Downward Spiral Chapter 9

By Faye Locke

The next morning brought cloud cover and heavy snow. Sephiroth had taken first watch again, leaving Jyleth to sleep off the weariness and magic fatigue from the fight. Yet, she got very little rest, jolting awake every time she detected the slightest noise. When it was time to take her watch, she was happy that she didn't have to try to sleep anymore. Sephiroth seemed to have no compunctions about sleeping, for he wrapped his cloak around him and fell into a heavy sleep almost immediately. Jyleth barely managed to keep silent, so surprised by the fact that the mighty SOLDIER did have to sleep.

During her watch, she managed to repair her rent clothing enough that it would not let the cold air in. There was nothing she could do about the blood, which froze to a dark black stain. She was lucky she had taken only the one injury, which was now completely healed after cure spell from Sephiroth. The SOLDIER had fared better than she, not receiving any wounds at all.

She also used the time the comb her long curls through and tightly re-braided her hair. Since she had been poisoned, Jyleth had taken to tending to her hair during her watch so that she did not have endure Sephiroth's strange fascination. His steady gaze unnerved her far more than any monster could. Of course, she thought, he's a lot more dangerous than any monster I'm likely to meet.

Sephiroth woke just as the first rays of dawn had begun to tinge the sky from blue-black to deep red. There was quick glance at her neatly braided hair, the same look she had received ever since she had taken the fixing her hair during her watch. She ignored the look, and went about the process of erasing sign of their camp. After a silent breakfast, they headed into the reactor ruins. The roof had never been completed, so the filtered sunlight coming through the clouds provided enough light from them to navigate around the rubble. Sephiroth took the lead, moving about the maze of half-finished corridors and stairways with a definite goal in mind.

"Where are we heading?" Jyleth asked finally.

"The core," he said, not stopping.

"The what?"

"The center of the reactor - where the energy is made."

"Why are we going there?"

Sephiroth did stop then, turning to look at her with one of his piercing looks. Jyleth met his gaze evenly, steeling herself the best she could, trying not to flinch. "That is not something you need to know," he said.

"The core has something to do with these monsters, doesn't it?" Jyleth said, still trying to remember what it was she had heard about Shin-ra and monsters. Sephiroth looked at something behind Jyleth, then glanced back at her, looking at her measuringly. After moment, he turned and continued on a path through the wrecked interior..

"If what you are holding back endangers-"

"I will tell you what you need to know to live," Sephiroth snapped, whirling to face her once more, "and nothing else. Now be silent!"

Jyleth drew back at his fury, wondering why he was so on edge. Of course, he had never really been very tolerant, but this sudden anger seemed odd. She wondered what memories this Shin-ra structure held for Sephiroth.

A few hours later, their progress was stopped by a deep chasm that had been spanned by a narrow metal framework bridge. That bridge was now wrapped around one of the support columns. Jyleth and Sephiroth studied the bridge, silently awed by the strength of whatever creature had twisted this metal like putty. The SOLDIER gripped part of the twisted metal and pulled sharply. The entire column gave an ominous creak, then pebble debris rained down on them. Jyleth moved quickly to the relative safety of the doorway they had just passed through. Dust caught the fading sunlight that was streaming through multiple holes in the ceiling. The patches of light were brilliant, causing the unlit areas to be nearly solid black. Jyleth frowned at that, having accustomed her eyes to the dark, she now found this inability to see the whole area disconcerting.

After several minutes, she decided it was safe enough to emerge from the doorway. Sephiroth hadn't moved. He was still gazing at the twisted metal. To Jyleth's relief, he did not pull at it again. As she came to stand by him, he shook off his reverie and dusted off the bits of dirt that had fallen him. The dirt flowed out of his hair like water, leaving Jyleth somewhat annoyed with the bits of debris that had become tangled in her braid. She didn't even think of trying to remove them. That would have to wait until they returned to camp and she had a chance to take comb to it.

"Now what?" Jyleth looked over the edge of the chasm, then stepped back a quick step when she realized that the sunlight was not penetrating its depths.

