Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 19

Interludes & Explanations

By Damodred

Cid admired the way the rear stabilizer was shorn off neatly, close to the fuselage. He figured a couple more inches closer to the edge of the portal and they would've lost the entire tail of the plane. He sent Rude back to Costa del Sol for more spare parts; some of those bums should be good for some plane components. For now he could only sit here, content in the knowledge that he had screwed up royally. He underestimated the enemy's resourcefulness, and was paying for it with this lengthy delay. He shrugged; it still gave him a chance to fiddle with the Bronco, and once it was fixed, they could catch up with AVALANCHE in a matter of hours. He finally gave in and sent for Tseng; he couldn't stand Elena's guilt-laden silence and meaningful looks. Now at least he had those two out of his hair, and he could tinker in peace. He lit another cigarette and walked towards the front of the plane. That engine...he couldn't believe how long it stayed frozen. Whoever the frosty broad was, she did a good job on it. Almost as thorough as Sher...he dismissed that line of thought, turning back to the engine itself. He hoped he could get it back in working order, but he'd have to break the whole thing down and re-lubricate it. He grinned; sounded like fun. Taking a deep drag on his cigarette, he got to work, soon forgetting Elena, Tseng, AVALANCHE and even ShinRa.

Tseng sat on top of the toppled reactor, his hair waving gently in the breeze. He took another drag on his cigarette. He was staring into the distance, glancing occasionally at Elena out of the corner of his eye. She was uncharacteristically silent, sitting a little below him and leaning on his leg. He cleared his throat, unsure of what he wanted to say. She turned, facing him and smiled, her short hair fluttering in front of her face. He could only stare, for in that moment that eternal twist in her mouth straightened out, making her more than pretty. She blushed lightly under his gaze, and opened her mouth to say something. He put his finger on his lips, shaking his head. He stood, pulling her up as well. They made their way down hand-in-hand, heading for one of the abandoned barracks which used to house ShinRa troops. Tseng quietly closed the door behind them.

Several days out of Gongaga, the gentle hills slowly gave way to flatlands, barren and rocky. They could see strange mountains in the distance, short and flattened at the top. Tifa estimated they would get to them sometime the next day, and maybe camp out a bit into them, if they proved to be hospitable. Otherwise, they'd be better off pushing through to Cosmo Canyon. When asked, Yuffie said that the mountains were home to a score of unpleasant animals, but they rarely appeared, preferring solitude. When questioned further, she admitted she'd never actually been there, but heard stories about the area around Cosmo Canyon. Most people who traveled there were interested in studying, not fighting and their success in reaching it showed that it must not be too difficult. "In fact, my father studied there!" she exclaimed triumphantly. Tifa asked, smirking, "Yes, but isn't your father a master ninja?" Yuffie's face fell, "Oh...oh yeah. Bummer." Tifa lapsed into helpless laughter, ignoring Yuffie's heated glare. The ninja fell back into the seat, crossed her arms and sulked. After a while Tifa calmed down enough to ask, innocently, "So, what did you think of Zack leaving?" "Nothing!" snapped the young ninja and turned away, towards the window. Tifa said softly, "Of course," and concentrated on driving.

"Reno, use the rifle! Shoot between the eyes, but don't look at them!" Sephiroth's shout faded as he somersaulted off the truck and blurred into the darkness ahead. Tifa stepped on the brakes firmly, but gradually so not to throw Aerith off. She cursed inwardly; did the man think he was an army unto himself? They'd been attacked repeatedly on the trip, the first time on the evening of the day they left, and most recently, earlier this day. Every time, Sephiroth was first into the fray, laying about with his Masamune. He disdained the use of Materia, preferring the direct physical conflict over distant, clean magic. She shook her head, wondering how he managed to stay unbloodied throughout the fight. She had to admit, they would be much worse off if not for his battle-frenzy. Between him and Aerith's long-range attacks, there was precious little for her to do. Yuffie covered the back, frequently using her shuriken to dismember the unlucky creature sneaking up behind them, and Reno had his high-velocity rifle, taking down any leftovers. She felt like a damn chauffeur! The exception was that one time fording the river. They were all constrained by being in the middle of the river when the attack came. The truck was heavy enough not to be carried away by the current, but a human couldn't keep his footing on the slippery rocks. Reno couldn't use his rifle because the things moved too fast, gliding through the air easily and clawing at anything moving below them. Tifa and Aerith leapt out on top of the truck and blasted the raptors with Fire and Ice with pinpoint accuracy. The attack was quickly over, the charred or stiff bodies of the deadly birds swept away quickly by the river. Tifa smiled, remembering the thrill of using the magic so well. She'd been practicing. She turned her thoughts to the present, aware of trouble.

