Atonement Chapter 9

By Faye Locke

Vincent surveyed the people - and one beast - arrayed around him in the dining room of the Wallace's residence as he leaned against the wall near the door leading to the kitchen. Elmyra had gone to the kitchen to get them drinks; Vincent could hear her clanking loudly around with the glasses, as if her noise would delay the meeting. Barret fidgeted nervously in an oversized chair that appeared small with him sitting in it. The gun attachment he used to wear lay on his lap, a sign of his indecision. His wife had clearly shown what she thought of their mission, and he worried about her disapproval a great deal.

Cid sat across from Barret, lounging on the couch as he sucked down a cigarette with his usual speed. The pilot's manner of dress had not changed over the years, complete still with goggles adorning his head. A young man sat timidly next to him, perched on the edge of the couch, looking ready to flee at a moment's notice. He wore a reflection of Cid's wardrobe, although his clothing was all in shades of gray. Cid had introduced the young man as Gyrn, a student of his in the mechanical arts. As if an afterthought, he had mentioned that Gyrn was fairly proficient in combat as well. He hadn't mentioned what weapon Gyrn favored, nor did Gyrn have any evidence of weaponry on him. Vincent had surmised that Cid thought that Gyrn might learn some maturity from the venture. Either that or the pilot did not think that Vincent was correct about the threat.

Nanaki, commonly known as Red, lay by the hearth, soaking in the heat of the banked fire. His tail swished occasionally, the only sign of his impatience to get on with their meeting. Vincent sighed. Cid, Barret, Red, Gyrn, and himself did not seem like a winning force against Sephiroth. Yuffie had not shown. No one had heard from her for over a year, so Vincent could only guess the worst about her condition. Perhaps Sephiroth had already killed her. He didn't vocalize the thought, as if by keeping it to himself he could deny the possibility.

"Well," said Cid, tossing the spent cigarette toward the fire. The butt fell short of the flames, but was swept into the fire by Nanaki's tail. "I guess we better get started. Vince, you called the damn meeting, why don't you explain what the hell you got going in your head to make us all drop everything and coming rushing to your side?"

Vincent scowled at Cid's words. He had never truly like the pilot, as the man's crass behavior grated on Vincent's cultured sensibilities. It didn't help that the odor of spent cigarettes hung around the pilot like an cloud, a smell that overwhelmed Vincent's keen senses every time the man walked within twenty feet of him.

"I did not call you hear on a whim," he said in a low, dangerous tone. "Sephiroth is back."

Cid mumbled a few choice swear words. From the tirade, Vincent was able to understand that the pilot did not believe him. He scowled, then realized no one could see his expression beneath his raised collar. His scowl grew deeper momentarily at the necessity of the hiding half his face. He doubted that any of them would trust him if they saw the ever-present fangs.

"How do you know this?" Nanaki asked, speaking loud enough to be heard over Cid. Cid shut up promptly, glancing from the giant red cat, then back to Vincent.

"I have seen him," Vincent said simply.

"Anyone else seen 'em?" Cid asked curtly.

"Not that I am aware of," Vincent answered, "I was alone at the time. For all I know, he might have killed anyone else who has seen him."

"What was he doing?" Cid said.

"Where was he?" Nanaki asked simultaneously.

"Northern Dream Forest. Practicing sword maneuvers, when I saw him," Vincent said, answering both questions.

"Hmph. Sword practice," Cid snorted, "that don't seem like Sephiroth to me. Seems to me, that if he were back, he'd be trying to re-build damn Shin-ra, or even trying to summon Meteor again. Not playing with his sword." Cid laughed then, realizing the cruder implications of his words.

"Perhaps we should send a small team to this place you saw him, to verify that-"

"I know what I saw!" Vincent slammed his fist against the wall he was standing against, creating a loud crack that silenced Nanaki's suggestion. "I am not deranged! It was he! I tried to shoot him, to take care of this without having to involve more people, but he protected himself with a materia barrier."

"Wait," Gyrn said, speaking for the first time. "He knew you were there and yet he did not kill you? That seems … well, out of character." The others nodded their agreement.

"He was going to fight," Vincent acknowledged, calming himself, "but the woman with him, she-"

"Sephiroth had a woman with him!?" Cid interrupted. "Now I know you have to wrong, Sephiroth would never-"

"--stopped him from casting the materia spell." Vincent finished, ignoring Cid's outburst.

"It does seem very odd that Sephiroth would have a companion, odder still that it would be a woman," Nanaki acknowledged.

"Well, a man has needs," Cid joked.

"They are lovers," Vincent added softly.

"You saw that too?" Cid asked, surprised to hear of Vincent admittance to voyeurism. Vincent nodded, dropping his eyes to the floor.