"We jump," Sephiroth said simply. Jyleth eyed the width of the chasm, then the possible running space, then glanced speculatively at Sephiroth.

"You jump," she said. "There isn't a chance I can clear that. If I fall, I'll probably run out of breath for screaming by the time I hit the bottom. If there is a bottom." Sephiroth looked at her, then at the chasm. He stared at the blackness for a long while. What was some damn interesting, thought Jyleth, that had him thinking so much for so long? She'd hadn't seen him so contemplative the entire of their journey. A quick calculation surprised her with the fact that she had been with Sephiroth for more than two months. Spring was just around the corner, the worst of the winter storms they had braved at the beginning of their journey, even before entering munkie territory.

"There is supposed to be something down there," he said, startling her out of her thoughts. "Pure mako energy. It's stunning to see."

"I imagine it is," Jyleth said, "but that won't get me across."

"Where did all the mako go?" Sephiroth ignored her question.

Jyleth stalked away from him in annoyance. Conversation with him was pointless. She returned to the doorway, leaning against the frame, sliding her back down until she was sitting. Sephiroth continued to stare at the darkness.

"Jyleth, come here." The guide jumped, started out of her thoughts by Sephiroth's sharp command. She rose to her feet and returned to his side, wearing a sour expression on her face. "We will both go across," he told her, moving closer to her and wrapping an arm around her waist. Jyleth felt a surge of panic, then his body tensed and they were flying across the chasm. The landing was soft, yet Jyleth stumbled as her feet touched the ground. Sephiroth steadied her carefully, then released her. He moved the wall before them and pulled away pieces of metal and other building debris to reveal a door. At first, it would not budge when he tried to open it, but the SOLDIER was not easily deterred. He put his shoulder against it, shoving hard. The door burst open, taking Sephiroth with it. Jyleth moved around the corner, trying to cover her amusement at the sight of Sephiroth hurriedly tried to rise out of the dirt and dust before she could see him.

"Very graceful," she noted demurely as he brushed himself off. He cast an irritated glance at her, then looked around him. The damage that had permeated the structure had not affected this room. Sephiroth's hand glowed briefly, then a metal piling burst into flames, illuminating the room. The light penetrated the darkness completely - except in one corner. There was a movement, then an inky blackness slithered out of the corner, moving toward them silently.

"I hope you know what this is," Jyleth whispered furiously, looking at the dark creature that approached them. The light seemed to be absorbed, rather than reflected, by its body. Kusamé whispered as they slid out of their twin sheathes.

"I don't know," he whispered back at her, not taking his eyes from this new monster. "It's unlike anything I have ever seen." Wonder seemed to be lilting at the edges of his voice. "The other creatures - I recognized them as mako-altered monster. But this…" His voice trailed off as the monster stopped moving. The body seemed little more than a pillowy puddle of black ink. As the watched, part of the monster began to coalesce into a long, thin shape in the middle of the puddle. The top part of the black column began to swell, the formed into a human-shaped head. Jyleth gasped, her breath hissing in. Sephiroth mumbled something under his breath, something that sounded very much like swearing.

"Ssssoooo," a voice came sibilantly from the head, "they send me more to feed upon." The monster looked at Jyleth, and she felt a momentary probing thought pass through her. It then focused its attention on Sephiroth. A horrible grimace crossed its features. "One with sssooo much mako will make quite a feassthhh." Sephiroth drew his long sword swiftly, brandishing it at the monster.

"I believe the feasting will be my sword drinking your blood." Jyleth frowned for a moment at Sephiroth's dramatics, wishing he would use the time for something more useful, such as a pre-emptive strike against the monster. The head melted back into body, emitting a ghostly laugh as it did so. A tentacle shot out from the body, enveloping the flames Sephiroth had created for light. The tentacle spread to cover the entire fire, absorbing it completely. The room immediately vanished into darkness again.

