itself as he quivered like a demented jellyfish on the deck.
Waves of anguished guilt washed over him in waves of burning fire, stripping the flesh of emotions from him and leaving only the core of bone; the most awful of things, the most awful of realisations; one that only a parent can ever have the misfortune to suffer.
The knowledge that one of the screams in that burning cacophony of pain was his daughters'.
"Oh god, please no...."
His words repeated over and over again as he lay in his protective nautilus-shell curl.
Tifa watched him for a long moment and then turned from the group. In seconds the sounds of her crying rang like funeral calls in the ears of those assembled in this new and terrible world.
"Those people..." She wailed.
"All those poor people..."
Red bowed his head, a soft and bitter tear falling from his eye.
"Ultima..." He hissed.
"Such terrible power..."
Vincent watched silently, this play of emotion. He studied the characters carefully- guilt, sorrow, grief, empathy, hatred and worse of all helplessness. He watched as each took the stage and played their part but he could not understand them, could not grasp the depth of their meanings instead choosing to remain silent.
It would not be appropriate in his mind at least to participate in this most grim conversation at this moment when his knowledge of the required feelings was pitifully lacking.
Vincent sat down and fell to silence as he contemplated, without the slurry of emotion, the events he had just witnessed and partaken in.
The party owed him their lives but he had no intention of reminding them of the fact.
Cid was silent. Not even the sounds of a cigarette being smoked pierced the air which was thick with the tortured sound of sobbing.
He looked out onto the plains, not one sound emanating from his usually boisterous mouth as he looked onto the ruins, his gaze not broken by so much as a blink.
Laughter slithered through the air followed by the serpentine whisper of a delight-laced madness.
"And such is the power of a God."
He broke down, the tears flowing outwith his ability to control them once more as the crazed laughter and the screams of all those voices, all those people burning in the flames of Ultima writhed and coiled in his mind.
He lay out flat on the deck, the cold of the steel kissing his skin and he wept, grief overflowing his soul and submerging him once again in that black sea of anguish and hatred as he agonised over the dreadful things he had witnessed.
"Why couldn't I stop him?!" He wailed, his voice damaged and broken by the force of his guilt.
He closed his eyes and cried pathetically.
Few things swirled in his head now, save three small words, familiar words, words he had uttered before.
Pain, almost physical in its' ferocity raged inside his head as he realised that they had meaning to him once more.
Slowly, his eyes opened, the tears flowed and he gazed at the ceiling as he uttered them.
"I have failed..."