"This all seems strange," Elmyra said smoothly stepping into the strained conversation as she walked into the room with a tray full of drinks. "Perhaps, Vincent, before we jump to any conclusions, you should start at the beginning, starting with why you were in the forest at that time." Vincent nodded while politely refusing the drink she offered him. What she suggested did make sense. He hadn't considered that the others would not believe him. Perhaps explaining the whole story would help convince them

He had only just started to gather his thoughts when a loud knock startled them all. Barret looked up from his contemplation of his gun piece, muttering "what the hell?" He set the weapon aside and walked swiftly to the door. Barret's body was nearly as large as the door, so they couldn't see who was standing outside.

"Hell," Barret said, "I-we didn't think you was coming. Come in, come in." He stepped aside, revealing two figures in the doorway. Cloud and Tifa. Both wore grim expressions as they walked in and sat tiredly on the chairs Barret had pulled earlier in from another room. Cloud wore the massive Ultima blade strapped across his back. As he pulled the shoulder harness off so that he might sit, they could all see that the edge glowed an intense deep blue. Tifa wore the same style of clothing Vincent had seen her in before, loose and relaxed. She cast Vincent a harsh glare before saying her hello's to the others. Cloud did not say anything.

"Well, Cloud, you're just in time," Cid drawled, lighting another cigarette. Gyrn wrinkled his nose at the smell, trying to move inconspicuously away from the smoke. "Vincent here was about to give us his fairy tale about Sephiroth still being alive after we kicked his butt couple years back."

"If he is still alive, we must pursue it completely." Cloud's voice was rough, almost unused. From the lines on his face, it seemed that the years had weighed more heavily on him than the others. Cid met his eyes for a moment, then looked away, feeling uncomfortable with the haunted expression. "Vincent, I would hear how you found this out." Vincent nodded, trying to re-gather his scattered thoughts. After a few long moments, he started, keeping his eyes to the floor so that he didn't have to see their expressions as he spoke.

"It began with a strange pulling to go north…"

Jyleth walked along the shore, trying to appear casual as she inspected the shoaling and breaking waves of the ocean. The water was incredibly clear, allowing her to see all the way to the bottom, which stretched some fifty feet down only a few yards out. She saw schools of fish, flashing brilliant colors. She saw a dolphin playing among the coral formations. What she didn't see was a monster.

It was nearly afternoon, and the sun was becoming hotter with each passing minute. Used to the cold high north climate, then later the icy winds of the mountain, Jyleth found herself very uncomfortable in the heat. They had woken before dawn, arriving at the shore in the early morning light, fresh and ready for a fight. But the monster, if it existed, didn't want to play. The first hour had been extremely restless, and each successive hour became increasingly tedious. Jyleth sighed at looked up at the sky, shading her eyes with her hand.

This is becoming ludicrous, she thought with irritation as she wiped sweat away from her face to keep it out of her eyes. Where is the monster? She looked at Sephiroth, who was patrolling the beach several yards away. He shrugged, showing he was as much at a loss as she was.

"This is ridiculous!" Jyleth slashed a non-offending weed that happened to be in her path with a sword in frustration.

"I think we need to try a new approach," Sephiroth said, politely ignoring her outburst.

"Such as?"

"Going in the water."

"In the water? Us?" Jyleth glanced out at the clear depths. Sweltering under the sun as they were, it did seem inviting.

"Perhaps it is attracted by movement in the water," he suggested.

"It will put us a distinct disadvantage," Jyleth pointed out. She cast her gaze around the beach. "Perhaps we might throw a rock in?" She indicated a head-sized rock near the forest edge. Sephiroth turned to look at the rock, but his attention was drawn instead to a movement in the trees. He moved into a fighting position instantly, bringing the Masamune before him. Jyleth followed his reaction immediately, not knowing what he had seen, but trusting in his instincts

They stood tensely as a figure emerged from the woods. Allic took one glance at their fighting stances, then he turned around and started to run back into the forest.

"Allic?" Jyleth said, then, in a louder tone, "ALLIC! Come back here!" Allic froze in mid-step at her shout, turning slowly back to face them.

"Please," he said, holding his hands, palms up, out in front of him, "don't hurt me, I just wanted-"

"Allic, we aren't going to hurt you," she said exasperatedly. "What are you doing here?"

"Well-I-thought I would come and see if you were ok, it's been so long since you left and I-we were worried," the innkeeper stumbled, moving toward them, still keeping his hands in view.

"More like he was worried about the gil he gets," Sephiroth said in a low tone. Jyleth gave him a reproving look.

"Cool it," she whispered back fiercely, not wanting Allic to sense the anger Sephiroth was radiating. Sephiroth didn't apologize, but he did seem to relax a little. He stepped out of his stance, replacing the Masamune back in its sheath.