Jyleth immediately fell back a few steps, gathering her will at the same time to cast a fire spell of her own. Her concentration was disrupted when a whip-like tentacle slashed her leg, then wrapped tightly around her angle, jerking her down. She brought a sword down at the tentacle, cutting it away from her. Crawling from the monster, she realized that there was no chance of facing it until they had some light. Again, she began the fire spell, only to be cut off by Sephiroth's shout.

"Jyleth, stop!" The SOLDIER shouted to her, "It's feeding off the materia energy." Jyleth tried to pinpoint Sephiroth's location in the darkness from his voice, but she could only get a vague idea of which direction he was. A ringing sound a metal crashing against metal gave her a far better idea of where he was. She started to move toward him, then, thought the better of it, and resumed her trek toward the door. She had to get light, somehow. Another tentacle reached out to her, touching her tentatively across the arm. Jyleth swatted at it with her sword, but it was gone. A moment later, a cord thicker than her waist wrapped around her, trapping her arms to her sides before she could react.

"Sephiroth!" Jyleth's scream was barely breathed before her face was smothered by yet another tentacle. She was expecting to be pulled toward the monster's body, but instead, it simply held her down where she was. Air quickly became an issue as Jyleth's supply began to run short. Tremors began to run through the tentacles holding her down, accompanied by the faint ringing sound of metal grating against stone. Hoping the Sephiroth was working to release her, she tried to calm and relax her body to survive longer with what little air she had left. But time was not on her side, and the blackness that began to crowd at the edges of her vision soon took over completely.

Sephiroth had heard Jyleth's cry, but had be unable to get to her before she was silenced. The monster that he faced was not completely unique - he had encountered materia-feeding creatures in the past. Defeating them consisted simply of using only physical attacks. Of course, the loss of light was a disadvantage that would be difficult to overcome, but not impossible. Which brought his mind to the question of why Shin-ra had been unable to reclaim this facility. He could understand a few of the attempts failing, but the group they had sent the last time should have had more than sufficient ability to deal with the trouble. A disturbing idea began to grow in Sephiroth's thoughts, awaking his rage far faster than any blow could. Gathering the strength from his rage, Sephiroth put aside his current thoughts and struck out at the monster. Leaping high up in the air, he delivered a slash to either side of the monster's body, then brought a final overhand slash directly to the center. It gave one last shuddering cry, then dissipated away into dust and lesser debris.

Casting another fire spell, the SOLDIER used the light to find his guide. She lay crumpled on the other side of the room with her swords on either side of her, covered with what was left of the tentacles which had wrapped around her. Sephiroth ran to her side, sheathing the Masamune as he did. Kneeling by her side, he realized she was not dead, just rendered senseless by suffocation. He quickly cast a reviving spell, bringing her back to her senses. Jyleth coughed a few times, then sat up slowly brushing herself off as she did. Sephiroth helped her to her feet, then turned to the door leading to the core.

"Stay here," he said, glancing back at Jyleth, "shout if anything else decides to pay a visit." Jyleth frowned at him, but said nothing.

Sephiroth found the reactor core to incomplete. Again, there was the lack of Mako energy that was always associated with Shin-ra reactors from the earliest stages of development. The creature that he had just killed explained that, however. The thought that had been born during the fight suddenly came back to his mind. Had this all be some sort of test? Nothing that Sephiroth encountered could have caused and Shin-ra troop difficulty. Why send him? There were far better occupations for his time and energy. And why make him come to the reactor the slowest possible way? Why not have place him on a shore close to the reactor, with a map in his hand, rather than dropping him off in a tiny town on the other side of the continent with nothing other access to his Shin-ra account? Not able to think of a good answer for any of the questions, Sephiroth turned his mind to other subjects. He felt that the threat had be neutralized at the reactor, which meant it was time for him to return to Shin-ra. Hojo had instructed Sephiroth of the location he was to go to after his task was complete, as well as giving the SOLDIER a beacon to activate once he had reached that location. Again, Sephiroth wondered at the reason for this. But these questions he would raise with Hojo when he returned. For now, he had to find how to get there. Without a map, he was lost in this cold wilderness. Obviously, he would have to rely on Jyleth's guidance, at least until he was close enough that he would not get lost.