As the truck stopped, she perceived a startling scene. A decapitated creature lay on the ground, as motionless as Sephiroth. His sword was raised high, his arms trembling with the effort of resisting the gaze of a second creature, directly in front of him. The two seemed locked in a contest of wills, but the animal seemed to be winning. "Basilisk!" hissed Aerith, coming up by the cab of the truck. Yuffie jumped out the other side, frowning at the creature, her hands twitching on her shuriken. She started, as she heard Reno climb up to the top of the truck, to get a better shot. She watched as he set up his rifle and looked into the scope, muttering, "How am I supposed to shoot it without looking at it's..." Then he stopped. Aerith glanced up at him, muttered, "He looked," and leapt up to the top of the truck, her robes fluttering around her. Yuffie narrowed her eyes, reached back, and flung the shuriken to the right of the creature. The weapon screamed through the air, narrowly missing Sephiroth as its flight path curved, slicing through the creature's neck without slowing. Yuffie caught it on the return path, the weapon thudding into her hand. The basilisk's head slid to the ground, the stump of its neck erupting with thick, black blood. "...eyes," finished Reno, and blinked. "Uh, what happened?" he asked, dazed. Aerith gave him his rifle back, now no longer necessary and smiled sweetly, "Nothing much. We're done now." Grumbling, Reno snatched the gun back and descended onto the ground as Sephiroth slowly walked back, sheathing his sword. "Well done, ninja," he said softly as he walked by Yuffie and headed for his usual spot on top of the truck. Yuffie preened briefly, hopping back into the cab. "I wonder why all these monsters are showing up directly in our path," Tifa wondered out loud, putting the truck in gear. Yuffie thought about it briefly, and suggested, "Truck noise bugs them, so they come out?" Tifa shook her head, slowly, "Possible, but I don't think so. It doesn't carry that far. Rather, I think they're being driven out by someone. Or something," she finished quietly, accelerating. Yuffie's head bobbed in agreement, "That was my other guess," she said quickly. Tifa threw her an amused look, which the small ninja met unflinchingly. The taller woman turned her attention back to the road, smiling a little.

They made camp at the foot of the mountains, on the barren soil. Tifa sat close to the fire, half-listening to Reno's complaints about ShinRa's army rations. She tuned him out, stretching on the ground and closing her eyes. She wanted to see if she could attain that same sense of peace and wonder that she did in the forest, in Gongaga. This was hostile terrain and very little grew here, but it was still a part of the Planet. She slowly became aware of herself, of her own body. She could feel the blood rushing through her veins, the air moving through her lungs. Then those sensations became a background to the others; a dully glowing presence which was probably Reno; a small, skittish flame that had to be Yuffie; a warm, comforting glow with a core of steel - probably Aerith; and a burning, searing flame surrounded by a thick wall of ice that could only be Sephiroth. She had glimpsed his volatile nature before, in battle, but this was beyond her imaginings. She gasped involuntarily as the presences retreated into the distance, as her sense of self grew larger, encompassing everything around her. She could feel more, see more and it was too much, she couldn't comprehend the vastness! She fought to break away, to reduce the contact, but her physical body would not respond. She seemed to have a hard time finding herself as she became one with the other voices. Then she was flying away, back to her body as a calm voice said, "No. It is not yet your time." She sat up, gasping for breath as her senses dwindled down to normal range. She could still see afterimages flashing behind her eyes, a vast network of life, interwoven. Sitting beside her, supporting her and dabbing the blood away from her nose, Aerith said calmly, "Too much of anything can kill you. Especially when it's something as powerful as the Planet." Tifa said, still trembling, "I could see it...I could see it ALL." Her voice was a mixture of awe and terror. Aerith nodded, "You almost didn't come back." Tifa's eyes refocused on Aerith's face, calming a little, "My teacher, Zangan, never told me that something like this could happen. I don't believe he himself attained this...this...whatever it was," she finished weakly. Aerith sat back, after making sure Tifa could support herself.