"Allic," she said, "where is your monster?"

"What?" Allic stopped, looking around him nervously. "You mean you haven't killed it yet? It's still alive? Oh oh! I have to go back!" He started to back away, freezing again as his eyes focused on something behind them.

"Damn," Jyleth muttered, turning around quickly. A monster was rising rapidly out of the ocean. Water fell off its body in massive sheets, breaking the crystal surface into turbulent ripples. Sephiroth turned as well, pulling the Masamune out in one swift movement.

"Odd," he said simply, observing the creature moving toward them. It was immense, at least twice as large as the monsters they had faced in the valley of the ruined mako reactor. It looked like a cross between a fish and dog, although it was a distinctly undog-like bluish color. Scales glittered on its back, forming a protective plating from the back of the head all the way to the short lump that accounted for its tail. Four densely-furred legs protruded from the monster's side, ending at club-shaped webbed feet. The head had thick folds of skin around the eyes, and a blunt snout that was turned upward in the manner of a fish. The mouth hung open slightly, revealing a massive set of sharp, foot-long teeth.

"Odd," she repeated, "this damn thing shows up only when one of the townspeople come to the shore and you say 'odd!'" Sephiroth gave her a curious look, then shrugged.

"More convenient to talk about this later," he said, returning his gaze to the monster. It was nearly within striking range. "Creature of water. Use lightning materia. Fire might work." His spoke in fragments for speed, trying to relay what he thought was important before the fight began. She nodded, moving a little off to the side so that she wouldn't be in the path of the Masamune when Sephiroth fought. As she moved, she risked a glance back to see how Allic was handling the situation. He had crumbled into a heap on the sand, senseless. She shook her head, turning her attention to the monster.

It was still too far for her to accomplish any damage with her swords, so her hand moved along the hilt of her right-hand sword, finding the lightning materia. She concentrated, summoning a powerful lighting bolt to strike the monster. It squealed in agony instantly, stumbling back in the water. Sephiroth also attacked with lighting, though with a more powerful spell. This time, however, the monster stood placidly under the blow, seeming to regain its lost energy.

"We can only use magic once!" Sephiroth's shout coincided with her own thoughts.

"Your magic is stronger," she shouted back. He nodded, understanding, then slowly moved back, indicating to her that they should take flanking positions as the monster stepped onto the shore. Jyleth frowned momentarily, as their new positions left Allic directly in the creature's path.

Ice crystals suddenly encased the monster's body, freezing it with two feet on the shore and two still in the water. Jyleth rushed forward as the ice shattered, holding her arm up to protect her eyes from ice shards as she targeted her attack on the leg nearest to her. She slashed the massive tendon at the joining of the leg and body, then moved away quickly to keep from being crushed as the hamstrung animal listed to its side. While it flailed about in the sand to keep its balance, Sephiroth moved to the head, bringing the Masamune down in a downward slash. The blade cut through the massive folds of skin around the eye, slicing the eyeball in half. The creature shrieked in pain, clearly hurting from both their attacks and the ice. Deep blue-green fluid seeped from the wounds, staining the sand a strangely beautiful shade of metallic emerald.

Jyleth started to move forward, then retreated when she heard a whistling sound. Not the comet again, she thought. Swearing, she quickly sheathed her swords and ran toward Allic, dragging him to the relative safety of a nearby mound of sand and debris. Sephiroth was at her side a moment later, taking Allic bodily and swinging him over his shoulders. They both dove behind the mound, Sephiroth throwing himself over her as the whistling sound increased to a near ear-shattering pitch. The ground trembled from the impact a moment later, indicating that the comet had struck.

"We really need to talk about you using that materia," Jyleth grumbled, shoving Sephiroth off and looking over the mound to where the creature was. Or had been. There was a crater in the sand, surrounded by pieces of gil, some of which were still fluttering about in the air. Allic groaned, opening his eyes slowly.

"Oh no! I have to go!" He said, trying to get to his feet. Sephiroth carefully helped the man up, but kept his hand on the man's arm so that he could not leave.

"It's dead, Allic," Jyleth said, pointing toward the crater. "Shall we go get the gil?" Allic nodded, starting to move toward the crater. But Sephiroth did not let go of the innkeeper's arm, preventing him from following Jyleth.

"Just a moment," he said. "Jyleth." She turned back to face him, her expression one of puzzlement.

"What is it?" She looked back at the crater, wondering if there was furthur danger that she had not sensed.

"I think Allic owes us an explanation," Sephiroth said, "as to why this monster is attacking the people of Bone Village." Jyleth nodded slowly, understanding what Sephiroth was getting at.