He emerged from the core to find Jyleth examining a piece of the debris with an intense interest. "What are looking at?" Jyleth jumped, startled.

"This is odd," she said, recovering quickly, "it looks like a capsule of some sort." Sephiroth immediately went cold. He moved to her side, examining what she was looking at. It was indeed a capsule, one that Sephiroth had seen before in some of Hojo's experiments. Supposedly, the scientist had stopped these experiments years ago. Obviously, he had not. Had the monsters they had encountered been the result of yet another twisted experiment? Yet another question that Hojo would have to answer for when Sephiroth returned.

"I'm sure it is nothing," Sephiroth said, lying. "We are done here. We can leave."

Jyleth raised an eyebrow at Sephiroth's words, but did not seem any importance of pressing the issue.

"We will not be going back the way we came," Sephiroth said when they emerged from the reactor ruins.

"What?" Jyleth considered their situation, wondering where else Sephiroth wished to go.

"There is a location - do you still have your map?" Jyleth nodded and dug through her pack to find the map. She carefully unrolled it, then held it out for him to look at. After a brief moment, Sephiroth pointed to a location not far from where they were, a small inlet.

"Perhaps a week," Jyleth said, after a moment's consideration, "as long as we don't get seriously delayed."

"Good. Let's get on our way." Again, Jyleth gave him a strange look. It was quite late in the day, and resting seemed like the best idea, starting out in the morning. Still, she was not going to argue with him. At least they could get out the valley by nightfall, and away from the spooky remains of the reactor.

It only took a few days for her to get mad enough at Sephiroth to engage in a yelling match. Actually, she yelled, and he ignored her as the walked along. The problem has started when Jyleth had questioned Shin-ra authority to come in and build the reactor without the permission of the local people. Sephiroth have pointed out the superiority Shin-ra controlled civilizations to those lacking Mako power, and things had only gone downhill from there. Finally, Sephiroth grew tired of hearing her complaints. He grabbed her arm and whirled her around, meeting her eyes.

"Enough," he said.

Something that had been bothering Jyleth for some time - the thought that had been hovering at the edge of her mind for some time about Mako energy and monsters - finally came to the front.

"It's the Mako energy," she said, forgetting about her annoyance of Sephiroth touching her, "that's what I heard about Shin-ra - their reactors are always accompanied by an increase of local monsters. That is why the munkies have changed." And would explain a great deal of other occurrences that had been noticed by the people of the town over the past year or so - crops doing poorly and the like.

"Silly rumors," Sephiroth said, his eyes going hard, "nothing that has any substance to it."

"Oh really? Then why did they send you here? What happened to those other missions you spoke of? And do you have a better explanation of what caused the changes in the munkies?" Jyleth's arm started to hurt from his tightening grip. She tried to pull away from him without success.

"The matters of Shin-ra are not your concern."

"They are my concern when the affect me - and I think that the people around here will also agree with me when I tell them." She looked down at his hand meaningfully. "Let go of me."

The SOLDIER's eyes narrowed for a moment, then stepped closer to her. With a swift intake of breath, Jyleth renewed her effort to get away from him, deciding that a weapon might convince him better. She started to reach for a dagger, but he moved faster, grabbing her wrist and pushing her backwards, slamming her back against a tree. Again, he leaned close to her, his face inches from her, his breath misting over her skin. Jyleth closed her eyes, realizing she could not escape him. Her breath fluttered unsteadily, as she was equally fearful and enthralled by his closeness. For a moment she actually believed that he was going to kiss her, but then he released her roughly. She opened her eyes, seeing that he had backed off from her several paces, his gaze turned toward the ground. After he took several deep breaths, he seemed to regain his composure and once more met her eyes. Something haunted seemed to reflect out of his expression, and Jyleth could not think of a good explanation why. Then again, she could not think of a suitable explanation for anything that had happened over the past few minutes. It was almost as if Sephiroth's cool demeanor has slipped, revealing the raw youth he tried to hide. But the moment was gone. Emotion eventually drained from his face, leaving his features cold and hard once more.