"You tried to enter the LifeStream, by communing with the Planet and subsuming yourself, your essence in its will. It is infinitely more powerful, but not evil. Neither is it good. It simply is the Planet." Tifa shot her a blank look. Aerith sighed, "It is impartial and just, and does what must be done in order to maintain all life. When you tap into it like you did, you can gain enormous power, but might lose control. With time, you will learn to harness and use it wisely. For now, don't try to reach too far, because you will overextend yourself and drown in the LifeStream." Tifa nodded, a little apprehensive. Aerith yawned prettily, getting up, "I'll tell you more tomorrow if you wish, but now I must retire." Tifa nodded, stretching out again and eventually falling into a deep, restful sleep.

They arrived at Cosmo Canyone right before noon the next day. Reno grumbled about being awakened early, but upon realizing that he wouldn't be called upon to drive, piled happily in the back and soon dropped off to sleep again. Aerith held off on teaching Tifa more about the Planet, insisting that they wait until Cosmo Canyon. She believed there would be researchers there that might know the technical side more, since she always relied on instinct when communing with the Planet. They disembarked at the base of the stone steps, looking up. The habitat was quite impressive, having been hewn out of a sheer mountain wall. Existing caves were augmented with new ones, cut out from the rock, and wooden structures attached to the walls served as additional houses. They could see people moving around on ladders, ducking into and out of cave entrances, going about their business. The structure was topped with an observatory, the long pipe of the telescope pointing into the heavens. It was dark up there now, but a large fire played merrily in front of the habitat, in what obviously served as a town square. Several people were sitting around it now, apparently at ease, discussing the day's events. The group started up the stairs.

They were met at the top of the stairs by one of the village Elders of the Council, what passed for a ruling body here. After a ritual greeting, they were allowed inside, and immediately split up. Tifa and Yuffie headed for the weapons store after hearing that many students of weaponry sold their projects there. Reno began his search for something to drink, while Aerith and Sephiroth headed for the observatory. Aerith yelled to them to come up after they were done, and rushed off at high speed. She was obviously very intent on finding something out.

An hour later, they reconvened at the observatory upstairs. Even Reno showed up, much to everyone's surprise. Tifa and Yuffie bought new bracelets for themselves, and Yuffie was sporting a new shuriken. It was quite a beautiful piece, obviously created with aesthetics and power in mind. It was two straight, double-edged blades joined in the middle with a hilt. Each blade was about the length of a short sword, and razor sharp. It could be used as a short range weapon, staff-like, or thrown at the enemy, with devastating results. It looked entirely too large, being almost Yuffie's height, but she handled it with ease. She also changed clothes, shedding her shorts and sweater for a pale beige ninja outfit, a pair of simple loose pants and shirt, tied at the waist with a belt in a complicated knot. It was more appropriate here in the desert, with its cold nights and arid, scorching days. They had all eaten, courtesy of the Elders when they found out that Aerith was an Ancient. Now they were sitting in of the Elder's rooms, listening to his explanations about the workings of the Planet. Tifa found herself entranced as the Elder explained the workings of the Planet, as she was eager to find out what her recent experiences were all about. The Elder talked about the way all life on the Planet is interwoven, holding the Planet together and protecting it from harm. If one of the components of this chain was to break, then great harm could befall all of Creation. As an example, he continued, if one was to exterminate the dragons, then the lesser creatures the dragons preyed on would breed out of control. That in turn would decrease the lesser creatures' living space and food supply, causing them to expand their holdings. Eventually they would surpass all other lifeforms, and begin to turn on each other. If that happened, the Planet would begin to wither away and die, unsustained by the variety and abundance of life previously present. He then said something else, which caused Tifa to stir, uneasily.