"It is a little odd, Allic," she said, picking up the line, "that the monster didn't show up until you did." Allic swallowed harshly, looking down at the sand. He shifted his feet nervously, but didn't answer.

"I think we deserve an answer." Sephiroth's voice was low and calm, yet both Jyleth and Allic could sense the anger behind it.

"A curse," Allic said softly. His lips moved some more, but Jyleth couldn't make out the words.

"What? Speak up, Allic." Jyleth gestured for Sephiroth to let go of the man's arm. Sephiroth shook his head no, but he did relax his grip.

"It's a curse," Allic said louder, "we were told not to… not to do something. And, well, some young'in's thought it wasn't nothing, so they well... um…"

"What weren't you supposed to do?"

"Enter the Ancient's City."

"The treasure hunters," Sephiroth said.

Allic nodded. "Yes. They went there and took stuff. It was only recently that they shipped it south. That's when the monster showed up. It seemed to target those who had…touched the treasures from the Ancient's City."

"Then why send us?"

"I thought it might go after you anyway, being as it was sinking ships coming into the harbor as well. People who, perhaps, knew nothing of the taking of the Ancient's treasures."

"Monster attacks rarely make sense," Sephiroth said, finally releasing the man. "It is likely another monster will come to replace this one, unless the treasure is returned. Even after the treasure is returned, the ship-sinking monsters might continue to come."

"We feared that," Allic replied, "we just hoped that this one was the only one. Will you…will you stay? Sephiroth," the man said Sephiroth's name carefully, as if to pacify, "we would give you a home here. You and Jyleth, you could stay here, we wouldn't mind. You'd be our protectors, we won't hold nothing from your past against you."

Sephiroth and Jyleth exchanged a look. They have forgiven, she thought silently. Sephiroth seemed to realize the same thing.

"I think," Sephiroth said, stepping away from the man, "that perhaps we should find the stolen treasure. If that does end the curse, then you wouldn't need us."

"You would do that for us?" Allic's eyes showed hope for the first time during their questioning.

"We were going south anyway," answered Sephiroth, shrugging slightly. "It would be no matter to look for the treasure while we go."

"We'll need to know where they were sent," Jyleth added, "or who bought them." Allic nodded.

"We can provide that. Anything to get rid of this curse."

"What about the treasure hunters?" Jyleth asked.

"We will deal with them," Allic said, his eyes growing hard, "we've had about enough of those layabouts. There's been talk of inviting some of the Academy to come up here and form a guard. Might as well start that now."

"The Academy?" Jyleth was unfamiliar with the name.

"Strife's training school," Sephiroth explained.

"Oh, I remember now." Jyleth remembered a passing comment she had heard when she had been in Sephiroth's mind. Something about how intense the school had become, and that the members had taken to calling it "the Academy." Apparently, the name had spread.

"Would you mind taking a message to the Academy for us?" Allic asked.

"I don't think that would be a good idea." Sephiroth shook his head.

"I don't see why we can't," Jyleth retorted. Sephiroth gave her an even stare.

"Strife," he answered.

"What about Cloud Strife?" Allic asked. They both looked at him, mirroring curious expressions. It seemed that it was not common knowledge what had transpired between Cloud and Sephiroth. Unless Allic assumed that Sephiroth's continued presence on the planet had something to do with Cloud and the members of Avalanche intentionally sparing his life.

"Strife isn't aware I am alive," Sephiroth explained. "Yet." He added, remembering Vincent's promise.

"Oh," Allic said, nodding. "Then I guess the reason we hadn't heard you were back wasn't because we are way up here, it's because no one knows yet." Sephiroth nodded gravely. "Are you sure you want to go south, then?"

"I must," Sephiroth said.

"We'll take your message to the Academy as well," said Jyleth. "If we can't deliver it, we will give to someone who can. And we'll track down those treasures. It will give us something to do besides…" she trailed off.

"Besides avoiding do-gooders who kill first and ask questions later," supplied Allic with a sly smile. "I know what they said about you," he said, nodding to Sephiroth, "and I think I understand what is going on here. Only a little, perhaps, as I am just an innkeeper. If you need anything, or a place to rest, you can always come to me." Jyleth and Sephiroth exchanged glances again. The man's composure had changed very swiftly, from fearful and meek to intelligent and understanding. Sephiroth mouthed a word that Jyleth didn't have to hear to understand.


The Ancient hadn't abandoned them. Her aide, it seemed, reached beyond giving Sephiroth his life and returning Jyleth's health. Jyleth was glad for the help, but, from Sephiroth's demeanor, she guessed he didn't appreciate the help.

"A very kind offer, Allic," Jyleth said finally, realizing an uncomfortable silence had fallen over the beach. "Why don't we go count that gil?"


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