"There will be no more talk of Shin-ra," he said, "I hired you as my guide, not my conscience. Do not make me show you that again." Jyleth nodded mutely, frightened by the hostility of his voice.

They crested a snowy hill a several days later, having been delayed by yet another sudden blizzard. The forest had finally come to an end at the top of the hill, though Jyleth could see it was not the natural boundary of the woods. Someone had cleared away the trees to make a landing site, perhaps, or a base camp. There was no sign of human habitation at this time however. She chose not to question Sephiroth on any of her observations. Her only wish now was to complete the job and get back home, to tell her people of what she had learned of Shin-ra.

"How far from here?" Sephiroth asked, speaking for the first time since that day where he had lost his composure.

"Perhaps a day," Jyleth answered, mentally computing the distance they had gone and their current location. "Off in that direction," she pointed toward a pair of tall hills that could almost be considered small mountains. "Directly between those two - it's a straight line from here."

"Good." Sephiroth strode to the lead, causing Jyleth to frown, but she said nothing. She started after him, for once not having to flounder in the snow, for she had him to break her path.

There was no time for her to retaliate when he whirled on her, drawing the Masamune as he did, no time for her to think as the blade came slashing down toward her, no time for her to feel the pain as it ripped through her flesh across her body from shoulder to hip. She collapsed in the snow, splattering the snow with steaming blood. Dimly, she saw that Sephiroth had turned, not even looking at his handiwork, leaving her to die in the snow.

A week after Sephiroth had returned from the snowy northern continent, Hojo came looking for him. The white-haired SOLDIER had chosen not to come to Hojo immediately and report as he was instructed to do, instead, he had made Hojo come to him. Hojo had practically burst into Sephiroth's quarters, finding the SOLDIER reclined on his bed. Sephiroth had sat up, listened passively to Hojo's tirade at his tardiness, then simply gave a detailed report to the scientist, although he omitted several details.

"What happened to this guide?" Hojo asked, sensing the Sephiroth was keeping something back

"She is dead."

"What?! How could you let her die? She obviously needed to brought here, where she could have made an excellent addition to the SOLDIER program!" Hojo was furious. Sephiroth's account of the female guide he had hired had been obscure, but he had been around the SOLDIER long enough to recognize that the girl had had talent that Sephiroth had admired.

"I didn't let her die," Sephiroth said, his voice flat, "I killed her. She knew too much about Shin-ra, and she already had anti-Shin-ra sentiments. It seemed prudent to dispose of her before she became a serious threat."

"You are hiding something from me, Sephiroth," Hojo said, peering intensely at the SOLDIER through his spectacles, "and I will have that which you are hiding spoken now." Sephiroth met his gaze evenly, not giving an inch.

"Nothing that I encountered justified the need for my presence. I question your reasons and methods for sending me on this location."

Hojo smiled, turning his back to Sephiroth and pacing the room slowly. "I was sure that you would figure it out before you came back. Of course, it was just another test. I knew of the creatures that dwelled there - I wanted to see how you would fair against them, particularly the Mako-draining one, what with you being so infused with Mako energy and all. I had made all those creatures myself - aren't you impressed? I only used one human for all of them, then allowed the Mako to do the rest. Of course, I knew you would survive - I just wanted to see how you handled yourself without a troop of Shin-ra uniforms at your back. You performed as expected - congratulations." Hojo turned back to face Sephiroth, and was partially amused and partially frightened by the anger he saw growing there.

"There will be no more of these tests, Hojo," Sephiroth said, not bothering to conceal his hate for the scientist, "the next one to try on me, you will not live to see the results."

"Come come now," Hojo soothed, "there's not reason to be-"

"Out! Now!" Sephiroth said, rising to his feet and moving menacingly toward Hojo. "Go find something else to play with! I am through with you!" Hojo backed toward the door, visibly shaken by Sephiroth's fury.

"We will talk later," he said weakly as he fled the room.

"I doubt it," Sephiroth said in a low voice to the closing door.


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