"Man is now becoming a 'lesser creature'. We are killing off a lot of the other life forms, and draining the energy out of the Planet with Mako reactors." Tifa knew this from Zangan, which was her original reason for forming AVALANCHE, but she did not realize just how serious it was. "You mean, that if the reactors continue working...." she broke off. The Elder finished grimly, "Yes. The Planet will die and we all with it. Just look at Midgar today. Nothing grows there anymore, and even the sun shuns it." Tifa remembered the eternal gloom Midgar was shrouded in. She always thought it was the pollution from the badly processed mako energy, but it seemed that even the Planet was turning its back on Midgar. She shuddered briefly, as Aerith asked, "I would ask something of you, Honored Elder." He turned to her, "If it is within my power to grant you, Revered Ancient, then I shall do so." She nodded, "I know some of your scientists are constantly scanning the Planet for wounds. Midgar is, of course, the biggest, but can you tell me about some of the others that you may have found." The Elder frowned, searching his memory. He shook his head, and stepped over to his desk, riffling through the reports lying on it. He muttered to himself as he searched, and finally exclaimed, "Found it. This is a report from one of my colleagues specializing in Planet-wide scan. Let's see..." he trailed off, flipping pages. He looked up and said, "To sum up: everywhere there exists, or existed, a Mako reactor. This includes Midgar, Junon, Fort Condor, North Corel, Gongaga and Nibelheim. Also, recently, the scarred area around North Crater has surged up, but we attribute it to regular outbursts, like in Mideel, except rarer." "No." Aerith stood, decisively, "I don't believe so." Everyone looked at her, puzzled by her certainty. She looked at Tifa steadily, "I can't tell you yet who or why, but I believe someone has taken up residence there, recently." Tifa stood, apprehensive, "You mean whoever's controlling Cloud...." "Yes," Aerith said firmly, "I believe he's there, preparing for something...something terrible." Yuffie piped up, "But why there? Isn't it damn cold?" Aerith smiled slightly, "I think that the temperature of the region is of very little importance to our adversary. Two reasons. One: it's out of the way. Two: The Planet is very susceptible to being wounded there, as it isn't healed yet from the last time." Reno said incredulously, "Why would he want to hurt the planet?" Aerith shook her head, "I can't tell you yet, not until I'm sure." They left it at that, shaken by the revelations and trying to absorb all the information they had gained. Aerith directed a troubled look at Sephiroth, which he returned, expressionlessly.

They decided to follow their course for now, to Nibelheim. Cloud was very close, and their only link to this unknown enemy. Reno took care of replenishing their fuel reserves and rations for the next couple of weeks. They took as much as they could, uncertain of the next time they would be able to get supplies, as Nibelheim was deserted after its destruction. He also visited the weapons shop, replenishing the ammo for his gun. Aerith looked out the window off the cabin she was sharing with Sephiroth, gazing down at the barely visible figure puttering around the truck. She shifted her gaze to the other dimly lit figure, currently scaling one of the walls like a spider, heading for the dark window of the Materia shop. She sighed; she'd have to have a talk with that girl tomorrow. She reluctantly looked down towards the Eternal Flame of Cosmo Canyon, knowing who she would see, sitting silently by the fire. She wished she could help Tifa somehow, but there were limits to Healing, and sickness of the heart was simply out of its scope. The girl would either be fine, or would sink into despair. Most of it was up to her; Aerith had helped her as much as she could. Turning away from the window, she lay down on the narrow cot, feeling Sephiroth's comforting presence beside her. She turned to him, to find his eyes open, looking into her own with an intensity of feeling that attracted and frightened her at once. Her breath quickened and she let herself become lost in those green, glowing eyes.


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